Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Rosetta Key by William Dietrich

In The Rosetta Key an American adventurer, Ethan Gage, is on a quest to find the Book of Thoth, which is rumoured to contain great secrets and magic. The year is 1799 and Gage's adventures takes him across the Holy Land, Egypt and France. He's joined by a motley crew of characters some of whom are new friends; other he's run across before. As Gage continues on his journey he remembers the teachings of his mentor Benjamin Franklin, who's advice proves to be very helpful in getting out of the dangerous situations in which he finds himself.

At one time I thought historical novels had to be dull, boring and humourless. Dietrich has proved that this isn't true. This book was fun and highly entertaining to read. The protagonist is witty, cocky and has more lives than a cat. He can get out of harm's way with his wits and sometimes a little help from his friends. A little like Indiana Jones, but in my opinion, more entertaining. Besides Gage and his misfit friends, some real-life persons, like Napoleon and Josephine as well as other from the time period, are included in the story.

There are many interesting explanations scattered throughout the book; how the gypsies got their name, the Rosetta Stone, the Ark of the Covenant, Moses, Jerusalem and the Knights Templar. I don't know if any of it is true, but it's all fascinating stuff.

My one problem is the many reminders that this book was part of a series. Dietrich frequently references Gage's previous adventure at the pyramids. While I'm sure readers of that book were thrilled, I think it's a little unfair to those who didn't read it. Having said that, I found this book interesting enough that I'm likely to find and read the first one in the series, Napoleon's Pyramids as well as any subsequent books in the series.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Last Oracle by James Rollins

In The Last Oracle, Commander Gray Pierce, a member of SIGMA Force, tries to stop a group of scientists from carrying out their evil plot that could destroy the world. Gray travels from country to country searching for answers after a supposedly homeless man hands him a rare artefact possibly dating back to the Oracle of Delphi. Meanwhile, Monk is half way around the world in a hospital room suffering from amnesia. With the help of some children with autistic savant abilities, he escapes and must save himself, the children and, ultimately, the world. These children are fleeing from the scientists who are planning to use them to create "a world prophet for the new millennium".

I really enjoyed this face-paced, thriller combining science, religion, history and a little psychology all into a one novel that was well-written, easy to read and hard to put down. I loved the author's timing. Just as a piece of the mystery was to be revealed, a gunmen would appear or a bullet would buzz by or he would simply cut to another scene with other characters. Very suspenseful.

Even though Rollins uses autistic children in this novel, he doesn't focus on the disorder so much as he does the savant abilities that some autistic children exhibit. I was amazed at the range of abilities that these young children had. Fascinating stuff. I don't know if some of these abilities (as stated by Rollins) actually present themselves in real life, but I found it interesting enough that one day I'd like to poke around on the internet to find out.

The author uses an interesting and thought-provoking quote regarding autism. It's from real-world Dr. Temple Grandin:
If by some magic, autism had been eradicated from the face of the earth, then men would still be socializing in front of a wood fire at the entrance to a cave.

There are plenty of diverse characters for the reader to root for. My favourite was Kowalski, the muscle who I think was written in for some comic relief. I often laughed out loud at his antics, although, I've never met a man so obsessed with shoes. Other great characters include: Gray, Monk, Marta, Pyotr and Sasha. The relationship between Marta and Pyotr was particularly intriguing.

Rollins' notes at the end of the book are quite interesting. In them, he presents some scientific facts to support his fiction. There are some surprises including a list of well-known historical people who may have showed some autistic tendencies. Very cool.

I'm looking forward to reading more books by this author. The short bio on the back cover of the book indicates that the author's interests are quite diverse. Spelunking, diving, veterinary medicine, and, although it's not listed, presumably writing. When I read the line "he'll often be found either underground or underwater", my first thought was, I wonder where he prefers to write: underground or underwater. ;)

Definitely recommended.

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

The Post-Birthday World starts off in the "pre-birthday world" where Irina, Lawrence, Ramsey and Jude were friends. Every year for Ramsey's birthday they get together to celebrate. When Ramsey and Jude divorce and Lawrence is out of town, Irina and Ramsey are left to celebrate his birthday alone. At the end of the birthday dinner evening, they find themselves in a compromising position and Irina has a choice to make. It's either full steam ahead or high-tail it out of there. From that point on, the characters find themselves in the "post-birthday world". In alternating chapters featuring one of the two outcomes, we see how the lives of the main characters unfold based on this one decision.

Written from Irina's point of view, this is one of the most amazing books I've read. However, I had to get into it about 100 pages before I really started appreciating it. Her writing is dense with details and is far from simple, but it still felt like a quick read. The storyline is ingenious. I loved the parallel worlds in which events happen or words are spoken on both sides, but not always with the same characters. [It's hard to explain, but you'll see what I mean when you read the book.] Her characters are realistic, engaging and interesting. Irina was my favourite, but the other main characters were fun to read about also. I think I laughed every time Irina's mother called "Ramsey", "Rumsey". With respect to Ramsey, I kept picturing him as Richard Dawson ("Hogan's Heroes", "Family Fued") even though the physical description was completely off.

Because Ramsey is a professional snooker player, Shriver spends some time explaining the game and the circuit. Sure, I'd seen snooker a couple of times on TV and while I did find it interesting, I couldn't make heads or tails of the rules. Anyway, I learned more about it and that's always good. I even learned the right and wrong way to pronounce "snooker" or is it "snucker". Hmmm...I guess I've forgotten which way is proper. ;)

I loved Shriver's use of alliterations. To me they are like a seasoning in cooking. Too many can spoil a dish or in this case too many alliterations can spoil a novel. However, Shriver's a master chef in regards to alliterations knowing exactly when and how much to throw in. [I'm kicking myself now that I didn't save an example to include here. Trust me, she's good.]

In my favourite quote, Irina is talking about the moral in a children's book:
The idea is that you don't have only one destiny...But whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides. You're dealing with a set of trade-offs, and not one perfect course in comparison to which all the others are crap.

I'm really looking forward to more works by this extremely talented author. I already have a copy of We Need to Talk About Kevin and hope to start it soon.

Highly recommended.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants is an incredible story of Jacob Jankowski, who as a young man inadvertently runs away with the circus shortly before writing his final exams to become a vet. Before long, he becomes familiar with the seedy underbelly of the circus world. Both compelling and heartbreaking, this story is told from Jacob's point of view as he sits in a nursing home and daydreams of his former life.

This is an amazing book. I just can't express how much I loved it. It's a sensational story with many wonderful characters. It's engaging, touching and filled with so many stunning details that I wanted to crawl into the story and not come out. My favorite characters include: Marlena and Rosie, both of whom steal Jacob's heart; Camel, a circus worker who helps Jacob get a job and then needs Jacob's help; Walter, a performer who's forced to share his room with Jacob and of course Jacob himself.

Even though the author, Sara Gruen, exposes the sleazy side of the circus life, it still felt romantic. That could be just me, though, because I've always wanted to run away with the circus. Ah, but that's another story for another time. For now, I'm satisfied with reading this book. I found myself routing for my favorite characters and wanting things to work out for them. Don't worry, I'm not going to let you know what happens. You're going to have to read this fantastic book for that.

I love Gruen's use of historical circus photos that precede some of the chapters. They really set the scene and transported me to a time when circuses were in their heyday.

At few years ago, we visited Baraboo, Wisconsin and the Circus World Museum. I fell in love with the place. The old circus wagons, the parade, the calliope, the spectacle; all fabulous. If you like the circus, it's the place to go. Be warned though, it's guaranteed to put a smile on your face and even make the grumpiest of grumps or the most ardent skeptic a circus-lover. For more information regarding the museum, Wikipedia or the official website should be helpful.

I'd highly recommend this book. It's a must read for those who ever thought about running away with the circus or anyone who has been to the circus or anyone who's had a dream, or anyone at all for that matter.

I hope that Gruen has written more books (and continues to write) because I intend to read many more of them. Awesome job on this one.

Friday, August 8, 2008

It Only Takes A Moment by Mary Jane Clark

In It Only Takes a Moment, Janie, the daughter of well-known news anchor Eliza Blake, has been kidnapped along with the housekeeper/nanny, Mrs. Garcia. While the FBI examines the evidence, Eliza and the rest of the Sunrise Suspense Society team do a little investigating of their own even though are beside themselves with worry. They, along with the police, are determined to find the pair and catch whoever is behind the abduction.

I really enjoyed this novel. It was fairly well written, definitely engrossing and certainly entertaining to read. It was fun to follow along with the investigators as they worked through the clues to determine the culprits. The author provides plenty of suspects for the police and Eliza’s team to investigate. As a fan of CNN’s program American Morning, I particularly enjoyed the behind-the-scenes glimpses into reporting and producing segments for the network news. Eliza’s boss at the network who wanted to get the scoop on this story seemed a little callous at times, but maybe that’s what the job requires.

I wouldn’t classify this one as a cozy mystery, but it is a fairly light read. Mary Jane Clark is the “Queen of Short Chapters”. In this book of 341 pages, she squeezes 135 chapters. I dread stopping in the middle of a chapter, so these short chapters allowed me to read as many pages as I wanted in one sitting. At most I'd only have to read a page or two to get to the next chapter. Because the book was so enjoyable, I didn’t really put it down that much. I couldn’t wait to get to the end to find out if Janie and Mrs. Garcia were going to be ok and to learn the identities of the kidnappers.

I’ve also read When Day Breaks, another book in this series. I found this one a little edgier or dark. It could have been my mood or perhaps the subject matter. Kidnapping isn’t a light subject, than again neither is murder.

I loved Clark’s use of what I call “red herring characters”…innocent bystanders who, by circumstance or whatever, lead you astray from the real kidnappers. They add tons of suspense (and sometimes confusion) to the story, but make the story that much more fun to read. She did a great job in revealing these characters and motives at the end. I loved it.

Recommended as a nice light read. Perfect for a day at the beach or a lazy afternoon in the hammock.

I’m looking forward to the next book in the Sunrise Suspense Society series.