Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Chamber of Secrets (Audio)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Audio)
Read by Jim Dale; Written by J.K. Rowling
© 1999, Listening Library
Eight discs, approximately nine hours.
Preview the author reading:

A few weeks ago while perusing an issue of National Geographic, I heard a rather loud exchange between a friendly library patron and an even friendlier librarian, discussing audio books. I've passed by the audio books section many times, but have never listened to one. I have heard dramatizations based on books -- I listened to a BBC production of Caves of Steel before I hunted down a copy of the book, and my only experience with The Rise of Khan Noonien Singh is a well-done dramatization on cassette tape -- but never heard one read.  I thought I might see what the experience was like, and decided to go with a shorter book I'm familiar with for starts.

Chamber of Secrets is the second book in the series and isn't quite as serious as those that followed it. While throwing plenty of danger at Harry, the series doesn't get dark until after the end of Goblet of Fire.  Harry's second year at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry begins problematically, when Harry is denied entrance to the Hogwarts Express and must rely on Ron and a 'borrowed' flying car to make it to the school on time. A warning from a strange creature goes unheeded, and soon the children of Hogwarts are falling victim to a sinister threat, a threat thought passed over fifty year ago. Harry's own friends are not immune to the danger, and to solve the mystery and defeat the foe, Harry must descend into the bowels of the castle, into a forbidden chamber that promises death.

But it's fun. I'd forgotten Rowlings' humor and enjoyed hearing passages that once made me cackle, like when Harry is accused of setting a monster loose on the castle and Ron's twin brothers take you to escorting him around the castle: "Fred and George, however, found all this very funny. They went out of their way to march ahead of Harry down the corridors, shouting, "Make way for the Heir of Slytherin, seriously evil wizard coming through..." Narrator Jim Dale was not, as I'd imagined, Stephen Fry, but despite this initial disappointment he grew on me. The author hails  from Northamptonshire, England, lending an air of authenticity to a book that would have been written in an English voice. He's versatile, giving good service to the Scottish McGonagall and the Irish Seamus Finnegan alongside  the many English character. Some voices are dead on, others less so: Harry in particular doesn't seem to have a distinct voice, his tending to blur with Hermione. Dale is only one man, of course, and the difficulties in giving such a broad cast completely unique voices is respectable. He reads smoothly, with no obvious pauses to catch his breath except where the book would intend them, and generally lends the sentence an appropriate emotional urgency.  Most importantly, I enjoyed listening to him. The CDs are divided into 20 to 21 tracks each, making individual sections easy to find.

I enjoyed having been read to sleep by a fun story and a soothing voice, though for my money I'd prefer investing $50 in a complete set of Potter paperbacks than into one eight-disc recording. Doubtless this would be good for passing time while driving a lengthy distance, though.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Devil's Punchbowl

The Devil's Punchbowl
© 2009 Greg Iles
592 pages

"This town is under siege, and the biggest threat always comes from within."

Recently I read an interview with David Mack, in which he stated that good drama comes from putting mature characters through hell -- repeatedly. In fact, Mack said, you can tell his favorite characters by those who his plots abuse the most.  If Iles takes the same attitude, he must adore Penn Gage. Gage, once a big-city district attorney and now a successful author, returned to his family home  in Natchez, Mississippi following the death of his wife (The Quiet Game) and has in succeeding novels (Turning Angel) fought corruption and crime in his beloved hometown. Deciding to take a more active approach in reversing Natchez's decline, Penn runs for mayor and wins: people regard him as a good man, a hero in self-serving times. Heroes aren't immune to disappointment and frustration, though: after two years in office Cage realizes Natchez's problems are too big for one man to handle and he wants to step down.  A friend approaching him on the eve of a busy weekend about casino riverboat fraud is the last thing he needs  -- but when his friend is savagely tortured and killed a day later,  a once-simple case of fraud becomes a life and death struggle with Penn's family, friends, and town hanging in the balance.

Sinister goings-on aboard the riverboat casino Magnolia Queen were never limited to tax fraud, for when Cage and his friend first met in a quiet cemetery the first night of the novel, Cage saw pictures to make a man's blood run cold:  photos which documented both underage prostitution and  a vicious dog-fighting circuit run by the dark character of Johnathan Sands, the Queen's general manager who switches between a posh English accent and a working-class Irish brogue at the drop of a hat and who will kill a man's family just as easily. Sands and his lackey Quinn feed on the pain of others, and they target Penn after realizing he knows more about them than they'd like. Cage assumed nailing Sands for fraud would be the most effective way of taking him down, but now that Gage is a target he'll need to work in the dark. Surviving their plans for him will require the assistance of friends -- a grizzled Texas Ranger, a retired Army commando, and a combat pilot for starters; the later two have made appearances in The Quiet Game and Third Degree.

Devil's Punchbowl is easily the most violent of Iles' books that I've read: the villains' chief interests are training killer dogs, torture, and rape. Dominant themes include the familiar (heroism & sacrifice) and the struggle between brutality and idealism. Iles uses the fascination with violence and gore to depict humans as instinctively savage creature, with Sands and Quinn being complete monsters. Penn and his allies struggle with their own conflicting desires: idealists like Penn and his old girlfriend, the journalist Caitlin Masters, want to bring Sands to justice.  Others in their party think it necessary to deal with Sands on his own terms: "I think Johnathan Sands has become a one-bullet problem." Penn must defeat the monster without becoming the monster.

As usual, Iles' work is rich in background: the old-south mystique haunts the reader even as Penn is soaring through the air in a helicopter or using his 'Star Trek' satellite phone to coordinate actions with his allies. There are also plot turns, although they're not quite as gut-wrenching as in prior novels, and Penn is as ever a sympathetic character. He struggles with his desire to do the right thing, knowing it endangers his young daughter. Is Natchez worth his daughter? His father?

Punchbowl is a gripping read, with plenty of action for those who want it. The themes are provocative, and the main protagonists compelling. Readers will be out for Sands' blood by book's end, and the scenes of his pleasures are not for the faint of heart.

Friday, October 29, 2010


© 2006 David Mack
339 pages
On the cover: unknown model as Taran'atar, looking "dangerous, yet vulnerable, awash in the amber of Jem'Hadar blood".

I am dead. I go into battle to reclaim my life. I do this because I am Jem'Hadar. Victory is life.

The opening Deep Space Nine Relaunch novels introduced Taran'atar, an elder soldier of the Dominion who was assigned to Deep Space Nine to serve its commanding officer, Captain Kira Nerys. Such an assignment is unusual, for Taran'atar is a Jem'Hadar: a genetically-engineered soldier bred for fighting and obedience to the Founders, the shape-shifting race of creatures who created and controlled the Dominion which attempted to conquer the Federation and the Klingon and Romulan empires through Deep Space Nine's final two seasons. Taran'atar proves to be a prickly, but valuable asset to Kira and her command crew,  rendering to her the obediance he once gave to his masters in the Dominion.

That makes the opening of this novel, in which he stabs her in the heart and breaks Security Chief Ro Laren's back a bit unexpected.  While Kira and Ro lay dying, Taran'tar sneaks aboard a station craft about to test its newly improved warp engines and takes the vessel's lone pilot hostage before speeding away toward an unknown destination.  Dr. Julian Bashir works desperately to save the lives of his captain, his coworkers, and his old friends while the station's XO, Elias Vaughn, pursues the craft in the USS Defiant. Meanwhile, Ensign Prynn Tenmei,  Vaughn's daughter, flies the craft at Taran'atar's knifepoint and wonders how she is going to overcome a super-soldier fully expecting her to stop him from from fulfilling his plan -- which, he's not entirely sure of himself. He only knows that he must make a rendezvous with a face he knows to be familar, but who is yet a stranger -- an ambitious, hateful stranger who we witness overcoming skilled bounty hunters.

This is the opening chapter, but not the origin, of a larger story arc which Deep Space Nine pursues in later books,  in which Illiana Ghemor -- a Cardassian intelligence operative genetically altered to appear to be Kira Nerys and implanted with false memories that make her think she really is Kira  -- goes insane and decides to kill every Kira Nerys she can get her hands on, which means knocking off the Mirror Universe's Intendant Kira as well. This story arc concerns me; I think of it as convoluted, and the other story arc being developed -- in which Bajor will be expected to defend its dominant religion and the Wormhole against the Ascendants, a Gamma-Quadrant power who also worship the wormhole aliens ("The Prophets"), but are imperial and fanatical, like Islamic extremists and Christian dominionists today  -- is likewise problematic. The last time I read of Ascendants and Bajor's religion, the universe was destroyed.

The arcs are just getting started in Mack's book, though, so they're not terribly...developed yet. Warpath is good. It's not Destiny, but nothing is Destiny.  Vaughn and Tenmei are the most compelling characters for me: they are an estranged father and daughter, and the moment in which they find forgiveness and a new start was for me the best moment of the book. The fight scenes were curiously compelling, keeping my attention -- and the humor was excellent, particularly one inside joke Mack included for Bashir fans.* The only part of the book that through me was Kira's experience laying in surgery: while Doctor Bashir operates, she dreams that she is attempting to lead a medieval army against a medieval fortress, only to find it's held by another medieval army and a third medieval army is on its way to take the fortress for themselves. At first I thought the General Kira of the dream was another universe's Kira, but I realized the dream was a metaphor for Bajor's future story arc.

Good read, though...I'm not really enthusiastic about these arcs. I'm fine with Ghemor on Kira, but the inclusion of a lot of alternate-reality Nerys makes potential confusion a safe bet. I'm still going to continue in the DS9 relaunch, but...well, it's lower priority than the TNG relaunch at the moment.


*As soon as Bashir returned his attention to the monitor, Tarses resumed his presentation. "Now," he said, "as you see here, the postganglionic nerve--"
"That's a preganglionic fiber," Bashir interrupted.
Tarses did a double take toward the screen. "Are you sure?"
"Positive." Bashir made a sweeping, it-doesn't-matter- gesture with his hand. "Please, continue." (p. 148)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

This Week at the Library (20- 28 October)

Enjoyable week at the library, although I didn't make progress in The Seventy Great Mysteries of the Natural World as I'd intended. I wound up playing three games of Civilization III instead. I continued in my efforts to catch up on Trek relaunch books, starting the excellent The Good that Men Do, which repaired the various faults of Enterprise's finale and set the now not-dead Trip Tucker on a promising story arc.  I also picked up one of DS9's numbered books, Fallen Heroes, which is the darkest Trek book I'd ever read aside from the Millennium Trilogy. (The Millennium Trilogy destroyed the universe. Can't get darker than that.)

I followed up on a recommendation from one of my first instructors and read True Grit, a western from the 1960s about a young girl who hired a US Marshal to help her chase down her father's killer. Enjoyable story, but I enjoy the movie over the book, which is...flat.

I also returned to a classic in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds  in which Martians invade Victorian England.  I enjoy Wells' style: War of the Worlds was my personal favorite this week.

Selected Quotations:
"By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain."  (The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells)

"What is your intention, Rooster? You think one on four is a dogfall?"
"I aim to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience. Which will you have?"
"I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!"
"...fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" (True Grit)

"How many men have you shot in your career as a Marshall, Rooster?"
"Well...shot, or killed?"
"Ohh, let us restrict it to KILLED so that we may have a more manageable figure!" (True Grit)

Next Week:

  • Warpath, David Mack.
  • The Seventy Great Mysteries of the Natural World
  • The Devil's Punchbowl, Greg Iles
  • It Can't Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis. (Seemed appropriate given the likely election incomes next Tuesday.)
  • 20,000 Leauges Under the Sea,  Jules Verne.

Booking through Thursday: Skeletons

Booking through Thursday asks: What reading skeletons do you have in your closet? Books you’d be ashamed to let people know you love? Addiction to the worst kind of (fill in cheesy genre here)? Your old collection of Bobbsey Twin Mysteries lovingly stored behind your “grown-up” books?

I don't believe I have any current skeletons in my closet. I do, however, have a box of books containing detritus from my old life: a score of Tom Clancy books, books by Oliver North defending his role in the Iran-Contras affair and historical fiction by the same, which were about a group of Real True Christians embedded inside the US government and military that kept the world safe from Muslim Arabs;  fawning biographies about Ronald Reagan and his divine influence;  hyperreligious books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye (touching is bad) and Every Man's Battle (Avert your eyes from looking at women lest you sin!); and Civil War histories which exalt the Confederacy.  These were the books I read during my high school years, when I was a fundamentalist Pentecostal, a die-hard Republican who used "liberal" and "democrat" as jeers, and who earnestly believed the Civil War was about States' rights.  I probably would have been a Teabagger in those days. *shudder*

They now sit in a box in my hallway, as I am unsure what to do with them and I know I haven't gotten them all out. Somewhere there are books on UPCI history and books that defame science as the tool of the devil.  I don't know what I'll do with them once they've all been found and removed: destroying them is out, given my contempt for molesting books; and I don't want to sell them and become an promoting agent of all that which I left.  I could bury them, I suppose, and allow nature to convert them into fertilizer. They'll go that way eventually, and isn't that what Christians used to do? Throw  accused witches into lakes and claim that if they were innocent,  God would save them?  Well, if the books don't rot, obviously God likes `em.

The funny thing is, I've never read most of those Tom Clancy novels or the Reagan biographies. I'd pick them up from the library bookstore, but the only Reagan bio I ever read made me dislike him. It was his autobiography, and when he wrote of his valiant role in saving Hollywood from the Communists, I regarded him with disgust: the man admitted to being a McCarthyist witch-hunter who made his  bones through political persecution.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lost Children

I started reading regularly in Star Trek literature following the DS9 relaunch, and I stayed up to speed with it until sometime in 2005, when I lost interest. That was a rough year for me: I'd graduated from junior college and had no idea what to do next, so I started working in factories while at the same time struggling with anger and depression that would only depart when I told religion to go hang itself. Anyway, I eventually got on the track to finish my university education, but when I moved off, my parents put most of my books into storage. This year I returned to Trek literature and wanted to find my old books -- in part because a few of them were unread -- and dove into a storage area tonight. I had to take just about everything out, but I finally found my books inside a small storage bin I'd never seen before.

This means I have a few "new" books to read: 
  • Warpath, David Mack
  • Worlds of DS9 #1: Andor and Cardassia
  • The Left Hand of Destiny, J. G. Hertzler and Jeffrey Lang
  • Titan, book 1: Taking Wing; Mangels and Martin

I can't remember if I purchased The Red King -- Taking Wing's sequel -- or not, but I'm hoping to find it, too.  Boy, am I going to be conflicted when the weekend rolls around and I obtain access to a few more new Trek reads. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bibliobloggers Index


I've been meaning to spruce up my sidebar for a while now and have decided to experiment with replacing the index of book-bloggers I read with the blogroll that updates itself, one that is limited to showing the five most recent blogs. I didn't want to lose the ability to go straight to my favorites even if they were drowned out by five "Tuesday Teaser" posts or such,  so I decided to create a static index. It will be updated from time to time, and accessible under "Heads Up".  As of 26 October this is just the old list with Booking through Thursday tacked on; I'll add more as time allows. The blogroll list is slightly longer at the moment.  


The Imperial Cruise

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War
© 2009 James Bradley
387 pages

They may be sovereign countries, but you folks at home forget
That they all want what we've got, but they don't know it yet.

The Gilded Age may be characterized as the United States' coming of age, losing its innocence along the way. The former colony had by the early 20th century become an imperial state on its own -- collecting territories as though they were the spoils of some vast game of marbles. Following the end of the Indian Wars and the 'closing of the frontier', the United States looked outward -- to Cuba and the Philippines. This was the age wherein the United States became an industrial titan and a world power, and Theodore Roosevelt announced the US's entry into the big boy's club with the sailing of the Great White Fleet in late 1907: for just over a year, a large fleet of warships toured the world's oceans, demonstrating to one and all what the Americans were capable of. 

That fleet's voyage, however, is not the imperial cruise covered in this book. Bradley instead looks two years earlier, when a ship of diplomatic envoys made their way to Japan, Korea, and China after checking in on recent acquisitions like Hawaii and the Philippines. There, Roosevelt and his lieutenant, Secretary of War William Taft, made decisions that shaped Asia's history. They did so, Bradley believes, out of conviction in the White Man's Burden. According to Bradley, Roosevelt believed in the innate superiority of the Aryan race: the conquest of the world by the Anglo-Saxons proved it, and it was the Christian duty of Whites to spread the virtues of civilization across the world by any means necessary.  The Imperial Cruise is in essence a scathing condemnation of the United States' birth and expansion which sees the entire history of the US 'til that point as one great race war. This led Roosevelt in his arrogance to proclaim the Japanese "Honorary Aryans" and encourage them to establish a Monroe Doctrine of their own in the east, which put Japan on the course of empire herself -- a course that lead to Pearl Harbor when the Japanese Empire's ambitions succeeded Roosevelt's use for them.   "In this book I don’t so much write about Pearl Harbor, I only bring it up to say, what was the source of this explosion? Every divorce has a first kiss, I was looking for that first kiss...and I found that in the summer of 1905." (James Bradley, interview.)

Bradley makes three general claims: first, that the United States' expansion was motivated by something other than pure humanitarianism; two, that this expansion was fueled primarily by belief in white supremacism and imperial Christianity; and three, that Roosevelt went beyond the responsibilities of his office in sanctioning Japanese expansion in Korea and Manchuria.  Only the second claim is questionable to me, for as powerful as ideals -- even rotten ones -- are,  I see the wheels of history turning more on the basis of power and wealth; specifically, people attempting to accrue more of both to themselves.  Idealism is typically mere décor, justification. That the drivers of American history have been until the last half-century vicious racists is undeniable -- even those who tried to assume the high ground of Christian moralism are drowned by a sea of their own speeches, essays,and letters. I can believe that racism made waging war against others easier, but race as a primary motivation is too great a leap for me to make.

Aside from this, I think Imperial Cruise needs to be read: I only wish it were more effective. Bradley is a popular historian, and even the most uninformed of readers would be able to follow his narrative with ease: unfortunately, the narrative itself gets lost. Bradley starts with the cruise, then shifts to a history of the United States' conquest of Cuba and the Philippines. He returns to the cruise briefly, gives a history of Hawaii's own violent subjugation, and then proceeds to dip into Japanese history before finally returning to Taft's actions in Korea, China, and Japan. Imperial Cruise doesn't flow: it bounces cross the Pacific. Structuring a text with so much content is understandably difficult, but it doesn't appear to have been edited properly: Bradley repeats himself, and more than once I stopped to wonder why he was bringing this particular fact or quotation up again.

The book's weaknesses are disappointing, in part because the subject presents an opportunity to analyze American history critically, and draw lessons that Americans today would profit by: Taft and Roosevelt's repeated statements that the insurrection in the Philippines was almost over mirror Bush and Rumsfeld's  statements to the same effect concerning Iraq.  Done properly, the book could have forced readers to consider the United States' embracing of interventionist causes in the 20th century with a more critical eye -- and Bradley's publishing history (Flags of our Fathers, Flyboys)  would attract more mainstream readers than say, Howard Zinn, whose reputation discourages those less enthusiastic about criticizing American history from considering what he has to say. 

  • Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire, a collection of articles, essays, and such written against American imperialism against the Phillipines and Cuba.
  • Howard Zinn's People's History of the 20th Century
  • Zinn's People's History of American Empire, which picks up at the close of the Indian Wars.
  • Albert Marrin's The Spanish-American War, which is more apologetic than critical but still admits to the brutal treatment of the Phillipines by American forces. Interestingly, both Marrin and Bradley see McKinley as someone interested in peace, but beaten into submission by the press and warmongers like Roosevelt into sanctioning war against the Spanish. 

Top Ten Books for Halloween

This week's Top Ten list is...well, just read the title. ;-)

1. The Harry Potter Series, J.K. Rowling

Autumn does not truly arrive in Alabama until late October, for summer's heat and humidity have a long life near the Gulf. I associated autumn with Halloween, and Harry Potter with autumn for mot of the books pick up at the start of another school year. I first read Potter in the fall, but the series is particularly appropriate for Halloween given its lighthearted treatment of witches, ghosts, vampires, and other such things.

2. In the Forests of the Night, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

I read this in high school, lured by the title borrowed from Blakes' "Tiger, Tiger":  I had never before read fantasy, and Atwater-Rhodes' world of vampires fascinated me. In the Forests of the Night is the story of Risika, once the young daughter of a Puritan farmer and now a vampire who  makes her home in Concord
but hunts the streets of  20th century New York.  Atwater-Rhodes' vampires are streamlined, free from Victorian myths  and modern vampire whining angst, and my own copy is battered from many re-reads.

3. (The) Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson 

This book sprang to mind the moment I saw this week's topic, though it's been almost a decade since I actually read the book -- and then, just the Great Illustrated Classics version. The Strange Case concerns the experiments of a Victorian gentleman who wanted to free his civilized nature from more savage impulses, and who instead found he delighted in drinking a potion to become a man wholly savage, unfettered by morality or standards of conventional behavior.  Ultimately, it destroys him.

4.  The Millennium Trilogy, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

The Millennium Trilogy is more an apocalyptic thriller than a jeepers-creepers story, but as a young teenager,
it certainly got under my skin. The trilogy opened with the discovery of two men who had been killed when they were transported into the body of the station itself, their bodies fused with the metal of the hull: from there it turned into a nightmarish religious war that destroyed the Klingons, Borg, and Earth. Things just got disturbing once the universe ended.

5. Sleep No More, Greg Iles

John Waters' life got a lot more interesting when a strange woman  named Eve passed him by on a soccer field and whispered a phase known only to him and his college girlfriend Mallory -- Mallory, who was both manipulative and abusive, but who Waters could never quit.  His obsession for her died only with her rape and murder in New Orleans by strangers those many years ago, but the arrival of Eve brings the old obsession to new life again, and he finds out that it isn't just the memory of Mallory that's haunting him when Eve claims to be Mallory, in a new body.

6. Christine, Stephen King.

Dennis Guilder knew there was something wrong with the rusting ruin of this 1958 Plymouth Fury the
moment he saw it, but it infatuated his buddy Arnie, who buys it from a hateful old man. Arnie's devotion to the car changes him: a once-timid nerd gains confidence and pride as he restores the wreck to its former glory, but as the months pass Dennis notes Arnie appears to be speaking with another man's voice -- a hateful, bitter, spiteful voice.  Despite Christine's pristine condition, the instant reaction from most people to her is repugnance: they sense there is something wrong with the car. It smells of death, and it haunts close close to Arnie. When Dennis digs into the history of Christine, he finds it a car possessed by implacable maliciousness -- and those who cross paths with it are destined to a grisly fate.

Horror usually bores me, but King's Christine was utterly spellbinding and creepy.

7. The Stand, Stephen King

Again, more science fiction apocalyptic thriller than horror novel -- but the fantasy element becomes more pronounced as the book matures. When human civilization is devastated by a new plague,  survivors are compelled to make journeys to Boulder, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada for a showdown between good and evil. The devastation wreaked by the plague itself was more effectively creepy to me than the Evil Floating Cowboy who is apparently one of King's key characters.

8. The Fear Street series, R.L. Stine

My sister and I used to read these as children and teenagers, though given that most of the plots involved teenagers being murdered, I have no idea how we managed to get them past the radar of our censor-happy parents. I'd like to re-read the books in which some of the characters are thrown into the 1930s, but I cannot remember the names of them...

9. Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach

This is a bit of nonfiction,  actually, but the topic -- dead people -- is quite seasonable. Roach combines science and humor to dig into what the bodies of dead people do for the living.

10. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
"If thou didst ever thy dear father love, avenge his most foul and unnatural murder!"

Many years ago I had the experience of hearing William Daniels perform* part of Hamlet, and the experience was effective enough to make me regard the play as somewhat creepy ever since. For those not familiar, Hamlet is the story of a prince who is called on by the ghost of his dead father to see justice done.

*Starts around 6:20.
Incidentally, the Reduced Shakepeare's Company's performance of Hamlet is a riot. I literally fell out of my chair laughing -- and by literally, I mean I fell over, hit the printer's stand, and then had the printer fall on my head.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (26 October)

And Teaser Tuesday has rolled around once more!

Readers particularly loved it when Alice acted bolder than  a twenty-one-year-old  "girl" should, like when she welcomed the 1905 Fourth of July with a bang, going out to a car on the rear of the train after breakfast and taking potshots with her own revolver at receding telegraph poles. No one thought to ask why the president's young daughter was packing her own pistol. Americans expected such risqué behavior from their Princess.

(p. 13, The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War; James Bradley.)

O'Brien reached into his satchel, extracted one of his remaining phaser grenades. He pressed the Arm button. One hippopot--
The grenade, not having been reset from the default '0 seconds', exploded instantly.

(p. 106, Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Fallen Heroes; Dafydd ab Hugh)

Fallen Heroes

DS9 #5: Fallen Heroes
© 1994 Dafydd ab Hugh
282 pages

On the cover: renderings of Avery Brooks as Commander Benjamin Sisko and Nana Visitor as Major Kira Nerys -- although that expression makes her look more like Michelle Forbes as Ro Laren.

The day everyone on Deep Space Nine died started like any other: Sisko sat in his office brooding over intelligence reports, O'Brian and Kira were overworked, Dax sat happily at the science station watching the wormhole open, and Odo harassed  Quark over his latest scheme -- this time, to auction off a locked box of goods from the Gamma Quadrant. Hoping to catch Quark selling cultural artifacts, he forced Quark to open the book so that the contents could be examined. One particular object defied description, but once activated threw the pair three days into the future -- where DS9's once-bustling promenade  has fallen deathly silent, its hallways and corridors strewn with littered corpses and evidence of explosions. Something terrible happened in those three days.

When I picked this up, I thought the description of a 'silent DS9' meant that everyone had vanished from the station. I wasn't expecting to witness the brutal death of everyone onboard -- including civilians and children -- at the hands of a heavily-armed squad of alien commandos claiming to seek a captured comrade.  ab Hugh divides chapters between Odo and Quark's perspective and the perspective of the DS9 crew in the 'present', who are powerless to find out what the commandos want or to resist them.  The security mooks are first to go, but no one who engages the aliens lives -- and given their meticulous search, no one who hides will long escape a merciless execution. It's up to Odo and Quark to figure out how to get back and prevent this assault before it begins.

This is book five of the numbered Deep Space Nine stories: though set early in the first season, ab Hugh manages to avoid any conflicts with future continuity. Only Odo's dialogues came off as odd, though Kira's tendency to compare the invaders to Borg drones is also peculiar, given that she's never had contact with them. I picked this up because I've read ab Hugh before (my first Star Trek read was his Vengeance, which I remember with fondness), and he doesn't disappoint. Though morbid, most of the book reads like an action thriller.

I didn't pick this up for 'scary readings', but reading about 500+ murders in 16 hours, including those of my favorite characters, made this seasonally appropriate.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
© 1898 H.G. Wells
from The War of the Worlds with The Time Machine and Selected Short Stories, collected 1963.
303 pages

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.

It is the late eighteen-hundreds, the high-water mark of western civilization. Western man and his science are ascendant, triumphant:  while the old empires of the east wither and decay, the virile west takes dominion of the world, uniting it with iron rails and ships belching steam. The earth surrenders her bounty to the miners, and in the cities -- in which people gather in ever-increasing numbers -- towers of steel climb into the skies, rivaling the trees from which we sprang so long ago.  But far away, lurking in the cold of space, lies another civilization, one which sees in the flourishing Earth new life for its own people -- and salvation from its dying world. Like the the Trojans of legend, they have come to our own Italy seeking to establish a new home for themselves -- and they care little for its current occupants.

The narrator of this work, an unnamed intellectual who is trained in comparative biology but is well-versed in all manner of sciences and technology, was there the night the first cylinder arrived. It crashed not two miles from his home, and he regarded these unannounced visitors with wonder, curiosity, and even sympathy at first -- hoping as the cylinder cooled and began to open that the brave men inside had survived their journey all right. Never does it occur to our guide that these visitors come to Earth as the Puritans came to the Americans -- for gold, god, and glory.  Even when the heat-ray vaporizes the fascinated crowds,  the survivors cling to the hope that there's been a misunderstanding.  Every night that passes brings with it a new cylinder, and from the landing sites rise terrifying machines that visit death on anyone and anything that they approach. The crowds were first scattered by the heat-ray, but when the Martians' advance is countered by artillery and iron-clads the otherworldly machines begin belching black smoke of their own -- visiting the area around them with clouds of noxious gas that mitigate any thoughts of resistance.

They march toward London, and civilization flees from them, leaving behind towns in flames and thousands dead. A great mass of humanity routs southward, but our own guide through this harrowing time is trapped  in a partially-destroyed home. The man who had enjoyed a quiet evening chatting with his wife over wine, followed by a session at the typewriter discussing civilization's moral progress is reduced to hiding in rubble, scurrying from ditch to bush and eating anything he can find while surrounded by the ruins of his old world and wondering what is yet to come. Will men take to the sewers, begin life anew while the Martians?  But this is not to be -- for humanity's greatest weapon is its heritage, having overcome generations of diseases that the Martians are utterly unprepared for.

War of the Worlds is a fascinating book; when doing research for my various WW1 papers I learned of the genre of  "invasion literature"*, which became popular in the late 1800s following Prussia's swift technological victory over the French Empire in 1871. Fantasizing about how technological advances like balloons and airplanes could render a nation helpless in a matter of days was quite popular for a time, and though I am not familiar with the history of science fiction,  I wouldn't be surprised if Worlds grew out of that and the increasing interest in Mars and other close astronomical bodies.  The devastation visited on civilian populations and the use of poison gas predicts some of the ravages of the Great War.

Wells is an effective writer, taking the reader through our guide's wonder,  fear, terror, and joy. The guide is ideal for me: I like idealistic intellectuals like our unnamed host, who takes pleasure in the pursuit of knowledge. His status as an intellectual allows him to analyze the aliens' biology, their machines, and what their world may be like -- and his well-rounded education makes the epilogue's musing predictions fascinating.    War of the Worlds is very much a classic, enjoyable though dated: the vastness of space probably insulates us against alien invasions, and I snorted when Wells mentioned that the Martians had effected a landing on Venus. Knowledge gained throughout the 20th century indicates that Venus is as inhospitable as it gets.

Good reading for those interested in a harrowing adventure, or a peek into classic science fiction.  If you enjoy Wells or want to own some of his works, this particular edition seems like a good investment. It gathers two classics along with a few short stories I've not yet read but intend to.  The publishers are Platt & Munk, a division of Grosset and Dunlap.  ISBN: 0-448-41106-7. The cover has a retro feel, and the introduction refers to Wells' work as "scientific romance", which I find endearingly quaint.

* Walter J. Boyne's The Influence of Air Power Upon History shows that invasion literature was not just the stuff of fiction, but a concern to military strategists.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

True Grit

True Grit
© 1968 Charles Portis
215 pages

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Here is what happened.

So begins True Grit, a novel based on a movie I enjoyed many times in my youth, starring John Wayne as the one-eyed US Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, who Mattie  -- the opening speaker -- hires to help her track down Chaney and the crew of rascals and vagabonds he's gone to ground with. Mattie is a wily, self-assured girl from Arkansas who knows what she's doing and aims to get what she wants. Cogburn thinks a girl such as she has no business riding around in Indian territory looking for crooks, but is powerless to prevent her from following him -- and together, accompanied by a Texas Ranger hunting Chaney for bounty, the two will brave the mountains and take down the gang of Lucky Ned Pepper.

True Grit's most striking characteristic is its prose: simple, rough and oddly formal. I have heard Isaac Asimov's style described as 'unornamented', but Asimov has nothing on Porter, at least in rendering Mattie's tale. Mattie recalls the story in her silver years, and her narrative is in line with her character: bluntly plain, loaded with Puritan sentiments and judgments that sometimes border on inappropriate. She uses no contractions or descriptions: dialogue is flat,  which given the content of the sentences makes for surreal humor.  Characters argue in monotone, exchanging lines like "You take that saucy line too far," and even in a context when they should be yelling or crying, they merely state: "Well, Rooster, I am shot to pieces."  Because I've watched the movie -- which the book is largely true to, only differing in the epilogue -- I could hear the lines with emotional context, but I don't know what others will make of it.

True Grit is essentially a western,  which is a genre I've not read from since childhood. The flat prose struck me as odd, though I suppose it adds to the authenticity in depicting the rugged simplicity of the old west. It's readable, but...I rather prefer the movie. I don't too much like Hattie in either -- though her stubbornness is laudable, I tire of that constant haughtiness -- but the movie has a cantankerous, and sometimes drunken, John Wayne.

True Grit (the movie) on TvTropes

The Good that Men Do

Star Trek Enterprise: the Good that Men Do
© 2007 Michael Martin and Andy Mangels
464 pages

There's a man who leads a life of danger
 To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
 With every move he makes another chance he takes
 Odds are he won't live to see tomorrow!
 Secret Agent Man! Secret Agent Man!
 They've given you a number and taken away your name....

No series finale and few episodes of any of the various Star Trek shows are treated with as much loathing as "These are the Voyages", the series finale of Enterprise. The reasons are numerous, but the useless death of a major character and the episode's framing device are particularly despised. The episode is treated as a holographic recreation of one of Enterprise's missions -- the mission that caused the aforementioned useless death, and Commander William Riker is viewing the historical events as a way of drumming up courage to confess something to Captain Picard.  The device effectively turns the last Enterprise episode into various scenes tucked into TNG's "The Pegasus", but its portrayal as a holographic recording allowed Martin and Mangels to reinterpret the story with  framing device of their own.

Late in the 25th century, Captain Nog of Starfleet makes his way to see his best friend, the famous author Jake Sisko. While reviewing recently declassified files from Starfleet's early history, he's stumbled upon something that would make a compelling novel in the hands of a gifted author -- historical records that indicate that the accepted history of the Federation's beginnings is fabricated. A Starfleet commander was declared dead, even though new records indicate that he played a far more active role in historical events yet to come than would be expected of a dead man, and new records make the official story look painfully fabricated. And so the two old friends spend an evening viewing the records together, finding out what really happened in the days before the birth of the Coalition of Planets, the Federation's progenitor.  The novel is in essence a ret-con of "These are the Voyages", one sanctioned by Paramount and CBS, that turns one of the series' most badly received episodes into a fantastic novel of politics, espionage, and war. For the sake of the Federation's survival, one man will fake his own death so he may steal into the shadows and infiltrate enemy territory to prevent a war from endangering the lives of billions.

The Good that Men Do redeems "These are the Voyages" while giving attention to my favorite character from Enterprise, Commander 'Trip' Tucker. In addition to undoing some of the episode's 'mistakes', Martin and Mangels also iron out all the various oddities of the episode, but The Good that Men Do can stand on its own. It is the introduction to the Enterprise relaunch, and in recounting Tucker's story makes  the Relaunch's first major arc obvious: the mysterious Romulan Star Empire is ambitious and paranoid, and sees in Earth's attempts to unite the worlds of Vulcan, Andor, Tellar, and Coridan a major threat against its future plans of expansion. War seems unavoidable, but Tucker -- aided by a mysterious and autonomous intelligence department within Starfleet -- intends to make Romulus' job as difficult as possible.  Martin and Mangels tackle the Tucker/T'Tpol dynamic well, though I'm surprised Archer agreed to Tucker's plans so readily. In any case, I want to read more of these guys and look forward to Star Trek's new "007"'s adventures.


  • "Journey to Babel",  in which the Enterprise carries delegates from Vulcan, Andor, and Earth to discuss Coridan's entry into the Federation. I wonder how much work their make-up artists went through...(The episode introduced Sarek, Spock's father.)
  • Cloak, S.D. Perry; Rogue, Martin and Mangels; Abyss, David Weddle and Jeffrey Lang;  and Shadow, by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All four novels deal with the same autonomous intelligence department, although by the late 24th century it's degenerated into a far less innocent organization. 
  • The Good that Men Do on Memory Alpha
  • Martin and Mangels on Memory Alpha
  • Enterprise Relaunch on TvTropes

Booking through Thursday: Foreign

Booking through Thursday asks:  What is a book from a country outside your own that you love?

One of my favorite books is the autobiography of Emilie Carles, called A Life of Her Own. A professor of mine assigned it for either a French history or general European history class, as it depicts the advance of modernity -- particularly, industrialization and nationalism -- into a mountain village in the French alps.  I didn’t expect much from the biography of a farming woman, but it changed my life.

Emilie Carles has lead an inspirational life, for one. At an early age she developed a love for books and reading and began to spurn tradition. She became a true freethinker, and her values advanced accordingly.  This confirmed my belief that the morals of reason and empathy are not only superior to those of custom and religion, but  that they are universal, and that anyone can realize them.

Secondly, Carles broadened my political understanding. Before reading her, my perceptions of various political viewpoints were primitive: I thought communism and socialism were always linked to large, intrusive governments (like the USSR and China), and knew nothing of anarchism beyond a conceptions of bomb-throwing and worship of chaos. As the Great War drags on, Carles writes of her thoughts and those of her relatives, and they do not see it as a great patriotic struggle against evil. They see the war as the product of selfish aristocrats, ever covetous of glory and land, and they resent the deaths of so many people at the orders of   the land-owning elite.

They become radicalized in a populist sense, desiring that people rule themselves and have control of their own destinies: through Carles' words, in sharing her opinions and those of her friends and family, I realized there was an entire spectrum of thinking I'd never heard of -- that socialism and communism could be rooted as firmly in democracy, and that anarchism had less to do with revelry and disorder and more to do with the stern, principled lives of men like Henry David Thoreau.

I embarrassed myself for a year after reading this book, because I could not help thanking my professor profusely for having us read it, so great was its impact on my understanding of the world.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

This Week at the Library (20 October)

This past week at the library was a productive and enjoyable one. I'm caught up on the Voyager relaunch, having read Unworthy, and I also read a collection of short stories featuring the old Voyager family. Beyer's best work for my money is still Full Circle,  but her humor and character drama continue to stun me.

Rapt's one of the better books I've read recently, touching on attention's role in personal happiness, morality, creativity, and personal relationships. I picked it up because of my interests in psychology, but found it more interesting from a mindfulness point of view.

Edith Hamilton's Roman Way is her sequel to The Greek Way, and I read it to follow up on Caesar and Christ. Hamilton's a writer from the old school, but Roman devotees will enjoy her attempt to find the Roman character via Rome's plays, letters, and histories.

I also followed up on a recommendation from a friend and read The Good Guy. The opening plot -- a man who is mistaken for a hitman by a murder contractor, and then mistaken for the contractor by the hitman -- seemed interesting enough, but Koontz tells the story in chapters that alternate between the Good Guy and the hitman. The hitman is a sociopath, and being in his head creeped me out.

On a whim I also picked up The Worlds of DS9 volume 2 to touch base with the DS9 Relaunch. Years ago I thought the book unreadable, but I clipped through it in a couple of days. The book contains two novellas, one set on Trill and the other on Bajor. Trill's plot was most interesting, being a political/crime mystery that gives Ezri room to become her own character. Bajor''s novella was interesting, but mostly sets the stage for further novels.

I had intended to combine the weekly recap with selected passages from the books, but I...forgot to write any down before I turned the books to the library. I've been losing interest in the weekly recaps as of late, and would be interested in knowing if anyone finds them of any use -- I now only look forward to the recap post for the quotations and introduction of next week's list, myself.

Potential Reads for Next Week:

  • The Seventy Great  Mysteries of the Natural World. I've been gazing at this book hungrily all week, picking it up and putting it back down again because I know it will be magnificent, so much so that I don't want to spoil the anticipation by actually reading the book. It's a bit like wishing I could have my cake and eat it, too. 
  • I'm finally going to finish The Good that Men Do by Martin and Mangels. The poor book has been twice preempted by other book series, but I'm a hundred pages away from finishing it. Even if a stranger knocks on my door and says, "Hello. Would you like this box of Trek Relaunch novels, none of which you have read?" I'm going to finish it. 
  • A teacher of mine mentioned that she's reading Charles' Portis True Grit, a novel that inspired the John Wayne movie of the same  name. I started reading it in the library, and it appears to have some  of the film's more memorable scenes included.
  • Finally getting around to The Devil's Punchbowl by Greg Iles. Should be a doozy, if it's anything like Iles' previous work.
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G.Wells is a "classic" that I'm revisiting: I don't think I've ever read the actual work, just abridged versions for kids.
  • The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley,  which explores the effects of Teddy Roosevelt's "Cruise of the Great White Fleet" and its impact on foreign relations....especially with Japan.
  • I may extend my recess from the Story of Civilization for a week more, and I may try to read a chapter or two from The Age of Faith

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Worlds of Deep Space Nine (Volume 2)

Worlds of Deep Space Nine, Volume 2: Trill and Bajor
© 2005 Martin, Mangels, and Kym
380 pages

On the cover:  Nicole de Boer as Lieutenant Ezri Dax; Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko.

S.D. Perry's Unity ended the first major phase of Star Trek relaunch literature, bringing multiple Deep Space Nine storylines together and capping them off with the assassination of Bajor's prime minister on the eve of its admission into the United Federation of Planets. The assassin, working on behalf of the government of Trill, operated on the concealed knowledge that the minister was posessed by a parasite genetically related to the symbionts of the Trill homeworld.  Trill's government, highly protective of the symbionts that so many of its leaders are joined to, was desperate to hide the symbiont/parasite connection.  In the midst of this chaos, Benjamin Sisko returned to the land of the living just in time for the birth of his daughter; previously, in "What you Leave Behind", he vanished into the etheral realm of the Prophets, aliens who occupy a nearby wormhole and are the objects of Bajoran religion.

Worlds of Deep Space Nine is a three-part series that explore the aftermath of Unity while TNG launched its own arc which eventually culiminated in Destiny. The book contains two novellas that are set four days apart from the other and on their respective worlds. In Unjoined, authors Martin and Mangels depict a Trill on the edge of chaos. Its streets are filled with citizens brimming with anger, demanding full transparency from the government -- and some, giving into fear, demanding an end to the custom of joining. After Lieutenant Ezri Dax and Lieutenant Commander Julian Bashir are called to Trill to give testimony at an official inquiry into Trill's role in the assassination, terrorist groups target the symbionts and government officials while Dax discovers buried history that may forever change Trill.  While the political story and cultural examinations are interesting enough, Unjoined is most notable for me in seeing Lieutenant Dax come into her own as a character: she's finally adjusted to being joined, and her experiences since then are setting her on a path away from her old life.

Fragments and Omen's major theme is adjustment: Bajor is now a member of the Federation,  and while the general populace is looking forward to the future, there are others who fear Bajor's individuality will be left behind. Jake Sisko is also trying to find a life for himself now that his father has returned -- and Ben Sisko believes that he was sent back because Bajor is about to undergo a crisis.  While Kym's novella is perfectly enjoyable to read for DS9 fans, it lacks the active punch of Martin and Mangels: it's more a prolouge for what is to come, though readers are only teased by this in the last chapter of the book.

I haven't read a novel from the Deep Space Nine relaunch for five years: I bought this and another book in the "Words of Deep Space Nine" series, but found both too dense to get in. I'm apparantly better at reading now, for this read was smooth sailing. In the five years that have past, I've forgotten most of the details of Unity, but was able to piece them together from this book's infrequent exposition. While Unjoined is the Dax-and-Bashir show, Fragments and Omens draws from most of DS9's officer ensemble plus a Bajoran politician or two.

Good read for general Trek readers, particularly Unjoined. As said, Fragments and Omens is mostly prologue.


Teaser Tuesday (19 October)

It's that teasin' Tuesday time again!

Tim was getting a bad vibe. Not a look-out-he's-a-werewolf kind of vibe, just a feeling that the guy might be tedious. 
The stranger said, "I jumped out of an airplane with my dog." 
On the other hand, the best hope of a memorable barroom conversation is to have the good luck to encounter an eccentric. 

(p. 10-11, The Good Guy. Dean Koontz.)

[Sisko] reached into the crib and scooped his daughter up in his arms. Check for leakage, the Old Dad instincts told him. Structural integrity may be compromised. 

(p. 204, Worlds of Deep Space Nine volume 2: Trill and Bajor.) Quotation is from J. Noah Kym's Fragments and Omens.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Roman Way

The Roman Way
© 1932 Edith Hamilton
281 pages

                                        Slave: He saw the girl.
                                        Master: Oh, hell! How could he?!
                                        Slave: ...with his eyes.
                                        Master: But how, you fool?
                                        Slave: By openin' 'em! ("Merchant", Plautus)

The Roman Way follows up on the success of Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, and models itself after that first work of Hamilton's, in which she used Greece literature to evaluate it. In Roman Way, she draws on the comedic plays of Terence and Plautus, the histories of Caesar, the letters of Cicero, and the poetry of Catullus and Horace among other authors.  The book's greatest virtue is that Hamilton's choice to reproduce pages from plays and longer passages from letters allows students of Roman history to connect with that history more directly -- to test the waters of literature from another time while protected from confusion by the presence of the author's commentary. Hamilton's writing is strong and flourished, conveying a clear affection for the subject: she reads plays originally written in Latin for pleasure.

When generalizing, Hamilton is golden for the lay reader, though the more focused analyses of poetry and literature are likely to find their best audiences in serious students of literature and Roman history. Being a somewhat serious student myself, I found a lot of value here. I enjoyed reading Roman plays and realizing that for all the centuries that have passed, it's still possible to get a laugh out of them. I found Cicero's  humility (!) in his letters especially endearing:  sensitive about his constant bragging and the disconnect between his political values and the political choices he made, he frets to his brother:  "What will history be saying of me six hundred years hence?"  I also enjoyed the chapters on Roman romanticism and aesthetic values. Broader narratives forget to see the Romans as people at times, and Roman Way makes good on that. Times pass and values change, and the literature reflects it.

Good follow-up to Caesar and Christ;  Romanophiles and those interested in literary history should find it engaging.



Earlier this afternoon a friend brought the social community for bookworms ("Shelfari") to my attention, and I found it hospitable enough to register an account for my use. I liked the idea of being able to survey a virtual bookshelf of everything I've read in recent years, so I invested a little time this afternoon in adding everything from the TWATL archives to my shelves.

Okay, maybe more than a little time. Point is, now my Shelfari account has everything I've read here on the blog, minus a possible percentage of books that I overlooked. I also added some of the books I read in 2006 and 2007 prior to getting in the habit of raiding nearby libraries on a weekly basis. Because I filled the shelves from most recent to oldest, the most recently added books may be new to you: this blog's original home was on something called a "MySpace" account and those first posts were copied to my archives when I made the switch to Blogger.

I'm interested in meeting other bloggers and readers who have shared their books on Shelfari; my username there is listed above, and if you want to hunt me down via email address, just tack on I will continue to update Shelfari in the future with books I'm reading or want to read, and will add a link to the sidebar once I find an appropriate but tidy place to stick it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Good Guy

The Good Guy
© 2007 Dean Koontz
400 pages

"Good guys finish last, Tim."
"Maybe not if they stay in the race."

Tim Carrier's just an honest working man who enjoys relaxing at a local bar in the evenings, exchanging insults with his friend the barkeep and drawing eccentric strangers into interesting conversations. Only...the last conversation ended with him being given an envelope containing $10,000 and instructions that he would receive the rest once the woman was dead.  Tim's been mistaken for a hitman.

Being mistaken for an assassin is odd enough, but then the actual hitman takes for Tim for his new boss. Thinking quickly,  Tim tells the man that his services are no longer required: the job is off, but he'll still be paid. The ruse works long enough for Tim to escape and find the woman whose life hangs in the balance. Soon both he and she are on the run from a talented killer with vast resources.

A friend of mine has persistently recommended Dean Koontz,  and after reading The Good Guy I can understand why. Koontz is an effective horror writer: alternating chapters tell the story from the vantage point of both Tim and the hitman, who is one of the most disturbing characters I've ever encountered.  He's a genuine sociopath, and while in his head Koontz uses small details to creep the reader out. The flowers that Tim notes for their smell are seen and dismissed by Krait reflexively as not being useful; they're nontoxic.  The plot advances quickly, and Koontz's writing constantly hits the reader -- his descriptive prose and dialogue are evocative, and every paragraph made putting the book down more difficult. I read it in one sitting, not being able to resist the feeling of "Just one more chapter..." until well after midnight, when the story ended for these characters who had so ensnared my attention.

Koontz is a compelling author, and will remain of interest for future reads -- though, like King, I wouldn't be surprised if I avoided him given the creepiness factor. Suitable reading as we approach Halloween, though.

Distant Shores

Distant Shores
© 2005, ed. Marco Palmieri
390 pages

Only hours after the onset of its first mission, the USS Voyager was thrust across the galaxy into the Delta Quadrant -- a distance so great that even at maximum speeds,  returning home would take at least seventy years. Rather than giving into despair,  Voyager duly set a course for home, determining to search for new technologies and shortcuts on the way while still fulfilling Starfleet's directive to explore space and seek out new life. Seven years later, having blazed a trail of new discoveries, alliances, and repeated victories snatched from the jaws of defeat, Voyager emerged from her long exile. Distant Shores celebrates the show's tenth anniversary with a twelve-story anthology featuring now-familiar authors like Christopher L. Bennett, Kirsten Beyer, and Keith Decandido with many others. While a few authors write their stories around episodes from the show,  other stories are completely new or examine parts of the Voyager story that the show ignored -- the integration of the Maquis and Equinox crews into Voyager's ranks, or the effect of the ship's disappearance had on the friends and family of her crewmembers.

The stories are arranged chronologically by season, with a slight concentration on the fifth and sixth seasons, and every member of the ensemble cast has a story in which he or she dominates. The book as a whole assumes some familiarity with the show,  which is understandable given that it's written for fans of the show who want to take a nostalgic look back ten years after the story began. Lay readers can piece together the details of what happened with the Equinox from the two stories that feature their difficult integration with the crew, but they'd be better off looking up the episode in question. There are no disappointments here, and even though I had no intention of reading the book this week, I found putting it back down once I'd read the introductory story to be difficult; I read most of the book through in one sitting.

Although not essential for enjoying the Voyager Relaunch books, Kirsten Beyer did build on certain elements introduced in this collection when writing Full Circle and Unworthy. The collection is also perfectly enjoyable on its own, both for general Trek readers and those with a particular fondness for Voyager.

Some stories of note:

  • "Command Code": when Captain Janeway is put out of action soon after integrating Chakotay and other Maquis members into her crew, the newly-appointed First Officer Chakotay and Tuvok have a face-off on the bridge amidst a crisis when Tuvok doubts Chakotay's judgment and suspends his just-minted command access.
  • "Letting Go" takes place across the opening seasons Voyager, as the loved ones of Voyager's missing and presumed crew try to adjust to the thought of their spouses, friends, and children being gone forever -- and try to move on with their lives.
  • "Eighteen Minutes" gives the Doctor's side of "Blink of an Eye", wherein in the course of eighteen minutes he experiences years of life on the surface of a planet wherein time passes a bit differently. 
  • "Isabo's Shirt" explores Janeway and Chakotay's friendship and gives J/C shippers something to squee about. 


  • Prophecy and Change, Deep Space Nine's own ten-year anniversary anthology which also features some of the authors that worked on Distant Shores, including Christopher L. Bennett. I think maybe I'm going to be re-reading it in the future.
  • Distant Shores on Memory Alpha

Friday, October 15, 2010


Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
© 2009 Winifred Gallagher
256 pages

 You’re sitting comfortably in your favorite chair, reading, when out of the corner of your eye your brain registers movement, and you automatically turn to look for its source. You spot a green anole lizard, which crept in through an open window. You try to pick it up, and it scurries from the arm of the couch onto the end table nearby.  When you focus on the lizard in an attempt to sneak up behind it, you realize that the lizard’s tail is brushing your lost keys -- keys which are sitting in plain sight, but which have escaped your passive gaze for hours.

Such are some of the curiosities of attention. The book’s title caught my eye while browsing the library catalogue, and such is my interest in the workings of the human brain that I checked it out. The author introduces the book by pointing out there are two different kinds of attention: “bottoms-up” attention, wherein your instinctive brain automatically focuses on an objects that may be a potential threat (as in the moving lizard) and top-down attention, which we ourselves consciously control what our brains are focused on (as when tracking the lizard and noticing the keys as they entered the sweep of attention).

Rapt is more a social science work than hard science, replete with studies but no neurological maps. Instead, the author addresses attention’s role in morality, creativity, personal relationships, and health. Buddhism and cognitive theory are present, and both Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are mentioned by name.  The author believes that people can move toward greater health and happiness by being mindful of what we pay attention to -- taking charge of our own minds --  and practicing mental focus through exercises like attention or by engaging in leisure activities that encourage it (painting, say).

This is easily one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. I was disposed to enjoy it, of course, given my interests in Stoic philosophy. I know full how attention can alter our mental state, but the chapters on art and morality were pleasant surprises. Gallagher is quite readable, and if you're interested in psychology or mindfulness I recommend it.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Booking through Thursday: Rewrite

Booking through Thursday (via Joy) asksIf you could rewrite the ending of any book, which book would it be? And how would you change it?

John Grisham's The Appeal is notable for its disheartening ending. The novel's subject is political corruption: more specifically, a company in legal troubles over its criminal negligence (poisoning a community's water table to the point of increasing cancer rates by a substantial amount) decides to buy a judge. They find a candidate and bankroll his election campaign, slandering his opponents as being too soft on Democrats, intellectuals, and homosexuals. They win; their boy dons the black robes and gets the case.  This kind of corruption is depressing by itself, but The Appeal is cruel in making the reader think the judge's moral crisis (following the death of his son from another company's negligence) will see him turn against the business, or at least step down. But no. He throws the entire community under the bus despite having sufficient motive to do the right thing.

I'd like to see it rewritten so the ending LEAST ambiguous. Have the judge declare a mistrial and step down -- give us hope of SOME kind.  


© 2009 Kirsten Beyer
384 pages

These are not the friendly stars of the Federation. The unknown and the unexpected are the everyday.

Not five years after the good ship Voyager returned home from involuntary exile in the Delta Quadrant, Starfleet wants her to return to the stomping grounds of the Kazon, Hirogen, and other such ferocious species. She won't be going alone this time, but accompanied by six other vessels. Their mission is to see what, if anything, remains of the Borg collective,  mend fences Voyager had to leave broken in her haste to return home, and seek out new life and civilizations. Although the Voyager family has felt the strain of recent years -- most of the ensemble has gone their separate ways -- the Delta Quadrant is destined to bring them together again.

The first sight anyone from the Voyager family sees upon arrival in the Delta Quadrant is a massive cube, hanging in space as if expecting their arrival. Onboard are the bodies of various species from throughout the quadrant -- offerings made to the Borg by a culture that reveres them. Contact with this multi-species civilization is destined to be interesting. Unworthy offers mystery and is clearing laying the foundation for several more books to come, but Beyer shines most in character development and related drama, and there's much to be had. Seven is still adjusting to life as a post-Caliar ex-Borg,  Tom and Harry are on the outs,  and at least four characters struggle to find their place  on this new Voyager. While I tended to find the televised version of Chakotay a bit...uninspired, Beyer's Chakotay is believable and sympathetic. Beyer's provocative Counselor Cambridge* (introduced in Full Circle)  is especially adept at drawing this out of his patients.  Cambridge is also the source of much of Unworthy's humor, not that it lacks elsewhere: Beyer incorporates more humor into her novels than any other Trek author I've read, recently or in the past.

Unworthy makes me hope that PocketBooks and CBS keep Beyer in the captain's chair of the new Voyager.  The characters are strong and the path ahead promising. Although the book's sequel is not yet published, Beyer contributed a story to the Voyager anthology Distant Shores, so I'm looking forward to that.


  • Voyager Relaunch at TvTropes. I recently discovered that Tropes, one of my favorite websites, has extensive articles on the Trek lit universe.
  • Unworthy at Memory Alpha
  • Kirsten Beyer at Memory Alpha

*According to TrekBBS, Beyer had Laurie in mind when she wrote Cambridge.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

These Weeks at the Library (28 Sept - 13 October)

Two weeks ago at the library, I...

  • ...started with Spook, Mary Roach's investigations into tales of the afterlife.
  • Stephen Fry in America, the titular British humorist's account of his state-by-state tour of the United States, followed that. 
  • Christine by Stephen King proved to be a fun horror story about a possessed car. 
  • The Life of Greece brought up the rear. The book was second in Durant's Story of Civilization, and covered Greece from its original settlers to the death of Alexander and rise of Rome. Heavy on literature and poetry, and reminded me how little people change in politics.

This week, I started off with:

  • Mary Roach's Packing for Mars, a playful history of human space flight and which is replete with information on how humans adjust to living without gravity, blue skies, and flushing toilets.
  • Full Circle,  the first Voyager book in a few years, introduced a new author to the Voyager Relaunch series, closed off the old plots, caught Voyager's family up with Destiny, and set the little ship that could off to new adventures in the Delta Quadrant. 
  • Caesar and Christ by Will Durant followed that. I didn't think I'd finish it so quickly, but I do like my Romans. The book is dominated by Rome's political history.
  • My last complete read was The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, enjoying "Self Reliance" in particular. The book is of most interest to those interested in Emerson and Thoreau's Transcendentalism. 
  • I also  read from Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was one of the United States' big names in popular science, but I've never read from him. The central premise of this book -- that increasing complexity in evolution is not the norm, but rather an exception and that modern animals are merely the results of evolution so far, not the fore-told promise of life -- is one I'm familiar and agree with. My interest started waning during an extended section on baseball statistics. 

Selected Passages:
"And I know Admiral Nechayev agrees," Janeway went on, 'though frankly I was incredibly shocked when we arrived at our meeting stark naked."
"Admiral Montgomery didn't seem to notice," she went on. "I guess things at Starfleet Command have changed quite a bit since we left..."
"Hm-mm," Chakotay murmured, then paused as her words finally pierced his internal musings. "What?" (Full Circle, Kirsten Beyer. )

"Power dements more surely than it corrupts." - a paraphrase of Will Durant, Caesar and Christ.

"Protestantism was the triumph of Paul over Peter. Fundamentalism is the triumph of Paul over Christ." - Durant, Caesar and Christ.

"Historians divide the past into epochs, years, and events, as thought divides the world into groups, individuals, and things; but history, like nature, knows only continuity amid change: historia non facit saltum -- history makes no leaps. " (Will Durant, The Life of Greece)

Civilization does not die, it migrates; it changes its habitat and its dress, but it lives on. The decay of one civilization, as of one individual, makes room for the growth of another: life sheds the old skin, and surprises death with fresh youth. Greek civilization is alive; it moves in every breath of mind that we breathe; so much of it remains that none of us in one lifetime could absorb it all. We know its defects -- its insane and pitiless wars, its stagnant slavery, it s subjection of women, its lack of moral restraint, its corrupt individualism, its tragic failure to unite liberty with order and peace. But those who cherish freedom, reason, and beauty will not linger over these blemishes. They will hear behind the turmoil of political history the voices of Solon and Socrates, of Plato and Euripides, of Phidias and Praxiteles, of Epicurus and Archimedes; they will be grateful for the existence of such men, and will seek their company across alien centuries. They will think of Greece as the bright morning of that Western civilization which,  with all its kindred faults, is our nourishment and our life. (Will Durant, The Life of Greece)

Potentials for Next Week:

  • Unworthy, the follow up to Full Circle by Kirsten Beyer. I just finished a few minutes ago, actually.
  • Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, which I'm a dozen or so pages away from completing.
  • The Roman Way, Edith Hamilton. Reading Durant's Roman book reminded me that I've never read The Greek Way's 'sequel'. 
  • The Good Guy, Dean Koontz. A friend has reccommended the author to me several times, and after looking up the plot summaries of my library's Koontz holdings, this novel about a man who is mistaken for a hitman and paid to kill a stranger sounds the most interesting. 
  • The World is Flat, which appears to be on the effects of globalization. I thought about reading this on Columbus Day just for laughs --- a persistent fiction that Columbus probed to the intellectual elite of Europe that the world was around lingers in the United States -- but was more interested in my Romans. 
  • The Seventy Great Mysteries of the Natural World, which is a big ol' book on science I would've missed had I not been sitting on the floor looking for an obscure introduction to Latin. It's a gorgeous-looking book, and I expect great pleasure from reading it.
  • I also have The Age of Faith checked out, but it's a right monster of a book (1100+ pages of elegant prose  in a diminutive font)  and I'm taking a brief recess from the Story of Civilization to give my mind a break before I start reading about the Byzantine empire, medieval Europe, and the rise of Islam.
  • I'm also going to be perusing Teach Yourself Latin, largely out of interest for its rules of grammar. Durant often quotes the Latin and English translations side by side, and the different sentence structure makes me curious.