Clan of the Cave Bear
Author: Jean M. Auel
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.
The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus
Author: David Anthony Durham
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Financial Lives of the Poets
Author: Jess Walter
Release Date: 2009
This was the first book I’ve read by Jess Walter, an author that was recommended to me by Nick Hornby in his collection of essays for the Guardian. Walter’s writing didn’t remind me as much of Hornby as it did Richard Russo. The style was definitely what I would call comedy or farce, but Walter does an excellent job of still making the reader invested in the relationships at the center of the book and having actual stakes for the protagonist. Although now that I’ve finished the book, I’m still not sure why it’s called “The Financial Lives of the Poets;” the second “the” seems pretty unnecessary in that instance.
The plot of this novel, without giving too much away, is that a former journalist is currently unemployed, facing financial ruin after quitting his job to create a financial/poetry website that was not the success he thought it would be. In addition to dealing with the lack of money, the main character’s dad is living with the family while dealing with dementia, and his wife has been acting suspicious on her social media accounts and cell phone. A chance meeting with some local marijuana dealers ends up leading the protagonist down some very interesting outcomes.
Generally, when a character makes the kind of decisions that Matt Prior (the main character) does in this book I’d lose all sympathy for him. However, Walter does such a great job of keeping the book really funny while also making most of the crazy decisions hold up to some weird logic that’s consistent with the main character that I didn’t have that problem with this book. The scenes involving Matt confronting a possible adultery suspect, giving parenting advice to his kids and dealing with his dad’s memory problems all felt completely real. I’m anxious to try more books by this author in future.
Thanos: The Infinity Finale
Author: Jim Starlin
Release Date: April 2016
Jim Starlin doing cosmic Marvel is as close to comic comfort food as it gets for me. Similarly to Claremont’s X-Men or The Savage Dragon, there is a consistent voice in the comics and the characters all behave how they do in my fondest memories of reading comics.
The conclusion to this newest Thanos trilogy is suitably epic in scope and continues the stories of Adam Warlock and Pip the Troll, while featuring other Starlin regulars the Silver Surfer, Mephisto, Eternity, and more. Here Thanos partners with the last survivors of Earth to fight off the Annihilation wave (those evil bugs best made threatening by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning).
The very nature of intellectual property demands that Marvel will never allow real consequences (permanent deaths) to these characters, but in the style of the Infinity Gauntlet, widespread destruction is possible along with a device to reverse everything and not feel cheated simultaneously.