Tag Archives: Book Review

Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

coldest girl in coldtownVampires in books are still alive and kicking and biting, even in the post-Twilight era, and we have Holly Black to thank for a unique spin on the old legend. Coldest Girl in Coldtown is the story of Tana, a teenager who awakes after an all-night party and notices that her friends are now corpses. All except her ex-boyfriend Aidan, who is alive but bitten, or, in the book’s terminology, Cold. Continue reading

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Why I Didn’t Finish the Fifth Wave

5thwaveI was excited about the Fifth Wave. After all, before publication I was primed with marketing materials (first few chapters snagged at a conference), and I eagerly devoured them. I even had the classic, “I wish I had written this” yearning after reading those intro pages. All good signs.

And when I re-read those first chapters after publication, I felt even more confident I would blaze through this book and finish at 2AM, with a guilty, satisfied smile. The beginning of the book was paced decently, the protagonist, Cassie, was sassy and interesting, and the terrifying state of post-apocalyptic Earth fit with what would really happen if ultra-advanced aliens set their sights on our planet. (less E.T. and more Half-Life 2)

Alas.

Let me back up and give the synopsis. The Fifth Wave is about Cassie, one of the last survivors of the first four waves of mysterious alien attacks that have wiped out billions of humans. Humanity is teetering near extinction, but Cassie is determined to survive. She camps in the woods alone, kills, feels guilty, interacts with interesting family members, tries to figure out who is an enemy and who is a friend, etc. The story is told in first-person from her point of view, and I liked that approach. She’s also a book-lover and lugs around some favorite tomes–limited backpack space and alien apocalypse be damned.

The whole first third of the book is tinged with a gritty, desperate air of mass extinction and survival at all costs. Like The Walking Dead, but better.

[some spoilers below ]

The book goes downhill, fast, when the author (Rick Yancey), decides to jump POV to Cassie’s little brother, Sammy. Then he jumps to a mysterious stranger dude, Evan, who saves Cassie and starts a creepy, awkward relationship with her. Then another guy, Ben, who is important to Cassie and is part of the brainwashing military compound.

Basically, once Evan entered the picture and gave Cassie a weird bath, I was done. I just didn’t know I was done for a few more chapters. All the head-switching was difficult to follow, and all the characters but Cassie either annoyed me or creeped me out.

Plus, even though I didn’t read to the end, I could see the plot coming a mile away. Who is mysterious Evan? You’ll figure it out many moons before the author thinks you will. And that’s no fun.

At the very least, forbidden love should feel tingly and dangerous, not creepy and squirmy. So, I ended the book on my own terms. And I feel confident in saying Cassie wouldn’t have chosen this book to tote around in her apocalypse backpack either.

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Reasons why I’m reading a book series out of order (True Blood)

I have a confession to make. I’m reading the True Blood books by Charlaine Harris, and I’m doing it totally out of order. When I mention this to people, I get the impression that reading out of order is tantamount to that other sin of reading (which I’m also guilty of)–peeking ahead to read the ending.

I don’t read all series out of order. In fact, this is kind of a rare occurrence for me, but I have no regrets thus far. I watched True Blood seasons 1 and 2, so I figured I got the gist of the story from HBO, and no need to repeat it for the sake of saying I read the actual words.

In the library, I browsed through the True Blood paperbacks, reading the back of each book to see which one piqued my interest. I wasn’t totally committed to even trying the books, so I wanted to pick the most interesting one possible. My eyes lit up at the summary of Book #4, Dead to the World. It looked like Sookie and Eric would finally get it on this book! So I was sold. Or, er, borrowed.

Now, Book #4 wasn’t the best thing I ever read ever, but it was funny, entertaining, engaging, and I liked the characters and setting. Perfect for a summer beach book. It’s on to Book #3, Club Dead. From there, I’m not sure what to do. Go back and read Book#2 anyway, since I heard it’s somewhat different than the TV series? Or forge ahead through the series based on what interests me the most? I might go that route.

I’m not worried about the typical concerns of reading out of order, like not understanding the plot. It’s clear that most authors embed recaps, some better than others, for the forgetful or blatantly non-linear readers. I figure that this time, those annoying recaps telling me what happened in the previous book won’t be so annoying anymore (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter).

I highly recommend tackling a series out of order if the following inclinations apply to you.

1. It’s a sequel or continuation of a popular movie/TV show and you dread the thought of backtracking. Don’t worry about bucking the numbers! No one is making you read in a particular order! It’s your free time, so pick up the story where it starts for you.

2. You have a feeling you might like a series, but the beginning sounds boring (for whatever reason). Why not pick up the book that does sound interesting? If the author recap isn’t good, there’s always Wikipedia.

3. It’s a long long series, and you can’t picture reading all of it. But you can picture reading Book #5…

4. You’re at the library/bookstore with a flight/beach trip/boring evening looming, and they don’t have the next book in the series in stock!!! NOO! But they do have some other books in the same series. Hmm….

If you’re still feeling guilty, consider that sometimes authors even write their books out of order. When I was a teenager, I read both The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, both EXCELLENT books. I read the Blue Sword first, and it happened to be published first too, in 1982. Later, I read the Hero and the Crown, the prequel to the Blue Sword, and was surprised to see it was published in 1985. (I didn’t read the books when they came out, so the dates were afterthoughts to me). There are times when authors write the story that moves them first, and I think it’s a good move for readers to follow their hearts too, even if it’s a zig-zaggy path.

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Book Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

If I were choosing a book to read just by browsing cover-jacket summaries, I probably wouldn’t have picked up Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson’s latest YA book about Lia, a (barely) living anorexic girl and her former best friend Cassie, a bulimic girl who is now deceased and haunting Lia. Typically, I don’t gravitate toward gritty realism for the sake of gritty realism, so upon picking up the book, my warning sensors were screaming “Egads! Anorexia AND bulimia! Holy after-school special!”

But, Anderson is no cookie-cutter author, which I knew from reading Speak, her most famous book, so I decided I would trust in her writerly abilities and give Wintergirls a shot. I’m glad I did.

Anderson’s writing reminds me of poetry. As a writer, I know it’s tough to use metaphor and simile skillfully, but Anderson’s sentences work, creating connections that stick, vividly, in your head: (pg 223) “Fat drops of blood splash on the counter, ripe red seeds.” or (pg 84) “Dark chords from the organ slip into the night, turning our shoes into concrete blocks and pulling down our faces until we look like trees drooping with black leaves.”

Anderson also plays with language, often jamming two words together to form new words, or adding crossed out lines, or hyphens, or smaller text. For the most part, I felt the word-coining and language improvisation added depth to the story, although I found the crossed out lines distracting by the end.

When Lia eats something, there are parenthesis after the food indicating the calories, and that small addition worked best for me, a shorthand allowing the reader to jump in Lia’s head and understand how she thinks–pg 7 “I pour too much cereal (150) in the bowl, splash on the two-percent milk (125).”

Overall, Wintergirls is a strong book with a compelling story that sucks you in. The writing is superior, the characters well-developed, and the story and pacing engaging. Sure, anorexia and bulimia aren’t things that I’d list among my normal reading interests, but after reading Wintergirls I felt like I understood Lia’s thought process. Kudos to Anderson for writing a real story and not a lesson plan.

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Book Review: Buyology by Martin Lindstrom

I picked up Buyology thinking it would offer more mind-bending, anecdotal nonfiction in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell. But, although Lindstrom serves up plenty of anecdotes, but he’s no Gladwell in terms of a satisfying read.

The basic premise of Buylogy is intriguing, and highly relevant to the future of marketing. Lindstrom, the self-branded “futurist,” hypothesizes that fMRI technology can reveal our true consumer preferences. Focus groups and qualitative research just don’t cut it, because, as he says in the book, we don’t fully realize what truly drives us. No one will say “I bought that Luis Vuitton bag because it appealed to my sense of vanity, and I want my friends to know I can afford a $500 purse.”

So, after scanning the brains of volunteers, Lindstrom outlined some startling conclusions. Apparently graphic warnings about cigarettes backfire and actually increase smokers’ cravings. Smokers claim they’re deterred from lighting up, but their brains reveal otherwise. Lindstrom also discovers that strong brands activate the same centers in the brain as religious devotion. And, mirror neurons allow us to experience the same reaction as whomever we’re watching. So, if we watch someone hit a home run, our brains mirror the activity in the home run hitter’s brain.

But, if you read the above paragraph, you don’t need to read the whole book. Those few nuggets of interesting are couched beneath Lindstrom’s almost too-chatty style and lack of true insight beyond reporting how cool he is, how cool his idea is, and how cool things like iPods are. The book feels shallow.

A subject like neuromarketing and brain scanning comes riddled with inherent ethical questions, or so I expected. But in the beginning of Buyology, Lindstrom glibly announces that he doesn’t have ethical concerns about the studies, and, at the end of the book, he offers little analysis of the value of this research to society or its potential misuses. On the last page, he spends all of three paragraphs explaining that living with an onslaught of advertising is inevitable, because unplugging would be dreadfully boring. He claims that reading Buyology will allow you to avoid being duped by commercials and marketing, etc. Eh. I don’t believe him. His grand conclusion seems kind of tacked on. I would have preferred a thoughtful analysis of the societal implications of brain scanning and marketing.

Last but not least, I hesitate to pick on an author’s actual personality, but I think Lindstrom’s ego can take it. As a reader, I think of nonfiction narrators as characters, similar to fictional ones. Malcolm Gladwell is a likeable nonfiction narrator/character. I would gladly have him over for dinner.

Lindstrom, though, blasts his ego at the reader and becomes unlikeable and irritating in the process. A quick example: “Why did I bother to write a book about neuromarketing? After all, I run several businesses, I constantly fly all over the globe advising top executives–heck, I’m only home sixty days out of the year.” Maybe it’s because I just watched Up in the Air, but I immediately thought of George Clooney’s globetrotting character bragging about frequent flier miles and days on the road.

Unfortunately, the nonfictional Lindstrom doesn’t have a character arc of heart-touching change like Clooney. He’s the same irritating author in the beginning as the end. As the Prologue (not written by him) says, “Like a Pre-Raphaelite painting there is a glow that emanates from Martin as if he was destined to be on stage.”

Check out his website if you have any doubt about that. Be warned, it contains music that you can’t turn off, a talking Lindstrom video that starts automatically, flashy little price tag things, and a bar of scrolling text.

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Book Review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver takes a new twist on werewolf mythology, and it works. Really well. Much better than sparkly vampires.

In Stiefvater’s world, humans become wolves in the Wisconsin winter, in response to the cooler temperatures. The transformed wolves aren’t slathering monsters with ripped-shirt biceps–they’re simply, literally wolves. The one distinguishing characteristic of these wolves is their eyes, which remain exactly the same as their human eyes once were.

Sam, the wolf guy in the story, has pure yellow eyes. Grace, a pragmatic girl who mysteriously survived a wolf bite unscathed, notices these eyes on “her” wolf, the one who saved her from becoming wolf-chow in a childhood attack. She spends years mooning over “her” wolf from the window of her house.

When Sam is unexpectedly shot, he morphs into human form right before the start of the winter, meets Grace, and promptly falls in love. Unfortunately, Sam realizes this will be his last year to take human form at all. As wolves age, they turn human later and later in the summer, eventually living out their (shortened) lives as wolves, with wolf intellect and no real knowledge of their humanity.

The plot revolves around keeping Sam warm and human, while also determining the whereabouts of dangerous new wolf. Each chapter begins with the temperature noted, which helps to build tension. Grace and Sam narrate alternate, first-person chapters, and Stiefvater pulls off this unconventional narrative device perfectly. As a reader, I often find that books with split narrators have a “good” narrator and a boring one. I’m usually tempted to skim right over the boring narrator sections in such books, but Shiver captivated me the whole way through.

The characters of Shiver held my interest too. Sam and Grace are well-developed and likeable. The chemistry between them absolutely sizzles, and the book succeeds at wringing an emotional response from the reader. Grace kicks butt and proves that strong female narrators can still carry swoon-worthy stories. The secondary characters are fleshed-out too, with no real cardboard sidekick types in this book.

Another plus to Shiver :the writing, the prose that Stiefvater composes, is a lyrical treat. I found myself reading passages again just because they’re enjoyable and vivid.

I think Stiefvater’s twist on werewolves is even more chilling, perhaps, than the original conception of half-human monsters tied to the moon’s cycles. At least a conventional werewolf only remains a wolf for a brief, predictable period, spending most of his time as human. I suppose the horror comes from the savagery the wolf unleashes, the loss of humanity in an angry rage.

Stiefvater’s wolves cut out most of the savagery part, other than the normal danger of normal wolves. But I think Shiver better captures the unnerving, and scary sense, of gradually losing one’s humanity. These wolves spend half the year as wolves, and they can’t pinpoint the moment they’ll change as precisely as the moon’s patterns. And, to up the tension, they lose time as humans every year until they eventually their humanity slips away forever.

Regular werewolves evoke the visceral fear of losing control in anger, but Stiefvater’s wolves touch a much deeper horror. I liken the process to someone getting Alzheimers, losing a little of oneself at a time, until only the eyes are recognizable and humanity is lost forever. It’s not as bloody an end, but I think the chill is universal.

At any rate, I highly recommend Shiver to anyone who likes a good love story with an original werewolf twist, fully realized characters, and kick-ass writing.

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Book Review: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best nonfiction writers out there. I tend to get pretty picky about the quality of writing in nonfiction books (if I wanted to read a boring textbook full of stilted sentences I’d go back to school), but Gladwell’s words go down smooth. Seamless transitions, compelling anecdotes, unconventional yet logical thinking. I like the guy. I’d like to invite him over to dinner and just hear him talk for two hours.

What the Dog Saw is a compilation book, the best of Gladwell’s essays cherrypicked from the pages of the New Yorker. There’s no common theme, but his work is arranged under three broad categories.

Although all the sections are worth reading, the Personality, Character, and Intelligence section held my attention more than the others. The story on late-blooming versus early-blooming geniuses opened my mind to subsets of talent, and I learned plenty about the artist Cezanne along the way.

Among my favorite individual pieces, Gladwell writes about why mustard commands so much shelf space for its gourmet iterations, while innovation in the field of ketchup seems doomed. I also enjoyed his pieces about hair dye ads in the postwar era, the birth control pill, and the talent-centered culture that contributed to Enron’s demise.

Actually, I eagerly consumed too many pieces to name them all. It’s simpler to name the few I didn’t like. Oddly enough, I could have done without the title story, What the Dog Saw, about the dog whisperer Cesar Millan. The story about the Challenger disaster didn’t hold my attention either. Still, the majority of the book is fascinating and well-worth buying/checking out from your local library/filching from a friend.

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