Category: 2 Barrels

“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

“Reborn” by F. Paul Wilson Review

Reborn

Reborn

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Published:  1990

The Adversary Cycle:  Book Four by Publication, Book Two Chronologically

For those into how books fit into larger overall universes,Reborn is the fourth book in F. Paul Wilson’s the adversary cycle, but the second book chronologically, which means it takes place after The Keep but before the entire Repairman Jack series and somewhere during the Secret History line of books (this takes place in the 1960’s if that helps). Throughout this whole series of books Wilson has done his version of ghost stories, science fiction, and even vampires. Here is Wilson’s Rosemary’s Baby story, so much so that the characters even mention it on a few different occasions.

The story goes that a married couple discover that a wealthy man who has just died may be the secret father of the husband. This revelation leads them to search through his journals for the identity of the man’s mother and any other information they can find to give him answers about his parents. Along the way there are connections to secret World War II science experiments, a possible vigilante with a crow bar, and an order of religious individuals dedicated to stopping the anti-Christ. There is also an appearance from at least one character from the first Adversary Cycle bookThe Keep .

Mentioning Rosemary’s Baby and the anti-Christ crusaders will give you a pretty good idea of how the plot of this book progresses, but it’s impossible to discuss without getting into that facet. I admire Wilson for attempting to tell an interesting story about the return of a formidable villain in his world, but the nature of the plot feels derivative to that iconic work. The greater problem however is that the entire book is populated by people making horrible decisions.

The two main characters are meant to be sympathetic, but both of them willingly turn a blind eye to horrific acts willingly. Similarly, the heroic character provided by Wilson in the form of a Jesuit Priest always remains reactive to the plot (the most heroic thing he does in the entire book is not have sex with a woman who wants him to). The series’ recurring heroic character does nothing in this book to influence the tragic turn of events.

Even within the logic of the book, it’s difficult to figure out what you (the reader) want to have happen. There is a force that benefits when people suffer or cause emotional harm. Does that mean that the sex between two consenting adults will be good or bad for that force (the book decides that action will aid the evil force). Or if a woman tries to perform an unwanted abortion on a trusting relative (here the book says that will harm the evil force). The result for me was a rather unpleasant reading experience where I knew a bad outcome was going to happen the entire time and every choice along the way is just drawing out the inevitable tragedy.

So far the Adversary Cycle has suffered compared to the Repairman Jack Series as it has lacked the moral center of Jack (a man whose own particular morals are certainly not in line with the general public). I’m still planning on reading the two remaining books before I finish up both series withNightworld but my hopes for finding another great series of books is slowly dwindling.

2-star

“Fever Pitch” by Nick Hornby Review

Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch

Author:  Nick Hornby

Published:  1992

I really expected I would love this book, though its fatal flaw was apparent from page one. Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors, and even his bad books (How To Be Good) kept me entertained while reading. Here is an autobiographical account of his love for his favorite sports team over 20+ years and his observations of fandom, relationships and society’s love affair with sports. The same basic style was used in Ten Year in the Tub, and that was my favorite book I’ve read by Hornby. Also, I’m a huge sports fan, somebody who routinely watched every NBA and MLB game for my favorite teams for years, and traveled across the country to see them in different stadiums. So why did I not like this book?

In a word: soccer. I’ve never enjoyed soccer. Not playing it, not watching it, and (I can say confidently now) not reading about it. Hornby’s lifelong obsession of rooting for Arsenal in the English Premier League taught me plenty about the sport and team that I didn’t know before. Such as the seasons are too long, the same teams always win, and hooliganism/racism are as rampant of problems as the media has made them out to be. While Hornby waxes about how the sport of soccer has the perfect balance of scoring to make each moment exciting, he spends much more time explaining how so many people hate his favorite team for the frequent Nil-Nil or 1-0 outcomes.

As I trudged my way through this, I had no anchor to orient myself to the writing. Hornby would frequently talk about famous soccer players or announce who was playing by naming the stadium the game took place in and I had no idea which team he was rooting for or who was playing (unless it was the chapter title). Sure, I know Pele and can visualize Wembley, but that’s probably 4 paragraphs in a 200 page book; and because I didn’t know any of the other people/places/events that he was referencing, I didn’t come away feeling like I’d become newly educated on all things Arsenal but instead I have a mess of names and places that I couldn’t place beyond stating they are all affiliated with soccer.

There were plenty of universal statements about sport that I could of course relate to. The internal motivation for being a fan; the way fandom changes your personality and social planning; the events that make a game particularly memorable. I understand why some people would love this book, but unless you have a basic knowledge or appreciate for soccer I think there’s a good chance you’ll feel as lost as I did while reading it.

Note: For those that have seen the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie version of Fever Pitch, I’m not sure how the film could even get away claiming to be affiliated with the book. Those reading this expecting there to be a story about falling in love with a woman while still staying loyal to your team will be very disappointed. There are three romantic relationships alluded to in this book, and each is a nameless figure that goes to a few games with Hornby and either stays in a relationship with him or doesn’t (that aspect not even being related to the soccer games). This is a book about one man’s love of a team, not a relationship drama or love story. I didn’t think the movie was great, but it was so different from the book that I would not recommend basing your decision to read the book or watch the movie based on any information about the other media.

2-star

“The Talisman” by Stephen King and Peter Straub Review

The talisman

The Talisman

Authors:  Stephen King & Peter Straub

Published:  1984

A boy must travel to another world that exists parallel to our own to find a magical talisman in order to save his mother. Not the plot one would expect from a Stephen King book, even one that he coauthored. Here the other world is a place called the Territories, sharing more in common with a fantasy land than the America Jack (the protagonist) is used to. Jack begins the book in the New Hampshire (hey, we’re at least a few hours from Maine) and must get to California. In order to get there he’ll travel both in the real world and in the territories, sometimes on his own, and at other times accompanied by Wolf (a werewolf) or Richard Sloat (the son of the man trying to stop him). There’s a man trying to stop him? One could guess by the description that he’s an evil doer, trying to rule the world and **spoiler alert for anybody whose never read a fantasy book before, I guess** only the Talisman can stop him.

The book I was most reminded of when reading this was Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The two books have nothing in common except for why they didn’t work for me. In both books the author sets out to tell a child’s story but did so in a way that a child would not understand or be appropriate for. Instead of veering toward young adult, this book was firmly in the adult content genre. I’m an adult so that should have been fine, but it was also saddled with this boring and formulaic story straight out of a kid’s book. I enjoy kids books, but at nearly 700 pages the “will Jack find the Talisman?” story became downright tedious.

The villains in this book were over the top cliches, even in the annals of Stephen King bullies. Until the two sidekicks are provided to Jack the book has zero stakes because the length and subject matter guarantee Jack will keep advancing to California. The most interesting aspect of the book is the reciprocity between the events in the Territories and those in the real world. This is alluded to at one point for being the cause of World War I. After the cataclysmic ending of this book, I was looking forward to seeing how all of the casualties in the Territories would affect America; unfortunately King and Straub gloss over this beside mentioning emergency personnel being needed to respond to the area of the final confrontation.

This book has a pretty high average score on Goodreads, so I’m sure a lot of people enjoy something about it. I found the plot to be very generic of the fantasy genre, and the main characters (Jack and Morgan) particularly unoriginal. The book also presents the most unoriginal version of the magical Negro character that King has yet rolled out, and considering the regularity of the character archetype’s appearance (The Shining, The Stand, The Green Mile) that’s saying something. The only character I found at all interesting in this was Richard Sloat, and that was mostly because I was wondering if he would turn on Jack or not. Even the resolution to his story provided little conflict on whether to side with Jack or his dad. I guess there’s a sequel to this book that takes place much later, hopefully it’s an improvement on The Talisman.

2-star

“Guardians of the Galaxy: Rocket Raccoon & Groot Steal the Galaxy” by Dan Abnett Review

Guardians of Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy: Rocket Raccoon & Groot Steal the Galaxy

Author: Dan Abnett

Release Date: 2014

This prose novel featuring characters from the Guardians of the Galaxy comics (and tv show, and movie, etc.) is written by Dan Abnett, one half of the writing team that revamped the team’s lineup and has led to some obscure characters becoming as recognizable as the X-Men. Back when he (and Andy Lanning) first released those Guardians of the Galaxy comics, my wife and I got so hooked on them they quickly became our favorite characters. Along with Groot and Rocket Racoon, Star Lord, Drax, Gamora, Bug, Cosmo, Mantis and plenty of others were totally unique in the Marvel cosmic landscape and in comics in general.

Since that time, a lots happened with our favorite characters. As mentioned, they starred in a huge success of a film, have their own cartoon on Disney, and have been written by various A-List comic writers including Brian Michael Bendis on the most recent run. Groot, Star-Lord, Rocket Racoon, Gamora and even Drax have had their own solo series in addition to the ongoing team book. Abnett and Lanning have stopped writing together (sadly I’ve tried a lot of each of their solo stuff and haven’t enjoyed any of it as much as all of their earlier stuff they wrote together). The result of all of that? The Guardians have had a major drop in quality and the two most obscure characters of the bunch have really been run into the ground for the sake of capitalizing on their new fame.

Yeah, I get it. Complaining about overexposure on obscure Marvel superheroes is kind of like saying “I liked the Backstreet Boys where they were underground,” but anybody who reads comics knows that publishers will take a character that sells and put them in a dozen books until the bottom falls out of the market. What does all of this have to do with this prose novel? Unfortunately, the entire novel felt like a cash grab more than a story that needed (or deserved) to be told.

The plot goes as follows: Rocket and Groot come into contact with a Rigellian space recorder (a robot that records everything, who also serves as the 1st person narrator for the book). The robot is being hunted by Timely, Inc. (basically the Wal-Mart or Amazon of the Galaxy) for its contents which may prove so valuable that along the way others start chasing after it as well. Those include Annihilus, The Badoon, the Kree, a Galadorian Space Knight, The Shiar Empire, Gamora, the Xandarians (Novas, or space police) and just about every Marvel alien race short of the Inhumans. Rocket and Groot don’t know why the robot is so valuable, but they try to hang on to him to save their own skins, make a profit and/or protect their new friends depending on the chapter.

The plot of the book felt like a six issue story arc in the comics, where every few chapters there’s a new alien race or bounty hunter involved in the pursuit, but despite the huge cast of fairly disposable characters the book takes a low stakes cartoony approach where nobody ever feels in danger. The humor is most reminiscent of Skottie Young’s Rocket Racoon series, but without the fun artwork to accompany it the story feels tedious at 350+ pages. Rocket and Groot work best as supporting fun characters than as their own protagonists, and this book really suffers for it until a third guardian shows up to provide some additional plot movement.

The best things going for this book is the humor by Abnett, who routinely puts in pop culture references and adolescent voyeur humor by the narrator that work OK. A list of the top five worst jobs in the Marvel cosmic universe was very well done and showed the potential of a prose setting in a Marvel story.  Jokes about disconcertingly human like hands worked less well, particularly on their 39th landing. I got another of these prose novels recently that takes place in the Marvel Cosmic universe, as apparently it’s a new line of books Marvel it trying. Based on this first outing, I’ll read that one before I purchase any more of these.

2-star

“I”m Thinking of Ending Things” by Iain Reid Review

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Author:  Iain Reid

Release Date: 2016

I'm thinking of ending things

“You will be scared, but you won’t know why.”

That’s the entire plot description on the back of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” an Award winning debut novel by Iain Reid. The rest of the book jacket is covered with glowing reviews and endorsements. There’s also a picture of a car covered in snow on the cover, and the words “A novel” handwritten on the bottom corner. Obviously the author and publisher feel the less you know going into this book the more you will enjoy it. While I never read the back of a book before purchasing/reading, I decided to check this one out after finishing it to see how they advertised it to readers because it’s the sort of book that will infuriate plenty of them.

I’m going to spoil the end of the book later on in this review, so here are some discussion questions for the group for if you should continue reading on through the spoilers. In order or relevance:

1) Did you enjoy either of the following movies “Shutter Island” or “Identity?”
2) Do you enjoy playing games likes Resident Evil and wish you could read a recap of the one of the levels from the perspective of the playable character?
3) Does spending nearly half a book on a two hour car ride with an unnamed narrator and her know it all boyfriend sound like a deal breaker up front?

How did you answer? If you enjoyed those two movies, I think you’ll probably enjoy this book. When I saw each of those, I was like McKayla Maroney on the podium (for those in the future, that’s a meme joke from a few years back that equals “not impressed”). It wasn’t that the stories were bad or the execution was poor. The problem with both of them was when they were released. After years of movies with (similar) twist endings, as a viewer I was conditioned to predict/expect the twist. But I was then double conditioned to be disappointed that it was the same twist I predicted. Those two films weren’t exactly Titanic, so if you missed both of them hopefully you’ll get my larger point from the context they’re mentioned. If I mention the earlier films with twist endings that were more popular, I’d just be spoiling the book by analogy.

The Resident Evil question will probably leave even more people scratching their heads. For the non-gamers out there, there is a whole genre of video games that capitalize on the horror genre. In them, the protagonist wanders out around quiet and seemingly empty structures aware that at any moment their death can be around the corner in some gruesome manner. For one excruciatingly long stretch of this book it felt like I was stuck inside one of those levels and it ended up souring me overall on its enjoyment. Even as a fan of horror movies, reading about a character wandering the halls of an empty building for 25 pages never felt at all suspenseful.

For many reviewers, the long car ride up front kept them from ever enjoying this book. I ranked that question third, because as revealed in the discussion questions section at the end of the book it was author Iain Reid’s favorite part to write and I personally did not mind it. My main critique from it was that the development of the narrator felt inorganic through so many memories being brought up. As a reader I knew right away I was being manipulated by the author. Before I knew the reveal at the end, this section (and to a lesser extent the arrival at the farm) were both fine. There were some interesting philosophical discussions and some good use of language that kept the otherwise routine undertaking from feeling tedious.

If you’re this far in and you don’t want to know what happens, I’ll wrap this up by saying that overall this book did not work for me. The ending felt predictable, with way too much buildup for a twist that was not only foreseeable but also the only logical way to wrap things up once the unnamed narrator sees the pictures at Jake’s house. While the writing was enjoyable during conversations, it did not work succeed at creating suspense in what should have been a terrifying situation.

**Spoilers Follow**

There is a subplot running through this book that never really goes anywhere. The narrator (whose name is not Steph, but could literally be anything else) is getting cryptic phone calls and mysterious voice mail from a male caller. She mentions that the caller ID states it is coming from her own phone number but she’s not sharing that with anybody. At that point I thought I saw a “Fight Club” twist coming on but hoped I’d be surprised by something else. (I didn’t mention “Fight Club” because everybody knows that twist, whereas if you’ve seen and remember “Identity” or “Shutter Island” you’ve been subjected to numerous similar twists and will see it coming). By the time the main character gets to the farm and sees a picture of herself, hears Jake do an exact impression of her, and experiences several continuity errors with the parents it’s obvious that she and Jake are one and the same.

Although that revelation is not confirmed until the final few pages, the entire sequence in the empty high school suffers as a result of that revelation hanging in the air. There is never any suspense that the narrator is in danger. The narrator directly stating “you can’t know how terrified I am because only somebody as alone in a situation like this would understand” only highlights how not terrified the reader is. Reid would be better served ignoring the twist ending unless it is more original than the one he employs here. Unfortunately the negatives in terms of predictability and lack of suspense outweigh the better scenes sprinkled throughout.

**Note – This is the second book I received as part of the Brilliant Books monthly Book subscription program. While I wasn’t a big fan of the book, I appreciate that it was a different genre from the first one and not a new release, so I have no idea what will be getting shipped to my house next.

2-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