Monday, December 31, 2018

EYE CANDY: Michael Thurston (5th time!)

Mike Thurston has well over 570,000 followers on his YouTube channel where he "teaches you how to lift properly"and a mere 414,000 followers at his Instagram account (@mikethurston). He is one of my very favorite Eye Candy finds, up there with Jacob Sumana, Simeon Panda, Raciel Castro, Adrian Conrad and Roberto Oliveira.

Hopefully, I will find more pictures of these favorites and discover some more that I can post to this blog in 2019.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Age of War (Legends of the First Empire, #3) by Michael J . Sullivan

Sullivan does it again! Age of War is the third book in the “Legends of the First Empire” series, which I understand is now going to consist of two linked trilogies instead of the five books the author initially planned. The first two books, Age of Myth and Age of Swords.

The Legends of the First Empire series is set in a time thousands of years before the events of the author's Riyria Revelations. It is based around conflicts between the three races of civilization in the word of Elan (Fhrey or elves, Dergs or dwarves, Rhunes or humans) as societies clash and develop in the equivalent to our Bronze Age. Since Fhrey can basically live for thousands of years, there are characters in this series that survive and greatly impact the future we have already been exposed to in the original Riyria trilogy.

In spite of (or in some cases, because of) this, the fate of many of the characters in Age of War have heightened suspense for the reader. Ever since the first book, Age of Myth  we have been following the story of Persephone, Raithe, Suri, Roan and Brin (who are all humans) and Arion, Nyphron and Mawendule (who are all elves). It is a testament to Sullivan’s craft that he is able to place most of these characters in mortal danger due to a war and kill off more than one(!) while still making the book very satisfying and thrilling.

Some other readers expressed disappointment about the third book in the series and I agree that there are significant differences between Age of War and the others that precede it. For example, there is a noticeable increase in the (heterosexual) romantic pairings in Age of War between a few of the main characters but often also between important secondary characters. Some might find this discomfiting and although I don’t think it’s a net positive aspect of the book I don’t think it significantly detracts from my overall enjoyment of the story. So I would strongly disagree with the notion of any disappointment about the level of quality of Age of WarThe central question of how (and whether) humans will survive a war with the much more powerful Fhrey is suspenseful enough to cause Age of War to be as excellent as the other entries in the series. I can't wait to read the rest!

Title: Age of War (Legends of the First Empire, #3).
Michael J. Sullivan.
Paperback: 420 pages.
 Del Rey Books.
Date Published: July 3, 2018.
Date Read: December 14, 2018.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Monday, December 24, 2018

EYE CANDY: Lazar Angelov (#3)

Lazar Angelov is a Bulgarian bodybuilder who has appeared as eye Candy twice before (September 30, 2013 and July 15, 2013). He has almost 6 million followers on Instagram and some of the most defined abs I have ever seen. To call it a "six-pack" would be quite an underestimate!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan

Age of Myth is the first book in a new epic fantasy series written by Michael J. Sullivan, the author of the Riyria Revelations and the Riyria Chronicles. When the series was announced back in 2016 it was said to be five books but that has now been extended to six.

I gave all three books (Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, and Heir of Novron) in the Riyria Revelations 5 stars so I looked forward to reading The Legends of the First Empire series as well, which is set in a time period a couple thousand years before Riyria.

Age of Myth is very different from Ryria, and, in my opinion, it is not as successful. Primarily this is because it is not as complex or compelling as the Riyria books. This could be because it is only half the size of any of those books and thus there is not enough space to produce an equivalent level of complexity as appears in the Riyria books. Despite this, I am not saying Age of Myth, is bad, just that it is not as flawless and enjoyable as those books.

The three main characters are Arion, a Fhrey (elf) who is a master of the Art (magic); Raithe, a Rhune (human) who is known as the God Killer for showing that it is actually physically possible for Fhreys to be slain; Malcolm (a Fhrey-enslaved Rhune who is forced to go on the run with Raithe), Suri (a teenaged mystic and orphaned child who grew up in the forest) and Persephone (the widow of the chieftain of a Rhune encampment called Dahl Ren).

Overall, my favorite characters were Suri and Arion. I definitely like that Sullivan does an excellent job with his female characters. One of the best features of Riyria was the camaraderie and humor of Hadrian and Royce and Sullivan tries to replicate this with Raithe and Malcolm but since they do not have as prominent a role in the book it doesn't work as well.

Overall, I'm glad I read Book 1 of the new series and will definitely read the rest of the new saga. But I am looking forward more to reading Sullivan's other trilogy featuring Hadrian and Royce (the Riyria Chronicles) than the rest of the Legend of the First Empire.

Title: Age of Myth.
Michael J. Sullivan.
Paperback: 432 pages.
 Del Rey.
Date Published: June 28, 2016.
Date Read: September 13, 2016.

★★  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

GODLESS WEDNESDAY: Let Reason Prevail...

The Freedom from Religion Foundation is making banners available this holiday to combat the overwhelming religiosity of the occasion. One of these appeared in San Diego's Balboa Park next to a nativity display The banner reads:

 “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. 
 There is only our natural world.
 Religion is but a myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds.”

For lots of people, seeing such thoughts expressed in public may seem shocking or disrespectful but from my perspective as a godless person this reaction demonstrates how prous the wall between the church and the state have become.

Monday, December 17, 2018

EYE CANDY: Jordan Torres

Jordan Torres is a smoking hot professional male model with nearly 250,000 followers on Instagram (@officialjt). You're welcome!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Radiohead and Janet Jackson Among 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees

This week comes the news that two of my favorite musical artists, Janet Jackson and Radiohead, have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. It was Janet's 3rd attempt and Radiohead's first. The other 2019 inductees are: Stevie Nicks, The Cure, Def Leppard, Roxy Music and The Zombies.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Persons Unknown (DS Manon, #2) by Susie Steiner

Persons Unknown is the second book in the British police procedural series written by Susie Steiner featuring Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw that started with Missing, Presumed. Probably 3.5+ stars but rounded up because I like the idea of the series continuing with Manon, Manon's adopted son  and her co-worker Detective Sergeant Davy Walker.

It's curious to me how very different this second book (
Persons Unknown) is from the first in form and feel. I think they both used the form of alternating point of views chapters but in this one the choice of the POV characters was quite unusual. Of course we had ones from Davy and Manon but for some reason we never had one from her son, even though he plays a significant role in the main character's life. I hope that changes in the next book.

The central mystery in
Persons Unknown was pretty compelling but it feels somewhat unfair that the author decided to exploit the willingness of the police (and everyone else) to associate black boys with criminality to put Fly in such a bad situation. That was a really horrible thing to do. Getting a first hand view of the juvenile detention system in Britian was eye-opening and extremely depressing.

Of course even more bad things happen as well as the plot develops, but surprisingly there are also some good things that happen (particularly involving Manon's love life).

Another interesting aspect of the book is  what a large role infidelity plays in the book. I was also surprised by the ubiquity of CCTV footage from so many public places that the police can take advantage of to help them solve crimes.

The eventual resolution of the central mystery was a but surprising in that we find out "who dun it" but they don't get punished!

I am very interested to see where Steiner takes these characters in the next book. I hope Fly is still in the picture (and Mark)!

Title: Persons Unknown.
Susie Steiner.
Paperback: 368 pages.
 The Borough Press.
Date Published: July 4, 2017.
Date Read: July 19, 2017.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

GODLESS WEDNESDAY: Poll Says Atheism Is No Longer An Impediment To Elected Office

Previously I have blogged (repeatedly) about Americans uneasiness with voting for an atheist for president. However, a new survey from the American Humanist shows that progressive voters (who are pro-marriage equality and pro-choice) are happy to support an agnostic or atheist candidate for elected office.
The survey finds that 72% of liberal Democrats would vote for an atheist on the ballot. 74% of them would support a more generic “non-religious” or “agnostic” candidate.
Also interesting? 14% of those voters said they would be more likely to support an atheist while only 7% say the opposite.
Hat/tip to Friendly Atheist.

Friday, December 07, 2018

CELEBRITY FRIDAY: Black AIDS Institute Names New Executive Director (Raniyah Copeland)

The new executive director of the Black AIDS Institute has been named as Raniyah Copeland. The president and chief executive officer of BAI has been Phil Wilson since its founding in 1999. The BAI is the nation's first  and only "national HIV/AIDS think tank focused on Black communities." Copeland, 34, has worked at The Institute for the last ten years. Wilson announced his retirement last year and the board conducted an extensive 10-month process to find a new leader for the organization.

The announcement was made at BAI's signature event "Heroes in the Struggle" last Saturday December 1.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing, Presumed is the first book in the Detective Sargeant Manon Bradshaw series by Susie Steiner. This is a British police procedural murder mystery; if you like the work of Peter Robinson, Deborah Crombie, Val McDermid or Adrian Mckinty I suspect you'll like this. I wouldn't say she's in Tana French's league but I think it's possible she could get there. Missing, Presumed is a strong debut (and as I have said before, oftentimes the first book in a series is not the best) so it is notable how good the first entry is.

The story is about a missing blonde white woman named Edith Hinds whose parents regularly socialize with the Home Secretary (chief law enforcement officer of the country, basically the American equivalent of the Attorney General). The plot takes a surprisingly sapphic turn as bodies start showing up during the missing persons investigation, however none of the bodies are of the missing girl. There are other surprises I did not see coming that make this book a satisfying read.

DS Manon Bradshaw is quite an interesting character as the protagonist. She has numerous bad habits and is more than a bit of an asshole. But she also is incredibly generous (by the end of the book). Along with DS Bradshaw we get first person accounts from other members of the police team (DC Davy Walker, DI Harriet Harper) as well as from the mother of the missing girl (Miriam Hinds).

The fact that the main character is a 39-year-old single female who is desperately lonely is an interesting aspect of the book which may put off some but to me (favorably) differentiated Missing, Presumed from other books in the same genre.

(I received this book from NetGalley in return for an objective review.)

Title: Missing, Presumed.
Susie Steiner.
Paperback: 400 pages.
 The Borough Press.
Date Published: February 25, 2016.
Date Read: January 15, 2017.

GOODREADS RATING: ★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).


Monday, December 03, 2018

EYE CANDY: Jacob Sumana (5th time!)

Jacob Sumana is one of my Eye Candy favorites, since he has made four(!) previous appearances here (December 30, 2013; March 31, 2014; February 2, 2015May 9, 2016). He has over 300,000 followers on Instagram (@jacobsumana). Enjoy!

Friday, November 30, 2018

CELEBRITY FRIDAY: Eric Bauman, Openly Gay Chair of CA Democratic Party, Resigns In #MeToo Furor

Eric Bauman, longtime chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and former vice-chair of the California Democratic Party under John Burton, was elected chair of the California Democratic Party in 2017 after a close and hotly contested election with Kimberly Ellis. He is the first openly gay man to lead the largest Democratic Party state organization.

This week Bauman was in the news again because he abruptly announced his intention to resign his position as party chair one day after multiple accusations of improper sexual comments and unwanted physical contact by Bauman were documented in a blockbuster Los Angeles Times story published on Wednesday November 28.

After the article came out Governor-elect Gavin Newsom and openly LGBT Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins were among the high ranking state Democratic politicians who called for Bauman's resignation.

I have known Bauman for years (and been to the annual holiday party at his house multiple times). I never witnessed any unwanted sexual comments but I would say that I have definitely seen him "tipsy." (It was a holiday party, after all!) Initially after word of the accusations were raised last week, Bauman had announced he would take a leave of absence to get treatment for "a problem with alcohol" but soon it became clear that in the current #MeToo era that response would be insufficient. I am somewhat surprised that these accusations of imroper behavior did not come to light last year when the internecine battle between the establishment party folks who backed Bauman and the progressive "Bernie-crat" folks who backed Ellis was raging.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Dark Winter (Aector McAvoy, #1)

The Dark Winter is the first book in the Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy series by David Mark, about a Scottish police detective located in the Northern England city of Hull.

A better title for the first book would be “The Unjust Distribution of Miracles” as the story is about a sequence of murders of people who are the lone survivor of horrible incidents, although it takes quite awhile (longer than it took this reader) for Aector to figure out the connection(s) between the killings.

Despite the lack of difficulty of the central mystery, the book has several strengths. The first of these lies in the author’s string characterization of the book’s protagonist, who it is slowly revealed to be in an uncomfortable situation on the job, having been assigned to a new station after he discovered and revealed the corrupt and criminal activities of a popular (or feared?) high-ranking police supervisor. That and being Scottish in northern England and physically imposing (6-foot-5 and “hefty” and red-headed) makes Aector stand out in most situations. He clearly loves his pretty, pregnant wife Roisin and his young son Finlay. He has a female boss whom he both seems to be afraid of and also (sexually) attracted to, at various points in the book.

Another strong feature of The Dark Winter is the inclusion of several exciting action scenes, including one in the penultimate scene which are surprising, gripping and well-written. 

Overall, the spare, effective prose of The Dark Winter makes it an excellent entry in the crowded field of British police procedural murder mysteries. At well under 300 pages in length (my copy from Blue Rider Press was a mere 292 pages despite Goodreads listing it at 304) The Dark Winter packs a memorable wallop appreciably larger than other books up to twice its size from authors with bibliographies twice as long.


Title: The Dark Winter.
David Mark.
Paperback: 292 pages.
 Blue Rider Press.
Date Published: October 25, 2012.
Date Read: November 28, 2018.

★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

2018 CHESS: Carlsen Retains Title By Defeating Caruana In Playoff (After 12 Draws In Standard Play)

World champion Magnus Carlsen will retain his title for another two years after defeating Fabiano Caruana 3-0 in the 2018 World Chess Championship playoffs. After twelve consecutive draws in standard play of 40 moves in 150 minutes Carlsen and Caruana were scheduled to play four games of rapid (25 minutes for each side for the entire game) with the first to 2.5 points to win the title. Carlsen swept the first three games, illustrating his dominance in quicker speed games and cementing his status as the best chess player in the world (again).

Here are the three decisive matches:

Game 1

Game 2 
Game 3 
Congrats, Magnus!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

TENNIS TUESDAY: Croatia Wins (Last?) Davis Cup, Beats France 3-1; Venus Settles; Radwanska Retires; Kerber Picks Schuettler, Halep Picks No One!

The 2018 Davis Cup was won by Croatia, somewhat surprisingly defeating France 3-1, who was the defending champion (beating Belgium last year). There was extra attention on this year's Davis Cup because tennis is being roiled by the changes to the format of the Davis Cup and the creation of two(!) new team competitions: the Laver Cup (an exhibition competition that happens a few weekends after the conclusion of the US Open primarily associated with Roger Federer and based on a Europe versus The World concept) and now the ATP and Tennis Australia have announced the ATP Cup which is scheduled to start in January 2020 before the Australian Open. The ATP Cup will be a 24-team competition of 6 groups of 4 played in 3 Australian cities over 10 days.
Marin Cilic was the tie's hero, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Friday in straight sets and followed that up with a straight sets win over Lucas Pouille on the final day to win Croatia's 3rd point after Borna Coric easly dismissed Jeremy Chardy in straight sets on the first day. It's not clear why France's other stars (Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet or Gilles Simon) did not participate in the Davis Cup Final this year. The one bright spot for France was their win in the doubles as Pierre-Hughes Hebert and Nicolas Mahut won their match.

The Polish tennis superstar Aggie Radwanska announced her retirement from the sport at the age of 29, ranked World #75. However, between 2008 and 2016 she was ranked in the Top 15 (rising as high as World #2) and won the WTA Fan Favorite award 6 years in a row. In 2012 she won the middle set against Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final but lost the match.

Venus Williams announced that she had settled a lawsuit filed by the estate of a man who had died in a car accident in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida where Williams was an unwilling and faultless participant. The settlement terms were not disclosed.

The end-of-season coaching merry-go-round continues with World #1 Simona Halep deciding not pick a replacement coach for Darren Cahill who said that he has decided to reduce his travel commitments in 2019 to spend more time with his family. Despite winning Wimbledon with Wim Fisette this year, Angelique Kerber has dismissed him and hired with former ATP Top 10 player Rainer Schuettler as her new coach.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

My Favorite Books Read In 2017 (Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller)

In 2017 I read 60 books; as usual almost all of these were novels, primarily in the genres of mystery/thriller and fantasy/science fiction. Interestingly, the books that I read in 2017 were  dominated by the mystery/thriller category (33) with the rest pretty evenly split between the genres of science fiction (15) and fantasy (9) with a few books falling into both categories or neither. 2017 was more like 2014 when mystery/thriller predominated my reading list while in 2015 more than half the books I read that year were science fiction. In 2016, surprisingly no particular genre dominated. This is surprising (to me) because generally if I were to list my favorite genres in decreasing order it would be 1) science fiction 2) thriller 3) fantasy 4) mystery. One issue is that thriller can really be any genre (even though most of the thrillers I read are also mysteries).

I was introduced to several new authors in 2017 (Stuart MacBride,  John Sandford, Blake Crouch, Dennis Taylor, Justin Cronin, Rachel Caine, Val McDermid and Susie Steiner; I definitely look forward to reading more of books from many of these authors in the future. In 2017 I followed up my 2016 read of my first Stephen King novel (11/22/63) with the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch).

Happily in 2017 I also read lots of book by authors whose work has previously been some of my favorite reads (Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbø, Louise Penny, Brian Staveley, Michael Connelly, Patrick Tomlinson, Peter Robinson, Brent Weeks, Adrian McKinty, N.K. Jemisin and Greg Iles). In 2017 I read not one but two books from what is currently my favorite series, i.e. The Expanse by James S.A. Corey. The sixth book, Babylon's Ashes, was released in December 2016 but I didn't read it until my Hawaii vacation in January 2017 and when the seventh book Persepolis Rising was released in December 2017 I gobbled it up soon afterwards. Another favorite author, Peter V. Brett, published the fifth and final book in the Demon Cycle, The Core, nearly 9 years after the first book, The Warded Man, came out in 2009.

I'm always looking for more good books and authors to add to my "To Be Read (TBR)" pile! Feel free to make suggestions of books or authors you think I would like in the comments after seeing what books have resonated with me previously.

Below are my favorite reads for 2017 in the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Thriller.

Favorite Science Fiction Novel Read In 2017: Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
As I have said before, The Expanse series is my favorite current series. This is not much of a surprise, since space opera is my favorite genre, and The Expanse is an action-packed space opera series about the human colonization of the solar system that is impacted by the discovery of alien technology. For example, in 2014 (Cibola Burn) and 2015 (Nemesis Games) a book from the Expanse series was my favorite for that year. In 2016, there were no Expanse books released and thus in 2017 Book 6 and Book 7 of the series was released: Babylon Ashes and Persepolis Rising. I was sort of disappointed with Babylon's Ashes but was very impressed with Persepolis Rising. It is quite incredible that the two authors who write together as James S.A. Corey have managed to basically stick to the schedule of an average of one book per year for seven books, even as they have been heavily involved in the adaption of their books for television as The Expanse series, the first three seasons of which have been broadcast on SyFy, but which has moved to Amazon Prime for season 4 after the cable channel declined to renew the show. In 2018 we are again not having an Expanse book, with the 8th book in the series Tiamat's Wrath having been delayed until 2019.

Runner-Up in Favorite Science Fiction Novel Read In 2017: Death's End by Liu Cixin.
Death's End is the third book in the space opera trilogy written by Cixin Liu who won the Hugo award for Best Novel for the first book in the series called The Three-Body Problem. The story is about an invasion of Earth by aliens known as Trisolarians (because their home world is surrounded by three stars). All three books are excellent and very different in their own way. The first two books (The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest) also appeared on my end-of-year favorite reads list for 2015 so it shouldn't be surprising that the third book appears on one as well. In Death's End the stakes for humanity grow even higher (and this is after the threat of alien invasion is resolved in quite an unexpected way!) and the time scale of the book grows longer and longer. There's not much more I can say about Death's End without revealing plot details but I can mention that it has a main character that is a female scientist and strongly encourage you to read the book. It is well-written, complicated science fiction at its very best. If it wasn't for N.K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate I am fairly confident that Death's End would have likely won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel instead.

Honorable Mention (Science Fiction):  Children of the Divide (Children of a Dead Earth, #3) by Patrick S. Tomlinson.
One of my favorite books from a few years ago was The Ark by Patrick S. Tomlinson, the first book in the Children of a Dead Earth trilogy. As I have said earlier, I like specific genres of fiction (mystery/thriller and science fiction/fantasy) and one of the things that drew me to The Ark is that it is a rare example of a book which combines mystery and science fiction in a clever and engaging way. Children of the Divide is the third book in this series and it does an excellent job of  continuing (and possibly completing) the story that began in The Ark while still maintaining its commitment to blurring genre boundaries of science fiction and mystery. Children of the Divide is about a former detective who is now part of a small human colony on a planet trying to engage with the indigenous alien population and uncover corrupt and criminal conspiracy among the colonial leaders.

Favorite Fantasy Novel Read Novel In 2017: The Core (The Demon Cycle, #5) by Peter V. Brett
Peter Brett's Demon Cycle has been one of my favorite reads in the category of fantasy since the first entry The Warded Man appeared in 2009. Brett is definitely on the short list of my favorite fantasy authors: Brian Staveley, Brent Weeks, Michael J. Sullivan, and Daniel Abraham. The Demon Cycle is set in a world where there are different kinds of monsters (called "demons") who appear every night once the sun goes down. Demons apparently rise up from the "core" of the earth and have claws, teeth and talons and kill humans. Civilization does not have electricity  and so society is based around daytime activity because there is a strong belief that there is no way to fight against the demons. It is known that certain symbols (called "wards") can protect property from demon incursion but deep knowledge or understanding of wards and the ability to create new wards has been lost in the annals of time. When the series starts the main characters are Arlen Bales, Leesha Paper and Rojer Inn who live in an area we would recognize as similar to 18th century North America (without the slavery). One of the highlights of the series is that it proceeds (The Desert Spear) we are introduced to another pocket of humanity that lives in dry, arid area. This society we would recognize as based on 18th century Middle Eastern or Muslim living. Here the main characters are Ahmann Jardir, Inevera and Abban Haman. In The Core, Arlen, Jardir and Arlen's wife Renna take the battle against the demons to The Core in order to settle the question of which creature, corelings or humans will dominate the planet. This plot summary is a bit simplistic, because the war against the demons has many fronts and involves many other "lesser" characters. (One of the other strengths of the Demon Cycle books is the nuanced characterization of the primary and secondary characters in the series.) Brett wraps up the 5-book series expertly and satisfyingly in The Core. I am very interested in seeing what Brett will follow up the Demon Cycle with; he's a great writer.

Runner-Up Favorite Fantasy Novel Read in 2017: Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne is an epic fantasy trilogy (The Emperor's BladesThe Providence of Fire,,The Last Mortal Bond) featuring a trio of heirs (Adare, Kaden and Valyn) to the Unhewn Throne of the Annurian Empire by Brian Staveley; it was one of my favorite reads in 2015 and 2016. They are great books, built around amazing characters and featuring taut plotting, treacherous betrayals, huge battle scenes and god-like creatures. Although Adare, Kaden and Valyn are the main characters in the book, there are several side characters who make indelible impressions. One of these is Pyrre, a priestess of the God of Death. In Skullsworn, Staveley writes an entire (somewhat short) book entirely focused around Pyrre and gives us insight into how such the smart, accomplished woman we met in the trilogy became a fully-fledged and devoted member of what is essentially a death cult. Pyrre is so fabulous in the original trilogy that it is not surprising that her origin story makes for an exciting read. It is pretty difficult to write a prequel for a character we know survives this story, especially one who literally kills without compunction in service of her religious beliefs but Staveley is so talented he does it very successfully. There are many other characters in the Unhewn Throne trilogy who would also make excellent subjects of their own books (Gwenna, The Flea, to name just a few) so I hope Staveley returns to this setting soon.

Honorable Mention (Fantasy): Age of Swords (The Legends of the First Empire, #2) by Michael J. Sullivan
One of my happy discoveries in recent year has been the work of Michael J. Sullivan. His Riyria Revelation trilogy (Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, Heir of Novron) was on my list of favorite reads for 2016. Sullivan approaches the book industry a bit differently than most authors, since he started by self-publishing his books (quite successfully) and even though his books are now published by major booksellers one is also able to buy them directly from him. He has a new epic fantasy series based thousands of years before the events of the Riyria Revelations called the Legends of the First Empire. Amazingly, he has completed first drafts of the entire 6-book series, so the books are guaranteed to be released on a pretty regular schedule. Age of Swords is the second book in the series and builds upon the setting and characters introduced in the first book, Age of Myth. Unlike the Riryia trilogies, which feature two male characters and are effectively laced with humor, this new series has a female protagonist and is primarily based on an existential conflict between the powerful Fhrey (near immortal, masters of magic and powerfully violent) and humans, who are portrayed in the Bronze age, but inventive and resource. The humans thought the Fhrey were gods until one of them was killed in Age of Myth, but there is still a sense that if the Fhrey decided to invade lands occupied by humans they could exterminate them without much trouble.

Favorite Mystery Novel Read In 2017: Flesh House (DS Logan McRae, #4) by Stuart MacBride
Comedy is so difficult to do that when I find someone who does it well I am always impressed. That Stuart MacBride is able to do this in the context of police procedural mystery thrillers is amazing. I only started reading MacBride's books about Detective Sergeant Logan McRae's adventures as part of the Aberdeen Constabulary in 2017 but already they are very near the top of my all-time list in the mystery category. It was somewhat difficult to decide which of the seven McRae books I read last year should be at the top of this list, but I think it makes sense to pick Flesh House since it is simultaneously the most thrilling and the most darkly comic of these books that I have read so far. As a DS, Logan is basically in middle management, with uniformed police and Detective Constables (DCs) beneath him, and Detective Inspectors (DIs) and Detective Chief Inspectors (DCIs) above him. Unfortunately, in both directions he is surrounded by incompetence and indolence, which MacBride exploits for its maximum comedic effect. The key character here is his immediate boss, DI Roberta Steel (who is such a great character that MacBride has written an entire stand-alone book featuring her in And Now We Are Dead). In Flesh House, Logan (as usual) is juggling multiple criminal investigations, although they are overshadowed by what appears to be the re-emergence after 3 decades  of a cannibalistic serial killer called the Flesher. Len Wiseman was the person who was arrested, tried and convicted as the Flesher but he has been free for years because his conviction was overturned on appeal. Recently a container car full of human meat that was en route to a local butcher has been found and the Granite City is gripped with panic about their local food supply and the police are in such a frenzy to put Wiseman behind bars again that they are willing to bend the rules to get the result that they want. Logan eventually solves the case but only after he puts himself in mortal danger (again) and undergoes excruciating situations which have lasting consequences on his political and personal future.

Runner-Up Favorite Mystery Novel Read in 2016: Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly (Sean Duffy, #6) by Adrian McKinty
One of the key discoveries I made in 2016 was the Inspector Sean Duffy  books by Adrian McKinty. These are a series of police procedurals set in the suburbs of Belfast, Northern Ireland at the height of the "Troubles" in the mid-1980s. I'm already a sucker for police procedurals, having consumed several books of this type written by Duncan MacBride (DS Logan McRae), Ian Rankin (DI John Rebus in Edinburgh), Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series in England), Peter Robinson (DCI Alan Banks in Yorkshire), Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch in Los Angeles), Jo Nesbø (Harry Hole in Oslo, Norway), Jussi Adler-Olsen (Department Q series in Copenhagen, Denmark), Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) and Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallander in Ystad, Sweden). McKinty's Sean Duffy is a nice Catholic boy who is a Royal Ulster Constabulary officer in Carrickfergus, a predominantly Protestant section of Northern Ireland (which also just happens to be the name of the real town that McKinty grew up in.). The Duffy books are bit more than your everyday police-procedural murder-mystery; they have significant elements of spy thriller components, all embedded in oft-amusing cultural commentary on the 1980s and 1990s. The latest (and possibly last) book in the series is the unforgettably titled Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly begins with a bang in Chapter 1 with Duffy abducted and basically left for dead as the result of a contract killing and gets even more suspenseful from there. The book then jumps to a time line BEFORE the abduction to tell the story about how Sean got into this predicament and the reader is left with the very real possibility that Detective Duffy may not survive this tale. (I don't want to give away anything but McKinty has revealed that there will be 3 more Duffy books coming out starting with The Detective Up Late in 2019).

Honorable Mention (Mystery):  Well-Schooled in Murder (Inspector Lynley, #3) by Elizabeth George.
I finally started reading the British police procedurals written by American Elizabeth George in 2017. George is widely known for her Inspector Lynley series (which at one point was a popular BBC television series that also aired on PBS). The Lynley series is now 20 episodes strong and features upper-class DI Tommy Lynley (the 8th Earl of Asherton) and working-class DS Barbara Havers solving crimes with the supporting characters being Lynley's girlfriend  Lady Helen Clyde and his best friend Simon St. James. I read the first four novels in the series in 2017 but I think that the strongest of these is the third book, Well-Schooled in Murder. The plot is about a murder that has occurred at a boarding school which is something of a locked room mystery. I definitely intend to read more of these books in the future, even though the romantic tension between Tommy and Helen is a bit off-putting, the class tension between Havers and Lynley is intriguing.

Favorite Thriller Novel Read In 2017: Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges, #1) by Stephen King.
Stephen King is a colossus in the publishing world, primarily known for his numerous best-sellers, his prodigious, decades-long written output and the number of film adaptations which have become classic movies (Carrie, It, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, et cetera). Since I am not a fan of horror I had mostly ignored his work  but I did read 11/22/63 (since as an alternative history about the President Kennedy assassination that involves time travel it is effectively science fiction) and very much enjoyed it. So, when I discovered that King had written a mystery thriller series (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch) I decided to check it out and was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. I read all three books in a row; they are very suspenseful, funny and interesting. I don't think King is a great writer, but I do think that he is a fantastic storyteller. I selected Mr. Mercedes as my favorite thriller read in 2017 because the last third of the book is almost impossible to put down. The book begins with the horrible hit-and-run which results in the death of 8 people and the wounding of several more. King tells the story from the perspective of the person who commits the crime, Brady Hartsfield, as well as  the police officer who unsuccessfully investigated the crime and who is now near retirement, Bill Hodges. Hodges teams up with two unlikely sidekicks, a gangly  teenaged African-American named Jerome Robinson and an obsessive-compulsive recluse named Holly Gibney. Together Holly, Jerome and Bill make an engaging team that are a highlight of the entire series. Although they have a limited role in the sequel Finders Keepers they return in the final entry in the trilogy, End of Watch. The series has been adapted for television but is airing on something called the Audience Network which I don't have access to.

Runner-Up Favorite Thriller Read in 2017: Criminal (Will Trent, #6)  by Karin Slaughter
I discovered Karin Slaughter in 2015 when I read the the first book Blindsighted in her Grant County series. The book made an immediate impression on me, grabbing an Honorable Mention for Favorite Thriller Read in 2015. I basically devoured the rest of the six books in the Grant County series in 2016 and have been rapidly making my way through her 9-book Will Trent series ever since. Slaughter is a crime thriller writer who also combines romantic tension between her main characters. The Grant County series was built around a trio of characters: Sara Linton, Jeffrey Tolliver and Lena Adams. (Tolliver and Linton were married and Adams is the only female detective in the same police station where Tolliver was chief of police.) The Will Trent series is based around another female-male-female triangle, Sara Linton, Will Trent and Angie Polaski. (Trent and Polaski were orphans who lived in group homes together, both became Atlanta police officers and eventually married while Sara moves to Atlanta from Grant County and becomes romantically involved with Will.)  In both series Slaughter provides point-of-view perspectives from each of the main characters and shows how the very same events and actions by the principals can be interpreted very differently, usually due to the past experiences and traumas each character carries with them. Slaughter does an excellent job of characterizing female characters and her books are full of extremely strong and independent woman while simultaneously depicting society's (and violent men's) horrific domination and  oppression of women. I chose Criminal as the runner-up thriller of the year from the six Will Trent books I read in 2017 because it revolves around unearthing secrets about Will's parentage and we learn more about why his boss, Amanda Wagner, is so closely tied to him.

Honorable Mention (Thriller): Mississippi Blood (Penn Cage, #6) by Greg Iles.
The Penn Cage books by Greg Iles have been some of my favorite thriller reads in the last few years. Overall, I think the first trilogy (The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, The Devil's Punchbowl) is even more gripping than the second (Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree, Mississippi Blood) although the stakes and acclaim for the second one are greater in every aspect. Reading the series in order raises the stakes for the reader in how invested we are in the ultimate disposition of the characters. Not all of our favorites survive the end of the series, and it is heartbreaking. There's a real sense of suspense and danger that tragedy could strike anyone, even the eponymous Penn Cage. For me, the imbrication of race, crime, Southern history and journalism in the series is a potent mix and convinced me to keep Mississippi Blood on my list of favorite reads in 2017.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less is the title of the award-winning novel by 48-year-old, openly gay author Andrew Sean Greer about an openly gay author named Arthur Less who as his fiftieth birthday approaches decides to go on an extended trip around the world primarily in order to avoid any social obligations involved with the imminent marriage of his former (much younger) lover Freddy Pelu to another man.

I am somewhat ashamed as an openly gay man myself who is an avid reader (and who turned 50 this year!) that it took me this long to discover and finally read Less. (I think I remember some of the buzz when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Novel in 2018 but even that didn’t provoke me to pick it up then). I’m here to urge you to learn from my mistake and read Less sooner rather than later! 

For one thing, the book is relatively short (well under 300 pages) and laugh-out-loud funny. I literally laughed out loud multiple times, especially in the first half of the book. In some circles the fact that a humorous novel won the Pulitzer is more significant than the fact that an openly gay author won for a book with a central gay character. 

Less is essentially a travelogue, a cautionary tale and a love story all in one. It is also cleverly structured (it uses long chapters that revolve around Arthur Less’s trips to various countries like Italy, Germany, Morocco, India and Japan). While sticking to these forms it also pokes fun at them in interesting ways.

Less reminds me of Mohsin Hamid's How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, which subverts the self-help form to make profound observations about life, destiny and virtue. Greer does something similar by subverting the story of the solo American traveler traipsing around the world to make profound statements about the nature of love, aging and happiness. The two works are similar in another way in that they both deploy the narrative voice in tricky and surprising ways. Although Arthur Less is the protagonist of Less, he is not the narrator of the novel. There’s someone else who narrates key scenes of the book and the reason is not clear until the very end. Although there are substantial hints dropped along the way the end of the book still packs an emotional wallop.

In many ways Less is a tour de force. I hope Armie Hammer has called his agent to get the film rights, because he would seem to be perfect casting for the lead role of Arthur Less (who is described as blond,VERY tall, handsome and average in most ways, with innocent eyes).

Title: Less.
Andrew Sean Greer.
Paperback: 273 pages.
 Lee Boudreaux Books.
Date Published: July 18, 2017.
Date Read: November 13, 2018.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A+ (4.08/4.0).



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