Saturday, February 28, 2015

Snuff

I can't tell you how surprised and disappointed I was to find a Discworld novel where it seemed like Terry Pratchett wasn't at the top of his game, but boy, did I think this book sucked! Where was the author's trademarked humor? The wit? The satire? Where was the playful story? Instead we get a dark murder mystery starring Sam Vimes, a character I usually like, who doesn't seem to be at the top of his game in this book. And we get his son, young Sam, who's really into "poo," which I guess is where the humor is hidden in this book. Not for me. So they're on vacation in the country and a goblin's been murdered. Vimes can't leave well enough alone -- once a copper, always a copper -- and is off to solve the case with the help of the local country bumpkin police boy. And his squire. A gentleman's gentleman. Whatever. I literally got to page 286, which is damn generous if you ask me, before giving up and calling it quits. This is only the second Discworld book I haven't finished and most of the books have gotten four and five star reviews from me, so I think a lot of the author and the series. This one just didn't have it. Definitely not recommended.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What the Dormouse Said

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer IndustryWhat the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a fascinating history of personal computing in America, most specifically in Northern California, most especially in the Stanford region. I swear, I had no idea that Stanford played such a strategic role in the development of the personal computer.

The book attempts to tie together nerdie engineers with counterculture LSD druggies with free love types with antiwar activists with students with hackers and the mix is considerably hard to pull off, even for a writer as accomplished as Markoff. In fact, I would say that he fails at it. Still, he tries, yes, he does. He tries a chronological approach to things and soon we have computer science engineers dropping acid in what will become Silicon Valley, leading to who knows what kinds of creativity. But Markoff really concentrates this book on two or three people: Doug Engelbart and his Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) and John McCarthy's SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). Another important figure is Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog. Finally, there was programmer extraordinaire, Alan Kay.

Engelbart had a vision and he pulled in people to create his vision. He envisioned a computer -- this was the 1960s -- that would augment how people thought and what they did. McCarthy also envisioned a computerized world, albeit a slightly different one. Brand envisioned a computer for every person, while Kay envisioned small computers -- laptops of today -- that were so easy to use, that small children could be taught to use them. And these men all pulled it off!

Engelbart plays such a large role in the book, that it's nearly all about him, and I think that does the book a bit of a disservice. Nonetheless, it's he who creates the mouse to use with a display and keyboard in the late '60s. He was funded largely by ARPA and was critical in the development of the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.

At some point, the book shifts to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Reserch Center), the infamous Xerox research facility that had the most brilliant geniuses of the twentieth century under one roof and who literally did invent the personal computer as we know it to be. This was before Steve Wozniak and his famous claim that he invented the personal computer. Under Bob Taylor At PARC, Kay and the others who had shifted over there invented a graphical user interface, an operating system, a text editor (word processor), programming language, software, Ethernet for networking, a mouse, display, keyboard, audio, and a laser printer, which would be the only thing Xerox would go on to make money with. Xerox was so stupid, they never realized what they had in hand and they could have owned the world, but they didn't. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Markoff weaves various stories of people like Fred Moore throughout the book, attempting to capture the counterculture spirit, but it seemed a little lost on me. Most of the techies weren't overly political. Most avoided Vietnam by working in a research facility that did weapons research (SRI). Most dropped acid at some point, but very few seemed to make that a lifestyle choice. I thought it was an interesting book, as the topic is personally interesting to me, but it wasn't the most cohesively written book and I would have expected a little more from a writer of Markoff's stature. Still, four solid stars and recommended.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Spy at Twilight

A Spy at TwilightA Spy at Twilight by Bryan Forbes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is little doubt that with the thriller, A Spy at Twilight, Bryan Forbes is trying to become a contemporary of Forsyth. Sadly, he fails. See, the secret to Forsyth's success is his enormous dedication to research, details, and planning, as well as intricate story telling. Forbes shares none of these traits. He spins a decent yarn, yes, but not nearly as well as Forsyth.

In this book, a booby trapped corpse explodes when investigated by a couple of British cops, killing both, and setting off a massive investigation. England is "ruled" by a socialist prime minister who it's hard to pin down and I attribute that to the author -- the prime minister is clearly influenced by the head of the secret service -- MI6 -- who in this novel is called "Control," which just seems so wrong. What seems even more wrong is the hero of all of the James Bond novels and countless Forsyth novels, "Control" is a Russian plant working to overthrow Britain for Russian rule. That's literally unthinkable to me. And he seems, at times, to have the prime minister working alongside him, and at other times, the prime minister doesn't seem to have a clue about what's going on. It's very confusing.

Another part of the plot involves a former British spy, Hillsden, who has defected to the Russians, who was forced to by the prime minister and Control and who now, just to survive, works for the GRU. And he's bitter. He writes his memoirs and attempts to get them back to a colleague in Britain, but it only leads to various deaths.

Meanwhile, the protagonist, Waddington, is a former MI6 spy, now working for a security company who has been seduced by a mysterious rich hottie who is working for Control, although he of course doesn't know it. And to my total shock, the author kills him off about 80% of the way through the book. So now what? Well, there are secondary characters who now take over, but it's very confusing. You expect to make it through the whole book with the protagonist, don't you? Generally? Perhaps it's post-modern.... I didn't like it though.

Another thing I didn't like was small details like the following: the author several times referred to revolver "magazines." Um, revolvers don't have magazines. I know. I have one. I also have semiautomatic handguns. Those do have magazines. Get it right. The author is also extremely obsessed with AIDS. Now I know this book was published in the middle of the AIDS epidemic in 1989, so I can empathize, but come on. We get it. We are So.Very.Happy.You.Did.Not.Get.AIDS. God, go on and on about it, dude! Additionally, the terrorist known as "The Fat Boy" is not fat. He forces some type of cyanide pill down the throat of the woman who has seduced Waddington by kissing her, which seems a little unlikely. And Keating seems to good to be true, as spy turned movie producer turned good guy.

This isn't really a bad book. It's just not really a good one either. It could have done with some polishing, a little rewriting, some editing, some adjustments. That would have upped my rating to four stars. As it is, it's three stars and uneasily recommended if you can't find any other thrillers to read.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

China Maze

China Maze is an interesting book to read. It's meant to be read as a factual account written by an ex-Marine on his deathbed circa 1979 about a 1952 CIA-sponsored mission by six Marines into China to blow up a Chinese communist atomic test facility. And then hike 1,000 miles across the country to try and escape. Only to find out it was a suicide mission. The front of the book reads "Fact or Fiction? The incredible account of the raid that never was." And in the Acknowledgements section, the author, Lawrence Gardella, thanks characters in the book, presumably real life people he encountered in China while fulfilling his mission. Yet at the same time, on the copyright page, the publisher has printed the following: "All the characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all the incidents are pure invention." Huh. Interesting. I did some Googling and apparently there's some controversy about this book. Some people think it really happened and the government applied pressure to the publisher to put that text in the book. Others think it's wild fiction, completely made up. I'm not sure where I stand, but I think I would be willing to believe it. I think it's plausible. One thing, though, is we'll never be able to ask the author. He literally was writing this on his deathbed. The publisher wrote this on the final page of the book:  "Lawrence Gardella died on Monday, February 16, 1981, as this book was going into production." And apparently that really happened! Odd, eh?

In the book, "Rickey," a 17-year-old Marine, is picked up and taken to a place in the desert with several other Marines where, over the course of two weeks, he is taught parachuting, how to shoot AKs, how to dress in Chinese garb, etc, et al. Then, the six are loaded into a plane and dropped over China. Pretty sparse planning on the part of the author -- he's no Forsyth -- but still, the story begins. They meet up with some Chinese nationalists and find the atomic testing facility. Which they blow up. But they get into a firefight as they try to escape and several die, as do a number of their Chinese allies. What follows is a bizarre and harrowing tale of Rickey's travels over the next 22 days, with the help of the "Dragon Lady," her Mongol friends, and countless others. He kills dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Chinese commies, as well as Russian advisers, and is dumbfounded when he finds out he's been double-crossed by his own government. He was never meant to return. But return he did. I'll let you read the book to discover how. I'll also let you read the book to discover what happens when he does and everything that goes with it. This is an exciting book. There's a lot of action. The only reason I'm not giving it five stars is, it's not heavy on the details, on the preparation, like Forsyth and some of the others. The protagonist just winds up in scenarios and you have to accept them at face value and sometimes that's hard. Otherwise it's a good book. Recommended.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Fist of God

The Fist of God is a convoluted plot masterfully weaved together by Forsyth to make it a rather brilliant thriller. It centers around Washington, London, Baghdad, Vienna, and Saudi Arabia. The CIA and MI6 play key roles, as do the British SAS, the Mossad, and Iraqi intelligence forces. The book is about the first Gulf War and what it would have been like, and was like -- theoretically -- for Iraq to possess a large number of WMD. Including an atomic bomb. You see, the brilliance of Forsyth is his ability to weave fact and fiction so effortlessly that you don't know where one ends and the other begins. You know Saddam had poison gas. But how much? As much as the book indicates? I doubt it, but I don't know.

In this book, SAS major Mike Martin is infiltrated into occupied Kuwait to wage a terrorism campaign before being pulled out and sent into Baghdad itself, to deal with a super high level spy the Allies have in place. It's incredibly dangerous and the author writes a great deal of tension into the book. My only complaint was with the seduction of Austrian spinster, Edith, and her eventual death, which I thought a touch cruel and unusual for the author. I thought about giving the book four stars instead of five because it's obviously outdated and a lot of the information in the book was quite likely wrong (it was published in 1994). But Forsyth did the best with what he had to work with at the time and I've given other dated books high marks, so I shouldn't penalize an otherwise excellent book just for that. This is a good thriller, really gripping. Recommended.