The Stand – Stephen King

A disease wipes out most of mankind. The survivors must deal with a post-apocalyptic world in which evil is brewing.

I read the “Complete and Uncut” edition, which is a “Director’s Cut” of sorts. When “The Stand” was first published, King’s publishers figured a hardcover in the full length would be too costly to produce, meaning a retail price that would make it unsellable. Ten years later, in 1990, King was a much bigger name, and so he restored the cut parts and the book was rereleased in this form. The story itself is pretty decent but King takes way too long to get to any sort of point. It just drags and drags. Get on with it already. I just couldn’t motivate myself to continue past the first half or so.

It – Stephen King

This rather complex novel is split between two time periods and the story of a monster that terrorizes a small New England town. The gang of kids that thwarted it when they were pre-teens have to come back as adults to finish the job. Chilling throughout, with a great evil monster. Read this book in daylight.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire I) – George R.R. Martin

This fantasy novel is the first book of a projected seven in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, and a long one in its own right. It follows the byzantine machinations of the lords of the “Seven Kingdoms” and related realms. The main action is in three parts. At The Wall (capital T, capital W), the largest structure ever built and the line of defense manned by the Nights’s Watch against the wild lands to the far north. In the capital of King’s Landing and in threads branching out from that location. Finally, on the plains of the lands beyond the Narrow Sea, where the scion of an overthrown king finds her path among the Dothraki horselords.

The setting is fantasy with swords, castles and fair maidens. But this is not fantasy with elves and dwarves and halflings and all those other tropes. The world is firmly human. While supernatural events do occur, they are not the main thrust of the story. The world is gritty and uncaring, without the majesty often found in this genre. There is incest, murder, torture, sex, prostitution and adultery, even more so than in the real world. Noble lords are not so noble and double standards are the norm. Personally I found the whole thing very refreshing as I’m not a huge fan of typical fantasy fare. An interesting and important wrinkle is the fact that seasons are not regular. Summers and winters can last for years. The novel is set late in a long summer as “winter is coming”. This adds a sense of impending doom to the proceedings.

The plot is very complex, especially if you include the rich history that serves as a backdrop. Many of the main characters participated in the rebellion that overthrew the old king, with effects of those events still lingering.

To clarify things, Martin very cleverly uses multiple point of view characters to tell the story, with each chapter taking up the thread seen from that character’s eyes. All the chapters are in the third person but the only what the viewpoint character experiences is related. While a great lord like Eddard Stark sees the world through an honorable warrior’s eyes, his daughter Sansa sees it as an ingenue. Aided by this device and the excellent characterizations, I was never confused about the main characters or what their relationships were.

Needless to say, while there is some conclusion at the end of the novel, the story is left very much unfinished.

Note: A Song of Ice and Fire has been made into a TV series entitled “Game of Thrones“.

Pet Sematary – Stephen King

This one scared me. Really scared me. King mixes personal tragedy with plain supernatural scariness in a chilling blend. This novel also illustrates very well how King can write on many levels, and his fantastic mixing of themes.

The Dead Zone – Stephen King

A young man is in a coma after a car accident. When he wakes up after several years, he starts having worrying visions of the future. A presidential candidate will, after becoming president, start a nuclear war. Very exciting, and well written.

Firestarter – Stephen King

Firestarter is an early King novel, and much “simpler” than his later work. The heroine is pyrokinetic. In other words, she can start fires. BIG FIRES. The government tries to harness her abilities, until everything inevitably goes terribly wrong. An uncomplicated but gripping page-turner.

Carrie – Stephen King

King’ first published novel. A loner girl with psycho mother has psychic powers. Girl starts to come out of her shell. Girl is publicly humiliated. Girl goes on a rampage. In other words, great stuff. Also much less convoluted and wordy that King’s later stuff.

Resurrection – Katharine Kerr

This one is thankfully short. A novelette of just over a hundred pages in large-ish print. Even so I kept thinking that someone like Niven could have told the same story in less than thirty pages. Our hero has been “resurrected” after a plane crash incurred in combat. Her brain is still recovering from the injuries and she is having a hard time telling the truth from hallucination. Or is she?

I was quite dissapointed with this. So much interesting stuff to work with, such as the multiple realities, the Devil and the Rabbi, the process of medical resurrection itself. But it’s all quite bland really. Our protagonist Tiffany wanders about a predictable and very poor San Francisco in a confused daze. Her boyfriend is bland. Her family is bland. The Devil and the Rabbi are kind of interesting but not enough to redeem the story. If it had been any longer, I would not have finished it.

Lost Japan – Alex Kerr

In preparation for a vacation to Japan, my mother gave me this one to read. Its main themes are about the loss of important Japanese cultural traditions and the uglification of both the body and the soul of Japan. The author is an art collector, calligrapher, Japanologist and long time resident of the country. Kerr decries modern Japan as filling with concrete, electricity poles, neon pachinko parlors and ugly rooflines while her inhabitants have become conformist, dull and unimaginative.

I found the book quite interesting in parts. His stories of finding and buying an old house in a secluded valley, of the inner workings of kabuki theatre, of unappreciated artworks and of the history of tea ceremony and zen are everything from fascinating to merely eye opening. Unfortunately Kerr does give a strong impression of being the kind of luddite who wishes for all old things to be preserved. By the end of the book, I had somewhat amended this initial impression. I think he does appreciate the need for change, even encouraging it. But he does not understand why there should be change for its own sake if the change only leads to worse things. As an ideal, there is of course nothing wrong with that. But in reality, things don’t really work that way. Change happens and decades or even centuries later people figure out what the actual causes and effects were.

One particularly annoying thing about this book is the constant name dropping. All the people described in the book seem to be maverick geniuses in their fields and Kerr is a close personal friend of every single one. It comes off as not a little pompous. Kerr has certainly led an interesting life, and it is through his life experiences that he can describe his “lost Japan” so deftly. However, this reader felt a bit put off by the tone.

I was also left wondering why, among all this horror at the disappearing culture of Japan, he does not spare even a moment for one of Japan’s most vibrant forms of modern literature, manga/anime cartoons. This art form is lauded the world over. One could even draw parallels to the kabuki described by Kerr, with its emphasis on single moments of resolution as opposed to the narrative continuitiy more emphasized in the west.

The episodic nature of the book works against it. It was originally a series of articles, and the disjointed nature of the whole is unfortunately quite glaring. All in all, the book gave me an eye opening view of Japanese culture through anectodes and strong opinions. I may not necessarily agree with the author, but I suppose that is as it should be. The text should serve as a brief and good introduction to Japanese culture through the eyes of a foreigner who has made it his own.

The Dead Heart – Douglas Kennedy

This novelette length story is Douglas Kennedy’s debut. Just as in The Big Picture, the protagonist is a middle aged man stuck in a rut. However, this character is very different from succesful family man Ben Bradford in The Big Picture. Instead, he is a commitment phobic journalist who drifts through life, never holding down a job for more than a few years, never “doing” anything. One day, midlife crisis strikes hard and he flies to Australia. But not Sydney or Melbourne. Darwin. His plan is to buy a car and drive to Perth. A great adventure. On his way, he runs into a girl named Angie. After a few nights of drunken debauchery, she kidnaps him and takes him to a crazy commune in the desert. A place that it literally off the map. He is a prisoner in all but name in a nightmare of a town with nightmare inhabitants who think nothing of beating him to a pulp if he doesn’t show the right attitude.

Douglas Kennedy writes very well, but his angst filled middle aged men aren’t the thing to fill me with any great desire to pick up more of his books. They are a bit pathetic in that way most people are afraid they will turn out to be. The moral, of sorts, is to do something with your life before you end up a prisoner of that life. In the book, the protagonist is an actual physical prisoner, as opposed to the more commonplace metaphorical one, but the lesson holds true nevertheless. I did enjoy this book. It is rather short, but then it doesn’t need to be longer. Any extension would just be filler. It neatly says its piece and then is done. It is very funny at times, in a tragicomical fashion. Kennedy’s sense of irony is razor sharp. However, this humor is neatly balanced by the tragic situation our hero finds himself in. Sure, he’s a bit of a loser, but no one deserves what he goes through.

The Big Picture – Douglas Kennedy

Ben Bradford is your typical Wall Street lawyer. Wife, two kids, house in upscale soutwestern Connecticut suburbia, big paycheck. But he hates it. He wanted to become a photographer, but through a combination of societal inertia and parental pressure, he ended up “doing the right thing” and becoming a lawyer. He still maintains photography as a hobby. Now his wife is sleeping around and his marriage is obviously on the rocks. In a heated moment, he accidentally kills his wife’s lover, a loser amateur photographer. And that’s where it all changes. Ben manages to get away with the murder and escape his old life. But will his new life be any better? Can he ever stop running from his past? And on another note: Can a life with a yearly $300k+ paycheck feel like a prison? Of course it can.

When it came out in 1997, this novel was very heavily marketed and hyped. It is just the thing to appeal to careerists who have dreamed of being something else at some point. Meaning all of them. Dreaming of not being in the grinder, of making one’s own hours as an artist or something else, of not being just another suit on the commute. A very 90s feeling after the heady 80s. Stay small, be your own man, don’t waste your life like your parents. All that good stuff. And deeper than that are themes of how you cannot really escape your past. Ben is forced to and does the best of it, but his past will always haunt him. To the author’s credit, he has not painted Ben as some cold blooded killer. Our hero is constantly dogged with guilt about what he has done.

Is this novel the work of genius as was hyped at the time? That’s a tricky question. Kennedy definitely has a smooth, uncluttered style. Nothing fancy, but it serves the narrative well as he focuses on the inner demons of Ben Bradford. If you can look past some of the far too conveniently coincidental plot points, there’s a good story here. As I read, I came to empathize deeply with the destiny of Bradford. His search for that ephemeral thing called “a good life”. His escape from suburban conformism. Having lived for a few years in that corner of Connecticut, I may have a particular perspective. The inhabitants tend to know where they are going in life and deviation from the path is discouraged. Still, some things about the novel annoyed me. There are the aforementioned rather too convenient plot twists, perfectly designed to lead Ben on the “correct” path. After the murder, it all becomes a bit predictable. Where is the chaos so present in real life? There’s also the constant flirt with “art”. In the novel, Ben often describes really great photographers as being passive observers who have freed themselves from the need to obsessively prod at the composition hoping that it will become more artful. But Kennedy does exactly this with his novel. It crosses the line into constructed and pretentious. This detracts from the very good story and thematic exposition within. It is a bit too obvious that Kennedy set out to write “the great American Novel”. But he’s trying too hard, and it shows. Bottom line: recommended, but not unreservedly.

Diplomatic Act – Peter Jurasik & William H. Keith

The story is somewhat stereotypical. Aliens from an advanced federation have been secretly watching Earth. However, they don’t understand that fiction is fiction. They kidnap an actor who plays a great diplomat on a science fiction TV show since they think he can help them defuse a potential galactic war. Back on Earth, they replace him with an alien in disguise.

Peter Jurasik is more well known as the actor who played Londo Mollari on Babylon 5. William H. Keith is a prolific author who also writes Military SF under the pseudonym Ian Douglas. The novel is a cute piece, and frequently laugh out loud funny. The satire elements are dead on. The aliens are neither all powerful nor all knowing. In fact, they are prone to big errors of judgement. As such, the interaction with our hero, who is completely out of his element once abducted, works very well. It is obviously written for laughs, but there are some very clever twists to the story.

Valor’s Trial (Confederation IV) – Tanya Huff

The fourth Confederation novel has Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr being taken prisoner, and waking up in a very odd prison. Against insurmountable odds, she leads a band of Marines (and eventually others) towards escape.

This is the best one so far. Huff’s skill at describing the interpersonal relationships between the many varied characters shines throughout the novel. The dry humor and spot-on characterizations make this a pleasure to read. Also, despite the plot being cookie cutter on paper, it has many original and intriguing aspects. The macrostory is interesting in itself, but there is not much need to it. I would be happy reading about Torin’s adventures even without that sort of framing.

The Heart of Valor (Confederation III) – Tanya Huff

Torin Kerr is now a Gunnery Sergeant. She is assigned to babysit a Major who has recently recovered from very serious injuries, and who has arm bones made of experimental plastics. They travel to Crucible, the Marine Corps training planet, and embed with a training platoon going through their rotation. Things soon start to go wrong as the Crucible systems go out of control. In parallel, Torin’s now boyfriend, a salvage operator she met in The Better Part of Valor, investigates a possible alien infiltration of the Confederation.

This volume was a disappointment after the well crafted fun of the first two novels. The plot is very contrived. The alien invasion infiltration elements do not mesh well with the action parts. Other seemingly random elements are neither entertaining, not pertinent to plot advancement or character development. The “how cool are we Marines” dialogue, fun in the previous installments, has gone totally over the top. It grated on my nerves constantly. The novel’s saving grace are the action scenes, which are up to the high standard set by the first two novels, and the strongly fleshed out characters.

The Better Part of Valor (Confederation II) – Tanya Huff

The second book in the Confederation Series has recently promoted Gunnery Sergeant Kerr getting her “reward” for seeing through General Morris in the previous book. Along with a scratch team, she is sent to assist in the exploration of a vast alien ship of unknown origin. As they are stranded on board, the ship continually seems to change the environment in order to test the team.

This book is worth a read for the same reason as it’s predecessor. The characters are well rounded and well described. The dialogue and other interactions are both funny and believable. Most importantly, the story is a real page turner.

Note: This book is collected in the “A Confederation of Valor” omnibus.

Valor’s Choice (Confederation I) – Tanya Huff

Torin Kerr is a First Sergeant in the Confereration Marines. A century and a half previously, Earth was contacted by the alien Confereration. It seemed the Confederation was in a bit of a pickle. An enemy known as The Others was attacking Confederation worlds. But the alien civilizations in the Confederation were all basically pacifists. There was a need to recruit warlike races to wage war. Humans were the first of these races, and thus the military forces follow what is basically a human model. Since then, the di’Taykan and the Krai have also joined the military races. In this, the first of the novels, our hero is the senior NCO on a diplomatic mission aimed at securing the membership of a fourth military race. But something goes horribly wrong and her platoon is forced to make a heroic last stand with limited equipment and no support.

I didn’t need the afterword to tell me that the battle in the book was based on the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, one of the defining moments of the Anglo-Zulu War and immortalized in the classic film Zulu. One could not ask for a better framework on which to mount the story. Ms. Huff’s characters are funny, self-deprecating, enjoyable to read about. The dialogue is particularly stellar, and typically had me smile and snorting. The underlying theme of how the grunts must bear the attempts to kill them of not only the enemy, but also of the brass and the politicians is hardly orginal, but Ms. Huff treats this theme with razor sharp wit without diluting its importance and impact. Our heroine is hard as nails but disarmingly human, as evidenced by her accidental indiscretion on the very first page. A great read.

Note: This book is collected in the “A Confederation of Valor” omnibus.

High Fidelity – Nick Hornby

I love the movie based on this novel, so I figured I had to read the book eventually. Hornby has a great writing style, very self-deprecating and funny in the way of understated comedians. The book is much darker than I imagined, but is a very good illustration of how most men (as far as I know) think of their lives, at least when they are young. The insecurity, the “leaving your options open” bit, the belief that relationships can stay forever in that first few dates mode. Our hero, Rob Fleming, is a bit older that most guys who ask themselves this question, which only adds to his plight.

So if you are a guy who wants a girl to understand how men think, give her this book and ask her to believe every word. Because it’s all true.

Penny Arcade Volumes 1 and 2 – Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik

The web published comic strip Penny Arcade should be familiar to anyone who likes video games. These books collect the strips in paper format. Holkins and Krahulik have made a name for themselves as the guys with their fingers on the jugular of the industry. Sometimes bizarre, often profane, always funny. Highly recommended if you are or have been a gamer. Others may find it more than a bit odd.

Against All Enemies – John G. Hemry

The last installment in the JAG in Space series is not as strong as previous ones but does resolve some loose threads in Sinclair’s private life. Apparently he has been making enemies in all the court martials despite his stellar performance in all aspects of his service. And so his career and life doesn’t quite turn out the way he would have wanted.

The case in this book, dealing with espionage, is not as good as the others. The the focus is on Sinclair’s personal journey. Not bad, but I wish Hemry had ended the series on a stronger note. I also wish he had written more books.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

Rule of Evidence – John G. Hemry

The third book in the JAG in Space series continues in the same vein as the first two. Incident followed by court martial. This time, however, Paul Sinclair’s girlfriend Jen Shen is accused of conspiracy, sabotage and murder after a freak accident on board the U.S.S. Maury.

This is, in my opinion, the best of the series. Maybe that is because so much is on the line personally for Sinclair. Maybe it is because of the kafkaesque elements of the story as Shen is accused and looks to be on her way to life in prison or even execution. While in Burden of Proof, circumstancial evidence was used to chuck a bad officer out of the Navy, now it is being used to build a case against someone innocent. The ethical dilemmas posed make the books interesting, and this one especially so.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

Burden of Proof – John G. Hemry

The second installment in the JAG is Space series is structured much like its predecessor, A Just Determination. Paul Sinclair is now a Lieutenant JG, still serving on the U.S.S. Michaelson. A deadly accident in forward engineering isn’t investigated as it should. An officer attempts to cover up the truth. Sinclair is in the middle. To mix things up, his girlfriend Jen’s father is a Navy Captain. Major trial in the second half.

This story is a bit weaker than A Just Determination, but still quite good. If you liked the first book, you will undoubtedly like this one. Hemry does well in advancing Paul and Jen’s stories and the changes in their characters.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

A Just Determination – John G. Hemry

The first book in the “JAG in Space” series is a short and neat novel about a young ensign, an incident, and a court martial. Hemry delivers a page turner. Not the heaviest reading, to be sure, but there are depths between the lines. There is in fact quite a decent coming of age story between the covers.

I am always partial to books where I can identify with and feel sympathetic with the characters. Hemry is excellent at making the reader (well, this reader at least) identify with protagonist Paul Sinclair during his struggles on his first deployment. The other crew members of the U.S.S. Michaelson are a mix of good and bad, with wildly varied motivations, just like in real life. Overall, the characters feel well fleshed out, and Hemry is skilled at portraying both them and the action, entirely from young Sinclair’s perspective.

It could perhaps be argued that this novel’s setting is incidental, and that it would have worked just as well on the sea. That may be so, but that does not detract from its appeal. A fine read.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.