Friday, May 29, 2015

House Immortal by Devon Monk

 I'm not sure what to think of this start to a new series. On the one hand, Devon Monk always writes some pretty good fiction. On the other, I didn't really get hooked on any of the characters enough to make me care what happens to them, though some of the ideas Monk explores in this book were just good enough that I finished it, and may pick up the sequel at the library.

On a steampunk-ish future Earth control of all resources has been distributed between twelve Houses (Why does it have to be twelve? Is that a genre specified number?)  Those who do not belong to one of the major 11 houses, who are trying to remain independent are part of House Brown, and are constantly under threat of being wiped out by the other houses.

A couple of centuries before this series begins, there was a group of people who were subjected to some supernatural event called The Wings of Mercury, which killed nearly the entire population, except for twelve "immortals", who seem to be indestructible. After a war in the recent past, when House Brown came into being, the immortals all took service with the houses, bound into essential slavery in exchange for the rest of the houses allowing the rebels of House Brown to survive.

The protagonist in this little tale, Matilda, may turn out to be the thirteenth immortal. She was created, it seems, by her brother, who is a genius in the art of stitching living beings together (there seems to be some overlap with ideas from Monk's other steampunk series). Her father and mother were both killed by House White for illegal medical experimentation, but so far the houses have found her brother useful. At present, however, he is being held captive by Orange in a plot to give the head of Orange immortality. When one of the immortals from House Silver shows up on the scene, badly wounded, it triggers a series of events that will draw Matilda into deeper conflict and entangle her in the inter-House plotting and jostling for power.

One good little exchange of dialog,
"Feng Shui."
"Is it contagious?"
"Hardly anyone gets it."

The jury is still out. I'll put the second book on hold at the library and see if it goes anywhere fun.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Monster Hunter International

If you have never read the Monster Hunter novels, today is a fantastic opportunity to get started. The Kindle edition is free on Amazon!

Cross Fire by James Patterson

 This was a really quick read. In fact, I started it as I got on the plane in Washington, D.C., and finished it about an hour and a half out of Boise. I'm fairly certain I've read a few of the Alex Cross series in the past, given to my by my late bibliophile friend, Tim G., in one of his library clearing binges. But I certainly haven't kept up to date with the series, and the many loves of Alex Cross, so it was a bit like jumping into the middle in some ways, when Alex proposes to Bree, whom he's been seeing for a few novels, I guess, and his old archenemy Kyle Craig returns...I have no recollection of this villain. Oh well, it still reads quite well, and nothing is lost by not knowing the backstory as long as you understand that Alex is a mega-smart detective, and there are bad guys about.

The plot centers around Kyle's plans for vengeance on Alex for putting him in prison some unknown number of plots ago, and how he assumes the identity of an undercover FBI agent who is returning from the field after years away in order to get close to Alex on a convenient cross-jurisdictional investigation, as Alex is now working for the DC Metro PD. Hey, maybe Murphy's Law knows him!

A pair of snipers who are at least marginally more competent than the last batch to ravage Washington have decided to begin eliminating the "foxes in the henhouse" in the U.S, such as congresscritters who are in bed with the banking industry, corrupt businessmen, and activist federal judges. The bad guys masquerade as homeless men in order to wander around the city without being noticed, and get away with several major assassinations, ratcheting up the pressure on Alex and his team, which includes his masquerading nemesis, Kyle.

There's also a side plot where homeless men are being murdered and mutilated by a paranoid schizophrenic mathematics professor, which provides a bit of entertainment along the way.

After building the tension for hundreds of pages, it all comes to an abrupt climax far to easily resolved.

A good airplane book.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Last Chance Millionaire by Douglas R. Andrew

 Andrew starts with a good discussion of the basics, such as compound interest vs. simple interest, and the different types of tax-advantaged retirement accounts most Americans use, as well as knocking down a few myths about Social Security. If you need the primer, this is some good foundational material. 

He dropped hints along the way which led me to believe that he's going to propose something similar to the universal/whole life insurance policy-based juggling act proposed in Dan Thompson's book which I reviewed back in 2010.

One serious issue I have with some of his basic information is that its underlying assumptions about returns are flawed. Dave Ramsey does the same thing, telling his viewers that it's possible to earn a steady 12% return in the right mutual funds year to year. That's simply not true, I'm afraid. Thompson talks about making huge equity gains in the real estate market, which you can tap into by refinancing your home and using the money to invest (something I heard about years ago, called the Smith Maneuver), but this book was published in 2007 - just before the big real estate bubble burst. If your investment time horizon is long enough, returns in the stock and real estate markets are positive - over the LONG haul. Timing those markets can be a real, pardon the phrase - bear.

Reading on through. my surmises turn out to be correct. Andrew recommends purchasing a "properly structured investment grade life insurance policy", and basically funding the policy to the maximum allowed by tax law, in order to get a guaranteed tax-free return on your retirement funds. If it meets federal guidelines for insurance policies, then you can withdraw the proceeds tax-free up to the point where you've withdrawn the equivalent of your "basis", I believe, after which you can take out loans against the principal and, in theory, still pass on the full face value of the policy to your heirs when you pass on.

Though it goes against the whole "buy term and invest the difference" motto I've used for several deccades now in my own investing, I thought it might be worth taking a peek...until I discovered that the whole book is simply a referral to his own firm, and that the only other firms he recommends must be affiliated with him and "properly trained" to set up these types of contracts. In fact, you can't even get a list of the names of these firms without going through his agents, it appears.

Just another well-disguised sales pitch, sold as a book.

Ah well.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dark Heir by Faith Hunter

 Drat! I was really hoping that my review of the previous novel in Jane's story would have contained enough information that I didn't feel like this one was gonna be full of spoilers, but it was not meant to be. 

There is a major emergency at vamp HQ when an ancient vampire (probably the one of the first created, if vamp legends are correct) whom Leo has been holding captive, is helped to escape by traitors within Leo's clan. When Jane attempts to stop him, he blasts her with a massively powerful spell which puts her out of business for a while, and also leaves her with a semipermanent connection to him through her link to the evil artifact, the blood diamond.

The vamp leaves a trail of bodies across the city of New Orleans, including a massacre in a night club which riles up the local populace and police. To some extent, this plays into Jane's hands, as she feels responsible for a) not having killed him upon discovery, and failing to stop his escape, and b) failing to kill the traitorous vampiress who freed the monster when she had the chance a few books back.

The European vampires are still scheduled for a visit, and killing the ancient one, who has been merely presumed missing for a couple of centuries, would cause serious international consequences, if word got out. The witches are still scheduled for a conclave with the leaders of the Mithrans, as well, and these events could affect that rapprochement, too.

Jane must use all of her allies to defeat this ancient monster, including the leader of the witches in New Orleans, Lachish, and her friend Molly, the werewolf Brute, a whole host of Leo's scions, and her lover, Bruiser. The main things that happen here, from a plot arc standpoint, are that she finally embraces her nature as Warrior Woman, who must fight evil for a cause, while allowing the monsters a chance at redemption when possible, and finally accepting the fact that she's accumulated a bit of "family" in Eli and Alex Younger. She also manages to collect a couple of new magical artifacts along the way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mini Meet

Traveling seems, for me, to put a serious dent in my blogging output, unless of course I can blog about travel, or perhaps take the time to blog about blogging. This post does both. 

I've always wanted to attend one of the blog meets that I read about in other folks' blogs, but it seems that the concentration of bloggers out in the Northwest is a little thin, and perhaps they're just not as sociable as the bloggers back East and down South, so most days it's a little hard for me to travel to one. 

But when I got the opportunity to fly to Virginia to visit my son's family, especially my five-week-old granddaughter, I mentioned to Murphy's Law that I was going to be in the area, and he was kind enough to invite me out a hidden bunker in an undisclosed location...

Not really, just a private gun club near a small town in West Virginia, to wound a few targets with him,  Proud Hilllbilly and their friend Bruce.

Not only did he give me a couple pointers that may improve my shooting markedly, but we had a bit of time to grab a burger and brew at a local joint called Glory Days that prepared the juiciest medium rare burger I've had in a while, and to shoot the breeze for a while with a couple of my favorite bloggers, and their friend Bruce (When are you gonna start blogging, Bruce?)

One thing that didn't even cross my mind until I crossed the Shenandoah River on my way back towards Quantico was to take some pictures of the area. I felt like I'd inadvertently driven right into a John Denver song, as I passed through horse farms and what seemed like an endless stream of wineries, old stone houses and lovely vistas. I really need to convince my wife we need to take a winery tour out there so I can get some pictures when I'm not focused on following the GPS' twisted directions. 

Besides, I need to return ProudHillbilly's spare magazine I forgot I stuffed in my cargo pockets.

Friday, May 15, 2015

How to Live on Mars by Robert Zubrin

 I've read a few books written by expats, telling others how to live successfully in a foreign land, so I can be pretty sure that it's true that this is the most useless book for expats I've ever seen. Not because it contains inaccurate information. No, quite the contrary. It's perfectly accurate, but it's Mars! You can try to be a stranger in a strange land if you like, but it will be a very long time before you can book passage there.

Like most attempts at humor, I think Zubrin finds it difficult to maintain the level of levity past the few chapters, and the book devolves into a much more serious discussion of how to obtain oxygen, water and other resources from the Martian environment, the most versatile type of transportation, habitat, and power supply, and other survival issues.

He draws on a wealth of knowledge which I believe he has obtained as a scientist working for NASA, and pokes a bit of sarcastic fun at bureaucracies along the way. I'll probably pick up one of his more serious works about space faring and planet settling one of these days before the Martian cruise lines start running.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Long Time Until Now by Michael Z. Williamson

Williamson takes a break from his Freehold and mercenary stories here to play around in the time travel genre. While he is quite capable of spinning an interesting read out of nothing, while his characters attempt to build a civilization in the Stone Age. I'm not certain he's really brought anything new to the genre that hasn't previously been offered by Twain's Connecticut Yankee, Frankowski's Conrad, Flint's Ring of Fire, and Weber's Safehold stories.

A U.S. military convoy in Afghanistan bumps into some sort of temporal anomaly and are transported into Paleolithic times, where they must attempt to stay alive and preserve what civilization and technology they have brought with them.

Some other groups get displaced from their own timelines into the area and the story, as well, including a Roman legions which gives them a great deal of trouble before being cowed into a reluctant cooperation. Does this story by any chance tie into one of the Misplaced Legion stories by Turtledove?

There was a point, at the end of the book, when I thought the entire story was a "shaggy dog" for the entire purpose of making fun of the bureaucracy (such as the EPA) response to people who return from time travel to the past, like, "please fill out this form telling us how many endangered species members you killed while you were there." Pretty much all of the species from the Paleolithic era would now be extinct, so everything they killed was "endangered".

One of the things this book does is to experiment in multi-POV like crazy, and it somehow oddly works. After a short time to establish the setting and story line, Williamson jumps from one character to another, multiple times within a chapter.

If you enjoy reading about the types of workarounds they figured out to achieve a level of technology that provided at least a few of the comforts of home, with only sticks and rocks on hand to begin with, you'll probably enjoy this one. It's also good to be reminded every once in a while just how "nasty brutish and short" our lives would be without modern medicine, hygiene, agriculture, domesticated animals, and so forth. The good old days weren't all that good, merely old, after all.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Vision in Silver by Anne Bishop

 How often do you find yourself reading a book which is told from the "monsters" point of view so skillfully that you find yourself rooting against the humans. Or, in this case, the humans who want to drive the Others, the terra indigene from the continent.

The core plot in this book revolves around the sudden appearance of Monty's daughter, Lizzie, by herself on a train from the city where she has lived with her mother, Elayne, since Monty moved to Lakeside. Elayne has had a falling out with her boyfriend, one of the leaders of the Humans First and Last movement, after catching him sleeping around, but is killed when she tries to leave town with evidence of some of the bad things he has been up to. His partners in crime believe that Lizzie has or knows something that will implicate them,and so they try several times to take her back.

The cassandra sangues, having been forced out of the "homes" where they once were exploited, are having a difficult time surviving in the outside world. Some of them are simply giving up, others getting hit by cars, and even those who reach the few refuges which the Others have established are often overwhelmed by their new lives and end up killing themselves. Meg and her friends begin to try to put together an "Idiot's Guide" to caring for the prophetesses to distribute to the new caretakers.

There are, of course, some good veiled political and social issues in this book. The human media spouts the propaganda that Humans First spokespeople feed it without questioning, and it is relentlessly Other-phobic, while on the other hand Orwellian in its assumptions that only the human government can properly care for the poor, disadvantaged and mentally unstable cassandras, these "troubled children".

The battle lines are rapidly being drawn as Humans First - supporting businesses refuse to hire or to do business with the humans who do business with or associate with the Others. There are secret handshakes and special identifying pins that the HFL'ers wear. Simon Wolfgard begins to prepare living arrangements for some of "his" humans who are being ostracized and harassed.

The humans, for the most part, are still far too unaware, despite recent events, that the Others with whom they interact are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ancient powers that truly rule the Earth, and who can wipe out humanity in the blink of an eye, should they choose to end the experiment.

Another great book in Bishop's series. Looks like there's a fifth one in the works, too. This should be fun!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Born in Blood by Kate Paulk

With all due respect to Kate Paulk, who is really quite a good writer, this book was a bit of a ripoff. After reading Impaler, I wanted to read the prequel, which surely would tell the tale of how Vlad ended up as a blood-drinker, and explain the source of his malady. So I bought Born in Blood, which covers the time period when Vlad and his brother were hostages to his father's good behavior in the court of the sultan Murad.

First, the "book" turns out to be only 44 pages long, in Kindle format. Second, the book begs all of the important questions and just jumps in at the point when Vlad first reaches his breaking point and displays inhuman strength and appetites. Third, it ends at the death of his father, so we don't get to see any of the story from the point when he is set free, albeit as a commander in the Sultan's army, to the point when he is able to return to his homeland, marry, sire children, etc.

I suppose I'll have to pay for another installment of Paulk's books to find out...well, you know what Paul Harvey used to say.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Dark Lightning by John Varley

Looking over Varley's bibliography, I believe I have owned over 80% of what he has written and read all but two of his novels over the years. Surprising that I only have a couple of reviews up, but most of my reading took place long before I started this blog. Titan, of course, was a HUGE novel, back in 1979, and when he followed it up with Wizard and Demon in the same story line, I followed right along. So many great books.

Like many other authors, however, Varley is getting a bit long in the tooth, and doesn't seem to have anything truly groundbreaking to share these days. Dark Lightning is mostly more of the same in the Thunder and Lightning series, written in a definite homage to Heinlein - the twin girls' mother's name is Podkayne, for Pete's sake, and their father is Jubal. I mean, really?  The whole thing has the flavor of a Heinlein juvenile from the Golden Age (more or less), but it builds very very slowly before it finally gets interesting and adventurous, at which time the twins, Cassie and Polly (Cassandra and Pollyanna - which is a wonderful word play based on their predominant attitudes about life), display the usual hyper-skilled capabilities that Heinlein's female characters always used to, and double-handedly put down a mutiny on the spaceship headed off to colonize a New Earth.

Plenty of interesting speculations on the field of physics and the nature of dark matter create the "science" basis for this fiction. An amusing read, but definitely wait for the paperback.