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

October 2, 2014 4 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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Book Review: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead by E. A. Aymar (Series, #1)

September 13, 2014 4 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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Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (Series, #1)

September 12, 2014 2 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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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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Book Review: The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick (Series, #1)

August 12, 2014 4 comments

Brightly colored buildingsSummary:
Rachel is a doctor in the slums outside of London.  It’s not a great place to live, but it’s safer than a lot of the other options available.  She’s also a Reacher with telepathic powers.  Since she was a young girl, she learned to hide her abilities and always know her exits so she could run at any time.  But when two brothers show up, one a wounded Reacher, and tell her a mobster sent them looking for her, she has to decide whether to run again or trust the brothers.

Review:
Near-future dystopias will never cease in their appeal to me, and so I was fairly quick to accept this one when I was choosing ARCs to read for 2014.  The book offers a grim dystopia but far less running than one would imagine from the title.

The book establishes the overall dreary setting of a dystopia fairly quickly.  Rachel’s work at the hospital and commuting home from it is dirty and grimy. Society is clearly barely functioning, a fact that is smoothly and clearly established.  It takes a bit more time to learn more about the over-arching world, and the fact that Rachel is a “Reacher,” a person with some form of telepathic powers.  For some reason, the government is seeking to eradicate all Reachers, whereas the church, which is illegal, views them as angels sent from above, metaphorically speaking.  It’s an interesting world but our view into it is quite narrow, so there’s a lot of questions left unanswered.

Rachel is a good, strong character who is well-rounded in spite of knowing little of her backstory.  The brothers, on the other hand, are kind of annoying and two-dimensional.  They and the general crime lords/corrupt cops feel much more cookie cutter than Rachel does.  In a way, they drag her down.  It’s hard to root for her when she chooses to cast in lots with this bunch.

Similarly, the plot focuses in on what feels more like a standard crime thriller plot, rather than a dystopian one.  It’s a good crime plot, but it’s not a dystopian one.  The title implies a much more dystopian style book, such as Rachel using her powers to outwit the government and start a new colony or something like that.  Instead it feels a bit more like an urban fantasy style crime plot that just so happens to be surrounded by society breaking down, somewhere out there.    I think marketing it as a running game, rather than as the crime mystery plot it really is hinders the book a bit.  Readers who would like an urban fantasy style futuristic crime novel might miss it, because it sounds so dystopian.  The title and summary give the vibe of a Logan’s Run or Maze Runner style book, when that’s not what it is.  What it is is a perfectly good futuristic crime novel, but that’s not what it sounds like.

Overall, this is a quick-moving tale of futuristic crime with a dash of telepathic powers and an easily imagined setting.  Fans of near future, fantasy, and crime will enjoy seeing the three intertwine.  Those looking for more of a scifi or dystopian focus should look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

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

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Book Review: One Death at a Time by Thomas M. Hewlett (Series, #1)

June 26, 2014 6 comments

Man in a hat standing next to a Europeanish buildingSummary:
Jack Strayhorn is a private eye and a member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous.  Only, he’s not an alcoholic, he’s one of the vampires who meet in a secret vampire group that exists under the umbrella of AA to learn how to control their urges and feed on humans without killing them.  He’s just returned to LA, his death site that he hasn’t been back to since he had to run in 1948 after becoming a vampire.  When his current missing person case shows up dead next to a Fae politician, Jack gets dragged into a mixed-up underworld of Faes, werewolves, drugs, and a group of vampires determined to rule the world.

Review:
This is one of the twelve indie books I accepted to be reviewed on my blog in 2014 (complete list).  I was immediately intrigued by the summary, due to its delightful urban fantasy/paranormal take on AA.  The book delivers exactly what it promises, spiced with a noir writing style.

Jack Strayhorn is the perfect paranormal version of the noir-style hardboiled detective.  He’s got a biting, snarky wit, a handsome presence, a sharp mind, and is a bit distant and mysterious.  It’s just in this case he’s distant and mysterious because he’s a vampire.  Making the private eye a vampire makes his character unique in noir, and, similarly, making the vampire a private eye with his focus primarily on crime solving and not paranormal politics gives the urban fantasy vampire a unique twist.  Jack is presented as a complex character, one who we could not possibly get to know fully in just the first entry in the series.  It’s easy to see how he will manage to carry the proposed 12 entries in the series.

Supporting Jack is a wide range of characters who accurately portray the diversity in a large town like LA, as well as the diversity one expects in a paranormal world.  The characters are multiple races and classes.  Whereas some urban fantasy books slowly reveal the presence of more and more paranormal races throughout the series, this book starts out with quite a few, and that is a nice change of pace.  Most urban fantasy readers expect there to be more than just vampires, and the book meets the urban fantasy reader where they’re at.  Even though the book has a large cast, the secondary characters never blend together.  They are easily remembered, and the diversity probably helps with that.

I like the idea of vampires having an AA-like group, but I’m still not sure how I feel about this group existing as some secret under the umbrella of AA itself.  The book even goes so far as to say the the founder of AA was a vampire himself, and used the human illness of alcoholism as a cover for the vampire group.  I like and appreciate vampirism as a disease that some people just mysteriously have at birth as an analogy for alcoholism, but I feel that having it present in the same group as the real life AA groups dampens the realness of actual AA, weakening the analogy instead of strengthening it.  I’ve seen books before have paranormal people get together in AA-style groups (zombies anonymous springs to mind), and in real life AA has spinoffs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous.  Prior to reading the book I thought maybe something might be added by having the vampires be a secret organization under AA, but after reading the book, I don’t think it did.  I think the analogy would have been stronger if vampires spotted the similarities of their genetic vampirism with alcoholism and formed a “vampires anonymous” group, inspired by AA.  Something about vampires creating AA themselves as a cover hits a bit of a sour note and weakens the analogy.

The plot is complex, with just enough twists and surprises.  There were parts of the ending that I was unable to predict.  The plot contained within the book was wrapped up sufficiently, and the overarching plot intending to cover the whole series was well-established and filled me with the desire to keep reading.  Unfortunately, the second book isn’t out yet, so I will just have to wait!

Overall, this is a delightful mix of urban fantasy and noir and is a strong first entry for a new series.  Some readers might dislike the paranormal take on Alcoholic’s Anonymous found within the book, but it is secondary to the mystery/noir plot and easy to gloss over if necessary.  Recommended to urban fantasy readers looking to venture into noir or vice versa, as well as anyone who enjoys both urban fantasy and noir.

4 out of 5 stars

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

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Book Review: The City of Time and Memory Part I by J. A. Childress (Series, #1)

June 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Black and white image of a giant clock with a red person jumping from it.Summary:
Zak wakes up from a night of drunken revelry to find himself in his apartment but not his apartment building.  His apartment is now part of a massive structure of multiple different architectural styles that looks like it goes on forever. Plus his bathroom is missing.  Shreya wakes up in her car in a parking garage to Hungry Eyes playing on the radio and an ominous car nearby nicknamed “Die Pflaume.”

Review:
This first entry of a new serial does a quick job establishing a strong setting but just when the action gets going, it leaves the reader hanging.

When I accepted this review copy, I must admit that I didn’t realize it was the first entry in a serial, I thought it was in a series.  Serials offer small episodes of an overarching story in bite-size chunks the reader picks up.  Think of it as reading an episode of your favorite tv series.  I think it would help if this was marketed more clearly as a serial, since certain readers love that reading experience and others aren’t too keen on it.  Making it clearer that it’s a serial will help it better reach the right readers.

A good serial entry will read much like an episode in a tv show with a large, overarching plot, but also a smaller plot that can be told in one episode that is, ideally, tied to the overarching plot in some way.  This gives the reader the satisfaction of completing a piece of smaller plot but also keeps them engaged in the series as a whole.  This serial does a good job setting up the overarching plot.  People are waking up in what appears to be an alternate universe that is possibly punishing them for something they did that they can’t remember with sinister beings chasing them or tormenting them from afar.  It’s a good mystery, but it is just getting going when the serial entry stops.  This would be ok, but the big weakness of the serial entry is that there is no self-contained smaller plot.  Thus, instead of feeling any sense of satisfaction of having learned something or completed one mystery, the two main mysteries of the overarching plot are just getting going and then stop abruptly.  Without the presence of a second, self-contained, smaller plot for this entry in the serial, this just leaves the reader feeling cheated out of getting the whole story, rather than the dual experience of satisfaction at the wrap-up of the smaller plot and intrigue at the larger plot.

The setting of the alternate universe is well-established and delightfully creepy.  Everything being just a little bit off is creatively written without being in the reader’s face.  The author also includes a drawing of a mysterious symbol that Zak sees, which helps build the atmosphere.

In contrast, Zak and Shreya feel a bit two-dimensional, but this is possibly because they have such a short time in which to be established.  Similarly, the demonic character who chases Zak comes across as corny, straight out of a B movie, not frightening like he is, presumably, supposed to.  The world building is so good that the two-dimensional good guys and cheesy bad guys stick out like a sore thumb.

The one flaw in the writing style is there are way too many similes.  At times it feels that every other sentence contains one.  Any descriptor used too much can go from artful to annoying.  A lighter hand on these would be helpful in future entries.

Overall, this first entry in the serial establishes a delightfully creepy alternate universe where everything is just off.  The lack of a smaller, self-contained plot in addition to an overarching plot will make this frustrating to read, unless the reader has the next entry at hand to read immediately.  Recommended primarily to horror fans who like their horror in small bites and enjoy the concept of a serial who won’t mind waiting a bit for the conclusion to the mystery in future entries.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review

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