Review: MURDERBOT DIARIES #1-3 by Martha Wells (Tor.com)

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An amusing, thoughtful series of novellas

These are a lot of fun. In the first three books in Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries — All Systems RedArtificial Condition and Rogue Protocol — we follow the adventures of a SecUnit who has hacked its governor module and, therefore, mostly autonomous. It’s a wonderful guide to this setting, and in each of these books we are given a little more detail on how the universe is set up and runs. All the while, the SecUnit (who does get a couple of personalized names in the books) struggles with its distaste and dislike of humans, and a stubborn urge to protect them. (They’re just so soft and feckless, after all…) Continue reading

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Quick Review: The first four BOSCH novels by Michael Connelly (Orion/Grand Central)

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A new convert gushes (though not in excess)…

LAPD detective Harry Bosch is a loner and a nighthawk. One Sunday he gets a call-out on his pager. A body has been found in a drainage tunnel off Mulholland Drive, Hollywood. At first sight, it looks like a routine drugs overdose case, but the one new puncture wound amid the scars of old tracks leaves Bosch unconvinced.

To make matters worse, Harry Bosch recognises the victim. Billy Meadows was a fellow ‘tunnel rat’ in Vietnam, running against the VC and the fear they all used to call the Black Echo. Bosch believes he let down Billy Meadows once before, so now he is determined to bring the killer to justice.

Above is the synopsis for the first Harry Bosch novel, first published in 19??. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Connelly’s bestselling series — I love the crime genre, novels set in Los Angeles, and pretty much everyone I know raves about the books. Last year, I read and enjoyed Crime Beat, the author’s book about writing and a collection of Connelly’s crime reporting, and also Mulholland Drive (a collection of three short stories). Not so long ago, I also read Connelly’s first novel starring his newest protagonist, Renée Ballard (The Late Show). After then binge-watching the superb Bosch television series, I decided it was well past time to read the author’s most famous series. And I am so very happy that I’ve started down this road. Continue reading

Quick Review: WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT by Jeffrey Rosen (Times Books)

RosenJ-APS27-WilliamHowardTaftAn excellent, short introduction to the life and career of the 27th president

The only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders’ vision against new populist threats to American democracy

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

William Howard Taft is one of the lesser-known presidents. For many, if he is known at all, it is due to the fact that he was quite large. It’s unfortunate that his story has been boiled down into a punch-line. A life-long Republican who was enamoured with the Constitution and those who crafted it, he spent his career judiciously adhering to what he saw as the tenets laid down by the Founding Fathers. He was meticulous, he was extremely intelligent and well-read. He placed principle above party at almost all times. In his contribution to the excellent American Presidents Series, Rosen gives readers a very good, short and engaging introduction to Taft’s life and career. Continue reading

Review: Catching up on Horus Heresy Audio-Dramas (Black Library)

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I recently realized that I’d accumulated a handful of shorter Black Library audio-dramas, and decided it was time to get caught up. One thing that unites them all is the incredible production values: the sound is crystal clear, each performance excellent, and complemented by plentiful sound effects. At times, the latter can feel a bit omnipresent and distracting (in the grim darkness of the 31st millennium, there is rarely, if ever, quiet), but for the main they remain in the background.

Featuring: LJ Goulding, Robbie MacNiven, Josh Reynolds, Ian St. Martin

Continue reading

Music Review: AMERICA by Thirty Seconds to Mars (Polydor)

30SecondsToMars-America“Your ears start bleeding” when one cranks modern music up to 11, Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto observed to Rolling Stone‘s Brian Hiatt. He has a point — modern music production methods tend to lean towards loud, busy and highly-compressed recording. “It used to be pleasurable to crank up Zeppelin or Nirvana to 12 in your car,” he continued. “Now everyone would complain — it’s so piercing, so bright.”

This observation struck me as a little odd coming from Leto: Thirty Seconds to Mars is one of the most melodramatic, cinematic rock bands working today: pretty much the whole of their This Is War album, for example, is operatic and bombastic. The concern about modern production, and the “brightness” of contemporary songs is popular among ‘purists’ and classic rock fans — it’s common to see comparisons of sounds wave graphs (which I admit is extremely nerdy) of Beatles recordings with those of recent singles. This concern seems to have informed Thirty Seconds to Mars’s America throughout. Continue reading

Review: THE SHAKESPEARE REQUIREMENT by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday)

SchumacherJ-JF2-ShakespeareRequirementUSA fantastic follow-up to Dear Committee Members

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune keep hitting beleaguered English professor Jason Fitger right between the eyes in this hilarious and eagerly awaited sequel to the cult classic of anhedonic academe, the Thurber Prize-winning Dear Committee Members. Once more into the breach…

Now is the fall of his discontent, as Jason Fitger, newly appointed chair of the English Department of Payne University, takes arms against a sea of troubles, personal and institutional. His ex-wife is sleeping with the dean who must approve whatever modest initiatives he undertakes. The fearsome department secretary Fran clearly runs the show (when not taking in rescue parrots and dogs) and holds plenty of secrets she’s not sharing. The lavishly funded Econ Department keeps siphoning off English’s meager resources and has taken aim at its remaining office space. And Fitger’s attempt to get a mossbacked and antediluvian Shakespeare scholar to retire backfires spectacularly when the press concludes that the Bard is being kicked to the curricular curb.

Lord, what fools these mortals be! Julie Schumacher proves the point and makes the most of it in this delicious romp of satire.

Julie Schumacher’s previous novel, Dear Committee Members was one of my favourite novels of 2014: it was funny, warm-hearted, extremely well-written, and populated by familiar and endearing (albeit hapless) characters. In The Shakespeare Requirement, the author reunites readers with characters at Payne University. Written in a slightly different style, it is no less engaging, amusing and sharply observed. Another excellent novel. Continue reading

Quick Review: SHINING CITY by Tom Rosenstiel (Ecco)

RosenstielT-1-ShiningCityUSPolitical intrigue and machinations surrounding a SCOTUS nomination. And a killer looking for revenge…

Peter Rena is a “fixer.” He and his partner, Randi Brooks, earn their living making the problems of the powerful disappear. They get their biggest job yet when the White House hires them to vet the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Judge Roland Madison is a legal giant, but he’s a political maverick, with views that might make the already tricky confirmation process even more difficult. Rena and his team go full-bore to cover every inch of the judge’s past, while the competing factions of Washington D.C. mobilize with frightening intensity: ambitious senators, garrulous journalists, and wily power players on both sides of the aisle.

All of that becomes background when a string of seemingly random killings overlaps with Rena’s investigation, with Judge Madison a possible target. Racing against the clock to keep his nominee safe, the President satisfied, and the political wolves at bay, Rena learns just how dangerous Washington’s obsession with power — how to get it and how to keep it — can be.

This is a very fine debut novel. It is the story of a judicial confirmation, the personal and political aspects of such a fight, colliding with a quest for vengeance. If you’re looking for an intelligent political drama, then Shining City is for you. One of my favourite reads of the year so far. Continue reading