Search This Blog

Monday, February 25, 2013

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Roadside Picnic is a post-contact novel, the aliens have come and gone long before the events in this story. It is not a story of aliens, it is the story of humans trying to understand and adapt to the changes brought by alien contact. Roadside Picnic tells a tale of increasing strangeness. The alien bits are very alien and the way in which the humans react as humans rang true to me. We have an ability to accept the strangest things as normal and struggle to use them to our advantage. The main protagonist is a simple man, not heroic, and the whole novel feels like something Philip K. Dick could have written.

I bought this book on a whim, it was a good Kindle deal of the day. If I'd bought it at full price I'd still be very satisfied. This is not a book of action, this is a novel of ideas and humanity confronting that which we may never truly understand.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

I have been raving about Care of Wooden Floors to Christine and my friends as I was reading it and I stayed up until 1:00 AM finishing it. It is a simple tale of apartment sitting that goes very, very wrong and I found myself drawn into the plight of the nameless narrator as perfection begins to crumble around him.

Care of Wooden Floors is very funny and droll but it is also quite terrifying. Comparisons have been made to Kafka, but Mr. Wiles work reminds me most of a very good T.C. Boyle story, expertly drawn out to novel length.

I would not have thought I would care so much about about some spilled wine and a floor. Wiles manages the tension of the story with great skill but more importantly, he takes the reader somewhere worth going.

While the book can certainly be read and enjoyed as a comic fable and cautionary tale, it also a very true meditation on the nature of friendship and the ways in which we know ourselves and others.

If you need a lot of action or a broad cast of characters, look elsewhere. But if you want a finely crafted  story of order and chaos that will make you very, very careful about where you set your next glass of wine, take a chance on a quirky little novel called Care of Wooden Floors.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dead Letters: Stories of Murder and Mayhem by Chris F. Holm

I took a chance on Dead Letters: Stories of Murder and Mayhem. I'd never read anything by Chris F. Holm but from the description I thought this sounded like what I was in the mood for. I was right.

The mood of these stories is dark, the "Stories of Murder and Mayhem" sub-title should've tipped you off. But not too dark, there's some humor in here but more importantly there's reason. The characters in these tales are certainly not all admirable, but they all seem real. Well, maybe not the elf (more about him) later but the elf story works fine in it's own world.

I didn't find a dud in the bunch of these stories. Here's a quick, spoiler-free synopsis of what you get for your three bucks:

Most of the stories are short. That's OK, they feel like they run exactly long enough to tell the tale.

The first story "The Putdown" packs youth and friendship tightly into a fine tale of consequences.

"Action" is a story with more than a bit of humor, a caper tale of actors taking things perhaps a bit too seriously.

"A Native Problem" feels like a creepy B. Traven tale with a well-played sense of dread to it.

"The Man in the Alligator Shoes" has a surprisingly sympathetic protagonist and a title character who may be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The loud talking Americans in "A Night at the Royale" almost find themselves living in a Tarantino film, at least for a bit. And that's not exactly a good thing.

"The Final Bough" is the best elf-detective Christmas story you'll read this year. I'm confident in saying that. It's a heartwarming tale, but maybe not for the real young kids.

"One Man's Muse" revisits that legendary doublewide in Hermon, Maine where some guy named Stephen King started writing the damnedest stories. I wonder where he got his ideas?

"Green" is a cautionary fable on the dangers of drugs, man. It's kind of a bummer.

The longest story in this collection, "The Hitter" is also the best of a very good bunch. In this story Mr. Holm has a bit more of a story to tell. It's tense and tight all the way through.

Dead Letters a great collection of stories.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Boy's Life by Robert McCammon

The only thing I want to do in this review is convince you to read Boy's Life by Robert McCammon. I want to do this because I love this book, I treasure it the way a twelve year old boy treasures his bicycle. Let's start there.

I will not spoil the plot by telling you too much of the tale, the tale is Cory Mackenson's to tell. Cory is 12 year old in 1964 and lives in the small town of Zephyr, Alabama. Cory loves monster movies and mysteries, having adventures with his friends and telling stories. He tells amazing stories. Wonderful stories. But let's talk about that bike.

Early in the book Cory's bike "dies" and if you don't understand how a bike can die then by gosh you need to read this book. And if you do understand that bikes live and die, then you might not need to read this book but you certainly should because this book is filled with wonders. Wonderful is a great word for this great book, because it is packed full of wonders.

Cory earns his new bike in perhaps the finest way any 12 year old boy has ever done and his heroism is rewarded:

“Young man?” The Lady’s gaze moved to me again. “What would you like?” 

I thought about it. “Anything?” I asked. 

“Within reason,” Mom prodded. 

“Anythin’,” the Lady said. 

I thought some more, but the decision wasn’t very difficult. “A bike. A new bike that’s never belonged to anybody before.” 

“A new bicycle.” She nodded. “One with a lamp on it?” 


“Want a horn?” 

“That’d be fine,” I said. 

“Want it to be a fast one? Faster’n a cat up a tree?” 


Cory gets his bike:

In later years I would think that no woman’s lips had ever been as red as that bike. No low-slung foreign sports car with wire wheels and purring engine would ever look as powerful or as capable as that bike. No chrome would ever gleam with such purity, like the silver moon on a summer’s night. It had a big round headlight and a horn with a rubber bulb, and its frame looked as strong and solid as the biceps of Hercules. But it looked fast, too; its handlebars sloped forward like an invitation to taste the wind, its black rubber pedals unscuffed by any foot before mine.


Like a rocket, the bike sped me through the tree-shaded streets of my hometown, and as we carved the wind together I decided that would be its name. “Rocket,” I said, the word whirling away behind me in the slipstream. “That sound all right to you?” It didn’t throw me off. It didn’t veer for the nearest tree. I took that as a yes.

Rocket, like the rest of Cory's life, contains more than a hint of magic. Cory and the Lady know this:

“Seems to me,” the Lady said, “a boy’s bicycle needs to see where it’s goin’. Needs to see whether there’s a clear road or trouble ahead. Seems to me a boy’s bicycle needs some horse in it, and some deer, and maybe even a touch of rep-tile. For cleverness, don’t you know?” 

“Yes ma’am,” I agreed. She knew Rocket, all right.

There's much more in Zephyr than a boy and bicycle. There are ghosts and monsters, school and summer, friendships and adventures in the woods. There's light and darkness, great joy and sadness.

Boy's Life is a novel I slowed down to savor, one of those rare books I know I'll re-read. At one point in the novel, Cory has this conversation:

“Would you like some advice from an older soul, Cory?” 

I didn’t really want it, but I said, “Yes sir” to be polite. He wore a bemused expression, as if he knew my thoughts. 

“I’ll give it to you anyway. Don’t be in a hurry to grow up. Hold on to being a boy as long as you can, because once you lose that magic, you’re always begging to find it again.”

A man named Ray Bradbury held such magic all of his life and wrote wonderful stories. In the pages of this novel, Cory's father gives him a collection of Bradbury's stories and it is, like the bicycle, a perfect gift. Robert McCammon has given us a similarly perfect gift, full of ghosts and monsters, mystery and love and the wonder of being twelve years old. It is called Boy's Life. It is one of the finest novels I have ever read.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Before the Lights Go Out by Maggie Koerth-Baker

Maggie Koerth-Baker has written a wonderful book. In Before the Lights Go Out she presents a whole lot of very important information about how energy is generated, transmitted and used. In the hands of a lesser writer this subject matter could be mind-numbingly dull, but Ms. Koerth-Baker's enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and ways with words made this a most delightful bit of non-fiction. On my Kindle I found myself highlighting a wide range of little nuggets of info or particularly wonderful turns of phrase.

At one point Maggie (OK, I have to call her Maggie, after reading her book I feel like I've just been on cross country car trip with a really smart friend) quotes Ogi Kavozovic: "You have to give people insights, not data." That's what Maggie does and her book is chock full of insights.

Here's Maggie explaining kilowatts & megawatts:

"This stuff can get confusing. In particular, it's often hard to wrap your head around what the steps between the scales of measurement really mean. Here's one analogy I've found helpful: the difference between kilowatts and megawatts is like the difference in salary between somebody who brings home $40,000 a year and someone who pulls down $40 million. That gives you an idea of what we're talking about, but it doesn't really tell you much about the proposed Holcomb generator. One megawatt of capacity is enough to supply all of the electric needs of 750 average American households during..."

Folksy, chatty & memorable.

And funny. Here she is writing about coal:

"In 1865, England was a coal-powered giant. It was the world's largest economy, and everything it did depended on coal. Coal ran the factories and the trains. It heated homes and cooked food. Little English children probably ate Coalios for breakfast. Yet already, some people were starting to think that England might not have infinite supplies of coal, and they were worried about what might happen if the all-important energy source ran out. The generally accepted solution: improved technology that would make more efficient use of coal."

I've been raving to my friends about this book. Consider this a continuation of that rave. I learned a lot from Maggie's book and I had a great time reading it. I think you will too.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

When the Killing's Done by T. C. Boyle

"The best stories don’t come from good vs. bad but from good vs. good." -- Leo Tolstoy

T.C. Boyle does three things very well in When the Killing's Done: he creates interesting characters, he tells a story made up of stories and, as always, he's a master of words. The two main characters, Alma Boyd Takesue and Dave LaJoy, are both passionate and flawed, flawed in the way real humans are. Boyd writes characters who think and his genius is that he lets us see them thinking. Thoughts lead to actions and consequences and therein lies the tale.

And it's a hell of a tale where all the big events are true and the parts he makes up are truer still. A tiny scene, in a kitchen, shows us Alma, her mind & the world:

"A horn sounds out on the freeway, a sudden sharp buzz of irritation and rebuke, and then another answers and another. She pictures the drivers, voluntarily caged, one hand clamped to the wheel, the other to the cell phone. They want. All of them. They want things, space, resources, attention to their immediate needs, but they're getting none of it--or not enough. Never enough. Of course, she's one of them, though her needs are more moderate, or at least she likes to think so."

Dave, Alma's foe, has the time and resources to battle because he's made his money in home electronics -- "his business is high-end, appealing to a need rather than a want, the society closing down day by day, people investing in home entertainment because they're increasingly reluctant even to go out into the backyard, let alone to the movie theater or anyplace else."

Both Alma and Dave love the wild places, the wild things but the conflict is bitter, complex, comic and tragic. Alma at least like to think of herself as moderate, but Dave cannot, will not, moderate his passions. Why the hell should he?

"Save them. Rescue them. Champion them. Nobody else is going to do it, that's for sure, nobody but him and Wilson and Anise, FPA, For the Protection of Animals. All animals, big and small. No exceptions. The wind's in his face, flapping the hood of the sweatshirt round his throat, the dock coming up fast--action, he's taking action while all the rest of them just sit around and whine--and he can feel the giddiness rising in him, the surge of power and triumph that rides up out of nowhere to replace the bafflement and rage and depression Dr. Reiser and his pharmaceuticals can't begin to touch. This is who he is. This."

No man or woman is an island and in this tale of islands and men and women Boyle shows us at our best, our worst and our best-intentioned. This is who T.C. Boyle is. This.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

William Gibson turned me on to Lauren Beukes and while I enjoyed her first book Moxyland, the magical premise of Zoo City made me a wonder if it would be my kind of thing. Ms. Beukes dispelled all my doubts with the oldest magic in the book, good story telling. She drew me into a strange, wonderful, believable world where I totally cared yet couldn't imagine what would happen next.

Zoo City looks at a world filled with prejudices and multi-layered economies of fame, attention, media, drugs & greed. It's a world that is a more pitch perfect echo of our own than you'll find in most other novels but Zoo City is a very special beast of a book. The "animaled" in this world are humans bonded to a creature because of a past sin and their eventual doom and demise is a certain undertow. But with the creature comes a talent and with Zinzi December's Sloth came a talent for finding lost objects...

The dialog is dark and witty, the action barely pauses to let the reader catch a breath and I found myself clinging, sloth-like to every move Zinzi made through the dark streets, sewers and schemes that form Zoo City.

Monday, February 4, 2013

11/22/63 by Stephen King

I have this friend named Stephen King. OK, I've never actually met the man, but he's told me lots of stories and I'm fond of the guy. I've realized lately that I think of him as a friend, a buddy, a guy I like to hang out with.

Here's the thing about Steve. A lot of people don't like him. "Your friend Steve," they say to me, "He's weird. He thinks about horrible things. He writes about horrible things. And Christ, when they make movies of his stories, they really tend to suck." All those things are true, some times. Maybe most times. My pal Steve has written some stories that are way too gross for me, some stories that just don't work and some things that go on way too long. And some horrible (not just horror, but horrible) movies have been made with his name attached to them. But then there's "The Shining" and "Carrie" and "Misery".

Here's the deal about my buddy Steve: the man can tell a story. He makes me care about the people in it. This doesn't happen every time, with every book of his, but when it does, BAM! he's got me and I'm along for the ride.

With his book 11/22/63, Stephen King got me. I resisted for a while, the book's a monster, damn near 900 pages, but Amazon had it as a deal on the Kindle version. What the hell, it's lighter to carry and that buy button is too freakin easy.

Three days. I slammed through the book in three days. I stayed up late, I got up early. I loved this book.

You can read the blurbs on Amazon or somewhere else. Time travel. A guy goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. You may be thinking, not my kind of thing. Or "I hate Stephen King" stories. I hope you'll think again.

The master stroke in this book is the voice of Jake, the narrator, a 35 year old English teacher. I believed Jake's voice from page one. I cared about what he cared about. I was as incredulous as he was when we first encounter the time portal, but I had to try to figure out how it worked, what could be done. Who cares about Kennedy, can I use this to help my friend?

Page by page, I did care. I had to care. I had to know. I didn't know if Jake could change history, but I knew he had to try. I knew I had to try.

Yes, it's a Stephen King story. There's some gross stuff there. There's a little bit of scary stuff there. But there's a whole lot world there, with people you'd risk everything to save.

11/22/63 is one of the best books I've ever read. It's a long book that doesn't feel long, it rockets along and then it lingers in your mind. It's a magic trick and a time machine. It's a puzzle of a story where big things happen but it's the smallest things that matter.

Try it. Get a few chapters in. If you can stop, if you don't care, walk away. It's not your thing. Nothing wrong with that, not all stories are for all readers. But I think you'll stay.

My buddy Stephen King has written a masterpiece. It's called 11-22-63.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Horns by Joe Hill

If you can handle some language that's crude and some situations that are not nice at all, then Joe Hill has one hell of a story for you. It's called Horns. This is the story of Ig Perrish, who wakes up one morning with a terrible hangover and hazy memories of "doing terrible things." As he rubs his aching temples he finds that somehow he's grown horns. Honest to God (well, maybe not God!) horns.

Ig has been demonized long before the morning of the horns, by a night a year before when his girlfriend Merrin Williams was raped and murdered. Everyone in town believes he is the killer, even though no charges were ever filed. And Ig, until now, has been powerless to clear his name, to find the truth of what happened on that horrible night..

But Ig is no longer powerless, the strange horns come with a strange power: anyone who sees Ig's horns is compelled to tell the truth. And whenever Ig touches someone, he knows their darkest secrets.

From this fantastic premise Joe Hill weaves a tale of mystery and sin, of cruelty and love. It is a story where you cannot help but develop sympathy for the devil.

I really enjoyed this book. It's tightly plotted, very funny at times, very dark at others, and always engaging.

This is the first Joe Hill book I've read, but it certainly won't be the last. Joe Hill is one hell of a writer. And Horns is one hell of a tale.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bernard Moitessier: A Philosopher of the Sea

I first met Bernard Moitessier in the pages of Peter Nichols' astounding true tale of adventure, A Voyage for Madmen. Nichols' recounting of the 1968-69 Golden Globe single-handed sailing race around the world is one of triumph, tenacity and tragedy, a story of men facing the wildest parts of the world and the deepest depths of their souls. I can quote the words the publishers chose to promote the book, for they actually give nothing away and are not "spoilers" to the story:

In 1968, nine sailors set off on the most daring race ever held: to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe nonstop. It was a feat that had never been accomplished and one that would forever change the face of sailing. Ten months later, only one of the nine men would cross the finish line and earn fame, wealth, and glory. For the others, the reward was madness, failure, and death.

I strongly recommend A Voyage for Madmen to anyone who hasn't read it. The best part of the book for me was that the parts dealing with Bernard Moitessier made want to seek out the books of Bernard Moitessier. And those books are great treasures. Even though Moitessier is a man of the sea and I am certain that I am a man of the land, I consider Moitessier a kindred soul. He tells fine stories that reveal a deep understanding of the world.

Bernard Moitessier's memoir Tamata and the Alliance is a recounting of his life and his wanderings in the world. Here's a brief excerpt. Moitessier is about 19 or 20 years old and on his first long sailing trip...

I had picked a star that was closest to my heading to steer by. As it gradually slipped to the left across the sky, I adjusted my course a finger's-breadth to the right from time to time. That is what Phuoc's father had taught me, when I went out with him during the fishing season.

With Phuoc's father, you had to work hard in the sun, store the hundreds of fishhooks in their shuttles as the boat returned to the island, then labor until nightfall cutting the rays and sharks into strips and frying them on the stones of the beach. And then you had to set out again before dawn to put out the lines, with your eyelids still sticky with sleep. I used to think constantly about Alain Gerbault's trip around the world, about Eric de Bisschop on KAIMILOA, and especially about Henri de Monfreid, sailing the Red Sea among smugglers and fishermen on their Arab dhows. All of them, even Monfreid, used a compass. And one day I brought a compass to show Phuoc's father. It was the first time he ever saw such an extraordinary thing, a needle that never changed direction. It was the greatest gift I could have given him.

Crouched on the beach, Phuoc's father spent the whole morning with that marvelous device, turning it in his hand, fascinated by the trembling finger that always pointed the same way, as if showing something hidden far beyond the horizon.

He didn't say a word for the rest of the day, and I could tell that his entire mind was on the compass. He thought of nothing else as he prepared the lines and checked to see that I had correctly put forty-nine hooks in each shuttle. But the next day, before taking me fishing with Jacky and Xai, he was his old self again, and he gave the compass back to me.

"You need light to use this thing at night," he said, "and that blinds you. But with the stars or the direction of the waves or the wind, you can always tell where you are going, and your ears stay open to hear what the sea is saying."

Sailing by night in that apparent darkness, while knowing where the island was... it was magic that renewed within me my alliance with the universe. The stars were speaking, as were the sea, the wind, and the island cloaked by night. And in their way, they were all saying the same thing.


I hitched a line around the tiller and TITETTE continued on a nice straight course next to my chosen star, responding to tiny adjustments and half-spoken conversations between me and her. Though I was alone on deck, Phuoc's father was near me, and I could hear him clearly say: "I don't regret the pains I took to teach you all this. And one day, when you have a compass, the dragons of the sea will have had time to become your allies."

In his book The Long Way, Moitessier shows that Phuoc's father's lesson has taken root in his being:

When I was sailing with the fishermen of the Gulf of Siam during my childhood in Indochina, the taicong would tell me, for example, 'Keep the swell two fingers off the quarter, and you should always feel the wind behind your left ear, looking forward. When the moon is one big hand plus a small hand from the horizon, or when that star is one arm from the other side (in case the moon is hidden by a cloud) then the sea will become a little more phosphorescent, and we will almost be in the lee of the island to set the first lines.'

There were no compasses on the Gulf of Siam junks, and I did not want it used during my sailing school cruises in the Mediterranean. Instead of bearing 110 degrees from France to Corsica my crew had to steer with the mistral swell very slightly off the port quarter. At night, it was the Pole Star one small hand abaft the port beam. And if there was neither distinct swell nor star, we made do with whatever we had. I wanted it that way, because concentrating on a magnetized needle prevents one from participating in the real universe, seen and unseen, where a sailboat moves.

In the beginning they could not understand my insistence on getting away from the compass, that god of the West. But in exchange, they began to hear the sky and sea talking with the boat. And when the blue-tinted land appeared on the horizon, looking as it did to mariners of old, all nimbed with mystery, a few of them felt that our rigorous techniques should leave a door open to those gods which the modern world tries so hard to exclude.

In another book Moitessier writes:

"Anyone who has sailed in the high latitudes knows they can be extremely hard on equipment, and considers the technical preparation to be of major importance. I will not venture to give advice, as I have too much yet to learn. I will only describe what I noticed, the way I solved various problems, and my observations and thinking at the present and considerably limited state of my knowledge. The sea will always be the sea, full of enigmas and new lessons."

I like the fact that a man who could build a boat from scratch and then sail it solo around the world would be hesitant to give advice because he knew he still had much to learn.

In his final book, A Sea Vagabond's World, Moitessier fills the pages tips, drawings and practical advice and defines his philosophy with these words:

I tell everyone pretty much the same thing. Don't needlessly complicate your life. Give top priority to the essentials. Firmly put aside anything superfluous. Given a choice between something simple and something complicated, choose what is simple without hesitation; sooner or later, what is complicated will almost always lead to problems -- needless expense, loss of time, waste of energy.

The philosophy of simplicity has guided me like a guardian angel ever since I first set sail. Make due with what you have, and don't have eyes bigger than your stomach.

Bernard Moitessier died in 1994, but he left the world these wonderful books filled with words to guide us. And he also left this final bit of wise advise:

"Make use of the experience of others, but without ever imitating them. You won't become accomplished that way. And even if you could succeed by using someone else's style, it wouldn't be any good. It wouldn't be you."

Moitessier was very good because he was always Moitessier. He was guided by the stars, the wind, the waves, and the wise sailors who taught him to listen to the universe. Those lessons live on.

Kent Peterson
Issaquah WA USA