Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Mask, by Taylor Stevens

This is another in Ms. Stevens' series featuring hero Vanessa Michael Munroe. Monroe is a murderer and investigator. She passes easily as a man and uses her middle name, Michael, in both her personas.

In this episode, Michael seeks romantic stability, joining her boyfriend Miles where he's working as a security consultant in Japan. She is bored because she's not working, but makes the sacrifice in her attempt to develop a normal relationship. Then Miles is arrested. Michael goes to work to clear him, a non trivial task in the arcane Japanese legal system.

I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as the others because I was confused by the way Miles treated his relationship with Michael. And at the end, confused by Michael's implied interests going forward.
But the action was good and the plot interestingly complex. 

The Mask

The Annihilation Score, by Charles Stross

The first obstacle of this novel is the first chapter: so poorly written, so not edited, so puerile and confusing that anyone who progresses through the second chapter deserves a reward. It is as though there were two authors, and thankfully the first one quit early on.

The story got interesting as it progressed in spite of itself. Here's what I mean: the hero is Mo (Dominique), a PhD, a musician, and an agent with a secret security service of the British government called the Laundry. Their mission is to deal with occult threats.  Mo's weapon is a violin made of bone and infused with some sort of creature who works symbiotically with Mo to kill demons.

Okay, let's skip past all that for a moment. Mo's husband is also in the secret service, also deals with supernatural threats, and their combined workload and other aspects of their jobs has put their relationship at a crossroads. Mo is in her 40s and often time feels invisible, especially in the male dominated bureaucracies of British rule.

If we take the supernatural topic out of the mix, this is still an interesting novel. With it, it is interesting primarily to folks who enjoy (or can tolerate) stories in this genre. The book is told by Mo and I'm surprised the author is male.

I'd give this book three stars (out of five) if it weren't for the terrible opening chapter and the continued annoyance of THE USE OF ALL CAPS throughout the text. So net my review down to two stars. Still, I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it.

The Annihilation Score: A Laundry Files Novel


Friday, November 20, 2015

The Young Elites, by Marie Lu

This is an intriguing novel; imagine X-Men set in the 14th century.  Our hero is a young women who ended up with the physical indications of supernatural abilities, even though she can't exhibit them. Until she does, at which time things get exciting.

What I liked about this book: Ms. Lu doesn't waste time building a mythical location in which to set events, she instead focuses on the people and their experiences. Also, the hero is - well, let's just say a dark hero.  I enjoy that there's no predictability and that things are allowed to go horribly wrong.

I'm eager to read the next in Ms. Lu's series, The Rose Society.

This novel made this year's top ten candidates list. So I'm probably not gushing about it as much as I should. It is a really fast fun read.

The Young Elites

Monday, November 2, 2015

Under Fire, by Grant Blackwood

Mr. Blackwood, it seems, has licensed the Tom Clancy character Jack Ryan Jr. in order to continue writing Clancy-esque suspense novels.  Ryan is son of the President and is a spy for a private organization with the cover story of being an international investment banker.

I don't want to bother saying more about this novel because a simple "meh" will suffice.

Under Fire (Jack Ryan Jr. Novel)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Palace of Treason, by Jason Matthews

The best spy novel I've read in decades. Instead of relying on a hero's absurd capabilities or connections, or on unbelievable plot bridges, Mr. Matthews wrote an intelligent and captivating story. There's terrific character development and well paced suspense.

The stars of the book are CIA agent Nate Nash and his covert spy, Russian Intelligence Service's Dominika Egorova. Apparently there's a prior novel with the back story on Egorova and Nash, but not having read it did not get in my way at all. Egorova hates the kleptocracy of modern Russia, and has no issue revealing secrets to the US. Many of the Russian characters are portrayed as pigs, and many of the CIA brass are also portrayed as incompetent fools who are in place only due to political reasons. There are heroes on both sides; Mr. Matthews takes shots at Russia's leadership and crooked oligarchy, but not its people.

(Probably a Russian novelist could draw the same dreary picture of US Congressmen in the pockets of their lobbyists and PACs, or awkwardly crooked deals like the President's placement of the former attorney for the railroad industry as the head of the Federal Railroad Administration... but I digress.)

There is ample suspense. It is quite difficult to put down, so I recommend allocating a long session to read the book through.

With the right handling, this would make a terrific movie.

Palace of Treason: A Novel

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The President's Shadow, by Brad Meltzer

I had no idea what was going on in this novel. Right up to the last page. My sense is that if I'd read the other books that feature the same main characters I might have had a chance of keeping up.

But here's what's worse: I didn't care. I didn't care about any of the characters, including the heroes. And the plot, as best I could figure it out, was incredible, as in not credible. Also rather horrible.

I'm not going to summarize it because I disliked it.  This one is just not recommended reading.

The President's Shadow (The Culper Ring Series)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

When to Rob a Bank, by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner

It turns out that if I had been reading the authors' Freakonomics blog all along, I'd have had no reason to read this book. It is a sampling of 132 blog entries.  But ha! The last laugh is on the authors, as I read a copy of the book borrowed from my local public library and not purchased! (See also their blog entry, "If public libraries didn't exist, could you start one today." [p14.] I guess they're okay with it either way.)

When to Rob a Bank: ...And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thief, by Mark Sullivan

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. The genre is "hero ex special forces operator does good deeds," but Mr. Sullivan found a unique angle which he executed quite well.

Our hero is a thief: Robin Monarch, who grew up in the slums of Buenos Aires and was rescued from a gang life by Sister Rachel, a nun and physician. She got him into the US Army, and after a career there and in the CIA, Monarch became a freelance thief who splits his ill gotten gains with the Sister's charity. Of course she believes the money is earned honestly. And similarly, the Robin Hood -like hero only steals from bad people.

If you go for this sort of book, you're likely to enjoy this one. I anticipate a sequel from Mr. Sullivan and I look forward to reading it.

Thief: A Robin Monarch Novel (Robin Monarch series)

Sapiens, by Yuval Harari

Sub-titled, "a brief history of humankind," Sapiens is a macro level view of the origin of our species. It is one of the more interesting of such books that I've read because Professor Harari has a great writing style and keeps things on pace. He does have a transparently cynical nature though, which comes through repeatedly. The general tone is, with all our cognitive ability and technological ability to harness materials in innovative ways, humans are trending towards destroying the earth rather than towards improving the planet.

Even the agricultural revolution, which you might think of as a positive because it increased the amount of available food, had the cost of population explosions (with resultant health disasters due to poor hygiene and overcrowding) and the formation of a class system ("pampered elites") thus leading to an oppressive society rather than the egalitarian one of nomadic subsistence.

I've made is sound as though Professor Harari beats one over the head with a hammer with this sort of stuff and that is not the case; he uses a small and painless mallet for these occasional comments. But at the end I found that he'd made quite the case. Not that I'm eager to collect nuts and berries, but from a planetary macro perspective, he may well be right.

In my view it is worth reading.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Collision, by William Cohen

Mr. Cohen came to fiction writing as a tertiary career; he'd been a Congressman and Senator and was President Clinton's Secretary of Defense. He writing, then, is what you might expect: competent but not phenomenal. He makes up for that with good plot line and reasonably strong character development.

The hero of this novel is a former Senator and national security advisor to the President, and current practicing attorney, named Sean Falcone. Falcone was a POW during the Vietnam conflict. (Yes, that puts our hero in his mid-60's. No ageism here.)

The book was surprisingly credible: no conveniently enabled super hero stunts per the typical suspense genre. Even Falcone's access to the upper reaches of US Government seems reasonable given the background of his character.

All in all, not fabulous, but I'll read Mr. cohen's next novel to see if he's improved with practice. But only if I can get it on loan from the public library; he doesn't pass the "I'm eager to pay for it with my hard earned cash" test. Yet.

Collision: A Novel