I expected the memoir "Everything is Wrong with Me" to read just like my own childhood because the author, Jason Mulgrew, is a year younger than me. B...moreI expected the memoir "Everything is Wrong with Me" to read just like my own childhood because the author, Jason Mulgrew, is a year younger than me. But instead of the suburbs in the 1980's, Mulgrew grew up in a rowhome in working class South Philadelphia, in a neighborhood where your "Mummer's Club"--like an American Legion hall for non-veterans--is your drinking club for life, your grandfather runs numbers for the mob, seemingly everyone is involved in petty crime or casual brushes with violence, and your friends have nicknames like Uncle Petey and Chuckie and Screech. In fact, "Everything is Wrong" feels more like the first 20 minutes of Goodfellas (Mulgrew even channels Ray Liotta at one point), but with the occasional mention of Sega Genesis, Upper Deck baseball cards, and "Saved by the Bell" (see above, re: "Screech"). Mulgrew is definitely a witty writer with a deft, if sometimes awkward, touch. He retraces his life from stories of his parents before they were married up through his middle school years and awkward group hang-outs with girls. You might feel vaguely dissatisfied at the end, because there's not much thread connecting the stories and anecdotes about his life, other than hints to an alcohol-soaked young adulthood, and he doesn't even come to any big conclusions about his life or how it all fits together. But isn't that what life is like anyway?(less)
There's no shortage of apocalyptic works of fiction out now in books, TV, and movies. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller dives at the heart of one reason w...moreThere's no shortage of apocalyptic works of fiction out now in books, TV, and movies. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller dives at the heart of one reason why the genre might be so popular, which is a secret or subconscious yearning many people seem to possess to live a simpler, less crowded, less technology-dependent life. After surviving a flu that kills damn near everyone in the United States, Hig (our narrator) sets up at a small airport where he still maintains his small Cessna airplane. He lives only with his dog and another man who is the kind of hard-core survivalist that seemed to be waiting for this kind of societal collapse his whole adult life.
Big sections of the novel are given over to Hig's descriptions of long hikes in the woods, the pleasure of solo piloting a small aircraft, the peace he finds in fishing and hunting, and the wisdom of sleeping under the stars. Just about every other human being in the early parts of the novel is presented as an immediate threat, toting weapons with sinister motives. Hig and his survivalist pal generally kill anyone who comes near them on sight. Despite this philosophy that the only person you can trust is yourself, Hig eventually goes in search of people who maybe AREN'T completely evil, and that's where the main action of the novel begins (around halfway through).
Ultimately, it's hard to say where author Heller comes down on whether people need other people, or that humans are the most dangerous predators. (Probably a mix of both, of course.) But at the very least, the happiness the characters find in their isolated, naturalistic settings will make you wish you were outside camping with only a sleeping bag and a loyal dog at your side. (less)
I loved Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, about a time travel machine repairman searching for his lost father. Most of...moreI loved Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, about a time travel machine repairman searching for his lost father. Most of Yu's short stories in this collection lean heavily on the same concept of a science fiction trope explored as an allegory for some deep crisis of introspection in adult life. When you come across that idea on its own, as I did reading How To Live Safely, it's brilliant. But when you read a bunch of those similar stories back-to-pack, it starts to seem less clever with repetition. Especially since Yu often makes himself the narrator/main character in his stories (or at least names the main character after himself). If I had to pick my favorite story, it would be "Hero Absorbs Major Damage," a first person account of a video game character in an MMORPG. There's a lot to like in here, and Yu's confident, straightforward writing style always shines through.(less)
I was a little disappointed by World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. It's less a novel than a collection of short stories about people who w...moreI was a little disappointed by World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. It's less a novel than a collection of short stories about people who were involved in a zombie apocalypse, told in the first person with the "narrator" interjecting questions from time to time. The only thing really linking the stories is the oral history rubric that the narrator has put together. Max Brooks's idea of trying to show how the entire world could be potentially affected by a zombie outbreak is a fantastic one, and it's clear he did a lot of research and tried to really get into the details of how people of different cultures would react and respond to such a threat. He does manage to get past some of the usual zombie story tropes of a small band of people surviving together, and that's to be commended. Many of the "Oh yeah, I didn't think of that" ideas are clever, such as the zombies who end up littering the ocean floor, incapable of drowning.
Unfortunately, World War Z mainly reads like a survey on stereotypes Americans have of other nationalities. Read as a window into how the United States views itself in relationship to the world, maybe it succeeds, but I don't think this was the author's intent. I would have liked for the characters to have talked like real people, instead of what are obviously writer's constructs. And for what is supposed to be an international cast, they sure all do seem to talk alike, and there's really not a lot of depth or variation to these people. Most of what happens starts to feel repetitive after a while, and I found myself rushing through the last few chapters--no good novel should be read that way. As far as recent zombie literature goes, I was much more impressed by Zone One.(less)
The movie "Predator," I've heard, is really about the Vietnam War: an invisible enemy strikes from nowhere, picking off a unit of Army special ops in...moreThe movie "Predator," I've heard, is really about the Vietnam War: an invisible enemy strikes from nowhere, picking off a unit of Army special ops in the jungle, one at a time, seemingly just for fun. In the same way, Robopocalypse is surely informed by the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following the creation of actual AI, the machine intellect of course decides to wipe out human existence (presumably after watching Terminator, Tron, The Matrix, War Games, or any of the other apocalyptic literature about computers that are too smart for their own good). But the bulk of the novel is about how the robot mind (called Archos, or Big Rob in the book) continually adapts to humankind's attempts to defeat its robot soldiers, and how the humans adapt to those changes in turn. One main character even spends the book in Afghanistan, fighting alongside his former Taliban enemies against the robots, to make the analogy even more clear. Of course, while the robot army is controlled by a central big brain (see above, re: Tron, The Matrix, et al) actual terrorists are much more decentralized, but I don't think Daniel Wilson is trying for a perfect metaphor here. Instead, what he achieves is a very lively and readable story, told as an oral history compiled by someone who discovers Big Rob's own archives of the human v. robot war. That narrative device works well, although the prose and dialogue, too often reflects the author's voice more than it should the characters'. Not surprising that the movie version already has Spielberg lined up to direct, but I would have much rather seen this played out as an HBO or AMC miniseries. At any rate, Robopocalypse should be added to the canon of war fiction thinly disguised as sci fi shared by Starship Troopers and The Forever War. (less)
With all the classic monsters lately being defanged as sparkly abstinence parables, it's nice to read a horror story that's actually meant for thinkin...moreWith all the classic monsters lately being defanged as sparkly abstinence parables, it's nice to read a horror story that's actually meant for thinking adults. The novel kicks off with Jacob, our narrator, being informed that he is the titular last living werewolf, and therefore the lone remaining target of a worldwide hunt. What follows has enough shadowy international organizations, spycraft, luxury travel, and gunplay to fill a James Bond movie (I kept imagining Daniel Craig, our most recent Bond, as the protagonist). But deep down I see The Last Werewolf about a man's growth from adolescent sex obsession to mature romantic love--even though Jacob doesn't physically age. All the initial talk of werewolf erections and libido is a little jarring, but is a fair enough estimation of the mind of any male teenager. Plus it serves mainly to highlight the dramatic change in priorities after Jacob starts to develop a genuine romantic (although still sexual) relationship. And after all, aren't all the great monster stories (except, I suppose, Frankenstein) about the conflict between sexuality and romance? At least this one treats the subject with the maturity and intelligence it deserves. (less)
For as long as 1Q84 is, I never felt like it was dragging or getting bogged down. It's the first Murakami book I read, so I can't compare it to his ea...moreFor as long as 1Q84 is, I never felt like it was dragging or getting bogged down. It's the first Murakami book I read, so I can't compare it to his earlier work. But I actually enjoyed the way he repeats themes, imagery, even bits of dialogue between characters to show parallel action and ideas. I'm not sure I understand what exactly Murakami was trying to say here--many of the more fantastical bits are left unexplained an unresolved, but I think that tying up every loose end isn't really the main point of the book. But he gets you right inside the characters' heads, even if their motivations and actions seem a little odd sometimes, you're with them all the way. And it's beautifully written, or maybe I should say translated, but what I must assume are the grace and elegance of Murakami's Japanese prose carries through in the English edition. (less)
I can see why a lot of people, especially teenagers and twentysomethings, would relate to this novel. Katniss, the heroine, is plucked from obscurity...moreI can see why a lot of people, especially teenagers and twentysomethings, would relate to this novel. Katniss, the heroine, is plucked from obscurity and forced to compete with other kids her age (which is their teens) in a death match on a televised, national stage. That's probably (because what do I know, as a late Gen-Xer?) comparable to how kids today feel with the exposure/voyeurism of Facebook, Tumbler, Twitter, et al, along with the mad rush to get the best grades to get into the best colleges. This reviewer is among the lucky few who got to watch this same story played out a few years ago in the Japanese movie "Battle Royale," which I found more enjoyable than The Hunger Games, even if it didn't hit the same kind of isn't-this-like-modern-life analogues. (In "Battle Royale," I thought the parts of how a class of teens forced to kill each other wind up forming into the same cliques they joined in school and picking enemies over petty, teenage grievances was particularly genius.) But to me, Katniss is a bit one-note, a kind of empty stranger. And Collins's writing isn't particularly clever or artful, although she does keep up a nice, brisk pace and provides enough description that you never really have trouble picturing or understanding what is happening. Ultimately, I'm glad to have read this (and I'll probably at least watch the movie when it comes out on DVD), but I'm not in a rush to jump into the rest of the trilogy.(less)
Ready Player One is about a near-future craptopia, in which most people's lives are so miserable that they spend most of their time in a virtual world...moreReady Player One is about a near-future craptopia, in which most people's lives are so miserable that they spend most of their time in a virtual world that combines Second Life, World of Warcraft, and every other video game ever. In order to inherit the fortune of the recently deceased mega-rich creator of this online universe, the main character Wade has to draw upon his knowledge of 1980's pop-culture trivia and gaming skills. You can't ignore the charms of the world Ernest Cline has created in which all your nerd obsessions become the path to wealth and success, and he is great about elegantly describing game mechanics, movie quotes, etc. But my main complaint with the book is that the hero hardly ever seems to come up against a problem he can't solve, or a crisis that requires a skill he hasn't already mastered. Is that intentional on the part of the author, a way of reflecting video game characters who themselves are always capable of defeating the end boss of whatever particular level, and it just comes down to operator skill? Or is this actually showing just a simple lack of creativity on the author's part? If that distinction was more clear, this would have been a much more impressive novel. (less)
One of the things I liked about Lev Grossman's "The Magicians," was that unlike most fantasy novels, it didn't seem to be trying to set itself up for...moreOne of the things I liked about Lev Grossman's "The Magicians," was that unlike most fantasy novels, it didn't seem to be trying to set itself up for a series of eight 1,000-page books. Instead, the clever mashup of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia neatly wrapped up its crises by the end of the book. Even though the ending was cliffhanger-ish, it felt more like a simply good ending than an effort to say "to be continued..." In "The Magician King," Grossman wisely skips the JK Rowling trap of hey-lets-go-back-to-school (I suppose he could have made Quentin, the main character, a teacher at their magic school), and spends most of the novel having the characters pursue a quest in Fillory--his Narnia analogue. At the same time, we get a series of interesting flashbacks from Julia, a minor love interest in the first book, here given major face time as someone who learns magic through a kind of underground hacker culture. Grossman's writing is tight and quickly paced--you won't find any attempts to ape Tolkien with long descriptions of terrain, histories of kingdoms and dynastic families, or even the precise workings of magic. He balances well the external plot machinations and the internal struggles of the main characters. I'd love if more fantasy writers took his lead and spent more time on characters and story than world-building. (less)
Freedom took a while to get rolling, and even then it only seems to move in surges and waves. Some stretches of dialogue feel interminable--I ended up...moreFreedom took a while to get rolling, and even then it only seems to move in surges and waves. Some stretches of dialogue feel interminable--I ended up skipping a few chunks. But Franzen's writing is a pleasure to read nevertheless. He certainly is adept at creating a believably dysfunctional family, with layered motivations and a lifetime's worth of interpersonal struggles. And he's also captured-- without having to go in depth about politics itself--the political mood of our time, where the inkling that someone's beliefs are set at a different part of the political spectrum from yours are enough to make you dislike that person. (less)