Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern

I received Sh*t My Dad Says for Christmas this year; the Twitter feed is mildly amusing but after watching a couple episodes of the terrible TV show I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Luckily, the book is easily better than either of the other media forms the topic has taken. The stories around the various tweets give a depth and meaning that simply can’t be captured in 140 characters. Humor I expected, but the author’s connection to his father and the warmth in their relationship was surprising.

Having a couple of boys myself, two of the quotes in particular hit close to home. “You’re ten years old now, you have to take a shower every day....I don’t give a shit if you hate it. People hate smelly fuckers. I will not have a smelly fucker for a son.” “No. There’s no scenario where I’d eat a human being, so you can stop making them up and asking me, understood?” Halpern’s father apparently doesn’t have a filter, saying out loud exactly what every father of a boy must think from time to time.

First Sentence:
“Well, what the fuck makes you think Grandpa wants to sleep in the same room as you?”

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Who Can Save Us Now? edited by Owen King and John McNally

Who Can Save Us Now? Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories, edited by Owen King and John McNally

I do enjoy a good comic. This short story anthology is all about superheroes and their nemeses; not the famous ones like Superman and Captain America, but B-list heroes like Manna Man, the Rememberer, and the Meerkat. None of these tales are spectacular, but none are terrible either—a remarkably even collection. Each story has a great accompanying illustration by Chris Burnham; unfortunately some of them span two pages with the focus in the center, meaning the heart of the picture is buried in the spine. Overall, this is a pleasant distraction well worth your time.

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
In 1938 a gawky, bespectacled man walked through a door, and when it opened again, a benevolent giant in red and blue tights emerged, gave a wink, and lifted right off the pages of ACTION COMICS #1 and into the sky.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Back of the Napkin, by Dan Roam

The Back of the Napkin, by Dan Roam

I first came across a pre-programmed whiteboard process as a tool at Borland; the sales department there had a start-to-finish agenda that took a customer through the value proposition of the product line. While the tools weren’t great, the pitch itself was very effective. The Back of the Napkin shows not only how effective visual storytelling can be, but describes a framework for creating your own show-and-tell projects.

The basic tenet of the book is that any problem can be made clearer with a picture. “The real goal of visual thinking is to make the complex understandable by making it visible—not by making it simple.” Roam then proceeds to prove his thesis, demonstrate how to distill ideas into a simple set of pictures, show how different types of pictures are effective for different types of questions, and how to bring it all together into an effective persuasive pitch. Early on there is a short quiz to help determine if you are already a visual person or not (I’m in the middle) and then suggestions about in what order to read the book accordingly. “If you’re a Red Pen person (not visual) and not convinced of the analytic power of pictures, you might want to start with part III )The Visual Thinking MBA) in order to see pictures at work in solving a business problem. If you’re a Yellow Pen person...” I quite liked this as it recognizes that different people learn in different ways, which also happens to echo the lessons in creating a visual framework as well.

The most valuable lesson for me was discovering the template for focusing an idea: SQVID. SQVID stands for Simple, Quality, Vision, Individual attributes, and Delta (change). Dividing a problem into these areas and creating a simple set of sketches for each category helps “force your mind’s eye to look at your idea from many sides in a structured and repeatable way.” I’ve used this a few times since finding this book and it is extremely useful. This idea of forced focus reminds me a lot of Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, a technique I use in many agile retrospectives, which is probably why it resonated so strongly.

Simple to follow and easy to read, The Back of the Napkin is an effective book that does an excellent job not only explaining why visual thinking is so powerful, but how it can be used in everyday life.

First Sentence:
What’s the most daunting business problem you can picture?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Magician’s Apprentice, by Trudi Canavan

The Magician’s Apprentice, by Trudi Canavan

I first found Trudi Canavan with the publication of The Black Magician Trilogy and was hooked. This book, The Magician’s Apprentice is a prequel set hundreds of years before the original three novels and just as enthralling. The plot revolves around Tessia, a healer’s assistant and budding magician, and her involvement in the war between the neighboring countries of Kyralia and Sachaka. It also tells the history of the wasteland that featured largely in the first books, as well as the foundation of the Magician’s Guild. About two-thirds of the way through we start to get the story of the Ancient magic as well, although I thought this felt a bit forced; I think this part of the novel would have worked better as a short story. Overall, though, an enjoyable story in an interesting world.

First Sentence:
There was no fast and painless way to perform an amputation, Tessia knew.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

After her mother is murdered, Yeine, our young heroine, is forced to move to the capital city with her estranged grandfather, the king. The reader is then taken on a magical ride through a land where gods are held captive and used as weapons in political intrigue and social manipulation. As Yeine progresses from an unwitting pawn to a willing one she solves her mother’s death and unhinges a country. Jemisin surrounds a fascinatingly original tale with memorable imagery: a palace balanced on an impossibly thin column thousands of feet in the sky, gods enslaved to humans, suns and planets reduced to playthings and experiments. The book felt overly long to me, the plot meandering a bit much at times, but kept my interest throughout. Fantasy stories often are predictable and mimic each other, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is nothing if not unique.

First Sentence:
I am not as I once was.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Art of Community, by Jono Bacon

The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation, by Jono Bacon

During my recent job search, one of the positions for which I interviewed was an Agile Community Leader. I firmly believe that agile techniques give us the best path to developing quality software, so when this opportunity came along I was very interested. My professional career has been all about building software, so moving to a community leadership position provided something entirely different and I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I met with a friend that was already in the community business and among other things he recommended The Art of Community. Great advice; even though I ended up not getting the job, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The author, Jono Bacon, is a longtime open source advocate and the current Ubuntu community manager. He put together this excellent discussion on not only how to go about building and maintaining a collaborative organization, but how to keep it fresh and fun at the same time. A lot of what Bacon believes hit close to home with me; what it takes to make a community work sounds quite similar to what makes agile work. Defined milestones in a community are similar to an agile release plan. Milestones are reached by defining smaller objectives each with success criteria and an implementation plan, analogous to stories, acceptance criteria, and tasks. And in both arenas regular reflection to enact changes in process and tools are considered critical. Seeing as how in agile building teams is just as important as building software I guess this shouldn’t be that surprising, but I am continually pleased to find new ways of applying trusted techniques in new ways and in different domains.

One sentence that stuck with me was about honesty: “If your product sucks, you don’t cover it up but instead try to fix it.” This sort of transparency is exactly how I think we should approach most things, but is sadly rare. And not only in software development and community building; imagine if politicians tried harder to solve the countries problems instead of simply getting reelected! Another bit I liked was a great idea for brainstorming: figure out how to make things suck instead of making them great. Not only is this a fun ice breaker, it really gets people talking. After collecting approaches, examine the inverse of the terrible ideas for some truly interesting approaches! I look forward to trying this out sometime soon. Useful, funny, and informative, I enjoyed every page of this book.

First Sentence:
As my watch ticked over to 6 p.m., I knew I was in trouble.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

61 Hours, by Lee Child

61 Hours, by Lee Child

This Reacher novel has a new gimmick, but one that doesn’t work all that well. An omnipotent countdown runs throughout the novel (hence the title), with most chapters ending on a sentence like, “Thirty-seven hours to go.” I think the idea was to build suspense, but it felt artificial and forced to me. I also thought the identity of the inevitable traitor was entirely too obvious—usually Child does a much better job of obscuring this sort of thing.

That said, I quite enjoyed it. The main puzzle was interesting and the long-distance relationship Reacher builds with the new commander of his former unit hinted at a fascinating new ally in future books. The ending brought another first to the Reacher novels: a cliffhanger. Considering the next book has already been released the fate of Reacher isn’t in doubt, but how he escapes...

First Sentence:
Five minutes to three in the afternoon.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Imager's Challenge, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Imager’s Challenge, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

The second book of the Imager Portfolio takes place so soon after the first that our hero Rhenn is still recovering from his injuries. The plot is interesting but not compelling; Rhenn plots a pre-emptive strike against a powerful family that wants revenge, but that is too neatly wrapped up without much angst or conflict. The captivating subject of the book, however, is the political discourse. In Imager, religion and its role in society is examined; here politics and the justice system take the main stage. Through Rhenn’s assignment as a police liaison we explore how people are arrested, tried, and punished, how the rules don’t apply equally to all classes, and how corruption affects the entire system. While I found the previous book to be a bit more thought provoking (and more controversial), Modesitt clearly has another winner here.

First Sentence:
On Vendrei, the twentieth of Erntyn, just before the bells rang out the seventh glass of the morning, I hurried across the quadrangle of the Collegium to the administration building to meet with Master Dichartyn—imager Maitre D’Esprit, the director of all security operations for the imagers of Solidar, the second-most senior imager of the Collegium Imago, and my immediate superior.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mornings on Horseback, by David McCullough

Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt, by David McCullough

Writing about Presidents is nothing new for McCullough, but where John Adams and Truman cover their subject’s lives from cradle to grave, Mornings on Horseback only tracks Teddy Roosevelt from 1869 when he was ten to 1886 as he fully commits to a career in politics. This abbreviated look is somewhat disappointing, as Roosevelt comes across as a man of integrity (exactly the kind of person I’d like to see in office but I no longer think is electable in our society) and I would like to have learned more about his Presidency here. Besides a fierce integrity, he also possessed high intelligence and a focused drive that was truly remarkable: “There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gunfighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.” Willing away fear is something out of comic books, not history books!

It is often said that history repeats itself; one story related here brings this home in spades. In 1875, Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency by a single, hotly contested electoral vote. Much like the race in 2000 the previous administration was prone to scandal and Hayes’ opponent Tilden won the popular vote. One huge difference: “Like peaceable men of both parties [Roosevelt] breathed a sigh of relief at Tilden’s refusal to contest the decision.” Politics has always been a cutthroat game, but at least through history’s lens it seems that things have become more vicious today. Roosevelt at the time believed the Republican party, “for all its failings, its scandals and fallen idols, was still the party of Lincoln, the party that saved the Union, freed the slaves, restored the national credit.” While technically still true, I find it difficult to maintain this sort of adoration for the Republican party that exists today. A century ago we were governed by individuals; now the party system has control—and this is not a change for the better.

Soapbox aside, Theodore Roosevelt is considered one of the better Presidents in our history, and Mornings on Horseback shows he was a truly remarkable boy as well. Along with family photos, many of his letters and diary pages are included; these unedited words give us a glimpse of his personality which makes a nice complement to the facts and stories. Both inspiring and educational, McCullough has written another enthralling book.

First Sentence:
In the year 1869, when the population of New York City had reached nearly a million, the occupants of 28 East 20th Street, a five-story brownstone, numbered six, exclusive of the servants.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan

The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan

I love Riordan’s Tres Navarre mysteries and quite enjoyed his Percy Jackson series as well. When my youngest picked up The Red Pyramid, the first volume of the Kane Chronicles, I read it as well. This is very similar to Percy Jackson, although with a heavy Egyptian mythology instead of Greek. Maybe it is because I’m more versed in the classical, having devoured Edith Hamilton’s Mythology many, many times, but The Red Pyramid wasn’t as enthralling as The Lightning Thief. The formula still works—kids discover the myths are real and all around them in the present—and the humor and action are prevalent throughout; but, something just didn’t click for me. I found Percy Jackson and the Olympians to be a children’s series that worked as well for adults, but it appears the Kane Chronicles is truly for younger readers.

First Sentence:
We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Riding Rockets, by Mike Mullane

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, by Mike Mullane

Mike Mullane was one of the first space shuttle astronauts, completing three space missions aboard the shuttles Discovery and Atlantis and recording over 350 hours in outer space. His biography is a fascinating look at NASA and the shuttle program, covering selection and training, jealousy and euphoria, and dealing with disaster. He has a great writing style: sometimes funny, sometimes honest, but always hitting just the right note for the story. And what stories! Bathroom humor about colon exams and condom fittings, emotional treatises about the helplessness experienced when strapped into a rocket before takeoff and the frustration of a scratched launch, and poignant tales about fulfilling a life-long dream. The most touching descriptions, however, are about the Challenger disaster.

The shuttle explosion is a tragedy seared into our national consciousness, but for most of us the astronauts who died that day are simply names on a monument. For Mullane it was entirely too personal—he lost friends and coworkers that day. And for Mullane’s family and the families of all the other NASA astronauts, it was the realization of their worst fears. The author doesn’t write just about the sadness, though; his anger at the NASA repeated administrative failures that caused the accident comes through loud and clear. “But as the notes of ‘Taps’ floated in the air I was stirred anew in my anger at NASA management. This should have never happened. It was completely preventable. There had been four years of warnings.” Sadly, any lessons learned were temporary at best; seventeen years later it happened again with Columbia.

More than just a memoir, Riding Rockets is also the story of the shuttle program at NASA. Mullane explains how the selection process worked to become an astronaut, and how frustratingly opaque the selection process for missions was. He doesn’t pull many punches; sexism and misogynist behavior was unbelievably rampant, and the level of jealousy between those chosen for space and those left behind on each mission was shocking. Most surprising was the political infighting between the astronauts that came from the Air Force and those from post-doc educations, and the shared disgust for the “part-time astronauts,” those people added to missions that “hadn’t paid the dues to get there—a lifetime of brutal work and fierce competition.”

Funny and forthright, emotional and educational, poignant and pointed. I utterly enjoyed Riding Rockets and unhesitatingly recommend this biography to anyone.

First Sentence:
I was naked, lying on my side on a table in the NASA Flight Medicine Clinic bathroom, probing at mt rear end with the nozzle of an enema.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Last Olympians, by Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan The Sea of Monsters, by Rick Riordan The Titan’s Curse, by Rick Riordan The Battle of the Labyrinth, by Rick Riordan The Last Olympian, by Rick Riordan

This series had been described to me as an American Harry Potter; as I thought that series was overblown and tedious I wasn’t excited about this one. I really like Riordan’s work, though, so when my son discovered Percy Jackson I read them too. What a great decision that turned out to be!

Percy Jackson is a dyslexic twelve year old that suddenly learns his father is Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. This discovery launches an adventure resulting in a battle for supremacy between the Titans and the Olympians in the middle of Manhattan. Along the way we encounter many classic myths alive and well in our current world, such as the Lotus Casino (a Las Vegas nirvana where time stands still), Aunty Em’s Garden Gnome Emporium (home to amazingly lifelike statues), the Minotaur’s labyrinth, centaurs, pegasi, cyclopes, and of course, Mount Olympus (now located above the Empire State Building). This tying of Greek mythology into modern culture is one of treats of this pentology, and Riordan does it well.

While this series is clearly aimed at young adults, I found it thoroughly entertaining. Several of the battles and gambits were resolved rather abruptly via deus ex machina; while this can disappointing in other novels, considering the subject matter here it seemed quite appropriate. The main characters are simple—again suitable for younger readers—but not one-dimensional; the secondary characters aren’t as fully developed, but occasionally find themselves in a key role making them less predictable. Overall, this is a five book odyssey that takes the reader through a fun-filled romp. I enjoyed it, my son enjoyed it, and more importantly, we got to talk about it together.

First Sentence from The Lightning Thief:
Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.
First Sentence from The Sea of Monsters:
My nightmare started like this.
First Sentence from The Titan’s Curse:
The Friday before winter break, my mom packed me an overnight bag and a few deadly weapons and took me to a new boarding school.
First Sentence from The Battle of the Labyrinth:
The last thing I wanted to do on my summer break was blow up another school.
First Sentence from The Last Olympian:
The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Year's Best SF 15, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

Year’s Best SF 15, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

This is a pretty solid group of short stories. All science-fiction tales, all written and published in 2009. Exegesis by Nancy Kress was the most original (and my favorite), following a literary examination of the famous line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” through 700 years of future history. Only five pages long, but the game of Chinese whispers to which we are treated is thoroughly entertaining. Also great was The Consciousness Problem by Mary Robinette Kowal which takes a unique look at where cloning might lead, and Edison’s Frankenstein by Chris Roberson exploring an alternate history where an alien power source is discovered in 1843, rendering the electrical pioneers like Edison and Tesla moot. There doesn’t appear to be any criteria for qualifying as the “Year’s Best” other than the editors whims, but I must say that they didn’t disappoint.

First Sentence (from the introduction):
The year 2009 began with some layoffs and firings in publishing, but not many affecting SF.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Heat Wave, by Richard Castle

Heat Wave, by Richard Castle

Ever since Firefly I’ve been a big Nathan Fillion fan. He is now the star of Castle on ABC; while not as great as Firefly it is still a lot of fun. Castle is this decade’s Magnum, P.I. or Remington Steele; mystery and humor abound, but the character interactions are what keep you tuning in each week. In the show, Fillion plays Richard Castle, a novelist that gets himself assigned to a police detective in order to do research for a new series of thrillers. In this new age of massive cross-promotion, the marketing wonks at ABC had a ghost writer create actual novels by “Richard Castle;” Heat Wave is the first of these.

Somewhat cheesy but still amusing, the novel follows NYPD Detective Nikki Heat as she tries to solve the murder of a real estate tycoon while dealing with an embedded journalist named Jameson Rook. (Sound familiar? :)) This is a good companion to the show; the personalities of the characters in the book mimic those in the show, and some of the events can be found in both places as well. The novel is a common prop in the show and it is fun to see the links between the two. While not in the same caliber as Elizabeth George or Lee Child, this is still an entertaining read—especially for fans of Castle.

First Sentence:
It was always the same for her when she arrived to meet the body.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

With my political leanings tilting more towards libertarianism (or more specifically minarchism) than either of the morally bankrupt controlling political parties, it isn’t surprising that several of my friends and mentors have recommended Atlas Shrugged to me. What is surprising that it took me so long to get around to reading it! I’ve been familiar with the overarching themes of the novel for years, but didn’t understand the venom directed towards it until reading it myself. Gore Vidal described the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged as “nearly perfect in its immorality.” Whittaker Chambers called it “preposterous” and “remarkably silly,” going on to write that it “can be called a novel only by devaluing the term.” My favorite quote about the book, however, comes from a blogger named John Rogers: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Atlas Shrugged explores a frighteningly plausible United States where the most original businessmen, inventors, and artists refuse to be exploited by the government and vanish from society. The political bureaucracy responds by nationalizing more and more industries, leading to a world in complete decline with its citizens growing lazy on entitlement programs. Rand argues that when people are forced to place the wants and needs of their neighbors above their own at all costs, rewards for hard work vanish and apathy becomes inevitable. “[Robin Hood] died many centuries ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world to live in. ... He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor.” In Rand’s view of socialism, the thieving poor suck the lifeblood from the productive rich, thus Robin Hood is the archetypal villain. Interestingly, Rand’s protagonists don’t try to fight the system, but instead entirely withdraw from it in a hidden community and actively attempt to speed the fall of society—the theory being that after the collapse, the concealed intelligentsia will emerge and rebuild the world.

As interesting as the subject matter of the novel is and the longevity it has enjoyed, I found the writing surprisingly juvenile and sophomoric. Rand’s characterizations are shallow and one-dimensional; the heroes are all beautiful geniuses with an unbreakable resolve while the villains are weak-willed, unhappy, and irrational. Single paragraphs often run two or three pages and individual sentences last for hundreds of words. At the climax, when the world gets the answer to the persistent question “Who is John Galt?” a single soliloquy prattles on for over 55 dense pages. Often I found myself skimming rather than reading, but don’t feel like I really missed out on anything. A more aggressive editor could easily have made the novel more accessible without compromising the message.

That said, I quite enjoyed the book. Rand’s jingoist anti-welfare, pro-entrepreneurship message sits well with me, and I often found myself cheering and booing at the appropriate times. She does an excellent job of demonstrating how socialism taken to an extreme inexorably leads to corruption, although she ignores the converse thought, that uncompromising capitalism has the same result which I also believe is true. Rand clearly favors material achievement over compassion, and if forced to pick only one I’d have to agree; I’m not a fan of every kid getting a trophy in T-ball, social promotions in school, or affirmative action in any form. However, sentiment does have its place in society—It’s a Wonderful Life remains one of my favorite movies and is a surprisingly effective counterpoint to Atlas Shrugged. In summary, while I’m not going to begin donating my time and money to the Ayn Rand Institute or evangelizing anarchy and rebellion, I do think Rand clearly gets more right than wrong here. Regardless of where your beliefs fall on the political spectrum, Atlas Shrugged asks some interesting questions you should consider.

First Sentence:
“Who is John Galt?”

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Home Game, by Michael Lewis

Home Game:An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis is a talented writer; both Moneyball and Liar’s Poker are well-written looks at complicated topics that are both informative and entertaining. Sadly, Home Game, his auto-biographical look at fatherhood, falls unexpectedly flat. Many of the anecdotes are quite funny; the story of his three-year-old girl cussing out a group of older boys at the top of her lungs in a public pool is hilarious. Unfortunately, many of the other bits come off as somewhat mean-spirited. “Memory loss is the key to human reproduction. If you remembered what new parenthood was actually like you wouldn’t go around lying to people about how wonderful it is, and you certainly wouldn’t ever do it twice.” If he feels this way about being a parent of a newborn, I’d hate to be around him when his kids hit their teen years!

When not cross with the world, Lewis comes off as somewhat sad. “The thing that most surprised me about fatherhood the first time around was how long it took before I felt about my child what I was expected to feel. Clutching Quinn after she exited the womb, I was able to generate tenderness and a bit of theoretical affection, but after that, for a good six weeks, the best I could manage was detached amusement. The worst was hatred.” I simply can’t relate to this sentiment, and find it horribly unfathomable. The birth of each of my boys are moments in my past I treasure, right up there with seeing my bride standing at the back of the church on our wedding day.

A quick read with some funny stories, but overall this was disappointing.

First Sentence:
We landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport a couple of days before Christmas.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Guardian of Lies, by Steve Martini

Guardian of Lies, by Steve Martini

Not a terrible novel, but not a great one either. Defense attorney Paul Madriani gets mixed up with a former spook and current rare coin dealer, a missing Cold War missile, and a very irritated assassin while trying to protect a fugitive and clear his own name. The plot was overcomplicated but the characters were likable; the sly humor is why I finished it, though: “Only in America would you spend thousands installing an expensive electrical security system and then warn intruders not to harm themselves.”

One passage I particularly enjoyed was a rant on our government. “The political parties that occupied the House and the Senate reminded him of two retarded Siamese gorillas sharing the same brain. Together with their feeders and handlers on Wall Street, they’d spent a decade toying with the national economy, trying to get everybody in the country into houses they couldn’t afford. When this set fire to national economy, crashing markets, destroying whole industries, and generally torching the entire circus, they tripled the national debt in order to smother the flames with money.” Not the worst description of the last several administrations I’ve read.

I’d been told that Martini wrote a pretty good legal thriller, but Guardian of Lies felt like a weak Grisham knock-off—and I don’t care for Grisham. Disappointing.

First Sentence:
To the drug lords of the Tijuana cartel, the man was an urban myth—and the cops were singing off the same page.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson

One of the things I enjoy about future history is seeing how our current society changes over the years. Set in 2172, America has become a largely oligarchical theodemocratic society, with elections to confirm a hereditary President closely coupled with a strong fundamentalist religious organization named the Dominion based in Colorado Springs. While very different from what we know today, there are enough recognizable elements that the feel is more like looking through a funhouse mirror than viewing a totally alien society. “In America we’re entitled by the Constitution to worship at any church we please, as long as it’s a genuine Christian congregation and not some fraudulent or satanistic sect.” Reasons for the various transformations aren’t detailed, but climate change, depletion of the world’s oil reserve, and a few wars and revolutions are hinted to be contributing factors. The fact that there isn’t a detailed history is both maddening and tantalizing; I’d love to know more about how we got here, but have to be satisfied with scattered hints.

The story tells of the rise to public prominence of Julian “the Reformer” Comstock and the resulting fall at the hands of the Dominion for daring to make a film about the life of Charles Darwin. The book is written as an actual biography (complete with footnotes) from the point-of-view of one of the main characters, and amusingly he is portrayed as not being too bright. This allows for a lot of humor to sneak in, which of course I loved. For instance, “Waiters circulated with carts of drink and plates of small food items. Some of these* were impaled on toothpicks. ... *The food items, not the waiters.” One of my favorite bits was Julian Comstock’s definition of a sport: “Any outdoor game or sport, to be a sport, ought to have three essential qualities. It should be difficult, it should be impractical, and it should be slightly silly.” Considering I’ve been debating this issue off-and-on since 1997 I found this absolutely hilarious!

The plot is mildly interesting, but to me learning about the way the world works through the characters is the fascinating part. Well written, Wilson manages to capture a wide variety of situations from politics and military maneuvers to romance and bar fights in a believable fashion with a heavy dose of humor thrown in. The ending is fairly conclusive so I don’t expect a direct sequel, but if other volumes set during earlier events mentioned in passing such as the end of the Efflorescence of Oil, the Fall of the Cities, the False Tribulation, the days of the Pious Presidents, or even how the rest of the world fared through the ages, I’d read those in a flash.

First Sentence:
In October of 2172—the year the Election show came to town—Julian Comstock and I, along with his mentor Sam Godwin, rode to the Tip east of Williams Ford, where I came to possess a book, and Julian tutored me in one of his heresies.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Spy Who Haunted Me, by Simon R. Green

The Spy Who Haunted Me, by Simon R. Green

Alexander King, the world’s greatest secret agent, is dying. He has amassed an unparalleled collection of secrets that he will bequeath to a worthy successor. This successor will be chosen via a contest, and a contest that Eddie Drood intends to win. The plot was a bit of by-the-numbers, but still engrossing. The references to pop culture tropes are why I love this series, though. The Wizard of Northampton (“Writing comic books for twenty years will do that to you”), Uncle Harvey who “thinks he’s a giant rabbit,” and a small statuette of a black bird all make appearances in The Spy Who Haunted Me. I’m sure I miss a ton of others, but the ones I catch always make me smile.

First Sentence:
In the early hours, when it seems like the dark will go on forever and the dawn will never come, the night people come out to play.

Red Hood's Revenge, by Jim C. Hines

Red Hood’s Revenge, by Jim C. Hines

The third volume of the Princess series is the darkest, but also the best. Red Riding Hood is a world-renowned assassin and has been hired to kill Sleeping Beauty. In the ensuing adventure the princesses return to the land where Beauty was enchanted and she is forced to come to terms with her uncomfortable past. The action and humor remain strong as in the other chapters, but the characterization and emotional impact of events are what cause this book to shine. The heroines are as far from damsels in distress as can be imagined, but Hines captures tender moments as masterfully as he does action scenes; no one-dimensional actors here. The Snow Queen’s Shadow is due for release in 2011, and I eagerly look forward to reading the next installment!

First Sentence:
If Queen Beatrice’s prediction was correct, this night would end in death.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Daemons are Forever, by Simon R. Green

Daemons are Forever, by Simon R. Green

This second book in the Secret History series, and the second parody filled with humor, action, and pop culture. The plot isn’t as interesting as the first book, but it certainly takes on a grander scale centering around an other-worldly invasion. Thanks to a time travel device a new character is brought in to assist, one that will be familiar to Green’s fans: Giles Deathstalker. (I loved the first few books in the Deathstalker cycle but didn’t have the energy to plow through the more recent ones, but linking that universe to this one is just the kind of Wold Newton Family geekiness I love!) While the characters are walking through the museum searching for the time machine, a throw-away line that is typical of the pop culture humor present: “"And we used to have a giant mechanical spider. We confiscated it from some American mad genius, back in the Wild West."” While a disappointing movie, the reference made me laugh out loud. Great entertainment!

First Sentence:
The name’s Bond.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Mermaid's Madness, by Jim C. Hines

The Mermaid’s Madness, by Jim C. Hines

In the sequel to The Stepsister Scheme we find Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White in a twisted, action-packed version of The Little Mermaid. The mermaids have declared war on humankind to get revenge for the Mer-King’s daughter being wronged by a human Prince. Part Fractured Fairy Tales and part Pirates of the Caribbean, Hines spins another comedic adventure that I quite enjoyed.

First Sentence:
Princess Danielle Whiteshore of Lorindar clung to the rail at the front of the ship, staring out at the waves.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rules of Deception, by Christopher Reich

Rules of Deception, by Christopher Reich

I hate to say this about a book authored by a fellow University of Texas alumnus, but this was simply terrible. A surgeon loses his wife during an ill-advised climb in the Swiss Alps, kills a policeman trying to rob him, and then eludes an international manhunt and professional assassins while trying to foil a terrorist weapons deal. While this sounds exciting, it is one amazingly unlikely event followed by another executed by one dimensional characters. I’m all for suspending disbelief while reading thrillers, but this was so far-fetched that I simply couldn’t. It was a combination of an A-Team episode and a Knight Rider episode without any of the charm of either. And when the conclusion finally arrives it is even more ridiculous and far-fetched than the previous 500 pages! Rules of Deception is the first of a series, but the last one I’ll read.

First Sentence:
Jonathan Ransom knocked the ice from his goggles and stared up at the sky.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Man with the Golden Torc, by Simon R. Green

The Man with the Golden Torc, by Simon R. Green

Imagine every story you’ve ever heard about ghosts, aliens, demons, magic, and conspiracy theories is actually true; furthermore, there is a secret society of people that protect those of us that believe this is all fiction and keep us in the dark. Secret agents, elves, and demons may sound like an unwieldy collection but Green blends all facets well and serves up a rollicking novel. Eddie Drood is the protagonist, but he goes by the pseudonym, “Bond. Shaman Bond.” The cover name, as the book’s title, is an obvious nod to James Bond. The similarities don’t stop there either; chase scenes with exotic vehicles, world-threatening plots, unique and strange villains, and of course, the Armourer.

Fantastic plot elements and larger-than-life characters are fun, but the smart writing is what makes this parody stand out. My favorite line occurs when Eddie is working his way through abandoned subway tunnels under London: “I half expected to see Arne Saknussemm’s initials. Or Cave Carson’s.” If you haven’t read Journey to the Center of the Earth or your knowledge of DC comics characters stops at Superman and Batman this statement must be puzzling at best; the fact that no further explanation is given somehow makes me feel a kinship of sorts with the author. And given that the premise is that everything us mundanes believe is fictional isn’t, does that imply Lidenbrock really walked from Iceland to Italy through the crust of the planet? Or that Rip Hunter travels through time? I’m nearly giddy at the possibilities of future adventures in this universe! Part Ian Fleming and part Neil Gaiman, Green has the beginnings of an entertaining series on his hands here. And of course, Shaman Bond will return in Daemons Are Forever.

First Sentence:
It started out as just another everyday mission.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Stepsister Scheme, by Jim C. Hines

The Stepsister Scheme, by Jim C. Hines

The three heroines of this book are familiar—Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White—but little else is. Based in a fantasy land where humans and fairies have a tenuous truce, the recently-married Cinderella survives an attack on her life and discovers her Prince has been kidnapped. She teams up with the other two princesses and sets out on a rescue mission. Hines does a good job of avoiding the princess stereotype (the women are all smart, ass-kicking beauties) and makes the back-story of the trio interesting while still familiar. Cinderella, for instance, with her history of being forced into drudgery by her step-family can’t stop thinking about how to remove stains even when in a sword fight! I also enjoyed the author’s wink to the reader by having the queen at the center of a large intelligence network named Queen Bea. There are some dark portions of the book as well, with the villains getting the upper hand and acting in truly evil fashions, not the comical evil the Disney incarnations have made popular. This is the first of a series, and I’ll certainly be back for more.

First Sentence:
Danielle Whiteshore, formerly Danielle de Glas, would never be a proper princess.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The History of Beer in America, by Bill Yenne

The History of Beer in America, by Bill Yenne

I love beer. Apparently, so does Yenne! He does a good job of capturing the general history of brewing in America, concentrating on the larger companies. The story was interesting, but the writing felt oddly amateurish or rushed. Paragraphs ramble a bit, especially when describing the many, many mergers the industry experienced. Fun anecdotes are started, but not entirely finished; for instance, the mystery surrounding the meaning of the “33” found on Rolling Rock labels is mentioned, but not the resolution. The physical dimensions of the book were a bit annoying as well; over 13" wide (and only 8" tall!) made it close to a yard wide when opened, which was clumsy to hold and read. The large area was, however, excellent for displaying the fantastic collection of photos of breweries, taverns, labels, and memorabilia through the years. The pictures alone are well worth your time, and more than made up for the other, minor imperfections. So crack open a cold Shiner Bock, Dead Guy Ale, Arrogant Bastard, or Palo Santo Marron and spend an afternoon exploring an important facet of our history.

First Sentence:
Americans have been brewing and enjoying beer for centuries.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Don't Know Much About History, by Kenneth C. Davis

Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned, by Kenneth C. Davis

With the subtitle Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned this book has a high target, and largely succeeds in hitting it. I quite enjoyed the unique question and answer format Davis employs, as it gave me the chance to decide if I knew the answer or not before reading. Some are fairly straightforward such as “Who were the witches of Salem?” and “What happened at the Bay of Pigs?” but others were much more obscure (to me, anyway) like “Why is there a statue of Benedict Arnold’s boot?” or “What was the Cross of Gold?” A sense of sly irreverence is often evident as well, such as the section on FBI successes and failures in the last twenty years titled, “Where is Fox Mulder when we need him?”

George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When reading a book with the breadth and scope of this one, stretching from Columbus’ voyage in 1492 to 9/11, seeing the cyclical nature of history validates Santayana’s quote many times over. While not exactly a “doomed to repeat it” scenario, the most striking parallel I found was in a discussion about who elected George Washington president: “Political parties were not only absent at this time, but were considered contemptible.” Sadly the party system seems to be firmly embedded in the political bedrock of today, but I know of very few people that don’t consider the situation contemptible.

History with its predisposition to dates, names, and places can be very dry, but Davis does an excellent job of keeping the various anecdotes enthralling. He writes in the introduction, “The only way to make history and politics interesting, I have long believed, is by telling stories of real people doing real things.” All I can say to that is, “Well done.”

First Sentence:
Few eras in American history are shrouded in as much myth and mystery as the long period covering America’s discovery and settlement.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, by Ben Fountain

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (Stories), by Ben Fountain

This is a really intriguing group of short stories. Ordinary people in unique situations is a common theme here, and put to good use. My favorite was The Lion’s Mouth, set in Sierra Leone where a humanitarian becomes a diamond smuggler and a reluctant savior. Other good ones include Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera which follows a bird-watcher taken hostage by Colombian revolutionaries, Bouki and the Cocaine describes a fisherman-turned-Robin Hood stealing cocaine from drug-smugglers, and in The Good Ones Are Already Taken we meet a Special Forces officer that takes a second wife (without leaving the first): a Haitian voodoo sex goddess. Fantasy for Eleven Fingers was the only one that sounded a bit forced to me, telling a tale of antisemitism and hypocrisy in fascist Germany via an eleven-fingered pianist. All in all, this is a collection of well-crafted adventures that is worth your time.

First Sentence (From Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera):
No way Blair insisted to anyone who asked, no self-respecting bunch of extortionist rebels would ever want to kidnap him.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Dealers of Lightning, by Michael A. Hiltzik

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, by Michael A. Hiltzik

Several years ago I read Fumbling the Future about the failure of Xerox to capitalize on the creation of GUI-driven networked personal computers years before their competition. Dealers of Lightning is another look at the same PARC Labs organization, but concentrates more on the inventors than the inventions themselves. While equally compelling, Dealers of Lightning draws a different conclusion from Fumbling the Future: Xerox didn’t squander a golden opportunity, but instead the idea that a single company can remain in control of such a fast moving and constantly changing industry as computing is capricious and Xerox shouldn’t be blamed. While I agree the hardware/software trade is extremely fluid, the fact that Xerox—other than laser printers—has never been an important market player in this world still points to a serious lack of capitalizing on their intellectual property.

I hold a fairly low opinion of the predictive ability of most marketers and analysts (Gartner Group and Forrester Research especially). To me, these groups make broad forecasts and then reward companies with good reviews and placement in the appropriate magic quadrant that either pay them or develop product that make their predictions appear to be accurate. My cynicism aside, Dealers of Lightning provides a good overview of the perils of blindly following the path blazed by such divination. In 1981 Xerox conducted a series of market surveys that concluded “the Star was so good and latent demand so strong that customers would clamor for the technology regardless of price.” Of course, the Star sold for over $16,000 each and was a closed-system, competing with the open ~$5,000 IBM PC. Is it fair to hold analysts accountable for failing to predict that IBM would create a cheap machine that revolutionized the market? Maybe not, although Moore’s Law that foresaw exactly this was not only widely accepted in the industry but one of the founding principles of Xerox’s own PARC Labs.

While not a major aspect of the story, one line literally made me laugh out loud: “COBOL was the tedious programming language used for repetitive and uncomplicated business programs such as payrolls and budgets.” I currently work for Micro Focus, one of the leading maker of COBOL products in the world. There aren’t very many people in my company that would appreciate the language described as tedious and uncomplicated!

First Sentence:
The photograph shows a handsome man in a checked sport shirt, his boyish face half-obscured by a cloud of pipe smoke.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Emergence, by Steven Johnson

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson

Distributed systems combine the output of multiple processes to solve a single problem, a common topic in computer science. Johnson explains this subject in simple terms, starting with the common ant. An individual ant does not have a view of the “big picture;” it just follows certain simple rules that trigger when certain simple phenomena are encountered. However, the colony as a whole can obviously manage its society, creating complicated and advanced anthills and balancing the various roles (worker, soldier, ...) needed at any given time. The queen, contrary to popular belief, is not the central architect; actually, the colony as a whole makes decisions in a distributed fashion based on incomplete—or emerging—data points.

As other authors have noted, making decisions in this fashion is something at which humans aren’t very skilled. Because the volume of data that is available to us at this point in history, the implication is we too often become paralyzed when trying to make decisions. Interestingly, Johnson posits that our children will be much better at this than we are. Younger generations are more comfortable with less control of their world, largely because of video games. Titles like The Legend of Zelda don’t have a set rulebook, so players become skilled at guessing causal relationships and building and testing working hypotheses of the true underlying rules. This skill translates to being “more tolerant of being out of control, more tolerant of that exploratory phase where the rules don’t all make sense, and where few goals have been clearly defined.”

Johnson’s style is smooth and easy, with a dose of levity for color. “If people were somehow deprived of the theatrical conflicts of city sidewalks, they’d all end up hollow men—or worse, Republicans.” Ha. :) Clear and clever writing makes a complex topic feel accessible, and the time to pass quickly.

From ants to urban planning to memes, the author covers a lot of ground about emerging systems, and hints at the importance of this subject in our near future. With Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare just in the social networking arena, new ways of processing data are going to be needed. The sheer volume of information is going to require that decisions are made based on localized or incomplete sets. Emergence is an intriguing glimpse into possible methods that may be used to accomplish this.

First Sentence:
It’s early fall in Palo Alto, and Deborah Gordon and I are sitting in her office in Stanford’s Gilbert Biological Sciences building, where she spends three-quarters of the year studying behavioral ecology.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Linchpin, by Seth Godin

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin

Seth Godin truly believes in what he espouses. The passion for his beliefs is evident in nearly every word; this makes Linchpin an entertaining read even if you don’t share the same ideas or aren’t convinced of the value of Godin’s. The basic thought here is that the key to job security is making yourself indispensable, a linchpin. This means that uniqueness and originality are more valuable traits than predictability and rule-following. That meeting goals is more important than how they are met. That the end justifies the means. An interesting and admirable point-of-view, but I don’t think as many corporations in our CYA, SLA, Sarbanes-Oxley world will reward these behaviors as Godin seems to believe. Or I’m not picking the right employers, anyway...

Godin writes, “Shipping something out the door, doing it regularly, without hassle, emergency, or fear—this is a rare skill, something that makes you indispensable.” I am a firm believer of a regular (and short) release cycle, but was asked to leave one job in part because I was doing this; ironically, I was told later that having regular releases wasn’t considered agile enough! It was obvious at this point that I wasn’t going to be successful in that company anyway, but according to Godin I should have been lauded, not let go. I don’t think this obviates the linchpin theory, but it does at least add a corollary about organizational acceptance of such methods. If you are in a conservative, hide-bound chain-of-command, getting labeled as a rebel rather than a rule-follower isn’t necessarily a key to job security.

Whether you drink Godin’s Kool-Aid or not, this is an enjoyable book. His sense of humor is sly and pervasive and he is unapologetic for his personal beliefs. In a discussion about business revolutions, Godin says shopping at Wal-Mart is okay because “you can get a jar of pickles the size of a Volkswagen for three dollars.” Pundits who try and convince people that shopping at Wal-Mart is somehow wrong “have been brainwashed into believing that the old version of the American Dream was a right.” I like both the humor and his political viewpoint here!

His personality is also on display in one of the passages towards the close of the book. The style of Linchpin is chapters, divided into smaller titled sections. One of these sections is composed of a single word, “Yes.” Of course, the title of this section is, “Wait! Are You Saying That I Have to Stop Following Instructions and Start Being an Artist? Someone Who Dreams Up New Ideas and Makes Them Real? Someone Who Finds New Ways to Interact, New Pathways to Deliver Emotion, New Ways to Connect? Someone Who Acts Like a Human, Not a Cog? Me?” Considering the titles are all in a heavy bold typeface, his point is well made.

The last bit of whimsy I’ll leave you with is the following diagram:
Zombies = Bureacracy

First Sentence:
The problem is that the bureaucrats, note takes, literalists, manual readers, TGIF laborers, map followers, and fearful employees are in pain.

Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child

Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher is a drifter. While he recognizes that isn’t a widely respected avocation, he believes that everyone deserves a degree of respect. When he visits Despair, Colorado and can’t even get a cup of coffee without being assaulted by the cops Reacher retaliates in the only way he knows how: violently.

This episode was a little different than most of the other Reacher novels in that our hero isn’t trying to help someone else solve a mystery; instead, he stumbles across something that doesn’t ring true and investigates on his own. It builds into seemingly two different puzzles; I really liked that Child didn’t try and tie the two together somehow as most author’s would, but instead has Reacher realize they are unrelated and proceed accordingly. Despite being a bit more preachy than usual and an unrealistic ending (even for Reacher!), I still quite enjoyed this novel—as expected!

First Sentence:
The sun was only half as hot as he had known sun to be, but it was hot enough to keep him confused and dizzy.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes

Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes is said to be the father of the modern novel, and after reading Don Quixote it is easy to see why. Set in the 17th century with an insane man as the hero and a buffoon for a sidekick, this easily could have been a dated and predictable (from our modern point-of-view anyway) book, but instead I found it engaging and exciting from cover to cover. Don Quixote thinks he is the last knight errant and roams the countryside looking for adventure and injustice; unfortunately for him he is met with ridicule and scorn virtually everywhere. While there are a few actual “quests” (attacking windmills being the most famous) most of the novel describes the elaborate practical jokes of which Quixote and Sancho Panza are the butt.

I was surprised at not only how funny this was, but how the humor holds up over the years. Monty Python would be proud of the physical humor here: “Sancho came so close that his eyes were almost in his master’s mouth; by this time the balm had taken effect in Don Quixote’s stomach, and just as Sancho looked into his mouth, he threw up, more vigorously than if he were firing a musket, everything he had inside, and all of it hit the compassionate squire in the face.” Apparently, vomit is a timeless comedic prop! One of the best stories related is about a man who convinces his best friend to attempt to seduce his wife in order to prove her love; his unintentionally humorous justification for this is, “Why be grateful when a woman is good if no one urges her to be bad?”

The odd pacing is a large indication this was written 400 years ago—at times there is a chapter break in the middle of a sentence!—but Edith Grossman’s translation is fantastic and allows the reader to immerse oneself in the story without getting lost in the physical structure of the novel. I quite enjoy the musical Man of La Mancha which is based on this book, but the novel is far superior.

First Sentence:
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Great Book of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles, 1-10, by Roger Zelazny

I’d read the first half of this famous fantasy saga as a kid but only vague memories remained. I saw the collected novels in a single volume on a bargain table and decided to reacquaint myself and complete the cycle. Ten novels describing the serial drama of a feuding family with the ability to travel among multiple universes. The first five novels follow Corwin, an amnesiac magician discovering his heritage; the second five follow Merlin, Corwin’s son, as he becomes a pawn in the war for power between the Courts of Chaos and Amber. The first arc is much more compelling, with the magic and mystery at the forefront. The second arc was clearly written later, with the protagonist being a computer programmer as well as a magician. The characters are largely one-dimensional, but as with most quality soap operas this usual detraction is somehow made to work—largely because of the Machiavellian nature of the family and the sheer delight they seem to take in their schemes.

Zelany’s writing isn’t very complicated, and at times downright simplistic. The best example of this is in The Hand of Oberon where Corwin embarks on a wild ride between worlds. “Rising once more. . . . The fogs lower and ebb. . . . Grass, grass, grass. . . . Clear now the sky, and delicate blue. . . . A sun racing to set. . . . Birds. . . . A cow in the field, chewing, staring and chewing. . . .” Several pages exactly like this, the very definition of rambling. The lack of sophistication doesn’t really detract from the overall story threads between the novels though, and in fact is quite funny in some places: “While sex heads a great number of lists, we all have other things we like to do in between.”

Overall, this mix of science-fiction and fantasy tropes is a lot of fun. Uneven at times, but the cunning and sly characters and their devious schemes make for an entertaining read. The ten books clock in at just over 1,200 pages so this is a relatively quick read, especially when compared to the seven book, 4,100+ pages of the vastly inferior Harry Potter series. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as an introduction to the overall genre, but if you already love fantasy/sci-fi then you should check this out.

First Sentence from Nine Princes in Amber:
It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.
First Sentence from The Guns of Avalon:
I stood there on the beach and said, “Good-by, Butterfly,” and the ship slowly turned, then headed out toward deep water.
First Sentence from Sign of the Unicorn:
I ignored the questions in the eyes of the groom as I lowered the grisly parcel and turned the horse in for care and maintenance.
First Sentence from The Hand of Oberon:
A bright flash of insight, to match that peculiar sun...
First Sentence from The Courts of Chaos:
Amber: high and bright atop Kolvir in the middle of the day.
First Sentence from Trumps of Doom:
It is a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you.
First Sentence from Blood of Amber:
My life had been relatively peaceful for eight years—not counting April thirtieths, when someone invariably tried to kill me.
First Sentence from Sign of Chaos:
I felt vaguely uneasy, though I couldn’t say why.
First Sentence from Knight of Shadows:
Her name was Julia, and I’d been damn certain she was dead back on April 30 when it all began.
First Sentence from Prince of Chaos:
See one coronation and you’ve seen them all.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

James Bond: The Union Trilogy, by Raymond Benson

James Bond: The Union Trilogy: Three 007 Novels: High Time to Kill, Doubleshot, Never Dream of Dying, by Raymond Benson

I’d read a few of Benson’s James Bond novels before (most notably The Facts of Death where 007 visits Austin and has dinner at Chuy’s) so when I found this compilation of High Time to Kill, Doubleshot, and Never Dream of Dying on a bargain table, how could I resist? I do think Bond stories come off better on the big screen than on paper (unlike Ludlum), but these three form a loose trilogy that fit well together. The Union is a terrorist organization that MI6 fights throughout, taking the place of SMERSH and SPECTRE in the Fleming novels. Bond fights them with his usual humor and ruthlessness, teaming up with Rene Mathis and his father-in-law from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Marc-Ange Draco. The main antagonist was typically over the top, possessing a Daredevil-like ESP, but entertaining as only a Bond villain can be. Of course 007 prevails in the end, but not without leaving a trail of sex and death in his wake.

There is also a satisfying short story, “Blast From the Past” included in this book, telling the ultimate fate of Irma Bunt from the novels On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. Often I think Bond is more effective when seen in a short story rather than a full novel, and this was no exception. I can’t shake the feeling I’d read this before somewhere, but still loved it.

First Sentence of High Time to Kill:
The barracuda surprised them by opening its jaws to an angle of ninety degrees, revealing the sharp rows of teeth that were capable of tearing out chunks of flesh in an instant.
First Sentence of Doubleshot:
The Convent’s Security Officer gasped when he saw what came up on the computer screen.
First Sentence of Never Dream of Dying:
A tiny bead of sweat appeared at the commandant’s right temple and lingered there, waiting for the moment when it would drop off and trickle down the man’s high, scarred cheekbone.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Careless in Red, by Elizabeth George

Careless in Red, by Elizabeth George

Inspector Lynley is back! After the disappointing last outing I had low expectations for this one. Luckily, George is back to her old self here, with her popular characters Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers in the middle of a twisty murder investigation. Detective Inspector Bea Hannaford is a new voice in the mix and a welcome addition. George deftly avoids the trap of having Hannaford be the third stooge to Lynley and Havers, instead having the three at odds throughout the novel at the same time as being allies. The story is solid, and while I figured out what was happening before the end I was still surprised at the ultimate result. While not my favorite novel in the series, Careless in Red is much better than the previous few.

First Sentence:
He found the body on the forty-third day of his walk.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child

Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child

On a nearly deserted New York City subway car at 2am, Jack Reacher spots a suicide bomber. Reacher prevents the bomb from detonating but not the suicide; the resulting investigation uncovers dozens of people that all seem to be lying. And Reacher hates lies—let the mayhem begin!

Reacher has become one of my favorite characters in recent memory. The settings veer wildly between Reacher in the middle of nowhere to the middle of NYC, but they all seem to work. Pure escapist fiction, but perfect for an airplane ride or for a lazy weekend afternoon.

First Sentence:
Suicide bombers are easy to spot.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Why We Do It, by Niles Eldredge

Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene, by Niles Eldredge

In 1976 Richard Dawson penned The Selfish Gene which expounded on a popular theory in evolution theory saying that genes whose attributes successfully promote their own duplication will be selected in favor of their competitors. More simply, evolution works at a genetic level rather than at at a sexual level; it is our genes that drive reproductive behavior rather than the desire for the prettiest women to mate with the most virile men. Eldredge is highly critical of this theory, and Why We Do It lays out his argument.

Reproduction doesn’t drive all aspects of our culture today; economics and society has a much bigger influence. To Eldredge this means that genes can’t be actually driving behavior but instead simply carrying information. This information is used to build larger organisms which then choose if and when to reproduce. The drive to eat and survive is stronger than the drive to procreate, and sex has become largely decoupled from simple reproduction—humans do not go into heat (Spring Break not withstanding) and choose our mates on features other than proximity. Sex exists for its own sake in society as recreational; Viagra doesn’t exist to help couples have children, and birth control certainly doesn’t either. Our genes don’t drive us to reproduce, and sex happens for fun much more often than for baby-making.

This is an interesting book, but Eldredge vacillates wildly between science and opinions, often losing his point in snark. He often castigates his intellectual opponents, calling their theories absurd or astonishing. He dislikes media as well, complaining they are “besotted with genes.” While I tend to agree with many of his theories, I found this level of disdain more appropriate for a religious or political text rather than a scientific one.

First Sentence:
Why do people have sex?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child

Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child

I’d mentioned earlier that I was looking forward to a time that some of the secondary characters returned and teamed up. In Bad Luck and Trouble I got my wish! Reacher reunites with half his former MP unit to investigate the disappearance of the other half. The team is as quirky and brilliant as Reacher, but each member unique in his or her own right. You really got the feel this was a group of old friends reuniting, with a rich history only hinted at.

Coupled with the interesting mystery and fantastic personalities, Child’s humor was in rare form. My favorite passage:

“You tell a lot of lies, Ms. Berenson,” he said.
Neagley said, “She’s Human Resources. It’s what they do.”
It is funny because it is true! :) Escapist fiction of the best kind, Child continues to deliver high quality entertainment.

First Sentence:
The man was called Calvin Franz and the helicopter was a Bell 222.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Running Blind, by Lee Child

Running Blind, by Lee Child

This is one of the most conniving mysteries Child has crafted yet. A serial killer is killing harassment victims and Reacher fits the profile of the villain. The FBI first arrests him, and then co-opts him into helping with the investigation. This novel is unlike the other Reacher novels in many ways. We get a periodic view of things from the POV of the killer. Reacher owns a house and a car and is easily found by the FBI. Several large red herrings (normally all threads tie together in a Child novel; here they are all tied up but several are orthogonal to the main plot). Almost no gunfire, and very little in the way of fighting. Highly suspenseful, though, and very brutal in its own right even without the overt violence.

One of the things I really liked was the author gave a plausible reason for Reacher not sharing his theories of the crime. Detectives in books like this never share because that would spoil things for the reader, but here it is explained away due to the rocky relationship with the FBI. Reacher resents being forced to collaborate and thus refuses to talk more than he has to. Simple. The one part of this that didn’t ring true, though, was the poor FBI relationship in the first place. In a chronologically earlier novel Reacher did the FBI a huge solid, saving a Bureau rising star and earning the thanks of the Director himself. Here, Reacher is bullied and blackmailed into helping solve a case by that same organization. Going from gratitude to outright hostility seems unlikely at best, especially for an organization with a long memory like the FBI.

First Sentence:
People say that knowledge is power.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Echo Burning, by Lee Child

Echo Burning, by Lee Child

Another Reacher novel, another winner. Set in Far West Texas, Reacher gets mixed up with an abused wife that asks him to do her a favor: kill her husband. From there a mystery slowly unfolds that is truly puzzling, leading to the inevitable shoot-em-up at the conclusion. The ending is quite predictable, but the journey there is fun.

I live in Texas, and I love it. Austin is a wonderful city: vibrant, alive, and largely accepting of varying lifestyles. The Texas described in Echo Burning is not at all like that: dusty and dry, filled with cowboys, with bigotry and racism a way of life. Sadly, I know this stereotype still exists in all to many parts of the state (not to mention rural areas everywhere), but I dislike reading one-sided portrayals like this. The only redeeming character other than Reacher was a lesbian, vegetarian, attorney from Harvard—about as far from a southern redneck as you can get. I hope at some point Reacher ends up in Austin where a different sort of Texas can be shared.

First Sentence:
There were three watchers, two men and a boy.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Die Trying, by Lee Child

Die Trying, by Lee Child

This is easily the weakest Reacher novel I’ve read yet. It has all the action and mystery of the others, but the villain’s motivation simply didn’t make any sense to me. Painted as a typical one-dimensional right-wing militia crackpot, the bad guy kidnaps a young FBI agent as insurance against his plot to secede. This never seemed even remotely plausible and Child didn’t sell it well. That said, the initial hook was great, with Reacher an accidental kidnapping victim, and when the FBI starts to investigate they decide he is the ringleader of the plot which makes every character in the book against him. Combined with a mole in the FBI feeding information to the militia (and Child’s tendency in other books to kill off major characters), the suspense grows right to the final showdown. While still thoroughly enjoyable and exciting, I’m still glad this wasn’t my first Reacher novel.

First Sentence:
Nathan Rubin died because he got brave.

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