Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Big Switch

The War that Cane Early: The Big Switch
© 2011 Harry Turtledove
432 pages

In 1938, the powers of Europe met to maintain the peace -- but Hitler's arrogance resulted in a continent at war.  In response to Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia, the two western powers invaded Germany. Despite his ambitions, the newly remilitarized Germany state is in no condition to make short work of its neighbors, especially after the Soviet Union invades Germany's unlikely ally, Poland. Faced with a two-front war, 1939 looked to be a grim year for Hitler...but then the Japanese invaded Russia's Pacific coast, seeing an opportunity to expand its own Asian territory.

If that intro reads a bit like the intro for West and East, it's because little actually happened in West and East. The story being told was all-too familiar and began to lose my interest -- but that's over with The Big Switch. This is a novel aptly named, for in it the storyline drastically departs from history as we know it. Before this point the changes in the timeline were marginal only: indeed, in West and East it appeared as though Germany was headed toward defeat in the exact manner its real-world counterpart  met in 1945. Japan's invasion of Russia balanced the odds against Germany, though, and in The Big Switch events will drastically alter the balance of power -- imperiling the Soviet Union. Neither Germany or the Soviet Union were prepared for a war of this intensity or magnitude, but Hitler is about to pull off a diplomatic triumph that will be a complete game-changer. While I don't want to spoil anything, let's just say Winston Churchill's death shortly after his protesting rumors of a western alliance against the Soviet Union may not have been an accident.  The result is a war that is NOT our World War 2. This is a World War 2 without D-Day, without Pearl Harbor, and perhaps even without a large-scale Holocaust -- but it's already delivering its own epic ambushes, tragedies, and conflicts.

Turtledove retains the same multinational cast of characters as in his previous novels, though he introduces a couple of newcomers. My favorites remain the German submarine captain, the American socialist fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and a Czech soldier who fled German occupation to fight against the Nazis in France. The Big Switch has completely enthused me about this series, despite a couple of niggling weaknesses (like Turtledove's customary repetitiveness. Yes, Harry, I know Japanese soldiers don't think much of enemy troops who surrender.).   I'm greatly looking forward to what this alternate World War 2 develops into .

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


© 2005 James Patterson
400 pages

Nora Sinclair is the perfect seductress: utterly charming, beautiful beyond compare, and a classy success in the world of interior design. She fills the homes of the wealth with superior decor, and the hearts of wealthy men with longing for her. Then she kills them.

Not at first, mind you. First comes the sex -- lots of sex. Depending on long it takes her to find and access your bank account so she can arrange for it to be wired to her various offshore accounts, a given victim might enjoy weeks or even months of the best sex of their lives.  They might even live long enough to get married to her, provided gifts of expensive jewelry and cars distract her ambitions. Eventually, though,  she strikes. Fortunately for the ranks of bachelors, even black widows are prey for someone else.

This was my second Patterson novel, though it falls short of the fair-ish expectations I had of Patterson after reading Judge & Jury. I couldn't take it seriously. There are two main characters, Nora and Craig Reynolds, a man who introduces himself as an insurance agent. Patterson uses the first-person for Reynolds alone, which would lead readers to think he's the main character -- but most of the attention goes to Nora, whose breasts and legs the authors are fond of describing. There's also a third character, "The Tourist", who stands in the shadows and exchanges threats with other people standing in the shadows and sometimes kills pizza boys. Eventually his story intersects with Nora's and Craig's, though their final confrontation fizzles out before it explodes. Less Honeymoon, more Coitus Interuptus.

Essentially this is a sex novel where the characters take themselves seriously. The dialogue is painfully flat, which I'm starting to think is characteristic of Patterson's writing since Judge and Jury's writing wasn't exactly ample itself.  There are a couple of moments in which the 'hero' hunting Nora is likable, but he mostly comes off as a tool who I almost HOPED would die. There were other disappointments, too, like well-set up dramatic confession which....told the readers what they already knew, unless they were skipping the scenes of Nora and her mother to get back to a scene where Nora is in bed or walking around naked.

With the possible exception of the 16-book Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Timothy LaHaye, this is the shallowest bit of fiction I've ever read. I used it to kill some time yesterday afternoon, though I'll probably have forgotten about it in a month or so.

Judge & Jury

Judge & Jury
© 2006 James Patterson
432 pages

Neil Pellisante is a star witness in the sweetest trial of his life. For years, he hunted the powerful and cruel mobster Dominic Cavella,  pouncing on the monstrous mafioso when Cavella dared to appear at his niece's wedding. The case against him is ironclad. The great cat and mouse game is over --  well, not quite. Cavella may be behind bars, but he has the money to buy ample force, and the audacity to use it in direct assaults on courtrooms and juries. As the bodycount rises, Pellisante's frustration rises -- but if he can't take down Pellisante inside the courtroom, maybe there are ways to take of the problem outside it.  Thus begins a novel of malice, loss, and revenge spanning multiple continents.

I've never read James Patterson before, though his name comes up along with other pop-fiction authors like John Grisham. I think that comparison is unfair, given that Grisham's thrillers often have a point or issue to confront the reader with. Judge & Jury is something like a Walker, Texas Ranger episode. The bad guy is Very Bad, completely irredeemable -- a man who burns babies to torture their relatives.  Thus, I didn't mind if Pellisante went outside the law to take him down. Pellisante and a surviving juror make for sympathetic characters, especially as they try to toe the line between justice and vengeance. The  story's resolution fulfills the theme.  I generally enjoyed Judge & Jury, though it's more light reading than anything else. I don't know how the publishers justify charging $35.00 for it, though!

This Week at the Library (27 July)

Currently I have three reviews/comments which need to be published -- Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee, and two stories by James Patterson, Honeymoon and Judge & Jury.  I just read the Patterson novels yesterday, while babysitting at someone's home and reading from their library.

I finally found Galileo's Finger and am attempting to get back on track there, but entropy makes it difficult -- by which I mean the actual chapter on entropy, which falls between Energy and Atomic Theory. "Energy" and "Entropy" have been the most difficult chapters for me so far, but if I can climb that peak I think the rest of the book will be a considerably easier downhill slope. I also found Seven Ages of Paris, which I misplaced for a few days. Somehow it got between my bed's mattresses. I have no idea how that happened, but it explains why I've had to ignore the bed for the floor the past couple of nights.

At the Library...

The Big Switch, the third novel in Harry Turtledove's "War that Came Early" series arrived in the library recently. The series has been disappointing so far given that its progression hasn't seriously deviated from actual history, and when I reviewed West and East, I commented that I would abandon the series if The Big Switch was not a drastic improvement. According to the inside cover, Winston Churchill is covertly knocked off by German agents. This is promising, but the cover also hints that Japan is about to abandon its war with Russia...and the Japanese invasion of Russia's Pacific coast was the only reason I bothered reading West and East

Vagabond, Bernard Cornwell.  The second book in Cornwell's Grail Quest series is one I wanted to read a month or so ago after Cyberkitten posted a review, but at the time I was into Sharpe's Indian trilogy. I intended to pick up another Sharpe book today, but I've decided to follow the good rifleman as chronologically as possible, and I could not remember what follows Sharpe's Prey

Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob,  Bob Delaney ("NBA Referee") with Dave Scheiber. If I could produce a comprehensive list of all the books I've read in my life, you'd note that from 2003 to 2005, I read a great many books on the American Mafia, from Mario Puzo's nonfiction to questionable biographies like that of Joseph Bonanno's, A Man of Honor.   Lately I've been in a goodfellas mood, and this came up in a catalog search for "Mafia". 

I also have that Christopher L. Bennett Star Trek novel, but, have to find it first. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Why Choose the Episcopal Church

Why Choose the Episcopal Church?
© 1976, 1984, John M. Krumm
184 pages

Though I am not religious, lately I have been attending services at the local Episcopal church, delighting in both the music and the company I find there (for I am familiar with more than a few of the parishioners). Last week the rector kindly lent me this book to aide in my research, for I know little about the Episcopal church or its Anglican origin, beyond the Church of England's role in English history. John M. Krumm was ordained as a Bishop in the Episcopal church, and wrote this to explain what drew him to it in the first place, and what has kept him loyal to it all these years even though it and he have differences of opinion in some areas.

The opening chapters is biographical, but Krumm devotes the bulk of the work to explaining various aspects of the Episcopalian church and the Anglican Communion in general. For those utterly unfamiliar, Henry VIII separated the Christian church in England from the rule of Rome in 1533, though his Church of England remained Catholic in everything but ultimate leadership -- placing himself, rather than Italian prince living in Rome, at the head. Later monarchs instituted reforms and counter-reforms that made the Anglican church a fascinating mixture of Catholicism and new Protestant thinking. At the start of the American Revolution, when Anglican leaders in the colonies were ordered to swear fealty to the king, they declined -- establishing the Episcopal (or bishop-led) Church of America.

The Anglican-Episcopal church's mixed heritage shows in Why Choose the Episcopal Church, for it seems to be a church which has maintained all the glorious pomp and ritual of Rome, but restrained its theology to the essentials of belief in the Trinity, the view of God as love, and the importance of baptism and Communion. It seems to me to be the most attractive mainline Christian organization in existence, upholding reason as a pillar and stressing democracy in leadership. At the same time, it maintains historic traditions (worship and dress) which are of interest to a history student like myself.  Krumm also devotes chapters to the attractions of liturgical worship,  as well as the Episcopal stress on ecumenism and social justice. Though Krumm's style is generally pleasing,  he switched back and forth between discussing Anglicanism in general and the Episcopal church specifically so often and so seamlessly that I'm still unsure as to where some distinctions lie between the two: is the Anglican church as democratic as the Episcopal church? This I don't know, but given that the American branch of Anglicanism was formed during the American Revolution, and that some of the founding fathers were members of it, it seems that the Episcopal church probably has more democratic influences than the English church.

I would say this is less a sweeping introduction to Anglicanism and more of a testimonial which may remind Episcopalians of their faith's merits or make it all the more attractive to someone considering the church. Krumm earns high marks for me in expressing his grievances with the church, none of which are trivial.  This gives the text a bit more objectivity than I had expected.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Rodrick Rules

Diary of a Wimpy Kid #2: Rodrick Rules
© 2008 Jeff Kinney
224 pages

Greg Heffely is just a kid whose parents make him keep a journal. It's a good thing, though, for at least it gives him something to confide in. His parents are oblivious to the cares of a middle-schooler, his best friend Rowley is kind of a dork,  his young brother Manny just absorbs information to tattle-tell later, and his older brother Rodrick is as big a bullying brother as they come.  He has a lot to tell,  too -- like the prank he played on a friend who moved away and then returned, the time Rodrick locked him in the basement and then threw an illicit high school party (with girls),  and the unfortunate decision to invite his mom to watch him play a Dungeons and Dragons clone.. The book uses a font which mimics handwriting (much like the California Diaries series), and the text is illustrated by crude characters (drawn by Greg) to portray his side of the story. Greg isn't always a sympathetic protagonist, but many of the stories within had me roaring.

(I kid-sat my nephew today and read this while he played some wrestling game after our return from the park. :-p)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

WWW Wednesdays (20 July)

WWW Wednesdays is a weekly quiz-thing hosted by ShouldBeReading. I'm out of town and offline from early Monday morning to late Tuesday evening, so I haven't been able to do Teaser Tuesday or Top Ten Tuesdays as of late.

What are you currently reading?
Entirely too many books. I was almost done with The Third Chimpanzee before it vanished somewhere, and then I started reading Seven Ages of Paris for Bastille Day last week. However, on Sunday,  someone lent me Why Choose the Episcopal Church (John M. Krumm) which has my current 'devotion'.  Annnnnd there's a Star Trek novel I'm half-done with, Christopher L. Bennett's Department of Temporal Investigation: Watching the Clock.

What did you recently finish reading?
Nothing, alas. The past two weeks have been great for starting books but terrible for finishing them.

What do you think you will read next?
I think I'll finish off Krumm tomorrow (it's rather short), then return to Seven Ages of Paris and perhaps my Star Trek novel.  Right now I'm reading about the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Friday, July 15, 2011

An Altar in the World

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
© 2009 Barbara Brown Taylor
240 pages

Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest who no longer pastors a church; for although she still finds enriching experiences inside the walls of her parish and its creeds and rituals, her journey has led her to look for ultimate meaning in the living of life itself.  Although she incorporates a great deal of religious language (God, blessings) into Altar, the central theme of mindfulness is one accessible to anyone -- and an antidote to the constant busyness and distractions of today. She finds the sacred in the ordinary -- meaning in simple, universal experiences like labor, walking, and even getting lost. Readers with an interest in Buddhism will notice that Taylor seems to be walking the eight-fold path, particularly in the sections on vocation and labor. I found An Altar in the World a beautiful work and an instant favorite. It should be of great interest to those with interests in simple living, mindfulness, and  inspiration drawn from life instead of old books and extinct civilizations.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Robots and Empire

Robots and Empire
© 1985 Isaac Asimov
383 pages

In Isaac Asimov's robots novels, Earth is home to some eight billion people living in vast underground complexes known as Cities or "caves of steel". In his Empire novels, those billions have vanished: large patches of land are radioactive, and the few who remain hold on bitterly to memories of Earth's past glory.  How did Earth fall from being the heart of humanity to passing out of memory entirely in the Foundation series? Its decline, and the rise of the Galactic Empire, begin in Robots and Empire -- a fantastic novel which uses a plot of political mystery to seamlessly knit together Asimov's series.

Two hundred years have passed since famed Earth detective Elijah Baley died, but his legacy is strong and growing. Baley helped the people of Earth to look again to space, to build civilizations away from the tired old Earth from which they sprang.  Humans had looked outward before, settling some fifty planets, but the people there used robot labor to create lives of leisure for themselves. They ceased to grow, to expand -- and they regarded their less-advanced Earth ancestors with disdain.  It was their power and Earth's fear of change that Baley defeated with the help of others, but now both Baley and his allies are dead.  There are those among the "Spacers" who do not want to see Earth expand again...and they will strike at the planet itself if that is what it takes. They work their plans in secret, but Baley's old partner R. Daneel Olivaw is determined to thwart their plans.

Robots and Empire functions as both an SF political thriller and a  bridge between Asimov's series. He's written other books to serve the same function, and together they tell a story which lasts for thousands of years. Although there are still some loose threads (What happened to the Cities during the Empire novels?), Robots and Empire reveals how Earth decayed and why robots (present in Robots, absent in both the original Empire and Foundation novels)  fell from use. His central character here, and consequently the Robots-Empire-Foundation meta series, is the robot Daneel Olivaw, who is driven by a vision from his friend and partner Elijah Baley that will see its final fruit in the last Foundation books. Still, Robots and Empire is more solidly a Robots novel, featuring Elijah Baley (in flashbacks) and his other associates, the Solarian woman Gladia and a telepathic robot named Giskard, who has his own role to play. It reminds me much of Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, both in style and in the measure that I enjoyed it.

This is an obvious recommendation to anyone who has enjoyed Asimov's various series. While having read the rest of the books isn't a requirement, catching the multitude of little references added to my appreciation. I would suggest reading the Robots novels (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn) first, since the relationship, history, and culture differences between Earth and the Spacer worlds provide the central conflict here. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

This Week at the Library (8 July)

Between the Fourth of July and hospitalized relatives, this has been a poor week for reading. I typically read and review a book around the Fourth about the American Revolution: this year's read was and still is The First Salute, which focuses on European politics during the war. Various continental states found the idea of curbing Britain's growing power attractive, among them France and Holland. I'm interested in Dutch history, particularly of the Dutch republic's days as a commercially powerful  entity which contributed mightily to science and the growth of knowledge, so Tuchman's partial history of Holland here has been a treat.  I'm almost done with The Third Chimpanzee and would be so if I hadn't misplaced it. In the meantime, I've been reading Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov for leisure.

While I still have two pending science reads (Radiation and Modern Life; Creations of Fire: the History of Chemistry), I'll have to return to them next week or the week after, as next week marks Bastille Day and as such I'll be doing some France-themed reading. I'm expecting Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne in the mail over the weekend, and if it's anything like La Belle France I don't imagine I'll have problems getting into it before the 14th. I may also pick up The Three Musketeers by Dumas at the library, though given that I also want to pick up Altar in the World: The Geography of Faith by a retired Episcopalian priest and a book on human spaceflight in commemoration of the last shuttle launch earlier today, I may be preparing too full a plate.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Top Ten Rebels, Revolutionists, and Iconoclasts

Top Ten Rebels in Literature

1. Ernest Everhard (The Iron Heel, Jack London)

With a name like that, he's either a hero from a more innocent time, or a star in a certain branch of the film industry. Everhard is leading a revolution against a proto-fascist state, the result of corporate takeover, but he's not just an angry man with a gun. He's an angry intellectual with a gun, and The Iron Heel is a fantastic Marxist critique of society.

2. Uhtred of Bebbanberg, (the Saxon Stories, Bernard Cornwell.
Uhtred of Bebbanberg is a man torn between two worlds -- Anglo-Saxon by birth and Viking by sympathies. Kidnapped from his family's estate by the Vikings who razed it, Uhtred delights in the Norse's unapologetic rivalry and despises the pious misery of the Anglo-Saxons. Service to the English king (Alfred the Great) is his only path to reclaming those family lands, however, and so he exists as a man truly loyal to no one but himself.  Given the treachery to be found on either side, that's probably the best thing to do.

3. Alexander Til (The Revolutionist, Robert Littel)

Xander Til was just a boy when his parents and he emigrated from Russia, but now as a passionate young man he's on his way home. America is not the promised land for Til and his neighbors, and back at home the people are rising in fury against the Tsarist government. Til becomes a leading Bolshevik, but quickly realizes the drivers of this revolution are just as corrupt as the men they fight against.

4. Jefferson Davis Bussey (Rifles for Watie, Harold Keith)
Jefferson Davis Bussey is, contrary to his name, a Union man. His family is sternly anti-slavery, and he lies to the recruiting office in order to don the Union blue and fight against  the wretched men who want to bring slavery to Kansas. When a scouting mission goes awry and Bussey  is forced to pose as a Confederate soldier to save his life, he learns that the men who fight for the legendary general Stand Watie are fighting not to expand slavery, but to establish their own nation -- for Watie is a Cherokee.

5. Sirius Black (The Prisoner of Azkaban, Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix; J.K. Rowling)

Raised to be a hateful aristocrat, Black rejected his family in favor of hanging out with his half-blood friends, one of whom was a werewolf. He remains one of the series' favorite characters as a foster parent to young Harry.

6.Charles Croker (A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe)

Charlie Croker turned his back on a life of wealth and influence to become a Stoic evangelist, which is odd enough that I think I'll just leave it there.

7. Michael Brock, The Street Lawyer. John Grisham

Michael Brock is your standard overworked, overpaid, unhappy lawyer until a homeless man takes him hostage. After the man is shot by a police sniper and leaves portions of his brain on Brock's new coat, he's bothered to the point that he begins serving the needs of the poor and homeless as a lawyer working for a nonprofit. In short time he loses his wife, but gains a lot more.

8. Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of, Mark Twain)
"All right, then. I'll go to Hell," Finn says after being forced to choose between doing the human thing (being loyal to his friend) and the social/culturally-accepted thing of turning his friend Jim in as an escaped slave.

9. Richard Sharpe (Sharpe's Series, Bernard Cornwell)
I almost feel like I'm cheating because I've used one of Cornwell's figures before. but Sharpe is a lovable loose-cannon character who remains a soldier because he's good at it -- not because he thinks King George deserves his service. Indeed, he's liked many of his enemies more than his bosses.

But I just had to include him because he's Richard Sharpe

10. Scout Finch, (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

Looking back on this list I realize I read far too few books with female heroes, but I'm happy to include Scout. Despite being raised in a culture that encourages subordination and meekness among its women, Scout is marvelously pugnacious and self-willed. She's a real credit to her father.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sharpe's Prey

Sharpe's Prey: Denmark 1807
© 2001 Bernard Cornwell
288 pages

Richard Sharpe has fallen from grace -- or rather, the Lady Grace, his love, has fallen from him, perished in childbirth along with his child.  His Indian fortune has been legally stolen from him by Grace's family, and now Sharpe is heartbroken and penniless. After settling a childhood score and running for his life, Sharpe is saved from further ruin when an old friend asks him to escort an admiral's aide to Denmark on a mission of utmost importance. Sharpe -- professional rogue -- has become a spy, intent on convincing the Crown Prince of Denmark to send his ships to Britain for safekeeping against the threat of Napoleon. When the mission is destroyed through treason and Sharpe stranded in Denmark to fend for himself, he's forced to choose between love for an innocent woman and her country, and his duty to Britain -- for since Sharpe's mission to secure the Danish fleet has failed, the British navy must destroy it least it be seized by Napoleon 

Sharpe's Prey is almost a complete departure from Cornwell's usual fare, turning his hero into a spy far removed from the battlefield.  Weakened by his recent losses, Sharpe still has to command his usual strength and wiliness to survive the debacle he's been thrown into.  I enjoyed the novel's Danish setting, centered in the exquisitely beautiful city of Copenhagen. Since the novel is a prequel to the core of the Sharpe series -- the fighting in Europe against Napoleon -- I knew Sharpe wouldn't truly decide to stay in Denmark and seek  a quiet life, but watching him almost yearn for peace after all of his battles, victories, and losses, makes him a more sympathetic character. The villain is an odd duck: I wasn't sure if he was a devious, sociopathic creep or just affably self-centered. Prey is an excellent spy adventure which leads right into Sharpe's Rifles, where poor Sharpe is still a miserable quartermaster...the fate he tried to escape earlier on in Prey. 

I think Sharpe's Prey shall rank among my favorite in the series.

Sharpe's Trafalgar

Sharpe's Trafalgar: Spain 1805
© 2001 Bernard Cornwell
301 pages

Richard Sharpe did well for himself in India, rising in the ranks from private to Ensign,  as well as finding love and fortune. But while Sharpe has been helping Britain grow powerful in India, an ambitious man named Napoleon has turned France from a nation divided by civil war into a power which dictates the fortunes of all of Europe. Only Britain's small navy stands between it and invasion by the new French Empire's grand fleet. When Ensign Sharpe sails home to Britain, he's caught between an epic naval confrontation  and thrown into the furore of one of the Napoleonic War's most decisive battles: Trafalgar

Bernard Cornwell notes in the novel's afterword that a soldier such as Sharpe has no business in a naval battle like Trafalgar, but it's not Sharpe's fault that his ship was seized by a French privateer en route to join France's fleet. Aside from a little derring-do on shore, where Sharpe brings a dead man to life and makes a steadfast friend in an English naval captain, Trafalgar takes almost entirely aboard ship -- making Trafalgar a case of "Richard Sharpe meets Horatio Hornblower". Instead of focusing on naval maneuvers, however, Cornwell uses Sharpe   to tell the story of the Marines, who, given Britain's preference for close combat, and Admiral Lord Nelson's desire to capture the enemy fleet -- have an important part to play. The battle itself is the climax of a plot rich in mystery and treason, where Sharpe's fortune and future are placed in jeopardy.

Trafalgar is yet another strong title in Sharpe's Series, one which offers a refreshing change from land battles and gives our hero a new ally, one who I was glad to see return in Sharpe's Prey.