Category: book review

Book Review: The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom (The Saxon Stories, #1)The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to this book on audio while I was driving to and from Atlantic City a month ago. At the time, I enjoyed it well enough, but it’s been a book that’s stuck with me since finishing it, and not all books do. So I was surprised to discover that I hadn’t given it a review, and I thought I’d take a minute or two today to correct that.

The premise is straightforward enough: it’s an historically-based fictional account of the invasion of England by the Danes in the late 800s. The main character, Uhtred Ragnarson, is fictional, but he interacts with people from history and gets directly involved in historical events. Some books try to pull this off and it feels odd, but I didn’t have that issue with this one. Perhaps some of that is because the exact history is murky. There are some reports and accounts of what went on, but there’s a whole lot of room there for interpretation.

Cornwell does a really good job making the characters come to life, and presenting history in an engrossing manner. I got caught up in the story, but I still felt like I was learning something. That said, at the end of the book, I didn’t have a huge desire to read the rest of the series. Not because it was bad, but because I felt like I’d gotten what I wanted to from it.

On the other hand, I then went on and watched the TV show with Denisa, and that’s made me appreciate the books a whole lot more. It’s a fine show, and diverting enough (in a “BBC tries to do Game of Thrones” sort of way that makes you wish BBC would be able to do it without the gratuitous spurts of blood and absence of clothing from time to time), but I kept being frustrated with how the characters were portrayed. Cornwell creates very consistent, believable characters. Conflicted characters that make mistakes, but you can understand them. The show flattens these characters and makes it seem like they keep being inordinately stupid. Basically, they try to rush through the story, and it makes it all feel hurried and haphazard in the end.

If you enjoy a good story and want to learn some history while you’re at it, I heartily recommend this book. I think I might go and read the sequel, now that I have a bit of space from it. 4.5/5

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Book Review: Trespassing Across America

Trespassing Across America: One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the HeartlandTrespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland by Ken Ilgunas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a tough book to figure out how many stars to give. On the one hand, the subject was very interesting. Ken Ilgunas decides to walk the whole length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Much of it is across private land, so he has to essentially trespass the entire way.

The closest analogue would be Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods, a book about hiking the Appalachian Trail that I adored. This one wasn’t at the same level, though it dealt in similarly interesting subject matter.

I learned a lot about the Keystone XL pipeline and what sort of an impact these pipelines are having on the country and the world. It’s one thing to read about it, but Iglunas’s trek across the length of it was fascinating. He meets a variety of people who give many different opinions on the subject as he goes.

At the same time, however, he clearly has an agenda and does little to hide that fact. I would say I definitely fall on the “environmentalist” side of the spectrum, but I do like to have a balanced presentation on both sides of an argument, and I felt like this novel unjustly slights the pro-pipeline side. At the same time, it’s not like I’ve done extensive research into the matter, so perhaps my feeling on this is wrong. But the overarching impression you get from the book is that there are almost no solid arguments in favor of the pipeline other than money. When the author admits he’s making the trek to try to convince people against the pipeline, it becomes hard to entirely trust everything he’s saying.

There’s also the simple fact that he’s not as accomplished of a writer as Bryson. (Though you can’t completely hold that against him. Bryson’s got a slew of novels under his belt and tons of experience.) But there were times in the book where I felt the descriptions simply became too focused on sounding good or “literary” as opposed to simply describing things well. It’s the difference between a great story and one that feels like it’s trying to hard to be great. The language got in the way of the ideas from time to time, and that’s a problem.

But as far as a launching point to discuss the issues at hand in oil use and the environment, I see this working very well. More than that, it made me think a lot about how the firsthand impressions we can get of a thing or a place or a group of people can be wildly inaccurate. For me, I thought about my time as a missionary for the LDS church. I lived in several cities in Germany for about 6 months each, and when I left each of those cities, I felt like I knew them well. However, now that I see missionaries come and go through my town in 6 months, I feel like there’s no way they could possibly understand all the nuances of the place. Even after you’ve lived in an area for years, you still just see a slice of that area, a fact I’m reminded of when I speak with other people in my town about what life is like for them.

And Ilgunas tries to make conclusions about people and towns and entire states based on a single walk through that state. I don’t think it can be done. It’s impossible to draw conclusions about a region based on a few encounters. It’s unfair to the region to judge it based on some dogs or some unfriendly people. And that’s what I kept thinking of as I read the book.

In any case, it was a thought provoking book, and it’s one of the books my library has chosen for its “On Our Minds” programming this year. I think it provides plenty of fodder for topics of discussion, and so in the end I bumped the rating up from three stars to four for that alone. It’s a fast read, and interesting. Well-written and it flows well. There were just significant parts I wish had been improved.

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Book Review: Hero and the Crown

The Hero and the Crown (Damar, #2)The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can’t remember the first time I read The Hero and the Crown. I want to say it was in second grade. It won the Newbery in 1985, when I was seven, so that’s around the right time. I might have been in third grade, though. In any case, I was at an age where reading books was like breathing. I went through huge swathes of books in a week, happily burrowing into a new cache from the library as soon as I got home.

I don’t have the time to reread books these days. Not typically. And somehow I’m no longer able to just binge read a series each week. Other obligations get in the way. But I had read Hero and the Crown at least four times before, and when it went on sale on Kindle the other week, I snatched up a copy for myself. My daughter’s in fourth grade, after all. And I don’t think she’s had a chance to read this book or The Blue Sword.

When I first read it, I loved a lot about the novel. The fight with the dragon was fantastic. Aerin’s struggle to recover afterward was also enthralling. I liked how it hinted at so much history that you just didn’t get to see. It felt epic to me without actually being epic. I kept returning to it, and it was always a personal favorite.

Rereading it now, it didn’t have quite the same oomph with me as it used to. Some of that could be because literature has changed in the intervening years. My tastes have also changed. Pacing. Description. Characters. This isn’t a fast read, and it has a fairy tale feel to it. Motivations aren’t always clear, and problems spring up out of nowhere at times.

I still loved the fight with the dragon, and I feel like that’s just as fantastic as it ever was.

If you haven’t read this book, I really encourage you to give it a shot. Strong female protagonist, great characters, and a pretty quick read, even with slower pacing. I gave it an 8/10 today.

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Book Review: Three Parts Dead

Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence, #1)Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was very impressed with this book. I picked up the whole series when it was on sale one day on Amazon. Never heard of it before, but I read Patrick Rothfuss’s review of it, and I figured it certainly sounded worth $13 as an experiment. Why not?

So glad I bought it.

As far as fantasies go, it’s a bit of a strange one. Set in a sort of alternate history feeling-ish present day, where magic and gods are real. Or were real. Most of the gods are now dead, usurped by magic users. Probably. The world building unfolds as the story goes on, so it’s not something you necessarily wholly understand right at the beginning of the book, and Gladstone does a fantastic job doling out information through the narrative, as opposed to using information dumps.

Really, it’s the sort of book that makes me jealous as a writer. It’s so well done, I wish I’d been able to do it myself.

Better yet, that’s all just the background for the story. This specific fantasy is more a murder mystery book with a legal slant, that happens to take place in a fantasy world. Pulling off all of that at the same time is incredibly difficult, and this book makes it feel like a breeze.

A god and a judge die the same day. The deaths seem unrelated, but a magic-using lawyer fresh out of school is hired by a law firm to come in and represent the dead god’s priests in an effort to resurrect a zombie version of the god that will continue to at least do most of what the living god had done for his believers. And as she explores the case, she discovers all is not as it seems.

It’s an intriguing book that’s unafraid to shove its readers straight into the deep end. I can definitely see why Rothfuss loved it, and I’m already well into book two. If any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, I encourage you to give this book a shot. Best of all? It’s a stand alone. Yes, it’s part of a sequence of books, but this one exists perfectly all on its lonesome.

Let me know what you think.

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Book Review: Bluescreen

Bluescreen (Mirador, #1)Bluescreen by Dan Wells

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read a fair number of dystopian books. I’m a big fan of the genre, from City of Ember to Pretties to Hunger Games and everything in between. But after a while, many of them begin to blend together for me. It’s been a while since I read one that really stood out and made me take notice.

Dan Wells’ Bluescreen did that and more. For one thing, it’s not set in the distant future or on an Earth that’s gone through some horrendous world-changing disaster. It’s set in 2050, and Wells does a fantastic job of presenting what America might look like at that point, realistically. There are self driving cars everywhere, for example, and the young protagonists are shocked anyone might drive a car by hand. (It’s so dangerous! Why would they want to do that?) There are delivery drones sailing through the skies everywhere you look. Almost everyone has an internet connection built directly into their body, and the display is right in their vision.

But it’s not all bright lights and sleek chrome. The disparity between the haves and the have nots has only increased, and the main characters are stuck in lower middle class, struggling to try and stay afloat, and life is getting harder every day. The main character, Marisa, tries to help her family’s restaurant stay afloat, and also dreams of being an esports pro. Her neighborhood is run by gangs, and it looks like they’re going to get stuck between the crosshairs of a gang rivalry.

And then a new drug enters the scene: Bluescreen. You pop it directly into your brain via a USB-like drive, and it basically overloads your body, giving you a rush–and potentially destroying your life.

That’s all I’ll go over now, because I don’t want to spoil anything. I’ll just say that I enjoyed the book from start to finish. It reminded me in many ways of the movie version of Minority Report. Cool future tech displayed in a way that makes you believe it could happen. The plot is great, the characters well written.

Really, there’s nothing I can complain about. It’s a fantastic book, and I’m already halfway through the sequel. If you’re looking for a quick read, and this sounds even remotely interesting, you should give it a shot.

Loved it.

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