Quick take: The story of Hughes’ rise to fame, descent into total drug addiction and eve...moreOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought
2.5 stars actually
Quick take: The story of Hughes’ rise to fame, descent into total drug addiction and eventual recovery.
Description: Glen Hughes joined the English rock band Deep Purple when they were at their peak. He was a highly talented singer, songwriter and bassist and had previously spent six years in the band Trapeze, but as part of Deep Purple he immediately achieved worldwide fame. After two years Deep Purple split up and Hughes then went on to make a lot of music with a string of bands and as a solo artist, in addition to being a session musician on a long list of recordings by other artists.
The book tells the story of Hughes musical career and his relationships with many people in the music industry, both famous and not so famous. It also describes in some detail the lurid lifestyles led by many successful people in the industry. But the main focus on the book is on his introduction to drugs, his subsequent addiction, his chaotic descent into a personal (and professional) hell, and his eventual return to sobriety and relative normality. He pulls no punches in describing what it is like to be a drug addict and the impact it had on himself and all those around him.
The book is liberally laced with quotes from a great range of people who have come into contact with Hughes throughout his life and career.
John’s thoughts: I loved (and still do love) a lot Deep Purple’s music, so I was a very happy camper when Shellie presented me with this book. I read with great interest the content relating to music, musicians and bands. It was interesting to read about who he interacted with and to find out more about some key people in the music scene.
What wasn’t so interesting was the drug-related content. I soon tired of reading about drug dealers, users, addicts and the impact of addiction. It is obviously important content, and telling that story is no doubt one of the big reasons why Hughes created this book, but reading about someone totally screwing up their lives and often being a jerk while doing it just isn’t a lot of fun. Plaudits to Hughes for finally getting his act together, getting clean and recreating his life, and I admire his brutal honesty in telling the tale. I just lost a bit of interest half way through the book.
It didn’t help that the autobiography wasn’t very well put together. It jumped around a lot and contained loads of snippets that just seemed to be patched together. Things didn’t really flow smoothly.
I’d recommend this book for any big fans of Deep Purple or Hughes’ other music, and it would also be a good read for anyone wanting to learn more about the perils of drug use and the travails of an addict. Unfortunately it left me a little cold. I’d rate this book 2.5 stars. (less)
John’s quick take: Continuing the story told in the classic science fiction movie and novel 2001: A Space...moreOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: Continuing the story told in the classic science fiction movie and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, this chronicles what happens when an international team is sent to Jupiter to investigate the fate of the 2001 mission.
John’s description: In 2001 the crew of the spaceship Discovery found a mysterious monolith orbiting Jupiter; it’s clearly an alien artifact. The spaceship’s computer (known as HAL) had started to act oddly and caused the death of all but one of the crew. David Bowman, the lone survivor, manages to disable HAL and then continues on with the mission. When he leaves Discovery and starts to explore the monolith he disappears, with his last words sent back to Earth being “My God, it’s full of stars!” But there is now a newly created version of Bowman, unobtrusively watching over Earth and humans, unsure of what his next steps should be.
Nine years later a joint Soviet-American team travels to Jupiter on a Soviet spaceship. The objectives are to find out all they possibly can about the 2001 mission from Discovery’s records, and to further investigate the monolith. A key to unlocking some of the mysteries surrounding the 2001 mission is to resuscitate Discovery and to delve into HAL’s memory banks – so a vital member of the 2010 mission is the scientist who created HAL. There are another two Americans aboard who are deemed necessary, but the rest of the crew is Soviet. There are ongoing political tensions between the two countries and neither is happy about having to partner with the other, but there are some necessarily tight deadlines that have to be met, and only the Soviets have a ship that is ready in time. Inevitably the relationships between the crew factions are strained as the mission starts out.
As the ship gets nearer to Jupiter there are some big surprises in store; there is also the horrendously dangerous braking maneuver which entails circling Jupiter and using its gravity to help slow the ship down. Finally they rendezvous with the dead US ship, Discovery, and then start the arduous task of trying to bring it back to life. They also have to carefully bring the powerful HAL back online, unsure of what they will find and how it might react to the newcomers. Meanwhile the huge monolith seems to be inert and unperturbed by their presence. But by far the biggest shock is yet to come. And “Bowman” continues his watch and starts to flex some of his newfound powers.
John’s thoughts:2001: A Space Odyssey was such a classic movie, which was groundbreaking in all sorts of ways. The ending left some audience members scratching their heads a bit, though the resulting novel did clear things up at least somewhat (the movie was a result of collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, while Clarke followed up with the novel). In many ways it cried out for a sequel, but more than twenty years passed before Clarke released this novel.
It was a tough act to follow, but employing his usual gifts of huge imagination, technical credibility, and first-rate storytelling, Clarke did a terrific job. In common with most Clarke books, this is a really fine read. The futurism and science don’t get in the way at all, but rather add to what is a really cool story. This is an easy read – which is not to diminish the depth and complexity of the plot. And of course there are plenty of surprises to keep you turning the pages.
It is not unusual in many science fiction books to find that characters are rather thin and under-developed, taking a back seat to “gee whiz” plots and grand visions, but that is not a problem that I have found with Clarke – the characters in this novel are interesting and have some depth, as are those in most of his books. (Though I must admit that this is my first Clark read in a long time and it was in my student days when I voraciously read his books, so maybe my memory is playing little tricks with me).
All in all, this is a great read that I’d recommend to any and all science fiction fans; though of course it has been out for a long time now so perhaps most have read it already. You don’t have to have read 2001 first as the key elements are recounted in 2010 - but it will help to provide a little added background and color. I’d also say that for non-science fiction fans who want to test the water, Arthur C. Clarke is a great place to start. I’d rate this book 4 stars.
P.S. It only just occurred to me how apt it is to rate science fiction novels using a system of stars! (less)
John’s quick take:An excellent, touching and hilarious coming-of-age story, set during the Troubles in No...moreOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take:An excellent, touching and hilarious coming-of-age story, set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Also a “must read” for any ex-paperboys out there.
John’s description: In 1975, Macaulay was a twelve year old boy living in the Shankill Road in west Belfast. This was during the Troubles and the Shankill was a particular hotspot – a predominantly loyalist working class area, it was also the home of several loyalist paramilitary groups. Bombs were going off, mobs were clashing, shops and buses were being burnt out, paramilitaries were openly causing mayhem and an ever-expanding network of “peace walls” were going up to separate protestant and catholic communities. Against this backdrop, the young Macaulay gets a job delivering the local Belfast Telegraph newspaper each evening.
The story tells of a two-year period of his young life during which he delivers the newspapers without fail, despite all of the barriers and problems. It is a funny and touching tale. He cannot for the life of him understand what the Troubles are all about and sees madness and hypocrisy on a daily basis, but he remains cheerful and focused on things that are really important to a near-teenage boy – girls, pop music, clothes and trying to fit in at school.
We are introduced to a big cast of family, friends, adversaries, teachers and customers, most of them talking in a thick Belfast accent and many of them possessing slightly odd views of life. He becomes a star paperboy but remains fearful of his boss – Oul’ Mac. “Oul’ Mac smoked and said ‘f**k’ a lot. Of course, most men smoked and said ‘f**k’ a lot, but Oul’ Mac did both, simultaneously and ceaselessly ….. I never saw him smile, but sometimes his eyes twinkled and I couldn’t work out whether he was coughing or laughing”.
Macaulay and his friends got into endless pranks and scrapes, but through it all he remains determined to deliver his newspapers, polish his reputation and remain “the only pacifist paperboy in Belfast”.
John’s thoughts: This is a funny and a delightful book. It is also a clever read – while it remains light hearted it pulls no punches in skewering some of the idiocy (and idiots) of the Troubles. When Macaulay finally meets some catholic boys he surprisingly finds them just the same as his protestant neighbors and remains slightly bewildered at what the fuss is all about.
The story also resonated with me a lot on a personal level. I too spent my pre-teen and teen years in the 1970s delivering newspapers each day, albeit in England and not Ireland, so a lot of the cultural and historical references really hit home – though I didn’t have to dodge “wee hoods” that were regularly trying to rob me and I certainly didn’t have to worry about bombs and blocked off streets.
I found the Belfast humor hilarious, though I will warn that some readers might find the accents and some of the vernacular slightly tough to penetrate. I managed ok and actually found that rather than being a barrier it added to the enjoyment of the read.
I’d thoroughly recommend this book to anyone, but particularly to those who were growing up in the 1970s, anyone who enjoys light-hearted coming of age stories and anyone who wants to learn more about the Troubles. And of course this should be a compulsory read for the paperboy fraternity! I’d rate this four stars. (less)
Quick take:A gritty historical fiction set during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII – think an updated The...moreOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
Quick take:A gritty historical fiction set during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII – think an updated The Red Badge of Courage crossed with a dose of Catch 22.
Description: As WWII reaches its climax, an unsettled Toby Parker is too young to enlist in the American Army but can’t think of anything else to do. To date his life has been characterized by neglect, instability and struggling to make ends meet. He manages to finagle his way into the army and after some brief training finds himself shipped off to France. It is late 1944 and Germany is struggling to hold back surging Allied forces - but Hitler decides to make one last major offensive push in the Ardennes with the ensuing “Battle of the Bulge” totally taking the Allies by surprise. After landing Toby is almost immediately thrown into a vicious battle.
Any thoughts Toby might have had about the nature of war are soon swept away. Quite apart from the terrifying and bloodthirsty engagements with the enemy, what he experiences is bewildering, confusing, totally chaotic and at times absolutely illogical. Having to learn quickly, a wounded Toby tries desperately to survive, but it is sometimes not clear if the greatest danger comes from the Germans or from some on his own side. A lifetime’s worth of experiences are crammed into just a few searing days.
A historical footnote for those that are interested - the Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in WWII. It also severely depleted Germany's war-making resources, thereby restricting Germany’s ability to defend itself during the final stages of the war.
John’s thoughts: This book doesn’t pull any punches about the nature of war; it is very graphic and feels authentic. Apart from the viciousness of humans, one of the overriding themes of the story is the chaos of war. For sure the Battle of the Bulge was a confusing engagement and I’m not sure if Pearce has accurately reflected that or whether he has embellished it a bit – but it certainly makes for a compelling story. The development of the Toby Parker character over just a few days is remarkable. I’ve no right to comment on whether or not it is realistic, but it certainly does ram home the awful nature of war and what it does to people.
The element of Catch 22 comes in with the idiotic behavior of some people and the bureaucratic and nonsensical orders that had to be followed. There is also some deep irony in enemies sometimes treating people better than supposed friends.
There is a lot to like about this book. It is easy to read, interesting and pulls you along. Sometimes the action almost got to be almost too much – but there again what was I expecting in choosing to read a book like this? If you like historical fiction set in times of war then I’d certainly recommend this book. I’d rate it three stars. (less)
John’s quick take: A dystopian tale about what happens when corporations and capitalism replace govern...moreReview originally posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: A dystopian tale about what happens when corporations and capitalism replace government and democracy.
John’s description: Charles Thatcher belongs to Ackerman Brothers Securities Corporation, one of the biggest corporations in a near-future world where all governments have disappeared, to be replaced by businesses whose only concerns are making money and beating the competition. Generosity and free access to anything are believed to breed weakness and lead to laziness, so everything is for sale. Even air and rainwater have to be paid for. Image is also everything so perception is deemed to be far more important than the truth.
Charles is a Delta – not the lowest of the low but a mid-grade class. Along with many others he works in perception management, tasked with finding any information or news that might harm his employer, and spinning stories and messages that help to put his company, Ackerman Brothers in the best possible light. He is constantly striving to be promoted to executive, something which very few achieve.
Then he stumbles across some information about a woman charged with stealing rainwater and decides to embellish the story - accusing the thief of being a seditionist and revolutionary who believes in government. What he doesn’t realize is that his story might be close to the truth. Disgruntled by his life, his investigation leads him to become enamored by the woman’s cause and the possibility of life beyond the corporations. But such beliefs are deadly and dangerous as the corporations will stop at nothing to squash revolutionary thoughts and to keep the masses in line.
John’s thoughts: This is an interesting theme for a book. Already we live in a world where corporations hold far too much political power and influence, and Soutter extrapolates this into a dystopian future where corporations have become all powerful. What might a world look like where governments no longer exist? He paints a grim picture.
Everything has a price tag and there is no such thing as social rights. Individuals are only worth what they can contribute to company profits, and if they cannot contribute anything then they are worthless – considered a drag on efficiency and company morale. It is wrong to save money as it is only through spending that people contribute to the economy. Indeed, people are encouraged to trade their own “futures”, thereby maximizing their spending (and forever indebting themselves to the corporation which already owns them).
The problem for me was that the picture was too extreme. It’s a bit like when you read a politically oriented article or news story that has been written by someone with hardline extreme views – personally I tend to go glassy eyed rather quickly due to a lack of balance and reasonableness. For a futuristic novel to achieve maximum impact it has to be believable, even if it stretches credulity a bit; and to my mind this novel goes a little too far.
Still, it was an interesting and thought-provoking read. The story is well written and it built nicely to the climax. I have to say that the ending, though perfectly in line with the theme and the story, did leave me a bit dissatisfied. Overall I’d rate this three stars and recommend it to anyone who is a fan of futuristic, dystopian novels. (less)
John’s quick take:An interesting story about the American Civil War and brothers who ended up fig...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take:An interesting story about the American Civil War and brothers who ended up fighting on different sides.
John’s description: It’s 1927 and Calvin Hogue, a young reporter, is sent to cover a family reunion in the Florida panhandle. What makes the reunion different is that the two old Malburn brothers who will be there fought on different sides in the American Civil War. Hogue is nervous and not sure what to expect, but he is at least given a warm welcome by younger members of the Malburn family.
He is introduced to Daniel, the older of the two brothers, who at first seems like a rather irascible old man. But eventually, assisted by a glass or two of moonshine, the old man starts to tell Calvin his story, which then spreads over a few meetings between the two men. In particular Daniel tells all about his involvement as a Confederate soldier in the great battle of Chickamauga in Northern Georgia, when the Confederate army inflicted one of the worst defeats of the war on the Union army. The battle was savage and bloody, and Daniel Malburn spares no details.
Eventually Calvin is also introduced to Elijah, Daniel’s brother. The young Elijah did not sign up for the army alongside his older brother, but instead stayed at home to help run the family farm. After helping out at a salt works (salt was vital to the war effort) Elijah is captured by Union soldiers, and reluctantly chooses to join up as a Union scout rather than be sent to a prisoner of war camp. He figures that somehow he will be able to escape, but is horrified when his unit is sent to raid the countryside around where his family and friends live.
Calvin is totally drawn into the complex wartime stories of the two old men, which he turns into weekly episodes for the local newspaper. At the same time he becomes ever closer with the Malburn family.
John’s thoughts: This is an interesting and enjoyable account of the Civil War, when many families were torn apart and found themselves on different sides. In this case one of the brothers found himself on the opposing side almost by accident, but is nonetheless drawn into actions which will damage the lives of those he has grown up with.
Helms certainly does a good job of depicting the chaos and confusion of the Civil War – both on and off the battlefield. He pulls no punches in describing the gory details of battle, but also effectively describes the anxieties and actions of those not of the front line.
I think that Helms is at his best when writing about the battle scenes, and his account of Chickamauga were quite compelling. I really liked the way that he talked about the soldiers’ fears and emotions. I wasn’t quite as impressed with the story of Calvin Hogue, which is used as a framework for the Civil War storyline. Some of this is a little on the thin side – for example, it was never obvious to me why the two old brothers would suddenly open up to Hogue and tell him things they had never told anyone else.
However, I would recommend this to anyone interested in historical fiction generally or the American the Civil War specifically. A couple of words of caution – firstly, this is the first part of a two-book story so do not expect major story elements to come to a conclusion in this read; secondly, the tales of the two old Southern men are written the way that they speak, so that you have to cope with many odd phrases and colloquialisms. I’m sure that many people will find the speaking/writing style a bonus. For me it did occasionally get in the way just a bit.
John’s quick take: An ambitious science fiction brain tease in which the protagonist “falls into an aston...moreOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: An ambitious science fiction brain tease in which the protagonist “falls into an astonishing metaphysical shadow play”. What is real and what isn’t? What does real even mean?
John’s description: Set at some point in the future, the story revolves around Heath Ransom who is a very special kind of private investigator. He is a former police psychic and machine-enhanced “endovoyant” who is able to travel into etheric worlds in order to answer puzzles and to track down missing people.
Ransom is hired to find the consciousness of an extremely rich but comatose old woman and to try to bring it back to her body. However, while trying to track her down in the etheric world he finds a terrifying, dark vortex. Falling through the vortex he soon finds himself inhabiting the body of a young man who has just been poisoned by his girlfriend. This in turn leads him into an ever-darker investigation involving government conspiracies, mutants, corruption, torture, self-aware artificial intelligence, androids and attempted immortality.
In deadly danger himself, Ransom starts to jump back and forth between the two worlds. He then finds out that much of what he thought was real is in fact artificial and as paranoia and conspiracy abounds, he starts to doubt his own sanity.
John’s thoughts: Where to start? Well, it is a very interesting idea on which to base a novel. I like how it started and was quickly pulled into the plot. Soon, however, two things started to happen. Firstly, I started to hit some dense pieces of text that were so full of obscure words and complex ideas that I didn’t comprehend them even after a few re-reads. There weren’t loads of sections like this, but there were enough to make it a difficult read. Secondly, as the novel progressed, the underlying (and interesting) story almost disappeared into the background, seemingly having become just a vehicle to explore some complex concepts and ideas.
Nonetheless I stuck with it as Nasir did create an interesting future world and I did like many of his ideas. Sadly, for me the underlying story didn’t come to any sort of satisfactory ending; in fact I really disliked how the novel ends. Having spent so long building details and ideas, I think the ending is rushed and a bit glib.
Part way through the book I thought this was going to be a four-star read, but having lost the plot (almost literally) and not liking the conclusion, I’d only rate this three stars. Who would like it? Well the jacket references Philip K. Dick, as do some other reviews that I saw out there. If you like Dick’s ideas and world view, this book might well appeal to you. (less)
John’s quick take:A fascinating book for anyone interested in World War II or military history; but also...moreOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take:A fascinating book for anyone interested in World War II or military history; but also a terrific read for anyone who likes a good adventure story. This history book is full of both intriguing historical details and breathtakingly dangerous human exploits.
John’s description: As Hitler’s Germany prepared for war, it was determined to match the might of the British Navy. One result of this was the building of a huge battleship that was bigger, faster, better armed and more advanced than anything the world had seen. The Tirpitz, named after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz who was the architect of the German Imperial Navy, was supposedly unsinkable.
As the war developed, the main role of the ship was to cause havoc with the Atlantic convoys that were both the lifeline of besieged Britain and an important source of allied arms being supplied to Russia. The Germans based Tirpitz on the Norwegian coast, so it could also serve as a deterrent to a possible allied invasion of that country. Hitler had something close to paranoia about the threat of the allies rescuing Norway from its German occupiers.
As it turned out, by far the biggest impact that the Tirpitz had on the war was the threat of what it might do, rather than anything it actually did do. The allied forces were terrified of the ship’s capabilities and went to enormous lengths to protect their convoys and to avoid a direct confrontation, thereby tying up enormous amounts of military assets; meanwhile the Germans, and Hitler in particular, were terrified of losing the ship and were amazingly cautious about using it in anger, despite its reputed invincibility. But Hitler was not the only wartime leader who played a major personal role in the Tirpitz story; Churchill was almost obsessed with the Tirpitz, and relentlessly pushed his forces to attack the ship, even after it should have become obvious that its threat was overstated.
The result was that over a three-year period the British launched no less than 36 operations designed specifically to sink the ship. As Tirpitz was moored in well-protected Norwegian fjords, beyond the range of traditional British-based bombers, many of the British operations were innovative or desperately risky, bordering on suicidal. Among other things the British tried to use human torpedoes, midget submarines, aircraft carrier-based dive bombers, and specially designed mines. Some of the operations used special services groups, supported by undercover agents in Norway, and much of the intelligence about the ship’s movements and plans was the result of the British decrypting top-secret German Enigma communications.
The operation involving newly designed midget submarines was particularly unusual and daring. After perilous training and a fraught journey across the North Sea, just three of the ten craft made it beyond the ship’s defenses, one of which was then sunk by gunfire and depth charges. But two of the tiny submarines did manage to lay mines which did quite a bit of damage to Tirpitz, and put it out of action for almost six months. However, the ship was repaired and once again became a thorn in the sides of the British.
Eventually the job of sinking Tirpitz was handed over to the Royal Air Force, which now had access to Lancaster bombers which had just about enough range to reach the Tirpitz. The attacks by the bombers stretched the limits of both human endurance and available technology, and the losses were high. But using highly innovative and terrifying new “earthquake bombs”, the RAF finally scored two direct hits on the ship causing it to capsize within minutes; of the 1,700 sailors on board at the time of the bombing, it is estimated that almost 1,000 died as a result of the attack.
John’s thoughts: I found this a tremendously interesting read. It could have been just a dry, historical account of events, but throughout the book, Bishop uses personal diaries, memoirs and interviews with families of survivors to bring the history to life. In large parts the story is told through the eyes of people who were involved.
And what a story this is. If a Hollywood movie had used a plot like this, many would accuse it of being far-fetched and unbelievable. In here we have arms races, technology being pushed to the absolute limits, powerful nations battling for survival, spies, decrypted secret messages, audacious plans and quite stunning acts of bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the latter which I found most amazing. Throughout the book there are seemingly normal people that are willing to volunteer for missions or to do things which are absurdly dangerous. Heroes indeed.
Apart from all of that, I also found it an educational book. I’m old enough that World War II was very real to my parents and grandparents, and I’ve always been fascinated by the period. I learnt a lot from this read and it wasn’t just about the facts and the stories immediately surrounding the Tirpitz. It was also an education to find out more about the people – from how the personalities of Hitler and Churchill had a direct impact on events, to the stories of the daring pilots and sailors who undertook the raids, to the impact of German occupation on Norwegians, to the lives of the sailors on board the Tirpitz. Something else gave me great pause for thought. The Tirpitz never did attack allied ships and essentially the only time it caused any damage was when it was defending itself against attack; yet it had a major influence on events during the war. The threat of a weapon turned out to be much more damaging than the weapon itself. Intriguing, and you can’t help but draw some parallels with the cold war that followed World War II.
I’d rate this book four stars and thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in World War II or military history; but also to anyone who enjoys reading about real-life adventure. (less)
John’s quick take: What starts out as a clever and humorous science fiction story turns into something a...moreOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: What starts out as a clever and humorous science fiction story turns into something a bit too clever and a bit less funny.
John’s description: I’m not spoiling the plot by telling you that this story is one long (and convoluted) riff on Star Trek. In Star Trek stories redshirts are the lowly ensigns who accompany the senior officers on missions and who have remarkably short life spans - while the senior officers themselves always survive in order to go on many more future missions, some portion of the redshirts always come to a sticky end.
In this novel a group of lowly new ensigns on the Universal Union ship Intrepid are the focus of the plot. They soon figure out that something is amiss and that statistically speaking far too many of their colleagues and peers have ended up dying. Meanwhile, crew members who have been around just a bit longer go to ridiculous lengths to avoid the senior officers and their off-ship missions. The newbies come up with a very whacky theory as to what might be causing their plight. The theory is so crazy that our heroes start to think that they themselves must be slightly crazy, but now the plot takes the first of several mind-bending twists.
I can’t say too much without giving away spoilers, but suffice to say that as the ensigns struggle to figure out how to survive, we quickly descend into time travel, doppelgangers and metaphysics.
John’s thoughts: The plot is based on a very interesting premise – though I still can’t tell you about the basic idea without making myself a turkey. Be prepared for a Mobius strip-like logical flow that will exercise your grey matter as you try to work out the possibilities and ramifications of what is going on. I found myself giving up and just going with the flow.
But did I enjoy it? Well I did to begin with, but as things become more and more twisted I started to feel like I was on a bit of a mission to make it through to the end, rather than actually getting a kick out of the read. And I did find that as the implausibility factor increased, so my enjoyment levels diminished.
Also, I am a bit undecided about how the book ends. Basically after the main story comes to a sort of a conclusion, there are three separate codas from the perspectives of three of the minor characters. It’s a neat idea and I really like the final coda, but I didn’t like the first of the three and found the second one a bit so-so.
So overall it’s a great premise for a story and I got a few chuckles from it, but in the end I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I thought I was going to. I do suspect that there will be some very divided opinions over this one. Personally I’m glad that I read it and I’d rate it three stars, despite some of the things which didn’t quite work for me. If you like convoluted science fiction stories written by someone with their tongue firmly in their cheek, then this one is for you. (less)
John’s quick take: A clever and entertaining mash-up of cowboy Western, mysticism, mythol...moreOriginal review written by John posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: A clever and entertaining mash-up of cowboy Western, mysticism, mythology, urban fantasy, and horror – all set on the edge of the Nevada desert in the late 1860s, in the weirdest little town you can hope to imagine.
John’s description: After the disappearance of his beloved dad, who is a deeply scarred Civil War veteran, young Jim Negrey’s life turns upside down. With secrets to hide and on the run, he heads out west and eventually finds himself crossing the deadly 40-Mile Desert in Nevada. Out of water and with his horse on the point of dying, Jim is in a desperate situation, but he’s discovered and rescued by a strange outcast Native American Indian, who seems to have an odd affinity with the wild coyotes. The Indian, whose only name is Mutt, is deputy at the nearby wild town of Golgotha, and that is where he takes Jim.
Golgotha turns out to be weird beyond belief – with a host of oddball characters and a history of strange happenings. One of these characters is the town sheriff, Jon Highfather, who has “the mark of the noose” around his neck and is believed by many to be a dead man whose time has not yet come. Being a new friend of Mutt, who is deeply trusted by the sheriff, Jim is taken under the wing of Highfather.
Almost immediately that Jim arrives in town, all manner of madness and mayhem breaks out - much of which seems to stem from the old silver mine on the mountainside overlooking the town. With the help of a strange preacher, a primordial evil is stirring deep in the bowels of the earth beneath the silver mine. With the very fate of Heaven and Earth hanging in the balance, a motley crew of local people seem to be the only ones who can save the world.
Mutt and Highfather may, or may not, be able to rely on the help of the Mormon mayor with his trove of mythical treasures, the leader of the local Chinese tong and a powerful but shady saloon owner whose family has owned the silver mine and surrounding land for many generations. But central to it all is Jim and a strange artifact that used to belong to his father.
John’s thoughts: Although fantasy and mysticism are not my usual shtick, it’s good to try something different now and then and this seemed like an unusual and interesting story. So I’m glad I gave it a go because The Six-Gun Tarot is a real melting pot of content and themes creating an entertaining read.
At its heart it’s a fantasy thriller set in the wild West, but it includes shades of mysticism, Chinese and Mormon mythology, Native Indian lore, theology, zombie-ism and Frankenstein! Oh, and it’s a coming of age tale. And did I mention the secret order of assassins? Sound intriguing? It definitely was.
What I like most about the story was the characters that Belcher created. The lead characters are complex, well developed and just flat-out interesting. This starts with Jim, Mutt and Highfather, but many of the supporting cast are also three-dimensional with lots of quirks to them. And come to think of it, some of the characters may have more than three dimensions.
If there was anything I wasn’t crazy about it was some of the religious mythology and underpinning of the tale, but this wasn’t too over the top and didn’t get in the way too much for me – and it did mean that we could have fallen angels added to the mix. One other minor niggle was one key thread to the story’s conclusion which wasn’t explained well (of if it was I missed it).
All in all this was a complex and fun mash-up creating a fast-paced, entertaining story. Although Fantasy really isn’t a big draw for me, I enjoyed this book and I’d rate it four star. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in urban fantasy, steampunk or “weirdo-Westerns”. (less)
John’s quick take:A couple of paranoid loners find themselves in a web of conspiracy in this science fiction thriller.
John’s description: It’s far into the future and humanity has spread itself wide across the universe, seeking out new worlds that can be colonized and exploited for natural resources. In all this time and space, there has been no sign that another sentient species exist. It seems that humans are all alone in the universe.
Then Prudence Falling, a space trader in charge of a freighter and a ragtag crew, alights on Kassa, a farming planet that has been brutally attacked by secret assailants and whose population has been mostly slaughtered. She is soon joined by Kyle Daspar, a policeman who has been put in charge of a military patrol vessel. The space traders live on the edge of the law and naturally distrust everyone so she is suspicious of Daspar. Unbeknown to her Daspar is an undercover agent secretly acting against the powerful League for whom he supposedly works. He has been undercover so long that he is no longer sure who he can trust. The two are attracted to each other but their suspicious minds creates a wall of tension between them.
While trying to help the survivors on Kassa, Falling and Daspar make a shocking discovery - an alien spaceship that crashed during the attack. It is clear that they were not supposed to find the alien craft and yet Daspar had been tipped off in advance that something on the planet needed investigation. They smell big trouble and despite their natural caution soon find themselves entangled in a complex conspiracy where nothing is as it seems. With their lives in constant danger and an alien invasion seemingly imminent, the two loners are eventually drawn to each other.
John’s thoughts: I liked the story Planck has concocted. It’s a good mixture of science fiction, political thriller, and adventure romance. The two central characters are nicely developed and you have that feeling that they will end up together despite the difficulties, which adds a bit of spice to the mix. Also the future that Planck creates is interesting and has been well thought out, and is sufficiently different from the many other sci-fi novels that I’ve read recently – which helped to draw me in and keep me reading. It’s definitely a fast-paced book that can be breezed through quickly, and the plot also has enough twists to keep the reader guessing.
I like the two main characters and found myself rooting for them, though the relationship that develops between them isn’t the strongest part of the novel - it somehow felt a bit thin and unconvincing and not particularly lifelike. The other problem for me was the ending of the story; it was rather rushed and an awful lot was crammed into the final few pages. But beyond that this was a fun and interesting read and I’d rate the book 3.5 stars. It’s a fine first novel that will move me to look out for more work by Planck. If you like your science fiction mixed up with a bit of political conspiracy and a slight romantic element, then this is definitely one for you.
Are you interested in dinosaurs, time travel, space travel, religious cults and strange “alien” sp...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
Are you interested in dinosaurs, time travel, space travel, religious cults and strange “alien” species? All mixed together with a good dose of impending apocalypse? Then this book is for you.
John's thoughts on what it's about: While this is the third in the “Thunder” series, it is reasonably self-contained and stands on its own.
Eighteen years ago the prehistoric past and the present day collided creating a patchwork time-quilt. Whole cities and regions were ripped away and replaced by dense primeval jungles populated by dinosaurs; while conversely, back in the Cretaceous period many millions of years ago, parts of the primeval jungles were replaced by chunks of the twentieth century.
In the present day, man has eventually learned to live with the dinosaurs, with most of the beasts now contained safely in large nature reserves. But something is going amiss - again. New dinosaurs are suddenly appearing in the present, tunnels to the past seem to be opening up at random and a mission to the moon finds a living Tyrannosaurus Rex trapped in some sort of alternative reality or timeline. Something must be done and it’s left to Nick Paulson (director of the U.S. Office of Security Science), aided and abetted by a motley crew of mostly-accidental helpers, to figure out what is triggering these potentially cataclysmic events.
Traveling back to the Cretaceous period the crew finds embattled survivors from the twentieth century who had been cast back in time eighteen years previously, and surprisingly find a whole new species of sentient beings that are very different from humans. To their dismay they also discover that a huge asteroid is rushing toward the Earth and that impact is imminent. It being the Cretaceous period there are also dinosaurs – and lots of them.
John’s afterthoughts: On the plus side there is no shortage of creative ideas and plotlines in this book, and it certainly races along at high speed making it a quick and easy read. It also mixes action and adventure with a sizeable dollop of humor, so I got quite a few chuckles out of it. All very good things for the right sort of reader.
However, it is all a bit light-weight for my preferences. In particular the two-dimensional characters have little depth and it isn’t always obvious why people are doing what they are doing. Meanwhile there is so much action and things going on that the book doesn’t have that feeling of realism and believability that I like to see in my science fiction reads. And then there is the ending. Parts of it didn’t quite make sense for me and one conclusion to a key thread was just a tad on the silly side.
But I kept going along for the ride and mostly it was a fun ride. In the end this novel was not a big favorite and so I’d rate it 2.5 stars. But if you’re in the mood for some action-packed , escapist, “end-of-the-world-is-nigh” frolics involving dinosaurs and time travel, then this one has your name on it. (less)
John’s quick take:The Great Famine in Ireland is one of the most shameful episodes in the last...moreOriginal review by John is posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take:The Great Famine in Ireland is one of the most shameful episodes in the last 200 years of Western history. All Standing is an accurate retelling of the story of the legendary Jeanie Johnston famine ship, interwoven with a vivid history of the famine and the tale of one family who emigrated to America aboard the Jeanie Johnston to avoid the catastrophe.
John’s description: On the surface, the Great Famine was caused by potato blight that destroyed the crop that a huge proportion of the Irish relied upon – but the underlying causes went much deeper. With an impoverished economy, a booming population, predatory landlords, an enormous number of subsistence farmers with virtually no rights, and an over reliance on a single crop, the famine was a disaster waiting to happen. But the sheer scale and callousness of the disaster are hard to take in.
Before the famine Ireland had a population of around eight million people. Over the seven year years that the famine lasted it is estimated that a million died from starvation or related diseases and another million emigrated, mostly in a desperate bid to escape the horrors at home. Ireland’s population plummeted by some 25%. Unfortunately for the emigrants, conditions aboard the famine ships were often a lot worse than what they were escaping from. Emigrants were treated like cargo and crammed into ships’ holds with hardly any food and no sanitation, and diseases ran rampant. Over a hundred thousand emigrants died on the so-called coffin ships; on many voyages mortality rates were much worse than on slave ships. When the starved and sickly Irish arrived at their destination, they usually had to once again fight abject poverty, not to mention uncaring authorities and rampant racism.
But amidst the horrors one ship became legendary for not losing a single passenger during 16 cross-Atlantic voyages from Ireland to Canada or America. The Jeanie Johnston, based out of Tralee in Ireland, was built by a Scottish craftsman working in Canada, and captained by a professional sailor who carefully picked his crew and cared for his passengers. Unusually this ship had a ship’s doctor – and a very good one at that. Still the voyages were dangerous and the Jeanie Johnson had to rely on its fair share of luck.
On its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, a farmer’s wife by the name of Margaret Reilly gave birth to a baby boy, who the parents named after the ship’s owner, doctor and crew – resulting in the boy having no less than seventeen middle names! Nicholas Johnston Reilly (that’s his short name) and his parents survived the voyage, arrived in Quebec, crossed into America and eventually moved via Indiana and Michigan before settling down in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
John’s thoughts: Through painstaking research Miles has created a vivid picture of mid-nineteenth century Ireland, the famine, national politics and politicians, local characters involved with the Jeanie Johnston, the ship’s voyages, an emigrant’s life in Canada or America, and the Reilly family story.
While the bare facts are fascinating (not to mention truly horrific), this could so easily have become a dry, documentary history tome, but Miles has avoided that fate and created a really interesting book that is easy to read. In large part she has achieved that by focusing a lot on real people and their stories, which brings the history to life. Cleary that required an awful lot of research and hard work on her part.
Personally I’m still incredulous that the famine was allowed to become as catastrophic as it was – so much could have been prevented or alleviated if it wasn’t for greed, bigotry, inhumanity and neglect. I learnt an awful lot reading this book. Can you believe that in the middle of the famine when a huge portion of the Irish population was starving to death, large amounts of food were still being exported out of the country? Stunning.
It was also interesting to hear about the plight of immigrants arriving in North America, and in particular the racial discrimination that they faced. That’s the second book I’ve read this year which has touched on this theme – the first one being The Spy Lover which told the story of a Chinese immigrant.
I did like the way that Miles weaved in the story of the Reilly family, which served to personalize the big historic picture - though I would say resulted in the narrative jumping around a bit. Regardless, I’d rate this book four stars and recommend it to anyone with an interest in Irish history, immigration into North America, or nineteenth century history generally. For anyone with even a drop of Irish blood in them, this is thoroughly recommended. (less)
A book that goes back in time and sets the foundation for the popular “Repairma...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
2.5 stars actually.
A book that goes back in time and sets the foundation for the popular “Repairman Jack” series of novels. He is the “urban mercenary” and fix-it man who helps victimized people that have nowhere else to turn.
About: Jack is a 21 year old college dropout who decides to sever all home and family ties and move to New York City. With absolutely no personal documentation or links to his past life, he moves “off the grid” and leads a solitary and hard-working life, being paid in cash and using only cash to live on. While initially working with a group of Latinos as a gardener, inevitably he ends up taking on some dodgy jobs – not hard-core crime but definitely not legal either.
Through a growing reputation for reliability and trustworthiness, he builds up a core of contacts who find him useful and who may be able to help him. Some might even become friends. But living life on the edge of society, he also comes across many unscrupulous and dangerous people.
In no time he encounters (or becomes embroiled with) interstate smugglers, a child slavery ring, a group of dangerous jihadists, the mob, a vengeful con-man and a pair of ruthless vigilantes – some of whom Jack aggravates. While already blessed with wits and plenty of “street smarts”, he has to learn quickly from some of his new-found friends and contacts in order to stay one step ahead of his new enemies.
John’s thoughts: This is a fun, action-oriented piece of escapism. A few bits of the plot and some of the characters aren’t very believable, but it doesn’t really matter in a story like this.
However - annoyingly, the jacket describes this as a novel and it isn’t; it is a partial novel. After reading 360 pages you find out that nothing is answered, nothing has become clear, and you have to read more books in the series in order to reach any sort of conclusion. Very frustrating. When I read a book that is clearly part of a series, I do expect there to be some loose ends or hooks that can provide a foundation for future stories, but I also expect the book to be reasonably coherent and to stand on its own. This one does not.
So I can’t tell you about how cleverly multiple plot threads are brought together or how the story builds to an exciting climax, because I don’t know. Which is a shame, because the Jack character is interesting and the story pulls you along at a good pace. I blew through the 360 pages in no time at all and was looking forward to seeing how everything turned out.
Given that I have no idea how anything ends up, I can only rate the book 2.5 stars. It’s definitely one for existing Repairman Jack aficionados, or for people who like the sound of the character and are prepared to invest their time in a lengthy series of books. (less)
A madcap caper set in the unlikely location of Silicon Valley – an ordinary guy tries to cash out...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
A madcap caper set in the unlikely location of Silicon Valley – an ordinary guy tries to cash out while everyone else seems determined to try and stop him.
John's thoughts on what it's about: Dan Jordan thinks he’s a pretty ordinary guy – an ex-journalist who happened to find himself working as a speechwriter for the CEO of a Silicon Valley startup. The company grows like gangbusters and Dan’s stock options become worth over a millions dollars. But he has to be still employed by the company on the day when his stock becomes eligible for cashing out; and now he is counting down the last few days.
He despairs about the Silicon Valley culture and lifestyle/work-style; he really doesn’t fit in and dreams of using the money to drop-out with his wife, hoping to move to the California coast and to live a life they’ve always wanted. He just has to hold on for those last few days.
The trouble is that there is an ever-growing mob of people who seem to be doing everything possible to stop him reaching that milestone – including a gang of nerdy IT kidnappers, a muscle-bound corporate security hit-man, ultra-competitive “colleagues” and a long list of others I can’t describe without spoiling the plot. Contrastingly, in theory Dan has helping him out a sociopathic neighbor and a friend from school days who happens to be a professional cage-fighter. Funny thing is that at times it sure doesn’t feel to Dan like they are helping him at all.
Meanwhile his marriage is in danger of crumbling and he cannot recover from a simple medical procedure which becomes ever-more embarrassing and painful during this stressful romp. Nevertheless, he just has to hold on for a last few days!
John’s summary thoughts: This is a light-hearted easy read, very much in the style of a farce where everything that can go wrong seems to do so; and then some. Bardsley creates some delightfully whacky characters, my favorite being the totally gross guy who is a lodger with the sociopathic neighbor; and the neighbor himself is a fabulously weird creation. As for the main character himself, you certainly start out feeling highly supportive of Dan, though as the story progresses and one crazy dilemma follows after another follows after another, the plot becomes so far-fetched that I stopped thinking of him as a real character and just went along for the humorous ride.
Is Silicon Valley really like this? Well, Bardsley has “done his time” there, having worked as a speechwriter and ghostwriter for Executives, much like Dan Jordan – so he has certainly used his real-life experience as a launching pad for this story and the characters in it. Exaggerated? Of course, but that’s what makes it fun.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes a bit of modern slapstick or to those who have worked in the tech industry and enjoy poking fun at some of the odd characters and culture found there. I’d rate this light-hearted read three stars. (less)
John’s quick take: Grand science fiction ideas and an epic-scale story, but a disappointingly exe...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: Grand science fiction ideas and an epic-scale story, but a disappointingly executed novel.
John’s description: An expedition sets off from Earth to explore a distant star system and to populate a (hopefully) Earth-like plant. The journey will take many decades and most of the travelers are put into a deep sleep while skeleton crews take it in turn to pilot the starship. But after just eighty years Cliff Kammash, one of the lead biologists, is awoken early.
It soon becomes apparent to Cliff that there is a problem, but the problem pales beside the discovery of an unimaginably huge artifact that is the size of a solar system. Indeed, the bowl-shaped object seems to encompass a star and have a surface area that is millions of times that of earth. It also seems to heading towards the same star system targeted by the humans.
With the starship inexplicably losing velocity and struggling to reach its goal, the crew decide to investigate the bowl, hoping to replenish supplies that are being depleted too quickly. More of the crew are awakened and a landing party is sent down to the surface of the bowl. There they discover strange bird-like aliens, but half of the party are captured. The two separated groups then struggle to explore and understand the strange world, unsure of how they can ever get back to their own ship.
John’s thoughts: Oh dear. One of my pet hates is a book that masquerades as a standalone novel but in reality is only the first episode in a series – with no satisfactory conclusion to any of the plot threads. There are ways of creating a series that still provide a satisfying experience to someone who just wants to read one of the books, but no attempt is made to do that in Bowl of Heaven. Worse still, nowhere on the jacket or book description are you made aware that this is just the first in the series. This is the worst example of my pet hate that I have come across in a long time. Very frustrating.
Will I be tempted to seek out the next in the series? No. There are some interesting ideas in the book and I like some of the interaction between the different species, but the story drags on too much and lacks pace - I had a hard time reading more than a dozen pages at a time. It doesn’t help that the characters are all a bit two dimensional and some of the interplay between them just doesn’t feel plausible. It also doesn’t help that there is some weird editing in the book. There were at least three obvious discontinuities or contradictions in the story.
I can only rate this book 2 stars; and the only people I could recommend it to are die-hard fanatical follower of Benford or Niven who are prepared for the long haul of a series and can get beyond some of the shortcomings of this read. (less)
A thought-provoking novel on the possibilities, rights and wrongs of stem-cell research and associ...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
A thought-provoking novel on the possibilities, rights and wrongs of stem-cell research and associated medical science.
About: The Marshak brothers are both brilliant doctors - Arthur focusing on leading-edge research and Jesse focusing on trying to help poor and disadvantaged sick people. While Jesse goes on to win a Humanitarian of the Year award, Arthur covets the Nobel prize.
Arthur is now head of a research laboratory, pushing back the boundaries of medical knowledge and techniques. In particular he and his team are making great strides in working out how to regenerate limbs and organs – and in the process have caused great angst among many religious groups, conservatives and people concerned about ethical and moral aspects of the research. Most importantly, as far as the arc of the story is concerned, Arthur’s own brother becomes opposed to the research.
In order to try and clear the way ahead for his work, Arthur manages to convene a “science court”, designed to help the scientific community pass judgment on the validity of the research. Inevitably the court sessions become something of a circus, straying far beyond the scientific issues and attracting the attention of powerful lobby groups, politicians and the media.
As the court proceedings come to a head, the story examines the conflict and dynamics between the brothers, some of the troubling aspects of the research and the corporate goings on in the company that owns Arthur’s laboratory.
John’s thoughts: This is great subject matter and the plot is nicely teed up, but somehow the book never quite took off for me. The main problem was the characters – they felt a bit two-dimensional and some of their motivations and actions just weren’t quite believable. In particular the relationship between the brothers and the woman they both love just didn’t feel realistic.
I do like the way that the story explored various aspects of the controversial subject matter, but even then some issues are brought up but never come close to any sort of resolution or meaningful debate, a case in point being animal experimentation and vivisection. In most instances Bova made it quite clear what his views were on issues, but on the use of animals in research I have no idea what he thinks.
I’d never read a Ben Bova novel before, and he had come highly recommended, so I was a bit disappointed with this read. It was still ok, but I was expecting so much more. I’d say this is one for Bova lovers and anyone with an interest in issues around stem-cell research. I’d rate it three stars. (less)
A fascinating, gritty and brutal story about relationships and human resilien...moreReview by John originally posted at Layers of Thought.
4.5 stars actually.
A fascinating, gritty and brutal story about relationships and human resilience set mainly during the American Civil War. Learn about some of the awful history behind Chinese immigration in America. And don’t be deceived by the cover – this is not a cutesy love story.
About: Johnny Tom is a Chinese immigrant in the US during the mid-1800s, and like most Chinese is subject to the most brutal and horrendous racial discrimination. He eventually escapes slavery and runs away with a native Indian woman, living a hard but relatively peaceful life in a hideaway settlement out in the wilds. When the Civil War breaks out, the Confederate army sweeps through and forces Johnny and other men to join up.
Detested and ill-treated by the Confederates, he manages to escape and offers his services to the Union army, fervently believing in their anti-slavery cause. Unfortunately he finds his treatment at the hands of the Federals isn’t much better than he received from the Confederates, but he is tough and determined and manages to start making a name for himself thanks to his wisdom, kindness and fierce fighting abilities. Twice he is captured by the Confederate army and manages to survive stints in their abysmal prisoner-of-war camps; he also survives several battles before finding himself lined up with the Union army at Gettysburg.
Meanwhile Era, the daughter that he had with his Indian wife, had to survive her own horrors. But she eventually goes in search of her beloved father which leads to her becoming a battlefield nurse for the Confederate army, while secretly spying on behalf of the Union. She experiences the worst butchery, both as a result of the fighting and at the hands of an ill-equipped medical system that hacks away at survivors in crude attempts to save their lives. Exhausted, horrified and depressed, she forms a bond with an amputee whom she helps recuperate, eventually falling in love with the Confederate soldier. She is now tremendously conflicted – her father and her lover fight for different sides in the war, and she is forced to secretly undermine the efforts of her lover’s army in exchange for the Federals supposedly helping her to track down her father.
As the murderous war heads towards a bloody climax, so too does her increasingly fraught relationship with her lover.
John’s thoughts: This is a powerful novel. I was somewhat misled by the book’s cover which might lead you to expect romance and chivalry; but what you get is one of the most brutal accounts of war and discrimination that I have ever read. Certainly at the book’s heart are powerful, complex and loving relationships, but the backdrop and the circumstances are truly horrific – which I have to say made for a riveting read.
The three main characters in the book are all fascinating and Davenport does a great job of fleshing out their complex personalities. Johnny Tom in particular is a wonderful person who endures his awful experiences with a wisdom and purity that shines from the pages. Era and her lover are much darker and grittier characters that are nonetheless quite believable. It’s interesting and intriguing to learn that two of the three are based on actual ancestors of Davenport. Clearly she had to create and embellish the story around them, but some of the factual foundations are true.
As I got through the book I had no idea how things were going to end up - which is a good thing. I don’t want to spoil the read for anyone so I can’t say much about the ending. Personally I wasn’t quite sure that I liked the ending, as the tale went from gritty realism to something that wasn’t quite so believable. But a few days after finishing the book I’ve come to appreciate it more.
The book was educational for me on a few fronts. For example, I hadn’t realized the depths of discrimination that Chinese immigrants faced in America; and, while I was already well aware of the brutality and mass destruction of the Civil War, I hadn’t realized quite how barbaric was the medical treatment of soldiers that survived the battles.
All in all this is a very good and highly recommended read. I’d rate it 4.5 stars. Seek it out if you like historical fiction, Civil War literature, realistic war novels or really gritty love stories. In particular, if you want to learn more about some of the sad history of Chinese immigration in America, this is a good place to start. (less)
A mini family epic set against the backdrop of the California Bay Area, jazz and soul...moreThis review by John is originally published at Layers of Thought.
A mini family epic set against the backdrop of the California Bay Area, jazz and soul music, and changes in local society. The story even manages to embrace kung fu, Blaxploitation movies and the Black Panther movement!
About: Brokeland Records is a store on Telegraph Avenue on the border of Berkeley and Oakland, specializing in used vinyl and focused on jazz and soul music. Run by two long-time buddies, Nat (who is white) and Archy (who is black), the store is so much more than a record shop – it’s a multi-cultural center of gravity for many locals who gather there, chew the fat, and generally hang out. While it always totters on the edge financially, it is very much a labor of love for the music-loving Nat and Archy.
They are also bound together outside of Brokeland, as their wives are both midwives and are partners in Berkeley Birth Partners, which over the years has helped many hundreds of local women to give birth in their own homes – much to the chagrin of some local doctors who want to see all births take place within hospitals.
Now their bumpy, somewhat chaotic but somewhat steady lives are rocked on several fronts. An ex-NFL star, who is the fifth richest black man in the US, is planning on opening a megastore on Telegraph Avenue which would almost certainly mean doom for Brokeland Records; Berkeley Birth Partners is faced with legal action and professional ruin; Nat’s fragile teenage son falls in love with an itinerant black boy who turns out to be Archy’s long-lost (and never acknowledged) son; and an eccentric man, who is the closest thing to a real father that Archy ever had, unexpectedly dies. Can’t get any worse? Then Archy’s real father turns up – he’s a total deadbeat who used to be a kung fu expert and starred in third-rate Blaxploitation movies, and he’s after something.
John’s thoughts: This is a heck of a book – an interesting story, a complex many-threaded plot, many dashes of wry humor, and some well-constructed and complicated characters. The main characters are by no means perfect – they have all too many human flaws, but you can’t help liking them (mostly) and you do want things to end up well for them.
Chabon is clearly someone who knows the Berkeley/Oakland area well and has a deep affinity for it. He includes lots of local detail and color, and clearly has fears and hopes about how the area is developing. Likewise he must be a huge fan of the music that Brokeland Records sells, and the book has a multitude of musical references. Actually, I did find that sometimes the deep attachment to the location and the music got in the way a bit – as some of the references and colloquialisms were a bit lost on me.
I like the way that Chabon brings in lots of different plot elements, including local politics, cultural tensions, family/generational tensions and (even!) the Black Panther movement. These are all intertwined with the main storylines, and it gives the book an almost epic feel.
A word on the writing style – at times I found the wording and syntax tough, and had to re-read many of the sentences. This got easier as I progressed through the book, but it did slow me down and didn’t help with the pacing. Nonetheless, I’d rate this four stars and recommend it to anyone who likes to read meaty novels about complex family and social tensions, especially those with a musical and multi-cultural backdrop. (less)
The second in the Low Town series, this is a hard-boiled noir thriller with a touch of fantasy...moreOriginal review by John is posted at Layers of Thought.
The second in the Low Town series, this is a hard-boiled noir thriller with a touch of fantasy mixed in for good measure. A remorseless, violent and twisty story that is filled with intriguing characters.
About: The Warden, the main character, sort of rules over a squalid and drug-infested corner of Low Town. An ex-soldier and intelligence office who has fallen far from grace, he now sells (and frequently consumes) drugs. The Warden is hard, smart and extremely bitter, and he oozes cynicism.
With frequent flashbacks to the years he spent fighting for his country in a dreadful, carnage-filled war, the story starts when the Warden is summoned to the house of an old general, and finds out that the general’s daughter has run off and disappeared into Low Town. She is trying to find out why her brother was murdered several years before and who was responsible for his death. Her brother was an inspirational leader who also fought in the war; and the Warden knew him well. The Warden reluctantly agrees to help but, to no-one’s great surprise, the daughter too is brutally murdered.
This sparks a trail of revenge and destruction that envelopes both the guilty and the innocent – though it seems like in Low Town no-one is entirely innocent. Fuelled by drugs and old enmities, the Warden is pulling strings and orchestrating a lot of the violence, but inevitably things spiral way beyond his control as higher powers and politicians strive to achieve their hidden agendas.
John’s thoughts: I like the Warden – he’s a terrific character. Horrendously scarred by his troubled past, he is now a dark and dangerous man, but he hasn’t quite lost his humanity and just sometimes is driven by his sense of justice. Living in a dark and corrupt world, you can almost forgive him for some of his selfishness and outrageous actions. Here the Warden plots and schemes and has to work hard to try and stay one step ahead of an ever growing list of adversaries. He mostly succeeds but regularly ends up on the wrong side of a beating. This is not a squeaky clean hero who always gets his way. Mean while the Warden (or Polansky) has a great way with words and many of his acidic descriptions and banter brought a big smile to my face.
In this book he is surrounded by many other interesting characters – including the Warden’s giant one-eyed army buddy and business partner, the malevolent Old Man that runs the country’s internal security forces, the witch-woman Mazzie of the Stained Bone, and the psychopathic young vice-lord Adisu the Damned. As these people are woven into the story, the plot twists and turns and is unpredictable – always a good thing.
Compared with Polansky’s first Low Town novel(reviewed here http://www.layersofthought.net/2011/1... ), Tomorrow the Killing has less magic and fantastic elements and is a somewhat more realistic tale, albeit set in an alternative world. The war that provides a main foundation for the plot has a lot of parallels with World War One, and Polansky does a great job of describing its horrors. You now understand a lot more about what has shaped the Warden and made him what he is. Personally I like the more realistic orientation of this story and prefer it to his first novel.
If you haven’t read the first Polansky novel and are worried about reading this in case it doesn’t make sense – don’t! This is a complete story and stands on its own two feet. I’d rate this four stars and thoroughly recommend it to anyone who likes noir, crime thrillers or earthy urban tales. If you enjoyed reading Low Town, this is a “must read”.(less)
Another ambitious and excellent galaxy-spanning novel from Niven and Lerner – the conclusion to th...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
Another ambitious and excellent galaxy-spanning novel from Niven and Lerner – the conclusion to the award-winning “Ringworld” and “Fleet of Worlds” sagas.
About: Ringworld, the most stunning and mystifying discovery in known space, has suddenly and inexplicably vanished, leaving three competing war fleets battling over supremacy of – nothing! Most troubled by the disappearance are the Puppeteers, whose densely populated fleet of planets is speeding away from the explosion of the galactic core. The meddling Puppeteers fear, with plenty of reason, that the armadas will turn their attention away from the Ringworld and towards the Puppeteers’ retreating planets. Unfortunately, the Puppeteers are beset by political strife caused by their megalomaniacal ex-leader; they are also secretly controlled by an alien race which may care little about the fate of the planets.
Meanwhile New Terra, a human colony which was set up by the Puppeteers but which has now broken away, also takes an interest in the Ringworld’s disappearance. Its current leaders are keen to stay isolated from the troubles, but its legendary (and now disgraced) ex-Defense Minister and protector sees a way to use the strife to help re-connect New Terra with its long-lost home planet, Earth.
A human adventurer and an exiled Puppeteer spent years on Ringworld before its disappearance, and they may hold the key to technological marvels which could help ensure the survival of the Puppeteer race. But the two face a myriad of political, technical and personal hurdles – not least of which is the Puppeteers’ determination that New Terrans must never find out the truth about their own history.
John’s thoughts: This is the fourth of the Ringworld/Fleet of Worlds novels that I have read (I think there are nine in total?) and I have totally enjoyed each one of them. As I said in one of my earlier reviews “Niven and Lerner spin great stories that have complex plots, intrigue, strong characters, a creative foundation of believable technology and really well constructed worlds and races. They clearly give a lot of thought to the alien races that they create, and the attention to detail adds a lot to the stories”. Having now read the latest and last in the series, I still couldn’t put it any better - so I won’t even try!
Fate of Worlds shares many of the alien races and plot foundations of the earlier novels, but gives extra emphasis to the artificial intelligence systems that have been developed. As the AI systems evolve at pace, I couldn’t help being reminded somewhat of Webmind from Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW novels - which certainly is no bad thing.
Do you have to read the previous novels in the series to enjoy this one? Absolutely not. While there is a progression to the novels and many connections, one thing that impressed me was that each of the four that I have read works as standalone piece with a clear beginning and ending. The extra nice thing about this one is that it ties together an awful lot of story threads in a coherent way. That is no mean feat given the complexity of the series.
The book isn’t much over 300 pages in length, but there is an amazing amount of complex plot, intrigue and detail crammed into those pages; and it isn’t tough to read. I found myself quickly drawn into the story and then read on whenever I had the opportunity. Will this really be the last in the series? Well, the book cover and marketing blurb say so, but I can see at least three parts of the story which could provide the foundation for future novels, so who knows.
I’d rate this book four stars. If you are a fan of Niven or Lerner, then this book is a “must read”. You won’t be disappointed. I’d also recommend it to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction. (less)
About: This is three separate murder mystery stories in one book - each story set ten years apart; each featuring the same two characters, which binds the stories together; with each story written in a different style, mimicking three classic crime writers (Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson).
Clotilde Rosenkratz seemed to be destined for success and for a time was on the verge of becoming a big Hollywood star - though for public consumption her name was changed to Chloe Rose. Her husband Shem was a writer, once acclaimed but slipping inexorably downwards, his situation not helped by being an alcoholic.
Malniveau Prison - In 1931 Clotilde and Shem are living in a small town in France, when a body is found in a gutter. The investigating detective eventually finds out that the body is that of Clotilde’s father. What is unusual is that the man is supposedly locked up in a local prison, and no escapes have been reported.
The Falling Star - In 1941 Clotilde/Chloe is co-starring in a Hollywood movie, but she is nervous and convinced that someone is following her. When a hardboiled private eye is hired to investigate, things quickly become complicated and brutal murders ensue.
Police at the Funeral - In 1951 Shem has hit rock bottom, and is desperate to somehow claw his way back upwards. The death of his first wife seems to present some sort of opportunity, but he soon finds himself with blood on his hands and suspicious police investigating him. Meanwhile, Clotilde’s bleak situation is becoming even bleaker.
John’s thoughts: I think that this is a clever idea which the author executes well. Considering that it’s his first novel you have to admire his chutzpah for shooting for such an ambitious plot(s). The three stories are stylistically very different, and while I’ve not ready anything by any of the three influential writers (Simenon, Chandler and Thompson), others have given Winter high marks for his ability to channel their style and tone.
Did I enjoy the read and would you? That seems highly dependent on whether or not you enjoy the three original authors and their respective styles. I’d give a thumbs up to the first story, thought the second one was pretty good, and found the third to be a bit so-so. The main problem for me with the final story was that Shem Rosenkratz (the central character) is a total jerk – I always have a hard time with novels and genres that have distinctly unlikeable people as the “heroes”. I resonated a lot more with the main characters in the first two stories and consequently enjoyed them more.
Overall the novel is fast-paced and easy to read; the book actually has over 650 pages but it certainly didn’t feel like it. But I think, a saga like this calls for a strong ending and I wasn’t crazy about how the final story wound up. So, on balance I’d rate the book 3 stars and would recommend it to anyone who likes pulp crime fiction and/or usage of unusual literary techniques. (less)
An exciting futuristic techno thriller – how can an asteroid racing towards Earth be used to help...moreOriginal review by John posted on Layers of Thought.
An exciting futuristic techno thriller – how can an asteroid racing towards Earth be used to help solve the world’s desperate energy crisis?
About: In the near future a catastrophe has left a large part of the world’s remaining oil reserves radioactive and unusable, plunging the Middle East into chaos and wrecking much of the world’s economy. Russia is left as the last major power able to export oil and gas, and it’s determined to exploit that new-found geopolitical dominance.
When an asteroid appears from deep space headed in the general direction of Earth, the US hatches a bold plan to pull the asteroid into Earth orbit and to mine it to help create a whole new source of energy – raw materials from the asteroid are to be used to build huge solar power satellites, which will then beam energy back to the US. The US sees it as a last chance to fix its ruined economy and to prevent political servitude; others are absolutely determined to see the plan fail.
Things seem to be going well – the asteroid is successfully tugged into orbit; manned stations and factories are built on the asteroid, and the first huge “powersat” is built. But before it can go live, NASA has to convince everyone that the technology is foolproof and safe; after all, if a system beaming huge amounts of power back to Earth goes even a tiny bit astray, the consequences will be horrendous. Even if it works perfectly, what if it were used as a weapon rather than a power source?
Marcus Judson is a NASA contractor playing a key role in the final tests and approval process, though he’d never imagined that might entail having to travel to the asteroid. As the testing comes to a head, so too does a complex and devious plan to prevent the program’s success.
John’s thoughts: This is an extremely clever idea for a novel – well thought out and well-constructed. Whether or not it would be technically feasible I have no idea, but reading the book you certainly get the sense that it could be. Lerner is clearly someone steeped in technology that loves to create storylines around technical extrapolations and theories that might just work.
There are some wonderful big ideas in here – harnessing the power of asteroids, mining them for raw materials, creative ways of breaking our dependence on oil, and how best to harness the full power of the sun. These ideas are mixed in with a strong plot involving political tensions, personal relationships, career scientists (a strange breed!) and plenty of thrills.
So the book has a lot of positives and I enjoyed the read. For me the thing that held it back a bit where the characters – they sometimes felt a bit two-dimensional and some of their actions and interactions were a bit stretched. But despite the somewhat implausible characters I’d still recommend this book to anyone who likes good somewhat futuristic techno thrillers. It’s worth reading for the neat ideas alone! I’d rate the book 3 stars. (less)
In a Kafkaesque turn of event someone is submitted to a psychiatric unit who shouldn’t be. Just...moreOriginal review by John is posted at Layers of Thought.
In a Kafkaesque turn of event someone is submitted to a psychiatric unit who shouldn’t be. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do – in the dead of night patients are being attacked by some demonic creature which the staff might possibly be protecting.
About: Pepper is a big man who is a bit impetuous and tends to charge at life without thinking things through. Sometimes that can get him in trouble, and on one fateful night it leaves him in the hands of three out-of-uniform policemen, who promptly take him to the psychiatric unit of a run-down local hospital. He really shouldn’t be there, but it seems that the police have to fill in far less paperwork if they drop people off at the hospital rather than arrest them. So Pepper is admitted for 72 hours while he is to be evaluated.
In a Kafkaesque turn of events the 72 hours turns into an indefinite period, and Pepper finds himself confined to the ward with a bunch of strange people – some of whom are patients and some of whom are staff. As if that weren’t bad enough, Pepper is viciously attacked by a strange demonic creature that seems to haunt the unit. Can it really be that the staff who rescued him know all about the creature? Surely not, as it turns out that others on the ward have also been attacked.
Pepper finally forms a kind of bond with three of his disparate fellow patients, and together they slowly come to the conclusion that they have to do something to save themselves from an ugly fate at the hands of the demon.
John’s thoughts: This is a serious-but-fun read with a really novel plot. For sure it brought to mind images of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at times, but Pepper is nothing like McMurphy and doesn’t rail against the system in the same way.
Nonetheless, one of Pepper’s biggest foes is the daily regime of mind-numbing drugs and the boring routine of life on the ward. And how can life be so crazy that a sane person becomes embedded in a system that is supposedly there to help look after insane people? The novel also brings to light the crazy logic of bureaucracy and systems that are not designed to help people, but instead develop a life and self-perpetuating momentum of their own. It becomes quite clear that it is not the patients who are the maddest and in the most need of treatment. The demonic monster then acts as a catalyst to bring things to a head, by which time you are rooting for a fair outcome for the gang of four patients.
I like this book a lot. For sure Pepper is far from being perfect but you know that he shouldn’t be in the hospital and you do want his life to return to some sort of normality – you cannot help but become involved in the plight of the patients. Meanwhile, the madness that surrounds him is both funny and scary. I’d rate this book 4 stars and thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a slightly wacky view of life in their reading material. (less)
This novel is a sequel so this review contains spoilers. You can read John's review for the first...moreOriginal review by John posted at Layers of Thought.
This novel is a sequel so this review contains spoilers. You can read John's review for the first in series The Map of Time linked via the text.
John’s quick take: A sort of stand-alone sequel to the impressive The Map of Time, this is an equally complex and original story. Once again featuring H. G. Wells as a central character, this time Palma takes Wells’s The War of the Worlds as a foundation and spins a mind-bending tale of time travel, aliens, adventure, terror and love.
John’s description: H. G. Wells is not happy. Just a few months after the publication of his book The War of the Worlds, an American hack writer has written a sequel which Wells thinks of poor quality and in poor taste. He finally agrees to meet the writer for lunch, and after a few drinks Wells surprisingly starts to soften to him. After more drinks the American takes Wells to a secret room in the Natural History Museum and shows him an amazing otherworldly exhibit which totally stuns the British author (I will say no more in case I give away too much).
Several decades earlier, an ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic floundered as the ship became locked in the ice. The explorers are trying to make the most of their unhappy lot, when a flying object streaks overhead and crashes into the ice nearby. Their travails become worse when they find the object contained a strange alien beast, and soon they are embroiled in a fierce battle for survival.
Back in present day 1898, New York socialite Emma Harlow is bored of her constant suitors, and especially the egotistical and determined millionaire, Montgomery Gilmore. Eventually Emma agrees to marry Gilmore, but on one condition – first he has to create a reproduction of the Martian invasion scenes featured in The War of the Worlds. Thanks in part to things he achieved during his secret past, Gilmore thinks he can pull this off and starts planning the event.
A short while later in the outskirts of London, Wells is present when Gilmore’s show starts. Strange containers appear but soon it becomes apparent, to everyone’s horror, that a real alien invasion has started. Amazingly, in some ways the invasion mirrors Wells’s recently published novel. Even the might of the British empire can do nothing to stop the aliens, who’ve soon overrun London. Wells, Gilmore, Harlow, a strange detective and a motley crew of associates struggle to escape the onslaught – and Wells finds he has a strange gift which might just help.
John’s thoughts: As with The Map of Time, this is structured around three separate story lines which eventually become interweaved, thanks in part to a bending of the timelines. Also in line with the earlier novel, everything in this book centers around H. G. Wells, an intriguing character who is painted as being super-smart and rather prescient.
It’s an interesting story with a complex plot and many twists and turns. Again one of Wells’s most famous novels features prominently in the story; this time The War of the Worlds provides a foundation and launch pad for Palma’s strange tale. What would happen if a “war of the worlds” actually happened, and what might the famous author be able to do about it?
Palma clearly has a gift for storytelling and a great imagination. He leverages the original master of the science fiction genre, but this is a lot more than an homage to the great H.G. Wells – Palma takes the story into some pretty whacky places.
My quibbles about the book? It is some 600 pages long and I think it could have benefitted by some tight editing and losing 100 of those pages. In places it seems to take a long time to get to where it wants to go. It also builds quite a lot on characters and events from The Map of Time – not a problem for me as I’d read the earlier book, but for those who are reading Palma for the first time, there will be some missing background and character development that will take away from the reading experience.
I do really like the Victorian setting and Palma does a good job of creating a realistic Victorian era background and then mixing in some oddball storylines. Overall I’d rate it 4 stars and as with The Map of Time I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good historical fantasy novel or indeed a good fantasy novel, period. If you are a science fiction fan and a big follower of Victorian fiction, then this is most definitely one for you. (less)
John’s quick take: A murder mystery whodunit featuring a plucky nurse-cum-detective, set in Engla...moreOriginal review by John posted on Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: A murder mystery whodunit featuring a plucky nurse-cum-detective, set in England and the battlefields of France during the First World War.
John’s description: Bess Crawford is a frontline nurse, serving in aid stations just behind the trenches during the grim battles of the First World War. She is also the daughter of a highly respected and well-connected Army Colonel – hers is a family that is steeped in military history and traditions.
It is early in 1918 and to add to the horror of war, the Spanish influenza epidemic is sweeping through the region, leaving behind a trail of destruction and death. Bess and her colleagues, already exhausted and close to breaking point, now have to deal with a huge influx of sick and dying soldiers that have been struck down by the disease.
Then in the midst of the madness, the body of an officer is discovered among the piles of dead waiting to be buried in mass graves; but he has been neither shot nor infected by the contagion – he appears to have been murdered. But before Bess can report the murder, she too falls sick and for a long time her life hangs by a thread. When she finally recovers, she discovers that the only other witness to the murdered officer’s body has reportedly committed suicide and the officer’s wife has received official notification that he died in battle. Bess is determined to seek justice, but with no body, no other witnesses and no-one but her aware that a crime has been committed, how can she identify and find the murderer among the killing fields of the Western Front? As she sets out to solve the mystery, she soon becomes a target for the unknown killer.
John’s thoughts: This is definitely a book for whodunit fans, which is a category I don’t normally fall into, but the unusual setting drew me to the book. My grandfathers both served in the First World War, and like many whose close relatives experienced it I am fascinated (and absolutely horrified) by the madness of this terrible war. Needless to say anything set during that period has a good chance of grabbing my attention. And it did, because Todd does a good job of capturing some of the circumstances and atmosphere and conveying what it was like for people who were caught up in the war. So far so good.
Where I struggled a bit was with the storyline and the main character – it just didn’t feel realistic or authentic. The notion of an upper-class woman serving as a nurse on the frontline, able to frequently travel to England and back, fighting off attackers and roving the Western Front trying to solve mysterious murders just didn’t ring true for me. But perhaps that is the point and that An Unmarked Grave is intended as a piece of escapism. If that is your preference and you enjoy stories about amateur sleuths trying to solve heinous crimes, then this one is for you. The setting is unusual and certainly makes for a dramatic backdrop. So personally I’d rate this book three stars; it was an entertaining book and an enjoyable read that I’m sure many fans of the murder mystery genre will rate more highly. (less)