Friday, December 28, 2012

The Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson

The Alloy of Law: A Mistborn Novel, by Brandon Sanderson

I thoroughly enjoyed the first three Mistborn novels and was excited to find The Alloy of Law set in the same universe. This one takes place three hundred years after the first collection; the laws of allomancy haven't changed, but science and technology have continued to march on and as a result we get to visit a very different world. The traditional fantasy setting of swords and sandals has evolved into one that more closely resembles a Victorian Old West. Sanderson does a great job of presenting his unique magic system in a different society than the first trilogy; seeing how the same rules apply to a different world was fascinating. The heroes aren't perfect and the villains aren't pure evil; coupled with the steampunk-like environment this was a book I couldn't put down.

First Sentence:
Wax crept along the ragged fence in a crouch, his boots scraping the dry ground.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Super Giant Monster Time! by Jeff Burk

Super Giant Monster Time! (Choose Your Own Mind-Fuck Fest #3), by Jeff Burk

I loved "Choose Your Own Adventure" books as a kid, even writing my own at one point. When Super Giant Monster Time! was selected for my book club a wave of nostalgia engulfed me. I ordered it, and when it arrived I discovered that it was actually a wicked parody of the genre written by the delightfully subversive Jeff Burk.

You have the choice of three characters to become: a boring office worker, a punk-rock chick, or a scientist at a secret government lab. As any of the three selections you make selections amid a backdrop of an alien invasion and giant rampaging monsters. Virtually none of the endings are what you'd call "happy," but they are all pretty damn funny. A selection: "You feel no pain as your body is blown into thousands of tiny bits." "You think, but turtles aren't cannibals! And then they fall upon upon you." "You laugh as the city burns around you, the flames clearing way for the new age of carrots." "You flick your tail as you dream of what you will do to the hairless apes with these new powers. You are no longer Mr. McWhiskers, you are now Mr. McWhiskers — the Super-Cat!" "Then you get stepped on by a giant walking carrot. Serves you right you piece of shit." Good stuff!

With scenes including mass-murder, rape, porn, and a close-encounter with the business end of an ejaculating monster this isn't a book for kids, regardless of the format. Super Giant Monster Time! is a fun read and makes for a good escape for an hour or so. But you should wait until after work, because after all, "those TPS reports aren't going to file themselves!"

First Sentence:
You started off your day at the office just like any other.

Sixth Street, by Allen Childs, M.D.

Images of America: Sixth Street, by Allen Childs, M.D.

Sixth Street is the heart of Austin's entertainment district. While it has changed a lot in the twenty-five or so years since I first moved to town, in many ways it hasn't changed at all: the names of the bars and clubs change, but the feel of the area remains the same. With this book of annotated photographs and drawings dating back to 1840, though, it is clear the history of Sixth Street is long and varied.

When stagecoaches roamed the land Sixth Street was the main east-west thoroughfare in Austin, largely because it was the avenue that had the fewest hills while being far enough from the river to avoid flooding. As such, hotels, saloons, and storefronts occupied a lot of the real estate, lasting until the entertainment boom and revitalization of the area in the late 1970's. The Driskill Hotel remains popular today and the legacy of the saloons is obvious, but while there is still the odd retail store today, it is hard to believe Austin's first JCPenney and HEB were located on this road!

The narrative of the book isn't very fluid but the photos more than make up for this. I love picking this up and just thumbing through it, looking at the history and imagining how much things have changed over the years. If you've spent any time in Austin, this thin tome will put a smile on your face.

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
East Sixth Street, now a hub of the live music capital of the world, had its humble beginning as a dirt road, the only level path from the east.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, by Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson: An Oral Biography, by Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour

Hunter S. Thompson was a very strange person. A writer of undeniable talent, but strange nonetheless. This book is a collection of interviews stitched together in a single narrative. Hunter's life brought him into contact with a wide slice of life, so while many accounts are told by the expected family and friends, people as varied as Jimmy Buffett, Jimmy Carter, Jack Nicholson, and James Carville contributed as well. Considering that one of the authors, Jann Wenner, was Hunter's editor for over thirty years, the overall attitude towards Hunter was surprisingly negative. Admittedly Hunter was a lifelong drug and alcohol abuser which rarely makes for pleasant personalities, but I'd always thought he was more of a lovable character like Doonesbury's Uncle Duke for whom Hunter was the inspiration. Looks like that isn't so. "The thing about those unpleasant nights is that they didn't end. The unpleasantness wasn't a quick outburst." "For those of us who worked with him, it was essentially a really abusive relationship." "He demanded such an extraordinary amount of loyalty, commitment, and energy, and although he paid back a lot of that, he just sucked people dry." But basically he just comes off as crazy. "My first job was to get Hunter up in the morning. I knocked on his door, and there was a long, loud eruption of curses. ... It was just the life force announcing itself through Hunter's early-morning self." "And damn if he didn't raise the gun and fire from the hip and blow the door frame out that I was standing about six inches from my side." "When I had left the year before, Hunter had thrown my clothes out onto the driveway and set fire to them." This does not sound like someone with whom I'd want to spend a lot of time.

I'll never be a huge Hunter S. Thompson fan, but I did enjoy reading about him.

First Sentence:
We had guns in our cars.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Scholar, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Scholar: A Novel in the Imager Portfolio, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Scholar takes place in the Imager universe but is set centuries before Modesitt's first trilogy. Here the art of imaging is feared worldwide and people who possess the talent are often killed outright—but the seeds for the Collegium are planted. A recognizable world, but a very different society—I look forward to seeing the evolution of this environment through future novels.

One of the key points in the first trilogy was that an imager is a huge danger to himself, to the point of sleeping alone in a lead-lined room to prevent creating dangerous items via dreams. In Scholar, however, this doesn't seem to be an issue with the lead being a powerful imager and yet living on crowded boats, dormitories, and castles. Not sure if this is by design and will feature into future novels, or simply an oversight or writer's remorse. Time will tell!

First Sentence:
"You'd think the Tilborans would have more sense," snapped Bhayar.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Floodmarkers, by Nic Brown

Floodmarkers, by Nic Brown

Set in North Carolina when Hurricane Hugo came ashore, Floodmarkers is a collection of loosely connected character studies. What sets it apart from other similarly structured works like Winesburg, Ohio or Our Town is seeing how the stress of the hurricane affects everyone: as the flood rises, so do tensions. A pedophile whose secret is exposed by the water and a grandfather robbed by a gypsy are only two of the unique characters found within. Both disturbing and funny at the same time, this book isn't always upbeat but well-suited for a rainy afternoon.

First Sentence:
The lights were off but the glass door was unlocked and Cliff followed Matthew into the tanning salon.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by Mark Twain

I like to take longer novels when I travel overseas as I haven't yet been sucked into the cult of the Nook and prefer a physical book. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court fits the bill (the edition I read clocked in at just shy of 500 pages) and having all the action set in the country to which I was traveling made it a perfect fit. I'd seen variations of this in other media—Bing Crosby's movie is probably my favorite quickly followed by the Looney Tunes version—but had never read the book. I knew the movie and especially the cartoon weren't exactly faithful to the source material going more for humor than satire, but I've always been interested in the original. While not as funny (hard to beat Bugs Bunny!) and surprisingly dark, I quite enjoyed it.

The basic plot has been rehashed by many writers since Twain's archetype (probably best by Leo Frankowski): a modern mechanic gets sent back in time to the Middle Ages and uses technology to attempt to change the world. Twain's hero, Hank Morgan, being a stereotypical American of the 19th century despises hereditary classes like the monarchy and slavery. He also believes in his heart that science can be used to improve society; when he discovers himself suddenly in King Arthur's Britain he immediately uses his training and experience to both modernize and moralize the past. Advancement in technology used to bring about social change is clearly possible, but as Twain plots and history proves, the result is rarely predictable.

While society itself is the main antagonist, the Church is painted as the single biggest threat. People can learn and adapt, especially when the benefits of change are made plain, but religion is always happiest with the status quo—especially when that status quo keeps the Church in control. "I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty, and paralysis to human thought." Sadly, over a century after Twain wrote those words their truth is still evident in our culture. If we've learned anything since 1889 it is that our government can be just as smothering as religion when it comes to our natural evolution as a society.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a complex story and far from the simple children's classic I expected. On the surface is a sometimes funny tale about a man trapped in the past. Underneath that is a critical look at the way the world worked in ancient times, but below that lurks the inherent dichotomy of "the ends justify the means." Hank wants the common outlook of the people to rise above superstition and religious fervor and embrace the credo "all men are created equal," but then exploits this same superstition to gain power and control. I often found myself asking what I'd do in various situations, and not always liking the answers. If you want an enjoyable tale with humor and adventure or a deeper novel that challenges your beliefs, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court fits the bill.

First Sentence:
It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to to talk about.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

11.22.63, by Stephen King

11.22.63: A Novel, by Stephen King

It has been a long while since I've read a Stephen King novel; I loved his early works, but after a string of disappointments with It, Needful Things, and The Dark Half I'd largely stopped reading him. I came across this just before one of my trips to the UK, and the tag on the cover caught my imagination: "The day that changed the world—11.22.63—what if you could change it back?" With the date of JFK's assassination as the title there isn't much surprise as to what the topic of the book is, and this event is one of the hotspots of alternate history so many authors have taken a run at this before. King takes a very fresh look at the time though, both in what the effects of changing the past would be and in how time travel itself might work. I quite liked the idea that the timeline would push back, resisting changes to the "natural" timeline. As readers we know how the assassination came about, so having history itself as the antagonist made for a more suspenseful read than a traditional villain.

King has his normal nods to his other books here, most visibly the town of Derry (where It took place) paying a large role and a cameo by a certain white-over-red Plymouth Fury. While he clearly deeply researched Kennedy and Dallas in the early 1960's, one notable error was the appearance of bumper stickers reading "Don't Mess With Texas" in that era; as far as I know that phrase was made famous in the mid 1980's. Overall, though, this is a very entertaining read and a welcome return to greatness for King.

First Sentence:
I have never been what you'd call a crying man.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Seven Wonders, by Adam Christopher

Seven Wonders, by Adam Christopher

Novels following superheroes are becoming more common; some are great, and some aren't. Seven Wonders falls somewhere in the middle, but leaning very heavily toward the "great" side of the equation.

The Seven Wonders is the bastion of justice, a group of the best heroes that has nearly eradicated crime. The last remaining supervillain, the Cowl, opposes them. The battle between these two has raged for years, but despite a seven-to-one manpower advantage for the forces of good a stalemate reigns. Into this world an average man develops amazing powers, and decides to join the battle. Interestingly, neither side is thrilled with this...

This is a strong book, with characters that are unique enough for the reader not to simply sub in "Superman," "Batman," or "The Joker" when encountering a new hero or villain. The plot starts off with a superpowered bank robbery, and then grows from a earthbound fantasy to an interstellar one. As we reach the climax things get weird enough that it nearly lost me, but the ending is satisfying enough. There is just enough adult language throughout that I would hesitate recommending this to a young reader, but overall a great escapist read.

First Sentence:
It wasn't until the following week that Tony realized he could fly.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bill Veeck, by Paul Dickson

Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick, by Paul Dickson

Before our current world of billionaire team owners, Bill Veeck owned several different baseball teams, including the White Sox two different times. I do enjoy baseball, but am a bit embarrassed to admit I didn't know who Bill Veeck was. After reading this excellent biography, it turns out I may not have known his name but was well aware of his legacy.

Veeck was famous for being a relentless promoter, always looking for a unique innovation or publicity stunt to attract new fans to baseball. He was one of the first owners to broadcast games on the radio, installed the first "exploding scoreboard" in the country, and started the trend of putting names on the backs of jerseys. He fought in WWII (losing his leg in combat) and there saw black and white men working together; from then on he became a stout proponent for integration making him very unpopular with his fellow owners. In 1942 he attempted to purchase the Phillies with the intent of stocking the roster with the very best of the Negro League players, but was thwarted by then Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Landis. Veeck did eventually help pioneer integration, signing Larry Doby as the first African-American in the American League and the second in baseball after Jackie Robinson. Sadly, despite all the good things he did for baseball, Veeck is better known for his outlandish stunts.

One of my favorite baseball stories has always been about the time a little person was called to the plate in a major league game. Turns out this not only is true, but Bill Veeck was the mastermind behind it. Eddie Gaedel was less than four feet tall, but Veeck signed him to play in 1951 for the St. Louis Browns wearing number ⅛. When Eddie walked to the plate the opposing Tigers objected, but with a valid contract the umpire allowed the batter. With a strike zone of maybe two inches Gaedel was walked on four straight pitches and was immediately replaced with a pinch runner. The next day the American League President voided the contract and banned "midget" players from the sport, but the previous game was deemed official and history was made.

Another less humorous promotion was Disco Demolition Night in 1979. The idea was that people would bring disco albums into the stadium and they'd be destroyed between games of a double header. Unfortunately it didn't go quite as planned as may if not most of the overflow crowd were not actually baseball fans but anti-disco rockers and the event devolved into a riot. "It was an incredible scene. There were bonfires of burning records on the streets, and records thrown Frisbee-style into the air were slicing down. ... All hell then broke loose. Anti-disco forces stormed the field and refused to leave. They ran the bases and then stole them all, including home plate. The batting cage was pulled loose and destroyed, along with other field equipment. People from the upper deck slid down the foul pole to get onto the field." Hard to imagine Jerry Reinsdorf or corporate-sponsored MLB allowing that today.

Veeck truly loved baseball; hanging out in the Wrigley Field bleachers singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" he was once quoted as saying, "This is the epitome of pleasure." A love of the sport didn't make him the success he became though; he had a set of twelve commandments that guided his professional and personal life. The first two in particular hit home with me: "1. Take your work very seriously. Go for broke and give it your all. 2. Never ever take yourself seriously." I haven't taken the time to codify my beliefs, but if I did I'd like to think these tenets would be found at their core.

First Sentence:
The first Bill Veeck—William L. Veeck Sr.—was born in Boonville, Indiana, a small village near Evansville, on January 20, 1876, the son of Dutch parents.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Mammoth Book of Historical Crime Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley

The Mammoth Book of Historical Crime Fiction: 12 stories from Bronze-Age Britain to Medieval Venice to 1930s New York, edited by Mike Ashley

This collection contains stories set in a diverse group of places from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine Empire to WWII. I quite enjoyed all twelve stories, but the cream of the crop was Eyes of the Icon by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer; it started with the line, "My first mistake was eating the Lord's eyes;" and got better from there. Another great one was The Fourth Quadrant by Dorothy Lumley featuring Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. The most original was Forty Morgan Silver Dollars by Maan Meyers telling the story of how Butch and Sundance allowed two violent crooks to steal their identity and run to South America in order to retire in peace. One slightly offbeat note was Richard A. Lupoff's Dead of Winter starring Caligula Foxx. A good story, but the characters all felt like impostors: Foxx is a dead ringer for Nero Wolfe in looks, history, attitude, and profession. I'd call it an homage, but the similarities are so strong it is more like character theft. Fitting for a crime anthology I suppose!

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
The stories in this anthology cover over four thousand years of crime.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Dragon's Time, by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey

Dragon's Time, by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey

This book is sadly a bit of a mess. The plotline centers around time travel—a lot of time travel. While I usually love time travel stories, this one had so many characters jumping between so many time lines that keeping them all straight was confusing to put it mildly. So much effort is put into the convoluted plot that characterization is left by the wayside; the female characters are all strong, willful leaders which I usually admire, but there were so many and all cut from the same cloth that they were virtually interchangeable. The writing itself was generally pedestrian as well, but there was one metaphor that stood out, comparing spicy food to living: "Life: hot, spicy, painful, unpredictable, tasty, chewy, beautiful, searing. Life." That one analogy didn't make up for the other 400 pages though. Disappointing.

First Sentence:
Cold. Black. Silent.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes, by Nevin Martell

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Will Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip, by Nevin Martell

I have loved Calvin and Hobbes since I first found it in the funny pages in the Dallas Morning News when in high school. When the strip was abruptly stopped in 1995, along with the rest of the world I was saddened by the loss. Watterson has gone on to become a virtual hermit, joining J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee as literary recluses. I always wondered why Watterson made this choice, and when I saw this book I snapped it up looking for answers. While an entertaining read, I still didn't quite find what I was looking for.

The most jarring problem with the book is that while many are discussed, there isn't a single strip reprinted. “The father comes in after a brisk morning workout. "Ahh, what a day," he exclaims, with ruddy cheeks and covered with snow. "Up at 6:00, a 10-mile run in the sleet, and now a big bowl of plain oatmeal! How I love the crazy hedonism of the weekends!"” While this description puts a smile on my face, it pales in comparison to the grin that the actual comic elicits. Clearly this is an unauthorized biography (understandable due to the solitary nature of Watterson) but the lack of art was a huge blow to the credibility of the work.

Another failing is that Martell comes across as incredibly narcissistic here. Often the book seems to be more about the quest to interview Watterson than the man himself. Anecdotes of Martell's trials and tribulations during the writing are interspersed with his nightmares, wedding planning, baking, and long hours. “But disappointment doesn't meet deadlines, so I threw myself back into the wordy fray. ... I'm a big believer in karma and I'd thrown a supertanker full of the stuff at this project, so didn't the universe owe me?” If he'd actually scored the fabled interview this might not have been so obnoxious, but because he didn't it comes off more as whiny than anything else.

That said, there is a lot to love about this book. The story of Watterson is well-researched and well-written, and the genuine affection Martell has for his subject is palpable. The style is straightforward but entertaining, a biography of the comic itself as much as the artist. For instance, due to the thoughtful debates between the main characters, I'd always assumed the strip was named after John Calvin, the influential French theologian, and Thomas Hobbes, the famed English political philosopher. Turns out it was very nearly called Marvin and Hobbes, but Tom Armstrong's comic Marvin launched first and Watterson didn't want any confusion!

An enjoyable if uneven book, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes is well worth your time—but don't expect to have much of the enigma that is Watterson revealed.

First Sentence:
Luckily for me, the story of William Boyd Watterson II began only a few miles away from where I start typing this.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Matter of Time, by Glen Cook

A Matter of Time, by Glen Cook

This is a strange book, but enjoyable. Part Manchurian Candidate, part The 6th Day, and part Quantum Leap, Cook starts his novel in the 1970s but flips the point-of-view between chapters as far back as 1866 and as far forward as 2058. The pace is fairly slow, but as the pages turn and the seeming disparate events start to gel the plot becomes more and more compelling. I found the cops of 1975 a bit too willing to accept time travel as a viable solution to their murder, but otherwise the characters seemed to fit their time periods fairly well. Overall a solid if not memorable novel.

First Sentence:
Total darkness.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Interstate 69, by Matt Dellinger

Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, by Matt Dellinger

Interstate 69 is supposed to run from the Michigan/Canadian border to the Texas/Mexican border. "It could be the last great interstate built in America. Or it might never be finished at all." I-69 through Texas is supposed to run where US-59 does today, including through my wife's hometown of El Campo. When we started dating in 1991 (man, we are old!) I noticed several signs reading "Future Interstate Corridor" along the highway; as this was well before the days of Wikipedia I couldn't find much information on the new road. So, when I came across Dellinger's book, I snapped it up!

Unlike the majority of the Interstate system, I-69 was to be created with long segments of brand-new roads rather than upgrading existing ones. For the land-owners and towns affected, this meant serious opportunity and/or serious jeopardy depending on how much money stood to be gained or how much of the family farm would be lost to eminent domain. The detractors largely fall into the NIMBY camp: "We like things the way they are, they say, so take your progress someplace else." Dellinger goes out of his way to be fair to both sides of the argument, but at the end of the day I sided strongly with the people that want the new Interstate. The arguments for the roads admittedly often revolved around the money to be made rather than service to the public, but the arguments against were all emotion and whining—very little rational thought there.

The status of the road today is inconsistent. Large stretches of it are open and active today, but it is far from contiguous. Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas all have highways labeled I-69, but outside of the roughly 350 miles between Indianapolis and Port Huron there isn't a single length of road over 100 miles long out of the 1700 miles of the intended route. The long parts that aren't built are largely due to the opposition that arose through the various states.

The conclusion was interesting, as Dellinger doesn't really take sides, but instead ends on questions and possibilities. "What if I-69 is never built? What if it remains an awkward, half-finished monument to the people who've tried to build it and the people who've tried to stop it? Some will say the lack of wherewithal and resolve is a sign of a once-great nation faltering. And others will say it's progress, a welcome signal that our highway binge is done and we're ready to rebuild the rails and sidewalks we've ignored for too long." This open-minded approach will probably annoy hard-core believers on both sides of the transportation debate, but I thought not judging in favor of either was fitting for a road that is only partially constructed.

First Sentence:
You have to hand it to Haynesville: The town keeps its chin up.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Devices and Desires, by K. J. Parker

Devices and Desires: An Irresistible Tale of Corruption, Betrayal, and Revenge, by K. J. Parker

Wow. This first installment of The Engineer Trilogy is a strong start to the series. The lead character is an mechanical engineer; considering the bulk of the story involves a war between neighboring states a politician or warrior would be more usual, but the setting of this fantasy novel is a place with no magic and no gods, so having a logical, methodical lead is quite sensible. In this world engineering is a closely guarded secret possessed by only one country, meaning only one country possesses effective war machines. When a talented engineer is found guilty of a seemingly minor transgression and sentenced to death, events are set into motion that will change the balance of power on an unfathomable scale.

One of the underlying tenets of the novel is that while love is something everyone wants to have, it is also the cause of virtually all sorrow as well because people will do anything to obtain it. "Love ... is the most destructive force in the world, doing more harm than war and famine put together." "All the evil in the world, all the harm and suffering it's possible to come to, are concentrated in one place; in love." Indeed, our hero starts a war that will kill people on an heretofore unprecedented rate simply to overthrow his former country, vacate his conviction and exile, and return to his wife. An engineer seems an odd character to have such a Machiavellian grasp of human nature to orchestrate such a world wide upheaval, but in his own words, "People are easy enough to figure out, if you make an effort."

Even though this is 600+ pages, I largely read this in a single sitting during a recent trip to England. I found this so compelling I didn't sleep for the entire flight, making for my first day on the ground a long one! Though set in a world very different than ours, Parker has a few innocent winks at pop culture scattered throughout; my favorite was a paraphrase of my favorite moment in The Replacements: "You know the old saying: pain's temporary, glory is forever, and the girls dig the scars." Awesome.

Intricate and engrossing, I loved this novel and can't wait to read the next in the series!

First Sentence:
"The quickest way to a man's heart," said the instructor, "is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye socket."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, by Dick Van Dyke

My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir, by Dick Van Dyke

I've been a fan of Dick Van Dyke for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid watching The Dick Van Dyke Show never failed to make me laugh, and Mary Poppins and Bye Bye Birdie are perennial favorites of mine (although as I grew older I admit I became more interested in watching Ann Margret than Dick Van Dyke—va-va-voom!). The autobiography talks a lot about his entertainment career, and Van Dyke's trademark humor is prevalent both in the language used and the anecdotes shared. He is light on his family details but he is a very private person so that isn't all that surprising. He does delve into his alcoholism and divorce rather frankly, though, so it isn't a fluff piece by any means. As might be expected with his sunny and outgoing disposition, Van Dyke has a healthy approach to life and a similarly healthy respect for his talent. "I've been lucky my whole life. I have worked with extraordinary people and always felt as if my work was play. I have also been fortunate that people have liked what I do, and as a result, they've liked me. I've tried never to take that for granted, to appreciate every compliment, kiss, and handshake, because I can imagine the opposite." Words to live by, and Dick Van Dyke does.

First Sentence:
It was nighttime, February 1943, and I was standing next to my mother, thinking about the war in Europe.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cybercrime and Espionage, by John Pirc and Will Gragido

Cybercrime and Espionage: An Analysis of Subversive Multivector Threats, by John Pirc and Will Gragido

If there is one word to describe this book it would be "thorough." It begins with a discussion of the philosophy of crime itself ("Criminal behavior is neither new nor is it something to be taken lightly."), moves into a description of the various forms of defense, and lists the players on both sides of the network defense battle before starting to discuss cybercrime in earnest. The title isn't exactly misleading, but there is certainly more background subject matter than I'd expected.

There is an especially good description of the silos of security; the expected network, desktop, and server defenses but also badge readers, cameras, motion sensors, and the people that guard and maintain all the above. Along the way there are several asides describing actual cases of security breaches, such as Bradley Manning leaking Army secrets to WikiLeaks and Robert Hanssen selling intelligence to the Soviets. I would have preferred sidebars that were more on topic with actual hacker exploits and cyber threats but the point that the weakest point of any secure installation is usually the humans maintaining it is very well taken.

For a book with such attention to detail, the publisher did the authors a huge disservice with the amateur nature of the included pictures and graphics. Many are blurry to the point of being unreadable, even simple organizational charts. It would be a great irony if this was a result of the source material being hacked, but sadly I expect this is simply shoddy page setting and inconsistent editing.

This review sounds a bit negative, but that isn't my intent. This is a very worthwhile book and I walked away with a much clearer picture of the current security landscape. Gene Roddenberry would be saddened with the concept that "technological progress and advancement do not blot the darker aspects of humanity," but the evidence presented is quite convincing. Cybercrime and Espionage is a solid introduction to the ever changing threats we face in our modern world.

First Sentence:
The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (b. 106 B.C.-d. 43 B.C.) when speaking on the nature of criminality, once said that "The enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly, our own criminality that we have to contend."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs

This was picked for our book club because of its common description as one of the most important classic novels of the twentieth century. After reading it, I can only assume the importance is due to the obscenity trials and censorship issues it spawned that forced a closer examination of our right to free speech rather than the novel itself. Naked Lunch is the delusional raving of a drug-fueled homosexual, with graphic descriptions of sadistic pedophilia and wild hallucinations. There isn’t much of a linear plot, as evidenced by Burroughs himself when he said that he intended for the chapters to be read in any order. It reads like the world’s worst Mad Lib which afterwards was randomly scrambled. “The nostalgia fit is on me boys and will out willy silly . . . boys walk down the carny midway eating pink spun sugar . . . goose each other at the peep show . . . jack off in the Ferris wheel . . . throw sperm at the moon rising red and smoky over the foundries across the river. A Nigra hangs from a cottonwood in front of The Old Court House . . . whimpering women catch his sperm in vaginal teeth . . .”

This book is a classic in the same way that Pollock’s paintings are: unique, random, and meaningless but holding great appeal for professors and critics. I know I sound like that old man at the end of the block shaking his fist at the world while yelling, “Get off my lawn!” but as far as I can tell Naked Lunch has no redeeming value whatsoever. Dull and non-nonsensical, this is a truly awful book.

First Sentence:
I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train . . . Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries

I found The Lean Startup to be an easy and fun read. Taking on many of the same topics as the Poppendieck’s Implementing Lean Software Development but from more of a corporate or management perspective, Ries does an excellent job of describing exactly how one would go about setting up a new company with the ability to quickly innovate and become successful. The key is the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop and reducing the time it takes a group to completely cycle through this process. Ries believes that you shouldn’t build anything without the ability to measure its success; in the agile software world this is very similar to well-defined acceptance criteria. Measuring is not only the normal quality metrics such as test coverage, but (and probably more important) customer acceptance. Having feedback from actual customers that your company is actually building the right thing is invaluable, and if you discover you aren’t going in the right direction, learn from this knowledge and pivot your behaviors.

The sections on choosing the proper metrics and tests to measure a product were by far the best part of the book. Ries calls traditional numbers used to judge products “vanity metrics:” total customers, gross revenue, and the like. Instead, metrics should be “actionable, accessible, and auditable.” Actionable means there must be a clear cause and effect for the data; if the numbers don’t reach a desired threshold it must be obvious what the next steps are. If web site hits suddenly increase, is it because of a better product or a PR campaign? If you can’t answer the question, you have a vanity metric rather than an actionable metric. Accessible means the reports are easily understood and provide a common frame of reference for everyone involved. Is a web site hit a successful login from a unique IP within a 24-hour period, or simply any request to the server? Auditable means the metric data is both black-and-white testable and easily available. If a test shows that a project should be killed, you don’t want the losers to challenge the veracity of the metric.

As with most agile processes, the ability to change is key. “As a movement, the Lean Startup must avoid doctrines and rigid ideology.” Other than the Lean doctrine itself, of course! The discussions here are quite broad; this is a book of ideas much more than a simple template to follow for success. That isn’t meant as a knock on the book, but that The Lean Startup should be only the first of many places a budding entrepreneur should begin a quest for success.

First Sentence:
Building a startup is an exercise in institution building; thus, it necessarily involves management.

Monday, February 20, 2012

1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, by Tom Moon

1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die: A Listener’s Life List, by Tom Moon

One of the ongoing discussions my friends and I have been having for the past couple of decades is the difference between “best” and “favorite.” The argument boils down to this: imagine someone asked you to name the best movie ever made and then asked you to name your favorite movie; without defined criteria (highest grossing, most awards, etc.) is there a difference in your answer? Regardless of where you fall on this matter (by the way, the correct answer is obviously, “of course there is a difference!” :)) this book is an excellent example of this exact dilemma. Are these the 1,000 best recordings or simply 1,000 must-hear recordings? Without any defined criteria how possible is it for two people to have the same 1,000-deep list?

Semantics about the meaning of the title aside, this is an utterly fantastic book. Generating this list is an impossible task, but I applaud the inclusiveness Moon took to account for the wildly varying styles of music worldwide. As one would expect for a book targeted at an English-speaking market, the vast majority of selections come from North America and the UK; however, there are diverse entries scattered about from fifty or so other countries such as Brazil, Japan, and Tanzania. A wide selection of genres is represented as well, although I did find some too specialized and others missing entirely: opera and classical get separate categories as do vocals, gospel, and musicals, but swing and reggae are lumped in with jazz and folk respectively. Not a huge issue, but I found the inconsistency odd.

I’ve read this several times now; once cover-to-cover, again to mark the recordings I’ve heard, and then again simply searching for particular artists and songs. Virtually any time I pick this up I can flip to a random page and be enthralled by either the description of artists with which I’m unfamiliar or hearing in my head the music with which I am. My total came to 12% of the list, although I’ve heard much, much more—which brings me to my largest complaint: is someone better for never hearing Porgy and Bess rather than the recording made by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera? I say no.

Because Moon concentrated on specific recordings, most of the classical music included I don’t get to mark off the list because I haven’t heard that particular selection. Chopin, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Mozart, Holst, and many others familiar to most are present, but the specific listings aren’t in my repertoire. For instance, I’ve heard Handel’s Messiah several times, but never the recording by Gabrieli Consort and Players. Many of the more modern artists are difficult to officially count as well because the recordings chosen are compilations or greatest hits; Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ray Charles all fall into this category. There is also an entire section dedicated to “Various Artists” that has this problem in spades; the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is a reasonable entry here but Great American Train Songs just seems like cheating as a way to get Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” Johnny Cash’s “Rock Island Line,” and Bill Monroe’s “Orange Blossom Special” in the book without taking up multiple spots. There is also a distinct lack of spoken-word and comedy recordings here; I’ll take “Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball” off of Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart or “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “White & Nerdy” over anything by the Fugees or the Chemical Brothers any day of the week.

Musicals are an included genre that I don’t know is completely fair in this context; the music from Hello Dolly!, West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof is undeniably fantastic, but I think theater needs to be seen on the stage to be truly appreciated. In fairness to my quibble about specific recordings, though, I think hearing the music without seeing the accompanying book performed is still a wonderful thing. Besides, then we’d have to start arguing about which specific cast and performance of a production one should see!

For the genres where most of my personal musical preferences lay, I find some of the choices downright peculiar. The Dixie Chicks have a must-hear-before-death album but not Joe Ely? The Eagles but not Billy Joel? U2 but not Rush? Pantera and Slayer but not Van Halen or Iron Maiden? The Mikado but not The Pirates of Penzance? Britney Spears “Toxic” is seriously a part of this discussion? Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is included instead of A Swingin’ Affair!? Okay, maybe Moon got that last one right, but still...! Clearly there are several fun bar arguments to be had here, and this sort of faux-outrage is exactly why I loved this book!

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
When I began work on this book in the fall of 2004, the big number in the title didn’t rattle me much.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Power Makers, by Maury Klein

The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America, by Maury Klein

In our modern world we get annoyed when we find a dead spot in cell coverage and a call is dropped; merely 80 years ago electricity was only easily available in the larger cities and there maybe every other house was wired for it. Klein ends his history of power with this 1920’s era when electricity had reached its tipping point, but begins in the late eighteenth century and the onset of steam power. Why single out steam from wind, water, and heat? As he states in the introduction, “Without the steam engine there would be no electricity. Together they form the foundation of the modern world.”

I quite enjoyed this book. Klein makes the complicated topic of power generation both accessible and interesting. I found it fun to read about the men whose names are now permanently attached to energy: Ohm, Watt, Hertz, Galvani, Volta, and Faraday among others. Klein’s sly humor sprinkled throughout was a treat as well. “Unfortunately, [Lavoisier’s] work was literally cut short in 1974 when he was guillotined during the horrors of the French Revolution.” The only spots that rang false to me were those where a fictional person named Ned visited the three world’s fairs that served as touchstones for the progress of energy technologies. The descriptions of the expos and the exhibits therein were effective, but the imaginary Ned forced a viewpoint unlike anything else in the book and was a jarring departure from the narrative.

Klein balances the technologies themselves with the businesses that brought them to market throughout the book, giving a holistic view of energy that truly makes for an informative read. For instance, Edison and Westinghouse are the two names most closely associated with modern electricity, but it turns out that Sam Insull may have had the most influence on how our power grid works today. He was the pioneer of electricity distribution, and figured out that by creating a constant load on the generation system allowed it to run at the most efficient and the most cost effective manner. To achieve this he went after the ice-making market. “Refrigeration worked beautifully with lighting; it peaked during the summer as the use of lights reached seasonal lows.” Insull may not have invented any of the technologies that harnessed electricity, but he did more for bringing cheap power to the masses than anyone else.

Fascinating book!

First Sentence:
One evening in September 1876 a nine-year old boy, call him Ned, got the surprise of his young life.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Arms-Commander, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Arms-Commander, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

In Arms-Commander Modesitt revisits Recluce again, this time jumping back to an earlier time in the saga. I believe this is the first Recluce book with a female protagonist, and he makes full use of it spending much of the novel examining traditional male and female roles taken to their extremes. The plot revolves around Saryn, the Arms-Commander of the female-ruled Westwind, trying to find allies and stability in a male-dominated world. “She truly hadn’t understood, not emotionally, the depth of the misogynism embedded in the Lornian culture. Why not? What had changed her understanding? The fanatical male insistence on tradition, to the point of senseless death after senseless death? Or the inability or unwillingness to accept the superiority of a female force? The old Cyadorian dwelling, with its entire structure designed to restrain women?” In most of Modesitt’s books who is “right” and who is “wrong” is very clear; this is no exception, especially as the antagonists are unlikeable, old-school he-man woman haters. I wouldn’t recommend using this as an introduction to the world of Recluce, but for those of us that have visited this universe before it is a welcome and wonderful addition.

First Sentence:
In the late afternoon on the Roof of the World, the guards stood silent on the practice ground, their eyes fixed on the blackness rising just above the western horizon as Istril stepped out of the main door of Tower Black and crossed the causeway.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Empress of Eternity, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Empress of Eternity, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

A massive, impervious two thousand mile long canal stretches across an entire continent, its purpose long forgotten. Empress of Eternity tells three separate interleaving stories centering around the mystery of the canal in three radically different societies across time. Each story pits science against politics; each has obvious heroes and villains. As we reach the climax, it appears that one group is on the verge of harnessing the forces behind the canal—and those forces will destroy it in all times across the years.

I really like Modesitt’s writing, this effort was a bit flat. Trying to introduce one new civilization in a book can be difficult; introducing three while trying to give a unique personality to each individual is impossible. Jumping from era to era with each chapter causes characterization to develop slowly, meaning there isn’t a real connection with them for the reader until late in the novel. The jumping also makes the plot somewhat repetitive, as each timeline seemingly has to make the same discoveries in turn. Clearly very ambitious, Modesitt doesn’t quite live up to the promise but still turns in an entertaining story.

First Sentence:
The man in a working singlesuit and a thermal jacket, both of aristocratic silver, stepped out of the door, letting it slide close behind him, a wonder that hw had become used to over the past many months.

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