Category: General Fiction

“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

“Birth of an American Gigolo” by Deek Rhew Review

Birth of an American Gigolo

Birth of an American Gigolo

Author: Deek Rhew

Published: 2016

I picked this book up at a convention in Raleigh where we spent some time chatting with the author and his wife (Erin Rhew, also an author). Both were very nice, so we decided to pick up a few of their books. I’m always a fan of people that not only write something for others to read, but go out there and publish it, promote it and try to sell it to the masses. This is a novella, at 111 pages it is a brisk read that you could definitely finish in one sitting. The book is told mainly via third person narrative from the perspective of Lindsey, a woman who learns that her husband has cheated on her. Instead of divorce or even straight forward revenge, Lindsey takes this situation as an opportunity that the reader follows along throughout the rest of the story. The book switches perspectives on two occasions, once to Dios (the handsome Peruvian man that Lindsey utilizes in her new venture) and once to Angel (a grocery store clerk who falls for Dios).

Without spoiling too much, the book features a pretty decent amount of sexuality. Both Lindsey’s immediate reaction and her long term plan all involve handsome younger men. My biggest problem with the book was that although the Rhew spends plenty of time on the sexual education of Dios, he glosses over much more of what could have been more interesting scenes in terms of Lindsey’s meeting with the sheriff, the recruitment of individuals in her binder, or even the special accounting arrangement of quid pro quo services. As a novella, it’s understandable that not everything will be described in detail; however the plot of the novella certainly seemed to offer plenty of opportunities for humorous or suspenseful scenes that Rhew has decided to skip in favor what’s instead present.

The characters in the book are also fairly shallow, with Lindsey and Dios both in the market for using others for their own personal gain, and Lindsey’s husband is fairly oblivious of his own faults. My favorite section of the book was where Angel falls for Dios but I never bought it as a situation that would require Lindsey’s intervention. Despite its faults, the story left me wanting more development and that’s always preferable to one that I’m just hoping for it to end. Rhew has found a story worth telling, based on that I’d try more of his work.

3-star

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi Review

Homegoing

Homegoing

Author:  Yaa Gyasi

Published:  2016

This is a tough book to review, which makes sense because it was also a difficult book to read. The story is similar to the short story collections by Alice Munro or Sherman Alexie where the chapters are very separate stories but they all connect to a central narrative. Here the book begins at two half sisters in the same area of Africa and follows each line of the family by focusing on one family member from each generation. The two initial chapters are about a girl whose family is part of the slave trade and a girl who is sent to America as a slave. The other chapters primarily alternate between Africa and America with a little crossover towards the end.

As an idea for a novel, it is very original and certainly memorable. I have a feeling many readers will find this an easy book to walk away from at times as the chapters are so unconnected that you lose a lot of the thrill of a page-turner novel. The endings of chapters aren’t cliffhangers, and there is never total resolution at the end of a chapter. If you want a book that leaves you constantly needing to know what’s on the next page, that’s not what you’re getting here.

The structure also leads to another inevitable problem, namely that the setting and characters in each story are so different that the reader will certainly be more invested in some stories than others. For the most part the only recurring themes are the unfairness of life and the sins of the past still harming the present. This isn’t a book that uplifts the reader either, as the vast majority of the chapters reveal the sad demise of the prior protagonist. One of the most sympathetic characters in the book is a lady that burns her two young daughters to death; it’s that sort of novel.

Despite all that, this is definitely a book that will appeal to some readers. For one, it’s an excellent version of the “family saga” genre of books. Instead of following the typical three generations, it follows about 7, via two separate trees. The unique style and setting also standout in the reading landscape. Gyasi brings a unique perspective to her work and already has a strong sense of narrative, quickly making characters that feel distinct from the ones you’ve already read. I’m giving the book four stars, but it’s a book that I enjoyed as much as a three star one while reading it but will likely remember better than some 5 star books a year from now.

**Note, I read this book based on a year end best of list by Goodreads super reviewer Emily May**

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

“The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus by David Anthony Durham Review

The Risen

The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus

Author:  David Anthony Durham

Published:  2016

This was the third book I received from the Brilliant Book of the Month Club, and it was by far the best. The Risen is a retelling of the story of Spartacus, historical fiction done in the style of Game of Thrones. I base the GOT comparisons on the rotating cast of perspective characters that Durham utilizes to tell this story. Unlike GOT however, The Risen avoids a lot of the tedium and pacing issues that have dogged George R.R. Martin’s more recent works.

One third of the way through, I was keeping a list of the characters and assigning an actor to each one just so I could keep them straight. Thankfully, between 300, Troy, Game of Thrones, and a host of other swords and sandals epics I had plenty of cool actors to populate the cast. The book is broken up into three sections, with (as best as I can tell) one chapter per each section devoted to each of the perspective characters. Unlike GOT, the characters are almost all on the side of Spartacus, with two exceptions: Nonus (a cowardly Roman who reminded me of Theon Greyjoy) and Kaleb (a slave to Spartacus’s main rival Crassus). The rest of the perspective characters include obvious choices like Spartacus and Castus, as well as more diverse individuals like Vectia (an elderly woman who serves as a guide), Sura (a priestess to Kotis) and Philon (a greek medic slave).

Whereas my initial interactions with some of the characters made them difficult to differentiate (Castus and Dolmos seemed particularly bland in the early going), Durham does a fantastic job of giving each character a distinct viewpoint, history and motivation for their actions going forward. Durham also does a great job of pacing his reveals within his chapters, generally by beginning each new chapter by jumping ahead in the action and then filling in the blanks in intervals throughout. When characters begin to betray each other, or fall during battle, the reader is often made to wait several pages to find out who is involved in the action. I’d find this to be a problem in a different book, but here the plot moves so quickly that it never felt like a trick.

I was also reminded of Brandon Sanderson while reading this book, as by the end of it I had a clear idea of the plotting that went into it by the author. Each character introduced was necessary to the plot and contributed to the narrative in an essential way. My favorite chapters ended up involving Kaleb (who served as a stand in for any of the millions of people who could have led to a different outcome for the Risen) and Dolmos (who reminded me of Ned Stark by the end of it). I’d recommend this book to any fans of historical fiction or fans of the Roman era in history.

5-star

“Hollywood Failure” by Will Phillips Review

Hollywood Failure

Hollywood Failure

Author:  Will Phillips

Published:  2014

I’ve mentioned my love of the website Kickstarter.com before, and Hollywood Failure is another book that we stumbled across on that site.  The author seemed funny enough in his video and indicated he had already written the book (which is usually the biggest hurdle to somebody self publishing) so we contributed some money to help his goal of publishing the book become a reality.  There’s a genre of books on Kickstarter that we (my wife and I) tend to avoid, and it’s life stories by people that aren’t famous and also don’t even lead particularly interesting lives.  It would probably be more accurate to describe this book as fitting into that genre, but had Phillips done that I know I would have skipped out on it and that would have been unfortunate because I enjoyed reading his debut work.  I’d recommend reading this book if the description sounds funny to you and then finishing this review because I’m going to give away a lot (although I do have some reservations about what audience would most enjoy it).

 **Spoilers from here on out, although the end of the book is given away on the Goodreads blurb**  Tom “The Fever” Seaver is a Production Assistant (PA for the cool kids) on an animated series where the head writer likes to shoehorn human voices onto animal characters.  Tom has goals though; not content to do bitch work for other people, he secretly aspires to writing his own comedy show.  I say secretly, because he goes about this by occasionally sucking up to writers on shows or mentioning a single script he’s worked on, not by actually trying to break into the writing field.  Throughout the book he’ll switch jobs, girlfriends and modes of transportation, all while staying the same basic person (“The Fever!”) throughout.

 Why am I assuming this is a mostly true story?  Well, the author seems to invite a little detective work by the not so subtle hiding of actor and tv show names.  The description of the first show Tom worked on obviously struck me as very Family Guy-esque.  His followup endeavor about a housewife who tries to become a rock star on the “Estrogen” network, didn’t ring any bells, but complaints about a cast member provide a description for an actor who could only be Richard Ruccolo had me checking his IMDB page and finding a show called “Rita Rocks” that matched the plot described by Phillips.  The amazing Internet movie database even lists Will Phillips as staff member, and his own IMDB page includes “Family Guy,” and two other project that Tom Seaver described working on, a CBS procedural (“Cold Case”) that got cancelled, and a web series about FBI agents (“Murder Squad”).  (Why not just search Will Phillips on IMDB?  Because there’s a ton of Will Phillips on there, damn you people with common names.)

 Am I assuming that the entire story is true based on the author choosing a setting he’s familiar with?  For the most part, yeah.  There’s a few other things that contribute to that feeling: the frequent allusions to Tom going by “The Fever” had me laughing that Will Phillips likely went by “The Thrill” growing up.  In the acknowledgements page Will mentioned having a twitter page, which I looked up afterwards and believe I’ve located (@The Thryll), and also thanked a girl named Kirsten (which is a common name) and of course there is a Kirsten that played a very important role in the story in his life.  It’s possibly that was a fake name, but I doubt it because Phillips has too much fun with the name in a very relatable way.  The gimmick car and Flair chop scene also seemed too ridiculous to be fiction, sadly for the author.

 I read a ton of books, and normally I don’t go snooping around like a detective afterward.  Honestly, that was a lot of the fun for me reading this book was getting a little gossip about barely recognizable entertainment industry figures (my money is on Ian Gomez being the kind of guy to donate a weekend to helping on a web project) and feeling like I had to earn the knowledge through some online sleuth work and my own knowledge of Hollywood.  That on it’s own would not be enough to recommend reading a 250 page novel however.

 The best aspect of this book for me was the humor.  Some of it was lowbrow, but it was proud in its juvenile humor.  Any book with an extended sequence on sharting will likely not appeal to 100% of the population, but not everything is meant for everybody.  There are also about 12 to 15 professional wrestling references, so a working knowledge of Ric Flair will also add to your enjoyment of the humor.  The sexual sequences were handled well.  I was reminded a bit of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby in the honest, self-deprecating manner they were addressed.  Some of the humor could be categorized as “bro humor,” where Tom can seem anti-gay or anti-woman depending on his anger, and his classification of Mexicans (while probably flattering) is certainly rooted firmly in stereotypes.

 The more frustrating aspects of the book are inherent in the plot (and likely the author).  Although Tom realizes his roadblocks are internal, he doesn’t overcome them.  In fact, Tom self-sabotages himself in his work, finances and relationships.  The two main arcs throughout the book are his work on a web series and his relationship with Gracie.  The situation described to the reader is that Tom could maintain and improve both of these and be happy (or at least happier) but chooses to collect unemployment and be single instead.  The climax of the book (if this sort of episodic storytelling can have one) is the end of his relationship with Gracie.  By the time Tom has lost all his money, ended another relationship and spent too long on a Pawn Stars fantasy that anybody with a brain knows will never pay off the reader is ready to check out and Phillips wisely does the same in a two page wrap up.

 For a self published book, the book was well edited (I only caught one word omitted around page 165) and a pleasant typeface.  The covers on every self published book I’ve ever read get a bit more warped than other books after reading and this was no exception.  Any hopes of more of a character arc would really be hoping for an entirely different book.  Instead of hoping for that, I appreciate the humor and series of humorous events in Hollywood Failure and found it an entertaining read.

4-star

“Doc” by Mary Doria Russell Review

Doc

Doc

Author:  Mary Doria Russell

Release Date:  2011

I’m continuing to review books given glowing recommendations by my favorite Goodreads reviewers. This installment features a recommendation by Kemper who wrote:

“The best read of the year came in the form of two books that made up one historical fiction which added a lot of humanity to legendary figures of the Old West. Doc and Epitaph from Mary Doria Russell were not only entertaining stories but had me thinking a lot about fact vs. fiction when it comes to American myths.”

After finishing Doc I am excited to find and read Epitaph as this was a very well written and engrossing read. I actually knew a lot about Doc Holliday prior to reading this. In addition to having seen a half dozen westerns that portrayed him, I’d read an actual biography about him Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend. As a result I had a pretty good idea of all of the historical details that make up the life of Doc, as well as the lack of resources available to verify the legend.

Before reading this book I was expecting a life story of the famous gunfighter but Russell wisely chooses to tell a story about his lesser known Dodge City days. The benefit of this is that the story can focus on humanizing Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate and Wyatt & Morgan Earp before they become “famous” individuals. Holliday’s battles in this book involve trying to establish a dental practice, a relationship with Kate and live with consumption. Wyatt Earp’s conflicts center on understanding cowtown politics, adjusting to new teeth and living with a woman. The main plot (which is only loosely a straight forward narrative) is driven by the mystery of the death of a former slave and his missing money.

The use of guns in this book is significantly less than one would expect from the list of characters and setting which makes any moment with action feel much more important by comparison. Again this was a wise choice by Russell as the characters all obviously make it out of Dodge and down to Tombstone, so relying on life and death conflicts would not have had the same stakes as with an all fictional cast. Russell substitutes that action with horse racing, card games and a fist fights, all of which Holliday and the Earps are more vulnerable to.

Much like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, the nature of this title also allows for some fun historical notes afterward by Russell that provide a Cliff notes biography of Holliday for those not looking to read a whole non-fiction book or wikipedia entry about. There is also a nice table of characters at the beginning to distinguish from the real people with those created for the novel. A cursory glance shows that Russell used her creative liberty to both populate her town with more diversity and create a villain that she could portray as evil without offending any descendants.

My only criticism of this book was a recurring structure of introducing a character with lots of historical background at the beginning of each chapter. For main characters I found this interesting enough but once the story got moving the frequent detours seemed to drag the story more than they provided benefit in the form of context. I generally try to avoid plot spoilers or reading the backs of books ahead of time, so I look forward to finding out who or what exactly Epitaph is about.

4-star