Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book Review - The Journal of Curious Letters by James Dashner

The Journal of Curious Letters (Book One of The 13th Reality Series)… by James Dashner

The Journal of Curious Letters
(Book One of The13th Reality Series)
By James Dashner
(Advanced Reader Copy)

What do Quantum Physics, the Bermuda Triangle and cemeteries have in common?
The 13th Realty holds the answer to that question…

Thirteen year old chess and science geek Atticus Higginbottom (Tick, to his friends) is drawn into a life and death struggle between the influences of good and evil among alternate universes. When twelve mysterious letters are delivered to Tick that will reveal a supernatural and secret ritual to “save the lives of many people” he sets out to unravel the mysteries hidden in the clues which will send him on a journey rife with peril. Along the way Tick meets and befriends three other teenagers who have also committed to the cause. An eight foot tall woman named Mothball and Rutger, a short, rotund man with a mischievous sense of humor serve as both tutor and vanguard to Tick and his friends. Guiding them all is the mysterious Master George.

The Journal of Curious Letters is a unique story for both children and adults young at heart and has all the markings of a strong series. It is full of high adventure and the pace quickens considerably once the initial plot and characters have been fleshed out. There is enough action interspersed throughout to balance the plot with the antagonists and protagonists and the last few chapters overflow with conflict and exploration. While I could complain about character development and exposition I won’t, simply because I’m absolutely sure most of us could not create and write what James Dashner has accomplished here.

After reading the back cover blurb I wanted to believe that this book could be the next “Harry Potter” or “His Dark Materials.” It isn’t, of course, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing since the distinctiveness of this tale makes me look forward to reading the next book in the series. In my humble estimation this book should rest on the same bookshelf next to the above named children’s books as an equal in its own tradition.

I look forward to learning more about Master George, Mistress Jane and “The 13th Realty” which is why I will put up my hard earned cash for the next installment when it becomes available.

Four stars for the legend and a half star for the exceptionally creative idea.

The Alternative One
Southeastern Wisconsin
Feb 14, 2008

Book Review - Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling

Dies the Fire (Roc Science Fiction) by S.M. Stirling
Alternate History at its best...

S. M. Stirling delivers an engrossing story of post-apocalyptic America, New Age witches and desperate cannibals. “Dies the Fire” recounts the back-to-the-earth hand-to-mouth conflict of civilization to survive "The Change," a global incident that alters the physical laws of the world to make all modern technology worthless.

The novel follows the civilization building actions of Mike Havel, a former Marine pilot, and Juniper Mackenzie, a New Age Wiccan priestess and Celtic songwriter as they build separate but cooperative communities in the American Northwest.

4 and ½ of 5 stars

Other Books of the Change

Island in the Sea of Time
1. Island in the Sea of Time (1997)
2. Against the Tide of Years (1998)
3. On the Oceans of Eternity (2000)

Dies the Fire
1. Dies the Fire (2004)
2. The Protector's War (2005)
3. A Meeting at Corvallis (2006)

1. The Sunrise Lands (2007)
2. The Scourge of God (2008)

The Alternative One
Southeastern Wisconsin
April 6, 2008

Book Review - The Last Oracle by James Rollins

The Last Oracle
by James Rollins
(Advance Reader’s Edition)

The Last Oracle is a Sigma Force adventure that combines elements of Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (the gestalt of remarkable children), Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (a mystery enveloped in adventure), autistic savants (empaths, sensitives and precognitives) and the history of the Oracle of Delphi.

This book relies slightly on the story that preceded it (Judas Strain) but reading the earlier books in the series is not required to enjoy this story.

A Russian agency has bred Gypsy children and manipulated their DNA for half a century in an effort to create modern day precognitives (or oracles.) They plan to murder a consortium of world leaders and destroy the earth in a “blaze of fire” and, with ten mind-controlled and -altered “oracle” pawns, rule what remains. One precognitive in particular, a little girl named Sasha with undreamed of abilities and potential, is abducted while traveling in the United States and the race to save the world begins.

Enter Sigma Force… Commander Gray Pierce is a seasoned veteran of this “elite team of ex-Special Forces soldiers who had been retrained in scientific fields…” Their quest to avert the apocalypse begins when Pierce witnesses a murder on the Mall in Washington, DC. In an effort to uncover the mystery surrounding the murder Pierce and a cadre of operatives move around the globe from Washington to the Punjab region of India to Chernobyl, Ukraine following clues left behind by the dead man. Sigma Force uncovers the plot and must work to prevent the annihilation of the world and destroy the Russian faction and its cohorts.

Monk, a member of the Sigma Force whose memory has been erased by the Russians, helps three of the “special” children and a chimpanzee escape from the compound known as The Warren in the Ukraine. Chased by soldiers, wolves and tigers the group must survive the radioactive fields and lakes of the Ural Mountains and the pursuit of their captors to help bring a stop to Armageddon.

In true Rollins fashion the many diverse characters, groups and sub-plots coalesce and combine together in an astonishing action-filled finale.

Inconsistencies in the story:

1. On page 330 we find the following sentence: “Archibald Polk had died of acute radiation poisoning, possibly exposed here.” but on page 21 we are told that Archibald was shot on the Mall in Washington, D.C. We later learn that the radiation levels in his body were so high that they would have killed him within weeks. But Archibald Polk died of gunshot wounds and not radiation. This is a minor inconsistency, but one that should be fixed prior to mass publication.

2. On page 335 when Gray is chasing Nicolas he gets pinned down by gunfire from Elena. Then… “Gray checked his watch. Ten minutes.” Since Gray is not part of the conspiracy and arrived on the scene late how would he know that there were ten minutes left? And ten minutes to what? He has no knowledge at this point that any event is going to happen yet he seems to know the time frame. I found these two sentences out of place and used probably only for dramatic purpose. Note: There are also a number of typographical errors in the ARC which usually get fixed before mass publication.

The Sigma Force Series
1. Sandstorm (2004)
2. Map of Bones (2005)
3. Black Order (2006)
4. Judas Strain (2007)
5. The Last Oracle (2008)

A word about James Rollins – After reading a number of his other novels (Subterranean, Excavation and Amazonia) I’ve come to respect Rollin’s work because of his ability to create stories that contain multiple layers and sub-plots that keep the reader interested in the story until the last word. He has that rare talent of orchestrating three or more story lines and characters that interweave together fluidly. His novels are quick reads – not because their simple but simply because you’ll relentlessly turn pages in an excited frenzy to find out what happens next. The highest compliment I could pay him is that if they ever made a movie of one of his stories I’d shell out the $8.00 to see that too (even though I know how it’d end.)

Four and a half stars of five

The Alternative
April 12th, 2008
Southeast Wisconsin

Book Review - People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks

Pulitzer Prize winner Brooks has created an historical-based and insightful story that will both entertain and enlighten and integrates a thought-provoking and emotional plot with imperfect, yet very human, characters.

Reminiscent of The Red Violin, People of the Book takes us on a journey that trails an illuminated Haggadah, or Hebrew prayer book, throughout history and tells the stories of the people involved in its creation and protection. This voyage takes us into the dungeons of the Church during the Spanish Inquisition, through the seizure of art and the censorship and burning of books by the Nazis in World War II and then to the salvation of the book from destruction during the unrest in Sarajevo. Each of these stories, and others, gives the reader a glimpse into the history of the acts of construction and preservation of a humble yet significant book.

Hanna Heath, a manuscript conservationist, is asked to preserve a prayer book by the museum in Bosnia that holds it. In doing so she uncovers a number of mundane yet historical artifacts that have lain buried in the vellum and crevices of the pages for hundreds of years. Each found item reveals a significant portion of the complete story. A piece of a butterfly wing, tiny fragments of sea salt, wine and blood spots and an unidentified white hair provide flashbacks to historical times and places that unravel the mysteries of the painstaking art of manufacturing and the struggle to protect this ancient manuscript. Each item traces a few moments in the lives of people associated with the book and uncovers a piece of the puzzle explaining its existence and survival. (The story of Lola and the people in her life is an exceptionally emotional one which will bring you to tears.)

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a mystery, intrigue, history or just a great story.

For more information concerning this book see Brooks’ Readers Guide here:

Five out of five stars

The Alternative
April 30th, 2008
Southeast Wisconsin

Book Review - Time Bandit by Andy and Jonathan Hillstrand

Time Bandit
(Two Brothers, The Bearing Sea, and One of the World’s Deadliest Jobs)
By Andy and Jonathan Hillstrand, with Malcolm MacPherson
Ballantyne Books
Copyright 2008; 230 pages
Advance Uncorrected Proof

“Time Bandit” recounts the adventures of the Hillstrand Brothers, Andy and Jonathan, captains of the fishing vessel of the same name which is highlighted on the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.” Written as a memoir, the book chronicles in detail the adventures of the two brothers and their crew when they are not out fishing for crab in the Bering Sea. Not surprisingly, that includes more fishing, drinking, womanizing, fishing, a bit of ranching and a little more fishing. The most interesting thing about the book is, in fact, the two brothers. They are, without a doubt, characters which even the best fiction writers could not duplicate. They are real people with real faults doing the deadliest job on the planet and that is what appeals to me.

While not high literature “Time Bandit” does give us an insight into a vanishing way of life. This is a social commentary on a particular vanishing breed of men and their profession. While reading the book I was reminded of other professions that were lost in similar fashion. The small farms of one hundred years ago no longer exist today. Most have been swallowed up by vast conglomerate farming corporations. And tuna fishing has changed drastically, too. No more do muscular men wrangle and struggle to land huge tuna onto a boat with a pole and line. The difference here is that this lifestyle, which will someday disappear, has been documented and we are lucky enough to view it first hand.

In some ways I liked this book more for what it was not than what it was. It is not a glitzy Hollywood remake of the Perfect Storm or a recount of every fight and brawl experienced. It is about the brave men who work in the most dangerous of places, who love what they do and do not complain about their lot in life. Most of us could learn a lesson from that…

Three and a half stars out of five

The Alternative
Southeastern Wisconsin
May 17th, 2008

Book Review - Bikeman by Thomas F. Flynn

Bikeman (An Epic Poem)
By Thomas F. Flynn
Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC
Copyright 2008; 76 pages Early Review

Close proximity to any event of historic significance must give one a more profound view and enhanced understanding of it than those outside its perimeter. I cannot imagine the sense of loss, disorientation, panic and grief suffered on that day in September when the World Trade buildings fell. I retain my own feelings regarding 911 but they cannot match the intensity of emotions of those living in New York at the time.

Through his poetry Thomas F. Flynn attempts to reveal a ground level glimpse of his actions, and more importantly his emotions, on that tragic day. His prose is both genuine and insightful and like any good writer he has the ability to turn a phrase that the reader will remember. It did not, however, have the impact I expected. It did not jar me to my knees in sorrow or bring me to tears as I thought it might. Rather, more subtle emotions were at play here. His poetry reports the swift changes that took place from the mundane of the day-to-day to extraordinary feats of bravery and sacrifice to destruction, incomprehension, and loss of life.

In my opinion, Flynn’s poetry fails to match the degree of magnitude and portray the intense and painful sorrow the events expressed. But, then again, few mortals, let alone poets, can. I imagine this work was in some ways as difficult to write as the experience itself. How many of us would be brave enough to dredge up those memories and re-live them for the entire world to see? For that reason alone this work demands our respect.

Bikeman is a fine epic poem of many dimensions with several different components. Save the first, which is a soliloquy of his emotional experience, each describes an event that Flynn endured on that fateful day. It is literally full of grit, and grief and raw emotion. While not my idea of exceptional poetry it should be read for its historic value and it’s first hand account of one of the most tragic episodes in American history. It is, in small measure, a single piece of the total chaotic story that none of us will ever forget and few of us could impart so well.

Three out of five stars

The Alternative
Southeastern Wisconsin
June 1st, 2008

Book Review - The Charlemagne Pursuit by Steve Berry

The Charlemagne Pursuit
Steve Berry
Ballantine Books
Copyright 2008; 509 pages
Advance Reader’s Edition

Cotton Malone’s most personal adventure to date pits him in league and at odds with sisters Dorothea and Christl Oberhauser. In 1971 a nameless, super-secret United States nuclear submarine is lost in Antarctica. Aboard is Cotton’s father, Forrest, Officer-in-Charge, and Dietz Oberhauser, mission Field Specialist and the patriarch of the Oberhauser fortune. The assignment and the submarine are so secret that its existence and the incident are hidden from the public for over 40 years. When Cotton is approached by the sisters, who search for answers concerning the death of their father and that ill-fated mysterious journey, he reluctantly joins them in their quest which parallels his investigation of his father’s disappearance.

The mystery grows when secrets from the reign of the Emperor Charlemagne are revealed and the plot then entwines elements of rogue foreign intelligence officers, a corrupt Navy officer bent on becoming the next Vice-President, deranged racial Nazi philosophy, a strange manuscript from Charlemagne’s tomb and the mystery of an ancient hidden civilization. The manuscript, which has never been translated, the architecture of Charlemagne’s Chapel, historical characters from the Holy Roman Empire and the hint of a pre-historic advanced civilization deepen the mystery and provide an intriguing thriller filled with unforgettable characters and an exciting sense of action.

Yes, Berry finds a way to bring all these elements together in a satisfactory and entertaining climax.

Cotton Malone is a very interesting and memorable character. Part Doc Savage, part Indiana Jones mixed with a bit of Mack Bolan he is the epitome of the macho secret agent; intelligent enough to crack difficult puzzles, ruthless enough to kill when necessary and, as a rare book dealer, has an extremely erudite grasp of world history. All of which make him a difficult and formidable opponent.

This is the third Cotton Malone novel I’ve had the pleasure to read and Berry never fails to keep my interest.

Note: The mysterious manuscript used throughout the book is known as the Voynich Manuscript which is an actual illustrated book of unknown origin written in an indecipherable text between 1450 and 1520 AD. It plays a pivotal role in the book and I was very excited to see it used as a plot device. The author, script, and language of the manuscript remain unknown to this day. Not a single word from this document has ever been deciphered.

Four out of five stars.

Books in the Cotton Malone Series:
1. The Templar Legacy (2006)
2. The Alexandria Link (2007)
3. The Venetian Betrayal (2007)
4. The Charlemagne Pursuit (2008)