Saturday, February 04, 2017

True Faith and Allegiance: Gets a Hearty "Pick it Up!" From Me

Book Review: Tom Clancy True Faith and Allegiance by Mark Greaney
Version: Library Hard Cover

True Faith and Allegiance is the fourth Tom Clancy novel (Jack Ryan series) by Mark Greaney, and maybe the best. It's certainly the longest. It follows Command Authority (written with the late Tom Clancy), Full Force and Effect, and Commander in Chief, involving the same set of characters. The previous four involved Russian intrigue; True Faith and Allegiance involves ISIS attacks on America through Romanian and Saudi Arabian subterfuge, and it's written with the same realism and backdrop of today's national security headlines.

In these series, Jack Ryan is a former CIA analyst (but often turned operative) who is now the president of the United States, and each of these stories could be pulled from today's news headlines. If you want to know what's going on inside Russia, read these stories. Much of the intrigue behind the 2016 presidential election could be explained in them. If you want to know what hackers could do with a breach of our national intelligence and how ISIS could profit from it, read True Faith and Allegiance. Greaney is a master of using research to bring detail to his work and build authenticity in his stories, making each book a riveting read. Although, I found the action didn't get really exciting until chapter 57. Still, building up to chapter 57 was an interesting and intriguing read!

While Jack Ryan is president, most of the stories involve his son, Jack Ryan, Jr., an intelligence analyst (but often turned operative) who works for a private consulting company that aids the CIA, State Department, FBI, and Homeland Security to keep the nation safe. Part of the tension comes from the worry the president has for the safety of his son. The other part comes from the pace and action throughout the novel, sandwiched between intel you receive as a reader between the good guys and the bad guys as plots play out, actions are taken and countered, and lives are endangered. You as a reader are brought along as a close observer, watching the whole affair unfold in vivid detail. And it's hard to put the novel down once you are engaged.

Jack Junior is accompanied by a host of likable supporting characters who keep him safe or help him solve puzzles and mysteries and the dangerous situations he inevitably gets himself into. And you're right there with him, in the thick of the fight.

I said I thought this was the best of them so far. Perhaps it's because the thick of the action actually takes place in America. It involves place we can all associate with, cities we know or have heard about. And if we've read the other books in the series, characters we've come to know and care about. In the end, the bad guys get what's coming to them, too, which is always satisfying.

A good spy novel is always worth a read, and Truth Faith and Allegiance gets a hearty "Pick it up!" from me.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Powder of Death: A Great Adventure

Book Review: Powder of Death by Julian Stockwin
Version: hard cover, personal purchase

Historical novels can be a fun retelling of historic events fictionalized to fill in details when we don't know the whole story. Author Julian Stockwin has become a master at this craft, no more so than in Powder of Death (2016), the story of how gunpowder came to thirteenth century England through the Crusades and Europe to bring King Edward III victory against the brutal Scots.

Powder of Death is more than a simple retelling of the story, however. It's really a travel adventure, kind of a story of discovery in the exploration of strange new lands, which begins as an attempt at personal redemption but turns into a seeking of wealth wielding a seemingly magical concoction. Stockwin writes brilliantly, bringing wonderful characters to life in a wholly realistic setting exploring history and times in thoroughly researched detail, which is his habit.

The book can be perceived into two parts.

The first part is almost Tolkien-like, Fellowship of the Rings in tone, as the main character, Jared, sets off for the Crusades on a pilgrimage seeking redemption for a terrible deed. Perkyn, a sidekick and protector from Jared's small English village, joins him as they set off for parts unknown, wide eyed and innocent to the world. They fail to reach their goal, but they succeed in participating in the Crusades, where Jared uses his skills as a blacksmith to aid gallant knights in defending a Crusader stronghold far from Jerusalem against a devastating Muslim attack. In the end, Jared and Perkyn are captured and enslaved, but with his blacksmithing skills, he is retained to help the Muslims take the stronghold. It is here that Jared learns of a strange and magical powder that can take down mighty fortresses.

The second part brings Jared and Perkyn back to England. He has the secret of the powder, although not the details of its making, and his goal is to avenge the reason for his seeking redemption, using the powder. It becomes his mission in life, his obsession, and over the ensuing chapters Jared, with Perkyn's aid, tries to work out how to use this mysterious powder to bring down the high and mighty. It brings Jared back to his village, only to discover he has changed as has his village, and it isn't really where he wants to be. He moves to Coventry seeking to set up a business, but the guilds there won't allow him. So he seeks other avenues and meets up with the wife of his late cousin, who likes his vision for using the powder. Over months and years he tests the powder in various ways to use it as a weapon against a host of foes. Powers in Italy and Belgium show interest. But there is always an impediment to Jared's experiments. Ultimately, his quest brings him back to England and the Court of young Edward III.

The chapters are short but the story is long and captivating. The plan is cunning and the struggle is compelling. Your payoff is the life-changing journey.

I'm a big fan of Julian Stockwin novels. He doesn't disappoint. Powder of Death is a good example. Like The Silk Tree before it and his long-running Kydd Series novels that continue as I write, Stockwin is a master teller of grand historical fiction tales. Pick one, any one, and you will be highly entertained. Today, I suggest you read Powder of Death. It's a great adventure.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Dying Art of Book Repair

Recommended Read: "He Fixes the Cracked Spines of Books..."

From The New York Times, by Kirk Johnson, an article about Donald Vass of Seattle, "who has spent the last 26 years mending and tending to books for the King County Public Library system" in the Seattle, Washington, area. "He believes he will be the last full-time traditional bookbinder ever to take up shears, brushes and needles here." Great article on a man dedicated to the love of books and the art of repairing them, both for the public library system and even some patrons who track him down and ask him to save a treasured volume.

What happens to worn out old books? Many, perhaps most, get tossed into the trash bin. Some are shelved in an archive or on a dusty old shelf. But some get mended to live a longer life, to be read another "day." With the surge in ebooks and the ease of finding used books on the Internet, there is less "need" to repair the old and worn out. Still, in some places with the right finances, the will remains to repair and maintain what may be saved.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Command Authority: Third Great Book Out of Three

Book Review: Command Authority by Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney
Version: Public Library

Command Authority is another great read and in times with today's headlines, published in 2014.

This is the third Jack Ryan character-driven book I've read, which dates before Full Force and Effect  (2015) and Commander in Chief (2016). The latter two were written by Mark Greany after the passing of Tom Clancy (2013). Command Authority was written by Tom Clancy with the assistance of Mark Greany.

This story takes place during a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Crimea, with Valerie Volodin as the prop character representing Vladimir Putin. It is as real as fiction gets, shadowing the actual Ukraine conflict of 2014. The Russian espionage set up in the story is totally believable when you consider the recent Russian hacking of U.S. political resources and disinformation campaign and a purported attempted Russian hacking of the U.S. electrical grid through a portal in Vermont. Tom Clancy and Mark Greany write with great authenticity, using everyday detail and current events to bring vivid clarity to their plot and settings.

Command Authority also takes us back to events during the Cold War and the break up of the Soviet Union, and how it led up to the creation of the Russian Oligarchs, who ostensibly run Russia now.

Along with accurate historical and current event details, Clancy creates likable characters in Jack Ryan, president in this and the other two books, and Ryan's son, Jack, Jr., and others with whom these main characters work. These all meld together to make the story readable and enjoyable, and propel the reader into a story line that is hard to put down once you become engaged. So it is with Command Authority. As with any story of substance, these characters face dangers and conflicts you can see vividly in your mind as you read, and you care that they succeed or whether they fail, taking you along their journey through to the end of the book not daring to leave the story lest you leave them hanging. It's well written and time well spent traveling along with the characters on their adventure.

Tom Clancy is a dominant writer in this field of suspense and thriller spy writers, and in this series of books you can see why. Mark Greaney ably picks up Clancy's baton and runs well with it, continuing the saga of these well-established characters. Well done, Greaney!

I would rate this and the other two novels five spy daggers out of five.

The next Tom Clancy novel by Mark Greaney is True Faith and Allegiance, out now.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Arrival: Mostly Disappointing

Book Review: Arrival by Ted Chiang
Version: Library Paperback

I wasn't able to get to the theater to see the movie, Arrival, so when I saw that our local library had on order a new copy of the book on which the movie was based, I immediately requested it. Boy, was I surprised.

First of all, there were only two requests for the book, so I got it as soon as it arrived. I even got to safely stretch the binding for reading, to give longevity to the book.

Second, only a small sliver of the book is what the movie is about. The book was originally published as Stories of Your Life and Others, a compilation of short stories previously published by author Ted Chiang. The story on which the movie is based is "Story of Your Life." It's buried between the many others. The book was re-titled and relaunched for the launch of the movie, Arrival.

Chiang is supposed to be this imaginative science fiction author. He is imaginative. But much of his writing reminds me of the material from the 1950's. Mostly because of the language. Robots he calls automatons, for instance.

Other parts of his writing are quite interesting. He has a computer science degree and is a technical writer, and a couple of his stories reflect his breadth of knowledge and vision in technology. None more than in "Story of Your Life," where he details humans trying to interact with aliens and learn their very complex language. It was an interesting tale, although it ends abruptly when the aliens up and leave and the author does the same with the story. Very disappointing. I haven't seen the movie yet and I hope the movie has a more satisfying ending.

Others of his short stories have similar endings. The first story involves the Tower of Babel and the Babylonians hiring miners from other nations to climb their tower and break through the vault of heaven. It has a very dissatisfying ending, which extends from a very non-scientific view of the world. I might rather call it fantasy or mythology fiction rather than science fiction.

Part of my problem with this book is that I didn't understand that it was an unconnected collection of short stories. Titled Arrival, I thought it was a novel. As I read what I thought were chapters to a single story, I became confused when the stories didn't connect. I looked again at the book cover - at the back - and then realized it was an anthology.

What I found once I had read "Story of Your Life" was that Chiang isn't really my kind of science fiction writer. Perhaps you will like his stories and find him perfectly wonderful as a writer. I'll leave that up to you. All I can say is, I was disappointed in the way the book was marketed on the cover and in the works between the covers. It's his only work that I've read.

It is worth noting that Chiang has won multiple prestigious speculative fiction awards. Considering the limited number of works he has published (15 short stories, novelettes, and novellas as of 2015, according to his Wikipedia page), it may be worth delving into more of his works before making a final judgment. Let me know if you have had a different experience reading Chiang.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Silk Tree: A Story You Have to Read

Book Review: The Silk Tree by Julian Stockwin
Version: purchased ebook

For a long time, the origins of silk fabric was a deeply held secret by the Chinese. Many myths and legends were held to be true, deepening the mystery. Julian Stockwin's The Silk Tree tells the fictionalized tale of two intrepid souls who sought out the truth in the hope of returning to their homeland with seeds from a silk tree to make themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams.

It it set in a time of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, after the fall of Rome and the rise of Constantinople as the center of the western world, before the West had contact with China. Christianity had been established as a dominant religion, and our two heroes left the West as two intrepid monks in search of truth, seeking to learn of the lands to the east. At the time, little was known about how silk or spices got from the East to the West, or where they even originated. So our heroes were traveling purely in ignorance, not even sure they would find a route let alone complete their quest.

The Silk Tree takes you on a far reaching, wide ranging journey through mysterious lands and among strange people through the eyes of an educated Greek businessman and a forlorn Roman soldier escaping the invading hordes who have reached Constantinople but eventually find themselves down on their luck but come up with a brilliant scheme to tap the considerable resources of Emperor Justinian to fund their travel. In the process they find themselves where they never expect to reach, a land that considers anyone from the west a spy looking to steal their secret and deserving of death. And while there, they discover the real source of silk and a way to sneak some back. Their journey home is long and perilous and full of surprises. In their century, under such circumstances, it's not certain they will ever even reach home. And thus, your journey beside them is as much an uncertain adventure as it is for our two very likable heroes.

When I first learned of the book, I had one impression of what the story would entail. And so when I began reading the story I expected it to unwind quickly and solve the mystery, letting out the secret early and then resolving the conflict over time. Not so. Stockwin builds the mystery through a good portion of the story, letting you find the truth with the our two heroes and uncover the wonder of the world in their eyes as they journey. It's a wonderful telling of their discoveries. We all know where silk comes from (or it's easy to find out by googling it), so that's not the issue in this story. The question is, how did growing silk get from China to the West? Who brought it out of hiding into the light of the world? This is a telling of that tale.

Julian Stockwin always does meticulous research for all of his stories. While many of the characters in The Silk Tree are fictional, including the two main characters (our heroes), others are real. "In the West accounts generally agree that it was two monks who returned from China in AD 551 with the secret of silk," Stockwin told me in a quick chat as I prepared to write this review. "I have this from three sources. However these documents vary in their details, each providing tantalizing references and with no one version standing out as definitive. My tale is based on these." So this tale is authentic, although specific details may wander from fact as all historical fiction does. "Where we do have verifiable historical information I have taken some pains to ensure veracity. Many of the characters in The Silk Tree did exist and it was fascinating researching their lives."

Stockwin lived in the Far East and visited many of the places in the story. His details as in all the books he writes are vivid and lend authenticity and immediacy to the tale. You will find The Silk Tree an enjoyable read, a wonderful place to immerse yourself, whether it's on a cold winter night by the fire or on a hot summer day on the beach.

The Silk Tree has been available in the UK, Australia, and other markets for a while but just became available in the U.S. late this summer. Wherever you live or travel, it's worth picking up.

"The genesis of the story came from a visit to a bazaar in Istanbul," added Stockwin, "when Kathy (his wife) was haggling with a merchant over a silk scarf, and I idly reflected on just how silk came to the West. Then I did some research and realized I had a story I just had to tell." I think you'll find it a story you just have to read.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Inferno: Not What I Expected Yet I Was Still Pleased

Book Review: Inferno by Julian Stockwin
Version: Purchased

Inferno wasn't what I thought it would be. Author Julian Stockwin broke some expectations with this novel, but when I got to thinking about it, his decisions to break them were sensible. In the end, I was pleased.

Inferno is the seventeenth novel in the Thomas Kydd series, which has been an age-of-sail series about a British naval hero's rise from seaman class to captaincy and knighthood. They are tales of adventure as well as tales of personal experiences based on historical moments, which result from precise research. Thus, I was looking for another tale of Captain Sir Thomas Kydd doing great daring deeds.

However, the Thomas Kydd series is also about Britain's struggle against Napoleon's attempt to conquer all of Europe. And Inferno hewed true to that story line, involving Kydd but not focusing on him. In fact, other than that Kydd appeared at the beginning and end of the story, and briefly in the middle, this book was hardly about him at all.

Inferno really is a tale about Britain's struggle to keep Napoleon from closing the European commercial market to them and uniting with Russia to seize all of Europe's navies to finally beat the British Navy, which commanded the seas. Between defeating them on the sea and defeating them economically, this would have meant Napoleon finally conquering Britain, which was all that stood in Napoleon's way of world domination.

Central to Napoleon's plan was working with Russia to take the Danish navy, and Britain had a brilliant plan to ask the Danish government to temporarily hand over their navy to Britain to deny Napoleon the key final piece of his plan. But the Danish king wouldn't hear of it. Even when British soldiers landed and surrounded the capital of Copenhagen and threatened to reduce it to rubble.

Stockwin's brilliance is in using historical detail to bring authenticity to his stories, and he does so in Inferno. You will thoroughly understand both sides of the dilemma and the horror of this battle from this story. It is a riveting tale told through the eyes of his characters, involving both fictional and real people from those times.

While I will admit to being disappointed initially that this wasn't much of a Kydd story, I came to admire Inferno for being a fine piece of well-crafted historical fiction told in the Thomas Kydd universe. Kydd and Kydd characters do show up from time to time in the story, and Kydd fans can enjoy that while enjoying Stockwin's attention to detail and being true to history.