Monday, November 13, 2017

War Hawk

by James Rollins & Grant Blackwood
368 pgs  (Tucker Wayne series #2)

War Hawk is the second time James Rollins and Grant Blackwood have collaborated on their series featuring former Army Ranger Tucker Wayne and his K-9 partner Kane. As the book begins, the two are traveling through Montana, relaxing and getting used to being stateside again when trouble keeps managing to find them. The first time they find themselves having to disarm a group of thugs intent on harassing the Middle Eastern owner and operator of a gas station.

Tucker and Kane make short work of the group, but later that night more serious trouble finds them when a woman from Tucker’s past tracks them down needing help. Jane Sabatello, a former Army Ranger Intelligence Analyst who now works for the Defense Intelligence Agency tells Tucker how she believes someone is trying to kill her. Jane tells Tucker that a friend and former team member she worked with had disappeared recently, and how while investigating her disappearance she discovered that several people who had worked on the same project had either gone missing as well, or had died accidentally in recent months. Tucker is the last person she trusts and she knows he has resources and skills that could not only protect her, but that could help her uncover why members of her team are being eliminated.

What the two discover is a plot that involves some of the most powerful people in the U.S. government and which began in World War II and involved the genius mathematician Alan Turing.

War Hawk features all of the aspects you’d expect to have in a James Rollins book. It’s a thriller densely composed of action-packed sequences and state-of-the-art military technology. But for me the best aspect of the book is Kane. Kane is a fascinating character, regardless of the fact that he’s a dog. I can’t say I was a big fan of the occasional section of the book told from Kane’s perspective (Dean Koontz did the same thing a couple of times, and it’s one of the reasons I no longer read his books). But Rollins more than makes up for those sections by shining a light on army dogs and just how remarkable dogs like Kane truly are. The authors clearly have a deep appreciation for these dogs that serve our country and it’d be impossible for someone not to feel the same way after reading either book in this series.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Swan Song

by Robert McCammon
798 pgs

About seven years ago I read my first book by Robert McCammon: Speaks the Nightbird, and his Matthew Corbett series instantly became a favorite of mine. I subsequently began reading his back catalog and have yet to be disappointed. Even his first few books, which McCammon has said himself are not that great and were the ones he wrote while he was learning how to write, I found were worth the time to read.

Swan Song is one of his earlier books that I was looking forward to the most, but that took me the longest to get around to reading. My wife read it when she was in high school, and knowing that King’s The Stand is my all-time favorite book, would periodically ask me when I was going to read it. But it’s not an easy book to get your hands on in hardcover, so it wasn’t until Subterranean Press got around to issuing it that I finally got my chance.

It’s a fantastic book and was well worth the wait.

At the beginning of the book nuclear war breaks out between the USA and the USSR. When the Soviet bombs land across the country, millions are killed from the initial blasts and the subsequent fallout. Among the survivors are a Sister Creep, a homeless woman in New York City, Josh Hutchins, a giant of a man who used to play in the NFL and most recently toured the country as a professional wrestler, and a nine-year old girl named Swan.

As the story progresses, their paths cross and the three find themselves traveling across the country, being guided by a jewel encrusted ring of glass. Sister found the ring in the ruble of a jewelry store shortly after the bombs fell and it led her to Josh and Swan. But something else knows about the ring and is searching for it, an entity able to take human form that senses the power of the ring feels compelled to destroy it.

Swan Song drew me in immediately. It’s nearly 800 pages long, and while sometimes a book that long would be significantly improved if it were only half as long, that’s not the case with this one. McCammon masterfully paces his story, beginning it with the conflict between two countries, each with the ability to destroy the world, and ending it with the ultimate conflict between good and evil. One side trying to ensure the planet’s opportunity to start over, and the other determined to destroy it completely.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Any Other Name

by Craig Johnson
317 pgs  (Longmire series #10)

In the tenth book in his Longmire series, Craig Johnson has Walt, Vic, Lucien, and Henry investigating the death of a detective in nearby Campbell County. The detective, a former associate of Lucien, shot himself in the head, an obvious suicide. But when Walt starts looking into the death, he quickly learns that something is wrong. The detective had been investigating the disappearances of several young women, but what tips Walt off that things are not right is the fact that the detective shot himself twice. The first bullet went through his cheeks, the second, into his brain. It appears to Walt that the detective wanted to punish himself before he ended his life, and Walt wants to find out why.

Some authors are good at writing character-driven stories. Others write plot-driven ones well. There aren’t many who can do both simultaneously as well as Craig Johnson.

Walt is one of the best characters you’ll come across. He’s not a flawed anti-hero so common in mystery and crime fiction stories today. He’s not a recovering alcoholic or even a violin-playing, cocaine-snorting detective (although it’s clear he was inspired by one). Instead he’s an old-school hero, the type that used to be so common, but then fell out of fashion. Which makes him a rarity today and even easier to like.

But Walt’s not the only character that continually drives the series. Each of the supporting characters, although they’re not center stage as often as Walt is, are multi-dimensional and could easily be the main character in a series of their own.

Fortunately, Johnson takes his cast of characters, and in each book, involves them in a story that’s smart, at times funny, and always compelling and rewarding. 

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

by David Sedaris
159 pgs

I mentioned in my last review that I rarely read back to back books by the same author. I can definitively say, until now, I'd never read three in a row. This is a first.

Unfortunately, this third one was a departure from the last two. Instead of a collection of essays relaying short, humorous accounts of his travels, childhood, relationships, or observations of the state of the world, this time Sedaris gives us his version of Rudyard Kiplings Just So Stories. It didn't work.

While Sedaris's views of the world are quite a bit further to the left on the political and social spectrums than mine are, in the first two books I didn't care. His sense of humor overshadowed those aspects of his writing, and I couldn't help but enjoy myself. This time, there was no humor, just an assortment of barnyard animals and small woodland creatures, anthropomorphized and placed on Sedaris's soapbox to demonstrate the absurdity of the opinions and viewpoints he doesn't share.

I know I'll continue to read his books going forward. But I think I'll stick to his traditional material from now on.

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

by David Sedaris
275 pgs

So, I finished my first David Sedaris book and immediately started another one. I don’t usually allow myself to read back to back books by the same author, but I decided this time I’d disregard my self-imposed dogma and just go crazy. Frankly the decision might have come as a direct result of the insight his last book gave me into the life and mind of someone as rigid and compulsive as he is. It made me a little nervous about any quirks I might have, albeit minor as they may be. So, it’s two Sedaris books in a row.

With Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls Sedaris compiles a series of his essays that serve as part travelogue and part an insight into his family—and what an insight it is. Many of the essays have liberal political or social undertones, but I doubt those who associate themselves with the far right are going to be reading his books. But that’s their loss. They’re missing out on his masterful telling of his first colonoscopy and his father’s fixation on Donny Osmond. 

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

When You are Engulfed in Flames

by David Sedaris
323 pgs

A few months back I attended a David Sedaris book signing. Before the event formally began, Mr. Sedaris invited those who had books they wanted signed to line up and he’d get to as many as he could before his reading. As I stood in line I listened to the conversations he was having with the people in front of me as he signed their books. With each person he would begin by asking them a random question, one you would never think to ask someone you were meeting for the first time. “How is your relationship with your father?” “Who’s your dentist?” and when I got to him, “Any chance you plan to be in Seattle this weekend?” Each question prompted a brief conversation that was friendly, entertaining, and funny. That was my first insight into the mind of a writer I’ve since grown quite fascinated by.

When You are Engulfed in Flames is the first of Sedaris’s books I’ve read. At times it’s hilarious (and not safe to be listening to while driving), like his recounting of the time he accidentally spit out his throat lozenge onto the lap of the woman sleeping next to him on the airplane, or the time he ended up sitting in the waiting room of his doctor in Paris wearing nothing but his underwear because he didn’t understand French. At other times it makes you feel sorry for the man, as he tells stories of his childhood and the upbringing which has obviously resulted in at least a few neuroses and a very successful writing career.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reincarnation Blues

by Michael Poore
371 pgs

At its heart, Reincarnation Blues is a love story. As I’ve thought about it, I don’t know if I had ever read a love story before this one. I may be wrong, but I can’t remember any, if I did. So why was I so excited to read this one when I heard about it? It’s because the book has such a fantastic premise. Milo is the oldest soul on earth. So far, he’s lived 9,995 lives. He has yet to reach “perfection”, so each time he dies, he’s reincarnated as someone, or something else and given another chance. But dying is the only way for him to see Suzie (aka, Death), who greets his soul each time he passes and spends time with him until he’s born again.

Over the thousands of years, thousands of lives, and most importantly, thousands of deaths, Milo and Suzie have fallen deeply in love with each other. And whether they’re able to spend hours, days, or hopefully weeks together before they’re separated again, the two of them have fallen deeply in love with one another.

But Milo only has five tries left to achieve perfection, otherwise his soul will be “cancelled.” He’s stuck between the threat of oblivion and the love of his…can’t say life or even lives…the love of his deaths.

I’m glad I saw this book at the bookstore, although I suspect the neon-sign-like cover was designed with the intent of making it hard NOT to notice it. Poore masterfully uses flashbacks to tell of many of the lives Milo has already lived, which are often hilarious and end absurdly. But while the story has many laugh-out-loud moments, it’s also very thought provoking and emotional. This is a big-ideas book and Poore pulls it off with finesse and style.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆