Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Review of 2017

Another year is in the books (ha!) and here's a summary of how things went literately. 

Ten best books I read this year (in no particular order):

1. Lost Gods by Brom
2. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
3. Freedom of the Mask by Robert McCammon
4. Swan Song by Robert McCammon
5. The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
6. Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith
7. The Black Widow by Daniel Silva
8. The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
9. Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
10. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

The ignominious honor of the worst book I read all year goes to David Sedaris's Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

Number of books read – 71.

Book signings attended: 
Dennis Lehane - Since We Fell
Dan Wells - Nothing Left to Lose 
Mary Roach - Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
David Sedaris - Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002
Tad Williams - The Witchwood Crown
Craig Johnson - The Western Star
A.J. Jacobs - It's All Relative

2018 books I’m looking forward to:
Iron Gold by Pierce Bronson
Omega Canyon by Dan Simmons
The Bishop’s Pawn by Steve Berry
The Cutting Edge by Jeffery Deaver
Head On by John Scalzi
Noir by Christopher Moore
The Saint of Wolves and Butchers by Alex Grecian
The Outsider by Stephen King
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy
The Thorn of Emberlain by Scott Lynch (fingers crossed)
Early Riser by Jasper Fforde
Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin (fingers and toes crossed)
Legion: Lies of the Beholder by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Full Wolf Moon

by Lincoln Child
244 pgs  (Jeremy Logan series #5)

I’ve been pretty lukewarm on Lincoln Child’s series featuring history professor, and self-described “enigmalogist” Jeremy Logan so far. Truthfully, if I wasn’t such a big fan of the books he coauthors with Douglas Preston, I probably wouldn’t have read past the first book in the series. The books have always been relatively fun reads, but a little too campy for me. So, it’s hard for me to explain why I liked this one more than the four previous installments. After all, it’s definitely no less far-fetched than the others. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have very high expectations going in, and it exceeded them.

As the book begins, Logan has isolated himself in a remote “artists’ colony” located in Adirondack State Park in order to finish writing a paper he’s been meaning to get to for too long. Shortly after arriving, however, he’s contacted by Randall Jessup, an old classmate from Yale, who’s now a forest ranger in the park who hopes to enlist Logan in investigating the recent deaths of two hikers in the park. Logan has achieved some notoriety because of the unusual nature of the things he’s investigated in the past, which is why Randall sought him out. The men had been mauled and torn apart savagely by what local officials are considering a rogue black bear or wolf in the area. But based on the condition of the bodies, it’s clear to both Randall and Logan that the killings could not have been caused by either animal.

The killings occurred at night, during a full moon, which has led locals in the area to attribute the deaths to something from old horror movies. But as Logan unwillingly gets dragged deeper and deeper into the investigation, he becomes less and less skeptical of their theories.

Earlier I said I liked this book more than the others in the series. That’s not necessarily real high praise. But I enjoyed it, it kept me interested till the end, and it got me a little more excited for whatever Child will write next.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Agent 6

by Tom Rob Smith
407 pgs  (Leo Demidov trilogy #3)

Agent 6 concludes Tom Rob Smith’s fantastic trilogy featuring former KGB officer, Leo Demidov. The book begins with a flashback to 1950, when Leo is training a young agent in an investigation of an artist commissioned to paint a series of murals in Moscow. The investigation also coincides with when Leo met his future wife.

The story then moves to 1965, where Leo’s wife and two daughters are given the extraordinary opportunity to accompany a choir to New York to perform a concert at the United Nations to promote good relations between the two countries. Because of his past life as a former agent, Leo isn’t allowed to go with them and must stay home in Moscow. Tragedy strikes Leo’s family while they’re in New York and the rest of the book chronicles Leo’s efforts to get to the truth of what took place.

I can’t overstate how much I enjoyed all three books in the series. Child 44, The Secret Speech, and now this one, were each amazing by themselves. Together they tell a story which is as complicated and emotional as it is rewarding.  

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Monday, December 11, 2017

Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis

by Anne Rice
440 pgs  (Vampire Chronicles #14)

Many years ago, I came across a signed copy of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. That was my introduction to her as an author (as well as the beginning of my interest in acquiring signed copies of books). I quickly became a big fan of her Vampire Chronicles, which also led me to read many of her other books and for years I’d buy her books as soon as they were published. But then . . . she “rediscovered” her love for Catholicism and she started writing novels about the life of Christ, and I moved on.

Then, when she decided to go back to the story of “The Brat Prince” with Prince Lestat a few years ago, I thought I’d give her another chance. And I found myself once again enjoying the story of Lestat, Louis, Armand, David Talbot, and the rest. I thought the book was a promising “reset” of sorts for the series, and I was looking forward to what came next. Now that I’ve read “what came next” I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it.

Rice has taken things in a direction I’m confident none of her readers anticipated. Lestat is now the de facto ruler of all the vampires worldwide. And as soon as he became such, he learns of the existence of another immortal race of beings: the Atlanteans. The Atlanteans have existed for tens of thousands of years. They founded the great city of Atlantis, among others, and are a highly sophisticated, and technological race of beings, who have taken note of the vampiric race and have chosen now as the time to make themselves known to them.

As Lestat and the others learn about the Atlanteans, everything they thought they understood about their own origins changes. To say any more would spoil it for others, so I’ll say no more.

Fans of the Vampire Chronicles will enjoy the cast of familiar characters, but I’m sure many of them will also have mixed feelings about where Rice is taking them. Ultimately, I’ve decided to withhold my judgement until I read the next book. I’m hoping she’s able to justify the need for the direction she headed down with this one. And if she can, I’ll continue on. If not, I’m moving on for good.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Robot Uprisings

Anthology
476 pgs

Robot Uprisings is an anthology of short stories forewarning the eventual robot uprising, when the robots mankind has intentionally created in an effort to make life easier and more comfortable finally decide enough is enough. The stories were assembled by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams, and while each is independent from the others, they all have their origins in real life technology.

Scott Sigler, Ernest Cline, and Daniel Wilson were the authors whose stories initially drew my attention to the book. But their stories, which didn’t disappoint, weren’t the only ones I ended up enjoying. Seanan McGuire’s story “Misfit Toys, about the abduction of the world’s children by their smart toys one night, was one of several others I enjoyed just as much, and one I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.

Overall, I enjoyed the collection of stories included, and If the goal of the authors was to make their reader pause and question the wisdom of automating so many aspects of our daily lives, they each succeeded. My wife and I might want to rethink the discussions we’ve had recently about buying a Rumba. 

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Nemesis

by Jo Nesbø
474 pgs  (Harry Hole series #4)

Jo Nesbø doesn’t waste any time getting things going with his fourth book featuring Norwegian police officer Harry Hole. The book opens with a bank robbery in Oslo. The man robbing the bank gives the teller 25 seconds to give him all the money in the ATM. When the teller takes six seconds too long, he shoots her and flees, leaving no forensic evidence behind.

Harry is partnered with Beate Lønn, a young video evidence expert, to investigate what ends up being the first in a string of professionally-executed bank robberies. In her analysis of the surveillance video, Lønn becomes convinced from the robber and victim’s body language that the two knew each other.

During the course of the investigation, Harry is invited by an old girlfriend, Anna Bethsen, to have dinner together. The following morning Harry wakes up in his own apartment with a hangover and no recollection of the night’s events. Later that day, Anna is discovered dead, having apparently shot herself in a suicide attempt. But when Harry notices that the gun is in her wrong hand, he believes she was murdered sometime during the night he was with her, and he’s not certain he wasn’t the one who did it.

The deeper Harry and Beate get into the investigation, the more complex the case becomes.

Once again Nesbø’s ability to create intriguing characters and weave them into a plot containing enough twists and turns to keep you constantly on your toes is on full display. Four books into the series and Harry Hole is turning out to be a fascinating anti-hero. He’s constantly fighting his addictions to alcohol and heroin, all while committing as many crimes as he helps solve. 

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Strange Weather

by Joe Hill
432 pgs

In Strange Weather Joe Hill takes a break from the longer novels he’s been writing recently to write four novella-length stories, which he describes in the Afterword as “all killer, no filler.” It’s a bold claim, but he backs it up with each of the stories included here.

The book begins with Snapshot. A story about a teenage boy who discovers the polaroid pictures being taken by a mysterious man in town are slowly sucking away bits and pieces of peoples’ memories and lives one picture at a time.

Loaded is probably my favorite of the four, but not surprisingly, it’s also the one that will be hardest to forget. It’s a very timely story of a shooting at a mall, and the security guard who took things too far in his attempt to take out the shooter.

Next is Aloft, the story of an insecure college student who agrees to go skydiving in order to impress the girl he has a crush on. The jump takes a bizarre, but wonderful turn when he lands (yes lands) on a cloud that isn’t a cloud. He’s all alone thousands of feet above ground, with no way to get down, and a story no one would believe, even if he does.

Last is Rain, a story set in Boulder, Colorado, where the term “deadly thunderstorm” takes on a whole new meaning, when one strikes the city and lets loose a downpour of razor-sharp nails.
All four of these stories show why Joe Hill has so quickly become one of the more popular writers in the genre today. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, it would be easy to assume his success is due to his lineage. But that assumption would be wrong. He’ll probably never be as successful as his father has been (it’s doubtful anyone ever could be), but books like this one show why he doesn’t need the name “King” on the cover.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Burial Hour

by Jeffery Deaver
464 pgs  (Lincoln Rhyme series #14)

One of the things that keeps me coming back to Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series is the antagonist Deaver comes up with for each book. Each one features a killer who has a unique obsession or method for dispatching his victims, and it’s up to Lincoln, Amelia Sachs, and the rest of the team to try to outwit and eventually catch him.

The Burial Hour features on of the best in the series: The Composer. A man who live streams his victims’ deaths online as they’re slowly strangled to death. He sets his videos to an arrangement of haunting and disturbing music, which includes samples of the sounds his victims make as they struggle to survive.

After nearly being caught in New York, The Composer flees to Italy, where Rhyme and Sachs follow him and end up serving as consultants to Inspector Rossi, Prosecutor Dante Spiro, and officer Ercole Benelli in Naples.

This is the 14th book in the series, and Deaver shows no signs of allowing the series to get stale or even predictable. The change of scenery to Italy from New York, along with the ensemble of new characters introduced this time around are evidence that Deaver has much more in store for Rhyme and Sachs. In fact, based on the last chapter of the book, it looks like the two of them might soon find themselves involved in cases with far more deadly and impactful consequences.

Can’t wait!

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Monday, November 13, 2017

War Hawk

by James Rollins & Grant Blackwood
368 pgs  (Tucker Wayne series #2)

War Hawk is the second time James Rollins and Grant Blackwood have collaborated on their series featuring former Army Ranger Tucker Wayne and his K-9 partner Kane. As the book begins, the two are traveling through Montana, relaxing and getting used to being stateside again when trouble keeps managing to find them. The first time they find themselves having to disarm a group of thugs intent on harassing the Middle Eastern owner and operator of a gas station.

Tucker and Kane make short work of the group, but later that night more serious trouble finds them when a woman from Tucker’s past tracks them down needing help. Jane Sabatello, a former Army Ranger Intelligence Analyst who now works for the Defense Intelligence Agency tells Tucker how she believes someone is trying to kill her. Jane tells Tucker that a friend and former team member she worked with had disappeared recently, and how while investigating her disappearance she discovered that several people who had worked on the same project had either gone missing as well, or had died accidentally in recent months. Tucker is the last person she trusts and she knows he has resources and skills that could not only protect her, but that could help her uncover why members of her team are being eliminated.

What the two discover is a plot that involves some of the most powerful people in the U.S. government and which began in World War II and involved the genius mathematician Alan Turing.

War Hawk features all of the aspects you’d expect to have in a James Rollins book. It’s a thriller densely composed of action-packed sequences and state-of-the-art military technology. But for me the best aspect of the book is Kane. Kane is a fascinating character, regardless of the fact that he’s a dog. I can’t say I was a big fan of the occasional section of the book told from Kane’s perspective (Dean Koontz did the same thing a couple of times, and it’s one of the reasons I no longer read his books). But Rollins more than makes up for those sections by shining a light on army dogs and just how remarkable dogs like Kane truly are. The authors clearly have a deep appreciation for these dogs that serve our country and it’d be impossible for someone not to feel the same way after reading either book in this series.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Swan Song

by Robert McCammon
798 pgs

About seven years ago I read my first book by Robert McCammon: Speaks the Nightbird, and his Matthew Corbett series instantly became a favorite of mine. I subsequently began reading his back catalog and have yet to be disappointed. Even his first few books, which McCammon has said himself are not that great and were the ones he wrote while he was learning how to write, I found were worth the time to read.

Swan Song is one of his earlier books that I was looking forward to the most, but that took me the longest to get around to reading. My wife read it when she was in high school, and knowing that King’s The Stand is my all-time favorite book, would periodically ask me when I was going to read it. But it’s not an easy book to get your hands on in hardcover, so it wasn’t until Subterranean Press got around to issuing it that I finally got my chance.

It’s a fantastic book and was well worth the wait.

At the beginning of the book nuclear war breaks out between the USA and the USSR. When the Soviet bombs land across the country, millions are killed from the initial blasts and the subsequent fallout. Among the survivors are a Sister Creep, a homeless woman in New York City, Josh Hutchins, a giant of a man who used to play in the NFL and most recently toured the country as a professional wrestler, and a nine-year old girl named Swan.

As the story progresses, their paths cross and the three find themselves traveling across the country, being guided by a jewel encrusted ring of glass. Sister found the ring in the ruble of a jewelry store shortly after the bombs fell and it led her to Josh and Swan. But something else knows about the ring and is searching for it, an entity able to take human form that senses the power of the ring feels compelled to destroy it.

Swan Song drew me in immediately. It’s nearly 800 pages long, and while sometimes a book that long would be significantly improved if it were only half as long, that’s not the case with this one. McCammon masterfully paces his story, beginning it with the conflict between two countries, each with the ability to destroy the world, and ending it with the ultimate conflict between good and evil. One side trying to ensure the planet’s opportunity to start over, and the other determined to destroy it completely.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Any Other Name

by Craig Johnson
317 pgs  (Longmire series #10)

In the tenth book in his Longmire series, Craig Johnson has Walt, Vic, Lucien, and Henry investigating the death of a detective in nearby Campbell County. The detective, a former associate of Lucien, shot himself in the head, an obvious suicide. But when Walt starts looking into the death, he quickly learns that something is wrong. The detective had been investigating the disappearances of several young women, but what tips Walt off that things are not right is the fact that the detective shot himself twice. The first bullet went through his cheeks, the second, into his brain. It appears to Walt that the detective wanted to punish himself before he ended his life, and Walt wants to find out why.

Some authors are good at writing character-driven stories. Others write plot-driven ones well. There aren’t many who can do both simultaneously as well as Craig Johnson.

Walt is one of the best characters you’ll come across. He’s not a flawed anti-hero so common in mystery and crime fiction stories today. He’s not a recovering alcoholic or even a violin-playing, cocaine-snorting detective (although it’s clear he was inspired by one). Instead he’s an old-school hero, the type that used to be so common, but then fell out of fashion. Which makes him a rarity today and even easier to like.

But Walt’s not the only character that continually drives the series. Each of the supporting characters, although they’re not center stage as often as Walt is, are multi-dimensional and could easily be the main character in a series of their own.

Fortunately, Johnson takes his cast of characters, and in each book, involves them in a story that’s smart, at times funny, and always compelling and rewarding. 

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

by David Sedaris
159 pgs

I mentioned in my last review that I rarely read back to back books by the same author. I can definitively say, until now, I'd never read three in a row. This is a first.

Unfortunately, this third one was a departure from the last two. Instead of a collection of essays relaying short, humorous accounts of his travels, childhood, relationships, or observations of the state of the world, this time Sedaris gives us his version of Rudyard Kiplings Just So Stories. It didn't work.

While Sedaris's views of the world are quite a bit further to the left on the political and social spectrums than mine are, in the first two books I didn't care. His sense of humor overshadowed those aspects of his writing, and I couldn't help but enjoy myself. This time, there was no humor, just an assortment of barnyard animals and small woodland creatures, anthropomorphized and placed on Sedaris's soapbox to demonstrate the absurdity of the opinions and viewpoints he doesn't share.

I know I'll continue to read his books going forward. But I think I'll stick to his traditional material from now on.

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

by David Sedaris
275 pgs

So, I finished my first David Sedaris book and immediately started another one. I don’t usually allow myself to read back to back books by the same author, but I decided this time I’d disregard my self-imposed dogma and just go crazy. Frankly the decision might have come as a direct result of the insight his last book gave me into the life and mind of someone as rigid and compulsive as he is. It made me a little nervous about any quirks I might have, albeit minor as they may be. So, it’s two Sedaris books in a row.

With Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls Sedaris compiles a series of his essays that serve as part travelogue and part an insight into his family—and what an insight it is. Many of the essays have liberal political or social undertones, but I doubt those who associate themselves with the far right are going to be reading his books. But that’s their loss. They’re missing out on his masterful telling of his first colonoscopy and his father’s fixation on Donny Osmond. 

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

When You are Engulfed in Flames

by David Sedaris
323 pgs

A few months back I attended a David Sedaris book signing. Before the event formally began, Mr. Sedaris invited those who had books they wanted signed to line up and he’d get to as many as he could before his reading. As I stood in line I listened to the conversations he was having with the people in front of me as he signed their books. With each person he would begin by asking them a random question, one you would never think to ask someone you were meeting for the first time. “How is your relationship with your father?” “Who’s your dentist?” and when I got to him, “Any chance you plan to be in Seattle this weekend?” Each question prompted a brief conversation that was friendly, entertaining, and funny. That was my first insight into the mind of a writer I’ve since grown quite fascinated by.

When You are Engulfed in Flames is the first of Sedaris’s books I’ve read. At times it’s hilarious (and not safe to be listening to while driving), like his recounting of the time he accidentally spit out his throat lozenge onto the lap of the woman sleeping next to him on the airplane, or the time he ended up sitting in the waiting room of his doctor in Paris wearing nothing but his underwear because he didn’t understand French. At other times it makes you feel sorry for the man, as he tells stories of his childhood and the upbringing which has obviously resulted in at least a few neuroses and a very successful writing career.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reincarnation Blues

by Michael Poore
371 pgs

At its heart, Reincarnation Blues is a love story. As I’ve thought about it, I don’t know if I had ever read a love story before this one. I may be wrong, but I can’t remember any, if I did. So why was I so excited to read this one when I heard about it? It’s because the book has such a fantastic premise. Milo is the oldest soul on earth. So far, he’s lived 9,995 lives. He has yet to reach “perfection”, so each time he dies, he’s reincarnated as someone, or something else and given another chance. But dying is the only way for him to see Suzie (aka, Death), who greets his soul each time he passes and spends time with him until he’s born again.

Over the thousands of years, thousands of lives, and most importantly, thousands of deaths, Milo and Suzie have fallen deeply in love with each other. And whether they’re able to spend hours, days, or hopefully weeks together before they’re separated again, the two of them have fallen deeply in love with one another.

But Milo only has five tries left to achieve perfection, otherwise his soul will be “cancelled.” He’s stuck between the threat of oblivion and the love of his…can’t say life or even lives…the love of his deaths.

I’m glad I saw this book at the bookstore, although I suspect the neon-sign-like cover was designed with the intent of making it hard NOT to notice it. Poore masterfully uses flashbacks to tell of many of the lives Milo has already lived, which are often hilarious and end absurdly. But while the story has many laugh-out-loud moments, it’s also very thought provoking and emotional. This is a big-ideas book and Poore pulls it off with finesse and style.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Monday, October 2, 2017

Camino Island

by John Grisham
290 pgs

Camino Island is another departure for Grisham from his typical legal thriller. Years ago, it was his departure from that genre to write books like A Painted House, Bleachers, and Skipping Christmas that ended my love affair with his writing and led to our trial separation, which lasted for many years. This time, fortunately, his departure was entertaining enough to keep our relationship going.

The book begins with a heist. Five original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books, including The Great Gatsby, are stolen from the Princeton University Library. Authorities catch two of the five men responsible for the theft, but never recover any of the priceless manuscripts. As the case goes cold, the story transitions to Mercer Mann, a young novelist who achieved critical acclaim for her first novel, but who is currently struggling to come up with an idea for her next book.

Mercer is contacted by a company trying to locate the lost manuscripts and recruited into their elaborate scheme to get them back to Princeton. They believe the manuscripts are located on Camino Island, off the coast of Florida, and are now among the possessions of Bruce Cable, the owner of one of the most successful independent bookstores in the country. They want Mercer to relocate to Camino Island, where she spent much of her childhood, insert herself into the literary scene there, become friends with Cable, and somehow verify whether he indeed has the manuscripts.

The book isn’t in the same league as A Time to Kill, The Firm, or The Chamber, but it’s a fun and entertaining story that kept me interested throughout. A big part of the book’s appeal for me was Cable’s description of his vast collection of signed first editions. As a collector myself, I probably enjoyed those parts of the book more than the suspense and intrigue. 

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Friday, September 29, 2017

Dreamer

by Brandon Sanderson
31 pgs

Dreamer is a short story Brandon Sanderson wrote, which was included in the Games Creatures Play anthology. As he’s done with some of his other short stories, he pairs two of them together and releases them as a small hard cover double book, where you read one story, then flip the book around and read the second. He paired Dreamer with Snapshot and brought them with him to this year’s Salt Lake Comic Con, where I picked up a copy.

Dreamer is the shortest thing Sanderson has ever published and it shows he doesn’t need hundreds (and sometimes many hundreds) of pages to tell a good story.

It’s a story about a group of friends who have the ability to jump from one person’s body to another, suppressing that person’s soul while they possess it themselves for a short time. The group likes to play games, like ‘capture the flag’ and ‘cops and robbers.’ The rules vary from game to game, but the group plays them without regard to the safety of those whose bodies they use. If the body they’re in becomes injured or dies during the game, they simply jump to the next body and continue their game.

Dreamer is a dark fantasy story and much different from what I’ve come to expect from Sanderson. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was well worth the 20 minutes it took to read.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Gwendy's Button Box

by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar
170 pgs

In Gwendy’s Button Box Stephen King accompanies friend and coauthor Richard Chizmar to Castle Rock. The small town in Maine which served as the locale for many of his earlier books. But don’t let the fact that there’s a second author’s name on the cover dissuade you from reading it. It has Uncle Stevie’s prints all over it.

As the story begins, Gwendy Peterson is a 12-year-old girl who is starting to feel self-conscious about her weight. She has decided that this summer she’s going to lose some of that extra weight and return to school in September looking better and ready to shed the “Goodyear” nickname some of her peers use when referring to her. So, each day Gwendy races to the top of the stairs at the park known as the Suicide Stairs.

One day, when she reaches the top, she’s met by a man wearing on old-fashioned hat. The man speaks to her as if he’s known her all his life and proceeds to give her a strange wooden box with different colored buttons and levers on it. The man tells her the box will give her gifts, but that the gifts are compensation for the responsibility she will bear in keeping it.

Each time Gwendy pushes one lever, the box dispenses a small chocolate animal. It’s delicious and satisfies her appetite to the point that Gwendy no longer overeats. When she pushes the other lever, the box dispenses an 1891 Morgan silver dollar, in mint condition. They’re worth hundreds of dollars apiece and will allow her to attend the Ivy League college she dreams about. But the buttons each have destructive powers, and Gwendy soon learns just how important it is to guard the box and make sure it never gets into the hands of someone who would use those buttons with evil intent.

The story is short, but is a prime example of what has made King so well liked. It’s a great story and I think it’s King providing an analogy to how he feels about what he has spent his lifetime doing. Pushing buttons and pulling levers on a small box his entire career has given him everything he has ever wanted, or needed in life, but it hasn’t come without a sense of importance and responsibility.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Champion

by Scott Sigler
625 pgs  (Galactic Football League series #5)

The Champion is the fifth instalment in Scott Sigler’s genre-fusing series about American football being played 700 years in the future. The sport is the largest spectacle in the galaxy and is played by members from six different races. Human athletes now dwarf their ancestors from 700 years ago, averaging over 7’ tall, and are stronger and faster than anything even contemplated in today’s game, and are joined on the gridiron by equally impressive athletes from five other alien races. Deaths are a common part of the game and are even part of the stat sheet.

Over the past four seasons, Quentin Barnes, the Ionath Krakens’ quarterback phenom, has taken his team from the developmental league to last year’s Galaxy Football League champions. He’s now the most famous individual in history. There’s even a religion named after him, which consists of millions of his worshippers. But along the way, Quentin has also made powerful enemies. He’s gone up against violent crime lords, including his team’s owner.

At the end of The MVP, Quentin learns that his sister has been kidnapped and taken into the Portath Cloud, a region of space no ship that has entered has ever returned from. It’s up to Quentin to rescue her and return in time for training camp and the Kraken’s defense of the GFL title.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Since We Fell

by Dennis Lehane
418 pgs

Since We Fell is a great example of why I’m such a big fan of Dennis Lehane’s books. It’s got great characters and a plot that continually compels you to turn the page.

At the beginning of the story Lehane introduces us to Rachel Childs, a woman searching for the identity of her father. She was raised by her mother, an author who emotionally abused Rachel throughout her life and who kept the identity of Rachel’s father a mystery till she died.

Over time, Rachel establishes herself as a respected news reporter. But when she experiences a panic attack while on live tv covering a deadly earthquake in Haiti, she becomes famous as the “drunk reporter,” loses her job, and spends virtually all of the next 18 months secluded in her apartment.

When she finally starts venturing out into public again, she runs into Brian Delacroix, a private investigator she met briefly while she was trying to find her father. They fall in love and get married, and for me, this is when the story undergoes a paradigm shift and really takes off. Rachel, emotionally scarred from her mother’s influence and still feeling vulnerable from the panic attacks she suffers, begins to experience deep-seeded doubts about Brian’s honesty and fidelity.

It’s this sense of psychological uncertainty that Lehane is a master at and that sucked me in completely. When I started the it, I had no idea what direction the book was going to go. Had I known, it wouldn’t have sat on my shelf unread as long as it did.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Boy on the Bridge

by M.R. Carey
392 pgs  (The Girl with All the Gifts series #2)

The Boy on the Bridge is a prequel to M.R. Carey’s fantastic book TheGirl with All the Gifts. It tells the story of the Rosalind Franklin, the heavily-armed mobile laboratory that was found abandoned in The Girl with All the Gifts. The Rosalind Franklin was sent out from the city of Beacon on a last-ditch effort to analyze the Cordyceps fungus in order to try to synthesize a cure for the infection turning humans into mindless “hungries.”

The crew consists of ten members, half of them military personnel, the other half, scientists. Included among the scientists is 15-year-old Stephen Greaves, the scientific genius responsible for developing the chemical blocker that prevents hungries from picking up the scent of the uninfected. Greaves is a prodigy, and while it’s never confirmed in the book, he’s also clearly autistic. He can’t stand to be touched by others, is seemingly incapable of telling an untruth, and he deals with everything around him like it’s a scientific puzzle waiting to be solved.

I’m not going to say anything about the plot, since doing so would spoil too much of the story of both books. If you’ve read The Girl with All the Gifts—and even though this is a prequel to that one, you should still read that one first--, much of the plot of this one is going to be a foregone conclusion before you even start reading. Even though that’s the case, The Boy on the Bridge is still well worth the time to read. Carey is a fantastic story teller! His characters are three-dimensional and the story he places them in are compelling and wholly entertaining.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Kill Order

by James Dashner
327 pgs  (Maze Runner series #4)

The Kill Order is the first of two prequels to James Dashner’s Maze Runner trilogy. Set 13 years before Thomas arrived in the Maze, the book tells the story of Mark, Alec, Trina, and a small group of others who survived the solar flares that nearly wiped out humanity. But the survivors are far from safe, a new virus has begun spreading, one that turns those who catch it into raving, murderous, creatures.

The story doesn’t waste any time getting started. Mark, Alec, and the others in their small group live in a small village in the mountains of North Carolina. As they’re together, they hear the engine noises of a Berg approaching. When it arrives, it hovers over their village, the side doors open, and men wearing uniforms begin to shoot at them with darts. Mark and Alec are able to board the Berg and discover a box with a biohazard symbol on it containing 24 darts holding the Flare virus. As the story unfolds, Mark and Alec realize that some who are infected with the Flare are immune to its effects.

Who is intentionally infecting people with the Flare? And why? How are some people immune to its effects? Does that mean there’s cure possible?

The Kill Order is a solid addition to Dashner’s series. It sheds some light on some of the mysteries of the first three books, but leaves plenty of things unanswered. Enough to fill one more book.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians: The Knights of Crystallia

by Brandon Sanderson
296 pgs  (Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians series #3)

I’ve already mentioned this in my reviews of the previous two books, but my son and I are really enjoying reading this series together. The action and the humor have kept him captivated, and in The Knights of Crystallia, he got a taste for what I’ve always enjoyed about Sanderson’s books: the worldbuilding. Sanderson is a master at creating new and vibrant worlds for his stories--no small accomplishment, considering how prolific a writer he is. In book three, Alcatraz and his friends finally make it to the Free Kingdoms, the magical world few of us Hushlanders even know exists.

Alcatraz finally makes it home to Nalhalla, but finds out as soon as he does, that negotiations are already underway to establish peace with the Librarians. The country of Mokia is being used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations, and Alcatraz quickly suspects that those trying to negotiate with the Librarians are actually in league with them, and that it’s all part of the Librarians’ plans to gain control of Mokia.

Despite Alcatraz’s ongoing claims that he’s not the hero of these books, he’s once again thrust into that role, and must find a way to expose the proceedings for what they really are and thwart the evil plans of the Librarians.

This was probably our favorite book in the series so far. The fact that it’s set in the Free Kingdoms helped bring a new level of magic to the story and once again, as soon as we finished it, my son went and grabbed book four off the shelf.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Friday, September 1, 2017

Right as Rain

by George Pelecano
332 pgs  (Derek Strange & Terry Quinn series #1)

Right as Rain is the first book in George Pelecanos’s series featuring private investigator Derek Strange and Terry Quinn. Once again, this series is set in Washington D.C., but not the part of the District tourists ever visit. The book takes place in the inner city of Washington, where drugs and violence are a part of daily life for many.

Derek Strange is a black ex-cop who now owns his own PI company. He’s hired by a woman whose son, Chris Wilson, an off-duty black policeman, was killed by a fellow officer during a street altercation. The officer who killed him, Terry Quinn, came upon Wilson, who was holding another man on the ground with his gun pointed at him. During the altercation, Wilson turned his gun towards Quinn and his partner, and Quinn killed him. Wilson’s mother hired Strange in an effort to clear her son’s reputation. She knows her son was a good cop and not one of the many corrupted by drug money.

Quinn, who was exonerated by the department but decided to leave the force because of the cloud of suspicion that always hovered over him with his colleagues, is interviewed by Strange during his investigation. Quinn realizes his road to redemption tied to Strange’s investigation, and begins assisting him as he tries to uncover the truth behind the events of that fateful night.

This is the ninth book by Pelecanos I’ve read, and I’ve yet to read a bad one. Strange and Quinn are each compelling characters who could easily anchor a series of books by themselves. Together, they create a team that has me very excited to read the rest of the series. As with the other books of his I’ve read, the plot in this one is gritty but full of heart. The pace is slow at first, but it gradually accelerates to a thrilling conclusion. If you haven’t read any of his books before, this is a great one to pick up and try.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Clockwork Dynasty

by Daniel H. Wilson
309 pgs

In The Clockwork Dynasty, Daniel H. Wilson crafts an alternate-history story in which a secret society of automatons has been living amongst humanity for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Automatons, which are essentially robots, have a real-life history that dates back at least as far as ancient Greek mythology (think of the owl in the original Clash of the Titans movie). In Wilson’s version of history, these automatons, are self-aware, with emotions and intelligence, and have had centuries to enhance themselves through technology far more advanced than ours.

When June Stefanov was a young girl in Russia, her grandfather told her he witnessed a soldier in WWII withstand a hail of bullets and single-handedly destroy a German tank. He said the soldier had supernatural strength and left behind a mysterious metal artifact, which he then presented to her, and which she has worn as a necklace around her neck ever since. She has spent the rest of her life investigating the mystery behind her grandfather’s story. She travels the world hunting down examples of antique automatons, which she believes hold the key to unlocking the mystery behind the relic she wears around her neck.

June’s latest find is one of an automaton built hundreds of years ago to resemble a 12-year-old girl. She eventually figures out how to activate her, and when she does, she becomes noticed by the race of beings she’s unwittingly been investigating her whole life. She soon finds herself in the middle of a feud that has been brewing for hundreds of years, and her survival becomes tied to that of this mysterious and fascinating race.

I really enjoyed Wilson’s three previous books, and once again, he showcases his background in, and love for, robotics and has written a story that is wholly unique. This time, however, his story falls more in the fantasy genre, than in science fiction. He doesn’t spend a lot of time establishing the roots of his story in real life science and technology, like a lot of science fiction stories do, but instead, expects his readers to suspend their beliefs and just enjoy the story, which I did.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Obsidian Chamber

by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
403 pgs  (Pendergast series #16)

At the end of Crimson Shore, FBI Special agent Pendergast is presumed dead, drowned off the coast of Massachusetts. I feel okay mentioning that without a spoiler warning, because I don’t think there’s a single reader of Preston and Child’s series who believed him to actually be dead when it happened. And as soon as this book was announced, his survival was a foregone conclusion. So, bringing him back was no big deal. What was a more surprising, and not a pleasant surprise, was the return of Pendergast’s brother, Diogenes.

Diogenes was killed at the end of The Book of the Dead (10 years ago) by falling into a volcano. I’m certain when they killed him off at the end of that book, that Preston and Child had no intentions of ever bringing him back. In fact, I was at a book signing with Douglas Preston for a subsequent book, in which he made the statement that Diogenes was “truly dead.” I feel bad about accusing them of this, after reading the series for so long, but they “jumped the shark” by having him return, which is never a good sign.

Pendergast returns “from the dead” to find that Constance has been kidnapped and their bodyguard Proctor is nowhere to be found. As Pendergast begins to unravel the clues and follow the trail, he begins to suspect, and then discovers, that his brother is still alive.

The book isn’t bad. In fact, the story itself is quite good. But my irritation with Diogenes’s return killed any chance I had of enjoying the story. I’m hoping the shark jumping doesn’t mean Preston and Child are running out of ideas to keep the series alive. I’ve followed the series too long to want to give up on it.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Into the Water

by Paula Hawkins
388 pgs

Into the Water is an excellent example of a “sophomore slump.” Paula Hawkins’ first book, The Girl on the Train, while I thought was a little over-hyped, and definitely had its flaws, was still a pretty good book. For her follow-up book, Hawkins took all the flaws of her first one, and instead of fixing them, magnified them.

The story is difficult to follow. The prologue takes place in the 17th century with a woman being drowned by a group of men, then the rest of the book switches back and forth between 2015 and sometime in the 1980s (I think 1983, but not worth going back to check). The chapters alternate between multiple first-person and third-person narratives and Hawkins throws the myriad of different characters at you without any context or background, which I found made them difficult to keep straight in my head.

The story takes place in the rural British town of Beckford. There’s a body of water near the town known as the drowning pool, which has a centuries-old history of women drowning in it, either by suicide or murder. It all began with Libby, who was accused of witchcraft and drowned there in the prologue. From that point, Hawkins leads you to believe that Beckford women have been dying there with regularity ever since, leading up to the two most recent women: Nel Abbott and Katie Whittaker.

Much like she did with her first book, Hawkins tries to keep her readers uncertain about why those women died for as long as she can. Every characters’ character is ambiguous throughout the book. You don’t know who to trust or believe, or if there’s anyone who even can be. The only thing you can count on is that there are no men in Beckford who possess any redeeming qualities. They’re all either adulterers, abusers, predators, or killers. Some man somewhere pissed Paula Hawkins off quite badly. Today, she’s making a lot of money writing books that seem to help her vent her rage against the whole gender. As a member of it, I’m not sure whether I should apologize or say, “You’re welcome.”

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ship Breaker

by Paolo Bacigalupi
323 pgs  (Ship Breaker series #1)

One of my favorite authors, Dan Simmons, once said, “I believe that almost every writer has at least one dystopian novel in him or her that’s clawing and scratching to get out.” I mention this by way of justification, since I feel like the phrase “young adult dystopian fiction,” which I’m about to use again, can be found in an inordinate number of my book reviews recently, and I don’t think of myself as a big YA dystopian fiction fan. I just happen to like a lot of different authors…who happen to be letting their dystopian book claw its way out right now, and they happen to be writing it to a YA audience.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is the first in his young adult dystopian fiction series. It takes place about 100 years into the future, and is set along the Gulf Coast after the ice caps have melted, the ocean levels have risen to drown cities like Houston and New Orleans, the government has broken down, and the gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots” has grown exponentially.

Nailer is a teenage ship breaker. He works on a crew salvaging valuable materials off of now-defunct oil tankers. His father is an abusive and murderous drug addict, his mother is dead, and Nailer is barely able to survive from day to day. The only way things will ever change for him is if he comes across a Lucky Strike, a piece of jewelry, a barrel of oil, or anything else that would allow him to buy his way out of his current station.

His Lucky Strike may have finally arrived when Nailer comes across a wrecked luxury ship the day after a hurricane. The lone survivor is a teenage girl, the uber-rich daughter of one of the richest men left in the world. Nita is in terrible danger and Nailer finds himself caught between letting her die and claiming the ship and all its valuables as his, or rescuing her and risking spending the rest of his life slaving away on tankers.

I became a fan of Bacigalupi when I read The Water Knife a few months ago. That book impressed me with the way he took the problems of today, and followed them to a logical and dismal future, if left unchanged. He does the same thing, only for a potentially younger audience with Ship Breaker. It’s an intelligent and compelling start to a series and I’m looking forward to what comes next. 

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Skullsworn

by Brian Staveley
318 pgs  (Unhewn Throne)

In Skullsworn, Brian Staveley returns to the world of the Unhewn Throne. But it’s not a continuation of his trilogy he set there, which concluded with The Last Mortal Bond. Instead, Staveley goes back in time to tell the story of how Pyrre Lakatur, one of the supporting characters from those books, passed her final trial to become a member of the Skullsworn, the sect of priests and priestesses who worship Ananshael, the God of Death, and offer sacrifices to him by killing. If Pyrre herself is unable to pass her trial, which consists of killing seven specific types of individuals within the next 14 days, she will be the one offered up to Ananshael.

In order to pass the trial, Pyrre travels to Dombâng, her childhood home, and is accompanied by two Skullsworn, Ela and Kossal, who will serve as witnesses to her killings and successful completion of her trial. The types of people she must kill are described in a poem, and while Pyrre has little concern with accomplishing six of the seven killings, the seventh, who must be someone “who made her mind and body sing with love” might be her undoing. Pyrre has no idea how she’s to kill someone she loves, if she’s never loved anyone before.

While set in the same world as his original trilogy, Staveley gives Skullsworn a much different feel than those other books. He writes it from Pyrre’s point of view and the first-person narrative makes for a much more personal story. This is important because, if you’ve read the other books, you know that Pyrre passed her test, she’s Skullsworn by then. In fact, as I began reading the book, I didn’t know how engaging the story was going to be. With the outcome a foregone conclusion, what’s the point of telling the story? Fortunately, Staveley’s storytelling skills and character development make the book well worth the time to read. Those who’ve read The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne will enjoy the backstory of one of its great characters. Those who haven’t read them, will want to after reading Skullsworn.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Girl with All the Gifts

by M.R. Carey
403 pgs  (The Girl with All the Gifts series #1)

Melanie is a highly-intelligent 10-year-old girl, who wakes up every morning in a military prison cell. Before the guards, who come every morning to take her to class, will enter her cell, she’s instructed to sit in a wheelchair and not move. When she does, guards enter her cell, and while one of them keeps his gun pointed at her, two others strap her wrists and ankles to the chair and place a muzzle securely over her face. She’s then taken to class, where she joins 20 or so other similarly-restrained children, and learns to read, do math, and listens to stories about the world outside her cell, a world she has no memories of. But the world outside her cell is nothing like the stories she’s told. That’s because twenty years ago, the zombie apocalypse took place.

The world is now full of “hungries,” humans who wander aimlessly around until they pick up the scent of an uninfected. When that happens, they turn into ravenous monsters, who will pursue their prey until they catch them and feed. But Melanie and the other children at the military base are different from the rest of the hungries. For some reason, when they became infected, their brain didn’t stopped working. They’re just like everyone else, until they pick up the scent of an uninfected. It’s only then that they temporarily become feral monsters, hence the muzzles and restraints.

I don’t want to give any more of the story away. If it was a bad story, I wouldn’t hesitate. But this is far from a bad story. It was surprisingly fantastic. Despite the proliferation of zombie stories in the media today, M.R. Carey has successfully managed to write one that is refreshing and unique. It’s character driven, and mostly by the character of young Melanie, a zombie.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ 

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Last Mortal Bond

by Brian Staveley
652 pgs  (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series #3)

There’s something to be said for an author who actually knows how to end their epic fantasy series. Many have made a whole career out of continuing the story they began decades earlier, and I suspect, plan to simply continue telling that story until they die. Others go ahead and end it, but do so with an unsatisfying ending. I understand Brian Staveley plans to write other books, which take place in the world of the Unhewn Thrown, but The Last Mortal Bond successfully, and satisfyingly concludes the story he began with The Emperor’s Blades.


The story begins about a year after the events of The Providence of Fire, and things are not good in Annur. The Urguhl army, headed by Balendin, the leach who pulls his power from the terror he creates in those around him, threatens to conquer the unstable republic Kaden has put in place. Valyn has been blinded, has disappeared, and is believed to be dead. And Il Tornja has taken his and Adare’s young son from her and is using him to ensure her cooperation as he searches for Kaden and Triste. There’s a lot going on in this series and Staveley does a great job of keeping all his plates spinning until he brings everything together for an exhilarating conclusion.

I won’t say any more about the story itself, since I don’t want to spoil elements from the other books. So instead I’ll give my assessment of the series as a whole. Staveley used to be a history teacher, so it’s no surprise that the world he’s created has a rich and fascinating history. The series is up there with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series when it comes to complexity, but while there is familial conflict, it bears out more as a result of ignorance than out of subterfuge and deception. The battles are exhilarating, which include birds with 70-foot wingspans used by specially trained warriors. The characters are completely fleshed out and even though for most of the story the three siblings are at odds with one another, I found myself pulling for each one of them throughout.

Staveley is an author whose career I’m very excited for. I’m hoping there are many books to come. Whether they take place in the same world he created for this series or not, I’m sure I’m going to enjoy them.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ 

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Whistler

by John Grisham
374 pgs

I used to be a religious reader of John Grisham’s books. I used to buy them the day they were published and begin reading them immediately. Now, not so much. Before reading The Whistler, the last of his books I read was The Confession, and that was six years ago. It was when he started writing more non-legal thrillers that I started losing interest in his books, and eventually, even those began to lose some of their appeal to me. But because of books like A Time to Kill, The Firm, and The Chamber, I still pick his books up when they come out and at least read the dust jacket flaps to see what they’re about. With The Whistler, doing so paid off.

The story centers around Lacy Stoltz, an investigator for the Florida Board of Jucidicial Conduct. Basically, she investigates judges suspected of corruption. As the book begins, Lacy and her partner, Hugo Hatch, are contacted by a man claiming to have information about Claudia McDover, information that if true, would make her the most corrupt judge in the history of America.
The man is an ex-con who lives on his boat and is an intermediary to “the Whistler,” an anonymous whistle-blower close to the Judge who is aware of her corruption.

Lacy and Hugo begin investigating Judge McDover, but things quickly become deadly when the car they’re driving is intentionally hit head-on by a car that swerves into their lane. Hugo is killed and Lacy seriously is seriously injured. Lacy becomes even more determined after the accident to expose the judge and get justice for Hugo’s death and her investigation reveals the existence of a group of mobsters known as the “Coast Mafia.” That group has ingrained itself into the Tappacola indian tribe and has been skimming millions of dollars from the tribe’s casinos for years, and Judge McDover has been using her position on the bench to help them.

The Whistler reminded me of why I used to be such a big fan of Grisham’s books. Lacy is someone you quickly get behind and root for, there’s a clear sense of trying to right an injustice, and the story is hard to put down at times. It’ll keep me picking up his books for a while, and reading the flaps. Hopefully there will be more like it to come.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆  

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.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★