Earthly Remains – Donna Leon

A fine addition to the Commissario Guido Brunetti series, being an adventure built around our hero’s partially enforced break from the Venetian Questura, on one of the islands in the laguna. With his contacts, accommodation is available, complete with caretaker, one Davide Casati. Brunetti bonds with Casati, and becomes a witness to the man’s environmental concerns.

What happens next is that Brunetti reverts to his role as a policeman, investigating the disappearance of his new found friend after a terrible storm.

There are secrets to be unearthed, and much disruption to be introduced into the lives of some who thought they were safe and secure from the forces of law and order. Brunetti digs away until he gets, inevitably, to the shocking truth.

As usual, the book is packed with the details of life in that part of the world that make the backdrop as much of a character as Brunetti. The supporting characters are generally enough to get the action moving, though Casati is a wee bit more roundly presented.

The plot is easy enough to unravel, but for best entertainment it is best to let the author tell it in her own way, with a smooth, peaceful narrative that holds back the righteous anger deserved of the baddies. The journey, with Leon, is beautifully presented, restrained, and ever thought provoking.

Although there are many books in the series, you can read this on its own. But, if you want my recommendation, start with the first – Death at La Fenice – and continue in order. You won’t regret it.

The Berlin Project – Gregory Benford

This book sets out to tell what could have happened had the Allies been able to put together a working atom bomb by June 1944. The central scientific idea is that there was a quicker way to create the uranium isotope needed for the bomb, although in reality a combination of factors saw the scientists go down a different, slower route.

Be warned – spoilers ahead!

The main character for our purposes is Karl Cohen, the scientist with the key to making the bomb that much faster. As part of the Manhattan Project, he deals with a slew of scientific talent, many with their own foibles. The book lets us meet greats such as Einstein, Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi and more. Unfortunately, from an entertainment perspective, some of this nuclear development is turgid and boring. The book sags. It’s full of strange asides that don’t make sense until later, when you discover that Cohen was not only a real person, but was the author’s father-in-law! (Indeed, much of the historical details, like documents, are real items appropriated by Benford to stiffen his book with authenticity.) When you have the connection, it does not make the pace that much faster, but at least you understand the author’s perspective. File it under interesting rather than enthralling. And if you are not a history buff, it might not even be interesting.

The second half of the book improves, as the bomb is used and the hell that is war – up to now kept well away from the scientists and their research – is brought up front and center. Cohen becomes involved almost at the sharp end, and the full thrust of the alternate history is let loose. This is where the book is at its best.

This is a fascinating novel for the way the author has built something out of his own family history. I get the impression this was his love letter to his family, and that wonderful appreciation fired his imagination enough to want to tell a story. The trouble, from my perspective, is that the story does not have the same impact or attraction as might have been expected. Perhaps this occurred because Benford chose to stick as close to the truth as he could, and made no concessions for the sake of dramatic effect.

To mix a metaphor or two, this was not a dud, but more of a near thing; a failed experiment that I am glad I read, if only to momentarily to bring back to life the (largely unsung) heroes who toiled to advance the cause of freedom in the face of great evil.

The Way of Kings (Part One) – Brandon Sanderson

Highly regarded sword and sorcery fantasy novel, this left me cold, cold, cold.

The book runs several narrative threads, with a diverse range of characters each apparently on their own plot line.

There’s a lot of invention, but that hopeful indication is let down by one dimensional characters – ie good or bad – and page after page after page of nothingness delivered by way of overwritten, under-edited prose. Sanderson can write, but not always to the required level of quality. And the lack of action dropped the pace so much i nearly fell asleep reading it. The plot is OK, but while it doubtless took some work to construct, it neither drew me in, nor convinced me of its plausibility. Partly that was because the characters also failed to entice me.

In summary, this was like watching an animated cartoon that had been slowed down so much, you wondered if you were ever going to be able to see any action. Nice colors, though.

Overall, this gets a “D” for disappointing.