Tag: series

“X-Factor Vol. 2” by Jeff Jensen and Arthur Ranson Review

X Factor vol 2X-Factor Vol. 2 1-4 (Complete Series)

Writer:  Jeff Jensen

Artist: Arthur Ranson

Colors:  Paul Mounts

Letterer: Paul Tutrone

Released:  2002

I’m continuing to go through my collection of back issues in search of series I either never read or don’t remember very well.  Much like with books, I’ve been known to sometimes buy comics at conventions or stores when they’re cheap and then forget to read them for several years.  While one of my all time favorite comic series is Peter David’s X-Factor Vol. 3, I’ve actually never sat down and read the first two volumes before.  Since Volume 1 is over 100 issues and Volume 2 is only four, I decided to continue working my backward and do the one I could read in a day.

X-Factor Volume 2 is one of those series that focuses on the normal people living in the superhero universe, much like Damage Control of Gotham Central.  Here, it follows two special government agents on a dedicated mutant task force.  Their duties seem to be in dealing with hate crimes against mutants, but the unofficial mission is more keeping tabs on extremists on both sides of the mutant agenda.  The two agents are a white male who has lost the use of his hand (though is getting a new cybernetic one) due to an incident with a mutant, and an African-American female who recently had an infant daughter whose mutation activated causing her to burn herself to death in her crib.  Needless to say, it’s not a laugh riot.

The four issues in the series tell  fairly unconnected stories, with each issue focusing on a separate case that is fairly well resolved by the end.  The first issue is the mystery of the murder of a man tied to the Hollywood sign with the word murder carved into him.  The second issue follows a baseball player who is planning to reveal to the world that he is a mutant.  The final two issues of the series focus more on the two agents finally beginning to trust one another and figure out who is pulling the strings on the anti-mutant agenda.

Throughout the series, the X-Men show up in brief cameos.  Jean Grey sends a mind message; Wolverine makes a threat, Nightcrawler captures a criminal.  If you’re here to read superheroes this isn’t the book for you.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the lead protagonists were particularly memorable.  The male in particular (I finished this series last night and I can’t recall either of their names) was bland, with his major character arc being the decision to be a more open-minded parent.  Likewise, the antagonists are in the shadows for most of the series so there’s not a lot of memorable moments with those guys either.

The artwork by Arthur Ranson was also inconsistent.  The bulk of the cast of characters are civilians in regular attire.  The two main characters are always easy to tell apart, but the supporting cast often melted into a shadowy white dude melange.  The superheroes that showed up don’t give me a better of idea of his ability, as Jean Grey and Wolverine were just OK, while Nightcrawler was fantastic.

Image result for x-factor ranson nightcrawlerI can’t decide if it’s just the Paul Mounts colors putting him over the top, or if Nightcrawler fits in better than the other heroes in the shadowy world of Ranson’s art.

My score indicates I didn’t enjoy this series, but really the series just felt very unnecessary and fairly forgettable.  I can’t imagine ever revisiting this book or recommending it to somebody, unless they’re just a huge fan of Sam and Twitch and are looking for a Marvel Universe watered down analog.

2-star

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“Sharpe’s Honor” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Honor

Sharpe’s Honor: Book Sixteen of the Richard Sharpe Series

Richard Sharpe and the Vitoria Campaign, February to June 1813

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Published:  1985

Coming off my favorite installment to date in the excellent Sharpe’s Enemy, any book that followed was bound to feel like a let down. That was certainly the case with Sharpe’s Honor, the sixteenth chronological book in the Richard Sharpe series, but overall this was still a book I enjoyed. I think the worst aspects of this book came from a new theory I have that Bernard Cornwell comes up with clever words to attach to Sharpe’s name for book titles, and then writes the book trying to shoehorn as many allusions to that word as possible throughout the book.

Taking place in the closing months of the Spanish conflict between Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars, Major Richard Sharpe is the target of a plot by the French intelligence officer Pierre Ducos. The Whore of Gold, Richard’s object of lust from prior books, Helene is the mechanism for the plot who sets everything in motion by sending a letter to her husband accusing Sharpe of making a drunken attempt at raping her. Helene’s husband then challenges Richard Sharpe’s, ahem, honor by challenging Sharpe to a duel. When Helene’s husband ends up dying, Sharpe ends up exiled on a secret mission that involves deadly Spanish partisans, breaking into a nunnery, prison escapes and wagons full of riches beyond imagination.

With any book series that are this lengthy, I appreciate when there is a deviation from one book to another that is memorable or changes the series. While Sharpe’s Honor lacks the major character deaths or military promotions of other books, it does affect the overall series in three manners. **Slight Spoilers Follow** First, Patrick Harper ends up married and has a baby on the way. Unlike Sharpe’s earlier marriage, it seems at least possible that these characters will travel with the army beyond this book. Second, Sharpe loses his longest tenured possession, one that connects him to the most powerful man in his world, but gets it replaced with something much more extravagant. **End of Spoilers** Finally and most importantly, this book ends the Spanish conflict and it looks like French soil is on the horizon. The Sharpe books thus far have spent extensive time in India, before hopping around to places like Denmark and Portugal, but it feels like we’ve been in Spain the longest and the change of scenery should help add some excitement in the next chapter.

The best scene in this book is probably Sharpe’s excursion into a Spanish nunnery. While the prison scene featured some of the most violent and destructive descriptions to be found in a Sharpe book, the mysterious solution provided for Sharpe felt far too convenient in the timing of and execution of it all to really register as believable. The nunnery relied instead on a quick decision by Sharpe to shift the blame away from himself that was both very funny and very clever. Since Sharpe is basically a superhero at this point, anything that shifts the story away from him outfighting his opponent stands out by comparison.

Besides the less than thrilling prison escape (which again, was preceded by an amazingly brutal action sequence), this book also loses some points by relying on three villains that all pale when compared to either of the two villains from the previous book. Pierre Ducos seems to be Sharpe’s long term villain at this point, which is unfortunate as the best Sharpe villains have been those that try to best him at his own game on the battlefield. Ducos is closer to Father Hacha (the Inquisitor) and El Matarife (the sadist Spanish partisan), the villains that Sharpe must overcome in this book, as all three have no real loyalty or qualms about killing innocents to stop Sharpe. While I’m still loving this series, and even enjoyed Sharpe’s Honor, I’ve got it ranked as the 9th best in the first 17, which puts it in the bottom half in terms of quality

4-star

“Night Terrors” by Alice Henderson Review

Night Terrors

Night Terrors (A Stake Your Destiny Buffy Book)

Author: Alice Henderson

Published:  2005

Maybe I’m biased because I made it through this book to a happy ending on my first try, but this was my favorite of the Stake Your Destiny Buffy books. I wrote in my review forKeep Me In Mind that “the entire thing reads like a long dream sequence (I hate dream sequences).” Night Terrorsactually featured a lengthy dream sequence so now I’m reevaluating my stance on the topic. I think the problem with Keep Me In Mind was that the entire book felt like a training drill with zero stakes (sorry, bad pun… how about consequences) for the reader. In Night Terrors I was making what I felt was the best choice each time but I constantly felt like I was leading Buffy to her death as the plot got weirder and wackier.

The plot of Night Terrors is that people around Sunnydale are getting sleepy, and feeling paralyzed in their sleep but feeling as though they are awake. It starts off affecting Buffy but spreads to others like Angel and her classmates. As Buffy feels like something is sitting on top of her, and that she’s not alone in her room, she lies paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. Once the feeling has passed, we’re given the choice of going to find Angel, going out on a patrol, or studying for a test that day that we’ve so far neglected. The choice is simple enough, but right away the book at least gave options that felt either more authentic to how Buffy would behave in the tv series or that an average reader would consider in her place (the previous Stake Your Destiny books have seemed addicted to offering a day spent with Cordelia right out of the gate).

**Slight Spoilers follow**

I flipped around when I was finished and saw other happy endings possible for the reader, and since it’s difficult to review this book without giving away the track I followed, reader beware. I started off patrolling before ending up heading toward the gym at Principal Snyder’s direction. Before I got there I decided to check on a crying student. After I learned more from the Scoobies, I decided to sleep and confront the Night Terror right away (my thinking being that staying up would just lead to a later confrontation with a tired and weakened slayer). After entering the dream world, I tried to locate Willow to communicate with the other spirits. When that was a dead end, I decided to Trust Ned, the man from Planet X who worked with the Lava people and build a dreamcatcher to catch the Night Terror.

For those following along, yeah that took a turn well away from anything in the series. I can only say that the alternative options presented to me seemed like tricks by the enemy, and that my path resulted in a happy ending. Spending about one third of this story in an anything goes dream world actually felt more like an episode of the tv series than one would thing just from reading that recap. In particular, it felt like the season four finale where Willow, Buffy, and Xander are encountering the First Slayer in their sleep.

**End of spoilers**

Besides feeling like a fun episode of the series and rewarding my obviously excellent choices based on years of watching the show and reading the books and comics, Night Terrorsalso benefitted by not having the ultra predictable page numbering problem present in some of the other Stake Your Destiny books. I jumped into the last 200 pages fairly early and often my two choices were close enough in page numbering to not give away which way the book was steering me. Although I wouldn’t put this book up there withDune or East of Eden, I’ve now read all of the Stake Your Destiny books and this was the only one that I didn’t come away from with grievances, and I actually had a really fun time reading it. That earns a perfect score from this reader.

3-star

“Quasar” #46-60 by Mark Gruenwald and Ron Marz

Quasar 60

Quasar #46-60 by Marvel Comics

Writers – Mark Gruenwald, Ron Marz

Artists – Andy Smith, Grant Miehm, John Heebrink

Published 1993-1994

**Note, this review is for Quasar issues #46-60**

The final 15 issues of Quasar felt like an encapsulation of the things that made this an entertaining as well as frustrating series. Once again, Quasar gets pulled into a crossover that, reading this series on its own, leaves the reader with little understanding of the story line and even less invested in the outcome. Along with Andy Smith and Grant Miehm, John Heebink comes on board as artist for several issues and provided competent though certainly not flashy work. As the series wrapped up, each of the recurring characters got to complete their character arc: Makkori learned that being fast isn’t everything in life, Kismet found a purpose besides reproducing with Quasar, and Kayla…. well, let’s talk about Kayla.

I mentioned in my earlier reviews that the most enjoyable part of this series for me was Quasar’s development of a relationship with Kayla. Her character took a superhero twist at the end of the last batch of issues, which I didn’t particularly care for, but it ended up being the core conflict throughout these last 15. By my count, there was only one issue throughout this series of 60 comics that featured Quasar and Kayla on a full issue adventure together, and probably only 2 dates shown that the characters go out on. That’s pretty slim to hang the weight of a superhero story conflict on, and I think Gruenwald missed an opportunity to make the readers more invested in the characters and the relationship by never letting it appear on the page. (I say Gruenwald as he wrote 59 of the sixty issues, this last group of issues also features a standalone story by Ron Marz that was quite fun but is completely out of place with when it is taking place in the larger story arc.)

Still the payoff to the Quasar/Kayla arc ended up being one of the best issues in the entire series. Overall, I’d say because of the buildup to it, issue #58 was my favorite issue of the series, but because it required reading a lot of so-so comics to get there, the first three issues (#1-3) would be better reads as stand alone stories. As a Marvel Cosmic character, I’d agree that Quasar belongs in a lower tier than characters like Silver Surfer, Adam Warlock or Nova in terms of quality of stories and iconic appearances. His replacement with a female version in the Abnett and Lanning cosmic era was a good idea that has also not been capitalized on. Quasar may be destined to be a character that never becomes recognizable outside of fans of 1990’s comics, but I can’t exactly argue that it’s undeserved.

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

“Colony” by Melinda Metz and Laura J. Burns Review

Colony

Author: Melinda Metz and Laura J. Burns

Release Date: 2005

Colony

The first season of Buffy features some ridiculous storylines and villains, including an episode (“Teacher’s Pet”) where Xander’s teacher is a beautiful woman who is actually a praying mantis looking to eat her mates.  Colony takes place during season two of Buffy and features a very similar villain although with the added danger of mind control (similar to the episode “Bad Eggs”).  With a plot reminiscent of two actual episodes, one would expect that this book nails the overall feel of the early episodes of the season.  There were a few issues that keep that from being the case, starting with that recurring Buffy novelization problem of visions by the protagonist.  One gets the feeling that a lot of these writers rewatched the movie before writing their books as Buffy’s dreams are constantly referenced in the books whereas they were totally disregarded in the show.  The other biggest problem in this book was Buffy’s slow reaction to the danger her friends were in.

In Colony, the school is visited by a guest speaker who is actually an Ant Queen whose goal is to reproduce and build an Ant Colony.  Buffy sees many of her friends and Watcher under mind control, and even suffering from body horror out of Cronenberg (Xander develops a giant thorax, other characters develop Ant mouths) but routinely takes no action or doesn’t acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.  It’s difficult to criticize a book with a ridiculous plot (and a giant demon that resembles the Lucky Charms Leprechaun) for not taking things seriously enough, but the characters treating the situation as not serious removed any tension from this book.

This is a Stake Your Destiny book where the reader makes choices and tries to navigate through to a happy ending.  In that regard this book did a better job that either of the previous two installments (although I preferred the story more in The Suicide King).  The choices offered to the character were more in line with actual paths Buffy might take in the show, and I made it through with only one wrong choice.  My one wrong choice involved whether Buffy should ask Xander about what was going on with him or go patrolling and look for Angel.  It was one of those situations where Buffy made a few other decisions after the one I made which ended up killing her but overall it didn’t feel completely unfair.  This book also didn’t have the same problem as Keep Me in Mind where the choices were obvious based on page numberings which one you should pick.  Here I jumped back and forth across the book and reached the end so if there was a more direct path through it I missed out on it.

The cleverest part of this book involved the purpose of the personality test that the students were all required to take (determining what role they’d have in the ant colony).  The twist felt like a well thought out reason for the villain assuming the identity that she was posing under.  I still have another Stake Your Destiny to go and am hoping for one that feels accurate to the series and offers realistic choices laid out in a non-predictable manner.  So far each of these books has been lacking in at least one of those areas, but I am still enjoying the general idea of reading these and navigating my own way through a Buffy episode.

3-star

Rank the Series: John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom Books

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

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

 Rabbit redux

5.  Rabbit Redux

Release date:  1971

Chronological Order:  Second

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

 rabbit remembered

4.  Rabbit Remembered

Release Date: 2001

Chronological Order:  Fifth

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

 rabbit

3.  Rabbit is Rich

Release Date:  1981

Chronological Order:  Third

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

 Rabbit Run

2.  Rabbit, Run

Release Date: 1960

Chronological Order: First

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

 rab

1.  Rabbit at Rest

Release Date: 1990

Chronological Order:  Fourth

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