Category: 4 Barrels

“The Fever” by Megan Abbott Review

The Fever

The Fever

Author:  Megan Abbott

Released:  2014

This was the second book I’ve read by Megan Abbott, following the entertaining Dare Me. Based just on these two books, I would describe her genre as adult fiction focusing on teenage girls involved in murder plots. Nick Hornby turned me on to Ms. Abbott, and I’m glad he did. Abbott has a habit of making the locations and setting of the books feel like they could take place anywhere, and any time (after the invention of cell phones). I’m surprised more of them haven’t been turned into movies yet.

The Fever is follows around several characters with very connected lives. The main character is Deenie, a teenage girl whose best friends (Lise, Gabby), occasional rival (Skye) and family (dad Tom and brother Eli) comprise the rest of the perspective characters. When Lise has a medical emergency in school, everybody is shocked and worried as she ends up in a coma with life threatening symptoms. However, when Gabby also has a medical episode at school the worry spreads to panic. When a third girl begins to get sick, the titular fever has become a craze among the students, parents and faculty of the school.

My biggest complaint with this book was that despite the seriousness of the situation for all the girls involved, they preferred to keep everything so secret that it really hamstrung everybody from finding out what was wrong. In particular, there is a huge reluctance to discuss having swam in a possibly contaminated lake. I understand the characters were not supposed to swim in the lake but when it looks like people could be dying it seems like the type of detail you’d want to mention to a medical professional. (I won’t spoil whether that ends up being pertinent or not.)

Abbott delayed providing answers for so long that I started to get antsy about whether the payoff would be worth it. Surprisingly it was, and I didn’t find it as predictable as the ending of Dare Me; here I guessed what was wrong with most of the girls but did not figure the initiating event ahead of time. The character that really stood out to me was Skye, particularly with how Deenie was instantly jealous of/threatened by her. It was the sort of thing that felt much more authentic that what I find in books with teenage characters. There was also a very sexual component to the book that was handled much better than I usually find in writing. The characters are all aware of/interested in sex, but Abbott doesn’t spend time detailing the exploits beyond telling the reader what’s happening.

I’ve read some other reviews where people have problems with the character Tom, particularly how he leers at some of Deenie’s teenage friends. While each of Abbott’s characters was flawed in certain ways in this book (jealousy, selfishness, dishonesty being the most common), Tom’s flaws seemed to revolve around his relationships with women. The leering behavior amounted to three or four sentences throughout the book (much more, if you count an adult french teacher) and contributed to his feeling like a fully formed character instead of just the great dad that stuck around when mom didn’t. All of the characters felt like real people, likable at times but not all the time.

4-star

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“The Valley of Horses” by Jean M. Auel Review

Valley of Horses

The Valley of Horses

Author:  Jean M. Auel

Released: 1982

My favorite book I read last year was The Clan of the Cave Bear, so I was very excited to dive in to its sequel The Valley of Horses. While I still enjoyed this book, it was definitely a notch below in my enjoyment level. I can pinpoint exactly why it didn’t work for me, and the reason is spelled J O N D A L A R.

Before I complain more about him however, I’ll sing some more praise for this series. I love the character of Ayla. A human child raised by Neanderthals, she is Tarzan and the Cesar Milar rolled into one. Auel does a fantastic job of explaining how Ayla comes to be so special in all her skills, as a way of compensating for how her mind worked differently from those that raised her. Over the course of this novel, Ayla comes up with new weapons and tools unlike anything used by either form of man, and continues her tradition of taking in small animals (but this time with much larger creatures). Even without the supporting cast of characters from the first novel, Ayla can carry a story on her own just fine.

Half of the novel follows Ayla, the other half follows two normal (cro magnon) men named Jondaloar and Thonolan. These are our first characters from our race that we meet in this series, and the two brothers are taking an extended journey together over a period of three years. We always know that one or both characters is on a collision course with Ayla, but unfortunately until that happens the two men are nowhere near as fascinating as the book’s other protagonist. Thonolan is OK. He’s a normal man who has a good sense of humor and is looking for love. I found him to be fairly easy to relate to.

His brother is Jondalar. I can only describe him as Christian Grey from prehistoric times (minus the bondage) (so far). Jondalar is tall, blonde, with blue eyes and every woman wants to have sex with him. It’s a good thing too, because if there’s one thing Jondalar is awesome at it’s having sex. For starters, he’s got a giant penis, which Auel references frequently throughout the book. More importantly though, he’s an expert at pleasuring females. Jondalar is often called on to be the first mate for young females because he is a generous lover and makes it so wonderful for them. Sure he also makes tools and is a good brother, but as somebody calls him later in the book he is a “woman maker.”

There was sex in the first book of the series, however it was almost animal in its quality (and considering Ayla was 11 when it took place the sex was particularly awful in its circumstances). In The Valley of the Horses Jondalar brings pleasure to virgins, widows, and everything in between, with a seeming special circumstance for every intercourse interlude. It was so much sex at times that I longed for another discussion of tool making with stone and sinew. In addition, Jondalar was particularly understanding and sensitive for all other issues. Compared to the men of the first books Clan, this particular character didn’t feel real for his time period.

If this book was just the pages with Ayla, I’d probably still give it a five, even with the end of the book having some of the over the top issues mentioned above. If it was just the Jondalar and Thonolan story, it’s be closer to a 2. I’m giving the book a four, but it’s actually more of a 3.5 for the exact scorers out there.

4-star

“Funny Girl” by Nick Hornby Review

 

Funny Girl

Funny Girl

Author:  Nick Hornby

Released:  2014

I never read the backs of books prior to reading them, but based on the title Funny Girl by Nick Hornby was not really what I was expecting. Beginning the book, as it followed a young woman in the 1960’s named Barbara who wants to follow in the footsteps of Lucille Ball, I was expecting a story that followed her as the protagonist as she dealt with the trials and tribulations of that pursuit. While there is some of that to be found here, Barbara strikes it big pretty early and then the perspectives shift to include her co-star Clive, two show writers Bill and Tony and director Dennis as well.

As Barbara leaves small town Blackpool, she comes to London where she gets a job in a department store before finding an agent to send her out on prospective modeling and acting jobs. The funniest scene in the entire book happens early on in this phase when Barbara goes out on a double date with a married man whose buddy brings along his wife in what was obviously a miscommunication between the two men. After Barbara’s tv show hits it big, Clive has to deal with being the (and Jim) of tv show “Barbara (and Jim),” Dennis has to come to terms with his wife sleeping with his professional enemy, and Tony and Bill must juggle their professional life with their secret private ones.

The result of the shifting perspectives is that the plot moves fairly briskly in this book but it is difficult to get invested in the plight of any one character. The love triangle of Barbara (Sophie), Clive and Dennis in particular did not feel fully fleshed out. I get that Dennis would fall for somebody like Sophie right away, but Sophie’s relationship with both Clive and Dennis sometimes felt like a male fantasy of what pining for a woman can result in.

That’s not to say that the book was not an enjoyable read, because as with most of Hornby’s writing the best part about it is the humor interspersed throughout. The setting of creating a comedy show, writing for it and developing it allowed for plenty of great scenes (particularly, having two closeted gay writers responsible for handling a long form story about a newly wed straight couple). The book also featured a flash forward Six Feet Under style ending that provided some great finality to the story and added some much needed pathos. This was middle of the road Hornby, certainly not as great as something like High Fidelity but a delight nonetheless.

4-star

“The Terror” by Dan Simmons Review

Terror

The Terror

Author:  Dan Simmons

Released:  2007

He knew something that the men did not; namely that the Devil trying to kill them up here in the Devil’s Kingdom was not just the white-furred thing killing and eating them one be one, but everything here — the unrelenting cold, the squeezing ice, the electrical storms, the uncanny lack of seals and whales and birds and walruses and land animals, the endless encroachment of the pack ice, the bergs that plowed their way through the solid white sea not even leaving a single ship’s length lee of open water behind them, the sudden white-earthquake up-eruption of pressure ridges, the dancing stars, the shoddily tinned cans of food now turned to poison, the summers that did not come, the leads that did not open — everything. The monster on the ice was just another manifestation of a devil that wanted them dead. And that wanted them to suffer. Pg. 198

The Terror by Dan Simmons tells the story of the missing ships from Captain John Franklin’s expedition through the northwest passage in the mid 1800’s. If you’re like me and don’t know anything about the actual event from history, this just reads like great historical fiction. The fact that most of the characters are based on real life figures adds to the intrigue. I routinely found myself surprised when important characters would die violently and suddenly. And oh, how many ways there are to die in this book.

The very first chapter of the book begins with the ships stuck in ice and the expedition already gone terribly wrong. I don’t consider it spoilers to say that this is a book where a lot of people die in a variety of ways. The two ships are frozen in the ice for the bulk of the novel, and the crew are forced to deal with all the usual threats of being alone at sea (storms, starvation, scurvy) as well as a seemingly invulnerable beast that can appear and disappear at a moment’s notice. Although it’s tempting to shelve this book next to something like Jaws, I’d say it actually belongs more with the werewolves and vampires section.

For me, that distinction is where The Terror dropped off from a phenomenal book to merely a very good one. I was totally on board with everything that was going on in the book, but felt the ultimate explanation via history of the world of Eskimos took away more than it added. Despite my love of David Lynch, one thing I’m not a huge fan of in books is a dream sequence. I kind of rolled my eyes through the Sir Francis Crozier dream sequences early on, but by the time he’s living folklore in his dreams it was way too much abstract storytelling for my taste.

That minor complaint aside, this was a really great book. The details about the weather, jobs on the ship, and packing for a long trip all felt authentic. It’s the type of fiction that probably left me with a more memorable impression for the era than a non-fiction book because the imagery was so vivid. For a book with over a hundred characters, there were several great characters to stand out among the plethora of red shirts. However, the characters were always secondary to the unique atmosphere. The shifting perspectives throughout the book made sure that no character was more important than the struggle for survival. The Terror is a great title for the book, both he namesake of one of the two ships and an accurate summary of the final years of the expedition as described by Simmons.

4-star

“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

“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