Monday, November 4, 2013

Some Fun Books (Edited as More Come to Mind)

I've unfortunately completely lost track of what I have read since my last installment of the enjoyable fiction funlists (it was a couple of years ago), but I still  feel like I should jump back into the game---mainly because I selfishly want to solicit recommendations from my friends here.  Here is a quick, totally random assortment of escapist works that I consumed in the last few months: 

Graphic Novels:   I have been enjoying THE MASSIVE, by Wood, Donaldson, Brown, and Stewart.  The plot concerns a post-apocalyptic worldscape in which a series of sudden, violent ecological and subsequently politico-economic disasters rock modern civilization.  The KAPITAL, a small ship crewed by a aggressive, Direct Action environmentalist organization with paramilitary leanings (think Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and one of their blacked-out counter-whaling vessels), finds itself separated from the MASSIVE, its larger sistership, and seeking to make sense of the world.

The charismatic skipper of the KAPITAL, a former independent contractor with a private military corporation, faces the prospect that his pacifist vows may no longer be realistic in this vicious new world.  He begins with layering defensive technologies into his ghost ship---ECM/jamming, encrypted comms, body armor, security software---but soon must look at building an offensive capability if the KAPITAL is to survive.

Very nice, clean art in this book; tight storytelling and interesting discussion of how various problems put our society's complex, vulnerable infrastructure at risk.  There are also some pop anti-capitalist sensibilities that I personally find tedious, but they are generally kept within the confines of realistic characterization rather than dropped on the reader by a grandstanding narrator.  If you liked the superb BLACK POWDER//RED EARTH about a PMC unit that does some extremely nasty jobs overseas, you will probably quite like this one, too. 

Crime/Suspense:   THE THIEF by Fuminori Nakamura is a moody meditation on the lifestyle, psychology, and skills of a talented Japanese pickpocket.  It opens with a slick operation on the shinkansen; the protagonist/narrator immediately displays his ability to pick out his marks by classifying their wealth and vulnerability with a consumer product-exaltation precision that would make Patrick Bateman proud:

In front of me a man in his early sixties was walking towards the platform, in a black coat with a silver suitcase in his right hand.  Of all the passengers here, I knew he was the richest.  His coat was Brunello Cucinelli, and so was his suit.  His Berluti shoes, probably made to order, did not show even the slightest scuff marks.  His wealth was obvious to everyone around him.  The silver watch peeping out from the cuff on his left wrist was a Rolex Datejust.  Since he wasn't used to taking the bullet train by himself, he was having some trouble buying a ticket. He stooped forward, his thick fingers hovering over the vending machine uncertainly like revolting caterpillars.  At that moment I saw his wallet in the left front pocket of his jacket...

Some elegant tradecraft discussed in the book, and obviously some nice clothes.   Fun read.

Epic Romance/Young Adult:  DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE and DAYS OF BLOOD & STARLIGHT by Laini Taylor.  I thought this one might be another of the paranormal sexy-romance genre a la Laurell K. Hamilton or J.R. Ward, the very popular and imitated "chick lit" bodice-ripper stuff that normally pairs a relatively plain-looking female with multiple, extremely attractive and powerful paranormal men (vampires, werewolves, wereleopards, angels, etc.).   These books can be useful for men to read---in controlled doses---for insights into some aspects of female fantasy.

Taylor's books are darker and more poetic than expected.  The protagonist is a teenaged art student in Prague with, of course, some very unusual gifts.  Rather than being a cute, coffee-swigging vampire in capri-length skinny jeans and hoodie, the supernatural hero is an avenging angel so luminously powerful that normal human beings are scared rather than entertained:

...What people saw was a tall young man, beautiful---truly, breath-stealingly beautiful, in a way one rarely beholds in real life---who moved among them with predatory grace, seeming no more mindful of them than if they were statuary in a garden of gods...but what people fixed on, stopping to watch him pass, were his eyes...they were amber like a tiger's, and like a tiger's they were rimmed in black---the black both of heavy lashes and of kohl, which focused the gold of his irises like beams of light.  They were pure and luminous, mesmerizing and achingly beautiful, but something was wrong, was missing.  Humanity, perhaps, that quality of benevolence that humans have, without irony, named after themselves.

Techno-Thriller/Horror:  THE EXTINCTION MACHINE and ASSASSIN'S CODE by Jonathan Maberry.  I look forward to a new Maberry novel with almost sexual anticipation.  These two are the latest in a series about the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), an elite covert operations organization of near limitless funding and discretionary authority (they take "UNODIR" to the next level), and its most celebrated tactical unit ("Echo Team") and team leader (Joe Ledger).

Maberry, who has a background writing comic books, creates truly terrifying bad guys and monstrous opponents for Ledger and the other DMS operators to face.  Ledger is a total badass. I would also recommend getting ASSASSIN'S CODE on audiobook; it kept me up late at night and I really liked his chilling take on the vampire legend and the demonic entity who recruited them into his own dark purposes. 

Techno-Thriller:  TARGET DECK by Jack Murphy is the latest in a series about a legendary international hardman, "Deckard", who has been a human killing machine since running MACV-SOG recon teams in Vietnam and, following that, with the Selous Scouts and Rhodesian SAS.  Murphy's own experiences in the Ranger Regiment and Special Forces bring technical and tactical insights to his books that readers will find deeply satisfying, but he also has a deft, light hand and doesn't get drawn into long field manual-type expositions that would end up bogging the story down.

Murphy's Deckard takes on a kind of immortal warhorse role over the course of the series, reminding me of the Highlander mythos or perhaps the old Barry Sadler "Casca" novels.

Military Sci-Fi:   VETERAN and WAR IN HEAVEN by Gavin Smith offer amazingly well-realized cyberpunk locations and a protagonist who is easily up there with Ledger and Decker.  Gavin's hero is Jakob Douglas, an MMA/Muay Thai-trained veteran of the SAS who has been heavily---and I mean heavily---augmented with weaponized biotech and cybernetic modifications.  He is forced into a rather vast conspiracy that deals with the true nature of a conflict humanity waged with an alien race typically called "Them." 

The hyperathletic and intelligent SAS/SBS/MMA hybrid special warfare monster with "social engineering" skills seems to be becoming a staple of some British hardcore sci-fi authors these days (Thomas Blackthorne's books explore similar territory), and it truly does make for a compellingly formidable character template. There are some truly insane fight scenes in these books---a particularly memorable one takes place when Douglas has to take on his nemesis, a menacing, silent former Gurkha and SAS Regimental kickboxing champion who has a giant tat of Kali, the many-armed doomsday goddess, inked across his back and holding a mix of ancient and modern weapons in her four arms. 

I'll stop here for now.  Please feel free to give me some reading suggestions!  I will definitely have some other ones when I have time to sit down and think about it.


Final Note:

 Last month was the one-year memorial mark of the death of my beloved dog, Kaigun.  As you can see in the background of the picture above, her puppy photo (from the day she came home with me) prominently adorns a bookshelf in my home office.  A larger version can be seen in the original post that I composed after she passed:

I commissioned a very talented local artist and family friend to do a water color painting of the same photo, and it turned out so beautifully that it has been placed on some greeting cards. 

I still do not feel that I have the emotional capacity to bring another dog directly into my care, but I think I may be ready in 2014.  That dog will have some very, very big pawprints to fill.


  1. Check out "vN" and "iD" by Madeleine Ashby, and the entire Laundry series by Charles Stross.

  2. Also "Robapocalypse" by Daniel Wilson. These are all in the theme of action oriented fun with thought provoking side effects.

  3. I know the Stross series, Jay, but the others I will need to get my hands on.

    "Robacalypse" has been recommended now from at least three people I hold in high regard.

  4. The best literature of small-unit leadership and action I have ever read, and which has been a management text as well for me, is the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey-Maturin series. 20 novels, to be read in order. They are set in the Napoleonic era and are erudite, gripping, and emotionally rich. I've given the series to a few friends and these are the only books that I have given that may have changed a few lives. I reread them every 10 years or so.

    The Ravens is a first-hand account of black ops in Laos with a group of Air Force dropouts flying piston aircraft, and experiencing 50% casualty rates.

    U.S. Grant's Memoirs are the finest memoirs written by any soldier or president -- so well written that for 150 years people have speculated that they were ghost-writtten by his publisher, Mark Twain. They weren't, but it turns out Grant could have been a poet, too.


    Anything by Jim Thompson, a pulp writer from post WWII who turns out to have been an artist of the sociopathic circumstance and personality, and his successor (at least in ambition if not effect) James Sallis. (Sallis wrote Drive; I'd start with The Killer is Dying.)

    The Garden of Eden was developed over 20 years by Hemingway; he worked on it longer than any book. Then he suppressed it and it was published by his estate. Perhaps the most challenging, transgressive novel about sex, art, celebrity, and individual integrity I have read.

  5. Hey Bobby! Those are some great selections. I've read reviews of the O'Brian books that suggested that they describe one of the most extraordinary friendships in all of history. The film adaptation of "Master and Commander" is one of my favorite films---have you seen it, and did you find it faithful to the books? I have them on the shelves somewhere but have never tackled them.

    I am fascinated by the Ravens. I did a blog post on those apex alphas maybe a year or so ago:

    ...would enjoy your pilot's eye view on their accomplishments and mystique.

  6. Sorry, meant "all of literature" rather than "all of history"

  7. I would say that the movie is a pale, pale shadow of the O'Brian novels, which often move one to tears in the tribulations of Aubrey in his public life, or Aubrey and Maturin in their partnership, and both men in their romantic lives. And they cause one to leap from one's chair during Aubrey's impossible commando actions, and his ethic of combat in more conventional sorties, where he mimics Nelson's (and US Grant's, for that matter) directive: "Never mind maneuvers, go straight at them."

    I wanted very much to love the movie, but did not, though at the time I was taking the wife of the man who made it, and who (herself) dearly enjoyed it. But she had never read the books, and I highly doubt that her husband had, as he has the attention span suitable for 120 minutes, if that, not the three months required to read the series in toto; the movie offers 2 percent of the value of this rich series. Many men grieved when O'Brian died because we wanted, or hoped for, another installment.

    As you know, for a couple of decades I've been building small software companies that compete with the largest in the world, and I have had a polar opposite, intellectual Russian partner since 1993, and the O'Brian novels have directly informed my management of both my relationship with my partner (no partnership typically survives multiple successive startups possessing these pressures), and my efforts to lead my small groups in market competitions where the established ratios of success are about one-in-nine. (That is the industry average of VC-funded companies.) We have succeeded, with 10 percent survival rates, five successive times. I cannot overestimate the value of O'Brian's oeuvre to any competitive, or fighting, intellectual responsible for a few dozen highly talented and occasionally eccentric men and a few women.

    Maturin, as a naturalist, also gives O'Brian license to detail in astonishing richness the worlds of sea and unexplored land. The novels reflect as well the nature of love, music, food, and politics of the era. These are, to many people not turned off by the martial context, the finest novels of manners since Austen.

    Adm. Thomas Cochrane is one of the models for Aubrey, and his life story is more than an interesting footnote. There are a couple of good bios of him.


    The Ravens struck me as really the epitome of the anti-bureaucratic impulse that SOF celebrates.

    Now that the recent wars have elevated special forces from their prior poor cousin status, people may forget how distrusted, underfunded, isolated role in the Pentagon.

    In the late 90's I hired a retired LtC from Army SF, who stated that he and a sergeant had walked into Baghdad weeks before GW One to spend their evenings wandering about compiling targets. He said (I would not have the background to know, and he was a bit of a blowhard) that the sergeant was ordered to shoot him had they faced capture. Then they walked back across the desert and the war started.

    This manner of initiative and fighting seems to be reflected on larger scale with the Ravens. *I* have flown many of the piston aircraft the Ravens flew, effectively, in that contest. Pilots were abandoning Hueys and jets to escape typical USAF b.s. in order to fly Cessnas and T-28s12 hours per day, out of uniform. I don't know if there is anything comparable in US military history. If there is I haven't read about it. (Maybe some of JEB Stuart's raiding during the civil war, but Stuart served officially and in uniform; maybe, on an individual level, Lindbergh flying P-38's in combat in the Pacific, out of uniform, because Roosevelt had expressed denied Lindbergh any role in the war effort, an order MacArthur disobeyed.)

    Thanks for the link to your prior Ravens' post; I wasn't aware of it and will read it now.

  8. I would add Lindbergh's letters to my list, incidentally. He was an astonishingly literate man for someone with no formal education; he created one of the first artificial hearts in a little-reported second career; he transformed the Army Air Corps' effectiveness in the South Pacific by introducing over-square, lean engine operation that extended the combat radius of tactical crews by 30%, which was crucial to success flying the blue water. He flew combat in civvies when to be shot down or disabled meant instant beheading. A much deeper, more thoughtful guy than he is popularly understood to be today.

  9. Read the post. Ravens redux: As a pilot I would note that this era required FACs to function entirely as their own computer; they had no value absent visual, close range contact, and thus were flying not merely through raining metal, but fighting weather of a very nasty sort in mountain valleys understood only through the charts in their thigh-packs. I'll bet that at least a quarter, if not half, ran out of luck when the weather came down, the clouds had rocks in them, and the fuel ran out.

    The Hmong are an interesting people. My next-door neighbors in Iowa are Hmong refugees, and in this small meatpacking town in the middle of nowhere there are Laotian restaurants, and native speakers throughout.

    Another great narrative of leadership in this era, on the conventional side now, are the autobiographies of David Hackworth and Robin Olds. I'm sure you've read them.

    For anyone who hasn't, I've heard that Kurtz figure in Apocalypse Now is derived from Hackworth's last tour, when apparently he went quite native. Olds led an F-4 wing out of Thailand, and he led by leading: he flew missions until the brass grounded him and sent him home. My mechanic in Iowa worked on the F-101s (Thumpers) at the same base during this period of Olds' command. In the literature of command, these two seem quite essential.

    In this vein I also recommend the bios of Robin Day, Joe Foss, and John Boyd (though Boyd never found combat). Each, in unique ways, achieved things none of us ever will.

    Last, James Salter's The Hunters and Casada, his first two novels, describe some experiences as a combat F-80/86 pilot in Korea, and later as a squadron commander in cold war Germany. Casada is much the superior book, as literature; The Hunters was his first book and is his simplest. Both were written in secret while on active duty, as he feared anyone in the USAF discovering that one of their flight officers harbored literary pretensions. When Casada was accepted (originally published as the Arm of the Flesh) he resigned his commission, an event he described as akin to dying. I consider Salter the greatest living American fiction writer.

  10. I just read "Extinction Machine" and it made my head hurt. I think I need to write something for writers who don't want to sound ridiculous when writing about computer security and hacking.

    Have you read Marcus Wynne's latest self-published work on Smashwords? For some reason I find it easier to roll with his over-the-top stuff than most other authors with a penchant for the indulgent; I enjoyed them all.

  11. Bobby, you have the best anecdotes. If I ran Dos Equis, I'd have them hire you for commercials.

    Jay---now I feel guilty! Did you like any of the other Ledger novels? Is there an author out there who tends to get the computer security techniques and equipment right...?

    I've enjoyed all of Marcus Wynne's books. I think his writing is indulgent in terms of reinforcing the right "nutritional groups" and I like the elements of dark humor.

  12. I haven't read any of the other Ledger books. Unfortunately I can't think of any contemporary action novels that are really good on infosec, but it's not a genre with which I am deeply familiar.

    I think my favorite novel that touches on those themes is Vernor Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky". It's far-future hard-SF, so in a very different category. Nonetheless I think it's one of the best SF novels ever written. Lots of Stross's SF is really good on security themes, too.

  13. Great Blog! Any plans to list recent non-fiction that you found notable?

    A few that combine action and above average writing:
    “Thick as Thieves” by Peter Spiegelman
    “Black Water Transit” by Carsten Stroud
    David L. Lindsey’s Stuart Haydon novels were quite good, if you can find them in print.

    Also, “And the Rain Came Down” and “The Lines We Cross” by S.A. Bailey and “Castigo Cay” by Matt Bracken were enjoyable, as was Larry Correia’s “Dead Six”.