Wednesday, August 31, 2011

BOOKS: The Spy by Clive Cussler

The book review month ends with what is a bit of a surprise to me, a period piece. I normally like my books to be about the day after tomorrow, or even further into the future. I did my time with noirish books that looked back at earlier last century when I was a young 'un. But Clive Cussler is Clive Cussler and I am nothing, if not a completist when it comes to his work.

I though the initial book in the Isaac Bell series, The Chase, was pretty decent. Cussler loves trains and I learned more about them than I had before (and I had a grandfather who was in the train business). Justin Scott came on (at least getting cover credit) for the second book in the series, The Wrecker (review). It was an improvement. The third book in the series, The Spy, is another step up in entertainment value.

The America-spanning travelogues of the first two books largely disappear here as Cussler concentrates the action on the eastern seaboard. It all takes place in the decade before the first World War and tensions are ratcheted up because everybody knows a conflict to blow all other conflicts up, is in the future. Spies, saboteurs and thieves are seemingly on every corner in New York.

Cussler can paint an historical picture as a backdrop to a thriller as well as any writer in the business, although who knows who's doing the actual wordsmithing these days. Cussler's book factory approach with co-authors leaves some doubt about who does what. Whatever Scott's contributions this time out, it produces a great read. And one that is probably pretty spot on with background minutiae.

A secret project called Hull 44 is at the heart of this story. It's supposed to give an eventual edge to the Americans in any future battle at sea. But spies from Japan, Germany and even Great Britain want the technology. And murdering guards and inventors and technicians don't seem beyond what they will do. Bell and his Van Dorn Detective Agency are called in as protection initially, detectives after the fact of the theft of key technology.

And Bell makes for an appealing hero. Women throw themselves at him with regularity, but he remains true to his sweetheart, Marion Morgan the actress. She gives as good as she gets and the pair have some entertaining patter.  Bell's an action hero as we go along and a little less invulnerable than the typical lead character. He needs help and gets it from his sturdy fellow detectives of the Van Dorn.

From the Brooklyn Shipyards to Hell's Kitchen, Bell tries every trick in the books to reveal the plots and identities of the bad guys. It all culminates in a not-so-leisurely submarine ride up the Manhattan River with things threatening to explode and take the city, so great they named it twice, down.

The action finished, it's time to rest a spell and move ahead to the book's future in one final chapter. As with the other books in this series, it's quite compelling. And a nice capper on the best book of the lot.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

BOOKS: Doppelgangster by Laura Resnick

It's extremely rare for me to start a series somewhere in the middle and then backtrack. I came to Laura Resnick's Esther Diamond series with the third book Unsympathetic Magic (review) and made an effort to go back and read the first two volumes. The series starter Disappearing Nightly was just about as good as Unsympathetic Magic. But the treasure turned out to be the book in the middle, Doppelgangster.

Jewish Esther makes for an appealing heroine, an actress slash waitress who has mother problems, a would-be boyfriend named Lopez and a friendship with a real-life wizard and as a result, too much knowledge of the world of real magic. It's a mix that doesn't always go well for her. But, as Lou Grant would say, she's got spunk.

Coming off having played a part in rescuing New York from a crazy magician's apprentice last book, Esther tries to cope with her part in killing off  Hieronymus. The deed was actually done by Dr. Maximillian Zadok, Manhattan's resident sorcerer and a long-time member of the Magnum Collegium (think Sorceror's Union). By long time, we are  talking centuries. He makes for a strange pairing with the twenty-something Esther. As does detective Connor Lopez, a down to earth sort who doesn't believe in magic. Which complicates things for Esther because she gets mixed up in things magical without even trying.

Like waitressing at a local joint that's mobbed up. She sings songs, waits tables and gets good tips from the connected guys who appreciate a pretty young thing. She's doing the waitressing thing when a hit goes down right in front of her. By a bullet that doesn't exactly follow a straight line. And not too long after the hit, she meets the victim just coming into the restaurant for a bite to eat.

As it turns out, its his doppelganger she meets.

And pretty soon it's open mob war season with bodies dropping, sometimes twice, as bad guys and their doppelgangers meet their demise. Esther and Max are right in the thick of things, trying to prevent all-out war, aided and abetted by the extremely pragmatic Lucky Battistuzzi, that rarity of all rarities, a retired hit man. Lucky seems to accept the magically conflicted situation and is a constant source of one-liners.

The mystery of who's behind things turns out a little surprising, so the book qualifies well in that regard. The laughs come easy and often, despite the mayhem. Esther is a chicklit goddess supreme, wanting things normal, but not getting them. And we get introduced to Nelli the Dog, who plays a big part in the third book, but was missing in the first one. Nelli's Max's familiar.

And you know me, I'm a sucker for a book with a dog.

Laura Resnick writes pager-turners, just like her dad Mike. This one's the best yet.

SPORTS: The Drive For Sixteenth Best

The Toronto Blue Jays are in a race. That race is for the 16th best record in Major League Baseball at season's end. Seventeenth best would be better, but the Jays need to get a little late June Swoon thing going to cement being in the bottom half of the teams when 2011 comes to a close.

As of today, Toronto holds that coveted sixteenth-best slot, but are in a four-way dogfight with Cincinnati, Cleveland and the White Sox. All but Cleveland have 67 wins, Cleveland being one ahead there by only winning 66. But Toronto's also lost 67, which is only matched by the Reds. This backward race goes to the team with the LEAST number of wins when everything is said and done, assuming all four play 162 games. And the tie goes to the team with the worst record from the year before, something Toronto holds over Cincy, and I believe, the ChiSox.

Do I want MY team to lose, and lose a lot, through September? Yep. It's all about the off-season of signing free agents and the 2012 summer draft. And with any luck, the Blue Jays will benefit from some, as yet unrevealed Alex Anthopoulos move that will help cement their hoped-for losing record. Maybe it's shutting down Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow or Brett Cecil. Or all three. Maybe it's losing Casey Janssen's number while kids from the farm get their feet wet at the end of games. Or how about surgery for any of the regulars, who must all be playing with bumps and bruises by this time.

IF the Jays can finish out of the top half of teams, they will get a better draft slot come next summer. That will go along with the #22 pick they 'earned' by not signing Beede two weeks ago. Two first-round picks in the top 22 seems fair recompense for a team chasing down the Yanks and BoSox (let alone the Rays) in the brutal AL East.

It ALSO means, the Jays can go out and sign a Type-A free agent and ONLY have to hand over a second round draft pick in recompense. And a SECOND Type-A gets a third rounder and so on and so on.

Let's say the Jays break the bank and everybody else's heart and woo Albert Pujols, Jon Papelbon and C.C. Sabathia (Yes, I know it won't happen, but it will be illustrative) to Toronto. Say Pujols for $30M per year, Sabathia for $27M and Papelbon for $14. The Jays then package Travis Snider, Adam Lind and a pitcher from down in the boonies to the Dodgers for Andre Ethier and re-sign Kelly Johnson for, say $7M per annum. There, I just doubled the Jays' payroll. And I still have a bullpen to rebuild between the starters and Papelbon. Oh, and we re-sign Johnny McDonald because without signing him, who cares about Pujols, Sabathia and the lot?

What does all that cost Toronto besides Rogers Corp money? A second round draft pick to St. Louis, a third-rounder to the Yankees and a piddling fourth rounder for a probable Type-A FA to Boston. The same Boston who's been letting fading stars go for first round picks and a sandwich pick for the last few years. This just feels sooooo right.

While I fantasize about a line-up that includes Ethier LF, Rasmus CF, Bautista RF, Pujols 1B, Escobar SS, Encarnacion DH, Lawrie 3B, Johnson 2B and Arrencibia C and a starting pitching staff of Sabathia, Romero, Morrow, Cecil and one of the bunnies, I'm not sure AA would go all in with the loot, if it meant giving up that first round draft pick. Why? I think he sees a big splash as being exactly that. It could leave the Jays wet. And without aid coming down the pipeline five years from now. After all, MOST drafts for MOST teams do well to produce two average plus players. If the Jays are to contend, not for a single season, but regularly, that pipeline has to be re-filled every summer. And the best way to fill it is with first-round talent.

Keeping that pick is going to keep AA up at night. He wants it and he wants the free agents that opening the coffers at Rogers HQ will provide him this off-season. The easiest way to get what he wants is to not have much of a September as the season dies down.

Winning by losing. It's the only way.

CORRECTION: The Walk Review update

I misread the note about Lee Goldberg walking the route written about in The Walk after the Northridge earthquake and using that as the basis for the story. In fact, as I have been alerted by Mr. Goldberg, he came up with the idea in the aftermath of the earthquake and later walked the course, so to speak, in parts, to get the details correct. I apologize for the error.

The section mentioning that error has since been corrected in the actual review itself.

Monday, August 29, 2011

BOOKS: I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

One of the issues I had with Siskel and Ebert (and other long-running critics like them) is a critique along the lines of, "Nothing original, I've seen it before, so I'm giving it a thumbs down." Drove me batty for two reasons. First, not everybody has seen the canon of movies either of them had and so are new to the concept/plot/whatever. Secondly, it never answers the question, is it well done?

Which brings me to I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore. The movie version of the book didn't do boffo business last year. But I liked it well enough to go and get the book. And you know, it's VERY familiar and pretty well done. But the target audience, the YA crowd, aren't going to get that re-warmed cliche feeling at all. THEY don't have the backlog of previous books to compare it to. To them, this is probably a five-star book. I mean, compare it to the Twilight books and it looks like this book is top-shelf stuff, only without the vampires and swooning and stuff.

I should also mention that Pittacus Lore is a pen name. And that part of the writing team behind the name is James Frey. Of A Million Little Pieces infamy. He apparently can write fiction. (Oh, that's catty. But true.)

If you didn't catch the movie, here's the gist. A group of alien kids with their bodyguard mentors are hiding out on Earth. The bad guys arrive and, for whatever reason, have to catch and kill the kids in a specific order. As each dies, the rest on the hit list actually feels that death. And they know when his or her turn is coming up. Like the title says, the focus of this book (the first in a series), is kid number four. He's been know by several names over the years as he strives to remain below the radar of the bad guys.

He becomes John Smith, a student at a high school in Paradise, Ohio as the book gets going. He also becomes target number one at about the same time. Normally, that would have him and his keeper/mentor/pseudo father figure Henri on the move again. But this time, John's got motive to stay and fight. Her name is Sarah. And there's a friend who eventually learns all the secrets, but is a true and good friend even before then. John wants to stay and stand his ground.

Which is foolhardy of course. But his kind have powers. Slowly developing powers, but the kind of powers super-heroes are made for. Henri tries to force the development of the powers in time for the inevitable arrival of the bad guys. It's a race. With tragic consequences if John's a slow developer.

Lore develops the tension quite well. The battle with the bad guys predictably turns out mostly well in the end. And introduces the next target (but one). I have every intention of getting The Power of Six.

Because I look good craftsmanship and a page turner. Even if it appears a little familiar. After all, Vin Scully once said, "The reason I try my best on every broadcast is because I know that somewhere out there, this is the first one for somebody. I owe it to them never to just go through the motions."

So thumbs up to this book.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

BOOKS: Hard Rain by Barry Eisler

I realize now, I got my reviews of Jeffery Deaver's Edge backwards with this novel, Barry Eisler's Hard Rain. I read the two books on consecutive nights (one sign of a great book is the 'in one night' reading length), but I read this one first.

And for all intents and purposes, the books are the two opposites of the same coin. Edge was all about a bodyguard intent on protecting the lives of two witnesses. Hard Rain is the second book in the John Rain series. John Rain is an assassin.

It takes skill to make a reader root for a killer. Eisler has done a good job with this series. None of the (so far) six books in the series aren't worth the time reading them. There's a growth in Rain, the character, throughout. But here, in the second book in the series, Rain is still a lone wolf, hurting after the events of the first book, Rain Fall (my review).

The assassination at the heart of the first book was a CIA-sanctioned and approved hit. The half-American, half-Japanese Rain wants out of the CIA business. And maybe out of the whole business, employer be damned. But Tatsu, the smart as a whip, top guy in the Japanese equivalent of the FBI, isn't going to let an asset who owes him, like Rain, go into retirement. By giving Rain some insider knowledge about his own covert activities (the presence of many smart cameras throughout the country), Tatsu inveigles Rain into doing some culling of the local Yakuza.

This eventually brings Rain into direct opposition with Yamaota who is a thug in a suit, a man determined to ride the increasingly ineffective Japanese parliamentary system into control of the country. Even with the help of his friend Harry the hacker, Rain is in tough just to survive while trying to thwart Yamaota. It takes Rain, Harry and Tatsu to their limits, in one case beyond his limit, to achieve something of a stand-off victory at the end.

Hard Rain has everything physical you could want, but it's the cerebral side that really makes this work. Rain's paranoia infests itself in your head after you're finished reading it. Suddenly, you start looking around to see who's looking at you. You take different ways to work (in my case, sometimes I immediately go to my office next to my bedroom, sometimes I detour to the washroom before going there), so as not to establish a pattern. And ... well you get the drift.

Although not the best book in the series (the succeeding Rain Storm is), there's so much atmosphere in the book, so much about the Japan that hides behind the bright lights of Tokyo, so much action, it's not hard to rate this book a five-star one-night read.

BOOKS: Zero Day by Mark Russinovich and Howard Schmidt

This is a book that is as close to being a provisional five-star book as it is a two-star rating. It all boils down to how computer 'in the know' you are. Zero Day is a thriller for nerds and geeks and professionals in the business. And if you count yourself amongst them, then it's worth five stars. If not, well, your results may vary.

I'm not familiar with Howard Schmidt at all. His co-writer Mark Russinovich? Oh yeah. He's in the pantheon of best programmers on the planet right now. Currently he works for Microsoft, but such is his legend, that many MS-haters still love him and his work on a bunch of utilities everybody wishes were built into Windows. He's also the guy that caught Sony with their hands in the cookie jar when he exposed their rootkit shenanigans back in the early part of this century. Again, if you don't, or couldn't, follow what I just said, this book is going to be a bit difficult for you.

Having given you all the warnings I can, now let me continue with the plot.

Jeff Aiken and Daryl Haugen get tasked with stopping a nefarious plot to bring down the cyber infrastructure of the world (not just the States). A series of worms and virii have been let loose that seem to hide under the radar of the security community, even the government's not all in on how all encompassing the threat is. Aiken from the public sector and Haugen from the government side, do realize just how in deep the threat is.

Which leads the bad guys, and we ARE talking about organized bad guys of a particular political bent, to resort to hitmen to eliminate the duo. This is the thriller part the average non-involved computer pro can get with. In fact, the ending is pure Hollywood, Aiken and Haugen confronting the evil masterminds in their lair and emerging alive alone. The bad guys dying even as their schemes explode around them.

The whole book is, in my mind, a successful attempt to combine the cerebral world of computer hacking with the Bondian derring-do of modern day movies. I think Russinovich tries to make the jargon understandable, but I can't really be a judge to his efficacy.

Zero Day is a book that is supposed to entertain and terrify. Russinovich even writes that the bad guys were just unlucky not to have won the day. Cyber-terrorism is already a fact and it's only going to get worse if everybody, including the government, don't treat it more seriously.

You've been warned.

BOOKS: The Walk by Lee Goldberg

As the first non-series novel by Lee Goldberg I have read, I didn't have a feel for the characters in The Walk until ohhh, about a paragraph from the end. That was because, by then, Goldberg had sent his character Marty Slack through a modern-day version of The Perils of Pauline.

Based structurally on an idea fomented by a true-to-life event, the Northridge earthquake, Goldberg's actually made his own walk across Los Angeles after that quake on a fact-finding mission. The Walk is about an even more cataclysmic earthquake hitting while Slack is at an on-location set, 30 miles away from his home in Calabassas. Slack is a TV executive, having joined the 'other side,' after having given up his dream of being a writer. He doesn't like himself all that much. His marriage isn't all that solid. But as a mid-life crisis, a game-changer of an earthquake is a heck of one.

Goldberg gets in enough backstory before setting Slack on his trek to make you wonder how much you're cheering Slack on. And he does this all first-person. No checking up on how things are going with Beth back home. Is she dead or alive? Has she wondered off from the wreck of their home elsewhere. Nope, this is all about Marty getting home, repairing himself physically and mentally (and even spiritually) with every step. And we don't have any idea whether the trek is worth it.

The Walk is, in some ways, a love poem to Los Angeles. It shows us the Los Angeles of the TV world and a lot of the bits and pieces that don't make it to the tiny silver screen. Of course, Goldberg takes quite the delight in wrecking all those bits and pieces. He even gets in more than a few jabs at the business that runs the town. Mostly through Slack's frequent, but not ever-present companion on the trek, Buck Weaver. Weaver is a bounty hunter and he's crude 'n coarse or crazy, you're choice.

Weaver seems like a peculiar choice as a moral compass. He makes Marty a saviour of sorts, and threatens Marty's life on an occasion or two without much cause. He's a walking cliche according to Marty. All testosterone with a black and white view on just about everything. A TV character. Several times, the pair appear to part, only to have Buck re-appear at some important juncture later. That's despite Weaver supposed to be getting home to his beloved dog.

Slack endures a lot in his quest. Things fall on him. Being shot at and shooting at people. Fire a couple of times. Being dropped on an exposed rebar, saved only by previous victims of the impalement cushioning his fall. There's a tsunami from a failed dam. And a tiger. You have to read the book just for the tiger sequence.

And a kid.

Which is important to the childless Slack. Clara's inclusion and the final fate of Buck at the end of the book make for a pretty decent emotional denouement.

I'm a little squeamish about language as raw as Buck's, but I got over it. This isn't a long book, perfect for a one-night read. I've read Goldberg considered writing a sequel to The Walk to describe the events of those fateful days and nights from Beth's end. I have a tough time believing there's enough story to warrant a whole book. But a short story?

Ya, I'd like that. Assuming it would be as good as The Walk.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

BOOKS: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown

Two things about this post's book. First, Mike Brown is right with Neil DeGrasse Tyson for being able to explain science to a guy like me, somebody who likes science but who isn't interested in the minutiae. Secondly, how can you POSSIBLY NOT WANT to read a book called, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

Great title. And as it turns out, great book.

Brown writes well, doing it in a very personal style. That's good because this is as much a biography as it is the story on Pluto's demise from planet to ... well I'm not sure. I think it's changed again, since the book was published. But I'm sure Brown's quest to find the tenth planet out beyond Pluto's orbit resulted in a reduction of planets in our system from nine to eight. Talk about reverse inflation!

Now, there are vocations that I don't get. We all joke about watching paint dry and the sheer boredom of assembly work. I don't want to fish in Arctic waters and I didn't have to watch any TV shows to tell me that. And being an assistant to a conservative politician or a Wall Street financial person seems like a negative when eventually seeing St. Peter's Gate. Some jobs are just meant to be boring, dangerous or just plain contributing to the delinquency of western civilization. Astronomy makes the list, not necessarily for being boring, but as for being so nit-picking, brain-numbing needed and mostly resulting in failure.

We DO need people willing to scan the skies for nasty bits of rock (asteroids of all sizes) and ice (comets) which might be headed our way. Not that we could do much about them right now. But someday we will. And hopefully, that someday is before the next big climate changer of a piece of debris heads our way. So, I'm not dissing Astronomy at all.

But like the weird sports of High Jump and Pole Vault, which both end in failure, Astronomy seems, right now, to be a whole lotta effort for a very rare occasional return. 'Cept if you're Mike Brown. He actually finds things. And it's not like he's looking for things in the near Earth orbit where garbage from previous attempts to escape Earth's gravity abounds. Nope, he takes the long view.

Using sophisticated software he and his teams have written over the years, Brown has found at least three objects that are big enough for names rather than ID numbers. And all three had shots, at one point or another, of giving our sun an even ten-spot of planets, or even 12 planets in all. But rules invalidating all three Big Objects Brown found were in constant formulation.

In each case, the planetoid failed at some level of conventional thinking to get that planet classification. And after Eris (aka Xena) failed, the reasons of failure also had to be applied to Pluto, which in the old days (last century) went occasionally from being ninth to being eighth by passing inside of the orbit of Neptune for a while. And when scientists applied that logic and created three rules for planet-classification, Brown had gone from planet finder to planet killer.

And it could have been worse. The new rules actually put Jupiter's status in jeopardy from a logic level, although nobody wanted to trifle with a seven-planet solar system. At least by definition. It was bad enough that Brown's daughter and a legion of other kids who had grown up in a nine-planet solar system were having to readjust their mnemonics to remember the planetary order.

There's even a caper in this book. Yep, some scientists from Spain, led by Jose Ortiz, got credit for an object Brown and his team had found months earlier. Brown bends over backward to not point the finger at Ortiz for scavenging data reference points Brown had accidentally let slip about a discovery code-named Santa. And while the overwhelming evidence is there to say nasty things about Ortiz et al, Brown tries very hard to take the high road. Me, as a reader who had grown fond of Brown, his family and his team, my reaction is decidedly Ortiz-negative. And I think the astronomy community as a whole shares my contempt for the Spaniards.

It's just more than a couple of hundred pages. Just enough science, all of it explained to me as a complete novice when it comes to this subject. Lots of humour, much of it self-effacing. A biography with a delightful man, an understanding wife and a kid we like a lot. A bit of mystery.

And a great title.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

BOOKS: The Kingdom by Clive Cussler

This is the second of back-to-back reviews of Clive Cussler books today, getting ready for a skip day tomorrow. Read some of the details in the review below on Cussler's The Jungle.

As Yogi Berra was fond of saying, "It's like deja vu all over again." That was the feeling when I loaded up Cussler's The Kingdom mere days after reading The Jungle. The story starts in ancient China ....

That's what threw me. Didn't I just read that prologue in a Cussler book? Heck, it even stars itinerant Italians helping (at swordpoint) a Chinese warlord. This time, building what would be the world's first war-dirigible. Ahhh, that was different. In the other book it was a raygun. On to the rest of the story.

Which stars, this time out, the husband and wife treasure-hunter team of Sam and Remi Fargo. This is their third outing and the best so far. After two slightly above average books, this one is a solid five star book.

Despite Cussler inserting himself again. Sure, it's coached as the helpful stranger who's initials might be CC, but he's in there. Aaaaarrrrrgghhh!!! I know he knows he's ticking off a percentage of his readership. And it's lazy writing to get the heroes into an impossible situation with the deus ex machina of having him pop up to render assistance. But it's brief and you have to stomach that to get to the good stuff.

And the good stuff is an outstanding mystery involving Nepalese locations and history. There's an American blowhard and his murderous family to offer as villains. And some interesting cave-spelunking. The dirigible re-appears at just the right time for a wild ride down a mountain. And as they say in Nepal, they grow mountains big there. This is NOT a tumble down a gently sloping embankment, landing in a grassy meadow.

In a way, that very sequence is why Cussler's books are great and the movies of his books range from horrible to mediocre. You simply can't film what Cussler and co-author Grant Blackwood describe for you in words.

Ahhhh, but what a picture I have in my mind's eye.

Choosing between The Jungle and The Kingdom, I think I prefer The Kingdom, despite the you-know-what. Of course, you don't have to make the choice. Get both and you'll have enough bed-time reading for a week of top-notch thrillers.

BOOKS: The Jungle by Clive Cussler

The first of two review today, both books coming from the best-seller production line overseen by Clive Cussler. I'm out and about tomorrow and experience has taught me I won't feel like doing too much when I get home. Ergo, the two reviews in a day idea.

This first Cussler book follows the now familiar Cussler formula. Start eons in the past and have something of value vanish in the mists of time. Cut to the present, or the close to the present, and have one of Cussler's stable of heroic teams go on an adventure, mostly totally unrelated to the opening prologue's events. The thriller continues until near the end, the two stories coalesce and the sudden appearance of the first story's thing of value saves the day. Along the way, Cussler inserts himself in a way that ALMOST costs him a star by itself. I've raged against the self-indulgent practice for years. Cussler ignores me. (Guess the other several million readers who don't complain sway him).

Down to brass tacks. The Jungle starts in ancient China where Marco Polo is an ambassador to the camp of General Khenbish, a hulking Genghis Khan flunkie. The Mongols use a raygun in their attempts to raze a village. An honest to goodness raygun. Cut to present times.

And the heroes of this particular book are The Company that sails on the Oregon, under the leadership of one-legged Juan Cabrillo, the Chairman. This is my favourite ongoing series and that has more than just having Jack DuBruul as co-author. Despite my railing about the Cussler appearances, he doesn't show up in this book. Or any of the other Oregon Files books, if memory serves me right. So, given Cussler's proven ability to churn out page-turning thrillers and minus my one bete noir, sight unseen, The Jungle's probably a five-star book.

The threads are all there in this one, if you really need details to make up your mind. Somebody's killing people who are too interested in Polo scholarship from his Chinese days. There's also a kidnap victim to retrieve and possibly a new Company man. And a double-crossing would-be victim turns out to be a real bad guy.

Most of the action occurs in southeast Asia, starting in the moutainous regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Cabrillo and company are there to rescue a kidnap victim. Along the way, MacD Lawless steps in to help Cabrillo, Linc and Eddie get away with the former hostage. Impressed with Lawless's timely intervention, the Company extends an invitation to join.

Almost immediately, Cabrillo, MacD and a team head into the jungle on another search and rescue. Which ultimately leads to a prison in Myanmar. By the time some of The Company's good guys help effect an escape from the hellhole that is a Myanmar prison, the sides of the concluding battle have been drawn. There are large stakes involved and the double and triple crosses need to be resolved. The crystals from the ancient raygun are a needed component of a quantum computer, probably the world's most powerful. And the good guys need control of that computer when everything is said and done.

No surprise here, the good guys do win. But, it's a close call and a thrilling ride to get there. The Jungle is highly recommended, with an extra sixth star for not having Cussler IN the book.

Monday, August 22, 2011

BOOKS: This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon WIlliams

If I have some time to while away on gaming while on the computer, it's spent with Bridge or Scrabble. I've gotten through a reasonable number of screens on Angry Birds, but haven't fired it up in awhile (I'm stuck on a screen that requires using the boomerang birds effectively and that's ... well ... not ever going to happen). Occasionally I might play some mahjongg. That's it. No First Person Shooters, no Massive Multi-Player On-line Games, no hack and slash Dungeon Games. No Mario. No whatever's hot in the gaming world.

And yet, I found This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams to be highly entertaining. That's because WJW takes gaming, at least the MMOG type, to another level and than wraps a serial murder mystery around it. And despite my disinterest in the gaming part, I learned enough about what a game might be like in this day-after-tomorrow future to understand the mania. But not be so inundated with gaming minutiae that I had to become a gaming export to enjoy the book. So, DO NOT BE SCARED OFF!

Dagmar Shaw is a writer (a VERY good start) who specializes in taking these games out of the computer and making them very real-worldly. Oh, you still have to use the computer to play, but there's a real world component. Plus, a very deep need for co-operation amongst the players. Clues are spread out, in some cases all over the world, that have to be gathered and added to the information base in the computer part of this game's world to solve puzzles and find the next one. All of this is done, usually, as promotion for something or other. Let's use Lost, the now-finished TV show as an example of something like this. The TV viewers could try to fathom what was going on by JUST watching the TV. Or, like many others, go out onto the internet to get extra clues from the Lost writers who did a lot of puzzle making on the web to give the die-hard fans an enriched experience. Or so they say.

When the book starts, Dagmar is on vacation, heading to Bali through a connecting flight in Jakarta, Indonesia. Unfortunately, her arrival co-incides with an attempt to take down the government and she becomes stuck. And being a tall, blond American woman is not the best of things to be at this specific time.

What follows is what I thought this book was going to be all about. Using her vast web of computer 'friends,' Dagmar is moved about the islands like a chess piece, evading perilous situations behind at each step. For the part of the book that deals with all of this, the book's great. Dagmar does finally escape and gets back safely to the shores of North America.

At that point, waaaay more than half the book is left! Okay, bring it on WJW.

Now, the book quickly becomes a murder mystery. Dagmar's company, Great Big Idea, is coming apart at the seams. Her friend Austin gets murdered. And, despite some misgivings, his murder is rolled into the current game she's creating (with the help of others, of course). In fact, the reason she acquiesces is that she thinks the same player group that got her out of Indonesia might collectively be better at solving the murder than the local constabulary.

There are more murders before the bad person is caught. And it turns out that Dagmar comes closer to death at home than she did back in Indonesia. But she survives, which is a good thing. There's a sequel out and it's high on my reading list.

Again, I caution you, the reader, to not give in to a non-playing bias against games played on the computer. It's part of this book, but it ISN'T the book. You will have your time rewarded if you do.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

BOOKS: Edge by Jeffery Deaver

It's been almost two whole weeks since I reviewed a Jeffery Deaver book. Time for another one, one that doesn't star Lincoln Rhyme, or even Kathryn Dance for that matter. In what I hope will be the start of the new series, Deaver has hit a home run with Edge.

Corte, one name, Corte. Oh, there are a couple of initials somewhere in some Justice Department database. Corte to his friends, Agent Corte to the people he protects or to the perps trying to kill or capture those same 'primaries.' Corte is the best bodyguard in the Department and as compelling a character in that field as Greg Rucka's Atticus Kodiak (who's no longer a bodyguard in that series). And that's pretty high praise.

The book starts with Corte as a by-stander. His mentor is escorting a witness knowing a 'lifter' is going to make an attempt at a snatch. His mentor, the best that was, thinks he's got the lifter boxed and harmless. And he's wrong. Henry Loving isn't even really after the witness. As it turns out. And suddenly, Corte doesn't have a mentor any more.

That's all in the pre-amble and a battle between Corte and the presumed dead Loving starts immediately in the first chapter. It's a game of wiles that swerves and switches back on itself time and time again. Loving is ruthless, a hitman with a desire to talk to his victims first. There's no bodyguard trick he doesn't seem to know. Only the fact that Corte had a great mentor and six more years to perfect his craft off-sets Loving's continued attempts to get to his charges, former hero cop Ryan Kessler and his wife Joanne. And no, this Kessler isn't at like a certain Vancouver Canuck.

Kessler was pretty badly wounded in a Deli shootout where he did manage to shoot the bad guy. His wife was at the scene too, as a hostage/witness. They kept in touch and when Kessler's first wife died of cancer, Joanne became his wife. That despite the fact that the intervening years saw the middle-aged Kessler start to lose his battle with booze. Still on the force, but now investigating financial crimes, Kessler happened upon something that prompted somebody, apparently, to put out a pick-up slip on him. So said the electronic chatter.

What results is this duel between Loving and Corte. Through a half-dozen close calls, Corte stays ahead of Loving. And Loving evades a trap or two along the way. We learn how Loving escaped the death trap that was presumed to have left him in the land of the unliving. And we get to know Corte, the loner who fights off attraction as if it would result in a painful death for the would-be loved one. He lives alone and likes playing board games. He's determined and unwilling to fight the political opponents his lone wolf approach creates for him. But he does fight dirty when necessary.

There's a conclusion to the battle, of course. The good guy, Corte, does win at the finish line. The stakes change rather dramatically before that. But it wraps up beautifully a few pages/clicks from the end. And then Deaver pulls off a one-time only, secondary conclusion that leaves you shaking your head in wonderment. It's a game-changer in that no sequels could follow the same template as the first book. Is that good or bad? Won't know 'til we see a sequel.

But I can tell you one thing. I'm sure hoping there is one.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

BOOKS: Goblin Hero by Jim C. Hines

Back for another dose of Jim C. Hines and for a second dose of his highly enjoyable fantasy series featuring Jig the Goblin. Goblin Hero has some goblin-sized warts being the second of a trilogy, but Jig's so .... I'd say adorable, but that's what the runt-size, near-sighted goblin hero happens to be.

He's also my kind of guy/goblin. He's a coward. A highly-functioning, incredibly successful coward. But a goblin after my own heart.

Having earned his Dragonslayer name at the end of the first book in the series, Goblin Quest (review), Jig should be living the life of a goblin Riley. He's not. He's using his Shadowstar-granted power gained in that quest to be a healer. And goblins are stupid, which leads to lots of need for healing. One of the brighter goblins, Veka, has decided to attach herself to Jig because, as Josca says in the seminal The Path of the Hero (Wizard’s ed.) 'every hero needs a mentor.' Or hopeful heroine/wizard in Veka's case.

But the real problem is something is killing the hobgoblins and ogres in the Mountain. And that means Jig is dispatched to find and kill the bad guys. Veka goes along, as does big Braf, the muscle of the team and slightly brighter than a rock. Although, it does end up that Braf shows he's a lot deeper than that. He comes through when needed when Jig's A-Team finally does find the bad guys.


Yep, we're talking Pixies here. Tinker Belle with 'tudes. And magic. And a hankering to take over this world, coming from their oh-so-cold home dimension.

It's a pretty hairy time for Jig and his pet firespider Smudge. Veka starts to develop magic powers, sort of her own, but not really. And, like most goblins, any power is too much to handle mentally. She becomes a loose cannon that fires at both friend and foe. Braf does his almost heroic goblin thing. And all the while, Jig is just trying to survive.

But there does come a moment when the goblin makes the conscious decision to actually put himself at risk and do the right thing for the greater good for all. And that's what makes this book worth a five-star rating, warts and all.

Friday, August 19, 2011

BOOKS: Beyond The Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell

How can you give a five-star rating to a book that doesn't really end? Well, that's the rating I've given the latest entry in the long-running military science fiction series by Jack Campbell. Technically titled The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Dreadnaught, this seventh book overall is the first book in the BTF sub-series. Boy, that's a mouthful.

All the elements that made the Lost Fleet books regular entrants on the New York Times bestseller list are here. Black Jack Geary is now the most honoured man and the most feared man in the Alliance (by the politicians). He led the Lost Fleet home through Syndic space against all odds, and then returned to vanquish the Syndics, ostensibly bringing peace to the universe for the first time in millennia.

But nobody hates a conquering hero more than the politicians who fear now for their own power. A tense meeting is held on Ambaru Station with just about any outcome possible. Will the Alliance leaders attempt to arrest Geary for imagined crimes in the future. Will his fleet even allow the politico's that option? He's never given them direct proof he wants to become a later-day Caesar. But so fundamentally incompetent are they, that maybe Geary HAS to take control.

When things are said and done, Geary has shown the man he is by agreeing to be exiled. And he's taking a good chunk of the fleet with him, under their new First Fleet colours. Geary proves once again, although a political rookie, he knows what is 'right' and what is wrong. So he undertakes what most think is a suicide mission. But he thinks is a necessity.

Back to Syndic space go Geary and his wife Tanya Desjani, the captain of the Dauntless, and his not so rag-tag fleet. Unfortunately, Geary discovers early that it's more rag-tag than it should be and much of this book is coping with rag-tag equipment. Then, it's the rag-tag survivors of the internecine war among the Syndics for power in the vacuum created by Geary's defeat of the previous long-running leadership. And there's also the issue of dealing with his grand-niece Captain Jane Geary, who's just a tad head-strong.

Finally, Geary gets the fleet to their actual goal. Alien space on the backside of Syndic controlled-space. The fight was being taken to the aliens who had fomented the Alliance-Syndic war in the first place. And when this book stops ... it doesn't end ... we are largely in the same place we were when The Lost Fleet: Fearless kicked off the series long ago: Geary and his fleet are a long, long way from home, looking at incredible odds to survive, let alone thrive and Geary being resolute they will do just that.

If Campbell wants to stretch this out for another five books, I'm fine with that.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

BOOKS: Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz

I reviewed the first of the Spellman books three years ago and gave it four out of five stars in my calibre database. I'm happy to report that that's the last Spellman book with such a low rating. The second book in the series by Lisa Lutz, Curse of the Spellmans, ups the ante to a five-star rating as you see the maturation of the author.

Curse still has the artsy-fartsy layout, a mish-mash of reports, notes, footnotes and a lot of prose. But it all works because of familiarity with the form. And with Lutz's habit of starting somewhere around the middle, then jumping back to the beginning of the mystery.

The mystery this time out is John Brown, a new neighbour and somebody who should be beyond investigation by just about anybody. Unfortunately, HIS new next door neighbours are the Spellmans, a family of detectives who live together and bedevil each other with such extreme invasions of privacy that you honestly can't think of a limit they haven't crossed. Multiple times.

Isabel 'Izzy' Spellman, the 30-year old wild child is the most fascinated by Brown, who's normalcy seems too good to be true. So she picks and picks away at the landscaper, sure she's putting the clamps on a serial killer of women. No proof, just her instincts. Little sis Rae seems more interested in cultivating her weird friendship with cop Henry Stone, who's more the father she apparently doesn't have then her real one. In fact, both Mom and Dad Spellman are off on vacation through much of the book (called disappearance in Spellman speak). And the good kid, David, continues his descent into normalcy, coming off the pedestal everybody in the family has him hoisted upon.

Now, that would be a lot if that was all the mystery that there was in this book. There's more, much more. Plus, Lutz does two things that make these Spellman books treasures. First, they are funny. Laugh out loud funny. And, the dialog between the siblings rings as true as any writer I've read in a long time. Sure, some of the elements are just plain crazy, like the Rae-Henry friendship. But crazy or not, it's still funny.

IF I had a negative about the book, it is that I don't think it's best read on a Kindle. At least the Kindle3. If you aren't prepared for the formatted layout and footnotes, then it would probably be a chore to read this book. An iPad, a KindleDX or somesuch larger reading environment? Sure. But the best way is probably the hardcover. I haven't seen the paperback version, so I can't comment, but I'd find it hard to believe that Simon and Schuster wouldn't get around the footnote issue there.

Whatever the format, get yourself a copy of The Spellman Files and then continue on with Curse of the Spellmans. And here's a hint, I think Revenge of the Spellmans and The Spellmans Strike Again are better still. They're like certain kinds of potato chips. You just can't have just one.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

BOOKS: Kingpin by Kevin Poulsen

Like many a computer book these days, I first caught wind of the story behind Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground in Wired. Kevin Poulsen, the author of the book, is a senior editor at

Even in its short form, the story was fascinating. A lot of that has to do with Poulsen's background. He was a hacker. He understood the people and motivations and it's a feature of his talent that he then made the reader understand the story too. But I was a little bit leery that he could expand the story twenty-fold and keep my interest.

He succeeded.

Kingpin, the book, succeeds because it casts light where light doesn't shine all that often. And I include MOST of the law enforcement agencies who continue to create inter-agency blind spots that occasionally get filled by enterprising hacker-folk. Throughout the whole book, you will be amazed at just how often these criminals are either on somebody's fink list, used to be on one, or are being outright paid to snitch. A quick guess? Maybe 90 percent. And it's only dumb luck keeping the other ten percent from getting nicked.

And all the while, credit card and identity theft runs unabated, racking up BILLIONS of dollars of misery from you and me. Harrumph!

Max Vision, once Max Butler, and the owner of a half-dozen of the most infamous hacker handles on the 'net, is the kingpin of title fame. Max actually seems like a good guy who tried to do right (he wanted to help the feds and was on their payroll ... more than once). He wrote anti-hacking tools to help out. He ran a security service. He WAS a good guy. Who landed in prison and found himself hard to employ.

Now, Max was a bit hard to handle at times. Exuberance and sulkiness can lead to problems. But a LOT of people let Max down and helped create the kingpin he later became. That's not to absolve Max. He's a crook and knew what he was doing was crooked ... and brilliant.

He basically hijacked the whole criminal underground's 'market' for credit cards in one brilliant burst of programming. He literally flipped the switch one day and took control of most, if not all, of the world flea market for stolen card numbers and PINs. And he probably ran it longer than most anybody had, up to that time.

Eventually, one of the few smart feds, J. Keith Mularski, from, of all places, Pittsburgh, finally runs down West Coast-based Max and puts an end to his audacious enterprise.

When it's all said and done, the reader isn't left with a lot of wonder why hackers seem to be running rampant with only the odd Anonymous takedown for publicity reasons. And the reader has every reason to believe that those hackers and others like Max, will be out on the street, rather frequently in the employ of the government, running loose with very little actual supervision. It's quite frightening.

But worth the read.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

BOOKS: Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

I'm a full series behind in reviewing Robert J. Sawyer's work, but time has not diminished my respect and admiration for the whole Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, especially the opening volume, Hominids.

The Parallax part of the trilogy name comes from a parallel world. The Neanderthal, from the fact that 'over there,' in the battle for survival,  Neanderthals won out over Homo Sapiens Sapiens (that's you and me). And what an interesting society evolved. This book, and the whole series, explores the differences between their culture and ours. And let's face facts, H. Sapiens doesn't come off looking all that great.

But, at least we DID develop detectives. And that's important because Sawyer weaves a locked-room murder in and around the social commentary. If you've read Isaac Asimov's classic The Caves of Steel, you will feel right at home with this book. There's the same confounding murder and the same societal abhorrence to this kind of thing. It's unimaginable. In Asimov's book, the problem was people didn't co-mingle, doing all of their working and playing in the comforts of their nigh impregnable homes. In Hominids, the anti-criminal spark is the fact that everybody's life is recorded. 24/7/365. Every second of it.

Except the off-recording 'murder' that kicks off the book and the series.

Addikor Huld is a nice guy for a Neanderthal. He's a loving co-parent to a couple of kids he sees every now and then. Unfortunately, for the time being, he can't produce their father, Ponter Boddit. The reason is that Ponter's over in our universe creating all kinds of scientific curiosity. But that's the secret to the locked room Boddit entered and left by the most amazing scientific discovery of both our world and his. But not being able to figure this out, Boddit's various relatives are sure the unthinkable has happened. Huld has killed Boddit.

So, the book continues along two tracks (as does the series). The disappearance masked as a murder envelops the Neanderthal society in controversy. We get a bird's-eye view of how the well-balanced society starts to develop cracks. And over here, we get a treatise on how we treat newcomers ... especially if they are from a different dimension and are as intelligent, if not more, than we are. Sawyer even throws in a little developing romance between Boddit and Canadian scientist Mary Vaughn. A very s-l-o-w-l-y developing romance.

Canadian Sawyer has always been an idea guy. He's good at developing non-human intelligences in a way that we can identify, while remembering those characters aren't actually human. Or what we call human these days.

The Neanderthal Parallax is out in paperback or available at eStores all over the internet. There are better ways to spend a weekend while evading the heat this summer. But not many.

Monday, August 15, 2011

BOOKS: Vampire High by Doug Rees

There are two sub-genres of fantasy that are always a tight-rope act as far as I'm concerned: magic and vampires. The problem is, it's always too easy to 'invent' new rules on the spot to get your hero/heroine out of whatever inescapable spot you've written them into. Rules are important and too few authors don't spend the effort to explain their rules early on and then keep to them during the rest of the story.

In the never-ending quest to find YA stories for Angela, I gave Doug Rees' Vampire High a try and it turns out I enjoyed it immensely. I hope Angela will whenever she gets around to giving it a try.

Cody Elliott is a screw-up. He gets F's for failure to be interested. Not because he's at the wrong end of the grading curve. He flaunts his F's to his well-meaning parents once too often and they resolve the situation by getting him out of his cushy school and into THAT OTHER SCHOOL. Vlad Dracul Magnet School, nicknamed Our Lady Of Perpetual Homework.

You'd think a reputation for housing actual vampires might be the cause of contemptuous nicknames around town, but no, it's the strict academic standards and unfailing work ethic demanded. So, why does this school accept Cody, when, by all measurements known to school administrator kind, he's the last guy the school should ever want? And in mid-year?

Water polo. The school's short a player and Cody fits the bill. He gets in. And, in a perverse sort of way, he actually starts to like it there. Even the water polo thing, despite a bunch of teammates that make calling HIM a layabout, a laugh.

There's a girl of course. What YA novel doesn't have a girl and a guy? And there are the vampiric types all about. They don't actually carouse in the daylight, but the rules about what and what can't be done are pretty well laid out. Most of them don't like Cody. He's not seen as a fit consort for the girl, who disagrees naturally.

When it's all done, in much fewer than 200 pages I might add, Cody has himself a honest to goodness interest in school, some success in the water, and has brought the non-vamps and the vampires together like never before.

All by following the rules.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

BOOKS: Dog On It by Spencer Quinn

I hate cats. Yet, I read mysteries involving cats and enjoy them for the most part (Carole Nelson Douglas and Lillian Jackson Braun produce good mysteries that employ felines). I have pined for a long time for authors to get with it, and produce the like for man's best friend, dogs.
Thank you Spencer Quinn. You've produced the doggie equivalent of Douglas's Midnight Louie series. Dog On It is the first of the Chet and Bernie books. And I loved every doggone page of it.
Like the Midnight Louie books, this book is largely told from the viewpoint of the animal, Chet in this case. Chet's just your typical mutt--friendly, adoring, ever-interested in food, gifted with an ability to forget just about anything in seconds and willing to put the bite on bad-doers at the say-so of his partner, down-in-his-luck P.I. Bernie. He'll freely admit that Bernie's the brains of the outfit, but deep down he knows Bernie couldn't get by without his treat-loving, dropped food-chomping partner.
Food takes up a lot of Chet's thoughts. And his memories. Outside of Bernie and his son, and next door neighbour Iggy, if Bernie remembers anything, it's food-related. And since this book is narrated from Chet's point of view, let's just say food gets lot of focus. Or at least what passes for food in Chet's hardly picky world.
Bernie's a little bit lonely and mostly down in the dumps. He's divorced and doesn't see his son Charlie nearly enough for his liking. He's so mopey, he doesn't even see a good thing when she comes around. Glad to see Suzie Sanchez rectified that in a later book.
Bernie thinks of Chet as a partner. In fact, he frequently forgets his partner is a dog. He goes in places and Chet follows him in. If anybody questions why they should be letting the K9-unit drop out into their place, Bernie always points out he's already in. Bernie doesn't sweat the small stuff much.
Since this IS a mystery, there's a few to occupy Bernie's mind, and thereby Chet's.  He almost needs mysteries and a little work to get him up sometime in the morning.
A missing persons case eventually turns into a Chet-missing case too. Chet basically has to rescue himself and re-unite with Bernie to make things all right in the end. And, while I paint a picture of a hunger-addled mind at work when Chet thinks, he has his moments too. There's a scene about a drunken Bernie teaching Chet what to do if ever encountering a mountain lion. "Stay Chet stay." Which led to my favourite line from the book when just an encounter occurred. "I trusted Bernie, believed every single thing he’d ever told me. I turned and ran."
Tail-thumping is good in Chet's world. This one rates about five thumps.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

BOOKS: Starship: Mutiny by Mike Resnick

I looked for Mike Resnick's Starship: Mutiny in paperback or ebook form for a long time. Patrick had gotten audio versions of this book and the next two books in the series and pronounced them as good as Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet books. Which is pretty fine praise.
And Patrick was right.
The stories are not too dissimilar between The Lost Fleet and the Starship series. An interstellar war going nowhere/badly. Out of nowhere, a captain arises to lead one ship and then many. All along, both sides of the war have cause to fear this new leader. And in the end, after battles aplenty and losses along the way, our hero achieves victory.
Okay, the stories are in the same ballpark, but it's all about style. And Resnick certainly has his own twists on the story outlined above.
Wilson Cole's the hero in question and he isn't much of a hero when Mutiny all begins. He's a screw-up (Compare with Black Jack Geary, who's treated as god-sent in The Lost Fleet). Cole's been banished to the Theodore Roosevelt because the administration can't find someplace closer to nowhere to send him. He is a screw-up who fails upwardly, making jackasses out of his superiors along the way. And he does it again with the TeddyR and that is the last straw. He's brought back to the home world to stand trial for his (successful) mutiny.
The fix is in and his shipmates aboard the TeddyR decide their lot in life would be better and more fulfilled with Cole running the show rather than any of the other failures that had preceded him at the helm of the old and failing starship. So, they break him out, averting an impending death sentence. 
The TeddyR crew still feels impelled to fight for the Republic. At least through to the finish of this first book. And that's where more similarities occur with The Lost Fleet books. The space battles are reasonable and nothing like what you see on TV or in the movies. And the slower pace, combined with intense, frantic action for seconds at a time, make for gripping reading.
I searched and found this treasure. And despite the my embargo on reading more than three consecutive books in a series, I broke the rule and read all five over a four-day period. Guess that qualifies as a five-star review in deed (and in thought).

BOOKS: The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines

I like Jim C. Hines' work. I raved about his first book in the Jig The Goblin series last July and there's another favourable review of the second book of that series coming up later this month. And here is the other series-starter he's famous for, The Stepsister Scheme. It's the lead-off to the so-called Princess novels. (The fourth and concluding book in that series was published not long ago).
But, if you are going to start that series, do yourself a favour and get the opening book, the best of the lot. It's a riff on what has become a popular theme of late--take the fairy tales of our youth and give them a slightly more updated and mature point of view. DC Comics has been doing it with their Fables comic books for years and Marvel Comics is going to get into the act later this year. AND you'll be seeing maturated fables on TV all over the fall schedule. And yet, I think The Stepsister Scheme might be the best of the lot.
Quick back of the napkin story pitch. Charlie's Angels in fairy tale times with Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Snow White serving as the Angels.
And it works just fine. Hines takes the basic fairy tale stories of each and works them out to their logical conclusions. Not all that work is fit for young 'uns. The fairy tales often put a nice gloss on an awful story. We all want, as youngsters, to believe in the very best. Hines decides we're all adult enough to know the truth now in this PG-rated story.
Talia, aka Sleeping Beauty, probably has it the roughest getting to where we are in this first story. She's the tomboy warrior here and a good match in any fight our merry little band of women will come up against. Think Kate Jackson.
Snow White's the Farrah Fawcett character, full of sometimes juvenile impulses and lots of magic. Beneath the blondness and mirrors of magic, there is resolve and a kind of survivor instinct.
Lastly, we have Danielle, the one-time Cinderella and now the wife of Prince Charming and soon to be mother of a young son. All of who are doted upon by good Queen Beatrice, the Charlie of our ladies. And obviously, this is the Jaclyn Smith part. (Somehow, I'd have Helen Mirren playing Beatrice).
So, that's the cast that ends up running into a battle with Danielle's stepsisters, the former harridans of Cinderella fame. They (Stacia and Charlotte) magically enchant the good Prince Charming (Armand) and make off with him to a place of dread for the rest of the enchanted world, Fairytown. Forced to leave behind most of their magical powers, the threesome takes on the stepsisters and various denizens of Fairytown and restores Armand to his rightful place and rightful mind. And not everybody lives happily ever after.
It's all PG-rated. In this case, PG stands for Pretty Good, too.

BOOKS: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I'm late, I'm late, off with my head. Would four reviews, however small do as a replacement penalty? Thank you for your leniency.
I gobble up just about anything Malcolm Gladwell writes these days. I steer away from any analysis involving racial differences for reasons I've stated before. But anything else, my response is, "Please more, sir." And that love affair began with his most successful book to date, Outliers.
Early in this book about exceptionalism, Gladwell discusses the situation in hockey. The best players on any team are very likely all to be born early in any given year. That is because the age cut-off for any particular age group is January 1. So a kid born Jan. 2nd will be playing against December-born players (of the same year). And an almost 12-month age gap between one player and the next can be a LOT of growth. Ergo, it's mini-men versus boys in a lot of cases. A decent observation for a New York based, Vanity Fair writer don't you think? I'll let you in a little secret. Gladwell was born in Brantford, Ontario and was a contemporary of one Wayne Gretzky.
From that observation, Gladwell went on to try and figure out what circumstances created exceptional talents in hockey and in other activities. After much interviewing, he came up with the "10,000 Hour Rule." Talent gets you only so far. But if you are very talented AND willing to put in ten thousand hours of practice/training, then you can be exceptional.
Ten thousand hours is a lot. It's roughly 3.5 hours of practice. Every day. For ten years. EVERY DAY for TEN YEARS.
Gladwell details several examples, Bill Joy and Bill Gates from the computer world, the Beatles and, to a briefer degree, Bobby Fischer (who did his 10K in only nine years). But after establishing hard work needs to be combined with talent, Gladwell almost immediately segues into another factor. He shows how luck, sometimes as a blind result of genetics, sometimes as social circumstances and sometimes as a result of external one-in-a-million circumstances, is needed as well.
And he mentions how so many of the geniuses we know now, all have benefited from being born during a narrow date range in the 20th century. Had Gates come along a mere 20 years earlier, how would his acknowledged expertise in personal computers have manifested itself in a world where computers were mostly room-sized and run by the military? That sort of thing.
It's most of the stories about Jewish lawyers in New York and an intensely personal story about an ambitious family in the West Indies that turn this whole examination into something more than a dry re-telling of statistics. After you're done, you appreciate that golden spoons or great genetics aren't enough. Only a combination of both inheritance, hard work and a good dose of good luck will let anyone rise above the rest.
One interesting omission in the book, especially when detailing the ten thousand hour rule: yep, Wayne Gretzky. And having watched him growing up, I can tell you, he was part of the club.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

BOOKS: The Burning Wire by Jeffery Deaver

It is said that hero is often measured by his enemies. Lincoln Rhyme has been dueling with the Watchmaker from his bedside for a few years now. And readers are very much the better off for the battles between the two. They certainly create the very best of the Rhyme books by Jeffery Deaver.

So, it's not surprising that the latest Rhyme-Watchmaker battle, The Burning Wire, is good. Good enough to be the best Rhyme book, even better than the much-lauded first book, The Bone Collector, that started this series nine volumes ago.

We read two different storylines, the one involving the Watchmaker in Mexico, and the other involving a homicidal psychopath who's using electricity and an intimate knowledge of the electrical under-system to kill and sow terror throughout the streets of Rhyme's home base, New York. Super sleuth Rhyme, torn between continuing to follow the pursuit of the Watchmaker and resolving a terror spree in New York, gradually allows his focus to come home. He (being a quadraplegic) sends out Amelia Sachs and Ron Pulaski to gather evidence. And, in doing so, he places their lives in danger. Again.

In addition, long time stalwart Fred Dellray is also out and about, in disguise, trying to hunt down the nut that's behind all this.

Oddly enough, having everybody elsewhere, rather than at Rhyme's house surrounding the bed-ridden detective works well. There are moments here and there where Amelia gets in a few hand-squeezes, but we are long-past the suicidal tendencies and occasional rages of earlier books, even past the awkward time where Lincoln and Amelia were finally coming to grips with their affection and attraction to each other.

So, it's a rather solid piece of detection that leads the team from suspect to suspect, including power company executives and the usual folks who hate Big Electric. Deaver does a good job of discussing both sides. But eventually he gets around to figuring out who's who. And yes, not everybody is who they seem to be.

And gets back to the Watchmaker in time for a confrontation that thrills at the end. And like Moriarty to Holmes, the Watchmaker finds failure in his last-ditch attempt to kill off his one equal. Or is it superior?

It was once asked of a super-villain why he kept trying to take over the world when he would be beaten by Superman or some such hero each time. His answer? "You only have to win once." The corollary? If Lincoln Rhyme was asked about all of his defeats by the Watchmaker prior to The Burning Wire, he would have said, "I only have to win once."

Ah, but the joy for the reader is getting to that 'once.'

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

BOOKS: Heist Society by Ally Carter

If you've read my TV rankings you know I love the caper shows, the ones built around heists. I can tell you the moment I fell in love with heists up on the screen: watching really young Shirley Maclaine and equally young Michael Caine in Gambit, a 1966 heist movie that featured a perfect caper. Well, almost the perfect caper. And, almost a perfect movie. Not the best of the genre, but one I fondly remember. I might have been around that age where having a young Shirley Maclaine in a movie was good enough. This is all background of course, to explain away a five-star rating for a Young Adult novel that doesn't involve magic or science fiction.

Ally Carter has the high school, well the high school for exceptional children, beat down pat with her Gallagher Girls series and this book, Heist Society. Think Gossip Girl--the high school years, mixed with The A-Team and Hustle. I think I have that right ... teenagers at private schools run amuck, with capers more convoluted than anything Hollywood's yet dreamed of, and the main characters are all part of an extended family that steals for kicks, money and a little justice. Oh, and the main viewpoint character is a charming elfin girl named Katerina Bishop, Kat to all of her friends.

Kat wants out of the family biz and is taking a sabbatical away from crime at a real school when fate returns her to her Uncle Eddie, the leader of this family of grifters. Seems Kat's dad is in a bit of a pickle. A not-nice guy has been relieved of some of his ill-gotten loot and figgers Kat's dad did the deed. Kat answers the call to pull off a real heist (or two) and get her dad off the hook.

She assembles a team of other near adults: W.W. Hale to create a little boy-girl tension and her cousin Gabrielle, who drips sex and serves as a contrast to the diminutive Kat. And Gabrielle drips sex, giving the bad to cat burglar in a really-PG kind of way. It's all more wholesome than it sounds, but Hollywood will inevitably tart it up. Hey, it worked for Gossip Girl. For comedic relief, the Bagshaw twins, Hamish and Angus. Think over-exuberant giant teenagers.

Although Kat's cased The Louvre in the past, the target this time is the lesser-known, yet equally tough to crack Henley Museum. (It's fictional, although there IS a Henley-On-Thames Museum, devoted to the history of rowing) Maybe the Henley is tougher, since it's intimated that The Louvre security isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Needless to say, Kat wins the day, with the help of yet another boy, driving up the sizzle factor in the Kat-Hale partnership. And it's all first rate and quite interesting as a primer in the art of the theft, as part of the greater whole of grifter life.

This isn't the longest read on record, a pleasant evening's diversion. But it leaves one looking forward to the second in the series, Uncommon Criminals. And trust me, the sequel does, in fact, stand up to this first volume.

Monday, August 08, 2011

BOOKS: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

There's been a long and rich history of covering songs in the music industry. Maybe the most successful was Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" which covered a country ballad version originally by Dolly Parton. But there are a host of others, including covers by the original singer themselves. I think Neil Sedaka spent most of the seventies doing upbeat versions of his earlier songs, to great effect and monetary success.

The movie industry has also long been a source of covers, including a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho. Mostly it's remakes of foreign films, but we get lots and lots of updated versions of old 'classics' as nothing succeeds in Hollywood like prior success. Or so they wish.

In books, straight out and out covers are pretty rare. After all, it's hard to change the beat, as in music. In the movie world, covers usually offer better video and audio (and colour, in some cases), as well as more spectacular stunts and CGI. In other words, reasons to treat newer as better when it's really, at the core, the same. You just can't do that in books. Words seem so eternal.

Now, I caution you to make the distinction between updating and just merely borrowing the basic plot and characters of say, Shakespeare, and doing an actual cover. There are, only seven stories after all. So, duplication is inevitable. And style is virtually everything.

So, why am I talking about the very rare art of the cover in books? Little Fuzzy, originally by H. Beam Piper, and of late, by John Scalzi, under the title Fuzzy Nation.

I believe I have almost the complete Piper canon. I'm missing his debut novel Uller Uprising, but I have, amongst others, Space Vikings, Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen, The Cosmic Computer and, of course, the Fuzzy books. Loved most of them, enjoyed them all. Like many, I was a little peeved that Scalzi would stomp on our memories of Piper, who died young and troubled and too early in what was a good career writing science fiction and could have been a great one.

So what's Scalzi's version doing here in what is a month of five-star reviews? He earned it by slapping a 21st century varnish on Piper's first Fuzzy book and making it an entertaining read, whether you've read the original or not. In doing so, Scalzi had the full co-operation of the Piper family estate. 

Scalzi refers to this book as a rebooting of the franchise, noting J.J. Abrams' recent movie reboot of the Star Trek franchise with the original characters. It's actually a pretty good analogy and might have, indeed, birthed the idea of doing a Little Fuzzy reboot.

What emerges is a harder edged version of the story. The spread of humanity through the cosmos has taken along the rapacious mining ideology with it. New planets are fit for plunder as long as no intelligent life is found anywhere on the world. A planet like Zarathustra.

A maverick amongst the visitors from the home world discovers that a race of previously thought of as unintelligent Ewok-like beings might be intelligent after all. He comes to like and respect the Fuzzies and attempts to get them declared intelligent in court. Intelligent like you or me, not intelligent as in cats, rocks and politicians. Naturally, the Big Bad Company doesn't want the ruling to go in the favour of the Fuzzies, which would cost them bazillions. So, nastiness ensues. In the end, things work out they way the reader wants them to. All in all, an entertaining one-sitting read.

And that goes for the original too.

I didn't want to like the Scalzi novel. As a Piper fan, I was reading it to critique it. I had enjoyed Scalzi's work before, chiefly in Agent to the Stars. But I wanted to savage this ... exploitation of a valued good memory. Instead, I read a book that was deferential to the source material and an improvement in some ways.

In other words, a valid reason to while away an evening. Five stars.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

BOOKS: Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich

I'm stuck on the horns of dilemma. I promised a review of the latest Stephanie Plum book by Janet Evanovich, Smokin' Seventeen. And I said I'd be trotting out five-star reviews this month. And Smokin' Seventeen is not a five-star book. Closer to three than five, in fact. What to do, what to do? Well, since I've reviewed the last three books in the series in a timely fashion, I guess I have to keep up that tradition.

So, why is Smokin' Seventeen a downturn from last year's five-star Sizzling Sixteen? Well, there's the obvious who dunnit. At least to me. And the fact that no real progress is made in the eternal Plum triangle with Joe and Ranger. In fact, the whole book revolves around the Plum ladies (Mom and Grandma Mazur) doing their level best to fix our erstwhile bounty hunter up with the anti-Joe/Ranger. The recently divorced Dave Brewer.

Dave Brewer was the big man on campus during their high school years. He's basically flamed out in adult life, getting caught up in some illegal shenanigans that cost him his wife, house, job and employment opportunities down in Atlanta. He's moved back in with his mother and is into real estate and trying to escape his current living arrangements. Dave seems friendly enough, but he has a skill that the Plum ladies, except Stephanie, swoon over. He's a great cook. And he's fond of invading people's homes and cooking for them. Unasked. A trait Stephanie finds off-putting. That and the time he tried to join her unasked in the shower.

Yep, Stephanie is pretty sure she doesn't want Dave to join her little band of potential husbands. At the same time, she's having difficulties stemming from Joe Morelli's grandmother having given her the eye. In this case, the troubles the little old lady in black has sent her way involves heat. From the general area of loins. About the only guys Stephanie isn't lusting over is Dave. And it doesn't help that cousin Vinnie has been slapping 'graphically enhanced' pictures of Steph and Lula on buses all around town.

Forced into a trailer temporarily while the recently demolished Bails Bond office is being rebuilt, Vinnie starts an advertising campaign built around the somewhat idealized pictures of Stephanie as a buxom bounty hunter. "If You’re Bad We’ll Send our Girls out to Get You." Needless to say, this leads to a lot more business. All the while, Stephanie is dealing with a series of corpses that show up in the lot once occupied by the office, and then in car dumps around town. And the killer has taken to gifting them to Stephanie.

All in all, the book seems like a holding pattern. Nothing much gets done and cars get lost, not blown up. T'is a disappointment to a veteran Stephanie Plum reader. No explanation for homicidal Regina Buttle, who prefers using cars to mow down victims, not getting jailed for the first of her multiple attempts to smash Stephanie. And the Boris the Bear story-line really just petered out. Meanwhile the vampire story-line just seemed never to end.

There are chuckles in the book (the lottery results especially). There always are chuckles aplenty in these books. And there's just about the right amount of Grandma Mazur for the second book running. But otherwise, the feeling I got when finished it at the North American Bridge Championships was ... meh!

All that said, looking forward to next year's birthday and the eighteenth book. It IS a tradition for a good reason, after all.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

BOOKS: Seven Seconds or Less by Jack McCallum

There once was a team in the NBA that strived to shoot as often as possible, as quickly as possible.

Actually, there's been several, but the most recent team to give a try and come close to the  fairy-tale finish of winning the holy grail of the sport, a world championship, were the Phoenix Suns. And, as it happens, the last time 'Phoenix' and 'title contender' were uttered in the same breathe with some sincerity, Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum was on hand to detail the day-to-day events of one of the most exciting teams the NBA has seen in quite a while. The result, Seven Seconds or Less (aka :07 Seconds Or Less).

Why am I bringing up a five-year old book now? Well, there's the depressing thought that reading about old-time basketball will be as close as we will get to the pro game for the rest of this year. It's not like anybody's got any enthusiasm for the way the negotiations are going on between the owners and the players. The over-under on the lockout right now sits at some time in December, perilously close to NEXT year.

But, the fact is that McCallum's a great writer, having headed S.I.'s NBA coverage for years. And he picked an outstanding year to take a sabbatical and work his way into the inner workings of one of the NBA's most fascinating teams. And subsequent developments have made the book even more interesting.

There was a large cast of colourful characters hanging around the Suns' dressing room back in the 2005-06 season. The coaching staff, replete with the Clan D'Antoni. Guard Steve Nash, forever Captain Canuck. Mercurial Shawn Marion, later a Toronto Raptor and, almost incredulously, later a key cog in a Dallas world championship victory. The 'other' foreign element for the Suns, Leandro Barbosa (also later a Raptor) and Boris Diaw (later ALMOST a Raptor). Did I also mention ex-Raptor assistant coach Marc Iavaroni yet? Amongst the angsty guys never to have been Toronto property, even in spirit, it's hard to get more interesting than man-child Amar'e Stoudemire and NBA gypsies Tim Thomas, Eddie House and Raja Bell.

With THAT cast of characters, it wasn't hard to see why McCallum picked the Desert Stars to cover for his NBA version of John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink (the lauded look from the inside during a year with Bobby Knight's Indiana University college team).

You come to like a lot, if not all, of the Suns during the book. McCallum makes them all seem real. And that's sometimes hard in the bigger-than-life world of the NBA. It's hard to feel sorry for millionaires, all with the genetic advantage most of you readers don't have. But McCallum succeeds for the most part in doing exactly that.

It's not giving away the ending to note that the Suns didn't win the championship. And that collection was broken up not too long after, and never did win the title as a group. But after reading the book, betcha want more of them to find the way to do what Marion did, eventually win it all in a different uniform.

This isn't just a version of A Season on the Brink, it's a worthy companion to sit along side it on the shelf of top-notch basketball books.

Friday, August 05, 2011

SPORTS: AA Is As Smart As You All Think

Last week, I pondered the preponderance of outfield talent in the Toronto Blue Jay outfield, a fact I thought would never come to fruition at the start of the year. Back then, the local heroes of the diamond seemed ready to trot out an outfield of Travis Snider, Rajai Davis and Juan Rivera. And it got worse quickly as Davis got hurt and Corey Patterson was inserted into centre field. Yuck!

I thought Alex Anthopoulos would address the situation by trading one of five (supposedly) decent major league outfielders for a pitcher before the trading deadline. And I was wrong. With the impending call-up of Brett Lawrie, I worried there wasn't enough playing time for Jose Bautista, Cody Rasmus, Snider, Eric Thames and Davis, let alone Mark Teahen. I worried that Thames would be on the plane to Las Vegas and that didn't seem fair to the then .300-hitting rookie. Boy, did I want Snider traded instead of anointed as the left-fielder by default. I expected to be wrong.

And yet, AA's made my day by sending out Snider, an AAAA player if there ever was one, down to AAA. Oh, and he called up Lawrie. Yippee!

Look, EVERY person who knows Snider likes the guy. He's reasonably powerful and moves pretty good. But, if you added up all of his good weeks in the majors over the last four years, it STILL doesn't add up to a half-season of 'good team starter' performance. I get it. He's a hard-worker and he's likable. Manager John Farrell event floated the "Snider in centre field" balloon and pronounced himself happy with the handful of games Snider played there. Given the fact that he's inadequate in right and barely adequate in left, Farrell sounded an awful lot like he was whistling past the graveyard when he tried to publicly back the experiment.

Snider tears up the minors, or has the last year and a half. He pouted upon being sent down a couple of years ago and pouting players don't perform well. But otherwise, he's proven he can hit in Las Vegas. What he's also proven is that he can't make the adjustments needed to hit in the majors. Las Vegas batting coach Chad Mottola did adjust Snider slightly during Snider's first foray in the desert this year. That resulted in a hot start in July for Snider upon his recall. It lasted two, maybe three weeks. Then the scouts from the other teams figured out the new hole in Snider's swing and once again, we saw Snider flailing away. He couldn't make the re-adjustment.

But despite all of that, I still figured Toronto would continue to treat Snider as the fair-haired boy, the future stud project. But he's approaching his mid-twenties--really he's already there. And I think he's a GM killer, a highly-drafted AAAA player with a hole in his swing. He was the only high schooler the previous GM ever deigned to take a first-round chance on. And, in a way, he's sort of proved J.P. Ricciardi was right to pick college guys. He just didn't have the eye for high school talent.

When it was announced that Lawrie was coming up to start against Baltimore, that Bautista was headed back to right field, that Thames was headed to left and Snider to Vegas, I uttered a little yelp of joy and surprise. Then I tempered it a little bit. Thinking through the implications, I had to ask a question.

Although he'll be back when the September call-ups join the Jays, have we seen the last of Travis Snider as a Toronto Blue Jay in meaningful games? I can't help thinking the good guy is gone. And as good as that is for Toronto going forward, it's always hard to lose a universally well-liked man.

But it had to happen.