Category Archives: Reviews

The 37th Parallel

It’s been some time since I’ve done a book review, and I’m not sure if I’ll make a habit of it or not. Book reviews, on the whole, are supposed to be boring for blog posts, the sign of a blogger who’s running out of material, or at least having trouble coming up with a post for that week (or whatever frequency the blogger blogs).

But, really, this is not exactly your normal book review, because my thoughts on this book are so… jumbled.

To preamble, I’ve been interested in weird phenomenon since I was very young. On some matters, I’ve made up my mind due to personal experiences (and they’re private, thank you very much. You want titillation, go watch The X-Files. Or Jerry Springer). On others… well, I’m still not sure.

One of those areas is UFOs.

Do they exist? Most certainly. Are they alien spacecraft piloted by Little Grey Men? I have no idea. And what about the black helicopters or Men In Black that are increasingly associated with UFOs? Again, no idea.

I do believe most UFO sightings are simply mistakes of one kind or another. I mean, like the joke goes, the surest sign that there’s intelligent life in the universe is that they’re not trying to contact us.

But seriously. I’ve had some experiences where, for a moment, I thought I saw something, only to realize it was a reflection, or a plane viewed at an odd angle, or something similar to that. You sorta have to train yourself not to see UFOs in order to see them, if you get my meaning. Otherwise, everything turns into a UFO—an Unidentified Flying Object—in its most basic definition: a flying object you can’t identify.

The catch here is that I’m not trained. There are, however, enough reports from many professionals who are trained in dispassionate observation to tell me something is going on, at least enough of a something to warrant a bit more scientific study, not just a two-year report from the Air Force as a token effort.

After all, how much do we trust the government?

All of this is by way of saying I still dip my toe into reading books about UFOs, and I recently finished one titled The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway by Ben Mezrich.

Mr. Mezrich is the author of such books as The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal (basis for the movie The Social Network), and Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, which I think are fairly self-explanatory titles. Needless to say, after subjects like this, taking on UFOs is a bit out of character, at least to me.

That’s what made me want to read The 37th Parallel.

In the main, it’s the story of one Chuck Zukowski, who has been obsessed with UFOs since his teens (sound familiar?). He’s an independent investigator, though he nominally belongs to MUFON—the Mutual UFO Network—but he doesn’t fully trust them. According to the book—and I think I’d read this before—there are many within the UFO community who believe MUFON to be a front for the CIA, or other entities, and that even though the mom-and-pop members are good people, those at the top are monitoring everyone in the organization for… something. What that something is, isn’t clear. Probably changes depending on who you’re talking to. And if they’re off their meds that week.

But I digress.

Mr. Zukowski’s story, on the whole, is interesting, and there are signs he’s onto something someone doesn’t want him to be onto: black SUVs (though no black helicopters, at least not after him personally), as well as getting fired from his reserve sheriff deputy’s job—for which he received no pay—for “contradicting the department” on a case involving livestock mutilation.

Oh, yeah. Forgot to mention that, didn’t I?

A lot of the book is concerned with livestock mutilation and Mr. Zukowski’s investigations of same. If you’re not familiar with it, livestock mutilation has been going on for years, and it’s every bit as mysterious as the UFOs with which it is sometimes associated. Basically, animals are found that have had organs surgically removed along with all the blood drained from the bodies. And any living animals who still happen to be nearby are totally freaked out, in a lot of these cases.

As with UFOs, there are a lot of theories surrounding livestock mutilation, none of which have been proven. Sometimes, there are what are termed surface anomalies linked to the mutilations—circular areas on the ground that look as if a craft of some kind landed there. Thing is, there are never any tracks or signs of any kind around the animals. It’s as if they were picked up, operated on, then dumped afterwards.

Mr. Zukowski reminds me of Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He’s obsessed by this stuff to the point of moving his family from California to Colorado in order to be closer to the scenes so he can investigate them sooner. In other words, get there while the bodies are still fresh.

All well and good, except he reaches a point where he’s freelancing his day job—he designs microchips—and his wife, who is a skeptic of all this, is working two jobs to meet their financial obligations. She thinks he’s crazy, while at the same time she believes in him. Just means she’s human.

All of this is well and good. Mr. Mezrich uses creative nonfiction to tell the story, which means that, while it’s all fact, it reads more like a novel. The author spent a year with Mr. Zukowski and his wife, which no doubt gave him the detail he needed to turn this from a potentially dry recitation of facts—such as they are—to something that’ll hold your interest.

Or, at least, it did mine.

Mr. Mezrich touches on several related subjects throughout the course of the book, starting with the Roswell crash of 1947 and all the controversy surrounding it. But it’s his somewhat hazy ending that has me in a jumble.

Remember that title, that one that included telling us the secret truth behind America’s UFO highway?

Spoiler alert: not so much.

Not to me, at any rate.

Maybe I missed something. I don’t know. But—again, spoiler alert—the whole aim of the subtitle isn’t really reached until literally the last few pages. And, despite the encounters with black SUVs and even a close encounter with one of the drivers who informed Mr. Zukowski that he wasn’t really a threat of any kind, I didn’t really see any secrets revealed—unless it’s that the mutilations, along with the locations of most major military bases and American Indian holy sites, are roughly centered along the 37th parallel.

I’ll admit this is a curious fact, and yet another aspect of all this that should be looked into. But the title made me feel as if I’d learn far more about this UFO highway than I really did. I mean, the freaking cover told me that, for crying out loud. And the copy on the back cover even implies that Mr. Mezrich himself felt for his safety as he researched this book—and yet I found nothing of the kind inside.

Granted, publishers go for hype. It’s how they get us to first pick up a book and then, hopefully, buy it. I get that. But this… well, I felt as though I’d been the subject of clickbait.

And if that’s what’s in store for us as the future of publishing unveils itself, you can be assured I’ll pick my books much more carefully. I’m just glad I checked this one out of the library.

Later,
Gil

A World Without What?

I subscribe to Shelf Awareness, an online book review site (best way I know to describe it) that sends out emails twice a week informing you of select new books. I always look at this email, and I’ve discovered several new and interesting books this way. Generally, I’ll jump from the email to my local library’s site to see if they have a copy of a book that looks interesting. If they do, I’ll request it.

This week, they reviewed a book called A World Without Whom by Emmy J. Favilla, who is the Buzzfeed Copy Chief (my strikethrough is an attempt to mirror the book, which has a graphic of the editor’s strikeout mark there). Not only does Shelf Awareness review the book, they also interview Emmy about why she wrote the book.

At first reading, I was somewhat supportive of what she says. After all, we don’t want to get stuck in the past. Language is an evolving, living thing, even more so in this age of Internet slang such as LOL and so forth. And let’s not forget the way we used to have to text.

But…

Yes, there’s a but. Of course there is.

I posted a link to that interview to my publishing company’s, er, company chat on Messenger, thinking it would get a few comments.

Instead, I practically stirred up a hornets’ nest, and it wasn’t favorable to Emmy’s opinions.

Which is good.

To be fair, I only gave the interview—and book review—a cursory read at first. As an editor, I’m always looking to see if I can learn anything from other editors. But this one, on the surface, didn’t seem to have much to offer. After a bit deeper read of the interview, I reserved a copy at the library—I doubt the book is worth buying no matter what, especially on my budget—just to see what it was all about. And I still intend to at least skim it. To quote my wife, you need to know your enemy.

Basically, Ms. Favilla says that, as editors in this modern age, we should feel free to pretty much ignore what we were taught—or, in her words, “…feel a sense of relief and freedom from the sort of rules that have been ingrained in us since grammar school”—and just go with what your heart tells you.

More telling is this quote: “It’s really more important to ruminate on stuff like ‘Is this an exclusive way to talk about all genders?’ than ‘Does this comma go here?’”

In other words, politically correct editing.

Again, to be fair, she does say: “But there are certain ways in which I’m still a bit of a stickler: I don’t think we should totally ignore conventions about grammar, punctuation, spelling and other things that make it easier for readers to understand a piece of writing.”

So what exactly are you saying, Ms. Favilla? Because what I’m reading sounds contradictory at the very least. Or, as one of the comments on our chats stated: Anyone can claim to be the new standard. Anyone with brains will look around and see truth.

What he said ^.

Look, keeping up with the times is all well and good. For instance, when it first surfaced, the word email was hyphenated: e-mail. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was also capitalized: E-mail. Now, the more commonly accepted spelling is email, though there are still those who hyphenate it. Which is fine and dandy. Just pay attention to the publication’s style guide.

But folks, as onerous as they can be at times, the standards are there for a reason. In a language that pronounces words like rough and though in markedly different ways, those standards are essential. If you can’t be understood, you’re not communicating. You’re practicing mental masturbation.

If you don’t put the comma in the right place, I might not be able to understand what you’re saying about genders in the first place.

Later,
Gil

The Cartel

the cartelIt’s hard to know where to start with a book like this. The Cartel, Don Winslow’s sequel to The Power of the Dog, continues his sprawling epic story of the Mexican Drug Wars and America’s own so-called War on Drugs, began by President Nixon back in the seventies.

The good thing about The Cartel is you don’t really have to read The Power of the Dog to follow it, but I’d still recommend reading the first volume for that sense of history. Don Winslow has spent almost fifteen years researching the drug wars and brings us their stories in fictionalized form. I can remember reading The Power of the Dog and then doing my own study of the Mexican Drug Wars and realizing how many incidents from real life Mr. Winslow uses to bolster his fiction.

Both books are well worth the effort.

The Cartel opens with Adán Berrara, the fictional version of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Sinaloa cartel leader who made news a month back by making a second escape from a Mexican maximum security prison, this time allegedly through a sophisticated tunnel leading directly to the shower section of his cell. (Don Winslow believes this is a cover story put out by the Mexican government, and judging from what I know, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.) Adán is also in prison, but in the US, awaiting trial for his many crimes. While there, his daughter dies from cystic lymphangioma, a deformation of the head, face, and throat that ultimately kills its victims. Her name is Gloria, and the other main character in these novels, DEA agent Art Keller, actually used her at the end of The Power of the Dog to capture Adán.

Gloria is everything to Adán, but the authorities won’t let him attend her funeral. So he tells his lawyer, a man with the sobriquet of Minimum Ben due to his ability to get minimum sentencing for his clients, that he’ll tell all the secrets about the drug cartels if they’ll only let him go to the funeral.

All of this sets into motion an elaborate plan that lands Adán back in a Mexican prison—Pente Grande Correctional Facility—and eventually leads to his freedom and regaining control of the Sinaloa cartel.

Art Keller, meanwhile, has retired from the DEA and is a beekeeper at a monastery in New Mexico. But when Tim Taylor, his old boss, comes by to inform him that Berrerapower of the dog has a two million dollar bounty on his head, he leaves the monastery so as not to endanger the monks there. Eventually, he’s pulled back into the DEA when Adán makes his escape by simply walking out of Pente Grande and flying away in a helicopter—the way Chapo Guzmán is said to have really escaped back in 2001, rather than being wheeled out in a laundry cart by a prison guard as we were initially told.

The Cartel covers the drug wars from 2004 to 2015, chronicling the rise of violence after Adán moves to make his Sinaloa cartel the supreme organization by killing the leader of the Gulf cartel, thus kicking off the Mexican Drug Wars. Most telling about this book is the page and a half of names, in small font, of journalists either murdered or “disappeared” during the time the story takes place. These are real life journalists, not their fictional counterparts, and Mr. Winslow has a fictional character named Pablo Mora who, along with his colleagues at a Juárez paper, stand in for these real reporters who lost their lives to the drug wars.

Just as it’s hard to know where to begin with a book like this, it’s also hard to know where to stop. I could go on and on praising this book and its prequel, but that would be overkill. Instead, I would leave off saying this: Go out, get both books, and read them. They’re big, they’re epic, and they’re worthy of space on your bookshelf, real or virtual.

Because I guarantee you’ll want to read them again.

Later,
Gil

Skies of Ash

Rachel Howzell Hall is a time thief.skies of ash

If the name sounds a bit familiar, it’s because I reviewed her first Detective Elouise Norton novel, Land of Shadows, last year. The book blew me away, and I’ve been waiting very impatiently on the follow-up. The wait has also been somewhat apprehensive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book by an author and was thrilled to discover them, only to have subsequent novels disappoint me.

That’s not the case with the new book in the series, Skies of Ash.

To be honest, it didn’t catch me immediately. In Land of Shadows, we had what looked to be the makings of a serial killer (at least to me) because of the nature of the crime. In Skies of Ash, the crime doesn’t seem quite as sexy at the outset: a woman and her two children killed in a house fire, the husband/father in the hospital after firefighters tackled him to prevent him from going into the burning house to rescue his family. And I think, in the hands of anyone else, this setup could have turned into something either dreadful or far too predictable.

But if this book taught me anything, it’s to expect the totally unexpected from Rachel Howzell Hall.

I’m not gonna give up any spoilers, though I am gonna reiterate what I said when I reviewed Land of Shadows: get this book and read it.

The protagonist, Elouise Norton—or Lou—still has an apparently philandering husband, who she has forgiven yet again. She’s still stuck with a cowboy partner who really doesn’t get her. And she has friends who, while they got her back, maybe nag at her a little too much—mostly about said philandering husband. And it doesn’t help that one of those friends is also a reporter who tries to get Lou to give up details she’s not at liberty to divulge.

Just another day at the office for our intrepid detective (yes, I went there).

But there are differences. Lou’s husband, Greg, is showing signs of jealousy. For some reason, he feels threatened by her partner. Of course, my thought when I read scenes where he’s razzing her for this working relationship was He seems to me to be protesting a bit too much. And there is a man she’s attracted to, though he’s best friends with the husband in the case and may well know things he’s not telling her.

land of shadowsOn top of that, her colleagues suspect perhaps her domestic troubles are prejudicing her on this case, making her suspect the husband when it’s pretty obvious he’s too grief-stricken to be the murderer.

Especially when the evidence for murder is circumstantial, at best.

But Lou is, if nothing else, determined to get the bottom of this case, and the more layers she strips away, the stranger it all becomes. Maybe the murder isn’t as sexy at the outset as in the first novel, but this case works at you in others ways, worms its way into you consciousness until you have no choice but follow it all the way through. Which I did in about two days.

Ms. Hall does what I love most in a mystery: she makes the case have an effect on the main character. Just as Michael Connelly does with Harry Bosch and Robert Crais does with Elvis Cole, the ramifications change their lives, make the cases more than just another day at work for them. There are things in the case that parallel their personal lives in some way, and there are aspects of their jobs that they can’t leave in the office. These stories go far beyond mere mysteries or police procedurals. We get to see the humans behind the cases, and we come to care for them and empathize with the effects that witnessing humanity at its worse can have on the investigators.

They’re not getting through these things unscathed.

And that makes us love these people, makes us root for them as we never would for Sherlock Holmes. We want Sherlock to solve the case. But we want Harry and Elvis and Lou to triumph, not just over the case, but over the problems in their lives as well. And because they often fail—just as we do—we root for them that much more.

Ms. Hall steps outside the boundaries of the genre with these books, and that makes me a fan, not just a reader.

I only have one problem: Ms. Hall, if you’re reading this, where’s the next one?

Later,
Gil

The Convert’s Song

converts songSebastian Rotella has returned with The Convert’s Song, the sequel to Triple Crossing, and it’s a worthy successor. Where Triple Crossing felt more like a crime novel, The Convert’s Song definitely steps over the line into an international thriller.

Valentine Pescatore, the hero of the first novel, is living in Buenos Aires and working as an investigator for a man named Facundo Bassat, who runs an agency that works out of the triple border area of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. As the novel opens, he’s helping a Miami doctor whose son was killed by a business partner get justice. They will visit a judge Facundo knows and offer him forty thousand dollars to keep the suspect in jail. It’s an attempt to top the suspected thirty thousand dollars the other side has offered to stall the investigation and let the suspect go free. That’s just the way business is done in Buenos Aires.

After completion of the deal, Pescatore escorts the man back to the airport for his return flight to Miami. As the doctor makes it through the checkpoint, a hand falls on Pescatore’s shoulder. It turns out to be his old friend Raymond, who we met in the prologue.

The last time Pescatore saw Raymond was some ten years earlier, when he accompanied Raymond to a drug deal as security. But when Raymond reveals he plans to double-cross the dealer, Pescatore leaves. Raymond shoots the dealer and is later arrested with the drugs and the money.

Now, Raymond claims he’s changed. He’s married, has a couple of boys. He got out of the drug bust by becoming an informant and giving up everyone he knew. And, it turns out he’s a converted Muslim. He’s a businessman, has some investments in the Middle East and Europe.

But a couple times during the reunion, Raymond’s phone rings. The first time, he ignores it. The second time, he answers, and it’s plain he’s talking to a woman. A few triple-frontier-brazil-argentina-paraguay-tripointmoments after he hangs up, she texts him, which he also blows off.

For a week after the meeting, Pescatore isn’t sure what to think of the encounter. In some ways, Raymond seems changed. In others, he’s the same old trouble maker.

Then, there’s a terrorist attack at a local mall. Pescatore’s boss has a heart attack while responding in the attack. The next morning, police kick Pescatore’s door down, claiming he’d participated in the attack, that the terrorists had called him. He has no idea what they’re talking about, of course, until he realizes the call was made to a cell phone he rarely uses. It’s the number he gave his old buddy Raymond when reluctant to give him his working number.

Calls are made and the FBI bails him out. This starts a long chase, first into Argentina, then France, then Iraq, where it becomes more and more evident Raymond isn’t at all what he presented himself as being. In fact, he’s worse than he was when Pescatore knew him a decade earlier.

triple crossingThe Convert’s Song is definitely a worthy follow-up to Triple Crossing, and I’m very curious to see where Sebastian Rotella will take Valentine Pescatore next. If you like international plots intertwined with terrorism and varied, exotic settings, this is a book for you.

Later,
Gil

Of Bone and Thunder

boneandthunderWelcome to Luitox—pronounced lew-tow, not loo-tox—more commonly known, by the troops fighting here anyway, as the Lux. It’s a hot, humid hell, populated by natives known as slyts, dotted with dosha swamps that smell like the shit the natives use to fertilize the dosha, open areas full of sawgrass, and everything else covered by dense jungle.

Welcome to a fantasy unlike any other I’ve ever read.

Luitox is the creation of Chris Evans, but it has a real world inspiration: Vietnam. Everything you read in this novel will remind you of accounts you’ve read of the Vietnam War. Sure, in the Lux, the Kingdom bringing freedom to the Luitoxese uses dragons for air support and transport, and the soldiers, divided into phalanxes and shields rather than battalions and companies, use crossbows rather than rifles, but you’ll still recognize a lot here.

Most of the soldiers are conscripts, and they all have nicknames like Wraith, Carny, Knockers, and so on. And their personalities run the gamut from the ultra-religious Ahmy, who’ll preach to you about the High Druid at every opportunity, to Carny, who has reached a point where he really doesn’t give a fuck anymore.

It’s a fully realized world that you’ll want to sink your teeth into.

Granted, it’s still fantasy, but if you’ve ever read one of the epic Vietnam novels—The 13th Valley by John M. Del Vecchio springs to mind for me—you’ll feel right at home.13thvalley Sure, there are dragons instead of helicopters, crossbows instead of M16s, and dosha swamps instead of rice paddies, but everything else will be familiar. There’s the commander, a man named Weel, whose only concern is body counts. There’s Wraith, the soldier who found himself in his element in the Lux. There’s the new guy—called fawns in this world—who’s just coming over with visions of fighting for the glory of the Kingdom—even if things back home aren’t the best in the world since it was discovered the last several generations of kings were descended from a bastard. It’s still the Kingdom, and the freedom it’s bringing to Luitox is the best thing going.

Of Bone and Thunder is written both as an homage to Vietnam veterans and as another way to illustrate what that war was and is to this country. The Kingdom is torn apart by racial tensions as the dwarves—still often referred to as mules by most—have been given most of the freedoms humans enjoy. There’s still plenty of prejudice to go around, though, and it isn’t helped any by the fact dwarves aren’t allowed any real weapons in the army, and are still relegated to positions of servitude.

I wasn’t sure what I’d get when I picked this book up, and I admit it took me more than a few pages to get into it. But once I did, it was hard to put down. I became quite invested with all the characters, wondering which ones would survive this humid hell and what they’d be like if they did. Because you can’t go through a war like this and not be changed in some way.

Even if you don’t normally like fantasy, try this one. It draws you in because there’s so much that’s familiar here. It’s just disguised as something else.

You’ll still recognize it, though.

Later,
Gil

Cinder

Do you like fairy tales? How about cyberpunk? Are you into good YA?cinder

Cinder by Marissa Meyer has all of the above.

Welcome to the future. It’s 126 years after World War IV, and the world is divided up into six large nations: the United Kingdom, the European Federation, the African Union, the American Republic, Australia, and the Eastern Commonwealth. And, on the Moon, we have the Lunars, ruled by Queen Levana.

All of this is a bit above Cinder. She lives in New Beijing, the capital of the Commonwealth. She’s sixteen, and she’s been a cyborg since she was eleven, when she was involved in a hover crash that left her parents dead. Originally from Europe, her adoptive father brought her to New Beijing only to succumb to letumosis, a deadly plague that’s killing thousands around the world with no cure in sight. Cinder lives with her adoptive mother and step sisters, and thanks to her cybernetic alterations, she’s a top-rate mechanic and can fix anything from a hover that doesn’t run correctly to an android that’s crashed and won’t turn on again.

But she’s not rich. Her stepmother, Andri, never wanted her, so every bit of money Cinder earns is controlled by Andri. Cinder has managed to squirrel away enough to buy a new foot to replace the undersized one she’s had since she was eleven.

When the book opens, she’s visited by Prince Kai, who’s in line for the throne of the Commonwealth. He’s in disguise because he wants Cinder to fix his crashed android—supposedly because he’s had it since he was a kid and doesn’t want to let it go to the trash heap even though it’s an obsolete model.

Cinder suspects there’s more to it than that, but has no way to confirm it.

Yes, it’s a science fiction re-imagining of Cinderella, and it’s very well done. I read the book in less than two days and can’t wait to get on to the next one.

There’s a lot of good writing coming out of the YA field right now, as I’m sure most readers are aware, even if they’re not reading it. It started with Harry Potter, which I credit with raising the bar on YA, and it continues to this day. I’ve also been reading a post-apocalyptic series called The Conquered Earth (which I recommend as well), but I wasn’t aware of Cinder, which is the first book in The Lunar Chronicles, until my daughter asked for books two and three in the series for her birthday. Apparently the author got the idea from writing a futuristic version of Puss and Boots as a short story and now has this update on Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin (with a character who is Rapunzel), with two future books to cover Queen Levana (basically every fairy tale wicked queen wrapped up in one character), and the conclusion is titled Winter.

Quite honestly, I was sucked in from page one. Ms. Meyer (unlike another writer of that name) knows her stuff, and she immerses you in this world without a lot of draggy exposition. Like any good writer, she lets you learn things about her setting as the story progresses, and she’s very good at doing it without bogging you down. I can remember one time when she has to give you some exposition because there’s simply no other graceful way to do it in the flow of the story, and it comes so late in the book that you don’t care. You’re invested and you’re ready for the information. And even then, it’s only a couple of long paragraphs—not quite half a page.

All through this book, I kept wondering how a fifty-year-old man was able to relate to a sixteen-year-old cyborg girl, but the writing is so good that age and gender don’t really matter. Cinder is a character you can care about and root for. There was one very predictable subplot (and it had to be for me to predict it; I’m just not that good at it on a first read most of the time), but I’m not gonna tell you what it is because I don’t put spoilers in my reviews. Suffice it to say that, even though it’s predictable, I’m still left at the end of the book wondering just what the author is going to do with it—because, as she leaves thing at the end, she could go in a lot of directions with it. That left me wondering if she let that part be predictable so she could wow you with something else about it that’s not.

This is very much a serial series, so be forewarned. The concluding volume doesn’t come out for another year (November 2015), so if you don’t want to wait that long for the end after reading the first volumes, you might hold off on starting this series.

For me, it’s too late. I’m hooked, and I guess I’ll just have to wait for the conclusion.

Go out and get this one. It’s a good one.

Later,
Gil