Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tough Times

I checked out several books from the library, that had been on my to-read list for a while. Unfortunately, a couple of them just didn't make the grade, as far as being worth finishing.

A number of years ago, I truly enjoyed the first books in the Stainless Steel Rat series, by Harry Harrison, which featured the master criminal, Slippery Jim diGriz, in a number of sarcastically related adventures. Once again, either the series just went on far too long, and Harrison ran out of good ideas and worthy plots, or Harrison himself went on too long, and began to lose his touch in his later efforts. The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell was about Jim and his sons, James and Bolivar, rushing to the rescue of his wife Angelina, who has been sent to Heaven, or reasonable facsimile thereof, by an con artist turned preacher. Frankly, don't bother.

I can't recall where I found the other book recommended, but I wish I could, so I'd take further recommendations with a grain of salt. Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang was advertised as a fresh, irreverent, refreshing (and probably a few other meaningless adjectives) look at the immigrant experience and success in America. I couldn't even make it past his childhood. I was far too busy raising my own children during his childhood to pay any attention to the cultural icons which he twists slightly and riffs upon, so I didn't get any of his witticisms, and the quips I did comprehend were mostly rude, crude, and simply unacceptable. Couldn't keep pressing on, sorry.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Around the Web

A book review and author interview on Victory Girls.

Impulse by Steven Gould

I've always enjoyed Steven Gould's work, and I'm surprised I haven't reviewed any of it previously, just an issue of timing I suppose. I read the first two books in the series, Jumper and Reflex, when they first came out, and I just found Impulse at the local library the, other day, so we'll start there. In the previous books, we met Davy and Millie, two humans who possess the very uncommon ability to "jump", to teleport themselves and some amount of materials they're carrying instantaneously anywhere on Earth. Whether they can jump to other planets has not yet been explored by Gould - maybe later.

 Davy and Millie were hunted, and Davy captured and exploited by, a shadowy quasi-government group in the past, and they now live anonymously far off the grid, in a self-sustaining hunting lodge in the wilds of the Yukon. Davy and Millie are married, it's sixteen years, later, and they are raising a daughter, Cent, as the story picks back up.

More or less simultaneously, two things occur which set up all of the subplots in the story - Cent discovers when she is caught in an avalanche while snowboarding that she can jump, just like her parents, and her parents decide that Cent should enroll in a mainstream high school (she's always been home schooled)to become socialized. They purchase a house in a small town in rural New Mexico, and appear to move there, though they actually sleep back in their fortress of solitude in the Yukon, and Cent mostly walks to her new school from the house, and returns "home" each day just for the sake of appearances.

The main plot of the story centers around Cent's assimilation into the small town high school culture. She rapidly makes friends and enemies, and for a while their interactions are those of typical teens, though it eventually takes a more sinister turn when it turns out that her arch-nemesis, Caffeine, and her cronies are working for a drug dealing gang and bullying and blackmailing underclassmen and geeks. The friendships remain less sinister, and she gains a couple off BFF girlfriends, a disastrous first crush, a non-romantic date, and finally true love.

The second plot continues Davy's story, as he monitors and tries to expose and destroy the shadowy group that hurt him before. He jumps all over the world, tailing their leaders, infiltrating their offices, and playing James Bond.

The third plot element is the ongoing tale of how Davy and Millie use their powers for good, "jumping" relief supplies into war, famine, and flood torn regions of the world.

The fun thing about this book is when Gould, through Cent, explores some of the possibilities of jumping. In the past, when Davy or Millie have jumped from one location to the other, whatever angular momentum or gravitational potential is involved in the jump is simply eliminated, perhaps cast into some unknown dimension. Cent wonders about this, and begins to experiment with jumps that involve creating velocity from scratch, so she can either soar into the air, fly across the sky, or add sudden bursts of momentum or kinetic energy to her own actions. These new found skills serve her well when the conflict with Caffeine and her gang finally turns violent.

This is a Young Adult book that's not too caught up in its hormone-driven angst, and provides a pleasant evening's entertainment.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Quiet Week

In case y'all are waiting with bated breath for my every utterance upon the subject of literature, I thought I'd make my excuses as to why things might be slow this week. I got buried in a couple of different nonfiction books that I failed to finish, for multiple reasons, and didn't get to zoom through quicker fiction which is more easily reviewed. The first was Triumphs of Experience by George Vaillant. The library required this book back before I was finished with it, and it had been like wading through a long doctoral thesis, complete with references to psychological studies by the obscure and presumed brilliant. Vaillant's analysis of the lives of "the men of the Harvard Grant Study" contained some interesting insights into growth and aging in America, provided by the opportunity to study the lives of a similar cohort of men for nearly seven decades. Unfortunately, I was aging faster than the men in the study as I read it, so I reluctantly bid it adieu.

I had come across a reference to neurolinguistic programming somewhere in my perambulations, and I picked up a copy of Influencing with Integrity, by Genie Z. Laborde. Back in my younger days, I was an Amway distributor in a very active organization. We were encouraged to read a ton of positive thinking, goal setting, and attitude adjusting books by such authors as Peale, Schuller, Waitley, Clason, and many others (I gave away two large boxes full of those books to a friend who was working sales a while back, and I still have a couple dozen laying around somewhere). Influencing with Integrity seemed to me just another rehash of goal-setting, dream-building, name-it-and-claim-it motivational literature, and when they suggested studying a series of grainy facial photographs to determine whether someone was more or less susceptible to our Svengali powers, I called it a day.

That's all for today, hope to see you later this week.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Sharpness on the Neck by Fred Saberhagen

Saberhagen seems to be attempting to create the same sense of mystery about the Dracula story as he did with The Dracula Tapes, by telling the story to the reader through recounting it to the descendents of someone who was part of the story. In The Dracula Tapes, it was Jonathan Harker's family, in this case, it's Philip Radcliffe's. Unfortunately, since we all know just how real the Count of Wallachia is, it falls a little flat.

The meat of the tale takes place during and shortly after the French Revolution, and the title of the tale refers not to  the fangs of a vampire so much as the bite of the newly invented guillotine. Dracula's evil younger brother, Radu, has been inadvertently freed from a long imprisonment by foolish grave robbers, and he is trying to get his revenge on Vlad, while enjoying the bloody mess of the revolution. Radu is one of those guys who gives vampires a bad name, taking more pleasure from his victims' pain and fear than from the sustenance derived from their blood.

The long and the short of it - When Vlad is badly injured by Radu's minions, he takes refuge at the family estate owned by Philip Radcliffe. His debt of honor forces him to aid Radcliff (and all his descendants into perpetuity) when the American falls into the clutches of the French authorities and is destined for the guillotine. The mechanics of the rescue are the only mysterious part of the story.

The sole saving grace of this tale is the amount of interesting trivia about the French Revolution and its victims. I never realized they had executed the famous scientist, Lavoisier, before. Makes me want to read up a bit. It also brought back fond memories of Weber's Honor Harrington novels, in which the revolutionary People's Republic of Haven is led by folks like Rob S. Pierre and Oscar St. Juste.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Killswitch by Joel Shepherd

A while back, at the Friends of the Library bookstore, I picked up the first two Cassandra Kresnov novels, Breakaway and Crossover. Found them to be pretty amusing, but the third book never turned up for sale, and I just recently found it available at the lending library. It's a shame I haven't the time to go back and give a thorough "what has gone before" with those two books, but you'll just have to trust that the action in those books leads implicitly to the situation at the beginning of Killswitch. Cassandra is a GI, a synthetic person, designed to be a super soldier, killer, or spy, far stronger faster and durable than a normal human being. She's also an experimental model, given far greater intelligence than earlier models, and after fighting for a shadowy group called Dark Star for a number of years, she learned to think for herself, and desire a life for herself other than constant fighting. So, in the earlier novels, she went AWOL, and fled to the world of Tanusha, far away from the conflict between the League, which created her, and the Federation of Earth. At the beginning of this story, she is the second in command of the defense forces of Tanusha, a security advisor to its President Nieland, and has established good friendships and strong bonds with her coworkers...and co-conspirators. She even has a boyfriend, Ari, who works for Tanushan Intelligence, and who comes in handy even outside the bedroom, when she needs contacts in the shadows or information that's tricky to worm out. Cassandra gets word that the League designed her with a killswitch - a way to deactivate her on command, through her neural network, which she uses to directly access the various information networks on Tanusha, like wetware wireless access. To make it even tougher, there's a new GI in town, with the same advanced abilities as Cassandra, but with her loyalties firmly locked down, and that android has the killswitch, as well as a hidden agenda which Cassandra's friends and allies probably aren't going to like. At the same time, most inconveniently, a portion of Earth's Fifth Fleet is blockading the space stations' ports, through which all of Tanusha's commerce flows, and tensions are ratcheting up between the space marines and the transport union goons. Tanusha has been selected as the next seat of the high council, (sort of like a space U.N.), and Cassandra suspects that neither the Federation nor the League are happy with the coming change, and will probably do whatever they can to sabotage the process. Her mission, should she choose to accept it, is to find the killer android, neutralize the killswitch, figure out who has infiltrated the Tanushan government, and stop a space war. No problem. This was a pretty good series, with lots of action, much breakage and exploding.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Blood Trade by Faith Hunter

Once again, Jane gets smack dab in the middle of vampire power struggles when the master of Natchez, Hieronymous (referred to mentally throughout as Big H by Jane) pays her to take care of an...infestation of Naturaleza vampires. Perhaps a bit of Jane's universe history would be good here. For centuries, there have been two types of vampires in the world, the Naturaleza, or free, vampires, who simply prey upon humans and slaughter their victims at will, with no thought for the consequences, and regarding humans only as prey, and the Mithrans who, at least for a vampire, seem to care for the humans who are their blood servants, and seldom drain them to death. Leo and Big H are Mithrans - not horribly bad guys as far as vampires go. The old master vampire villain from Death's Rival, de Allyon, was a Naturaleza, and had been responsible for the slaughter of thousands over his centuries of life.

The Naturaleza who have invaded Natchez turn out to be even harder to kill than others Jane has seen in the past, and are somehow being changed by a combination of the vampire plague and some black magic, losing their vulnerability to silver, healing faster, and in some cases turning insectlike, with chitinous armor. Ups the "ick" factor a little bit, eh? Jane takes up residence in a mansion she nearly destroyed in her last trip to Natchez, and she and her two new sidekicks, Eli and The Kid, proceed to make war upon the Naturaleza vampires and their allies.

Jane's relationship to Rick LaFleur is, of course, still strained, since she accused him of trying to kill her the last time she saw him. He is now working for the federal government's supernatural investigation team, PsyLED, and shows up on scene fairly early with a woman (actually some sort of supernatural being as yet unrevealed) named Soul, the gryndilow, and a werewolf locked in wolf form named Brute, ostensibly to help investigate this new vampire threat. So things are tense on the romantic front, especially when Jane suspects Rick of being involved with every female he talks to under the age of sixty.

To further complicate matters, Bruise shows up to keep an eye on things for Leo. Bruise has become an Onorio, a type of human servant who is not bound to serve any particular vampire, though they may do so by choice, and who are very tough to kill, and long lived (and probably possess some spiffy powers we'll get to see in later books). 

And to really make things fun, an old acquaintance, Misha, from the state school where Jane grew up with other orphans, occasionally sent out to the foster care system. Misha is a reporter now, recently turned author, in Natchez to do research for her magnum opus on vampires. Misha's daughter, Charly, has advanced leukemia, and it is rumored that some medicines mixed with vampire blood can cure the disease, so Misha has an extra motive to get close to the vampires. Another ward of the state, Bobby, has come with Misha. Jane used to defend Misha and Bobby from the bullies, and when Misha is kidnapped by the bloodsuckers, Jane has no alternative but to go rescue her.

Lots of violence, viciousness, and vampire politics in this one, plus the usual voyage of self-discovery for Jane.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Vanna Speaks by Vanna White

I'd had this one on my to-read list for a long time (as you might imagine, since it came out in 1987). Turned out like an eclair - quick, fluffy and not much substance. One of the things that was entertaining about reading Vanna's autobiography was that she was pretty much a contemporary, about the same age as the cheerleaders I had crushes on in high school, and coincidentally she was a cheerleader as well. Her younger brother graduated the same year I did. So, most of the musicians and pop culture she describes as part of her background is very familiar to me.

Vanna had always wanted to be a model and actress, and she had some early success soon after graduating from high school in the Atlanta area, working trade shows and other gigs. When she decided a few years later to move to L.A., things were pretty tough for a while, and she didn't really hit the big time until she got the job on Wheel of Fortune, where she's been ever since.

Though she seems to have led a fairy tale life with her success in Hollywood, she's been hit pretty hard by a number of personal tragedies, beginning with her mother's death from cancer just as she was beginning to achieve personal success, followed a few years later by her boyfriend, John Gibson's, death in a fiery plane crash. She and Gibson, a former Chippendale's dancer, were very close friends with Hugh Hefner of Playboy Magazine, and she was quite surprised when Hugh betrayed her trust by publishing some early lingerie photos she had thought long buried and forgotten after claiming he'd never do anything to hurt her. No honor among playboys, eh?

The main purpose of this book seems to be to answer all of the common questions that Vanna gets asked in her fan mail, all in one convenient location.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Deadly Sting by Jennifer Estep

This story wastes very little time getting deadly. Gin and Finn go shopping for a party dress, so that they can attend the biggest fling in recent Ashland history, the unveiling of the art treasures which used to belong to Mab Monroe, before The Spider removed her from the land of the living. It almost feels like Estep got a little impatient about properly setting the stage for any mystery in the story; she begins by using a violent confrontation in a dress shop to reveal that many of the giants who work security in Ashland have suspiciously left their posts, but lets us find out why a couple of dozen pages later, when it turns out they have all been recruited by a giantess criminal mastermind, Clementine, to rob the Briartop museum of its art, as well as Mab's collection.

While the giants are about their dirty deeds, they take the fortuitous opportunity to kill Gin Blanco, the infamous Spider, as well, keeping her from interfering with their plans and also making some of Ashland's underworld figures very very happy. Will rumors of the Spider's demise be greatly exaggerated? Will Gin be only "mostly dead" all day? I think we all know that Estep isn't quite ready to kill off her heroine just yet, so it will not come as a major spoiler to say that the Spider is more than happy to spoil all of the giant gang's plans, in the most spectacular and bloody of fashions.

Funny, once again, to see Gin manage to totally trash a dress worth thousands of dollars as she takes on all comers. Of course, Gin's former lover, Owen, is at the big party when the giants crash it, as well, and most of her other friends are attending, too, so she gets to deal with the emotional rift between them while slicing and dicing giant gizzards. Matters remain still mostly unresolved on this front - you know Gin's not allowed to be deliriously happy for long.

All's well as end's blowing things up, and this is a really quick, fun read for all you regulars at the Pork Pit.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Iron Crowned by Richelle Mead.

This is the third in the Dark Swan series. Eugenie is in the middle of a war with the ruler of the Rowan Land, after having Katrice's son killed for kidnapping and raping her. Her lover and ally, King Dorian of the Oak Land, urges her to attempt a quest to find the Iron Crown which, according to prophecy, will give the one who possesses it the ability to end the war quickly. So Eugenie sets off with her former lover, the half-kitsune Kiyo, to win the crown and end the war.

After she acquires the crown, she finds out that Dorian has not been entirely truthful with her, and so she renounces her alliance and relationship with him, and rekindles her relationship (to put it very delicately) with Kiyo once more. When the united front she has presented with Dorian against Katrice falls, eventually Eugenie is forced to take drastic steps to end the war, doing the things she swore she didn't want to do.

You know, men are often accused of thinking with their gonads, but this female character of Mead's is worse than most men. I wonder if Mead is trying to surpass Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake's record for total number of wild sex scenes in an urban fantasy novel. If she's merely going for emotionally conflicted heroine, she's not letting Eugenie remain in any particular emotional state long enough to actually fully realize the conflict. I have to agree with her stepfather, Roland, in my utter disapproval of most everything she's done, even with the best intentions, throughout the series.

Ah well, perhaps redemption is on the way in the next installment.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Seance for a Vampire by Fred Saberhagen

This book is the eighth in the Dracula series by Saberhagen. I think I'd read it once before, but never did a review; the only one of the series I've reviewed here is The Dracula Tape, I believe. For the most part the series is quite enjoyable, though I think when he tried to unite the Dracula and Sherlock Holmes mythic worlds (is the plural of mythos mythi?), he stretched things a little far, and the resulting stories seem a bit diluted. This one is the second in the tales of Holmes and the infamous Count.

In 1765, a group of pirates were hanged by the neck until dead - almost. One of the pirates, Kulakov, had been intimate with  a lady vampire before his execution and, having exchanged blood with her, "survived" the experience, though not without a great deal of psychological trauma, which causes him to insanely pursue those who sent him to the noose through the centuries, trying to recover his lost booty.

The story resumes in 1903, when Holmes and Watson are retained by a minor nobleman, Ambrose Altamont, to come and debunk the performance of a couple of spiritualists, Abraham and Sarah Kirkaldy, who have convinced his wife that they have revived the spirit of their recently dead daughter, Louisa. But Louisa is more than a spirit, and as the famous duo continue their investigations, they find that she was abducted and converted by a powerful vampire, and is risen in body as well as spirit.

Well, "set a thief to catch a thief", as they say and when Holmes is injured and carried off by the bloodsucking villain of the piece, Watson must overcome his scruples and contact Vlad Dracula to have any hope of saving him. Their quest leads them from the English countryside to the palaces of St. Petersburg, in the years prior to the Bolshevik takeover, and we even get to see Rasputin in a cameo appearance.

Not Saberhagen's most inspired work ever, but good for a couple evenings' amusement.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt

The title of this book is a bit of a misnomer, as there is far more than one lesson to be learned here; perhaps "in one volume" is a better term. Still as Hazlitt says, "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consist in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups." Each of the policies he examines in the book are dissected with those principles in mind.

According to Hazlitt, bad economists are "presenting half-truths. They are speaking only of the immediate effect of a proposed policy or its effect upon a single group." Discovering all of the effects of a particular policy, however, takes a long time, and is often found boring - just doesn't make a good sound byte for politicians. Remember Ross Perot?

The book was first published in 1946, with this edition updated slightly for 1979. It's interesting to note that the same proposed solutions which did not work before are still being touted by modern experts today as the cure-all for our economic ills. Hazlett makes so many good points here, I had post-Its scattered all through the pages. This is the kind of economics text that ought to be required reading in high school for all U.S. students, before they are given the franchise, in my opinion, so that they can recognize the scams being recycled by our current crop of "leaders", across party lines. True increases in the size of the economic "pie" available to all come only through increased productivity, being more creative and efficient with our time and labor.

I've heard this one before, haven't you?

"The more sophisticated advocates of inflation...talk of paper money...as if it were itself a form of wealth that could be created at will on the printing press. They even solemnly discuss a 'multiplier,' by which every dollar printed and spent by the government becomes magically the equivalent of several dollars added to the wealth of the country."

Does this sound familiar?

"They tell us that the government can spend and spend without taxing at all; that it can continue to pile up debt without ever paying it off, because 'we owe it to ourselves.' ... Here I am afraid that we shall have to be dogmatic, and point out that such pleasant dreams in the past have always been shattered by national insolvency or a runaway inflation."

And this is very nearly prophetic, being written prior to Fannie and Freddie guaranteeing nonstandard, improperly documented loans, putting us all on the hook for billions in losses.

"When people risk their own funds they are usually careful in their investigations to determine the adequacy of the assets pledged and the business acumen and honesty of the borrower...But the government almost invariably operates by different standards. The whole argument for its entering the lending business, in fact, is that it will make loans to people who could not get them from private lenders. This is only another way of saying that the government lenders will take risks with other people's money (the taxpayers) that private lenders will not take with their own money."

Could this have any relevance to the Cyprus debacle?

"On the one side are savers automatically, pointlessly, stupidly continuing to save; on the other side are limited 'investment opportunities' that cannot absorb this saving. The result, alas, is stagnation. The only solution, they (the inflationary economists) declare, is for the government to expropriate these stupid and harmful savings and invent its own projects, even if these are only useless ditches or pyramids (or solar power companies?), to use up the money and provide employment."

Hazlett takes on trade protectionism via tariffs, minimum wage laws, subsidies for particular industries, the inflationary tactics of increasing the money supply, government price-fixing, and many more ploys that our government tries to convince us will benefit us all, rather than the constituency of lobbyists pushing for them. There's really nothing new under the sun, folks, they've been selling this cartload of horse manure for a century or two, and none of it works the way they say it will.

"...government policy should be directed, not to imposing more burdensome requirements on employers, but to following policies that encourage profits, that encourage employers to expand, to invest in newer and better machines to increase the productivity of workers..."

Roughly a quarter century ago, at the time this book was last updated, Hazlitt writes the following about the Social Security pyramid scheme:

"No one can say today whether Social Security is really an insurance program or just a complicated and lopsided relief system. The bulk of the present benefit recipients are being assured that they 'earned' and 'paid for' their benefits. Yet no private insurance company could have afforded to pay existing benefit scales out of the 'premiums' actually received...If Social Security is thought of as a relief system, however, it is a very strange one, for those who have already been getting the highest salaries receive the highest dollar benefits...The American Social Security System must stand today as a frightening symbol of the almost inevitable tendency of any national relief, redistribution, or 'insurance' scheme, once established, to run completely out of control."

It's all based on the idea that you can get something for nothing, that there is such a thing as a free lunch, and that Peter isn't hurt when you rob him to pay Paul. But if you look at the long term, wider effects of most government interventions in the economy, rather than merely the immediate payout for a select group (whoever bought that congresscritter), the situation is nearly always worse than if nothing had been done at all.

Read this one and weep - for our future, if we don't learn the lessons of the past.

Monday, April 1, 2013

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

This is definitely the strangest book I've had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. It's nearly impossible to define its genre, with elements of fantasy, science fiction and horror weaving throughout the story. It's part Stepford wives, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Chthulhu, and for some odd reason, I couldn't quite put it down for long.

Mona Bright is a woman from a very dysfunctional family who resigned her position as a policewoman a few years before the story begins, and has been drifting; from job to job, man to man, bottle to bottle, ever since. When her father dies, she shows up for his funeral, and to dispose of his property, and learns that she has inherited a house that used to belong to her mother, who committed suicide long ago, in a place called Wink, New Mexico.

Wink is a place that seems frozen in time, when Mona arrives there in the red muscle car she found in her father's garage. The town was founded to support a government lab atop a nearby mesa, which was closed down a long time ago, after a disaster destroyed many of the facilities and changed the town forever. Mona claims her mother's house, then begins to try to find out what caused her mother to leave her happy and fulfilling life as a scientist in Wink and end up sucking a shotgun when Mona was a little girl.

Of course, she can't discover her mother's story without uncovering the secrets that the town has been hiding for decades, and she soon begins to catch glimpses of another world hidden beneath (or perhaps above, around, inside) our own, and its very odd and frightening denizens.

The other major point of view from which we see this story is that of Bolan, an amoral man who runs the Roadhouse just outside of Wink. The place is a bordello and a front for a major drug-running operation, but Bolan and the thugs and whores who work for him seem curiously quirky and likable underneath their slimy exteriors, perhaps in contrast to the candy coating surrounding many of Wink's residents' alien ichorous nougat. He receives instructions from his hidden "boss" over an old stock ticker machine, and has generated millions in revenue for the otherworldly invaders' unknown purposes.

Many thanks to my friend, Red, at Little Red Reviewer, for turning me on to this one!