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, 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.