Category: 4 Barrels

“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

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“Ringworld” by Larry Niven Review

Ringworld

Ringworld

Author:  Larry Niven

Released:  1970

Ringworld by Larry Niven is probably one of the most famous science fiction books that I had not previously read. It’s the type of book that while I’ve been reading it in public places over the last week or so that friends and coworkers have stopped and mentioned that they’ve read it too and asked how far along I was in the plot. The story is fairly standard for the sci-fi genre, as a group of explorers are visiting an alien world. This is a book that stands out though for two reasons: first the group of explorers are comprised of four memorable and unique characters, and second the world they are visiting is the incredibly original idea of a giant ring shaped “planet.”

The beginning of Ringworld tells the story of Nessus, a puppeteer named Nessus recruiting his team of passengers to go explore the Ringworld planet. Puppeteers are alien creatures with two heads that look sort of like ostrich’s and mules crossed together, and are known for their cowardice and amazing technology. Nessus comes to recruit Louis Wu, the reader’s primary point of view character, an Earth man who is a few hundred years old (but is healthy enough to look like he’s in his late 20’s) and Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzin alien which is basically a giant orange panther that is from a very warlike race. Finally, Nessus recruits Teela Brown, another human who I’ll come back to later.

The mission objective is to investigate the Ringworld planet, which is a ring shaped structure that is about 1,000,000 miles wide and as long as Earth’s entire orbit around the sun. The theory is that the builders of the Ringworld did not have the technology for faster than light travel, and so instead of relocating to other star systems the builders harvested all of the materials in their own solar system and built the gigantic Ringworld and lived in isolation. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the team ends up on the Ringworld, but the sheer magnitude of the planet is such that the group never even sees the edge of the structure.

The result is that an expedition to the Ringworld is not only interesting for what sort of world might exist on the inside, but also for how different that world may be from one area to another in this giant expansive place. I see that Niven has written four prequels and four sequels to this book. I’m sure a large part of that is because of how successful this book was (winning both the Hugo and the Nebula Award), however the large scope of the planet provides a setting that can be revisited numerous times to discover what sort of creatures, structures and civilizations inhabit it.

Arthur C. Clark was famous for writing “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Ringworld has plenty of that sort of technology, but here it felt like plot convenience more than I typically see in this genre. The hull of the spaceship used to travel to Ringworld is built by Nessus’s Puppeteer race, and is essentially a physical manifestation of the joke “if the little black box always survives the plane crash, why not build the whole airplane out of the little black box?” There are also near invisible wires that that connect the inner ring of shadow squares that provide for simulated days and nights that are basically adamantium that can cut through anything they touch.

Most of my critiques of this book and spoilers all deal with the character of Teela Brown. It is revealed early on that Nessus wants her to join the crew for this expedition because Teela is one of a handful of Earth people that is the result of multiple generations of her family winning the lottery to allow the family to have children. Nessus concludes that using that methodology shows that Teela is statistically lucky and will bring good luck to their mission. Unfortunately, between Teela Brown and later the alien Prill, Ringworld ends up being one of the worst books I’ve read for its treatment of female characters, even standing out among books from its era.

**Spoilers follow**

Both of the female characters in this book are amazingly beautiful creatures (one human, one alien) who have sex with Louis Wu in ways unlike anything he’s experience in his 200+ years alive. One, the human, gets brought along because she falls in love with Louis right after meeting him and decides to go on this dangerous space mission to come with him and continue to have great sex. The other, Prill, is an alien woman who specializes in bringing sexual pleasure to men and who eventually wants to travel to other worlds and have more sex to show the galaxy how great she is at it. Teela also has the interesting revelations of how her “luck” has shaped her as a person and how it affects the trajectory of this mission (it gets to the point where her luck can be pointed to explain any event that has happened in terms of how it benefits her). Prill doesn’t really have any other character arc.

I suspect that your overall enjoyment of this book will likely hinge on whether or not the treatment of these two characters completely overshadows the fun aliens and exploration of the rest of the plot. For me, it was a distraction and it made the book feel very dated, but the very cool idea of the Ringworld was still enough to have me enjoy the book overall.

4-star

“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

“Sharpe’s Regiment” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Regiment

Sharpe’s Regiment

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Released:  1986

Sharpe’s Regiment could be subtitled Sharpe versus the London Bureaucracy. Most Sharpe books follow a familiar formula, where Sharpe must overcome a plot by the French or French supporters that will involve a battle or two. Along the way Sharpe will best a superior officer who underestimates him because he’s not a gentlemen and have sex with a woman that all the other officers lust after and would otherwise seem out of Sharpe’s social strata. Up until this point, the most that formula has diverged has been in Sharpe’s Trafalgar (where the action took place via a naval battle), and Sharpe’s Prey (which featured Sharpe operating as an intelligence officer in Denmark). In Sharpe’s Regimentthere are echoes of the familiar tropes, but for most of the book it is a very nice departure from the standard Sharpe setting that still feels true to the characters.

After Wellington’s successful campaign in Spain, the French forces have been driven out of the country and it appears there will be some downtime in the action. With no need for Richard Sharpe’s expertise on the battlefield, Sharpe is dispatched back to England to find the missing reinforcements owed to the South Essex. From my memory, this is only the third return to his homeland through 17 books in the series (once to get married, another trip was to his old boy’s home that he grew up in), but those were both minor scenes in their respective stories. Aside from a prologue and epilogue, the rest of the story is spent in England in a very different setting than the usual battlefield. Sharpe gets to have dinner with a prince, be honored at a theater, and receive countless other accolades as a hero returning to his native land.

The tension in the book comes from the question of where the South Essex reinforcements are located? According to some in the military, they are merely a “paper army,” existing only as a theoretical allotment in bookkeeping. Sharpe doesn’t buy it, and to investigate he, Harper and one other officer go and enlist under fake names and see where the trail leads. The cast of characters in this book is mostly new faces, with several inexperienced recruits falling into fun archetypes (the educated one, the one with the dog, the complainer, etc.) and evil officers in the British ranks.

Some of the best moments in the book come from the unique position of Sharpe and Harper needing to be deserters, or needing to shoot back in a situation where they don’t want to kill British soldiers. It’s easy to predict the comeuppance that will occur once their true identities are revealed but it doesn’t diminish the fun of seeing Sharpe and Harper gloat over those that wronged them. Less successful are Sharpe’s romantic exploits, which include a woman seemingly created solely to facilitate the drama, and the return of one of Sharpe’s dream girls (Jane) who was not particularly memorable in her first appearance. Cornwell struggles to make her interesting, even writing how Sharpe senses the repartee that will be forthcoming between Jane and Harper, while not delivering any actual memorable moments. Also, it feels as though Cornwell felt obligated to deliver one large battle which seemed out of place with the rest of story. Overall though, this was not only the most unique book in the series thus far, but a fun adventure that felt true to the characters.

4-star

“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.

“Songbook” by Nick Hornby Review

songbook

Songbook

Author:  Nick Hornby

Released:  2003

My favorite book I read last year was Ten Years in The Tub, Nick Hornby’s collection of columns from The Believer detailing his book reading and purchasing each month. Being a huge music fan as well, I was eager to read Songbook(originally published as 31 Songs, then rereleased with a few bonus essays) Hornby’s collection of essays on various songs and albums. Apparently when this book was first released, a few versions of it came with CDs containing either 11 or even 18 of the 31 songs, so readers could hear these mostly obscure songs that Hornby has chosen to write about. However in the distant future of 2017, readers can now just log on Youtube and listen to every song or album discussed in this book while reading the corresponding chapters.

I’m a pretty big music junky, but apparently my knowledge of Hornby’s favorites was lacking as prior to reading this I only knew the following tracks:
· “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen
· “I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado”
· “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin
· “Samba Pa Ti” by Santana
· “Mama, You Been On My Mind” by Rod Stewart
· “Rain” by the Beatles
· “Smoke” by Ben Folds Five
· “Caravan” by Van Morrison
· “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Gregory Isaacs (I think we all know the original, but I was unfamiliar with this version)
· “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne

That’s only ten of thirty one tracks, so I’m going to assume that part of Hornby’s goal was to focus on music that isn’t already known by the masses. I faired much better on his discussion of albums, owning all of the ones he discussed in depth except for a Steve Earle album, and I’ve got a few others by that artist. On a related note I enjoyed the album chapters the most, although if you told me up front Nick Hornby would spend a few pages discussing Nick Cave, Aimee Mann or Blink-182 I could predict with absolute certainty that I would enjoy it.

I wish I could say I fell in love with several new songs by reading this book, but the songs I was unfamiliar with were all pleasant enough but not so amazing that I had to go out and purchase on my own. The one exception was “Frankie Teardrop” by Suicide, which was an exception because it wasn’t pleasant but instead a curiosity on unpleasantness stretching out for 10 minutes.

Right away I guess this book loses points compared to Ten Years in the Tub, as I discovered several books and authors I loved from reading that, whereas my musical horizons were not expanded by Songbook (in terms of knowledge, yes, but as of yet no new favorites). As for the writing itself, this is a very quick read with typically 5 to 7 not particularly dense pages about Hornby’s relationship to each song (how he discovered it, how often he listens to it, how it compares to other music he enjoys). My favorite music criticism tends to involve some use of the first person as music is very subjective. In order to trust somebody else’s opinion on music I need some assurances that they have good taste. When I was through with this I had a good understanding of Hornby’s musical tastes in relation to my own styles of enjoyment.

I suspect the most common criticism of Mr. Hornby’s music writing will be his preference for songs that conform to the pop style and format. The final chapter in the book is a review of the top ten albums of the previous year, and Hornby’s critiques of Destiny’s Child, Blink-182, Linkin Park, P. Diddy and others shows a definite preference for music that would be classified as “dad rock” or “oldies” by many people under the age of 30 or so today. I’ll go on record as saying that I didn’t care for a lot of those albums when they came out as well, but I can recognize that several of them resulted in tracks that are still radio favorites 15+ years later, while Hornby’s only song he really appreciated from the list was “Falling” by Alicia Keys.

The real joy in reading this book is in Hornby’s conversational style and charming anecdotes that reveal more about him than the music he is writing about. Hornby’s openness about the challenges of dealing with an autistic child, the changing perceptions of his work once he became famous and his habits upon purchasing box sets stand out in terms of enjoyable sections the reader will take away and retain. Much like Fever Pitch or Ten Years in the Tub, Hornby is upfront that the writing is autobiographical and I suspect readers familiar with his other writing will have a similar reaction (positive or negative) to his work in Songbook.

4-star

“The Drawing of the Three: The Dark Tower Book Two” by Stephen King Review

The Drawing of the Three

The Drawing of the Three: The Dark Tower II

Author:  Stephen King

Released: 1987

I didn’t find The Gunslinger to be particularly great, so I wasn’t looking forward to reading its sequel. My issues with the first book were the lack of clear narrative, instead favoring hallucinated characters and vague descriptions/motivations by the archetypal protagonist and antagonist. Thankfully King remedied those issues (for the most part) in book two The Drawing of the Three by introducing a couple of people that have no idea what the tower is or what exactly is going on.

This book starts off with a surprising scene where Roland (the Gunslinger) encounters a large lobster creature (not huge, just bigger than real life lobsters) while his guns are wet. The result of the attack is Roland loses some fingers and toes and spends the rest of the book dealing with the effects of being weak, poisoned, ineffective with one hand and worried about his wet ammunition. The scene is fairly shocking, because everything we read about Roland in the first book indicates he is somebody more than capable of defending himself. (Truthfully, the rest of the book doesn’t really jive with what happens early on either, as it’s established that Eddy can kill one of these things just be clubbing it with a gun, and Eddy is most definitely not a legendary gunslinger.)

Who’s Eddie and where did he come from? While Roland is making his way toward the tower down a seemingly never ending beach, he encounters three doors, each of which grants him a window into the mind of a person in New York during different years of the 20th century. Think “Being John Malkovich,” but with easier control of the viewer and the ability to pull things (or people) into the Gunslinger’s world. The three individuals Roland meets are very different though besides Eddie the rest of the characters seem to have obvious connections to each other or Roland.

Eddie himself is a heroin junkie who Roland finds himself in (as in, seeing through his eyes) as Eddie is trying to smuggle drugs on an airplane. This entire sequence was the high point of the series for me until later in this book a scene where Roland inhabits a man at a drug store and ends up reminding a police officer of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator.” Besides a heroin junky, Roland needs the assistance of Odetta Holmes a double amputee with schizophrenia (and a cartoon caricature level hatred of white people), and the third I’ll leave for a surprise though I’ll say that things can always get worse.

Whereas the first book opted for dreamy language and plenty of abstract thought, The Drawing of the Three is much more plot and action driven and read much faster, despite it being longer than The Gunslinger. The most difficult sections to read involved the split personality of Odetta, and even the other characters comment at times that she doesn’t seem like a real person based on how hateful she is. While I’m sure that was King’s intention to make Odetta cartoonish the overall presentation of her character turned me off as a reader. Not only was it impossible to empathize with her personality or actions, but it was also unpleasant to read her dialect and repeated use of the same insults and language for hundreds of pages. That character aside, this was a big improvement in the series and has me looking forward to instead of dreading the next chapter.

4-star