Friday, August 30, 2013

Cast in Peril by Michelle Sagara

  After Kaylin's apartment is destroyed by a magic bomb, and the dragon who has been living with her is endangered, she temporarily moves into the Imperial Palace until things settle down. Yeah, that's likely. The egg that she's been caring for finally hatches out a familiar which looks much like a small dragon, for the moment, although I suspect it will be capable of taking on other forms at some point, as it becomes convenient.

Kaylin's presence becomes required soon thereafter upon a journey undertaken by the Barrani Court, upon which she is accompanied by her friends Teela and Severn, as well as Lord Nightshade and the Consort. Or perhaps she accompanies them, as they all seem to have their own motives and justifications for going on the quest. Yes, I said it. The Q word. Next, I'll mention the F word..."fellowship."

So, aside from the usual Barrani jostling for position and intriguery, the journey remains safe for the first few days, until they are past the point of no return to Elantra. Sagara introduces a new "race" into the mix - the Hallione - the guardians of the way stations on the trail to the Western March. They appear to have been created by the Ancients in much the same fashion as the other races, except they seem to have been created from varying races, as it turns out.

Kaylin gets to know one of these beings far better than those who have known them for centuries, in her inimitable style, and it affords her the chance to deepen her understanding of history, which helps us out a bit in this story, too.

There is at least one criminal (at least as far as the Emperor is concerned) hiding among the innocent Barrani on this journey. Severn has been tasked with assassinating the thief without causing a diplomatic incident. When the thief turns traitor to his own race instead, and instigates an attack on the adventurers, all bets are off.

Sagara continues with the oddest brand of magic I think I've ever encountered. In this world, words have meaning. Deep, powerful meanings which affect the very fabric of reality and the lives of all beings within hearing when a word is spoken. But words more importantly have their greatest meaning within the fabric woven into a story, which binds and shapes all actions and events. Kaylin, with her status as Chosen, has the ability to see and manipulate words in manners unavailable to others, which makes her uniquely qualified to overcome the difficulties she and her friends encounter.

This ain't your "I cast a fireball spell" rodeo.

Monday, August 26, 2013

New Earth by Ben Bova

 Here's another author whose works I've been reading for many years whom I've never reviewed on this blog. This particular novel is set in a series called The Grand Tour, which so far contains Mercury, Mars Life, and Jupiter: A Novel. I suppose I'm going to have to go out and hunt the others down and read...them. I have a ton of old Ben Bova books in the library, maybe it's time to add some Nook versions of his newer novels.

The future has arrived, and the results of global warming are in...much of the world is flooded by the melting of the glaciers and polar ice caps, destruction and refugees are the order of the day. Around the time that the first effects were being felt, a manned expedition (crew of 12) was sent to Sirius C, where an Earth-like planet was discovered. The expedition was supposed to be followed by a series of backup missions at short intervals, to augment the crew and explore the new world. However, the crisis on Earth and political considerations have kept new missions from being mounted, and 86 years have passed. The starship is about to land on New Earth.

The leader of the expedition is Jordan Kell, a former diplomat who has, like most of the others on board, been chosen not only because of his qualifications, but because no one on Earth will miss him; his only brother, Brandon, is also on board as a planetary biologist and his wife died of a bio-engineered plague on his last assignment in Kashmir. The nano-virus that caused her death remains within Kell, too, dormant in his guts, but fortunately for Earth, far enough away now that if it revives, it will not hurt anyone but his companions.

When the expedition begins to explore the planet, they're in for a series of surprises, as it turns out to be inhabited by an "alien" race who turn out to be identical in terms of DNA to the human race, and they have been waiting for Earth humans to contact them for a specific purpose - which our intrepid explorers must determine to be either benign or insidious.

The story of how they work their way through the layers of mystery surrounding New Earth is fairly entertaining, and a quick read in the old Bova style. Some of the grumbling and political maneuvers in the novel may reflect Bova's attitude about the current administration's curtailing our outer space exploration and mothballing the shuttle fleet - if I recall correctly, he used to work in aerospace. Whether you think the Earth will die by fire or by flood, you'll hopefully not be distracted by global warming alarmism here, as it serves mostly as a plot device to give the politicians an excuse to defund space missions. Perhaps some of the other Grand Tour books get into it more deeply. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Mossad by Michael Bar-Zohar

If the stories in this book are anywhere near true, there had to have been some serious secrets declassification going on recently to allow the authors to tell them. Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal follow the Israeli Secret Service from its early days in the 50s to around 2011, and relate some great tales.

One of the tales which they  truncated is, of course, related elsewhere in book and film, but I'd have like to have gotten a more thorough take on it from these experts - the raid on Entebbe, when Israeli commandos journeyed to the heart of Africa and freed the hostages and killed the terrorists responsible for hijacking an airplane.

Here is the full story (probably) of the hunt for Adolph Eichmann, how he was apprehended overseas and smuggled back to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes, a number of stories about how most of the Black September organization, who had held the Israeli athletes hostage, then killed them all, during the Munich Olympics, were hunted down and assassinated, as well as many missions against Hamas and others.

Israel had a spy at a high level in the Egyptian government which helped them to win the Yom Kippur War, and another at a high level in the Syrian halls of power, and seem to have  a large organization in Iran which has helped them to keep the mullah's nuclear ambitions in check.

It also was betrayed by one of its own citizens - a mere disgruntled employee laid off from a low level position in their prototype nuclear weapons factory, embarrassed by Jonathan Pollard's discovery spying against a key ally, the U.S., and was once roundly criticized for assassinating the wrong target - someone who looked like a Black September leader.

On a more human note, one division of the Mossad has been responsible for rescuing children and families of Jews from Syria, and organized a mammoth operation to bring home thousands of Ethiopian Jews.

Fascinating reading.

Monday, August 19, 2013

User Friendly by Spider Robinson

 This book is a mixed bag of odds and ends from Robinson, with some short stories, some essays, and some raps that defy description. It's all typically Spider, but probably only of interest to serious fans. Many of the stories seem like they were a good beginning to a potential novel, and when they went nowhere, he blew the dust off them and had them published here.

In one essay about his mentors, Robinson says something with which I strongly identified:

"I was born, physically, in 1948. But I was born as a thinking being in early 1965, at age 6, when a librarian whose name I do not know gave me the first book I ever read all by myself, with no pictures in it. It was called Rocket Ship Galileo, the first of the books written especially for young people by the already legendary Robert Anson Heinlein, the first Grand-Master of Science Fiction."

Born a bit later, and already reading voraciously at age 11, my best friend handed me a copy of Glory Road, by Robert Anson Heinlein, and it started me on a journey which continues to this day.

Robinson has had, for many years now, a central theme in his stories. It's the belief that if we all became addicted to truth rather than lies, to giving each other love rather than hurting one another, and if all communication were as open and honest as telepathy, all the world's ills would go away. It's a lovely vision, and it's nice to visit it in Spider's stories once in a while.

Despite that, he does have a snarky little cynical streak he lets loose every now and then, and it's especially apparent in one of his essays which contains predictions about the future.

"When you can afford a TV linkup that offers you 245 channels in 3-D with digital stereo sound, there won't be a damn thing worth watching on any of them."

Nailed it - in 1990.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Black Box by Michael Connelly

 The Black Box in the title refers to an item that, like the black box in an airplane, has the right information for a detective to understand exactly why or how a murder happened. In Harry Bosch's current case, retrieving the black box has taken more than twenty years. He's investigating a cold case that began during the L.A. Riots, when there were far too many bodies turning up to give each of them a proper investigation.

A Danish reporter was murdered in an alley, execution style, her body left slumped near a chain link fence. Everyone has always assumed that it was one of the local gangs who killed her, and Harry starts down that road to begin with. The trail does lead, somewhat circuitously, to an item very similar to a black box - a black pistol. Tracing the provenance of the pistol gets a little twisty (though Connelly always finds a way for Harry to get what he needs more quickly than the normal bureaucratic grist must grind, so the story doesn't drag out for months), but eventually it leads Harry to ask the right questions.

It's almost a required plot element for Harry Bosch books that he have some sort of conflict with his boss, and even get dragged in front of Internal Affairs at some point, and the book also delivers on that score. Not a bad installment in the series, but it really brings nothing new and exciting to the table.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

 I think I know, now, why I quit reading Ursula Le Guin in the late 80s. This was the last book by her that I purchased, and it was and is so tedious and only a fantasy novel by virtue of occurring in the realm of Earthsea, that I think I just gave up - on Ged and his companions, and on Le Guin, until I happened upon The Other Wind recently and was motivated to re-read the series.

The story begins almost simultaneously with the end of the quest in The Farthest Shore, when Ged and King Lebannen have defeated the sorcerer, Cob, on the other side of death. A farmer's widow, Goha, whom we once knew as Tenar, from The Tombs of Atuan, finds out that the mage, Ogion, is ill, probably dying and rushes to be with him in his final hours. When the city life overwhelmed her after she returned with the ring of Erreth Akbe, accompanying the archmage, Sparrowhawk, she was sent to stay with Ogion for a while as his ward, before she moved out and became a farmer's wife and a mother. She has taken on a ward of her own, a girl who was thrown in a fire and burned horribly, left for dead, whom she calls Therru. Therru has recovered somewhat physically from her ordeal, but not emotionally, and she is easily frightened, and does not socialize easily.

After Ogion's passing, a dragon visits the Isle of Gont, delivering Ged, who is nearly dead, and who has lost all the powers of mage craft he once had. A great deal of the book seems to deal with Ged, dealing with his identity crisis now that he is no longer a mage. The rest of the book seems to be about Goha's identity crisis, worrying about who she is now that she's no longer a farmer's wife and mother, since her children are both gone, and trying to reconcile her self image with how others see her. The nobility of Gont, such as it is, seems to dismiss her as a mere peasant woman whose opinion is of no matter, while the villagers respect her a bit more from knowing how much Ogion loved her, and when Lebannen arrives, she finds his automatic respect for her, as the one who brought peace to the kingdom, and the regard of his courtiers, a bit daunting, as well.

What I'm saying is there's just far too much soul-searching and angst, and not nearly enough action and adventure. I think Le Guin got to the point where she was trying to gain acclaim as a mainstream author, rather than a purveyor of young adult fantasy, and lost that special something that made her early readers love her.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity by Bill O'Reilly

 A number of years ago, some friends recommended that I watch The O'Reilly Factor, and I started watching it fairly religiously, as its host seemed to truly operate a No Spin Zone, and there were some excellent debates between different political players, and Bill tried to keep everyone honest, seldom letting anyone weasel their way out of a question with empty phrases. But after a while, the show began to be more about O'Reilly than about anything substantive, and it seemed that he spent more time talking about personal attacks he was dealing with, and plugging his books and Factor Gear than he did actually talking about the issues of the day. So I tuned out.

It's funny, speaking of that, that people who are very conservative tend to think O'Reilly is too liberal, while the progressives complain that he has a conservative bias. I tend to think he's pretty darned close to the middle of the spectrum, given those gut responses from left and right.

You might wonder why, if I got tired of O'Reilly on O'Reilly, I'd pick up an allegedly autobiographical work to read. Well, there's a difference between hearing endless self-focus on the air versus reading amusing stories about a person's childhood, and A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity is more about the least for a while.

It was interesting to hear about Bill's childhood in Levitton, PA, and his adventures in Catholic school with the nuns, as well as his college years, plus a few anecdotes from his early days in broadcasting. I was hoping to get a more personal feeling for the man, perhaps something about his wife, his home life, his children, but he really doesn't divulge much on those subjects - are they painful, or just intensely private?

The book is a little unfocused, bounces from subject to subject, darts back and forth in time like the Tardis, but it may give you a feel for who O'Reilly really thinks he is, anyway.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ride the Rising Tide by Peter Grant

 I think Grant has really begun to hit his stride in the second book of the Maxwell Saga. The resemblance to many of Heinlein's young adult works is uncanny. As Ride the Rising Tide begins, our hero Steve is packing up his belongings, heading off to the Recruit Training Depot, ready to become a junior member of the Lancastrian Commonwealth Fleet.

The only major "beef" I have with anything in this series is the ongoing saga of the Jade knife. I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief for long enough to believe that the (pardon the expression) jaded head of the Lotus Tong, Mr. Wang, would fall for as lame a story as Steve spins to conceal the fact that he is the actual owner of the artifact. I suppose that Grant has some key plot element later on that requires Steve to finally surrender the knife in return for a major favor from the criminal syndicate, but if I were a ruthless tong lord I'd have pulled him in for some enhanced interrogation techniques the first time he showed up - that's just how I think, I guess.

One other thing that slows down the story a bit is that the author is presenting a lot of expository information about the Lancastrian Commonwealth, its Fleet, and the purposes behind a great deal of the training Steve receives. It is, fortunately, not delivered in a lecture format, but in small doses from bit players in the saga. Steve has inherited from his "father" Bosun Cardle, a strong work ethic, a penchant for honesty and fair play (aside from when dealing with criminals, eh?), and a knack for getting along with nearly everyone he encounters, so he does well in his recruit training, graduating near the top of his class, then serves equally admirably in flight school later on, gaining his commission in the Fleet.

Where some authors have spent several volumes dealing with a meteoric career rise, Grant has managed to just hit the high points of Maxwell's ascent on the rising tide of good fortune, abetted by hard work on his part. There are some really good lessons wrapped up in a fairly exciting storyline here, but I wonder if today's young adults are too worldly to enjoy these books, in a media matrix filled with graphic sex and violence these days. For those of us, however, with a sense of nostalgia about the golden glory days of science fiction, they're a must read.

I eagerly await the third novel, due out in September, I believe.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Sammy Two Shoes and Billy Bellbird by Gavin Gosney

When my wife and I were traveling in New Zealand, we happened to stop in to a craft show in Howick, browsing for souvenirs, and met an author who has written a few books in a children's series about a cat named Sammy Two Shoes, which begins with Sammy Two Shoes and the Bumble Bee. We decided our granddaughter needed to have a new book to read, so we bought a copy of his second, most recent, story. I gave it a quick read not too long after we got home, and found it to be a cute story, marvelously illustrated and, if I were to return to New Zealand before she grows too old, I'd have to pick up some more books in the series, as they don't seem to be available through Amazon or Barnes and Noble yet.

Sammy Two Shoes - so named for her lovely white "powder puff shoes", is a very gentle, somewhat naive young cat, who is evidently unaware that birds and cats should not socialize. When she meets Billy Bellbird while on a stroll through her garden one day, her innocence pays off, as he decides that he can trust her enough to bring all of his bird friends by to serenade her the next day, affording her an experience no other cat has ever likely had, or will again.

There are a number of nice little lessons in the book about getting along with others, even with those whom we believe we shouldn't, and about using the gifts we all have to bring joy to others less fortunate, that I feel sure every child can profit from. Fun stuff, and I hope Sammy has lots more adventures to share with us.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer

 I'm not sure exactly how to describe this story by Sawyer. It has its shady origins in a hard-boiled detective novel, but veers off into some uncharted territory towards the middle, and turns into a near French farce by the end. Private investigator on Mars, Alex Lomax, is hired to find a missing husband, and stumbles into something a bit more sinister - a murder dressed up as a suicide. That is, if you can call terminating an artificial brain and body onto which you have imprinted the consciousness of a formerly live human being murder.

It seems to me that the murder takes place when the original human body is terminated, and the transfer takes over its life. Being a transfer is very handy on Mars, where the climate is extremely inhospitable for normal biological humans, and where, for a decade or two, there has been a "gold rush" on Martian fossils. Just finding one can make you rich, finding a whole trove of them can make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams. The whole issue of determining whether a transfer is legally the same person as the body they left behind has already been settled by case precedent at the time of Sawyer's story, but Lomax has his doubts upon occasion, as should we. When is a human being not a human being?

There's a little bit of a Mad Mad Mad Mad World flavor to this thing, when it seems as if everyone and his brother, from the topless waitress Alex has a thing with to the second in command at the local PD, as well as geologists, poets and heiresses, is trying to find the mother lode of all fossils, which has eluded prospectors for so long. There's really no honor among thieves, and Lomax has a devil of a time sorting it all out.

The novel was built around an earlier novella, and I think, honestly, that it was better in the short form. The keystone antics of the full length plot weren't really all that entertaining. He should have left well enough alone, but perhaps he felt he had more to say on the subject.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Racketeer by John Grisham

 It seems nearly impossible to believe that I've never written a Grisham review for the web site. I believe I've read most of what he's written over the years, but I guess I've never given them a full analysis before - and I won't now.

The story reads a little bit like The Shawshank Redemption. A professional fellow, lawyer (no surprises there) Malcolm Bannister ends up in jail on racketeering charges because of an overzealous federal prosecutor and his overconfidence in the U.S. justice system's ability to punish the guilty and free the innocent. Sucker. He's doing ten years in a minimum security facility, and has lost everything that's important to him; his job, his wife, his son and his reputation.

But Malcolm comes up with a plot to get himself out of prison. He knows the identity of the killer of a federal judge (someone he met in prison) and proposes to trade that information to a stymied federal task force in return for a full pardon and a place in the witness protection program. Things proceed reasonably predictably from there, and end up where many Grisham novels seem to, on the beaches of the Caribbean.

What did I tell you? Shawshank.

There are a couple of interesting twists to the tale, and plenty of Grisham's editorializing about the state of the justice system and treatment of prisoners in this country. Interesting, but distracting from the fact that Grisham really doesn't have a new story to tell, just a retread of some old ones.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

 It seems as if, as Kellerman continues to write his stories about Alex Delaware and Milo, they turn into more of a police procedural than a thriller. From the moment when a woman discovers the skeleton of an infant, buried in a box in the back yard of the home she has just purchased, Milo and Alex crawl (not leap) into action, interviewing witness after witness, and brainstorm multiple theories about means, motive, and opportunity. It's like there's a contest to see how many red herrings we all get to follow down the path to the inevitable cul de sac, until at last in the final twenty pages or so, all is made clear, the answer revealed. We might begin to get a glimmer of guilt a bit earlier, but it's tough. And yet, if you've followed the duo this far, you know you'll have to hang in there to the bitter end to know how it all turns out.

After the new of the first skeleton leaks out, a possible copycat strikes within days, leaving the bones of another infant, strangely polished, in a local park, and an adult murder victim is found in the park the same night by a jogger. The first infant skeleton is at least fifty years old, while the second there really can't be any connection between the two, can there? This is what Alex and Milo have to find out. Alex, as usual, takes on those delicate tasks requiring perhaps a smidgen of con artistry and finesse, while Milo plays the bumbling police detective, and deals with the political pressures within the police department and city government. After all, it might be bad for real estate values of some of the city councilmen's homes if this sort of thing were allowed to go unsolved.

One nice thing about Kellerman's writing is that he spends a great deal of time and effort actually developing minor characters into believable human beings, complete with rational (or irrational) motivations, and complete backstories. You never feel like you're getting a hodgepodge of cardboard cutout characters with Kellerman; that he's really thought about these people a great deal, and cares enough to write the very best.

An interesting set of puzzles, a few kinks and curls on the way to a solution. Worth staying awake late to finish - which I did.