Monday, September 30, 2013

Steelheart

by Brandon Sanderson
384 pgs  (The Reckoners series #1)

If you had superpowers, would you use them for good, or for evil?

In the first of a new series of books by Brandon Sanderson, he explores that idea, as a small minority of ordinary people one day inexplicably gain super powers.  Epics, as they become known, possess any one of a variety of these powers, but without exception, they all use them for their own selfish interests. The rest of humanity is left to live in a constant state of fear, trying to live their lives without become the next victim of an Epic's destruction.

Ten years ago David witnessed his father's death, as a particularly ruthless and seemingly invincible Epic known as Steelheart killed him along with almost everyone else who was there. David was the lone survivor of that event, and he escaped with not just his life, but with a secret as well, one that only he knows and which may change everything one day--Steelheart isn't invincible, he saw him bleed.

David dedicates the next ten years of his life to studying everything he can about Steelheart and every other Epic he can. He believes that the more he knows about the Epics, the better chance he has of discovering their weaknesses and maybe one day being able to avenge his father's death.

Normally I'm a very selfish reader, and when an author is writing a series that I really like, and then releases a book that's not part of that series, I tend to get irritated and question why they're not spending all their time writing the book I want them to write. But I think Sanderson is curing me of that attitude. While I'm anxiously awaiting the next in his Stormlight series, he's begun two additional series that quite honestly I'm almost as excited about reading.

Steelheart is a great book. It's written for a slightly younger audience, but that in no way detracts from how good a book it is. From what I can tell, the only significant difference between Sanderson's books for adults and young adults is the length of the book. The characters, action, and world building that Sanderson creates so well are all there no matter who his intended readers are. Buy the book for your teenager, but then borrow it afterwords.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Hollow City

by Dan Wells
333 pgs

The FBI are hunting a serial killer, a man known as the Redline Killer who, over the past two weeks has killed several people and removed their faces.

Michael Shipman is a twenty-year old paranoid schizophrenic who hears voices, sees faceless men, and who has a mortal fear of anything electronic. He believes that the faceless men are monitoring his thoughts and every movement through an implant in his brain that transmits his thoughts and his location through cell phones, and anything electronic.

When the story begins, Michael finds himself in a mental institution. He doesn't know how he got there nor can he remember the past two weeks of his life. He hadn't been taking his medications, and the FBI are interested in talking to him. It's a fantastic premise for a story.

Dan Wells has once again shown why he is one of the best at getting into your brain and messing around with it. He tells the story from the perspective of Michael and he masterfully uses Michael's schizophrenia to keep you guessing who and what in the book are real, and what are just the delusions of an unbalanced mind.

I loved his John Wayne Cleaver books and The Hollow City is another good one that I'll be recommending to many.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bad Monkey

by Carl Hiaasen
317 pgs

Until recently, Andrew Yancy was an officer with the Miami Sheriff's Department. But for the past few months he's been relegated down to the position of Health Inspector, visiting the local eating establishments and either shutting them down, or writing them up for violations that cause his stomach to churn and which have led to some undesired weight loss. But a severed arm in his freezer may be his ticket back on to the force.

The arm, which had been reeled in by a vacationing fisherman, and which in classic Hiaasen fashion, was landed with the middle finger extended, appears to have belonged to a wealthy man currently under investigation for Medicare fraud. Yancy doesn't buy into the theory that the arm's owner was eaten by sharks when his boat capsized at sea and he's determined to prove that his wife killed him for the insurance money. Yancy believes that if he can prove his theory correct, that he'll no longer have to work on the "roach patrol" and can get his old job back on the force.

If that were a simple or straightforward task to accomplish, then it wouldn't be a story by Carl Hiaasen. Instead, Yancy has to deal with numerous surprises and a host of outlandish characters, including the monkey from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Bad Monkey is Carl Hiaasen at his best. It's hilarious, bawdy, and highly entertaining. If you don't like Hiaasen's books, you won't like this one. But if you do, this one could be one of your favorites.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Long War

by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
422 pgs  (The Long Earth series #2)

I have an expectation when I read a series of books, it's that the series should get better with each successive book. My rationale is that over time the author has had more time to fully fleshed out the characters, the world they've created, and the story they're telling. So with that mindset, I was very excited to read The Long War. It's the sequel to The Long Earth, which while it took awhile for Pratchett and Baxter to get to the plot, was still a very entertaining and extremely imaginative story. Unfortunately this one fell flat, and well short of my expectations.

In The Long Earth it was discovered that the earth was just one of an infinite number of earths positioned linearly through space, and in the 21st century, the technology was developed that enabled mankind to "step" from one world to the next. Immediately the human population began to disburse to the other earths and many of the problems that existed on the original earth potentially were coming to an end.

The Long War begins 10 or so years after the events of The Long Earth and unfortunately as mankind has continued to spread across the Long Earth, so have its problems. The Governments of Earth are trying to claim ownership for their respective footprints on every earth, claiming their resources and collecting taxes from their citizens. Other sentient races that have been evolving across the Long Earth for billions of years are quickly starting to resent this new race of steppers and confrontations are inevitable.

These two are the only books I've ever read by Stephen Baxter, so I don't know much about his works. But I've read almost 40 books with Terry Pratchett's name on them and so I'm fairly confident in saying that I think this series is primarily Baxter's. Unfortunately there's little, if any, of Pratchett's humor and wit. The Long Earth, and Pratchett's Discworld are polar opposites. Once again the plot didn't show up until the last 70 pages or so and the rest of the story wanders aimlessly and uninterestingly for far too long. I'm hoping this series ends up being a trilogy and I can read one more book and get some closure. If it ends up going longer, I don't think I'll be sticking with it.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Never Cry Wolf

by Farley Mowatt
247 pgs

I've mentioned this before, but I don't read a lot of nonfiction, not that I don't enjoy it when I do read it. It's just that there are so many novels out there that I want to read, that I rarely take the time to read it. So why did I choose a memoir by a Canadian naturalist who studied and observed a den of wolves for several months? It's because of my dad. My dad has a whole shelf filled with books by Mowatt, and when I was about 10 years old, he had me watch the movie Never Cry Wolf which was based on his memoir. I thought it was great, and I probably rewatched the movie a dozen or so times growing up. So I finally got around to reading it.

Half a century or so ago the number of caribou in Northern Canada was declining rapidly. The Canadian government, believing the reports they were receiving from trappers and traders in the area, that the wolves were behind the decimation of the herds, sent Mowatt to live on the frozen tundra to substantiate the reports and to determine what needed to be done. Mowatt quickly found a den of wolves to observe and spent a spring, summer, and fall watching them day and night. The results of his observations might seem obvious to readers today, but they flew in the face of the common misconceptions of his time.

The wolves, as he observed, were highly intelligent and social animals. They lived in family groups with parents mating for life and spending years raising their pups. They subsisted for most of the warmer months on a diet of mice, fish, and other small animals, eating caribou primarily in the winter months only, when easier prey was unavailable. When the caribou were available, the wolves operated in accordance with the ideas of Darwin; they sought out the weak, injured, or frail from the herd and fed only on those. Instead of killing caribou indiscriminantly and out of a sense of blood thirst, as the reports were claiming, the wolves were ultimately responsible for maintaining the health of the herd through natural selection.

Never Cry Wolf is a fun, entertaining, and thoughtful book. Mowatt is a very endearing narrator who has an enjoyable sense of humor and whose affection for the wolves he spends so much time observing is evident throughout the book. His recounting of marking off his own territory based on the wolves' practices, or of using himself as the test subject for an experiment of whether a large mammal can truly live on a diet of mice alone, or of trying to explain himself to an Inuit tribe who catch him dissecting buckets full of wolf scat while wearing a gas mask are highlights of the book and explain why it's worth the short amount of time it takes to read this book.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Red and the Black

by Stendahl
450 pgs

Published in 1830, The Red and the Black has become known as a book that was written ahead of its time. It's the story of Julien Sorel, an intelligent, ambitious, and deceitful man who comes from humble circumstances, but who dreams of one day becoming a member of the aristocracy. Men gained power in his day through the church, so Julien decides to train to become a priest. While in training, he's hired by the mayor to tutor his children and Julien ends up seducing the mayor's wife and being sent by his mentor to a far-away seminary to quell the controversy.

With time Julien's aspirations start to become a reality as he begins to be included in the circles of high society. But he's unaware that he's being used as a pawn in the political machinations of those around him. Ultimately he ends up trying to obtain his title by marrying the daughter of the Marquis, but his reputation catches up to him and in the end he ends up losing his head, literally.

I never really got into The Red and the Black. As I've done a little research into the book and the context in which it was written and some of the controversy it caused, I gained an appreciation for the book itself and how unique it was for its time. But that didn't make me enjoy it any more. The problem for me was with Julien. I never cared enough about him and what he wanted to accomplish to get emotionally involved in the story. I ended up being just as ambivilent towards the successes he experienced along the way as I was toward his beheading at the end.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Shame the Devil

by George Pelecanos
299 pgs

Shame the Devil is the last of the four books that make up George Pelacanos's D.C. Quartet books. It picks up a few years after The Sweet Forever and begins with a robbery of a pizza joint. The robbery doesn't go off as planned and one of the robbers is killed, but not before they end up killing the employees, shooting a cop, and speeding off. To make the crime even more violent and tragic, they end up running over  and killing a small boy crossing the street as they make their getaway and seemingly disappear from the face of the earth. That boy, young Jimmy Karras, is the son of Demitri Karras, a central character in the series and a man who had just recently gotten his life back in order and found the happiness that comes from having a family.

The book skips forward three years and Demitri has separated from his wife and is still grieving for the loss of his son. The crime that took his son was never solved and Demitri is once again going through life without purpose or direction. It's not until Nick Stephanos contacts him about working at a neighborhood diner that Demitri's life finally starts to have some structure and contentment again.

The  men who pulled off the robbery of the pizza joint have been living on the other side of the country and are planning to return to the District to exact revenge for the death of the man who was killed. They have no idea that the father of the boy they hit has been hoping for the day he'd be able to exact his revenge as well.

Pelecanos is such a fantastic author. He does for D.C. what Dennis Lehane does for Boston, and the District itself is central to his storytelling. It's not requisite that you read the books in this quartet in order, but the payoff at the end, if you do, is great. Pelecanos ties each of the stories together and shows just how big the story he set out to tell actually was.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆