Monthly Archives: February 2016

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

SevenevesSeveneves by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Any novel consists of three basic elements: setting, characters, and plot/storyline. Stephenson has conjured up a moderately interesting plot and some unique characters that fill about 100 pages of this 800+ page book. The rest is setting, and that’s way too much. Stephenson is determined to share with us an elaborately imagined post-apocalyptic world (and exo-world) in almost infinite detail. There is no denying that he is a skillful and prolific writer, but his obsession with writing epic-length novels simply doesn’t work here. It was actually a fairly quick read since I was able to skim and skip a great deal of it without missing anything important so far as I could tell.

I had to strain to give this a three-star rating. I was expecting science fiction and got fantasy. The characters and story are more akin to Tolkien than to something like The Martian. The richly imagined world is too silly, too tinkertoy to be credible or even slightly plausible. Even the apocalypse itself doesn’t make sense from a physics standpoint. It was only the author’s skill in narrative that held me to the end and then only barely. I loved Cryptonomicon and enjoyed Reamde but I’m afraid this book has put me off the author for a while.

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Behead Me, Cliff Knowles #6, debuts big!

The sixth Cliff Knowles Mystery is now here and it sold really well on its first day. Thank you to everyone who bought it.

Retired FBI agent Cliff Knowles thought he was being hired by a Fortune 500 company just to find out why their sales of spare parts were down. He soon learns that where there’s money there’s mayhem – and murder. His investigation brings him to southwestern Utah where he finds that an employee of the company he’s investigating recently lost his head – literally. Coincidence? Not a chance. When Cliff decides to venture into the desert to hunt a geocache, he is unaware that he is being hunted, too. In this harrowing tale of greed and guile, Cliff’s survival depends on his only weapon – his wits.

Cliff’s FBI agent wife, Ellen Kennedy, returns to work after her maternity leave ready to pursue criminals of all stripes. Instead she finds that she is assigned to a convicted drug dealer and heroin addict who once attacked Cliff, but to investigate her for an entirely unexpected reason – to help her get a presidential pardon!

Once again Cliff and Ellen end up working together pursuing justice and geocaches in their own inimitable style.

To purchase, just click on the picture.

The Anteater of Death by Betty Webb

The Anteater of Death (A Gunn Zoo Mystery, #1)The Anteater of Death by Betty Webb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this cozy mystery our heroine, Teddy, is a zookeeper with a special relationship with the eponymous anteater of death, Lucy. Lucy is a giant anteater, a code red animal, meaning it is capable of killing a human. Indeed a dead man is found in her pen at the zoo, slashed by Lucy’s four-inch claws. Although Lucy takes the blame at first, we soon learn the victim died of a gunshot wound. In due course the lecherous and sleazy zoo director is similarly dispatched. Eventually the head zookeeper, Teddy’s boss and close friend, is arrested. Of course Teddy must find the real killer.

The author writes with a light, humorous touch and introduces plenty of suspects with motive and opportunity for both murders. We learn that the private zoo is dependent on a trust and the large family that benefits from the trust is split over whether to terminate the trust (and the zoo). Joe, The sheriff with the “long muscular legs” seems to be Teddy’s love interest despite a rocky past of that sort.

It’s all unlikely fluff, of course, but fun enough for a cozy mystery fan. I don’t count myself in that category, but I need a respite from the gore and dark mysteries now and then. It’s set in a fictional city and county that seems to be nestled on the Monterey Peninsula. The many local references kept me entertained since I live fairly close.

I listened to the audiobook. The actress is very good and I enjoyed her reading all the way through, but I must issue a warning. She has a nasal voice that some people might not be able to abide. My wife calls it a quack. It’s not as bad as newswoman Erica Hill or the AFLAC duck, but it’s pretty close. I know my wife wouldn’t be able to listen to this book.

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The High Window by Raymond Chandler

The High WindowThe High Window by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Raymond Chandler has a new fan. The High Window is pulp fiction at its finest. Private eye Philip Marlowe lives in a time and place where women are dames, restaurants are joints, lapels are wide as a two-car garage, and you could say that’s mighty white of you. Not a word emerges from his mouth that isn’t laden with witty sarcasm, cynicism, and a fearless moxie.

He’s hired by a rich, tough old biddy to find her missing Brasher Doubloon, a rare gold coin that was supposed to be in her late husband’s collection. Soon he finds a dead body and then another. The cops suspect him, of course. The story is almost bursting with dodgy characters – a coin dealer (he’s one of the bodies), a feckless private eye (the other body), the arrogant spoiled son of the biddy, a golddigging nightclub torcher, the owner of the joint where she sings, the goon who provides the muscle, a slick lothario named Vannier who’s making it with the club owner’s wife, a crusty elevator operator who notices a lot more than he lets on, and many more. You’ll need a chiropractor to straighten you out if you follow all the twists and turns of this plot.

The style takes some getting used to if you haven’t read pulp fiction before. Chandler must have been paid by the word because Marlowe never enters a scene without describing every square inch of the room and the features and clothing of everyone in it. It’s done with such hardboiled wit, though, it never feels like filler. Anson the private eye, for example, “… held a smeared glass in his hand. It looked as if somebody had been keeping goldfish in it. He was a lanky man with carroty short hair growing down to a point on his forehead. He had a long narrow head packed with shabby cunning. Greenish eyes stared under orange eyebrows. His ears were large and might have flapped in a high wind. He had a long nose that would be into things … a face that held the effortless composure of a corpse in a morgue.” Anson lived in a room that “… was painted egg-yolk yellow. All it needed was a few fat black spiders painted on the yellow to be anybody’s bilious attack.”

The book was made into a movie starring George Montgomery in 1947, but retitled as The Brasher Doubloon. Chandler’s first novel The Big Sleep is perhaps his best known movie oeuvre. He didn’t write the screenplay for that one, but he did for such classics as Double Indemnity, Strangers On a Train, and The Blue Dahlia.

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Two for the Money by Blair Howard

Two for the Money: A Harry Starke NovelTwo for the Money: A Harry Starke Novel by Blair Howard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chattanooga private eye Harry Starke is one tough SOB, a man’s man. He has hard fists, hard muscles, and at least one hard organ, with which he seems to do most of his thinking. He is contacted by an old classmate he hadn’t heard from in years to come over on account of some emergency. By the time Harry gets there, the caller is dead. It turns out the victim was a fund manager and millions are missing. From there it looks like this is going to be a closed door mystery, with a fixed set of suspects all of whom had motive and opportunity. Then you find that the door isn’t so closed. The number of potential suspects quickly balloons.

Harry teams up with an old flame police detective to work the case. Almost immediately the hated but gorgeous anchorwoman who previously did a number on Harry now wants to work with him, too. As mentioned, Harry lets his organ make that decision. The storyline is pretty standard stuff. The police detective does the legal sorts of investigation while Harry works outside those inconvenient legal niceties. I won’t spoil the plot by going into it further. This book is all about style anyway. Harry must be one hunky stud since every “stunning” (a word used to describe almost everything in the book from scenery to women) woman wants to jump in bed with him. Several succeed.

The author has a real knack for description. He’s able to evoke a vivid picture of every character and the Chattanooga area’s many charms. There’s plenty of action. The violence is only beginning when the first murder victim is discovered. Fans of gunfights, fistfights, and broken bones will not be disappointed.

A big turnoff for me, though, was Starke’s character. Out of the blue he tortures one of the suspects, someone who isn’t even clearly a bad guy. I don’t like gratuitous cruelty and sadism, but it’s to be expected in mysteries to demonize the bad guys. When the main character does it, I have a hard time liking him. He also is supposedly in a relationship with a woman who is out of town, but that doesn’t stop him from bedding the bevy of beauties that besiege him. So he’s a sadist and a cheat. I came away thinking of him as just as much of a thug as the guys he beats up.

The reader is excellent. His rich voice and folksy, homespun accent is reminiscent of Andy Griffith. It has an authentic-sounding southern charm, although he can do a dead on east coast mobster accent just as well. He’s able to do the women’s voices without sounding squeaky or silly, too. He does read at an exceptionally leisurely pace, which is appropriate for the setting and character, but if that pace bothers you, I recommend doing what I did – turn up the speed on your Kindle. I’d never used that feature before but I’m sure I will in the future.

This audiobook was provided by the author, narrator, or publisher at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of Audiobook Blast.

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It’s silicon, dummy, not silicone

I heard a character on TV talk about returning from a stint working in Silicone Valley. Silicone is the viscous liquid used in breast implants among other things. Silicon is an element and serves as the substrate used in making integrated circuits, hence the name Silicon Valley for the Santa Clara Valley where the chip industry first took off. So unless he was employed in adult filmmaking, he wasn’t in Silicone Valley.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings TwiceThe Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This classic noir novel deserves its place in history. Told in the first person by a drifter who falls for the beautiful young wife of a Greek diner owner, it has more twists and turns than the road to Malibu, a road that plays a critical role in the story. Frank, the drifter, and Cora, the young wife, fall hard for each other and soon devise a plan to knock off the Greek. The plot is too complex, and too much fun to read, to spoil it with further details.

Written in the 1930’s, the style has an earthy retro feel you just won’t find anywhere in today’s writing. The characters inhabit the lowest rungs of the social ladder and talk with an ungrammatical patois that’s crude without being obscene. The mood is all about hard fists, ripped blouses, lust and love, yet the plot is anything but simplistic. Just when you think you know how it’s going go, you get thrown a different direction.

This is a very short novel at 116 pages, and thus a quick read. In case the title rings a bell, but you can’t place it, it’s been made into a movie twice, once starring Lana Turner, and again starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. I started this book with a skeptical eye, but loved it by the end. I highly recommend it.

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The Anonymous Source by A.C. Fuller

The Anonymous SourceThe Anonymous Source by A.C. Fuller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This pleasant mystery features a reporter as the primary investigator. He teams up with a lovely professor whose boyfriend-professor was recently killed. All this is set in the backdrop of the aftermath of the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks. The plot tends toward the hackneyed, with evil corporate types and a hired diabolical Ukrainian killer. It’s rather far-fetched, but the writing style is accurate and easy to read for grammar nazis like me.

The sparks take forever to fly between the main characters, and when they do, the ignition is implausibly missing. Still, that aspect was done tastefully, avoiding the crudeness you find in other examples of the genre. I’m not sure most mystery readers want tasteful, though. The settings range from New York to Hawaii and the main characters are mostly believable (which cannot be said for the auxiliary ones.) I’ll say this for it – I didn’t figure out who the anonymous source was. The final reveal was a good jolt of an ending.

I downloaded this when it was offered free and as a fellow author I know that the least a freeloader can do is write a review. Four stars may be a bit of a stretch, but it was good enough to hold my interest.

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Classical Gas by Mason Williams

Considering this song was written and made popular in the 60s, I decided to give this video a psychedelic look. The song was written and performed originally by Mason Williams on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but there have been many other guitarists, like Tommy Emmanuel,  record it. I can’t compete with those pros, but then they haven’t written six mystery novels.

Fantasy sports and loyalty

This being Super Bowl Sunday and all it seems an appropriate time for a discussion of fantasy football and what it means. I’ll tell you what it means. It means the concept of loyalty is pretty much a bygone thing in this country. You see it everywhere. With all the fantasy sports leagues fans no longer care about their home team. They’ll root for their erstwhile favorite to do badly if they’ve started the opposing quarterback on their fantasy team. The players don’t stay with a team. If they think they’ll get more money or more playing time they’ll hop to another team in a heartbeat if they can. The coaches do the same. The owners don’t care. To them it’s just a business. They don’t even care about winning. They get a cut of the total revenue now whether they deserve it or not, so they make more by keeping payroll down, i.e. letting the good players go. This applies in other sports and even in college. Top prospects leave their school if another one promises a starting slot.

It’s not just sports. Companies no longer have any loyalty to their employees. Pensions are a thing of the past. The “HP way” is no more. Employees hop from one company to another as soon as their options vest in the last one. It’s everyone for himself. That’s today’s mentality. People don’t even get married, or if they do, they consider it just a convenience until they decide to get a divorce.

Of course I am only talking about trends. It’s a real trend, and getting worse every year, but I’m sure you know many exceptions. Maybe you and your company are loyal and true and blue. But I’m sure you also know plenty of examples that prove the trend. It’s a sad thing in my opinion.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this massive tome Bryson gives a creditable history of nearly everything … science related. He totally ignores traditional recorded human history such as wars and dynasties and exploration (other than scientific ones). He writes well and can make almost any topic seem interesting, but he has a few tendencies you should be prepared for if you plan to undertake this book. The most obvious obstacle is the sheer size of the book at over 500 pages. Bryson also seems almost obsessed with the notion of misplaced credit. Virtually every major discovery or breakthrough in science he discusses seems to have an associated story of someone who discovered or thought of it first but was not believed or published and the credit fell to someone else later. The appeal of this sort of revelation wanes after (or well before) the hundredth time it is mentioned. At least it did with me.

This is not a science book, at least not in the traditional sense of trying to impart a working or even academic knowledge of a scientific subject. Bryson is a journalist, not a scientist. He gets the basics right but tends to gloss over the science itself rather quickly in order to focus on the people who were involved. There is at least much biography as biology in the book. The reader learns where the controversies are and what the current frontiers of a field of science are, but not how to conduct any scientific research. Your SAT score won’t go up using this as a prep book, and that’s a good thing. It’s meant to be read for enjoyment and for an understanding of science and scientists as a whole, as an institution or process. The reader will appreciate how often it has gone wrong, how hard it has been to get on the right track, and mostly, how amazing the great minds have been to work out the vast store of knowledge and understanding we now enjoy. It has been in only the last few decades that so many myths have been destroyed.

The format is more like a very long magazine than a storybook. There is no plot. Each chapter is like a new article on a different subject. You can open it anywhere or read it in any order without losing anything. It makes it easier to pick up and start reading at any point. It also makes it easier to put down and put off at any point, which I often found myself doing since there was no suspense as to how it was going to come out or what was going to happen next. I enjoy non-fiction, but I find myself with less patience for overlong books in the genre. Still, I recommend this one to anyone who enjoys good writing and a layman’s interest in scientific progress.

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Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas

Seeking Whom He May Devour (Commissaire Adamsberg, #2)Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s a bit difficult rating this book because it’s a translation from the French. I’m not sure whether the weaknesses are primarily those of the author or the translator. Ultimately, the book didn’t work for me. It’s promoted as an Inspector Adamsberg mystery, but he doesn’t make a substantial appearance until two-thirds of the way through the book. The main character is Camille, his erstwhile lover, who is shacked up with a tall, handsome Canadian naturalist studying the wild wolves of the Pyrenees. The village they reside in is in sheep farming country.

After several local sheep are savaged, left dead with throats ripped out by a wolf of enormous size (based on the fang marks), some of the more superstitious villagers think it is a werewolf. Soon thereafter Suzanne, a beloved local figure, is killed the same way. The suspicion then turns to a shadowy figure named Massart who has disappeared. He is known to have a huge mastiff. These killings are followed by more sheep killings and then killings of men throughout the countryside. Camille sets off in a stinky lorry with Solimon, a black adoptee of Suzanne’s, and Watchee, an old man who also loved Suzanne, to track down Massart. The two men are both quite odd in their own ways and the conversations that occur on this road trip are bizarre and clumsy. I think the story was meant to be humorous or something of a farce, but I’m not sure. It may have just been bad translation. It never sounded like English-speakers talking. Even the title is bad. It’s a phrase taken from a heated conversation about Massart’s (or the werewolf’s, or real wolf’s) intentions. Can you imagine speaking that phrase?

As if that were not enough, the ending was particularly irritating. It is one of those where the case is solved because the inspector is privy to information not shared with the reader until the end when he reveals the solution. Thus it is impossible to solve it before the big reveal.

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