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Posts tagged “Fiction

On the Bookshelf: Alpha by Greg Rucka


by Greg Rucka

I have been a fan of Greg Rucka since picking up the first Atticus Kodiak novel Keeper on a whim. I have followed him since then and the guy is honestly a really good writer. Over the years he has mastered what really makes action novels work, pacing and the ability to describe actions that happen all at once in a way that the reader can follow along and not get confused.

Alpha starts a new venture for Rucka, a new world and a new cast of characters. In the world of Alpha the war on terror is ongoing and there are dangerous men lurking in the background eager to exploit paranoia and catastrophe for their own financial gain. Standing against these villains, and also the ideologues who would like nothing better than to wipe the Great Satan off the map, is Delta Force operator Jad Bell. Bell, whose callsign is Warlock, leads an elite group of three other Delta operatives with equally colorful monikers like Chaindragger, Bonebreaker and… Cardboard. Okay, I don’t get the last one but I’m sure there is some in-world story that goes along with that nickname, but then again I really don’t understand why the novel is called Alpha either. I don’t even remember the word Alpha being anywhere in the book. Maybe the next book will be Beta or Bravo or something, but I digress. This group seems to be outside the normal military chain of command and apparently reports directly to the President.

In Alpha, Bell must face a nightmare scenario that I’m sure keeps plenty of people up at night in the real world. Intelligence has determined that there is a possible terrorist attack being readied against a theme park in the United States (duh!) but they don’t know when or where. To keep tabs on the goings-on at the threatened parks, agents are placed undercover among their staff. When one of those agents is murdered at the Disney-esque Wilsonville mega-park, Jad Bell is sent in as a park security supervisor in order to be point-man. What follows is a run and gun adventure that is worth a mega-bowl of popcorn.

I enjoyed Alpha. It is the kind of novel that scratches that itch you get for a good thriller that has plenty of guns blazing. Like I said, the pacing is great and the action has just the right balance of technical savvy to make it believable and understandable. I also liked the villain (the only person I can think of that might be referred to as Alpha), his motivations and actions bring an interesting twist the usual psychotic super-villain trope. In all he is very human. My only real complaint is that Alpha feels like the third book of a series rather than the debut. I feel like a lot of back story and characterization is somehow missing (like why is his callsign Cardboard?). Bell also seems to be in the twilight of his career and we hear he has a lot of scars, but we have never seen him earn them. Except for a “badass-credential” scene at the beginning of the book we just have to take it on faith.  I also think it was kind of a cheap coincidence that some of the people taken hostage in the attack would have such close ties to the Hero (especially among the thousands and thousands in the park when the attack goes down). It is kind of like wondering how Lois Lane always seems to be the one trapped in the mine/lab/stadium/office building/restaurant/bank that is about to be robbed/blown up/attacked by aliens/whatever. It’s a quibble but I think the action would have happened just as fast and hard without it. I’m still looking forward to the next book.


One the Bookshelf: Soft Target by Stephen Hunter

And so begins the Ray Cruz era of Stephen Hunter’s excellent sniper thrillers.

Now, I don’t know if Stephen Hunter ever reads the reviews for his books, much less any reviews that I might have put together, but I thought this coincidence was pretty cool

(From my review of Dead Zero):

“Ray Cruz really doesn’t have all that very much screen time in Dead Zero, but my read on him is that he is much more like Bob Lee’s father Earl Swagger. He is a powerful warrior who makes sacrifices for honor, duty and justice. In a sense, Earl and Ray are like Hercules and Hector to Bob Lee’s Achilles. Each of them are powerful warriors and heroes in their own right, but Earl and Ray do violence to serve a greater purpose, while Bob Lee is a killer because killing is what he is best at.”

In any case the torch has officially been passed to Ray Cruz. Bob Lee only appears in this novel in spirit.

Compared to some other Hunter novels Soft Target is fairly straightforward. In fact, to me it reads more like Mr. Hunter started out writing a character development story that put Ray in a dangerous situation to explore how the character would think and act. Lucky for us he got carried away and we ended up with a new book for the shelf.

There is some good action here. Everything revolves around a terrorist takeover of a mall at the height of the Christmas shopping season, a situation that personally fills me with dread because it is so plausible. While gunmen roam we get to meet Ray’s girlfriend, if briefly. We get to see his half sister Nikki in action as a hot-shot news reporter. We also get to meet State Police Commandant Douglas Obobo who takes a position of empathy, understanding and reconciliation in his negotiations with the gunmen who have taken over the mega-mall based on the Mall of America (Mr. Hunter, your politics are showing and I bet we get to see him in later books).

I liked Soft Target. I’ll admit it probably wasn’t the greatest book Hunter has ever written but they can’t all be the best. It was a good read though and I enjoyed it.  If anything I guess it goes to show that those Swaggers do tend to be in the bad place at the right time. Or I guess the wrong time if you happen to be the bad guys. Dead bodies of people with bad intentions do tend to turn up fairly often in those circumstances.

On the Bookshelf: Scorch City by Toby Ball

 Scorch City

by Toby Ball

Over the summer (The Summer of the Re-read 2010) I got an e-mail right here in the Red Herrings inbox offering me an advance copy Scorch City, a book I had really been looking forward to reading. However, because I was taking the summer off from blogging to re-read all those books I missed that email!

Dammit, I could have read this book months ago!

Ok, starting with  the cover. If you remember, the reason I picked up the first book by Toby Ball, The Vaults, was the cover (if you can’t remember, here is the review so you can refresh yourself). That cover was cool, but this cover is not only cool but seems to embody all of the essential elements of the book as well. The cover shows the four main characters of the book, yes in spite of having only one person in the picture, four. In Novels of The City (you can still use that if you want) The City is a character all on its own, an industrial northern city that dominates the region and the towns around it. In this novel The City is joined by a utopian black shantytown on its outskirts known as the Uhuru Community. The cover, to my mind, shows that Community being crushed, sundered or plowed-under by The City. The third character on the cover could be any of the viewpoint characters of the novel but my bet is Lieutenant Piet Westermann, who is caught in the middle of racial, political and religious forces while he tries to solve the murder of an emaciated young prostitute. Throughout the book he is constantly pulled in various directions by forces and ideologies that he may or may not believe in, yet have the power to affect him deeply. He is a man alone in a crowd just as he is alone among the chaos of the shantytown on the cover yet moving with purpose. The fourth character on the cover may be just my imagination but it seems there is a shadowy hand reaching out from the lower right side of the picture toward the lone figure. There are spooky and shadowy forces at work in the novel but what seals it as symbolic in my mind as a shadowy hand and not an artifact of the terrain is that the light is coming from the figure’s left meaning the shadow is reaching out against the light.

All kinds of symbolism there. Who needs to review a book when all you have to do is talk about the cover!

The novel itself is just as well constructed and thoughtfully laid out as the cover is. The events of Scorch City occur fifteen years after those of The Vaults. It is now 1950. There has been another world war. The threat of Communism has taken a McCarthyesque turn in The City and has become the major issue in a contentious mayoral race while anti-communist vigilantes roam the streets. The setting is still very noir but the heat, the paranoia, the no-win feeling of helplessness, give it a desperate dystopian edge. Everything seems morally ambiguous and you are never quite sure who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, much less who is a murderer.

I enjoyed Scorch City just as much as The Vaults, but for different reasons. Ball has come a long way as a writer in a very short time. In The Vaults my only complaint was that while the settings were vivid and gripping, the character cast seemed too large and unfocused. In Scorch City the characters are much more clear, each serving a vital role and holding a piece of the story that is their own. The plot was just as compelling and even more tightly written and composed.

Keep them coming Mr. Ball, I want more City.

On the Bookshelf: Search by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens


A Novel of Forbidden History

by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens


Many people, without even being aware of it, have been exposed to the work of Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, especially if they are fans of the Star Trek universe and its franchises of television and print offerings. Many of the Star Trek novels with the name of a classic Star Trek actor on the cover have a lot of the Reeves-Stevens’ words on the inside making them look good.

I myself have never read any of the Star Trek novels, but I did read two of the other Reeves-Stevens stand-alone novels, Icefirea Chinese-engineered, nuclear fueled tsunami, disaster story, and Quicksilver, where a female naval cadet and an brilliant but unconventional scientist defend the Pentagon, and the world, from a hijacked orbital superweapon. Both of these books are jam-packed with action, derring-do and great storytelling. Both are great summer-time reads and both can, and should, eventually end up as blockbuster motion pictures.

Search: A Novel of Forbidden History, also fits smoothly into the action-movie-in-the-making genre, fueled by a millenium spanning conspiracy, an eccentric multi-billionaire intent to prove that aliens exist, hidden history, and a 26-year-old scientist for a protagonist who must discover why his genes aren’t human because everyone else he has found with his genetic anomaly has died by the age of 27. Throw in some espionage, a ruthless killer, and exotic locations from tropical paradises to castles to glaciers, and you have a heck of a good read.

I love roller coasters, and Search is the literary equivalent of a really good roller coaster with plenty of loops, twists and whirls. Like Quicksilver and Icefire, Search is a perfect book when all you want to do is take a vacation from reality, and vicariously live on the knife-edge plot of a thrilling action adventure.

On the Bookshelf: The Vaults by Toby Ball

The Vaults

by Toby Ball

I am well aware that if I let myself I’ll do nothing but keep going back to the books and the authors that I already know and love. I am lucky I have enough favorite authors, books, and topics that I would rarely, if ever, be bored in my familiar worlds. On the other hand, if I don’t switch things up and try something new, I’ll never discover the worlds and ideas that help me grow in knowledge and imagination.

The Vaults came to my bookshelf by having a really cool looking cover and an intriguing title. I randomly pulled it from the shelf at my local public library and decided to take it home without reading the synopsis. I had never heard of Toby Ball (which makes sense because this is his first novel) and I wanted to read the book with as few expectations as possible. I should do that much more often. I had a really good time doing it.

The Vaults is a noir-ish crime thriller that, while set in the 1930’s, has a timeless quality that comes from a well crafted setting and a story built with characters whose motives and actions weave together into a solid plot. The players are drawn from the best of noir tropes. In addition to a corrupt, former prize-fighting, mayor and the old-school gangsters, there is the newspaper reporter whose insights earn him accolades and enemies and who could be even better except for his drug habit. There is a private detective who makes his living mainly working for the poor and occasionally treading on the wrong side of the law to victimize the rich. My personal favorite character is the archivist at the eponymous Vaults. He is a man of singular intelligence and insight who would be a fearsome detective if not for his personal reticence. He is the overseer and guardian of the Vaults, the repository for all of the evidence and documents chronicling all of the crime collected in the history of the City. Oh yes, the most interesting character of all, the City. It is unnamed and unmapped and embodies the Gotham-like foggy, rainy, mystery of any good noir story. It has elements of New York and Chicago, with a strong immigrant heritage and neighborhood enclaves, but it seems grittier and more industrial, like a Pittsburgh or a Detroit The City is big enough to be a broad canvas, isolated into its own little world, but small enough that the personalities of its inhabitants can have big impacts on the events in and around it.

The Vaults was a good read and I really enjoyed it. Toby Ball, as an author, has great potential. My only complaint with The Vaults, and not even much of one as I will explain, is that some of the characters could have been combined, the reporter and the detective, the archivist and the retired transcriber, as well as the mayor’s two thugs. However, it appears that The Vaults will be the first book in a series, or at least the first book set in a world that will include other stories involving the City and its characters. If The Vaults had been a stand-alone novel it would have benefitted from the focus of a smaller cast of viewpoint characters, but as a series, the potential of more diverse viewpoints means the world can go in many more directions.

The next Novel of the City (I don’t know if anyone has created an official title for the series, but that one feels right to me. Feel free to put it on the cover!) by Toby Ball will be called Scorch City, and according to the author’s website will be available at the end of August. He also mentions a third book he has just started with the working title of Invisible Streets. I’m looking forward to both of them!

On the Bookshelf: Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood

Dead or Alive

by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood

 I was unsure if I really wanted to write a review of this doorstop of a novel (950 pages that with smaller type and narrower margins could have saved a couple of hundred pages). I would assume that with an author like Tom Clancy on the cover there will be plenty of reviews out there anyway and, like it or hate it, the novel is likely to sell about a bazillion copies on that alone. So, like it or hate it? Well, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either, at least not as much as previous novels written by Clancy, assuming Clancy did the writing. I’m not sure about bringing Grant Blackwood on board. I guess Mr. Clancy is very busy with his multi-media empire, and I can understand franchising his name for “Tom Clancy’s” spinoffs, but the Jack Ryan novels are his bread-and-butter. Those characters and his writing are why I read them. Admittedly, Blackwood’s writing is a far cry from fan fiction as he is a published author in his own right, and I’m sure Clancy had the opportunity for plenty of input, but in the seven or so years between novels couldn’t Clancy manage to sit down long enough to write the book on his own?

Anyway, the plot. The private spy agency (and yes, it is a private spy agency that specializes in “wet-work” with no congressional oversight) known as The Campus is out to get The Emir. The Emir is the Clancyverse analog to Osama bin Laden and leader of the terrorist network that essentially combines al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Clancy apparently didn’t think it was plausible for Jack Ryan Jr. and his cousins to track down the world’s most wanted terrorist on their own, so he recruited John Clark and his trusty sidekick Ding Chavez to The Campus to help. There is also some stuff about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Jack Ryan Sr. deciding if he wants to run for president again and a murder investigation into a U.S. Army Ranger who killed several terrorists in their sleep during a special-ops mission to try to catch The Emir.

Ok, enough about the plot, if you really want to know how it goes down you’ll read the book.

An editorial digression:

Not to put too much significance into a novel (though it is ideas in things like novels that have an effect on popular attitudes) I would like to make a few points about the series and where it is headed, which is, I think, in something of a dangerous direction. Much is made in military theory circles about the loss of the State’s monopoly on violence. Interstate terrorism is a prime example of this. What Clancy is essentially doing in Dead or Alive, is creating an organization in The Campus, that is exactly the same as the terrorists it is hunting and I think this is a problem. It is believed that terrorist activity is financed, at least in part, by money that comes from the drug trade in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Campus, which wears the public face of an investment brokerage house, unapologetically finances itself through illegal insider trading. Terrorists believe that their causes allow them to justify torture and to murder those who do not believe as they do in order to make a point. Look at any beheading video for an example of this activity. The Campus also feels justified in torture and murder in order to fight their personal fight. They are doing it for all the right reasons in their mind, but their actions are just as subversive to the foundations of law and justice as those of the terrorists. It makes me feel no better that The Campus has a stack of blank presidential pardons for anyone at The Campus caught breaking the laws of the United States signed by Jack Ryan. To me, that perverts the law even more blatantly.

The sub-plot about the Army Ranger being investigated for murder serves to underscore this disconnect. It is as if Clancy is further justifying and advocating the vigilantism of The Campus because politicians won’t get out of the way of the trigger-pullers and let them beat the terrorists.

On the Bookshelf: Zero History by William Gibson

Zero History

by William Gibson

Zero History is the third book of an interconnected trilogy that includes Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. The connection, however, is tenuous, stemming mostly from the character of Hubertus Bigend, who in the first two books arguably plays a tertiary / tangential role. His role in Zero History is larger, but he still doesn’t have a viewpoint in the story. That falls to the two protagonists from Spook Country, the former rock-guitarist turned writer Hollis Henry, and the Russian speaking drug-addict Milgrim.

To be completely honest, I didn’t like Spook Country all that very much, while I thought Pattern Recognition was outstanding. The two books, except for Bigend, had no relationship to each other. They explored different concepts, they had vastly different characters with different motivations. They even took place in different parts of the world. Based on the viewpoint characters, Zero History should really be the sequel to Spook Country rather than the third book of a trilogy, but without giving too much away, Gibson manages to tie all three books together in a very satisfying way.

As far as the nuts-and-bolts of the story goes, Gibson is at his descriptive best, creating the atmosphere of an arcane world where the surreal and strange is hidden seamlessly among the mundane. In Zero History the current focus of Bigend’s Blue Ant Agency is the garment industry, specifically designing and contracting to produce military clothing for the U. S. Armed Forces which interests Bigend because it is recession-proof, and has a viral / trickle-down influence on fashion trends that Bigend finds intriguing and potentially profitable. He enlists the help of Milgrim after putting him through a very involved treatment to cure his drug addiction at an exclusive clinic. Throughout the book Bigend treats Milgrim as a pet project, finding him interesting and useful because he notices the ordinary, obscure yet somehow important details that others routinely overlook. Personally, I think Milgrim is the best part of the book. He is the character that developed the most from Spook Country to Zero History. Hollis Henry, as well as her band mates, returns as well. She is convinced, her need to earn a paycheck winning out against her own better judgement, to work for Blue Ant again as a freelancer to track down a mysterious secret clothing line called Gabriel Hounds. Bigend is interested in Hounds because it seems to have some sort of bearing on his current project, and that its marketing strategies might as well have come from his own playbook, creating demand through exclusivity, secrecy, scarcity and quality. All of this gets caught up with corporate espionage, kidnapping, a Defense Department investigation, black-ops operators, London, animal-shaped drones and an arms-dealer trying to go legit who sees Blue Ant as unwelcome competition. It is a great can’t-put-it-down motorcycle-courier ride of a story.

The following section contains spoilers. If you want to read it, rot13 it.

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Neuromancer is still my favorite William Gibson book. In fact, it ranks among my top ten all-time favorites. With Zero History, the Bigend trilogy easily becomes my favorite Gibson trilogy. It is a truly amazing and outstanding book with a great plot and an ending that is satisfying while still remaining open to the possibilities of the future. My recommendation is to immediately add it to your Amazon queue and move it from the anti-library to your library as soon as possible.

An end note for some of my 5GW blogfriends (and I wish I could link to the original discussion at Phatic Communion) Archive link is here! H/T Curtis):

The term “Jack Move” makes a reappearance.

From Pattern Recognition:

“Jack moves. Context, with Donny, seemed to indicate that these were either deliberate but extremely lateral, thus taking the competition by surprise, or, more likely in Donny’s case, simply crazy, same result. He’d never said what jack move, exactly, in a given situation, he was contemplating, and maybe that was because he didn’t know. maybe it had to be improvisational and completely of the moment.”

From Zero History, in a Twitter exchange:

“Borrowed laptop. Lost Phone” He hesitated. “I think Sleight was tracking me with it.”


“U lost?”

“Got rid of it.”



He had to think about that. “S was telling follower where I was.”



“Tired of it.”


“No jack moves OK? B cool”

It really doesn’t clear up the meaning of the phrase as Gibson intended it. A jack move could still be something impulsive, something completely lateral and unexpected, or just something really crazy or stupid. It caught my eye though. In a sense, perhaps in all of the senses above, getting rid of the phone in the manner Milgrim chose was a “jack move” in itself, as it precipitated a great deal of the plot. Kind of an interesting side-point. Maybe if somebody gets to talk to Gibson in the future they could bring it into a discussion. It is completely beside the point of the novel and may well be a waste of the author’s time and the opportunity to ask a question, but if there is anything to it I’d love to hear the answer.