Category: 4 Barrels

“Sharpe’s Revenge” by Bernard Cornwell Review

sharpe's revenge

Sharpe’s Revenge

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Released:  1989

Sharpe’s Revenge was an average (for Sharpe, meaning pleasant and enjoyable) story for most of its length but took a surprisingly sad turn at the end that felt very true to the series and rescued it from becoming one of the more forgettable Sharpe adventures. The biggest hindrance to my enjoyment of this book was its similarity to the plot of Sharpe’s Honor, beginning with a duel and proceeding through a false imprisonment which Sharpe must go rogue to clear his name. Unlike that book, here Sharpe had Patrick Harper and Sweet William Frederickson to keep him company and assist him throughout.

**Plot spoilers for the first quarter of the book**

The Peninsula War against Napoleon ends abruptly near the beginning of this book, leaving Sharpe, Harper and Frederickson to discuss how they want their post-war lives to play out. Shall they stay in the military? Retire? What of their wives and friendships? Before anything can be resolved, Sharpe and Frederickson and framed by his longtime enemy Pierre Ducos, he of the French intelligence. After the court-martial, Sharpe and Frederickson escape to clear their name, by tracking down the one Frenchman who can clear it. Upon their arrival, the man has been murdered and the two of them are framed for it. Harper of course tags along with the adventure, even though he has nothing to gain and everything to lose doing so.

Meanwhile, Sharpe also becomes paranoid that his wife Jane is taking advantage of him. When her letters become infrequent, he also notices she has withdrawn all his money from the bank with no explanation. Cornwell has a dual plotline with Jane explaining what takes place, and also introduces the French widow Lucille Castineau who has a significant impact on at least one of the English heroes.

**End of Spoilers**

More than any other book in the series, this book spotlights Sweet William Frederickson. Prior to this, he had been a bit of a cliche character; much like Dan Hagman (the old sharpshooter rifleman), William seemed to be present so that once a book Cornwell could write something about how William removed his eyepatch and false teeth to scare the enemies prior to going into battle. Make no mistake, we still get that in this book (twice by my count), but Cornwell also tells us much more about what sort of a man he is and where he is most vulnerable.

A few of the other characters in this book also do things that could substantially change our view of them. Sharpe himself acts all too true to his biggest weakness, but Jane also will likely surprise readers who have been following her since her first appearance. As far as villains go, I’ve never been a huge fan of Pierre Ducos whose created all of his own problems by continuing to go after Sharpe and never being successful. He’ll always be a distant second to Obadiah Hakeswill, the worst of the worst Sharpe villains. There is another French general (Calvert) who was everything I like in an opposing officer. Instead of being evil, he is competent, zealous, and an even match for Sharpe.

There are only two Sharpe novels and a short story left, and the end of this book already feels like it could be a goodbye to several beloved characters. While there’s no Duke of Wellington, Greencoats at war or new gear/rank added to Sharpe’s repertoire, two major relationships for Sharpe are possibly ended and our characters will be starting out in fresh territory for the first time since they got out of Portugal/Spain. I’m as excited as ever to keep reading this series, but now that the end is in sight I’m also getting pretty sad about the thought of being finished with these adventures.

4-star

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“The Vain Conversation” by Anthony Grooms Review

Vain conversation

The Vain Conversation

Author:  Anthony Grooms

Published:  2018

I ain’t the one to tell you to go or not to go. You the only one can do that. But I can tell you this. It ain’t so easy as you might think to kill a man… If you go, even if you don’t so much as throw a pebble, you are in it as much as the man who ties the noose. You might just be a bystander, but nobody is innocent, son.

In 1946, two black couples were lynched in Georgia. The Vain Conversation by Anthony Grooms is inspired by those events but is also an entirely original story. Told through the perspective of three characters, Grooms is able to to focus a tragic story into three compelling narratives from very different perspectives. For those worried about the potentially graphic content, the actual murder of the four individuals is more of an ominous event in either that past or present of the three character’s story arcs.

The first character spotlighted is Lonnie, a young boy whose father has just returned from World War II. The second is Bertrand, a teacher who also has returned from a tour of duty and befriends Lonnie’s father. The third is Jacks, a man that Bertrand trusts but his mother does not. I won’t spoil their roles in the killing of four people. I went into reading this without knowing anything ahead of time and it made for a very tense experience trying to speculate how things would escalate and who would die when they did.

The book is also broken up into four parts. The first three are about one of each of the characters listed above, and the fourth is revisiting two of them decades later. The first and third sections (about Lonnie and Jacks respectively) drew me in instantly and had me very invested in the characters. The second section got a bit more bogged down by a long philosophical discussion between Bertrand and his wife, however it ended in the most tense pages in the entire book.

I was reminded a bit of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing while reading this, as both books jumped around with character perspectives and timelines and dealt prominently with racial issues. I enjoyed this book even more than Homegoingthough as the characters were more fully developed. Insightful commentary on heavy issues (often through common sense dialogue like the quote at the top of this review) is for the most part handled in a way that feels organic. Even when it drifts beyond that, I could forgive it for how thoughtful it was.

Much like the Best Picture Winner Moonlight from a few years back, the last time jump didn’t entirely work for me. The vendetta that young Lonnie has developed over the years did not feel entirely earned and the final few pages ended so abruptly that I had to reread them just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. The result is a near miss from a five star book. Still, for fans of historical fiction, race relations, or thrilling Rashomon style storytelling, The Vain Conversation is a great book and well worth checking out.

4-star

“To Your Scattered Bodies Go” by Philip Jose Farmer

To your Scattered Bodies Go

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Author:  Philip Jose Farmer

Published:  1971

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer is my pick for the worst titled Hugo Award winner (so far, at least). I had a hard time remembering the title when people asked what I was reading, and even sitting down to write this review I had to look it up again. Instead I would tell people I was reading the first book in the Riverworld series. That had a nicer ring to it, and it was also an honest response. Enough about the title of the book though, how was the actual writing?

Richard Francis Burton wakes up in a strange environment where bodies are all hairless, naked and the same age. Burton remembers being an old man with gout, being on his death bed, and everything else in his lifetime. However, looking at himself he sees a 25 year old version of himself, matching everybody else around him (the few exceptions being a few children under that age). After discussing the situation with others that are present, Burton eventually comes to the conclusion that the world he is on is populated by the entire population of Earth’s history, all resurrected and scattered in various seemingly random groups along a never ending river.

It’s an awesome concept for a book. It allows Farmer to bring in various historical figures, have them interact with each other and share knowledge and skill sets. From the concept of the book, I could expect a dozen different ways it could play out. Farmer opts for several different paths, alternating between philosophical experiment, exploratory adventure, and prison escape sequence. The supporting cast around Burton frequently changes. Among the most interesting characters are a man (and an alien) from 30+ years in the future of when the book was published (to the far off future of 2008!), Hermann Goering (a high ranking officer from the Nazi regime), and a Neanderthal man.

If there’s an area where the book will likely draw criticism, it is in its treatment of female characters. Across the board, the women primarily latch on to men for protection and are not what one would call contributors to the group’s survival. In Farmer’s defense, the bulk of female characters come from the 1800’s or earlier, and from societies that were not particularly progressive in their views of gender norms. If strong female characters are essential to your enjoyment of a book, this one will leave you unsatisfied.

I very much enjoyed the “rules” of this book. Following along Burton as he discovered how various individuals seemed to be scattered around the globe in a less than random pattern, as well as what happens to individuals who die on Riverworld was fascinating. The entities responsible for Riverworld were revealed sooner than I expected (this book moves very quickly, at only 220 pages), but there was still enough mystery as to why the Riverworld even exists that I’m looking to pick up the sequels to this book in the near future.

That same mystery that remains at the end of To Your Scattered Bodies Go that makes me want to keep reading the series is also frustrating when reviewing this as a standalone piece of work (it’s basically like the end of Avengers: Infinity War this week). This book ends on a to be continued, with very little resolved for Burton or the reader. I was more entertained and interested in this book than all but my very favorite Hugo Award winners so far, but the lack of a conclusion has me hesitant to give it a an endorsement without some reservations.

4-star

“The Angel Chronicles: Vol. 3” by Nancy Holder Review

Angel 3

The Angel Chronicles: Vol. 3

Author:  Nancy Holder

Released:  1999

I’m giving this one four barrels, though as far as straightforward novelizations go this one will probably be tough to beat. It’s not really a surprise, as reliable author Nancy Holder was tasked with combining three of the ten best episodes of the series (that also fit very well together) into one installment.

I recently saw a website picking the best season of every famous tv show and even before opening it I knew season 2 of Buffy would be their choice (and it was their choice). I think most fans would have it as their consensus choice as it featured the great villains of Spike and Drusilla and later Angelus. While season 3 (Faith, the Mayor and graduation) was every bit as excellent it lacked the gut punch the end of season 2 had.

Three of the four best episodes of the season are revisited in Angel Chronicles: Volume 3 with the only one missing being the season finale. The first two are episodes 13 and 14 which were the rare “to be continued” two parter and the last was episode 17 which had the pay off to the prior two. Here you’ve got Angel and Buffy’s last perfect night together, the switch to Angelus and the biggest death of a central character yet on the show (and for my money the best done death outside of “The Body”).

The two episodes skipped through on the way to Passion were an Oz then Xander centered stories which while fun episodes were easily enough skipped with one line of exposition by Holder (“since then Willow had gotten a boyfriend”).

The reason this only gets four stars is that while the source material is awesome and the execution is spot on, as with all of these there’s not much added to what we already saw on the screen. There’s 2 pages of prologue and two pages of epilogue that frame the boom but don’t add to it and any additional benefit is in characters’ inner monologues which are fairly sparse. In other words, for die yards only.

4-star

“Running From the Deity” by Alan Dean Foster Review

Running From the Deity

Running From the Deity

Author:  Alan Dean Foster

Released:  2005

Running From the Deity by Alan Dean Foster is the tenth book chronologically in the Pip & Flinx series and continues the tradition of dropping Flinx off on an alien world and everything going to hell. Much like Jack Reacher, no matter where Flinx lands trouble follows. Here, Flinx’s spacecraft The Teacher is taxed from the events from the previous few books and must land on a planet with sufficient raw materials to commence repairs. The best option available is the planet Arrawd, home to a “primitive” society of multi-limbed sentient pixie lifeforms called the Dwarra. The only problem? The Dwarra are not advanced enough to interact with spacefaring races (they are currently at the dawn of the steam age), and there is a Commonwealth edict banning interaction with the Dwarra under effect. Flinx, who grew up a thief and possesses the only interstellar spacecraft capable of landing on a planet’s surface in the known universe, decides to risk it.

Once Flinx has landed on the surface, the plot starts to require a few leaps that seem out of character for our protagonist. For starters, Flinx leaves the ship to do some exploring and is sidetracked by a twisted ankle. I understand that the gravity on Arrawd is lower than other planets, and that requires some additional care, but this is the same protagonist who survived unscathed Midworld, where every life form was capable of killing him, as well as the camouflage predator planet of Pyrassis from Reunion. Much like the Gunslinger from Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three, it’s obvious that Foster needed an excuse to have Flinx dependent on others in order to facilitate a story about intertwining himself with this alien race. Unfortunately, the excuse he settled on didn’t feel true to the character.

The Dwarra have a few interesting aspects that make them particularly appealing to Flinx. For starters they are emotionally empathic. Unlike Flinx, this is not a constantly working ability with a wide radius, but instead is dependent on antenna touching amongst themselves. Flinx can still read these aliens emotions, but unlike all other sentient beings he has met, he can also tune them out resulting in a peaceful mental experience. Flinx ends up in a position where he heals an animal with his advanced medical technology, and the two Dwarrans who are sheltering him begin to realize the possibility of profiting from utilizing their new friends good nature/scientific resources. As word of Flinx’s miraculous abilities to heal spreads, other Dwarrans begin to worship Flinx, and others still connive to take advantage of the “deity,” or decide to attack him based on the political climate of the area.

As a standalone story in the series, this was pretty memorable. Flinx’s dilemma is how much should he help these individuals while he’s stuck there for a few weeks? He is able to heal all sorts of ailments, and since he’s not able to leave anyways what is the downside of fixing some people up? The answer of course if the effect his presence has on the behavior of the rest of the population of Arrawd. The switch in perspectives to the various High Borns (basically governors) of the tribes displayed the sort of thinking that you’d find in Napoleonic Europe or the Cold War. As the potential for war breaks out, Flinx must again improvise to save his own skin as well as avert disaster on a planetary scale.

My favorite character in the story was the netcaster (fisherman) who discovered Flinx. A simple, but good hearted man, his wife’s overbearing nature and poor decision making is the catalyst for the entire enterprise going horribly wrong, and who among us can’t related to that? The only thing in this book that ties into the larger mythology of the devastating force approaching the galaxy is a final chapter tacked onto the end catching us up with Flinx’s supporting cast. These stories are always at their best when they focus on smaller events with unique settings and this book did a nice job on both counts.

4-star

“Basketball and Other Things” by Shea Serrano Review

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Basketball and Other Things

Author:  Shea Serrano

Illustrator: Arturo Torres

Released: 2017

When I was in tenth grade, one of my favorite teachers made an assignment to participate in historical tea parties. How it worked was four students would each be assigned different historical figures. The student would need to research their person, come to class dressed up like him or her, and then eat at a tea party with the other three while the rest of the class watched. There were a few questions we needed to discuss, staying in character for how our person would have answered them. My figure was John Adams. Being a huge fan of “1776,” I basically just did an impression of William Daniels acting as John Adams for thirty minutes. Anybody whose seen the movie knows that John was “obnoxious and disliked, you know it’s so.” The character played well into my sense of humor and I had the class laughing throughout, particularly as I talked down to other people that didn’t go to Harvard. Even though I probably did less research than other people the end result was a perfect score and such a memorable performance the teacher wrote one of my recommendations for college and referenced it three years later. Sometimes personality is more important than content when it comes to conveying information.

Shea Serrano’s Basketball and Other Things reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin. No matter how much makeup, costume and special effects you cover Arnold in, you’ll never forget you’re watching Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a character. Similarly when reading Serrano on Grantland, The Ringer, and The Rap Yearbook, it does not matter what the article or chapter is about, there is never any doubt you are reading a piece by Shea Serrano. What makes a Shea Serrano article unique? In honor of his frequent article construction, let’s break down the elements:

An Introduction based around a personal anecdote – Do you see how I started this review? That’s the basic idea. Whether the chapter was about the best fictional basketball players or which player’s legacy would change the most if they had won a championship, there was always at least a little insight into the mind/history/interests of the author to set the tone for the chapter.

A set of elements or factors to consider when making a decision – Whether the question is subjecting (who would you most want to dunk on?) or seemingly objective
Funny artwork, charts, and graphs to assist in discussion – The artwork in Basketball and Other Things was once again done by Arturo Torres. Each chapter includes at least one full page, full color image that references something or somebody discussed in the chapter. The charts and graphs in this book are for the most part more informative than the ones Serrano uses in his articles on line, but there were still some funny ones mixed in.

Footnotes galore – Nearly every page in this book has footnotes at the bottom. These typically fall into two categories. 1) Informative – These are the ones where Serrano writes something like “He’s only the 4th guy to do this” and the footnote will include the other three. 2) Humorous – This is self-explanatory. My personal favorite was when making a list of the best player to never win a championship, the footnote mentioned how he could not foresee Carmelo Anthony ever winning one, which made him sad and made me happy.

A reliance on opinions over stats – It make sense that Serrano has gotten his break writing for Bill Simmons’s websites, as the two have many of the same strengths and weaknesses. Both guys like to draw comparisons to pop culture when looking at sports storylines, both wear their fandoms on the sleeve (San Antonio Spurs for Serrano), and both are not the first person would trust to decide an actual basketball intellectual argument. The difference between the two, is that Simmons unfortunately tried to do just that in his Book of Basketballwhile Serrano for the most part avoids that goal.

Overall I had a lot of fun reading this book, but it is not for everybody. The humor can be pretty juvenile (I feel like the subject of penises came up at least 6 times). Most of my favorite sections were the sections that were not even trying to be serious basketball writing. Conversely, my least favorite chapters were when Serrano wrote as straight forward as possible (specifically, the “what happened right before the big play” chapters felt like reading game recaps for 15 pages). Although I’ll shelve this book in my basketball section of my home library, it could just as easily fit in the humor section and probably succeeds more in that genre.

4-star

“Secret Histories” by F. Paul Wilson Review

Secret HistoriesSecret Histories

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Released:  2008

The young adult trilogy of Repairman Jack books kicks off with Secret Histories, also by F. Paul Wilson. Jack, last name withheld, is a teenage boy who rides around the town of Johnson, New Jersey (named as such because President Andrew Johnson stayed the night there once) with his two best friends Weezy and Eddie. Weezy is a conspiracy theorist who believe there is a secret history of the world that is being covered up, while Jack just likes hanging out with Weezy. While on one of their adventures, the three kids discover a dead body that has been mutilated and a strange cube that contains an even stranger object inside. After discovering it Jack begins to make connections about his local town and mystery of the death and object.

As a prequel series to the Repairman Jack series, Wilson has some interesting opportunities and challenges to work with. In the adult series, we never really discover how Jack becomes such a formidable individual. How does he become a master of being incognito, using weapons, defending himself and solving mysteries? When the first book, The Tomb (1984) begins, Jack is already adept at performing “Fix-its” for people, is living under the radar, and has all the same skills he is using by the end of the series. He also has a supporting cast of characters that he already has history with (Gia his girlfriend, Abe the arm’s dealer, and Julio the barkeep being the primary three). Being published in 2008, there were also 11 or 12 books worth of books exploring Jack’s mindset, and we know the fates of his mother, father, brother and sister already, but not much about their youths.

The largest challenge Wilson faces though is that his series is a supernatural one, and Jack enters The Tomb as a skeptic. As readers, we’ve either had 24 years or 11 novels of work to see Jack evolve from a skeptic to a believer regarding things like the Adversary, the Otherness, the Ally, and Mother. It doesn’t make any sense for him to experience supernatural events in the prequel novels, or else he would not be a skeptic when The Tomb begins. Wilson obviously wants to tie events from Jack’s youth to his adventures in the present, so he must walk a tightrope of having the absurd occur but have Jack not believe or remember what he experiences when he is older.

For the most part, he succeeds on both levels in this book. Jack begins to collect skills (lock picking, fix-its) and a moral compass, while not being totally aware of the supernatural events happening around him. The closest he gets to being a believer is seeing a shadowy movement at night time and an apparent government cover up, however both are certainly events that could be explained away by an adult remembering the fancies of childhood later on. Wilson also does a nice job of developing Jack’s dad and brother Tom as characters, foreshadowing the sorts of men they will be when Jack is an adult. Unfortunately his mother and sister Kate are both as one dimensional here as they are (based on what we know of them) in the adult books.

I imagine it will be more difficult to read the next two books and still believe Jack is a skeptic when he is an adult. On top of that, Wilson has written a second prequel series about Jack’s first years in New York that will likely add to that problem (while probably focusing on this supporting non-family characters in the adult books). As a standalone book this one is very fun however. Jack’s fix involving his friend Steve is as brilliant as anything he comes up with as an adult, and what we know of the mystery is enough to keep the reader anticipating the next adventure.

4-star