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Reamde: A Novel

Reamde - Neal Stephenson Enjoyable. Long. Somewhat derivative of some other works that explore the relationship between the real world and a game / virtual world, e.g. Lev Grossman's Codex. If you liked Cryptonomicon, I think you'll enjoy this, although to my mind Cryptonomicon is better. I found this much more accessible that Stephenson's other recent works, in particular the Baroque cycle, which I found more or less impenetrable.

Flashback

Flashback - Dan Simmons America is broke, on the decline and hooked on Flashback, a drug that lets you relive past events. Nick is a former policeman, investigating the murder of the son of a highly placed Japanese leader in Los Angeles, and pining for his dead wife. Sobering look into what could be our future.

The Profession: A Thriller

The Profession - Steven Pressfield [Early Reviewers review] The Professional is Steven Pressfield's take on the modern near future thriller. Pressfield is the author of a number of extraordinary historical novels set in ancient Greece. Gates of Fire is his masterpiece, a novel of the battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans who died defending the pass. Tides of War is deeper and just as good, but requires a bit more careful reading. Tides of War is a historical novel of the Peleponnesian War, with a particular focus on the general and politician Alcibiades. Alcibiades is a charismatic, near egomaniacal leader of the Athenians, until he becomes feared by the other leaders, who work to bring him down. Condemned to death and barely escaping with his life to arch-enemy Sparta, he adopts the mindset of Sparta, becomes their general, and then tries to "re-conquer" Athens. It's a magnificent novel and study in leadership, and as it happens, The Profession is semi-explictly a version of Tides of War for the modern era. The Profession has two things going for it - insight into the military mind, and some very interesting and realistic future thinking on private armies, mercenaries, and geo-political developments in the Middle East. Think Tom Clancy meets Tom Friedman. As with most Pressfield novels, the central narrator is a sidekick to the "major" characters, a device that lets Pressfield remark on the major characters through the voice of a participant. Gent the mercenary is the voice of the novel. He's an employee of Force Insertion, the world's largest private army, commanded (CEO'd) by General Salter, our standin for Alcibiades. A "lead by example" former US general, admired by his men, exiled from his country for his actions after a peacekeeping mission run amok. Salter subscribes to the same theory of Necessity as a guide to action as does Alcibiades; exiled as Alcibiades, and finally, without spoiling anything, tries to retake his country as does Alcibiades. Salter commands a force that is in the employ of large oil companies and multi-nationals, and protecting or taking over significant regions of the Middle East. The interactions between the Gent and Salter, and Gent and his men, give insight into the values and thought processes of a foot soldier as well as a general, as well as the demands and requirements of being a leader. The characters are real, with flaws and foibles as well as nobility. The inevitable murky moral ground of war arises naturally; you are torn, as are the characters, about what the right thing to do is. The storyline is interesting and all-too-plausible; even today private contractors fulfill many of the duties that "should" fall to our armed forces. Pressfield spends a bit too much time for my taste on the intricacies of his fictional mercenary army, how they are structured into legions, armatures, brigades, battalions and divisions, and how their logistics work, but it does lend authenticity to the narrative. The dynamics of how a large, well-financed mercenary force could impact Middle East dynamics are well-drawn, and feel entirely possible. Governments and dictatorships rise and fall, and with them the fate of our mercenaries. Gent and Salter are brought into deep conflict, in spite of their long loyalty to each other. In the end it's a good read: thoughtful yet fast paced, and well worth the read, but not as good as his Greece novels - do yourself a favor and read Tides of War before you read The Profession, you'll be the better for both. [I was supposed to receive The Profession through the Early Reviewers program, but the publisher never sent it]

Outlaw

Outlaw - Angus Donald You know Robin Hood. Splitting an arrow with a bow shot at 50 paces. Robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Battles Little John on a bridge or log with quarterstaves. In love with Maid Marian. Errol Flynn-handsome, a good and just thief. This is probably the Robin Hood you know, popularized by Ernie Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. This is not the Robin Hood of Outlaw. This is a darker, grimmer Robin. Outlaw is a rousing, fun tale. Narrated by Alan-a-Dale, himself a late addition to the Robin Hood legend, Outlaw follows Alan's admission to the band of merry men and his training deep in the heart of Sherwood, and his eventual rise to be one of Robin's key confidants. Along the way, we see a lot of blood. Lots of it. Sword-blood, Arrow-blood, Crushed-by-Siege-Engine-Blood, Human Sacrifice blood. There is lots of armor and swords, and not enough heroics with bow and arrow for my taste - nor is there much "steal from the rich and give to the poor". The story diverges from the traditional telling of Robin Hood in a number of other ways as well. This Robin Hood is far closer to Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott's Robin Hood than to Ernie Pyle or Errol Flynn. For a first novel, the writing is strong and fast-paced - the novel never flags. There are a few anachronisms in the novel, and the occasional awkward writing. A harrowing Druid/Wiccan ceremony is well done but feels out of place (Donald admits as much in the afterward that it's not historically justified). If you are interested in the history of the legend of Robin Hood, and speculations on whether or not there was an historical Robin Hood, J.C. Holt's Robin Hood is enjoyable and accessible. Or, if you just want an enjoyable Medieval romp, just read Outlaw and enjoy. [I received a free copy of Outlaw via LibraryThing's wonderful Early Reviewers program]

Blackout

Blackout (All Clear #1) - Connie Willis period detail on WWII London is fun, and the characters are interesting, but I found it to wander a lot; wish it had more pace in the back half of the book...

The Trinity Six: A Novel

The Trinity Six - Charles Cumming Imagine if the head of counter-intelligence for the CIA were unmasked to be a Soviet agent. Seems inconceivable, doesn't it? Yet Britain underwent precisely that in the '50s and '60s as Kim Philby was revealed to be a Soviet double agent, along with his college friends, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Cairncross, who've come to be known as the Cambridge Five. Their decades-long betrayal of Britain was devastating. Trinity Six is based on the premise that the so-called Cambridge Five were in fact the Trinity Six, to include a sixth man they met as undergraduates at Trinity. Sam Gaddis is an academic who studies Russian, and seems to have stumbled into evidence about the sixth man. Gaddis is a not-entirely-sympathetic divorced professor with womanizing instincts, trying to run the sixth man to ground. To anyone interested in espionage or espionage fiction, the premise is promising. Yet the novel, while somewhat enjoyable, is proof that writing a great espionage novel is much harder than it looks. Trinity Six struggles to figure out what kind of novel it is - is it going to be a modern-day Robert Ludlum action adventure story, with only a veneer of historicity? Or is it going to be a le Carre study in character? Or a quasi-historical view into MI6 a la Robert Littell? Unfortunately in the end, it ends up being mostly a Ludlum-style adventure, crashing from incident to incident. The historical premise of the Cambridge Five is mostly wasted. There's no disclosure of any hidden historical mysteries. The plotting is often clumsy, and Gaddis often doesn't realize things that are obvious. Ever watched a horror movie where everyone but the main character knows there's a killer underneath the bed? That's how Trinity Six feels about once per chapter. Trinity Six also struggles with what is supposed to be known, and not known - things are revealed early on that shouldn't be, and other things not revealed that should be. Is the identity of the sixth man supposed to be known to the reader or not? Hard to tell - the book often seems to accidentally disclose things. And virtually every other page, some character says something that just feels wrong, and jars your sense that what is happening is believable. My advice? If you're stuck on a plane and you have Trinity Six, it will pass the time. But if you have a choice, pick up any of Robert Littell's novels (say, Legends), or an old le Carre novel you haven't read - a much better investment of your time. Or, if you want something a little different, Declare by Tim Powers (a fantastical story with roots in the legend of Kim Philby). (I received a copy of The Trinity Six through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program - thanks LibraryThing!)

Hull Zero Three

Hull Zero Three - Greg Bear Inventive hard sci-fi. The Ship is an interesting creation, and the characters were fun, but I was kind of left wondering what the point of the whole thing was. Bear's other books are better by far, especially Blood Music, Queen of Angels, or Heads.

A Very Private Gentleman: A Novel

A Very Private Gentleman - Martin Booth Slow, pensive, contemplative look at a secretive maker of custom guns for assassinations. Hiding away in a mountain village in Italy, trying to both stay secret but live life fully. You can taste the crisp mountain air, savor the red wine the very private gentleman drinks with the local priest....highly recommended.

Zero History

Zero History - William Gibson Gibson has an amazing way of writing about the recent past in a way that makes it sound like the future....a fun little caper through secret brands, clothing fetishes, cool hunting, and the financial collapse of Iceland. Vintage Gibson. The ride is fabulous; at the end, one is somewhat left wondering what the point was....and ultimately not caring because the ride was so fun!

Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome

Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome - Steven Saylor What would it be like to have the best tour guide in Rome give you a guided tour through the city, giving you the history of every building, the cultural context, the events and emotions that transpired there? That's what Empire (and its predecessor Rome) is like. Saylor has lived his entire professional life in ancient Rome and knows it like the back of his hand. Rome & Empire are very different in format to his Roma Sub Rosa detective series; they are much more episodic "food tastings" from different periods. The history and context are wonderful. But they're not always a fictional "meal". Characters do not live for the entire novel, but come and go as the tapestry is woven. Almost all the characters die offstage, and so the novel rarely strikes deep emotionally. But it's wonderfully informative. Covering the period from AD 14 to 141, Empire shows us the madness of Caligula and the architectural passion of Hadrian. The scenes with Caligula are salacious yet horrifying, and bring home the reality of an infamous period of history. Many familiar characters and stories make their appearance (Nero "fiddling" while Rome burns, the stammering Claudius first popularized by Robert Graves). The early rise of Christianity is present as well. There is an ironic and amusing nod to our current military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Apparently Emperor Trajan had an "Ask not, Tell not" policy towards Christians, who were viewed with suspicion by Roman society. Empire is half fiction and half history lesson. As a history lesson, it goes down easily and is far more consumable, if less serious than, say, The Fall of the Roman Empire. As fiction, it's enjoyable, but doesn't truly strike deeply. And it is a tome - weighing in at 600+ pages. I think the novel could profitably have been edited down. Still, it's enjoyable, engaging history; but to my tastes not nearly as enjoyable as the Gordianus novels. (Reviewed for the Early Reviewers Program)

Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire

Medicus (Gaius Petreius Ruso #1) - Ruth Downie meh. good enough to finish, but I was skimming by the end. For "historical fiction" there wasn't much history. Set in Roman Britain, there was little history or period detail to latch on to. Ruso is a Roman doctor in the Legion but there wasn't much detail for either medical practice at the time, or the Army. The characters were good enough to warrant finishing the book, but if you want Roman Britain go for Simon Scarrow or Hadrian's Wall by Dietrich.

Girl by the Road at Night: A Novel of Vietnam

Girl by the Road at Night - David Rabe Sometimes a review of a book is almost as good as the book. Consider this line from novelist Philip Caputo's review of this book in the NY Times "Rabe delivers the blow in a single paragraph that is a masterpiece of compression. It wounds like the swift thrust of a thin, razor-sharp dagger; you don’t realize you’ve been stabbed until you see the blood." With a review like that, how could the book be bad?

The Dervish House

The Dervish House - Ian McDonald a crazy mix of nanotechnology, Turkish culture, terrorism, financial chicanery and politics. good fun. The little boy Can, with his nano-robotic toy, is awesome. A group of old men, with their passions, secrets and regrets, play a nice counterpoint to the young hustlers trying to make it.

Raiders from the North: Empire of the Moghul

Raiders from the North  - Alex Rutherford Raiders from the North is the story of the life of Babur, the creator of the Moghul empire. At various times Babur was the ruler of Samarkand, Ferghana (in modern day Uzbekistan), and Kabul. But his lasting impact was the creation of the Moghul empire in Delhi of modern India. The Moghul empire lasted for hundreds of years until it was displaced by the British. Babur's campaign there saw the introduction of firearms for the first time to India as well as a major instance of jihad (Babur was Muslim). The word Moghul is persian for Mongol; Babur was a descendant of Ghengis Khan. Rutherford's book is a fine novelization of Babur's life. The book moves rapidly (I read it in one sitting), the characters are engaging, and the history seems to be accurate, as near as I can tell. Babur keeps a diary in the novel, which is historical. The battle scenes are engaging, and overall the book compares well with Bernard Cornwell or (perhaps a bit more directly comparable), Harold Lamb's Genghis Khan. Readers interested in Babur will enjoy reading Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, the story of a crazy Scotsman who walks across modern-day Afghanistan just after the Taliban's removal. He walks in the footsteps of Babur (even has a dog named after him), and quotes freely from Babur's diary. Stewart's book gives a much more direct view into Muslim culture. In fact Raiders of the North often feels lacking in insight to Muslim culture, often feeling almost medieval European. But I quibble, it's a very good book. Interestingly, Babur was given to debauchery, in contrast to more modern Islamic mores, although he gave it up late in life. A quote from Babur: "Everyone regrets drinking and swears an oath [of abstinence]; I swore the oath and regret that." (I received a copy of Raiders of the North through the excellent Early Reviewers program)

2017

2017: A Novel - Olga Slavnikova, Marian Schwartz 2017 won the Russian Booker Prize in 2006. I received an Early Reviewer copy of the about-to-be-released first English Translation. Not normally a fan of Russian literature (loving Gorky Park Martin by Cruz Smith is about as close as I come), I decided to take a flyer on it. It had the promise of some good thematic elements. Set in 2017, explicitly mentioned as 100 years after the Russian Revolution, I somewhat expected some form of science-fiction projection of the Russian Experiment into the future. Krylov is a young apprentice gem cutter & miner, who is taken on board by Anfilogov as a mentor. Krylov is a train wreck. Divorced from a wealthy wife, hired on as a middle-aged, un-paid apprentice gem cutter, disheveled and unmotivated, he doesn't paint a pretty picture. Yet, the novel improbably sets Krylov onto a series of trysts at random locations with a mystery woman named Tanya. It seems like the novel has all the elements of a good story. And yet, it breaks down for almost from the beginning. Oh my lord the commas! I don't know whether the translation is responsible or not, but every sentence on the first 5 pages has four parenthetical comments. It's impossible to scan even one sentence without re-reading it. There are periodically bouts of humor (of a literary / Russian sort): "You're not one of those political types are you? They're crazy and they hand you completely dopey leaflets on the street.” says Tanya. "Excuse me but do I look crazy?" replies Krylov. "Forgive me, but you look a little like an intellectual", says Tanya. The trysts are completely un-erotic and asexual. In fact the rock-hounding is written more lovingly than the lovers' unions. The lovers’ first kiss: The kiss was painful Ivan felt the firm lath of Tanya's teeth, and his own, which were wobbly as splinters. Pulling back, he was amazed at how badly Tanya's lipstick was smeared. Contrast that with the jewelry he bestows on her: ...Krylov chose the stones with taste: moss agates that the eye saw as soft March woods with soggy snow; agaates with geodes where the blue amygdule was encased in quartzite crystals like large grains of salt,; picture jaspers with scenes of ancient volcanoes erupting; and brocade jasper, which made you think of the mystery of life as seen under a microscope. There were tiger's eye cabochons whose vertical pupils seemed to narrow in the light; incrustations of uvarovite a saturated chemical green; peachy cornelians.... I found no real reason the book is set in the future - in tone and subject matter it could mostly have been set in the 1800s, except for a few mystical/fantasy elements. There's no real sense of anything political in the book that might speak to a criticism of either communism or the new Putinism, although perhaps there are allusions in the book not visible to a non-Russian - but I doubt it. The language and prose is very rich, almost baroque, in places, but the plot wanders maddeningly and aimlessly for most of the book. I can't really see why it won a Booker.

The Godfather of Kathmandu (Sonchai Jitpleecheep, Book 4)

The Godfather of Kathmandu - John Burdett As you travel to foreign countries, you probably always ask yourself - do people of these other cultures think the same way we do, even though they speak a separate language? Don't they value the same things we do, have the same sense of right and wrong, and so on? It's tempting to think so. Burdett consistently puts the lie to that - even writing as an American. His hero Sonchai consistently exposes us to a human, but alien, value system, yet it's close enough to ours to that we can relate to it, even if we might not share it. Or as Sonchai says: Do not judge me too harshly, farang (foreigner). (You know how you are.) In the wasteland where narrative rots, Good Thief may be the highest aspiration. Let he who is without karma cast the first stone. Filled with an intriguing and shocking mystery, the atmosphere of Thailand, nearly pornographic descriptions of the food of Thailand, and an exotic excursion to Tibet, I can't recommend this book highly enough.