Monday, November 26, 2007

Daniel Silva - Prince Of Fire

Title : Prince Of Fire (376 pages)
Author : Daniel Silva (2006)
Genre : Thriller (Political Rant?)
Rating : D-

This Month I Read...
The bombing of the Israeli embassy in Rome puts Gabriel Allon, a reluctant operative for Tel Aviv, on the trail of an Arab terrorist. The path leads all over Europe and the Middle East.

What's To Like...
It's easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. No gray areas here. The Arabs are evil killers; the Jews are noble killers.

At 376 pages, this is a fast read.

What's Not To Like...
The plot is hopelessly disjointed. The evil Arabs blow up the Israeli embassy in Rome. Somehow this leads to a raid in Milan, where a computer disc is found. Italian intelligence can't decode it, so they decide, "what the heck, let's give it to the Israelis". The Israelis magically decode it, and discover it lists, among other things, the personnel file of Gabriel Allon. Which somehow ties into the bombing. Allon assembles a think-tank team, and somehow they decide that the Ultimate Evil is an Arab named Khaled al-Khalifa. Meanwhile, the UE kidnaps Allon's vegetative wife in England, and instead of just killing her, has her smuggled into Paris so she can be blown up at a later date.

Confused? Don't worry. The obviousness of the plot and the simplistic black-&-white characters (Arabs = bad; Israelis = good) will put you to sleep long before you feel any urge to try to make sense of anything.

Born Under A Bad Zion...
The only way to comprehend this travesty is to recognize that it's merely a vehicle for the author to expound his Zionist viewpoint. This is really just a political diatribe with a sloppily-crafted plot thrown over it.

Silva seems to feel the Arabs are entirely to blame for the Middle East crisis. The millions of Palestinian refugees are to blame because they didn't take a better deal when it was offered way back in the 40's/50's. The various Arab governments are also to blame because they haven't expended vast amounts of money to assimilate these refugees into their own country.

Ultimately, Silva's philosophy can be summed up as, "the only good Arab is a dead Arab". Which is nice if you happen to be an Israeli, but not so nice if you're a Palestinian.

In real life, the Silva scenario is inane. If anyone is to blame for the Middle East crisis, it's Britain (who promised the same land to both the Palestinians and the Israelis), and the United Nations (who felt so guilty about the Holocaust, they mandated a new country where (unfortunately) millions of people already lived).

Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are hardly wealthy nations. If anyone ought to throw large sums of money at the Palestinians, it's the UN. And the Palestinians can hardly be blamed for rejecting the earlier offer, since in essence it said they could keep a portion of Palestine provided they ceded a large part of it to Jewish immigrants. Is it surprising they rejected this deal?

But I digress. This is a wretched novel - both as a literary work and as a Arab-hating smear-job. If you're into blatant stereotyping - all Arabs are evil; all Chinese are brain-washed; all French are traitors; all Israelis are noble, etc. - then this book will appeal to you. Otherwise, don't waste your time.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Preacher is a kind-hearted 3-year-old Pit Bull that Jason rescued from the streets about a year ago. There isn't an angry bone in his body. Cats and other dogs make him whine. He is devoted to Jason, and loves walks, treats, extracting the 'squeaky' from stuffed toys, and a nice nap on a comfy couch.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Dean Koontz - Watchers

Title : Watchers (483 pages)
Author : Dean Koontz (1987)
Genre : Thriller (among others; see below)
Rating : A-

This Month I Read...
Watchers is considered by most to be one of Koontz's better efforts. A depressed man comes across a remarkable Golden Retriever while hiking in the southern California wilds. The dog promptly saves the man from a menacing something, they bond, and thus begins a suspenseful book-long chase involving a monster, a psychotic hired hitman, and some duty-bound and therefore not-on-our-side NSA feds.

Oh yeah, there is a love-story too, but we'll ignore that as best we can.

What's To Like...
It's fast-paced! No 50 pages of introductory yawning here. By the time page 30 rolls around; you've already been introduced to the man, the woman, her erstwhile tormentor, the dog, the monster, and the hitman.

The central character - the high-IQ dog - is a joy to follow. What if one of our canine companions was as intelligent as us? The dichotomy (wow, I always wanted an excuse to use that word) of a human-like mind in a dog's body is a fascinating study.

Finally, ther are no slow spots. You'll find yourself staying up late to read more of Watchers.

What's Not To Like...
The characters are fairly shallow. The good guys are completely good; the bad guys are completely bad. The romance is straightforward. The central cri-fi theme - DNA manipulation - has been done by others, and in a better-researched manner.

The ending is hurried and tepid. After 450 pages of a great build-up, the evilnesses are disposed of with remarkable ease. You won't guess the ending, but that's simply cuz you'll be expecting more.

Finally, Koontz leaves so many loose ends that you'll be tempted to roll 'em up into a ball of yarn. The hitman murders - unresolved. The sabotaging of a top-secret government research project - unresolved. The reason that the book is titled "Watchers" - unresolved. The consequences of genetic manipulation - unresolved.

Genres? We've got genres coming out of our ears...
This book must be a librarian's nightmare when trying to think of where to file it. We could call it a Thriller, yet the monster's character is sadly under-developed. Indeed, his only purpose for most of the book is to do a random grisly killing about every 70 pages or so.

Or maybe we'll file it under Romance, although the love story is obvious and trite. The girl has head problems; the guy magically cures her with his love; and she never has any relapses again.

How 'bout Cri-Fi? Except that Koontz never really tries to make the science seem plausible. Maybe Mystery - but as mentioned before, half the killings are never resolved.

Pehaps the best fit would be to call it a Boy-And-His-Dog story, and put it next to Lassie. But I don't think little Timmy ever had to deal with monsters that liked to gouge out eyeballs and decapitate its victims; nor hitmen that fantsized about bludgeoning pregnant women.

But I digress. Watchers is a great read; yet I doubt I'll pick up any more Koontz novels. In his 3-page "Afterword", Koontz states, "I believe that we carry within us a divinely inspired moral imperative to love, and I explore that imperative in all my books". In other words, if you've read one Koontz story, you've read them all. I intend to stop at just one.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raising Sand

Artists : Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Title : Raising Sand (2007)
Genre : Easy-Listening (sadly)
Rating : ***** * (out of 10*)

This Week I'm Listening To...
The oddest pairing of genres since, okay it hasn't been all that long... Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler. The voice of Led Zepplin teams up with Bluegrass/Newgrass's leading lady to do covers of 13 songs from various artists such as Tom Waits and the Everly Brothers.

What's To Like...
The voices blend well. Ms. Krauss and Mr. Plant hit every note dead-on. The backing musicians are superb. The studio engineering is first-rate. The whole album is ...well... pleasant.

What's Not To Like...
While the CD is well done, its aspirations are embarrassingly low. Krauss and Plant yawn their way through a bunch of slow songs that pretty much all have one-octave voice ranges in them. The backing music is professionally played, but if you're looking for any Union Station-esque bluegrass or any Zep-rock guitar work, you're going to be disappointed.

The energy level here is grade-A blahsville. The liveliest tracks are 'The Fortune Teller' and 'Nuthin', and even they sound like someone needs to take a couple No-Doze. At least in those two tracks, the backing musicians are allowed to cut loose a little.

It Helps To Have A Short Memory...
There was a Zits cartoon a couple days ago, where Jeremy's dad asks Pierce (Jeremy's metal-headed body-pierced friend) if he ever listens to The Beatles. "Oh, of course!" replies Pierce, "All the time".
"What about Dylan, Led Zepplin and the Stones?"
The dad walks away, content this his (my) generation has left an indelible stamp on the world of rock-&-roll. After he's gone, Pierce turns to Jeremy and asks, "Why were we talking about elevator music?"

That pretty much sums up Raising Sand. It's a nice album to use as background music when you want to concentrate on reading a good book. But one cringes to think what a young kid might conclude about Led Zepplin and Bluegrass if this is the only album he hears from these two. I'll cut Plant some slack, since he's an old geezer now. But Krauss is fairly young, and there's no excuse for her half-hearted efforts of the past 5 or 6 years.

So we'll give it six stars, which is pretty much my maximum score for easy-listening albums. If you can erase your memories of Led Zepplin and Union Station, then you may give this a higher rating. But if those LZ/US memories still linger, then you're gonna be kinda sad to see how far these two icons have devolved.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

John Prine - In Concert !!

Who : John Prine (opening act : Jason Wilber)
Where : Orpheum Theater (Phoenix, Arizona)
When : 10 November 2007
Rating : B

This is the fourth time I've seen John Prine. The first time I saw him, the Cowboy Junkies were the opening act; the next time he opened for Bonnie Raitt; and last time, Iris DiMent opened for him.

I've been a JP fan for almost 40 years. He writes catchy tunes, plays a mean acoustic (usually) guitar, and the only one who can touch him as a lyricist is Randy Newman.

The Orpheum Theater is ancient by Arizona standards. That means it's been around for 80 years or so. About 5 years ago, they spent beaucoup d'argent to fix it up again, as part of a general revitalizing of downtown Phoenix. Inisde, it looks like one of those Viennese concert halls that you see in the movies.

There is adequate parking nearby. They skimped on the A/C. It verged on being too hot for me. That means everyone else was comfortable.

The place seats about 1300. Alas, there's only one concession stand for buying drinks at Intermission. We tried. So did everyone else. We failed. Venue Rating : C.

Tickets were $55. That seems a bit steep, although it has to be said the place was sold out. As mentioned, we weren't able to buy any refreshments. Jason Wilber had his CD on sale somewhere in the lobby, so maybe JP did likewise. If he did, I didn't find it what with 1300 people milling around in the lobby, trying to buy a drink. Prices Rating : C.

This ain't no Metal concert. Half the people were dressed like it was an opera. A few feeble attempts by folks in the audience to clap along with the songs flickered out quickly.

One strange sidelight. As we were making our way into the hall, I noticed the guy in front of us (dressed like he had just gotten off work as an electrician), had an unusual adornment. In his back pocket was a cheap, yellow, plastic fly-swatter. No, this wasn't a Reader's Digest-promised flashback. I pointed out to Liz, and she saw it also.

Then at Intermission, I saw another guy, in blue jeans, also with a cheap, yellow, plastic fly-swatter in his pocket. All I could think of was that there was going to be a Rocky Horror Picture Show-ish moment where knowing people in the audience broke out the props. Alas, that never happened. The fly-swatters-at-a-concert phenomenon will forever remain a mystery. Crowd Rating : D+.

Jason Wilber played 7 or 8 songs on an acoustic guitar. He also happens to play lead guitar for JP, and is quite good. He's been doing that for some 10 years, and he is nicely influenced by the John Prine wit.

Alas, people playing unaccompanied acoustic guitar are a dime-a-dozen. Haply, he didn't make us wait too long for John. Opening Act Rating : C.

What can I say? I love the guy. He wasn't on tour promoting his latest album, so this allowed him to play all his "fan-favorites" from the past four decades. He picked 'em good.

There was no drummer. Just JP, JW, and a guy who provided rhythm via a bass fiddle. At times, all three would be playing guitars. This may sound like it's rather minimalist, but it works when all three are accomplished musicians.

One thing I've noticed at all four John Prine concerts. People in the audience always feel compelled to request their favorite JP songs by shouting out the titles in between songs. It is blatantly obvious that John Prine already has a set song-list and I've never seen him deviate from it. Get a clue, people!

John played about 1½ hours, so you got your money's worth. The band chemisty was good, considering that the audience verged on being comatose. JP is older than me, so he's nearing the end of a long concert career. It looks like he mostly just plays on weekends anymore. If you have the chance to see him in concert, do it! John Prine Rating : A-.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Nightwish Concert !!

Who : Nightwish (opening act : Paradise Lost)
When : 07 November 2007 (doors opened at 6:30)
Where : Marquee Theater (Tempe, Arizona)
Rating : A-

You have to accept that any Metal concert is going to be a standing-only affair, and will be in a cinder block-walled building where the acoustics suck.

If you're cool with that, then Marquee Theater is a great place . There is ample parking ($5 charge); a wide selection of draft beers and mixed drinks; the security is efficient but low-profile; and lordy-lordy the concert area was adequately cooled to accommodate an audience of 1000+.

The alcohol of choice for MetalHeads is beer. Don't ask for a wine list. And don't even try to buy liquor for minors; you WILL get your sorry a$$ kicked out immediately. Venue Rating : B+.

Tickets were $23 apiece. Nightwish T-shirts were $30 ea.; a "hoodie" was $40. The Dark Passion Play CD was $20, and you got a Nightwish poster (approx. 11" x 17") free with the purchase.

I don't begrudge the expensive prices for the merchandise. The tickets were dirt cheap (they have to be for MetalHeads); and it's my understanding that merchandise sales is where the band itself makes its profits. Up yours, RIAA. Prices Rating : A.

The doors did indeed open at 6:30 PM. Alas, Paradise Lost didn't start playing until 8:00. That's a long time to be standing around.

PL played for an hour, which brings us to 9:00. Then there was another 1-hour gap before Nightwish came on. That's 3½ hours after the doors opened.

We stayed until about 11:00 PM which was only about halfway thru NW's set. But that's way past our bedtime, and we both had to work the next morning. Timing Rating : D (but read on).

The basic dress-code color is of course black. The overwhelming majority of the attendees were, naturally, teenage and 20-something MetalHeads. But there were several parents who were there with their young-teen kids; and a smattering of graybeards. I am happy to say I was not the oldest person there.

There was no moshing/pogo-ing. In general the ausience was well-behaved and loudly appreciative of the bands. Crowd Rating : A.

Paradise Lost is an English Doom/Heavy Metal band. They are apparently a lot better-known in Europe. There is a smattering of "symphonic" in their music, so they are a good fit with NW.

The lead guitarist played some excellent soloes. Or were they riffs? Or were they licks? I just know someone will explain the differences.

The drummer has a very good, eye-opening blog about touring, It is at :

It gives a great glimpse into the not-so-glamorous world of being on tour, and chastens me into cutting both bands a bit of slack when it comes to starting times. Opening Act Rating : B+.

They are AWESOME!!

Lots of cuts from the DPP album. Anette Olzon makes you forget about Tarja, although I have to admit I've never seen the latter in concert. Okay, she did miss a note or two, but hey, what can you expect halfway through a grueling every-night North American tour?

NW had the crowd eating out of their hands. The chemistry certainly appeared to be good; the musicianship was superb; and the song selection was crowd-pleasing. We all sang along with the first song - Bye Bye Beautiful. Nightwish Rating : A.

Overall, it was a great concert; probably in my Top 5 favorite concerts ever; easily in the Top 10. Here's hoping they come back to Arizona next year.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Stirling : Against The Tide Of Years

Title : Against The Tide Of Years (1999)
Author : S.M. Stirling
Genre : Alternate History (454 pages)
Rating : B+

This Month I Read...
ATTOY is the second part of Stirling's "Nantucket" trilogy, where that island gets zapped from present-day back to the 1250 B.C. Bronze Age. Volume One (Island In The Sea Of Time) was previously reviewed. ATTOY takes place 8-10 years after IITSOT. The bad guys have been building up an empire in the Mediterranean. The good guys have been sailing all over the globe, have turned the British Isles into an oasis of civilization, have started Lewis-&-Clarking the North American continent, and have decided it's time to have a showdown with the bad guys.

What's To Like...
Like IITSOT, this is a fast-paced, action-packed book. The good guys go courting the Babylonians as allies (well, the Akkadians, actually) in an out-flanking maneuver. After disposing of the nasty Assyrians, they also go wooing the Hittites and the Trojans. How's that for some non-stereotypical allies?

Unlike Clive Cussler novels, bad things happen to the good guys. The Nantucket naval fleet runs smack-dab into a hurricane (with devastating results). The Babylonian venture is jeopardized by an outbreak of small-pox. The native priests blame it on the foreigners, and they might be right. It's never quite clear exactly how the outbreak started.

Meanwhile, the bad guys are actually doing some smart (and good) things. They overrun Sicily, they set up a fortified city at the straits of Gibraltar, and they reward some of their slaves by freeing them after years of faithful service.

In short, the two sides are very equally balanced.

What's Not To Like...
The plot loses just a bit of steam in ATTOY, but that's inherent in the middle book of any trilogy, including Tolkien's The Two Towers.

The same minor irritations from IITSOT carry over - Stirling's penchant for the emptying of the bowels as people die in battle, the excruciatingly tedious details about the science of sailing, etc. And now, about 25% of the political hero's vocabulary seems to consist of one word : "Ayup!"

Finally, unlike Volume One, there isn't any great big climax to close out Volume Two. The tension builds, the two forces meet on the plains of Ilium, and... um... and it's time to buy Volume Three.

Why Theology And Time-Travel Don't Mix...
Stirling isn't a big one to go into the theological implications of dropping a bunch of Yankee Christians back into 1250 B.C. The good guys allow the proselytizing of the Bronze Age England natives, and Stirling touches briefly on the fact that inroads are made. It's never clear if the natives comprehend the dogma, or if they merely accept the gods simply because they came with the conquering heroes.

Which got me to thinking - just how would one go about preaching the Gospel? Do you ask the barbarians to accept Jesus as their Saviour, when He's not going to show up for another 12½ centuries? And if you die before He does show up (which is a certainty), exactly what happens to you? Do you get a "Get Into Heaven Early" pass? Do you get to sleep for 1250 years (putting Rip Van Winkle to shame)? And do you make a note to interfere with Biblical history in the future, to make the Gospel story come out different? Did God zap these blokes back 300 years as some sort of cosmic joke, or did He have a purpose? Or perhaps this is all better explained as being an example of the Butterfly Effect.

But I digress. ATTOY is still a good read, albeit not quite up to the lofty standards of IITSOT. Despite being a bit anticlimactic, you'll still want to immediately start into the 630 pages of Volume Three, to make sure Good does triumph over Evil. This is still the best Alt-History I've read so far.