Did you know Robert Langdon has a Mickey Mouse Watch?

32283133Dan Brown has been a contentious figure for years. His Robert Langdon series has been a best-seller, if not always well-reviewed. His first novel in the series, Angels & Demons, wasn’t a huge seller, but then came The Da Vinci Code, which was. I read the book shortly before the movie came out, and it was a fast, breezy read. It also felt very familiar when I read it, since I had read Holy Blood, Holy Grail year before it. I certainly wasn’t all that surprised when the authors of that book sued him for not bothering to even acknowledge that he was using their book as a basis (he claimed that he’d done the same sort of research as they did, and he did win the case).

Then came The Last Symbol, which I have to say was a turkey. Seriously, it was bad. Inferno was better, and surprised me by ending on a world-changing note that no one knows about. When I heard that a new book in the series was coming, I wondered if they would address the outcome, but wasn’t surprised that it was ignored. Probably it’s too soon for the results to have been noticed.

Dan Brown’s writing is very formulaic. He’s found a formula that works from him, and he doesn’t really deviate from them. Robert Langdon, accompanied by a younger female companion (at least the one in The Last Symbol was his age), is hunted from symbolic location to location. There’s always good guys who turn out to be bad guys, and bad guys who think he’s committed a crime who become allies. Other than Inferno, there is a fringe religious sect on the opposite side.

Oh yeah, and Langdon swims in a pool at some point, and there are references to his Mickey Mouse watch.

So, in Origin we have: a murdered scientist sends Langdon on the run with his companion, this time a museum curator who is engaged to the next king of Spain. They run from location to location, usually a building designed by Gaudi, while hunted by the assassin and the palace guard. The palace may be involved, and have announced that Langdon kidnapped the future consort. And this time, the religious sect is the Palmarian Church.

I enjoyed listening to the audiobook of this volume, but the ending left me cold. Basically, the whole book was for the purpose of delivering a lecture at the end. And the only reason that there is a mystery is because Kirsch, the dead man, never read Asimov. Seriously, the entire plot boils down to a very smart man doing something stupid. If he hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been a plot.

Still, I spent a lot of time with Google, looking up places, art, and news articles mentioned in the book. If nothing else, it gave me a lot of places that I’d like to visit if I ever get to Spain. After all, the best part of the series is the travelogues.


I love Sourdough (and sourdough)

35046017Robin Sloan’s first novel is currently sitting on my bookcase of books to be read, but I haven’t got to it yet (and yes, I have two bookcases *full* of unread books). I do plan to get to it, based on reviews I read.

Instead, I read his second novel first, in part because I could get the audiobook digitally from my library (although I did buy the trade paperback, the audio book fit my schedule better).

What can I say except that I loved Sourdough. It was quirky, and while I don’t bake, I very much identified with the protagonist, Lois. I’m a software tester for the government, while she’s a software developer in private industry, but I can empathise with the level of stress she’s under, having been under it myself, complete with the stomach issues.

My way of dealing with stress ended up being taking up knitting, while in her case, she is gifted with an unusual sourdough starter from a pair of brothers who make her favorite takeout but who end up having to leave the country because of problems with their work visas.

At first she makes sourdough for herself. Then the chef at the company cafeteria starts buying her sourdough. Then she gets pulled into an underground (figuratively and literally) market. Meanwhile, she’s still trying to figure out how to solve the egg problem at work (ie, teaching a robot arm to crack eggs instead of smashing them).

Along the way, she is trying to solve a number of mysteries. Why does the starter require music? Why do her loaves of bread have faces on them? Who runs the market? Where did the starter originally come from? And why does it seem strangely alive?

I was thoroughly sucked in, both by the narrator and the book itself. The audiobook even has some bonuses, such as actual ‘music of the Mazg’, which the starter needs to thrive, at least at first. As well, one plot point is a company that makes a food substitute called Slurry, which they market to techies with bad stomachs. There are occasional emails and advertisements from the that appear in the audiobook, but not the paperback.

All in all, I loved the book, and I look forward both to reading Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and whatever he comes up with next.

Two takes on World War Two

This month I got the urge for World War Two books. I went through two, one non-fiction and one fiction, in quick succession. Normally I don’t read multiple books on the same subject too close together, but this pairing worked.

34533307The first was Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, written and read by Giles Milton. Most of the non-fiction I’ve read about the World War Two focuses on great battles, daring spies, and political manoeuvring. All interesting, but after a while they blend together.

This book, however, looks at a different part of the war: sabotage. A small number of men, in the lead-up to WWII, realized that there was other, possibly safer, ways of fighting. They started designing limpet mines and other instruments of sabotage. When the war is declared, they advocated training small numbers of men to sneak in and destroy targets instead of using bombers. The main part of the military object to this as being improper, uncouth.. ungentlemanly. (in one operation, the head of the RAF refused to let his planes be used to parachute a team into enemy territory because he disapproved of their mission).

This book covers the political maneuvering and Churchill’s approval that let this department operate. It also covers a handful of their missions: destroying an isolated plant in Norway that was producing heavy water for atomic weapon development, blowing up equipment a Porsche plant that is producing tank parts, destroying train bridges in Greece carrying critical supplies for Rommell’s war in North Africa.

And while the UK military brass disapproved of these actions as being not cricket, the US military borrowed heavily. For example, if you’ve ever seen the tv series X Company, the characters are trained at Camp X, which was the US adoption of the ministry.

It also covers the period at the end of the war when there is a debate over whether the weapons and training should be maintained going into the cold war, or discarded as no longer needed. We also get a view of some of the people involved and what happened to them after peace (including the secretary who dated Ian Fleming and is believed to be a model for Miss Moneypenny)

The author reads the book for the audiobook, and is one of those rare authors who does an excellent job of it.

30655792After listening to this one, I had the urge to go for the next book in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (read by Orlagh Cassidy). I’ve only ‘read’ the previous book in this series, even through the series has more than ten books. I don’t really have much interest in going back and reading (or listening to) the earlier books, but I think I’ll continue with the series going forward.

In the series, Maisie Dobbs is a widow, a war veteran (as a nurse), a private detective, and in at least the previous book, a government agent. In that book, she is asked to travel to Munich in Nazi Germany to impersonate the daughter of an inventor who has been tossed in a concentration camp. The Nazis will release him, but only to a family member, and his daughter (the only living family member) is too ill to travel. At the end of that book, Maisie has come out of mourning and reopens her detective agency.

The newest book in the series picks up about a year later, with her and her dearest friend’s family listening as the Prime Minister announces that war has been declared. This touches off a lot of changes as children are evacuated to the countryside, and young adults start signing up for armed services, while the previous generation frets, remembering the last war.

During this, Maisie takes on two cases. In the first, a woman who appeared in the previous book — a former Belgian freedom fighter who works in the Belgian Embassy — hires her to investigate the killing of a man who came to England as a refugee in the First World War. The police, swamped by the results of declaring war, believe it to be a simple robbery turned deadly. But then another former refugee dies, and as Maisie investigates, it appears that the deaths are related to events in the previous war.

The other case is more personal. A child evacuated from London goes to live with Maisie’s former in-laws. Her father and stepmother are helping out, and the child, Anna, is refusing to speak to anyone, and the people in charge of the evacuation turn out not to know who she is. She just turned up at the evacuation, although she isn’t part of the school group. Maisie finds herself drawn to the silent child, even though she knows how foolish that is, and works to both help the girl, and find out where she came from. Having lost her own child in miscarriage when her husband died, the child pulls on all her maternal instincts.

The story here is well written, very emotional, and slightly maudlin in places. As I said, I don’t feel any urge to go an read the other books (which start right after the end of the first World War), but I do look forward to seeing what happens next.

After finishing these two books, both of which I thoroughly recommend, both on their own and as audiobooks, I think I am done with World War Two for a while. Next up, I head into horror and science fiction.

Don’t piss off a Feminist writer

26114478Kameron Hurley is an interesting person. I’ve read a couple of her novels, and found them interesting, if not completely to my tastes, but her blog is even more engrossing. She is an out and proud feminist, and her blog reflects a lot of those views. She is a favorite target of the ultra right-wing blogger Vox Day, and I really don’t recommend taking a look at his blog if you have blood pressure issues. She also writes a periodic Commentary essay for Locus Magazine, alternating with Cory Doctorow.

The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of her blog posts, as well as guest posts written for other websites. the book divides it into sections about her life, the craft of writing, and fandom. The reprints are mixed with new essays written for this volume

One of the best known of these posts is ‘We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative‘, which can still be read online. Reading this essay will give you a pretty good feel for the book as a whole. It also explains the cover (she uses Llamas as a metaphor for women in fiction).

I bought this in paper, but listened to it as an audiobook from the library. The narrator was in danger of coming across as a little shrill in places, but she does a good job. Listening to a couple essays a day on my commute home was a great way to consume this book.

James Patterson BookShots

James Patterson is a writer I am very conflicted on. I read — and enjoyed — a number of his early Alex Cross books (before they were even turned into movies), but over time, I lost interest in him, mainly when he went to becoming an industry instead of a person. The majority of his books these days are written by other authors with some input from him. After all, how else can one man be approaching 200 books with his name on them (unless, of course, your name is Isaac Asimov)

Last year he came up with BookShots, yet another go at novella publishing. Novellas have been printed in the past, and with ebooks there’s been a resurgence of novellas. I did find the press a little over the top, like it was some new concept, printing short novels that are faster paced and shorter. The only difference from similar lines that have been published in Britain and Australia is that they are being billed as for readers with little free time instead of books for reluctant readers. Oh, and those other stories didn’t plaster a single author’s name all over them.

So, recently I read/listened to four books in this line. What did I think of them?

29852424Zoo 2 is sequel to a very bad novel, of course called Zoo. I read the first book, thinking that the concept sounded interesting, only to want to throw the book at the wall (I didn’t, since it was a library book), mainly due to the portrayal of the female character. It also ended on a ‘the world as we know it is over’ note.

So, when the sequel came out, I was reluctant, but decided what the heck, it’s short, and it’s a different writer. Unfortunately, the problems with the first book were just amplified in the seconds. I made it through the book, but only just, and the ending implied that there will be a Zoo 3 someday.

Strangely, the television show based on the first book is actually quite enjoyable. They took the concept, and went in a completely different direction, which is good thing.

29858367Then we have Killer Chef, a murder mystery set in New Orleans. The detective is a cop who moonlights as a food truck chef. Or maybe it’s the other way around, since it always seems like he’s leaving the food truck he runs with his ex-wife to go to a crime scene, this time being a series of murders at high end restaurants. There’s only one scene in the entire story where he is at the police station. Doesn’t the man have to do any paperwork?

Between that, and the fact that he sleeps with two different women during the investigation (both of whom are part of the case), I was inclined to toss the book. Plus, while he identifies how the poison got to the restaurants, he never does figure out how the poison is delivered to the right diners and only them. It’s a fatal flaw in the book as a mystery.

31423215Then we have Taking the Titanic, an historical caper novel set on the Titanic. Two thieves team up, getting on the ill-fated Titanic in first class in order to hustle their fellow passengers, while accidentally falling in love (of course). There are secrets that come up to bite them, and I’m not sure I believed the ending. I also wasn’t crazy about any of the characters, including the child in danger. In the end, it was better written than Killer Chef, but less enjoyable.

31345269The last book I listened to (hey, the audiobooks are available from my library, and they are all only 2-3 hours) is The Royals, a novella set in the book line of Private, about a high-end detective agency. The scandal-causing member of the extended royal family in England is kidnapped, and her death is threatened as a ruining of one of the Queen’s official appearances. The members of Private are hired to rescue her quickly. Some elements of the story were obvious, but at least one plot twist managed to surprise me. I may actually have to try some of the full-length novels in this series.

So, if I was going to rank these four on my enjoyment of the stories, it would be:

  1. The Royals
  2. Killer Chef
  3. Taking the Titanic
  4. Zoo 2

Will I try any of the other Bookshots available? Maybe, if I get the urge. A number of the other audiobook versions are available from my library, and as I said, at 2-3 hours (less if you listen at 1.5x speed)

Librarians are always Bad-Ass

25814351The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is a great title for a book. Fiction or Non-Fiction, it’s great. When I first heard the title before it came out last year, I was intrigued. When I heard the summary, I was sold. It took a few months to hit the top of my to-read pile, but here we are.

Looking at reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, it seems a lot of people are complaining ‘I don’t want all this history, I want the bad-ass librarians!’ But the question is, can you understand how bad-ass they are if you don’t know the history?

This book covers four broad areas

1) Abdel Kader Haidara being seduced into the work of collecting the books of Mali that are hidden away (based mainly on the colonial era) into a central location where they can be properly conserved, studied and referenced. Considering the experience of people opening up trunks kept carefully locked, only to find that insects have made a meal of the precious hand-written manuscripts (yes, I know that phrase was redundant), it’s clear that it was a task well worth taking on.

2) The history of Mali and Timbuktu in particular to explain why the region is home to so many historically significant books.

3) The rise of Islamic Extremists in the region and how they seized control of much of Mali.

4) And finally, Haidara and other librarians recognizing the great danger to their treasures, going to great lengths to smuggle them out of the extremist-controlled areas, and the continuing danger from the environment as they wait for the right time to return the books to the many libraries of Timbuktu (things are still a little too fraught to do so yet, and the conditions the books are currently stored in are not kind to such fragile books).

I consumed this book as an audiobook, and I have to admit, the narrator did a fantastic job with names that must have been difficult to read out loud without stumbling. Instead, they rolled off his tongue completely naturally. It was a very pleasant way to spend my commute.