Tag Archives: Reviews

Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

( #thedogstars )

Post apocalyptic fiction is very trendy these days. The success of zombie fiction and movies, and all of those “after humanity” TV shows with the skyscrapers falling apart have really amped up people’s appetite for the end of days.

Author Peter Heller threw his hat into the “last of humanity” ring and crafted a very compelling story. In “The Dog Stars” humanity is hit with a very nasty plague/fever that wiped out civilization. There are a few survivors left, some infected with a variation of the virus that doesn’t kill them but leaves them very weak, defenseless, and permanently quarantined.

Heller’s story centers around Hig, a nice guy pretty much going through the motions and waiting for his own end. Hig has a neighbor/semi-friend named Bangley. Bangley is a hardass gun nut who protects their little compound from other survivors attempting to loot or take their land (which has access to clean water). Hig constantly questions Bangley’s loyalty and surmises he is only kept around because he can fly planes (and keep them operational). Hig also has a pet dog that he cares very deeply for and wonders if Bangley will kill if he gets out of line.

Even though there are dangers from looters, Hig is becoming bored with his relatively safe life. He continues to take risks by leaving the compound and flying further away from the base on scouting missions. He eventually comes up with a plan to fly to a far away airport where he once received a weak signal, but he won’t have enough gas to return (if he can’t refuel at the other airport). Most of the book is spent with Hig convincing himself to leave and the issues and people he encounters when he does.

Heller thankfully avoids the typical tropes of post apocalyptic fiction (“humanity got what it deserves”, “we learned nothing from our mistakes” bla bla bla). The story is very stripped down: “are you prepared to do the things you need to do to survive (no judgement)?” Hig struggles with having to shoot other survivors (even as they try to kill him) and he also has to argue with Bangley when he helps a colony of the surviving infected (who are helpless and unable to get supplies).

The simplicity of the book is accented by Hig’s fragmented thoughts. Heller hints that Hig was not untouched by the virus and has trouble thinking (his thoughts in writing are in little bursts), although it could be from being alone and the trauma of losing his loved ones. There is some drag in the middle of the story, but it picks up again. Ultimately, the book boils down to this question: when you survive an extinction level event, is there anything worth living for? Heller does a pretty good job exploring that idea and coming up with an answer.

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Book Review: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

( #warmbodies )

Hollywood is full of clever bastards. The Walking Dead is an extremely popular television show and comic book. It is also Feburary and a few weeks away from Valentines Day. What is a crafty movie executive to do? A romantic zombie movie or a romzom of course. I have been bombarded by ads for “Warm Bodies” for a few months and then I happened to read that it was based on a book…

… and said book was said to be considerably darker and deeper than the romzom version. So I downloaded it.

Warm Bodies is a short and enjoyable novel. It took me a few hours to read it and I liked it. The book is an obvious riff on “Romeo and Juliet”. The zombie’s name is “R” and the lead female is “Julie”. Her dad is in charge of the human survivors and clearly would not approve of his daughter’s necrophilia. Both characters have to buck their social norms to be together.

I suppose my only issue with the book is that the zombies have a society. If you see the commercial for the movie, you get the impression that “R” eating Julie’s boyfriend makes him start thinking and living again. The book also pushes this idea, but the zombies are clearly organized before “R’s” encounter with Julie. The zombies can sort of talk and there is a hierarchy to their society. They have strategy to eat humans. So they are not the typical zombies from the movies even before the main plot thread starts to happen.

The book tries to make “R” the zombie messiah and a romantic lead and those two thread compete for room in the book, but since this isn’t “War and Peace” you get over that problem pretty quickly. One thing I really appreciated about Marion’s writing is that he did not use the same terrible cliched words that every zombie writer uses – gore, guts, meat, disemboweled, and of course braaaaaiiins.

Bottom line: Fun and quick read – I recommend it.

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Book Review: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

( #thetwelve @jccronin )

The Twelve” is a sequel to Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” which I read a few years ago. I liked Cronin’s take on a vampire apocalypse. Cronin opted out of the typical gore-fest that seems to be a natural reaction to the “Twilight Vampires” (aka kind of wimpy) by telling a cause and effect story. The book is told in two timelines: how society falls and then 100 years into the future as society attempts to rebuild.

The Twelve continues the storyline in the future and but also revisits the initial outbreak to introduces a few new characters. Overall, I liked the book. But my enjoyment relied heavily on my enjoyment of the first book. The first section (revisiting the outbreak) is like a prequel with different characters (their viewpoint of what went down). While I liked how the outbreak was fleshed out, those chapters were not critical plot points. I am going to bring up some spoilers about the plot in this review, so this may be a good time to stop reading if you don’t want to know too much about the story.

**SPOILERS**

The prequel characters establish the bloodlines of the future characters which added depth, but like I said, not critical. The prequel chapters also establish the concept of a “familiar”. Every vampire can make a helper that has some powers and needs to drink blood, but they don’t change into monsters.

The main story is that one of the helpers, who is a fairly sympathetic character, is used to create a city/society of immortals that capture and enslave the remaining humans and of course feed them to the vampire overlords. This totally makes sense except for one thing…

There are twelve vampire leaders (hence the twelve) and the millions of vampires running around are basically mindless zombies controlled by one of the twelve. If you kill one of the twelve, all of the vampires in their bloodline die. A major part of the book is the twelve are moving to this vampire city to feed in comfort. But the city has been in progress FOR DECADES. Slaves are being fed to the zombie vampires for no real reason. At one point, The Twelve kill off most of their zombies because there are too many vampires hunting the remaining humans. Why feed the slaves to the mindless zombie vampires?

The “familiars” go through all this trouble to capture and enslave humans only to happily feed them to the mindless zombies. This would make sense if this was occurring with the twelve, but they don’t show up until much later in the book.

Also, most of the twelve head vampires are not fleshed out. Cronin spend most of the first book on a vampire named “Babcock” and singles out two vampires called “Martinez” and “Carter” in the second, but the others are just in the background. Why not just make 6 lead vampires?

**END SPOILERS**

Even with those illogical plot points, The Twelve is an entertaining and well written novel. Cronin is very good at giving the book a sense of history and handles the time shifts well. The book does suffer from middle child syndrome, but Cronin does a nice job setting up the third book. It is clear that the trilogy has a “big bad” and he was saved for the third book which should deliver a satisfying conclusion.

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Computer Joey: Android Tablet Reviews

( #nexus7 #kindlefire )

I did a video review of 3 different android-based tablets that I currently own:
Asus Nexus 7
Kindle Fire
Toshiba Thrive

My intent was to point out the positive features in each rather than expose tons of flaws. If you are in the market for a new tablet, I hope this helps you make a decision.

PS: I have been beta testing more videos on the site the last few weeks, let me know if you like the new media/content.

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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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Concert Review: Wilco and Avett Bros @ Camden Water Front

( @wilco, @theavettbros )

Opening Act: Dr. Dog
Venue: Susquehanna Bank Center – Camden, NJ
Date: Saturday, July 21st, 2012

NOTE: I didn’t take any pictures of video because it just seems kind of stupid to take crappy grainy pictures or poor quality audio. So I will post some quality videos I find on the net so you get the idea.

[Dr. Dog]

Website: DrDogMusic.com

Dr. Dog is a Philadelphia based band that I got turned on to a few years ago. I thought they were good band but honestly never really gave their albums much thought after that first spin. That was a mistake. This band thrives playing on stage. Their material totally popped in the live setting – it was dynamic and LOUD (my chest was thumping during the entire set). I was impressed with their set, but I do wish they could have stepped up the on-stage banter for their hometown audience (but I suspect they had extremely limited time on stage with the other acts).

[The Avett Brothers]

Website: TheAvettBrothers.com

Frequent readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of The Avett Brothers. These guys have been touring non-stop for the last few years and are still pumping out excellent material. The band’s live shows are what makes them special: they have a excellent work ethic and they bust their asses on stage. This was the fifth time I have seen the band and they still exceed my expectations (they are not resting on their success).

The band played for about 90 minutes and they were bouncing around the entire time. I am not going to run down the entire set list, but they hit all of the fan favorites with a nice mix of all of their albums. They closed the set with “Kick Drum Heart” but did an epic southern rock style jam at the end which was an interesting (and welcome) new element to their live show.

I honestly feel that The Avett Brothers are the best live act in the country right now. Go see them if you have the chance.

Previous Avett Brother Reviews:

[Wilco]

Website: WilcoWorld.net

It took about 40 minutes for the stage crew to move the Avett’s equipment and set up Wilco’s stage. They had these pieces of fabric hanging down in long knots (like 20-30 foot lengths) – they were on the stage the entire night and I was wondering what they were for. Turns out the band had images projected on the ropes for a very cool effect during their set.

Jeff Tweedy was not in a mellow mood, the band came out on the stage ready to singe faces. The first 6 songs were very loud. I honestly don’t know what the opening song was – wait checking the internet – “Art of Almost” – I am not sure if there was an actual melody to that tune, just sound. Hell of a way to wake up the audience. I appreciated the rocked out/artistic set because it was an excellent contrast to the Avetts.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay the entire concert because we had a baby to go home to (this was our first time leaving him with a sitter). Fun Side Note: There was a couple that brought their two young children to the show sitting right in front of us, they made it half-way through the Avett’s set before they left. Note to self: Resist the temptation to take son to concert until he is potty trained. We cut out during “Hate It Here” which was sad, but I appreciate the band coming to the Philadelphia area and putting a damn fine effort on stage.

Previous Wilco Reviews:

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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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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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