Tag: every book

“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

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“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 Dark Half” by Stephen King Review

Dark Half

The Dark Half

Author:  Stephen King

Published:  1989

There’s a term in sports called value over replacement player. Essentially it boils down to comparing how a player’s production compares to the average performance a team can expect when trying to replace a player at minimal cost, or by using “freely available talent.” (Thank you Wikipedia for the handy summary.) Because sports fans are crazy, we love trying to figure out what real life player in a given season is the best example of the fictional replacement player concept. The idea of replacement level can be applied to just about anything. What’s a replacement level hamburger? Probably McDonalds or Wendys, certainly not a gourmet burger from your favorite food truck. What’s a replacement level beer? Miller Light? The idea is there are players, burgers, beers, etc. that are worse than replacement level (hello Keystone Light), so it’s not necessarily an insult.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that after reading 26 Stephen King books, The Dark Half is my pick for a replacement level Stephen King book. What sort of qualities would you expect in an average Stephen King book? Takes place in Castle Rock, Maine? Check. Features a writer as the protagonist? Check. Borrows liberally from Stephen King’s own life? Roger that. Ends when the action does, leaving the reader wondering how the hell everybody explains what happened? Unfortunately. In a broader sense, the plot to many of his books could be described as _________ is an evil entity that kills people violently and can only be stopped by our protagonist. It could be the plot to Christine, It, Salem’s Lot, or The Tommyknockers. Here the blank is filled by “an author’s pen name.” The Dark Half is worse than most of those books (not The Tommyknockers) and felt more like an author going through the motions than any of them.

The plot of The Dark Half is about author Thad Beaumont who has just said goodbye to his author pseudonym George Stark. Thad is a klutzy, mild mannered father of twins who has written two moderately acclaimed but unsuccessful books under his own name, and several very popular violent crime books under his pen name. What the general public doesn’t know about Thad, is that when he writes as George he seems like a different person to his wife. He’s short tempered and his mannerisms are even different. They almost match the fictional backstory he’s crafted for Stark, as a man whose spent time in prison and is “not a very nice guy.” Following a People Magazine story about Beaumont figuratively burying Stark, a series of gruesome murders occur that are certainly linked to Beaumont but are even closer related to Stark.

The backstory of The Dark Half is as interesting as anything that occurs in the book. Prior to writing this book, King had occasionally released books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. My understanding of why he did this was because there was a concern he would cannibalize or flood his own market by releasing so many books under his own name. In addition, King wanted to know if his writing was strong enough to sell on its own without his name behind it. Apparently a store clerk discovered King’s secret before the experiment could fully play out much in the same way that Thad Beaumont’s secret is found out in the Dark Half. The problem with centering the plot of the book around this sort of situation is that at times it felt a little too inside baseball for my taste. While we can all relate to driving cars, seeing clowns or even being eaten by vampires, the author/pen name dynamic felt more like an exercise in King’s writing chops than a story that would grab the general readership.

I did enjoy the police response in this book, as the officers were put in an interesting situation where all the evidence provided one explanation that was either impossible or easily proven false. The other main character in the book is a local sheriff who probably ends up believing in the impossible much sooner than I would have, but it was better to read about him than the typical stubborn (and wrong) law enforcement characters in most fiction. Thad’s wife Liz also gets to participate in a good bit of the action later on, and is proactive enough that her own storyline stays as interesting as Thad’s.

As a villain, Stark was also middle of the road. His motivation fluctuated between revenge and survival but his personality did not really develop beyond evil and mean. As described by King, his appearance was memorable, particularly as his condition regressed. The very nature of Stark made for a difficult character to get a grasp on. Somebody who is not real/ is having a horrific Marty McFly during “Johnny B. Good” performance moment but who also has to be able to overpower others and recover from mortal injuries requires huge suspension of disbelief from the reader. I had an easier time ascribing those qualities to a car in Christine than I did to a pseudonym.

3 star

“The Angel Chronicles, Vol. 1” by Nancy Holder Review

Angel Chronicles 1

The Angel Chronicles Vol. 1

Author:  Nancy Holder

Released:  1998

There are a set of Buffy novelizations that are coming up in my reading order that focus on one of the supporting characters in the Scooby gang. Each book selects a few episodes that feature the chosen character prominently and do a novelization of those episodes. The Angel Chronicles is obviously about Angel and featured a two paragraph framing device prior to the first episode and another one after the final one that didn’t add anything to the story but served to remind the reader that they had indeed just read a book of stories about Angel.

The three episodes revisited in this book are “Angel,” “Reptile Boy,” and “Lie to Me.” I recalled the first two pretty well by their titles just from having watched the series a few times, but the third one didn’t ring any bells until I got to the club of vampire wannabes. As far as episode quality, none are among the best episodes of the series, although “Angel” is certainly one of the more important ones.

In “Angel,” Buffy learns that her mysterious and charming admirer is actually a vampire and the two of them must confront Darla in an abandoned Bronze shootout (this was a first season episode where I imagine budgetary constraints led all fights to taking place in the Bronze). For me the most memorable part of the episode is the crucifix kiss at the end which was nicely detailed in the book. “Reptile Boy” was a fun episode about Buffy and Cordelia being sacrificed to a demon at a frat party, and more than either of the other stories benefitted from this treatment but not for anything Angel related. Here Xander’s jealousy and scheming at the end play well in a prose format. “Lie to Me,” is about an old friend of Buffy’s reappearance and a club of people interested in becoming vampires. As a written story, this one felt the most rushed and the opening scene of Angel and Drusilla is never explained and is an odd story to end the book on.

My biggest problem with this book is that the format seems like such a missed opportunity. If they were going to do quick novelizations all dedicated to one character, more space devoted to that character’s perspective on the events would have been appreciated. The episodes selected range from the episode 7 of season one to episode 7 of season two (13 episodes in between). As a reader it’s a bit jarring to have Buffy fall in love with a guy who lies to her in story one, then won’t go out with her in story two, then is seen kissing another girl in story three, at which point Buffy then decides she loves him. I suspect my enjoyment of these books will depend a lot on the quality of the episode being revisited, but overall I’m not expecting any of these to serve as standouts in the history of Buffy prose novels.

3-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

“Night Terrors” by Alice Henderson Review

Night Terrors

Night Terrors (A Stake Your Destiny Buffy Book)

Author: Alice Henderson

Published:  2005

Maybe I’m biased because I made it through this book to a happy ending on my first try, but this was my favorite of the Stake Your Destiny Buffy books. I wrote in my review forKeep Me In Mind that “the entire thing reads like a long dream sequence (I hate dream sequences).” Night Terrorsactually featured a lengthy dream sequence so now I’m reevaluating my stance on the topic. I think the problem with Keep Me In Mind was that the entire book felt like a training drill with zero stakes (sorry, bad pun… how about consequences) for the reader. In Night Terrors I was making what I felt was the best choice each time but I constantly felt like I was leading Buffy to her death as the plot got weirder and wackier.

The plot of Night Terrors is that people around Sunnydale are getting sleepy, and feeling paralyzed in their sleep but feeling as though they are awake. It starts off affecting Buffy but spreads to others like Angel and her classmates. As Buffy feels like something is sitting on top of her, and that she’s not alone in her room, she lies paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. Once the feeling has passed, we’re given the choice of going to find Angel, going out on a patrol, or studying for a test that day that we’ve so far neglected. The choice is simple enough, but right away the book at least gave options that felt either more authentic to how Buffy would behave in the tv series or that an average reader would consider in her place (the previous Stake Your Destiny books have seemed addicted to offering a day spent with Cordelia right out of the gate).

**Slight Spoilers follow**

I flipped around when I was finished and saw other happy endings possible for the reader, and since it’s difficult to review this book without giving away the track I followed, reader beware. I started off patrolling before ending up heading toward the gym at Principal Snyder’s direction. Before I got there I decided to check on a crying student. After I learned more from the Scoobies, I decided to sleep and confront the Night Terror right away (my thinking being that staying up would just lead to a later confrontation with a tired and weakened slayer). After entering the dream world, I tried to locate Willow to communicate with the other spirits. When that was a dead end, I decided to Trust Ned, the man from Planet X who worked with the Lava people and build a dreamcatcher to catch the Night Terror.

For those following along, yeah that took a turn well away from anything in the series. I can only say that the alternative options presented to me seemed like tricks by the enemy, and that my path resulted in a happy ending. Spending about one third of this story in an anything goes dream world actually felt more like an episode of the tv series than one would thing just from reading that recap. In particular, it felt like the season four finale where Willow, Buffy, and Xander are encountering the First Slayer in their sleep.

**End of spoilers**

Besides feeling like a fun episode of the series and rewarding my obviously excellent choices based on years of watching the show and reading the books and comics, Night Terrorsalso benefitted by not having the ultra predictable page numbering problem present in some of the other Stake Your Destiny books. I jumped into the last 200 pages fairly early and often my two choices were close enough in page numbering to not give away which way the book was steering me. Although I wouldn’t put this book up there withDune or East of Eden, I’ve now read all of the Stake Your Destiny books and this was the only one that I didn’t come away from with grievances, and I actually had a really fun time reading it. That earns a perfect score from this reader.

3-star

Rank the Author: Bret Easton Ellis

Making his debut at age 21 with the dark and twisted “Less Than Zero,” Bret Easton Ellis is one of the few authors to achieve both celebrity level fame and vitriol in equal levels throughout his career.  For many, his stories are written simply to shock and titillate from a misogynistic viewpoint.  For others he is the master of populating the page with terrible human beings that draw the reader into their sordid affairs.  As part of the literary brat pack (with Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney), Ellis is also often linked to Generation Xers and his more contemporary works have suffered comparatively by most critical measures.

 When deciding how to read Ellis’s bibliography, part of the fun is in the use of shared characters and settings mainly by reference.  Much like Stephen King and his small towns in Maine, characters in Ellis’s work often know about events from other books or interact with characters from Ellis’s (and even other authors) earlier novels.  For that reason, a fun way to read his works is chronological order, starting with Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, Glamorama, and Imperial Bedrooms.  The Informers and Lunar Park don’t take place in the same reality as those books, so if you are going this route I would read The Informers first and end things with Lunar Park.  If you are not interested in diving into the entirety of Ellis’s catalog, here’s how I would rank his books overall, from worst to best:

 Glamorama

7.  Glamorama

Release Date: 1998

 I would describe the plot of this book as Zoolander in the style of Guy Ritchie.  Models being used as killers with numerous identity deceptions and possible double identities… even trying to recall the plot is a recipe for a headache.  The biggest problems with the book are that the beginning takes a long time to get to the plot of the book, that plot is completely outlandish, and then Ellis never seems to be willing to wrap it up.  Even hardcore fans of the author seem to agree that at 500 pages the story meanders.  Recurring metaphors don’t really work either as they are drowned out by lengthy descriptions of drug use and ménage a trios.  My only enjoyment in reading it was the numerous ties it had to other Ellis works, none of which were worth the time spent getting through this disappointing book.

the informers

6 . The Informers

Release Date: 1994

 The only other book by Brett Easton Ellis that I would describe as skippable, even for fans of his writing style.  The Informers is a collection of short stories that are seemingly unconnected (though not totally) that often withholds the name of the narrator of the stories making the actual connections more troubling to put together than they are worth.  With another set of characters that might not have been an issue, but because so many of these characters are wealthy bi-sexual males I had trouble distinguishing between them for much of the individual stories.  However, unlike Glamorama, Ellis keeps things moving at an exciting pace and several of the scenes were particularly memorable.

less than zero

5.  Less than Zero

Release Date: 1985

 I was born a year before this book came out, so by the time I got around to reading it I’d already read several books done in the same style (and even several other Bret Easton Ellis books).  The story of a handful of the most shallow characters in literature, it’s iconic and preposterous at the same time.  Clay is on vacation from college and tries to reconnect with his best friend (Julian) and his girlfriend (Blair).  The drug use in this novel is so frequent, the plot could be described as three friends deal with varying level of drug problems in the 1980’s.  The problem is that reducing it to that misses the broader picture that Ellis portrays.  Reading this book is like opening a time capsule and immersing yourself in the contents.  The detachment that the characters express have the effect of numbing you to the tragic outcomes they face, which makes the read feel more real and unique than a similar story would as told by anybody else.  Unfortunately, that can make it a difficult read for many and an unpleasant one at other times for all.  Still, this is well worth checking out and making up your own mind.  (Also, more than any other book of Ellis, the film adaptation of this is awful.  If you’ve seen it, don’t let that sour you on reading this.)

lunar park

4.  Lunar Park

Release Date: 2005

 The Charlie Kauffman entry of the Ellis catalog, Ellis inserts himself into the story and goes down the rabbit hole.  Narrated by Ellis, the famous author of Less than Zero and other books, Ellis juggles personal issues (with exes, drugs and family) while possibly confronting a supernatural one (a killer identifying himself as Patrick Bateman, the lead character of Ellis’s American Psycho).    Reading Lunar Park is greatly enhanced by reading American Psycho beforehand.  Everything about this book works just right, combining what the reader knows or expect to know about the author with how characters would respond to these freak occurrences.  I should say, everything worked just right until the ending which spiraled a bit out of control.  With a fictionalized book about a real person I don’t know what sort of ending would have satisfactorily resolved the mystery and horror of this book, but lackluster ending aside I found this to be highly enjoyable.

 imperial bedrooms

3.  Imperial Bedrooms

Release Date: 2010

 This choice will be controversial.  Taking place 25 years after Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms follows Clay returning to Los Angeles to cast a film.  Much like Lunar Park, there is ambiguity in terms of how much is truth and how much is fiction, with the truth at issue concerning the events in Less Than Zero and their depictions in a popular book and movie.  Delving into dark territory of rape, murder and snuff films, the book takes away all the sentimentality that seems to surround Less Than Zero and reminds the reader of the amoral characters at its center.  For that reason I preferred it to its predecessor, as Ellis seemed upfront about the subject matter he was tackling.  I get that for many readers, this book cheapens Less than Zero or feels like a cash in by Ellis.  While I enjoyed LTZ, I don’t hold it in such high regard that revisiting it bothered me.  When I compare the two novels, I enjoyed this one much more, hence the ranking.

rules of attraction

2.  The Rules of Attraction

Release Date: 1987

 If you have never read Bret Easton Ellis and are looking for a book that encapsulates all his strengths and oddities, look no further and start reading here.  I’m surprised that Ellis hasn’t returned to the shifting perspectives he utilizes in this book in later writings because it’s perfectly executed and provides a very memorable reading experience.  Mainly told through the perspective of three students, Paul a bisexual man who formerly dated Lauren but is now extremely attracted to Sean.  The characters often interact and will recount the same events in previous chapters from vastly different perspective to the point that one or all must be lying about what took place.  Also mixed in are fantastic chapters by other narrators including the world’s fastest trip to Europe and a very moving suicide.  (Less successful is another section of the book entirely in French.)  Along with my number one pick, this book features frequent laughs and disgusting moments intertwined.

 american psycho

1.  American Psycho

Release Date: 1991

 Although I’d recommend The Rules of Attraction to new Ellis readers, I prefer American Psycho as his best work.  However, for many the graphic nature of the writing and the extensive time spent discussing designer name brands and band discographies will immediately turn them off.  While almost every character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel is detached and amoral, taking a deep dive into the mind of a (possible) serial killer during 1980’s corporate America could also be a lot to ask of a new reader unaccustomed to Ellis’s style.  In addition to that, American Psycho (and Ellis in general) also are often accused of being misogynist.  For my perspective, I would agree that Patrick Bateman is very misogynist.  However, he’s also a sociopathic, materialistic psychopathic sadist and the book is just telling a story from his perspective.

 Those are the criticisms with the book.  They don’t mention how perfectly Ellis straddles the line between satire of an entire lifestyle and realistic conversations that take place in that place.  The result is a book filled with very funny moments drawn from the absurdity of that contrast.  Much like the excellent film that was adapted from it, American Psycho is very dark humor.  Scenes of Bateman being normal and fitting in with a crowd are followed nonchalantly by statements about him eating handfuls of sand on the beach following a party.  A coworker getting reservations at a new restaurant is an existential crisis.  The unreliable narrator is used to great effect as entries vary in length and relevance to what is occurring in his life.  Much like Ellis’s writing style, American Psycho is certainly not for everybody.  However, many other it is without a doubt Ellis’s best work.