Category: Recommended by Other People

“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

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“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.

“Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters Review

Underground Airlines

Underground Airlines

Author:  Ben H. Winters

Published:  2016

I got this book as part of my Brilliant Books “Book of the Month Club.” For the first time, I’ve received a book I’d actually been aware of by reputation, as this book has been mentioned in several publications as a point of reference for discussing an in development HBO show also about an alternative history where slavery was never abolished. That show is causing many to voice their opinions on the merits of fiction focusing on alternate histories that White Supremacists might enjoy.

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I’m firmly against censorship of thought, so as a rule I think any story can be worth telling. I understand the concerns that certain viewers/readers will take away the wrong things from certain controversial subject matter, but I think in most cases the authorial intent and execution are the only worthwhile basis for criticizing artwork, not what some a-holes make of it afterwards. That being the case, I went into this book open minded and hopeful that it would be an enjoyable story.

As for the book itself, it mostly delivered but also felt like a missed opportunity. This was a quick read and features about 2/3 of the book in the free state of Indiana and the other 1/3 in a southern slave state, all told through the first person perspective. The main character is an escaped slave who is caught and given the choice to be killed or sold back into slavery or to work for the U.S. Marshalls catching other escaped slaves. The book focuses on his assignment to catch a recent escapee named Jackdaw who has made it to Indiana using the famous “Underground Airlines” although early on the protagonist begins noticing things that don’t add up in his investigation. Along the way there is also a subplot with a white woman and her mixed race son who have their own adjacent mission and secrets.

I called this book a missed opportunity because it reads like a mystery novella but consistently feels like a story that would benefit from a more extensive examination. On the micro level, the mystery is solved fairly quickly, but the bigger issue is Victor (the main character who goes by many names) is not developed as somebody that all these racist white people would need to solve their problems. How did he become the only man for such an important/sensitive mission. There are some flashbacks included in this story, but all they do is provide reasons why Victor would not be trusted for this. These issues are probably fair to complain about, as it’s the story Winters wants to tell and I was left with doubts and questions at its conclusion.

Less fair to complain about are the details on the macro level, but I’ll do it anyway. Winters details some variations in U.S. history (Lincoln’s assassination prior to taking office, a compromise that allowed for continued Slavery) but basically leaves the period between 1860 and present day a mystery with a few exceptions (some references to still bombing Japan in WWII, another war for Texas independence, and several famous African Americans now living in Canada). While Winters decided to keep this an intimate story about one man’s internal conflict and mission, as a reader I was left with a million questions I would have rather had answered regarding what happened to famous people/events during this fictional timeline.

The ending of this book provided a few twists that were not easy to see coming, though it was mainly due to very little time being spent with the characters that provide them. Still, this is definitely a book that was memorable enough and different enough from other stories that I’m glad I read it. It made me think of American history and how I would expect things to diverge compared to the author’s version, and it also lined up nicely with the James Buchanan biography I was finishing at the same time which dealt with the exact diverging time period. However, my biggest takeaway was that of a missed opportunity to do so much more with a very interesting subject than what was actually delivered.

**Note – I gained some additional enjoyment of this book from it taking place in Indianapolis and mentioning landmarks that I’ve seen or traveled on. Non-Hoosiers may find it less interesting by comparison.**

3-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

“The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus by David Anthony Durham Review

The Risen

The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus

Author:  David Anthony Durham

Published:  2016

This was the third book I received from the Brilliant Book of the Month Club, and it was by far the best. The Risen is a retelling of the story of Spartacus, historical fiction done in the style of Game of Thrones. I base the GOT comparisons on the rotating cast of perspective characters that Durham utilizes to tell this story. Unlike GOT however, The Risen avoids a lot of the tedium and pacing issues that have dogged George R.R. Martin’s more recent works.

One third of the way through, I was keeping a list of the characters and assigning an actor to each one just so I could keep them straight. Thankfully, between 300, Troy, Game of Thrones, and a host of other swords and sandals epics I had plenty of cool actors to populate the cast. The book is broken up into three sections, with (as best as I can tell) one chapter per each section devoted to each of the perspective characters. Unlike GOT, the characters are almost all on the side of Spartacus, with two exceptions: Nonus (a cowardly Roman who reminded me of Theon Greyjoy) and Kaleb (a slave to Spartacus’s main rival Crassus). The rest of the perspective characters include obvious choices like Spartacus and Castus, as well as more diverse individuals like Vectia (an elderly woman who serves as a guide), Sura (a priestess to Kotis) and Philon (a greek medic slave).

Whereas my initial interactions with some of the characters made them difficult to differentiate (Castus and Dolmos seemed particularly bland in the early going), Durham does a fantastic job of giving each character a distinct viewpoint, history and motivation for their actions going forward. Durham also does a great job of pacing his reveals within his chapters, generally by beginning each new chapter by jumping ahead in the action and then filling in the blanks in intervals throughout. When characters begin to betray each other, or fall during battle, the reader is often made to wait several pages to find out who is involved in the action. I’d find this to be a problem in a different book, but here the plot moves so quickly that it never felt like a trick.

I was also reminded of Brandon Sanderson while reading this book, as by the end of it I had a clear idea of the plotting that went into it by the author. Each character introduced was necessary to the plot and contributed to the narrative in an essential way. My favorite chapters ended up involving Kaleb (who served as a stand in for any of the millions of people who could have led to a different outcome for the Risen) and Dolmos (who reminded me of Ned Stark by the end of it). I’d recommend this book to any fans of historical fiction or fans of the Roman era in history.

5-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

“I”m Thinking of Ending Things” by Iain Reid Review

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Author:  Iain Reid

Release Date: 2016

I'm thinking of ending things

“You will be scared, but you won’t know why.”

That’s the entire plot description on the back of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” an Award winning debut novel by Iain Reid. The rest of the book jacket is covered with glowing reviews and endorsements. There’s also a picture of a car covered in snow on the cover, and the words “A novel” handwritten on the bottom corner. Obviously the author and publisher feel the less you know going into this book the more you will enjoy it. While I never read the back of a book before purchasing/reading, I decided to check this one out after finishing it to see how they advertised it to readers because it’s the sort of book that will infuriate plenty of them.

I’m going to spoil the end of the book later on in this review, so here are some discussion questions for the group for if you should continue reading on through the spoilers. In order or relevance:

1) Did you enjoy either of the following movies “Shutter Island” or “Identity?”
2) Do you enjoy playing games likes Resident Evil and wish you could read a recap of the one of the levels from the perspective of the playable character?
3) Does spending nearly half a book on a two hour car ride with an unnamed narrator and her know it all boyfriend sound like a deal breaker up front?

How did you answer? If you enjoyed those two movies, I think you’ll probably enjoy this book. When I saw each of those, I was like McKayla Maroney on the podium (for those in the future, that’s a meme joke from a few years back that equals “not impressed”). It wasn’t that the stories were bad or the execution was poor. The problem with both of them was when they were released. After years of movies with (similar) twist endings, as a viewer I was conditioned to predict/expect the twist. But I was then double conditioned to be disappointed that it was the same twist I predicted. Those two films weren’t exactly Titanic, so if you missed both of them hopefully you’ll get my larger point from the context they’re mentioned. If I mention the earlier films with twist endings that were more popular, I’d just be spoiling the book by analogy.

The Resident Evil question will probably leave even more people scratching their heads. For the non-gamers out there, there is a whole genre of video games that capitalize on the horror genre. In them, the protagonist wanders out around quiet and seemingly empty structures aware that at any moment their death can be around the corner in some gruesome manner. For one excruciatingly long stretch of this book it felt like I was stuck inside one of those levels and it ended up souring me overall on its enjoyment. Even as a fan of horror movies, reading about a character wandering the halls of an empty building for 25 pages never felt at all suspenseful.

For many reviewers, the long car ride up front kept them from ever enjoying this book. I ranked that question third, because as revealed in the discussion questions section at the end of the book it was author Iain Reid’s favorite part to write and I personally did not mind it. My main critique from it was that the development of the narrator felt inorganic through so many memories being brought up. As a reader I knew right away I was being manipulated by the author. Before I knew the reveal at the end, this section (and to a lesser extent the arrival at the farm) were both fine. There were some interesting philosophical discussions and some good use of language that kept the otherwise routine undertaking from feeling tedious.

If you’re this far in and you don’t want to know what happens, I’ll wrap this up by saying that overall this book did not work for me. The ending felt predictable, with way too much buildup for a twist that was not only foreseeable but also the only logical way to wrap things up once the unnamed narrator sees the pictures at Jake’s house. While the writing was enjoyable during conversations, it did not work succeed at creating suspense in what should have been a terrifying situation.

**Spoilers Follow**

There is a subplot running through this book that never really goes anywhere. The narrator (whose name is not Steph, but could literally be anything else) is getting cryptic phone calls and mysterious voice mail from a male caller. She mentions that the caller ID states it is coming from her own phone number but she’s not sharing that with anybody. At that point I thought I saw a “Fight Club” twist coming on but hoped I’d be surprised by something else. (I didn’t mention “Fight Club” because everybody knows that twist, whereas if you’ve seen and remember “Identity” or “Shutter Island” you’ve been subjected to numerous similar twists and will see it coming). By the time the main character gets to the farm and sees a picture of herself, hears Jake do an exact impression of her, and experiences several continuity errors with the parents it’s obvious that she and Jake are one and the same.

Although that revelation is not confirmed until the final few pages, the entire sequence in the empty high school suffers as a result of that revelation hanging in the air. There is never any suspense that the narrator is in danger. The narrator directly stating “you can’t know how terrified I am because only somebody as alone in a situation like this would understand” only highlights how not terrified the reader is. Reid would be better served ignoring the twist ending unless it is more original than the one he employs here. Unfortunately the negatives in terms of predictability and lack of suspense outweigh the better scenes sprinkled throughout.

**Note – This is the second book I received as part of the Brilliant Books monthly Book subscription program. While I wasn’t a big fan of the book, I appreciate that it was a different genre from the first one and not a new release, so I have no idea what will be getting shipped to my house next.

2-star