Saturday, June 2, 2012

I will fear no evil – Robert Heinlein

Summary: Old man dies, has his brain swapped into the body of a 20-something hottie. The only problem… somehow, she’s in his head with him!

Setting: The book was written in 1970, and while it’s set in the future (about 2030, as near as I can tell), on the surface it feels analogous to “The Jetsons”; The Jetsons were a cartoon expectation of the 21st century, and this book could be described as a literary expectation of the 21st century.
Plot: Johann Schmidt has reached the end of his life. He’s well into his ‘90’s (if not older, the book’s not clear), he’s accomplished everything he wanted in his life, and by most measures, he’s an incredible success. He’s built a multi-billion dollar company, and he’s got too much money for his own good. When he dies, all of his money will be fought over by his granddaughters, who never loved him while he was alive. All he’s got left is his lawyer and best friend of the last 27 years, and his secretary.

He’s hooked up to machines to live, and now that he’s attached to all of these wires, it’s not possible for him to die. He comes up with a legal scheme to help himself die; arrange a brain transplant to a younger body, and harnesses his wealth to this scheme – if it’s successful, he gets his money. If he dies as a result of the transplant, his fortune goes to all sorts of charities (to keep his grand-kids away from it).

The transplant works out, but there’s a “glitch”. The previous owner of the body still has some presence in this body, and can communicate with Johann. It sounds like a horror story, but it’s not horror in any way, shape or form. Simply perfect Sci-Fi.

One thing to note. Some of the social mores we are used to are not necessarily followed in this book. Clothing is optional in most cases, and when you do have to wear clothes, you’re supposed to dress as scandalously as possible. The main character (Johann) is a nearly 100 year old man, and his brain is transplanted into a 25 year old female’s body. Due to the youth (and attractiveness) of his current body, and the amount of money that he was able to “bring with him”, our new main character has no shortage of sex partners, and through most of the book, Johann is hopping from bed to bed (when she bothers to get out of bed at all). Male, female, groups, you name it, she does it; she did it; hell, she’s probably doing it right now!

There are quite a few deeper messages in this book, but if you pay too much attention to them, you’ll miss out on all the sex… and there’s a lot of it. Nothing is presented graphically at all, but once the main character (Johann, or later, “Joan Eunice”) is up and around after surgery, she still manages to find herself flat on her back on what seems like every other page.

On the alternate side, if you pay too much attention to the sex scenes, you might miss some of the hidden commentary. In particular, the masterful transitions between chapters; they’re a brilliant method that Heinlein used for (I think) 3 different purposes: 1: To acknowledge that time has passed in the story, and that the reader didn’t get to read through absolutely everything that happened, 2: To give you a sense of how important our characters are in the story – their status is covered in the “National News” segments between chapters, to give you a picture of how many people are aware of the ongoing story; 3: Heinlein was not bashful about making predictions about the future. The transitions are crammed with information about what he was expecting to happen in the future. Some of the events he refers to as “Current News” are, ironically enough, happening today. Heinlein has plenty to say about politics, the environment, capital punishment, contraception, religion, arcane social customs; he was truly a wonderful writer, and regardless of the main topic of his books, he was able to get his social commentary in without coming across as “preachy”.

Wrap-up: This is a wonderful book, and I’m not just saying that because of all the gratuitous sex scenes in here. This book explores quite a bit about psychology, multiple personalities, the power of physical relationships, religion, racism, and many other topics.

One thing that does get a bit awkward is that a lot of the social conventions that we’re used to are completely ignored. While Johann has almost a century of hetero-sexual activity, he’s quite quick to jump into bed with any man who comes along, rather than sticking with his original orientation. It’s quite smoothly explained within the context of the story (taking into account the presence of the consciousness of the previous occupant of his body), but it’s still interesting to see how he manages it. He doesn’t necessarily limit his selection of partners to just men though; evidently in Heinlein’s alternate universe, bi-sexuality is the norm, and everybody sleeps with everyone else, regardless of existing relationships. In a lot of cases, spouses are well aware of (and in some cases, complicit in) their partners activities. There’s all kinds of swapping going on – I think the only person who doesn’t have sex in the whole book is the illiterate African American preacher.

If you’re not scared off by Sci-Fi, I’d highly recommend giving this one a read. I can’t describe this book any other way, though… This is pure Sci-Fi, from one of the acknowledged masters of the genre. It doesn’t get any better than this, folks!

Grade: By my arbitrary scale, I give this book an A-.

Monday, March 5, 2012

This just in…

My book reviews suck.

I’m re-reading an earlier recommendation that I’d made (the Stone Barrington series), and I’ve found some significant inaccuracies. The most major of all involves the sex of Arrington’s child. At the end of one book, Arrington had had a daughter. Suddenly in the next book, the child has turned into a son.

I understand why the child needed to be a son, but I’ve read the whole series – I know how it turns out. It wouldn’t be able to turn out that specific way with a daughter. I think it was a goof, but it was probably a goof in communication (between the author and his editor). At the end of the book where the child was introduced, Stuart undoubtedly had further story lines in development (if not actually written), and he wasn’t put in a position where he had to give any thought to the sex of the child prior to the book hitting the shelves.

The mysterious change happens between books, and chances are, if you’ve already gone through that part in the series, you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. If you haven’t gotten to that point yet, you’ll catch it; he does absolutely nothing to hide it from you.

I’m tempted to post a poll (if I can figure out how to post one!). I’ll see what I can do. from my end.

Friday, January 13, 2012

11/22/63 – Stephen King

Summary: Jake Epping has an opportunity to undo one of the defining moments of a generation. Don’t forget about The Butterfly Effect, though.

Setting: Late 1950’s / early 1960’s & present day

Plot: Jake is a high school teacher in (where else?) Maine. In addition to his normal classes, he teaches GED night school to adults as well. The high school janitor is in his adult class, and when the janitor relates (in a writing assignment) the story of how his abusive (and estranged) father killed all the other members of the family, Jake is moved almost to tears.
The dying owner of a diner (an acquaintance named Al) calls Jake, and over a late meeting at the diner, shows Jake a specific spot in the back pantry of the diner, and tells Jake that this particular spot is inexplicably linked with a different time, telling him that if he walks into this specific spot, he will be transported back to the late 1950’s. Jake is understandably skeptical until Al talks him into taking a journey back in time, as a test.
Jake makes the test journey (and returns unharmed), and is convinced. He makes another journey to the 1950’s to save the other members of the janitor’s family, so he can see for himself what consequences changes in the past can have on the present, and learns that due to The Butterfly Effect, small changes can have wide-reaching effects.
Al gives him a mission: Travel back to the late 50’s, and make his way to Dallas in time to stop Oswald from shooting Kennedy in 1963. Al sets him up with some money, and some research that he’s done to make the job a bit easier (sports results, research into Oswald’s life and movements leading up to the shooting).
Jake decides to stop Oswald, but first he has to live through 5+ years in the 1950’s and 60’s, waiting for the right time to act. He fits an entire lifetime into that 5 years.

Criticisms:  No technical criticisms. A little jumpy at the end, but it’s by design. A lot of King’s books do that, and while this book’s got a few of those trademark “end a paragraph in the middle of a sentence, then continue the sentence in the next paragraph but change the topic of the sentence in the middle” changes, there are remarkably few of them. It’s King’s style, and you’ll see hundreds of those “transitions” in a book like “The Stand”. This book has only 3 or 4 of them.

Wrap-up: King is unfairly classified as a horror writer, and there are two kinds of readers:
1. Those who have read a lot of Stephen King and know that the characterization of him as strictly “Horror” is not accurate;
2. Those who have read a couple of King’s horror novels and have decided that they don’t like him because his books are too scary, or won’t read his books in the first place because they don’t like horror.
This novel has no horror in it. None.
There are parts that can be a little bit gory, but there’s absolutely no horror.
While this book is ostensibly about going back in time and preventing the assassination of JFK, I’m not certain that that’s a fair characterization of it; I think the book is more about the journey that Jake takes (both in terms of distance, and over 5 years) while waiting for his chance to act. He has time during his journey to get in trouble with the mob (in two different locations), make a difference to an entire class of high schoolers (in one case, one of the stars of a high school football team decides to focus on drama and acting instead), and to fall in love; all while trying to reconcile the false identity (from the 1950’s and 1960’s) that he’s had to create with his true identity from the 2000’s.
Regardless of genre, King is a master of his craft, and if you haven’t read any of his “non-horror” work because you don’t like scary stuff, you’re missing out on some wonderful writing and doing yourself quite a disservice. All of his books (with the exception of a couple of NF’s and some of his earliest work) are quite solid, and I can’t think of many writers who are even in the same class as King in regards to verisimilitude.
If you want some suggestions of other Stephen King books to take a look at (that aren’t horror), let me know. I can suggest a few for you.
As far as this book - there is no “pat” ending to it; it’s not all wrapped up with a pretty bow on top of it. This book doesn’t end with “happily ever after”. Stories in real life rarely end like that either. If that’s what you’re looking for, this may not be the book for you. If you want a realistic book where the hero has to make some tough choices and live with the consequences of his decisions, give it a try. 

Grade: By my arbitrary scale, I give this book an A-.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Stone Barrington Series – Stuart Woods

Note: I’m going to change it up a bit and review an entire series. I haven’t completed the whole series yet (there are 20 books thus far, and counting), but I think I can give a pretty solid review at this point.

Summary: Stone Barrington starts out as a beat cop, and this series follows the end of his police career and his retirement due to disability, followed by his next career as a lawyer and private investigator.

Setting: Late 1990’s through present day

Plot: Stone and his partner Dino are beat cops and Stone is shot in the knee, ending his career with the NYPD. Dino continues progressing in the NYPD, and makes his way up to Detective and beyond, while Stone passes the bar, having graduated from law school prior to becoming a cop. Stone is recruited to work with (but not at) a prestigious local firm, taking cases that their firm can’t be associated with for whatever reason. His practice ends up being quite successful, from 3 (thus far in the series) major sources:
  1. One of his ex-girlfriends ends up marrying a famous actor, and Stone is asked to help when things go wrong for them or their friends.
  2. The law firm that he’s associated with drops cases from extremely high profile clients into his lap, but these are the kinds of cases that the firm can’t be connected to – a CEO’s son is accused of date rape, etc.
  3. Stone’s ex-partner (and current best friend) Dino is married to the daughter of a very successful Italian businessman, and Eduardo (Dino’s father-in-law) asks Stone for assistance with legal and investigative matters.
All of Stone’s clients are very well off and as a result, Stone makes quite a bit of money, and has gotten quite affluent over the course of the series, flying on private jets, staying in villas and the best hotels, and  driving dream cars.

Criticisms: Some of the language is quite profane, and some of the situations that Stone finds himself thrown into can seem a bit contrived, but as a whole, the books are fairly solid and tie the series together quite competently.

Wrap-up: It’s a pleasure to be able to follow a character’s career from the very beginning. There’s enough meat to the stories that none of the books seem to be “disposable”, but I can tell you from experience that if you read one of the stories from anywhere in the series, it’s quite capable of standing alone. As a result, you can take small bites from this story without having to read the entire series start to finish, or you can take a deep breath and dive right in at the beginning.

Woods has a couple of other series that he writes as well, and to be honest, I’m not certain if this series is his main series or not, but he’s quite prolific. The series seems to be quite consistent in writing style from the start to where I’m at in the series (in book 7), so I get the feeling that he’s been doing this for a while; this probably ain’t his first rodeo. Pretty solid series.

Grade: By my arbitrary scale, I give this series (and all the books I’ve read in it thus far) a solid B+.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Master of the Game – Sidney Sheldon

Summary: The story of Kate Blackwell, the head of an international conglomerate. This book traces her fortune from the very beginning until her 90th birthday party. The story of her fortune begins with her father’s journey from Scotland to the rugged deserts of South Africa in the 1880’s, and follows her life (and the lives of her family) through both World Wars and beyond - to current day.
Setting: Late 1800’s through 1983, international
Plot: Our story starts with Jamie McGregor, a Scottish teenager who follows the diamond rush to South Africa. He’s deceived, beaten, and left for dead in the desert by a business partner, and he reinvents himself with one goal in mind: revenge.
Jamie recovers and eventually builds up a thriving enterprise, tearing apart the life of his former partner and eventually driving the man to suicide. In the process though, he passes along his overdeveloped sense of vengeance to his own daughter. The rest of the book follows her life as she manipulates everyone around her for her own purposes.
Kate Blackwell is enormously successful by every conventional definition of the word, but as she looks back upon her life, one question remains: was it all worth it?
Her manipulation effects her entire family; I can’t give a lot of details without giving up parts of the plot, but her manipulation effects every single member of her family. Deception, insanity, murder – it’s all in here.
The story begins at Kate’s 90th birthday party as she’s reflecting back on her life, and follows the entire story of the family over the last hundred plus years.
Criticisms: Absolutely none.
Wrap-up: My meager summary and plot sections can’t even come close to doing this book justice. This is one of my favorite books, and I re-read it every couple of years just to remind myself what the ultimate pinnacle of writing should look like.
It’s a bit weighty at 500 pages but while you’re reading it, you’ll have a hard time sleeping wondering what’s going to happen next. An impulsive page-turner, and I can’t think (off the top of my head) of a book that I would recommend higher than this. It’s got universal appeal, and is perfectly written – an absolute must read.
Grade: By my arbitrary scale, an A+ isn’t a high enough grade for this book – so I’m going to (metaphorically) circle the A+ in red and put two bold lines under it. READ THIS BOOK!

Flight of the Old Dog – Dale Brown

Summary: The USSR has developed an anti-satellite laser system, which they insist is purely for defensive purposes. All hell breaks loose when they start using the laser for offensive purposes, and it falls to a highly classified military unit to take on the might of the Soviet Bear.
Setting: Cold War USA and USSR
Plot: Patrick McLanahan is an award winning bombardier on B-52 bombers. He’s approached by the general in charge of Dreamland, a classified weapons testing facility in the Nevada desert, to help develop advanced weapons systems for the aging bomber.

At the same time, the USSR is completing work on a laser system which they assert is in compliance with existing treaties, since it’s only planned for defensive uses. Their deception catches up with them when they start using the laser to shoot down reconnaissance planes and satellites designed to provide launch detection capabilities over the Pacific Ocean.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff puts together a strike package to take out the laser facility but the bombers are intercepted at their holding point, nullifying their capabilities. At the same time, a sneak attack on the Dreamland facility forces the General to take to the air in the modified B-52, and they turn out to be the only asset which has a chance against the laser facility.
Criticisms: Fairly technical. Military fiction might not be for all readers.
Wrap-up: This is it – the beginning of the McLanahan series. There are 16 books (thus far), and they’re all great books, but this book starts the whole series out with a bang. If you like military fiction, chances are you’ve already read this series cover to cover, but if you haven’t picked one up, you can’t go wrong with this one. This book is a bit dated (from the late 80’s), but it’s a gripping start to McLanahan’s journey; you get to follow him through most of his career, and he’s a very real character.
Dale Brown is the real deal; he flew on medium and heavy bombers, and knows his technical stuff cold. This gives him a solid technical base to start the rest of the series. A wonderful series!
Grade: By my arbitrary scale, I give this book a B+.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Amazonia – James Rollins

Summary: A member of a scientific expedition stumbles from the Amazon years after his entire team disappeared. The catch is he went in missing an arm, and came out with both arms. The government sends in a team to figure out what happened, and one of the members selected is the son of one of the original expedition members.

Setting: Present day U.S. and South America

Plot: Nathan Rand is selected to join a team exploring the Amazon, looking for traces of his father’s expedition which vanished four years earlier. During their quest, they’re pursued by a mercenary hit man and driven directly into the arms of an ancient civilization that might have access to native medicines that has mind boggling properties.

Between the mercenaries, the harsh Amazonian rain forest, and the indigenous natives who are pretty happy with their solitude, this is shaping up to be a pretty harrowing adventure.

Criticisms: Some of the pharmaceutical uses for the plants they find may very well be real, but come across as being fiction. Toward the end of the story there’s a section of the book that requires an active suspension of disbelief.

Wrap-up: Rollins has become one of my favorite authors, in part because of books like this one. A pretty solid story that’s fairly well written and mostly plausible.

Grade: By my arbitrary scale, I give this book a B+.