Monday, December 30, 2013

Have a Little Faith: A True Story, by Mitch Albom

Mr. Albom's story is anchored by the request of his childhood rabbi to speak the rabbi's eulogy.  To prepare himself for the task, Mr. Albom sought to know more about the man, a process that took eight years.

Meanwhile, writing for a Detroit newspaper allowed the author to raise interest in a poor Christian church that seeks to minister to the homeless and the addicted.   Mr. Albom intertwines this story in the book.

As a consequence, the book is about faith as demonstrated by two very different people: the lifelong rabbi and the lifelong criminal turned pastor.   The punchline is more or less about the benefit or comfort of believing in something bigger than oneself.

Have a Little Faith: A True Story

Starhawk, by Jack McDevitt

This is a workmanlike sci-fi novel.  The plot is good, although the ending is up in the air, a set up for the next volume.  The character development is good.  But.  I'm having difficulty finding the right word to describe what is missing here.  If you've ever read a book that takes you into the story completely, then the best way to describe Mr. McDevitt's novel is that is does not.   Just descriptive sentences.  I therefore recommend this only as a time-filler book: good for waiting at the DMV but not so much for a good read by the fireplace.

The plot summary:   our hero, Priscilla (Hutch) Hutchins completes her final qualification flight to become an outer space pilot.  Terraforming of new found planets is potentially destroying indigenous flora and fauna; this frustrates activists into becoming terrorists, and their targets are space ships and the platform from which they launch.  There are other intelligent life forms in the universe, and other major characters in the book encounter them in subtle ways.

Starhawk (A Priscilla Hutchins Novel)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Frozen Rabbi, by Steve Stern

This is one of the strangest books I've read.  Parts of it were terrific, and bring to mind Michael Chabon. Parts of it were infuriating, needlessly arcane, disturbing or unnecessary.   Some of the dialog is in Yiddish with nary a footnote of translation, and while I could puzzle out some of it, some of it was just puzzling.  

To give you a lay of the land, the book opens in 1999 with a teenager digging around the basement freezer to find a piece of meat with which to -- never mind, you don't want to know.  He comes across the frozen body of a Polish Rabbi who, as we later learn, accidentally froze in the late 1800s in Poland.  The story is about how that came to be, but more about how that body ended up in Memphis TN.  And about what happens next.

This is a difficult book to score; part of me says four stars and part of me says two stars.  If the description hasn't already scared you off then you might like to read this.  Any blog readers out there:  if you do read this book, please let me know (via comments) what you think.

The Frozen Rabbi

Lexicon, by Max Barry

What a strange, yet compelling, novel.   The concept is that language can manipulate people in a very discrete sense.  A school teaches students to use words as weapons, and graduates are assigned a new name as they take their place as "poets" in an ill-explained organization.   The book follows the story line of Emily, a homeless three-card Monte scammer, who is recruited to the school, and of Wil, an innocent guy somehow caught up in the craziness of the poets' activities.

The time line went back and forth along with the narrative focus, which is to say that the writing is a bit unusual.   The story line is borderline sci-fi, but I chose to not pigeon-hole it with that tag.

I didn't love this novel, but I found it difficult to put down, and I'd give it five stars for the combination of innovative plot and compelling writing.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Artificial Evil, by Colin Barnes

This is a very confusing novel.   It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where everyone is augmented with an artificial intelligence chip and connectivity to a shared system.  There's a ill explained concept of a death lottery, which the hero, Gerry Cardle, runs due to his skill with computer algorithms.   Everything goes to hell in a hand basket, Gerry makes new (outlaw) friends and leaves the security of the "dome" to experience the rest of the world.

I'll use the word confusing again because it is the dominant response to the book.  It is what kept me reading, hoping for clarity.  Even at the end, I couldn't tell if Gerry is a human, an augmented human, or a robot of some sort.  The fans who rate this novel well on Amazon have either figured this out or value the ambiguity.  I haven't and I don't.

There's another volume which presumably clears this all up but I'm not curious enough to read another of Mr. Barnes' novels.

Artificial Evil (Book 1 of The Techxorcist)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Namaste, by Sean Platt

The hero of this novel, Amit, has lived in a martial arts -oriented monastery since being orphaned in childhood.   Now a young adult, a tragic circumstance leads him to leave the group to find and extract vengeance from those who wronged his friend.  Some plot twists occur at the end of the novel.

I give this book a C-.


Friday, December 20, 2013

The Savant of Chelsea, by Suzanne Jenkins

The hero of this novel is a mentally ill woman; her illness manifests as savant expertise as a neurosurgeon and an inability to effectively communicate with or relate to others along with an inattentiveness to her personal health (i.e., nutrition).   She discovers that the baby that was taken from her as a child (due to abuse) lives and has children of her own.   In the process of caring for her grandchildren, she experiences a (remarkable) change in empathy and communications skills, essentially approaching functional social skills for the first time.

I give this book a C-.

The Savant of Chelsea

Outlaw, by Mark Sullivan

This is a solid suspense novel.  A bit frustrating that the plot is not fully tied up at the end, and I have a sense that there's another book by Mr. Sullivan that I'm expected to read in order to figure out what's really going on here.

The general idea is that our hero, a former special forces hero and current thief (but for a good cause), Robin Monarch, is hired by the White House to rescue a kidnapped Secretary of State (along with the foreign ministers of China and India).

Sound far fetched?  Well, that's the nature of this sort of novel, now isn't it...

Outlaw: A Robin Monarch Novel (Robin Monarch Thrillers)

Happy, Happy, Happy, by Phil Robertson

Mr. Robertson is the founder of Duck Commander and his family is the center of a reality television show called Duck Dynasty.  This book is his story.

The net is this:  Mr. Robertson grew up in a country setting near Caddo Parish, Louisiana in poverty, but not realizing it all that much.  He went to college, played football, graduated, but his interests had always been hunting and fishing and it was his goal to do so as much as possible.

For many years after marrying Kay Robertson (at age 15), Mr. Robertson was a carousing drunk.  At age 28 he became a devout Christian and credits this for the resolution of his poor behavior.  He founded a business building duck calls, and turned it into a substantial enterprise.  Notably, the business (now turned over to son Willie) takes pride in employing as many family members as possible.

Mr. Robertson writes about his belief that hunting and fishing are, literally, god -given rights, including a bible reference to support his claim.  In spite of this authorization, he is (reluctantly) willing to abide by hunting regulations.  Although he describes a long career in poaching and generally ignoring and running from game wardens.  Presumably Mr. Robertson doesn't understand the concept of waterfowl conservation that hunting limits help with.

The book has a fair amount of proselytizing, especially at the final chapter.  Mr. Robertson's faith is such that he doesn't believe in evolution nor in abortion, and he believes in a personal god who affects his life.  Mr. Robertson also writes that the US could solve most of its social issues through more religion, and decries the separation of church and state.

Mr. Robertson really likes rural life, and expresses disdain for civilization - that is, cities and the complexities they represent.  Between that, his social conservatism, and his religious beliefs, his book could just as easily describe a successful Taliban warlord in Afghanistan; I suspect he'd be a big fan of strict sharia law (certainly if it were re-named "the Christian law").

Mr. Robertson seems like a happy guy, and as I hear it the television show about his family portrays them well, but he comes across to me as unpleasant.

Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

This is a classic, award -winning science fiction novel.  But since I'm relatively new to the genre, I just came across it.  Wow - it certainly deserves the accolades.  This is not so much a novel about space war as it is a novel that conveys the futility of war; think "All Quiet on the Western Front ."

Mr. Haldeman wrote this in the 1970s and the dates he set in the novel have already passed by now. So that's a bit odd, but it hardly detracts from the story.

Highly recommended.

The Forever War

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Thankless in Death, by JD Robb

Although I hadn't read the prior novel for this this is clearly the sequel, it was still easy to read and I never felt lost.  The plot moved well, the characters were interesting.  This is a lightweight book but an enjoyable one -- if you go for mysteries that require a police officer to capture a mass murderer before he kills again.

Thankless in Death

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Puppet Masters, by Robert Heinlein

When I came across this sci-fi classic at the library, I couldn't resist reading it.  First published in 1951, it is a touch dated and certainly has a male chauvinist tone.   But these issues don't really get in the way of an enjoyable story.  Mr. Heinlein's later works are much more my favorites, but his stories are consistently interesting.

The Puppet Masters

Ice Station Zombie, by JE Gurley

The concept of this entertaining novel is that a biological warfare research station at Antarctica accidentally lets loose a virus that turns people into, well, zombies.  The plot follows the efforts of survivors to find a solution to this plague.

Ice Station Zombie: A Post Apocalyptic Chiller

Terms of Enlistment, by Marko Kloos

This is an entertaining sci-fi novel.   The hero is Andrew Grayson, a young man whose only shot at escaping the poverty of his home is to join the military - which translates to either subduing civil unrest in the slums of Earth's cities, or space travel.

The novel reads like a movie, and like a movie is a bit superficial.  But the characters are interesting and the plot moves along well, so the superficiality is not a big deal: just be clear that this isn't literature (or sci-fi at the Stranger in a Strange Land or Cryptonomicon level).

Terms of Enlistment