recent reads

While blogging has been light, I’ve been spending more time away from the computer and catching up some some reading.

Herewith a few of the highlights…

Wizard’s First Rule (Sword of Truth, Book 1)

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Stone of Tears (Sword of Truth, Book 2)

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I’ve struggled to find good SF or Fantasy that I find enjoyable. Fortunately, one of the folks I work with recommended Terry Goodkind, and the suggestion was a good one. So far, I’ve made it through “Wizard’s First Rule (Sword of Truth, Book 1)” (Terry Goodkind) and “Stone of Tears (Sword of Truth, Book 2)” (Terry Goodkind), a total of 1800+ pages of type a bit too tiny for these middle-aged eyes, and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly, and in fact, bought the next two books in the series for holiday reading (people who remember me from my days writing OtherRealms probably remember I am not a huge fan of series books. I’m not — unless they’re well written….)

The storyline is classic fantasy. a dark evil challenges the world, and the good people (magicians and others) must struggle to overcome it and protect life as they know it. You have your wizards, and your sorcerors, your good youth who is not what he seems, a love story where fate guarantees they cannot live happily ever after (but of course, love conquers all, maybe). Dragons, great battles, death, destruction, evil beasts….

In the hands of a lesser writer, what you’d have is 1800 pages of chaos. In the hands of many writers today, you’d have 1800 pages of bloated, sloppy prose that would be much better with another round of editing and a 10% cut in word count (but in today’s fictional reality, thick books sell well, so there’s little incentive to make the book better through good editing, something that’s really hurt authors like Scott Card and George R.R. Martin, IMHO).

Each book stands alone, telling its own story within the larger story arc of the series. I found myself pulled in to each volume, sometimes reading late into the night. The characters are strong and multi-dimensional, not convenient puppets, and all have both positive and negative aspects that keep them from being stereotypes. And unlike many series, you don’t hit the end of the book feeling like it was an unresolved stopping point; each of the first two books is a proper ending, even though the larger story arc is clearly to continue.

Goodkind reminds me very much of an early Ray Feist — not afraid to challenge the reader, but not looking to show off with excessive complexity or storylines that defy your ability to keep track of what’s going on. it’s good entertainment AND good writing, unfortunately a rare combination these days. And it’s a series I’m looking forward to crawl back into….

The Paths of the Dead series

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The Book of Jhereg

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Also on the fiction side, I’ve finally caught up with Steven Brust again, having finally finished off the Paths of the Dead Series (Paths of the Dead, Lord of Castle Black, and Sethra Lavode). This series is Brust honoring a favorite writer of his, Alexander Dumas, and it’s written in the style and language of Dumas (in all it’s flowery glory). This is both the series greatest strength and it’s biggest weakness — the books are amazingly hard to read to this modern-day reader, who sometimes found his eyes turning sideways trying to keep track of what was going on, especially after a long day at work (So you say? Yes, I shall say it!). It ties into the larger universe Brust plays in, and tells the story of the end of the Interregnum and the return of the Orb to the realm of man, and the fight for control of the Orb and the throne.

If you’ve never read Steven Brust, this probably isn’t a good place to start. it’s well-written, but not necessarily easy reading, and assumes some familiarity with Brust’s universe (if you’re interested, I recommend starting with The Book of Jhereg, wchih contains the Complete Text of Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla). But with that one restriction, it’s a series I recommend highly. It’s not, though, a series I’d want to read if I was going to be interrupted or unable to concentrate on it (it’s a series for next to the fire, not for the subway…)

Greg Bear, Darwin’s Radio

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Darwin’s Children

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Also in the catching-up-with category is another favorite author, Greg Bear. I loved  Darwin’s Radio. In the next stage of evolution, humans are history…” (GREG BEAR) and the premise that our genes would evolve us into newer, more advanced forms. If you could buy into that, the storyline of fear and hatred in society is scary and gripping. The sequel, Darwin’s Children, however, wasn’t as successful for me. Carrying the story forward, I found it interesting, but as a sequel, didn’t stand up to the original work. the relationships seemed more awkward, the storyline forced. Here is a series where I think what really needed to be said was said in book 1 — and book 2 didn’t really add to the conversation between author and reader, it just added to the word count. While it’s not a bad book, Darwin’s Children just didn’t click with me the way Darwin’s Radio did. Read the first book, borrow the second from a friend who bought it.

Combined Fleet Decoded

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Battle Ready

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Off in non-fiction land, lets start with “Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of : American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II” (JOHN PRADOS) — An interesting evaluation of the intelligence services on both sides of the Pacific war, and how both sides benefitted and were hurt by what they knew and what they didn’t. While the intelligence operations of the US are farily well-known by now, the japanese intelligence organizations and how their navy used them (or didn’t) hasn’t been extensively studied, and this book opens the door to that side of the conflict. What I found most interesting was the look at the politics and personalities of intelligence, with the infighting and turfing that seems to happen among the various organizations. it’s a case, I think, where history can show us things we should strive to avoid, an important lesson today in a time where after 9/11 we saw similar problems between the FBI and CIA, and where we’re still seeing the government try to figure out how to resolve them…

“Battle Ready” (Tom Clancy, Tony Zinni, Tony Koltz), is another book from the Tom Clancy factory, and is primarily an interview (told, intermittently and somewhat chaotically, in both first person and third person for no reason i can figure out) with Retired General Tony Zinni. Zinni was on the ground in Iraq, involved in the Middle East peace process, Afghanistan, Somalia, a former Commandant of the Marines, and carried on a 40 year career that started as an advisor in Vietnam (where he sustained serious injuries). Zinni also has strong opinions on many things, some of which got him in deep trouble with the Bush administration, and in this book, he’s not afraid to share them with you. It’s a fascinating read — his view of the reality of Vietnam is fascinating and likely to change your view of that war. After his involvement with Arafat and Israel, he came away with strong beliefs on why that process has failed, and during his time in the MIddle East, he pushed hard to prepare the military for the need to support the occupation after the war in Iraq was won — and was roundly ignored by the administration and his military peers. As we can see today, there are likely some people who wish they’d paid more attention. An interesting book that’s critical of many people (Clinton as well as Bush), likely to piss off both sides of the political spectrum, but a fascinating look into a number of areas of America’s foreign policy that have been relegated to five-paragraph explanations by the American media, simplifying them to the point of not explaining what’s really going on. Zinni does, and whether you agree with his opinons or not, he’ll give you the background and data that nobody else seems to be making easily available….

Big Red: Inside The Secret World of a Trident Nuclear Submarine

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War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II

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Shadow Divers

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“Big Red: Inside The Secret World of a Trident Nuclear Submarine” (Douglas C. Waller) — ever wonder what it’s like to serve on a submarine? Times have changed since the days of the U-boats (so wonderfully described in the movie “Das Boot) — but it’s still no luxury cruise. Author Waller was given full access to the USS Nebraska, going on cruise with them and living with the crew. The Nebraska is one of the subs designed to act as a deterrent — it carries nuclear missles, and it’s primary purpose is to not be found (and sunk). it’s a fascinating look at the committment and sacrifices our military (and their spouses) make to protect us, as well as how the sub operates. An interesting perspective into the military life, and an area of the Navy that to date hasn’t been dicussed much.

If you’re curious about military (and naval) history, a good introductory piece on World War II is “War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II” (Nathan Miller) — it would make a good first book to explore this area of our past. I doesn’t go into excessive detail or get bogged down in analysis, making it accessible but still interesting and educational. For those of you (like me) who hated history classes in school, this might be a good first book if you’re curious about WW II, because frankly, history is fascinating — it’s how it’s taught that made us hate it. Make a good christmas gift for someone you know who’s curious about the past but not sure how to get started.

Finally, I happened to run into this book by accident: “Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II” (Robert Kurson) is the story of a group of wreck divers, scuba divers who explore shipwrecks. One of my programmers has recently gotten into scuba, and I’m interested in WW II Naval history and submarines, so a book on both scuba and a lost U-boat off the New Jersey Coast seemed a natural. It was — well written, it’s an account of a group of divers who discover a previously unknown sunken submarine and their search for its identification, and the changes in their lives that this search (an obsession, and not always a healthy one) caused. An interesting read on any number of levels — a non-fiction book that reads like a good thriller, it ought to be a must-read both for submarine geeks and for scuba geeks.