Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Fifth Gospel

by Ian Caldwell
448 pgs

It's been awhile since The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell's first book (co-authored with Dustin Thomason) hit the top of the NY Times Bestseller list and stayed there for six months. I have to be honest and say that I wasn't all that impressed by that book. It was good, but I didn't understand all the hype surrounding it. It's a little ironic then that The Fifth Gospel, Caldwell's second book, hasn't received nearly as much hype as his first one did, but for me, it's a better and much more enjoyable book.

At the center of the book are the Shroud of Turin and the Diatessaron. The first is one of the most studied and controversial Christian artifacts in existence, and the other is a 2nd century text written by an early Christian named Tatian, who attempted to consolidate the four Gospels of the New Testament into one cohesive narrative of the life of Jesus Christ.

The book begins in 2004, during the final days of Pope John Paul II's ministry. An exhibit will be opening soon inside the Vatican Museum; an exhibit that promises to be controversial and claims that it will reveal a "dramatic discovery" concerning the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. In the opening pages of the book, the curator of the exhibit is murdered, and Simon Andreou, a Roman Catholic priest, is believed to be his killer. It's up to Simon's brother Alex, a Greek Orthodox priest, to try to exonerate his brother before it's too late.

A big part of the book's appeal to me was the way Caldwell incorporated several verses from the four Gospels and a lot of interesting biblical history into his story. Both of which were used to support the idea that the Shroud of Turin is in fact the same cloth that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea used to wrap the body of Jesus of Nazareth in after His body was taken down from the cross.

Caldwell has succeeded in writing a very intelligent and well-researched thriller. There's no "sophomore slump" taking place here. Although that might be because it took him about a decade to write this second book as opposed to the couple of years authors normally take to write their second one. But it was worth the wait.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

After Alice

by Gregory Maguire
273 pgs

Gregory Maguire has made a name for himself out of reimagining classic children's stories and presenting them from another character's perspective. Everyone in the industrialized world is familiar with the musical Wicked, but if you hadn't read his book from which it was adapted, and picked it up expecting a story resembling the play, you'd likely be disappointed. His books tend to be more sociopolitical commentaries disguised as children's stories, than children's stories themselves.

This time it's Lewis Carroll's classic story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that receives his treatment. Ada Boyce is a young friend of Alice Clowd, but while Carroll created Alice as an innocent young girl, Maguire creates Ada with some baggage. Her mother drinks, her father is a preacher, and Ada is forced to wear an iron brace to correct her deformed back.

On the same day that Alice slipped away fro her sister's care and followed the white rabbit down his hole, Ada, looking for her friend, also stumbles into that same hole. As Ada encounters many of the same characters that Alice met, and has similarly absurd interactions with each of them, she quickly realizes that her friend is in Wonderland as well and that she needs to rescue her and return her to the world above.

Throughout the rest of After Alice Maguire alternates his story back and forth between the adventures Ada is having in Wonderland with the events taking place in Oxford above, and the search for the two missing girls.

There are numerous aspects of this story and book that Maguire excels at: First of all, during the chapters that take place in Wonderland, he perfectly captures the tone, word play, and absurdity that Carroll's original stories contained. Maguire also stays true to the characters Carroll created--you get the impression that Alice just left each of them a few minutes before Ada comes across each of them.

As clever as the book is as a whole, it suffers from the same thing that eventually led me to abandon the Oz books--I got bored. That's never a good sign when I'm reading a book. It seemed to drag in places for me, and while I understood what Maguire was trying to do in going back and forth between Wonderland and Oxford, and showing how each one was equally absurd in its own way, ultimately, I didn't really care.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Friday, November 20, 2015

Slade House

by David Mitchell
238 pgs

I was surprised when I learned that David Mitchell had a new book coming out so soon after The Bone Clocks was published just last year. He’s not one of those a-book-a-year authors. It made more sense when I learned that it originated from a short story Mitchell was writing via Twitter, but which grew until it became more of a novella in length. It’s a one-night read and is a sequel of sorts to The Bone Clocks, although reading it is really not prerequisite in this case.

Slade House only exists in our world on the last Saturday of October, every nine years. It’s accessed through a small iron door in an alley, and is the home of Norah and Jonah Grayer, twin soul-vampires who must feed every nine years in order to maintain their, and Slade House’s existence. They need to feed on the souls of humans who possess a level of psychic ability. So they lure unwitting victims into the alley, through the iron door, and into Slade House, where they feed and restore their own psychic abilities and leave behind an empty husk of their victim.

The book is comprised of five separate stories, each one taking place at nine-year intervals, but even with the skipping forward in time, the stories remain interconnected. The first victim we learn of is a young boy and his mother, the second is a man investigating a lead in their disappearance. The next is a group of students from the Paranormal Society, who have heard rumors that Slade House exists. The next is the sister of one of those students, trying to follow a trail of breadcrumbs. The last is a key character from one of Mitchell’s earlier books, who ties Slade House into the ever-growing and interconnected mega-story that Mitchell appears to be writing.

At its core, Slade House is a haunted-house story. But the mood and feel for the story is atypical from what you’d expect from one. Mitchell doesn’t use mysterious noises or startling apparitions to generate fear in his readers. Instead he lets you watch as one by one the Grayers’ victims are subtly hooked and then slowly reeled in. You know, or you think you know, what’s going to happen to them, but the real enjoyment in the story is waiting for the moment when they each realize that something inexplicable is taking place. 

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Last American Vampire

by Seth Grahame-Smith
398 pgs  (Abraham Lincoln: Vamipre Hunter sequel)

In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Seth Grahame-Smith began his alternative history lesson in which he reimagined our sixteenth President as an axe-wielding vampire hunter, who, with the help of his vampiric mentor, Henry Sturges, successfully held this country together during the Civil War. The lesson continues in his follow-up The Last American Vampire.

The story begins shortly after the assassination of Lincoln. Henry, mourning his friend's death, turns Lincoln into a vampire. But Lincoln's afterlife is seemingly shortlived, as he's so horrified at becoming what he had spent his entire lifetime trying to rid the nation of, that he leaps out the window and burns to death in the sunlight.

Soon afterwards, Henry is enlisted into investigating the destruction of several of the Union vampires, whose heads have been turning up along with an ominous note from someone calling themselves A. Grander VIII. His investigation takes him overseas, and to various locations in the United States. Along the way his path crosses those of Bram Stoker, Henry Irving, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and others. He tells of his earlier life as both a human and young vampire, and we learn the secrets behind events such as the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke Colony in Virginia, the "Ripper" murders in London, the death of Rasputin, and the failed assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler.

The Last American Vampire has many of the great qualities of a Grahame-Smith book. But for me it's the weakest of his books so far. The action and violence that made ALVH so good are too few and far between this time, and too much of the book reads like a travel log. Sturges ultimately takes on a kind of "Forrest Gump" role, as he's present for, and involved in key historical events. And while the alternative vampiric history that Grahame-Smith creates is definitely creative, if not ingenious at times, I wanted more blood.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Friday, November 13, 2015


by Austin Grossman
355 pgs

"What if there are worse things in the world than nuclear weapons?" This is a statement made by President Eisenhower to his young Vice President, Richard Milhous Nixon, near the beginning of Crooked.

What if The United States was built on a foundation of dark magic centuries earlier? And what if ever since World War II, the country had been involved in a secret arms race, one far more dangerous than the one the rest of the world knew about with the Soviet Union, but with forces far more dangerous than any possible human threat? Austin Grossman's latest book is a fascinating alternative history story in which Nixon, the country's most disparaged president, is not the man the country, and the rest of the world believed him to be. Rather, the decisions that he made, that eventually resulted in him quitting the presidency in disgrace, were motivated by his responsibility to protect the nation from dark forces from another dimension.

It's an outlandish premise, and one that could have easily resulted in a nonsensical and silly book. But that's not the direction Grossman went with his story. Instead, it's obvious that he conducted an amazing amount of research into both the lives of key historical figures of the era as well as the key events. And the result is a story that expertly overlays an alternative history over one of the most significant periods of the country's history

While Grossman's pacing in the book leaves a little to be desired on numerous occasions, it's still a highly-unique story and Grossman's creativity and imagination are in high gear. He manages to bring H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu into America's political backstory, and transform Henry Kissinger into a 1000-year-old sorcerer.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆