Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God (Guy Adams)

Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God
(The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)
Guy Adams
Titan Books
Fiction, Historical Fiction/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the final days of the 19th century, the great detective Sherlock Holmes finds his career as a consulting detective at a drift. Dr. John Watson, his longtime friend and biographer, still grieves his late wife Mary, hardly able to help lift the moody genius from his deepening funk. Finally, a letter sparks a glimmer of interest, the first in many months. London's notorious "Psychic Doctor" Dr. Silence, whose practices defy tradition yet seem to generate results, comes to Holmes with a chilling message, said to come from the lips of a possessed child.
Holmes might wave off the story as superstitious nonsense, but when he and Watson examine the body of the unfortunate Hilary De Montford - a social dandy, his body found mangled and crushed nearly beyond recognition by forces that defy explanation - it becomes clear that there's more to Silence's tale than smoke and mirrors. Holmes takes up the trail, with Watson faithfully at his side... but can the skeptical, rational-minded detective hope to prevail against forces that best even the day's most skilled occultists?

REVIEW: I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did, but it seemed to keep getting in my way. Being bound to the Sherlock Holmes canon, it was a given that the spiritual and demonic aspects, woven into so much of the plot in a way that has even the good Doctor Watson questioning reality, would ultimately come to far less than they were played up to be. Thus, once again, Holmes sets Watson up to play the fool, while he keeps his clockwork-cool mind apart from and above the strange phenomena and stranger characters. I know Holmes tended to treat Watson with condescension - as he treated most everyone - but I still found it subtly irksome, especially as Watson's growing crisis intertwines with his unresolved grief over Mary... the sort of emotional Hell that the great detective himself never understood and scarcely respected, even in his best friend. Adams brings in the real-life figure Aleister Crowley - popular occultist, member of the famed Order of the Golden Dawn, and once dubbed "The Wickedest Man in the World" - as well as other characters from period fiction; they proved a mixed lot when it comes to meshing with the Holmes universe. Naturally, convoluted as the events become, Sherlock manages to untangle truth from fiction and reality from illusion, but not before more tragedies befall. In the end, hints and shadows remain that not everything was as it seemed, hints that even Holmes himself cannot entirely deny. Considering how much of the narrative devoted itself to what amounted to smoke and mirrors, I confess to feeling a bit rooked in the end. Still, I've read worse, and as a character study - watching Watson work through the possibility of reality being less solid than he always believed, while coming to terms with his own grief and pain - it makes for reasonably intriguing reading.

You might also enjoy:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) - My Review
The House of Silk (Anthony Horowitz) - My Review

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

March Site Update

I've updated the main book review site, archiving and cross-linking the previous 13 reviews.  I also rotated the Random Recommendations page.

(For the curious, the computer transfer/upgrade went much more smoothly than expected.)


Monday, March 26, 2012

Rip Haywire Blows UP! (Dan Thompson)

Rip Haywire Blows UP!
(A Rip Haywire collection, Book 2)
Dan Thompson
Fiction, YA? Comics

****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Square-jawed soldier of fortune Rip Haywire, his devious sometimes-girlfriend Cobra, his adopted son R.J., and his sarcastic, faithful collie TNT take out bad guys with stealth, style, and multiple explosions. With the help of Mac Cactus and the secret government agency G.U.N.S, they tackle fiendish felons, vicious vampires, leering land-grabbers, and more... including more than a few agents of the evil network S.K.U.L.L., whose leader - Dr. Pain - has a very personal bone to pick with Rip.

REVIEW: First off, I have no idea where Book 1 went; this is the only Rip Haywire collection I can find mentioned on Amazon, or anywhere on the internet. That said, I enjoyed this collection immensely. Chock-full of both pop culture and retro homages, this strip delivers fast-paced action and nonstop hilarity. It lost half a mark due to production value; there are no page numbers, and the book lacks not only a title page, but lettering on the spine. Otherwise, it's great. (I'd still love to get my hands on Book 1, if it exists, though...)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Curious World of Shelley Vendor (Colin R. Parsons)

The Curious World of Shelley Vendor
Colin R. Parsons
North Staffordshire Press
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*+ (Terrible/Bad)

DESCRIPTION: A lifelong klutz and bookish misfit, Shelley Vendor never quite fit in with her schoolmates. Only Katie, another book-lover and fellow target of classroom bullies, ever befriended her. When they learn that their class is taking a field trip to a major book event in the city, they're thrilled. Even more exciting, their favorite author, Niloc Snosrap, will be there, signing copies his newest release! Nothing could possibly ruin this day!
Inside the exhibition, Shelley becomes distracted by a special display: a rare book with a jewel-inlaid cover, its origins a mystery. Even as she marvels, she spots trouble: a group of strange, blue-skinned midgets are trying to steal the book... but she's the only one who sees them! Shelley gives chase, and tumbles into a strange world. Soon, she finds herself on the wrong side of a dangerous hunter and his vicious wolf-beasts, with no idea how she got there - or how to get home.

REVIEW: Well, I can't say I didn't have ample warning. This book starts with a wholly unnecessary prologue, explaining the story that's about to occur, as if Parsons either didn't trust his own skills to adequately relate it or didn't trust his audience to be able to follow it. Within five pages of the first chapter, a host of red flags were waving: slapstick action, clunky writing, and the oh-so-clever self-insertion of the author's own name (spelled backwards, lest he be too obvious about it) as Shelley's favorite best-selling writer. I should've heeded the warning signs and simply given up then. But I'd be a poor reviewer (if a happier reader) if I threw in the towel that easily. Ignoring my gut, I plowed onward.
Shelley's clumsiness goes from being a character quirk to a tooth-grinding annoyance with record speed. Shelley herself does little but whine, stumble, scream, and burst into tears throughout the story. To be fair, her best friend Katie, who follows Shelley into the world of Reflections, fares little better, though she at least has one moment where she actually does something that isn't either useless or actively counterproductive. (Is this really how the author views girls, as pathetic little weaklings who'd get lost in a paper bag? If so, why write female protagonists?) I also can't say much in favor of their allies, a native boy and a talking monkey, except that at least they display the occasional glimmer of common sense. All of them, even the bad guy, behave like grade-schoolers, despite nominally being teens or even full-blown adults. The narrative and dialog jerks and stumbles over itself, forever explaining what the characters are doing or thinking... actions and thoughts that turn on a proverbial dime from one paragraph to the next. I felt like I was reading the novelization of a Saturday morning cartoon - a bad Saturday morning cartoon, the kind that talks down to its audience, refuses to let bad or scary things happen, and relies too much on poorly-timed slapstick silliness. There is no real logic or explanation to the story, which builds to an ending so pointless and out-of-the-blue that I could only stare at my Kindle in disbelief. All I could think was that, while filling the previous pages with so much aimless filler, Parsons had entirely forgotten that the story was supposed to end, and winged it at the last minute.
In its favor, The Curious World of Shelley Vendor reads fairly fast. Try as I might, I can't think of much else to recommend it.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague (Brandon Mull)

Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague
(The Fablehaven series, Book 3)
Brandon Mull
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Sometimes, Kendra and Seth can hardly believe how their lives have changed in two short years, ever since that fateful summer when they discovered the secret, magical sanctuary of Fablehaven on their grandparents' wooded estate. Kendra, granted strange powers by the Fairy Queen herself, becomes a potential pawn in the growing power struggle between the Knights of the Dawn and the dark Society of the Evening Star. Her reckless brother Seth has faced down undead revenants and been swallowed by a gluttonous demon... activities which, he soon discovers, have left their own mark upon him. But the summer draws to a close, and their parents are starting to wonder why the kids haven't come home to prepare for the new school year. Firm disbelievers in all things magical, they cannot understand the dangerous forces working to topple Fablehaven... and the dangerous eyes that would fall upon Kendra and Seth as soon as they leave the sanctuary's borders.
Earlier this summer, one of the artifact keys to the demon prison realm of Zzyzx was removed from Fablehaven by the Sphinx, an immortal ally of the Knights since before remembrance - but an unlikely informant has left dark hints that he may in fact be working toward the Society's evil interest, seeking to open the prison gates instead of keeping them closed for eternity. When word comes of a Knight mission to retrieve and relocate another artifact, Kendra and her fairy gifts must be there to help... and to make sure that Society agents - or the potentially-traitorous Sphinx - don't get there first. Meanwhile, at Fablehaven, Seth and his grandparents find a plague spreading through the magical populace, turning beings of light into beings of dark and friends into deadly enemies. Is it the work of the Society of the Evening Star, or the Sphinx - and can they root out the source in time to keep the magical sanctuary from falling into chaos and ruin?

REVIEW: Full of imaginative settings, creatures, and situations, this third installment nevertheless sags under its own weight, with two previous action-filled volumes pressing firmly upon its back. Catch-up notes are few and far between; Mull throws the reader back into the story as though no time had elapsed between reading the first two books and this one. For some readers, that's likely true, but for those of us trying to get back into Fablehaven after some time away it wasn't so easy. The dialog and narrative sometimes feel stilted and forced, pushing the characters and their thoughts where they need to go instead of letting them move freely. Dark undertones continue to add depth and weight to the story, as even the most frivolous-seeming magical being is shown - quite literally - to have a dangerous shadow just beneath the surface. Kendra shows signs of growing up, while Seth, despite some hard lessons learned in previous adventures, still seems prone to backsliding and putting himself in needless danger. The climax requires both of their skills, and even then exacts a greater toll than either one could have anticipated.
Overall, I found this volume less immersive and somewhat more tedious to get through. Still, having come this far, I expect I'll eventually read the final two books of the Fablehaven saga... provided I can find them cheap enough.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Write a F*$%ing Book Already - The Insider's Guide To Increasing Your Sales & Improving Your Career With A Book (Jim Kukral)

Write a F*$%ing Book Already - The Insider's Guide To Increasing Your Sales & Improving Your Career With A Book
Jim Kukral
Digital Book Launch
Nonfiction, Business/Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Books - be they old-fashioned hardcovers or ebook titles - create automatic authority. A book can help you land a job, increase your income, and otherwise improve every aspect of your life. No matter what you do, no matter what you know, someone out there wants to read about it... and that someone will pay money to do it.
So why haven't you written one yet?
Jim Kukral explains how the changing face of publishing is opening opportunities like never before - but you can't hope to take advantage of them until you've written a book. So get writing, already! What are you afraid of? Too much success?
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Though pitched at nonfiction, Kukral's blunt advice and brick-to-the-skull encouragement speak to all would-be authors currently hemming and hawing over the keyboard... not to mention people who never realized what a simple, 10,000-word ebook could do for their careers. He covers why everyone has at least one book in them (even if they think they don't), how to knock out the naysaying voices inside and outside one's head, and methods for using a new-minted book to increase existing revenue streams and open up new ones. If a few of his chapters seem a trifle sparse, Kukral has plenty of links to his website for more information - just the sort of cross-platform pitch that makes books, especially ebooks, such a lucrative investment for anyone.
One of my few complaints is how little time Kukral spends on the actual writing part of writing a book. He glosses over the actual process of organizing, outlining, drafting and polishing a manuscript, focusing instead on the end result and the benefits it will bring. I would argue that a well-polished book will ultimately bring more benefits than a slapdash hack job - judging solely from my personal experiences reading both polished books and hack jobs - but I suppose, to a seasoned salesman, ground chuck and sirloin both have the same sizzle.
If you've ever looked at a so-called "expert" book and thought you knew more than that guy, or if you've spent too long stifling your own writing urges, this book makes a good, solid kick in the backside to get moving and start writing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Shadowbloom (Justin Sullivan and Samuel Sullivan)

(The Rhyme of the Willow series, Book 1)
Justin Sullivan and Samuel Sullivan
Justin Sullivan, publisher
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Axton and Aniva Rhyme may be twins, but their personalities couldn't be more different. Aniva has a chip on her shoulder the size of a tree, willing to bully anyone, even her own brother, into getting her way. Shy Axton, on the other hand, prefers schoolwork and books, letting his fears run his life. Both were left orphans by a car crash, leaving little more than dim memories of their real mother and father... until one of Axton's plants inexplicably bites them both, and they share a strangely vivid dream of that fiery crash - and a mysterious woman with yellow-green eyes who offered help...
Compelled by their dream, the Rhyme twins sneak out of their grandparents' house to the massive willow at the site of the crash - and are swept into a dark and dangerous world, a forest gone mad. Luminous vines, stone-barked trees, evil thorns, plants made of shadow... and not a single bird, insect, or animal to be seen. Stumbling upon an outpost of civilization, Axton and Aniva discover many shocks and surprises - not the least of which is that their parents may still be alive somewhere in this forbidding, deadly Garden.

REVIEW: A compellingly original fantasy, Shadowbloom starts quickly and rarely slackens its pace. Axton's shyness has crippled him, and continues to do so throughout the book, while Aniva's rage becomes entwined with a darker fate, threatening to consume her very soul. Together, they form one reasonably competent adventurer, exploring a world composed almost exclusively of plants... and ill-favored plant/human hybrids known as Wilds. It could've been just another lightweight kids-in-Wonderland tale, but the Sullivans weave in darker, more complex threads beneath the seeming utopia of the sheltered human enclaves, and both Rhyme twins find their lives changed in ways that many young adult authors wouldn't have dared. It almost earned itself another half-mark, but the ending felt a little awkward, even allowing for it being Book 1 of a series. (It also could've used slightly more diligent proofreading.) Nevertheless, it read fairly fast and I enjoyed the world... enough that I may finally find myself paying for a Kindle book when the second volume becomes available. (For a cheapskate like me, that's saying something...)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Stash Your Swag - 100+ Secret Hiding Places (Tarrin P. Lupo)

Stash Your Swag - 100+ Secret Hiding Places
Tarrin P. Lupo
Porcupine Publications
Nonfiction, Finance/General Nonfiction
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Since the latest financial crisis, most everyone has figured out that Big Banks do not have your best interests at heart when it comes to handling your assets. In the not-too-distant past, the American government "legally" seized private property, paying pennies on the dollar for gold and silver while citizens stood by helplessly. So how can you keep your cash and other valuables safe from Big Brother and other thieves? Lupo offers many ingenious hiding places in and around the home.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: It was free, and I thought it would give me some story ideas - one can never have too many story ideas, after all. Unfortunately, I got about what I paid for here. Lupo tries for wit, but falls flat more often than not. He cites a few real-world examples of famous historic hiding places, but not nearly enough to justify the overall repetition and shallow presentation. He also ventures into tin-foil-hat-level Guv'mnt paranoia once or twice. (I also had to wonder about someone who points to the latest financial meltdown as a reason to stash your money all through your home, while ignoring the associated housing market meltdown and mortgage/foreclosure crisis that has forced so many Americans out of their houses. So... what, the intention is to leave your valuables behind when the bank repossesses your property?) In short, I'm just as glad I'm not out any money for this one.

Scrimshaw? But I Can't Draw! How to Scrimshaw (Andrew Perkins)

Scrimshaw? But I Can't Draw! How to Scrimshaw
(The How to Scrimshaw series, Volume 1)
Andrew Perkins
Amazon Digital Services
Nonfiction, Art
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Scrimshaw - the art of incising images into ivory or bone, a common hobby for sailors - looks beautiful, a classical art form hearkening back to the golden age of sail. Perhaps you've always wanted to try your hand at it, but it just looks too hard. You can't even draw a straight line; how are you ever going to produce anything like the intricate artwork you've seen on display in art galleries or museums?
Many of those long-ago scrimshanders, however detailed their works, couldn't draw, either; they were sailors, not artists. Yet there is no denying that they produced art.
Andrew Perkins, a professional scrimshander, explains how to create beautiful, surprisingly detailed scrimshaw art. All you need are the right tools, a little time, and some patience... no drawing skills required!

REVIEW: Whaling and ivory trade associations aside, I've always thought scrimshaw looked interesting, so I downloaded this one on my Kindle during a freebie promotion window. Perkins gathers years of information in this guide, covering everything from materials (including ivory substitutes) to image sources, plus some practical exercises and projects. Almost everything comes with links for more information - clickable, in the Kindle version. Lacking money and materials, I can't try the projects (yet), but the instructions seem reasonably complete, with several pictures. If you've ever considered scrimshaw, or just wondered how the process was done, this is a good place to find some helpful answers.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Crucible of Gold (Naomi Novik)

Crucible of Gold
(The Temeraire series, Book 7)
Naomi Novik
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: From the sea to the skies, from national hero to exiled traitor, from England to the prison colony of Australia... how could Will Laurence have guessed at his changing fortunes, when the HMS Reliant captured the French vessel with Temeraire's egg? But those days are behind him, the war against Napoleon a dim rumble far beyond the horizon. Stripped of rank by a hidebound government, the former captain and the Celestial dragon have found peace farming an isolated valley, content to forget and be forgotten. Then, with the arrival of an unwelcome visitor, the world once more comes crashing upon their doorstep.
Arthur Hammond, a tactless man but an effective diplomat, who once was willing to trade away Temeraire in order to secure goodwill with China, brings with him an offer of reinstatement in the British Aerial Corps, with full seniority restored. While Temeraire delights in the news, Laurence knows the government would never relent unless they needed something. Indeed, they do. Napoleon has enlisted the aid of the Tswana, the dragon-ruled African empire, to harry the Portuguese colony of Brazil, turning the angered nation loose upon the slave-owners who for so long plundered their tribespeople. Having spent time among the Tswana - as captives, mostly - the British hope that Laurence and Temeraire can help the struggling colony and curry favor with Portugal... and maybe even sway the African dragons to the British cause against France. A laughable notion, given Britain's continued support of the very slave trade that angered the Tswana into violence, but Laurence can hardly refuse the attempt. Too many good people saw their lives destroyed when he and Temeraire were branded agitators and traitors; maybe this mission, doomed as it seems, could help make amends.
Thus begins a perilous journey halfway around the globe, beset by storms, mutiny, and traitors.

REVIEW: Another exciting adventure in Temeraire's fascinating alternate-history world, this book wisely ties the action back into the greater world theater. Temeraire, ever the optimist, returns to active duty convinced that he's finally making headway against the British government; Laurence, far less sanguine about the situation, remains determined to never let himself sacrifice personal honor for his fickle nation's pride again. Matters of national honor take a back seat for a good chunk of the book, as the journey itself takes up more than half of the pagecount. In this respect, Crucible of Gold feels faintly reminiscent of Tongues of Serpents (Book 6), in that I sometimes wondered if Novik was stalling for pagecount with each new crisis sprung upon the travelers. Temeraire and his much-reduced crew finally visit the Incan Empire, whose aloof existence was teased in earlier volumes. Novik once again establishes a nation whose relationships with dragons have determined their survival, giving Temeraire a whole new perspective on his own responsibilities to his human companions. By the time they reach Brazil, the Tswana and Hammond's hopes to appease the Portuguese almost feel like afterthoughts. Naturally, all signs point to an eighth volume in the works, as the global theater of war tilts even further against a British victory.
With several significant personal and international developments, Crucible of Gold moves Temeraire's tale out of the backwaters and back into the forefront of a world at war... just where he belongs. I look forward to the next installment, and however many more Novik decides to write.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Hocus Pocus, You're Focused! (Arthur Laud)

Hocus Pocus, You're Focused!
Arthur Laud
Andrew Kasch Publishing
Nonfiction, Self-Help
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Sometimes, it seems modern life is nothing but stress and distractions. Boring jobs, app-loaded phones, half a hundred things to do and no time to do them... is it any wonder so many people just throw up their hands and let it overwhelm them? But procrastinating and daydreaming don't help. In the long run, they only make a bad situation worse. Retrain your brain so that it works for you, not against you, and watch your life improve - today!
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: It's no secret that I'm a procrastinator, not to mention a lifelong daydreamer. I know firsthand how easy it is to distract oneself, and how hard it is, once the brain is used to such distractions, to force it to actually focus and accomplish something. (This pretty much sums up my life to date, to be perfectly honest, but I digress...) Laud offers some explanations for why this habit starts, how to track it to its roots, and methods for heading a wandering mind off at the pass. I'm not entirely sure he always hits the nail on the head, though, and he tends to make it sound much easier than it actually is to alter an ingrained habit. His advice often boils down to "just stop doing that and start doing this," which isn't particularly helpful when one has decades of "doing that" to contend with. (I also know my own mind enough to know that the occasional daydream is a vital component of its functioning, especially when I'm creating; it's just when it skews off in pointless directions and/or drifts in idle circles, as it too often does, that daydreaming crosses the line from being a fount of energy and ideas to a mental quagmire.) I commend Laud for addressing the all-too-common problems of unfocused daydreaming and procrastination, even if I'm not convinced that his methods necessarily constitute a cure.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Leopard's Daughter (Lee Killough)

The Leopard's Daughter
Lee Killough
Yard Dog Press
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the long-ago days when verdant grasslands covered the Sahara and demons walked the world of Men, the warrior-woman Jeneba struggles to find acceptance in her small village. Though her mother's brother is the tribe's honored chieftain, her father was a leopard-man, tainting her warrior blood with an animal spirit. Desperate to prove herself the equal of the men and women who look at her askance, she tries to deny her heritage... until a leopard's unasked-for advice saves her life and the lives of her kinsmen. Even then, when she should be hailed as a hero, the others turn their shoulders as they would to a witch, a distrust that only grows when she accuses Tomo, one of her uncle's bravest warriors, of cowardice in battle. But Tomo disappeared in the chaos; only Jeneba believes that he ran away, instead of dying a hero's death. Determined to clear her slandered name, Jeneba sets out from her village to track him down and bring him back to stand for his crimes. Only the world is much, much larger than Jeneba could have imagined, with troubles far greater than her wounded pride. If she is to survive the journey the gods have in store for her, she will need every drop of her warrior's skills, her mother's bravery - and her father's preternatural, predatory gifts.

REVIEW: Stepping away from the usual quasi-medieval European setting, Killough establishes a brightly diverse prehistoric world, where magic is real, inhuman demons prey on unwary travelers, and animals wield mystic powers. The many beliefs and tribes named, each with a distinctive appearance, dress, and scars or tattoos, grows a little overwhelming, but it's easy enough to keep track of the main characters. Jeneba finds herself in some very unusual company, traveling to the far-flung corners of her world in the name of honor - a word that she comes to re-evaluate during her adventures, as she experiences more of the world beyond her own people. She must also, as one might expect, re-evaluate her relationship with her father's people and her own leopard spirit, learning to walk a fine path between animal and woman. Along the way, she encounters plenty of fights and demons and magic, even walking into the underworld of the dead... which varies from her own people's tales because she goes in search of a ghost from another tribe. It only lost a point because the ending feels a bit abrupt, and because the tribe-tangle grows distracting once in a while. There are also some editing errors that, while minor, were subtly annoying. Overall, though, I enjoyed this journey into a long-lost prehistory that never was.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (Brandon Sanderson)

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians
(The Alcatraz series, Book 1)
Brandon Sanderson
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: When Alcatraz Smedry set fire to his foster parents' kitchen, he wasn't surprised. He always breaks things, sometimes just by being in the same room with them. Naturally, it'd mean another pair of foster parents would give up on him - these two had been remarkably tolerant, putting up with him for eight whole months - but what else was new? Ever since he could remember, he's been in foster care. Sometimes he wonders if he ever had a real mother or father, or if he broke them, too.
Which is why it was so strange when he received a gift on his 13th birthday, purporting to be from his father... but why would anyone, even a prankster, send him a box full of sand?
The next day, instead of the social worker he expected, Alcatraz finds a strange old man on the doorstep. Claiming to be his grandfather, he seems frantic to learn that the sand has gone missing - a fear Alcatraz can't help sharing, when the social worker arrives with a gun. Even though the old man saves his life, Alcatraz simply cannot believe his story: that America is part of the Hushlands, kept deliberately in the dark about the true nature of the world by the evil cultists known as Librarians, and that the stolen sand just might allow them to extend their grip over the remaining Free Kingdoms. Guns more primitive than swords? Magical Talents? Glasses that grant wearers special gifts? It's insanity, every word of it.
But, of course, that's exactly what the Librarians have trained him to believe...

REVIEW: Having enjoyed Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, and working for the local library system, I had to give this one a try. The story itself is decent enough. Alcatraz isn't the most noble of heroes, and never pretends to be; he goes to great lengths to point out his own cowardice, selfishness, and stupidity. His companions tend toward exaggerations, as befitting the inherently silly, often manic nature of the plot. Still, none of them are complete idiots, and even in their eccentricities they all carry their own weight. Alcatraz even manages to grow a little, if reluctantly and in spite of himself.
What lifted this book in the ratings was Sanderson's writing style. The unfettered glee with which he toys with the reader, reveling in his absolute power as the storyteller, turns a decent story into a marvelous one. The text is littered with literary references with an obvious tongue-in-cheek flair as Sanderson simultaneously salutes libraries and books while casting librarians in the role of the ultimate evil on Earth. It's been a while since I read a book that just had fun with itself like this. Hopefully, I can get my hands on the second volume someday - not necessarily because I'm invested in Alcatraz's adventures, but because it was such a kick to read.