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Monday, 9 May 2005
TWO TRAINS RUNNING by Lucius Shephard
Mood:  celebratory
Now Playing: Lucius Shephard interview on Agony Booth podcast
Topic: Book Review
Lucius Shephard is one of the few real true characters working in fiction today. Reading interviews about his life and work makes his real life adventures come off as cool as anything he writes about in his stories.

I first became a fan of Shephard with the publication of his near-future stories in F&SF magazine; these were in turn anthologized in the Gardner Dozois "BEST SCIENCE FICTION OF THE YEAR.." series. Shephard's stories are haunting and familiar, like they are taking place in a mirror image of reality but only a couple years later than today. Much of what he predicts in his fiction (smart suits, combat drugs, seeing eye gun tracking) has either came to pass or is in the works for the next generation of soldiers. Much of his story arcs concern themselves with an imagined war in Central America (a part of the world that he is very familiar with), and were later novelized on their own as LIFE DURING WARTIME and THE JAGUAR HUNTER.

The book I just finished, however, is not about a future war, and only a little bit of it is even fiction. TWO TRAINS RUNNING is three bits; the first bit is a lengthy article about hobos and the FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America), an alleged "hobo mafia" that might or might not have harbored homicidal maniacs at some point. The other two bits are short stories utilizing the settings and characters out of the FTRA story.

Frankly, the best part of the book is the non-fiction bit. It's humorous, wry and pointed. I like the fact that Shephard went out on the road with hobos and "catched out" to hop freights with them.. still, he doesn't pretend to reshape them as noble savages (as they probably would themselves). Shephard appreciates the romance of the hobo lifestyle but wouldn't trade his life for theirs for any money. And that's how most of us would react, too.

The stories are .. okay.

My next Shephard project is finding and reading COLONEL RUTHERFORD'S COLT, which appears to have some promise!

Posted by mrnizz at 12:04 PM EDT
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THE NARROWS by Michael Connelly
Mood:  cool
Now Playing: Black Flag
Topic: Book Review
Harry Bosch is back again, in all his cool, hip and noir glory. This is the big tie-in novel for all of author Michael Connelly's serial characters-- virtually every P.O.V. character from every series is tied up in a neat package here.. Harry Bosch (all the Bosch novels), Terry McCalleb (Blood Work et. al), and Rachel Walling (the Poet) all intersect as their plot lines come together for one big orgy of noir, sex and violence. What can I say? I think a lot of the "I'm gonna share universes and put all my characters together for a special novel" schtick is artificial, and the plot line strikes me as the most contrived Connelly book ever. There are so many POVs running simultaneously that it's hard to track. Still, Harry Bosch is Harry Bosch, and Harry Bosch is cool, violent, principled, unyielding. The character makes up for the deficiency in the plot. It's always a good time reading a Bosch novel...

Posted by mrnizz at 11:46 AM EDT
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Thursday, 24 February 2005
The Other End of Time and The Siege of Eternity, by Fred Pohl
Mood:  a-ok
Now Playing: For time
Topic: Book Review
I like Fred Pohl's books generally speaking. JEM, GATEWAY, MAN PLUS, and THE SPACE MERCHANTS were great, fun, reads. Fred Pohl is a prototypical science fiction writer with a career spanning the Golden Age, the "New Era" and onward. His fiction usually revolves around an interesting idea (For instance, what if ancient aliens left behind an orbital with a host of exploration vessels capable of jumping into space, but nobody knows exactly where they are going?) Alas, it would seem that his output has declined in the last decade or so, though the penchant for a single cool idea is still present.

So when I picked up THE OTHER END OF TIME at the library (Audio Version, Cassette, Books on Tape) I had reasonable expectations. This is Fred Pohl, after all. THE OTHER END OF TIME is the first book in a series called Eschaton (the moment the universe collapses, when everyone who has ever lived will be reborn and live for eternity). Pretty heady concept.. but the execution in the first novel is glacial. The future is dystopic, economies on the brink of collapse. There's a wide gap between haves and have-nots in this future. A government agent is sent to spy on a space mission to a derelict satellite. He, and the rest of the mission, are kidnapped by aliens, taken through a dimensional portal, and held captive in a featureless 'no space" for a looong time. Much of the book takes place during this captivity. We learn there is a galactic war going on over "The Eschaton" (the universe collapse/rebirth thing), their captors might be good guys, bad guys or indifferent guys. They escape at the end, and that's about the sum total of the plot.

Interesting plot points (the big Pohl idea): instead of travelling someplace physically, the aliens use a tachyon transmitter to send digitized copies of beings instead. The hangup of course, is that you leave a perfect copy of yourself (or is it the original?) behind.

SIEGE OF ETERNITY takes up about five minutes behind the first novel. Pohl focuses most of his efforts on portraying an unrepentantly selfish world dealing with an unprecedented crisis. His world is politically unstable, with widespread terrorism, runaway inflation and rampant crime. Even most of the likable characters are more concerned with personal gain than with the larger problems of dealing with the alien threat, which doesnt seem to be taken seriously, at least inthis novel. Pohl is also very effective at presenting the Horch and Scarecrows as aliens, rather than funny looking humans.

SIEGE OF ETERNITY does pick up the pace quite a bit for all of that, and has given me the impetus I needed to finish the story.

Posted by mrnizz at 10:32 AM EST
Updated: Thursday, 24 February 2005 10:38 AM EST
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Tuesday, 22 February 2005
Polaris, by Jack McDevitt: Marie Celeste in space
Mood:  a-ok
Now Playing: my banjo
Topic: Book Review
I love the archeological stories of Jack McDevitt, even when he's gone to the well many times, as he does in the Omega/Chindi/Engines of God sequence. McDevitt writes either mystery/thrillers with an archeological edge (A TALENT FOR WAR, POLARIS) or xenoarcheology pieces (ENGINES OF GOD, OMEGA, et. al) or a mixture of both. McDevitt used to share a rare honor of being on my "short list".. authors, like Ian Banks, George Fraser, and George Martin, that I usually pick up "keeper copies" of their novels and read more than once. Lately, however, I've found much of what he has written to be increasingly repetitive. That is not to say it's dull-- McDevitt may be a one-trick pony, but that pony can still perform.

POLARIS brings us back to the milieu of McDevitt's greatest book so far, A TALENT FOR WAR. The myth debunking hero of TALENT, Alex Benedict, returns as a secondary character along with the POV character of his lovely assistant Chase Kolpath. It's 60 some-odd years later, and we are presented with a plot similar to the old mystery of the marie celeste-- the ship that was found devoid of crew or passengers floating adrift in 1872.

In POLARIS, the titular ship is preparing to jump out of an solar system during a spectacular stellar event (with a passenger list of celebrities). Nothing happens. The ship is recovered, with no crew or passengers, suits and lifeboat intact. What happened?

Polaris is a great "whatdunit" in the classic McDevitt form, which means a very good read but also a formulaic one for this author. I wish Jack M. might consider branching out one of these days-- I love the archeology theme but he's done it to death. If this had been his first or third book, I might have sang the choir celestial over POLARIS, but as it is his sixth or seventh novel sharing this theme, I can merely shrug and give it a casual thumbs up.

I see by reviewing McDevitt's Bibliography that I've missed two small press books, HELLO OUT THERE and STANDARD CANDLES. The first is a combination of A TALENT FOR WAR and THE HERCULES TEXT, two unrelated novels. The second appears to be short stories. I'll keep an eye out for it!

Posted by mrnizz at 12:21 PM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 22 February 2005 12:52 PM EST
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Flashman, Rated by me
Mood:  mischievious
Now Playing: GeekBlog Podcast, boardgame geek
Topic: Literary Survey

I'm an unabashed fan of George Macdonald Fraser's FLASHMAN series, covering the career of one Harry Paget Flashman, who existed in literature as the swaggering bully of the somewhat unreadable TOM BROWN'S SCHOOL DAYS. Fraser's conceit is to examine what the career of Flashman might have been like had he pursued a career in the Victorian Army of the late 19th Century. Need I point out that nice guys finish last in a Fraser novel?

Flashy rogers, romps, fights and runs away over the course of 11 novels (so far) and there's every sign that the series will continue, with FLASHMAN AT THE MARCH (the Abysinnian Campaign) coming out this Spring. I look forward with baited breath.

Even a bad Flashy novel is better than a lot of drek that gets published these days. Yet I still have my preferences, which I'll voice here (along with a survey of the series so far). The covers represent the BRITISH version of the Flashy books (and they are quite handsome indeed!). I'm using them since I found this HTML table ready-made by a British fan, why reinvent the wheel, after all? However, the words are my own. Note Bene, my "ratings" really are just and indication of what I call the best and worst of the series, and they are simply my own opinion. Your mileage might vary. If I don't say it's either a favorite or least favorite, that means that Fraser did a workmanlike job on it.

Flashman (Book 1)

1. Flashman

Flashman's Early life, Afghan uprising 1839-1842.

My third favorite, FLASHMAN is our introduction to the series and to Flashy's deplorable character. In a few short chapters, Flashy gets expelled from Rugby for drunkeness, rogers his father's mistress, joins the 11th Hussars, rogers a colleague's mistress, fights a rigged duel, and gets sent to India in time for the disasterous Kabul Expidition. I'm not even doing the story justice...

Royal Flash (Book 2)

2. Royal Flash

Lola Montez and Otto von Bismarck 1842-43; Schleswig-Holstein controversy 1847-48.

A retelling of the PRISONER OF ZENDA, perhaps my second least favorite Flashman novel. Still, it has some wonderful moments, as ALL Flashman stories tend to have. Lola Montez and her penchant for hairbrushes comes to mind. Royal Flash also is one of the VERY few (tsk tsk) novels in the series where Flashman stands and fights, albeit briefly.

Flash For Freedom! (Book 3)

3. Flash For Freedom!

American slave trade 1848-49.

Not in my top 3 but definitely in my top 5. Flashy again gets involved in a contremps over cards, loose women and cheating, and flees England for a while at the instigation of the villainous Morrison (his father in law).. on of all things, a slave trading ship! The best part of the book is toward the end, with Fraser's droll observations about Americans through the voice of Flashy. And Flashman gets to meet a very young Abe Lincoln at the end!

Flashman At The Charge (Book 4)

4. Flashman At The Charge

Crimean War (Charge of the Light Brigade), 1854; Central Asia, Battle at Fort Raim 1855.

My absolute favorite Flashman novel, due to it being chock-full of historical personages and events, and just the sprawling bigness of the thing.. A reluctant Flashy gets sent to Sevastapol, to take part in no less than The Thin Red Line, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Natch, he also rogers lots of doxies along the way, and even has a drug-induced moment of heroism at the very end!

Flashman In The Great Game (Book 5)

5. Flashman In The Great Game

Sepoy Indian Mutiny 1856-58.

This, or Dragon, usually make my second favorite Flashman novel of all time. The great Indian mutiny of the late 50s.. Flashy poses as a native to avoid getting slaughtered.. and manages to roger the Rhani of Jhansi along the way.

Flashman's Lady (Book 6)

6. Flashman's Lady

Borneo Piracy, Madagascar 1842-45.

This one is down there at the bottom. I don't know why, it just comes off as filler for the rather uneventful years between 42 and 49 for some reason. Still, Flash manages to have his lady wife kidnapped, rescues her, becomes the consort to the Queen of Madagascar, meets Rajah Brooke, and manages to roger a terrified member of a hareem in the middle of a battle.

Flashman And The Redskins (Book 7)

7. Flashman And The Redskins

The 1849 Gold Rush 1849-50; Battle of Little Big Horn, 1876.

Probably my fourth favorite. Love the subject matter but I suspect it would be better served expanded into two standalone novels rather than one book made up of two half-novels. Still, there's a reason he does this and it's best that I don't reveal it here. Let's just say that the first part (the 49s) has a passage that, for me, represents the most despicable thing Flashy has ever done to a female, and part two (the Little Big Horn campaign) has all the chickens coming home to roost, as it were. Another great romp through American history..

Flashman And The Dragon (Book 8)

8. Flashman And The Dragon

Taiping Rebellion, 1860.

My second or third favorite, depending on how I feel that day and who's asking. I love Chinese history and especially the TaiPing rebellion (this book inspired me to find out more about Frederick T. Ward... read THE DEVIL SOLDIER sometime, it reads like an improbable adventure novel!). Flashman gets involved in the thick of things, desperately involved in A) dodging a clumsy blackmail scheme B) romancing a giant bandit queen and C) taking part in the Allied Punitive Expedition. Another rare moment where Flashy actually stands and fights, this time against none other than Sang-Kol-Insen himself!

Flashman And The Mountain of Light (Book 9)

9. Flashman And The Mountain of Light

Indian Punjab, Sikh Rebellion 1845-46.

Fun, but not in the upper pantheon. Another filler book for the late 1840s, this one focuses on the Sikh rebellion. Again Flashy rogers his way to greatness. More forgettable than some of them, as I am currently drawing a blank on the details. Perhaps it's time to re-read this one.

Flashman And The Angel of the Lord (Book 10)

10. Flashman And The Angel of the Lord

John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry 1858-59.

My fifth favorite, and a great improvement over Mountain of Light. Angel shows a much more humane and introspective Flashy.. he's absolutely mournful in his reminsciences here-- This is a very focused, tight story and of note due to the constant references to the giant gaping hole in the memoirs.. Flashman's experiences (on both sides) during the American Civil War (the book all Flashy fans want to see). Flashman's portrayal of John Brown is humane, charitable and even sympathetic.

Flashman And The Tiger (Book 11)

11. Flashman And The Tiger

Not a novel at all, but these three short stories:

'The Road To Charing Cross' - Congress of Berlin, Treaty of San Stefano, 1878; Bodyguard to the Emperor Franz Joseph, 1884. (largest and best of the lot)
'The Subtleties of Baccarat' - Tranby Croft scandal, 1890.
'Flashman And The Tiger' - Zulu Uprising, 1879, and Tiger Jack Moran, 1894.

My least favorite . The Congress of Berlin story is pretty good and would have made a great standalone novel. The Tiger story is okay-- most noticeable for the Sherlock Holmes reference than anything else. I really wish Fraser had taken time to write a novel length Zulu War book-- I would like to have seen Flashy at BOTH Isandlwanah AND Roarke's Drift. Sigh.

Posted by mrnizz at 12:00 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 24 February 2005 9:55 AM EST
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Thursday, 17 February 2005
The Obscure pleasure of reading Gene Wolfe
Mood:  caffeinated
Now Playing: my Banjo
Topic: Focus on Author
Re-Reading a lot of Gene Wolfe quite a bit at the moment. I found Castle of Days in Mckay's Used books for a couple of bucks (hardcover). Castle of Days is a collection of short stories (Book of Days) combined with a long rambling, multi-chaptered discourse about how the Book of the New Sun series came to be. some people might find this sort of self-indulgent. I'm not one of them. There's a real creative magic in this series-- beautiful crafting of language and concepts, and Otter explains most of Wolfe's method in creating the story. It's great!


Posted by mrnizz at 10:04 PM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 22 February 2005 12:23 PM EST
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The Current Teetering
Mood:  lyrical
Now Playing: my Banjo
Topic: Literary Survey
It's my habit to read several things concurrently, depending on input stream.. audio book, e-books on the Palm, the old fashioned bound kind. This is what is currently on the pile: I'm currently reading Jack McDevitt's POLARIS (his latest, but not best, novel). Jack tends to write "space archeology/mystery" stories, and ALL of them (except MOONFALL) are good, addictive, reads. His best is A TALENT FOR WAR (about debunking a 'hero of the galazy' myth through detective work... excellent.. and POLARIS is set in the same setting). (bound, h/c) I'm also reading McSWEENEY'S ENCHANGED CHAMER OF ASTONISHING STORIES (short stories, Ed. Michael Chabon). I picked it because of the editor, Michael Chabon, who wrote THE ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND KLAY. Hit or miss, but some great stories so far-- I like Joyce Carol Oates a lot, and she wrote the first story in the collection. (bound, trade) Also, LOST IN A GOOD BOOK by Jasper Fforde. This is vol. 2 in the "Thursday Next" series.. a very odd little group of books about a literary detective that can actually insert herself in book plots to prevent history from changing. Quirky and excellent. (bound, trade) If you like horror/mystery/historical fiction: I have these in from the library: THE NARROWS by Michael Connelly (starring one of my favorite hard-case detectives, Harry Bosch... Bosch novels are like literary crack for me). THE VIRTUES OF WAR by Stephen Pressfield (whose Thermoplyae novel GATES OF FIRE is being made into a movie right now). VoW is about the tutelage of Alexander the Great. I just re-upped at the Science Fiction Book Club, and received: Rincewind the Wizzard (the first four books of the Discworld series, I have only read the first one) Gods in Darkness (the Karl Wagner short story collection) the Crown of Conan (the new Robert Howard Conan anthology) the Second SFBC Barsoom collection (books 4-6 I think) Fevre Dream, a book about Riverboats and vampires by George Martin. I also ordered another book (the h/c vol. 1 of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but they didn't have it. I'll have to select another book, which will probably be the FIRST volume in their Barsoom anthology... I have all of them already in paperback, but these are so handy, especially when I'm working on Barsoomia. Oh... and I have a bunch of Robert E. Howard, Dashiel Hammett and Clark Ashton Smith short stories loaded on my PDA in e-book format, as well as the much longer DEED OF PAKSANARION trilogy by Elizabeth Moon. The latter is quite enjoyable so far! I'm listening to THE SAGA OF THE SEVEN SUNS by Kevin J. Anderson in the truck. It's mid-level space opera, not great, but nicely detailed and enjoyable. Nothing that will garner him a nebula award. He's not a great, or even consistently good writer, but he really hit the mark this time.

Posted by mrnizz at 9:44 PM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 22 February 2005 12:24 PM EST
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Tuesday, 21 September 2004
Mood:  don't ask
Now Playing: my banjo
Topic: Book Review
I just finished THE STARS AND STRIPES TRIUMPHANT, by Harry Harrison. Normally I rather like Harrison's work, especially the more pulpy material like BILL THE GALATIC HERO, MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! and STAR SMASHERS OF THE GALAXY RANGERS. The Stars and Strips series is a full-fledged jump into Turtledove's territory. The jumps in history are intriguing. The Mason-Slidell incident becomes cause celebre in Great Britain, tipping them into the cause of intervention. Alas, they intervene in the wrong place and slaughter a hapless outpost of rebs. This miraculously reconciles both sides of the ACW and unites them against our real foe, Great Britain. (the first book). The reunited Americans then smash British rule in the Eire, helping the suffering Irishmen establish a republic there. (second book). In the final book, VICTORIOUS, the Americans take the war to the UK itself. The title might be considered a spoiler.

The VSF enthusiast in me revels at the advances of technology (and not huge ones either) that make the plot move forward-- culiminating in the use of tanks when the American forces attack the UK in 1867(!!!) However, the nascent little historian that I fear lurks in the heart of us all was outraged at Harrison's very liberal and convenient interpertation of the science, politics and social trends of mid-19th century America and Europe.

For one thing, the ironclads that Harrison considers so decisive against the Royal Navy were not exactly ocean-going vessels, and he has them escorting convoys and landing invasion forces. Absurd! The actual battle sections, although well-written, are tied up in a neat little bow before the first guy fires the first shot. I would have preferred a little more controversy-- that Sherman is a demigod of military planning, isn't he?

Finally (Spoilers!), we are supposed to believe that all these European nations that have been around for centuries are hungering for American forms of government (a constitution and elected representation) as the answer to all their ills.

In lieu of certain foreign entanglements the US is in at the moment (and that's the last comparison I'll make), I found the conclusions of this series to be a tad amusing in context.

In sum, fun, but horribly jingoistic and embarassingly rah-rah for the American side. I'd get it at the UBS of your choice.

Posted by mrnizz at 1:03 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 31 August 2004
INNOCENTS ABOARD by Gene Wolfe (publisher: Tor Hardcover)
Mood:  caffeinated
Now Playing: I
Topic: Book Review
I just found this new collection of short stories by Gene Wolfe, who brought us the Long Sun/Short Sun series.

Wolfe is a creator of a strange, literary style of Science Fiction, and has been distinctive to me since he first published THE DEATH OF DOCTOR ISLAND AND OTHER STORIES. I enjoy a Wolfe story like I enjoy a very strongly flavored wine or cheese... slow, and appreciative. Gene Wolfe is not for fast beach readers.

Ursula Le Guin calls him the "Melville of our generation" which I think is stretching it a tad, but he deserves acclaim for the way he visualizes new worlds (at the very least).

Innocents Aboard gathers fantasy and horror stories from the last decade that have never before been in a Wolfe collection.

Highlights from the collection:

  • "The Tree is my Hat" adventure and horror in the South Seas-- with a very unusual ending.
  • "The Night Chough" a Long Sun story, always welcome.
  • "The Walking Sticks" a darkly humorous tale of a supernatural inheritance
  • "Houston, 1943" lurid adventures in a dream that has no end.

    To agree with one over-enthusiastic reviewer, there truly isn't a clinker in the bunch. Relax, enjoy, and take your time with this one. It's always worth it.

    Posted by mrnizz at 4:14 PM EDT
    Updated: Tuesday, 31 August 2004 4:17 PM EDT
    Mood:  bright
    Topic: Book Review
    I saw this one in a library display of recent books, and picked it up. The NSFA reprints have been uniformly good, and this was no exception.

    William Tenn was Phil Klass, a writer of SF short stories with a satirical flavor. Apparently he is well though of in the field, as Robert Silverberg's introduction piece was several pages long.

    Here Comes Civilization:
    Bernie the Faust
    Betelgeuse Bridge
    Will You Walk a Little Faster?
    The House Dutiful
    There Were People on Bikini, There Were People on Attu

    The Somewhat Heavy Fantastic:

    She Only Goes Out at Night
    Mistress Sary
    The Malted-Milk Monster
    The Human Angle
    Everybody Loves Irving Bommer

    For the Rent:

    A Matter of Frequency
    The Ionian Cycle
    Hallock's Madness
    Ricardo's Virus
    The Puzzle of Priipiirii
    Confusion Cargo

    Afterword: For the Rent

    Beating Time:

    The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway
    Me, Myself and I
    It Ends With a Flicker
    The Girl With Some Kind of Past, And George.
    Errand Boy
    A Lamp for Medusa

    Essay: On the Fiction in Science Fiction

    Of Men and Monsters

    Priests for Their Learning
    Soldiers for Their Valor
    Counselors for Their Wisdom

    My particular favorite was "There were people on Bikini, there were people on Attu"... about another collision with a superior, oh-so-helpful alien race and humanity. I used to live on Adak, which was not so far from the (still somewhat radioactive) Attu.
    I'm familiar with SOME of these stories, having read GALAXY and F&SF back in the glory days (Tenn/Klass wrote primarily for GALAXY). Tenn's predominant theme is humor, especially in the context of mankind meeting either a superior race (and coming out on the losing end, usually) or just something totally whacked.
    The afterword notes (which are recorded faithfully-- Tenn is still alive and quite spry in his 90s) are worth the price of admission, describing life as a struggling writer in the fifties and early sixties.
    Summary: mixed bag, as most short story collections tend to be. However, all of the stories in Volume 2 were a decent read, and all of them made me laugh, despite the high corn factor in a few of them. Tenn is quite artful in how he approaches .. what should we call it, xenophobia? Ethnocentrism? The belief that man is the center of the universe? In any event, this is a great collection and now I'm finding myself wanting Volume 1. I may buy these!

    Posted by mrnizz at 3:49 PM EDT
    Updated: Tuesday, 31 August 2004 4:02 PM EDT
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