“The Running Man” by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Running Man

The Running Man

Author:  Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)

Published:  1982

I read this book as part of a larger book collecting the first four books published with Richard Bachman as the credited author. Through those four books, King published two books about men snapping and doing violent things (Rage and Roadwork) and two dystopian future books that revolve around contests where the losers are killed if they stop moving (The Long Walk and The Running Man). I hated the two books about men snapping and really enjoyed The Long WalkThe Running Man was certainly closer in quality to The Long Walk but reading it second I couldn’t help but feel that the whole book had a very familiar quality to it.

For fans of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (1987), reading the book version is an entirely different story with very few similarities. I found that to be a plus as the story was very unpredictable and I was always guessing about how the book would progress. Gone are the gladiator figures with high tech weapons and costumes, gone is the superhero physique of Arnold, gone even is the arena that the game takes place in. In the original King work, the concept was very different. A man is given a several hour head start and needs to stay alive for 30 days. He can go anywhere and do anything to stay safe, but he must mail in two tapes a day to the games people (which requires him going to a mailbox or post office). Although there are some professionals hunting him, they are normal guys like Ben Richards (the protagonist). The super high rated television program that is the basis for this contest edits the tapes that the people send in, and motivates people to report where the runner is in exchange for cash rewards.

As in the film, the show is a symbol of the oppressive government that lies to the rest of the populace, and the runners are made out to be terrible criminals when they are not actually criminals. Beyond that there is also a bad guy named Killian, and there’s another runner playing at the same time who is not given much story time. Overall I preferred the film version, though whether that’s because I saw it first or because this book reminded me of a less interesting version of The Long Walk I can’t say for sure. There are a few plot points that also didn’t work entirely well for me but they require some major spoilers to discuss.

**Major Spoilers follow**

Richards is basically the ultimate Running Man contestant, per the people that run the games. They decide this after he’s succeeded for 8 days. OK, so nobody’s ever made it for 8 days before and this is some exciting show people watch every night? Also, the show would basically be a news program as the videos runners send in are often devoid of any words or action. It’s not like there’s even a lot of people to interview, as typically the ones who blows Richards cover are taken and interrogated right afterward. The entire thing kind of fell apart for me at that point in terms of a credible future society. At least with The Long Walk there was the possible thrill of an ESPN sports like broadcast for the action. Also, if the games people knew Richards was bluffing as soon as he got on the plane, it seemed very stupid to allow Richards to have additional leverage by allowing the plane to take off rather than making their proposal with the plane still on the ground. (I also find it interesting that Rage is a book that has been pulled from distribution due to its controversial subject matter, while Richards final solution, something very reminiscent of certain tragic events from 2001, hasn’t led to the same controversies.)

**End of Spoilers**

King utilizes a countdown device to title the chapters, beginning at 100 and working his way down to zero. Upon finishing the book I’m not sure why this device was used, and even the choices for where to end certain chapters felt random. The book lacks any interesting supporting characters, as nobody sticks around for more than a few pages to assist Richards; even those that do assist him usually do so with little explanation for why they risk themselves. Despite its faults however, The Running Manworks on some levels because it is pure plot and reads at a brisk pace. Out of the 100 chapters, 98 of them are rooted in desperation or action, with only two short dream chapters that felt slightly out of place with the rest. As a quick read it’s fine, but I also understand why it’s not a book that people mention when discussing King’s best work.

3-star

“Reunion” by Alan Dean Foster Review

Reunion

Reunion

A Pip & Flinx Adventure #7 Chronologically

Author:  Alan Dean Foster

Released:   2001

Reunion is the 7th book chronologically in the Pip & Flinx series. This installment finds Flinx continuing to follow every lead he can to learn more information about his biological parents. An espionage mission into a library on Earth leads to an excursion into the AAnn Empire. Foster’s worlds are always inventive, but this particular planet is by design a bit less interesting than the prior few worlds Flinx has visited. Pyrassis is primarily a rock planet, with plenty of rocks and minerals and (seemingly) nothing interesting enough to draw the attention of sentient beings. The native life forms on this planet provide a few interesting encounters, as the camouflage capabilities are unique in how deadly they function.

More than any other book in the series, Reunion requires a reader to have read the earlier books in the series to fully enjoy it, but the constant callbacks to earlier events makes the momentum of the story suffer as a result. In all the infinite cosmos, Flinx seems to be getting drawn into some pretty convenient dramas that no other human has ever discovered. In particular, the earlier books The Tar-Aiym Krang and Orphan Star are revisited to bring in unique plot devices and characters, but they’re not the interesting parts of those books (such as the Ulru-Ujurrians or Truzenzuzex). Just writing those last two sentences is probably enough to scare non-science fiction fans away from this series, but when Foster is firing on all cylinders he has created some of the best adventure stories and original settings in the genre.

Unfortunately Reunion misses the mark more often than not. Besides the interesting alien life forms that form an interesting survival story in the middle third of the book, the rest of the action never feels like anything even kind of threatening to our hero. In addition, Flinx develops a few abilities that are beginning to make him more superman than every-man. In this installment, Flinx computers expert computer hacker, capable of breaking into space stations and develops mental abilities capable of shutting down any threat to his safety. The reveal of the other person pursuing Flinx’s parental records also didn’t totally work for me as the added connection to Flinx’s past felt cliched and unnecessary. The very ending of the book also uses a deux ex machina, however the reveal of what allowed it to take place made me chuckle.

2-star

“Quasar” #31-45 by Mark Gruenwald from Marvel Comics Review

Quasar 43

This is a review for Quasar issues number #31-45. This series has not been collected in trade beyond the first few issues.

Writer: Mark Gruenwald
Artists – Greg Capullo, Rurik Tyler, Steve Lightle, Andy Smith and Grant Miehm

The 1990’s get a lot of blame for the death of the comic industry. The speculator bubble is a big part of it, although for somebody who grew up reading the comics of that era it’s not anything I hold against the industry. Some of my favorite comics were the #1 issues from Marvel, Image and other companies that sold millions of issues to people that never had any intention of reading them. Another criticism is the over the top art and lack of good storytelling. Again, as a reader from that era, I thought the crazy art of guys like Liefeld or Dale Keown was a fun stylistic choice that made a few books stand out more on their own. The other major criticism of books from that time is that the issues took place in endless crossovers with other titles (and this is sill a criticism of Marvel and DC comics today).

This run of 15 issues of Quasar certainly had me lamenting the endless crossovers of the era. Issue 31 crosses over with the New Universe, issues 32 through 35 were parts 3,10,17 and Aftermath of the Galactic Storm crossover. At that point, we get two stand alone issues of Quasar before it ties into the Infinity War for three more issues. Once we’re clear of all those crossovers, the next few issues are dealing with a bad guy let loose in those issues by Thanos (the original Marvel Boy). Marvel Boy has the distinction of being one of the lamest designed and childish behaving characters I’ve ever read. Issue #43, picture above, features Marvel Boy and Quasar fighting in what is also in the running for the ugliest Marvel Comics cover I’ve ever seen.

What were the high points of this run of issues? A funeral for Eon hosted by a cult of interstellar beings whose purpose it is to mourn those that fall stood out to me as interesting and the type of cosmic originality I like best from Marvel. Kayla (Quasar’s secretary) continues to also be the standout character of the series, but possibly only because her story moves at a page or 2 per issue so we are always left wanting more resolution for her.

The art seemed to take a dive in this run of comics, and I’m sorry to point to Andy Smith as the culprit. If you can recognize Kayla before and after her haircut as the same character, you’re cheating. I’m on the fence regarding the change of Quasar from cosmic band wielding Green Lantern clone to generic strong superhero with Starbrand abilities. Neither is particularly original, but as I mentioned in my last review (on Goodreads under issue #25) Gruenwald was just beginning to create some rules for Quasar’s powers that gave him more depth and those have been thrown out the window. Only fifteen issues left in this series, hopefully it improves as so far it’s been a bit of a let down.

2-star

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi Review

Homegoing

Homegoing

Author:  Yaa Gyasi

Published:  2016

This is a tough book to review, which makes sense because it was also a difficult book to read. The story is similar to the short story collections by Alice Munro or Sherman Alexie where the chapters are very separate stories but they all connect to a central narrative. Here the book begins at two half sisters in the same area of Africa and follows each line of the family by focusing on one family member from each generation. The two initial chapters are about a girl whose family is part of the slave trade and a girl who is sent to America as a slave. The other chapters primarily alternate between Africa and America with a little crossover towards the end.

As an idea for a novel, it is very original and certainly memorable. I have a feeling many readers will find this an easy book to walk away from at times as the chapters are so unconnected that you lose a lot of the thrill of a page-turner novel. The endings of chapters aren’t cliffhangers, and there is never total resolution at the end of a chapter. If you want a book that leaves you constantly needing to know what’s on the next page, that’s not what you’re getting here.

The structure also leads to another inevitable problem, namely that the setting and characters in each story are so different that the reader will certainly be more invested in some stories than others. For the most part the only recurring themes are the unfairness of life and the sins of the past still harming the present. This isn’t a book that uplifts the reader either, as the vast majority of the chapters reveal the sad demise of the prior protagonist. One of the most sympathetic characters in the book is a lady that burns her two young daughters to death; it’s that sort of novel.

Despite all that, this is definitely a book that will appeal to some readers. For one, it’s an excellent version of the “family saga” genre of books. Instead of following the typical three generations, it follows about 7, via two separate trees. The unique style and setting also standout in the reading landscape. Gyasi brings a unique perspective to her work and already has a strong sense of narrative, quickly making characters that feel distinct from the ones you’ve already read. I’m giving the book four stars, but it’s a book that I enjoyed as much as a three star one while reading it but will likely remember better than some 5 star books a year from now.

**Note, I read this book based on a year end best of list by Goodreads super reviewer Emily May**

4-star

“Quasar” #15-30 by Mark Gruenwald from Marvel Comics Review

Qausar 26

Quasar #15-30

Writer:  Mark Gruenwald

Artist:  Mike Manley, Greg Capullo, Joel Zuleta, Pat Broderick

Released : 1990 to 1992

Note: This Review is for Quasar Issues #15-30, read as individual issues.

I’m continuing to go back and read (or reread) some classic series that I’ve got in issue format. This series always looked interesting to me as I’m a big fan of the cosmic Marvel Universe. I wasn’t blown away by the first set of issues I read, while the next batch has some improvements and a few new drawbacks as well.

Up first, the positives: After three reworkings, Quasar finally has a decent costume. It’s apparent that the Marvel guys realize the the original costumes were no good and the new one was a big improvement, as the cover to issue #26 even states “in his all new final costume!” While the art has been inconsistent in this series, a well designed costume goes a long way to making all the art appear more dynamic. Another improvement is that Quasar is no longer essentially a New York hero, as his adventures in this set deal with characters like Thanos, Maelstrom, and the Watchers. Quasar’s power set is also becoming more defined, requiring more discussion of absorbing and redirecting energies, which (although it can read a bit slow at times) distinguishes his abilities as more than a Green Lantern knock off.

Unfortunately, it’s a one step forward, one step back situation. The longest storyline in this set of issues is the seven part Cosmos in Collision storyline, which features a sudden and jarring change in styles to a much darker art and story. **Spoiler alert** Quasar gets his hands cut off and is tortured to death at one point, which is quite a jump from a guy who basically wasn’t even punched in the first 17 issues. The storyline crossing over with the Infinity Gauntlet event is much better, with some logical outgrowth (that’s a solid pun, if you know the issues I’m discussing) featuring Eon’s expansion from the Baxter building.

The worst part of this series thus far, though it nearly replicates a misogynistic Mad Men kind of way, is the treatment of female characters in Quasar. The supporting cast features three recurring female characters in this set of issues, Kayla (Quasar’s secretary), Moondragon and Her. Moondragon is obsessed with making Quasar fall in love with her, and uses her abilities to control others to make it happen. Her becomes obsessed with mating with Quasar to create a genetically perfect offspring. Both characters feature formfitting skin tight attire 90% of the time, with Moondragon sporting one of the least practical/most revealing superhero outfits in the Marvel Universe. Kayla is the obvious reader/Quasar favorite, but through 30 issues her development has stalled at her having a crush on Quasar, and him liking her as well, but never interacting for more than two pages in an issue. Basically every woman loves Quasar in a sexual manner.

The next batch of issues will be under Quasar #43, as that’s the highest numbered issue currently on Goodreads.

3-star

“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

“The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus by David Anthony Durham Review

The Risen

The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus

Author:  David Anthony Durham

Published:  2016

This was the third book I received from the Brilliant Book of the Month Club, and it was by far the best. The Risen is a retelling of the story of Spartacus, historical fiction done in the style of Game of Thrones. I base the GOT comparisons on the rotating cast of perspective characters that Durham utilizes to tell this story. Unlike GOT however, The Risen avoids a lot of the tedium and pacing issues that have dogged George R.R. Martin’s more recent works.

One third of the way through, I was keeping a list of the characters and assigning an actor to each one just so I could keep them straight. Thankfully, between 300, Troy, Game of Thrones, and a host of other swords and sandals epics I had plenty of cool actors to populate the cast. The book is broken up into three sections, with (as best as I can tell) one chapter per each section devoted to each of the perspective characters. Unlike GOT, the characters are almost all on the side of Spartacus, with two exceptions: Nonus (a cowardly Roman who reminded me of Theon Greyjoy) and Kaleb (a slave to Spartacus’s main rival Crassus). The rest of the perspective characters include obvious choices like Spartacus and Castus, as well as more diverse individuals like Vectia (an elderly woman who serves as a guide), Sura (a priestess to Kotis) and Philon (a greek medic slave).

Whereas my initial interactions with some of the characters made them difficult to differentiate (Castus and Dolmos seemed particularly bland in the early going), Durham does a fantastic job of giving each character a distinct viewpoint, history and motivation for their actions going forward. Durham also does a great job of pacing his reveals within his chapters, generally by beginning each new chapter by jumping ahead in the action and then filling in the blanks in intervals throughout. When characters begin to betray each other, or fall during battle, the reader is often made to wait several pages to find out who is involved in the action. I’d find this to be a problem in a different book, but here the plot moves so quickly that it never felt like a trick.

I was also reminded of Brandon Sanderson while reading this book, as by the end of it I had a clear idea of the plotting that went into it by the author. Each character introduced was necessary to the plot and contributed to the narrative in an essential way. My favorite chapters ended up involving Kaleb (who served as a stand in for any of the millions of people who could have led to a different outcome for the Risen) and Dolmos (who reminded me of Ned Stark by the end of it). I’d recommend this book to any fans of historical fiction or fans of the Roman era in history.

5-star