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.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Serpent's Tooth

by Craig Johnson
335 pgs  (Longmire series #9)

Cord Lynear is a teenage boy who was cast out of a fundamentalist Mormon group in South Dakota, and who shows up in Absaroka County, Wyoming. He ends up in Sheriff Walt Longmire's jail, which spurs Longmire into searching for the boy's mother. When he learns that the she was cast out from the group as well, and has gone missing, he begins investigating the polygamous group and their leader--Roy Lynear.

Lynear and his group live on a large, heavily-fortified ranch, and as Longmire quickly notices, more is going on there than simply a polygamous group trying to live their lives according to their beliefs. Longmire believes Lynear is hiding behind his religion, and that he's involved in criminal activities. Even though Lynear and his group are outside Longmire's jurisdiction, he can't ignore his intuition and embarks on a case that will put his, and everyone's close to his life, in danger.

This is the ninth "Longmire" book, and while it's not one of the best in the series, it's still an enjoyable read. It has all the elements of the series that keep me coming back to it. It's got an interesting plot, I enjoy the characters, and Johnson injects just the right amount of humor to keep things light, even when things are going horribly awry for Walt and his deputies. Especially enjoyable in this one is the man who shows up to find and protect Cord. He goes by the name Orrin Porter Rockwell, and he believes he's the same man who served as Joseph Smith's body guard back in the 1840s.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Life We Bury

by Allen Eskens
300 pgs

Joe Talbert is a 21-year-old student at the University of Minnesota. He saved up enough money to move out of his home and leave his alcoholic and verbally-abusive mother and autistic younger brother in Austin, Minnesota to attend school, where he's working hard, trying to get good grades and make ends meet. When he's given an assignment in his English class to find someone and write their biography, he decides to visit a nearby nursing home to find an interesting subject for the assignment.

It's there that he meets Carl Iverson, an old man who had been convicted of raping and killing a 14-year-old girl thirty years ago. Carl now has pancreatic cancer and was recently paroled in order to live out his remaining weeks under the care of the nurses there.

As Joe begins interviewing Carl, he learns of the two Purple Hearts and the Silver Cross he was awarded for his military service in Vietnam. He meets Carl's friend Virgil, who served with Carl, and whose life Carl saved. Virgil is the only friend Carl has, and is convinced Carl is innocent of the crimes he was convicted of committing. Carl maintains his own innocence as well, but has resigned himself to accepting the way his life played out. he tells Joe he agreed to let him write his biography as a "dying declaration," promising that everything he tells him will be the truth, but he must promise to write it.

As Carl tells Joe his story, Joe becomes increasingly convinced of Carl's innocence, and the writing assignment becomes secondary to trying to prove his innocence and exonerate him before he dies.

The Life We Bury is the first book written by Allen Eskens and I strongly recommend it. It's a solid mystery. At times, it's edge-of-your-seat reading, at other times, it's thought-provoking and emotional. Eskens is an author solidly on my radar now. I'm looking forward to picking up his next two books and hoping they're as good as his debut.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Friday, January 13, 2017

Dark Matter

by Blake Crouch
342 pgs

Most of the time, the book I'm reading doesn't occupy my thoughts except for when I'm actively reading it. Usually, when I close it and put it down, I go along with my life and don't think about it again until the next time I sit down and start reading again. Dark Matter was an exception. I'd close the book and go about whatever I had to do, but the story wouldn't leave my mind for quite some time.

Jason Dessen has a good life. He's married to a beautiful woman, has a great son, and a stable career as a physics professor at a small college in Chicago. Although, every once in a while, he wonders what his life would have been like if he hadn't made the decision so many years ago, to marry and leave the demanding and exciting world of scientific research behind.

One evening, having been sent out to buy ice cream, Jason is abducted by a man wearing a mask. The man asks him some enigmatic questions about whether he's happy with his life and drugs him. When he wakes up, he's greeted by a group of men he doesn't know, but who treat him as if they've known him for years and who welcome him back like he's been gone for a long time. He quickly learns that the life he woke up to is not the life he was living before the man abducted him. His wife, Daniela, is not his wife, they never got married and had a son together, an he's a highly-esteemed atomic physicist, who has accomplished his life's work and tapped into a part of the universe never before experienced.

Dark Matter is a fast-moving, mind-bending story that draws on many of the best concepts that make science fiction so entertaining and thought-provoking. My one criticism of Crouch--and it's a small one--is that I wish he had slowed down occasionally and more-fully explored some of the philosophical and metaphysical concepts he was using in his narrative. The book gives you a lot to think about, and many times as I was reading it, my mind would start to stray and think about the universe Crouch created, but I felt like I couldn't stop and think about it, or I'd get left behind by the story as it continued on without me.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Beyond the Ice Limit

by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
375 pgs  (The Ice Limit series #2)

It's been 16 years since Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child published The Ice Limit, which told the story of how the world's largest meteorite ended up on the ocean floor near Antarctica. Approximately 180 people died when it and The Rolvaag, the ship which was transporting it went down. According to the authors, when they wrote it, they didn't intend to write a sequel to the story, but given the consistent level of requests from their readers for one, they reconsidered and here it is. Interestingly, Beyond the Ice Limit is not only a sequel to The Ice Limit, it's also an installment in their Gideon Crew series, as they made him a major character in the story.

Beyond the Ice Limit picks up five years after The Rolvaag went down. Gideon now works for Eli Glinn, the man who chartered the ship, and the only man to survive its sinking. Eli has learned that something is growing from the ocean floor where the meteorite settled, and that what they thought was a meteorite was in fact a giant alien seed pod.

When Gideon, Glinn, and the crew they've assembled arrive at the site, they begin observing the plant-like entity using small submarines and learn that it's growing at an incredible rate. They also learn that it's some sort of parasite and has begun to form multiple seed pods. Not surprisingly, they also learn that if it's not destroyed (and it doesn't want to be), it will destroy the entire planet.

Okay, I'll admit, things got a little far-fetched here. Preston and Child went a direction with this sequel that I never would have imagined when I read the first book so many years ago. Nevertheless, I found myself entertained throughout the story. It was a fun book and I got the impression while reading it that it was intended as a gift to their readers.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Lost Gods

by Brom
490 pgs

Chet Moran is a young man recently released from prison in Alabama, having spent the last seven months there for drug possession. He's determined to turn his life around and become the type of man he knows he can be. His first task is to convince Trish, the girl he loves, now eight months pregnant with their baby and wanting nothing further to do with him, that he's a changed man and that she should run away with him to start a life together. Not an easy task, especially when her father, a powerful judge in the community, has pledged to shoot Chet if he ever comes near his daughter again.

After convincing Trish that he can provide her with a loving and stable life, and having narrowly escaped the judge with his life, Chet takes Trish and their unborn baby to the home of his grandmother Lamia on Moran Island in South Carolina. But the island is not the safe place he thought it would be, and Chet is murdered shortly after they arrive. But this is a story by Brom, a fantasy artist and author whose stories I can best describe as terribly wonderful, so death is not the end for Chet. A dark and dangerous journey awaits him.

Chet must travel through Purgatory in order to save Trish and their baby from an equally terrible fate. But Purgatory itself is in a state of upheaval and civil war. Ancient gods are fighting for their survival and Chet must navigate his way through purgatory and back again in order to barter for the lives of those he loves and swore to never again let down.

I described Brom's stories as terribly wonderful, and I meant it. This is a dark and sometimes disturbing tale. But it's not disturbing just for the sake of being disturbing. Brom is a fantastic world builder, and in creating his vision of Purgatory and in describing what the souls of the lost might go through there, he doesn't coat it with a layer of sugar to make it more palatable. He draws upon an eclectic assortment of theologies and their views of the afterlife and then combines them in a way that no one else could.

I loved it, but am sure others won't.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Review of 2016

Each year I like to look back at the year just ended and reflect on the books I read (the good and the bad), as well as mention some books I'm looking forward to, which are scheduled to be published in the year ahead.

Ten best books read in 2016 (in the order read)
  1. The Martian by Andy Weir
  2. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  3. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  4. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
  5. The Empathy Problem by Gavin Extence
  6. The Fireman by Joe Hill
  7. Summer of Night by Dan Simmons
  8. Lost and Gone Forever by Alex Grecian
  9. The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
  10. Stiletto by Daniel O'Malley
The award for the worst book I read all year goes to...The Glittering World by Robert Levy. It was original enough that I might give him a second chance when his second book comes out, but I'll have to wait and see what he does. 

Number of books read this year: 56

Signings attended during the year: Erik Larson--Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Stephen King--End of Watch (Let's pause for a minute and give that last item the respect it's due.)

2017 books I'm looking forward to:

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde
Smells Like Finn Spirit by Randy Henderson
Alone by Scott Sigler
The Lost Order by Steve Berry
The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy
Bear Town by Fredrik Backman
The Thirst by Jo NesbΓΈ
The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew Reilly
Full Wolf Moon by Lincoln Child
Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
The Dinosaur Princess by Victor Milán
Origin by Dan Brown
The Thorn of Emberlain by Scott Lynch
The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin
Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson