Category: 3 Barrels

“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

“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

“Flinx’s Folly” by Alan Dean Foster review

Flinx's Folly

Flinx’s Folly

Author:  Alan Dean Foster

Released:  2002

Unfortunately for Pip & Flinx fans, Alan Dean Foster has fallen into a bad habit of placing the protagonist (and his pet mini-drag) into seemingly deadly situations only to have him rescued by characters that were otherwise absent from the plot of the current story. Following multiple rescues in that manner in Mid-Flinx, and similar instances in Reunion , I was not shocked to see that the same development was utilized in Flinx’s Folly but I was disappointed. That sense of cheating employed by the writer really put a sour finish on what was otherwise a pretty fun adventure.

Rather than visit an alien barren landscape, here Pip & Flinx visit paradise, or the closest planet in the Commonwealth to such a thing. Located in that perfectly habitable distance from the sun and with a favorable tilt resulting in tropical seasons, the setting is as much a vacation for our protagonists as any book in the series. This makes sense as Flinx’s motivation for travel is to visit his most memorable love interest, Clarity Held, the beautiful, intelligent gengineer (genetic engineer) who could write her own ticket for love or career.

The start of Flinx’s Folly has an interesting occurrence where Flinx’s ability causes a mass blackout at a shopping mall, however the plot from there takes on fairly standard adventure tropes. Flinx must flee from a hospital (executed cleverly). Flinx must flee from death worshipping fanaticals (executed less cleverly). The main conflict doesn’t arrive until he locates Clarity (looking for the one person in the Cosmos he feels comfortable opening up to) and her sort of fiancé (whose name I can’t recall, so I’ll just call him Bond Villain).

The most ridiculous and entertaining aspects of Flinx’s Folly all involve Bond Villain’s plans to thwart this interloper from chatting with his lady. He takes the usual steps that us guys need to take to make sure our ladies aren’t being romanced by tall and mysterious foreigners: hiring private investigators and thugs to get dirt or break kneecaps. If that doesn’t work **spoiler alert** sometimes you need to build completely functional android decoys of your fiancé, knife wielding spider robots or set elaborate traps involving gene therapy, but all’s fair in love and sci-fi.

The deus ex machina ending featured two of the best recurring characters from this series, but it’s such a shame that they had to show up in such a plot convenient manner. Taking the Bond analogy further, the final ending of the book left an option for an expanded cast of characters continuing on adventures, but Foster prefers to take our hero to the next installment with no strings attached. (As F. Paul Wilson writes, “a spear has no branches.”) The sect of death worshippers make convenient bad guys that our heroes can kill without remorse, but I don’t find them particularly believable or interesting which puts them in line with the series main antagonist, a massive entity of nothingness accelerating toward our galaxy. Not one of the better entries in the series so far but there were certainly enough ridiculous and fun scenes to make it memorable.

3-star

“Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave” by Ian Johnston review

Bad Seed

Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave

Author:  Ian Johnston

Released:  1995

Prior to reading Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave, I was a bit of a Nick Cave fan. I own all of albums, 16 studio albums by the Bad Seeds, two by Grinderman, a few soundtracks by Cave and Warren Ellis, and a few Birthday Party records. I’ve read both of Cave’s prose novels, And the Ass Saw the Angeland The Death of Bunny Monroe, and bought and enjoyed the films he has written, particularly Lawless and The Proposition. I’ve seen Cave in concert twice, once in Chicago as part of the “Dig Lazarus Dig” tour, and again in Louisville for the “Push the Sky Away” tour. So, take the rest of my review with however main grains of salt because odds are you won’t line up on the Cave fan spectrum at the same level as myself, for good or bad.

That disclaimer out of the way, the biggest takeaway I had from reading Ian Johnston’s book was that it was way to early in Cave’s career to write any sort of a comprehensive biography. Johnson’s book came out in 1995, which was prior to “Murder Ballads” being released. That’s eight studio albums ago. That’s before Grinderman was a band, and released two more. The most prolific collaborate or Nick Cave’s career after Mick Harvey is Warren Ellis, who is not mentioned until page 302 (the book is 304 pages long). The book ends a decade before Cave published another novel or wrote his most successful films. So if you’re looking for a book to discuss all of the amazing work in his career, this book will leave you with less than half of it.

The strength of this book is as a a biography of The Birthday Party band, extensively documenting their early years, discography and breakup. This portion of the book is 150 pages, or roughly the first half. The following half gets into Nick Cave’s sobriety and increasing artistry, but as already outlined it is certainly an unfinished story.

The writing of the book is very detailed and features extensive quotes from people with firsthand knowledge of events. This ends up being the books greatest weakness however as well, as often Johnson will spends over a page quoting the same source and as a reader I would often lose track of who was recanting a story because a quote would go on for so long. It also seemed like for a work of scholarship the number of sources cited outside of interviews was on the low side.

It’s obvious Johnston agrees Cave is a genius, and I learned a lot about Cave’s early years and the critical reception of Cave early in his career by reading this book. I also got more of an idea as to his creative process and the personnel on the classic Bad Seeds albums. Perhaps a part two in another twenty years will help finish where this book leaves off, as Cave was just getting started when this came out.

3-star

“Beyond the Blue Event Horizon” by Frederik Pohl review

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Author:  Frederik Pohl

Released:  1980

This is the sequel to Gateway a book that I thought had some really interesting ideas about some uninteresting and unlikable characters. That book ended **spoiler alert** with Robinette Broadhead being the lone survivor of a mission of ten people with the other nine being sucked into a black hole and Broadhead feeling guilty over the loss of his lover most of all. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon picks up several years later, with Broadhead being very wealthy and no longer going on Heechee missions himself.

Pohl has created a fascinating world that provides plenty of interesting questions about the ancient race that humanity has stumbled upon. Here humans are still piloting Heechee ships with no idea of where they are going in the hopes of making discoveries and becoming wealthy. Broadhead has sent a family to discover a food factory, and when they arrive they find a horny teenage boy that has been isolated on the spacecraft for fifteen years with only “The Old Ones” (mysterious entities) alive with him. Meanwhile on Earth Broadhead is dealing with the bureaucratic fallout of his mission and his wife’s failing health.

For a book about intergalactic space travel and the stored consciences of the deceased, BTBEH spends a lot of time on the personalities of the characters, which sounds like a positive but is really not. Broadhead is no more likeable here than he was in Gateway, and Wan (the teenage boy on his own) is as shallow and horny as any caricature of a teenager that I have seen. The other family members on the trip are fairly generic with nobody that I was able to latch onto as an interesting lead.

The science of BTBEH is very well done. A large chunk of the end of the book involves two characters discussing the potential motivations and locations of the Heechee population and did enough to interest me that I’ll be reading book three of this series. The characters also make enough discoveries that it should open up the possibilities for future characters to take a more proactive position in unraveling these mysteries.

3-star

“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin Review

Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

Author:  Ursula K. Le Guin

Released:  1969

Much like the previous books in the Hainish Cycle, I found this book to be full of interesting ideas but delivered through average execution. The story is about a Human emissary to an alien world called Winter, where the intelligent life forms are stubborn, bureaucratic humanoids who can change their gender when it comes time to mating. The largest differences between our world and the world of Winter is that with no dominant sex, traditional gender roles do not exist. The human is actually considered a pervert by the natives, as he is always ready for mating while the alien life forms only mate at certain times of the monthly cycle.

Beyond that there is some additional world building relating to the different governing faction on the planet and the mathematics and calendar that heavily depend on the number 13. The perspective is mainly told through the human protagonist, although it does shift to a secondary character named Estraven who at times is not trusted by the human and at others is his only ally. I found these shifts in perspective frustrating as they weren’t marked by anything and typically happened in chapters with little dialogue so I wasn’t even aware the perspective shifted right away on several instances. Better executed are a few chapters that go into folklore and history of this alien planet, which are more clearly marked and provide some interesting context.

One of the most common criticisms of science fiction are books where characters and places all have weird names and which keep it from reading like a typical story. I actually found that to be the case here, as aside from three characters (the human, Estraven, and the King (who is usually referred to as the King)) the names were all so complex that I rarely retained them and had no interest in trying to pronounce them in my head while reading to myself. Perhaps this would have been alleviated by reading this as an audiobook, but between the jargon names and the unclear shifting perspectives I found this to be a frustrating read at times.

The plot is fairly straight forward, with the human emissary trying to open trade (mainly of thought and culture) with this alien world, which will primarily be accomplished via the use of an ansible that allows for instant communication across the universe. The trip to the planet is seventeen years from the nearest inhabited world, and “a lifetime” away from Earth. What should have been an easy sell is complicated by the bureaucratic intrigue of the government officials and the rivaling governmental factions on the planet. The result is a journey that leads across secured borders, into prison stints and a 700+ mile journey over barren frozen landscape. The best passages deal with the human’s interactions with Estraven, as the two try to understand each other and mind-speak (I picture the Vulcan mind meld) to each other. There are clearly some interesting relationship dynamics between the human and the androgynous/multisexual aliens.

The previous books I’ve read that have been both Hugo and Nebula award winners have all been fantastic, and while this book was interesting I was let down overall in comparison.

3-star