October 25

October Skies by Alex Scarrow

Until I started this book reviewing stuff, I never actually read much horror. But publishers seem to be sending me significant amounts, and I am discovering the variety of work within the genre fascinating.

Alex Scarrow is an established author of thrillers. Biographical information is very sketchy, but he does have a blog that he sporadically expands that reveals an interesting mind behind the publicist description of a man with a ‘nomadic lifestyle with his wife and son.’

But first the book. The year is 1856 and two small groups of Americans are heading west across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains in search of adventure and a new life. The two groups decide to travel together only to reduce the chance of Indian trouble. Together the party numbers about 130. But one group is made up of religious fanatics, almost a breakaway cult of the Mormon church. The others are a general gathering of settlers seeking a better life among them an Arabic migrant family, a southern gentleman traveling with his Negro wife and a single young Brit from the wealthy middle classes out to see the world before returning home to a medical career. By the time they leave the safety of the eastern states it is late spring, and many predict that they will never get across the mountains before winter.

But their guide knows a shortcut, not very wagon friendly, but these remote mountain passes should make it possible to get to Oregon before winter takes hold. But weeks into the journey one of the Mormon wagons breaks down and since the religious party refuses to leave anyone behind, the whole group is forced to wait until a temporary repair is accomplished. And you know it, the temporary repair cannot stand up to the rough country involved in the ‘shortcut’. But finally, late September, and the whole group is finally over the high pass when it begins to snow and snow and snow. Winter arrives early. And none of them are ever heard from again. Until Julian Cooke stumbles across a rotting wagon wheel in 2008. Further searching locates a diary, and suddenly he decides to shelve the boring documentary he was filming in favour of this mysterious disappearance. Putting together all the resources he can muster, he begins what he hopes will become a feature length docudrama. That is until people start dying.

This is a real page turner. Scarrow moves back and forth between the 1856 story behind the diary and Cooke’s investigations and their fatal consequences. The fatalities mount, possibly more rapidly in 1856, but then are they linked? Maybe the 2008 deaths are just more of the same.

I do have one objection. I think the revelation of the murderer is just a little to convenient and the links to modern times are tenuous, but believe me as you are caught up in the book, it doesn’t matter.

October 25

The Philosopher’s Apprentice by James Morrow

I was very much looking forward to reading this book when I unpacked it last April. But I know that James Morrow was going to make me stop and think, and that I would need some serious time to read this book and evaluate it fairly. So even though this isn’t really a new release anymore, ask your favourite bookseller. They probably still have a few copies hanging around.

Mason Ambrose is a student of philosophy, his qualification is Ph D (ABD) (all but dissertation). This book opens as Mason is preparing for his oral examination in support of his Ph D dissertation on Ethics from the Earth, a new development of Darwinist philosophy. Unfortunately one of the examiners takes a personal dislike and the interview is a disaster. Immediately after this failure, Mason receives a job offer. Please fly to an island in the Florida Keys in order to offer private tuition in ethics to a young adolescent recovering from injury. Accepting this offer consumes Mason’s life from then on.

This is a book that defies a genre tag. It is science fiction, complete with mad scientists, secret laboratories and human experimentation. It is an adventure novel filled with murder, deception and escape. It is a morality tale that examines closely the social issues of abortion and social justice with a keen and critical eye. And it is also a love story about a man who truly dedicates his life to the woman he knows best. Admittedly that is the best thing about scifi. All that can be done by a master of the genre.

And I was right about needing time to think as you read this book. Be warned this is not a beach read, when you want to simply turn the brain into neutral and let the book entertain. Your values as a human will be questioned, your prejudices will be exposed. Be prepared.

October 16

Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

Finally the day arrived. The 20th of September. I had to wait until Monday before I actually laid my hands on a copy of this book, but that gave me time to clear away the reading pile and really enjoy this next offering in the Inheritance cycle.

I won’t spend time with ‘the story so far’. If you haven’t read Eragon and Eldest, stop reading this and go find them. No- seeing the movie of Eragon is not enough. The movie was made on a low budget and all too much of the charm of the story was lost.

Brisingr opens with Eragon and Saphira trying on their way to rescue Katrina. Almost immediately Eragon is presented with a moral dilemma. The solution leads to more adventures and problems to be solved and the reader is rapidly caught up in the tension.

Paolini has demonstrated amazing growth as an author. Eragon was very much your typical quest adventure. In Eldest, the story expanded and demonstrated the hero’s growing concern with ‘big issues’. In this third book the reader can see a developing confidence in the author that enables him to handle almost any issue effectively.

I did have some questions about where to place this book in age. It certainly appeals to older students and adults, but yet there are an equal number of lower secondary students queueing up for their copy.