A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly

A Darkness More Than Night.jpgMichael Connelly never disappoints at mysteries that are intense, focused and well-written tales of suspense and danger. His usual hero, Harry Bosch, has a fascinating set of flaws and skills that keep his stories interesting from book to book. With this novel Connelly decided to combine Harry Bosch’s story with the investigations of retired FBI agent Terry McCaleb.

The story had the same problem that I always have when an author switches between characters that I like to read about. Every time it switches I get mad that I have to leave the previous character behind. Connelly has always been great at his characters. They’re real in a way that feels natural. They are smart and proactive because they are book heroes but they also have fears and concerns and blind spots and make mistakes and occasionally say stupid things.

In other words they are human and because of that they are easily identifiable.

Terry McCaleb is almost instantly likable and he sets out to solve a mystery that gets him involved in the trial that Harry Bosch is in the middle of testifying at. Between the two of them they unravel the mystery and uncover a dark secret that powerful people had put great effort into hiding.

There’s not much more to say about a Michael Connelly novel. If you’ve already read one of his books you are probably a fan. If you haven’t this is as good a place to start as any.

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Glamour in Glass.jpgHaving written a Jane Austen romance with magic Mary Robinette Kowal decided that the next sub-genre to master would be the spy thriller.

Ms. Kowal is a very accomplished short story writer and her novels feel very much like extended short stories. The good side of this is that they are short, fast and easy to read. The bad side is that they occasionally feel like they are being padded out to make them novel length. The books are short enough that the padding doesn’t last long but it feels like the plot doesn’t really get under way until about half way through the book.

What saves the narrative from being boring is the character of Jane who is likable and interesting enough in her scientific curiosity and social insecurities that she can carry the story a long way before it would become onerous.

What I especially like about this story is that Jane and her husband are making scientific discoveries and they have to work at it. They spend weeks working with a glass blower to figure out a way to trap a glamor in blown glass. In many movies and books the scientists/engineer hears about a new idea or technology, pushes a few buttons, mumbles a little and shows off his perfectly working non-prototype model of new technology.

As someone who works in an R&D department as an engineer this always seems the most false to me.

The actual spy thriller part of this story was a little light and acted only as a reason for a climax as Jane has to employ their new technology to save her husband after he is caught as a spy.

Kowal’s writing is smooth and her voice for this character is well developed. If you liked the first book in this series you will probably enjoy this one. It takes the characters to new places, new magic, new relationship issues and shows Jane being a hero. Rather than being more of the same, the story remains fresh and interesting.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor.jpgI simultaneously wanted to like this book more than I did and found it kind of fascinating at the same time.

The book has a great premise — Maia, the half-goblin son of the elven emperor suddenly inherits the throne when his father and brothers are killed in an airship accident. Being half-goblin he has been secluded and all but abandoned his entire life because his father saw him as a disgrace for his ugly skin and dark hair.

When Maia comes to court he finds himself surrounded by people who want to control him, kill him, accuse him or ridicule him and he has to learn to overcome those things in order to become the emperor that his people need.

To complicate the matter Maia just happens to be a very kind person who doesn’t have a single cell of artifice in his body.

What follows is a story of a naive youth coming of age in the midst of cutthroat court intrigue while maintaining his own policy of simply being nice to everybody. He conducts an investigation into his father’s death, exposes his sister’s plot against him, befriends the goblin king, builds a bridge and does it all while promoting women’s rights, racial equality and by listening to his subjects.

He’s also insecure and makes some blatantly terribly decisions that nearly get him killed and do get other people killed. He isn’t perfect but he tries and he is genuinely distraught at the terrible things that other people experience on his behalf.

Those are all the things that I loved. Maia is probably the most sympathetic character I have read in a long time that never devolves into a Mary Sue. The book has a very definite subtext of gender issues and racial equality and, while it is obvious on both counts, it is never preachy or feels like a message.

The problem is all the names. The elves and goblins all have multisyllabic (at least three, many times four or five) names and they all sound the same and they come in baker’s dozens and pile up on the page until they can be stacked like chord wood and burned for heat in a cold Wyoming winter. It took me half of the book just to start to make sense of the names and even then I was only vaguely aware of who it was Maia was talking to in any given scene.

If your tolerance for strange and unpronounceable fantasy names is high and you like stories about politics and court intrigue then this is the book for you. Especially if you have been longing for a decidedly optimistic book with a truly likable protagonist. If any one of those things makes your teeth chomp in anger or frustration then you should avoid it because the Goblin Emperor dishes them up with a backhoe.

The Fallen Man by Tony Hillerman

 The Fallen Man.jpgI have often wondered if Tony Hillerman is as interesting to people who did not grow up in the four corners area. After all, the places and people that are in these books are the ones that I grew up hearing about.

The people are all fictional of course but they sound like people I knew.

There was a brief moment of disconnect for me when Joe Leaphorn made a trip up to Mancos to visit with a rancher and the name wasn’t one that I recognized. In Mancos everybody knows everybody and hearing a name of a prominent citizen that didn’t exist messed with my sense of reality a little.

Despite that I found this book to be as thoroughly enjoyable as every other Tony Hillerman book I’ve read. I’ve never known him to miss yet.

This one is about the discovery of a body partway up Shiprock. The body sparks a memory in Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee gets involved when a case he is working on crosses paths with what Leaphorn is looking into.

The story is full of Hillerman’s trademarks, characters and their lives while they also happen to be investigating crimes on the Navajo reservation. This works really well because the characters are the kinds of people that you will want to spend time with. Many times the mystery is only barely as interesting as what the characters are doing and I count that as a good thing.

With many mystery writers the books become hard to tell apart because they are all the same book. Hillerman doesn’t fall into that trap, the titles and the stories are each distinct and memorable.

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again but if you haven’t read Tony Hillerman you should.

Mad Ship by Robin Hobb

Mad Ship.jpgEvery once in a while I stumble upon an author who has written something that speaks to me on a very basic and emotional level. It’s often hard for me to predict when that is going to happen. With Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy I felt her getting close to that point. Fitz is the kind of character who is just too frustrating to love completely.

With the Liveship Traders I believe that she has completely hooked me beyond the possibility of release. This world expands into multiple viewpoints, dozens of characters, and new governments and history and life.

I understand all the complaints that get leveled at Hobb — I understand them but I disagree. This is a book to savor. To dig into the long and thoughtful prose and be swept away into a world of tragedy and sorrow and pain and loss where hope and redemption seem so very distant.

Hobb writes long books and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Without the length and heft of her writing this world, these characters would not grow so vastly.

And they all grow.

Althea might have been the hero in the first book but she is forced to face the consequences of her immature and selfish actions. Brashen also is slipping into his old habits, ones of addiction and sloth. Malta, who, in the first book seemed on her way to becoming a first-rate villain, begins to grow and change in other ways as she sees the position that her family is in. Wintrow is put in a position to question his place in the world and Kennit is tricked by luck into making some good decisions.

This book continues the story of the Vestrit family and those who orbit around them. The tragedy that struck when they lost their liveship to pirates and how they scrape together the resources to restore a ship gone mad in order to get her back.

One thing that strikes me about these books is that this is a story about women. The only reason this stands out is that it is so rare in fantasy. More than half of the viewpoint characters are women and each of them is motivated by different things and reacts in different ways. None of them are saints, none of them are free of mistakes. They are all heroes.

Why does this not happen more in fantasy? Even books written by women tend to feature mostly male casts. Is that a marketing fiat decision or just a default position?

Robin Hobb is at top form here and in her usual way she kicks all the characters into the mud and drags them around in it a bit. These characters go through the kinds of hell that none of us wish to ever see.

Hobb leaves a glimmer of hope at the end and a swath of unanswered mysteries to propel the reader on to the next book. She knows her craft and this is one of the prime examples of it.

Robin Hobb is one of the premier fantasy writers still working today and I can’t wait to see what she will write next.

The Third by Abel Keogh

The Third.jpgThis is a dystopian future story that tries really hard to have a deep meaning but really leaves too many loose threads to feel like a complete novel.

One of the conceits of dystopian futures is that you have to agree to stop asking questions. For instance, what events transpired to allow the world in 1984 to exist? It makes no sense. (I know that I’m probably inviting a lot of arguments with this since a lot of people think we are headed there right now. My argument is that those concerns and worries are precisely why this will never actually happen. I could say a lot more about that but this review is about The Third.)

In Abel Keogh’s The Third readers are asked to believe in a future where cities in the United States are, apparently, left up to themselves to be self-sustaining and a great ecological disaster has forced people to make laws for population control. People also, apparently have to live in tiny apartments and have rationed food etc. Don’t ask how this happened. The point of the book is not how the dystopia came to be. It’s how people deal with the oppression of that society.

Ransom is a garbage worker and his wife is a nurse. Their world starts to come apart when they find out they are expecting their third — and illegal — child.

The book spends a lot of time showing Ransom charging around the city looking for ways to solve the dilemma and getting beat on by cruel and efficient bullies. Towards the end a solution is presented but he has to go against the dogma that has been driven into him since he was a boy.

It’s an okay book. The writing is good enough. The story is acceptable. The characters dilemma feels real. Somehow it never quite comes together, though. The world feels like the city exists in a white box with nothing beyond. The world doesn’t seem to be fully fleshed out — and maybe it doesn’t need to be but it feels lacking. The entire book is just… good enough. I find there is little to complain about but little to love either. Several subplots that were introduced in the early chapters are forgotten and abandoned by the end.

My one item of real praise is that the characters in this book behave in character throughout even when it will make things harder for them, and for the author. Sometimes they are so in character they are frustrating.

There are better dystopian fiction books out there but to be honest my lackadaisical response to this book might be because this is a genre that I have never really enjoyed. I have a difficult time seeing how our world could have gotten to this mess and the same is true of most of these kinds of books.

Gordon B. Hinckley: Go Forth With Faith by Sheri L. Dew

Gordon B. Hinckley.jpgI need to start this review with a little bit of a disclaimer. This is a review of this book, not of the author or of the person that it is about. Gordon B. Hinckley was a wonderful man and I loved to hear him speak. He was also a prophet of God.

This book, a biography of his life, is written with such passive language and to so much pointless detail that it is impossible to read. The book shares some interesting tidbits about Gordon B. Hinckley’s life, especially as a young child and adult. However, it appears that most of the information in the book came from ether church meeting minutes or records of travel arrangements.

In fact a good portion of the book reads like that is exactly what it is. There are multiple passages that dwell, for several pages, on the things that Elder Hinckley spoke about at each location while he was traveling all over the world and speaking to members of the church. These are not transcripts of talks — though often long passages are quoted — but are lifeless summaries, almost like Cliff’s Notes.

If all the gristle and fat could be rendered out of this product a much leaner book could have been published and one that would have also contained more relevant information.

The other problem I found was one that I’ve found in many LDS biographies. The language is very passive and always sounds more like the driest of bored historians compiling facts from internet searches. I’ve read other biographies where the author had actual conversations with the subject and tells the story from that point of view. I’ve read those where the events are expressed from the point-of-view of people who were there from written letters, interviews, journals, etc. This book doesn’t feel like that. Too many words to describe not enough emotion.

I feel that there are few, if any, good biographers in the LDS church and it’s unfortunate because there are some truly great and powerful people whose lives deserve a good biography.

This has kind of turned me off of trying more of them — though not entirely, I’m sure I’ll get around to reading more some day.