Category: 4 Barrels

“A Time of Changes” by Robert Silverberg Review

A Time of Changes.jpg

A Time of Changes

Author:  Robert Silverberg

Published:  1971

Nebula Award Winner 1971

A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg feels very dated reading it today, but this was still a story that I enjoyed overall. This is a quick read (my copy was just 183 pages), and there’s enough chapter breaks that it felt every three pages or so had a decent sized page gap. The story is a first person narration by a man on an alien planet, thousands of years in the future from now, he is a descendent of a group of humans that moved across the stars to practice their strict religion without the negative influence of self-barers. Essentially, the people of this civilization use the pronoun “one” instead of “I” and speak in a much more passive voice; in addition to that, they don’t share their true selves with anybody except their bond brother and bond sister (a male a female that are their same age, each person getting one of each that they can share everything with except intimate relations).

Kinnall is much like any other person on this distant planet, with a few exceptions. First, his family are basically the folks in charge, and when his dad dies, his must leave his home in order to not be a threat to his older brother that has ascended to the role of leader. He also has an unusual fascination with Earth men (who occasionally visit this distant planet). Finally, he is in love with his bond sister Hallum, and can’t tell anybody about it (because of their culture) and can’t tell her because their love is forbidden. When Kinnall meets an Earth man who wants to introduce him to the locally grown plant that allows two people to completely open themselves to one another, Kinnall’s life is turned upside down.

I mentioned the book reads dated, and the primary reason why is the presence of the mind altering substance that free your mind to totally like, connect to another person man. The book was published in 1971, and just like much of Heinlein’s best (and worst) work from the era, it reads like a hippy love fest at times. Silverberg’s story develops quickly enough however, that the occasional mind orgy scenes don’t derail what is otherwise a pretty interesting story.

This book won the Nebula Award for 1971, and I can see how many readers would take away enjoyment from this story. There are no real bad guys in the book, with the exception of a snitch at the end who only reveals the faults of a group otherwise thought to have been perfect beforehand. Instead all of the characters are people that act based on very human motivations and concerns with fitting in. My biggest complaint is that because the story is written by a narrator after the worst parts have taken place, what should be the most shocking moment in the story had been spoiled 100 pages earlier by unnecessary foreshadowing.

4-star

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“Black Cross” by Greg Iles Review

Black Cross

Black Cross

Author:  Greg Iles

Published:  1995

This was another book I was loaned by a fellow reader I work with. I’ve only read a few war books in the last few years, but it’s a genre I tend to enjoy (one of my favorite books in particular is The Hunters by James Salter). The story is set in 1944, and the Germans are at war with the English and Russians. With an allied invasion seemingly imminent, Nazi scientists have put more focus on developing chemical weapons as a means to devastate the opposing forces. Because they are Nazis and this is during the holocaust, much of the chemical weapon testing is being done at concentration camps. After the allies become aware of the newest poison gases, they develop a plan to prevent the Nazis from using them. Two non-British subjects will sneak into the concentration camp producing the deadly gas, and complete a mission that wipes out everybody in the camp. The two men include an American pacifist chemist, and a German Jewish Israeli resistance fighter.

I enjoyed this book, but the further into it I got the more it reminded me of the 1996 film “The Rock.” In that film, a non-threat scientist and a total badass have to go rescue hostages from armed forces that possess deadly chemical gas. If you take that movie and put it in a Nazi German concentration camp setting, you’d got a pretty good idea of most of the plot beats in this book. You know the pacifist scientist will have to be contribute to the survival effort by the end of it, just like you have a pretty good idea of what outcome the insurance bombing run will have if their mission goes down to the wire. Likewise it’s not a spoiler to say that the two main characters, McConnell the scientist and Stern the muscle, will initially not like each other and come to a deep respect for one another.

While I enjoyed a lot of the main story, overall its predictability in character notes would have me giving this book a three overall. However, the book also has a separate subplot running through it from the perspective of a woman stuck in the concentration camp. When we first encounter Rachel, her husband is being shot and she and her two children under the age of 4 are stuck in a camp where children’s purpose is as test subjects for dangerous medical testing and women’s purpose seems to be as pawns for the Nazi soldiers to use as they see fit. I’ve found that since I’ve become a father a few years ago that stories involving children have a much stronger impact on me than they did before I had rugrats. Here the story of a woman doing anything possible to keep her two children safe in one of the deadliest situations in world history really got to me.

Also in the concentration camp are interesting figures like the Shoemaker and Ariel Weitz. The Shoemaker is one of the longest surviving prisoners at the camp, a man able to stay alive by blending in when needed, and fixing shoes for the soldiers on the side. Ariel Weitz is the Jewish prisoner willing to do anything the Nazis ask, even pulling the switch on the gas chambers and then prying gold teeth from the deceased, in exchange for more freedom throughout the camp. Iles does a great job of taking these two characters in surprising directions, making the stakes of Stern and McConnell’s mission feel much higher because of the stories within the camp.

There’s a saying that Nazis make the best movie villains, and here they are as evil as anything imaginable. The atrocities described in this book are such that there’s no person that could read them and sympathize with their actions and not be a monster his or her self. The main Nazi bad guys are a one eyed officer and a jealous sergeant who have a rivalry with each other for power within the camp. As the officer has an interest in Rachel, the sergeant uses her as his method for tormenting the officer. The top ranking official, a scientist named Brandt, is practically a ghost in the story just showing up as somebody that does terrible things to little children.

If you’re a reader that finds depictions of violent or deadly acts to women and children difficult to read, this is not the book for you. Although Iles doesn’t linger on any descriptions for too long, there are still dozens of scenes of despicable acts that occur or are remembered throughout the plot. The subject matter of the book seems to require it, and besides making me emotional a few times I thought if anything it added to the impact of the book. I was also loaned Iles other WWII book, which I’ll probably check out next, so that’s as good an indicator as any that I enjoyed this as 1200 pages in a row by any author is usually not my style.

4-star

“Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny” by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger Review

Andrew JAckson Battle

Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans:  The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny

Authors:  Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Published:  2017

I’d read a biography on Andrew Jackson last year (Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands), but was given this one as a recommendation by another reader, who gave the glowing recommendation that it was interesting and could be finished in two nights. As a result, I already had a pretty good knowledge of most of what was in this book prior to reading it. Overall though this was still an interesting read because Andrew Jackson’s early exploits are fascinating enough to visit twice.

Although the title of this book makes it sound as though it’s entirely about the Battle of New Orleans, out of the 230ish pages I’d say just about half or less focuses on the actual battle (buildup, battle and immediate aftermath). The rest of the book gives some good background on Jackson’s early years, the other key figures in New Orleans during the battle, and some political background to make the context of the war understandable. This is a very quick read though, and a book I’d recommend for somebody that just wants the exciting parts of Jackson’s pre-presidential biography.

More than any other president (at least through Lincoln… I’m still working my way up from him), Jackson came from nothing and had exciting moments throughout his life. From the early encounter with the British (and loss of his entire family), to duels with future powerful politicians and battles with Native Americans, Jackson lived the type of life that created a frontier folk hero. Having read several biographies of presidents after Jackson, I enjoyed the refresher on how important moments occurred with guys like Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton, who obviously both went on to have massive political careers of their own.

The description of what occurred in the Battle of New Orleans was what you’d hope for in a book like this, providing drama that reminds me of the stuff I find in Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic War books. The stories of dying Generals and ships unable to escape cannon fire provided both memorable moments and emotional resonance usually lacking in biographical material. More than any other moment, I’ll remember the heartbreaking story of a man trying to warn the Americans about the arrival of the British and his loyal dog that followed him along the way. Because I prefer my biographies more complete and detailed than this, it definitely doesn’t crack my favorites, but I think this is a book many fans of history could really enjoy.

4-star

“Shape’s Siege” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Siege

Sharpe’s Siege

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Published:  1987

Sharpe’s Siege picks up with the English army working their way into France, Sharpe happily married to Jane and Harper the proud father of a two month old. Sharpe’s soldierly duties always come first however, and here he is drafted into helping the Royal Navy on a mission to possibly assist in Bordeaux turning against the French Empire in a stroke that could end the Napoleonic War. Anyone who knows Sharpe (or European history) will know this doesn’t happen, and instead Sharpe will end up being caught in a trap left by the French intelligence officer Ducot, who is making yet another appearance, rivaling Obadiah Hakeswill’s run as a villain.

The title of the book gives away that there will be a siege, though Cornwell pulls out all the stops in making it more intense and creative than similar battles in earlier books. **Spoilers follow** For starters, Sharpe, Harper and Sweet William Frederickson are all on the inside the the structure under siege, and they are vastly outnumbered and outgunned. The limited bullets in particular is unusual in this series, and the tricks that Sharpe and friends pull to even the odds were more similar to those found in the various Sharpe short stories that I’ve reviewed on here.

While Sharpe is worrying about the enemy, he is equally distracted by the possibility of losing his wife Jane to fever, as she has come down with symptoms immediately before he was deployed. Also sick is Major Michael Hogan, who is (along with Harper) as long tenured as an ally to Sharpe as we’ve seen in the series. This installment also introduces the character of Cornelius Killick, an American naval officer or pirate, depending on the moment. Killick provides for many of the surprises in this novel, as both Sharpe and the French are at times forced to depend on him or go after him.

4-star

“The Terranauts” by T.C. Boyle Review

Terranauts

The Terranauts

Author:  T.C. Boyle

Released:  2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-star

“Camino Island” by John Grisham Review

Camino Island

Camino Island

Author:  John Grisham

Released:  2017

I was loaned this book by another reader at work (the same guy that loaned me The Late Show). This is the first book I’ve read by John Grisham. Besides my preexisting prejudice towards authors I can find in the book aisle of my local supermarket, I’d also always avoided Grisham because as a lawyer I prefer to read to escape the crap of my everyday work life and Grisham is best known for his legal thrillers. When I was in law school I got into comics (a form of entertainment I always enjoyed) more than ever, just because I was so sick of reading legal precedents and case law and it was the furthest thing I could find from law writing. Now that I’ve been a practicing attorney for several years, I went ahead and took the Grisham plunge and to my surprise there were barely even any attorneys in this book, with the first ones showing up around page 265 of 286.

Instead Camino Island tells the stories of an art thief, a struggling writer and a successful independent book store owner all told in a style reminiscent of “The Thomas Crown Affair.” I thought of that film several times while reading this, as the plot and characters are fairly similar between that film and this book, and this book is written in a quick cinematic manner. In both that film and this book, a priceless work of art is taken and the man in possession of the art is a suave, respected business man. A beautiful woman then devises a plan of getting close to the man in question to find the stolen work of art and recover it so her company can avoid paying out a large sum of cash in insurance money. Instead of the Rene Russo character directly pursuing the Pierce Brosnan character, here a third character is introduced in the form on a young, attractive struggling writer who is specifically recruited to get close to the man believed to possess the art.

Bruce Cable is the Piece Brosnan analogue in this book, an independent book store owner who hosts frequent author signings and is known to romance attractive female authors in the tower of his amazing estate. He’s married to Noelle, a beautiful French antiques dealer, and the two have an open relationship that encourages either to pursue their sexual appetites, discreetly. Instead of a painting, the stolen art is the original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts for his first five novels, taken during an exciting prologue set in the Princeton Library. In order to determine if Cable possesses these books, or to locate and recover them, the insurance company recruits a young author named Mercer who grew up near the book shop to return to Camino Island under the guise of a summer getaway to write a long overdue follow-up novel to her initial modest success.

There were several small things about this book that appealed particularly to me that might not as much to other readers. The first is that I attempted to buy a book store a few years back and went through a few of the same steps as Bruce in this book, and found that portion of the story (early chapters detailing his biography) to be very fun and relatable to my own experience. There was also a lot of lines discussing famous authors, and setting out ground rules for writing stories, and that’s the sort of meta commentary that I tend to get a kick out of. Finally, I tend to cast actors in my mind for most books as I’m reading them, and as already stated this book felt so much like a movie that I pretty much visualized and enjoyed a new film starring Timothy Olyphant and Alexis Bledel in my mind while reading this.

The book is certainly not perfect. The story is very familiar and the characters are all closer to clichés than original, memorable characters. The character of the art thief almost seems to have been shoehorned in as an afterthought. Anybody seeking a compelling story and exciting resolution for his plot line will end up disappointed. All that being said, I could come up with similar arguments for movies I really enjoy (what exactly does Luke stand for in “Cool Hand Luke,” how was it so easy for Sean Connery to sneak off at the end of “The Rock”).

This isn’t the sort of book you get worked up about the shortcomings. I suspect a quick reader will finish this in a few hours, and will likely come away with some affection for the suave bookseller who is living the life of a millionaire playboy, complete with beautiful women at his beck and call. It’s unrealistic, underdeveloped, and slightly misogynist, but it also feels harmless and most importantly fun.

4-star

“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