Author: rocknjazzblog

“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

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“Gerald’s Game” by Stephen King Review

Gerald's Game

Gerald’s Game

Author:  Stephen King

Released:  1992

I’m going through these Stephen King books pretty close to in order of publication, so reading Gerald’s Game felt a lot like Misery: Part Deux. Unfortunately that’s not a compliment as that book was a particularly unpleasant reading experience. With both books, our protagonist is stuck in a bed and unable to get out for most of the book. I know at some point Stephen King was struck by a car and bedridden for a period of time, but whatever the inspiration for revisiting the motif I was thoroughly over it by the end of this one.

Here the reason for the bed is that Jessie and Gerald are preparing to have sex at a secluded cabin, with Gerald preferring Jessie handcuffed to a bed to increase his experience. Jessie decides against it and tells Gerald she does not want to go forward and to untie her, but he pretends that it’s part of the game and refused. When Gerald tries to go ahead and continue Jessie ends up kicking him in the groin. As Gerald pulls away, he has a heart attack and dies at the base of the bed, leaving Jessie stuck in handcuffs miles away from another person.

The bulk of the suspense of the book is delivered via two separate events. The main storyline is Jessie stuck on the bed, weak from wanting water and trying to brainstorm her way out. In addition to the physical pain of being stuck, Jessie begins to hallucinate and believe there is a man visiting her at night that intends to kill her soon. As readers, we are as unaware of whether the man is real, imagined or paranormal as Jessie is and these scenes were some of the most suspenseful in the book.

The other storyline is a set of flashbacks Jessie is reliving involving an afternoon where she was molested by her father during an eclipse as a child. Why is this important for her to relive? In one aspect, it’s relevant because of her current sexual predicament that she is dealing with. However the big reveal for why she is actually remembering it is pretty lame as it’s something that seemingly she could have thought of based on a hundred other offhand comments and experiences she would have had throughout her life.

This book definitely felt more padded in terms of page count than what the story merited. Perhaps had it been a short story I would have enjoyed it more. As it stands though this was lesser Stephen King and one I understand not being listed as one of his best.

2-star

“Running From the Deity” by Alan Dean Foster Review

Running From the Deity

Running From the Deity

Author:  Alan Dean Foster

Released:  2005

Running From the Deity by Alan Dean Foster is the tenth book chronologically in the Pip & Flinx series and continues the tradition of dropping Flinx off on an alien world and everything going to hell. Much like Jack Reacher, no matter where Flinx lands trouble follows. Here, Flinx’s spacecraft The Teacher is taxed from the events from the previous few books and must land on a planet with sufficient raw materials to commence repairs. The best option available is the planet Arrawd, home to a “primitive” society of multi-limbed sentient pixie lifeforms called the Dwarra. The only problem? The Dwarra are not advanced enough to interact with spacefaring races (they are currently at the dawn of the steam age), and there is a Commonwealth edict banning interaction with the Dwarra under effect. Flinx, who grew up a thief and possesses the only interstellar spacecraft capable of landing on a planet’s surface in the known universe, decides to risk it.

Once Flinx has landed on the surface, the plot starts to require a few leaps that seem out of character for our protagonist. For starters, Flinx leaves the ship to do some exploring and is sidetracked by a twisted ankle. I understand that the gravity on Arrawd is lower than other planets, and that requires some additional care, but this is the same protagonist who survived unscathed Midworld, where every life form was capable of killing him, as well as the camouflage predator planet of Pyrassis from Reunion. Much like the Gunslinger from Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three, it’s obvious that Foster needed an excuse to have Flinx dependent on others in order to facilitate a story about intertwining himself with this alien race. Unfortunately, the excuse he settled on didn’t feel true to the character.

The Dwarra have a few interesting aspects that make them particularly appealing to Flinx. For starters they are emotionally empathic. Unlike Flinx, this is not a constantly working ability with a wide radius, but instead is dependent on antenna touching amongst themselves. Flinx can still read these aliens emotions, but unlike all other sentient beings he has met, he can also tune them out resulting in a peaceful mental experience. Flinx ends up in a position where he heals an animal with his advanced medical technology, and the two Dwarrans who are sheltering him begin to realize the possibility of profiting from utilizing their new friends good nature/scientific resources. As word of Flinx’s miraculous abilities to heal spreads, other Dwarrans begin to worship Flinx, and others still connive to take advantage of the “deity,” or decide to attack him based on the political climate of the area.

As a standalone story in the series, this was pretty memorable. Flinx’s dilemma is how much should he help these individuals while he’s stuck there for a few weeks? He is able to heal all sorts of ailments, and since he’s not able to leave anyways what is the downside of fixing some people up? The answer of course if the effect his presence has on the behavior of the rest of the population of Arrawd. The switch in perspectives to the various High Borns (basically governors) of the tribes displayed the sort of thinking that you’d find in Napoleonic Europe or the Cold War. As the potential for war breaks out, Flinx must again improvise to save his own skin as well as avert disaster on a planetary scale.

My favorite character in the story was the netcaster (fisherman) who discovered Flinx. A simple, but good hearted man, his wife’s overbearing nature and poor decision making is the catalyst for the entire enterprise going horribly wrong, and who among us can’t related to that? The only thing in this book that ties into the larger mythology of the devastating force approaching the galaxy is a final chapter tacked onto the end catching us up with Flinx’s supporting cast. These stories are always at their best when they focus on smaller events with unique settings and this book did a nice job on both counts.

4-star

“The Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy Review

Lords of Discipline

The Lords of Discipline

Author:  Pat Conroy

Released:  1980

I was loaned The Lords of Discipline by a friend that attended the Citadel about 40+ years after this book take place. He told me that the book was written by an author that went to the Citadel, and the book (which takes place at a Carolina Military Institute) was somewhat based on the author’s time at the school and revealed all sorts of hidden details that the school and alumni were upset about afterwards. In addition to that, the author was essentially banned from the university for decades. As I learned all this, I thought “I’m probably not going to care much about this book because I didn’t go to the Citadel and didn’t even know it was South Carolina until that same conversation.” Still, never one to turn away from a book recommendation, I went ahead and read the damn thing.

I’m glad I did, because this ended up being one of the best books I’ve read this year. The story is told through first person narrative by Will McLean, an Irish American cadet at the Carolina Military Institute in the 1960’s. He is roommates with Tradd St. Croix, an effeminate aristocrat from Charleston and two Italian Americans named Dante “Pig” Pignetti and Mark Santoro. I included their ethnicities, because a big part of this book is the language that these young men all use with each other, which reminded me of the barbershop scene in “Gran Torino” when every comment made was an insult about somebody’s heritage.  If the language in that scene bothered you, you will probably hate this book.  In the book, the language is often meant to be endearing, but other times it is certainly meant to hurt the recipient.

Will is a senior when the book begins, and most of the book takes place chronologically in that year except for a section that flashes back to his Plebe (freshman) year at school. The school is famous for being hard on the incoming cadets, to the point that out of 700 incoming students only 400 will stay with it through their first year. Conroy details the types of hazing done in that first Hell Night, the rest of Hell Week and the treatment somebody who had been separated from the rest of the class would endure. Unlike seemingly the rest of the upperclassmen, Will is against the hazing rituals and prefers to offer solace for cadets in need. Because of this characteristic, he is asked by Colonel “Bear” Berrineau (an analog for real life figure Colonel Thomas “The Boo” Courvoisie) to make sure that the first ever black cadet is not run out of the school due to extreme targeting.

Although that is the central plot of the book and where much of the conflict comes from, it is also absent from much of the book as Conroy fills in McLean’s world with other coming of age events. Much of that is time spent among the four roommates bonding in the room or taking part in shenanigans. There is also a significant through plot about Will’s courting of a Charleston girl named Annie Kate who has been hidden from the world by her parents for what is certainly the most predictable reason a woman in the 1960’s would be hid from her social circle. Will also plays on his college basketball team, and there is an extended chapter about a game that also was drawn directly from true events in Conroy’s life. Finally, it seems throughout much of the book the individual Will is closest to is Abigail, Tradd’s mother. The two of them have a surrogate mother/confidant relationship.

Despite reading as autobiographical and often humorous, I found much of this book to be very suspenseful. The stress that the cadets go through is palpable, and that even extends to characters that are not part of the core cast. The consequences for making a mistake ranged from physical violence or psychological damage to an excommunication ritual that seemed like the end of the world for those it was imposed on. The antagonists in this book were often mysterious unknown figures. The possibility of a secret group pulling the strings made it difficult for the reader to trust anybody Will confided to.

Oddly, despite the book being suspenseful it was also somewhat predictable. **Vague spoilers follow** From the moment a phone call alerts several dangerous individuals to Will’s nearby presence, it is clear that not only is there a traitor but who in particular it is. Likewise, out of the three main army officers at the school, one of them is never in doubt as not being on Will’s side and it’s hard to believe Will would fall for a trick that makes him discredit another. Finally, Will’s ace in the hole at the end is easy to spot coming based on a character that served no other purpose in the book aside from providing a lot of information about a peculiar hobby. **End of vague spoilers**

However, the predictability did not bother me as it also made sense within the world that was established. Rather than create a twist ending that makes you question everything that took place before, Will experiences a shocking twist that we have predicted based on what information he has shared through that point. The additional twist involving Will’s girlfriend earlier in the book felt like an unnecessary one, however by that point the book had built up enough goodwill that I was willing to overlook it. The end result was a book that was humorous, suspenseful and touching throughout with very memorable characters.

5-star

“Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand Review

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged

Author:  Ayn Rand

Released:  1957

Full disclosure: I listened to the audio book of this. It was 63 hours long.

Late in this book, there’s a moment where one of the heroes takes over the radio waves to make a speech about why the great men in this society have all abandoned the masses. It’s an essay on the values of those men, versus the values of the rest of society. The men are tired of having their work, their ideas, and their money taken away from them by individuals who do not work, don’t have ideas, and don’t produce their own wages. It’s the central thesis of the book, and for the most part it is eloquently stated. After the speech, the government panics. More great men join the movement. The government decides that the man that made the speech must be made the dictator of the economy as only he can fix these issues. The man refuses to help, stating the reason why he refuses was laid out in his three hour speech. Sorry Ayn Rand. I just had the speech delivered to me, and it actually took SIX HOURS to listen to.

That’s how the whole book felt. Some very thought provoking arguments were delivered, every good guy was qualified to give a thirty minute statement on the value of the individual, and every conversation felt completely phony and at least twice as long as it should be. Every piece of dialogue in this book felt like that speech. It’s people droning on and on, uninterrupted, while they all fall on one of two sides with no gray area characters in between. All characters are on one of side of the moral absolute or the other. It’s an interesting idea for a book. In execution, I found this to be incredibly tedious.

The plot of Atlas Shrugged (great title) centers on Dagny Taggart, the Vice-President in Charge of Operations for Taggart Transcontinental railways, who is one of the most efficient individuals in the industry. The man in charge of the railroad is her brother James, a worthless inheritor of a company who actively does things that undermine the company. Why would he do that? James has fallen in with several other powerful lobbyist and legislators who actively seek to regulate the industry of the country to 1) preserve the current powerful corporations from their upstart competitors and 2) make sure that revenues also go to those in need and not just that that produce. The novel is also populated by remarkable men® who want to have sex with Dagny, including copper magnate Francisco d’Anconia, steel tycoon Hank Rearden, Dagny’s right hand man Eddie Willers, and the mysterious reputations of Ragnar Danneskjold and John Galt.

Each man (and Dagny) in the previous paragraph (except for her brother James) is the exact same man, with the exact same ideals, just at different points in the same chronological storyline. The prodigy becomes the millionaire becomes the rebel becomes the revolutionary. The antagonists in the book are all interchangeable as well. Each villain is a individual confident making laws that take things away from successful people, but who literally panic or freeze if somebody challenges their ideology. If I were reading a paper copy of this book, I would have started highlighting each time somebody said “Don’t say that! We shouldn’t even think that!” in response to somebody challenging the ‘take from the doers and give to the need’ers’ philosophy. If you’ve ever read through the comments section on a political article and seen somebody refer to another as a Libtard, you have a good idea of what Rand’s view of the opponents of her philosophy are portrayed as.

It’s a shame really, because provocative art is normally right up my alley. I’ll go to bat for just about anything Spike Lee or Larry Clark, and Steinbeck’s political writing is among my all time favorite. I agree with a lot of what Rand wrote, and I really loved The Fountainhead. But this entire book felt phonier than a Wes Anderson movie house with zero of the charm. There’s a scene where a young man never previously introduced in the book is shot during a labor dispute. As he lays there dying in Hank Rearden’s arms he give a 30 minute diatribe about what the meaning of ownership. At a cocktail party, Francisco d’Anconia gives a two hour speech on the same material every other good guy is espousing and everybody present sits silently listening with no rebuke afterward. The America of Atlas Shrugged is populated by business men who all give lengthy speeches and sniveling hangers-on who can not form a cogent argument against them or perform any job of productive value. The ratio of civilians seems to be about 100 of the sniveling whiners to one remarkable man. Throughout all 1100+ pages, there are numerous sections on people losing the will to work, or businesses going under because no quality men are available to hire.

The plot has some fun elements to it but they get buried in the lengthy discussions, a dull protagonist, and a really stupid ending. How stupid is the ending? **Spoilers follow** Imagine the government has the number one enemy of the state in custody. They take him to a remote military installation under lockdown with 14 personally chosen soldiers to watch him. Now imagine that group of soldiers getting the crap kicked out of them by 3 business men and a business lady. When one soldier gets shot, he asks “who shot me?” and the man in the suit responds, “Ragnar Danneskjold.” It only makes sense in this world the business men with strong values and self worth would also be better at soldierly work than the weak men with no individuality who would rather be shot than make decisions (but it doesn’t make it read any less ridiculous).

Equally problematic is the entire character arc of protagonist Dagny Taggart. Hank Rearden gets a lot of crap from Francisco for being the biggest culprit at enabling the corrupt system to thrive, however Dagny is basically allowed to just be reactive throughout the entire book and not be held accountable by the rest of her peers. Her biggest character arc is that she trades up her dream man whenever she meets a better version of him. Luckily for her all of the men don’t seem to mind, as they all love each other (platonically) and in the entire book there is only one other woman who meets the standard to be welcome into the men’s world, and she’s a retired actress and current cafeteria worker. The love scenes between Dagny and Hank are as creepy as you would expect, with Hank being a very demanding lover who insists on replacing foreplay with monologues on his values.

Go read The Fountainhead for a much more entertaining book that gets into the same ideas but doesn’t feel like getting a hole drilled into your head.

1-star

“Spandau Phoenix” by Greg Iles Review

Spandau Phoenix

Spandau Phoenix

Author:  Greg Iles

Released:  1991

In 1941, Hitler’s top officer Rudolph Hess flew in a secret mission to Britain. What the purpose of that mission was has always been a great mystery. Some even believe that the man who landed in Britain was not the real Rudolph Hess, but was instead a double, and the man who has been sitting in Spandau prison for four decades is Hess’s double, and the American, English, German and Russian governments all may know the truth and have reasons to want it suppressed. Spandau Phoenix tells the story of the chain of events that occurs when the prisoner in Spandau Prison dies, and a German police officer discovers a diary written by him revealing part of the mystery.

This is a book with a ton of characters with different motivations who all get sucked into the intrigue. Just off the top of my head, there are:
– Hans – a German officer who discovers the book.
– Ilse – his wife who is aware of the mystery and later used as a bargaining chip.
– Professor Natterman – the couple’s grandparent who believes in the important of revealing the contents of the papers.
– Hauer – Hans’s father, a senior officer and former military sniper
– Jonas Stern – An Israeli intelligence officer who is the closest thing this book has to Liam Neeson
– 4 other Israeli soldiers who are assisting Stern
– Alfred Horn – The mysterious South African man with unlimited resources and henchmen
– Pieter Smuts – Horn’s South African head of security
– Luhr – The evil German police officer who loves torturing people
– Schneider – The German detective who gets roped into working with the Americans and reminded me of The Rock.
– Colonel Rose – The American officer who manipulates the situation to use Germans to pursue his goals.
– Neville Shaw – England’s head intelligence officer
– The Sparrow – A middle aged woman who is an assassin with a vendetta against Stern
– Colonel Karami – A Libyan with unlimited henchman doing business with Horn
– Richardson – An American who is kidnapped and taken to East Berlin by the Russians
– Several Russians who kidnap Richardson and are attempting to retrieve the Spandau papers
– Boromir – A Russian intelligence officer willing to cross any line
– Benton – An expatriated soldier doing wetworks for England
– Diaz – A Cuban mercenary and airplane pilot
– General Steyn – The South African in charge of relations at the Embassy, who has history with Stern
– Steyn’s top two officers, one whom is loyal to him and another who definitely is not

There’s probably three times as many characters throughout the book, but those are the main ones I can think of. Besides the individual character motivations, almost all of them are are also motivated by the impact of their country by the release of the Spandau secrets. England, Germany, Russia, America, Israel, Libya and South Africa are the main countries here, and a decent knowledge of global politics and World War II history will add to your enjoyment of this book.

This is the second book chronologically (first in publication order) by Greg Iles dealing with World War II. Spandau Phoenix is much more ambitious that Black Cross but less enjoyable overall. While Black Cross primarily stayed confined to three characters (Jonas Stern, an American aiding him on a mission and a woman in a concentration camp), the stakes felt higher for all of them than for anybody in this book. In fact, if I hadn’t read Black Cross previously I don’t know that I would have cared about Jonas Stern as much as I did, and he is certainly one of the book’s main characters.

The only characters whose arcs were compelling to me throughout where Ilse and Hauer. Ilse started off making a really foolish decision, but did a nice job thinking on her feet afterward. Hauer was the most convincing of the eight action movie style characters (Hauer, Stern, Schneider, Smuts, Richardson, Sparrow, Benton, Boromir), and blended a nice pragmatist philosophy with some Schwarzenegger in Commando parenting skills. Conversely, his son Hans was the worst character in the book, present to create bad situations for Hauer to get him out of.

The rest of the characters certainly made sense in this global historical fiction tale, however as a reader all of the jumping around made it so I didn’t feel invested in 80% of the cast. The larger problem was that the central conceit of why all of these countries were willing to kill and cover up everything in pursuit of the Spandau papers was pretty much dismissed by Hauer toward the end of the book in terms of how much the general population would care about their contents. I definitely feel like a learned about Cold War era Berlin, the abdication of Prince Edward VIII and the relationship of Israel to other world powers, and the mystery of Rudolph Hess’s flight kept me more involved than if I had just perused his Wikipedia entry (which I just did). However, the overall story was stretched out and inflated more than I would have liked and I suspect others may feel the same way.

3 star

“Sharpe’s Skirmish: Richard Sharpe and the Defense of the Tormes, August 1812” (Sharpe, #14.5) by Bernard Cornwell Review

sharpe's skirmish

Sharpe’s Skirmish: Richard Sharpe and the Defense of the Tormes, August 1812

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Release Date: 1999

No matter how thrilling a Richard Sharpe adventure is, without a note regarding the historical accuracy of the events described at the conclusion it’s a bit of a letdown. Fourteen books into the series, with several more to go, it’s clear that Sharpe is going to survive each adventure and find a way to single handed turn the tides for the British in battle. What keeps these stories from being repetitive is plugging that formula into different historical events and making a cool hybrid of education and entertainment. That’s all a roundabout way of saying that while this short story was very exciting and entertaining it lacked the gravity of a more historical entry in the series.

Taking place almost immediately following the events of “Sharpe’s Sword,” here Richard is in charge of a Spanish fort on a crucial supply chain while the French in the area are all assumed to be retreating. He is there because he was shot in the previous book and is recovering in what is assumed to be a low stakes, hard to screw up position. Unbeknownst to British however, there is actually a sizable French force in the area with their sights set on this fort. Something happens that makes Sharpe suspect that he will be attacked, which becomes the dilemma of whether he should request more troops to be safe and possibly look paranoid or not request troops and possibly be undermanned during an attack. As an officer elevated through the ranks Sharpe must always be right or risk losing all he has gained thus far.

In addition to Richard Sharpe, long time readers will be pleased by the involvement of Sgt. Harper and Teresa in this book, as both play pivotal roles in the mission. There is also a soldier who remembers Sharpe from Gawilghur (which was detailed in “Sharpe’s Fortress”), so those following along chronologically get some nice literary Easter eggs. The two best parts of this story both involve horses. First, Cornwell does an excellent job describing the condition of the French army and their animals, all of whom have been retreating for miles and are in poor shape for battle. These sorts of details are where Cornwell really shines, bringing realism to stories that could so easily devolve into mindless action. **Slight spoiler for the ending** The climax also involves the horses, and several hundred bottles of wine that were not disposed of properly. Although with so few pages to plant seeds for plot twists, “Sharpe’s Skirmish” ends with a clever means for the British to thwart the charging enemy.

4-star