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Alright, time to catch up on a few book comments while I'm breaking for lunch...

Cut to save the bored... )
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Back in the 1950s, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of books for children, following the adventures of David "Lucky" Starr. Since there was some chance that the books could be options for television (and SF Television was a horror at the time), he wrote the books under the pseudonym of Paul French. The books each focused on a different planet of the Solar System and were scientifically plausible, based on the information known at that time. These stories are all somewhat more action-oriented than the rest of Asimov's writings, but still rely heavily on the use of intellect to wend the protagonist's way through a series of clever plot twists/mysteries. The inclusion of scientific information in the stories is done in a rather pedantic manner, but the books are still quite readable.

17. David Starr, Space Ranger

This is the first book in the Lucky Starr series and introduces us to the titular hero, David Starr. He is the newest member of the Council of Science, which apparently governs and polices the worlds at a high level. Really, the governing of the planets is nearly completely glossed over. Also essentially glossed over is the idea that Lucky was mutated by stellar radiation as a young child, when he was lost in space after his parents were killed by a pirate attack. I suppose that Asimov felt compelled to come up with some rationale for why Lucky was better, stronger, faster, smarter (we can rebuild him, we have the technology) than the rest of the world.

There is trouble...trouble right there on Mars city, my friends. Someone is poisoning the food coming from the vast farms of Mars, breadbasket of the Solar System. The person involved is blackmailing the powerful farming czars over the whole deal, as well. This is, of course, an excuse for Asimov to write a Spaghetti western, full of unabashed stereotypes. Lets start with John "Bigman" Jones, pint sized farmboy with a chip on his shoulder. We have the standard formula of everyone suddenly supporting and respecting the outsider after he beats the hell out of the nasty veteran farmboy. Asimov doesn't stint the western cliches at all.

The key sequence (for the series) in this book is the one where Lucky is taken beneath the surface of the planet by the ancient martians. These are beings of pure mental energy (a cliche later, but not yet an overused idea at the time) who give him a bizarre soft mask that surrounds him in a forcefield when he wears it. He uses this to create the character of the (dah dah DAH!) Space Ranger, who resolves the entire situation neatly, trapping the (literally) mad scientist who is poisoning the food. Bigman proves himself clever and observant by cracking the Space Ranger disguise and is recruited as Tonto to Lucky's Lone Ranger for the remainder of the series.

A decent book for kids, more so when it was written than today. Still, not a waste of paper even now. Asimov's writing is a bit plodding for most children, but it isn't too bad.

18. Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids

This is the second in the series. Pirates swarm the asteroids, interfering with legitimate shipping between the planets. Lucky sneaks on to a decoy ship that is being sent out, loaded with explosives, in order to draw in the pirates for destruction. He reveals the bombs to the captain and is taken aboard as a possible recruit. Not quite trusted enough to be let free on the huge pirate base, he is left with a hermit on another asteroid in order to be held safely while they determine whether he is trustworthy.

The hermit recognizes him (by his resemblance to his father when his temper flares) and performs other feats of insight for the admiring crowd (of readers). They journey to the nearby base of the Council of Science on one of the major asteroids and there is a raid, where the hermit is taken by the pirates. Suddenly it all makes sense for Lucky, though not everyone else. He backtracks his way to the hermit's asteroid, melts the tin-can trash heap near it and confronts the pirates. He reveals that he knows that their base is on the other side of the asteroid from the hermit's dome and that he knows the asteroid has engines so that it can be moved. Space fight action and clever conversation ensues, ending with him taking the pirate leaders into custody once they know they can't escape (easy to track even a powered asteroid if there is a large metal mirror on it - the melted cans). The lower level pirates become citizens of the asteroids, Lucky reveals that he knows the hermit was captain of the pirate ship that killed his parents and all is well that ends well. Moral lessons learned, information about the asteroids is dispensed to the children and we move onward towards another book.

"A decent book for kids, more so when it was written than today. Still, not a waste of paper even now. Asimov's writing is a bit plodding for most children, but it isn't too bad." :)
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16. Eyes of the Shadow

Now I'm sure anyone who actually looked at my userinfo is aware that I'm a big fan of pulp fiction, so it may be kind of startling that I've gone as far as 16 books into the year-ish before encountering my first review of it. I'll try not to leave such a long gap in the future. ;)

This is the second book in the shadow pulps, authored by Walter Gibson as Maxwell Grant. (Gibson wrote 285 of the 325 pulp stories, so that isn't too surprising.) This is a strong and engrossing adventure in the series. While Gibson's writing is not yet as polished as it will be, the pacing is still strong. Ah, and the deathtraps abound.

One of the major recrurring elements of the Shadow series is a fascination with deathtraps. Always the Shadow barely escapes...or rescues others from these fiendish devices. Here we find a sealed room with poison gas, trap doors, moving walls and people being buried alive. A grand collection.

Interestingly, this story is more focused on a throwaway character, Bruce Duncan. Harry Vincent (one of the Shadow's main operatives) is directed to his aid by the Shadow and then the mysterious man himself shows up to assist. He pulls out and uses his famous matching .45s, puts on a disguise and showcases his physical abilities.

As an early story in the series, Gibson is really pulling out the stops to grab the reader. If I recall correctly from the few later books I've read, he is less frenetic in later stories, once the magazine is selling solidly, but at times this story seems a bit desperate for attention. I will admit, though, that it certainly got mine. This is a much more interesting story than the first book "The Living Shadow".

One thing that startles me was the serious injury to the Shadow when he is fooled (somewhat) by a gangland figure. This does serve to show us his amazing powers of recuperation, however, as (even concealing the full extent of his recovery) he highly impresses the doctor who is attending him in his guise as Lamont Cranston.

In my opinion, it is this book, more than "The Living Shadow", which really begins to propel the series to its fame.
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15.The Dragon in Lyonesse

Another workmanlike adventure of Sir James Eckert, the Dragon Knight by Gordon R. Dickson. For those left in the dark, this series began with an astoundingly entertaining romp: The Dragon and the George. This featured Jim Eckert, a student and athlete who is projected into the mind of a dragon in a semi-medieval era so that he can attempt to rescue his fiance from the non-corporeal Dark Powers and their minions. Jim encounters many strongly written and fascinating characters during this tale and, at the end, decides to stay there in his own body, maintaining the castle that has been left by one of the defeated minions of evil. Over time he develops as a wizard and adventurer, using his modern perspective to his advantage.

This has led to an increasingly long series of books on Jim's adventures. As he becomes more accustomed to the era, Dickson uses the stories more as an educational vehicle on medieval Europe and the legends thereof. While the bloom is off the rose and none of the adventures reach the same heights of fancy that the original managed, they are still enjoyable reads. The Dragon of Lyonesse takes Jim to the mysterious land of Lyonesse, which was previously visited (briefly) in The Dragon and the Gnarly King. In this land dwell the immortal surviving knights of King Arthur in a land colored by the power of the Old Magic, which is not magick as the wizards of Jim's new home understand it.

The characterization in this particular entry in the series is a bit weaker than I usually expect. Dickson puts a lot of focus into Hob, a hobgoblin companion of Jim's, who really isn't a deep enough character to survive it. Things wrap up slightly too neatly in the end, as well...where I don't feel that Jim really had enough to do with the results on all levels. Still, Dickson's work is always very readable and this is no exception. This was worth reading.
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14. Smoke and Shadows

This book is plugged on the back cover (by Library Journal) as part of the Henry Fitzroy series. Strangely enough, until this, the series was the Victoria Nelson series. Henry is even less of a main character in this book than he was in the previous books, but I guess "now spinning off Tony Foster!" just didn't have the same cachet? Henry is only a moderate part of the action, being more of a plot device than a participant. He's very much unchanged, however.

Tony, on the other hand, has changed dramatically, due directly to the events in the previous books. While it is much for the better, I had a harder time than usual identifying with him. Generally Huff's characters drag me right in, but this time I felt like I was watching the action more than living vicariously in it. For reasons I can't quite pin down, I felt a step further removed from the action than I prefer to be.

I think a large part of it was the introduction of a wizard into the series. I don't feel that they fit into the milieu appropriately. Don't ask me why a mummy-priest feels fine and a wizard doesn't. Maybe it would have been better for me if the only wizard was the bad guy, rather than one coming in on the 'goodguy' side of things?

It was, however, strong enough that I'm still looking forward to getting the sequel (Smoke and Mirrors) when it reaches paperback.

I will note that I own and highly recommend ALL of the Victoria Nelson books, which begin with Blood Price.
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Must post: Into the Forge, Into the Fire.

Must write: Storm Warning, Storm Rising, Storm Breaking, Serenity, Wizard's Dilemma, The Shadow Laughs, Death Merchant: Operation Overkill, A Wizard Alone, The Drawing of the Three, Friday the 13th - The Final Chapter, El Mariachi, Street Fighter Alpha, The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, The Subtle Knife, Cold Streets, The Stainless Steel Rat, The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, The Timekeeper Conspiracy, The Pimpernel Plot, The Zenda Vendetta, Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, Blood Rites, Dead Beat, Sword-Sworn, Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin's Quest, Fool's Errand, Golden Fool, Fool's Fate, Executioner: The Trial, Deathstalker Coda, In Conquest Born, War of the Flowers, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Spirited Away.

Must Get: off my butt and write some of these things before I forget the book/movie involved and have to re-read for a review. ;)
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13. JLA: Exterminators

With this book, Christopher Golden has done an excellent job of translating comic book/cartoon characters to pure text. He has done this well enough that I like it nearly as much as Super Folks. It is a much more serious book than Robert Mayer's novel, but I think they both have strong archetypal and visual elements to the writing. Golden, of course, has the advantage of actually being allowed to use some of the most famous characters of all comicdom, where Mayer is pastiching them.

The real theme of this novel is responsibility. How much can a hero do? Where does (s)he draw the line? While it is clear that Spider-Man is right and great responsibility comes with great powers, where does it end? Do you sacrifice all chance of a normal life to come constantly to the rescue?

Golden does not hammer us with all the examples of this theme. Some of his incidental descriptions of Batman and Superman (for example) make clear their vastly differing decisions in respect to this. The one major new character, Ian Partington, who becomes friends with Flash and Green Lantern shows through his actions the difficulty of this decision. Overall, the idea is well done and mostly unobtrusive to a great disaster/adventure story. This is as it should be.

All the key JLA characters show up here: Flash, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Martian Manhunter, Batman, Green Lantern. Each one has some time in the spotlight, just long enough to be individuals and for the reader to get a little bit under their skin. In addition to this, half the cast of the DC Universe seems to show up to handle the major crisis in the second half of the book. This includes Firestorm, Steel, the JSA, Booster Gold & Blue Beetle (old favorites of mine), the Atom and many, many more. While few are given much more than a mention/description, the ones that we do visit with for longer are very true to themselves. (The plot could probably get away without ANY focus on the tertiary characters, but they are there for the fanboy's pleasure. And this fanboy enjoyed it.)

Overall, I highly recommend this book for any fan of the DC Universe. I also recommend it for anyone who is a fan of the concept of superheroes, whether or not they are DC fans. It is a damn good read.
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12. Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning

A book by stat geeks and for stat geeks (somewhat), but with the numbers almost entirely ignored. How can this be?!

This book is a smooth flowing excursion through the 2004 World Championship season (ah, how sweet that is to say) of the Boston Red Sox. Rather than creating a focused look by a single author, this is a collection of essays on the smart (and not-so-smart) moves taken by team management during the course of the 2004 season. While it references some advanced statistical measures, it is kind enough to simplify them for understanding by the average baseball fan. The fact that I was familiar with the terms and measures involved slightly increased my enjoyment of the book, but it certainly wasn't required.

An interesting aspect of this being a collection of essays by disparate authors is the fact that certain facts are repeated (albeit in different manners) in multiple essays. This can be something of a downside for the type of person inclined to read their way through such a book, but is a bonus for someone who will read the different essays at different times, when in the mood for a little baseball. The central points of the essays are unique and different, of course, it is just some of the supporting facts and commentary that are repeated.

As a committed Red Sox/baseball fanatic, I enjoyed this book a great deal, even with the above shortcomings. However, I think the real target audience for this is a casual baseball fan who is somewhat interested in the learning how to measure trades and signings with more information than "Gee, he's a very famous player who everyone says is good!!!". It is easy to read, unintimidating and fun. I find it quite likely that I'll be buying additional copies for some of my friends...even ones that aren't specifically Red Sox fans.

Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] jetshade for the present. :D
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(don't worry...this will slow down once I finish updating on my last couple of weeks worth of reading...)

9. The Demons At Rainbow Bridge - reread
10. The Run to Chaos Keep - reread
11. Ninety Trillion Fausts - reread

I've been a mild fan of Jack Chalker for a long time. The above listed books by him comprise the Quintara Marathon trilogy. As with all of Chalker's books, the story tracks the emotional and mental metamorphosis of the main characters as they advance on a quest for knowledge/power/etc... Generally the transformation of Chalker's characters is fascinatingly well done. Unfortunately for me, this particular sequence is less gripping than I had remembered.

In the universe of these stories, there are three intergalactic empires, all of which have swallowed up a large human population. Psychic powers are mildly common and are heavily represented in the central characters of the book. The story follows a team from each Empire as they pursue each other and a pair of "Demons", who they think call themselves the Quintara, through a multidimensional landscape that is a vague parallel to Dante's Inferno. Eventually, the survivors of the trek find themselves striving to rally the Empires, whose master races imprisoned the Quintara thousands of years ago, to fight them again.

The most interesting part of the series is the depiction of the three empires. The Mizlaplan is a religious society ruled by a race of mind controllers. The Mycohl is a feudal society ruled by a race that parasitically inhabits other creatures. The Exchange is a free trade dominated society run by a hidden race of 'Guardians', that seem very computerlike. As with most Chalker books, conversation dominates and drives the action. Secondary (and even primary-seeming) characters are killed off on a regular basis to drive the urgency of the initial quest and narrow the scope of the narrative. (Key Chalker point: if a character is fanatic and unwilling to change, he'll generally kill them off soon after their one-note performance stops being useful in setting off the other characters.)

Did I love these books? Not really...they pale hugely in comparison to his own Four Lords of the Diamond Series. However, they are an interesting read and a good change of pace from action driven fantasy fiction, which is what I tend to read predominantly. They are definitely worth picking up for a one time read if you have the patience or interest to get through them.
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1: Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle
2: Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat
3: Tom Swift and His Airship
4: Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat
5: Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout
6: Tom Swift and His Wireless Message
7: Tom Swift Among the Diamond Makers
8: Tom Swift in the Caves of Ice

Now, when I was young, my parent bought me the Tom Swift, Jr. series. A companion in children's pulp fiction ala The Hardy Boys, the series concerned (surprisingly enough) a young inventor named Tom Swift, Jr. Young Tom had a huge lab at his family company, Swift Enterprises, which was founded on the wealth of his father, who had also been a precocious inventor (and a wise businessman). Tom's adventures with spies, rival businesses, dangerous natives and even aliens were fascinating. I still have this series, in varying condition (barring the last and most expensive volume or two). It is quite dated (and the characters all but personality-free), but the imagination and creativity of Tom's inventions and adventures is still entertaining. Amazingly unrealistic and related to real science in name only, but entertaining. ;)

I have not, however, been recently re-reading these books. What I have found instead is that this is the second series of books about a young inventor by the name of Tom Swift (the father of Tom Swift, Jr., of course). While the series I have much of was published 1954-1971, this series was written 1910-1941. Much of it has reached the public domain and been released by Project Gutenberg in electronic format. I recently downloaded the first 25 or so to read out of some bizarre form of historical interest. So far, I've managed to breeze my way through the first 8 in the second half of December.

Tom Swift (Senior) lives with his wealthy father, who is apparently a patenting machine. Tom has a small income from patents, his father (Barton Swift) a large one that finances laboratories, a large house and a housekeeper. Not quite as world-spanning as Swift Enterprises, but a reasonable parallel. Inventors need resources to build their inventions...and the corporate town wasn't a concept in 1910. Tom gets into various adventures related to his inventions (which range from re-gearing a motorcycle/boat to developing a half-blimp/half-propjet flying machine), accompanied by an eccentric neighbor and a pilot he rescues in the second book from a burning hot air balloon. The science in this series is weak and not even terribly fanciful. The real strength of the series is the quick-moving (for its time) prose and the run-around-and-punch-them-up adventures.

One of Tom's main foils is the son of one of the wealthier men in town, Andy Foger by name. Andy is simply a punk, too stupid to do much more than break inventions and bluster. Tom is even better than him at fisticuffs, beating him quite significantly more than once. A gang of patent thieves features prominently in the first few books, trying hard to steal Barton Swift's inventions, but they are jailed by a few volumes in. Have no fear, I'm sure other criminal gangs will make their appearance. The style just begs for it.

So far, the only offensive part of the books has been the character of Eradicate 'Rad' Sampson, an older "colored fellow" who rescues Tom a number of times in the first few books. Rad is loyal, friendly, outgoing, dumb as a stump and his dialogue is a hideous stereotype. While he is painted in a mostly positive light (far better than arrogant Andy Foger), Rad's IQ is apparently barely high enough to keep him breathing. The truly sad thing is that the story would move along just as well with a more intelligent treatment...and the dialogue is so astonishingly bad that it breaks the quick moving flow of the story as I struggle to translate it into english. Definitely a product of the time it was written in, but uncomfortable nonetheless.

As historical artifacts, I'm enjoying these books. I can't say I'll be going back for any re-reads once I am done, though, unless I get some idea for a scholarly paper based on them. Still, these series novels were an important part of the bridge between dime novels (heck, they WERE dime novels) and the pulp fiction of the 30s onward. As such, they are definitely worth reading for me.

Wikipedia: Tom Swift, Stratemeyer Syndicate
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Spurred by a few recent references to the 50 book/100 movie challenges, I've decided that putting some form of mini-reviews in this space to track my viewing/reading pleasure over the next year might be almost entertaining.

At the very least, it'll entertain me. With luck, posting regularly about this type of thing will actually prompt me to post about other things as well. I have no illusions that I will be nearly as captivating at this as [livejournal.com profile] yendi. No mere human can stand up to his reviews of Van Helsing and the Friday the 13th movies, just to mention a few. However, my sheer eclecticism of interest might actually amuse a few of you. The rest of you will probably barely tolerate it. :) LJ is just an exercise in narcissism for most of us in any case(well, not [livejournal.com profile] shadesong and [livejournal.com profile] theferrett but the rest of us less-attended folks).
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