Category: Book Series

“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

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“Secret Histories” by F. Paul Wilson Review

Secret HistoriesSecret Histories

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Released:  2008

The young adult trilogy of Repairman Jack books kicks off with Secret Histories, also by F. Paul Wilson. Jack, last name withheld, is a teenage boy who rides around the town of Johnson, New Jersey (named as such because President Andrew Johnson stayed the night there once) with his two best friends Weezy and Eddie. Weezy is a conspiracy theorist who believe there is a secret history of the world that is being covered up, while Jack just likes hanging out with Weezy. While on one of their adventures, the three kids discover a dead body that has been mutilated and a strange cube that contains an even stranger object inside. After discovering it Jack begins to make connections about his local town and mystery of the death and object.

As a prequel series to the Repairman Jack series, Wilson has some interesting opportunities and challenges to work with. In the adult series, we never really discover how Jack becomes such a formidable individual. How does he become a master of being incognito, using weapons, defending himself and solving mysteries? When the first book, The Tomb (1984) begins, Jack is already adept at performing “Fix-its” for people, is living under the radar, and has all the same skills he is using by the end of the series. He also has a supporting cast of characters that he already has history with (Gia his girlfriend, Abe the arm’s dealer, and Julio the barkeep being the primary three). Being published in 2008, there were also 11 or 12 books worth of books exploring Jack’s mindset, and we know the fates of his mother, father, brother and sister already, but not much about their youths.

The largest challenge Wilson faces though is that his series is a supernatural one, and Jack enters The Tomb as a skeptic. As readers, we’ve either had 24 years or 11 novels of work to see Jack evolve from a skeptic to a believer regarding things like the Adversary, the Otherness, the Ally, and Mother. It doesn’t make any sense for him to experience supernatural events in the prequel novels, or else he would not be a skeptic when The Tomb begins. Wilson obviously wants to tie events from Jack’s youth to his adventures in the present, so he must walk a tightrope of having the absurd occur but have Jack not believe or remember what he experiences when he is older.

For the most part, he succeeds on both levels in this book. Jack begins to collect skills (lock picking, fix-its) and a moral compass, while not being totally aware of the supernatural events happening around him. The closest he gets to being a believer is seeing a shadowy movement at night time and an apparent government cover up, however both are certainly events that could be explained away by an adult remembering the fancies of childhood later on. Wilson also does a nice job of developing Jack’s dad and brother Tom as characters, foreshadowing the sorts of men they will be when Jack is an adult. Unfortunately his mother and sister Kate are both as one dimensional here as they are (based on what we know of them) in the adult books.

I imagine it will be more difficult to read the next two books and still believe Jack is a skeptic when he is an adult. On top of that, Wilson has written a second prequel series about Jack’s first years in New York that will likely add to that problem (while probably focusing on this supporting non-family characters in the adult books). As a standalone book this one is very fun however. Jack’s fix involving his friend Steve is as brilliant as anything he comes up with as an adult, and what we know of the mystery is enough to keep the reader anticipating the next adventure.

4-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

“Black Cross” by Greg Iles Review

Black Cross

Black Cross

Author:  Greg Iles

Published:  1995

This was another book I was loaned by a fellow reader I work with. I’ve only read a few war books in the last few years, but it’s a genre I tend to enjoy (one of my favorite books in particular is The Hunters by James Salter). The story is set in 1944, and the Germans are at war with the English and Russians. With an allied invasion seemingly imminent, Nazi scientists have put more focus on developing chemical weapons as a means to devastate the opposing forces. Because they are Nazis and this is during the holocaust, much of the chemical weapon testing is being done at concentration camps. After the allies become aware of the newest poison gases, they develop a plan to prevent the Nazis from using them. Two non-British subjects will sneak into the concentration camp producing the deadly gas, and complete a mission that wipes out everybody in the camp. The two men include an American pacifist chemist, and a German Jewish Israeli resistance fighter.

I enjoyed this book, but the further into it I got the more it reminded me of the 1996 film “The Rock.” In that film, a non-threat scientist and a total badass have to go rescue hostages from armed forces that possess deadly chemical gas. If you take that movie and put it in a Nazi German concentration camp setting, you’d got a pretty good idea of most of the plot beats in this book. You know the pacifist scientist will have to be contribute to the survival effort by the end of it, just like you have a pretty good idea of what outcome the insurance bombing run will have if their mission goes down to the wire. Likewise it’s not a spoiler to say that the two main characters, McConnell the scientist and Stern the muscle, will initially not like each other and come to a deep respect for one another.

While I enjoyed a lot of the main story, overall its predictability in character notes would have me giving this book a three overall. However, the book also has a separate subplot running through it from the perspective of a woman stuck in the concentration camp. When we first encounter Rachel, her husband is being shot and she and her two children under the age of 4 are stuck in a camp where children’s purpose is as test subjects for dangerous medical testing and women’s purpose seems to be as pawns for the Nazi soldiers to use as they see fit. I’ve found that since I’ve become a father a few years ago that stories involving children have a much stronger impact on me than they did before I had rugrats. Here the story of a woman doing anything possible to keep her two children safe in one of the deadliest situations in world history really got to me.

Also in the concentration camp are interesting figures like the Shoemaker and Ariel Weitz. The Shoemaker is one of the longest surviving prisoners at the camp, a man able to stay alive by blending in when needed, and fixing shoes for the soldiers on the side. Ariel Weitz is the Jewish prisoner willing to do anything the Nazis ask, even pulling the switch on the gas chambers and then prying gold teeth from the deceased, in exchange for more freedom throughout the camp. Iles does a great job of taking these two characters in surprising directions, making the stakes of Stern and McConnell’s mission feel much higher because of the stories within the camp.

There’s a saying that Nazis make the best movie villains, and here they are as evil as anything imaginable. The atrocities described in this book are such that there’s no person that could read them and sympathize with their actions and not be a monster his or her self. The main Nazi bad guys are a one eyed officer and a jealous sergeant who have a rivalry with each other for power within the camp. As the officer has an interest in Rachel, the sergeant uses her as his method for tormenting the officer. The top ranking official, a scientist named Brandt, is practically a ghost in the story just showing up as somebody that does terrible things to little children.

If you’re a reader that finds depictions of violent or deadly acts to women and children difficult to read, this is not the book for you. Although Iles doesn’t linger on any descriptions for too long, there are still dozens of scenes of despicable acts that occur or are remembered throughout the plot. The subject matter of the book seems to require it, and besides making me emotional a few times I thought if anything it added to the impact of the book. I was also loaned Iles other WWII book, which I’ll probably check out next, so that’s as good an indicator as any that I enjoyed this as 1200 pages in a row by any author is usually not my style.

4-star

“The Number of the Beast” by Robert A. Heinlein Review

Number of the Beast

The Number of the Beast

Author –  Robert A. Heinlein

Published – 1980

I read 80 books last year, and finished everyone of them. Ditto the year before. The year before that I gave up on an E.M. Forester book, and felt bad about it but I recognized about a hundred pages in that it just wasn’t a book I would end up enjoying. I made it 250 pages into this book before saying screw it, and that was just out of loyalty to this normally great author.

This book was awful (or at least through the halfway point). The book starts with two characters meeting each other and deciding to get married at a dance. Zeb and Deety are both brilliant, and they leave a party accompanied by Deety’s dad Jake and Aunt Hilda who also decide to get hitched. After an explosion meant for one of them, they all flee to A remote location in Zeb’s car and figure out that Jake has previously invented a method for travel across all dimensions of time and space. They hook it up to Zeb’s car and (after discovering it is a alien conspiracy trying to kill them) flee the planet to Mars, which may or may not be Barsoom from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels.

That sounds like a lot of action,but it probably took place over 10-15 pages, with the remainder of the first 250 going to such plots as Hilda and Deety both becoming pregnant after their first night on the run, Hilda and Zeb being encouraged to screw by Deety and her dad, Deety hinting that she’d get with her dad if he wanted her to, and Deety’s great breasts but terrible body odor if she doesn’t bathe twice a day.

The main conflict is who will captain their car on this trip, with none of the four wanting to and all of them taking way too seriously their chain of command. Nobody in this book read like a real person; instead they all seem like fantasies of gender roles made up by a 73 year old two generations ago. Apparently the group makes it to Oz and other fictional worlds later on, and frequent character Lazarus Long and Robert Heinlein himself make an appearance. No reward can be worth spending so long with these four bickering, unrealistic, characters in a stationary plot.

1-star

“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

“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