Atoms in the Family: My Life With Enrico Fermi by Laura Fermi

Atoms in the Family by Laura FermiThis is truly an amazing book about an inspiring family. Enrico Fermi was a physicist who quite literally gave his life researching nuclear science. He is one of the many scientists we can thank for nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

Laura Fermi gives a rare view into the life of one of the great scientists of the twentieth century. Fermi and his family are Italian. They lived in Italy during the rise of Mussolini. When it became apparent that Mussolini was going to cow to Hitler’s demands to ostracize Jews they decided to flee. The problem was, Laura and the kids were Jewish.

This book is the story of Laura and Enrico. How they met, how they fled and came to America where Enrico became one of the many people shipped around the country to work on the top secret Manhattan Project.

For years Laura didn’t even know what her husband was doing. She knew they were moved to Chicago and then to Los Alamos. She knew he was working for the government and she knew many of the scientists that he worked with. She knew it was for the war. But, like most of the families she didn’t know what they were doing until the bomb dropped. Then everybody knew.

This is a powerful story about a family, made especially powerful by Laura’s wit and wisdom in how she tells it. She doesn’t seem to sugar coat things. She describes herself and her husband — who she refers to as Fermi, throughout — in frank terms and details some amusing tidbits about his personality that make him sound hard to live with.

This is one side of the war. This is living through all the secrecy. This is the story of one family and their journey to do their part to stop a war that spread across continents and devastated entire countries.

It’s also a love story. It wasn’t love at first sight. In fact there was very little Hollywood style about their lives. But that’s what makes it so real. These were real people. They loved each other. They raised a family, changed the world and built the first nuclear bomb.

Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy

Clear and Present Danger by Tom ClancyTom Clancy is a highly respected author. Just putting his name on a book sells about a million copies. For the life of me I can’t see why. In fact, I’m beginning to question all the super popular books. Dan Brown turned out to be basically terrible. Clive Cussler leans so heavily on the worst sexist tropes that its a wonder his books don’t collapse under the weight of how terrible they are.

To say this book is overhyped is probably the most severe understatement of the century. This is probably the worst case of self-congratulatory, poorly written, purple prose I have ever encountered. To top it all off, it’s also really boring.

The story goes something like this:

Character, back story, back story, flashback, boring back story, breakfast.

New Character, boring back story, flashback, boring back story, dramatic statement.

Mix. Repeat. When you get to character number twenty or so. Then start over at the beginning.

Now the fun part. Give all the characters kind of similar sounding names so when the reader finally gets back to character number one they don’t really know who that is. Is this a new guy? Is this somebody I’ve read about before? Oh, he must be new because we just launched into a backstory. Wait. This is the same background as the first guy. Why are we doing this again?

To mix it up we’ll have character (a) be a widow, her husband died. Of cancer. Her boss, character (b), is a congressman whose wife died. Of cancer. Character (c) is some kind of super genius married to a rich surgeon. His best friend is dying. Of cancer.

Did Tom Clancy have a message buried somewhere in the all the nauseum or did he just not realize that here are other ways for people to die?

Or maybe this book is about cancer and how evil it is and how it changes people and makes them different. Cancer is a Clear and Present Danger and we’re gong to fight it. With helicopters and guns.

Only its actually drugs. The war on drugs is getting real. We’re going to invade foreign countries, perform espionage and train an elite group of soldiers to stop drug trafficking. It’s the ‘90s and we don’t have Russia to be scared of any more so we have to have something to shoot at. Lets go kill some South Americans because they are responsible for drugs. Which probably caused all the cancer.

I think I could have handled all of those things if the book hadn’t been so boring. I’ve read books that are riddled with cliches. I’ve enjoyed movies that are nothing but stupid piled on stupid (one of my favorite movies is Sahara — which just doesn’t get any stupider — though part of the reason I like it is because I don’t think the movie is taking itself seriously) but this is aggressively boring.

It takes nearly one third of this dangerously long novel to even see the name of the main character, who turns out to be capable at everything he does and his best friend is dying of cancer.

Clancy had a middle schoolers view of politics and how they work. He also has almost no understanding of law, international relations or even critical thinking skills. There are senators and vice presidents and attaches and spies and drug dealers and consuls and not one of them seems able to scrape a couple brain cells together long enough to make an intelligent decision.

But they have backgrounds. And loved ones who have died. Of cancer.

I will give him two things. When the action starts the reader is there. You are in the cockpit, you are firing the gun, crouching in the jungle. You are in the fight. It only lasts for about a paragraph but that paragraph is pure gold.

Hopefully you’ll live long enough to find the next action scene.

The other thing is closely related. Clancy gets military culture and equipment. His use of those things is obviously meticulously researched and deployed to deadly effect. He understands how intelligence gathering works, and how training works. He knows all the different weapons, how they work, what they do, their weaknesses, their strengths. He knows how it feels to pull a six gee turn in the cockpit of a fighter. He knows how it sounds to fire a sniper rifle with a silencer firmly attached to the barrel.

I have no idea if he really knows those things but I know he convinced me. For what that’s worth.

If you distill this book down to its discussions of military equipment and materiel and the action scenes. It would probably be only about ten pages but it would sure be a lot more fun to read.

Maybe I expected too much.

Monster Hunter Vendetta by Larry Correia

Monster Hunter Vendetta by Larry Correia

Monster Hunter International was a fun book. I had some complaints. The writing is only okay, sometimes a little clunky and the main character is basically a dream version of the author — a typical Mary Sue.

When I need something that is just full of action and lots of explosions and fire and monsters and crazy guns, I know where to go.

This book is very much like the last. Larry Correia has an interesting cast of characters that are diverse in both background and personality and they make the book interesting. There are just the right jokes in just the right places. Lots of fire, explosions, guns, monsters, world-ending horrors and action, action, action.

If that doesn’t sound like fun then walk away.

The flaws are still there. Owen Pitt is still Larry Correia minus ten years and in a world where his obsession with guns is actually justified. Correia tends to fall back on some very passive sentences when the action starts, which seems counterintuitive to me but also looks like an early writer mistake that an editor should have cautioned him on. The constant repetition of the verb ‘was’ actually becomes a bit tiresome.

The mystery that the plot is based on is pretty nonexistent. Most of the plot developments I saw coming from several hundred pages out. But, then again, that’s not why I’m reading this book. If I want a mystery I’ll pick up Michael Connelly. If I want active voice with poetic language I will read Daniel Abraham or Tolkien or LeGuin. If I want big guns blowing up progressively scarier monsters, Larry Correia is pretty much unmatched on that front.

This book is over six hundred pages, which is long, but it didn’t feel like it. The story moves from action to action quickly enough that the pages fly by and with just enough interlude to not give the reader action fatigue.

This is a good book for what it is trying to be. Think summer superhero movie. You won’t be disappointed.

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb won my allegiance with Assassin’s Apprentice. That book cemented her in my mind as an author that I would seek out. I immediately bought the rest of the books in that trilogy.

Royal Assassin did not disappoint me in the least. Fitz has grown a lot since the last book, physically as well as other ways. He is also forever scarred by the events of the previous book. He suffers from seizures due to poisoning and injury and he has a deep mental trauma placed magically in his mind whenever he tries to access the Skill, the power that allows members of the royal family to communicate with each other telepathically and to see events far away through the eyes of others.

I wish I knew what makes me love these books so much.

I can site elements that are great: The writing is beautiful. Robin Hobb writes with confidence and words fall into place as if crafted specifically to fit into each sentence. The story is brutal and powerful and emotionally wrenching all at once. Fitz falls in love with a peasant girl and his feelings are so painfully raw that his frustration becomes almost palpable — even a bastard son of royalty can not be allowed to marry whomever he choses. The magic is subtle and part of the world. The plot is thick and tense and a train wreck that you can’t look away from — in a good way.

All those things are things that I have encountered before. Things that I have seen combined together before. But never before felt a hunger for more so strongly as I do with these books. Perhaps it is the depth to which Hobb places the reader inside the mind of Fitz and lets them feel all of his frustrations and dreams and betrayals.

Hobb knows how to punish her characters. She scrubs them over the washboard and wrings them dry after, leaving them battered and smashed. But they are also different, cleaner, more open and raw than ever before. That process is fascinating to see the characters hopes and beliefs evolve as the previous ones are constantly scrubbed away, only to see them smitten again.

It sounds like it should be bleak, and I guess it is, in many ways. The story is bleak, not just what happens to Fitz but what is happening to the Six Duchies and to the characters around him. But it doesn’t feel bleak because these are characters that keep on fighting. They keep getting up, straightening out their broken noses, dusting off their soiled clothes and moving forward. This is a book that is all about fighting back against hopelessness. It is bleak but there is hope, just keep trying and maybe, in the end, there will at last be answers.

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Sharing Knife- Beguilement by Lois McMaster BujoldI understand and respect an author that likes to dabble in different genre. I usually find that exciting and will go along with it. Sometimes, however, that genre just is not for me.

Lois Bujold is one of the finest writers of fantasy right now. I still haven’t gotten to her science fiction books but I understand they are also quite good. With the Sharing Knife I feel like Bujold played a bait and switch on me. She started me out in a wonderful fantasy world that I genuinely want to know more about. It resembles the American old west in that there are vast tracks of uncharted wilderness and settlers with Christian values and local tribes of natives that the settlers don’t understand. It’s also post-apocalyptic, which is amazing (not that this is anything new in fantasy just that this is a wildly different take on it). There are blight boggles that suck the life out of things to become more real and mutate wildlife into twisted approximations of humans. There are special knives used for killing the blight boggles and a secret tribe of native hunters with some fantastic magic that hunt them down in order to keep the farmers safe.

All that comes out in the first couple of chapters and it culminates in some great action scenes that show a young female character, Fawn, helping a one-handed patroller, Dag, to destroy a powerful blight boggle.

From there the tables flip and suddenly we are in a romance novel.

I can take romance in my fiction. It’s sort of expected even. I can even understand if romantic motivations are the prime driver for the plot or the character.

I think this book trotted out every derided romance trope that exists, some of them blatantly obvious to me, and I’ve never actually read a romance book before. The tropes in this book are lifted straight off the covers of those books you see on the shelf in Wal-mart.

After their daring defeat of the blight boggle Fawn and Dag fall in love in the space of about forty eight seconds. Despite the fact that she is miscarrying a baby (caused by the touch of the blight boggle) that she got from a youthful dalliance with a boy who refuses to speak to her now and Dag has been mourning the loss of his wife for more years than Fawn has been alive. He gets over it when he sees her perpetually bouncy curls that never get tangled, matted or dirty through weeks of sleeping on the ground and walking through dusty roads.

There are scenes where Dag wanders around with his shirt off and every muscle and scar gets described in exquisite detail. There are scenes where they stare longingly across the room at each other while protocol keeps them apart. There are threats of them being disowned by one family or another if they get together. There are a lot longing glances and downright silly professions of love for people who have known each other all of twenty minutes.

I kept expecting to get back to the point of the story, to find out about fighting the boggles, and how the Sharing Knives works but no. It never happens. The entire book is taken up with making doe eyes at one another and giggling about bare chests.

Unfortunately the brilliance of the world building is not enough to take me through to the next four books in the series. I love the world Bujold has created, I just can’t swallow the story she wants to tell in it.

In Grandma’s Attic by Arleta Richardson

In Grandma's Attic by Arleta RichardsonWhen I was little I discovered these books somewhere. I have no idea where I encountered them but I tended to read everything in sight back then so my guess is that somebody gave us the books. I remember thinking that they had amusing stories but I could not remember any of them clearly.

When my son told me he was tired of reading such long stories like The Hobbit I thought these would be perfect for him. It turns out they pretty much were. Each story is short enough that it finished just when he was starting to lose interest.

The stories are amusing in the way that many stories told by people who are reminiscing are. People rarely reminisce about the bad times or the scary things that happened. Because of that the stories are all succinct and leave off with a happy ending.

There is a bit of a frame story, but it’s only cursory. There is a little girl — presumably the author — who either lives with her grandma or spends a great deal of time there. She constantly digs for stories and her grandma constantly obliges. Most of these stories would be just as good without the frame and many of them would be better since the frame parts are frequently the clunkiest.

The beginning of the book seems to feel like each story needs a moral, explicitly stated. Something along the lines of “that is why you should never…” Once the stories get beyond that they are better.

If you are easily offended by early American Christian beliefs then this probably isn’t a book for you. The author wrote about her grandma who grew up in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s and her belief system was pretty typical of that time.

That said, the writing is kind of weak. The voice of grandma and the voice of the author are almost indistinguishable. I had a hard time throughout telling when it was the frame story and when it was another of grandma’s tales. There is no physical delimiter in the text and there is always a short moment of confusion who is speaking at the beginning of each chapter.

It seems to be aiming at the fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder but will probably leave most of them disappointed as it carries little of the power that those books have.

City of Bones by Michael Connelly

City of Bones by Michael Connelly

I don’t read a lot of mystery novels — at least I don’t think I do. Part of that reason is that it seems easy for the story to take on a formula. This is most obvious in the serial police shows on television. You see one episode of Castle or Psych or CSI or Bones and you’ve seen them all. They hit all the notes right on cue for commercial breaks so that you can call the next event by what time it is. I’ve seen that a lot in books as well. Once an interesting new character and voice come out they are exciting and then a few books later it becomes apparent that these authors and their heroes have a modus operandi that is just as easy to spot as the serial killers they are talking about.

The reason I keep returning to Michael Connelly and his books is that I haven’t seen that happen yet. As long as he can keep me guessing and wondering what’s going on then I’ll keep coming back.

I’m not the most astute reader so it’s pretty easy to keep me guessing. If you keep presenting reasonably plausible actions and exciting scenarios I’ll completely miss the clues and be surprised by the ending. That’s why it’s so disappointing when a mystery writer fails to produce any mystery. If there is nothing driving me to learn who committed the crime that opened the story then I’m not interested and the fastest way to lose the mystery is to make it too obvious.

What makes Connelly’s mysteries so great is that his characters make reasonable mistakes. Sometimes they chase the rabbit down the wrong hole.

In City of Bones Harry Bosch gets called in when a man’s dog finds the leg bone of a human child buried in the hills behind his house. That sets off an investigation into the murder of a 12-year-old boy twenty years before and the secrets of his past that have remained hidden all that time.

This is probably the most emotional we’ve seen Harry Bosch and there are a lot of politics at play in a public case like this one. Mistakes are made and a dark history is uncovered that will send chills down anyone’s spine.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Michael Connelly’s books so good and I think I’ve narrowed it down. His characters are compelling — not just the main guy. Harry Bosch is a collection of flaws and fanatical drive bundled in a jazz-loving, intolerant workaholic and he’s a fascinating character to be inside the head of. But that’s not all, every character that Bosch interacts with is just as fully realized with their own agenda, personality, desires, needs and thoughts. They’re not always friends but they’re real people. The characters make the stories come alive in ways that feel inevitable when another person jumps out and starts talking.

The other thing I think that Connelly uses so well is his pacing. At every turn there is action but not the kind that you might think of. There are police chiefs throwing political caltrops in his way, there are ambitious detectives making foolish choices and suspicious victims unwilling to testify until pressed. The action is usually just talking but its always action and always moving, pushing back and forth.

And finally, Connelly just really knows mysteries. He knows the police and the pressure they go through and the politics they deal with. He knows the stress and pain and heartache. And he respects it. That shows through in everything he writes. Harry Bosch is one of the good guys.

Books I read, Pictures I take.

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