Category: General Fiction

“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

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“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

“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