Tag: Review

“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

“Quasar #1-14” by Mark Gruenwald from Marvel Comics

Quasar 1 to 14

Quasar #1 to #14

Writer:  Mark Gruenwald

Artist:  Paul Ryan and Mike Manley

Published:  1989 to 1990

Rather than reading Quasar Classic (pictured above), I’ve actually read the 9 issues of the main series collected in here as well as the next 5 issues of the regular series (so Quasar #1-14). There’s a Quasar #25 on Goodreads that I’ll mark on that website to review the next batch of comics, but I’ll just lay things out more clearly on this website.

Let’s start with the good. The first three issues of this series are fantastic. Issue #1 is a standard superhero origin story but it’s also charming in its retro tropes and SHIELD vs AIM storyline. Issue #2 was my favorite in this first batch of stories, as it takes a time jump of six years and features some deep space travel and discovery for our protagonist. Issue #3 three shifted things again by bringing Wendell Vaughn back to Earth where he tries to set up a business and rent office space in the Baxter Building.

Unfortunately, that’s where the book really stalls as the next several issues (#4 through #9) feature a very routine “alien of the week” storyline. Wendell is tasked by Eon with being ready to face a great alien menace, and so each issue he goes to find one of these aliens and confront him. Usually there is a quick battle or misunderstanding, and that’s about it. Wendell also shows up at his office for about 2 pages each issue to show up late, bemoan that there’s no business or that he has so much to do, but then he leaves again instantly to go investigate something.

Maybe it’s the thirty year old in me, but I really enjoy the supporting cast of coworkers Gruenwald surrounds Vaughn with more than the alien adventures that never really challenge Quasar. There’s also a hint of romance with Vaughn’s secretary, but as of yet it hasn’t gone anywhere. The other interesting relationship in Vaughn’s life is with his dad, who is more interested in chatting with Eon (the space entity) than with his son, although at this point in the series Gruenwald seems to be showing how it is more Wendell’s fault than his dad’s. I’d expect this storyline to have some major ramifications shortly.

The worst parts of this series can be found in those issues I lumped together (#4 through #9) as they really stay formulaic with little change in geography or concept. For a cosmic hero, Quasar is strictly Earthbound for this period and the book doesn’t spend enough time doing anything to advance plot to keep it interesting. (Issue #9 does have some more fun with AIM however, and a newer, evil female MODOK analog.) Even Vaughn’s power set hurts the comics as Quasar comes off like a Green Lantern rip off during every fight scene, with very little discovery about what he can do after issue #2. Issue #10 fixes some of that with a (finally!) cosmic adventure with a couple of Kree supporting characters but it’s back to the same problems for Quasar #11 and #12.

Where I’ve left off Quasar is engaged in another cosmic story with the Ex-Squadron Supreme, but because it deals with a different dimension I don’t have high hopes for it having much going on in terms of high stakes. I much more interested with what’s going on with Wendell’s dad and his coworkers, though if this group of comics is any indication it will be another 15 or so issues before either storyline pays off.

3-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

“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

“Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner Review

Stand on Zanzibar

Stand on Zanzibar

Author:  John Brunner

Published:  1968

Stand on Zanzibar won the 1969 Hugo Award for best novel, beating (among other books) Rite of Passage which was a book I really enjoyed.  While Stand on Zanzibar was much more ambitious than Rite of Passage, I preferred Panshin’s book to Brunner’s though Zanzibar was still much better than several other award winners from that era (sorry Delaney).

The first thing that strikes a reader beginning this book is the unusual structure Brunner uses to tell his story.  Instead of solely advancing a narrative, Brunner utilizes a macro-micro type of setting similar to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but with four separate styles of chapters.  The chapter styles alternate between:

  • Continuity – This is the basic narrative advancement
  • Tracking with closeups – This follows secondary characters, and then eventually becomes a second main plot passing through the book
  • The happening world – This is a scattershot macro section where rapid fire paragraphs give headlines, slogans, conversations, etc. to funnel a ton of information and create a sense of atmosphere
  • Context – Similar to the appendices tacked onto the end of Dune, these chapters just provide additional world building.

The plot of Stand on Zanzibar follows a few main threads that all deal with the overpopulation epidemic of the future (of the distant year of 2010!).  A super computer owned by a General Electric type company is used to direct decisions by the most powerful company in the world.  A small country in Africa has the very unusual characteristics of no murders or border conflicts for years and is looking for a new leader to replace their dying President.  A genetics specialist in Asia claims to have developed the secret to creating super babies for those so inclined; the United States sends a spy in to determine the truthfulness of the claim.

While this was a book that took me awhile to get interested in (it doesn’t really pick up or steer the plot until a long cocktail party chapter told through rapid fire conversation switches) I actually ended up really enjoying it by the end.  The science stuff actually holds up better than one would expect from the subject matter, as Brunner’s writing ends up having a kind of internet/twitter vibe with all the rapid fire information.  The interconnection of politics and major corporations also was well done.  Although some of the racial politics of the book have a very 1960’s slant, unfortunately some of the issues (police relations, representation at the corporate level) are still very relevant today.

If I had a main criticism of the book it’s that the characters are pretty flat, with only one of them being particularly interesting.  Donald is a spy sent to the small Asian country by the United States.  **Slight spoilers though the rest of this paragraph**  Before he goes he is basically reprogrammed Jason Bourne style to also be an assassin.  His character’s storyline is the most exciting one in the book, but that’s more a statement on the lack of competition by the supporting cast.  Norman is probably the main protagonist of this book, the lone black man on the board of the big company and the man most responsible for the super computer becoming the new president of the small African country.  Most of the tension in this plot line is whether the transition will be profitable for the company or not.

While I’ll probably remember this book as one that took a long time to get into and focused on style (unusual chapter structure) over substance (character development), I should point out that this was also the type of book that draws you in as it progresses.  The fact that not all of the plot threads end up connecting is actually a good thing as the two main characters start out roommates and too many connections at the end would have felt forced.

4-star