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Book Review: Barely Breathing by Michael J. Kolinski

October 23, 2014 1 comment

Image of a man and a woman standing next to a car in front of a creepy house.Summary:
Jake Wood plans to visit his cousin, Jana, in Los Angeles.  He hasn’t seen her in over 10 years, and he’s hoping the visit will help snap him out of the guilt he’s feeling after being the sole survivor of a workplace shooting.  But when he arrives in LA, Jana fails to meet him or return his phone calls.  He’s not worried at first, since he knows that she just got an exciting job working for the renowned scientific researcher Dr. Gregory Mirek.  When he drops by Jana’s house and finds her best friend, Laurie, who hasn’t heard from her in days either, he starts suspecting she’s missing, and it might have something to do with Dr. Mirek.

Review:
I like a good mystery, and the description and cover of this book gave it a bit of a noir feel, so I was excited to see what twists on the noir mystery genre the book could bring.  Unfortunately, a potentially interesting plot was held back by both some awkward writing and portions of the book that just left a bad taste in my mouth.

The plot is interesting and different enough from other mysteries to keep the reader engaged and intrigued.  I personally have not seen a modern mystery revolving around a missing cousin, and I liked how different this felt.  The inclusion of a mystery about Dr. Mirek and just what he’s researching into what happened to Jana, who is working for him, gave it another level of interesting information and twists that keeps the reader reading.  On the other hand, the inclusion of Jake’s past trauma being the sole survivor of a work-place shooting felt tacked on and did not add much to the plot.  If anything, at the beginning of the book, I was wondering if this book was the second in the series, since it felt like I was supposed to already know what had happened to Jake.

The writing really doesn’t support the plot very well, however.  There is quite a bit of showing instead of telling as well as passages that just read awkwardly, instead of building the suspense they were supposed to.  The quote below is an example of this.

After a long pause she said, “Yes, sacrifices,” in a faraway voice. At the time, I didn’t realize that she was referring to issues much more meaningful than gridlock. (loc 673)

There were also passages that just felt out of touch with modern life, particularly for the age of Jake, the main character, who sometimes reads like an old man.  For instance, when Jana first doesn’t show up he googles her for the first time ever and looks at her Facebook page for the first time ever.  There is no way cousins that got back in touch after a decade of low contact would wait that long to google each other or look at each other’s Facebook pages.  Even people in this age-range who don’t use Facebook themselves will still google a new contact.  Jake’s lack of technological and social media savvy just felt really wrong for his demographic.

As far as the characterizations of the main characters goes, Jake is moderately well-rounded but he also isn’t much of a noir hero.  He’s clumsy, bad at appearing bad-ass, and hesitant, and yet simultaneously he’s good at fist-fighting (thanks to wrestling moves from high school), and he keeps being asked to be in porn by random people on the street (or if he is in porn).  When his character isn’t thrust into noir-style encounters, it is well-rounded and interesting.  When his character is, however, it feels awkward and unnatural.  Laurie is relatively well-rounded and interesting, as is her boyfriend.  We don’t see anybody else enough for them to be more than a passing two-dimensional character, and these are handled well.

The book does, however, put a bad taste into my mouth both in how it deals with fatness and how it deals with bisexuality.  The book comes across as fatphobic.  Any overweight character is also bad, and Jake judges them for being fat.  I’m not saying an overweight person can’t be bad, but when every single overweight character is bad and the “good guy” main character judges them for it, it comes across as fatphobic.

Dr. Mirek is revealed to be bisexual, and the reveal is in the most insensitive way possible.  Jake is pretending to be a journalist who had a tough interview with Dr. Mirek.  He’s talking to an undergrad journalist student who previously interviewed Dr. Mirekto under the guise of getting more information on him from her than he could himself.  She states that he was really creepy toward her in her interview and then reveals that she thinks he might be bisexual in a tone that implies that this is just as bad as creeping on her during her interview.  To this Jake responds,

I don’t think my editor wants me writing that Dr. Mirek is a bi-sexual creep with a gambling problem. (loc 1594)

First, bisexual is spelled wrong, and it is never spelled correctly in the book.  Second, this entire conversation implies that bisexuality is just as bad as being addicted to gambling or engaging in inappropriate come-ons.  Just as with the fatphobia, there is nothing wrong with a bad guy character being bisexual, but equating his bisexuality with his badness, implying that it is part of what makes him bad, is a problem, and it is biphobic.

*spoilers*
At the end of the book, it is revealed that Dr. Mirek had a relationship with Laurie’s boyfriend (implying the boyfriend is also bisexual, I might add), and that the boyfriend only participated in kidnapping Laurie and covering up the illegal animal experiments because of this relationship.  The implication from the tone of the book is that getting into a same-sex relationship with Dr. Mirek is what brought the boyfriend down into crime.  Even in the trial, the defense lawyer
conceded that Dr. Mirek and Danny Clarke had a consensual homosexual relationship. (loc 3694)
“Conceded” implies that this relationship is innately bad.  Additionally, it is biphobic to call a same-sex relationship involving at least one bisexual person a “homosexual relationship.”  Essentially, the bad guy is depraved and one of the ways in which he is depraved is by being bisexual and pulling others into situations where they have sex with men and women (the book never admits to the presence of non-binary people).
*end spoilers*

I would like to note that since this was a review copy submitted to me last November/December for review this year, I was extra offended at the biphobic content, as my review policies explicitly state that I do not wish to review anything with biphobic content.  I am offended that an author who read my review policies well enough to submit properly and get accepted, who also knew one of his characters was bisexual, did not take a moment to check and see if this representation could possibly be biphobic.  It is offensive to me as a person, and I feel that the author owes me an apology for putting me through reading something I very clearly stated I did not want to read.  It is often impossible to know from a blurb if a book will be biphobic/homophobic/transphobic, and it is really up to the author to self-censor and not submit for review something like that to a reviewer who explicitly stated they do not wish to read that content.  In all honesty, though, rather than an apology from the author, I would prefer he take some time to read up on bisexuality and biphobia to correct this biphobia in future writing.

Overall, the plot is interesting but the writing at the sentence level struggles.  Additionally, the tone of the book is fatphobic and biphobic, which will both offend some readers and shows a lack of writing three-dimensional characters, since people are bad based on their bodies and sexualities and not their character.  I recommend readers looking for a modern LA noir look elsewhere.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: One Death at a Time by Thomas M. Hewlett (Series, #1)

June 26, 2014 7 comments

Man in a hat standing next to a Europeanish buildingSummary:
Jack Strayhorn is a private eye and a member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous.  Only, he’s not an alcoholic, he’s one of the vampires who meet in a secret vampire group that exists under the umbrella of AA to learn how to control their urges and feed on humans without killing them.  He’s just returned to LA, his death site that he hasn’t been back to since he had to run in 1948 after becoming a vampire.  When his current missing person case shows up dead next to a Fae politician, Jack gets dragged into a mixed-up underworld of Faes, werewolves, drugs, and a group of vampires determined to rule the world.

Review:
This is one of the twelve indie books I accepted to be reviewed on my blog in 2014 (complete list).  I was immediately intrigued by the summary, due to its delightful urban fantasy/paranormal take on AA.  The book delivers exactly what it promises, spiced with a noir writing style.

Jack Strayhorn is the perfect paranormal version of the noir-style hardboiled detective.  He’s got a biting, snarky wit, a handsome presence, a sharp mind, and is a bit distant and mysterious.  It’s just in this case he’s distant and mysterious because he’s a vampire.  Making the private eye a vampire makes his character unique in noir, and, similarly, making the vampire a private eye with his focus primarily on crime solving and not paranormal politics gives the urban fantasy vampire a unique twist.  Jack is presented as a complex character, one who we could not possibly get to know fully in just the first entry in the series.  It’s easy to see how he will manage to carry the proposed 12 entries in the series.

Supporting Jack is a wide range of characters who accurately portray the diversity in a large town like LA, as well as the diversity one expects in a paranormal world.  The characters are multiple races and classes.  Whereas some urban fantasy books slowly reveal the presence of more and more paranormal races throughout the series, this book starts out with quite a few, and that is a nice change of pace.  Most urban fantasy readers expect there to be more than just vampires, and the book meets the urban fantasy reader where they’re at.  Even though the book has a large cast, the secondary characters never blend together.  They are easily remembered, and the diversity probably helps with that.

I like the idea of vampires having an AA-like group, but I’m still not sure how I feel about this group existing as some secret under the umbrella of AA itself.  The book even goes so far as to say the the founder of AA was a vampire himself, and used the human illness of alcoholism as a cover for the vampire group.  I like and appreciate vampirism as a disease that some people just mysteriously have at birth as an analogy for alcoholism, but I feel that having it present in the same group as the real life AA groups dampens the realness of actual AA, weakening the analogy instead of strengthening it.  I’ve seen books before have paranormal people get together in AA-style groups (zombies anonymous springs to mind), and in real life AA has spinoffs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous.  Prior to reading the book I thought maybe something might be added by having the vampires be a secret organization under AA, but after reading the book, I don’t think it did.  I think the analogy would have been stronger if vampires spotted the similarities of their genetic vampirism with alcoholism and formed a “vampires anonymous” group, inspired by AA.  Something about vampires creating AA themselves as a cover hits a bit of a sour note and weakens the analogy.

The plot is complex, with just enough twists and surprises.  There were parts of the ending that I was unable to predict.  The plot contained within the book was wrapped up sufficiently, and the overarching plot intending to cover the whole series was well-established and filled me with the desire to keep reading.  Unfortunately, the second book isn’t out yet, so I will just have to wait!

Overall, this is a delightful mix of urban fantasy and noir and is a strong first entry for a new series.  Some readers might dislike the paranormal take on Alcoholic’s Anonymous found within the book, but it is secondary to the mystery/noir plot and easy to gloss over if necessary.  Recommended to urban fantasy readers looking to venture into noir or vice versa, as well as anyone who enjoys both urban fantasy and noir.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Woman wearing the Earth as a necklace.Summary:
Lauren is an empath.  She feels other people’s pain as intensely as they do.  She lives near Los Angeles in the near future in a walled community.  The gap between rich and poor has increased to an extent that being street poor is the norm.  Lauren’s community is one of the few “middle-class” ones left.  In the confines of the walls, this preacher’s daughter starts to come up with her own religion that she calls Earthseed.  She gets the chance to put it to the test when their walled community is destroyed, and she a few survivors strike north, hoping to find better land and jobs.

Review:
A lot of dystopian novels clearly establish a believable dystopian society, but struggle with characterization.  This was interesting in that it was the opposite.  Butler establishes multiple, easily distinguished characters, both sympathetic and non-sympathetic.  Lauren in particular is believable and understandable in spite of the fact that she’s essentially starting a cult.  Lauren’s inner life is eloquently drawn out in such a way that her actions are almost entirely understandable to the reader, even when they aren’t to the people around her.

On the other hand, the dystopian society was not well drawn-out.  In spite of the fact that the older generations were all around when the shit hit the fan in American society, not a single one of them even attempts to explain why everything started to go wrong.  We get one glimpse of the world between the early 1990s and the US 30 years later in which the book takes place, and that isn’t really enough to establish how the dystopia occurred.  The how isn’t necessarily necessary for stories that take place far into the future, but 30 years isn’t very far off.  It’s reasonable to expect a bit of an explanation for how society fell so drastically apart.

The sections where Lauren discusses her Earthseed beliefs are pleasant to read, but there’s nothing earth-shattering about them.  They’re basically The Secret mixed with Buddhism mixed with Deism.  There was nothing that made me stop and think about my own world-view.  A character does address a similar criticism to Lauren about Earthseed, but she only admits to being “influenced” by eastern philosophy.  Similarly, she won’t admit to creating her own religion.  She insists she just found it.  Whether Butler sides with the critical character or Lauren, I still would rather that the reader saw something appealing in Earthseed, since so many characters do end up clinging to it.  It makes the whole situation a bit less believable.

There is a relationship in the book between a teenage girl and a man old enough to be her father.  It is presented as a bit odd, yet positive.  Honestly, the whole thing made me squeamish.  It might not have if I hadn’t found the older male character creepy from the instant he was introduced.  I’m really not sure why Butler chose to go there.  It certainly has no point in this book, although it might in the sequel, Parable of the Talents.  I hope it was introduced for a reason and not just for shock value.  In either case, I wish he had established a father/daughter type relationship with the teenager instead of the sexual one.

Overall, Parable of the Sower is a pleasant read, but not one that makes much of an impact.  If character studies are more up your alley, and you don’t mind dystopian settings, you’ll probably enjoy this book.  If you want a solidly established dystopia, you should look elsewhere, such as Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: SwapTree

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