I’ve taken some time to read actual books lately, so let’s look at a few novels that may or may not appeal to your reading sensibilities:
- The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman
The English Civil War between King Stephen and Empress Matilda is one of the most interesting parts of history, English or anywhere. After King Henry I’s heir dies in a shipwreck in 1120, he selects as heir his daughter Matilda. This was, to say the least, a controversial decision for the time. When Henry dies in 1135, Matilda’s cousin Stephen seizes the throne and sets off a decades-long Civil War. This is the backdrop of The Siege Winter. Neither Stephen nor Matilda play a large part in the novel—which is a shame, the book would have been better for it.
When a roving band of soldiers headed by a psychotic monk attacks the child Emma, Gwyl, a kind mercenary archer, finds her in a field. He nurses her back to health, disguises her as a boy and becomes her protector. Eventually they flee to Kenilworth Castle, which takes turns being sieged by both Stephen and Matilda that winter for different political purposes. Meanwhile, the monk turns up at the castle and Gwyl prays he won’t recognize Emma.
That’s as much of a plot as the book has. Events happen, but not much moves the plot forward. The characters are stock, the action almost non-existent (unusual for a story being told during a major war). The story is wrapped up nicely, but wastes the potential of being told during one of the most interesting historical periods. The authors do capture Empress Matilda fairly well, a cold, domineering woman with little charm. Stephen is barely mentioned, other than why he wants strategic Kenilworth Castle for himself. A decent tale, but one that could have used more meat on its bones.
Rating: *** stars out of 5
- NYPD Red by James Patterson and Marshall Karp
NYPD Red is a special task force charged with protecting Manhattan's wealthiest and most powerful citizens. When several film industry executives are assaulted on the same day, Detective Zach Jordan and his new partner (of course his super-hot, married ex-girlfriend) Detective Kylie MacDonald are assigned to the case. [Slight spoilers] The killer is a frustrated extra who blames the film business for not making him a star. He has written a script and is making a movie in his mind of all the destruction he is causing, including murders and bomb destruction.
No one sets out to write a bad book, or to do a mediocre writing job. However, while I enjoyed some of Patterson’s early Alex Cross novels, lately anything with his name on it has become emotionally detached “product.” NYPD Red is as bland as the product gets. We’ve seen it all before and done better. When the inevitable TV series is cast, it will be supermodels solving crimes committed by other supermodels. The antagonist is insane and comes up with the flashy, unlikely plan one only finds in popular tripe like this. I’ve read toothpaste tubes with more drama. With so many great novels available to read, do people really want this?
Rating: ** stars out of 5
- City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Here is Amazon’s description: The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.
Yeah. That’s as inscrutable as the book itself. Sometimes I find good books by Googling “Best (choose your subject) novel of (choose your year). City of Stairs was on several lists as one of the best sci-fi novels of 2014, so I checked it out. After about 50 pages, I’d had enough. Kudos to anyone who could make it through this slog. The first part of the book reads like a small-town council meeting in Buttcheek, Iowa, with petty bureaucrats making petty decisions and having never-ending pointless conversations. Each new scene was like a trip to the dentist for a root canal. The protagonist was a traitor to their country and another petty functionary. Bennett’s city and character names are ridiculously complex and hard to pronounce. This is what they’ll have to read in the waiting room to Hell. Again, no one sets out to write a bad novel—not sure what happened here. I didn’t read the entire book, so no rating.
- Sneaky People by Thomas Berger
Finally, a novel worth reading. Of most of the novels I have read recently, Sneaky People comes closest to literature. In the 1930s, small-town used car dealer Buddy Sandifer has decided to murder his mousey wife and marry his busty mistress Laverne. Buddy is no genius, but he’s cunning and sneaky, he just has to figure out a way to do it that won’t come back on him. How about that Negro boy who washes cars on the lot? Surely he’d know someone. Buddy is racist enough to think that may work ...
Buddy Jr. is Buddy’s son; a teenage boy obsessed with girls and 1930s sex manuals. There is a decency and honesty about Buddy Jr. that he must have inherited from his mother.
Sneaky People is a snapshot of small-town American life in the early 20th Century. Everyone has their dreams and holds their secrets close. The book is about what happens when some of those secrets are pried from closed fingers and revealed to the world. The results are devastating. An excellent read.
Rating: **** stars out of 5