Monthly Archives: May 2010

Booking Through Thursday — TBR Pile

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What books do you have next to your bed right now? How about other places in the house? What are you reading?

I’ve got a couple of piles of books near my bed.   In one stack, I’ve got “Acacia,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest” and the book I am currently reading “An Autumn War.”

Another has a collection of “Spider-Man” comics from my childhood (good for a nice trip down memory lane) as well as a couple of other things that I eventually plan to read.

Of course, I’ve got my pile of books that I’ve checked out of the library in another room.  I try to keep the library books I’m not reading together so I won’t be running around the house trying to figure out where I put this one or that one when I’m ready to read the book or it’s time to take them back.

I’ve also got a stack in my bedroom of the Hugo nominees I haven’t read for this year that I would like to read before the award winner is announced.   It’s going to be a busy summer reading-wise.

I think that not having a stack or two of books you want to read is just a shame.  And my secret to a long life is a healthy to be read pile.  How can you die when there are so many good books left to read?

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“Bite Me” by Christopher Moore

Bite Me (Love Story, #3)My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When we last saw Jody and Tommy (aka Flood) , the star crossed vampire lovers of author Christopher Moore, they’d just defeated a vampire queen and had been encased in bronze after being told to leave the city. They’d also transformed their cat Chet into a vampire.

“Bite Me” picks up where the last installment left off, though Moore seems to have forgotten that while he and the world have aged, the story should still be set in less modern times when various characters don’t have things like X-Boxes. (It’s a minor quibble, but still one that nags at this reader).

This time, minion Abby Normal is still pining to be made immortal and will do whatever it takes to become a creature of the night. Oh and she’s failing biology at school. Meanwhile, Chet is creating problems around San Francisco, transforming cats into an army of vampire cats that feeds on the homeless population of the city. And there’s an army of vampire rats that can transform into cloud form that may also get loose.

In a day and age where vampire stories are all the rage, Moore’s third installment in the series skillfully mines the genre tropes for humor and satire. And while we get the usual amount of Moore camoes and crossovers, I still can’t help feeling that “Bite Me” was a bit too unfocused and not nearly as enjoyable as the first two installments. Jody and Flood are moved off stage and only minor players in the story, while Abby Normal is elevated to a star in the story, much to the detriment of things. Abby works better as a supporting character and giving her her own major plot threat stretches her jokes and humor a bit thin.

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Audio Book: “Road Rage”

Road Rage: Two Novellas: "Duel" and "Throttle" My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My four star rating is an average of my rating for the two novellas included in this audio collection.

Duel by Richard Matheson — Five Stars
One of the good things about the Will Smith version of “I Am Legend” hitting the big-screen is that it brought a lot of harder to find work of Richard Matheson back into print, introducing a new generation of fans to him. “Legend” is one of his strongest offerings, but it seems the man could really do no wrong and he was an absolute master of the short story and novella.

That mastery shows with “Duel.” The story is a simple one–a man driving on a California highway one hot summer afternoon enters into a game of chicken when a huge semi. The situation begins innocently enough with our hero, Mann, passing the truck and slowly devolves into a game of wills and utter paranoia as the truck and its driver seem to have it in for Mann. The slow descent into obsession is marvelously played out over the course of the story and watching Mann’s increasing desperation to defeat the truck is a fascinating, compelling and scary journey. If you’ve ever been tailgated by a semi on a two-lane road, you’ll understand how easy it is to slip into the madness that grips and eventually consumes Mann.

Taut, driven and compelling, the story is an example of Matheson at his finest. It shows his skill of taking ordinary people and putting them into extraordinary situations of high tension in order to observe how they react–both positively and negatively. Mann is self-aware enough, at times, to realize just how crazy his current situation is even though at others he’s so consumed by the need to out run the truck or to beat it that he’s blinded to the possible implications. It’s a great story and wonderfully brought to life in this audio release.

“Throttle” by Stephen King and Joe Hill — Three Stars
Stephen King has stated (in fact, it’s a blurb on the cover of most reissues of Matheson’s books) that Matheson is one of the writers who influenced him the most. That’s apparent in a large majority of King’s writings, though it’s not necessarily on as great a display here in “Throttle.” Written with his son, Joe Hill, the story is meant as an homage to Matheson and “Duel” and while it has its moments, it pales by comparison.

A group of bikers, fleeing a bad investment in a meth lab and murder, encounter a mysterious semi that takes on supernatural like proportions in a road game of cat and mouse. The story has potential and maybe if I’d heard it before I listened to “Duel” I would have liked it more. Instead, the story is a more violent version that has too many irons in the fire to be truly satisfying.

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Movie Monday: Oldies but Goodies

Once again, it’s been a while since I did a “Movie Monday.”  However, over the weekend I had the chance to cross off two of the “I Should Have Seen These Before Now” off my list and one other film that I found interesting.

Bullitt (1968)
I’ve actually been to the streets in San Francisco where the famous car chase was filmed, but I’d never got around to seeing the film.   I decided it was time to bite the “Bullitt” and give it a shot.

Given the excesses of today’s action movies, this one seems pretty tame by comparison.   But watching Steve McQueen as Bullitt, you can see where the seeds for every other “dangerous cop” movie made since are being sewn.  Bullitt is requested by a local politician to guard a mob informant leading up to the informant’s testimony in Congress.  Things go awry when the witness is killed and Bullitt becomes determined to find who and what is behind the killing because one of his fellow officers was seriously wounded in the line of duty.

Watching the movie, I kept expecting to find out that Robert Vaughn’s character was somehow tied in to the conspiracy side of things–something that never happens.

The movie is fascinating and the car chase is still thrilling.  It’s also an action movie that can work with a reasonably complex character and that’s well realized by McQueen.   But the formula has been copied and taken to the next level so many times since this one was made that a lot of the revolutionary impact the film might have had when it was first made was lost on me.  It’s still good and worth watching, but not one I’ll add to the DVD collection.

The Sunshine Boys (1974)
The vaudeville team of Lewis and Clark are encouraged to get the act back together for one last hurrah on an ABC variety special.  The only problem is that after 43 years working together, the two may not necessarily like each other.  And Lewis, in particular, isn’t keen on getting the act back together.

My main reason for seeing this one was to see the Oscar winning work done by George Burns.   This movie was a big step in his comeback after the passing away of his wife Gracie Allen, thus ending one of the greatest comedy teams in old time radio history.  It also intrigued me to know that Jack Benny was originally cast in the role Burns plays but had to drop out due to his health.  Benny recommended his old friend Burns for the role (according to Burns, few people could crack up Benny like Burns) and the rest is history.

Written by Neil Simon, the film is pretty good, powered by the performances of Burns and Walter Mattheau as the titlular “Sunshine Boys.”  The scenes when they’re together shine, though the film is a bit slow moving in getting to the duo being back together.  It’s still got some nice lines, good performance and an interesting cast.

Heavenly Days (1944)
There’s always a danger of seeing a movie version of one of your favorite old time radio shows.   For one thing, the characters may not look the same as you imagined them.  For another, there are some actors that are clearly better suited for the radio waves than the silver screen.

That’s the case with this movie, which plays like an extended episode of Fibber McGee and Molly.  The series itself wasn’t exactly the most plot driven–it was really a collection of gags centered around whatever mad-cap scheme or situation Fibber found himself in that week.   The show was built on a series of running gags and Fibber and Molly’s interaction with various neighbors and residents of Wistful Vista.   The movie showcases several of the running gags from the show, including Mert, the telephone operator and the famous hall closet.   Mert works, the closet doesn’t.  Again, the theater of the mind allows for a far more humorous affect when the famous door is opened than actually getting to see it (same thing with Jack Benny’s famous vault).

The film even includes several musical numbers–one by the King’s Men, one by Fibber and one by Molly in her voice as the Little Girl.

The plot (such as it is) concerns Fibber and Molly heading to DC to make sure Congress knows the thoughts and plight of the common man.  Along the way, Fibber and Molly encounter a train full of soldiers headed off to war, meet Dr. Gallup of the Gallup poll and a reporting couple who could get married if they only could break a big story.  Fibber is haunted by the fife player from the famous painting, encouraging him to go to Congress and make them aware of the opinion of the Common Man.  As with all things McGee related, he does get into the chamber and he does manage to make an interesting speech before he’s removed.

The political moments centering around our leaders losing touch with those they’re meant to represent are hauntingly relevant even today and are when the film works well.  It’s not a classic and it’s not great cinema, but if you’re a fan of the radio show and want to see Fibber and Molly, that’s worth the time (the movie is short, running just 71 minutes).  It’s very much like the radio show in that it’s a lot of sketches and moments hung around a loosely constructed plot.

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Summer Series Challenge: “A Betrayal in Winter” by Daniel Abraham

A Betrayal in Winter (Long Price Quartet, #2) My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Opening fifteen years after the events of “A Shadow in Summer,” the second installment in the Long Price Quartet opens with the death of one of the Khai’s sons, a signal that the battle for succession among his sons has begun. In Daniel Abraham’s political system, the Khai’s sons all fight and kill each other for the right to take over the throne when their father dies (similar to rising in rank in the classic “Star Trek” episode, ‘Mirror, Mirror’) while the women are either dismissed back to their original home (in the case of the wives) or married off for political gain (in the case of the daughters).

The first death sends two sons into hiding, fearing that it’s their long-lost brother Otah returning from the shadows to inherit the throne. Otah vanished in disgrace but could be mounting a comeback, they fear and they could be the next targets. Maati is sent to the city to investigate the claim and to possibly flush Otah out into the open. Maati is one of the few who would recognize Otah from their dealings in the first novel and is facing a change to win a bit of redemption of his own. His failures in the first novel have left him in disgrace, even to the point of losing Liat.

In many ways, the political maneuvering at the heart of “A Betrayal in Winter” reminded me of the plots within plots of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” The reader is clued in early on to who is really behind the plot to take out the brothers and seize power and watching as strings are pulled and things begin to unravel because they don’t go according to plan is fascinating. The central schemer is the Khai’s daugher Idaan, who wants to marry for love not just to win political points for her father. To this end, she arranges to maneuver the situation and marry Adrah, the son of a powerful rival political family and one who has powerful connections to forces in a neighboring country. Watching the duo plot and scheme is one of the novel’s more fascinating storylines as is watching the best laid plans of both slowly become more and more complex and complicated. At several points, things don’t go exactly according to plan, leading to some interesting shifts mid-stream to cover their track and assure the intended outcome.

Of course, this puts a strain on their relationship and watching it slowly come unraveled is another fascinating development over the course of the story.

By skipping ahead fifteen years, Abraham has allowed the story, characters and universe of “The Long Price Quartet” to grow, develop and change naturally, while still leaving much of what we came to know about them from the first book in place. Otah wants only to cut all ties with his past, only to once again see his attempts to distance himself from who he was catch up to him with unintended consequences. Maati is also haunted by his failures, but still isn’t willing to compromise on certain things, including his defying orders to return once most of the evidence points to Otah’s involvement in the political maneuverings to take over as Khai. Abraham fills in enough of the details of what the characters have been doing to satisfy readers but leaves out a few other tantalizing details so as to hopefully keep things interesting in the next two installments. (I’m dying to know what happened to Liat and her child after she and Maati went their separate ways.)

As all good sequels should, “A Betrayal in Winter” takes the foundation from the first novel and builds on it, expanding the characters and universe in the series. It’s a story that you could read without having first picked up “Summer” though some of the references would be lost on you and the nuances of the characters might not be there. Again, the story is one that’s self contained but there are seeds of a richer tapestry being developed here and one that continues to intrigue me. It’s a sequel that’s as good if not better than the original and one that sets up some intriguing possibilities for the next installment.

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“The King of Lies” by John Hart

The King of Lies My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jackson Pickens–better known was “Work”–is a lawyer in a North Carolina, who seems to have the perfect life–good job, bright future, beautiful and devoted wife. But if you scratch just below the surface things aren’t quite as ideal as they appear.

A little over a year ago, his mother died suddenly and his father disappeared. Work and his sister Jean know what happened that evening but neither one is willing to come forward and tell the full truth–until his father’s body shows up at a local abandoned mall. Suddenly the past is coming back to haunt everyone and Work becomes the prime suspect in his father’s murder. Of course, the fact that he stands to inherit $15 million from his father might have something to do with it.

“The King of Lies” starts off with an intriguing hook with Work reflecting on the nature of prison and how it changes people, only to quickly descend into a fairly straight-forward mystery that is full of red herrings and false leads. The story works because the narrative centers on the first-person perspective of Work and while we know Work is innocent of this crime, it doesn’t make it innocent of other things, including having an affair, hating his father and having a hand in covering up the murder of his mother.

The story works well enough for the first half of the book, but once all the suspects are in play, it works too hard to bring in red herring after red herring before finally revealing the true killer and motive. It’s all set up well, but by the time you get to the revelation, it seems like just another plot twist for the sake of a plot twist.

Which is a bit of shame since until the mid-way point, “Lies” is an enjoyable enough legal thriller mystery that had me curious and guessing about the real secrets that lay lurking under the surface. It’s too bad the questions end up being more interesting the answers.

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Summer Series Challenge: “A Shadow in Summer” by Daniel Abraham

A Shadow in Summer (Long Price Quartet, #1) My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“A Shadow in Summer” has been on my to-be-read radar for quite a while now even though I can’t quite recall exactly why I put it on the list. But when Jaws Read Too began her Summer of Series program, I looked over at the first installment in the series, sitting on my to be read pile, mocking me mercilessly and decided it was a good time to commit not only to reading the first book, but also the entire “Long Price Quartet” series as well.

So, I pulled the book out of the pile, cracked open the pages and began to read.

And, again, tried to recall what it was that drew me to the book in the first place. I think part of it was a desire to sample more fantasy novels and to sample series that actually had a chance of being finished sometime within my lifetime.

Reading “A Shadow in Summer,” it appears that Daniel Abraham had not only a plan for this book, but also his entire series. And, thankfully, this is an entry in a series that has a definitive plot arc that is resolved by the end of the book. Yes, there are still some threads left open for future development, but it doesn’t feel like a massive build-up to a cliffhanger or a 300 page preview for book two in the series.

Instead what Abraham has done is set up a remarkably believable world with some well rounded, interesting characters. Yes, there is a magical system at work here, but reading “Summer” I was reminded of Laura Anne Gilman’s “Flesh and Fire” where the magical system was more limited and while there are powerful people within the magical system created here, it can’t always be used as a way to easily get out of a situation (aka the equivalent of the sonic screwdriver on “Doctor Who” where its use is defined by whatever situation the script needs to get the Doctor out of without too much effort). The system is also one that the world we’re reading about is built around and it has implications both positive and negative to all the various players we see inhabiting the book.

In this world, poets are powerful men who can create andats for a specific purpose. The novel includes one called Seedless who can remove the seeds from things, which is vital to the economy of the setting here. The city is dependent on the cotton crop and the ease of removing seeds is necessity for daily life and the economic survival of the city. But the power extends beyond just the removal of seeds from various plants and into the arena of being able to remove an unwanted pregnancy.

And that plot forms the basis for the political maneuvering that drives much of what unfolds in “Summer.” In many ways, the unfolding story is one that can be deceptively slow moving, allowing for the full implications of what’s really going on to slowly occur to the characters involved and the reader. Abraham clearly assumes an intelligence by his reader and doesn’t have page upon page of infodumps that can bog down many of the bigger fantasy names (I’m looking at your Terry Goodkind). He also avoids the habit of excessive recapping of events and having characters ponder what’s gone on before in minuscule detail. The characters do reflect on what’s happen, but it feels more authentic and real than I saw in another fantasy book I plowed my way through last summer that could have been shorter had we not had a recap or a character reflection every ten pages.

Thankfully, the novel is also inhabited by a set of fully realized characters, all of whom you’ll like and dislike to various degrees as the novel progresses. Abraham takes the tactic of having the characters who serve as the antagonists for the story clearly believe that the story is presenting them as heroes and the novel works better for that. And his presentation of characters as having both noble and un-noble qualities is a nice touch.

And, again, it resolves the main storyline of the novel by the time the last page is turned, even though we have some indication of where things could head for the next novel and possibly the rest of the series.

In short, it’s a successful standalone novel and a successful start to an intriguing new series.

If you want to read Jawas review, you can HERE.

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