Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book review: Horns by Joe Hill

I first heard of Horns when I saw a publicity photo for the upcoming movie starring Daniel Radcliffe. The photo and the premise were both just intriguing enough that I went to my local library and picked it up. It will soon be added to my personal collection; I absolutely will be going back and reading and re-reading this one again.

Ignatius Perrish has a problem. And no, it's not his name. Rather his problem are the horns that have sprouted out of his head after a rather nasty drunken binge, and he has no idea why they are there.

Accused of the brutal rape and murder of his fiance, Ig Perrish has become a pariah. Shunned by nearly everyone he knows, including his family. The shadow of her murder hangs over him, regardless of the lack of evidence to prove or disprove his guilt. When he awakes with horns growing out of his head, Ig discovers that there is an unusual side effect to them, one that may help him solve the crime and give the devil his due.

The son of novelist Stephen King, Hill's writing is reflective of the days when his father was a writer who took his time to craft a clever tale that would draw you in and not let you go rather than the grisly hack he has of late become. Ig Perrish is a likable, tormented character; one with whom the reader can easily empathize while holding Ig at arm's length for what he does to those around him in his search for vengeance. Interlaced with a wry humor that gets injected throughout the narrative, the true horror of the story is quite Miltonian and comes when the reader finds him or herself sympathizing with Ig and cheering for him even when Ig reaches into some rather dark places of his own psyche and abilities in order to achieve his aims. Hill may or may not have been consciously paying homage to Paradise Lost when he wrote this novel, yet it is easy to see where the classic tale may have influenced this contemporary tale.

From the author of Heart Shaped Box (on my Read This Soon list), Horns is expertly paced and masterfully written. Be sure to read it before the movie comes out. From William Morrow and available from your local, independent bookseller. (Remember: you can make a big difference by shopping small business!)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Review: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

There's a reason Paolo Bacigalupi has won every science fiction award possible, some of them more than once. His crisp, articulate writing draws you in and holds you fast, only releasing you after the final word on the final page. The Drowned Cities, his companion novel to Printz award winning Ship Breaker provides yet one more example of why he belongs in such company as William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein. Drawing from current socio-political trends and events, Bacigalupi weaves a tale that is as bittersweet and tragic as it is gripping and intense.

Mahlia and Mouse are two youths caught in the armed conflict raging through what was once the mid-Atlantic and southern United States. The United States has long since crumbled, crushed under its own weight and now a third world country resembling modern Somalia: ruled by warlords and battling factions, each claiming to more patriotic than the other, and China has become the dominant world power. After attempts to bring peace to the troubled region fail, the Chinese peacekeeping forces leave, abandoning the people of the once mighty nation to its fate. Also abandoned is Mahlia, a half Chinese "castoff," reminiscent of the children left behind by soldiers at the end of the Vietnam War. Mahlia and her best friend, a young boy named Mouse, encounter bio-engineered super soldier Tool, and before long they begin to plan their way out of the region of the Drowned Cities. However, before they can enact their plan, tragedy strikes and the two become separated. Continuing with the theme of family and loyalty encountered in Ship Breaker, the choice presents itself: rescue a friend despite seemingly impossible odds, or flee to a region of safety, security and peace.

Not a word is wasted by Bacigalupi as he propels the reader endlessly forward through this magnificent story towards its end that is both heart-rending and full of hope. From Little, Brown Books and available at your local, independent bookstore. (Want to make a genuine difference? Shop and buy from your local, independent businesses!)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

For the most part, I tend give blurbs on book jackets only a cursory glance, but when I saw that Neil Gaiman's blurb at the top of Cory Doctorow's young adult techno-thriller, Little Brother, I paused. I have long professed my fanboy status of Gaiman's work, going back to his days on Sandman, and my respect for him and his work nudged me towards picking up this particular novel. I'm incredibly glad I did. (Good call, Mr. Gaiman!)

Marcus (known online as w1n5t0n) is a seventeen year old living in San Francisco post 9/11. When an attack on his city forces everyone into shelters, Marcus and his friends are caught above ground and held by the Department of Homeland Security. After lengthy interrogation using "enhanced" techniques, Marcus is released only to find that San Francisco has been turned into a police state reflective of Orwell's 1984. Shocked and horrified at the changes wrought in his city, Marcus realizes that he has virtually nowhere to turn; that no one would believe his story and the chances of holding those responsible for his captivity and torture are nil. With the help of a strong but silent underground movement, Marcus decides there is only one course of action: take down the DHS, by himself if he has to.

Written with an intensity that crackles and moves you forward at almost a breakneck speed, Little Brother should give any reader pause to consider our post-9/11 world and what we have given up in the name of "freedom" and "safety." More frightening still is that Doctorow's novel serves as a grim prediction of an all-too-likely scenario, the shadows of which can be seen in the world today. Highly recommended for...well...everyone.

From Tor Books and available from your local, independent bookseller. (Make a difference in your community: shop and buy from local, independent retailers!)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Seth Grahame-Smith)

My first thought when I originally saw this on the bookstore shelves back after its original release in 2010 was "Really?? That's pretty funny; I'll have to read that someday." I read Seth Grahame-Smith's well-done parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with my English class and enjoyed it. My respect for Grahame-Smith as a writer grew after seeing how closely he mirrored Austen's voice, cadence, and overall writing style, so I began to consider reading Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a bit sooner. Then I saw the trailer for the Tim Burton produced movie and decided that I had to read the book before seeing the movie, and I'm glad I did.

The tale picks up early in Lincoln's youth, giving a brief but important background of Lincoln's parents, especially his father, and introducing the young Abraham's motivation to hunt and kill vampires after a poignant family tragedy deeply affects him. He later goes on to learn how to survive his own hunts after nearly dying his first true time out. The story goes on to trace Lincoln from general store employee all the way up to his presidency and assassination, with a generous scattering of blood and violence throughout, though in his later years as President, the blood and violence comes from the Civil War.

This book is a fairly fast and fun read. Grahame-Smith has obviously done his research on Lincoln and his life as well as Lincoln's writing style, presenting the story as a biography of Lincoln's life, albeit a biography of Lincoln's "secret, other life" as a vampire hunter. The excerpts from Lincoln's "secret journal" mirror Lincoln's own writing style masterfully, and the tale is a wonderful balance of history, horror and humor. Scattered throughout the book are various illustrations and photographs, with the successful intent to lend an air of verisimilitude to the story (as well as having the effect of being able to plant the tongue a little more firmly into the cheek).

Overall, the book presents a little something for a variety of fans: historical fiction, horror, parody, or alternative history/biography, and Grahame-Smith weaves them all into an entertaining and wonderfully coherent, witty, fast-paced, and at times horrifying, whole. From Grand Central Publishing and available at your local, independent bookstore. (Buy from locally owned, independent retailers...it makes more a difference than you think!)

NOTE: The trailer below is for the book, not the movie!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: Red, White and Blood by Christopher Farnsworth

Red, White and Blood is the eagerly awaited third installment of Christopher Farnsworth's intense and fast-paced President's Vampire series. This time, vampire Nathaniel Cade faces off against a malevolent entity only known as "The Boogeyman." This isn't the first time Cade has come up against this creature; over the past 100 years or so, it has infested various hosts, taking a wide range of guises, and each time only Cade has been able to stop its murderous rampages, yet each time, it finds a way to come back. This time is different, however. This time, the creature's target is none other than the President of the United States.

Cade and his handler, Zach Barrows find themselves not only having to protect the President, but also avoid media exposure, no easy task considering the President is up for re-election and is on the campaign trail with every move watched closely. While The President's Vampire tended to lean more toward adventure spy novel and a bit less towards horror, Red, White and Blood effectively captures the flavor and balance of Blood Oath: walking that fine line between the two genres. It is an unlikely pairing, but Farnsworth is a master of both and a master of the blend.

The novel is filled with enough twists and turns to keep the reader off balance and the story itself is wire-tight enough to compel more than one late night trying to finish "just one more chapter," and the unexpected ending will leave you aching for the next installment.

If you haven't read the first two books in this series, things will still make sense, however reading the first two (Blood Oath and The President's Vampire) will give you a bit more background about the world of the series, and they're just darned good reading...something you can really sink your teeth into. (There, I said it!)

Red, White and Blood is published by Putnam Books and is available from your local, independent book seller. (Make a difference in your local economy: shop local and independent first!)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

I was introduced to the Dresden Files by a friend of mine who recommended it to me. I went in search of the  books and happened to find an assortment of them in a locally owned bookstore. I picked one up, and on the first page, in the first paragraph, it said "“An errand is getting a tank of gas or picking up a carton of milk or something. It is not getting chased by flying purple pyromaniac gorillas hurling incendiary poo!” (From Blood Rites, a book later in the series.) Hmm. Demon monkeys flinging balls of flaming poo at the protagonist?? This is my kind of series! I grabbed all that were there and purchased them on the spot. (Thank goodness for used books!)

The first in this cleverly written series by Jim Butcher is Storm Front. In it we meet the central protagonist, one Harry Dresden, a wizard of not necessarily sterling repute with a wry outlook that matches the bizarre life he's been leading up to the point we meet him. Dresden has chosen to use his powers to help people, but for a fee; he's a private detective who works as a consultant to the Chicago police department. (This particular book was adapted for the television on the Sci-Fi network, though ironically not as the pilot, but as with most things, the book was better, so if you've seen the episode, try to set it aside and read the novel.)

The author's style is crisp and keeps the story moving along at a just-right pace. The perfect blend of humor and  tension exists throughout the novel; Butcher pulls you in from the start and keeps you engaged until the last paragraph on the last page. Fortunately, he is still writing this series, so even though I've got a good bit of catching up to do, it's good to know I can look forward to more to come. From Roc and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Make a difference in your local economy: shop local, independent retailers, especially your local bookstore!)

Book review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)

Lately I've become fond of writers who take the time to tell a fine story through non-traditional means. Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is one such tale. Based loosely on the life of Georges Melies, this story follows a young orphan named Hugo as he tries to survive and to revive an old automaton his father once owned. The story is told partially through text and partially through illustrations as well as actual film stills, and so while at over 500 pages, it is a relatively quick read. This is not to detract from the story at all; it is creatively written and told and well worth the money one would pay for the hardcover version. (It's worth buying in harcover; this is a book that, like my personal favorite, Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are, is worth handing down to younger generations. The apparent villain seems despicable enough until a sudden twist in the story recasts the entire group of central characters in a different light. Regardless of age, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a wonderful story for everyone. From Scholastic Press and available from your local, independent bookseller. (Want to make a difference in your community? Shop local and independent retailers...starting with your bookstores!)

Summer reading list part 1: the first 25

Shortly before the school year ended, one of my students asked me for a list of books he could read this summer. I asked him how many he thought would be good, and he said, "Oh, I don't know...50?" I embarrassed to admit this list is over a week and a half late (sorry, Nate!), but here is the first half of it at least. Each is linked either to my own review of the book (which has a link to the Boulder Book Store on it) or to a page at the Boulder Book Store. Feel free to add your own recommendations and comments to any of these.

Summer reading list, part 1

  1. The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis. I'm actually going to list all seven of the books, but I'm going to list them in chronological order rather than the order in which they were published. And no, it's not cheating to list the series as the first seven since they are classics. So there. (ha ha!) This link will take you to the complete set of Narnia books by Lewis, which makes more sense than posting seven different links in this case.
  2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  3. The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
  4. Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
  5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
  6. The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
  7. The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis
  8. Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
  9. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
  10. The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
  11. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  12. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  13. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  14. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  15. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (my review is forthcoming, but for now I'll post the link to the Boulder Book Store)
  16. Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
  17. Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
  18. Peter Pan by Sir James M. Barrie
  19. The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean
  20. The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
  21. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle
  22. Holes by Louis Sachar
  23. Dune by Frank Herbert
  24. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  25. Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner

There you go...the first half of the list! Enough to get you started, I hope!

Reviews to come (by the end of the week??): Storm Front by Jim Butcher, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, and Red, White, and Blood by Christopher Farnsworth. Coming in August: Book Nerds' Big Day Out II: Book Nerds Do Boulder. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Book review: Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

I will be the first to admit that, when it comes to Neil Gaiman, I am not completely unbiased. I have been a fan of his work dating back to when The Sandman was still being published as a monthly comic book rather than as collected graphic novels. Since then, I have worked to get my hands on, and preferably own, nearly everything he has written. Admittedly, some of his works I have liked more than others, but as a whole, I don't think there is anything by him that I have not enjoyed; Odd and the Frost Giants is no exception to this rule.

Inspired by tales from Norse mythology, Odd and the Frost Giants is the story of a boy named Odd who has all but lost the use of his leg in an accident. As a result, his stepfather virtually ignores him, considering him to be somewhat slightly more than useless, so Odd leaves his home early in the morning of a particularly cruel winter. Arriving at the abandoned home where he lived before his mother remarries, Odd settles in for what he thinks will be a long stay. The first morning after his arrival, Odd encounters a fox, a bear, and an eagle who lead him on an adventure that takes him to the land of the gods and back again.

A story that works as a bedtime tale for children or as a short novel that can please an adult, Odd and the Frost Giants adds yet another wonderful tome to the list of works by a master storyteller. From HarperCollins Publishers and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Make a difference...shop local and independent!)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

"The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not."

Shrouded in mystery, enveloped in shadows, Erin Morgenstern's debut novel pulls the reader in as much as the scent of caramel carried on the cool night air might draw in the denizens of this fine tale.

Marco and Celia are the apprentices of two powerful magicians who have entered their protegees into a contest which only one can win, with the circus as their battlefield. Yet it is a contest in which the two come to be reluctant participants in a game they do not begin to truly understand until it is nearly too late.

The Night Circus is a love story for those who don't like love stories. The tension between the protagonists is almost palpable yet manages to not overwhelm the larger story of the circus and its impact on everyone it touches, no matter how peripherally.

Further, Morgenstern's skill as a writer is on display in the seamless transitions between the second person interludes that immerse the reader into this intense and moving world and the third person narration of the story itself. This is a story that continues to play with the imagination even after the book is laid down between chapters, and it haunts the mind long beyond its conclusion.

I borrowed this book from my local library and ended up buying it from a local bookstore; I liked it that much. I've also recommended it to just about all of my friends, which is why I'm recommending it to you. Reminiscent of The Map of Time in its flow and intensity with shades of Neil Gaiman (one of my all-time favorite writers, so this comparison is not one I'd make lightly and is to be considered high praise), The Night Circus was nearly impossible to put down. Its ending drove me forward with a mix of anticipation for what was to happen next and dread that the story was soon to end.

The Night Circus is published by Doubleday and is available from your local, independent bookstore. (Want to make a difference? Shop your local, independent bookstore!)

Book review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs)

Quirk Books is rapidly becoming one of my favorite publishers of fiction. The...well...quirky...stories they publish are consistently well-crafted, often unusual and somewhat irreverent, and always entertaining and represent stories that more "mainstream" publishers wouldn't touch. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs is no exception to this rule.

It would be easy to write off Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children as a derivative of Marvel's "X-Men" characters. It would be easy, and it would be wrong.

Jacob Portman grows up hearing his grandfather's fantastic stories of strange young children who have been gathered together in an orphanage off the coast of Wales during World War II. His grandfather's "proof" is a collection of odd, and even disturbing, photographs he claims were children he knew. As Jacob gets older, he begins to view these stories as colorful tales, even metaphors, told by an aging, possibly senile, man.

And then Grandpa Portman gets murdered.

Jabob's quest for his grandfather's killer leads him to Wales, where he discovers that not everything that seems fantastic is a fairy tale, and that sometimes, the monsters are very, very real.

Riggs' story is filled with enough twists and turns as would befit a story about peculiar children, and scattered throughout the book are photographs Riggs himself has collected and used as inspiration for this wonderful story. The photographs themselves add to the unusual, and at times menacing, atmosphere of the tale and are interspersed at perfect intervals throughout the text.

The trailer for the book speaks to and for it as much as I could:

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is available at your local, independent bookstore. (Want to make a difference? Shop your local, independent bookstore!!)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book review: A Clash of Kings (George R.R. Martin)

War has come to Westeros. Murder, betrayal, incest, violence and intrigue return as a hallmark of George R.R Martin's outstanding "A Song of Ice and Fire" saga.

(SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN'T READ A GAME OF THRONESA Clash of Kings picks up shortly after the events of A Game of Thrones. The king is dead, and various lords have declared themselves kings of their respective regions, in defiance of the heir apparent. No alliances seem possible, save for how it will aid in the overthrow of the Lannisters. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen assembles her forces to retake the Iron Throne, and as with A Game of Thrones, no character is completely good, and none is completely evil.

Shades of gray continue to pervade Martin's epic tale, and that only strengthens the story itself. The tapestry of back stories, intrigues, plots and subplots is a masterfully woven cloth that draws the reader in and holds them from chapter to chapter as the story unfolds.

"A Song of Ice and Fire" is an epic tale that is proving to not be a "light" read; its complexity would belie any effort to turn it into one, but it is a story that is like a multi-course meal at a fine restaurant: a rich indulgence meant to be savored and enjoyed rather than gulped down without thought or regard to the flavors within.

Like A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings is a hefty text (the hardcover version clocks in at over 700 pages), but at no point does it seem overly long. It is well-paced, and Martin's writing and storytelling remain strong and even. Even though this is a fantasy novel, it reads closer to realistic historical fiction, and his use of  magic as a storytelling device remains light and secondary to the story and characters. However, "A Song of Ice and Fire" remains a story for adults rather than young people or even young adults. The violence remains graphic as does the use of adult situations and language. However, none of these are gratuitous in nature as each propels the story forward or reveals something further and important about the characters and the way they view and interact with their world.

Highly recommended for lovers of well-crafted fantasy as well as those more inclined towards stories of political intrigue and realism. From Bantam Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Want to make a difference? Shop your local, independent bookstore!!)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Book review: The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (Sam Kean)

This wonderfully quirky, fascinating, and just plain fun read moves the periodic table of the elements off of the dusty walls of chemistry classrooms and into living, breathing narrative.

Back when I was in high school, the periodic table was presented to me in all its (not quite, as it turned out) completed glory, assembled and whole, and after memorizing the first several elements, utilizing it in balancing equations, and repeated the information on the tests without giving it further thought, and like most high school chemistry students, likely thought it sprang fully formed from the head of Dmitri Mendeleev, and was the only possible arrangements of the elements. Yet, as Sam Kean has revealed in his book, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Disappearing Spoon (so named for a practical joke scientists play involving gallium) offers a fascinating glimpse into not only how the table came to be, but also provides a story connected to each element on the table that is both compelling and entertaining.

While chemistry students and teachers will no doubt find this book a must read, The Disappearing Spoon is written to appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in science, history, and even literature (the madness of the Mad Hatter of Alice In Wonderland fame can be attributed to mercury). This book will make your inner nerd rejoice and your outer nerd smile. From Back Bay Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Want to make a difference? Shop your local, independent book retailer!)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book review: Fated by S.G. Browne

S.G. Browne's Fated, his follow up novel to Breathers, is a thought-provoking, hilarious take on the concepts of fate, destiny, love, and our roles in each. Fabio is the anthropomorphism of fate. His job is to assign and monitor the mass of humanity and their lives of "quiet desperation," a job that after a quarter million years, has lost some of its luster. That is, until Fabio meets Sara, a mortal human with whom he falls in love, despite all the rules to the contrary. The story that ensues is one of both solid reflection laced with you healthy dose of laughs as Fabio attempts to balance out his supernatural existence with his all too mortal desires.

This quirky, wonderful novel gives chuckles and laughs in equal dose to providing fodder for thought about the roles of fate and destiny, and ultimately, the role we all play in determining our lives, and even the lives of others with whom we choose to get involved.

From NAL Trade and available at your local, independent bookseller. (Make a difference: buy from your local, independent bookstore!)