Tag Archives: Reviews

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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Book Review: Shadow Puppets by Orson Scott Card

( #endersgame )

Continuing with my reviews of the “Shadow Saga” in the “Ender Universe”, I recently finished reading the third book in the series, “Shadow Puppets”. The book begins a short time after the events of “Shadow of the Hegemon”, and focuses on resolving the Achilles plot as well updating readers on what has happened to the rest of Ender’s Dragon Army.

Bean’s genetic disorder has increased his height greatly but he is still within a reasonable frame for a human being. Petra has fallen in love with Bean and spends the first chapters of the book convincing him to marry her. This is a good point to stop and address the “yuck factor”. As far as I can tell, both Bean and Petra are still children (early teens) and Card has Petra spending half the book yearning to have Bean’s babies. Card tries to steer away from ages in the book so readers understand the characters have “grown up”, but then you have the issue of Bean’s disorder and how he won’t live that long and you can’t get away from it.

The plot centers around Peter Wiggin’s decision to free Achilles from China. Bean and Petra flee the Hegemon compound and warn Peter of the mistake. And here is my issue with the book: it was a terrible plot device to justify having the third book. The characters spend the entire book attempting to avoid the dangerous Achilles and his plots to kill them. Every action the characters make are just completely off the wall, here is a sampling:
1. Peter’s mom, who has no military training, attempts to assassinate Achilles to save her son.
2. Bean and Petra decide to use the evil dude who created him to make test tube babies, and he promptly steals them (setting up the forth book).
3. At least two characters become religious military figures (wtf).
4. Bean’s loyal army just let Achilles take over (and then at the end reveal they were always loyal to Bean, they just needed Achilles to explain his plan).

You know what, let me save you some time so you don’t have to read this book… Bean kills Achilles, Petra is pregnant with Bean’s baby, Achilles was responsible for the theft of the test tube babies and has implanted them in his “followers”. Sorry Ender fans, this one was a total stinker.

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Book Review: Shadow of the Hegemon by Orson Scott Card

( #EndersGame )

I finished reading the 2nd book in the “Bean Series” of the “Ender Saga” the other night and I wanted to get my thoughts down before getting too wrapped up in the third book. “Shadow of the Hegemon” takes places a few months after the conclusion of “Ender’s Shadow”. All of the military school graduates (except Ender) are back on Earth and seem to be struggling going back to their “normal lives”.

The villain from the last book, Achilles, somehow gets involved with Russia and starts kidnapping all of the battle school graduates. Ender’s crew become the most sought-after and are either kidnapped, co-opted, or re-kidnapped into serving various nations. Bean, being known as the smartest graduate to return, is targeted for death since Achilles convinces the other nations he won’t work with them. Of course Bean figures this out and gets himself and his family to safety. He knows all of this power-grabbing will start with war and end with a unified world government, but the main plot is what country will take total control. Bean is fairly indifferent, but when his best friend Petra is kidnapped by Achilles and is forced into becoming the main strategist of his plans, Bean establishes opposing forces to save her.

All of the children have issues being accepted by their adult peers after their service in the Formic Wars. Card repeats the scenario of “adult gets in kid’s way, kid finds a way around adult, makes adult look foolish.” This happens with almost every main character several times. Unlike the last book, Card’s politics and preferences leak out in little ways throughout the book. Card’s obsession with Brazil and China are re-established and he makes a few jabs about Kennedy’s presidency. Thematically, this book is very different from “Ender’s Shadow” and “Ender’s Game”, it is more political and spends little time on space and “advanced technology”. Once again, Card leaves plot points on the table to continue the series, even though there was no good reason except to keep the books going (kind of like why Batman never kills the Joker even though he keeps killing thousands of people every time he gets out of jail).

Overall this book was a much better follow-up than “Speaker for the Dead” was for “Ender’s Game”. Card continues his story with familiar characters that you want to read about and manages to keep obvious personal opinions to a minimum.

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Book Review: Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

( #EndersGame, #OrsonScottCard )

If you have not read “Ender’s Game” and the other three books in the original series, you can learn about them here. If you don’t want to read my post, to quickly summarize: “Ender’s Game” is a really good and the other three books are really bad. Someone must have gotten to Mr. Card and gave him the same opinion because he went back to the original book and fleshed out the story of a beloved character named Bean. Bean is Ender’s tiny, smart-ass friend that is quick with observations and strategy, I can see why Card chose this character to build a series around.

In “Ender’s Shadow”, Bean has been given an upgrade: he is a genetically modified human who has super-intellect. That intellect comes at a price, he will suffer from a severe form of gigantism and will eventually die when his organs can’t support his size. I am told the whole size issue is addressed in the other books (which I just started reading). Bean’s tale does not intersect much with the “Ender’s Game” plot. This book focuses on how he was born (with the whole genetic modification situation), survived as a orphan on the streets, and how he spends his time on the space station training for the “Bugger Invasion”.

Bean does not have the issues and internal conflict that Ender has. The teachers try to get in his head and he outmaneuvers them – essentially remaining one step ahead of everyone in the book. Bean’s major conflict is a bully named Achilles who looked after him while he was a homeless orphan. The ultimate confrontation is weak and clearly leaves room for a bigger payoff in the other books. The other weak concept in the book is comparisons between Ender and Bean. Card clearly wants the reader to know that Bean is smarter and more ruthless than Ender (and more suited to lead the fleet against the invasion) but does not want to be the savior of humanity because that is “Ender’s destiny.” Card sets up this obvious comparison but never really resolves it in a satisfying way (hell the book is called “Ender’s Shadow”). Again, I am assuming that Bean’s great war will be the conflicts on Earth and creating a true world government that we know is established in the other books.

My critiques aside, “Ender’s Shadow” is so much better than the last three Ender books. Card hit the reset button that this franchise desperately needed. I really enjoyed this book. As I write that, I feel I also have to mention that I struggled with even reading it because Mr. Card has some personal issues with tolerance and I don’t want to support giving this man a platform. That said, “Ender’s Shadow” avoids any controversial topics or opinions. It sucks – I started reading these books before I found out the guy was an asshole, and now I want to know what happens.

I would love to hear your thoughts about supporting creators whose work you enjoy but don’t agree with on a personal level.

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Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

( #ReadyPlayerOne )

If you are a fan of 80’s nostalgia, MMRPGs, and straight up nerd culture I have a book for you. My editor at Best SF Books turned me on to “Ready Player One” after I wrote a review of “Reamde”. Both books utilize online role playing games as the back drop for their stories. While Reamde has a more serious tone, “Ready Player One” is a more light-hearted and fun read, it reminded me of a hightech upgrade of Willy Wonka.

The plot is set 50 years in the future where the environment is trashed and there are massive energy shortages. Most people have fallen below the poverty line and live in trailer parks that have been stacked vertically due to lack of space. Wade, the main character, is a teenager struggling to survive living in the trailer park. Author Earnest Cline gives Wade a “Harry Potter” back story: his parent’s are dead and he lives with an Aunt that doesn’t care about him. Wade escapes his horrid existence by logging into OASIS which is a massive online world. Most people live their entire lives inside of the OASIS system, Wade even goes to school there.

The inventor of OASIS died a few years before the start of the story. In his will, he announces a contest in the game system, with the winner getting all of his money (over 200 billion dollars) and control of the company that makes the OASIS game. There is another company called IOI, that has become extremely profitable offering services in OASIS, they want to win the contest and take control of the online world. Wade figures out the first clue putting him on the world’s radar and in IOI’s cross-hairs.

Overall, “Ready Player One” is a charming book that borrows a little from many different areas. The book feels familiar and Cline’s writing style is smooth and easy (I finished the book in 2 days without really trying). The story drags a bit in the middle (typical main character self-loathing which seems to be a requisite for modern books), but Cline moves past it before it becomes a problem. Also, due to the familiar feeling of the book, I never felt like the antagonists have a chance at winning which takes the punch out of the conflict, but honestly, after reading the first page you know Charlie is going to get the chocolate factory, you just want to know how.

“Ready Player One” is a fun book that celebrates 80’s culture and gaming in the package of an adventure. The story is like chocolate cake, I can’t think of anybody that won’t like it.

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Book Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

( #ZoneOne, #Zombies )

Frequent readers of this blog know I love zombies and that in my opinion “World War Z” is by far the best zombie fiction written to date (I am just getting that out of the way). That being said, Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” is an excellent entry into the genre. It is well written, takes a unique perspective, and leaves the reader wanting more.

Whitehead has an interesting writing style. His paragraphs are dense and somewhat circular. This is not a criticism by any means but not something you see often in horror fiction (and certainly not in zombie fiction). There is an almost poetic rhythm that left me with the impression that Whitehead labored over each word. Since I tend to speed read, I found myself going over sentences a few times to make sure I got everything (bravo for making me savor the page).

The story is about recovery after a zombie apocalypse (similar to “World War Z”). Unlike WWZ, humanity is not on solid ground. The zombies are still active and the recovered areas are under siege by the undead. The main character, Mark, is part of a team that is assigned to sweep New York city. The army has already done most of the heavy lifting, but buildings and tunnels still need to be checked and cleared for repopulation. As the team clears out the buildings, they tell each other their survival stories (so readers can learn the history of the plague).

This book has a harder tone than WWZ, but it is still not as bleak as most of the zombie fiction out there. The main theme of survival is played out in a variety of ways: the characters demonstrate a clear will to live, but there is also tremendous survivor’s guilt. Most zombie fiction comes with social criticism, “Zone One” is light but Whitehead hints at an undercurrent of disgust at the reformed government’s attempt at recreating society as it was.

“Zone One” is an well written book that is less horror and more about the personal toll of surviving a disaster. If you enjoyed WWZ, I have no doubt you will like this book.

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Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

( #StephenKing )

I finished up my “holiday reading” choice last night around 3:00 AM. I had “11/22/63” by Stephen King sitting on the shelf for a month and decided it was time to knock it out. The story centers around a teacher that finds a time portal to 1958. He quickly decides to stick around in the past for a few years to stop the Kennedy assassination.

Once you accept the time portal as a plot device, the book falls into a steady pace. The first half sets up the main character (Jake) and how he operates in the past. King develops rules about time travel, essentially cosmic forces push back when someone attempts to alter time. For example if you are trying to stop someone from getting shot, the road you are taking may be blocked by an overturned truck. Jake also opts to take on a few smaller side missions, averting tragedies that happened to friends or children he read about. Failure means Jake would have to go back into the time portal which hits the reset button every time (so he has to do each thing over again and it becomes harder).

The book slows down considerably when Jake hits Texas. He establishes a life for himself and bunkers down for the three years while he waits for Oswald to arrive in Dallas. Life in small town Texas and the friendships Jake develops reads well, but when the plot shifts back to stopping Lee Harvey, something doesn’t feel right. The tone of the book never recovers. Without giving too much away, the cosmic forces start to push back and the crazy commences. King does such a good job foreshadowing these threads, they never come off as shocking. Since you know it is coming, it just feels like you are flipping pages until the next thing happens.

Without giving the big plot point away, Jake being in the past for 5 years changes things, which cause some “Back to the Future Part 2” kind of problem at the end of the story. King introduces characters/concepts at the end of the book that feel like they may be part of another King story, but I haven’t read it (King has a cameo featuring “It” characters in the first part of the book). He offers a little more information about the time portal which was nice, but unnecessary.

Even though the “11/22/63” drags in the middle, I liked this book. If for nothing else, King does a great job of painting life in the 1960s. My friends and I often sit around and talk about our zombie survival plans, I feel like people who grew up during the Kennedy era probably had similar conversations about “if you could go back in time, how would you stop the Kennedy assassination”. This is how Stephen King would do it – I can respect that.

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Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

( #TheNightCircus, #ErinMorgenstern )

I just finished reading Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” and I found myself liking it more than I thought I would. The book is about a mysterious traveling circus that (if you can’t figure it out by the title), opens only at night. This circus is essentially the best ever because there are a few members of the crew who can actually do “real magic.” Morgenstern hints that the “magic” is more like science but never gets to deep into the technical details.

The story revolves around a bet made by two old rivals. They train young children (the more villainous of the two uses his own daughter) to engage in a decades-long competition that neither student know the rules to. The circus becomes their battleground as each one tries to out-do each other with attractions and optical illusions. Neither student can interfere or tamper with the other’s work. Of course as the children get older and find out each other’s identities, they fall in love (snore).

The best part of the book is that Morgenstern doesn’t give the reader a hint about how the ending. Neither character “goes dark” or tries to take advantage of the other, and Morgenstern plays by the rules she created for her universe. The romantic aspects of the book are weak and feels like “Water for Elephants” – the “I love you but I can’t be with you” nonsense, but Morgenstern wisely leverages her secondary characters to add atmosphere and back story so the primary plot of the love story utilizes the least amount of pages possible.

“The Night Circus” works because the plot moves along at a good pace and the writer did an excellent job of keeping reader interest high. I won’t say it is a great book, but it is good and I enjoyed the time I spent with it.

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