Category Archives: Reviews

Book Review: I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern

( @justin_halpern )

I knocked out Justin Halpern’s “I Suck at Girls” in a few days and it was a very quick and enjoyable read. I haven’t read Halpern’s previous book “Sh*t My Dad Says” and frankly avoided it after seeing three seconds of the William Shatner TV show…

For Reference:

Forgetting the TV show, Halpern has a comfortable conversational style to his writing and I greatly appreciated the fact that he doesn’t stretch his word count to make his publisher happy. The book tells the story of Justin’s failed romances leading to the day he proposes to his girlfriend. The stories are endearing and makes you root for a happy ending.

Halpern’s father (from the previously mentioned “Sh*t my Dad Says”) plays a major role in the book which (I think) holds the book back. The man’s comments and insights are humorous and spot on, but the book really didn’t need it to tell the story. I would be happy to read Mr. Halpern’s observations in the other book, but I feel “I Suck at Girls” didn’t need Justin’s dad to stand on its own.

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Book Review: Blackout by Mira Grant

( #newsflesh, #blackout )

I wasn’t sure if I was going to read the third and final book in Mira Grant’s “Newsflesh” trilogy, but then Anthony Bourdain’s tales of kitchen mishaps had me seeking shelter from reality. I did not react favorably to the 2nd book (“Deadline“) but I decided to give Grant a chance to see if she ended on a good note.

WARNING: There will be spoilers about the trilogy in this review, read at your own risk…

Blackout” is better than “Deadline” but does not deliver on the potential that “Feed” established. The plot has some problems. Grant fully commits to the concept of “Cloned George”. I didn’t like the decision to bring the character back, but Grant fully commits to the idea and concept which I respect.

The first 50% of the book essentially makes the events of “Deadline” somewhat pointless. Grant makes references to the second book, but outside of revealing George was cloned and a larger CDC conspiracy at play, nothing else really carried over. Most of these pages are spent trying to get the reader to accept “Cloned George” as the real deal. Grant makes the character doubt her own authentication as a means to endear her to the readers, but then has every character say “oh, we accept you now after three seconds of doubt – GLAD TO HAVE YOU BACK!”.

The reasoning for her cloning is weak… something about making America trust the news she is saying even though she is a clone and the big reveal is backed up by all the other characters having multiple cameras filming the entire exchange. At the start of “Blackout” Shaun’s crew have two clear missions:
1. Get Alric’s sister out of Florida (which has a massive zombie outbreak due to artificially created insects that now carry the virus).
2. Get fake IDs from a character named “the monkey”

The main characters don’t accomplish either task and I feel like there was a lot of pages wasted to conclude those points. I would not mention this if Grant was above using short cuts in other sections of the book. Shaun finds “Cloned George” completely by accident. There was no way that could or should have happened. It would have been easy for Grant to modify a few points to make Shaun end up at the Seattle CDC with more purpose.

Then there is the whole reveal that George and Shaun (adopted brother and sister) are hooking up. Yes, while reading the first book, I definitely got the vibe that something was going on, but Grant didn’t push it. That was the right call. I feel like she succumbed to pressure to put those two characters together. She could have left it vague and let the readers decide for themselves. There is also issue of Shaun’s immunity to the virus due to his “interactions” with George v1.0.

On the positive side – Grant downplays the zombies in this book in favor of character development, which I totally agree with. The zombies are a background threat at all times (and useful plot devices to add danger), but she allow her previous work to set the stage and focused on finishing the story. I also appreciated the fact that there is a conclusion to this story. A clear conclusion. If you factor out the major weaknesses that I just brought up, the story actually comes to a satisfying end. This in itself caused an issue: the story’s beats fell exactly where they should have so the “big reveal” was a little flat, but organic. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” pretty much sums it all up.

I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the voice in Shaun’s head. I called this out in the last review as a writer’s crutch, but when “Cloned George” shows up, things get weird as Shaun has conversations with the George in his head and also the clone. Then the voice goes quiet for a while but starts to get loud again towards the end but gets all possessive and suicidal – and then never gets mentioned again.

This review is a little more critical than I intended it to be because I liked this book much more than the 2nd installment, I just feel that it could have been better. It also confirmed my comments about “Deadline” not really needing to exist. “Deadline” and “Blackout” would have been much better trimmed down and presented as one book, but I don’t fault Grant from needing to make a living.

My recommendation is to read “Feed” and then skip to this book. Anything you need to know about “Deadline” you can find out within a few chapters. Grant’s attempts to stay ahead of the readers by setting up missions that completely get derailed are commendable but sloppy. Ultimately, she does a decent job at finishing what she started but never quite lives up to the promise of the first book.

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Book Review: Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

( #OutOfOz, #BookReview )

I really liked “Wicked” when I read it several years ago. I thought flipping the whole “Wicked Witch of the West” concept over was a clever idea that resulted in a great story. The following books (“Son of a Witch” and “A Lion Among Men“) were less satisfying with each page turn. “Out of Oz” follows the pattern of its predecessors, resulting in an unsatisfying conclusion.

The fourth volume focuses on Liir’s daughter Rain. Maguire sets her up to be a blank slate in the beginning of the book and is the reader’s point of view character up until the middle of the story. Rain’s parents hide her in Glinda’s estate until the tensions of the war blow over. Eventually (and obviously) Rain has to leave and spends the next quarter of the book walking around Oz with the Cowardly Lion not doing anything particularly interesting. Then the girl goes to school, echoing the Wicked Witch’s (Elphaba) education in the first book. The reader needs to get through 50% of the book before really getting to know the lead.

The war between the Emerald City and Munchkinland forces Rain to leave the school with her almost-boyfriend. They find their way back to the assembled cast from the previous books and are then broken apart to wander around some more. All of this wasted page space results in a massive amount of story being told in the last few chapters. The war comes to a climax and several completely unnecessary plot twists are introduced. The characters mope around because of said twists and then the book ends with no clear resolution.

Fundamentally, my issue with the book is the literal lack of direction. The majority of the story finds the characters wandering around avoiding conflict (and thus interest). “Out of Oz” suffers from poor chronology, which Maguire admits/addresses during the whole “Trial of Dorothy Gale” section; he casually mentions that several years pass between each chapter, but the end of the book Rain is said to be between 12-15. Due to one of the twists, it would be comforting to have a clearer idea of the girl’s age by the end of the book.

Maguire spends many words establishing the visuals and tone of Oz. He didn’t need to, the last three books already did a fine job of painting that picture. “Out of Oz” could have been excellent with the help of strong editing and a clearer focus on the end game. There seems to be an opening for another book, but I think I am done with Greg Maguire’s vision of Oz. If you haven’t read any of the books start and stop with “Wicked” and thank me later.

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Computer Joey: Social Reading Done Right

Have you noticed your friends posting news articles on Facebook recently? Have you clicked on said news article and found yourself suddenly asked to give an application access to your personal information? And have you noticed that when you do click yes, every time you read an article about Snookie’s new underwear choices it is plastered all over your facebook wall?

If you haven’t experienced this (or don’t use facebook), good for you. If you are a facebook or social media user and have been trapped in this invasion of privacy, I have a cool alternative. It takes a few steps to set up, but once you do, I honestly think it is WAY better and more functional.

A little background: Personally, I read a ton of news articles in a given week and I like to share the best with friends and followers. I don’t flood my feeds, but there may be three or four items in a given day that I think are worthy of attention. I don’t engage my friends via facebook’s social reader, instead I use a few tools that all talk to each other. Here is how to do it.

1. Gather your news via Google Reader:

I have detailed instructions on how to set up Google Reader, so read that first (and get a gmail account if you don’t have one).

You can populate your RSS Reader with just about any popular new source (including this blog). These are the articles you will share with your audience.

2. Connect Google Reader with Twitter:

a. In Google Reader, look at the upper right corner, you will see a gear icon. Click on the icon and a “Reader Settings” option will be available:

b. At the top of the next screen, there is a tab “Send To”, click on it to select different social media accounts:

c. At this point, you have a few options. If you use both Twitter and Facebook, click on just the twitter check-box. If you only use Facebook, click on that check-box and hit the return to reader link at the top.

NOTE: If you are using only facebook, you are pretty much done. If you want to make automatic posts to both twitter and facebook, keep reading.

d. In your reader, you will now see a “Send To” option at the bottom of each post:

NOTE: I added both Facebook and Twitter, but if you want to use both, you only need twitter here.

e. If you click on the twitter button, a twitter box will open with your post:

You need to do one more thing to make this all work…

3. Connect your Twitter account with your Facebook Account:

a. Go to this link to sync your two accounts:
b. Click on the button that takes you to your account settings.
c. At the bottom of your twitter settings, there is a button that allows you to connect the two services. Push the button and follow the on-screen prompts:

You should be all set! Now you can share posts that you read (without any requests for information via RSS). I know there is a little bit of work up front, but once you get all of this set up, it is a much better way to read, save, and share news that is important to you.

UPDATE: During the writing of this post, I may have come up with a next level method that can allow for metrics and some other custom tweaks. Check back for that post.

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Book Review: Tough Sh!t by Kevin Smith

( #kevinsmith, #toughsh*t )

After reading several fictional books in a row, I needed a break from fantasy. Naturally, I picked up “Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good” by Kevin Smith. For those people who are unfamiliar with Mr. Smith’s work, he is the writer and director of several beloved/hated movies about the slacker generation. Most recently, Smith has been leveraging social media to build his audience and brand after retiring from directing.

I don’t want to get into a debate on Kevin Smith’s abilities as a director or writer, you either like him or you don’t. I am not a total fan-boy for the guy’s work, but I like what he does more times than I don’t. Smith starts the book with childhood stories about his dad and their mutual love for George Carlin. Smith uses Carlin as a touchpoint in the book several times: first as a fan, then getting to know him as a director and a person – it reminds the readers that Smith is still a person and not a “celebrity”.

Kevin progresses quickly through the “Clerks” subject because if you know Kevin Smith, you probably know the story about that movie already. He uses Clerks to launch into the “failure of Mallrats”. “Mallrats” was Smith’s second movie, it was a big budget (for him) film that did not do well. Mallrats opens the book up to the most interesting subject he covers – the cost of movies.

Smith does simple breakdowns of how getting a movie made for “x” dollars is just the start of the debt once you get into post-production and marketing fees. A movie that costs $4 million to make, will end up costing $20 million by the time the audience gets to see it. This is pretty much the major subject of “Tough Sh!t”.

Smith does not want to navigate the politics of making $20 Million movies. Since that is the cost of getting a modest movie out to the audience, he stopped making movies. The issues and examples that he brings up are excellent, but I do have an issue with his logic…

The last couple chapters covers his recent podcasting and public speaking endeavors. From the information that Smith is presenting, he is doing well for himself performing live podcasts at college campuses and his own theater in California. Smith’s crew of misfits also produce and contribute content to their “Smodcasts”, so it definitely does not come across as a half-assed operation.

Since these guys have such a DIY attitude, I can’t understand why Smith would not attempt to make more films and distribute via his website similar to what Joss Whedon did with “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog”. Just as podcasting and internet are disrupting the music and radio companies, guys like Smith should be at the ground floor of the internet video revolution. I would like to see what the guy does with a direct video distribution channel.

Kevin Smith’s “Tough Sh!t” is an interesting book about how movies were made and foreshadows what avenues creative-types will have as outlets for their work. Smith’s trademark potty humor is omnipresent in the book (there are several graphic references about his wife and their sex life). I have to be honest, even though you KNOW it is going to be in the book, I just felt like it was tossed in because that is what the audience expects (meh – no harm, no foul). Overall, if you like Kevin Smith or are interested in the slow death of character-driven movies, read this book. If you are a fan of Bruce Willis, you might want to avoid it.

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Book Review: Cain by Jose Saramago

( #Cain, #JoseSaramago )

I picked this book up by chance the other day and knocked it out before I found a reason not to read it. Yes, “Cain” is about the guy who killed his brother (the first murder), but the book moves past that pretty quickly. Essentially, author Jose Saramago uses Cain to be an unbiased witness of all of God’s “divine acts of justice” during the old testament.

Saramago kind of absolves Cain from murdering his brother by establishing God as the antagonizer of the initial conflict. God accepts some responsibility for the situation but lays down a curse where Cain is thrown around time in a non-linear fashion (think “The Time Traveler’s Wife”). Cain then witnesses God’s old school greatest hits: Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac, God’s wager with the devil regarding Job, Jericho, and ending with the Noah’s great flood.

While Cain is not necessarily a heroic character, he is by default the character you are rooting for. Jose Saramago’s old testament God is nothing short of a colossal asshole: petty, jealous, and out of touch. Most of the “devout” heroes of religious lore are cast and moronic sheep that will blindly follow the Lord’s orders without any thought to the consequences. As Cain sees each act, he becomes more disgusted with God until their final confrontation at the end of the book.

Even with a bit of leeway due to the source material, there are some plot holes that the reader just has to roll over. Saramago doesn’t do a great job at the start of the book explaining the curse and the fact that Cain is being tossed around in time. I don’t have my biblical chronology memorized, so it took me a while to figure out what was happening. Also he spends a few pages talking about how the “mark of Cain” will be a great hindrance in his dealings with people, but it never is.

Those comments aside, I found myself enjoying “Cain”. The book has a fast pace – not lingering on any subject too long (which suits my reading tastes well). Jose Saramago handles the religious materials well and manages to conclude the book with a twist which was much appreciated. If you consider yourself a good God-fearing Christian, this book will probably offend you. If you grew up with bible stories, don’t get offended easily, and think old testament God was a bit of a dick, you will probably enjoy this book.

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Book Review: Brains: A Zombie Memoir by Robin Becker

( #zombies, #brains )

I just finished reading a short zombie novel called “Brains: A Zombie Memoir”. This books take a more comedic approach to the zombie genre by having the lead character named Jack (who is undead) retain his memories and ability to think and write. Jack assembles a team of zombies who have managed to retain certain skills like running or shooting a gun and attempt to find the man responsible for the outbreak.

This book is way too similar to another zombie comedy I read a few months ago called “Zombie, Ohio” by Scott Kenemore. Allow me to review the similarities:

  • Both books feature male lead characters that retained their memories after they become zombies.
  • Both characters were college professors.
  • Both characters cheated on their significant other before zombification.
  • Both characters quickly embrace their zombie natures and gleefully eat people (both books make it an almost sexual experience).
  • Both books have the main character assemble and lead a zombie army.

Like “Zombie, Ohio”, “Brains” reads like fan fiction… bad fan fiction. Becker is going for a comedic tone, so there is no tension. She uses terms like “yummy” when the zombies eat brains, and it comes off as childish. Like the zombies she writes about, the plot wanders. Jack the zombie eventually finds his way to the scientists, but by the time it happens you don’t care because Becker moves the reader past it.

While I don’t normally come down this hard on books, I felt that “Brains” could have been much better. “Zombie, Ohio” also had room for improvement, but the author had fun with the environment he created. “Brains” is a paint-by-numbers zombie story that just goes through the motions.

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Book Review: Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card

( #EndersGame )

If you have been reading this blog over the last month, you will have noticed I have been on an “Ender’s Game” kick. I am sure you will be glad to read that Ender is ending with this review. “Ender in Exile” brings readers back to the titular character of Ender Wiggin, who I missed a great deal during the “Shadow Saga”. Exile is an auxiliary book, you don’t have to read it to understand the main storyline in either series, but it does fill in some gaps in the timeline that I actually appreciated.

This book takes place between the last chapter of “Ender’s Game” and the first chapter of “Speaker for the Dead”. Speaker kind of pissed me off because you never really learned about what Ender did with his teenage years or his twenties. This book attempts to fill that gap, but something strange happens along the way…

Most of the book is about Ender’s travel to the first colony (which was eventually named Shakespeare). Long story short, the ship’s captain is a pompous ass that doesn’t think a teenager can run a colony (even if he just finished saving the world). The captain positions himself to take over Shakespeare for himself when they arrive. Card creates an almost comedic tension between the two, I just kept thinking about the Home Alone movies (the kid outsmarts the robbers at every turn). Readers know that Ender gets to the colony so the fact that so many pages were spent on this conflict were a waste. While wasteful, it was nice to read about a youthful Ender taking people down instead of having a terrible marriage and loudmouth adopted children.

The last 30% of the book is spent on the Indian colony that Virlomi established. Bean’s last genetically enhanced child (who was raised by a crazy woman that Achilles hand picked) grows up on the new colony creating problems for that planet’s leadership. Eventually Ender leaves Shakespeare to deal with the situation as a favor to his lost friend. Card basically wraps up that loose plot thread from the Shadow Saga, so if you want to know what happens to Bean’s lost child you need to read this book.

I liked this book even though there really isn’t a solid reason to. Exile is like a mid-season throw away episode of a tv show. Basically you gets some cool character moments, but nothing important happens. Since Card gives up on Ender in the middle of “Xenocide”, I enjoyed reading Ender in his prime again. If you are new to the series, I would definitely read this after the original book because the character you love disappears after “Speaker for the Dead”.

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Book Review: Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card

( #EndersGame )

After my last review, I almost quit reading the “Ender Series”. But since there was only one book left of the “Shadow Saga”, I wanted to see how it all worked out. I am glad I stuck with it because “Shadow of the Giant” was much better than the last two books.

The book definitively wraps up the hegemon storyline concluding with Peter Wiggin as an old man. The last two books depicted the battle to unify humanity under one world government after the “Formic Wars”. Some of it was good, some of it was bad, most of it was “meh”. Since “Shadow of the Giant” was the finale, the writing in this book was consistent, the motives were much clearer, and (for the most part) none of these “genius” characters did anything that defied logic (although there was the one scene were Peter’s parents talk about farting which was out of place).

Card does a solid job getting most of the characters to reasonable places to make the end battle tie everything up…except Virlomi who somehow decides she is a goddess for no reason and foolishly leads the Indian army against China. Essentially, Orson Card trapped himself by establishing the battle school graduates are all military prodigies, none of them can make a mistake “unless they temporarily go nuts”. And I say temporarily because the second she loses, she comes back to her senses and they give her an entire planet to lead. Really.

The point about Virlomi’s behavior brings me to my other major criticism: Card treats his female characters horribly:
1. Valentine from the first series is supposed to be a genius but always plays supportive second fiddle to Ender and Peter. She never really has a defining moment in any of the books.
2. Mrs. Wiggin is first written to be an idiot, but then fleshed out in the Shadow saga to be really smart but bitter and sarcastic.
3. Petra is relegated to becoming a baby making machine. 10 children total by the end of her life. Card gives her one scene were she leads a small campaign which was written off as “a distraction.” Also, she is the only one of Ender’s Jeesh in the first book to crack under the pressure of the battles, a point brought up often, but she never really has an epic dare to be great situation where she gets the stink off.
4. I mentioned Virlomi’s issues above
5. Since I am talking about all the female characters, Ender’s wife in the first series – Novinha is an absolutely horrible bitch. No redeeming qualities at all. Her character is a narrative black hole. The Novinha character essentially ruins Ender so badly that Card kind of hits a magic reset button to get him out of the marriage while saving face.

Readers – is there one female character that comes out positive (don’t say Jane, she is a computer)?

Female issues aside, I would rank Shadow of the Giant #3 (out of the 8 books) in terms of quality and payoff. There was an emotionally satisfying end for Peter and ties back to the original books. It is funny how the four “Shadow Saga” books have echoed the original four, Card seems to get tired of his main character and shifts focus to someone else by the end. In “Children of the Mind“, Ender was in such bad shape as a character, Card literally flushed the toilet and made a new Ender. In the Shadow series, Bean is the focus, but by the fourth book Peter becomes the lead. This time around, Card does it much more gracefully and the results are considerably better. I enjoyed this last book so much that I purchased “Ender in Exile” to read, so be on the lookout for that review.

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