Thursday, May 30, 2013


by China Miéville
372 pgs

Once again China Miéville has demonstrated why he is in a class, and possibly a genre, all by himself. Railsea is yet another fantastic book by the author whose books defy adequate description and whose imagination knows no boundaries.

Railsea takes place on a world criss-crossed by innumerable railroad tracks which are used by pirates, scavengers, and hunters of the enormous rats, antlions, and other subterranean animals which inhabit the desolate landscape.

Much of the story is an homage to Melville's Moby Dick. Sham, Miéville's central character, is the surgeon's mate aboard the locomotive Medes. Naphi, the captain of the Medes is obsessed with hunting down a giant, pale Moldywarpe--a giant mole-type creature reminiscent of the sandworms of Dune, which she's been chasing for years.

On its voyage, the Medes encounters a train that had long ago been attacked and derailed. And while searching through the wreckage Sham discovers a photographic record of the the journey the train's riders had been on. One of the pictures shows a scene that changes Sham's perception of the world and alters the course of his life. It's a picture of a lone railine, stretching out across an otherwise empty landscape. It's proof that somewhere out there the never-ending tangle of railines ends. And that new reality, along with the questions it raises of where that railine leads to and what's there, become Sham's obsession and the beginning of a journey that will change everything.

I've reviewed other books by Miéville here before and talked about what a linguistic genius he is. His writing style and creative vocabulary are something else and they add an extra level of enjoyment every time I experience one of his books. Here's the prologue to Railsea as and example of what I'm talking about:

This is the story of a bloodstained boy.

There he stands, swaying as utterly as any windblown sapling. He is quite, quite red. If only that were paint! Around each of his feet the red puddles; his clothes, whatever colour they were once, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched.

Only his eyes stand out. The white of each almost glows against the gore, lightbulbs in a dark room. He stares with great fervour at nothing.

The situation is not as macabre as it sounds. The boy isn't the only bloody person there: he's surrounded by others as red & sodden as he. & they are cheerfully singing.

The boy is lost. Nothing has been solved. He thought it might be. He had hoped that this moment might bring clarity. Yet his head is still full of nothing, or he knows not what.

We're here too soon. Of course we can start anywhere: that's the beauty of the tangle, that's its very point. But where we do & don't begin has its ramifications, & this right now is not best chosen. Into reverse: let this engine go back. Just to before the boy was bloodied, there to pause & go forward again to see how we got here, to red, to music, to chaos, to a big question mark in a young man's head.

I won't explain the ampersands. I'll let you discover the reason for their use throughout the book on your own. But they're further evidence of Miéville's brilliance.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Murder as a Fine Art

by David Morrell
368 pgs  (Thomas DeQuincy series #1)

I haven't read many books by David Morrell, this is only the fourth. And of the three previous books I had read, two of them were very enjoyable, but one of them was disappointing. With Murder as a Fine Art, Morrell redeems himself strongly. Part of the appeal of the story is the time and place it's set in. There's something about stories that take place in Victorian England that really appeal to me. I don't know if it's because they remind me of Charles Dickens's books.

The story is about two sets of mass killings. The first is the historical and famous Ratcliffe Highway murders which took place in 1811 and which rivaled the Ripper murders in creating panic in the hearts of Londoners. The second involves a copycat killer in 1854 who is recreating the original crime scenes using the same weapon and creating the same level of fear and panic on the city's streets.

Morrell uses the historical figure of Thomas De Quincey, who had been obsessed with the Ratcliffe murders at the time and who had written an essay on them entitled "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts" as a key character in his story.  De Quincey's essay had been controversial at the time as it focused on the high level of intelligence and forethought that went into committing the murders. Popular belief at the time was that only the basest members of society, those possessing the lowest levels of intelligence were capable of committing violent crimes such as these. De Quincey showed that to be untrue. These crimes were committed by a very intelligent and methodical killer and one who considered his atrocities a form of art.

Morrell does an excellent job in this book of telling two stories, one historical and the other fictional, and combining them into one captivating tale. His characters are strongly developed and by the end I was hopeful that Morrell would be bringing them back and creating a series of books featuring them.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


by Henry David Thoreau
360 pgs

Thoreau published Walden in 1854, after having spent two years, two months, and two days in relative seclusion living in a cabin he built on the banks of Walden Pond. Inspired by the transcendentalist movement that was popular in New England during the early 19th century, Thoreau decided to spend a period of time isolated from civilization where he could live off of the land, without the support that comes from being part of a community.

Thoreau divides the book into several chapters, each one touching on a particular theme he ruminated on while living a life of extreme simplicity, themes such as solitude, sounds, reading, and higher laws. With the exception of a battle to the death he witnessed between two ants, there is no action in this book. There is no suspense, thrill, or excitement. The only element of mystery in the book involves Thoreau's attempts to discover the depth of the pond which had long been rumored to have no bottom. It's not a beach read or one to read on a plane. But it's a great book nonetheless. He describes the importance of contemplation, and self reliance, of living a life of simplicity and closeness to the natural world around us, lessons whose importance and applicability if anything, are more relevant today.

Part of the reason I enjoyed it is because I see the appeal in doing what Thoreau did. I don't find
solitude unsettling and the idea of spending an extended period of time in isolation from most of the world and its accompanying hassles is something that I think I could quickly get used to. That's not to say that I'd be able accomplish what he did with any degree of success. I have no practical skills that would help me survive and sustain my own life all alone. If I tried, I have no doubt it would either end quickly as a result of my inability to protect myself from some predator, or slowly as a result of my inability to build shelter or acquire food and water. But the idea is nice just the same.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Double Feature

by Owen King
412 pgs

My expectations for Double Feature were very high . . . unfairly high I guess.  Probably because of the gene pool Owen King emerged from, the same pool after all that produced his brother Joe Hill, I suppose I was expecting lightening to have struck the same family three times. I'm going to withhold final judgment on that until he's written a few more books though.

Sam Dolan grew up with a strong love of movies. The son of a modestly successful B-movie actor, Sam was raised to appreciate great film makers such as Orson Welles. When the story begins, Sam has written and is preparing to produce and direct his first movie, a small indie film called Who We Are. The first third of the book chronicles the making of the movie, from obtaining its funding, to casting it and filming it. I don't want to give too much away, but after the film is edited and ready to be seen, things get derailed and Sam's life and outlook on it are significantly changed.

The rest of the book is non-linear. It jumps around to different periods in Sam's life, repeatedly flashing between various periods of his childhood and then back to adulthood to see how the impact of those childhood experiences, and the disastrous experience with his film shaped his life.

There was a lot about this book that I really enjoyed. King is an obviously skilled and gifted author. He's got a unique sense of humor that takes a little getting used to in order to appreciate, but for me, it was what redeemed the book as a whole. My problem with the book was with Sam himself. He was such an unappealing and tiresome character. He was intolerable and dreary for the majority of the story and that took a toll on my enjoyment of it.  

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Winter of the World

by Ken Follett
938 pgs.  (Century trilogy #2)

A couple of years ago I read my first Ken Follett book Fall of Giants, and I loved it. It's the first book in his "Century" trilogy and it follows the lives of five families, each from different key countries in the world during World War I and the Russian Revolution. In Winter of the World Follett picks things up a few years later and this time tells the story of the lives of the next generation of those same families beginning with the events leading up to World War II and ending with the start of the Cold War.

I really enjoyed this book; as much, if not more than I did the first one. Follett does an excellent job of using the lives of these families to describe what it would have been like to live during such a pivotal and historical time. He describes life in Germany during Hitler and the Nazi Party's control, London during the blitz, as bombs were dropped nightly for months at a time, and Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941.

Once again I am amazed at the level of research Follett is doing in order to write these books. He doesn't just use historical events to tell his story, he inserts his characters into those events. They interact with historical figures like Churchill and FDR. They work on developing a world-changing type of bomb. And they help tell the story of history in an entertaining, compelling, and enlightening way.

At the end of next year Follett will complete his trilogy with Edge of Eternity. I'm looking forward to it and am confident it won't disappoint.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Insane City

by Dave Barry
352 pgs

As much as I enjoy the "Peter and the Starcatchers" books Dave Barry co-writes with Ridley Pearson, my chief complaint with them is that they prevent him from writing his books for adults more regularly. Insane City is only the third novel for adults by the Pulitzer-Prize winning author and humorist and I wish there were many more already.

First off, let me reiterate the point that Insane City is for adults. The language is frequently foul and may offend some readers, but I don't think you can truly claim to be offended by something if it also makes you laugh, and this book will make you do that often. Seth and Tina are getting married in two days. Seth is an underachiever whose job consists of composing tweets for a feminine hygiene company's products. Tina is a successful lawyer who comes from a tremendously wealthy family. Seth knows he's marrying well out of his league and has no intentions of messing things up. Everyone involved in the lavishly planned wedding has come to Miami for the ceremony that Tina is bent on ensuring goes off without a glitch. But this is a Dave Barry story, things start to go crazy as soon as the plane lands.

Seth and his best men get lost thanks to their cab driver, drunk at a hot-bod contest at a club, and manage to lose the groom's luggage, which contained the one-of-a-kind, never-replaceable wedding ring that he had been given responsibility for safekeeping until the big day. The rest of the story involves a family of Haitian refugees who wash up on the beach outside the hotel, an unpaid stripper who was ordered for the bachelor party but was never used, an amorous orangutan, and a batch of special brownies that accidentally get served at the rehearsal dinner.

Dave Barry pulls out all the stops in this one. He's a fantastic writer who does so many things well. His plot with all its subplots are very entertaining and he keeps them each progressing at an impressive pace. His characters manage to be simultaneously over-the-top stereotypes but still likable and relatable.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆