Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? by Max Brallier ★★★★★

Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?Before we start, a big thank you Max Brallier for sending me a signed copy of this book to review.

That out of the way, I can sum up this review in 5 words: "Yes, it is that awesome."

I love zombies, so when I saw 1) that such a thing as a zombie choose-your-adventure book existed, and 2) that I could get a signed copy to review, I jumped ALL over that! And I'm thrilled that I did. This book is fantastic, cover to cover. Speaking of the cover, it is great. I love the vintage look it has, as if it's a well-read 70s favorite paperback melded with a graphic novel. I love both versions of the cover art, and the artwork inside is amazing. Pen and ink, comic-book style sketches that perfectly fit and complement the stories inside.

I don't think that I've read all of the variations and storylines yet - there are a surprising amount of them in the book. So many that it could keep me busy for a LONG time going through them. I read a whole lot of them though, and not a single one disappointed me at all. They were everything I've always wanted in zombie fiction: Well thought out, believable, well written, vicious, original and interesting, with just the perfect amount of humor thrown in.

I liked and could identify with the characters, especially me (AKA: the main character), who was a perfect blend of Regular Joe and Rambo as needed and as fit the story for the choices made. The secondary characters were very human (until they weren't anymore). I loved the tension of reading this, not knowing if my choice would be the right one, or if it would be the one that led to disaster.

I could continue to rave about this book... but really, all I have to say is this: If you love zombie fiction, this book is a must read.

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review: Push by Sapphire ★★★

Push2.5 Stars

*****This review may contain some vague spoilers******

I love to read gut-wrenching books. Almost everything that I'd heard about this one practically guaranteed that this would be gut-wrenching, so when I saw it, I picked it up.

And I thought the first third of this book was great. Seeing life through Precious's eyes was horrifying. Her turmoil and her pain and frustration and anger were very real to me and I felt like I could identify with the experiences she's had, even though her life is very different from my own. I thought that Sapphire did a great job with the first 1/3 of the book. She did a great job portraying an uneducated girl, sexually abused, hating herself, her mother, her father, not able to trust anyone, desperate for a better life for herself and her kids.

Unfortunately, the middle and last third were not nearly as good. I thought it lost focus a bit in the middle and I wasn't sure where it was going, but mainly I had two major issues... No resolution, and inconsistency of the writing.

This is the kind of book that doesn't really require an ending all tied up in a bow, because we're supposed to infer that Precious will keep fighting and keep trying until she accomplishes her goals. That's fine with me. It's an unresolved, but hopeful, ending. But what I felt was lacking was the resolution of Precious's mental and emotional states.

This is a girl who has been abused in every possible way all of her life, at the hands of both of her parents. The very people who are supposed to protect her are the ones hurting her, and fucking with her head as well, as if it is her fault that the abuse is occurring. Naturally, she has a plethora of issues to work through, but she doesn't trust the therapist assigned to her in the halfway house, so she never works through them. She never even opens up about them in session. She starts to once or twice at outside support groups, but never fully lets anything out. She's described as going into a sort of frozen state - unable to move or speak or do anything... She's just trapped in her own body and mind. I really wanted to see some sort of resolution regarding this aspect, even if it was just that she found a new therapist that she trusts.

It is true that her journal is an outlet, but it's not enough. She needs someone to help her understand what happened to her, to help her understand that it was not her fault, and how to deal with her feelings of abandonment and betrayal and self-loathing, and how to move forward in her life. It is not enough for me to assume that Precious eventually gets her GED and an apartment and a job that doesn't entail changing some elderly person's diapers and that everything is golden from then on... I need for her emotional and mental progress to match her progress with learning to read and write. And it did not. Which is disappointing to me.

And this brings me to the second point that I found disappointing - the inconsistency of the writing. Sapphire wrote this in 1st person, so it is understandable to me that the writing style would mirror the speaking style of someone who is illiterate or just learning to read and write. I expect to see words spelled phonetically, slang, slews of misspellings and errors and incorrect grammar, etc. All of that is expected, and I think that initially, it added a reality to the story it would have lacked had it been written in more formal prose.

But the issue I had is that the writing didn't progress evenly with Precious's education. For instance, most of the book the word "mother" is misspelled as "muver", but early in the book, it's spelled correctly, and then again towards the end, and sprinkled throughout the book is "mutherfucker". Same sound, same word... three different spellings.

Words directly quoted are spelled and written perfectly, but the same words coming out of Precious's mouth are misspelled or slang, etc. I can see this being used to show the disconnect between Precious's situation and the situation of the person she's quoting (educated vs uneducated, etc), but it felt off to me, because this is Precious writing all of this in her book. I don't believe that SHE would have made that choice, or that she'd have even known she could, to write herself one way and other people another way. It seems to me that she would write what other people say the same way she writes what SHE says.

Another example is when she would write back and forth to her teacher, she would write, and her teacher would write the correct version underneath. Some words would be correctly spelled or used, and then almost immediately misspelled again. It was very inconsistent to me, and was distracting.

This book could be very powerful to some people. I can definitely agree with that. It was compelling and I could understand Precious's inner struggle and her will. I loved that. But I found the story to be a bit lacking in a very important aspect, and the writing style to not completely work.

I did really enjoy the final section, the school book section, with the girls' stories. That's some heartbreaking stuff there.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: The Running Man by Stephen King ★★★

The Running ManThe Running Man by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a pretty good story, but quite different from what I'd expected. Of course I knew it was a dystopia, and centered around a game-show, but other than that, I didn't have much idea about the story. I've never seen the movie - and looking at IMDB right now, that's probably a good thing - so I didn't even have those misconceptions to deal with. Ben Richards is not an ex-cop who was wrongfully accused of anything. He was born into the wrong economic situation and grew bitter because of it. Working in a factory known to cause sterility at best, he quit in order to try to have a child... and makes the mistake of telling the truth about why he quit, which blackballs him from finding any other steady work. He and his wife finally succeed in conceiving, but there's still no work to be had, so they have no food, no medicine, barely a place to live, thanks to Ben's wife who prostitutes herself out to try to make ends meet. When the baby gets pneumonia, Ben gets desperate, and signs up with the Network to appear on a game show for money.

The one he makes it on is The Running Man. Here's the deal: 1 man tries to last a full 30 days with a team of hunters chasing him, and the Network setting the citizens against him. If a citizen turns him in and he is killed, that person gets a reward. If he makes it, the contestant gets $1 billion New Dollars. For every hour he remains alive, the contestant (or his family when he's killed) will receive $100 ND. He only has to film 2 10-minute tapes and mail them to the Network every day, or defaults and wins nothing... but is still hunted.

So this is what Bitter Ben signs up for. But he's smart, and his game show experience turns out to be like no other.

This was kind of brutal, but being a Bachman book, that's to be expected. But there was also a kind of 'skim' feel to the story. Things didn't really delve all that deep, like with the pollution and corruption, etc, but it doesn't really NEED to. The context is enough to get it, but it would add a lot if it just had that extra something.

I found myself wondering about the Network. The cynical part of me kept wondering how people could trust their promises to pay and not rig the game. Desperation, I guess. But then I got to thinking about how the Network goes out of its way to demonize the contestants participating in The Running Man, turning everyday citizens into blood-thirsty vigilantes who think that they are working towards a greater good in ridding their country of criminals... and I started thinking, "OK, so, if a contestant makes it the full 30 days, and suppose the Network does stand by its promise to call off their dogs and pay out -- who is to call off the citizens? Those people who've been lied to and manipulated and think that the contestant really is as bad as they've been told? THEY won't stop thinking that the contestant is a criminal just because they were smart and wily enough to evade the hunters for a month... if anything that would reinforce their suspicions that they play by their own rules. It's a losing game all the way through.

Ben definitely plays by his own rules, and the way things work out was not at all what I expected. I thought it was a good ending.

I will say that there were a couple things that I found kind of distracting though. First, King's depiction of the future was a little off, mainly in terms of money. I know he's no fortune teller, but I couldn't help but think that he was using 1970s pricing in the story, and then just labeling it "New Dollars" to make it more futuristic sounding. Things like buying a baby crib mobile for 10 cents. Or getting narcotics for $3. I'd have found it much more believable if he had made the prices of things so ridiculous that a billion dollar prize would have seemed reasonable.

Secondly, as the main hunter, Evan McCone was really disappointing. This guy is supposed to be the most ruthless, the most fearless, the most resourceful and clever killer out there. His job consists of hunting down Running Man contestants and killing them on national TV. But I thought he was pretty... average. *sigh*

Overall, I liked the story, but I can't say that it's a favorite. Definitely worth a read though.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin ★★★★★

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before I read this book, I had read some reviews which had me wondering if this one would be something I'd like, reviews from people whose opinions I trust. I am willing to read anything though, so the book stayed on my "TBR Someday" mental list... Until I decided to read it along with some friends. Friends who then got me so excited to read this that all of my reservations were hanging by a thread and blowing in the breeze.

And I can honestly say that not only did this book not suck, but that I loved it so much that I feel like other books I've loved should now be re-evaluated on this new scale in my head. I love it when a book exceeds my expectations and leaves me kind of lonely afterward because it's over. But luckily, this story isn't over... I've only just begun. SQUEEE!

I'm not going to discuss the story in this review. I wouldn't even know how to do it justice anyway. I will say that it kept me completely enthralled all the way through. Reading this book was less like reading and more like living it vicariously through the characters. I loved the characters, and reading about them had me a bundle of anxiety almost from the very beginning. I HAD to know what would happen, and at one point I had my fists so tightly clenched in nervousness that I left fingernail marks on my palms. One event was so gut wrenching to me that it took about 10 minutes to fully hit me, and then I was lost. I was so angry and shocked and hurt by this event that I had to vent and let it out and I was left seething and miserable... and then the sadness hit.

THIS is the kind of thing I read for. All of those feelings and reactions are why I read. The bar has been raised.

I loved the writing as well. In fact, it worked so well for me that I barely even noticed it - which to me is a great thing. I don't want to notice the writing - I feel like if I do, the author should have done better at making it invisible. The subtleties in the writing were awesome, especially the voices of the characters in their point of view narration - not their dialogue, but their interpretation of things going on around them. The foreshadowing was so perfectly done that I didn't even realize it was being used, even though it was serving its purpose and making me into that little bundle of nerves, until it was mentioned.

I loved this book. I cannot wait until the next one. Fantastic.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck ★★★★

The Good Earth (House of Earth, #1)I probably would never have picked this book up had it not been chosen by a friend for a group read. Honestly, I don't go for Chinese lit very much, but I agreed to read this one, even though I was prepared to be bored at least. But I downloaded the audio version, read by Anthony Heald, and listened to the book while doing some much needed organizational stuff, and it was surprisingly good. I enjoyed the reading so much that I would sometimes stop doing stuff to just listen.

I think that had I read this on my own though, I don't think I'd have enjoyed it as much. There are times when a reader can add a whole lot to the story, and this was one of them. I actually do have an e-copy of the book, and I read along at some parts, and I think that listening to it was a fuller experience for me. Heald just seemed to GET these characters in a way I probably wouldn't have. He almost seemed to channel them so that his reading was borderline dramatization. It wasn't over the top - it was just perfect.

I don't know how much of this accurately represents Chinese culture. I don't know much about it myself, and so I took it all with a grain of salt. I don't particularly care for the attitudes towards women that are generally depicted in Chinese lit, so I don't read very much of it. But even if none of the cultural references are accurate, this was still an engaging and interesting story full of very human characters. At times, I didn't know whether to root for or against the main character, Wang Lung. I initially loved his character, and then as he progressed through life and different situational hardships and prosperity, I found myself mentally crossing my fingers while watching him with a wary eye. I wanted to like him, but sometimes the things he chose to do made that very, very hard. At one point, I was so disappointed in him, that I was shaking with anger at the sheer gall the man had, especially after everything, everything that had happened. That man had some cojones on him, I'll give him that.

I think that my favorite character in the story was O-lan. My heart broke for her. We never really get to know her fully, seeing things through Wang Lung's eyes, and he's not particularly perceptive when it comes to O-lan, or kind when he is, but I loved her. She never gave an inch of her dignity, no matter what her hardship, and she had so many. I was in awe of her, all while my heart hurt for the lack of gratitude she received for everything she gave. She deserved much better.

I found this to be an interesting story about a man's life and the things that he was able to achieve with that life, at the cost of so much, and the fleetingness of it all. I think that's what saddens me the most thinking about this book: we can't take any of it with us. I did enjoy this one, and I think the story will stay with me for a while, if nothing else.