Review: The Dead Lands

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Review for “The Dead Lands” by Benjamin Percy (2015)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is another doozy of a review. When I first started it I was originally between 3 and 4 stars, because despite the many flaws of this book I still managed to read it in less than a week. It’s not very often that a book compels me to finish it, despite the eye-rolling, sometimes sleep-inducing journey it took to get there. There were moments that I found myself enjoying this book, then I became frustrated and annoyed with it, then went to enjoying it, and back and forth and back and forth until the end.

This novel opens up about 150 years after a deadly flu virus called H3L1 (“Hell”) has wiped out most of mankind. In humanity’s complete breakdown nuclear weapons were unleashed, and many of the remaining humans have been affected by cancer or become deformed in some way from the fallout (missing limbs, tumors, extrasensory powers, etc). Within this ruined world are a group of survivors, thousands in number, located near the former city of St. Louis. Called “The Sanctuary,” it’s a safe haven behind walls with a corrupt government ruling over it. With each day that passes, the current prospects of survival for the inhabitants are becoming more and more grim. Water is running out, food is scarce. Paranoia begins to spread. People are scared of the mayor, who rules the Sanctuary with an iron fist.

Outside of the walls of the Sanctuary are miles and miles of what is called the “Dead Lands.” Due to the heavy amounts of nuclear waste in the atmosphere, it is a fearsome, desolate place inhabited by frightening creatures–gigantic spiders, man-sized, bloodsucking bats, and vicious wolves. The mayor uses this place as a consequence to Sanctuary dwellers who challenge his authority, those who criticize him are exiled there and left to be devoured by horrible creatures. It’s some scary shit.

Anywho, within the Sanctuary are a small group of people–Lewis, a museum curator, and Clark, a female sentry, who are prompted to leave the town when a mysterious young girl named Gawea (Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea…*sigh*) arrives and pleads for them to come with her to Oregon, a fertile place with endless water and green grass. With several others, this group manages to secretly escape and go on a dangerous journey to Oregon through the Dead Lands to an unknown fate. The book then breaks in two: we follow Lewis and Clark’s adventure as they make their journey to Oregon and stay behind with Ella (Lewis’ assistant) at the museum in the Sanctuary as life gets more and more treacherous under the evil mayor’s rule.

Characters are a problem in this book. One of the villains here is obviously the mayor of the Sanctuary, but he’s not given too much consideration other than the stock ‘evilness’ that we come to expect from all of the big bad ass people we read about. Gawea has somewhat of a backstory, but it’s nothing special, more of a function to move the plot along and nothing else. And Lewis is so distant as a protagonist in his detachment from the other characters that he, not surprisingly, is also detached from you, the reader. There’s very little to compel you to care about what happens to him, despite the fact that most of the book is about him. The ending of this book was also a major letdown. The ultimate arrival and showdown with the community in Oregon just kinda…happens. I wasn’t impressed. Maybe the author is planning a sequel or something. *Kanye shrug*

The Dead Lands is definitely a post-apocalyptic novel, but it has all of the earmarks of a fantasy story. There are quotes from J.R.R. Tolkien (literally), tales of fantastic beasts, and epic battles. I was about 25% into it when I realized this and dropped my guard a little. It’s also a retelling of the historic Lewis and Clark expedition, with nothing close to the resemblance of that event other than the names of the characters. All of the mixing of genres was mildly irritating, because a lot of times it was as if the book had lost its focus. Like the journey westward, the plot meanders and stutters along, about a 100 pages could have been cut from this book and it would not have suffered from lack of detail.

I recommend this book, as long as you don’t try too hard to analyze this for post-apocalyptic scientific accuracy. I keep going back to my statement that this book is more fantasy than science fiction for that reason, because the plot holes here are pretty jarring. The time line we have to follow for civilization’s break down is laughable, and the biological reasoning given for animal mutations is just plain ridiculous. The times when I began to enjoy this book is when I simply shut off my expectations of what post-apocalyptic fiction is supposed to be and just let myself get carried away by the fantasy.

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Review: All the Missing Girls

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Review for “All the Missing Girls” by Megan Miranda (to be published on 6.28.16)

Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

It’s safe to say that I liked this book, but for some reason I wasn’t quite smitten with this story as I should have been.

‘All the Missing Girls’ is told from the perspective of Nic Farrell. At 18, Nic’s best friend Corinne disappeared from their North Carolina hometown of Cooley Ridge. Everyone was a suspect, including her then-boyfriend Tyler, but Nic takes a chance anyway and leaves Cooley Ridge behind. Ten years later, she returns to town to tie up loose ends and deal with her ailing father. Nic then finds herself caught up in the disappearance of another local girl, her neighbor, Annalise Carter. Annalise, it turns out, has a connection to the events of 10 years ago and the mystery of Corinne deepens for Nic and the characters around her.

Once the scene is set, the story is told in reverse order, a Memento style narrative that starts from a 15 day period 10 years ago and progresses backward. While I didn’t mind the unique way that the story was set, for some reason, I didn’t feel invested in the characters here. I liked Nic and I kinda liked the other characters, but I didn’t feel a pressing need to know what had happened or why. Perhaps I’m picky when it comes to thrillers, preferring a certain tried and true formula…or perhaps I’m a little leery at this point of suspense books with “Girls” in the title, I’m not sure.

I recommend this book, however. It’s a great adult thriller.

[Note: I received a free digital copy of this book by NetGalley and Simon & Schuster publishers in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Bleed Like Me

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Review for “Bleed Like Me” by Christa Desir (2014)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book touts itself as “a Sid and Nancy-like romance full of passion, chaos, and dyed hair.”

In a lot of ways, this novel does deliver on that promise. Amelia Gannon’s (called Gannon by her friends) home life is not a happy one. Five years ago, her parents adopted three boys from Guatemala whose chaotic behavior overwhelms her parents to the point where they have no energy left to give her. Other than her job at a local hardware shop, cutting herself with a razor is the only relief for her anguish. She eventually meets Michael (called Brooks by his friends) and they immediately begin an obsessive, dangerous relationship. When Brooks first appears you immediately know he’s bad news: he’s a drug user, paranoid, controlling, and equally damaged, selfishly demanding all of Gannon’s heart and soul.

This book was not an enjoyable read. Both of these people were so toxic by themselves, together the ol’ proverbial ‘train wreck’ metaphor didn’t do them enough justice. I read this book in about 4 sittings, and honestly I believe that was way too many. I didn’t want to finish this book but found myself so emotionally invested in the characters that I wanted to find out what happens, just to see how far down the rabbit hole they would go.

The ending of this book felt rushed. There’s an interesting story unfolding, and suddenly everything explodes and subsides within three pages. Big let down. Big big let down.

Review: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

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Review for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” by Iain Reid (2016)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a hard book to review because it is not a book for everyone. It’s a very dark story and its ending is completely and superbly ambiguous. Personally I loved its nebulous-ness, that there’s no right or wrong answers because it all depends on what your interpretation of the events were. This book is a great conversation piece, there’s even a website with a forum where you’re free to debate with other readers on what you think it was about. Now I’m not a genius here at 29chapters…but a book that keeps people talking about it after they read it whether it was good or bad is definitely a book to read, if for no other reason then to see what the damn fuss was all about. Conversation = good literature, nahmean?

To tell you detailed info about this story other than what you’ll find on the back cover or online is to give this book away, which is out of the question for this review. I will say that it starts off innocuously as a story of a young couple’s road trip, with an unnamed female narrator who is “thinking of ending things” with her boyfriend of several months, Jake. As she ruminates over their relationship, you get this weird feeling that things just aren’t “right.” Things get really really weird during their visit to Jake’s family’s farmhouse, weirder than ever on the couple’s way back from the farmhouse, and by the ending it was so freakin’ weird that I had to reread the last 50 pages just to understand and appreciate the brilliance of the weirdness that had just been presented to me. Cleverly interspersed within this story are conversations by other unnamed narrators on the aftermath of the two main characters involved. It’s beautiful.

This is not so much a book about what happens, but more about the atmosphere and the crazy tension you have to endure to get to the end. There is a sense of dread, of something terribly unsettling in the midst of events that at first seem completely ordinary. It is not fast paced, but a slow burn of a psychological thriller. You won’t see zombies, a killer in the woods with a bloody axe, or dead bodies. The freak-out here isn’t in what you’re seeing, but in what you’re not seeing: the human condition and what happens to the mind in the state of complete isolation.

At 224 pages, this is a short book. I would recommend reading it in 1 or 2 sittings, just because you don’t want to prolong the sweet agony of reading it any longer than you need to. Five stars here. If you read nothing else this summer, read this. Excellent!

Review: Wink Poppy Midnight

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Review for “Wink Poppy Midnight” by April Genevieve Tucholke (2016)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

A hero. A villain. A liar. Who’s who?

This book begins with the tagline above. There are three main characters–Wink, a wild child with tea-leaf reading mother and siblings she calls “Orphans,” Midnight, a beautifully misguided boy-child who’s mourning the loss of his absent mother, and Poppy, a spoiled, rich brat of a girl who gets anything she wants. To tell you anything about how or why these three become connected is to give away what little plot this book does have. The problem with this book is that we already know that people are villains, people are heroes, and people are liars. The characters are thin, and the main point of this story seems to be the all-too-common theme that people aren’t what they seem. The author goes straight into the narrative of the three characters right away, with short chapters narrated by each. About 70% of the way in you find out that there is some kind of conflict here, but you never had enough time in the beginning to figure out what the truth was anyway. When the so-called ‘twists’ are revealed in the end you could care less because you had nothing to work with in the first place.

And let’s talk about the writing here. It’s reminiscent of a style that you find in the fantasy genre, with images of cobblestone walks, twisting forest paths, the scent of jasmine, etc. But at about 25% in, the author’s schtick becomes repetition, repetition, and more repetition. Usually in groups of three. It’s awful.

“Clawing, scratching, scrape, scrape, scrape…”
“I hate that place, hate it, hate it, hate it.”
“Not again, not again, not again…”
“…I’d snap back, cruel, cruel, cruel, relishing every little lick of my tongue.”
“I’m bored with being mean. Bored, bored, bored.”

I wish I was making this up. In response I’m closing, closing, closing this book forever.

Thankfully this is a quick read. About the only good thing I can say is that it’s got a swell cover.

Review: Towers Falling

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Review for “Towers Falling” by Jewell Parker Rhodes (to be published in July 2016)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It’s hard to believe that the 9/11 tragedy was almost 20 years ago. While I can still remember it vividly (I was a grad student living in Madison, Wisconsin at the time) and can tell you EVERYTHING I did on that day, my son (born in 2004) knew nothing at all on September 11th until he asked me about it several years ago during a newscast. Like many parents, there’s always a desire to shelter my child from the knowledge of bad things–mass murders, school shootings, stories of innocence gone, war, terrorist attacks. I had been waiting until he was an “appropriate” age to tell him specifically about 9/11. However, when he was 5 1/2 years old, he brazenly asked on his own.

This book sets out to answer why it is important for the next generation of kids to understand this particular tragedy. Its a pretty good book, told through the eyes of Deja, a whip-smart 5th grader who lives in a homeless shelter with her parents and her siblings. Her father has no job and has headaches and severe anxiety around buildings, and her parents refuse to tell her why. With two of her school friends, she uncovers the truth about 9/11 and exactly why her father experiences nightmares.

It’s an ok premise, but I felt like this story kind of lacked. Why is a 10 or 11 year old child growing up smack dab in the middle of Brooklyn never once heard of 9/11 before? With radio and television and live memorial services and the internet, I thought this was kind of weird. I’m willing to suspend some degree of disbelief to accommodate this notion, but Deja’s complete naivete of any and everything just seemed kind of ‘false’ to me. But I dunno though…this is a kid’s book, so maybe I’m being too analytical here. Pardon me.

I’d recommend this book for middle grade readers, 3-5 grades.

[NOTE: A digital copy of this book was provided to me from Net Galley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism

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Review for “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” by Grady Hendrix (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

To read this book is to step into a E.T. movie freaked, Day-Glo’d, Swatch watch filled, Phil Collins and Tiffany mall rat music crazed past. I’ve been all about getting this book for the past few weeks, because any book that takes place in the 80’s is truly a book after my own heart. From the first page, I must say that Grady Hendrix completely nails the setting of this story. Going to the roller rink, watching The Equalizer on TV, the ever-present “satanic panic,” crimped hair…lemme tell ya’ll, there was so much of myself in this book that it was hard to control myself from shedding nostalgic tears. Partly because the 80’s were my childhood and one of the definitive times in my life when I was truly happy. The other part is because I saw so much of myself in the lives of the two main characters.

The novel focuses on the friendship of Abby and Gretchen, two teenage girls that have been the best of friends since grade school after bonding during an E.T. skating party gone horribly wrong. As they enter the tenth grade, they merge into a four girl clique. One night, after a skinny dipping disaster and a bad LSD trip, Gretchen disappears in the woods and later reappears acting strangely. Gretchen’s parents refuse to intervene to help her, and things continue to go downhill for Abby at school. Eventually Abby makes the determination that Gretchen is possessed by an evil demon, and the “exorcism” begins…

Now this book doesn’t stray too far from tried and true cliches of any exorcist-themed horror story–there’s projectile vomiting, dead birds crashing into windows, bloody maxi pads, and demons that supposedly speak in German. Some scenes were genuinely scary and others were just plain gross. I won’t give away all the specifics, but this book does mess with your head a lot. Is Gretchen truly possessed by the devil? Although you’re led to believe that something sinister is definitely happening, the inclusion of such cliches makes you wonder. There’s a kind of magical realism at work as Hendrix writes about these things as if he’s serious, but all throughout reading you have to stifle your laughs. There’s an undertone of humor here that can’t be ignored and made all of the cheesiness (at least for me) forgivable. Besides, it was less about the horror element for me and more about the power of female friendship, which kept me reading and shone through everything else. I never stopped feeling for Abby or Gretchen and what brought them together in the first place. As I’ve said before, there is so much of myself in this book: finding a best friend, experiencing the time of your life with your best friend, going through the depths of hell and back with your best friend. That’s what it was all about.

I think this book is best enjoyed by those who promise themselves before reading it not take it that seriously. With chapters named after popular 80’s songs (“We Got the Beat,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and “867-5309/Jenny”) you can’t, because you’re caught in an 80’s time capsule and don’t want to be let out.

Rock on. And gag me with a spoon.