Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Book Review: The Paris Vendetta by Steve Berry (Cotton Malone #5)

Napoleon Bonaparte, an emperor, a genius, a conqueror, or a tyrant? Napoleon's life story, distinguished and unforgettable, echoed through the river of history. It comes as a small surprise that just after Jesus Christ, Napoleon ranks the 2nd most significant person in human history.

Many fantastic tales surround the life of Napoleon, some are based on facts, some are romantic legends. Some of the most prominent tales about Napoleon, however, came from his conquest of Egypt. Best-selling author Steve Berry borrowed the history from Napoleon's famous, Egyptian campaign to weave an exciting thriller, The Paris Vendetta, the 5th novel featuring retired Justice Department Operative Cotton Malone.


On 5th May, 1821, a brilliant man died on the island of St. Helena. This man, is none other than the exiled French emperor, Napoleon Bonarparte. Upon his dying breath, Napoleon took with him a powerful secret – the hidden location for his immeasurable treasure.

Almost 2 centuries later, the lost treasure of Napoleon is stirring up a hail storm that could wreck havoc on the centre stage of global economy. Only Cotton Malone, a retired operative for Justice Department, has the key to unlock a series of political and financial conspiracies and preventing an economic disaster from striking down the world. And it all began, when Cotton Malone paired up with an amateur agent from FBI to tracking down 2 assassins who came knocking at Malone's door...

My thoughts about this book:

I like reading thrillers, especially the kind that blends real history with conspiracy. Steve Berry has written plenty of thrillers belonging to this genre of fictions. Suffice it to say, his works match my tastes and satisfy my cravings for fast-paced, suspenseful thrillers. Of all of novels written by Steve Berry, he is most well known for Cotton Malone series. Up to date, I have read 6 novels presenting the adventures of former agent Malone, and I think The Paris Vendetta is among the finest novel in this series.

Mystery and suspense are key elements to a good thriller novel. In The Paris Vendetta, from secret societies to hidden treasures, Steve Berry took a treasure hunt story and wrapped layers upon layers of mysteries around it. Meanwhile, this fast-paced story, complex but not convoluted, takes its readers on a venture of many twists and turns. Cotton Malone, charismatic and intelligent, took up the mantle of the protagonist once again. At the same time, Malone's old friend, Henrik Thorvaldsen, also returned to the scene and playing an important role in the story. While this may sound like the same setup as previous novels, but The Paris Vendetta differs from its predecessors. I do not want to spoil the story, so let me just say this time, circumstances will put Malone and Thorvaldsen's friendship to the test, and the portrayal of their friendship is perhaps the most interesting aspect in this book.

Aside from Malone and Thorvaldsen, Steve Berry also introduced Ross Collins, an amateur FBI agent who went rogue and helped Malone to uncover the conspiracies that are threatening to destroy the global economy. In this book, Ross' character underwent a tremendous character development. By the end of the book, readers could see that Ross “grew”, visibly, when compared to that at the start of the story. I like Ross Collins and I think he is a very interesting character. I certainly hope this is not the last time we will see Ross Collins.

The Paris Vendetta tells a captivating story, the history about Napoleon especially interested me. Steve Berry did extensive research on the life of Napoleon, and I particularly enjoyed reading a small section at the end of the book, where Steve Berry separated the “facts from fictions”. Furthermore, Steve Berry depicted the European scenery vividly, and the story is all the more atmospheric because of the author's picturesque descriptions.

I enjoyed reading The Paris Vendetta greatly, but I do think this book has a weakness; the main antagonist is somewhat weak and unimpressive. I was not convinced by the antagonist's motives, and as a villain, this person just didn't project an aura of fear or dominance. As a result, I did not feel that Malone, Ross, and other heroes of the story were subjected to a real sense of danger. Despite a weak villain, The Paris Vendetta still excelled in all other departments that qualify for a good thriller; a suspenseful plot, interesting history, likable characters, and atmospheric worldbuilding. If you like reading thriller novels, then make sure to check out The Paris Vendetta.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Do you read used books? Used books astonish me because every mark on it; from a finger print, a pencil line, a blood stain, a coffee stain, a library loan number, or a creased spine, represents a person. A person whose life's story, when told in full, can easily be a book by itself. An used book, then, is a symbolic juncture, with a main story connecting the stories of all its readers. We may never know or meet a book's previous reader(s), but when we see a mark on an used book, it represents the story of another human being, and our stories are all connected through a withered and creased book in our hand.

Don't you think this is a fascinating realization?

Geraldine Brooks, a winner of Pulitzer Price for fiction, explored this realization in her historical fiction novel, People of the Book. This novel tells a story about a very old book, and the stories of the people who have interacted with this book in the past. People of the Book is based on a very interesting concept, but is it any good?


Priceless and beautiful, the famous Sarajevo Haggadah, an ancient Jewish volume with illuminated images, was recovered during the Bosnian War in 1996. After this ancient tome resurfaced, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, was offered her dream job – to conserve and analyze this wondrous cultural artifact.

Hanna, both dedicated and passionate about her work, discovered tiny details in Sarajevo Haggadah, and she began to unveil the book's mysteries. These mysteries take readers on a journey all the way back to Haggadah's moment of creation.

My thoughts on this book:

Partially fact, and partially fiction, People of the Book is a historical fiction novel. Some readers have compared this novel to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but I personally think People of the Book is NOTHING like The Da Vinci Code. To begin with, People of the Book is not a fast-paced thriller. Instead, at the core of this book lies a romance story, and a journey to uncover past histories. This also means, if you are looking to read a fast-paced, treasure hunt/conspiracy thriller, then look elsewhere, People of the Book is not for you.

Geraldine Brooks, being an award-winning author, displayed her masterful skill as a wordsmith; People of the Book is very well written. Brooks wrapped every scene in this book with atmospheric, vivid depictions. Just as you think People of the Book can't get any better, this novel further impresses a reader with a story that is based on a fascinating theme: That a book's story is connected with the stories of all its past readers. Suffice it to say, this novel changed the way I look at an old, battered book sitting in a second hand book store or in a library. I really like the idea behind this book and it offers endless intrigues.

So many praises! Does this mean I love this novel? Unfortunately, while I appreciate People of the Book's good writings and a fascinating theme, but this novel just didn't click with me.

Why? The book's pace moves too slowly for my taste, and it detracted my inclination towards this novel. I think the book's slow-pacing is mostly due to its structure and storytelling. Let me explain; People of the Book is divided into multiple sections. On the one hand, the book has Hanna Heath playing the role of the protagonist, and her story for analyzing the Haggadah constitutes towards the main plot, it is divided into sections and running in the background. Meanwhile, the novel also told stories of Haggadah's past readers, and these sub-stories were inserted in between the sections of the main story. The result? This type of intertwined storytelling stalled the flow of the book, and it felt very disruptive. i.e. the sub-stories did not blend well into the main plot, and it had a tremendous impact on the pace of the book. Admittedly, half way into the book, I began to glance over sentences and words because the pace was so slow and I was loosing interest rapidly.

Perhaps I came to People of the Book with the wrong expectations. After all, when it comes to novels based on the real world, such as thrillers or historical fictions, I do prefer action, fast-paced stories over drama and romance, which are often more tranquil in pace. This means, People of the Book probably just isn't my type of book. Despite my disfavor for this book, however, I was very impressed by Brook's excellent command in English, and the story's concept is fascinating.

My review then, begs a question – will I recommend this book? Let me put it this way. If you are looking to read a fast-paced thriller, then it is better to look elsewhere, at authors such as Steve Berry, James Rollins, Dan Brown, or Lee Child. However, if you enjoy reading a book about history, romance, and drama, then you might unlock a hidden gem in People of the Book.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Book Review: The Kill Switch by James Rollins and Grant Blackwood (Tucker Wayne #1)

Dogs are a man's best friend.

Since a time immemorial, these furry, 4 legged canines have dedicated their loyalty to the mankind, and serving us as guards, companions, and even brothers in arms. Yes, brothers in arms! Dogs are working in the military, fighting alongside human soldiers in wars and combat missions. Strangely, very little movies and novels have explored the fascinating interplay between a human soldier and a military dog; that is until best-selling author James Rollins introduced his creations – ranger Tucker Wayne and his doggy friend Kane – in the 8th installment of Sigma Force series.

Readers received Tucker and Kane with so much love and welcome that Rollins decided to write a series of spin-off novels based on Sigma Force, featuring Tucker and his furry brother. The first book in this new (spin-off) series, is called The Kill Switch, a fast-paced action thriller rippling with nail-biting suspense and mystery.


In the Spring of 1900, the second Anglo-Boer war raged across the lands of Southern Africa. Amidst the blazing conflict, a troop of Boer soldiers stumbled upon a deadly, biological threat as ancient as the earth itself. Knowing the entire troop was fated to doom, the band's military doctor, Paulos de Klerk, took with him the secret of their lethal discovery into the grave, leaving behind a torn, broken diary describing his last days on earth.

A century later, former army ranger Tucker Wayne and his military dog Kane finished a contract for body guarding a Russian business tycoon. Instead of getting a much deserved holiday, Tucker and Kayne were recruited by Sigma Force and commenced their next assignment; extracting a Russian pharmaceutical genius from Siberia. A science mastermind, Tucker and Wayne's new client holds the key to a discovery that can either build or destroy humanity. This whole affair has a linkage to Paulous de Klerk's tattered diary, dating to a century ago.

The new assignment, of paramount importance, dragged Tucker and Kane into a torrent swirling with conspiracy, political conflicts and assassinations. From the frozen tundra of Russia to the sun-scorched open country in South Africa, Tucker and his trusty dog ally engaged a race against the clock, desperately trying to decipher the clues left by Dr. de Clerk's diary.

Should Tucker and Kane fail, a global catastrophe would strike at humanity, wiping out mankind from the face of the earth.

My thoughts on this book:

The Kill Switch, fast-paced and action packed, entered James Rollins' ever growing list of publications with a bang. Rollins co-authored the book with Grant Blackwood, and this spin-off adventure from Sigma Force saga showcased a set of unique heroes; former ranger Tucker Wayne and his trusty, furry ally, Kane. Tucker Wayne stood at the centre stage of the story. His stoic character, overflowing with charisma, is very likable and he will certainly grab readers' attentions. On the other hand, Kane, the military dog, shined brilliantly in the story and I think the depiction for Kane deserves special mentioning.

In this book, the author(s) employed an interesting way for depicting Kane's character. Sure, Kane is a dog, he cannot converse with humans. But the author(s) brought Kane's character to life by writing scenes from Kane's perspective, and taking readers into Kane's mind. The result? The depictions for Kane were especially lucid and captivating, and this beloved dog soldier played an unforgettable role in the story. Furthermore, the author(s) vividly portrayed the intimate relationship between Tucker and Kane, that of a former soldier and his military dog, giving readers a heartfelt understanding of the faithful, and profound friendship existing between these two comrades in arms. It suffices to say, together, Tucker and Kane's friendship told an unforgettable story in this book, and it will leave readers yearning for more.

Aside from delightful characterizations, The Kill Switch also tells an engaging story. Many twists and turns wrap themselves around central plot, waiting to surprise its readers. Having said this, the story is rather straightforward. Yet, a simple story does not automatically translate to a cliched story. Sure, I suppose in an action thriller novel such as this one, most readers, including myself, stepped into the adventure knowing that the heroes will always win and save the day. However, the author(s) still managed to keep the story engaging, by drowning Tucker and Kane in the flood of real danger, i.e. in this book, they did not always walk away from a fight unscathed.

I have another comment on The Skill Switch. As with all Sigma Force novels, Rollins crafted his art by integrating, deftly, elements of historical, and scientific facts into a fictional story. While this type of storytelling, blending truth with fictions, is nothing new for many practitioners of the thriller genre. But Rollins always stood above the rest of the crowd because he researches extensively into the subjects, and his story is both fascinating and tangible to the real world. Furthermore, the enjoyment for The Kill Switch does not end at the story's conclusion. Once again, as with all Sigma Force novels, the author(s) provided a section at the end of the book, separating the facts from the fictions. I found this section alluring, not only did it provide summaries on interesting topics; such as military dogs, LUCA and Cyanobacteria, but it also prompted me to learn more about these subjects.

The Kill Switch marks the beginning for a series of exciting action thrillers. Although this book is a spin-off from Sigma Force series, but its story is every bit as good as any of the Sigma Force novel. Tucker and Kane proved themselves as memorable characters and they on the fast-track to become favorites for Sigma Force fans. I highly recommend this book to lovers of the action thriller genre, especially to veteran readers of Sigma Force series.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Book Review: Brimstone by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Pendergast #5)

In Brimstone, Alyosius X.L. Pendergast of the FBI returns to the buzzing New York City and investigating a series of spine-chilling murders. This novel, co-authored by Douglas Preston and Lincolon Child, is standing as the fifth installment in a series of mind-blowing detective/thriller/mystery novels featuring Agent Pendergast, a great fictional detective whose intellectual prowess can only be rivaled by Sherlock Holmes.

Will I recommend Brimstone? Yes, absolutely. But make sure you begin this series in the chronological order; that is, starting your journey at Relic, the first book in the series. Like many would-be readers of this series, I too, began my journey at Relic 8 months ago. Four novels later, my adventures in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's macabre world led me to Brimstone, and this book brought the series to a new height.


In our world, an average of 57 people are murdered every minute. One particular murder in the magnificent Hamptons estate, however, attracted the scrutiny of a most formidable detective, Agent Pendergast of the FBI. As a gliding eagle scouting for its preys, Pendergast arrived at the gruesome crime scene and pierced into the murderous carnage with his icy-blue eyes.

This is is no ordinary crime scene; what remains of a corpse, burnt almost to ashes, lies spreading on the floor and fouls the air with a stench of brimstone and burnt flesh. The diabolic venue recollects the story from a classic German legend, recounting the terrifying fate that awaits the poor souls who made a Faustian pact with the devil.

Is it possible that the murderer is stemming from a supernatural origin? Pendergast re-unites with Sergeant D'Agosta and Captain Laura Hayward to cracking down this logic-defying crime. From the bustling metropolis of New York to the deserted, haunted castles in Italy, the trio's investigations led them to traverse in distinctive locales, drawing back the curtains and unveiling a blood-chilling horror, 30 years in the making...

My thoughts on this book:

Fast paced and suspenseful, Brimstone thrilled me with an atmospheric story that twisted and turned in the most unexpected manner. Unlike its predecessors, Brimstone is a mystery thriller smelling of flavors akin to Agatha Christie novels. When I was reading this book, on every page, a sense of dread was creeping between the lines of texts. The author(s) riddled the plot with clever puzzles, leaving little clues and unveiling the secrets at the opportune moments to blow the readers' minds.

Brimstone is superbly written, the author(s) brilliantly interwove multiple sub-plots together and crafted a ripping yarn. This book made use of short chapters and narrated the story at a very fast pace. The chapters connected well, and they transitioned smoothly from one into the next without disruptions . In other words, once you flip to the first page in Brimstone, you will not be able to put this book down until the story reaches its end.

This book also features the return for some of our favorite characters from past novels, namely Vincent D'Agosta and Laura Hayward. In Brimstone, Vincent and Laura both played the role of supporting characters. But the story developed these two characters steeply, where past events steered the direction of their lives and are continuing to have significant impacts on them. The steep character development casts an interesting light on Vincent and Laura's characters, while providing a sense of continuity from the previous novels.

On the other hand, Pendergast rocked the centre stage of the story with an intellectual prowess flying off the charts! It was a blast to read the story of this resourceful and formidable detective, as he deduced and solved one mystery after another like a hot knife cutting through butters. If you like Sherlock Holmes, then you will probably like Pendergast too.

A compelling murder mystery requires a sinister villain, a villain who is as formidable as the protagonist. Brimstone successfully chilled the spines of its readers by setting up an enigmatic villain whose identity and motives are masked in secrecy, only to be revealed at the end. This is the kind of book that will keep you guessing, and when you think you have figured out the answers to the riddles the next chapter kicks in, then plunging the puzzles in even deeper mysteries. If you like a good mystery novel, then Brimstone will not disappoint you.

What more can I say? Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have once again, written a very successful mystery thriller. Brimstone is a worthy addition to the ongoing saga of Agent Pendergast, who is arguably among the best fictional detectives to be penned on paper. I simply cannot wait to read the next installment in this series,. Meanwhile, I highly recommend Brimstone to veteran readers for Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's literary works. For new comers to the world of Agent Pendergast, I recommend starting this series from Relic and I hope you will enjoy this series as much as I did.

Until the next time, happy reading!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Book Review: United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

What would have happened to the world if the Axis Alliance had won World War 2?

The above question serves as the premise for United States of Japan. This book, written by Peter Tieryas, is an alternate history/sci-fi/cyberpunk novel of a dystopian persuasion. This story, dark and twisted, combines mystery thrillers with detective fictions, and it is set in a world where Axis powers defeated the Allies in World War 2, with Japan reigning supreme over North America.

I discovered this book while watching a preview video posted by my favorite booktuber. I learned that Peter Tieryas called his book a “spiritual successor” to Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. The author's statement invited me to pile on high expectations for this book. Last week, I finally had a chance at reading this book. Did the book live up to the hype?


Half a century ago, the war to end all wars concluded. The final victory belonged to the Axis Alliance. United States of America was no more. In its place, United States of Japan (USJ) was born.

In 1986, North America exists as an extension of the imperial Japan. Americans worship the infallible Japanese emperor. In USJ, history classes teach that Japan's conduct during World War 2 was impeccable, and its soldiers were paragons of virtue. An exemplary citizen of USJ is expected to never question the infallibility of the emperor, the empire, or its history.

USJ is a colony of total obedience and submission to the Japanese empire; well, almost...because a shadowy group known as the George Washingtons challenged the emperor's authority. The rebel's latest tactic, is to distribute an illegal, controversial video game that asks players to picture an alternate world where United States of America had won the war instead.

“Such a blasphemous video game must be censored!” Declared the Japanese authority. 

Here enters Captain Beniko Ishimura, an officer of the USJ who specializes in censoring video games; together with Agent Akiko Tsukino of the secret police, the duo undertook an assignment to uncover the root of the controversial video game. But as their investigation went on, Ben and Akiko realized the George Washingtons and their story is far more complicated than it appeared to be...

My thoughts about this book:

United States of Japan is a fascinating book!


Ok, first of all. Don't be deceived by this book's cover. Yes, the cover art features a giant mech, but I guarantee you United States of Japan is NOT a Pacific-Rim-like episode with giant mechs smashing down mutant monsters. No no, while giant mechs do exist in this book, but they are serving two purposes: 1) Adding flares to the action scenes, and 2) the giant mechs played an important role in the worldbuilding, because it symbolizes the mech culture that's deeply embedded in East Asia.

This does mean, if you are into the mech culture, then you will probably like this book. But this is not all. To me, United States of Japan not only is akin to The Man in the High Castle, but this book's atmosphere also reminded me of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (This is the novel that serves as the basis for the movie, Blade Runner). Why? Because United States of Japan and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep are both telling sci-fi stories with many twists, thought provoking twists that hit readers in their faces at the least expected moment.

United States of Japan depicts an alternate world that is dark, moody, brutal, and frankly, quite depressing. It is a story set in a dystopian world abundant with elements from cyberpunk. The worldbuilding is both rich and imaginative. The author successfully created an interesting alternate world showing how Japan's technology and culture would have influenced the world if it had won World War 2. The story's theme lies very close to my heart. It engaged, and explored social/philosophical topics from politics, racism, xenophobia, technology, and religion.

This novel features two protagonists; Officer Ishimura and Agent Tsukino. Both characters are fascinating and the story developed them on very steep curves. Having said this, I was particularly fond of Officer Ishimura, who, entered the story initially as a middle-aged, cowardly government officer. However, as the author unveiled the plot, the curtains for Ishimura's character are drawn back, revealing his true nature. It turned out this outwardly spiritless man is more than meets the eye.

On the other hand, Agent Tsukino's character is polar opposite to that of Ishimura's. Deadly and loyal, Tsukino initially joined the story as secret police agent whose faith in the empire was as unshakable as a squatting mountain. She was loyal and faithful to a fault, and frankly I found her unquestioning naiveness a bit annoying at the beginning. As the story went on, however, Tsukino experienced events that rocked her worldview and her character underwent breath-taking transformations. It suffices to say, I enjoyed reading Tsukino's personal journey, because her story resonated with my own experience, where the certainty of her worldview was shattered by facts contradicting her beliefs, and she had to rebuild her worldview, brick by brick.

I have very positive impressions about this book, but one element about this book irked me (warning: minor spoiler ahead). I was not entirely convinced by the author's portrayal of Japan as an utterly evil power. Sure, given Japan's motivation and barbaric conducts in WW2 (such as the massacre of Nanjing), I think it is rational to extrapolate these historical facts to portray the Japanese empire as an antagonist in an alternate world. But I do think the author's treatment of the Japanese empire in this book is a bit overly black and white. The dividing line between right and wrong in national conflicts usually exist in muddy waters, where conflicting sides each have their own stories to tell.

A dark, brutal, and twisted thriller, United States of Japan delivers hours of fun reading while challenging its readers with thought-provoking, philosophical repercussions. I deeply enjoyed this book and I would like to re-read it in the future. This is my first time reading a cyberpunk novel and I had a great time reading it. I highly recommend this book to my fellow readers who enjoy sci-fi novels of a dystopian persuasion.