Monthly Archives: March 2014

Book Review: Sharcano

Sharcano by Jose Prendes

Sharcano by Jose Prendes is the first book in the Sharkpocalypse Trilogy. I like my science fiction to be farfetched. I figure if I am going to suspend my disbelief, it better be worth it. Sharcano did not disappoint. 

“Shark!” Max squealed
“What?”
There is a f*cking shark in that lava!”

I was expecting SyFy Channel’s Sharknado meets Snakes on the Plane, but it turned out much better. It was like when I was a kid grabbing paperbacks off the shelf at Lawsons: Cool covers, books I probably shouldn’t be reading, and I got to get a paperback copy of the Exorcist without my parents finding out that I was reading that “trash.” Sharcano is better than all that. It is like The Omen meets Jaws. Yes, there are sharks swimming in the lava that is pouring out all over the world. China suffers a tsunami after a sharcano erupts off its coast. Yellowstone turns into a sharcano hot spot. Of course Los Angeles could not be left out either. Lava sharks are on the rampage, and they eat people. As if sharks swimming in the street was not enough, they can jump…really high…like aircraft high. 

What happens next throws three groups of people together. Two rednecks from Wyoming searching for Big Foot. A Chinese boy, his grandmother, and a pilot tell the story from China. A priest, who discovers his colleague’s body, a victim of a suicide, joins a marine biologist, a news anchor, and a Chinese-American scientist. There is a whole cast of others in the story too. It’s big like a 1970s disaster movie. 

The writing is excellent, far better than a SyFy Channel B-movie. The book will keep your attention. To periodically remind you that you are reading a book of extreme fiction, Prendes hits you with an eruption of similes: The ground opened like a knife cutting hot brownies. 

Every once in a while, I am surprised by a book. I was really expecting a heavy dose of camp with Sharcano. The cover has sharks flying out of an erupting volcano at helicopters. I figured I would laugh as much as I did at Adam West’s Batman series (Lucky for Batman he had shark repellent in his utility belt). Instead, I was drawn into the story accepting the fiction as I do with a J.G. Ballard novel. Sharcano is a definite break from my usual reading. It also is also a welcome break. I recommend it to anyone looking for a fun break in their reading. I look forward to the next two books in the trilogy.

(Yeah, it is a bit like Snakes on the Plane, too ; ) )

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Book Review: The Wrath Inside

The Wrath Inside by RR Gall is a work of historical fiction that takes place in a small Palestinian town in the year 15 AD. The story opens with the main character, Ezera, finding a knife held to his throat by an unknown assailant. Ezera is basically a good kid. He jokes, sometimes too much, and the worst trouble he caused was stealing a piece of fruit from a vendor. Not stealing in a bad sense though, more of a prank done by teens, for fun. The man, Khalil, demands information from Ezera, which he eventually provides and develops a trust with him and helps him find his missing twin children. Thinking that it is the end of the matter, life goes on for Ezera and his friends. The encounters with the occupying Romans provide the bulk of the story.

What I liked about the book was that when the characters interacted, especially Ezera and his friends. They used nicknames and spoke the way you would expect teens to speak. Ezera is “Eezy” to his friends. They talk about things, especially standing up to the Romans in the way an idealistic youth would. All their conversations in the book are in English. In one part of the story Ezera’s father, a carpenter, is planning on making wooden shoes and is wondering what they should be called. He comes up with “woodies”. It makes sense in the story, but I don’t think it would make sense in the local Greek. The reader should understand that the characters speak to each other in their native languages. The native languages have their own slang and clever plays on words although it probably would not make much sense to us. Keeping things simple helps the reader be part of the story instead of looking up foreign words in an index. Here the setting is well covered in detail, and the reader does not need to be reminded where the story is taking place.

The details in the story are excellent and true to history. I questioned some references in the book, particularly about food and plants mentioned in the story. For example, apple trees are mentioned, and I thought its much too arid in Palestine for apple trees. It is, but the Romans brought apple trees to Palestine. I also checked on beer, sure enough, it is historically accurate. Details like that show to me that this book is well thought out, and the author is putting more effort into the story than the story itself.

I usually shy away from books that take place around this time period because they tend to be overly religious. Here the Jewish religion is part of the culture and pride of the people, but it is not an overbearing force in the novel. Interactions with the religious figures are almost more political than religious. It breaks with the notion that the Jewish people in Palestine were overtly religious in their everyday lives. Ezera and his family and friends went to temple, lived good lives, and were pretty much no different in thinking from most people today.

I am sure there will be history and historical fiction fans who will find fault with some of the language and story. Rather than historical fiction, I would call this book a mystery set in Palestine. The storytelling is well done as well as laying out a setting and developing the characters. There is an effort to keep the setting historically accurate, but the driving force of the book is two mysteries and a story revenge. I enjoyed the book as a novel and especially the informal language of the characters. I was more pulled in by the mysteries than the sense of historical fiction. An enjoyable read.

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Book Review: Where’s Merrill? A Genealogical Thriller

Where’s Merrill? A Genealogical Thriller by Gearoid O’Neary is a cross between a research paper and a mystery. I really did not know what to expect with this book initially, but was won over fairly quickly. Trying to find Merrill in a family history reminded of my days a history major and searching for minor historical figures. In fact, my classmates and I had done this sort of thing so often in so many Latin American history classes that this research took on its own name. No matter who we were researching, the joke was his name is Juan Obscuro. So reading about someone searching down a person using historical records was not that intriguing to me. The author, as the main character, searching for someone else’s Juan Obscuro really seemed monotonous to me.

But, my initial thoughts were wrong. Jed, the main character, was a former engineer riding high on the building boom in Ireland when it crashed. Corporate backlash and Jed’s feeling of duty to his people, left him out on the street. He, in turn, turned a hobby into a career: Genealogy. Well, here was something positive I could relate to. I was a project manager riding high on the telecom wave when it crashed, and likewise, I found myself unemployed. I turned my hobby into a career: Bicycle mechanics. I was surprised that someone could earn a good living researching people’s past as I am sure that people are surprised a bicycle mechanic can earn a good living. Anyway, that sealed my bond with Jed, and his wife Susan. No high-life, but real hard working people and a reasonably good life.

Tim is the American, who asks Jed to help find his past. Tim’s mother, when she was alive, hid her family’s past. Now that she was gone, Tim could discover his past without upsetting his mother or going against her wishes. Here too, I was pleasantly surprised. Jed and Sue had a far more interesting time researching Tim’s family than I ever did researching Juan. The history crosses the American Midwest, from Iowa and up in to Minnesota. It spreads to California and Washington, D.C.. There are several twists and turns in the research too. What is expected and reported is not always what happened. Merrill, is particularly a difficult subject to track and not always by accident. The story jumps back and forth between Jed and Susan and the search for Merrill. The Jed’s and Susan’s story runs chronologically. The genealogy part of the story jumps back and forth as new pieces of information are found and new family members are found and traced, but it does flow very logically.

I was expecting a novelization of a dry research paper when I started this book. I was pleasantly surprised by the actual story. It was far more than I could have expected; interesting is an understatement. The writing is very well done, although at the beginning chapters the conversation seemed a little forced, but that impression also disappeared as I read further in the book. I also found the process of the research interesting too. I never realized that there was that much of an infrastructure for records going that far back. I had expected many records to be lost, destroyed, forgotten, or just simply no longer worth keeping by the local government. A very interesting read whether you are interested in genealogy or not. The story resulting from the search is definitely worth the read as historical fiction — the research is real the names have been changed and conversations inserted. Very well done.

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Book Review: Starvation Ridge

Starvation Ridge by Risa Stephanie Bear is a novel of the post collapse world. Bear is a former tree planter, firefighter, and tree cruiser (I had to look that up). She holds an MA in English and a MS in Art Management. Retired from the University of Oregon she now farms an acre of land in Willamette Valley, Oregon.

Post economic collapse books are fairly common today and with good reason. A casual look at the news will show stories of man-made climate change, pollution, chemical spills, endangered species, and a host of other environmental concerns. Looking a bit deeper there is peak oil and military intervention to ensure the flow of oil. Combine this with increased resource consumption and it appears we are on our way to a post collapse world. Most books I have read have a catch to draw you in. Some use evil corporations, authoritarian states, or even zombies. Bear, however, goes about it a different way. She keeps things real.

The world collapsed slowly. Oil became scarce, wars started (much like today), then the economy started to stumble, people lost jobs, walked away from mortgages, society started to collapse, disease, hunger, and then man slipped into a Hobbesian state of nature. Some people hid, like Karen and her father. Some people formed communities to pool labor, resources, and security. Some became gangs and used violence to survive and to take what they needed from others. This is where the book begins.

Karen’s father is killed by a gang, and she manages to escape with her bow and some survival gear. She is found by a community of farmers and joins them. This is the very primitive type of life but there is food, shelter, and a sense of belonging. Several characters in the community join Karen as main characters in the story. The community is a collection of backgrounds including military, a PhD, and mostly farm folk, from wise elders to children. They are a peaceful, but alert and protective of what they have built. With the collapse, manual labor is needed to run farm with some animal help. It is not a utopia, but perhaps, the closest thing to it.

Peaceful farming communities, however, are targets for roaming gangs. Wolf is the leader of this story’s gang. It contains the type of people one would expect: prisoners, skinheads, and those willing to embrace violence for violence’s sake. Like the farm community, they had only the technology they could find. Guns were part of that technology. The problem came with the limited ammunition. A gun without ammunition is just a piece of metal. Guns were also a status symbol for Wolf’s “non-commissioned officers”. The men are loyal, vicious, and a bit worse. When a member falls in battle, the others may miss that person, but welcomed the source of meat.

 

I am impressed with the depth of the story and the level of the characters. Starvation Ridge is the most realistic post collapse book I can remember reading. Bear demonstrates a wealth of practical knowledge. As a former Marine, I liked that Bear uses Marines as a few of the characters, and for once, the Marines were realistic. There are no Marine Corps doctors or scientists or other non-existent Marine Corps professions. She even manages to drop in a Semper Fi. The effort in keeping the Marines real follows in the rest of the story. Once you are in the story, you can leave your willing suspension of disbelief at the door. As fiction this is as real as it gets and it will keep you hooked to the end.

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Book Review: Amgalant Two: Tribal Brawls

Amgalant Two: Tribal Brawls is the continuation of the Amgalant series. Hammond studied medieval history and literature while in college. She describes herself as a writer-in-a-garret and someone who does not pay much attention to the practical side of life. She currently lives in Australia.

Tribal Brawls picks up where The Old Ideal leaves off. There is no need to hide the main focus of the book; it is the rise of Genghis Khan. Much has been written on the ruler of the Mongols, and much of what has been written from Roman and conquered peoples’ perspective. Some common knowledge of Genghis Khan is more myth and legend than fact. The West tends to write history from its perspective rather neutral ground. Even the history of something as recent as the American Revolutionary War is not without controversies. It is held as a nearly holy event in American history, while in Britain, it is considered a minor civil war — a minor bump in their history. Perspective determines a person’s view. .

What Hammond does differently than most, and yes, I do know her book is historical fiction and not history, is use the Mongol text The Secret History of the Mongols. This text is thought to have been a copy written in the 14th century. The original was written some time after Genghis Khan’s death. The text remained unknown in the West until the early twentieth century. It is the most detailed account of Mongol history we have. There is, no doubt, some editing of Genghis Khan’s life after his death, but it is actual Mongol history written by the Mongols.

Hammond uses The Secret History as her outline and creates and epic series on the life of Genghis Khan. This creates the background history for the novel, and with it comes hundreds of pages of story. Of course, anyone can open up Wikipedia and get the CliffsNotes version, but you would be missing a great deal. Perhaps most important in understanding another people, is understanding their culture. This is where Hammond takes Tribal Brawls above and beyond most histories and beyond any history of the Mongols I have encountered. History tends to tell the “what”. Culture tells the how and why. Here we have the politics, the rivalries, the explanations of the conquerors, the interaction of the people, the beliefs of the people, and what it meant to be a Mongol. History provides a skeleton and culture provides the muscle, organs, and skin.

Perhaps the other thing missing from the simple history most people have experienced, is Hammond’s passion for the subject. She does not write just to write, she has a calling. A quick look at her Goodreads profile or her Twitter feed will let you how just how much time she spends reading and studying the Mongol empire and the Steppes. This passions shows in her work with her attention to detail and the amount of details included in her writing.

As the story of Genghis Kahn continues in the Amgalant series the reader can expect an outstanding story that holds to history as much as possible. In the first book, I did have to take notes as I read. The culture is different, the peoples names are unfamiliar, and it does take place at a time which is unfamiliar to most. Here too careful reading is necessary and possibly a few notes to keep things straight. Again, it is not a problem with the writing, it is problem of familiarity. The writing is clear and detail orientated. As someone with a history degree I usually don’t promote historical fiction as a way to learn history. They may be an enjoyable distraction for historians, but nothing to take too seriously …much like the tagline “based on a true story.” The Amgalant series is different. There is plenty to learn from reading this series. Extremely well done.

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Book Review: Duty: Suspense and Mystery Stories from the Cold War and Beyond

Duty: Suspense and Mystery Stories from the Cold War and Beyond by Martin Roy Hill is, for the most part, a collection of previously published short stories.  These stories originally appeared in San Diego Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and San Diego Writer’s Monthly.  Hill is a former editor for newspapers and magazines and now works as a military operations analyst.

 

As a former Marine and Cold War veteran, I looked forward to reading this collection. Duty seemed to have everything I could ask for.  Although none of the stories are about Marines, when Marines are mentioned it is always with a capital “M”.  We Marines like that. Shortly after the end of the Cold War, I was in graduate school for International Relations and it was a unique time in history.  Everything changed. The bipolar world we knew so well disintegrated and all policy was new.  One professor said, “One day we will look back on history and miss the days of the Cold War.”  Today, the world lacks the stability and hard and fast rules set by the two superpowers. Granted we are no longer facing M.A.D., but we now have extra-governmental forces (terrorists) causing problems that there is no easy solution for.  Yes, I do miss the old days and Duty took me back to the Cold War and my days in the military.

 

The stories are all  very good.  The story “Stragglers”, perhaps, is the most moving and unexpected stories in the book.  It is very well thought out and an ending that not only caught me off guard, but also evoked emotion that I was not expecting.  In another story, I was reminded of some of the shiftier people I served with. Although they did nothing as elaborate as the character in the story tried to pull off, they did have some scams going on.  The title story “Duty” demonstrates just how seriously service members take their jobs and the stress that is on them everyday that they put on a uniform.  “The Use of Innocence” reminds me of an often used phrase in the military — Silly ass boot.  Boot being the term of someone fresh out of bootcamp and “silly ass” the romanticized vision of war, duty, and everything military. From the story as a Vietnam vet observes soldiers headed for the Middle East:

 

At first I thought they were stupid, or maybe crazy.  Then I looked at them again and saw how really young they were, almost nothing more than children.

 

There is a change in the world too, as veterans of different wars, who died in battle, meet up in the afterlife:

 

“And I was fighting communists,” Bill (Vietnam) said.  “Communists supplied with Russian guns. In 1968, fascist countries like Spain were our allies. Lots of them were.”  

John (WWII) was struck with a thought that turned his face into a mask of horror. “You mean we lost the war? Hitler won?”

 

Duty took me back and brought back many memories, mostly good.  It seems like just the other day, but as much as I hate to admit it, it has been much longer.  Here is a collection of very well written stories about a time in history that the under thirty crowd has not experienced.  It was a time sabre rattling, propaganda, and well defined good and bad guys.  The one thing that has not changed through time is the sense of duty in all those who have and are serving demonstrate.  This collection is a reminder of that era and a reminder that duty extends to every era’s service members.  Duty really hit the mark for me. Truly well done.

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Book Review: Arauco: A Novel

Arauco: A Novel by John Caviglia is a work of historical fiction taking place during the Spanish conquest of South America from 1539-1553. Caviglia was born in Chile and, for the most part, raised in the United States. He has been a professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature, and he has also taught martial arts and pottery. Caviglia earned his BA in English and French Language and Literature from Wabash College and attended the University of Toulouse as a Fulbright scholar. Before earning his PhD in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington, he studied English Literature at Yale.

As an undergraduate in history, I spend a great deal of time studying Latin America. My studies of Chile, for the most part, started with Bernardo O’Higgins, moved the “guano wars”, and ended with Pinochet. Arauco, begins well before this time and starts in 1539 before the conquest of Chile. The novel uses real history and relies on historical people for all the Spanish characters (with the exception of two minor characters). The Spanish characters of Pedro, Juan, and Ines provide an interesting contrast in the main story.

Pedro Gomez de San Benito, fits the mold of the warrior. He is the rough, tough, wine drinking, pork eating, womanizing man of uniform.

No one had ever fought Pedro and lived… save Jaun, who was his student in the knife, that subtle, arduous art.

Juan, raised by a priest, provides the innocent eyes to the story. Although an adult or near enough, he begins the story with a very simple outlook. His view reminded me of my outlook in Catholic grade school. He believed in miracles, devout, naive, but with a willingness to prove himself. Juan also knew how to read and write — a rarity for a conquistador. He seems to be the most interesting character to watch grow and develop in the book. His innocent outlook provides a sharp contrast to Pedro’s (and the other Spanish soldiers’ and leadership’s) view of the Indians. One can almost cast him as a detached witness in the story. He seems to look at the more human side of events and people rather than Spanish vs Mapuche Indians.

Ines de Suarez provides another role. She is the strong female character. She is an organizer, a nurse, and a moving force in Valdivia’s effort to invade what is now Chile. She was one of the original twelve to march south. Ines is a very strong character in a time when women had very little say. Juan looks up to her in much the same way he does to Pedro.

The Mapuche Indians are also represented in detail. Namku is the principal character for the Mapuche; he is a shaman. Here, too, is a huge difference between the two forces. The Mapuche mysticism compared to the Spanish Catholicism. When the people on both sides, meet some interesting questions of religion are played out. The Mapuche, to at times, seemed more advanced than the Spanish. They knew how to fix head wounds by relieving pressure; they also seemed to question and think independently than the dogmatic Spanish.

As much as anything, this is a book that compares two cultures and their beliefs without the expect good guys vs the bad guys. There are good and bad in the book and they exist on both sides. The Spanish are almost as absorbed in treachery against themselves as they are in war, but between the two cultures things seemed balanced. The farther a Spaniard got from Spain, the more their behavior took a turn for the worse, and Chile was about as far from Spain as one could get. The Indians seem to take pleasure in guerilla warfare, knowing that this is more successful than face to face confrontation against steel and gunpowder.

A word or two of warning for the reader. Caviglia uses many native words in the book. If you are reading this on a Kindle you may want to print the glossary from the author’s web page. There is a glossary at the end of the book, but it would be tedious jumping back and forth. This, however, should not be a problem with a paper copy of the book. Most of the Spanish is explained in the book and what is not can be readily translated by your Kindle. Secondly, this book is almost seven hundred pages. Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time. Although there is plenty of action and intrigue in the book, it will take longer than expected to read. For most readers, myself included, there is a great deal of unfamiliar information. There are two different cultures and languages to contend with and historical context and geography. None of the points I brought up take away from the reading, rather they enhance it.

Reading Arauco took me back to my undergraduate days. It has been some time since I read about Latin America in a historical sense. Although Arauco is a work of fiction, it is based on real people and events. There is much more balanced coverage between the two peoples than I let on in my review. Much of the history I learned was based on the Spanish so I naturally dug a little deeper into the history looking for some type of flaw or historical inaccuracy; I found none. Arauco is historical fiction with a serious focus on historical. A very well written and researched book. I don’t mean to be cliche with the reference, but this book would fit nicely next to Jennings’ Aztec on anyone’s bookshelf. Although I am very stingy with stars, Arauco: A Novel earns a very rare five star review.

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