“Sharpe’s Revenge” by Bernard Cornwell Review

sharpe's revenge

Sharpe’s Revenge

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Released:  1989

Sharpe’s Revenge was an average (for Sharpe, meaning pleasant and enjoyable) story for most of its length but took a surprisingly sad turn at the end that felt very true to the series and rescued it from becoming one of the more forgettable Sharpe adventures. The biggest hindrance to my enjoyment of this book was its similarity to the plot of Sharpe’s Honor, beginning with a duel and proceeding through a false imprisonment which Sharpe must go rogue to clear his name. Unlike that book, here Sharpe had Patrick Harper and Sweet William Frederickson to keep him company and assist him throughout.

**Plot spoilers for the first quarter of the book**

The Peninsula War against Napoleon ends abruptly near the beginning of this book, leaving Sharpe, Harper and Frederickson to discuss how they want their post-war lives to play out. Shall they stay in the military? Retire? What of their wives and friendships? Before anything can be resolved, Sharpe and Frederickson and framed by his longtime enemy Pierre Ducos, he of the French intelligence. After the court-martial, Sharpe and Frederickson escape to clear their name, by tracking down the one Frenchman who can clear it. Upon their arrival, the man has been murdered and the two of them are framed for it. Harper of course tags along with the adventure, even though he has nothing to gain and everything to lose doing so.

Meanwhile, Sharpe also becomes paranoid that his wife Jane is taking advantage of him. When her letters become infrequent, he also notices she has withdrawn all his money from the bank with no explanation. Cornwell has a dual plotline with Jane explaining what takes place, and also introduces the French widow Lucille Castineau who has a significant impact on at least one of the English heroes.

**End of Spoilers**

More than any other book in the series, this book spotlights Sweet William Frederickson. Prior to this, he had been a bit of a cliche character; much like Dan Hagman (the old sharpshooter rifleman), William seemed to be present so that once a book Cornwell could write something about how William removed his eyepatch and false teeth to scare the enemies prior to going into battle. Make no mistake, we still get that in this book (twice by my count), but Cornwell also tells us much more about what sort of a man he is and where he is most vulnerable.

A few of the other characters in this book also do things that could substantially change our view of them. Sharpe himself acts all too true to his biggest weakness, but Jane also will likely surprise readers who have been following her since her first appearance. As far as villains go, I’ve never been a huge fan of Pierre Ducos whose created all of his own problems by continuing to go after Sharpe and never being successful. He’ll always be a distant second to Obadiah Hakeswill, the worst of the worst Sharpe villains. There is another French general (Calvert) who was everything I like in an opposing officer. Instead of being evil, he is competent, zealous, and an even match for Sharpe.

There are only two Sharpe novels and a short story left, and the end of this book already feels like it could be a goodbye to several beloved characters. While there’s no Duke of Wellington, Greencoats at war or new gear/rank added to Sharpe’s repertoire, two major relationships for Sharpe are possibly ended and our characters will be starting out in fresh territory for the first time since they got out of Portugal/Spain. I’m as excited as ever to keep reading this series, but now that the end is in sight I’m also getting pretty sad about the thought of being finished with these adventures.

4-star

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“The Dark Half” by Stephen King Review

Dark Half

The Dark Half

Author:  Stephen King

Published:  1989

There’s a term in sports called value over replacement player. Essentially it boils down to comparing how a player’s production compares to the average performance a team can expect when trying to replace a player at minimal cost, or by using “freely available talent.” (Thank you Wikipedia for the handy summary.) Because sports fans are crazy, we love trying to figure out what real life player in a given season is the best example of the fictional replacement player concept. The idea of replacement level can be applied to just about anything. What’s a replacement level hamburger? Probably McDonalds or Wendys, certainly not a gourmet burger from your favorite food truck. What’s a replacement level beer? Miller Light? The idea is there are players, burgers, beers, etc. that are worse than replacement level (hello Keystone Light), so it’s not necessarily an insult.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that after reading 26 Stephen King books, The Dark Half is my pick for a replacement level Stephen King book. What sort of qualities would you expect in an average Stephen King book? Takes place in Castle Rock, Maine? Check. Features a writer as the protagonist? Check. Borrows liberally from Stephen King’s own life? Roger that. Ends when the action does, leaving the reader wondering how the hell everybody explains what happened? Unfortunately. In a broader sense, the plot to many of his books could be described as _________ is an evil entity that kills people violently and can only be stopped by our protagonist. It could be the plot to Christine, It, Salem’s Lot, or The Tommyknockers. Here the blank is filled by “an author’s pen name.” The Dark Half is worse than most of those books (not The Tommyknockers) and felt more like an author going through the motions than any of them.

The plot of The Dark Half is about author Thad Beaumont who has just said goodbye to his author pseudonym George Stark. Thad is a klutzy, mild mannered father of twins who has written two moderately acclaimed but unsuccessful books under his own name, and several very popular violent crime books under his pen name. What the general public doesn’t know about Thad, is that when he writes as George he seems like a different person to his wife. He’s short tempered and his mannerisms are even different. They almost match the fictional backstory he’s crafted for Stark, as a man whose spent time in prison and is “not a very nice guy.” Following a People Magazine story about Beaumont figuratively burying Stark, a series of gruesome murders occur that are certainly linked to Beaumont but are even closer related to Stark.

The backstory of The Dark Half is as interesting as anything that occurs in the book. Prior to writing this book, King had occasionally released books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. My understanding of why he did this was because there was a concern he would cannibalize or flood his own market by releasing so many books under his own name. In addition, King wanted to know if his writing was strong enough to sell on its own without his name behind it. Apparently a store clerk discovered King’s secret before the experiment could fully play out much in the same way that Thad Beaumont’s secret is found out in the Dark Half. The problem with centering the plot of the book around this sort of situation is that at times it felt a little too inside baseball for my taste. While we can all relate to driving cars, seeing clowns or even being eaten by vampires, the author/pen name dynamic felt more like an exercise in King’s writing chops than a story that would grab the general readership.

I did enjoy the police response in this book, as the officers were put in an interesting situation where all the evidence provided one explanation that was either impossible or easily proven false. The other main character in the book is a local sheriff who probably ends up believing in the impossible much sooner than I would have, but it was better to read about him than the typical stubborn (and wrong) law enforcement characters in most fiction. Thad’s wife Liz also gets to participate in a good bit of the action later on, and is proactive enough that her own storyline stays as interesting as Thad’s.

As a villain, Stark was also middle of the road. His motivation fluctuated between revenge and survival but his personality did not really develop beyond evil and mean. As described by King, his appearance was memorable, particularly as his condition regressed. The very nature of Stark made for a difficult character to get a grasp on. Somebody who is not real/ is having a horrific Marty McFly during “Johnny B. Good” performance moment but who also has to be able to overpower others and recover from mortal injuries requires huge suspension of disbelief from the reader. I had an easier time ascribing those qualities to a car in Christine than I did to a pseudonym.

3 star

“The Vain Conversation” by Anthony Grooms Review

Vain conversation

The Vain Conversation

Author:  Anthony Grooms

Published:  2018

I ain’t the one to tell you to go or not to go. You the only one can do that. But I can tell you this. It ain’t so easy as you might think to kill a man… If you go, even if you don’t so much as throw a pebble, you are in it as much as the man who ties the noose. You might just be a bystander, but nobody is innocent, son.

In 1946, two black couples were lynched in Georgia. The Vain Conversation by Anthony Grooms is inspired by those events but is also an entirely original story. Told through the perspective of three characters, Grooms is able to to focus a tragic story into three compelling narratives from very different perspectives. For those worried about the potentially graphic content, the actual murder of the four individuals is more of an ominous event in either that past or present of the three character’s story arcs.

The first character spotlighted is Lonnie, a young boy whose father has just returned from World War II. The second is Bertrand, a teacher who also has returned from a tour of duty and befriends Lonnie’s father. The third is Jacks, a man that Bertrand trusts but his mother does not. I won’t spoil their roles in the killing of four people. I went into reading this without knowing anything ahead of time and it made for a very tense experience trying to speculate how things would escalate and who would die when they did.

The book is also broken up into four parts. The first three are about one of each of the characters listed above, and the fourth is revisiting two of them decades later. The first and third sections (about Lonnie and Jacks respectively) drew me in instantly and had me very invested in the characters. The second section got a bit more bogged down by a long philosophical discussion between Bertrand and his wife, however it ended in the most tense pages in the entire book.

I was reminded a bit of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing while reading this, as both books jumped around with character perspectives and timelines and dealt prominently with racial issues. I enjoyed this book even more than Homegoingthough as the characters were more fully developed. Insightful commentary on heavy issues (often through common sense dialogue like the quote at the top of this review) is for the most part handled in a way that feels organic. Even when it drifts beyond that, I could forgive it for how thoughtful it was.

Much like the Best Picture Winner Moonlight from a few years back, the last time jump didn’t entirely work for me. The vendetta that young Lonnie has developed over the years did not feel entirely earned and the final few pages ended so abruptly that I had to reread them just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. The result is a near miss from a five star book. Still, for fans of historical fiction, race relations, or thrilling Rashomon style storytelling, The Vain Conversation is a great book and well worth checking out.

4-star

“To Your Scattered Bodies Go” by Philip Jose Farmer

To your Scattered Bodies Go

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Author:  Philip Jose Farmer

Published:  1971

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer is my pick for the worst titled Hugo Award winner (so far, at least). I had a hard time remembering the title when people asked what I was reading, and even sitting down to write this review I had to look it up again. Instead I would tell people I was reading the first book in the Riverworld series. That had a nicer ring to it, and it was also an honest response. Enough about the title of the book though, how was the actual writing?

Richard Francis Burton wakes up in a strange environment where bodies are all hairless, naked and the same age. Burton remembers being an old man with gout, being on his death bed, and everything else in his lifetime. However, looking at himself he sees a 25 year old version of himself, matching everybody else around him (the few exceptions being a few children under that age). After discussing the situation with others that are present, Burton eventually comes to the conclusion that the world he is on is populated by the entire population of Earth’s history, all resurrected and scattered in various seemingly random groups along a never ending river.

It’s an awesome concept for a book. It allows Farmer to bring in various historical figures, have them interact with each other and share knowledge and skill sets. From the concept of the book, I could expect a dozen different ways it could play out. Farmer opts for several different paths, alternating between philosophical experiment, exploratory adventure, and prison escape sequence. The supporting cast around Burton frequently changes. Among the most interesting characters are a man (and an alien) from 30+ years in the future of when the book was published (to the far off future of 2008!), Hermann Goering (a high ranking officer from the Nazi regime), and a Neanderthal man.

If there’s an area where the book will likely draw criticism, it is in its treatment of female characters. Across the board, the women primarily latch on to men for protection and are not what one would call contributors to the group’s survival. In Farmer’s defense, the bulk of female characters come from the 1800’s or earlier, and from societies that were not particularly progressive in their views of gender norms. If strong female characters are essential to your enjoyment of a book, this one will leave you unsatisfied.

I very much enjoyed the “rules” of this book. Following along Burton as he discovered how various individuals seemed to be scattered around the globe in a less than random pattern, as well as what happens to individuals who die on Riverworld was fascinating. The entities responsible for Riverworld were revealed sooner than I expected (this book moves very quickly, at only 220 pages), but there was still enough mystery as to why the Riverworld even exists that I’m looking to pick up the sequels to this book in the near future.

That same mystery that remains at the end of To Your Scattered Bodies Go that makes me want to keep reading the series is also frustrating when reviewing this as a standalone piece of work (it’s basically like the end of Avengers: Infinity War this week). This book ends on a to be continued, with very little resolved for Burton or the reader. I was more entertained and interested in this book than all but my very favorite Hugo Award winners so far, but the lack of a conclusion has me hesitant to give it a an endorsement without some reservations.

4-star

“Nightworld” by F. Paul Wilson Review

Nightworld

Nightworld

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Published:  1992, Revised in 2012

**Note – This is a review for the 2012 revised version of Nightworld, not the original**

If you’re a Repairman Jack fan and have just finished The Dark at the End, before picking up Nightworld I would recommend reading the other books of the Adversary Cycle first. It’s not a lot of extra reading, as it’s only a six book series and fans have already read The Tomb and Nightworlditself is the last book in the series. By doing so, you’ll spend some time getting acquainted with several of the main characters of Nightworld and make it a much more rewarding conclusion overall. Without reading it, you’ll still be well aware of Glaeken and Rasalom and the big picture struggle, but details like the Dat-tay-vao and Father Bill’s/Carol’s storyline will leave you with plenty of questions.

As for the overall quality of this book, this was a terrific conclusion to one of my favorite sprawling book series. I have two main gripes with this book, but even with those this was a thrilling ending. This book picks up shortly after the end of The Dark at the End, with Rasalom basically victorious in the ongoing struggle and ready to ascend to godly power. The events are first noticed by the world at large by daylight being late one morning, and the sun setting earlier than scheduled that night. The pattern continues the next day, and throughout the book we proceed closer and closer to the titular never ending world of Night. In addition to the shorter day times, massive bottomless holes begin appearing throughout the world. At night, all sorts of violent bugs and creatures begin exiting the holes and wreaking havoc until daylight.

Unlike the rest of the Repairman Jack novels, which dealt primarily with small scale weirdness that could go unnoticed by the general public, the events in Nightworld are very much global and catastrophic. Along with Jack, there is a large cast characters in peril in this book, including series regulars Gia, Vicky, Abe and Julio, plus Adversary Cycle gang Glaeken, Dr. Alan Bulmer, Jeffy, Ba, Carol, Father Bill, Sylvia Nash, Nick and Ba. This isn’t the sort of book you should read as a stand alone. Wilson heavily revised this book to tie it in to the events of all the books he had published over the prior twenty years.

The plot of Nightworld reminded me a bit of The Stand by its conclusion, with bands of survivors coming together for the chance of standing up to evil. I pretty much loved the book, except for two pretty major issues. First, was that Glaeken’s method of fighting back against Rasalom came out of nowhere and definitely entered deus ex machina territory. The other problem was that Rasalom was pretty impotent as a villain for this book, only once trying to actually screw with the main cast and even then coming up empty. Instead he basically just allowed every opportunity to defeat him go unopposed and had way too much of the main cast survive to the end.

One almost ends up thinking that Wilson was leaving the door open for more Repairman Jack and Adversary Cycle novels (which he has written, but instead has opted for prequels) by keeping so much of the cast alive at the end. Although it’s not a perfect book, and not even my favorite in the series (at this point I’d give the edge to Hosts as I’m a sucker for body snatcher stories) this was a blast. My favorite moment in the book was an airplane encounter with a leviathan that was a nice microcosm of how terribly the world had gotten in a short period of time. I’m still going back and reading the young adult books in the series, and I’m sure I’ll read the three new prequels as well. Unlike the Jack Reacher series, Wilson hasn’t burned me out yet on the continuing stories from his fictional universe.

5-star

“Nether Isle” by Nicoline Evans

Nether Isle

Nether Isle

Author:  Nicoline Evans

Published:  2015

I picked up a copy of Nether Isle by Nicoline Evans at C2E2 last month. Ms. Evans had an entire booth promoting the multiple books she had written which was the most impressive independent author set up I’d seen at a comic convention. Her books all featured very beautiful cover artwork and fantastical plot elements that also drew my attention. As a big fan of buying books directly from authors I talked to her for a bit and settled on Nether Isle, which she described as a supernatural story that was also her dad’s favorite book that she’d written to this point. As I was pushing my son around in a stroller at the time, I thought “ah, that’s the one for me.”

More broadly, Nether Isle tells the story of a remote village off the coast of Maine where it seems things are just a bit more depressing and anti-social than normal. The reason for this is quickly revealed, but honestly my favorite part of the book was the reveal so I’m not going to get into it here. The protagonist of the book is Theodore, a teenage boy who recently moved to the neighborhood with his drunken abusive father. Theodore is a loner, never staying anywhere long enough to feel connected to other people. At his new school, he is an outcast until a new student named Bianca arrives. Bianca befriends Theodore and the two immediately begin to get close. Everybody else at school though seems to hate Bianca for no reason, and even adults close to Theodore warn him not to get close to her.

Again, the reveal for what’s wrong with the town and basically everything else happens pretty early on. My favorite parts of the book were Theodore’s discovery of the town’s secret, followed by the progression of his relationship with Bianca. Once Theodore has finally chosen sides about halfway through the book, the remaining story did not maintain the same momentum. The mystery of the early chapters is replaced primarily by training/gathering of allies. While Evans was trying to likely trying to increase the stakes of the story, the opposite effect resulted. The more new characters that were introduced, the less I ended up caring when a terrible fate would befall one of them.

Evans was completely successful however in creating a very memorable and interesting world for the characters to live in. There is an excellent balance of rules of magic for what is going on, and mystery for what becomes of the village’s special residents when they leave. The things I’ll most remember about this book are the distinct settings: the lighthouse, the fish market, the small school. The result was a timeless quality that could exist both before or after the invention of smart phones and the internet. A few other random notes:

  • Cadence, Bianca’s little sister, flipped between one of my favorite characters and one of the most frustrating. It’s hard to imagine how somebody her age and life experiences would act, but the switch between strong willed and victim had be invested and frustrated at the same time.
  • Evans touched on some difficult issues in introducing characters affiliated with tragic events from human history but did a nice job of avoiding their purpose just being shock value.
  • The spell that involves a blessing bothered me when it was introduced. It seemed a bit too flippant to wait until so late in the game to inform Theodore about this alternative, and then the ethics of using it seemed to be given minimal thought. (I suppose you could explain this away by saying the mystery of where its recipient was sent makes it rather pointless, but obviously some of the casters believed it very much mattered.)
  • I got a bookmark for another book by Evans about a man made of stone, and after seeing it every day while reading this book I’ve decided I should track that one down to. Free bookmarks are awesome people!

Overall this was a quick read, even at 463 pages . I would recommend taking some time on the first half of the book and letting the mood and mystery linger before marathon-ing the end. I give this one 3 ½ stars, which I haven’t created barrel artwork for, so I’m forced to make the tough call. There was enough here that I really enjoyed however, that I am definitely down for reading more of Ms. Evans’ books in the future.

3 star

“Invincible Volume 25: The End of All Things Part Two” by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley and Cory Walker Review

invincible 25

Invincible Volume 25: The End of All Things Part Two

Writer:  Robert Kirkman

Artist:  Ryan Ottley & Cory Walker

Released:  2018

Publisher:  Image Comics

Reading the end of one of my all time favorite comic series reminded me a lot of watching the series finales for “Chuck,” “Six Feet Under,” or “Rescue Me.” Those were all shows I really enjoyed and was sad to end, however I also felt like they went out on great notes that provided enough closure that I didn’t walk away needing anything more from the stories. (Other finales like “Justified,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” or “Twin Peaks: The Return” were also excellent, but when they were over I was just really depressed that there wasn’t more to return to the next week.)

Here Kirkman has said goodbye to his characters, let us know all of their fates, and basically shut the door on future Invincible stories. I should be very depressed that the series has ended but instead I’m happy with where he left the characters. Mark and Eve get plenty of closure on how their lives end up, as do characters like Allen, the Viltrumite empire, and everybody’s kids. The end of Robot’s storyline felt rushed to me. My only real complaint is that when Mark returned to Earth and Robot is ready for him, that felt like it should have been the start of another arc and instead it got handled in one issue.

The art in Invincible is always consistent, and here Ottley and Walker are are their seemless best, with it never taking you out of the story when one hands off art duties to the other. The colors in this series are always vibrant and fun, and with less blood than normal and a cheerful ending it’s very hard to walk away sad from this book. Still, over the 25 volume (I read this book exclusively in trade paperback format) story I always looked forward to the next six issue set showing up at my comic shop every 8 or 9 months.

Unlike many mainstream comics, independent comics can actually end. While Silver Surfer as told by Dan Slott and Mike Allred was my favorite book of the last two years, when it ended I knew the character would be showing up in other Marvel books and adventures before too long. Even a character like Jessica Jones who had only been written by one author will be returning before too long as part of the greater Marvel Universe. Independent books like “Bone,” “Strangers in Paradise” or “Cerebus” can return when the author wants them to, but for the most part the endings are much more final than anything else in comics. Nobody else can do “Savage Dragon” but Erik Larsen, and “Invincible” by somebody other than Kirkman and Ottley/Walker could never be the same thing that was told over the last 15 years of this book. Congrats to the creators on an amazing finish to a great series.

5-star