Saturday, December 9, 2017

Hercule Poirot's Christmas (Hercule Poirot, #20)Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my younger days, I read several Agatha Christie novels no doubt inspired by my mom's love of mysteries. "Ten Little Indians" was always my favorite, but I ventured far and wide. And then, many years, probably as many as 15, passed in which I hadn't read any. One day I'm at the library and I see two worn out paperbacks sitting on the free shelf. I pick them up, read them and return them. They were okay. Over the next few years, my desire for a good murder mystery picks up and I occasionally grab one of her books. I find I still have "Hallowe'en Party" in my own collection, a book I always wanted to read (what could be better than a murder at Halloween? Well, after reading that book, nearly anything). Sadly, "Hallowe'en Party" was rather disappointing and hardly dealt with the holiday that it's named after.

I'd never even heard of "Hercule Poirot's Christmas," but nothing could suit me better than a little murder just in time for the holidays (I read this in December). But, as I suspected, the holiday hardly plays into the murder at all. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this book. It's the first Christie book in years that had me thoroughly entertained. This despite rather cardboard characters and a sinister victim who seems to get what is due to him for his long and wicked life. I eagerly turned pages waiting to discover which character had the guts to pull off the murder and yet I was delightfully surprised by the ending. Despite all the other weaknesses of this story, if you're looking for a good murder mystery, I would definitely recommend it.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Pirate UtopiaPirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was an odd book as it feels more like a really interesting outline for a novel where the author got carried away and included scenes and dialogue. There's an interesting premise here, but just as it begins... it ends. (The book is only 160 pages long.) Because of the new trend to write series, I was worried this was book one of many. I'm glad it's not, but at the same time, it's unfortunate there isn't more here. I was just starting to get into the characters and the unique setting which is an alternate history of the small city of Fiume just after World War I. Despite the interesting premise, it's not really worthwhile.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Something Wicked This Way ComesSomething Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ages and ages ago, I remember standing in a book store and reading the opening paragraph of this novel. It begins thus:

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren't rare. But there be good and bad, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn't begun yet. July, well, July's really fine: there's no chance in the world for school June, no doubting it, June's best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September's a billion years away.

And I loved it. I loved it so much that I remembered it quite well through the years, often quoting it as best I could, having only read it that one time in a book store. Sure, I eventually picked up my own copy, I was a Bradbury fan from a young age, I even wrote to him -- and he wrote back! -- when I was still a kid. But somehow, I never read this novel.

Sure, I picked it up at least once intending to read it, but it was the wrong time. You know when you start something and it doesn't grab you. And I knew this book should grab me. So I put it down and I waited. (While finally reading this book, I found my original receipt. It was a simple receipt without so much as the store's name upon it, but there was the purchase date: 28.09.91. So it's taken me 26 years to read this book and it was well worth the wait.)

I always strive to read something appropriate for the month of October and this was quite perfect - an evil carnival arrives in a small town toward the end of the very same month. Two boys yearning for life and an old man yearning to be young. At my age, I can now relate to both vantage points. I'll never forget the words my grandfather once told me a little more than a decade ago, "I don't know how I got so old. I look in the mirror and I don't recognize myself." I'm starting to feel the same way.

But that opening paragraph still moves me as well. With crystal clarity, I can recall thinking that summer would never end once school let out in June. Autumn seemed a million miles away. A million miles...

But the book? What about the book? Well, you should read it. There are enough other reviews on Goodreads that can give you more details or further insight. For me, this book was many things, but most of them are, as you can already see, personal memories and associations that most likely won't interest you. So read the book. You may find it dated, you may find it boring, or maybe, just maybe you'll take a magical ride into a bygone era that will leave you wondering, "Would I have boarded that carousel? The one that could turn time forward or backward. Would I be willing to surrender my soul to be young again?"

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Day of the TriffidsThe Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books whose titles I would occasionally come across throughout my lifetime of reading, but never really knew what it was about or even why it was famous. Recently, I decided to watch a 2008 film called Blindness in which a strange, unexplained disease rapidly spreads striking people suddenly blind. Because it spreads like a disease, we follow its earliest victims who are quarantined, but much like The Day of the Triffids, it explores society's collapse. Because I found the movie so intriguing, I explored its background and found a reference to this book which I eagerly ordered so I could finally read it.

In some ways, it's classic 50's science fiction with all of its faults and favors. However, putting aside both of these and reading it in a 21st century context, I found it still held up quite well. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the apocalyptic tale that quietly unfolds. In many ways, you could replace triffids with zombies and imagine a host of Triffid literature and movies (The Walking Green, Night of the Man Eating Plants) that might have followed. The parallel is there in that the triffids are dangerous, but they weren't the cog that caused society's collapse. They only took advantage of it once it happened.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past ApocalypsesThe Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses by Peter Brannen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm normally not a fan of geology, but this book takes a complicated subject (the entire history of the Earth) and makes it manageable. Even though the time span is truly incomprehensible, it's a mesmerizing look into the distant past and the titanic forces that created the world we now live in. It took me some time to read, however, as I kept visiting the internet to look up images and further details about some of the specific extinct creatures he describes (such as Dunkleosteus and Phorusrhacidae). Definitely a worthwhile read.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Future Noir: The Making of Blade RunnerFuture Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul M. Sammon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun book, but only for the most ardent of Blade Runner fans. The attention to detail is admirable, but occasionally off, and not always that interesting. It also seems, though it may just be me, that Sammons is in too much awe of his subject. No, not Blade Runner, but it's director, Ridley Scott. I think he too often gives him the benefit of the doubt. Lastly, there are two or three paragraphs devoted to its literary offshoot, cyberpunk, that doesn't even mention William Gibson (though it at least quotes Bruce Sterling). Considering how detailed the book is and how much it discusses the influence of the movie on other movies, I certainly thought this topic deserved a much longer section. At the very least, more than a few paragraphs! But I'm mostly nitpicking. I did enjoy reading it and re-exploring the film as I did so. During the 100 page chapter that breaks down the movie scene by scene, I often found myself returning to the source to look for all the hidden details I'd never noticed before. Again, only for hardcore fans, but a nice supplement for those who fit that category.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Purple Aces (G-8 and His Battle Aces #2)Purple Aces by Robert J. Hogan

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am a fan of the pulps and I've been reading Doc Savage for years, so I write this review with the knowledge that these books were written quickly and not meant to be more than fun adventurous yarns. So why is it that Doc Savage appeals to me and this was a grind?

First, there are no interesting characters. G-8 is bland and has virtually no personality whatsoever. His two colleagues, Bull Martin and Nippy Weston are pretty one-dimensional and yet they're more interesting than our lead. G-8's manservant, Battle, takes everything literally to the point of being absolutely absurd. Adding to his caricature is his use of "sir" at the end of almost every sentence to the point of becoming unbearable.

Second, the action isn't very interesting. The description of the aerial combat quickly became redundant. There are three of four major aerial scenes, but they all more or less read the same. G-8 is supposed to be a master of disguise, but his disguises all seemed to be based on the number of scars he would place on his face.


So that leaves the nefarious plot. The initial idea, that the enemy has somehow found a way to turn allied pilots against their own country and leaves them with a purple spade on their face, was a nice pulpy idea. But even that gets sidelined. A mad scientist develops a technique to turn people and animals into their opposites, but he destroys the method before the enemy can use it. So instead they just hypnotize the pilots. A rather bland idea considering the alternative. Lastly, once the hypnotist is killed, the spell is magically broken on everyone he hypnotized, as though he were the head vampire in Lost Boys. (Three pilots who volunteered to a suicide run simply don't do it once the hypnotist is killed even though they would have no way of knowing he died.) Unfortunately, that was the most interesting part of the book and it wasn't very interesting. They took their one good idea and didn't even use it.

The one thing I did like was that there was a little continuity in that they referenced their previous adventures and the mad Doktor Krueger, the villain the first adventure, reappears.

Sadly, I cannot recommend this to even the most ardent pulp enthusiast. It simply wasn't very good.

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Monday, June 26, 2017

Star Trek Log One (Star Trek: Logs #1)Star Trek Log One by Alan Dean Foster

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm really not sure what possessed me to grab this from my shelf, but I'm enjoying jumping around and reading new books and then finding old books I've had forever, but never read. This obviously falls in the latter category.

At the moment, the Star Trek Animated Series is on Netflix so I enjoyed reading a story and then watching it. In some areas, it's almost amazing how much Foster adds. In "Yesteryear", we get a long prologue of events before the point of entry in the actual episode. Many of the additional scenes and insights are welcome, but occasionally they do feel out of character.

Also of interest is the continuity. Until recently, most TV shows were stand alone episodes without ever referencing what came before. But Foster constantly alludes to the story before it, which in many ways is way ahead of its time.

I enjoyed "Yesteryear," but the other two stories were just okay. It was also interesting to read them first, imagine the scenes and then have those images obliterated by what's in the actual episode. Despite the limited animation, I am enjoying the episodes and their look. Of course, no adaptation can ever live up to one's imagination.

I would probably rate this a 2.5, but alas, I'll bump it up to three. Unfortunately, I wasn't hooked enough to continue with the next in the series. The next few volumes will have to continue sitting on my shelf for the time being.

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Little Black Book of StoriesLittle Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

No! No, no, no. Absolutely not, no. Upon finishing this book, I read through the reviews in an attempt to understand why so many people seem to love this book. Is it well written? Yes. The beginnings of the stories, the descriptions, these are all wonderful. But a wonderful description and flowery language do not a good story make. No, there must be more and I found the endings of all five stories very disappointing.

I read the book chronologically and so I was enamored enough with the details of "The Thing in the Forest" to find it interesting, but then the story seemed to be about the details instead of the characters of events. Pause while I think this one out -- I think that's it. That's what bothered me the most in this book. It's about the details, the descriptions and not the characters, not the story. The details should be in service to the former, not the other way around.

Enough already, I've wasted too much time. The endings of "The Thing in the Forest" and "Raw Material" were completely unearned. "A Stone Woman" was simply boring. I enjoyed "Body Art" until the horribly vague ending. But to be clear, it's not just the endings. There is a point in each of these stories where the details overwhelm the events, the very narration that is supposed to carry us through to the end. This is when I would sigh and flick through and think, "Agh, twenty more pages," but the writing was enough to pull me through those twenty pages at which point I was ready to toss the book against the wall.

Once again, I say no!

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Friday, June 16, 2017

Mystery on Happy Bones (Doc Savage, #96)Mystery on Happy Bones by Kenneth Robeson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The last of the single edition Bantam books, I recently acquired a mint condition copy and I think that's why I grabbed it. Though usually not as big a fan of the later adventures, this one had a few interesting aspects including Hannah, the female lead who is no damsel in distress, but quite a capable brawler. Doc even seems to look upon her admirably and one could almost imagine them on further adventures if the series had ever been allowed to grow outside its normal formula.

This adventure takes place in 1943 and it one of the first ones that I've read involving the war effort. Doc tries to unravel the mystery of Happy Bones, an island in the Caribbean where the U.S. military wishes to build an airfield. But strange things are afoot as Doc and his crew investigate.

Being one of the later adventures, Doc isn't as infallible as he is in the early part of the series and he's seen making several mistakes. They're mostly minor and he regains control fairly easily, but it's almost a little refreshing to see them take place.

There's also an amusing ruse by Monk and Ham in the first part of the story when they try to fool a messenger boy who they think is an assassin and end up being outwitted.

Overall, a fun, but mostly typical adventure in the series.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & DragonsEmpire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is not a biography as much as it is a series of vignettes and anecdotes and I thoroughly enjoyed this book despite itself. Witwer is forced to make up some scenes and they often feel made up. There are some cheesy elements within the writing and structure, but at its heart, it's a fascinating tale about the rise and fall of Gygax's gaming empire.

Having grown up as a gamer, this history brought back many memories and so I cherished reading this book. I especially enjoyed the ending which delved into Gygax's enduring legacy. There's a great quote from Adam Rogers (editor of Wired magazine) who wrote, "Gary Gygax died last week and the universe did not collapse. That surprises me a little bit, because he built it" (p. 230). (To be fair, that credit should be shared with Dave Arneson who co-created D&D and died the following year).

Unfortunately, because of the narrative structure, the book leaves huge gaps in the timeline and leaves the reader yearning for more. Despite the book being over 300 pages long, the actual content is only 242 (the ending is filled with notes, a bibliography, a timeline, etc.) and with so many white pages between chapters, it's probably closer to 200. Hence, it's a quick read, but fails to give the full picture. It's unfortunate that no one took the time to write Gygax's biography while he was still alive and could easily fill in those gaps. I'm hopeful that a more thorough biography appears in the future as Gygax and Arneson both deserve one.

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Monday, May 8, 2017

Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick WintersBeyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters by Dick Winters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure what to expect in a book called Beyond Band of Brothers and so I was a little bit surprised to see that it basically covers the same ground as the original book and HBO series. The only major difference is that you're seeing it from the POV of Dick Winters, the leader of Easy Company.

Having read the original book and watched the HBO series numerous times, there really isn't much more to get from this book and yet I still enjoyed it. Even though it covers the same ground, there are a few moments here and there that are unique to Winters as well as his opinion of events. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Fiddle is the Devil's InstrumentThe Fiddle is the Devil's Instrument by Brett J. Talley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's difficult to write in another author's well established universe, in this case Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, and really stand out. To that end, this collection of stories both succeeds and occasionally fails.

First, it succeeds at the most essential level: its writing. The stories are all interesting and certainly draw you in. Talley's modern style could easily attract readers into the Cthulhu mythos who might find Lovecraft's original stories too archaic and his lengthy descriptions tedious or too difficult. To that end, these stories are much more accessible to modern readers than the original source material. The problem is this: as a teenager, I noticed that all of Lovecraft's characters either die or go mad and most modern Cthulhu stories continue this trend so that the stories become predictable. Talley is frequently guilty of this (as an author, I confess I am guilty of this as well), but when he strays from the formula, his stories stand out. Indeed, our first story, "The Fiddle is the Devil's Instrument," is a strong start to this collection. Talley creates a strong and eerie mood that captures the feel of Lovecraft nicely, but then takes a turn in a different direction. My only criticism here is that it didn't feel self-contained, instead it felt like the opening chapter to a novel and to that end, I would have enjoyed reading more. But leave them wanting more is an old showbiz adage and so I happily continued.

The second story, though not my favorite, stands out because it's so outlandishly different from anything else I've read in the genre. Our protagonist is a rodeo clown! Again, Talley creates an interesting situation, but this time he falls into the predictable pattern of most Lovecraftian horror. In fact, the dramatic sting of the story's ending relies on the reader being familiar with Cthulhuian mythology, but to anyone already familiar with it, the second half of the story will also feel all too familiar.

Our third story, "What the Dead Can Tell" is one of my favorites in the collection. Talley seems like he writes best when he escapes the standard conventions of Lovecraft and updates the mythos to our modern times (well, more modern anyway). I don't want to reveal too much, but this story takes place during the final days of the Cold War as special agent Crowley (no comment) interrogates a KGB agent about the strange satellite findings deep in the country's interior.

Even though "The Space Between Spaces" follows the traditional Lovecraftian formula almost to a fault, draping it modern science (it takes place at the Large Hadron Collider) somehow makes it more fun and for that reason I enjoyed it even though I knew exactly where it was going.

I don't wish to summarize each of the stories, so suffice to say that there's no doubt Talley can write well and pull you through his stories, but it's what he does within that structure that decides if they will stay with you or not. Unfortunately, he ends too many stories with either someone's last words or the dramatic sting of a final line. Sometimes it works, but other times it doesn't and in the case of "The Piper in Yellow" I thought it completely unnecessary as it erases any subtlety to an otherwise enjoyable story.

Despite these problems, this is nevertheless a collection of mostly satisfying stories that traipse through the dark shadows of cosmic horror and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the genre.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

World's Fair Goblin (Doc Savage #39)World's Fair Goblin by Kenneth Robeson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The scene opens at the 1939 World's Fair where Doc is performing a groundbreaking surgery, two people have gone missing, and Professor Martin Uppercue frantically runs from seemingly nothing. And then the Goblin shows up.

Of course, Doc immediately investigates and soon Long Tom, Monk, Ham, and Patricia Savage are all embroiled in a mad adventure.

Unfortunately, Pat Savage makes an appearance only to be taken captive and not seen again until the end. She needn't have been written in at all since she's captured along with Kay Uppercue and one maiden in distress would have sufficed.

As with most Doc books, there are occasional bouts of bad writing, but the most egregious example comes on p. 62 (Ballantine edition) when Monk hesitates trying to pronounce the word "fluoresce." He's supposed to be a brilliant chemist! Sometimes the writer, in this case guest author William Bogart, goes too far trying to give Monk and Ham something to squabble about.

While Bogart does have some fun with the World's Fair, mostly involving the iconic Perisphere and Trylon, it does seem that he under utilizes the event itself; a bit of a missed opportunity.

A fun little adventure, not the best, not the worst, but kind of nice that all of the events take place in one locale as a change of pace from their usual globetrotting.

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Monday, April 17, 2017

A Clockwork OrangeA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are nearly 10,000 reviews of this book on Goodreads, not to mention all the published reviews at the time of its release, the essays, the theses, the this and the that, so I'll be brief: I liked it.

Okay, I'll be a little less brief than that. I was a little intimidated by the Nadsat (the lingo) after reading the first page, but as you continue, it's easy to learn it or else intuit the meaning based on the sentence structure or the description. In other words, you'll soon pony it and quite skorry.

As for the now somewhat notoriously optimistic last chapter, well, it was Burgess' intent that it be there so I'm glad I had the option to read it, but I can certainly understand why the American publisher (and Kubrick's film adaptation) omitted it. It seems too optimistic and not really earned.

Lastly, if you want to have fun, I decided to look up to see if anyone created a translator from English to Nadsat and the internet didn't disappoint me. Here's the link:

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Free Play: Improvisation in Life and ArtFree Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The book's prologue opened with a Japanese folk tale that I absolutely loved. I eagerly dived into this book... only to be bored and disappointed. Yes, there are occasional good ideas, and some very good passages, but they are too few and fleeting. As I continued to plod along, I kept thinking that this would have been a good essay, or maybe more than an essay, but definitely something shorter than a book. Unfortunately, the necessity of creating a "book" and trying to fill two hundred pages meant elongating it until the author becomes repetitive.

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Beyond the Farthest StarBeyond the Farthest Star by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Beyond the Farthest Star isn't very good. It feels rushed, almost as if it's an extremely detailed outline for a future novel, but for Burroughs this is definitely not one of his better books. Some imaginative ideas and you can see where the events of WW II are clearly influencing him, but the writing itself is rather dull and far too expository. There's also an incredible amount of coincidence and Deus ex Machina as well. For purists and ERB fanatics.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

The RiderThe Rider by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but what's not to like about the Frazetta image that adorns this book. It's what inspired me to pick it up, many many years ago, from a used book store. However, it sat on my shelves for many years until I finally read it this evening in just a few hours.

I did try reading it once, many years ago, but immediately I could tell I wasn't into it. I was in the mood for a Burroughs adventure and this book is not your typical ERB novel. Instead, it's more a comedy of errors, kind of like watching a 1930's screwball comedy combined with an Errol Flynn adventure. And it is a comedy of errors as characters switch identities purposefully or accidentally as befits their needs. While the premise is a rather tired cliché by today's standards, giving the book some leniency (it was written over 100 years ago!) along with its brevity made it a nice delightful distraction.

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