Wednesday, February 29, 2012

For Love of Mother Book

     About six years ago I began posting book reviews to this blog in an attempt to communicate my views concerning the books I was reading. I hope that in some small way I've provided meaningful insight and in the process helped you discover some excellent reading material while doing so. In that time I have been fortunate to have discovered a number of publishing houses, on-line book sites, and commercial book sellers that were willing to provide Advance Reader Copies, Galleys, Uncorrected Proofs, and previously published works to me to review. I would be remiss if I didn't mention and thank and their Early Reviewers Program, the Vine Program, and the numerous authors who’ve offered their work for review. They began a chain of events that eventually morphed into this blog. If you have not heard of them or are not currently a member I encourage you to check out their programs. They are more than worthwhile.

     In addition to the ARC's I receive I also purchase and review my fair share of books by authors I have come to love, trust, and respect. My experience reading and reviewing so many books each year has been both intellectually rewarding and stimulating. Although some of you have disagreed with a few of my reviews the overwhelming e-mail responses that I've received over the years have been generally favorable and those that weren't often made me consider my review (and views) more critically though none have been persuasive enough to actually make me change the content of a review or the number of stars I've awarded a book. The point being, the real reason I post so many reviews lies in the undeniable fact that there are so many excellent books to be found in speculative fiction. My task then is to find those great books and report back here, with a critical eye, so that others may experience that same enjoyment.

     Case in point, the books found in the preceding review, Stephen King's 11/22/63 and my next two reviews, Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby and Among Others by Jo Walton (to follow soon) make my work very easy. Each, in their way, is a marvelous work of fiction. Though totally different in plot, texture, and voice they spoke to me differently on a personal level. The profound enjoyment I experience when reading books like these is, in a sense, what prompted this non-book review post and ultimately started my review addiction in the first place. Ever on the watch for excellent reading material I encourage you to pass on the titles of any books that have touched you, struck a chord, or simply blew you away. Post a comment, start a thread of your favorite new books, and please continue to support this blog by visiting often. Many of you have noticed and commented that I have no true posting schedule. This is because, as a one-man operation, I try to complete an entire book, formulate my views, and then write them before posting. This can be time consuming. I hope you recognize that if a week goes by without a post you can trust that I am working on a review or two or ten.

     In conclusion, I would like to thank you for your continued support of this blog. When a book gives me something valuable I try and return the favor by providing an in-depth and concise review, though my words often don’t do justice to them. With that said, don't wait for my next two reviews to be posted before investigating or purchasing any of the three books I've pointed out in this post. Each is, in my opinion, a future classic masterpiece. You won't be dissatisfied.

      The Alternative
      Southeast Wisconsin

“Bibliotropic… We naturally turn towards the bookshop."
- Jo Walton, Among Others

Coming soon...
Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby
Among Others by Jo Walton
Conqueror by Conn Iggulden
The Baggage Handler by Colin Browne
Hatha Yoga Asanas by Daniel DiTuro and Ingrid Yang
Against the Light by Dave Duncan

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book Review - 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: November 8, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-1451627282
849 pages


     For those of you who don’t already know this, I’ve always been a fan of Stephen King’s work. However, I don’t normally read a lot of horror, don’t really enjoy being frightened out of my wits, and would much rather spend my time reading Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Poetry instead. But, there is always something compelling and interesting about every work by this grand master of dark fiction and I seek out and buy his new books whenever they are released. A few stand out to me as some of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. The Stand, Under the Dome, and the Dark Tower series for instance, will always be some of the most enjoyable reading I’ve ever done. But 11/22/63 stands alone among all of Stephen King’s other works. Yes, it is as interesting and persuasive as anything he’s ever written. Yes, he is the “everyman” of modern writers and proves it every time he sits down at his typewriter, including this time. Yes, he knows his audience and writes accordingly. But the assassination of John F. Kennedy still tugs at the hearts and minds of those who lived through those unhappy times, 11/22/63 even more so. King does not tell us what was lost on that fateful day in Dallas. He deftly, heartbreakingly shows us in infinite detail. The twists and turns found in this unique time-travel tale about the prevention of the assassination of JFK made my head spin, but in a good way. The consequences of time travel are clearly spelled out in King’s alternate universe and the myriad of possible time-lines and “what-ifs” are indelibly written. What if you could travel to the past, stay as long as you wanted, and upon your return find that only two minutes had passed? What would you do with all that time? What would you do if you traveled to the past and found out that you had somehow become the world’s worst enemy? Or that you had sufficiently changed the course of time to cause a near-extinction event?

     The protagonist, Jacob "Jake" Epping, a recently-divorced high school English teacher, continues down the time-stream handed to him by a dying time traveler and attempts to prevent JFK’s murder. But the machinations of time are not easily deceived and the past has a few surprises in store for anyone arrogant enough to try and change it. Some might even say, “Be careful what you wish for!” Yet, King maneuvers through this mine-field of twisting time-lines as deftly as any writer who has ever attempted to manipulate the past and the various sub-plots and side-stories are perfect accompaniments to the story itself. We learn early on that changing the past, even in small increments, has significant consequences. So, what do you imagine an enormous change to the past might do? Don’t worry; Stephen King has already done that for you…

     I won’t give away any of the surprises found in 11/22/63 but I will tell you that there are at least a dozen “wow” moments (and I mean WOW!) in this story and it is well worth the price of admission. You’ll be changed by this book and you’ll be filled with emotion. You will come away with your thoughts provoked and your feelings stirred. You will contemplate the seriousness of the story and you will be moved. You can’t help but be.

     11/22/63 is best suited for history buffs, time travel fans, and every other human on the planet. It’s that good, folks, an instant classic, in my estimation, and I recommend it to readers of every genre imaginable, and even some unimaginable.

     M-O-O-N that spells masterpiece!

6 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Stephen King Website

Stephen 11/22/63 Page

11/22/63 Wiki Page

NY Times Review

Bangor Daily News Review

11/22/63 The Movie?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review - The Hidden by Tobias Hill

The Hidden
Tobias Hill
Format: eBook
File Size: 512 KB
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: October 13, 2009
Pages: 458 (Portrait view)
ISBN: 978-0-06-194305-8


          There’s no denying that Tobias Hill has great skill and mastery over the English language and the mystery veiled in The Hidden was compelling enough on the surface to pique my interest but certain aspects of this story did not meet my expectations. One would think that with a story written about an archeological dig in Sparta, Greece that the so-called “hidden” (and, since I dislike spoilers, I won’t divulge what it is here) would be an extraordinary, unprecedented discovery. Think of the possibilities; undiscovered treasure of immense value or warring archeology factions, perhaps a supernatural entity unleashed accidently or even an ancient murder mystery uncovered – sadly, none of the above comes remotely close to the reality. And that’s the real problem with this story. The “hidden,” once known, is so mundane and “been-there-done-that” that I was very disappointed when Mr. Hill finally revealed it. It’s evident that Tobias Hill is a gifted writer. His prose paints fabulous mental images. His characters are believable, real and substantial, but not convincingly appealing in this story and while I was drawn in by his detailed descriptions and the clarity of his voice the narrative seriously lagged in places and what he created with a talented hand fell far short in substance.

           When I first started writing this review I had in mind giving The Hidden a solid two and a half stars but the more I thought about it the more I decided to boost that to a three; simply because of Hill’s writing proficiency and acumen. The subject is worthy of a story but this one could have been managed profoundly better. I am certain that there are readers that will thoroughly enjoy this mystery but for me the one thing that kept me reading was the anticipation of the reveal which, once uncovered, was a regrettable choice by the author and a disappointment to me.

          With that said, I should mention that I will attempt to read Tobias Hill again in the future. He definitely has the chops and I do enjoy his style. This story may not have stood out for me but the next may. And, I will say this… It is rare that I give unfavorable reviews but rarer still that I read additional works by an author that did not live up to my expectations. Mr. Hill is an exceptional writer  and I will seek out his next book.

2 1/2 (oh, yeah) 3 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

The Guardian Review

NY Times Review

Tobias Hill Wiki Page

Tobias Hill Interview

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Book Review - A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan
A Visit From the Goon Squad
Alfred Knopf
365 pages (eBook portrait)
ISBN: 0307477479


A Visit From the Goon Squad has been characterized by various critics and reviewers as either a book of short stories or a novel (depending on the day of the week or who you ask) but in this reviewers opinion it hardly matters. A Visit From the Goon Squad is urban fantasy at its finest whether in short or long form. Centered on a self-destructive cast of characters the book is mostly an editorial on aging and how different people cope with the inevitable advance of time and of growing old. Set for the most part in New York, the story centers around an aging rock music executive, his one-time kleptomaniac assistant, and their various odd-ball friends and strange associates.

While the story itself is strong and the plot engaging where Egan excels is with the characters. The flaws, the faults, the inner struggles we all face become fodder for the pen of this exceptional and gifted writer. She displays the conflicts, emotions, and depressing thoughts everyone undergoes when considering the fact that we are all growing older. That she does it with such skill is a testament to how well she understands the human condition and the thoughts that assail us as we grow older. It is not surprising to me that Egan won the Pulitzer for this book. It really is that good (and I do not always agree with all the choices that win.) This is one of those rare books that I recommend for everyone. A must read no matter what genre trips your trigger. A Visit From the Goon Squad has moved into my 100 books to read before you die... so get to it. You won't be disappointed.

4 1/2 out of 5

The Alternative One
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Read an Excerpt

Author Page

First 13 Chapters of the book, apps, and more

Guardian Review

New York Times Review

Time Magazine’s 100 Influential People

Note: A Visit From the Goon Squad won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is currently being adapted by HBO into a television series.

Past Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction

Vintage Book Review - World War III by Brian Harris

World War III
Brian Harris
Publisher: Pocket
Release: January 1, 1982
ISBN-10: 0671442937
ISBN-13: 978-0671442934
261 Pages (portrait view)


World War III by Brian Harris is an altogether realistic portrayal of events that might push the world into global conflict. Wheat shortages in Russia, global depletion of oil resources, and rogue military units come together to bring the world to the brink of global destruction and seconds away from nuclear war. World War III builds up into an exciting though frightening and quite realistic scenario of events that could cause two super-powers to come to blows that force the world into its final conflict. Brian Harris does an excellent job of building up events that could prove the annihilation of the planet but his strong suit is the action scenes. Every time a gun is drawn, a bomb explodes, or someone dies in World War III it is for a purpose. There is no gratuitous violence here and I, for one, found it refreshing that he never strayed from the plot of the book. That he left us hanging was exactly the right way to end the book.

The amazing thing about World War III is that while it was written in 1982 the premise and the story still hold up admirably. I'm not entirely sure if that's because world politics hasn't changed that much in 30 years or because of Harris' skill with a pen. Being a book lover I'd have to side with Harris. This book is recommended for post-apocalyptic fans, military geeks, and action/adventure fanatics of all kinds.

3 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Amazon Page

Book Review - The Lost Diaries of John Smith by Phillip Rhodes

The Lost Diaries of John Smith
Phillip Rhodes
July 2011
Smashwords Edition
148 pages (portrait)
ASIN: B0059V8462


The Lost Diaries of John Smith by Phillip Rhodes takes a dark look at a calamity that brings the government of England and all its social and economic institutions to a standstill. It is about survival, and searching for loved ones, and being caught up in events that no one has control over. Told in short, vignette-like chapters and discovered diary fragments The Lost Diaries of John Smith represents a growing interest in post-apocalyptic stories that run the gambit from total destruction of the planet to local isolation due to disaster or unforeseen societal breakdown. The Lost Diaries is a clear example of the later and is very successful in many ways. But the compelling factor, in my opinion, is that the author kept my interest through the entire story (even with some glaring mechanical errors) and I read quickly through the Diary to see what had become of the character named in the title. Throw in a quest motif and a few aliens and you have a solid venture worth reading.

One disconcerting aspect about this book was the unusual number of spelling and editing errors and misused words (plague for plaque, for instance.) I assumed at the time that I was reading an ARC, in which it is common to find many spelling errors, but if this was not an Advance Reader Copy then the author is in serious need of a good copyeditor. About the only other negative thing I can say about it is that it was much too short and I, for one, wish I'd thought of the idea. If you enjoy character-driven post-apocalyptic fiction, quest narratives, or stories of suffering, loss, and redemption then The Lost Diaries of John Smith is for you.

3 out of 5 stars
The Alternative

Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Amazon Page

Author's Blog

Post-Apocalyptic Earth Forum

Friday, February 10, 2012

Book Review - The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
Lev Grossman
Series: The Magicians (1)
416 pages


While perusing some of the prominent book review sites I have seen a lot of reviewers agree that Lev Grossman's The Magicians is comparable to Harry Potter or Narnia. I can see how the comparison is inevitable but I have to respectfully disagree with that assessment. Grossman's work does deal with a school for young magicians and a fantasy land that can be entered through a water fountain but that is where the similarities end. In my estimation, The Magicians is more urban fantasy than either Potter or Narnia and centers on more current issues while being somewhat less juvenile. While Potter is an epic coming of age story and Narnia a cautionary tale of good versus evil The Magicians is more a narrative guidebook for young adults coping with very real adult issues. How will I fit in with the rest of the world when I have to go out into it alone? How do I muddle through a budding new romance and/or the loss of love? How do I cope with my pain, my anger, my social status, or my relationships? And, how do I set my moral compass in a world so corrupt and unfeeling? All these issues and more, I think, are handled expertly and convincingly by Mr. Grossman. And while there may be no real answers to any of those questions Grossman guides us through the landmines of maturity without detonating any of the explosives.

There is another thread of reviews that declare that this story does not paint the various worlds deep enough and that a lot has been withheld but I do not believe those reviewers understand the complexity of creating a series of books or the difficulties of successful world-building. What they are looking for will, I think, be revealed in the upcoming books in the series.

The Magicians is a complex, fascinating, and truly enjoyable read. Mr. Grossman's style is engaging and clear and the plot is solid and the characters truly come alive on the page. I found the book to be everything I had hoped for, not a gap to fill the young adult hole left by the last Potter books, but a unique story unto itself and worth your while. The Magicians is a definite must read and I enjoyed it so much that I purchased the second book in the series so that I could delve back into the world Lev Grossman has created. Add to that the very real teenage characters he's created and brought to life and you have a wonderful and complete urban fantasy about young adults learning to cope in a strange but very authentic world.

This is a gripping, entertaining read that should appeal to all fantasy fans (urban or otherwise), magic lovers, and those who might learn from the trials suffered by most young adults.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast, Wisconsin

The Magicians Series:

1. The Magicians 2009

2. The Magician King 2011

Additional Reading:

Lev Grossman Website

Lev Grossman Wiki Page

Magicians in the News

Village Voice Review

Friday, February 03, 2012

Absence makes the heart grow fonder...

After a month long vacation I am back. Please hold while I connect your party....

New reviews (and lots of them) coming soon.

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin