These are reviews originally posted to Amazon as customer reviews. They're intended for entertainment and informational purposes only. (Apologies for any typos, bad grammar, or offensive language.) This isn't sponsored by Amazon or represent them in any way, although they do have a very nice site and I recommend checking it out for your next book purchase. Feel free to comment on the books if you've read them or tell me how much my reviews suck or whatever.
That is all.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cobra Bargain

Cobra Bargain

by Timothy Zahn

(4/5 stars)

Special Note: I believe this book is out of print. You can still find used copies on Amazon or at a local store, like I did when I was on vacation up in Harrison, MI.

"Cobra Bargain" is actually the third of what I guess would be the Cobra trilogy. I never read the first one (see special note) but I did read the second one, "Cobra Strike" that was fast-paced but flat. That is largely corrected with "Cobra Bargain"--and not just because it's longer. There's more character development in this story that makes it more enjoyable to read.

This is the third in the series, but each book is separated by 30 years or so and focuses on different generations of the Moreau family. The original "Cobra" focused on Jonny Moreau, who signed up to become a cyborg warrior known as a Cobra and fought aliens known as Trofts. The second book, "Cobra Strike" focuses on Jonny's children, especially Justin Moreau, who also becomes a Cobra and goes to a mysterious planet called Qasama that's populated by humans who make up for their lack of technology with paranoia about outsiders. "Cobra Bargain" then focuses on Jonny's granddaughter--Justin's daughter--Jasmine Moreau, who becomes the first female Cobra. The "bargain" in the title comes in large part because Jasmine is allowed to become a Cobra and go on a spy mission to Qasama when her uncle agrees to quit politics if Jasmine fails.

Once the mission gets underway, though, the bargain becomes secondary to survival. The scout team's shuttle is shot down, leaving Jasmine as the lone survivor far, far behind enemy lines. On the plus side, Jasmine is fluent in the Qasama language. On the negative side, Qasamans view women as only a notch better than outsiders.

Jasmine is taken in by the Shammon family, whose young son becomes her warden--and maybe a bit more than that. While she recovers and tries to come up with a way to get home, Jasmine finds out there's bad stuff afoot on Qasama that could mean very bad things for everyone back home.

For the most part this retains the fast pace of "Cobra Strike" or Mr. Zahn's other books I read. In many ways it's similar to the later "Conquerors Trilogy" that similarly focuses on a multi-generational family and delves into the culture of an alien race. (The difference here being the "aliens" are human.) But as I mentioned before, there's more character depth in this book as it focuses mostly on Jasmine and the younger Shammon family son. There could perhaps have been a little more romantic tension, but for a sci-fi action story it's pretty good.

As a fan of Mr. Zahn's work since his "Star Wars" novels, it was interesting to read some of his earlier novels. The Jasmine character could be seen as a prototype to the Mara Jade character in his "Star Wars" books in that both are strong, independent females. (The difference being that Jasmine comes equipped with all sorts of cool lasers embedded in her skeletal structure while Mara Jade has a lightsaber.) I already mentioned the Conquerors books, which again these could be seen as a forerunner to. If you like a good light sci-fi story, then this isn't a bad read. If you see it in the used bookstore, pick it up.

That is all.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Long Walk

The Long Walk

By Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

(4/5 stars)

This was the first Stephen King book I'd ever read. Some "friends" recommended that it was one of his best, so I thought I'd give it a try. Before this my only real exposure to the horror genre was reading Poe in high school. Overall I found this to be a good reading experience, though it was a little long and the end was disappointing.

Every year, 100 teenage boys go through The Long Walk, a competition of endurance and survival. They start near the Canadian border in Maine (being a King book, where else would it start?) and go through New Hampshire, possibly into Massachusetts if anyone survives. The winner receives a Prize, wherein supposedly they receive everything they could ever want. The only drawback is that if you don't win, you die. Get three warnings in a row and you get executed.

So the rules are simple: keep walking or die. There are no stops to use the bathroom or sleep or eat or get a foot massage. You walk all day and all night until you stop walking and die. It's sort of like the Tour de France then if the bikers had to keep riding 24 hours a day and the losers were all killed. The contest is broadcast on TV and is a huge thing in Vegas. Throngs of people show up on the sidelines to cheer on the Walkers, showing little concern even as the losers are shot on live TV. (A similar premise to another King story, "The Running Man." With reality TV the way it is today, is such a thing really so implausible? I think not.)

In the current year's competition is young Ray Garrarty, a local boy from a small town in Maine. His father was abducted years ago by "the Squads", some kind of fascist secret police. (The story takes place in an alternate history where either the US lost WWII or otherwise turned into a fascist state. It's not entirely clear what happened, but there is mention of Germans bombing the US east coast and a raid on a German nuclear plant in Santiago in the '50s.) Ray has since lived with his mother and has a girlfriend named Jan. But for whatever reason he signs up for the Long Walk along with 99 other boys from around the country. He bonds with some of them like the cynical McVries and the weirdly prophetic Stebbins even as they are ostensibly trying to kill each other. They face a variety of physical challenges like steep hills, cramps, and fever but the real challenge is the mental fatigue from pushing on while watching all the people around you drop and die. Can Ray make it to the end? And what then?

I thought this book probably would have worked better as a short story or novella. At 370 pages it's a little too long. It sort of sets into this pattern of they walk for a while, someone gets shot, they talk to each other, some more people get shot. Yadda, yadda, yadda. What saves it though is the bonding between Ray, McVries, and the other characters as they become well-fleshed characters. You really do want to see who's going to make it and who isn't.

The end was disappointing, ending with a whimper instead of a bang. After going so far, I was really hoping for something a little more epic when it gets down to the last handful of people, but instead King/Bachman wraps up the last stage in just a couple of pages. So it seems like a lot of buildup for little payoff.

Still, it was a good book and makes me want to get my copy of "The Green Mile" off the shelf.

That is all.


League of Peoples Book #6
by James Alan Gardner
(4/5 stars)

I've read the five other "League of Peoples" novels before this, most of which take place away from Earth. This is because Earth in 2457 is a very different place than one who watched Star Trek might imagine. Thanks to war and a mass exodus caused by first contact with aliens, Earth has reverted back to roughly the Renaissance with various feudal states all under the control of the Spark Lords, a royal family who use the League's advanced technology to keep the people of Earth in line.

So because of this, "Trapped" is more a fantasy novel than a science-fiction novel. There is some science-fiction involved as there are aliens, psychics, and teleportation, but there's also magic, swords, and a quest. That quest is thrust upon Phil Dhubhai and his friends when Phil finds a dead girl in the dorms at the school where he teaches "science."

The girl is named Rosalind and she's the daughter of a nefarious crime lord, which is only the beginning of complications for Phil. Rosalind was also set to elope with Sebastian, a gifted psychic.

With Rosalind dead, Phil and his party (a kung-fu nun, a knight, a sorceress, a psychic, a music teacher, and Phil's sometimes lover.) have to travel by sea and land to Niagara Falls to find Sebastian. Finding him is only the tip of the iceberg, as Sebastian is embroiled in an evil plot involving otherworldly forces.

Like the other "League of Peoples" novels this is a fast, fun read not to be taken too seriously. This is aided by Phil's sometimes snarky, other times self-deprecating first-person narration. As in any good quest yarn the various members of the party all get their chances to shine, some making noble sacrifices. For the most part these party members are static, though each is given a little quirk to make them more interesting and fun than a cardboard cutout.

If you haven't read the Festina Ramos books in the series ("Expendable," "Vigilant," "Hunted," "Ascending," and "Radiant") there's no need to worry as this book is not directly connected to those. It's more of a spin-off like Gardner's previous "Commitment Hour" that also took place on Earth, though was far less interesting. It does help if you've read those just for a background on the League of Peoples and Explorers and things like that, but it's not absolutely necessary.

Overall I'd say if you like some fun space opera/fantasy then this is a good read to while away a few hours. The rest of Gardner's books are good for that as well.

That is all.

Friday, July 31, 2009



(Book 3 of the Warlord Trilogy)

by Bernard Cornwell

(5/5 stars)

Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy set around 500 AD concludes with "Excalibur." You can check my recent articles for reviews of the two preceding books.

At the end of Book 2, Enemy of God, Arthur survived not only a Christian rebellion led by the cowardly Lancelot, but also betrayal by the love of his life, Guinevere. Now declaring himself the Emperor of Britain, Arthur is taking a firm control of ancient Britain with plans to unite the various kingdoms of the island to wipe out the invading Saxon horde.

Meanwhile, Merlin the Druid wizard is collecting the Thirteen Treasures of Britain--relics of magical powers--in order to stage a ritual that will bring the old Gods back to the island and wipe out not only the Saxons, but the Christians as well. In order for this to work, Merlin needs Excalibur and something much more precious that Arthur possesses. This creates a rift not only between Arthur and Merlin but our narrator Derfel and the crazed witch Nimue, who is Merlin's priestess and Derfel's former childhood friend and lover.

Not long after this ritual goes terribly wrong, Derfel is sent to rescue the imprisoned Guinevere from the invading Saxons. She, Derfel, and his band of warriors end up on an old mountain fort called Mount Baddon, from which they fight a desperate siege against the Saxons. During this we see that Guinvere still loves Arthur--and the feeling is more than mutual--and she's not such a conniving, evil [witch] after all.

But even with the defeat of the Saxons there are dark times ahead as the enemies of Arthur and Derfel continue to plot and scheme. As Merlin says, it all ends in tears, which anyone who knows anything about the Arthurian story already knows.

The conclusion of the trilogy wraps everything up nicely. The story doesn't sag as much under political intrigue as the two previous entries with the fiery ritual to lead things off, followed by the big battle at Mount Baddon, and then the smaller final battle to end the story. The real achievement is that by the end I really cared about all those who had survived since the beginning like Arthur, Derfel, Galahad, and even Guinevere, who really gets to shine in the Mount Baddon segment. At the start of the series there were so many characters, but by the time the end comes the less important ones have been winnowed out and we're left with only the important characters, whom we've either come to love or hate as the story has progressed. Because of that, when the end finally comes, it's bittersweet, which it always is at the end of a great series.

All the good things about the series from the other books are also present like the more realistic battles, the depth of the political intrigue, and the clash between religions that still resonates today. Because of all that, there's really nothing I'd speak against with this book. While the writing isn't Tolstoy, no one expects it to be and so for a rollicking historical read, I'd highly recommend this and the two that precede it.

That is all.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Enemy of God

Enemy of God

(Warlord Chronicles Part 2)

by Bernard Cornwell

(3/5 stars)

See my review of Part 1, "The Winter King" Here

As far as the middle parts of trilogies go, "Enemy of God" is more "Attack of the Clones" than "The Empire Strikes Back." By that I mean it helps move the story from the beginning (Part 1) to the end (Part 3) but by itself isn't as interesting as either of those. The action in this second installment of Cornwell's tale of a 5th Century AD Arthur is largely political, with only one major battle--and a short one at that--punctuated by a few smaller skirmishes. Instead, "Enemy of God" sets the stage for the climactic battles that await in the final part of the trilogy.

What's important to note here at the start is the difference in Cornwell's Arthur from what people traditionally think of. The traditional Arthur created in the Middle Ages was a Christian hero, as evidenced by the quest for the Holy Grail. Cornwell's Arthur though is an agnostic pagan, who makes an enemy of the early Christian church in Britain by insisting the church pay taxes to help him fund expensive wars to keep Saxon invaders from taking over the land. For that matter the church in those days was far different than most churches today, with far less organization and rituals akin to those of revivals.

In this 5th Century world after the Romans have gone but before the Saxons, William the Conqueror, the Tudors, and so forth, paganism defined by the Druids is fading while the newer religion of Christianity is rising. This creates bitter rivalries and conflicts within Britain even as Arthur struggles to bring peace to the land.

After the bloody battle of Lugg Vale that ended Part 1 of the trilogy, the warlord Arthur sets about the business of uniting Britain (what we'd think of as England and Wales) to fight the invading Saxon horde. This he does with political alliances and a Round Table oath, but the war against the Saxons goes terribly wrong thanks to a betrayal by the cowardly, vainglorious Lancelot.

However, a peace is established, during which time the conflicts turn from military to religious. As the year 500 approaches the Christians believe Christ is set to return and thus all unbelievers must be converted or otherwise eliminated. Meanwhile the Druid Merlin sets out to find the 13 "Treasures of Britain", including a daring raid into a wild Irish kingdom to find a magic cauldron. (The cauldron story is like the equivalent of the search for the Holy Grail.) And while Arthur has peace, chaos threatens thanks to a betrayal by the one he loves most. (Anyone who knows anything about the Arthurian saga knows to whom this refers.)

As I said at the beginning, most of the action in this book is of the dramatic kind as the Christians and pagans clash and various people scheme for control of Britain. Our narrator, the brave warrior Derfel, is caught up in the middle of everything, including the quest for the cauldron--how convenient! The middle of the story then tends to sag, something Cornwell tries to remedy by weaving the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult (or Tristan and Isolde as it was in the recent movie) into his Arthurian tale. As interesting as much of this is, it's hard not to get anxious for the climactic finish you know is coming.

Still, it's a necessary piece of the puzzle and an interesting study of life in the Dark Ages. Christians might find it especially interesting and should certainly find some parallels between these ancestors and current society. Certainly the idea of religions battling each other is something we all know something about these days. Maybe if we all had a little more of Arthur's pragmatism about the subject we'd have more of a Camelot.

That is all.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Winter King

The Winter King

(Warlord Chronicles, Part 1)

(4/5 stars)

by Bernard Cornwell

OK, most everyone should know the legend of King Arthur by now. If you don't, the basic summary is that there was once a king named Arthur in England who became king when he pulled a sword called Excalibur from a stone with some help from a wizard named Merlin. Later he married a woman named Guinevere and formed a wonderful kingdom known as Camelot, where he and his brave knights sat around a round table after a day of searching for the Holy Grail or battling dragons. But eventually he was betrayed when his top knight, Lancelot, slept with Guinevere. Later his bastard son Mordred shows up and they lock horns and Arthur is ultimately killed. Excalibur ends up thrown into a pond, where a disembodied female hand takes it while Arthur is taken on a boat to a magical land known as Avalon to wait the day when he is needed again.

Now most of that historically speaking is pure bunk. There are some who try to assert there really was an Arthur, but evidence is sorely lacking. Nevertheless, Bernard Cornwell, known in the UK for writing the Sharpe's series of historical military novels, tries to recast the Arthurian legend in a more historical context in the 5th Century AD.

Before the story begins, it's important to note that at the time the series begins, what we think of as Great Britain is divided into a bunch of little kingdoms. There's an alliance among the kingdoms of central and western Britain (what we think of today as England and Wales) rules by a High King named Uther. Uther's son Mordred was recently killed by Saxon "barbarians" who are coming over from probably what we'd think of as Scandinavia now, leaving the High King with no heir and thus leaving the alliance in trouble if the frail Uther should die.

The story begins with the dead Mordred's wife giving birth to a boy, whom is named Mordred for his father. The only hitch is that the boy is born with a deformed foot. But for the moment the alliance is saved. Unfortunately, before long, Uther finally dies and some of the other kings want to take power for themselves. Enter, Arthur.

In Cornwell's vision of the Arthurian saga, Arthur is not a king. He starts out merely as Uther's bastard son who is a warlord in Brittany (France) and pledged to help his nephew obtain the throne. This Arthur does by sweeping in with his armored horse troops and putting down any rebellion and in the process making himself the unquestioned leader of Britain.

All seems to be going well and will be even more well once Arthur marries a princess named Ceinwyn to cement an alliance with a neighboring kingdom. Except when he goes to meet the princess, he sees a beautiful redheaded woman across the room and is smitten with love. That redheaded woman is named Guinevere and while she too is a princess, her father lost his kingdom to Irish marauders and thus she isn't nearly as good of a bargaining chip.

Though Arthur should think with his head and marry Ceinwyn to keep the peace, he instead thinks with his netherregions and marries Guinevere on the sly. This ticks off Ceinwyn's daddy, who in turn rounds up a huge army to crush Arthur and make himself the High King. It all comes down to an epic battle in a place called Ludd Vale.

That's leaving out a lot of what else happens in the story. Cornwell tells the story through Derfel, one of Arthur's loyal soldiers. He is a Saxon child raised by the Britons, who survived being thrown into a pit of spikes as a sacrifice to pagan gods. This led to Derfel being raised in the household of Merlin, the most powerful Druid in all of Britain. Derfel's coming of age from a boy in Merlin's household to a warlord at Ludd Vale parallels the coming of Arthur and his rise to power and fame.

I first read this trilogy about ten years ago and what I like about it is the way that even if none of this ever happened, it feels like it COULD have happened. Instead of the old Arthurian world with plate armor and jousting contests and courtly love, we have a Britain a generation removed from Roman rule, thrust into chaos as various kingdoms fight each other while invaders from Scandinavia and Ireland threaten to wipe everyone out. Instead of noble jousting and such, men fight in clusters called "shield walls" because the shields of the clustered men are used to protect each other from attack. There's nothing heroic about shield walls fighting, as it's a bloody, gruesome business of pushing and stabbing.

The way Cornwell debunks the myth while at the same time turning it into a more realistic story reminds me of reading Mary Renault's "The King Must Die" and its sequel about ancient Greece and the hero Theseus or Colleen MacCullough's novels about Rome like "Caesar's Women." As well the attempts to make the battles more realistic is similar to Stephen Pressfield's "Gates of Fire" about the Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae (more famously recounted in idiotic fashion by Frank Miller's graphic novel "300"). There's also a lot of political intrigue that helps make the world in which this Arthur and his companions live seem to come alive.

My major nitpick is that there are too many names. There are so many kings and warriors and princes and princesses and different regions that you need a scorecard to keep track of who rules what and who hates who at the moment.

Still, even with no magic swords, dragons, or Round Table this is an exciting book that promises much more to come.

(On a side note, this to my knowledge has no relation to the "King Arthur" movie starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley put out in 2004, though that also deals with an Arthur in the 5th Century. These books came well before that, which means Jerry Bruckheimer probably stole and corrupted them. I've long thought the Cornwell novels would make a great series of films like "Lord of the Rings" but I doubt that would happen.)

That is all.

The Hours

The Hours
By Michael Cunningham

I feel cheated by this novel. The sole reason I read the book is because I had just watched the film version and thought the source novel might shed some light on a couple of points, especially the relationship between Richard and his mother. I suppose it helped a little, but not much.

I think that about summarizes my entire problem with the novel--it's too short. I suppose that was in part because it's only supposed to cover one day for each of the three main characters--Virginia Woolf in 1923, Laura Brown in 1949, and Clarissa Vaughn in "the present" or late 90s--and so to maintain that the author couldn't go so much into a lot of backstory. References are made to the past relationship between Clarissa and her former lover Richard, who's dying of AIDS, and his other former lover Louis, who is not dying of AIDS, but still I would have liked to have known more. As I mentioned at the beginning, the relationship between Richard and his mother was something I didn't quite understand in the movie, but it makes a little more sense in the book. In particular I didn't understand how she shows up at the end of the movie when they seemed to imply earlier that she was dead. In the book it makes more sense that she dies in Richard's book in real life and later he asks Clarissa to call her.

I'm sure some people would be annoyed that I'm comparing and contrasting the book and movie and not taking them as separate entities. On the whole, I think it was a push as to which is better. The book does a better job, as books do, of giving characters internal life. The movie conveys much of this through dialog between the characters, which makes for better drama, especially when Virginia Woolf and her husband are arguing at the train station. It works much better in the film version when they're talking than in the novel where most of it occurs in Virginia's head as she sits on a bench. Some of the background characters like Sally, Clarissa's lover, and Julia, Clarissa's daughter, are given more depth in the book than the movie while Virginia's husband Leonard and her sister, niece, and nephews seem to get more time in the film. So it's hard overall to say which is better, though in the end I think I'm more attached emotionally to the film because of the heightened drama, whereas the book seems a little dry.

To summarize the plot, it involves three women, as I mentioned above. First there's Virginia Woolf, the brilliant but mad author who in 1923 is living in the countryside of England with her husband, a printer, and not altogether happy about it. She sets off to writing "Mrs. Dalloway," a novel about a woman who is giving a party and what all happens to her and those around her in London that day. Concurrently, Laura Brown is living in LA in 1949 with her husband Dan and son Richie and is pregnant with another child. A socially awkward girl, she seems to have struck it rich when Dan returns from the Pacific and asks to marry her. But three years later she's not happy. She's reading "Mrs. Dalloway" and sees parallels to the book and its author in her life. And parallel to this we have Clarissa Vaughn in the present. Her former lover Richard nicknamed her Mrs. Dalloway for Clarissa Dalloway and like that character, Clarissa Vaughn is giving a party. In her case it's a party for Richard, who has won a prestigious poetry award. This section of the book often has parallels to the Woolf novel, with modern characters recreating the roles of those in "Mrs. Dalloway." (Sally as Mr. Dalloway, daughter Julia as Elizabeth Dalloway, Richard as Septimus, Louis as Peter Walsh, and writer friend Walter as Hugh.) Most of the events of this section also mirror those of "Mrs. Dalloway," which is really obvious to pick up if you do like I did and read Woolf's book immediately prior to reading "The Hours."

All three sections of the book are interwoven together to create a rich tapestry of the lives of these three women. It might have been richer if the author had expanded a little more, as I indicated earlier. Still, it's a good book and an even better film. I recommend both.

That is all.

BTW, it's ironic in the novel that Clarissa thinks she sees Meryl Streep in the trailer of a movie being shot in New York. For the film version of "The Hours" Clarissa was played by none other than Meryl Streep. (This probably explains why that scene was omitted from the film as it would have been pretty cheesy to have Meryl Streep trying to meet herself.)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys

By Neil Gaiman

(3.5/5 stars)

"Anansi Boys" is not so much a sequel to Gaiman's "American Gods" as it is more of a spin-off, a literary "Rhoda" or "Facts of Life." In "American Gods" there was a trickster god called Anansi or Mr. Nancy, who was a spider but also manifested himself as a swinging black man in the mold of Cab Calloway.

When "Anansi Boys" begins, Mr. Nancy is dead. He leaves behind two sons. One is "Fat" Charlie Nancy, who is not fat but the childhood nickname given to him by his father has stuck no matter what he does. Though he grew up in Florida, Charlie moved to London as an adult, where he works for a sleazy talent agent and is engaged to a charity worker named Rosie. By any standard Charlie's life is pretty boring.

That is until he meets his brother. Charlie's brother goes by the name Spider. He has no job, spending his time flitting from place to place, having a grand old time. He has no steady girlfriends either. What Spider does have is magic. This is what he inherited from his father and that he uses to make himself the life of the party.

Charlie makes the mistake of inviting Spider to stay with him and before long Charlie's life is turned upside down. And like house guests everywhere, Spider soon overstays his welcome.

If the plot sounds like a sitcom, it's because for the most part it is. It's like "Two and a Half Men" without the kid. And with a bit of island magic. That makes the book more lighthearted and fun than "American Gods" but it also doesn't have quite the same impact. Though a fun and engaging read, it's likely to stick with you as long as it takes to flip the channel.

Still, I'd recommend it, especially if you're a fan of books like Terry Pratchett's Discworld series that similarly combine humor and fantasy.

That is all.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Heart Lies Within Us

A Heart Lies Within Us

By Steven LeBree

(5/5 stars)

The life of Lucas Colby is never easy or simple. Shortly after the turn of the century, Lucas's parents travel from West Virginia to Ohio, where Lucas is born. His father spends most of his time drinking and working, so that Lucas is raised primarily by his religious mother. On Lucas's tenth birthday, his father is finally done in by the alcohol and a jealous rival. Years later, after Lucas is orphaned when his mother dies of cancer, Lucas takes revenge on his father's rival before hitting the rails.

After some time spent living as a hobo on the rails, Lucas finally winds up in New York City, where he becomes bartender/bouncer for a speakeasy run by a man named Charlie. It's there where Lucas's life takes dramatic turns as he takes up drinking like his father and eventually meets the love of his life.

There's just one problem as the love of his life happens to be in love with the spotlight. Though Lucas loves her as much as he can, he can't ever compete with her desire to be a famous. Heartbroken and alone, Lucas is saved by an old friend, becoming a journalist for a small paper, where his life takes another dramatic turn.

There are a few other dramatic turns in store for you, but I won't spoil those.

All these dramatic turns are what make the story a worthwhile and engaging read. I was fascinated by the Lucas character and couldn't wait to see what would happen next to him and if he could finally get his life in order. This makes the book a real page-turner.

While the story takes place largely from the 1910s to 1940s the subject of finding your one true love and holding onto it is universal enough that it still resonates with modern readers. As well, LaBree's writing is uncomplicated enough that it never becomes too cumbersome or "literary" for the average reader.

Overall, this is a great book you should add to your reading list.

(Note: this book is available exclusively on Amazon.)

That is all.

Friday, May 22, 2009

American Gods

American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

(4/5 stars)

I mentioned this in my review of "Good Omens" but just to recap, I came by this book after reading Terry Pratchett's fabulous Discworld series. From there I went to "Good Omens", an apocalyptic comedy penned by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. So now I'm segueing to Gaiman solo in "American Gods." I have to say, for the record, I think Pratchett's books on the whole are a lot more fun. While there is humor in "American Gods" it's darker and a little more subtle--ironic might be the best way. The difference is probably that the Discworld books are written as comedies while "American Gods" isn't. I still enjoyed this, but in a different way.

"American Gods" covers territory covered by Gaiman and Pratchett (or Pratchett & Gaiman) in "Good Omens" and by Pratchett in Discworld books like "Small Gods" and "Hogfather." That territory is the concept that gods exist because people believe in them; gods are an extension of a human belief to believe in something. Over time, for a variety of reasons, belief in gods rises and falls. For instance, thousands of years ago no one outside the Middle East had ever heard of the god we know as GOD. They believed in their own more local gods, some like the Greek/Roman gods we studied in school and still remember because they're named for things like planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto) or Greek restaurants. Others have pretty much faded away from memory entirely, except perhaps for an artifact in a museum.

What Gaiman does in "American Gods" is to take that concept a step farther. For thousands of years people have been coming to America--"Native" Americans, Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and of course the Vikings--and with them they bring their gods and make sacrifices to them and build places of worship to them and so forth. And in the process they give life to those gods in America. But what becomes of the gods after war, disease, slavery, and assimilation have eroded that belief in them? Basically they're left roaming the countryside, living essentially as mortals.

A big man named Shadow gets out of prison and meets one of these fallen gods, a grifter now going by the name of Mr. Wednesday. With no job, no family, and no place to live, Shadow agrees to become Wednesday's bodyguard for a dangerous mission that takes them across the United States, though much of the action is centered in Illinois and Wisconsin. There's a storm coming, one that threatens not just Shadow but the entire fabric of reality. Because, you see, there are new gods being created everyday--gods of Technology and Media and so forth. When old gods and new gods clash, all hell is bound to break loose.

As for Shadow, he has to confront his tragic past and his destiny. Plus he has to find a way to bring his zombie wife back to life.

Overall this is a good book, though the ending seems pretty anticlimactic. I guess that's how life is sometimes. It would help too if you knew more about mythology than I do; I know a little about Greek and Norse myths from school but Gaiman includes myth creatures from pretty much every culture in the world. (Though it seems like the Greek gods like Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, Poseidon, and so forth are missing.) Anyway, I think this is the kind of book I'd really have to read a second time--or possibly more--to GET it because there's so much going on.

Of course a lot of people will probably steer clear of a book like this because it might challenge their personal beliefs. Though I personally like a religious philosophy where pretty much everyone can be right.

That is all.

PS - I feel a little ethically compromised because Mr. Gaiman is my "friend" on the Goodreads site and I follow him on Twitter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Where You Belong
by Patrick Dilloway
(5/5 stars)

In my review of Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March" I wrote:

"When I thought about it deeper and looked more closely I decided what gave this "great American novel" status is not the story itself but the underlying sense of optimism as Augie never loses hope even after the love of his life leaves him and his Merchant Marine freighter gets torpedoed. It's that same spirit that sent explorers to these shores and propelled pioneers ever westward in search of Manifest Destiny."

In a much similar fashion, "Where You Belong" by Patrick Dilloway is a Great American novel in spirit because while the protagonist of the story--a man with the unlikely name of Frost Devereaux--loses the love of his dreams, he never gives up hope of finding a better life just around the next corner.

Another novel "Where You Belong" draws comparisons to is John Irving's "The World According to Garp" and not just because the main characters in both have unusual names. Like Garp, Frost Devereaux is raised for a time by a nurse (though in this case the nurse is not his mother) and grows up to become a writer. Unlike Garp, though, Frost is never able to find and hold on to his one true love.

Through most of his life, Frost's true love is Frankie Maguire. Frankie, an energetic tomboy who dreams of becoming a Broadway star, is Frost's best friend and first crush, who abandons him in junior high to seek out older boys. This leaves Frost with a hole in his heart that is never filled until Frankie returns to him. If this were a fairy tale they would ride off and Live Happily Ever After, but this isn't a fairy tale.

Frost's search for a love that lasts leads him across the United States, from his boyhood home in an Iowa town noted for the stench of the fertilizer it produces to an all-boys school in upstate New York with a dark secret to an artist's colony in New Mexico presided over by a French-Canadian lumberjack to the Manhattan apartment of Frankie's twin brother, a powerbroker in the Gordon Gekko mold. Each step along the way Frost discovers more about the world, the people he cares about, and himself.

I really enjoyed this book because of that Great American Novel spirit I talked about and its similarities to "Garp." Like the better John Irving novels, Mr. Dilloway attempts to tackle a large social issue without losing sight of the personal story. The character of Frost Devereaux is depicted as naïve and vulnerable, especially when it comes to his feelings for the Maguire twins, which in some ways makes him a more sympathetic character than TS Garp who, let's face it, could be a real jerk by sleeping with babysitters and so forth. By contrast, Frost is the one who gets cheated on, not the one who cheats.

Still, for the seriousness of the topics covered in the novel, it never loses a dark sense of humor, putting Frost in bizarre situations and with even more bizarre characters. For that reason fans of Irving's work should love this novel. Of course it wouldn't really be fair to compare the writing of a young unknown like Mr. Dilloway to great authors like John Irving or Saul Bellow. There are few who can really compete on that level. Nevertheless, the story is solidly written and hopefully the start of more to come.

That is all.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Good Omens

Good Omens

by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett (Or Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman depending on your edition)

(5/5 stars)

In 1988 two great British humorists got together to write a story about the end of the world. I'm overselling a little here, but think of it as if the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin got on stage to jam together in the early '60s or so before they were huge stars. As you'd guess, the result is something unique--and hilarious.

How can the end of the world be funny? Watch and learn.

Long ago in the Garden of Eden, a demon named Crawly tempted Eve & Adam to eat the apples off the Tree of Knowledge and thus get kicked out of the garden. Taking pity on them, an angel named Aziraphale gave Adam his flaming sword to use for protection and making fire. Since then Aziraphale and Crawly (now known as Crowley) have formed a friendship even as their masters (ie Heaven and Hell) plot to destroy each other.

Along comes the big moment when Crowley is supposed to deliver the Antichrist to a satanic group of nuns, who will then switch the evil baby for the normal one born to an American cultural attache--a reference to "The Omen." Except one of the nuns messes it up and the Antichrist ends up going to a normal British family in a place called Lower Tadfield while the supposedly evil baby is watched closely by the minions of Heaven and Hell.

Skip forward eleven years to when the time has finally come. The Four Horsemen are getting to ride out--for fans of Pratchett's Discworld series the Horseman of Death is the same as in those books with the speaking IN ALL CAPS and the same dry wit--only now they've upgraded to Harleys. The lost continent of Atlantis has risen to the surface once more. And other weird stuff is happening, but now someone needs to find the Antichrist.

Crowley and Aziraphale, who have grown fond of if not humanity itself then at least all of humanity's stuff like books and Bentleys, set out to avert the seemingly inevitable End of Days. Their efforts are joined by a witch whose distant relative Agnes Nutter wrote a book of prophecies that never sold because of their terrible accuracy, a pair of witchhunters, and a gang of kids. But can they avert the Apocalypse in time? (Well, we're still here, aren't we?)

It occurs to me now that director Kevin Smith really should have read this book (and taken notes) before making his lamentable "Dogma" that dealt with similar concepts but was bogged down with too much information and not enough laughs. Gaiman/Pratchett (or Pratchett/Gaiman) manage to seamlessly blend in Biblical elements without sacrificing the humor. But as I've come to expect at least where Mr. Pratchett is concerned, there's intelligence behind the humor. Some of it may be a little too British (like Mr. Shadwell's terribly thick accent) or a little dated (like the jokes about answering machines, computers, and cassette tapes) but even so it's hard not to go more than a page without laughing.

This is a superb book that I think would make even those most fundamental Christian crack a smile. And as I said at the beginning, you're probably never going to see two masters get together like this again, so don't miss this opportunity.

That is all.

(BTW, as I finished Pratchett's Discworld series I thought this would make a perfect segue into my next book, Gaiman's "American Gods.")

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Darkest Evening of the Year

The Darkest Evening of the Year

by Dean Koontz

(1/5 stars)

I've never read any Koontz before and never intended to except I needed something quick--and cheap--and my selection was limited. My question is: are they all this terrible? Seriously. This book went from mediocre to bad to terrible to outright laughable by the end.

I'm not sure, was this supposed to be suspenseful? The villains were more goofy and cheesy than scary in any way. The mystical twists struck me as hokey more than anything. And there was never any time when I didn't know I was reading a book.

To get to the dull story, it's about Amy Redwing, who was orphaned at two and has a Mysterious Past. Amy lives in California, where she rescues golden retrievers and rehabilitates them for adoption. One night she and her architect boyfriend Brian--who also has a Mysterious Past, though presumably is not an orphan--go to the home of an abusive drunk, where Amy pays two grand for the drunk's golden retriever named Nickie. The dog also has a Mysterious Past that is part of Amy's Mysterious Past. As well the drunk has a seemingly autistic little girl with Mysterious Eyes. Amy rescues the girl as well, but pays far less for her.

Meanwhile we have "Moongirl", an evil pyromaniac and her lover Harrow, who obviously are Mysterious as well because they don't have real names. Their lives are entangled with Amy and Brian's, but I won't get into how so I don't spoil anything and subsequently get yelled at by people for ruining a perfectly ridiculous book. There's also a hitman who has an obsession with literature, going by the name Billy Pilgrim from Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse V."

The only character I felt any connection to was the hitman and that's because I like Vonnegut's writing far more than Koontz. As I mentioned before, there was never a time where I didn't think of these characters as just characters; none of them ever seemed even the teensiest bit real. I feel a little duped by the back cover because the story to me sounded like Amy and the dog are sitting around on a presumably dark night when bad things start happening and they have to overcome them. As a concept there was at least some prospect for suspense there in the "things that go bump in the night" category. Instead we're treated to silliness about angels and Mysterious Pasts and girls/dogs with weird eyes. Ugh.

The dog angle only adds to the cheesiness of the story, as it's hard to gather any suspense when you're talking about dogs peeing or begging for treats. The whole thing has the feeling that was tossed off in a few hours on a lark to make a few bucks. Though I suppose it might help educate people about dog abuse, so there's that.

The only good thing is that the book is so easy to breeze through. I could get through 100 pages of my paperback version in about an hour, which means it took only about 4 1/2 hours. 4 1/2 hours I'll never get back! I'd have wasted them anyway.

At one point Moongirl tells Brian that Amy seems like Sandra Bullock, which is a vibe I picked up on. She'd be great in a movie version of this that would probably work better as a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime or something like that. Then it could be shortened to only kill 2 hours of your life.

BTW, People magazine describes this as "Silence of the Lambs" meets "Marley and Me." I take it they meant that as a compliment.

That is all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


by Terry Pratchett
(3/5 stars)

This is a book by Terry Pratchett and it is about a disc-shaped world, but it is NOT a Discworld book. That's an important note. Strata was first published two years before the first Discworld book, The Color of Magic, so you can think of it as sort of a precursor to the series.

Kin Arad wrote the book on terraforming--literally. Thanks to gene engineering and other stuff she's lived over two hundred years, most of it for The Company, which is in the business of terraforming planets to make them habitable for humans. The idea is for humanity to spread out as much as possible to ensure the continuation of the species. The technology for the terraforming comes from artifacts left behind by a dead species known as the Spindle Kings. Another interesting side note is that in this universe Rome was founded by Remus and called Reme and Vikings colonized North America (called Valhalla), mating with Native Americans (or Native Valhallans I suppose) and eventually taking over Europe.

Then one day Kin is paid a visit by a supposedly lost space pilot called Jago Jalo, who shows her a cloak of invisibility and tells her there's more goodies to be found on a mysterious planet. She decides to travel with him to this planet, along with a Kung (a four-armed paranoid alien who sees violence as the first and best solution) named Marco and a Shandi (a big bear-like alien with walrus tusks who eat a very specialized diet--mainly each other) called Silver. Jago soon dies of a heart attack, but the other three go on to find a planet that is completely flat and contained in a sort of bubble with its own stars and planets. (Unlike the Discworld, this flat disc-shaped world is not carried by four elephants on the back of a giant turtle.)

Unfortunately, their ship crashes on this planet, where they soon bump into Vikings who are searching for North America, which doesn't exist here. Not long after that they come under attack from dragons. Demons, genies, flying carpets, and even the Grim Reaper also call this strange place home. But who built it and why? That is the question.

This was an OK book, but not really great. I read somewhere that it's a parody of "Ringworld" by Larry Niven, which I've never read; if I had I might have understood this better. That Kin's "real" Earth is an alternate history just makes things more confusing than they already are. Some of the action scenes were a little confusing as well. Having read all the Discworld books, I know Pratchett is capable of better, but then this was one of his earliest works, so it's not right to punish him just for setting a higher standard for himself later on.

Really there are some books, including a few of the Discworld books, that should be shorter, but this is a case where a little more length might have been helpful. I felt like I didn't really get to see enough of this flat world with all its magical inhabitants. As well Kin and the other characters felt a little flat--pun intended--so a little exposition might have been nice. (But character development has never been Pratchett's strong suit, even in the Discworld books.)

Another thing to note here is that while the Discworld books are fantasy, this is aimed more at science-fiction readers with space travel and aliens and whatnot. Of course there is some fantasy as well, just not as much of it.

Overall I'd say there's no reason to read this unless you're a big Discworld fan, or like me you got it in a box of other books and had a couple hours to kill.

That is all.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Making Money

Making Money (Discworld Series, Volume 36)

By Terry Pratchett

(3/5 stars)

At last we come to the end, at least until October when the next volume in the Discworld series comes out. For now though, I’ve read all of the adult Discworld novels in the series, concluding with “Making Money” the second installment to feature conman Moist von Lipwig.

Last time we saw Moist in “Going Postal” he was charged with resurrecting the post office in the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork and in the process found himself going straight. A little time has gone by since then, with Moist still engaged to golem rights advocate Adora Belle Dearhardt and managing the post office efficiently. A little too efficiently really, as Moist has the itch for his old criminal ways that he scratches by breaking into his office at night and picking every possible lock in the place. Fortunately the city’s uncontested tyrant Lord Vetinari has a solution: he wants Moist to take over the Royal Bank and shake up the system to meet modern times.

Now here is where we have to branch out into the hypothetical story on the book jacket and what actually happens.

On the book jacket it sounds like Moist is going to take over the bank and start printing paper money. Until then the city has relied on the gold standard, using a variety of coins for its money. By introducing paper money and taking Ankh-Morpork off the gold standard, he makes new enemies and runs into dangerous situations.

What actually happens is that probably a quarter of the book is spent just getting Moist into the bank and introducing all the key players like Mr. Bent, the manager who can add pages of numbers with only a glance and worships gold like a god, and the Lavish family who run the bank, especially Cosmo, who wants to make himself into Lord Vetinari. At the same time, Adora and her Golem Trust have found some ancient golems, who make things very interesting. The rest of the story involves an audit and recriminations about missing gold—and the golems. As for the paper money, it doesn’t come along until the very last chapter of the book.

So like one of Moist’s customers for cheap diamond rings, I feel a bit cheated here. This wasn’t exactly the book I thought I was going to read. Admittedly it still is a fun read, but I kept thinking, “When are we going to get to the money? WHEN?” The actual running of the bank, the story promised on the jacket, seems like it’s going to happen off the pages. No matter how good the rest of the book is, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by that. Though I suppose a conman like Moist can’t be any more outrageous than the Lavish family who were running the bank.

What saves this book for me, and made me really, REALLY want to give it four stars against all reason, is that I like the Moist character. Having now read the entire series, he reminds me mostly of Rincewind the cowardly wizard. Like Rincewind, Moist is that breed of noble coward who doesn’t want to help anyone but seems to end up doing so anyway. Whereas Rincewind achieved this by running away from danger, Moist does it by using his very persuasive mouth. That’s what makes them both fun antiheroes, unlike those brave, strapping heroes in most fantasy novels. And for personal reasons the idea of accountants traveling around like gypsies has me laughing so hard I needed an Igor to stitch me back together. So overall it’s not a bad addition to the series (and provided Pratchett’s health holds up long enough he’s already sown the seeds for a third Moist adventure) but there have been better among these 36 volumes.

And that does it. Overall I have greatly enjoyed this series because not only are the books a lot of fun, but there’s a lot of wisdom to be garnered from them as well. Even “Making Money” seems ripped from today’s headlines with all the trouble in the real banking system. To do smart and funny takes a special talent and Pratchett is indeed very talented.

That is all.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Thud! (Discworld series, Volume 34)

by Terry Pratchett

(3/5 stars)

I feel the book's title needs an explanation. Thud is a game sort of like chess combined with Risk or Stratego that's played by trolls and dwarfs on the Discworld. The object of the game is to reenact the legendary battle of Koom Valley, in which dwarfs and trolls fought each other over a thouand years earlier. There's been bad blood (or whatever trolls have) between the two races ever since.

And thud is also the sound made when a troll club whacks a dwarf over the head. That dwarf is a rabble-rouser in the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork who has been rallying dwarfs to fight trolls on the eve of Koom Valley Day. The murder takes place deep underground in a dwarf mine, which complicates things for Sam Vimes and the City Watch, as the dwarfs are not keen on outsiders wandering around their mine.

The murder is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, though. Even as the whole city seems ready to explode, a strange dwarf sign begins cropping up all over the place. As well, a priceless painting of the battle of Koom Valley has disappeared from the city museum. Somehow Vimes has to put all these pieces together to find out who murdered the dwarf--and why. Oh, and he has to do it all by six o'clock when he must read Where's My Cow? to his infant son--with all the appropriate noises.

This installment of the series I take it was supposed to be like The Da Vinci Code (or a lesser extent the National Treasure movies) in that there's a murder that leads to the unraveling of an important historical mystery. While I think overall Pratchett is a much better writer, Brown's story probably moved along a little better; Thud seems to plod along until an ending that generally makes it worthwhile. It probably needed a couple of good chase scenes thrown in there to get things moving.

On problem I had in particular was I really became bored with the Angua werewolf character. This is the fifth book that features her in a significant role, but all she ever seems to do is whine about being a werewolf--that and smell stuff and threaten to rip people's throats out. By now it's like, "I GET IT! Being a werewolf sucks! Let's move past it, shall we?" But that's the problem is that none of the secondary characters are really allowed to grow much. The relationship between Angua and Captain Carrot hasn't really moved forward since the beginning. You'd think after what's probably ten years or more they'd be getting serious, or something.

Vimes is the only character who seems to be given any development. Since appearing in "Guards! Guards!" (volume 8) he's gone from a lonely drunk to a civic leader with a wife and son. That kind of growth is what allows you to like the character more, not to mention it keeps him from stagnating like the others. It's too bad some of the others (like Angua or Carrot) aren't really given this same opportunity to develop.

Anyway, it was still an entertaining book, with a good message about racial tolerance and all that. And as I said earlier, it picks up in the end to make up for some of its deficiencies in the thrill department. It really could use a better title, though if you look at all 36 series titles, none of them really seem especially clever. I suppose it's what's on the inside that counts--isn't that what they always say?

That is all.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Monstrous Regiment

Monstrous Regiment (Discworld Volume 31)

by Terry Pratchett

(4/5 stars)

In the remote country of Borogravia, war is the national pasttime. The problem is that lately Borogravia has been as successful at war as the Detroit Lions are at football. Like desperate countries everywhere, though, they claim they're winning, despite the evidence to the contrary.

Because of all this war, villages are pretty much down to the elderly, children, and women. One of these women named Polly Perks decides to cut off her hair and join the army so she can find her brother Paul, who disappeared years earlier in the war with neighboring Zlobenia. She soon joins a regiment (really more of a squad) with other young people including a pyromaniac, a potential psychopathic killer, and schizophrenic, as well as a troll, a vampire, and an Igor--the latter being one of those hunchbacked assistants to mad scientists everywhere.

Though of course Borogravia is winning the war (wink, wink) there's no time to train the new recruits in warfare. But before they can get to the front, they come under attack from Zlobenian forces. Polly uses all her cunning to defeat the enemy, but from then on this monstrous regiment is on the run. Their only hope is to retake their country's stronghold and free the prisoners inside, including Polly's brother. To do so, though requires the regiment to put themselves in great danger from the enemy--and their own superior officers.

In "Jingo" Pratchett took on war from the perspective of the invader. Now in "Monstrous Regiment" it focuses mostly on the defender. The key point is that Polly and the other Borogrovians are not bad or evil. They're just doing their job and defending their country--and each other. It's the ones in charge, like the insane god Nuggan or the never-seen Duchess, who are the bad ones. That's good to remember because in any war there's a tendency to demonize the other side so that they seem like demons instead of real people. Otherwise it would be hard for a country to want to go to war and kill other humans not so different from them.

Though I'm sure this was unintentional, the conflict between Lieutenant Blouse and Sergeant Jackrum reminded me of Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead." In both the inexperienced young officer thinks he's in charge while the sergeant thinks he should be the REAL boss because of his experience and the officer should just be a figurehead. Things go much better for the lieutenant in this book though.

While Borogravia and Zlobenia sound more like the Balkans, there are references to the second Iraq war with the term "shock and awe" and the concept of embedded reporters. That allows readers to easily relate to the story, despite the presence of fantasy elements. William de Worde and Otto the vampire photographer of "The Truth" (Volume 25) make a cameo as the aforementioned embedded reporters while Sam Vimes and members of the City Watch also appear in the story.

The one knock I have on this book is one that I've had on a couple other of the Discworld ones. Sure there's a vampire, troll, and Igor in the regiment but they don't really contribute much to overall story. Actually the vampire and troll sit out most of the conclusion. Other than the vampire's jitteriness at needing coffee (to keep him from draining people's blood) that allows for a couple of Vietnam allusions predating "Tropic Thunder", he doesn't do much and the troll does less. At least the Igor serves as the medic. They could easily have not been in the book and it wouldn't have affected the story much. The example I used before was it's like having a few pieces left over after putting together a jigsaw. The pyro, schizo, and even the psycho all have their uses in the story, but the most monstrous characters seem just there to make the jacket sound more interesting. A pity.

Still, this is a good book with humor that doesn't dumb-down it's very non-humorous subject matter.

Join me now in a verse of "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin'!"

That is all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Night Watch

Night Watch (Discworld Series, Vol. 29)

by Terry Pratchett

(4/5 stars)

NOTE: My previous reviews of the series have covered up to volume 27 "The Last Hero." Volume 28 "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents" is one of the four young adult books in the series that I will not be reading at this time.

In the 28 other Discworld books a lot of sci-fi/fantasy staples have already been lampooned: heroic quests, magic swords, wizards, witches, vampires, werewolves, elves, and so forth. The one staple not yet really tackled has been time travel. "Night Watch" takes care of this glaring error in relatively entertaining style.

As his wife is involved in a long labor to give birth to their first child, Commader Sam Vimes of the City Watch is involved in cornering a cop-killing madman named Carcer. In hot pursuit of Carcer, Vimes climbs up onto the roof of the library for Unseen University (the school for wizards) during a thunderstorm. When a bolt of lightning strikes the library, Vimes and Carcer are transported back in time 30 years.

And of course it is a pivotal moment in the history of the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork. The brutal Lord Winder has been heavily taxing people and rounding up any who dissent. Revolt is fermenting, all it needs is a spark.

Vimes takes on the identity of his mentor in the City Watch, John Keel, after the real Keel is killed by Carcer, who joins a secret police force known as the Unmentionables. Vimes has enough time to teach his younger self a few lessons about policing before that spark hits and the entire city erupts in violence. Now Vimes has to somehow keep the peace, keep himself (both of himselves) alive, and bring Carcer to justice. A tall order to be sure.

This book is an interesting addition to the series because it provides a little more background on some of the Ankh-Morpork characters like Vimes, Lord Vetinari, Nobby Nobbs, and even Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler the crooked merchant. I was disappointed there was really nothing included about the wizards, especially the Librarian--who was turned into an orangutan in a magical accident; I kept waiting to see if there'd be an appearance by him in human form.

My biggest complaint though is the story drags a little. Part of that is the nature of time travel stories like this. We already know there's going to be a riot because technically it's already happened. And we know in that riot there's going to be a final showdown between Vimes and Carcer, just like you knew Marty McFly would have to have it out with Biff Tannen in "Back to the Future." It's inevitable, so let's just cut to the chase.

Still, like most of these books, there's a good message underneath the action. In particular is the concept that the reason they're called "revolutions" is that they typically go in a circular fashion. Or in other words the new regime is rarely better than the old one. The main point of reference in the book is the French Revolution, only in this case no one loses their heads--literally at least.

We're down to just three more of these books now.

That is all.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tom's Job

Tom's Job
By Ethan Cooper
(5/5 stars)
Just about anyone who's ever gone out into the working world has held a job like Tom's Job: a job that is a real J-O-B, not a career. It's the kind of job that pays the bills (barely) but isn't a lot of fun. That's what allows a reader like myself to connect with this novel.
Tom's Job follows Tom Howell through five days of his life as he attends a big conference in New York. Tom works as an editor and writer of business newsletters for a small publisher in Minneapolis. He is also the ghost writer of a biography for a business titan, Jack Ostron, who has cameos in Mr. Cooper's previous "Smooth in Meetings" and "In Control." Every day Tom trudges to work to endure the interference of his annoying boss Bob before heading back to his bachelor apartment. The only bright spots in Tom's life are the bi-monthly visits of his seven-year-old daughter Katie and his work on a novel about corporate life called "Smooth in Meetings."
Tom's trip to New York becomes complicated by the presence of his boss's daughter Lisa, who is also Tom's boss, and a beautiful but reckless conference coordinator named Melanie. As if this isn't enough to juggle, Tom has to put up with Bob and Sandy, an obnoxious newsletter writer and would-be self-help guru. Plus there's the countdown to the conference Tom has to host. Even as everything seems to be going wrong, finding a way to muddle through is Tom's Job.
This was an engrossing book for me because I felt a real kinship with the character. As someone with a dead-end job, bachelor pad, and annoying boss--everything but the adorable daughter--I could really sympathsize with Tom Howell. At his core Tom is a dreamer and idealist who'd be happier chatting about literature or writing his own opus, but like most of us (especially in this economy) he has to make ends meet however he can. And so the struggle for Tom and all of us is to find some way to stay sane in this workaday world while part of us yearns to be free of it.
That is all.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Smooth in Meetings

Smooth In Meetings

By Ethan Cooper

(5/5 stars)

A Machiavellian manual for the business world, "Smooth in Meetings" is a great book to read in this decade of corporate scandals from Enron to AIG. The novel provides keen insight into the minds of well-paid executives who grapple for money and power like corporate knights in a perpetual jousting contest. And just like a jousting contest, one wrong move and you're off the horse, into the mud forever.

This breezy novel takes place in 1994-95 just as the tech sector is preparing to boom. Ward Wittman is a senior manager for TriTech, a Minneapolis company that makes hard drives and other computer components. After nearly twenty years with the company, Ward has proven himself an able manager who can work a room better than any politician. Throughout the novel we see how Ward ably manipulates everyone from his wife and two kids to his superiors at TriTech. He is truly a smooth operator.

Yet Ward faces challenges when the company's CEO is deposed and a new man known to be a brutal hatchetman takes over. At the same time Ward is juggling a marriage going stale, a son lacking direction, and a secretary flirting with him. To survive, Ward is going to have to take his game up a notch.

The book focuses exclusively on Ward, giving us insight into how he sees the world as one big game he intends to win. Every gesture, every facial twitch becomes important to conveying his image of the competent professional, while every gesture and twitch of a rival is used to give him an inside edge. As noted above, he remains in this mode even outside the office, working his wife, kids, and "friends" just like his peers and clients. I wouldn't say that he's amoral or unfeeling so much as fiercely determined. The complexity of Ward makes for a great character study.

A well-written and fascinating read, "Smooth in Meetings" plays like an episode of AMC's "Mad Men" with a tad less melodrama, and of course set in the '90s. For those who enjoy that show or just want an insight into the upper echelons of power in the corporate world should read this book. My only major complaint is that Ward is so smooth I kept hoping he was going to get a comeuppance. But I guess as recent history has shown comeuppances in the corporate world are hard to come by.

That is all.

(PS: you won't find this book at your local bookstore or library, but you can find it through Amazon or other online retailers.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Truth

(Discworld, Volume 25)

By Terry Pratchett

OK, circling back now to catch up on Volume 25 of the Discworld series. Before we hit the home stretch I've got a couple other books to read first, so this will be the last of these for a couple weeks. Huzzah.

It's important to note that in the Discworld, newspapers have never existed. The engravers guild, in order to preserve their monopoly on printing, preventing anyone from using a mechanical press. That is until a group of dwarfs arrive from the mountains yearning to make money by printing.

Along comes young William de Worde, a prodigal aristocrat whose broken from his wealthy father to make it on his own. When William visits the printing shop, he finds himself plunged into the new world of journalism. Together with a proper young lady named Sacharissa, they set out to create the Disc's first newspaper called the Times.

As luck would have it, just as they're starting out, a huge story breaks. The metropolis of Ankh-Morpork's leader, The Patrician, is accused of stabbing his clerk with a knife and then trying to flee the city with embezzled funds. The City Watch is baffled by the case, but William soon finds a "man" on the inside, the mysterious Deep Bone. Aided by Sacharissa, the dwarfs, and a vampire photographer (on the wagon, meaning he only drinks animal blood) who turns to dust if he uses flash photography, William is determined to get to the bottom of things. But the truth isn't always so easy to set free, especially when hired goons are trying to kill you.

This was a good addition to the series, but it could have been better. When I first read the description, I thought for sure there'd be some Citizen Kane references in there. I was expecting William to be one of those larger-than-life type characters like Charlie Kane and his real world counterpart William Randolph Hearst. That never materialized, which is disappointing. Instead William is an earnest young man in search of The Truth, which is OK too, but don't we all like more grandiose characters?

There are some good insights into what makes the news, especially in the comparison between the Times and its rival The Inquirer--which despite its name is more based on Weekly World News. As the Deep Bone indicates there are references to Watergate and also the hired goons Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip are based on the killers in Pulp Fiction, as evidenced by the line, "Do you know what they call a sausage-inna-bun in Klatch?"

On a side note, this story probably was the template for the later Going Postal, the first in the series I read. That involved the creation--resurrection really--of the post office in a similar fashion. Though the central character of that one, Moist von Lipwig, was more interesting. Conmen are just more exciting than conflicted aristocrats.

And that's all the news fit to print.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Discworld series Volumes 24, 27

Discworld series

by Terry Pratchett

Volume 24: The Fifth Elephant: The Discworld is held up by four elephants on top of a giant space turtle. But long ago legend has it there was a fifth elephant. That elephant fell off the edge though and slammed into the ground, creating mountains and most notably, large resovoirs of fat. It's this fat that the city of Ankh-Morpork wants to obtain cheaply for making candles and frying things. And so the city dispatches Duke Samuel Vimes, also commander of the City Watch, to make a deal with the dwarves who mine the fat.

The last Discworld book I read "Carpe Jugulum" dealt with vampires. This book also has vampires, but more prominently features werewolves and dwarves who ruin the remote nation of Uberwald, where all that fat can be found. As always happens when Vimes is involved, people are murdered and there are mysteries to be solved. In particular is the mystery of the royal dwarf throne known as the Scone of Stone--as the name implies it is a baked good that is very ancient and thus very hard. If the Scone of Stone isn't found, the entire kingdom could tear itself apart in civil war.

Meanwhile, in Ankh-Morpork the City Watch faces its biggest challenge yet when career sergeant Colon is forced to run things. A word to the wise: if someone's been a sergeant for 30 years there's probably a really good reason for that.

On a side note, this book also introduces the "clacks" the semaphore towers that allow one part of the Discworld to communicate with another in hours instead of days. This is the Discworld equivalent of cellphones and the Internet. The "clacks" technology later becomes a major issue in "Going Postal" the first Discworld book I read.

Though there is that mystery involved, a lot of book involves action as Vimes becomes a fugitive from the dwarves and the werewolves. Because of that the book is a very quick and exciting read. And maybe werewolves aren't as in vogue right now as vampires, but they're pretty fun too. (4 stars)

Volume 27: The Last Hero: I'm veering a little off the proper order here, but for a good reason. If "The Fifth Elephant" was a quick read, then "The Last Hero" is an even quicker read because it's an illustrated book. The paperback copy I bought comes in at a mere 176 pages. Because of this and since it's hard transporting an oversized picture book, I decided to read it over the weekend.

Anyway, this picture book in some ways is the Discworld equivalent of one of those reference movies (Date Movie, Disaster Movie, Superhero Movie, ad nauseum) in that it makes references to nearly all the major characters in the Discworld universe, except for the Witches of Lancre. The City Watch, Rincewind, the other wizards, DEATH all make appearances here.

What brings them all together is Cohen the Barbarian. The first hero stole fire from the gods, so now that Cohen is getting on in years, he decides that he'll return the fire. So along with his Silver Horde of veteran heroes, he undertakes a harrowing journey to the mountain that houses the Discworld gods. The only problem is that if he succeeds, the entire Discworld will collapse on itself and be destroyed.

To save the world the failed wizard (and professional coward) Rincewind joins up with heroic Captain Carrot of the Watch, mad genius designer Leonard da Quirm, and the Librarian of Unseen University to mount an expedition to intercept Cohen. Using a fleet of dragons and a wooden bird, they plan to sail beneath the Discworld and come out the other side to reach Cohen in time. But will they? (Well since there were more than a half-dozen books after this do you need an answer?)

Despite this being a picture book it's not exactly kid's stuff. There's a very real message here about people's relationship to gods and the struggles of getting older. Still, it's not heavy enough to bring you down. In general this is a fun little book, and it's great for fans to be able to see some of the major characters, not to mention what this entire odd little world looks like. I can't really critique the art because I can't do anything more than stick figures myself. I didn't really have any problems with it though. (4 stars)

Next time I'll double-back for Volume 25: "The Truth" Volume 26: "Thief of Time" was previously reviewed on its own.

That is all.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Carpe Jugulum

(Discworld vol 23)

by Terry Pratchett

(4/5 stars)

(Ordinarily I review a few of these at a time, but I'm bored, so here we are.)

Long before "Twilight" made vampires cool again, the witches of Lancre were battling the bloodsuckers. That proves difficult as these aren't your father's vampires; these are far more enlightened vampires (so to speak) who have learned to tolerate garlic, holy water, and even a little sunlight. When the king of Lancre invites the Magpyre clan for the christening of his daughter, the vampires decide they'll make themselves at home by taking over the kingdom and making everyone into docile sheeple.

The witches of Lancre won't stand for this, but there's just one problem: the most powerful of their coven, Granny Weatherwax, is missing and presumed sulking after her invitation to the christening gets lost. Led by the folksy Nanny Ogg, the other witches do what they can against the vampires with the help of the Wee Free Men (think Scottish Smurfs), a missionary from Omnia (think a Jehovah's Witness combined with a televangelist), and an Igor (think Dr. Frankenstein's assistant). But of course the vampires aren't going to go quietly or without some blood being shed.

Though the plot is largely the same as "Lords and Ladies" where elves terrorized Lancre, there's enough different about this so that it feels fresh. Like "Lords and Ladies" this is a little darker than previous witch adventures like "Maskerade", which I guess you should expect with vampires. For fans of "Twilight" there is a sort of romance with the sexy young vampire Vlad and Agnes, a fat young witch with a touch of schizophrenia. But really it was refreshing for me after all this "Twilight" and assorted other stuff to read something where the vampires are the bad guys.

One criticism I have is that there's a lot of stuff going on in the story and at the end it seemed like some of it didn't do a whole lot. It's like assembling a puzzle and realizing you have pieces left over. In particular the Wee Free Men angle didn't add a whole lot and while it was nice to have Magrat (formerly a witch but now the queen) back in the fold, she didn't do much either other than change diapers. When's all said and done though I think Granny Weatherwax is up to third on favorite Discworld characters list behind The Librarian and DEATH, so any book with her kicking vampire butt can't be too bad.

It's too bad then that this is the last witches book I'll be reading. They do pop up in the young adult series, but for the moment I'm not reading those. From here on out it's mostly City Watch books. Oh well.

That is all.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Discworld series Volumes 18-22

Discworld series Volumes 18-22

by Terry Pratchett

Volume 18: Maskerade: Last time we met them in Lords and Ladies, the Lancre witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg were helping the third member of their coven become the queen of Lancre. Now that the coven is down to two, it's time to look for a replacement. As it happens, Nanny has a perfect replacement in mind. There's just one hitch: this person is hundreds of miles away in the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork trying to become an opera singer. No worries though as Nanny and Granny have an errand in the big city, mainly getting Nanny's fair share of royalties from the publishing of a scandalous cookbook.

Meanwhile, at the Ankh-Morpork Opera House strange things are afoot. For many years the Opera House has been haunted by a mask-wearing phantom, who generally likes to watch the first performance of any opera from a specially-reserved box. But now the Ghost has started murdering people and it's up to Granny and Nanny to put a stop to it.

Really, since most of the story focuses on murders in the city of Ankh-Morpork, I kept wondering why this wasn't a City Watch book instead of a Witches book. I suppose since much of the story is (probably) taken from "Phantom of the Opera" it's fitting for Granny and Nanny. I didn't like this as much as some of the other Witch books like "Witches Abroad" or "Lords and Ladies." For one thing the newest witch, Agnes Nitt, doesn't have much to her yet. She's very fat, has poor self-esteem, and a good voice. Not all that interesting really. As well some of the gags like the cat Greebo turning human had already been used, so there was some staleness as well. And really, the story seemed like it could have been a "Scooby-Doo" episode--Now we'll find out who you really are, Opera Ghost! (3 stars)

Volume 19: Feet of Clay: Maybe you're like me and never quite understood what a golem was, or at least I didn't until I saw a Simpsons Halloween episode featuring one--which is how I learn most everything. Anyway, in Judaism there's this idea of making big people out of clay and then a rabbi marks it with a symbol and it comes to life. It will do anything you tell it to do by putting scrolls in its mouth.

In the Discworld, golems are used like a cross between industrial robots and illegal aliens. Since a golem can work continuously without food or sleep it means less people are needed. And a golem can do all sorts of hazardous jobs like working with acids or other chemicals because they're extremely tough and never complain. Then one shop owner gets more than he bargained for when he buys a golem that goes off on a killing spree.

Meanwhile, the City Watch is expanding its operations. In "Maskerade" we learned about a new undercover unit and now in "Feet of Clay" comes a CSI unit, which consists of one female dwarf who works in an old privy. This comes in handy when someone begins poisoning The Patrician, Ankh-Morpork's leader. Commander Vimes, Captain Carrot, and the rest of the Watch have to put together the pieces before it's too late.

This was a really interesting book because the plight of the golems touches on serious issues. These issues are brought up again later in the series with "Going Postal" and presumably "Making Money." It's a good reminder that while the plots of these books seem outlandish, they bring up topics that are still in the news today. What really got me though were some great references to movies like "Terminator 2" and "Robocop." As well the mystery, or really conspiracy, wasn't so easy that I could figure it out, which is always a good thing in a book like this. There were a couple of times where I thought I had it figured out and turned out to be wrong, just like Vimes and company investigating the crimes. So it's a great crime story ripped from today's headlines as they say in "Law & Order" promos. And you can't beat the thought of a dwarf in drag. (4 stars)

(NOTE: Volume 20 is "Hogfather" which I have previously reviewed.)

Volume 21: Jingo: When an island rises from the ocean between the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork and the desert kingdom of Klatch, it's the impetus for war. There's just one slight problem, as Ankh-Morpork hasn't fought a war in centuries, content during that time to invite its enemies to come in and stay awile, followed by robbing them blind in their sleep. Because of this, the city's gentry take to raising private armies, which includes Commander Vimes of the City Watch. As expected, his unit is composed of Watchmen like heroic Captain Carrot the "dwarf", Angua the werewolf, and Detritus the troll. They face a race against time to prevent an all-out war.

This was an interesting book in that it takes the City Watch out of the city. There's references to the JFK assassination and it's hard not to think of the desert kingdom of Klatch as Iraq, though this book was written in about 1997. Certainly the sentiment that war is good for absolutely nothing rings true these days, especially when the leaders fighting the war are dopes. (4 stars)

Volume 22: The Last Continent: Everyone's favorite cowardly wizard Rincewind returns for his last full-length adventure. At the end of "Intersting Times" Rincewind ended up on the continent XXXX (so called because no one else has ever gone there and returned). With his usual luck, Rincewind is embroiled in an adventure against his wishes when this barren continent runs out of water. A helpful kangaroo helps him find his way through this strange desert continent where everyone says things like "G'day!" and "no worries" and drinks lots of beer. At the same time the orangutan Librarian of Unseen University is sick, so the school's top wizards go in search of Rincewind, as he's the only one who knows the Librarian's real name. In the process, the wizards end up stranded in time on a remote island with a god who is far from omnipotent. Somehow this all ties together.

One of the running jokes in the second half of the book is that a lot of ideas sound better after midnight and copious amounts of alcohol. This book would be best read in that state. It's not that it's not fun or interesting; it just doesn't make a lot of sense--even less sense than most Discworld books make. There are references to Australian-themed movies like "Mad Max," "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," and "Crocodile Dundee" that work best if you've seen those. I was disappointed there wasn't a "shrimp on the barby" reference. No worries! I'd recommend this one only for Discworld completists. (3 stars)

That is all...for now.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Interesting Times

Interesting Times

(Discworld Volume 17)

by Terry Pratchett

(4/5 stars)

I'd been reviewing these in batches, but I might not finish another one for a little bit, so I'm going to do this one separately.

Anyway, the expression "May you live in interesting times" can be either a blessing or a curse. To Rincewind the wizard, it's definitely a curse. There's nothing more Rincewind would like more than to hide out somewhere safe and quiet with a large supply of potatoes. Unfortunately, Rincewind has the same kind of luck as Charlie Brown in kicking the football; whenever he thinks he's going to do it, someone pulls the football away.

This time, Rincewind is called upon by the other wizards at Unseen University to travel to the remote "Counterweight Continent" a region that has little contact with the rest of the Discworld. Now a hungry albatross arrives with a message requesting a "Great Wizard" be sent to the continent ASAP. Since there's no one more expendable for a dangerous mission, Rincewind is chosen to be teleported across thousands of miles, where he meets an old (literally) friend: Cohen the Barbarian. The ancient "hero" and his Silver Horde of six other old geezers are planning to mount a daring mission to steal something precious from the Empire ruling the continent.

Trying to avoid this suicide mission, Rincewind strikes out on his own, but is soon taken captive by the "Red Army", a group of teenagers who are good at plastering slogans on walls and little else. They believe Rincewind is The Great Wizard who will lead them to victory over the repressive empire.

As always happens when Rincewind is involved, his attempts to avoid trouble wind up leading him deeper into trouble and his attempts at being a coward wind up making him a hero. How this plays out was sort of predictable, but I've really come to identify with Rincewind, possessing about the same amount of "luck."

Though this isn't a sequel, there are references to the other Rincewind novels, including the reappearance of Twoflower the tourist, who first set Rincewind on the annoying path to adventure in the first two Discworld books. So there's a feeling like a class reunion in reading this that makes it fun to read. It's always good to reunite with old friends, even if they aren't real.

That is all.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Discworld Vol 15-16

Discworld Series

Volumes 15-16

by Terry Pratchett

I've gotten through the first 16 volumes of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series; just 12 more to go! Picking up where I left off, here are reviews of Volumes 15 & 16.

Volume 15: Men At Arms: Affirmative action comes to the corrupt metropolis of Ankh-Morpork when the city's leader, The Patrician, inducts a troll, a dwarf, and a warm into the City Watch, Night division. The Night Watch used to be a joke, but after Corporal Carrot joined the force in "Guards! Guards!" the Watch became somewhat respectable and started actually doing work.

While the Watch is gaining three new recruits, it's losing its commander in Captain Sam Vimes. Formerly a drunk used to waking up in gutters, Vimes is now living the high life and about to marry Sybil, a wealthy swamp dragon trainer. Everything seems to be going well, except behind the scenes, someone wants to restore the monarchy to the throne.

To do this, the fiend plots to create a deadly new weapon: a gonne, which uses fireworks powder to shoot a lead slug into someone--on in other words, it's the Discworld's first gun. As racial violence between dwarves, trolls, humans, and undead heats up it's up to the Night Watch to save the day.

My problem in reading this book was I was distracted by other things, so I couldn't give it my full attention. The final solution to WHO is behind everything wasn't too obvious, which is a good thing. Like "Lords and Ladies" before it, this one had a darker tone with one central character being killed. It seemed odd to me that Corporal Carrot at the start of the book seems kind of dull-witted, but by the end he's outsmarting everyone, including a master manipulator like The Patrician. The more I got thinking about it, the more I realized Carrot is like Columbo in those old '70s mysteries. Only instead of going around in a rumpled trenchcoat and smoking cigars, he wears shiny chain mail. But the result is the same, where foes and friends grossly underestimate him until they realize they've answered "one more question" too many. (3 stars)

Volume 16: Soul Music: I was hoping to like this more than I did. DEATH--what we would think of as the Grim Reaper--is my favorite recurring character in the series, so I was hoping to really enjoy a book focusing more on him. But I didn't, in large part because "Soul Music" is much like "Moving Pictures" only instead of parodying the early film industry it parodies the early days of rock n roll--when it was actually rock n roll and not two hundred different sub categories.

Anyway, DEATH gets depressed and takes a sudden leave of absence. The job of making sure people die goes to his sixteen-year-old "granddaughter" Susan. She is the offspring of an orphan DEATH adopted and his former apprentice Mort, who got married in the earlier book aptly titled "Mort." While in many ways Susan is a normal girl, she also has the ability to will herself invisible and see things that no one else can, like a skeletal rat with a scythe that goes SQUEAK! As you'd expect Susan is no better at being DEATH than her father was, though not quite with as disastrous results.

Meanwhile, in Ankh-Morpork a bard named Imp arrives and wants to be the most famous musician ever, but can't afford to join the Musician's Guild to play legally. He joins up with a dwarf and troll and form a band. When Imp breaks his harp, the band discovers a music shop that has always been there, by which I mean it's NEVER been there and just suddenly turned up. Imp buys a guitar that seems to take on a life of its own. Before long, he and the others are playing a new kind of music they call Music With Rocks In, presumably because instead of drums the troll beats a sack of stones.

Music With Rocks In becomes a sensation, but for Imp--who takes the name Buddy--fame comes with a high pricetag.

What I didn't like, as I mentioned earlier, was much of this seemed derivative, as a combination of "Mort," "Reaper Man," and "Moving Pictures." At least Pratchett knew he was rehashing some of the same material, so he avoids duplicating those books exactly. Still, there was a definite feeling of "been there, done that." It was still an enjoyable read, but not a great one. (3 stars)

These were definitely not the best in the series (at least to me) but maybe things will pick up a bit with "Interesting Times."

That is all.

Sunday, January 25, 2009



Written by Allen Moore

Illustrated by Dave Gibbons

(5/5 stars)

I've never been interested in reading comic books, which is ironic because I watched comic book heroes on TV and in movies, but I never could get myself to read any of the source material. Because I'm so out of the loop on comics, I didn't know what a turning point the "Watchmen" series was for the comic book industry until I heard about it on the History Channel. Now with the movie coming out in March, I thought I'd finally give the source material a try. I was not disappointed.

It's important to note straight off that these are not your father's comic book heroes. What "Watchmen" did when it came out in the mid-80s was to make comic book characters REAL--or as real as can be expected. The "costumed adventurers" depicted in the series are not in it for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. They have varying reasons like psychotic obsessions, family pressure, fame-seeking, or just plain old curiosity. Most of these "heroes" might help you if you were being mugged or trapped in a burning building, but don't expect them to help old ladies cross the road or give a lesson on civics to a 3rd grade class.

The story begins in 1985, a very different 1985 from what you might remember. For one thing, Richard Nixon is still president and American won the war in Vietnam thanks to the costumed adventurers, most notably Dr. Manhattan, a god-like being who is blue and pretty much do whatever he wants to matter--including making it disappear. (Another difference is that thanks to Doc Manhattan electric cars were invented in 1960, thus global warming is not so much of a problem, nor are rising oil prices.) Only Dr. Manhattan and an aging mercenary known as The Comedian (like a sadistic Captain America) are still allowed to fight evil by working for Uncle Sam. The rest are all forced into hiding. Most find other jobs while some, like the obsessive Rorshach, continue to operate at risk of prosecution. (The premise of superheroes being outlawed was later used in the Disney movie "The Incredibles.")

One night, though, The Comedian is found dead in his apartment. As Rorshach investigates the case, he begins to see a conspiracy at work and not only because he's paranoid. Someone is out to eliminate or marginalize all the costumed adventurers. But who and why remains a mystery as the world teeters on the brink of Armageddon with a Soviet incursion into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Can the "heroes" find out what's going on and put a stop to it? With the USA and USSR turn the earth into a radioactive cinder? Tune in to find out.

I have to say, for a comic book (originally published as a series of 12 and now packaged together into a novel) this was fascinating. It's not just one slugfest after another between heroes and villains. The narrative not only goes into the mystery and conspiracy, but it delves into the backgrounds of the characters and includes interesting sidebars, notably a comic within the comic about an evil pirate ship of damned souls that makes the Black Pearl seem like a Carnival fun ship. The comic within the comic fits into one of the overreaching themes of the book, which is: do the ends justify the means? And as is frequently scrawled on walls in the book: who watches the watchmen?

Unraveling the various complexities and symbolic elements of this would take a long time, and I doubt I could nail them all own. Suffice it to say if you think comics are kid's stuff then you are dead wrong in this case. This is a comic for adults with adult situations like rape, impotency, and other stuff you certainly won't see on Saturday morning cartoons. "Watchmen" was one of the first books to really focus solely on the adults and revolutionized the industry. Its influence is still felt today in movies like "The Dark Knight" that strive for a more realistic approach to those costumed adventurers.

That is all.

(BTW, as I have no experience with graphic novels there's nothing I can say about the artwork. I thought it was good, but what do I know?)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Discworld Vol 12-14

NOTE: reviews for Volume 10 "Moving Pictures" and Volume 11 "Reaper Man" were written in separate reviews previously.

Discworld Volumes 12-14

by Terry Pratchett

Right, so to anyone still paying attention I'm continuing to plow through the 36-volume Discworld series. I've got 15-ish more left to go! Anyway, here are brief reviews of the last three volumes I finished.

Volume 12: Witches Abroad: Granny Weatherwax and the witches of Lancre are back, and this time hitting the road (or really the sky given they fly on broomsticks) to stop a royal wedding. The princess Ella is about to marry a Duc with clammy skin, weird eyes, and a prediliction towards eating flies unless the witches can get there in time to stop the Happily Ever After. This is the kind of anti-fairy tale fairy tale in the same vein as the "Shrek" movies, though written years earlier. Besides "Cinderella" other fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood" are also referenced with hilarious results. The best part is what happens to Nanny Ogg's fiendish cat Greebo; I could imagine my cat would be nearly the same under similar circumstances. A fun romp through classic fairy tales. (4 stars)

Volume 13: Small Gods: This story doesn't involve any of the main characters (except for DEATH, who appears in every book) taking place in the realm of Omnia. The people there worship the Great God Om--usually depicted as a bull--with a fervor enforced by the sadistic Quisition, obviously based on the Spanish Inquisition. There's just one problem: the Great God Om is trapped in the body of a tortoise and finds himself with just one true believer: a small-witted novice monk named Brutha. This book touches on a theme presented earlier in "Pyramids" (and possibly other books) and notably later in "Hogfather" that says gods come and go based on changing beliefs. What Pratchett suggests isn't atheism; it's more like universal apathy saying whatever you choose to believe in is as good as anything. When you think no one can really prove which god(s) is God this makes a lot of sense; after all, who's to say your toaster can't be God if you really, really believe hard enough? I like too the Discworld concept that the afterlife is whatever you believe it will be, something touched on in "Eric" among others. This is a book for the open-minded on the subject, not the true believers. (4 stars)

Volume 14: Lords and Ladies: In my review of volumes 1-6 I posited that "Light Fantastic" was the only direct sequel in the series. This is not the case as "Lords and Ladies" picks up after "Witches Abroad" though really it continues the events of "Wyrd Sisters." Granny Weatherwax and crew have returned home and now it's time for the young witch Magrat to marry the king and become queen of Lancre. As people arrive from all over the Discworld, all heck is about to break loose when elves return to plague the land. These aren't the cute Santa's helpers or even the beautiful, noble creatures from "Lord of the Rings." No, these elves are psychotic, sadistic monsters intent on enslaving humanity. Because of this, the book has a darker tone than others in the series. It draws from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" which I've never seen, so like with "Wyrd Sisters" there's probably a few references I didn't catch. I was happy, though, my second-favorite character the Librarian got significant time in this book. As well, this book and "Witches Abroad" helped evolve the witch characters, fleshing out their personalities a bit more. I wasn't sold on Granny and the others in "Equal Rites" and "Wyrd Sisters" but I've started to enjoy them with these two books. (Though other than the four YA novels I'm probably not going to read I think they only feature prominently in one more book--unless Wikipedia is lying.) (4 stars)

Overall these were three good books, well worth reading. And so now I press onward!