Category: 4 Barrels

“Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner Review

Stand on Zanzibar

Stand on Zanzibar

Author:  John Brunner

Published:  1968

Stand on Zanzibar won the 1969 Hugo Award for best novel, beating (among other books) Rite of Passage which was a book I really enjoyed.  While Stand on Zanzibar was much more ambitious than Rite of Passage, I preferred Panshin’s book to Brunner’s though Zanzibar was still much better than several other award winners from that era (sorry Delaney).

The first thing that strikes a reader beginning this book is the unusual structure Brunner uses to tell his story.  Instead of solely advancing a narrative, Brunner utilizes a macro-micro type of setting similar to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but with four separate styles of chapters.  The chapter styles alternate between:

  • Continuity – This is the basic narrative advancement
  • Tracking with closeups – This follows secondary characters, and then eventually becomes a second main plot passing through the book
  • The happening world – This is a scattershot macro section where rapid fire paragraphs give headlines, slogans, conversations, etc. to funnel a ton of information and create a sense of atmosphere
  • Context – Similar to the appendices tacked onto the end of Dune, these chapters just provide additional world building.

The plot of Stand on Zanzibar follows a few main threads that all deal with the overpopulation epidemic of the future (of the distant year of 2010!).  A super computer owned by a General Electric type company is used to direct decisions by the most powerful company in the world.  A small country in Africa has the very unusual characteristics of no murders or border conflicts for years and is looking for a new leader to replace their dying President.  A genetics specialist in Asia claims to have developed the secret to creating super babies for those so inclined; the United States sends a spy in to determine the truthfulness of the claim.

While this was a book that took me awhile to get interested in (it doesn’t really pick up or steer the plot until a long cocktail party chapter told through rapid fire conversation switches) I actually ended up really enjoying it by the end.  The science stuff actually holds up better than one would expect from the subject matter, as Brunner’s writing ends up having a kind of internet/twitter vibe with all the rapid fire information.  The interconnection of politics and major corporations also was well done.  Although some of the racial politics of the book have a very 1960’s slant, unfortunately some of the issues (police relations, representation at the corporate level) are still very relevant today.

If I had a main criticism of the book it’s that the characters are pretty flat, with only one of them being particularly interesting.  Donald is a spy sent to the small Asian country by the United States.  **Slight spoilers though the rest of this paragraph**  Before he goes he is basically reprogrammed Jason Bourne style to also be an assassin.  His character’s storyline is the most exciting one in the book, but that’s more a statement on the lack of competition by the supporting cast.  Norman is probably the main protagonist of this book, the lone black man on the board of the big company and the man most responsible for the super computer becoming the new president of the small African country.  Most of the tension in this plot line is whether the transition will be profitable for the company or not.

While I’ll probably remember this book as one that took a long time to get into and focused on style (unusual chapter structure) over substance (character development), I should point out that this was also the type of book that draws you in as it progresses.  The fact that not all of the plot threads end up connecting is actually a good thing as the two main characters start out roommates and too many connections at the end would have felt forced.

4-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

“Nevertheless: A Memoir” by Alec Baldwin Review

Nevertheless: A Memoir

Author: Alec Baldwin

Release Date: 2017

NeverthelessWho would want to read a book about a guy that needs to spend two pages detailing all of the people he’s punched since becoming famous? Somebody whose most famous moment in the past twenty years involved leaving a voicemail insulting his young daughter? Somebody whose politics can be so one sided he was caricatured as the villain in Team America: World Police? Sign me up, for starters. In addition to plenty of controversy and poor decisions, Baldwin is also the fascinating Hollywood leading man who famously could not draw an audience. Despite all that, he has appeared in many great films, had a starring role in one of the best TV comedies of all time, hosted Saturday Night Live more than any other person and enjoyed a second career as a successful podcaster. Clearly there is ample substance here to populate an autobiography.

Much like the man writing it, Nevertheless: A Memoir by Alec Baldwin is at times very entertaining and at others frustrating. I suspect your enjoyment of this book will depend on your expectations heading into it. If you are looking for an extensive experience inside the mind of Alec Baldwin spent discussing his famous family, behind the scenes drama on movie sets and his aspirations beyond acting you’ll unfortunately be disappointed. Although there are nuggets of each of those areas, Nevertheless doesn’t spend an extensive amount of time on any of them. If you are hoping for a very well written summary of his life that touches on all of the greatest hits but does not go into great detail on any of them, then this is a very engrossing read and a page turner.

The early headlines coming from this book involve the shade thrown by Baldwin at the producers of a movie that possibly misled him on his co-star being underaged and at Harrison Ford for taking his Jack Ryan franchise away from him. Those two sections combined take up two paragraphs in a 260 page memoir. Comparatively, Baldwin spends extensive time complimenting the many actors, directors, agents and friends he has known throughout his life. It is fitting that Nevertheless’s headlines look to make Baldwin as combative and ignore sections praising the likes of Gary Oldman, Jennifer Jason Leigh or Al Pacino. Even when describing his relationship with Kim Basinger, Baldwin’s harshest words are reserved for the attorneys and judges that he has encountered in his various trips to the court room.

While Baldwin spends an appropriate amount of time discussing 30 Rock, The Hunt for Red October, The Edge and his work in the theater, the vast majority of his filmography receives one sentence or fewer. For me, that was the most disappointing aspect of this book as Baldwin is primarily known for being an actor but glosses over most of his film work. Similarly, Baldwin spends a great deal of time discussing his parents but almost no time at all on his famous siblings (what little is mentioned is when all of the boys were still living at home). The one family member that gets extensive discussion outside of his parents is his daughter Ireland. While I don’t disbelieve anything Baldwin writes regarding his daughter, each passage does read like atonement bordering on pandering to convince the reader that the voicemail controversy was not indicative of their relationship. Baldwin also details his relationship and affection for homosexual males throughout his life which similarly reads as laying the groundwork for his rebuttal toward criticism of his use of the word “faggot” toward a paparazzi (Baldwin also denies saying that word).

Those are my criticisms of the book but I’m giving it four stars. I read this book over a few days but it’s definitely the sort of book you could read through in one sitting. Baldwin writes more like a novelist than an actor, utilizing different tenses and twists in chronology to tell his life story. The language is excellent to the point that I was checking for a ghost writer after completing. My favorite section was actually the flashback through all the people Baldwin had punched which served as a shocking and entertaining switch from the reality Baldwin had presented throughout the rest of the book. While I didn’t learn a lot about his work on his own projects that I didn’t already know, Baldwin is proud to share his knowledge of film history (and classical music) in a way that is likely to educate many readers. Despite obviously writing to counter personal attacks on him as a parent and homophobe, Baldwin also comes away looking very honest at other times, such as discussing his motivations for writing this book and his belief that parents can never love all their children equally.

One gets the sense that Baldwin is just beginning another chapter of his life with three children under three as he approaches sixty years old. For older fans, he is a former leading man but a new generation sees him as a game show host and a late night impressionist.Nevertheless is the second book he has written, but looking at where he is now in life Baldwin has ample life experiences happening to supply a third one. If you are a fan of his work or just find him an interesting public figure, this book will entertain you. If you are looking for more than what you could get in an extended interview with the man, particularly related to his film work and famous siblings you may come away disappointed.

4-star

“Sharpe’s Skirmish: Richard Sharpe and the Defense of the Tormes, August 1812” (Sharpe, #14.5) by Bernard Cornwell Review

sharpe's skirmish

Sharpe’s Skirmish: Richard Sharpe and the Defense of the Tormes, August 1812

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Release Date: 1999

No matter how thrilling a Richard Sharpe adventure is, without a note regarding the historical accuracy of the events described at the conclusion it’s a bit of a letdown. Fourteen books into the series, with several more to go, it’s clear that Sharpe is going to survive each adventure and find a way to single handed turn the tides for the British in battle. What keeps these stories from being repetitive is plugging that formula into different historical events and making a cool hybrid of education and entertainment. That’s all a roundabout way of saying that while this short story was very exciting and entertaining it lacked the gravity of a more historical entry in the series.

Taking place almost immediately following the events of “Sharpe’s Sword,” here Richard is in charge of a Spanish fort on a crucial supply chain while the French in the area are all assumed to be retreating. He is there because he was shot in the previous book and is recovering in what is assumed to be a low stakes, hard to screw up position. Unbeknownst to British however, there is actually a sizable French force in the area with their sights set on this fort. Something happens that makes Sharpe suspect that he will be attacked, which becomes the dilemma of whether he should request more troops to be safe and possibly look paranoid or not request troops and possibly be undermanned during an attack. As an officer elevated through the ranks Sharpe must always be right or risk losing all he has gained thus far.

In addition to Richard Sharpe, long time readers will be pleased by the involvement of Sgt. Harper and Teresa in this book, as both play pivotal roles in the mission. There is also a soldier who remembers Sharpe from Gawilghur (which was detailed in “Sharpe’s Fortress”), so those following along chronologically get some nice literary Easter eggs. The two best parts of this story both involve horses. First, Cornwell does an excellent job describing the condition of the French army and their animals, all of whom have been retreating for miles and are in poor shape for battle. These sorts of details are where Cornwell really shines, bringing realism to stories that could so easily devolve into mindless action. **Slight spoiler for the ending** The climax also involves the horses, and several hundred bottles of wine that were not disposed of properly. Although with so few pages to plant seeds for plot twists, “Sharpe’s Skirmish” ends with a clever means for the British to thwart the charging enemy.

4-star

 

“Rite of Passage” by Alexei Panshin Review

Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage

Author: Alexei Panshin

Release Date1968

It’s hard not to read “Rite of Passage” today and compare it to the glut of modern Young Adult books with very similar premises. It’s the future, and because society has had a collapse there is now an event that every teenager must subject themselves to, with many dying in the process. In that world, one girl will need to survive that deadly event in order to change the world/find her place in the world/find true love. In that skeletal form, “Rite of Passage” lines up very similarly to books like “The Hunger Games,” “The Maze Runner,” or “Divergent,” which I was not expecting from a 1968 Nebula Award winner for best science fiction novel of the year.

The particulars in this book are as follows: the girl is Mia, who begins the book at age twelve with a personality that would probably be called precocious today. She is being raised on “the ship,” a six level interstellar space ship that has been carved out of a meteor and holds several thousand people. Earth is long gone, a victim of overpopulation and destruction, and the survivors fashioned this ship for Faster than Light travel and live on it now full time. Some of humanity also lives on about 100+ planets, which occasionally receive knowledge/technology from the Ship in exchange for raw materials, however the relationship between the planet people (called Mudeaters as an insult) and the ship people (called Grabbies as an insult) is full of animosity.

The big event that all teens must go through is called “Trial” and it is the lesson learned by overpopulation in the past. In addition to every family having to follow strict birthing regulations, every child at the age of fourteen must be dropped onto a planet for thirty days and survive. If this book were written today, my guess is that the group of kids that were dropped onto the planet would be divided into two teams and have to kill one another, but in Panshin’s book the kids are given a few months of survival training, then allowed to bring supplies like guns, horses and whatever else they want to bring, and then can even partner up (if they can find each other) or work alone, or hang out with the locals if they so choose. Despite all those advantages, plenty of kids die and it is an accepted part of civilization to keep its “delicate balance.” Maybe it’s because I’ve read several of the modern versions of this type of story that I was pleasantly surprised by this book as it constantly subverted my expectations of what was going to happen.

Those differences can be accounted for primarily by looking to the past, pre-1968. The influence of Robert Heinlein on the storytelling is obvious, as the young protagonist, telling this story entirely in flashback, with several older male characters that provide long monologues of their philosophies to the youth of the ship are all straight out of numerous Heinlein works. The entire plot is constructed in order to make the ethical question of how the ship people should interact with the planet people, and as a result there is much more debate and discussion of ethics than one would find in a modern Young Adult novel. TV westerns of the era also are not only referenced in the plot, but recreated in the form of a jailbreak on a technologically primitive planet. When the Trial began, I was most reminded of Star Trek: The Original Series when crew members would beam down and dress like locals, get in trouble, and rely on ingenuity and physical violence to make it back to the ship.

There are a few aspects of the book that don’t totally make sense within the logic of the book. The total population on any of the hundreds of colonized planets seems to dwarf the population of the space ship, but the book is only set 250 years from when it is written. (This is from a statement toward the end of the book where somebody remarks that if the ships settled on any planet they would be a substantial minority that would be overrun.) I get that there are no birthing limits on the one planet visited in this book, but that planet is the exception and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where these other populations are created and grow in the timeframe given. The science behind a scene where the kids go outside the spaceship (traveling faster than light) is a bit of a headache to try and consider, though Panshin uses this to fun effect. I also find it hard to believe that in the 160 years that the people have been on the ships that nobody debated the ethics of destroying a planet or the strict isolationism policy **Spoilers follow** prior to a few kids getting put in jail by locals during a Trial.

The actual trial is fairly anticlimactic but Panshin has not made it the focus of the book so much as Mia’s development as a person. While the primitive alien world is basically just early 20th century America plus two new species of animals, everything that takes place before it and after it are interesting enough to keep the reader invested. I don’t know if this book was released as Young Adult but for 99% of it I would classify it as such. That means that one strike to a character’s head will leave them unconscious for the desired five to twenty minutes to execute a plan, and that gun shots will make noises but also stop short in the dirt before hitting somebody. The 1% that is not young adult however, may be enough to keep a parent from giving to a child. There’s a pretty detailed sex scene between two fourteen year olds, and one outburst of sudden violence against an old man. The Nebula Awards have continued to select fine books as the best of the year, or at least I’ve enjoyed them more on average than the Hugo Awarded books through 1968.

4-star

“Lockdown” (Escape from Furnace #1) by Alexander Gordon Smith Review

lockdown

Lockdown

Author: Alexander Gordon Smith

Release Date: March 2009

This is another book I checked out based on recommendations from my favorite Goodreads reviewers, this one being by Emily May. Emily wrote, “If you’re looking for a tense, fast-paced and frightening book that pulls you in immediately and makes your heart pound, I cannot recommend Lockdown enough.”

This is definitely the type of book you can read in one sitting. The book is about 98% plot movement about a prison break. The prison is just for boys; it goes about a mile underground and features things that go bump in the night. The main character, Alex, is incarcerated for something he didn’t do, but much like the main characters in the film “Don’t Breathe,” he’s put himself in such a situation that you can’t feel entirely bad for him.

The main characters also include Donovan, a bigger kid that’s been in the prison since shortly after it was founded; Zee, another new guy who comes to the prison at the same time as Alex; and a couple of maniacs named Kevin and Gary. The book doesn’t spend a lot of time developing any of the characters. As the narrator, Alex has a couple of dream sequences and flashbacks, but the book is certainly more about where he is than who he was.

There are a few elements of the book that work because it is a young adult book but don’t really hold up as horror or science fiction. **Spoiler alert** If you’ve read “The Hunger Games,” you’ll know what’s going to happen to Monty as soon as he’s taken from his cell. The “guards” at the prison are conveniently few enough in number and consistent in routine, despite Alex’s assertions early on that they don’t follow any set schedule or rotation.

The book sets out a path and follows it at a brisk pace. I was actually expecting a twist in the execution of the prison break that never came. The ending of the book came so suddenly that it was obvious that the execution of their plan would occur as it did. While this hurts the ending as being a bit predictable, it also provided a satisfied conclusion that held up with the logic the book at set up. (view spoiler)

I’ve picked up a few books recommended by Emily May (somebody reviewing 250+ books a year tends to recommend a lot of ones that sound interesting), and based on this first one I look forward to checking more of them out.

4-star