Category Archives: book review

March Violets

March Violets (Bernard Gunther, #1)March Violets by Philip Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Bernie Gunther series recounts the adventures and cases of one Bernard “Bernie” Gunther, private detective, State Policeman, SS police officer, and on into the postwar era. March Violets is the first volume of the Bernie Gunther series and the Berlin Noir trilogy– apparently the author, Phillip Kerr, wrote the first three in roughly quick succession and then wrote some other things and the fan base started clamoring for more Bernie. There are now a dozen of them. Bernie Gunther is an interesting type, although not exactly a unique one in fiction. He is a basically moral individual, working as a private investigator, roughly 38 years of age, a widower, and a former State Policeman. In some respects, a classic noir archetype. In others, he is quite unique. You see, this novel is set in late 1930s Nazi Germany, on the eve of the Berlin Olympiad. Bernie is called in to help a powerful industrialist, Hermann Six, solve a robbery and murder of his daughter and son-in-law. As the case unfolds, gradually Bernie discovers more and more layers to the secret, some of which go to the highest circles of power in Nazi Germany.

I got hooked on this book and read it in record time, because it was a mix of familiar and unfamiliar, a rewiring of the classic detective with a heart of gold set in the midst of one of the most evil regimes in history. One feature of Kerr’s prose is that he liberally sprinkles his novels with real historical characters and authentic sounding fictional ones. He also doesn’t write novels in a sequence. One is set before the war, another during, another after the war.. but later ones will jump all over the time period. As a die-hard history fanatic, I appreciated the appearance of Goering, Himmler and Heydrich in the story, and the backdrop of the Olympiad. I found March Violets to be very engaging and a real page turner. I rapidly polished of the Berlin Noir trilogy and am taking a break before reading more– I don’t want to overdose.

I would not hesitate to recommend the entire Berlin Noir trilogy, for starters.

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V. Schwab’s A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC, reviewed

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Man, I really wanted to like this book. It has all the elements that I’m usually game to read from cover to cover instantly– a touch of magical realism, set in vaguely familiar proto-steampunky, parallel universes, evil guys, good guys, cynical guys. A plucky heroine from the bad side of town, with a heart of gold. The setting is this sort of mystical micro-universe where there are four known variants of existence– Grey London, Red London, White London, and a fourth, vanished Black London. Grey London (of course) is the London we all know from THIS world, the one in Britain, at the time of George III. Magic is almost unknown there. Red London, a much funner place where magic flourishes, a good dynasty reigns over a country that is not-England (although London stays London in all of them). White London is a harsh place where two descendants of Vikings(?) rule by murder and coercion. Black London was destroyed in a magical cataclysm that sealed the worlds off from one another– it is apparently the place where magic is sentient, seeking more power by devouring human hosts. I think? There are only two individuals that can transverse the boundaries of the Londons– they are the ‘Antari’, depicted with one solid black eye and one normal eye. The Red London Anatari is Kell, who spends his time as an errand boy for the Red London Royalty, and smuggling artifacts from various Londons. In addition, he is the property of the Royal Family, and adopted brother to the Red London Prince (Rye). Of course, Kell is considered a bit of a rogue but responsible enough to be riding heard on his womanizing brother Rye. Rye is a familiar trope in fantasy, a rogue and a wastrel (they say, we don’t see much of it) who is growing into the role of the future king who will one day have to take life seriously and blah blah blah. The other Antari is Holland, from White London (of whom, more later) Kell, the adopted Red Antari, is on a mission to White London (a nasty place with the Bad People in it) and he gets hoodwinked/set up/made a fall guy to pick up a package that turns out to have a half of a stone token from mythical (destroyed) Black London. He gets ambushed in Red London, flees to Grey London, and runs afoul of the OTHER Antari, the decidedly nastier Holland. Holland is apparently behind a conspiracy(?) to dominate? control? the other Londons, to open them up to conquest by proxy by White London, using the Wild Magic amulet (the Black Stone from Black London, which is a super magic weapon).
While Kell is hiding from Holland in Grey London, he encounters the other POV character, Lila Bard. Lila is yet another fantasy/steampunk trope, the plucky but lovable guttersnipe who dresses like a man and has the heart for adventure. She is a pickpocket, a cutpurse, and a girl makin’ it on the mean streets of almost-victorian London (George III is on the throne, yet they have revolvers in common use? Whaaaaah?) Anyway, she’s tough.. the author reinforces how tough as nails and bitter she is. Page after page. Awkward dialogue after awkward dialogue. We get it. Kell and Lila make an awkward alliance to bring the stone back to Black London where it will be safe, adventures transpire, lots of people get killed willy-nilly, and the vast extent of the betrayal of, well, you know, the bad guys, becomes clear. Except it doesn’t. There were two things that bothered me about this book. I like the basic concept just fine, I love the parallel Londons idea.. but man, the execution was clumsier than a new born chick running a marathon. The dialogue was very hackneyed in places. I think if I had a nickel for how many times I read “Lila.. (dramatic pause)… RUN!” .. well, I’d have a mess o’ nickels. And the motivation! What the heck? WHY do the bad guys do what they do? WHY? Sure, Holland is evil and twisted, but we never know what he thinks, he’s just a creepy ciper. And the mega bad guy.. he’s a monologing psycho from the old school, but what the hell made him so angry at Kell? Wasn’t Kell useful to everyone who wanted to talk or trade between worlds, just a while ago? Aren’t there only TWO of these guys? Why be angry at him? Why try to kill him?  Just because you have an evil plan? So the Big Big Bad is hard to understand, therefore their motivations are murky and the plot and denouement kind are kind of a big muddle.

With that said, A Darker Shade of Magic did have some great, although not exactly original ideas, with the Red-Gray-White-Black London setting, the various flavors of magic, the Antari (all two of them) and how it all kind of lurched to an ending eventually. V.E. Schwab isn’t what I would consider a great literary stylist but I’m sure this series (and it will be a series, I checked) will go down well with the Young Adult crowd. For me, it started out well but became a bit of a chore to get through, so I’ll give it 3 stars.

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ROGUES: An Anthology by G. Martin and G. Dozois, Reviewed

RoguesROGUES by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the best reasons to read a themed anthology like this is that it gives you a peek at authors that you either already like or haven’t discovered yet. ROGUES delivers on this promise nicely. This is my first anthology of (mostly) SF/F writers edited by George RR Martin, though not my first by Gardner Dozois. The theme is “Rogues”.. those people who aren’t good, aren’t bad, but mostly out for themselves in the most amusing way possible. Martin didn’t just plow the field of fantasy and science fiction for this book– there were some great examples from the mystery and historical fiction genre, too. I was surprised how densely packed this anthology is. I won’t call out every single short story in the book, but I definitely will mention the ones that I thought were standout:

“Tough Times All Over” by Joe Abercrombie
Well, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Joe Abercrombie, I haven’t been stinting on his praises. Tough Times all Over reads like a continuous moving shot in a motion picture– a very important package is robbed from a courier, and exchanges hands multiple times through the story before it culiminates.. clever structure and illustrates the theme nicely with Abercrombie’s trademark dry wit.

“What Do You Do?” by Gillian Flynn
One of my favorites in this anthology was the story of a sex worker turned con-woman and spiritualist encountering what is, possibly, a real haunting. Or maybe not. Her wonderfully blase ending leaves the reader wondering. By the author of Gone Girl, which definitely flavored this piece.

“The Inn of the Seven Blessings” by Matt Hughes
Where has Matt Hughes been in my reading life? I loved this story– all about a very personable and human thief encountering a caper with tiny god, possession, raving cannibal beasts, and a treacherous acolyte. Told in a very endearing, humorous style that echoed Shea or Vance.

“Bent Twig” by Joe R. Lansdale
My favorite shit-kickin’ literary genius from East Texas delivers up a short Hap and Leonard story complete with beat downs, ambushes and ass-kicking. Great fun.

“Tawny Petticoats” by Michael Swanwick
Sure, I had read Swanwick before, but nothing from the universe of Tawny Petticoats, and her odd New Orleans with hired zombie labor, wizards, witches and werewolves. Loved this, want to see more.

“Provenance” by David W. Ball
A fun little art heist with a great twist ending. Not the best, but very readable.

“A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” by Scott Lynch
One of two stories I read twice… mostly because I just discovered Scott Lynch and the Gentlemen Bastards series. This is a somewhat different setting.. a retired thief in a city run by Super-Wizards gets set an impossible task by one of the ruling council. Fantastic setting, I hope there are more of them in this universe.

“Bad Brass” by Bradley Denton
A contemporary humorous mystery, about a ring of thugs flogging stolen band instruments in a Texas town. The OTHER story I read twice. It was amusing, funny and kept me engaged throughout, and ends on an upbeat note.

“Ill Seen in Tyre” by Steven Saylor
I like Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder series, and the blase mention of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in this story had me hooked– really funny ending and perfect for the anthology theme. Kind of light.

“The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives” by Lisa Tuttle
A Victorian feminine “Watson” character playing off a decidedly vaguely formed replacement Sherlock. as they investigate a ring of suspicious burials and disappearances. Much of the narrative returns to “a woman making it in a man’s world” themes, but the story passes over this to deliver a very mysterious tale of hypnotism and malice.

“How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” by Neil Gaiman
A shortish visit into the Neverwhere universe with Neil Gaiman. A very amusing narrative of an adventure of The Marquis of Carabas, the smooth talking rogue from Neverwhere, as he searches for his stolen coat in an adventure featuring mushroom people, an Elephant, and his sworn enemy. Quite amusing.

The other stories were certainly worthy, or at least that’s what my short term memory tells me. If I can’t remember much about them two weeks after reading them, draw your own conclusions. As it turns out I have already bought some follow on novels from some of the new discoveries I made in this anthology, so mission accomplished, Mr. Martin. You win this round!

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Ready Player One (A Review)

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hmmm.. anti-hero geek stumblebum, living in a dystopic future, fighting off an evil corporation, whilst co-existing in the omnipresent virtual reality world addiction that the global population seems to be addicted to? Why does it all seem so familiar? Because we’ve read this stuff before, back when “Cyber punk” was new, in the late 80s. The difference is that the author, Ernest Cline, can weave a fantastic narrative larded with self-referential humor, unabashed 1980s nostalgia and a fourth wall of 80ish geek/hipster speak. It’s hard to explain unless you grew up in that era (I did). Every page is like old home week, with the author patiently explaining this or that cultural relic from a bygone age in the most earnest terms. It’s all very amusing being lectured to by the protagonist about what the Tomb of Horrors (TM) is or how to win playing Joust (TM). That is both a great strength and a great weakness. I loved this novel, and found myself chuckling reading it, but my children (who are growing up in an era with little in common with it) can’t understand why I think it’s so great. So I fear my four stars is for me and my kind alone. I appreciated the world building– having spent extensive time in Second Life, there was much to the notion of virtual worlds that I found familiar (I suspect Cline has spent time there, too), including the paranoia and potential disasters of intersecting real life with virtual life. I enjoyed it for my own part and all my 80s geek brethren, but I wonder if everyone else gets it. Steven Spielburg optioned RP1 for a movie and is actively pursuing making it, so we’ll see how well this story will play on the big screen. It’s exciting enough visually but cyberspace has never been a good cinematic story (so far). I wish them success.

I like RP1, and will definitely read more of Mr. Cline’s work– I have his next book (Armada) in the queue as we speak. I hope it translates well. By the by, I listened to an Audiobook version of RP1 and then read it again (which I do from time to time when I want to make sure I didn’t miss something). The Audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton, a genuinely great guy, but he comes off a bit.. I don’t know what.. smarmy? for the material. Just an observation. I like him and his works, but the narration was just a little too “cool kid making fun of myself” for me.

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The Lies of Locke Lamora (a review)

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1)The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the reasons why I love reading fiction is the chance that every once in a while, taking a chance on a new author pays off handsomely. I don’t know much about the author, Scott Lynch, other than his Goodreads bio. What I do know is that I am thoroughly impressed with his skills at world building, character building and dialogue– not bad for a young writer writing a first novel. Not bad at all!

The Lies of Locke Lamora takes place on a planet “someplace” that was colonized by humans at some point in the past. The humans displaced (?) or perhaps inherited the planet from the now vanished Elder race that once inhabited it and have left durable artifacts that the humans make use of, particularly made of “Elder glass”, a durable material of surpassing beauty.

The novel is split between two interweaving narratives, one playing out in the past and one in the present. The past narrative develops the history of the titular character Locke, from child thief, to religious acolyte, to grown sharper and confidence man. In the present time, Locke Lamora is running an elaborate confidence game against one of the landed gentry of Comorr, the city where most of the novel takes place. His life is made complicated by competing gang bosses, a mysterious “Gray King” cutting into the action, and the presence of a mysterious “Bond Mage” called the Falconer.

I won’t spoil the plot, but suffice to say there’s a lot of violence and retribution, hidden roles revealed, and blood spilt. The plot is written well, but I found myself rooting for the protagonists and even feeling sorry for the antagonist(s). Their motivations are all reasonably well explained, except, possibly, the driving force behind the generosity of Chains, the benefactor and trainer of the Gentleman Bastards gang. Why is he so interested in creating a gang of confidence men out of a pack of beggar boys? It’s hard to fathom. I did enjoy reading the back stories and asides from the many characters, great and small in this novel. A sign of a good writer is the ability to make us care about even the smallest character, and Lynch does a passing good job at fleshing out people– I was genuinely pissed at him for killing off a couple of my favorite characters towards the end (I won’t say whom), as I had grown attached to them.

In any event, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a great first novel and a great introduction into the wider world of the Gentleman Bastards. I plan on reading the sequel and sincerely wish Mr. Lynch every success in writing more novels set in this world, with these characters. A very pleasant discovery that I don’t hesitate to recommend.

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Cod: A Biography of The Fish that Changed the World, a short review.


Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the WorldCod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This might be my first reading of a Kurlansky “history of common foods” book, though I seem to recall reading
Salt A World History by Mark Kurlansky
SALT at some point and being enthralled with it, a long time back.

I remember my mom, despite the repeal of meatless Mondays by the Church after Vatican II, continuing to create a codfish stew every Friday night. Little did I realize what an epoch making dinner we were having at the time! Codfish is a fish that you probably rarely (if ever) think about, yet its history mirrors world history. Kurlansky’s book traces the history of Salt Cod (with particular attention to the Atlantic variety, which becomes a cause of conflict as fishing rights constrict over time). There is much to the history of this humble fish that I just never really thought about. How were the Vikings able to cross hundreds of miles of salt water without starving to death? Simple, they had brought tons of a cheap, easy to catch source of protein with them, the salt cod. How did the Basques stay semi-independent for so long? They had access to a fishing industry that granted them a virtual monopoly over the salt cod trade, back when nobody knew exactly what it was. Basque fishermen may have been working on codfish catches on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland before Columbus even conceived of his trip.. they just never said anything about it to anyone.

The first part of the book is about the relationship of the Codfish and codfish fishing to the great trends of Western History– exploration, conquest, and development of the New World, contention between groups that wanted to control the cod fisheries, and the conflicts, minor and major, started by the humble codfish. The second part of the book traces the steep decline in codfish catches as the world realizes that the codfish might have become fished to extinction, or nearly so.

I know what you’re thinking.. a book about fish. How could that be exciting? And yet, it is! I love the way Kurlansky can take ordinary, almost humdrum subjects (particularly about food) and truly open his reader’s eyes about how revolutionary that subject is. The structure and style of the book works. I particularly enjoyed the structure of adding a recipe for codfish at the start of every chapter, along with some historical anecdote relevant to the phase of history Kurlasnky was in at that point in the book. I’ll never desire cod “cheeks” but man, I was seriously jonesing for Mom’s Cod Chowder again by mid book. Sadly, that’s all a memory now.

Kurlansky reminds me that good history doesn’t have to be about wars, and battles and politics.. it can be about the most ordinary thing imaginable. Like tablesalt, or the fish you sprinkle it on.

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RED COUNTRY, by Joe Abercrombie, a blessedly short review

Red CountryRed Country by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read my first Joe Abercrombie book, The Heroes, back in 2012. My reaction was as follows:

My first reaction to THE HEROES was “Oh great, another one of those middlin’ fantasy pseudo iron age novels, with noble savages against corrupt civilized foes and blah blah blah”. I can’t help it. I worked in a bookstore for much of my early life and you get a feel for this kind of mush. By chapter 3, I was asking myself “Who IS this Joe Abercrombie fellow, and why haven’t I read everything he’s written yet?” I am currently working on that goal.

I’ve kept that promise! Three years later and I have the First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold under my belt, and I possess a greatly expanded world view of the First Law universe of Joe Abercrombie. So I was pumped to see the re-emergence of Logen Nine-Fingers (although his name is never mentioned, check me if I’m wrong!) in his latest* First Law book Red Country. Minor spoiler here– Logen survived the dive out Bethod’s castle window and wandered away from the North, where he inexplicably settled down with an unnamed woman to be her ranch hand/stepfather of her children. Geography is purposefully vague in Abercrombie novels, which is why you see few if any maps in his books. Logen settled in the “Near Country” which appears to be on the edge of Starrickland and just this side of the “Far Country”. Under the guise of “Lamb”, he has become a father to his step-children, Roe, Pitt and especially Shy South, a half-breed of sorts. Point of explanation: the local version of American Indians are called “Ghosts” in this world and are blonde or red-headed. Shy’s mother apparently had one for a husband or “companion” at some point in her past– her mother is deceased at the start of the story.

After the characters of Lamb and Shy are introduced at a local store haggling over supplies, tragedy ensues and the other children are kidnapped and a farmhand on the farm is murdered. At this point the story goes into full on SEARCHERS mode. If you are stumped at the reference, the Searchers is the classic 1956 Western starring John Wayne in arguably his greatest role, Ethan Edwards. Edwards is a grim faced Civil War veteran that relentlessly pursues the kidnappers of his niece. Abercrombie borrows from this structure with both hands, casting Lamb as Edwards and Shy South as a foul-mouthed, somewhat obnoxious version of Martin Pawley (seriously.. see the Searchers if you never have, it’s excellent.. and kind of a shocker for John Wayne fans).

Lamb and Shy track some of the kidnappers to a border town, where a fracas ensues that results in the emergence of the long buried “Bloody Nine” character.. the berserk inner demon that sometimes possesses Logen in a fight. In the brutal ensuing slaughter they learn enough to find out whom they are pursuing and what direction they need to go in. They also catch the attention of Dab Sweet, famous old time frontiersman with his laconic companion, Crying Rock, a Ghost woman.
Lamb and Shy happen to be going the same direction as Dab Sweet, so they sign on to a “Fellowship” (wagon train) and accompany them in a journey to the Far Country.

So the plot becomes something between the old 50s TV show Wagon Train and the old 50s movie The Searchers, complete with Indian Raids, bad weather, dust and assorted trials and tribulations, many of them deadly. In parallel with Shy and Lamb’s narrative (told through Shy’s eyes) is the story of Temple, a feckless type who might have been a very minor character in previous stories (I can’t recall), but now has ended up playing a far grander role as the notary and lawyer for infamous mercenary Niccomo Costca as his company also travels into the Far Country, employed by the Inquisition to find rebel strongholds. Temple is the other POV character (aside from the usual character asides, which Abercrombie delights in). He is stricken with conscience as Costca’s men commit atrocity after atrocity, and finally has enough.  The understated redemption of Temple’s character is handled well.  Abercrombie doesn’t make him a perfect hero during the course of the story– he just becomes a better person.  That rang true for me.

I don’t like revealing much more of the plot– suffice to say they all intersect, travelling into the Far Country, and many things of great import happen, introducing new characters and re-introducing us to a surprising number of older ones, including Caul Shivers and Glamma Golden. The plot resolves to everyone’s satisfaction, although not without a great cost as some of the older characters are killed off.

You might have picked up on the thinly disguised Western theme. Yup, it IS that obvious. I can’t say as I was put off by it.. the First Law universe has the same gritty feel to it as a Western so it wasn’t a thematic stretch for Abercrombie.

Overall it was a great read, and I tore through it like I tear through the author’s work usually. My only complaint was the constant forced jabs between Shy South and Dab Sweet– just to prove they respect each other. It seemed forced. My other complaint was the constant philosophizing the older characters do during the course of the book. Every other page, one of the oldsters makes some cryptic comment about time catching up to him, there being nobody around to inject levity into the conversation except, perhaps, Temple. THis is a standard trope of Joe Abercrombie.. prosing on about time catching up with a character, how his knees hurt on cold mornings, and how there is no glory in war. We’ve read this before. Despite that minor nit I found myself enjoying this book very much. Perhaps not as much as THE HEROES but it’s a book that a fantasy fan will tear through in point-blimfark.

* I have not read the most current trilogy that Joe Abercrombie is currently working on (starting with HALF A KING) but I believe it doesn’t take place in the First Law world. I hope Joe continues to transport us to that setting.

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The Empire of Man series, by Weber and Ringo, so far…

We Few (Empire of Man, #4)We Few by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have just finished the Empire of Man/Prince Roger series (so far), from book 2 March UpCountry to book 4 We Few. This is my second attempt at a David Weber series– the first being the Safehold series, which created such a poor opinion that I abandoned it mid-read. I know that SF fans seem to enjoy Honor Harrington and I admit I haven’t read any of those. I probably should have started there. Anyway, with the metaphorical bad taste in my mouth after Safehold I tried the March To the Sea (#2 in the Empire of Man series) since, well, the library had it in and it looked interesting. I’m very glad I did! This is more or less a review of the series (less the first book, the events of which I picked up from the rest of the easily enough).

March to the Sea (Empire of Man, #2) by David Weber

March to the Sea is the 2nd novel in the story of Prince Roger and his entourage of bodyguards and staff after they crashlanded on Marduke, a backwater planet in Imperial Space. Roger realizes they are in a wilderness on a hostile planet with only one spaceport that is very likely in hostile hands (after collusion with a competing empire, the Saints, is proven). The Prince and company will have to seize the spaceport and commandeer a ship to escape from Marduke. Unfortunately it’s on the OTHER side of the planet, and they will have to march their across a wilderness of various tribes and cultures of the Mardukans, a giant race of four armed natives. Along the way they face two barbarian hordes– in the first book and in the second. They encounter civilized Marducan cities once over the mountains (of the first book) and train them in the art of warfare– initially with pikes and then with rudimentary rifles.

March to the Stars (Empire of Man, #3) by David Weber

In March to the Stars, Roger and his diminishing company of bodyguards use their alliance with a rudimentary industrial city state (Quern’s Cove) to create a small fleet of ships capable of sailing across the ocean to the continent with the spaceport (and dealing with the ship-killing giant sea creatures on the way). On the far continent they encounter a cannibal cult, mountain tribes, settle a war and take on the star port. At this point Roger discovers a coup has taken place back on Earth and that he has been framed as the architect behind it.

We Few (Empire of Man, #4) by David Weber

In We Few, the now few survivors of the story (so far) are left to travel back to Old Earth and establish a counter-coup. This story is more political/social then the previous two (at least) and features a whiz bang of a space battle (very well written) towards the end, when the authors jump between various POV characters on both sides during the long engagement. There is much left undone at the end of the We Few and I suspect strongly there will be more novels in this series.

The Empire of Man series (so far) is a great read– full of adventure, sympathetic characters and interesting settings. As novels, they are far from perfect– I’ve noticed Weber stating/restating/re-re-stating expository bits again and again before, and he does that here as well, but this time, the trend is tempered by his collaboration with Ringo. Many plot points seem added in to fill out space and move things along. The core theme of the stories is redemption– redeeming Roger, who starts off as a spoiled bratty prince with little experience in the real world and turning him into a tough-as-nails, decisive leader. Along the way the authors get a little preachy from time to time and some of the dialogue is a tad stilted.. hell, even corny in places. But that’s just fine. They make up for it with big ideas, big battle scenes and evil villains galore. The human relationships depicted in the series are less well written– Roger seems to engender fanatical devotion (and love) in almost every sympathetic character he meets, which is mighty convenient for the story most of the time. Roger’s transformation into a steely-eyed hero with phenomenal enhanced reflexes and combat skills helps, too.

These are minor quibbles. I’d definitely read the next book in the Empire of Man when it hits the street– it’s been a while since I’ve read a good space opera, and the Empire of Man series delivers in spades.

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Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome, a short review

Caesar's Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar's Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of RomeCaesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome by Stephen Dando-Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Caesar’s Legion is a short history, primarily focusing on the entire life of the Tenth Legion (aka Legio X Equestris) which was created by Julius Caesar in 61 BC when he was the Governor of Hispania Ulterior. Already immersed in a rivalry with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (aka Pompey the Great), it wasn’t enough for him to inherit Legions 7,8, and 9 from Pompey– he wanted a unit that would bear his own mark and be loyal to him. Dando-Collins traces the story of the Legions exploits, from the early campaigns in modern-day Portugal, to the Gallic Wars, to the Civil Wars, the assassination of Julius Caesar and its aftermath, and inclusion into the new Imperial Army of Augustus and later Emperors of Rome. Dando-Collins’s work is largely unknown to me; I suspect he got most of the facts right (based on the leading historians of the day that have come down to us). His writing style is adventuresome and dramatic, which fits well with his body of work, which appear to be mostly light historical books written for a young adult audience.

I enjoyed Mr. Dando-Collins’ specific focus on individual military units. Obviously the focus is on the Legio X Equestris, but there are many other fellow travelling Legions in the book that reappear in the narrative constantly. The Legions raised in Hispania (Pompey’s 7-9, Caesar’s 10 and later units) appear to have been highly prized by Roman military commanders and deserving of their reputations of ferocity, boldness and toughness. Mr. Dando-Collins has written books on other Roman military units (Nero’s 14th Legion, Caesar’s Sixth Legion, and the Third Gallica), which, if they follow the pattern of this book, I’d certainly be interested in reading.

I certainly enjoy the author’s style– it’s chatty, focuses on the human moments that we can all relate to, and he does not shy away from the unpleasant topics. Directly after the epic Battle of Pharsala, where Caesar defeated Pompey, the much valued Spanish Legions all lapsed into mutiny over pay, retirement and the non-payment of bonuses, causing the entire Caesarian army to grow mutinous by their example. This is a fact that Caesar himself never mentions in his history books. There’s a lot of interesting detail in Caesar’s Legion; not just about the wide scope of history but also about the day to day life of a common Roman soldier. If you are an uncompromising history enthusiast who insists on original sources for any book on an ancient subject, you might not like it.  I enjoyed it– it’s certainly not on the level of, say, Adrian Goldsworthy, but I’d read this author again.

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The Martian (a book), by Andrew Weir, Reviewed

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Martian, by Andy Weir, is the author’s first published novel. Weir took an interesting route to publication– he started the Martian in 2009 and once offered it for free, than as a .99 Kindle book. Ha! If I had only known– not that I begrudged paying full price for it.

If you haven’t figured out the plot from the movie trailers that are just now showing up online, this is indeed a story of a Mars mission that encounters calamity and is forced through an odd series of mischances to leave a crewman behind them on Mars. The crewman, Mark Watney, had been left for dead. Now he has to figure out a way to survive for the long haul on Mars– until the next Mars mission shows up. Very fortunately for us readers, fate has picked the perfect person to survive on Mars. Watney is a botanist and a mechanical engineer, and very well suited to take what he has left (a Habitat – HAB.. which was designed to hold people for 35 days, now he has to live in it for years, some rovers and a lot of junk left over from the aborted mission) and survive for a truly long haul stay.

The novel is really a series of vignettes about solving problems associated with this particular situation, and how Watney bends his engineer/problem solving mind to solving problem after problem with an endless supply of cheerful optimism. Herein lies the success of this novel– Watney tells us his story as a series of log entries, usually right after something goes spectacularly wrong or right. He preps us for the next problem by running through the math and science of the problem and then provides an AAR for each disaster as it arises.. usually in a humorous fashion (“Well, that didn’t kill me, or I wouldn’t be typing this, would I?”). The strength of the novel– Watney’s personality and Tony Stark like attitude to fixing problems, is also its weakness. There are other characters in this novel, and they are largely shortchanged in Watney’s favor, reduced to being the means of explaining the current peril and powerless to do anything about it. We barely get the same read on them as we do on Watney.

With all that said. I loved the Martian.. I mean that.. I really, freaking, LOVED the Martian. I bought the ebook and read it at night under the covers. I started it and was halfway done in less than a day. I reread portions. Yes, there will be a movie this Fall and from what I can see they are more or less faithful to the novel. I look forward to seeing it.

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Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera #1) reviewed

Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera, #1)Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have read novels by Jim Butcher before, specifically in the Harry Dresden series. I like Harry Dresden, but the magic realism thing kind of wears thin for me after a while, or at least I get a sense of repetition.. maybe it’s me. I’ve only read a few and don’t have a huge desire to read more. I like Butcher’s prose style, which is lean, yet descriptive, but after a dozen some odd Dresden novels there just isn’t much more you can do with the character.

So I really had no preconceptions starting the Codex Alera series. There was one available at the library and I wanted to read a fantasy story, that was that. I’m glad I did. I like Butcher’s world building in the Codex Alera– not much is stated but many background bits are inferred about the foundations of the world “Carna”, including how Alerans (humans) arrived into it (the old Lost Roman Legion saw). Humans, in this world, have an inherent grasp of elemental magic– earth, fire, water, metal, etc. The magic usually takes the form of a semi-sentient named spirit creature called a “Fury”. In Alera, EVERYONE has the Fury ability in some measure, save one person, the primary POV character, Tavi, a young boy of 13 at the time of the first book. Predictably Tavi is an outcast and outsider as a non-practitioner of “Furycraft” in a world where everyone is a crafter in some way.

The outsider status is what makes Tavi stand out, and in great measure be likeable and sympathetic. In a world where people can solve problems by commanding their magical spirits to do just about anything, Tavi has to work harder, think, and observe. I won’t dwell to much on the plot for the sake of preventing spoilers. Tavi and various relatives, friends and chance acquaintances uncover a plot to foment a revolution, encounter an invasion by one of the aboriginal peoples of the planet Carna (the Marat, think pale elfy-North American Indian people with close ties to animal totems). Things happen, big battle, satisfying ending.. that ought to be sufficient description.

Codex Alara is good fun, not great literature, but it is most definitely worth reading as a beach or commuting read. I found myself enjoying the world and the characters once I got my head around the setting and the “science” of fury crafting. I liked that the most sympathetic powerless character manages to outwit the overpowered denizens of the setting constantly. It’s fun storytelling. I recommend it.

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Horns, by Joe Hill (a short review)

HornsHorns by Joe Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Horns is my first Joe Hill book completed (I tried NOS4R2 as an audio book a while back but ran out of time and gave up at checking it out again, so it doesn’t count). Horns is the story of one Ignatius “Ig” Parrish, lovelorn victim of a horrible crime where the love of his life is cruelly and casually raped and strangled to death, and he is blamed for it. Although his actions aren’t specifically stated as a cause of his ensuing problems, when Ig drunkenly smashes the religious figures set out for his girlfriend’s memory after a candlelight prayer vigil, he wakes up the next day with horns. As in the devil kind. Small at first, then larger and and larger as the course of time passes in the book. Ig notices something strange right off the mark. When people encounter the horns, they have a hard time seeing them– as if there is a strong influence on them to forget about them and look elsewhere. Also, when people encounter the Horns, they feel compelled to tell Ig things. Nasty things.. their inner monologue suddenly becomes external. Ig starts to encounter a phenomenon.. people are telling him their dark desires so they can get Ig to “give permission” to do bad things. Initially repulsed, Ig sees the practical side of his newfound power of compulsion, and uses it to help solve his girlfriend’s murder. I won’t give up any more of the plot here, as I’m already treading on spoiler territory.

Suffice to say the murderer is no great surprise, in fact, the book telegraphs it pretty early. The rest of the story unfolds around what Ig can possibly do with that information to extract some measure of justice from the situation. It’s an interesting and sometimes quite funny narrative. I liked the very subtle ending and the notion that Ig may have “fixed things” after all, but there is a lot of that imagery-vs-reality language going on in Ig’s portion of the story. Viewpoints shift between main characters from time to time and the narrative bounces between flashbacks, points of view and sometimes allegorical imagery. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Horns is a fun (not profound) read, and Mr. Hill definitely inherited the storyteller’s gift from his father.

I did catch the movie based on the book on NETFLIX; I can’t recommend it. The story is greatly changed, the killer actually LESS telegraphed and entirely unexplained or hinted at, which made his revelation jarring. Still, if you haven’t read the book you might be amused!


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The Strain Trilogy by Del Toro and Hogan, a short review

The Strain (The Strain Trilogy, #1)The Strain by Guillermo del Toro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I might as well reveal that I read all three books in this trilogy, back to back, very quickly, in the last weeks of April 2015. I rarely read a trilogy of novels like that. It’s not that I found the Strain Trilogy to be a contemporary horror classic, or other superlatives. Not quite. The narrative plods quite a bit here and there, and goes off into soap opera land when the author(s) need to fill up pages. However, the elements that really sell this trilogy are there in abundance.

For one thing, it’s a very bleak story. Humans don’t come off as winners in this trilogy. They are almost the antithesis of admirable. Major players are petulant, petty, traitorous, addicted and selfish. You know, like real human beings are all the time. I liked that even the most nobly motivated characters (Abraham Setrakian and Vasily Fett) have their dark sides. It reads well. I like that humanity not only doesn’t “Win” in a classic sense, but at least they avoid losing, you know, kind of.. I’m trying hard to use spoilers, so bear with me.

As you already know, this is a trilogy of Vampire novels with a distinctly supernatural/religious thread running through them. This is where the stories shine with the luminescence of Vampire-killing UV light. These are not the comfortable Eastern European stereotype vampires, far from it. Authors Del Toro and Hogan make a supreme effort to create a creature that is not only explainable in logical medical terms, but consistent within its own universe. Many of the tropes of the creature are present– light sensitivity, silver can kill them, ultraviolet light can kill them, etc. These are explained in clinical, medical terms. You don’t just know that the Strain vampires are scary– the biology of Strain vampires is explained in excruciating, gory detail, right up to the dislocating jaws, stinger on the end of a prehensile extendible tongue and bloodworms to pass on the infection. I loved this bit– the biological & supernatural vampires of this trilogy literally had me tearing through the story. I loved the vampiric view of humanity. These vampires could care less about humans beyond them being a source of food. When, by the end of the second book (The FALL) and beginning of the third (THE NIGHT ETERNAL), it is very clear that humanity has “lost” for all intents and purposes, the reader gets a vampire’s eye view of the world in a setting where vampires breed humans for bloodletting on a scale not matched by (and largely inspired by) the Nazi death camps of World War 2.

As for the rest of the plot, it was very engaging. The ending has some surprises, but only a few. WIth this trilogy, it’s the journey, not the destination, that makes it a great read. Some of the dialogue (between humans) was a little corny in places, and I’d rate THE NIGHT ETERNAL about half a star below THE STRAIN and THE FALL for that reason. The overall effect, however, is choice.

If you’d like something new and a little shocking in your horror reading, without a doubt run and pick up THE STRAIN TRILOGY.

The Strain (The Strain Trilogy, #1) by Guillermo del Toro

The Fall (The Strain Trilogy, #2) by Guillermo del Toro

The Night Eternal (The Strain Trilogy, #3) by Guillermo del Toro

The Strain The Fall The Night Eternal

I also recommend the F/X series adaption– not as good as the books but very enjoyable.

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TRANSITION, by Iain M. Banks (a short review)

TransitionTransition by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a late find for me. I’ve read most of Iain Banks’ novels at this stage, both the Culture universe novels and the more subtle thought-provoking non-SF ones. Transitionnever really registered on my radar for some reason. Transition is a far cry from Banks’ early Science Fiction series– both Culture and Culture kinda-sorta stories. Rather than a galactic soap-opera featuring privileged elites shuttling from crisis point to crisis point in the Galaxy on gigantic space ships, Transition is about the multiverse, or the theory that there are an infinity of universes that exist simultaneously. A shadowy organization called the Concern has learned how to jump from universe to universe, using a drug called septus. Two factions are warring with the Concern, the talented, ruthless Madame D’Ortolan and the talented, but more reasonable Mrs. Mulvahill. There are many characters in this novel and the story jumps from one to the other, often shifting narrative form from memoir to first person action story.

I’ve rarely felt the sensation of “That’s it? that’s all?” when I turned the last page of a Banks novel; this was a first for me. Banks spends an inordinate amount of time in building the setting (world building isn’t a term that applies– worlds-building might, though). We change from POV characters Adrian and Temujin Oh, and the Philosopher and a patient who clearly had previous ties with the Concern. There’s a great sense of building in this novel, but the payoff seems frenetic and rushed. I did NOT get the sense that Transition was any great commentary on our present times– OUR Earth, it turns out, is just one of the multiple universes and not a very important one at that.

For all that, it was an enjoyable change of pace from an author that wrote galaxy-spanning epics. I thought the setting was great and some of the characters were top notch (particularly the villainous Madame D’ortolan) but their nothing is really fully explained. We have a suggestion of just WHY the Concern exists (towards the ending), but no explanation. We know the motivations of the parties involved, but never is the WHY? explained anywhere. Personally, I wouldn’t rate it among Banks’ better works but it is eminently readable and enjoyable in its own right.

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ORCS and ORCS: BAD BLOOD by Stan Nicholls… revisiting my childhood

Orcs (Orcs: First Blood, #1-3)Orcs by Stan Nicholls
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Orcs and Orcs: Bad Blood

Orcs (Orcs  First Blood, #1-3) by Stan Nicholls

Orcs  Bad Blood by Stan Nicholls

These books are oddly nostalgic of the kind of fantasy I read when I was 14, and for that reason, I enjoyed it, for the most part. The novel is part of a longer series which apparently is bundled together in various collections, so you will find them under a variety of names. I read ORCS (the Origin story) and ORCS: BAD BLOOD, which follows up some years after the first story.

The world of the ORCS series is classic Basic Dungeons and Dragons, circa 1980s. An Orc band, led by gruff Stryke, is in the service of one classic evil Queen Jenesta. They are sent on a mission that initially succeeds but later encounters disaster, which causes the band to abruptly leave Jenesta’s service in search of the big boojum that has been stolen. A quest ensues, to get the 5 boojums (actually they are called instrumentalities). These are scattered all over the landscape in the keeping of various fantasy archetypes– I counte d Orcs, Goblins, Centaurs, Neirads, Merfolk, Brownies, Dragons, Elves, Trolls, and Dwarves in the first novel, and Zombies and animated Vampire Skeletons in the second.

All this stuff would be a delightful romp indeed, were the writing a bit above the juvenile level. The characters are stereotypes– from the evil sexually sadistic queen, to the manly soldierly Stryke, the sarcastic Coella, the Bluff and Stupid Haskir, the mystical Aelfred, and the Pugnacious Jupp the Dwarf, who has problems of his own being a dwarf in an orc band. The dialogue is exquisitely repetitious and unoriginal– author Nicholls goes back to the trough again and again to the same dialogue to bookend scenes. For instance, if I had a dollar for every time racist dwarf-hatin’ Haskir picks a fight with angry Dwarf Jupp, only to be broken up by a loud “SHUT IT!” from Stryke, well.. I’d have a lot of dollars.

With all that said… I know, I know.. I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I found myself liking these orcs. They, at least, are realized well. They are intelligent (enough), possess a sense of honor, love to fight, but aren’t stupid about it. They aren’t creatures of evil, rather a decent enough bunch who have been enslaved into service to previously mentioned evil Queen. Humans, in contrast, come off as mostly evil, stupid and fanatical. Which was kind of refreshing!

In summary– ehhhh this series isn’t exactly a classic and will be largely forgettable, but isn’t without enjoyable spots. If you want a decent popcorn read that probably should be labelled a “Young Adult” fiction, you might like Orcs.

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