Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “TylerDFC”

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 26 #Casino Royale by #Ian Fleming

Personal Note: With this review I have achieved my personal goal of 26 books for the Half Cannonball completion and with a month to spare even. This is my 4th year participating in the Cannonball Read but the only one I’ve actually kept up with all the reviews. I couldn’t have achieved this feat alone and I’d like to thank Gwar, coffee, Godtopus, and myself – in that order – for helping me through. We did it, guys!

Now, on with the review!

Despite being an avid fan of the James Bond movies I have never actually read any of the books the films are based on. With my anticipation for the 23rd movie, Skyfall, at a fever pitch I decided to rectify that oversight by going all the way back to the beginning. First published in 1953, Casino Royale introduced the world to everyone’s favorite chauvinist Secret Service agent James Bond. Bond has been tasked with taking down a money launderer named Le Chiffre in a high stakes game of Baccarat at the Royale-Les-Eaux in France. You see, Le Chffre has been a naughty boy and has mishandled quite a bit of money he was entrusted with by the not-at-all-nice Russian agency, SMERSH. Bond is the best Baccarat player in the British Secret Service so he gets sent to win against Le Chiffre, thus bankrupting him and forcing to SMERSH handle his demise.

To aid Bond in this mission is Mathis, an agent in the French service, Felix Leiter, an American CIA agent, and the enigmatic Vesper Lynd, another employee of Her Majesty’s Secret Service who acts as cover for Bond’s background. What follow is an interesting story that warms up as it goes along and helps set the stage for subsequent novels in the series.

What struck me the most while reading Casino Royale was how closely the 2006 movie followed the book. This is one of the very few Bond films that actually is based almost entirely the novel. Almost everything that happens in the movie from the point Bond and Vesper get to the Casino Royale all the way to the ending is the basis for the book. Even the harrowing scene of torture is taken straight from the pages. The only main difference is the ending which is much more low key than the explosive finale in the movie but still carries the same emotional weight. In fact, the novel’s final line was memorably used in the movie as well.

Casino Royale is my favorite Bond movie and the book is quite a bit of fun to read as well. While Bond is an unabashed chauvinist as well as misogynistic he still comes across as a hero. The book does a good job of setting up who Bond is and why he does what he does. Some of the hallmarks of the series are demystified right away, especially the vaunted Double O status of Bond’s code number. As he tells Vesper all it means is he has assassinated 2 targets for the Service.  While Bond can be cold and calculating, his mind is always working the angles and Fleming’s description of the man is fascinating. At one point Bond gets in to a meandering conversation with Mathis about the futility of the job and for the first time I saw Bond as a haunted man, not the super human the movies make him out to be. It’s adds an interesting dimension to the character.

I highly recommend Casino Royale to Bond fans as well as espionage thriller fans. The book is lean and quick but it grips you from the start. I look forward to reading more of the Fleming novels in the future.

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 25 #The Giver by #Lois Lowry

In Jonas’ community all choice has been taking away from the citizens. Each year the children achieve a new milestone and new responsibilities until age 12 when they learn what their role in the community will be and start training to that end. Young Jonas is selected to be the community’s new Receiver. That responsibility, and the secrets he learns in this training, force him to confront everything he believes and question everything he has ever known.

The Newberry Award winning young adult book, The Giver, is a very quick read. It is well written and mysterious and does a good job of sucking the reader in to the mysterious world of the story. When Jonas meets the current Receiver, a nameless old man who asks Jonas to call him Giver, he learns that a Receiver is the keeper of the memories of the world. Slowly the Giver transfers his memories to Jonas beginning with a memory of someone sledding down a hill. Jonas experiences these memories as if he is living them and after the memory is complete he is now the sole possessor of the memory. Once the Giver shares the memory with Jonas it is gone from the Giver’s mind. These pleasant experiences soon give way to ones of pain and suffering. It is the Receiver’s burden to keep the memories of the past so that the citizens of the community are unencumbered. Through these memories Jonas sees the hypocrisy of the community and questions if he can go on with the knowledge he has now.

The premise is interesting and fans of post-apocalyptic fiction will enjoy it. The Giver is the first novel in a loosely connected series. I haven’t read the other 3 books yet but I plan to even if for no other reason than the ending leaves everything hanging and nothing answered.

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 24 #The Dark Side of Disney by #Leonard Kinsey

Once upon a time I was a Walt Disney World Cast Member working in food service at  – what was then – MGM Studios. The summer between my Freshman and Sophomore year in college I worked and lived at Disney World as part of the Walt Disney World College Program. For those curious I worked at the Honey I
Shrunk the Kids snack bar, a larger fast food restaurant I can’t remember the name for, and finally at the Sci-Fi Dine in Theater where my duties included hosting and rollerskating popcorn to the Guests including several celebrities. I had the dubious honor of spilling a tray full of popcorn on Ed McMahon, he was tremendously cool about it. If you are reading this Ed, thanks for being a nice guy and not getting me fired!

This internship did not make me rich as the rent at Disney’s Vista Way apartments where we all lived was ridiculously  high yet it is easily the most fun I have ever had for a summer. I’ve always been a fan of Disney World, having gone there a few times as a kid with my family. So when the opportunity came to work there I jumped at the chance. While the reality was decidedly less glamorous and pretty similar to working in any other fast food or full service restaurant it was the “off hours” that made the whole thing worthwhile. The Vista Way apartments are populated entirely by college age interns on the Program and they come from all over the world. There is a reason the complex is listed as one of the best party zones in the country and we all got good and debauched on a regular basis.

The main draw, for most of us, was the really the unlimited access to the parks. All we had to do was flash our ID at the gate, or even use the employee entrance, and we were immediately on vacation. We made it a point to go on everything in all the parks. A goal I’m fairly certain we accomplished. Park map in hand we would check off one by one the rides and attractions we hadn’t yet seen no matter how lame.

Now that I have a family I’ve been thinking about a vacation back to WDW. I’ve only been there once since that summer. For anyone outside of Orlando that has considered going I’m sure you’ve seen just how cost prohibitive they have made the parks for “normal” people. Day pass Park Hopper tickets are around $100 per person, the resort rates are astronomical, and the food quality is worse yet more expensive in price.

During my research I stumbled upon Leonard Kinsey’s alternative travel guide to Disney World, The Dark Side of Disney. Kinsey is a long time devotee of the Mouse and has put together a useful guide full of good tips for saving money as well as what to do once you are there. I enjoyed reading the book because it’s obvious he knew what he was talking about and the guide goes far beyond a normal travel guide. You’ll find tips for buying time share points on the cheap, how to order food and booze to your resort room, the advantage of staying on property (Pro Tip: Always Stay on Property!), avoiding parking charges, and even the best secluded spots for those interested in public lovemaking. The real meat of the book is about exploring the off-limit areas of the parks and resorts. Kinsey details exactly where you can enter the Utilidors (underground tunnels, yes they exist) in the Magic Kingdom, as well as getting “backstage” (term for any area unseen by the Guests) at Epcot. Little mention is made of Disney Studios, but that could be because the park has changed quite a bit since I was there. I would think there would be a lot of great backstage exploring to be done – and I did plenty myself when I was there – but  there is next to nothing said about the Studios.

The book also has several anecdotes and accounts of various shenanigans the author and his cohorts engaged in and these sections are a lot of fun to read. One of the constants at Disney World is that it is always changing. When Kinsey wrote the book, alcohol was not yet available at the Magic Kingdom. As of this year one of the restaurants is now selling. There is also information about some now defunct rides and attractions (EPCOT’s much loved Horizons, Pleasure Island, Discovery Island, etc.,) and to be honest I didn’t even know those were no longer part of the Parks so I found those sections very interesting.

If you are a devotee of Disney or are planning a trip to Disney World and are going with adults only or can get away from the kiddies for a bit I would highly recommend this guide. There are other books that go deeper in to the stories and lore of the place that may be better suited if you are not actively planning a trip. It’s a fun and quick read and if you are unfamiliar with the parks and Disney protocol it will help you understand why most Cast Members refer to Disney as “the Rat” and for them it is decidedly NOT the happiest place on Earth.

Kinsey also has a website ( where you can order the book as well as watch several videos shot backstage, Resort bar crawls, blog entries, etc. It’s well worth a visit and since I read the book I’ve spent quite a bit of time on it. WordPress is being a bitch and not formatting the site link correctly so you will have to type the address in to your browser rather than click. Sorry about that!

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 23 #Cloud Atlas by #David Mitchell

As I write this the eagerly anticipated Wachowski siblings/Tom Tykwer film version of David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas, is still two weeks from premiering.  As such the book has only a precious few more days where it can stand on it’s own and escape comparison with the movie. A hoary old cliche in film criticism is “The book was better .” There are scant few books where the film IS better, and that list is very subjective. My personal list would include Jaws, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner). It’s not that these novels are bad, most are quite good, but the movies do a better job thematically condensing the same material and making for a more intense and emotional experience.  Without having seen the movie, I have a feeling Cloud Atlas is going to fall in to that grouping as well.

Cloud Atlas is an easy book to admire and an enjoyable read, but it’s hard to love it. The six stories that make up the book are not so much interlocked as they are chained together. It begins in the 1800’s on a voyage from New Zealand to San Francisco. Midway through the story the narrative ends abruptly, literally in the middle of a sentence. The next story begins immediately. It is an epistolary using only the letters of a young composer in the 1930’s, Robert Frobisher,  to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. In the letters he mentions finding half of a diary in the home of a famous composer named Ayrs that he has taken a job with. Frobisher, while in an affair with Ayrs’ wife,  becomes obsessed with completing a piece he has called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. From there the book moves to 1979 and a young reporter, Luisa Rey, is investigating safety violations at a nuclear reactor. Her primary source is Rufus Sixsmith. After he is murdered she discovers the letters from Robert Frobisher, and becomes intrigued by the Cloud Atlas Sextet and tries to track it down. This continues to the story of a publisher held against his will in a sinister senior home, a clone in a corporate run future Korea giving a visual affidavit for her part in a revolution, and finally to a far flung future Hawaii where human kind has reverted back to savage and warring tribes after a never explained “Fall”.

Got all that?

The biggest handicap of the book is also it’s greatest gimmick. The first 5 stories are all begun and take up about 30-40 pages before breaking off and starting the next one. The final story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is told in its entirety and then each story is finished in reverse order, ending with the last half of the diary. The problem with this device is that it is difficult to get invested in the characters and what is happening to them. There are hints that these people in each different time are reincarnations of the previous characters. Locations overlap, scenes have echos from story to story, but its never exactly clear what the connections are supposed to be inferred. The last half of the book arrives in a rush as the loop is closed on each story one by one. As the individual narratives end each character finds the missing piece of the next adjoining narrative and ends their tale by watching or reading the next story in the sequence.

By the end there is some expectation of an event that is going to tie the whole thing together. However, as opposed to a narrative finale, Mitchell instead focuses on a thematic one. There are multiple themes that interlock the 6 stories, but the primary one is that in all of these stories a visitor is saved by a native. Each story features a villain who uses their powers, whether they are monetary or authoritarian, to subjugate other characters through violence or subterfuge. Ultimately, Cloud Atlas seems to say that across times and lives the struggle against tyranny in all forms is a human constant. Where the novel falters is in making an impact on the reader when that tyranny overwhelms the heroes. Instead of being emotionally involved I found myself trying to see the narrative tie to what came before and after. Quite honestly this is more of a criticism on me as the reader than on Mitchell. I don’t think he ever set out to tell a “tie every bow” interlocked story but to express a philosophy and use 6 separate stories to underline the similarities between them all.

Structurally, the book runs in to trouble by mixing “reality” with “fiction”. When it is revealed that the publisher is reading a novel about Luisa Rey it calls in to question the reincarnation element in the book. How can a fictional character be the reincarnation of a real one? One theory I have is that this is not about reincarnated souls, but archetypes. Each of the 6 stories is wildly different in setting and tone. A story of treachery on the high seas, a drawing room drama, a corporate corruption thriller, a comedic farce, a science fiction story, and finally the post apocalyptic adventure. Yet each of these characters at the center all share a narrative similarity. These are all strangers in strange lands. Is Mitchell really commenting on the recycled nature of characters in all levels of fiction? That each genre, no matter how maligned, can still be “literature” and all fiction is really telling the same, hopeful story of good triumphing over evil? Cloud Atlas doesn’t really lend itself one way or the other but I think it’s a viable theory.

Cloud Atlas is a dazzling achievement that just doesn’t quite bring the lofty themes and ambitious devices together. Still, I highly recommend it, as there are very few novels quite like it. What you get out of it is likely going to be subjective from reader to reader. This is a very complex book and more schooled readers of literature than myself will likely hit on things I didn’t grasp the first time through. For instance the number 6 in multiple variants repeats over and over throughout the novel. Is this a biblical reference to Genesis and the mythological 6 days it took to create the cosmos? Maybe. I’m sure a second read through will reveal even more connections and thematic ties.

The core of Cloud Atlas is solid and the stories are entertaining but the emotional element was lacking for me. It is for that reason I can’t wait to see how they adapted the book to film and if the filmmakers were able to nail the emotional component while preserving the thematic elements. I’m hopeful that not only will Tykwer and the Wachowskis dazzle us with the narrative acrobats but they will also stick the landing taking Cloud Atlas from a good adaptation to a classic.

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 21 #Unholy Night by #Seth Grahame-Smith

The image of the baby Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by livestock, and His parents, Mary and Joseph, is an enduring one in our culture. Most people also know the story of the three wise men, or magi, who followed a star to bring the child gifts. But who were the three wise men? They are barely mentioned in the bible and after visiting Jesus the vanish from the narrative. What if they weren’t wise men at all? What if they were murderous thieves on the run from King Herod of Jerusalem and merely stumbled upon the family in a stable in Bethlehem?

This is the clever premise of Unholy Night, Seth Grahame-Smith’s third novel. Smith has made a name for himself with the high-concept genre mash-ups Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. With Unholy Night, Grahame-Smith takes one of the most well known stories in the world and turns it in to an ultra-violent action/adventure thriller. The concept is intriguing, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

Balthazar is a thief. Known as the Antioch Ghost, he has bedeviled the Roman empire and Judea for years and successfully eluded capture. That all changes during one failed heist and he is thrown in Herod’s dungeon with two other thieves, Melchyor and Gaspar, to await execution. Through a ruthless subterfuge, the men escape the dungeons and run for the lives. Their paths cross with Mary and Joseph and their newborn son and the atheist Balthazar ends up becoming their protector after witnessing Herod’s men brutally murdering the new born babies in Bethlehem. The six fugitives make a run for Egypt. Incensed with rage at the baby and Balthazar eluding capture, Herod entreats Augustus Caesar to assist in their capture. Caesar sends a young officer, Pontius Pilate, and an army in pursuit. Balthazar, Joseph, Mary, and the rest must learn to trust each other in order to evade the pursuing armies of the world and Balthazar must regain something he lost years ago: his faith.

This is the first book I’ve read by Grahame-Smith and when I first read the premise for Unholy Night I thought it would be more of a satirical comedy like a Christopher Moore or Terry Pratchett. But Grahame-Smith plays the scenario absolutely straight which is both a strength and a weakness. At it’s heart, Unholy Night is the story of Balthazar’s redemption. He is a man driven to avenge the death of his young brother and the hands of a Roman Centurion years before and he has bloodily cut a swath through the Roman empire to do it. This is an incredibly bloody and violent narrative. I’ve read plenty of horror novels and Unholy Night stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Stephen King’s early works. Balthazar is well skilled in murder, as are his cohorts, Gaspar and Melchyor. Limbs are hacked off, entrails are spilled, locusts eat men alive, violent torture ensues, this is not a story for the faint of heart.

Which is too bad because I think if the violence were toned down the book would be more accessible. There is an interesting story here but the gore overshadows the moral to the point where it is absolutely obscured. Herod is portrayed as diseased in both his body and mind. He openly defies the God of Abraham and declares war on Him. While God seems to help our heroes occasionally, there is an immense amount of pain and suffering for all of them before they reach the end. I have no idea what Grahama-Smith’s religious beliefs are but I wouldn’t be all that surprised to learn he was atheist. This is not a loving and caring God, it’s a pissed off vengeful deity that is still barely a match for the evil of powerful men and ancient dark magic. While God seems to give Balthazar super-human strength at a key moment it is obvious the humans are basically on their own to rescue themselves.

Unholy Night‘s alternate and dark take on the first Christmas is worth reading, but the moral and narrative are buried under a tidal wave of gore and conflicting tone. The best way to describe it would be as an ultra-violent Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact there are a couple of scenes in the book that are a direct homage to Raiders which ended up being pretty amusing.

Recommended but you better have a strong stomach.

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 20 #Snuff by #Terry Pratchett

Snuff is the latest Discworld novel, (#39 in the series) and the first since Thud to focus on Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh Morpork City Watch. I’ve been a life long fan of the Disc, but my favorite stories are always the ones that center on the Watch. I consider Jingo and Night Watch to not only be two of the best Discworld books, but two of my favorite books in any genre. So when I rank Snuff as 4 stars its not that Snuff is bad, its that the bar is incredibly high and I can’t give all of PTerry’s books 5 stars. It wouldn’t be fair to the truly exceptional ones like the above mentioned titles, as well as Hogfather, Guards! Guards!, Thief of Time, etc.

Snuff finds Commander Sam Vimes taking a holiday with his family to the country to visit the ancestral estate of his wife, Lady Sybil Ramkin Vimes. While there, as usually happens to Sam, a murder occurs and all manner of nefarious dealings begin to make themselves known. While Sam tries to track down the culprit and unravel a conspiracy with his trusty – and deadly – gentleman servant, Willikins, the City Watch has problems of their own. While out for his daily gratuity, Officer Fred Colon managed to get infected with a goblin soul that was residing in a cigar he received gratis. Cheery, Carrot, Angua, Nobby, and Wee Mad Arthur all get involved and soon enough both Sam’s case and the others are crashing in to each other for a blockbuster conclusion.

That’s sort of what happens. There are details of the book that are a bit difficult to grasp, especially if you didn’t read Thud, like the fact Sam is possessed (sort of) by a vengeance demon that helps him see in the dark and helps him with the case. While the narrative does get a bit muddy, the classic Pratchett satire is razor sharp and serves as an allegory against the mistreatment for any marginalized people. He does a great job of making you care about the victims and feel Sam’s righteous rage at the injustice that must be corrected at all cost.

For a Watch novel it is all standard stuff, but taking Sam out of the City does make for a new setting for him to get in to scrapes. The book moves fast and, as happens in nearly all Discworld novels, around the half way point the momentum picks up considerably and maintains a breakneck speed all the way to the end.

If you’re a fan of Discworld, then definitely read Snuff. If you are new to the series, start with Guards! Guards! to get a feel for who the characters of the Watch are. The books are stand alone, but it helps to know the backgrounds of the characters and how they got to where they are by this point in the chronology.

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 19 #The Night Circus by #Erin Morgenstern

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

No opening passage in some time has been as apt as this one for mood setting. You will not be expecting this book, and for a certain type of person, you may very well be as completely enraptured by it as I was. It is a difficult book to summarize and I know it has already been reviewed a few times on this Cannonball so I’m not going to go in to it again. The following is from Amazon:

Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors.

This is Morgenstern’s first novel but it reads as if it was written by a pro. Her characters are vividly drawn, descriptions are beautifully evocative and the story is absolutely mesmerizing. Set during the turn of the 20th century, Le Cirque des Rêves is a place full of wonders and subtle magic. The competition is not a battle so much as a trial of endurance to keep the circus operating and all of the illusions intact. As the competition wears on the lives of the magicians, the circus performers, even the visitors are all affected by the game that they have no way to escape until a victor is declared. Neither Celia or Marco know the rules of the competition nor how the winner will be named. As they begin to fall in love with each other things start to get even more complicated.

The Night Circus is the best book I have read in years and one I would call perfect. I compare it to Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. All three books perfectly balance story, characters, language, and mood and becomes something absolutely unique.

If more people would read The Night Circus and less were wasting their time with barely literate garbage like 50 Shades of Gray than the world would be an infinitely better place.


TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 18 #Gideon’s Corpse by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

There are definitely draw backs to being a completionist fan boy. While the duo still has a strong gold-to-crap ratio going, Preston & Child are definitely starting to lose their “must read” label for me. Maybe it’s just that they are publishing at least one book a year at this point but the output is starting to get sketchy. Gideon’s Corpse is the sequel to the 2011 Gideon’s Sword. That book was not very good, and while Gideon’s Corpse is better it is still so far fetched it’s hard to take seriously at times.

Gideon Crew is a nuclear physicist/professional thief/con man that does free lance work for Effective Engineering Solutions (shortened to EES), a sort of think tank in Manhattan, in stopping various calamities. Also he has a medical condition that is going to kill him in a year or so when his vein of Galen pops and he suffers a massive brain hemorrhage and dies instantly. This is an inoperable condition so Gideon is basically a walking dead man which makes him take risks other people probably wouldn’t.

Picking up just seconds after the end of Gideon’s Sword, Corpse immediately throws the reluctant Gideon Crew back in to the fray as he is tasked with trying to talk down a hostage taker that he happened to work with at Los Alamos. This leads in turn to the discovery that a nuclear bomb was manufactured and is going to be detonated in a US city in a matter of days.

Gideon reluctantly joins the investigation for no other reason than he knew someone involved and EES pairs him with the improbably named Stone Fordyce, an agent with the FBI. The dynamic duo heads to Los Alamos to follow up on a long shot lead and, lo and behold, end up pulling a thread that gets the bad guys hot on their trail. They frame Gideon and soon he is on the run trying to piece together who is behind the attack and how to stop it.

The first half of Corpse is kind of silly but enjoyable. I was less enthused when Gideon goes on the run because the interplay between him and the FBI agent was entertaining.  At one point the duo take a break from the investigation and Gideon makes them dinner at his cabin near Los Alamos and they listen to jazz and chat through the night. I swear I thought they were going to have sex and thought to myself “This is an intriguing development.” Alas, a same sex romance would have been an unconventional choice and this book is anything but that. The boys keep it as a platonic bromance although the frame up on Gideon definitely complicates their friendship.

All thrillers need an 11th hour twist and this one is a doozy. I won’t ruin it here but the twist made my suspension of disbelief completely stop and for the last 50 pages or so I read with complete detachment from the proceedings. Towards the end, you learn one of the characters was in on it from the beginning. This was completely expected and given the conventions of the genre I suspected this character immediately after they were introduced. However, the book is written in third person shifting between a few different characters. I had to go back and re-read the chapters with from this hidden conspirator’s perspective because I could swear the writers cheated. How can a hidden conspirator stay hidden when the reader is privy to their thoughts? By making extremely careful word choices in describing those thoughts. I still think it was a bit of a cheat, but it is a testament to Preston & Child’s skills that they made it work. But just barely.

The Pendergast series is the flagship brand for Preston & Child, but even it is getting a bit long in the tooth. This winter sees the publication of Two Graves, the finale of the so called Helen Trilogy. Once upon a time, the writers had a pretty good size group of characters to write about in the Pendergast series but over the years most of them were killed off.  I think the Gideon Crew series is an attempt to have a series that is not so interwoven and dark as the Pendergast series. In doing so, the result is so light it reads more like a script treatment than an actual novel.

Gideons Corpse is better than the first novel in the series but that is damning it with faint praise. Unless you are also a Preston & Child fan boy like myself there is really no reason to give this one your time. This is Thriller 101 stuff and even the hilarious and logic shattering conclusion isn’t enough to recommend it.

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 17 The Terror by Dan Simmons

At 766 pages, Dan Simmons epic, The Terror, is a daunting tale to tackle. This fictionalized retelling of the lost 1845 Franklin expedition to find the Arctic Ocean north-west passage can be slow going, but if you stick with it will find one of the most rewarding experiences of literary horror that is out there.

The book begins with the two ships on the Franklin expedition, the flagship H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror, trapped in the arctic ice. As the tale unfolds we learn how the ships became trapped and how dire their situation is. On board is a mute Eskimo woman that was found on the ice the crew has taken to calling Lady Silence, and out on the ice is an unseen menace that bedevils both ships and strikes with heretofore unseen intelligence, strength, and brutality. Their food stores are half rotten, the ships are hopelessly mired in the ice, and mutinous talk is starting to become more audible to the officers.

The novel is told in the third person with each chapter focusing on one specific character. As the novel wears on these character chapters repeat and it starts becoming clear who the main characters are in this group of 120+ men, and also includes one-off chapters meant to show a specific event from one view point. As I mentioned before, the 766 page book is a brick to get through. The first couple hundred pages are slow going with the constantly shifting view points. The reader starts to discover that the main characters are expedition leader Sir John Franklin, Captain Francis Crosier of the Terror, Captain James Fitzjames of the Erebus, Third Lieutenant John Irving of Terror, and Dr. Goodsir, ship’s surgeon aboard Erebus. There are other voices along the way, but those five serve as our main view points for the story. As the story progresses there are numerous descriptions of maritime life aboard a ship in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy and any fan of nautical adventure should be right at home. Myself, I have to admit to consulting Wiki articles a few times to truly understand the meaning of terms like the “fo’c’sle” and “orlop deck”.

The Terror is a book that is very difficult to write about to make someone understand why it is worth reading. I think that the length of the book works to make the reader wholly identify with the plight of the men on those ships. The near endless descriptions of the bleak landscape and dripping and cold conditions as well as the horrific effects of disease from botulism and scurvy on the men puts the reader right there on those ships with the officers and crew. Like any good apocalypse story, The Terror is really about the character of the men that are faced with their own uncertain future. What path will they take? What line will they refuse to cross? Who will be hero and who will be villain?

The Terror is a novel that I read thinking I knew how it would end but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Simmons uses the historical record of the doomed expedition, as well as the real men on those ships, to tell a story that is deceptively simple but utterly haunting and complex when examined as a whole piece.  This is one of the single most satisfying books I have read in some time and I would be shocked if you had told me 200 pages before the end that I would be writing this sentence.

I write that because I think the book is absolutely worth reading if you are a fan of either historical fiction, horror, thrillers, adventures, or any combination thereof but it can be difficult at times to get through. While the monster on the ice is absolutely horrifying it is the villainy of men that ultimately leads to the doom of the expedition.

When I was in my teens I devoured all of Stephen King and Dean Koontz books before moving on and out of the genre. I still love horror, but I had grown tired of the cliche and convention. I’m happy to say that The Terror is a horror novel that shatters expectation and is a wholly new and worthwhile experience. As the finale drew near I wasn’t sure if I really liked where it was going but The Terror is a book that is almost built to be re-read and seen differently the next time through. What Dan Simmons has done is written a novel that can be taken as allegory, hero’s journey, horror, cautionary tale and meta commentary on isolation, all simultaneously.

For anyone that is willing to take the journey to the end The Terror is a novel you will not soon forget.

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 16 Sacred by Dennis Lehane

Sacred, the third book in Dennis Lehane’s superb mystery series, picks up 6 months after Darkness, Take My Hand. Shell shocked Boston private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are trying to rebuild their lives after the devastating events of their previous case and have stopped taking new work. However, billionaire Trevor Stone needs their help so badly that he kidnaps the detectives to persuade them to locate his missing daughter, Desiree. Despite Trevor’s unorthodox methods Angie and Patrick are intrigued by the case – and the $50,000 retainer doesn’t hurt, either. As they dig deeper in to Desiree’s disappearance they uncover a shady grief counseling company, connections to a heroin smuggler, and and a never ending stream of lies.

After the brutal Darkness, Take my Hand; this novel is almost whimsical in comparison. There is still dark aspects and plenty of violence  but there is a lot more humor and the stakes are not quite as high. Even facing death Patrick and Angie are more wisecracking and cavalier, as if the previous case has broken them of any optimism for the future they once had. We learn more about how Patrick became a detective and Angie continues to deal with her grief over the loss of a loved one at the hands of a serial killer. Ultimately, the case they are working on is thematically the B plot. Even the title has nothing to do with the case, and is only referred to and spelled out in the final pages. The horrifying events in Darkness, Take My Hand has forced the detectives to rely on each other completely and this makes them a formidable opponent for anything that is thrown at them.

Lehane finds the balance between the suspense and the humor in Sacred, making for a very fast paced and enjoyable story. The book starts off fast and never lets up until the wicked conclusion. Along the way the bullets are flying, the bodies are piling up, and Angie and Patrick are back to doing what they do best: staying a half step ahead of their adversaries and not stopping until the case is closed.

Sacred is not nearly as thematically weighty as its predecessors but it is a lot more fun and bridges the gap between the two heavy entries in the series of Darkness, Take my Hand and Gone Baby Gone.

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