Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Golden Son by Pierce Brown

Vicarious Pleasure

Recommendation:  Must Read


What I liked.

This is a personal story.  One that explores the emotional turmoil that life’s challenges bring us.  Darrow au Andromedus is an agent of change.  A mole, a spy, a revolutionary, Darrow is innocence angered.  Driven by anger, he finds torment in the wake created by his wrath, by his folly, by his force of will.  In that wake, bystanders die; citizens, servants, slaves.  His friends die, enemies are born, vengeance is carried out, blood feuds perpetuate, and duplicity devastates those who trust.

For Darrow, whose existence is a bold lie as an infiltrator of Gold society,  cannot escape the irony that in order to find the truth that could create a better society, he must perpetuate the ultimate betrayal wrought by his dishonest manipulation.  His friends do not know him, his true identity, nor his ultimate purpose: to destroy everything they believe in, and take the privilege they know to be their right.

We see the effect it has on Darrow because in him is not the sinister power hungry tyrant.  We watch him wrestle more with the internal strife of how his actions cause others to suffer, than with the physical combat he engages in verses his external enemies personified.  To a large extent this is a study in how lies can enslave those who perpetuate them as much as they control and manipulate those deceived.  Honesty, loyalty, friendship, these are the themes given fair rendering by the author.

This is a personal story told about a public cause, for Darrow has been inspired by the actions of others.  By Eo, by Ares, by Dancer, by Virginia, and perhaps most of all by Nero.  The stakes could not be higher.  His entire civilization, billions of lives, the future of generations, entire heritages, all hinge on who wins the struggle and at what cost.  Passions run high right along with them.  So as we read along we have the experience of some vicarious pleasure, without the risk to life, limb, and everyone dear to us.

What I didn’t like.

I did not enjoy seeing Darrow go through the emotional anguish that came with each dangerous liaison, each painful decision, each hurtful act.  Perhaps I’m too sensitive.  It is part of the story.  It must be a reason why we say you have to take the good with the bad.  Or should it be the bad with the good?

I found it hard to accept that Darrow would forget about Evey and Harmony so easily, because it goes against his character. I didn’t.  The author apparently did. Along with the gift to Adrius.

What you should know.

Golden Son is part II of a trilogy and follows a few years after the conclusion of part I Red Rising.  Read it before you read Golden Son.  This is a balanced mixture of science fiction, suspense, war, and Shakespearean melodrama.  In my opinion it bends the traditional attempts to pigeonhole it into just one genre per se.  You wouldn’t enjoy this novel as much if you don’t find the fun in lines like this:

“If your heart beats like a drum,

and your leg’s a little wet,

it’s ’cause the Reaper’s come

to collect a little debt.”

Excerpt From: Brown, Pierce. “Golden Son.” Del Rey, 2015-07-07. iBooks.
Check out this book on the iBooks Store: https://itun.es/us/437DW.l

Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

What I liked.

A visionary future with evolved humans creating civilzations on planets and moons in Earth’s solar system.  A caste based class system of colored humans.  The Gold class reigns at the top with intellect, fear, dominance, physical force, technology, and deception.  The Red class populates the bottom with massive slave labor that sustains the wealth and power of the society.  In between these two classes lies a myriad of colors whose genetic disposition and engineering match their respective roles in the hierarchy, from soldiers to law enforcers, entertainers, etc.  This is a fairly well described and detailed conglomerate.

Within the grander tale are individual stories about well developed characters who struggle with the same issues we humans have for generations; love, hate, purpose, honor, dignity, pride, trust, selfish verses selfless, mercy, family, friendship.  This is a shortlist.  Not a simple story here.

The drama is engrossing, the characters are inspiring, their plights compelling.  This book entertains on every level.  It gives visceral justified violence while decrying the consequences to both the victors and the vanquished.  It debates the alternatives with readers sharing the anguish inside conflicted protagonists.  It gives, and it takes away.  The passion runs high throughout the story and there are no lulls.  The flawed main character Darrow is not your stereotypical reluctant hero.  He is just a bit more than the everyman in us. We recognize his self doubts, his lack of ambition, his fear.  We see him in all his human frailty accompanied by his unlimited potential.

Along Darrow’s journey we meet many a villain, those whom we at first classify and assume have but one dimension.  When our first shallow impressions prove wrong, we  are forced to rethink people we wrote off as wrong headed bad guys/girls. It is at this point when you can really begin to appreciate what Red Rising offers.

As a first book in a trilogy, there is payoff on every level.  The climax is rewarding.  The creation of a desire to read more is strong.  The expectation that you will not be disappointed is high.

What I didn’t like.

The story begins slowly, without much buildup.  The science fiction has some nice twists of future and near future technologies, particularly bioengineering.  The depth of the technological descriptions are, shall I say, Star Wars light.  I had an off and on again struggle with how some aspects of human history and development are abandoned at the expense of others.  The strong storytelling overshadows various intermittent flaws.

What you should know.

This is one of the most gender balanced fiction offerings you will find.  Women and men are intellectually and physically parallel.  They are evenly represented in the telling.  You can have Game of Thrones.  I’ll take my political intrigue with fancy weaponry and high tech gadgets any day over the fantasy of magic.  And horses too!

Recommendation:  Must Read

Book Review: The Fungo Society by Jeff Stanger

What I Liked:
Stanger has a very easy writing style that calls to mind sitting with your best friend while they tell the most salacious tale they’d just had the pleasure of experiencing and can’t resist watching you react as they spin one shocking reveal after another. Very readable. He also knows how to wield humor. The dialogue is funny. The characters are funny. The situations are funny times three. That is a refreshing reward especially for readers who are looking for a good dose of humor. Quick is a likable main character. The Indiana Jones of sports memorabilia.
I appreciated the efficient writing style. You don’t get wasted wordy passages that cause you to want to skip or wonder what the writer was trying to accomplish. Stanger says what he means and means what he says. You are brought into the world of baseball with appropriate descriptions that move the story along, not an easy task. It’s one that causes more than a few authors to stumble, not Stanger.
What I didn’t like:

I confess that I am very much a baseball guy. So I can’t criticize the baseball and memorabilia laden story. My guess is that from an impartial or non baseball point of view you might not have any interest at all in the subject matter and therefore you wouldn’t enjoy the story. That is a guess. I could be wrong. If you are open to the idea, try a few chapters and see for yourself.
This is a wild story. The wilder it got, the less I liked it. Why? I found the baseball story interesting, the drug story not so much. I rarely read stories about drug crimes, and when I do it isn’t because of the subject. I did not think it added to the book so it didn’t seem necessary.
What you should know:

The Fungo Society is a group of retired Major League Baseball players. They have a relationship with a baseball memorabilia dealer named Jonathan Quick. Quick is a 30 something bachelor with a penchant for trysts with random women who gravitates towards dangerous encounters. This is a baseball story. Memorabilia is featured in detail throughout the story. There are good guys, bad guys, not so good guys and not so bad guys. Nobody takes themselves too seriously. Think of it as the jock’s version of cozy mystery.
Recommendation:  A Maybe Read

Book Review:  The Bride Wore Dead.  A Josie Tucker Mystery by EM Kaplan

 

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What I liked.

The writing is top notch.  An interesting story about interesting people told in a very interesting fashion.  What more could one ask for?  There are so many things to like about the main character Josie Tucker.  This is an important aspect for me in most novels.  It is paramount for me in the mystery genre.  I have to care about the people involved if I’m going to spend any time with them.  I need to care most about the protagonist if I’m going to identify with him or her.  So I was all in with Josie.

What I didn’t like.

To say that Josie treats herself in a less than healthy way is a major understatement.  This is a character flaw that defies the instinct of self preservation.  I’d describe her as practicing the virtue of self denial like a Tibetan monk.  She has the career planning of a  compulsive gambler in Vegas, and combines that with the health maintenance planning of Evel Knievel.  Let’s hope that her palm shows such a long lifeline that she’ll be around for many books to come.

What you should know.

The second book is available now if you like the first one, and you’ll like the first one.  Dim Sum Dead Some.  If you devour that morsel don’t dispair Dead Man on Campus arrives August 15th.

Recommendation.  A must read.

REVIEW: FOREIGN AGENT

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Foreign Agent: A Thriller (Scot Harvath) by Brad Thor

What I liked:

The best of the genre is exemplified by a driving force of will.  There you experience a relentless pace of action, conflict, and contest.  The NBA Championship finals just concluded.  LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers over a potentially historic Golden State Warriors team in a Game 7 nail biter that wasn’t settled until a series of dramatic plays in the final moments.  What we sports fans relish about this only pure form of reality television is the back and forth cage match that brings out both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.  Not much else compares.  What Foreign Agent does so well is reproduce like emotions in scripted form.  Kudos.

The adrenaline rush that runs constant throughout the story is a rare treat.  This is a modern war story.  Violent political conflict across the globe is a threat to American safety as the Untied States’ superpower influence becomes a pawn in the chess match that is power politics on steroids.  As is true about most great chess games, this one involves Russians.  Scot Harvath, as a deep cover operative, is the point man for the home team.  A tribute to the superlative quality of this book is in part owed to Harvath’s character.  He isn’t just cunning and highly competent.  He also demonstrates an intellect generally presumed to be possessed by more refined, less violent members of the male species.  So yes, readers get to have their beefcake and eat it too.

In a review of the preceding book in the series (see Code of Conduct), I criticized it’s lack of balance.  Where was the romance in Harvath’s life?  Is he little more than Batman redux?  Well shut my mouth, because Harvath has come home.  The dilemmas he faces, though serious, credible, and not simple to resolve, are none the less dealt with in satisfactory fashion.

What I didn’t like:

Did you ever witness one of the nagging complaints about professional boxing?  How champion fighters too often scheduled miss matches with less than capable opponents in order to pad their paychecks while protecting their posteriors.  I’m talking about patsies.  Well Russia appears to be playing patsy here.  Is Thor paying homage to the dozens of Russian heavy weights over the years who took the dive for the George Foremans, the Joe Fraziers, and the late Muhammad Ali?  As the story proceeds, Russia seems incapable of state of the art technical espionage or classic trade craft, that is until the plot calls for it.  But hey I’m being too picky.  You can’t have it both ways.  Or can you?

What you should know:

The rules of engagement include torture.  Enhanced interrogation techniques are used.  The warning sign reads:  Squeamish individuals will enter at their own risk.  I find that there are distinct messages in Thor prose.  One such message here is that the use of extreme measures are a necessary aspect of winning fights where the alternatives are not palatable.  Brad Thor may or may not be right.  What he does is force readers to consider the issues.  That is one quality I respect in an author.

Recommendation:

A real Good Read

Review: Code of Conduct

Code of conductCode of Conduct: A Thriller (Scot Harvath Book 14) by Brad Thor.  This is a NY Times best seller in the Paperback Mass-Market Fiction Category.  Brad Thor is a well known bestselling author of the Scot Harvath Thriller series.  His next book, entitled Foreign Agent, debuts June 14th.

What I liked.

The thriller genre is not as attractive to me as others I prefer to read more often.  So I tend to be more demanding.  I’ll often judge this type based on whether I feel compelled to skip ahead while reading (a bad sign).  However, some would argue that the death knell for similar stories is when you put the book down and awhile later discover you haven’t picked it back up.  Phrases like ‘page turner’ are key to separating the wheat from the chaff in this regard.  Needless to say, Thor definitely does pass muster with this book.  What need I say?  There is a broad, ambitious story, involving the fate of mankind.  Thor has mastered the art of maintaining tension and interest as characters navigate through conflicts that challenge their morality, their determination, and their intelligence.

Because of an epic scale that spans the globe, multiple groups of characters are introduced and reintroduced.  Thor weaves these stories at a pace that allows you to keep track of who’s who, without bogging down the action. And there is plenty of action.  As is typical of the genre, the violence ramps up towards the final climactic ending, and you will be ready when the time comes.

One perceived weakness of the genre is the balance of substance.  Here we’re found wanting if it appears to be ‘all action, no talk’.  Thor adds meat to the prose by interspersing political philosophy: it isn’t just good verses evil, but government bureaucracy verses individual liberty.  So the conflict between ideas is just as entertaining as the cage fight spectacle.

What I didn’t like.

A story of this scope and style often treads lightly on character development.  While there is enough there to like the good guys, and dislike the bad guys, I was still left wanting.  Scot Harvath is a very well developed protagonist and you’re left with no doubt about his reasons why or raison d’etre, s’il vous plait.  Not so much for the people around him.  They are more or less two dimensional.  For example the two prominent female characters are stereotypical archetypes.  But that probably won’t bother the target demographic.

I had a similar issue with the villain.  He had to be the nicest serial killer you ever met.  What’s up with that!  He leads a great life until he suffers a bad loss.  Then he reads a bad book?  So he goes crazy?  Thor has quite the cautionary tale about being careful with your bedside reading choices!

What you should know.

For thriller and suspense lovers, this is definitely the ticket.  With respect to the amount of violence, think early Schwarzenegger, if you want a movie comparison.  Warning:  know that these series can be highly addictive.  You may find yourself up late at night and suddenly sleep deprived (and neglecting significant others a la Harvath).  Take your time.  There are plenty more where this came from if you haven’t read any of his novels before.  If you have, don’t worry, you can buy a copy of Foreign Agent and get your fix this summer.

Recommendation:  Must Read

 

Review:  Getaway

Getaway by Lisa a Brackmann.  This is the first novel of her new series. The next book, Go-Between comes out in July.

What I liked.

This is what Frantic should have been and possibly could have been with better writing.  There is serious realistic peril for a vacationer in Mexico.  My emphasis is on the word realistic.  I was willing to go down this rabbit hole only because it was so believable.  Having vacationed in Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and visited numerous places in Mexico, I’m familiar with the territory.  It was enjoyable to see Vallarta from a literary point of view.  This trip was both fun and affordable!

The story. I have read and recommend all of the Ellie McEnroe novels which take place in China.  Getaway comes across as a completely different story.  The tone and pacing are so disparate I wouldn’t know it was the same author if her name wasn’t written on the cover.  I found the story enthralling.  I liken it to the classic idea of the American travelling abroad, unaware of the risks associated with living without the protections of the Bill of Rights and faith in the criminal justice system.  It isn’t an original concept. Yet in the hands of Brackmann the payoff is in how she unveils each episode.  The tension builds and with each passing hour fears are stoked, until the climactic conclusion.

What I didn’t like.

There are no tidy resolutions.  Kinda like real life.  It is messy. Perhaps readers won’t mind that though.  Add to it the chance the next book will tie up all those loose ends.  Something I look forward to.

What you should know.

If you like violent novels this is for you.  Smart, serious, suspense.

Recommendation: Must Read

 

Review: Blood Defense

Blood Defense by Marcia Clark.

This is the author’s first novel of a series involving a criminal defense attorney named Samantha Brinkman.  You can read her Rachel Knight prosecutor series here.

What I liked:

The protagonist.  Samantha’s not so law abiding approach to the world was so refreshing. I also appreciated her professional approach to her vocation, it wasn’t about money, it was about doing the right thing the right way.  This is also a no nonsense, courageous protagonist.  That is the way I prefer them to be when I see them as the ‘hero’.  The interesting aspect of Samantha is that her personal life is non-existent.  Under the circumstances her work absorbs all of her life.  The intriguing part is that this missing piece does not detract from the story.  I imagine later tomes will add that dimension.  She is unmarried, and as such the only personal interaction she has is with her parents, and those are priceless.

The plot twist.  I found the twist to be unique and compelling – no spoiler though, find out for yourself, it is worth it.  I will say this, the description of the emotional impact of the revelation pulls the reader into the story and holds you.  That’s a major reason why we read novels, and this one delivers.  Could you imagine yourself in that situation?  What would you think?  How would you react under the circumstances?

The mystery.  This, of course like many of the genre, is a who done it.  There is a very delicate balance every mystery author must maintain in order for the mystery to both drive the story and keep up a plausible enough level of suspense to engage readers. And this works only to the degree that there is an investment of interest made validating the notion that anyone cares what happens.  This is not an easy task.  It is in my opinion the element that separates the real mystery authors from the pretenders.  Clark demonstrates her chops in this regard.

What I didn’t like:

I am one of those nitpickers.  I confess!  So I’ll ask.  How does a violent crime victim who has never gotten justice become a criminal defense attorney?  Why?  So she can sandbag all her cases and get her clients convicted?  I think not.  I just cannot reconcile the contradiction.  There is more to be mined on this subject but that the author only skims the surface.  I say ‘no go’.  Why touch so lightly on something so worthy of proper focus?  Samantha has nightmares.  Well?  I don’t think it can be mentioned, as often as it is, without going into detail about the cause and effect.

What you should know:

Amateur psychologists will revel in this smorgasbord of mental disorders – narcissism, sociopaths, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, while seeing them play out in the lives of the people who are forced to live with them.  The scene is Los Angeles, and pop culture is a main character.  Kudos to making reference to the current political upheaval involving the presidential election.

Recommendation:  Must Read

 

Review: Dragon Day

Dragon Day by Lisa Brackmann.

This is the author’s third novel with heroine Ellie McEnroe and although it is my least favorite, I still regard it as good read.

What I liked:

The setting.  For those of us who travel less, it is a treat to see exotic places like China through the eyes of a gifted storyteller.  This setting is very much a prominent character, making the experience even more enjoyable.

The family.  How people relate to family in a novel can often be as important as the plot.  It provides readers with a safe place to address their own familial challenges without the requisite emotional baggage.  It doesn’t just make characters more real and relatable.  Because when a reader engages with a character vicariously, another level of interaction arises, leaving a lingering impact in the mind, one that germinates upon further reflection, such that ideas fully form and take hold, allowing for the possibility of personal growth.  Brackmann’s fictional family is an entertaining gift for readers to treat with surrogate care.

The departure.   This adventure introduces an entirely new set of players into Ellie’s world.  While some favorites return, others fade into the background.  It is a fresh, if not completely independent sequel to the previous two tales.  Getting to know the new faces raises the mystery quotient I’m happy to say.

What I didn’t like:

Ellie has a slight personality change.  She remains the damaged PTSD combat casualty, struggling to find herself and her place in the world.  However this version is so fraught with uncertainty about whom she should trust and what the consequences of her choices might be, her paralysis of analysis becomes off putting.  She still doesn’t heed the advice of those who care for her as always.  Which makes me wonder, why all the kvetching if she’s going to do things her way in the end?

What you should know:

This is adults only fare in my opinion. The threat of violence permeates throughout.  There are mature themes, however the language is moderately colorful.

Recommendation: Good Read

Book Review: And Sometimes I Wonder About You, by Walter Mosley

What I liked:

I think it pays homage to the best examples of novel writing, because heroism is prevalent throughout. I found strong entertainment value everywhere: humor, poignancy, romance, mystery, suspense, action, and drama. The interwoven social commentary leant substance to the reading without weighing it down.

Our hero meets a lady on a train while returning from saving a client’s marriage.  She turns out to be his dream woman.  This is just the beginning.

There were no ghosts.

Lines like

The police had laid off killing men for selling loosies for the time being-bad publicity.

What I didn’t like:

You could argue that the infidelity experienced by characters in the book are flaws which Mosely deals with respectfully. I wouldn’t, other than to say his approach is artistic with touches of ambiguity.

A man places his wife in a mental health facility to treat her depression. Yet his own behavior is far more destructive, both to himself, and to those around him. Why does he get to roam free?

What you should know about the book:

This is high quality prose with loads of sex and violence. It is a quintessential family drama spanning three generations. Through storytelling we understand the choices the protagonist makes because of his relationships with his parents and his children.

Recommendation: A must read