So it's Summer. And while I often read a decent balance of fiction and non-fiction, lately I've been reading more fiction. So I'll catch you up on what I've read and what I've liked and didn't like recently.
Let's start with one of my favorite authors, Robert Parker. One of my favorite characters in fiction is Spenser so I'm always excited when a new Spenser book comes out. The latest outing School Days finds Spenser in bachelor mode, not that he's married or anything, but Susan is out of town and the Boston gumshoe takes a case offered by the grandmother of a boy accused of a Columbine-like school shooting. And though the humor and snappy one-liners are there, the story itself is flat. It was good, don't get me wrong, and for first time readers of Spenser's adventures especially, but for us old-times we wish the meatier stories of days-yore. Give it 3 stars because Spenser is still Spenser.
Parker's Jesse Stone series has mostly left me cold, but when I picked up Stone Cold recently and consumed it, I'm giving it a second chance. This one is a winner in classic Robert Parker style. Jesse isn't so much different than Spenser except he has a few more issues. First, he's an alcoholic who manages to keep his drinking from affecting his work; his work being the Police Chief of a small Massachusetts town called Paradise. Second he's hopelessly in love with his ex-wife who is not just unfaithful, but keeps stringing the guy along by continuously offering Jesse hope of reconciliation and faithfulness, yet never delivering.
That aside, Paradise finds itself in trouble. A man out walking his dog turns up dead on the beach with two bullet holes in him. Both in the heart. From two different guns. Shot at almost exactly the same time. And the tide has washed away most of the clues. What's worse, he's not the last to turn up dead with the exact same MO. As Jesse comes to grips with his personal demons, it seems he must also protect his town from a serial killer. Or is that plural? Give it 5 stars proving that Parker still has it and there is hope for at least one more top drawer Spenser outing which hopefully will be the upcoming Hundred Dollar Baby. In Stone Cold, a number of characters from the Spenser universe make appearances though one of them is not Hawk.
The last Parker review I have for you involves the latest outing of the Sunny Randall character. Unlike Jesse Stone, I've been a fan of the diminutive detective since he started the series. But this one not so much. It's still in the Good category.
In this book, Blue Screen, Sunny takes a job protecting a spoiled star, Erin Flint, who resides in a protected compound in the town of Paradise. When Erin's personal assistent turns up dead, and the victim of murder most foul, it falls within the juristiction of the local Police Chief Jesse Stone. Jesse and Sunny team up in more than just a professional manner.
The book is fast paced and breezy but it seemed to me it focused more on Jesse and Sunny's budding romance than crime-fighting and so it left me a bit out. But you might enjoy these two great characters finding happiness if only for a moment while delving into the sleezy world of high-stakes star generation where everyone is using someone for personal gain.
Next up is two Sci-Fi books by author John Scalzi. The first, is a Hugo nominee Old Man's War which is decent Summer read, not deep but fast-paced and fun. It also has one of the best opening paragraphs for a book that I've read in long time.
I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army.
Now if that doesn't suck you in, you're just dead. Maybe you should go back to reading technical manuals while catching a tan from your living-room sunlamp. What works for me about this book is the fact that the hero, John Perry, discovers a world he never imagined existed in all of his 75 years of life on Earth. It seems that the people of Earth have been living a protected life. While they know that colonization of the stars is on-going, the implications or realities of that that fact never reach them. What they do know is that colonists are selected by the Colonial Union and that they mostly come from impoverished countires with high population densities. They also know that the universe is not a peaceful place and that if you are not eligible to be a colonist, you can join the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) and not only will they make you young again, you have the option to become a colonist when your enlistment requirements are fulfilled.
If you survive.
You learn about the real nature of the universe along with John and
his journey is one from nievete to harsh reality. Metaphorically, you
follow John Perry's journey from childhood (existence on Earth) to
adolescence (the change from 75 year-old human to a genetically
engineered fighting machine, and it's attendent unrestrained libido) to
an adult engaged in a constant battle in a universe he doesn't
understand. And he does this all in what would be the twilight of his
life under normal circumstances. And while the book is fast paced with
sparkling prose, and a great read, for me, it never lived up to it's
For instance one of the great mysteries you expect to be revealed is why Earth is so protected and how is it that it never experiences the problems of the rest of the universe? To me, we were set up to ponder this conundrum but the answer is not forthcoming. But, the good news is that there are more books that take place in this universe so perhaps we'll learn the answer in the future.
Also less than satisfying for me was the fact that the metaphorical journey of John Perry gives us no real insight into the human condition even though I felt I was promised some such insight. To me, the value of Science Fiction has always been it's unique ability to deliver more thought-provoking examinations of the human condition than can be embraced in other forms of literature. And here we get the bun but not the burger.
Technically the biggest problem with the book was boot camp. Quite clearly Mr Scalzi has never been. And he takes the tack of stressing that the Drill Instructor is not a stereotype. After acting like a drill sergeant, the DI Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz gives the following soliloquy
"You don't understand," Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz said. "You're under the impression that I'm talking like this because this is just something drill instructors are supposed to do. You're under the impression that after a few weeks of training, my gruff but fair facade will begin to slip and I will show you inkling of being impressed with the lot of you, and that at the end of your training, you'll have earned my grudging respect. You're under the impression I'll think fondly of you while you're off making the universe safe for humanity. secure in the knowledge I've made you better fighting men and women. Your impression, ladies and gentlemen, is completely and irrevocably fucked."
The DI in Old Man's War tries to convince the rectruits that the focus of basic training in the CDF is solely to learn about their new genetically-engineered capabilities, as opposed to getting people in top physical condition as was the case in the past: They are already in top condition.
What Mr Scalzi misses is the fact that while basic training is about physical conditioning, it is as much, if not more about learning to cooperate to accomplish a goal. It attempts to take the "I" out of team. The whole point of basic training is to get you to act as part of a unit, and they use physical conditioning and intimidation as a step to take you there.
The actual reality of the situation is that the "stereotype" is more true than false. DI's really are hard on you for the first few weeks than ease up and by the end, you've pretty much earned some amount of respect. That's because the script is to tear you down as an individual than build you up as a team and to see your team leader (the DI) as the person who is in charge both of getting the job done and of your personal safety. And it has always been so, and to my mind, will always be so.
The other thing that bugged me was the propensity to call the BrainPal (the organic computer inplanted within each soldier) disparaging names. John Perry calls his "asshole". Now it's not the profanity I object to, but I have developed a whole theory on the effects of self-dialog which I will not get into here (perhaps I'll write a Dharma Talk on it some time) except to say I think that essentially calling oneself "asshole" would be detrimental.
But these are relatively minor criticisms that should not keep you away from this excellent summer time read. But for the above, I give it 4 stars.
The second book written in the Old Man's War Universe is the Ghost Brigades which to me is a more satisfying book than was OMW. And while Scalzi doesn't attempt to answer the questions presented by the first book, he does give us a more philosophically satisfying novel.
The title of the book refers to the CDFs Special Forces who are drawn from the ranks of those who have signed up for the CDF, but died before fulfilling their obligation. The Ghost Brigades then consist of the reconsituted bodies of the deceased recruits but are given newly created consciousness since nothing of their former consciousness remained after death. (Or did they?) Their bodies are even more advanced than regular CDF soldiers and they use them more efficiently since they were "born" with their new genetically engineered bodies.
In this outing, intelligence reveals that the some of the most potent enemies of mankind have banded together and are preparing for a cataclysmic assault on humans and, it turns out, they may have obtained the secret of BrainPal technology which is fundamental to unit cohesiveness. While some of the political considerations of the OMW universe are revealed with more depth, more interestingly Scalzi explores the meaning of indentity, selfhood and patriotism in a way that is thought provoking while not sacrificing a good fast-paced action yarn.
Now that's what I want from Science Fiction and I, for one, am looking for to the next book in the "series": The Last Colony. I give the Ghost Brigades 5 stars
I had never read a book by Brad Meltzer before and I picked up The Zero Game because it looked interesting and it was on the sale rack at Borders so I figured I didn't have anything to lose. I mean the hardcover was priced less than your typical paperback. Boy did I luck out.
The Zero Game involves two Congressional staffers who get involved with a secret, ostensibly harmless game involving betting on legislative trivia that mostly doesn't matter. Typically it would involve things like whether or not they could get a Senator or Congressman to say some sequence of words on the floor of the House or Senate. One case involved the placing of a glass of water on the voting table in the Senate chamber. The rule is you only know that the person who recruited you and the person you recruited are in the game. And all bets and results are distributed by means of Pages.
But when an apparently inconsequential earmark being placed in an appropriations bill becomes the subject of a bet, the game turns to murder and conspiracy. This book takes the reader on a journey through the halls of power, to the secret bowels of the Capital to the bottom of a 10,000 foot gold mine in South Dakota and a secret so explosive, and an antagonist so deadly, that the security of the world is threatened. And for the two staffers, Matthew Mercer and Harris Sandler who get caught in the web of The Zero Game, it turns out there is no one they can trust.
This is a well paced, exciting, and thrilling ride for summer reading; or staying up late at night. It is a page turner of the first degree.
I do have a few gripes. The most glaring of which is that you can not ascend from 10,000 feet in an elevator at maximum speed. While it may be technically possible for the elevator to do it, it is not possible to avoid the bends if a human does it.
But forget it. It's a great read and I rate it 5 stars.
In the non-fiction category Gary Berntsen's Jawbreaker is the story of how a few hundred CIA operatives and a few hundred Special Forces won the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In it you will learn about what we did right, what we did wrong, and yet again how serious professionals have to fight against a risk-averse bureaucracy to accomplish the mission. The amazing thing is not that these dedicated professionals got the job done, but that they managed to get the job done in spite of not only the enemy forces, but friendly forces as well.
While it is clear that the Bush Administration is willing to take more risks to do what needs be done than any of his predecessors including Reagan (see Charlie Wilson's War for instance or consider the fact that Hizbolla were not demolished at the time they killed 241 Marines), they are still more tentative than the situation warrants (I mean, why is al Sadr still alive?).
What we do learn in this book, even though a great deal of the material is redacted, is the same thing we learn in Imperial Grunts; the SpecOps and trained CIA field ops guys know their areas of responsibility better than upper escelons of power and even better than the State Department. They know the players, they know the game, and there are times when you just need to trust these experts and let them deal the cards. Decentalization, or if nothing else, their voices should have much more weight in the decision making process than they currently do.
If you don't know already, our government is filled with dedicated, hard-working, and talented people doing their best to keep us safe and mostly succeeding despite the obstacles, both foreign and domestic, thrown in their way.
Give this 5 Stars.
Well it's not really true that Vellum, by first time author Hal Duncan is bad. There are many things to like about it. First is that the prose is first rate. Second is the cool premise: that angels and demons are on Earth trying to effect a final showdown, no matter what the cost to the mere mortals stuck in the middle.
But the fact of the matter is, is that that first rate prose gets totally in the way of the storytelling. Now I like great prose. But I want to read the story. And it was so hard in this case to get the story out of the prose that I abandoned it half way through.
Sorry Hal. Better luck next time.
I give it 2 stars only because it might have been worth more than the 1 star I would give it had I finished the book.
Now I know that Jim Butcher is having a successful run with his Dresden Files series which recounts the adventures of Wizard Harry Dresden as he detects the goings on caused by all manner of supernatural beings. But he won't be getting any more of my attention.
I picked up Grave Peril because I like the idea of detective who investigates the Supernatural. I mean as a kid I loved Kolchak: The Night Stalker and have even dabbled in writing such a character myself. I imagined Dresden to be somewhat along the lines of Kolchak, and he is, sort of. The problem is everything from the story telling to the world in which Harry Dresen inhabits is, to this readers mind, lame.
I mean start with calling the dimension that ghosts inhabit the Never-Never. Lame. Then to find out that not only ghosts live there, but all manner of mythical beings and demons or whatever. What, can't they have their own dimension? Something with a name cooler than "The Never-Never"? Lame
And then there's Harry himself. For all intents and purposes, he's a coward and he's self-absorbed. I'm sorry, but I don't want my detectives to be cowards especially when they're tasked to go out and fight the big bad. Self-absorbed I could stand, but both together is: Lame. And Harry is forever juggling the tools of his trade: the wand, the staff, the stuff needed for spells. It seems that what Wizards need more than anything else is a few more arms. And I'm not sure he did anything that couldn't have been done better with a well aimed shotgun which doesn't require so many arms. Lame. And every once in a while he can do powerful stuff, but it ain't often. His most frequent exclamation is "Hells Bells" and when casting spells he says things like "Reflettum" and "Fuego". Lame.
He has a side kick that's an air elemental who is trapped in a skull named Bob. He's kinda like Harry's computer. This is necessary because for some reason Harry's being interferes with electrical devices like computers. So he needs something, I guess. But Bob's not just a computer, he also an Internet search engine. Better than Goggle 'cause he can pick up the gossip in the Never-Never (God! I just hate syaing Never-Never). And, of course, Bob is a wiseacre. Lame.
Oh, and he's got a buddy who is the archangel Michael, but he's, like, human and in a marriage with a wife that wants him to stay at home and take care of the kids instead of going out fighting evil. Lame, lame, lame. But he does have a cool sword.
Anyway, perhaps I am unfairly judging this series. I mean it was only the third book in the series so maybe it got better.
I'll never know.
Give it a solid 0 stars.