Space aliens arrive early in Conquest and bomb the text with info dumps. These aliens are tall tan dudes with no eyelids, and they come bearing the po...moreSpace aliens arrive early in Conquest and bomb the text with info dumps. These aliens are tall tan dudes with no eyelids, and they come bearing the power to cure cancer, joke about haggis and change point of view several times in the same chapter. Some are good guys. Some are very, very bad aliens indeed. The good ones hook up with the human resistance and introduce YA readers to wormholes, nano bots, androids, psychic powers, blast rifles and other SF staples of the literary world. There's a smooch or two, evil giant generic frog foot soldiers, wicked space witches, some discussion about morality and several good twists once the action takes off.
Critical Mick says: set phasers on fun! Charlie Parker might be on this same planet, but the tone and content of Conquest is worlds away from Connolly's other writing.(less)
WARNING: The country which invented the Internet is presently the most vulnerable to an attack from it.
In the 1970’s, the US Defense Department’s Adva...moreWARNING: The country which invented the Internet is presently the most vulnerable to an attack from it.
In the 1970’s, the US Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) laid the groundwork for the Internet. This communications system, initially developed by the military, has over the past 40 years become used by industry, commerce, social networks- almost every aspect of contemporary life. Richard A. Clarke’s Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It is a wake-up call written from a White House insider, illustrating what would happen if a foreign power used the Internet against the US. Specifically: crashing the national power grid, SCADA systems (controls for utilities, generators, transformers, pumps, and similar systems), air traffic control, financial databases, and many other components of critical infrastructure which are currently accessible through the Internet and are alarmingly poorly defended.
More than forty nations control dedicated teams of cyber warriors, preparing methods of attack. Cyberspace has become a “battlespace.” While the US has the world’s best internet-based attack capabilities, other nations have superior defenses for their infrastructure. Clarke demonstrates how weapons systems and also the civilian computer networks that manage communications, transport, banking, utilities, can be (and have been- lots of real-world examples) damaged or controlled from a remote location anywhere in the world. Every year additional nations ramp up their cyberwar units- the US, Russia, China, France, North Korea. The world has gone all Die Hard 4.
Cyberwar was initially published in 2010, with this paperback edition released in 2012 with a new appendix about the Stuxnet worm- a real-life proven instance of how the US and Israeli cyberwar units wrote a malicious program to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. His information is good and corresponds to reading I have done on it as a Computer Information Systems Security Professional. A good start towards more comprehensive details on Stuxnet can be found on Symantec's site. Also see their article on the Stuxnet 0.5: The Missing Link.
This book is certain to be updated with another “told you so!” appendix, as another of Clarke’s major reported real-world cyber attacks has been verified: the People’s Republic of China’s systematic theft of terabytes of R & D data from US military contractors and other companies. (They also hacked into Obama’s campaign computers when he was running for president in 2008, stealing draft policy documents.) In a damningly conclusive report released in February 2013, a computer incident and response company called Mandiant supplied proof that the intrusions and exfiltrations from their customers were state-sponsored hacking from the PRC. Specifically, they tracked a group of thieves they knew as “APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) 1” back to Shanghai and determined it was the 2nd Bureau of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) GSD 3rd Department, commonly known as Unit 61398. That report is highly recommended reading.
Though written for a popular audience rather than a technical one, Cyber War provides accurate detail. Clarke points out that many unexpected devices are connected to the Internet- everything from elevators to photocopiers to valves at power plants. These are intended to “phone home” for maintenance reasons and to avail of software updates, but this connection can be exploited for other purposes.
Rather than just sound the alarm, Cyberwar proposes a Defensive Triad to improve the US’s posture. This book is a call upon Obama to improve security on the national Internet backbone, secure the controls for the national power grids, and vigorously pursue security upgrades for Defense IT systems. It is a message that should be heard by government, industry, and all people depending on the Internet today- which is just about everyone. No surprise that Cyberwar was a big seller.
The book is also filled with Clarke’s insider observations and insights. For example, George Bush I had an ulterior motive for destroying Saddam Hussein’s military might in 1991. The Iraqi army- fourth largest in the world- was equipped with Soviet-designed weaponry. Blasting that to shit (partly through the use of emerging smart technologies) was intended as a demonstration to the Chinese and other nations reliant upon those same types of tanks and guns. The new F-117 Stealth fighter-bombers were used in the 1989 invasion of Panama “because the Pentagon wanted to show off its new weapon to deter others.” (page 194)
George W. Bush was a president who comes off poorly in Cyberwar. Clarke freely admits that NSA under Bush and Cheney routinely performed illegal surveillance and other actions. He reports that Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush Administration officials advocated invading Iraq because Afghanistan did not have enough targets to bomb. George W. Bush was a president who would rush through decisions without giving the matter thought, one who left regulatory commissions vacant so that government security decisions were not enforced, a president who violated the Convention Against Torture and “never saw a covert-action proposal he didn’t like.” (page 114) When considering what actions that nation should take, Bush would defer to the CEOs of companies that had made large political donations to his election committees. True, there were moves to protect the government’s networks on Bush’s watch (Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative and National Security Presidential Decision 54) but crucial time was lost as other nations took greater measures in the emerging field of computer security.
A final note: Clarke confirms (page 93) the CIA’s 1982 sabotage of the Soviet Urengoy–Surgut–Chelyabinsk natural gas pipeline. The KGB had been stealing Western technology: the CIA learned of this and introduced a flaw into automated pump and valve controls. The explosion was the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion- over three kilotons. This explosion occurred in a unpopulated area and so no casualties occurred. This early example of successful SCADA system sabotage demonstrates the potential of what could occur today if nations do not secure their systems correctly. CybrWar is real, with real-world consequences. Successful attacks have been occurring for decades, and will continue throughout this century. (less)
With gore and forensics enough to delight readers who love the CSI-style crime thriller, Casey Hill's Torn removes the genre far from that wearisome o...moreWith gore and forensics enough to delight readers who love the CSI-style crime thriller, Casey Hill's Torn removes the genre far from that wearisome old hack Patricia Cornball's stomping grounds- delivering a solid mystery set in Dublin, Ireland.
Potted plot: former FBI surfer chick Reilly Steel uses her scientific-know how, pure determination, fancy gadgets and superhuman sense of smell to track down a baddie called The Punisher before can cover all of post-recessionary Dublin in bizarre corpses. There's a couple detectives in the picture- one a cutie- a number of tantalizing clues and subplots, plus a flamboyant British profiler. Oh! And an unreformed rich-kid who has dodged the justice system. Should the heroes just let the Punisher clip him in a monstrous and extreme way? Or not? That's the decision which leaves readers torn, or at least a little scuffed around the edges.
Everything is in the right place. The story rolls along with sufficient character, conflict, science and setting. However, there have been many previous books about serial killers who crib from shelves of literary classics for their MO. The classic chosen for Torn has already been used in a couple of SK tales, such as The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl and the BBC mini-series Messiah IV. Also, The kissy bits with the love interest's ex-girlfriend really didn't sell: she was just pure annoyance. She should have had some spark of life to her, or at least really nice pins.
Mick is grumpy as well as absurd, and so full marks cannot be given. Other readers on both sides of the Atlantic are digging Casey Hill. Best bet: read it and make up your own mind. You'll have some colorful conversation material next time you meet up with your buds to jaw about Irish Crime Fiction.
Operation Robot Storm is the first of his new series wherein a hairy band of heroes (and their human friends) sec...moreArmed, Dangerous, and Covered in Fur!
Operation Robot Storm is the first of his new series wherein a hairy band of heroes (and their human friends) secretly save the world from a mad array of supervillains. The whole series is pure all-ages adventuresome fun. Action, comedy, cool gadgets, danger, twists, yaks sailing through the air: this is creativity that will spark any kid's imagination, and will keep Mom, Dad or whoever is reading to them amused. The series is perfect for reluctant readers or kids graduating into chapter books. Each new chapter opens with a few pages of comic book before blending into well-illustrated prose, and the educational content is present but never preachy.
Rather than summarize the plot of Operation Robot Storm, allow me to recommend viewing the promotional trailers on YouTube. They show what the book is about, and give a flavor for the style in which the story is told. My kid has watched each a couple dozen times, and he has gone and hooked his cousin and a friend on the Mythical 9th.
Any book comes with a few niggles, but when the most salient detraction that comes to mind is a typo, it's best to just skip to the seven-word summary: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED BY CRITICAL MICK AND SON. (less)
"Team America: World Police" had more realistic baddies than this Mitch Rapp whack-a-thon. (Team America is a movie from the creators o...moreExtremely Silly
"Team America: World Police" had more realistic baddies than this Mitch Rapp whack-a-thon. (Team America is a movie from the creators of South Park. It is acted by puppets.)
Though slightly more entertaining than picking my nose while stuck in traffic, Extreme Measures can't really be called a novel. It's polemic, pushing the idea that the CIA should be allowed to do anything it wants, wherever it wants because America's enemies are really, really bad guys. The plot's conflict arises when some liberal career politicians and an unpopular young Air Force officer disagree with Rapps' position- oh, and some psycho Islamic terrorists from central casting, too- but this persecution's 100% attributed to their own petty self-aggrandizement. How dare they throw Rapp in the slammer just so they will look good to their own constituents, etc etc. Flynn throws up some minority and gay characters too, but don't worry. They all get killed, and the surviving liberal politicians tearfully repent the naive error of their ways.
It's repetitive, offers little fresh detail about how intelligence organizations operate, and spells out three times what MILF stands for. The analogous subplot involving sidekick Mike Nash's son punching a spoiled little punk and then being hounded with the threat of expulsion? Lame. Read two chapters, you've got everything about what this book is and where it's going.
Critical Mick says: as a spy novel, Extreme Measures is about as satisfying as getting toenails ripped out by Mitch Rapp. As a way to cash in on the target audience's politics without pushing a single preconception one quarter of an inch, it's a bestseller. For espionage fans living two thousand miles beyond the range of AM radio stations, it's all as daft and aggressive as a white kid from the burbs trying to bust bad-ass gangsta rhymes. I've had more interesting entertainment from a jack-in-the-box. (less)
Magical inter-dimensional best-selling authors! Hamburger helper! Book snakes! Bad dudes who drive PT Cruisers! Kooky families! A heroine tougher than...moreMagical inter-dimensional best-selling authors! Hamburger helper! Book snakes! Bad dudes who drive PT Cruisers! Kooky families! A heroine tougher than she thinks. Steven King says: strap it on for hours of fun!
The Stand in the Place Where You Live (Now Face North)
Is Stephen King's 2006 novel a return to the prison genre of Shawshank and Green Mile? No. Cell...moreThe Stand in the Place Where You Live (Now Face North)
Is Stephen King's 2006 novel a return to the prison genre of Shawshank and Green Mile? No. Cell is a return to the territory of his 1978 best seller The Stand, but set in today's mobile phone saturated America. The world swiftly goes mad and burns and a few multi-cultural survivors take to the road, where they find supernatural dreams, stale twinkies messily devoured, tests of loyalty and a battle against an overwhelmingly horrible and powerful foe to decide the future of all mankind.
Cell was the first Stephen King I had read since Hearts in Atlantis. Getting back with his characters, tone, New England setting, and dark plots was hugely enjoyable. Pages flew, though it was clear all the while that this is not King's best work but him finally getting around to doing the zombie 'thang.'
Credit is due, though, for the way King concluded this journey. No spoilers here: just allow me to reassure that he steered around the "road reefs" of horror formula and delivered an ending that can be read two ways. One matches his earlier novels- all well and good, pleasing the fans- but the other is incredibly dark, terrible and consistent with clues encountered along the way. It is for this puzzle that Cell gets its fourth star from Critcal Mick.(less)
Does a crime thriller with an unreliable narrator deserve an unreliable reviewer? One of the following five facts about John J. Niven’s Cold Hands is...moreDoes a crime thriller with an unreliable narrator deserve an unreliable reviewer? One of the following five facts about John J. Niven’s Cold Hands is a bald-faced lie:
•The tale is told in retrospect by Donnie Miller, a Scottish-born resident of the isolated outskirts of Alarbus, Saskatchewan. •Married to the tall and lovely newspaper editor Sammy and father to an eight-year-old named Walt, Donnie’s days are filled with drafting movie reviews, chauffeuring Walt to hockey matches, walking the dog, enduring dinner parties thrown by his millionaire father-in-law, and drinking very little while pecking away at screenplays kept in a drawer. •Donnie also hides a gun and a horrible secret. •His comfortable life is threatened when Donnie finds the horribly slaughtered remains of Herby the family dog. The cops and neighbours seal their heads deep inside their anoraks and dismiss the missing eyes, tongue bitten in two, strewn guts and gnawing rat as a random wolf attack. (No one in Canada has read Julius Winsome.) •Donnie’s wife, Sammy, gets her wedding ring trapped in the Frigidaire’s ice maker while downing her daily protein. The resulting “cold hands” refrigerator moment sets off an unexpected- and heart-warming- chain of events.
OK, too easy. Heart-warming? With action unfolding during the fiercest blizzard since The Shining? Though speaking with an accent out of Christopher Brookmyre, Niven matches Stephen King’s talent with tension, and the speed of pages flying. The final one hundred and eighty of Niven’s two hundred and fifty-three pages were read in one late-night sitting. Writing as gripping as that deserves a better bullet point.
The whole notion of "deserving" lies at the heart of Cold Hands. What happens when people do not get what they deserve? What happens when that injustice drives a body mad? And also, what happens when the failure of retribution leads to a perpetrator ultimately proving that people can change? Does redeeming oneself go some distance toward balancing cosmic scales that hang heavy overhead? Or is it wiser to put a physical distance- one as wide as the gap between Scotland and Saskatchewan- between yourself and your past?
Niven writes action with sharp detail and moral depths. Some elements chosen as his plot reaches its climax do stretch credibility, but the shockingly-vivid historical details and social parallels with contemporary cases makes it well worth suspending any disbelief and following where Niven’s exciting new voice leads.
The first page of Captain Joseph Williams Barbelo's tornado reads "In Mad Mick We Trust," so naturally I felt all buttered up. Aw shucks, lil' ol me? I dove into Chapter Zero (Yes, Barbelo's Blood has a Chater Zero- two of them, in fact) and into a bloody confrontation in a London underpass in Thatcher's brutal 1980's. Three addicts with a cutthroat razor believe they have an easy mark in an eighty-two year old one-legged geezer pegging back to his tower block from the pub.
Guess again, silly bunnies.
Our foul-mouthed, pint-swilling, horny old narrator Joseph W. Barbelo is a veteran of every British conflict since the First World War. For an ex-black ops commando these punk muggers, gangland enforcers, and random jumped-up social welfare office pricks are but a source of amusement. With an antique sword cane (his "Happy Stick"), lead pipe or even just lighter fluid, vaseline and a bottle of Jif, Barbelo sends 'em by hundreds to the Happy Place. It's all part of the Craft, catch-madrift?
After twenty years in retirement, Barbelo's attempted mugging comes as a welcome awakening. Deciding that he needs a hobby, he tracks down the surviving punks, manipulates them in an amusing fashion into a major confrontation, and then announces that he is taking over their entire criminal operation. Enlisting the assistance of an old war buddy, Sid the Yid, for a pub-lunch summit with these South London Hounds, Barbelo convinces them to restructure their firm into a pyramid with him at the top.
And that all happens in the first sixty-two pages, when Barbelo is not relating whacked-out nightmares or falling for his hot young mad Irish love interest. It all goes completely U-Turn after that. Rather than an offbeat organized crime novel full of mad energy and masterful phrasing, Barbelo's Blood leaps into science fiction, conspiracy theory, political diatribe, and supernatural fantasy. Brid, the love interest of Barbelo and of Sid, introduces them to a whole new dimension of reality where Inner Orders, Illuminati, Dream Masters and Creators are apparently duking it out. Some of the agents of the evil powers, the feharchrove, walk our Earth disguised as Yardies and whatnot. And there's something about a Locale 22 where the Nazis won the war. After exposure to that action, Barbelo begins stockpiling weapons and planning to blow up Parliament. (The one in "our" London, not the one guarded by British SS.)
The IRA, gnostic texts, governmental psyops, assassination of US Air Force generals who look like John Wayne, Satanic child-sacrificing baddies in the House of Lords, Stealer's Wheel, the illegality of the EU, predators who live in houses full of inflatable wank dolls dressed up in Santa gear and tinsel, multidimensional lesbian biker warriors, curing cancer with a nine-volt battery and a matchbox, Operation Northwoods, military-grade LSD, time travel, Paradise Lost, the tarot deck, fate, geothermal energy that could power a planet of fifty billion, MI18 and MI13, the guns of Brixton, Locale 1, Locale 32, Locale 33, the answer to why flouride is in the drinking water- Barbelo's Blood has an anarchaic bit of everything. I suppose that the Dumbo and earless Mickey Mouse hoisting AK-47's on the cover should have been a clue.
Barbelo's Blood reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces- it's either brilliance or ravings, I'm baffled which. As a novel, it would have carried more impact if it had been disciplined into half of its 439 pages and remained focused on one of its themes- Lawful Rebellion, for instance. It's hard to imagine a mainstream reader getting all the way through this novel with a coherent understanding of what's going on. It will, however, be very popular with the G8 protestors who burn down McDonalds restaurants, drink only the purest bottled water and swallow any illicit chemical that has been put into the form of a pill.
Critical Mick says:Barbelo's Blood is a tornado rather than a novel- a mesmerizing tower of bits picked up from everywhere, swirling at incredibly high speeds and leaving a path of destruction. I like my writing spiced pretty high- but Galway resident Joseph Ferri's memoir/account/epic/polemic is a Locale or two away from my Happy Place.
Every year, tens of thousands of Irish-Americans touch down in Dublin city, their holidays devoted to the goa...moreTourists! Your Bloomin' Attention Please!
Every year, tens of thousands of Irish-Americans touch down in Dublin city, their holidays devoted to the goal of soaking up their ancestral culture like so many hyphenated sponges. Many of these visitors purchase Ulysses, a masterpiece by one of the 20th century's most influential authors, James Joyce (1882-1941).
Those tourists are big fat suckers. I tried reading Ulysses when studying literature at UCD. I worked hard on that novel for months. In despair I reported slow progress to my tutor. "What guidebook are you using?" he inquired. Guidebooks? What? "You're not trying to followUlysses without assistance, are you?" It turns out that there's more academic scholarship on Joyce than there is on Shakespeare, and even with PhD's most of those authorities can't comprehend what's going on.
Ulysses! Just read the wikipedia entry, fellow DFA's. Otherwise you'll go home with an impression that Irish writers (and their colossal guidebooks) are something to spend a fortune on, get three chapters into and then leave with a lightened heart in the Departures bin at Dublin Airport. Let me recommend instead a book accessible to readers who are not assumed to be proficient in Victorian etiquette and ancient Greek.
Adrian McKinty's The Bloomsday Dead takes place in a single day- the sixteenth of June, 2004. That's the centenary of the events in Joyce's novel, which since 1954 has been celebrated annually as Bloomsday. Joyce's goal was to distil all of life and being into one day. McKinty manages much the same, only with a lot more action. Through a series of chapters which mirror those of Ulysses, his hero Michael Forsythe must come out of his twelve-year Witness Protection Program refuge, battle for his life, find a missing child and survive some of the most dangerous figures on three continents.
That's one of the qualities I love about The Bloomsday Dead- Joyce limited all of Leopold Bloom's wanderings to one city. Michael Forsythe's day takes him through four nations with Jack Bauer-like speed. (If you enjoyed 24 before its characters, tortures and twists became cliché, this Dead trilogy delivers.) McKinty's descriptions of each locale are written with red-hot clarity and style far more memorable than any tourist guide-book. Here's a brief episode, completely free of plot spoilers, that takes place in Belfast:
I couldn't go farther down the street because the cops had blocked off the road for a march and "historical pageant" by a small group of Independent Apprentice Boys who were re-enacting a scene from the siege of Derry. The IAB were in full regalia, sweating in the humidity. Dark suits, black ties, black bowler hats, and orange-colored sashes. The scene was the famous one where the Protestant apprentice boys locked the gates of Derry to stop the Catholic armies from capturing the city- an actually historical event that had happened over three hundred years ago. I had never heard of the re-enactment being performed in Belfast before. They'd probably gotten a cultural grant from the European Community. The "Boys" were actually forty- and fifty-year-old men with beer guts, bad mustaches, and hair so unkempt Vidal Sassoon would have broken down and wept. They were all obviously the worse for drink. The Catholic army this afternoon was an intoxicated man in a green sweater with a pikestaff.
"You're not getting in," one of the Boys was saying to him.
"Aye, no fucking way," said the other.
"We're shutting the gates," a third managed between belches.
The man in the green sweater did not seem that put out. Right in front of me, another of the Apprentice Boys climbed on top of a parked car and began stamping on the roof. It had an Irish Republic license plate and the Boy was obviously under the impression that it, too, was a representative of King James's Catholic army. A peeler went over and told him to get down. The peeler was old, fat, and bored. He tapped his service revolver once and the Boy, spooked, got off the roof.
-Page 110, Chapter: The "Rat's Nest (Belfast, June 16, 2:15 PM)"
Forsythe barrels through a world full of such vivid images. I am deliberately not revealing a single beat of the plot, and encourage any interested reader to ignore the blurb on the novel's back. Let this one take you itself.
First-class tickets! Crooked politicians! The FBI! Cops with Glocks! Milkshakes! Tire irons, .38's, RPG's and flick knives! Literary allusions! Guys who lick money to prove it is poison-free! And a scorching hot redhead!The Bloomsday Dead has every element that a completely satisfying thriller should have- and it sends the reader away with vivid imagery of Dublin and Belfast. This is brass-knuckled, brainy, climactically cracking good craic.
Though The Bloomsday Dead is the concluding instalment in McKinty's Michael Forsythe series, there's no gaps evident. I picked it up on a friend's recommendation and read it straight through without any head scratching. My few niggles are that some of the Joyce similarities felt forced (the first line, for instance) and some of the baddies are similar to what's appeared in books before.
Critical Mick says: I recommend Denis McEoin/Jonathan Aycliffe's The Lost over Stoker's Dracula, too, so I may well be making enemies. Still, for a tour and a taste of Irish culture, skip Ulysses and pick up a masterpiece guaranteed to send you home happy, educated and enlightened- Adrian McKinty's The Bloomsday Dead. This one was shortlisted for the 2009 Oo award for Best Book Mick Read in 2009.