Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The 6th Extinction

by James Rollins
427 pgs  (Sigma series #10)

Ten books into the series and Rollins' Sigma books haven't slowed down, or even taken a breath. The 6th Extinction begins at Yosemite National Park with an underground research base going up in flames. Jenna Beck, a Park Ranger, and her dog Nikko arrive on the scene just in time to see a black helicopter taking off from the scene and a fog emanating from the charred ruins--a fog that kills every living thing it touches. When Jenna and Nikko flee the scene to escape the fog, they're attacked by armed men from the same helicopter and barely escape.

Painter Crowe and his team at Sigma Forces soon become aware of the incident at Yosemite and quickly discover the nature of the fog now spreading throughout the area and it's potentially global consequences. It's up to Painter, Pierce, and the rest of the Sigma Force crew to stop it and those behind it before the earth experiences its sixth extinction.

Rollins does one thing very well, he moves his plot along rapidly. Not much time is spent on character development. But that's not really a priority when most of the characters have been around now for 10 books. He's more concerned with pulling you in to the story and making you want to read late into the night to see what happens next. He knows what he's doing and he's consistent in his delivery. The whole series is a lot of fun, even if sometimes it gets a little too over the top with the action, science, and repeated near-death escapes by the members of Sigma.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Zone of Interest

by Martin Amis
305 pgs

In The Zone of Interest Martin Amis takes the risky approach of detailing the horrors of the holocaust through the eyes of those who perpetrated it. The title refers to the area in the town of Auschwitz where Jews were brought by train and sorted, either to be used as forced labor or to be gassed immediately. Amis uses three different narrators throughout the book, rotating through each of them every chapter. Each one provides a different perspective on what is taking place at the death camp and their varying levels of commitment and understanding of their own involvement in it.

The first narrator is Golo Thomsen, a mid-level Nazi officer who runs the work factory. Thomsen represents the duality of many Germans during the war. Physically, Thomsen is the ideal Aryan specimen--six feet three, blue eyes, blond hair, and built like an Olympic athlete. Mentally, Thomsen is torn between his allegiance to his country and his uncle, who is a high-ranking Nazi Officer, and with what he sees before him every day. Thomsen though goes about doing what he's been ordered to do, more concerned with seducing Helen Doll, the wife of the camp commandant, than he is with the atrocities playing out at the camp.

The second narrator is Paul Doll, camp commandant, a man with minimal intelligence and even less of a conscience. Doll is constantly trying to balance the two conflicting directives he's tasked with: increase the production level of the camp's factory, which uses Jewish slave labor, and exterminate as many of the Jews as was possible. Doll is the type of man who attends Nazi concerts and spends the entire time calculating the logistics of what it would take to gas the entire audience, while unable to see that his wife is involved with Golo Thomsen.

The third narrator is Szmul, a Jew in the camp who heads the "Sonders," the team of Jewish prisoners who are given extra rations in return for assisting the Nazis in killing and disposing of their fellow Jews. Szmul has rationalized his actions in his mind by believing that the only way he can prolong his life and possibly bear witness to what took place, is to help the enemy.

Amis deftly uses satire and irony to describe the atrocities and horrors of the Holocaust. His muted humor is directed at those who were seemingly capable of overlooking their own moral decrepitude, as they engaged in acts and behavior that most consider unfathomable.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Happiest People in the World

by Brock Clarke
337 pgs

In 2012 the UN Conference on Happiness commissioned a study to determine who were the happiest people in the world. The report came back and designated the Danes as the holders of that title. With that as background, Brock Clarke's latest book begins with a series of events that seem eerily precognitive, given the recent events with Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Jens Baedrup is an editorial cartoonist for a minor newspaper in Denmark, whose life is turned upside down after he draws a political cartoon featuring the prophet Muhammad in a less-than-favorable light. Enraged terrorists blow up the newspaper he works for and burn his house to the ground. Believed to have been killed by the arsonist terrorists, Jens leaves his wife--whose response to whether she could go the rest of her life pretending that he was dead was, "I can do that"--and his life behind, and is relocated to America by Danish security agents.

His name is changed to Henry, he's given a bus ticket to Broomeville, New York, and given the job of guidance counselor at the local junior-senior high school. What Henry doesn't know, is that he's not the only citizen of Broomeville that has a secret past. Several of its citizens are clandestine CIA agents living double lives, and the principal of the school he works for used to be having an affair with the Danish security agent that spirited Henry out of Denmark and lined up his new job. Never having fully forgiven her husband for having his affair, the principal's wife begins having her own affair, with Henry.

Meanwhile, back in Denmark, one of the terrorists experiences a change of heart and seeks out Jens' "widow" to confess to her his crime and clear his conscience. In doing so, he discovers that Jens did not die and is immediately so enraged over the needless guilt he had been carrying for so long, he decides he's going to kill Jens again.

I've read two of Clarke's previous books: An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England and Exley and enjoyed both of them a lot. This one is just as good. It has the tone and feel of a Coen Brothers' movie. Fans of the movie or series Fargo should enjoy it.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Firefight

by Brandon Sanderson
416 pgs  (The Reckoners series #2)

By my count Brandon Sanderson is currently writing six different series of books: The Stormlight Archive, The Reckoners, Mistborn, The Rithmatist, Legion, and the Alcatraz books. Let me explain why this prolific pace works so well. First of all, they're all very good books, different from one another, both in style and, to a lesser extent, genre. But most of all, it means that I'm never waiting too long for the next book by him to be written. There are other fantasy series that I'm in the middle of reading right now, and my biggest point of frustration is having to wait five or more years for the next book in the series to come out. So while I know I'm going to have to wait about two years or so between each of the books in his Stormlight books (his magnum opus), I know that while I'm waiting, two or three books from his other series will come out and will keep my frustration in check.

Firefight is one of those books. It's book two (or three if you count the short novella Mitosis) in The Reckoners series. David and the other Reckoners were able to prove in Steelheart that the High Epics, individual who were altered and given unique super powers that drove them evil years ago, were in fact vulnerable; that they all had a weakness that could be discovered and exploited in order to kill them.

Having dealt with Steelheart, their attention is drawn to Regalia, a High Epic who rules over what used to be Manhattan. Regalia has the ability to control water and has used that power to flood the borough. She can also project images of herself within a range of her physical body, so no one knows where she's actually at. David believes that Regalia holds the secret to the true nature of all Epics. If he can find her and discover it, he may be able to save the Epic he fell in love with and lost in his battle against Steelheart--Firefight.

Firefight is excellent. Just like everything Sanderson has written so far, it's got plenty of action and the storyline is intelligent and full of surprises. It's written primarily for a young adult audience, but I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it just as much as my teenage daughter will, now that it's her turn to read it.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mitosis

by Brandon Sanderson
44 pgs  (The Reckoners series #1.5)

Mitosis is a very short novella that takes place chronologically between Steelheart and Firefight in Sanderson's Reckoners series. It was originally published only as an e-book, but a small number of copies were printed by his publisher in the UK.

In it David, and the other Reckoners are up against the Epic known as Mitosis, another of the many people who were changed when Calamity occurred and obtained a unique super power. Mitosis, as his name implies, obtained the ability to divide into as many different copies of himself as he chose. He's come to Newcago searching for the person who killed Steelheart, one of the most powerful and ruthless Epics ever known.

Mitosis continues the action-packed pace that Sanderson established for the series in Steelheart and it's a great primer for the just-released Firefight. Only read it if you've read Steelheart, and it's available for free on Sanderson's website. It's worth the few minutes it takes to read.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ruins

by Dan Wells
451 pgs  (The Partials series #3)

I finally got around to finishing Dan Wells's The Partials series. I know a lot of people who have read it have compared it to The Hunger Games and Divergent books because they're all written primarily for a younger audience, have a young female heroine, and take place in a bleak dystopian future. While I haven't read either of those series, I'm familiar enough with them to understand the comparison. Wells's books haven't gained anywhere near the following and popularity that the others have and having finished it, and unfortunately I understand why. It's a smart series, and it starts off with a strong first book - Partials, but the books tended to drag on in multiple places and by the end, my interest level had waned.

In Ruins Kira is trying to prevent another, and most likely race-ending war between what's left of mankind and Partials--the species of genetically engineered men and women with far superior physical and mental abilities. Both species are already near extinction; the Partials because they have an internal expiration date that they die when they reach, and the humans because of a genetically engineered disease that was released years ago and has caused every child born after it was released to die within days of birth.

Not only does Kira have to somehow prevent war between the two species, she also must somehow convince them that each species contains the cure for the other. And that the only way either of them will survive, is if they can somehow find a way to live in constant contact with each other.

I'm a huge fan of Wells's other series featuring the "Dexter-esque" John Wayne Cleaver and was excited to learn that he's continuing the series with The Devil's Only Friend later this year. But this series ended up being a disappointment. I'll recommend it to my teenage daughters and see what they think. Maybe I just wasn't in his targeted demographic this time.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Lost Island

by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
368 pgs  (Gideon Crew series #3)

Let me first say that Preston & Child's series featuring Gideon Crew is not my favorite. It pales in comparison to their Pendergast series. But, the series has its moments, so I continue reading it. The Lost Island is the third book in the series and while I enjoyed the book, it definitely had its eye-rolling moments.

The book starts off strong, with Gideon, once again in the employ of Eli Glinn, given the job of stealing a priceless book, a seemingly impossible task. The ingenuity with which he accomplishes the heist constitutes one of those "moments" that justify reading the series. From there things quickly become outlandish and a little too absurd. The book contains a map to an island somewhere off the coast of Central America, which legend says contains the fountain of youth.

As Gideon and his companion search for the lost island and its promise of both longevity and riches for his employer, they begin to realize that they are following the same route as another ancient traveler, the tale of whom the world has always considered fictitious--Odysseus. To say much more would require a spoiler alert, so I'll just say that if you recall some of the more memorable parts of The Odyssey, you have an idea of the direction Preston and Child went with this one.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

2014 - A Review

At the end of every year I like to look back and call out some literary highlights and "lowlights" of the previous year. To start with, I like to list the ten best books I read during the year. That's proved to be a little difficult for 2014 because while I rated three books as 5 stars, there were 22 that I rated as 4 stars. Some of them I had to cut from the list. Here it is:

1.  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
2.  Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
3.  The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
4.  The Abominable by Dan Simmons
5.  A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
6.  The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
7.  Lock In by John Scalzi
8.  The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
10. The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

The worst book I read in 2014 - Innocence by Dean Koontz. I had stopped reading Koontz's books years ago and apparently had forgotten why. Innocence reminded me why.

Number of books read during the year - 51

Signings attended - The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore, Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk

Books I'm looking forward to that will be published in 2015:

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson
Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson
The Martini Shot by George Pelecanos
The Last American Vampire by Seth Grahame-Smith
The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly
The Tournament by Matthew Reilly
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen
Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell
World Gone By by Dennis Lehane
The Patriot Threat by Steve Berry
The Border by Robert McCammon
Last Train from Perdition by Robert McCammon
The Devil's Only Friend by Dan Wells
Finders Keepers by Stephen King
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
The Bone Labyrinth by James Rollins
The Map of Chaos by Felix J. Palma