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.

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