Category: 4 Barrels

“Shadows of the Flame” by Lydia C. Golden Review

Shadow of the FlameShadows of the Flame

Author – Lydia C. Golden

Published – 2008

I picked this book up last month at the Raleigh Super Con. Down in the artist alley section they had a ton of tables set up with independent comic artists and writers, as well as several prose authors. The author was selling books and gave me a pitch about a girl who is training with an assassin and it may have regrets about what she signed up for. That was good enough for me, and I picked up a copy and put it near the top of my reading list. Imagine my surprise at adding it on Goodreads and seeing the book was published in 2008 and (as of this writing) only had three readers. I got the impression she was doing ok selling books at the convention so hopefully the number of copies in circulation starts going up and some additional scores and reviews accompany them.

Shadows of the Flame feels like two separate books, and also feels like the first book in a series that would require at least three books at the current pacing to wrap up the story. Fauna is a young child and the last survivor of a village massacre and decides to pledge herself to the assassin Sarrak until she is 15, doing whatever he requires of her in exchange for learning the skills that will allow her to get vengeance. The first half of the book mainly follows these two characters and tells a very engrossing story that has the reader hopeful that Fauna will develop into a fantasy heroine under Sarrak’s expert tutelage, but also cautious that Sarrak will destroy who Fauna is in the process. The first time the cast increases it brings in a female mentor for Fauna, but likely not in the manner the reader will expect.

The familiar tropes of the fantasy genre are all present, including the use of magic, prejudiced villagers, and mysterious other races. Despite the tropes, the plot was not predictable, which ends up being its greatest attribute and Achilles heel all wrapped into one. As a stand alone book, the story takes turns that don’t follow the course set out by the initial action, and the end of the book is nowhere near the end of several characters stories. Around the halfway point, the plot gets away from Sarrak and Fauna, and instead follows several different characters. There’s a former prison guard, whose life is ruined after the death of a loved one. There’s the handmaiden and her soldier boyfriend who get wrapped up in palace intrigue. There’s the three palace guards who get wrapped up into another story, and then split off. There’s the stable boy who works in the town. There’s the traveling salesman who is looking for love. One of the characters is possibly a murderer.

That’s enough side action for an 800 page novel or for a book series. With this being a stand alone book at 444 pages, the result is that some of the plots gets shelved or incomplete resolutions at the end. While I loved the first half of the book, the second half was enjoyable but also frustrating. The side stories ranged in quality, none of them as interesting as Sarrak and Fauna. The culmination of Thomas and Jocelyn’s story was as exciting as anything in the book and serves as the actual climax. On the opposite side was a plot about a character taking over a smuggling ring that did not pull me in with its central character who was never developed enough to feel credible as a worthy or deadly protagonist.

Overall I’d give the first half of the book Five stars and the second half 3 stars, so I’ve averaged it out here to a four. I think I would appreciate this book more if I knew a sequel was being released because the unfinished story lines certainly detract from my enthusiasm for rereading or recommending to others. The writing here is good. Golden does a great job of building suspense and creating atmosphere without wasting words on excessive description. With any independent book I tend to be critical of editing/publication. I only caught one typo reading this (a wrong instance of you’re vs your), and the font was easy enough to read. The cover did suffer from the frequent self published flaws of becoming easily bent while reading (and could probably use a sprucing up in the graphic design department). I just hope that if Ms. Golden does write a sequel to this (or additional fantasy) that I find out about it so I can read further in the series.

4-star

“Sharpe’s Honor” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Honor

Sharpe’s Honor: Book Sixteen of the Richard Sharpe Series

Richard Sharpe and the Vitoria Campaign, February to June 1813

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Published:  1985

Coming off my favorite installment to date in the excellent Sharpe’s Enemy, any book that followed was bound to feel like a let down. That was certainly the case with Sharpe’s Honor, the sixteenth chronological book in the Richard Sharpe series, but overall this was still a book I enjoyed. I think the worst aspects of this book came from a new theory I have that Bernard Cornwell comes up with clever words to attach to Sharpe’s name for book titles, and then writes the book trying to shoehorn as many allusions to that word as possible throughout the book.

Taking place in the closing months of the Spanish conflict between Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars, Major Richard Sharpe is the target of a plot by the French intelligence officer Pierre Ducos. The Whore of Gold, Richard’s object of lust from prior books, Helene is the mechanism for the plot who sets everything in motion by sending a letter to her husband accusing Sharpe of making a drunken attempt at raping her. Helene’s husband then challenges Richard Sharpe’s, ahem, honor by challenging Sharpe to a duel. When Helene’s husband ends up dying, Sharpe ends up exiled on a secret mission that involves deadly Spanish partisans, breaking into a nunnery, prison escapes and wagons full of riches beyond imagination.

With any book series that are this lengthy, I appreciate when there is a deviation from one book to another that is memorable or changes the series. While Sharpe’s Honor lacks the major character deaths or military promotions of other books, it does affect the overall series in three manners. **Slight Spoilers Follow** First, Patrick Harper ends up married and has a baby on the way. Unlike Sharpe’s earlier marriage, it seems at least possible that these characters will travel with the army beyond this book. Second, Sharpe loses his longest tenured possession, one that connects him to the most powerful man in his world, but gets it replaced with something much more extravagant. **End of Spoilers** Finally and most importantly, this book ends the Spanish conflict and it looks like French soil is on the horizon. The Sharpe books thus far have spent extensive time in India, before hopping around to places like Denmark and Portugal, but it feels like we’ve been in Spain the longest and the change of scenery should help add some excitement in the next chapter.

The best scene in this book is probably Sharpe’s excursion into a Spanish nunnery. While the prison scene featured some of the most violent and destructive descriptions to be found in a Sharpe book, the mysterious solution provided for Sharpe felt far too convenient in the timing of and execution of it all to really register as believable. The nunnery relied instead on a quick decision by Sharpe to shift the blame away from himself that was both very funny and very clever. Since Sharpe is basically a superhero at this point, anything that shifts the story away from him outfighting his opponent stands out by comparison.

Besides the less than thrilling prison escape (which again, was preceded by an amazingly brutal action sequence), this book also loses some points by relying on three villains that all pale when compared to either of the two villains from the previous book. Pierre Ducos seems to be Sharpe’s long term villain at this point, which is unfortunate as the best Sharpe villains have been those that try to best him at his own game on the battlefield. Ducos is closer to Father Hacha (the Inquisitor) and El Matarife (the sadist Spanish partisan), the villains that Sharpe must overcome in this book, as all three have no real loyalty or qualms about killing innocents to stop Sharpe. While I’m still loving this series, and even enjoyed Sharpe’s Honor, I’ve got it ranked as the 9th best in the first 17, which puts it in the bottom half in terms of quality

4-star

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi Review

Homegoing

Homegoing

Author:  Yaa Gyasi

Published:  2016

This is a tough book to review, which makes sense because it was also a difficult book to read. The story is similar to the short story collections by Alice Munro or Sherman Alexie where the chapters are very separate stories but they all connect to a central narrative. Here the book begins at two half sisters in the same area of Africa and follows each line of the family by focusing on one family member from each generation. The two initial chapters are about a girl whose family is part of the slave trade and a girl who is sent to America as a slave. The other chapters primarily alternate between Africa and America with a little crossover towards the end.

As an idea for a novel, it is very original and certainly memorable. I have a feeling many readers will find this an easy book to walk away from at times as the chapters are so unconnected that you lose a lot of the thrill of a page-turner novel. The endings of chapters aren’t cliffhangers, and there is never total resolution at the end of a chapter. If you want a book that leaves you constantly needing to know what’s on the next page, that’s not what you’re getting here.

The structure also leads to another inevitable problem, namely that the setting and characters in each story are so different that the reader will certainly be more invested in some stories than others. For the most part the only recurring themes are the unfairness of life and the sins of the past still harming the present. This isn’t a book that uplifts the reader either, as the vast majority of the chapters reveal the sad demise of the prior protagonist. One of the most sympathetic characters in the book is a lady that burns her two young daughters to death; it’s that sort of novel.

Despite all that, this is definitely a book that will appeal to some readers. For one, it’s an excellent version of the “family saga” genre of books. Instead of following the typical three generations, it follows about 7, via two separate trees. The unique style and setting also standout in the reading landscape. Gyasi brings a unique perspective to her work and already has a strong sense of narrative, quickly making characters that feel distinct from the ones you’ve already read. I’m giving the book four stars, but it’s a book that I enjoyed as much as a three star one while reading it but will likely remember better than some 5 star books a year from now.

**Note, I read this book based on a year end best of list by Goodreads super reviewer Emily May**

4-star

“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