Friday, January 31, 2014

Castigo Cay by Matt Bracken

So, this book had just a touch of flavor which reminded me of John Ringo's Ghost series, especially the episodes which took place in the Florida Keys and Caribbean, for obvious reasons. Dan Kilmer is a former Marine who dropped out of school and inherited a sixty foot sailing vessel named Rebel Yell when his uncle dropped dead during its refitting. He has gone full expat, as returning to the States would probably put him in a world of hurt with the IRS, since he failed to pay Homeland Security for his exit visa and security bond or the IRS for his national medical plan (which he didn't use, but still owes). Plus, the economy is in the toilet in the ConUS in the near future where this novel is set, and in many places the police and surveillance state is in full swing. He's gotten by with odd jobs and small cons for a couple of years, just living the life of a boat bum in warm climates. He has a couple of crew members, a German-trained doctor, Victor Aleman and a (possibly formerly North) Vietnamese cook, Tran Hung, who help him out, and take a share of any profits.

And there are always boat bunnies. When his latest squeeze, an aspiring Argentinian model named Cori, jumps ship for a bigger yacht owned by billionaire Richard Prechter because Dan isn't getting her to Miami fast enough for her ambitions, he pretty much takes it in stride. Until, of course, another boat bum named Nick Galloway, a former Army Ranger, alerts him that very bad things may be happening to girls who go off with Prechter. The two of them join forces to go after Prechter on his yacht, Topaz, and find the secret villain's lair he is building on an island, Castigo Cay, that's supposed to be a protected environment - Can you say Dr. No?

The chase leads them from Castigo Cay to Fort Lauderdale, with a stop along the way to exchange some kruggerands for a very fast cigarette boat which will get them there. Dan makes contact with some old friends who owe him a favor in Fort Lauderdale, and then enlists the aid of one of their neighbors, the resourceful college student, Kelly Urbanzik, to create false IDs for them as they trail the evil billionaire. Prechter is speaking at an environmental conference, since his company survives on government grants for green energy and other boondoggles. While attending the conference in disguise, Dan befriends another coed working a sales booth, Brooke Tierstadt, also one of Prechter's targets. As one might expect, she ends up kidnapped and on a fast boat to Castigo Cay, too. When Prechter and his minions get back on the yacht and head for the Cay for fun and games, Dan and company go hot pursuit, to rescue the distressed damsels and save the world for democracy...not so much.

Not as much action as one would hope, but what there was is fast and bloody. Pretty certain the way things settle out at the end that we're in for a sequel or two. Dan doesn't seem to have the Kildar's kinks, and the sex is mostly implied and off screen. The story did make me want to buy a boat and head for the Bahamas.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


From Sarah Hoyt at According to Hoyt
Honestly, given the fractured histories and fraught personalities of people who devote their lives to “giving back to society” all I can think is “and they give it to society good and hard.”

Glory In Death by J.D. Robb

Second in the In Death series by Robb (Nora Roberts, really), Glory in Death hits the ground running with a gruesome murder of a hard charging female attorney, Cicely Towers, in a hard core section of town. Aside from all of the low-lifes she has sent to jail over the years, no one seems to have a motive for murder, unless it's someone in her family hoping to get an early bird special on their inheritance.

Kate's boss, Commander Whitney, is too closely involved with the case; he and his wife are Cicely's children's godparents, and through the course of the novel, his strong support for Eve's investigation alternates with his interference to protect the family from the harshest of her interrogative skills.

The first murder is followed by two more, a beloved small time actress, Yvonne Metcalf, and then by the technical editor of Channel 75 news, Louise Kirski.

I figured out who the murderer was about halfway through the book, and watched in impotent frustration as Lt. Dallas chased down red herrings and wild geese.

The murder mystery is interrupted regularly by the romance element, Eve's stormy relationship with the mysterious and powerful businessman, Roarke. To further complicate things, Roarke is involved in business dealings with the Tower family, and was intimate with Metcalf in the past. Eve's insecurity about relationships and her reluctance to say, "I love you" eats up a good portion of the narrative. By the way, Robb writes crappy sex scenes, in my opinion. I won't even quote them to satisfy the prurient interests.

A bit disillusioned, I may give up on the series, unless I have a really slow day at the library.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson

Ferguson tells a comic tale of his quest to get his son into a good college, and like a good reporter, makes good use of the experience to enlighten and inform the rest of us. He doesn't appear to take himself too seriously, either. After taking a career aptitude test in high school,

"'You must understand,' my career counselor said, glancing through the papers, 'that you have no marketable skills whatsoever.'
So, I became a journalist."

First up in his quest, he attends a seminar held by a professional independent college admissions counselor, known as Kat, as well as a personal interview. The main takeaway from the visit is that Ferguson learns that college admissions committees at selective schools (as opposed to state universities where folks like you and I send our children) use a "holistic" method to evaluate applicants. The holistic method "involves weighing a dozen intangible factors along with hard data like SAT scores and grade-point averages in deciding whom to admit." E.G., "Joe...raised money for a Native American school...Kim recorded concertos with the local symphony orchestra...Teresa single handedly kept a nearby Hispanic grade school afloat."

This almost takes us back to the turn of the century method of college admissions, which Ferguson discusses in a later section, when a personal interview which measured less obvious qualities than academic ability was used to make sure only "the right sort" of people attended Harvard, Yale, etc.

Got a chuckle out of a section on high school "leadership programs". For a fee, they invite students to Washington, D.C. or a state capitol for summer internships and seminars.

"Another mom was objecting.
'He was invited to do this,' she said. 'He got so much out of it, learning leadership skills.'
'The invitation came in the mail, I guess,' Kat said. 'It said he was "selected." Do you know why he was selected? Your zip code. Because of your zip code, they knew you could pay.'"

Remember "Who's Who in American High Schools"? I was so honored 40 years ago to be "selected". Ah, my youthful illusions shattered at last.

Kat was having her own experience with the admissions process for her daughter, getting her into an exclusive DAY CARE!

"this day-care center fed into equally exclusive pre-Ks, which fed into prestigious kindergartens, which fed into even more exclusive grade schools, and then prep schools, and then, perhaps eighteen years from now, the kid would be in a position to be crowned with admission to Princeton or Wellesley or Brown. One misstep at the beginning could doom the whole process."

I wonder how my neighbor's brother from Borah High in Boise, Idaho ever made it into Yale, with his lack of the proper pedigreed kindergarten.

I was surprised to see how many of the venerable old schools were founded by Christian sects. Anglicans - The College of William and Mary, Presbyterians - Princeton, Congregationalists - Dartmouth, and Old School Baptists - Brown.

Ferguson devotes considerable time on the history of U.S. News annual college rankings, how they are determined, how they are marketed to a new crop of prospects every year, and how they are gamed by the colleges themselves, while the college presidents decry the validity of the rankings.

Of course, if you can't afford the pros, you end up in the DIY section. Ferguson describes buying a huge pile of college guides, test prep books, combing the internet, and picking friends' brains for more information. This sounds familiar, in fact, a family tradition - my mother did it for me - I did it for my children - in sixteen years or so the cycle will lather, rinse, repeat. One of the amusing things Ferguson mentions here is "the law of constant contradiction". For every piece of advice in a book, online, or a hot tip from a friend, there exists a perfectly legitimate bit of wisdom that states the exact opposite.

Students should prepare a professional looking education resume.
Admissions officers are tire of seeing too many glossy, perfect professional resumes.

Parents should get involved - don't be afraid to call or email admissions offices.
Too many calls and emails alienate an admissions officer.

If a teach provides a recommendation, they should receive a nice gift from the student.
Gifts might be regarded as bribery, and could offend the teacher.

Another subject that gets a lot of play in the book is SAT tests and scoring. The SATs were created in the early twentieth century to eliminate the discrimination by Harvard and other Ivy League schools found in their less data-driven admissions practices, and became the go-to criteria for academic aptitude for a long time. Now, however, after outcries from activists who believe that the SAT is biased towards rich, white folks, a number of more "progressive" universities are de-emphasizing the SAT - ironically, since it was "progressives" who created it in the first place.

Without getting deeply into the issue of why it's a good thing to go to college, and why politicians of any stripe are promoting universal university access (hint - "access" means someone else pays for it) for every student. It makes a great sound bite to support education - don't we all? - and makes the sheep believe you actually care about them more than just at shearing time (April 15), it's a well known fact that a college degree is the ticket to admission to leadership in business, politics, engineering and the sciences. It's also been obvious for about as long as higher education has existed in this country that poor people probably aren't as well prepared for college as rich people. Duh. However, the folks with FairTest (is that like Fair Tax?) have pulled out all the stops to remove all hints of bias, condescension, and exclusivity from the SAT as now being presented. I think they may have actually surgically removed its utility as a collegiate yardstick, as well.

Patterns in SAT result data have indicated for quite a while now that Asians outperform whites, Whites outperform Hispanics, Hispanics outperform blacks, rich outperform poor, and men do better than women on some sections, while women do better on others than men. True to form, eh?

"You could react to this pattern in one of three ways. Option one is to ask what relevance group numbers had in a country, and an educational system, where merit is supposed to attach to individuals, not groups. Option two is to note that the data reveal that some test takes - owing to their schools, their family lives, their neighborhoods, the social services they were provided, the expectations of parents and friends - had been less prepared for college than other test takers and, as a result, had a slimmer chance of doing well in some colleges than in other colleges. Option three is to insist that something is wrong with the test.

The activists chose number three."

I liked the passage about the new "allowance" made for students who claim to be learning disabled by ADHD. They get to take an extra hour on the test. As soon as this option was made available, a huge number of students claimed to be ADHD, and their scores on the test went through the roof - better than "normals". As Gomer Pyle would say, "Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!"

Also, when the mean score on SATs fell between 1941 and 1995 in both the verbal and mathematics sections - which to me indicates that there's a problem with how well our public schools are preparing children (an entire wild and crazy topic in and of itself) - the solution was to "re-center" the test, adjusting all the scores so that a 425 on the old scale becomes a 501 on the new. Un-ummm-believable.

The facts are that, if you average together (in general over a large enough statistical sample) a student's grade-point average in high school and their SAT scores, it is a very strong predictor of what sort of grades they will get their first semester in college. In response to critics like Lani Guinier (wasn't she a Clinton advisor?) who say that the SAT should be called a "wealth test", UCSB education professor Rebecca Swick writes, "it's impossible to find a measure of academic achievement that is unrelated to family income." Every other way of putting a metric on academics correlates strongly with family income. Which provides even more evidence to my long-held hypothesis that the prime factor in scholastic achievement is the parents of the student.

It's not saying that poor children cannot do well, or that they are necessarily less intelligent, but perhaps has something to do with priorities. When you are struggling just to survive daily life, it's hard to sit down with the kids and help with homework, to provide extracurricular supplementary activities on your own or to pay for school-sponsored one, or even to make sure that there is enough appropriate reading material in the house, and that reading, writing and math skills are seen as highly valued by the family.

Reading about colleges marketing themselves, the cynic in me wonders if the constant political rhetoric about "everyone must go to college" is the result of colleges lobbying their pet congresscritters in order to ensure a steady plentiful stream of "customers", and especially customers who will spend money in the first year or two, then drop out, so that the college won't actually have to part with its precious "product", the baccalaureate.

I have a ton more I could say about Ferguson's book, and Ferguson has a ton more to say about the insanity involved in getting into a college to obtain the all-important degree these days. But I've already run way too long. Read the book!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Off Topic

Orson Scott Card, noted SF author, and somewhat controversial figure, has a web site column titled Uncle Orson Reviews Everything (see my post on Levithan's Every Day for a little more detail. One of the products that got a ten thumbs up review from Card was Talenti Gelato. My wife and I stopped by Whole Foods the other day and picked up a pint of the Sea Salt Caramel variety. We had a bowl for dessert last night, and this is absolutely the best ice cream I've ever eaten in my entire life, without a doubt. I second Scott's endorsement. Go buy a pint!

Note: Talenti has not reimbursed me in any way for this endorsement, though I truly wish they had - the stuff is just a touch spendy at $4.99 a pint. Worth every penny. I would certainly accept a case or two for my freezer.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Flashback by Dan Simmons

***Profanity Warning - some bad words down near the end of my review***

 It's surprising that I haven't reviewed more Dan Simmons books here. His Hyperion was the first book I ever reviewed, for a science fiction forum on AOL dot com back in the dial-up days, and I've read a few of his novels in the interim, but the only one I've talked about on this site was the sequel, Fall of Hyperion.

I don't know whether to classify the setting for this novel as dystopia, a horror show of near future America. I don't know that Simmons frequents right wing political and economic alarmist blogs, but he could have scooped up the details right out of their pages.

On a side note, I have a tough time taking the apocalyptic rhetoric of the bloggers seriously sometimes, as it turns out when one pursues the references to their obscure origins, that the studies and charts, with their circles and arrows on the back, are coming from someone trying to sell you something. When they bemoan the coming financial meltdown, or disclose the proposals for government wealth confiscation, it turns out they're selling bullion, hedge funds, or offshore tax havens. When they tell you all about Homeland Security's acquisition of armored cars and billions of rounds of ammunition, they've got pallets of generators and survival rations in the warehouse, at a low, low bargain price that would make Cal Worthington and his dog, Spot, sit up and beg.

But don't get too smug, my leftist friends. At the core of your global warming...climate change...scare lies Al Gore's carbon dispensation scam, and all the energy-saving CFLs and LED bulbs recently mandated by the government over those awful incandescents are simple high-margin products paying for GE (paid no income taxes, but paid a gazillion to lobbyists) CEO Imelt's golden parachute. I haven't figured out what the anti-GMO crowd's profit angle is just yet, but be patient, my pretties.

Getting back on track,

  • U.S. Economy in total free fall, new bucks worth 1/100th "old bucks".
  • Israel nuked, and the  surviving Israelis slaughtered, dying of radiation-induced cancers, or living in refugee camps.
  • The Reconquista has most of the Southwest under 'Spanic control.
  • The global Caliphate has established mosques and sharia law enclaves throughout the U.S., supplanting the constitution
  • The U.S. military is pimping itself out to fight as mercenaries for Japan, India, and other emergent powers - on the bright side, the cash-strapped Russians are doing the same.
  • Japanese "advisers" have effective control over federal, state and local governments, and a new "Co-Prosperity Sphere" seems to be taking shape.
  • The educational system no longer pretends to be anything but a warehousing system for young people, and no actual History, Mathematics, or English is taught there. Urban teens roam the streets in gangs, like something out of Clockwork Orange.
  • Prisons have been moved to former sports stadiums, and the guards only real function is containment - the prisoners run the asylum to their liking.
  • Flashback is the new drug of choice. It gives the user to relive, with perfect recall, minutes hours or days from their lives.
The protagonist of Simmons story, Nick Bottoms, is a former police detective, whose wife died in a car accident six years ago. He rapidly descended into Flashback addiction, spending every cent and hour reliving their time together. His job is gone, his PI business down the tubes, his only son is estranged and living with his grandfather, and his only lifeline at this point is being hired by a Japanese billionaire, Nakamura, to re-open the investigation into his son Kireigi's murder in Denver, on which Nick was the chief investigator before his fall from grace. The story is told somewhat like a "buddy flick", as Nick is saddled with an unwelcome partner, the inscrutable former head of Kireigi's security, Sato.

Nick and Sato revisit the scene of the crime, holographically, and start a long series of interviews with eye witnesses.

I wondered, when Nick's son and his grandfather flee Los Angeles with a caravan of heavily armed truckers, and Nick and Sato head to New Mexico in up-armored Land Rovers, given Simmons' literary history, if this was an opportunity to indulge in a bit of "travelers' tale" narration, as well as to expand the background and give us a glimpse of what's going on outside of the big cities.

I think the most telling thing of all, which really encompasses the whole theme of the novel, is that Nick drives a GM Gelding. Not a Mustang, not even a Pinto, but a Gelding. It seems to me symbolic of what America has become, in Simmons' dark future, an impotent shadow of its former self.

An all too rare fun bit "The quality of 3D digital rendering was on the level of virtual movies or TV series being streamed these days, including the popular Casablanca series starring Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Ingrid Bergman, and such constant new guest stars as nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall...guest stars from different eras such as Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathleen Turner..."

And, in a discussion of the financial crash that finally took the country down for good,
"'The president has a lot of smart people around him,' Leonard said, standing and getting ready to move away from the retired old fool.
'It's too fucking late for smart people,' slurred the economist, his gaze going out of focus again...'The smart people are the ones who've fucked up this country and the world for our grandkids, Mr. Hot Shit English Lit. Remember that.'"

And, on the future of health care,
"The X-rays had been inconclusive, so the doctor had ordered a CT scan and an MRI to determine if it was cancer and, of course, with the National Health Service Initiative, neither test would cost Leonard a cent. But since the waiting time for both of those NHSI-covered procedures now ran to nineteen months and longer, Leonard suspected he'd be dead from whatever was causing the pain and cough before he got the test."

A scary, gripping cautionary tale, written with Simmons' usual flare. I definitely need to catch up on this author I've neglected for a while.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Terre d'Ange Plot Summaries

These might prove handy if you're trying to remember what went on in a previous novel in the series - from Wikipedia.

Kushiel's Legacy Trilogy - Phedra

Kushiel's Dart #1
Kushiel's Chosen #2
Kushiel's Avatar #3

(UK) Treason's Heir or Imriel Trilogy

Kushiel's Scion #1
Kushiel's Justice #2
Kushiel's Mercy #3

Moirin Trilogy

Namaah's Kiss #1
Namaah's Curse #2
Namaah's Blessing #3

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Who's Counting? by John Fund

I found a reference in James O'Keefe's book to Fund and Spakovsky's book on voter fraud. My initial impression  from O'Keefe is that it's pretty rare, based on the number of stings he performed, but Who's Counting shows just how widespread voter fraud really is in this country.
 I'm going to quote extensively from the book, as there is example after example of the problems in our system here; I can only give you a taste.

"The real myth in this debate is not the existence of voter fraud, which exists; the real myth is the claim that voters are disenfranchised because of voter ID requirements."

In 2009 "...ACORN had hired 59 inmates from a nearby prison work-release program to collect registrations. Several who had been convicted of identity theft were made ACORN supervisors: the group was hiring specialists to do its work."

"...former Alabama congressman Arthur Davis, a Democrat turned independent who says he regrets having opposed laws cracking down on voter fraud even though he knew it occurred in his district; as a reformer challenging an entrenched machine, he had to calculate ho many phony votes he would have to overcome to win."

"The Department of Justice prosecuted its larges voter fraud case ever in Chicago - prosecutors estimated that 100,000 fraudulent ballots were cast in the 1982 gubernatorial election."

"Chris Matthews...explained the scheme: Someone calls to enquire whether you voted or are going to vote, and 'then all of a sudden somebody does come and vote for you.' Matthews says this is an old strategy in big-city politics 'I know all about it in North Philly - it's what went on, and I believe it still goes on.'"

Does Matthews now support voter ID laws? I suspect not.

"Another method entailed collecting, during nominating petition drives, the names of registered voters who had died or moved - deadwood voters. Crews were hen sent to vote under those names."

During a city council election in 2007 in Hoboken, NJ, a group of imposters were caught. "The imposter admitted to the police that the group was from a local homeless shelter and each person had been paid $10 to vote using other people's names."

"...the North Carolina Board of Elections admitted that it had caught at least a dozen people trying to vote in more than one location, and election officials acknowledged that 'it would be hard to catch anyone who intentionally double-voted across state lines, because states don't share their voter databases.'"

Noncitizens are on voter registration lists all over the country.

"Up to three percent of the 30,000 individuals called up for jury duty from voter registration rolls over a two-year period in just one U.S. district court were not citizens. While that may not seem like many, just three percent of registered voters would have been more than enough to provide the winning presidential vote margin in Florida in 2000."

During a 1997 investigation into voting by noncitizens:

"...the INS refused to cooperate with the criminal investigation. An INS official was quoted as saying, '...if word got out that this is a substantial problem, it could tie up all sorts of manpower.'"

"Why would an illegal alien register to vote?...the federal I-9 form that employers must complete for new employees provides a list of documentation that can be used to establish identity - including a voter ID card."

Two to three thousand individuals summoned for jury duty in Orange County in 1998 claimed an exemption from jury duty because they were not citizens. 85 to 90 percent of those individuals were summoned from the voter registration list, rather than DMV records.

In a case of voter fraud in Greene County, Alabama in 1994 being investigated by the Justice Department and the FBI, the NAACP sided with the conspirators, provided their defense funds, instead of siding with the black voters whose voting rights were being thwarted - mostly because the leadership of the NAACP were friends with some of the fraudsters.

Unfortunately, there's a revolving door of sorts at the Justice Department, similar to the revolving door between the U.S. Congress, its staff, and the lobbying firms who buy their influence. The Justice Department is mostly staffed by lawyers who have worked for the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others who have a belief in "racial payback". Acting Assistant Attorney General of Civil Rights, Loretta King, told staffers in the Voting section how excited she was that "We now have two black men running the country." If a white man made that sort of comment, you can imagine the uproar from the media, but all we hear of this is crickets chirping.

Fund discusses the movement to change from the current electoral college system to a National Popular Vote, and analyzes the problems with this idea, as well as the reason behind the necessity of the electoral college established by the Constitution. He exposes the causes of low voter turnout by our military families, and the shameful way that many states have ignored the laws passed by Congress to make sure that their votes can be counted. In conclusion, Fund outlines a number of steps that we can take to limit voter fraud, including requiring voter ID, making sure all voters are U.S. citizens, preventing absentee ballot fraud, making sure voter registration databases contain valid data, compacts between the states to make sure people don't cast votes in multiple states (the problem is huge between New York and Florida - site of the disputed 2000 election, by the way), fixing the same-day registration and provisional ballot regulations, making sure our troops get their ballots in time to vote and return them before election day, and getting involved in our communities as election workers, a position filled now mostly by a vanishing corps of patriotic seniors.

Monday, January 20, 2014


In an interview with Parade magazine, gold medalist Dorothy Hamill says, "In life, I have struggled with knowing that I'll never be a world-class anything again. So I've tried to find a way to share the thing that I'm still most passionate about, ice-skating. I'm frustrated that I've never found another passion."(emphasis mine)

Wow! Most of us in this world would be perfectly happy to find just ONE thing that we are passionate enough about that it would motivate us to excellence, not to mention fame and fortune. To have the same passion throughout your lifetime would be a wonderful guiding principle, wouldn't it?

I've been frustrated, personally, with the whole "find your passion and success will follow" movement that has been popular for a while now. I can't think of any one thing that I love that much, or maybe I'm just too lazy to devote the 10,000 hours of practice Gladwell says is necessary for excellence.

Black Arts by Faith Hunter

Once again, I have to mention that the theme of the year, or perhaps the decade, in urban fantasy is to have the "lone wolf" female protagonist come to the realization that she has friends and family whom she can count on to help out when the going gets rough. So, is this just a "thing" that women authors can't help writing? Do all women UF authors go to a clinic where they teach this stuff? Was there a meeting of the club where everyone agreed that this was the acceptable leitmotif? Don't we have any new ideas, people?

Reminds me of the early days when every fantasy seemed to be a Tolkien ripoff. Someone even wrote a satirical treatment of it - can't recall the title now, but there were things about how the proper number of a group of adventurers must be exactly nine, and the quest had to involve either finding a powerful magic artifact or trying to destroy one, etc.

Jane's best friend (though somewhat estranged since Jane killed her older sister for practicing blood magic rituals), Molly, has disappeared, supposedly on her way to see Jane, and her husband, Evan, has shown up in New Orleans searching for her, with both kids, Angie and Evan, Jr., in tow. The household of the Master of the City, Leo Pelletier, is experiencing a little bit of a shakeup after his Primo, Bruiser, has undergone his transformation to Honorio, and the various clans Leo has claimed are all finding their places in the hierarchy. Two of the girls from Mme Katie's establishment have also disappeared, though it's not immediately evident that their abduction has anything to do with Molly vanishing.

On top of all this, Jane is expected to make sure Leo's household security is up to the task of receiving a delegation from the European vampire council, a mission from the African weres, and the immigration of a powerful old vampire from Mexico, who was originally turned in New Orleans, and who hung around with famed pirate, Jean Lafitte, and who apparently wishes to swear fealty to the New Orleans MOC. She has a full house on her hands, with the two brothers, Eli and Alex, whom she has adopted as part of her security team, Evan and the kids, and eventually Bruiser moves in for a bit after Leo kicks him out.

As mentioned before, the real point of this plot is to make Jane realize who she can really trust, count on, and bring into the protection of her extended family. That, and to raise the stakes in sexual tension of the love triangle between Rick, Bruiser and herself.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Every Day by David Levithan

 This book came highly recommended by Orson Scott Card. He has a (more or less) weekly review column on his web site called "Uncle Orson Reviews Everything", and he definitely reviews EVERYTHING. He talks about board games, movies, books, restaurants, snack crackers, candied nuts, kitchen gadgets, music...and anything else that he experiences. Card is always a delight to read - I've spent many a sleepless night over the years finishing off one of his novels - and so I like to read his reviews every once in a while, just for new things to check out.

Every Day is the story of A, a person...entity...who begins each morning inhabiting the body of someone different. He has done this as long as he can remember, and has no way to stop the daily migration. When the book begins, at Day 5994, A is sixteen years old, and has landed in the body of Justin, a typically self-absorbed high school student with a typically infatuated teen sweetheart, Rhiannon. While A controls Justin's body for the day, he falls head over heels (evidently for the first time) in love with Rhiannon, and decides that he must somehow do something he has never attempted before - stay in contact with her from day to day, and to reveal his great secret to her, in hopes that she will love him, too, and that their love will conquer all obstacles.

Of course, we all realize that there are only two ways this can go, if she does indeed fall in love with A. First, she would have to be able to accept any incarnation of A and be willing to disrupt her life every day for the rest of their mortal spans in order to be physically together, or A must find some way to fix himself in the same body for the long haul. No spoilers, but this is the conflict about which Every Day's solar system revolves.

The most interesting part of this young adult novel for me was how Levithan really seems to get into the minds and life situations of each of the people whom A briefly inhabits. We have a fair selection of what I'd consider statistically "normal" teenagers, and then there are the "Odds" - a girl who cuts herself and wants to commit suicide, a happy well-adjusted gay teenager, a drug addict who can barely get through the day without his fix, a "male" trapped in a female body who is loved by a girl who loves him/her despite his incorrect gender, a mean girl who delights in putting people down, a knockout fashionista, a pair of student athletes, a homeschooler raised by Jesus Freaks, an alchoholic who killed his brother in a car wreck, and so forth. A also ends up in the body of Rhiannon, herself, at one point, and makes a point of not seeing her...herself... naked, as that would be taking advantage of the situation.

Levithan makes it all very interesting, though as a science fiction reader I really want to know more about the nuts and bolts of how it works, and where the "souls" of the people A occupies go while it's happening. A can concentrate on leaving them certain selective memories of the day, or just let them have a very vague recollection of an ordinary day. A tries never to interfere in their lives, or change anything radically, and  only breaks that rule a couple of time in the course of the novel. It's also pretty clear where Levithan's sympathies lie, as an author and probably as a person, as the LGBT characters of the story seem to be the happiest, all in all, and those "judgmental" religious types are portrayed as villains, jocks are just dumb, and handsome and beautiful people are vapid and vain.

A well-told tale, suitable for mature teens in its themes.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Naked in Death by J.D. Robb

 I'd read some positive reviews of J.D. Robb's In Death series a long time ago, and I encountered a coworker reading one of them the other day, as well. After a bit of casual quizzing, I decided to reserve the first in the series at the library, and I have to say it wasn't too bad. The books are vaguely science fictional - taking place about forty years in a future where all guns have been outlawed unless you're a wealthy collector, coffee and real beef steaks are luxuries for the rich, and prostitutes - licensed companions - are respectable businesspersons, for the most part.

When a licensed companion who also happens to be a U.S. Senator's granddaughter is murdered brutally with a rare firearm, New York's finest homicide detective Eve Dallas is assigned to the case. She's still a little shaken up from her last encounter with a murderer - an abusive father who knifed his wife and carved their young daughter into pieces, so she's just a little off balance as the investigation progresses. It's immediately evident that this is going to be a serial killer, as the perpetrator leaves a card under the body that says "1 of 6".

It's not a big surprise, then, when the next victim is another licensed companion, but not politically connected. There don't seem to be any ties between the two women, and Dallas is under pressure from the Chief of Police to solve the case quickly to get Washington off his back. One of Eve's first suspects is a man known as Roarke, an Irishman of dubious antecedents who has grown extremely wealthy, is known to the family of the first victim, and who collects antique firearms. When she meets with him to interrogate him about the murder, however, both he and she find a romantic attraction between them that is totally irrational, and provides some extra conflicts in the course of the tale.

So, if it wasn't for a few little bits of window dressing, you'd never know this was a future crime novel rather than a contemporary one. As science fiction it's pretty lame. It is a good mystery/thriller, though, even though I knew from the beginning who the killer was - I've just read too much of this stuff over the years to miss the clues. On the romance side, it does get a bit steamy, so this book should appeal to a wide variety of audiences. I've got the next one on hold.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Quarry by Iain Banks

 Iain Banks, under the name Iain M. Banks, has written some marvelous, intricate science fiction novels that I've read over the years, so when I saw this on the bookshelves at my local library, I decided I should give his mainstream works a try, too. The Big Chill has been one of my favorite movies for the last thirty years, released at a time in my life when I was just beginning to miss the company of my friends from "uni", so the story in The Quarry was a beloved and familiar tale - mostly. A group of friends who went to school together have gathered at the home of one of their number who is dying slowly of terminal cancer, Guy, for the chance to say "goodbye" and to maintain their tenuous contact with one another.

One interesting twist in this tale is that it is told from the point of view of Guy's son, Kit, who appears to live his life somewhere on the autism spectrum, with a few OCD issues thrown in. Banks' description of Kit's thought processes and coping mechanisms is very interesting, and provides us with a unique POV for what turns out to be a long weekend spent trying to capture the good old days.

The dialogue is bitter and brilliant, witty and wonderful. The plot is barely present; this story turns on the interactions between a group of friends who have known each other for so long that nearly nothing remains secret, and everyone is free to say what they really feel, to take off the masks that they wear out in the real world. There's not any sort of an action plot, just an account of how the friends spend their last weekend together, and the interactions between them. The quarry in the story plays a peripheral role, at best, and it's continuous expansion probably merely symbolic of the idea that death inexorably swallows us all, in the end.

A bit off-genre for me, but it was an interesting read.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Autumn Bones by Jacqueline Carey

 So, I'm still not sure why Carey has forsaken creating masterpieces of fantastic fiction, as in her Terre d'Ange works, for contemporary urban fantasy. It's fortunate that my local library carried a copy of Autumn Bones, for I'd have hated to pay hardback prices for this one. The one true saving grace of protagonist Daisy Johanssen from the first novel was that she wasn't indiscriminately sleeping around with any supernatural being who crooked a finger. In this installment, she loses that figurative virginity and just joins the hordes of monster mattress maulers.

First, she catches a dose of satyr rut mojo when she and Cody try to break up an orgy at the local gay bar, and falls into bed with her almost boyfriend, Sinclair, who turns out to be the descendant of a long line of obeahs (Jamaican sorcerers), which is the main conflict in what passes for the story line of Autumn Bones. When it turns out that her Mr. Right has forgotten to tell her his whole life story and important details from his sordid past, though, she decides that they need to be "just friends-with benefits, of course" while they sort out the members of his family who want to get her out of the picture and force him to return to the islands.

Then, when she discovers Cody sleeping off his lycanthropic adventures in the nude, she jumps his furry bones, too. This complicates their working arrangement somewhat, but if it all goes south, it's obvious she won't lack for company, as Stefan the Outcast seems more than willing to take one for the team. All of the side plots turn out to be pretty much just distracting candy for the main event, which pits Daisy and her allies against a shambling resurrected giant axe murderer. One sub plot remained unresolved at the end, so I am certain we'll see more of Daisy's antics.

There must be money in urban fantasy - I can't imagine why Carey would waste her time with it otherwise.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Bliss by Kathryn Littlewood

 As I've mentioned before, I don't read a lot of YA fiction these days, but this was a Free Friday selection at Barnes & Noble, so I downloaded it. It was a fairly amusing little tale about a family who own a magical bakery in the town of Calamity Falls. The four children in the family are Parsley, Sage, Rosemary (Rose) and Thyme (Ty), of course. Rose is at that awkward twelve year old stage where she's becoming aware of boys, and when social standing and what people think of you becomes all-consuming. She has worked faithfully in the family business, where her parents create magic muffins, breads and desserts, which cure people's ailments, as well as more mundane treats.

So, when her parents have to leave to help a neighboring town with a flu epidemic and Rose and Ty are left in charge, Rose obviously and unavoidable falls into the trap of trying to prove how good she is by sneaking some recipes from the family's secret magical cookbook. Things get more dangerous when her long lost Aunt Lily arrives for a visit. Lily has long been the black sheep of the family, and it's apparent to the reader, though not the children, that her only reason for being in town is to grab the cookbook full of magical recipes to satisfy her own ambitions.

All sorts of misadventures befall the children while their parents are away, and it's all good innocent G-rated fun. A confection baked of Harry Potter Lite with a pinch of Lemony Snickett and a dash of Disney's Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Strangler's Moon by E.E. "Doc" Smith

Stranglers' Moon is the second in the Family D'Alembert series by Smith. When SOTE finally notices that tourists on the moon of Vesa are going missing in massive numbers, they decide to send in their top agents, Jules and Yvette, to investigate the matter. The pair decide to split up to be more effective, so Jules dresses down and becomes a common laborer, while Yvette resurrects her Carmen Velasquez personna, this time as a wealthy widow traveling to Vesa to gamble away her sorrows. On the way she meets and falls for a wealthy but mysterious stranger, Dak, and were it not for their irreconcilable differences - he would never survive on the three gee world of DesPlaines, and she would have health issues if she had to live at one gee all the time - she might have actually considered doing something about it (a No No for the censors when Smith was writing). But Dak disappears after arriving on Vesa, and Yvette is now personally motivated to find the person or persons responsible.

In the meantime, Jules is having plenty of fun being caught between a gang of men from the planet below (settled by refugees from the Indian subcontinent) and the rough and ready workers of Vesa. One would think if things were always as tense as they get when Jules signs up as a laborer, the companies would never get any work done, so the stress is a little manufactured, but it sets Jules up for a rather miraculous escape much later in the book when he acquires a life debt from one of the young gang members. Also, if I were Jules' foreman I'd be more than a little bit curious about his acrobatic abilities (remember, Jules & Yvette travel with the family Circus), and think that perhaps the background he'd put in his job application was spurious.

Semi-amusing, but not the most inspired of Smith's works in this series.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Around the Web

Nikki at The Liberty Zone reviews Matt Bracken's Enemies and Traitors.

Impaler by Kate Paulk

Impaler is the first novel I've tried by Kate Paulk. Every so often, I'd get the feeling that I was missing something, whenever the protagonist, Lord Draculea, mentioned something that had happened earlier in his life. At first, the events seemed so adequately described that they could just be bits of background, but eventually it became apparent that there's a first novel in this chronicle. Goodreads, fortunately, enlighted me to its name - Born in Blood. Now I have to go hunting, I guess. Like Van Helsing

As I've perhaps mentioned before, the first instance I recall of a writer telling the Dracula tale from the good Count's point of view was Saberhagen's The Dracula Tape, which I've reviewed before. At this late date, seeing the vampire as a sympathetic character is pretty common, so it's no surprise when Impaler follows the tale of Wallachia's infamous ruler in first person. Having survived torture and abuse by the son of a Turkish Sultan when placed in that household as a hostage to his father's good behavior, Draculea nurses a deep hatred for the Turks who have overrun much of Eurasia. He also was cursed while in durance vile with the need to consume fresh blood, which conversely gives him strength and speed far in excess of most mortal men. Rather poetically, the curse rebounds upon those who cast it, as Draculea takes the fight to them in their strongholds in Wallachia and beyond.

Aside from the Dracula schtick, this novel really isn't in the fantasy or even horror genre, but more of a historical (if you accept a supernatural Dracula's historicity) novel. Yes yes yes we all know Vlad the Impaler existed, it's his undead nature that creates the mythos.

Draculea seems also to be cursed in an incidental manner in that those whom he cares for die off for various reasons. At the start of this novel, his father and brothers are gone, and his first wife dead, and at about the midpoint, his second wife and his unborn child die by miscarriage and hemorrhage. However, some mystical signs occur at her funeral, and his subjects decide that Vlad is guided by angels, ensuring their deeper loyalties, so it's not a total loss. Vlad is also forced to make hard decisions about how to spend his forces and the lives of his people in pursuing his vendetta, which creates a serious conflict with his eldest surviving son, Mehnea, who is still a touch naive about the ways of power.

A good tale, though quite brutal, which is to be expected in a tale about "the Impaler", kept my interest, and I'll definitely have to pick up some more of Paulk's fiction.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber

The Circle Curse leads Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser all over the world of Newhon, and then right back to Lankhmar once more. For the first time we get to meet Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, the duo's patron wizards. They lay either a curse or a prophesy on the adventurers, who have determined to get away from Lankhmar forever after the deaths of their beloveds.

In The Jewels in the Forest, Fafhrd and Mouser trace down an ancient legend of a marvelous treasure, and play a cat and mouse game with a nobleman and his henchmen who are in search of the same trove. But the wayward pair discover that a centuries old trap is far more deady than anything now living humans will do.

In Thieves' House, our heroes once again tangle with the Thieves Guild and inadvertently play a part in the ascension of a new Guildmaster when they purloin the skull of a powerful thief who is only mostly dead. They get lured into a deadly battle with hatching monstrosities in The Bleak Shore, fight a battle with spirit wolves in The Howling Tower, narrowly avoid being drowned in a massive cataclysm in The Sunken Land, fight a running battle with ruthless assassins and the wrath of the very stones of Newhon itself in The Seven Black Priests.

They have a run in with an avian goddess and her deadly minions, who have been stealing jewels from the ladies of Lankhmar in Claws from the Night, once again encounter their deceased lovers while trying to steal Death's mask in The Prince of Pain-ease and are rescued only by their patron wizards, putting them in bondage to the mysterious magic users, then save the entire world from being looted by unscrupulous merchants in The Bazaar of the Bizare.

Plenty of fun tales here, in which Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser never quite seem to get what they deserve, but manage to lurch from frying pan to fire and back slightly wiser each time, perhaps, but never really getting that big score that they know will set them up for the rest of their lives.