Monthly Archives: January 2021

Clanlands

I can’t be the only person who tends to think of an actor as though he is actually the character he portrays. Although in my head I know he is his own person, not a fictional character, sometimes it’s really, really easy to sort of not really believe it. So when you get a book like Clanlands by Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish, it’s a chance to get to know the actors behind the characters, while also seeing how their personalities enhance who they play on screen.

Clanlands is part travel book, mostly history, and a little bit comical autobiography. Heughan and McTavish, co-stars in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, decide to take a bit of a road trip through Scotland to get more in touch with their roots. They explore several historic sites, sample lots of whiskey, and harass each other a lot.

While this book was fun and definitely gets one interested in a trip to Scotland, I found that I really wanted it to be a podcast more than a book (though, it serves as a great teaser to the show they were filming at the same time!). I’ll be curious to see if the show is a more detailed repetition of the book, or if it is significantly different. And while I would read more written work by either author, I’d like something a little different. In some ways, it really did feel like the transcript of a podcast or show script, which while fun, wasn’t quite what I wanted. If either of them writes a full autobiography or any kind of history book, I’ll definitely pick it up, though!

All in all, it’s a fun book and a pretty quick read. But we’ll have to see what their Men in Kilts show is like before a full judgment of the book makes sense.

The Devil’s Punchbowl

The final book in the Penn Cage series before Greg Iles takes it into the Natchez Burning series (though technically still Penn Cage, it’s weird, a series within a series), I was ready pretty early on in the book to get it over with and revisit the second half of the series to see if I’ve changed a lot since I read them several years ago or if they really are significantly better than the early books (I’m guessing the latter).

The Devil’s Punchbowl finds Penn Cage running the city of Natchez, but in his two years as mayor, Cage has already become disenchanted with his grand plan to raise the town above all that it’s become. When an old friend from grade school requests a clandestine meeting with Cage and passes on sickening information about activities going on in the town, Cage can’t ignore it. When his friend ends up dead, Cage makes it a personal campaign to catch the bad guys–even if it means getting tangled up with a federal sting operation.

While better than Turning Angel, I didn’t enjoy The Devil’s Punchbowl as much as I’ve enjoyed other books that Iles has written. This one also was pretty gratuitous with sexual content (though I will say that, as it deals with the underworld, it’s at least a little more fitting to the context, even if it’s not enjoyable to read) and at times very graphic. This book definitely needs trigger warnings for rape/sexual abuse and graphic violence, specifically against animals.

The Devil’s Punchbowl is fast-paced, as Iles books always are, but once again it fell flat of my expectations. What has drawn me to Iles’ works are the stories of intrigue mixed with politics and the courtroom. While Iles proves himself a master of thrillers in many sub-genres, turns out not all of them are up my alley. Which is OK, a thriller writer needs the ability to branch out or else risk becoming predictable.

This book is well-written but quite intense with the content it deals with, and not everyone will be able (or willing) to tolerate the detail Iles goes into, nor the plot twists he uses to move the story forward. I don’t want to say it’s inappropriate for people of delicate sensibilities, but I can’t think of a better way to phrase it. The first three books of the Penn Cage series require some thought before diving in.

Turning Angel

I’m not sure whether I like series that don’t necessarily build on each other. And by that I mean the difference between, say, The Lord of the Rings movies and the Die Hard movies. Both are series with the same characters, but if you jump into The Lord of the Rings out of order, you’ll be playing catch up. With Die Hard, you’ll probably recognize that the character existed before but any background you need will be provided for you so you can dive into whatever movie you have on hand. Greg Iles’ Penn Cage series is like that, same character, references to the previous books, but not quite crucial to read in order.

Turning Angel, the second Penn Cage book, finds Cage still in Natchez writing and getting involved in the community. When his childhood friend, Dr. Drew Elliott, is identified as the prime suspect in the murder of a high school girl, Cage quickly finds himself in over his head. The only way he can vindicate his friend of the murder charge is by finding the real murderer–but as Cage starts digging he puts himself squarely in the danger zone, and saving his friend could cost Cage his own life.

I’ll be completely honest, this is the worst book I’ve read by Iles (and there was one book that I didn’t even bother finishing, so that’s saying something). Not only does it seem to fall completely flat compared to other Penn Cage novels, but the approach he takes to a 40+-year-old man having an affair with a 17-year-old girl is frankly disturbing. While I’m not so naive as to think there aren’t young girls who want to be involved with older men, I don’t really agree that it needs to be normalized. And the way Iles’ writes the character of Mia Burke, seeming to not care at all when older men–even teachers–check her out, seems rather unbelievable to me.

Although Iles writes the book with lots of fast-paced action and writes an intriguing court case-building story, I just can’t get past the premise. And given the premise, it’s not surprising then that the book is full of sexual content, consensual and non-consensual. Thus, it does warrant some trigger warnings for readers.

All in all, I can’t say the book is worth reading. I’m glad I got it at a 10 books for $1 sale so I’m not out any real money. It’s well written, but for me personally, I’m just not sure it was worth writing.

The Quiet Game

At long last, I cycled back to the beginning of Greg Iles series about Penn Cage. I accidentally jumped into Iles’ books in the middle of the Natchez Burning series, and I’ve basically read all over the place since then.

In The Quiet Game readers meet Penn Cage, a former DA making his living now as a novelist. Cage is returning home to Natchez, Mississippi, in the wake of his wife’s death. Once there, Cage can’t help but get caught up in a decades-old murder. On the surface, it seems like a civil rights race murder, not uncommon in Natchez’s tumultuous past. But as Cage keeps asking questions, it becomes clear that there’s a lot more hiding beneath the surface. Cage has the chance to publicly solve this case and also find some closure to his own past, but doing so might cost him everything.

This book read similarly to what I remember of the Natchez Burning series, packed full of action and unafraid to tackle issues of racism and age-old hatred. Iles doesn’t shy away from the dark history of his town, and though his characters can be rough around the edges, they come through the pages as very real, relatable people.

I will be honest, I did end up taking a break from this book, about two thirds of the way in, because Iles wasn’t leaving any of the romance up to the reader’s imagination (of course, by the time I stopped the only action left in the book was of the thriller variety, not sexual). While I recall sex in Iles’ other books, at times this did seem excessive and gratuitous. I get how the romance with the old flame was pivitol to the story, but a lot of it could have been left to the imagination.

Another warning for readers, Iles’ characters, as mentioned, are rough around the edges. They speak crudely, everything from swearing to slang and derogatory terms. And while I would say, for the most part, it’s in keeping with at least the stereotypical image of a southern town divided by race and stuck decades behind present day, it still may be hard or plain unpleasant for some readers.

All in all, while I enjoyed the story line of this book, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I recall enjoying that Natchez Burning series. And while it’s nice to get to know more about the character of Penn Cage, it’s probably not a book I will keep and reread.

Sleeping Beauties

Horror isn’t really my genre, so I’ve not read a whole lot by Stephen King, but I’ve been starting to dabble the last few years (and by that I mean I’ve now read two books by him). I’ve not read anything by any of his family members, either, as they tend to be in the same genre, so Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King was a first in a couple ways.

Set in a small town in Appalachia, everyone is going about their normal lives when news reports start filtering in about women across the world falling asleep and becoming enshrouded by a kind of cocoon. In Dooling, Sheriff Lila Norcross has her hands full with family secrets, a double homicide, and a strange woman wearing almost no clothes and lots of blood.

As cases of Aurora start popping up in town, Lila begins to see that it’s all somehow related, but time is running out as fast as her energy. And if the women all fall asleep, it’ll be up to the men to find a solution–but the men are busy fighting among themselves and using violence to solve their disagreements. And if they can’t find something better within themselves, their women may never come home.

First of all, if this is horror than I’ve been misunderstanding it my whole life. But, I don’t think it compares to some of King’s more classic horror novels. But it was an interesting, fast-paced novel that kept me engaged as I worked to unravel the threads of the story. The father-son duo (and their editors, probably) did an excellent job of blending their voices into one cohesive narrative. I’ve read some multi-author books where you could tell the parts were written by two different people, but that wasn’t the case with Sleeping Beauties.

The book also explores the idea of moral superiority between men and women. The premise is clearly than women, left to themselves, could create a new and better world untainted by modern men. Nearly all the men in the story had serious flaws and problems or history that they hadn’t fully dealt with, all of which impacted their wives and the women they knew. The women, while far from being saints, were painted as more willing to be selfless and sacrificial, even toward their men who were less than deserving. It’s an interesting take on humanity, and probably one that’s very common, maybe even popular, within some groups.

All in all it was an engaging read, good for those who like thrillers, weird circumstances, and action stories. However, it’s littered with profanity, which can be a turn-off for some. And also includes references/scenes of violence and sexual abuse, which could be triggering to some audiences.