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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 Leave a comment

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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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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Counts For:
Banner for the RIP IX challenge.

Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (Series, #1)

September 12, 2014 3 comments

A line of spaceships head toward a planet.Summary:
John Perry joined the Colonial Defense Force on his 75th birthday.  Americans aren’t allowed to be colonists in outer space, but they can defend the colonies in the outer space army.  Old folks join for many reasons from boredom to having always wanted to see outer space, even though details of what goes on out there are kept secret from Earth.  In spite of all the secrecy, the rumor is that those who join the CDF get to be young again, and who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?

Review:
Multiple friends have read this book and loved it, and of course I found the idea intriguing, who wouldn’t?  So when a friend offered to loan me his copy, I took him up on it right away.  I was not disappointed in the world Scalzi has created, it is endlessly fascinating, but the main character’s arc failed to be quite so interesting to me.

I can’t imagine how anyone would not find the basic premise of this book interesting.  Outer space colonies that are kept a mystery from Earth.  Only certain countries allowed to colonize (primarily those suffering from population overload). Top it off with a colonial army made entirely up of old people who supposedly get to be young again?  Completely. Fascinating.  And Scalzi really comes through on the science of all of this, the politics, and manages to have some surprises in there, in spite of the what seems to be very straight-forward book summary.  And the world beyond the soldiers and the colonists is utterly fascinating as well.  The aliens are incredibly creatively imagined, not just in their looks but in their cultures.  They feel real.  And that extends to the battles and spaceships as well.  The worldbuilding here is phenomenal.  It is an example of how scifi worlds should be built.

The main character, though, as well as his character development arc, fail to live up to the incredible worldbuilding.  John Perry, from early on, is talented at war, in spite of having only been an advertising slogan writer for his whole life.  He has no real life experience that would make one think he would be good at war. Additionally, even when he is doing battle, he’s kind of flat on the page.  He doesn’t jump off as the leader he supposedly is supposed to naturally be.  Other characters feel that way, but not John.  In fact, I frequently found myself far more interested in the secondary characters around John than in John himself.  I was willing to give this a bit of a pass since, well, the character has to live for us to continue to see the wars he’s fighting, and maybe Scalzi has a thing for unlikely heroes.  But his character arc takes an odd turn at the end that really bothered me.

*spoiler warning*
John meets a special forces woman who is in his dead wife’s body.  Basically, his dead wife’s DNA was used as a base to build a genetically enhanced body. Ok, I’m fine with that, even if it seems unnecessary. But then John becomes obsessed with her, and she with him, even though she is very clearly NOT his wife.  Then at the end, he asks her to move to a colonial farm with him when they retire. And she says yes. Whaaaaat?! This isn’t romance; this is gross! The special forces woman has as much in common with John’s wife as her sister would at this point, since they have messed with the DNA so much.  This is like John pursuing his dead wife’s sister, who is emotionally only 6, since she was put into a fully adult body 6 years ago and had no life prior to that.  It’s gross. It is not romantic.  And I really think the reader is supposed to see it as romantic, when instead it squicked me out far more than any of the aliens in the book, including the ones with slimy appendages or the ones who eat humans.
*end spoilers*

Overall, this is an utterly fascinating scifi world with a bit of a ho-hum main character.  The ending may disappoint some readers, and Scalzi’s politics can come through a bit obviously sometimes.  However, those at all intrigued by the plot summary or interested in high quality scifi world building should check it out.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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Blind Date With a Book Win Reveal!

September 9, 2014 6 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

The Little Red Reviewer, a blog I’ve followed since I started my own, had the brilliant idea to do a blind date with a book giveaway a few weeks ago.  For those of you who don’t know, a blind date with a book is when a library/bookstore/person wraps a book up and puts a few clues about what the book might be about on the cover.  The idea is that you’re matched by concepts instead of cover or blurb.  I hadn’t seen this in giveaway form before, and I thought it was super brilliant of Redhead to use it for a print book giveaway.  Imagine my delight when I won one of the books!

It arrived still wrapped, just as it had been pictured on her blog.

Book with label stating "Time travel, Looking for a cure, Big Questions, drastically different futuristic world"

Since I knew I had won before Redhead mailed out the books (obviously, as I had to provide her my mailing address), I’d had weeks to wonder what book, exactly I was getting!  You guys are lucky I manged to be patient enough to take a picture of the wrapped book before unwrapping it.  :-P

Anyway, I unwrapped the book to reveal my mystery book date!

Photo of the book "Hollow World" by Michael J. SullivanThe book I won is Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan!  Here’s the blurb from GoodReads:

Ellis Rogers is an ordinary man who is about to embark on an extraordinary journey. All his life he has played it safe and done the right thing, but when faced with a terminal illness, he’s willing to take an insane gamble. He’s built a time machine in his garage, and if it works, he’ll face a world that challenges his understanding of what it means to be human, what it takes to love, and the cost of paradise. He could find more than a cure for his illness; he might find what everyone has been searching for since time began…but only if he can survive Hollow World.

I have to admit, I’m pretty darn excited to read it.  A time machine built in a garage? What appears like it might possibly be a retro future world? Yes, please!

Thanks to Redhead for hosting such an awesome giveaway!  I might have to steal the idea in the future for one of my own. ;-)

Giveaway Winner: The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick (INTERNATIONAL)

August 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Brightly colored buildingsThe giveaway winner of one ebook version of The Running Game (review) by L. E. Fitzpatrick, courtesy of L. E. Fitzpatrick herself is…….

Comment #1 Amanda Ramsay McNeill!

Amanda, your email as entered in the comment form has been provided to the author who will send along the ebook to you.

Thanks for entering!

Book Review: The Postmortal by Drew Magary (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

August 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Green book cover with a grim reaper impaled on his own scythe.Summary:
John Farrell got The Cure before it was legal.  Three painful shots, and now he’ll never age, although he can still be killed by accidents, murder, and disease.  It doesn’t take long before public pressure forces governments to legalize The Cure, in spite of the concerns, sometimes expressed in the form of terrorist acts, of those who believe in natural aging.  Of course, nobody listens, because who wants to age?  But slowly the world starts to change in more ways than becoming increasingly overpopulated.  We’ve reassembled what happened when The Cure was legal through combining John’s blog entries with news articles from his time period, as a cautionary tale.

Review:
I actually bought this when it was released because it sounded so intriguing to me.  A futuristic epistolary novel looking at overpopulation is right up my alley.  Unfortunately, I got so busy that I didn’t have time to read it right away.  I was happy to be able to finally pick it up.  The book presents an interesting dystopia but the storytelling struggles increasingly throughout the book, falling flat at the end.

The book starts out incredibly strong.  Magary strikes the right balance of realistic personal blog entries with snippets of news, twitter/facebook feeds, etc… to tell the early story of The Cure.  The world building doesn’t suffer at all, with a clear near-future established, and John’s character is immediately easy to understand.  The years immediately after The Cure is legalized are similarly well-told, with Magary choosing interesting and realistic consequences to The Cure, including violent anti-Cure extremists, peaceful anti-Cure moderates, bohemian everlasting youth, those who build fortresses around themselves and their families, and even internet trolls who take their trolling out into real life.

The world slowly establishes to the point where it’s clearly too overpopulated, and various governments make various choices about how they’re going to deal with that, and John gets caught up in the control side of the US government’s choices.  It is here, midway through the book, where things stop being so well-written and thought out and stop working quite so well.

First, the parameters of The Cure seem clear early on in the book.  It appears that it cures not just aging but any illness that could be correlated to being the result of aging, such as heart disease.  It is clearly listed out that The Cure protects you from many things but not extreme things like AIDS or being smashed by a safe.  Later on in the book, though, those who have The Cure but have a real age of elderly start having diseases that tend to show up late in life, such as cancer and heart disease.  This shakiness of exactly what The Cure does is a real problem in the book’s world building.  The reader expects one set of parameters but then gets a different one.

Second, although early in the book Magary strikes a great balance of realistic blog entries, news articles, and twitter/facebook feeds, as the book continues on, this balance drops off, and the book reads more and more like a straight-forward first-person narration, with only the occasional news article.  This makes it harder to believe these are real blog entries, particularly as they get more and more unrealistically long as John becomes busier and does more dangerous tasks.

Similarly, as the world becomes more complex, some of the world building choices make less and less sense.  For instance, a certain country chooses to periodically blow up its cities with nuclear bombs in order to control its population. It’s hard to imagine any country dumping nuclear waste into itself just to control population.  Surely even just bombs with less environmental impact would be chosen.  Similarly, a certain type of violent gang becomes rampant across the US but their motivations or reasons for turning so violent and bloody are never examined.  Are they striving to be the only people left? Do they just enjoy causing chaos? Dehumanizing them makes it easy to other them, which in turn makes the dystopic future less frightening, as it’s only the crazy, monstrous people who form into violent gangs.  Some of these limits come from the fact that our main character, whose blog entries we’re reading, isn’t a particularly inquisitive person.  He tumbles along and doesn’t seem to care much about anything, particularly in the final portions of the book.  Yes, he is probably depressed, but even early on he never seems that interested in other viewpoints.  The rare two occasions where we get glimpses into something besides his day-to-day life are once at the behest of his job, and once because his son implores him to come to his church.  In other words, it takes extraordinary circumstances for John, our narrator, to investigate anything other than what is right in front of his face, which makes for a story that’s missing a lot of information about this dystopic future, particularly when we only get John’s perspective for hundreds of years.  The story would probably have been better served by analyzing multiple different people’s blogs.  Perhaps John’s, his son’s mother’s, his son’s, his partner’s at work, a troll’s, etc…. This would have given the same epistolary feel but also more information about the dystopic world and more depth.

Finally, the ending takes a sharp turn into manic pixie dream girl land, that I found incredibly frustrating.  John makes a sudden, completely inexplicable, unrealistic change in personality thanks to a manic pixie dream girl showing up (a female character who exists only to show up and show a depressed male character the meaning of life.  Full exploration of this trope).  Given the whole rest of the book, the ending was completely out of left field, and frankly felt lazy.  A much richer, deeper ending could have been written that went right into the depth and darkness of John’s soul, giving him no miraculous last-minute redemption.  Instead his character does a complete 180 and gives the reader an unexpected, and unearned, ending.

Given all of these complaints, why am I still giving the book three stars?  The world it sets up is awesome.  It’s a dystopia I want to visit again and again.  The first third of the book handles the futuristic, tech-savvy epistolary novel really well, and that’s hard to do.  Finally, most of my complaints have to do with the author not giving me enough, not taking things deep enough, dark enough, not living up to the writing in the first third of his own book.  It’s a sign of a good book to leave me wanting more, and that’s why I’m still happy I read it.  It’s a creative vision of a dystopic future that I hadn’t seen before, and I would love to see more books set in it.  Recommended to fans of dystopias who won’t mind a frustrating ending.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam (Series, #1)

August 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Gray book cover.Summary:
Science is moving forward to and through transhumanism to posthumanism, and no society seems to quite know how to handle it.  China is using the tech in their armies, Thailand is interested in its use to enhance meditation and zen, and the US government banned many of the different treatments and drugs after they were used by cults to make cloned children into killing machines.  Kaden Lane knows about the potential dangers, but he and his lab partners are still invested in making their brain nanotechnology drug, Nexus, work.  It makes minds meld together, able to feel others’ suffering, and they think it will lead to world peace.  Samantha Cataranes was a victim of a transhumanist mind control cult as a child, now she fights on the side of the FBI putting a stop to any science deemed too dangerous.  When Samantha and Kaden meet, their worlds and worldviews start colliding.

Review:
I had honestly kind of forgotten what this book was about, beyond it being scifi, by the time I picked it up to read it.  I thus was able to experience most of it as a surprise.  It’s a book that’s a modern twist on cyberpunk with plenty of action to boot.

Jumping far enough ahead that some transhumanist elements already exist is a smart move.  It lets the book think forward further than the initial transhumanist elements that it’s generally easy to see the advantages of, like fully functional robotic hands, into the grayer areas with things like cloning and mind control and making soldiers who are super-soldiers.  This is a more interesting ethical dilemma, and the book doesn’t take very long to set up the world and get into it.

Nexus itself is a fascinating drug that combines nanotech and drugs.  It’s easy to see that the author knows his science and has extrapolated into a possible future with a lot of logic based on current science.  That’s part of what makes reading the book so fascinating and slightly frightening.  It feels like an actual possibility.

The world building is done smoothly, incorporating both in-plot mentions and newspaper clippings and internal briefings to establish what is going on in the greater world around Kaden and Samantha.

The characterizations are fairly strong.  Even if some of the secondary characters can seem two-dimensional, the primary characters definitely are not.  Seeing a woman as the world-wise, transhuman strong fighter, and the man as the physically weaker brains was a nice change of pace.  Additionally, the book embraces the existence of gray areas. “Bad guy” characters aren’t necessarily bad, and “good guys” aren’t necessarily good.  This characterization helps tell the nuanced gray area story of the overarching plot.

The beginning of the book was weaker than the middle and the end.  The first chapter that has a character testing out Nexus by using it to land sex with a hot woman almost made me stop reading the book entirely.  It felt like some pick-up artist douchebro was imagining a future where tech would make him irresistible to women.  Frankly, that whole first chapter still feels extremely out of place to me now.  It doesn’t fit into the rest of the presentation of the character throughout the book.  It feels like an entirely separate story altogether.  I would encourage potential readers to skim it, since it barely belongs, then get to the rest of the book.

After the first chapter, the next few chapters feel a bit overly rose-colored lenses at first.  Almost as if the author sees no gray areas and only the potential good in humans.  Thankfully, this is mostly the rose-colored lenses of a main character that quickly fall away for the more nuanced storytelling of the rest of the book.  But it did induce a few eye-rolls before I got further along.

The middle and end of the book look at human potential for both good and evil within the context of both science and Buddhism.  It’s fascinating stuff, and makes a lot of sense since quite a bit of modern psychiatry is working hand-in-hand with ideas from Buddhism, particularly about meditation.  This is where the more interesting insights occurred, and also where I felt I could embrace the book a bit more.

Each of us must walk our own ethical path. And together, men and women of ethics can curb the damage of those without. But for you…if you keep vital knowledge from others, then you are robbing them of their freedom, of their potential. If you keep knowledge to yourself, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. (loc 5597)

Overall, this cyberpunk scifi that mixes transhumanism and posthumanism with nanotechnology, fighting big governments, and Buddhism tells a fascinating tale full of gray areas that will appeal to scifi fans.  Some may be turned off by the first few chapters that lack the nuance and likeable and strong characterization of the rest of the book, but it’s worth it to skim through the first few chapters to get to the juicier middle and end.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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