Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly

The ScarecrowJack McEvoy is a journalist, on his last legs at the L.A. Times, who has just written a brief article about the arrest of a gangbanger, Alonzo Winslow, for torturing and murdering a  young woman and stuffing her body in the trunk of her car. Alonzo's grandmother calls McEvoy to protest her boy's innocence, and he decides to look into the case a little deeper, thinking that perhaps he can write a gripping story about how a young person reaches the point where they can commit such a horrible crime, his last big hurrah before he leaves the paper in two weeks.
As he digs deeper, however, he discovers that there has been another murder, commited in Las Vegas, and that the method of disposing of the body bears eerie similarities to the Winslow case. Could the boy, in fact, be innocent, framed for the murder by a cold and calculating serial killer?
McEvoy flies to Las Vegas to talk with the lawyer for the man who has been convicted and put in prison for this other murder, and things start to get hairy. He calls in Rachel Walling, an FBI agent whom he has worked with on a previous case (also a previous Connelly novel, The Poet), and together the two begin to chase down the killer, even as the killer begins to chase them.
Connelly does a nice job in this book of creating suspense, and though we know all along, from vignettes from the killer's point of view, who dunnit, there's still a few surprises in store.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Goddess of the Market, by Jennifer Burns

Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American RightI just happened to catch an interview on one of the cable channels one afternoon with the author of this book about Ayn Rand, and I thought the interviewer's canned questions were what was making the interview so boring. Then I picked up a copy of the book when it serendipitously appeared at the library, and I'm afraid that, to a certain extent, it's the subject matter and perhaps the fact that it was adapted from Ms. Burns' thesis project that made the book a bit of a snoozer.
I've always been somewhat of an admirer of what is purported to be Ayn Rand's political leanings and pro-Capitalism stance. Unhappily, I discovered through my readings that Rand was not someone whom I could look up to in a personal sense, no matter how brilliant and prescient some of her ideas seem. She was an amoral, manipulative, vindictive and horrible excuse for a human being, so wrapped up in herself and her own "superior" ideas that she had little of value to spare for other human beings.
The most interesting part of this book was the mention of some of the famous people she worked with over the years, as their common goals and paths crossed, such as Alan Greenspan, Goldwater, Reagan, and Milton Friedman. She was so difficult to work with, and so argumentative and intolerant, that none of these relationships seemed to last for any longer than the other person was of use to, or in agreement with, Rand.
There is, however, a lot of information about the events in Rand's own life that motivated her to create The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and her other less-known works. As a young woman who had grown up during the communist takeover of Russia, and whose rather successful merchant family was basically destroyed by the prejudices against Jews and outright confiscation "for the common good," I can see how she might be mistrustful of altruistic motivations, but there's a great difference between government wealth redistribution and self-motivated charitable activity, which Rand never understood.
Here's a tidbit from the book, about Rand's methods when writing Atlas Shrugged, that some of my writer friends might find interesting. "Perhaps her most effective method was writing to music. She tied specific melodies to different characters, using the music to set the proper mood as she wrote their starring scenes. Rand selected mostly dramatic classical pieces, so that as the plot thickened the music would reach a crescendo."
I struggled to finish this book, but managed to slog my way through to the end. One of the things I consider to be a fatal flaw in a novel is when I find myself not caring in the slightest what happens to the protagonist. It's a pity when I find myself feeling the same way about Ayn Rand, a fellow human being.
There's a lot of interesting information about the origins of the Libertarian Party and their love/hate relationship (at least on Rand's part) with Rand. Did you know that the first woman to ever receive a vote in the electoral college - for vice president - was Libertarian candidate Tonie Nathan? Strangely enough, I just saw an episode of Jeopardy where the proper question to the answer of "first female vice presidential candidate" was "Who is Geraldine Ferraro?" Even the almighty Alex Trebek gets it wrong on occasion.
This book started as a doctoral thesis for Burns, and unfortunately it mostly reads like one. Interesting info, but dryer than a Bond martini.

Friday, March 26, 2010

White Witch, Black Curse by Kim Harrison

White Witch, Black Curse (The Hollows, Book 7)As I was reading the latest novel in The Hollows series, I just got the nagging feeling that I was missing something. I checked my personal collection, and saw that I hadn't purchased a copy of White Witch, Black Curse, but I thought I'd checked it out at the library. I went and bought a copy in paperback and began to read it, and it seemed a little familiar through the first chapter, then started to twist and turn in new, undiscovered directions. I think I'd actually read the preview "blurb" in the back of For a Few Demons More and that's why it seemed familiar at first.
Anyway, there's a banshee on the loose in this one, killing humans in Cincinnati. Banshees drain life energy and emotions from humans, witches and vampires, with a preference for the darker emotions of anger, hate, loneliness and despair. The old ones who are still around have learned to take their feedings in small doses, hanging around nursing homes, hospitals and so forth, draining just enough emotion to survive, but not enough to kill and be noticed. Rachel's friend and FIB agent, Glenn, has been left nearly dead by his encounter with a banshee who has apparently decided to stop limiting herself, and she gets called in to try to capture the creature.
In the midst of this, Rachel is trying to determine the nature of her relationship with Marshall, the male witch she worked with while chasing down The Focus, negotiating a better arrangement with the demon Algliarept, and dealing with the emotional impact of her mother moving away to the West Coast. She discovers that she has a ghost haunting her church, coincidentally a spirit she was involved with when she was a teenager, dealing with the pain of her father's death.
As usual, in Harrison's work, there's a lot of harrowing action, soul-searching, and hints of plots and conflicts to come. Try not to miss this book in the series, like I did.

For a Few Demons More, by Kim Harrison

For a Few Demons More (The Hollows, Book 5)So, since I fell a little behind this week, I'm gonna do a twofer today. Here's the review of a book that's two books back in The Hollows series by Harrison, and I'll also post a review of the 2nd to last book that I just finished.
I have a hate/love relationship with loose threads in a novel. I hate it when an author leaves unfinished business, not solving mysteries raised within the confines of the front and back cover, but I love the fact that it means there are definitely more novels to come in the series to read and enjoy. If you read paperbacks, like I do, you generally are aware that the next novel in a series is already out in hardback, but still...

Kim Harrison leaves a couple of unanswered questions in this latest novel (spoiler alert), For a Few Demons More, in The Hollows series. What was the demon, Newt, looking for when she trashed Rachel's church? And who was the dastardly fiend who set up the deal between the demon Al, and Piscarry? Well, those are not horribly bad spoilers, I guess.

The story begins with Newt showing up unsummoned in Rachel and Ivy's home and thrashing the place, looking for something she's lost. Rachel believes it to be "the focus" a relic recovered in the previous book which bears a demonic curse that affects Weres, allowing them to create new Weres from humans, rather than by procreation.

The focus is highly fought over by all of the factions in Inderlander Cincinnati throughout the course of this book. Someone is killing weres in the process of trying to discover who holds the focus, so they can get it for themselves. In the middle of this mystery, Rachel is busy trying to figure out her relationship with Ivy, provide security at Trent Kalamack's wedding, find her way to a happy balance between being one of the good guys and using demonic magic, and keep the focus from doing more damage or falling into the wrong hands.

The heroes and villains in this piece are a pretty good mix of cardboard cutout characters, like the two leaders of the major Were factions, somewhat developed characters, like Quen the elf and Ceri the rescued demon familiar, and well-developed characters, like Jenks the pixie, Trent, and Ivy. I could list a few more, but you get the drift, and I say this to make the point that novels grow more captivating the less of the former and the more of the latter there are.

The ending was a little confusing to me. In the climactic battle between the forces of evil and not-so-evil, a number of people Rachel cares for are killed. When everything settles down, it turns out that some of them didn't die after all (how's that for avoiding a spoiler?), but it wasn't really explained very well why not, and the fate of some of the folks in the battle is left hanging. Then, Rachel does something to herself that should/could have some long lasting, not to mention interesting, and potentially lethal consequences, and by a bit of deus ex machina sleight of hand, the consequences are ameliorated (which raises another set of questions which I definitely can't ask without a spoiler). I'd rather hoped to see Harrison explore those consequences
thoroughly, but she seems to have avoided it for the moment. Drat!

All, in all, this was definitely worth reading, though I may have to read the last twenty or thirty pages again just to get it all straight in my mind.

Monday, March 22, 2010

There and Back Again, by Sean Astin

by Sean Astin (Author) Joe Layden (Author)There and Back Again: An Actor's Tale (Hardcover)I had really expected, when I picked up this book in the sale rack, to find it full of lots of juicy tidbits and insider info about the making of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, from the man who played Sam Gamgee. Unfortunately, more than half of the book was taken up with Sean just getting to the point in time where he had the opportunity to join the cast. Aside from the Rings trilogy, I've never been a big fan of Astin's. Not that I have anything against him, particularly, I'd just never seen any of the movies he'd starred in, such as The Goonies and Rudy, before I "met" him as Frodo's sidekick.
Sean's personal and internal struggles with his acting career and need to be behind the camera with his own production company really didn't satisfy what I was hoping for from this book. In the latter portion of the book, to be fair, he does spend a lot of time talking about the various personalities in the cast, and his relationships with them, as well as a few anecdotes about how the film was made, how they all survived being thrown together for eighteen months with few breaks in production, and his reaction to the surprising success at the box office of the three films.
He mentions at one point that he probably should have been diagnosed as ADD, and the way the book flits around from one subject to the next seems to prove the assertion. I'm sure Sean is probably a likeable guy and a talented actor, but his writing, even with a ghost, isn't all that great. If you can pick this tome one up for $2.99, like I did, and keep your expectations fairly low, you'll enjoy the journey.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pirate Latitudes, by Michael Crichton

Pirate LatitudesGet ready to buckle your swashes, folks, Crichton has created a fun and quick read in this historical novel, found as a completed manuscript after his death in 2008. Unlike Timeline, this one actually made sense. It was definitely brutal, as one might expect from a realistic tale of piracy, but an enjoyable read, nonetheless.

The action begins in Jamaica, in the town of Port Royal, the seedy underbelly of British colonialism and privateering. The governor, Sir James Almont, is in it up to his eyeballs, though officially he cannot condone piracy against the Spanish, as the two empires are not at war. But the Spanish have a much larger presence in the Caribbean and Americas, and their share of the loot from the New World is quite tempting to men with the bold and ruthless spirits to go after it.

An expedition of privateers is formed by Captain Charles Hunter, a man of questionable morals, but a certain “honor among thieves” sense of ethics. Their target is Matanceros, an island occupied and fortified by the Spanish, commanded by Cazalla, whom Hunter holds a grudge against for the torture and murder of his brother, anyway. A treasure galleon has been sighted in the harbor there, and Hunter has a plan to take it away.

There’s some good sub-plots here, involving the governor’s new secretary and his wife, recently arrived from England, and some of the island’s more “respectable” citizens, and some backstabbing by various members of Hunter’s pirate crew. Hunter’s crew, by the way, is filled with an interesting assortment of scurvy knaves you’re gonna love…or hate.

Plenty of adventure, lots of fighting, rape, plunder, and pillage in this one. The nautical aspects of this tale seemed quite realistic to me, though I’ve never sailed, and the only thing that rang a little bit false was the encounter with a hungry kraken at one point. A quick, fun, bloody read.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Black Magic Sanction, by Kim Harrison

Black Magic Sanction (Rachel Morgan, Book 8)Kim Harrison's latest novel in The Hollows series has a lot of that "out of the frying pan" quality that I really enjoy in a novel. Our heroine, Rachel Morgan, has been shunned by the white witch coven, for being contaminated by black magic. Previously, this has merely made things inconvenient, but not intolerable.
However, the coven has decided that her potential to bear children who will be demons poses a direct threat, and they decide to neutralize her by capturing her, neutering her, and locking her up in Alcatraz. They send one of their members to capture her, and the mayhem begins. In the midst of her conflict with the coven, she's still at odds with Trent Kalamack, the politically highly placed elf, and in danger of being abducted by certain members of the demonic community, as well. About the only thing that doesn't erupt into trouble in this installment is her relationship with her vampire roommate, Ivy.
She manages to evade the first attempt to capture her, but the second one succeeds, and she is confined in Alcatraz. She escapes narrowly, with the help of her resident gargoyle, and the re-embodied ghost, Pierce. The coven then decides to attack her and her friends in the church where she lives and works, with catastrophic results for pretty much everyone concerned.
Rachel concocts a twisted ploy to stalemate the coven, Kalamack and the demons. Putting this one into play both reveals some previously unsuspected abilities on her part, and puts her into a great deal of danger.
This novel is fast-moving, interesting, and contains some good plot twists, as well as revealing a few more things about the history of the world Harrison has created. It's worth the high price of the hardback version to read this right away.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Domino Pattern, by Timothy Zahn

The Domino PatternThis novel is a slight departure from the usual format of the Quadrail series by Zahn. It's a bit of a locked door mystery, with a nod towards Murder on the Orient Express. Frank Compton and Bayta are on a Quadrail express, headed to investigate the Modhri presence on the far side of the galaxy, when passengers begin to drop dead. Given that no weapons or harmful substances are allowed on the Quadrail, this poses a bit of a puzzle and Frank seems to be the only individual equipped to investigate.

The victims are all part of a group negotiating a new medical services contract between a human firm and a couple of alien races. The obvious motive for the crime is to somehow disrupt the contract negotiations, but things get a little more complex than that as the novel moves along. The ending is a little surprising, and other things that come to light during the investigation lead Frank and Bayta into what I'm guessing will be the fifth book in this series.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Flirt, by Laurell K. Hamilton

Flirt (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Book 18)The only thing that I really disliked about this book was how short it was. Not a lot of bang for the buck. At the beginning of the book, Hamilton spends a couple of pages describing and introducing existing characters, such as Micah, Nathaniel and Jason, which is ridiculous in a novel of this length. How many people in their right minds are jumping into the Anita Blake series at the 18th book and have no idea who these guys are, how important they are to Anita, etc.? When I pay top dollar for a hardback this short, don't waste my time with information I already have, please.
Anita has encounters with a couple of potential clients for Animators, Inc. in the early going, and turns both of them down for valid reasons. The first one wants his wife resurrected so that he can just be with her longer, which is going to get really icky as her zombie incarnation begins to deteriorate. The second one wants her husband brought back to life so she can punish him for his sins in their marriage. One of these scorned clients decides not to take "No" for an answer, and sends a squad of contract goons to coerce Anita into performing the desired necromancy.
Anita's interaction with the hit squad is complicated by the fact that they are werelions, and her inner lioness is still looking for a mate (see what I mean about nobody in their right mind jumping into the middle of this series; there's just way to much previous plot to cover). Things wrap up somewhat predictably. This book is just an appetizer or sidebar to the main Vampire Hunter novels.
There's a pretty good afterword included, where Hamilton talks about where she got the idea for this novel, and how it all came together. A similar process took place when she was writing Micah, another short take in the series. Anyway, if you're feeling flush, go ahead and pick this one up, but it's really a bit expensive in hardback on a cost per page basis. It was about a 45 minute read for me.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Lions of Lucerne, by Brad Thor

The Lions of LucerneSecret Service agent Scott Harvath is having a rough week. A crack team of kidnappers has slaughtered a protective detail, triggered an avalanche that almost kills Harvath and the president's daughter, and abducted the president. To make matters worse, Scott's tendency to operate outside of the rules has gotten him into serious hot water with his superiors, and they suspect him of having involvement in the whole plot.
This is, I think, the introductory novel in Thor's series about Harvath, and it's not too bad, actually. There are some places where I really have to suspend my disbelief, and a bit of deus ex machina salvation at the finish line, but the plot line, as far as solving the mystery step by step, seems to work pretty well. Pick it up at the library or used book store and enjoy.

Monday, March 8, 2010

My Men are My Heroes by Brad Kasal

My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal StoryThis is the story of Brad Kasal, a First Seargent with the US Marine Corps, who fought in and was grievously wounded in the battle for Fallujah. I really got involved in some of the early part of this book, as Kasal went into the Corps as an infantry "grunt", trained at MCRD San Diego, went to SOI at Camp Pendleton, was assigned to the anti-tank gunner MOS, got his permanent duty station at Camp Horno, and spent his first overseas deployment as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Far and Middle East. My son spent his first couple of years as a Marine in almost exactly the same way, so this all hit pretty close to home.
After that, Kasal was deployed for Desert Storm, and later, Operation Iraqi Freedom. Desert Storm was over much too quickly to suit him, and he saw very little action there before returning stateside. However, he and his fellow Marines saw more than enough action when the US returned to Iraq in 2003.
Kasal's ghostwriter spends a lot of time getting all of the details right. So for anyone who's a big military equipment and organization buff, this book is going to be great. Every bit of weaponry used is described in loving detail, and the movements of every batallion, every squad, and nearly every individual Marine is laid out for all of the battles described in the latter half of the book. There's a ton of information about all of the other enlisted men, non-coms, and officers that served with Kasal, their personal inclinations, leadership style, and even the color of their boxer shorts, in some cases.
The shootout in which Kasal is injured - seven gunshot and 48 shrapnel wounds - is graphically described and really gives a good picture of what Kasal and some of the other leaders were thinking about as chaos roared all around them.
The book is really enjoyable for those of us who have military family members, I think, but sometimes the amount of technical details included seemed to bog down the story. I label this one a must-read.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Most Wanted Man, by John Le Carre

A Most Wanted Man: A NovelIt's been a long long time since I read any Le Carre, since he was writing spy novels set in the Cold War, if that tells you anything. This new novel is actually set in a post 9/11 world, and is relatively topical.
A fugitive Chechen arrives in Hamburg, Germany and is immediately the target of the security services investigation. He may or may not be an actual terrorist, but it is certain that he was charged with terrorism back in Russia, and spent time in jail in several countries. He bears the marks, physical and mental, of torture.
A social services lawyer, Anna Richter, becomes involved in helping this man, Issa. It appears he is heir to a rather mysterious fortune, amassed in the bank belonging to a Scottish ex-pat, Tommy Brues, by Issa's biological father, a Russian gangster named Karpov.
So it seems we have the basis for a really intriguing and exciting tale. Unfortunately, after about the first hundred pages, it just sort of meanders to a rather unsatisfactory and mild conclusion. It lacks action, adventure, and resolution. Sorry, folks, don't bother with this one.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Architects of Ruin, by Peter Schweizer

Architects of Ruin: How big government liberals wrecked the global economy---and how they will do it again if no one stops themThere are a couple of narratives "out there" about how we ended up with the subprime meltdown and the massive government bailouts a couple of years ago. One of them blames the lack of government regulation of the banking industry for encouraging predatory lending practices, and the other blames the government for encouraging banks to make loans to people who traditionally didn't qualify for them, and encouraging big financial players to take on huge risks, with the expectation that the government would bail them out if the worst happened. This book is a tale of the second of those.
Schweizer traces the roots of the subprime mess back to the Community Reinvestment Act, which was designed to stop the passive racism of banks denying loans in geographic areas that were heavily black or hispanic. It was thought that home ownership would be the key to raising minorities out of poverty. People in poverty stricken areas typically do not have good credit ratings, substantial down payments, or (obviously) a history of steady income. These are things which banks have traditionally looked at when underwriting home loans.
A rather large coalition of activists pushed the government and banks to relax their lending standards in order to get more minorities loans to own their own homes. They demanded that things like paying rent and utility bills should be considered as if they were a part of credit history, and that down payment requirements be reduced from 20% to 5% and even, eventually 0%, with flexible methods of covering closing costs, and that verifying income be downplayed, resulting in the "stated income" rule. As a result of these changes, home ownership among minorities did indeed increase, but the relaxation of traditional lending standards introduced an element of risk that had not previously been there, and so there were billions of dollars in loans that were extremely likely to fail.
In addition to this, over the last couple of decades, firms like Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns had made risky investments in places like Asia, Russia after the fall of communism, and Mexico. When the governments in those places came to the point of defaulting on their bonds, and these firms and others like them should have taken the loss, they were determined to be "too big to fail" by their political allies in Congress and the White House, and taxpayer money was used to bail out those investments, so that the financial companies reaped all of the profits, but the American people covered the losses.
The law of unintended consequences and the snowball effect created the huge housing boom, and the speculative runup of home prices with cheap borrowed money. When the bubble collapsed, it delivered a massive hit to the US economy, and we're in the midst of a recession today because of it.
There's a ton of interesting information and history in this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone able to stomach the double-dealing and corruption that plague our government these days.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Golden Globe, by John Varley

THE GOLDEN GLOBEI must confess, I very nearly gave up on this book about fifty pages in. The "hero", Kenneth Valentine, is an egotistical stage actor and con artist, and his exploits are not nearly so entertaining as, say, Slippery Jim DiGriz's. However, I pressed on, and finished the story. On the whole, it was reasonably entertaining.
The tale ranges, astrographically, from a space station called Brementon, near Pluto, to a settlement on Luna. Valentine runs afoul of the Charonese Mafia in the outer planets, and spends most of the novel on the run, trying to get to Luna to play the role of his life, King Lear. We learn that he was a child star on Luna, with a successful show called Sparky and His Gang, that made him a fortune at a very early age. However, after the death of his father, a brutal and abusive man, he fled the inner system and has been scamming and acting (not a lot of difference between the two) his way around the solar system ever since.
The thing that keeps this story entertaining is Varley's talent for describing the various societies and technological wonders that have come into being since Man was wiped out on Earth by the alien Invaders, who have settled on Jupiter. There's also a ton of scathing commentary about the nature of the entertainment business and the backstabbing players in that game, which most likely relate to the world as we know it now.