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Series Review: The John Cleaver Series by Dan Wells

March 6, 2013 3 comments

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Notebook paper with blood on it.Summary:
Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver is not a serial killer.  At least not yet.  John’s therapist believes he has Antisocial Personality Disorder, commonly known as sociopathy, although he can’t legally deliver the official diagnosis until he’s 18 years old.  But both his therapist and himself hope John can learn to control his illness in the meantime.  An illness John refers to as Mr. Monster.  This becomes more difficult as a serial killer shows up in his town.  John starts to wonder if he can harness Mr. Monster to find and kill the killer.  A killer he soon learns is supernatural and ultimately faces.  The demons continue coming to his town, and John feels his grasp on control and an ability to function in average society slipping.  Are there really more and more demons coming to his town? Or is it just his sociopathy getting the better of him?

Review:
This trilogy starts with an incredible bang, but makes a slow trajectory downward to end on a whimper.

The first book is incredible.  It bashes ableism on its head by featuring a main character who is a teenager struggling with a mental illness, and not an easy one to identify with either.  People with APD lack empathy, which can make it difficult to empathize with them in return.  Wells carefully crafts a realistic yet sympathetic teenager with APD.  His struggles to defeat his mental illness and be a functioning member of society are great to see in a novel period, let alone in a YA one.  On top of this, we have a single mother running a business with the help of her just graduated high school daughter and part-time help of her teenage son.  It’s the perfect mix of non-traditional and yet not off the wall family to have as a backdrop for John.  We have all this, then, with a thriller plot that starts with the hint of a serial killer then deliciously builds to the revelation that the killer is a demon.  This fantasy element fits perfectly in with what is hot in YA right now, giving an interesting, unique main character an appealing wrapping.

Knife under an x.I was stoked after reading this and had high hopes for the trilogy.  The middle book maintains some of the elements that made the first book amazing but missed on others.  On the plus side, John is still who he was in the first book, although with more confidence.  He tries to date, and his family has their own struggles.  Although the thriller pacing is less deftly done, it still works in the context of this book, particularly since the middle book of a trilogy is traditionally setting things up for the last hurrah of the final book.  Plus this book manages to accomplish two things.  It has John learning more about himself and his mental illness and it shows him learning more about demons.  It ends on a powerful note with him inviting one of the demon’s friends to Clayton County to face off with him.  He’s tired of waiting for things to come to him and is ready to go on the offensive.  Thus, although this book wasn’t as strong as the first, I had high hopes that it was setting us up for a powerful final book in the trilogy.

Things really fall apart in the final book, which is what makes the trilogy taken as a whole disappointing.  Everything is building toward the final book.  Toward what John ultimately learns and what he ultimately becomes.  Unfortunately the answers to both of those questions are a major let-down after the unique and albeism-smashing features of the first two books.  In the climactic scene, John’s mother sacrifices herself to save her son.  When he loses her, he realizes that he is feeling feelings.  He’s feeling the pain of losing her.  When he realizes this, the lightbulb goes off in his head that he stopped feeling feelings when his father abandoned them.  It was just him trying to deal with his broken family.  I shit you not.  And then he decides he has been healed by his mother’s death.  His mother’s sacrifice opens him up to letting himself feel things again. What. The Fuck.

Burnt paper background to book title.First of all, going numb after being badly emotionally hurt is a real thing.  But it’s not a real thing that would be mistaken by a therapist as Antisocial Personality Disorder. And being numb doesn’t mean a person starts daydreaming about killing everyone around him and the girls he has crushes on in particular.  Numb is not the same as lacking empathy, and it honestly doesn’t even take a therapist to see that.  Numb looks and feels different from sociopathy.  They are not the same thing and simply could not be mistaken for each other.  If we decide that perhaps Wells didn’t mean to imply that John was simply numb and didn’t have sociopathy, then we can only read this as saying that John’s father abandoning the family *caused* his son’s sociopathy and that his mother’s sacrifice cured it.  I’m sorry, but your dad running off does not give people Antisocial Personality Disorder, and it certainly isn’t cured in the span of 10 minutes by someone sacrificing their life for yours.  (By the way, does anyone see the heavy-handed religious symbolism in that? Because it is definitely there).  The cause, as with many mental illnesses, is officially unknown but is believed to be a combination of genetics and severe environmental factors such as child abuse (source).  Since John is not abused, then we can only assume that in his case his APD is genetic.  It is utterly ridiculous to present the matter as his APD being caused by something as simple as a parent leaving.  Similarly, there is no cure for APD.  People do not get magically better overnight.  It can be managed so a person may have a healthy, normal life, but it does not just disappear.  The symptoms do sometimes become less severe on their own in a person’s 40s (according to the DSM-IV-TR), but John is not 40, and he doesn’t suddenly get better thanks to aging.  The whole climax of the series turns the series from being about a person with a mental illness learning to function and do positive things into a story about how a father abandoning his family destroyed them and almost ruined his son for life.  The former is unique and powerful.  The latter is heavy-handed and preachy.  Plus that whole dynamic belittles mental illness and makes it out to be just overcoming a bad part of your life, rather than the very real illness that people deal with every day.

So what we have here is a trilogy that starts as one thing and ends as another.  It starts as a thriller with a unique main character demonstrating dealing with mental illness in an engaging, realistic manner.  It ends with a thriller that quickly goes from spine-tingling to heavy-handed and preachy.  It is unfortunate that this preachiness also gets the facts about a mental illness wrong and presents these false ideas to a YA audience in such an attractive, fantastical thriller wrapping.  Ultimately the writing is good but the last book in the trilogy takes a nose-dive when it comes to facts and the realities of having and living with a mental illness.  Thankfully, one can read the first or first two books in the trilogy without reading it all.  There are not major cliffhangers that compel the reader to continue on, and the first two books stand on their own well enough.  I’m disappointed that the series as a whole is not something I can recommend whole-heartedly.  I’m disappointed that after starting out so strong, Wells went so far astray.  That doesn’t change the quality of the first two books, though, so I still recommend them. But only if you’re capable of leaving a series partly unread.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap, Audible

Books in Series:
I Am Not A Serial Killer, review, 5 stars
Mr. Monster , review, 4 stars
I Don’t Want to Kill You, review, 3 stars

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Book Review: Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

February 27, 2013 2 comments

Image of white bomb on blue background headed toward Earth.Summary:
A sentient bomb is hurtling through outer space toward Earth, better known to the bomb creators as Dirt.  You see, Dirt’s music is making the inhabitants of Ostar (a canine species) completely loony.  But the bomb stops in its tracks and orbits around Dirt to try to figure out whatever happened to the *first* bomb that the Ostars sent out.  Dirt doesn’t seem to have any sophisticated defense system to speak of, so what gives?  Meanwhile, Lucy Pavlov, the creator of new computer programming protocols that led to a leap in technology, is seeing unicorns in her forest.  Also a bank security executive is trying to figure out just how, exactly, money is teleporting out of banks.  In between getting very drunk and trying to forget about that one time aliens stole his dog.

Review:
This made it onto my TBR pile thanks to multiple comparisons to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, which is one of my favorite series.  I can completely understand why the comparison is made.  The book is witty, zany, and consists of a hilarious imagining of outer space and aliens.

The plot is complex without being confusing.  It revolves around three people (well, one is a bomb) who are connected in mysterious ways they just don’t know yet.  It kept me guessing, managed to surprise me a few times, and had some delightfully creative elements, such as the fact that the bomb can create probes to send down to Earth that appear to humans like organic matter.  Or even the fact that the bomb can sit there and slowly decide whether or not to go off.  Clever.

I also appreciated an imagined future where people have handheld devices that are given a simple name rather than compounding a bunch of words together.  The former makes more sense since in reality that is what companies do.  (For instance, Google Glass or iPad as opposed to handheldpersonaldevice.  Don’t laugh. I’ve seen something very similar to that in scifi).  In this book the iPhone device is the Warthog.  With no further explanation given.  This is scifi done well.  The reader can tell what a Warthog is from how the characters use it.  Holt never over-explains.

The characters were rather two-dimensional, but that works well for the humor, not to mention for the fact that one of them is a bomb.  If a character has a good heart but is a lazy drunk because aliens stole his dog, well that’s enough for the reader to know in a book like this.  Motivation enough is present for the characters to be recognizable as people and to move the plot forward.

As for the humor, I found it quite witty, although not quite as gut-wrenching as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  It plays on slapstick, situational humor, and pop culture references for the most part, with a dash of insight into human nature, romantic relationships, and dogs.  I particularly enjoyed the unicorn probe who takes a nasty turn for the violent and insists that there is data in human records showing unicorns exist.  I also really enjoyed the scenes where a couple first starts to fall in love, hilariously so.  All of which is to say, if you generally enjoy a Douglas Adams style of humor, you won’t be disappointed.

Now, I was a bit let-down by the ending.  I didn’t really like the final plot twist.  It kind of….creeped me out a bit and left me on a bit of a down note instead of the delightful upswing I felt throughout the rest of the book.  I think other people might enjoy it more than me.  It really depends on your feelings about people and pets and having pets.  It’s not enough of a let-down to keep me from recommending or enjoying the book.  It was just enough to keep it from 5 stars.

Overall, this is a delightfully witty piece of scifi with a unique plot.  Recommended to scifi humor fans, particularly those who enjoy Douglas Adams.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Mount by Carol Emshwiller (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Man in reins and bit.Summary:
Charley is an 11 year old Seattle and wants to be the best mount there is for his owner, Little Master.  He eats his dry cakes, practices on the go-round, and behaves well.  Little Master mostly likes their lessons.  His ears wiggle, so Charley knows he’s giggling.  But one day Wilds attack the village.  They say that people are meant to be people, not mounts for Hoots.  But the Hoots say the mounts were made for them, see how the primate species are perfectly designed for riding?  It’s all very confusing for Charley.

Review:
It doesn’t take much guess-work to figure out how this wound up on my TBR pile.  It’s a rather obvious allegory for animal rights, although instead of apes enslaving people like in Planet of the Apes, it’s an alien species with cat-like ears and weak legs enslaving humans.  The concept is a good one, but the execution fell short for me, which is sad, because I wanted to love it.

The structure of the book is problematic.  The first chapter is from the perspective of an entirely random Hoot who we never see again. Ever.  We also never see his mount again.  This is just weird.  The rest of the book is told from the first person perspective of Charley, except for one random chapter narrated by his father.  I don’t mind switching perspectives, but there should be some sort of consistency about it, and we should have at least a vague idea who the character in the new perspective is.

I also found myself completely baffled by Charley.  In spite of being enslaved by the Hoots, he still wishes to use a bit one day and other things that drive his father nuts, and one cannot help but agree with his father.  He never seems to really learn better through the book either.  He persists in loving his Hoot and being a mount for his Hoot.  That doesn’t work as an allegory for animal rights or slavery.

Emshwiller does show how teenage boys clash with their fathers very well, however.  Charley’s relationship with his dad, Heron, is well fleshed-out and intriguing.  They want to connect and love each other but struggle with how, exactly, to do that when they are so different yet so similar.  Looking back, this relationship is what kept me reading.  It shines in spite of the other oddities in the book.

I won’t spoil it, but the ending bothered me as well, and I found it profoundly confusing.  In fact, I’d say for the book as a whole I am simply left perplexed by it.  I feel like I missed something or didn’t quite get an accurate picture of the world they are living in or something.

Overall, it’s a very different take on humans being enslaved by another species, but its execution is rather disappointing.  Recommended to readers with a marked interest in scifi depictions of human slavery.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

March 3, 2011 1 comment

People with red eyes on green background pursued by plants.Summary:
Bill wakes up in the hospital the day after a worldwide comet show with his eyes still bandaged from a triffid accident.  His regular nurse doesn’t show up and all is quieter than it should be except for some distraught murmurings.  Shortly he finds out that everyone who saw the comet show has lost their sight, leaving a random bunch of people who just so happened to miss it the only sighted humans left in the world.  A hybrid plant created years ago for its highly useful oil, the triffid, is able to walk and eats meat.  Swarms of them are now wreaking full havoc on the people struggling to save the human race.

Review:
This book reads like the novelization of a 1950s horror film.  Man-eating plants!  Dangerous satellite weapons of mass destruction!  Humanity being reduced to the countryside!  Classic morals versus new morals!  This is not a bad thing, and Wyndham seems to be conscious of the innate ridiculousness of his tale, as it possess a certain self-aware wittiness not often present in apocalyptic tales.

Bill is a well-drawn character who is enjoyable as a hero precisely because he is an everyman who is simultaneously not devoid of personality.  He is not the strongest or the smartest survivor, but he is just strong and smart enough to survive.  Similarly, his love interest, Josella, impressively adapts and changes over time, and their love story is actually quite believable, unlike those in many apocalyptic tales.  In fact, all of the characters are swiftly developed in such a way that they are easy to recognize and tell apart.  This is important in a tale with so much going on.

On the other hand, the action is stuttering.  It never successfully builds to an intense, breaking point.  Multiple opportunities present themselves, but Wyndham always pulls the story back just before a true climax.  After this has been done a few times, the reader loses the ability to feel excitement or interest in the characters and simply wants the tale to be over.  In a way it is almost as if Wyndha couldn’t quite decide which direction to take the action, so took it briefly in all directions instead.  This makes for a non-cohesive story that pulls away from the investment in the rich characters.

Additionally, I do not believe the whole concept of the triffids was used to its fullest extent.  The name of the book has triffids in it, for goodness sake.  I expect them to feature more prominently and fearfully than they do.  Perhaps I’ve just read too many zombie books, but the triffids just seem more like a pest than a real threat.  The concept of man-eating plants taking over the world is a keen one, and I wish Wyndham had invested more into it.

Overall, the book is a quick, entertaining, one-shot read that could have been much more if Wyndham had made better choices as an author.  I recommend it to kitschy scifi and horror fans looking for a quick piece of entertainment.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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The Evolution of My Wishlist

September 23, 2010 10 comments

Before LibraryThing, book blogs, and PaperBackSwap entered my life, I didn’t really have a book wishlist.  Oh if I had gotten into a series I’d keep my eye open for the release of the next one or if a friend recommended a book to me I’d put it on hold in the library, but that was about it.  Back then I’d generally go browse the library or a bookstore and just grab whatever looked interesting and that was that.  My reading was much more hit or miss back then.  I’d periodically find a book I really enjoyed, but most of the time it was average or “yuck, this sucks, but I don’t have anything else to read right now, so there you go.”  This meant that, believe it or not, I’d been an avid reader for years, but didn’t really have a firm grasp on what type of books I enjoy.  I’d read anything I could get my hands on just for the sake of reading, because that’s how it was when I was a kid.  We were poor, and so I had to make do with whatever books I could get my hands on.  This mentality had firmly carried itself over into my adulthood.

Then I started recording what I read on LibraryThing, blogging my own reviews, and discovered book blogs.  I created a wishlist in LibraryThing and started adding pretty much any book that sounded even mildly entertaining to it.  I then added them to my PaperBackSwap wishlist until I hit the limit (which is in the hundreds).  I couldn’t believe how many books I wanted to read! I then had the phenomenon of a tbr pile of books I own, not books I’d checked out from the library.  I was sitting looking at them this week, and it struck me.  There are as many books in my tbr pile as I’ve read so far this year, and I could think of at least a few on my wishlist that I wanted to read more than a few of the ones in my tbr pile.  Then something someone pointed out to me a couple of months ago rang through my brain.  They pointed out that reading is my hobby, and I shouldn’t feel bad for spending money or time on something I enjoy so much.  Well, why have I been spending time and money on books that I don’t want to read as much as other ones?  Why have I felt obligated to?  Because I might like it?  Reading is my hobby; it’s not my job.  It’s not homework.  Why have I felt this obligation to branch out into types of books I don’t tend to like just because others have liked them?  I’m not saying I shouldn’t ever branch out.  That’d get dull.  But if you saw my tbr pile and my wishlist, you’d realize that I was branching out about 50% of the time.  That’s a bit too much in my opinion.  20 to 25% is more like it.

I can’t do anything about the books I already have.  I acquired them, so I’m going to read them, but I could do something about my wishlist.  So I went into my PaperBackSwap wishlist and ruthlessly went through, eliminating books that I’d tossed on there without much thought.  What’s left is books I genuinely want to read, and yes, a couple of them are branching out of my norm.  They stayed because they sounded genuinely intriguing, not because they sounded mildly interesting.  I can only read so many books a year.  Why spend time on 0nes that don’t grip me?  That don’t affect my perception of the world?  Life’s too short.  I should enjoy every second of it I get to spend reading for fun.

Imminent Arrivals and TBR

Since I didn’t quite manage to finish my current read on the bus this morning (I literally had to stop in the middle of the climax.  I HATE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS), I thought I’d do something a little bit different today.  As you all know, I use PaperBackSwap for acquiring a lot of my books.  It lets you sort your wishlist by estimated time to fulfillment, so I thought I’d share with you guys the books that are estimated to be mine shortly.

Woman in the woods.First up, I’ve been waiting for this book forever: The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan.  All I really know about it is it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie story with a girl/woman/female-okay! at the center of the plot.  I love all things zombie.  Love.  They’re grotesque and fabulous and really fit my dark sense of humor to a T.  This is one of those books that will jump to the top of the TBR pile when it arrives.

Black and white image of women.Next is The Groupby Mary McCarthy.  This got added to my wishlist after reading Nymeth‘s review of it.  It’s about eight female Vassar graduates in the 1930s and the struggles they faced as women at that time.  I’m a sucker for stories about the struggles women face due simply to the fact that we’re women, and the early 1900s are a favorite time period of historical fiction for me.

Giant moon over snowy earth.Third is yet another post-apocalyptic book: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  I can only explain my post-apocalypse obsession by pointing at my fundamentalist Christian upbringing.  Or maybe I just enjoyed the apocalypse sermons because I secretly love tales of suffering.  Take your pick.  Anywho, this one is in journal form, a format I came to love through those Dear America books back when I was in middle school.  This particular apocalypse takes the form of an asteroid hitting the moon, moving it closer to the Earth and giving us some fun Arctic weather.  I’ve heard good titterings from my fellow librarians on this one.

Ok, so I also have books in my TBR pile, so I’m going to show you guys 3 random books from there.  If there’s one you sorely want reviewed soon, tell me now!

Person in a tree.I stumbled upon The Integral Trees by Larry Niven on PaperBackSwap’s customized homepage (it shows me recently added scifi, horror, and memoirs).  The cover caught my attention, so I checked out the description.  It’s supposed to be about a planet where humans evolved to live without gravity and live among the trees.  All other life forms also live among the trees, including the fish.  Honestly, it reminded me a lot of Wii Mario Galaxy, so there you have it.

Torn page in a notebook.A pretty recent arrival, I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells features an untrustworthy narrator with sociopathic tendencies who spends the book trying to convince us and himself that he’s not a serial killer.  Kind of reminds me of Dexter-lite.  I was really stoked for this the whole time it was on my wishlist, but I haven’t touched it since it arrived.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe I’d enjoy it more if it was called, Yeah, I’m a Serial Killer, Deal With It, Bitch.  As is, it just seems like the author was afraid to take it to the edge that Dexter is at.  Prove me wrong, people!

Cartoon of a woman sitting on a tombstone.Finally, there’s Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson.  Yes, it’s yet another paranormal romance series, and I have yet to finish the two that I’m on (Demon Slayer and Sookie), but well this one seems a lot more like Shopaholic, plus it’s not in the south, which is a huge plus.  I mean, really, why must all tongue-in-cheek paranormal romance take place in the south, whereas the dull I’m-a-huge-bitch-because-I-was-wounded-as-a-child-LOOK-AT-MY-TATTOOS paranormal romance take place in the north?  Sooo dull.  So, yeah, I have high hopes for this series.

That’s it!  Please tell me what you think, my lovely readers!

PaperBackSwap

March 18, 2010 2 comments

A while back I told you guys about a book swapping website I’ve been using called Swaptree.  In the interim I started using PaperBackSwap, so I thought I should let you guys know about it too.

PaperBackSwap is slightly different from Swaptree.  You acquire books using credits. (You are given some free ones when you start.  I believe it’s 3)  You can get credits either from sending someone else a book or you can buy them.  The credits are $3.45 a piece, but if you buy larger batches of them they cost less.  So even if you buy your credits instead of only using credits earned by sending books, you’re still getting books for $3.45 or less, which is wicked cheap.

Since PaperBackSwap doesn’t use a direct swapping method, you wishlist books you want.  When a copy of the book becomes available, it is first offered whoever first wishlisted it.  This sounds like a long wait, but I haven’t had to wait too terribly long for anything yet.  Also if you put in a large wishlist, you tend to get a pretty steady flow of books being offered to you.  Another cool feature of PaperBackSwap is PBS Market, which is basically an overstock shop of books.  You can get these for super-low price either paying just money or just credits or a combination of money and credits.  When a book you’ve wishlisted becomes available in PBS Market, they notify you but your position is also maintained in the wishlist unless you choose to buy the PBS Market book.

You should be aware though that PaperBackSwap leaves it up to the requester to set the specific condition requirements for books.  The website generally requests that the book be in “good condition” with “no markings,” but anything beyond that is up to the requester.  Say that you don’t want books that have been in a smoker’s home.  You would say in your settings “No books from homes with smoke please.”  This message would be visible to the giver when you request the book.  They can then reject it for the “doesn’t meet requester’s requirements” reason.  However, I found that you should put some sort of requirement in because it makes givers think twice about sending you an iffy copy.  For mine I just reiterated PaperBackSwap’s “no excessive highlighting or writing.”  Since then I’ve been receiving better quality books.

I like using both websites, because if there’s a book I really want, I can get it quicker for cheap on PaperBackSwap, but if I’m a bit more patient Swaptree ensures that I’m doing a 1 to 1 trade.  Whereas on PaperBackSwap I’ve sent out 2 books but received 10.  Oops, lol.

If you do choose to join PaperBackSwap, please let them know that I referred you as it will get me free credits.  My username is tapcat16.  Also, please check out the books I have available and see if you want any.  You’ll know for sure that you’re getting your copy from a reliable giver and a super-speedy shipper, if I do say so myself. 🙂  I also frequently add books, possibly even ones I’ve reviewed here, so check back often.  I’ve added a widget on the right-hand side of my blog that will link you directly to my profile for future reference.  I like my books to find new homes.  It makes me all happy inside.

So there’s the inside scoop on PaperBackSwap.  Cheers!