Recent Reading - 2010


Sarah Paretsky
Body Work

Chicago P.I. V.I. Warshawski visits a nightclub with an act featuring audience members creating art on the skin of a body artist performer. Few are talented, but the one who is most talented, gets killed outside the club after a performace. The accused murderer, a troubled army veteran from the Iraq war, is found unconscious with the murder weapon beside him on the bed. V.I. cannot avoid involvement because her cousin Petra has gotten a job as a waitress at the club.
Highly Recommended

Mikhail Bulgakov
The Master and Margarita

With novels, I try to read only the actual text. Somebody else's notes may actually be helpful, but the book needs to stand or fall on its own. In this case, I think I must have missed something. I think I missed out on the context of the country in which the book was written. I am going to guess that there are references to real people and real events which I missed. If I understood the references, I might have thought more of this book.

On its face, the story of Woland (Satan?) and his minions was thin for me. Here's where those references to the real people might have been good to know. Otherwise, the focus on money, greed, selfishness in many characters including the theater-goers was not surprising or particularly interesting. I really couldn't tell who the Master represented. Was he supposed to be the risen Jesus? Was he Pilate? One of the other criminals from the crucifixion? Did he represent Bulgakov and other Soviet era writers?

Tying religion and politics together in the context of Soviet Russia was probably important to the weight of the story, but I only really got the thin effect of the bare writing.

This book seems like one of the ones chosen by literature professors to be dissected in a classroom.
"What does Bulgakov mean when he says...?"
"Is Woland a stand-in for Stalin, able to make people disappear and reappear in another city?"

Is The Master and Margarita considered an allegory?
Recommended for those who want a wide literature reading experience.

Greg Bear
Darwin's Radio

Ancient human retrovirus awakens and threatens to destroy humanity. Politics, fear and hatred threaten to tear friendships apart. Loyalties are challenged. Things break. Can love overcome it all?

Paolo Bacigalupi
The Windup Girl

The future isn't rosy when the energy from oil is gone, the super rich use diesel fuel from coal and everyone else relies on renewables or muscle power for everything. Bacigalupi's earth is mainly fed by genetically modified crops which are controlled by a few large "calorie" corporations. Thailand is a holdout nation, resisting being overrun by the caloriemen and their crops. The Environment Ministry "White Shirts" enforce compliance with force.

The world is interesting, but I wasn't drawn in to the characters.
Nebula Award Winner
Mildly recommended

Patrick Süskind
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

It was the writing style that surprised me and inexorably pulled me in. Süskind appeared to maintain a detachment from the main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. I definitely cannot call the writing flat, but there was a marked absence of sensationalism. As techniques go, thriller authors frequently seem to engage readers with passages that grip and jerk readers along through the horrors presented in the book. Perfume is not a thriller in spite of the horror in the book's story. By contrast, Süskind seems to gaze down at the disgusting, distressing, demented "tick": Grenouille. I found the style captivating and especially effective as Süskind blended the beauty of scents and of the victims with the inhmanity of Grenouille.

In the end, I found myself both disturbed by the events of the story and disturbed by being so drawn in to the story, looking over Grenouille's shoulder. What should have left a stench of horror has made me want to recommend the book.

Wow, the power of scent and the well writen word!

Elizabeth Moon
Oath of Fealty

This book begins a new series of stories set in the fantasy setting of "Paksworld". It picks up where The Deed of Paksennarion left off, but does not focus on Paks as the main figure. She is present, but the story is a mix of main characters, including Duke Phelan, and two of his captains, Arcolin and Dorrin. Magery (something like magic) is more a feature of the story as Dorrin becomes aware of powers she abandoned when she ran away from her family. Arcolin encounters trouble when he takes over the mercenary duties passed to him when Duke Phelan ascends to the throne of a kingdom.

Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson
Lone Survivor

Marcus Luttrell is from Texas and is a U.S. Navy Seal. He is a warrior. He was given the Navy Cross by George W. Bush. Marcus Luttrell is the only survivor of Operation Redwing in the Northeast mountains of Afganistan. He and three other Seals went there to capture or kill a leader of the Taliban. They battled to the death against over 100 well-armed, well trained Taliban and only intervention by a village elder kept Luttrell from being killed. There's a lot to learn, by reading this book, about being a soldier, a Seal and a man.

Elizabeth Moon
The Deed of Paksennarion (Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Alegience, Oath of Gold)

This is fantasy written well. We start with a clear focus on the main character, Paksennarion "Paks" Dorthansdotter who runs away from a betrothal and joins a mercenary company where she learns to be a soldier (using swords, armor, etc). Eventually, long after we care about Paks as she endures trials of training and battle, Wizards, Paladins, Orcs, Elves, Dwarves become blended effectively into the story without seeming silly. Battles still turn on the bladework of soldiers and not on inhuman powers which pop out at the critical moment.
Highly recommended

P.G. Wodehouse
Joy in the Morning

Lighthearted view of early and mid 20th Century English upper crust life from the perspective of Bertram Wooster whose butler, Jeeves is invaluable in solving almost any problem imaginable. This time it is wedding plans of Bertie's school chum who wants to marry the ward of Bertie's uncle. Bertie gets into and out of being a fiance himself.

Robert J. Sawyer

The Internet has become aware and although only Caitlin Decter and her parents know much about Webmind, the security watchdogs in the US security agencies begin to suspect and bring in military experts who have already discussed what to do if such emergent sentience shows: shut it down.

Sawyer creates tension with very effective use of characters about whom we care. One of the most intriguing is a bonobo-chimpanzee hybrid who is fluent in sign language.

I think that this second volume of a planned trilogy is better than the first which I called highly recommended back in June 2009.
Highly recommended

John Sandford
Wicked Prey

Lucas Davenport is planning to adopt his ward, Letty. She's a tough cookie at 15. When one of Lucas' former jailbirds decides to get back at him through her, Letty decides Davenport would kill him if he knew, getting her father-to-be in deep trouble. She decides to take on the problem herself. In the meantime, there are crooks in town who plan to rob the "money men" who supply illegal street money to workers at the Republican Convention in the Twin Cities for the nomination of John McCain and Sarah Palin. There's also a guy from Oklahoma with a 50 calibre rifle. Davenport has a busy couple of weeks.
Highly recommended

Clive Barker

This fantasy is full of neat names, for characters, places and the odd goddess or demon. The first half of the 900+ page book establishes who the characters are and leads us through most of the places. In many ways it seemed like a travelogue rather than a story because very little happened to the characters along the way. The second half of the book added more to the story, but ultimately, the book was a disappointment.
Not recommended

Sara Paretsky

After seeing the V.I. Warshawski movie with Kathleen Turner, I didn't have any big expectations for Hardball. Boy, was I surprised. V.I. AKA Vic, not Vicki, please, is one hard nosed, irrascible lady! She takes no foolishness from anybody, crooks, cops, clients, or companions, even when the companion is her newly graduated, perky cousin from Kansas.

After returning from an idyllic Italian vacation, Vic and her boyfriend break up (civilly), and as she is trying to begin coping with the case backlog, troubles begin to accumulate. A 40-year-old missing person case gets inextricably mixed with family memories of her policeman father, meat packer uncle, a stone-cold inmate of the Illinois penal system.

Her young, cute, eager cousin comes into town to work for the campaign of a young politician who wants to become the state's junior sentator. The boundaries of good guy/bad guy quickly become difficult to discern.

Throughout the well paced story, the insight to the characters is rich and nuanced.
It is clear that I need to go back to begin reading this series in order to see what I have missed.

Adage: "Never judge a book by its movie." -J.W. Eagan (though I can't confirm who that is.)
Highly recommended

Norman Spinrad
Bug Jack Barron

TV personality, Jack Barron has the audience, a brash delivery and pretty much everybody's attention. With video phones hooked in to the picture-in-picture screen image, Jack can get anybody on the phone and into his show. Woe be it if you bug somebody enough to get them through the screeners of the show and on the air. You better be ready to take a call from Jack Barron to respond to the beef. If you aren't, Jack will rip you to shreds for the rest of the hour on his weekly Wednesday show. When politics and the promise of immortality become the hottest topic, Jack goes after Benedict Howards, main backer of the Foundation for Human Immortality and his bought-and-paid-for Presidential candidate. It becomes the ultimate "Power of the People" vs. Power-of-Money battle.

The writing style is somewhat stream-of-consciousness, making it a challenge to read, and the 1960s is definitely source of the speech and vocabulary, "Man"! The writing is, therefore, a bit atmospheric and slowed me down frequently. I tend to skim when that happens, and I did so while reading Bug Jack Barron.

The story is a little thin scientifically, which I think I remember from the writing of many authors in the same time period. I may be looking back to the simpler times of earlier science fiction writing. I am glad I read the book in spite of its drawbacks.

T. Lynn Ocean
Southern Fatality

Jersey Barnes is retiring. Her boyfriend is happy, but temporarily halts the fun when he introduces Jersey to Lolly Chesterfield, recent wife of a wizard of Wall Street, and she thinks he is cheating on her. "Won't you just look into it?" Of course, nothing is ever simple. Chesterfield's son is kidnapped, the firm's accountant is killed, and suddenly Jersey is very un-retired.

Good, if expectable, twists and turns keep this book moving along.
Mildly Recommended

Robert B. Parker
Split Image

A dead body, another within a few days and Jesse Stone, chief of the Paradise, Massachusetts police force needs to confront the "retired" heads of two organized crime syndicates. The two turn out to be married to identical twins, and they turn out to be known from their high school years as the "Bang Bang sisters", not for firearms, but for their prolific sexual activity, boyfriends never sure which sister they are seeing.

Elizabeth Moon
Sheepfarmer's Daughter

Nominally a fantasy, this is the story of a girl who goes to join a mercenary army. This book isn't bogged down by magic which appears only in subtle ways and plays a role that is secondary to the skills which Paks develops during her training and first two years of enlistment. While it is a long book, it doesn't plod along.

Louis L'Amour
Comstock Lode

Set in the timeframe of the California gold rush, L'Amour tells the story of a Cornish family who leave Cornwall in England to go to California by way of New Orleans. They don't all make it, but eventually Val Trevallion, the son becomes a miner in what is now Virginia City, Nevada. Silver and gold are at the center of the story, but it is rich in character studies, gunfights, business savvy and honor.

This was my first Louis L'Amour (maybe my second...way back), and I'm looking forward to trying several more. This book is a definite winner.
Highly recommended

Thomas Perry

The action starts on page two and ends on the last page. Joe Carter has to deal with M. Kapak, owner of dance clubs, strip clubs, and a money launderer. Kapak thinks Joe has robbed him. Though he has not, Kapak won't listen. There's something unexpected every few pages, too. Right to the end, this book keeps twisting your expectations.
Excellent. Highly recommended.

Iain M. Banks

Stopped reading this one 3/4 through. Kept reading too long, in too short spurts. Too much of nothing happended.
Not Recommended

R. A. Salvatore
The Crystal Shard

This fantasy novel is based on a game world called Forgotten Realms. It was Salvatore's first novel. The characters are better than the writing or the story. Women are significantly underrepresented. Battles make much of the story, but their setups and conclusions are not as good as the descriptions of the battles themselves. Groups of characters are typecast and don't wander much from their type.
Unless you are a fan of dungeons and dragons games, skip this one.
Not recommended

M.M. Buckner
War Surf
My second encounter with M.M. Buckner is a book from before Watermind. It begins with  Nasir Depra, the main character, establishing his executive class bona fides by participating in a War Surf. He and his rich friends scoot into restricted zones, under the radar of the large corporations who are fighting the prot worker rabble. It took me a while to get through the 23rd century executive class slang as the book began, but once Nasir and his massage therapist begin to lay plans for the biggest surf ever, to an orbital food factory called "Heaven" the terminology made sense and the story began to click. It is serious science fiction. I'm going to be looking for Buckner's work from now on. Maybe I'll find it in the local library book sale section as I did this one, but I'll buy new copies too.

Robert Asprin
Dragons Luck

New Orleans at Halloween and a ghost asks you to be the moderator of a conclave of shape-shifters, vampires, werewolves and such. Such is the situation faced by Griffen McCandles, the young dragon who oversees illegal gambling in town. Add a visit from a Hollywood dragon, and George, the assasin of dragons. It's a roller coaster ride.

Joe Hill

If you woke up with horns growing from your temples, what would you do?
If everyone thought you killed your girlfriend, what would you do?
Those two questions center the book, told through a mix of current time and flashbacks. Some strange powers get into the mix, too. I wasn't sure if I would like the book when I was somewhere in the middle, but wound up liking it quite a bit.

M.M. Buckner

Slime, pollution, bacteria, nano-particles and every sort of human trash floats its way down the mighty Mississippi River. All the bits and pieces wash together into a toxic spill swamp in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Shredded electronic debris is in the mix, too, so the book engages the developing "Watermind" with C.J. Reilly, an MIT dropout, but a budding genius, too. She is working menial labor on a chemical cleanup crew for a company owned by a dynamic Latin CEO with big plans. The sludge pond freezes over and produces pure clear water as a byproduct. When another worker falls in and dies, it is the beginning of a frantic rush to contain, capture, study, or kill the goo, which locals decide is djab dile, a voodoo devil. The colloidal mass escapes from attempts at containment, of course and precipitates a mad chase down the Mississippi.
Highly Recommended

John Scalzi
Zoe's Tale

Its a coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl whose family decides to become colonists to a new world. The new planet isn't what any of them expected, and the infant colony becomes the center of galactic war between the human Colonial Union and alien Conclave. It also isn't easy for Zoe navigating young love while being followed around by two alien Obin bodyguards. Scalzi does a good job of keeping the book moving and filling it with with humor and wonder all along the way through. Zoe's Tale fits nicely into the universe of the Old Mans' War.

Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner
Juggler of Worlds

It took me until halfway through to realize that the timeframe of this book is the same as for the Fleet of Worlds. The stories told were different enough to barely overlap in terms of content, but the events, where they did cross, seemed suddenly too familiar. Though this book did fill in gaps in the leadup to the wonderful science fiction "classic" Ringworld, I didn't enjoy Juggler as much as I did Fleet of Worlds, and there is a third of the "series" still to go, Destroyer of Worlds. I'll probably wait until I can check it out of the library.
Mildly Recommended

Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner
Fleet of Worlds

This tale fits well into the structure of Larry Niven's Known Space stories and the popular novel, Ringworld. Centuries after the disappearance of the ramscoop interstellar ship Long Pass, colonists are scouting ahead of a "fleet" of planets that are escaping from immense radiation that result from the destruction of our galaxy's core. What they encounter disrupts not only their lives, but the stability of the fleeing fleet. The colonists and Nessus, a Pierson's Puppetier or "Citizen" as he prefers to be called, face an amazingly quick developing sentient race, unexpected political chaos and interspecies scheming.

Kazuo Ishiguro
Remains of the Day

The writing of this book isn't from an author's perspective, though at first it seemed so. Written with a first person voice, the main character, the butler Mr. Stephens, is recording his thoughts. In addition, his writing is directed toward others in service, not to a general public. The writing technique almost worked for me. I was ultimately disappointed with it, though.

Mr. Stephens chooses to gradually reveal himself through what seems a conversation, rather than a journal. If it were more explicit as a journal, I think that might work better. As it is, the conversation appears to be composed in his head. By being sliced out of what may have been a lifelong habit, it seems to be more like a one shot deal. These revelations of the thoughts of Mr. Stevens appear to start and end with the trip he takes to visit Miss Kenton.

Unfortunately, though the actions he takes are in Mr. Stevens' voice, the feelings of Mr. Stevens are revealed by what Stevens writes, but others say. "Are you feeling quite well, Stevens?"

That didn't work for me. Stevens does not seem astute enough about his feelings. He denies them to himself. He is in character as a butler at all times. It seems improbable he would carefully quote the reactions of others to illustrate that he does actually suffer from some human feeling. The description on the book's cover flap (which I read after the novel) describes the novel as "brilliantly crafted" and that is its problem for me. It seemed crafted, not genuine.

Aside from giving insight into the "proper" nature of the below stairs staff and a glimpse at the pacifism of some British gentlemen before World War II, this novel is just okay.

Robert B. Parker

The final book in the western trilogy about Virgil Cole and Edward Hitch begins as they search for Allie, the former girlfriend of Virgil during the earlier novels. Finding her doesn't settle things of course, and they try to make a new start in the town of Resolution, taking jobs as deputy sherrifs. They must keep the peace in a fast-growing cattle town with a railroad stop, many saloons and a preacher with the desire to control everything in his sight.

I love the crisp style of dialog in these novels. It is similar to the dialog in the Spenser and Jesse Stone books by Parker, but it works perfectly in these westerns.

Soon after I finished reading this novel, Robert B. Parker died at his desk. While there are probably some other novels waiting to be published, this is the one I may remember as a fitting "last book".
Highly Recommended

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A Study in Scarlet

This is a first novel which introduces both Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the well known protagonists of a long series of stories by Doyle. While it is a bit rough, it is good.
Holmes and Watson meet, become roommates, examine a crime scene and in due course, solve the crime. Holmes displays his deductive skills at the expense of Lestrade and Gregson, police inspectors of Scotland Yard, even though the Yard takes credit because Holmes himself is an "amateur", though he does get paid for his sleuthing.