Wednesday, May 27, 2015

THE WRIGHT BROTHERS BY DAVID MCCULLOUGH

The Wright BrothersThe Wright Brothers by David McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 photo First20Flight_zps91jaommt.jpgThe first photo of flight snapped by a man who was taking his first picture ever. The Wright brothers were very careful to document each stage of their development not only with photography, but also with journals.


”The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power.” Wilbur and Orville Wright

They were brothers.

As close as two peas in a pod and you could make it three with Katharine, the little sister who also at times provided the role of mother and first wife to flight. (neither brother ever married) There were two older Wright children, both boys who lead fairly normal decent lives. They grew up in a more traditional home with the mother and the father, but by the time the three younger children came along their mother was not alive to raise them, and their parson father was travelling extensively trying to build up followings in churches all across the nation.

Orville dropped out of high school to start his own newspaper. Wilbur soon joined him. It became the first of many alliances between the brothers, though claiming not to be very good at business, their resume shows something quite different. Despite how close they were their devotion to one another was not always based on harmony.

”Wilbur...believed in ‘a good scrap’. It brought out ‘new ways of looking at things,’ helped ‘round off the corners.’ It was characteristic of all his family, Wilbur said, to be able to see the weak points of anything. This was not always a ‘desirable quality.’ he added, ‘as it makes us too conservative for successful business men, and limits our friendships to a limited circle.’”

If you have strong family ties your need for an extended circle of friends certainly diminishes. Sometimes family does not provide friendship and many of us have to find that solace elsewhere. As I always told my kids it is better to have one really good friend than an extended circle of “friends”. Those “friends” may believe that they are your friends, but I’ve found when the chips are down those “friends” suddenly become “acquaintances” and sometimes very distantly so.

The Wright Brothers may have fought vigorously with each other, but each was a sounding board for the other to clarify their thinking. A good battle would often have them getting together the next morning with each brother switching to the other’s opinion creating yet another skirmish as they tried to prove the other right.

When the bicycle craze began, the brothers were on the leading edge by opening the first shop in Dayton to repair those bicycles. It wasn’t long before they decided they could make a better bike and in the basement of their shop they started making bikes to order. They named them Van Cleve (launched 1896), after an illustrious ancestor of theirs who helped settle Ohio. They were successful business men yet again.

Wilbur first turned his thoughts to flight. He may have followed Orville’s lead into the printing business, but this time Orville was following after Wilbur. It was a true partnership and like the Paul McCartney and John Lennon alliance they took equal credit for all that they created.

First in flight was plural. They flew!

 photo Wright20Brothers_zps0ygnfdib.jpg
Orville on the left was always a bit more dapper than Wilbur on the right. Here they are on the Wright Flyer 1 in 1910.

I’m not going to go into the trials and tribulations that lead to the first powered, controlled flight of an airplane on December 17th, 1903. You’ll have to read the book to find out those details. I will say I was surprised at the length of the process. I thought that after 1903 they were lauded and celebrated, but it actually took much longer than that for the world to take notice of exactly what they accomplished. The French showed much more interest than the American government which was a source of disappointing to the Wright Brothers. I do wonder if H. G. Wells, with his creatively conceived books of the future, was already contributing to the French fascination with flight.

In a reversal of roles from what I expected the Americans were sceptical while the French felt that anything was possible.

It was interesting to me that the venerated Samuel P. Langley of the Smithsonian was competing with the Wright Brothers. He had raised over $70,000 in funds to build his airplane. The Wright Brothers in comparison spent $1,000 building their airplane using only funds raised from profits from their bicycle shop. We do not celebrate Langley as the first to fly so you might be able to ascertain that his expensive prototype did not fly. As the Wright’s heard about the progress of their competitors it never bothered them. They had a vision of where they had to get to and never wavered from their intended course or worried about whether someone else would fly first.

”It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense; they put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea and they had faith.”

They built a concept out of a garage before America even had garages. If Steve Jobs were alive today and had read this book he would certainly have identified with the ability of the Wright Brothers to take an idea and refuse to let it go. One thing we know is that all over World there are people tinkering in their basements, garages, and on their living room floors. They are taking wisps of ideas and turning them into reality. As they drive to work, as they sit at a desk at work, as they turn a bolt on an assembly line, they are dreaming about contributing something new to humanity.

 photo Wright20Brothers202_zpsuajce3jg.jpg
Walking in tandem.

The Wright Brothers did become wealthy, but certainly not as wealthy as they could have if they had been showmen or if money had really been the be all and end all of learning how a man can fly. They were focused on the HOW, fame and fortune would take care of itself. I couldn’t help but admire them and be inspired by their bred in the bone entrepreneurship that took them from a printing press to a bicycle shop to conquering the sky.

”On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 flyer.”


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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Cryptonomicon

CryptonomiconCryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

2015 reread: In World War II, Bobby Shaftoe is a Marine, and Lawrence Waterhouse is a cryptographer. In the present, Randy Waterhouse is part of a tech start-up in the Phillipines. How are the two threads linked, other than by the mysterious Enoch Root?

Okay, so this kitten squisher is a lot more complicated that but after 1200+ reviews, it's hard to come up with teasers some days.

As noted above, this was not my first time reading Cryptonomicon. I first read it when it was published, way back in the bygone days before the world moved on. When it popped up for $1.99 on one of my cheap-o emails, I snapped it up.

This mammoth tome is classified as science fiction but could easily be looked at as historical fiction since the sf element is minuscule. Neal Stephenson weaves together multiple plot threads, three during World War II and one in the present day, and produces a fine tapestry of a novel.

On one hand, you have Randy Waterhouse, part of the Epiphyte corporation, a start-up dedicated to creating a data haven in the Phillipines. On the other, you have the converging tales of a Marine named Bobby Shaftoe, a cryptographer named Lawrence Waterhouse, and Goto Dengo, a Japanese engineer. As diverse as the elements are, Stephen manages to bring everything together. Eventually.

I was an apple-cheeked young lad when I first read this, back when the internet was still new to most of us. Now, as a curmudgeon 15 years older, I still enjoyed reading it quite a bit. Despite my usual intolerance for digressions, and this book has many, I found it hard to put down for long. The bits of history, cryptography, and the proper way to eat Captain Crunch all held my attention.

In the years between my first read and this one, I'd forgotten how hilarious this book can be at times. Lawrence Waterhouse is a bit like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, only less likely to have the shit kicked out of him on a regular basis if he were a real person.

Funny how some things never change, though. My gripes the first time through were my gripes this time. While I enjoyed the journey, the writing could have been tightened up a bit. I felt like Stephenson was driving around looking for a free parking space when there was already one pretty close to the door. Also, a part near the ending, which I will not spoil here, came out of left field and felt tacked on, unnecessary, and kind of stupid. Also, I maintain that Stephenson hasn't written a great ending since Zodiac. Other than that, I thought the book was pretty great. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Kent Starling Gets a Last Dance in Phoenix






















Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

In 2013, Kurt Reichenbaugh gave us Sirens, a hugely entertaining mash-up of several genres set on the Florida Gulf Coast in the late 1970s. He now returns with Last Dance in Phoenix, a taut, gritty novel in the hard-boiled tradition set in the present day.

At the center of the book is an accountant, Kent Starling, who labors day by day in his cubicle, moving numbers around from one column to another in a constant effort to arrange them in ways that will please his bosses, whom Starling believes are all basically clueless idiots. His fellow employees don’t rank much higher in his estimation and so, perhaps needless to say, the job is something less than challenging or inspiring.

Things aren’t all that much better on the home front. Kent’s marriage to his wife, Denise, lost its spark some time ago and has settled into the proverbial rut; he can barely even remember the last time they had either sex or a meaningful conversation. Thus disappointed with virtually every aspect of his life, Starling makes the classic noir mistake and gets involved with The Wrong Woman, and from that point on his life begins to spiral steadily downward into a gigantic disastrous mess.

Shortly after beginning this affair, Starling receives a social media friend request from Roy Biddles, who was perhaps his closest childhood friend back when Kent was growing up in Florida. Roy was something of a loser and never much of a real friend and so when Kent joined the Air Force and left Florida, he lost track of Roy. Suddenly, though, Roy is back, demanding to be a part of Kent’s life again. He seems to somehow know a great deal about Kent’s life in Phoenix, including the fact that he’s having an affair, and he’s making only thinly veiled sinister threats about what might happen should Kent choose to ignore him.

Obviously, this cannot end well. Before long, someone will be dead and Kent Starling will have made enough stupid mistakes to be the prime suspect. Things will continue to go from bad to worse and before long, it’s apparent that not only is Starling’s freedom on the line but perhaps his life as well.

Starling confesses at one point that he doesn’t read crime fiction and that he doesn’t watch cop shows on television. Had he done so, he might have known enough not to keep making one stupid blunder after another, thus getting himself deeper and deeper into trouble.

Fortunately for the reader, though, Kurt Reichenbauch obviously has read a lot of crime fiction and knows this genre very well. The result is a fast-paced and gripping tale that will engage and entertain even those readers who are well-versed in the field—a very good read.

As Fun As A Stranger's Family Photo Album

The NamesakeThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought of a better title! An Indian Family Moves To America And Proceeds To Live. One of these days a publishing house is going to snatch me up and make me Head of Titlings!

The Namesake is an expertly crafted, boring slideshow. It reads as if you were listening to someone do a documentary-style narration over stills...

*click!*

A young Indian couple came from Calcutta to America.

*click!*

They started a family in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

*click!*

Et cetera

*click!*


Things happen and more things happen, and some of it's interesting, but none of it's captivating. The story lacks purpose, drive and offers up the tiniest morsel of tension. Certainly life-changing moments occur for the Ganguli family, but the reader is never given that certain something needed to give an honest shit.

I really thought I was going to love this. It's got the epic immigrant story, I like learning about other cultures, much of it is set in Boston and it name-drops some of my favorite locales (hello Brattle Theater!), but it's about as interesting as flipping through a stranger's photo album.

I'm sure some asshole will come along and tell me I'm a provincial-minded lout who doesn't understand some archaic Bengali literary tradition from which The Namesake has been stylized, but I don't care. This kind of book doesn't move me. Me, that's the operative word there.

For all that, I still enjoyed reading this. I mean literally, I enjoyed how Lahiri put one word after another. They were nicely arranged! She's clearly a talented writer. Her scenes and characters are so well-crafted they feel reach-out-and-touch-them real! In many instances through out the book I became entranced by the imagery, lost in the luxuriously decorated background, but then I'd notice the principle players at center stage speaking their lines so eloquently, yet without purpose. I felt like I was watching people walk through life and that annoyed me. When I read a book, watch a play or a movie I expect to see something more than everyday life. I can get plenty of that at home!




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Friday, May 22, 2015

Naked in the Rain


Eowyn Wood
Crooked Hills Publishing
5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Nancy



Summary



LOVE. SEX. POWER.

They seem like opposites: River's a troubled teen who loves to fight; Brian is a piano prodigy who attempted suicide. But together they forge a bond beyond anything they imagined.

River and Brian run away with dreams of escaping their abusive homes and exploring the world. But reality hits as they wander the streets of Los Angeles: no money, no food, nowhere to go. Until they meet a stranger who will change their lives forever . . . .

Lured into a world of drugs, sex and power; a world of seductive beauty and terrible secrets. Can they escape? Do they want to?


My Review



I loved this story, even though my mind was in a whirlpool, my heart broken, and my stomach all in knots. Child prostitution is a very heavy subject to explore in fiction. No child should endure what Brian and River have gone through. The two boys meet in a mental institution, forge a bond, and rather than return home to severely dysfunctional families, they take to the streets and make their way to L.A. where a wealthy older man, Grant Nesbit, picks them up, feeds, clothes and shelters them while he gradually introduces them to the world of prostitution.

This book was disturbing, sensual, seductive and brutal, and I had a difficult time putting it down. Brian and River have gone through experiences no child should go through, yet I can't totally hate Grant Nesbit. I believe Grant cares for the boys in his own way and the boys care for him. His relationship with Brian is fatherly in some ways, possessive and controlling in others.

Yet there is lots of beauty as well. The love River and Brian share, the relationship between Brian and his sister, the friendships Brian develops outside the House, and the fact that Brian and River still retain some of the innocence of children despite their exposure to adult sexual situations. They love music, care for animals, and enjoy childish pastimes.

I liked how the story jumps from the perspectives of different characters. While Brian and River make their world seem seductive, sensual and pleasurable, outside observers such as Brian's music teacher and new friends he's made on the outside notice his unusual behavior and inability to fit in with others.

This is normally not the kind of subject I care to explore in fiction, but I found myself so attached to the characters that I'm looking forward to the sequel which starts the next stage of their lives.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Wolf Hunt 2

Wolf Hunt 2Wolf Hunt 2 by Jeff Strand
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When someone finds the rock George and Lou have been hiding under since the original Wolf Hunt, they're back in action under extreme duress. Their target: another werewolf, this one a teenage girl.

Once again, Jeff Strand sends his lovable thugs George and Lou through the meat grinder of werewolf capture. As with the last adventure, it's a hilarious gorefest from start to finish.

George and Lou are the same guys we all know and love from the first adventure. Plenty of new characters are thrown into the mix in the form of a gang of three werewolves and the werewolf girl George and Lou are tasked with kidnapping, Ally.

It may be that my expectation were too high but I just didn't enjoy this one as much as the first Wolf Hunt. Maybe it was my general aversion to sequels, maybe Jeff Strand just sets the bar too high for himself. He is pretty spectacular, after all.

I'll read more Jeff Strand but I may be skipping the inevitable Wolf Hunt 3. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Jack Reacher Gets Personal





















Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars


One day in Paris someone takes a shot at the President of France from three-quarters of a mile away and damn near hits him, but a sheet of bullet-proof glass in front of the podium deflects the shot. Only a handful of people in the world could have made that shot, and probably only one American--a sniper named John Kott who was released from prison a year earlier after doing a fifteen-year stretch.

The evidence suggests that this may have only been a practice round. The leaders of the G8 nations are about to hold a summit in London where they will all be exposed to a sniper who could hit from that range and so, needless to say, the international intelligence people are having apoplexy trying to identify and track down the sniper before he can take dead aim at one or more targets at the summit meeting.

It's not clear that the sniper actually is John Kott; intelligence officials in a few other countries have identified potential suspects, but the bullet fired in Paris was American made, and, one by one, the international suspects tend to fall by the wayside, leaving Kott as the most likely suspect.

So what in the hell do you do in a case like this if you're in the CIA or the State Department or whatever and you need to find and deter Kott ASAP? Well, naturally, you put a personal ad in the Army Times asking Jack Reacher to get in touch. Then you hope that Reacher will find a copy of the paper lying around on whatever damned bus he's riding at the moment.

Happily, Reacher sees the ad and reports for duty. He was the guy who arrested Kott sixteen years early and the Powers That Be are hoping that Reacher can find him again. Naturally, if you are the PTB, you don't want Reacher wandering too far off the leash, though, and so they assign a young female analyst named Casey Nice to tag along and report on Reacher's activities.

The hunt covers a lot of ground in the U.S., in France, and in Britain and, as always, it's great fun watching Reacher confound not only the bad guys but his handlers as well. It's a gripping tale, somewhat reminiscent of the excellent The Day of the Jackal, and it moves along at a very fast pace. All in all, it's an excellent choice for a summer read, or any other season for that matter.
  

My New Favorite Writer!

Live by Night (Coughlin, #2)Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"This writer's got this"...It's nice as a reader when you realize that and can sit back and enjoy the story. Dennis Lehane is a writer who will put you in that easychair.

Live by Night was my first Lehane and midway through the first chapter I knew I was in safe hands. His writing flows, it touches on all the plot's necessary points and no more. Scenes breathe, characters grow, and the story seldom slows down.

This may not be a 5-star book for everyone. I'm giving it an extra bump up for the content. Part of it's about Boston gangsters during the 1920s prohibition days. Right up my alley! I was born and raised right outside of Boston and I'm a big fan of gangster lore. Live by Night marries two of my favorite things!

The story follows small-time criminal Joe Coughlin from a speakeasy heist to his career as a regional mob boss. It takes us from Boston down to Tampa, Florida and ropes in Cuba to boot. That last part really reminded me of The Godfather. I'm not saying Lehane copies Coppola. Mobsters from the Northeast U.S. historically migrated to Cuba. It was a natural progression. Lehane does a fantastic job with the period details, tastefully inserting real figures-of-the-day like Lucky Luciano and creating a marvelous historical fiction.

It's been a long time since I've been able to say this, but I'm really excited to read more from this author!



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Friday, May 15, 2015

Plague of Memory



S.L. Viehl
Roc Books
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Nancy




Summary


Dr. Cherijo Torin is not herself. With no memory of her past-or even of the man she loved-she sees herself as a different person and has no desire to remember who she once was. But Cherijo must remember if she's to develop a cure for the Hsktskt plague before their race becomes extinct.




My Review



After the disappointing Rebel Ice, I was hesitant to continue with the Stardoc series. In Rebel Ice, Dr. Cherijo Torin crash landed on the icy planet of Akkabarr, where she lost her memories but retained her medical skills. When her husband finds her, she is now Jarn, with a completely different personality and no recognition of her husband and daughter.

In Plague of Memory, the medical expertise of Dr. Cherijo Torin is needed to stop a plague that is causing large numbers of the Hsktskt (a brutal race of reptilian slavers) population to suffer mental delusions resulting in violence to self and others.

With the help of her husband, Duncan Reever, who is able to communicate and share memories with her telepathically, and her surrogate mother, Maggie, who imprints Cherijo’s memories in Jarn’s mind, Cherijo has now become an integrated Cherijo/Jarn which is a vast improvement over Jarn in the previous book.

All in all, Plague of Memory was a fast-paced, entertaining story. I enjoyed revisiting some old favorites, particularly Squilyp, the Senior Healer and his mate, Garphawayn, who was more developed in this installment. I also enjoyed the developing friendship between Cherijo/Jarn’s daughter, Marel, and the son of Tss-Var, the new Hsktskt leader. I was sad that the story’s minor gay characters, Qonja and Hawk, were “repudiated” from the Jorenian clan because of its strict pro-natalist policies. I hope they fare better in the next book.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

GRAVE ERROR BY STEPHEN GREENLEAF...SAN FRANCISCO HARDBOILED

Grave Error (John Marshall Tanner, #1)Grave Error by Stephen Greenleaf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”I just wanted to get away from it, the curse that Oxtail had cast upon everyone who lived there. That was where the guilt lay, with the town, with the collective consciousness that twisted and bent and spoiled and soured the people who had grown up with it, breathing its vapors. But they don’t put towns in jail. They probably should, but they don’t.”

John Marshall Tanner has been asked to investigate the celebrity reporter Roland Nelson by his rather attractive wife. Private eyes love it when good looking women come into their office needing the kind of help only they can provide. Marsh is no exception, except he has been around the block long enough to know better than to have his head turned by a few curves and a pair of nicely turned calves.

It doesn’t take more than a couple of days to figure out that what the wife suspects is not the problem. There is certainly deception, but the strings fanning out from that determination are twisted and knotted. The story is larger, more convoluted, but Marsh is about to put the case behind him because finding out the whole truth isn’t always what his clients want. When his best friend Harry Spring is found lying dead in a ditch with a double tap to the back of his head in the town of Oxtail...well Marsh is back in the middle of all of it.

When he discovers that Spring was working for Clair Nelson, the daughter of Roland Nelson, he starts to realize that the case he is about to wrap up is far from over and some of those strings leading to the truth have been cut or should I say bludgeoned, shot, stabbed.

Oxtail is a farming community outside of San Francisco. A town full of unfriendly, inbred, distrustful, defeated people. I had flashes of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) from the movie Chinatown running in those orange groves trying to escape the range of shotguns being triggered by rednecks. Between the oppressive heat and the cloying smell of rotting produce, Marsh is wrapped up in a blanket of smothering despondency.

”There was nothing pretty about the Oxtail link in the chain of commerce. Foods that would look delicate and tasty in a fine restaurant were ugly and misshapen and seemed vaguely carnivorous while lying in giant storage bins or open truck trailers. The streets were littered with rotting vegetables fallen from careening trucks and the air was sharp with the smell of overripe fruit, the smell of things well past their prime. Things like me.”

Unsolved deaths from the past are encroaching on the present, creating more confusion and more speculation about exactly what got Harry Spring killed. The wild card whom Marsh most wants to put a finger on is Al Rodman, the boyfriend of Claire Nelson, a known thug with a local syndicate in San Francisco. Rodman’s involvement with the Nelson’s and his connections to Oxtail make him a prime candidate for murder, but as bodies keep piling up, it becomes more and more apparent that this case is not one case, but a series of unresolved events each swathed in layers of duplicity.

And of course there is a woman, not just any woman, but a woman that makes a man think about settling down with babies and a white picket fence. He might even get a real job.

”The woman was introduced as Sara Brooke, Roland Nelson’s chief assistant. Many beautiful women don’t wear too well up close. The features that knock you out from across the room often become incongruous on close inspection: the hair is too stiff, the lips too thin, the nostrils too flared or too crimped. Sara Brooke had just the opposite effect. You probably wouldn’t pick her out of the crowd at a cocktail party, but if you found yourself sitting next to her on a bar stool you wouldn’t leave until she did.”

As the case unspools and Marsh doggedly chases down each fragment of truth adding new pieces to the puzzle in his head, he starts to realize that truth is truly stranger than fiction.

”I told it. The words poured out like salt and I listened to them with the detachment of a critic. They were rational words, academic and sterile, as if murder and blackmail and two decades of rage were as traditional as nursery rhymes.”

You would think when I lived in San Francisco I would have read a few Stephen Greenleaf novels,, but it took reading The Mexican Tree Duck by James Crumley to finally convince me that I have been missing out by not adding Greenleaf to my hardboiled reading resume. Crumley extolled the virtues of having a Greenleaf novel on a stakeout or anytime the doldrums needed to be chased away by a dose of Raymond Chandler through the pen of a disciple. There is no shortage of clipped hardnosed prose. "The guy looked like a hood, anyhow. Drove a big black Chrysler, had a kind of flat face, like his old lady had been frightened by a frying pan when he was in the womb.”

The plot is an intricate, tangled mess that does straighten out as Marsh starts to make sense of the nonsensical. I even found myself exclaiming “No Way” after one such revelation. I must confess I do talk to my books from time to time. :-) This book is a classic example of a 1970s ode to Chandler.

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I bought this book from Canford Book Corral located in Freeville, New York.

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