Category Archives: Book Review

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Book Review – Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn

Category : Book Review

Author: Tad Williams

Year: 1988-1993

Count this trilogy among the best fantasy epics of all time; George R.R. Martin does, it was an inspiration for his Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones, of course, to you TV people who might not know the official name of his book franchise).  Perhaps Williams’ greatest accomplishment with this franchise is its containment, because, although he has written more from this fictional world, this trilogy is a closed book, with one war, one hero, one mission, it’s just spread over three books, and that amount of self-editing is something we should be praising authors for so that they’ll do it much more.  The magic of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is that, while it does focus in and refuses to get distracted, it’s also told from many points of view, has many characters to root for, and a myriad of complicated reasons to stay engaged and to, ultimately, fall in love.

Simon is a kitchen boy who lives in the great Hayholt castle at the center of Osten Ard, a land of kingdoms currently ruled by a High King named John, who has conquered fairly, treated his subjects well, and, on the eve of his inevitable death, is respected and renowned.  As he dies, his sons argue over the throne; Elias is the elder and more militant and will become the overlord, while Josua is solemn, bookish, and won’t contest the succession, although he fears for his brother’s sanity and his rashness.  The evil Pryrates has Elias’ ear and is known to dabble in dark arts, which soon becomes apparent when he makes allies with the undead Storm King, one of the immortal race who once ruled Osten Ard before mankind came with their iron weapons.  Now, with the help of Simon, who finds himself at the middle of the swirl, and many loyal lords, who begin a quest for three legendary swords that just might turn the tide, Josua must pool all knowledge together to combat this rising threat, before darkness takes over the land and Pryrates, with Elias as his puppet, wins once and for all.

I read this trilogy in the 90s, probably right after the last book was written, and it had such an impact on my literary taste that I can’t put it into words; it was on a level with reading Lord of the Rings for the first time, or stumbling across Wheel of Time, franchises that are so amazing that they rise above everything else to live on a cloud by themselves, untouchable and magnificent.  Perhaps this series isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Tolkien’s or Jordan’s, but Williams created something special here, and you should absolutely have it in your life if you’ve ever loved fantasy novels.  It’s so smooth, so seamless, with multiple character viewpoints, multiple offshoot adventures, but all leading back to one climax, one place, one war, wrapped up so perfectly you’ll never read the like again.  That’s something Wheel of Time was not able to do, pare down, so I applaud Williams for controlling himself, it makes a big difference.  The three books are The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower, but they read as one large piece, not different stories, with flawed heroes and incredible villains sprinkled throughout who always have a fascinating part to play in the greater showcase.  Simon is a classic but extremely well-written main contributor, the elf/dwarf/human balance is both cleverly & originally struck, and the action is brutal & adult without ever crossing over into graphic territory.  This trio of books is simply a wonderful and entertaining set of gateways through the imagination of an author to a place that you’d swear was real and don’t ever want to leave; lucky for those of us who love it, we can revisit it any time.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Hunger

Category : Book Review

Author: Alma Katsu

Year: 2018

Historical fiction is a fun genre, so when I saw a recommendation in the genre at my local library that looked interesting I thought I’d give it a try.  The author has only written three other novels, a trilogy, so reading her latest is taking a big chance, but as a history buff I was willing to take a shot.  She turned the Donner Party into horror fiction and that’s pretty cool, but unfortunately her writing talent wasn’t up to par with her idea.  Filled with letters and dates and true life events, the book was still unable to rise above its fabricated pieces and conversations, creating a muddle of mismanaged ideas that are in no way worth your time.

Setting out later than most wagon trains, the Donners and many other families joined together to take the long road West toward California and a new life.  Starting out at the traditional spot of Independence, Missouri, bad luck seemed to dog them all the way, included squabbles and deaths and jealousies and affairs.  A dark presence hovered over the whole affair, and it only got worse as the party decided to take an alternate route across the mountains at the spine of the country, instead of the typical longer way.  Trapped in the upper passes and starting to get hungry, and with legends all around telling of hungry spirits preying upon the weak of heart, order started to collapse, and the rest is history.

This is a stellar idea, taking a real event that we know so little about and fleshing out the details with fiction, especially horror, which works perfectly in this situation.  Is it evil or just mankind, is it nature or an otherwordly force, these are the questions that haunt the wagon train and the reader alike, which I give two thumbs up.  But the rest was crap, I hate to inform you.  The idea might have been strong, but the execution was absolutely terrible, with no sense of what audiences want to experience, or how good stories are told.  The dialogue was stilted, the characters too many, there was no cohesion, plotlines went everywhere, and although we kept returning to real history, which was fine, it felt like two separate tracks heading for a merger at which we’d just crash and burn.

My rating: ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Revival

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 2014

Revival might be the weakest King book I have ever read, and I’ve read my fair share.  I love his style, his immersion, his references, and basically all his stories; he has an unmatched gift that can’t ever be explained.  But Revival is weak sauce, throwaway fiction, without a real point or a strong hook, and it left me feeling like he wrote it in his spare time, not with any real focus.  In fact, this book was written in between King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch), so maybe he quite literally did give birth to this story while he was busy doing other, more important things.  Because it feels like an afterthought, or perhaps a side note, a tale that could have made for an interesting short, but was never made for an independent novel, as it was doomed from the start.

Jamie Morton can’t escape the madness of his childhood minister, Charles Jacobs; the fates of both men have been intertwined for some dark purpose.  As a boy, Jamie looked up to Charles, they were friends even, and the minister shared his love of God with the curious child, as well as his passion for science and electricity, which were his obsessive hobbies.  But when Charles lost his wife and son in an accident, he left his religion behind, and Jamie grew up while growing further & further away from his own faith.  But the two were linked, and as Jamie fell into drug addiction, Charles advanced his experiments with the healing power of electricity, tapping into some other-worldly force to treat the sick, but with an ulterior motive that definitely wasn’t Godly.  Jamie would become an Igor to Charles’ Dr. Frankenstein, the pair playing with fire, all the while knowing that, beyond the veil between life and death, there might be a sleeping evil that won’t react well to being disturbed.

This novel is so convoluted with religion, addiction, trauma, and pseudoscience that it’s hard to wrap your brain around all the themes at once, while also trying to dive into a horror story that’s mostly neither scary nor interesting.  It’s a curious idea, but fleshed out far beyond its breaking point, like The Shining taken down the wrong road and given too many different threads to handle.  And I even felt that King was off his game, ending chapters with phrases like, “But I had no idea everyone around me was about to die”, as if he didn’t have any other tools at his disposal than cheap, college-level fiction tactics.  The entire book read as if it was written by someone on a lower talent tier than King’s usually-sharp standards, and that’s a major disappointment.  I’ve read almost everything he has ever offered, and Revival might be the most phoned in, the least thought through, and the only one without a reason to invest.

My rating: ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Joyland

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 2013

One of King’s simplest novels, and one of his easiest stories to consume, Joyland stays away from deep undertones and gruesome horror, at least to the extend that his other books delve into, and instead reads like pulp fiction, a genre King is constantly referencing and dabbling in, without usually taking the plunge.  Joyland is short for a full novel, flies smoothly by, and offers an enjoyable read, without amazing metaphors and nightmare scenarios, making it one of King’s most broad reaching and perhaps accessible.  I like everything he does, from short stories to full epics, from character studies to gross out gore, so count me in for whatever, but I think this book in particular might be one I could easily recommend, if only because it doesn’t require a devoted fanbase, just a casual audience.

Your first heartbreak can become a moment that imprints itself upon your timeline for the rest of your life, and, for Devin Jones, that melodrama is exactly his current situation.  He took a job at Joyland, a small-potatoes Carolina amusement park, to earn some money in between years of college, but at first he thought that he and his girlfriend would be able to deal with the distance.  But apparently not, because she’s off with another guy, and Devin is left miserable beyond repair.  Or, perhaps, not quite, because Joyland somehow becomes more than just a job, it becomes a home and a way of life, at least for a time, and the people Devin meets there will change his life forever.  When he stumbles upon an unsolved mystery and a young boy with second sight, Devin will have to walk down a dark path toward the truth, but thankfully never quite alone.

King wrote this story as a pulp novel, a crime story, a dime paperback thriller; all the things he constantly talks about but rarely writes.  His books, other than his short stories and novellas, are usually much more deeply involved, but Joyland is a chance to get in and get out, to enjoy a summer with a boy, albeit one that turns deadly rather quickly.  Hey, it’s still King after all, there’s still death and sex and supernatural drama, what did you expect, but the force is toned down, and that’s why I think this novel might be one a larger audience could enjoy.  Devin in a great character, the people he meets are fascinating, and the action is cool; you can’t ask for more from a beach read or a summer thrill ride, whatever you might want to call this genre.  And the book is still written with King’s talent, his mastery for background, and his ability to transport us into a different world in the span of a few pages.  Read and enjoy, just don’t expect The Stand; Joyland is a different beast entirely.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – True Grit

Category : Book Review

Author: Charles Portis

Year: 1968

True Grit is one of the easiest novels I’ve ever read, and I don’t mean because it was so simple it took no effort to read, I mean that the time I spent with it in front of me felt like time I spent listening to a fascinating person tell their equally fascinating story with a smooth flow and an honest charm that kept me from being able to even blink, I was so curious to hear what happened next.  It’s less a book and more a memory, and it feels every inch our own true story, like we were along for the ride every hoof print of the way.  Charles Portis barely wrote a thing other than this book, but it doesn’t matter, he gave us something special, and for that he will always be remembered.  So will True Grit, a simple tale with only three real characters, and a Western experience like no other.

Mattie Ross is not the type of girl to take life’s punches and not punch back, even during the time of the American West, when women weren’t expected to say boo.  Mattie has much more to say than that, and she has a knack of getting her way in any situation, even aged only 14 years.  When her father is robbed and killed by a hired man while traveling on business, Mattie makes up her mind to travel herself; first finishing the business and then tracking down her father’s murderer.  To help her, she enlists the aid of Marshall Rooster Cogburn, a man known to understand the territory they will be forced to travel in to catch the crook and seen as a rugged peace officer who has, as they say, grit.  But he’s not the only one, Mattie is herself a tough cookie, and along with another lawman, a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf but pronounced LaBeef, they will set out on an adventure of a lifetime.

Like no other book I can think of, True Grit feels like sitting around a campfire and listening to a mighty Western tale, one full of simple choices and brave deeds in turn, one told with embedded language that you begin to understand as you listen along, and which begins to feel like your own story by the time it winds down.  Mattie is an awesome character, just awesome, and Rooster is no less so, this bear of a man who you quickly understand is all Teddy underneath.  And talk about history; if you’re into this sort of thing this book reads like a time capsule or time travel, as you learn more about guns and vittles and horses and outlaws than you ever knew you wanted to know.  A combination of adventure and instruction, wry humor and real heart, Portis’ claim to fame is not simply worth your time, it’s worth your bookshelf.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Tripods Trilogy

Category : Book Review

Author: John Christopher

Year: 1967

Technically this is a quadrilogy, with a prequel written 20 years after the original trilogy, telling about the origins of the Tripods and their conquest of Earth, but I don’t consider that to be a part of the foundation of the franchise; the first three books are where the magic happens.  I read them in school when I was young; technically I think my Gifted teacher read some or all of them to us, which is a nice memory, and I’ve always remembered this story as one of the first sci-fi series to have an affect on my taste level and my reading interests.  I recently read them to my kids, so now I’ve passed that love along, and I got to enjoy the stories all over again as well.  This trilogy should be considered foundational, a coming-of-age tale set amid a dystopian future, and one of the better young-adult fantasy epics out there.

Will has never known life without the Tripods’ presence, has never questioned their absolute authority over the lives of the people of his village.  Why would he; the adults in his life are happy, they don’t mind the metal caps on their heads, the Tripods almost never interfere, war and hunger have been eliminated, tales of the Ancients and their very different existence seem far away and unimportant.  But when a vagrant man comes through town telling Will the truth of the Tripods, and of a place where free men still hold out hope of defeating this otherworldly enemy, Will is filled with a passion to join them, and to fight against those who have made his race their slaves.  So begins an adventure to join a battle that will decide the fate of mankind; first a journey to the stronghold of free man in The White Mountains, then a dangerous mission to The City of Gold and Lead, and finally the discovery of The Pool of Fire, which may be the key to defeating the Tripods once and for all.

The Tripods Trilogy is such a fun fast-forward to a world that’s been conquered and barely remembers us, that sees the Ancients (modern humans) as a people full of troubling war and unnecessary disease.  Christopher quickly puts in perspective the relatively happy world of controlled man, but at a cost, which is, of course, the crux.  Will emerges as a great vehicle for us as readers, with his youthful energy and his rash nature, wanting to prove himself sometimes more than he wants to help.  But as he grows and matures he begins to understand the dangers all around him, and how he must become a piece of the puzzle if he ever wants to be truly free.  This series is a wonderful introduction to fantasy, dystopia, sci-fi, whatever genre you’d like to place it in, because it takes its time and weaves a fascinating tale, letting us live in this future world among the characters until we understand their plight.  It’s written strongly, has just enough action, some solid introspection, and takes us all over the world as humans fight Tripods, with the fate of Earth in the balance.  I enjoyed my re-read, I enjoyed sharing this with my kids, and I will always remember the trilogy as an important cornerstone that paved the way for so many more to come.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – 11/22/63

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 2011

My love for Stephen King has been well-documented; the guy is a genius.  I enjoy his short stories and novellas most, he simply has a way of plopping us down in the middle of a character’s life and leaving us there to experience whatever bizarre happenings might take place, and it’s brilliant.  And then there are his giant epics, his stories that span years to play out, his books that took years to write, and those are fun too, in their own way.  The Dark Tower series, The Stand, Under the Dome, It, Hearts in Atlantis; some are better than others, but he can write brilliantly in that style too, and 11/22/63 showcases that ability perfectly.

Jake Epping is a teacher who stumbles across, and later literally stumbles down into, a time/space anomaly that will allow him to change the world.  The owner of a local diner, Al, one day appears before Jake’s eyes to have aged years over the course of hours, and Al explains this by claiming the impossible; that he’s been living back in time.  A dimensional doorway in the back of his diner allows the visitor to go back to the 1950s, to do whatever they want for as long as they want, and then to return to the present with only two minutes elapsing.  Sounds cool, maybe even fun, but Al has bigger plans, a mission, that he wants Jake to take over.  He wants Jake to go back in time, save JFK, and alter the future of the entire world.  But it’s not as easy as stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from pulling the trigger, the past doesn’t want to be changed, and, for the sake of the multiverse, should it be?

King pens another masterpiece with 11/22/63, an epic adventure that takes us within a man’s soul as he battles against the current of time to change the world for the better.  Or so he thinks, that’s the idea, but it’s not that easy, and so much is explored here, King goes deep down, which is part of why this book is so great.  Another reason is its simplicity, after you get past the time travel; this is basically a character book, as we get to know Jake, see him fall in love, watch him fight between self-preservation and magnanimity, cheer him on as he closes in on that fateful day and his chance to make a difference.  It’s a trip back in time for readers too, a perfect representation of the era, and a magical retelling of history.  King nails it again, with wonderful writing, solid humor, heart-wrenching moments, and a great overall arc that has so much to say.

My rating:  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Adam of the Road

Category : Book Review

Author: Elizabeth Janet Gray

Year: 1943

For anyone who has ever had an interest in medieval times and culture, especially in England, Adam of the Road is the perfect traveler’s guide as you explore the countryside in your mind and meet the people of the era through Elizabeth Janet Gray’s wonderful words.  It’s like stepping back in time and learning about everything you can touch and taste from a fellow adventurer who happens to have studied it all.  Because, not only does Gray write the tale so pleasantly, but she treats ever chapter as a learning experience for the reader.  I read this book to my children, which was my first time as well, and a more lovely tapestry has seldom been woven, a perfect mix between fiction and fact.

Adam is a minstrel’s son, which means the road is his home, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.  His father, Roger, travels the world with royalty providing them with music, stories, tricks, and entertainment, brightening up their lives when the halls are dark with winter.  He is rewarded quiet handsomely, recently with a horse called Bayard, and Adam is proud to be his son.  Adam has an animal all his own, a spaniel called Nick, who he loves with all his heart.  The foursome, two men and two beasts, travel and perform together, until a bet gone wrong changes things much for a worse.  A villain named Jankin, as sore a winner as he would have been a loser, takes Nick from Adam during the night in an inn on the road, running away like the thief he is.  So Adam and Roger set out to claim what it rightly theirs and to save a friend, beginning a journey both exciting and dangerous.

What a lovely story, and what an entertaining way to learn a thing or two.  I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle Ages; as a kid I had a Medieval Encyclopedia and would pore through it, reading every fact about every king and trying to imagine it all.  With Adam of the Road, you don’t have to imagine anything, Gray plunks you down in the middle of the life of a boy who you wish could be your friend and you travel with him, as he tries to set right what has gone so awfully wrong.  Adam is an exceptional character, one that I’ll remember forever, and I’m glad my kids got to meet him too.  Also, apart from the inherent beauty of the tale and its history, Gray writes in an awful lot of subtle humor, some of which only comes out if you read the book aloud, so gather up the family and tackle this wonderful tale together; you won’t be disappointed.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Lotus Caves

Category : Book Review

Author: John Christopher

Year: 1969

You may know John Christopher’s name in association with the Tripods Trilogy: The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, The Pool of Fire.  It’s a sci-fi series that’s often read to or by kids in middle school who like the challenge of themes, allusions, critical thinking, and moving past the simpler books of grade level.  I was first introduced to it in a gifted classroom around 5th grade, and I will always remember the stories fondly, partly, I’m sure, because of the time period and my age, not solely because the novels are phenomenal.  I don’t, honestly, remember them extremely well, so I’ve borrowed the first from the library and am going to read them to my own children.  But I also grabbed The Lotus Caves, a book Christopher wrote directly after Tripods, and another I remember from school but couldn’t quite conjure its details.  After a revisit, I now remember the simple points the author was attempting to make, and the talent with which he was able to convey them to such a young audience in such a short time.

In the year 2068, humans are living on the Moon in a colony that provides resources down to Earth.  You sign on for a number of years, make a certain amount of money, and then you make the return journey, but your children are raised in a place that they will always remember as home.  All humans live in a dome called the Bubble, a place where nothing is wasted, most things are artificial, and there aren’t many variations or choices.  For Marty, especially when his best friend leaves to return to Earth, these restrictions chaff, and he longs to break a few rules, go out on his own, do something different, anything to break the monotony of life in the Bubble.  When he makes a new friend, Steve, they hatch an idea that will definitely get them into trouble but will sure be fun while it lasts.  They commandeer a land rover, taking it for a spin out on the surface, with the intention of coming right back once they’ve had their fun.  But the rover falls into a hole, which leads to a series of caves underground, and what they find living there goes beyond anything they could have imagined, and might not be willing to let them leave.

The Lotus Caves is definitely a book targeted at younger audiences, I’d say anywhere from 8-12 depending on reading level and comprehension, but it’s still an enjoyable read for adults as well, at least for those who remember Mid-Grade fiction fondly and don’t mind revisiting it sometimes.  The themes are really interesting: growing up, growing old, finding independence, loving something/someone more than yourself, parents, authority, even God.  There’s no lack of conversation embedded in this story, and I’m excited for my daughter to read it so that we can talk about what she thinks it means, since I know the points in novels often change as we ourselves change (look no further than The Giver for an example on that idea).  And as far as purely technical writing goes, Christopher exhibited talent with his followup to the series that will always define him, giving us a really solid piece of literature to share with the younger and remember as we get older.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Firefly Code

Category : Book Review

Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Year: 2016

My daughter read this novel and then recommended it to me, knowing that I love science fiction and also really enjoy dystopia.  This was one of her first real tastes of the genre, at least this large of an in-depth story about a world gone wrong and the questionable choices made to “fix” it.  I think she’s well on her way to being a sci-fi nerd too, and I’m very proud of that, but she definitely needs more experience with this style before completely judging the genre.  The Firefly Code is a good introduction to the concept, but isn’t ultimately very well written.  Standing alone, I can enjoy it for its amateur attempt at making a point, but compared to anything better it quickly falls flat and reveals that it was barely ever standing.

Mori lives in Old Harmonie, a community run by a giant corporation that takes care of its employees while the rest of the world staggers under the weight of disease, famine, and war.  On Firefly Lane, these problems seem worlds away, as they don’t reach past the fences of the utopia that has been built around the research that’s paving the way towards the future.  But when a new kid moves into the neighborhood, the delicate balance is threatened, once Mori and her friends realize that there is something decidedly different about this girl and the way her mind works.  In a bubble of new technology and genetic enhancements, you don’t have to worry about tomorrow, until it hits you with a force you were not prepared for.

I think you would call this level Middle Grade, which is a step down in age from Young Adult.  Maybe Hunger Games is Young Adult while Firefly Code is Middle Grade, I’m not sure, but that sounds about right, and it feels right as well, as this story never reads as adult or even teenager-y as some others.  Perhaps that’s why I didn’t love it; it was never made for me, and I need a little more from my dystopia than this novel had to offer.  Still, it’s the right level for a younger audience, and works as a solid introduction, but I wouldn’t recommend it quickly, nor would I say that it compares in the least to the classics of this genre, like The Giver or The White Mountains.  The writing was very juvenile, which is fine, but it was also amateur, which isn’t, Blakemore’s dialogue coming across as forced and plodding and without talent; maybe she’s a better conceptualizer than a presenter.  Regardless, her book worked, but barely, and it should only be used as a step in the right direction.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆