Ryan’s Books: Months Six through Nine (Part II)

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May 27, 2013 by jiejie768

Here is Part two of my massive book review post covering books 24-39. Yesterday, I reviewed Nos. 24-30 which included an oral history of ESPN and excellent novels from Stephen King (“11/22/63”) and Robert McCammon (“Boy’s Life”). Today features a heavy sci-fi and fantasy bent with three books from King’s “Dark Tower” series and the first two books from Veronica Roth’s young-adult series “Divergent.”

31. “The Dark Tower, Part I: The Gunslinger,” by Stephen King — 6/10

"The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger," by Stephen King

“The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger,” by Stephen King

After having enjoyed “11/22/63” so much, I was ready to give Stephen King a bit more of my time. For years I’d heard from various readers that “The Dark Tower” series was right up my alley. Like “11/22/63” it’s a bit of a departure from King’s best-known works in that is not a horror series; it’s a fantasy series. In the introduction to first (of seven) book in the series, King describes his inspiration for the fantasy tomes as part “Lord of the Rings,” part Clint Eastwood’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” OK, Stephen, sign me up.

“The Gunslinger” introduces readers to the series’ main character, Roland, who is following “the man in black” across of a barren desert to some unknown location. It is unclear from the beginning how long Roland has been chasing this man, and why. Over the course of the book, bits and pieces of Roland’s life and the world he inhabits are revealed in a series of flashbacks. Roland is apparently the last gunslinger, the only people in this world that are allowed to carry firearms. His position lends him the respect, and fear, of the mostly suffering fellow humans he comes across during his journey. Elements of magic seem to exist in this world, which slowly comes into focus as some sort of (very)post-apocalyptic version of Earth. There are references and ties to Earth as we know it, but it’s unclear if Earth is an alternate dimension, or an earlier version of the world that Roland wanders.

This first book in the series, by King’s own admission, is not his strongest effort (he implores readers in the intro to tolerate “The Gunslinger” and not give up on the series until Book 2: “The Drawing of the Three”). Having made it through books two and three, I’d agree with that assessment. “Gunslinger” is uneven and often confusing in frustrating ways. It lacks the information I sought to get truly invested, but did intrigue me enough to want give “Drawing of the Three” a chance. I’m glad I did (see below). For fantasy fans, or Stephen King fans, this is a worthy read; just trust the author when he says there are better days (and books) to come Roland’s quest. Also, unlike later books in the series which crack the 500-page threshold, this book is only about 250 pages and can be read in a day or two.

32. “The Brandon Roy Story,” by Dan Raley — 7/10

"The Brandon Roy Story," by Dan Raley

“The Brandon Roy Story,” by Dan Raley

Rarely has a book been so completely in my wheelhouse. Brandon Roy is probably my favorite athlete of all-time. The University of Washington basketball legend’s four years as a Husky overlapped mine, and memories of seeing B-Roy slice up opposing defenses and lead the Huskies to previously unreached heights remain some of my absolute favorite memories of being in college. I still get chills down my spine when I recall B-Roy’s second game-tying buzzer beating 3 on New Year’s Eve 2005 against Arizona. As Hec Ed Pavilion erupted, and I took in the scene from Row 3, Seat 17 of the Dawg Pack, I knew I’d never forget Brandon running up the court, tugging on his jersey and yelling into the cacophony “This is my F******G house!!!” We’d lose that game in double-OT after B-Roy fouled out (sigh, Huskies), but that will always be cemented in my mind as the moment Michael Jordan was replaced on his pedestal by No. 3 in Husky purple for the foreseeable future. Given the time and space in my life that those Husky teams occupy, I can’t imagine I will ever love an athlete again the way I loved B-Roy.

Which brings us to Dan Raley’s biography. I was pre-disposed to like this book based on the title alone. When my buddy, Keegan, who works with Raley at MSN.com in Seattle managed to get me a copy, I couldn’t wait to read it. In addition to being about my favorite athlete, the book’s author is one I have some affection for as well. I don’t know Raley personally, but I will always remember sharing a conversation with him on a cold, rainy day at Husky Ballpark in 2006.

We both were there to cover Tim Lincecum’s start against, I don’t know, let’s say Arizona State. Being a senior journalism major and an intern for a Husky fansite, I was tasked with covering every Husky home baseball game. Being a writer from one of Seattle’s two major newspapers (the now defunct Seattle P-I), Raley was tasked with being there to see a homegrown superstar in the making as he carved up helpless opposing line-ups with unfair ease. LIncecum days always provided a packed press-box and usually meant I was relegated to covering from the bleachers. This day was no different, but unlike the rest of the masses, Raley and I were the only two reporters who stuck around to interview the opposing team. The rest of the horde simply got some quotes from Timmy and the UW coach and headed for drier ground. Raley and I were alone on the field while the “ASU” coach reamed out his team for not being able to hit a guy that would have two Cy Youngs on his shelf within four years. I remember Raley being dry, sarcastic and cynical — all things guaranteed to spark admiration in an aspiring journalist. He teased me for being foolish enough to pick journalism as a major, chastised me for waiting in the rain like a schmuck and told me to stick with it and I may be lucky enough to become a bitter journalist who hates himself in no time.

OK, for real now, on to the book. Truth be told, this book is only so-so. I loved it, and read it in a single plane ride from Seattle to Los Angeles, but it’s flawed. Raley occasionally gets carried away with flowery language and seems to love showing off his vocabulary and ability to turn a phrase better left straight (said the pot of the kettle). Also, as much as I love Brandon Roy, and his story is fraught with hardship and frustration (struggling to qualify college, and his knees … damn those knees) he’s not a very colorful interview. B-Roy is not one to complain about his bad luck, or scream his accomplishments from the rooftops. He’s incredibly humble and completely grounded in who he is, which makes him lovable, but not terribly interesting to read about. The primary emotion that emanates from B-Roy when he discusses his career-ending knee injuries is not anger or frustration, but guilt that he couldn’t deliver what he felt Portland TrailBlazers fans deserved from him. That said, if you’re a Husky die-hard, or you went to U-Dub at any point between 2002-06, this book is definitely worth checking out. Brandon Roy truly is a great person, and arguably the greatest Husky (hoops) of all time.

33. “The Dark Tower, Part II: The Drawing of the Three,” by Stephen King — 7.5/10
34. “The Dark Tower, Part III: The Wastelands,” by Stephen King — 8/10

"The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three," by Stephen King

“The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three,” by Stephen King

As I mentioned above, the “Dark Tower” series really gets going after you make it through “The Gunslinger.”

“The Drawing of the Three,” picks up a few hours after the climactic final scene of “The Gunslinger.” Roland is alone on a beach overlooking the Western Sea. He is still on his lifelong quest to find the dark tower, but is at a loss for what to do next. Roland drifts to sleep, only be awoken by a monstrous sea creature — described as giant lobsters basically — which catches him at unawares and leaves with two fingers from Roland’s right hand and a toe to munch on. This a grievous injury for a man who’s ability to shoot from a draw is his meal ticket. Fortunately his left hand is in tact, and when it comes to gunslinging, Roland is ambidextrous. He quickly learns, however, that in addition to taking some digits, the lobstrosity (as he calls them) left some poison in his veins. As he moves along the beach, hoping for some sign as to what he is to do next, he comes upon a free-standing door in the sand. Upon opening the door, Roland peers in and sees another world. One he doesn’t understand.

"The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands," by Stephen King

“The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands,” by Stephen King

I won’t give away much more than that (that synopsis covers about the first 20 pages, maybe). But it is at this point that the “Dark Tower” sunk its hooks into me for good. Through this door, and two more that he’ll encounter later in the novel, Roland is essentially transported into modern-day New York where he meets and recruits (in a manner of speaking) what will become his companions for his quest to find the Dark Tower. “The Waste Lands,” continues to follow Roland and his new friends as they make their way from the sea to the warring city of Lud for the book’s heart-stopping climax.

In these two books, King really finds his pace and adds his unique touch to the world of fantasy. My favorite parts involve the juxtaposition of Roland’s world with that of mid-to-late 20th Century NYC. You’re never quite sure what the connection between the two worlds is, and that makes you want to keep on reading to find out. He also mixes in the mystical in a way that separates him from the more “traditional” fantasy novels with which I’m familiar. Instead of wizards and sorcerers, King’s mysticism is more devious and exists under the surface. There are demons and spirits that clearly come from the same mind that is considered to be the modern-voice of the horror novel. The action is exciting, but often borders on eerie, or downright terrifying, in a way that pleases the darker corners of your mind. Any fan of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin would likely enjoy these books, and Tolkien’s influence is apparent, but don’t expect this to be the next “Lord of the Rings.” With the “Dark Tower” series, Stephen King has crafted a fantasy realm that is uniquely his own.

35. “Divergent,” by Veronica Roth — 7/10
36. “Insurgent,” by Veronica Roth — 8/10

"Divergent" and "Insurgent," by Veronica Roth

“Divergent” and “Insurgent,” by Veronica Roth

I’m going to review these books in one snippet, as they are books 1 and 2 of a trilogy that will be completed with October’s release of “Allegiant.” If books like the Nicolas Flamel and Percy Jackson series are the fallout from the runaway success of “Harry Potter” than the “Divergent” series is an attempt to capitalize on the success of the “Hunger Games” books and movies.

“Divergent” is told from the perspective of 16-year-old Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who is living in a seemingly utopian future in the mostly abandoned remnants of Chicago. Society has been split into five factions — Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Erudite (knowledge), Amity (peace) and Dauntless (courage) — which filters members of the population into groups based on the virtue they value most. Tris is Abnegation born, but during every citizen’s 16th year they are tested and told what faction they’re most suited for. Following the evaluation is Choosing Day, in which each person is allowed to choose whatever faction (regardless of birth or test results) they would like to join for the rest of their lives. Following the choosing, the teens go through initiation, which tests their fitness for their chosen faction and decides whether they will be admitted permanent entry or exiled to live among the factionless in the streets of Chicago.

Tris faces a difficult choice, as she’s never felt at home in Abnegation’s selfless lifestyle, but is terrified of choosing anything else and disappointing her mother and father (who is an important political leader). Further complicating the matter, are Tris’ test results which determine she is “Divergent,” meaning she has an aptitude for more than one faction — in this case, Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite. With Erudite out of the question based on a longstanding discord between her birth faction and the knowledge seekers, Tris must choose between Dauntless and Abnegation — the only faction she’s ever known. If she chooses Dauntless, there is a good chance she will never see her family again, and certainly will never interact with them in the same way she’s always known.

That sets up the first novel, and I’ll refrain from giving away more. After finishing the second book, though, I would say this series has a chance to be a better complete work than Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” series. Though “Divergent” falls well short of the captivating and thrilling “Hunger Games” I was not impressed by “Catching Fire” and even less so “Mockingjay.” Conversely, I wasn’t over the top about “Divergent” but I was entertained and intrigued, and found “Insurgent” to be an excellent follow-up that continued the story and improved the narrative in many ways. If Roth’s “Allegiant” does a better job of wrapping up the dystopian trilogy than Collins’ “Mockingjay” did for her series, I’d be inclined to favor “Divergent” as a whole. That said, don’t be fooled, neither of these books are as good as the original “Hunger Games.”

37. “Dad is Fat,” by Jim Gaffigan — 7/10

"Dad is Fat," by Jim Gaffigan

“Dad is Fat,” by Jim Gaffigan

Jim Gaffigan is fat. Jim Gaffigan is pale. Jim Gaffigan has five kids. Jim Gaffigan lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the fifth-floor of a New York City walk-up. Most importantly, Jim Gaffigan is funny. Really, really funny.

This book is Gaffigan’s memoir of sorts about the trials and tribulations of raising five, yup FIVE, kids in a tiny NYC apartment. The book is a series of essays on various issues facing parents — Circumcision is a particularly enjoyable chapter. Fans of the comedian’s work — most notably “Hot Pockets” — will be entertained for sure. Gaffigan’s reputation as a clean comedian (something he discusses in the book) follows him here. This a pretty family-friendy (just don’t tell Gaffigan I said that) read about being a parent. One night while reading this after Meg had gone to sleep, I nearly suffocated while trying to laugh silently so as not to wake her up (she woke up). Though I thoroughly enjoyed this book as a childless 28-year-old, I can only imagine a parent of one or more children would find it even more entertaining. This is a quick read, filled with laughs, that is perfect for anyone looking to laugh so hard the people on the bus start staring at them.

38. “Inferno,” by Dan Brown — 8/10

"Inferno," by Dan Brown

“Inferno,” by Dan Brown

Robert Langdon is back. After Dan Brown’s beloved Harvard symbologist won the hearts and minds of readers the world over in the outstanding “Angels and Demons” and nearly as good “The Da Vinci Code,” we’ve been waiting for a third installment to once again keep us on the edge of our seats late into the night. This is that book, a fitting conclusion to the Robert Langdon Trilogy. (What? “Lost Symbol”? I don’t know what you’re talking about … that book never happened).

This book finds an amnesic Langdon awakening in a Florence hospital room with no memory of having left his Boston home. In true Dan Brown fashion, the action picks up there and doesn’t let up for 450-plus pages. This time around, Langdon is attempting to stop the release of a plague-like viruses following clues based around Dante’s “Inferno.”

This book follows the formula of the previous two (there were only two! Langdon has never been to Washington D.C.) to a tee. Normally, calling a book formulaic would be an insult, but when the formula is as solid as Brown’s, why diverge? There’s a beautiful and mysterious female companion, a sinister would-be assassin and a thorough and complete exploration of the art, architecture and culture of Florence and two other cities (I’m not telling which) as Langdon works to save the world yet again. The action is consistent, intriguing and kept me guessing (usually incorrectly) until the very end.

In all, I’d rate it between the other two, falling short of “Angels and Demons” by a shade, but outpacing the more popular, but in my mind less entertaining, “Da Vinci Code.” If I’m picking nits, I’d complain about the lack of acknowledgement within in this book about Langdon’s doings in the previous novels. Certainly, the events here are unrelated to those, but you’d think if you’re chasing down a potential virus using clues from art and literature, you might at least recall that one time the “Mona Lisa” helped you solve a murder or how Roman sculpture helped you keep an anti-matter bomb from wiping out the Vatican. But it’s a small nit. Fans of the previous Robert Langdon novels will find this a must-read (and if you insist on bringing up “Lost Symbol”, I assure you that was the outlier in this otherwise excellent trilogy).

39. “Say You’re Sorry,” by Michael Robotham — 8.5/10

"Say You're Sorry," by Michael Robotham

“Say You’re Sorry,” by Michael Robotham

“Say You’re Sorry” is a dark, twisted murder-mystery executed perfectly. Robotham has apparently written several books featuring criminal psychologist Joe O’Laughlin, but this was the first one I picked up. There were allusions to past adventures, but this one definitely stands alone as a great thriller.

The book is told from two perspectives. The first is that of 18-year-old Piper Hadley, who disappeared three years ago in a well-documented case ultimately determined to be a pair of runaway teenagers. This is not so; Piper and her friend Tash (dubbed the Bingham Girls), who had been planning to run away, never got the chance and have been held captive by the sadistic “George” in an abandoned basement for the past three years.

The second perspective is that of O’Laughlin who is recruited to help investigated a double-murder in Oxfordshire while on vacation with his daughter. The murder of a husband and wife quickly wraps itself into the years-old mystery of the Bingham Girls’ disappearance.

O’Laughlin is an excellent main character who relies on his almost Holmesian ability to read people and situations. He is first met with resistance by the local police force, but is grudgingly accepted into the fold as more and more of his theories and hypotheses prove credible.

For fans with a taste for the darker side of the murder-mystery genre, this is an excellent read. It can be stomach-turning at points, but it’s expertly paced and well-crafted. And, like any good mystery the intrigue picks up as it goes and the twists and turns don’t relent until the very end. To give you an idea of how gripping it was, I picked it up last night (Thursday, May 24) at 10:30 p.m. having only read 48 percent intending to read for 10-15 minutes before going to sleep. I did not set it down until I’d finished it at 1:30 a.m.

Ryan’s Reviews:

 
Meg’s Reviews:

 

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