Thursday, June 28, 2012

Blood Oath

Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth
A Nathaniel Cade novel, #1

Zach Barrows is a cocky, ambitious White House employee until he's abruptly transferred out and partnered with Nathaniel Cade, a secret agent sworn to protect the president. But Cade is no ordinary civil servant. Bound 140 years ago by a special blood oath, Nathanial Cade is a vampire. On the orders of the president he defends the nation against enemies far stranger-and even more dangerous-than civilians like Zach could ever imagine.

--Blood Oath
by Christopher Farnsworth
Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Farnsworth

My Review
While at a certain “big box” store which shall remain unnamed (*cough*Wal-Mart*cough*), I came across a book titled, The President’s Vampire.  Now that, I thought to myself, is a title that grabs your attention.  It certainly did mine, and I bought it. And, of course, it’s the second novel in a series and, of course again, they didn’t have the first book in the series in the rack.  So I checked with this little on-line books store I’d heard a few things about (*cough*Amazon*cough*) and purchased the first book, Blood Oath.

Blood Oath introduces us to Zachary Barrows, a young, up-and-coming and extremely ambitious politician and White House staffer with plans to occupy the White House himself one day.  Unfortunately, an ill-timed liaison with the current President’s daughter derails those plans.  However, instead of being fired, Zach finds himself reassigned to the position of “handler” to one of the President’s most secret weapons:  Nathaniel Cade, Vampire.

That’s right, the President of the United States has a pet vampire.  Whenever a situation arises of a nature too “sensitive” for the CIA, FBI, DHS, INS, DEA or any other alphabet agency, they send in Cade to take care of the problem in the most permanent manner possible.  Zach, as Cade’s handler, gets orders from the President which he in turn delivers to Cade, and then goes along with Cade to assist in whatever means necessary.

At first, Zach is resistant to his new assignment.  Imagine being two words away from the destruction of the future you had worked so hard for only to find out supernatural beings you thought existed only in movies and books were actually real, and moreover, you were going to work with one.  Yep, definitely brown trousers time.  Or, in Zach’s case, wet trousers.

Zach barely has enough time to clean up when he and Cade are off on their first assignment together.  An old enemy/friend of the country is about to unleash the latest incarnation of his greatest invention.  Not only has this man discovered the secret to eternal youth, he knows how to bring the dead back to life.  Together in a tenuous alliance with a new enemy of the United States, he is ready to use his unmenschsoldat to achieve their shared, ultimate goal: the death of the President and the destruction of the United States.

Oh, and just to make it even more interesting, there’s another vampire running around as well as agents for a secretive, “shadow company” within the U.S. Government, whose goal it seems is to destroy the government, but I couldn’t quite work them into the review without giving away the whole story, so there you go.

What’s an unmenschsoldat?  Well, it’s a German word (that’s your first clue to the bad guy’s name).  Mensch means “human being” or “a person of honor.”  Unmensch is the opposite.  And Soldat is “soldier.”  Put that together, you have an unlikable soldier. Or an inhuman soldier.  Or a zombie killing machine.  Take your pick.

I really like the two main characters, Zach and Cade.  Zach is a young, ambitious person who’s had his world knocked out from under him only to be replaced by a brand new world to which he must adapt or—literally—he could die.  Cade is a 140 year-old vampire bound by a blood oath to serve the President of the United States (not the person, the title, therefore, he’ll be in service until he dies or until there is no President).  He is cold, almost unfeeling—you do get a couple glimmers of humanity from him—and like a well-trained soldier, receives his orders and does everything in his power to execute those orders, no matter what.  It’s those little glimmers of humanity that make us like him and I definitely do.

I give this story FOUR STARS.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

11-22-63: A Novel

11-22-63: A Novel by Stephen King

Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the students—a gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.
 Not much later, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane—and insanely possible—mission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life—a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.

--11-22-63: A Novel
by Stephen King
Copyright © 2011 by Stephen King
Published by Scribner

My Review

In previous reviews, I’ve compared a story’s pace to a roller coaster ride.  You have that thrill of anticipation as you climb that first hill, higher and higher, the tension growing and growing until you finally crest the top, hanging there for that long, breathless second, and then the fast plummet to earth, through all the hills valleys and twists and turns until you finally arrive back at the station, exhausted, exhilarated and out of breath.

This is one of the longest and slowest-to-climb roller coasters in the entire world.

But it is soooo worth the ride!

We meet Jake Epping, a high school English teacher and his friend, Al Templeton, who owns a diner in town.  The last day of school, Al calls the school and asks Jake to come by.  He does and is shocked at what he finds.  Al has literally changed overnight.  Where the day before a healthy, sixty-something year old guy had been is now a withered shell of a man, dying of lung cancer.  Al lets Jake in on his secret.  There’s a time tunnel, which he calls a rabbit hole, in the back of his supply closet.  He stumbled on it one day and found himself back in time, specifically September 9, 1958, around noon.  Oddly, every time he went down the rabbit hole, it would always be the exact same date at the exact same time.  No matter what he did in 1958, if he returned to 2011 and then went back, he’d be at the exact same time and date and everything would be reset.  And upon coming back to 2011, only two minutes would have passed.  No matter how long you spend in 1958, when you return it’ll be two minutes later than when you left.

Jake, of course, doesn’t believe him, until he goes down the staircase himself and finds himself in 1958.  He explores (wouldn’t we all?) and returns.  He’s thrilled, but why is Al telling him all this?  And how did he get so sick so fast?

I went down the rabbit hole and stayed, he said.  There was something I wanted to do.  I was there for over four years, but then I got sick and now I want you to do it.

Do what? Jake asks.

Stop the Kennedy assassination.

Given the title of the book, it’s easy to surmise that the Kennedy assassination would be a major part of the story.  And, of course, it is.  But the main focus is really Jake and how he lives those five years between September 9, 1958 and November 22, 1963.  It is a testament to King’s skill as a story teller that he keeps the reader engaged in the seemingly mundane yet fascinating details of Jake’s life while at the same time slowly building tension about the red-letter day to come.  The thrill you’ll get while plummeting down that first, steep  roller coaster hill will be well worth the wait.  And just when you think you’ve come to the end of the ride, the tracks plunge you down off the edge of the earth into a future too terrifying to imagine.

I give this story FOUR and a HALF STARS.

Why not five stars if I enjoyed it so much?  At over 800 pages in hardback form, it’s an extremely long story.  I enjoyed living Jake’s life with him, but there was just so much of it.  I think some of it could have been removed without affecting the telling of the story.  Hmm…okay, four and three-quarters stars.

A Kiss Before the Apocalypse

A Kiss Before the Apocalypse by Thomas E. Sniegoski
The Remy Chandler Chronicles, #1

Boston P.I. Remy Chandler has many talents. He can will himself invisible; he can speak and understand any foreign language (including the language of animals); and if he listens carefully, he can hear thoughts.

Unusual, to say the least—for an ordinary man. But Remy is no ordinary man—he’s an angel. Generations ago, when he was known as the angel Remiel, he chose to renounce heaven and live on Earth. He’s found a place among us ordinary humans, with friendship, a job he’s good at—and love.

Now he is being drawn into a case with strong ties to his angelic past. The Angel of Death has gone missing, and Remy’s former colleagues have come to him for help. But what at first seems to be about tracing a missing person turns out to involve much more—a conspiracy that has as its goal the destruction of the human race. An only Remy Chandler can stop it.

--A Kiss Before the Apocalypse
by Thomas E. Sniegoski
Copyright © 2010 by Thomas E. Sniegoski

My Review

I found this story because its audiobook narrator is Luke Daniels, who I think is amazing (more about him in another review).  And thanks to him, I have a new favorite author and character in Thomas E. Sniegoski and Remy Chandler.

Remy is an Angel of the Heavenly Host, who decided to come to earth and live as a human.  He’d been on earth for many millennia when, in the 1950’s, he opened a private detective agency in Boston and got married.  Fast forward to today and he has a new case:  his former bretheren, the Seraphim, need his help.  Israfel, the Angel of Death, is missing, as are the Scrolls that unleash the Apocalypse.  They need Remy to find Israfel.   With the Angel of Death missing, no one on earth can die. 

At first, Remy refuses.  He wants nothing to do with his old life and even less to do with the Seraphim.  But he’s sensitive to the plight of the humans he lives amongst, namely that there is a balance to life, and death is a part of it.  Just to make his decision even more complicated, his wife and love of his life, Madeline, is dying of cancer.  If Israfel stays missing, she stays alive.  Find Israfel, she dies.

Plus, if he doesn’t find Israfel, person or persons unknown are going to break open the Heavenly Scrolls and start Armageddon, wiping out all life on earth.  And he kinda likes living on earth.  It would suck if everyone on it was dead.  So he makes up his mind and enlists the help of a friend of his, another fallen angel named Francis.  Together, Remy and Francis go about trying to save the world before Famine, War, Pestilence and Death are unleashed upon it.

I think what touched me most in this story was Remy’s internal conflict regarding Madeline’s impending death.  There have been plenty of stories with long-lived characters (mostly vampires) that mention to their present-day companions that they had past loves and companions and it was painful for them when those companions passed away while they continued to live, forever young.  This is the first story I’ve read where we get to go through the grieving process with one of these long-lived characters.  It was a little heart-wrenching to go through the emotions with Remy as he reconciled himself to finding Israfel, if for no other reason than to bring an end Madeline’s agony, and then going through the aftereffects after she’s gone.

There are four books total in the Remy Chandler series, the fifth due to come out later this year.  Stay tuned, for those reviews will be coming soon.

I give this story FOUR STARS.

By the way, I listened to an audiobook version of this story and I had to guess the spelling of the Angel of Death’s name.  If I got it wrong, could someone please let me know so I can correct it?  Thanks!

Agent X

Agent X by Noah Boyd
The Bricklayer, #2

FBI-agent-turned-bricklayer Steve Vail once helped the FBI solve a brilliant extortion plot. It was supposed to be a one-and-done deal. But when he's in Washington, D.C., to see Kate Bannon—an FBI assistant director—on what he thinks will be a romantic New Year's Eve date, suddenly things get complicated. The FBI has another unsolvable problem, and it has Vail's name written all over it.

A man known as Calculus, an officer at the Russian embassy, has approached the FBI claiming that he has a list of Americans who are selling confidential information to the Russian SVR. In exchange for the list, he is asking for a quarter of a million dollars for each traitor the FBI apprehends. But then Calculus informs the FBI that he has been swiftly recalled to Moscow, and the Bureau suspects the worst: the Russians have discovered what Calculus is up to, probably have access to his list, and will be hunting the traitors to kill them unless the FBI can find them first.

The FBI realizes that it has to keep the operation quiet. Once again, Vail is the perfect man, along with Kate Bannon, who would be anyone's first pick for help on an impossibly dangerous case. But finding the traitors isn't going to be easy. In fact, it's going to be downright deadly. And if the Bricklayer survives, he will have to come up with a few tricks of his own.

--Agent X
by Noah Boyd
Copyright © 20  by Noah Boyd
Published by PUBLISHER

My Review

This story started with a great premise.  A Russian agent has a list of Americans selling information to the Russians.  Before he can deliver the list to the FBI, however, he’s taken back to Russia.  He’s left clues to find the list.  All the FBI has to do is decipher them and they’ll have the list.

Easier said than done.  But then, isn’t it always?

Steve Vail is in town, hoping to hook up again with Kate Bannon, an FBI assistant director, but instead of going out, they’re both called in and assigned to work together on this case.  Steve’s not FBI, but has helped them in the past and his unique problem-solving abilities are just what this case calls for.

That’s where this story starts to lose me.  I really hate it when the plot of a story involves a bad guy who crafts a puzzle that only “one person in the world” can solve.  And aren’t the authorities lucky that they know just who that “one person in the world” is and they happen to have him on speed-dial?

Yeah, that’s what happens here.  The Russian leaves clues to the identities of the moles in difficult-to-find places and our hero, Steve Vail, has no trouble solving the puzzles.  In fact, he does so with such ease, I’m surprised the other agents in the story don’t feel embarrassed for not figuring it all out for themselves.

I felt like I was reading a novelization of a “hidden object” game, the type where you have to find Object A in order to retrieve Object B in order to open Object C and obtain Object D, all so you could use Object D in Room E to obtain Object F so you get the idea.  As an example, Steve and Kate break into a Russian safe house and Steve not only knows that the entire house is booby-trapped, he knows exactly how its rigged to explode, so don’t turn the lights on because that’ll ignite the phosphorus-filled light bulbs (the what?) which will set off the sprinkler system which will get the envelope which contains the disc we came to get wet, which, by the way, is also covered in phosphorus so if it gets wet it’ll ignite the phosphorus and destroy the disc—but not to worry…our cunning friend protected the envelope by putting a bowl over it so the sprinkler head that just happened to be located directly over it wouldn’t get it wet.  WHAT THE WHAT? And how exactly does one dismantle a light bulb in order to fill it with phosphorus and reassemble it so it’ll work properly?  Who knows how to do that sort of thing?  Oh, right, Steve Vail does.  And the guy who set up the whole thing.

I actually think the booby-traps in this house are quite clever and this could have been a really good scene, but because Vail knows everything in an instant, it took a lot of the intrigue and suspense out of it.  It was ridiculous how conveniently-easy everything was for Vail throughout the story.  Readers like to be kept in suspense, and there was very little of that in this story.

Because of that, I must confess I only read half of the story and skimmed through the rest, just to see how it ends.  The one saving grace? I checked this book out from the library, so it didn’t cost me anything but the time I spent reading it.

There’s actually one story that precedes this one, The Bricklayer.  Normally, I’d read the first book in a series first, then the next, but for some weird reason, I read this first.  Perhaps, for that reason, I didn’t quite understand some of the dynamics between the characters or some of the quirks of the individual characters themselves.  I will get around to reading The Bricklayer soon, so hopefully that will clear up some of my confusion.  But I won’t attempt to reread Agent X.  Once was enough.
I give this story TWO AND A HALF STARS.

Don't Know Jack

Don’t Know Jack by Diane Capri
The Search for Reacher #1

Hunting Jack Reacher is a dangerous business, as FBI Special Agents Kim Otto and Carlos Gaspar are about to find out. Otto and Gaspar are by-the-book hunters who know when it's necessary to break the rules, but they Don't Know Jack. Reacher is a stone cold killer. Is he their friend or their enemy? Only the secrets hidden in Margrave, Georgia will tell them.

--Don’t Know Jack
by Diane Capri
Copyright © 2012 by Diane Capri, LLC
Published by August Books

My Review

FBI Agents Kim Otto and Carlos Gaspar each receive separate phone calls at four o’clock in the morning, telling to get on the first flight to Atlanta.  They’ve been pre-cleared through security and the planes will be held for them.  Time is of the essence, so move.  They do, studying the files e-mailed to them along the way, giving them all known information on their target individual plus two associated parties to be interviewed.  Their job, as part of the FBI’s Specialized Personnel Task Force, is to obtain background information on those individuals with specialized skills that the FBI is interested in.  Their new assignment?

U.S. Army Major Jack none Reacher, retired.

You read that right.  Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.

As a Jack Reacher spinoff, the overall idea has merit.  A couple of FBI agents assigned to trace the whereabouts of a man who lives his life 99.2% off the grid.  Given the number of novels Lee Child has written on Reacher, there’s plenty of fodder for a spinoff series. 

The execution of the idea, however, fails.  Diane Capri does not know Jack as well as some of us Reacher Creatures.  Her writing also leaves a lot to be desired.  Some of the dialogue between characters seems unrealistic and the choppy writing style made it difficult to read.  Otto and Gaspar get involved in a situation that has nothing to do with Reacher and yet they stick around, offering their help in the hopes that the people they need to talk to will slow down long enough to answer their questions.  Come on, they’re the FBI!  As the writer herself says, it’s a federal crime to lie to an FBI agent…surely with that kind of power behind them they have the ability to make someone stop for ten minutes and answer some questions.  Those delays in momentum really irritated me.  Not to mention the trope of Otto catching a glimpse of a man she thinks might be Reacher on the very last page of the book.  Too convenient, if you ask me, and something I was expecting to see before I even got half-way through the story.

I did like some of the internal dialogue that Kim Otto went through as she’s taking the lead in an investigation for the first time (at least, I think it’s her first time as lead investigator).  She’s unsure of herself, but confidently pushes forward, hoping she’s doing the right thing.  While having a character who is very confident in themselves and in their abilities makes for a good read, having a no-so-confident character learn about themselves and grow over the course of the story is also good reading.  I can same the same for Carlos Gaspar.  I truly do like him. 

So, in summary, what we have is a not very well written story involving characters that Reacher fans know well, but the story has nothing to do with Reacher.  It’s not a very good investment of time or money. 

I give this story TWO STARS.

Jack in a Box

Jack in a Box by Diane Capri
The Search for Reacher, #2

FBI Special Agents Kim Otto and Carlos Gaspar have received a special off-the-books assignment: build a secret file on Jack Reacher. In this short story, Otto and Gaspar reveal a bit of themselves as they make every effort to put Jack in a Box. Reacher fans know that no one boxes with Jack and lives to tell about it. Will Otto and Gaspar be the first to succeed where so many have failed?

--Jack in a Box
by Diane Capri
Copyright © 2012 by Diane Capri, LLC
Published by August Books
Available only in Kindle format

My Review

FBI Agents Kim Otto and Carlos Gaspar are still on the case of finding Jack Reacher.  In this short story, Otto is in Wisconsin, paying her respects to her dying grandmother.  Duty complete, she accepts a lift to the airport from one of her cousins, an Army captain.  Before she can exit the vehicle, he hands her a photograph of Reacher with rendezvous information on the back.  When she asks, he tells her he knows Reacher by reputation only and was given the photo to deliver to her.  He doesn’t know anything more than that, other than she needs to watch her back.  She flies to D.C.

In his Miami office, Gaspar receives an envelope with the same picture and the same information.  Assuming she received the same photo, he heads for D.C. and the rendezvous.

At the appointed place, they meet to discuss the situation.  This setup doesn’t feel like Reacher’s style, but who else could be behind it?  At the appointed time, they meet Susan Duffy from the DEA who warns them off the case.  Reacher has friends, she warns, and those friends can destroy your career.  She leaves and once again, Otto catches a glimpse of a man that might be Reacher, but then an attempted robbery shifts her attention and when she looks back, he’s gone.

There.  I just saved you $1.99 and a wee bit of space on your Kindle.

You’re welcome.

Seriously, that’s the whole story, save for learning a bit more about their backgrounds and, of course, that they’re not giving up their assignment.  They also figure out where to go next in their search. 

The writing in this story is an improvement over Don’t Know Jack, but the story is so short, it’s hard to judge.

Do I regret spending my hard-earned money on this?  Meh.  One less chai tea latte.  No big loss.  Will I buy the next story when it comes out?  Sigh.  Probably.  Guess I’m just a glutton for punishment.

I give this story THREE STARS.