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Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)

April 16, 2014 2 comments

A sunset near tropical trees and a mountain rangeSummary:
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana.  The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.  However, that belief is full of inaccuracies.  Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana.  Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.

Review:
I have a fascination with cults and groupthink.  In spite of not being born until the 1980s, I definitely was always vaguely aware of this cult that committed suicide in the 70s, always commentated on with great disdain.  I had previously read Julia Scheeres’ memoir, Jesus Land, which I found to be beautifully and thoughtfully written (review).  When I saw that she had written an investigative work of nonfiction, making the truth about Jonestown more accessible, I knew I had to read it.

Scheeres possesses a great talent at presenting people and events as they are with understanding for common humanity but also disdain for atrocious acts.  Scheeres excels at never turning a person into a monster, but rather exposing monstrous acts and asking how things became so messed up that something like that could happen.  Scheeres clearly did painstaking research for this book, reading through the FBI’s extensive archives on the People’s Temple and Jim Jones, interviewing survivors, and interviewing family members of the deceased, not to mention reading members’ journals.  The facts are presented in an engaging, storytelling, slightly non-linear way, which works excellently at drawing the reader in.  The book starts on the boat to Guyana, then flashes back to the origins of Jim Jones.  The members of People’s Temple are carefully presented as the well-rounded people they truly were with hopes and dreams and who made some mistakes.  They are not ever presented as just a bunch of crazies.  Even Jones is allowed a time as a preacher passionate for social justice before he turned into the control freak, whose paranoid delusions were exacerbated by drug addiction.  Scheeres takes an event that it is far too easy to put the stamp of crazy on, and humanizes it, drawing out the gray areas.  And this is all done while telling an engaging, well-written, factual story.

There are an incredible number of facts in this book, and the reader learns them while hardly even realizing it, since this work of nonfiction is so readable.  Among the things I never knew, I found out that the People’s Temple originally was a Christian church that was heavily socialist and then slowly turned into its own religion as Jones pulled away from the Bible, eventually declaring himself god.  When Jones was in California, he was heavily involved in politics, sponsoring people such as Harvey Milk for office, and breaking voting laws by sending his church en masse to vote in districts they didn’t live in.  Jones enacted weekly corporate punishment of individual members in front of all the other members.  He was bisexual, having sex with both male and female members of  the People’s Temple.  He became obsessed with the idea of suicide to make a statement and routinely badgered the higher members of the People’s Temple into accepting suicide if he ordered it.  He even tricked them multiple times into thinking that he had given them poisoned drinks, just to see who would obey and drink it.  The members came to Jonestown in Guyana expecting a utopia, since Jones had lied to them, and instead got a struggling farm on the brink of disaster, being run by a man increasingly paranoid and delusional and ever more addicted to drugs.  Once members were in Jonestown, they were not allowed to leave.  And many wanted to.  Last, but most important, the mass suicide was not a mass suicide. It was a murder-suicide.  Some of the members committed suicide willingly, but others, including over 300 children, were force-fed or injected with the poison.  Those who drank it drank it mixed with Flavor-Aid, a generic knock-off brand of Kool-Aid.  It astounds me how much the facts of these events from as recent as 1978 are now misremembered in the collective consciousness, especially considering the fact that documentation such as the Jonestown death tape are available for free in the public archive.

Overall, this book takes a misremembered event in recent history and exposes the facts in an incredibly readable work of nonfiction.  Scheeres presents the people who died in Jonestown with empathy and understanding, seeking to tell their whole life story, rather than one moment.  A fascinating look at a horrible event, and a moving reminder to never give too much power or faith to one person, and how very easy it is for groupthink to take over.  Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Golden Torc by Julian May (Series, #2)

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Image of a silver torc against a gold and black backgroundSummary:
The group of people who traveled from the future to the Pliocene past for a willful exile were split into two by the alien race, the Tanu, who, surprisingly, inhabits Earth.  Half were sent to slave labor, while the others were deemed talented at mind powers, given necklace-like torcs to enhance those powers, and sent to the capital city of Muriah.  In the first book, we followed the daring escape of the group sent into slavery.  They then discovered that the Tanu share the Earth with the Firvulag–an alien race from their home planet that has many similarities to their own.  They also organized an attack on the industrial city of Finiah.  This book at first follows the adventures of the other group, the one sent to the capital city of Muriah.  Through them we discover the inner workings of the Tanu, the intersections of humans and aliens, and the impact of the human/Firvulag attack on Finiah.  When the time for the Great Combat between the Tanu/human subjects and the Firvulag arrives, the survivors of the escaped slave group end up coming back into contact with the group of humans in Muriah. With dire consequences.

Review:
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, finding it to be a delightful mash-up of scifi and fantasy.  When I discovered my library had the next book in the series, I picked it up as quickly as possible.  This entry feels more fantastical than the first, although science definitely still factors in.  It is richer in action and intrigue and perhaps a bit less focused on character development.

This is a difficult book to sum up, since so very much happens.  It’s an action-packed chunkster, providing the reader with information and new settings without ever feeling like an info-dump.  The medieval-like flare of the Tanu and the goblin/fairie/shapeshifter qualities of the Firvulag are stronger in this entry, and it is delightful.  Creating a medieval world of aliens on ancient Earth is probably the most brilliant part of the book, followed closely by the idea of torcs enhancing the brain’s abilities.  May has created and weaved a complex, fascinating world that manages to also be easy enough to follow and understand.  The sense of the medieval-style court is strong from the clothing, buildings, and organization of society.  She doesn’t feel the need to willy-nilly invent lots of new words, which I really appreciated.

The intrigue is so complex that it is almost impossible to summarize, and yet it was easy to follow while reading it.  Surprises lurk around every corner, and May is definitely not afraid to kill her darlings, following both William Faulkner’s and Stephen King’s writing advice.  A lot happens in the book, the characters are tested, and enough change happens that I am excited there are still two more books, as opposed to wondering how the author could possibly tell more story.  In spite of the action, sometimes the book did feel overly long, with long descriptions of vegetation and scenery far away from where most of the action was taking place.

The book is full of characters but every single one of them manages to come across as a unique person, even the ones who are not on-screen long enough to be fully three-dimensional.  The cast continues to be diverse, similarly to the first book, with a variety of races, ages, and sexual preferences represented.  I was surprised by the addition of a transwoman character.  She is treated with a mix of acceptance and transphobia.  I think, certainly for the 1980s when this was published, it is overall a progressive presentation of her.  She is a doctor who is well-respected in Tanu society.  However, she also is presented as a bit crazy (not because of being trans but in addition to being trans), and it is stated by one character that she runs the fertility clinic because it is the one part of being a woman that will always be out of her grasp.  I am glad at her inclusion in the story but readers should be aware that some aspects of the writing of her and how other characters interact with her could be considered problematic or triggering.  I would be interested to hear a transperson’s analysis of her character.

Overall, this entry in the series ramps up the action and more thoroughly investigates the world of the Pliocene Exile.  Readers disappointed by the lack of information on the half of the group heading to the capital city in the first book will be pleased that their story is told in this one.  Characters are added, including a transwoman doctor, and all continue to feel completely individual and easily decipherable, in spite of the growing cast list.  The fast action pace sometimes is interrupted by lengthy descriptions of settings far away from the action, but overall the chunkster of the book moves along at a good pace and remains engaging.  Recommended to fans of fantasy who want a touch of science in their stories and who are interested in the idea of medieval aliens.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
The Many-Colored Land, review

Book Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Carolyn McCormick)

April 5, 2014 2 comments

A viney green plant with a flower and a dragonfly wrap themselves around the title of the book.Summary:
Nobody quite knows what is wrong with Area X, but everyone has their speculations.  It’s been cut off from the rest of the world for decades, and the government has kept precisely what is going on rather hush-hush.  The government periodically sends teams in to investigate it.  The narrator, a biologist, is part of Team 12.  The team is entirely made up of women, based on a supposition that women are less badly effected in Area X than men.  The biologist’s husband was part of Team 11.  She is curious to know what happened to him but also entirely intrigued by the tunnel her team finds.  She insists on calling it a tower.  Through her mandatory journal, we slowly discover what may or may not be in Area X.

Review:
I picked this book up since it sounded like it would be a mix of scifi and Lovecraft style fantasy, plus it features an entirely female investigative group.  Although it is an extremely interesting premise, the actual book does drag a bit.

The biologist narrates in a highly analytical way that is true to her character but also doesn’t lend itself to the building of very much tension.  Since the biologist calmly narrates everything, the reader stays calm.  She also, frankly, isn’t an interesting person due to this same tendency to view everything through an analytical lens.  Imagine if Star Trek was 100% written by a Vulcan, and you can begin to imagine the level of ho-hum.

This narration style could have really worked if the language used was stunningly beautiful.  While I think that’s probably what the author was going for, it largely missed for me.  While the language was good, there was also nothing particularly special about it.  I marked three passages that I enjoyed throughout the whole book.  Looking back, two were extremely similar.  The passage I found to be the most beautiful is:

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you. From the outside in. Forcing you to live in its reality. (time 3:15:47)

While pretty, it’s not pretty enough to make up for the rather dull narrator.

Since the story has four women to work with, it probably would have worked better to bounce around between their four narratives.  This also would have given the bonus of seeing the mysteries of Area X through multiple sets of eyes, enhancing the tension the mystery, while also giving the opportunity for a variety of narration styles.

The mystery of Area X is definitely intriguing and different from other Lovecraft style fantasies.  In particular, the passage describing the terror of seeing the thing that cannot be described was particularly well-written.  However, the passages describing the horror in Area X are mostly toward the end of the book and are not as well spaced-out as they could have been to help build the tension.  The end of the book is definitely the most interesting and managed to heighten my interest enough that I was curious about the next book in the series.

Overall, this is a unique take on the idea of a scientific investigation of an area invaded by Lovecraft style, fantastical creatures.  It features an entirely female investigative crew but unfortunately limits itself to only the narration of one overly analytical and dull biologist.  Recommended to big fans of Lovecraft/fantastical invasion style fantasies.  To those newly interested in the genre, I recommend checking out Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp first (review), as it is a more universally appealing take on the genre.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Emerald Diamond: How the Irish Transformed America’s Greatest Pastime by Charley Rosen

March 26, 2014 Leave a comment

A baseball with green lacings is the backdrop to the book title.Summary:
Did you know baseball has been entwined with Irish-Americans from the very beginning of the sport?  Rosen goes through the history of baseball, focusing in on how Irish-American players, managers, and owners impacted the game.

Review:
I picked this up from my pile of older review copies to read in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.  I’m part Irish myself and was a US History major in undergrad, so the concept of the book definitely appealed to me.  The book addresses the interesting topic of Irish-Americans in baseball but unfortunately presents the history in an only sometimes interesting way and utilizes sloppy research.

The book starts in the 1800s and works its way up through time, ending many chapters with a modern day interview to reflect upon the ideas presented in the chapter.  The earliest chapters are the most interesting.  They take the events and use them to tell the story of how Irish-Americans broke into baseball partly because many careers were closed off to them due to anti-Irish discrimination in America (No Irish Need Apply).  Originally, the game was much less regulated, and the Irish-American players brought with them a willingness to be sly and rough that added an element of excitement to the game that brought out more viewers.  Reading about how the rules slowly changed and how Irish-Americans impacted those changes was definitely fascinating.  It was also disturbing to discover how many players in the early years had serious addiction problems, not to mention the presence of multiple suicides.  Unfortunately, the opportunity to analyze this phenomenon and discuss it in depth is passed by, as is most true historical analysis.

Starting in the early 20th century, the formatting of the book changes so that instead of telling a story, the heading of a year is given and bullet-points of events for that year are listed.  Some of these bullet-points break out to be actual stories, instead of just pure listing of facts, and that is what kept me reading.  But mostly about half the book is just lists of baseball facts.  It reminded me of reading Chronicles in the Bible (so-and-so begat so-and-so).  There are some interesting tidbits in there, but they are few and far between.

I was truly appalled when I flipped back to check the references in the back that almost all of them are secondary sources, and a significant number are Wikipedia.  It’s one thing to start your research at Wikipedia to familiarize yourself with the topic and then broaden out to more scholarly work and primary sources.  It’s another thing entirely to publish an entire book that basically just sums up Wikipedia. A work of historic nonfiction should seek out as many primary sources as possible, read secondary analyses, and provide analysis both of the primary and secondary sources.  What Rosen has done is mostly to regurgitate what Wikipedia and other secondary sources have already said.  The exception to this is the modern day interviews Rosen conducted, but they make up a small portion of the book. Perhaps 15%.  If the book had consisted of interviews with modern Irish-American players and descendants of Irish-American players and managers, complete with analysis and investigation using primary and secondary materials, that would have been a fantastic book.  Instead we get a relisting of information already gathered (and better sourced) in secondary sources spiced up with a few interviews.  If I had bought this book, I would have returned it.

Overall, there are some interesting tidbits about how Irish-Americans impacted the game of baseball.  Unfortunately, large parts of the book are lists of facts, with no analysis or storytelling,  Additionally, Rosen relied primarily on secondary source materials, mostly Wikipedia, to research his book.  The reader could get similar information from Wikipedia themself and have the ability to click through to the source materials.  I would suggest doing that over buying this book.  For those seeking a book on the topic, I recommend The Irish in Baseball: An Early History by David L. Fleitz, a sports historian who clearly consulted primary and secondary sources in his writing.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Print copy from publisher in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: The Red Church by Scott Nicholson (Series, #1)

March 22, 2014 2 comments

A glowing red church next to a silhouette of a tree with a blueish lit sky.Summary:
The Red Church was the base of a new cult started by Wendell McFall in the 1860s.  But when he took things too far and sacrificed a child, his congregation hung him from a tree.  Nowadays, the children of the town view the Red Church as haunted…and so do some of the adults.  When Wendell’s descendant, Archer, returns to his hometown from California, he brings the cult back with him in a new form. Archer claims he is the second son of God, and that Jesus was the first son who failed to deliver God’s true message.  When he reclaims the Red Church and murders start occurring, half the town suspects Archer, while the other half falls under his spell.

Review:
This book was loaned to me by someone who really enjoyed the series.  For most of the book, I felt that it was well-written horror but of a religious bent that isn’t for me.  However, the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the book.

At the beginning, the book feels like a horror story written by a Baptist person truly committed to their faith.  The main antithesis to Archer’s cult is the Baptist church in town.  At the core of the conflict are a married couple.  The wife falls firmly under Archer’s spell while the husband stays true to the Baptist church.  Their two small boys are caught in the middle.  The most interesting parts of the story are when the third person narrator focuses in on these two boys, showing their crises of faith and the siren call of the cult, as well as the confusion engendered when their mother and father fight over religion.  I could definitely see this reading as a richly crafted, frightening horror for someone who is Baptist, or at least Protestant, themselves.  For the non-Christian or non-religious reader, however, the frequent mentions of Jesus, capitalizing pronouns referring to God, and attempts at creating horror at the mere idea of not following Jesus fail to aid in establishing the horror.  They become something to skim past rather than part of the atmosphere of the book.

For most of the book, the basic plot of Archer versus the family and the sheriff and the crime scene detective flows nicely with just the right touch of horror.  Toward the end of the book, just who Archer is and what precisely is going on becomes muddled.  A lot of what happens with Archer and his church just doesn’t make a lick of sense.  In spite of the religious leanings of the book, I was still engaged and wanting to solve the mystery of Archer.  Instead, who he is and what the rules of the world are become increasingly muddled.  The ending generally should clear things up, not leave things more confusing than they were before.  That kind of confusing ending would be disappointing to anyone who read the book.

I also was disappointed by one particular aspect of the ending.  A person who was abusive gets forgiven because forgiveness is what the Baptist church teaches.  It bothers me when books brush off abuse as something just getting Jesus in your heart can fix.  It’s misleading and dangerous to encourage people to think that way.  Granted, this is a horror book, so it’s doubtful many children will be reading it, but that still doesn’t make it a good message.

The characters are interesting and widely varied.  The children, particularly, are well-written.  The scenes are well-envisioned and communicated.  I never had any issues imagining any of the scenes vividly.

Overall, this is a well-written horror book that flounders a bit at the end.  It is richly steeped in the Baptist faith.  As such, I recommend it most highly to Protestant horror fans who don’t mind a bit of a confusing ending that doesn’t answer all the questions.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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Book Review: The Many-Colored Land by Julian May (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne)

March 14, 2014 3 comments

Woman wearing a half-necklace standing in front of a mountain rangeSummary:
In the future, the universe exists in a peace-loving era that allows many alien races and humans to co-exist.  People are expected to act within the confines of acceptability and are offered various humane treatment options to help if their nature or nurture sends them the wrong way.  But some people don’t want to conform and would rather live in the wild, warrior-like days of old.  When a scientist discovers time travel but only to the pliocene era, these people think they have found their solution.  There’s only one catch. The time travel only works to the past.  For decades the misfits step into the time travel vortex, not knowing what is on the other side.  The government approves the solution, since it seems kind and no time paradoxes have occurred.  When the newest group steps through, they will discover just what really waits on the other side of exile.

Review:
I became aware of this book thanks to a review by fellow book blogger, Resistance Is Futile.  Imagine my surprise when going through my wishlist to check for audiobooks, I discovered a brand-new audiobook production of it featuring the audiobook superstar Bernadette Dunne.  This is a creative, action-packed book that truly encompasses both scifi and fantasy in a beautiful way.

Since this is the first book of the series, it takes a bit to set the plot up and get to know the characters.  People are sent through the time travel portal in groups, so we get to know everyone in one group prior to going through the time portal so we can follow them all after they go through it.  May spends the perfect amount of time familiarizing the reader with the future world, as well as the people who are choosing to leave it.  Some readers might be sad to see the imaginative future world left behind for the pliocene era, but it quickly becomes evident that the pliocene is just as richly imagined, albeit different.  The pliocene era is not as straight-forward as the exiles believed, and new problems quickly arise for them.  It’s not the lawless paradise they were envisioning, and while dealing with the realities of it in an action-packed manner, they also must deal with themselves.  Now that they realize there is no true escape to solitude or an imagined perfect past, they must address those aspects of themselves that led them to exile in the first place.  These deeper emotional issues are the perfect balance to the other, action-oriented plot.  I did feel that the book ends a bit abruptly.  However, it is part of a series and clearly the cliff-hanger is intentional.  I prefer series entries that tell one complete smaller story within the larger, overarching plot, but this is still a well-done cliff-hanger.

The characters offer up a wide variety of experiences and ethnic and sexual backgrounds, representative of all of humanity fairly well.  One of the lead characters is a butch lesbian, another is an elderly Polish-American male expert in the pliocene era, another a nun, another a frat boy style space captain.  This high level of diversity doesn’t seem pushed or false due to the nature of the self-selection of exiles.  It makes sense a wide variety of humans would choose to go, although the statistics presented in the book establish that more whites and Asians than Africans and more men than women choose to go.  Some of the characters get more time to develop and be presented in a three-dimensional nature than others but enough characters are three-dimensional that the reader is able to become emotionally invested in the situation.  My one complaint was in prominently featuring a nun in a futuristic scifi, yet again.  Statistics show that less and less people are choosing to become nuns or priests.  Given that this is set so far in the future with such a different culture, a religious leader of a new or currently rising religion would feel much more thoughtfully predictive of the future.

Most engaging to me is how the book mixes scifi and fantasy.  Without giving too much away, the book offers a plausible scientific explanation for human myths of supernatural creatures such as fairies, elves, and shapeshifters.  The presence of the inspirations for these myths give a delightful, old world fantastical feel to the story, even while May offers up scientific explanations for all of it.  This is not a mix I have seen in much scifi or fantasy, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Overall, this is a delightful new take on time-travel that incorporates some fantasy elements into the scifi.  Readers looking just for futuristic hard scifi might be disappointed at how much of the book takes place in the ancient past, but those who enjoy scifi and fantasy will delight at the mixing of the two.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Waiting For the Galactic Bus by Parke Godwin (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

March 12, 2014 2 comments

An ape sits on a grassy plain with a hand coming down out ofthe clouds pointing at him.Summary:
When two brothers from an incorporeal alien species get left behind on a spring break visit to prehistoric Earth, they decide to put their, as yet uncertified, evolutionary development skills to work by prodding along the the evolutionary process on Earth.  In doing so, they accidentally create a species with a spirit tied to a body for a certain amount of time that then is tied to the idea of an afterlife.  They also manage to turn themselves into Earth’s spiritual mythology.

Review:
An ingenious take on the aliens made humans concept with two overlapping plots, a tongue-in-cheek take on world religions, and a wry wit.

This take on aliens made humans makes humans the result of the bumbling activities of aliens from a species that controls evolution in the universe.  However, these aliens are currently uncertified, unsupervised, and basically the frat boys of outerspace.  At least at first.  Thus, instead of it all being some evil experimental conspiracy, the direction of life on Earth is much more of an accident of floundering fools.  Granted, the fools grow and change over the time that they spend on Earth waiting for their ride back from spring break, but the fact remains that evolution on Earth is a result of the experiments of two aliens who are not yet fully trained.  This is also used to explain the phenomenon of souls in bodies and then souls that have an afterlife.  All other species have souls that can either choose to be in or not in a corporeal body.  This is the result of the two aliens, Barion and Coyul, not staying within the rules of evolution.

We thus get to the other really creative part of the book.  Since the souls are unfotunately tied to bodies that die, when the bodies die, the souls don’t know what to do or where to go, and so humanity creates the idea of the afterlife, with the two aliens serving as the rulers of the two options (again, created by humans).  The aliens thus are kind of forced into the roles of God and Satan.  The way afterlives go, though, is generally more the result of what the various humans think it will be or think they deserve.  The aliens have mostly tried to stay out of the way, but when they hear rumblings that remind them on the beginning of the nightmare that was Nazi Europe in the American midwest, they decide to dive on in and try to fix it.

Clearly the plot and setting are extremely engaging and thought-provoking.  I could truly talk about them for hours.  They are creative and a vision of the world I enjoyed visiting.  The characterization of the two aliens is a bit weak though.  I mixed them up a lot, constantly forgetting who was God and who was Satan.  I honestly can’t remember right now if Barion or Coyul plays Satan.  I wish they had been characterized more clearly, as this would have strengthened the story.

Overall, this is a unique take on aliens creating humans, featuring a rollicking and thought-provoking plot.  The characterization can be a bit weak but the action-packed plot and vibrant setting generally make up for it.  Recommended to scifi or fantasy fans looking for an extraterrestrial take on mythology.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Series Review: Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Vampire Mysteries Series by Charlaine Harris

March 7, 2014 6 comments

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Man in cloak floating in the airSummary:
Sookie Stackhouse is a waitress in the rural town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, and she has a secret.  She’s a telepath, and it’s ostracized her from most of the people in her town.  But when vampires come out of the coffin, Sookie discovers that she can’t read their minds.  Mind reading made her dating life non-existent, for obvious reasons, but with vampires, Sookie can feel somewhat normal.  She soon starts to get pulled into their supernatural world, which contains more than they’re letting on to the mainstream public.

Review:
I first want to make it very clear that this series review is talking exclusively about the books and not the tv show inspired by them, True Blood.  There will be no spoilers for the show and no comparisons between the books and the show.  The show diverged very quickly from the books, so I think it’s fair to keep discussion of the two separate.  Moving right along!

coverclubdeadThis series takes the mystery series whodunit in the vein of Agatha Christie and drenches it in the supernatural and the American south, utilizing it to tell the overarching story of one woman choosing who she wants to be.  Perhaps because of the presence of some handsome leading men and the occasional sex scene, some mistake the series for a romance one.  But this series is truly not a romance.  Sookie’s romantic life (and sex life) is really secondary to the mysteries she solves and her slow discovery of who she is and who she wants to be.

The whodunit plots are generally murder mysteries.  The violence is moderate.  If you can handle a vampire biting someone or knowing someone is being beheaded without actually getting the gore described to you, you can handle the violence in this series.  The whodunit plots start out engaging but gradually become more repetitive and ho-hum, almost as if the author was running out of ideas for situations to place Sookie in.  Similarly, Sookie gets kidnapped and has to get saved by her supernatural friends kind of a lot.

coverdeadasadoornailThe setting of a supernatural American south is well imagined and evoked.  Both small town, rural lives and larger southern cities like Dallas and New Orleans are touched upon.  The American north is visited once, however, Sookie has a strong aversion to northern women that sours the representation of the north in the book.

The characters can sometimes feel like overwrought caricatures.  While some characters are given depth, most are not.  This is odd, since Sookie can read minds.  one would assume that she, as the first person narrator, would have a very three-dimensional view of those around her.  And yet she doesn’t.  Sookie likes to say that she’s for equality and seeing the good in everyone but she actually judges people very harshly.  For instance, she thinks it’s a shame that women who are not virgins wear white wedding dresses.

Sookie’s character does develop, albeit minimally, over the course of the books.  Characters should grow and change, coveralltogetherdeadparticularly over the course of 13 books, but unfortunately Sookie’s character changes to become less and less likable.  This is extra frustrating when the book is told from her perspective.  Instead of becoming more powerful and strong (emotionally, mentally) over the course of the series, Sookie becomes less and less able to handle the things going on around her.  She also continues to act shocked and appalled at the wars and violence she doesn’t just see, but participates in, in spite of it now being a normal part of her life.  Perhaps if she was just repeatedly a victim this mentality would make sense, but Sookie enacts violence on those around her and then acts disgusted at what the vampires/werewolves/etc… do, which comes off as hypocritical.  Either own your own actions and validate their necessity or stop doing them.  Don’t do certain violent actions then deny your involvement while simultaneously judging others for doing precisely what you just did.  The fact that Sookie slowly becomes this hypocritical person makes her less and less likable.  Similarly, she starts out the books with a firm belief in social justice and equality for supes but over the course of the series clearly comes to believe that humans are better than supes.  I don’t blame her for wanting a quiet life or for wanting to stay human or wanting to have babies but she could have Blonde woman in blue standing between two pale men in black capes.done all of those things without coming to view supes as inferior.  It is frustrating for the reader to have a main character in an almost cozy style mystery series gradually change into someone it is difficult to empathize with.

There is a consistent presence of GLBTQ characters, albeit mostly in secondary roles, throughout the series.  Homophobia is depicted in an extremely negative light since only the bad guys ever exhibit it.  Unfortunately, there is an instance of bi erasure in the book.  One of the characters is identified as gay but everyone also acknowledges that he periodically sleeps with women.  Even the character himself calls himself gay, so this isn’t just a case of the author writing a realistic amount of the realities of bi erasure into the book.

The sex in the book is not well-written.  It is just awkward, cringe-inducing, and laughable most of the time.  But the sex scenes aren’t very often, and they do fit in with the rest of the book.  Just don’t go to this series looking to get really turned Cartoon drawing of a blonde woman in a green dress upside down with burning paper near her.on.

This sounds like a lot of criticism for the series but some of these things, such as the campy, two-dimensional characters, are part of what makes the series enjoyable.  It’s kitschy, not to be taken too seriously.  It’s a series to come to and read precisely to laugh and roll your eyes.  To be utterly bemused at the sheer number of supernatural creatures and the ridiculousness of how they organize themselves.  To sigh in frustration at Sookie as she gets kidnapped yet again or is oblivious yet again to who the murderer is.  It’s a series that’s candy for those who enjoy camp and not too much violence with a touch of the supernatural in their mysteries.

3.5 out of 5 stars

A blonde woman stands among flowers and tomatoes with the sun either setting or rising behind her.Source: Amazon, PaperBackSwap, and Audible

Books in Series:
Dead Until Dark, review
Living Dead in Dallas, review
Club Dead, review
Dead To The World, review
Dead as a Doornail, review
Definitely Dead, review
All Together Dead, review
From Dead to Worse, review
Dead And Gone, review
Dead in the Family, review
Dead Reckoning, review
Deadlocked, review
Dead Ever After, review

Book Review: Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris (Series, #13) (Audiobook narrated by Johanna Parker)

March 5, 2014 5 comments

A blonde woman stands among flowers and tomatoes with the sun either setting or rising behind her.Summary:
Sookie, Eric, and Sam must deal with the fall-out of her using the cluviel dor to save Sam, rather than to save Eric from his arranged marriage with the vampire Queen of Oklahoma.  On top of this, someone is out to frame Sookie for murder, and they just might succeed.  Sookie even gets arrested and must be bailed out of prison.  Her demon godfather, his niece, his grandson, Sookie’s witch friend Amelia, and Amelia’s boyfriend all come to help her.

Review:
You guys. You guys. I finally did it. I finally finished the Sookie Stackhouse series! No longer will Sookie’s book adventures hang over my head….now I just have to finish watching True Blood.  The final entry in the series finishes telling the story of what clearly were a defining couple of years of Sookie’s life.  Whether or not that’s the story readers wanted to hear, it is the story that gets told.

It becomes abundantly clear early in this book that Sookie has had it with the supernatural world.  At least, with pure supes.  She’s ok with people who are basically human with a touch of something else (like herself) but she’s over the truly supernatural, like the fairies and the vampires.  Anyone who she feels has no humanity, she is done with.  As a reader, I appreciate that Harris took the heroine and made her commit firmly to the humans.  Many heroines in supernatural books desperately want to be supernatural themselves and commit wholeheartedly to that world.  I like that Harris tells a different story, even if I think that ultimately it makes Sookie look a bit prejudiced.  That part of Sookie’s character arc makes me sad.  She starts out very much in favor of social justice and incorporating the supernatural world into the human one and ends up kind of prejudiced and against change.  It’s sad.  But, it is an actual character arc, and it makes sense within who Sookie is as a character.  Some readers, who are enamored with the supernatural world themselves, might find it irritating or frustrating that Sookie has changed to not wanting to be a part of that world.  But it is a well-written character arc that makes sense.

The murder/framing plot at first seems incredibly ho-hum, been there, done that, why is everyone constantly after Sookie she is not that special, although she’s pretty annoying so yeah it kind of makes sense.  The plot does at least bring together a bunch of other highly enjoyable characters, such as Diantha and Amelia.  Ultimately, there is a plot twist that makes the central whodunit plot more interesting, although I did not like how the twist plays into Sookie’s increasing dislike of supernatural folks who she thinks aren’t human enough.

The boyfriend situation.  Well, it makes sense who Sookie chooses, and thank god their sex scenes are better written.  The ultimate romance makes sense with who Sookie has become, although it doesn’t read as either titillating or particularly romantic to me.  Then again, I decided many books ago that this series isn’t really about the romance, so I can’t say that it bothered me that much.  Readers that are more invested in the romantic aspect of the books might be disappointed or elated, depending on who they like.

One oddity of the book is that it alternates between Sookie’s first person narration and an ominous third person narration telling us things that are going on that Sookie doesn’t know about.  I don’t recall this happening in the series before, although I read the books over a long period of time, so perhaps it had.  In any case, departing from the familiar first person narration probably was an attempt to build tension, with the reader knowing more about what is threatening Sookie than Sookie does.  Ultimately, though, it just comes across as simultaneously jarring and like Harris just couldn’t figure out how to tell this story entirely from Sookie’s point of view.  It reads odd, not ominous.

The audiobook narrator, Johanna Parker, took an odd turn with this book.  Her voice reads as an old woman periodically, which doesn’t suit who Sookie is.  I was disappointed, after her very good narration of books 12 and 11.

Overall, the final book in the Sookie Stackhouse series satisfactorily completes Sookie’s story arc and wraps up everything that has happened to her.  Those who are secondary to the first person narration of Sookie’s life do not get the attention and wrap-up some readers might be looking for.  However, this book series has always been about Sookie.  It is told in her voice and is about her life.  Some readers may be disappointed with how her life ends up and who she ultimately becomes but the character arc is well told.  Recommended that readers who have completed at least half of the series finish the series, keeping in mind that it is really just about Sookie.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

Buy It

Previous Books in Series:
Dead Until Dark, review
Living Dead in Dallas, review
Club Dead, review
Dead To The World, review
Dead as a Doornail, review
Definitely Dead, review
All Together Dead, review
From Dead to Worse, review
Dead And Gone, review
Dead in the Family, review
Dead Reckoning, review
Deadlocked, review

Book Review: Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris (Series, #12) (Audiobook narrated by Johanna Parker)

March 4, 2014 2 comments

Cartoon drawing of a blonde woman in a triangle of light coming from a small object.

Summary:
Sookie now has to deal with the fall-out of her, Eric, and Pam’s successful plot to kill Victor.  And that means entertaining the vampire King of Louisiana.  The very first party they host for the King ends with a dead half-shifter girl on the lawn.  Meanwhile, Sookie finds out just why Eric has been seeming distant lately, and it might be too much for them to overcome.  On top of all this, Sookie has to keep track of and protect the fairie present given to her grandmother, the cluviel dor.

Review:
The penultimate book in the Sookie Stackhouse series has a lot of big reveals, as one would expect.  The big reveals at the heart of Sookie’s overarching story make sense and are well-played, although the central mystery of this entry feels a bit ho-hum.

The cluviel dor felt a bit like a deus ex machina from the instant the concept was introduced in book 11.  To a certain extent, a powerful magical object that grants one wish will always feel like a deus ex machina, no matter how it is ultimately used.  However, of the many options for the use of the wish, I think that how Sooie ultimately uses it is the least like a deus ex machina that it could be.  The world is not torn asunder. The events of prior books aren’t canceled out.  The instant in which she uses it makes sense, feels real, and is understandable.  It reveals a plot point that may irritate some readers, particularly big fans of Eric, but it’s not a development that doesn’t fit in with the characters and world.  Meaning that the cluviel dor is not used as a love spell or to undo the existence of vampires or some such nonsense.  Those nervous about what would happen with it should rest easy and continue reading the series.  You won’t have the rug pulled out from under you.

The central mystery feels kind of repetitive.  There’s a dead body, and everyone must figure out what happened.  Similarly, Sookie continues to refuse to learn anything from the multiple supernatural situations she has found herself in.  She continues to make incredibly dumb mistakes that make it hard to root for her.

The depiction of the vampires, fairies, and werewolves continues on an ever more negative spiral.  The good supes are few and far between, whereas humanity is depicted as something to strive for.  For instance, having mercy on someone is seen as having humanity, as opposed to just having mercy.  One of the things I liked at the beginning of the series was the ambiguity of the supes.  Having Sookie feel increasingly negative toward them all is a bit sad.

That said, the book definitely moves the plot forward in a logical way.  Many loose ends are addressed and answers given.  Plus there is at least one big final question left for the last book in the series.

Overall, if you’ve stuck with the series this far, you should definitely keep reading.  The penultimate book answers some question and continues to flesh out the version of Bon Temps in Harris’s mind.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

Buy It

Previous Books in Series:
Dead Until Dark, review
Living Dead in Dallas, review
Club Dead, review
Dead To The World, review
Dead as a Doornail, review
Definitely Dead, review
All Together Dead, review
From Dead to Worse, review
Dead And Gone, review
Dead in the Family, review
Dead Reckoning, review

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