Saturday, August 1, 2015

Herbie's Game by Timothy Hallinan

Posted for reader Norm:

This is the fifth entry in a series featuring Junior Bender, and the first one I've read, though I plan to read more by this author. It is set in Los Angeles, and Junior is not a cop or a private investigator, but a professional burglar. The gimmick is that he has become something like a private investigator for underworld types, and in this book he is investigating first a murder, and then related murders.

There are a number of series that center on a private investigator type and his circle of contacts, and this is one of them. There is a girlfriend, a cop, and lots of underworld types Junior knows, including his mentor in burglary. It is also usual for such series to have a comic element. This one is different for several reasons. One is the ingenuity of the plot; this one centers around a man who arranges contract killings, protecting himself through using a number of cutouts, only a failing memory caused him to write their names down, and someone has stolen the list, which he wants Junior to get back. It gets more complicated from there.

A second difference is how well Hallinan creates his version of LA and its underworld. A third is the quality of the writing. Herbie’s mentor, whose murder Junior ends up having to solve in this book, tells him on the first page that they are like Robin Hood:

            “How do we give to the poor?” I asked.
            “I said we were like Robin Hood, not a slavish imitation of Robin Hood.”
            “So we’re sort of like Robin Hood,” I said.
            “Yeah,” Herbie said. “If you squint.”

This also leads to what is to me the most remarkable thing about the book. Junior knows and is on what passes for friendly terms with a lot of crooks, including Herbie, and it is easy to fall into the feeling in series like this that the people we have been introduced to are really good guys in disguise, but that doesn’t happen here. We are not allowed to forget that there are really bad things about these people, friendly or not, and Junior discovers that even Herbie has done things that Junior would really rather not know about. This is a good book in a whole lot of different ways.

 - Reader Norm, August 1, 2015

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Haunted Season by G.M.Malliet

The Haunted Season is the fifth book in G.M. Malliet’s Max Tudor series. Max is a former MI5 agent who left after his partner was killed in front of him. Now an Anglican priest in the quaint village of Nether Monkslip, he is married to his soulmate Awena, a pagan and owner of the local New Age shop. They have come to terms with their different beliefs and have a new baby, Owen.

Much to the chagrin of his bishop, Max keeps getting involved in murders. This is a textbook cozy mystery series, full of quirky side characters, coincidences, and the occasional dead body to cause gossip and give the vicar an excuse to show off his deduction skills and intelligence.

None of the books have lived up to the first, but this one was pretty enjoyable. Life seems a little too perfect for Max, and Owen is the most ridiculously well behaved and intelligent baby. There is a nice nod about halfway (p. 183 in the digital advance reader copy) to Agatha Christie, the master of the cozy mystery:

“I was just thinking that the genius of Agatha Christie was not that she saw the universal traits of mankind, like Shakespeare, but that she saw we are all quite different people, with differing motivations.”

The book has some flaws. The murder itself – decapitation by a trip wire while the victim was riding a horse – seems unlikely to come off so seamlessly or to take off a head entirely.The author relies a little too heavily on coincidence (the new curate overhears two of the main players in the crime discussing it miles from Nether Monkslip, for example), and there is a long, long (too long) section in which details of the crime are explained by Max and Cotton to Awena. A scene in which Max runs towards danger while carrying his baby is ridiculous. I can’t believe Max wouldn’t have thought first of the baby’s safety. But I have these kinds of minor complaints about many cozy mysteries.

The book ended strongly, with the last line catching me off guard and piquing my interest about the next book in the series.

I read an advance reader copy of The Haunted Season. It will be published on October 6. The Galesburg Public Library owns many of G.M. Malliet’s books, in regular print, large print, and digital form. Wicked Autumn is the first book in the Max Tudor series.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Just days before a massive exhibition opens at the popular New York Museum of Natural History, visitors are being savagely murdered in the museum's dark hallways and secret rooms. Autopsies indicate that the killer cannot be human...

But the museum's directors plan to go ahead with a big bash to celebrate the new exhibition, in spite of the murders.

Museum researcher Margo Green must find out who-or what-is doing the killing. But can she do it in time to stop the massacre?(source: B&N)

Far above Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.”--Booklist

I grew up watching Jurassic Park and reading Michael Crichton, so I read Booklist's statement as a personal challenge. With a gutsy review like that printed on the front cover, I had very high expectations for this book. And, while I'm unwilling to concede the Jurassic point, Relic exceeded my expectations.

You may have heard of the 1997 film, which was based on the book. If you thought the film's plot was brilliant...the book might not be for you. If you thought the film could use fewer plot holes, more back story, and a snarky Southern FBI agent, then yes, absolutely read this book. Read this book for Agent Pendergast, who is delightful and mischievous (and the star of a whole series of techno-thrillers, of which this is only the first). Read this book also for shockingly lucid pseudo-science, quite unlike Crichton's medical jargon and trade-language.

The monster is terrifying, made even scarier by a plot twist late in the novel. If you love monsters, you'll totally love Mbwun. This guy has it all—mashed up genetic material, basically unkillable, a fascinating origin story, with just enough pathos to make you want to cry a little. The human characters, on the other hand, are predictable and have very few motivations behind their actions. They can be a little stereotypical at times, and most of their thoughts are inane and kind of boring. To me, however, the shallow characters didn't matter. Maybe that's because I based my expectations on other thrillers I'd read—the thriller genre, of course, being much more concerned with the actual thrilling than character development. This isn't to say that all the characters are lackluster—again, I direct you to Agent Pendergast, i.e. the best character ever—but characterization is definitely not the authors' main concern.

They're more concerned with gluing the reader to their chair and making them jump at mysterious night sounds. While this book probably isn't for the reader who can't handle descriptions of blood and gore, or for the squeamish (one of Mbwun's, uh, favorite foods, is really specific and gross), if you can power through, it's worth it. So, I don't know that I would say it's better than Jurassic Park. It's a fantastic read, especially good for summer, when it's more okay if you need to stay up until 3 reading. I accidentally read the first 200 pages while sitting at a coffee shop, so yeah, it's pretty engrossing. There's also a sequel, Reliquary, which I'm currently reading, and an entire series of books about Agent Pendergast (for when you realize that he is in fact the best).

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Gathering is another read that's aimed towards a mature audience and uses strong language. The book is set up in a way that it is written by the main character herself, Veronica. It mostly consists of memories she holds and memories she has made up from her grandmother's past. It is absolutely stunning how well Enright is able to capture how the human mind thinks and remembers. The Gathering very much sounds like Veronica is trying to explain far away memories, correcting what she has remembered wrong ,in some cases, at the end of the chapter.

Throughout the book, Veronica is dealing with the death of her family member, and you can see the fog death throws over you in 'her' writing. The mood and feel is expertly done, with incredible descriptions and attention to little details added in.

As mentioned, the book switches through Veronica's real memories, the made up ones about her grandmother, and the present. This transition is done fluidly with no confusion between which is which. Each new segment offers something new, in the same descriptive way. The Gathering has stunned me with the amount of detail and mood, I can't stress that enough.

However, This is not a perfect book. There isn't a whole lot going on in the story. No major conflict that is the main focus, sure there are problems, but it's never focused on, and gets lost within the segments of the chapters. What is being told is being told slowly, with no anticipation. A story can be slow, if it has suspense or anticipation. The only way anticipation is added to The Gathering, is if you read the back of the book first, which I do not, which informs you that there is a family secret to be uncovered. That family secret isn't discussed at all in the book until it is revealed. Personally, I had it figured out within a couple chapters from how Veronica acted, but that could just be me. Needless to say that took away any surprise and suspense I might of had. But Veronica did react correctly to that 'secret', she had the same response most others would have, so I give Enright credit for that. It is a hard topic to express.

Overall, not the best story-line, and not the best way to deliver it. However, the details, mood, and ability to express thoughts and emotions saves this from being flat for me.In the end, I would say The Gathering is a decent book, I didn't waste my time reading it. I am a firm believer that every book is worth a read and will offer something to everyone, but with that in mind, I wouldn't put this to high up on you're reading list.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Liszt's Kiss by Susanne Dunlap

Liszt's Kiss takes place in the 1800's, during the cholera outbreak in Paris. Dunlap did her research and the cholera outbreak in the book is accurate to what happened, and she also included two characters who did indeed exist in this time. Franz Liszt himself, a famous Hungarian pianist, and Marie d'Agoult, a countess. Each section of writing is switches between their point of views, Annes', the main protagonist, Anne's cousin, and a young doctor who wishes to marry Anne, whilst Anne has her heart set on Liszt.

As much as this sounds as your average romance novel with drama sprinkled on top, it isn't. Deception and mystery is at the core of this book. Relationships between the charterers don't come easy, and seemingly innocent characters jump to great lengths for those they love, including law breaking. The drama is kicked up a notch with classical misunderstandings, leaving everyone confused at the end.

The mystery is what really kept me around, the questions that shrouded Anne's family gave the book some much needed suspense. Lizt's Kiss has suspense, has intense drama, has mystery, and passion for music. However, all this is dampened because of the time period. It can be hard to feel the intensity of a scandal, when the scandal is something as small as holding hands. Accurate to the time period, but not that exciting. Some creators can put emotion behind otherwise bland historical fictions, this is not one of them. 

Personally, Liszt's Kiss is not one of my favorites. The book wasn't able to drag out any emotional response from me. The character's were good, but not great and relatable. The writing was good, but not fantastic. It turned out to be a mediocre work with a lazy 'wrap-up' ending. I would only suggest this if your very into the 1800's or if you're lacking a next book to read.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Armada by Ernest Cline

I loved Ernest Cline's first book Ready Player One, and I wanted to love his new book Armada just as much. Unfortunately, I did not. (I apologize to Mr. Cline for comparing his second book to his first, but it’s just the easiest way to review the book.)

Ready Player One was original and inventive. Armada is neither, and it is very predictable. It’s so predictable that I thought it would surely end in another way, as the author points us so strongly in the direction of the predicted ending. Plot points along the way were also predictable, and Armada falls back on tired clichés (like the school bully accompanied by his two “big and dumb” thugs).

I totally bought into the world of Ready Player One. I can fully imagine our world disintegrating into the chaos of Ready Player One by 2044. I did not buy into the world of Armada, which is set in 2018. The whole scenario – sentient beings on a moon within our own solar system, a secret plan to prepare all of Earth’s citizens for war through popular culture and video games – did not seem plausible. I felt like I was reading a script for a forgettable alien invasion movie. I did not get caught up in Zack’s world.

Zack was also not nearly as likeable as Wade from Ready Player One, and Zack’s band of compatriots felt clichéd (African-American, check; gay, check; middle-aged, check; Asian, check).

I’m not a gamer, but that bothered me not a bit in Ready Player One. The gaming in Armada is much more focused on one type – “space invader” shooting games. I was bored by the long descriptions of game playing and actual combat.

The popular culture references in Armada feel forced. I didn’t get a lot of the references in Ready Player One, but they came so fast and furious, and were built so seamlessly into the dialog and plot, that I didn’t care. Multiple times while reading Armada I found myself feeling annoyed that I didn’t get a reference.

Although I couldn’t help but read Armada in the shadow of Ready Player One, if I’d never read Ready Player One I would not have enjoyed Armada any more. In fact, I probably gave Armada an extra half star because I love Cline and his first novel so much.

Armada is not without merit. I was amused off and on. I enjoyed Zack’s online call sign of IronBeagle, a combination of the hero from the movie Iron Eagle and Snoopy fighting the Red Baron. Cline has a nice way of putting words together (“I reminded myself that I was a man of science, even if I did usually get a C in it.”) Armada was a quick read, and there are worse ways to pass some time. I will definitely read his next book.

If you have not read Ready Player One,go read it! And if you have, I'm sure you will want to read Armada as well. It comes out on July 14 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press

Beautiful Souls is a descriptive non-fiction that takes on a new perspective in history, focusing on four people who went against the norm when the norm was morally wrong. Instead of largely known hero's, Eyal writes about normal people who step out of line for what they believe is right. This book is set up in four different parts, each about a different person faced with a situation that will change their lives. Eyal does an expert job of writing down their experiences, what as a person they are like, and how the interviews went.

The author digs deep to find answers to seemingly spontaneous acts of courage from otherwise indifferent people. He has an excellent talent for finding others personality traits and describing their character. He manages to connect psychological theories to why these four acted so out of character when faced with a moral decision that held no consequence over their head if they went against what they believed was right.

I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of psychology and history, and maybe even philosophers. Eyal Press delivers this book well, one of the compliments I feel that I can give him is he does not fall to what so many non-fiction writes tend to do and does not use unnecessary 'big' words. The words and sentences fall together smartly without any assistance from words that no one has heard of before. While I read this, it was evident he was a professional journalist and worked hard to gather as much information as possible on this topic.