Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ship Breaker

by Paolo Bacigalupi
323 pgs  (Ship Breaker series #1)

One of my favorite authors, Dan Simmons, once said, “I believe that almost every writer has at least one dystopian novel in him or her that’s clawing and scratching to get out.” I mention this by way of justification, since I feel like the phrase “young adult dystopian fiction,” which I’m about to use again, can be found in an inordinate number of my book reviews recently, and I don’t think of myself as a big YA dystopian fiction fan. I just happen to like a lot of different authors…who happen to be letting their dystopian book claw its way out right now, and they happen to be writing it to a YA audience.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is the first in his young adult dystopian fiction series. It takes place about 100 years into the future, and is set along the Gulf Coast after the ice caps have melted, the ocean levels have risen to drown cities like Houston and New Orleans, the government has broken down, and the gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots” has grown exponentially.

Nailer is a teenage ship breaker. He works on a crew salvaging valuable materials off of now-defunct oil tankers. His father is an abusive and murderous drug addict, his mother is dead, and Nailer is barely able to survive from day to day. The only way things will ever change for him is if he comes across a Lucky Strike, a piece of jewelry, a barrel of oil, or anything else that would allow him to buy his way out of his current station.

His Lucky Strike may have finally arrived when Nailer comes across a wrecked luxury ship the day after a hurricane. The lone survivor is a teenage girl, the uber-rich daughter of one of the richest men left in the world. Nita is in terrible danger and Nailer finds himself caught between letting her die and claiming the ship and all its valuables as his, or rescuing her and risking spending the rest of his life slaving away on tankers.

I became a fan of Bacigalupi when I read The Water Knife a few months ago. That book impressed me with the way he took the problems of today, and followed them to a logical and dismal future, if left unchanged. He does the same thing, only for a potentially younger audience with Ship Breaker. It’s an intelligent and compelling start to a series and I’m looking forward to what comes next. 

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Skullsworn

by Brian Staveley
318 pgs  (Unhewn Throne)

In Skullsworn, Brian Staveley returns to the world of the Unhewn Throne. But it’s not a continuation of his trilogy he set there, which concluded with The Last Mortal Bond. Instead, Staveley goes back in time to tell the story of how Pyrre Lakatur, one of the supporting characters from those books, passed her final trial to become a member of the Skullsworn, the sect of priests and priestesses who worship Ananshael, the God of Death, and offer sacrifices to him by killing. If Pyrre herself is unable to pass her trial, which consists of killing seven specific types of individuals within the next 14 days, she will be the one offered up to Ananshael.

In order to pass the trial, Pyrre travels to Domb├óng, her childhood home, and is accompanied by two Skullsworn, Ela and Kossal, who will serve as witnesses to her killings and successful completion of her trial. The types of people she must kill are described in a poem, and while Pyrre has little concern with accomplishing six of the seven killings, the seventh, who must be someone “who made her mind and body sing with love” might be her undoing. Pyrre has no idea how she’s to kill someone she loves, if she’s never loved anyone before.

While set in the same world as his original trilogy, Staveley gives Skullsworn a much different feel than those other books. He writes it from Pyrre’s point of view and the first-person narrative makes for a much more personal story. This is important because, if you’ve read the other books, you know that Pyrre passed her test, she’s Skullsworn by then. In fact, as I began reading the book, I didn’t know how engaging the story was going to be. With the outcome a foregone conclusion, what’s the point of telling the story? Fortunately, Staveley’s storytelling skills and character development make the book well worth the time to read. Those who’ve read The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne will enjoy the backstory of one of its great characters. Those who haven’t read them, will want to after reading Skullsworn.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Girl with All the Gifts

by M.R. Carey
403 pgs

Melanie is a highly-intelligent 10-year-old girl, who wakes up every morning in a military prison cell. Before the guards, who come every morning to take her to class, will enter her cell, she’s instructed to sit in a wheelchair and not move. When she does, guards enter her cell, and while one of them keeps his gun pointed at her, two others strap her wrists and ankles to the chair and place a muzzle securely over her face. She’s then taken to class, where she joins 20 or so other similarly-restrained children, and learns to read, do math, and listens to stories about the world outside her cell, a world she has no memories of. But the world outside her cell is nothing like the stories she’s told. That’s because twenty years ago, the zombie apocalypse took place.

The world is now full of “hungries,” humans who wander aimlessly around until they pick up the scent of an uninfected. When that happens, they turn into ravenous monsters, who will pursue their prey until they catch them and feed. But Melanie and the other children at the military base are different from the rest of the hungries. For some reason, when they became infected, their brain didn’t stopped working. They’re just like everyone else, until they pick up the scent of an uninfected. It’s only then that they temporarily become feral monsters, hence the muzzles and restraints.

I don’t want to give any more of the story away. If it was a bad story, I wouldn’t hesitate. But this is far from a bad story. It was surprisingly fantastic. Despite the proliferation of zombie stories in the media today, M.R. Carey has successfully managed to write one that is refreshing and unique. It’s character driven, and mostly by the character of young Melanie, a zombie.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ 

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Last Mortal Bond

by Brian Staveley
652 pgs  (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series #3)

There’s something to be said for an author who actually knows how to end their epic fantasy series. Many have made a whole career out of continuing the story they began decades earlier, and I suspect, plan to simply continue telling that story until they die. Others go ahead and end it, but do so with an unsatisfying ending. I understand Brian Staveley plans to write other books, which take place in the world of the Unhewn Thrown, but The Last Mortal Bond successfully, and satisfyingly concludes the story he began with The Emperor’s Blades.


The story begins about a year after the events of The Providence of Fire, and things are not good in Annur. The Urguhl army, headed by Balendin, the leach who pulls his power from the terror he creates in those around him, threatens to conquer the unstable republic Kaden has put in place. Valyn has been blinded, has disappeared, and is believed to be dead. And Il Tornja has taken his and Adare’s young son from her and is using him to ensure her cooperation as he searches for Kaden and Triste. There’s a lot going on in this series and Staveley does a great job of keeping all his plates spinning until he brings everything together for an exhilarating conclusion.

I won’t say any more about the story itself, since I don’t want to spoil elements from the other books. So instead I’ll give my assessment of the series as a whole. Staveley used to be a history teacher, so it’s no surprise that the world he’s created has a rich and fascinating history. The series is up there with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series when it comes to complexity, but while there is familial conflict, it bears out more as a result of ignorance than out of subterfuge and deception. The battles are exhilarating, which include birds with 70-foot wingspans used by specially trained warriors. The characters are completely fleshed out and even though for most of the story the three siblings are at odds with one another, I found myself pulling for each one of them throughout.

Staveley is an author whose career I’m very excited for. I’m hoping there are many books to come. Whether they take place in the same world he created for this series or not, I’m sure I’m going to enjoy them.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ 

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Whistler

by John Grisham
374 pgs

I used to be a religious reader of John Grisham’s books. I used to buy them the day they were published and begin reading them immediately. Now, not so much. Before reading The Whistler, the last of his books I read was The Confession, and that was six years ago. It was when he started writing more non-legal thrillers that I started losing interest in his books, and eventually, even those began to lose some of their appeal to me. But because of books like A Time to Kill, The Firm, and The Chamber, I still pick his books up when they come out and at least read the dust jacket flaps to see what they’re about. With The Whistler, doing so paid off.

The story centers around Lacy Stoltz, an investigator for the Florida Board of Jucidicial Conduct. Basically, she investigates judges suspected of corruption. As the book begins, Lacy and her partner, Hugo Hatch, are contacted by a man claiming to have information about Claudia McDover, information that if true, would make her the most corrupt judge in the history of America.
The man is an ex-con who lives on his boat and is an intermediary to “the Whistler,” an anonymous whistle-blower close to the Judge who is aware of her corruption.

Lacy and Hugo begin investigating Judge McDover, but things quickly become deadly when the car they’re driving is intentionally hit head-on by a car that swerves into their lane. Hugo is killed and Lacy seriously is seriously injured. Lacy becomes even more determined after the accident to expose the judge and get justice for Hugo’s death and her investigation reveals the existence of a group of mobsters known as the “Coast Mafia.” That group has ingrained itself into the Tappacola indian tribe and has been skimming millions of dollars from the tribe’s casinos for years, and Judge McDover has been using her position on the bench to help them.

The Whistler reminded me of why I used to be such a big fan of Grisham’s books. Lacy is someone you quickly get behind and root for, there’s a clear sense of trying to right an injustice, and the story is hard to put down at times. It’ll keep me picking up his books for a while, and reading the flaps. Hopefully there will be more like it to come.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆  

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Walkaway

by Cory Doctorow
379 pgs

Cory Doctorow has described his latest book Walkaway (the first of his I’ve read) as a “utopian novel.” But the idyllic connotations that term evokes are far from what his story provides. The story is set in the future, in a time when individuals can digitally back themselves up in case their body dies, or they can choose to exist solely as digital constructs and abandon their bodies completely. Pollution and climate change have led to world-wide ecological disasters and the economic divide between the wealthy and the 99% has become so extreme that many have decided to “walkaway” from society.

Millions of people, including the laborers and the creative and intelligent ones, have “opted out” from society. They’ve abandoned cities, their jobs, and the ever-present surveillance they’re under by the super-rich, and they’ve instead chosen to build a new society on their own.    

The book centers primarily around three young people. Hubert and Seth are two friends who meet Natalie at a “Communist Party” she’s put together. Natalie is the rebellious daughter of one of the world’s wealthiest families, and together they decide to walkaway. But their decision puts them at the center of the escalating conflict between the walkaway world and the establishment they abandoned.

The book is highly intelligent and philosophical. Each page is dense with Doctorow’s own terminology and mind-bending ideas. He described the book as “utopian” because it’s his attempt to describe a society that has rebuilt and reinvented itself after the world has gone beyond its tipping point. Individually and collectively, the walkaways’ act in ways most beneficial to others and not themselves. Behavior atypical from what you would expect following the disasters they’ve survived.
   
I enjoyed the ideas and the philosophy Doctorow included in his book. But I would have enjoyed it more if it had also contained a more compelling plot. I felt like Doctorow was so focused on creating this wildly-imaginative idea of what the world could eventually become, that he forgot to include a plot that would tie it all together and make readers care about what ultimately happened to his characters.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Spirit of Steamboat

by Craig Johnson
146 pgs  (A Longmire story)

Spirit of Steamboat is a slight departure from Craig Johnson’s usual Walt Longmire story. This one is a novella, and instead of the usual mystery Johnson sets Sheriff Longmire out to solve, this time around it’s an adventure story from Longmire’s past he tells.

The story begins on Christmas Eve. A young woman shows up at Longmire’s office asking unusual questions about Lucian Conalley, Longmire’s predecessor as sheriff. Longmire takes the woman to the nursing home Lucian now resides at, but neither he nor Lucian has any idea who the woman is. It’s not until she says the word “Steamboat” that both men know instantly who she is, and they’re both transported back to an earlier Christmas Eve. This one in 1988, shortly after Walt became sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming.

A young girl had been seriously burned in a car accident and the medical helicopter that picked her up at the scene had had to make an emergency landing in Longmire’s jurisdiction because of a storm. The girl was going to die if she didn’t get medical treatment beyond what they were capable of giving her in the small Wyoming hospital and she needed to be transported to Denver. But the storm that had forced the helicopter to land was also preventing any airplanes from making the trip.

There was only one plane around that Longmire knew could make the trip, Steamboat, an old World War II bomber that hadn’t flown for decades. Fortunately, Walt also knew someone who had flown a plane very similar to Steamboat in the war and thought he could probably convince him to make the dangerous trip.

Spirit of Steamboat is a great story. It’s easily read in one or two sittings and Johnson keeps the action moving the whole time. But it’s not just an adventure story. Johnson seemed to pack more emotions and feelings into this one than he has in any of the rest of his books.

In hindsight, I wish I would have waited till December to read this one. It’s a great story with a message worthy of that time of the year.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆