Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is the second work I've read from Colorado writer Paolo Bacigalupi, and I'm happy to say his intense style and voice are consistent in this work as well. This dystopian, young adult novel is set in the post-oil Gulf Coast region, where Nailer, a boy of indeterminate age, makes his "living" scavenging wrecked and abandoned oil tankers. His abusive, drug addicted father is the only "family" that Nailer has, and even a close brush with death does little to stir any real compassion in this man. Yet when a hurricane tears through the beach settlement Nailer calls home, he  remains loyal to his father and saves his father's life. The hurricane also brings with it a shipwrecked pleasure craft, and with it, the potential for Nailer's life to change for the better.

A story that examines loyalty, family, and the wide gap between the haves and have-nots, Bacigalupi ably demonstrates that he is able to write equally well for both an adult as well as a young adult audience (something not every author is able to do successfully). The characters are very believable, and Nailer's longing for family and desire to remain loyal even when it seems hopeless belie the seemingly tough shell he presents to the world, and make him only more likable and relatable. From Little, Brown & Co. and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Make a difference: shop local & independent!)

Book review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

 Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is her award winning steampunk story of Ezekiel "Zeke" Wilkes, the son of Leviticus Blue, who singlehandedly destroyed 1800s Seattle. Zeke's father invented the "Boneshaker," a large drill engine designed to mine gold from the frozen lands of Alaska. While testing his machine, Blue unleashed a gas on the city, turning those exposed to it into "rotters" (zombies) and causing a major portion of the city to be walled off in order to contain both the gas and the rotters. In an attempt to clear his father's name, Zeke sneaks back into the walled off section of Seattle. Knowing that her son will be facing not only zombies, but criminals and the desperate, Zeke's mother, Briar, goes in to retrieve her son before the unthinkable happens.

This is a very good young adult novel, with the only real flaw being that the dialogue is at times rather stilted; the reunion between Zeke and his mother is particularly difficult and awkward, and I can't help but think perhaps it could have been expressed a bit more smoothly. This is a flaw that can be overlooked in favor of the overall story, however, and it doesn't really diminish from the narrative. A good, entertaining read. I'm looking forward to reading Dreadnought, the second book in her Clockwork Century series.

From Tor Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Want to make a difference? Shop local and buy independent!)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Book review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline's wonderful debut novel, was suggested to me by a friend, and just a few pages into this clever novel, I was hooked. Slightly reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this well-done science fiction novel is set in an entirely too plausible future in which the founder of the ultimate gaming/social networking site dies, leaving the ownership of his creation and his multi-billion dollar fortune to the one who finds his "Easter Egg," hidden somewhere in the world he has created.

Filled with references to 80s pop culture and plenty of nods to all that is geeky, Ready Player One warmed every nostalgic, nerdy bone in my body.

Wade Watts, aka, Parzival, is the protagonist of the story, and one of the first to figure out the first piece of the several puzzles that will move him a step closer to obtaining the vast fortune left by the former owner. (In a bizarre life-imitating-art twist, I happened to be reading this book at the same time Steve Jobs died, and the parallels between Jobs and Halliday, the creator of the virtual world in the book, were a bit uncanny.) Parzival is a likable character, and his insecurities and wry outlook on his life only make him more believable and likable. The antagonist, a faceless corporation personified by executive Nolan Sorrento, is perfectly despicable, and its (his) slick yet threatening persona only adds fuel to the fire.

The narrative flows easily and well, and I found myself eagerly wanting to move the story along, not because I wasn't enjoying it, but because I couldn't wait to see what happened next. This is one of those books where you can't wait to see what happened next, yet every turn of the page brings you agonizingly close to the end.

From Crown Publishers and available from your local, independent bookseller. (Make a difference: shop local; shop independent!)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book review: Jim and the Flims by Rudy Rucker

One of the only real disadvantages of not being independently wealthy is that having to work does cut into one's casual reading time. Then again, it does make savoring that time so much the sweeter.

Jim and the Flims is the latest novel from prolific writer Rudy Rucker. This wonderfully bizarre novel reads like a dream you might have after a night of bad Mexican food, albeit a dream that makes you want to go out and eat that same exact meal again just so you can have that dream again. Jim is an out of work, biotech engineer surfer who doesn't really take the time to ponder the metaphysics or implications of his work until it punches him in the face. While experimenting one night at home, he manages to slice an electron, thus opening a portal into the afterlife but tragically killing his wife in the process. And then things start to get weird.

This quirky and fun yet thought provoking story is wrapped around several philosophical and quantum theoretical concepts yet does not get bogged down in the technical aspects of either. Rucker's characters are both believable and relatable, even for the oddest characters Jim encounters in his travels through the afterworld, and the story is evenly paced and cleverly crafted with a few twists and turns to keep you guessing just as you think you have it figured out. While this novel is my first encounter with Rucker, I know it won't be my last.

Looking for a fun, metaphysical, spiritual science-fiction read? (Yeah, it does actually break that many genre boundaries!) Want an unconventional story that will tug at those back corners of your brain after you've put it down? Pick up Jim and the Flims. You'll be glad you did. 

From Night Shade Books and available at your local, independent bookstore. (Make a difference: shop local and shop independent!)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

 George R. R. Martin has been called "The American Tolkien," and with good reason. His sweeping epic, A Song of Ice and Fire rivals that of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, yet Martin's fantasy does not easily fall within the accepted norms of fantasy literature. The first book in this series, A Game of Thrones, reads more like historical fantastic fiction than a stereotypical fantasy novel. Gone are wizards, elves, and orcs, and in their place is a story of political intrigue that writhes in a mix of heartbreaking agony coupled with storytelling ecstasy.

What sets this story apart from many in its genre is the scent of realism that pervades every chapter. The noble House of Stark that is at the center of the tale is at once noble yet deeply flawed. The Lannister family that most strongly opposes them is wonderfully wicked, yet itself possesses its own nobility. The story is further populated by families and individuals each with their own agenda, and whose side each of these ends up on is mercurial and apt to change by the time the next page is turned.

This book is definitely not for younger readers. This dense and highly complex tale is rife with situations that place it well beyond what might be considered appropriate for the younger set, yet within the context of the story, none of the incidents are out of place. This chronicle has a gritty realism that helps it to resonate with a "historical accuracy" of sorts in regards to what would be considered "acceptable" for the medieval period, especially when it comes to the behaviors and attitudes of the men and their society towards women. The book has had various accusations of misogyny leveled at it and for good reason: many of the men within this story have a long way to go in regards to the respectful treatment of women within their society, yet two of the most noble and admirable characters in the book (if not the only truly noble and admirable characters in the story) are female.

This is the kind of story where the grit gets stuck in your teeth...and you like it. Corpses reek of death; prison cells stink of urine, sweat and more; the same man is capable of the noblest of heroic acts and the most craven and depraved of behaviors, and it is this struggle within themselves that defines who they are.

What appear to be rather disparate threads are woven together as the story progresses, yet Martin leaves enough loose threads to lead the reader towards the second installment, A Clash of Kings.  The suspense within the story seemingly resides on the struggle of various factions against one another, yet a threat  from beyond the man-made ice wall in the north looms in the background, silent and sure; meanwhile, an unexpected twist in the fortunes of the men and in what they know, or think they know, of their world, offers yet more moves in this chronicle that often feels like a chess game played by the gods in which all of the men are pawns.

From Bantam Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Shop local and makes a difference!)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Nerds' Big Day Out (aka Book-a-palooza)

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of shopping (and eating) from local, independent businesses as much as I can, with local restaurants, coffee shops, and independent bookstores being my favorite places to go. I'm fond of telling others that locally owned, independent businesses are like snowflakes: no two are ever really alike. To prove my point and just for the fun of it, I recently decided to embark on a summer "field trip" and explore the bookstores of Denver. I was quite surprised to find out how many there actually are in the Denver area, so decided to make a day of it with breakfast and lunch included.

A quick search online found 14 bookstores that met my criteria of being locally owned and operated in Denver. I was definitely going to need a whole day for this one.

On the appointed day, a friend of mine and I went to Snooze on Colorado Boulevard in Denver. I like Snooze for a lot of reasons, among them that they use locally sourced ingredients as much as possible, which is really important to me, and their food is downright tasty. (Review to be posted on my food blog soon.)

Taking a look at our map showed us that our first stop, The Bookery Nook, was about 10 miles from where we were. Hm. That 20 mile drive would be pretty significant considering we would have 13 others to hit before 6:00 p.m. (when several of the stores closed). We decided to wait and see how we felt at the end of the day before heading over there. The fact that they serve locally made ice cream resulted in huge bonus points in their favor, and no, 10:30 in the morning is not too early for ice cream, thank you very much. (ha ha!)

Off to The Tattered Cover in Lower Denver (aka LoDo). Even though I had to pay for parking (a hangup of mine),  I sucked it up, paid my parking fee and in we went. The LoDo Tattered Cover is in a historic building, where it takes up two huge floors of both new and used books. Complete with a small cafe that serves excellent coffee, tasty pastries, sandwiches and salads, and other treats, The Tattered Cover in LoDo frequently plays host to booksignings by authors of all sorts. The store's creaking floorboards and warm wood interior add to the atmosphere of the place, which is filled with various nooks where you'll find bibliophiles of all sorts perusing the racks or sitting in one of the many comfortable chairs, reading some new or soon to be new acquisition.

Bookstore stop #2 was Fahrenheit's Books on South Broadway. This small but very well stocked used bookshop lacks the bells and whistles and coffee of Tattered Cover, but its inventory and very reasonable prices more than make up for it. This was my second trip to Fahrenheit's, and it was just as enjoyable and productive as the first. I spent a fair bit of time making some very difficult choices before finally deciding what to buy.

Broadway Book Mall was next on the list. This dog-friendly, funky shop is part of a co-op of several booksellers in one store. Selling both new and used books, Broadway Book Mall also is stocked with quite a large number of signed and first edition books. Broadway Book Mall plays host to a significant number of book signing events as well as hosting monthly meetings of the Denver Science Fiction Association.

As an added huge, HUGE and unexpected bonus, local author Mario Acevedo stopped into the store.  Once I got over my shock (in a good way), I told him that I had his first book at home, and as I pulled a copy of what would soon be my second copy of The Nymphos of Rocky Flats off the shelves, I asked him if he'd sign it if I bought it right there and then. He graciously said that he would, so that became one automatic purchase right there and then, as did my Spanish version of Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand. While I don't speak Spanish, I do want to become fluent and literate in it, and so I have begun tracking down the Spanish version of specific novels.

After a bit more time chatting with the owners, we made our purchases, and headed up Broadway to the Denver Book Fair. Denver Book Fair is deceptive in the appearance of its size. It's a store with an impressive depth of size, and it is separated into several rooms of varying size. If you are looking for paperbacks or vintage magazines, this is the place for you. Stacked floor to ceiling with books, it's incredibly easy to get lost in the maze of paperback books...and that's not a bad thing at all.

Mutiny Now (no website, so no link, sorry) was stop number five. I walked in to hear the strains of A-Ha's "Take On Me" playing and realized this was the first bookstore I'd been to that day that had music playing. Hits of the 80s entertained us while we browsed the shelves of this bookstore and art gallery.  The whole store has a very laid back vibe to it, and the owner was certainly part of that. This was also one of the most spacious stores so far with a fair bit of room and space that didn't make it feel quite so claustrophobic as some bookstores can do (note: I don't view being crowded in by books to be a bad thing at all, but neither is having a little space between shelves).

After leaving Mutiny Now, we walked back to the car, hopped in and headed south down Broadway to Gallagher Books. (I had at one point considered doing this by bicycle, but after realizing the mileage needed to cover all of the stores I wanted to go to combined with the heat of a Colorado summer day, decided it just wasn't practical...and probably would have been downright stupid.) Gallagher Books has the look and feel of an old style library (one of my favorite places since I was a child). Aptly located in Denver's Antique Row district, Gallagher Books specializes in antique and rare books.

Just a couple of doors down from Gallagher Books is the Printed Page Bookshop. This store, housed in, well...a house built in 1892...has its own in store mystery for customers to attempt to solve in hopes of winning a gift certificate from the store. Browsing the shelves of this antiquarian delight exposes the customer to a wide range of out-of-print and rare books, some of which were in glass cases (an extremely rare and out of print version of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 had me drooling, but the $500 price tag kept it well out of reach, at least for this lifetime). Similar to Gallagher Books, Printed Page offers slices of literary history for the serious collector.

Lunch was next on our agenda, and while on our way to our next bookstore, we found The Crushery, home of not only excellent panini and bagel sandwiches, but also of -321 Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream. Yes, you read that correctly: liquid nitrogen ice cream. Customers place their orders for custom, freshly made ice cream after choosing from a list of options, then watch as the wizards behind the counter work their frosty magic utilizing liquid nitrogen to flash freeze the ingredients into the smoothest, creamiest, tastiest ice cream I've ever had. Ever. I created a chocolate cinnamon with sea salt ice cream that I just about fell out of my chair after the first bite, it was that good. (A full review of The Crushery will appear on my food blog soon.)

The next bookstore stop on the list made me sad, and not because it was a bad bookstore; it was just the opposite as a matter of fact. Murder By The Book is a beautiful store and well stocked with mysteries from nearly every author you can think of, but unfortunately it is going out of business on July 29. It is precisely this issue that I hope to address next year with a project I'm working on (more on that much later), but it causes me almost physical pain when a bookstore closes, double that when it is a wonderful, quirky, locally owned, independent bookstore. The towns in which I spent my childhood are bereft of bookstores; the closest one is approximately 60 miles away; a bookstore is far too important and precious a resource for a community to lose even one, no matter how many exist in that area. The loss of Murder By The Book is truly a crime indeed (pun intended, but not really meant to be funny in this tragic situation). If nothing else, if you are in the Denver area, stop by and thank them for their efforts in combating illiteracy for as long as they did.

 The Bookies was our ninth (!) bookstore for the day. The Bookies specializes in children's literature (including juvenile and young adult literature) as well as resources for educators (which gives them some serious points from me personally right there...ha!). They do stock books for anyone and everyone, however, so there's no excuse for not visiting this store. The staff was friendly and eager to help, and I was led directly to both of the books I asked about without even a moment's hesitation. Rather appropriately, the store has a feel of a constant buzz of energy about it, much like a classroom where learning and education are valued and appreciated. Unfortunately, we weren't able to spend quite as long here as we would have liked since it was getting close to 5:00 p.m. at this point (breakfast was at 9:00 a.m., we headed to the stores around 10:00), and our next destination closed at 5:30. We had to hustle.

Shortly after 5:00, we arrived at The Hermitage, another store specializing in a variety of specialty books, including first and signed editions. Located in the Cherry Creek shopping district, this beautiful store is one of the most elegant stores I've been in. The owner, Robert Topp, captured a special place in this educator's heart when he told me about his other project, Read Me A Story, Ink: a collection of printable stories, lists of book recommendations and the like for teachers, parents, and students with the focus on reading these stories aloud to young people.

Shortly after leaving The Hermitage, we realized we weren't going to make it: we still had four stores on our list, and three of them closed at 6:00 (including The Bookery Nook, which we had planned on perhaps hitting at the end of our day). We also had all but reached our saturation point for the day, and so we decided to save The Bookery Nook, Capitol Hill Books, and Park Hill Community Bookstore (no website) for another day. Instead, our day would end as it began: with The Tattered Cover (though the one on Colfax, this time).

And so our 11th and final stop for the day was The Tattered Cover on Colfax. Even though it shares a name with the LoDo location on 16th Avenue and the store in Highlands Ranch, this store is as different from the others as if it were a completely distinct and separate store. This branch is located in a historic theater that was preserved, restored, and remodeled to house the bookstore. This store also houses a coffee shop, albeit a smaller version of the LoDo store. The other plus of this store vs. the 16th Street location is the free parking garage next door, so that makes me particularly happy. Also containing two stories (well, two and a half, depending on your point of view) of books, this branch of the Tattered Cover is able to please just as much as the first.

After making our final purchases for the day, we opted to go home and recover rather than stop anywhere. We were happy yet exhausted. We had visited 11 bookstores in one day, each one unique and possessing a completely different feel and personality of its own. And therein lies the strength of the locally owned, independent store. Each of these stores reflected not only who the owner is, but also who the neighborhood is and who the larger community is. The major chain bookstores lack this in abundance. A Barnes and Noble one place is a Barnes and Noble anywhere else. Amazon isn't anything but a website. While both of these can offer discounts on books and other merchandise, and McDonald's, Burger King, and the like can offer cheap food, there is something that none of these can offer: a glimpse into the soul of a city.  The restaurants and bookstores we visited gave us a glimpse into Denver like we'd never really seen before. Yes, you can and may pay more for a book or a meal or whatever by shopping locally and making purchases from smaller, independent places, but aside from the simple economic fact that more of your money stays in your community by shopping locally, there is nothing that can replace a conversation with someone who actually cares about their business because they own it and have a stake in not only their business, but in their community as well.

I've long believed in shopping locally and buying from independent businesses first whenever possible. This only confirmed it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

Quite simply, this is one of the best books I've read this summer. No, let me amend that: this is one of the best books I've read, period. With The Map of Time, Felix J. Palma has created a world that allows the reader to wallow in its luxuriousness while simultaneously voraciously devouring this suspenseful story.

Palma's meta-fictional story places H.G. Wells at the center of a tale rife with twists and turns that occur at the exact time you think you have things figured out. Told in three interconnected parts, Wells finds himself a participant in a drama in which the very existence of several classic novels depends on his actions.

While this tome weighs in at a hefty 600+ pages, the story flows so well that it flies by and is over before you know it. Originally a Spanish novel, The Map of Time marks Palma's U.S. debut as a a master storyteller. The story itself moves effortlessly, and the first two parts come together seamlessly in part three. Palma blends fictional and non-fictional characters and events in a rich, multi-dimensional tapestry that will be continued with the much hoped for and eagerly awaited translations of his second and third novels in this trilogy.

Published in the United States by Atria Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Shop local and shop independent: it makes a difference!)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review: The President's Vampire

Nathaniel Cade is back.

Let's face it, with Twilight and its related ilk, vampires were denigrated to brooding, emasculated visions of adolescent girls' dreams. In Blood Oath, Christopher Farnsworth reversed that trend; in The President's Vampire, he takes it a step further.

Cade and his human handler, Zach Barrows, come up against an evil that Cade first confronted in Innsmouth, Massachusetts in 1928 (yes, that Innsmouth, Massachusetts in 1928), only since that time, it has mutated into something he had never seen. The trust and betrayals are more intimate, more personal this time, as is the horror.

Farnsworth has definitely come into his stride with The President's Vampire. As with Blood Oath, many of the chapters begin with excerpts from various sources; some fictional, others real; that give you glimpses into Cade and who he is. Additionally, the use of flashback chapters provide a depth to both the character and the narrative without detracting from the story or its overall flow. The dynamic between Barrows and Cade is filled with tension and a growing respect as the two continue to work with and begin to trust one another.

Part suspense/spy novel, part horror, it is to Farnsworth's credit that he does not rely on violence, blood, and gore to tell the story or to shock the reader. Cade's vampirism definitely augments what he does, but in a very Miltonian twist, just as you grow comfortable with him as a character, and perhaps even begin to like and sympathize with him, Cade does or says something that reminds you exactly what he really is: a predator that only barely resembles a human being:

"And what would you do with them? Terrorists. Traitors. Murderers. How would you handle them?"
Cade showed his teeth.
"I would kill them all," Cade said, his voice flat. "I would burn their cities until the desert fused to glass. I would tear the wombs from their mothers. I would poison their babies and dismember their children. And then I would drown the men in the blood of their families."
Graves stared back at him for a moment.
"But then, I'm not human," Cade said. "I don't need an excuse to act like a monster." (p. 81)

The supporting cast of this series, notably Zach Barrows and a female vampire named Tania, are also developing into intriguing characters in their own right. Barrows is becoming more comfortable in his role and establishing a certain and definite confidence in his work and with his partner. Tania provides an interesting foil to Cade, even as both of them struggle with the remaining vestiges of their humanity.

The story itself is fast-paced and filled with enough tension to keep one reading late into the night, yet Farnsworth masterfully counterbalances it at just at the right moments as to not exhaust the reader. In addition, Farnsworth has capitalized on the technology available in the 21st century with a website that further enhances and deepens his fictional world. (As far as I've seen, only Frank Beddor, author of The Looking Glass Wars series has capitalized on this concept as well.)

As a general observation, this series started off well and continues to develop strongly. I'm looking forward to book #3.

From G.P. Putnam's Sons (a division of Penguin Group Publishing) and available at your local, independent bookstore. (Shop local and makes a difference!!)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

There seems to be a plethora of Holocaust stories out there: some fictional, some non-fictional; The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is one of the former, and it stands out and above most of them.

The story focuses on Bruno, a nine year old boy whose father is the commandant of a concentration camp in World War II Poland. Bruno has been uprooted from his rather posh Berlin home, and at first feels a grave injustice has been done to him as he adjusts to life in his new home. Resentment turns to boredom and then to curiosity as Bruno begins to explore the grounds around his house. While walking near the fence that separates the grounds of his home from the camp, he finds and befriends Shmuel, a young Jewish boy and prisoner in the camp.

Bruno is an intelligent, inquisitive boy though he has no understanding of what occurs on the other side of the fence. His relationship with Shmuel is genuine, touching, and honest; and even though Shmuel bears witness to the horrific events of the camp, his inability or unwillingness to share these terrors with Bruno help to maintain and develop an childlike innocence to their friendship.

The book is written with a simple, straightforward style as if it were a children's story, though the story itself wouldn't be appropriate for very young children. Bruno's voice rings true throughout the book and lends itself well to the poignancy of this story. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a powerful, haunting story of innocence, friendship, and horror. From Dave Fickling Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Shop local and makes a difference!)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book by Colorado author Paolo Bacigalupi was recommended to me by one of the staff members at the Boulder Bookstore, and I'm intensely glad he told me about. The Windup Girl is one of the best science fiction stories I've read in years; in fact, I'd say it's the best science fiction story to come out in the last five to ten years.

Oil is a thing of the past and the genetic engineering companies have won. Set in Southeast Asia in the not-very-distant future, calories are the new fuel and corporate espionage is linked to finding and creating variant strains of food, animals, and even people. Bacigalupi expertly weaves seemingly disparate threads into a rich tapestry that crackles with a tension and electricity that surfaces with whip-crack intensity before its end.

Emiko is one of the New People, a genetically engineered creature designed and intended to serve and pleasure "real" humans at a whim. Anderson Lake is a "calorie man," an employee of one of the major genetic engineering corporations with machinations and plans that will bring him out of the spring factory he currently runs and into the upper echelons of his employer. Emiko finds herself drawn into Lake's world and at the center of warring political factions in Thai society that threaten to rip apart the Thai Kingdom forever. Racism, abuse, corruption, loyalty, and the question of what defines humanity all play central roles in this tale that echoes the tone of some of the best works in science fiction, including William Gibson's Neuromancer and Frank Herbert's Dune with elements of Blade Runner tossed in for good measure.

Bacigalupi's writing and vision possess a potency that has been lacking in science fiction of late. The Windup Girl is a story that pulls you in from the start and completely envelops the reader in its world until the last word on the last page. From Night Shade Books and available from your local, independent bookseller (shop local, shop makes a difference!)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Review: Devil's Plaything by Matt Richtel

Before I go any further, let me warn you: when you start reading this book, make sure you've got a lot of time. Author and journalist Matt Richtel has masterfully crafted a tale that will be very, very difficult to put down once you start reading it.

Devil's Plaything features the return of journalist/blogger Nathaniel Idle (introduced in Richtel's earlier work, Hooked) and his grandmother, Lane, who is suffering from dementia. Lane is a participant in the "Human Memory Crusade," a project designed to preserve the memories and stories of an aging generation for the future by recording them into computers. However, Idle soon discovers this project isn't quite as innocent as it appears and that is grandmother is right in the center of a national security project with far reaching ramifications.

As the story develops, the twists and turns will keep the reader turning the pages late into the night (don't say I didn't warn you) as Richtel demonstrates his keen sense for knowing exactly when to end a chapter well enough to propel you into the next one. The opportunity to put the book down and not obsess about what will happen next only occurs two, maybe three, times in the entire novel..

At first, technology seems to be the center stage of this novel, and its premise seems a little too hauntingly plausible in light of the constant access to technology today, coupled with the steady rise in the occurrence of Alzheimer's throughout the country (as discussed in here in this article and in this one), and the science in this novel is solidly researched and presented.

However, much of the story focuses on the relationship between Idle and his grandmother, a woman who is endearing and possesses a wicked insight and while at first it may seem easy to dismiss many of her apparent ramblings as an effect of the disease, all too soon it becomes apparent that she has seen and knows far more than she should. Before the end of the novel, Idle has made a successful and necessary realization that modern technology cannot and should not replace what is truly important in each of our lives: real human interaction.

From HarperCollins Publishers and available from your local, independent bookseller. (Shop local and makes a difference!)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Review: Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Based on the real life case of George Edalji, Julian Barnes' Arthur & George explores the lives and relationship between these two men. With the tone and feel of a Sherlock Holmes' story, Barnes crafts a tale fascinates from the start. The story starts as the two boys grow into adulthood, each following their separate paths and separate lives; aside from when George reads The Hound of the Baskervilles, the reader is left to wonder what it is these men have in common and how their paths will intersect.

The story focuses primarily on the misfortunes of George when he is accused and found guilty of a crime he did not commit. The tacit racism prevalent in English society at the time conflicts with George's naive view of the world, which makes his plight both heartbreaking and maddening. Doyle's interest in the case proves to have ramifications beyond this particular situation, even though it is never resolved to the satisfaction of Doyle, Edalji, or the reader.

Barnes' probing of the psyches and thoughts of these two men makes for a rich and satisfying piece of historical fiction, and the narrative itself will keep you thinking long after the cover is closed. From Vintage International Books and available from your local, independent bookseller. (Shop local, shop makes a difference!)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Review: Go the F--k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach; illustrated by Ricardo Cortes

Finally, the perfect, must-have Father's Day gift: a definitely-not-for-children children's book. This wholly irreverent and fantastically funny book expresses those thoughts that every parent has had while trying to put a recalcitrant child to sleep (regardless of whether said parent wants to admit it or not).

Accompanied by lush and beautiful illustrations by Ricardo Cortes, this book has the look and feel of a traditional children's book, and the text follows the traditional rhythms of some of the best children's books written. But that is where the similarities stop. Mansbach captures perfectly the exasperation felt by parents everywhere when no matter how many stories, no matter what techniques tried, the child(ren) will simply not go to sleep.

Not for the easily offended, this book is destined to be a classic for parents, grandparents...for anyone who has ever had the experience of trying to put a child to bed and have them actually stay there. From Akashic Books and available from your local, independent bookstore.

NOTE: For a limited time, Audible, Inc. has the audiobook version of this fantastic book read by none other than Samuel L. Jackson available for free download here. Listening to it while reading it only adds to the enjoyment of the book, as Jackson's narration is absolutely 100% spot on and is an experience not to be missed. (Even though the audiobook is free, the illustrations alone make the book worth owning both.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Heist Society by Ally Carter

This is yet another book that I'm previewing for my students for the fall. I tend to not be anywhere near as familiar with books that appeal to female readers beyond Twilight which most of them have read (and I know just enough about to want to avoid reading it), so I have opted to branch out and see what else is out there. This is one I'm glad I took the time to read.

Heist Society is the story of Katarina Bishop, a member of a family with a rather long history of being professional thieves. When the story opens, Kat (as she goes by throughout the book) is attempting to leave her criminal life behind by attending a prestigious private school in the United States. Shortly after her arrival, Kat finds herself accused of a prank involving a fountain and the headmasters 1958 Porsche Speedster. The evidence against her causes her to be expelled from the school, only to find out that she was set up by her cousin and a friend of the family in order to enlist her aid in recovering a mobster's priceless art collection which was stolen and her father is the prime (only) suspect.

Katarina Bishop is a strong, believable female protagonist. Kat is trying desperately to leave her old live behind, but finds that doing so is far more difficult than she thought, particularly when it involves her family. Just enough tension exists between she and Hale, her male co-conspirator, to keep their relationship interesting without falling into the stereotypical teen romance, and the story possesses an effective pacing free from distractions or digressions. Heist Society is filled with just enough humor and suspense to propel the reader well into the next chapter and beyond.

From Disney-Hyperion Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Make a difference: shop local and shop independent!)

NOTE: Ally Carter (who is also the author of the Gallagher Girls spy series) will be appearing at the Boulder Bookstore on Sunday, June 26th at 2:00 discuss her new book in the Heist Society series: Uncommon Criminals.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

This summer I've decided to get caught up on my young adult literature as a means to make recommendations to my students next year and to see what I might be able to use in class. I came across this book at my local bookstore, but since I was short on cash, decided to borrow it from my library before making the investment. I'm actually glad I saved the money.

The premise of Divergent is a good one, however, its execution was, well...rather lacking. The book is set in Chicago sometime in the future. Society has been restructured and upon their 16th birthday, people are grouped into five factions based on an aptitude test that is meant to display whether their primary characteristics are honesty, bravery, selflessness, peacefulness, or intelligence. A few individuals display multiple tendencies, thus making them "Divergent," which is seen as a threat to the society. On her 16th birthday, the protagonist, Beatrice ("Tris") Prior is found to be Divergent, but hides it and joins the faction that dedicates itself to bravery.

The story itself is fast paced and flows well, but I repeatedly found myself thinking "Oh, I've read this scene before; it's in Hunger Games" (Suzanne Collins' very good trilogy).

And that's where it all falls apart. There are far too many similarities to Collins' work, and it ended up pulling me out of the novel more than once. While I don't mind works that are somewhat similar to one another, when the similarities are so close to make the second novel seem derivative, that's where I begin to take issue. Like Collins, the protagonist of Divergent is a 16 year old girl who becomes an enemy of the state after becoming something of an expert in armed (and unarmed) combat after previously leading a relatively obscure home life. In both novels, the female protagonist has to rescue the boy she has come to care about (a bit of a reversal on the "damsel in distress" theme). However, Collins pulls it off better and more believably whereas Roth's male character/love interest falls under the sway of the established order with a simple injection, and his too soon rescue is a bit of a letdown.

Another issue I had with the novel is that Roth incorporates religion into the novel, but too little, too late. Aside from a passing reference to her family saying grace before meals and a poster on the wall of her instructor/boyfriend, God does not enter into the picture until page 438 (the novel is only 487 pages long), yet Roth seems to want her character to have some deep and meaningful connection established. To illustrate: Tris and Tobias (her male counterpart) have been captured. Tobias has been given the injection and, now under control of the antagonist, is led away to become a part of the conspiracy to overthrow the established order. Tris, who has been shot, is placed in a glass tank that will fill with water as part of her execution (why is it no one ever chooses to just shoot their enemies and get it over with??), which references an earlier incident in which she was involved in an identical, chemically-induced, mental simulation meant to trigger fear:

"I breathe in. The water will wash my wounds clean. I breathe out. My mother submerged me in water when I was a baby, to give me to God. It has been a long time since I thought about God, but I think about him now. It is only natural. I am glad, suddenly, that I shot Eric in the foot instead of the head." (p. 438)

This particular passage jolted me right out of the story. The blatancy of the symbolism was a cold splash of water directly to the face. And why wait so long to introduce God and Tris' spirituality? Considering all that she has been through before, including this exact scenario, why would she think of God now? (Not to mention the editing error of not capitalizing "Him" as is accepted.)

Divergent showed great promise, but unfortunately, it is a promise unfulfilled. This is not to say that Divergent is a terrible novel. It isn't. There were plenty of times I found myself drawn into the story and enjoying it. In fact, fans of the Hunger Games trilogy may enjoy this since the two stories are so much alike.

Unfortunately, it was far too derivative for my taste. I can deal with stories that are similar to one another; I dislike stories that are simply mimetic. As was the case with Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara, which I read shortly after reading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. To this day, I have no interest in reading further in the Shannara series, and I'm not sure I see myself finishing this one either.

From Katherine Tegen Books (a division of HarperCollins Publishers) and available at your local, independent bookstore. (Shop independent and shop makes a difference!)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Book review: Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth

In my previous entry, I commented on meeting Christopher Farnsworth at a book signing for his newest book, The President's Vampire. At the time, I was only part of the way through his first book, Blood Oath.

Farnsworth's vampires are thankfully sparkle-free, and the research on sociopaths that he did before writing this book shows. Nathaniel Cade is a consummate predator, albeit one bound to the service of the President. Born from the premise of "What would the President do with his own vampire? What wouldn't the President do with his own vampire??," Cade is the ultimate Secret Service agent, bound to protect the President and the country from all supernatural, nonhuman enemies, both foreign and domestic. Both cold and intense, Cade is an antihero who knows that he is beyond redemption yet possesses a dedication to his service that goes beyond the bond that has been placed on him.

Farnsworth's writing is fast-paced and reads like a well-written political action drama that on more than one occasion kept me reading well beyond when I intended to stop, thinking "well, I'll just finish this chapter, then I'll go to bed." Farnsworth's antagonists prove to be a source for much rich conflict well beyond the pages of this novel, and Konrad in particular chills and repulses with a veneer of oily slime that makes you feel like you need a shower after each chapter.

The conclusion is satisfying yet leaves enough loose ends to lead well into the next novel and beyond, and while it does resolve the story, it gives the reader just enough frustration to eagerly reach for the next book.

From G.P. Putnam's Sons (a division of Penguin) and available at your local, independent bookstore.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

So why a book blog?

After a great deal of deliberation and thought, I finally decided to start a blog specifically about books. I've got one about teaching and life in general, one about food, and finally figured with all of the reading I do, I should do one about books. But this one is going to be about more than books; rather than just write reviews, I'm going to include my views on bookstores, author short, anything that comes to mind about books in general.

So where to start? Well, that's easy, actually, especially since I attended an author event at The Tattered Cover in Denver. Once again, I find my opinions about supporting local, independent bookstores reinforced. Last night, I had the definite pleasure of meeting Christopher Farnsworth, author of The President's Vampire series. He was engaging, interesting and entertaining, and the hour flew by as he read from his newest book and discussed his inspiration for the series, who he thought would fit various roles in the upcoming Blood Oath movie, and shared his favorite conspiracy theory with the audience. I've often enjoyed hearing authors speak, and Farnsworth was no exception. I'm currently reading last year's Blood Oath, and am looking forward to sinking my teeth into his second and newest book, The President's Vampire (pun fully intended). While I'm still reading Blood Oath and I'm not ready to post my commentary/review of it, I can say that it's really nice to read a contemporary vampire novel in which the protagonist neither sparkles nor mopes. While researching for his novel, Farnsworth read about psychopaths/sociopaths, and it shows in the predatory nature of Nathaniel Cade, the President's vampire. More about that later.

The ability to meet and talk with authors is something that I have yet to see the national chains offer, at least on a regular basis; quite frankly, I'm fine with that. I like going to the independent stores; in fact, I prefer local stores to chains. Local bookstores are like being at home; the chains are like staying in a hotel.

After getting my copy of The President's Vampire signed, I headed upstairs to peruse the shelves to see what else was in the store. I wandered around the various sections, eventually finding the bargain books and used book section. It was there I found my latest happy little treasures to add to my collection. My eyes first hit on The Tales of Beedle the Bard. I have a copy of this book at home, so was intrigued by the different cover I was looking at. I picked it up and looked at the back then smiled. I was holding in my hands the U.K. version of the same book, as evidenced by the original price listed in Sterling Pounds instead of dollars. I definitely wanted this for my collection. Further browsing in the used/bargain section revealed a first edition, U.K. version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which also made its way home and onto my bookshelf for a very inexpensive price. Chances of finding either of these in a chain bookstore? Not so much. Chances of me being  super excited about finding these little treasures? 100%.