Category: Book Review

Game of Dopes: Me Reading ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’

Ned Stark from Game of Thrones is a little dumb

I just finished reading A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (that’s Game of Thrones series to you, if you only watch the TV show). Instead of reviewing it, I thought I’d give you a look at what’s going on inside my head as I read these things.

CHARACTER #1: I have a daring plan! It will bring me honor and/or glory!
ME: It’s a dumb plan. It will bring you death.
CHARACTER #1: Nonsense! I’m sure it’ll be fine.
ME: Yeah, that’s what the last guy said.
DEATH: Just so you know, I’m coming to kill you in 3…
CHARACTER #1: Who said that? Must be the wind…
DEATH: 2…
CHARACTER #1: Silence, craven wind-speaker!
DEATH: 1…
CHARACTER #1: Onward! For honor/glory!
*SliceBleedChompBurnSplatFail*
ME and DEATH: I fucking TOLD you.
CHARACTER #1: Oh, oh, I’m dying! Woe! Woe! I totally did not see this coming.
ME: I refuse to feel sorry for you. You’re obviously too dumb to live.
CHARACTER #1: Oh fine then.
*Dies*
CHARACTER #2: Wasn’t that dramatic? Are you moved?
ME: Try annoyed. I’m gonna go read a different book.
CHARACTER #2: Wait! Don’t you want to know what happens to me?
CHARACTER #3: Or me?
ME: Are you as thick as the other guy?
CHARACTER #2: Umm….
CHARACTER #3: Err…
ME: That’s what I thought.
*Leaves*
CHARACTER #2: Wait!
CHARACTER #3: Take us with you!
CHARACTER #2: Poop. I hate it when I don’t get everything I want.
CHARACTER #3: Oh but we CAN have what we want.
CHARACTER #2: How?
CHARACTER #3: I have a plan!
CHARACTER #2: Is it daring?
CHARACTER #3: Without a doubt.
CHARACTER #2: Will it bring us honor and/or glory?
CHARACTER #3: By the bucket! …if it works.
CHARACTER #2: Is this plan ill-conceived?
CHARACTER #3: Possibly. But I’m sure it’ll be fine.
CHARACTER #2: LET’S DO IT.

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Blood of Alexander Book Review

I’ll be stuck in the woods all weekend, so there will be no Godzilla review this Sunday. I did receive an equally implausible free book through Goodreads recently. As a consolation prize, I shall share my impressions with you. It’s an action/adventure novel called Blood of Alexander, recently released by Forge Books.

blood of alexander cover

A globetrotting antiques expert working for a secret organization must save the word from a weaponized artifact in the hands of an evil villain.

I requested Blood of Alexander because I’m a fan of archeology thrillers such as Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Relic. However, I’m sorry to report that I gave up on The Blood of Alexander about a third of the way through.

The Blood of Alexander ticks all the boxes on the action-thriller genre list. A terrorist plans to use a relic to destroy the world. The only one who can stop him is the main character, a man with more skills and knowledge than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Scarcely a dozen pages go by without a gunfight, and the the chapters all seem to end with cliffhangers. This is exactly what many genre fans are looking for, so that’s great.

However, the book never managed to engage me. The awkward writing prevented me from losing myself in the story. It sacrificed flow in the name of glib irreverence and it made me want to put the book down as soon as I started reading. The story seemed to be built on a very shaky foundation and the characters’ actions were dictated by the needs of the plot rather than what was logical or realistic.

The characters were constantly either fighting or escaping. I like action-oriented thrillers as much as archeological ones (I’m a huge fan of Jack Reacher and Alex Rider) but the battles in The Blood of Alexander seemed to be stalling the plot rather than advancing it. I stopped reading a third of the way through the book, and at that point the characters had only collected one clue. There was still no sign of anything related to Alexander the Great.

I also wasn’t a fan of the main character, Jonathan Blake. Jonathan’s tragic back story and his first person perspective were (I believe) meant to help readers empathize, but I couldn’t connect with him. It seemed like Jonathan was trying to be Indiana Jones and James Bond at the same time, but in my opinion, you can’t be both a scruffy rogue who’s constantly in over his head AND a suave operator who can garotte a henchman with a spool of dental floss.

I would tentatively recommend this book to action-thriller fans who like Hollywood-style high-concept plots and jack-of-all-trades heroes (think Clive Cussler or Ted Bell), but even then you should read the first few pages before you commit to the book.

Given that I wasn’t interested in finishing, I give Blood of Alexander a rating of:

category 0

This review brought to you by:
Indiana Bond and the Temple of Explosions

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Sniper’s Honor Review

It’s Random Friday again and I’m still trying to clear my backlog of free Goodreads First Reads books, so today we’ll be talking about Sniper’s Honor, a military/historical thriller by Stephen Hunter. It’s releasing this month from Simon and Schuster.

snipers honor cover

A retired sniper and a newspaper reporter attract deadly notice when they start digging into the history of a female sniper who disappeared from the Ukraine in the closing days of World War II.

I requested Sniper’s Honor because I loved one of Hunter’s other thrillers. When it opened with a quote from The Terminator, I knew we would get along like a house on fire.

I love Sniper’s Honor for a lot of reasons. It’s part World War II novel, part modern-day thriller. The plotting is tight and the prose is clever. The two timelines trade the narrative back and forth as each set of characters discovers clues and encounters setbacks, ensuring that there’s no good place to stop reading. Everything clicks together perfectly, but even though I usually figure thrillers out in a few chapters, I had no idea how Sniper’s Honor was going to end until all the pieces fell into place.

The World War II timeline doesn’t just re-hash the same old American/British victories. It delves into the action on the often ignored Eastern Front, touching on the battles we’ve heard of (Stalingrad, Kursk, the siege of Leningrad) but focusing on the forgotten partisans who fought SS death squads and battle-hardened paratroopers in the remote Ukrainian mountains. The hero of the story is not only a sniper but a female Russian sniper, which I was thrilled about, even if her beauty is the only reason anyone’s interested in her.

I also love that Sniper’s Honor doesn’t fall into the propaganda-movie trap of ‘all Allies good, all Axis bad,’ as there are heroes and villains on both sides. There’s a fair amount of graphic violence, but it didn’t bother me. Violence is necessary to convey the horror and confusion of war and when some of the truly monstrous characters meet their ends, I would even call it satisfying.

In the ‘present day’ timeline, the heroes are a reporter who has grandchildren, a retired sniper with a bad hip, and (in an interlude) a desk jockey who spends all day crunching numbers. None of the three are typical action heroes, which is why it’s such a pleasure to see them stick it to the cocky young guns in the intelligence and organized crime communities who are trying to keep their dark secrets buried.

My only real complaint is that prose was a little technical for me at times. I’m not a firearms expert, and with so many weapons being identified by number-letter combinations, I needed to have Google images near at hand in order to visualize the action. During the wrap-up, I was also a bit confused about what happened to a few of the bit players, but the neat bow tied around the principals more than made up for it.

I would recommend Sniper’s Honor to any history or thriller buff who’s tired of the same old thing (extra points if you’re both). I award it the coveted rating of:

category 5

Before you go, here’s your Sniper’s Honor-related cartoon:
girl sniper meme

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Book Review: The Bicycle Teacher by Campbell Jeffreys

Continuing to clear the backlog of free Goodreads books I have reviewed (and sticking with last week’s 1980s Berlin theme) here is The Bicycle Teacher by Campbell Jeffreys, available now from Rippple Books (yes, I spelled that correctly).

bike teacher cover

Michael, a disillusioned Australian mechanic, breaks his family’s cycle of poverty by moving to East Germany, where he finds love and the opportunity to move up in the world. But can it last?

This book isn’t for everyone. Michael’s virulent belief that life is better behind the Iron Curtain may alienate die-hard capitalists, but I found it fascinating. Until now, all the books I read about the USSR featured repressed intellectuals wanting to escape to the West. But looking at things through the eyes of an everyman like Michael, it’s easy to see the appeal of community and guaranteed subsistence, even if it means never achieving wealth or greatness.

Jeffreys cunningly constructs a mirror between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in East/West Germany and East/West Perth, and because Michael is trying not to become a bitter, angry drunk like his father, his experience has a universal appeal.

Jeffreys has a gift for description and has obviously done his research into Cold War era Berlin. His matter-of-fact style and attention to detail makes it easy to picture cities, events, and people. One of my favorite descriptions is: β€œhe had a stringy mustache that seemed to start from deep within his nose.” The only time the descriptions get weighed down by metaphor is when Michael gets maudlin, as the book is written diary-style. For the most part the story stays focused on Michael and his personal experiences, though toward the end it did stray a little further into politics than I usually like to go.

I wanted to like Michael, and for the most part I did. He seems like a real person with good qualities (he works hard, helps his neighbors, loves his family) and bad ones (he’s judgmental, a bit homophobic, and extremely thick when it comes to the machinations of his wife’s cousin). However, I didn’t feel like I really connected with him. The bare-bones writing style told rather than showed his emotions, making him seem a bit cold and distant.

I would recommend The Bicycle Teacher to people who normally read travelogues or memoirs and to anyone who’s interested in hearing about the ‘other side’ of the Cold War (ideologically speaking). It’s a strong effort, so I rate it:

category 4

This review brought to you by:

american russian pants

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Book Review: Going Over by Beth Kephart

This Random Friday book review is Going Over, a teen historical romance by Beth Kephart. It’s new this month from Chronicle Books. I won a free copy in a Goodreads giveaway.

going over cover
It’s 1983. Wild graffiti artist Ada and cautious astronomer Stefan are dating from opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. Ada wants Stefan to escape from East Berlin. But does he dare?

This book is right up my alley (YA, Cold War, etc.) but we got off to a rocky start. At first Ada seemed selfish to me. She threatens to break up with Stefan unless he risks his life trying to escape. As I learned more of Ada’s secrets, I understood why she needed him with her. She’s strong, but even the strongest person can only handle so much alone.

At sixteen, Ada is already working in a daycare to help her damaged mother and grandmother eke out an existence in a squatter’s village. She’s also trying to protect a little Turkish boy and his abused mother. Ada deals with her feelings by spraypainting them onto the Berlin Wall. Her pictures sound so evocative that I wish I could see them. I also wish the book was a little less cagey. Unpleasant events are never explicitly stated – just hinted at. I’ll always wonder if things were really as bad as I thought.

Ada has plenty to do right from the get-go, but Stefan’s story gets off to a slow start. He spends the first half of the book waffling over whether to try and cross the wall. He’s caught between memories of his visits with Ada and his grandfather’s ill-fated escape attempt. However, once he reveals his desire to pursue a career not open to him in the East and starts gearing up to implement his crazy escape plan (which is based on a true story), he becomes a lot more interesting.

While I enjoyed the plot and characters, I wasn’t keen on the writing style. Ada and Stefan’s stories are told from two of my least favourite perspectives: first person present (I do this, I do that) and second person present (you do this, you do that). First person present is popular in YA because it helps create immediacy, but second person present is unusual and irritating. The author also makes some strange grammatical choices. I assume they’re meant be poetic, but I just found them difficult to swallow.

The author obviously did a lot of research into Berlin, the Cold War, the problems faced by Turkish immigrants, and graffiti. However, I don’t think Going Over is a good introduction to any of these topics. Description and explanation are sparse. This isn’t the first book I’ve read about Cold War Berlin, and even I didn’t understand what was happening at times. To avoid confusion, I suggest reading a few Wikipedia articles before picking up this book.

A good effort, but it didn’t blow me away. I rate it:
category 3

This review brought to you by:
east german graffiti

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Random Friday Book Review: Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere

I’ve been getting a lot of free books from Goodreads lately. They’ll keep giving them to me as long as I keep reviewing them on the site. Just in case you guys like books, too, I’ll also post them here. We’ll start on a high note with Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, an awesome middle grade disaster book by Julie T. Lamana, which set during ‘my’ hurricane. It’s releasing in April from Chronicle Books.

upside down in the middle of nowhere cover
————————————————————————-
New Orleans native Armani Curtis looks forward to more responsibility as she turns ten. Unfortunately, she has to shoulder more than she bargained for when a hurricane rips her family apart.
————————————————————————-

I blew through the whole book in a day. I love that the children come from a variety of home types (nuclear family, single-parent, foster care) and that it doesn’t seem contrived when they have to shoulder a lot of responsibility. Each piece of the story falls neatly into place like a jigsaw puzzle. Even things that seem like set decoration at first turn out to be important later.

I work with elementary aged kids, and the young characters in this book are dead on. I can just picture precocious, know-it-all Armani Curtis standing in front of me giving me attitude. Debut author Julie T. Lamana writes Armani’s accent into the narration, so I could hear Armani ‘speaking’ in my head as I read. Writing accents is a balancing act. Tweak the grammar too little and the reader forgets the main character has an accent. Tweak it too much and the reader has difficulty following the story. This book is an example of how it should be done.

Writing a disaster book for middle graders is not easy. Any ten-year-old caught in a disaster like Hurricane Katrina would almost certainly be traumatized. The trick lies in conveying the depth of the character’s suffering without also traumatizing the reader. Lamana pulls this off masterfully. She describes the awful sights, sounds, and smells of a disaster zone without wallowing in the kind of grit and horror that would make the novel inappropriate for young readers.

My only criticisms are minor. I think young readers would benefit from a map at the beginning of the book showing New Orleans and the location of important places in the story (the Lower Ninth Ward, the Superdome, etc.) as well as the parts of the city that are below sea level and made habitable only by the levees that hold back the water. I would also have liked to see an epilogue containing some kid-friendly facts and nonfiction reading suggestions related to the hurricane, such as how much of the city was destroyed, the number of people killed or made homeless, and what happened to them afterward.

I shall now adopt the hurricane rating system for all my book reviews. This one wins highest honors:
category 5

This review has been brought to you by:
hurricane me

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