Category: 5 Barrels

“The Touch” by F. Paul Wilson Review

The touch

The Touch

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Released:  1986

As a stand alone book in F. Paul Wilson’s Adversary Cycle, The Touch barely ties into the events of the Repairman Jack world or even the rest of the Adversary Cycle stories, but was overall one of my favorite books I’ve read by the author. The book is the story of Dr. Alan Bulmer, a family physician who gains the ability of the Dat-tay-vao, a healing touch that works for about an hour a day. Patients who come in with hearing loss or broken bones leave Bulmer’s office completely healthy. The ability seems to know no limits, fixing life long birth defects or nearly fatal cancer. The ability draws Bulmer into the intrigue of an ambitious senator, as well as the attention of other local medical professionals, all of which believe Bulmer is either having a breakdown or is now a scam artist. The only man who seems to have any idea what is going in is the Vietnamese gardener for the local widow, a man with a set of skills reminiscent of Liam Neeson in Taken.

While Wilson can craft great page turners, nobody will ever confuse him for John Steinbeck. Wilson often falls back on cliched character types and racial stereotypes throughout his writing, and The Touch is no exception. The bad guys are foreshadowed early and there is no guessing when it comes to who Alan should trust. Despite all that, the story moves at a brisk pace and I frequently found myself wondering how I would respond in the same situation. The progression of the touch on Bulmer is obvious to the reader immediately, but it is understandable how Bulmer could ignore or overlook the negative effects (or diagnose them as stress) for as long as he does.

Much of the suspense of the book hinges on whether Bulmer’s ability would work on a person with autism, which was sort of odd to distinguish among all the conditions a patient could have. Wilson wisely focuses much of the doubt as coming from a character worrying about the possible effects on her son. With a simple story and few major characters, this is the type of book that lends itself to thinking of cinematically while reading. (For my reading, I pictured Harrison Ford as Bulmer and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the widow (when they were in their 40’s), Naomi Watts as Bulmer’s wife and Richard Jenkins as the Senator.)

My book also included the short story, Dat-tay-vao which explains how the ability crossed the ocean from Vietnam to America. The story features some very unlikable characters in a tense Vietnam setting, while filling in a blank that I wasn’t particularly interested in knowing about. Still, who can complain about a free bonus story.

5-star

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“Night Terrors” by Alice Henderson Review

Night Terrors

Night Terrors (A Stake Your Destiny Buffy Book)

Author: Alice Henderson

Published:  2005

Maybe I’m biased because I made it through this book to a happy ending on my first try, but this was my favorite of the Stake Your Destiny Buffy books. I wrote in my review forKeep Me In Mind that “the entire thing reads like a long dream sequence (I hate dream sequences).” Night Terrorsactually featured a lengthy dream sequence so now I’m reevaluating my stance on the topic. I think the problem with Keep Me In Mind was that the entire book felt like a training drill with zero stakes (sorry, bad pun… how about consequences) for the reader. In Night Terrors I was making what I felt was the best choice each time but I constantly felt like I was leading Buffy to her death as the plot got weirder and wackier.

The plot of Night Terrors is that people around Sunnydale are getting sleepy, and feeling paralyzed in their sleep but feeling as though they are awake. It starts off affecting Buffy but spreads to others like Angel and her classmates. As Buffy feels like something is sitting on top of her, and that she’s not alone in her room, she lies paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. Once the feeling has passed, we’re given the choice of going to find Angel, going out on a patrol, or studying for a test that day that we’ve so far neglected. The choice is simple enough, but right away the book at least gave options that felt either more authentic to how Buffy would behave in the tv series or that an average reader would consider in her place (the previous Stake Your Destiny books have seemed addicted to offering a day spent with Cordelia right out of the gate).

**Slight Spoilers follow**

I flipped around when I was finished and saw other happy endings possible for the reader, and since it’s difficult to review this book without giving away the track I followed, reader beware. I started off patrolling before ending up heading toward the gym at Principal Snyder’s direction. Before I got there I decided to check on a crying student. After I learned more from the Scoobies, I decided to sleep and confront the Night Terror right away (my thinking being that staying up would just lead to a later confrontation with a tired and weakened slayer). After entering the dream world, I tried to locate Willow to communicate with the other spirits. When that was a dead end, I decided to Trust Ned, the man from Planet X who worked with the Lava people and build a dreamcatcher to catch the Night Terror.

For those following along, yeah that took a turn well away from anything in the series. I can only say that the alternative options presented to me seemed like tricks by the enemy, and that my path resulted in a happy ending. Spending about one third of this story in an anything goes dream world actually felt more like an episode of the tv series than one would thing just from reading that recap. In particular, it felt like the season four finale where Willow, Buffy, and Xander are encountering the First Slayer in their sleep.

**End of spoilers**

Besides feeling like a fun episode of the series and rewarding my obviously excellent choices based on years of watching the show and reading the books and comics, Night Terrorsalso benefitted by not having the ultra predictable page numbering problem present in some of the other Stake Your Destiny books. I jumped into the last 200 pages fairly early and often my two choices were close enough in page numbering to not give away which way the book was steering me. Although I wouldn’t put this book up there withDune or East of Eden, I’ve now read all of the Stake Your Destiny books and this was the only one that I didn’t come away from with grievances, and I actually had a really fun time reading it. That earns a perfect score from this reader.

3-star

“Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean M. Auel Review

Clan of Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear

Author:  Jean M. Auel

Published:  1980

My fascination with this book is somewhat random. Growing up, this was a popular enough book that I’d see it for sale at numerous used book stores, and always kept it in the back of my mind that I would read it someday. No particular reason why besides a title that implied there’d be some people that had some involvement with bears. I never bought it as a kid though, who knows why when I picked up so many other books that have sat on my shelves for years and either been read or are still waiting for the long payoff. When my wife was looking for a book about a primitive culture I looked this one up (really never even knowing what it was about for sure until then) and got a copy for both of us. While she’s reading the excellent Crime and Punishment I thought I’d zip through this one before she got to it. That’s a long buildup before ever discussing this book, but I’m wanting to be honest in discussing my thoughts as I read this.

First, I’m giving this book five stars. I give a lot of books I enjoy five stars, but they’re generally books I enjoyed and lived up to what I was hoping for, or took a series that was good and made it better. This was one of those rare books that made me wish I’d be a bit pickier with my five star ratings as I enjoyed this book a lot more than many other books I’ve given five stars to. I’d say it’s on par with Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub for the best book I’ve read in the past few years.

However, I could see how this book would not be for everyone. Auel has a writing style here that I LOVED. It was very simple to follow, heavily based on advancing the narrative. However, Auel also has a habit for interjecting a modern reader’s sensibility into the story, discussing things like advanced medical science, or biology of the neanderthal brain. I could see how some readers will be taken out of the story by this, but I appreciated the interjections as a good narrator explaining the inner goings of the characters and the society they inhabit. The group of neanderthal (Clan) people also have some abilities that are rooted in fantasy, but the book tries to stay as grounded as possible in reality. While that mixture of modern science with fantasy abilities all taking place in a historical fiction type of narrative is unlike anything I’ve read, Auel (for this book at least) managed to bring it all together in an exemplary manner.

Clan of the Cave Bear features a small cast of about 20 characters, of which five are significantly developed and about another five are treated as important but also fairly static (along with the other ten or so characters). Ayla is the protagonist, a Cro-Magnon girl who gets adopted by the neanderthal tribe. Iza is the medicine woman who adopts her, Creb is the shaman type character for the clan, Brun is the tribe leader and Broud is his son and in line to be the next leader. I found myself loving four of these characters and hating the fifth, which I expect will be the same reaction for most who read this book.

I can see by the average Goodreads scores, that most people find the quality of this series to be of diminishing returns as it advances. I’m tempted to forego reading more of the series and just enjoying what a great book this is on its own. However, I already know I’ll be tracking down at least the next book as this one ends on enough of an open ending that I’d like to see what happens to the characters that are still alive from the group above, as well as the offspring of those characters.

5-star

“The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus by David Anthony Durham Review

The Risen

The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus

Author:  David Anthony Durham

Published:  2016

This was the third book I received from the Brilliant Book of the Month Club, and it was by far the best. The Risen is a retelling of the story of Spartacus, historical fiction done in the style of Game of Thrones. I base the GOT comparisons on the rotating cast of perspective characters that Durham utilizes to tell this story. Unlike GOT however, The Risen avoids a lot of the tedium and pacing issues that have dogged George R.R. Martin’s more recent works.

One third of the way through, I was keeping a list of the characters and assigning an actor to each one just so I could keep them straight. Thankfully, between 300, Troy, Game of Thrones, and a host of other swords and sandals epics I had plenty of cool actors to populate the cast. The book is broken up into three sections, with (as best as I can tell) one chapter per each section devoted to each of the perspective characters. Unlike GOT, the characters are almost all on the side of Spartacus, with two exceptions: Nonus (a cowardly Roman who reminded me of Theon Greyjoy) and Kaleb (a slave to Spartacus’s main rival Crassus). The rest of the perspective characters include obvious choices like Spartacus and Castus, as well as more diverse individuals like Vectia (an elderly woman who serves as a guide), Sura (a priestess to Kotis) and Philon (a greek medic slave).

Whereas my initial interactions with some of the characters made them difficult to differentiate (Castus and Dolmos seemed particularly bland in the early going), Durham does a fantastic job of giving each character a distinct viewpoint, history and motivation for their actions going forward. Durham also does a great job of pacing his reveals within his chapters, generally by beginning each new chapter by jumping ahead in the action and then filling in the blanks in intervals throughout. When characters begin to betray each other, or fall during battle, the reader is often made to wait several pages to find out who is involved in the action. I’d find this to be a problem in a different book, but here the plot moves so quickly that it never felt like a trick.

I was also reminded of Brandon Sanderson while reading this book, as by the end of it I had a clear idea of the plotting that went into it by the author. Each character introduced was necessary to the plot and contributed to the narrative in an essential way. My favorite chapters ended up involving Kaleb (who served as a stand in for any of the millions of people who could have led to a different outcome for the Risen) and Dolmos (who reminded me of Ned Stark by the end of it). I’d recommend this book to any fans of historical fiction or fans of the Roman era in history.

5-star

“Sharpe’s Enemy” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's_Enemy

Sharpe’s Enemy

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Release Date: January 1984

Sharpe’s Enemy is the best book yet in the Sharpe series, and considering there have been some excellent earlier stories that’s high praise. Taking place over Christmas of 1812, there are so many memorable elements of this book that it really stands out in the series. **Minor plot spoilers sprinkled throughout, but nothing that will ruin the ending**

For starters Sharpe receives a major promotion early in this book to the rank of Major. The role allows him to command his first full scale battle against a battalion by the end the book, and also have his own Captains that work under him. This also expands the cast in a major way with a few officers that I expect will be recurring, most memorably Sweet William the one eyed Captain who takes out his teeth and removes his eye patch before battle. The other major addition is a rocket troop. Part of Sharpe’s responsibilities include the task of testing the rockets and seeing if they are fit for use in battle. The use of the rockets provide two of the most memorable scenes in the book.

The Enemy in the title of the book refers to a certain evildoer from earlier novels, but what makes this installment of the series stand out even more is the presence of numerous individuals that could be called Sharpe’s enemy. Sharpe is tasked with rescuing hostages from a ragtag group of soldiers deserted from French, Spanish, English and Portugese armies. Along the way Sharpe is forced into confrontations of various levels against a superior officer (Lord Farthingdale), a French commander (Colonel Dubreton), a French intelligence officer (Ducos), and of course the evil individual from Sharpe’s past. Although most of the confrontation is with that last individual, my favorite parts of this book all involved Colonel Dubreton. Unlike most villains in the series, Dubreton is a respectable French officer who admires Sharpe and seeks to best him on a battlefield under the rules of conduct. I am hopeful he reappears in later installments.

Sharpe’s love life also is front in center in Sharpe’s Enemy, as both his wife Teresa as well as former lover Josephina are present. In addition to the major promotion, growth in the cast of the book and interesting plot, Sharpe’s Enemy also features the death of two major characters in very dramatic fashion that will certainly have repercussions on Sharpe in the future. For as much as I enjoyed this book however, I would probably not recommend it as a good starting point in the series as part of what made it work so well was how it took storylines from earlier books and concluded them in a satisfying manner.

As with most Sharpe novels there is an historical note at the end of the book that discusses the accuracy of the events described. As usual this was one of the best parts of the book as it told of an actual group of deserters let by a former French army cook. The reveal for what actually happened to that group in real life was a funny moment of creative liberty taken by Cornwell.

5-star

“Foul Ball: Plus Part II” by Jim Bouton Review

foul-ball

Foul Ball: Plus Part II

Author: Jim Bouton

Release date: 2005

**This review has been updated following the reading of Part Two**

Three books in and I am still a big fan of Jim Bouton’s writing. The retired baseball player’s style foreshadowed the invention of the blog and once again kept me entertained in this page turner about his attempt to get a lease on a local minor league ballpark. The resulting struggle against the local government comes off as a one sided rant by a jilted lover with enough details mixed in that you end up wondering how this is a story you haven’t heard more about.

The highest praise I can give is that upon finishing part one of the book I checked Wikipedia for an update and began trying to track down the updated version of the book for the rest of the story. After tracking it down, I’m glad that I did although Bouton accurately subtitled the Post Script to the book accurately when he wrote “In which what happens next could have been easily predicted by the reader.”

Bouton sold this reader on the rationality of his proposal for the stadium in the first book, but he also threw numerous people in the town of Pittsfield under the bus for their shady dealings with himself and partner Chip Elitzer. One can only imagine how polarizing a figure he must have been in the town following the publication of Part I. As a result, it’s clear from the start that the publication of the book has served as a Catch 22 for our heroic investors. Certainly the publication aided in getting the incumbent politicians replaced with those that would invite Bouton and Elitzer back, but it also simultaneously made both individuals Public Enemy #1 and 1a in the process.

Along with Bouton’s first three baseball biographies, this Bouton series of books beats out about everything I’ve read in the baseball non-fiction genre except the excellent “Veeck As In Wreck.” Highly recommended for fans of 30 for 30.

5-star

“Invincible, Vol. 22: Reboot?” by Robert Kirkman Review

invincible-22

Invincible, Vol. 22: Reboot?

Author: Robert Kirkman

Release Date: February 2016

I don’t know the last time I’ve read anything, be it a comic or book, where an author laid out two possible paths for a plot and I was so equally excited to read either one of them. This volume of invincible continues the existing storylines on both Earth (with Robot eliminating crime at any cost) and in space (where Mark and Eve are adjusting to alien life with their daughter and searching for Thragg).

The diverging plot twist occurs when Invincible has an opportunity to go back to the events of the first issue and use his knowledge of the future to save lives. In a series like this one where so many major characters have secrets that is a very intriguing path to follow. The ongoing storyline that has been built up for years through hundreds of issues was left off on a cliffhanger that was equally interesting to continue reading.

I’ve heard this series is ending, and barring a total collapse of galactic proportions this will end up being one of the best comic series I’ve ever read.

5-star