Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Moon Maze Game, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The Moon Maze Game, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

This novel is set about seventy years in our future, by which time we have several established colonies on the moon, regularly mine the asteroid belt, and Hilton maintains a hotel in Earth's orbit. This era gives the authors easy humor targets, such as the tale of a battle during the Second Canadian War where a US base was ambushed and should have been lost, but the Canuck soldiers didn't secure the showers and were overtaken by a bunch of naked GIs. Sadly these moments are the best parts of the book; the plot was middling at best and the characters one-dimensional—which takes some doing as much of the time they are themselves playing other roles in a giant LARP. Uneven but entertaining, this is a good afternoon read but not one that is going to provoke a lot of thought.

First Sentence:
Botanica was a medium-sized crater, recently sealed to hold an atmosphere of oxygen baked from lunar rock and nitrogen imported from the Aeros asteroid.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Paris: The Novel, by Edward Rutherfurd

Paris: The Novel, by Edward Rutherfurd

This is the history of Paris told through they eyes of six fictional families between 1261 and 1968. The types of families are well chosen to give a cross section of society through history: the de Cygnes are aristocrats and royalists, the Le Sourds are socialists and revolutionaries, the Gascons are craftsmen and laborers, the Renards are Protestants, the Blanchards are Catholics, and the Jacobs are Jewish. These characters are injected into and around a huge number of important events, such as the Paris Commune and the Terror, the construction of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, the Avignon Papacy, Vichy France, the Dreyfus Affair and the rocky history of Jews in France, and Catholicism versus Protestantism and the Edicts of Nantes and Fointainbleau. Each chapter is set in a different era but they don't appear in chronological order, instead bouncing from 1875 to 1462 to 1907 and so on. As the narrative follows the same families through successive generations this can be somewhat confusing at times, especially as some use the same given names over and over—for example, there are three separate Roland de Cygnes that take the stage in various eras. This drawback is minor though, and doesn't dramatically detract from what is overall a compelling and illuminating story.

First Sentence:

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tough Sh*t, by Kevin Smith

Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good, by Kevin Smith

I like Kevin Smith's work; from Clerks to Green Arrow to Daredevil I find him both clever and funny. There are several autobiographical stories in Tough Sh*t—many of which are covered in more detail elsewhere—such as Smith's feud with Bruce Willis and the arrogance of Southwest Airlines. In and around the vignettes Smith weaves in advice for how to approach life. The guidance is often odd, such as where he compares the odds of a single sperm fertilizing an egg and creating a human being to self-actualization: "Remind them they've already beaten the odds, so the existence that follows is merely a victory lap to do with as they please." A phrase I found less specious and much more thoughtful occurs a little later in the chapter: "In the face of such hopelessness as our eventual, unavoidable death, there is little sense in not at least trying to accomplish all your wildest dreams in life." Smith's trademark humor and irreverence come through loud and clear throughout this short but entertaining read.

First Sentence:
I am a product of Don Smith's balls.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Company Man, by Joseph Finder

Company Man, by Joseph Finder

This is a mediocre thriller about a small-town CEO, Nicholas Conover, caught in a cover-up for killing his stalker. The plot is fairly predictable, until we get to the surprisingly optimistic ending which seems massively unrealistic. Coupled with one-note characters (the misunderstood executive, the religious cop, the shifty security chief, the troubled son, etc.) this is a wholly unsatisfying book.

First Sentence:
The office of the chief executive officer of the Stratton Corporation wasn't really an office at all.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ironhorse, by Robert Knott

Robert B. Parker's Ironhorse, by Robert Knott

The trend of writers continuing other author's work after their death is becoming more and more common. Here, Robert B. Parker's Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are given new life. I haven't actually read any of these books, so oddly my first introduction to Parker's characters is in a book not actually written by Parker.

The story is solid but not exceptional; two lawmen in the old west find themselves in the middle of a train hijacking and of course deliver their own brand of justice. The action is constant and driving, with Cole and Hitch coming off like John McClane and Casey Ryback, victorious in the face of long odds. Heavy dialog (including gems like, "Luck is most often accompanied with knowing what you are doing") and sparse descriptions make this feel more like a movie script rather than a novel; fitting in that the author is also an actor and screenwriter, in fact writing the movie adaption of the first Cole and Hitch novel, Appaloosa. Entertaining but not deep, this is a fun read and a good escape for a couple of hours.

First Sentence:
Virgil was sullen.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

See How Small, by Scott Blackwood

See How Small, by Scott Blackwood

This novel is loosely based on the 1991 Yogurt Shop Murders here in Austin. It is very difficult to read, raw and emotional throughout. The rape and murder of three teenagers is graphically described, and truly horrifying. Each chapter is told from the point of view from different people affected by the crime, including the family of the victims, the driver of the getaway car, the addled homeless witness, the firefighter that discovered the bodies, and the ghosts of the girls themselves. Nobody has a happy ending, and there isn't a firm conclusion—paralleling fact the actual murders have remained unsolved. The prose is haunting and powerful, but depressing and uncomfortable at the same time. Not what I'd call a beach read, but well worth your time.

First Sentence:
We have always lived here, though we pretend we've just arrived.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The System, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

I love college football. My wife and I have had season tickets for the Longhorns for over 20 years (although with the introduction of the poorly named Loyalty Program that may not last much longer) and I don't remember the last fall Saturday that wasn't spent watching the battle of the gridiron. The System is about the parts of the game not covered by the box scores, though: the boosters, the politics, the crime, and of course, the money.

Benedict and Keteyian don't have a single narrative, but instead structured the book like a series of essays. The exception to this is the tale of Mike Leach, from his decision to ignore his law degree in order to pursue football, to being the head coach of Texas Tech, to the idiocy of Craig James and his son causing Leach to lose that position, to his resurfacing as the leader of Washington State. (I always liked Leach and thought he was a great addition to the Big XII, even if his Red Raiders did stop the Longhorns from going to the National Championship in 2008.) Other chapters covered Don King, who ran the Yellow Rose strip club in Austin and offered VIP service to athletes (saying "I've done more for recruiting at UT than Mack Brown"), 17 year old Jane Brown at BYU who was raped by freshman football players (who were so new to campus they actually hadn't yet played in a game), the NCAA itself and its epic bungling of the Miami booster case, and essays titled "Crime and Punishment" (subtitled "SEC leads the nation") and "Gameday" ("The genius of ESPN").

The System provides a look at a variety of issues in college football, but doesn't attempt to provide any solutions. Challenges to the status quo like the Kessler antitrust suit, unionization, player stipends, and students rights to their own image aren't mentioned at all. This lack of detail and analysis keeps this book from being a true exposé, but it is still a great primer for the aspects of the sport not seen on College Gameday.

First Sentence:
On Saturday afternoons in the fall of 1981 the roar of the crowd would echo across campus every time BYU scored a touchdown.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets, edited by David Thomas Moore

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets: An Anthology of Holmesian Tales Across Time and Space, edited by David Thomas Moore

Yes, another Sherlock Holmes anthology. This one is really good, with the authors depicting Holmes and Watson in wildly new ways; alternative history for fictional characters.

Only one story out of fourteen didn't resonate with me: "Half There/All There," by Glen Mehn. It was set in Andy Warhol's Factory; the Bohemian nature was off-putting but I did like the reference to Irene Adler planning RFK's assassination. For the one dud, though, there are five others that are truly excellent. "The Final Conjuration," by Adrian Tchaikovsky is probably my favorite. It is a pure fantasy complete with magic and wizards, where the Elizabethan Holmes is summoned as a demon. The ending here was awesome, being an explanation of how Holmes survived Reichenbach Falls. Two others are hard science fiction: "A Woman's Place," by Emma Newman and "The Small World of 221B," by Ian Edginton. Newman has Mrs. Hudson take center stage as she is revealed to be the genetic mastermind responsible for both Holmes and Moriarty, and Edginton crafts a story strongly reminiscent of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Elementary, Dear Data." "A Study in Scarborough," by Guy Adams was a bit more traditional—Holmes and Watson are depicted as world-famous radio stars—but with a great twist at the conclusion. The final entry in this volume was very meta: "Parallels," by Jenni Hill creates a story the main character is an author that writes Holmesian fan fiction!

In total, I found this to be an above average collection with a diverse group of settings. Thoroughly enjoyable.

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
Sherlock Holmes owes a lot to the revisionists.

Monday, March 09, 2015

As You Wish, by Cary Elwes

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes

Who doesn't like The Princess Bride? Both the book and the movie are top notch, classics that can be enjoyed generation after generation. The movie starred (among others) Cary Elwes, one of my favorite actors—right up there with Nathan Fillion, Bruce Campbell, and Cary Grant. Now Elwes has written a memoir of the making of the movie, and it is a truly fun read.

When The Princess Bride was being filmed, Elwes was just starting his acting career and was unbelievably nervous at being cast by Rob Reiner and expected to share the screen with such luminaries as Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Christopher Guest, Chris Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, and a host of others. One of the great things about this book is that these actors all contribute anecdotes to Elwes memories, making for a very well-rounded story. For instance, as inconceivable as it sounds, Wallace Shawn made the entire movie convinced he was about to be fired. His agent told him Danny DeVito was the first choice for the role and felt he never could measure up!

After reading this I felt compelled to rewatch the movie, and found it as enjoyable as ever. If anything, reading As You Wish made it even more so! Great book.

First Sentence:
The note simply read: IMPORTANT.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Halting State, by Charles Stross

Halting State, by Charles Stross

While not exactly 1984, Halting State is set in a near future where the public is under constant surveillance. Cameras are ubiquitous in society: every corner of every street, on all forms of public transit, and between cell phones, smart glasses and wearable cameras, on virtually every person as well. Massively multiplayer online games are as much a staple of life as television is today and allows scrutiny of online behavior, and the role of the police has largely been reduced to reviewing video surveillance to enforce the law. People not only accept this level of vigilance as a matter of course, but have become utterly dependent on it. Sounds like an ACLU nightmare, but an entirely believable future nonetheless.

The mystery is around a supposedly impossible crime: a bank in cyberspace has been robbed. During the investigation a larger conspiracy is uncovered that revolves around international espionage and a next-level breakthrough in cryptography. A fairly pedestrian story, but set in this pseudo-dystopian future it becomes fascinating—a can't-put-down novel.

First Sentence:
It's a grade four, dammit.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

I'm a huge fan of the movie The Right Stuffbut admit I've never actually read the book before now. As expected, the two have a lot in common, although Wolfe spends a lot more time describing the one-sided antagonism between the astronauts and classic pilots than the film does. A common theme was how the press made it sound like the Mercury astronauts were the first people to ever ride a rocket, but "Yeager had done precisely that more than forty times. Fifteen other pilots had done it also, and they had reached speeds greater than three times the speed of sound and an altitude of 126,000 feet." The jet test pilots believed they belonged at the top of the aircraft food chain, because after all the astronauts were intended to be mere passengers. "There was very little action that an astronaut could take in a Mercury capsule, other than to abort the flight and save his own life. So he was not being trained to fly the capsule. He was being trained to ride in it." The public disagreed, however, and the first group of astronauts were instant heroes long before ever getting near a rocket. "All seven, collectively, emerged in a golden haze as the seven finest pilots and bravest men in the United States. A blazing aura was upon them all." Ironically, Tom Wolfe wrote about the self-aggrandizement of both the pilots and astronauts, but the only picture in the book is of the author and Wolfe's name on the cover is three times as large as the title.

First Sentence:
Within five minutes, or ten minutes, no more than that, three of the others had called her on the telephone to ask her if she had heard that something had happened out there.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Bodyguards in Bed, by Lucy Monroe, Jamie Denton, and Elisabeth Naughton

Bodyguards in Bed, by Lucy Monroe, Jamie Denton, and Elisabeth Naughton

I'm not exactly sure how this erotic anthology found its way onto my shelf. Three stories are included, and as the title indicates all dealing with a bodyguard that falls into bed with their protection assignment. Who's Been Sleeping in My Brother's Bed? by Lucy Monroe does an admirable job of trying to capture the will-they-won't-they vibe, but simple inclusion in this volume makes the answer inevitable. Acapulco Heat by Elisabeth Naughton is a straightforward thriller, with an ex-Army Ranger trying to save a supermodel mixed up with a Mexican cartel. The third entry, Hot Mess by Jamie Denton, is easily the best of the three, with the role of guardian being played by both sides of the couple at various points.

All three short stories are interesting but I felt each needed to be either shorter or longer. Monroe and Denton both craft characters that could carry a longer story; Monroe's tale in particular had more depth than most John Grisham novels. Naughton's entry dragged a bit and could easily be shortened—seven of the eight chapters were basically an extended chase scene. Overall this is a quick read, but felt more aimed at the chick lit crowd than my normal fare.

First Sentence (from Who's Been Sleeping in My Brother's Bed?):
Danusia wiggled the key in the lock on her brother's apartment door.
First Sentence (from Hot Mess):
Alyssa Cardellini considered herself a work-in-progress.
First Sentence (from Acapulco Heat):
His luck was in the crapper.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Life, by Keith Richards

Life, by Keith Richards

The song "She Likes the Beatles, I Like the Stones" could have been written about my wife and me, and the title certainly holds true: I do like the Rolling Stones. I picked up Keith Richards' autobiography hoping to learn more about the group, and 500+ pages later I can certainly say I did. The book covers Richards' life from birth to ~2010 and a hell of a lot of band history along the way. The narrative is very scattershot; loosely chronological but bouncing from anecdote to anecdote in a drunken fashion—fitting for the hard-partying rock-and-roll star!

The Stones were named after the Muddy Waters song "Rollin' Stone" and started as a blues band. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the Stones have such a strong blues and country influence as "Honky Tonk Women" is my favorite tune and many other of my preferred songs clearly have that sound. Some of the more interesting parts are when Richards goes into the stories behind many of the songs: how the lyrics came about, who wrote what, and what the meanings are. For instance, while it seems obvious now, I had no idea that "You Don't Move Me" off of Keith's first solo album Talk Is Cheap was about the feud between Richards and Jagger. In fact, I was unaware just how close the Stones came to disbanding entirely in the late 1980's; I'm sure glad they didn't because the tour for Steel Wheels was the first time I got to see them perform live, in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. I saw them again in Austin about 25 years later, and would go again in a heartbeat if they make it back this way. Great band, great stage presence, great everything!

A lot of the personal anecdotes I found much more compelling than I expected. Many (if not most) revolve around drugs and alcohol, and in the later years a sad number of attempts to sober up—thankfully eventually successfully. One bit that stuck with me was his approach to religion; his definition of heaven and hell is truly frightening: "[Heaven and hell are] the same place, but heaven is when you get everything you want and you meet Mummy and Daddy and your best friends and you all have a hug and a kiss and you play your harps. Keith and Bert Richards Hell is the same place—no fire and brimstone—but they all just pass by and don't see you. There's nothing, no recognition." I think I prefer the fire and brimstone interpretation! And finally, as you can see from the picture on the right, clearly there is a reason I like Richards—his natural father has great taste in colleges!

First Sentence:
Why did we stop at the 4-Dice Restaurant in Fordyce, Arkansas, for lunch on Independence Day weekend?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kelly, by Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson with Maggie Smith

Kelly: More than My Share of It All, by Clarence L.

Clarence "Kelly" Johnson was one of the key aircraft designers at Lockheed, involved with such successes as the P-38 Lightning, the U-2, and my favorite, the SR-71 Blackbird. Kelly is the autobiography of this engineer, and a great deal of history about the Lockheed Corporation, now Lockheed Martin. The look Kelly gives into how aircraft were developed in the early part of the aviation era is fascinating, with wind tunnels and advanced metallurgy in their infancy. The mortality rate for test pilots was high, and at times Kelly came across as quite cold discussing this. "...the plane exploded on impact. The design result was an improved spline and pump and installation of an emergency fuel system."

The famous Skunk Works program was also founded by Kelly. The software industry has co-opted the term: at a good company it is used to describe small teams that foster innovation, and at a bad one it is used to ask people to do extra work under the guise of innovation. (Sadly, the latter is more common.) It was interesting reading about the formation and goals behind the original; one quote that stuck with me is one I'll use in my own career: "it is much better to lead people, not to drive them." That is a very eloquent way of phrasing a difficult concept—which probably is why it still resonates today despite being originally said in the 1930's.

Kelly wrote the book in 1985 and died in 1990. The conclusion was exactly what you'd expect from an engineer that was born when heavier-than-air craft were looked at with skepticism and retired after man walked on the moon. "By the year 2000, the 'death rays' of the comic strips and and science fiction will be a reality." The Star Wars SDI program never did materialize, but the LaWS laser system is about to be put into active service. Still a long way from phasers or blasters, but then we don't have our flying cars yet either. Ending aside, this book is a great look at a glamorous time in aviation history, and a peek into the life of a very interesting man.

First Sentence:
Northern Michigan in mid-winter is harsh, cold country to a young immigrant seeking to carve out a new life.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rex Regis, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Rex Regis, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

I continue to enjoy Modesitt's Imager series. With the war for the continent largely completed in Antiagon Fire the plot in Rex Regis largely revolves around trying to hold the conquered lands together and reduce the military footing—a policy not popular with the generals. The author spends a lot of time here dissecting the architecture of a stable government and the politics it takes to establish one. Looking at the shambles our Congress has become—where staying in power and "beating" the opposing party is more important that actually governing—one quote really stood out to me: "Take comfort in doing what is right, and not in what brings power, for power is fleeting, and seeking power for its own sake brings only grief..." I both love reading an inspiring quote like that and hate that applying it to virtually any elected official in the real world is laughable. Modesitt continues to excel at both creating interesting plots and characters while making the reader think about what it would truly take to change the world. Good stuff.

First Sentence:
In the cool air of early spring, on the second Solayi in Maris, the man who wore the uniform of a Telaryn commander stood at the foot of the long stone pier that dominated the south end of the harbor at Kephria.

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