Open by Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi's autobiography is an engaging, honest, and well written recounting of a reluctant and rebellious champion. The double entendre of the title is well delivered in the story - Agassi is amazingly open about his relationship with his disturbingly uncompromising father, his own temper and lack of discipline, his drug use, and his indifference to winning. He has a wonderful sense of himself, can and does laugh at himself, and pulls no punches. His description of the pre-teen and teen "tennis factories" he attended is both enlightening and frightening. Same can be said for Agassi's description of the professional tennis circuit grind....a grind of monumental proportions that he describes with passion and a double dose of reality. Redemption (and the completion of himself as a whole human being) comes in the form of his relationship and subsequent marriage to Steffi Graf. It was a delight to watch Andre and Steffi play an exhibition match as doubles partners against John McEnroe and Kim Clisters for the opening of the new Wimbledon Centre Court. After reading Open, it was great to see him smile.
The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick
Nathaniel Philbrick is an historical novelist of some accomplishment -- Philbrick is the author of Mayflower and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essexamong many others and has a great following and has had great reviews. Having read any number of Custer biographies and novels, I think Philbrick misses with The Last Stand. First, there is way too much detail and minutia -- one can get buried in the various strands and sidenotes to the main story. Second, he does not add a lot, if anything, to the body of work -- The Last Standadds no new knowledge or insight. Lastly, and most important, I think Philbrick comes off more as a Custer apologist than anything else. Looking back on the whole, I find myself thinking that the nuance of interpretation in Philbrick's work always errs on the side of justifying and sometimes even validating Custer. This would not be the conclusion of a number of other reviewers (as I have seen them) - but that is the overall impression I am left with. It is also an impression I disagree with -- If I look back on Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell, A Terrible Glory by Jim Donovan, Killing Custer by James Welch and Paul Stekler, and Custer and Crazy Horse by Stephen Ambrose (among a number of other Custer books), I simply can not conjure up any sympathy for the vainglorious arrogance of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer.
Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne
Now, if you want to delve into a topic of the old west that few have tread on before, try Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. This is a number of stories in parallel. Gwynne does a terrific job of telling the story of Cynthia Ann Parker - kidnapped at the age of nine by the Comanches and - against all the social mores of the time - chose to stay with the tribe when given a choice. It is also the story of the Great Plains Indians and their epic struggle against both the Mexicans and Americans to maintain their independence as well as the story of the Comanches as a people and how they came to be the dominant and most feared group of Native Americans on the Plains -- and some of the best cavalry ever. Finally, it is the story of Cynthia Ann's son, Quanah Parker was both a brilliant warrior and feared war chief in battle with the US Cavalry but also became a respected leader who helped his people following their defeat and subsequent relocation to the reservation. Gwynne tells a thrilling tale that is hard to put down -- and anchors it with terrific research and compelling characterizations.
The "Old Man's War" Trilogy + 1 by John Scalzi
It is always fun to find a new author (i.e., new to me). It is even better to find one who is capable of continuing the Robert Heinlein tradition of ripping good stories with really cool ideas without being simply a rip-off of the old master. In my mind, Scalzi joins the ranks of John Varley, Spider Robinson, and Joe Haldeman in combining all the right elements to thrill, entertain, and push your thinking about how the world(s) we live in might look like in the future. Old Man's Wartraces the induction of one John Perry (age 75) into the Colonial Defense Force....the CDF has figured out a way to rejuvenate and reinvigorate seniors - the only catch is you can't return to Earth if you survive your 10 year enlistment. As his combat experience adds up, Perry goes through the typical questioning of means and ends....all the while helping humanity expand its reach in the cosmos while competing with many other species trying to do the same thing. Neat ideas, good story and plot, and an entertaining way to get the reader to confront some truly mind-bending philosophical challenges. The Ghost Brigades is an offshoot - the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) is still trying to defend the human colonists from alien attack, and this story follows the group of cloned human soldiers known as the Ghost Brigades (Special Forces) and one in particular, Jared Dirac. Dirac is not only a clone, he is the first clone with a transferred consciousness -- from a traitor to the human race. It is hoped that Dirac can shed some light on when, and how the traitor is going to betray his species. His special training as a super soldier puts him in harm's way and when the memories start to emerge the action gets interesting. Scalzi uses some of the characters from the first novel to provide continuity and does a good job integrating the stories. The first two novels characters come together in The Last Colony. John Perry (from Old Man's War) and Jane Sagan (Jared Dirac's Lieutenant from The Ghost Brigades and John Perry's acquaintance in Old Man's War)are both retired ... and married....and have an adopted daughter Zoe...and are now living happily and quitely on the colony of Huckleberry when the CDF asks them to lead a new colony effort on the planet named Roanoke. The Conclave of 412 non-human races is trying to stop all colonization except those of Conclave members and the CDF wants Roanoke to challenge this situation. John and Jane agree -- and with 2,500 members from the 10 largest human colonist worlds, they set out to colonize Roanoke. However, the CDF is really using them as bait.....and the plot she thickens intensively. John and Jane are left trying to figure out not only how to survive on a planet they were unprepared to colonize, but also how to cope with a double-crossing military, and a hostile group of alien races.....and a teenage daughter and her alien bodyguards (a long story). A interesting twist to the solution and a very entertaining read.
Zoe's Tale is the plus one....Scalzi intended to stop at the trilogy, but was encouraged by fans to keep going. Instead of a new story, Scalzi pulls off a brilliant move -- he retells the story of The Last Colony but from Zoe's point of view. Zoe is the adopted daughter of John an Jane....but is the biological daughter of Charles Boutin - the traitor of The Ghost Brigades story. Sidenote: Boutin was working with a race known as the Obin - a race with intelligence, but without individual consciousness. Boutin's speciality was in consciousness transfer so, in return for helping Boutin, the Obin were to receive technology that allowed them to develop what they lacked. Boutin dies in The Ghost Brigades, but his work is completed and the Obin now regard his daughter Zoe with almost godlike reverence and have sent two of their kind as her bodyguards - whom Zoe names Hickory and Dickory. Hickory and Dickory record Zoe's life and use that the educate the rest of the Obin about what "consciousness" really means. So we have a teen girl who is marooned with her parents and 2,500 other people from 10 other planets on a planet not of their choosing....and the game is on. Scalzi gets the witty, sarcastic, teen thing down pat -- it is entertaining as hell and rings very very true. Sure, the story is already known, but Scalzi puts the meat on the bones of the hints dropped about Zoe's role in resolving this inter-galactic confrontation. This was fun to read.
The Laundry Series - The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross
Bob Howard is back. After appearances in The Jennifer Morgue and The Atrocity Archives, the protagonist operative for the uber-secret occult management branch of British Intelligence known as The Laundry is back in action and as entertaining as ever.
Charles Stross is the exceptionally talented, and slightly twisted, author of a variety of science fiction novels almost all of which I would highly recommend. He has got a great touch for repartee, a twisted sense of humor, and an eye for the absurd, particularly when discussing the conduct of governmental bureaucracies. In The Laundry series, we meet Bob Howard, press-ganged into government service when his experiments in computer science come dangerously close to allowing the monsters that dwell in parallel universes (we call them the occult) to break through to our dimension. The Laundry is the British first line of defense, and Stross has done a marvelous job of creating a British spy agency and (another) British spy who manages to get in and out of major league trouble while saving the world from, well, yes, the bad guys. The Fuller Memorandum is the third installment, and I won't even begin to try to do any plot reveal here -- this is Ian Fleming meets H.P. Lovecraft told somewhat tongue-in-cheek with a nod to Franz Kafka. It a series of greatly entertaining ideas with fabulous humor and a love interest. This cannot be beat as an excuse for occupying otherwise useful time you might have....highly recommended for raising your eyebrows and generating chuckles.
Accelerando (and others) by Charles Stross
When Charles Stross is not writing about Bob Howard and The Laundry (see above), he writes terrific science fiction (see Saturn's Children (in Last of the Summer Reading)). So far, I would highly recommend Iron Sunrise, Halting State (really terrific), Singularity Sky in addition to the aforementioned Saturn's Children which I found to be fabulously entertaining. What Stross has is a continual set of really interesting ideas about how the world might work in the future -- the near-term future and the very, very, very long-term future. In Accelerando, Stross deals with what he sees as the near-term future for nanotechnology and the linking of massive computing power directly into the human experience - including artificial constructs for real people and virtual space travel. Interesting and intriguing ideas coupled as always with a serious amount of wise-cracking satirical commentary and an interesting story.
In Singularity Sky and its sequel, Iron Sunrise, Stross deals with intergalactic trade wars and what happens to humans when they encounter vastly superior beings with vastly superior technology. We follow the exploits of UN Special Operative Rachael Mansour and her husband, Martin Springfield as they cross planets, cultures, and try to deal with time travel -- a potentially history altering activity expressly forbidden by the dominant and superior technology wielder, the Eschaton. Entertaining and interesting and Stross develops the conditions and the characters in a very engaging fashion. These two books are chock full of interesting ideas and twists on the human condition.
Near term future of sorts is deal with in Halting State -- where our reluctant hero is Jack Reed - an unemployed gaming programmer who ends up teamed with London insurance accountant Elaine Barnaby and Sgt Sue Smith of the Edinborough Police Department to solve a series of high-tech crimes that all begin with a heist of virtual goods within a hugely successful networked gaming system. Technology has gone wild here, but in ways that are easily recognizable if perhaps pushed to the edge. The high-tech crime mystery stuff is exceptionally well crafted within in the context of a global info-war, the three main characters are a hoot and a half and quite well developed, and the dialogue and content require some intelligence to grasp and follow. I really enjoyed Halting State.
A Lily of the Field by John Lawton
Ok, so sometimes I am not so attentive. It was not until I had finished this book (downloaded onto my Kindle after reading a review) that I realized (as I was looking for more by the author) that this is the seventh Inspector Troy novel written by John Lawton. Well, if the rest are like this one, it will be good to get a hold of all of them.
A Lily of the field covers the time period roughly corresponding to the Anschluss through the end of the war and the use of the atomic bomb. It is a spy novel and a very British mystery novel. Our titular hero, Inspector Troy of Scotland Yard gets involved in investigating a murder that becomes much more complicated when it is clear that espionage is involved. Two stories - the spy novel and the murder mystery are in parallel and occasionally overlap. It is also an interesting commentary on "where you stand depends on where you sit" when it comes to who spies for whom and why.
The action starts with the aspiring Austrian musician Meret Voytek, who, despite not being Jewish, is sent to Auschwitz for political reasons. In America, the Manhattan project is absorbing as many German and Eastern European Jewish physicists as possible in their race to beat the Nazis to the atomic bomb. Many years later, Voytek is in London performing where Andre Skolnik (a terrible painter and potential Soviet spy) is murdered. Multiple plot lines, conflicting evidence, and back and forth from Russia to Germany to London, to the USA make for an interesting cold war spy story very well told.
The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper
OK, emboldened by my recent foray into the past with Moby Dick, I thought I would try my hand at another American classic. My father told me stories about Natty Bumppo in The Deer Slayer and The Last of the Mohicans (two of the 5 novels making up The Leatherstocking Tales) and I thought the movie version of Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day Lewis and Russell Means was beautifully filmed and wonderfully staged.
Do not repeat my mistake. As wonderful as the movie interpretation or TV adaptation or stories your father told you might be, the reading of at least the first two installments of The Leatherstocking Tales is a task for the very, very patient. First, the language is very dated. Unlike Melville, whose prose is erudite and full of analogies, Cooper attempts the vernacular....and the vernacular of pre-Revolutionary America (just before, during and just after the French and Indian War of 1757) as interpreted by Cooper in 1825 (through 1840) is ponderous and thick. Second, while the action exists, it is described in ways that rid the events of their excitement - too flowery, too complex, much overdone. Third, reflecting perhaps the times and the man, the books are a continuing litany of racist stereotyping and discussion. While both groups have honor and clearly separated superiorities, there was way too much discussion of what white Christians and Indians were capable of compared to each other. I simply got tired of the topic.
Overall, it was simply to hard to get through the first two to have any ambition to try to complete the cycle. Watch the movie.