Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

City of Endless Night

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

Halleluia! This Agent Pendergast mystery/thriller gets back to basics: bizarre murders, misleading theories, and Special Agent Pendergast using his formidable mind and unbreakable cool to save the day.

Why?

I’ve read all the Preston/Child Pendergast novels but was ready to throw in the towel if there was another bogus melodramatic volume. In fact, I was dreadfully anticipating the return of Pendergast’s already-twice-dead evil brother.

Whew! This is a legitimate crime spree story. In fact, there are only minimal references to the ongoing Pendergast saga. The only complaint I have is that Pendergast is a minor character for most of the book, ducking in and out of the action until the rousing final chapters.

Recurring characters Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta and reporter Bryce Harriman carry most of the plot. Not to worry, though — again there is no need to have read any previous books. The actual murders are spectacular mysteries. They would seem impossible to carry off, except they happen. It’s all pretty cool.

A Little Plot:

The headless corpse of a young woman is found in an abandoned warehouse. Turns out she’s the playgirl daughter of a tech billionaire. That’s just the beginning of the headless bodies. It’s up to D’Agosta and Pendergast to determine not just who the murderers are, but how many of them there might be, and what possible connection their could be.

For more about Preston & Child and their many books, click here.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

By Philip Pullman

The Short Take:

This prequel to Pullman’s highly acclaimed (and controversial) His Dark Materials trilogy does not disappoint. He sets the background for his dust story — a strange material that may prove consciousness is matter — causing stress for the church, which now dominates the state. However, it is the rousing adventure of a young boy determined to rescue an infant girl that forms the heart and soul of the narrative.

Why?

Be aware, this is the first book in a new trilogy. However, Pullman isn’t going to pull a George Martin or Patrick Rothfuss — making us wait five or more years for the next installment. The second book is already written. In addition he claims that, while the first book is prequel, some of this trilogy’s content will be sequel. If you haven’t read his earlier trilogy, reward yourself by doing so while you await publication.

The heroine of his previous trilogy, Lyra, is a mere baby in this volume who only does the usual baby things. Twelve-year-old Malcolm Polstead is the story’s tentpole — an extraordinarily strong, courageous, and resourceful character you immediately fall in love with.

While some characters from His Dark Materials return, many others are new. Also returning are the cruel tactics of the controlling Magisterium, the earthly knowledge of the Gyptians, and the relationship between individuals and their daemons (animals that reflect a person’s spirit in some way). It was particularly fun and revealing to read how the infant Lyra and her daemon interacted.

Though positioned as a young adult novel, Pullman’s writing is richly satisfying for all ages. And, his imaginative alternative universe is second to none.

A Little Plot:

Malcolm Polstead is immediately enchanted by the baby Lyra, mysteriously placed in the protective care of a nearby priory of nuns. He feels driven to protect her, which makes him an alert observer/spy. The dangers besetting the infant aren’t only human, floods are sweeping the lands.

For more about Philip Pullman and his works click here.

God: A Human History

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

9780553394726By Reza Aslan

The Short Take:

Aslan’s highly-readable book is not a mere history of religion but a thoughtful look at how we, throughout history and prehistory, have consistently humanized our gods/God while reaching for the divine. Drawing from psychological, philosophical, theological, historical and other sources he explains why this happens, from earliest religious beliefs to the present. It’s fascinating.

Why?

Aslan is a religious scholar as well as a believer whose personal spiritual search has led him from Muslim to Evangelical Christian to Sufism. His scholarship is on full display in this volume, which has almost as many pages of bibliography and notes as it does regular text. In fact, I highly recommend reading the extensive notes. I set two bookmarks so I could read the related notes right after finishing a chapter. That added significantly to my appreciation.

Note that this is not a book for those looking for confirmation of their personal religious beliefs. Also note that if you go looking for corresponding language to passages he cites in your King James Bible you won’t necessarily find them. His sources are much older. However, if you are interested in the evolution of religious beliefs and haven’t already read extensively on the subject this is an excellent place to start.

A Little Plot:

The humanized god has been a part of religions from their earliest times. Aslan starts with the earliest evidence — cave paintings — and moves forward through history.

For more about Reza Aslan and his books click here.

 

 

Sleep No More

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

9780525520733By P. D. James

The Short Take:

Wish I’d read/reviewed this book a month earlier — it’s the perfect Christmas gift for mystery lovers. Several of the six stories in this short story collection by the incomparable P. D. James have holiday themes. All reflect her brilliant, literary style.

Why?

I usually pass on short story collections, but when it’s P. D. James an exception is in order. These stories, the oldest of which dates back to 1973, did not disappoint. They just made me miss this legendary writer more. They aren’t all straight-forward whodunits. Sometimes you know the who but not the how or why. Sometimes the bad guy gets away with it. You can always count on James to bring you fresh takes on one of the most popular genres in fiction.

A Little Plot:

Doesn’t really count here, but you can count on people dying from unnatural causes.

If you are unfamiliar with P. D. James (no one should be), learn more about her by clicking here. Sorry it’s Wikipedia. Don’t know why her estate hasn’t dedicated a website to this formidable woman and writer.

Lilli de Jong

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

31752152By Janet Benton

The Short Take:

Benton’s saga about the perils and prejudices besetting an unwed mother in 1880s Pennsylvania leaves a lot to be desired. There are far too many McGuffins driving the plot, a cast of potentially interesting yet underwritten supporting characters, and more about lactating than I ever expected to find in a novel.

Why?

I get it: life was hard to impossible for unwed  mothers over a century ago. Still is in some parts of the world. Yet when the back-of-book notes Benton includes expounding on those problems are more interesting than the story itself, something is askew.

The plot is revealed through journal entries by the title character and includes a lot of philosophizing, which is actually more interesting than the unrelieved dreariness of the plot. It’s one bad thing after another; and actions and motivations don’t always make sense, not only for Lilli but for most of the people impacting her life.

Benton notes that she wrote this book while nursing her own child, and lactation is a major plot device for the novel. However, breast developments consistently outweigh character development. It just gets tedious.

All that said, you could not make a stronger case for chastity until marriage than Lilli de Jong. It’s the ultimate cautionary tale. Unfortunately it was written in the wrong century.

A Little Plot:

Lilli’s fiancé has decided to leave their rural village to seek employment in the steel mills. He will send for her when he is settled. Unfortunately, he leaves her a parting gift that makes Lilli a pariah to pretty much everyone.

For more about Benton and this novel, click here.

Hiddensee

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

185216By Gregory Maguire

The Short Take:

In typical Maguire fashion, this enchanting novel creates an imaginative backstory for the toymaker in E. T. A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker. However, it is so much more than that. The main character’s journey from fairy tale (or hallucination) to reality makes him an outlier with a unique way of seeing others but a limited ability or desire to “see” himself.

Why?

The child Dirk dies but comes back to life — a life that is vaguely haunted by two characters: one representing German romanticism, the other Hellenic mysticism. Dirk has little to no interest in them and rejects the few wisps of memories that waft through his life. However, those he encounters care very much, particularly Doctor Franz Mesmer (the real originator of the idea of hypnotism or mesmerization).

Dirk is not presented as a person of action, passion, or past. He is not necessarily a likable character yet you keep hoping for that moment when what is hidden becomes seen — not so much by others but by Dirk himself.

The prose is even more rich and lyrical than usual for Maguire, and the frequent music references offer more than just a nod to Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet. It’s a lovely, romantic read — achingly sad yet ever hopeful.

A little Plot:

Dirk lives in isolation and poverty with a man and woman deep in the woods. One day he is taken into the woods by the man, who intends to kill him. However, while Dirk is chopping a tree it falls on him, killing him. Only he isn’t dead. But something might have happened.

(Warning: the hard-cover’s front flap write-up gives away the whole story. Boo on that.)

The Good Samaritan

Thursday, December 21st, 2017

51+2Ms+Sr6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By John Mars

The Short Take:

This book is disturbing on many levels. It offers a voyeuristic view into the mind of a psychopath alongside a morality play about the repercussions of unbridled revenge. It’s not for everyone, maybe not for anyone.

Why?

This was a freebie through Amazon Prime. While I download these regularly, this one is the first I’ve read. I wouldn’t have finished it but I was on an extended trip in German-speaking countries, with no time to search out alternatives.

It actually has a strong concept and two very well drawn characters. However, neither of these characters have much in the way of redeeming features. The first portion of the book focuses on a woman who works in a suicide crisis center. She’s a terrible person, no doubt about it, and suicide prevention is not her goal.

Her nemesis is little better. His obsession with revenge spirals out of control, ensnaring others in harmful ways.

There’s no upside to this tale, but it has the strong “can’t look away” quality of a deadly car crash.

A Little Plot:

Laura volunteers at a suicide crisis center that respects callers’ decisions, whether choosing life or death. That suits her just fine.

Fiskur

Sunday, November 12th, 2017

51dSX5pYKkL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By Donna Migliaccio

The Short Take:

This second book in The Gemeta Stone fantasy/action series does not disappoint. The hero continues to evolve into an increasingly complex character. Even better, the woman that started out as mainly a love interest has become a powerful, fascinating character as well. Not to mention, the action continues — and continues to surprise.

Why?

Too often the second book in a fantasy series doesn’t hold up to the initial outing. Not in this case. The author has given her characters new depths yet kept the brisk pace of action you want in a fantasy where swords are as important as magic.

Predictability is not her the menu, either. Like George R R. Martin, Migliaccio is not afraid to kill off a major character when needed. That ruthlessness keeps you guessing and keeps you turning pages.

However, the main draws are the two leading characters and their diverse group of close friends and supporters. You can’t help but root for them, empathize with them, and feel their growing frustrations.

And, there are plenty of frustrations. Nothing comes without a price for The Gemeta Stone hero. He might pay, but we get to enjoy.

A Little Plot:

Our hero, Kristan, is now in possession of his family’s protective talisman and has vowed to destroy the evil Wichelord, Daazna, who destroyed his family and taken over his country. His friends, particularly the daring Heather, stand solidly by his side as he plans his attack, but is that enough?

For more about Fiskur and its author, click here.

Also, check back next week for a special blog post by the author.

The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

9780525428305By Dan Jones

The Short Take:

When I started this 360-page nonfiction book (not counting many pages of footnotes), I wondered if I really wanted to know that much about the Knights Templar. Turns out I did. Jones knows how to make history come alive, with a relaxed writing style and interesting stories within the big story.

Why?

I’ve read a significant number of thrillers where the Templars show up, or at least referred to. Of course, that’s all pretty much hokum. The only true fact I knew was they’re the reason Friday the 13th is considered unlucky.

They were actually a very brave, committed, highly religious group that played a major role not only in the crusades but in handling financial affairs and moving money for the rich and royal. They were trusted, respected, and daring. Of course, there were a few Templar leaders who weren’t exactly the cream of the crop, plus political considerations sometimes led to poor decisions.

Jones’ book covers everything from their origin in Jerusalem, after the first crusade, to their dramatic demise. There’s plenty of royalty making appearances, too, including the pious Louis IX, Richard the Lionhearted, and the four-times-excommunicated Emperor Fredrick II. It’s quite a gallery of rogues and heroes.

Jones drew from sources both Islamic and Christian to corroborate, question, and enhance his statements. Interestingly, both sides have a few positive things to say about their opposing “infidels.”

It’s all a fascinating read and I’ll be looking for more Jones’ histories to enjoy.

A Little Plot:

A group of fiercely religious warriors realized pilgrims to the Holy Land would need protection. They decided they would answer that call, also staying celibate and poor in the bargain. The commitment of these Knights of the Temple won the admiration of almost everyone of importance, who all wanted to donate to their cause to protect pilgrims and fight the “infidels.”

Battles ensued.

Dan Jones does not appear to have a website, but you can learn more from the Wikipedia entry by clicking here.

Origin

Monday, October 30th, 2017

32283133By Dan Brown

The Short Take:

Where did we come from? Where are we going? These  two questions dominate Brown’s new not-so-thrilling thriller. This opus, which brings back the brilliant Robert Langdon, contains far more talk about ideas than thrilling action.  The talk is certainly intriguing, however, dwelling on topics as diverse as Gaudí’s architecture, Winston Churchill, and artificial intelligence. Of course, the central issue is science versus religion — past, present, and future.

Why?

Usually thrillers put their main characters into precarious situations chapter after chapter. While there are some close calls in Origin, this book mainly explores ideas. That means a lot of talking, thinking, and general exposition.

Not that it isn’t interesting. Of course, Brown explores some of my favorite topics, from the history of religion to evolution to the natural fluidity of Antoni Gaudí’s buildings. Plus there’s quite a bit about science, the advances in computing power, and the meanings behind modern art installations that might puzzle most of us. It’s all interesting stuff, but more than once I found myself thinking, “Get on with it, Dan.”

A Little Plot:

Famous billionaire/atheist/futurist/inventor Edmund Kirsch is ready to make an announcement he claims will provide the answer to life’s ultimate questions: where we came from and where we are going. Ultimately, Langdon and a beautiful museum director have to help get the word out.

For more about Dan Brown and his work, click here.

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