Category: 3 Barrels

“Sharpe’s Christmas” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Christmas

Sharpe’s Christmas

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Published:  1994

Sharpe’s Christmas is a short story that takes place afterSharpe’s Regiment, where the British infantry is entrenched in France after years of fighting in Spain and Portugal. Coming up on Christmas day, Sharpe is tasked with preventing French forces from traveling through a stretch of road, which of course ends up bringing two forces on either side of Sharpe, with neither knowing how many troops he has.

Much like in Sharpe’s Skirmish, here Sharpe utilizes a clever booby trap to gain the upper hand replacing the more extensive military maneuvering found in the full length novels. With a shortened page count, Sharpe’s romantic exploits are noticeably absent. As Cornwell has recently written the prequel India novels prior to writing this story, he decides to bring back the French Colonel that Sharpe got along well with in India for this story. The reintroduction of the character was fine, and it lent itself well to maneuvering a circumstance where Sharpe would show some Christmas spirit during war time, but the method by which the reader was reintroduced to the character (both Sharpe and the Colonel reminisce about each other for the first time in years prior to running into each other) was very clunky.

Beyond that there wasn’t anything too necessary to the greater Sharpe mythos here. Sharpe had an opportunity to capture a second French Eagle, his Ensigns continue their reign as the Spinal Tap drummer or Star Trek redshirts of the crew, and the rifle regiment is able to intimidate the smooth bore French musketeers superior numbers and will survive to march again.

3-star

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“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

“Misery” by Stephen King Review

Misery

Misery

Author:  Stephen King

Released:  1987

**Spoilers for Halloween H20 follow (seriously)**

This will seem random, but upon finishing Misery I was reminded of the film Halloween H20. Halloween H20 was a pretty successful entry in the Halloween series (and the slasher genre). The film brought back Jamie Lee Curtis, and featured hot young actors like Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams and LL Cool J, and was overall a pretty slick installment. When I think of the movie, the first thing that comes to mind is always Jodi Lyn O’Keefe’s confrontation with Michael Myers. During the course of the altercation, O’Keefe’s character gets her leg cut, then savagely mangled by a dumbwaiter, then stabbed multiple times, before finally being hanged/displayed. It was by far the most memorable scene in the movie because it was intense, gruesome, and very scary. It is also memorable because hardly anybody else dies in the movie (if you’re a recognizable actor, odds are you survived until the credits on this film).

Compare Halloween H20 with a film like Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Once you get past the (awesome) opening where Jason is inadvertently resurrected via a bolt of lighting, Jason goes on a prolific killing spree, with sixteen victims overall. Rather than one memorable death scene, the film features such classics as Jason decapitating three guys with one machete swipe, impaling another couple on the same pike, using broken bottles as a stabbing implement and several other original kills. I’ve rewatched it at least a dozen times, and would regularly include it on my list of favorite slasher films, a list that H20 would never make it on.

If you ask the average viewer, or even a hardcore horror fan which film is “better,” you’re likely to get an even split. Rotten Tomatoes gives Jason Lives the edge at 52% to 51%, and that feels about right with my own experience of discussing films in this genre. Current trends in horror films probably have more people preferring the Halloween H20 version, as films like Saw or Hostel tend to focus on the lengthy agony of one person rather than the quick hitting fatalities of many.

That’s a long winded way of say that Misery is a good book that I didn’t care for. It’s well written, it has characters that feel like real people (having famous people play them in a movie helps that), and it really specializes in bringing the pain on one person in particular. Around the time the torture in this book really escalates from psychological to physical, I stopped enjoying this book. Despite not being a very long read, spending page after page with a protagonist in pain and an antagonist who pops in to sometimes cut off his body parts was way less enjoyable than King’s other books with larger casts that I’ve read.

Even with the single victim being tortured for a novel concept, there was so much about this book I really enjoyed. For starters, books about writers tend to feel so authentic because the author obviously knows what he’s talking about. Here I got a sense that many of Paul’s fears, beliefs and idiosyncrasies could very well have been true to King’s actual self. The idea of the book is great, with a crazy fan forcing somebody to create something just for her. That fan, Annie, is one of the best villains I’ve read in a book. King not only creates a consistent personality for her, but he also wrote a terrifying backstory (the Dragon Lady in the nursery ward!) and enough physical tics that I think I would have visualized somebody like Kathy Bates in my mind even without ever seeing the movie.

The problem is that no matter how well made a book or movie is, and how great the characters are, as a viewer or reader reacting to the end product my actual enjoyment is still important. I don’t need to like characters in a book to enjoy it, or for there to be a happy ending, but I do want to enjoy reading it or else I should be spending my time doing something else. At times I actively dreaded reading more of Misery, not because it was scary, but because it was such an unpleasant situation to return to. Annie and Paul both had to know what happened at the end of the book, I was just relieved to get there.

3-star

“Invincible Vol. 24: The End of All Things (Part 1)” by Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley

Invincible 24

Invincible Vol. 24: The End of All Things (Part One)

Writer:  Robert Kirkman

Artists:  Ryan Ottley

Released:  2017

One of my favorite ongoing comic series is coming to an end. I assume this is the Penultimate Volume of the series, as I know the ongoing series is ending and the title is “The End of all Things: Part 1.” This installment is coming off one of my absolute favorites in the entire series, and it’s obviously setting up the final conclusion so it read as a bit of a letdown compared to what’s come before or will likely come afterwards.

**Spoilers for Invincible up until this point**

The main conflict in this volume arises out of Mark’s grief for the death of a family member in the last installment, and his subsequent return to the conflict against Thragg and the conquering Viltrumites. Along with Atom Eve, he enlists Allen, his dad, Space Racer and a female alien whose name I don’t remember to come up with a plan to combat Thragg. The plan is clever in drawing all the other big Invincible characters back into the story prior to the big conclusion, however it is also pretty hard to believe Mark would be willing to risk the battleground becoming the one he ends up selecting.

Another installment, another (apparent at this point) major character death, however along with Mark’s prior relative, this one was pretty predictable in terms of casualties (let’s just say it’s a fairly superheroic cliche at this point). The most interesting parts of the story going on at the moment are Thragg’s daughter’s reluctance to blindly follow him, and Robot’s dual plans involving Viltrumite children and getting involved with the space conflict. I’ve been wondering how our heroes would deal with the seeming thousands of Viltrumites when every one that they’ve encountered on their own has been a match for everybody except for Mark, and this volume explains it away in not entirely satisfying manner. Basically, Thragg’s offspring are not fully powered up, so they’re easier to kill in hand to hand combat.

I’m focusing on the negative here, because the rest of the story has been so wonderful for fifteen years now that I’m very eager to see how Kirkman decides to end it. At this point, even a total dud or ambiguous ending won’t take this one off my list of great series to reread or recommend to others. Grading the series as a whole, it’s one of the bests. Grading just this installment, this was just OK.

3-star

“The Angel Chronicles, Vol. 1” by Nancy Holder Review

Angel Chronicles 1

The Angel Chronicles Vol. 1

Author:  Nancy Holder

Released:  1998

There are a set of Buffy novelizations that are coming up in my reading order that focus on one of the supporting characters in the Scooby gang. Each book selects a few episodes that feature the chosen character prominently and do a novelization of those episodes. The Angel Chronicles is obviously about Angel and featured a two paragraph framing device prior to the first episode and another one after the final one that didn’t add anything to the story but served to remind the reader that they had indeed just read a book of stories about Angel.

The three episodes revisited in this book are “Angel,” “Reptile Boy,” and “Lie to Me.” I recalled the first two pretty well by their titles just from having watched the series a few times, but the third one didn’t ring any bells until I got to the club of vampire wannabes. As far as episode quality, none are among the best episodes of the series, although “Angel” is certainly one of the more important ones.

In “Angel,” Buffy learns that her mysterious and charming admirer is actually a vampire and the two of them must confront Darla in an abandoned Bronze shootout (this was a first season episode where I imagine budgetary constraints led all fights to taking place in the Bronze). For me the most memorable part of the episode is the crucifix kiss at the end which was nicely detailed in the book. “Reptile Boy” was a fun episode about Buffy and Cordelia being sacrificed to a demon at a frat party, and more than either of the other stories benefitted from this treatment but not for anything Angel related. Here Xander’s jealousy and scheming at the end play well in a prose format. “Lie to Me,” is about an old friend of Buffy’s reappearance and a club of people interested in becoming vampires. As a written story, this one felt the most rushed and the opening scene of Angel and Drusilla is never explained and is an odd story to end the book on.

My biggest problem with this book is that the format seems like such a missed opportunity. If they were going to do quick novelizations all dedicated to one character, more space devoted to that character’s perspective on the events would have been appreciated. The episodes selected range from the episode 7 of season one to episode 7 of season two (13 episodes in between). As a reader it’s a bit jarring to have Buffy fall in love with a guy who lies to her in story one, then won’t go out with her in story two, then is seen kissing another girl in story three, at which point Buffy then decides she loves him. I suspect my enjoyment of these books will depend a lot on the quality of the episode being revisited, but overall I’m not expecting any of these to serve as standouts in the history of Buffy prose novels.

3-star

“Thinner” by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) Review

Thinner

Thinner

Author:  Steven King

Released:  1984

Along with ChristineThinner is the Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) book whose concept made me think “he’s scraping the bottom of the barrel with that.” Well before reading the book, I felt like I had enough an idea of how this book would go and that I’d never need to read it. However, at some point I thought it would be fun to read all of King’s work, so I didn’t end up skipping over this one. The fact that Christine ended up being a very pleasant surprise probably got my hopes up too much for this one, because indeed, this is just a book about a fat guy who gets cursed and loses weight throughout the book.

Ok, so there’s a LITTLE more plot than that, but not much. The fat guy is an attorney named William who was getting a handjob from his wife when an old gypsy woman jaywalked into his car’s path. Most likely, if the driver wasn’t being serviced, or if the gypsy wasn’t jaywalking, or if any other tiny detail were changed the accident would have been avoided. But, it happened, and the officers that showed up didn’t really investigate it, and the judge ends up throwing the case out, and everybody just wants the Gypsies to leave town and the incident to be forgotten.

For the Gypsies however, there is no forgiveness, no chance of it being forgotten. As the protagonist finds himself losing weight a few lbs a day, the sheriff finds his face erupting into boils and severe acne, and the judge develops an interesting skin condition (that probably would have led to a more interesting story than this one if King switched the pages to character ratio). The villain is certainly fun here; a 100+ year old Gypsy, stubborn as can be, and his traveling carny relatives were much more memorable than anything else in the story.

In order to stretch this idea out into novel length, King spends a lot of time on tracking the gypsies from town to town over the course of a few weeks. This section of the book really tested my interest, as there’s only so many times you can read about other people cringing and walking away from the sickly stranger in town before wanting to walk away and read about literally anything else. While the introduction of a criminal underworld character to assist the protagonist helped catapult the plot forward and provide some fun action scenes, I found his entire character arc (from willingness to jump into the plot through his final scene of handiwork) to be less believable than the concept of a gypsy curse for weight loss.

Conversely, the scenes of William and his wife dealing with this unique problem, and William’s attitudes towards his wife (who he blames first for causing the accident and later for everybody who doesn’t believe him) were the source of the most character development and realistic aspects found in the book. Much like in The Shining, some of the scariest moments come not from anything supernatural but from the capacity for hate from the protagonist.

**Slight spoilers follow**

I found the end of the book to be a bit of a letdown, as it seemed there were two routes King could have gone that would have felt more satisfactory. There were two possible targets in the house that a curse could be transferred to, and choosing either one would have been either 1) a compelling 180 with William turning from good guy dad/husband to vengeful villain, or 2) a devastating final victory for the Gypsy patriarch. King opted for a third option to spread the love around and while it is certainly fatalistic I think it lacked the impact that one of the other two options would have provided.

3-star

“Flinx’s Folly” by Alan Dean Foster review

Flinx's Folly

Flinx’s Folly

Author:  Alan Dean Foster

Released:  2002

Unfortunately for Pip & Flinx fans, Alan Dean Foster has fallen into a bad habit of placing the protagonist (and his pet mini-drag) into seemingly deadly situations only to have him rescued by characters that were otherwise absent from the plot of the current story. Following multiple rescues in that manner in Mid-Flinx, and similar instances in Reunion , I was not shocked to see that the same development was utilized in Flinx’s Folly but I was disappointed. That sense of cheating employed by the writer really put a sour finish on what was otherwise a pretty fun adventure.

Rather than visit an alien barren landscape, here Pip & Flinx visit paradise, or the closest planet in the Commonwealth to such a thing. Located in that perfectly habitable distance from the sun and with a favorable tilt resulting in tropical seasons, the setting is as much a vacation for our protagonists as any book in the series. This makes sense as Flinx’s motivation for travel is to visit his most memorable love interest, Clarity Held, the beautiful, intelligent gengineer (genetic engineer) who could write her own ticket for love or career.

The start of Flinx’s Folly has an interesting occurrence where Flinx’s ability causes a mass blackout at a shopping mall, however the plot from there takes on fairly standard adventure tropes. Flinx must flee from a hospital (executed cleverly). Flinx must flee from death worshipping fanaticals (executed less cleverly). The main conflict doesn’t arrive until he locates Clarity (looking for the one person in the Cosmos he feels comfortable opening up to) and her sort of fiancé (whose name I can’t recall, so I’ll just call him Bond Villain).

The most ridiculous and entertaining aspects of Flinx’s Folly all involve Bond Villain’s plans to thwart this interloper from chatting with his lady. He takes the usual steps that us guys need to take to make sure our ladies aren’t being romanced by tall and mysterious foreigners: hiring private investigators and thugs to get dirt or break kneecaps. If that doesn’t work **spoiler alert** sometimes you need to build completely functional android decoys of your fiancé, knife wielding spider robots or set elaborate traps involving gene therapy, but all’s fair in love and sci-fi.

The deus ex machina ending featured two of the best recurring characters from this series, but it’s such a shame that they had to show up in such a plot convenient manner. Taking the Bond analogy further, the final ending of the book left an option for an expanded cast of characters continuing on adventures, but Foster prefers to take our hero to the next installment with no strings attached. (As F. Paul Wilson writes, “a spear has no branches.”) The sect of death worshippers make convenient bad guys that our heroes can kill without remorse, but I don’t find them particularly believable or interesting which puts them in line with the series main antagonist, a massive entity of nothingness accelerating toward our galaxy. Not one of the better entries in the series so far but there were certainly enough ridiculous and fun scenes to make it memorable.

3-star