Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Lexicon

by Max Barry
390 pgs

I like books that make me think, and Lexicon not only had me thinking throughout the time I was reading it, but when I wasn't reading it, I couldn't get the story out of my head. It's quick intelligent, and the speculative version of reality it presents is as intriguing as that of movies such as The Matrix and Dark City, and books by such minds as Neal Stephenson and Jasper Fforde's.

Most of the book is told as two alternating storylines. The first involves Emily Ruff, a street-smart runaway living on the streets of San Francisco who makes her living running a Three-card Monte hustle. Emily's ability to read people and know how to set them up for the fall attracts the attention of an organization that seeks out children who demonstrate an aptitude for persuasion and trains them to tap into the relatively unknown power that words can have over the human mind. Once trained, these individuals have the ability to use words to quickly tear down other peoples' mental defenses and control them.

The second storyline involves Wil Parke, who on page one is ambushed in an airport bathroom by two men. These men accuse him of being a key player in a war he knows nothing about. They call him an "outlier" who is immune to the powers of an organization run by Poets, who control people with their knowledge of certain words. Wil has no idea what any of what they're saying means, but in an act of self-preservation, he agrees to accompany them to a town in Australia called Broken Hill. Broken hill has been uninhabitable for over a year now, ever since a rogue Poet unleashed something that has taken over the will of every person who has stepped foot in the town.

As the two storylines ultimately converge, Barry methodically reveals the intricacies of his highly-developed and cerebral plot, all while keeping the action going at a breakneck speed. There are plenty of unexpected reveals and enough surprises to keep you unsure of what is truly happening until the end.

I do have a complaint though, and it's why I'm not giving it all five stars. I never felt like any of the characters warranted my allegiance. Neither of the protagonists in the different storylines endeared themselves to me as I read the book. At various times their fates were uncertain, and while I was enjoying the story, I never really cared what happened to them.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

by Neil Gaiman
178 pgs

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first novel Neil Gaiman has written for adults in quite a while, and even though the book is relatively short, it was well worth the wait. It's essentially a fairy tale for adults, and as any good fairy tale should, it contains elements of magic and fantasy, along with things that are most comfortable in the dark.

The narrator is a man, whose name I don't believe is ever revealed in the story, who has come back to Sussex, England where he grew up, to attend a funeral for someone close to him. After the service, as people are mulling around comforting each other, he's pulled enigmatically back to the property near where the house he grew up once stood. On that property is a small duck pond he's drawn to and as he's there, memories of his childhood and events that took place involving that pond begin to come back to him.

The pond is on the property owned by the Hempstocks, three generations of women who live there still and who he now remembers saved his life when he was a young boy. When he was seven he met Lettie Hempstock who told him she was eleven, but would not answer his question of how many years she had been eleven. He was somehow able to tell at the time that she had been eleven for longer than he had been alive.

On the night a lodger staying at the narrator's home commits suicide in their family car, Lettie takes the young narrator somewhere no normal human should ever be allowed to go. When they return, they're both unaware that a dark and dangerous power has hitched a ride with the boy. That power takes the shape of Ursula Monkton, who bewitches the rest of the boy's family but who terrorizes him. His only hope is the Hempstock women and the unworldly powers they possess.

It's a great story told by a fantastic writer. Gaiman possesses two qualities that make him one of the best at what he does: a tremendous imagination and the ability to tell a story in such a way as to communicate far more than what he puts down in words. Every time I've read something written by him, whether it's a graphic novel, children's picture book, short story or full length novel, I feel like I've just been told the most fascinating story I've ever heard.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Monday, July 22, 2013

Fragments

by Dan Wells
564 pgs  (The Partials series #2)

Dan Wells ended Partials with Kira successfully stealing a dose of the cure for RM, the genetically engineered disease that had killed 99% of the people on earth, along with every baby born since it was released 12 years ago. But along with finding a cure, she also discovered something about herself: she is a Partial.

Now her quest for answers has taken on even more meaning. Raised believing she was a human, she cares deeply about the fate of the human race and believes it's up to her to discover the secrets behind RM's cure so that it can be replicated. Knowing now that she's a Partial herself, she also needs to figure out whether the expiration date genetically encoded into the Partials' DNA which kills them at the age of twenty can be turned off. She believes she can discover the answers to her own origin as well as the keys to saving both races at ParaGen's headquarters.

Her journey, which takes her to Lower Manhattan and then across the toxic, post-apocalyptic wasteland of the Midwest, all the way to Denver, is where this book really shines. Wells's strength is in describing the conditions of the cities and country following the devastation of the ongoing war against the Partials. Where he doesn't shine is in his pacing. The book is fairly long, especially for one written primarily for younger readers. Wells alternates back and forth between following Kira's journey west and providing updates on what's happening with those she left behind, who are still fighting the Partials and trying to replicate the cure. The latter story arc got a little tedious and seemed unnecessary to the story. Nothing significant took place back in New York, and every time Wells switched to that story arc, I tended to lose interest in the story.

Overall it's a good book and serves the purpose of the middle book in a trilogy: it gets you ready for its conclusion.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Two Graves

by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
484 pgs  (Pendergast series #12)

Two Graves completes the trilogy of books focusing on Helen, Special Agent Pendergast's wife. For twelve years he thought she had been killed in an African hunting accident, then his investigations into her death led him to believe that her death had not been accidental, then they led him to the realization that her death had been staged. And finally, as Cold Vengeance came to an end and he was reunited with her, she was quickly ripped away from him once again. 

With no question about her fate this time, Pendergast spirals into a state of extreme depression, to the point that his long-time associate with the New York Police department, Vincent D'Agosta is concerned that Pendergast may take his own life. In a last-ditch effort to bring Pendergast out of his depression, D'Agosta asks for his help in solving a string of brazen murders that have begun taking place in New York City hotels. Not only does the the case file intrigue him, but Pendergast discovers that the killer is taunting him specifically. Someone wants Pendergast to chase him and Pendergast is quick to oblige.

Pendergast's investigation into the murders takes him to Brazil, where he uncovers a fortress housing a group of doctors, who for decades have been conducting medical experiments on human subjects. At that point in the story my level of enjoyment for the book changed. It became a disappointment. I'll avoid any significant spoilers, but will reveal that these doctors are Nazis who fled to South America after the war, where they resumed their plans to perfect the human race. Not very original, and as I said, disappointing coming from two authors whom I've enjoyed reading for so long. I'm hopeful that eventually the Pendergast books will return to the glory days of Relic and Cabinet of Curiosities instead of what they've become recently--a slow-moving investigation into uninteresting aspects of Pendergast's life.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Inferno

by Dan Brown
463 pgs

Dan Brown has a lot of detractors. Ever since The Da Vinci Code dominated the book world, they've been quick to point out the flaws with his writing abilities. They harp on his characters, and how he's so focused on his plots, that he never slows down enough to flesh any of them out. Even Robert Langdon, after appearing in four books, hasn't been written into someone that we know much about. And the plots themselves are too contrived, with distractingly convenient plot points that appear just in the nick of time. But there's a reason why his books are so enormously popular--they're thrilling, engaging, and they're enormously fun to read.

This time around, the fate of the world lies in Langdon's ability to decipher clues within Dante's Inferno. The book begins with Langdon waking up in a hospital in Florence, Italy, after someone tried to end his life. He can't remember the past few days, why he's in Italy, or how he came into possession of a sealed metal tube with the ominous bio hazard symbol on it. Minutes after waking, he barely escapes the assassin's second attempt on his life and he finds himself on the run with the young doctor who helped him escape.

I'm not ashamed of the fact that I enjoyed the book as much as I did. I'll admit to rolling my eyes more than once as Brown pulled the same rabbit out of his literary hat that he did in the previous Langdon books. And there was never any real fear that things wouldn't turn out okay for Langdon and of course, the rest of humanity. But the book was another page-turner and I'm ready to read whatever he writes next.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆