Friday, February 25, 2011

CR3 #18: Dying to Live by Kim Paffenroth

Dying to Live is the story of Jonah Caine, a man who is aimlessly wandering the countryside, trying to survive after the zombie apocalypse. He had been at sea when the trouble started, so he'd come on land to try and find his family. Unfortunately, they had disappeared, and were most likely dead. He continued to wander for months, trying to decide what to do, until he came upon a group of fellow survivors holed up in a museum. He joins their group, and begins the process of reintegrating into society. The group has to deal with the struggles of day-to-day living, as well as the fact that not all survivors want to cooperate and help each other.

On the whole, this is not a bad book. The story is interesting, and there is quite a bit of action. However, I felt that the characters were pretty one-dimensional, and the narrator himself was not all that interesting. No one really seems to develop or change. The book is really not long enough to allow much character development. Also, with the exception of Milton--sort of zombie messiah--both the plot and characters are very similar to that of the Walking Dead comic, right down to the sadistic warlord making others fight for his entertainment.

I'd recommend this book only to zombie literature enthusiasts--it is not a great example of its genre, but will be entertaining to fans with undiscriminating tastes.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

CR3 # 17: Mount Misery by Samuel Shem

Mount Misery is the sequel to Samuel Shem's first book, House of God (review here). It follows Dr. Roy Basch as he leaves the House of God and moves to psychiatric hospital Mount Misery to begin his psychiatric residency. Unfortunately, it turns out that psychiatrists are just as crazy, confused, and often detrimental as medical doctors. As Dr. Basch cycles through the various sectors of the hospital (talk therapy, admissions, Freudian Analysis, drug therapy) he is horrified to discover that it seems everything he is being taught is not only wrong, but potentially dangerous. He begins to fall into terrible patterns of behavior, mirroring the problems his patients are having. Each area is worse than the last, with one doctor who thinks the best way to treat is to be aggressively hostile, one who cares only about insurance premiums and efficiency, one who treats with silence and "regression," and one who thinks the only viable treatment is to pump every patient full of experimental drugs. Ray has few personal connections, and those he does have with fellow residents, patients, and his inexplicably supportive girlfriend Berry suffer unbearably before he finally surfaces and figures out what is going on. He loses several patients, and is forced to come to terms with what he's been able to accomplish, and what mistakes he has made.

In my opinion, this book is not nearly as good as House of God for several reasons. First, it is basically a rehash of the first book: Roy enters enthusiastic, loses confidence, meets a mentor, becomes disillusioned, is pulled nearly to the edge of a complete nervous breakdown, at his lowest point manages to turn things around with the help of his mentor, happy ending. The story--and even some of the characters--was surprisingly close. There was an attempt at the end to add in some kind of resolution--of Roy trying to fix some of the problems he sees--but it feels a bit tacked on.

Another issue is that the first book was written in the 1970s during the Nixon administration, and the feeling of that era permeated the story. This one--although allegedly taking place only a year or two later--clearly takes place in the 1990s. It mentions the Clinton administration at one point, and the doctors are all prescribing Zoloft and Paxil and ritalin. However, it's never explicitly explained that this is so much later, and it's just a very odd feeling. I was pulled out of the story by this several times, because on one hand, the characters and some of the situations are very 70s, but then the doctors start diagnosing ADD. I feel like the author started this directly after House of God, then put it aside for 20 years, until he finally decided he wanted to release the sequel.

My third issue is that this book got extremely dull for a while. The third quarter of the book is Roy's stay in the Freudian analysis area, and he spends an awful lot of time explaining and contemplating Freudian theory. This is the point at which his mental state really begins to fall apart, so it's all very jumbled. I had to reread bits of the section because I'd get to the end of the page and have no idea what I just read or how it connected to anything that came before. I was interested in Roy's interactions with his patients and colleagues, not in his masturbatory theories about his own Freudian progression.

The last thing that bothered me about this was it was not nearly as entertaining. House of God had its moments of cynicism and darkness, but there was also a lot humor. Even in the worst situations, Roy had something amusing--if cynical--to say. I felt this book was considerably darker, and didn't have the same underlying sense of humor and hope.

On the whole, I would probably not recommend this book, except perhaps to those who are in the psychiatry field and might have a better perspective on it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

CR3 #16: The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

I have found that Agatha Christie's body of work feels very uneven to me. Some of her novels are blow-your-mind fantastic, filled with interesting characters and unexpectedly twisty plots. However, some of them are bland, flat, and slightly smug. It's hard to tell what you're getting really. I avoid the Poirot mysteries all together, and find that I have much better luck with her non-series works.

The Pale Horse tells the tale of Mark Easterbrook, a young writer who finds himself embroiled in the mystery of the Pale Horse Inn. One night, on his way home from hearing a dying woman's confession, a priest is murdered. Found on his body is a list of names. But who are these people? What do they have in common. Through chance encounters in a coffee shop and on a country weekend, Easterbrook begins to look into the case, trying to figure out what is going on, and what it has to do with three very spooky self-avowed "witches" living at the Pale Horse Inn.

This is definitely a plot book--the characters are adequate, but nothing particularly special. Luckily, the plot moves along well, and the pieces of the puzzle seem to fit together rationally once all is revealed. I didn't know who the murderer was until almost the very end, which is unusual for me.

I enjoyed this a lot, though it was a pretty quick read.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

CR3 #15: The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor

This story of a small Minnesota town's reaction to the zombie onslaught is nothing genre-changing. It is not going to blow your mind or change the way you look at zombie literature forever. However, it's a fun story, well-written and entertaining.

Lake Woebegotten is a town in rural Minnesota. It is the sort of place that has only two police officers, and where the mayor doubles as the town's used car salesman. Things are going along in fairly normal fashion until one night there is a crazy celestial event which seems to lead to some surprising problems. The issue begins with zombie fish, and soon the whole town is trying to handle the risen dead (human and animal alike) while still continuing to deal with their typical small-town problems (who is sleeping with whom, who is worshipping Norse gods, who is keeping an arsenal in his home, who is a prolific serial killer.) The characters are not exactly deep--most are simply caricatures--but a few of them do manage some development. My favorites were probably Father Edsel, the priest, and Julie, the owner of the local cafe. The book is written in shifting perspective, so we get to drop in on quite a few of the residents of Lake Woebegotten.

The dialogue and in particular the descriptions can be very funny, and are an effective parody of Garrison Keillor's "Lake Wobegone" stories. The middle of the book is non-linear and takes place over the course of several months, so it can get mildly confusing. However, in some ways it was very effectively done, because the characters would say something and you'd be left wondering just what exactly happened when baby Jesus tried to eat everyone at the Catholic Christmas pageant?

As I said before, this is not going to knock you off your seat and change your life, but it is a fun read. The plot moves along, and I found myself laughing quite often. I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys zombie fiction and also has a sense of humor about it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

CR3 #14: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

It has been three days since I finished this book, and I am still not entirely sure whether I liked it or not. The story is of Thursday Next, a "Literary Special Ops" agent who lives in an alternate universe version of 1985 England (a place where the Crimean war continues, reincarnated dodos walk the earth, and Jane Eyre ends with Jane marrying St. John.) After a mission goes disastrously wrong, Thursday heads back to her hometown to recuperate. However, it turns out that her past is not really past (how can it be, when her father is a time-traveller who occasionally stops time for a short chat?) and that dangerous arch-villain Acheron Hades is still a hazard. When her Uncle Mycroft's new invention comes into the mix, it's a race to see who will end up with a potentially world-changing technology.

Does that explanation make any sense? I didn't think so. I was trying to write without spoilers, but the plot is so twisty and convoluted that I just wind up tying myself in knots trying to explain. Perhaps I should make a list of pros and cons for this book and leave you all to make your own devices.

1. Thursday is a smart, interesting, and tough heroine. I enjoyed her voice through the book.
2. The idea that in the alternate universe Richard III gets the live Rocky Horror treatment.
3. The plot becomes interesting and I kept wondering what the villain's next move would be.
4. Some of the side characters were very quirky and interesting.

1. The plot was at some points so convoluted and buried in tangents and exposition that it was almost impossible to keep up. During the first two-thirds of the book I found myself several times considering not finishing it.
2. Sometimes the alternate universe was too much. It was difficult figuring what had changed and why. Plus, sometimes it seemed the author was going off on long descriptions of the changes (Baconists -- people who believe Shakespeare did not write the Shakespearean works and go door to door advocating that it was Sir Francis Bacon--for example) just for his own amusement.
3. The romantic subplot was rather stupid and badly done.

By the time I got to the end of the book, I think that I liked it, but as I said, the first bits were so exhausting that I'm not it averages out. There are several other books in the Thursday Next series, but I am not entirely sure I'm interested in reading them.

Friday, February 11, 2011

CR3 #13: The Bachman Books by Stephen King

The Bachman Books consists of four novellas that were published by Stephen King under the assumed name "Richard Bachman." Bachman was King's escape hatch--he could write non-supernatural thrillers without "tarnishing" his brand. Three of the four pieces in this collection are stories that I consider some of King's best work.

"Rage": This is actually out of print now, I believe, since one of the Columbine shooters allegedly quoted it as an inspiration and King asked that it not be printed again. It's the story of Charlie Decker, a high school senior who--on a bright spring day--shoots his algebra teacher and takes his class hostage. The story is told from Decker's point of view, as he tries to explain what drove him to this point. However, the truly surprising part is the reaction of his classmates to the situation, and the way that the tables unexpectedly turn on Charlie and on Ted, the BMOC. I like this one because the reactions of Charlie's classmates are truly surprising. Although it is at sometimes uneven, and is obviously the work of a young writer (Stephen King wrote this when he was 17 himself, and it shows...nowadays, he'd probably be expelled for writing something like this!) it certainly has its moments.

"The Long Walk": Ray Garraty is a sixteen year old from Maine who is participating in his society's big yearly event: the Long Walk. One hundred boys from around the country gather to walk as far as they can without stopping, starting in Northern Maine and maintaining a pace of at least 4 miles per hour. Ray starts out excited, but soon realizes that the walk is no laughing matter: walkers who drop below 4mph more than three times are summarily executed. It's a battle for survival and sanity. This is a great story as far as character development. The plot is fairly static (boys are walking, talking, and dying), so we'll probably never have to worry about this being made into a movie, thank God. However, the interplay between the characters and their gradual realization of what they've gotten themselves into is gripping.

"Roadwork": This is my least favorite of the four. It's basically the same original premise as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, except instead of being zipped off the face of the earth when it turns out a new freeway is going to be going directly through his house and business, the main character of this story tries to fight the man and eventually loses his mind. It's trying very hard to be "deep" and "serious" but instead it is just deeply and seriously "no fun."

"The Running Man": The movie of the same name starring the Governator is VERY VERY loosely based on this story, but the novella is 180% better. In this story, a healthy but extremely poor man living in a dystopian future needs money to provide for his sick child. He applies and is accepted for a part on the television show "The Running Man." The idea is that he has to survive for thirty days while being hunted by both trained assassins and the viewing public. As he runs, he discovers that there is more going on in the world than he could have imagined, and the giant TV conglomerate has its own dirty secrets. This is another really great story, with both a lot of action and a certain amount of character development. This would actually make a great movie, if it were done properly instead of becoming a campy cartoon.

On the whole, I'd definitely recommend getting copy of this collection -- make sure you get an old version, though, so you get all four stories.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

CR3 #12: The Stone Monkey by Jeffrey Deaver

The Stone Monkey is the fourth in Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme series. In this novel, the quadriplegic detective and his beautiful assistant/girlfriend Amelia Sachs are working with the NYPD, INS, and the State department to try and track down a dangerous Chinese human smuggler. The smuggler, nicknamed "The Ghost" blew up a ship full of undocumented Chinese immigrants, and then began tracking down the survivors and trying to kill them too. Rhyme and Sachs try to figure out what The Ghost plans to do next, and figure out how to capture him. They receive help from a Chinese cop as well as some inter agency cooperation.

The plot moved along pretty well, though I didn't know the chapters from the POV of The Ghost or the terrified immigrants. I would have been perfectly happy to just follow the investigation as it unfolded. I enjoy the characters of Rhyme and Sachs--they are book very different, but both are interesting to read about. Some of the side characters were also every entertaining, and I was deeply sorry when one of the was killed.

On the whole, this isn't a bad book -- it's just light fluff reading to take my mind off all the heavy non-fiction I read all of last year. I'd recommend this to anyone who likes an easy beach-read style mystery. Also, it is not necessary to have read the previous books for this one to make sense, although it's certainly more interesting to be able to spot the references.

Friday, February 4, 2011

CR3 #11: The Vampire's Assistant (Cirque Du Freak #2) by Darren Shan

The second book in Darren Shan's Cirque Du Freak series picks up exactly where the first ended. Young Darren has been taken in by Larton Crepsley to be trained as a vampire's assistant. Darren has difficulty coming to terms with his new existence (half-vampire) and with having to leave everything he's ever known behind. However, Mr. Crepsley decides that they should rejoin the Cirque Du Freak, which is great for Darren. He makes some new friends, including Ezra Von, the snake boy. Unfortunately, danger and mystery are still in the mix for Darren--Mr. Tiny and his carnivorous "Little People" are disquieting at best, and it turns out that having normal human friends can prove more challenging that Darren originally realized. The ending of the book is both surprising and disturbing.

I like this one better than the first--it is less exposition and more action, in my opinion. Sometimes Darren comes close to "Harry Potter in #5 unbearably whiny" levels, but the author manages to pull him back to humor most of the time. The side characters are great, and the atmosphere of the Cirque itself really adds to the interest. If you were sort of on the fence about the first one, I recommend trying this and seeing if you end up with a definite opinion. I am not rabid for more (it's no Sookie book, after all) but I certainly look forward to the next installment.

CBR11 #4:Pretending to Care - The Pretenders (Cemetery Girl #1) by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden

I wanted to like this, but...I just didn't. I don't know if it was too short, or whether it would have more appeal for a YA audience...