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Book Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (Audiobook narrated by Anna Fields)

July 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Silhouette of a person standing next to a pillar against a yellowish-green sky.Summary:
When the world goes through an apocalypse consisting of virulent strains of the flu, lack of food, and nuclear warfare, one wealthy family manages to survive because they saw it coming.  Made up of highly intelligent and highly educated people, such as doctors and scientists, the family creates a 200 bed hospital and uses this as their home base.  But there is a serious fertility problem, and how they address it just might change the core of humanity.

Review:
I love reading classics of scifi.  It’s endlessly fascinating how different people in different times imagine a future (or an apocalypse).  This award-winning book had the bonus of being written by a woman, which isn’t always easy to find in older scifi.  I also was intrigued by the cloning theme.  How would someone in 1977 view something that was, as yet, nowhere near as close to a reality as it is now, with our cloned sheep?

The book starts out incredibly strongly.  So strongly, in fact, that I actually had nightmares from it, which never happens to me ever. I am basically a rock of horror and scifi, but this one creeped the bejesus out of me.  It’s that creepy combination of incest and cloning.  The family are really not people you would want retooling the world.  They’re everything that can be (and usually is) bad about the 1%.  They’re selfish, self-centered, snobby, and routinely employ nepotism.  I found the incest in the first third of the book talking about the first generation of the family to be an interesting metaphor for how the elite can become so backwards and grotesque from sheer isolation.  It’s powerful and moving, and a scenario that will remain in my mind.

The second third of the book focuses in on a woman, Molly, from the first generation of clones.  This is disturbing in its own way, because they don’t just clone everyone once and have done with it, no.  They clone everyone multiple times until there are clusters of the same person at different ages wandering around.  They call these clusters “brothers” and “sisters” with the name of the original person as the name of the group, even though the individual ones have their own names.  It is profoundly disturbing.  This second third looks at the society of clones that the original family unintentionally made.  It’s fascinating in its own way and an interesting different way of telling a post-apocalypse story.  Often we get only the first generation, but here we get multiple generations.

The last third, unfortunately, didn’t live up to the first two-thirds of the book.  Without giving too much away, it looks at a boy who came about by natural methods who gets integrated into the clone society at the age of five.  They decide not to clone him and give him brothers for unclear reasons.  This last third then looks at his impact on the clone society.  I didn’t feel that this worked as well for multiple reasons.  For one, it’s almost as if Wilhelm freaked herself out and backed off from the profoundly disturbing story she was telling and went a more conventional direction.  That was disappointing.  For another, I found it disappointing that she chose to make this game-changer a boy.  I expect women scifi authors to be at least a bit cognizant of the need in scifi for more female main characters.  In this one, the first third is a man, the second third a woman, and the last third a boy.  That is not the best stats from a woman author.  I also found certain parts of this to be very boring and slow-moving compared to the first two-thirds.  That makes for odd pacing in a book.

Of course, my complaints about the last third backing off, being more conventional, and being rather dull don’t take away from the first two thirds at all.  They bring about so many interesting societal questions.  For instance, is the incestuous nature of the elite necessarily bad or will it one day save humanity?  Will cloning remove something that makes us human, even if they look right?  Is it better to cling on to technology at all costs or release it and go back to simpler times?  And what about sex?  Is monogamy natural and polyamory unnatural?  Or is polyamory more welcoming and loving than potentially possessive monogamy? The questions go on and on, which is what is great about scifi.

As for the science itself, it is quite well-done.  Wilhelm clearly thought through both keeping a closed-off community alive and cloning and bringing to term embryos.  She also put thought into the scientific basis for why clusters of clones would be different from individual humans, touching on psychology and twin studies.  I was a bit irritated that she bases the survival of these people on cloning farm animals, when that is not a good use of their limited land resources.  Studies have shown many many times that a combination of farming vitamin-rich plants and hunting/gathering are the best use of limited land resources, so this particular element rang a bit of bad science.  However, I am not certain how much land usage had been studied in the 1970s, so that could possibly just be a sign of the times.

Now, I did read the audiobook, so I should touch on the narration.  Overall, Anna Fields does a very good job.  I really enjoyed that they chose a female narrator for a book written by a female author.  It let me almost imagine that Kate Wilhelm herself was reading it to me.  Fields mostly strikes a good balance of changing voices for different characters without going over the top.  The one exception to this is when she narrates children.  The voice for that made me cringe, but they mercifully speak only a few times.  Mostly, Fields reads smoothly and is easy to follow.  She narrates without accidentally putting her own interpretation onto the work, which is ideal for an audiobook.

Overall, then, this is a fascinating classic of scifi.  It examines the apocalypse through the lens of the elite, thereby analyzing and critiquing them, but it also looks at possible consequences of cloning and ponders what ultimately makes us human.  Although the last third of the book is a bit less creative and more conventional than the first two, it is still a fascinating read.  Recommended to scifi fans, particularly those with an interest in group dynamics.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Friday Fun! (In Which I Take Back Up Counted Cross-Stitching and Blog Tour Updates)

July 27, 2012 4 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

I’ve been trying to keep things kind of quiet in my non-work life right now, since work is so busy with the beginning of the medical school academic year.  So I don’t have too terribly much to tell you except that I now have something besides cooking and cleaning that I’m doing when listening to audiobooks.  I’ve taken back up counted cross-stitching.

I’ve been searching for a crafty/productive hobby for a bit now.  Knitting could only progress as far as scarves before things started to get thrown across the room.  I couldn’t even learn how to do one stitch in crocheting.  I knew I was capable of counted cross-stitching (and embroidery) because it was forced upon me….er, I learned it as a kid.  However, I had this perception of it as being something steeped in old lady and overtly religious patterns.  And then I saw something on tumblr.

It was a counted cross-stitch that quoted Fight Club saying, “Condoms are the glass slipper of our generation,” and had a glass slipper on the bottom.  I about died laughing.  And then I discovered the world of punk stitching, which is what the non-traditional stitchers call it.  I was immediately excited and intrigued.

So I picked up a cross-stitching kit (before getting into designing my own patterns or buying other homemade patterns) to make sure that I wasn’t misremembering my abilities.  After much hunting I found a wintry wolf scene that I thought would go well in my Native American themed bedroom area in my tiny apartment.  I completed 400 stitches the first time I sat down. And I was remembering correctly. This is something I am good at!  This is something that bafflingly relaxes me!  All the counting and organizing that I so adore, and I wind up with prettiness!  I am beyond excited about this rediscovered hobby, as my new pinterest board of patterns probably demonstrates. :-)

In Waiting For Daybreak blog tour news, this was quite an exciting week!  It’s the fullest week of the tour we’ve had so far, and the variety of blogs visited was super-fun for me.

From Me To You… had previously reviewed my novella, Ecstatic Evil, and I was so glad she agreed to participate in the tour for my new, decidedly not paranormal romance, book.  She conducted an awesome interview with me that features pictures to enhance various answers plus she was the first to ask me who I would cast in a movie as Frieda and Mike.  On the same entry as the interview, she reviews the book, saying, “This is one high-intensity novel that will hold you until the end.”

The Paperback Pursuer offered up a review stating, “I was blown away by Amanda McNeil’s ability to develop such a unique and troubled character who every reader can relate to on some level.”

Kelsey’s Cluttered Bookshelf has an interview with me up where you can find out things like my future writing goals and advice for other writers.  She is also offering a giveaway!

Bookishly Me also has an interview up in which I talk about the research I conducted for the book, among other things.

Last but certainly not least, Fangs for the Fantasy offers up a review from a social justice perspective stating, “But even better than a realistic and well-presented depiction of mental illness, we also have it become a strength in the zombie apocalypse.”

A big thank you again to all of the participants!  I’m so glad folks have been enjoying the tour so far.

Happy weekends!

Book Review: The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King (Series, #4.5)

July 26, 2012 4 comments

Tiger in a cage overlooking a gorge.Summary:
There’s a tale we have yet to hear about the ka-tet in the time between facing the man in the green castle and the wolves of the Calla.  A time when the ka-tet hunkered down and learned a special billy-bumbler talent, an old tale of Gilead, and the first task Roland faced as a young gunslinger after the events at Mejis.

Review:
When I heard there was going to be a new Dark Tower book, I had basically three reactions. 1) Yay! 2) Shit he better not ruin them. 3) Guess I didn’t actually finish that series after all, did I? May have written the series review a bit too soon…..

But mainly my reaction was a skeptical excitement.  I love the world of the Dark Tower and was ecstatic to be able to get more of it (yes, I know there are the young gunslinger comic books, but they feel slightly less the same to me since they are in a different format).  However, I was also terrified because well we’ve all been in an instance where we mess with something that was good to the point where it’s not good anymore, right?  I was worried King was going to do that to the Dark Tower.  I am so so so happy to be able to say that worry was unfounded.

This book goes to show just how clearly the entire world of the Dark Tower series exists in King’s mind.  The format is a story within a story within a story.  The ka-tet have to hunker down to wait out a storm, so Roland starts to tell them a story from when he was a young gunslinger.  Within that story, the young Roland tells someone else an old story of Gilead.  The Gilead story wraps up, then the young gunslinger, then the ka-tet.  A writer must know his world very well to be able to handle such a structure smoothly without confusing his reader, and King does just that.  There was no confusion and each story felt fully told. Or as fully told as anything is in the world of the Dark Tower.

I’ve said before that every book in the series basically is a different genre, which is part of what makes it so fun.  So what genre is this one?  I’d say it’s fairy tales. Once upon a times.  And fairy tales generally have a lesson to be learned within them, so what is it in these three?  Well, they vary, but I would say overall it’s about leaving aside childish things and childish ways to become an adult.  (And, I might add, that happens much much earlier in the Dark Tower than it does in our particular world).

I will say, although I certainly had the impression that this book was going to be about Jake and Oy, it really isn’t.  It isn’t much about the ka-tet at all.  It’s about Roland and the role of billy-bumblers in the world.  Although, personally I wanted more billy-bumblers, but I *always* want more billy-bumblers, because they are definitely my favorite fantastical creature.  I’m still holding out hope that King will write something sometime entirely about Oy or billy-bumblers.  But this book is not it.

That said, I was oddly not disappointed to see far less of the ka-tet than I was expecting, because the two stories within the frame of the ka-tet are so strongly told.  They are just….wow. Terrifying, horrifying, unpredictable, and hilarious simultaneously.

That’s the thing that makes any Dark Tower book fun.  It contains all of those things.

Lines can go from laugh out loud humor (with a touch of truth):

Turn yer ears from their promises and yer eyes from their titties. (page 43)

To the starkly sad truth:

Those were good years, but as we know—from stories and from life—the good years never last long. (page 110)

To the simply universal:

“What if I fail?” Tim cried.
Maerlyn laughed. “Sooner or later, we all do.” (page 255)

*shrugs* I admit I’m a bit of a fan girl of the series, but even a fan girl can be sorely disappointed, and I was really and truly not disappointed at all.  I laughed, I nodded, I wondered, I quaked, I wished for an illustration sometime somewhere of billy-bumblers dancing in a clearing in the moonlight.  Although, speaking of illustrations, how gorgeous is the US kindle cover?! So fucking gorgeous, that’s how.

Back to the point, I was not disappointed at all. I was ultimately elated and wishing for more. And other fans will be too.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Books in Series:
I’m listing all of the books so you can easily see where The Wind Through the Keyhole falls.
The Gunslinger (review)
The Drawing of the Three (review)
The Waste Lands (review)
Wizard and Glass (review)
The Wind Through the Keyhole
Wolves of the Calla (review)
Song of Susannah (review)
The Dark Tower (review)
Series Review (written before we knew there would be more)

Book Review: The Walking Dead Volume 15 by Robert Kirkman (Series, #8) (Graphic Novel)

July 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Blueish snowy walking dead cover with zombies.Summary:
Everyone’s world was rocked when the zombies got through the community’s fence.  Will they respond by banding together or falling apart?

Review:
Ok, before I review, the numberings need a bit of explanation.  Comic books are issued very similarly to academic journals. So there are skinny issues that come out every few weeks (generally). A few of these bound together make a volume. A bunch of these bound together make a book (what we call in academia a “bound journal.”)  I *was* reading the books of The Walking Dead but then I caught up to the author.  I decided I didn’t want to buy issues, because they’re flimsy and you read through them very quickly, so I’m now reading the volumes.  I hope that makes some semblance of sense.  This will probably be the case throughout the rest of the series, because you have to wait a long time for the books, and I just am too impatient for that.  My reviews will then be much shorter, because a book contains a few volumes, and I am now reviewing one volume at a time.  Moving right along to the review!

This volume is basically cleaning up the mess from the action of the previous one and prepping for the action of the next one.  Classic in-between chapter.  What this volume really reminded me of is the infamous “Live together or die alone” speech by Jack in Lost.  In fact, this volume sees Rick basically trying to turn into Jack and failing miserably.  Long-time readers know I’ve never liked the guy, so personally I got a lot of schadenfreude out of seeing him be so pathetic in this volume.

That said, the survivors are definitely going for a new strategy, which will lend itself well to future fresh storylines, which any long-running series needs.

Fans of the sex will be quite happy with the developments in that area. Drama! Intrigue! Changes of partners!

Overall, it’s an enjoyable entry, if not mind-blowing, that perfectly sets things up for the next volume. Fans won’t be disappointed!

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Newbury Comics

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Previous Books in Series:
The Walking Dead, Book One (review)
The Walking Dead, Book Two (review)
The Walking Dead, Book Three (review)
The Walking Dead, Book Four (review)
The Walking Dead, Book Five (review)
The Walking Dead, Book Six (review)
The Walking Dead, Book Seven (review)

Book Review: Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh (Audiobook narrated by Erik Davies)

July 24, 2012 3 comments

Blue/green cover featuring a man wearing a gas mask.Summary:
Jasper can’t believe he’s actually homeless, although a lot more people are homeless now than used to be.  But still. He got his BA in sociology. He’s worked hard. How did this happen?  He’s living with a tribe of other 20-somethings.  They keep hoping things will get better, but somehow they just seem to keep getting worse.  The economy doesn’t improve. Home-grown terrorists known as Jumpy-jumps start routinely terrorizing people.  Driving anywhere, having dependable food, actual working police forces, they’re all a thing of the past.  Not all apocalypses happen overnight.

Review:
I actually hesitated over keeping this book on my wishlist, but I’m very glad I did.  I found it to be not quite what I was expecting.  In a good way.

I think a lot of men in particular will enjoy it, because it kind of reminds me of a Judd Apatow film.  There’s this complete and utter loser guy who you entirely hate (and I suspect McIntosh hates too) but who is just so damn funny you keep reading it.  A lot of apocalypse books focus in on a strong leader type, but Jasper is actually a coward who just keeps trying to squeak by.  On top of that, he claims to be looking for true love, but is actually completely lacking in any understanding of women.  One of his “apt” observations, for instance, consists of stating to a guy friend, “Have you noticed that fat women have been getting hotter?” He’s trying to say that the more starvation threatens, the more attracted he is to women who obviously have enough to eat.  But he isn’t philosophical about it at all, and that’s kind of hilarious.  He also tries to impress a girl at one point by commenting on the fact that she’s reading a book, but he says it in such a way that it’s obvious he himself doesn’t read at all, which is utterly baffling in a world that no longer has electricity or other entertainment.  Basically the whole book is laughing at a cowardly dude-bro, and that’s fun.

The apocalypse itself is quite creative.  As the title and blurb imply, it’s a slow one.  Gradual.  Things get bad and just never get better then more things get bad.  It’s a creative mix of economics, homegrown terrorist groups, scientists trying to make things better but actually making it worse, and international politics.  None of it came across as utterly absurd or ridiculous, which shows that McIntosh did a good job.

There are two scenes that are truly horrific, which of course I loved.  There’s a very creative death scene that I think will haunt me for a long time.  (Again, that’s a good thing).  The plot overall is a bit meandering, but that makes sense since Jasper isn’t the most focused or proactive dude on the planet.  I’m a little sad the book ended when it did.  I get why McIntosh ended it there, leaving things open-ended for readers, but….I could have read about Jasper much much longer.  Yes, he’s a guy I would hate beyond all reason in real life, but I guess that schadenfreude factor is what makes the book so fun.

Now, I did read the audiobook, and I have to say I was very disappointed in the narration by Erik Davies.  It does not live up to the content of the book at all.  My main problem with him is that he does that awful thing of putting on what he thinks is a woman’s voice every time one of them speaks, but what actually sounds like a small child and nothing like us.  I actually had to stop and rewind a couple of times to double-check if I was angry at how the book was portraying women or if the narrator was making it seem like the book was portraying women as childish idiots.  Suffice to say, it’s definitely the narration, not the book.  Yes, Jasper objectifies women and basically calls any woman who doesn’t fit into his definition of what a woman should be “crazy,” but the whole book is laughing at him, so really the book is showing how ridiculous it is to view women like that.  The narrator reading women in this childish voice really messes with that whole presentation.  So, definitely don’t get the audiobook.

Overall, then, this is a fun apocalyptic scifi featuring a cowardly loser who is delightful to follow and laugh at.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans who also enjoy slacker flicks, but definitely get the print or ebook versions, not the audio.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummins (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

July 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Boy's legs dangling from a branch.Summary:
Christy is a Traveller, what Irish gypsies call themselves, in the 1950s.  He’s eleven, and his family is about to stay in one town for a whole 40 days and 40 nights for Lent so he and his cousin, Martin, can get ready for confirmation.  Christy has always thought his mam died giving birth to him, but when his grandda dies, he finds a newspaper clipping that shows his mam holding him when he’s months old.  Thus begins a quest to find out who he really is.

Review:
The particular copy I read I won on a book blog somewhere (I’m afraid I didn’t write down the name), but I also received an ARC during one of the holiday swaps one year.  It’s interesting to me, then, that this book wound up on my tbr pile both because I was interested and because someone else thought I would enjoy it.  And of course I did.

It is honestly, immediately abundantly clear that Christy’s mother isn’t a Pavee (a Traveller).  I was thus skeptical that the story would hold my interest, since predictable ones don’t tend to.  I am pleased to say that I was wrong about this on both counts.  Although it’s true that Christy’s mother isn’t a Traveller, everything else about her and Christy’s history is actually quite surprising and moving.  I’m glad I stuck with it.

The book examines many different issues, some universal and others specific to Irish history.  There of course is the issue of identity.  Who we are and what makes us that. Is it nature or nurture?  The often tough relationship between fathers and sons during the son’s adolescence is also wonderfully presented.  Of course a book about gypsies also addresses prejudice, stereotyping, and the norm.  Cummins doesn’t sugar coat things.  She shows the positive and negative aspects of Traveller culture, which is as it should be.  No culture is all perfect or all bad.  What the book does a great job of doing is showing how kids learn prejudice and how multiculturalism can enrich everyone’s lives.  Some people are one way and some another, and neither is necessarily bad.  The book also touches on the animosity between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, as well as the very real issue of Irish society stealing babies from single mothers in that time period.  I know that sounds like a lot, and honestly I’m surprised now that it’s all listed out at how much was touched upon.  Cummins strikes the perfect balance of touching on real issues without ever seeming pushy or forced.

Although the storyline and characters are good, it didn’t 100% draw me in.  I think it moves a bit too slowly for me in the first half or so of the book.  I also, honestly, struggled to like Christy.  I eventually came to understand his viewpoint and choices, but I still find him kind of annoying.  His father, on the other hand, is incredibly interesting and wonderful, and I kind of wish we had a book about him instead of about Christy.  But, some readers enjoy more slowly paced books and others might relate better to Christy than I did.  It just personally is what made it a book I liked but didn’t love.

Overall, this book is an interesting entry in historic Irish fiction.  It looks at Ireland in the 1950s through the eyes of a small band of gypsies, which is certainly a unique viewpoint.  The writing is fluid, if a bit slow-moving, and the plot is not as predictable as it seems at first.  Recommended to fans of historic fiction and works set in Ireland.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Won on a book blog (If it was yours, let me know, and I’ll link to you!)

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Friday Fun! (Six Books/Six Months Meme and Blog Tour Updates)

July 20, 2012 5 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

This week I saw a new meme over on Jessica’s blog, The Bookworm Chronicles, and I immediately knew I’d want to participate.  And what better place than in Friday Fun, eh?  The Book Jotter created it after realizing we’re actually halfway through the year already (already!), so the theme is answers to the questions/categories in sixes.

Six New Authors to Me:

  1. S. A. Archer
  2. Kat Falls
  3. Steve Vernon
  4. David Anthony Durham
  5. Brandon Shire
  6. Susan Mallery

Six Authors I Have Read Before

  1. Brian K. Vaughan
  2. Robert Kirkman
  3. Joseph Robert Lewis
  4. Anne Rice
  5. Margaret Atwood
  6. Ann Brashares

Six Authors I Am Looking Forward To Reading More Of:

  1. Tera W. Hunter
  2. Joann Sfar
  3. Richelle Mead
  4. M. J. Rose
  5. Isaac Marion
  6. Roger Thurow

Six Books I Have Enjoyed the Most:

  1. To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter (review)
  2. Dark Life by Kat Falls (review)
  3. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (review)
  4. Acacia by David Anthony Durham (review)
  5. Vegan Vittles by Jo Stepaniak (review)
  6. The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow (review)

Six Books I Was Disappointed With:

  1. The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice (review)
  2. Living Cuisine: The Art and Spirit of Raw Foods by Renee Loux Underkoffler (review)
  3. Nano House: Innovations for Small Dwellings by Phyllis Richardson (review)
  4. The Child Who by Simon Lelic (review)
  5. To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron (review)
  6. Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (review)

Six Series of Books Read or Started:

  1. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
  2. Touched by S. A. Archer
  3. Dark Life by Kat Falls
  4. The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman
  5. Georgina Kincaid by Richelle Mead
  6. The Reincarnationist by M. J. Rose

Phew! That was actually pretty tough to assemble. Super fun though! It’s always interesting to see your reading over a period of time summed up in different types of lists.

Now, it’s time for the Waiting For Daybreak blog tour updates (blog tour page)!  This was the first full week of the tour, and it’s really been quite fun so far.

Earth’s Book Nook hosted a guest post in which I talk about why I made “What is normal?” the theme of the novel and tour.  She is also hosting a giveaway!

The Chronicles of an Enamored Soul posted her review, and she said, “The reason it gets FIVE STARS, is because I simply loved how well-realized, and well-developed author McNeil’s characters were, ESPECIALLY Frieda. Amanda writes about mental illness with sensitivity, and yet never fails to make it interesting.”

Tabula Rasa‘s review said, “The book is, on the one hand packed with thrill and action, and on the other, has a very emotional and thought-provoking side. What I really appreciated was how none of it is overdone; I specially liked the subtlety of the relationship between Mike and Frieda.”

Tabula Rasa also hosted an interview!  Be sure to check that out to find out everything from whether plot or characters come first in my writing to what my next project is.

Nicki J Markus also interviewed me.  Check that out to find out what my favorite zombie book and zombie movie are.

Last but not least, Nicki J Markus is also hosting a giveaway.  Two chances to win this week!

Thanks once again to all the participating blogs!

Finally, happy weekends to all my lovely readers!  What did you think of the meme?  Any surprises or thoughts?

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