Category: 4 Barrels

“The Late Show” by Michael Connelly Review

Late Show

The Late Show

Author:  Michael Connelly

Released:  2017

I was loaned this book by a coworker who knows I’m a big reader. I’ve previously read one book by Michael Connelly and remember it was OK, but don’t remember anything else about it except that I read it before I used Goodreads to track my reading. I’ve generally stayed away from writers that I think of as supermarket specialists (the writers whose books I can find for sale in my local grocery store), and Connelly comes to mind in that group along with guys like James Patterson or Jodi Picoult. But, I’m also a person who never turns down a free book (or an opportunity to talk about it afterwards) so here I go.

First, on the positive side this was a very quick read and had plenty of cliffhangers at the end of chapters to get you turning the page. The book is about a late shift detective and follows her investigating three separate cases that she responds to on one evening. The book takes place over a few days, and she respond to some other calls later on, but primarily all the forward moment of the plot goes back to those first three dispatches: a woman reports her home as been burglarized; a transgender prostitute is beaten nearly to death; and a shooting at a club leaves 5 dead.

Of the three mysteries, the latter two take up the bulk of the plot. Renee Ballard is a former journalist and relentless worker and two of the mysteries don’t even take a lot of work to solve. (When I say relentless, I mean over the course of about a week, I can think of her not working on five occasions: twice by sleeping, twice by surfing and once for a family dinner.) Besides the mysteries Ballard throws herself into, there is also some drama in the former of a corrupt Lieutenant that Ballard shares history with with she was sexually harassed by him and then demoted as a result of reporting the incident.

As a page turning action story this book completely succeeded in keeping my attention and making me want to keep reading. As a mystery story this was a letdown however. I figured out the main mystery as soon as the suspect was introduced as a character, and the two smaller cases Ballard is working are solved by her by running records checks and are never something the reader can figure out. (Those are more realistic than most mystery stories but they also take a lot of the fun out of the genre.) The biggest mystery for me even went unsolved (how a certain villain knew Ballard was on to her and how to take advantage… I suspected the predictable secret villain was behind it but it was never answered one way or another. Possibly coming in a sequel?). I’ll judge the book more on what it delivered than what I expected prior to reading it, so overall I enjoyed it.

4-star

Advertisements

“Sharpe’s Regiment” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Regiment

Sharpe’s Regiment

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Released:  1986

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

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

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

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

4-star

“We Are the Ants” by Shaun David Hutchinson Review

We Are the Ants

We Are the Ants

Author:  Shaun David Hutchinson

Released: 2016

This is another book I read based on a year end recommendation of best books read by a Goodreads reviewer. The reviewer in this instance was the always entertaining Emily May, who picked this as her best science fiction read from last year (I went out in early January and bought a stack of books that reviewers picked as their favorites from the prior year… I think I’ve got 1 or 2 left that I’ll hopefully finish before the Best of 2017 lists start).

We Are the Ants is a young adult story about a teenage boy who is heartbroken because he no longer has a romantic partner, and slowly falls in love with the mysterious new transfer student. In its simplest terms, that’s a basic/familar story. The Killers have just released a new song called “Have All the Songs Been Written,” and sometimes I feel like that’s a common enough worry with books, films, music, etc. that every idea has been explored at this point. It’s wrong of course. Hutchinson shows how even a common idea for a story arc can be explored in very unique ways.

What makes this book so different? For starters, the protagonist (Henry) has some interesting problems beyond the typical young adult lead. Right off the bat, we learn that he is frequently abducted by aliens who keep him for various lengths of time before releasing him back to his home town in different locations with little or no clothing on. His lost love died via suicide. His home includes a sadist brother, a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, and a mom that seems to be hanging on by a thread.

The protagonist is also gay in this book. I say it as kind of an afterthought, because it’s not really an issue for him but it certainly stands out in terms of the normal lead characters in the genre. For all of the reasons that Henry is abused by his classmates and brother, his sexuality is not one of them. There are a few closeted characters in the novel, but even they don’t seem motivated in their actions by any worry about what other people will think about them being gay. The end result is a nice accomplishment in terms of “why can’t I see this type of person represented in this type of story.” I would describe this book as a story with science fiction elements that primarily deals with grief that happens to have a gay protagonist.

Overall I really enjoyed this book, but I also groaned several times because of the defeatist attitude of the protagonist. Henry is a character that will look for any chance to find a reason to be sad. His former boyfriend, Jesse, is deceased when the book begins but is probably the second most frequently discussed character, easily rivaling Diego, Henry’s possible new love interest. I get that so much of this book is about how questions go unanswered (Henry frequently tries to understand why Jesse killed himself and why his dad left their family), but it was difficult to root for a character that sees himself as a doormat. Henry has people that obviously care about him to varying degrees (his best friend Audrey, new friend Diego, his mom, brother, his brother’s girlfriend Zooey, his teacher Ms. Feraci, even the sadistic bully Marcus), but rather than talk to any of them about how to improve his situation he either wants to discuss how awful it is that Jesse’s gone or internalize his grief into reasons he wants the world to end.

The world ending and the alien abduction technically make this a science fiction story, but if you are coming to this book wanting a science fiction story you’ll probably be disappointed. However, if you settle in for a tale about grief and teenage drama, there’s an engrossing story and a quick read that’s pretty rewarding.

“Songbook” by Nick Hornby Review

songbook

Songbook

Author:  Nick Hornby

Released:  2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-star

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

The Drawing of the Three

The Drawing of the Three: The Dark Tower II

Author:  Stephen King

Released: 1987

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

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

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

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

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

4-star

“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