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.