Category: General Fiction

“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

“Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier” by Mark Frost Review

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks:  The Final Dossier

Author:  Mark Frost

Published:  2017

Here’s a book that has to have one of the smallest possible audiences likely to find it entertaining. Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier is a collection of FBI files assembled by fictional character Tammy Preston on other characters from the Twin Peaks tv series. It is written by Mark Frost, who is one half of the creative team behind Twin Peaks, along with David Lynch. Instead of telling a complete story, it is a very quick read of fill in the blank details for one character’s theories of what exactly is going on in Twin Peaks (the town) and a few details on what the characters were doing when not on screen. So to rundown: if you haven’t seen all of Twin Peaks, this isn’t for you. If you prefer your Twin Peaks to be as mysterious as David Lynch left it, or if you are David Lynch, this isn’t for you. Also, if you are not a fan of spending a good deal of cash on a book you can read in about 90 minutes, this might not be for you.

I’m giving this five stars however, so obviously this book is for some people. A little about my thoughts on Twin Peaks. The first two seasons of Twin Peaks were some of the most original and engrossing television I’d ever watched. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was an initial disappointment that revealed itself as an amazing movie on rewatch. Finally, the new series Twin Peaks: The Return was the best television I’ve watched since Justified went off the air (and something I gladly would watch ahead of Game of Thrones this season) and then dig into articles and podcasts the next day to try and dissect what I had just watched.

The Return was the kind of series I needed to talk about with anybody I could find that watched it, which sadly was not enough people. The idea of getting more details on what’s been going on in the world of the show is very appealing, and my only complaints with this book are that I wish it was longer (and had more photos). Tammy Preston basically serves as a mechanism for Mark Frost to decode or theorize on all of the David Lynch oddities, from the Black Lodge to time travel and doppelgangers. The chapters on Major Briggs, Donna Hayward, Annie Blackburn and Audrey Horne all gave significant new information on the characters than what is revealed in The Return. Other characters like Wyndom Earle, Philip Jeffries and Laura Palmer provide less details but plenty of theorizing on what it all means.

Part of what makes Twin Peaks so fun is that the answers aren’t all provided on the show, so the viewer is constantly both challenged to come up with their own conclusions and also forced to experience the show without expectations as to what will happen next. Those same attributes make it a perfect candidate for analysis and expanded universe style writing. Although this is “Final” Dossier, I’d gladly come back for followups in this format in the future. Highly recommended for fans of the show.

5-star

“The Terranauts” by T.C. Boyle Review

Terranauts

The Terranauts

Author:  T.C. Boyle

Released:  2016

The Terranauts was the final book I received from by Brilliant Books Book of the Month Club membership. This was a story taking place in the early 1990’s where 8 people have volunteered to be confined in a biodome for two years as part of an experiment, four men and four women. The book follows three people: Dawn, a woman inside the dome, Ramsay, a man inside the dome, and Linda, a woman who missed the cut and must watch from outside in hopes of getting in two years later. The story starts out as the eight finalists are selected for entering the Ecosphere (E2 as the Terranauts call it), and primarily takes place during those two years, with a few pages dedicated to the transition after the two year period.

In addition to the three main characters, there are a few supporting characters that help populate the book. Inside the dome are characters likes Gyro (the nerdy guy obsessed with Dawn), Gretchen (the awkward woman attracted to Ramsay, Richard (the doctor who has to deal with the repercussions of other Terranauts situations), and Stevie (the attractive but shallow marine biologist). Outside the dome there’s Johnny (Dawn’s boyfriend at the time she enters the biodome), Jeremiah (aka God the Creator, the man who invented E2), Judy (or Judith a woman who is romantically involved with both Ramsay and G2).

The people inside the dome are celebrities in this book because of their groundbreaking experiment, and the repercussions of all of their decisions on the other Terranauts and the mission overall amplify the importance of all their actions. The 1990’s setting didn’t add a lot to the book except for some fun pop culture references throughout. I imagine it was set in a pre-internet/cell phone era in order to amp up the isolation of the Terranauts as well as how groundbreaking an experiment like this is.

I enjoyed the characters in this book, as Dawn and Ramsay reminded me of the actors Isla Fisher and Jake Johnson and I had fun picturing them as I read the story. Linda reminded me of Charlene Yi, and provided at times a jealous antagonist and at others a sympathetic protagonist. This felt like a book I should love, and although I really did enjoy it I also think the author foreshadowed a momentous and violent ending but ended up telling a much more grounded story. On it’s own that’d be fine, but with each point of view character telling the story from the future the ending felt out of line with what had been set up earlier. That complaint aside though this was an enjoyable book that I’m glad I read.

Overall I’d rate the 6 books I received from the Book of the month club (it was a bi-monthly membership) as follows:

1. The Risen by David Anthony Durham
2. The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle
3. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
4. The Fortress at the End of Time by J.M. McDermott
5. Age of Assasins by R.J. Barker
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

4-star

“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

“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