Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Club - Books Read January-June 2014

I've been doing an end-of-the year post on books I read in the preceding year since I started this blog in 2008. If you're interested, here are the past years: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013. I read about 60 books a year in those years. I retired at the end of January and, as I expected my reading time has increased. I'm on a pace to read 80+ books in 2014. 60 books made for a long post. I think 80 would be beyond most people's desire to read. So I'm going to do two book lists this year. One now and the other at the end of the year. So here's what I've read so far, in the order I read them.

 #1. Good hard science fiction. As the human race expands throughout the galaxy, they meet many alien races but only one, the zor, becomes an implacable enemy. After years of war and treaties broken by the zor, Earth turns to a scholar who has spent his entire career studying the zor. He believes he has found the key to zor behavior and Earth puts the star fleet in his hands. Very military with a "Star Trek" feel.

 #2. This book, written in 2009, takes as it's premise, that the Great Recession bankrupted America. It's now about some 10 years later and America is pretty much in the hands of foreign bankers. What's left of the FBI is trying to stop a US billionaire from taking over the country. Pretty paranoid.

#3. Another hard sci-fi book. In the far future, "runcibles" (matter transmitters controlled by AIs) allow interstellar travel in an eye blink throughout the settled worlds of the Polity. Published in 2001, this is the first book of Asher's Polity Universe series, of which there are now 12. This book also introduces a Polity secret agent named Cormac. He's traveled by runcible so often, he's having trouble keeping track of himself as a person rather than an extension of the artificial intelligences who control the system. He's gridlinked. Pretty good and I intend to read more of this series.

#4. And speaking of "Star Trek" my daughter gave me this (and a second volume) for Christmas last year. After "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was released, a newspaper cartoon strip based on the characters from the movie was developed. It ran for 4-5 years. As big of a Star Trek fan as I am, I had never heard of this. The series consisted of a daily 4-5 panel strip and a large color Sunday color edition. It was pretty good.

 #5. A young woman is in the hospital, apparently the victim of a botched murder attempt. She is paralyzed from the neck down and can only communicate by blinking her eyes. Inspector Tom Thorn is as baffled as everyone else as to who the perpetrator might be. Gradually he comes to realize that three earlier deaths of young woman are related to this case. The murderer wasn't trying to kill his victims but leave them in a paralyzed state. Published in 2001, this is the first of a series about London police inspector Tom Thorn. It was a good story, although Thorn is a pretty depressing character.

#6. You may remember Hawkeye from the first Avengers movie. I read this at my daughter's urging. It was OK but hard to follow. This character has a complicated back story which isn't helped at all by the fact that there is also a female character called Hawkeye. This is, of course, a graphic novel, what I would have called as a kid as a large comic book. Does it count as a book? It's my blog so it counts.

#7. There are a number of these "Worst-Case Scenario" books around. Someone at work gave it to me in January before I retired. It's actually an interesting blend of good advice and crackpot humor.

 #8. A British detective story with a bit of a twist. Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz is fished out of the Themes, nearly drowned with a gunshot wound in the leg. He wakes up in the hospital with no idea of what happened to him. Turns out he was working off-the-books on a long ago, seemingly solved, kidnapping case. Since the department didn't know what he was doing, he has to try and retrace his steps on his own.

#9. I try to read at least one good baseball book a year. I'd actually bought this at a used book sale some years ago and finally got around to reading it. Although I'm a big baseball fan now, I wasn't so much in 1968 so it was fun to read about the great season of 1968. Even though I wasn't a big fan then, I know all the players involved through my baseball card collecting hobby.

#10. This is the ninth Jack Reacher novel. I've read most of them. This is the book that was made into the movie "Reacher" staring Tom Cruise. Although I still have a hard time picturing Tom Cruise as the 6 foot 5 Jack Reacher, I enjoyed the movie. It was pretty faithful to the book.

#11. The first book of "The Owner" series by Neal Asher. The future Earth is in terrible shape. Over population and pollution have reduced much of the Earth to a wasteland. The only affluent people are those who work for the oppressive governments. These governments are spending the rest of earth's resources to build themselves a space habitat where they can escape. One man, Alan Saul, is determined to stop their ultimate plan, to depopulate the Earth and return it to a natural state so the government workers can eventually return from space. Pretty intense and pretty good.

#12. Published in 1938, and a classic in science fiction, I couldn't believe I'd never read this before when I found the audio book at my library. Two men from Earth have built a space ship that transports them to the fabulous planet Malacandra. The planet is inhabited by several intelligent species but the men think them only barbarians and try to exploit them. After misinterpreting the aliens the men return to Earth to bring them a human sacrifice in trade for riches. They go back to earth, kidnap an old friend named Dr. Ransom and bring him back. He escapes on Malacandra and learns about their strange customs and manages to outwit his kidnappers. More an allegory than a science fiction novel, it works pretty well.  There were 2 sequels.

#13. Somewhere, outside of space and time, is a vast City. It is populated by the dead. When some one dies on earth, he or she finds themselves crossing a fearful boundary and then enter the City. There they are free to live as they wish. Most pass their time in ways similar to when they were alive. Some find old lost loves and renew relationships. The prevailing theory in the City is that you remain there until there is no one on earth who remembers you. What happens to you after that no one knows. Then the population of the City begins to decrease. Meanwhile back on earth, a three person crew (2 men and one woman, Laura) are on a scientific expedition to Antarctica. Unbeknownst to them, a worldwide and man made plague has been unleashed.  This was a weird premise for a story but it was well written and I enjoyed it.

#14. The second book of The Owner series. Just as intense.

#15. Although I've seen the movie countless times, I'd never read the book. Since I've been retired I've been going to the gym regularly. I like to read while on the stationary bike and treadmill and have found a Kindle excellent for this. I was able to download this for free from Amazon. It's the story you know from the movie but with several more adventures for Dorothy and her friends.

#16. I love British detective stories. Generally these feature a Detective Inspector (DI) in the starring role, but this series puts Detective Sargent Aector McAvoy  in the lead. He's a Welshman serving as a policeman in Yorkshire, so it's also a sort of fish-out-of-water story. McAvoy, who seems smarter than his superiors, suspects that a suicide in town was really a murder made to look like suicide. Since he can't convince his DI to look into it, he investigates on his spare time. And, of course, he's right. This is the second McAvoy book and I liked it enough to find the first.

#17. Huguette Clark was the daughter of industrialist W. A. Clark, a self-made millionaire who made his fortune in copper mining. He built the 121-room mansion pictured on the cover in New York City for his family. Huguette, still very wealthy, died in 2011 at 104 years of age. She had spent the last 20 years of her life living as a recluse in a small private hospital, even though she was in good health. How the Clark family came to be so wealthy and how Huguette, a shy and private person lived her life was very interesting.

#18. The Nameless Detective series began in 1971 and this is the 42nd in the series. I've read several of them. They are a quick read. Nameless (better know as Bill to his associates) is practically retired from the agency he founded and still tired (physically and emotionally) from the events in the previous book where is wife was kidnapped and nearly murdered. This book is mainly about one of the associate detectives at the agency who takes on a case from a beautiful woman who turns around and tries to blackmail him.

#19. The story takes place in modern times, but a alternate version of today. In this world, children with extraordinary talents began being born in the 1980s. About 1% of the total childbirths were 'brilliants". Now, some 30 years later, society is transformed as some of these children grew up to be scientists and engineers bringing new technology to fruit. But these children, now adults, are also feared (think X-Men and mutants) and are being hunted an imprisoned. Not as interesting as I had hoped. There is a sequel but I probably won't read it.

 #20. The first Detective Sargent Aector McAvoy. An old sailor, who was the sole survivor of a ship wreck 40 years before, is asked by a local TV station to participate in a documentary about the ship wreck. As part of the show, the TV crew takes him out on a ship where his original ship went down to lay a memorial wreath in the sea. As they return home, he apparently jumps overboard and dies. Back in town, a burned to death man is found in a house fire. And on Christmas Eve, a crazy man kills an alter server in church. How are these three cases related? You'll have to read the book. McAvoy is convinced they are and nearly loses his job to prove it.

#21. There have been a number of science fiction stories about "space elevators", where a tower based on the ground stretches into outer space, allowing an easier path to space. This is the story of how the first one gets built, just a few years from now. Interesting to me but if you're not an engineer, you may find it a bit stilted.

 #22. The third Avery Cates book. I'd read the second one last year. Now I'll have to find the first. Cates is a hired killer in a future world which appears to be slowly dieing. He may be a hired killer but he has some scruples, he only takes a contract on real scumbags. But then he gets thrown into the worst prison on the planet. He's offered a chance to escape, but only if he agrees to kill the world's top policeman (and probably top scumbag), the most protected person in the world.

 #23. Lots of sports (mostly baseball) cartoons from the incomparable Willard Mullins. Great.

 #24. John Ringo is a science fiction and military fiction writer whom I've never read. This is the start of a new series where a zombie-like plague erupts and kills nearly everyone. This might also be called survivalist fiction. An ex-marine and his family had been preparing for apocalypse for years and manage to escape to sea before becoming victims. It was OK enough that I'll probably read the next book.

#25. The first Avery Cates novel. Down-and-out hired gun Cates is willing to leave you alone as long as you leave him alone (and he doesn't have a contract out on you). The Electric Church has found the was to immorality by downloading your brain into a computer and putting it in an android body. Cates thinks this is pretty creepy but doesn't pay them much attention until the Church seems to be targeting him.

#26. The 17th and latest Jack Reacher book. Jack, who normally doesn't like getting involved with people, is hitchhiking across country to meet the woman who is currently in command of Reacher's old MP unit. When he gets to her base, he finds her in the brig and he gets arrested. And he learns that he may have a teenaged daughter.

#27. Ruth Galloway is a 40-year-old forensic anthropologist and single mom. She teaches at a small college in the Norfolk area of England. This is the fifth book of this series. In a recent dig, she has found what appears to be the bones of a notorious 19th century child murderer. Inspector Harry Nelson is immersed in a case involving kidnapping children. He is convinced this case is related to a woman who had three of her children die. I would have never guessed that a forensic anthropologist lived as exciting and dangerous life as Ruth. Very enjoyable read.

#28. The story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji. You, of course, know who Doyle is. Edalji was a half-Indian lawyer who was unjustly accused and convicted of mutating cattle in his home town. After spending several years in prison, he was released but his career was ruined. Doyle heard of his case and decided to investigate and clear Edalji's name. This was one of two cases that Doyle was involved with that helped the establishment of a modern Court of Appeals in England. This is a fictional account of the case.

#29. Most people, if they know of Mathew Brady will associate him with American Civil War photography. He is justifying famous for that, but Brady started in photography much earlier than that and was there on the 'ground-floor' of the new technology of photography. Today, you want a photograph, you whip your iPhone out of your pocket, push a button, and you've got a high quality photograph. In the period running up to the Civil War and for many years after that getting a photograph of yourself was a much more labor intensive process. Back then, getting your photography taken by Brady was a big social deal. Getting a 'Brady' meant you were somebody, even if it only cost 10 cents.  Very interesting book.

#30. As I mentioned above, I liked the 5th Ruth Galloway book I decided to read the whole series. This is the first book in the series. There was a lot of background briefly touched on in the other book which is much clearer now. A child's bones turn up in the Salt Marsh and Ruth is asked to date them. They turn out to be 1,000 years old, but the circumstances of the child's death remind DCI Nelson of an unsolved case from 10 years ago, the kidnapping of a little girl named Lucy.

#31. Great little baseball story by Stephen King that I previously posted about here.

#32. Please don't think less of me if I read the occasional YA book. This got a favorable mention on the sci-fi site so I decided to read it. A great scientific breakthrough some years before had allowed the construction of portals which allowed one to basically walk to another world. As more and more earth-like planets were discovered, the Earth was depopulated.  The poor girl (Jarra) on the cover is 'handicapped'. If she leaves Earth through one of the portals, she'll die from an allergic reaction. Approximately 1 in 1000 people lack something that enable them to live on other worlds. Jarra thinks she's as good as any 'exo'. It was OK but clearly aimed at a younger (and female) audience. There are sequels which I won't be reading.

#33. More Ruth Galloway. This time, bones discovered at a building site re-open a long forgotten mystery of missing children.

#34. I believe this is another YA book but it was much better than "Earth Girl". My daughter mentioned this to me after we saw the new Spider-Man movie. Andrew Garfield, who is the current Spider-Man was in the movie made of this book in 2010 with Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan. It's hard to talk about the plot too much without giving away too many spoilers. Let's say that the story starts in what appears to be a private boarding school where the children are being prepared for some mysterious purpose. After I read the book I watched the movie which had done a pretty good job a translating the book to screen. If you've seen the movie and liked it, I'd recommend the book.

 #35. Another graphic novel. Enjoyable in it's own right but you probably need to read the whole Frank Miller series (which I haven't) to really understand the plot.

#36. More Jack Reacher, this time on audio, from 2007. This is a bit different from the average Reacher book. For one thing, it's told in first person. It starts off with a scene which, in terms of the Jack Reacher universe, made no sense. But it all comes clear. Jack is working with an off-the-books FBI unit to bring down a gun dealer. Jack, of course, has his own reasons, which may or may not correspond to the FBI agent's.

#37. My second biography of the year, this one from earlier period in American History. Zebulon Pike was the first American to discover Pike's Peak in Colorado in around 1804. Although the book is titled "Citizen Explorer", Pike was an Army man, ordered on two long expeditions which practically killed him and the men with him. In the first, he is ordered to find the headwaters of the Mississippi just after the Louisiana Purchase. Of course, the headwaters weren't exactly lost, the plan behind the mission was to show an American presence in a wild land mostly known only to the native Americans and European trappers. The second mission (with the same back story) was to find the headwaters of the Arkansas River, far off from St. Louis across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. The author does a great job of relating this to political realities of the beginning of the 19th century and the concept of American Manifest Destiny. Very highly recommended.

#38. This book, believe it or not, was the top bestseller of 1913. And it was actually written by Winston Churchill, but not the Churchill of World War II fame. I've been looking for free Kindle material to read at the gym. I found a website, here, where a guy was planning to read the top bestseller for each of the past 100 years (from 1913). I figured at least 50 of these books would be off copy write and might be available for free. This book is huge and extremely wordy. The story is about a young minister who is lured from his New England seacoast parish to a larger parish in a large unnamed Midwestern city. The book mainly consist of long conversations about religion between the minister (Mr. Hodder) and the rich parishioners who maintain his church. Mr. Hodder gradually realizes that these people were not real Christians and pretty much goes all evangelical on them. Early on he meets Miss Parr, the lovely daughter of the richest and most influential man in town who largely made his money by swindling lesser men them himself. Miss Parr and Mr. Hodder fall in love with each other which really makes the religious conversations between them heat up. In the last pages of the book, he finally kisses her.  It all sounds horrible but was very well written. It was also amazing how much the rich men in defending themselves sounded like rich conservatives today.

#39. This looks like another graphic novel but it's not. In fact, it's the novel that the new Tom Cruise movie "Edge of Tomorrow", which I reviewed here, was based on. My daughter and I were a bit disappointed in the happy ending of the movie, and since she already owned the book we both decided to read it. The book and the movie are similar in surface details and plot but the stories diverge quite a lot. We still like the movie but think that the book was better.

#40. Another Ruth Galloway novel. I told you I liked them Only one more to go to catch up. In this one, a team of anthropologists from Ruth's university, accidentally discover 6 skeletons buried at the base of the cliff below the house on the cover. The bodies hands were tied and it looked as if they had been shot in the head.  Ruth can establish that they are less than 100 years old and from Germany. DCI Nelson starts asking questions of surviving members of the Home Guard from WWII. When the few who are left start dieing, he starts to suspect that a modern day killer is trying to protect some old secrets.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Movie Review - "Jersey Boys"

We took a break from action and superhero movies to see the musical "Jersey Boys".

As I'm sure you know the movie, based on a 10-year-old stage show, is about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I'm old enough to remember when most of their big hits were new, back in the early 1960's. Along with the Beatles and the Beach Boys, they were one of the biggest bands of the time.

The movie has, broadly, two themes, the music and the price they pay for their success. For the most part, the music is great. The guys playing the band were the original cast of the play. In the beginning they all look a little old for the part but not disturbingly so. We first meet Frankie as a 16-year-old in 1951. I'd have guessed he was 30.  We hear the music in a variety of ways: rehearsing, recording, playing before a live audience, or playing on television. Pretty much all the big hits I remember are there. I understand there was much more music in the stage show, but director Eastwood, decided to focus more on the backstage aspects of their story.

It's hard to know how much of the back story is true (Wikipedia wasn't much help). According to the film, the boys in their early days were basically mobsters and beholden to mob interests for many years. One of the band members racked up an enormous debt to the mob which Frankie eventually paid down. Frankie's wife was an alcoholic and the marriage broke up with three daughters. His oldest daughter, on the verge of making some demo records, died, apparently of a drug overdose. All this was a dark counterpoint to the music, which, somehow, continued on.

The story is moved along by narratives by different band members, directly to the audience. This sometimes worked pretty well, like in the opening, band member Tommy, while walking down the street, starts talking to the camera over his shoulder. Other times, like when a band member, during a performance, steps out of character to address the camera, didn't work as well.

It was hard to get a sense of time passing in the movie. In the opening we're told it's 1951 by a screen caption. A little later, one band member, in an aside to the camera says it's 1961. The next time we hear a date is when the band is getting inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.  According to Wikipedia, the band's (and/or Valli's as a solo act) popularity as a recoding act dropped pretty quickly in the late 1960's. As a performing act, the band or Valli as a solo remain popular to this day. My wife and I saw them perform around 1990 to an enthusiastic crowd in Atlantic City, some 15 years after their last real hit. The movie doesn't really put into context how big they were or how far they fell.

We liked the movie, although I think I'd have preferred it to be a bit more upbeat.  Be warned that the movie has a well deserved R rating for language, it you're thinking of taking your 10-year-old. There are more f**ks in this movie than anything we've seen in years.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Some odd-ball Phillies stuff

I recently won an auction for some odd-ball Phillies cards. The package had 54 items in it. Here's a few of them. I'll post more later in the week.

1986 Leaf
Not so terribly odd. I've seen these before but I never had any Phillies from the set. Leaf was the Canadian parent of Donruss back in those days and issued cards in Canada under the Leaf name. The fronts are exactly the same as Donruss but the backs have some added information in French. I always like the 1986 Donruss design.

1987 Classic Travel Update 2

Classic produced cards as part of a trivia game in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This is only the second of this set I've ever seen.

1987 Fleer Star Stickers
These were sold by Fleer as a separate issue, 5 stickers per wax pack. I had only had one card from this 132-card set before.

1988 O-Pee-Chee

Unlike, the Leaf/Donruss relationship, O-Pee-Chee was a Canadian company, independent of Topps. It licensed Topps designs for cards produced for the Canadian market.

1990 Classic Update
Classic produced 3 sets in 1990. Classic Blue (with pink stripes) was a 150 card set which I bought new complete with a game board and spinner. Classic Yellow (with blue stripes) was a 100-card set which I also own complete. The have the same design as Classic Update except for the color scheme. I had a couple of these lurid pink Update cards but no Phillies.