Category: Book Series

“The Late Show” by Michael Connelly Review

Late Show

The Late Show

Author:  Michael Connelly

Released:  2017

I was loaned this book by a coworker who knows I’m a big reader. I’ve previously read one book by Michael Connelly and remember it was OK, but don’t remember anything else about it except that I read it before I used Goodreads to track my reading. I’ve generally stayed away from writers that I think of as supermarket specialists (the writers whose books I can find for sale in my local grocery store), and Connelly comes to mind in that group along with guys like James Patterson or Jodi Picoult. But, I’m also a person who never turns down a free book (or an opportunity to talk about it afterwards) so here I go.

First, on the positive side this was a very quick read and had plenty of cliffhangers at the end of chapters to get you turning the page. The book is about a late shift detective and follows her investigating three separate cases that she responds to on one evening. The book takes place over a few days, and she respond to some other calls later on, but primarily all the forward moment of the plot goes back to those first three dispatches: a woman reports her home as been burglarized; a transgender prostitute is beaten nearly to death; and a shooting at a club leaves 5 dead.

Of the three mysteries, the latter two take up the bulk of the plot. Renee Ballard is a former journalist and relentless worker and two of the mysteries don’t even take a lot of work to solve. (When I say relentless, I mean over the course of about a week, I can think of her not working on five occasions: twice by sleeping, twice by surfing and once for a family dinner.) Besides the mysteries Ballard throws herself into, there is also some drama in the former of a corrupt Lieutenant that Ballard shares history with with she was sexually harassed by him and then demoted as a result of reporting the incident.

As a page turning action story this book completely succeeded in keeping my attention and making me want to keep reading. As a mystery story this was a letdown however. I figured out the main mystery as soon as the suspect was introduced as a character, and the two smaller cases Ballard is working are solved by her by running records checks and are never something the reader can figure out. (Those are more realistic than most mystery stories but they also take a lot of the fun out of the genre.) The biggest mystery for me even went unsolved (how a certain villain knew Ballard was on to her and how to take advantage… I suspected the predictable secret villain was behind it but it was never answered one way or another. Possibly coming in a sequel?). I’ll judge the book more on what it delivered than what I expected prior to reading it, so overall I enjoyed it.

4-star

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“Beyond the Blue Event Horizon” by Frederik Pohl review

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Author:  Frederik Pohl

Released:  1980

This is the sequel to Gateway a book that I thought had some really interesting ideas about some uninteresting and unlikable characters. That book ended **spoiler alert** with Robinette Broadhead being the lone survivor of a mission of ten people with the other nine being sucked into a black hole and Broadhead feeling guilty over the loss of his lover most of all. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon picks up several years later, with Broadhead being very wealthy and no longer going on Heechee missions himself.

Pohl has created a fascinating world that provides plenty of interesting questions about the ancient race that humanity has stumbled upon. Here humans are still piloting Heechee ships with no idea of where they are going in the hopes of making discoveries and becoming wealthy. Broadhead has sent a family to discover a food factory, and when they arrive they find a horny teenage boy that has been isolated on the spacecraft for fifteen years with only “The Old Ones” (mysterious entities) alive with him. Meanwhile on Earth Broadhead is dealing with the bureaucratic fallout of his mission and his wife’s failing health.

For a book about intergalactic space travel and the stored consciences of the deceased, BTBEH spends a lot of time on the personalities of the characters, which sounds like a positive but is really not. Broadhead is no more likeable here than he was in Gateway, and Wan (the teenage boy on his own) is as shallow and horny as any caricature of a teenager that I have seen. The other family members on the trip are fairly generic with nobody that I was able to latch onto as an interesting lead.

The science of BTBEH is very well done. A large chunk of the end of the book involves two characters discussing the potential motivations and locations of the Heechee population and did enough to interest me that I’ll be reading book three of this series. The characters also make enough discoveries that it should open up the possibilities for future characters to take a more proactive position in unraveling these mysteries.

3-star

“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin Review

Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

Author:  Ursula K. Le Guin

Released:  1969

Much like the previous books in the Hainish Cycle, I found this book to be full of interesting ideas but delivered through average execution. The story is about a Human emissary to an alien world called Winter, where the intelligent life forms are stubborn, bureaucratic humanoids who can change their gender when it comes time to mating. The largest differences between our world and the world of Winter is that with no dominant sex, traditional gender roles do not exist. The human is actually considered a pervert by the natives, as he is always ready for mating while the alien life forms only mate at certain times of the monthly cycle.

Beyond that there is some additional world building relating to the different governing faction on the planet and the mathematics and calendar that heavily depend on the number 13. The perspective is mainly told through the human protagonist, although it does shift to a secondary character named Estraven who at times is not trusted by the human and at others is his only ally. I found these shifts in perspective frustrating as they weren’t marked by anything and typically happened in chapters with little dialogue so I wasn’t even aware the perspective shifted right away on several instances. Better executed are a few chapters that go into folklore and history of this alien planet, which are more clearly marked and provide some interesting context.

One of the most common criticisms of science fiction are books where characters and places all have weird names and which keep it from reading like a typical story. I actually found that to be the case here, as aside from three characters (the human, Estraven, and the King (who is usually referred to as the King)) the names were all so complex that I rarely retained them and had no interest in trying to pronounce them in my head while reading to myself. Perhaps this would have been alleviated by reading this as an audiobook, but between the jargon names and the unclear shifting perspectives I found this to be a frustrating read at times.

The plot is fairly straight forward, with the human emissary trying to open trade (mainly of thought and culture) with this alien world, which will primarily be accomplished via the use of an ansible that allows for instant communication across the universe. The trip to the planet is seventeen years from the nearest inhabited world, and “a lifetime” away from Earth. What should have been an easy sell is complicated by the bureaucratic intrigue of the government officials and the rivaling governmental factions on the planet. The result is a journey that leads across secured borders, into prison stints and a 700+ mile journey over barren frozen landscape. The best passages deal with the human’s interactions with Estraven, as the two try to understand each other and mind-speak (I picture the Vulcan mind meld) to each other. There are clearly some interesting relationship dynamics between the human and the androgynous/multisexual aliens.

The previous books I’ve read that have been both Hugo and Nebula award winners have all been fantastic, and while this book was interesting I was let down overall in comparison.

3-star

“The Drawing of the Three: The Dark Tower Book Two” by Stephen King Review

The Drawing of the Three

The Drawing of the Three: The Dark Tower II

Author:  Stephen King

Released: 1987

I didn’t find The Gunslinger to be particularly great, so I wasn’t looking forward to reading its sequel. My issues with the first book were the lack of clear narrative, instead favoring hallucinated characters and vague descriptions/motivations by the archetypal protagonist and antagonist. Thankfully King remedied those issues (for the most part) in book two The Drawing of the Three by introducing a couple of people that have no idea what the tower is or what exactly is going on.

This book starts off with a surprising scene where Roland (the Gunslinger) encounters a large lobster creature (not huge, just bigger than real life lobsters) while his guns are wet. The result of the attack is Roland loses some fingers and toes and spends the rest of the book dealing with the effects of being weak, poisoned, ineffective with one hand and worried about his wet ammunition. The scene is fairly shocking, because everything we read about Roland in the first book indicates he is somebody more than capable of defending himself. (Truthfully, the rest of the book doesn’t really jive with what happens early on either, as it’s established that Eddy can kill one of these things just be clubbing it with a gun, and Eddy is most definitely not a legendary gunslinger.)

Who’s Eddie and where did he come from? While Roland is making his way toward the tower down a seemingly never ending beach, he encounters three doors, each of which grants him a window into the mind of a person in New York during different years of the 20th century. Think “Being John Malkovich,” but with easier control of the viewer and the ability to pull things (or people) into the Gunslinger’s world. The three individuals Roland meets are very different though besides Eddie the rest of the characters seem to have obvious connections to each other or Roland.

Eddie himself is a heroin junkie who Roland finds himself in (as in, seeing through his eyes) as Eddie is trying to smuggle drugs on an airplane. This entire sequence was the high point of the series for me until later in this book a scene where Roland inhabits a man at a drug store and ends up reminding a police officer of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator.” Besides a heroin junky, Roland needs the assistance of Odetta Holmes a double amputee with schizophrenia (and a cartoon caricature level hatred of white people), and the third I’ll leave for a surprise though I’ll say that things can always get worse.

Whereas the first book opted for dreamy language and plenty of abstract thought, The Drawing of the Three is much more plot and action driven and read much faster, despite it being longer than The Gunslinger. The most difficult sections to read involved the split personality of Odetta, and even the other characters comment at times that she doesn’t seem like a real person based on how hateful she is. While I’m sure that was King’s intention to make Odetta cartoonish the overall presentation of her character turned me off as a reader. Not only was it impossible to empathize with her personality or actions, but it was also unpleasant to read her dialect and repeated use of the same insults and language for hundreds of pages. That character aside, this was a big improvement in the series and has me looking forward to instead of dreading the next chapter.

4-star

“Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean M. Auel Review

Clan of Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear

Author:  Jean M. Auel

Published:  1980

My fascination with this book is somewhat random. Growing up, this was a popular enough book that I’d see it for sale at numerous used book stores, and always kept it in the back of my mind that I would read it someday. No particular reason why besides a title that implied there’d be some people that had some involvement with bears. I never bought it as a kid though, who knows why when I picked up so many other books that have sat on my shelves for years and either been read or are still waiting for the long payoff. When my wife was looking for a book about a primitive culture I looked this one up (really never even knowing what it was about for sure until then) and got a copy for both of us. While she’s reading the excellent Crime and Punishment I thought I’d zip through this one before she got to it. That’s a long buildup before ever discussing this book, but I’m wanting to be honest in discussing my thoughts as I read this.

First, I’m giving this book five stars. I give a lot of books I enjoy five stars, but they’re generally books I enjoyed and lived up to what I was hoping for, or took a series that was good and made it better. This was one of those rare books that made me wish I’d be a bit pickier with my five star ratings as I enjoyed this book a lot more than many other books I’ve given five stars to. I’d say it’s on par with Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub for the best book I’ve read in the past few years.

However, I could see how this book would not be for everyone. Auel has a writing style here that I LOVED. It was very simple to follow, heavily based on advancing the narrative. However, Auel also has a habit for interjecting a modern reader’s sensibility into the story, discussing things like advanced medical science, or biology of the neanderthal brain. I could see how some readers will be taken out of the story by this, but I appreciated the interjections as a good narrator explaining the inner goings of the characters and the society they inhabit. The group of neanderthal (Clan) people also have some abilities that are rooted in fantasy, but the book tries to stay as grounded as possible in reality. While that mixture of modern science with fantasy abilities all taking place in a historical fiction type of narrative is unlike anything I’ve read, Auel (for this book at least) managed to bring it all together in an exemplary manner.

Clan of the Cave Bear features a small cast of about 20 characters, of which five are significantly developed and about another five are treated as important but also fairly static (along with the other ten or so characters). Ayla is the protagonist, a Cro-Magnon girl who gets adopted by the neanderthal tribe. Iza is the medicine woman who adopts her, Creb is the shaman type character for the clan, Brun is the tribe leader and Broud is his son and in line to be the next leader. I found myself loving four of these characters and hating the fifth, which I expect will be the same reaction for most who read this book.

I can see by the average Goodreads scores, that most people find the quality of this series to be of diminishing returns as it advances. I’m tempted to forego reading more of the series and just enjoying what a great book this is on its own. However, I already know I’ll be tracking down at least the next book as this one ends on enough of an open ending that I’d like to see what happens to the characters that are still alive from the group above, as well as the offspring of those characters.

5-star

“Meg: Nightstalkers” by Steve Alten

Meg nightstalkers

Meg: Nightstalkers

Author:  Steve Alten

Published:  2016

Meg Series #5

Five books into the Meg series (and apparently one should also have read The Loch by now as well), this was the first book in the series that I found myself shaking my head at the ridiculous plot more than enjoying it. That’s quite a statement, as the book has previously featured the discovery of giant extinct sharks, a character named Jonas being swallowed by a sea creature and surviving (yeah, it’s not Jonah but it’s close enough) and a prehistoric dinosaur called a Liopleurodon that Alten makes 100 feet larger than a reputable website like Wikipedia claims was possible.

**Slight spoilers follow** Set shortly after the events of Meg: Hell’s Aquarium, this book follows dual plot lines as both Jonas and David Taylor are involved in tracking down giant sea creatures that were formerly isolated from the rest of the oceans. While David is tracking down the Liopleurodon that ate a loved one earlier in the series, Jonas is trying to figure out what to do with his Lagoon now that the Megs housed within have been set free. Sounds like a logical followup to the earlier books… so why didn’t this installment, err, keep its head above water for me?

1. The shoehorned crossover with The Loch and its upcoming sequel Volstok felt very out of place with the rest of the series. The plot is inherently ridiculous, so slapping a time travel element in it just seems to break the anything goes rules one step too far. Also, the method of explaining all of this was done over about 5 pages in the book and didn’t seem like it was necessary to maneuver the plot where Alten wanted to take it.

2. The over dependence on the Liopleurodon for the plot. Alten has all of these cool sea creatures he could write about, so why spend so much time on an animal that didn’t even exist as Alten has written it. At this point it might as well be a dragon or something else mythological for as far off as it is from what we know about the actual creature.

3. In contrast, the Moby Dick whale was a very cool addition to the creature catalog, but the explanation for how and why it was just now being discovered tied into the stupid Volstok storyline, which in turn distracted from the enjoyment of reading about a super huge and aggressive whale.

4. Most importantly, there was a significant lack of something in this book, and that something is giant prehistoric sharks called Megalodons. I’m not a Harry Potter scholar, but I’d imagine this is similar to reading that series for four books and then in the fifth book Harry shows up for a few pages while the rest of the gang takes a trip to Mordor. Jonas, David and Terry Taylor may be the protagonists of these books, but they’re still just plot points necessary to tell a story about giant sharks.

I’ll keep reading the Meg series because there’s only one more solicited and they’re quick reads. More than that, when Alten focuses on an exciting shark story he’s capable of making a funny and exciting story that reads like a blockbuster film (for me, Meg: Primal Waters is a perfect example of that). I’ll keep an eye out for the tie in books as well, as maybe getting that storyline fleshed out more than its done here will add in the enjoyment for Meg: Generations, currently solicited for 2018.

2-star

Rank the Series: John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom Books

John Updike’s Rabbit series is unusual in the literary world for several reasons.  For starters, it’s a series of books that doesn’t involve any supernatural, magical or militaristic elements.  It’s also very adult material, with probably as much time spent on sexual acts as anything I’ve read (including the awful “50 Shades of Grey”) but described more realistically than you would find in an erotica novel.  Most impressively, the series was written over 41 years and takes place in real time with the characters and current events aging with the author (and readers who originally picked up the series).  The series is to literature what “Savage Dragon” is to comic books or “Boyhood” is to film, an achievement and testament to its creator merely for existing.

 The idea of this series, following the life and death of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom as detailed over generations, was so interesting to me that the quality of the books almost became secondary.  Having now finished the series, I’m glad I read it all chronologically as each of the five installments was essential in understanding who the characters were and why they reacted to situations as they did.  If you are planning on reading this series, there’s no other order you should read it in than “Rabbit, Run” –>  “Rabbit Redux” –> “Rabbit is Rich” –> “Rabbit at Rest” –> “Rabbit Remembered.”  But that’s not very fun to write about, so here are some thoughts on how enjoyable each of the books in the series is, ranked from worst to best:

 Rabbit redux

5.  Rabbit Redux

Release date:  1971

Chronological Order:  Second

 The two easiest choices in ranking this series are best and worst.  I enjoyed every Rabbit book except for this one that takes all of the social strife of its era and tells the ugliest story in the entire series.  Even in later books the events of “Rabbit Redux” are spoken of in disbelief, with plenty of “do you believe the time Harry had that teen girl and her drug dealer move in with him and then _____ happened?”  In addition to general unpleasantness of the story, the book is also bogged down with racial language of the era that will make many readers uncomfortable. I almost quit reading the series after this one, but after finishing the next three books my dislike for this book is tempered as it became just another crazy memory in the lives of its characters.

 rabbit remembered

4.  Rabbit Remembered

Release Date: 2001

Chronological Order:  Fifth

 This novella is shorter than the rest of the series and also is missing a major focal point from the rest of the series.  Despite that, Updike tells a compelling story about Rabbit’s two surviving children and the people they have grown up to become.  The real world politics and current events that make it into every story resonated the most for me of any book in the series as they were the headlines and pop culture of my youth.  The biggest drawback however is that any ending to this story pales in comparison to the excellent and fitting conclusion to “Rabbit at Rest” in terms of wrapping up the series.

 rabbit

3.  Rabbit is Rich

Release Date:  1981

Chronological Order:  Third

 “Rabbit is Rich” and the second place book on this list are interchangeable in terms of quality.  Here Updike has abandoned the extreme events of “Rabbit Redux” in favor of a much more toned down and relatable storyline.  As Rabbit has finally settled down and reduced the drama in his work and personal life, his son Nelson is now old enough to supply drama enough for both of them.  The ending of this book gets into the most over the top sexual situations in the entire series, so if that’s something that turns you off at the end keep in mind it’s all toned back down after this book.

 Rabbit Run

2.  Rabbit, Run

Release Date: 1960

Chronological Order: First

 A young married man decides to abandon his pregnant wife and young child in favor of the thrill of escape.  I’ll give this book the edge over “Rabbit is Rich” for being the book that established this entire fictional family tree, business and household that have survived so well throughout the series.  Just about everything that happens in the rest of the Rabbit series can be traced to an event in this first book.  At parts heartbreaking and other moments infuriating, Updike does a great job of making unlikable characters interesting and sympathetic.

 rab

1.  Rabbit at Rest

Release Date: 1990

Chronological Order:  Fourth

 The only book in the series I would call a classic on its own, “Rabbit at Rest” is the rare book that delights on every page and even makes you reevaluate earlier books in a more favorable light.  Now a grandparent, Harry’s bad behavior swings more toward curmudgeon and for the first time in the series is even a likable character at times.  However, Harry is also still the same man he’s always been and behaves true to form when given the opportunity.  The family drama provides the most interesting moments in thirty years of history for Harry, Janice and Nelson.  I also can’t speak highly enough about the ending, which provides nostalgia and cyclical storytelling better than just about anything I’ve read.  I loved this book for how it made me reevaluate and love the entire series.