Thursday, June 22, 2017

Walkaway

by Cory Doctorow
379 pgs

Cory Doctorow has described his latest book Walkaway (the first of his I’ve read) as a “utopian novel.” But the idyllic connotations that term evokes are far from what his story provides. The story is set in the future, in a time when individuals can digitally back themselves up in case their body dies, or they can choose to exist solely as digital constructs and abandon their bodies completely. Pollution and climate change have led to world-wide ecological disasters and the economic divide between the wealthy and the 99% has become so extreme that many have decided to “walkaway” from society.

Millions of people, including the laborers and the creative and intelligent ones, have “opted out” from society. They’ve abandoned cities, their jobs, and the ever-present surveillance they’re under by the super-rich, and they’ve instead chosen to build a new society on their own.    

The book centers primarily around three young people. Hubert and Seth are two friends who meet Natalie at a “Communist Party” she’s put together. Natalie is the rebellious daughter of one of the world’s wealthiest families, and together they decide to walkaway. But their decision puts them at the center of the escalating conflict between the walkaway world and the establishment they abandoned.

The book is highly intelligent and philosophical. Each page is dense with Doctorow’s own terminology and mind-bending ideas. He described the book as “utopian” because it’s his attempt to describe a society that has rebuilt and reinvented itself after the world has gone beyond its tipping point. Individually and collectively, the walkaways’ act in ways most beneficial to others and not themselves. Behavior atypical from what you would expect following the disasters they’ve survived.
   
I enjoyed the ideas and the philosophy Doctorow included in his book. But I would have enjoyed it more if it had also contained a more compelling plot. I felt like Doctorow was so focused on creating this wildly-imaginative idea of what the world could eventually become, that he forgot to include a plot that would tie it all together and make readers care about what ultimately happened to his characters.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Spirit of Steamboat

by Craig Johnson
146 pgs  (A Longmire story)

Spirit of Steamboat is a slight departure from Craig Johnson’s usual Walt Longmire story. This one is a novella, and instead of the usual mystery Johnson sets Sheriff Longmire out to solve, this time around it’s an adventure story from Longmire’s past he tells.

The story begins on Christmas Eve. A young woman shows up at Longmire’s office asking unusual questions about Lucian Conalley, Longmire’s predecessor as sheriff. Longmire takes the woman to the nursing home Lucian now resides at, but neither he nor Lucian has any idea who the woman is. It’s not until she says the word “Steamboat” that both men know instantly who she is, and they’re both transported back to an earlier Christmas Eve. This one in 1988, shortly after Walt became sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming.

A young girl had been seriously burned in a car accident and the medical helicopter that picked her up at the scene had had to make an emergency landing in Longmire’s jurisdiction because of a storm. The girl was going to die if she didn’t get medical treatment beyond what they were capable of giving her in the small Wyoming hospital and she needed to be transported to Denver. But the storm that had forced the helicopter to land was also preventing any airplanes from making the trip.

There was only one plane around that Longmire knew could make the trip, Steamboat, an old World War II bomber that hadn’t flown for decades. Fortunately, Walt also knew someone who had flown a plane very similar to Steamboat in the war and thought he could probably convince him to make the dangerous trip.

Spirit of Steamboat is a great story. It’s easily read in one or two sittings and Johnson keeps the action moving the whole time. But it’s not just an adventure story. Johnson seemed to pack more emotions and feelings into this one than he has in any of the rest of his books.

In hindsight, I wish I would have waited till December to read this one. It’s a great story with a message worthy of that time of the year.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

by Mary Roach
285 pgs

In Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach applies her formula of delving into subjects the typical person finds taboo or off-putting, and then providing an account of her research and interviews that the typical person finds fascinating and entertaining, to keeping soldiers safe during war.

She chronicles the military’s historical efforts to develop an effective shark repellent to protect its soldiers serving in the Navy. She investigates the use of maggots to thoroughly cleanse wounds suffered from I.E.D.s. She recounts the medical efforts being developed to perform the most successful phalloplasty (look it up, if you can’t figure it out) possible. And she dares to ask hardened Special-Ops soldiers the difficult question of how they deal with diarrhea while engaged in dangerous operations. All things most people didn’t even know they wanted to know more about, until they find out Mary Roach has investigated.

Mary has a conversational and humorous writing style that most of her success can be attributed to. She’s not afraid to get irreverent and glib whenever she chooses, but she’s always respectful of the men and women who are willing to sacrifice their lives for their country.

The book is first and foremost entertaining, but it’s also very interesting and informative. I enjoyed it but at times wished she didn’t jump from subject to subject as quickly as she did. She would oftentimes point out a fascinating fact or tidbit of information, but then the chapter would end and she’d be on to her next topic.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Providence of Fire

by Brian Staveley
606 pgs  (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series #2)

In The Emperor's Blades, Brian Staveley set the stage for what is turning out to be an engaging and complex fantasy epic. The Providence of Fire picks up right where book one left off. Brothers Kaden and Valyn have briefly been reunited and are fleeing the traitorous Annurian soldiers, who raided the Shin monastery and killed all the monks Kaden had been living with for the past eight years in their attempt on his life. Their sister Adare has discovered that their father’s leading general, the man she’s been sharing a bed with, is behind her father’s murder and has fled to the Dawn Palace to try to raise an army to prevent an impending coup.

From there things start to get complicated. Separated by an entire kingdom and unable to communicate with one another, Adare has no idea whether her brothers are still alive, and Kaden and Valyn have no way of knowing whether she’s stayed true to their father’s legacy or joined forces with those who had him killed. When Kaden once again becomes separated from his brother, all three siblings find themselves on separate paths. Paths which they believe will help save their father’s kingdom, but which ultimately may put them on a collision course with each other.

One of the faults of book one was that I thought Adare’s storyline didn’t get nearly as much page time as her brothers’ did. Staveley corrects that with book two. Adare is central to this book, and the story as a whole is much better because of it. Staveley story is an excellent blend of political machinations, high-stakes action, and just the right amount of magic and the supernatural to make the series a highly-enjoyable one. I’m hopeful there will be many more books by Staveley to come.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Black Widow

by Daniel Silva
528 pgs  (Gabriel Allon series #16)

I’ve enjoyed every one of Daniel Silva’s books featuring Gabriel Allon, the Israeli intelligence officer now slated to become the next chief of Israel’s intelligence service. But I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any of them as much as I did The Black Widow. For the last few books, I’ve wondered whether the series would lose some of its appeal once Gabriel finally made the transition to running operations from behind a desk at The Office instead of being an operative in the field. If this book is any indication of what’s in store, my fears have been alleviated.

The book begins with a bomb exploding in Paris, in an area known for its large Jewish population, followed soon after by another one in Amsterdam. One of the victims of the Paris attack had personal ties to Gabriel, which delays his announcement as chief of Israeli intelligence service, and compels him to run the operation after the mastermind of both operations, a former Iraqi officer now calling himself Saladin.

Gabriel and his team begin laying out the groundwork for an operation, an operation bolder than any they’ve pulled off before. They want to insert a Jew into ISIS. Their plan is to find a woman and transform her into a radical Islamist who ISIS will then recruit into the caliphate. It’s the only way they believe they can track Saladin’s movements and stop him before he’s able to carry out his next attack, this time in the U.S.  

This was an entertaining, compelling, and ultimately, unsettling story. Silva’s stories have often seemed inspired by real-world events, but this time it was eerie just how spot on he was. In the book’s foreward, Silva had this to say, “I commenced work on this novel before the Islamic terrorist group known as ISIS carried out a wave of shootings and bombings in Paris and Brussels that left more than 160 people dead. After briefly considering setting aside the typescript, I chose to complete it as originally conceived. . . . I take no pride in my prescience. I only wish that the murderous, millenarian terrorism of the Islamic State lived solely on the pages of this story.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Snapshot

by Brandon Sanderson
123 pgs

Some authors take long breaks in between writing their books. George R.R. Martin likes to attend every “con” taking place anywhere in the world, which has left his fans waiting for six years now for the follow-up to A Dance with Dragons. Patrick Rothfuss has his work with the Worldbuilders charity he’s very involved with. His fans have been waiting just as long for the follow-up to The Wise Man’s Fear (The Slow Regard of Silent Things doesn’t count). Thomas Harris…well, I don’t know what he’s been doing for the last 11 years, but it hasn’t been writing a book.

Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to know the meaning of “taking a break.” In between writing the books in his various series, Sanderson chooses to write other books. Usually they’re shorter, novella-length stories, and they’re generally a slight departure in genre from what he’s best known for. I consider them literary palate cleansers between his larger courses. Others would do well to take a page from his book, so to speak.
Snapshot is one of those palate cleansing stories. It’s a sci-fi detective story set in the near future, at a time when it has become possible to “re-create” a particular day. The technology is used by law enforcement to solve crimes. When they know the time and place a crime has been committed, they’re able to re-create that day and send in detectives, who can hopefully witness the crime being committed, or at least follow the perpetrator and identify where they disposed of the weapon to use for evidence.

Detectives Davis and Chaz are the only two real people in the Snapshot version of May 1st. They’ve been sent there to find the location of evidence used in two separate crimes committed that day…10 days ago. Their task is to find the location of a weapon disposed of after a shooting, report it back to the real world, and then wait a few hours to witness the second crime that will take place a few blocks away. Normally Davis and Chaz would hole up in a safehouse in between investigations to minimize causing disparities, or unintended ripple effects, in the Snapshot.

But this time, instead of going to a safehouse, Davis decides to investigate a crime he knows was reported that same day, one that was never logged at headquarters. What he and Chaz stumble across could change everything.

I have the same criticism for Snapshot that I’ve had with Sanderson’s other shorter offerings, namely, it’s too short. Again, the world Sanderson creates is too intriguing to only get a 120 or so page story. I would have loved for this to be a full-length novel. But the 1100-page Oathbringer comes out in November, so I shouldn’t complain.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Emperor's Blades

by Brian Staveley
478 pgs  (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series #1)

The Emperor’s Blades is the first book in an epic fantasy series that I’ve been meaning to read ever since my wife recommended it to me several months ago. It begins with the murder of the Emperor of the Annurian Empire, which leaves the Unhewn Throne temporarily vacant. His eldest son, Kaden, will become the next Emperor, but Kaden has been on the far side of the kingdom, at a remote Shin monastery for the last eight years and it will be weeks before word can reach him of his father’s death. Kaden has been training with the Shin monks since he was a small boy, trying to learn how to achieve a state of mental emptiness, strip away all his emotions, and enter the vaniate.

Kaden’s younger brother Valyn was likewise sent away at a young age. But Valyn was sent to train with the Kettral, the empire’s elite military forces that get their name from the giant warhawks they ride into battle--birds with a 70-foot wingspan.  Kaden and Valyn have an older sister Adare, who was not sent away as a youth, but instead, remained close to their father and became the Minister of Finances in her his court.

Separated for years and by great distances, the three siblings each learn that their whole family line is being targeted by the forces that murdered their father.

The book alternates between the three siblings’ points of view and Staveley does an excellent job of writing compelling stories for each of them. But I felt a little shortchanged with Adare’s storyline. She doesn’t get nearly as many chapters as either Kaden or Valyn do, and since the few that she did get seemed to be the most important ones to the overall story, I wasn’t sure why they were so few and far between. I’m assuming this was intentional and that Staveley will balance things out in the next book. 

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Seventh Plague

by James Rollins
425 pgs  (Sigma series #12)

In his latest Sigma Force book, James Rollins unleashes a biblical plague in the modern world. It begins  when Professor Harold McCabe, who has spent his entire career trying to find archaeological evidence of the plagues mentioned in Exodus, stumbles out of the Sudanese desert and dies before he can tell his story. It appears that someone had begun the mummification process on Professor McCabe before he died, and when those who performed his autopsy soon become ill, Painter Crowe and his team at Sigma Force are called in to discover the cause of the illness and to try to prevent it from spreading.

It wouldn’t be a James Rollins book though, if things were as simple as trying to prevent a few people from dying of a new disease. He doesn’t write a book that doesn’t bring the world’s population perilously close to annihilation. The pathogen which is discovered is airborne and highly-contagious, and as Crowe, Gray, Monk, and the rest of the team soon realize, this might not be the first time it was unleashed on the world. They trace its origin back to a vial of red water collected from the Nile River thousands of years ago…right around the time the Bible says the river was turned to blood.

I’m starting to consider Rollins’ books one of my guilty pleasures. I know they’re over-the-top with their plots and usually require a suspension of belief, but they’re always interesting and fun. They combine historical fiction with outlandish cutting-edge technology and then mix in some addictive action sequences. They’re summer reads which consistently deliver, and this one is no exception.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Blue World

by Robert McCammon
425 pgs

Blue World by Robert McCammon is a collection of mostly short stories, with the exception of a couple of considerably longer story, including the one which shares the same title as the book itself.

It includes a story about a thief, who steals an old makeup case used in old Hollywood horror stories, and who quickly discovers the makeup has the power to transform the wearer. There’s a story about a man who wakes up one morning and finds the skeleton of his wife lying next to him. There’s a great story of a small town with a unique ritual which takes place every Halloween night. And another of an old man who used to play the role of a super hero in the old serial movies, who decides to dust off his old costume in order to hunt down a serial killer. In the final story in the collection, McCammon tips his hat to Ray Bradbury with a futuristic story dystopian story of a woman who finds comfort through Bradbury’s short stories.

Most of the stories were written back in the ‘80s and first published as a collection back then. The Subterranean Press edition, which came out in 2015, includes three newer stories and are new to the book itself. The evolution of McCammon’s writing style and ability is evident when you compare those last three stories to the rest. The older ones are pretty typical of the genre back then. They’re a little unsettling or they make you feel uneasy, while the newer evoke deeper emotions. They’ve got elements of the supernatural, but they deal with the sense of loss and the emotions which accompany it. I enjoyed them all, but felt like those last three are much more indicative of the type of writer McCammon has become.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians: The Scrivener's Bones

by Brandon Sanderson
343 pgs  (Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians series #2)

We recently discovered my 10-year-old son is dyslexic. For years we thought his handwriting would improve and he’d eventually stop confusing his “b”s and “d”s and writing certain numbers backward. But as he got older, and those things weren’t improving, we had him tested and were glad we did. I want my son to enjoy a lifetime of reading. I don’t want the fact that it’s not as easy for him as it is for his peers to discourage him from reading and prevent him from learning from and enjoying books for the rest of his life.

As we started educating ourselves about the best ways to address dyslexia, I realized it was probably a good idea to once again start reading with him. It’s something we did when he was younger, but got out of the habit of doing as he got older. So I gave some thought into what to read with him. I wanted something that we’d both enjoy. I wanted something he’d look forward to reading with me every night, and something I would be just as excited about. I’ve made it well known that I’m a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s books, but as big a fan as I am, I’d never read any of his Alcatraz books. I thought now was the perfect opportunity to do so.

I couldn’t have picked a better series to read with my son. It’s got action, excitement, a great system of magic (every Sanderson book does), and an underlying sense of humor, which appeals to both my son and me (and that’s not an admission that my sense of humor is juvenile). When I wrote my review of the first book in the series, Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, I mentioned the fact that as soon as we were done with the book, my son went to the bookshelf and grabbed the second book and set it out so that it was ready to be started. The same thing happened when we finished this one. It’s been very rewarding to see the difference in my son’s attitude about reading since we started reading these books together. It used to be a battle with him every night when I tried to get him to find a book to read and go to his room to read before bed. Now, without me having to say a word, he comes to me with the book in his hand and asks if we can read now. We start book III tomorrow.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God

by Douglas Preston
326 pgs

In 2015 Douglas Preston was invited to accompany an expedition into the Mosquitia region of Honduras. The purpose of the expedition was to explore a site, which had been identified three years earlier using Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) surveys from the air. The use of LIDAR had given archaeologists the means of seeing through the dense rainforest and identify man-made structures. Their goal had been to locate the legendary “Ciudad Blanca” (White City) and they were pretty confident they had.

In The Lost City of the Monkey God, Preston chronicles the discovery process the team went through using LIDAR to confirm the existence of the ruins, the 10-day expedition he and the rest of the team embarked on at the site, and the ramifications of their discovery.

I thought the book was fascinating. I found it amazing that the remnants of a city, as large and extensive as the White City was, could remain untouched and undiscovered for 500 years. It’s easy to forget in today’s age of satellites and technology, that there are still areas of the world we know virtually nothing about. It was especially eye opening to me, as Preston described the expedition itself, to realize that in the dense rainforest where the White City was discovered, it’s possible to be standing mere feet away from ancient ruins, and have no idea they’re there.

As I read most of the book, I found myself wishing for the same opportunity he was given. Despite the conditions and dangers he and the team faced while there, including jaguars, aggressive and poisonous snakes, disease-carrying insects, and heavily-armed drug traffickers, I couldn’t help but envy Preston for what he was able to do. My envy ended though when Preston discovered he had been infected with mucosal leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating parasite, while there. As he described the “volcano-like” lesion that formed on his arm shortly after returning home, and the ordeal he had to go through just to battle the parasite into submission (he’ll never be rid of it), my jealousy waned and I was once again content living vicariously through him.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Alone

by Scott Sigler
539 pgs  (The Generations trilogy #3)

Alone concludes Scott Sigler’s The Generations trilogy, a trilogy that got off to an excellent start with Alive, but which gradually lost some of its momentum and appeal for me by the time it was all over.

Em, along with the remaining Birthday Children, who woke up with no memories on a ghost ship traveling through space, have finally found refuge on Omeyocan, the distant planet their creators genetically engineered them to survive on and sent them to thousands of years ago. Em united the different groups that had formed after everyone woke up. She’s led them in their fight to survive on Omeyocan. She’s helped them fend off their creators, who sent them there so they could “overwrite” their consciousnesses and take over their young healthy bodies once they had arrived. She’s helped them establish peace with the indigenous species on Omeyocan, and now…it’s all being threatened. They’ve learned other alien races are on their way to Omeyocan as well, drawn by the same message the Birthday Children’s creators received thousands of years ago. Each of those alien races shares the same intent to conquer Omeyocan and call it their own. Em has to find a way to protect her small group and make sure everything they’ve survived so far hasn’t been for nothing.

The series began with such a great first book. I’ll admit the idea seems more than a little derivative of The Maze Runner, but Sigler still pulled it off so well. The idea was compelling and left me at the end of the first book with a lot of excitement over what was to come. The last two books were interesting and entertaining, but I was a little let down. 

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Sunday, April 23, 2017

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry

by Fredrik Backman
372 pgs

I almost plan, when I like an author’s first book a lot, to be at least mildly disappointed with their next one. The term “sophomore slump” exists for a reason. So, when an author’s next book is just as good as its predecessor, I get very excited about the author, and more than likely, will read everything else they write from then on out. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry puts Fredrik Backman solidly into this category.

Elsa is a seven-year-old girl who has a special relationship with her granny. Granny lives in the same apartment building as Elsa and her mother and Granny understands her better than everyone else in Elsa’s life. Elsa’s precocious nature and granny’s disregard for societal rules have isolated each of them from their peers and resulted in a special bond between the two of them.

As early as Elsa can remember, Granny would tell her fairy tales from the Land-of-Almost-Awake. A land containing six kingdoms Elsa can go to in her mind and not have to worry about her classmates, her divorced parents, or the new half-sibling her mom is expecting soon.

Elsa doesn't know her granny is dying from cancer. But granny, knowing her time was ending soon, devised another brilliant and emotional journey for Elsa to take when she's gone. Granny has written a series of letters to others who live in the apartment building, and tasks Elsa with delivering them after she's gone. These letters are part apology to the recipient, and part treasure hunt for Elsa. Each one reveals to Elsa the origins of the stories she's been told since she was a small child. 

Both of Backman's books have dealt with death and the emotions that accompany it. His first book, A Man Called Ove is about a cantankerous old widower, who misses his wife terribly and is ready to join her in death, and this one deals with a young girl who continues to feel the love of her granny, long after she's gone.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Nutshell

by Ian McEwan
199 pgs

On the one hand, Ian McEwan’s latest book Nutshell is a pretty standard love-triangle-turns-to-murder story. John and Trudy are married, but separated. Trudy is having an affair with Claude, John’s brother. Together they’re plotting John’s murder so they can sell the valuable London townhouse Judy lives in, but owns jointly with John still.

It’s clear McEwan is paying homage to Shakespeare’s Hamlet with his story, even naming Claude after Shakespeare’s Claudius and Trudy after Gertrude. But here’s what makes McEwan’s story so unique, and what made me want to read it, McEwan’s Hamlet character has not yet been born. Judy is 30-something weeks pregnant with John’s child, and it’s the child who serves as narrator of the story.

I’ll pause briefly to let you get your head around that.

Our narrator, an ingeniously-devised “fly on the wall,” who hears the familial plot to kill his--for our narrator discovers he’s a “he” during the course of the book--father with a poisoned smoothie, is able to comprehend the events taking place and he understands the ramifications they will have on his life once he exits his current residence.

This was a daring literary feat attempted by McEwan. In order for it to work well, he had to figure out a way to convince the reader of the plausibility of an unborn child having a comprehensive understanding of the world it’s never experienced, along with the ability to communicate its thoughts. Overall, I’d say McEwan was successful. There were definitely times when I felt like the narrator was too knowledgeable of what was happening outside the womb, but it was fairly easy to forgive those places in the story and simply enjoy the story for what it was. This is the first of McEwan’s books I’ve read, and it was very apparent he’s an excellent writer. I’ll definitely be going back through his earlier catalog and reading more.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Giver

by Lois Lowry
225 pgs

Before young adult dystopian novels became all the rage with The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner series, there was The Giver. It’s a relatively short book, but it’s one filled with commentary on society, government, bioethics, and the danger of letting people be trusted to make their own decisions.

Jonas is a 12-year-old boy who lives in a community where everyone has been genetically engineered and groomed from a young age to grow up to play a specific role in society. Family units are assigned, not created. Emotions and feelings are not just discouraged, they’re punished. With the exception of one man, no one has any concept of what life could be like outside the strictly controlled and manipulated community.

When Jonas finally reaches the age when he and his classmates are to find out what their assigned roles will be as adults, they are brought before the Chief Elder, who, one by one, makes the assignments. Jonas is initially skipped in the order of assignments and doesn’t learn what his assignment will be until everyone else has gone. He learns he isn’t going to receive a normal assignment like the rest of his classmates did. Instead, he has been selected to be the next Receiver of Memory, and that he is to be trained in isolation by the current Receiver of Memory, whose role is now is to be “the giver” of all his memories to Jonas.

The next day, when Jonas reports to The Giver, the process begins of transferring the memories from all of history into Jonas. Jonas receives the memory of changing weather, of the coldness of snow, and the exhilaration of a sled ride down a hill. Of emotions like love and happiness, and fear and anger. He’s given the memory of pain and war, and of every possible memory mankind at one point experienced. As these memories accumulate in Jonas, he learns that he has no way to share the joy and the burden of these memories with anyone else. No one else has any concept of what he’s experiencing and wouldn’t be able to understand what he tried to describe.
These memories not only allow Jonas to experience feelings and emotions no one else around him does, they also open his eyes to things happening “for the good of the community” that he can no longer accept and deal with.

The Giver has a lot to offer in its few pages. It’s not surprising most of my kids read it for school. Those of us who went to school before it was required reading, would do well pick it up and read it.

    

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Collapsing Empire

by John Scalzi
333 pgs

The Collapsing Empire is the latest book--the first in a new science fiction series--by John Scalzi, an author whose books I’ve only recently begun to read, but whom I’m very excited about. It’s set in the distant future, thousands of years after mankind discovered the Flow and used it to leave earth and begin colonies on dozens of other planets.

The Flow is a natural feature of space-time which allows ships to “ride” it at faster-than-light speed. Consider the Flow as an interstellar river, with natural entrance and egress points called “shoals” along its path. The path of the Flow and the location of the shoals gives mankind access to dozens of different planets, each containing unique natural resources. Once colonized, those planets collectively formed the Interdependency, an interplanetary trade partnership.

But what no one considered when forming the Interdependency, was the possibility that the Flow could change over time. It’s been stable for over a thousand years, but a Flow physicist on End--the last outpost along the Flow--has discovered that that’s about to change. The Flow is about to collapse, isolating billions of people throughout the universe on inhospitable planets which don’t possess the resources needed for survival.

I’ve really enjoyed the books by Scalzi I’ve read so far, Redshirts, Unlocked, and Lock In were all great. This one is just as good. His stories are smart and thought-provoking, his characters are solid and often funny, and he doesn’t shy away from telling a story which also makes some statements about what’s going on in the world today. The Collapsing Empire deftly sets the stage for what I’m hoping is a long series of books to come.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Razor Girl

by Carl Hiaasen
333 pgs

Authors who live in, and write stories set in the state of Florida, often include characters in their stories whom those of us outside of Florida would consider farcical caricatures, people who couldn’t possibly exist in real life. Authors like Elmore Leonard, Dave Barry, Tim Dorsey, Bob Morris, and Jeffery Lindsay are some of the ones which come to mind. But Carl Hiaasen is in a class all by himself for his ability to pack such an eclectic, bizarre, and hilarious cast of characters into a story and then it’s almost as if he lets them loose on the page and watches as the mayhem ensues.

There’s not a better example of Hiaasen’s rare gift than Razor Girl. It begins with a minor car crash involving a reality TV agent named Lane Coolman and Merry Mansfield, a beautiful woman who gives the term “distracted driving” a whole new meaning. The accident was intentionally orchestrated by Merry’s employer, who ends up kidnapping Coolman for ransom. Coolman is the agent for Buck Nance, the star of a series called Bayou Brethren, a Duck Dynasty-style reality show about a family of Cajun rooster farmers. The accident leaves Buck without adult supervision at a Key West bar in which he gets himself into hot water with a series of racist and homophobic jokes and then disappears without a trace.

Former-cop and current health inspector Andrew Yancy becomes involved in trying to locate both missing men. But Yancy has problems of his own to deal with. Not only is he trying to get his police job back—which he lost after assaulting his mistress’s husband with a portable vacuum cleaner—but he’s also trying to prevent a newly-engaged couple, who just bought the property adjacent to his, from building an obnoxious mansion on it, blocking his serene view of the Keys. The man is a high-profile class action attorney, who is currently both suing the makers of a pharmaceutical deodorant gel which causes random tissue deformities and life-threatening erections, and, who is addicted to using the gel himself--much to the delight and consternation of his fiancé, delight due to the latter, consternation due to the former.

Somehow Hiaasen always manages to incorporate the over-the-top cast of characters he assembles in his mind into an elaborate, fast-paced, and hilarious story, which alternately makes you laugh, blush, and shake your head in disbelief at the absurd spectrum of humanity, which the state of Florida seems determined to continually stretch.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Monday, April 3, 2017

Driving Blind

by Ray Bradbury
259 pgs

It’d been a long time since I read anything by Ray Bradbury. Probably because, since there’s not much left by him to read and there are no more stories to come, I’ve been rationing. I fell in love with Bradbury from reading his stories in the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres. The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes are three of my all-time favorite books. But later on, I became aware of his works like Dandelion Wine and his stories that could be described as fictional memoirs, stories that either don’t contain any elements of science fiction or the supernatural, or that do so very subtly. These types of stories are just as entertaining and memorable. The 21 stories in Driving Blind generally fall into this later grouping.

Most of the stories have an element of romance in them. One tale is of an old spinster whose saved love letters were stolen from her home by the man who wrote them, and then resent to her one by one in an effort for a second chance. One is of a man who wonder what became of his first love. But when he tracks her down and knocks on her door, he discovers time has not been kind to her and so pretends to be a salesman. There’s a story about a pitiful one-ring circus in a small Mexican border town and one of a dead man searching for mourners.

Each story is only about ten pages long, but in those few pages, Bradbury--as few authors would be able to do--crafts a story deep with emotions, which offers a touching snapshot of humanity. This is not the book I would use to introduce someone to Ray Bradbury, but for those who know and enjoy his style of storytelling, this one is worth the read.

    

Friday, March 31, 2017

Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free

by Randy Henderson
428 pgs  (Familia Arcana series #2)

In Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, the sequel to Randy Henderson’s first book, Finn Fancy Necromancy, Finn Gramaraye has finally started to get used to being back in the real world. Having spent the last 25 years imprisoned in the Other Realm of the Fey for his alleged practice of Dark Necromancy, he’s now trying to get caught up on pop culture and technology. He’s fallen in love and he’s once again using his abilities as a necromancer in the family business of operating a mortuary for the Arcane (those born with magical abilities).

But Finn is restless for something more in his life. He’s figured out a way to use a device his half-crazed father invented called the Kinfinder to find people’s True Love, and he’s begun a side business as an Arcane dating service. His first client is a Bigfoot named Sal, and the Kinfinder leads the two of them into the middle of a rebellion taking place against the Arcane Ruling Council.

Sometimes authors suffer a “sophomore slump” with their second book. They have years and years to work on their first book while they try to get it published, but once they’re published, they often have a much tighter deadline to write the next one, and oftentimes it’s not nearly as good. This is not the case with Randy Henderson. With Bigfootloose and Fin Fancy Free, Henderson takes all the things he did well with his first book, and then he adds to them.

In FFN Henderson showcased both his unique sense of humor and his love for 80’s pop culture. Those are just as prominent and enjoyable this time around. But this book offers much more. Henderson does an excellent job of fleshing out many of his characters and making the overall story more compelling, as he shows the conflict which exists within the magical world, a world the rest of us are unaware of.

    

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders
343 pgs

On February 20, 1862, approximately one year into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie died from a typhoid-like disease. Willie’s death left Mary Todd inconsolable and sent her into mourning for a year. Abraham Lincoln likewise was mourning the loss of his son, but with the country in crisis, had to spend his days dealing with the war and trying to save the country. But at night, Lincoln would make trips to the Georgetown cemetery where his son was interred and remove his son’s body from its crypt and hold it.

In Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders borrows from the Tibetan Buddhist concept of where a soul goes immediately following death, before it moves on to whatever comes next. The Tibetans refer to that state as the bardo, and Saunders places young Willie there and uses him, along with an assortment of other disembodied souls to describe Lincoln’s visits to the cemetery and to tell his emotional story.

Most of the book reads like a movie script. Instead of a traditional narrative, Saunders alternates between the dialogue of his assortment of characters and a collection of historical facts and semi-facts, which he pulled from books and news accounts of events around that time. This unique method makes the book a very quick read, and I think it accomplished what Saunders set out to do by using it. But at times I found it tedious and burdensome to my reading of the book. I was continually tempted to overlook who was speaking as I wanted to read through the dialogue quickly and I had to force myself to keep track of the character speaking.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a pretty good book. But it’s not the great book I was expecting it to be when I bought it. Maybe my expectations were too high. I had heard of George Saunders and new of his acclaim as a short-fiction writer and was expecting this book to be right up there with the best I had read in a while. And at times, it was very good. Those times were usually when Saunders focused on Lincoln and the emotions and thoughts he was working through. At other times the book languishes and gets sidetracked with the side stories of the other souls waiting to move on.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection

by Brandon Sanderson
672 pgs


Brandon Sanderson is such a prolific writer, so much so, that at times it can feel like a challenge trying to keep up with all the different series he’s writing. Fortunately, they’re all great, so it’s a good challenge to face. But the challenge became even more daunting for me a few years ago when I learned of the Cosmere, the universe within which all of his stories take place. The Cosmere contains multiple solar systems and his different series take place in the different systems. When Sanderson began to include more details about the Cosmere, and the fact that the different systems were connected to each other, and that there were ways one could travel from one to the other, I realized that I needed to be paying closer attention as I read his books. Now I was no longer content to simply read his books for pleasure, now I needed to be watchful for references and clues to the bigger picture Sanderson has begun to reveal.

There’s the Selish System, where Elantris and The Emperor’s Soul take place, the Scadrian System, where his Mistborn series take place, the Taldain System, a system introduced for the first time in this book with White Sand, the Threnodite System, where Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell takes place, the Drominad System, where Sixth of Dusk occurs, and the Rosharan System, where his most ambitions series (Stormlight) occurs.

Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection is a collection of shorter fiction, with stories taking place throughout the Cosmere, in which Sanderson begins to reveal a little more of the interconnectedness between the different systems he's created, and he gives his readers a better idea of what's to come in the many years and books ahead. 

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Outsiders

by S.E. Hinton
180 pgs

The Outsiders is one of those books that I read so long ago and remember really enjoying, but can’t remember anything about, nor why I liked it. So I decided to read it again. The risk in doing so is that maybe the book wouldn’t stand the test of time and I’d come away wondering why I liked it the first time around. But since it’s remained a staple on most junior high schools’ assigned reading lists for the last fifty years (its 50th anniversary is this month) I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen. It didn’t. It’s still such a great story.

S.E. Hinton uses Ponyboy, her first-person narrator to tell the story of himself and his fellow “Greasers,” and their repeated run-ins with the “Socials,” or “Socs.” Once again, I enjoyed Ponyboy’s simple and direct telling of the events and circumstances the Greasers deal with. He does it in such a casual way, which seems to be in direct contradiction to the gravity of the events the story contains.

What I don’t think I knew the first time I read the book, and which makes the book that much more impressive, is the fact that Hinton wrote the book when she was 16 (after failing her creative writing class in high school). She sold the book to a publisher when she was 17, and it was published when she was 18. Knowing that this time around gave me a different perspective into Hinton’s seemingly simple style of storytelling. 

But while the story is simple in the way it’s told, her characters shouldn’t be described the same way. Hinton shows the foolishness of stereotypes, and how unreliable outward appearances usually are. The Greasers, while tough on the outside, demonstrate a lot of emotions throughout the book.

Stealing the adjective used with significance in the book, The Outsiders, fifty years later, has stayed golden.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Redbreast

by Jo Nesbø
521 pgs  (Harry Hole series #3)

With The Redbreast, the third book in Jo Nesbø’s crime fiction series featuring Norwegian detective Harry Hole (pronounced “Hō-leh”—something I feel compelled to mention each time I review a book in the series), Nesbø reaches his full writing stride.

During the Nazi’s occupation of Norway in World War II, thousands of Norwegians “volunteered” to serve alongside German troops fighting on the Eastern Front. After the war those soldiers returned to Norway and were labeled traitors and many were thrown into prison, scapegoats who carried their country’s sins when the Axis powers lost. Unsurprisingly, many of them spent the rest of their lives carrying deep-seeded embitterment towards their country and its leaders. One of those men, now in his seventies and dying of cancer, has begun killing those who served with him in Leningrad.

When an extremely expensive and powerful rifle is smuggled into Norway by a group of skinheads and sold to someone, Harry suspects that something significant is being planned. And as the body count starts to climb, and as it includes someone very close to Harry, he races to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Numerous times throughout the book, Nesbø alternates between two different timelines. The first takes place in modern-day Norway, and follows Hole’s investigation into the killings. The second takes place in Leningrad in the 1940s, and tells the story of a small group of soldiers who fought and survived the brutal conditions there. For much of the book, it’s not clear what the connection between the two storylines is, but as the story draws to its frantic conclusion, Nesbø rewards us with a thrilling and very satisfying conclusion.

The Redbreast was voted “Best Norwegian Crime Novel Ever Written” by members of Norwegian book clubs, high praise from a relatively insignificant population. BUT, with a movie adaptation of one of his later Harry Hole books (The Snowman) in production for release later this year starring Michael Fassbender, and another starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the works, it’s likely that his fanbase will be expanding significantly soon. Regardless, with each book by him that I read, I become more and more excited about what Norwegian book clubs have apparently been aware of for a while now.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Forgotten Room

by Lincoln Child
290 pgs  (Jeremy Logan series #4)

Will Strachey was a respected researcher at Lux, the nation’s oldest and most renowned think tank located along the coast of Rhode Island. He was until he ended his life, unexpectedly and in a particularly gruesome fashion. Immediately after attacking his assistant, screaming incoherently about voices that “taste like poison,” Strachey decapitates himself using one of the facility’s heavy glass windows.  

Jeremy Logan, an enigmalogist who used to work at the Lux himself, and the protagonist of three of Child’s previous stand-alone novels, is summoned by Lux’s director, Dr. Olafson, to investigate Strachey’s inexplicable behavior and death.

As Logan begins to look into Strachey’s death, he learns that there are other researchers at Lux who have been exhibiting uncharacteristic behavior as well. He learns that Strachey had been overseeing the renovation of the West Wing of the facility, which hadn’t been used for the last several years, and it’s there that he discovers a hidden room. It’s been walled up recently, is dust free, and contains an assortment of odd laboratory equipment, including an old electromagnetic field generator used historically to detect paranormal events.

Typically, I enjoy the books Child coauthors with Douglas Preston more than I do his stand-alone books, but he has managed to keep his series featuring Jeremy Logan entertaining and worthwhile. I enjoy the way he incorporates elements of the supernatural while remaining believable enough to keep me from rolling my eyes. The Forgotten Room is a quick and fun read that will make you feel a little unsettled at times, unsure of how much you can trust your own senses. 

    

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Norse Mythology

by Neil Gaiman
293 pgs

When I initially heard that Neil Gaiman was putting out a book composed of stories taken from Norse mythology, I considered not reading it. I thought, why bother with it if the stories weren’t his, but just his retelling of the myths? But I’ve never regretted reading anything by Gaiman, whether it’s a novel (graphic or otherwise), poem, short story, or children’s picture book, so I gave it a try. And I’m glad I did.

The book is not long, containing 15 stories, most featuring Odin, Thor, and Loki. It begins with a story about the beginning of the world and ends with its destruction. In between are the myths Gaiman probably selected because of their importance within the mythology. He wanted to write a book Norse scholars could appreciate as well as those completely new to the characters and the mythology. This isn’t another American Gods, where Gaiman took another ancient mythology and used it to form a modern-day novel. If you’re hoping for that, you may be disappointed. With Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays as true to the stories as he felt he possibly could, and simply lends them his own voice.

The stories are all entertaining and oftentimes funny. We learn how Odin, the high one, sacrificed his eye for knowledge, how Thor, the not-so-bright god, acquired his hammer, and how Loki, the shape shifter and trickster, was either assisting the gods or causing them headaches.

Gaiman does a wonderful job presenting these stories. He tells each one at a moderately fast pace and tells them in such a way that quickly hooks you and makes you want to continue reading. 

    

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Last Days of New Paris

by China Miéville
210 pgs


I don’t know how to begin to describe China Miéville’s latest book The Last Days of New Paris (I feel like I say that every time I try to describe one though). It’s an alternative-history story with two separate time-lines. One takes place in Paris in 1950. Europe is still embroiled in the second world war and Paris is still occupied by the Nazis. But it’s a Paris unlike anything a normal mind could imagine. Years earlier Paris was rocked by the “S-Blast” an explosion of surrealistic energy, which brought to life unfathomable “manifs.” These manifs are surrealistic artworks, some part-human, part-machine, others, even more bizarre and impossible.

The second timeline takes place nine years earlier, in 1941 Marseille, where a group of refugees has gathered in the home of Varian Fry. These refugees are surrealist artists, and while there, they’re joined by Jack Parsons, a scientist and occultist, who believes he can capture the artists’ creative power in a battery and use it to re-create the legendary Golem of Prague. But Parsons underestimates the power he’s tried to harness and the battery sets off the S-Blast.

Nine years later, the manifs still move uncontrolled through the streets of Paris and the Nazis have been trying to create and control their own manifs, which they believe will help them win the war. It’s up to a small group consisting of a young man named Thibaut, an American photographer named Sam, and an “exquisite corpse” manif to stop the Nazis.

I’ll admit that several times while reading this book the thought occurred to me that I wasn’t smart enough to truly appreciate Miéville’s story. I’m not an Art History graduate, so I’m sure my level of appreciation for the story is only a fraction of what it could have been. Regardless, though, I enjoyed the book a lot, and was once again in awe of what Miéville accomplishes every time he tells a story. His books are unlike anything else you’ll ever read.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Blade Itself

by Joe Abercrombie
609 pgs  (First Law series #1)

Most of what I had heard about Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series compared it to George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, a series I decided to stop reading until Martin either finishes it or dies, since it’s a coin toss which will take place first. The comparison between the two is hard to avoid. They’re both character-driven epic fantasy series, which focus on anti-heroes and a motley assortment of fascinating characters. They both rely heavily on political machinations and shun the stereotypical elements of the genre. The Blade Itself does an excellent job of setting the stage for the series.

Logen Ninefingers is a famed and ruthless warrior from the North, nicknamed the “Bloody-Nine,” ever since losing a finger in battle. He’s now trying to leave that life behind, but continually finds himself dragged back into it. Sand dan Glokta is a crippled torturer for the Union. Once a young swordsman himself, he was captured and tortured for years by the Union’s enemies, barely able to move himself, he now uses the same methods of torture used on him to extract information from those who oppose the Union. Jezal dan Luthar is a cocky young nobleman reluctantly being trained to compete in his nation’s greatest sword tournament. And there’s Bayaz, the first of the Magi. A pudgy, balding wizard who is the subject of legends, but whom no one believes to be who he claims.

I mentioned the comparison to Game of Thrones, and while there are definitely similarities between the two, there are as many, if not more, differences. Abercrombie’s characters all seem to have redeeming qualities, which show themselves periodically and suggest that at their core, they’re relatively good. Abercrombie’s story contains an underlying sense of humor. There’s not the same sense of dread and foreboding, which GOT has, and which gives you a sense that ultimately, things will not end well for anyone. The final difference worth pointing out? Abercrombie’s story is done. Since he finished the trilogy, he’s written some stand-alone books and some short stories, which all take place in the world of the First Law, but the story arc of the series itself is complete. Ultimately Abercrombie’s story is one which stands firmly on its own footing and is one of the better ones in the genre.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Unseen Academicals

by Terry Pratchett
400 pgs  (Discworld series #37)

In Terry Pratchett’s 37th Discworld book, Unseen Academicals, Pratchett sets his satirical aim at the game of football (soccer). The wizards of Unseen University are faced with a financial crisis. In order to ensure the continuation of a large financial endowment to the university, and to avoid having to resort to eating only three meals a day, the wizards are faced with the task of participating in a game of foot-the-ball.

Foot-the-ball is a violent street sport played in Ankh-Morpork. No real rules exist, the game resembles a street brawl more than an organized sport, and referees use poisoned daggers. Death is not a possibility, it’s an expectation. The wizards, whose idea of exercise historically has been raising a fork repeatedly to their mouth, decide that if they’re going to embark on this new more active lifestyle, the game needs to be tamed with some rules.

With the help of the city’s ruler, Lord Vetinari, a handful of rules are implemented in order to make the popular spectator sport more civilized. Players will no longer be allowed to use their hands, which the wizards hope will significantly reduce their likelihood of dying. The position of goal keeper is devised, which will reduce the potential for scoring, but which should replace the crowd’s anticipation for seeing a player’s death with seeing only one or two goals scored each match. Referees are also given whistles to replace their daggers.

The game of football provides a lot of the action in this story, but Pratchett also throws in a couple of budding romances, which are equally as entertaining and humorous. Trev Likely, the son of a legendary foot-the-baller, falls madly in love with the beautiful, but not-so-bright, Juliet Stollop, a chain-mail fashion model. and Juliet’s boss, Glenda Sugarbean, falls in love with Mr. Nutt, an orc.
I have only a handful of Discworld books left to read. Unseen Academicals was the first book to come out following Terry Pratchett’s diagnosis with a form of Alzheimer’s. Thankfully he was able to continue writing for a few more years, despite the effects of the disease, which eventually ended his life and all those living on Discworld.  

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ruler of the Night

by David Morrell
333 pgs  (Thomas DeQuincy series #3)

Ruler of the Night concludes David Morrell’s fantastic Victorian era trilogy featuring the real-life historical figure Thomas De Quincey. Known for his autobiographical essay Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, De Quincey had a profound effect on our understanding of the nature of addiction. Once again, Morrell places De Quincey and his 22-year-old daughter Emily at the center of a murder mystery. This time, the murder they’re assisting Scotland Yard detectives Ryan and Becker in investigating is the first murder to take place on London’s new train system.

A high-profile solicitor is brutally stabbed to death in the locked first-class cabin of a train leaving London. De Quincey and his daughter happen to be traveling on the same train and are the first to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. The murder turns out to be the first of multiple attacks to take place on the fledgling railway system, and the De Quincey’s investigation leads them to the highest echelons of British society.

This was a great series. I’ve enjoyed several of David Morrell’s books already, and fortunately, I have quite a few of his catalog to get to still. It’s obvious he’s been writing for a long time and has become a master at creating multi-layered characters and well-plotted storylines. My understanding is that this is the last book in the series, but I’m hopeful at some point down the road Morrell will decide it’s time to revisit Victorian England and check in with Thomas De Quincey and find out whether he still relies on the dangerous daily intake of laudanum to function.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Great Zoo of China

by Matthew Reilly
393 pgs

The Tournament, the last book by Australian author Matthew Reilly I read, was a big disappointment for me. I admit I don’t have high literary expectations when I read one of Reilly’s books. I fully anticipate the need to suspend my sense of disbelief, disregard my understanding of the laws of physics, and ignore my tendency for using logical thought processes when I pick one of his books up, but The Tournament lacked the thing I do enjoy about his books: mind-numbing action sequences.

With The Great Zoo of China, Reilly returns to his trademark style of storytelling. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t get past the fact that someone else had already written almost the exact same story several years earlier, and did it far more successfully.

Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron is one of the world’s most renowned experts on alligators. She’s also a freelance journalist and is sent on assignment from National Geographic to China to preview a top-secret zoo the People’s Republic of China is planning to unveil to the world soon. When she gets there, she learns that for the past 40 years, Chinese officials and scientists have been working to build what will undoubtedly instantly become the greatest zoological park in the history of the world.

Forty years ago a nest of giant eggs were discovered deep beneath the earth’s surface in rural China. The eggs were not fossilized, but were instead found to be in a deep state of hibernation. For years they were watched and monitored until one of them finally hatched…and a dragon emerged.  Without the rest of the world knowing, the PRC built a high-tech zoo and breeding program for the dragons and now, with a population of over one hundred live dragons to showcase to the world, they’re ready to make their discovery and accomplishments known.

Unfortunately for CJ and the rest of the experts brought to China for an early preview of the zoo, things quickly go horribly awry. The dragons are far smarter than anyone foresaw, and they soon find a way to circumvent the security measures in place to protect the park visitors.

Early in the book Reilly has one of his characters mention Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and questions the Chinese on the sanity of what they’ve done, so it’s not as if Reilly is trying to copy Crichton without acknowledging him as his inspiration. But if you’re going to imitate someone who did something as well as Crichton did, you better make sure you can do it at a high enough level to qualify the imitation as a form of flattery. Unfortunately, Reilly doesn’t. It’s a fun book, but it’s a disappointment when considered next to the original.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Secret Speech

by Tom Rob Smith
403 pgs  (Leo Demidov series #2)

In 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, gave a speech behind closed doors to the leaders of the Soviet regime. In it, he condemned Stalin and those who carried out his ruthless decrees. The purpose of the speech was to usher in a new era in the Soviet Union, an era in which the government acted in the best interests of its citizens, and the citizens didn’t live in constant fear of being condemned by coworkers, neighbors, and even family members, and sent to work in a Siberian gulag for the rest of their lives.

The speech was quickly leaked to the press and soon the MGM agents, police, judges, and everyone else who had helped Stalin maintain his genocidal dictatorship found themselves constantly looking over their shoulders, in fear of the reprisals which were occurring throughout many of the cities in Russia. Leo Demidov, the former officer of Stalin’s secret police, and the hero of Smith’s first book Child 44 is no exception.

In his years working for the secret police, Leo had sent hundreds of his countrymen to the gulags and torture chambers, and his past is determined to catch up to him. Fraera, the wife of a man Leo had betrayed and sent to a gulag in Siberia seven years ago reenters his life and is determined to destroy the new life Leo has tried to create for himself, his wife, and their two adopted daughters.

I read Child 44 a few months ago, which tells the story of Leo’s pursuit of a sensational mass murderer who prayed on children throughout Russia, and I considered it one of the best books I had read in a long time. The Secret Speech is a very different type of story, but it’s just as compelling. This time around the scope of the Smith’s story is broader and he includes several themes which made it a difficult book for me to put down.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Monday, January 30, 2017

Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians

by Brandon Sanderson
313 pgs  (Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians series #1)

Alcatraz Smedry is a 13-year old foster child, who has a propensity for breaking things. As a result, the families he’s living with often don’t know how to deal with him and his case worker has to find him a new set of foster parents for him to go live with. 

But all that changes on the day he accidentally set his current foster parents’ kitchen on fire. It happened to be on his birthday and he had just received a strange package with a note attached. The package contained a bag of sand, and the note said it was his inheritance and came from his mom and dad—his real ones. As he’s getting ready to be taken away once again, a man he’s never met before shows up, claims to be his grandpa, wishes him a happy birthday, and explains to him that he needs to come with him, and to make sure to bring the sand.

And so begins an adventure which opens Alcatraz’s eyes to a whole new world he had no idea existed: the Free Kingdoms. He learns that the world he’s been living in (the one we also live in) is controlled by librarians. They control the books, and therefore information, and they’re able to keep the existence of the Free Kingdoms a secret.

Alcatraz learns that his propensity to break things is actually a magical talent he was born with, and one that will save his life numerous times throughout the book. He also learns that he has an important role to play in stopping the evil librarians from conquering the remaining Free Kingdoms.

Alcatraz vs the Evil Librarians is written for a younger audience, and as such, my 9-year-old son and I read it together. He loved it. Each night he’d grab the book off the shelf and let me know it was time to read. He’s usually not a big fan of reading, so this was exactly what I was hoping for when I bought the series. I’m a huge Sanderson fan, and I thought, if he could direct his skills at building worlds with unique and engaging systems of magic to a younger audience, and if he could do it with the same sense of humor he often inserts into his adult books, then there would be a pretty good chance my son would get hooked. When we finished this one, my son took it back to the bookshelf and grabbed book II, which made me happy.

    

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Freedom of the Mask

by Robert McCammon
530 pgs  (Matthew Corbett series #6)

Speaks the Nightbird, the first book in Robert McCammon's Matthew Corbett series, is a massive book. It's over 700 pages long, and it's excellent. I've remained a big fan of the series ever since reading it several years ago, but I've worried as I've noticed each successive installment get shorter and shorter. The last book is only 257 pages, a trend I was happy to see reversed with this latest one. Freedom of the Mask is over 500 pages long, and each one is fantastic.

The last time Matthew Corbett's associate Hudson Greathouse saw him, was when he left New York for Charles Town, on what should have been a simple mission for the Herrald Agency. It's now been months since anyone has heard from Matthew, so Greathouse concludes something must have happened to him and he begins retracing Matthew's steps in an effort to find him.

Matthew has been taken against his will to London, where he now stands accused of murdering the man who kidnapped him. He's placed into the infamous Newgate Prison, where men quickly lose their minds due to the conditions there. Matthew must somehow find a way out of Newgate and get back to New York and the woman he loves. As an aside, I enjoyed the fact that McCammon inserted the famous author Daniel Defoe into his story and has Matthew interact with him while in Newgate, where Defoe actually spent time in 1703.

I can't recommend the series enough. It's set in the early 18th century, where Matthew works as a "problem solver" for the Herrald Agency in colonial America. His sharp mind and tenacity have pitted him against the enigmatic and ruthless Professor Fell throughout the series, a figure who I can best describe as an 18th-century version of a James Bond villain.

Like the rest of the books in the series, Freedom of the Mask has a captivating plot and a host of fascinating characters. It's proof that the series as a whole is progressing at full speed and that McCammon is on top of his game. I finished it anxious and impatient for the next book to come out.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★