Recent Reading - 2008


Connie Willis

Connie Willis has created a book that manages to tell a compelling story while being structured in just the right way to mirror the metaphor that dominates the thinking of its main character, Dr. Joanna Lander. She is a researcher, trying to make sense of the details people report after having a near death experience. She races around her hospital which is an odd group of buildings, linked only at some of their floors, parts of which are always being renovated or repainted. She often feels blocked by the wry, mocking aphorism: "You can't get there from here."

Lander's research subjects make vague statements, confabulating details from their memories with wishful thinking of their relatives and others. Searching for common threads from the differing accounts produces a maze of memories and manufactured imagery which alternately encourages and frustrates.

The characters in this book are excellent. The story is compelling. The book involved and moved me.

This is a book to give a person who has no experience of science fiction. In fact, don't tell them it is science fiction. They might guess on their own, but maybe not. It doesn't rely on the suspension of disbelief needed for aliens or intergalactic civilizations which are linked with wormholes or faster-than-light travel. Science, brain scans and brain chemistry, are at the core of the book, but you don't need to know how to tell a synapse from a brain scan to follow the logic of the book.
Highly Recommended

Charles Stross
Iron Sunrise

After someone inserts a large ball of iron into the core of a sun, the star explodes in a nova. The main system planets are destroyed, and only a few survive from the far-flung reaches of the system. Among those survivors is a young girl who has an "imaginary" friend who has trained her to explore and find things. Among the things she finds before she evacuates her asteroid home, just ahead of the shock wave from the exploding sun, is evidence that indicates who planned the sun's explosion.

Neil Gaiman

London, damsel in distress, unwitting hero, ancient lurking, then charging beasts in dark tunnels, doors where there aren't any, villains, bodyguards, quests, revenge, traitors. Such is the scope of this well-written fantasy.

J. A. Konrath
Fuzzy Navel

The frenetic pace of Detective Jaqueline "Jack" Daniels' life continues in this latest novel about the Chicago policewoman. Urban snipers, insane convicts and the challenging group of her partner, ex-partner, criminal friend, and ailing mother make a fast-paced story race along to a very effective conclusion. Oh, and did I mention her demonic cat? You should read this book and the entire series.
Highly Recommended

Iain M. Banks

Banks surprised me. He maintained a good story line, one that stayed clear from beginning to end while simultaneously writing verbose descriptions about a multi-layered "Shellworld" and an even more multi-layered society of species in our galaxy. The story involves a king's untimely death in a feudal society, the Sarl, living on level eight of the ancient (think beyond millions of years) shellworld. The other layers, concentric with one another are mostly not described, but the Sarl are involved with at least the non-human Oct, the Morthanveld and the human "Culture" both in and beyond the limits of their world. The big issue is involvement/interference of higher tech cultures with lower tech ones.

Be prepared to expand your expectations to appreciate the galaxy-spanning nature of this book.

Robert Asprin
Dragons Wild

Griffin wants to get going with a new life after college, but he isn't prepared for the news that he is a dragon. He's always looked like a typical American boy, and used his natural charm to slide easily along through the days. He knew things might change once a job was necessary, but now he's being chased by rival dragons (who knew?) In spite of a couple grammar typos, I liked the writing. It is easy to read and the characters more  believable than fantasy often provides.

The book cover says this is the first of a new series. Asprin is well known for his "Myth" books. Published in April of 2008, it isn't clear what will happen next because Asprin died unexpectedly in May.

Walter Mosley
Blue Light

Beams of blue light, after traveling across the universe crash into the earth, passing through people, rocks, animals, plants. They carry a "message", but, in spite of a couple of hundred pages of writing, Mosley never delivers a clear reason for telling us about it.

I think I'll read another Easy Rawlins novel next time.
Skip it.

Walter Mosley
A Red Death

Easy Rawlins has begun to be successful; he owns three apartment buildings. Of course it isn't going to be that simple. A tenant dies, and he is accused of murder, even though it looks like a suicide. Easy feels responsible in any case because he was going to have his apartment manager evict the young woman because she had not been paying her rent.

It gets even more involved when the IRS asks for back taxes on the profits from his properties. Easy has been pretending to own nothing, working as a handyman as if employed by his apartment manager. Somebody has given him up to the authorities.

When the FBI gets involved, Easy has to go spy on an accused communist and union organizer. The FBI agent says he will keep the IRS at bay. Can Easy trust anybody? What about his friend Mouse; what will happen if Mouse finds out Easy is in love with Mouse's former wife, whom Mouse still loves.

Walter Mosely develops all his characters well, and the story is fast-paced, drawing me along as I read.

I am glad to say there are a bunch more Easy Rawlins novels.

Jay Lake

This is Jay Lake's second book set in the gear-driven clockwork world that is a version of Earth. The world is divided in half at the equator by a massive wall that contains the main gear running on the brass track in the sky which drives the Earth's rotation. Lake introduced the clockwork Earth in his previous novel, Mainspring. Within this world, Jay Lake's characters live. The characters are well developed and as the story switches to follow Librarian Childress, Master Chief al-Wazir, and young Paulina, I was both happy to read about each one of their adventures while being eager to get to the next segment about the others. The characters and the well developed industrial age society dominated by the British and Chinese empires blend well, too. I hope that there is at least a third book set in this intriguing world.
Mike Brotherton
Spider Star

Living on the long abandoned planet is interesting for colonists making a new life away from Earth, but especially for the scientists and explorers trying to decipher the history of the aliens who used to live there. One group of explorers has found an ancient cache of "something" on the primary moon of the planet. Joking, the mission leader knocks on the  locked door, and Polloux, the system's star begins to lash out with bolts of energy, the first one directed to the moonbase. The lashings continue, striking not only at the moon, but also at the colony planet. In an attempt to save the colony, the specialists set out to follow ancient stories, tracking the departed aliens to the Spider Star, not really a star--and not really a planet, but a still a place, whose golden core may provide the answers they seek.

Walter Mosley
Devil in a Blue Dress

Mosley introduces Easy Rawlins, a black man making his way carefully in Los Angeles just after the second world war. People around him begin to get killed, and he is dragged into trying to figure out what is going on, not the least because he is a prime suspect in the murders. Not everything goes as smoothly as Rawlins would wish, but he finds that he has a talent for finding answers. I am looking forward to the many books already written about Rawlins, and my son tells me that he enjoyed a book by Mosley, too, one not in the Rawlins series.

Elizabeth Moon
Moon Flights

Short stories. Well written, fun.

Giles Blunt
Cold Eye

In this novel, Blunt created, for me, a thoroughly dislikable main character. Nick Hood is a self-absorbed artist, but not successful. Though you might blame his decline from there on his meeting with Andre Belisle, a character I took to be an agent of evil (the devil), Hood begins to ignore his beautiful, devoted wife, his best friend and studio partner. He paints a suicide he witnessed. Belisle arranged for him to be there when the boy jumped. It attracts attention at the art gallery where his earlier work was ignored. The next three death paintings sell for very high prices and Hood becomes even less focused on reality. The eventual conclusion is forseeable and cements the belief that Hood is despicable because he made all the choices necessary to take him to his doom.

Jack Kerley
A Garden of Vipers

Kerley's detective duo, Nautilus and Ryder, race to a murder scene to prevent another soon-to-retire detective from getting the case. Of course it turns out to be a confusing, multilayered murder, tied to several other cases, and involving one of the richest of Mobile, Alabama's families. Ryder has girlfriend troubles, too.

2008-08-08 (Summer Olympics begin in Beijing, China)
Robert Heinlein
Four Frontiers: Rocketship Gallileo, Space Cadet, Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky

This four-in-one volume is a great value from the Science Fiction Book Club and the four "juvenile" novels are an enjoyable reading experience (re-read after many years for me).
The technology is dated, but it is interesting to think of the future tech ideas that may have been introduced back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Heinlein describes a phone that sounds very much like a modern cell phone, for example. There are many misconceptions, too; Venus has breathable atmosphere; there is liquid water in the summer in the Martian canals; there are intelligent species on both Venus and Mars. Travel is limited to the solar system in these four novels.

Elizabeth Moon
Victory Conditions

Space pirates, space merchants, faster than light space travel, huge space battles, add this to excellent characters and a story that works. That's what you get in this conclusion to the series of books with Ky Vatta as the central character. This is space opera at its best. Of course, you should read the rest of the series first.

Connie Willis
The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories

I'll be candid. I don't frequently read short stories. Usually the tales told are over before I am ready, and characters are incomplete. However, Connie Willis can pack full, complete stories and rich, solid characters into very few pages. The book is big. There are a whole bunch of stories. Every one is worth reading. There is one about snowfall that has as many characters as novels commonly do, and the story switches frequently from one character to another. Usually I cannot keep up with the changes, but this story with all its separate plots works perfectly, and I felt involved in each of the characters.
Highly recommended

Robert B. Parker
Cold Service

Spenser is stressed and his honor is stretched when Hawk gets shot. Hawk vows revenge and Spenser will need to step up or step back from the fight. Cold-blooded members Ukranian mob and an assortment of useful characters along with a cluster of useless individuals are involved. Love, in its many forms weaves well into this story.

Linda Barnes
Snake Tattoo

In Carlotta Carlyle's second go round, she takes on too much, but fights through the dangers of driving her taxi on late night stake-outs in the Combat Zone, while going out to a posh high school in Lincoln, Massachusetts from which a fourteen-year-old student has disappeared.
Fast Paced and Recommended

Patrick O'Brian
The Road to Samarcand

This boy's adventure begins in the China Sea, crosses much of central Asia, and at every turn, something exciting is happening. Written in 1954, the book was published in an American edition only in 2007. I enjoyed it.

John Mortimer
Rumpole Misbehaves

Rumpole gets a murder brief. His client wants a QC to lead. Because Rumpole doesn't want to take the second chair, he decides it is time to apply to become a Queen's Counsel, himself. Hilda contemplates become a junior barrister herself.
A Quick read.

Dan Simmons
The Hollow Man

Jeremy Bremen and his wife, Gail are, as far as they know, the only telepaths in the world. Jeremy is a mathematics professor who may be able to explain how the telepathy works. Simmons takes this premise and weaves a tragic tale with a poignant ending.
Mildly recommended

Sheri S. Tepper
The Fresco

This first contact novel is full of challenges to the uptight in our world, while ethical aliens go through a traumatic reassessment of their sense of self and purpose in the galaxy. When Benita Alvarez is out picking mushrooms, aliens ask her to take a communications device to appropriate leaders, almost the classic line "take me to your leader". The book is full of interesting twists of our expectations.
Highly recommended

Greg Iles
Third Degree

Iles doesn't disappoint. The first part of the book worried me. The main character is obsessing about whether she is pregnant, perhaps with her illicit boyfriend. However, a decent into soap opera doesn't happen and this thriller gains momentum right up to its crashing climax.

Linda Barnes
A Trouble of Fools

Carlotta Carlisle is a retired Boston policewoman. She solves crimes as a PI in Boston and Cambridge, MA. This time, she needs to find a missing person, somebody who has become involved in collecting money to send to the IRA in Ireland.

Ed McBain
Where There's Smoke

This quick-to-read mystery features a former police detective who has a perfect record of solving crimes. Now, as a troubleshooter, not a licensed PI, he will only take a case if he thinks it will stump him. If he thinks he can succeed, he doesn't want to be involved. He also doesn't expect to be paid, so he doesn't need a license.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Two Years Before the Mast

In 1835, young Harvard student R.H. Dana, Jr. took a place as an ordinary seaman aboard a ship headed to California. His book, built around his journals of the trip are an insightful, very readable account of life as a "Jack before the mast." The extensive details demand careful reading, but are facinating to read in the midst of the engrossing story Dana's easy prose reveals. This book is worth reading for any number of reasons. It describes life at sea. It reveals California before it was developed following the gold rush. I read it eagerly, and read sections of it aloud to my wife as we were preparing for sleep. The sections were fun to read aloud and my wife enjoyed each one which provided its own context.
Highly recommended

George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, Daniel Abraham
Hunter's Run

Ramón Espejo is a prospector on a new world, far from Earth and his native Mexico. He gets into an argument and kills a man in a bar. He runs off to the wilderness to to wait until the police have "forgotten" the incident. He loves the solitude away from Diegotown. He can prospect and maybe even live off the land for months, if need be. He didn't count on getting captured by aliens. The aliens, who are hiding inside a mountain, force Ramon to help them find and capture another human before he can reach civilization and reveal their location.
This is a great, positive story.

Cormac McCarthy
The Road

Cold, hungry, afraid, the man and his boy head south. They push/pull an old grocery cart to carry most of their posessions. Snow, wind, ash, the elements aren't in their favor. There are only three bullets left in the gun. Things go downhill from there in this bleak novel of an unspecified disaster that has killed almost everything except a few people. Some of the people are "bad people," but the man and boy are "good people." It doesn't get clearer or warmer or better. I skimmed the second half of the book.
Not recommended (( me. However, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007))
I have written a longer review on the Internet Book Database of Fiction.

Willam C. Hammond
A Matter of Honor

Richard Cutler gets the chance to become a midshipman under the first command of John Paul Jones. He wants to avenge the death of his brother, killed aboard an English vessel which had grabbed him off an American merchant ship. Richard weaves his way through the American Revolution aboard several ships, spending time in France with Benjamin Franklin, England with his relatives, Barbados with his new wife, and finally the battle of Yorktown in Virginia.

The book varies in quality. I thought there was too much filler. It would have benefitted from a 25-30% reduction of text.
Mild recommendation

Charles Stross
Halting State

In recently independent Scotland, Police Sargent Susan Smith must take a report of the theft of millions of Euros. She is quickly caught short. The theft is in a game. Think "Second Life" on steroids. People walk around wearing GPS enabled phone-linked glasses on which highly involved game images and sound compete with the "real" world beyond the lenses. The games involve real-time interaction with other players on the street along with others in any other country in the world. Game space and "meatspace" blend in amazing ways.

This novel captures the spirit of role playing games, programming, high finance and more. It accomplishes this while using Scottish/English slang along with the language of massively integrated role playing games. After the effort of getting the language under control, I was totally engrossed.
Highly recommended

Timothy Zahn
The Third Lynx

Frank Compton races around the galaxy on the interstellar Quadrail train run by the Spiders. He is trying to upset the plans of the Modhri, a telepathic coral-form organizm that is trying to take over the galaxy by occupying and controlling "Walkers" of every major galactic intelligent species. At issue in this romp, a collection of art objects being stolen from museums and collectors. Could they be something more than just art?
Frank makes many herculean leaps of logic on his way to the end of this book.
Not recommended

Ridley Pearson
Killer Weekend

Walt Fleming is happy being the Sheriff of Sun Valley. Most of the time it isn't too difficult, but Liz Schaler is going to attend a local billionaire's conference where she plans to announce her run for President. In spite of all the hired security, Walt still must provide local coordination. Of course, it turns out to be much more.

Jack Kerley
The Death Collectors

Mobile, Alabama is hot and wet in the summer. Cold blooded crime happens in spite of the weather. And when a crime is linked to anything weird, it goes to Detectives Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus.

Following their prior success, they get the case of an apparent hooker killed and surrounded by candles in a sleezy motel room. The crime doesn't seem to fit their normal assignments, but they quickly find that the crime is probably linked to a convicted cult leader from 30 years ago. He is dead, but his influence continues. The cult leader was an artist. A scrap of his work is found with the candle covered body. Then another scrap is linked to another body, and it doesn't look like the end of the disturbing scraps of art, or the murders.

This second novel by Kersey convinces me that I will be looking forward to the next one, and hoping that his new ideas keep coming steadily. I can't wait.

Jack Kerley
The Hundredth Man

Detectives Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus work for the Mobile, Alabama police department. They are the full complement of PSIT, the department's public relations creation to handle crimes done by psychopaths and sociopaths. Crimes that are out of the ordinary get dropped in their laps. They have had some success, but now a criminal is taking the heads of his victims and writing cryptic messages on their bodies, in tiny, very neat lettering.

Great characters, some very unexpected ones, too. This is the first novel by Kerley. It is a great start!

2008-02-29 (Leap Year!)
Jeffery Deaver
The Sleeping Doll

Katheryn Dance is the top interrogator for the California Bureau of Investigation. She analyzes suspects using kinesics, telltale body movements which allow her to judge the truth of their statements. This time, her job is to question Daniel Pell, a convicted cult leader. He is a challenge. She has to overcome his skills as a dominating cult leader who can match her analysis skills with his ability to assert control. After their first session, Pell escapes, and she is put in charge of the effort to recapture him. However, he planned his escape well, and, with the help of an accomplice, he eludes the combined forces of local, Monterey county and state police. Dance's boss, a desk jockey who loves media exposure, even calls in the support of the FBI, a cult expert. Share the blame is his unofficial motto.

Dance calls together the members of Pell's "Family" from a decade earlier, three women who lived under the spell of Daniel Pell. Dance hopes they will be able to help her better understand how Pell thinks, and where he might go. They were not directly involved in Pell's murder of a software genius and his family--except for the youngest daughter who was asleep amidst her collection of teddy bears and dolls. The girl survived the family slaughter because she was overlooked. She was dubbed "the sleeping doll." She could be in danger and so could anyone involved in Pell's earlier capture and conviction. Pell doesn't hesitate to kill, even the random victims from whom he steals cars to confuse the police pursuit when they identify his getaway vehicle.

The book is full of twists, driving relentlessly forward as Pell ingeniously eludes capture and Dance seeks to understand every aspect of his personality.
Strongly recommended

Joe Haldeman
The Accidental Time Machine

Science is a core element of this novel, but you don't need to worry. Haldeman handles the physics as if it were easy and makes you not worry about how his hero creates or uses his time machine. In fact, his hero doesn't know how he made it. Matt Fuller, a teaching assistant at MIT, makes a very accurate callibrator for his professor, but something about it is "broken." It disappears and reappears when he pushes the reset button. Matt eventually realizes what he has is a time machine. Before he can even inform his professor, circumstance forces Matt to use the machine to get away from trouble - of course the rest of the book, with many stops in many millenia, takes Matt from trouble to trouble.

Rudy Rucker

Nants and orphids - nanomachines are everywhere. Jeff Luty made the nants to recreate the world as a virtual earth...but the physical earth is destroyed in the process. Ond Lutter, who works for Jeff Luty, creates a virus that reverses the conversion and releases orphids to guard against a second release of nants. Orphids are self replicating and spread worldwide in one day, covering every surface, evenly spread, one orphid per square millimeter. Their peer-to-peer networking connects everything, letting people communicate with one another without additional technology. The orphids even enhance human mental processes. That is just the beginning of this absorbing novel of nanomachines, metanovels, parallel universes and true love.

Jeffery Deaver
The Coffin Dancer

Lincoln Rymes, the top notch, but quadraplegic, criminalist who is hero of several Deaver novels is the center of this suspenseful book. He and his assistant Amelia Sachs need to get a handle on a professional killer who has been hired to kill witnesses to a crime. He has been nicknamed the Coffin Dancer because of a tattoo. Beyond that tattoo, they have no solid forensic evidence. The Dancer leads them through the streets of Manhattan and even into the subway system as he attacks and disappears, attacks and disappears. Full of twists and turns, this novel is very good.

Thomas Perry

Wendy was beaten with a baseball bat because she knew too much.

Her friend Kim has disappeared and Wendy saw her being shoved into a car. Wendy thinks Kim is probably dead, killed by a mysterious boyfriend who Wendy never met. The attack convinces Wendy she will also be killed. She decides her best solution is to disappear, too, so she calls private detective, Jack Till. Jack helps Wendy escape with a new identity, but six years later, evidence turns up that implicates her former boyfriend and partner in a restaurant, suggesting that he killed her. It becomes obvious that Kim's killer still wants to eliminate Wendy. The false evidence has been planted to get her to return to Los Angeles.

Jack tries to get the district attourney to drop the charges, but she doesn't believe him. Only seeing Wendy in Los Angeles, alive, will satisfy her.

Jack is faced with trying to locate someone who he helped disappear and then get her safely back to Los Angeles without letting her get killed.

The biggest challenge is evading the professional killers who have been hired to eliminate Wendy and won't hesitate to kill anybody who gets in the way like Jack.

Charles Stross

The universe of Glasshouse has networks of gates that can transfer anything, animate or inanimate, even sentient. There are other "A-gates" that also have the ability to remanufacture and alter anything. Age, shape, gender become unimportant. Somebody has developed a virus, though. It has infected all the A-gates and is spread by human vectors The person you are isn't under your control any more. This story happens in the aftermath of the "censorship wars" with the hero trying to help mop up the mess and track down the war criminals who created the virus. The only problem; he doesn't remember who he is, and it is on purpose so it will make identifying him very difficult. His mind has been edited to leave out the memories of his past even though they are vital to his future success.

Sheri S. Tepper
The Margarets

This complex, multilayered story tells about the lives of seven aspects of one individual. The twist is that the aspects of "Margaret" actually become separate individuals while retaining the memories of their former "self." Margaret lives in a time when Earth is facing complete collapse, civilization collapse, environmental destruction, everything. There are some beings who are watching and have decided to try to intervene.
Recommended, but not an easy read.