Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wasteland of Flint

By Thomas Harlan

This story is set in the future of an alternate timeline, where the Japanese discovered the Americas and where the Aztecs are the rulers of known space. So the story is set in a future where humans have spread out from Earth to other planets. In their travels they have discovered the remains of past spacefaring civilizations. Gretchen Anderson, a xeno-archaeologist, is an expert at alien remains and she and her team are sent to a desolate, desert planet to investigate what has happened to a previous team that has been out of contact. They travel on a military ship to the planet because the Empire is worried about what dangers may be on the planet.
When the team arrives, they find the first team's spacecraft in orbit, empty and silent, with no sign of the crew. The ground team is OK, but terribly worried about their fellows on the spacecraft. Investigation reveals that an artifact uncovered on the planet and brought on board the spacecraft ignited and destroyed all the organic compounds on the ship, including the crew, their clothes, food, furnishing and even some of the cheaper components of the electronics. Anything inorganic was left untouched.
When this is realized, it is decreed that the planet is off limits by the Empire's man, Hummingbird, who is a kind of cross between the secret police and a witch doctor. He and Gretchen go down to the planet to destroy any traces of humankind on the planet and to retrieve one missing member of the first team who has flown off in an ultralight to do some surveys. And while they are doing that, the rest of Gretchen's crew will be getting the derelict spacecraft back in working order. The military ship will be tracking down and removing, without attracting any hostile attention from the desolate planet, a mining ship in a nearby asteroid belt.

First of all, why the people in this story have a different history than ours is never explained. Apparently the story is based on some video game or something created by the author in which this alternative history is all worked out. But coming into it without being familiar with this back story made for a rather confusing start. Secondly, a large part of the story is concerned with the military ship and its crew and its hunt for the mining ship, with descriptions of weapons and tactics and technology, that I just found completely boring and also felt that it added nothing to the main story. Thirdly, the whole Aztec empire stuff and all that mystical mumbo jumbo just did not appeal to me. I thought the Hummingbird character was a giant pain in the ass who should have been shoved out an airlock without a spacesuit.
The only part I really enjoyed was when Gretchen and her crew are figuring out what went wrong on the derelict spacecraft and when Gretchen is down on the planet helping Hummingbird with his investigation and tracking down the missing person and trying to understand the weird ecology of the devastated planet. That part was fascinating and kind of scary.
So I only enjoyed about a third of the story, the rest was confusing, unappealing or just plain uninteresting.

Death and the Visiting Fellow

By Tim Heald

Tudor Cornwall has been invited to spend a semester as a Visiting Fellow at a university in Hobart, Tasmania. But when he arrives, his old friend from his college days who was supposed to pick him up at the airport, Ashley, is nowhere to be found. And as Tudor finds out, not only has Ashley vanished, but Ashley, who is also a professor at the university, is being accused of sexual harassment by some female students.
Tudor takes up his position at the school and soon receives emails purporting to be from Ashley, claiming that he had to disappear for awhile and asking Tudor to do a favor for him. Tudor isn't convinced that the emails are from his friend, but still agrees to do the favor, which is to mix up a mulled wine drink, using Ashley's recipe and ingredients, to be entered into a school competition.
Tudor makes the beverage and disaster strikes. A woman who drinks some of it, turns out to be fatally allergic to one of Ashley's ingredients and dies before anyone can help her. Now Tudor is in the middle of a big mess and still his old friend is nowhere to be found.

This murder mystery is a bit different. The location, for one, is very exotic, and at times, I didn't know what the author was talking about, with the down-under and British terms. A book like this could use a glossary in the back. The first one that stumped me was shooting brake, which sounds like a it would be a hunting blind but means a car like a station wagon or an SUV. Then there's wattle, which I never did figure out what that is. There's a few more, but I don't recall them exactly.
Also different is that the murder victim is not the obvious choice of the missing professor but is the woman who drank the mulled wine. But the biggest difference between this book and most murder mysteries is the ending. Bit of a spoiler here: the killer, though revealed, is not brought to justice. Very unsatisfying ending, I thought. So, even though I found the exotic locale interesting and the story engrossing, because of the crappy ending, I can only rate it as fair.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Mind Pool

At a time when humans have expanded among the stars and encountered alien races and space travel is instantaneous due to a human invention, that very human inventiveness has placed everyone, human and nonhuman, at risk. A biological machine, developed by human scientists, has unexpectedly run amok, turning against its own creators. In the battle that ensued, most of the constructs were destroyed, except for one that escaped. But the only experts on the constructs were killed in the battle.
The one that got away has been located hiding on a jungle planet. A conference of aliens and humans has decided that teams composed of one member of the four different types of intelligences will be assembled and trained and sent in, one at a time, in an attempt to subdue and neutralize the rogue construct. But the conference has decreed that the human component of the team has to meet certain very limited conditions, which means that only a very few humans will qualify to become team members. Which is how two street kids end up being key components of a race to protect intelligent life from a machine that seems determined to destroy it. Together with their alien comrades, these kids will set off into the jungle to come face to face with the smartest, most dangerous being ever encountered. And before it is all over, what they learn will change everything.

I liked this book. The future human society is weird and different, yet still familiar. The aliens are weird, but not in a bad or threatening way. The interactions between the aliens and humans were entertaining and comforting, not monstrous or implacable, as aliens are often portrayed. I liked the aliens, I liked the puzzle of the rogue construct and I really liked how the teams came together to solve the puzzle. I found this to be an enjoyable and enthralling read.

Voyagers II: The Alien Within

By Ben Bova

Keith Stoner was an astronaut who was given the chance to investigate a derelict spacecraft that had drifted into Earth orbit. When disaster struck the mission, he decided to stay on the spacecraft even though it meant his certain death. He froze to death and his body was recovered and kept frozen until the technology advanced to the stage that he could be successfully thawed and revived.
A large, multi-national corporation came up with a method to revive Keith successfully many years later, and once he was back among the living, the corporation head felt that Keith was, in effect, corporate property. Of course, Keith didn't agree with this attitude at all. But even more than his personal feelings, Keith was sharing his body with that of an alien intelligence, an intelligence acquired during his time on the alien spacecraft. And this intelligence did not approve of humankind's messy emotional attachments and it overrode Keith's own human instincts, making Keith a sort of alien even among his own kind.
Keith managed to slip away from the control of Vanguard, using special abilities given him by the alien presence within himself. And he set off on a journey of exploration, trying to figure out why humanity was in such a mess and who was behind all the many little wars spreading across the land.

This was a pretty boring book. The constant sneering of the alien within Keith at human desires and emotions got pretty old, pretty fast. And the political stuff was just dull. Keith becomes a kind of superman but all it gets him is nearly starving to death in some refugee camp in Africa. He eventually pulls off some kind of peace conference and figures out who the bad guy is behind all the conflicts. But none of it was very interesting.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections

By Nora Ephron

A collection of humorous essays on growing old by Nora Ephron, written when she was sixty-nine. She writes about, of course, not being able to remember things very well, but she also talks about her start as a young journalist in New York City and about divorce, meat loaf, chicken soup, egg white omelets, getting together with friends for Christmas, email, loss and so on. The pieces are entertaining and often funny, sometimes sad and very enjoyable. I liked it quite a bit.

(I changed the book image a little to make the letters more visible.)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Here Be Demons

By Esther Friesner

An archaeology professor's summer job is leading tours to dig sites and letting the tourist try their hand at digging for a couple weeks. The latest site is in Egypt and the professor, who has never had a successful dig, is hoping to discover the location of an ancient monastery. What he doesn't know is that the site he and his merry band will be staying at is infested with demons.
The demons are outcasts from Hell, sentenced to stay in this desert location until they succeed in tempting at least one human to sign away his or her soul. The demons are an unpleasant lot but turn out to be no match for their human quarry because, deep down, the demons are just not that demonic.

This is one of those books with an amusing cover & an blurb on the back describing it as "a hell of a lot of fun." But it is just not that funny or even mildly amusing. One of the characters you meet at the beginning is Steve Ritter about whom you are given fascinating glimpses that he is more than he appears. But then, he fades into just a minor character until the end of the story when his true identity is revealed. I was wanting to read more about the mystery of Steve, but not much more is said, except for some mysterious and not very enlightening conversations he has with the demon trying to tempt him.
I also found the story rather directionless, the characters being pushed and pulled without really getting anywhere until the last part when several of them are snatched away to some place that isn't Purgatory but is in the same neighborhood. There is a lot going on but it all seems rather pointless as media types descend on the dig, earthquakes uncover tombs and ancient temples still filled with nubile priestess prostitutes pop up out of the sand then sink back down again. I think there was maybe too much going on in the story and it all made for a kind of a mish-mosh. To me, the most interesting part of the story was when several people are taken down to the Purgatory-esque place and each has their own unique encounter there. My two favorites were Honest Ariel's Sandwiche Shoppe (Ariel is an angel who still hasn't decided whether he is on the side of God or the Devil and even though he is indecisive he is an excellent chef) and the temple of the fish god, who turns out to be a pretty decent guy. I did find some aspect of the ending a bit confusing, though.
Anyway, even though I thought the story was lacking and not funny, still I did like the last part so I will say it made for a fair read.

Check out Battle Hymns for another review of the book.

No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late

By Ayun Halliday

Halliday's travel memoir of some of her various trips around the world, told in a self-deprecating and frank way and including lots of adventures and misadventures of herself and her traveling companion of the moment.

This was an OK book. The book is supposed to be funny but at the most I found it mildly amusing. It just didn't grab me. I especially didn't like reading about her drunken binges or stupid drug trips.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Agatha Raisin and the Witch of Wyckhadden

By M. C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin is in Wyckhadden, a seaside British resort, during the off season. She had a run-in with a vengeful hairdresser who doused her head in hair remover leaving Agatha with several bald spots on her head. So she has retired to Wyckhadden to rest and recover and hopefully grow her hair back. But Wychhadden in the winter is a dismal sort of place and the hotel where she is staying seems to be full of old people who live there year round. Chatting with some of them, Agatha finds out about a local witch, who is said to have many effective potions for sale. Agatha pays a visit to the witch and not only does she buy a hair tonic she also buys a love potion, with a notion of using it on an old lover who seems rather indifferent lately.
After her fur coat is vandalized, Agatha decides to visit the witch again, thinking the witch maybe have been the one who vandalized the coat, only to discover the woman dead, with her head bashed in. So once again, Agatha finds herself involved in a murder investigation.

This was a pretty good read. I liked Agatha, even though she is a bit of a nut. She doesn't think twice about doping the men around her with the witch's love potion just to see if it works. She also doesn't have many qualms about stringing a new guy along when all she really wants is to make the old boy friend jealous. Which works, even though Agatha doesn't know it, as the old boy friend becomes so enraged that he totally writes Agatha off.
So even though there are two murders to solve and Agatha eventually figures out who the killer is, she is not able to figure out the mystery of why Agatha is so alone. The story ends on a down note, as she returns home to her cottage with no one but her cats to keep her warm.
Still, despite the rather morose ending, I found Agatha Raisin to be an amusing if rather unscrupulous heroine and I enjoyed this story which is not only about two deaths but is also about the death of Agatha's youth. It was a good read.

Death of a Cad

By M. C. Beaton

Captain Peter Barlett is a cad. He steals, he cheats, he chases women, he boozes, he lies. He is an all-around bad fellow. So how does he end up being invited to an exclusive week in the Scottish countryside at a select party for an up-and-coming new London playwright? Basically it's because, when he wants to, he can really turn on the charm. But at this gathering, he seems to be on his worst behavior, and therefore it is no surprise when he is discovered dead in the morning.
At first, it seems as if he has shot himself accidentally while out hunting. But local policeman Hamish MacBeth soon discovers that the scene was staged to look like an accident when it is actually murder. Now Hamish has to discover which of the guests at the party is the killer when it becomes apparent that pretty much everyone had reason to hate Peter Bartlett.

What a poisonous lot the people at this country gathering are, starting with the overbearing hosts of the party and including not only their guests but their hot-then-cold daughter Priscilla who is engaged to the guest of honor but is sneaking around with local policeman, Hamish MacBeth. In fact, the only likable person in the whole story is Hamish. It is hard to imagine why anyone would want to spend even an evening with these pills, much less a whole week or weekend, which ever it was. In fact, if it wasn't for Hamish, the whole story would be a wash, but Hamish not only saves the day, he saves the story. Without him, it would not be worth reading. So, thanks to Hamish, this is a good read.

Five Card Stud

By Elizabeth Gunn

Detective Jake Hines is used to solving crimes so the report of a dead body on the side of the road is nothing new to him. It's not common for people to freeze to death during the winter in Minnesota, but it is also not that unusual either. This latest victim is laying, partly clothed, which is also not uncommon in hypothermia cases where the victim can experience the delusion of heat when in fact they are dying of cold. But it soon becomes apparent that their unknown victim didn't freeze to death when the body is turned over and the huge, bloody hole in his head is revealed. It's murder and the first thing the police have to do is figure out just who this man with no wallet or identification is. Once they know that then they will have a better handle on understanding how he ended up where and how he did.

Jake Hines comes across as a real likable character in this story. He has a girl friend now and they have bought a house together and he seems much happier which also seems to reflect on his professional life, as he tries to deal fairly with his investigators and not make their lives any harder than they already are. This is a really good story and like this Jake much better than I did when I read TRIPLE PLAY. Altogether, I liked this story and Jake a lot, more than I did the previous book I had read.