Category: Book Series

“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

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“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

“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