Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The King’s Deception

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

By Steve Berry

The Short Take:

Berry is my favorite in the thriller genre, and this outing is still stronger than most books of that category but it felt a touch forced to me. The “McGuffin” driving the plot just seemed exceptionally weak. That said, it was diverting, entertaining, and fast-paced, and that’s pretty much why one reads thrillers.

Why?

I’ve read all Berry’s books. I’ve also read more than my share of books about the Tudors (Henry VII through Elizabeth I). Since this plot was wrapped around a mystery from Tudor times, it would seem to be the perfect marriage for me. However, maybe too much knowledge ruins the fun of Berry’s thrillers, which draw from the past to create modern conflicts. Or it could be that with his eighth Cotton Malone book, Berry is just losing a little steam with this character. It certainly wasn’t as good as his last novel, which abandoned Malone and his cohorts for another, more vulnerable, hero.

There were the usual twists, reveals, and double-dealings; maybe even a few too many. There was also a complex family issue that didn’t really add anything except internal angst for several of the characters.

If this was the first Berry thriller I had ever read, I’m not sure if I would read more. However, I know I’ll still read the next one.

A Little Plot:

Cotton Malone and his son are headed to Copenhagen, with a stop in London. Doing a favor for his former boss, Malone agrees to escort a teenage fugitive back to England. However, the team that picks them all up at the airport turns out to be anything but official (or are they?).

From there a complex plot weaves around a secret from the Tudor era, the planned release of a terrorist convicted of bombing Pan Am flight 103, a disgraced agent, a brazen CIA plot, and international power plays.

To visit Steve Berry’s website, click here.

The Universe Within

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

By Neil Shubin

The Short Take:

The subtitle alone tells you a lot: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People. If you only read one book that addresses the whole of nature — from the beginnings of the universe to the causes behind changing weather patterns — this is the one to read. Shubin not only makes complex systems easy to understand and shows how everything is completely inter-related, he inspires a sense of wonder. And, he does all this in a mere 200 pages.

Why?

There’s something almost magical about this book, even though it is pure science. A large part of this is Shubin’s wonderful prose. He makes concepts like plate teutonics, organic chemistry, and planetary physics completely accessible to the non-scientist. Beyond that, he celebrates our connection with everything else in the universe. The very history of the cosmos is contained in our own bodies.

If you’ve ever picked up a popular book about science and promptly put it down again because it was just too complex (I never did get through Hawking’s A Brief History of Time), this is the one you’ve been waiting for. On the other hand, if you have a deep interest in one aspect of natural science — say geology or astronomy — Shubin will tie your special interest into the rest of creation. Either way, it’s a win for readers.

Best of all, this is not just an enlightening read, it is a joyful one.

A Little Plot:

Shubin starts with the building blocks of the universe — the elements that are found in stars as well as our own bodies. He explores rocks, planets, microscopic life, the formation of the continents, pretty much everything; and he brings it all right back to our own structure, bodily functions, and DNA. It’s a remarkable journey.

Granted, there’s not a lot of depth here, but what an enlightening and glorious experience! Hopefully, it will inspire at least some readers to seek more knowledge about our universe.

To visit Shubin’s website dedicated to his writings, click here. If you want to learn more about his academic pursuits, visit his University of Chicago page by clicking here.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

By Neil Gaiman

The Short Take:

This charming short novel is much gentler than Gaiman’s usual. It actually reminded me of Alice Hoffman’s work. It was pure magic — both literally and figuratively. It was also an interesting commentary on adults as children see them and as they see themselves.

Why?

If you shun magical tales, I guess you’ll miss this one. That’s too bad. It’s utterly entrancing and scattered throughout are observations about parents, children, and their relationships that will definitely give one pause.

As someone who spent much of my own childhood “hiding inside books” I could particularly relate to the first person narrator, a lonely young boy. Perhaps that made me like the book more. Regardless, I was enchanted by the writing style. It felt like it came from a seven-year-old’s mind, yet a seven-year-old with unusual insights. Perhaps that’s why Gaiman had his character observe that children don’t tell adults certain things because they would not be believed.

It’s a frightening tale, with a life-threatening presence disrupting the boy’s family and possibly taking his life. However, there are moments of great comfort, love, and protection as well.

This book is aimed at adults, though young adults and older children will certainly want to read it. Be aware that it could be quite frightening to some kids. Gaiman’s books can be disturbing. His Coraline was aimed at all audiences, but I suspect it inspired many, many nightmares.

A Little Plot:

The events of the book are remembered by the protagonist some 40 years after they  occur, as he sits by the duckpond that is the “ocean” of the title.

He remembers the 11-year-old girl, Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother who helped him overcome a great evil in his life — an evil that occurred because he let go of Lettie’s hand at the wrong time and place.

He, his family, his community, and even this whole world are ultimately at risk. But Lettie and her family are determined to protect him.

You can learn more about Gaiman and his work by clicking here. He has written a number of books for children. If I were you, I would read them first. And I mean that two ways.

Inferno

Monday, July 29th, 2013

By Dan Brown

The Short Take:

This time Brown’s Professor Langdon is following clues related to Dante’s Inferno to tack down a hidden virus that could doom millions of people. If you like Brown, or Dante for that matter, you’ll probably enjoy his newest thriller.

Why?

Brown is not my favorite thriller writer. His lengthy descriptions just get me bogged down. I will say, however, that he can certainly sell a city. Large portions of this novel take place in Florence and Venice, and the way he wrote about them just moved those places to the top of my “must see” list. However, while encouraging tourism is nice, it’s not necessarily ideal in a thriller.

Beyond that, this outing overdid the red herrings and plot twists. After each new reveal, instead of going”gosh, that was cool” it was more like “wait a minute, that doesn’t quite jive with what (insert character name) has been doing.”

That said, Brown kept me anxious about the final outcome, and that’s the main point of a thriller.

A Little Plot:

Langdon wakes up with a head wound and no memory of the last two days or how he came to Italy. Before he can get his bearings, people start shooting at him and a young female doctor steers him to safety — for a short time at least.

His only clue is a strange object sewn into his jacket’s lining.

By the way, this is the second book I’ve read this year that focused on the major problems of over-population (the other was an older book of Christopher Buckley’s, Boomsday). The books couldn’t be any more different, but the message behind them both gives me pause,

Wool

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

By  Hugh Howey

The Short Take:

This book deserves all the praise it has already received and more. Even though the setting is a post-apocalyptic world, calling  this tightly-knit novel science fiction is completely misleading. Community versus individuality, safety against freedom, conspiracy opposed to truth — this book is tremendously rich in thoughtful issues, detailed characters, and thrilling plot twists. Read it.

Why?

When I read about the highly unusual situation of Howey retaining the online/electronic rights to his self-published novel after cutting a deal with Simon & Schuster for a print edition, I couldn’t wait to try this book. It exceeded all expectations. No wonder the film rights have already been snapped up! This one has everything you could possibly want.

The true-life story is that Wool started as a self-published novella. Buoyed by its success, Howey continued to write, eventually producing five volumes that have now been brought together in the print edition. Along the way, he accepted input from fans, making this book the result of an interactive writer/audience collaboration.

All I can say is, maybe more books need to be written this way. Howey’s imagined world is rich in detail. His characters are complex and conflicted. The plot is dynamic and full of surprising revelations. You keep guessing and wondering until the very end. Then you sit back and wonder some more.

This might not be the usual book club fare, but it should be. It raises major questions about what is truly valuable and to what lengths one should go to protect what is treasured. I’ll say it again: Read it.

A Little Plot:

Mankind lives in a Silo that reaches over a hundred stories deep into the earth. Outside, the air is toxic and nothing lives. Inside, community traditions are carefully followed and personal roles strictly defined. Then the highly-respected sherif of this community decides he wants to go outside — a crime which is punished by sending him outside to die.

Still reeling from shock by this decision, the community’s leaders settle on a young, inexperienced woman to replace him. But the ordered community of Silo is already starting to unravel.

Howey maintains a lively blog on his website, which you can visit by clicking here.

The She-Hulk Diaries

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

By Marta Acosta

The Short Take:

This book is a perfect summer read. Just imagine all the fun of Bridget Jones Diary, yet this time your protagonist is a superhero struggling with a tendency to destroy  her surroundings rather than fretting over excess weight. Don’t worry if you aren’t a comic book fan, even a vague familiarity with The Hulk or Iron Man is more than enough.

Why?

This book is not fine literature by any means, but it sure is enjoyable. It’s as action packed as any summer movie blockbuster, only this time a woman holds center stage. And, what a woman! The diary is kept by She-Hulk’s human side, Jennifer Walters, who is a gifted lawyer and not too happy about the problems her heroic half causes for her. This includes getting them both on the naughty list for The Avengers, the ultimate superhero organization.

Whether Jennifer is dealing with her new job, an old flame, or the repercussions when She-Hulk lets loose to save the day, it’s all great fun. And, great fun is exactly what the summer calls for, right?

By the way, I’d never heard of She-Hulk before, but now I might look for one (or more) of her comic books — um, graphic novels. The world needs more super-powered, super-smart women like Jennifer/She-Hulk.

A Little Plot:

Jennifer is determined to improve her life; resolving to gain a new job, a new place to live, and a new boyfriend among other goals. She pretty much blames her super side, She-Hulk, for all her deficiencies in these areas. That’s partly why she has to see a shrink to try to reconcile her two halves.

There’s a high-profile law suit, an evil co-worker, an old rocker boyfriend, a prankster of an evil doer, and New Yorkers who are behaving mysteriously nice. The plots twine together and it’s all engaging entertainment. Enjoy!

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

By David Sedaris

The Short Take:

It’s Sedaris at his absolute best: insightful, delightful and exceptionally thoughtful. Every time you finish one of his wonderful essays you are torn between reflecting on the bigger issues behind it and diving right into the next one. That’s the kind of conflict one can love.

Why?

I admit to being very disappointed in Sedaris’ last book with its anthropomorphic chipmunks and other assorted animals. This outing more than makes up for it. While his essays are just as personal as ever, they also seem to have even more of a world view than usual.

His observations about everything from air travel to Chinese food to colonoscopies certainly made me reconsider a lot of things. For example, Sedaris’ essay, Obama !!!!!, pretty much explains why Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, without ever mentioning that honor.

That’s the kind of writing that makes you just love this man.

A Little Plot:

There isn’t a plot of course. However, don’t be overly concerned about the title — there is an essay revolving around owls but they don’t have diabetes. If there was any reference to diabetes at all, it was so minor as to pass unnoticed.

Along with his essays drawn from real life, there are a few fictional short stories, written in the same first person style but adopting personas as different as a teen girl, a father, and a woman.

I found no real website for Sedaris, but a simple Google (or Bing) will bring you more information than you could wish for.

Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

By Peter Ackroyd

The Short Take:

If you want a reasonably short (roughly 450 pages) history of early England, this might be the book for you. It was certainly informative. However, it read like it had not been thoughtfully edited. Or, maybe that’s just Ackroyd’s style.

Why?

I gleaned a lot of fascinating information from this book and the writing is certainly accessible. However, I suspect one would be better off reading several books that went more in depth on the particular historical periods covered.   There just wasn’t enough context to make me fully satisfied.

Add to that the fact that Ackroyd repeated himself with the same editorial comments throughout. I got the idea that life for serfs was hard without constant repetition of the fact. I didn’t dislike the book: it certainly educated me a great deal without a lot of effort on my part. However, I never warmed up to it, either.

Perhaps this reading suffered from coming too close on the heals of an Alison Weir biography about Queen Isabella (who was part of this history); and Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives, which covered a lot of the same time period but from a social rather than historical perspective.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read it and will probably read some of the later books, though I’ll skip the next one on the Tudors since I’ve read all of Weir’s excellent books on that era. Whatever else, it is a good way to get an encapsulated history.

A Little Plot:

The title basically says it all. It starts before Stonehenge and continues through to the death of Henry VII (why he isn’t with the other Tudor’s in the next book I have no idea). The earlier parts were the most interesting to me, especially the waves of invasion/immigration. But, that’s just me.

 

 

Dreams and Shadows

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

By C. Robert Cargill

The Short Take:

This fantasy on steroids includes a variety of fairy folk along with fallen angels, a genie, and other assorted supernatural types. However, it also offers a fresh approach to this subject matter. It’s alternately gritty, contemplative, and surprising. I liked it.

Why?

It took a while to get into this book. The first few chapters hop from one scenario to another and it takes a number of pages before those plots interweave. However, when they do, things really take off.

There’s quite a bit of action for this genre, some of it on the violent side. In fact, I would even say that Dreams and Shadows has bent and even broken some of the accepted rules for this type of book. For example, how often do you find a scientific conundrum used to explain all things magical?

It’s angles like these that keep this novel fresh and entertaining. Where else would you encounter characters like a hard-drinking, mournful genie? Beyond the plot, the book featured thoughtful discussions between characters about the different types of goodness and evil. In most cases, these would have one scanning ahead, however these discussions were so thought provoking, they were my favorite parts of the book.

It was also nice that Cargill’s fairy land is unusually diverse. He drew from Native American, Middle Eastern, and European sources. Whenever I googled one of  his fairy names, they were genuine.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable and interesting read. Plus, it made me want to dust off my old fairy tale collection and dive back in again; and, that’s a good thing.

A Little Plot:

It’s complicated. One night Ewan, the perfect baby of perfect parents, is replaced by a changeling  with catastrophic results. Elsewhere, a lonely Colby is offered wishes by a genie. He opts to see all the magical beings in the world, despite the genie warning him against this choice. Eventually Ewan, Colby and the changeling, now known as Knock, come together in the Limestone Kingdom — a magical world outside Austin, Texas.

It is here that Colby learns about Ewan’s fate and resolves to change it. This turns out to be something of a life-long process that sets them both apart from others.

If you care to know more about Cargill (who is also a screenwriter and film critic), click here.

 

Life After Life

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

By Kate Atkinson

The Short Take:

This is the best book I have read this year. A book about a baby/girl/woman who repeatedly dies and then is reborn into some slight variation of her old life might not sound like a brilliant read, but it is.

Why?

Set largely in England, between the two great wars, this highly-readable novel basically embraces the concept of the “do over.” If things aren’t going right the first time, you can try, try again. But it is not a book version of the Bill Murray comedy, “Groundhog Day.” Each subsequent life is not necessarily better or worse, they’re just different.

Ursula, the protagonist, has a sense of her previous lives as a child; something her family’s superstitious maid calls second sight, and which her mother categorically refuses to believe. Sometimes Ursula takes actions to change fate, sometimes things just change on their own.

This might sound tedious, but the book is so fascinatingly written, the characters so interesting, and the pain of life during and after the war years so clearly depicted that you are swept up, through, and away.

This is no mere fantasy. It is so much richer than that. At one point, the child Ursula is sent to an psychiatrist who shares with her enlightening doses of philosophy and religion. These themes appear repeatedly throughout the book. Life After Life gives you much to think about and much to enjoy. That’s a double helping of good reading.

A Little Plot:

Born on a snowy night when the doctor can’t get through, Ursula is born strangled by her own umbilical cord. Born on a snowy night that the doctor bravely gets through, the cord is cut and Ursula lives.

This is how the books works. However, you’ll be glad to know that you don’t start with that snowy night each time (even though Ursula does). Instead you work your way through Ursula’s lives, her mistakes, her deaths, her careers, her good and bad choices; up to the point at which she wonders if it’s possible to take an action that could result in saving millions of lives.

For more about Kate Atkinson and her books, click here.