Category: General Fiction

“Camino Island” by John Grisham Review

Camino Island

Camino Island

Author:  John Grisham

Released:  2017

I was loaned this book by another reader at work (the same guy that loaned me The Late Show). This is the first book I’ve read by John Grisham. Besides my preexisting prejudice towards authors I can find in the book aisle of my local supermarket, I’d also always avoided Grisham because as a lawyer I prefer to read to escape the crap of my everyday work life and Grisham is best known for his legal thrillers. When I was in law school I got into comics (a form of entertainment I always enjoyed) more than ever, just because I was so sick of reading legal precedents and case law and it was the furthest thing I could find from law writing. Now that I’ve been a practicing attorney for several years, I went ahead and took the Grisham plunge and to my surprise there were barely even any attorneys in this book, with the first ones showing up around page 265 of 286.

Instead Camino Island tells the stories of an art thief, a struggling writer and a successful independent book store owner all told in a style reminiscent of “The Thomas Crown Affair.” I thought of that film several times while reading this, as the plot and characters are fairly similar between that film and this book, and this book is written in a quick cinematic manner. In both that film and this book, a priceless work of art is taken and the man in possession of the art is a suave, respected business man. A beautiful woman then devises a plan of getting close to the man in question to find the stolen work of art and recover it so her company can avoid paying out a large sum of cash in insurance money. Instead of the Rene Russo character directly pursuing the Pierce Brosnan character, here a third character is introduced in the form on a young, attractive struggling writer who is specifically recruited to get close to the man believed to possess the art.

Bruce Cable is the Piece Brosnan analogue in this book, an independent book store owner who hosts frequent author signings and is known to romance attractive female authors in the tower of his amazing estate. He’s married to Noelle, a beautiful French antiques dealer, and the two have an open relationship that encourages either to pursue their sexual appetites, discreetly. Instead of a painting, the stolen art is the original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts for his first five novels, taken during an exciting prologue set in the Princeton Library. In order to determine if Cable possesses these books, or to locate and recover them, the insurance company recruits a young author named Mercer who grew up near the book shop to return to Camino Island under the guise of a summer getaway to write a long overdue follow-up novel to her initial modest success.

There were several small things about this book that appealed particularly to me that might not as much to other readers. The first is that I attempted to buy a book store a few years back and went through a few of the same steps as Bruce in this book, and found that portion of the story (early chapters detailing his biography) to be very fun and relatable to my own experience. There was also a lot of lines discussing famous authors, and setting out ground rules for writing stories, and that’s the sort of meta commentary that I tend to get a kick out of. Finally, I tend to cast actors in my mind for most books as I’m reading them, and as already stated this book felt so much like a movie that I pretty much visualized and enjoyed a new film starring Timothy Olyphant and Alexis Bledel in my mind while reading this.

The book is certainly not perfect. The story is very familiar and the characters are all closer to clichés than original, memorable characters. The character of the art thief almost seems to have been shoehorned in as an afterthought. Anybody seeking a compelling story and exciting resolution for his plot line will end up disappointed. All that being said, I could come up with similar arguments for movies I really enjoy (what exactly does Luke stand for in “Cool Hand Luke,” how was it so easy for Sean Connery to sneak off at the end of “The Rock”).

This isn’t the sort of book you get worked up about the shortcomings. I suspect a quick reader will finish this in a few hours, and will likely come away with some affection for the suave bookseller who is living the life of a millionaire playboy, complete with beautiful women at his beck and call. It’s unrealistic, underdeveloped, and slightly misogynist, but it also feels harmless and most importantly fun.

4-star

Advertisements

“Age of Assassins” by R.J. Barker Review

Age of Assasins

Age of Assassins

Author:  R.J. Barker

Released:  2017

This was the fifth book I received as part of my Briliant Book of the Month Club. There has been a nice variety of genres so far, with dystopian, historical, general, and science fiction all represented, and this book is a fantasy novel. Age of Assassins by R.J. Barker takes place in a feudal fantasy setting where there are Kings and Queens and the most technologically advanced weapon is probably the crossbolt. The society is a magic fearing world where there are classes of people (Blessed or not Blessed), as well as professions with secrets, traditions. and skills such as Jesters, Priests and of course Assassins.

Here, Girton is the main character, a teenage apprentice assassin who is roped into a seemingly impossible mission of finding out (along with his master) who is trying to have the heir to the throne killed. The trouble being that the queen and the heir are both terrible people that right away the assassins figure out are likely to be wanted dead by everybody in the kingdom for various reasons. Girton poses as a squire, playing up the character by pretending to be helpless with a blade. Girton’s defining physical trait is a clubfoot which causes others to underestimate him (and during flashbacks for him to underestimate himself), however his master has trained him to be as deadly an assassin as exists anywhere in the land.

Throughout the investigation, Girton discovers two rival factions for the throne, a pretty stable girl who seems to be interested in Girton, a friend that appears unremarkable but who is wanted dead by those in high places, a king that is being poisoned and several high ranking officials in the government that all have secrets that must be discovered. The story format tends to be Girton spending a day doing his part and then meeting with his master at the end of the day to share what he has learned (his master typically doesn’t share much beyond “don’t rule him out,” or “find out what his angle is.”). Interspersed are several flashbacks to Girton’s purchase out of servitude and his beginning training as an assassin.

I read just about every genre, fantasy included. I tend to prefer science fiction though, because the tropes of fantasy while fun often end up feeling formulaic and predictable. Although I didn’t see any elves or swords of destiny in this book, there were still several elements that felt overly familiar that took away from my enjoyment. **Spoilers follow** The society that hates and fears magic is pretty standard, but having the protagonist possess secret magic powers that go far beyond anything her master has seen before felt like a revelation that didn’t add anything to this book in terms of the plot. Also pretty much every character that was introduced ended up playing into the conspiracy revealed at the end of the book; the lack of red herrings seemed to cheapen the overall mystery. **End of spoilers** At just under 400 pages, the plot moves along quickly enough, however the end reveal and climactic battle seemed particularly rushed, with a two page epilogue on the end that felt out of place and did nothing to interest me in reading more in the series.

Despite those complaints, the book did several things very well. There was a nice balance of male and female characters in different roles that I think any reader can find somebody they either identify with or find interesting enough to read more about. (Barker also does a nice job of making random character the opposite genre than what you would probably expect). The “mounts” that the soldiers ride are also an interesting creation, such that I was picturing a cross between an elk and a griffon. The end result was a pleasant enough but ultimately very forgettable adventure.

3-star

“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky Review

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment

Author:  Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translator:  Larissa Volokhonsky

Released:  1866

I don’t reread a lot of books. Typically if I read a book more than once it’s because it’s a book I loved as a kid and haven’t read in years, or it’s a graphic novel that I love (Watchmen, Dark Phoenix Saga or Savage Dragon back issues most come to mind). The first time I read Crime and Punishment was my senior year in high school as part of a class assignment for a class called “Novels.” The class was just what it sounds like; we would read a certain number of pages every night and discuss the previous reading in class the next day. Other books we read for that class included: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, O Pioneers!, The Grapes of Wrath, and David Copperfield. I loved three of these books, liked one and didn’t care for the other, so overall it was a pretty rewarding class.

Fifteen years later, my wife needed a book to fill a slot in her current reading challenge and got the audiobook version ofCrime and Punishment so I figured I’d revisit this book that I really enjoyed in a different format. In a normal year I’ll read about 50-80 books, and I started reviewing them awhile back just because I have trouble remembering the plots on a lot of the books shortly after reading them if they’re not fantastic. Maybe it’s because this was a book that was discussed in the Socratic method for a month, or because I really enjoyed it, but for whatever reason I remembered this book fairly well even before starting it for a reread.

**Plot spoilers follow**

Boiled down to a sentence, Crime and Punishment is the story of a student who kills an old woman and then slowly unravels in his social world. I remembered that plot, but I also had some pretty strong recollections of Raskolnikov’s (the student) theories about the right of some great men to commit crimes, and his subsequent delusions and familial crisis. Subplots involving Raskolnikov’s fixation on a young woman he meets and his friend Razumiknin’s relationship with Dunya (Raskolnikov’s sister) similarly left their imprint on me. Oddly, there were two major plot points that I totally forgot about until rereading. First was that Raskolnikov actually killed two women, as the first victim’s sister shows up during the incident. Second, perhaps the most interesting character in the book is Svidrigailov, the only man who has figured out Raskolnikov’s secret and attempts to elicit a confession.

It was easy to see why I forgot about the second murder, as even throughout this book that victim is treated as more of an afterthought to the death of the wealthy landlord. I’m not sure why I had so little recollection of Svidrigailov’s story arc, as on this reread it was by far my favorite arc in the story. Svidrigailov and Luzhin (Dunya’s fiancé) are the two closest things to an antagonist in this novel, along with Raskolnikov’s own conscience. Both are motivated at times by their attraction to Dunya, though Luzhin’s villainy is more apparent early on and Svidrigailov’s character faults are discovered more slowly. The dynamic is a big part of what makes this such an amazing read, as the protagonist of the book is a repugnant murderer and the antagonists are very flawed men with their own selfish motivations. The fact that everybody gets their own retribution by the end is very satisfying as well.

**End of spoilers**

Doestovsky’s writing style is a combination of play writing and psycho-drama. Every scene in this book could be done on a play stage with probably 5 or fewer people having speaking parts on a stage. However, it’s also written in a manner that would not be interesting to watch as a play, as the dialogue is very long and analytical. The simplicity of this style was more successful for me as a prose novel than as an audiobook, where hearing somebody read these long exchanges could at times sound more inauthentic than in creating the conversation in your head.

Overall I ended up still enjoying the things I liked the first time I read this book, and coming away with even more appreciation for a lot of stuff that I forgot about. As much as I enjoy reading, the thrill of reading a new book and hoping to discover something amazing was rarely as rewarding as revisiting this good read and discovering even more to love than I’d known about before. I can already see myself trying to work a re-read into my current reading schedules based on this experience. For those that enjoyed this book, I would also recommend The Idiot. I read that book, The Brothers Karamazov, and Notes From the Underground based on my enjoyment of this book previously, and felt that The Idiot was just about equally enjoyable to this work.

5-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

“We Are the Ants” by Shaun David Hutchinson Review

We Are the Ants

We Are the Ants

Author:  Shaun David Hutchinson

Released: 2016

This is another book I read based on a year end recommendation of best books read by a Goodreads reviewer. The reviewer in this instance was the always entertaining Emily May, who picked this as her best science fiction read from last year (I went out in early January and bought a stack of books that reviewers picked as their favorites from the prior year… I think I’ve got 1 or 2 left that I’ll hopefully finish before the Best of 2017 lists start).

We Are the Ants is a young adult story about a teenage boy who is heartbroken because he no longer has a romantic partner, and slowly falls in love with the mysterious new transfer student. In its simplest terms, that’s a basic/familar story. The Killers have just released a new song called “Have All the Songs Been Written,” and sometimes I feel like that’s a common enough worry with books, films, music, etc. that every idea has been explored at this point. It’s wrong of course. Hutchinson shows how even a common idea for a story arc can be explored in very unique ways.

What makes this book so different? For starters, the protagonist (Henry) has some interesting problems beyond the typical young adult lead. Right off the bat, we learn that he is frequently abducted by aliens who keep him for various lengths of time before releasing him back to his home town in different locations with little or no clothing on. His lost love died via suicide. His home includes a sadist brother, a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, and a mom that seems to be hanging on by a thread.

The protagonist is also gay in this book. I say it as kind of an afterthought, because it’s not really an issue for him but it certainly stands out in terms of the normal lead characters in the genre. For all of the reasons that Henry is abused by his classmates and brother, his sexuality is not one of them. There are a few closeted characters in the novel, but even they don’t seem motivated in their actions by any worry about what other people will think about them being gay. The end result is a nice accomplishment in terms of “why can’t I see this type of person represented in this type of story.” I would describe this book as a story with science fiction elements that primarily deals with grief that happens to have a gay protagonist.

Overall I really enjoyed this book, but I also groaned several times because of the defeatist attitude of the protagonist. Henry is a character that will look for any chance to find a reason to be sad. His former boyfriend, Jesse, is deceased when the book begins but is probably the second most frequently discussed character, easily rivaling Diego, Henry’s possible new love interest. I get that so much of this book is about how questions go unanswered (Henry frequently tries to understand why Jesse killed himself and why his dad left their family), but it was difficult to root for a character that sees himself as a doormat. Henry has people that obviously care about him to varying degrees (his best friend Audrey, new friend Diego, his mom, brother, his brother’s girlfriend Zooey, his teacher Ms. Feraci, even the sadistic bully Marcus), but rather than talk to any of them about how to improve his situation he either wants to discuss how awful it is that Jesse’s gone or internalize his grief into reasons he wants the world to end.

The world ending and the alien abduction technically make this a science fiction story, but if you are coming to this book wanting a science fiction story you’ll probably be disappointed. However, if you settle in for a tale about grief and teenage drama, there’s an engrossing story and a quick read that’s pretty rewarding.

“Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters Review

Underground Airlines

Underground Airlines

Author:  Ben H. Winters

Published:  2016

I got this book as part of my Brilliant Books “Book of the Month Club.” For the first time, I’ve received a book I’d actually been aware of by reputation, as this book has been mentioned in several publications as a point of reference for discussing an in development HBO show also about an alternative history where slavery was never abolished. That show is causing many to voice their opinions on the merits of fiction focusing on alternate histories that White Supremacists might enjoy.

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I’m firmly against censorship of thought, so as a rule I think any story can be worth telling. I understand the concerns that certain viewers/readers will take away the wrong things from certain controversial subject matter, but I think in most cases the authorial intent and execution are the only worthwhile basis for criticizing artwork, not what some a-holes make of it afterwards. That being the case, I went into this book open minded and hopeful that it would be an enjoyable story.

As for the book itself, it mostly delivered but also felt like a missed opportunity. This was a quick read and features about 2/3 of the book in the free state of Indiana and the other 1/3 in a southern slave state, all told through the first person perspective. The main character is an escaped slave who is caught and given the choice to be killed or sold back into slavery or to work for the U.S. Marshalls catching other escaped slaves. The book focuses on his assignment to catch a recent escapee named Jackdaw who has made it to Indiana using the famous “Underground Airlines” although early on the protagonist begins noticing things that don’t add up in his investigation. Along the way there is also a subplot with a white woman and her mixed race son who have their own adjacent mission and secrets.

I called this book a missed opportunity because it reads like a mystery novella but consistently feels like a story that would benefit from a more extensive examination. On the micro level, the mystery is solved fairly quickly, but the bigger issue is Victor (the main character who goes by many names) is not developed as somebody that all these racist white people would need to solve their problems. How did he become the only man for such an important/sensitive mission. There are some flashbacks included in this story, but all they do is provide reasons why Victor would not be trusted for this. These issues are probably fair to complain about, as it’s the story Winters wants to tell and I was left with doubts and questions at its conclusion.

Less fair to complain about are the details on the macro level, but I’ll do it anyway. Winters details some variations in U.S. history (Lincoln’s assassination prior to taking office, a compromise that allowed for continued Slavery) but basically leaves the period between 1860 and present day a mystery with a few exceptions (some references to still bombing Japan in WWII, another war for Texas independence, and several famous African Americans now living in Canada). While Winters decided to keep this an intimate story about one man’s internal conflict and mission, as a reader I was left with a million questions I would have rather had answered regarding what happened to famous people/events during this fictional timeline.

The ending of this book provided a few twists that were not easy to see coming, though it was mainly due to very little time being spent with the characters that provide them. Still, this is definitely a book that was memorable enough and different enough from other stories that I’m glad I read it. It made me think of American history and how I would expect things to diverge compared to the author’s version, and it also lined up nicely with the James Buchanan biography I was finishing at the same time which dealt with the exact diverging time period. However, my biggest takeaway was that of a missed opportunity to do so much more with a very interesting subject than what was actually delivered.

**Note – I gained some additional enjoyment of this book from it taking place in Indianapolis and mentioning landmarks that I’ve seen or traveled on. Non-Hoosiers may find it less interesting by comparison.**

3-star

“Shadows of the Flame” by Lydia C. Golden Review

Shadow of the FlameShadows of the Flame

Author – Lydia C. Golden

Published – 2008

I picked this book up last month at the Raleigh Super Con. Down in the artist alley section they had a ton of tables set up with independent comic artists and writers, as well as several prose authors. The author was selling books and gave me a pitch about a girl who is training with an assassin and it may have regrets about what she signed up for. That was good enough for me, and I picked up a copy and put it near the top of my reading list. Imagine my surprise at adding it on Goodreads and seeing the book was published in 2008 and (as of this writing) only had three readers. I got the impression she was doing ok selling books at the convention so hopefully the number of copies in circulation starts going up and some additional scores and reviews accompany them.

Shadows of the Flame feels like two separate books, and also feels like the first book in a series that would require at least three books at the current pacing to wrap up the story. Fauna is a young child and the last survivor of a village massacre and decides to pledge herself to the assassin Sarrak until she is 15, doing whatever he requires of her in exchange for learning the skills that will allow her to get vengeance. The first half of the book mainly follows these two characters and tells a very engrossing story that has the reader hopeful that Fauna will develop into a fantasy heroine under Sarrak’s expert tutelage, but also cautious that Sarrak will destroy who Fauna is in the process. The first time the cast increases it brings in a female mentor for Fauna, but likely not in the manner the reader will expect.

The familiar tropes of the fantasy genre are all present, including the use of magic, prejudiced villagers, and mysterious other races. Despite the tropes, the plot was not predictable, which ends up being its greatest attribute and Achilles heel all wrapped into one. As a stand alone book, the story takes turns that don’t follow the course set out by the initial action, and the end of the book is nowhere near the end of several characters stories. Around the halfway point, the plot gets away from Sarrak and Fauna, and instead follows several different characters. There’s a former prison guard, whose life is ruined after the death of a loved one. There’s the handmaiden and her soldier boyfriend who get wrapped up in palace intrigue. There’s the three palace guards who get wrapped up into another story, and then split off. There’s the stable boy who works in the town. There’s the traveling salesman who is looking for love. One of the characters is possibly a murderer.

That’s enough side action for an 800 page novel or for a book series. With this being a stand alone book at 444 pages, the result is that some of the plots gets shelved or incomplete resolutions at the end. While I loved the first half of the book, the second half was enjoyable but also frustrating. The side stories ranged in quality, none of them as interesting as Sarrak and Fauna. The culmination of Thomas and Jocelyn’s story was as exciting as anything in the book and serves as the actual climax. On the opposite side was a plot about a character taking over a smuggling ring that did not pull me in with its central character who was never developed enough to feel credible as a worthy or deadly protagonist.

Overall I’d give the first half of the book Five stars and the second half 3 stars, so I’ve averaged it out here to a four. I think I would appreciate this book more if I knew a sequel was being released because the unfinished story lines certainly detract from my enthusiasm for rereading or recommending to others. The writing here is good. Golden does a great job of building suspense and creating atmosphere without wasting words on excessive description. With any independent book I tend to be critical of editing/publication. I only caught one typo reading this (a wrong instance of you’re vs your), and the font was easy enough to read. The cover did suffer from the frequent self published flaws of becoming easily bent while reading (and could probably use a sprucing up in the graphic design department). I just hope that if Ms. Golden does write a sequel to this (or additional fantasy) that I find out about it so I can read further in the series.

4-star