Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review #113 - The World America Made by Robert Kagan

Book 37 of 52
Page count - 140

What would the world look like if America were to reduce its role as a global leader in order to focus all its energies on solving its problems at home?

Is America really in decline?

These are the two fundamental questions this brief book tries to answer.

Of course, the answer is - it's complicated.  However, Kagan does a nice job of putting the United States current role in historical context which shines a bright light at how fleeting power structures are in human history and how unique the current order is.

I felt the author's look at what our modern world could look like if the United States were to reduce it's influence to be balanced and well thought out.

I found myself stopping my reading simply to think about some of his observations.

Well worth reading.

Robert Kagan

Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review #112 - No Place to Hide, Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Serveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

Book 36 of 52
Page count - 253

The last book I read that scared me was Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm.  This one scared me more because it's happening to all of us.

Here is presented the account, from the journalist who broke the story, of domestic spying by the NSA, of how Edward Snowden blew the whistle and made public this illegal activity.

The first part of the book described how Snowden approached the author to help him reveal the domestic surveillance taking place.  The second part looked more closely at the documents themselves while the third looks at how living in a surveillance society effects the behavior and attitudes of the population.  The last part of the books looks at how journalism in the US has changed over the past decades and just how it's independence has eroded.

It is a chilling story that should make anyone who reads it look at the nightly news and general main stream reporting with a cautious eye.  Everything revealed in the book was previously embedded in my subconscious but it took reading it on the page to make me notice just how journalism favours the government.  We seldom see the rogue journalist chasing corruption.  Instead journalists are threatened personally and the owners of media corporations are coerced to sit on news items, sometimes for months at a time, or prevented from reporting outright.

Anytime you read a book like this you have to take a cautious approach so as not to get sucked in completely by the author.  It's an important part of reporting but it is also a one-sided read.  That said, what is truly important here,  is the fact that these things ARE taking place.  The NSA is gobbling up nearly all communications data on everyone.  The government of the USA is funding and using all this information.  Anything we do online, including reading this review, is tracked and recorded.  Independent journalism is under great threat; there are only a few truly independent reporters left in the world.

But you can't let these revelations scare you into curling up in a ball and giving up on the Internet.  It is also important to know that since the revelations of Snowden have been made public the tide is showing sign of turning.  We live in a period of time that will eventually pass; it is always difficult to have perspective when we are in the middle of things. 

What you will come away with is a new awareness of everything you say and do on-line.  Every time you post on Facebook or do a Google search you will think of what you read in this book.  Maybe it will stop you or maybe it will awaken a need to get a different view of things from sources that are defying the pressure to conform.

Very interesting reading.

You may also be interested in a current article of Snowden from Wired magazine.

August 2014 issue of Wired Magazine - Edward Snowden

For some independent journalism try The Intercept website in which Greenwald is a contributor.

Glenn Greenwald

Monday, October 6, 2014

Book Review #111 - Ocean Titans by Daniel Sekulich

Book 35 of 52
Page count - 242

This book was published in 2006 and looks at modern commercial shipping.  The twist here is in the sub title; Journeys In Search Of The Soul Of A Ship.  Most times a ship is humanized first by giving it a name and then by referring to it as "she."  Emotional connections are often formed with vehicles, from bicycles to cars, planes and ships, even spacecrafts; they take us from one place and, hopefully, safely deliver is to another.

Sekulich begins his journey where it all ends; the ship-breaking yards of Alang, India, where we find him searching for clues about the last crew of the tanker SS Sag River.  He wanders the vessel looking through the various areas finding small, personal items left aboard by its last inhabitants.  Its really is quite a sad scene but from it we are shown the wonderful and largely invisible world of commercial shipping.

Just about everything we own has spent some time aboard a ship, transported from a factory to a dock, a rail car and or a truck and delivered to a store to be purchased by us.  It's a system that is vital to our economies and yet we only hear about them when disasters happen.

The author takes us around the world searching and experiencing the impact a ship has on people.  We start at the design phase to the fascinating world of ship building; from the first cut of steel to sea trials.  We get an understanding of the ship owners, the captains, the engineers who keep the vessels running and to the deck hands.  We also learn about the sea itself and how people cope with the weeks and months of isolation.  Finally we see the last days of a ship; from being beached to being taken apart by the folks who's lives depend on recycling these gigantic machines.  We are also treated  to a glimmer of life in the creation of something new from the scrapped, forgotten and yet wonderful boats.

From the title I expected a romantic view of the subject and I was not disappointed.  It was also a well researched and interesting subject, I can't recommend it enthusiastically enough. It was a charming, understanding, respectful and hopeful read.  I've come away with a well rounded understanding of this nearly invisible, world-spanning industry.  Through it all the book is deeply infused with humanity; it would have been easy to get lost in the numbers and the technicality of it, but the author never lost sight of the fact that it is people that make the whole damn thing work.


Daniel Sekulich
You can find his blog HERE.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review #110 - Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Seize The Fire by Michael A.Martin

Book 34 of 52
Page count - 488

This is the second book in the Typon Pact series and centers it's story around Will Riker and his ship the Titan.

After the affairs described in Destiny, races that felt they were forced to participate in the Federation actions against the Borg formed their own alliance.  Members of the pact are; the Romulans, the Tzenkethi, the Breen, the Gorn and the Tholians.

These are all races the Federation has had troubles with in the past so it's a bit ominous that they would all group together in a rival alliance.  So now the world of Star Trek is poised to endure a period of Cold War much like the United States and the USSR.  This could make for some interesting story telling.

Unlike the previous series, the Destiny trilogy, these books do not follow a single narrative, at least not yet.  The first two books truly stand alone and serve to more fully explore each of the member races.  In this book we take a look at the Gorn Hegemony where they have suffered a terrible natural disaster.  A critical hatchery world is destroyed and they are now looking for a candidate to terraform to replace it.  The trouble starts when they choose a planet that is inhabited by intelligent pre-warp beings.

Riker and the Titan must get involved to save the inhabitants of this world.

We learn more about the Gorn society and  how delicately it is held together.

All in all it was a good story in that understanding the Gorn is the primary thing I've come away with.  The book itself could have been cut by 150 pages without hurting the plot one bit.  The amount of repetition is astounding, you'd think this was a collection of serialized stories, not a novel.  Plus, again, "sigh", aliens, (I hate these guys) - so much ink is wasted on describing all the funky aliens working on Titan that I was ready to pull my hair out. 

This book was only okay.  It was such a slog to get through that it has made me want to take a break from the world of Star Trek.

Interestingly, this recent period of exclusively reading Star Trek stories has awakened some real world interests in me.  While reading this fiction I've been buying many non-fiction books that the stories have inspired me to learn more about.  I've got dozens of books about the history of space flight, engineering, shipping, espionage and exploration all inspired to be purchased from reading Star Trek.

Because Star Trek books are so closely related to each other I've come away with a desire to read some history.  I could have gone on a quest to learn the history of Star Trek by buying all the old books and filling in the blanks but, instead, I want to learn more about the real history and current events of the world I'm living in.  I'll be returning to Star Trek from time to time but I don't see myself reading them exlusively as I have been for the past while.

I'll still be choosing books that I feel I can fit into my book a week challenge.  Once the 52nd book is read I'll be free to tackle some of the larger books out there.

Michael A Martin

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review #109 - Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Zero Sum Game by David Mack

Book 33 of 52
Page count - 336

This is the first book (of 8) in the second major mini-series in the Star Trek novels.

After the Destiny trilogy some of the less-than-friendly races, who fought against the Borg, have split away from the Federation to form their own coalition known as the Typhon Pact; much like the Cold War after World War 2.

The Breen and the Romulans work together, in a covert attack, to steal the Slipstream Warp technology from the Federation.  Section 31 recruits Julian Bashir and Ezri Dax to mount their own counter-op to recover the stolen data and to destroy the prototype ship the Breen are building.

I just love spy stories and this one was a boat-load of fun even though there were some moments where I thought some of the circumstances were a bit ridiculous.  Bashir and his estranged love Sarina Douglas are dropped into Breen society with the monumental task of having to infiltrate a top-secret shipyard.

The Breen are a super-secretive society where individual identity is kept hidden by the wearing of uniforms and helmets.  The underlying reasoning is quite interesting; without clues to race or gender Breen society can work on the notion of egalitarian decision making.  It also makes for a very secretive and rule-based culture.

The Breen
The Federation knows next to nothing about the Breen and it is left to Bashir and Douglas to figure out the language, social interactions and  geography in order to complete the mission.  I felt this was too much to expect the reader to believe; considering the Breen are super-secretive among themselves, imagine how monumental a task it is for aliens posing as natives to overcome being detected in the street never mind trying to infiltrate a military base.

Some of the action sequences fall into the James Bond level of silly, pulpy, over-the-top, death-defying improbability that I found myself laughing instead of holding my breath in excitement.  I also found it less than believable when the characters are instantly experts in alien languages, computer interfaces, piloting alien crafts and withstanding torture.  I mean really?  Where are their capes?

So, yes it was fun but one of the things I like about Star Trek is the believability of it all.  It's a fine line between the probable and just making shit up to make the story work.  It is also very difficult to continually up the stakes form one adventure to the next.  So I find myself forgiving David Mack for taking certain leaps and look on this story as a whole which was a fun popcorn movie of a book.  I especially liked the Breen society and I hope we get to see more of it in future books.

I've already started reading the next book in the series so don't let my Luke-warm review deter you from reading it.  If you approach it like a Bond movie you'll be in a good place to enjoy yourself.

David Mack
Here is a pretty cool promotion poster.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review #108 - Star Trek: Destiny: Lost Souls by David Mack

Book 32 of 52
Page count -283


The Federation is only moments away from complete destruction.  Billions have died and billions more are about to.

With the help of Captain Erika Hernandez, Will Riker and the crew of the Titan return to the Azure Nebula only to find that they are well behind enemy lines.  The war looks to be lost while the remnants of the Federation are preparing to meet their fate. The Borg press on with their plan to destroy it.

There are often glimmers of hope in the battle however most gains the Federation makes are soon lost, leaving only desperate plans.  What comes as a surprise is which characters rise to the challenge and which take unfamiliar roles of support rather then leadership.  I found that very refreshing.

We are also treated to a wonderful origin story that becomes the key to everything.

I cannot express how happy I am that this series has come along.  From this trilogy all the characters we know from the Star Trek universe are set free from the shackles of CBS and Paramount Pictures.  The authors are no longer constrained by what might transpire in future movies or TV episodes, since they are over and there is no chance of further installments.  The 23rd century now only lives in the novels and it is in very capable hands.

If you've come this far you will read the last book in the series; you don't need me to encourage you.  Resistance to Star Trek: Destiny is futile.

Omnibus edition cover art.
David Mack

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Interphase Book 2 - by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore, a short story review.

Original cover.
In part one the Captain and his a way team are stranded on the Defiant, inside the spacial anomaly, while the Tholians execute a surprise attack on the da Vinci.

This becomes a two-perspective story switching from the actions of the away team trying to free the ship from the anomaly and the crew of the da Vinci coping with the attack while being led by an inexperienced officer.

Through the action the authors keep injecting moments of humor that serve to break the tension for the reader and the characters in the story.  This kind of self-deprecating interaction is easily achieved among people with exceptional abilities and strikes a note of realism that I very much enjoyed.

I'm not sure if David Mack has read these stories although I feel he must have.  There is a scene at the end of the story that was lifted and inserted into the end of Star Trek: Destiny.  I do know that these three authors have worked extensively together so I'm pretty sure this kind of thing is more a tip of the hat then a lift.  It's a form of compliment among authors.

In any case this story was very satisfying and I recommend anything written by Ward and/or Dilmore.

Dayton Ward (Captain) and Kevin Dilmore (Navigation)
Cover of the omnibus collection

Monday, September 8, 2014

Book Review #107 - Star Trek: Destiny:Mere Mortals by David Mack

Book 31 of 52
Page count - 273

What a wonderful surprise.  After the exceedingly dull narrative of the first book this one hooked me in.  Plot lines started to come together in compelling ways.  The long captivity of Captain Hernandez begins to pay off as we find the crew of the Titan is now trapped in orbit around the Caeliar home world; while Troi's pregnancy increases the tension.

Meanwhile, in the Azure Nebula, Picard and Dax are trying to unravel the mystery of the subspace tunnels that the Borg are using to attack the Federation.  While there they witness an overwhelming attack.  This was a "Holy Crap" moment in the story where I did not pause for a moment to begin reading the final book in the series.

What I learned from this tale was to trust David Mack; he has mad skills as a novelist and there is nothing in the books that doesn't pay off further along.

Read this trilogy; it changes everything about Star Trek literature.  From this you really get the sense that the plots are moving forward again.

Omnibus edition cover.
David Mack

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Interphase Book 1 - by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore, a short storyreview.

The fourth installment in the Corps of Engineers series was a cracking read.  The USS da Vinci is sent to Tholian space to recover the Defiant, a Constitution class starship lost in a spacial anomaly 100 years previously.

Its the job of the da Vinci's captain and crew is to figure out a way to pull the derelict ship out of the anomaly.

This being a two-parter; things go terribly wrong just as the team is making progress.

This story was so well written with good dialog and a plausible situation.  Dilmore and Ward always turn out entertaining page-turners.  This one felt like it could have been a television show; it was very cinematic.  Some of the best sequences are the moments when the crew beam over and make it to the classic bridge.  There are some cringe-worthy moments as the away team discover the ship is not only a museum piece but also a tomb.

These stories were once sold individually, today they are collected in omnibus volumes.  Pocket Books are taking full advantage of the ability to split the two parts into separate volumes, ensuring sales of the next book.  But I don't mind it a bit since most of the stories are of such high quality.

Read on people.

Dayton Ward (left) and Kevin Dilmore (right)

Omnibus cover art.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Report #106 - The Edge by Rudy Josephs, a Starfleet Academy novel

Book 30 of 52
Page count - 249

At last a story with a believable plot.

According to Wikipedia and Memory Alpha this is the second book in the series.  However, it reads like the first one. I guess that publishing has the same kinds of pressures as broadcast TV can have, where they feel compelled to release stories out of order.

In any case, this was the only book in the series that treated the characters like cadets and did not allow them to venture out of believable circumstances.  In this novel we find some students are prepared to take dangerous chances in order to compete and excel in the grueling environment of the academy.

In the 2009 movie, we see Kirk meet McCoy for the first time on the shuttle that takes them to the academy.  The film then cuts to "three years later," ignoring their time there completely.  In this book we get to see what happened the moment they stepped off the shuttle. We are also treated to see the major characters' first personal encounters with each other.

Leonard McCoy is central to this book, which makes me very happy since he's my favorite character from the movies.

This is the book that makes me wonder why the whole series could not have been structured this way.

NOTE - Unfortunately there is no web presence for this author. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Report #105 - The Delta Anomaly by Rick Barba a Starfleet Academy novel.

Book 29 of 52
Page count - 223

The first installment in the Starfleet Academy series of YA books set in the newly rebooted Star Trek universe.  It follows Kirk (played my Chris Pine in the movies) during his time at the academy.

This is the third book in the series that I've read and the second by Barba.  Luckily these stories are all quite self contained so reading them out of order is not a big deal, although watching the first movie before reading the books is highly recommended.

As I keep finding while reading YA books; I am NOT the target audience and so I keep noticing just how thin the plots are.  I find things are not pursued to my satisfaction and that the characters can move on from certain events like they have ADD.  The ability for characters to switch from being in peril to hitting on an attractive girl in the span of one paragraph is a bit concerning. Although this is played for humor it tended to take me out of the story.

In this book Kirk is in the middle of some practical away mission tests.  At the same time there is a serial killer roaming the streets of San Fransisco striking on foggy nights.

There is no story unless Kirk and the gang are involved in the attacks; how they are initially drawn in worked extremely well.  As a matter of fact the first encounter with the killer, known as the Doctor, happened during my favorite scene in the book where kirk is fending off the advances of Gaila in a local bar.

The story switches from classes to the investigation quite frequently.  Obviously the SFPD are involved in the murders and they quickly realize starfleet can help, I was continually being thrown out of the story thinking, "that would never happen" as the police handed more and more responsibility to starfleet cadets.  Cadets!

Even the final confrontation with the Doctor, which called for so much suspension of disbelief that I nearly started laughing out loud.  Everything about the investigation worked, it was only in the author's choice of who was tasked with trying to apprehend the bad guy that struck me as improbable.

Would I recommend the book?  To be honest, no.  But the author gets his legs in The Gemini Agent which had better plotting with an interesting twist ending, and he also got the voices of the characters better in his second book.

I believe the flaw in the books speaks more to the flaw in the series and that seems to point to the editors at Simon Spotlight. Lets face it; kids in school are kids in school, I would much rather read about something plausible, like how they cope with difficult classmates and instructors.  Instead the reader is constantly being asked to believe that Kirk has been saving the world since day one.  It's a bit much.

There is only one more book in the series to read ...

Rick Barba

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Hard Crash by Christie Golden - a short story review

Here was a good stand-alone story of finding a crashed ship on an inhabited world.  The government of the planet calls for Federation help to remove the alien vessel.

Once the da Vinci arrives nothing they first suspect about the ship is correct.

What we are left with is a touching story of an ill-fated civilization with a type of technology we've had little exposure to.

It's good to read a story that does not have an aggressive antagonist but, instead, a misunderstood one.  This goes to the hart of what Star Trek is really all about: discovery.

Well done indeed.

Her website is HERE.

Christie Golden
Cover art of the anthology

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Review #104 - Star Trek: Seekers - Second Nature by David Mack

Book 28 of 52
Page count - 301

Hoo Boy! Was this book ever a ride!

As this is a spin-off from the Vanguard series I was reluctant to start here but the cover has a big fat number ONE on it, so it seemed like a good place.  Sure enough, there were references to the previous series but David Mack did a great job adding the exposition to make THIS story work.  

And what a story; in a nice departure from typical Star Trek adventure, the crew compliment of the USS Sagittarius is 14.  It is a tiny scout ship making for tight quarters.  What I loved best about this book was the dialog.  Mack showed a more relaxed crew with a sense of humor and how these tightly-packed people tease each other; get on each others' nerves and work together.  This crew felt more real, more believable, less formal than what we've seen on other star ships.

I felt like I was reading an old-fashioned science fiction pulp novel. I mean that in the best way possible; this opening chapter, in what I hope is a long running series, was pure escapist fun.  Best of all, there's even a cliff-hanger ending.

This is set in the TOS timeline and makes references to Kirk and the Enterprise for context, and to encourage you to dig out your DVD box set to watch the episode that has a bearing on this story.

The story starts like you'd imagine; the Sagittarius is sent to investigate a strange energy reading on a sparsely populated pre-warp world.  The race that lives there all commit a ritual suicide when they reach the age of 17 or 18.  This is done to avoid something the natives call The Change.  The Starfleet crew are trying to understand these people when - the Klingons show up.  Classic!

The wisecracking dialogue and the pacing make this near-stand-alone a must read.

I am so looking forward to book 2 because I want to see what comes next.

Stay tuned travelers.

David Mack

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review #103 - Starworld by Harry Harrison - Book 3 of the To The Stars trilogy

Book  27 of 52
Page count 161

At long last I've read the last book in the series.

Trilogies - they can be frustrating; the middle book especially.  The second volume of this trilogy was such a departure from the promising first that I and no desire to pick up the third for four months. Thankfully this last volume was a return to the fun Cold War-like setting but this time much if it taking place on board ships in space.

Revolution has come to Earth and Jan Kulozik is leading the charge for freedom from the oppressive government.  Right in the middle of things is Jan's antagonist Thurgood-Smyth, his evil and manipulative brother-in-law.  Smyth is by far my favourite character in this story; he is such a self-serving, ambitious, back-stabbing bureaucrat that I just wanted to take a shower after reading the parts of the book where he was present.

I love hard science fiction that pokes holes in popular tropes of the genre.  There is one scene in this third volume, that I just loved, where the opening scene of the movie Star Wars is discredited for the fantasy that it is.  After explaining how there can be no lasers in space warfare the engineer explains to Jan how, to truly fight in space, you have to use tried-and-true methods from hundreds of years in the past.  I won't tell you what it is since I think it was the best moment in the book and made everything else seem more plausible.

There was some great interplay between Kulozik and Thurgood-Smyth and, even in the final pages, you are never quite sure what Smyth is really up to.

So, was the story, as a whole, any good?  Well ... It was okay.  The second book really ruined things for me, there were some good moments there but not enough to say that it was worth reading.  It does, however resonate with you as you read the third novel.  These are rather short books, making the whole thing less of a commitment than most modern trilogies.  But it also suffers from the short page count, in that some leaps in plotting and simplification of character development occurs.

Up until now I've stayed away from the literary form, trilogies I mean.  They seem like such a commitment; three books to tell one story?  For my self, I am more comfortable with a series, you can dive in at just about any point, knowing the books are linked but that the author will give you enough back story to allow you to understand the book you are reading.

Original cover.

Harry Harrison