Monthly Archives: October 2010

Booking Through Thursday — Skeletons

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In honor of Halloween this weekend:

What reading skeletons do you have in your closet? Books you’d be ashamed to let people know you love? Addiction to the worst kind of (fill in cheesy genre here)? Your old collection of Bobbsey Twin Mysteries lovingly stored behind your “grown-up” books? You get the picture … come on, confess!

As I said earlier in my review of “The Brain of Morbius,” there was a time in my life I was obsessed with collecting the Target “Doctor Who” tie-in novels. They were novelizations of the stories and in the days before the Internet, it seemed like every bookstore or library I’d visit had the potential to have one or several that I hadn’t read or added to my collection just yet. And you’d sometimes find them in unusual places (I recall I found some in a British food store near my house).

Anyway, towards the end of the line, they got a bit harder to find, especially those for the seventh Doctor. I was a huge seventh Doctor fan and the novels of his stories were allowed to run longer than the initial run and were written (many times) by those writers who had penned the television stories. This meant they can and would expand the stories a bit and offer stuff we couldn’t see on TV due to time or budget. So, I collected them all and loved them. And I’ve still got the entire set of the seventh Doctor Target novels and they’re a pride and joy.

I suppose that doesn’t really cover the question precisely, but it’s what first sprang to mind.

Of course, I’ve recently been interested in reading some of the books published and marketed as “young adult.” Or younger. Part of it is the desire to see what’s hip and cool with the younger set these days and part of it is to find books I hope my niece and nephew will enjoy and that I can share with them. I’ve re-read some old favorites and found some new ones. I will admit that when I put the new “Wimpy Kid” book on reserve at the library and admit that it’s for me, I get some odd looks from the librarian. But I’m still not necessarily all that upset about it. They’re fun and worth the time. Speaking of which, the new one is coming out…better go hit that reserve button.

I will admit that sometimes with these books, I prefer to put them on reserve rather than browse through the kids’ section or the YA area. I always feel a bit like a stranger in a strange land…or more like I’m too tall to be there without a kid.


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Review: Boneshaker

Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century, #1)Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Each year, I try to read all of the novels on the short list of the Hugo Award. I’m not a voter, but I like to decide which of the five finalists I liked the best.

Some years, I’m ahead of the game in terms of reading the books on the short list. Others I’m a bit more behind. This year was one of those years when I was behind a bit. I’d only read one of the five finalists, though I’d had three of the other four on my "to be read" radar for some time. The most intriguing (based solely on the buzz and what I knew about the story before I cracked the cover) was Cherie Priest’s "Boneshaker."

Part alternate history, part zombie story, part steampunk novel, "Boneshaker" tells the story of an alternate universe turn of the century Seattle in which the Civil War hasn’t end on the East Coast and a disaster sixteen years earlier has released a yellow gas that slowly turns humans into zombie-like creatures. The area of the city most affected the gas has been walled off, though some still live within either as a flesh-eating zombie or through the use of caution and gas masks to filter away the gas. The only ways in or out are via the sewers that run under the city or from above in the form of giant airships.

The story centers on Briar Wilkes, the widow of the man who created the titular Boneshaker that released the gas. Her son, Ezekiel, is tired of the rumors about his father and decides he’ll head into the walled off section of the city to prove his father wasn’t as bad as history makes him out to be. When an earthquake makes the tunnels under the city impassible, Briar is forced to try and hitch a ride on an airship to follow her son inside and rescue him.

As a universe, "Boneshaker" is a fascinating, complex and rich place. One fascinating aspect is a drug called Sap, which is a crack or meth form of the gas that is created and sold throughout Seattle. The drug has the unintended affect of being highly addictive as well as slowly transforming its users into zombie-like creatures. It’s details and threads like this one that put "Boneshaker" above other steampunk novels I’ve read this year. What also puts it above them is that the steampunk details are naturally incorporated into the story instead of simply put into play to draw attention to themselves and point out how clever the author is being (this was the case with "Leviathan," a book I wanted to love).

Part of the strength comes from the characters of Briar and Ezekiel. Priest has populated her world with interesting, believable characters and the quest of both trying to find answers or each other helps keep the novel moving along. There are some moments to stop and explore the universe, but the novel never loses its momentum or narrative flow.

In short, I can see why the story was short listed for the Hugo. And while it’s a great read and a lot of fun, I can see why it didn’t necessarily win. It’s a solid enough start to a universe and series. As for where it ranks on my order for Hugo nominees for last year, I’ll have to read the other stories given a nod and get back to you.

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Review: The Reversal

The ReversalThe Reversal by Michael Connelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How do you know when a book is owning you?

How about you get the notification that it’s come in at the library and you realize that you have to go and pick it up that day or else you’ll feel like you’re missing something. Or how about once you pick it up, you start reading in the library while waiting for others who came with you to the library to finish making their selections? Or how about when you’ve got a DVR full of shows and a ton of great football choices to watch and instead you’d rather be reading that book?

Or the biggest indicator of all–when you can’t wait to turn each page but once you get to the end you kick yourself for reading it too quickly and now you have to wait for the next book?

The good news is that since the book was "The Reversal" and it’s by Michael Connelly the wait won’t be as long as some other writers. The man is just a machine when it comes to writing. I swear he publishes a new book every six months or so. Not that I’m complaining because he’s only getting better with each new book.

"The Reversal" begins with a heck of a hook and doesn’t let up from there. Mickey Haller switches from defense lawyer to prosecuting attorney in the case of a little girl who was kidnapped and then murdered. The original findings were reversed due to new DNA testing and the clock is ticking–there has to be retrial started within sixty days or the accused walks free. Haller is brought in because no one in the DA’s office wants to touch the case. Haller agrees but only if he can be independent, have his ex-wife Maggie as his second chair and he can use the services of his half-brother Harry Bosch as investigator.

From there, the story begins to quickly unfold as the team has to dig into a quarter-century old case and figure out if and how they can convict the accused again. The story alternates between chapters from the first-person point of view of Mickey and third-person segments with Bosch. Connelly effortless transitions between the two and getting to see how each side is pursuing the cold case and trying to work toward the ultimate goal of putting the guys back behind bars is intriguing. Connelly even manages to ratchet up the suspense mid-way through the story when we discover that the accused may have been a serial kidnapper and that he has a pattern to his kidnappings and potentially killings–something that the trial and it’s stress could trigger again.

Once again, Michael Connelly proves why he’s one of the masters of the modern day thriller stories. But as I’ve said before, his stories transcend that and are something more. With Haller and Bosch, Connelly has a great team and one that I’ve really enjoyed getting to see work together on the printed page. It’s a trick that could easily get overdone, but so far Connelly shows no signs of doing that.

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Review: Doctor Who and the Brain of Morbius

Doctor Who and the Brain of MorbiusDoctor Who and the Brain of Morbius by Terrance Dicks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Back in the days of my obsession with Target novels, the novelization of "The Brain of Morbius" was one of the most sought-after and prized in my collection. It was one of the first "Doctor Who" stories I watched and one of my earliest exposures to Tom Baker as the Doctor. And I loved it.

To my young mind, it was one of the classics of "Doctor Who" and I just had to have the novel so I could experience the story again and again (this was in the days before videotapes were as affordable as they later became and before the commercial releases on stories).

I eventually found the novel and read it once. And I recall thinking that maybe "Morbius" wasn’t quite as great as I thought it was when I first saw it. My love for the serial has dimmed a bit since I first saw it over twenty years ago, but for a little while it was easily one of my top ten "Doctor Who" stories of all time.

Fast forward twenty plus years and I’m getting ready for a car trip and my local library has Tom Baker’s reading of the Terrance Dicks novel of the story on CD. How can I resist it?

Listening to the story again, I’m struck by how well Dicks expands the story. It’s not up to the work he did in "Auton Invasion" but Dicks is able to smooth over a lot of rough patches in the story and really make the world of Karn seem a lot more bleak and expansive that what we saw on-screen. (Again, the only budget limitation on the printed page is how far we let our imaginations roam.) Dicks even tries to bring some sanity to the never-ending debate of the faces seen during the Deathlock battle between the Doctor and Morbius (if you want to have some fun, just put two "Doctor Who" fans in a room and tell them to debate that scene.)

And while the story works well, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed by Tom Baker’s reading in spots. His voice for Solon is a bit silly as is the voice he uses for Morbius. Early on, they took me out of the reading, though by the end of disc three I was used to them enough that it ceased to be as big an issue.

All in all, a nice trip down memory lane with one of the more interesting stories from one of the classic eras in "Doctor Who." It’s not a great, but it’s certainly enjoyable.

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Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Max Brook’s "World War Z" has received a lot of attention and praise since it was first published a few years ago. Inspired by his work on "The Zombie Survival Guide," "Z" puts the lessons there to work in this fictional universe with interesting and varied results.

The story is told from the recollections of various people involved at different stages of the zombie apocalypse and its fallout. Brooks does an admirable job of making each voice just different enough from the last and finding unique perspectives for each of his narrators in the story. However, this does mean you can and will get frustrated when certain events are referred to and either not delved into until much later in the book or are left to the reader’s imagination to fill in the details or pull various pieces together.

Make no mistake–this book will require you to pay attention to details if you want to get the full picture of what went on.

It’s nice to see a current novel that assumes the reader can follow threads and is smart enough to put two and two together and not get five.

And while all that is nicely done, it’s in the later stages the the novel really begins to let down. Brooks doesn’t shy away from using the zombies as a metaphor to offer up political and social commentary on the United States and the world as a whole. It’s fairly overt but not enough feel like Brooks is ranting and raving and saying you must agree with him in order to enjoy the book. However, there are some sections that become a bit too mired in the dogma of the particular character speaking and the story loses some of its momentum.

The book also loses some momentum in its final chapter, which is a bit of a wrap-up or bringing back various voices from earlier in the story for a bit of a farewell. While I can understand the attempt to offer at least some feeling of closure to the story (difficult to do given the way the accounts are presented), it ends up feeling less like a solid ending and more like a failed attempt to wrap it all up neatly. And in the case of "Z" a neat package ending isn’t necessarily what the book wants or needs.

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Review: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science fiction movies and novels dealing with long exploration missions to deep space rarely deal with the complexities of our bodies surviving during the long journey through space.

Or as the old question asks, "Where does Captain Kirk go to the bathroom?"

Mary Roach’s "Packing for Mars" not only looks at where Kirk would go, but how such a thing would be possible. It also looks at a lot of other questions that scientists and NASA have to and have addressed during humanity’s quest to explore space. From the earliest days of space travel when we wondered if gravity would be required for our internal organs and systems to continue working properly to the affects of long-term weightlessness on our muscle systems, Roach delves into the question of just how will our bodies survive or work during a long voyage to Mars. (Roach even deals with the question of whether its possible or reasonable to have sex in zero g, even watching an adult film that was allegedly shot in zero g).

All in all, the book is a fascinating one. Roach maintains a fine line between presenting the facts and having a sense of humor about things. She deals with a lot of bodily functions, but all of these are necessary to consider in whether or not its possible to send humans to Mars or on a long trip into outer space. While we’ve all thought about how humans would eat in space and use the bathroom, we’ve probably thought less about how hygiene can and would work in outer space. Will the space ships end up smelling like a locker room or worse? Also delved into are the on-going studies into motion sickness and the inherent dangers faced if you lose your cookies in a space suit.

Roach’s approach is a solid one with each aspect presented in an understandable, entertaining fashion. What could easily have been a dry subject is instead presented in a fascinating, readable way that will give you a new respect for the men and women who’ve gone into outer space in the past and those who will head out into the solar system and beyond in our future (hopefully).

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Review: Star Trek: Unspoken Truth

Star Trek: Unspoken TruthStar Trek: Unspoken Truth by Margaret Wander Bonanno
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After a long absence from the world of "Star Trek" novels, Margaret Wander Bonanno has come back with a vengeance in the past couple of years. Her return should be a cause for celebration and for the most part it is. Bonanno is one of the early set of "Trek" fiction writers who did more than just tell standard "Trek" stories but actually offered some character insight into the regular crew and some fairly rounded new characters to the "Trek" universe.

So when I heard she was going to write a story that would bridge the gap of the Saavik we last saw in "The Voyage Home" and the one we meet in the "Vulcan’s Heart" series, I hoped we were in for something special. Or at least something good.

And for the first half of "Unspoken Truth" we get something pretty good. Easily the best first half of a "Trek" novel I’ve read in a while, Bonanno explores the past and present of Saavik’s life, augmenting what we saw in "The Pandora Principle" and providing some insight into how the events of "Star Trek III" had a major impact on her life. The only major complaint I have early is the flashbacks sometimes take a paragraph or two to figure out what time period we’re dealing with.

Then we get to the second half of the novel and the story starts to fall apart. Part of it is that the story of Saavick joining a new ship and setting out to explore a "strange new world" feels fairly repetitive of a lot of other "Trek" fiction. We’ve got some mysterious aliens and Saavik is able to communicate with them. Nothing groundbreaking here nor does it necessarily have to be. I just wish it had felt like something a bit more substantial than what we get.

Where the story really falls apart is an attempted conspiracy/blackmail thread that never gels like it could or should. Again, it’s nothing new and it doesn’t offer any real insight into Savvik. It also hinges a lot on remembering details of "Pandora," a novel I read when it first came out and I’ve forgotten a lot of details about.

In the end, "Unspoken Truth" does a lot of things well, a few things not as well. Unfortunately, the not as well parts are in the last half and left me feeling unsatisfied as I turned the final page.

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Review: The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the EarthThe Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Years ago while visiting my grandparents, my grandfather recommended this book to me. The recommendation came after a trip to the library in which I checked out the usual brain-candy that teenagers gravitate toward and I expect the recommendation came as a hope to get me to pick up something a bit more challenging than the latest tie-in novel for whatever sci-fi series I was into at the moment.

He described the story to me and I have to admit I sought out the book at the time but was immediately turned off by the sheer page count. At the time, I couldn’t imagine spending 1000 pages hearing about the building of a cathedral during the 12th Century. (This rejection, of course, made me a bit of hypocrite since I’d read all 1000 plus pages of "It" at that point, but a lot of that was while sick in bed with the flu.)

Over the years, I kept hearing from various people about how good "Pillars of the Earth" was and I was always reminded of my grandfather’s recommendation. It was one of those books I kept thinking I needed to read just to see if it was as good as everyone says it is and even went so far as to impulsively buy a copy a couple of years ago. It then languished on my to be read pile for years. Every time it tried to work its way up to the top of the pile or even into the top five, another book or two came along to distract me.

And then, I heard they were making a mini-series version of the book for Starz. The ads intrigued me and I realized that being a book snob, I had to read the book before I saw the show. And so, twenty plus years after the initial recommendation and after a lot of glowing praise by a lot of people who’s opinions on books I respect, "Earth" finally worked its way to the top of my pile.

Going into it, I was a bit worried I might have built up the book so much in my mind that no novel could live up to the expectations placed on it. Thankfully, the book does live up to the praise heaped on it by so many for so long. I’ve not read a lot of other works by Ken Follett, but scanning his list of other works I can see how this book is an exception to the standard Follett novel.

It’s the story of the building of a 12th Century cathedral, including all the politics surrounding it. Filled with a wealth of characters–many likeable, many unlikeable and some that go back and forth–the novel more than sustains itself for the close to 1000 pages. The way in which various characters keep intersecting into and out of each others’ lives is well done and while it could have been contrived, it works well for the story. The ups and downs, the political maneuvering and the characters’ journeys all make this a fascinating, compelling and fun novel.

I won’t so so far to say it’s one of my favorite books. It was enjoyable and fun and it certainly more than managed to hold my interest. But maybe my expectations of it being the "greatest thing ever" did play a factor in my giving it only four stars instead of five. Don’t get me wrong–it’s probably more like a four and a half star book. But there’s something special about a five star book and "Earth" just seems to be missing it.

So if you’re like me and wondering if you should try it–give it a whirl. Don’t wait twenty years to read it. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d been able to read it and share a discussion of the story with my grandfather before he’d passed away.

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