Monday, September 29, 2014

Magic Breaks by Ilona Andrews

 The action ramps up rapidly in this book. The Beast Lord Curran leaves town to visit with a potential ally out in the deep woods north of Atlanta, while leaving the Consort Kate to deal with the Conclave between The People and The Pack. When Kate, with her complement of badass bodyguards arrives, they are somewhat surprised by the arrival of Hugh D'Ambray, Roland's henchman, at the conference. D'Ambray produces evidence that the Pack is guilty of murder of one of the top Masters of the People, and things go crazy. The Pack delegation is attacked by vampires, and they flee under fire back to their Stronghold, fighting all the way.

The scent and fur evidence on the murder victim indicates that it was indeed a Pack member who committed the murder, so Kate and her allies must try to find the culprit before war breaks out. They try to sneak into the People's territory to the bordello where the murder took place, and end up fighting a long running battle all the way in and out again, though they do discover the identity of the murderer. When D'Ambray and the People arrive a day or two later to demand the murderer be turned over, he is frustrated when Kate turns the murderer over to an incorruptible county sheriff instead of to Hugh or his pet police force.

Betrayal from within the Pack, however, ends up with Kate teleported to an inescapable prison far away, where D'Ambray intends to keep her until she consents to ally with him in Roland's service. When Curran finally arrives to rescue her, the next several chapters read like the description of one of the best FPS games of all time, and the action continues to get more intense until the last couple chapters, which are curiously anticlimactic, in my opinion. It will be interesting to see where Andrews goes with this new plot twist.

Slam-bang, thank you gang, action!

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Children of Possibility by Thomas T. Thomas

 I first encountered the fiction of Thomas T. Thomas several decades ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I bought nearly every novel he published, and then he disappeared, quit being published. In those pre-Amazon years it was difficult to find out what happened, but quite frankly I though he'd passed away, like many of my favorite authors were doing for a while there. When I stumbled upon Mr. Thomas' web site a few weeks ago, and found that he had been writing science fiction, among other things, all along, but just not getting published until the recent wave of Amazon self-published works became available, I was delighted. I rushed out (figuratively) and bought one of his novels, to see if his new stuff is fun to read, too.

The Children of Possibility is all over the map, temporally speaking, from the far future to the Devonian era. There is a corps of time travelers known as the Jongleurs who voyage from the far future into the past to fix problems here and there, and to repair the meddling of other sailors in the stream of time. About this future society:

"Their direct ancestors, who were now the progenitors of most humans alive on Earth, had started by cleaning their children's embryos in vitro of all known disease mutations. Next, they rearranged their chromosomes and eliminated redundancies - or engineered new ones, where having backup copies and variations of a gene made sense...Finally, they redesigned the entire organism for metabolic efficiency and longevity, with the ultimate goal of a human that had no natural life span - people who were potentially immortal."

The main story lines follow Merola, a Jongleur who goes off the reservation, so to speak, in order to save her sister from a financial crisis (whatever happened to the cashless society of Star Trek?) and Rydin, her mentor, who has to track her down when she is ambushed by a coven of renegades, and loses her capability to return to her own time.

The plot weaves to and fro, and Thomas gives us a few new wrinkles on the theory and practice of time travel. I liked Merola and Rydin, and I kept going back to the book to find out how they got out of their messes, but I really liked Rydin's AI the best. Just had that wonderful snarky way of expressing itself that reminded me of the entities in the Culture series by Iain Banks.Glad to see the return of an interesting and thought provoking author.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

 This book came highly recommended by a couple of ladies in my small group. I borrowed a copy from one of them, and spent a couple of weeks reading it. Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who, in the 50s, contracted cervical cancer and, while undergoing ultimately futile radiation treatments at Johns Hopkins, had a biopsy taken of the cancer cells. This sample, for some unknown reason, was the first cell culture ever to thrive and survive in laboratory conditions, and it ended up becoming the HeLa cell line, which was distributed to thousands of researchers around the world over the next six decades, and was ultimately responsible for many of the vaccines and cures which are available to us today.

After Henrietta Lacks' death, her family never were told that her cells were still alive, and never participated in the financial profits from their use. The family seemed to assume that it was due to Henrietta's race, but subsequent events and court cases have proved remarkably color blind in denying patients the right to profit from discoveries made with bits and pieces removed from their bodies, even now that researchers are patenting genetic material, which seems like something a person would "own" if anything was.

Lots of interesting issues raised and discussed in this book about medical ethics, some fascinating history of the exploitation of American blacks in medical research, and a portrait of a horribly dysfunctional family, to boot. Great stuff, though it dragged on a bit past the point of satiation.

Friday, September 19, 2014

In the House of the Wicked by Thomas Sniegoski

 This is possibly the darkest book in the series yet. On the surface, things are going well. Remy has gotten past the grief for his ex-wife enough to begin dating a nice woman, Linda, finally, and he has nearly integrated his dual nature as a seraphim once more, accepting the power when it is needed to right wrongs, but not letting the vengeful, warrior nature overcome his human niceness.

The group of fallen angels called the Grigori, whom we've encountered before, have joined forces with the most powerful individual in a cabal of sorcerers in a plot which endangers millions of people around the world, and another powerful sorcerer kidnaps Remy's neighbor girl, Ashley, who watches Marley when he has to go out of town. When Remy journeys to the shadowland where Ashley is being held captive, the magician and his golem minions drain the angel of nearly all of his seraphic powers, and leave him weakened to nearly the level of a normal human. Despite this handicap, Remy presses on trying to save the girl and the world.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Green Letters by Miles J. Stanford

 While flying to Omaha last Spring, I fulfilled a divine appointment with a gentleman on the plane who is deeply involved in ministry to veterans all around the country. Our conversation led him to send me a couple of interesting devotional books to read, and this one fell through the cracks for a while. Stanford evidently carried on a lively minsterial correspondence for about five decades with a large following, and this is one collection of his studies on spiritual growth. I read it slowly and carefully; it's jam packed with key concepts about our walk as Christians, and made note of a few things that leaped off the page at me.

Being one of those people who can be extremely self-critical when my performance isn't up to my exacting standards, this tidbit was particularly stinging.

"To be disappointed with yourself is to have believed in yourself."

As Christians, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, our strength, power and true accomplishment comes from God, and God alone, not from our own skills and abilities. Anything we do in the flesh is vanity, and allowing God to work through us, despite our weakness, is the only thing in which we should glory.

Even in evangelical circles, where we know, at least in our heads, if not in our hearts, that our salvation comes through faith and not by works, we often work like crazy to be good enough for God to love us.

"Let us cease laying down to the saints long lists of 'conditions' of entering into the blessed life in Christ; and instead, as the primal preparation for leading them into the experience of this life, show them what their position, possessions, and privileges in Christ already are. Thus shall we truly work with the Holy Spirit, and thus shall we have more, and much more abiding fruit of our labors among the people of God."

Positionally, once we are saved, we have been given by God the full inheritance of Christ's position at his side, and gifted with everything necessary to fulfill His purpose in us. But we often forget this, and spend our lives chasing proficiency in "being godly."

For those of us constantly struggling with sin,

"You believe the Lord Jesus died for your sins because God said so. Now take the next step. Accept by faith the further fact that you died with Him, i.e., that your 'old man was crucified with Him'"

Our bondage to sin was broken, and its body buried with Christ, we are risen new and free.

"Sin need have no more power over the believer than he grants it through unbelief. If he is alive unto sin it will be due largely to the fact that he has failed to reckon himself dead unto sin."

I've had, for a number of years, an aversion to the addiction some churches have to the "altar call".

"How often the average congregation is put through this routine. How often the individual believer is maneuvered down front to consecrate and reconsecrate, surrender and re-surrender, commit and recommit himself to Christ! Why is it that after awhile the believer comes to dread such meetings and messages?"

I'm hoping to find some more of Standish's correspondences in my wanderings amid the stacks at used book stores. I think he'll join C.S. Lewis on my shelves as worthy of keeping and re-reading.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Off Kilter

Sorry for the lack of reviews here lately. Between travel and home and garden chores to catch up with upon each return, I simply haven't finished reading anything lately. This, too, shall pass.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White

 I think I have purchased and read nearly everything that Steven Brust has written in the last couple of decades, beginning with Jhereg, and including Cowboy Feng's Space Bar & Grill, Brokedown Palace, and To Reign in Hell. I ran across this collaboration with Skyler White at the library and decided I'd better read it. Not a fatal error, but not exactly up to Brust's usual standards, either.

Several years back, my insurance agent inexplicably hired an office assistant who was horribly incompetent. Her sins were far too many to list here, but they led me to state on more than one occasion that she had to be either related to him or having an affair with him. I'm afraid that I'm left wondering the same thing about Brust's relationship to Skyler White, as there seems to be no other reason to screw up a perfectly good writing process which has produced masterpieces of fantasy fiction for many years. I will, however, give White the benefit of the doubt at this point and will try reading something else by her to verify my theory. You'll be the first to know, gentle readers.

The novel is just way too long on talk and too short on action. The premise is that there is a group of effective immortals who make "incremental" changes by influencing people towards or away from some course of action, making the world a slightly better place, one bite at a time, so to speak. They never try to make major changes, just little ones.

The narrative is split between the viewpoints of Phil, an incrementalist who has been on the job for over two thousand years, and Ren, the woman he has selected to replace a member who has died, who was (it seems at first) incidentally also his lover for the last two hundred years, in various incarnations. These folks don't possess physical immortality, but their memories and personalities can be passed on to new bodies, integrating the old with the new, more or less, depending on how dominant each personality is.

Phil is a professional poker player, participating in the WSOP, so everything happens in Vegas, and stays in Vegas. It turns out that his dead lover, Celeste, was far more skilled at the whole business of subtle influence and change than anyone realized, as it develops that she influenced Phil to pick her successor, and to fall in love with Ren, even when Celeste's personality doesn't appear in her new host as expected. Celeste is playing some sort of long game, which may be detrimental to the long term plans of the Incrementalists as a whole, and they spend endless chapters debating what to do about it, while Ren and Phil work out their various emotional issues.

It could be that this is the first book in the series, and after a couple hundred pages of setup, we'll be graced with some actual plot movement in the next one. Keep your fingers crossed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Embarking on another trip, I found myself searching for an audio book to keep us entertained. Life of Pi, a story about  Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry, and his shipwreck with a Bengal tiger, recently made into a movie, seemed like a safe bet.

To be a good long distance travel audio book requires a couple of things, for me. First, the narrator must be upbeat and entertaining, rather than droning in such a way as to put you to sleep. This book succeeded on that front. Second, the book itself must catch my attention and have a swiftly moving plot. I'm afraid it fails on that score.

The narrator, as Pi, goes off on long digressions about zoos and the animals in them, comparative religion - erroneously, I might add - and even historical swimming pools in Paris. We listed for several hours and never got to a point where we felt engaged, so we gave up and listened to XM Satellite Radio instead.

If you like long flowery descriptions and pointless pontification, go ahead and read - or listen to - this one.

Monday, September 8, 2014

War: What is it Good For? by Ian Morris

 This began as an interesting read, detailing the benefits of the art of War as it pertains to the building of civilizations, such as the Roman, Han and Mauryan Empires. However, it fairly rapidly just got far too detailed for me to keep my interest up, so I stalled out about 125 pages in, and never got my momentum back again.

Some interesting excerpts:

"War has produced bigger societies, ruled by stronger governments, which have imposed peace and created the preconditions for prosperity. Ten thousand years ago, there were only about six million people on earth. On average they lived about thirty years and supported themselves on the equivalent of less than two modern American dollars per day."

"The good new is that we humans have proved remarkably good at adapting to our changing environment. We fought countless wars in the past because fighting paid off, but in the twentieth century, as the returns to violence declined, we found ways to solve our problems without bringing on Armageddon."

"Governments and laws bring their own problems, of course. "Formerly we suffered from crimes," Tacitus had one of his characters joke. "Now we suffer from laws." A government strong enough to stamp out wrongdoing...was also a government strong enough to do even greater wrong."

On the subject of the idyllic and peaceful existence of North American tribes before the scourge of the white man arrived on its shores,

"Excavations began at Crow Creek in 1978, and since then evidence for Native American massacres has come thick and fast. The most recent example (as I write) is at Sacred Ridge in Colorado, where a village was burned down around A.D. 800 and at least thirty-five men, women, and children were tortured and killed."

The effects of climate on civilization's rise are also discussed by Morris. He talks about the "Lucky Latitudes" where warmth, water and fertile soil allowed agriculture to develop on a large scale, leading to the rise of cities and societies larger than the nomadic tribes which had gone before. It's also interesting to note that the rise of civilization took place after Earth emerged from a series of Ice Ages, when the climate was conducive to agriculture, and that the Dark Ages took place during a cooling period when crop failures and famines made resources scarce.

There's the process dubbed "caging" by a pair of rival sociologists - when people are trapped by their lifestyle of farming and cannot merely flee to other hunting grounds, as hunter/gatherer societies of the past could. "Caged" people "find themselves forced - regardless of what they may think about the matter - to build larger and more organized societies. Unable to run away from enemies, thei either create a more effective organization so they can fight back or are absorbed into the enemy's more effective organization."

In the "some things never change" department,

"Excavators at Xuanquan, a Han military post office, have found twenty-three thousand undelivered letters, painted on bamboo strips between 111 B.C. and A.D. 107 (many of them complaints about how unreliable the mail was)."

A Personal Demon by David Bischoff

 On my little demon kick still...the stories collected here, which are more novella length than short shorts, were originally published in Fantastic magazine, edited by Bischoff. They chronicle the travails of Professor Willis Baxter at Powhattan University, the "old P.U.", beginning when he summons up a naked and nubile she demon, Anathae, at a fundraising event. The target of the fundraiser, Norman Rockhurst, thinks that the demon is a stripper, part of Willis' magic act, and invites (or perhaps summons is a better term) him to a political rally taking place at his home several nights later. When Willis' dowdy girlfriend, Gertrude Twill, discovers Anathae the next morning, still a bit underclothed for the weather, at his apartment, she storms out and resolves in her heart to destroy him. His rival and fellow professor, Larry Hawthorne, wants control of the demon for himself, and covets the same promotion to head of the Literature Department that Baxter does, so the stage is set for conflict through several humorous episodes.

This book has the flavor of some of the Incomplete Enchanter series as written by DeCamp and Pratt at their prime (I may have to re-read and review that series one of these days). Light reading for an enjoyable weekend.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Azazel by Isaac Asimov

 Most of the stories in Azazel first appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine a few decades ago, and were all collected in this volume for the first time in 1988. I don't know who came up with the idea first, but it dates back to the story of the Monkey's Paw, at least, that one should beware of any wish fulfillment method, especially demons, and even sitcom genies' wish granting can have dubious results.

Asimov's friend, a 'Freddy the Freeloader" sort, George, has somehow or other summoned a very small demon, two centimeters tall, but far larger in the scope of his mischief. Against his better judgement - he has no better nature - George keeps trying to help his acquaintances to be smarter, stronger, wealthier, or more famous, as the demon is restricted from directly benefitting George with his wishes, and George keeps hoping that success will one day rub off on him, at least to the extent of the victims beneficiaries paying for drinks and meals.

The banter between George and Asimov's fictional self is bitingly satirical and quite amusing - I wish I could be so insulting without being crude - and the inevitable collapse of the demon's "improvements" is always quite innovative. I'm not sure whether it was more amusing to wait for these stories of Azazel to appear as long anticipated treats in the monthly magazine, or to gobble them up all at once in one long sitting.

Filled with bits like,

"His ex-mistress sang cantatas at the local church...I thought at the time that her morals didn't quite suit the surroundings, but Morrison said they made allowances for sopranos."


"I am, by nature, a courteous man, so I greeted him with a grunt and a glare, which he accepted in a calm way."

More fun than a barrel of...well, demons.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

I picked up the six CD version of this audio book at the library, having read nearly everything else Grisham has written over the years, hoping it would keep us entertained on our ten hour drive to the coast. It proved to be a witty and interesting story, not so much for the struggles of its protagonist, washed-up football player, Rick Dockery, but for the skillful way Grisham taught us all about Italy on the way to the Long Beach Peninsula.

Dockery has been cut from his sixth NFL team in eight years, after a disastrous series of interceptions in Cleveland's playoff game, when he single-handedly lost the championship for them and ended up in the hospital with his third severe concussion. His agent, Arnie, decides it would be best for him to get out of town - WAY out of town! - and finds him a job playing quarterback for a football team composed of has-beens and half-baked pigskin fanatics in Parma, Italy. At first it's just an escape and a very low-paying job, but eventually, as we might expect, Dockery begins to warm to Italy, its food, its people, and its culture.

Narrated in an upbeat style which didn't put us to sleep while driving, the book was fun, and managed to kill about half of the trip in either direction for us. We loved the descriptions of leisurely Italian meals, full of pasta, wine and loud, passionate conversations, and got a kick out of Rick's first immersion in  Italian opera, which left him hopelessly enamored of a beautiful soprano named Gabriella.

A few twists, a few turns, even a few familiar devices to stretch out the tension at times, definitely one of Grisham's more amusing works.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Hundred Words for Hate by Thomas Sniegoski

 This book is fourth in the Remy Chandler series, which consists of A Kiss Before Apocalypse, Dancing on the Head of a Pin, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Hundred Words for Hate, In the House of the Wicked, and Walking in the Midst of Fire at present.

Remy (Remiel) has finally listened to his friend's advice and begun to date once more, though he is still fighting with his grief over Madeline's death. He is forced to stand up his new belle, however, when he is contacted by one of the Sons of Adam...literally, one of Adam's direct descendants, who have survived through the centuries as an extremely long-lived cult whose sole purpose is to guard Adam, who is still alive thousands of years after his exile. As we immediately wonder, and are answered fairly quickly, "What about the Daughters of Eve?" Well, they turn out to still be around, as well, though they hate the Sons with a passion which has not dimmed through the millenia.

The author blends old Judeo Christian mythology about angels and the battle of Lucifer and his Fallen into the weave of this tale quite skillfully, and perhaps blasphemously, but it really turns out to be a marvelous story, with plenty of backstabbing and double-dealing from perhaps everyone but Remy.

It seems that the Garden of Eden, Man's original home, was cut loose from contact with earthly reality after the Fall of Man, and has been drifting out of contact ever since, but the signs and portents indicate that it is about to return, and be accessible once more. Each faction has some reason or use for the Garden, and Remy, who as it turns out was the angel assigned to seal the Garden away from everyone back at the time of Lucifer's rebellion, is caught up in the swirling mix of agendas, trying to do his angelic duty without assuming his angelic form and nature once more.

Another fine story in the series. I need to backtrack and find book #3, and then move on to five and six, which are evidently in print now.