Friday, July 04, 2014

Mini review: 'Not My Father's Son' by Alan Cumming

Not My Father's Son: A MemoirNot My Father's Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is there anything this talented man cannot do? Engaging, effecting, excellent writing. You've done a good job, Alan!

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mini review: 'The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August'

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, what an interesting novel! I really enjoyed it. A different take on time, mortality, and morality. I occasionally got a little confused, and the technology was beyond me, but plenty to think about here, wrapped in a compelling story.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Book review: 'In the Morning I'll Be Gone' by Adrian McKinty

It’s the early 1980’s in Northern Ireland, and “the Troubles” are going strong. Sean Duffy has been reduced in rank and then thrown off the police force. There had been a car accident, for which he wasn’t responsible, and instances of insubordination, for which he was.
Duffy may be a “peeler” (Irish slang for police), but he wasn’t always on the path to becoming a cop. He was working on a PhD when Bloody Sunday occurred, and he even had tried to volunteer for the IRA. His old schoolmate Dermot McCann turned him down, however.
book coverMcCann rose in the ranks of the IRA and eventually got caught. Sean joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and became a detective, one of the few Catholics on the force. As In the Morning I’ll Be Gone opens, Dermot has recently broken out of prison, and MI5 has come knocking on Sean’s door, hoping he can track down his old school chum. Sean takes the job hoping to restore his standing with the RUC and finds he must solve a cold murder case before he can make any headway.
Sean is sought-out by MI5 not only because of his connection to McCann but also because he’s a very good detective, if a bit impetuous and given to doing things his own way. Most of all, he knows how Northern Ireland works and how to work it.
Some of the same can be said for author Adrian McKinty. He has set his story in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, where he grew up, andIn the Morning I’ll Be Gone rings with authenticity. McKinty’s writing is strong and atmospheric; he easily channels the mean streets of his youth.
What’s more, none of McKinty’s characters are dull or uneducated. Duffy is partial to both the classical music and classic rock, knows his philosophy, and is darkly witty. As he and his police colleagues consider the unsolved murder, which presents a classic locked-room mystery, they discuss many of the locked-room cases found in literature. And McKinty does a fine job of disguising how the murder was pulled off even as he plants the seeds that solve it.
I have not read the first two books in this series (The Troubles Trilogy), but I was able to thoroughly enjoy it anyway. I kept thinking, “This is terrific! Why haven’t I heard of Adrian McKinty before?” Any reader who likes Tana French’s take on murder investigations in Ireland should also be reading McKinty. His work is denser but totally worth the effort.
First published on Blogcritics.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book review: 'Above' by Isla Morely

Above, by Isla Morely (Gallery Books, 3/4/14)

Blythe is a sixteen-year-old girl from the small town of Eudora, Kansas. She heads to the town picnic hoping to meet up with Arlo, a childhood friend whom she hopes will become her boyfriend. When he doesn’t show, she heads for home in a huff and on foot. The school librarian offers her a ride, which she accepts to her profound regret. The man is a survivalist who is convinced the end is near and abducts Blythe, imprisoning her in an abandoned missile silo so they can repopulate the world after the coming apocalypse. 

Her escape attempts fail, and Blythe struggles to maintain hope and hold onto her sanity, bearing a son in the process. When he is old enough, she must explain the world and their place in it. This proves especially difficult when their lives are upended and they come to understand the truth.

Above is an fascinating story, exploring difficult topics in an accessible way. Part abduction story and part speculative fiction, it is told in Blythe’s voice and skips years at a time, like a diary started and stopped again and again. Unlike in the novel Room, which recounts a young boy's life in captivity from his point of view, Blythe's son is not given a realized voice, and his character feels more two-dimensional than those of the adults. The missing years also give the narrative a glossed-over feel, leaving the reader wondering what happened and how Blythe coped during those times. When things change later in the book, the story picks up the pace and becomes both more interesting and satisfying. Can I just ask, why did the bad guy have to be a librarian??

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book review: 'Red Rising' by Pierce Brown

A thousand years in the future, the human race has colonized the solar system. To do so, it has reverted to a social system like that of ancient Rome: martial and strictly stratified by caste. Sixteen-year-old Darrow is a Red, the lowest caste in the color-coded system. He and his strata live below ground on Mars, mining the mineral that used in terraforming planets.

It’s difficult, dangerous work, with a very short life expectancy. (Girls marry at 14, and Darrow’s uncle is considered old at 35.) Being a Red means having red hair and red eyes and being tattooed with the caste symbol on the back of the hands. They are also known for drinking and dancing.

The Reds are ruled over by the Golds, the most elite of them being the Peerless Scarred, who also bear a scar on the face. The leader of Earth, one of the Peerless Scarred, appears on screen all the time to remind the Reds that they are doing essential work for the human race, and that one day they will be able to ascend to the surface of Mars, which is a lie, because people have lived above ground on Mars for hundreds of years.

Darrow is handsome and extremely talented at his work, driving the drilling machine. The last thing on his mind is rebellion, but his wife Eo has other plans, the outcome of which is Darrow being willing to do anything for revenge.

What he must do is infiltrate Gold society, and one of the of steps he must take it attending the Institute that trains the Peerless Scarred. A thousand are admitted, but less than half graduate the school, which separates students into houses that live in castles. Each house must fight the others until one is victor.

If you’re thinking Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games, you’re not far off. But rather than Quidditch matches and house cups, think ruthless, no-holds-barred battle as in A Game of Thrones. The story is ambitious, and the writing moves, making Red Rising a page-turner. Although I sometimes had trouble keeping track of some of the details, I was very taken with Darrow and impressed with the intricacy of the social system. The result is a well-told story that is also quite interesting.

It also happens to be brutal. It reminds me a little of Lev Grossman’s book The Magicians, which gives a hard edge to the idea of a school of magic. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is also fabulous fantasy storytelling with a very hard edge.

I find both Harry Potter books and the Hunger Games trilogy touching in a way Red Rising is not. I can’t help but wonder if Harry and Katniss are different because they were written by women. It’s not that J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins set up worlds without peril for their heroes; far from it. One element that catches my eye is the role of love. Love is the ultimate good in Harry Potter. In The Hunger Games, love is the highest virtue. In A Game of Thrones, however, love is a weakness that gets you or the object of your love killed. In Red Rising, love is the fuel for revenge.

A difference between male and female views of love or just different takes on storytelling? Could be a bit of both. Either way, I am looking forward to seeing what author Pierce Brown has in store for Darrow in the following installments of the trilogy.

NOTE: I see other reviews mentioning the likeness to Ender's Game, the highly original, early 1980's science fiction story by Orson Scott Card that was finally made into a movie last year. I suppose the aspect of dividing kids into teams in Battle School bears a superficial resemblance to the Institute, but the age difference -- pre-adolescent children versus young adults -- and the battle situation -- Ender using stun guns in a zero gravity gymnasium versus Darrow having to survive without weapons or supplies in the countryside -- kept it from coming to mind for me, I think. But if you are more a fan of Ender than Potter, I can see the resemblance working better for you. Darrow's journey to earning respect of his fellow soldiers is reminiscent of Ender's as well.

Regarding my theory about love, I think it extends to Ender's Game. Ender comes to see love as weakness, and his sister, the one character motivate by love for Ender, does not come out on top, either.