The first time I ever laid eyes on The Secret Life of Souls, I actually thought it would be a contemporary feel-good story about dogs. But then again, I’ve also never read a Jack Ketchum novel before, and was completely unfamiliar with his work. A quick search on Goodreads brought me to his author bio (which proudly proclaims that his first book Off Season was once scolded by the Village Voice for being “violent pornography”), prompting a swift re-evaluation of my first impression. Still, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. Short this book might have been, but sweet it wasn’t. And while it might not have been strictly horror, certain parts of it were certainly horrifying.
The story begins with an introduction to Delia Cross, her twin brother Robbie, their dad Bart, and mom Pat. Talk about your dysfunctional family! On the surface, everything looks copacetic. Delia is a talented child actor, already making a name for herself at eleven years old. In fact, she’s so successful that she’s the sole breadwinner for her entire family. Pat, a former drama student, is now living a life of stardom vicariously through her daughter, pushing Delia hard through her numerous appointments and driving them both to and from auditions and film shoots. Bart on the other hand does nothing but spends his days in the garage obsessing over his muscle car and shopping online for “great deals”, squandering his daughter’s earnings on things they don’t need. And when it comes to quiet and mild-mannered Robbie, it would appear he is happy as long as his family is happy, apparently content to let his sister take all the attention.
But underneath this picture of success is a festering bitterness, and everyone around Delia is too self-absorbed or in denial to see the truth. The only one who seems to have any clue what’s going on is Caity, the Crosses’ two-year-old Queensland Heeler. This gifted dog is also confidante and best friend to Delia, who hasn’t had a chance to make many friends her own age due to her rigorous schedule and being tutored at home. Everyone else seems to have a plan for Delia, not caring how she feels about it. Not surprisingly, all those toxic ambitions finally come to a head on the eve of Delia’s biggest gig yet when a terrible tragedy befalls her and Caity, causing the collapse of everything the Cross family had come to take for granted and leaving their future in jeopardy.
The Secret Life of Souls gave me all the feels—and they weren’t necessarily all good ones either. Believe it or not though, that’s sometimes a positive thing. After all, I would take a story that gives me raw, painful or visceral emotions over one that leaves me cold any day, and say what you want about this book, but it definitely evoked some powerful reactions. Case in point, I wasn’t even halfway through this novel when I became almost overcome by this blinding urge to go berserker mode on nearly everyone in it. In case you ever need a reminder on how much people can suck sometimes, just look to Pat and Bart Cross. I’d be even angrier at them if they weren’t so pitiful, these two clueless, selfish parents who are clearly stuck in the past. Bart is immature and irresponsible, driven by instant gratification and delusions of being a bold “risk-taker”. Pat is even worse, encompassing all the most reprehensible stereotypes of the aggressive, domineering stage mother. Meanwhile, poor Robbie is relegated to the sidelines, an already introverted child further marginalized by his oblivious, materialistic parents.
So many times while reading this book, I just wanted to yell and scream and hit something, but thankfully in the middle of all this darkness there were also many points of light. The story is told through half a dozen or so POVs, switching frequently between them so that we could get into everybody’s heads—including the dog’s. Caity and Delia’s sections were the best—and not just because they were two of only a handful of characters I didn’t want to punch repeatedly in the face. From their POVs, I could sense the pure and uncomplicated love between a girl and her dog. The two of them have a special bond, Caity loving Delia the only way a dog would, without demanding anything in return.
For that alone, I would probably recommend this book to dog lovers, with the caveat that some parts can be very difficult, very disturbing to read. This is a tragic story that’s heartbreaking at the best of times, and yet there is a beautiful, mesmerizing quality to it too, perhaps even a beacon of hope once you look past all the human evilness. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more elucidation on this point, since everything seems to go to hell in the last twenty pages, with the intended goal of the epilogue coming off as scant comfort after watching everything spiral out of control like that.
All told, The Secret Life of Souls was an eye-opening read—highly emotional and gut-wrenching, even maddening in places, but that just goes to show how deeply, effectively Ketchum and McKee have managed to draw me into their story. This was a book I simply couldn’t put down....more
What a fun little book! Not to be missed by fans of Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, but even if you don’t follow the series, it might be worth taking a look. When this novella landed in my lap, I briefly debated whether or not I should read it, since I am woefully behind on the main series and I know a lot has happened to the characters since I last visited this world. I worried that I would get too confused or lost.
Well, for readers who might be wrestling with the same doubts, let me put your minds at ease: no prerequisite reading is required before jumping into this one. Of course, if it would help if you know a little of the basic foundation behind the Iron Druid Chronicles, i.e. our protagonist is Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,000-year-old druid living in modern times with his faithful Irish wolfhound Oberon. Everything else is going to be pretty easy to pick up along the way, not to mention The Purloined Poodle is a whole different animal anyway. Pun absolutely intended.
For one thing, the entirety of the tale is told through the eyes of a dog. That’s right, Oberon fans, urban fantasy’s most popular pooch gets his very own book. In the main series, Atticus’ ancient druidic status gives him access to a full suite of nifty powers, including shapeshifting and having an ability to commune with the natural world. That also extends to being able to talk with his dog, and in every Iron Druid book I’ve read so far, Atticus and Oberon’s conversations always manage to become the highlight. This probably goes without saying, but if you find the two’s psychic exchanges as entertaining as I do, then you will love this.
What I enjoyed most about this novella was how “dog-like” Hearne managed to sound while writing from the POV of Oberon. I was laughing from the very first page, reading about his thoughts on canine butt-sniffing etiquette. Like his human, Oberon is also well-versed in all forms of geek culture, so expect tons of pop-culture references. But humor is only one part of this equation; the story quickly builds into a mystery, as a routine walk through the park leads to Oberon and his owner to discover a string of abductions in the Pacific Northwest involving prizewinning dogs. Local police already have their hands full dealing with people cases, so it’s up to Oberon to convince Atticus to help the victims’ owners to look for their stolen pets.
Right away, I knew I’d missed some key events in our characters’ lives, since the last time I saw them they were still in Arizona. The main cast seems to have expanded a bit too. Happily, these are just background details. This novella is part of the main series timeline, but it’s probably more accurate to call this one a short side-story, a lighthearted little detour. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t caught up anyway, because we’re not going to be focusing on the humans too much.
Not only is this narrative all about the dogs, I simply love how this book portrays the relationship between Oberon and Atticus. It’s clear that the two of them are best friends who dote upon each other, and when latter indulges the former, I can’t help but think of one of my own dogs, who’s also a big, lovable goofball like Oberon. It just makes me want to take this book and shove it into the hands of all my dog-lover friends, because I know they will appreciate the beauty of the human-dog bond that Hearne captures here so well.
And like I said, the story is also entertaining and funny as hell. Knowing what I do about its doggy protagonist, I went into The Purloined Poodle expecting a few chuckles, but Oberon really brought down the house with this one. I was impressed that an entire story told from his perspective would work so well, figuring that being inside his head would start to get on my nerves or his narrative get stale after the first twenty minutes. Not so, though. The novella format was well-suited for a story like this—just long enough to be satisfying, but also short and sweet enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome.
Dog lovers, urban fantasy enthusiasts, and Iron Druid fans take note: if you are one or any combination of the above, I would highly recommend reading The Purloined Poodle. It won’t take long and it’s the perfect escape; a great way to spend a rainy afternoon or a quiet evening in, curled up on the couch with your special fur baby and this wonderful little novella....more
Oh boy, this was exactly the kind of book I needed in my life.
Not that my current to-read list is lacking by any means, being well stocked with all kinds of offerings from mind-blowing cerebral science fiction to sweeping epic fantasies. But sometimes you just gotta kick back with some giant rampaging shark action, you know?
Hence, the Meg, short for Megalodon or Carcharodon megalodon, a species of prehistoric shark that lived more than 2.6 million years ago and makes its extant cousin the Great White look like a precious little baby.
Thank all that is good and holy that these guys are extinct.
Steve Alten’s MEG series, the first book of which is soon to be adapted into a movie, follows the exciting and oftentimes terrifying underwater adventures of former US Navy deep sea diver Jonas Taylor and his family. Meg: Nightstalkers is the fifth novel of the sequence, though like all the other books it can be read perfectly fine on its own as a standalone. Being new to the series, I was grateful for the plentiful background information provided by the author which gently eased me back into this next chapter of the story. The first part technically began in the previous installment Meg: Hell’s Aquarium, and considering that it was published a little more than seven years ago, I am likely not the only reader who would appreciate all the recap details. Regardless, whether you’re a newcomer or just continuing the series, you shouldn’t have any problems at all.
The book starts off following a nightmare situation already underway, with Lizzy and Bela, the two massive Megalodon sisters, having been set loose from the marine facility owned by the Taylor and Tanaka families. They’ve been storming up the coast ever since, ultimately winding up in the Salish Sea off British Columbia. But while Jonas has his hands full trying to figure out how to recapture or kill the Megs, his son David is also dealing with some prehistoric sea monster problems of his own. After witnessing his girlfriend die in a gruesome attack, David has agreed to join the hunt for the creature responsible—a 120-foot, hundred-ton Liopleurodon which had escaped from its refuge in the Panthalassa Sea.
Because giant sharks obviously aren’t enough.
I’m not even going to try and pretend these books are anything more than they appear to be, nor will I deny the fact I read this simply out of pure guilty pleasure. The writing isn’t going to be raking in any awards. The plot is laughably absurd. The violence and gore is flagrantly gratuitous, the science lacks any kind of logic or credibility, and most of the characters are stupid arrogant blowhards with more balls than brains (plenty of shark fodder, yay!)
But man, did I have a helluva fun time with this one.
I’ll be the first to admit a weakness for the kinds of creature features made popular during the 70s and 80s, or those cheesy made-for-TV horror films featuring animals running amok or going on killing sprees. Meg: Nightstalkers felt a lot like the book version of that, and to be honest, I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to read about gigantic prehistoric sea monsters swimming around wreaking havoc on quaint seaside properties, sinking a bunch of boats, and devouring a crap ton of people.
Every once in a while I’ll find myself in a mood for an unassuming and shamelessly pulpy novel like this one, just to let loose and have fun. And I have to say, I was extremely satisfied to get my five hours of guts-splattering, blood-spewing terror and entertainment out of this book. From its fascinating intro to that explosive ending worthy of Jurassic World, I enjoyed every moment. Will it be for everyone? Probably not. But as the old saying goes, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. With books like these, what you see is what you get, which can be unbelievably refreshing and cathartic. I feel that my reading routine is made much richer by mixing in light and fun offerings on occasion, the sort of stuff that doesn’t take itself too seriously. When I get the chance to sneak them in between my longer heavier reads, they can be a real treat. After my experience with Nightstalkers, I would definitely read more MEG books. In fact, I’ve already placed a hold on the first one at my library.
So, when you’re heading out to the beach this summer, to hell with the other beach-goers who’ll probably give you and this book funny looks! Consider packing along a copy in your day bag. You’ll have a great time…even if you’ll want to stay out of the water....more
A whole generation was scared off from swimming in the ocean by the Spielberg film based on this book. Embarrassingly, I have to say my own reaction was even more extreme. It was the early 90s and I must have been about 7 when I watched Jaws for the first time on VHS, and for an entire week I refused baths because I was terrified little great whites were going to pour out of the faucets and eat my face. I was an especially wimpy kid with an overactive imagination.
Anyway, fast forward more than ten years, because that was how long it took before I finally managed to screw up the courage to watch the movie again. By then, I was in college and had forgotten much of what happened in the story, so aside from my memories of a couple horrific iconic scenes that have forever burned themselves into the hard drives of my mind, in many ways it was almost like seeing it for the first time all over again. The difference was, I was no longer a child. And chalk it up to the impatience of my twenty-something-year-old self or the fact that the movie was already more than 30 years old by that point, I realized then how needlessly I’d hyped that experience up for myself. Watching Jaws through fresh eyes, it occurred to me that the movie was actually kind of…boring.
But don’t get me wrong; I’ve certainly come to love the film now that I’m older, because I obviously wouldn’t have bothered to check out the book it was adapted from if I wasn’t such a big fan. So, why have I rambled on and on about movie in this review so far when, really, I should have been discussing the Peter Benchley novel instead? Well, it’s because a lot of things because clearer to me after I read this. Let’s face it, barring a handful of edge-of-your-seat moments in the beginning of the film and of course John Williams’ classic score, things don’t really get going until Brody, Hooper and Quint finally end up on the ocean to hunt that big damn shark. Up until that point, much of it was terribly long and terribly dry, and if I thought that about the slow burn build-up of the movie, a part of me couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to make out with the source material.
Truth is, I ended up being pleasantly surprised. The book kept me thoroughly entertained from start to finish, and not only on account of the differences from the movie. It’s clear to me now that a faithful adaptation wouldn’t have worked at all, because of the much deeper, more profound themes in the novel—which I hadn’t expected at all. Benchley must also have realized that writing a horror/suspense-thriller book about a man-eating shark wasn’t going to be easy, if nothing else because every scene on land was going to require a little something extra. After all, no ocean means no shark, and no shark means no action. In other words, boring.
So, not surprisingly, actual scenes with the shark—or “the fish”, as it was called in this book—were written with this cold and almost detached attitude, leaving readers with no illusions as to its brutal nature, and when it kills, you can bet there’s no skimping on the blood and gore.
But hey, what about when the story isn’t focused on the shark? Well, as a matter of fact, plenty of other things happen, including Mayor Vaughn’s connections to the mafia, and a torrid affair between Brody’s wife and Hooper. Ellen Brody, who was barely an afterthought in the movie, is actually a central character in the novel with a major storyline surrounding her intense longing for the affluent life she led before she got pregnant by Brody, which is why she ended up marrying him and settling in Amity. The overall feel of the book is undeniably more melancholy and mature.
On the flip side, the darker tone meant that we lost much of the bromance that made the movie so enjoyable towards the end, and the characters were all so thoroughly unappealing that more than once I ended up rooting for the shark. The finale was also nowhere near as explosive or satisfying, so ultimately, I think it’s safe to say that while the book wins in some areas, it also loses spectacularly in others.
Still, I have to say reading Peter Benchley’s Jaws was more enjoyable than I thought it would be, especially for an older book that’s so inherently associated with its popular adaptation. I’m guessing if you’re interested in checking it out, it’s because you’re like me—a fan of the movie who was really curious to see what in the novel made it in, what got changed, and what got cut. If you want to get the full picture, this is definitely a must-read....more
I’m not really afraid of spiders. Yes, they’re kinda icky, but unless I find one right in my personal space I tend to just leave the little crawlies be. Like they say, most house spiders are relatively harmless and I actually like to keep them around to take care of other worst insect pests that might be lurking about.
But the spiders in The Hatching, though? NO. Dear God, just…NO. In the reading of this book, I had to fight several urges not to jump into the shower every few minutes, because I was convinced I was feeling hundreds of tiny little skittering legs crawling all over my skin. And like I said, I am not afraid of spiders (or at least I didn’t used to be). If however you’re an arachnophobe, then this is going to go really badly for you.
The Hatching begins in the jungles of Peru, where The Swarm (given the kind of book we’re talking about, I feel it’s only correct to designate the spider horde as a character in its own right) claims its first victim. Before long though, other disturbing reports are emerging all over the world. In China, a nuclear bomb goes off, which their government claims was a “training incident” gone wrong. In Minneapolis, an American billionaire’s private jet suddenly falls out of the sky. In Kanpur, India, a group of scientists receive unusual seismic readings at their earthquake lab. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, screams suddenly ring out aboard a cargo ship. The commonality between all these events? Give yourself a pat on the back if you guessed eight-legged menaces.
Accordingly, this story follows a large number of characters in a large number of settings, but eventually we get to tease out a handful of perspectives that make up our main cast. At the American University in Washington DC, Dr. Melanie Guyer is a leading spider researcher working with a mysterious calcified egg sac found buried beneath the ancient Nazca Lines. Her ex-husband Manny is conveniently the White House Chief of Staff to President Stephanie Pilgrim, where he gets a front row seat to all decisions made by the top brass during this global disaster. In Minneapolis, FBI Agent Mike Rich is called to the scene of the aforementioned plane crash and makes a gruesome discovery. In Scotland, a couple find themselves stranded when all flights are grounded. In California, Corporal Kim Bock and her squad of Marines are getting ready to mobilize, not knowing where they’ll be going but are nonetheless prepared to follow orders. Not far away in an underground bunker, four survivalists take shelter against what they believe is the end of the world. And with that, the stage is set for some arachnid fueled anarchy.
This isn’t the first time I’ve expressed my love for the “natural horror” subgenre, i.e. stories featuring nature or animals destroying civilization and wreaking total havoc on the human race. And I’m sure it’s not going to be the last. For a novel of its type, The Hatching is actually really decent. It does its job well, kicking things off with a bang. Then after that little tease, it dials back a bit to spend the next quarter of the book or so building up the suspense, taking us globetrotting to show how The Swarm is affecting the entire world.
What I really liked is how the focus is spiders, but the narrative actually reads more like a global epidemic. One of the reasons why I can tolerate spiders is the fact they are usually solitary creatures; I would be an entirely different matter if they always appeared en masse. I’m also not too worried about them because they’re typically more afraid of you than you are of them, and are happy to leave humans alone. However, the spiders in The Hatching are not like normal spiders. They travel in thick groups, moving like a solid river of black, and they have no compunctions about swarming you and eating your face. What made for such a sweet, touching moment at the end of Charlotte’s Web is suddenly transformed into a hellish scene of nightmare proportions as flesh-eating spiders literally start raining out of the sky. They also find the squishy insides of the human body to be the most ideal place to lay their eggs, and you really don’t want to be the poor host when they hatch. These scary quirks in their biology make it virtually impossible to contain the spiders, so very soon The Swarm is out of control—think killer virus outbreak or a zombie plague.
The quality of writing isn’t bad either, though I found it fluctuated from chapter to chapter. Some POVs felt strangely sparse, for instance, while others were fully fleshed out and very well described. My favorite sections were those featuring Gordo and his fellow survivalists out in Desperation, California; I thought the chapter introducing them all could have been a great short story all on its own. None of the other characters really made an impression, however, not even the “main” characters like Melanie, Manny, or Mike. I found even fewer of them to be likeable, though to be fair, I’m sure many of them were solely written in to be spider food. And in the end, with books like The Hatching, what you see is really what you get. The novel delivered exactly what I expected of it, so I hardly have cause to complain. I enjoyed myself, which is the most important thing, and there’s no denying I was thoroughly entertained.
I believe The Hatching is the first part of a planned trilogy, and I’m glad. This was a lot of fun, and the ending sets things up brilliantly for a sequel. I’m really looking forward to seeing how humanity will survive the spider apocalypse…or if we even do....more
Nature is scary. Books that remind us of this fact are always enlightening, and that’s what I loved about Invasive Species. When your story involves science and ecological elements—and especially when your focus is on nasty, icky bugs—even a novel in the Suspense/Thriller category can easily read like a Horror.
From the book’s description alone though, it was hard to tell what it would be about. All we know is that an unknown breed of predator has emerged, and humans are its favorite prey. This new enemy is faster, stronger, and far deadlier than anything we’ve seen before. Right away, my brain started working on constructing this hypothetical creature, and I couldn’t help it—films like Predator, Alien, and other movies featuring science fiction’s most terrifying killing machines immediately sprang to mind. After all, we’ve seen these types of plots so many times before; it’s difficult to imagine that a threat of this nature could be anything other than a malevolent, extraterrestrial monster.
Turns out, I was totally wrong. The “monsters” in Invasive Species turn out to be wasps. Sure, they may be wasps on steroids, having evolved to be become larger, smarter, and more poisonous than the norm. But still…just wasps. Does it make this book any less scary, though? Nope. Actually, it just made me feel even more creeped out and unsettled. If you’ve ever been stung by a wasp, you know what I’m talking about. Wasps are pure evil.
Certainly, if you’re an entomophobe, you’re going to have a really tough time with this book. While it’s a science fiction story that also gets a bit far-fetched here and there, the premise has just enough science in it to make you squirm. Our protagonist Trey Gilliard is a modern explorer of sorts, literally taking the road less traveled. His life’s work is all about heading into the least known regions of the planet. There are still areas on earth relatively untouched by humanity, and some of these are in the deep jungles of Africa. You don’t have to suspend reality too much to believe that a new species could evolve separate in such a place, unknown to the rest of the world. It’s here where Trey first encounters his first “thief”, a new kind of parasitoid wasp. The locals call them that because of the way they steal your mind, your body, and your life. They’re also referred to as “slavemakers” because of the way adult wasps can attach their stingers to hosts and take over their bodies.
The thieves are deadlier than regular wasps for many reasons, but first and foremost it is because they have developed an intricate hive mind, allowing them to communicate long distances and also to recognize and “remember” those who have done them harm. Primates are also their preferred host, including human beings. They breed by injecting their larvae into the abdomens of their unsuspecting prey, and neurotoxins in their venom also scramble and befuddle their victims’ minds, making them unaware that they are pregnant with a baby wasp until it is too late. That’s some messed up, creepy stuff.
The thieves are also great at survival. Deforestation and hunting practices have diminished their natural habitat and available hosts, but instead of dying out, they’ve become even more opportunistic, hitching rides on cars, boats, and planes in order to spread to the rest of the world. In the United States where it’s an election year, their presence eventually sparks a political storm.
Remember my review earlier this year of Bat out of Hell, a so-called “eco-thriller”? That one didn’t work out so well for me. And well, after reading Invasive Species, I realized this is how I wished that book had turned out! Invasive Species is a far better book because author Joseph Wallace did the right thing and focused on the disaster at multiple levels. He focused on the individual victims. He also focused on the threat of the thieves themselves. He emphasized the way these insect invaders fueled the fear and panic, ratcheting up the suspense to a fever pitch. The book is also a frightening reminder of just how fragile we are when science and technology fails us, and how quickly a civilization can come apart at the seams without the proper infrastructure and resources to maintain it.
I won’t spoil the ending, because you’ll just have to read this for yourself to see how the conflict resolves. However, I will say Invasive Species finishes on a bittersweet, melancholy note. After the roller coaster ride this story gave me, I thought it was ominously appropriate. For a book I knew next to nothing about when I first started it, I ended up really enjoying myself. Gripping, suspenseful, and delightfully chilling, this is a novel that will really get under your skin! A fine blend of drama and action for fans of sci-fi thrillers and horror. The follow-up titled Slavemakers is actually on the horizon, due out later this winter, and I’m looking forward to picking it up now more than ever....more
Funny how I’m generally not big on anthropomorphism but at the same time I do seem to love a lot of books featuring fluffy, furry adorable sentient animals (Redwall, Watership Down, Mouse Guard, etc.) Thus the draw of Daniel Polansky’s The Builders won out, and it was also perfect because I’ve been meaning to check out his work for a long time.
The animals in this book are far from soft and cuddly, though. A mouse, a stoat, an opossum, a badger, a salamander, a mole, and an owl all walk into a bar. This however is not the beginning of a joke but a start of a Kill Bill-style tale of vengeance and bloody destruction. One upon a time, all of them stood united against a common enemy, until treachery destroyed the group from within. The last job they were all on together didn’t end so well, so now the battle-hardened mouse known as the Captain is rounding up his old pals again for one last hurrah.
But alas, you know what they say about the best laid schemes of mice and men. Before long, both bullets and fur will fly in abundance, as the Captain and his ragtag crew fight their way deep into the heart of enemy territory, facing up against a dastardly skunk, his trio of wicked henchmen, and the legions of his rat army.
Clearly, there’s lots to love here, and not just for the novelty of a gritty and darkly comedic shoot-‘em-up starring two groups of warring woodland critters. Polansky approaches the violence masterfully, portraying the anger of the Captain as something born out of more than simple desire for revenge. In fact, most of the characters were pretty well written, each given their own quirks and vices. I’m sure too that loads of great discourse could be had on the topic of animal instinct and its inevitable effects on the choices of these characters; it’s just a pity that the story does not explore this theme further.
While I had a good time on the whole, I did have a couple of minor concerns. Longtime readers of my reviews know I’ve never made secret the mixed feelings I have for the shorter, more restrictive length of the novella. Sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t, but when it comes to The Builders, once again my malaise with the format reared its ugly head.
First, I had myself a love-hate relationship with the short chapters and non-linear structure of the storyline. As a stylistic choice, it was very unique and made this book a fast read. Still, my admiration gradually waned towards the end when it proved more disruptive than beneficial to the overall flow of the plot. Polansky certainly has a strong sense for timing, but even then it’s easy to miss a few beats when working with a lower page count.
Second, there were so many characters introduced in such a short amount of time, I was given really no opportunity to connect with them, save only a few. The Captain, Bonsoir the stoat, Barley the badger and Cinnabar the salamander were among the well written ones, but a couple of the other members of the crew were lost in the chaos of gunfire and piles of corpses. It hasn’t been long since I finished reading, and already I’m having a hard time dredging my memory for their names and even their species. Admittedly, most of my enjoyment came from the story, the surface-level entertainment from following its many twists and turns, and not really out of any deep concern for the main players. The book was fun, so I was genuinely interested in learning how it ends, but I remained overall ambivalent about most of the characters’ fates.
Me, not care about whether fuzzy little animal characters lived or died? That…that just doesn’t feel right. At the same time, I’m not surprised at this distancing since it’s such a common reaction for me to have towards novellas with large casts. That said, the compelling story overwhelmingly makes up for a lot of areas which I felt were weaker. If this was a full-length novel, I’m sure I would eat it up. Polansky’s writing intrigued me, so picking up one of his other books like Low Town or Those Above is most definitely in my future. As for The Builders? All in all, I enjoyed myself. And as long as you’re not looking too deeply into the whys or the hows, I think you’ll have a good time too....more
We’re just about nearing the end of the year, but apparently 2015 had one last big surprise for me. It came in the form of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen.
I confess, I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I started this book because I dove in blind, and that’s actually the way I wanted it. When I first looked upon this novel in my hands, I was struck by this feeling that the less I knew about it, the more I would enjoy the experience. So I swore off reading any previews or early reviews and simply let go. I wanted this story to take me where it would.
Well, what an amazing adventure it turned out to be! Barsk was a mysterious and captivating journey from the very first page to the last, featuring a puzzle that begins with the novel’s title itself. According to a well-known myth, an elephants’ graveyard is a place where aged and dying elephants instinctively know to go when they reach the end of their days. There, they stay until they die, alone and far away from the herd.
This is how the story begins, in a distant future where humans have long since died out. Instead, walking talking anthropomorphic animal species dominate the galaxy. On an isolated planet named Barsk, a Fant named Rüsul receives a message in a dream telling him that his time is near, and that he should start making his way to an island whose location is only revealed to the Dying. Fant are a humanoid sapient race, but their features resemble those of an elephant—grey and furless skin, big flapping ears, and the distinctive long trunk. They’re also a species with deep-rooted cultural values, and they prefer to keep to themselves. The only contact Barsk has with the rest of the Alliance is through the trade of specialized pharmaceuticals developed and manufactured by the Fant.
The most desirable of these is koph, a drug that allows gifted individuals called Speakers to summon and interact with the dead. Meanwhile, a shadowy faction in the Alliance government wants control of koph for themselves and are willing to destroy Barsk and all its inhabitants in order to learn how to manufacture the drug. They begin kidnapping dying Fant on their way to the final island, disrupting the natural order of their lifecycle. A Fant Speaker named Jorl notices these disturbances, but gets captured himself when he goes to investigate, becoming the linchpin in the enemy’s grand scheme. He is subsequently blackmailed into Speaking with his dead friend Arlo, a koph researcher who committed suicide years ago to protect an earthshattering secret.
Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard is a novel that is unique in so many ways, I don’t even know where to start. I suppose a good place would be the setting, a galaxy home to not just Fant, but also dozens of other alien races referred to by the common names of the animals they resemble as well as an adapted form of their Latin genus, like the Ailuros (Giant Panda), Bos (Yak), Cans (Domestic Dog), Brady (Three-toed Sloth), Cynomy (Prairie Dog), Lutr (Otter), Taxi (Badger), Urs (Bear), and many, many more. It’s a veritable zoo of different species, and the appendix in the back of the book implies there are even more races beyond the ones that appear in Barsk. Schoen brings these anthropomorphic beings to life using a very interesting approach, making them speak and behave like humans while also giving them their respective animal traits. For example, the Brady are an even-tempered species that likes to take things slow and steady, while the Lutr are more excitable and move about with agile grace. In a sense, characters are given the impression of being alien but also familiar, making it easier to connect with them.
Barsk is also a science geek’s dream, touching upon a number of different disciplines and bringing their philosophies together. One of the central themes of this book is the question of Instinct vs. Learned Behavior, and the development of culture and social norms. It’s worth noting that all the species of the Alliance look down on the Fant, discriminating them for their lack of fur and overall unusual appearance. Fant themselves are highly reclusive, having negotiated a Compact hundreds of years ago that would forbid visitors from ever setting foot on their planet. The relationship between Barsk and the rest of the galaxy plays a vital role in the way things play out, not to mention it also highlights the sheer ingenuity behind the world-building as it relates to our own understanding of sociobiology.
I was simply in awe at how well everything came together in the end. Barsk is a strange book indeed, but it was weird in a wonderful, unexpected way that really appealed to me, due in part to the creative handling of the science fiction elements. A few sections involved very abstract concepts, but it was smooth sailing thanks to Schoen’s easy yet expressive style. This is a story that enticed me, pulled me in and kept me enthralled until I reached its conclusion. If you’re looking for a sci-fi novel that’s truly innovative and different, I highly recommend picking this up....more
This book went straight onto my to-read pile earlier this year, for two main reasons: first, because I love Chuck Wendig, and second because...well, I figured I couldn't go wrong with any book with a title like Dinocalypse Now!
It wasn't until I was halfway through reading this book that I started to do some research and found out a little more about its background. Crowd-funded through Kickstarter in 2012, Dinocalypse now is based on Evil Hat Productions' Spirit of the Century role-playing game, which is set in a 1920s/30s-era pulp adventure world. With this information in mind, dare I say, this wild ride featuring jetpacks, talking gorillas, psychic dinosaurs, and ancient Atlanteans finally all came together for me!
It begins when a group of heroes calling themselves the Century Club are brought in to prevent the assassination of FDR, only to find that the president isn't the target -- they are! Though, what comes next is actually a threat to the entire planet as King Khan the ape conqueror storms this world through a dimensional portal, leading his vast army of primates and dinosaurs. Now it's up to the Centurions to stop him and save the world!
I won't lie, I was very much entertained by this book. It is escapist fiction that captures the pure, unadulterated spirit of pulp. Given how characteristics like bigger-than-life heroes, beautiful women, high adventure/action in exotic places, and evil diabolical villains are the hallmarks of this genre, it wouldn't be wrong to say Dinocalypse Now is all about sensationalism over substance, but I still can't deny I had a lot of fun.
Picture a kid with an overactive imagination in a toy store, and the stories he can come up with in his head if he played an elaborate game of make-believe while surrounded by miniature buildings, animal plushies, plastic dinosaurs, action figures and toy weapons. You'll probably get something like this book. Chuck Wendig probably had a blast writing this.
In a sense, it's likely that the sheer absurdity of this book will also be its greatest appeal. I am completely aghast but also delighted by this its craziness and eccentricity. There is a place in my heart for books that are just completely out there and don't take themselves seriously, and while I didn't enjoy this one as much as Chuck Wendig's other novels, this was still a good one to pick up to pass the time....more
I remember when I was a kid, I was obsessed with the classic book Misty of Chincoteague3.5 stars. This review originally posted at The BiblioSanctum.
I remember when I was a kid, I was obsessed with the classic book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. I mean, what little girl doesn't love stories about horses and ponies, right? Well, The Scorpio Races is like the perfect book for that inner little girl in us all grown up.
Every November, people from all over the world swarm to the small island of Thisby for the famous Scorpio Races, where tourists and the local population alike place huge bets on the riders and their horses. Thing is, the mounts involved aren't your regular Thoroughbreds or Appaloosas. Instead, the jockeys ride capaill uisce, water horses native to Thisby. They're also carnivorous predators, known to prey on livestock and other animals on the island. Their fierce aggression and unpredictable temperaments also means they have no qualms about attacking humans, and it is common for riders to die in training or during the races every year.
Even though Kate "Puck" Connolly has had no experience with the races, she decides to sign up, even though she would be the first female ever to do so, and on her own regular dun mare to boot. At first, she does this in the hopes of delaying her older brother from from leaving Thisby permanently for the mainland, but when an eviction notice arrives, it becomes clear that she would have to win in order to save their house. Sean Kendrick, on the other hand, is a four-time champion and hence no stranger to the Scorpio Races. However, with his freedom and a beloved capaill uisce on the line, this year he has good reason to need to win too, for more than just the glory of being number one once more.
The lore behind the story was what initially drew me to this book. I was intrigued after hearing that Maggie Stiefvater drew inspiration from old Celtic legends about water horses, but the fact she was the author also made me hesitate for a long time before finally deciding to pick this up. Now I think she's a great writer, as I discovered for myself after reading her Wolves of Mercy Falls books. The thing is, that young adult trilogy turned out to be not quite what I was looking for with its tale of puppy love and teenage melodrama. It made me wonder if The Scorpio Races would also prove "too YA" for my tastes.
I needn't have been concerned. While it's true that the book's target may be the YA market, the story and the characters in it feel much more mature and serious to me, a lot more so than in Shiver, Linger and Forever. The relationship that inevitably blossoms between Sean and Puck comes off more natural and realistic, with minimal angst and cloying sentimentality involved. Theirs is a deeper romance compared to a lot what I've read in YA fiction, and I think perhaps I feel this way because the story deals with heavier and more intense themes. Ultimately, the book is as much about the people as it is about the horses, and for the most part I really enjoyed it.
Still, there were certain things that prevented me from getting fully immersed. While I applaud Maggie Stiefvater's creativity and imagination when she took a myth and came up with this world with an island and its annual water horse races, there's still a lot about this concept that doesn't sit right with me. I suppose the idea of killer horses is kind of neat, but I have to say the cool detachment with which many of the characters react towards the many deaths is a little baffling. Quite a few people fall prey to the capaill uisce throughout the course of this novel, but there is never much follow-up beyond the initial shock, with the exception of the one funeral we get to see. I get that the festival and the race is big for the islanders, but hasn't anyone wondered if all the maiming and dying is really worth it? And why is Puck's older brother so blasé about her decision to race? Why don't we see more concern from loved ones?
The plot is also quite thin in a few places. For example, I never truly understood Puck's motivations for joining the race. In fact, it was a question she posed herself many times in the book, but none of the explanations offered really worked to convince me. After all, when I think about what people usually do when they are strapped for cash and about to lose their house, signing up for a dangerous and potentially lethal activity you're grossly unqualified for probably isn't the first thing most would do. It's like waking up one morning and endeavoring to be a NASCAR champion and thinking you can handle it even though you know you are only a fair to semi-decent driver. You'd think the logical thing to do would be to exhaust all other options first, and the fact Puck never even attempts to do so still bothers me.
Despite all that, this was still quite good. It's probably my favorite book by this author so far, and I don't regret for a second giving it a chance. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Maggie is a master storyteller and has a beautiful and talented way with words. When it comes to YA fiction, to me she's one of the best....more
What I love about this book is that it's not just a story about a dog, but it's also a coming-of-age story about a girl coping with a troubled life.
AWhat I love about this book is that it's not just a story about a dog, but it's also a coming-of-age story about a girl coping with a troubled life.
A Dog's Journey is a direct sequel to the book A Dog's Purpose, in which we follow the different incarnations of a dog as he is reborn each time. Living his lives as Tobey, Bailey, Ellie and Buddy, he discovers his main mission: to love and look after his boy Ethan as he grows up.
At the end of a Dog's Purpose, Ethan passes away as an old man after living a long and happy life, with Buddy by his side. Thus A Dog's Journey begins with Buddy believing that he has finally fulfilled his purpose...that is, until he meets Clarity, Ethan's rambunctious granddaughter who is always getting into dangerous trouble in part because of her irresponsible and negligent mother.
When Buddy dies, he is reborn as Molly, a poodle-mix who decides that her new purpose must be to look after Clarity, now a teenager who goes by CJ. Thus begins a tale of a love between a girl and her dog.
The first book was a total impulse buy when I picked it up, but I'm so glad I did. It's a heartwarming story, at times funny, at times sad, and you don't have to be a dog owner to enjoy it. As someone who owns and loves dogs, though, the book really touched me, and I admit I cried several times while reading it. I didn't cry with A Dog's Journey, however, but it's no less poignant and impressive.
I've mentioned before that I'm usually not too keen on the anthropomorphizing of animals, but W. Bruce Cameron writes so well in the dog's point of view that you can't help but be drawn in by the narrative. It takes you so deeply into a dog's mindset that you start to wonder that, hey, maybe that's really how dogs do think. And that's also the way the greater story of CJ's life unfolds in this book -- through the eyes of our canine protagonist.
It's a method and style of storytelling that is surprisingly effective...and addictive. I had the audiobook version of A Dog's Journey, and what I usually do is listen right before I go to bed, so it's like I can get sleepy and drift off to someone reading to me. The thing is, it backfired with this book because I always wanted to keep listening to get further into the story, and as a result it actually kept me awake. This book isn't intense or action-filled or anything like that, but it still got me very anxious to know what would happen next. It also didn't help that the narrator is really, really good.
I recommend this book if you're a dog lover, but also even if you're not. If you are a dog owner as well, I guarantee you will want to hug your dog afterward. If you haven't read the first book A Dog's Purpose though, I would advise reading it first before tackling this one. ...more
I originally started this back in February of this year but had to stop in the middle before I was finished, the reason being I had a baby and neededI originally started this back in February of this year but had to stop in the middle before I was finished, the reason being I had a baby and needed a book to read that would keep me awake during those late night feedings. Watership Down is a great story about the lives of a group of rabbits, but it just wasn't that exciting.
If only I had been closer to the story's climax when I had my little break; the book gets very good towards the end. When I picked it up again a few days ago, I got to around the 75% mark and could barely put it down from there onwards....more
Like a lot of people, I read this book after reading "Water for Elephants". Unlike most of them though, I wasn't impressed with "Water" at all, but deLike a lot of people, I read this book after reading "Water for Elephants". Unlike most of them though, I wasn't impressed with "Water" at all, but decided to read "Ape House" anyway because of the subject of the book. I studied primatology for my physical anthro degree in college, and bonobos were my favorite great apes. Like the author, I found their intelligence and their behavior fascinating, and when I read her blurb about how she fell in love with these animals, it really resonated with me.
My interest in bonobos did not help me like this book more, however. I debated giving it 2 stars before deciding to give it a 2.5 and rounded up. I felt the book suffered from the same issues I had with "Water for Elephants", in that Gruen started with an excellent premise that was full of potential -- but then totally crashes and burns when it comes to the execution. I can't help but feel sometimes that she writes like she lives in fantasy land, or expects that the reader does. Many of the story's scenarios are over-the-top, and the characters are often ridiculous caricatures and their descriptions silly and cartoon-like. My willing suspension of disbelief can only be pushed so far. This will probably be the last Sara Gruen book I'll read....more
Very disappointed, probably more so than I would have been with any other book that didn't meet my expectations because it started off so strong and wVery disappointed, probably more so than I would have been with any other book that didn't meet my expectations because it started off so strong and well-written, and yet by the end it was quite the opposite.
The first few chapters really sucked me in. Jacob, our narrator, is an old man in a nursing home recalling his past, so the point of view bounces between the two timelines. The story starts with young Jacob, who is close to completing vet school at Cornell when his parents die in a tragic accident. Left with nothing, he ends up walking out of his final exams to hitch a ride on a train out of town only to find out he has joined a traveling circus. Interesting premise! Throw in the Depression and the prohibition and the scene is set. Sounds like it has a lot of potential, right?
But unfortunately, I feel the author squandered that potential. In the end, it all boils down to a very typical romance. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but after all that build up I must say I had expected more. All that excitement I was feeling was completely diminished by the halfway point.
Not to mention there were a lot of other issues I had with the story and the characters. Jacob talks about his love for the circus animals, true enough, but his descriptions of them and the way he acts towards them make me think he's totally indifferent. His love interest Marlena has the personality of a cardboard box, and I don't even want to get into how predictable and unrealistic I think she is. Her husband August is also nothing more than a caricature, and having had experience in the past working in the mental health industry, I was appalled when the author revealed the explanation for his behavior.
Ultimately, what bugged me the most was that this book read like it was written by a naive child who is fond of fairy tale endings. Like I said, I enjoyed the beginning of this novel immensely, and for that alone I may have been able to forgive all its faults and admit I still had a good time. But the final chapter was what ended up doing me in, as in there was no way I could take it seriously after that. I still can't get the bad taste of the ending out of my mouth....more
The Art of Racing in the Rain begins on the eve of Enzo the dog's death, and we follow his narration back to all the joys and struggles he and his famThe Art of Racing in the Rain begins on the eve of Enzo the dog's death, and we follow his narration back to all the joys and struggles he and his family has been through, especially in the years following the death of Eve, his owner Denny's beloved wife. In the ensuing aftermath, Enzo remains by his master's side as his loyal companion, watching Denny juggle a messy custody battle for his daughter Zoe while working towards his dream of becoming a successful race car driver.
Before I say anything else, I apologize for the many comparisons I'm going to be making between this and W. Bruce Cameron's A Dog's Purpose which I very much enjoyed and has many thematic similarities, and I just can't help but base a lot of my thoughts and comments on this using it as a reference point. In any case, the two are often recommended together for dog lovers, and they both have their strong points. I've enjoyed both.
However, though The Art of Racing in the Rain is a beautifully written novel with a solid story, as a "dog book" I would have to give the upper hand to A Dog's Purpose. For starters, I would have to say this book isn't so much a "dog story" but a "human story" narrated from the point of view of the dog. While Enzo relates his feelings and insights throughout the novel, the focus is ever on Denny and Eve and Zoe, and it's what happens in the humans' lives that ultimately drives and shapes the story. Contrast that to A Dog's Purpose, where I felt the dog's life and point-of-view were always in the forefront. Its themes are also more pertinent to the topical issues regarding dogs in this country today -- puppy mills, animal shelters, working dogs, etc.
Also, quite simply, Enzo just doesn't not sound like a dog. While I understand that this is part of the author's intent, it was really difficult to truly buy into the idea of a wizened doggie narrator who can wax philosophical, but at the same time holds some very innocent and naive beliefs about the world.
Finally, even though I enjoyed this book overall, parts of it were quite heart-wrenching and difficult to read, as it's obviously and neatly designed to pull on your heart strings. On the whole, it's a feel good and inspirational read, but much of it was painfully cliched and predictable....more
This was a total impulse buy that caught my eye as I was browsing through the bestsellers in the Kindle store. Told in the first-person point of viewThis was a total impulse buy that caught my eye as I was browsing through the bestsellers in the Kindle store. Told in the first-person point of view of a dog looking for his purpose, and has to be reborn several times to find it, one moment this book was making me laugh, and the next I was bawling my eyes out. It’s cute, funny, touching, and perfect if you’re looking for a casual and easy read.
Dog lovers will enjoy it, and while I’m not big on the anthropomorphizing of animals, I still have to admit Cameron does a pretty good job of delving into a dog’s mind. Several times while reading this book, I’ve gone over and give my Cavalier puppy a hug, or thought about my other dog, a Beagle that’s now living with my parents and getting on in years. You don’t have to own a dog to love A Dog’s Purpose, but for someone who does, it definitely makes you consider your role in your dog’s life and vice versa....more