Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Scent of Magic, by Maria Snyder

Scent of Magic is the second in the Healer series by Maria Snyder.  The story picks up immediately after the events in the first book, Touch of Power.  While it is possible to read this book as a stand alone, it is a much richer experience if you read the series from the beginning.

One of the things I like most about Maria Snyder’s writing is her plotting.  Each book feels like a self-contained story while also advancing the larger story of the trilogy.  New storylines are introduced while other plot points are wrapped up.  Nothing feels tacked on, it feels like you are seeing the bigger picture along with the characters. Likewise, her characters show real growth.  They grow from the beginning of the book to the end and from the beginning of the series to the end.  

Another part of the skillful way Snyder tells her story is her description of the magic in this world.  Because of the fact that it is set in a world devastated by a plague that wiped out most of the population, you are discovering the extent and limits of different types of magic as the characters do, even though the magic system is long-established in the world.  The characters are mostly young and much knowledge was lost with the plague, so it feels natural to be rediscovering it.  The unique plants in this world, the lilies, are almost a character themselves and their description and role in the plot is fascinating.

The story in this book departs from the more linear nature of the first book by splitting up two of the main characters, Avry and Kerrick.  Each pursue separate paths through most of the novel which leads to new discoveries and new angles to advance the overall plot.

The characters themselves are largely well-fleshed out and distinct, making them easy to care about and root for.  Maria Snyder’s writing has an effortless feel to it which really keeps the pages turning.  There is never a lull.  Those who enjoyed the first book won’t be disappointed by this second entry, and will eagerly await the next volume.  If you haven’t discovered Maria Snyder yet, do so now.  You won’t be disappointed.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Gone by Randy Wayne White

Gone by Randy Wayne White introduces a new protagonist, Hannah Smith.  While the plot is mildly interesting, but not overly exciting, and a quick read, the poor characterization is the book’s ultimate undoing.

It’s not the the characters are caricatures, but they are sort of franken-caricatures.  Parts of different cut-out characters stitched together in a way that make no sense.  Since most of the unraveling of the mystery here involves long conversations, sometimes oddly recounted after the fact, I spent most of the time frustrated with the stupid or bizarre actions of the characters.  

The main character, Hannah Smith, is a pretty girl, who doesn’t think she is, but sort of knows she is, who doesn’t look pretty, except she does, in a certain light, or after a couple of drinks, in a mannish but totally feminine way.  I was confused too.  Her best friend is a muscle bound gay dude who is terribly shy, but can have a temper, except he just wants to be friends and is willing to play the muscle, but kind of wants to run away from any social situations.  

None of the characters in the end did I really care about.  And the ones that Hannah felt sympathy for, I’d have rather she just slapped.  They were too irritating to inspire real sympathy.  

The solution to the “mystery” is pretty much a foregone conclusion almost from the moment it’s presented, with only how the final confrontation would play out really at issue.  I may have found that confrontation a little more interesting if I’d cared more about the characters.  

I haven’t read White’s Doc Ford books, and maybe he has a better handle on those characters.  There’s enough writing skill here for me to check them out.  There are too many other better books similar to this one to recommend Gone, though.  I received an advance copy of this book.

A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming

Excellent slow-boiler of a spy novel.  While not depending on constant action, this book still manages to be a real page-turner.  Well-written and fleshed out characters leave you constantly guessing as to motives and whether or not a double or triple-cross is brewing.

Cummings also manages to paint various locales vividly so they feel like real and distinct places.  Likewise, his description of the real tasks of spycraft, both exciting and mundane, add a level of sophistication to his work.  The outcome never feels like a foregone conclusion and the fact that the characters aren’t infallible lends true suspense to the plot.  The various plots are layered like an onion with the peeling back of each piece revealing something new.  Even when everything is revealed, the outcome remains in doubt, almost to the last page.

A Foreign Country is a cut above other spy novels, and Charles Cumming is clearly at the forefront of the next generation of great spy novelists.  Highly recommended.  I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

How I Became A Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely

Truly laugh-out-loud funny books are too rare, but this is one of them.  I was hooked from the first chapter and by the end of the second chapter I’d picked up a second copy to give to a friend so I could stop messaging her constantly about how funny this book is.  

This is a faux memoir about a cynical young writer who decides to write a best selling novel for one main reason:  spite.  The book is a cynical look at the publishing world mocking best-selling authors, publishers and reviewers.  It smartly skewers all of them.  It is impossible for me to walk through a bookstore without chuckling thinking about this book.

Healy looks both at common literary devices as well as the calculations that may or may not (but probably do) occur in publishing houses, college literature departments as well as the minds of authors.  Ironically, you can’t write a book this funny without being well-read and a pretty good writer yourself, which Healy clearly is.  

This is a book that should appeal to anyone, but is a must read for any lover of books.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

12.21 by Dustin Thomason

12.21 by Dustin Thomason is a new and timely thriller.  It combines an ancient Mayan mystery with a modern day medical catastrophe.  It centers around the discovery of a new Mayan codex that may be the cause of, and hold the answers to, a deadly prion disease.

The use of the Mayans and the end of the long count calendar in December of 2012 is a natural starting point for suspense.  Adding a devastating and deadly disease with no apparent cure ratchets up that suspense even further.  The story alternates between present day and the end of the high point of Mayan civilization as related through the newly discovered codex.  That the solution to the present day crisis may be found in the ancient codex keeps both storylines riveting.

The characters are interesting and compelling, although the romance between the two lead characters seemed a little forced, or perhaps lacked sufficient foundation.  The story set in the Mayan past was always compelling and I almost wish that storyline had been an entire novel in itself.

Comparisons of 12.21 to the work of Michael Crichton abound, and that is certainly understandable.  The story is similarly compelling and intricate and plays with similar themes of dangerous technology or biology.  Thomason wraps up his story in a more satisfying way than many of Crichton’s books.  The ending to 12.21 was not what I expected and I was pleasantly surprised by that.

Thomason is a talented writer and 12.21 is a very entertaining thriller.  He is definitely a writer to watch.

I was fortunate to receive an early review copy of this book.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez

Kill Decision is a non-stop action thriller featuring advanced technology and an all too plausible near future scenario.  This book drops you right in the middle of the action with a high-tech drone attack and just keeps going.  The first part of the book contains a lot of information on high-tech warfare and some background science, which was as fascinating as the action sequences.  Once this information is established, the action comes even faster in an almost non-stop ride to the finish.

This is a classic page-turner that doesn’t let you go until you’ve reached the end. Author Daniel Suarez does a great job making you feel that no one and nowhere is safe.  This fuels the sense of danger and excitement.  Paranoia, after all, is just smart when everyone really is out to get you.

The heroes are convincing and dedicated while the bad guys are nebulous and operate in shadow.  You could nit-pick on some characterization which isn’t really all that deep, but the concepts and the action are what this novel is about and it is more than worth it.  If you like high-adrenaline action that doesn’t let up paired with plausible and frightening technology development, you are going to love this book.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire

I loved reading Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire.  It was as funny as it was exciting and hit just about every note right.  Why write just about vampires or zombies or werewolves when you can write about all of them and more, just about any supernatural creature you’ve ever heard of and quite a few you haven’t.

My only previous experience with McGuire was the excellent Newsflesh zombie novels written as Mira Grant.  Discount Armageddon is much more light-hearted but filled with the same trademark sense of humor that literally had me laughing out loud in places.  Verity Price and her interaction with the Aeslin mice would be enough reason in and of itself to pick up this book.  But there is a whole world filled with creatures, cryptids as they are called here, gathered from our fairy tales and our nightmares.  These creatures are mostly integrated into our society.  They are hunted by an organization known as the Covenant, a group from which Very’s (Verity) family split off generations ago.  Her family now polices and protects the cryptids.

This is a fast and entertaining read, filled with action and humor.  It’s a fascinating world filled with even more fascinating characters.  The romance aspects of the book are just enough to entice some without turning off readers who don’t like romance to dominate.  If you like a wise-cracking, butt-kicking heroine with plenty of action and a healthy dose of humor, you are going to love this book.  I can’t wait for the next entry in the series.  Highly recommended.

Silence, by Michelle Sagara

Silence by Michelle Sagara is an outstanding entry in the Young Adult paranormal genre.  Emma is an engaging heroine.  Necromancers and necromancy  is an area of the paranormal that has not been flooded with entries like vampires, werewolves and even ghosts.  Even if it had, there is always room for a well-written book about them, and Silence is that.

This is the opening book in a series, and as such, there is a lot of exposition and getting to know the characters.  They are all intriguing and fairly well fleshed out.  They are a little bit impossibly good-hearted and loyal for typical teenagers, but fascinating nonetheless.  There is a tenderness in handling  the characters, particularly a high-functioning autistic boy and even the family dog.  The characters are integrated into the story and not tacked on.  They reminded me a little of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Scooby gang in their loyalties and interactions, and that’s not a bad thing.

The world of necromancy and the powers of necromancers is exciting.  Emma is at the center of forces eager to use her powers or to prevent them from being used.  This book barely scratches the surface of those powers, but hints at a wealth of possibilities to fill more entries in the series.  

Sagara wisely keeps the plot narrowly focused here so that the story keeps moving along briskly.  You get to know the characters and the situation as you are moving forward, rather than have the book stop for heavy bouts of exposition.  The story moves along briskly and the pages fly by, while leaving the impression that only the tip of the iceberg has been explored and so much more awaits to be discovered.  It is a complete story in and of itself, but leaves you eager for the next chapter.  Highly recommended.  I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

The Watch is a powerful and moving story.  Based on the greek play, Antigones, it is updated and set in present day Afghanistan.  

The story is told and retold from multiple perspectives, overlapping both in time and in vantage point.  The novel takes a story that starts out two-dimensionally and builds it into a three-dimensional image with each character’s perspective.  Layer upon layer is added brilliantly to the narrative.  It captures the intensity, confusion and conflict both internally and externally.  The characters are real and have great depth.  Aside from a sometimes unusual familiarity with greek literature, they feel very real.  They are extraordinary in their ordinariness.  

One of the areas where the author excels is in displaying how different actions may be interpreted depending on the perspective from which you view them.  Actions, and the intentions behind them, can be interpreted or misinterpreted..

I am a big fan of multiple first-person perspective and the author uses it to great effect here.  The way the story unfolds requires you to continually examine and reexamine what you thought you knew.  You walk in the steps of each of these characters, you live in their minds.  Roy-Bhattacharya powerfully evokes the emotional state of each character to create an incredibly moving work.  This is a novel that pulls you in and makes you feel you are standing alongside the characters.  The action pieces spring on you with a suddenness that makes it all the more stunning and powerful.  

This is a beautiful and heartfelt work, reminiscent of Slaughterhouse Five.  It is intense and will resonate long after you put it down.  

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Windeye, by Brian Evenson

Windeye is a collection of short horror stories by Brian Evenson.  Most of the stories are quite short, 10 pages or less, but no less powerful for their brevity.  In many ways, I think it takes more skill to write a complete, self-contained and satisfying story in so few words.  Brian Evenson has this skill in abundance.

These are not ghost or vampire or zombie stories.  Nor are they even bump-in-the night stories.  These are stories that worm their way into your subconscious and fill you with a sense of dread and disquiet.  They contain ideas that take root and become more horrifying the longer you contemplate them.  Evenson skillfully makes use of the natural fear that exists in the unknown, both external and internal.  What you can’t see or understand is much more frightening than what you can.

I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, as might be expected in any short story collection.  All were very well written and often produced strong reactions.  Think a blend of Edgar Allen Poe and The Twilight Zone.  I didn’t consume the stories all in one sitting.  Each story almost demanded a pause for reflection upon completion.  The titular Windeye, as well as the story of a woman falling out of time were among my favorites.  People trapped in unfamiliar places or situations, identity confusion, loss of control, and loss of a sense of self are all themes that occur in these stories.  They are frightening as well as thought-provoking.  

Windeye is a collection for anyone who enjoys horror stories, as well as anyone who appreciates a well-written short story of any genre.  I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Risk Agent, by Ridley Pearson

Risk Agent, by Ridley Pearson is a very interesting thriller/espionage story.  It pairs a male  American ex-military (or as good as) with a female Chinese accountant (and ex-military officer) to track down two kidnap victims and important financial information belonging to an American company operating in China.

The chinese setting and cultural differences make for an interesting backdrop.  The story is layered like an onion with each layer pulled back only to reveal another mystery.  The protagonists are developed nicely and easy to root for.  They function well as a team in spite of, or perhaps because of, their cultural differences.  There are a number of less developed secondary characters whose motives are harder to fathom, but they keep the story spinning in unpredictable directions.

There are a number of good action sequences but this book is more espionage and suspense than high octane thriller.  Pearson does a good job of keeping you engaged and thinking, trying to unravel the mystery as clues are uncovered.  Motives are complicated and trust hard to earn.  The story concludes nicely, wrapping up all the major storylines while still leaving an opening to continue following these characters in future novels.   

This is a well-written and interesting book, but not a pulse-pounding one.  The action moves forward steadily, but never really builds to a crescendo.  If your taste in thrillers runs more to the espionage side than the action side, you will likely enjoy this book.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity is a story of friendship and courage told against the backdrop of World War 2.  The story is told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator who is held captive by the Gestapo in occupied France.  She is there after crash landing with her best friend and pilot, Maddie.  The story is “Verity’s” confession and is told in a narrative of how she met and became best friends with Maddie in wartime England, detailing their activities during the war.  

This is an incredibly heartwarming story that is both tragic and heroic.  The last quarter of the book was literally read with a lump in my throat.  While the story and some of the locations were fictional, they were based on real locales.  The details provided by author Elizabeth Wein were well-researched and add to the realism of the story.  The story highlights the heroic actions of those not on the front lines, but who served in the resistance or served in whatever capacity was available to them.  

The friendship of the two girls is the driving force of the novel and is truly compelling.  The pages fly by as you are drawn further into their lives.  The bravery in the face of evil and danger is admirable.  The complicated lives and actions of people on both sides of the conflict is handled deftly.  This is a story that will linger with you long after the final word.  A truly amazing story that should appeal to all ages.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy from netgalley.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dark Currents, edited by Ian Whates

The authors who contributed to this anthology were given two words, “Dark Currents” with which to create a story.  Most came back with stories involving space, the sea, or electricity.  It’s a diverse collection of stories, some quite good, others less so.  There’s an art to writing a good short story.  The authors in this collection used two different approaches.  Some had complete, self-contained stories.  Others were complete stories, but served more as preludes to what could be, and in some cases I hope are, full-length novels.  I enjoy both kinds.

Alternate Currents, by Rod Rees was one of the standouts.  A period piece involving Nicholas Tesla and a mysterious object from space.  A fun stand-alone story and one that could spawn more stories or a full-length novel.

Loose Connections was another story that served as a prelude to what could be a longer story.  While it was quite good as far as it went, it stopped more than concluded.  Where Rod Rees wrapped up his story while leaving a world ripe for further adventures, this story felt unresolved.

The Barricade by Nina Allen was another standout.  It impressively created a nuanced character and a very atmospheric mood.

The Bleeding Man by Aliette de Bodard was also a cut above the rest.  A well-developed main character and very interesting story.

Things that Are Here Now by Andrew Hook was one of my least favorites.  The author seemed more interested in coming up with clever metaphors than telling a story.  Some of the metaphors worked, most didn’t.

The rest of the stories were a mixed bag.  A variety of moods that did a good job of sticking to the theme.  The sum result is some very good stories and some pretty mediocre ones.  All in all, an enjoyable collection.  I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the book.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Mirage, by Matt Ruff

There’s an old adage that history is written by the victors. Matt Ruff expands and explores that idea in Mirage. Mirage is the story of a world in which Arabia is the superpower and the United States a third world backwater country. In this world, Christian fundamentalists fly planes into the Twin Towers of Baghdad on November 9, 2001 (11/9 vs. 9/11). The twists keep coming in this upside down world. Except some of the terrorists remember a different reality. One in which the United States is a superpower and the Arab world a backwater. And they have some artifacts from this reality that seem to back up their story.

Mirage is told largely through the eyes of Arab Homeland Security Agents, mainly Mustafa al Baghdadi. He is tasked by the president to investigate the “mirage rumors”. There are people within the United Arab States who don’t want that to happen, as well as people who think their lives would be better in the mirage world.

I enjoyed this book because if features interesting characters with interesting backstories. The concepts explored were also very intriguing. Are the seeds of violent fundamentalism always present in any religion? What circumstances cause them to come out? How might political alliances that we view as unshakeable change if they sprang from different circumstances? 

My criticism of the book is that the reverse parallels seemed a little overdone and at times seemed gimmicky. (11/9 vs 9/11, wikipedia vs. libraryofalexandria, etc.) The placement of prominent public figures on both sides of the conflict in roles they might play in the mirage world is well-done for the most part, although sometimes it seems unnecessary. The most enjoyable and identifiable characters are the fictional ones.

Despite any criticisms, Mirage is a story that makes you think and keeps you engaged. The core concept is brilliant and the exploration of the alternate world is fascinating. The characters, especially the ones without real-world counterparts, are interesting and well-developed. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book. It is an enjoyable read that will stretch your mind.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Quiet Flame, by Phillip Kerr

I had read and enjoyed Phillip Kerr’s work before.  Thrillers like Esau and The Second Angel among my favorites.  For some reason, I had avoided his Bernie Gunther series, probably because I am often disappointed when an author excels in one genre, but disappoints in another.  A Quiet Flame proves me wrong, at least as far as Philip Kerr is concerned.  This is an excellent noir mystery.

Bernie Gunther is a well fleshed-out and complicated character.  The events of A Quiet Flame span Berlin in the time of Hitler’s rise to power and 1950 Argentina, with a thread connecting both timelines.  Kerr does a magnificent job of bringing both pre-war Germany and post-war Argentina to life, but particularly Argentina.  I was completely immersed in the setting which let the mystery unfold naturally.  Gunther wrestles in both timelines with his own conscience and guilt all while doggedly pursuing answers.  The viciousness of the Nazis and those who conspire with them both during their rise to power and in their exile after the war is laid out with brutal frankness through the eyes of a man who recognizes their evil but also recognizes his own will to survive.

There is a certain beautiful brutality in the Kerr’s descriptions.  There is also a recognition of the impossibility of true justice for those who commit such atrocities.  The depiction of the coverups involved after the fact reflect more an attempt to evade justice than any sense of remorse.  The depiction of the Peron government also shows a willingness to look the other way and in many ways, act as despicably as the Nazis in pursuit of political power.  

The crimes Gunther investigates both in 1932 Berlin and 1950 Buenos Aires are interesting in their own right, but it is the settings and the characters around these crimes that make this a truly wonderful book.  I was fortunate to receive a copy of this book through Goodreads.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

By the Blood of Heroes, by Joseph Nassise

Steampunk, alternate history WWI, fighting the Kaiser’s zombies, oh, don’t forget the Bloody Dead Baron...what’s not to like?  The answer is not much in the first volume of Joseph Nassise’s The Great Undead War.

By the Blood of Heroes is the first volume and it kicks the series off to a great start.  The war in the trenches has ground to a stalemate after the Germans invented the zombie gas which reanimates the fallen soldiers and turns them into barely controllable shock troops for the Germans.  Scientists on both sides continue to work on inventions and experiments designed to give their side a decisive edge to win the war.  An American ace gets shot down behind enemy lines.  This pilot holds a little known secret which could prove devastating to the Allies if discovered, so a rescue mission deep behind enemy lines must be undertaken.  Working to stop the effort is the infamous Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.  

This is a very inventive and very entertaining book.  Interesting characters on both sides along with dirigibles, steampunk inventions, and mad scientists all in a richly populated and detailed world.  The action moves along briskly from start to finish with plenty of surprises along the way.  Looking back, there are a surprising number of set pieces.  From the trenches, to the battle in the air, to POW camps, to experimental research facilities, to airships and trains.  The amount of detail and action crammed into this book is impressive.  The only thing that felt a little rushed was the backstory between the downed pilot and the leader of the team sent to rescue him.  Hopefully this can be expanded a  bit more in future novels.

There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required and maybe a thing or two that don’t bear close examination, but all-in-all this is a very well thought-out and fun adventure.  There were a number of things that could have been glossed over in the hope that the reader would just accept them, but the author went to the trouble of providing a plausible explanation for most of them.  That attention to detail added to my appreciation of the story.  I am looking forward to the continuation of this series.  Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Black God's War, by Moses Siregar III

I was fortunate to receive an early review copy of The Black God’s War, a very interesting fantasy debut from Moses Siregar III. 

The Black God’s War is an interesting take on fantasy tropes in that there is not really a clear cut “evil” to overcome or a clearcut “good” to overcome it. Both sides in the battle have their own viewpoint and it’s never clear what would constitute a victory for either side. 

The writing is consistently good and the characters feel real and interesting. The system of magic is certainly different, but ultimately not very well explained. One side in the conflict, the Rezzians, calls upon the powers of the gods, who are present if not often seen, or at least seen by many, yet whether or not they choose to manifest their powers as called upon is somewhat arbitrary. The other side in the conflict, the Pawelons, rely on powerful sages. These sages use a form of concentration and mantras to manifest their powers. Several things about this system of magic are never made clear, however. Some sages study for years, but can apparently teach their powers to others with no apparent training in a matter of days or hours. It is also never explained what makes some sages more powerful than others or how those powers compare to the powers wielded by the Rezzian gods.

The plot moves steadily forward and maintains interest, but the results of the battles and the strategies employed are unreliable. The feelings and motivations of some, but not all, of the main characters seem to change almost randomly. It is hard to become invested in the outcome of the battles when there seems to be no permanence or consequence to them.

Maybe the point is that motivations for starting and continuing a war are murky and clouded by personal feelings of those in charge. Or that the outcome of battles and maybe even entire wars is irrelevant and inconsequential. As a story, though, it is ultimately unsatisfying. 

The level of the writing and some of the concepts involved make this an interesting read. The holes in the plot and the arbitrariness of some of the outcomes make it less satisfying.

Erebos, by Ursula Poznanzki

Erebos is a fun, moody, thriller of a novel set in the world of computer gaming. 

A mysterious disc is being passed around school, and students are being very secretive and acting strangely. When someone passes a copy of the disc to Nick Dunmore, he finds an incredibly addictive computer game called Erebos. The game wants to keep itself secret and seems to know things about him that it shouldn’t be able to. It assigns him tasks not only within the game, but in the real world too. When Erebos’s influence starts to have serious consequences in the real world, Nick must decide if he wants to win the game, or defeat it.

This is a fun book that does a good job of being exciting while also building a growing and pervasive sense of dread. The characters are a little two-dimensional, but they are interesting and mostly believable. Author Ursula Poznanski does a good job of creating a world and describing the moral dilemmas faced by characters in that world. Actions are sometimes divorced from consequences in the gaming world, but are real life actions that different when someone is offering you a reward for a morally dubious or downright dangerous act?

Some of the character interactions and conversations, particularly outside the game, are a little stilted, especially early in the novel. Some of that may be a result of translating the book from German to English. The description of the game and the depths to which players sink into it seems a little more immersive than should be possible in a game played on a contemporary computer. That being said, I was drawn into the incredibly compelling game within the book as well.

A game with a mind and a goal of its own is not exactly a new concept, but it is done well here. The contrast between players trying to win within the game with others outside the game trying to figure out and stop the game from reaching its ultimate goal is an interesting dynamic. The ending of the story raised my opinion of the book. The author made some smart choices and it paid off. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book. Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An American Spy, by Olin Steinhauer

An American Spy is an exciting and deeply layered spy novel.  Olen Steinhauer takes his time and lets the story marinate.  His characters are very well developed and their sense of paranoia creeps into you as a reader so that you are constantly guessing at the games that are being played and the hidden motivations involved.  

Steinhauer does a good job of leading you from one event to the next and then taking you back over it from a different point of view to challenge your assumptions and any conclusions you have reached.  The tension builds slowly and steadily throughout the novel.  There are no omniscient characters here and you are constantly left guessing whether their actions have been anticipated or whether they will outflank their opponent.  This keeps the suspense at a very high level.  

An American Spy is my first read of an Olen Steinhauer book, but the third book in the Milo Weaver series.  Milo is a very engaging character and while I wished I had read the earlier books, I didn’t feel they were necessary to appreciate the story here.  There are no cookie-cutter characters here and you learn to appreciate their faults as much as their virtues.  The story constantly keeps you on your toes.  Steinhauer has officially joined the ranks of the great writers of spy novels.  I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Taft 2012, by Jason Heller

Taft 2012 is a quick, quirky, funny and surprisingly touching little book. 

Jason Heller creates a world in which Taft disappeared nearly a hundred years earlier, only to reappear in the White House garden in 2011. He quickly gets up to speed on what has changed while he was away and before he knows it, becomes swept up in the 2012 presidential race.

The book maintains a light touch throughout. It is consistently humorous while also being poignant and sometimes very insightful. Taft takes you back to a time when presidents were held in higher regard and sometimes even had the principles that modern-day politicians only pretend to have. Taft comes from a time when presidents really were larger than life, and in his case, quite literally so. In a time where people want to be inspired, Taft is a figure who can inspire them.

Looking through the eyes of someone who hasn’t seen the gradual changes the world has gone through in the last 100 years is eye-opening for the reader. The political aspects here are accessible and designed not to offend persons of any political stripe, or at least if they do, offend persons at all points along the political spectrum equally.

Perhaps the greatest thing I can say about this book is that the fictional Taft has given me a new-found respect for the real one. The writing is clever and entertaining and often moving. I highly recommend this book for anyone who likes a little politics with their humor, or vice-versa. I was fortunate to receive an early review copy of this book.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson

Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) is one of the funniest people writing today, in any format, and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) is laugh-out-loud funny.  I’d read her blog and so had very high expectations for her book.  She surpassed them.  I can’t help smiling just looking at her book and I defy you to read it and not laugh out loud.  

Jenny is awkward and strange and bizarre and wonderful.  Whether it be talking about dead dogs, vaginas, or puppets made of squirrel corpses.  This book invites you into her childhood and adult life to show you all the unbelievable things that went into making her the woman she is today.  The way she handles all the adversity that has been thrown at her and managed to become the person she is today is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  

Sometimes lost in the oddity that is her daily life is what a gifted storyteller she is.  I suspect it’s as much natural talent as it is honed ability, but her stories paint a picture that highlight both the absurdity and the hilarity.  It is also an extremely open and honest look inside the thought process of a very odd and funny woman.  I have so much admiration for her ability to share deeply personal details and the courage it takes to be that vulnerable.

Comparisons to David Sedaris are understandable and not inappropriate, but Jenny is a unique voice.  I’m so glad she wrote this book and I hope it’s the first of many.  

Buy your friends this book and make them read it, because you won’t be able to explain it to them without breaking down in uncontrollable laughter.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bleed for Me by Michael Robotham

Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham is an outstanding mystery/thriller. One of the best I’ve read in years. 

I can’t remember the last time I’ve read a book that’s gotten this much right. The characters are heart-breakingly real. Major and minor characters alike have a depth and complexity to them that you don’t often find. Even the most evil characters have depth, and while not necessarily sympathetic, they have great complexity. It is in large part due to this complexity that the mystery remains tantalizingly out of reach for most of the book, and that much more satisfying when it is solved. There are seemingly disparate storylines that are convincingly brought together without feeling forced.

Psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is not a typical protagonist. His physical and emotional difficulties add a realism and poignancy to the story. Tension is masterfully created throughout the novel. 

It wasn’t long after I started reading this book that I had a feeling I was reading something special. I was. The story quickly gets its hooks into you and keeps them there. You’ll end up caring as much about the characters as you do solving the mystery. This was my first-time reading Michael Robotham. I’ve got some catching up to do. Expect to see this book on a lot of year-end award lists. Recommended for any lover of mysteries or thrillers, or anyone who appreciates good fiction. I was extremely fortunate to receive an early review copy of this book.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Young Adult Labels: Positive or Negative?

I wonder if the label “Young Adult” does more harm or good to the books and authors that get categorized there?

When I was a kid, I don’t remember there being a Young Adult section in the bookstore or library.  That doesn’t mean there wasn’t one, just that if there was, I don’t remember it.  I remember the desire for more “adult” fare after I had devoured all the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and Black Stallion series and the like.  I just don’t remember a section titled “Young Adult” that would have tempted a younger version of me to read something that adults might not want me to read.

Certainly there are books aimed at children and young adults that are worthwhile and rewarding for adults to read.  I’m all for getting more people to read and trying to hook young people on reading.  My motives are purely selfish.  The more people that read, the more books sell and the more profit there is to be had in the book industry.  More profit means more people will consider writing, or at least the writers I like will be able to make a living at it and not have to take time away from their writing to sell slurpys down at the 7-11 in order to pay the bills.  Result:  more and better books for me to read.

My question, though, has more to do with why certain books are labeled and shelved as young adult.  There is no question that the incredible success of the Harry Potter books, and other series like Twilight and Hunger Games, have shown that there is profit to be had in marketing books to young adults.  I wonder if certain books are re-labeled as YA simply  to stimulate sales.  Let me give you an example.  Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite books.  While the main characters are mostly children, I never considered this to be a children’s book or one aimed at children or young adults.  The book started out as a short story in the late 1970’s and was expanded to a full-length novel in the mid-80’s, winning both the Nebula and the Hugo in 1985/1986 respectively.  To my recollection, it was always shelved with Science Fiction.  It’s an enduring and popular book, which in recent years I’ve seen shelved as a Young Adult book.  It made me start to wonder, how much of the decision on where to shelve books, particularly YA books is about properly identifying what type of book it is, and how much is simply marketing?

The reason I think this question is important is because I think it plays into people’s being exposed to authors and stories they might not otherwise run across.  I understand with the state of book sales, particularly for brick and mortar stores, that there isn’t the space to shelve books in multiple sections, with the possible exception of the most popular authors.  But I skip over certain sections of the bookstore that shelves books that I typically don’t find interesting.  I wonder what I might be missing?

Maria Snyder is a favorite author of mine.  She has written fairly popular series such as the Poison Study series (one of my absolute favorites) as well as the Glass series, Inside Out/Outside In and the new Healer series.  The frustrating thing is I often have to order her books online because it is impossible to figure out where they are shelved!  I have seen them alternately shelved with YA, romance, science fiction and fantasy.  There are elements of all of these in her books, but I wonder if she wouldn’t be an even bigger success if there wasn’t the attempt, and an inconsistent one at that, to pigeonhole her in one particular section.  

I wish I could offer a solution, but I don’t really have one.  I’m all for getting more people to read and making it a lifelong habit.  It’s just that for every new (to me) author I do discover, I wonder how many other authors remain waiting for me on a shelf I never walk by.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Professionals, by Owen Laukkanen

The Professionals is a very accomplished first novel from Owen Laukkanen. It reminded me of a cross between John Sandford and Don Winslow. 

The Professionals is the story of a small group of college friends who, faced with a dismal job market, decide to go into kidnapping instead. They are careful to do their research and keep the ransoms small, to stay under the radar. A mistake leads them to show up on the radar not only of law enforcement, but the mob as well. What follows is a race between the kidnappers, the mob and the FBI with the outcome in doubt all the way to the end.

I really enjoyed this book. The characters were fresh and likeable and the rotating viewpoints between kidnappers, mob and law enforcement kept the mood tense and exciting. Laukkanen does a good job of showing how one little decision can start a cascade of events leading far away from initial plans. This is true for both the pursuers and the pursued. 

The action speeds back and forth across the country and the pages keep flying by as you try to keep up. The suspense continues to build as the noose around the kidnappers tighten. I wasn’t sure who I was rooting for all the way up to the end. That’s a testament to how well written and sympathetic the characters are. 

While there is a good deal of time spent with the law enforcement agents, Windermere and Stevens, there is a good deal more to explore with them. If Laukkanen’s writing gets even better with future effort, he’s going to be a big name in crime fiction. Highly recommended. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book through librarything.

The Games, by Ted Kosmatka

The Games is an entertaining thriller with a dark side. It combines high-tech, genetic manipulation and gladiator style blood sport into a fast-paced and frightening look into the future.

The Games is about a future where genetically engineered creatures compete in an olympic gladiator competition. The event becomes incredibly popular and the competition between nations fierce. The United States dominates the event, but with each Olympics, the pressure to maintain that dominance grows. The latest US engineered creature is designed by an incredibly powerful new type of computer. The resulting creature is so bizarre and menacing that the persons in charge of training it call in an xenobiologist to try to understand it and unlock the secrets and dangers that may be hiding in its genetic code.

This book has all the things you look for in a good thriller. Engaging characters, fascinating plotline and a sense of danger that continually ratchets up leading to an explosive climax. My only complaint is a slight disappointment in the third act. The tension and build-up from the first two-thirds of the novel perhaps had me thirsting for an even bigger conclusion. There was also a stray plotline involving the designer of the virtual reality computer that felt rushed and incompletely resolved. Those concerns for me were relatively minor but the difference between being a very good book and a great book. 

The Games taps into a very real fear about could happen when technology advances faster than our ability to understand it. It is in the tradition of the best of Michael Crichton and explores the dark side of scientific advancement. Highly recommended. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book through librarything. 

Assassin's Code: A Joe Ledger Novel

Great Summer Thriller

Assassin’s Code: A Joe Leger Novel is a fast-paced thriller with a slightly paranormal edge. Joe Ledger is an engaging hero. He is tough, but not superhuman, with a wise-cracking sense of humor, a split personality and a scarred pysche. Along with the team Joe commands is his dog, Ghost. I worried that the dog would either be a throwaway character or would otherwise be distracting. Instead, Ghost was a solid character in his own right, and an effective foil for Joe in what might otherwise be interior monologues.

Assassin’s Code is not a conventional thriller, it is a little over the top and a bit fantastical. But in a tremendously entertaining way. The plot involves stolen nukes, ancient shadowy organizations that date back to the Crusades, and vampires. Put it all together and you wind up with a page-turning thriller that holds your attention from beginning to end and leaves you wanting more. Jonathan Maberry is a skilled writer with a great imagination. I wasn’t even finished reading this book before I’d ordered more books in the series. 

This was my first time reading this author and this series. Reading the earlier books may have given me a deeper appreciation of the characters, but it read fine as a stand alone book. Assassin’s Code is great fun and everything you expect in an action adventure thriller. Highly recommended. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book from netgalley.