Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Great Alone

by Kristin Hannah
438 pgs

The Great Alone is the first book published by Kristin Hannah since The Nightingale by far her most successful book to date. It's the story of the Allbright family, who relocate to the Alaskan wilderness in 1974, after an old war buddy from Vietnam leaves Ernt, the father, his family's cabin. Ernt, his wife Cora, and their 13-year-old daughter Leni, looking for a fresh start, decide to pack up their Volkswagen bus an drive from Seattle to the small, dilapidated cabin outside of Homer Alaska.

Ernt, once a doting and loving husband and father, hasn't been the same since he returned from the war in Vietnam. he struggles to hold down a job, he drinks too much, and when he does, he can become violent. Cora and Leni hope the "simple life" in Alaska, away from the pressures and struggles of living in a big city, will be just what Ernt needs to return to the type of man he once was.

But Alaska is a harsh and unforgiving place, with its own struggles and challenges, which have to be overcome on a constant basis in order to survive. Those, combined with the long, dark winter months, prove to be just what Ernt doesn't need, and Cora and Leni soon find themselves isolated from the rest of the world, and in fear for their lives.

The Great Alone turned out to be a tale of two books for me. On the one hand, the first half of the book is tremendously promising. I found myself repeatedly thinking about the Torrance family, isolated at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining as Cora and Leni's situation gradually deteriorates. But as the book progressed, I found myself less and less sympathetic to Cora, and more and more irritated with some of the decisions--or lack of decisions--made by her.

Overall, The Great Alone is a pretty good book, good enough that I'll likely read more by Kristin Hannah down the road. It's just unfortunate that the second half of the book didn't deliver on the promises made by the first half. If it had, I'd consider it the best book I had read in quite a while.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Gone World

by Tom Sweterlitsch
388 pgs

In Tom Sweterlitsch's book The Gone World, mankind is not limited in its ability to travel across both space and time. The Naval Space Command runs a covert space and time-traveling program that sends Navy personnel across the galaxy and across time.

A world-ending phenomenon called Terminus has been discovered, and Naval Space Command is working nonstop to find a way to prevent it. Navy personnel who have witnessed Terminus are forever changed. Among those is Shannon Moss, an NCIS agent who experienced the Terminus first hadn't during a mission to the year 2199. During that mission she saw a version of herself, crucified mid-air in a wasteland of a world. She She was able to return to the present (1997), but no unscathed.

Once back, Shannon is assigned to a team of agents trying to find a missing girl. The girl's family was brutally murdered in their home, and it appears the person who committed the murders was a naval officer who had been participating in the time-travel program. Moss begins jumping back and forth between 1997 and 2015, trying to solve the murders and hopefully learn something that will help the team find the girl back in 1997. But Moss also learns that there's a connection between the Terminus and the missing girl and her family. A connection that is becoming more and more important to discover, since the Terminus appears to be getting closer to the present timeline of earth every time it's encountered.

The mystery part of Sweterlitsch's story is interesting, but where the story really stands out is with his exploration of the potential consequences of time travel. Each time Moss comes back to 1997 and acts on information she learned in 2015, things have changed the next time she returns to 2015--sometimes inexplicably and drastically. It makes for a complicated story that if you're not very attentive to, can easily become confusing.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book a lot, almost enough to start over as soon as I finished it to pick up on all of the things I'm sure I missed the first time around.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Monday, May 14, 2018

Before They are Hanged

by Joe Abercrombie
570 pgs  (First Law series #2)

Before They are Hanged is the second book int Joe Abercrombie's "First Law" trilogy, which began with The Blade Itself, and concludes with The Last Argument of Kings (although there are a few other standalone books and short stories, which also take place in The World of the First Law). The book successfully accomplishes what the middle book in any trilogy is supposed to do, and does it as well as any.

The Union is involved in a war on two fronts. To the north, the ruthless Northmen have invaded the province of Angland, where Colonel West has allied himself with Logen Ninefingers' former band of cutthroat warriors. To the south, Superior Glokta, the crippled torturer must try to rally forces and prepare them against the imminent invasion by the Gurkish Empire.

Meanwhile, Jezal dan Luthar, accompanied by Bayaz the Magician, Ninefingers, and others are on a quest to find The Seed, an ancient magical relic from The Other Side, which enables whoever possesses it to access the immense power from The Other Side.

There's a lot going on in this book, let alone the entire series, and at time it can get a little confusing, as the story skips back and forth from the three different locations. But it is worth it. Abercrombie has created a world that rivals Middle-earth and Westeros in their magnitude and complexity. His characters are fantastic and memorable, and there's enough action to maintain the attention of someone with ADD.

I waited a couple of years before reading book II. i don't plan to wait as long before reading book III.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Demon Crown

by James Rollins
441 pgs  (Sigma series #13)

Buried beneath the National Mall in Washington D.C. is a cache of bones preserved in amber. They were hidden there by a group of scientists, led by Alexander Graham Bell, in an attempt to protect the world from a threat that could potentially destroy most of the life on the planet. But this is a James Rollins book, so nothing stays buried forever.

Sigma Force commander Grayson Pierce and Seichan have been trying to stay off the grid and enjoy some quality time together in Hawaii when a swarm of massive wasps, with stings that can quickly incapacitate grown men appears off the coast. Pierce and Seichan barely escape with their lives, but many on the beach do not.

Painter Crowe marshals the entire Sigma Force team as they try to discover the origins of this new species of wasp and the identity of the group that unleashed them on the world. They also must find a way to destroy the species before it’s able to spread throughout the world and take countless lives.

Once again Rollins does what he does best. He incorporates cutting-edge technology, with action-packed sequences and tells an unbelievable story firmly rooted in reality. Buckle up, enjoy the ride, and consider bringing along an EpiPen.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Welcome to Night Vale

by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
401 pgs  (Night Vale series #1)

Welcome to Night Vale is the first book by coauthors Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of the twice-monthly podcast of the same name. Night Vale is a small desert town located somewhere in the American Southwest. But Night Vale is not like any small town you’ve ever driven through, stopped for gas at, or eaten a meal in its local diner. In Night Vale, aliens are real, time is kind of funny, and every conspiracy theory you can imagine is true.

The lives of two of its residents: Jackie Fierro, the pawnshop owner who has been 19 years old for decades, and Diane Crayton, whose son is a moody teenage shapeshifter, are drawn together by bizarre circumstances. Jackie is given a small strip of paper by a man who is impossible to remember if you’re not looking at him. The words KING CITY are written on the paper and Jackie finds she’s physically unable to get rid of it. Meanwhile, Diane’s son Josh has recently become interested in his estranged father, a man who until recently Diane hadn’t seen since she was pregnant with Josh, but who now seems to be everywhere she turn…and he doesn’t appear to have aged a day.

When Josh disappears, Diane believes he’s gone to KING CITY and she enlists Jackie’s help in getting there. But together they discover that physically leaving Night Vale is seemingly impossible.

Welcome to Night Vale is a wildly inventive story. At times it gets a little too absurd for its own good, but overall, it’s funny and entertaining. If you haven’t listened to any of the podcasts set there, it’ll take a while to settle in, but if you’re willing to just buckle up and enjoy the ride, it’s a worthwhile read.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Monday, April 16, 2018

Thunderstruck

by Erik Larson
463 pgs

I read very little non-fiction. Maybe two or three books out of every one hundred I read is non-fiction. I think the reason I favor fiction so much more is that I read primarily to be entertained, not to learn. It’s a little sad, now that I think about it, but I don’t anticipate changing anytime soon. So, the non-fiction I do read also tends to be entertaining. Erik Larson’s books are perfect examples.

Larson has a great talent for taking an event or a time in history and dissecting it into fascinating bits of information, and then reassembling them into a narrative that is both compelling and informative. A great example is The Devil in the White City in which he details the series of grisly murders which took place in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition. He does a very similar thing with Thunderstruck, in which he recounts two events from history: the scientific discovery and utilization of wireless telegraphy (radio waves), which took place at the turn of the 20th century and the infamous murder known as the “Crippen case,” and shows how inseparably connected those two events were to each other.

In the late 1890s Guglielmo Marconi developed the world’s first device that could transmit signals wirelessly. At first his device was only able to transmit communications from one side of a room to the other, but eventually he was able to develop the technology enough to transmit messages across the Atlantic Ocean, and ultimately around the world. It was a technology that revolutionized the world.

At the same time Marconi was developing radio technology, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a quiet unassuming man who was married to a loud, overbearing, socialite of a wife, was systematically plotting her death. It was a murder which years later would be the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” and one that Crippen undoubtedly would have gotten away with, if it hadn’t been for Marconi.

I have yet to read a book by Larson that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone without reservation. In a time when we take for granted the ability to communicate with anyone and obtain information from anywhere in the world without effort, it was fascinating to learn the origins of the technology. The fact that its history was tied to one of the most notorious cases of mariticide in British history was an added bonus.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Escape Artist

by Brad Meltzer
434 pgs

It’d been several years since I read a book by Brad Meltzer. I’m not 100% positive why I stopped reading them, but if my memory serves me, I had had enough of his eye-roll-inducing dialogue and decided to give up on him. So, I’m not sure what possessed me to picked up The Escape Artist to see what it was about. When I read the summary, and learned that Meltzer focused his “decoded” lens on Harry Houdini, I thought I’d give him another try.

The action begins right out of the gate, with a small plane going down somewhere over the Alaskan wilderness. One of its passengers, a young woman, has just enough time to write a small note and swallow it before dying in the crash.

The story then moves to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, where Army mortician Jim Zigarowski (Zig) prepares the bodies of U.S. military personnel for burial. He’s the best there is, the one called on for the most difficult jobs of reconstructing facial features and giving the family the opportunity to see their loved ones one last time. When he sees the names of the bodies that just arrived from Alaska, one of them hits too close to home: Nola Brown. Nola was a friend of his own daughter, who died tragically years ago. Zig has never gotten over her death and feels that by doing what he can to repair Nola’s body he will be honoring the memory of his daughter.

When Zig finds the brief note in the woman’s stomach, he discovers that the woman isn’t Nola Brown. He also realizes that the real Nola is still alive, and in terrible danger. It’s up to Zig to discover who wanted Nola dead, and why. Along the way he uncovers a top-secret organization, one whose origins tie back to Harry Houdini, and the suspected role he played as a spy for the U.S. and British governments before World War I.

Overall, I enjoyed The Escape Artist. The characters are solid and the story is entertaining. I even thought the dialogue was a marked improvement from the last of Meltzer’s books I read. Maybe I’ll have to put Meltzer back on my radar.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆