Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Review: Recursion

Recursion Recursion by Blake Crouch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advanced copy of this from NetGalley for review.

I’ll bet Blake Crouch filled up at least five large whiteboards with diagrams trying to figure out the plot for this one.

NYPD Detective Barry Sutton tries to stop a woman about to jump off a high rise building, and she tells him that she’s suffering from the rare False Memory Syndrome which has given her the memories of another entire lifetime including a son who doesn’t exist. Barry become intrigued by the woman’s story, in part because he is mourning his own daughter who died years earlier, and he begins to look into her life. In a parallel story set 11 years earlier, Dr. Helena Smith is struggling to get funding for plans to build a machine capable of recording a human memory, and her project seems dead in the water until a mysterious investor steps in.

That’s all I want to say about the plot to anyone who hasn’t read the book, and I’d urge any reader to go in not knowing more than that because what follows mixes a clever sci-fi concept with an engaging thriller that turns the very idea of existence inside out.

To dig into this deeper without giving the ending away….**SPOILERS FOLLOW**I absolutely loved the time travel aspect of this with the idea that reality is shaped by consciousness so it should be possible to go back into our own memory and change things. The fallout from that, with the other memories eventually kicking in for those affected by it, is a terrifying way of expanding the scope that eventually scrambles the eggs of all of humanity. Helena’s chair is a Pandora’s Box that can’t be unopened even with time travel, and that creates a cruel trap. You can’t make this right without using time travel, but every trip back once things go to hell just means that eventually another timeline comes crashing down on everyone**END OF SPOILERS**

I was a little worried about the whole ‘sad Daddy’ aspect of Barry having a dead child at first because my complaint about Crouch’s other reality bending book Dark Matter was that it leaned on the trope of a man-doing-it-all-for-his-family, but I was pleasantly surprised with how the book eventually became a much bigger story without ever losing the emotional component of that backstory either.

Overall, this was mind-bending and horrifying page turner with some very cool ideas that had me on the edge of my seat while reading.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #6

Avengers (1963-1996) #6 Avengers (1963-1996) #6 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Baron Zemo and the Masters of Evil attack New York City, and their weapon of choice is….glue?

Lots of fun goofiness in this one. My favorite bit was Cap and Giant Man street surfing on a hunk pavement behind a tow truck driven by Iron Man after they get glued to the ground.

Random Observations :

• Thor refuses to keep the Black Knight’s winged horse after capturing him because even though BK is going to jail, it still technically belongs to him. That brings up a whole bunch of legal questions regarding supervillain property rights.

• If Baron Zemo got his mask accidentally glued to his face years ago, how is drinking or eating anything?

• This ‘Teen Brigade’ thing with Rick Jones and his buddies is annoying the hell out of me. We’ve already seen the US military and the UN cooperating with the Avengers. Why would they need a bunch of punk teenagers hanging around?

Previous Issue : Avengers #5

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Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #5

Avengers (1963-1996) #5 Avengers (1963-1996) #5 by Stan Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s the Avengers vs. the Lava Men, and somehow they end up fighting the Hulk yet again so that streak is still going. Thank god Rick Jones was there to…. I dunno why he’s in here actually. He even gets listed as part of the full roster at the start. I guess being Captain America’s teenage companion has perks.

The cool thing about this one is the way that Kirby drew some of the the Lava Men with monstrous oversized faces that look genuinely creepy.

Random Observations:
• Wasp actually comes through in a big moment, but then is miffed when she gets complimented on that instead of her beauty.

• I didn’t realize that it’s not generally known that Bruce Banner is the Hulk. Which makes General Ross and Betty seem pretty simple when they’re complaining about how Bruce just vanished after the gamma bomb incident.

Previous Issue: Avengers #4

Next Issue: Avengers #6

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Review: The Dispatcher

The Dispatcher The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What if anyone who gets murdered returned alive almost instantly? That sounds like an improvement for humanity, but just think about what it would do to Netflix’s stock price if new true crime documentaries were no longer a thing.

That’s the big idea here. For an unknown reason the nature of death changes one day. If someone is killed by another person their corpse vanishes, and they appear unharmed back in their homes. Only deaths from natural causes or accidents are permanent with only one in one thousand victims of violence not returning. Not only does this guarantee that the homicide rate drops to zero, it also offers opportunities for do-overs. Like if someone is getting surgery and they’re about to expire on the table, you could kill them instead, and then they’d reappear in the same shape they were just a few hours earlier. You aren’t fixing any long term health issues, but you could give doctors a second chance or save someone who was just in a car accident.

That’s where Tony Valdez comes in. He’s a government approved Dispatcher who is authorized to terminate people about to die so that they’ll return. A lot of people find what he does creepy or immoral since he has technically murdered over a thousand people, but Tony looks on it as saving lives, not taking them. However, when another Dispatcher vanishes, and there are signs of foul play Tony ends up reluctantly helping a detective by showing her some of the shady underground ways Dispatching is used.

This is a really intriguing concept, but unfortunately it was John Scalzi who came up with it. I’ve liked some of his books and generally think he’s entertaining, but the reason I stopped reading his stuff is that he relies almost exclusively on dialogue with almost no descriptions or deep dives into the sci-fi concepts he comes up with. This is a prime example because this is a pretty cool premise that opens up a whole bunch of potential storylines, and you could go crazy deep with some of them.

However, rather than sit down and really dig into that Scalzi is content to just toss together a quickie mystery that only hints at the bigger implications of what this would mean for the world. Yeah, he gives a few glimpses of it, but it’s mostly just relayed from Tony to the detective in exposition. There’s only a tiny bit of acknowledgement payed to how this would be a massive game changer in terms of religion, philosophy, and science, too.

Still, as a free Audible Original read by Zachery Quinto, it’s a fun two-hour listen. I just wish that a writer willing and capable of really making a meal out of this idea had come up with it.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #4

Avengers (1963-1996) #4 Avengers (1963-1996) #4 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After the Avengers fought the Sub-Mariner on an island in the previous issue, an enraged Namor goes north far enough to find a frozen man in the ice that he throws into the water. Then the Avengers just happen to come across the thawed out guy as they’re on their way home in a submarine. It’s a happy coincidence because he turns out to be the legendary Captain America who has been a Popsicle since World War II. There’s the usual thing of the superheroes have to fight each other before teaming up to stop a stranded alien and then fight Namor again. Then they’re all buddies and Cap is now an Avenger.

Resurrecting old characters like Namor and Cap from the Golden Age days when the company was called Timely Comics was a good idea, and it is cool that Jack Kirby, one of the original creators of Captain America, got to bring him back. As always with these old comics the story is silly and wonky, but Cap returning and joining the Avengers is a huge Marvel milestone.

Random observations:

• Cap is crushed by the memory of the death of his sidekick Bucky, but instantly recovers when he sees Rick Jones and immediately asks him to be his new partner. An adult man swapping one teenage boy for another who looks just like him? Uh……OK.
• The Marvel history I know has Cap and Namor teaming up to battling Nazis as part of the World War II super-team The Invaders so it’s strange that they don’t know each other here.
• When asked where she was after vanishing during the end of the big battle Wasp replies, “I was doing what ANY girl would do in a moment of crises – powdering my nose, of course!” *sigh*

Previous Issue: Avengers #3

Next Issue: Avengers #5

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Review: The Fool's Run

The Fool's Run The Fool's Run by John Camp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Listen all y'all, it's a sabotage.

Corporate sabotage, that is.

Kidd is an artist who uses his computer skills to pay the bills that selling paintings won’t cover. He’s also willing to engage in some hacking if the price is right. The wealthy owner of an aviation company approaches Kidd to help him even the score after one of his rival corporations stole a breakthrough piece of technology developed to help sell a new type of jet to the military.

It’s a risky operation that has to be done on a deadline, but the paycheck is a small fortune so Kidd takes the gig. He also recruits some allies to help. His friend/sometime lover LuEllen is a professional burglar who can help him get into the homes of employees for passwords and other info, and Dace is a disgraced journalist who still has the contacts to start smearing the rival company in the media once they throw several monkey wrenches into the works. If they can pull it off they all walk away rich. If not, they might wind up in jail. Or worse.

John Sandford came up with this series at the same time as his Prey novels, and it originally came out in 1989 under his real name John Camp because they were both being published by two different companies who didn’t want to have the same author competing with himself. The Prey series sold better so many more books followed while the Sandford name became the brand. After two books, Kidd would only appear in the Prey series as an unnamed artist until Sandford finally got the full rights back, and once he was a regular best-seller Kidd and LuEllen would return in two more books as well as popping up in the other series now and then.

It’s surprising that this book holds up as well as it does considering it should have several dated aspects. Kidd, like the early version of Davenport in Prey, seems to be constructed as the prototypical ‘80s action/thriller star. He’s a computer expert who is a Vietnam vet that studies martial arts who also engages in shady business. The artist angle makes him a little eccentric, and there’s the added quirk of his using tarot cards as way of spurring outside the box thinking. However, just as he did with Davenport, Sandford manages to keep Kidd grounded and relatable enough that you feel like you’re reading about a smart person with skills, not some completely unrealistic macho asshole.

The other dated element the book manages to skirt is that although a lot of this based on computer hacking circa 1989, it doesn’t read as being ancient. Unlike many a thriller writer in the ‘90s, Sandford always had a knack for incorporating tech of the day and using it for plot points without having people talk about it with wide-eyed awe. While Kidd has to explain some computer stuff and what he’s doing it always seems kind of matter of fact and keeps it a high enough level that the same concepts still apply today.

Overall, this is just a really solid thriller done by a writer early in his fiction career who would go on to become a master at plotting and building tension and momentum. He’s not quite there yet, and the last third of book doesn’t have the same kind of climax you get in his best work.

I’d probably go 3 stars if I just didn’t like Kidd and LuEllen as characters so damn much. Plus, I really appreciate just how deviously clever the sabotage plan is with Kidd being absolutely diabolical in the changes he makes to the company’s computer system coupled with their media campaign to smear it's name. There’s a reason Prey became the more popular series, but there is still fun reading to be had here for Sandford fans.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Review: The Last Stone

The Last Stone The Last Stone by Mark Bowden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though I’m a huge fan of mystery/crime fiction I’ve long known that I never could have been a cop. One of the main reasons is that if I were faced with a suspect I knew was lying to me that I lack the patience to work the truth out of them with long interrogations. Instead I’d immediately shine a bright light in their eyes and grab the nearest phone book. That was never clearer to me then while reading this book when I found myself gritting my teeth and wishing I could reach through the pages to choke the shit out of this lying asshole.

In the spring of 1975 two pre-teen sisters, Sheila and Kate Lyon, vanished from a suburban Maryland mall just outside of Washington D.C. Despite a huge police investigation and being covered all over local media the girls were never found.

Almost 40 years later a cold case detective was going through the file again and came across something new. Days after the girls disappeared, an 18 year man named Lloyd Welch had given a statement to the police about seeing them talking with a man at the mall and leaving with him in a car. However, Welch’s statement seemed fishy, and he promptly flunked a lie detector test which led to him admitting that it was a combination of things he’d seen in the news and made up. The cops dismissed him as just another attention seeking kook that was wasting their time.

However, this detective noticed that Welch’s statement about the man he claimed to have seen had a detail that matched his prime suspect, a child molester who had died in prison. Believing Welch may know something after all the cops tracked him down only to find that he was serving a long prison term for molesting a young girl. It also turned out that one composite sketch from a witness in the mall at the time looked a lot like Welch at 18.

What began there was a series of long interviews with Welch who they quickly learned seem almost allegoric to telling the truth. When caught in a lie Welch would refuse to admit it, blaming any mistakes on faulty memory brought about by age and drug abuse, while eventually shifting to a completely different story that ignored what he previously said. Or he might backtrack and start repeating a story the police had already discredited. When faced with absolute proof of false statements and finally admitting something he’d say he lied because he was scared and trying to protecting himself.

Pinning Welch down to a story was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall, and it took a team of detectives working variations on several different tactics for over a year to eventually tease something approaching the truth out of him. This would lead to new directions and other suspects involved in the crime which were mainly members of Welch’s family. They would turn out to be a clan of transplanted hillbillies that seem to be something out of a Rob Zombie movie with child abuse and sexual assault being common place.

Mark Bowen was a young journalist just starting his career when he reported on the missing Lyon sisters, and as he explains the case haunted him for years afterwards. He’s done some interesting things structurally with this because it doesn’t follow your typical true crime format. The story begins with Lloyd Welch and that’s where most of the focus is. There’s not a lot of time spent on the original abduction which is what you’d usually get in a true crime story. Then there’d be some background on the family, the investigation, and the break with Welch might come in at the halfway point. Bowen gives us that as background and essentially starts very early with the cops going to Welch.

That’s because this is mainly about the interviews and how the cops managed to tease and cajole information from Welch when he was feeding them mostly bullshit, and then how they kept him talking long past the point where he realizes that he should just shut up. That makes sense because this case hinges on how they eventually learned to read what Welch was telling them and how to work him. In the end the major break comes not from what Lloyd actually said, but instead from a detective following up on one his lies but realizing that the truth was actually in the other details Welch kept putting in his various stories.

This is an interesting way to do a book like this, and the case is fascinating. However, it can also be frustrating because a great deal of time is spent just reading Welch’s shifting lies and repeated justifications. It also doesn’t end as neatly as an episode of Law & Order. While some justice is done there is still a lot left unanswered and probably some guilty parties will never be charged.

It’s a solid piece of crime true crime writing, but reading about Welch wore me out. I don’t know how the cops who had to actually deal with him could stand it.

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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #3

Avengers (1963-1996) #3 Avengers (1963-1996) #3 by Stan Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Avengers are worried about the Hulk after he quit the team and go looking for him. After yet another battle with his former team, the Hulk flees to a deserted island. There he meets Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who dislikes humanity as much as Hulk does so they decide to join forces. They challenge the Avengers to a fight, and hilarity ensues.

Three issues into this, and the Hulk has fought the other Avengers in every one of them so far. So that’s getting pretty tired already, but the team-up with Sub-Mariner puts a new spin on things. My favorite part was how Hulk and Namor immediately plan to betray and destroy each other the second they beat the Avengers.

Random observations:
• Iron Man has upgraded to a better looking red & gold suit, but the helmet still needs work.
• Wasp’s main role continues to be panting over men, particularly Thor.
• Hulk first fights the Avengers in the American Southwest, and he gets away by hiding in a truck loaded with gravel. That gets dumped in some body of water. Next thing you know the Hulk is in…. the Atlantic Ocean? How far was that truck going to dump a load of rocks into the sea?

Previous Issue: Avengers #2

Next Issue: Avengers #4

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #2

Avengers (1963-1996) #2 Avengers (1963-1996) #2 by Stan Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We’re only in the second issue and already Hank Pym has shifted from Ant-Man to Giant-Man, and the Hulk has quit. Things move fast in these early Marvel comics!

An alien creep named the Space Phantom comes to Earth, and starts immediately causing trouble by using his power to imitate someone while sending the original into some kind of limbo. The catch is he can only do one at a time and the other person gets returned which is kind of an interesting twist on the ole shapeshifter thing.

More ‘60s fun with Kirby and Lee.

Random observations:
• I don’t blame Hulk for quitting because all the other Avengers are real jerks to him.
• Wasp continues to be boy crazy.
• It already seems ridiculous that nobody figures out that Tony Stark is Iron Man or that Dr. Donald Blake is Thor.

Previous Issue: Avengers #1

Next Issue: Avengers #3

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Review: Avengers (1963-1996) #1

Avengers (1963-1996) #1 Avengers (1963-1996) #1 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The death of Stan Lee a few months back got me thinking about the old school Marvel comics so I decided to take advantage of my Marvel Unlimited subscription to go back and read some of the oldies.

Loki makes it look like the Hulk is rampaging as part of a plan to trap Thor, but he doesn't count on other heroes like Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp showing up as well. The good guys win and decide to form a new super-team called Avengers. (Why? Because it's the first name Wasp throws out there, and it sounds pretty cool.)

It's pretty silly compared to modern comics, but there's Jack Kirby art and the hammy charm of Lee's melodramatic prose even if the dated elements like Wasp rhapsodizing about how handsome Thor is while Ant-Man berates her for being a silly woman don't play very well. Nor does a reference to dumping atomic waste in the ocean for disposal, but it was the '60s so why not? Iron Man's clumsy gold suit also looks pretty bad, but I think that improves quickly.

Next Issue: Avengers #2

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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Review: Black Mountain

Black Mountain Black Mountain by Laird Barron
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

A former Mafia hit man turned private detective hunts down a serial killer who also used to moonlight as a mob hit man? Man, I really wanted to love this book. Sadly, I didn’t.

Isaiah Coleridge was introduced to us in Blood Standard, and to say that his backstory is complex is an understatement. He used to make his home in Alaska where he worked as a top notch killer for the Outfit, but after he had a bloody falling out with one of the bosses Isaiah was exiled to in upstate New York. Determined to leave his old ways behind Isaiah has become a private detective, but he also doesn’t mind jobs where his skills as an enforcer might come in handy. He also has to maintain a delicate relationship with the local mobsters so when one of them comes to him with an ugly job Isaiah is in no position to refuse.

Two of the local thugs have been murdered in gruesome ways, and the boss wants to know if they’re connected and who might be behind it. Isaiah reluctantly begins to check out it out and quickly learns that a legendary hit man long thought retired or dead might be behind it. It also turns out that this guy’s hobby when not killing people for money was killing people for fun. If the mob connections weren’t bad enough it also seems like this man might have ties to the military and there’s some very rich people in the mix as well. Despite his plate being pretty full Isaiah also has taken on a gig trying to protect a local woman from a family of thugs because she's dating the ex of one of them.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? And it is. Frankly, it’s too much. This was my problem with the first book, too. There’s a great concept with an ex-mob hit man trying to kinda go straight but getting tangled up in bloody messes. However, everything has to get so complicated that it all gets bogged down as Isaiah just pinballs from one thing to the next. The core story of an ex-hit man hunting a legendary ex-hit man is great, but the bad guy can’t just be an insane serial killer too. He also has to be wrapped up in a vast conspiracy that is pretty ridiculous so I guess mob killer/serial killer just wasn’t enough.

And that’s kind of the problem to all of it. Barron has good ideas and is a capable writer, but he just never knows when to stop adding layers to the cake and focus on shaping the elements he already has into something edible. Eventually it just collapses on itself from it's own weight. For example, the big subplot in this book is dumped to the back burner and is pretty much resolved with a couple of sentences late in the book as action that we don't see. So it was just a distraction in an already overstuffed book.

There’s the core of a really cool character and series here, but it took too much effort for me to dig it out. More bloody violence and less plot, please.

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Review: Tiamat's Wrath

Tiamat's Wrath Tiamat's Wrath by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re a fan of this series the very first sentence will break your heart.

Do things get better after that? Let’s see what one of the characters has to say about the possibility of good things happening after bad things:

”Sometimes it’s just one shit sandwich after another.”

Truth.

So yeah, there are a couple of moments in this that absolutely suck if you’re invested in these characters. That’s not to say that all hope is lost, and that there aren’t some good fist-pumping “Hell yeah!” moments. There are plenty, but there is a steep price to pay for them. It’s still worth it though.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about this one. It’s nigh on impossible to talk about the eighth book in a nine book series without spoiling the previous ones so I’m just going to once again urge that any sci-fi/space opera fans try this if they haven’t already. Oh, and the TV show based on it that is now on Amazon Prime is well worth watching, too.

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Review: The Border

The Border The Border by Don Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. So maybe America should start questioning its ‘war on drugs’ which is almost 50 years old now?

Nah. Let’s just keep doing the same thing we always have. It’s gotta work eventually.

Art Keller’s story began in The Power of the Dog when he was a young DEA agent dispatched to Mexico in the ‘70s. There he got into a feud with Ad├ín Barrera who becomes one of the most powerful cartel kingpins, and their bloody fight would go on for years. Keller’s efforts to bring him to justice were complicated by the US’s covert support of the drug trade to fund anti-communist operations in Central and South America. The war between Keller and Barrera goes on past the turn of the century in The Cartel when a power struggle in Mexico leads to stunning levels of violence and corruption.

Now America’s dependence on opioids has created an expanding market for heroin and fentanyl, and Keller has been appointed head of the DEA to try and stem the tide. Keller’s strategy is to adopt a more tolerant attitude to low-level users and dealers while going after the high level money men profiting from the trade. Unfortunately, a loud-mouthed presidential candidate accuses him of being soft on crime while pointing the finger at illegal immigration and Mexican government corruption, and Keller has to beware of right wingers in his own agency trying to sabotage him.

Then Keller gets evidence indicating that the candidate’s son-in-law is about to launder hundreds of millions of dollars in cartel money under the guise of a real estate deal, but just trying to investigate it will mean being smeared by the alt-right even as he fears that the cartels have just bought the White House. Meanwhile, there’s another vicious war for control of the drug trade going on in Mexico, and host of people like a small time junkie, an undercover cop, the son of a slain DEA agent, a young boy fleeing gang violence in his own country, and a retired hit man are all caught up in the chaos in various ways.

Don Winslow has been researching and writing about the Mexican drug trade for years now, and he’s got a lot to say about the ultimate futility of trying to stop it with cops. He’s also not shy about pointing out the hypocrisy of how America is the biggest customer of this trade while blaming other countries like Mexico for it. Winslow’s trilogy makes these social and political points while also delivering an epic crime tale with Art Keller at its center. These aren’t just entertaining books, they feel like important books.

Unfortunately, this one was a little hard for me to read because it all too accurately mirrors current events with the character of John Dennison, a liar/ racist/ fraud/ criminal/ asshole who somehow becomes president of the United States that was obviously created as a stand-in for the real thing. For the purposes of this book Winslow has shifted the dirty dealings from Russian oligarchs to Mexican drug lords, but honestly, if we found out that the orange shitbag had taken cartel money, would anyone really be surprised?

Since reality is such a bummer these days it made reading this even more depressing than the other books. It’s relevant and good, but it is tough to read a fictional version of America destroying itself in ways that are really happening.

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Monday, April 1, 2019

Review: Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 4

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 4 Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, by Brian Michael Bendis, Volume 4 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, good. Venom is here...*sigh*

Yeah, I know so many people love the symbiote that a movie featuring just him can be a huge hit so this was inevitable, but he's never done all that much for me. Plus, the version here seems kind of flat with so little done with the host that he's pretty bland and boring as far as murderous creatures go. Plus, I'm not super thrilled with Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy showing up as part of Miles' support staff. It makes sense to have them there to help pass the torch, but they did that already. Having them still in the book ties Miles into Peter Parker's story even more, and I'm itching for more Miles, less Parker legacy now. Which is another reason that I don't much like having Venom here at all. How about a brand new arch enemy for Miles not based on Peter's time as Spider-Man?

Still, I continue to love the stuff with Miles struggling to be Spider-Man, and I enjoyed Detective Maria Hill's role in this one. It does end on a huge moment, too. That stuff is keeping me engaged fully even while I'm nitpicking.

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