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Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

Month

June 2017

Management Style of the Supreme Beings

Management Style of the Supreme Beings, by Tom Holt

Probably the only thing worse than a book that tries to be funny and fails is a book you expect to be funny and fails. From the concept and title this seemed like a book with a lot of potential, but it’s basically wasted on its one-note idea and execution.

Dad and Jay (the trinity is completed with uncle Ghost) leave for a fishing trip, leaving the earth in charge of the second and lesser-loved son Kevin. On the trip Dad informs Jay that he’s decided to sell the divine rule of the earth to the Venturi Brothers. The Venturi Brothers are up-from-nothing divine rulers who have acquired several other properties. They believe that older management styles of good and evil are old-fashioned. Instead, they institute a new income stream. Steal something and a collector suddenly appears to collect the equivalent value in a fine. Commit adultery, same thing.

Dad and Jay go on permanent retirement. Problem is, they weren’t completely upright in their contract, which affirmed that there were no other supreme beings on earth … because only children believe in Santa so he doesn’t count.

The humans of earth grumble under this new management concept until some individuals work to recruit Santa into intervening.

It’s a concept that wears out quickly, mostly because of pretty banal dialogue and minimal action. As a result it doesn’t work well as either a satire on corporations or religion. This isn’t a sacrilege or blasphemy issue. I couldn’t care less on that account. This is a weak idea stretched into novel length issue.

 

Ramsey’s Gold

Ramsey’s Gold (Drake Ramsey, Volume 1), by Russell Blake

This was a surprisingly fun yet tense thriller introducing a new character. This book came out in 2015 and there are now three books in the series featuring Drake Ramsey. The two follow-up books are Emerald Buddha and The Goddess Legacy.

The book begins with Drake, who has the name Drake Simmons when we meet him, working as a “fugitive recovery agent” in Mountain View, California. After making a legal error on his last catch he’s told that he’s not going to be given any cases for a while. But just before leaving the office he’s given a message from a Seattle attorney. A woman in Idaho has died and left him a gift of $25,000 and the attorney is authorized to pay Drake’s ticket to receive the bequest.

Suspicious, as this is a woman he’s never heard of, he flies up to meet the attorney. There he’s given the money, a letter from the woman, and a journal. These things will radically change his life, identifying his deceased real father and the journaled details of a treasure hidden in the Peruvian rain forest. But Drake soon discovers that two ex-KGB agents are on a hunt for something hidden near the treasure, and the U.S. Government wants it, too.

Drake manages to find and team up with his father’s best friend on a trip that takes him through Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and into the jungle. The Russians are close behind and he’s also found by the CIA, both demanding the journal.

Drake is a fun character who dives into the adventure with the enthusiasm of an Indiana Jones (and he’s teased by one of the characters for choosing a similar hat) as he’s given some basic survival and weapons training by his new partner. Likeable characters are found to be treacherous, suspicious characters show their worth, and while a few fun characters meet their demise the end is a satisfying pleasure.

We never learn the real nature of the substance everyone is chasing, and the person who has hidden it in the jungle is beyond bizarre, but book has all the elements you want in a thriller like this. I’ll be picking up the next two Drake Ramsey books soon.

 

Lying on the Couch

Lying on the Couch: A Novel, by Irvin D. Yalom

This grand satire on psychotherapy came out in 2014. It focuses on the lives of a few interlinked psychotherapists in San Francisco.

The principle thread of the book is transference and countertransference, the sometimes erotic attachment that can build between a patient and therapist or vice versa. The book opens with one therapist talking to another about an incident in which a beautiful woman patient claimed to have fallen in love with him. The therapist, at 71, decided to accept the woman’s passion and reciprocate as a part of therapy. The therapist is now facing expulsion by the local institute of psychotherapy.

The novel then follows the therapist listening to this story, Ernest, as well as two others through their relationships with patients and peers. Ernest is targeted by a woman who was married to a man Ernest had been treating and has now demanded a divorce. She tries to entrap Ernest in a sexual relationship. Young Seymour is a new therapist still being supervised who believes in trying to bring new and creative methods to a profession that accepts new ideas slowly. Marshal is a therapist who is obsessed with his income and investments and risks his standing when he accepts an investment tip from a patient.

It’s an interesting portrait of a profession and it becomes clear that, for all the various concerns the doctors may have, one that seldom comes up is whether a patient is being helped. Trained in methods that can take years many see their incomes endangered by insurance companies who limit visits to 5 or 6 a year. Some have given up therapy to do medication management. In all cases they find daily challenges to their oaths and integrity through daily interaction with people at their most emotionally vulnerable.

To add to these stresses are the politics of any profession in seeking more prestige than peers, either through income or position in professional associations. Because of the limits of insurance and the cost of therapy it has, in most cases, become a treatment for the rich, making some therapists feel out of place with or envious of the people they treat.

At times it’s a sexy book, at other times it reads like a crime story or a revenge tale as each doctor faces various demons in himself and his patients. The book as a whole is a hilarious portrait of people working within a field that is torn between modern medicine and its roots in Freud and Jung. It’s sophisticated and perfectly paced and one of those books that book clubs are made to devour.

 

Pandemic

Pandemic (The Extinction Files, Book 1), by A. G. Riddle

A decades old abandoned submarine is boarded under the arctic sea. A man with amnesia wakes in a hotel in Berlin to find a body nearby. An medical clinic in Africa confronts its first case of a strange multi-symptom disease. A doctor is called by the CDC to travel to Africa to determine the nature of the new outbreak.

These are some of the chopped opening scenes to the first book of a new thriller series by A. G. Riddle. Like any good modern thriller it keeps to brief chapters and small scenes, sweeping back and forth in time and location. The book is mostly well-written and the plot works well as it gradually peels away the identity of Desmond Hughes, follows the investigation of epidemiologist Peyton Shaw, with whom Hughes has some kind of relationship, and ultimately exposes a pandemic which appears in multiple areas simultaneously and may be an act of terrorism.

Some of the stories within the book are compelling: a courageous African doctor risking his life to save others, Desmond’s expanding memories of being the sole survivor of his Australian family and being sent off to his tough abusive uncle in Oklahoma.

The main problem with the general plot is that as it becomes clear who the bad guys are, what they want, and the execution of the plot it becomes such a small and incestuous group that the reader rightfully feels like the rug has been pulled out from under. I’m happy to follow a weird plot in a thriller, most tend to stretch believability to near breaking in an effort to build an interesting plot-line. The reader follows along with a faith that all these different lines will all lead to a conspiracy that may be bizarre and on the edge of reality but not go over that edge. The “ahas” in this book run off the edge like lemmings in a fogbank. Family ties, one character come back from the dead with another out of nowhere, and several plot element dead ends make the reading put into this book irritating rather than satisfying.

Other volumes are threatened in “The Extinction Files” series. This book has been selling well and I’m sure the next will be rushed out. Some people love this kind of book but I tend to resist reader abuse of the kind Riddle offered here and really have no interest in the next episode.

 

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, by Stephen King

I missedĀ The Dark Tower the first go-round, though I certainly know a lot of people who think it’s King’s greatest work. King, it’s rumored, thinks that himself, considering it hisĀ magnum opus. After being in print for 35 years the book is now being made into a film, giving it more attention and promotion, the main reason I finally picked it up for the first time.

For those who are also newcomers to it, this first volume of the series (there are seven books total) has an old west feeling set in what is possibly an alternate universe, though there’s also a running feeling that it could be Hell or some other kind of afterlife. The parched western landscape certainly gives it a hell-ish atmosphere.

The main character is The Gunslinger, named Roland Deschain of Gilead. As the tale progresses it’s discovered that he’s a descendant of King Arthur. For those who missed French and Renaissance literature, Roland was also the name of a Frankish knight under Charlemagne and considered the original Paladin. He was mythologized in several Italian poems in which his name was changed to Orlando. Roland is crossing the desert in search of “the man in black”. Along the way he meets several people whom he questions about whether they’ve seen the man in black or, this being set in the old west, he kills.

Along the journey he meets a boy named Jake Chambers and, frankly, in any book as ambiguous as this one your senses should always go on alert for any character with the initials JC. Jake has clear memories of having lived in a large city and being pushed into traffic and being killed. Jake is sacrificed again in this book, as Roland continues his quest to find the man in black.

When they meet Roland is given a vision of the cosmos, showing his insignificance, and is also told that his true enemy resides in a dark tower. He tries to convince Roland to give up his quest and Roland refuses. The man in black tells him that he must head to the western sea and then puts Roland to sleep for 10 years. When he wakes he heads to the sea and that’s where the next volume will pick up.

There’s a cottage industry built around analysing the entire corpus, with nearly every character and location receiving an individual entry on Wikipedia. Some take some interesting directions, some just try to retell what you just read in the book with much worse prose than King’s. Since Wikipedia contains so many spoilers it’s much more worthwhile to make note of “what the hell?” moments while reading and then track those down after reading. But again, with a book this ambiguous (not a bad thing) it’s easy to imprint your own interpretations on the book.

For such a leisurely novel, and by that I just mean that the story arc is loooong, the book is strangely compelling, perhaps because there are so many interesting mysteries along the way that make the book a fun puzzle. I have had people tell me the whole of The Dark Tower is the greatest book ever written by a human. That covers a lot of territory but now that I’m not being nagged regularly to read it I’ll keep an open mind as I trek through the desert with Roland in future volumes.

 

 

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

I like Al Franken and have read all his books. Even the titles make me chuckle. This is the first book released since his contentious election to the U.S. Senate in 2008. On his recent promotion tour for the book he happily took digs at the senators he works with daily, as if finally released from the self-imposed gravitas he’s exhibited in most of his appearances in hearings and on the floor of the Senate.

This book reflects much of that lighter approach. And he admits that his staff has helped him generally avoid letting his sense of humor get him into trouble. He says he writes what he wants in letters and lets his chief of staff return the ones where he seems to have gone overboard. He also says his staff will frequently advise him to “keep it in the car” when he lets loose on the way to a meeting or fundraiser. He takes his role seriously, and talks about the extents he went to apologize to Mitch McConnell when, while acting as Senate President during speeches, he rolled his eyes and sighed at several statements McConnell made. He’s also given his staff permission to tell him whenever he’s “being an asshole.”

Those were nice things to find in the book. What was surprising was the open and honest autobiographical material included. He tells of his upbringing in Minnesota and his first meeting with long-time partner Tom Davis, and spares nothing on Davis’ long decline into drug abuse. He tells about their early partnership, from doing school announcements to the performance that first brought them to the attention of Lorne Michaels as the first Saturday Night Live team was being formed. He includes meeting his wife of nearly four decades, post-SNL life, and his tight election to the Senate after an excruciatingly long recount.

Once the story moves to the Senate he tells of his attempts to work with other senators from both parties, and how difficult that can be in the growing climate of enmity, what one colleague compared to the days when Charles Sumner was nearly clubbed to death by a southern representative Preston Brooks. Still, he says he works to develop better ties with the other side, even Jeff Sessions who, despite what they had established as a friendly relationship, Franken pounded during the hearings for the Sessions nomination for Attorney General.

Except for Ted Cruz. Everyone, he says, hates Ted Cruz, and he details some examples of why.

He also talks about the painfulness of the constant fundraising, even worse for those running every two years in the House, and his wish that there was public funding that could eliminate the demands to continually search for contributions. The story follows him through the Trump nomination and wraps up with suggestions for future actions progressives should be taking in the future.

A good book with Franken’s typical humor and dedication to fact-checking, along with more serious thoughts both about his life and the state of politics today.

Fated

Fated (An Alex Verus Novel), by Benedict Jacka

This is the first of what has become eight books featuring a mage named Alex Verus. Alex runs a small magic shop in London, with an ongoing arrangement with a nearby shop dealing in stage magic to redirect those who walk into the store by accident. Alex sells herbs, powders, and has a collection of magical items, some for sale and some hidden upstairs.

In this magical world mages have specialized skills. Alex is able to see an outline of the future so that he can scan until he see a successful future, then trace it back to see what action needs to be taken for that successful future to become reality. Never really accepted by the ruling Council, Alex is surprised when he is asked to be part of a team investigating a magical artifact, until he learns that all the mages sharing his skills have slipped out of town so they don’t have to take part themselves.

In a world that has had an uneasy truce between light and dark practitioners, Alex finds himself caught between both forces in a race to see which can take control of the artifact that could help them wield ultimate control. And only Alex realizes that his closest friend may have found the key to unlock that power.

Verus is an interesting character. He was apprenticed to a dark mage and ended up serving as a slave. He was able to make a rare escape but has the horror of that period in his life close at all times. Though he’s far from the most powerful or talented mage, he does have some unique skills and a dedication to doing the right thing. That makes walking a narrow path between the two competing forces particularly challenging. But his ability to see the outcome of various actions helps him survive some truly nasty people.

It’s one of those books you’d have to rate as “a great read if you’re into that kind of thing.” Books on magic and fantasy are a select taste and not for everyone, but the book is fun with creative challenges for the characters, a full range of good and bad players, and a developing love interest for Alex. There’s even a gigantic spider. Alex is the narrator and has a fun tongue-in-cheek attitude about most of the events. I won’t be waiting at the store for the next arrival but I can see putting more into my reading list as a nice diversion.

 

The Silent Corner

The Silent Corner: A Novel of Suspense, Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz has initiated a new and interesting character series with this book featuring a former FBI agent named Jane Hawke. Her Marine Colonel husband has committed suicide, apparently with nothing leading up to it and leaving an obscure note. Jane has discovered a pattern with similar deaths. She’s now traversing the country to interview survivors trying to understand what is happening. While she’s hunting for answers it soon becomes clear that she is also being hunted, and by a very sophisticated and well-funded someone.

Koontz has created a tough and resourceful hero in this book, and while the book comes to a solid conclusion it’s clear that there’s room for more books down the line. Knowing that she’s being hunted she has stashed her son with family; has sold her house and is funding her search on the proceeds; and is gradually uncovering a plot of mind control that was developed out of medical research.

It’s rare to find a female character with some of the attributes of a Jason Bourne, and it’s a pleasure to read. Despite her tough, gun-wielding skills Koontz manages to imbue Hawke with a sensitivity that is often missed in similar characters. She also has a knowledge of how law enforcement and criminal worlds work to keep her moving toward her target while avoiding lots of close calls. Like most Koontz books there’s a ton of action with a well-rounded and compelling lead character. Hawke also manages to bring in some help from some interesting side characters.

The technology used at the center of the plot is well past anything available today, but books have been built around more questionable tech with no terrible harm. Koontz makes it seem realistic and the impact is a frightening idea. As the “McGuffin” of the book it keeps the action flowing and gives Jane Hawke more than enough motivation to kick butt through nearly 450 pages of prime Koontz prose.

Words on the Move

Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally), by John McWhorter

This latest book on the English language by John McWhorter offers the idea that all languages are flexible and reflect the times in which they’re used. This makes keeping hard and fast rules about what constitutes proper grammar nearly impossible. It’s a beast that can’t be contained and needs to be appreciated for its ever-changing beauty.

McWhorter brings in insights about the pronunciation of a language: how the tongue shifts to give a language a different sound over time. Sometimes this is a simplification, such as words changing from Elizabethan pronunciations of words like make from Ma-kuh to the present version. (I always wondered where the silent e at the end came from. It wasn’t always silent.)

In addition to drifts in pronunciation words go through changes in meaning, to the point that McWhorter joins some others in the belief that Shakespeare should go through modern translations. An example he offers is Polonius’ “neither a borrower nor a lender be” speech from Hamlet. It contains the line: “And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character.” The “character” doesn’t relate to personal character but to writing the characters down to remember them. He believes that people only understand a portion of the text of Shakespeare today, and that the language can be altered just enough to make it understandable without harming the poetic flow.

He also uses examples from 30s films to show how English is pronounced differently just in the course of 80 or 90 years, and shows how words that were just being introduced with a new meaning (usually a verb changing to a noun) will alter pronunciation under some specific rules.

This is the type of book that may make some grammar nazis cringe, but may convert others to a more relaxed attitude about new introductions to the mother tongue. It’s a pleasant and blessedly jargon-free approach to grammar, pronunciation, and word selection that puts language in a different perspective than what your high school English teacher probably offered. A world where understanding is more important than perfection and that offers insights on regional and racial approaches to the language.

It’s interesting to learn things such as the fact that “literally” has been “misused” for much longer than just the past century, that some words are nearly impossible to define but still add meaning to the language, and that we still don’t know why women tend to say “um” while men tend to say “uh”. If you have an interest in language McWhorter will offer some new perspectives and fascinating factoids to make your reading and listening to your own language more of an adventure.

 

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