Saturday, December 29, 2012

Death Grip: A Climber's Escape from Benzo Madness by Matt Samet

Rating 3/5

This is perhaps a four-star book if it were cleaned up a little. Samet is a surprisingly good writer, and his story is an interesting one, but this book is in need of a good proof-reader. There were quite a few simple mistakes, especially near the end. I don't read a lot of ARCs, so I don't know if that's standard and forgivable. In addition, Samet refers to the past and future in strange places in the narrative, which doesn't always have to be confusing, but in this case, it is.

There are a lot of climbing stories in this book, and therefore a lot of climbing "lingo", which I wasn't familiar with, and were poorly or not at all defined. A glossary would've been helpful, but I also found most of the details of the climbs uninteresting. Sometimes it felt like Samet was "place-name dropping" and boasting, as he kept listing all these climbs (and their difficulties, of course) even if they didn't really add to his story. I suppose other climbers might find this impressive or interesting, but the general public might not.

Samet is obviously a big fan of nature, and his descriptions of it were long and florid, maybe over-described, depending on your taste. Personally I found myself skimming these sections.

Despite all this, I mostly enjoyed this memoir, and I could relate to the author's roller-coaster ride of ever-changing psychiatric prescriptions, as well as his feelings that the medicines cause more problems than they fix. While I was never addicted to "benzos", I've had similar experiences with psychiatrists and psych wards. Samet has a bit of a superior attitude when it comes to his fellow patients, and I think he takes himself too seriously - there is no hint of a sense of humour about himself in his writing. Maybe he just didn't add it in because he didn't want to take away from the gravity of the subject matter, or maybe he just has an inability to laugh at himself. I did admire that he came to fully accept the "darkness" in himself as not something that need changing. Ultimately Samet's story serves as a warning about the psychiatric circus that so many people find themselves hopelessly trapped in. He does paint psychiatrists with a wide brush as sinister beings whose only goal is to keep people on meds and therefore as eternal customers. Surely some are like this, but I think most have good intentions and are just haplessly boxed in by their training. Either way, the message is clear: psychiatric consumer beware.

I didn't learn much about psychiatry from this book that I didn't already know, but other people might. What I did learn was how competitive the sport of climbing could be. If you like memoirs, this is decent fare, with above average writing.

Note: I received a free advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher through the goodreads first reads program. (This has no influence over my rating or review.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Kill Order (Maze Runner, #0.5) by James Dashner

Rating: 2.5/5

***Alert: Mild Spoilers***

This prequel to The Maze Runner trilogy has a prologue and epilogue that refer to characters from the other books, but have nothing whatsoever to do with the main story of this book. It's just weird.

This is the story of how The Flare began - a virus released as a population control measure after apocalyptic sun flares killed billions of people, but apparently there's still not enough resources left on earth for the people who are left. The story follows Mark (a wimpy teenager who only has any strength when he's filled with rage - but at least he's not a stereotype) and the group of friends (but mostly just an old ex-soldier) he survived the apocalypse with as they try to figure out who released the mutating virus and why. They run across a little girl who seems to be immune, and realize their one final act (since they're infected), should be to deliver her into the hands of the people who released the virus and hope they can use her to make a cure. If you've read the trilogy, you'll know that didn't happen, so all the struggles Mark and his friends went through were pointless.

That's not the only thing that takes away from the attempt at tragic heroism in this book, however. It's also the endless string of impossible fight sequences (how many times can two people fight off hoards of savage lunatics without sustaining severe, immobilizing injuries? Plenty, apparently.) It got to feel like repetitive filler.

This book lacked the character and relationship development of the original trilogy - it was almost all action. I found Mark's "flashback dreams" to the sun flare catastrophe to be the most interesting part of this book, and I almost wish Dashner would've made that the focus of this book. It's a much more interesting story. We don't get much of a satisfying conclusion - Deedee walks through the Flat-trans and we are left with unanswered questions. The Kill Order was just not as inspired or inspiring as the other books in the Maze Runner series.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience by Laurence Gonzales

Rating: 1/5

I made it to page 160 before my "rage-pathway" imploded, which is to say, I could not survive to the end of Surviving Survival. (Note: the narrative ends on page 221 - the rest of the book is appendices, so I actually read most of it before quitting in disgust). This is a poorly written book by a man with no apparent academic credentials. He doesn't use citations to back up his "scientific" arguments, though he does have an extensive list of references at the end of the book to make it seem like his theories correspond to his research. I'm calling bullshit. Having a bibliography is not the same as linking your information directly to a credible source using endnotes. Gonzales further undermines his already questionable authority by making up his own names for neurological and psychological concepts. He dumbs everything down by providing information in a piecemeal way and using the informal "you" when trying to explain things. Some concepts are over-explained, and some are under-explained. His attempt to intertwine multiple stories along with research and theories results in a scattered, interrupted, and confusing narrative with no flow. While certain ideas may be linked in his mind, he has difficulty connecting them together for the reader - at times I would wonder "what does this have to do with the story you're telling?"

I lost all ability to take this author's ideas seriously on page 149:

"Travel is a time-honored strategy for healing. That may be the real reason that ancient people migrated out of Africa: As the human brain grew into the speculative and contemplative organ that it is, our capacity for grief grew as well. I doubt that we had to leave Africa because it was full. Travel may have been an early adaptation to profound grief."

Really. It was grief that made our ancestors leave Africa. Not changes in environment, a growing population and the need for more land and resources, or a desire to explore. No, it was grief. Grief from what exactly? Life? Being attacked by tigers? Please note that the author does not reference any science whatsoever to back up this particular theory of his. It's just a random, uninformed speculation, and it makes me wonder how much of the rest of the ideas in this book are of the same quality and origin.

I picked up this book because I was very interested in the topic of how people recover (or don't) from traumatic, life-threatening events. I don't think Gonzales has more real answers to this question than could fill a long magazine article. His attempts to explain the "science" are unprofessional and muddled. He occasionally tries to wax poetic and inspiring about the people whose stories he's telling (many of whom he'd recycled from his previous book), but to me it came off as exploitive and tasteless. This book was disorganized, completely lacking in credibility, and thoroughly aggravating. The author did justice to neither his subject nor the people whose tragedies he used to elucidate his subject. I hate this book.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Rise of Nine (Lorien Legacies, #3) by Pittacus Lore

Rating 2.5/5

This one was pretty weak. It definitely could not stand on its own as a singular novel - there isn't much of a traditional story arc, it's just a bunch more action following on the heels of the last book. I actually think this story is much better suited for a video game. In that form, the premise of the story and all these crazy powers would be epic. Here, they are just unbelievable. It's pretty ridiculous to have to carry a huge chest of random gadgets wherever you go, but in a video game you get an inventory for these things. Plus, so much of this book is action, written in a sparse way that's hard to visualize. Yep, this could definitely be a very cool multi-player action-rpg. But as a book, it's fairly mindless garbo. Some of the characters are entertaining (I like Six and Nine), but the relationships between them all are rushed, weak, and/or cheesy, now that action has taken over and everything is hurried. It's hard to get attached to the new characters when time isn't taken to develop them, and they are just given a bit of introduction. And having everybody crushing on everybody else (opposite sex only - wouldn't want to stir the pot!) is totally cheesy. I am curious about Five - the only character we have yet to meet. Whoever it is, I hope they can smack some sense into the rest of these emotionally-driven idiots. And I hope the next book is written in third person narrative, instead of this multi-font multi-first person nonsense.

The Dead Path by Stephen M. Irwin

Rating: 3/5

Good story, but the writing got in the way. The language seemed to ruin the flow in a lot of the book, but especially for the first 150 pages or so. The suspense and mystery were great, the actual facts, when played out, were a bit less. Sometimes I wondered whether Irwin wrote this book to get over his own fear of spiders. This probably would be a very scary book for people with was the ghosts that spooked me out a bit: their eyes. Anyway, an okay book, with a neat glow-in-the-dark cover.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Everfound (Skinjacker, #3) by Neal Shusterman

Rating 4/5

Everfound was more enjoyable than the previous books in the Skinjacker trilogy, both of which I found quite slow for their first halves. It took me those two whole books to really become invested in the characters and their fates.

In my review of Everwild I discussed briefly what makes Mary Hightower a really great villain, and she continues to be so until the (very) bitter end. There's nothing more dangerous than a deluded person on a self-appointed mission, especially if they are able to persuade others of their righteousness by appearing like a saint. I don't know a whole lot about the myth of the Anti-Christ, but I think an interesting comparison could be made here.

Shusterman explores a lot of themes in this trilogy, including friendship, morality and redemption. Many of the characters find themselves on an archetypal heroes journey, but each walk a unique path, discover a different purpose, and end up at a different destination. Not everyone in this series gets justice.

I was a bit weirded out by the mass violence perpetrated on the living world by the dead. It seemed surreal at times, and I had to keep asking myself if it was appropriate for YA readers. I mean, you can legitimately compare Mary to Hilter, but none of the characters in the story seemed to really grasp the full horror of what she was doing, and some of them even afforded her respect at the end. Is it the knowledge of life after death that makes her mass murders more acceptable? Or is it because they knew her personally and couldn't see her as a monster? Or perhaps being removed from the land of the living themselves, Afterlights were too disconnected to value life the way the living do. Maybe, though, it was just a fail on the author's part.

In any case, as a whole, the Skinjacker trilogy is a unique story that explores some interesting themes in a palatable way. Everlost is a fun realm to read about, and Shusterman has created a host of compelling characters. This series is written a little "young" compared to most YA books I've read, so I'd say it straddles both the YA and Children's genres.

See my review of Everlost (Skinjacker #1) and Everwild (Skinjacker #2)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Kiss of Midnight (Midnight Breed, #1) by Lara Adrian

Rating: 1/5

Adrian is not a bad writer in the technical sense, but her characters and story-telling are thoroughly unoriginal. This is an extremely watery copycat of J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series - it lacks any depth, humor or real felt emotion. Gabrielle is an annoying idiot, and Lucan is a pale rip-off. I was so annoyed, I was actually hoping one of them would die. I get that characters in books - and people in general - do stupid things. But a good writer creates sympathy for these characters' foibles by giving them credible reasons for their mistakes. You feel like, under the circumstances, you may very well have done the same thing. Or at least, you can readily understand why the protagonist made their bad decisions. Not so with this book. "I'm stubborn and reckless" is an over-used and never credible motivation in this genre (and urban fantasy, especially YA). Gabrielle and Lucan - and therefore also the author - are maybe the worst offenders I've suffered to read since Rebecca Fitzpatrick's Hush Hush. The only thing going for this book is Adrian's good grammar and occasional interesting turn of phrase. I think I am done experimenting with the paranormal romance genre.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge

Rating 4/5

Child of the Morning is my first novel set in historical Egypt (unless you count The Queen of the Damned, which I don't), and I have no idea how historically accurate it is. It doesn't matter, really. This book was more or less what I expected, full of rich detail and well-written. (Though I don't understand Gedge's use of the word "dull", which she always pairs with antonyms like "gleaming", "sparkling", and "shining" to describe Hatshepsut's adornments).

This book had a slow pace, which fit well with the setting and decades-long scope of the story. There were a lot of day-to-day details that might well have gotten tedious in less skilled hands, but Gedge was able to keep my interest. The story did not become truly compelling until the half-way point, after which I did not want to put the book down. Having said this, I did also enjoy the first half.

Hatshepsut is an intriguing character, but difficult to relate to. She's royal, arrogant, beautiful, good at everything she sets her mind to, and has a fierce belief in herself. Everyone in the book loved her from childhood on, but it took a long while for me to really warm to her and root for her. Eventually, though, I came to feel great sympathy for her, and experienced her hopes, frustrations, joys and sorrows along with her. In the end I was close to rage at her undeserved losses, and broken-hearted by her tragedy. And of course I have to note how much I seethe at stories of great people (fictional or no) who are not allowed to fulfil their potential just because they happen to be women.

All in all, an excellent book. I really enjoyed the author's writing style and attention to detail. She created a strong, passionate main character and filled her world with interesting friends and enemies, gods and temples, intrigue and emotion. I look forward to reading more of Gedge's books.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable-And Couldn't by Steve Volk

Rating 3/5

To be perfectly honest, I'd have given this book four stars, but I felt like I've already read its contents in various other places before. Not Volk's personal experiences, of course, but the information.

It was a decent book, well-written and interesting. I like his "middle-way", open-minded-skeptic approach. Time and again, Volk makes the point that there are things we just don't know, and that admitting it is much more reasonable than making polarizing arguments in order to convince ourselves and others. Volk goes on to say that dogmatic skeptics (like the New Atheists) are actually just as irrational as believers, emotionally defending their world-view and refusing to heed the very scientific evidence they claim to exalt. The author reiterates this to the point of harping, which changes the book a little - it's not just an investigation, it's a message: All we ever hear are two extremes, diametrically-opposed - God exists, God doesn't; ghosts exist or they don't. Pick your side, uncertainty is not allowed. Except in a lot of areas, uncertainty is actually the reasonable opinion, and we need to be allowed to say "I don't know." How can we learn anything if we think we already know everything? Volk is championing a balanced open-mind, critical-thinking and skepticism without the "deny everything" policy. I think he's right, and maybe that's why I didn't need to hear it in every chapter.

The range of topics this book covered weren't as broad as I expected, and the areas that were discussed didn't go as deep as I would've liked. Volk focuses on one or two examples in each category and sometimes wastes time telling us uninteresting stories about not being able to get information out of certain people. In itself, the investigative journey here is somewhat flat compared to other books I've read in this style. And I'll admit, by the end, Volk did lose a bit of credibility with me by disclosing so much of his personal experience. I can't really explain why, but somewhere in the last few chapters a line was crossed and the author picks up some of the dreaded "Paranormal Taint" for himself. (Side note confession: I snickered every time I read that phrase.) The thing is, the book doesn't suffer much for it, since he's not, in fact, using his credibility to persuade readers of the truth or falsity of anything - besides the idea that not being sure is reasonable.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Insurgent (Divergent, #2) by Veronica Roth

Rating 3/5

This review contains information that may possibly be considered spoilers by some people, but in my opinion is vague enough not to warrant hiding it under spoiler tags.

Insurgent is more focused on action than its predecessor, Divergent, which necessarily had more character- and world-building. Personally I like character-focused books, so I didn't really get into Insurgent as much as I did Divergent.

I wrote a lengthy rant in my review of Divergent about how ridiculous it was to set up a society this way in order to foster peace. I still think that is the case, however in the last few pages of this book we learn that the system seems to have been set up to develop Divergents - people with "flexible minds", who are supposed to save the rest of the world, which has presumably plunged into chaos because they all the people in it are "inflexible". A society in which every single mind is totally rigid seems equally ridiculous (not to mention biologically impossible) to me, and I don't have much hope that Roth is going to come up with a satisfactory explanation as to how the world "outside the fence" came to be that way.

I also take issue with the idea that "human nature" is the ultimate problem to be solved, and that "human nature" can "become" something that is anti-human and self-destructive. In my opinion, it is the systems that humans set up for themselves that can become destructive. Humans lived in balance with each other and nature for hundreds of thousands of years, and it's only our present culture that is destructive. Human nature is not the same as human culture. So I guess what I'm saying is that I totally disagree with the fundamental idea of this book series. Which makes it difficult to review this book. Unless, of course, the ultimate lesson at the end is the point I've just made. It's possible Roth will surprise me and come to this conclusion, so I have to withhold final judgement until I read the third book.

Setting aside my foundational issues, the story is fast-paced, and never boring. Like many readers, I did get annoyed with Tris for not being able to get over herself. She became a lot more like the stereotypical YA protagonists with her emotion-driven recklessness and guilt mongering. Plus, I really didn't get why Four/Tobias wouldn't even discuss going after the information. His reasons were never explained, and it makes no sense in terms of his character. Truly, it seemed like a totally contrived conflict to create tension between the couple. And man, I really hope Caleb can explain himself, because I'll be super angry at Roth if she really turned one of my favorite characters into an immoral sack of crap who'd do that to his own sister. It doesn't make sense in terms of what we have been led to believe about his personality.

I honestly can't give a final verdict on this story, because so much that I find questionable may or may not be explained, rectified or redeemed in the next book. I save my ultimate conclusions until then.