Sunday, May 27, 2018

Savage Jungle

Savage Jungle: Lair Of The Orang PendekSavage Jungle: Lair Of The Orang Pendek by Hunter Shea
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After recovering from their ordeal in Loch Ness Revenge, Natalie and Austin McQueen head to the Sumatran jungle with their friend Henrik to find the legendary Orang Pendek, primitive ape-like humanoids. Specifically, they're looking for the Orang Pendek that killed Henrik's father. Can they find the lost city of Gadang Ur and the Orang Pendek that dwell there so Henrik can quench the desire for revenge that threatens to consume him?

Since I am medically unable to resist one of Hunter Shea's cryptid books, I pounced on this one a few minutes after I finished Forest of Shadows.

Savage Jungle is an Indiana Jones-type of jungle adventure, combining the thrills of Raiders of the Lost Ark with the gore of most of Hunter Shea's books. It's one hell of fun read.

After recovering at a resort for a couple months, the McQueen twins attempt to return the favor Henrik Kooper gave them in the bloodbath that was Loch Ness Revenge. On their expedition, they encounter lost ruins, relict populations of dinosaurs, and the cryptids of the subtitle, the Orang Pendek.

I actually preferred this one to Loch Ness Revenge by a slight margin. Maybe it was the jungle setting or the relentless action. The expedition got chewed up by dinosaurs and shat out the other end. It would not have shocked me if they were all killed. Shea even detailed Orang Pendek culture to such a degree that I wouldn't mind a return trip to Gadang Ur. Not to mention some breadcrumbs left at the end. The characters speculate that their experience at Loch Ness might have led to humanity taking off their blinders in regard to the unknown and there are some hints dropped toward the end at more linked adventures with the survivors of this one, something I'm definitely on board for.

Instead of another tired Indiana Jones sequel or remaking The Mummy, Savage Jungle would make a fantastic summer blockbuster. Four out of five stars.


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Friday, May 25, 2018

Edward Hopper: Painter of Light and Shadow

Susan Goldman Rubin
Harry N. Abrams (Publisher)
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars



Summary



This captivating biography of the celebrated American painter Edward Hopper follows his youth, includes information on his education, and chronicles his journeys to Paris and his settling down in Greenwich Village to pursue his artwork. The book documents his career as a commercial artist (how he first earned a living) as well as his eventual success as a great American painter. Among the artwork included are NIGHTHAWKS, CAPE COD EVENING, and HOUSE BY THE RAILROAD. A comparison is made to other artists of the period such as O'Keeffe, Pollock, and Marin to round out this unique offering.



My Review


“If you could say it in words, there’d be no reason to paint.”
― Edward Hopper


When I requested this from the library, I was expecting an oversized coffee-table art book, not a 48-page book written for young readers.

I dove in anyway, and found out that good writing is good writing, whether it is for children or adults.

Even though I probably wouldn’t hang Edward Hopper’s paintings in my living room, they are deeply affecting. I love them for their realism, the vivid and unsentimental portrayals of American urban and rural life, and characters that are so serious, gloomy and reflective that I’d like to reach into the painting and learn what they are thinking.

This book features Hopper’s early paintings and portraits, his etchings, and the later work that finally gained him real recognition, when he was in his 40’s. In between the pictures and photos, the reader learns about the artist’s life – his family, friendships, his struggles and success.

A quick and enjoyable read.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Kings of the Wyld

Kings of the Wyld (The Band #1)Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saga is viewed as very best band of mercenaries ever, but that was many years ago. Since then the band broke up and it's members went their separate ways. After many years past, Clay Cooper finds one of his old bandmates at his door. Gabriel arrived with the hopes that the band can get back together to save his daughter Rose who is trapped in a siege by the monstrous Heartwyld Horde. The Horde is an army of over one hundred thousand monsters. Clay declines until his own daughter's word's sway him to help. Clay and Gabe set out to get the band back together and save Rose.

Kings of the Wyld was a really good book. Even though it's really good, I found myself being underwhelmed early on. Throughout the book there are numerous metaphors between the kind of band Clay's part of and a normal band. Gabriel for example is the front man, the band go on tour, and the bands even have bookers that find them gigs. Early on in the story that bothered me, but I moved past it to really enjoy the story.

The book has excels in two ways. First it has awesome characters. The reunited Saga are an excellent group that the story revolves around. Clay Cooper despite being a mercenary is considered a good guy who's liked by all. Gabe is the visionary and the wounded heart that's willing to die saving his daughter. Moog is a total goof yet comes up with excellent albeit risky plans. Matrick is simultaneously incredibly responsible and yet a total mess. Finally, Ganelon is a killers killer, but still there for his friends. Their camaraderie and lengths they are willing to go for one another is what makes the book good.

The world building is the second way the story excels. The author crafted an immense world, with detailed creatures, unique problems, and more to explore than anyone could in a single book. As the story ended I was curious to keep exploring the world and it's inhabitants which means great world building to me.

Kings of the Wyld is a book that undoubtedly deserves it's hype.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

WARLIGHT BY MICHAEL ONDAATJE

WarlightWarlight by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning ‘difficult.’ ‘Heavy.’ We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore. ‘Schwer,’  he’d say, with his fingers gesturing the inverted commas, and we’d mouth the word and then the translation, or simply nod in weary recognition. My sister and I got used to parroting the word back to each other—“schwer.”

Nothing is safe, and no one can be trusted.

The war is over, but not for everyone. Those who had been working in the shadows during WW2 are now being asked to transition to a new war that would eventually be referred to as The Cold War. Some, like Rachel and Nathaniel’s mother and father, want to walk away from their clandestine work, but with the powerful enemies they have made, that is proving impossible. They either know too much or they have thwarted too many insidious plans.

Of course, we can only speculate because Rose Williams does not talk about her life during the war. To her children, her life is an enigma that can only be unraveled with truth serum. She is not an ideal mother. She is distant when they want her to be warm. She gives cryptic advice when they need her reassurances.

Rose admits: ”My sins are various,” which is still an obscuring statement, but about as close to a personal admission as Nathaniel will ever get from her.

And then their father and mother disappear.

Rachel has just turned 16, and Nathaniel is 14. They are left in the hands of a man they call The Moth and another more dynamic personality called The Darter. The family makes a habit of assigning people nicknames; Rachel is Wren, and Nathaniel is Stitch. We can call them nicknames, but knowing the background of their parents, we can’t help but think of them as codenames. Names to call someone that won’t reveal them for who they really are.

The Moth and The Darter are an odd pairing, but then these are unusual circumstances that require people who can protect them rather than be the surrogate parents they wish for. The interesting friends and associates, especially of Darter, who Stitch and Wren come into contact with provide a view of alternative lifestyles that are sometimes disconcerting, but whether they know it or not, those brief contacts with those people are expanding their definitions of what a normal life looks like. The contact is brief indeed. Just when they start to know someone, they disappear, never to be seen again, which each time is like losing their parents all over again.

One woman, in particular, proves memorable, especially for Stitch. She is Olive Lawrence, an ethnographer with way too much class to be the girlfriend of a barge rat like The Darter, but there is something about him that fascinates her. ”There was something in these professional women that suggested it was not a case of The Darter’s selecting them but of the women’s choosing him; as if Olive Lawrence, a specialist in distant cultures, had stumbled suddenly on a man who reminded her of an almost extinct medieval species, a person still unaware of any of the principal courtesies introduced in the past hundred years.”

School becomes a secondary concern for Stitch as he starts to help The Darter with his rather clandestine midnight activities. He might be ferrying greyhounds from other countries to be used in one of the numerous illegal betting tracks, or it might be something much more dangerous. Stitch is a natural at covert activities.

(view spoiler)

Later after college, he is recruited by some branch of British Intelligence, and he uses that time and the things he learned from The Darter to “liberate” files from certain locked cabinets to learn more about his parents, especially his mom. His mother remains a nebulous creature, impossible to hold, impossible to know. He is lost in ”the maze of his mother’s life.”

Will he ever know the truth?

I’ve noticed some readers have thought this tale meanders or that the circumstances are implausible, but I must say that, for me, the meandering makes it feel more like real life (life is rarely linear), and whatever might have been thought of as implausible is actually very plausible for me. I read a lot of history, and it is rife with so many events that defy believability that I must contend that anything that anyone can think of has been done by someone somewhere. The circumstances of this novel do not come even close to stretching the imagination. I don’t even like the word implausible. It is a word of limitation that closes the mind. Nothing in my world is implausible, not even that gray area between fiction and reality.

This was a wonderful, evocative reading experience that certainly is still haunting this reader. It reminded me that there are so many unknown heroes, not just from our wars but also from the nebulous times in between conflicts, when wars are extinguished before they start, when our secrets are kept safe, and when lives are snuffed in the shadows.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Fantasy-based Choose Your Own Adventure

Keep of the Ancient King (Fantasy Forest, #4)Keep of the Ancient King by Mike Carr
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I went home for a visit and to my surprise I found a Fantasy Forest book! I don't know what the hell it was doing in the back of a closest at my mom's house. It wasn't one of mine from when I was a kid and I don't remember my brother getting into these. Oh well! Don't look a mysterious gift horse in the mouth!

Fantasy Forest was a made-for-children offshoot of the Endless Quest books, which were the Dungeons & Dragons version of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Did you get that? To put it plain, Fantasy Forest books were fantasy-genre CYOAs for youngsters. Probably 8 to 10 would be a good age.

The Keep of the Ancient King doesn't have too many kings, but there is a prince, as well as a few trolls, minotaurs, dwarves and assorted baddies. In this light fantasy, some evil dudes have taken over an old keep and the Good Knight and his cohorts enlist the services of an innkeeper's dainty daughter to fight that evil. In this CYOA you are that girl. And might I add, you make a lovely little girl!

Since this is written for kids the adventure moves quickly along and the text does not go deep into characterization or scene description. That's fine and I probably would've been a-okay with the writing had I read this back in the day at an appropriate age. So yeah, ignore my three stars. I just picked a rating to pick a rating. This could've been anything. And it probably will be rated anything by anybody with widely varying appeal depending on the reader's age and gender, and their level of love for horsies. That last part is really important in Keep of the Ancient King.

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A Story of the Korea War

Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War's Greatest Untold StoryGive Me Tomorrow: The Korean War's Greatest Untold Story by Patrick K. O'Donnell
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My grandfather fought in the Korean War. I can't really talk to him about it. Couple that with my impression that he's also not going to be with us much longer, so a natural and deep desire has brewed within me to know something of what he went through. This leads me to a book like Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War's Greatest Untold Story by Patrick K. O'Donnell.

I know so very little about this war. The reasons for the conflict, the region, the location of individual battles, etc etc, it's all new to me. My ignorance hindered my enjoyment of this book. It made following the story difficult because I was trying to envision where it all took place, and while O'Donnell did a decent job describing terrain and conditions, I still felt lost.

That didn't deter from my appreciation of the story told and of the sacrifice made by the soldiers of George Company, the featured unit of the book. What they did during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir was incredible. Absolutely unbelievable. I highly recommend Give Me Tomorrow. It gave me a footing from which I will continue my education into a largely forgotten conflict.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Forest of Shadows

Forest of ShadowsForest of Shadows by Hunter Shea
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Five years after his wife dies unexpectedly, John Backman takes his daughter, sister-in-law, and her son to Alaska to investigate a haunting. But the worst enemy of all may be the xenophobia of the townsfolk of Shida. No, I lied. It's the dark forces that threaten to consume whomever lives in the house...

In Forest of Shadows, Hunter Shea takes an unconventional, unsuspecting family to Alaska and exposes them to some staples of horror fiction, namely ghosts and a haunted house.

I've said before that one of Hunter Shea's strengths is his knack for creating likable characters. This is very true in Forest of Shadows since I loved John Backman and his family. His daughter Jessica was a believable kid who just wanted to be close to her father. Sister-in-law Eve let her own marriage fall apart to take care of her dead sister's family. Liam's a toddler and kind of a non-factor. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I quickly got attached to John and his family. Unlike a lot of horror or thriller novels with their forced hookups, I really wanted John and Eve to get together. Why you gotta be such a tease, Hunter Shea?

While I've never been to Alaska, Hunter Shea painted a vivid picture of the life of an outsider in a small town, both from the points of view of the Backman family and the local characters, like Judas and Muraco.

The haunting was a many layered thing, not just ghosts wanting people out of their house. It had some creepy moments but shit really got real near the end. I did not see the ending coming and it was one of those punches in the gut that knocks the wind out of you and folds you in half.

Forest of Shadows is a creepy good time. Hunter Shea does it again. Four out of five stars.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Bright City Lights


Declan Sands
Self-Published
Reviewed by Nancy
3 out of 5 stars



Summary



Sometimes it's harder to be together than it is to be apart.

Rabb is an alpha shifter, a werewolf, who likes to defy both the odds and authority. He prefers the city lights over the open spaces most shifters enjoy.

Brant is a politician with a secret that's becoming harder and harder to contain. As mayor of Bright City, he's determined to keep the city free of shifters to protect his secret.

The two men share a fair amount of distrust, along with a smoldering history that threatens to drag them under again. But when shifters begin to die in Bright City, Rabb and Brant need to find a way to work together again. Especially when one of them inadvertently steps right into the murderer's deadly path.


My Review



Rabb Miller is an alpha wolf-shifter who prefers city life to the quiet, nomadic existence preferred by other shifters. As mayor of Bright City, Brant South’s strict “no shifter” policy comes into conflict with Rabb’s desire to operate his legally obtained shifter bar. Early on, two of Rabb’s people are brutally murdered, and Rabb thinks Brant has something to do with it.

I loved the smoldering chemistry between the two men and the trust that gradually develops while they are working together to solve the murders of shifters. Their history and Brant’s secret created a lot of tension and conflict. A well-rounded cast of intriguing secondary characters adds depth and brings life to this story. The mystery was satisfying, and the story was well written and cleanly edited.

So why only 3 stars?

Immediately after reading this, I caught a bad cold and was sick for nearly a week. When I attempted to write this review after I felt better, I had to revisit many parts of the story to refresh my memory.

Though this story was fun and highly entertaining, there wasn’t a lot here that felt fresh or innovative. While I was satisfied with the character development, the setting felt a little insubstantial. I would have liked to know more about Bright City, and how shifters, vampires and humans came to inhabit it and how they handle the problems of discrimination and prejudice. At times, the story felt cluttered, making it feel more like the beginning of a novel rather than a short story. At other times, I felt there was so much more that could be explored.

Despite its flaws, this was an enjoyable story that was difficult to put down. I’m looking forward to revisiting these characters.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Redshirts

RedshirtsRedshirts by John Scalzi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Universal Union's flagship the Intrepid is a deadly place to be. Every time they go on an away mission someone dies. The captain, chief science officer, and Lieutenant Kerensky always manage to survive though. Ensign Andrew Dahl, who just joined the Intrepid, has learned about the away mission mortality rate up close and personal. He's watched other members of the Intrepid avoid away missions as though their life depended on it. Dahl is sure something is wrong and he intends to find out what that is and how to stop it.

Redshirts is a thinly veiled parody and the original Star Trek series. The story gives voice to the plight of those nameless redshirts who were slaughtered on seemingly every away mission. Unfortunately that premise is the best part of Redshirts.

After the deadly away missions have been established, the story seems to run out of ideas quickly. There is little in terms of descriptions and the story is heavy in dialogue. I felt like Scalzi wanted to beat me to death with the word said. I don't know that I've ever read a story this short with so many uses of the word said.

Redshirts simply became uninteresting too quickly and didn't manage to come up with a worthwhile ending.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

DIRECTORATE S BY STEVE COLL

Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 by Steve Coll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”America failed to achieve its aims in Afghanistan for many reasons: underinvestment in development and security immediately after the Taliban’s fall; the drains on resources and the provocations caused by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq; corruption fed by N.A.T.O. contracting and C.I.A. deal making with strongmen; and military hubris at the highest levels of the Pentagon. Yet the failure to solve the riddle of I.S.I. and to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan became, ultimately, the greatest strategic failure of the American war.”

 photo 8ac76702-cacc-4ba7-b547-759c0eb0ddfe_zpsmd10pm4a.png
Logo of the I.S.I.

I had read some about our struggles with the Inter-Service Intelligence, the Pakistani version of the C.I.A., during the Afghanistan War. I had no idea the extent of that struggle. They were considered our staunches allies in the region, bought and paid for many times over, but as history confirms, allies who do not benefit from a common cause rarely stay allies. In this book, Steve Coll broke down all the aspects of this war from the good, to the bad, and finally the downright ugly.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, tens of thousand of Pakistanis flooded across the border to fight the American coalition. Someone must have forgotten to tell these Pakistani volunteers that America was not the enemy. We were in Afghanistan to bring down an organization called Al-Qaeda and their allies, the Taliban. The difference between the two was hard to distinguish. The priority was Al-Qaeda, which was an organization formed by the planner of the 9/11 attack Osama Bin Laden. The Taliban, who were responsible for most of the civilian deaths in Afghanistan from 1996-2012, were a hardline, militant, religious organization, who believed in a harsh adherence to Islamic Sharia law. They committed brutal, violent outrages against the Afghan population, with women bearing the preponderance of their religious imposed restrictions.

 photo Karzai_zpsuv3jnxec.jpg
President Hamid Karzai

Early on in the war, during the George W. Bush administration, we relied heavily on the I.S.I. for intel, guidance, and help, but as the war dragged on with Bin Laden still at large and few definable goals achieved, skepticism with Pakistan and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were beginning to erode trust. By the time Barack Obama inherited not only the war in Afghanistan but an ill-conceived, and in my opinion, illegal war with Iraq, he was disillusioned with both Pakistan’s loyalty and with Karzai’s ability to make decisions and implement them.

”Most Afghans may not want the Taliban to return, but there is an old adage: if the guerillas do not lose, they ultimately win….” The one hard and fast truth was eventually the Americans would go home. Political pressure would become so heavy that some president would find a way to declare mission accomplished and bring the troops home, probably before a midterm election. How would you win a war against an insurgency that simply melted back into the civilian population or into the hills, or crossed over into Pakistan and thumbed their noses at the stupid Americans? What Karzai knew and what the I.S.I were equal aware of was that, once the Americans left, they were going to be left dealing with the Taliban.

 photo Taliban_zpszw6v6enn.jpg
Taliban militants

It was logical that progress was not moving at the rate it should because the I.S.I. had an eye to the future. They had several goals that did not necessarily contradict themselves when seen through a lens focused on a rapidly approaching change of objects: make the Americans as happy as you can; take as much money from them as you can possibly extort; tip off the Taliban to key intel that will hopeful insure survival for Pakistan when the next regime change occurs.

”The potency of Al Qaeda’s ideas and tactics further challenged a Pakistani state that was weak, divided, complacent, and complicit about Islamist ideology and violence.” A weak government, and yet they possess nuclear weapons. I’m not even going to get into the animosity between Pakistan and India, which fueled the allure in possessing or at least controlling Afghanistan. What was very scary for me to learn was that, if the attempted Nissan Pathfinder bombing in New York City in 2010 had been successful, there was a very good chance that the US would have declared war on Pakistan. The perpetrator, or should I say the near perpetrator, was Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani born US citizen with ties linking him to I.S.I.

Thank goodness the bomber proved to be inept.

 photo New20York20Bomb20attempt_zps8nfw0h5w.jpg
The Bomb that didn’t go off.

Was Pakistan our allies or future enemies? Were we nearly at war with I.S.I. or with all of Pakistan? On May 2nd, 2011, Team Seal 6 conducted a raid in Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden. He had been living under the noses of the I.S.I. for years. Was this incompetence? Complicity? Trust had completely evaporated between the I.S.I. and the C.I.A./American military at this point in time, and Pakistan was not informed of the raid. They first learned of it when the Seals had to blow up a grounded disabled helicopter. Needless to say, the embarrassment that such a large military operation was allowed to invade Pakistan without resistance was felt with deep humiliation. Scars like this ran deep and wide.

If the US had informed Pakistan of the raid, would Bin Laden have still been there? All the kudos in the world to Obama for making the call to conduct the raid, even though positive identification of Bin Laden’s presence had not been confirmed. He did what Bush failed to do. He found the mastermind of 9/11 and had him terminated.

Coll did go into detail on the secret prisons, in my opinion illegal prisons, to get around US law (shaky legalities here) which would allow them to torture suspects. Unfortunately, we are split in this country regarding the benefits and morality of torture. I still have discussions with people who are convinced that torture is not only viable, but should be used indiscriminately if there is even the possibility of garnering useful intel. There is a cost, too high, not only to those we torture, but also to those we ask to do the torturing. The other day I was watching a film, Rupture starring one of my favorite actresses Noomi Rapace, and when she was strapped down to a table, made helpless, I had to turn the TV off.

I couldn’t abide it.

Legions of mistakes were made in Afghanistan by all parties involved. By the end of this book, I finally felt like I was closer to unraveling the enigma of Afghanistan. The Afghanistanization, which couldn’t be called that because of the connotations with the failed Vietnamization, was hard to get off the ground as Afghan soldiers, trained to replace Americans, started turning their weapons on their “allies” and escaping to join the Taliban. I know this is a tough subject for many of you. It is a tough subject for me, as well, but I felt like I needed to know more so that I would have additional facts at my fingertips whenever I find myself in a heated discussion about the misguided wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Coll’s first book, in what will be a trilogy, called Ghost Wars, was also excellent and a great precursor to this book.

”The last month has been a blur of shittiness.”
From the Afghanistan journal of Lieutenant Tim Hopper.


That about summed up the whole war.

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