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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Room 59: The Powers That Be by Cliff Ryder

Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Gold Eagle (January 8, 2008)
ISBN-10: 0373632657
ISBN-13: 978-0373632657

Room 59 is a multinational covert ops organization that specializes in doing the things that nations cannot do. The members are culled from various military, police and spy organizations and are trained to be the ultimate in deniable operatives. They are equipped with the very latest in high tech gear and can get support from just about any government organization. To top off all this, there is little interference or micromanagement from the countries involved.
Room 59 takes on the hard jobs that nobody in an official government military or intelligence capacity can do. They use small hard hitting teams that can do anything, including kill, to accomplish the mission. That is their mantra, the mission comes first.
So what happens when a top operative of Room 59 gets involved with an operation where he has a personal agenda? An agenda that nobody else in Room 59 knows about?
Room 59: The Powers That Be places Jonas, a former member of the German GSG9 special operations group into that situation. Jonas is tasked to keep an rogue organization from assassinating Raul Castro, Fidel Castro's brother. A powerful Cuban-American businessman wants Castro dead and the revolution in Cuba finally ended and he is willing to do anything to accomplish this goal. He sets up a mercenary group to invade Cuba and remove the current power structure. But first he must have Raul Castro exterminated.
The powers that be, though, do not want this. It is a common belief that if Castro falls, then the tiny island nation will be thrown into more civil war and chaos that will happen if the Cuban communists fall slowly apart under their own power. Room 59 is tasked with the mission to stop the assassination.
Jonas is placed in charge of the mission. But he has his own reason for getting involved because he has been to Cuba before and has ties to the chosen assassin.
The action is great. I enjoyed the plot and characters immensely. The author has no problem killing off characters, even important ones. He holds true to the mantra, mission first--everybody is expendable. I like this as it is a truism in military circles, people get wounded and killed. Nobody is so good as to be bulletproof. It also pays homage to an old military cliche, "no plan survives contact with the enemy." The plot twists and turns were good. Once I started reading I could not put it down.
I will admit I had a bit of a problem with the Gee-Whiz high tech gear. Some of the gear was too over the top and was not very believable. Kind of like some of the Bond gadgets. But that is my only complaint and a not very big one at that.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sixty Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson

Sixty Days and Counting is the final book in the "Science in the Capital" science fiction series. It is a series that deals with a liberal view of the environment and global climate change. To summarize the previous two books (Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below), Frank Vanderwal is scientist at the National Science Foundation, on loan from the University of California at San Diego, who is a quiet but unique character that is similar to many other characters that the author, Kim Stanley Robinson, creates in other books. His characters are usually into hiking, Buddhism, environmentalism, and liberal values. Frank has a chance (seemingly) meeting in a malfunctioning elevator with a complete female stranger, yet they end up making out in the elevator. She becomes a mysterious part of his time in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, weather patterns and environmental changes begin to happen unbelievably quickly all over the globe. Frank and his friends, Charlie and Anna Quibler are in position with the new administration to help make a difference on the science front.

Sixty Days begins with the new administration. Phil Chase has been elected president and Frank is brought along to advise the Science cabinet. He is an interesting character in that he is essentially homeless. At different times, he has lived in a treehouse in the D.C. area, lived with the Tibetan Buddhists who have been displaced from their (fictional) island by rising oceans, lived in his minivan and spends the night in a mini-cave when he visits his faculty and friends at UCSD. Frank also spends much time with the "ferals", a caste of people who do not work but also are homeless. They move from place to place as an underground society. These themes are often present in KSR's books.

The Quibler's are a quite a couple. Charlie has been a staffer with Phil Chase (the elected president) for many years. But recently, he's been a work-from-home dad. He spends all day with his toddler, Joe, and also most of the day on the phone or the internet doing his work. The time comes thought that he must put Joe in daycare and work like everyone else, especially when the president asks him point blank to come to work. His wife, Anna, is career analytical hawk that is willing to let her husband be the main nurturer of the family. She is a hardcore scientist for the NSF and declines a job on the Science Cabinet. The Quibler's are supportive of Frank during his trials with an injury and also with his mysterious girlfriend.

I really love KSR's writing style. His plots have the usual highs and lows, just like everyone else, but he does not let the characters become to unrealistic. He has a way of starting a theme or train of plot and slowly developing it to only sometimes succeed. These plots meanderings bring about a type of nostalgia that doesn't always end the right way. His successes are satisfying and his failures are emotional. It's very unique. Even though my own awareness of the environment and attitude toward religion and social issues are almost polar opposites of KSR's, his writing style is most effective and poignant to me.

The author's most famous works are the Mars trilogy, a science fiction epic series dealing with the colonization and terraforming of Mars.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Journal of Curious Letters

The Journal of Curious Letters. Book one of the The 13th Reality

By James Dashner
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Shadow Mountain (March 13, 2008)
ISBN-10: 1590388313
ISBN-13: 978-1590388310
What do you do if you get a strange letter in the mail telling you the that there is a danger to all reality and you might be able to help fix it?
Most of us would just think it a joke and ignore it. However, 13 year old Atticus Higgenbottom takes the other path and sets into motion a series of strange events that takes him on the adventure of a lifetime.
The strange letter from M.G. is followed by twelve more letters. Each letter is a clue to a riddle that Atticus, a.k.a. Tick, must solve if he is to assist in the attempt to save all of reality.
He is joined by several other children from around the globe in this quest. He meets strange and mysterious people, people who do not come from our reality. It seems that the war to save all reality is real and there are people on his side.
James Dashner has woven a strong tale of adventure and mystery that will appeal to the readers. Tick is a fun character, the kind of kid you would want as a younger brother. He is an average kid, maybe a bit smarter than most, but he leads a normal life until he is thrust into a situation most people would avoid. The appeal of his personality pulls you in and leaves you rooting for Tick and his friends.
The book is the first in a series revolving around the fight to defend reality from a rogue agent bent on destroying all the realities and remaking the universe in her image. I am looking forward to the next book.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Spellsong War by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

The Spellsong War is the second installment in Modesitt's Spellsong Cycle series of fantasy books dealing with an opera soprano that has been magically transported from her job and family on Earth to a medieval setting on a world called Erde where magic is called upon by music together with lyrics.

Anna, the soprano turned sorceress, is now the regent of a good sized portion of the land but it is poor and dry, even though her actions at the end of the previous book has brought more rain to Defalk, her regency. As regent, she wants to do her honest best to make Defalk a better place, but Erde, for the most part, is a male-dominated society where women, at best, are useful props for the lord or consort to which she is loyal. Anna's leadership clashes with this predominant society and she is forced to go from city to city demanding loyalty, usually using sorcery, spellsong.

The chapters are short and digestible although there's not much plot to this book. There's just going from hold to hold, destroying some and convincing others to be loyal to the regency so that it can make Defalk a better place. The author likes to describe nonverbal motions to help the dialogue...a lot! Sometimes, especially in this series, the reader can be drowned nonverbal communications that it's not always clear what is going on. This happens especially in his short chapters showing short scenes with the enemy, discussing strategy. I usually skipped quickly through those chapters even though the point of them was to foreshadow events and intentions.

Anna has a what you could call a crush on one of the Lords of Defalk, Jecks. He is accompanying Anna in her travels to be a guide to the politics of the land. He resembles Sean Connery or Robert Mitchum. She spends the entire book wondering if she will ever be free to pursue him.

I don't know if I will continue to read this series. It'll be a low priority whether or not I buy and read them. I'm sure that there is much more to come but this book as left me wondering if too much is being made in this series. It's a unique magical system but it is also getting old. She is discovering new methods too slowly it seems. This could be because she has no guide and is having to figure things out on her own. There are new enemies that have not yet been conquered. The reader can see that coming in later books.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Excalibur by Bernard Cornwell

It's been a while since I've finished a book with the holidays being as busy as they are, but I finally finished this one tonight, so here goes.

Excalibur is the final book of the Warlord trilogy by Bernard Cornwell, a historical fiction look at the Arthur legend. Once again, we are led through story in the eyes of Derfel, friend and warlord of Arthur. Britain is in disarray as Mordred, the subject of the title of the first book (The Winter King), is now grown and is as vile aj young king as the imagination can conjure. The Saxons are temporarily beaten back by a furious battle from a mountaintop. Through the shield walls and sword battles, Derfel and his companions endure triumphs and tragedies of Dark Age political and military life.

The famed sword, Excalibur, is the title of this book and that is tied to it being one of the magical Druid artifacts that Merlin attempts to use to bring back the Druid gods to reclaim Britain from the Saxons and the invading Christian societies started by the monks.

One of the suspenses that builds to a climax in Excalibur is that of how Derfel loses his hand. As sections begin in the book, Derfel is a Christian monk writing his memoirs long after his friends and family are dead. It is mentioned that he has no left hand. So the reader is always wondering in the back of their mind how it happened. At least I did. At one point, past halfway in the book, Derfel is captured by a character that he had cut the hand off of in the second book. So the suspense really rose at that point. I'm occasionally squeamish with the blood and gore, so I had to put the book down for a couple of days to avoid that bit of unpleasantness, but once I resumed reading, I found that the reader was in for a surprise as to how he finally loses the hand.

Some authors just have "it". "It" is a talent for writing realism, a waxing and waning of tragedy and triumph, and weaving love, war, politics and real world issues into a fine work of art. Bernard Cornwell has done this with the Warlord trilogy. As in his first two books, after the story, he explains some of the documented history of the battles and some of the writings surrounding the myth/legend/history of Arthur. Historian cannot agree to much about this period due to lack of evidence. That is why it is called the Dark Ages. But Cornwell does a fantastic job of speculating for us in a way that is romantic and heart wrenching. I highly recommend this series.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Rule Number Two by Dr. Heidi Squier Kraft

Rule Number Two

Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital

Dr. Heidi Squier Kraft (LCmdr, Ret)

There are two rules of war.
Rule number one is that young men die.
Rule number two is that doctors can't change rule number one.
--M*A*S*H: TV show

One of the remarkable things happening in today's military and today's war zones is the phenomenal writing that is occurring from the front lines in the form of blogs and books. Today, we are brought closer to the thoughts and feelings and experiences of our military through the written word, and they do it so well. Anyone wanting to know more about the War on Terror and our military has access to the information.

Rule Number Two is a collection of the experiences of Navy Lieutenant Commander Heidi Kraft during her deployment as a clinical psychologist with a Marine Corps Surgical Unit in Al Asad, Iraq. Dr. Kraft shares with us the stories of the damages of war and the amazing stories of repair of the spirit and the body. She also shares her longing for home and her 15 month old twins, jutaposing her life in Iraq with her family at home. There are stories that will make your heart soar, make you laugh out loud and make you cry. There is an especially gruesome story of her smallpox vaccination and one about camel spiders that are unforgetable!

Dr. Kraft allows us to share her laughter, her tears, her joys and her fears. This is a wonderfully readable book, and difficult to put down, as Dr Kraft weaves us into her stories. We meet the Marines, the Navy Corpsmen, the Navy doctors, nurses, technicians and the Marine working dogs.

Some of the most vivid stories are those of Cpl Jason Dunham. When Cpl Dunham was wounded, Dr Kraft was one of the people who sat and held his hand and talked to him. Cpl Dunham, who died later from his wounds, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage and bravery and sacrifice that day when he threw himself on a grenade to save his men. In later chapters, Dr Kraft shares the story of his passing and the story of his mother's, Deb Dunham, letter to Dr. Kraft to thank her for holding Jason's hand and caring for him. They are stories that will touch your heart.

One of the greatest gifts of this book is the peek into the medical care provided to our warriors - the love, care and respect they are given. This is a remarkable book and I recommend it to anyone interested in life in a war zone and in a hospital in a war zone.

Dr Kraft is donating 10% of the profits to the
Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.