Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Doublecross Program

The Doublecross Program (Star Risk, #3)The Doublecross Program by Chris Bunch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was somewhat disappointed with this book and that surprised me. I really like Chris Bunch and I really liked the first two books of this Star Risk, Ltd. series, so when this one seemed to be sub-standard, it was a real surprise and, as I said, a disappointment. Basically, M'chel Riss and the Star Risk, Ltd. mercenary team are hired by one planetary system to train and lead its armed forces against a neighboring planetary system, only to double cross them and go to the other system for the same deal. And back again. And so on. It's an entire book of double crossing. And it doesn't really endear the group to me, I've got to say. I mean, I know they're mercenaries, but still, have some ethics in how you do business. If you have a contract, do your damn job! I thought better of these people.

The thing that makes Chris Bunch books good is not only are they action packed military sci fi novels, but they've got intrigue, and plenty of it. There's a mystery and it's a good one. And there are plot twists and you wonder how the heck the protagonists of his series' are going to escape whatever predicament they're in. That was the case in the first two books of this series, as well as all of the Last Legion books. Not so with this book. It's plenty action packed. A lot of tension, I suppose. Perhaps. Maybe not. I mean, you know your heroes probably aren't going to be killed off, so really, how much tension is there? So, in this case, the book seems to be mostly a straight ahead military action novel. No real intrigue, no real mystery. No wondering who did what, who's going to do what. No real wondering how they're going to escape, other than how they're going to either end this war or get away from it, which is frankly anti-climactic and when it does "end," it is anti-climactic. And for once, they actually don't conclude their job, technically. It's a fairly dissatisfying ending to a dissatisfying book. I'll be starting the fourth book in the series in a little while. I have hopes that it will be an improvement and will return the series to its normal status of excellence. Because this is not typical Chris Bunch. If you're reading this series, I guess you might want to read this, but it's not essential. I don't think you'll be missing a lot by not reading it. And frankly, if you're not reading the series, I see little point in reading it, although it can be read as a stand alone book. Whatever the case, not recommended, sadly.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Orr: My Story

Orr: My StoryOrr: My Story by Bobby Orr
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Well, this book was a massively huge disappointment! For years, I had heard about how great Bobby Orr was, one of the greatest hockey players of all time. Some even said the greatest. He was a little before my time, so I never got to see him play and I know virtually nothing about him, other than he played for Boston and is in the Hall of Fame. So, I put this book on my Amazon Wish List and my wife got it for me for Christmas. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to find him writing that he wasn’t going to write about his career (basically) in terms of stats, honors, awards, anything. He says that’s all in the record books, that’s all in the history books, it’s all there. Well … yeah, that’s why I wanted to read this damn book, asshole! To learn about why you were apparently the best player of all time, the best defenseman of all time, the best scoring defenseman of all time, the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. I wanted to learn about the Hart Trophies, the Norris Trophies, the Stanley Cups. I wanted to know something about you and your career. Is that so bad? Is that so unusual? Shouldn’t you be the damn source for this?

But noooooooo! Not Orr. He doesn’t like to talk about individual honors. He could care less about them. Says they’re really team honors and even more than that, a reflection on everyone who’s ever influenced that person, such as their pee wee coaches, etc. Yep. Okay.

In this book, he devotes an entire chapter to his parents and his upbringing about the time he was eight years old in a small town in Ontario, Canada. There’s really nothing special about them. They didn’t really do anything special for him. They didn’t even attend many of his games. Frankly, I don’t know how they influenced him at all. I have no idea why he even wrote this useless chapter.

Other chapters are about his pee wee playing years with his buddies in elementary school, about what a poor student he was (seems most good hockey players were for some reason), about how he essentially dropped out of school at age 14 to play hockey, about how he signed his first hockey contract at age 14 with the help of his parents, about how he played in the juniors for four years and then made the Bruins at age 18. He writes next to nothing about his rookie year, except to describe his first goal, the team had the worst record in hockey, and oh yeah, he won the rookie of the year award. No big deal, right? Nothing else. It’s like it never happened. He writes more about his roommates.

The next chapters are about continuing seasons and how the Bruins improve. He has injuries, but the Bruins finally win the Stanley Cup. At least he mentions that. During this time, he must have been doing something somewhere to merit inclusion in the Hall of Fame at age 31 since his career was so incredibly short, but nowhere does he mention how many points he scored or what awards he won or anything relevant at all. Nothing. Why the bloody hell read this shithole excuse for a hockey autobiography? Well, I’m not finishing it. I’m halfway through and I’ve had enough. If I wanted to read about his views on parenting, I’d have Googled that and looked for a book on that topic. Instead, I wanted a book on the HOCKEY PLAYER Bobby Orr, you know, someone who played hockey, apparently quite well. It doesn’t exist in this book. What a damn waste. I’m embarrassed and ashamed that my poor wife wasted her money on this pile of crap. I hope I can get a decent amount for it at the used bookstore when I sell it to them. This is without a doubt, the WORST sports biography I have EVER read! Most definitely not recommended, ever.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Watchman

The Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin PoulsenThe Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin Poulsen by Jonathan Littman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve long heard about Kevin Poulsen, but didn’t know as much about him as I did about another early hacker, Kevin Mitnick, and I wanted to learn more, so this book was great. And it just so happened that it was by one of my favorite technology nonfiction authors, Jonathan Littman, who also wrote a book on Mitnick that is also quite good. Mitnick may be more infamous, but Poulsen was possibly better. It’s debatable, but regardless, Poulsen was one of the early old school hackers to take complete control of the phone system and change the way America and law enforcement looked at hackers.

Poulsen started out, like so many of the early ones, phone phreaking in his early teens and graduated into hacking. He early on learned the innards of Pac Bell, first by dumpster diving, then by social engineering, then by phreaking. By his late teens, he probably knew more about the phone system than any non-phone employee in the world, and more than many phone employees themselves. Unfortunately, he of course, got into legal trouble and had to get a “real” job, so ironically, he got a job with SRI, a major defense contractor, where he got a security clearance and worked with top secret military information. Also, ironically, his young boss was another (former) phreaker who started to encourage Kevin to resume phreaking and hacking and together they started engaging in criminal activity, going to Pac Bell switching centers and picking locks and breaking in, stealing manuals, passwords, souvenirs, phones, accessories, switches, and everything else. Kevin eventually got COSMOS manuals, which gave him total access to everything in Pac Bell’s systems, so that he could create new phone lines, new switches, could wiretap anyone he wanted from anywhere, could place calls from dozens or hundreds of untraceable locations, etc. He broken into TRW to scam credit reports, the DVM, the FBI, Pac Bell Security, etc. His buddy Ron, who’d already been busted for hacking/phreaking, grudgingly helped him at times. However, he started spending so much time at night out doing criminal activity that he was neglecting his really important defense job, that they fired him. However, he landed at Sun Microsystems, which would have been really cool if he could have stayed there. Except he got arrested. And released on bail. And went from Northern California to L.A. There, he and Ron met a strange so-called hacker named Eric Heinz, among many other names (Justin Peterson was another). He figures prominently in the Mitnick book. He was an older hacker who looked and acted like a celebrity rocker, hanging out in Hollywood clubs, driving a Porsche, having sex with different girls, usually strippers, every night, recording the acts, usually bondage, and he was a violent criminal – who also knew how to hack, to a certain degree. He wasn’t as good as Kevin, but he wanted to learn and he was eager to help Kevin, so they formed an uneasy partnership and off they went breaking into Pac Bell switches at night. By this point, Kevin was so brazen that he made himself Pac Bell IDs, uniforms, stole a Pac Bell van, drove to their headquarters in LA, walked in, knowing he was wanted, signed himself in, walked to the Security department after hours, broke in, and made copies of all of the memos and documents about him and his partners, hundreds of pages, and walked back out. When the Pac Bell security personnel finally tracked him down with the police and the FBI some time later, they were shocked at finding their own “secure” documents in his place. He also found out who they were wiretapping and wiretapped them back.

Here’s something he did that was a little sleazy. He had always justified his actions as simply innocent old school hacking, harming no one, searching for information and knowledge. However, at some point, he became aware of a group of 50 dead phone lines and voicemail boxes attached to LA escort Yellow Page ads. He went into COSMOS, snagged all the lines for himself, making them untraceable, set up the mailboxes, found a pimp/partner who had the girls, set up an escort ring, and became an digital pimp. He never saw the girls or the pimp. He just liked the challenge and I guess he made a few bucks from it too. However, what he’s most famous for is fixing, not once, but twice two radio station call in competitions with the DJ, Rick Dees, where they were giving away a $50,000 Porsche. He and Ron rented a seedy office, got eight phones, set up eight phone lines attached to the radio station, ran them into his phones, and when the three songs were played in order and the phones started ringing, at some point, the callers all got busy signals and Kevin and Ron were the “right” callers and won their cars. They also won other deals, like $10,000 in cash and trips to Hawaii. Another biggie is when Kevin was featured on the TV show, Unsolved Mysteries, at the request of the FBI. While it was being aired, all 30 phone lines to the show went down for the duration of the show while the FBI sat there and fumed. They knew what had happened and who had done it.

Eventually Kevin and Eric had a bit of a falling out and Eric got especially careless. Kevin was cocky and got a little careless himself. Arrest. He was facing two federal indictments in northern and southern California, one of which would have netted him 100+ years in prison, the other of which would have given him 37 years in prison. The headlines were brutal. The charges were insane. Espionage. Breaking into military computers. Military networks. The implication that he had been wiretapping the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco. Not proven. Classified military documents. Well, he has security clearances and that was part of his job. Idiot prosecutors and FBI were too stupid and too eager to send him to prison for life to actually look at what he had actually done or not done. When it was all said and done, most of the charges were dropped, virtually all of the serious charges, and he served about five years in prison. This was in the early 1990s, even though his hacking career began back in the very early 1980s. I don’t know what happened to him between when he got out of prison and now, but I do know that now he’s a respected security “expert” and journalist. He’s an editor for Wired Magazine and recently wrote a book called Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground, which I read just a month or two ago. It was well written and quite interesting. So obviously, he’s come a long way and more power to him. He had a lot of growing and maturing to do and he seriously had to pay his debt to society. It appears he has.

For me, this book is probably worthy of five stars, but I’m not certain if it’s outstanding enough to actually merit five stars. It’s a tough call. It’s at least a four star book. It’s interesting, well written, detailed, tension filled, easy to understand (for the most part), and well documented. And I don’t really know how it could have been improved. So to be honest, even though I’m not certain it’s a five star book, I don’t see how I can’t give it five stars. I just don’t see how it could have been better. It was an excellent book. So, five stars and recommended if you like to read histories of old school hackers and hacking.

View all my reviews

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Infinite Battle

The Infinite BattleThe Infinite Battle by David Bischoff
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I couldn't finish it. I couldn't even ever get into it. It just seemed a little too forced, a little too '80s, a little too Battlestar Gallactica, a little too dorky to me. It's like the author was trying too hard to be sci fi cool and didn't quite pull it off. He should have eased off the transmission just a touch.

The book had potential. When her beloved super scientist brother Cal Shemzak is abducted by the mysterious Jaxdron aliens, with whom humanity has been at war for some five or more years now, super cyborg agent, blip ship pilot, feisty Laura Shemzak talks her way onto a very top secret spaceship for the purpose of finding him. Only to to be attacked and boarded by pirates while on the way to that ship. She attacks the pirates, holds one hostage, demands the pirate captain take her where she wants to go, and is pretty much laughed at. The captain, one charismatic yet annoying as hell Tars Northern, in charge of the Starbow, a pretty awesome ship, and his bizarre crew of humans, aliens, and robot pirates/mercenaries, may or may not help her.

Okay. I can partially buy that, I guess. But since the pirates were just taking freight off Laura's ship, why couldn't she have stayed on that ship and continued to her destination to pick up her super ship to go off in search of her brother? Why hijack a group of ultra-dangerous pirates and ask them to take you to another location just cause you need a quick ride? That seemed odd. And Cal. His character seemed a little too stereotypically one dimensional for my liking. Immature, naive, brilliant, no real depth, coward. Pretty unlikable. And their society of "Friends." Haven't we seen such cultures portrayed relentlessly in sci fi books and movies throughout the decades over and over again until it's become quite tiring? Something a little more original might have been preferable. And frankly, the incest thing threw me just a bit. Trust me, I'm no prude and God knows I've read enough Heinlein (and even de Sade) to have seen the worst, but many male sci fi writers are freaking perverts, I've discovered over the years, and to write of these siblings' love as though it were proper and good and balanced and healthy and as though society was the sick entity for looking down on them for their incestuous relationship... Well, that's just a little bit too much for me to swallow. I can handle a little taboo to some degree, but to be so ho hum about it strikes me as odd. Finally, Laura. She was a super agent for the Federation. She could go anywhere, do anything. She had the training, the hardwiring, the cybernetics. And yet she could go off at a moment's notice. Wouldn't you have thought they would have done personality profiles on their agents and psychological testings? Wouldn't you have thought they would have "conditioned" their top agents they've invested millions or more in to ensure they wouldn't fly off the handle and go rogue? To see Laura go nuts when she learns of her brother's capture and insistence upon personally going off into alien territory to rescue him without aid is incomprehensible.

Frankly, not much about this book makes much sense. Laura constantly takes stupid risks, is a reactionary, usually for no good reason, seems nearly as immature as her brother, and neither protagonist seems particularly likable to me, at least not enough to finish the book. I've read the 10 Goodreads reviews and was surprised to see several positive things said in the four and five star reviews, but noted the book as a whole as a sub-3.5 rating. That's probably being generous, in my opinion. If handled well by a decent author, this book had the potential to be okay, I think. Not great, but okay. But it wasn't. And as a result, I think it's largely a waste of time. Not recommended.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Prelude to Foundation

Prelude to Foundation (Foundation: Prequel, #1)Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the prequel to the infamous Asimov Foundation series, actually the sixth book written decades after the original trilogy was written. If you’re read any of my reviews of the original trilogy, you’ll remember that I wasn’t impressed. I couldn’t even finish the second one, it was so bad. The writing was horrible, the character development nonexistent, the plot development no better, the dialogue laughable. However, when I read the fourth Foundation book published around 1982, I was much impressed. He had come a long way, although his writing could still use some improvement. At least he had learned how to use transitions. His next book, the final book in the series, irritated me with its characters’ constant nonstop sniping and bitching at each other, so I didn’t finish it and gave it a poor review, although for all I know it could have turned out to be a decent book. I just hated the characters too much to finish it. So it was with some trepidation that I started reading this one.

Prelude to Foundation, the first prequel but actual sixth book in the series to be published, was published in 1988, late in Asimov’s career. His writing, again, was much improved over his earlier work, but it still could have been better. Nonetheless, I was very taken with this book. I thought it had a much better plot than I expected it to, a lot of action, more than expected, a shocking amount of sexuality, which is very un-Asimov-like, a direct tie-in with his robot series, which I enjoyed, and a marvelous finish to a rather tension filled ending. Frankly, I had a hard time putting it down.

The book follows the early career of the young mathematician, Hari Seldon, elder hero of the original Foundation trilogy and creator of the science of psychohistory, which can very nearly foretell the history of society and culture. In this book, he is always on the Galactic Empire’s capital planet/city of Trantor, home to 40 billion people and 800 domed sectors, where he gives a paper at a mathematics conference which garners a lot of attention and from which he is the next day brought to the emperor’s own quarters, and asked to use his psychohistory to help determine the fate of the empire. He tries to explain that it’s theoretical, not practical, that it would take decades, a lifetime, maybe longer, to mathematically prove what he has theoretically proved. He is thrown out in disgrace, later attacked by thugs, defends himself with a new friend named Chetter Hummin, who claims to be a journalist, and who tells him the Empire and the man behind the emperor, Eto Demerzel, is after him. He must flee.

Hummin takes him halfway across the planet, charging Hari with furthering the research and discovery of psychohistory because the empire is crumbling and decaying, and gets him a job as a professor at a university, where he meets a history professor named Dors Vernabili. Hummin tasks Dors with being Hari’s personal protector and she takes it seriously. But one unforeseen accident occurs with Hari coming close to dying, and Hummin arrives and takes them across the planet once again to a backwards sector which is really, really strange. There, hair is forbidden. They’re forced to wear skin caps and even cover their eyebrows, wear robes identifying them by gender, and no woman can talk to a man unspoken to. It’s a very patriarchal society. However, Hari discovers they maintain an ancient history of some sort, dating back over 20,000 years to the original planet of man’s founding. Determined to get the details of this, he continues his quest. At great peril. They discover the first world was probably called Aurora (from the robot series) and featured a lot of humanoid machines called robots, which no one had ever heard of. They begin to suspect the main temple has one somewhere and Hari vows to break in and interview it to learn about mankind’s history to help formulate his psychohistory. Well, they break in, find a broken down metallic robot that doesn’t look humanoid, are caught and are sentenced to death. Just at that moment, Hummin appears and talks their way out of it and takes them to another sector, another poor sector, where he rents them a room with a typical family, leaving them to just survive. Not knowing what to do, they travel around, hear rumors that an old fortune teller in a really bad part of town tells tales of an original planet and vow to go see her. But there are knife fights there, so Dors buys two and they go. They meet a dirty street urchin who takes them to this old woman, who tells them about a place called Earth and about a robot called Day-ee and a man called Bay-ee (both references to the robot series), and they don’t learn much more, so they leave. And are attacked by 10 armed men. Dors takes the leader on with her knives and seriously wounds him while Hari uses martial arts techniques to knock a couple of them around. They escape, but the wife of their rented room is ticked at them and barely lets them back in. The next day, there’s a near riot outside of the house while they go back into the bad area to meet with a local leader. While there, a soldier appears and wants to take them with him. They assume it’s Hummin’s doing, so they go willingly, but it soon appears they are going to the dreaded sector of Wye, where the mayor has been trying to take over the empire for some time now and where they have a major army and where Hummin has been telling them to avoid like crazy. And there they are! They meet, not the ancient mayor, but his younger daughter, who has taken over mayoral duties and who, naturally, wants to use Hari and his psychohistory for her own personal gains. They hope Hummin will come once again to rescue them, but he doesn’t. One morning, however, they are awoken to gunfire and find Wye has been invaded by Imperial troops and that the original mayor has ceded control over to the Emperor. They expect to see Hummin magically show up, but to their surprise, Demerzel appears. And all is explained. And is it a HELL of an ending!!! What a freaking great ending! I actually found it touching, I kid you not. I did not expect that. I expected Imperial involvement, but not that. And Dors. There were hints, but it was never fully explained. We were just left to speculate and perhaps that’s for the best.

One complaint though. The dialogue in this book, as in virtually every Asimov book, is atrocious! Simply horrible. Dors talks about her “gown.” A man they’re staying with unexpectedly just happens to have pairs of “underpants and foot socks” for each of them. The dialogue is overly formal and stilted, wooden and academic. Far too 1940s US and certainly not believable for 20,000 years in the future. Hell, no one talks like that now! It’s ridiculous! Hell, all I can figure is it’s the dialogue of Ivy League PhD ubergeek scientists who don’t know how to converse or interrelate in any way and this is how he has his characters talk, even when they’re talking about sex or something casual like that. It’s silly. I read some passages to my non-sci fi reading wife and she laughed her ass off. Said it was horrible. And it is. It’s an embarrassment. He may have had the reputation, he may have been a good idea man, he may have been able to construct future worlds, but he couldn’t spin a decent conversation to save his life. He had no idea how to do so. It’s rather sad. I would have hated talking to him. I suppose it would have been a fairly silent conversation. Again, in this book, people say things like, “Mistress Vernabili”
and Master Seldon,” in everyday conversation. Crap like that. Isn’t that just a little over the top formal? Oh well. It’s a darn good book. It’s a five star book that I’m knocking down to four stars because the dialogue is so incredibly bad. I desperately want to give it five stars, especially after such an outstanding ending, but I just can’t justify that. The grammatical and literary technical difficulties are too great to ignore. Nonetheless, strongly recommended.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fatal System Error

Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the InternetFatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the Internet by Joseph Menn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fatal System Error is an absolutely scary as shit, totally frightening book about today’s hackers and their ties to the Russian mob and how billions of US dollars in terms of identity theft and credit card fraud make their way to the Russian Mafia through this new breed of hacker. The author is a technology journalist who is a decent writer and the book could have been good, and at times, is, but it has some major flaws as well. First through, Menn, the author, traces the lives and paths of new cybercrime fighters in America and Britain, Barrett Lyon and Andy Crocker, as they develop ways to defend against hacker attacks and ultimately carry the battle to them. What they find out and how they did it is shocking.

Lyon, a young California computer geek helped a friend’s company stop something called a DDOS attack (denial-of-service) in the early 2000s. This was fairly new and some hackers had figured out they could start using their computers and other people’s computers in what later became known as bots and botnets to flood a person or company’s single server with data requests, thus bringing it down and bringing it offline. They initially started doing this to offshore gambling sites, where there was majorly big money to be made, and they demanded “ransoms” of some $5,000, $10,000, $20,0000, and as time went by, as much as $200,000, payable in hours, or else these sites would be shut down on a big game day and these betting sites would lose many millions of dollars. One of these major gambling sites heard about what Lyon had done and hired him to quickly defeat a DDOS attack against its company, which Lyon did. The thing I don’t really understand, since this became Lyon’s thing and since the author made such a big deal about this for about half the book and made such a big deal about Lyon’s computer genius, is that it seems to me that Lyon merely obtained and later bought large server farms to build up bandwidth and capacity to defeat the DDOS attacks – and it worked. But that’s not genius! Anyone could figure that out! That’s just brute force defense. There’s no brilliant coding. There’s not even any brilliant networking. No virus traps, no Trojans, no sniffers, nothing. Just server farms. Okay, whatever. He started his own company, with the backing of a number of these gambling companies he was now working for, all offshore, and which he rather stupidly and naively didn’t realize were themselves criminals, er, US mobsters. So, he started his own business with mob money. At some point, he rats them out, loses his business, somehow survives, starts a new business, and discovers that the world of hacking has passed him by, as DDOS is a thing of the past and he has to catch up if he’s going to sell his security skills. Lyon at some point started tracking hackers though various networks, finding that many of them were Russian punks, just teens. As part of this investigation, he came into contact with an English policeman named Andy Crocker, who was doing the same sort of investigation, but on an official basis for his government. Simultaneously, though acting independently, the two began to move in on the “bad” guys, watching as they transitioned from basic hacking to DDOS ransom schemes, then to identify theft and credit card fraud, and finally to government-sponsored cyber attacks on other governments and multinational corporations.

Andy Crocker was a British policeman, former military, now working a national task force dedicated to eliminating Internet crime. As noted, he came across Lyon while researching these hackers who were also hitting British gambling companies. He traced them, like Lyon, to Russia and other Eastern European countries, such as Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Estonia. Like Lyon, he was able to trace the originators of some of these DDOS attacks to actual hackers and found out some of their true identities and locations. He actually traveled to Russia to begin a cooperative effort with the FSB and MVD to locate, arrest, and prosecute these Russian hackers. And although it took great effort and a hell of a long time, they got three of the prominent ones, all young kids who had done a hell of a lot of damage and were responsible for millions of dollars of theft and destruction. But they obviously weren’t the only ones, by far. There were thousands of others and these were low level hackers. They wanted to go after bigger ones. And to their dismay, they found they couldn’t. One they tried to get was the son of the province’s police chief and he was untouchable. The biggest, someone called King Arthur, who was allegedly making a million a day, was unknown and unreachable and was a god in the hacking world. They eventually found his country and he was also untouchable. Andy was told by everyone that no one could go after him. That no one could arrest him, sorry. Someone big was looking out for him. Crocker came to the conclusion that either the Russian mob and or, and more likely, the Russian government was using and protecting the big Russian hackers. It was depressing. In fact, after Crocker returned to England, the Russian prosecutor of these hackers who was so gung ho about prosecuting more Russian hackers was found murdered!

Another depressing thing was just how deeply into Russian society this world of hacking and cybercrime runs. Apparently, St. Petersburg is a monster crime haven. Apparently there’s a mob organization so big and so powerful and so feared that they brazenly run ads advertising their services and skills openly and offer a home to over 100 big league hackers, carders, virus makers, botnet owners, scammers, spammers, crackers, etc. It’s called the Russian Business Network (RBN), and although it’s theoretically merely a network provider, it’s widely thought to be a government-sponsored, mob controlled crime syndicate that is extremely violent, horrendously violent, and very dangerous. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. It’s completely protected. It seems that virtually everything seriously big, bad, and evil goes through the RBN. No one can penetrate it. It’s a god.

The book goes on to assert that the battle against hackers and cybercrime has essentially been lost. That those who argue that real-time, live use of credit cards is riskier than online use are insane and dead wrong (which is interesting, cause I just read a carding book by uberhacker and now-Wired editor Kevin Poulsen stating this very assertion the author’s denying). That over 30% of America’s credit card numbers, as well as Social Security card numbers and other forms of ID, are in the hands of the Russian mobsters. This book was written in 2010. I imagine if this was true then, it’s probably worse now. It’s depressing as hell. Still, the two times I’ve been victimized by credit card fraud and theft, it’s not been online; it’s been live use theft.

The thing that really irritated me about this book, though, was that the author relied virtually exclusively on these two “experts” (one of whom I question is actually even a real expert) to write the book. Shouldn’t he have sought out sources from CERT, the much maligned (in this book) FBI, Secret Service, FBS (since he went there), big name hackers (go to the source), white hat hackers, other security professionals, etc.? Why rely on two people who may have had five years of varying degrees of success in the mid-2000s, neither of which I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve heard of many major security professionals, when there are so many sources to choose from? It seems short sighted and it seems like you’re limiting your book and your readers’ educations and experiences. I don’t like it. But that’s what he chose to do, so that’s what I have to live with. Still, I dislike it so much, and I dislike the fact that he focuses so damn much of the book on one figure who focuses almost exclusively on a hacking technique (DDOS) that went out of style even before the mid-2000s, that I’m knocking the book down from four stars max to three max. This could and should have been a much better and broader book and it wasn’t. I think the author did the reader a grave disservice. Not a great book with unusual sources, but slightly recommended if you want to wake up sweating in the middle of the night.

I found a number of interesting reviews, one of which impressed me so much, that I’m going to print it here without the author’s knowledge or permissions, but while giving him full credit and hoping he approves. I think he makes some excellent points about the book and they’re worth reading.

Joe White rated it did not like it · review of another edition
Shelves: on-shelf, techread

One star

Thank goodness for Goodreads reviews and bookswap. Reading the prior reviews I had low expectations for this book, and through swap I only wasted money on the postage.
The book can almost be divided into 3 segments. The author seems to only have interviewed two main participants against internet crime, and came away with an incomplete and incoherent understanding of any details of the problem. He almost attributes all the evil on the internet as having a denial of service as the source. Even during the second part of the book, which included the topic of identity theft, he was attributing most of the theft activity to DDoS. I think he just like to bring up the acronym.
Some of the problems I had with the book :

1. There were 90 pages attributed to crimes of US mafia figures, in which the dollar amounts of each occurrence were laboriously spelled out like a Bob Cratchet accountant listing personal losses and moaning about the inability of the FBI to pursue the Gumbas and delegate justice. Literary style could have been extended to a two-page spreadsheet report detailing the who, how, and how much figures. This segment of the book generated the feeling of watching a Godfather marathon movie session, and I felt really diverged from the intent of discussing internet crime in terms of how the internet is the enabling tool. I already suspected that mules carry money, people get killed, and identities are just handles to hide behind.

2. The swashbuckling crime fighting DDoS buster had a girlfriend to whom a few pages were wasted on. Since she was irrelevant to the overall topic, she could have been mentioned once for background, and not introduced as what might have become a significant character (but never did).

3. The mechanics of defeating a DDos attack were never detailed. The server farm set up in Phoenix had the bandwidth and number of servers to defeat an attack, but there were no details provided as to why it was specifically set up in Phoenix, what its components were, and how a direct attack defense was managed.

4. Because the author seemed obsessed with DDoS, he mentioned bots and botnets at least once on every 3rd page. He never described a bot to the laymen. He never made it clear whether a bot could consist of a virtual machine created for a purpose, or whether it had to be an independent 3rd party box belonging to an unsuspecting bystander. The author never fully explained the mechanics of a trojan horse implant, and didn't clarify the difference between a virus and trojan horse. He also never explained what can be done at the individual user level to fend off trojans and viruses, except in a short subject dealing with phishing emails generated by spam during --- DDoS attacks. He never clarified that DDoS isn't necessary for phishing, and neither are bots.

5. Only once was it mentioned that one group switched to Macs because they seemed less susceptible to attack. He mentioned at least twice that you can't sue Microsoft for providing a faulty OS combined with a poorly updated integrated browser, because purchasing a machine with Windows provides only a license to use the software and provides no firm sale transaction in which a person owns the software running on the hardware that they do own. He did mention the Microsoft monopoly on the OS, but failed to mention that Microsoft was prosecuted in conjunction with monopolistic powers only related to installation of a browser. It was never mentioned that Microsoft to this day controls hardware vendor access to Windows, and if the hardware companies dare install anything else but Windows or MS products, they will be heavily penalized in regard to being able to install Windows. If anyone says the Dell sells Linux, I must say that I've only ever been able to find minimal hardware boxes in the very basic desktop configuration, and in selecting one of those choices, there is a radio selection button for the OS that would full form advance to a Windows selection. Phone inquiries were even worse at the individual customer level. Only institutional server customers could purchase equipment with Linux pre-installed. Same story at all vendors except Lenovo, and then only through individual providers.

6. The author in the last 50 pages provides a conglomerated synopsis of headline events and trends regarding contemporary internet warfare across national borders. China is mentioned as a war opponent in cyberhacking, but it is never mentioned that China manufactures a significant volume of the circuitry used in electronics and could very easily, using the subversion techniques described by R.J. Pineiro, hide logic bombs and covert data skimmers within circuit boards and components. This could happen to Apple and all the phone manufacturers, so that their equipment could be subverted despite the installed software. Of course the title of the book was "the hunt for the internet crime lords", so hardware subversion might have been beyond the scope.

7. Since the title was the "hunt for the New Crime Lords who are bringing down the internet", some credit must be given to the author for remaining in the hunt venue, and not providing the extraneous technical details that readers might be led to expect by the book-cover blurb adulations such as "A fascinating high-tech whodunit". The high tech here would be synonymous to an interstate highway providing speeders the ability to go faster.

8. The middle segment dealing with a physical legal pursuit presence in Russia, was in my opinion the redeeming revelation of the book. Life in Russia has never been painted as a Disneyland experience, but the adverse conditions both politically and physically presented here, really underscored the futility of pursuit of Soviet area bad guys in their home territory.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Robots of Dawn

The Robots of Dawn (Robot, #3)The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this third book in the Isaac Asimov robot trilogy (which I believe turned into four books…) and thought it was the best one. It follows the paths of Earth investigator Elijah Bailey and his Spacer robot sidekick R Daneel Olivaw as they attempt to solve the “murder” of a humaniform robot similar to Daneel on the planet Aurora. In the first book, The Caves of Steel, the two met and solved a murder mystery in New York City on Earth. In this futuristic Earth, a fearful population lives in huge domed cities underground and never goes outside. In the second book, The Naked Sun, Elijah is forced to face his fears and is told to leave Earth to solve a murder that occurred on a Spacer planet called Solaria where the sparse population has developed a weird type of disgust for their fellow humans. They refuse to touch other humans and mostly only interact with their numerous robots. When Elijah returns to Earth, he’s come to think that colonizing other planets is the only way that the human race on Earth can survive the future. He’s been changed by his experience.

In this book, The Robots of Dawn, Daneel’s humaniform robot companion has been “murdered” by someone, yet the only suspect is the most famous roboticist in the galaxy, Dr. Falstolfe, who freely admits he’s the only person in the galaxy with the necessary skills to be able to disable a positronic humaniform robot of that type, of which he is also the creator, yet at the same time he strongly claims he’s innocent. If Elijah and Daneel can’t prove him innocent, it will have terrible consequences for Elijah’s career and for Earth’s ability to attempt to colonize the galaxy. Daneel is also in danger, as he is the last remaining humaniform robot and it seems he is wanted. It’s a huge mystery and as Baley interviews various suspects and other people, it seems completely unsolvable, or at least everything points to Falstolfe, so there seems little hope for Baley and Earth’s futures.

Two important characters in the book are ex-Solarian woman, Gladia, now living on Aurora and with whom Elijah has a bit of a “thing,” even though he’s married and has no intention of cheating or leaving his wife, etc. He still allows himself to fantasize every now and then, remembering their time together when he was solving the murder on Solaria. The other major character is another robot named Giskard, who doesn’t appear to be as advanced as Daneel, but for whom appearances may be deceiving. Frankly, this is one of the most difficult mysteries I’ve ever seen any character solve and I had no idea how Baley was going to do it. The ultimate solution came as a bit of a shock to me and took me completely by surprise, as the apparent solution was a bit, just that – apparent, but there was a second, hidden, solution that was the brilliant shocker and which made this book most excellent.

However, I do have a complaint and in fairness to this book, it’s more about the author than it is about this book alone. Over the past year or two, in reading a lot of Asimov, I’ve come to realize that while he can come up with good ideas and write good mysteries, he’s a crappy writer and can’t write dialogue to save his life. In fact, he’s the worst dialogue writer of any author I’ve ever read! He’s freaking horrible!!! It’s so stilted and formal, so unauthentic, so academic and dry. In this book, somewhat surprisingly, there’s a lot of talk about sex, particularly between Elijah and Gladia and some of it occurs after an odd and surreal intimated sex scene and the dialogue is so 1950s wooden, formal crap that it’s just downright silly. No one talks like that. And this is supposed to be many thousands of years in the future! I read some of the sentences and paragraphs to my wife, who doesn’t read science fiction but who does read a lot, and she burst out laughing, stating that was the worst crap she had ever heard. And it is. My God, Asimov is a hack! In fact, he’s easily one of the worst sci fi “writers” in terms of actual writing ability of anyone I’ve ever read. In my reviews of his various Foundation books, I’ve often said it would have helped if he had taken some college level creative writing classes because he showed little evidence of basic skills, such as use of transitions, plot development, character development, and obviously his use of dialogue is such a joke as to make his books laughable – if these particular mysteries weren’t so intriguing. So, I really want to knock this book’s rating down a few stars, even though I think it’s a five star story. I mean, the story itself is brilliant, one of the best mysteries I’ve ever encountered. But the actual writing is so typically Asimov-bad, I’ve got to knock it down at least one star to four stars, with apologies. Nonetheless, it’s a darn good book and strongly recommended.

View all my reviews

Friday, December 18, 2015


Homefall (The Last Legion, #4)Homefall by Chris Bunch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Homefall was a great book and I am sad to have finished it because, since it was the fourth and final book in the Last Legion series, and a really great series that I have seriously enjoyed is now over. It’s a real pity. This book was quite different from the three preceding it in that the Legion is no longer having to defend Cumbre from attackers and rebels. Instead, Garvin and Njangu and the rest decide to finally go looking for the Confederation, the giant mystery hanging around the neck of each book. They’re part of the Confederation’s military machine, sent to Cumbre for duty, when all contact with the Confederation ended and no one has heard from or of it for a decade. No one knows what has happened. It seems to have literally disintegrated. Garvin decides to get a group together and disguise themselves as a circus troop going from system to system until they finally reach the home system of Centrum, hoping to find out the cause of the mystery and, if the Confederation is indeed dead, perhaps to jump start it back to life. Why a circus? Garvin comes from a long line of circus performers and in a dangerous universe, what better way to travel than as nonthreatening entertainers?

They get a massive ship, load it with a zillion weapons and a number of specialized fighters, about 150 soldiers, and then they go to a real circus planet to hire real circus people and animals. Which they do. And they practice. And then they hit the road, er skies. And the shit hits the fan. Every world the come to is freaking insane! Everyone tries to kill each other and kill them. There are insane plots, treacheries, dictators, paramilitary groups and private armies, with everyone enjoying watching the circus perform until they realize they can either make use of them and their equipment, etc., or until they realize they just want to kill them. In either case, the Legion comes under attack, has to fight back, and escapes, usually just barely. There’s one system that’s particularly evil and insane and I wasn’t sure at all how they were going to escape that particular trap. But they did. And found the home system. And what they found was not what they hoped for.

Since the first three books were about their wars with the rebels, the aliens, and their planetary neighbors and since they no longer had any enemies nearby, I thought this would be more of a political book, but I was wrong. This book was about the journey and it was all intrigue and action. Serious tension too. Very well written, great plot. My only complaint is the ending. The final chapter is a mere two pages, with them arriving back home and splitting up, going their separate ways. I was a little shocked, because there had been romances and relationships, bonds that were established, futures to be groomed, and it was all shot to hell in two pages. No one rode off into the sunset with the girl. Hell, the two best buds didn’t even end up going off together to do their own thing. Even they split up and went their separate ways, in the space of a few paragraphs, and that seemed really unlike their characters. Really unbelievable. I found the final chapter really hard to swallow and thought about downgrading the rating a star, but I enjoyed the book and the series so much overall, that I’m still giving it five stars. This book, unlike the previous two, could possibly be read as a stand alone book, but I would start with the first one and read the series in order. I think readers would get much more out of that. Best series ever? No. Really damn good? Damn straight! Definitely recommended.

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Andy Russell: A Steeler Odyssey

Andy Russell: A Steeler OdysseyAndy Russell: A Steeler Odyssey by Andy Russell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This much wanted book was a HUGE disappointment! I feel really upset about it. I've been wanting to get this book for two years, but it's been out of print. I saw I could get a used copy via Amazon and put in on my Wish List some time ago, but recently decided to just go ahead and buy it for myself. It was only a penny, plus shipping. I waited eagerly.

For those of you who don't know, Andy Russell, two-time Super Bowl Champion and seven-time Pro Bowler, was one of the all time great Steeler linebackers. Maybe the first in a long line of great Steeler linebackers. Drafted in 1963 out of Missouri, he played his rookie year, served in the army for two years, came back and was able to rejoin the team, played on some terrible teams in the 1960s and then on some incredible 1970s teams before retiring midway through the decade. He was a ten time team captain. He was a great player, a great leader, and a great person. And it just so happens that as I moved to the Pittsburgh area as a very young child in 1971, I grew up loving the Steelers and I remember hearing about him, but I really don't remember seeing him play that much. I don't remember many of those great early '70s teams. I guess I didn't really start watching until the mid-70s. So I pretty much missed out on his career, even though I had heard so much about him. And therefore I've always wanted to learn something about him. Thus, when I found he had written a book (actually two books), I had to get it. And here it is and I just finished it.

Let me tell you what I was expecting. I was expecting to hear about his great college career at Missouri, his rookie year with the Steelers, the army years, trying to make the team again when he returned from the military, becoming a starter, playing on all those losing teams and then playing on all of those amazing winning teams and the differences between them, stuff about the players from both decades, the coaches, opposing players, maybe the fans, the city of Pittsburgh, the media, what it was like to be selected for playing in the Pro Bowl, and even year by year details on important games. That's what I expected. That's not what I got.

What I got was a chapter about him that touched on his college career, where he got a lot of interceptions for a very successful coach and team, where he was drafted low but made the team, went to Germany, came back and made the team again, negotiated his own contracts, terribly, suddenly fast forwarded to winning a Super Bowl and then retirement. That was pretty much his life. He kind of left a shitload of stuff out. I have no idea why.

The next chapter came as a shock. It was about a 1968 USO tour to Vietnam with four other NFL players where they arrived in Saigon on the eve of Tet and everything got blown to hell and they got shot at and they got flown around to bases surrounded by Viet Cong and had to run from helicopters into the bases, where they got mortared, where they were driven around by maniacs intent upon not being killed by VC snipers, etc. When he went, he was a conservative hawk. When he left, after seeing all the senseless carnage and deaths, he was a dove and thought maybe all of those disgusting long haired hippies were right after all. It was an interesting chapter. It would have made an excellent chapter in another book. But not this one.

The next chapter began a series of player profile chapters with his best friend, center Ray Mansfield. It was interesting and I enjoyed it, like I enjoyed all of the player profile chapters. Those were the best chapters in the book. The players profiled in the book included Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Ham, Rocky Bleier, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, and coach Chuck Noll. The best one may have been on Noll, whom he respected more than just about anyone else he ever met.

After the Mansfield chapter comes another USO chapter, from the same tour, this time in Thailand with a group of American pilots. One night. A whole chapter about one night. He gets really introspective and thinks that instead of these men worshiping him and his NFL colleagues, they should be bowing down to the pilots and their colleagues, who are giving their lives daily. An interesting chapter, again, but for another book.

And then begins the most disappointing aspect to the book. Aside from the few player profile chapters, each chapter is basically about Russell and his post-retirement business partner traveling to mostly Asian and third world countries looking for investment opportunities. They hit the Middle East, where they're basically laughed out of town by the super rich Arabs, and they finally strike it rich in Germany at the end of the book, but each chapter is about trying to do business in Japan, Singapore, Calcutta, and so on and so on. Like I give a holy shit about that! Honestly, does anyone buying this book, virtually all of whom are undoubtedly Steeler fans, give a shit about Russell's post-retirement investment business opportunities?

There's NOTHING about the teams and players from the 1960s, almost nothing about the teams and players from the 1970s, a little bit -- just a little -- about the first Super Bowl, nothing about his second Super Bowl, nothing about the fans or media, nothing about the city of Pittsburgh, virtually nothing at all about the Pro Bowls, practically nothing about opposing players, virtually nothing at all about specific seasons or even big games in his career!!! I mean, WHAT THE HELL???!!! What kind of football biography is this? What the hell does he think he is writing? How dare he? Why does he think people are even buying this damn book? What an asshole.

The only thing that saves this book from getting a one star review are the last two chapters. The next to last chapter is simply a chapter detailing information about other players he played with who he didn't profile, including Hall of Famers like Mike Webster and John Stallworth, as well as lesser known players like JT Thomas and Mike Wagner. It was interesting to read the synopsis on each of the players and that was the type of stuff I had been waiting for throughout the whole book. The last chapter was his outlook on "today's," game, bearing in mind that this book was published in 1998. First, Russell states that current players, with their larger size and faster speed, could undoubtedly beat the better teams of the old days. But then he goes on to say what I've been saying for years. Despite their talent, they're basically glory seeking, asshole fuckups. He doesn't use those exact words, of course, but he bemoans the players who have to celebrate like idiots every time they make a damn tackle, saying -- like me -- isn't that their job? Why are they celebrating for doing what they're paid to do? Maybe if it was a big touchdown or something, okay, but just a simply tackle or a simple first down run? Seriously? Idiots. And they don't know how to tackle anymore. They've lost their technique. They go for the big time tackle and simply miss half the time, and my wife knows I'm always screaming at players on TV to "wrap up." For the life of me, I don't understand why players don't realize that the easiest way to make a sure tackle is to wrap up, but instead, these dolts, going for the big shots, lead with their heads or even their shoulders and the runners or receivers evade them or bounce off of them and keep going ... because the stupid defender didn't WRAP UP! It's called tackling technique. And today's players don't have it. Russell also gets annoyed with the attention seeking players who get "injured," lying on the field for five minutes, having to be helped or carried to the sideline, only to be back in the game three plays later. Frauds. He states that Mean Joe or Lambert would have never put up with that shit. When he was a rookie, Hall of Fame defensive lineman Earnie Stautner got a fractured hand where his the bone was sticking out through the skin of his hand and he just went to the sideline, after making two more tackles, wrapped some tape around the fracture, and went back in and played. A real man. It's different now. Russell admits that every generation says the previous generation was better and he sounds like an old fogie, but that's just the way he feels and I can't help but agree with virtually everything he writes in this chapter. I despise most of today's players and I hate the way they go nutso when they make a play or taunt their opponent after a play, etc. It's pathetic. It's not football. The 1970s Steelers played football. And so did Andy Russell. It's just a shame he didn't write about it in his book. One more thing. The publisher sucks. This is the worst excuse for a professionally edited and published book I've ever seen. There are so many grammatical mistakes and typos, it's unbelievable. I can't believe they apparently decided not to hire an editor. One example from a late chapter. Something should have "seemed" apparent, but in the book, it "seamed" apparent. Stupid mistakes like that are all over this book. And the few photos in this book are a joke! All black and white, the photos and text accompanying them bleed over each other on back to back pages, so when you're looking at a page of two photos, you're actually seeing four from two pages, with four paragraphs sitting on top of each other. It's beyond unprofessional. It's an embarrassment. As a former editing and publishing professional, I'm appalled. I've deleted his other book from my Amazon Wish List. If you're a Steeler fan, don't waste your time and money on this book. It'll be a major disappointment. Definitely, definitely not recommended.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Winds of Change and Other Stories

The Winds of Change and Other StoriesThe Winds of Change and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a 21 story collection of short stories written by Isaac Asimov largely between 1976 and 1982. The stories range in length from one to about 20 pages, give or take. It's a very, very uneven collection. Some of the stories are pretty good, some quite entertaining, some fairly bad, some you simply can't help asking what the hell was he thinking including in this book. Still, it's a short, fun read, for the most part. One thing I like about this collection is that Asimov writes a brief introduction before each story, which is pretty unique and cool. Another interesting thing is that he seems to be completely honest about these stories. He admits that probably more than half of them were rejected when submitted to various editors and magazines, and so these were ultimately published in his own magazine, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, whose editor, he asserts, was free to reject his submissions, and allegedly once did. Still, it's pretty much self published material that was considered not good enough to appear in other publications, so that tells you something about the quality of work in this book. Nonetheless, there are some good stories. In "Found," a two person male and female team of computer techs encounters an unknown space parasite while attempting to repair Computer Two, one of four computers/satellites orbiting the earth that control space travel and everything that has to do with it . It is a creepy story of a first contact that ends on a distinctly paranoid note. Not a bad story. The final story, "The Winds of Change," Asimov states is his favorite, and it's interesting because it's a complete monologue that takes a swipe at the newly formed Moral Majority. Interesting. So, some good stories in an uneven collection of somewhat decent pieces. Fun to read, but not essential Asimov. Borderline recommended.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Scoundrel Worlds

The Scoundrel Worlds (Star Risk, #2)The Scoundrel Worlds by Chris Bunch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The mercenary team from Star Risk, Ltd are back for their second book/mission and for some reason, the publisher's marketing flunky who came up with the book's back cover synopsis blurb apparently didn't even bother reading the book, because even though it begins with security for a major sporting event, that's not at all what the book is about, nor what the vast majority of the book is about, so for the synopsis of the book to describe it in that way is to do a gross disservice.

Anyway, M'Chel, Freidrich, Grok, Jasmine, and Chas are back and this time they are hired by Premier Reynard of Dampier, who has recently been dethroned and wants his power back. But that's not his primary reason for hiring them. He wants one of his friends and colleagues who has been framed for treason, tried and found guilty by a kangaroo court, sentenced to death, and is in a heavily guarded prison on death row, freed and the "real" traitor found to replace the innocent man. Dampier has a nearby star system it has gone to war with three times over yet a third star system that they both claim for themselves and each is saber rattling again. Star Risk agrees to take the job and soon appears on Dampier, where they find a lot of lawlessness and violence awaits them. And a lot of people are anticipating their arrival and are none too happy about it, including the police, the intelligence service, the secret police, etc. Soon, they, and the mercenary sub-contractors they hire, are under assault from all sides and they have to go into ultra violence mode to teach some people a few lessons about who's the damn boss. It doesn't help that the big boys on the mercenary block, Cerberus Systems, is also in the picture, mysteriously working for the other side. There's also a mysterious religious cult and a group of armed revolutionaries and it's a complete mess.

While everyone is off doing their own thing, Freidrich decides to visit this other planet, Torguth, to see how much truth there is to the Dampierian rumors of their military buildup. Turns out they're fairly accurate. He also goes to establish contact with and extract information from two sources the revolutionaries have on planet. Torguth is a dictatorial, heavily militarized planet where pretty much everyone wears a uniform of some sort. It's a very dangerous place to be. He meets both people and agrees to meet them again in a day or so. And he's sold out. Fortunately, he's ex-military and in good shape and he's hidden small weapons around the city in anticipation of just such an event, so he escapes, barely, and is glad to do so.

At the same time, there's a group of thugs called The Masked Ones going around beating up and even killing groups of demonstrators and protesters with the approval of the police who do nothing to stop them. Star Risk doesn't approve of their actions, tries to find their identities, finds some success, finds some of them tied in with the secret police (shockingly), and slaughters a number of them to teach them a lesson. This doesn't sit well with the chief of the secret police, but he does nothing to them -- for the time being.

Meanwhile, they've been visiting the prisoner in the off-planet prison, softening things and people up, making plans to spring him. Their plan is ingenious.

One cool thing about this book is the role ex-Marine M'Chel Riss plays. She plays a much bigger role than in the previous book, I believe, and is a major, major bad ass. I like it. She plays for keeps and kicks ass. I like her character a lot. Another cool thing about the book is the plot is so convoluted and complex and everything is such a mystery that it's almost impossible to unweave until the end. The downside is, the ending is actually so incredibly obvious that I thought it was far too obvious and thought there was no way it could actually be THAT and assumed it would have to be someone else (the traitor), someone no one had considered before, but I was wrong. It was one of the two most completely obvious suspects and that was really disappointing. I think Bunch did his readers a disservice here and should have worked harder as an author to make things more complicated than that. He took the easy way out and if I hadn't have enjoyed the book so much, I'd consider knocking the rating down by a star, but I'm not going to because it's still a very good book.

So, if you like a good sci fi mystery with ultra violence, conspiracies, assassinations, poisonings, military assaults, etc, this is the book for you. And even though it's the second book of a series, it's really a stand alone book. You don't need to have read the first one to enjoy this one. It's not the best book I've ever read and I'm not completely convinced it's worth five stars, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and can't think of any real good reason not to give it five stars, so I'm going to go ahead and do so. I just think it's a really good book. Definitely recommended, as is the series.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 14, 2015

West of Rome

West of RomeWest of Rome by John Fante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read Fante some 25 years ago through, of course, the Bukowski connection and I was not disappointed. I bought and read a half dozen Fante books. Then, for some odd reason, I forgot about him. Until recently. Lately, I’ve been pulling some of those old Fante books off the shelf and rediscovering them and reminding myself why I liked reading him in the first place. With that in mind, I ordered this book, West of Rome, which is an odd pairing of two novellas, “My Dog Stupid” and “The Orgy.” The first one, at close to 150 pages, is nearly novel length itself while the latter, at only about 50 pages, is closer to a long short story. And they are very dissimilar and fit oddly together. Which doesn’t make them bad. Not at all. I just wouldn’t read them together at one sitting.

West Of Rome contains the usual gritty, passionate prose Fante is known for, while also, particularly in the first novella, containing the usual rough comedy about difficult situations and people placed in awkward situations and how they deal with them. There’s also the usual explosive display of emotions. In “My Dog Stupid,” Henry Molise and family discover a 120 pound Akita lying in the yard in the rain seemingly near death. They nurse it back to health, place ads notifying the public of having found a lost dog in the papers, and come to grips with the fact that the dog seems to have adopted them. He’s big, strong, a little mean, a little bit loyal, very “passionate” (read horny), gay as the ace of spades (thus, much of the humor), and they name him “Stupid” by default. He humps any and everything that moves, especially if it’s male. Male dogs, male humans, male anything. He becomes known as the community rapist. He humiliates the community bully/watch dog, the regal German Shepard, by trying his best to rape it into submission. It’s hilarious and frightening at the same time.

Molise, meanwhile, is a middle aged failed writer, screenwriter and novelist, who has done nothing of note in some time, living in Malibu with his demanding wife and four grown kids, most all of whom are deadbeats in one way or another. He dreams of selling everything he has and running away to Rome to start over again. He dreams, too, of the kids getting out of the house and letting he and his wife get on with their lives. And so it comes to pass. Their complete spoiled bitch daughter who’s living the good life with an ex-Marine beach bum while in their house gets ticked off at Molise because of the dog and leaves. A son, who dates only black women, which frustrates his racist mother to no end, ends up introducing his parents to a black girlfriend who calls them Mom and Dad, to their horror. Later they get a late night call telling them to come down to Venice Beach and when they arrive at their destination, this woman opens the door and there they find their son, beat to holy hell. They take him away, take him back home, where the son later tells his father that the black girl is his wife and she is pregnant and she beat him up and they fought over what to do about the pregnancy; he wanted to keep the child. Another son has been trying to avoid the military for years, trying to get out due to medical “problems” of one sort or another through quack doctors, and Stupid inadvertently helps when the boy kicks the dog several times when the dog pins the ex-Marine against a wall to hump him and the dog bites the son in the leg. He goes to a doctor, winds up on crutches, and weeks later, unable to walk, gets his military walking papers and is miraculously healed. The fourth child, a son, is a college student who has his mother write all of his English papers for him. It’s especially funny when she gets extremely upset at getting a C on a paper that she did her very best on. However, to their shock and horror, he is thrown out of the college due to lack of attendance and when they confront him, they discover he has been volunteering at a poor community children’s disabled center. But the draft board has called for him and now he is terrified. Naive, he is convinced his good deeds will get him off. His father knows better. And to top things off, the man in charge of the board is someone they had a confrontation with on the beach a few months previously because Stupid tried to rape him too. Needless to say, Molise’s son is in the army in a heartbeat. His one request? Take care of Stupid. Who immediately disappears, nowhere to be found. The parents freak out. And as the climax of the novella approaches, the tension mounts and what was previously an incredibly funny work becomes less so as all of these rather serious life crises have taken their toll on the family, as these lies and pretensions have been lifted and erased. What starts out very funny becomes nearly sad, and at times, quite touching. It takes a gift to be able to make that type of a transition in a short work such as this and pull it off successfully, yet Fante does. It’s truly an excellent work.

“The Orgy” is very different. It’s told from the innocent eyes of a ten year old boy in Boulder, Colorado, the son of an extremely devout Catholic mother and a poor, hard working Italian father whose best friend and workmate is an atheist, much to his wife’s horror and disgust. One of the men, an older black man, who works for the boy’s father dabbles in penny stocks and one day makes a small fortune. He quits, but in a seemingly nice gesture, gives the boy’s father a certificate of ownership to a small gold mine in the mountains north of them. As the man wouldn’t be able to mine on his own, he takes his friend, Frank, as a partner and they start heading off to mine on the weekends, with little luck. The story then centers around one particular weekend when the mother forces her husband to take the son with them to the mine for the weekend and the ultimate loss of innocence that boy encounters along the way. There are moments of humor, but not nearly anything like in the first novella, and in all candor, this work, while decent, pales in comparison to the first and probably shouldn’t have been placed alongside it. It’s bound to be found lacking when compared to the former. It’s good, but merely average when compared to the excellent “Stupid.”

This book was published shortly after Fante’s death in the early 1980s. It’s not his best work, but I’m certainly glad to have it in my library and I think it’s definitely worth four stars. Recommended for anyone who enjoys unpretentious, “real,” funny literature from the author Bukowski admired the most.

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Storm Force

Storm Force (The Last Legion, #3)Storm Force by Chris Bunch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this third book in the Last Legion series and feel like it's good enough to give it five stars generally, but I'm not. Because it's military sci fi and I feel like David Weber is the gold standard by which all military sci fi is weighed against and virtually no one can come close to his standards, so even though Chris Bunch is good, even very good, he's not Weber good, so it's four stars. Perhaps 4.5 stars.

In the last book, Cumbre's neighboring system's leader, Protector Redruth of Larix and Kura, had shown up in force to offer his "protection" as some sort of scam in an obvious effort to ultimately take over the Cumbre system, only to be driven off by the alien Musth in their war with the human Legion in the Cumbre system. Now that the Legion has won and driven the Musth off, Redruth is determined to add Cumbre to his empire.

The book opens with a Larissan spy on Cumbre who is captured and who, in the most unlikely and hard to believe fashion, commits suicide by chewing his tongue in half and bleeding to death overnight in his cell. Is that even possible? Whatever the case, Last Legion hero Njangu Yoshitaro becomes a double agent, posing as the spy, as Redruth and his minions have never seen him, and obtaining extract from Cumbre, fleeing to Larix where he is set up with a sweet deal as a senior officer and adviser with major plans for his future in the invasion of Cumbre. Of course his mission is to get intel back to other Last Legion hero Garvin Jaansma and others, so they may prepare for the war and even prepare to go on the offensive.

There are two new and pretty cool things about this installment of the series. First, there are a lot of space battles. With the Legion having saved Cumbre's ass and taking so many casualties and with more war on the horizon, the government has provided for some pro-military taxes and conscription, so that the force is being rebuilt and it ultimately reaches twice its original size, 20,000 troops. Ships are also being built, a number of them based on the superior Musth technology, and there are a number of Musth mercenaries who have come to pilot them, which is good because they are superior fighter pilots. Unfortunately, Larix and Kura have a greater population and larger infrastructure and can build more ships faster and start building much bigger cruisers later into the book that the Legion has to work hard to devise ways to defend themselves against and later attack. Nonetheless, great space warfare action. Second, for the first time in this series, the Legion generally goes on the offensive in a major way. Larix and Kura attempt to invade Cumbre and are annihilated. Cumbre bides its time, develops a strategy, and sends its own invasion force, foolishly thinking it'll be a piece of cake, and they take heavy casualties while trying to defeat Redruth and win the war.

So Bunch really expands in this novel. Before it was small scale offensive operations, going after rebel forces here and there, as well as defensive fighting and guerrilla warfare. Now it's space combat and invasion of other planets in other systems. That's big. And Yoshitaro and Jaansma are still at their bad ass, sassy best in this book. They really make a great team, even if they are separated by Yoshitaro's double agent role for a good part of the book. I really enjoy their characters. There's one more book in the series and I'm going to miss them when I finish this series.

So, I really enjoyed this book. I'd normally be inclined to give this five stars. I think it's really good. But the space battles aren't as good as Weber's naval battles and the land battles come nowhere close to Weber's land battles, so I don't see how I could possibly give this book five stars when comparing the two. There is no comparison. That said, Bunch is my second favorite military sci fi author and he's no slouch. If you like decent military sci fi action mixed in with some crass humor as well, this is probably a series you would enjoy. Although this is probably not a stand alone book; you'd want to start with the first one and read the series through. Whatever the case, recommended.

View all my reviews

Friday, December 11, 2015

Robot Blues

Robot BluesRobot Blues by Margaret Weis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This has to be one of the more annoying and depressingly unfulfilling sci fi mercenary books I've recently read. And it had so much promise!

Mag Force 7 is a mercenary outfit headed by Xris Cyborg, a cyborg (original, eh?), and manned by a truly interesting cast of characters ranging from hackers to poisoners to telepaths to explosives experts to medical experts to muscle and pilots and everything in between. Ex-military and everything else. This is the second book in a trilogy and I didn't read the first, but I don't think you have to have read the first in order to get into this one. In this book, Xris is approached by a mysterious museum curator about finding and stealing a seriously old working antique robot for a large sum of money and thinking it'll be an easy job, he agrees. Again, thinking it'll be easy, he sends all but one of the team off on vacation, and takes a colleague to the planet where the robot is to get it and bring it to the professor. Sounds simple, right? But, oh no, it's a damned mess! First, the robot is much more important and complex than let on. And of those who know about it, it's considered critically important and completely invaluable. Second, thugs from the first book, the Hung, are out to assassinate a colleague who ratted them out and underwent a sex change operation in order to obtain a new identity and escape them. It hasn't worked. Then, there's the matter of the military finding out about Xris and his buddy's secret integration into the military, unofficially, and how that is handled, and then there is a triple agent, which makes things awfully complicated. Moreover, there are flesh eating aliens, attempting to get the robot, in order to attack humanity and wipe it out.

This book could have been decent. Not great, perhaps not even good, but decent. BUT, two things. First, the overly complicated plot, made so by the triple agent, is incredibly confusing and therefore annoying. You ultimately don't know what to believe until perhaps the final chapter and even then, perhaps not then too. More importantly, and this is what knocked the book down from a maximum of four stars to two stars, there's a mercenary character named Raoul who is one of the most over the top, unbelievably annoying characters of any book I've ever read and I wanted to kill him. I wanted him to die early. I almost stopped reading this book on at least three occasions because of him, but somehow continued to the end. Raoul is an Adonian, a race genetically groomed to be vapid and beautiful. No one works on their planet, except for servants they import. Everyone is wealthy. The only things anyone cares about is fashion, makeup, hair styles, wild orgies, parties, cocktails, pleasure of all types, avoiding ugliness in any form, and so on. And Raoul is a bisexual, transsexual, transvestite who is an expert poisoner (thus, the mercenary) and who cares only about his dresses, shoes, handbags, hair styles, food, drinks, scarves, lipstick, eyeliner, and so on. And he goes on and on and on about this shit while people are getting shot at and while friends are trying to avoid being killed. It's unbelievably stupid. I assume it's, what, comic relief? He's there to provide humor to the plot, but after the first 75 instances of this, you want him to swallow his own poison, or have someone blow his damn head off for talking too damn much about his frigging lipstick, like anyone gives a shit!!! And he's got this alien companion -- The Little One. He doesn't even have a frigging name! He's a midget who wears a trench coat and fedora because he's so hideously ugly that people would get sick and throw up if they even saw his face, which incidentally looks like a head that's been hit by a train -- pure ground meat and brains. And he's a telepath and while Raoul is not, they communicate without talking because The Little One can't talk, can only gesture and constantly is throwing temper tantrums because no one except Raoul can understand him. Frankly, I wanted to kill him too. What a pair they made. A poisonous bi transvestite and an alien midget telepath. Great. And just for laughs. Not funny. They didn't even help out in the action, when there was action! They were pretty much just in the way. Raoul prepared suicide cocktails when things looked grim. Gee, thanks. Glad we pay you the big bucks, huh? Even Xris, the main protagonist and assumed book stud was kind of a stupid dumbshit, constantly getting things wrong, constantly underestimating his opponents, constantly wrong about just about everything he got involved with. I mean with a mercenary team like that, well, I'd hate to think of entrusting someone's life to them. For one thing, they got the robot and then let it escape. Got it back, got captured, let it get away again, took a fatal casualty in a gunfight. Just how good are they? My estimation is not very good. So why write a book, let alone a series, about them? If you're the author, why not write a better book about a more successful group? I just don't understand. This book could and should have been much better. Some of the characters were pretty interesting. The plot had potential. I guess the authors weren't good enough to pull it off. Pity. Not recommended.

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Foundation and Earth

Foundation and Earth (Foundation, #5)Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

If you’ve been reading my reviews over the past few months, you’ve seen my reviews of Asimov’s Foundation books. I finally read the hugely known and loved Foundation trilogy and was not impressed. I thought the first book was poorly written, I thought the second book was so horribly written and the characters so one dimensional and the plot lines so inane, I didn’t even finish it and gave it one star. The third book of the trilogy satisfied me and salvaged Asimov’s reputation for me. Still, I was unimpressed. Then, last month I read the fourth Foundation book written some 30 years later, Foundation’s Edge. I thought it was excellent! A definite five star book. The writing was fluid and mature. It seemed that over the previous 30 years, Asimov must have taken several graduate level creative writing classes and learned a few things, thank God. I mean, he actually used transitions! I enjoyed that fourth book so much, I sought this fifth and final Foundation book out to eagerly finish the series. Unfortunately, Foundation and Earth is again an Asimov disappointment and is so annoying, I’m not even bothering to finish it, again, after reading over 200 pages. What a waste.

In the previous book, the council member of the First Foundation, Golan Trevize, accompanied by historian and companion, Janov Pelorat, go out in a world class Foundation starship in search of both the Second Foundation and Earth. Meanwhile, a Second Foundationer is traveling to intercept them, intent upon modifying Trevize’s mind to follow the Seldon Plan to its finish while the Foundation Mayor is bringing warships with her to find Trevize to attack and destroy the Second Foundationer, and if Trevize is collateral damage, oh well. They converge at a hidden planet called Gaia, which the two space explorers find and discover is inhabited and alive with a hive mind. Everyone and everything, including the animals, plants, and even the rocks, are alive and joined together in memory and feeling, capable of great power, desirous of having Trevize make a decision between the two Foundations and them, their desire to turn the universe and everything in it into Galaxia, so that ultimately all planets and everyone and everything on them all join together for the greater good, greater peace, greater happiness. Trevize chooses Gaia and that’s how the fourth book ends.

In this book, we’re back on Gaia, but Trevize is grumpy as hell. He’s not sure he made the right decision and since it’s the biggest decision in the history of the universe, he has to know. And, for some unknown reason, the only possible way he can know is to find and go to the mythical first world of Earth, wherever that is, if indeed it exists at all. There he will find his answer. Why? We’re never told.

Naturally, Pelorat, who wanted to find Earth in the first place, decides to accompany him and Pelorat’s new Gaian girlfriend, Bliss, who is Gaia – literally – goes too, to help “protect” them. Which creates all sorts of problems for she and Trevize. See, Trevize is seriously pissed about the hive mind and the fact that Bliss speaks for and indeed is all of Gaia. He feels that can’t be as good as having one’s individuality. Etc. Bliss feels otherwise, and attempts to explain the benefits of being connected to all beings and things on the planet to him, which he just shrugs off. And as they start traveling to planets, they start bickering. And arguing. And fighting. And it.doesn’t.ever.stop. Oh my God, all they fucking DO is fight and bicker, page after page. It’s fucking relentless and they beat a dead horse over and over, repeating the same tired crap, such as "Bliss did you control my/his mind?" and "I am Bliss but I am also I/we/Gaia.” There’s only so much of that you can see repeated on virtually every other page if not more often before you want to hurl the book at the wall and stomp all over on it. It’s damned infuriating. Why Asimov feels he has to shove this crappy dialogue down the readers’ throats relentlessly and repeatedly is beyond me, but it’s stupid. Really stupid. And, I think, the sign of a poor writer, trying to extend word count so as to make some more money by making his word count quota. I would think he would be better than that.

Trevize, who was a pretty decent and shrewd explorer in Edge is simply really unappealing in this book. Indeed, he’s downright unlikable. Okay, he’s a major dick. He is rude to Pelorat, brutish and mean to Bliss, and apparently cruel to a child called Follum later in the novel. Pelorat is insipid and boring. Bliss says the same things over and over. I guess she’s limited verbally by being a damn planet. The characters, like many of Asimov’s, have no depth and simply argue with each other throughout this overly long book. There’s virtually no action and little of interest. Just bickering and fighting. Oh joy. Oh creativity. Oh brilliance. Oh yeah, for some strange reason, unlike the previous Foundation books, there’s a lot of sex in this book. A lot. I generally don’t mind that sort of stuff, but it makes it stand out from the rest and not necessarily in a good way.

One thing I hadn’t stopped to realize with the fourth book that I liked so much is that the book deviated from the much celebrated Seldon Plan, although it plays a key role in the book. In this book, it’s hardly mentioned. It’s almost as though the Foundation never existed. Is this even a Foundation novel?

This book, like its predecessor, is better written than the original trilogy, in terms of writing style and writing devices and grammar. But the story and characters suck. I really found myself hating each of them and dreading turning the next page as I read through it. Thus, as I said, after about 200 pages, I had had enough. I can only take so much fictional fighting. There’s too much fighting in the world going on in real life. Why use your down time to read it? I was going to give this book two stars because it’s both an Asimov and Foundation book, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I really don’t think it deserves two stars. I given better books two stars. This is a one star book. If you’re reading the Foundation series, avoid this one. You don’t need to read it and it doesn’t really add anything to the story. Definitely not recommended.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Dreams From Bunker Hill

Dreams from Bunker Hill (The Saga of Arthur Bandini, #4)Dreams from Bunker Hill by John Fante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this book and most Fante books some 20-25 years ago and haven't picked any up since. Until now. And I have no idea why I waited so long. It didn't take very long for me to remember why I loved Fante so much and why he was Bukowski's favorite writer. The man's a great writer and a great Angelino. No New York literary pretension here, thank you. Real, rough, crass words, phrases, characters, ideas, plots for the masses, stuff that everyone can like, understand, and hopefully identify with. This is the fourth and final Arturo Bandini book. Bandini is freaking hilarious! He's emotionally stilted, lives life with his emotions on his sleeve, loves and hates Los Angeles, loves and hates people, sometimes at the same time, is a writer (he thinks), a lapsed Catholic, a good Italian, a son of a loving Italian mother, and a scoundrel. This book carries him from downtown L.A.'s Bunker Hill neighborhood down Wilshire Boulevard to Hollywood, down to San Pedro and Terminal Island, out to Boulder, Colorado to visit his family, and back to L.A. While traveling, he goes from poor to well off to extremely well off, back to normal again, all in one book. He meets bizarre people, like the terrific Duke of Sardinia, who has a wrestling match with the crowd pleasing Richard Lionheart and lives to tell about it -- barely. His partnership with the famous screenwriter who name drops constantly and does virtually no work whatsoever, yet gets all the credit, is also particularly hilarious.

This isn't Fante's best book, but he wrote this as, I believe, his final book, dictated to his wife in his old age while he was blind. And it's quite good. Also, quite short and an easy read. So, pick it up and have a go at it. I'd be surprised if you're disappointed. Definitely recommended.

View all my reviews