The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank

As is well known, Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl, hid for years in the back of a house in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. She later died in a concentration camp. This is her diary. A frightening work in many ways, but also a monument to innocence in a terrifying world. I suppose the historical significance of the work makes it an important read, but frankly I didn’t find it that interesting.

The Hornblower Series – C.S. Forester

Set during the peak of the Age of Sail in the Napoleonic era, the books detail the exploits of Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman to Admiral. Full of action and adventure, they manage to include shiphandling minutiae without bogging down the story. Page turners for young and old alike. I would recommend starting with Beat to Quarters (AKA The Happy Return) since the earlier books by internal chronology (yet written later) tend to be of a slightly lesser quality.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower – This short story collection covers the early career of our young hero, from his first onboard ship experience to his two and a half years of captivity in Spain. By the end, Hornblower is promoted to Lieutenant. Even though it is a short story collection, it flows quite nicely and is more of an episodic novel.

 

Lieutenant Hornblower – The still very young Hornblower has to deal with a tyrannous and insane Captain. He then distinguishes himself by helping in the destruction of a Spanish fortress and taking prizes.

 

Hornblower and the ‘Hotspur’ – Although the action is fast and furious, this one is a mite tedious. Hornblower spends a couple of years on blockade duty off the coast of France. This sort of duty was demanding and harsh, but also monotonous and performed in cold, dreary weather for much of the year.

 

Hornblower during the Crisis – The chronologically fourth novel is unfinished due to Forester’s death. Nothing much happens since only the first 100 pages or so are written. Hornblower is about to become a spy. Also included are a two short stories, the latter showing our hero in old age.

 

Hornblower and the ‘Atropos’ – This one is very episodic in a singularly annoying way. Apart from the one ship commanded throughout, there is no single thread to pull the reader along. Disappointing.

 

Beat to Quarters (known as The Happy Return in the UK edition) – The first novel to be written, this one is a masterpiece of plotting and action. Hornblower, in command of the frigate Lydia, heads to the Pacific coast of Central America in order to make life difficult for the Spanish colonies there. He also has his first encounter with Lady Barbara. The sailing and combat action is excellent, but one should not forget the evolution of the relationship with Lady Barbara. In the beginning, Hornblower strongly dislikes her, but in the end he loves her. And we see the process every step of the way.

 

Ship of the Line – Hornblower takes command of the two-decker Sutherland. He carries out five daring raids against the French, but ends up a prisoner after defeat against overwhelming odds. This one ends in a cliffhanger of sorts as our hero is imprisoned in French oppupied Catalonia. Great action, perhaps even better than in Beat to Quarters.

 

Flying Colours – This picks up immediately where Ship of the Line left off. Hornblower is on his way to Paris to be tried for purported war crimes. Napoleon is trying to score some propaganda points. However he manages to escape and makes his way back to England, where he finds a hero’s welcome. This one is quite introspective in some sections, with Hornblower’s cynicism and doubts coming to the fore. He hates himself in certain ways, not daring to realize how much he means to people. He is afraid of failure despite great success. And finally he cynically realizes how the British use him for propaganda as much as the French meant to. At the end of the book, we find Hornblower widowed with a young son. But Lady Barbara is also widowed. Opportunity awaits, perhaps.

Commodore Hornblower – Our hero is now married to Barbara, and in the landed gentry. He is sent on a mission to the Baltic to ensure that the Swedes and the Russians don’t join the war on the side of Napoleon. Action as usual but not a whole lot of character development.

 

Lord Hornblower – The action moves to the English Channel as the Napoleonic era draws to a close and the French mainland can now be invaded (ahem… liberated). The last part is pretty boring as Hornblower, together with his friends from Flying Colours, fights a guerrilla action against the new Napoleonic regime during the “hundred days” following the Emperor’s escape from Elba.

Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies – A short story collection in all but name. While mildly entertaining, Forester is basically treading water here. A disappointing ending after such great novels as Beat to Quarters and Ship of the Line.

1634: The Galileo Affair – Eric Flint & Andrew Dennis

The first of many sequels to 1632 and 1633, this book focuses more on the theological-political impact of the Ring of Fire. The newly formed United States of Europe sends a delegation to Venice. This leads, more or less on purpose, to links with the Vatican and involvement in the trial of Galileo. It is a decent read reading, but there is much less action than in 1632 and 1633.  Overall, this book is nowhere near as much fun as the first two.

 

Grantville Gazette II – Eric Flint (Editor)

This is the dead tree edition of the second volume filled with “user generated content” in the Assiti Shards Universe. It continues Flint’s experiment with not only opening his universe, but letting other writers actually add to the stories and developing landscape in a major way. Flint does not set strict guidelines, allowing other writers to take his own creation in totally unexpected directions.

The book is a mixed bag. Some of the stories are cute, some are more serious. The novelette about setting up a medical school that fills a large part of the compilation is engaging but fails to pull out all the stops and ends up rather flat. The non-fiction is mostly interesting. None of the content is bad but there isn’t really anything that stands out as particularly good either. It’s interesting if you’re into the other books, but cannot be read as a standalone.

The Serpentwar Saga – Raymond E. Feist

Another epic tale from Feist, but this one falls far short of the mark. The characters are not as interesting as in previous novels, and the story does not feel nearly as epic as the Riftwar Saga. The antagonist is too simple and stylized. Feists style seems to have suffered. Having said that, if you loved Riftwar, you will probably enjoy this series as well. The series consists of:

  • Shadow of a Dark Queen
  • Rise of a Merchant Prince
  • Rage of a Demon King
  • Shards of a Broken Crown

 

 

 

 

 

Orbiter – Warren Ellis & Colleen Doran

In the beginning of this graphic novel, Kennedy Space Center is shown as a vast squatter camp. Suddenly, the Venture Space Shuttle appears and lands. Apparently, manned spaceflight was abandoned when the Venture disappeared ten years previously.

The Inheritance Trilogy – Ian Douglas

These are sequels to the exciting Heritage and Legacy trilogies. As before, the focus is on the Marine Corps and its role in imagined future conflict. Note: Ian Douglas is a pen name for William H. Keith.

Star Strike

This is the first book in the third trilogy about US Marines. The story jumps ahead about half a millenium. The Xul still threaten humankind, but have been quiescent since the events of Star Marines. As per usual, the Marines are hindered by a misguided politician, then proceed to save the day and win a great victory. There is the usual boot camp training sequence with a new scion of the Garroway line.

While the plots are becoming somewhat formulaic, these novels are still of high quality. The action is gritty, the story is epic, and the books are real page turners. I was afraid that all the “future tech” would somehow make the story less relatable, but this is not so. Douglas manages to explain well how technologies like AIs, direct mind link to computers and virtual spaces change the way humans interact. He also infuses the book with a sense of history, and understands that political entities and priorities can shift dramatically over time.

Galactic Corps

The second book of the trilogy picks up the story about a decade after Star Strike. Once again, there is an annoying politician. The Marines now attempt a blow at the very heartland of the Xul, in the radiation saturated galactic core.

While the first half follows the usual formula, the second half, with operations in the core, is truly excellent. Very exciting and with many elements from “sense of wonder” stories like Ringworld and Rendevous with Rama. These are areas that military Scifi doesn’t usually touch upon but could and should more often. A very strong middle book and another page turner.

Semper Human

After a thousand year “break” in the macrostory, the Marines are back. Revived from a centuries long hibernation (de facto a kind of reserve status), they wake to a radically different galactic society, with a plethora of alien races, as well as new offshoots of the human race. The reason for their awakening is that the Xul seem to be altering reality by subtly influencing human minds through the spooky effects of quantum physics.

After the breakneck action of the previous two books, this one feels very slow to start. A lot of time is spent discussing the changes to galactic society of the past centuries. The usual “Marines are anachronisms” message, only more so, and to excess. Once battle is joined, so to speak, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as visceral as previously. The characters are dull and lack the compelling qualities of those in earlier installments. Douglas redeems himself a bit at the end with some excellent historical vignettes, but it is not enough. Unfortunately, the book becomes one long treatise about why Marines have always pulled mankind’s (and in this case Galactic Society as whole’s) chestnuts out of the fire. While I understand and even agree with the message, it is far too heavy handed. So this ninth, and possibly last, book of the saga unfortunately ends it with a sizzle where there should have been a bang. A big, big bang.

The Terminal Man – Michael Crichton

The table of contents reveals the traditional Chrichtonian day-by-day format, with the story laid out over four days. The plot is about a man who is implanted with a device that gives pleasure in order to control violent seizures. The man goes on a murderous rampage as he learns to control the pleasurable impulses.

It’s typical Crichton. Briefly entertaining. I find it a lot of fun to read about the technologies, even dated as they are. Crichton is heavily into using very contemporary gadgets and looking into their philosophical implications. So while his novels date fast, they provide an interesting insight into what concerned people at the time of writing.

Red Rabbit – Tom Clancy

A somewhat enjoyable story of a young Jack Ryan, also featuring the Foleys during their time in Moscow. Not nearly as “big” a story as most of Clancy’s novels. It seems a bit “Clancy by numbers”; in other words what you’d expect him to write with regards to subject matter and type of story, but without any of the great qualities of his earlier works. Despite its flaws, I nonetheless liked this tale of a defection from the Soviet Union. Still, Clancy has shown many times that he can do better than this.

 

The Lost Fleet: Courageous – Jack Campbell

By this, the third book in the Lost Fleet, the series is losing steam. What’s worse, it’s losing the plot. While the battles are still very nicely done, the backstory is wearing quite thin. Nothing much happens to move the plot forward. The fleet continues to struggle on in its quest to reach alliance space. Captain Geary continues to struggle on his quest to retain command in the face of insubordinate subordinates. Geary continues struggle to figure out his relationship with Senator Rione. Nothing new to see here. Move along. I was happy with the second book being a middle book, but at some point something radical or conclusive will have to happen. I was so fed up after Courageous I may not care enough to read the next installment.

Note that Jack Campbell is a pen name for John G. Hemry.

 

Zero History – William Gibson

This is the last book in the Bigend Trilogy, and thus sequel to Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. While I loved the former and thought the latter was pretty good, I found Zero History to be a total yawner. We follow once again the odd adventures of Hollis Mason and Milgrim as they chase down obscure pop culture details for Hubertus Bigend.

It’s all very cool and trendy, with the excellent cutting edge prose that is Gibson’s trademark.  Unfortunately it is also very soulless and uninteresting. Taken individually, the scenes in this book are splendid. Elaborately crafted little vignettes, meticulously describing a setting and the actors inside it. As a narrative, I felt it didn’t seem to go anywhere. This is the first Gibson book I have actively disliked. I gave up about halfway through since I honestly couldn’t work up the least motivation to pick the book up again.

Children of Apollo – Mark R. Whittington

In this alternate history novel, a CIA analyst figures out that by 1969, the space program is having a small but noticeable negative effect on he Soviet economy. Nixon, who never has to resign, decides to massively expand the space program. As the years pass, we follow spies, politicians and astronauts in the years following the first moon landing. While there certainly is a lot of wishful thinking in the plot, with Apollo missions continuing to 23, with private space stations and space shuttles in the seventies, it has a solid foundation. If NASA funding had remained at Apollo levels or increased, we might well have seen all those things.

This book, for me, represents the best and worst about self publishing. The best because sometimes good books simply are not picked up by publishing houses, and this one deserved to be published. The worst because a commercial publisher would have cleaned up the prose and made this book really shine.

The plot is really good. Well crafted. Exciting. Good pacing. But the text is rife with spelling and grammatical errors. I didn’t count them but I estimate more than one per page on average. Even a mediocre copy editor could have fixed 99% of the problems with the text. Now, if this book had been crappy in general, I wouldn’t have cared. But it is actually a great story. Thus, my frustration stems from the fact that a very good book is dragged down by easily fixable stuff, most of which a word processor would have picked up. That’s just plain sloppy.

Some examples of what I mean: Berkeley is incorrectly spelled “Berkly”. Camaro is spelled “Camero”. Taut is spelled “taunt”. Aide is spelled “Aid”. Applause is spelled “applauds”. Champagne is spelled “champaign”. Asti Spumante is spelled “Asti Spurmanti”. Las Cruces is spelled “Las Cruzus”. Alan Shepard (the astronaut) is spelled “Alan Shepherd”. To add insult to injury, the author does actually spell that name correctly once. Baikonour is spelled in three ways in the book, all incorrect. Grammar errors include phrases like “going to fight for if-no when-you send me to Congress.” Stylistically, there are gems like “They looked at each other in for a moment, sharing the awful truth they had just shared.”

Then we have the technical errors. I will grant that the author is not an aerospace expert but since the book is about the space program one would think he could get the basics right. Finding a pilot to answer a few questions would have greatly improved the test flight passages. Certainly no pilot would ever “jerk the joystick”. There’s no jerking involved. In fact no pilot would EVER call it a “joystick”. It’s just a stick. ARGH!

Finally, we have the politics. Whittington makes Democrats/liberals out to be misguided and short sighted while Republicans lead America to a brighter future. Even though I might not completely agree, I have no problem with the sentiment being expressed. However, it is all so heavy-handed that it weighs down the plot.

In conclusion. I would say that Mr. Whittington has some real talent. What he needs is a real editor to review the text before publication. Without the errors and with a few style adjustments, this one could have scored four or more Rosbochs.

Abandon in Place – Jerry Oltion

In this short story, ghost rockets, seemingly identical to the Saturn V Moon rockets, begin launching from Cape Canaveral soon after Neil Armstrong’s death. One astronaut is chosen to board one of the rockets before it launches.

Cute little love story declaration for the Apollo program, but really nothing special.

Noble House – James Clavell

The sequel to Tai Pan is set in the early 1960s, a time when Hong Kong had come into its own as an economic powerhouse with liberal laws allowing huge fortunes to be made and lost. The story focuses around Struan’s, the company founded by Dirk Struan from Tai Pan. The company is in trouble from several fronts, and both inter-company and political intrigue play a part.

Struan’s is rather obviously based on real life company Jardine Matheson, still one of the most important corporations in Hong Kong. while Tai pan was exciting and had a great setting, Noble House reminded me too much of one of the 1980s soaps Dallas and Falcon Crest. Ruthless, scheming rich people bickering and fighting. I read about a quarter of it but became terribly bored and gave up. Despite the really interesting snapshot of Hong Kong life in the 1960s, on the cusp of modernity, I couldn’t make myself care about the plot or the characters.

Deception Point – Dan Brown

NASA discovers a meteorite in the Arctic ice pack. It holds a wondrous discovery. But does it? Rachel Sexton, daughter of a the presidential challenger, is caught up in a web of conspiracies while she races to find the truth.

Did the last paragraph sound like the blurb for an over the top action novel? That’s because this one is. Dan Brown is fine at creating intricate plots full of action and suspense. This time, however, he went way too far. So much stuff is just “too much”. He has an annoying tendency to get people out of sticky situations with deux ex machina. The right tool or idea for the job seems to pop out of thin air just as it is needed.

I dislike it when authors state in an introduction that all the technologies described already exist, then write military technicalities in completely inaccurate ways. Case in point: The Delta Force operatives int he book are painted as inhuman robots who never talk about a mission after they have performed it. Really? No after action reviews? That seems absurd. There are plenty of other examples where the tech just seems a bit too “neat”.

Part of the central premise of the story itself, that if NASA were disbanded and lost its monopoly private contractors could undercut by factors of two or three, seems quite implausible to me. If nothing else, NASA only has a monopoly in the USA. If NASA is so protected by legalities, why aren’t space companies simply shipping their operations abroad? In conclusion the book is a semi-decent diversion but not much more.