Sunday, December 29, 2019

For You to See the Stars, by Radney Foster

For You to See the Stars

Radney Foster is a genius. His album Del Rio, TX 1959 is one of those rare records where every single song is brilliant; four of the ten tracks made the Top 40 country charts ("Nobody Wins" was the highest, peaking at #2) but the other six are equally amazing. "A Fine Line" (not one of the four that charted) might be my favorite, but it is honestly difficult to rank them. I wore the CD out when it was released, and it remains a staple in my playlists today. Recently Foster played the Saxon Pub here in Austin (a great venue that attracts singer-songwriters; my wife and I have also seen The Band of Heathens, Walt Wilkins, and The Accidentals among others) and I was finally able to catch him live. Not only did he sing a great set, but he read excerpts from For You to See the Stars, a book of short stories he'd written as a companion to his album of the same name. After the show I snapped up a copy of the book and quickly devoured it and the accompanying music. Out of ten stories, five literally made me cry and one made me laugh out loud. All are exceptional. I truly hope Foster continues to write—both songs and books.

First Sentence (from the Foreword):
The bus was an old Eagle.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Past Tense, by Lee Child

Past Tense (Jack Reacher, #23)

This book has four simultaneous threads happening: Reacher investigating his father, Reacher being targeted by the mob, Reacher being targeted by a group of local thugs, and a Canadian couple being held against their will in a strange motel. The last thread takes up maybe half the pages, and Reacher doesn't actually get involved until around chapter 35. A lot of suspense in this part of the story as we don't really understand what is happening to the couple until just before Reacher stumbles (fairly spectacularly) onto the scene. The mystery around Reacher's father is the most interesting of the four threads, and had a fairly satisfying solution. Oddly, the thread with the mob doesn't really get resolved, but everything else does, more or less. While this is one of the weaker Reacher novels, it is still pretty good.

First Sentence:
Jack Reacher caught the last of the summer sun in a small town on the coast of Maine, and then, like the birds in the sky above him, he began his long migration south.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

The famous tale of Alice in Wonderland is told in two books, combined here into a single volume: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Thanks to Disney the story is roughly familiar to all: a young girl careens through non-sensical adventure after non-sensical adventure, meeting one impossible character after another. Children's books at heart, the recurring theme is having to reluctantly put away the fantasies of youth and grow up. "Shall I never get any older than I am now? That'll be a comfort, one way—never to be an old woman—but then—always to have lessons to learn! Oh, I shouldn't like that!" Many events seem random and disconnected, but this shows how kids can jump from topic to topic in a way that makes sense to them but not to adults; Alice's occasional frustration with the characters she meets demonstrates her inevitable progress toward maturity. Many of the modern interpretations of these characters veer quite dark (such as Lost Girls or Alice Through the Looking Glass), but none of that darkness really exists in the original text. Even the Queen of Hearts who constantly screams "Off with her head!" is shown to be toothless, with the King quietly pardoning everyone behind her back. Both books are very short so this is a quick, enjoyable read; this edition includes the wonderful John Tenniel illustrations as well (albeit in black in white) which add so much to the stories. If you haven't ever read these, do yourself a favor and pick them up and see just what is down the rabbit hole.

First Sentence (from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland):
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do; once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"
First Sentence (from Through the Looking-Glass):
One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it:—it was the black kitten's fault entirely.

Monday, December 09, 2019

A Civil War: Army vs. Navy, by John Feinstein

A Civil War: Army vs. Navy - A Year Inside College Football's Purest Rivalry

I'm an unapologetic Longhorn football fan, but I've always been fascinated by the Army-Navy rivalry. It is the only game attended by the entire student body of both schools, and even when the teams are awful (which sadly is pretty normal these days) the game is exciting and the spectacle captivating. I love watching this game each year, the only non-Texas game that is appointment viewing for me. So when I spotted this book in a discount bin about the 1995 Army and Navy seasons, culminating in their clash at the end, I snatched it up and saved it to read just before this year's bout. Unlike what many of the refs did during their respective seasons, that was a good call.

Feinstein is known more for his books on basketball and golf, and it shows a bit here: his college football knowledge seems a bit lacking in places. For instance, he claims the Army-Navy game is the best rivalry in the country; it is certainly in the top echelon, but what about Harvard-Yale? The World's Largest Cocktail Party? The Battle for the Axe? Michigan-Ohio State? The Iron Bowl? Or the greatest of them all, the Red River Showdown? Similarly with stadiums, he calls Notre Dame Stadium "college football's most famous stadium." Um... how about the Rose Bowl, or Michigan Stadium, or Tiger Stadium? Even the name of the book is a bit odd; the Civil War is what the annual Oregon-Oregon State game is called; nothing to do at all with Army-Navy.

That said, this is a wonderful book and the Army-Navy game is one of the treasures of college football. Feinstein does a great job of ping-ponging between the Army and Navy squads as their year progresses, becoming a biographer of sorts for a handful of players and coaches on each team. Along the way a lot of the traditions and history of the schools and squads are told giving more than a glimpse into what life at a service academy must be like. Even with Feinstein's hyperbole and occasional pretentiousness this was a fantastic book and I look forward to watching the game on Saturday!

First Sentence:
Almost thirty minutes after the last play of his college football career, Jim Cantelupe, still dressed in the black uniform with the gold number 22 on the back and front, walked down a dank, winding hallway in the bowels of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher

Wishful Drinking

Based on Fisher's one-woman show, this memoir is brutally honest, sincere and candid, and damn funny. It is a very fast read that has an odd but endearing style of writing: choppy but still very readable. More a collection of anecdotes than a narrative it still manages to cover a lot of her life: being born to famous showbiz parents, her two marriages and subsequent divorces, the death of a close friend (in her bed!), her addictions, and her mental health issues. She manages to take all this pain and turn it into a witty, insightful set of stories. Well written, and well done.

First Sentence:
I have to start by telling you that my entire existence could be summed up in one phrase.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Plague Forge, by Jason M. Hough

The Plague Forge (Dire Earth Cycle, #3)

This third entry of the Dire Earth Cycle neatly wraps up most of the mysteries while creating an obvious jumping-off point for the following duology. The plot is fairly straightforward, with three separate quests joining together at the conclusion. The action is non-stop and constantly moving, like jumping out of an airplane. Adventure is the focus here rather than character development, but the pacing is such that it isn't really an issue. I found the ending to be a bit abrupt; many of the big questions are answered, but in a mere handful of pages and a heavy dose of deus ex machina.

The recipe for this trilogy: one part Indiana Jones, one part Aliens, one part The Fifth Element; populate with Mary Sues and stir vigorously. The result: light and fluffy, but delicious.

First Sentence:
Seconds from collision the vehicle lurched.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Exodus Towers, by Jason M Hough

The Exodus Towers (Dire Earth Cycle, #2)

Ah, the middle book in a trilogy. From C. S. Lewis's The Space Trilogy to Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games the second entry is often the worst. (Interestingly, for movies the opposite is often true; The Godfather: Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, The Road Warrior, and The Dark Knight off the top of my head are all the best in their respective series.) The first book usually has a solid ending, but the second book tends to end with a cliffhanger; coupled with the second book customarily existing simply to set up the third, when judged as a whole it generally appears lacking. While entertaining, The Exodus Towers falls into this trap.

Early in the plot a new band of plague-immune soldiers appears as a second (or third if you count the alien Builders) antagonist, but they are dispatched surprisingly quickly. A time-distortion field is encountered so while our heroes only experience hours, months are going by outside—while certainly a way of accelerating to the next Builder event, the idea that nothing important or interesting happens outside the time bubble seems a stretch. There is a nice use of the bubble during a firefight I thought was clever, though, so this wasn't all bad. Despite a plodding pace, Hough's writing remains engaging, including a near perfect description of what you see when your eyes are closed: "Radiant amoeba-like shapes swam in a sea of molten orange, and any attempt he made to focus on one served only to obscure it further." The strangest thing about this novel was that the author (and editor, I suppose) seems to think that a five-sided figure is a hexagon rather than a pentagon. Not a typo either; in chapter 50 the apparent importance of the number 5 by the Builders is realized when they discover a set of nested hexagons on a ship. Odd.

Overall I still enjoyed the story, but it suffers by clearly being a bridge to the third book rather than standing on its own merit. That said, I'll see this epic through to the conclusion in The Plague Forge.

First Sentence:
The girl danced for an audience of ghosts.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Codex Born, by Jim C. Hines

Codex Born (Magic Ex Libris, #2)

I read Libriomancer over six years ago and loved it, but never got around to the sequel for some reason. That was a mistake—Codex Born is great! Starting with magical librarians investigating a murder but morphing into preventing a supernatural armageddon this book starts fast and only picks up speed until the conclusion. Once again, the fun is seeing what items are pulled from various books (the particular form of magic here); authors like H.G. Wells, John Scalzi, Robert Heinlein, and Lewis Carroll all are (surprisingly) featured, but using a scholarly text named African Honey Bees in North America was both genius and hilarious. The reason I only give this four stars is the depiction of the villain; he is unbelievably powerful for someone that only had a year to learn magic and seems to hold a grudge against the hero that makes little sense. Regardless, a fun, fast read.

First Sentence:
People say love changes a person.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Domain-Driven Design, by Eric Evans

Domain-Driven Design: Tackling Complexity in the Heart of Software

I first read this book several years ago. While recently cleaning the garage I found it again in a box from a previous job where I must have had it on a shelf. Flipping through it showed how much I'd forgotten, so I decided to read it again.

This is a great book, filled with deep concepts and clear examples. Evans says, "Software designs tend to be very abstract and hard to grasp. Developers and users alike need tangible ways to understand the system and share a view of the system as a whole." This is a great summary of what this text teaches. Many patterns are detailed, and approaches to design that are both simple and rarely found in the wild. Most software, even that with good initial design, tends to grow over time in ways that don't necessarily reflect the initial approach. This makes the code brittle and hard to reuse, the dreaded "code rot" problem. The impact can be greatly reduced with the creation of a ubiquitous language shared by all interested parties and a commitment to continual design, not just refactoring code. "One way or another, creating distinctive software comes back to a stable team accumulating specialized knowledge and crunching it into a rich model. No shortcuts. No magic bullets."

The biggest drawback to this book is that it is dense. Over 500 pages, and a lot of information is packed into every page. Makes reading it—at least at a pace where information can be distilled and remembered—take a long time. I suppose this is really a back-handed complement, as a text this complete should be expected to be substantial, but I found it took longer than usual to get through the whole thing. This is a book that every serious software architect should read, preferably on a regular basis!

First Sentence:
This eighteenth-century Chinese map represents the whole world.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard

The Atomic City Girls

During WWII, Oak Ridge was established as one of the main sites of the Manhattan Project. The facility was sprawling, springing up in a largely unpopulated area seeming overnight to house and employ 30,000 workers—almost none of whom had any idea what they were trying to build. This little-known setting serves as the backdrop for several (barely) intertwining stories of life, love, and growing up.

Despite the title, the narrative largely follows only four people, two women and two men: Sam, a Jewish physicist who is a key player in developing the bomb, June, a high-school graduate finding her way in the world, Cici, a gold digger searching for a husband, and Joe, an African American construction worker. Sam and June are the main focus, falling into an affair fairly quickly. Joe has the most interesting arc, with the horrible treatment of blacks at the time and the varying attitudes of everyone ranging from hostility to acceptance. Cici does have her own storyline, but largely serves as a foil to June, going from friend to enemy fairly dramatically.

While the plots are thin and characters are largely one-dimensional, the setting is what makes this a pretty good read. There are actual photos interspersed of Oak Ridge at the time which really helps set the mood. While reading I found myself going to the web and looking up stories and information about the plant; I probably spent as much time doing that as reading the novel! If you are looking for an historical fiction tale that sheds light on a new era this is a solid (if pedestrian) choice.

First Sentence:
The news that June's grandfather was being evicted had come from her older sister Mary, who worked in town at Langham's Drug Store.

New York Fantastic, edited by Paula Guran

New York Fantastic: Fantasy Stories from the City that Never Sleeps

This is an unusual and uneven collection of short stories, each with a heavy fantasy element and all set in New York City. In one memorable (but odd) story the city itself is a character; "The Tallest Doll in New York City" by Maria Dahvana Headley tells of a time when the Chrysler Building takes a walk with the Empire State Building. My favorite tale was "Shell Games" by George R. R. Martin; it details the origin story of the hero named The Great and Powerful Turtle from the Wild Cards series, a favorite from my college days. Another great one is "Priced to Sell" by Naomi Novik following real estate brokers trying to find housing for vampires and other monsters. Other authors I like that have stories here include Elizabeth Bear, Peter Straub, and N.K. Jemisin. Others aren't very good though; Seanan McGuire's "Red as Snow" and Peter S. Beagle's "The Rock in the Park" are especially mundane. Despite the irregularity of quality, I expect there is something in here for everyone to enjoy.

First Sentence (from the introduction):
New York City is a very real place, but no one can deny it is also somewhere magic occurs and all sorts of fantastical things happen.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson


In my opinion, Brandon Sanderson is one of the best fantasy world-builders out there today. The magic system here is unique (as in seeming all Sanderson's oeuvre): everyone has a "BioChromatic Breath," a single bit of magic capability, and that Breath can be given to others. If one accumulates enough Breath various powers are granted, from perfect pitch to agelessness to animating normally inanimate objects (such as rope and cloth). Magic also requires color; the more difficult and powerful the spell the more color is drained from nearby objects—prisoners with enough Breath are kept in dull grey cells preventing any sorcery.

Coupled with this fascinating wizarding system is a story of pending war between neighboring lands and intrigue galore. Sanderson does an excellent job of hiding the twists in plain sight and disguising who the heroes and villains actually are. Throw in assassins, gods that live amongst the people, a talking sword, and a healthy dose of humor and you have Warbreaker, the nearly perfect fantasy novel.

First Sentence:
There were great advantages to being unimportant.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

The Darwin Elevator, by Jason M. Hough

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle, #1)

Not quite 300 years in the future, Earth is visited by a mysterious alien ship that doesn't make contact or communicate, but builds an advanced space elevator over Darwin, Australia and then goes quiet. Eleven years later a worldwide pandemic strikes that either kills humans outright or transforms them into a violent feral state, save for a 4km radius right around the alien elevator. Almost five years after that, the elevator begins to fail...

I was skeptical when starting this novel; despite the fantastic premise it seemed like the characters were going to be shallow and clearly divided into "good" and "evil." While that is more true than it isn't, I found myself liking the leads quite a bit. Hough has a tendency to kill off these people as well, which coupled with the brisk pace of the plot creates quite a bit of suspense. The ending promises a bit of status quo to stretch until the next book in the series, but the whereabouts of several figures are left murky. Fun book, and I am looking forward to the next installment!

First Sentence:
Blood streamed down the inside of the tiny vial and pooled at the bottom.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Angry Optimist, by Lisa Rogak

Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart and The Daily Show was must-see television for me for years. His ability to skewer the news (and the newsmakers) was both hilarious and educating, and his eye for talent was amazing: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, and Josh Gad (among many others) all made names for themselves on the show. This biography covers Stewart from birth to around 2015 when he left The Daily Show. Largely a recitation of the main points of his life (birth, high school, college, stand-up, TV, marriage) there actually is an interesting tidbit here and there, such as officially changing his name to Stewart (after his middle name of Stuart) not to appear "less Jewish" but to distance himself from his father. Not a lot of insight into Stewart or what makes him tick, but as he is a largely private man a lot of what is in here was new to me. Clearly an unofficial biography.

First Sentence:
When Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz was born on November 28, 1962, in New York City to Donald and Marian Leibowitz toward the end of the huge postwar baby boom, he began a typical middle-class American childhood that was unremarkable for the time, and apparently very much strived for by the majority of people in the United States.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (The Song of the Shattered Sands, #1)

This is book one of The Song of the Shattered Sands, and if it is typical for the series, promises a rollicking ride. It takes place in a world with distinct Greater Middle Eastern influences: the women wear silk dresses, headscarves, and jalabiyas, while the men wear kaftans, abas, and burnooses. The city of Sharakhai is in the middle of a huge desert, the most unique feature of which is using boats with runners and sleds to sail over the sand. A major difference in the narrative from its real-life influence is that women aren't treated as a second class; the (female) hero doesn't have to fight prejudice, genuflect to men as a rule, or disguise her sex to be effective and respected. What she does fight are immortal wizard kings and disfigured nightmare creatures right out of the supernatural horror genre. Combined with blood magic and gods that still walk the earth, this is a fascinating world in which to tell a story.

The plot is fairly straightforward, with only a partial resolution—fitting for the beginning of a hexalogy. It does bounce back and forth in time which I found a bit jarring in places; Beaulieu always prefaces a time jump backwards with a phrase such as "Five years earlier..." but doesn't indicate when the narrative returns to the present. This made the narrative seem choppy to me, especially as the denouement approached. That said, it didn't significantly damage my enjoyment of the book, and can certainly see myself picking up more books in the future. Recommended for anyone that likes magnificent world-building, strong female characters, and a compelling story.

First Sentence:
In a small room beneath the largest of Sharakhai's fighting pits, Çeda sat on a wooden bench, tightening her fingerless gloves.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Last Sheriff in Texas, by James P. McCollom

The Last Sheriff in Texas

This book chronicles the changes the state of Texas underwent after WWII, moving from mostly rural to mostly urban, and seeing the cowboy fade from a real profession to a role in the movies. Sheriff Vail Ennis of Bee County was a violent, uncompromising man with a flair for violence—he shot and killed eight men while in office between 1944 and 1952. Johnny Barnhart was raised in Bee County, but while attending the University of Texas uncovered a passion for civil rights that set him apart from his conservative neighbors. These two icons clashed during the election of 1952, forcing citizens to choose between frontier justice and law and order, changing Texas politics forever.

The story is told primarily via interviews and reminiscences with a healthy amount of historical context thrown in for good measure. I found it to be compelling (if very repetitive), although I can easily see how someone that isn't familiar with life on the Texas Costal Plain might find it slow and meandering. The book is part true crime, part political history, part biography, and part memoir resulting in a style that is a bit offbeat. On one page there will be a excerpt from a newspaper article, and on the next conversational dialogue from people long since dead. I found this see-sawing between fact and fabrication hard to get used to at first, but eventually settled down and enjoyed the story.

First Sentence:
The man who shot the sheriff was Roy Hines, thirty-four, ex-con, a grifter on his way from Oklahoma to Mexico.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Outcasts of Order, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Outcasts of Order (The Saga of Recluce)

This is the 20th entry in the Saga of Recluce and a direct sequel to The Mongrel Mage. Like many (if not most) of the books in this series, the basic plot points are the same: talented young man develops a unique set of skills, falls afoul of the power structure, and uses his wits to stay alive and safe while cultivating a group of unbelievably nice and honest people. While not breaking any new ground, Modesitt imbues a life into his characters that invests you emotionally and keeps you turning page after page. Once scene in particular brought a tear to my eye; the wife of a recently killed man (Barrynt) is speaking at his funeral. "It was when Barrynt and I first rode up to this house. He turned and looked to me and said, 'You're home now.' I was, but what made it home was Barrynt." The sentiment perfectly captures the love two people can have for one another. I greatly look forward to the next volume in the epic.

First Sentence:
Beltur sat bolt upright in the dark, sweating and shivering, the echo of thunder in his ears so loud that it took a moment before he could hear the pelting of heavy raindrops on the split slate roof.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

This novel tells the story of a near-future revolution that replaces the United States with the Republic of Gilead, an oppressive fundamentalist Christian theocracy. We are vividly shown the dark side of religion, what happens when those beliefs are taken to a tyrannical extreme: women are forbidden to own property, vote, read, or write; homosexuality and heretical ideas are punished by death. Basically, what Vice President Mike Pence would call an ideal world.

I found the book difficult to read not because of the disturbing content, but due to the stilted language: "I walk around to the back door, open it, go in, set my basket down on the kitchen table." The choppy writing gave me fits for some reason; I had to re-read sections often because I wasn't parsing the prose properly. Given the environment I was expecting to discover that the author was secretly writing down her thoughts to explain the odd syntax, but in the epilogue we learn the author recorded everything on tapes—meaning the writing should have been more fluid, not less.

I would have liked to see more about the mechanics of the revolution (an ongoing war is mentioned multiple times, and at one point the Republic of Texas is shown to be an independent country again) but given the author is a woman and therefore forbidden from knowledge and news the lack of detail makes sense. Regardless, this is a thought provoking read and should be required reading for anyone interested in a "fair and balanced" world.

First Sentence:
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Masters of Doom, by David Kushner

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

This is a fascinating and well-written history of first-person shooter video games and the two geniuses behind them, John Romero and John Carmack. The "Two Johns" are the gaming equivalent of Apple's Jobs and Wozniak, with Romero being the visionary and Carmack being a programming virtuoso. These two personalities initially combine with great synergy to create some of the greatest games ever made (Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake to name a few) but as success finds them they start to move in different directions. Eventually the conflicts are large enough Romero is fired from the company he founded with Carmack, signaling the beginning of the end.

This book reads more like a novel than a typical corporate history, which keeps it entertaining and captivating throughout. Thoroughly researched, the timeframes cover the rise of personal computers and the part games played in their growth. Hacker sub-culture and government outrage factor in largely as well, giving a holistic look at the rise of immersive computer games. I'm not much of a gamer myself (although I did play a fair amount of Doom back in the day at the office during lunch) but this book does a great job of keeping the subject matter interesting, focusing on the people rather than the games themselves. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the culture of computers or gaming in the 1990's.

First Sentence:
Eleven-year-old John Romero jumped onto his dirt bike, heading for trouble again.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Dreams of the Golden Age, by Carrie Vaughn

Dreams of the Golden Age (Golden Age, #2)

Not quite as strong as the earlier outing (After the Golden Age) but still very good. This volume takes place about 18 years after the first, with the next generation of heroes taking the stage. Mostly high school kids, they are trying to figure out both how to use their powers safely and where they fit in the world—all with a healthy dose of teenage angst. I especially liked how some of the powers the kids have aren't as easy to be heroic with as others, and the conflicts that arise as a result. The plot is straightforward with almost none of the mystery of the earlier novel; it was pretty clear who the bad guy was from his first introduction (a bit of the author's political stance on housing shows through here, where the hero has an economic redevelopment plan that adds density and revitalization in the city core and the villain's competing plan enhances suburban sprawl. I approve, but it makes me a bit sad that in my hometown of Austin the villain would be winning...), although the universe expanded nicely with a lot more super-powered people running around. Considering Dreams of the Golden Age was released in 2011, though, I'm sadly not sure if a third volume is forthcoming, but I'm hopeful the world-building wasn't for naught. A lot of fun, this is a nice easy read.

First Sentence:
Celia West sat alone in her office, a corner suite in the family penthouse at West Plaza.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Van Halen Rising, by Greg Renoff

Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal

I do love me some Van Halen. I've seen them in concert with various lineups nine times and own every album (including a four CD bootleg set). Simply put, I believe they changed the sound of rock and roll and are the best band from this country to ever exist. When I found this book I was intrigued; I came late to Van Halen fandom (Diver Down was my first VH album) so when discovering this band history I realized I didn't know a lot about their history before getting signed. The author does a great job with a very well researched history and the story of how Van Halen became Van Halen is pretty damn interesting!

The Van Halen brothers came from a musical family; their dad was a professional jazz musician (he actually plays the clarinet on "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now") so they came by talent naturally. David Lee Roth was a born showman, but early on was a terrible vocalist. In fact, when he first met Alex and Eddie there was a strong mutual dislike amongst the three; this was obviously eventually overcome but even when they finally got together it was unclear if Roth was going to make it as the front man. (In fact, Ted Templeman who produced the first Van Halen albums seriously considered replacing Roth with another upcoming singer, Sammy Hagar!) Michael Anthony was added initially to provide a fuller vocal sound; in my opinion his spectacular background vocals and harmonies are a big part of what made Van Halen special. (I saw the A Different Kind of Truth tour where Anthony was replaced by Wolfgang Van Halen and the band simply doesn't sound the same.) The book ends in 1978 right after their first world tour (largely opening for a soon-to-be-Ozzy-less Black Sabbath) where Van Halen discovers they owe Warner Brothers $1.2 million for costs incurred on the tour.

While very well done, there are a couple of things that detracted from the story. Of the scores of interviews used to compile the narrative, surprisingly only Michael Anthony was included from the actual band. Anecdotes from the other members appear only as cited works from other publications. And yes, this is the story of the formation of the band (the subtitle is "How A Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal") , but there has been so much drama since their debut with multiple singers and bass players I find myself wanting to read the next volume. Again, this was a great book and I recommend it to any rock fan, but it left me wanting an encore.

First Sentence:
It's rare that something so loud comes to life in someplace so quiet, but that's exactly how it happened with America's greatest rock band.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ghosts of Karnak, by George Mann

Ghosts of Karnak (The Ghost, #3)

I purchased this thinking the titular Ghost was the same character from the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Beware the Gray Ghost"—one of my favorites. It was a great story where we find out Batman patterned a lot of his approach to crimefighting from an old TV show, The Gray Ghost. (Even cooler, the Ghost was voiced by Adam West, a nice nod to Batman history.) Sadly, although the art on the cover of Ghosts of Karnak seems to support this, the Ghost from the novel clearly isn't the Grey Ghost I wanted.

Set in a steampunk-inspired 1920s New York City the plot finds the Ghost initially fighting mobsters, but they take a back seat when a mystic religion that wants to destroy Manhattan is uncovered. The book is surprisingly violent, with deadly force seemingly the only thing ever used—"Batman doesn't kill" is a mantra not shared by the Ghost. To that end, the Ghost uses explosive rounds in his gun rather than regular bullets, that burst targets "chests like glistening, blooming flowers." Resurrected ancient Egyptian gods, sentient baboons, and living statues feature in the climax; while interesting, they completely pulled me out of the world and story. Overall I found this book to be disjoint and disappointing; but to be fair, I went into it with a very different expectation than what I found.

First Sentence:
Her name was Autumn and like the season that had invested her with both name and temperament, her apperance heralded the onset of a fall.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

After the Golden Age, by Carrie Vaughn

After the Golden Age (Golden Age, #1)

A coming-of-age story, this novel focuses on Celia, the only daughter of the world's greatest superheroes, Captain Olympus and Spark. Celia has no powers herself, though, and spent her childhood feeling like a disappointment to her famous parents. After a major act of rebellion she ran away to college, became a forensic accountant, and has refused to have anything to do with her family while rebuilding her life. However, when her parents' archenemy is jailed for tax evasion, Celia is assigned to the case and finds her worlds drawn together once again.

While superheroes and villains are at the core, this is really a tale of redemption simply set in a four color world. There are a few different mysteries in play, but everything is wrapped up neatly (if predictably) at the end. The main romance jarred me a bit; I clearly misunderstood the age of one character so the sudden affair seemed to come out of nowhere. Regardless, I found myself rooting for Celia and look forward to the next volume, Dreams of the Golden Age.

First Sentence:
Celia took the late bus home, riding along with other young workaholic professionals, the odd student, and late-shift retail clerks.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom, by Bradley W. Schenck

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis

Described accurately on the back cover as "Fritz Lang's Metropolis meets Futurama" this book is set in a future that might have been envisioned in the 1930s, complete with space pirates, personal rockets, robot sidekicks, mad scientists, and private adventurers. There are a couple of main plots that coalesce at the climax—almost too many plots. There are a lot of groups running around and until they start bumping into one-another the story is pretty chaotic. The humor saves the novel, though, with the city's Experimental Research District (where all of the scientists maintain their laboratories to keep all of the explosions contained and the rest of the city safe) being my favorite location and the world's smallest giant robot my favorite character. Overall the book is pretty light, but the madcap adventure and pulpy descriptions and depictions of the art deco world are worth a look.

First Sentence:
The Scarlet Robots of Lemuria had begun to climb the walls of the citadel by the time Dash remembered to check the time.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Ghost in the Wires, by Kevin Mitnick with William L. Simon

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker

Subtitled "My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker" this is a rollicking story of how Kevin Mitnick became a computer break-in artist, how he eluded the FBI for years, and how he was eventually caught. It is a fascinating read; he starts by breaking into the phone company to make free long distance calls, and continually improves his skills and systems access until he can control tapping any phone. He stole thousands of credit card numbers and personal details, and created multiple false identities to evade the FBI when they caught on. Mitnick claims he never used any of these details for personal gain, but instead simply approached hacking as a problem to be solved—he wasn't interested in the credit cards, just the challenge of obtaining them.

Mitnick goes into great detail about how he got into so many systems, and that detail is fascinating. Most of his entry points weren't purchased on the dark web, but obtained through fairly straightforward social engineering. We hear all the time about how we are never supposed to give out passwords over the phone or provide detailed answers for people we don't know, but over and over again Mitnick does exactly that. For example, he'd call someone and ask if they were authorized for a particular system, and when they said yes he'd reply with something like, Your password is '0128.'" The person on the other end would respond, "No, no, no. My password is '6E2H." And just like that, Mitnick had another password. Simple.

Mitnick comes off as antisocial, narcissistic, and arrogant which is a bit surprising as he is the author; I'd expect he'd tone down his disdain for authority or contempt of social mores. He shows a staggering lack of remorse, and his regrets all center around him getting caught. While not very likable, his story is compelling and hard to put down. If you are in any way interested in cyber crime or the dark side of technology, this is a must-read story.

First Sentence:
My instinct for finding a way around barriers and safeguards began very early.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Barbary Station, by R. E. Stearns

Barbary Station (Shieldrunner Pirates, #1)

Space pirates versus murderous drones controlled by an insane artificial intelligence: not a bad hook! Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir are our heroes; two women that hijack a colony spaceship and take it to a space station run by pirates hoping to join their crew. What they find is the pirates hiding in the walls of the station and its security AI hunting them. The adventure is fairly by-the-numbers, but fun to read—kind of like an old Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon serial. The author isn't afraid to kill off characters which adds some surprise and gravitas in places, but the main characters are predictably safe throughout. Not a lot of humor, but I did like the chapter headings; each one listed the crimes that occur within, such as "Changes Accrued: Piracy, Assault and Battery, Theft." Not an amazing book, but a solid adventure perfect for a long airplane ride.

First Sentence:
Despite the darkness, the pressure on every centimeter of skin, and the smooth, flat plastic in front of her nose, Adda Karpe was not locked in a coffin in deep space.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Night Angel Trilogy, by Brent Weeks

The Night Angel Trilogy (Night Angel, #1-3)

This is a collection of three novels: The Way of Shadows, Shadow's Edge, and Beyond the Shadows. As such, it is a long read—almost 1200 pages not including the glossary and list of characters at the end. (The glossary and list are well worth reading; they have a fair amount of humor in them, which is sorely lacking in the main narrative.) The story follows a young thief as he apprentices to an assassin and with a magic artifact becomes one of the most powerful people in the world.

Weeks is clearly heavily influenced by George R.R. Martin: magical creatures, warring kingdoms, an incestuous queen, and a tendency to kill off major characters mid-novel. They both share a love for excessive gore as well; Weeks does not shy away from describing the horrors of the dungeon, slavery, or murder, often bordering on uncomfortable. A scene where it is discovered that dead women are being used as sculpture and furniture was particularly disturbing (and quite misogynistic). The biggest difference is that Weeks actually finished his series, where we've been waiting nearly a decade for the next volume of Martin's epic.

The plot is great, both gripping and compelling. The rest is a mixed bag, though. Many of the heroic characters experience some depth and growth, but the villains are largely one-dimensional. Magic plays a huge part in the story, but the mechanics lack definition; maybe I'm just used to Brandon Sanderson and L. E. Modesitt Jr. though. The descriptions of the land are pretty solid, but without a map it was difficult to judge distances and it seemed that the time to travel between places varied greatly. Overall, a great escapist read, perfect for a long airplane ride (or three).

First Sentence:
Azoth squatted in the alley, cold mud squishing through his bare toes.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey

Set in the far-future, the world has experienced some sort of cataclysm and the resulting society is dictated by how much color perception one has. Greys (those that can't see color) are the rock-bottom, with the hierarchy following the rainbow after that (Reds just above Greys, Purples at the top). Much of history and technology has been lost, innovation and inquisitiveness are taboo, and a set of inconsistent and often nonsensical rules—spoons cannot be created, lunch is mandatory, counting sheep is forbidden, and the number 73 has been banned—are strictly enforced. Couple this with deadly swan attacks and roaming lightning balls and we have an amazing and madcap environment for an adventure.

Eddie Russet is the hero and narrator, and we follow his journey from a young adult to a leader. Along the way he gets a peek behind the curtain hiding the secrets of power in the land, and has to decide to take his place or revolt. The mystery is solid, although many of the characters are a bit one-dimensional: the brat, the bully, the schemer, etc. The setting is so rich, however, the superficial inhabitants aren't a drawback. Rich with sarcasm and dry humor, this is a rollicking read and difficult to put down.

First Sentence:
It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman (The Last Policeman, #1)

In 2011 scientists discover a huge asteroid that is going to hit the earth in about a year, ending life as we know it. As the world unravels with this news (economic panic and massive inflation, a staggering rise in suicide and cultism, people walking away from all responsibility) a young detective discovers what he believes is a murder, but is having a difficult time getting anyone to care. The mystery is a by-the-numbers affair, following one lead to the next, but what sets it apart is the hopelessness and apathy of pretty much everyone but the detective, Hank Palace. The secondary plot involves Palace's sister and a supposed government conspiracy, but that is left largely unresolved and I imagine fodder for future books. A fascinating setting, but I'm not sure I liked it enough to read the next in the series.

First Sentence:
I'm staring at the insurance man and he's staring at me, two cold gray eyes behind old-fashioned tortoiseshell frames, and I'm having this awful and inspiring feeling, like holy moly this is real, and I don't know if I'm ready, I really don't.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Four Hours of Fury, by James Fenelon

Four Hours of Fury: The Untold Story of World War II's Largest Airborne Invasion and the Final Push into Nazi Germany

Operation VARSITY was the largest single-day airborne drop in history, and Four Hours of Fury tells the story. I've read about Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the war in the Pacific, but hadn't ever heard of this operation which was the first push into Nazi Germany, signalling the end of WWII. Fenelon does an amazing job; facts and maps abound, but the focus on the combatants (enlisted and officers on both sides of the battle) keeps the story humanized. He has an amazing knack to toss in a sentence that seems amusing or light-hearted at first, but after more thought is covering the horrors of war. "Instructors reminded them that on an actual jump, if they didn't feel the opening shock of their chute by 4,000, they had the rest of their lives to deploy their reserve." The last sentence is flat-out heart-wrenching, capturing what every wife must have felt when getting a death notice: "There would be no fifth wedding anniversary celebration." Well-written, informative, and hard to put down—not a combination of traits I often ascribe to a history book, but they apply to Four Hours of Fury in spades.

First Sentence:
Three months before they dropped into Germany, the troopers of the 17th Airborne entered combat for the first time in a manner entirely different from how they'd been trained.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton

With the musical Hamilton making it to Austin this year I decided to read the book that inspired it before attending. A hefty tome—731 pages of narrative alone—but I managed to finish the day of the show. Very glad I did this; several friends said the show was hard to follow in places (especially around the actor playing Lafayette and Jefferson; his accent was thick and made him hard to understand even having heard the music before) but I was continually rewarded with recognition of where the songs matched the book. I found the musical to be excellent, and the book as well.

Other than Hamilton being the main author of The Federalist Papers, his visage being on the $10 bill, and his death as a result of a duel with the sitting Vice President at the time, my knowledge of the Founding Father was light on details. It is amazing to see how what he accomplished in only six years as the Secretary of the Treasury still affects us today. He fought for a strong central government and standing military led by the executive branch and for closer ties to Britian. He founded the US Mint, the first national bank, the Coast Guard, and the New York Post. His strong difference of opinion with Thomas Jefferson (who believed in strong state governments and a largely agrarian society) effectively created the political party system that still dominates politics now. Finally, Hamilton also was the first major American politican involved in a sex scandal, which in all likelihood prevented him from becoming President.

One quote that stuck with me: "[Hamilton] viewed 'hypocrisy and treachery' as 'the most successful commodities in the political market. It seems to the be the destined lot of nations to mistake their foes for their friends, their flatterers for their faithful servants." In our current era of amoral politicians, fake news, and idiological echo chambers this still rings true 226 years later. Hamilton was truly an impressive individual.

First Sentence:
Alexander Hamilton claimed Nevis in the British West Indies as his birthplace, although no surviving records substantiate this.

Monday, May 27, 2019

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

This is an exceedingly strange novel. The main character (and author) is Charles Yu; he lives in a small time machine with his non-existent dog and a depressed AI. After accidentally encountering and shooting a future version of himself, he takes a book from his dying future self named How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (by Charles Yu) and then tries to change his future by rewriting the book. There is a fair amount of philosophy and introspection throughout, with Yu trying to come to grips with his relationship with his father, the way you see someone as a child and then later as an adult. Much of the writing is stilted and complicated, often taking a second pass to properly parse. "conjectures, currently unproven but believes to be true ... That chronodiegetics is a theory of the past tense, a theory of regret. That it is fundamentally a theory of limitations." Coupled with an unsatisfying conclusion, I was quite disappointed in a book that has generally been well-reviewed and I expected to really like.

First Sentence:
There is just enough space here for one person to live indefinitely, or at least that's what the operation manual says.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Arena, by Rafi Kohan

The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport, by Rafi Kohan

I really wanted to like this book, and I'm not entirely sure I didn't. Watching sports is a big part of my life: we have had season tickets for Longhorn football since 1992 and it has been longer than that since I've missed a home game1. When I travel, seeing a local event is one of my favorite pastimes, especially in a stadium I've not seen previously. So when I was gifted The Arena I was pretty excited, especially with a subtitle like Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport. Sadly, there is more content about the people that inhabit these arenas than the arenas themselves.

It starts strong with a chapter that reads like a love-letter to some of the greatest old-school stadiums in America: the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field; Fenway Park, home of the Green Monster; and, the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Later there is a chapter dedicated to the groundskeepers (whose work is seemingly only noteworthy when it is terrible), and later still a wonderful picture of the logistical nightmares of running these behemoths. All great stuff, and I wish there was more of it.

There is an entire chapter about the Superdome in New Orleans, but most of the detail is around the role the building played during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—and much of the Katrina rhetoric fell into the same quagmire as most other writing about the disaster, giving the impression that Katrina affected New Orleans and no other part of the country. Most disappointing was the chapter on college stadiums; all that is covered is the Penn State sexual abuse cover-up and Joe Paterno's legacy. So many collegiate cathedrals out there—the Rose Bowl, the Big House in Ann Arbor (there was a picture of this but no real discussion), Death Valley at LSU, hell, even Kyle Field—but instead all we get are the details of a vulgar scandal.

I'd recommend this unhesitatingly to any casual sports fan. The stories following the people in and around the buildings (scalpers, half-time entertainment, and unruly and misbehaving fans) are compelling and made the book hard to put down. I was hoping for more stories about the buildings themselves though, and ultimately left unsatisfied. A very good book, but a misleading title gave me a misleading impression.

First Sentence:
By the time I meet the mayor of Lambeau Field, he's already had a few.

1My mother went to hear the author speak in Dallas, and they gave away a door prize to the person that had been in the most professional, semi-pro, or collegiate stadiums; I believe the winner was in the low 50s. This idea fascinated me, so I went through my history and tried to record all the places I've seen some sort of organized sport. Turns out it is quite a few, but I have multiple friends that leave me in the dust here. I look forward to expanding this list over the coming years!

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Legacies, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Legacies, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Modesitt is a prolific author, and I've read literally dozens of his novels—and enjoyed them all. Legacies is the first (of eight so far) of yet another series, and it follows the same basic pattern as most of his work: young man discovers he has a once-in-a-lifetime magical talent, teaches himself how to use said talent while keeping it hidden from everyone, learns to be an exceptional soldier and leader, and single-handedly disposes of a horrible oppressor that was threatening the world at large. That said, the pattern is still quite entertaining and compelling enough I read this nearly 600 page book in a single day. One thing I don't remember in other Modesitt novels is how the music is so recognizable; in several places people sing and the lyrics are clearly all based on popular tunes such as "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" and "Seven Drunken Nights". When reading "Saddled, and booted, / and bridled rode they..." it was easy to picture the mournful tune and the loneliness of the vocalist. This extra dimension allowed the songs to be performed rather than just read, bring that much more impact to these scenes.

While the villain is obvious, the effects of her villainy are not as blatantly evil as in most fantasy tropes. The Matrial has enslaved all men (and uncooperative women) in her lands with a magical collar; free will still exists, but the all-female ruling class can punish or kill anyone with a collar that has been accused of a crime. The overseers can also tell when someone is lying, so theoretically justice is harsh but fair. As a result, the land is largely peaceful (but aggressive towards its neighbors) and both scarcity and abuse have largely been eliminated. However, men aren't given a choice about wearing collars (the situation of children isn't addressed; unclear when a boy is equipped) and POWs are all forcibly fitted and made to serve in the army. The ruling women aren't all bastions of honor either; in one scene two accused criminals are put to death, when it was clear to the judge and executioner that one was innocent. After living in this world (with a collar) for a year or so, our hero is conflicted, wondering if the end justifies the means as this land is seemingly much more equitable than his homeland, where poverty and vice is common, and the rich have unbalanced power over the poor. Urban and rural, rich and poor, male and female, freedom and slavery, right and wrong—all these dualities are examined and the results are thoughtfully not always black and white.

First Sentence:
In the quiet of the early twilight of a late summer day, a woman sat in a rocking chair under the eaves of the porch, facing east, rocking gently.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fooling Houdini, by Alex Stone

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, by Alex Stone

This autobiography describes the journey of an magician from student to professional, while attempting along the way to explain the lasting appeal of the art of illusion. Stone lifts the veil on how a few tricks are done—earning the wrath of several of his brethren—but not so much that the sense of wonder is spoiled. Just reading how a double lift or a blind shuffle are executed doesn't give me the ability to know it when I see it, and certainly not the skill to pull it off myself! I imagine the next time I see a card trick I'll appreciate the hours of practice that make the tick possible as much as the illusion itself.

The cast of characters we meet along the way are what really make this book shine, though. Richard Turner is the world's greatest cardsharp and a blind man whose sense of touch is so sensitive he can tell you how many cards in a pile by running his finger along the edges. Whit Haydn is a reformed con artist that teaches street scams in his School for Scoundrels. Wesley James is called the greatest underground magician of our time, earned a PhD in computer science, and holds court every Saturday at a ratty pizza place in NYC. All these and more... every chapter seemingly introduces a new and fascinating personality.

Being written by a magician it isn't surprising that the craft is held up to high standards, but the level of reverence the subjects gets is way over the top at times. "We'll run out of melodies before we run out of magic." Yeah, no. 😀 Other than that the writing is consistently strong and surprisingly difficult to put down. I learned a lot about illusions, mentalists, Three-card Monte, and card manipulation, and enjoyed every minute of it.

First Sentence:
In the foyer of a hotel in downtown Stockholm, a stunning twenty-two-year-old Belgian girl with dark brown eyes and long chestnut curls had attracted a small crowd.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Terminal Alliance, by Jim C. Hines

Terminal Alliance: Book One of the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse, by Jim C. Hines

I enjoy Jim C. Hines' writing, so when spotting the first entry in a new series at the bookstore I grabbed it. A couple of centuries in the future the human race has become feral zombies, but compassionate aliens save as many as they can, using their advanced tech to bring them back to civilized beings and take them to the stars. Our heroes are saved humans now serving as janitors on an interstellar warship. Their jobs saved them from a bioweapon that wiped out the rest of the crew—they were wearing futuristic HazMat suits—and they proceed to uncover a conspiracy that would drastically change the balance of power in the galaxy... and it isn't clear if that is a bad thing.

The setup follows the same basic notes as The Expanse: underdogs band together and take control of an advanced warship while fighting a conspiracy on multiple fronts. Terminal Alliance, however, largely replaces space opera dramatics with humor, to great effect. The beginning of each chapter has a bit of history from the aliens POV about humans, largely about trying to understand our pre-feral history. One of my favorite bits was a passage about reconstructing literature:

  • "Reviewed complete works of Dr. Seuss. These books are not, as first assumed, a guide to obscure Earth creatures. I suspect Seuss lied about being a doctor. Conclusion: total gibberish, completely untranslatable.
  • Have reviewed the history and causes of Earth conflicts through the ages. Recommendation: do not translate or republish human religious texts.
  • Works tagged 'fantasy' should be ignored. Based on early estimations of restored human intellectual capacity, these stores would only confuse them."
Another funny excerpt discussed our menu: "Humans' eating habits are, from an objective scientific perspective, disgusting. ... Some of the preferred meals we've reconstructed from their cookbooks and other literature include:
  • The organs of an animal called a sheep, prepared and cooked within the stomach of the same creature.
  • Tuna eyeballs.
  • 100-year-old eggs. It's a wonder this species didn't go extinct sooner.
  • Pufferfish. The toxins of this fish were highly deadly to humans. I originally assumed this meal was used as a means of suicide or execution, but in fact, humans ate this for pleasure. The risk of death was part of the appeal.
  • Something called a Fried Twinkie. A slower method for humans to kill themselves."
Good story, snarky characters, and a compelling universe makes this a fast, fun read.

First Sentence:
"Marion Adamopoulos."

Thursday, March 14, 2019

King of Ashes, by Raymond E. Feist

King of Ashes, by Raymond E. Feist

I thoroughly enjoyed Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga and the follow-up The Empire Trilogy, but didn't carry through the other 24 (!) books in the series. I spotted King of Ashes and discovered when reading the back cover that it was the first in a new series. It sounded interesting so I picked it up. Good idea!

The novel is clearly the first in what I expect will be a long series, and thus largely serves as an introduction to the main heroes in the conflict: the last heir to a lost kingdom, a young assassin, the grandson of a powerful crime lord, and an orphan virtuoso blacksmith. Throw in a few warring kingdoms, a powerful church exterminating rival religions, a coven of powerful witches, a banner of magical knights, and at least one evil secret society, and this has the makings of a great saga. As a 494 page long introduction it is a bit slow in places and Feist is overly repetitive in his descriptions, but the promise of future novels makes up for everything. I look forward to the next chapter!

First Sentence:
His name was Hatushaly, though the other boys and girls called him "Hatu."

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George

The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George

The narrative of The Little Paris Bookshop follows Jean Perdu, a Frenchman that was jilted by his lover over twenty years earlier finally opening the Dear John letter she'd left him, only to discover it wasn't what he expected. A bit of a madcap adventure ensues with Perdu picking up a couple of eccentric companions along the way, each with a quest of their own. The plot and characterization are both pretty thin, but the book shines in two areas: capturing the flavor of the countryside and illustrating the emotional might of storytelling.

As much as I enjoy living in Austin, getting away from civilization from time to time has always been a guilty pleasure. George depicts the transition from city to pastoral beautifully. "Something very specific was missing, something Perdu had grown so accustomed to that its absence gave him a slight dizziness and caused a humming in his ears. Immense relieve swept through him when he realized what it was. There was no rush of cars, no roar of the metro, no buzz of air conditioners. None of the whirr and grumble of millions of machines and transmissions and elevators and escalators. There were no sounds of reversing trucks, trains braking or heels on gravel and stone. None of the bass-driven music from the yobs two houses down, the crackle of skateboards, the chatter of scooters." The country is far from silent, but the noises of nature are much more soothing and pleasant than those of dense development.

My favorite things in life are my family and friends, Longhorn sports, beer, and books—not necessarily in that order. Reading has been a treasured companion of mine for as long as I can remember, and George is clearly a kindred spirit. She describes reading as having an "accompanying sense of wonder and the feeling of having a film running inside your head" which I think is as good of a depiction as any of what happens when consuming a novel. The back cover of my edition calls The Little Paris Bookshop "a love letter to books, meant for anyone who believes in the power of stories to shape people's lives." I wholeheartedly agree with this; the main lesson of the story isn't that good things come to good people or to those who wait, but to those that believe in the power of words to heal and shape ones soul.

While a bit treacly and overemotional at times, I quite enjoyed reading this book. It doesn't have the depth of Cyrano de Bergerac or the humor of The Princess Bride, but it is a pleasant read that makes for a solid diversion on a lazy weekend.

First Sentence:
How on earth could I have let them talk me into it?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Escape Artist, by Brad Meltzer

The Escape Artist, by Brad Meltzer

This book captured my attention from the prologue. Nola Brown is killed in a plane crash, and the mortician that is processing her body discovers something is very wrong by finding a note she swallowed before dying that reads, "Nola, you were right. Keep running." That hook unfolds into a mystery that jumps back in forth in time, delving into the Nola's abusive past and her being hunted in the present by an off-the-books military unit. I thought the identity of the "big bad" was pretty obvious, but Meltzer did a good job with red herrings so there were other plausible candidates. The two main characters are fairly well fleshed out, but the others are a bit one-dimensional. The story moves so quickly though it isn't really a problem—much like a Liam Neeson action movie, it isn't deep but it is enjoyable!

First Sentence:
Jim "Zig" Zigarowski knew the pain was coming.

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