Monday, June 27, 2011

A few reviews from my weeks "staycation"

So, over last week I resolved to get a fair bit of reading done; and so I did, though not the 10-12 books I'd hoped.

A couple of the books I did read were throwaways, but I thought I would give a couple of thumbnail reviews of the more interesting, irritating, or significant choices.

First, to non-fiction:

"At Home: A brief history of private life" by Bill Bryson: Filled with Brysons normal humor, but perhaps a bit plodding at times. A lot of very interesting information, in great detail; but not as much narrative flair as Bryson usually displys. Still, a recommended read.

"Adapt: Why success always starts with failure" by Tim Harford: Among my favorite economist/authors (and surprisingly, there are a number of folks in this category) here Harford writes a broad but shallow treatment of exactly what it says on the tin. He takes a look at a number of conspicuous failures in the past, and how and why those involved did or did not manage to turn the experience into a success. Not as good as his earlier book "The Undercover Economist", and in some areas disappointingly shallow and repetitive; but again, still a recommended read.

"Primetime Propaganda" by Ben Shapiro:

Yaknow... I wanted to like this book. It's got lots of great information and informative and revelatory interviews, and I think it's an important book. I think you SHOULD read it.

But it's not a good book.

It's just badly written. It's repetitive, it lacks focus, it's far too long, it has no real coherent narrative structure (just as important in nonfiction as in fiction; but entirely different in class and style). It's amateurish. It veers from formal to informal language and style. There are multiple authorial voices here almost; and at times it's difficult to understand if the author is trying to relate conversationally, or to narrate, or if something is factual history, or narrative exposition etc...

I really do think you should read it, but at 400 some pages in hardcover (I read it on my phone and computer as a kindle book) and with the style issues... It was not an easy read.

"The Secret Knowledge" by David Mamet: Everything I said about style in the previous book? Reverse it. God does Mamet know how to write (not that anyone culturally literate could doubt that at this point). There isn't a huge amount of content there, but what is there is... everything you might ask for. It's presented logically, humorously, with flow and style... You want to keep reading. It's a good book, about important and interesting stuff, well written by someone who knows how to use language to express themselves masterfully.

And on to fiction:

"A taint in the blood" by S.M. Stirling": The first in a now two book series (I believe it's planned as a five book, but with Stirling you never know), I found it somewhat difficult to get into. The pacing and flow are odd. The characters are interesting, but the pacing and drive of the novel doesn't let us get into them very much.

It's not bad at all, it just doesn't grab you, and it was harder to finish. The book definitely does get better as it goes... it just takes a while to get there.

This book feels very much the setup to a much bigger story, and I presume we will see a lot more character and plot development and exposition, over the next few novels. I am also told that many people felt the same about the first book, and the second was much better... so a half recommendation.

"Hit list", an Anita Blake book, by Laurell k.Hamilton: It's been a long time since I read a new Anita Blake book, and actually wished it were longer. Several have been too short, but I definitely didn't want them to keep going. This book is a completely different story, both literally and figuratively.

For Anita Blake fans, this book is ENTIRELY an Anita and Edward book (and that's a great thing). Also, there's only two sex scenes in the whole book, and they're actually not bad.

Not only that, but Anita seems to be... Anita again. Not just the authors fantasy life played out on the pages (this may have something to do with the author going back to her husband, after a few years "finding her new self" romping through the BDSM community in St. Louis).

That said, Hamilton still hasn't regained her ability to end a book. This ending is a major letdown... huge buildup (multibook), no release... Anti-climactic doesn't begin. She doesn't even describe the climax or the denouement, just barely mentioning it in passing.

It's an OK book, almost a good book. It's certainly the best book Laurell K. Hamilton has written since before Narcissus in Chains; and a hopeful sign for the future of the character. If you're a Blake fan, read it.

"Against All Enemies" by Tom Clancy and Peter Telep: Tom Clancy didn't write a word of this novel.

I have read every word of prose Tom Clancy has ever written. I know his writing. Hell, I know his authorial voice and style so well, if given an outline of a story, and some primary character sketches, I could probably write a Clancy novel myself.

In fact, that's pretty much what Clancy has done with the Ryanverse for the last 10 years or so; in that he clearly didn't write the last few novels, but only gave an outline and some character sketches and details to a ghostwriter who wrote them for him.

Peter Telep didn't even do that.

This book is not in Clancys signature style. It does not use Clancys language or idion. It doesn't have his pacing or plotting. It lacks his technical detail or experience. It lacks his attention to detail, and avoidance of simple technical mistakes (especially mistakes about the organizations he is writing about, and their basic firearms and equipment).

However, at least they are crediting his co-author this time.

This book is supposed to introduce a new protagonist in Clancys Ryanverse:Part 2 (Jack Ryan Jr. universe), Hal Moore, an ex Navy SEAL (as it happens, the name is taken from two actual ex SEALs) gone to work in the clandestine service of the CIA.

And that's where the problems begin; because Telep is not familiar enough with the world of the CIA to write it convincingly. For one thing, CIA officers are constantly referred to as "Operatives". There is a big difference and I'm not going to get into it now; but it's a mistake that Clancy not only does not make in books he writes, but one he actually had a character point out as a mistake at one point.

Now, here's the thing...

The book aint bad.

The first third is actually quite good (minus the somewhat jarring technical errors), and other than wrapping up some things too quickly (definitely sequel bait), the last third is pretty good. The middle bogs down rather badly though; and it's in this section that most of the authors failures to understand the world they are writing about worsen the issues.

I think that given a good technical consultant and a good editor, the next book in the series could be excellent. The writer obviously knows what he's doing, and writes quite well... eh just doesn't know what he is writing about well enough.

and finally...

Carte Blanche a new James Bond novel by Jeffery Deaver:

James Bond gets rebooted to today. Specifically, as a contemporary adult, born in 1979. Seriously. Instead of a cold war spy and veteran of World War two, Bond is now a 32 year old veteran of the Afghan war. Almost all the classic characters are here, rebooted to contemporary as well (M [here, Admiral sir Miles Messervy... as he should be], Moneypenny, Mary Goodnight, Bill Tanner, Felix Leiter, Rene Mathis... Sadly not Major Boothroyd, but I believe that was done out of respect for Desmond Llewelyn, so I'm ok with that).


Ok, I HATE this idea. Really, really hate it...


If you're going to continue the Bond books in a contemporary setting (as they always have been from all the followon authors after Fleming) it's probably necessary.

Deaver is a good writer. He knows his business, and other than inserting what I consider to be somewhat excessive britishisms (Deaver is an American from the south and is overcompensating) and a few more nods and head bobs to establishing some of the touchstones of the character than are probably necessary in the first novel...

It's actually pretty good.

It's a bit short, and more than a bit frenetically paced; but so were the original Fleming books.

Really, it's quite good, and I recommend it... I'm just not sure... It's good, but is it really James Bond.

Also, I understand choosing Jeffery Deaver for this. He knows the genre. He himself is a huge James Bond fan. He's a very good writer with a built in fanbase.

But... Deaver needs someone to help him with something. Someone to really help him with the "feel" and flair, and essential Britishness (particularly the cruel, hard, but passionate scots nature of Bond) that is Bond...

It's good... But... is this really James Bond?