Author: cubsmodano

“Invincible Vol. 24: The End of All Things (Part 1)” by Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley

Invincible 24

Invincible Vol. 24: The End of All Things (Part One)

Writer:  Robert Kirkman

Artists:  Ryan Ottley

Released:  2017

One of my favorite ongoing comic series is coming to an end. I assume this is the Penultimate Volume of the series, as I know the ongoing series is ending and the title is “The End of all Things: Part 1.” This installment is coming off one of my absolute favorites in the entire series, and it’s obviously setting up the final conclusion so it read as a bit of a letdown compared to what’s come before or will likely come afterwards.

**Spoilers for Invincible up until this point**

The main conflict in this volume arises out of Mark’s grief for the death of a family member in the last installment, and his subsequent return to the conflict against Thragg and the conquering Viltrumites. Along with Atom Eve, he enlists Allen, his dad, Space Racer and a female alien whose name I don’t remember to come up with a plan to combat Thragg. The plan is clever in drawing all the other big Invincible characters back into the story prior to the big conclusion, however it is also pretty hard to believe Mark would be willing to risk the battleground becoming the one he ends up selecting.

Another installment, another (apparent at this point) major character death, however along with Mark’s prior relative, this one was pretty predictable in terms of casualties (let’s just say it’s a fairly superheroic cliche at this point). The most interesting parts of the story going on at the moment are Thragg’s daughter’s reluctance to blindly follow him, and Robot’s dual plans involving Viltrumite children and getting involved with the space conflict. I’ve been wondering how our heroes would deal with the seeming thousands of Viltrumites when every one that they’ve encountered on their own has been a match for everybody except for Mark, and this volume explains it away in not entirely satisfying manner. Basically, Thragg’s offspring are not fully powered up, so they’re easier to kill in hand to hand combat.

I’m focusing on the negative here, because the rest of the story has been so wonderful for fifteen years now that I’m very eager to see how Kirkman decides to end it. At this point, even a total dud or ambiguous ending won’t take this one off my list of great series to reread or recommend to others. Grading the series as a whole, it’s one of the bests. Grading just this installment, this was just OK.

3-star

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“The Angel Chronicles, Vol. 1” by Nancy Holder Review

Angel Chronicles 1

The Angel Chronicles Vol. 1

Author:  Nancy Holder

Released:  1998

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 prior 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 read a book of stories about Angel.

The three episodes revisited in this book are “Angel,” “Reptile Boy,” and “Lie to Me.” I recalled the first two pretty well by their titles just from having watched the series a few times, but the third one didn’t ring any bells until I got to the club of vampire wannabes. As far as episode quality, none are among the best episodes of the series, although “Angel” is certainly one of the more important ones.

In “Angel,” Buffy learns that her mysterious and charming admirer is actually a vampire and the two of them must confront Darla in an abandoned Bronze shootout (this was a first season episode where I imagine budgetary constraints led all fights to taking place in the Bronze). For me the most memorable part of the episode is the crucifix kiss at the end which was nicely detailed in the book. “Reptile Boy” was a fun episode about Buffy and Cordelia being sacrificed to a demon at a frat party, and more than either of the other stories benefitted from this treatment but not for anything Angel related. Here Xander’s jealousy and scheming at the end play well in a prose format. “Lie to Me,” is about an old friend of Buffy’s reappearance and a club of people interested in becoming vampires. As a written story, this one felt the most rushed and the opening scene of Angel and Drusilla is never explained and is an odd story to end the book on.

My biggest problem with this book is that the format seems like such a missed opportunity. If they were going to do quick novelizations all dedicated to one character, more space devoted to that character’s perspective on the events would have been appreciated. The episodes selected range from the episode 7 of season one to episode 7 of season two (13 episodes in between). As a reader it’s a bit jarring to have Buffy fall in love with a guy who lies to her in story one, then won’t go out with her in story two, then is seen kissing another girl in story three, at which point Buffy then decides she loves him. I suspect my enjoyment of these books will depend a lot on the quality of the episode being revisited, but overall I’m not expecting any of these to serve as standouts in the history of Buffy prose novels.

3-star

“The Late Show” by Michael Connelly Review

Late Show

The Late Show

Author:  Michael Connelly

Released:  2017

I was loaned this book by a coworker who knows I’m a big reader. I’ve previously read one book by Michael Connelly and remember it was OK, but don’t remember anything else about it except that I read it before I used Goodreads to track my reading. I’ve generally stayed away from writers that I think of as supermarket specialists (the writers whose books I can find for sale in my local grocery store), and Connelly comes to mind in that group along with guys like James Patterson or Jodi Picoult. But, I’m also a person who never turns down a free book (or an opportunity to talk about it afterwards) so here I go.

First, on the positive side this was a very quick read and had plenty of cliffhangers at the end of chapters to get you turning the page. The book is about a late shift detective and follows her investigating three separate cases that she responds to on one evening. The book takes place over a few days, and she respond to some other calls later on, but primarily all the forward moment of the plot goes back to those first three dispatches: a woman reports her home as been burglarized; a transgender prostitute is beaten nearly to death; and a shooting at a club leaves 5 dead.

Of the three mysteries, the latter two take up the bulk of the plot. Renee Ballard is a former journalist and relentless worker and two of the mysteries don’t even take a lot of work to solve. (When I say relentless, I mean over the course of about a week, I can think of her not working on five occasions: twice by sleeping, twice by surfing and once for a family dinner.) Besides the mysteries Ballard throws herself into, there is also some drama in the former of a corrupt Lieutenant that Ballard shares history with with she was sexually harassed by him and then demoted as a result of reporting the incident.

As a page turning action story this book completely succeeded in keeping my attention and making me want to keep reading. As a mystery story this was a letdown however. I figured out the main mystery as soon as the suspect was introduced as a character, and the two smaller cases Ballard is working are solved by her by running records checks and are never something the reader can figure out. (Those are more realistic than most mystery stories but they also take a lot of the fun out of the genre.) The biggest mystery for me even went unsolved (how a certain villain knew Ballard was on to her and how to take advantage… I suspected the predictable secret villain was behind it but it was never answered one way or another. Possibly coming in a sequel?). I’ll judge the book more on what it delivered than what I expected prior to reading it, so overall I enjoyed it.

4-star

“Thinner” by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) Review

Thinner

Thinner

Author:  Steven King

Released:  1984

Along with ChristineThinner is the Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) book whose concept made me think “he’s scraping the bottom of the barrel with that.” Well before reading the book, I felt like I had enough an idea of how this book would go and that I’d never need to read it. However, at some point I thought it would be fun to read all of King’s work, so I didn’t end up skipping over this one. The fact that Christine ended up being a very pleasant surprise probably got my hopes up too much for this one, because indeed, this is just a book about a fat guy who gets cursed and loses weight throughout the book.

Ok, so there’s a LITTLE more plot than that, but not much. The fat guy is an attorney named William who was getting a handjob from his wife when an old gypsy woman jaywalked into his car’s path. Most likely, if the driver wasn’t being serviced, or if the gypsy wasn’t jaywalking, or if any other tiny detail were changed the accident would have been avoided. But, it happened, and the officers that showed up didn’t really investigate it, and the judge ends up throwing the case out, and everybody just wants the Gypsies to leave town and the incident to be forgotten.

For the Gypsies however, there is no forgiveness, no chance of it being forgotten. As the protagonist finds himself losing weight a few lbs a day, the sheriff finds his face erupting into boils and severe acne, and the judge develops an interesting skin condition (that probably would have led to a more interesting story than this one if King switched the pages to character ratio). The villain is certainly fun here; a 100+ year old Gypsy, stubborn as can be, and his traveling carny relatives were much more memorable than anything else in the story.

In order to stretch this idea out into novel length, King spends a lot of time on tracking the gypsies from town to town over the course of a few weeks. This section of the book really tested my interest, as there’s only so many times you can read about other people cringing and walking away from the sickly stranger in town before wanting to walk away and read about literally anything else. While the introduction of a criminal underworld character to assist the protagonist helped catapult the plot forward and provide some fun action scenes, I found his entire character arc (from willingness to jump into the plot through his final scene of handiwork) to be less believable than the concept of a gypsy curse for weight loss.

Conversely, the scenes of William and his wife dealing with this unique problem, and William’s attitudes towards his wife (who he blames first for causing the accident and later for everybody who doesn’t believe him) were the source of the most character development and realistic aspects found in the book. Much like in The Shining, some of the scariest moments come not from anything supernatural but from the capacity for hate from the protagonist.

**Slight spoilers follow**

I found the end of the book to be a bit of a letdown, as it seemed there were two routes King could have gone that would have felt more satisfactory. There were two possible targets in the house that a curse could be transferred to, and choosing either one would have been either 1) a compelling 180 with William turning from good guy dad/husband to vengeful villain, or 2) a devastating final victory for the Gypsy patriarch. King opted for a third option to spread the love around and while it is certainly fatalistic I think it lacked the impact that one of the other two options would have provided.

3-star

“Sharpe’s Regiment” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Regiment

Sharpe’s Regiment

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Released:  1986

Sharpe’s Regiment could be subtitled Sharpe versus the London Bureaucracy. Most Sharpe books follow a familiar formula, where Sharpe must overcome a plot by the French or French supporters that will involve a battle or two. Along the way Sharpe will best a superior officer who underestimates him because he’s not a gentlemen and have sex with a woman that all the other officers lust after and would otherwise seem out of Sharpe’s social strata. Up until this point, the most that formula has diverged has been in Sharpe’s Trafalgar (where the action took place via a naval battle), and Sharpe’s Prey (which featured Sharpe operating as an intelligence officer in Denmark). In Sharpe’s Regimentthere are echoes of the familiar tropes, but for most of the book it is a very nice departure from the standard Sharpe setting that still feels true to the characters.

After Wellington’s successful campaign in Spain, the French forces have been driven out of the country and it appears there will be some downtime in the action. With no need for Richard Sharpe’s expertise on the battlefield, Sharpe is dispatched back to England to find the missing reinforcements owed to the South Essex. From my memory, this is only the third return to his homeland through 17 books in the series (once to get married, another trip was to his old boy’s home that he grew up in), but those were both minor scenes in their respective stories. Aside from a prologue and epilogue, the rest of the story is spent in England in a very different setting than the usual battlefield. Sharpe gets to have dinner with a prince, be honored at a theater, and receive countless other accolades as a hero returning to his native land.

The tension in the book comes from the question of where the South Essex reinforcements are located? According to some in the military, they are merely a “paper army,” existing only as a theoretical allotment in bookkeeping. Sharpe doesn’t buy it, and to investigate he, Harper and one other officer go and enlist under fake names and see where the trail leads. The cast of characters in this book is mostly new faces, with several inexperienced recruits falling into fun archetypes (the educated one, the one with the dog, the complainer, etc.) and evil officers in the British ranks.

Some of the best moments in the book come from the unique position of Sharpe and Harper needing to be deserters, or needing to shoot back in a situation where they don’t want to kill British soldiers. It’s easy to predict the comeuppance that will occur once their true identities are revealed but it doesn’t diminish the fun of seeing Sharpe and Harper gloat over those that wronged them. Less successful are Sharpe’s romantic exploits, which include a woman seemingly created solely to facilitate the drama, and the return of one of Sharpe’s dream girls (Jane) who was not particularly memorable in her first appearance. Cornwell struggles to make her interesting, even writing how Sharpe senses the repartee that will be forthcoming between Jane and Harper, while not delivering any actual memorable moments. Also, it feels as though Cornwell felt obligated to deliver one large battle which seemed out of place with the rest of story. Overall though, this was not only the most unique book in the series thus far, but a fun adventure that felt true to the characters.

4-star

“We Are the Ants” by Shaun David Hutchinson Review

We Are the Ants

We Are the Ants

Author:  Shaun David Hutchinson

Released: 2016

This is another book I read based on a year end recommendation of best books read by a Goodreads reviewer. The reviewer in this instance was the always entertaining Emily May, who picked this as her best science fiction read from last year (I went out in early January and bought a stack of books that reviewers picked as their favorites from the prior year… I think I’ve got 1 or 2 left that I’ll hopefully finish before the Best of 2017 lists start).

We Are the Ants is a young adult story about a teenage boy who is heartbroken because he no longer has a romantic partner, and slowly falls in love with the mysterious new transfer student. In its simplest terms, that’s a basic/familar story. The Killers have just released a new song called “Have All the Songs Been Written,” and sometimes I feel like that’s a common enough worry with books, films, music, etc. that every idea has been explored at this point. It’s wrong of course. Hutchinson shows how even a common idea for a story arc can be explored in very unique ways.

What makes this book so different? For starters, the protagonist (Henry) has some interesting problems beyond the typical young adult lead. Right off the bat, we learn that he is frequently abducted by aliens who keep him for various lengths of time before releasing him back to his home town in different locations with little or no clothing on. His lost love died via suicide. His home includes a sadist brother, a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, and a mom that seems to be hanging on by a thread.

The protagonist is also gay in this book. I say it as kind of an afterthought, because it’s not really an issue for him but it certainly stands out in terms of the normal lead characters in the genre. For all of the reasons that Henry is abused by his classmates and brother, his sexuality is not one of them. There are a few closeted characters in the novel, but even they don’t seem motivated in their actions by any worry about what other people will think about them being gay. The end result is a nice accomplishment in terms of “why can’t I see this type of person represented in this type of story.” I would describe this book as a story with science fiction elements that primarily deals with grief that happens to have a gay protagonist.

Overall I really enjoyed this book, but I also groaned several times because of the defeatist attitude of the protagonist. Henry is a character that will look for any chance to find a reason to be sad. His former boyfriend, Jesse, is deceased when the book begins but is probably the second most frequently discussed character, easily rivaling Diego, Henry’s possible new love interest. I get that so much of this book is about how questions go unanswered (Henry frequently tries to understand why Jesse killed himself and why his dad left their family), but it was difficult to root for a character that sees himself as a doormat. Henry has people that obviously care about him to varying degrees (his best friend Audrey, new friend Diego, his mom, brother, his brother’s girlfriend Zooey, his teacher Ms. Feraci, even the sadistic bully Marcus), but rather than talk to any of them about how to improve his situation he either wants to discuss how awful it is that Jesse’s gone or internalize his grief into reasons he wants the world to end.

The world ending and the alien abduction technically make this a science fiction story, but if you are coming to this book wanting a science fiction story you’ll probably be disappointed. However, if you settle in for a tale about grief and teenage drama, there’s an engrossing story and a quick read that’s pretty rewarding.

“Jim Lee’s C-23 1-8 (Complete Series)” by Jeff Mariotte and Alexander Lozano

Jim Lee's c-23

Jim Lee’s C-23 #1-8

Created by Jim Lee and Brandon Choi

Written by Jeff Mariotte

Art by Alexander Lozano

Published in 1998

I had high hopes for this series because it came from an imprint that I loved (WildC.A.T.s, Backlash, Stormwatch, The Authority, Gen13 are all nostalgia filled trips down memory lane for me) and covers by Ryan Benjamin that fit right in with those other books.  What I didn’t know when starting the series though was that this series was created as a tie in for a card game.  I’m usually not big on media tie in series, as they seem to restrict the creative freedom of the writers or don’t have any real stakes taking place.

Once I got into the inside of the book I was immediately disappointed by the artwork.  Character anatomy is pretty much not in the realm of reality, but not even in the fun comic book way of 90’s image comics.  Torsos are a cross between the typical steroid visions of that era, but also have an affected by toxic waste vibe where they flow into necks, legs or breasts in weird ways.  It’s particularly apparent on the female characters (of which there are only two that have any speaking parts, both are wanting to have sex with the protagonist) who look way less humanoid than I’m sure was intended by the story.

Speaking of the story… there’s not much there.  The entire plot of eight issues can be summed up as an elevator pitch or back of a book summary for basically any heroes journey.  Two rival races are at war, and the only person who can win the war is the man born to both of them.  His father was killed by the leader of the evil race, and now he’s the secret heir to the kingdom for the good guys.  I was going to stretch it out another sentence but that pretty much sums up all eight issues.

The setting is a mix between Avatar and Cyberforce, with the good guys being the organic Navi-like race and the bad guys being the cybernetically enhanced humans.  So little happens in this series that it’s inexplicable that one of the only things that happens in the story (a prison break) takes place in between issues.  In addition to the cardboard hero (Corbin), there’s a bad guy (Hemlocke), Scarab (a jealous brother), and the two females (one from each race) who want to have sex with Corbin (whose names I have already forgot).

I’m trying to think of a redeeming quality about this series, but the bad art, cliche story and forgettable characters are leaving me drawing a blank.

1-star