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Book Review: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

November 25, 2014 5 comments

cover_lifeSummary:
Miranda’s journal starts out like any other teenage girl’s diary.  Worries about school, her after-curricular activities, and wondering how her family will work out with her dad having a brand-new baby with his new wife.  But when a meteor strikes the moon things start to change.  Slowly at first but with ever-increasing speed.  Tsunamis wipe out the coasts. Volcanoes erupt. And soon Miranda finds herself, her mother, and her two brothers struggling to survive in a world that increasingly bares no resemblance to the one she once knew.

Review:
I’m a sucker for journal entry books, even though I know rationally that no diary ever has as much content and exposition as is contained in these fictional works.  In addition to the journal format, I liked the premise for the dystopian world Miranda finds herself in.  It’s very different from a lot of the other ones out there, since it’s 100% gradual natural disaster.  This book lives up to the expectations set by its summary, offering a fun journal entry take on a natural disaster that turns into a dystopia.

Miranda, who lives in semi-suburban Pennsylvania, starts out the journal as a very average teenage girl, adapting to her parents’ divorce and father’s subsequent re-marriage, her older brother being away for his first year of college, and hoping to convince her mother to let her take up ice skating again.  The book clearly yet subtly shows her development from this young, carefree teenager through angst and denial and selfishness in the face of the disaster to finally being a young woman willing to make sacrifices for her family.  Miranda is written quite three-dimensionally.  She neither handles the disaster perfectly nor acts too young for her age.  While she sometimes is mature and sees the bigger picture at other times she simply wants her own room and doesn’t understand why she can’t have that.  Pfeffer eloquently shows how the changes force Miranda to grow up quickly, and this is neither demonized nor elevated on a pedestal.  Miranda’s character development is the best part of the book, whether the reader likes her the best at the beginning, middle or end, it’s still fascinating to read and watch.

Miranda also doesn’t have the perfect family or the perfect parents, which is nice to see a piece of young adult literature.  Her parents try, but they make a lot of mistakes.  Miranda’s mother becomes so pessimistic about everything that she starts to hone in on the idea of only one of them surviving, being therefore tougher on Miranda and her older brother than on the youngest one.  Miranda’s father chooses to leave with his new wife to go find her parents, a decision that is perhaps understandable but still feels like total abandonment to Miranda.  Since Miranda is the middle child, she also has a lot of conflict between being not the youngest and so sheltered from as much as possible and also not the oldest so not treated as a semi-equal by her mother like her oldest brother is.  This imperfect family will be relatable to many readers.

Miranda’s mother is staunchly atheist/agnostic/humanist and liberal, and this seeps into Miranda’s journal.  For those looking for a non-religious take on disaster to give to a non-religious reader or a religious reader looking for another perspective on how to handle disasters, this is a wonderful addition to the YA dystopian set. However, if a reader has the potential to be offended by a disaster without any reliance on god or liberal leanings spelled out in the text, they may want to look elsewhere.

I know much more about medical science than Earth science or astronomy, but I will say that when I was reading this book, the science of it seemed a bit ridiculous.  An asteroid knocks the moon out of orbit (maybe) so the tides rise (that makes sense) and magma gets pulled out of the Earth causing volcanoes and volcanic ash leading to temperature drops Earth-wide (whaaaat).  So I looked it up, and according to astronomers, an asteroid is too small to hit the moon out of orbit.  If it was large enough to, it would destroy the moon in the process.  Even if for some reason scientists were wrong and the moon could be knocked out of orbit, even in that scenario, the only thing that would happen would be the tides would be higher.  (source 1, source 2)  I know dystopian lit is entirely what if scenarios, but I do generally prefer them to be based a bit more strongly in science.  I would recommend that reading this book thus be accompanied by some non-fiction reading on astronomy and volcanology.  At the very least, it’s good to know that you can safely tell young readers that this most likely would not happen precisely this way, and this book is a great opening dialogue on disasters and disaster preparedness.

Overall, this is a fun take on the dystopian YA genre, featuring the journal of the protagonist and dystopia caused primarily by nature rather than humans.  Potential readers should be aware that the science of this disaster is a bit shaky.  The story featuring an agnostic humanist post-divorce family makes it a welcome diversifying addition to this area of YA lit.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Reading Challenge Wrap-up: Reading Challenge: R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril (RIP) IX

October 30, 2014 3 comments

Banner for the RIP IX challenge.Hello my lovely readers!

Tomorrow marks the official end of Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings’ RIP Challenge, and since I know that I will not be finishing another read for the challenge, I decided to post my wrap-up today.

I got really into the reading challenge this year, as I’m sure you could tell from the influx of creepy books on my blog!  Most of the books I read over the last two months fit into the parameters of the challenge, which is to read something sufficiently creepy in any of the following genres to set the tone for Halloween:

Mystery.
Suspense.
Thriller.
Dark Fantasy.
Gothic.
Horror.
Supernatural.
Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

I read a total of 10 books for the challenge.  I’ll break the list down by rating for you all.

5 star reads

4 star reads

3 star reads

2 star reads

Superlatives

Of these 10 reads, 3 were review copies and 3 fit into my Bottom of the TBR Pile Challenge.  As for format, 4 were print, 4 were ebooks, and 2 were audiobooks.  A nice distribution, I think!

The challenge really put me in the mood for Halloween.  It maybe did too good of a job!  I’m ready for some light-hearted romances now, people. Lol.  The focused selection of reading materials really helped me take a good chunk out of my TBR pile, which I appreciated.  Stay tuned in November for a return to the wide variety of reading you’ve come to expect here at Opinions of a Wolf!

Did you enjoy seeing me participate in the challenge?  Did you participate in the challenge too?  What was your favorite review I wrote for the challenge?

Book Review: Brains: A Zombie Memoir by Robin Becker (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

October 28, 2014 1 comment

Brains: A Zombie Memoir by Robin BeckerSummary:
Jack Barnes once was a college professor, but now he’s a zombie.  A zombie who can think.  Think, but not talk.  He can, however, still write.  So he keeps a memoir of his quest to gather other thinking zombies and bring their case for equality to their creator, the man who started the whole zombie outbreak.

Review:
I picked this up during the height of the zombie craze in the used book basement of a local bookstore for dirt cheap.  (It looked brand new but only cost a couple of dollars).  I’m glad I got it so cheap, because this book failed to deliver the sympathetic zombies I was looking for.

The idea of thinking zombies who challenge the question of what makes us human is interesting and is one multiple authors have explored before.  It’s not easy to make cannibalizing corpses empathetic.  Zombies are so naturally not empathetic that to craft one the reader can relate to is a challenge.  Without at least one zombie character the reader empathizes with, though, this whole idea of maybe zombies are more than they seem will fail.  And this is where this book really flounders.  Jack was a horrible person, and he’s a terrible zombie.  And this is a real problem when he narrates a whole book whose plot revolves around zombies demanding equal treatment.  Jack is a snob, through and through.  It feels as if every other sentence out of his mouth is him looking down upon someone or something.  This would be ok if he grew over the course of the novel.  If his new zombie state taught him something about walking in another person’s shoes.  But no.  He remains exactly the same throughout the book.  He has zero character growth away from the douchey snobby professor who looks down on literally everyone, including those within his own circle.  This isn’t a mind it’s fun or even enlightening to get inside of.  It’s just annoying.  As annoying as fingernails on a chalkboard.

The plot is ok.  Jack gathers other thinking zombies and heads for Chicago to find the man who created the zombie virus and convince him to advocate for them.  Their standoff is interesting and entertaining.  But the ending beyond this standoff is unsatisfying.

It also bugs me that this is a memoir written by this guy but it is never clear how this memoir made it into the reader’s hands.  With a fictional memoir, I need to know how I supposedly am now reading something so personal.  I also had trouble suspending my disbelief that a slow zombie managed to have time to write such descriptive passages crouched in a corner at night.

Overall, this is an interesting concept that is poorly executed with an unsympathetic main character.  Recommended that readers looking for a zombie memoir pick up Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament by SG Browne instead (review).

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Book Review: From a Buick 8 by Stephen King (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

October 9, 2014 3 comments

cover_buick8Summary:
When Pennsylvania state troopers are called in for an abandoned car, they expect it to be a simple report and transfer to impound. But instead they find a car that is slightly off.  It looks like a Buick 8 but isn’t quite one.  Plus its engine by all laws of mechanics should not work.  The troopers agree to make the Buick their responsibility, putting it in a shed and keeping an eye on it.  Because it’s not just a car. It might not be a car at all.

Review:
I was told before I read this by other Stephen King fans that it’s not one of King’s better books, but I would like to read everything he has written, so I picked it up anyway.  This is a book that builds thrills slowly and gently to a conclusion that may not seem satisfying to many readers.

The biggest thing that I think took the thrills out of the book for me is that I am not a car person.  When the narrator was describing the Buick 8, I had no idea any of it was off at all, so it didn’t give me the creeps.  When they first describe the engine, for instance, I was surprised they were freaked out by it because it just seemed like a mysterious engine to me….like all engines.  I definitely think there are more thrills to be found here if the reader is a car person.  A car person will get caught up in what’s awry with the Buick, and see it as the mystery that the state troopers recognize it to be immediately.

What this book excels at is what King always excels at.  The book establishes the place and feeling of rural Pennsylvania beautifully.  The characters all speak in accurate and easily readable dialogue.  There is a large assortment of characters, and they are easy to tell apart.  The timeline of the book is carefully selected for just the right tempo for the book.  These are all wonderful things that kept me reading and made me engaged with characters I might not normally identify with.

Some readers might find that the plot and thrills move too slowly for them.  The Buick has issues gradually over time, and the conclusion they build to might not feel like a satisfying conclusion for all readers.  Personally, I enjoy slower moving thrillers, so this worked for me, but it might not work for all.  Similarly, I believe the ending will be more satisfying to those who have read the entire Dark Tower series than to those who have not.  What is going on with the Buick is more understandable and a bigger deal if the reader is aware of all of the context provided by the Dark Tower.

Overall, if you are a car person who will appreciate a car that is slightly off and also enjoys slowly moving thrillers enhanced by a strong sense of place, this will be a great read for you.  Similarly, those who have read the Dark Tower may be interested in this book due to some possible connections to that series.  If neither of those descriptions fit you, you may want to pick up a different Stephen King book for your thrills.  He certainly has plenty to choose from.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Counts For:
Banner for the RIP IX challenge.

Book Review: Breed by Chase Novak (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Peter Ganim)

October 2, 2014 5 comments

Red outline of a woman's pregnant body against a black backgroundSummary:
When Leslie married Alex, she knew they both agreed on wanting children.  What she didn’t realize, though, was how fiercely Alex, the last son in a long line of wealthy and powerful New Yorkers, would want only their own biological children.  He’s willing to try anything to get them biological children, and she feels she can’t deny him one last-ditch effort with a doctor in Slovenia that a couple from their infertility support group swears worked for them.  And the woman has the baby bump to prove it.  So they fly off to Slovenia, and from the first instant in the doctor’s office, Leslie feels that something just isn’t right….

Review:
I’m a real sucker for evil pregnancy/children stories.  Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen are two of my favorite movies.  So when I heard about this new take on a classic trope, I knew I had to try it out.  The book ends up being much less about pregnancy and more about the perils of genetic modification, providing an interesting twist on the evil pregnancy trope that carries out through the childhood of the babies that were conceived.

Essentially, the parents’ genetics were so messed up by the treatments performed by the doctor that they start turning into something different from human.  Something a bit more animalistic.  The children, of course, also have some of this animalistic genetics, but most of the differences don’t show up until puberty.  This allows the children to be innocents for most of the book while their parents have gone off the rails from their very first treatment.  My favorite part of this book is how it offers a smart critique of pushing our bodies to do something they don’t want to do.  Where is that line?  How far should we push things with science and at what point will using science make us something different from human?  And is that something different going to necessarily be better?  Leslie clearly feels that her children were ultimately worth everything she, her husband, and their bodies went through, but the book itself leaves the answer to that question up to the reader.

Beyond this concept, though, the actual execution of the characterizations and the plot get a bit messy.  The writing can sometimes wander off onto tangents or become repetitive.  Some aspects of the plot are explored too much whereas others are glossed over too quickly.  The book starts out tightly written and fast-paced but toward the end of the book the plot gets disjointed and goes a bit off the rails.  Part of the issue is a bit of a lack of continuity regarding just how messed up Leslie and Alex actually are by the treatments.  Are they still at all human or are they completely untrustworthy?  Is there any possibility of redemption for them?  At first both seem equally far gone but then Leslie seems to pull back from the edge a bit, thanks to a MacGuffin.  It’s hard to be frightened of the situation if the frightening aspect of the parents comes and goes at will.

Similarly, in spite of the book wanting us to root for Alice and Adam (the twins Leslie and Alex have), it’s hard to really feel for them when they come across as extraordinarily two-dimensional, particularly Alice.  Children characters can be written in a well-rounded way, and when it’s well-done, it’s incredible.  Here, though, Alice and Adam seem to mostly be fulfilling the role of children and not of fully fleshed characters.

Most of these issues are more prevalent in the second half of the book, so it’s no surprise the ending is a bit odd and feels like it leaves the reader hanging.  I was surprised to find out there’s a sequel, as I thought this was a standalone book.  On the one hand I’m glad there’s another one, because the story isn’t finished.  On the other, I’m not a fan of such total cliffhanger endings.

Overall, the first half of the book offers up a thrilling and horrifying critique of just how far people should be willing to go to get pregnant.  The second half, however, is not as tightly plotted and drops the well-rounded characterization found in the first half of the book.  Recommended to pregnancy and/or genetic modification horror enthusiasts who may be interested in a different twist but won’t be disappointed by a cliffhanger ending.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Counts For:
Banner for the RIP IX challenge.

Book Review: Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

September 19, 2014 6 comments

A woman's jawline and neck are viewed through a shattered glass.Summary:
Annie O’Sullivan extremely forcefully declares in her first therapy session that she doesn’t want her therapist to talk back to her; she just wants her to listen.  And so, through multiple sessions, she slowly finds a safe space to recount her horrible abduction from an open house she was running as an up-and-rising realtor, her year spent as the prisoner of her abductor, and of her struggles both to deal with her PTSD now that she’s free again and to deal with the investigation into her abduction.

Review:
I was intrigued by the concept of this book.  Yes, it’s another abduction story, but wrapping it in the therapy sessions after she escapes was an idea I had not seen before.  So when I saw this on sale for the kindle, I snatched it up.  I’m glad I did, because this is a surprisingly edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Stevens deals with the potential issue of back-and-forth with the therapist by having Annie say in her first session that in order to feel safe talking about what happened to her, she needs the therapist to say very little back to her.  It is acknowledged that the therapist says some things to Annie, but it appears that she waits to talk until the end of the session when Annie is done talking.  What the therapist says isn’t recorded but Annie does sometimes respond to what she suggested in later sessions.  This set-up has the potential to be clunky, but Stevens handled it quite eloquently.  It always reads smoothly.

The plot itself starts out as a basic abducted/escaped one, with most of the thriller aspects of the first half of the book coming from slowly finding out everything that happened to Annie when she was abducted.  The second half is where the plot really blew me away, though.  The investigation into her kidnapping turns extremely exciting and terrifying.  I don’t want to give too much away.  Suffice to say that I wasn’t expecting most of the thrills to come from the investigation after the kidnapping and yet they did.

Annie is well-developed. Her PTSD is written with a deep understanding of it.  For instance, she both needs human connection and is (understandably) terrified of it, so she pushes people away.  Stevens shows Annie’s PTSD in every way, from how she talks to her therapist to how she behaves now to subtle comparisons to how she used to be before she was traumatized.

Other characters are well-rounded enough to seem like real people, including her abductor, yet it also never seems like Annie is describing them with more information than she would logically have.

I do want to take just a moment to let potential readers know that there are graphic, realistic descriptions of rape.  Similarly, the end of the book may be triggering for some.  I cannot say why without revealing what happens but suffice to say that if triggers are an issue for you in your recovery from trauma, you may want to wait until you are further along in your recovery and feel strong enough to handle potentially upsetting realistic descriptions of trauma.

Overall, this is a strong thriller with a creative story-telling structure.  Those who enjoy abduction themed thrillers will find this one unique enough to keep them on the edge of their seat.  Those with an interest in PTSD depicted in literature will find this one quite realistic and appreciate the inclusion of therapy sessions in the presentation.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead by E. A. Aymar (Series, #1)

September 13, 2014 6 comments

Title against a foggy image of a man walking in the woodsSummary:
Tom Starks has not been the same since his wife, Renee, was brutally murdered with a baseball bat in a parking lot.  He’s been struggling for the last three years to raise her daughter, who he adopted when he married Renee.  When Renee’s killer is released after a retrial finds insufficient evidence to hold him, Tom becomes obsessed with dealing out justice himself.

Review:
I was so excited that two of my 2014 accepted review copies fit into the RIP IX reading challenge!  This book’s title jumped out at me immediately when it was submitted, and I had been saving it up specifically to read in the fall.  I’m glad to say that this thriller does not disappoint, although it goes in a bit of a different direction than I originally anticipated.  And that’s a good thing.

The main character is not who you usually see from a thriller with a person seeking violent justice.  He’s bookish.  Rather weak and simpering. Afraid of his own brother-in-law, who used to be a boxer.  But he was madly in love with Renee, and so when her supposed killer is released, he becomes obsessed with making him dead.  The catch is, Tom quickly figures out that maybe he’s not cut out to do the killing himself, and that’s where the book gets unique and interesting.  I was expecting from the title and description to see a typical bad-ass main character chase down a killer around the country (or the world) and ultimately get his revenge.  That is not at all the story we get, and yet, it is still thrilling.  There is still violence and chase scenes, it’s just they aren’t the ones you usually see in a book like this.  And that helps it.  That helps keep the thrill level up, since it’s so much harder to predict what’s going to come next.  Tom, with his weakness and inability to parent well, is almost an anti-hero, and yet we keep rooting for him because his grief for his wife is so powerful and relatable.  It’s strong characterization and plotting mixed into one.

The scenes where Tom is seen teaching The Count of Monte Cristo at the community college where he works slow the thrill down.  They feel a bit too aware of themselves, with comparison between The Count of Monte Cristo and the plot in this book.  Plus scenes of classroom literary analysis simply slow the thrilling plot of the book down.  The one scene where it really works is one scene in which Tom is freaking out about his own life so much that he fails at teaching well.  This establishes that Tom’s life is starting to get out of control.  Overall, though, there are just too many scenes of him teaching for a thriller.

The setting of Baltimore is interesting, and I was glad to see that it wasn’t set in the more stereotypical Washington D.C.  Aymar writes Baltimore beautifully.  I’ve never been there, but I truly felt as if I was there, seeing both the run-down aspects, as well as the beauty.  I often end up skimming over setting descriptions, but Aymar’s drew me in.

The plot has just enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, but not so many that the reader feels jerked around.  Also, the plot twists stay rooted in reality.  I could truly see this happening in the real world, and that makes a thriller more thrilling.

Overall, this is a unique thriller, with its choice to cast the opposite of a bad-ass in the role of the main character.  This grounds the typical revenge plot into reality, lends itself to more interesting, unique plot twists, and has the interesting aspect of a flawed, nearly anti-hero main character that the reader still roots for.  Recommended to thriller fans looking for something different and those interested in first dipping their toe into the thriller genre.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Counts For:
Banner for the RIP IX challenge.

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