Category Archives: Book and Movie Reviews

Genius, a movie about Maxwell Perkins and Wolfe

Genius, a movie about the great editor Maxwell Perkins (think Fitzgerald, Hemingway and more) and Thomas Wolfe is coming out. That will be a must see for me. If such things interest you, the following link will be of interest.

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The Serious Side of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Painter of Battles

Tina Fey is my favorite comedic actress of this era, and she does a superb job in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. There is, however, a serious side to virtually every laugh in the movie. The unintended results of the press are an important part of the film. Like the uncertainty principle, where the act of observing affects ‘reality,’ the act of reporting, especially reporting war, can affect the lives of all involved. I can’t say more without giving out spoilers.

These issues are at the heart of Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Painter of Battles. I’m a huge fan of Perez-Reverte. He’s mostly an author of historical fiction including his Captain Alatriste series and The Fencing Master. His contemporary The Dumas Club was made into a The Ninth Gate starring Johnny Depp. These are all fast paced, tightly plotted books.

Perez-Reverte was a war correspondent, like the Tina Fey character in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, before becoming an author. The Painter of Battles appears to be his attempt to deal with the atrocities and cruelty of man against man he encountered in his journalistic career. It is a very philosophical novel, and quite different from his other works.

The protagonist, the painter of battles, was a war photojournalist for over thirty years. He has abandoned this profession and, when we first meet him, is painting a mural of battles in a tower on the Spanish coast. One day a former Croatian soldier arrives at the tower, and announces that he is going to kill the painter of battles, although first the visitor wants to talk. A series of philosophical discussions then ensues about war, journalism, mankind, and what drove these two men to this destiny. It would seem Perez-Reverte is processing specters haunting him from his years as a war correspondent.

The Painter of Battles was at times too verbose for me, and it wasn’t my most enjoyable read of the past year. However, I’ve certainly thought more about this book after finishing it than any other I’ve recently read.


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Across a Billion Years by Sci Fi legend Robert Silverberg

Across a Billion Years is a first contact novel written by sci fi legend Robert Silverberg back in 1969. It’s interesting how some sci fi holds up well over the years, while other sci fi falls apart. Dune, for example, reads as well to me today as when I first turned a page in it forty plus years ago. It’s setting in a rather fantastical future helps. Sci fi that is more predictive, like Across a Billion Years, can more easily become book wormed with age. Fortunately, Across a Billion Years generally escapes this fate.

The year is 2375. Mankind has fast interstellar propulsion and interstellar communication via telepathy. (Space Sci fi requires both in some form or the author is severely limited.) The protagonist Tom Rice is a newly minted college graduate on an archaeological expedition to dig for artifacts on Highby V relating to The High Ones, who left their mark across the galaxy a billion years earlier.

The discovery of artifacts propels the plot as they attempt to discover the fate of The High Ones’ civilization. A subplot is the internal strains within the team brought on by racial tension between its five humans, five other alien races, and one human android. Another subplot concerns Rice’s romantic interests. Rice is initially quite naïve, and, although he doesn’t realize it, pretty opinionated and bigoted. He shows quite a bit of character development over the course of the novel.

The novel is presented as Rice’s communication to his sister as stored in a memory cube. That wouldn’t be my preference, but it works reasonably well.

The plot and subplots worked for me as did Rice’s character development. However, the book is more contemplative than action-packed. I thought the book floundered some at the end, and found the ending not satisfying. The secondary characters were rather lightly drawn, and more caricatures, than characters. I was particularly disappointed that the androids persona was explored more. Some of the science that was cutting edge in 1969, and that Silverberg spends many words on, is obsolete today, and not of interest to the modern reader.

Overall, the book was a quick read for me at 232 pages and maintained my interest. I rate it four stars considering its vintage. If it were modern, I’d knock it down a star. Personally, I think its regular Kindle price of $7.99 is too high, but I purchased it on sale via BookBub.

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A Summer of Reading and Writing

It’s been a productive summer for me of reading and writing. On the writing side, I’m nearing completion of the first quality draft of my sci fi book Mindfield after figuring out the final chapters while on vacation. The final proofing of my historical fiction Magellan’s Navigator is in process. Thanks to Laura Henson, Dave Mueller, and Kerry Stevens for their invaluable beta read of this manuscript. I’ll need covers for both these books and formatting both for ebook and paperback. Being an indie author isn’t easy. Equally exciting, I’m part of a newly formed group of serious writers meeting regularly for critiques.

I’ve done a lot of reading this summer, due in part to my discovery of the great deals on Bookbub. (I’ve had to restrain myself lately, as it’s easy to build up a backlog of books.) My favorite author of my summer reads is Lindsay Buroker. While on vacation, I finished her “boxed set” Forgotten Ages. This steampunk set consists of her Encrypted, Enigma, and Decrypted novels. These books have good characters, fast moving plots, and an intriguing world. Most of all, I liked her voice and her use of language. It’s much more alive than that of many authors. And, from her facebook page, it looks like she’s a fellow Vizsla owner!

Whether you’re a fantasy reader or a writer of any genre, I suggest you check out Ms. Buroker’s webpage at  She’s proof that a hardworking writer can make it as an indie writer, and her blog has lots of useful info on the secrets to her success.

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Secondhand Lions: Caine, Duvall, and Haley Joel Osment

Secondhand Lions has great actors, a twisty story line, and a lion. What more can a person ask for? My wife and I watched this 2003 movie at the suggestion of a friend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Osment is dumped off by his mother with two old great uncles, who may be rich. At least the Mother and other relatives think so. Initially the uncles all but ignore poor Haley, who has bounced around relatives and orphanages all his life. When he runs away, first the uncle played by Caine, and then the enigmatic uncle played by Duvall, accept the responsibility to raise him. The Duvall uncle has a past that haunts him in his sleepwalking nights. But was he really in the French Foreign Legion, or was he a bank robber, or is all of it bunk? The main three actors give fantastic performances as Haley’s character goes from a castoff young fourteen-year-old to a confident young man.

Writers should watch the director’s commentary where he talks about the balance between exposition and pacing, and character transformations.

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Stormlight Archive: What I Like About It and What I Want To Emulate

I recently finished Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, the first two books in his planned Stormlight Archive series. Both are thousand plus page books.

The books are an excellent, multi-faceted fantasy with engaging characters and an imaginative world. This isn’t a retread of orcs and elves, but an entirely original world. Most the story revolves around an enslaved warrior, a middle-aged battle-weary prince, and an ambitious young female scholar. In the first book, magic doesn’t seem common in the world, although mysteries abound in the world. In a masterful way, Sanderson slowly reveals the world’s truths to the characters and the reader, although beware, everything revealed may not be indeed be the truth. He does a great job. I found myself identifying with all three major protagonists.

Things I liked are the story’s originality, empathetic characters, and the twists and turns of character reveals. This story is huge and multi-layered. I haven’t figured out how everything fits together, but I will trust the author that it does. I like the way most, if not all, the baddies aren’t out and out evil like the Dark Lord of Mordor. The villains are generally doing what they think is right, although that may not be apparent at the first.

Things that could be improved: there was surprising number typos in the first book. Some people complain about typos in self-published works. Well this book is the product of a major publisher. The second book has far less typos. These books are not page-turners. Sanderson slowly develops things, and as a reader, I relaxed and enjoyed that. That said, enough is enough at times, and one or two hundred pages could be sliced out each book without hurting the story (you can skim without hurting the reading experience.) Occasional scenes don’t seem to ring true, but hey, there are many scenes and another person might have a different opinion.

One takeaway for me as a writer is that I especially liked Sanderson’s slow reveal of his world and characters’ backstories. I’ve always regretted revealing the circumstances of Adam’s sister’s death as early as I did in Download. Originally, it was much later in the novel, but I moved it up after a beta reader said he wanted to know it NOW. Well, maybe he did want to know it now, but that didn’t mean I should have given it to him now.

On the other hand, I did find annoying Sanderson using entire chapters of “five years earlier.” I cringed when I saw that in a chapter heading, and prefer having the backstory weaved into the here and now story.



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The Imitation Game – Superb Movie But Questionable History – Which is Good!

My wife and I saw The Imitation Game yesterday. It’s a fantastic movie. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance deserves an Oscar. Cumberbatch portrays the great mathematician Alan Turing, who has a cameo role in my thriller Download. The movie is about Turing’s tortured personality, but it is centered about the breaking of the unbreakable Nazi Enigma code in World War II. I’ve been interested in codebreaking since my Navy time at the Naval Security Group, and codebreaking and electronic intercepts are a key component of Download.

The Imitation Game revolves around real historical people and real historical events. By all accounts the movie does not deal faithfully with either. Turing played a critical role in the breaking of the Nazi Enigma code, but he was one person of a huge effort involving thousands of people, not the six analysts in the film. Turing’s film personality is also likely not accurate.

These inaccuracies are good. A painstakingly faithful history of the codebreaking effort would be boring. The Imitation Game captures the essence of this effort, the social restrictions of England seventy-five years ago, and the moral dilemmas faced by Turing, Winston Churchill, and all in the intelligence community when they finally held the uncoded Enigma messages. Do they use the information now and save lives, but risk compromising their codebreaking efforts, or do they use the information more judiciously and strategically?

In less than two hours the makers of The Imitation Game successfuly capture the essence of these times and people better than a history book. I encourage you to see the movie if you haven’t already.

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Anathem: A Sci Fi Novel With An Exceptional Amount Of Science

Anathem by Neal Stephenson is a difficult book to review and at times to read. It’s a thousand page book. There’s a lot to love in it, but other parts fell flat for me. Here’s my take on it without any major SPOILERS.

The protagonist Erasmus, an avout, lives a monk-like existence in a scientific monastery on a world that is Earth-like, but it isn’t Earth. There is minimal contact between the avout in their monasteries and the secular world. What made it a slog is that the reader must negotiate a plethora of strange English-sounding words. Most these words have a meaning similar to something in English, but it takes a while to figure out just what. Nonetheless, the book intrigued me enough that I kept reading.

Stephenson likes his science. Anathem has more pages devoted to science and mathematics than any sci fi book I’ve read. For me, the many problems in logic and scientific descriptions weren’t necessary for the story and often slowed it down. I’m scientifically oriented, but I found myself skimming over portions.

The narrative picks up in the middle of the book. An alien ship is orbiting the planet. The avout and the seculars join together to deal with this possible threat. As a result, Erasmus finds himself on a quest through the secular world, which he is largely ill equipped to deal with. This middle part of the novel was my favorite.

The last third, which could have been a page-turner, became another slog. The alien ship is evidently from one or more parallel worlds or existences. Page upon page was devoted to discussing this. Enough! Someone studying the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanical may find this fascinating. I found it tedious and skimmed over large sections. For me Anathem has too much science. I need character, plot, and a gripping narrative.

Ironically, despite Anathem’s strong rooting in science, I found several unrealistic aspects of the novel, which pulled me from my suspension of disbelief. Most of these revolved around the unrealistic roles of Erasmus and his young colleagues in the last third of the book.

Young Cary, Krin, and Oliver in my Truth-Teller books have an impact on the world around them, but they do it in a credible way. Twenty-one year old Luther in Truth-Teller Revenge does assume leadership of the Jacombers, but he does it in his small, religiously charged community.

For being a logically oriented novel, Anathem has other disconnects. I don’t want to give out SPOILERS, but, among other issues, I don’t think the method of signaling the alien ship would have worked.

Anathem seems written for the YA scientific geek. I’m glad I read it, but I think less science and a more realistic plot would have made it a better novel.

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Fuzzy Nation, a fun fast read, versus Hyperion, a monumental mindbender

John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion are both in their own way great books, but they couldn’t be more different.

Three hundred page Fuzzy Nation is a fast paced tale about Bruce Holloway, an ethically challenged prospector on a planet that may or may not be home to one of the few sentient beings encountered by mankind. Holloway is a disbarred lawyer who called his girlfriend a liar in court to save his own ass. A disbarred lawyer? Lied about his now former girlfriend? Did I say Holloway is ethically challenged?

Holloway is wrangling with Zaracorp over the ownership of a sunstone discovery. If he wins, he’ll be richer than Bill Gates. Then he meets his first Fuzzy. Per law if the Fuzzies are sentient, then it’s their planet, including the sunstones.

Are they sentient? And even if they are, is Holloway willing to give up billions for some little furballs? What is Holloway going to do?

Fuzzy Nation is a fast, humorous read with a libertarian flare, which reminds me of some of Heinlein’s novellas.

The combined thousand pages of Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion is at the other end of the science fiction spectrum. I believe these two books should be considered as one. I started reading Hyperion without realizing that. At Hyperion’s end, I was like “you can’t end the book like that!” I immediately bought The Fall of Hyperion.

Hyperion’s setting is the far future, which is populated by the Hegemony, the Ousters, and the TechnoCore. The Hegemony is a human civilization in many ways not unlike our own, but with technology far beyond ours. It exists in an uneasy symbiotic relationship with the Artificial Intelligences comprising the TechnoCore, which is responsible for much of the technology upon which the Hegemony is dependent. The Ousters are humans at odds with the Hegemony and genetically evolved to live in mostly non-planetary space.

The book begins with seven pilgrims journeying to visit the Time Tombs of the planet Hyperion, where they expect to meet the fearsome Shrike. Supposedly, they can ask the Shrike a question, but it seems more likely they’ll find their own death. The pilgrims include a diplomat, a warrior, a priest, an elderly scholar with an infant, a poet, a private investigator, and an enigmatic Templar. Why do they want to meet the Shrike?

Each of the pilgrims in turn tells their urgent reason for going on the pilgrimage and why they want to meet the Shrike. I found all the pilgrim’s tales interesting, although for me some of the tellings got a little tedious. I suspect, though, that readers will have different favorites among the pilgrims and their stories.

There is another important character, a cybrid, who is the human clone of the English poet John Keats, but also an artificial intelligence. This being spans the human/A.I. world.

Those are the bones of the book, but this isn’t the Canterbury Tales. Simmons gives you a heavy dose of religion, the interaction of human and self-aware artificial intelligences, what might be the aspirations of a group of unimaginably advanced A.I.’s, time travel, the evolution of mankind, and among other themes.

It is perhaps the most ambitious sci-fi book I’ve ever read. I can’t say everything is executed perfectly, but, hey, the book is over a thousand pages. Every page can’t be perfect. This book is a must read.


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Odds and Ends

I planned on reviewing the 1989 Hugo Award winning novel, Hyperion, this week, but…when I got to the end of the Dan Simmons novel I discovered…it wasn’t the end! And I had to know what happened. So I’m nearing the end of The Fall of Hyperion. These two books are really one thousand page plus novel.

I love Hyperion and will soon publish a full review of it. I did find myself skimming over some of the descriptions in it, which made me reconsider my own writing. Champagne’s editor of November’s Truth-Teller Revenge  said she found herself skimming through some of my descriptive passages. Hmm. It can be a fine line between giving your reader a vivid image of the setting, and boring the reader or slowing down the story. So I find myself cut, cut, cutting, as I rework my works-in-progress.

I expect to see the cover art for Truth-Teller Revenge any day now, which I’ll share. I should also soon have the galleys to proof, which will mean a week of intensive work.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the final days of this wonderful, sunny summer. Tomorrow I’m off to Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection to see their B-25 and Hellcat fly at noon!

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