Category: 3 Barrels

“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

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“Nether Isle” by Nicoline Evans

Nether Isle

Nether Isle

Author:  Nicoline Evans

Published:  2015

I picked up a copy of Nether Isle by Nicoline Evans at C2E2 last month. Ms. Evans had an entire booth promoting the multiple books she had written which was the most impressive independent author set up I’d seen at a comic convention. Her books all featured very beautiful cover artwork and fantastical plot elements that also drew my attention. As a big fan of buying books directly from authors I talked to her for a bit and settled on Nether Isle, which she described as a supernatural story that was also her dad’s favorite book that she’d written to this point. As I was pushing my son around in a stroller at the time, I thought “ah, that’s the one for me.”

More broadly, Nether Isle tells the story of a remote village off the coast of Maine where it seems things are just a bit more depressing and anti-social than normal. The reason for this is quickly revealed, but honestly my favorite part of the book was the reveal so I’m not going to get into it here. The protagonist of the book is Theodore, a teenage boy who recently moved to the neighborhood with his drunken abusive father. Theodore is a loner, never staying anywhere long enough to feel connected to other people. At his new school, he is an outcast until a new student named Bianca arrives. Bianca befriends Theodore and the two immediately begin to get close. Everybody else at school though seems to hate Bianca for no reason, and even adults close to Theodore warn him not to get close to her.

Again, the reveal for what’s wrong with the town and basically everything else happens pretty early on. My favorite parts of the book were Theodore’s discovery of the town’s secret, followed by the progression of his relationship with Bianca. Once Theodore has finally chosen sides about halfway through the book, the remaining story did not maintain the same momentum. The mystery of the early chapters is replaced primarily by training/gathering of allies. While Evans was trying to likely trying to increase the stakes of the story, the opposite effect resulted. The more new characters that were introduced, the less I ended up caring when a terrible fate would befall one of them.

Evans was completely successful however in creating a very memorable and interesting world for the characters to live in. There is an excellent balance of rules of magic for what is going on, and mystery for what becomes of the village’s special residents when they leave. The things I’ll most remember about this book are the distinct settings: the lighthouse, the fish market, the small school. The result was a timeless quality that could exist both before or after the invention of smart phones and the internet. A few other random notes:

  • Cadence, Bianca’s little sister, flipped between one of my favorite characters and one of the most frustrating. It’s hard to imagine how somebody her age and life experiences would act, but the switch between strong willed and victim had be invested and frustrated at the same time.
  • Evans touched on some difficult issues in introducing characters affiliated with tragic events from human history but did a nice job of avoiding their purpose just being shock value.
  • The spell that involves a blessing bothered me when it was introduced. It seemed a bit too flippant to wait until so late in the game to inform Theodore about this alternative, and then the ethics of using it seemed to be given minimal thought. (I suppose you could explain this away by saying the mystery of where its recipient was sent makes it rather pointless, but obviously some of the casters believed it very much mattered.)
  • I got a bookmark for another book by Evans about a man made of stone, and after seeing it every day while reading this book I’ve decided I should track that one down to. Free bookmarks are awesome people!

Overall this was a quick read, even at 463 pages . I would recommend taking some time on the first half of the book and letting the mood and mystery linger before marathon-ing the end. I give this one 3 ½ stars, which I haven’t created barrel artwork for, so I’m forced to make the tough call. There was enough here that I really enjoyed however, that I am definitely down for reading more of Ms. Evans’ books in the future.

3 star

“Spandau Phoenix” by Greg Iles Review

Spandau Phoenix

Spandau Phoenix

Author:  Greg Iles

Released:  1991

In 1941, Hitler’s top officer Rudolph Hess flew in a secret mission to Britain. What the purpose of that mission was has always been a great mystery. Some even believe that the man who landed in Britain was not the real Rudolph Hess, but was instead a double, and the man who has been sitting in Spandau prison for four decades is Hess’s double, and the American, English, German and Russian governments all may know the truth and have reasons to want it suppressed. Spandau Phoenix tells the story of the chain of events that occurs when the prisoner in Spandau Prison dies, and a German police officer discovers a diary written by him revealing part of the mystery.

This is a book with a ton of characters with different motivations who all get sucked into the intrigue. Just off the top of my head, there are:
– Hans – a German officer who discovers the book.
– Ilse – his wife who is aware of the mystery and later used as a bargaining chip.
– Professor Natterman – the couple’s grandparent who believes in the important of revealing the contents of the papers.
– Hauer – Hans’s father, a senior officer and former military sniper
– Jonas Stern – An Israeli intelligence officer who is the closest thing this book has to Liam Neeson
– 4 other Israeli soldiers who are assisting Stern
– Alfred Horn – The mysterious South African man with unlimited resources and henchmen
– Pieter Smuts – Horn’s South African head of security
– Luhr – The evil German police officer who loves torturing people
– Schneider – The German detective who gets roped into working with the Americans and reminded me of The Rock.
– Colonel Rose – The American officer who manipulates the situation to use Germans to pursue his goals.
– Neville Shaw – England’s head intelligence officer
– The Sparrow – A middle aged woman who is an assassin with a vendetta against Stern
– Colonel Karami – A Libyan with unlimited henchman doing business with Horn
– Richardson – An American who is kidnapped and taken to East Berlin by the Russians
– Several Russians who kidnap Richardson and are attempting to retrieve the Spandau papers
– Boromir – A Russian intelligence officer willing to cross any line
– Benton – An expatriated soldier doing wetworks for England
– Diaz – A Cuban mercenary and airplane pilot
– General Steyn – The South African in charge of relations at the Embassy, who has history with Stern
– Steyn’s top two officers, one whom is loyal to him and another who definitely is not

There’s probably three times as many characters throughout the book, but those are the main ones I can think of. Besides the individual character motivations, almost all of them are are also motivated by the impact of their country by the release of the Spandau secrets. England, Germany, Russia, America, Israel, Libya and South Africa are the main countries here, and a decent knowledge of global politics and World War II history will add to your enjoyment of this book.

This is the second book chronologically (first in publication order) by Greg Iles dealing with World War II. Spandau Phoenix is much more ambitious that Black Cross but less enjoyable overall. While Black Cross primarily stayed confined to three characters (Jonas Stern, an American aiding him on a mission and a woman in a concentration camp), the stakes felt higher for all of them than for anybody in this book. In fact, if I hadn’t read Black Cross previously I don’t know that I would have cared about Jonas Stern as much as I did, and he is certainly one of the book’s main characters.

The only characters whose arcs were compelling to me throughout where Ilse and Hauer. Ilse started off making a really foolish decision, but did a nice job thinking on her feet afterward. Hauer was the most convincing of the eight action movie style characters (Hauer, Stern, Schneider, Smuts, Richardson, Sparrow, Benton, Boromir), and blended a nice pragmatist philosophy with some Schwarzenegger in Commando parenting skills. Conversely, his son Hans was the worst character in the book, present to create bad situations for Hauer to get him out of.

The rest of the characters certainly made sense in this global historical fiction tale, however as a reader all of the jumping around made it so I didn’t feel invested in 80% of the cast. The larger problem was that the central conceit of why all of these countries were willing to kill and cover up everything in pursuit of the Spandau papers was pretty much dismissed by Hauer toward the end of the book in terms of how much the general population would care about their contents. I definitely feel like a learned about Cold War era Berlin, the abdication of Prince Edward VIII and the relationship of Israel to other world powers, and the mystery of Rudolph Hess’s flight kept me more involved than if I had just perused his Wikipedia entry (which I just did). However, the overall story was stretched out and inflated more than I would have liked and I suspect others may feel the same way.

3 star

“Ain’t Got Time to Bleed” by Andrew Shaffer, Illustrated by Steven Lefcourt Review

Ain't Got Time to Bleed

Ain’t Got Time To Bleed

Writer:  Andrew Shaffer

Illustrator:  Steven Lefcourt

Published:  2017

The premise of “Ain’t Got Time to Bleed” is 29 action movie characters are examined by medical professionals to determine what effect the various injuries they sustain throughout the movie would have on them, and if they would survive or not. The characters include several individuals who are in more than one movie (Luke Skywalker, James Bond, John McClane etc.), however the author just selected one film for those characters to review (The Emperor Strikes Back, Skyfall, Die Hard). Along with each page recapping the injuries sustained during the movie, there are also “additional observations” which often include psychological diagnoses, and a prognosis section for recovery time (or permanent or fatal injuries). Finally, there are pictures by Steven Lefcourt of each character with the injured areas highlighted.

This book delivered fairly well on what was promised. It’s definitely a book you can finish in one sitting, coming in at less than 70 pages with half of those being illustrations. The best portions were the less obvious injuries I’d never considered before. My favorite was Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer from Predator (also the film the book takes its title from) whose additional observations section stated”Patient covered himself with mud to avoid detection… however, this could have caused his open wounds to become infected. Teanus, anthrax and necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) are just a few of the main soil-related bacterial, fungal and viral infection possible.”

On the negative side, the idea can get a bit redundant, especially regarding the multiple fist fights (“Multiple fistfights. Superficial lacerations on face. Bruised knuckles possible.”), many of which are generalized. I think by stopping at one movie per character, the author missed a fun opportunity to see how some characters would survive over multiple films (Rambo, John McClane, James Bond, Bryan Mills, Ethan Hunt and others would lend themselves well for this). Still, for a 30 minute read this is good for several chuckles.

3-star

“The Angel Chronicles: Vol. 2” by Richie Tankersly Cusick Review

Angle 2

The Angel Chronicles: Vol. 2

Author:  Richie Tankersly Cusick

Published:  1998

My preface from The Angel Chronicles: Vol. 1 stated:

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 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 a read of stories about Angel.

Everything above still holds true for this volume about Angel, with the only change being the episodes being revisted. Here there are the episodes “Halloween,” and “What’s My Line” (Parts 1 and 2). Overall this volume was a little bit better than Volume 1 due just to the quality of episodes. “Halloween” is a fun episode where characters turn into whatever they are dressed up as for Halloween, with Xander becoming an experienced soldier, Willow a ghost and Buffy a lady of status from the 1700’s. This episode succeeds as both being a memorable standalone episode and also as an important building piece for the series as a whole. Xander’s military experience gets referred to off and on for the rest of the series, bad guy Ethan Rayne reappears later on (and provides some great depth for Giles past), and of course fan favorite character Oz is introduced.

Likewise, “What’s My Line” is important at pushing the plot forward for the series, but was a little less memorable as standalone episodes. Here, Spike is seeking a way to restore Drucilla’s strength, and comes across a means that involves a new moon, a church and Drucilla’s sire. In order to distract Buffy, he calls for the Order of Taraka to put a hit on her which leads to a variety of assassins who are feared for their relentlessness and anonymity. These episodes are also important to greater Buffy lore as they introduce Kendra the Vampire Slayer, propel Xander and Cordelia’s relationship into its most interesting phase, and swaps the power dynamic from Spike to Drucilla. While reading the novelization, I couldn’t recall where part 1 ended and part 2 began, which is a nice compliment to the seamlessness of the adaptation.

I only rate this slightly better than Vol. 1 however, because I just summed up all three episodes and didn’t need to mention Angel once (ok, that’s a cheat because I said that Drucilla’s sire was needed for the ritual, and her sire is Angel). So basically, his involvement in these two episodes is him being unimpressed by Buffy’s desire to be a noble woman and then getting kidnapped and stabbed by Spike and Drucilla. Those coming for some awesome Angel-centric stories will likely be disappointed. Unlike the last volume, these episodes take place much closer together than Vol. 1’s trilogy, ranging from Season 2 Episode 6 to Season 2 Episode 10 (taking place in between the episodes is “Lie to Me,” which is included in Angel Chronicles Vol. 1… I’m not sure why they didn’t swap out Halloween and Lie to Me between the two, but it is what it is).

My same complaints are also around from the previous volume that this format seems like a missed opportunity to increase the perspective of the cover/title character from the events of these episodes. The three included in this book would seem to be great opportunities to do so, but not for Angel, instead for Xander, Oz or even Cordelia. For a somebody reading all of these books, they succeed in telling the stories from the episodes but the shuffled order and lack of anything new make it tough to recommend these for any other fans of the series.

3-star

“Cycle of the Werewolf” by Stephen King and Bernie Wrightson (Artist) Review

Cycle of the Werewolf

Cycle of the Werewolf

Author: Stephen King

Artist:  Bernie Wrightson

Published:  1983

I didn’t realize when I started this that this book is the basis for the 1985 film “Silver Bullet” starring cinema greats Gary Busey and Corey Haim. It’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve seen that movie, but even without reading this book I vividly remember a teenager defending himself from a werewolf with fireworks and the reveal of who the the werewolf was due to an eye patch a short time later. (In the film, the werewolf was played by Everett McGill, aka Big Ed from Twin Peaks, and an actor who one of my favorite podcasts would refer to as a god damned American treasure).

Cycle of the Werewolf is a book that’s difficult to put into a genre. It’s certainly a horror story due to its subject matter. It’s also like a short story collection, as the book is divided into 12 chapters based on the full moon each month, and only about 4 of the twelve chapters really feel connected to the main narrative and the rest seem like vignettes. The book is a very quick read with illustrations mixed in for each chapter (typically a scenery picture to open the chapter, and a werewolf attack or two also illustrated). I wouldn’t classify it as a kids book due to some violence and language, but the pictures and quick read probably make it more juvenile than many adults would want to be seen reading in public (although at 127 pages, and with many of those illustrations or blank title pages this is easily a book one could read in one sitting).

Unfortunately there’s not a lot more to this story than the few iconic moments I remembered from the film as the bulk of the book is just a few paragraphs about a person about to become a werewolf attack victim. The film script that came from this did a much better job of developing characters and telling an interesting story than this book, but as a quick read about werewolves near Bangor this was fairly harmless. The art by Bernie Wrightson was also very fun and added to my enjoyment of the story. I’m also ready to rewatch “Silver Bullet” now, so that’s an added bonus.

3-star

“Nailbiter, Volume 2: Bloody Hands” by Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson Review

Nailbiter 2

Nailbiter, Vol. 2: Bloody Hands

Written by: Joshua Williamson

Art by: Mike Henderson

Published:  2015

Volume 2 of Nailbiter was a bit of a letdown from the first volume. The main culprit was story decompression as 2 of the 5 issues included featured what read like stand alone issues (featuring stories about a Beekeeper and a pregnant girl who wants her baby to be a killer). The issues that tied back into the main plot didn’t advance the overarching storyline much, with some further interrogations being teased and the Nailbiter acting creepier but not much else going on besides s religious guy rising as an antagonist. There’s also a weird Brian Michael Bendis cameo shoehorned in and a bus incident that would certainly be national news.

The art continued to be OK, but probably a step below most of the books I read on a month to month basis. The backup story at the end was certainly gross and shocking, but it also felt like a reveal that would have been better earned in the main storyline instead.

3-star