Friday, December 28, 2018

Book Review - The Island of the Mad

I've only read the first couple of books in this series so I've missed some elements of the character development between Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. My wife has read them all and she's kept me abreast of which can be read out of order without spoiling things later on. I've always had a fascination with Italy and especially with Venice, so I was excited to check out this Mary/Sherlock novel with the canals of Venice as the backdrop. Naturally then, I was a little let down that it took about half of the book to finally arrive in Italy. I wasn't upset or overly disappointed with the story but I was hoping for a bit more Italian intrigue in The Island of the Mad.

The book starts out with a brief catch up of things mainly to set the stage and the state of Mary's mind. She's had a lot going on lately and so she's caught a little off guard (and perhaps also a little relieved) by a request from her old friend to help track down a missing person...her friend's aunt who disappeared from an asylum. Mary begins digging into the life of Aunt Vivian and the rest of her family. Slowly but surely she finds threads and hints of clues. In spite of very thorough and methodical searching it felt like any chance of success kept getting pulled away. Finally, about halfway through the book, Mary infers that dear Aunt Vivian may have run away to Venice and she heads off in pursuit.

As the series promises, this is a book about Mary Russell AND Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, Sherlock's interactions are sometimes more backgrounded and such is the case in this book. He helps with a little legwork here and there and gives Mary bits of advice and helps her work through ideas but for the most part, the case of the missing aunt is a case that Mary works through on her own. In fact, Sherlock has alternate motives for going to Italy. His brother has asked him to look into the "fascist" influence in the city. While Holmes helps Mary with a few inquiries he also makes his own inquiries and investigation into Mussolini's Blackshirt militia that's appearing in the city and keeping his eye out for the elusive British Lord planning to make a deal with Il Duce.

Without spoiling too much, the book ends with both Mary and Sherlock solving their case and melding the ends of the two cases together into a sort of slapstick finale.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Books Read in 2018

For the past few years (2017, 20162015, 2014, 20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I've had a goal to read and review a bunch of books over the course of each year.

My goal had been to average a book per week and end up with 50 books read and reviewed at the end of the year. I usually don't include smaller books (early middle grade, picture books, etc) unless I feel really strongly about them. For the past couple of years I've dropped well below my 50 and only ended up reviewing 14 books last year (though I did read more than that). I don't know if I'll get back to the ~50 range, but we'll see what I can do. Wish me luck.

  1. Cloud Atlas
  2. Artemis
  3. Anthem
  4. The Gospel at 30,000 Feet
  5. The Slow Regard of Silent Things
  6. The Pearl
  7. The Secret Adversary
  8. Deathworld
  9. The Boatman
  10. The Island of the Mad
  11. The Old Man and the Sea
  12. The Circular Staircase

Monday, December 17, 2018

Book Review - The Boatman

I didn't read much (any?) horror as a child. I remember having a copy of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" and generally enjoying those stories but I didn't read much else in the genre until I got older. As an adult, I really enjoyed books like Gaiman's Coraline and The Graveyard Book and feel like I would have liked them as a child. Naturally then, I was interested in checking out The Boatman.

The main protagonist is a young girl named Izzy. As in many tragic stories, her parents are dead and she has been placed under the guardianship of her aunt Ms Slaughter. We quickly find Izzy struggling against the harsh rules and regulations of her aunt and school and life. We also quickly learn that Izzy has a penchant to observe and interact with the supernatural world around her.

The writing in the story was entertaining and well structured. The descriptions were vibrant and the dialog was fun. I felt that the plot and story arc felt a little unsteady at points but overall it was alright.

While I enjoyed the book, it didn't come across as exactly the book I was expecting. For some reason, the book synopsis led me to think that the supernatural elements managed to cross over into the "real" world. Specifically, the last part of the synopsis says that she "invented" the Boatman, "a terrible monster that lures kids into a strange sleeping sickness." I expected the Boatman to be a supernatural villain who came into our world (through Izzy's actions) and began preying on children in the town. Minor spoiler alert...this doesn't happen.

The last half or third of the novel in particular really disconnected a little bit for me. The trajectory of horror novel shifted and became more of a psychological analysis (not even a psychological thriller per se). The message was insightful and interesting, if perhaps a bit heavy handed.

I felt like this was a fun story that kids would enjoy. It's just creepy enough to draw them in without being over-the-top scary in a way that would disturb them. The message/morale of the story is nice and could open up some reassuring discussions between parents and children. I loved the inclusion of artwork in parts of the book. I feel like more young/middle reader stories should include art like this. With the wonderful descriptive language of the author, the imagery was not a necessity but it added some fun diversions while turning pages. On the whole, I found this to be an enjoyable read that I'd gladly hand over to younger readers and one that I'd be willing to read aloud. It left me wanting a little more in some cases and feeling a little off balance when transitioning from the first half to the second half. Overall it was an enjoyable experience.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Book Review - Deathworld

I haven't read a ton of science fiction. My genre reading often leaned towards fantasy more than sci-fi. The author, Harry Harrison, was apparently quite a prolific writer and seemed to be generally well liked so when Deathworld came on my radar and I decided to give it a try.

I enjoyed the way the book introduced the reader to the fiction of the universe being presented. Our main protagonist is a man named Jason who lives his life as a professional gambler. He is introduced to us during a conversation with the other primary character, Kerk, a large and ultra-strong man from the planet Pyrrus. During their initial conversation we learn that Kerk is ambassador to Pyrrus and they make money mining and trading. We see a moment of amazing quick draw as both men pull their guns in suspicion of one another. And we learn that Jason is a gambler who, according to Kerk, can seem to win whenever he wants to.

We later learn that Jason trades the risk of losing big to the risk of angering the high money players and casinos by using psychic abilities to manipulate the odds in his favor. As a result, Jason is often making hasty get aways from one big win after another. Kerk hires Jason to gamble money for Pyrrus and within a couple of chapters Jason's victory has angered the wrong people and we have a high speed getaway that could be something out of a mid-20th century gangster movie but instead is souped up with sci-fi vehicles and weapons and a getaway plan involving manipulation of class and cultural biases.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Book Review - The Secret Adversary

Considering she is THE bestselling author (only surpassed in copies sold by William Shakespeare and the Bible), it shouldn't be surprising that I have only scratched the surface in reading the work of Agatha Christie. And yet, I found myself a little surprised to stumble upon the adventures of Tommy and Tuppence in her second novel, The Secret Adversary. The pair of adventurers were featured in four novels and a bunch of short stories but they are overshadowed by Christie's mainstays Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Perhaps it was because they felt so different from Christie's other works, but I found myself really drawn into the story and had a lot of fun with this novel.

The Secret Adversary is set (mostly) in London shortly after the conclusion of World War One. It begins with a conversation between two friends, Tommy and Prudence (who goes by Tuppence) as they bemoan their lack of fortunes and try to come up with ways to secure themselves financially. On a whim, they decide to take out an advertisement in the paper and hire themselves out as Young Adventurers "willing to do anything, go anywhere." Before the ad has even run, Tuppence is surprised to find herself approached by a strange man who overheard the pair and wants to hire them but who then inexplicably gets angry and fleas when she gives him a false name, Jane Finn. The next day they take out another advertisement regarding Jane Finn and they are quickly flung into a mystery adventure that threatens to topple the British government.