Tag: Review

“Sharpe’s Christmas” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Christmas

Sharpe’s Christmas

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Published:  1994

Sharpe’s Christmas is a short story that takes place afterSharpe’s Regiment, where the British infantry is entrenched in France after years of fighting in Spain and Portugal. Coming up on Christmas day, Sharpe is tasked with preventing French forces from traveling through a stretch of road, which of course ends up bringing two forces on either side of Sharpe, with neither knowing how many troops he has.

Much like in Sharpe’s Skirmish, here Sharpe utilizes a clever booby trap to gain the upper hand replacing the more extensive military maneuvering found in the full length novels. With a shortened page count, Sharpe’s romantic exploits are noticeably absent. As Cornwell has recently written the prequel India novels prior to writing this story, he decides to bring back the French Colonel that Sharpe got along well with in India for this story. The reintroduction of the character was fine, and it lent itself well to maneuvering a circumstance where Sharpe would show some Christmas spirit during war time, but the method by which the reader was reintroduced to the character (both Sharpe and the Colonel reminisce about each other for the first time in years prior to running into each other) was very clunky.

Beyond that there wasn’t anything too necessary to the greater Sharpe mythos here. Sharpe had an opportunity to capture a second French Eagle, his Ensigns continue their reign as the Spinal Tap drummer or Star Trek redshirts of the crew, and the rifle regiment is able to intimidate the smooth bore French musketeers superior numbers and will survive to march again.

3-star

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“Reprisal” by F. Paul Wilson Review

Reprisal

Reprisal

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Released:  1991

As I’m nearing the end of both the Adversary Cycle as well as the Repairman Jack series, both are currently suffering from trying to tie together a larger arc instead of telling a compelling individual story. The problem mainly stems from Rasolam, the villain figure who is just shy of all knowing and all powerful, but chooses to spend his time messing with a priest and a frumpy math teacher rather than working towards advancing his goals of turning the Earth into a haven for the forces of evil.

Reprisal is the 5th book in the Adversary Cycle, however it is just about a direct sequel to Reborn which told the story of a couple discovering that one of them was a clone and their fetus may be the anti-Christ. If you’ve read the Repairman Jack series before this, you know to be on the lookout for anagrams and fishy behavior, and Reprisal is no exception when it comes to finding the villain in the story.

Years after the events of Reborn, this book follows two main protagonists: Lisl is a math teacher who becomes involved in a torrid romance with a graduate student who begins to change her views on herself and other people. Will Ryerson is a maintenance man who has a secretive past, and spends his entire life trying to stay away from telephones. How do these two stories relate to a woman that gave birth to the embodiment of evil and a missing Jesuit priest who went by the name of Father Bill Ryan? I suspect without even reading the prequels, you can figure out who the good guy and who the bad guy are from this paragraph.

There’s also a third section of the novel that takes place as a flashback, explaining how Father Bill Ryan came to be on the run from law enforcement, and the investigation of a missing child led by a dedicated NYPD Detective. This was the most interesting portion of the book, dipping firmly into the supernatural horror genre. If you’re not a fan of bad things happening to kids in fiction, this is probably a book you should skip. Much like the events of Reborn however, the things that take place end up being so crazy that it’s hard to imagine somebody like Repairman Jack not being aware of them in his books later on.

By far the worst part about this book is the character of Lisl, a woman who makes every bad decision somebody can make with way too little resistance. I can even buy the revenge against her ex and jealousy towards a coworker, however the ease with which she dips into theft and reciting her boyfriend’s theories on Primes (exceptional people) being able to do whatever they want to other people made her a very difficult character to sympathize with.

The most interesting character in the book was another math teacher named Dr. Everett Saunders. I started off not knowing if he was a creepy psycho, a stalker, a person paralyzed by obsessive compulsive disorder or just a quirky colleague. The ultimate revelation of his secret wasn’t anything amazing, but it made him sympathetic and contributed to my vitriol towards Lisl. More interesting characters like this, instead of shoehorning Glaeken into an expository dumper role at the end would have improved this book, but as it stands this was not one of the better reads in the series. I’m finally ready for Nightworld to wrap up both series (except for the prequel novels that I’ll probably check out), and hopefully it will provide a satisfying conclusion to this sprawling series.

2-star

“Camino Island” by John Grisham Review

Camino Island

Camino Island

Author:  John Grisham

Released:  2017

I was loaned this book by another reader at work (the same guy that loaned me The Late Show). This is the first book I’ve read by John Grisham. Besides my preexisting prejudice towards authors I can find in the book aisle of my local supermarket, I’d also always avoided Grisham because as a lawyer I prefer to read to escape the crap of my everyday work life and Grisham is best known for his legal thrillers. When I was in law school I got into comics (a form of entertainment I always enjoyed) more than ever, just because I was so sick of reading legal precedents and case law and it was the furthest thing I could find from law writing. Now that I’ve been a practicing attorney for several years, I went ahead and took the Grisham plunge and to my surprise there were barely even any attorneys in this book, with the first ones showing up around page 265 of 286.

Instead Camino Island tells the stories of an art thief, a struggling writer and a successful independent book store owner all told in a style reminiscent of “The Thomas Crown Affair.” I thought of that film several times while reading this, as the plot and characters are fairly similar between that film and this book, and this book is written in a quick cinematic manner. In both that film and this book, a priceless work of art is taken and the man in possession of the art is a suave, respected business man. A beautiful woman then devises a plan of getting close to the man in question to find the stolen work of art and recover it so her company can avoid paying out a large sum of cash in insurance money. Instead of the Rene Russo character directly pursuing the Pierce Brosnan character, here a third character is introduced in the form on a young, attractive struggling writer who is specifically recruited to get close to the man believed to possess the art.

Bruce Cable is the Piece Brosnan analogue in this book, an independent book store owner who hosts frequent author signings and is known to romance attractive female authors in the tower of his amazing estate. He’s married to Noelle, a beautiful French antiques dealer, and the two have an open relationship that encourages either to pursue their sexual appetites, discreetly. Instead of a painting, the stolen art is the original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts for his first five novels, taken during an exciting prologue set in the Princeton Library. In order to determine if Cable possesses these books, or to locate and recover them, the insurance company recruits a young author named Mercer who grew up near the book shop to return to Camino Island under the guise of a summer getaway to write a long overdue follow-up novel to her initial modest success.

There were several small things about this book that appealed particularly to me that might not as much to other readers. The first is that I attempted to buy a book store a few years back and went through a few of the same steps as Bruce in this book, and found that portion of the story (early chapters detailing his biography) to be very fun and relatable to my own experience. There was also a lot of lines discussing famous authors, and setting out ground rules for writing stories, and that’s the sort of meta commentary that I tend to get a kick out of. Finally, I tend to cast actors in my mind for most books as I’m reading them, and as already stated this book felt so much like a movie that I pretty much visualized and enjoyed a new film starring Timothy Olyphant and Alexis Bledel in my mind while reading this.

The book is certainly not perfect. The story is very familiar and the characters are all closer to clichés than original, memorable characters. The character of the art thief almost seems to have been shoehorned in as an afterthought. Anybody seeking a compelling story and exciting resolution for his plot line will end up disappointed. All that being said, I could come up with similar arguments for movies I really enjoy (what exactly does Luke stand for in “Cool Hand Luke,” how was it so easy for Sean Connery to sneak off at the end of “The Rock”).

This isn’t the sort of book you get worked up about the shortcomings. I suspect a quick reader will finish this in a few hours, and will likely come away with some affection for the suave bookseller who is living the life of a millionaire playboy, complete with beautiful women at his beck and call. It’s unrealistic, underdeveloped, and slightly misogynist, but it also feels harmless and most importantly fun.

4-star

“Ringworld” by Larry Niven Review

Ringworld

Ringworld

Author:  Larry Niven

Released:  1970

Ringworld by Larry Niven is probably one of the most famous science fiction books that I had not previously read. It’s the type of book that while I’ve been reading it in public places over the last week or so that friends and coworkers have stopped and mentioned that they’ve read it too and asked how far along I was in the plot. The story is fairly standard for the sci-fi genre, as a group of explorers are visiting an alien world. This is a book that stands out though for two reasons: first the group of explorers are comprised of four memorable and unique characters, and second the world they are visiting is the incredibly original idea of a giant ring shaped “planet.”

The beginning of Ringworld tells the story of Nessus, a puppeteer named Nessus recruiting his team of passengers to go explore the Ringworld planet. Puppeteers are alien creatures with two heads that look sort of like ostrich’s and mules crossed together, and are known for their cowardice and amazing technology. Nessus comes to recruit Louis Wu, the reader’s primary point of view character, an Earth man who is a few hundred years old (but is healthy enough to look like he’s in his late 20’s) and Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzin alien which is basically a giant orange panther that is from a very warlike race. Finally, Nessus recruits Teela Brown, another human who I’ll come back to later.

The mission objective is to investigate the Ringworld planet, which is a ring shaped structure that is about 1,000,000 miles wide and as long as Earth’s entire orbit around the sun. The theory is that the builders of the Ringworld did not have the technology for faster than light travel, and so instead of relocating to other star systems the builders harvested all of the materials in their own solar system and built the gigantic Ringworld and lived in isolation. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the team ends up on the Ringworld, but the sheer magnitude of the planet is such that the group never even sees the edge of the structure.

The result is that an expedition to the Ringworld is not only interesting for what sort of world might exist on the inside, but also for how different that world may be from one area to another in this giant expansive place. I see that Niven has written four prequels and four sequels to this book. I’m sure a large part of that is because of how successful this book was (winning both the Hugo and the Nebula Award), however the large scope of the planet provides a setting that can be revisited numerous times to discover what sort of creatures, structures and civilizations inhabit it.

Arthur C. Clark was famous for writing “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Ringworld has plenty of that sort of technology, but here it felt like plot convenience more than I typically see in this genre. The hull of the spaceship used to travel to Ringworld is built by Nessus’s Puppeteer race, and is essentially a physical manifestation of the joke “if the little black box always survives the plane crash, why not build the whole airplane out of the little black box?” There are also near invisible wires that that connect the inner ring of shadow squares that provide for simulated days and nights that are basically adamantium that can cut through anything they touch.

Most of my critiques of this book and spoilers all deal with the character of Teela Brown. It is revealed early on that Nessus wants her to join the crew for this expedition because Teela is one of a handful of Earth people that is the result of multiple generations of her family winning the lottery to allow the family to have children. Nessus concludes that using that methodology shows that Teela is statistically lucky and will bring good luck to their mission. Unfortunately, between Teela Brown and later the alien Prill, Ringworld ends up being one of the worst books I’ve read for its treatment of female characters, even standing out among books from its era.

**Spoilers follow**

Both of the female characters in this book are amazingly beautiful creatures (one human, one alien) who have sex with Louis Wu in ways unlike anything he’s experience in his 200+ years alive. One, the human, gets brought along because she falls in love with Louis right after meeting him and decides to go on this dangerous space mission to come with him and continue to have great sex. The other, Prill, is an alien woman who specializes in bringing sexual pleasure to men and who eventually wants to travel to other worlds and have more sex to show the galaxy how great she is at it. Teela also has the interesting revelations of how her “luck” has shaped her as a person and how it affects the trajectory of this mission (it gets to the point where her luck can be pointed to explain any event that has happened in terms of how it benefits her). Prill doesn’t really have any other character arc.

I suspect that your overall enjoyment of this book will likely hinge on whether or not the treatment of these two characters completely overshadows the fun aliens and exploration of the rest of the plot. For me, it was a distraction and it made the book feel very dated, but the very cool idea of the Ringworld was still enough to have me enjoy the book overall.

4-star

“Age of Assassins” by R.J. Barker Review

Age of Assasins

Age of Assassins

Author:  R.J. Barker

Released:  2017

This was the fifth book I received as part of my Briliant Book of the Month Club. There has been a nice variety of genres so far, with dystopian, historical, general, and science fiction all represented, and this book is a fantasy novel. Age of Assassins by R.J. Barker takes place in a feudal fantasy setting where there are Kings and Queens and the most technologically advanced weapon is probably the crossbolt. The society is a magic fearing world where there are classes of people (Blessed or not Blessed), as well as professions with secrets, traditions. and skills such as Jesters, Priests and of course Assassins.

Here, Girton is the main character, a teenage apprentice assassin who is roped into a seemingly impossible mission of finding out (along with his master) who is trying to have the heir to the throne killed. The trouble being that the queen and the heir are both terrible people that right away the assassins figure out are likely to be wanted dead by everybody in the kingdom for various reasons. Girton poses as a squire, playing up the character by pretending to be helpless with a blade. Girton’s defining physical trait is a clubfoot which causes others to underestimate him (and during flashbacks for him to underestimate himself), however his master has trained him to be as deadly an assassin as exists anywhere in the land.

Throughout the investigation, Girton discovers two rival factions for the throne, a pretty stable girl who seems to be interested in Girton, a friend that appears unremarkable but who is wanted dead by those in high places, a king that is being poisoned and several high ranking officials in the government that all have secrets that must be discovered. The story format tends to be Girton spending a day doing his part and then meeting with his master at the end of the day to share what he has learned (his master typically doesn’t share much beyond “don’t rule him out,” or “find out what his angle is.”). Interspersed are several flashbacks to Girton’s purchase out of servitude and his beginning training as an assassin.

I read just about every genre, fantasy included. I tend to prefer science fiction though, because the tropes of fantasy while fun often end up feeling formulaic and predictable. Although I didn’t see any elves or swords of destiny in this book, there were still several elements that felt overly familiar that took away from my enjoyment. **Spoilers follow** The society that hates and fears magic is pretty standard, but having the protagonist possess secret magic powers that go far beyond anything her master has seen before felt like a revelation that didn’t add anything to this book in terms of the plot. Also pretty much every character that was introduced ended up playing into the conspiracy revealed at the end of the book; the lack of red herrings seemed to cheapen the overall mystery. **End of spoilers** At just under 400 pages, the plot moves along quickly enough, however the end reveal and climactic battle seemed particularly rushed, with a two page epilogue on the end that felt out of place and did nothing to interest me in reading more in the series.

Despite those complaints, the book did several things very well. There was a nice balance of male and female characters in different roles that I think any reader can find somebody they either identify with or find interesting enough to read more about. (Barker also does a nice job of making random character the opposite genre than what you would probably expect). The “mounts” that the soldiers ride are also an interesting creation, such that I was picturing a cross between an elk and a griffon. The end result was a pleasant enough but ultimately very forgettable adventure.

3-star

“Misery” by Stephen King Review

Misery

Misery

Author:  Stephen King

Released:  1987

**Spoilers for Halloween H20 follow (seriously)**

This will seem random, but upon finishing Misery I was reminded of the film Halloween H20. Halloween H20 was a pretty successful entry in the Halloween series (and the slasher genre). The film brought back Jamie Lee Curtis, and featured hot young actors like Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams and LL Cool J, and was overall a pretty slick installment. When I think of the movie, the first thing that comes to mind is always Jodi Lyn O’Keefe’s confrontation with Michael Myers. During the course of the altercation, O’Keefe’s character gets her leg cut, then savagely mangled by a dumbwaiter, then stabbed multiple times, before finally being hanged/displayed. It was by far the most memorable scene in the movie because it was intense, gruesome, and very scary. It is also memorable because hardly anybody else dies in the movie (if you’re a recognizable actor, odds are you survived until the credits on this film).

Compare Halloween H20 with a film like Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Once you get past the (awesome) opening where Jason is inadvertently resurrected via a bolt of lighting, Jason goes on a prolific killing spree, with sixteen victims overall. Rather than one memorable death scene, the film features such classics as Jason decapitating three guys with one machete swipe, impaling another couple on the same pike, using broken bottles as a stabbing implement and several other original kills. I’ve rewatched it at least a dozen times, and would regularly include it on my list of favorite slasher films, a list that H20 would never make it on.

If you ask the average viewer, or even a hardcore horror fan which film is “better,” you’re likely to get an even split. Rotten Tomatoes gives Jason Lives the edge at 52% to 51%, and that feels about right with my own experience of discussing films in this genre. Current trends in horror films probably have more people preferring the Halloween H20 version, as films like Saw or Hostel tend to focus on the lengthy agony of one person rather than the quick hitting fatalities of many.

That’s a long winded way of say that Misery is a good book that I didn’t care for. It’s well written, it has characters that feel like real people (having famous people play them in a movie helps that), and it really specializes in bringing the pain on one person in particular. Around the time the torture in this book really escalates from psychological to physical, I stopped enjoying this book. Despite not being a very long read, spending page after page with a protagonist in pain and an antagonist who pops in to sometimes cut off his body parts was way less enjoyable than King’s other books with larger casts that I’ve read.

Even with the single victim being tortured for a novel concept, there was so much about this book I really enjoyed. For starters, books about writers tend to feel so authentic because the author obviously knows what he’s talking about. Here I got a sense that many of Paul’s fears, beliefs and idiosyncrasies could very well have been true to King’s actual self. The idea of the book is great, with a crazy fan forcing somebody to create something just for her. That fan, Annie, is one of the best villains I’ve read in a book. King not only creates a consistent personality for her, but he also wrote a terrifying backstory (the Dragon Lady in the nursery ward!) and enough physical tics that I think I would have visualized somebody like Kathy Bates in my mind even without ever seeing the movie.

The problem is that no matter how well made a book or movie is, and how great the characters are, as a viewer or reader reacting to the end product my actual enjoyment is still important. I don’t need to like characters in a book to enjoy it, or for there to be a happy ending, but I do want to enjoy reading it or else I should be spending my time doing something else. At times I actively dreaded reading more of Misery, not because it was scary, but because it was such an unpleasant situation to return to. Annie and Paul both had to know what happened at the end of the book, I was just relieved to get there.

3-star

“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky Review

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment

Author:  Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translator:  Larissa Volokhonsky

Released:  1866

I don’t reread a lot of books. Typically if I read a book more than once it’s because it’s a book I loved as a kid and haven’t read in years, or it’s a graphic novel that I love (Watchmen, Dark Phoenix Saga or Savage Dragon back issues most come to mind). The first time I read Crime and Punishment was my senior year in high school as part of a class assignment for a class called “Novels.” The class was just what it sounds like; we would read a certain number of pages every night and discuss the previous reading in class the next day. Other books we read for that class included: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, O Pioneers!, The Grapes of Wrath, and David Copperfield. I loved three of these books, liked one and didn’t care for the other, so overall it was a pretty rewarding class.

Fifteen years later, my wife needed a book to fill a slot in her current reading challenge and got the audiobook version ofCrime and Punishment so I figured I’d revisit this book that I really enjoyed in a different format. In a normal year I’ll read about 50-80 books, and I started reviewing them awhile back just because I have trouble remembering the plots on a lot of the books shortly after reading them if they’re not fantastic. Maybe it’s because this was a book that was discussed in the Socratic method for a month, or because I really enjoyed it, but for whatever reason I remembered this book fairly well even before starting it for a reread.

**Plot spoilers follow**

Boiled down to a sentence, Crime and Punishment is the story of a student who kills an old woman and then slowly unravels in his social world. I remembered that plot, but I also had some pretty strong recollections of Raskolnikov’s (the student) theories about the right of some great men to commit crimes, and his subsequent delusions and familial crisis. Subplots involving Raskolnikov’s fixation on a young woman he meets and his friend Razumiknin’s relationship with Dunya (Raskolnikov’s sister) similarly left their imprint on me. Oddly, there were two major plot points that I totally forgot about until rereading. First was that Raskolnikov actually killed two women, as the first victim’s sister shows up during the incident. Second, perhaps the most interesting character in the book is Svidrigailov, the only man who has figured out Raskolnikov’s secret and attempts to elicit a confession.

It was easy to see why I forgot about the second murder, as even throughout this book that victim is treated as more of an afterthought to the death of the wealthy landlord. I’m not sure why I had so little recollection of Svidrigailov’s story arc, as on this reread it was by far my favorite arc in the story. Svidrigailov and Luzhin (Dunya’s fiancé) are the two closest things to an antagonist in this novel, along with Raskolnikov’s own conscience. Both are motivated at times by their attraction to Dunya, though Luzhin’s villainy is more apparent early on and Svidrigailov’s character faults are discovered more slowly. The dynamic is a big part of what makes this such an amazing read, as the protagonist of the book is a repugnant murderer and the antagonists are very flawed men with their own selfish motivations. The fact that everybody gets their own retribution by the end is very satisfying as well.

**End of spoilers**

Doestovsky’s writing style is a combination of play writing and psycho-drama. Every scene in this book could be done on a play stage with probably 5 or fewer people having speaking parts on a stage. However, it’s also written in a manner that would not be interesting to watch as a play, as the dialogue is very long and analytical. The simplicity of this style was more successful for me as a prose novel than as an audiobook, where hearing somebody read these long exchanges could at times sound more inauthentic than in creating the conversation in your head.

Overall I ended up still enjoying the things I liked the first time I read this book, and coming away with even more appreciation for a lot of stuff that I forgot about. As much as I enjoy reading, the thrill of reading a new book and hoping to discover something amazing was rarely as rewarding as revisiting this good read and discovering even more to love than I’d known about before. I can already see myself trying to work a re-read into my current reading schedules based on this experience. For those that enjoyed this book, I would also recommend The Idiot. I read that book, The Brothers Karamazov, and Notes From the Underground based on my enjoyment of this book previously, and felt that The Idiot was just about equally enjoyable to this work.

5-star