Category: Book Series

“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

“Meg: Nightstalkers” by Steve Alten

Meg nightstalkers

Meg: Nightstalkers

Author:  Steve Alten

Published:  2016

Meg Series #5

Five books into the Meg series (and apparently one should also have read The Loch by now as well), this was the first book in the series that I found myself shaking my head at the ridiculous plot more than enjoying it. That’s quite a statement, as the book has previously featured the discovery of giant extinct sharks, a character named Jonas being swallowed by a sea creature and surviving (yeah, it’s not Jonah but it’s close enough) and a prehistoric dinosaur called a Liopleurodon that Alten makes 100 feet larger than a reputable website like Wikipedia claims was possible.

**Slight spoilers follow** Set shortly after the events of Meg: Hell’s Aquarium, this book follows dual plot lines as both Jonas and David Taylor are involved in tracking down giant sea creatures that were formerly isolated from the rest of the oceans. While David is tracking down the Liopleurodon that ate a loved one earlier in the series, Jonas is trying to figure out what to do with his Lagoon now that the Megs housed within have been set free. Sounds like a logical followup to the earlier books… so why didn’t this installment, err, keep its head above water for me?

1. The shoehorned crossover with The Loch and its upcoming sequel Volstok felt very out of place with the rest of the series. The plot is inherently ridiculous, so slapping a time travel element in it just seems to break the anything goes rules one step too far. Also, the method of explaining all of this was done over about 5 pages in the book and didn’t seem like it was necessary to maneuver the plot where Alten wanted to take it.

2. The over dependence on the Liopleurodon for the plot. Alten has all of these cool sea creatures he could write about, so why spend so much time on an animal that didn’t even exist as Alten has written it. At this point it might as well be a dragon or something else mythological for as far off as it is from what we know about the actual creature.

3. In contrast, the Moby Dick whale was a very cool addition to the creature catalog, but the explanation for how and why it was just now being discovered tied into the stupid Volstok storyline, which in turn distracted from the enjoyment of reading about a super huge and aggressive whale.

4. Most importantly, there was a significant lack of something in this book, and that something is giant prehistoric sharks called Megalodons. I’m not a Harry Potter scholar, but I’d imagine this is similar to reading that series for four books and then in the fifth book Harry shows up for a few pages while the rest of the gang takes a trip to Mordor. Jonas, David and Terry Taylor may be the protagonists of these books, but they’re still just plot points necessary to tell a story about giant sharks.

I’ll keep reading the Meg series because there’s only one more solicited and they’re quick reads. More than that, when Alten focuses on an exciting shark story he’s capable of making a funny and exciting story that reads like a blockbuster film (for me, Meg: Primal Waters is a perfect example of that). I’ll keep an eye out for the tie in books as well, as maybe getting that storyline fleshed out more than its done here will add in the enjoyment for Meg: Generations, currently solicited for 2018.

2-star

Rank the Series: John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom Books

John Updike’s Rabbit series is unusual in the literary world for several reasons.  For starters, it’s a series of books that doesn’t involve any supernatural, magical or militaristic elements.  It’s also very adult material, with probably as much time spent on sexual acts as anything I’ve read (including the awful “50 Shades of Grey”) but described more realistically than you would find in an erotica novel.  Most impressively, the series was written over 41 years and takes place in real time with the characters and current events aging with the author (and readers who originally picked up the series).  The series is to literature what “Savage Dragon” is to comic books or “Boyhood” is to film, an achievement and testament to its creator merely for existing.

 The idea of this series, following the life and death of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom as detailed over generations, was so interesting to me that the quality of the books almost became secondary.  Having now finished the series, I’m glad I read it all chronologically as each of the five installments was essential in understanding who the characters were and why they reacted to situations as they did.  If you are planning on reading this series, there’s no other order you should read it in than “Rabbit, Run” –>  “Rabbit Redux” –> “Rabbit is Rich” –> “Rabbit at Rest” –> “Rabbit Remembered.”  But that’s not very fun to write about, so here are some thoughts on how enjoyable each of the books in the series is, ranked from worst to best:

 Rabbit redux

5.  Rabbit Redux

Release date:  1971

Chronological Order:  Second

 The two easiest choices in ranking this series are best and worst.  I enjoyed every Rabbit book except for this one that takes all of the social strife of its era and tells the ugliest story in the entire series.  Even in later books the events of “Rabbit Redux” are spoken of in disbelief, with plenty of “do you believe the time Harry had that teen girl and her drug dealer move in with him and then _____ happened?”  In addition to general unpleasantness of the story, the book is also bogged down with racial language of the era that will make many readers uncomfortable. I almost quit reading the series after this one, but after finishing the next three books my dislike for this book is tempered as it became just another crazy memory in the lives of its characters.

 rabbit remembered

4.  Rabbit Remembered

Release Date: 2001

Chronological Order:  Fifth

 This novella is shorter than the rest of the series and also is missing a major focal point from the rest of the series.  Despite that, Updike tells a compelling story about Rabbit’s two surviving children and the people they have grown up to become.  The real world politics and current events that make it into every story resonated the most for me of any book in the series as they were the headlines and pop culture of my youth.  The biggest drawback however is that any ending to this story pales in comparison to the excellent and fitting conclusion to “Rabbit at Rest” in terms of wrapping up the series.

 rabbit

3.  Rabbit is Rich

Release Date:  1981

Chronological Order:  Third

 “Rabbit is Rich” and the second place book on this list are interchangeable in terms of quality.  Here Updike has abandoned the extreme events of “Rabbit Redux” in favor of a much more toned down and relatable storyline.  As Rabbit has finally settled down and reduced the drama in his work and personal life, his son Nelson is now old enough to supply drama enough for both of them.  The ending of this book gets into the most over the top sexual situations in the entire series, so if that’s something that turns you off at the end keep in mind it’s all toned back down after this book.

 Rabbit Run

2.  Rabbit, Run

Release Date: 1960

Chronological Order: First

 A young married man decides to abandon his pregnant wife and young child in favor of the thrill of escape.  I’ll give this book the edge over “Rabbit is Rich” for being the book that established this entire fictional family tree, business and household that have survived so well throughout the series.  Just about everything that happens in the rest of the Rabbit series can be traced to an event in this first book.  At parts heartbreaking and other moments infuriating, Updike does a great job of making unlikable characters interesting and sympathetic.

 rab

1.  Rabbit at Rest

Release Date: 1990

Chronological Order:  Fourth

 The only book in the series I would call a classic on its own, “Rabbit at Rest” is the rare book that delights on every page and even makes you reevaluate earlier books in a more favorable light.  Now a grandparent, Harry’s bad behavior swings more toward curmudgeon and for the first time in the series is even a likable character at times.  However, Harry is also still the same man he’s always been and behaves true to form when given the opportunity.  The family drama provides the most interesting moments in thirty years of history for Harry, Janice and Nelson.  I also can’t speak highly enough about the ending, which provides nostalgia and cyclical storytelling better than just about anything I’ve read.  I loved this book for how it made me reevaluate and love the entire series.

“Rabbit Remembered” by John Updike Review

rabbit remembered

Rabbit Remembered

Author: John Updike

Release Date: 2000

Return to the world of Brewer, Pennsylvania to check in on the Angstrom clan in this nostalgia trip by John Updike. Set ten years after the excellent “Rabbit at Rest,” this book brings back the supporting cast from the previous four books by focusing on Nelson and Janice as they become aware of Harry’s illegitimate daughter Annabelle. Along the way we get updates on Nelson’s wife Pru, two children Roy and Judy and even minor characters like childhood friend Billy and Rabbit’s rival Ronnie Harrison.

I imagine reading these books when they came out was an amazing experience as each book brings back characters years apart and shines a light on their lives. This book felt the tidiest in the entire series which made it more enjoyable than “Rabbit, Redux” (which was a mess in the sense that it was all over the place) but less entertaining that “Rabbit at Rest” (which felt more free to tell its own story rather than be tied to nostalgia).

The real joy in reading this book was the nostalgia from my own life as the events in this book finally got to events that I grew up being aware of. Updike has always spent a lot of time visiting the headlines of the year in the the Rabbit book takes place. This has served well to both set the setting for the book on a macro level as well as provide political views of the characters in reaction. However most of these books were written before I was alive or cognizant of those same headlines. “Rabbit Remembered” spends time on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, Y2K and best picture nominee “American Beauty.” The result for me was a stroll down memory lane both with characters I’ve spent four books with as well as with the headlines of my own youth.

As a series the Rabbit books are fairly uneven, but the positives definitely outweighed the negatives for me. I consider book four to be the conclusion of the series, and while this novella did not detract from that ending in any way it also felt very anticlimactic in wrapping up the story of Nelson and crew in comparison. The biggest strength was in characters like Nelson and Ronnie, who originally did not appreciate Harry, finding reason to remember him and even stick up for him at times. Saying goodbye to Rabbit and the folks in Brewer was sad enough in book four; “Rabbit Remembered” is a good reminder that a trip down memory lane is worthwhile if there was enjoyment on that path in the first place.

3-star

“Lord Foul’s Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever #1) by Stephen R. Donaldson Review

Lord Foul's Bane

Lord Foul’s Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever #1)

Author:  Stephen R. Donaldson

Release Date: 1977

I was recommended this book by a co-worker who usually has pretty similar tastes as I do.  While reading it, another coworker saw me reading it and mentioned that they also loved this book.  When I added it to my Goodreads page however, I noticed that this book also has a legion of anti-fans who have reviewed the book with a vitriol that had me pretty excited to see which side of the fence I would fall on.  So what makes this book so polarizing?

Well, for starters the main character rapes an underage girl pretty early on in the story.  (Sorry, I guess that was a spoiler).  In fairness, this happens very early on in the story.  Thomas Covenant is a best selling author who is married and has a son and a decent life until he gets leprosy.  Quickly his whole word changes, as he becomes an outcast, losing his family, his home and a few fingers.  While on the way to the post office he gets hit by a phantom tollbooth-police car and gets transported to the magical land of Oz where magic is real and he is given the mission to relay a message to the elders about the danger of Drool and Foul.  (There are a few words in that last sentence that are a joke, but probably not all the ones you would guess.)

**Spoilers follow** Once Covenant arrives in this new world, he dubs himself “the Unbeliever” as he believes this entire world is a dream.  Despite that, he pretty much sets out to deliver the message and does whatever else this quest asks of him throughout the book without any active resistance.  Upon first arriving in this new world, he is met by an attractive young girl who helps guide him to town, takes her to meet her parents, explain the world to him and provide a big meal to him.  Shortly afterward Thomas punches her to the ground, strips off her clothes and goes to town on her.  Later he runs off with the girl’s mom who sacrifices much by serving as his guide, and he doesn’t tell anybody what he did throughout the rest of the book.  However, much later on Thomas finds out that he has a way with the giant horse beasts in the land, and requests that they go visit the girl he raped every year on her birthday.  **Spoilers end**

So that’s certainly one aspect of the plot that could make people dislike this book.  For me, that part on its own didn’t ruin the book for me, but it was symptomatic of the broader problems this book has.  Namely, Thomas Covenant is an unlikable guy to read.  I would not call him an anti-hero, but more of a whiner.  Convenant basically drags his feet throughout the whole book and is reluctant to do anything, taking vows against killing and usually only speaking up to cast doubt on others.  When it is time for him to be heroic, it is primarily just because he has a white gold wedding ring which imbues him with magical powers in this world, so it’s not like there’s any great development of him as a character to overcoming fear or becoming stronger as a person.

The language of the book was also not for me.  I can’t explain how I can love a book like “Dune” with its own jargon of Mentats and quizzach haderach and what have you, but reading a book about Drool Rockworm and Foul had me constantly shaking my head at the awful names Donaldson came up with to populate his world.  Beyond the names of characters, Donaldson also frequently drops into flowery prose that had me thinking he was writing in parody of the genre with so many characters talking in the same authoritarian wizardly tone.

All that said, I can also see why this book is well loved by others.  The fact that Covenant is such a flawed character made this a very different read from most of the fantasy books on the market.  I can only assume that the allure of reading the sequels is that Convenant eventually grows into a good person or more of a deserving lead character.  There are also some interesting character types populating the world, from the philosophical giants, to the Wood people and Stone people, to those that worshipped the horse creatures.  The best part of the book was the entire beginning/pre-fantasy portion of the novel as Covenant’s leprosy was detailed.  However, the interesting parts of this novel were all relegated to small bits in service of a story about a whiny guy, never deserving of the hero role in a book that ultimately needs one.

2-star

“A Dance of Dragons” (A Song of Ice and Fire #5) by George R. R. Martin Review

Dance of Dragons

A Dance of Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire #5)

Author: George R. R. Martin

Release Date: 2011

Fans around the world eagerly await George R. R. Martin to finish and release “The Winds of Winter,” a book six years (and counting) in the making, following “A Dance with Dragons,” a book that took five years to write. Now that I’m caught up with those fans, I find myself in a different camp. I worry these books are just turning into as much of a slog for Martin to write as these last two have been to read. Both “A Dance of Dragons” and “A Feast of Crows” have managed to suck most of the fun out of this series in favor of hundreds upon hundreds of pages of shifting characters into place so Martin can (hopefully) provide a fitting conclusion to the series. Many of those characters are among the least interesting still standing in Westeros, or are relatively new and unimportant within the larger story.

Part of the pleasure of this series is a wide range of characters who rise and fall in surprising fashion, usually contrary to typical fantasy tropes. Book five of this series shows the downside of that style, as we spend large amounts of time with characters like Theon Greyjoy (wallowing at his lot in life), Davos Seaworth (who I normally enjoy, though apparently not while he’s sitting in a jail cell), Asha Greyjoy/ Victarion Greyjoy (the single most boring installments in the book), and Quentyn Martell (in an already long book, including this character with his conclusion with the dragons makes me wonder if George R. R. Martin is actually just hatefully trolling his readers at this point). Even normally interesting characters like Tyrion or Jaime manage to drag their feet and not advance the plot in this book.

The most interesting storylines are infrequently visited (Cersei, Barristan, Arya), although they might have benefitted by not being run into the ground by appearing as often as someone like Reek did. The only character that managed to appear in the book frequently and remain interesting throughout was Jon Snow. The Night’s Watch installments managed to toe the line of bringing detailed plot advancement and atmosphere while still staying entertaining. When shocking events happened in the plot, they were done well as it related to this group. I wish I could say the same for Stannis or Tyrion.

These books face several problems other literary works do not. Normally I don’t have the biggest moments spoiled for me by a superior recreation on television prior to reading it. Also, every comment GRRM makes at this point is analyzed and repeated so that even non-hardcore fans come into the books with more expectations and opinions than they would otherwise have. The problem is I didn’t read this book in a vacuum, so when the High Sparrow is mentioned I have a pretty exciting idea in my head about where that story is headed. Likewise, when GRRM states that he considered not writing these last two books and just doing a time jump to the next one, I’m realizing how inessential 90% of everything that’s happened in these two installments has been.

When Martin’s writing is focused on advancing the plot, he can deliver stories (“A Storm of Swords”) that are unequaled in their scope and quality. If he does plan on ending this series at some point, we can only hope he gets back to moving the plot forward instead of spending 1000 pages keeping characters where they are, especially if they are stuck on boats, or riding pigs, or in a jail cell.

2-star

 

“The Incredible Adventures of Doc Atlas” by Michael A. Black and Ray Lovato Review

doc

The Incredible Adventures of Doc Atlas

Author: Michael A. Black and Ray Lovato

Release Date: September 2011

I picked up “Melody of Vengeance” several years ago at a Borders in Valparaiso. The writer of the book (Michael A. Black) was seated at a table with several other authors, each selling and signing copies of their work. The guy next to Black said something along the lines of, “hey, you should really check out this guy’s book,” pointing at Black. I’m a sucker for supporting new or local authors, so I happily obliged. The book ended up being a lot of fun, and definitely up my alley as a fan of action and heroics. Based on that book, I spent a few years trying to track down this collection of short stories at different book stores before finally giving in and just buying it on Amazon. The book is comprised of 5 separate short stories.

The riddle of the Sphinx – This story involves Doc helping out his old college sweetheart, as her dad goes missing while investigating a link between Aztec pyramids, Egyptian pyramids and the lost city of Atlantis. If you can’t pick out the bad guys in this story within their first line of dialogue, then you have never watched G.I. Joe or read a Stan Lee comic. Penny’s (Doc Atlas’s girlfriend) story felt particularly forced into this one as well.

Desert Shadows – Doc and the crew investigate UFO sightings in Roswell New Mexico as well as the strange death of one of Ace Assante’s old war buddies. This was the best story in the bunch, with a fairly interesting mystery and the added plus that you could see the twist going either way at the end. Also, taking place earlier in the book, some of the tropes that recur in every story hadn’t ran their course yet.

Killer Gorilla – A death row prisoner is executed, but shortly afterward somebody begins killing his old enemies, and all signs point to the killer being…. a gorilla! I should have enjoyed this story more than I did, as the idea was fun and it was kept from being too ridiculous, but it never really hooked me, maybe due to the short page count.

Arctic Terror – This is basically Doc Atlas taking place in “The Thing” movies, which is even referenced at one point by a character. This story gets hurt by being the second alien story in the collection and not being as good as the first. The characters responses to the fantastic situation are much less believable, and the final outcome unfortunately read a bit like a Scooby-Doo adventure.

The Satan Plague – This was my second favorite story, a clever idea of tying Doc Atlas to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s. The rest of the story (a super virus developed by Nazis) was pretty rote, but the McCarthy stuff was well done enough that it hooked me more than most of the other stories, brief as this stuff was.

Unfortunately, this collection is not greater than the sum of its parts. Reading all of the stories back to back show how formulaic they all are. A villain quickly emerges, captures two of Doc’s friends (usually Ace and Penny) and then the other two (Doc and probably Mad Dog) rescue them by a combination of physical force and firepower. Also, the exact same phrases are used so often (“golden Avenger” for Doc, “Errol Flynn look alike” for Ace, beauty with Jet Black hair for Penny) that it reads more like a drinking game checklist than actual exposition.

If Doc Atlas does return, I’m hoping it is in a full novel and not another short story collection.

3-star