Sunday, December 2, 2007

"Fossil Hunter" by Robert J. Sawyer (Science Fiction, some spoilers)

This is an early Sawyer novel, originally published in the early nineties. It is the second book of the Quintaglio Ascension, a trilogy of books. These stories take place on an alien world inhabited by a race of intelligent dinosaurs, descended from dinosaurs from Earth.

The novel follows Toroca, son of Afsan. Afsan was the central figure in the first novel, "Far-Seer," and is also an important character in this novel. Toroca is a geologist who has made some fascinating finds in the fossil record. He also embarks on a journey that takes him to places no Quintaglio has seen before, and he finds forms of life previously unobserved.

While this is happening, Afsan must cope with the deaths of two of his children, who are found violently murdered. This is a very unique situation for two reasons. All of Afsan's children were allowed to live, which is unusual. Normally bloodpriests kill all but one hatchling from each clutch of eight eggs. Secondly, murder outside of territorial challenges is very uncommon in Quintaglio society.

But it turns out that Afsan isn't the only person whose children escaped the culling. His friend, Emperor Dybo, has living siblings. The scandal that erupts when this is exposed results in a call for a new culling, but something appropriate for adult Quintaglios, rather than the usual bloodpriest.

These three plotlines - Toroca's discoveries and the theories he develops, Afsan's investigation of the murders, and Dybo facing the culling, are all interwoven in ways that support the main theme. It's all about evolution, but more than one kind. There's natural selection, of course, but the story also grapples with the issue of deliberately guided evolution, when a society tries to steer its own direction. The ethics of this raise huge issues, difficult to contemplate. The novel shows some of the positive and negative things about the Quintaglios' particular methods of selection, but also shows why they may need to change.

The book also has some comments on other issues. Like, there's a paragraph at the end of a chapter that talks about how a leader has to do the right thing, and not just have brains and brawn. There is a lot of truth in this. Some societies throughout human history have had some of the greatest intellects and power, through superior technology. Sadly, some such societies have also been some of the most brutal and inhumane. We all marvel at ancient Roman engineering - yet this was a society that practiced crucifixion and decimation. Or consider World War II. The Nazis had technology nobody else had, because they had the engineering prowess to develop it. But what did they use it for?

Or, near the end of the book, Afsan's son Toroca is to be appointed by the emperor to a special position, which Afsan and Dybo know Toroca probably won't want. And there's a comment about how that makes him particularly qualified for the job. There's a lot of truth in that, too. Some jobs, especially those involved in serving the public, are sometimes sought by those who only want power and prestige for themselves. Those who wouldn't want such a job as much, may well be better choices, because they will try to do the job properly for the common good, not personal gain.

This book also has some nice, small touches that reflect the larger themes, like Toroca's relationship with a colleague that he hopes will become more than professional. But this proves difficult because her feelings about herself, and being different. Toroca, however, is different himself, and has come to understand the evolutionary value of genetic variability.

Obviously, genetic variability would be severely restricted by the culling. See, all the main ideas in the novel tie together so neatly, and that's one thing I always like about Sawyer.

So, once again, I read a Sawyer novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. Highly recommended!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

"The Big Bad Wolf" by James Patterson (Thriller)

This novel is another one in Patterson's well-known Alex Cross series. It takes place when Cross is making a career change, in training with the F.B.I. And he becomes involved in a case, trying to track down what turns out to be an abduction ring.

It seems that someone is providing a very interesting - and illegal - service to high-paying customers. This service involves the acquisition and sale of a very precious commodity - live human beings, based on whatever criteria you want. Some customers want women, some want men, and what they do with their acquisitions is up to them. The people who are abducted include people from wealthy families, or students, a variety of ages, depending on a customer's taste.

Some parts of the story are told from the point of view of the victims. Finding themselves abducted, and then trapped somewhere with a person who has paid to have them in their power, strictly controlled and not knowing exactly where they are, cut off from contact with the outside world - it's obviously a frightening experience.

But the people doing the abductions have some dissension within their own ranks, and this is one of the things that allows Cross to start following the trail to the main ringleader of the operation.

Enter the Wolf.

In the past, the Wolf was a KGB agent, with suspected mob connections. Patterson shows some scenes from the villain's point of view, and he is brutal - violent, murderous, absolutely unhesitating about eliminating anyone if it suits his purpose to do so.

In the meantime, Alex Cross is also contending with personal problems, as he fights for custody of his son. It seems that Christine Johnson, the boy's mother, is fighting back pretty hard, and the whole thing takes a tough emotional toll on Cross.

Some of Patterson's novels seem to take on a larger-than-life quality. Admittedly, there is a certain James-Bondishness to Alex Cross at times, and a villain like the Wolf does come across a little like over-the-top Bond villains, too.

But, then again, that's all right with me - I actually prefer an author to err on the side of making things more interesting and exciting than settling for mediocrity. I read for entertainment and enjoyment, after all!

And, of course, throughout all this, there's the one thing that's always very consistent in Patterson's Alex Cross novels. It's all very intense, with short chapters in which one thing after another keeps happening, and it's a very addictive writing style Patterson has. Very unputdownable.

And there are some connections to other Cross novels, Kyle Craig, the villain from "Cat and Mouse" makes an appearance, and Patterson used the Wolf in a later novel, "London Bridges."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

"The Fountains of Paradise" by Arthur C. Clarke

This novel won both the Hugo award(1980) and the Nebula award(1979), in the "best novel" category. That's by no means a small accomplishment, heck, a lot of science fiction writers are happy just to get nominated.

The story deals with Vannevar Morgan, a highly accomplished engineer who want to take on a new, very ambitious engineering project. He wants to build a space elevator.

The idea of a space elevator is by no means pure fiction - it is theoretically possible. The idea is to literally build a cable that would be anchored on the surface of the Earth at one end, and a counter-weight at the other end, in orbit. This would make it possible to build elevator cars that could ride the cable into orbit. It would have an advantage over traditional rockets. You see, rockets have to expend a lot of energy and burn fuel just to maintain their position over the surface of the Earth when they're still close enough to feel the Earth's gravity strongly, and then use up even more energy to keep climbing. If you have a solid object sitting on the surface of the Earth that you can stand on or climb up, you don't have expend energy to maintain a position - so you can just focus your energy on increasing your altitude, and that is much more energy-efficient.

Of course, I'm not a physicist, but that's the way it's been explained to me by people who should know.

This novel shows Morgan go through several stages while trying to make the project come to fruition. First he has to try to get support and funding, which isn't easy. Many possibilities are considered, including starting on Mars instead of Earth; Mars has lower gravity, which would make the work easier. Of course, with two moons, one of which orbits quite closely, you might have a little problem if it ran into your elevator cable.

Throughout the novel, Clarke provides his trademark attention to scientific detail. If you like your science fiction to have good science in it - and I certainly do - you'll appreciate that. There are plenty of fascinating physics and engineering ideas here.

But it's not all just about discussing the science; the plot has some good twists, and some exciting parts. When the elevator is well on its way to completion, some problems make a daring rescue attempt necessary. Morgan has to ride up to a group of people stuck farther up the cable, and bring them life-saving supplies until they can be properly brought back home. These scenes show a nice interplay of the scientific ideas and some action and excitement.

Clarke is sometimes criticized for not having well-developed characters, although I'd say the lead character, Morgan, is a good character, and the supporting cast are written at least competently. But, of course, Morgan is the engineer whose story this really is focused on; it becomes a very personal story for him.

There are also some descriptions of the distant past and the even farther future, that show how humankind's ongoing aspiration to learn and reach beyond our limits can be truly amazing over time.

Anyway, I'd say that this novel is very good, and very consistent for Clarke - I wouldn't say there's any big departure in style here from his other works of read, which is fine - I like my science fiction with good science and bold ideas. An enjoyable read, well worth a look.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"The Winter King" by Bernard Cornwell

This is actually the first part of a trilogy, but I felt it worked quite well as a novel on its own - even though the ending sets things up for the story to be continued.

This is a re-telling of the story of King Arthur. Of course, it's been done many times. There are lots of fiction books based on the legend, not to mention books that try to document the truth of the story, as far as possible. And the story's also been told in film; I'm quite partial to the 1981 movie "Excalibur."

Anyway, one thing that struck me about "The Winter King" was the wonderful job it does of telling a story that's been told before, and yet keep it fresh, interesting and dynamic. This is accomplished in a number of ways.

One thing that's neat here is the way some of the characters are portrayed. Cornwell presents them in a way that makes sense and doesn't outright contradict what you'd typically expect, but still puts a creative twist on the characters. Like Sir Lancelot. Instead of the brave knight and strong leader second only to Arthur that a lot of Arthurian retellings portray, this Lancelot is a flake. He's just good at grabbing credit and making himself look good, regardless of whether he's really done very much.

And Guinevere is portrayed as majestic, strong-willed and somewhat manipulative and opportunistic.

Arthur himself is portrayed as having all the qualities he should - a strong leader, charismatic, a great fighter, yet still humble and respectful of others, most of the time. But he does have flaws. His falling in love with Guinevere is impulsive at best, and causes huge problems when he breaks off his previous engagement, or betrothal. The political implications pour gasoline on the political fires that lead to violent conflict.

Also, Cornwell uses his imagination to fill in details about things we don't know much about form the Dark Ages. Druidic religion is something that is very much shrouded in mystery, or so I've been told. The druids portrayed here are believable and seem to fit nicely into the setting. Corwell shows us a religion deeply rooted in nature as well as polytheistic, but the various gods that are worshipped are all closely tied to aspects of real life.

The story is told in the first person from the point of view of Derfel, who trains to be a soldier and serves Arthur. Faithful and loyal to Arthur, Derfel also has his own personal story, and goes through considerable growth and development as a person himself throughout the story, he's not just there to relate the events around him.

The plot is very sophisticated, and would take an awfully long time to describe. Much of it centres around Arthur's devotion to Mordred, the infant who is to be king. But until Mordred grows up, Mordred has to be protected - and that's no easy task. Saving Mordred's life proves to be a task that takes considerable skill and wit. I like that, though, Arthur is not just a fighter or the best swordsman, he and his followers have to be constantly thinking ahead, trying to stay one step ahead of their enemies.

And I really enjoy the way Cornwell brings the setting to life; his attention to detail will make you feel as if you're right there with Derfel, experiencing the sights and sounds and smells of Dark Ages Britain. You'll feel what it's like to try and fight in a heavy suit of armour, or to go through grueling training with a sword, or watch Druids casting spells.

A very enjoyable read - definitely recommended. I'll have to read the rest of this trilogy some time soon.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

"Darwin's Radio" by Greg Bear (Hard Science Fiction, minor spoilers)

This book is, without a doubt, hard science fiction. It is very heavy on the science. Most of the major characters are scientists, and many chapters have extensive dialogues focused on the scientific details of what's happening. Heck, there's even a glossary of scientific terms at the end of the book, to help readers who need a primer on some of the words used throughout these passages.

So one of my comments on this book is that it might appeal the most to fans of science fiction, especially if you already have at least a passing knowledge of genetics. I'm not sure if this book would go over as well with a broader audience, I could see it maybe being a bit tough to swallow for people with little or no knowledge or interest in science.

The central part of the plot involves evolution, and deals with the idea of humankind entering a new phase of development. Something bizarre has been happening around the world, with women experiencing miscarriages early in their pregnancies, followed by a second pregnancy producing babies that don't live long.

Much of this is shown from the point of view of Kaye Lang, herself a molecular biologist who becomes involved in the effort to understand the situation. Her own specialty is retroviruses. She thinks that parts of human D.N.A. that have no apparent purpose, may actually contain the seeds of a new evolutionary leap.

Despite the efforts of governments to control and study the situation, there is strong public response, sometimes leading to violence and riots. Some people seem to blame the scientists or the government for what's happening, even though this thinking is not very rational.

Now, this type of story isn't completely new to science fiction. Stories about humankind witnessing its own evolutionary change, accompanied by feelings of fear and anger, has been done in a variety of ways. Examples include the old classic story, "The Man Who Evolved" by Edmond Hamilton, or the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Transfigurations." But, I'll give Bear a lot of credit for doing it better, in many ways. Bear's reputation as a hard science fiction writer is well deserved. The details and the science in the story make this by far one of the most believable, well thought-out presentations of this kind of idea in science fiction.

There's a near part of the story involving a character named Mitch Rafelson, and some frozen Neanderthals. It seems that an evolutionary change like the one happening in the present day may have happened once before, a very long time ago, possibly when modern humans first arrived on the scene.

All this leads to a debate about how evolution works, whether it's a gradual process or if it can happen with a sudden leap, and if so, what is the mechanism by which that leap occurs. Ideas about D.N.A., retroviruses, how they arise and what purpose they may serve all come into play.
Apparently, at the time Bear wrote the novel, this was a debate that hadn't been resolved yet. I'm not sure what the current state of this discussion is in the scientific community.

A good book, one I'd recommend if you like your hard science fiction with plenty of emphasis on the science, or perhaps if you want to learn more about genetics.

Monday, August 13, 2007

"2nd Chance" by James Patterson with Andrew Gross (Thriller)

Unlike the other James Patterson novels I've read so far, this one is not part of the Alex Cross series.

I actually picked this up in Lester B. Pearson airport. You see, due to a recent bereavement in our family, I suddenly found myself flying over to England to attend a funeral. The arrangements were very rushed, and at the airport I found myself browsing in a bookstore for something to pass the time during the plane ride. There weren't many Patterson books there, but they did have this one, so I grabbed it.

The lead character is San Francisco homicide detective Lindsay Boxer. Ambitious and driven, she pushes herself hard to solve what turns out to be a difficult case for her, both professionally and personally.

The action starts off with a bang - a horrible shooting outside a church results in the death of a young child. This immediately raises public concern and political pressure.

Lindsay works the case, searching for clues with help from some of her friends. She has connections to a reporter, an assistant district attorney, and a medical examiner, all of whom play a role in the investigation. Over-all, I'd say there's a stronger sense of teamwork in this novel, compared to Patterson's Alex Cross series, which focuses more on Cross as an individual.

Anyway, the shooting leads to a case that turns out to have some personal connections for Lindsay. As the case develops, more victims fall to the killer, including one of her superiors in the police department.

And, just to make matters even more interesting for her, it turns out that the trail leads to a suspect who is himself a former cop. And, this cop knew Lindsay's estranged father. Lindsay's father ends up coming back into her life after many years, leading Lindsay to wonder if it's because he really wanted to see her, or because of some possible connection he might have to the case she's investigating.

The case becomes even more personal when the killer goes after one of Lindsay's closest friends.
This novel has the same Patterson trademarks I'm used to from his other novels - a lot of action, fast pace and intense plot. The characters and relationships are worked out well enough to make the lead characters sympathetic and enjoyable to read about.

And the story did end with a twist that I honestly didn't guess ahead of time, it made for an interesting surprise. the end, this novel did turn out to be a good way to pass the time on the plane.

Monday, July 16, 2007

"The Bourne Identity" by Robert Ludlum (Thriller, mild spoilers)

I'm sure plenty of people have heard of this one, what with the well-known series of films based on Ludlum's "Bourne" books. Actually, there are two movie versions of "The Bourne Identity," there was a 1988 TV-movie starring Richard Chamberlain, which I haven't seen. I've seen the newer films with Matt Damon, based on this novel and "The Bourne Supremacy," with "The Bourne Ultimatum" coming to theatres soon...

But enough about movies, let's talk about what the book's like.

A man without a memory - seriously, suffering from bad amnesia - tries to figure out who he is and why he has a piece of microfilm implanted under his skin. But nothing is simple or easy - the information on the microfilm turns out to be the first step that leads to another clue, and another...

Jason Bourne - he learns that is his name, or so it seems at first - ends up running frantically around Europe, trying to piece his life together and find out who he is - or was. Unfortunately, some of the answers turn out to be decidedly unpleasant.

He gradually uncovers details of a plot connected to a man named Carlos - an assassin. Not just any assassin - he has a reputation for being the best. Or, at least, the best until Jason Bourne showed up. It seems that Bourne was Carlos's competitor, and that is something that decidedly pissed Carlos off.

Of course, this competition might lead Carlos to let himself be drawn out, into a confrontation. Which raises another question - what if it was all a ruse, Bourne simply an agent planted in place to help Carlos be found by someone who wants him.

So is Bourne a killer? Or just a pawn in a bigger game?

As I've said many times about Ludlum's novels, this is typical of his style, which doesn't seem to vary much between books. Then again, why the heck would it? When your novels are big-time bestsellers, you must be doing something right. Why mess with a successful formula, right? So we have lots of chases, fight scenes, murders, frantic confrontations...everyone is constantly running away from someone else or trying to catch someone, or running for their life, and everyone plays elaborate, complex games of trying to outguess their opponents.

And the story does not end with everything neatly tied up. Certainly the story is left open for more to happen, so I'm not surprised that Ludlum wrote sequels, which I'll have to try reading someday.

One thing I thought was strange at first was the fact that Ludlum used this character, a man who's lost his memory. It seemed like the other ideas in the story would have allowed for plenty of plot possibilities, the part about Bourne's amnesia almost seemed like an unnecessary complication. But, as the novel progresses, it does start to make more sense why Ludlum would have employed this idea here. I don't want to spoil the story, though, so I don't want to say too much more about it.

Some of the dialogue seems a little melodramatic at times, but not too much. And that's more during scenes between Bourne and Marie St. Jacques, a woman who ends up staying with Bourne for much of the story.

Mostly, this is another Ludlum thriller - complex plot full of twists, and lots of frantic action, with characters constantly thinking on the run as they try to resolve their various conflicts. You definitely can't complain that Ludlum is boring; if you want excitement, this ought to do the trick.

Monday, June 25, 2007

"The Ugly Little Boy" by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg (Science fiction, spoilers)

I suppose the title of this novel might not be considered very politically correct these days.

This novel is based on an original short story by Isaac Asimov, published back in the 1950s. This expansion into a novel was published in the early 1990s. My understanding is that there really wasn't much direct collaboration between Asimov and Silverberg, but that Silverberg simply took Asimov's story as the starting point and expanded it into a full-length novel.

The result is, in my opinion, a very good book. I enjoyed this one a lot, and found that it worked on many levels, as science fiction but also as a very human drama.

The plot involves a kind of unusual time travel experiment. Gerald Hoskins is in charge of a company that has developed the technology making it possible. The machine makes it possible to scoop an object out of time, into the present. So far, they've brought forward rocks and one live dinosaur.

There are some limitations to what they can do, though. They are limited in how much mass they can scoop out of time, and they can only go back to prehistoric times. It is actually harder to go back to something more recent.

As a scientific aside, this is quite plausible. Sometimes, in physics, when something is "closer" to you, it is harder to manipulate - consider magnets, with like poles facing each other. The closer they get, the harder it gets to move them closer still, and the magnetic forces completely prevent you from bringing them into direct contact. And, there are physics theories about particles called tachyons capable of travelling through time, but tachyons with less energy would actually travel across a greater span of time, and the energy needed for travelling through a short time become very large. This kind of idea has been used in other science fiction novels, like Robert J. Sawyer's "End of an Era."

Now, the story begins when Hoskins is interviewing some candidates for a special job. He needs a nurse to help care for a young child. This child will be the first human brought forth through time. But, because of the limitations of the machine, they have to go far back enough in time that this will be a prehistoric human. Not only prehistoric, but a neanderthal.

Just to clarify for those of you who may not know - neanderthals are believed to have existed alongside early humans, and were very close cousins to humans. They are considered to be like another form of human. But, they died out while our own species of humankind survived. The reasons why neanderthals disappeared are unknown. Like dinosaur extinction, there are a number of theories and ideas.

Nenaderthals are another idea that have been used in other science fiction stories. Coming back again to Mr. Sawyer, those of you who remember the 2005 "One Book, One Community" program might recall his novel, "Hominids," which took place in part on a parallel earth where it was the other way around, and neanderthals had survived to become Earth's dominant intelligent species, while humans such as ourselves had died out.

The opening chapters of "The Ugly Little Boy" are a fascinating example of an author selecting viewpoints. The scenes about the first few candidates being interviewed for the job are described from the point of view of Mr. Hoskins. From that point of view, the reader gets to understand what Hoskins is looking for, as well as learn a bit about what kind of person he is. But the third candidate's interview is shown from her point of view. This shift allows the reader to then see what Hoskins looks like, and it also shows some fascinating things about character. Edith Fellowes is the least self-confident, and the most humble of the applicants. But by now the reader can see how that may well make her the most qualified for the job - she's less interested in showing off or trying to impress Hoskins, and far more interested in the welfare of the child she'll be asked to care for. This wins Hoskins over.

And the experiment proceeds. A child, a young neanderthal boy, is ripped out of his own time into the present.

The novel gives the reader some sense for how alien our world must seem to this boy, by showing the reader the world he came from. There's a parallel plot line in which his neanderthal tribe's life is shown, including their interactions with the "others," who are, in fact, us, humans.

Edith Fellowes has some trouble getting used to her charge. The boy is human but not human at the same time, and she finds her own feelings confused. But, that doesn't take long to change.

The novel describes what the boy - who Edith names "Timmie" - looks like, and the differences between his neanderthal appearance and a typical human's appearance are made clear.

But as the novel continues, things like that don't matter so much. Edith just sees the person inside. A child who she's able to teach to live in a human environment. Timmie learns to sleep in a bed, to play with toys, interact with humans, and to speak. Edith can understand his speech, although not everyone else can. And Timmie starts learning to read. He becomes quite civilized.

Edith, with no children of her own and a failed marriage behind her, seems to start to see Timmie as the child she never had. At one point in the story Timmie even tells her that he thinks of her as his mother.

Then, Edith is horrified to learn that Timmie is to be sent back to his own time. After his years in modern times, she's terrified that this will be fatal to him, that he'll have little or no chance to survive there.

This whole scenario raises a lot of tough, ethical questions. Was such an experiment ethical in the first place? Should Timmie be returned to his own time? Or do Hoskins and his associates have a responsibility to take care of him now? And even though this novel is fiction, these questions are very true of real scientific studies - how far can biologists go when it comes to taking any living things away from their environments for study in a lab? What's ethical?

Another thing this novel touches on, though, is parent-child relationships. Edith's fear of what will happen to Timmie when he's removed from her care is probably not that different from any parent's concern for a child going through such experiences as a first day of school to leaving home for the first time. As I said, this novel works as a human drama, too.

I'm not going to spoil the ending,'s not the most happy ending - but it's a fitting one.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

"Rollback" by Robert J. Sawyer (Hard Science Fiction, Mild spoilers)

This is Sawyer's latest, and was officially published earlier this year. I picked it up in hardcover when Rob was on his book tour and stopped here in Kitchener, and got my copy autographed.

This novel deals with a couple of topics, and it's neat to see how Rob puts the different ideas together into one plot. The title, "Rollback," refers to one of the main ideas in the novel. It involves rejuvenation technology, which makes it possible to take an elderly person, in their eighties, and physically restore them to a state of health of a twenty-five year old.

Sound hard to believe? Don't be so sure. Fact is, geneticists now think they've found out some of the main causes of the aging process. Not only that, but experiments along this line have already been done with lab mice, with very encouraging success. This book may be science fiction today, but for how much longer before it becomes fact? It's very likely that will happen, possibly within the next twenty years or so.

Now, in this book, Rob has applied this technology to a particular character. Don and Sarah Halifax are a married couple who have just celebrated their sixtieth anniversary. About forty years previously, Sarah had been involved in decoding an alien message received from another world. Actually, she was the key person who figured out how to interpret the message. But it takes a long time to hold a conversation with people from another planet. A reply is sent, but it's not until decades later, when Sarah is in her eighties, that the next message from the aliens gets to Earth.

But this message is encrypted, and unreadable.

Enter Cody McGavin. A billionaire interested in SETI, McGavin wants Sarah to work on decoding the latest message, since she figured out the first one. At this age, though, Sarah's not sure she's up to it, so McGavin offers to pay for her to have a rollback. McGavin is one of the few people who could afford to make such an offer, because it's relatively new and costs a huge amount of money, making it a privilege for the very wealthy only.

Sarah agrees, but on one condition - she insists that McGavin also pay for Don to have a rollback. After all their years together, she won't face this new stage of life without her husband coming with her.

McGavin agrees. But, in a cruel twist of fate, the rollback works for Don and fails for Sarah. People from Rejuvenex, try to find out why, and think it might have something to do with treatment she underwent years ago for cancer.

But now, after all these years together, suddenly Don and Sarah are separated by a big gulf - he experiences a second youth, while she moves inexorably further into old age.

Being rejuvenated might sound like a wonderful thing - and it has fantastic potential. But it's not all easy or fun for Don, especially since he is the only one among his family and friends to have had it. Some people resent him for his good fortune. He has emotions and experiences that make him feel guilty, especially when he finds himself attracted to younger women, while still married to Sarah.

As it happens, Sarah does still try to work on decoding the alien message. Now, it turns out that the first message was, in part, a survey, asking questions about a great many topics, and part of the reply Earth sent was responses of a sample of people to the survey questions.

So, how does all this tie together? Believe it or not, by the end, these different strands of plot converge beautifully. I don't want to give it all away, but I'll give you a hint. The responses to the first message have something to do with decoding the second. But, what the second message turns out to contain involves something that will require a serious commitment to follow up on. A commitment Sarah, at her age, can't make.

But Don can.

Amazingly, the end of this novel brings together seemingly different plot strands in a way that seems perfectly natural, and flows easily, without feeling at all contrived. And, even though some of the ideas have been explored in science fiction before - halting or reversing ageing, decoding messages from aliens - Sawyer brings these ideas together with some new, creative twists that make this novel a nice variation on these ideas. And the characters are very likable and engaging, the prose clear and lucid, and the whole book is just a wonderful pleasure to read.

I couldn't help but notice the way this book contrasts Rob's previous novel, "Mindscan." That novel was about uploading human consciousness into android bodies. So if you were old and/or sick, you could have your mind copied into an android and live forever. As a result, two people separated in age by many years, suddenly find themselves brought together when they become uploads. Their own families and friends become uncomfortable around them, and they become each other's new best friends. They never would have become involved before, with such a big gap in their ages. But in "Rollback," we have the opposite side of the coin, and Don and Sarah are now separated in a way, after many decades of life together. And in both novels the change comes about as a direct result of using a new technology that can drastically change a person.

Of course, in "Mindscan," the original human being is sent to a place called High Eden on the moon to live out the remainder of their natural life, while all rights of personhood are transferred to the upload. He he he...I guess if Don and Sarah from Rollback had decided to formally separate, maybe Sarah could have gone to high Eden and hooked up with Jake Sullivan, the protaganist from "Mindscan," and maybe Don could find a nice new uploaded girlfriend like Karen Bessarian, except the uploaded version of her was already dating the uploaded Jake Sullivan...

Not that both novels take place in the same imagined future - or do they? Technically they don't, but I do suspect that Sawyer wanted readers to consider the parallels and contrasts between the two novels, because he put a few things in "Rollback" that seem to be little references to "Mindscan." Like, the name of the company that does the rollbacks is called Rejuvenex, a similar name to Immortex, the company from "Mindscan" that offers the uploading process. And, there's a scene in "Rollback" in which Don's at a bar with some new friends and orders a drink, an "Old Sully's Light." If I recall correctly, Old Sully's was the name people in "Mindscan" used to refer to the varieties of beer produced by the company Jake Sullivan's family owned.

I guess it's pretty obvious by now I'm a big fan of Mr. Sawyer's novels...we'll, they're good!

His next one is going to be called "Wake," and is the first part of a trilogy about the world wide web gaining consciousness.

On a personal note, some of the things in "Rollback" paralleled some personal experiences for me in recent years. It was just a few years ago my grandparents celebrated their sixtieth anniversary, for example. But I wish there was such a thing as a rollback now, because sadly my grandmother is no longer with us now.

Still, for all the problems Don goes through and how saddening parts of the novel are, it does end on a positive, hopeful note, and I liked that, too.

"The Uplift War" by David Brin (Science Fiction, minor spoilers)

This is a far-future hard science fiction novel, and a sequel to "Startide Rising." However, although it takes place in the same futuristic setting as "Startide Rising" and has some connection to the events of that novel, it follows a different set of characters and events.

Just about everything about this book is big - lots of plot, lots of characters, including many from alien races, lots of exotic settings, and lots of detail about the events described.

It's hard to know just where to start to discuss this book - but I'll try.

Okay, the main plot involves a planet called Garth, which is currently being colonized by people of Earth. Also present on Garth are uplifted chimpanzees - intelligent, and made so by humans uplifting them.

Enter the Gubru - a birdlike race that decides it wants Garth for its own purposes, and launches an all-out invasion and occupation of Garth.

Some of the humans and chimpanzees resist the Gubru, but it's not easy, the Gubru are quite powerful.

Some of the story is told from the point of view of Fiben, a very likeable intelligent chimpanzee who becomes involved in the resistance. But, what's interesting about some of the things we see from his point of view are some of the more subtle ways the Gubru try to be manipulative. It turns out that the Gubru want to intervene in the chimpanzees' uplift process, and push out humans. They try to convince the chimpanzees that they will be better off under the Gubru. So this part of the story is not always portrayed as an outright forced invasion and occupation, but a more subtle attempt to use the chimpanzees and win them over.

Now, I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but near the end of the story, Brin does a pretty nifty job of connecting the events of this novel to those of "The Uplift War." You do have to be patient and wait, though, to the end of the book.

The book explores a huge amount of material, and just about any plot line could be the subject of a full-blown novel of its own. The whole subject of uplift, how it affects relatinships between species, how rules have developed to govern its operation, and what happens when a species tries to sidestep those rules is a topic that could give rise to a massive amount of debate over whether it's even possible, or ethical.

And, just in case you think this is purely fiction, I'm not so sure. Consider the idea of uplifting another species to a state of sentience and intelligence. Isn't it true that some experiments have been done in which primates other than humans have been taught to communicate with sign language? Granted it's a far cry from the kind of uplift Brin describes, but who knows, it might be a first step in such a direction.

Brin also describes relationships between different species. There's a subplot that describes a relationship between a human man, Robert, and a Tymbrimi girl, Athaclena, which turns into an unusual love story. And there are stories of friendships between humans and chimpanzees, in which the chimps make exceptionally loyal, faithful friends.

Anyway, it's a fascinating story. I wouldn't call it light, easy reading, though - the sheer size of the cast of characters and the number of turns the plot takes require close attention and concentration to get through and follow everything. It's actually the kind of novel I feel I should probably read a second time someday, just to make sure I picked up on everything in it.

Very good as hard science fiction, though, Brin knows his science so well it shows, but never in an 'inf0-dump' kind of way, the scientific information is always sprinkled around in small doses when needed while the plot keeps moving and the characterization develops.

Monday, May 28, 2007

"Pop Goes the Weasel" by James Patterson (Thriller, some spoilers)

This is another Alex Cross thriller. The plot follows a structure similar to an earlier Cross novel, "Along Came a Spider." Both novels involve the tracking down of a villain followed by an actual trial.

In this case, the villain is the "Weasel" of the title, a killer given this nickname by police. The Weasel's real name is Geoffrey Shafer, and it turns out that he works for the British Embassy. Which gives him an easy way to avoid justice, since he can claim diplomatic immunity for any crimes committed on American soil.

The killings committed by the Weasel are motivated by his insanity and his involvement in an on-line role-playing game, which crosses over into real life. Heh, I remember when I was a kid and "Dungeons and Dragons" became popular, there was some controversy over it because some parents got the idea that kids might take it too seriously and end up hurting themselves or some such thing. I don't think it was ever proven to be that dangerous, though.

Shafer's killings have an appearance of randomness at first, making it hard for the police to discern any pattern behind them, but Cross does start to suspect some of the seemingly disconnected slayings may be the work of the same person.

It turns out that Shafer's insanity is likely compounded by the cocktail of drugs he takes, supplied to him illegally by his mistress, a psychotherapist.

The story takes a very personal twist for Cross when his girlfriend, Christine Johnson, is abducted.

I did some net-surfing and found that this novel gets mixed reviews. Some people really liked it, others point out some logic glitches, which are possibly valid complaints. Like, in one part of the novel, when a police officer is on a stakeout, keeping an eye on Shafer by herself. Would any real police officer do such a job alone, with someone known to be as dangerous as Shafer? Also, a close examination of Shafer's crimes show possible ways evidence would have been left at the scene that isn't even mentioned or discussed.

I'm not an expert on police work or forensics, so I'm not in a position to comment, but I guess questions like that could undermine the book's credibility for some readers.

It's still very entertaining, though, with Patterson's trademark fast-paced plot, a nasty villain and lots of twists and turns.

"London Bridges" by James Patterson (Thriller, spoiler warning)

This is another one of Patterson's stories about FBI agent Alex Cross.

This novel take Cross into a realm in which the crimes are, in a sense, larger. The criminals he's trying to track down this time around are not just committing murders of individuals. They are threatening large-scale acts of terror, in which a lot of people could be killed at one stroke.At the novel's beginning, a small town in America is destroyed. Literally reduced to rubble by a powerful explosive. This does not happen until a group of people, pretending to be U.S. army soldiers, forcibly evacuate the town. The terrorists don't actually want to kill people.

At least, not this time - this is just to serve as a warning for what will happen next.

The mastermind behind the scheme is someone who goes by the name of "The Wolf." The identity of The Wolf is a mystery, that gives rise to much speculation. Is The Wolf male or female, what is The Wolf's motivation...there are a lot of questions about this mysterious villain, but few answers to be found.

The main plot is, in some ways, a typical terrorism-type plot. After the "warning" incident, law enforcement agencies are told that something far worse will happen - terrorist attacks in America, England and France are all planned. These will come about if certain demands aren't met, which include the payment of a large sum of money and the release of various criminals from prison.

The governments of the nations involved do not wish to be blackmailed in this way, and Cross and his colleagues end up making a frantic effort to try to get to the bottom of the conspiracy and bring the Wolf to justice.

But the Wolf is very smart, constantly using intermediaries and deliberate ruses to throw the police off the trail and make them waste time. This makes Cross frustrated.

As is often the case in Patterson's novels, different parts of the story are told from different points of view. We have some of the story told in the first person from the vantage point of Alex Cross. Then other parts of the story are told in the third person, from the points of view of the villains.

Incidentally, not only does Cross have to fight the Wolf, but it turns out that the Wolf has in his employ one of Cross's old enemies - The Weasel. I guess Patterson has a liking for animal names for villains, or did during this phase of his career.

The scenes told from the points of view of The Weasel or The Wolf are riveting for there sheer brutality. The Wolf is one hell of a mean fucker, even by the standards of Alex Cross novels. And his use of the Weasel, along with some of the things he says, seem to suggest The Wolf has something personal against Cross, as if he's tempting Cross, or leading him on.

But I'm not sure if that ever gets explained adequately. As a matter of fact, my only major beef with this novel is the lack of a clear resolution to a lot of the storylines - it seemed as if near the end, Patterson wanted to end it with even more twists and turns that would lead to confusion about who The Wolf really was, and whether the police had found the right person or not. I did some net-surfing and found that I'm not the only reader who felt this way about the book's ending.

But, all in all, most of the book is still an exciting, riveting read. Patterson knows how to write thrillers that keep one's eyes glued to the page - I freely admit I've become a Patterson addict since the beginning of this year, when I first started reading some of his stuff.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

"The Silence of the Lambs" by Thomas Harris (Thriller/Horror, mild spoilers)

First off, I should probably mention the fact that this novel isn't what you'd call light, easy entertainment. I'd say it's not for the faint or heart of weak-stomached.

The story involves Clarice Starling, who is a trainee at the FBI academy. She becomes involved in a case involving not one, but two killers. The first is in custody in a mental institution, Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter. Lecter's crimes are mentioned, and they're gruesome.

But it turns out that Lecter may know something about "Buffalo Bill," an unknown killer the FBI has been trying to find. But Lecter won't just give out information quickly and easily. He makes Starling dig for it, and gives her clues somewhat cryptically, that she has to follow up on and interpret.

The case is urgent, because Buffalo Bill has kidnapped another victim. If he holds true to his pattern, it will only be a matter of days before he kills her.

The novel actually shows what happens in Buffalo Bill's home, and how he treats his captured victim. I found that sickening - Bill is very twisted.

One of the highlights of the story is the exchanges of dialogue between Starling and Dr. Lecter. Lecter is intelligent, and a trained psychiatrist himself, and seems to be digging for information as much as Starling is, he's constantly trying to figure out what makes her tick. For Starling, it can be unnerving to go through this.

As creepy and horrific as some of the violence in the book is, it's very compellingly written, and I found it a tough one to put down.

And the ending has an interesting twist, leaving the story open for more possibilities. I believe Harris did write some sequels.

Supporting characters, like Jack Crawford, a more senior FBI agent, are well thought out and developed, as well as the major characters.

And, of course, the film version with Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster was a big hit, I actually did see it years ago, and still remember some scenes vividly.

But the book is good, if you can cope with the violence - consider yourself warned.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

"Startide Rising" by David Brin (Science Fiction, Spoiler Warning)

My edition of this novel is around four hundred and sixty pages long - and none of it wasted. There's a lot of stuff in here - lots of characters, including aliens, lots of plot lines, alien settings - quite a bit of material to cram into one novel. Heck, some of the individual stories, or background stories could easily be developed into books themselves.

The actual story does, however, centre on a particular idea, something called uplift. Uplift is the process by which an intelligent, sentient species helps another, pre-sentient species achieve sentience/intelligence. In exchange for this, the uplifted race is indebted to those who uplift them, at least for a time. Relationships between the uplifters and the uplifted vary in how harmonious or conflicted they are, depending on the cultures involved.

The main characters here are the crew of a ship called Streaker. The crew includes a small group of humans, several uplifted dolphins and an uplifted chimpanzee.

The plot involes the crew of the ship trying to hide on a planet called Kithrup, after making a discovery that might provide a link to the identity of the progenitors. The progenitors are the race that allegedly became sentient first, and started uplifting others, although nobody is sure about how it all started.

But, the possible existence of progenitor artifacts touches a nerve, and several alien races - Galactics - enter the scene, fighting amongst themselves as well as causing problems for the Streaker crew.

I think Brin took on a hefty challenge with this novel. Throughout, he covers the idea of uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees, how their distinct cultures work as influenced by their own biology and the effects of uplift. He shows things about how this plays out in the interactions between the dolphins, humans, and Charlie Dart, the chimpanzee. And he introduces the galactics, and shows some even more alien cultures. And he includes all this while discussing the uplift concept, and how humans might be an exception to the usual uplift rules. And he does this against an imaginary setting which he has to describe. should come as no surprise that this is one of those books that comes with a glossary of terms and characters at the beginning. I think this is the type of book with a lot of fascinating ideas in it, but so many, that you have to be prepared to concentrate and pay very close attention as you go along. This is not what I'd call light, easy reading. Which is fine, but I know it's not to everyone's taste. For those of us who don't mind a challenging read, by all means give it a try.

I did find there were times when I would have liked a bit more detail on certain points - maybe more visual detail about what some of the alien creatures looked like, for example. But to get through the amount of material he wanted to cover in the book, I guess Brin had no choice but to be very selective in how much detail to include on any particular point.

But what he did find room for, he does well; the interactions among different species are nicely worked out. I don't actually know enough about dolphin biology to comment on the scientific accuracy of those parts of the story, but it was definitely well thought out, and made all the characters - human, dolphin, alien, chimpanzee - good characters.

And the plot moves at a quick pace, with plenty of action.

All in all, a good read, just be prepared to concentrate and pay close attention to keep track of everything - there are a lot of alien names and words that aren't part of everyday English - so if that's to your taste, you'd enjoy it.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

"Along Came a Spider" by James Patterson (Thriller, Spoiler Warning)

This is another Alex Cross novel. Actually, according to the back cover, this is the first Alex Cross novel. So I guess this is the one that started the now-famous, bestselling series.

Like the other Alex Cross novels I've read, this one was highly addictive once I started. There's a very high "unputdownable" level here.

This time around, Cross is trying to solve a kidnapping case and a homicide, which turn out to be connected.

The novel introduces Gary Soneji, a villain who will haunt cross in some of the other novels in the series.

The kidnapping that occurs is a high-profile case, involving a couple of children whose parents are very well-off, important people. There's a lot of publicity, and the case necessitates some co-operation between various law enforcement agencies. Cross, a police detective, ends up working with Jezzie Flanagan of the Secret Service. Flanagan is brilliant at her job and an intensely driven over-achiever.

Alex and Jezzie end up in a relationship. One that gets quite steamy, quite fast. Maybe it's the tension of working on such a tough case, making emotions run high.

Cross and his associates frantically try to find the kidnapper, with the hope that they'll find the victims still alive. But there are some problems along the way that take up time while they still don't solve the case.

Eventually, a suspect is found, taken into custody and charged. The story of the trial is, of course, a media circus. But it turns out that the person on trial might not have been the kidnapper. This person has all the signs of a multiple personality. Cross, upon interviewing the suspect, even goes as far as employing hypnosis to try to see into the mind of the criminal, and comes away with two possible conclusions. Either this really is a case of multiple personality(or dissociative personality disorder, as some psychologists prefer to call it) or this criminal is a superb actor, manipulating everyone masterfully into believing mpd is to blame here.

And that would mean that sending the accused to prison might be punishing the guilty personality, as well as the innocent one. That could be a tough problem for a jury to grapple with.

But there's another consideration. One of the kidnapping victims still hasn't been found, and for all anyone knows, might still be alive.

Cross finds out later that the suspect they have in custody might not be the only person who was involved in the kidnapping. And the evidence he finds turns out to be very ugly. Someone - possibly more than just one person - from within law enforcement itself might have turned dirty and had a hand in the crimes.

As per usual with Alex Cross novels, there's an intense, fast-paced plot. There are also some nice character developments. I thought one of the supporting characters had a very intriguing character arc. Jezzie has to struggle with some personal problems, when her frustration with the case makes her start to doubt herself. As a constant over-achiever, it's hard for her to accept failure.

I don't want to give away the ending, so I'll say no more about the plot.

This novel does raise some interesting thematic questions about justice. In cases of severe mental disorders, what should be done with accused persons? Is it right to punish them the same way a demonstrably sane person would be? I guess you could argue that it's best that such a person at least be kept somewhere where they can be closely supervised, if they've done something harmful and dangerous to others. But maybe such people should be studied closely. If, some day, somebody can find a definitive cause for such mental disorders, it would be a first step towards being able to prevent them.

It's worth trying, isn't it?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"The Matarese Circle" by Robert Ludlum

This is a fast-paced spy thriller with a wild plot full of many twists and turns. As is typical of Ludlum, everything seems to happen while characters are frantically running from one thing to another, or fighting, or killing or trying to avoid being killed. Violence and intensity are the order of the day.

Interestingly, it has been suggested that Ludlum loosely based "The Matarese Circle" on a real organization, "The Trilateral Commission." I'm not sure if that's true or not, though.

Two agents, one Russian, one American, are the lead characters. Scofield is American, and Taleniekov is Russian. Both men are at a point in their lives when they are close to retiring from active service. The two men know each other, and have a history that gives each reason to hold a personal vendetta against the other. And both become implicated in murders of high-level officials in their respective countries.

This forces them to work together to get at the truth behind the murders.

What ensues is a chase across Europe, and a shocking interview with an old woman who witnessed the birth of the Matarese Circle. This organization has lurked in the shadows for decades, slowly working its schemes. It is bent on creating worldwide chaos, and believes that a kind of anarchy would be better than current political structures. But it might be a kind of revenge, since the Matarese Circle is the child of someone who lost a fortune and blames the world as it exists for his downfall.

Scofield and Taleniekov have to work against the clock, as both of their governments are after them. This creates a lot of tension on all sides - tension between the two, tension because their own people are after them, and tension over getting at the truth before it's too late.

One thing Ludlum does in this novel that is intriguing is show how stories that appear in the news could have bigger implications. Like when several people who were in on the conspiracy are killed, it's explained in the press as an unfortunate accident, but Scofield knows the truth.

Ludlum keeps things interesting throughout - my edition is over five hundred pages long, none of it dull. Now, in some ways, the main plot seemed a little predictable of spy thrillers - secret organization is determined to take over the world - 0r, in this case, bring it into chaos. We've seen that before. Look at just about any James Bond story. But, Ludlum is good at his genre, he creates so much conflict and tension among the characters, that the story feels especially intense, even for a spy thriller. And there are a lot of nice little details along the way, about locations, and people, that give the descriptions a good sense of authenticity and make the reader see the characters' viewpoints.

Also, there is a plot twist I found interesting. I'd rather not give it away, and it is something that's been used in other novels, sometimes in the mystery genre. But it was still a nice twist, near the end.

One thing that writers in this genre have to be careful of, is making sure that the characters don't appear to solve problems too fast, and get to the final conclusions too easily. But Ludlum never falls into that trap. Actually, much of this novel shows the characters going through the painstaking, step-by-step process of tracking down the clues and figuring out the mystery. That approach is one of the reasons the novel easily fills over five hundred pages.

I tend to find Ludlum very consistent. He developed a style that he was good at, that his readers liked, and he closely stuck with it. But, each novel still has new ideas, and new characters and plot points that make it very unique. So if you've enjoyed any of Ludlum's other works, you'll probably like this, too.

Monday, March 26, 2007

"Jack and Jill" by James Patterson

Despite the title, this is no children's nursery rhyme.

This story has nasty violence, several murders, and, as usual with Patterson, a lot of twists and turns that keep you guessing.

Actually, there are two main plots here. Either one probably could have been the basis for a novel on its own.

One of the main storylines involves the murders of some children at the school one of Alex Cross's children attends. These incidents are very disturbing for the local schoolchildren and their parents. Cross would like to investigate the case, but has to do so with some of his colleagues on his own time. His main job, according to his superiors, is to work with the F.B.I. on another case.

The other case Cross is assigned to is an attempt to track down and apprehend a couple of killers who have been murdering high-profile people in Washington. A politician is one of the first victims, then a media celebrity.

But the killers are playing a kind of game. They leave little notes at the crime scenes, in the form of poems, like sick, twisted nursery rhymes. They call themselves Jack and Jill. And they send messages to the secret service, suggesting they've got something really big planned.

The secret service is concerned that the something big might be a presidential assassination attempt.

As the novel continues, Cross pushes himself hard, trying to solve both cases, with help from some friends.

And then there comes a time when the president decides he can't hide away all the time, that he must continue with his work and make public appearances, despite the risk.

This book has all of Patterson's trademarks in an Alex Cross novel. Intense, fast pacing, short chapters almost all of which deliver another punch, a violent but irresistible plot - it's all here. I enjoyed it as much as the other Alex Cross novels I've read, so if you're a fan of the series, you'll probably like this well enough.

And then there comes a point when it becomes clear that Jack and Jill might have some inside help. Certainly, they have knowledge of how certain things work within the White house. That adds a scary twist.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this novel was that it delved into situations where the line between good and bad becomes blurred. It turns out that some of the white house staff suspect that one of Jack or Jill might be one of their own, gone wrong. They think it could be an assassin who works for the government, but has turned against them. The fact that such people exist isn't too hard to belive. The fact that such people are required is disturbing, and raises a lot of ethical question. Now, this novel's main purpose isn't to debate that issue in depth, but I felt that this part of the story gave it a worthwhile theme.

*** Spoiler Warning ***

The only criticisms I had, which I've also seen a few other reviewers make, are that Patterson suggests the two cases might be connected, but no particular connection is ever revealed. I wouldn't have minded having the two parallel plots, but to suggest a connection and not deliver one made me feel a little let down, like something I'd been anticipating never arrived.

And, there were some things that made it seem hard to believe Jack and Jill would get away with their crimes, especially some incidents that occur in very public settings. The odds of somebody seeing something, following them, and getting a strong clue seemed a bit high, for killers who keep slipping away from the authorities so well.

Still, it's a good, exciting read - Patterson knows how to entertain his audience; indeed, he's a master of pacing and plotting. You won't be bored for a minute.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

"When London Walked in Terror" by Tom A. Cullen (True Crime)

I picked up a paperback copy of this last weekend, when I was in Toronto.

It's about the Jack the Ripper case.

For those of you who may not know, this is a case that remains officially unsolved to this day. Or, if it was solved, those who know the truth never made it publicly known. The case occurred in London, England, in 1888, mainly in an area called Whitechapel. Several prostitutes were murdered, and in some cases mutilated. Or, more accurately, some were more severely mutilated than others.

These details are not pleasant - this isn't a story for people with weak stomachs.

It's non-fiction, but some of the descriptions are written more like scenes from a novel, bringing these events vividly to life in the reader's imagination. I like that, it makes reading about real events more interesting and entertaining than a dry recitation of facts and figures.

Now, I've done a bit of net-surfing, and found out since reading this that there are many other books about the Ripper murders. This one is regarded as a pretty good primer on the basic facts of the case, although there are other, more detailed publications that are considered more definitive among "Ripperologists."

I wonder if there are any other serial murderers with specific "ologies" named after them?

Anyway, I felt that this book served its purpose well. It describes a lot of the known facts of the case, and covers some of the debatable points, making it clear what is known versus what is uncertain. There are many things about the case that are uncertain - there are five victims generally considered to have been murdered by the same person, while other deaths may have been the result of other killers or "copycats."

The book also discusses several of the suspects. Many theories have been put forth about who the Ripper really was. And there is some evidence that some kind of cover-up might have occurred, since after a particularly brutal murder and mutilation, the killings stopped by so did the police investigation.

Whitechapel was a poor area of London, filled with people literally living hand-to-mouth day by day, desperately trying to scrape together enough money for a bed for the night. But, many people think the Ripper must have been someone who knew the area, but probably didn't live there, because people living in the area typically slept in shared accommodations. The Ripper must have had a private room somewhere to disappear to and dispose of evidence.

Near the end of the book, the author presents some details of the life of one suspect, who may have been the Ripper - but, that's just one theory, and we'll probably never know the truth.

All in all, this was a good read, and a good primer on the case, I'd never really read any books about Jack the Ripper before. But, it's not a pleasant or happy story, don't read this if you can't stomach the descriptions of the killings and mutilations.

My New Blog

I'm in a book club at my place of work, and we have a discussion group in our e-mail system. I used to regularly post reviews there on books I've read. There was only one problem. I couldn't always discuss certain aspects of the books I wanted to talk about, if they dealt explicitly with religion, sex, or other topics that might not be very appropriate for the workplace.

So, this is my new blog where I'll post my thoughts on things I've read.

Now, there's a reason why I like writing out my thoughts on books I read. To me, it's a worthwhile exercise because it makes me think about what I've read, articulate what's good about a book, and remember it in detail. And since I'm not just a reader, but an aspiring writer, too, I feel there's value in doing this.

I know some people disagree with me, and say that published writers don't have time to write book reviews. That may be true, but it's not like I spend all day doing this, I can usually write up my thoughts on something I've read in about half an hour or so.

Anyway, I'll give this a try and see how it goes.