dimanche 27 juillet 2014

New on the Library Shelves 27 07 14

AKA Showcase Sunday

A new segment here, participating in the Showcase Sunday meme over at Books, Biscuits & Tea.

A good haul for review copies this week, with a nice mix of non-fiction and fiction, including the latest T.E. Woods Fix novel, which is turning into a great thriller series. In terms of books purchased, a new Star Trek novel is always great to get, especially when it is a continuation of the wonderful Vanguard series! Will be reading that some time next week.
For review:
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott (history)
The Sixth Extinction by James Rollins (thriller)
Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch (sf)
The Darkest Hour by Tony Schumacher (alternate history)
2040 by Graham Tottle (sf)
The Unforgivable Fix by T.E. Woods (thriller)
How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis (non-fiction)
Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke (thriller)
Dissonance by Erica O'Rourke (fantasy)

Detective Comics Volume 4 by John Layman (graphic novel)
Star Trek - Seekers 1 by David Mack (science fiction)
The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber (non-fiction)

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Books, Biscuits & Tea.

samedi 26 juillet 2014

Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick


Three months after his rise to the position of Gray Prince of the criminal elite, Drothe is struggling to bring together an organization worthy of the name while his fellow Gray Princes conspire against him. When one of those enemies dies with all clues pointing to Drothe as the culprit, Drothe is forced to flee before the other members of the Kin ally against him. Carrying an offer of redemption to an old friend, Drothe travels to the Despotate of Djan, enemy of the Empire, where he may just be able to get away from the price on his head. However there are even more enemies waiting in the Despotate and time is running out before the latest Gray Prince becomes the latest to fall...

One of my favourite fantasy debuts a couple of years ago, Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves was a tour-de-force, introducing a new world and a new character combined with some great plotting to create an unforgettable rollercoaster ride reminiscent of The Lies of Locke Lamora. I eagerly awaited the sequel... and waited... and waited... and waited. An initial release date in 2012 was pushed back, then left open ended and it was only in May of this year that the book, Sworn in Steel, was finally released. As such, it shot to the top of my To-Read-List for my summer holidays. And all in all, it was worth the wait.

Due to the long delay, it was difficult while reading Sworn in Steel to remember exactly what had happened in the last one. It would probably have been worth flicking through that earlier book to remind myself before delving into this one, but I was hoping that there would be enough in the novel to help me pick up the threads once again. While by the end of the novel I could basically remember what had happened in Among Thieves, so much happened in the three months in-story between the two books that sometimes it was hard to figure out what I was forgetting from the first book and what was off-screen in the intervening months. Because of that, the initial few chapters, while action-packed, were sometimes a struggle as I tried to place events in their context.

As mentioned above, a lot has happened in the three months since Among Thieves ended, most of it to do with Drothe’s attempts to secure his position as a Gray Prince, a kind of mafia don in this fantasy world of the Kin. One of the main events is the murder of another Gray Prince, a murder that has been laid very carefully on Drothe’s doorstep. This murder acts as the catalyst that sets Drothe on his journey to the Despotate, a journey that will take him into the middle of a dangerous conspiracy and deeper into the mysteries of the Degans.

In Among Thieves, one of the main draws was Drothe as narrator and he continues to be just as engaging and witty this time. While first-person can be difficult to pull off in a plot of such convoluted complexity, Hulick pulls it off masterfully, placing Drothe up on a pedestal of similar first person heroes alongside Fitz or Phedre. This voice is what carries the book and Hulick does it extremely well.

At the same time, Hulick expands and deepens the world he has created, introducing us to Djan, a really well realised addition to the world. Hulick describes Djan with a deft hand, creating a living breathing city reminiscent of other sand-blasted, Arabian fantasy cities. Providing a neat twist on the magic already developed in the first book, Djan has a much looser relationship to its use, away from the control of the Empire. At the same time, Hulick delves into an element of imperial life only touched upon in the first book – the world of the theatre. Forced to work with a theatre troop, Drothe becomes involved in the day to day life of the actors, allowing Hulick to create a cast of truly interesting, interesting characters as foils for Drothe to work with. Drothe finds himself in a fish-out-of-water situation, forcing him to jump through hoops in an attempt to get out of the life-or-death trap he has fallen into.

Through the plot, Hulick also continues to develop the mystery of the degans and their past, hitting the reader with some huge and surprising revelations. We get more degans here than in the first book and they come centre stage, their organisation and origins delved into in some detail. They are truly key to everything that is going on, the core of a complex thread with numerous threads that nevertheless come together in a very clever way at the end. Unfortunately, before that rousing finale, the middle section sags, with too much time spent on the minutiae of Droth’s day to day life. A lot of this could easily have been culled to create a much more streamlined adventure.

Marred by a clumsy, confused opening and an unwieldy middle, Sworn in Steel is an exciting, action-packed fantasy adventure that continues to delve into the deep world Hulick first introduced in Among Thieves. Helped by an engaging first-person narration, the novel explores new parts of the world while adding unexpected depths and surprises to elements touched upon in the first book. A rousing finish that masterfully combines the different elements of the novel sets up a third novel nicely and I will definitely be looking forward to it when it comes out. Let’s just hope that it takes less time than Sworn in Steel!

I gave Sworn in Steel 3 element-named degans out of 5.

jeudi 24 juillet 2014

The Eye of God by James Rollins

After a military satellite crashes, though not before releasing a final blurry glimpse into a catastrophic future where the eastern seaboard of the United States is a fiery ruin, the members of Sigma Force – joined by a pair of Vatican historians – race to recover the satellite before it falls into enemy hands. When this mission becomes tied to a centuries old mystery surrounding the fall of the Roman Empire and rooted in the story of Genghis Khan, Gray Pierce and his colleagues must find Khan’s undiscovered tomb before a weapon hidden for centuries can spell the final fate of humanity...

James Rollins’ Sigma Force novels have been a long-term reading project for the past few years; I read the first one on holiday in 2010 and have been slowly working my way through them ever since. The series is a well-written, well-plotted and exciting one, combining cutting edge science with historical mysteries and the occasional hint of more sfnal elements. The characters start out as the standard thriller fare, but they have developed throughout the books into more rounded, complex people, dealing with some slightly more thorny personal issues. At their core, though, the Sigma Force novels have remained pulpy, over-the-top, seat-of-the-pants thrillers, which are right up my alley. With The Eye of God I have caught up with the series just in time for the release of the latest, The Sixth Extinction, next month.

As with the other books in the series, The Eye of God combines a historical mystery with a cutting edge sf thriller. From the opening chapter, where we discover a military satellite carrying experimental dark matter able to peer into the future, the novel propels us into a race against time to track down the downed satellite while searching for the truth about Genghis Khan and his final resting place. Without giving away the heart of the plot, we quickly discover that finding Khan’s tomb may be the only way to save the Earth and the human race from a world-ending event – the stakes don’t get any higher than that! Along the way, the book takes encompasses quantum physics, alternate universes and the possibility of parallel lives.

The element that means the series just keeps getting better with every book is the way that Rollins has slowly built up the personal lives of his cast of characters, something that he continues to do here. The Eye of God allies the end-of-the-world stakes of the primary plot with a more personal journey for Gray and Seichan on one side and Vigor and his niece on the other. While Gray and Seichan start the book trying to find Seichan’s mother, thus affording us a glimpse into her past and the tragedy of her upbringing, the priest Vigor who has been an integral part of the series since the beginning, is dealing with a tragedy of his own. These more internal journeys provide the book with its heart, making The Eye of God the best of the series so far.

As usual, The Eye of God is an expansive, even epic book, both in geographical and historical terms. A true globe-trotting novel, The Eye of God takes us from Machau to Washington, from Rome to the heights of Mongolia. At the same time, we are introduced to the history of Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun, whose stories are integral to the plot. All of this combines to create a real page-turner, the chapters flying by at a great pace. This is helped by Rollins usual knack for descriptive passages and historical information – none of this is ever bogged down in overly long prose or pace-killing info-dumps. We get just enough information to create an evocative sense of place or time.

All in all, The Eye of God is an excellent addition to an excellent thriller series. Perfect for fans of Dan Brown, Steve Berry or Indiana Jones, The Eye of God combines pulpy action with an evocative sense of place, enhanced by a keen eye for historical detail and cutting edge, even sfnal science. The pages seem to turn by themselves, building as usual to a corker of a finale, with the very survival of the Earth at stake. Yet throughout, Rollins never loses sight of the personal core of his characters, giving us a truly internal journey for many of them. I gave The Eye of God 4,5 ancient skulls out of 5.

mardi 22 juillet 2014

The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman



Opening in the early days of the United States of America, when public fears of government overreach needed to be calmed thanks to the protection of the Constitution, moving through the spread to the Wild West and the days of Prohibition and gangsterism, before ending at the Supreme Court where political expediency led to a radicalized ruling protecting an individual right to gun ownership, The Second Amendment: A Biography is a sweeping exploration of the most controversial and misunderstood provision of the Bill of Rights. As renewed debate caused by recent mass shootings brings the Second Amendment back into the limelight, Michael Waldman gives a historical, contextual view that shows how society’s view of the amendment is coloured not by a historical understanding of the constitution’s context, but by political advocacy and the agitation of radical organisations.

I love reading about the United States. I’m not American and my hands-on experience of the country has been limited to a handful of visits over the years. And yet this vast country of such sweeping contradictions has always fired my imagination. I have an ongoing project to read a biography of every single US President and any time a non-fiction book about the US crosses my path I snap it up. One of the most intriguing (and terrifying) elements of US society, especially for a foreigner looking in at it from outside, is the Second Amendment and the unfortunate consequences that surround it. So when this book, portrayed as a biography of this most controversial of amendments, popped up on Netgalley, I jumped at the chance to read it.

The Second Amendment: A Biography turned out to be an absolutely fantastic exploration, not only of the Second Amendment itself, but of the development of the Constitution, the changes that swept through American society in the 19th and 20th centuries and the growing influence of the Supreme Court in modern American life. Although I am certain that some people will disagree, I found it to be not only well-written, with an engaging voice that carries the story from beginning to end, but also a well-balanced look at what is obviously a highly charged subject. While Waldman’s own opinion is obvious, he still gives a fair view of both sides of the debate, always presenting the arguments of those on every side of the divide, while keeping his own commentary to specific passages.

Waldman’s position comes from being president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law – he comes at this both from a legal and a historical point of view, making sure to set out the historical context that should inform any interpretation of the constitution. To understand why the amendment exists and why the Founding Fathers saw the need to include it, Waldman explains, it is vital to understand the world around them, the historical pressures that influenced them, and the society that spawned them. As such, the first part of the biography explores the origins of the amendment. Waldman shows by referring to documents of the period and by pointing just as much to what is absent from these documents than to what is included that the Second Amendment was designed to protect the ownership of a weapon in conjunction with the protection of a militia. This militia was there to do away with the need for a standing army, the first step to the creation of a tyrannical dictatorship as far as those Founding Fathers were concerned. As Waldman points out, the rise of the professional army in the 20th century put paid to those fears – for most people – and thus should be taken into consideration in any discussion of the Second Amendment.

From there, Waldman explores the influence of the Supreme Court and the rise of the National Rifle Association, providing some interesting insight into the history of the NRA. For instance, it is apparent from historical documents that the NRA initially favoured gun control – it is only later that the organisation became radicalised and thus began to take the hard right position that it has taken in recent year.

Throughout, Waldman makes it clear that the debate about the Second Amendment has always been a debate between historians vs. lawyers – a debate that the historians have lost. Instead, the current understanding of the Second Amendment has been decided and imposed not by historical research, nor even by political bodies. Instead it is the Supreme Court, led mainly by Antonin Scalia in the Heller decision of 2008, who have made that distinction. One of the best parts of the book is the way that Waldman takes the Scalia decision apart, showing how the ‘contextual’ understanding the Justice defends is actually anything but. Still, Waldman remains optimistic that the Supreme Court has always followed the moods of the people and as that mood shifts more towards gun control, it is possible that the decisions of the Supreme Court Justices will shift along with it.

The Second Amendment: A Biography is an excellent exploration of a complex subject. Rather than demonising either side in the debate, Waldman presents each side with the historical context, showing how the amendment was forged and how it was interpreted throughout history. While his own political leanings (Waldman was one of Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriters) are clear throughout, he gives the entire debate a fair shake. Still, it is difficult to argue with his conclusions: the current gun control climate is the result of the radicalisation of conservative organisations like the NRA and the influence of law courts instead of the people’s representatives. Still, the book ends on an optimistic note, one that those who have suffered from the lack of common sense gun control laws will hope to see one day. I gave The Second Amendment: A Biography 5 Wild West gun control signs out of 5.

dimanche 20 juillet 2014

New on the Library Shelves 20 07 14

AKA Showcase Sunday

A new segment here, participating in the Showcase Sunday meme over at Books, Biscuits & Tea.


I signed up to Edelweiss this week, which allowed me to get a couple of ARCs that I had been looking forward to for a while -  Tigerman by Nick Harkaway and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I also purchased one of my most highly awaited releases of the year: Daniel Silva's newest Gabriel Allon novel, The Heist. That goes right to the top of my To-Read list for next month!

For review:
The Yankee Club by Michael Murphy (historical)
The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice (history)
Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets by Various (sff)
The Gift of Darkness by V.M. Giambanco (thriller)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer (thriller)
Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little (thriller)
Here is Where by Andrew Carroll (non-fiction)
Violins of Hope by James A. Grymes (history)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (sf)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (thriller)

The Godless by Ben Peek (fantasy)

The Heist by Daniel Silva (thriller)
Illusive by Emily Lloyd-Jones (superhero)
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (historical)
The Magicians by Lev Grossman (fantasy)
The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi (sf)
Nice Dragons Finish Last by Rachel Aaron (urban fantasy)
Deadly Curiosities by Gail Z. Martin (urban fantasy)
The Kills by Richard House (literary)

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Books, Biscuits & Tea.

samedi 19 juillet 2014

The New Men by Jon Enfield

“In Sociological, we make men.”

So says Tony Grams, an Italian immigrant to America at the start of the twentieth century who joins the Ford Motor Company as an investigator, charged with looking into the life, standards, morals and family of the men who work for Henry Ford. In return for living a sober, dedicated life, the men who work on the Model T are offered the chance to double their wages... but only if the investigators of Sociological sign off on it. But as a worldwide war, racial tension and the rise of labor trouble begin to put pressure on everyone associated with Ford’s company, Tony begins a love affair that may bring his own life crashing down around him...

The New Men is one of those books that if it had not been for browsing through Netgalley would never even have appeared on my radar. When I saw it in the History section, though, I was initially drawn to the cover, a stylish blue and black concoction that seems to have come out of a Prohibition-era gangster flick. The blurb disabused me of that notion, but the idea of a historical novel centred around turn of the century America and the rise of the Ford Motor Company still caught my fancy. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, so I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

The New Men is a well realised historical novel set in Detroit, which affords not only a glimpse of the strange new world that has arisen thanks to Ford’s revolutionary practices, but also gives an interesting look into the rise of our world. Through the eyes of Tony Grams, we learn about the Sociological program, Ford’s idea of sharing his profits with his workers, but only if they can pass a strenuous series of probing interviews and investigations into their lives. Whether it be how they spend their money, who their family is or what their moral standing is in the community, all of these elements are raked over and studied by the men of Sociological, men of which Tony Grams becomes a part.

Throughout the book, an underlying current of racism is prevalent, though not necessarily against men of a different skin colour. Each investigator is charged with looking into the lives of his fellow countrymen – so for example Tony is assigned to work with other ‘wops’, since his employers believe that he will be best able to deal with them and find ways of slipping them up. That racial tension becomes obvious in Tony’s encounters with two of his colleagues - Merry, on one side, who takes Tony under his wing, and Smythe on the other who seems to have developed a hatred for Tony based solely on the fact that he is from Italy.

This creates a very uncomfortable atmosphere throughout the novel – Tony is constantly under scrutiny himself and the pressure he feels drips from the pages. I would not suggest reading this if you’re in a bad mood or feeling a little down: the feeling of opression that reigns will only serve to push you even further! If read with the right frame of mind, though, the book turns into a tense thriller of a novel, as Tony becomes involved with corporate espionage and the fight for and against socialist influence in the Ford company.

Through Tony’s encounters with Thia, a divorcee he quickly falls in love with, we also get a glimpse into the way society’s mores are changing in this new world. The relationship forms the core of Tony’s story, as he falls in and out of bed with her and becomes more and more embroiled in her life. When Tony begins to put himself on the line for her and her family, things become even more tense as the novel builds towards a relatively dark ending.

The New Men is extremely well written, providing an impressive picture of the world at the time. However, it is also quite dry, with a main character it is often difficult to become attached to. Although we follow Tony through all of his ups and downs, I never found myself rooting for him as a hero, and he often seemed to endure and suffer through situations rather than affecting the world around him. Many of his choices are difficult to understand and relate to, so it may be difficult for some people to become invested in the story.

However, The New Men is a book that will stay with me. The themes explored are universal and the work put into creating this turn of the century world is impressive. The writing flows nicely and kept me engaged where the main character did not. It is not without its flaws, and yet it is a book I have found myself thinking about more and more ever since I closed the last page. Overall, I gave The New Men 3 Model-T’s out of 5.

jeudi 17 juillet 2014

She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick

When her father, a writer who has become obsessed with the idea of writing a novel about coincidence, vanishes from Austria, where he is supposed to be doing research, Laureth Peak is convinced that something has happened to him. Unable to convince her mother of the danger, she decides to follow up the only lead she has – her father’s notebook which has mysteriously appeared in New York – on her own. Stealing her mother’s credit card and ‘enlisting’ the help of her little brother Benjamin, Laureth sets out to solve the clues left in her father’s notebook. The obstacles facing any 16-year old girl alone in New York, though, are made all the more challenging by one single fact – Laureth Peak is blind.

I’ve heard a lot about Marcus Sedgwick over the years on various blogs and websites – an eclectic author who has written both literary and more genre works, I have always heard good things about his writing and the plots he develops. So when She Is Not Invisible appeared on a “Books-to-Watch-Out-For” post on a blog I frequent, I decided to pick it up and give it a go. And after reaching the end, I am glad I did. She Is Not Invisible is a wonderful, quirky, intriguing novel, which only just fails to reach perfection due to a sloppy execution of the conclusion.

The first and key thing that works in She Is Not Invisible is Laureth, our narrator. Laureth is our guide through the novel, especially since the whole thing is told through her eyes. As such she is an intriguing and completely original narrator, one who manages to portray an entire world despite the fact that she is blind. Although her blindness is an obvious and ever-present factor, it is not allowed to become her only defining characteristic: Laureth is a quirky, strong, uncertain and slightly unhinged character who carries us along with us through the strength of her personality and the power of her convictions.

The strength of her character makes up for what could have been some major problems with the beginning of the novel, which probably means that your own reaction to the book will be dependent on how you react to Laureth. Considering that she is able – as a blind sixteen-year old girl on her own with a seven-year old brother she has basically kidnapped – to con her way onto an airplane and travel all the way to New York, where she is then able to carry on an investigation that constantly forces her to interact with people who may or may not realise she has a disability... Well, if you allow yourself to be dragged in by Laureth’s voice, the chances are that the various parts of the plot that require a certain suspension of belief will work as well for you as they did for me. Otherwise, your mileage may definitely vary!

Those elements aside, She Is Not Invisible provides us with an intriguing and tense mystery, one that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout while I was reading it. As Laureth puts together the elements of the puzzle left behind in her father’s notebook, we start to get a hint of dark forces at work, all centred around her father’s new obesssion – coincidence. Through these sections, Segdwick takes us on a journey through philosophy and physics, using such historical figures as Einstein and Edgar Allan Poe to explore the mysteries surrounding coincidence. Thanks to some well placed diversions into Laureth’s father’s notes, we gain an insight into a field of which I knew little, but which definitely left me intrigued to learn more.

This mystery, unfortunately, is let down by a clumsy conclusion that seems to be unsure as to what it is trying to do. While it wraps up the mystery of her father’s disappearance and brings Laureth full circle with her family, it also seems to wipe away everything that has happened up until now and relegates everything that Laureth and her brother have achieved to an almost farcical trip down a rabbit hole. Her father’s sudden change of heart as to coincidence and the banal explanation of what happened to him are disappointing, and it is difficult to see where Sedgwick is trying to go with his novel by the last few pages.

This does nothing to take away from the journey up until then. Sedgwick creates some great characters besides Laureth – her brother Benjamin and the extremely quirky Mr. Walker especially stand out. As in many YA novels, the adults are either a hindrence or non-existence – Laureth’s parents do not come off particularly well at any point in the story, though they do get their happy ending in the conclusion. A handful of other elements stood out – I really enjoyed the recurring joke about the father’s earlier ‘funny’ books, and the constant reference to the number 354 and the lengths Laureth takes that too through the book were excellent.

All in all, She Is Not Invisible is an accomplished YA mystery with an engaging and original narrator. While building up an extremely interesting philosophical puzzle, the novel is let down by a confusing and clumsy conclusion that does not live up to the expectations of the earlier plot. Requiring a certain amount of suspension of belief at times, it is nevertheless a taut, well-told story that kept me on the edge of my feat. I will definitely be picking up the next book Mr Sedgwick releases.

I gave She Is Not Invisible 4 electricity-cancelling brothers out of 5.