Monday, February 28, 2011

Short Takes

(12/9/09) Read an entire novel by Scalzi, The Last Colony, in one sitting. At one point in time, the main character of the novel, John Perry, gets addressed as Commodore Perry, as a joke. I wonder at this point if all three of the volumes in the series had to be back-edited to make the main character's last name Perry, or if Scalzi had the joke in mind all along.

(12/16/09) Still reading through all the Scalzi the library holds. Agent to the Stars was pretty cute, and The Android's Dream is fair to middlin' but finishes with a big deus ex)

(12/24/09) Finished Crossover, by Shepherd. A fairly good new author. Reading his second book in the series, Breakaway.

Ghost by John Ringo

Ghost (Paladin of Shadows Book 1)Ghost is the first book in Ringo's Paladin of Shadows series. I had a review of the fourth book, Unto the Breach, already written and posted it here in June, so since I've got them handy both in paperback and Nook form, I'll probably do some catchup and give you some info on the earlier books, too.
Ghost is written as a series of three interlinked stories, which would work as novellas, or which might have been serialized in the SF mags at first. In the first little vignette, Mike Harmon, a retired Navy Seal who is trying to settle in to life as a college student after leaving the teams, witnesses a co-ed getting snatched by what are obviously professionals, and decides quickly to do something about it.

He follows the kidnappers, and discovers that they are terrorists who intend to ship the girls they've captured -50 in all - to an undisclosed location in the Middle East, and broadcast their torture and murder on worldwide TV to force the U.S. to remove its forces from the area. Mike, whose nickname in the teams was "Ghost" for his ability to move and kill silently, stows away on the plane the terrorists are using and hitchhikes all the way to Syria to their hidden base. There, he foils the plot and rescues the girls, of course. The U.S. government at its highest levels is grateful for his exploits and rewards him with lots of cash and sort of puts him on retainer to help them deal with other issues that may come up.

The second story takes place in the Caribbean, where Mike is enjoying some R&R on the fishing boat he bought with some of the loot from the first story. He's partying with some beach bunnies when the call comes in that terrorists have a nuclear weapon that they're smuggling through the area to plant somewhere in Florida and detonate. Mike drops his fun and games and picks up his weapons and heads out to foil the plot.

The third story shifts to Eastern Europe, where Mike is hanging out, now that things have gotten a little hot for him in the Caribbean. He's actually on the prowl in the brothels there when he runs across a hooker with a heart of plutonium...well, actually she just tries to sell him a nuke. Intrigued, he has her lead him to the sellers, but it's too late; the bomb has already been sold to some Chechens. He lets his friends in Washington know what's going on, then follows his nose as the trail leads all over Europe to find out who has the bomb now and what their target is. As you might imagine, it all ends mostly well for Mike, not so well for the terrorists.

Graphic violence, graphic sex, and a smart-ass hero. What's not to love?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Short Takes

(11/28/09) Reading John Christopher's Bad Dream, which is not very engrossing. I think he peaked with his young adult novels back in the 60s. Ah well.

(11/29/09) Finished the Christopher this morning - I still have no idea what it was all about, could it have been the middle novel in a trilogy?

(11/30/09) Scalzi's Old Man's War was remiscent of Heinlein and Haldeman. Put some more of his stuff on reserve at the library.

(12/2/09) Finished Blindman's Bluff by Kellerman. It was an ok read, but not riveting

Kitty Goes to War by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty Goes to War (Kitty Norville, Book 8)
With this, the latest in the series to date, Kitty's story gets back into the bi-or-trifurcated plot lines we're more familiar with. Cormac gets out of prison on parole and begins a new life. Kitty gets a call from Dr. Schumacher from the Center for the Study of Preternatural Biology asking her to help out with a group of werewolf soldiers returning from Afghanistan with PTSD. Kitty gets sued for libel by the CEO of Speedy Mart, who may or may not be a weather wizard using his franchises for nefarious purposes.

Cormac has definitely been changed by his prison experience. He can no longer work as a bounty hunter, since parole boards frown on parolees who carry weapons. Kitty started sending him books to read while he was confined, and he seems to have taken the reading and studying to an addictive level - not a bad thing IMHO. Kitty and Ben decide to hire him to do a little detective work on her other problem with the lawsuit, and turn him loose.

The werewolf soldiers take up a lot of Kitty's time in this novel. The pack leader was killed by an explosion in country, and the pack dominance struggles that ensued left only three of the men alive by the time they returned to the States. Neither Dr. Schumacher or the military leadership know whether they can be successfully integrated back into society, or if they'll remain hopelessly violent and uncontrollable. Kitty, bless her heart, seems to believe that no one is beyond redemption, and meets with the group where they are being held at first, then tries to integrate the least violent two men of the trio into her pack activities. The last member is definitely guilty of murder, and will probably never be released from the special military prison with silver bars and other security measures.

The Speedy Mart CEO turns out to definitely be up to something, and Kitty, Cormac and Ben must figure out what it is before he can hurt Kitty, her pack, or perhaps even the city of Denver.

In this book, we see some more growing up for Kitty, a whole new direction for Cormac, and creep forward a bit in the creepy vampire political scene.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Short Takes

(11/7/09) Dug into Applied Economics, by Thomas Sowell. I gotta say, Sowell is a great conservative columnist, but as a writer of anything longer than a couple of pages, the man can bog me down way too fast. Lots of interesting little tidbits, but I'm fading fast on this one. 

(11/14/09) Finished reading Santa Olivia, by Jacqueline Carey. It has a feel like it was something she wrote before she did her Kushiel's stuff, but never got published, and now that she's a published author, they printed it. Not her best work, for sure.

Kitty's House of Horrors by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty's House of Horrors (Kitty Norville, Book 7)
Unlike most of this series, in this book Kitty only has one major conflict plot line for a change. The only side plot of note is that Cormac the bounty hunter has a possibility of making parole, which gives Ben something to do while Kitty is off foiling evil plots on her own. Some TV reality show producers convince Kitty to join a group of other supernatural beings and psychics, a magician and a skeptic in a remote location for a pilot production.

Joining Kitty at a remote hunting lodge in Montana we have her old friend the psychic, Tina, her erstwhile ally the magician ,Odysseus Grant, another werewolf and pro wrestler, Jerome, a wereseal named Lee, two vampires, Gemma and Anastasia and their human blood donor Dorian, a professional debunker, Conrad, and a second psychic, Jeffrey, and another supernatural talk show host, Ariel. The producers' stated purpose is to let people know what the supernatural community is really all about, and to show their interactions in a close quarters situation, but there's a more serious game afoot.

This one eventually turns into something like Murder on the Orient Express, as first all of the production assistants are found murdered and the producers missing, and all communications with the outside world are cut. As Kitty and her friends try to figure out whodunnit and why, and try to escape the hunting lodge, they begin to be picked off one by one, by predators that know exactly how to kill them. If you're paying attention, you'll figure out who the red shirts (for you Trekkies) are pretty quickly and know who will leave Montana alive, in the end.

Good build of tension and release, some character development on Kitty's part, and things move forward in the Long Game, as well.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Short Takes

(9/29/09) I've been reading Robert Novak's autobio, Prince of Darkness, and it is LONG. Interesting stuff about all of the politicians that were around when I was growing up, before I began paying attention to those sorts of things. I'm up to the Nixon administration right now, getting close to Watergate.

(11/4/09) Finished reading the latest Reacher novel, Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child. Gripping, as always.

(11/4/09) So, I recently finished reading Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazi. One of my favorite PF bloggers was doing a review on it, and I picked it up basically because of the title, as I nearly always eat alone. Figured it might shake up my routine, or something.

Ferrazzi has a lot of good tactics in this book for increasing the size and effectiveness of your personal network. If I was a young man again, starting off in my career, I think I'd take a bunch of this to heart and implement it in my life. As it is, it gave me a few ideas about how to improve some of the relationships in my existing network, and stimulated my thinking about how I see my friends and acquaintances.

A good read, all in all.

A Path Out of the Desert by Kenneth M. Pollack

A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East
I may not understand the situation in the Middle East any better than I did before I read this book. In fact, I'm not sure any Westerner can really understand the cultural assumptions. However, I feel that I am much more comprehensively apprised of the historic causes and forces than I was before I started.

This was a difficult book to get through; not because it was uninteresting, but because it was so detailed. I'd read one of Pollack's earlier books about Iraq, written just before the 2003 invasion, and thought he was quite insightful, and he definitely knows his stuff when it comes to Middle East policy, having served as director of Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council twice, and seven years as a CIA Persian Gulf military analyst.

Some of the statistics about the Arab world may (or may not) shock you. The number of newspapers per thousand people in the Arab states is just 53, compared to 285 per thousand in the West. There are 1/5 the number of telephone lines, and around 1/6 the computers, with only 1.6% of the Arab population having Internet access. Only about 330 books are translated into Arabic each year, with a grand total of about 10,000 books (FEWER THAN IN MY PERSONAL LIBRARY!) having been translated into Arabic since 819 AD. Glad I don't live over there.

The public sector employees in the Arab world are even more of a drain on the economy than they are here in the U.S. In a country that's been in the news lately, Egypt had 350,000 civil servants in 1952, which grew to over 4 million by 1992, and to roughly 7 million by 2007. Public sector employment accounts for 20% of the Saudi labor force, 28% in Egypt, 25% in Algeria, 34% in Jordan, 40%-70% in Bahrain, Oman and the UAE. The Kuwaiti government employs over 90% of its national workforce.

Interesting tidbit, "state ownership of banks has been a serious inhibiting factor in investment and entrepreneurship...Banks often give loans based on political directives, cronyism and graft rather than economic viability..." Makes me think about the recent real estate crash and mortgage crisis here in the U.S. The only thing different is the extent of the cronyism, in my opinion. "In Arab countries...profits are derived from access to power rather than through economic efficiency and performance" Can you say Jeffrey Imelt, anyone?

Iranian media outlets are closely connected to key regime figures, says Pollack. Journalists who publish views the regime figures don't like are routinely beaten, threatened, imprisoned, or assassinated. Arab regimes like to direct their subjects anger towards external threats, such as the United States or Israel, though Arabic conspiracy theories vary as to whether the U.S. uses Israel as it's "cats-paw" in the area or Israel uses the U.S.

In the Arab world legal system, the average person usually needs a fixer to take care of the bribes necessary to grease the wheels of justice. They often pay to get a favorable result even when the law is on their side, but just as often when the law is not, are able to obtain a result in their favor if the proper palms are greased. Due to corruption and inefficiency, the cost of starting a business in the Muslim Middle East is higher than anywhere else in the world.

Huge numbers of people in the Middle East, if they don't have government sinecures, are unable to get enough money to take care of basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. The Islamist groups in the area recognized the need, and both Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hisbullah in Lebanon established large and efficient social services which provide these things to the poor, gaining their sympathies.

One thing I hadn't really considered before was that the roots of political instability (leading to revolution) are always economic in nature. Pollack mentions the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland which principally aggravated not by religious differences, per se, but by the economic disparities between Catholics and Protestants. An economic study of civil wars showed that low educational levels, per capita income, and population growth rate were the primary factors in determining the likelihood of internal violence in a country.

"Academic studies have consistently found that employment may be the most important determinant of overall happiness..." Go, Puritan work ethic!

Pollack says that most of the countries of the Middle East are right now in a prerevolutionary state. Conditions are ripe for the overthrow of many of the regimes there. Presciently, this book was written in 2007, and as I'm reading it today, Egypt has ousted Mubarak, Libya has ousted Gadaffi, and the people are marching in the streets in several other Middle Eastern countries. The guy was right on.

Just a little correction of a popular belief. It has been said the the 9/11 hijackers were all well educated middle class men, but in fact only six of them were, the others were poor, rural and not well educated, according to Mr. Pollack.

This book had a flurry of post-it notes in it long before I finished, and it would be a very long post if I attempted to mention all of the bits I found interesting.

After great exposition, Pollack believes that it is in the best interests of the United States (and the rest of the West) to encourage the gradual political reform of the Middle East, for a number of reasons, including decreasing the danger from extremist Islamic terrorists, keeping the oil flowing so we don't cripple the world economy, and from the moral standpoint that it is not only the pragmatic thing to do, but the right thing to do. He encourages people not to get hung up on the fact that the Bush 43 administration proposed doing so - it's a good idea even if you don't like the source.

I've heard from friends, even good liberal friends, that the people in Arab countries aren't capable of handling democracy, or that they don't deserve it. Pollack mentions that at various times, scholars and experts maintained that the Germans and Japanese were incapable of democracy, or that the Catholic and Confucian worlds were incompatible with it. Why should the Muslim Middle East be denied the opportunity to rule themselves for a change? Pollack holds up Lebanon as at least a partial success in the region, until Syria's intervention messed things up.

His five-pronged strategy:
1. Washington should encourage economic liberalization to create greater economic opportunity.
2. The United states should provide assistance only to Islamist groups that meet the criteria (reject violence, accept pluralistic political systems, accept the rule of law, accept a secular public education system, accept alternate forms of law other than Sharia, accept religious freedom and gender equality) for moderation.
3. The United States should help build up and professionalize major institutions like the government bureaucracy and armed forces
4. The US should make clear that its friendship, economic relations, and aid are all contingent upon the political parties' abiding by the rules of the system (like the Democratic senators in Wisconsin right now?)
5. The US should see democratization as a process that should develop gradually.

He lists some concrete steps that could be taken by the West right away:
  • Set up an aid program to help the Middle Eastern countries build an effective social safety net to help marginalized and underprivileged groups. Are we successfully doing this here?
  • Establish more small and micro-loan programs
  • Make aid and other forms of assistance dependent on the condition that all of the people working in programs funded by that aid be local nationals. Any success in our southern border states in this area?
  • Bring pressure on governments that imprison human rights and democracy advocates
  • Establish programs to train Middle Eastern bureaucrats to manage comprehensive reform programs more effectively. Bureaucrats...reform?...effective? I'm sorry.
  • Extend loan guarantees, investment guarantees, tax incentives, and favorable credit directly to Middle Eastern enterprises or foreign firms willing to invest in the Middle East. How does this not end up going to cronies and relatives of the powerful?
I'd like to keep a copy of this book around just to browse the references for further reading material, but it's due at the library tonite. I'll have to see if I can find another book by this author soon. Recommend this highly for background reading on the Middle East, but it's suddenly looking quite dated, unfortunately.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Short Takes

(7/10/09) Reading The Sheriff of Ramadi by Dick Couch, which is alternately interesting and dry, sorta like combat in the desert, I guess.

(8/30/09) Right now, I'm in the fourth book of the Prydain series, Taran Wanderer, by Lloyd Alexander. It's written for young adults, and is filled with all sorts of little life lessons, which are not all that inappropriate for adults, either.

One of my favorite bits in the storyline has always been the interlude with Llonio, son of Llonwen. I just started reading that section last night around bedtime, and was struck by a passage that rings a familiar chord. The main protagonist of the tale, Taran, has inherited a flock of sheep from a man he stayed with for a while who claimed to be his father, but who was later proven to be lying about that, and who passed away in an unfortunate climbing accident. Taran shows up with the sheep at the holding of Llonio, and, seeing an empty sheep pen, offers Llonio the sheep, saying something on the order of, "I hope there's room for these sheep and your own flock in the pen."

Llonio replies that he has no flock. Taran wonders why, then, he built a sheep pen. Llonio says that he knew that eventually, a flock would happen by, and that he wanted to be prepared. Llonio is a character in the series who always seems to have the blessing of "good luck." This little portion of the tale relates the fact that fortune favors those who have prepared for it. In the real world, it's often difficult for people to take advantage of "good luck" or God's blessings when they're unprepared. Get those sheep pens built, folks!

"Life's a forge!" cried the smith, as Taran, his brow streaming, beat at the strip of metal. "Yes, and hammer and anvil, too.! You'll be roasted, smelted, and pounded, and you'll scarce know what's happening to you. But stand boldly to it! Metal's worthless till it's shaped and tempered."

Great stuff.

(9/1/09) Reading The Lost History of Christianity, by Philip Jenkins, which is about the churches that were established throughout Asia in the dim mists of time. Quite interesting stuff, but a little dry. Early christian missionaries actually went all the way through India, Mongolia and China, and there were thriving christian communities that we westerners never really got to hear about.

Doc Sidhe by Aaron Allston

Doc SidheI found this one in the Baen Free Library CD and had it on my Nook. Having never read anything by Mr. Allston before, it seemed like a great opportunity to check him out. I am sorry to report I couldn't finish this one; didn't get more than about 75 pages into it. It's an alternate universe story with the Sidhe living on the other side. Hapless fool falls into the alternate universe by mistake, where bad guys want to kidnap and either make use of or kill his girlfriend or her doppleganger on the other side. Couldn't get into either the story or the characters, and there was nothing new or exciting here to hold my interest. Maybe Allston's later work gets better.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Short Takes

(6/25/09) Only amazing thing about my day is that I'm about 200 pages into the latest Anita Blake novel, Skin Trade, and she hasn't had sex with anyone yet. I'm stunned.

(7/2/09) Finished reading Brad Thor's The Last Patriot - quite tasty!

(7/8/09) Finished Card's latest Ender book, Ender in Exile. Great stuff.

A Taint in the Blood by S. M. Stirling

A Taint in the Blood: A Novel of the ShadowspawnI used to read quite a bit of S.M. Stirling's work, until he started his postapocalyptic series of "The Change", and I just found them far too depressing to enjoy, so I laid off for a while. I discovered the first book in his new Shadowspawn series at the library, and thought I'd give it a go. There's really nothing new and exciting here, I think we've seen it all before, though perhaps not lumped into one big heap before.

The Shadowspawn are a sub-species of humans who have what amounts to vampiric and shape-shifting abilities, as well as a bunch of other minor "spells" that they have used to dominate the human race for centuries. Like the Illuminati on steroids, I suppose. Nearly everything horrible that has happened on Earth in recent memory is their fault, from the rise of Hitler to ebola, either just as a result of their twisted amusements or as a way to cull out the herd a bit. Their favorite thing to do is to rape, slaughter and drink the blood of humans, though not necessarily in that order, but you get the drift.

Their High Council has decided that there are far too many humans on the planet, and that they'd like to return to a much simpler time, so they are planning to use massive EMP explosions to drive civilization back to the Stone Age and wipe out most of the pesky humans, leaving the rest easily ruled. Some of the younger, more progressive members would rather not act so drastically, enjoying the fruits of modern technology, and merely propose a genetically engineered plague to thin the human ranks a bit. So, there's some major political machinations going on in the midst of the obvious plot in this novel.

One of the Shadowspawn, Adrian Breze, has renounced the vicious ways of his people and has tried to remain uninvolved in any of their power plays and sadistic amusements. His sister, Adrienne, steals his girlfriend, who starts out unaware of his non-human nature, away from him and makes Ellen her own sexual slave and blood donor. The human servants and blood donors for the Shadowspawn are, of course, called 'renfields' and 'lucies'. The foreground plot of the book is Adrian's quest to rescue Ellen and foil his sister's plans, with any luck killing Adrienne in the bargain.

This novel contains a ton of graphic, bondage and discipline, sado-masochistic sexual scenes, as well as brutal and graphic violence. In this, it's not much different from some of Stirling's earlier works. The story is somewhat amusing, however, and it's interesting to see how he explains away all of the horrible things that have gone on in the world by attributing them to the Shadowspawn, plus the belief in gods, demons, faeries, and all other things that go bump in the night.

One of the things I found fun was how Adrienne would refer to the flavor of Ellen's blood, depending on her emotional state. Phrases like, "Two distinct layers of fear, and anger, dread, longing, resignation, a very, very good beef bourgignon garnished with sauteed pearl onions and mushrooms. The sort cooks with a really fine Burgundy and a bouquet garni from a farm stall..." Priceless.

A most definitely adult novel.

Mailbox Monday

This week, I picked up the second and third books in C.E. Murphy's series that began with Heart of Stone.

House of Cards

Hands of Flame

Friday, February 18, 2011

Short Takes

(5/20/09) Finished Dime Store Magic, by Armstrong, and started Industrial Magic. Just plain old entertainment, nothing special.

(5/29/09) Stayed up late to finish reading Fortune and Fate, by Shinn. She always tells such a good yarn.

(6/3/09) I picked up the first three Lemony Snickett books. Finished 1.5 of them last night; they're quite cute.

An Ocean Away by Mike Aldridge

An Ocean AwayA friend of mine sent me this book, written by a friend of hers. It's a story about a Mexican drug dealer, Jose, who has gotten himself into quite a pickle. He was raised in an orphanage, adopted out to child molesters, whom he murdered and robbed and then ran away. He ends up in a coastal fishing village, where he comes to the attention of one of the local drug lords, who puts him and his best friend to work running drugs.

All goes well until his friend is caught and "turned" by the DEA and begins feeding them information which leads to Jose getting stopped by them twice in a row on drug runs. He is able to ditch the drugs at sea before the DEA gets to his boat, but it's obvious that they're onto him, and the drug lord, Robles, tells him to take a break for a while, get out of town.

Instead of taking the time off and just enjoying his ill-gotten gains, he decides while he's in Baja to start up his own drug operation, and things just get worse from that point on.

I have to be perfectly honest here and say that I didn't like this story very well. When the protagonist is as amoral as Jose, I just can't cheer him on. Throw in a DEA agent who is corrupt and evil, and there's pretty much no one left to care about.

The only redeeming thing in Jose's case was when he meets a woman, Lucy, who runs an orphanage and falls in love with her, supposedly experiencing some sort of spiritual awakening. As soon as they are separated, however, he sleeps with whores and keeps up his drug dealing - justifying it with the though that he'll give the money to the orphanage, and it will all be ok, because it's "for the children". Pretty well dashed my hopes that he'd become a worthy protagonist.

Unless you like novels like Tess of the D'Urbervilles, where nothing goes well, and everyone behaves perfectly rottenly, give this one a pass.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Short Takes

(4/28/09) Reading Personal Demon, by Kelly Armstrong caused me to put some more of Armstrong's books on hold at the library.

(4/29/09) Started reading Pournelle & Niven's Escape from Hell, but put it down after about ten pages. Why do these older authors go wacko on you at the end?

(5/15/09) Finished Turncoat, by Butcher. Quite good, as expected.

WWW: Watch by Robert J. Sawyer

WWW: Watch (WWW Trilogy)Sawyer has written an awful lot of very interesting science fiction over the years. WWW: Watch is the story of a young woman, Caitlin who makes contact with a consciousness born in the internet. She was born blind due to a rare syndrome, but has been part of an experimental procedure that has given her sight for the first time at age 16. The scientist, Dr. Kuroda, who performed this miracle lives in Japan, and she is in Canada, so the feed from the "eyepod" which gives her sight has been sent across the internet, giving her a unique perspective on the web, and she is the first to become aware of the entity they call "Webmind".

The entire novel is fairly well written, exploring the probable reactions of people to the existence of the first truly artificial and independent intelligence. Most of the governments are fearful of what Webmind might do, with the power of the internet, and the U.S. Government makes the decision to attack Webmind and shut it/him down.

I think this novel is targeted a bit more at young adults than his usual works. Caitlin is struggling with the usual problems that intelligent adolescents face, like peer pressure, popularity, romantic issues. Nothing philosophically challenging or enlightening here, but a pleasant little story of what if. The ending pretty much left me hanging, wondering what really happened, though.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Short Takes

(4/5/09) Started reading Bujold's latest in the Sharing Knife series, Horizon. Had to stop myself at bedtime, or I'd have stayed up way too late finishing it.

(4/6/09) Finished Horizon, by Bujold. I suspect she's reached a bit of a stopping point in that series now. Perhaps we'll see Miles again, soon.

(4/9/09) Finished Blood Drive, by Stein, by staying up way past my bedtime. The first novel in that series wasn't that encouraging, but I think she's getting better. Starting to like the series pretty well.

(4/25/09) Read Surviving Financial Meltdown, by Ron Blue ... contained nothing I haven't seen before.

Kitty Raises Hell by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty Raises Hell (Kitty Norville, Book 6)
Just another fun and fast read in this series. Kitty returns from Vegas and finds that what happened in Vegas didn't completely stay there. She is being harassed by the group of were-felines whose leader she killed at the end of the last book. They've sent some sort of entity to attack her by setting things on fire, like the bar and restaurant in which she is part-owner.

At the same time, a very powerful vampire appears in Denver, claiming he knows what is attacking her and that he can drive it off. She and the Master of Denver, Rick, meet with the vampire and decline his help, for it's obvious he has some ulterior motive in the long game of vampire politics.

At the same time, Kitty gets involved with a group of tv people who are producing a popular ghost chasers show on tv, and exchanges interviews with them, going on one of their ghost chasing expeditions with them. The fire-starting entity causes some chaos during this one, and she enlists their aid in fighting it.

As I said before, it's fun, it's fast, and Kitty and friends work their usual magic.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Short Takes

(3/24/09) Finished reading Storm from the Shadows. Weber leaves it in a very big cliffhanger, most irritating.

(4/5/09) Finished reading Matter, by Iain Banks, yesterday morning. Space Opera on steroids, but a very disappointing story, in the end. Took me a week or so to get through it.

(4/5/09) Read the novelette, Backup, by Jim Butcher, set in the Dresden Files storyline, and it was amusing.

Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand (Kitty Norville, Book 5)I think I finally found a way to describe the way I feel about this series by Vaughn. It's like a bag of Twizzlers red licorice; if you have it readily available, you'll be forced to devour the entire thing in one sitting. This one took me about an hour and a half yesterday afternoon.

Kitty and Ben have decided that they need to formalize what their inner wolves already know, that they're mated for life. Discouraged by the complexity of planning a wedding, they decide to head to Las Vegas and get married there in one of the less tacky wedding chapels. Before they leave, the head vampire of Denver, Kitty's friend, Rick, gives her a note for the head vampire in Vegas, Dom, giving her a friendly introduction to the master of the city. Apparently, there are no werewolves in Vegas; the desert is simply too inhospitable to their wolf sides. Kitty's producer decides that this would be a great opportunity for Kitty to do her show on TV, in front of a live audience, and sets things up with his friends in Vegas to produce a show the day before her wedding.

When Kitty and Ben check into their hotel, they find out that there's a gun convention and exhibition going on. Ben, having been Cormac's partner in hunting down monsters, turns out to have a few acquaintances among the attendees, none of whom are thrilled with him associating with an "outed" werewolf, but they manage to avoid any gunfire in the early going.

Kitty meets with Dom, and tries to convince him to be a guest on her tv show, but the master vampire is uninterested in participating. The vampires in Vegas keep a low profile, preying on the many tourists passing through sin city. The vampires in his "court" appear to be a bunch of effete, vapid hedonists.

There may not be any werewolves in Vegas, but Kitty finds out that there may be some weretigers and werelions performing in an animal show there. She gets invited to come see their show by one of the weres in the show, and things start to get complicated after that.

Some of the bounty hunters from the gun show decide that going after Kitty, a famous were, would be good for their reputations, the animal show turns out to be more than a sideshow, and Dom's vampires turn out to be even less effective than they first appeared. All of this, I believe, is setting things up for stories dealing with a deeper game of vampire and were politics.

A good, fast, interesting read.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Short Takes

(2/8/09) Enjoyed Ted Nugent's book Ted, White and Blue. Interesting slant on things from the old rocker.
"Sometimes you give the world the best you got, and you get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you got anyway. Success and happiness drive the assholes berzerk. That is simply a bonus."

(2/8/09) From Charlaine Harris, A Fool and His Honey, the latest Aurora Teagarden mystery - very upsetting.

(2/19/09) Started Iaccoca's book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, threw it aside in disgust and went back to fiction for a while.

On Combat by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace
My son gave me this book for Christmas, after hearing Lt. Col Grossman give a talk to some Marine Corps leadership. It's not the kind of book you just zip through, it really needs to be digested in small chunks. Grossman has had a long career working with soldiers and law enforcement personnel, preparing them for deadly situations and the aftermath. He writes in great detail about both the psychological and physiological effects of conflict. It turns out that Grossman is also a science fiction fan, and he uses quotes from books I'm familiar with here and there in On Combat.

The human body has, programmed into it, fight or flight responses that happen in the midst of conflict, when our lives are in danger. Some of these responses can be overcome or mitigated by the proper training. At normal heart beat rates from 60-80 bpm, our physiological responses are basically normal, but when adrenaline starts to raise our heart rates above 120 bpm, the first thing to go is fine motor skills. Above 145 bpm, complex motor skills also deteriorate. Above 160 bpm, our sight and hearing can be constricted, causing tunnel vision and loud noises to be distorted.

However, with the proper type of training, which may include live-fire paintball combat simulations, professional soldiers or law enforcement officers can become accustomed to heart rates this high, and push the effects of a given heart rate to a higher level. Highly trained athletes can also see the same effects in their performance, from forcing themselves to continue to compete at higher metabolic levels.

Grossman has also worked extensively with PTSD victims, and this book contains a lot of information about the causes and effects of this disorder, and advice for soldiers and law enforcement on how to deal with them constructively. I never knew that during WWI and WWII, there were actually more men disabled by psychological problems than by enemy bullets.

This was a very informative book, and I highly recommend it if you are in a profession likely to involve you in a deadly force situation, or are a family member of such a person.

Mailbox Monday

I'm going to call this series of posts Mailbox Monday, as that seems to be the meme. I will say, however, that I most often support my local bookstores, rather than ordering and receiving books by mail. I occasionally receive books by mail from authors to review, or electronically. Even when I buy a book on Tuesday of its release week, when it is available at a special price, though, I'll list it on the following Monday.

First Lord's Fury (Codex Alera)
I've already read this one at the library, but Law picked it up to complete the series for the collection.

On the Prowl
This looks like a fun new anthology. Expect it to appear in the Queue.

Married with Zombies (Living with the Dead)
Might just be silliness, but you gotta love the title.

Product Details
Haven't read any Jody Lynn Nye in quite some time.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Short Takes

(1/21/09) Read Rich Like Them, by Ryan D'Agostino. This is a fairly good book of morsels of wisdom from people who have made a ton of money. Lots of food for thought, and I'm savoring it bite by bite.

(1/30/09) Read Paradox, Book 1 of the Nullapeiron trilogy, by John Meaney. Pretty good stuff.

(2/6/09) Read Bone Crossed by Patricia Briggs - pretty good stuff.


Well, it's been one year since I started The Steel Bookshelf, and I'm quite frankly surprised to have made it this long. The "chore" of reading around 200 books was not at all difficult, but forcing myself to sit down and write something about each and every one of them takes far more discipline than I usually like to employ.

It has been great to hear your comments and to get to know some folks I'd never have met otherwise, and I appreciate those 50 folks who have become public Followers this year. It's a nice round number, and maybe I can make it 100 by the end of the next year.

One of the things I've been aware of for years, reading as much as I do, is that Sturgeon's Law is never out of play. Long-time SF editor and author Theodore Sturgeon is reputed to have said "90% of anything is crap." in especial reference to the story submissions he had to read. One of my goals in posting here at the Steel Bookshelf has always been to help my friends fight the Law, by telling you exactly what I think about a book, letting you know whether it's worth reading, and for what reasons.

Quite frankly, there's not a lot of science fiction and fantasy out there today that I'd consider life-changing or thought-provoking. There is, however, a huge stock of stories that are good, solid entertainment. For the price of a movie ticket, you can pick up a paperback novel that will take you away for a few hours. The recent glut of paranormal fiction, with its werewolves and vampires, elves and wizards, is exactly that. You might occasionally get a flash of socially conscious rage against discrimination, understand someone's "daddy" issues a bit more, or be disgusted by white slavery in the Eastern Bloc, but there's generally not  a lot of depth there.

I find myself turning to non-fiction when I want real brain fodder. I tend to actually take notes, place bookmarks, and then discuss the issues raised or associations made, and the reviews generally trend quite a bit longer than fiction reviews. Unfortunately, it can take me a few weeks to work my way through the non-fiction books, so the ratio of fiction to all the rest is pretty high in the content here.

For the coming year, when I run out of some of my old material to recycle on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I'm either going to introduce some reviews of short stories by classic SF and Fantasy authors, or try to focus on some of their "forgotten" fiction works. Heck, I can do a couple of months on Heinlein, alone.

As Bartles and James used to say, "Thank you for your continued support." Happy Anniversary!

Skinwalker by Faith Hunter

Skinwalker (Jane Yellowrock, Book 1)
Skinwalker is the first book in the Jane Yellowrock series by Hunter. It takes place in New Orleans, though a slightly darker New Orleans than the one we all know from Mardi Gras. There's a rogue vampire in town, and it is killing indiscriminately. The vampire council don't want the mundane authorities to start digging too deeply into vampiric affairs, and so they have hired Jane Yellowrock, a vampire hunter, to come take care of the problem for them.

One immediately thinks of Anita Blake, the Vampire Executioner, but Jane Yellowrock starts out just a little harder, a little tougher, and far less innocent than Anita. I got the nagging feeling a couple of times in the early going that there might have been some short stories or novellas written about Jane that I'd missed, as she seems to spring into being with a long and shady past. Some of that emptiness gets filled with flashbacks later on in the novel, but some of it is still left hanging. Perhaps in a sequel?

Jane Yellowrock is a skinwalker, someone who can change shape from human into whatever creature, more or less, she desires. She seems to desire, more often than not, the shape of a hunting cat, like a cougar or jaguar, but she carries with her an assortment of teeth and claws from various animals, and when she shifts she uses the "snake" of their DNA to determine her new form.

We're all probably familiar with the idea of lycanthropes having a "beast" that rises to the surface when they change into were-form, almost a second entity that lives within them. In the case of Jane Yellowrock's beast, it might quite literally be true. It appears that sometime in her past, she forcibly possessed the body of a hunting cat, and the spirit of that cat, with its simple motives of kill, eat and mate, continues to live within her even in her human form.

Jane seems to be very much of a bad-ass loner, though she has a couple of off-camera friends who are like her family. That's one of the back story things that I was left wishing I had more information on when the book concluded.

One thing that a lot of writers leave out of their lycanthrope stories is an explanation of what happens to the body mass of a shifter when it takes on a shape smaller or larger than its own. Hunter takes care of this by having Jane use boulders and rocks as a "mass sink". Just a little detail that I thought was cool.

This was definitely a good yarn, and I'm looking forward to the next book in the series, as soon as I loosen the purse strings enough to buy it.

Book Blogger Hop - February 11 to 14

It's time for the Book Blogger Hop again, hosted by Jennifer at Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

Question of the week:
"Tell us about one of your posts from this week and give us a link so we can read it (review or otherwise)!"

It's a little out of genre, from a book I read a while back, but it's the kind of book that makes you think about things, Start Late, Finish Rich by David Bach. I'm a bit of a personal finance geek, and I love finding little tweaks I can apply to my life.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Short Takes

(12/17/08) Reading The Last Undercover, written by a former FBI agent, Bob Hamer. Quite amusing.

(1/9/09) Reading Cherryh's latest in the Cyteen/Downbelow Station series - Regenesis - it just goes on and on interminably describing political machinations without any action whatsoever.

(1/21/09) Reading Goblin Quest, by Jim C. Hines - a fairly mindless but amusing dungeon crawling tale.

Gotcha Capitalism by Bob Sullivan

Gotcha Capitalism: How Hidden Fees Rip You Off Every Day-and What You Can Do About It
(Review written 6/6/08)
This is a pretty good book for people who don't pay a lot of attention to their bills and other financial matters to read to let them know how much money they may be losing to hidden fees by all the companies they deal with, but after five or six chapters, I haven't really found anything that surprised me, but I keep up on that sort of stuff as a hobby, anyway. I don't usually run my credit cards up over the limit, or pay any interest on them - I'm one of those consumers that cc issuers hate.

I also don't ever take money out of ATMs that aren't associated with my bank, so I don't get hit with those kinds of fees, and I haven't had to pay overdraft fees in the last thirty years, that I can recall. I just had a convo with my son about ATM fees the other day while he was home. Hope he took it to heart and starts planning his weekend outing budgets a little better, so he can quit throwing away money for nothing.

Title company fees seem to be pretty much unavoidable, and in my case, they're only likely to take place a couple of times in my entire lifetime - only time I had an issue with them was when I refinanced a home I'd already owned and paid for title insurance on a few years previously, and I'm thinking "why should I pay this again so soon?" It's a racket.

The chapter on mutual fund expense ratios, and kickbacks to HR folks and plan administrators wasn't a total surprise, but it's definitely irritating to think how much money they're scamming out of those of us who care enough to put away money for retirement. I'll need to review the mutual funds I'm in to see what their expense ratios are one of these days, and maybe make some adjustments. I'll keep y'all posted as I go along in this book. Looks like mostly good info.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Short Takes

(11/16/08) Joe Haldeman's new Marsbound seems to be his attempt at YA fiction. It's a bout a teenaged girl who emigrates to Mars with her parents and younger, pesty brother...wait a second! Can you say Podkayne? It's such a Heinlein ripoff. Haldeman's writing is always pretty good, though, so it's worth the read, but breaks no new ground.

(11/17/08) Finished the Haldeman book - pretty anticlimactic ending.

(11/23/08) Read a couple chapters of a book by Ron Paul, Revolution: A Manifesto. Interesting libertarian ideas, there.

(12/14/08) Reading the latest in the Greywalker series, Underground - slow so far.

Warp Speed by Travis Taylor

Warp Speed (Warp Speed #1)
There used to be a sub-genre of science fiction called "hard" science fiction. It dealt mostly with advanced technology and its effects on human culture at large, or the people who developed it - maybe both. Warp Speed by Taylor takes us back to the realm of hard SF. In fact, this is the kind of hard SF that engineers and physics nerds dream about.

As you might imagine from that intro, the hero of this tale, Anson, is a physics professor, with perhaps a bit of an engineering bent. He and his two doctoral students, Becca and Jim, have discovered a quantum effect that they believe could have application as a faster-than-light drive for spaceships. Everything else that happens follows quite logically from there.

In order to power the drive one must have a source of power vastly greater than what is available through conventional sources, but fortunately, Becca comes up with a concept which uses nanomachinery and an odd physical principal to generate all the power needed. Also fortunately, Anson has befriended an Air Force officer, Tabitha, who is high in the councils of the black budget community within the U.S. and she is able to get them the funding they need to produce the power generators and the warp drive engines.

When they're attempting to test the engines in space for the first time, on a space shuttle flight, the bad guys (we think they're probably Chinese) sabotage the mission and steal the technology for themselves. The warp drive technology, it turns out, can also be used as a weapon far superior to the atomic bomb, and the book descends into a race against time, to see who will get control of the new technology, and the world.

If you enjoy a novel that's not all that long on plot, but filled with a ton of scientific speculations, you'll really like this one. It reminded me of early SF, like Rocket Ship Galileo by Heinlein.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Short Takes

(10/22/08) Regarding the Zelazny stuff in Manna from Heaven, there's a reason it wasn't previously published. Most of it was unfinished/unpolished/disconnected. The Amber stuff at the end seemed to be going somewhere, but he must have passed before he could finish it, which is a real pity.

(11/12/08) Finished reading the chronicle of Lavan Firestorm (Brightly Burning) last night. I really used to like Mercedes Lackey's stuff, and it's still good for some semi-amusing light reading.

(11/13/08) Started re-reading Beguilement, by Bujold. I don't like this fantasy series as well as the Chalion stuff, but it's still Bujold.

Start Late, Finish Rich by David Bach

Start Late, Finish Rich: A No-Fail Plan for Achieving Financial Freedom at Any Age (Finish Rich Book Series)
(Review written 7/11/07)
I'm in the middle of reading Start Late, Finish Rich, by David Bach. I ran across a reference to his book in the middle of a financial article I was reading online, and the local library had a copy, so I figured, what the heck?

Bach sounds like a cross between Carlton Sheets and Robert Schuller, alternately giving real life strategies for retiring wealthy, and spouting aphorisms and slogans guaranteed to get you pumped up about your future. This, I think, would be a fantastic book for someone who's just getting started out in the working world to read (as a matter of fact, I recommended it to my daughter), as the strategies apply equally well to those starting early and those starting late. I think the best piece of advice in here is along the lines of "don't beat yourself up over your past mistakes."

I find myself fairly often saying, "if only I'd have bought that stock I was going to" or "if only I'd have bought that piece of property just outside town" or "if only I'd have gone into business for myself without that bad partner." The point that Bach makes is that even if you've fouled up, financially, in the past, that doesn't preclude you from succeeding in the future, if you just get with the program once again. This also has applications for those who haven't necessarily messed up big time, but who may have gotten temporarily sidetracked by the vagaries of fortune - like being unemployed for two years ;-).

This book hasn't dropped any astounding revelations on me; I've been doing most of it for years. I guess I should find it reassuring that a guy who travels around the country doing financial planning seminars is telling me to do what I'm already doing, for the most part.

He talks a little bit about finding your "Latte Factor." This is a term for some area in your life that you can economize by eliminating that, e.g., daily latte, excessive dining out, unnecessary luxuries (aren't luxuries by definition unnecessary?), and then using the money you free up by quitting those habits to fund your retirement. There are a couple of problems with this approach for me.

First, I've already pretty much eliminated the lattes of life from my life. I don't go to Starbucks, I pack a sack lunch daily, only going out to lunch for special occasions, with friends. I don't even eat dinner out on a weekly basis, perhaps twice a month at most, unless I'm on the road and have no choice. I don't go out to see all the new movies at the theatres, just a couple of major blockbusters a year, the rest I rent at the video store, and if we average one movie a week, I'd be surprised. So there's not a lot of fat left in my life to trim is what I'm saying.

Second, the numbers he tosses around seem geared towards a really urban crowd. He talks about $17.50 for a martini, $7 for a pack of cigarettes, and so forth. Here in the rural West, $5 for a cocktail is considered exorbitant, and I don't think I've ever paid over $3 for a pack of smokes. So, it's a little tough to believe the resultant investment numbers, when the savings figures just aren't there.

However, for the vast majority of people out there, I think, this may be an eye-opener, to really take a look at how much money we all fritter away on entertainment, socializing, eating non-nutritious snack food, and so on. At the very least, one should always be aware of and question habitual expenses.

Once you've saved all this money, Bach suggests that the best place to invest it is in your employer-sponsored 401K plan. At the very least, of course, one should put enough money in the 401K at work to gain the employers matching funds - that's just FREE money. On top of that, you contribute to the plan with pre-tax dollars, so you have to work less hours to invest a given amount each month that you would if you used money Uncle Sam had already tapped. So, it ain't rocket science, but it's good solid practice. My wife and I have been doing this for years, and while there ain't millions in the accounts yet, it's surprising how much money one accumulates systematically, if you just leave it alone to grow. He doesn't say it, but I will, "NEVER EVER touch your 401K! until you're ready to retire." The IRS will get back at you, big time.

As far as what investments to pick within the umbrella of a tax-advantaged plan, he's got lots of options, but the big picture is diversification. One wants to have a little bit of everything in your portfolio. I'm not going to get into the strategies for doing that, just read the book. However, I was reassured to note that he strongly recommends being invested in one of the Asset Allocation mutual funds, which automatically balances and rebalances your money across a pre-selected range of sectors, and which in some cases can even be automatically adjusted towards a different mix the closer you get to retirement age. This just happens to be the type of funds my wife and I had recommended to us by both our financial planners a couple of years ago when we were rolling over money out of our 401K plans from previous employers to IRAs. In our 401Ks at our current employers, we like to play the market a bit, just for fun, and actually actively manage our funds, but the IRAs are on autopilot.

Which brings up something else he said that I thought was pretty cool. "Your investment strategy should be extremely boring." The exciting, flashy, type of investment that your buddy is going to tip you off to at a cocktail party isn't going to cut it for the long haul. You might pick up a good return in a short period, once, or twice, but over the long haul the best bet is to just steadily invest in a broad spectrum of stocks, bonds, etc. Dial it in and leave it alone, except to occasionally boost your contributions if you're not maxed out yet.

Where I'm not too sure if I agree with him here is in his percentages. For someone my age, he's saying I should be putting 25% of my pay in a retirement plan. I'm at around half of that right now, and I think that may be sufficient. Of course, I may have a slightly different set of priorities. I'd like to enjoy some of the fruits of success now, rather than later, and I'm more interested in putting some money in an investment account that I can tap on demand, without paying any tax penalties, at any time that I want. Trying to strike a balance between having a retirement somewhat dialed in, and having sufficient cash reserves on hand to take advantage of other investment opportunities or purchasing opportunities that arise without warning. For example, if you need to buy a new car anyway, you're better off paying cash for it than financing it, in my opinion (I think Bach would agree). And, if you have plenty of cash that's in a semi-liquid state, you can take advantage of truly good deals, someone else's desperation to sell, or whatever. If you don't have cash reserves, you pay RETAIL. But that's just my personal philosophy.

The one thing upon which he and I agree fully is that you should never carry credit card debt. Keep those cards paid off, or don't keep them at all. Credit cards can be handy tools, if used properly, and sometimes there are things you just can't do without them, like purchasing items online, booking an airline flight, or renting a car. They're also great for unexpected expenses or emergencies, giving you a bit of a grace period to free up assets that are perhaps not quite liquid.

He's got some good stuff in here, too, about generating additional income. The first way, of course, is to get a raise out of your employer, and he covers very briefly some strategies for doing just that. There's also a lot of information about starting your own business in your free time, either doing direct marketing, running an EBay store, buying a franchise, or getting into rental real estate.

Bach's got a pretty good section about buying real estate, which was interesting. The wife and I had a piece of rental property for a couple of years, and took advantage of the loophole that allows you to sell a house you've lived in for two of the last five years without paying any capital gains tax. Real estate seems to be the only place I've made any money with my investments over the years. The only thing is that I hate being in the landlord business. I might be able to get back into it if I could find a good property management company to look after things and who weren't too expensive, and who had a good track record for finding stable tenants quickly.

The final 1/3 of the book is a bit of a hodgepodge of philosophical things. One of the principals he gets into fairly deeply is the idea of being a giver, and the concept of a tithe. Now, I'm quite familiar with the concept of tithing, having been a fundamentalist type of christian for a number of years, and I fully believe that being a generous giver really unlocks the blessings that God has in store for believers.

That said, I'm not so sure that I see any scriptural basis for it to apply to unbelievers. Bach almost approaches this from the old "give to get" philosophy, and claims that it's some sort of immutable law of the universe, but I just can't justify it. Even for believers, sometimes the formula isn't all that straightforward, and we just continue to give when we don't feel all that blessed because we're commanded to do so. In my personal experience, it's always worked out well, and it even seems that the money in the budget stretches farther, the more I give back to God and his people.

In fact, I've had several conversations with my good friend Law and my wife and a few others about this subject. I get a little (the feeling is hard to describe, sort of irritated/amused/thinking "Well, duh!") bugged when people whine about being strapped for cash, and I see them throw a five dollar bill in the collection plate on Sunday, when I know their household income is probably close to six figures. I'm thinking to myself, "You'll always be strapped until you start giving freely and wholeheartedly." Oh, and "sacrificially." If it doesn't hurt a bit to give, you're not doing it right.

Anyway, Bach attempts to provide a bit of balance at the tag end of things by talking about how to live life fully and be happy and all that rainbow and unicorn stuff. That's the subject of a whole different type of book, in my opinion, but maybe he just doesn't want to be lumped in with greedy, money-grubbing, capitalist swine. As I heard from a multi-millionaire acquaintance one time, "You can be poor and happy, or rich and happy, and, having experienced both, it's far better to be rich." Probably not an original thought, but always relevant.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Short Takes

(9/10/08) I did finish reading Saturn's Children by Charles Stross and Spend to the End by Laurence J. Kotlikoff. Neither one of those books really did much for me. Started reading the new Reacher novel by Lee Child. He's always good.

(9/29/08) Did finish Greywalker by Kat Richardson (quite good).

(10/9/08) Started reading Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick, and decided I must just take it back to the library and get something decent to read.

Thorn Queen by Richelle Mead

Thorn Queen (Dark Swan, Book 2)
If you haven't read the first book in the Dark Swan series, Storm Born, this review could contain spoilers regarding certain events in that novel. Thorn Queen picks up Eugenie's tale right after Storm Born. Eugenie is having an interesting time settling in as the ruler of the Thorn Land. On a tour of her land, she discovers a couple of things. First is that the people in her land, accustomed to a more lush environment when Aeson was ruler, are suffering great difficulties in surviving, now that the land has become much like her native Arizona desert. The second is that someone is kidnapping gentry girls from her land, never to be seen again. On these two problems hangs the rest of the tale.

Eugenie tries to show her people how to live in their new land, based on her understanding of how modern technology enables people to live in the Arizona desert, with irrigation techniques and by mining its mineral wealth to trade with other kingdoms for the food and other goods they need. She enlists the aid of a foppish young prince of a neighboring land, Leith, who was born with few magical powers, and so he compensates with what appears to be a natural talent for engineering. He helps her to design an irrigation system for one of her villages. Of course, Leith is hopelessly in love with Eugenie, and his mother, Katrice, has hopes off marrying him off to Eugenie and forming an alliance. Things go rapidly south when Eugenie finally gives him the "just friends" speech.

Eugenie also begins searching for the person or persons who are causing the gentry girls to disappear. The likely culprit seems to be a group of bandits operating nearby. She hunts them down, but has a nasty surprise when it turns out that they have fire demons at their command. Her magical strengths are not sufficient to fight the fire demons, so she has to enlist some help to take them down, including her half sister, Jasmine, who has inherited some of the Storm King's mastery of water magic, and can summon water demons.

A good portion of this novel is about Eugenie finally beginning to accept her heritage and her responsibilities to the gentry land she's come to rule. She fights it, but in the end must submit her own desires to accomplish the greater good for her people. I found it interesting how she learns to work new magics, blending her understanding of things like atoms and molecules with the more intuitive way of imaging the elements that the gentry use.

Once again, a strong female protagonist who is willing (in the end) to grow and change, a couple of gratuitous sex scenes, and some great political intrigue make this a pretty good read. Mead also begins to flesh out some of her supporting characters a bit more, and we begin to suspect that they might even have lives and minds of their own.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Short Takes

(8/17/08) Reading Rosenberg's Dead Heat, scary stuff.

(8/22/08) Finished reading Rolling Thunder by Varley. The whole darned thing, while a fun read, turns out to be a shaggy dog. Reader challenge - read the whole thing and tell me how many Heinlein titles you find in the text. The three in the final sentence of the novel are freebies, they don't count.

(8/22/08) Began reading a new Walter Jon Williams novel, Implied Spaces, that's mildly entertaining. Looking at the front pages, I realize I haven't kept up on his recent stuff very well. I have everything he wrote up till his last six novels. Gotta get hoppin'.

Book Blogger Hop - February 4 to 7

It's time for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Jennifer at Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

Today's question:
"What are you reading now, and why are you reading it?"
As usual, I have several things going at once. I'm reading A Path Out of the Desert by Kenneth M. Pollack. It's an analysis of the political, economic, and strategic situation in the Middle East and some policy recommendations from Mr. Pollack, who was a national security team member in several previous administrations. I'm reading it because he's written some interesting stuff before, and I like to hear what the experts have to say on things every so often.
I'm also re-reading Ghost by John Ringo, on my Nook. I reviewed the fourth book in his Paladin of Shadows series on this site a while back, and thought I ought to put up some reviews of earlier books in the series. I'm a big fan of Ringo's works.
Also reading, but may not finish, Aaron Alston's Doc Sidhe, also on my Nook. I haven't read anything by him before, but it was there and I thought I'd try it. It's a product of one of my Baen free CDs.
Finally, picked up Kitty's House of Horrors by Vaughn last night just before bed and got forty or fifty pages into it. I've been reviewing this series here, and when I finish this one and one more, I'll be current with the series. Vaughn's work is consistently entertaining.
Happy Hopping!

Storm Born by Richelle Mead

Storm Born (Dark Swan, Book 1)
I read a couple of Richelle Mead's Succubus series books when my friend, Stef, loaned them to me, but haven't really followed the series past that point. I found a couple of books in the Dark Swan series at the library bookstore, and thought they looked entertaining.

The heroine of our series is Eugenie Markham, a woman trained in the shamanic tradition, who owns her own business as an exorcist of sorts. When supernatural beings are bothering people in Arizona, she comes running and sends the creatures back to either the Otherworld - the land of the Gentry, or the Underworld - the land of the dead.
Eugenie is hired by a man to find his lost or kidnapped sister. He believes she has been abducted against her will by the Gentry - Faeries, if you will. Eugenie doesn't like to travel to the Otherworld, as it can be quite dangerous to mortals, but finally decides to go and rescue her.

In the early going, Eugenie becomes involved with a veterinarian named Kiyo, who is darkly attractive and who turns out, eventually, to be a kitsune, kind of like a were-fox. He is actually a half-breed, and has ties both in the Otherworld and the mortal realm. Eugenie has, in the past, bound some spirits to her service, and she ends up taking those servants with her when she journeys to the kingdoms of the Gentry to find out what has become of the girl, Jasmine. Her spies on the other side have told her that Jasmine is being held by Aeson, a king of the Alder land.

She attempts to get Dorian, king of the Oak land and enemy of Aeson's, to help her, but is unwilling to pay his price, so she and her companions try by themselves the first time. Eugenie is in for a rude awakening when she arrives at Aeson's keep. Her attempt at a surprise attack is foiled by a traitor in her group, and she also finds out that she may be the daughter of the Storm King, a gentry lord whose goal was to unite all of their kingdoms and to conquer the mortal realm, as well. When she returns home, her mother confirms that she is, indeed, the Storm King's daughter. Eugenie spends the rest of the book alternately denying her heritage, while discovering that she has the need to use her half-gentry magical talents to confront Aeson again and bring Jasmine home.

An entertaining novel, a very quick read. Has a couple of quite graphic sex scenes, which really weren't all that necessary for plot development. It seems as if Mead is unconsciously mimicking some of the elements of Laurell K. Hamilton's two series' heroines, Merry Gentry and Anita Blake. Is it absolutely necessary that there be a love triangle to make things interesting? I had thought at first that the story wasn't going to take itself very seriously, as Eugenie starts out with a job performing an exorcism on a pair of running shoes, and one of her spirit sidekicks, Nandi, sounds just like Eeyore. Things turn seriously quickly, and she kills off Nandi and her comedy relief in the first violent confrontation. Ah well.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Short Takes

(7/26/08) Finished a book by John Stossel, Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity. A pretty good take on things that are debated in America today, though the articles seemed to lack depth. Probably just a compilation of various short reports he's done in the news business, really. Only thing I disagreed with was his take on child-rearing. Reminded me once again that my views are more libertarian than republican, as far as our major political parties are concerned.

(8/10/08) Finished Jhegaala, by Brust - not his best work.

(8/11/08) Read Kushiel's Mercy for a while before dinner. Carey just gets better the more she writes...Continued reading until I forced myself to put it down around 10:30. I'd have stayed up until the wee hours if I hadn't, just to finish it.

Princess of Wands by John Ringo

Princess of Wands
(review written 10/17/07)
Soccer Mom goes Rambo? This seems to be the underlying theme of Princess of Wands, by John Ringo. As always, Ringo writes fast-paced action that entertains, but there's just a few flaws in the book that niggle at my mind.

We have Barbara Everette, a "good Christian" woman, who was raised as a military brat, and whose father instilled in her a penchant for martial arts mastery and firearms proficiency. One weekend, while on a solo "vacation" from her husband and three kids, she gets forced into a conflict with a minor demigod who has begun gathering worshipers down in the Louisiana bayou. Her strong faith in God and Christ protects her from his evil influence, and allows her to manifest some pretty strong offensive "magic" skills and take him down. She's then recruited by a secret organization that battles supernatural evil creatures.

The first thing that sorta bugs me in this story is the cardboard cutout nature of some of the supporting characters, especially her husband. He's briefly summarized as a typical sports obsessed, helpless in the kitchen (and probably in the bedroom), self-absorbed twit. When his wife tells him she's taking off for the weekend by herself, he can't even rouse himself from the playoff game he's watching on tv to ask her any questions except, "Who's going to cook for us?" Same scene replayed later when she's leaving for a week to go to a training camp for paladins.

I have a tough time believing that a heroine as strong, intelligent and capable as Barbara is ever going to settle for someone this dopey. I also have a tough time believing that husbands that shallow actually exist, except in sitcoms. Their three kids in the story are pretty much just scenery, as well.

There's a conversation about going armed whenever leaving the house where Barbara says something like, "I'm pretty sure I would have been date-raped a couple of times, if the guys I was with hadn't known I was packing (a pistol) and wasn't afraid to use it" GMAFB! Not only would she not get date-raped, she wouldn't ever get asked out a 2nd time. How in the world did she snag a husband, with that attitude?

Barbara remembers being attacked by a knife-wielding rapist when she was in college, and disabling him quickly with her martial arts skills. She's also spent a lot of time at the gun range over the years, perfecting her target shooting. Ok, both plausible, I suppose. I'm not sure how well this translates into true combat skills when she finally faces a half-dozen armed thugs attacking her through the window of her hotel room, but she's able to take them all out without taking any damage, herself. Supernatural aid?

I was sorta irritated that Ringo introduces a cop character named Kelly, gives him way more fleshing out than any other character in the book, then kills him off halfway through. Wouldn't it be nice for a supernatural crime fighter to have a friend on the police force in later installments?

I'm not sure if Ringo's playing it straight or not in this book, but one of the themes that emerge is that not all Christians are the judgemental, holier-than-thou sorts that get skewered in the media. Or, at least, Barbara is not, and she claims there are others who aren't, either. We don't meet any of them in this book, though. Makes me wonder...again, a cardboard cutout view of the Christian and soccer mom life. We don't hear about any of Barbara's friends, who presumably would be that sort of Christian, and that she'd be close to. We are briefly informed that she was PTA president, and a couple other things, but still she has no close friends that appear in the story. Doesn't seem to have any commitments to worry about when she goes jaunting off on the weekend or for the whole week, like attending a bible study, teaching a sunday school class, or anything community oriented. Doesn't sound like a "good Christian woman" to me, but hey, I'm funny that way.

Ringo's got this ecumenical thing going on with the secret organization. Most of its members are not Christians, but mostly Wiccans, worshipers of Norse Gods, oriental gods, etc. There's an ongoing dialog about how all of the "good" gods are perhaps just facets of "The Light" and the christian or "White God" is another, albeit extremely powerful one. This is so totally in conflict with Christian doctrine, i.e., "I am the man comes to the Father but through Me.", that I begin to think the point of this book is more an anti-apologetic than not. He seems to be attempting to reconcile christianity with all those other "equally valid" religions out there. Very New Age.

Anyway, the story is pretty good, the concept interesting, but I know that Mr. Ringo can do a much better job of plotting, characterization, and making the details of the story consistent. If he's going to engage our brains by introducing philosophical discussions, he needs to keep the rest of the story more believable, so we're not distracted.