Saturday, March 26, 2016

Morning Star

by Pierce Brown
524 pgs  (Red Rising trilogy #3)

As Morning Star begins, Darrow has been imprisoned for a year in an underground cell, one so small the only way he can fit is curled up into a ball. He was betrayed at the end of Golden Son, his identity as a Red, genetically and physically modified to become a Gold revealed. He successfully shattered the color caste system, but now his followers have had to continue to fight his war across the entire solar system without him.

Eventually they liberate him, but he's broken and weak, in no position to lead the uprising he himself began. The stakes have gotten higher in his absence as well. The Jackal, the man responsible for imprisoning and torturing Darrow has stolen Sovereign's stockpile of hundreds of planet-destroying atomic weapons. If he's able to discover the location of Darrow and his rebel army, he'll waste no time in using those weapons to destroy them, with no concern for the collateral damage he would cause.

As the story progresses, the level of action grows. Brown packs it in to an impressive degree. If this trilogy is ever made into a movie, it will most likely be directed by Michael Bay. That's the type and level of action we're talking about here. But while Michael Bay films are all action and no substance, Brown's story isn't. The action is just a byproduct of the scope of the story Brown has written.

Brown also excels at developing his characters. As the trilogy began, Darrow was the only character that seemed to have much depth, but by the time the last book finished, he was almost more of a supporting character. the others had become so interesting that for me, they were the ones that seemed to be driving the story forward.

I was excited to learn that Brown is now planning a new trilogy of books. One that will take place in the same universe he created with Red Rising, but years later, when the effects of what Darrow and his army did have been fully realized. Hopefully those books will be coming soon.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

by Erik Larson
434 pgs

In In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson tells the story of William Dodd, the United States’ Ambassador to Germany during the 1930s. He describes his background and seemingly lack of qualifications for the appointment Roosevelt gave him during one of the most pivotal periods in modern history.

Dodd was an historian who earned his Ph.D. in Leipzig 40 years earlier. He never had high aspirations and was considered something of a lightweight and a joke by his fellow American diplomats. Although Dodd did not look forward to his ambassadorship, at the age of 64, he figured Germany might provide a quiet safe place for him to finish his latest writing project. So he decided to accept the appointment and moved with his wife, son, and daughter Martha to Berlin.

He was also a very unassuming and modest man. He didn’t enjoy the lavish parties thrown by heads of state, nor did he want to be chauffeured around Germany in an expensive car. In fact, Dodd had his old Chevy sent over to Germany--which he drove himself--and made the decision to rent his residence at a discount from its Jewish owner. At a time when the ruling parties in Germany respected only power and assertiveness, Dodd was the exact opposite of who should have been sent at the time.

Soon after arriving, Dodd and his family began witnessing the escalating violence and discrimination against Jews in Berlin. He saw the efforts being made to strip Jews of their German citizenship along with a myriad of other steps being taken by the Nazi Party to dehumanize Jews and force them out of German society.

As time progressed, and as Dodd became more and more concerned with the direction he saw Germany heading, he repeatedly communicated his concerns back to President Roosevelt, who seemed to respect Dodd, but repeatedly dismissed him and his reports in favor of guidance he was receiving from members of his cabinet.

Larson does a great job of showing the ineffectiveness of Dodd’s ambassadorship. But he balances that by positioning him as a man who always stayed true to his own convictions and never wavered in his assessment of what he was witnessing, even when the rest of the world ridiculed and dismissed him. In hindsight Dodd can now be seen as a singular voice of warning. One that was ignored with consequences.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Friday, March 11, 2016

Calamity

by Brandon Sanderson
417 pgs  (The Reckoners series #4)

Twelve years ago, Calamity, a High Epic, suddenly appeared as a red light in the atmosphere high above the earth. His arrival ushered in the age of the Epics. Hundreds of humans suddenly gained superhuman powers, and within a short time, those powers corrupted their possessors. They became known as Epics, and they used their new powers to kill, enslave, and destroy anything, or anyone that stood in their way.

The story began in Steelheart, with young David Charleston witnessing the death of his father at the hands of Steelheart, a particularly ruthless epic that ruled the city once known as Chicago. David saw something else that day that shaped the course of the rest of his life--he saw Steelheart bleed. The Epics had weaknesses. If he could discover what each of them was, maybe he could destroy them and return things to the way they once were.

The rest of Steelheart, and the next book, Firefight, tells how David joins a small group known as the Reckoners, whose purpose is to destroy the Epics, one by one.

In this final installment, the stakes are as high as they can get. Prof, the former leader of the Reckoners has become corrupted by his powers and if David can't find a way to bring him back, everything he's worked for his entire life will be for nothing.

Sanderson wrote The Reckoners series primarily for younger readers, but that shouldn't discourage adult fans from reading it. The series is smart, funny, and is packed with high-speed action sequences that are becoming a trademark of Sanderson's writing, regardless of which of his various series he's writing. Calamity gives the series the ending it deserves. It's very enjoyable and further justification for why he's steadily becoming a standout among writers of the genre.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt
771 pgs

Theo Decker is a teenage boy who lives in Manhattan with his mother. His father was an alcoholic who walked out on the two of them over a year ago. Now, his mother is his whole world. One afternoon the course of Theo's life is drastically and forever changed, when he and his mother visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There's an exhibit of Dutch masterpieces there that his mother wants to see. While in the room containing his mother's favorite piece: The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, a terrorist bomb goes off, killing Theo's mother and dozens more.

In the immediate aftermath and confusion of the explosion, an elderly man, whom Theo had met earlier in the museum, along with a beautiful young red-headed girl with him named Pippa, gives Theo his ring along with a strange message. Theo leaves the museum in a state of shock and confusion, carrying the ring and one more valuable item--The Goldfinch.

Weeks later, Theo, now living with his friend's family, decides to follow the strange message the old man at the museum gave him. He takes the ring with him and ends up arriving at the residence of Hobie, an old antique furniture restorer and dealer, the partner of the old man from the museum. It's there that Theo learns that Pippa survived the explosion but is still recuperating from her injuries. Hobie takes Theo under his wing and gives him a job working in his antique shop. As time goes on, Theo's relationship with Hobie grows, along with his love for Pippa, but he never tells either of them his secret, that he's in possession of a priceless piece of art, one that means so much to him because of its connection to his mother.

I had high expectations when I began reading this book. It was the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction in 2014, was a critical favorite, and I think was on everybody's "best of" list for the year. Initially, I thought I was going to really enjoy it too. The first 200 pages are fantastic, after all. But as the story progressed, and Theo grows older, I found myself caring less and less about him as a character. By the end, I felt the same way about him and the book, as I did Holden Caulfield and The Catcher in the Rye. I recognized it as a very well written book and I felt like I should have really liked it, but didn't. And for some reason I felt guilty about it, like maybe the problem was with me.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Thursday, March 3, 2016

All the Birds in the Sky

by Charlie Jane Anders
313 pgs

All the Birds in the Sky is one of those books that's nearly impossible to describe. It's part science fiction and part fantasy. And while this isn't the first time an author has combined the two successfully, first-time novelist Charlie Jane Anders does so in a remarkable way.

Patricia and Laurence are two young kids that don't fit in with any group. Patricia has recently discovered that she's a witch, and can talk to animals. Laurence is a nerdy tech genius who has invented a time machine that allows him to skip two seconds ahead in time every time he uses it. Their mutual lack of any other friends brings them together at school and they soon form a friendship that will tie them together for the rest of their lives.

As the two get older, their paths separate, but never for too long. They seem to be tied to each other on some cosmic level, and their paths repeatedly intersect.

As they get older, the earth itself seems to be aging, and by the time they're adults, the earth has reached a tipping point. Natural disasters and catastrophes are increasing in both frequency and severity, and it's apparent to both Patricia and Laurence that they're unique skills may play a vital role in preventing whole planet's destruction.

As I mentioned earlier, this book doesn't lend itself easily to being described. While it's a relatively short book, its scope makes it feel like it's much longer than it actually is. It feels like a story that could have easily been expanded by hundreds of pages. But that's partly why the book is so successful and why I enjoyed it so much. Multiple times in the story, Anders skips forward several years, and each time she does, it's a jarring break in the story, and I had to read several pages before I felt like I had a good sense for what was happening again. Those who enjoy David Mitchell's books should feel right at home with this one.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆