Book Report: What Makes a Picasso a Picasso? by Richard Muhlberger (1994)

Posted in Book Report, Books on October 1st, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverThis book proves me a hypocrite. I’ve dodged cultural sensations like Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games because, I’ve ::sniffed::, they’re children’s books. But put a discarded library children’s book about an artist in front of me, and I’m all over it.

Because, let’s face it, my knowledge of Picasso is precursory. I know his era, his acquaintence with Gertrude Stein and the Lost Generation, and he did La Guernica which I did a paper on in college, although I’m not entirely sure what I had to say about it. Probably that it fought the norms of the day in which I wrote the paper, which strangely enough were sort of still norms instead of the anachronisms they are now. Everything else I got from Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which is why I’m prone to answer at trivia nights that Picasso knew Elvis.

This book is a simple little book from the Museum of Modern Art and takes a brief, high-level overview of Picasso and his work and its phases. So I learned a bit about his Blue Period and what he was trying to do with Cubism. Basically, it’s a painted collage of different views of the same image. Okay, I get it, but I don’t think it’s any less stupid.

So I got something out of this book, and it didn’t take too long to read. Best of all, there are others in the series with other artists, so I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for others in the line. Because I like to know a little bit about a lot of things, even though I have to go to children’s books to learn them. And it didn’t take a million words to get to the end and think it was stupid that Picasso and Hermione weren’t together.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins (2014)

Posted in Book Report, Books on September 30th, 2014 by Noggle

Book Report: Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins (2014)

Book coverI was not particularly impressed with this book. Perhaps I read it too soon after The Lost Ones and found too many of that book’s flaws in this one.

In this book, a New England Patriots linebacker hires Spenser to look into some people who were following him. Spenser is not sure if it’s someone associated with his second wife who has a sketchy past or if it’s related to a nightclub shooting where someone died and the linebacker might have been responsible. So Spenser does some sleuthing and follows some false leads to make it interesting. Nobody in the Patriots organization wants him hanging around, nor does the linebacker’s agent. Then the linebacker’s son is kidnapped and held for ransom, but the linebacker instead offers the ransom as a bounty on the kidnappers. Hey, haven’t I seen that in a movie? Spenser then follows some other leads and saves the kid after some danger. The end, except one of the bad guys is untouched, which does not bring closure to the story and leads into next week’s episode.

So Atkins’ writing sometimes seems as informed by television and movies–where he makes allusions to celluloid instead of print, and by “allusions to” I mean “he borrows from.” His writing style when affecting Parker’s is better still than the mid-to-late Parker, but I’m hopeful that he gets more original with further books.

Also, SUCKER PUNCH ALERT. Okay, Atkins is wise to steer away from political commentary within the books–which means he’s probably a conservative, but Spenser repeatedly mocks people for wearing suits from Men’s Wearhouse. Hey, I own suits from Men’s Wearhouse. And they’re a far step above the slacks and button down shirts I get at Walmart that are my daily apparel. Also, one of the cheap foils for Spenser and Hawk’s masculinity claims to be a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, but he crumples with a single blow from Hawk. Hey, I am studying Tae Kwon Do (mixed in with a couple of other disciplines). I know some second degree black belts, and I’d like to think they’d put up a bit more of a fight (although, in full disclosure, in my started-but-incomplete follow up to my first, unpublished novel, the protagonist squares off on a fellow who goes into a fighting stance. “Tae kwon do?” my protagonist asks. The bad guy nods. Then my protagonist drew a semiautomatic and said, “Meets some urban ninjistu.” So although I’m dissing it a bit, I’m not going to the extreme Atkins does). Where was I? Oh, yeah, Why is Ace Atkins attacking all of my life choices? What next, mocking an English degree? A taste for omelets? All because I’ve given him a lukewarm review on an obscure blog?

What, it’s not all about me? Gentle reader, this is the Internet. It *is* all about me. Cosmically. If only you connect the dots and dust motes.

So I’m not weaned off of Atkins’ Spenser novels or other novels because I’m hopeful others will have better things to offer. But these last two things I’ve read have not been highlights of his oeuvre.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Mary Rose by J.M. Barrie (1929)

Posted in Book Report, Books on September 13th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverI am so easily led. I see an article ("War, Culture, and the Minds of Nations") allude to a book (actual quote: "There were other responses that we have largely forgotten. England saw a revival of the spiritualism that had emerged in late-Victorian days among post-Christian intellectuals. James M. Barrie had a huge West End success with his syrupy mystical play Mary Rose, in which a bride disappears on her honeymoon on a Scottish isle only to reappear there completely unchanged 30 years later. It was said that when the line “Mary Rose is coming across the fields” was spoken, a gasp went through the audience. But a London theater audience in the 1920s was likely to contain several hundred people whose sons, nephews, and older brothers had perished on the Western Front. However absurdly, they were hoping that death could somehow be denied."), and suddenly I must read that.

So I bought this book and read it immediately.

The play, as one would expect from the author of Peter Pan, is fantastic in nature and also deals with, as Mr. O’Sullivan indicates, a character who is strangely young. The play has three acts: there’s a frame story about an old man coming to a haunted house for sale. He wants to see a ghost. Then we go to a flashback in the house, where a man, his wife, and the parson interact and talk about art. Then the man and his wife entertain the suitor of their daughter Mary Rose and reveal to him a curious incident from her youth, where she played on an island in Scotland while her father fished in a boat nearby, and she somehow disappeared for a number of days. When they found her, no time had passed. In the next act, the now-husband takes Mary Rose back to the island, and as they prepare to leave, she vanishes. Then another flashback takes place thirty years into the future; Mary Rose’s parents and the parson are again talking about art, and again Mary Rose’s husband arrives. Mary Rose has been missing the whole time, but news comes that Mary Rose has returned and is on her way (she’s coming across the fields). Mary Rose arrives, and she’s stunned to see how everyone has aged, and she’s eager to see her son who was a baby when she disappeared, but who has run away and made his life in Australia. Finally, we return to the present day, where the old man is Mary Rose’s son, and he meets the ghost of his mother. Mary Rose, now a ghost, has forgotten what she’s looking for, but it’s him, and he has difficulty in convincing her it’s the case, but ultimately, he puts her spirit at ease.

The plot is very symmetrical and engaging, but I think there’s a lot of the story that lies in between the frame stories that would be interesting. What happened to Mary Rose after she returned? She never went back to the island? Did she die young after not finding her child?

The day after finishing it, I’m still thinking about it, so that’s probably the mark of a good bit of theatre. And like so many of the non-modern plays I read, I’d like to see this on stage. But that is unlikely.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins (2012)

Posted in Book Report, Books on September 8th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverI bought this book off of the discount rack at Barnes and Noble as part of a recent binge there. I’ve enjoyed Atkins’ Spenser novels (Lullaby and Wonderland), and I didn’t think much of White Shadow (but I didn’t dislike it enough to swear the non-Spenser Atkins books). So I picked this up. New, albeit old.

I have to wonder how much television programming affects how one reads books or perhaps how one writes them. This book is the second of the Quinn Colson novels about a ranger who served several tours overseas and who comes home and ends up sheriff of his county in Mississippi (that took place in the first book, where he had to uncover some perfidy that his uncle, the previous sheriff, was part of or something–events of that book are alluded to an awful lot). As part of his duties, he’s trying to find work for a friend and fellow veteran who lost an arm; he has to find a woman who is smuggling babies for adoption from Mexico; he also has to contend with a gun-running operation working through a traveling carnival for which another fellow veteran is the supplier.

It features all the modern amenities of shifting points of view with an omniscient narrator to ensure the short attention spans of modern readers (myself included) don’t wander. It hops between the plot items and everyday life of the protagonists (and antagonists). It alludes to the past things in the series. And then it wraps up, sort of, with some elements unfixed. Maybe that’s for next week? Also, we’ve got some flashbacks to childhood while Quinn works out an episode from his past that might have turned his younger sister from the straight and narrow onto a self-destructive path. It’s a very busy book.

I’ve only seen one episode of the television program Justified, but this book felt of a kind with the pilot of that program.

I guess this sort of thing has been a part of police procedurals since the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain, but somehow they’ve gotten moreso. Or maybe I was not in the mood for it.

At any rate, it’s not a bad book, and I liked it better than White Shadow, but I’m not going to rush right out and buy the rest of the series.

Unless I find them at book fairs or on Barnes and Noble binges, I suppose.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Odd Apocalypse by Dean Koontz (2012)

Posted in Book Report, Books on August 28th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverFunny thing about the passage of time when you get older: longer and longer passages of time seem like a short time because, I guess, they’re a smaller percentage of your whole lifespan. Which is why, although I last read an Odd Thomas novel (Odd Hours four years ago and the graphic novel In Odd We Trust three years ago, it doesn’t seem that long. Perhaps it’s the diminishing number of books I’m reading these days; it’s only been, what, 200 books ago, not 450 books ago?

At any rate, I picked up this book from the discount rack at Barnes and Noble on a recent binge, and I’m reading them first out of my stack of thousands. Besides, the character of Odd Thomas is still engaging enough to give me warm feelings about them. Especially after three or four years pass between readings.

This book finds Odd Thomas and his pregnant protectee on an estate where the few employees are weird, and the fierce owner seems of two minds about helping Annamaria, the pregnant woman. He’s compelled to house her, but he’s not happy about it when she’s not around. Odd Thomas gets some apocalyptic visions and encounters some strange beasts on the grounds, which are shuttered tight at night. So Odd investigates and finds not an apocalypse waiting to happen, but strange things at Roseland nevertheless and evil that he must ferret out and guns he must fire.

The same quibbles I had with Odd Hourse I have here: Too much of the book is Odd thinking to himself. Too much riding the voice alone and not the events or the odd things. To be sure, some fantastic things occur, but I’m pulled out of it by Odd Thomas as much as I’m drawn into it.

So it’s okay, more straight ahead fantasy thriller than horror.

I see that I’m two or more books behind on the series, and I’ve had enough of it for now. According to current projects, I’ll finish the series sometime in my fifties. Okay.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Books Are Better In Bed Than Men Because… by Deenie Vin (1991)

Posted in Book Report, Books on August 24th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverYou might have thought the depths of my book-reporting could get no lower than books comparing cats to men, but you have little imagination, gentle reader. Why, in my quest to rack up numbers for the sheer love of metrics, I have not even begun to critique coloring books yet!

I have, however, glanced through this book. It’s lower in quality than the cat books in both publishing (it’s a comb-bound book) and in tone. This one is a little more racy than the cat-loving books, and that’s to be expected, as it is entitled “in Bed”. But it’s a bit repetitive in quips, as the “you can read a lot of books and not be judged” motif appears several times. You will, however, be judged by how many times you hit the same punchline in a slightly different way to pad out a book.

So it might have been an amusing gift back in the day to give to your bookish friend, but most of the amusement is in the concept of the book and the gifting of it, not in the execution of the book or its reading.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: 101 Reasons Why A Cat Is Better Than A Man by Allia Zobel (1994) and Women Who Love Cats Too Much by Allia Zobel (1995)

Posted in Book Report, Books on August 19th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverIt is inevitable: Every autumn, as football season comes around, I find myself behind my best pace from the past in book reading (2011, wherein I read 106 books). So I pick up little comic books and whatnot that I can flip through while watching football games. Which explains these books.

See, it’s only the Internet age that thinks cats are just now the centerpiece of lists, but in the olden days, little book forms of humor relating to cats (see also All I Need To Know I Learned From My Cat and 101 Uses for a Dead Cat) were pretty widely available. They must have gone as gifts a lot of times.

At any rate, this one-two punch comes with a marriage for the author sandwiched in between. The first deals with how nonjudgmental a cat is and how a cat will never pressure a woman. Which is unlike any cat I’ve ever known. The second book covers such fecund territory as how badly a cat treats its owners and why they still put up with it.

So it’s about what you would expect, and it’s as amusing as the comics page of the newspaper. Perhaps it’s better if you’re a woman. Or if it’s 1994 again.

Man, we’ve got a whole football season of these non-thoughtful book reports to look forward to. And they’re even less amusing than the books themselves.

Books mentioned in this review:
 

Book Report: The Private Hell of Hemingway by Milt Machlin (1962)

Posted in Book Report, Books on August 18th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverAs I mentioned yesterday, I got this book in Orlando last week. I mean, I already have a hardback entitled Papa on my to-read shelves, but I was in Florida (although not Key West), and I was not that excited about my other airplane paperbacks (a fantasy called Catswold and a history of Australia by a historian). So I bought this book.

And read it quickly.

The author is an acquaintenance of Hemingway (who often refers to himself as “the author” when he meets Hemingway, so we get some weird things where one sentence says Hemingway and the next says “the author,” and you have to figure out if the author is Hemingway or his biographer). The book came out in paperback in 1962, very quickly after Hemingway’s suicide, and it has a title that was the postwar equivalent of clickbait. Obviously, they’re trying to capitalize.

That’s doesn’t matter, though; this is a very readable biography of the author (Hemingway) starting from his youth in Illinois to his success in the thirties and then his later career. The book follows Hemingway to Europe for World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and then into Spain for his love of bullfighting. It talks about his marriages to his four wives and his wild lifestyle. It talks a bit about his books, but this is not a literary criticism by any means. The book covers his trips to Africa, including the one where his plane crashed and how it affected the end of his life.

Strangely, the book really doesn’t dwell on the end of Hemingway’s life much, and if there’s anything in the book that it might present as hell, it’s Hemingway after his plane crash. But the book only mentions it, and the book’s end comes pretty abruptly.

Still, it makes me want to read Hemingway again. I haven’t read a Hemingway novel in the ten years this blog has been running, apparently, since a blog search only shows a little literary recap and no primary sources (but plenty of instances where I compare people to Hemingway). On the weight of this book, I checked online for complete collections of Hemingway, and the only one I see is about $2000 for an Easton Press collection. I’m adding it to my Amazon wish list for your convenience, gentle reader.

Recommended. But it’s not quite what the title would have you think.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Blood Silver: The Story of the Yocum Dollar by Woody P. Snow (2014)

Posted in Book Report, Books on August 13th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverI spotted this book in Barnes and Noble while I was gorging on new books for some reason. I think I had a little time to kill, so I thought I’d go into the book store and let the children pick up a book or two, and suddenly I had a stack of books, including this one.

Woody P. Snow is a local radio personality; I catch bits of his show in the mornings sometimes. And, as you know, I’ve done a little research of my own into the Yocum Silver Dollar (well, I read Traces of Silver). I’ve thought about writing a piece of nonfiction about it, but not about writing a novel about it.

This book has a couple pages of modern day narrative to frame it: a diver finds one of the silver dollars in the lake and shows it to his grandmother, who told him stories about it but now is in the grip of dementia. Then, without ado, we go back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. James Yoachum loses his wife in childbirth, goes mad, and wansers into the wilderness. He eventually makes his way into the Ozarks and is rescued and later adopted by an Indian tribe. He wins the heart of the chief’s daughter and learns the tribe’s secret, and the source of its silver jewelry: an old Spanish silver mine. A fur company puts in a trading post, the area surrounding the trading post grows, but the citizens are left without a currency when the fur company moves out. Yoachum begins making the coins with the help of his brother and his Indian wife. All goes well until the United States Government moves in, surveys the land, and makes the residents pay for their land, and some try with the silver dollars.

It’s a decent, straight forward story, but it does suffer a bit the same way that Downton Abbey suffers: time passes, often in blocs of months or years, and nothing seems to change in the characters during the interim. It’s a minor flaw, but one nevertheless. The story ends thirty years after it begins, and at the end, one of the characters announces a pregnancy, and she must be into her forties by that time.

At any rate, I enjoyed the book.

Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Brian’s read two historical novels this year set in the Ozarks. I wonder how he would compare them?” Well, friends, I’m probably the only one in the whole world who would dare compare Daniel Woodrell’s The Maid’s Version to Woody P. Snow’s book.

Here’s how they’re similar:

  • Both authors have “Wood” in their names.
  • Both books are based on historical (or perhaps legendary events).

Here’s how they differ:

  • Woodrell’s book goes backwards and forwards through time and jumps points of view. Snow sticks to the semi-omniscient narrator.
  • Snow’s prose is more straightforward than Woodrell’s.
  • Snow’s book does not have much in the way of unrelated asides or actions from characters who aren’t integral to the plot.

None of this is unexpected, of course, given their respective writing careers and goals. But it’s still amusing to consider comparing and contrasting the two.

Worth a read.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Voodoo, Ltd. by Ross Thomas (1992)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 28th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverIt seems like I read one Ross Thomas book a year, so I picked up this book. It looks as though my reading has been skipping through Thomas’s decades of writing, with my first read being 1972’s The Porkchoppers and my second being 1982’s The Mordida Man

Like the latter, this book is a straight ahead thriller, and it’s the third book using the same set of characters–but the first I’d read. I was going along, thinking Thomas’s books were all one shots and appreciating the wonder of the detailed back story he’d created for each of these characters until I researched it and realized he was rehashing things from earlier books. I don’t know if this soured me, but I think that the glimpses of the back story stood in for character development. The motives of some of them were unclear, but it was responses to earlier actions not covered in this book. Sadly, this was less effective.

The plot revolves around a London-based, American-run detective agency that is hired to find two hypnotists. The hypnotists were hired to consult with a Hollywood film actress arrested for the murder of her boyfriend, a wealthy producer. After consulting with her, the hypnotists vanished, and no one is sure whether they vanished because they found out something or if they are to blackmail the starlet with revelations she made while under oath.

The two detectives get the old band back together. This band includes a former Secret Service agent they have to spring from a Phillipine prison; a con artist; and an aging fixer/procurer/scrounger. They rent a house in Malibu and begin their investigations.

As I said, I think ultimately, the author relied a bit much on the reader being familiar with the previous books in the series. Individuals really weren’t that well delineated in the text, and the ensemble plotted a bit behind the scenes against itself. Which was revealed a bit in the climax and beyond, but not so much in text. And the ultimate solution to the murder–which differs from the solution for the problem for which the agency was hired–was kinda tacked on and not integral to the main story arc.

The book wasn’t the best of the Thomas books I’ve read. It’s his penultimate work, and at the back of the book, they have the page to order a number of his other books. None of which I’ve read (yet). I thought this book was so-so, and I’m hopefully that reading his earlier work will show that it evolved to this book: that is, a straight ahead, indistinguishable paperback thriller whose predecessors, so to speak, were better.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: More Cat Tales Starring Hodge produced by Philip Lief (1981)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 24th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverAm I cheating in my annual book count by counting this book? You bet I am. I actually re-read this book.

I picked this up at a mall on the corner of Fond du Lac and Silver Spring back when it was a little mall with shops and everything. I was in middle school or high school, and by the time I was in college, the mall was just a record store (Mainstream) and a bowling alley at the other end. But for a moment in the 1980s, it had a five and dime in it, and I bought this book for a quarter or something.

At any rate, my oldest child has found my Garfield collections (which I also count). So I remembered this volume and got it out for him, and he was unimpressed.

It’s a collection of cat pictures with speech bubbles. And it’s a sequel to another book that apparently sold enough to warrant the sequel. But. The little quips are amusing, but not what I’d call funny.


You see, the novelty is that it’s cat pictures. With speech bubbles.

It’s the 80s equivalent of half the Internet. It’s a bit of arcana. And it’s amusing to me because the quips are amusing and because I remember being amused by this book when I was young.

But your mileage may vary.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Brave Ones edited by Marvin Allen Karp (1965)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 23rd, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverThis book continues my recent trend of military history paperbacks, almost. The trend began with The Battle Off Of Midway Island and continued with Sink the Bismarck!. I guess the trend is also from nonfiction to fiction, as this is not a book about the actual exploits of US GIs. Instead, it is a collection of six short stories set in World War II and the Korean War.

The Collaborator tells the story of an ex-GI living in China when the Japanese invade. He is forced to collaborate with them, culminating in them using him as an infiltrator during an American invasion of a small island. However, their hold on him is broken, and he can finally get revenge.

The Soldier Who Had No Gun shows the story of a chaplain who accompanies a tired, dispirited platoon on a dangerous mission to flank a German stronghold and how he rejuvenates the group.

In The Trap, a British guerrilla war expert is in a plane shot down over a jungle. Pursued by the Japanese, he and his two American airmen have to sneak to safety, and the Brit learns a little something about guerrilla warfare from a native American.

Set in Korea, Night Attack covers a ROK assault on a thinly stretched American position immediately after a platoon sargeant is promoted to lieutenant, and his new platoon sargeant is another man passed over for the job.

In The Raid, a team of specialists is sent to a Japanese prison camp to rescue a submarine commander with knowledge of an upcoming assault. They are to extract him if they can, and to kill him if he cannot.

Operation Christrose tells about a fresh lieutenant coming to a quiet part of the front and leading his platoon on a scouting trip across the river–and into the camp of a German army massing for a surprise break out.

These stories appeared in men’s magazines and The Saturday Evening Post between 1944 and 1963, so between Right Now and 20 years later. They’re pretty vivid accounts and better reading than the normal pulp paperbacks I read.

The one Korea story, and the Korean veterans I saw speak at a recent memorial dedication, have brought to mind how forgotten that war is. Whereas World War II continues to throw off films and culture and whereas the Vietnam War overserves as a metaphor, you don’t get a lot of fiction or film out of the Korean War. And what a brutal place it was to fight.

So I enjoyed this short collection and really see myself going on a 20th century war tear here for a bit.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Conquering Sword of Conan by Robert E. Howard (2004)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 19th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverThis book is the third of the three in the Conan set by Robert E. Howard.

This volume includes:
“The Servants of Bit-Yakin” wherein Conan climbs into a hidden redoubt with a temple in it. Priests seek audience from an oracle within the temple, and a faction has brought along a woman to act as the oracle and to order the priests to put Conan to the death. Conan, of course, has other plans, including collecting the mythical jewels said to be in the temple or nearby.

“Beyond the Black River” which takes place in the wilderness at the Pictish frontier. A shaman of the Picts is getting ready to lead the clans against settlers in the area, and Conan and some others try to delay them enough for the settlers to escape.

“The Black Stranger” A nobleman has brought his retinue to a coast of the Pictish wilderness to escape someone pursuing him. One day, pirates show up looking for a treasure rumored to be nearby, and the nobleman might have to ally with two competing bands of buccaneers to escape his pursuer. Then Conan shows up with knowledge of the treasure, and he plays all ends to get a ship of his own.

“Man-Eaters of Zamboula” deals with an inn and a town with a deadly secret–at night, certain savages collect those out-of-doors and those unlucky enough to stay in a particular inn for a grisly feast. And Conan finds himself in that room.

“Red Nails” finds Conan pursuing a woman warrior who has fled from their mercenary crew after fending off an unwanted advance with deadly result. Conan and the woman find a strange city on a plain where a society has degenerated to two warring factions opposing each other from different sides of the large building that is the city.

So these plots, again, are more complicated and less repetitive.

It’s interesting that these, the last of the Conan stories, often take place on the frontier and Conan takes on a certain Natty Bumpo/the Deerslayer vibe to him. I wonder how much Howard wanted to do that. Of course, in the writing chronology this holds true, but in the chronology of Conan’s life, he is not relocating further and further from civilization, and certainly not for the same reasons.

So I was a bit sad to have finished the Conan stories. I mean, I’ve got the other Howard things to go through sometime (after I buy them), and there are some non-Howard Conan books to read. But not the original. Not the original.

And Howard did all this by the time he was 30. Sometimes, when I was young, I thought I’d like to live the pulp writer lifestyle, banging out these works for a couple hundred bucks a throw and living in a seedy apartment while I did so. I never did make many sales. As a matter of fact, by the time I was 30, I’d only sold a single short story for five bucks to a magazine made on a photocopier. Ah, well, I guess I still have a chance to make it as a pixulp writer if I turn my mind to it.

And good reads like these Conan stories are just the thing to inspire one to become a writer.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Bloody Crown of Conan by Robert E. Howard (2004)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 18th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverThis book is the second in the three books that make up the complete set of stories that Howard wrote featuring Conan the Cimmerian. As you will remember, I read the first, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian in January.

This book features three tales:

“The People of the Black Circle” features Conan carrying off the queen of a country to use as ransom for some of his followers. She’s seeking revenge on a band of magicians for the death of her brother, and as Conan and she flee from a magician following them, they team up to defeat the magicians.

“The Hour of the Dragon” is the only Conan novel, and it tells the story of how Conan loses the kingdom of Aquilonia and works to get it back.

“A Witch Shall Be Born” talks about a female ruler deposed by her presumed dead twin sister who was left to die at birth because she had a witch’s mark upon her. Instead of dying, she goes onto become a witch and impersonates her sister, a benevolent ruler, until Conan puts a stop to it.

One of the knocks I had on the first book was that the stories were a little formulaic and repetitive at times; with this book and the three stories within it, Howard has concocted some more elaborate plots that are difficult to sum up in the single sentences above. Which is good.

Not only am I continuing to be impressed with this series, but I think I’ll pick up some of Howard’s non-Conan work. Maybe with Christmas’s gift cards.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Sink the Bismarck! by C.S. Forester (1959, 1979)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 15th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverSuddenly, I’m on a World War II naval battle kick, first with The Battle Off of Midway Island and now this book. What a contrast they make.

This book, originally titled The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck but retitled after the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck! came out went through quite a number of printings; this paperback is still in print 20 years after the original and 38 years after the events depicted in it. What kept it alive? Past generations’ interest in actual history? The movie in heavy syndication on television that had not fragmented into a billion channels? Perhaps both, maybe neither. But I’m prone to idle speculation.

The difference in naval doctrine is stunning. Although I’m no naval military history expert, the book might capture a turning point in naval operations. The Bismarck is a big battleship with big guns that knocks out a British battleship (the Hood), and then goes around the Atlantic for a couple of days. Will it harry shipping? Although that might have been the idea, it does not engage shipping and starts making a beeline for France when it’s clear that the British aren’t cowed and are actively hunting it. This might represent the 19th century way of naval war.

The British, on the other hand, bring the house. They have a number of cruisers, a carrier, and whatnot working together to target the single battleship. This is more akin to what we’re used to in modern warfare and, indeed, reflects more of the strategy of the battle of Midway that will come only a couple years later.

I’m probably over simplifying it, but the claim seems valid to my layman’s eyes.

The book is a partially fictionalized retelling, as Forester recreates conversations that he can most assuredly not have access to. It does make this book approachable and readable, but not academic history. The book clocks in at only 118 pages, too. Remember the days when paperbacks were only 150 pages? Heck, I remember the days when hardbacks were only 180 pages. But then price inflation meant they had to make them fatter to justify higher prices–compare to portion sizes at restaurants–but there was something to be said for a quick, informative read like this. Back when people read.

It’s worth a read. I might even want to see the film now to see the movie-ized version of a fictionalized historical incident looks like.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Martian by Andy Weir (2014)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 9th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverI bought this book as part of a recent new book buying frenzy (see also The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Getting Ahead). I was eager to read this book after seeing it on the blogs and in the Wall Street Journal because it sort of tracked with an idea I had, oh, about twelve years ago.

I remember distinctly walking into the foosball room at the start-up where I worked and explaining that, before we send men to Mars, we need to start littering Mars with things that those men can use in case of trouble. It was right about the time the mission with the rovers Spirit and Opportunity were launched, and I was probably reading some science fiction at the time.

At any rate, this book details a single astronaut’s struggle to survive on Mars after a sudden sandstorm threatens the mission and his injury and apparent death cause his crew to leave him behind as they evacuate. He has only a habitat designed to house six people a limited number of days, two buggies, six potatoes, and his own ingenuity to make the best of his situation and hopefully hold out for some sort of rescue.

The book is a little heavy on the science and the engineering of his predicaments and solutions, but the voice of the fellow keeps it moving along pretty well. Eventually, NASA discovers he’s still alive, and they get to communicate with him when he drives to the Mars Pathfinder and reclaims its radio–see how it meshed with my pre-foosball musings?

So I really liked the book, although it could have been a touch shorter and some of the setbacks seem thrown in to lengthen the book or to pad it out. Of course, Mars is a hostile place–it’s not the kind of place to raise your kids–so I imagine the survival of the fellow is the improbable portion of the story. But it’s a good story.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray (2014)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 7th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverI bought this book because all the cool kids were reading it, and by that, I mean someone on some blogs mentioned it. It sounded like something that might interest me, so I got it.

It’s a book that aims at the Elements of Style for professional behavior and thoughts of millenials coming into the workplace without a sense of etiquette and how to work with others in adult jobs. At least, that’s the way blogs have pitched it to me. It has that, of course, as a bit of a sandwich among a big portion of how to write and think well. So I was taken a bit aback by how much of the book was about how to work at a think tank and less about how to behave in the workplace.

Because, brothers and sisters, that first part is something that was kinda lacking the last time my visage darkened a workplace lo those eight years ago. (Have I been a freelancer that long already? Yes, yes I have.) I can’t imagine they’ve gotten better as that next generation has come up.

But this book didn’t ultimately resonate with me because its focus is split like that: workplace rules and writing well. Murray says this came about as a collection of intranet postings of his at the think tank where he works, and that shows a bit.

I’d hoped I’d get a two-fer on this book and get to review it for my other blog, but meh. It didn’t impress me that much. And although you, gentle reader, get a couple of paragraphs blatted all over your monitor for every book I read, the professional blog only gets things that will fit and that impress me. So take that as my final word on it.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Battle Off Midway Island by Theodore Taylor (1981)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 6th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverThis book is a young adult history book. About World War II. Whoa, we are looking at an artifact here, aren’t we? Nowadays, it seems from the news that all young adult books are sparkly vampire dystopian fantasy bestsellers because adults read them or gritty real-world-of-fevered-dreams fests of sex and drugs that teenagers really deal with in books that teenagers read because they’re told to and only become news stories when someone wants to remove them from a school reading list.

I mean, in 1981, someone expected young readers to read about American history? Like battles and stuff, not about how America sux? I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around it. And this book is touted as the first in a series.

At any rate, I only remembered the basics of the battle before reading the book: Big deal, many Japanese carriers sunk, turned the tide of the war. Given that I know that much, it’s clear I’m not a 21st century young adult.

The books is short–135 pages–and it really only gives an overview of the events after the Coral Sea battle, where the Japanese hoped to lure out the remainder of the American fleet to destroy it, but the Americans had broken the Japanese code and managed to get the drop on them. Then, through (and sometimes in spite of) sacrifices and ill-fated bombing runs on the Japanese carriers, the Americans break the Japanese fleet.

It’s not a jingoistic book, and it’s not an academically detailed book, but it does blend striking moments with the ebb and flow of the engagement, so a (young adult) reader isn’t overwhelmed but does get a sense of warfare. Except when talking about the pilots, one does not realize how young these guys are.

So I enjoyed it and read it quickly, and I’ll be honest, I come out of it knowing only a little more than I had before–knowing which American carrier sank during the engagement and whatnot–but every little bit makes me a bit smarter, so I’ll take it. Combining this book with a recent viewing of The Karate Kid Part II sent me to the globe to relearn some of the topography of the Pacific Ocean, and I’d forgotten where Okinawa is in relation to Japan and where Midway Island(s) is relative to Hawaii. So the book has done me some good indeed.

I’m almost interested to the other books in this series.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Devil’s Pool: A History of Big Cedar Lodge by Charlie Farmer (1995)

Posted in Book Report, Books, History on June 28th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverWe spent a couple of days down at Big Cedar Lodge, a resort on Table Rock Lake owned by the Bass Pro Shops people, and the gift store had this book. I’m always interested in very localized history offerings, and this book is hyper localized. Whereas Webster Park: 1892-1992, Elm Ave., Heart of Webster, and North Webster: A Photograpic History of a Black Community, this book chronicles two houses.

Well, a little more than that.

The book starts out with allusions to the Devil’s Pool and its legends, including the story of an Osage named Wah ‘Kon Tah. The section covering this early history of the region is quite nebulous and abstract, as it would have to be. It’s also a bit of an elegy for the beauty of untamed wilderness versus the predations of man who builds stuff on it and ruins it.

The book gets historical when the land is purchased by a pair of fellows, a Worman and a Simmons, who build homes on it for country retreats during Great Depression I. The book looks at the men and their wives for a while and then goes into the sale and transfer of the property until it becomes the Devil’s Pool Dude Ranch in the 1940s. The book includes a number of first hand accounts from those years, but in the 1960s the owner sells it to a man who dies shortly thereafter in an automobile accident. In 1979, a fellow buys it from the Army Corps of Engineers and tries to turn it into a time-share property, but that doesn’t survive. Then the fellow behind Bass Pro Shops bought it and turned it into the excellent resort it is today, which includes some time shares on the property.

So it’s fittingly a short book: although the landscape has been there a while, there’s not a lot of history to report on the property except that people have moved through it. The author plays up the stories of strange apparitions and ghost stuff tarts it up a bit, where some people think that perhaps Mrs. Worman whose ashes were scattered on the property (although she did not die there) might lead to her haunting it. The structure of the book is not straight ahead in timelines, either–sometimes a person is mentioned and gives some account of his or her time there, so it goes beyond where the character was introduced, and after he or she is done speaking, we go back to the time period where he or she is introduced. That could have been smoothed out.

This piece ultimately reads as a for-hire piece, a sort of white paper for the lodge itself. Which is okay, but it’s not a grand historical document.

And let’s be honest: The one bit of history I’d like to know about is what happened to the purchasers of the time share from the 1980s when the Bass Pro people bought it. Because I just bought a time share in it, and I was assured by the 20 year old sales closer guy that we’re covered in the case of the company reorganizing. And I don’t believe him.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Rogue Angel: Forbidden City by Alex Archer (2007)

Posted in Book Report, Books on May 30th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverI first learned about this series from an advertisement in the Mack Bolan book, and when I saw an entry in the series down in Clever, I bought it. I picked this book up to read because:

  1. I just read an entry in the Rogue Warrior series, so it segued into another Rogue something series nicely.
     
  2. It was on that shelf.

The Rogue Angel series centers on an archeologist, a Lara Croft sort of archeologist (or an Indiana Jones sort of archeologist with a laptop). By the time this entry in the series comes along, she has recreated Joan of Arc’s sword, which she wears invisibly and can draw and use when needed–at which time it becomes visible. Two centuries-old wanderers, former student and teacher but now rivals, help her sometimes, but leave her in the dark mostly.

The book starts with Annja helping a Chinese man find his ancestor’s remains in a mining town near San Francisco. Creed does some research and pinpoints the location and exhumes the remains carefully, at which point the Chinese man would kill Annja for the belt buckle with the remains–but for the timely arrival of three marijuana growers afraid the DEA is onto their operation. Creed flees with the belt buckle and begins researching it. It might be the key to finding a lost Chinese City of Thieves–but a second component, a child’s toy, is in the hands of a Chinese CIA-trained assassin whose father was killed for the item.

The book is rich and vivid in a way that some of these series books (see A Daughter’s Revenge) are not. A number of different storylines come together–the story of the Chinese assassin, a Chinese archeologist near the City of Thieves, and Annja Creed’s dealings with television producers, and her benefactors. Sadly, though, they end up in a bit of a dungeon crawl in the lost city that slightly disappointed me. Also, Creed, our proxy, is a catalyst for the story, but she doesn’t understand what’s ultimately at stake because the old men don’t keep it from her.

Still, it’s a pretty nifty little paperback thriller. I liked it well enough that I’m thinking of ordering the first couple in the series from Amazon. That I’m going to buy other works by the author or in the series at retail price, new is the best endorsement of a book I give.

Books mentioned in this review: