Monday, December 31, 2012

Book 73

She Came From Away, by D. Edward Bradley. Nook. 
Toronto college student Riley Barnett is surprised to learn that she is heir to an estate in picturesque Conception Bay, Newfoundland. She didn't even know she had an uncle before the information came from a local lawyer.

She finds the house inviting, the town quaint, and life on the Atlantic coast enjoyable, so she leaves her college and takes up life in her new house. She quickly discovers that her uncle's death is shrouded in mystery and secrets, and also realizes that not everyone in Conception Bay is happy to have her there.

With local weatherman Paul Sutherland in her life (and eventually in her house), and a few loyal friends for support, Riley faces gunshots, break-ins, and worse in her new town. But despite all of this action, very little actually "happens" in the novel. The romance aspect is strong, but my preference is more for stronger plot elements in my fiction. These dramatic scenes don't go as far as I would hope -- the villain is never apprehended, much less identified with certainty. Even the disposition of the house is an anti-climax, although the future of Rily and Paul ends on a nice hopeful note.

The strength of the novel is the enjoyable character development, especially in Riley. And the romance angle was well-told, as was Bradley's ability to describe the setting. But I was a little frustrated that this character development, and Bradley's skillful writing altogether, is in service of a story in which very little happens.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book 72

Book 72. Ender's Game Ultimate Collection, by Christopher Yost and Pasqual Ferry, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card. Graphic novel collection.
This volume collects the 10 issues of Marvel's Ender's Game adaptation, which started publication in October 2008. The first five issues of the series were branded "Battle School" and the last five branded "Command School," but this is a single ten-issue series. Even with ten issues, there are parts of the novel that have to be left out, and some shortcuts that have to be made, mostly involving the political situation on Earth. But the stripped-down version of the novel presented here does move at a brisk pace, and is a very enjoyable read.
Each issue opens with transcript of a meeting between members of the school staff, which is similar to what happened in the novel. This was a nice touch, a way of getting exposition into the story without resorting to the traditional comic methods of TV news  or newspaper headlines. I came to this adaptation having recently read the novel, and was able to follow the plot of the comic easily, but I wonder if the fast pace would have lost someone coming to this without prior knowledge of the story.
There is a happier ending here than in Card's novel. The collection ends on the high note of defeating the enemy, without the lead into "Speaker for the Dead" that the novel has. This probably makes sense, as the comic series goes in a slightly different direction from the novel series. There are some very nice moments of art in the collection, as well.
I am unfamiliar with other novels having been adapted into comics, but movie and TV adaptations are notoriously inconsistent. Knowing the rang of quality that prior adaptations have had, but was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Books 70 & 71

Book 70. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Unabridged audio.
Book 71. Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, by Corey Olsen. Hardcover.

I discovered Corey Olsen's excellent podcast The TolkienProfessor earlier in the year, and have been listening ever since. So when his book came out a few months ago, and with the movie coming out shortly thereafter, I knew I would pick it up.
Professor Olsen does a terrific job taking his academic expertise on Tolkien and turning it into a readable book, in much the same way that his podcast communicates to educated laymen. His book is arranged in parallel to The Hobbit, examining the book in a chapter-by-chapter way. He recommends reading a chapter of The Hobbit, and then reading a chapter of his book. This made sense, so I did it.

The Hobbit, of course, tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, and how the comfortable little hobbit becomes entangled in a scheme (not very well planned, as it turns out) by a company of dwarves to reclaim their treasure from the dragon who had stolen it. With the help of the wizard Gandalf and friendly elves, the company evades trolls and goblins, overcomes the dragon, and reclaims the treasure. There are many iconic scenes contained here, from the arrival of the dwarves to the riddle game to the barrel-riding.
The concept of a story "written for children" has changed drastically in the 75 years since this work was published.  Yes, the tone is light and the words readable, the action has as much humor as horror, but there is no sense of the work being "dumbed down" as can happen in some modern works for children (especially American works for children).

The Hobbit remains a well-deserved classic of children's literature. If you have read it before, and are considering a re-read in light of the movie, I would encourage you read Professor Olsen's book along with it.

Retro-review: The Fighting American

The Fighting American, issues 1-4, April - November, 1954, by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

When Marvel (through Atlas Comics) revived Captain America in 1954, Joe Simon & Jack Kirby (who had created the hero more than a decade before) decided to try their hand at another patriotic hero, The Fighting American. This book was an early example of a creator-owned book, as they made a distribution deal with Leader News, who also distributed the controversial horror and crime books of EC Comics. 

The origin of Fighting American is similar to Captain America's, involving science-fiction science and a bizarre experiment. There is also a weird body-swapping concept that is never, ever mentioned again. The color scheme of the character is a combination of Cap and Superman, nicely combining red, white, blue, and yellow.

In both his role as The Fighting American, and in his guise as newscaster Johnny Flagg, he is able to fight communists and saboteurs on all fronts. His newscaster intern / page boy becomes his sidekick, Speedboy. Each story (or "mission," as the comic calls them) introduces an event or villain through the newscast, and then Fighting American and Speedboy proceed to bring justice to the situation.

There are some very dynamic Kirby fight scenes and poses. And the addition of yellow to the red, white, and blue color scheme adds dynamism to the character design, and the mask/helmet portion of the uniform still looks good almost six decades later. There are also clear references to Dick Tracy's rogues gallery, in such villains as Doubleheader, Square Hair Malloy, and Poison Ivan. There are various other grotesque characters, giving Kirby a chance to display his unique art style.

Issue three features an exciting fight scene staged atop the Statue of Liberty, and issue four stretched the boundaries of the character's world, sending him to both Japan and to outer space (spoiler: the latter was a dream). Whether these globe-trotting tales were intended to set the comic apart from the competition, they certainly made for interesting reads.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Book #69

Silencer, by James W. Hall. Unabridged audio.

I have become a big fan of Hall's series of novels set in an around the Florida Keys. These feature the main character of Thorn, the recluse who would love his life to consist of nothing more than tying flies and living on the water. In the prior novel, he had the misfortune of inheriting a fortune, and I came to this novel anticipating the effects that his change of financial luck would have on his life.

This novel was one of the weaker Thorn novels, for my taste, and for a simple reason: there was not enough Thorn. Although Silencer revolved generally around a business deal that occurred as a result of Thorn's new riches, this is only a minor plot point. Thorn is kidnapped, and spends most of the novel outside of the main action. And this slack is not picked up by his main co-stars, Sugarman and Rusty, whose involvement is important to the novel, but does not drive the action. The action is driven by a family uncovering (and covering up) a current-day murder that is linked to a 60-year-old political conspiracy.

Plot issues aside, Hall's ability to make the characters and locales around the keys are as good as ever. His ability to write in the "Florida noir" style is very strong. This novel includes a team of brother hit-men, and their characterizations help make up for the lack of Thorn's involvement in the story.

There were some nice character moments between Thorn and Rusty, and I look forward to where their relationship goes next.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Books

Books I gave (and got) for Christmas:

To my wife:
Monet's Impressions, a pairing of 16 of the artist's works with words taken from his letters. Produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To my daughter:
A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans.
East, by Edith Pattou. She loved the audio version of this book when she was 10-12 years old, and could not resist picking up this paperback when I saw it.
Doctor Who: Hunter's Moon, by Paul Finch.
Minor Acts of Heroism, Issue 4, by Adriana Ferguson and Kristen Van Dam. A terrific web-comic. We buy the print issues.
Legion of Super-Heroes, Issue 100, January 1998.

To my great-niece:
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, both by Beatrix Potter.
Superman: The Incredible Shrinking Super Hero, by Zachary Rau & Steven E. Gordon.
And what I got:
The Areas of My Expertise, by John Hodgman.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book #68

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer, by William Knoedelseder. Hardcover.

Adolphus Busch married into a small brewing company in 1861. By 1865, he was working for the company, and by 1873he had helped turn in profitable. Shortly thereafter, he had been made a partner in the company, which was rechristened the Anheuser-Busch Company. The resulting company (always run by Adolphus or a descendent) thrived for the next fifty years, survived Prohibition, and then thrived again for another sixty. But then things changed for both the family and the publicly-held company they once held in their tight grasp, and the inevitable happened -- they eventually sold out to the multinational beverage company InBev, based in Mexico. Bitter Brew tells this compelling story, and does so in a compelling manner.
The key to a book like this, a history of a company and family, is access to the people involved and to original source documents. William Knoedelseder was able to get this access -- in the notes, he mentions performing "hundreds of hours" of interviews -- and it shows. This is a comprehensive work, detailing action inside both the mansions and the boardrooms.
There is a nice melding of the business and family dramas, both of which contain their own soap opera elements. The family elements of the drama often play out in the business decisions, such as debates over moving into new regions or product lines that. This culminated in a fascinating moment, in which one Busch rallied board support to vote his father out as CEO, taking the position himself. A move of this sort obviously has ripples in both the business and relationship side of the family.
Each generation of  Busch tried to fill the large shoes cast by the prior generations. I only had a few very minor quibbles with how the business aspects of the book were presented, but I can put these off to being necessary simplifications. Those few minor issues aside, I found this an enjoyable and interesting read.
Disclosure: As a result of my role as a co-host on the BookGuys Show podcast, I received this book directly from the publisher, HarperCollins. It is our hope to interview the author at some point in the near future.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book #67

Europe's Financial Crisis, by John Authers. Paperback.

This is an excellent brief book by an experienced financial journalist. Authers examines where the financial crisis in the Eurozone is leading, and what it means for global markets, including the US.

He pinpoints a few key causes of the current crisis: interconnected financial markets, the moral hazard implicit in a "too big to fail" environment, and the ingerent instability in the creation of the Euro. This latter element was very interesting, as Authers' explanation of how currency traders can take advantage of inefficiencies in the European bond markets made a lot of sense to me.

As much as the crisis is financial in nature, Authers is not hesitant to point out that some of the issues are political. Leaders in both the US and Europe have failed to create a stable environment where investors could behave rationally with trust in the economic and political systems.

This is a very readable book, targeted at educated laypeople. There is very little financial lingo tossed around, and Authers is skilled at explaining in non-technical language some of the more complex topics covered here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Book #66

DC Universe Legacies: By Len Wein and an assortment of artists, including Keith Giffen, Jerry Ordway, Walt Simonson, the Kuberts, Dave Gibbons, and Jose-Luis Garcia-Lopez. Graphic novel.

Whether it was planned this way or not, it was fortuitous that this book came out shortly before DC Comics rebooted their entire universe with the "New 52" initiative. This 12-issue series is an ambitious (and mostly successful) attempt to tell the entire story of DC Comics' history, from the Justice Society to the Doom Patrol to the dark times of the 1990s and beyond.  Included are great retellings of iconic DC moments, from Bane breaking the Batman, the Death of Superman, Crisis on Infinites Earths, and the controversial Identity Crisis. As a defender of the final story, it was gratifying to see it included here.

The narrative is told using the framing device of a retired Metropolis police officer telling the story of his life. Of course, living in Superman's city, he has had a front row seat to many of these events. The events that took place outside of Metropolis (or off of Earth) are presented through newspaper clipping that he has collected. These devices help turn seven decades of disparate events into a single story.

The backup stories in each issue were also very entertaining -- in the collected edition, these were all included at the end of the volume, which was a smart editing choice. These backup stories were an opportunity to tell the stories of obscure heroes (Challengers of the Unknown, Adam Strange) or thematic characters (war heroes, western characters). The short Shazam story drawn by Bill Sinciewicz may be the highlight of the entire 12 issues.
I loved this volume, and has easily become one of my favorites collected editions.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!
Just do the following:
Grab your current read.
Open to a random page.
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.

BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

Prepating for the movie, this is from page19 of Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, by Corey Olsen (host of the podcst The Tolkien Professor): We must remember, however, that there is more to Bilbo, and to hobbit culture in general, than the staid Baggins element. There is a portion of hobbit society that does not stick to the hobbit norm of predictability and sedate living. This is the Took clan, whose members have been known at times to "go and have advenures."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book #65

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.

There are plenty of great first-contact hard science fiction stories. But The Sparrow contains a number of aspects that set it apart from other works. The fact that the first contact appears on their planet is a change of pace, as is the makeup of the crew , and the time spent on the crew's spirituality and spiritual response to the experience. There is even a sprinkle of courtroom drama.

Emilio Sanchez is part of a crew sent to explore a new planet, a crew financed by the Jesuit order. He ends up being the last survivor of the crew, and the state in which he is discovered when a rescue ship from Earth arrives brings shame and disgrace to Sanchez. His physical injuries are just one part of the trauma he has gone through, bringing harm to his body, soul, and spirit. Most of the crew is found dead, and Sanchez himself is found in a compromising situation, accused of (and also the victim of) heinous acts.

Alternating between a range of time frames, Russell is equally compelling in telling the stories of Sanchez's early life and ministry, of the actual events of the crew of the mission on the alien world, and of the investigation by the Jesuits into Sanchez's acts on the planet. The suspense that this structure builds adds great tension to the book.

I was nervous heading through the last chapter, as it seemed that the clichè of "spiritual person loses faith as a result of trauma" was coming, but even this plot point did not go down the predictable path.

This novel is a great read, a throwback to the thought-provoking stories from the early days of hard science fiction.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!
Just do the following:
Grab your current read.
Open to a random page.
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.

BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

Prepating for the movie, this is from Chapter 1 (An Unexpected Party) of The Hobbit, by  J. R. R.  Tolkien: "By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at the door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed) Gandalf came by. Gandalf!"

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book #64

This review first appeared at the Spirit Blade blog.

Sword of the Six, by Scott Appleton.

The first scene in Swords of the Six features a terrific battle, with plenty of weapon blows, blood, and deaths. The climax of the novel features a similar action scene, also of the unsafe and unsterilized variety. These two bookend scenes are the strengths of the novel.

The mighty white dragon Albino, faithful servant of the Creator, has waited a thousand years to set his children on a quest of justice, to set right past betrayals. All six of his new hatchlings are daughters, and their dragon-human heritage makes them critical parts of a prophecy that promises a deliverer to the dark worlds beyond the dragon's peaceful kingdom. The girl's rusted swords still drip with the blood of the innocents the weapons have slain in the past. A message of the power inherent in the blood is woven subtly through the story. When the girls are teens, they are dispatched on their mission of both mercy and justice, and they find themselves facing unheard of dangers.
The world that Appleton presents is complex and multi-layered. The intelligent dragon Albino is a well-drawn character, and his multiples roles as prophet, warrior, and parent round out his personality. Although I would have liked to have known exactly how he sired his human-dragon hybrid daughters. That's a legitimate question that from what I could tell is never addressed, much less answered.
And the book has many other great creations. There is Miverē, a fairy who serves as protector and helper to Dantress, the leader among Albino's daughters. The spectral character called Specter is also a unique take on the idea of the King's mysterious servant / secret agent type of character. My favorite fantastical characters are the talking birds Hasselpatch and Seviar. These are intelligent, faithful Nuvitors, companions  who serve and protect Ilfedo, who eventually becomes Dantress' love interest. The couple is brought together after seeing each other in dreams. It is in this relationship that the book's strongest theme, that of self-sacrifice, manifests.
For all of these positive aspects, the novel does have some weaknesses. Its heritage as a self-published novel is apparent more than once, with some moments of odd grammar and I had some issues with word choices. You get the sense that one more professional edit would have come in handy.
But the biggest problem I had with the book is a confession that the author makes in the preface: That this novel is merely the prologue to the story he wants to tell, and that he "had not intended to" write this one. And I think I could see that -- for an epic fantasy in an epic fantasy world, not a lot happens, except for world-building and the setting in motion of a larger plot. The world and characters do intrigue me enough for me to continue with the series, but this volume may have been better positioned as a prequel, released to more fully explain the history of the world and characters after the epic story itself has been told, the story Appleton really wants to tell.
Note: I received this book as a reviewer for the Spirit Blade podcast, who recieved it directly form the author.

Friday, December 7, 2012


I wanted to take this chance to note the recent passing of Edna Dolan, whose daughters were hosts of both the Satellite Sisters and Chaos Chronicles podcasts.

In both their podcasts and blogs, the Dolan girls have been eloquent about living in the so-called "Panini Generation," feeling the squeeze of simultaneously raising children and caring for their aging parents. Their father had been the main focus of their attention for years, as his health slowly declined. But their mother's sickness came on quickly, and her death seemed (to this outsider) to come totally out of the blue. 

My condolences go out to Julie, Liz, Monica, Sheila, and Lian, and the rest of their family.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Comic Review: Y the Last Man

Y the Last Man: Whys & Wherefores, collecting issues 55-60, by Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra.  

Comic books don't need super-heroes.

I returned actively to the hobby of reading comic books about 5 years ago, and it was books of the non-super variety that drew me back after taking nearly 15 years off from the hobby. I have nothing against capes and cowls, and have I do read my fair share of these books, but the books I returned to after my hiatus were 100 Bullets, Fables, and Y the Last Man. It was the shortest run of this batch of comics took me the longest to finish. I started reading Y the Last Man in 2010, and it was nearly a year ago that I read up through issue 48. It took me a year to read the final dozen issues
Perhaps I was trying to put off the end of the story, knowing that once I made it issue 60, I knew it was over. Perhaps it was worry that the end of the story would not live up to the promise that the first 48 held out. I am a plot-first reader, and so I was going to need to what happened, what caused the disaster, why Yorick was immune. In short, I was going to want answers.

Vaughn delivered very nicely on his promises. Each of the last few stories wrapped up important plot point, with issue 60 serving as a very interesting epilogue, jumping into the future six decades. The final ending of the story, the last few pages, the last few panels, all left me satisfied. Both plot and character were taken care of. Endings are notoriously hard to pull off, and this ending  is pretty good.

It was during the time of reading stories like Y and 100 Bullets that I first heard the expression "comic books are a medium, not a genre." I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, and have loved diving into this style of  books. Sequential art can tell any type of story, and even though superheroes are the most popular stories told in this manner, they are not the only stories that can be told in this manner.  In the last few years,  the non-hero books The Walking Dead, Unwritten, and Mouse Guard have all found their way to my stack.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Book #63

Zero Day, by David Baldacci. Unabridged audio.

In this book, Baldacci introduces us to John Puller, a combat veteran from an army family. He is now serving in the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, and as purported to be the best investigator in the service. When an Army man is murdered in a remote West Virginia town in the middle of coal country, Puller is sent in to investigate. Not with a whole team, which strikes Puller as odd, but all by himself.

Working with the local Deputy, a woman with family issues of her own, Puller unearths many facts that many people (including his superiors) do not want coming to light. But when the situation turns into a potential terrorist attack, Puller finds himself fighting against enemies both foreign and domestic. The final revelation of the plot seems over-the-top, but thrillers like this are supposed to be over-the-top, and the villain and the villain's plans are certainly suspenseful.

This is a new set of characters for Baldacci, and I enjoyed this novel -- I hope it's the start of a new series. Puller is a fully fleshed-out character, with a professional and personal history that informs his actions. The local characters in coal country, and the setting itself, are strong. This was a very enjoyable read, as most of Baldacci's novels are.

I am a fan of the way Hachette Audio handles Baldacci's novels,  with Ron McLarty doing most of the work, handling the narration and the male voices. Orlagh Cassidy handles the female voices, and they both do a fine job. There are occasional sound effects and musical cues, enough to add to the listening experience, but not enough to be distracting.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Wrapping Up

 The TV show Babylon 5 lasted 110 episodes. Counting the TV movies and the short-lived spinoff series "Crusade," the show may have accounted for 130 hours of entertainment. The longest-lived podcast covering the show is wrapping up soon, after delivering twice that amount of entertainment.

The Babylon Podcast, produced through Farpoint Media, and hosted by Summer Brooks, Tim Callendar, and (for the first few years) Jeffery Willerth, began in early 2006. They maintained a consistent production schedule since then, working in a range of cast and crew interviews in between episode discussions and listener feedback episodes.
After finishing up their discussion of all the episodes and related video, the team moved into coverage the last calendar year of related items, such as B5 novels,  games, comic books, and merchandise. Their most recent episode, #279, was their final feedback show. They promise that the last episode will be full of highlights, fun, and excitement.
Pod-fading bums me out. When a show just disappears, with no official final episode, but just stops producing new episodes, it saddens me. But like the TV show it is about, the Babylon Podcast is preparing to end its run right on schedule.
The hosts promise that the old podcast episodes will continue to be available on their website. If you are contemplating a re-watch (or a first watch) of B5, consider doing so with the Babylon Podcast  as accompaniment.