Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Report #86 - Wheelworld by Harry Harrison

Book 10 of 52
Page count - 149 pages

Well, this was a very different book from the first.  Gone is the oppressive, Cold War type, 1984-esque first world society.  Jan Kulozik has been banished to an agricultural world light years away from Earth.  It is a strange world with four-year-long seasons; forcing the colonists to migrate from one polar region to the opposite in order to avoid the hellish summers.  They grow a specially developed corn that is needed for the other worlds under Earth's rule.

Even though Jan is now in an agrarian society there is still plenty of oppression brought on by the family elders.  Equality does not exist; men and women have their roles to play and a man's standing is determined by the job he does and what family he comes from. 

Jan is the head of maintenance; responsible for maintaining the farming and irrigation equipment.  He also keeps the atomic power plants working.  These generators are also, cleverly, converted into massive wheeled locomotives.  Nearly everything in the colony is designed to be moved and linked together into enormous trains. 

The bulk of the story takes place during the migration from the north to the south.  The colonists have been on the planet for generations; the original inhabitants designed and built a 27,000 KM road for the migrations to take place.  Along the way they face all kinds of hardships and obstacles causing friction among the elders and those in charge of the trains.  This particular migration is hindered by absence of the ships that normally come to collect the crops; they are weeks late and every day the colonists stay on site to wait brings summer closer.

The trains themselves made for some interesting story telling but even with this short page count it did tend to drag on.  Missing from the narrative was Jan's past and the rebellion he tried to start on Earth.  It was that complex society from Earth that caught my attention in the first place.  Jan has repeated conflicts with the ruling elders which he cleverly wins each time.  His last brush with authority is particularly scary and brutal.

The last 10 pages will either make you cheer or groan.  It felt like Harrison wrote himself into a corner and felt he had to create a surprise twist to make the story compelling.  It did not work for me and I kind of wish he'd kept Jan on Earth instead of banishing him.  A whole world was developed in the previous novel and then abandoned in the second.  I just hope the author can tie them both together in the last book.
Original book cover

Harry Harrison

Monday, April 7, 2014

Book Report #85 - Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

Book 9 of 52
Page count - 17 CDs, 20 hours 40 minutes

I struggled with whether I should include this in my challenge since I did not "read" it.  However, it was far too important a book not to include.  Plus, this audiobook was unabridged and took over 20 hours of my time to consume.

I grew up during the Cold War and there were times that I was very scared my life would end in a thermonuclear flash.  According to Eric Schlosser there was more to be scared of than Geo-political tension between the super powers.  There were countless accidents, mishaps, losses, crashes, fires and human errors with atomic and thermonuclear weapons that it is a wonder we are all still alive today.

The book was chilling.  It scared me to my core.  I found the level of paranoia of the first two decades of the Cold War to be nearly incomprehensible.  How could men of power be so foolish?

The book itself followed a terrible accident that happened at one missile silo in the United States.  The author explained just how dangerous the Titan II missile system was on it's own, never mind that one of the most powerful warheads sat on top of it.  From the moment a technician accidentally drops a socket down the silo and damages the missile Schlosser takes us on a journey of just how that weapon was developed and the history behind the cold war as well.

It was an enormous subject that could have branched off into the Space Race, espionage, satellite development and submarine warfare.  I would have gladly listened to more.  But limits must be put on to the scope of a book and there was a lot of material to ponder here.

There were a couple of times in the history of the arms race that fiction played a powerful role in it's direction.  The first was the 1958 book called Red Alert by Peter George (published under the pen name Peter Bryant) which told the story of a rouge USAF general launching a first strike against the USSR.  The novel was so profoundly plausible that it was distributed among the decision makers in the US military and influenced readiness and safety policy for decades.  It was also the book that was the basis of Stanley Kubrick's movie Dr. Strangelove.

Red Alert is in the public domain and I've downloaded a copy which I will review here in the future.

The other bit of fiction was the Jason Robards TV movie The Day After, which showed how a nuclear war affected the residence of Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri.  This show had such a profound effect on President Ronald Ragan that after watching it, he began to negotiate with the USSR to stop nuclear testing and reduce the arsenal.

I once reviewed the book Seawitch by Alistair MacLean -( ) and blasted it for the unbelievable lack of security surrounding a military weapon storage facility.  Well, I was wrong about the security; there were many instances in Command and Control that illustrated incredibly lax measures taken to prevent the theft of atomic weapons.  Fiction may be fiction but it can be spot on.


NOTE - Be ready to have the shit scared out of you at the end.  Just saying.

Eric Schlosser

Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Report #84 - Farside by Ben Bova

8 of 52
page count - 367

This had a higher page count than I'm trying to concentrate on but I've always enjoyed Bova's work and have found him an easy read.

As much as I like Bova I found this book to be longer than it had to be.  A lot of points were repeated to the point of annoyance.

That said, I enjoyed it.  This is the kind of science fiction that I'm always interested in; there are no aliens, for a start, it's about people, people trying to make a living, trying to accomplish something.  With that comes conflict and opposing interests.

The book confines itself to the moon but travel throughout the solar system is part of the reality of the setting.  This kind of near-earth SF is fun to read because it's the next logical step in human exploration.  Our technology today does not include interstellar travel. We don't have a warp drive, but if we wanted, we could travel about the solar system today.

I think Bova is doing humanity a favour by telling stories that still embraces the "What If..." spark of SF but keeps it close to home.  Perhaps he's trying to inspire people to make the "giant leap."

Ben Bova

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Report #83 - Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald

7 of 52
page count - 304

This is a much-beloved series, however, it is the penultimate book and I felt like I jumped in at the wrong place.

Travis McGee is a very likable guy but he came off a bit flat for me.  I think it was because McGee was a well established character and the book was written with a fan in mind.  It felt like a comfortable place to get reacquainted with an old friend not to be introduced to him.

We were going through a very cold period in Edmonton and I wanted to read a story set in a warm climate.  Florida fit the bill perfectly.

The novel was about tracking down a serial killer one who goes as far as being in a close relationship with his victims.  I liked the uniqueness of this kind of murderer but I was never taken by the story.

I'd give the book two stars - knowing full-well that I was coming at the series from the back end which was a disadvantage.

I have some other MacDonald novels on my shelf and I'll certainly give them a go.  Just not right away.

John D. MacDonald

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Report #82 - Homeworld by Harry Harrison

6 of 52
Page count - 155

Published in 1980 it is chilling just how accurately Harrison predicted surveillance methods.

The main character, Jan Kulozik is an electronics engineer, one of the privileged elite who went about his life oblivious about the structure of his society.  An unfortunate sailing accident and risky rescue propel Kulozik into a plot to overthrow the ruling elite and restore democracy to humanity.

Set in a distant future London where interstellar travel has been a reality for generations, the story takes place mostly on Earth.  It felt like a Cold War thriller and was just as scary and dangerous as one.

The book was hopeful and bleak all at once.  It was wonderful.  I read it in two sittings.  Luckily this first novel was collected in paperback in 1994 with the title, "To The Stars." I'll be ripping into the next two installments very soon.

If you like underground spy thrillers and movies like Blade Runner this book will satisfy you.

Highly recommended.

Original book cover
Harry Harrison

Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Report #81 - Fifty-Two Pickup by Elmore Leonard

Book 5 of 52
Page count - 239

After the adventures of Max Fisher from Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, I just had to pick up a classic Elmore Leonard.

Published in 1974 it still stood fresh and believable 40 years later.  What I love best about Leonard's writing is how delves into the world of the criminals, something I find fascinating. 

Harry Mitchell, owner of a Detroit auto parts manufacturing business, is targeted for some classic blackmail.  His affair with a younger woman was filmed and shown to him along with their demands for money.  But the bad guys have targeted a man who decides to fight back.  Harry knows that if he pays, the bad guys will not just go away.

The book was a fun read.  One of the things I like about reading older books is how they can be a snapshot of the past.  Technology is a fun one; it's easy to forget how important payphones were or how different life was without the Internet.  In the opening scene Harry is shown the movie from a portable screen and home projector.

I was a few chapters in when my wife mentioned the line at the bottom of the cover: "Soon to be a Major Movie!"  An INDb search brought up the 1986 production starring Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret.  I'll have to track it down and watch it.

If anyone is interested in the vintage paperback book itself, leave a comment and I'll contact you for a mailing address.

Elmore Leonard

Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Report #80 - The Max by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

Book 4 of 52
Page count - 220

I can't help it; I just loved this series.  Max Fisher, aka The M.A.X. Finds himself in prison.  But, just like always, he makes the best of it from sheer blind luck and arrogance.

I've never come across a character that was as much fun to read.

Bruin and Starr are a great writing team.

Ken Bruen
Jason Starr

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Report #79 - Star Trek: Chain of Attack by Gene DeWeese

3 of 52
Page count - 251

Published in 1987 this book was a bit stiff; I found the narration went on a bit too much, for my tastes.  But, it was #32 in the Star Trek Original Series novels so, perhaps, Pocket Books and Paramount were still trying to build an audience and didn't want to alienate new readers.  Who knows.

The Enterprise was investigating some gravitational anomalies, as such things tend to happen in the Star Trek universe, and is flung right out of the Milky Way galaxy to some unknown and very distant galaxy.  The gateway they traveled through immediately closes and leave the crew stranded far, far from home.

While investigating nearby stars and planets Kirk and the boys discover that each and every habitable planet has been destroyed.  Some cataclysmic war wiped out all life from each planet they visit.  While trying to understand what may have happened they are attacked quite suddenly by the first space traveling species they encounter.

The Enterprise and its crew have dropped into a war that has been going on for centuries and it's up to them to try and survive long enough to get back home.

I found I had to press through this book.  There were times where I had to go back and re-read passages because I found myself glossing over what I was reading.  To be honest I had the plot pretty much figured out from the opening chapters.

If you miss this book - don't lose any sleep over it.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Report #78 - Monitor by Janice MacDonald

2 of 52
Page count - 322

I chose this book after reading an Edmonton Journal review of MacDonald's latest book: Condemnd to Repeat.  That book is part of a series; I'm the kind of person who likes to read a series in order.  Years ago, before this blog, I had read the first book; Sticks and Stones, so I decided this second instalment was the right place to jump in.

If memory serves Sticks and Stones only appealed to me because I was set right here in Edmonton.

In the first third of Monitor nothing, and I mean n.o.t.h.i.n.g, happens.  Set in 2003, Randy Craig, the narrator and protagonist of the story, takes on a job to monitor the happenings of a chat room.  Her job is to lurk about making sure participants don't break the rules of conduct.

I would classify this story as a cozy, it really was more about Randy making coffee, cleaning her apartment and gossiping with her friends than telling a mystery.  I got bored a lot.  The ending was pretty good if a bit far fetched.

All in all, for a second book, it was okay but it does not fill me with the desire to rush out to read the next instalment.


Web page for Monitor:

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Report #77 - Angle of Investigation by Michael Connelly

1 of 52
Page count - 92

A little while ago I stumbled on to a short essay, on Medium, that spoke of the writer's experience having just read 54 books in a year.  In 2011 I challenged myself to something similar; 26 books in a year, it's from that challenge that these book reviews are numbered.  Reading is my most enjoyed activity and I've got hundreds of books just waiting for me to read.

I've accepted the challenge to read a book a week.  The plan is to start a new book every Saturday.  Today I'm giving myself an easy challenge by reading a 92 page, Harry Bosch collection of three short stories.

Here we go.

Christmas Even - finds Harry investigating the death of a pawn shop burglar.  While working the case Harry finds a saxophone that once belonged to Quentin McKinzie which brings back powerful memories for him.

I really liked this story especially the ending it was sweet, sad and hart-warming.

Father's Day - Yikes.  This was a tough story to read; the death of a child is not an easy subject to tackle in a 31 page story.  This one was a bit of a gut punch, not graphic in any way but I was left wondering how anybody could bring himself to the actions taken here.

Angle of Investigation - This one read like a novel complete with a gripping back story of Bosh's second day on the job.  That day he and his partner discover the body of a woman who had been drowned, along with her dog, in the bathtub of her home.

The killer was never found until Harry picks up the case in his role in Open-Unsolved.  There is a satisfying twist and a shocking end.

Note: I once reviewed the first story in the book in a previous post.  This review is for the book as a whole.  Connelly is usually a safe bet for quality story telling.  You might find this book a perfect fit for commuting or waiting at the airport.  The three stories are satisfying and well told.