Friday, October 28, 2011

A Game of Thrones

by George R.R. Martin
(674 pgs  A Song of Ice and Fire series #1)

I hesitated when I went to the label of this post in order to identify this book's genre. Before beginning the book, I thought it would be pretty straight forward. It's the first in Martin's epic fantasy series: A Song of Ice and Fire, and not having watched any of HBO's new series based on the books, I assumed it would be similar to Lord of the Rings or one of the other fantasy series I've read. This one is different. Not to detract from anything else in the genre, but A Game of Thrones possesses a maturity that its counterparts and most books of any genre don't usually have. It's a maturity that I usually only read in classic literature.

While there are still elements of the fantasy genre in it, these elements are not the prevailing characteristics of the book. The book lacks orcs and elves, and while there is a dwarf, he's the type of dwarf you see on TLC these days and not the battle-axe-wielding type in a Tolkien book. (Although Martin does arm Tyrion with an axe during one battle scene, maybe as a tongue-in-cheek nod to Gimli?) 

It takes place in a time when things are out of balance. Summer has persisted over the past ten years, but an equally long winter is anticipated. And just as the warmth of the summer is ending, so too is the precarious peace that has existed under the reign of Robert Barathean, King of the Seven Kingdoms. A game is being played by some - the game of thrones. And as Martin mentions several times in the book, when you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die.

If you enjoy fantasy books, you can't do better than A Game of Thrones and you probably know that already so I'm preaching to the choir. If you don't typically enjoy or read fantasy, I am confident that you will enjoy this one. If you're going to read the series, and I strongly recommend you do, be prepared to make a significant commitment. So far there have been five books published with two more anticipated. Each of them is a doorstop - at least 700 pages long, and there is a phone-book-size list of important characters to keep track of. But it's worth it. Don't believe me? Take some other peoples' word on it. James Rollins, or this Deseret News Review

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Shadow Divers

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

This book sat on my bookshelf for seven years. When I bought it I intended to read it soon but it never seemed to rise to the top of my to-be-read pile. It was a NY Times bestseller for several weeks and when it was published it was likened to Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Junger's A Perfect Storm which gives you an idea of what type of true adventure story it is and how good the book is.

Shadow Divers is about two American deep-sea wreck divers: John Chatterton and Rich Kohler, who discover a German U-boat sunk about 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey. No records of a U-boat  having been sunk in that area during WWII existed so this was the find of a lifetime for both of them. It also represented the beginning of a quest to identify the submarine and discover what it was doing so close to American soil.

The story of how these divers went about trying to identify this submarine was interesting. They made dozens of dives down to it to try to retrieve something from it that would help them make that determination. They also scoured every available record from World War II, but it took years before they were finally able to solve the mystery behind it.

But that part of the book wasn't what I found the most captivating. Instead it was the information about what men like these are like, and what drives them to engage is such a life-threatening avocation. With every dive they make, they take risks with their lives that most people would never dream of taking. They dive hundreds of feet to depths which cause hallucinations with even the most experience divers. And the decompression required during and after every dive are amazing. For divers who go below 200 feet or so, they  have to plan on a dive of a couple of hours. But only a quarter or so of the total dive time is used up at their targeted dive depth. The other three fourths of the time is spent waiting at various depths on the way back up as their body rids itself of the excess nitrogen that built up in their system.

The risk of the bends if they ascend too quickly or or don't decompress sufficiently is only one of the many risks they take. In addition to that, they also risk being lost at sea each time. I wouldn't have thought that was that big of a risk, but divers have to make sure to stay with the anchor line. A diver who looses contact with the anchor line, is more than likely to be pulled away by currents and come to the surface miles away from the ship.

I thought the book as a whole was fascinating. The men the book is written about are incredible and the mystery behind the submarine's identity is captivating. Robert Kurson did an excellent job of providing an insight into the life and mentality of the men who possess the inexplicable trait that makes them obsessed with the dangers and thrills that come with exploring wrecks on the ocean floor.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Plugged

Plugged by Eoin Colfer

Eoin Colfer is best known for his Artemis Fowl series for younger readers and most recently for reviving Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series with his And Another Thing . . . Now with Plugged he makes his first foray into adult crime fiction and in my opinion, he's done pretty well.

Daniel McEvoy is an Irish bouncer at a disreputable casino in New Jersey called Slotz. Daniel has a thing for one of the hostesses there. (They've been friends with benefits once and he's hoping it won't end up being the only time.) Unfortunately his hopes are dashed when she's discovered dead with a gunshot wound in the forehead out in the parking lot one afternoon. McEvoy believes he knows who the responsible party is and he sets out seeking revenge.

Soon his pursuit of the killer spirals out of control and he finds himself in the crosshairs of the New Jersey mob as well as the police. It also leads to the disappearance of the man responsible for McEvoy's newly transplanted head of hair. The title of the book acquires a double meaning with this little gem of a side story and McEvoy's manhunt is doubled as well. Now he's not only searching for his would-be-girlfriend's killer, but he now needs to also track down the doctor so that the procedure can eventually be finished.

The story was great. It did get a little slow a couple of times, but only briefly and Colfer's sense of humor more than made up for those rare moments. Some reviewers have described it as a cross between an Elmore Leonard story and one written by Carl Hiaasen. And that's a pretty good description. I enjoyed it a lot and will definitely read the next book he writes for adults. I might even try some of his books written for younger readers.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Cut

The Cut by George Pelecanos

With The Cut Pelecanos begins a new series with a whole new protagonist, Spero Lucas. Lucas is a recently returned veteran of the war in Iraq who freelances as an investigator for a defense attorney in D.C. The skills he learned in the Marines are now serving him well as he specializes in recovering lost or stolen property for owners willing to pay considerably for his services.

But it's not just little old ladies who have lost their jewelry that Lucas is willing to work for. His abilities have also gained him the attention of one of the largest drug dealers in the District. Someone has been disrupting his network by stealing shipments of marijuana and he wants Lucas to find out who is doing it and recover either the drugs or the money they were worth.

Tempted by the opportunity for a huge payday, Lucas takes the job and in a very short time becomes involved in something much bigger than he anticipated.

Once again, Pelecanos shows why many of his contemporaries consider him the best writer in this genre. With Lucas, he's created another protagonist who lives in the real world, where right and wrong are shades of grey rather than the black or white we'd hope them to be.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Magician King

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

A wise man once said, "Never judge a book by its cover." I assume that wise man lived in a time when book covers were plain and nondescript. For me, it's the cover of the book that usually draws my attention, like a lure to a fish. That was certainly the case with The Magician King's predecessor The Magicians. When it came out a couple years ago, I kept stumbling across it whenever I'd go into a bookstore. I'd pick it up and consider buying it, but always seemed to be short on funds so I'd put it back down. After coming across numerous great reviews written about it, I decided the book gods were telling me I really should read it, so I eventually did. And I loved it.

Now the sequel is out and its cover is equally as enticing and the book inside . . . just as good. I've heard the books described as "Harry Potter for adults" and that's a pretty good comparison. Grossman gives nods to J. K. Rowling as well as other popular fantasy authors like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. In the first book we're introduced to Quentin Coldwater, a high school student in Brooklyn who has a keen fondness for a series of children's fantasy books that take place in a Narnia-esque world called Fillory. Quentin also loves magic. He's constantly practicing card tricks and slight-of-hand maneuvers as he goes about his listless existence. Fortunately for him, his talent for performing magic tricks has brought him to the attention of those in charge of Brakebills College, a Hogwarts-type school that teaches true magic to those who have an inkling for it. While at Brakebills he learns that Fillory isn't just the product of an author's mind, but a real place that the author knew of and wrote a children's series about.

The Magician King is an excellent follow-up to The Magicians. Quentin, who is now one of the kings of Fillory along with his friends, (C. S. Lewis, I know) has become bored with his life as a king. He wants adventure, he wants to go on a quest. He decides to travel to a distant island at the edge of his realm to try to add the excitement back to his life that he believes should always be prevalent in a magical place such as Fillory. It's on this island that he learns of the existence of a magical key and his sought after quest has been found. The adventure that follows as he seeks after that key and others, takes him back to the world he grew up in, to the Underworld where the dead reside, and to the underwater realm of a dragon in Venice among others. I doubt they'll ever make a theme park based on these books, but they're fantastic and well worth reading. I'm look forward to the next one.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Nothing But Blue Skies

Nothing But Blue Skies by Tom Holt

In Nothing But Blue Skies, British comic writer Tom Holt takes aim at one of Great Britain's least appealing qualities, the one that occupies the position of second worst, right behind its cuisine: its weather. Most of its residence attribute the oft inclement weather on natural meteorological patterns, but a few of the weathermen have suspected for a long time that there's a much more sinister cause behind it: Chinese weather dragons.

These dragons have the ability to control the weather with their moods and are the real culprit behind Britain's interminable dreariness. The weathermen  have become fed up with what they perceive as the dragons' sabotage of their sunny-weather forecasts in order to make them look foolish and they're ready to exact their revenge.

Their plan is to kidnap the Adjutant General to the Dragon King of the North West and hold him hostage in the dragon's most vulnerable form that it can take: that of a goldfish. Now try to stay with me for a minute because it doesn't get any simpler to explain. The dragon's daughter, who had taken human form prior to her father's kidnapping in order to pursue the man she's fallen in love with - the son of a wealthy newspaper tycoon who is himself trying to capture dragons so that he can harness the power of their third eye to telepathically deliver the news to millions of people worldwide without incurring the unnecessary expense of paper, ink, and delivery services, becomes its only hope for survival. Got all that?


The plot tends to get a little shallow in parts and none of the characters were that interesting for me, but Holt's humor redeemed the book as a whole for me and made it worth reading. I've enjoyed some of his other books more, most notably Falling Sideways and three of his more recent books that featured the company of J. W. Wells, but this one definitely had its moments.


★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆