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Series Review: Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Vampire Mysteries Series by Charlaine Harris

March 7, 2014 6 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.

Man in cloak floating in the airSummary:
Sookie Stackhouse is a waitress in the rural town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, and she has a secret.  She’s a telepath, and it’s ostracized her from most of the people in her town.  But when vampires come out of the coffin, Sookie discovers that she can’t read their minds.  Mind reading made her dating life non-existent, for obvious reasons, but with vampires, Sookie can feel somewhat normal.  She soon starts to get pulled into their supernatural world, which contains more than they’re letting on to the mainstream public.

Review:
I first want to make it very clear that this series review is talking exclusively about the books and not the tv show inspired by them, True Blood.  There will be no spoilers for the show and no comparisons between the books and the show.  The show diverged very quickly from the books, so I think it’s fair to keep discussion of the two separate.  Moving right along!

coverclubdeadThis series takes the mystery series whodunit in the vein of Agatha Christie and drenches it in the supernatural and the American south, utilizing it to tell the overarching story of one woman choosing who she wants to be.  Perhaps because of the presence of some handsome leading men and the occasional sex scene, some mistake the series for a romance one.  But this series is truly not a romance.  Sookie’s romantic life (and sex life) is really secondary to the mysteries she solves and her slow discovery of who she is and who she wants to be.

The whodunit plots are generally murder mysteries.  The violence is moderate.  If you can handle a vampire biting someone or knowing someone is being beheaded without actually getting the gore described to you, you can handle the violence in this series.  The whodunit plots start out engaging but gradually become more repetitive and ho-hum, almost as if the author was running out of ideas for situations to place Sookie in.  Similarly, Sookie gets kidnapped and has to get saved by her supernatural friends kind of a lot.

coverdeadasadoornailThe setting of a supernatural American south is well imagined and evoked.  Both small town, rural lives and larger southern cities like Dallas and New Orleans are touched upon.  The American north is visited once, however, Sookie has a strong aversion to northern women that sours the representation of the north in the book.

The characters can sometimes feel like overwrought caricatures.  While some characters are given depth, most are not.  This is odd, since Sookie can read minds.  one would assume that she, as the first person narrator, would have a very three-dimensional view of those around her.  And yet she doesn’t.  Sookie likes to say that she’s for equality and seeing the good in everyone but she actually judges people very harshly.  For instance, she thinks it’s a shame that women who are not virgins wear white wedding dresses.

Sookie’s character does develop, albeit minimally, over the course of the books.  Characters should grow and change, coveralltogetherdeadparticularly over the course of 13 books, but unfortunately Sookie’s character changes to become less and less likable.  This is extra frustrating when the book is told from her perspective.  Instead of becoming more powerful and strong (emotionally, mentally) over the course of the series, Sookie becomes less and less able to handle the things going on around her.  She also continues to act shocked and appalled at the wars and violence she doesn’t just see, but participates in, in spite of it now being a normal part of her life.  Perhaps if she was just repeatedly a victim this mentality would make sense, but Sookie enacts violence on those around her and then acts disgusted at what the vampires/werewolves/etc… do, which comes off as hypocritical.  Either own your own actions and validate their necessity or stop doing them.  Don’t do certain violent actions then deny your involvement while simultaneously judging others for doing precisely what you just did.  The fact that Sookie slowly becomes this hypocritical person makes her less and less likable.  Similarly, she starts out the books with a firm belief in social justice and equality for supes but over the course of the series clearly comes to believe that humans are better than supes.  I don’t blame her for wanting a quiet life or for wanting to stay human or wanting to have babies but she could have Blonde woman in blue standing between two pale men in black capes.done all of those things without coming to view supes as inferior.  It is frustrating for the reader to have a main character in an almost cozy style mystery series gradually change into someone it is difficult to empathize with.

There is a consistent presence of GLBTQ characters, albeit mostly in secondary roles, throughout the series.  Homophobia is depicted in an extremely negative light since only the bad guys ever exhibit it.  Unfortunately, there is an instance of bi erasure in the book.  One of the characters is identified as gay but everyone also acknowledges that he periodically sleeps with women.  Even the character himself calls himself gay, so this isn’t just a case of the author writing a realistic amount of the realities of bi erasure into the book.

The sex in the book is not well-written.  It is just awkward, cringe-inducing, and laughable most of the time.  But the sex scenes aren’t very often, and they do fit in with the rest of the book.  Just don’t go to this series looking to get really turned Cartoon drawing of a blonde woman in a green dress upside down with burning paper near her.on.

This sounds like a lot of criticism for the series but some of these things, such as the campy, two-dimensional characters, are part of what makes the series enjoyable.  It’s kitschy, not to be taken too seriously.  It’s a series to come to and read precisely to laugh and roll your eyes.  To be utterly bemused at the sheer number of supernatural creatures and the ridiculousness of how they organize themselves.  To sigh in frustration at Sookie as she gets kidnapped yet again or is oblivious yet again to who the murderer is.  It’s a series that’s candy for those who enjoy camp and not too much violence with a touch of the supernatural in their mysteries.

3.5 out of 5 stars

A blonde woman stands among flowers and tomatoes with the sun either setting or rising behind her.Source: Amazon, PaperBackSwap, and Audible

Books in Series:
Dead Until Dark, review
Living Dead in Dallas, review
Club Dead, review
Dead To The World, review
Dead as a Doornail, review
Definitely Dead, review
All Together Dead, review
From Dead to Worse, review
Dead And Gone, review
Dead in the Family, review
Dead Reckoning, review
Deadlocked, review
Dead Ever After, review

Series Review: The Georgina Kincaid Series by Richelle Mead

January 9, 2014 1 comment

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.

Red-headed woman in front of Seattle skylineSummary:
Georgina Kincaid loves her job managing a bookstore in Seattle.  She’s not so sure about her job as Seattle’s only succubus, but she doesn’t have much choice about that one since she sold her soul to Hell back when she was mortal in ancient Greece.  After hundreds of years of being a succubus, Georgina has started to feel guilty about stealing the life energy of good-souled men.  So she’s switched to stealing the less high-quality life energy of bad-souled men.  Her demon boss, Jerome, is none too happy about this.  Things take an even more interesting turn when famous author, Seth Mortensen, moves to Seattle and chooses Georgina’s bookstore as his base of operations.  Georgina quickly finds herself falling for him.  Her first time falling for a man since WWII.  Nobody seems to like the idea of Georgina dating Seth, except for Seth, but Georgina doesn’t have much time to wonder why as supernatural life carries on.  Everything from an incubus plot to attempts at overthrowing her demonic boss (by another demon of course) to an escaped ancient supernatural power who feeds on dreams come Georgina’s way.  Georgina starts to notice that Seattle seems to be facing more than the normal level of supernatural upheaval, and she starts to wonder why.

Woman in push-up vest against red background.Review:
A tightly told, sexy, humorous series featuring an overarching plot that ties into all of the smaller plots and lends the series as a whole a greater meaning makes this urban fantasy stand out above the rest.

The series ostensibly focuses on the bad guys of the supernatural world, not something that is seen very often in urban fantasy.  Yes, Georgina is a succubus with a guilt complex, but she is still a succubus, and she still goes out and does her succubus thing.  She is not out trying to save the world.  She’s just trying to get by day by day in the role she has chosen for herself–fighting on the bad guy side of the battle.  But Mead does not let the series fall easily into clear good versus evil.  It soon becomes evident that good guys can be on the bad guy side and bad guys on the good guy side.  In most cases, one decision or the fault of birth decides where they land.  Just because someone is a vampire doesn’t mean he can’t desire to help out his friends.  Just because someone is an angel doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes.  And the rules aren’t always fair and sometimes incomprehensible.  This gray complexity lends a lot of interesting notes to the series that otherwise wouldn’t be there, not least of Woman standing in front of electrical storm.which is the fact that the characters are able to be three-dimensional in this world Mead has created.

The characters, even the minor ones, are indeed three-dimensional.  They sometimes make stupid choices, big mistakes, and are annoying.  But they also make tough good choices, ones that aren’t easy but still happen.  They fall in genuine love.  They accidentally hurt each other but also sacrifice themselves for each other.  They worry about having a bad hair day.  They cry.  They have great sex and bad sex.  And they come to life in the reader’s mind.

The sex scenes, a key element of an urban fantasy series about a succubus, are never repetitive.  They are tantalizing and sexy, except for a few which are aiming to show that sex can be bad.  They range from the intense love making of a couple madly in love to a fun night out having sex in public at a public sex bar.  And many positions and types of sex are covered as well.  The sex scenes walk the line between barely mentioned and extremely explicit quite well.  They are fully fleshed-out sex scenes without being extremely explicit.

Read-headed pale woman standing seductively against a purplish-red backdrop. The book title and author name are over her.The overarching plot, though, is what really made me fall in love with the series.  Georgina became a succubus in exchange for her husband and all those who knew her forgetting all about her.  She cheated on her husband, and she felt so much guilt at both the act and the pain it caused that she felt this was the best solution.  At first, she goes into being a succubus with enthusiasm but over time her feelings change.  Her hurt starts to heal, and she begins to see the good side of both humanity and life.  She is in the throes of this complex situation of wanting to be good but having already signed a contract for the bad side of the fight when Seth shows up and everything starts going haywire in the supernatural world in Seattle.  Eventually, she finds out that Seth is the reincarnation of her original husband, Kiriakos.  He lived his life thinking he must have a soul mate but never meeting her, so when he died he struck a bargain to get more chances at meeting her.  He has a limited number of reincarnations (10, I believe), that will occur in the same vicinity as his soul mate.  His soul mate is Georgina, and she has met him multiple times throughout her life as as a succubus.  This reincarnation as Seth is his last chance.  From here, the story takes a hard look at what makes people soul mates, that being soul mates doesn’t mean no mistakes will be made, that love Redheaded woman in a sexy leather top standing in front of fog.and a relationship aren’t an easy cakewalk and sacrifices and compromises must be made.  It delves into the idea of redemption, and that being a good person and having a good life aren’t just something innate in you.  It’s a beautiful love story, spanning many centuries, that takes a hard look at what makes relationships work.  It also ties in nicely with the questions established earlier about good versus evil and if being good or evil is a one-time choice or something that happens over time.  I never would have guessed that I could end up feeling so positively about a love story that begins with betrayal but that’s where Mead uses the supernatural with great skill.  The story works because the betrayal is treated so seriously.  Georgina’s betrayal of her husband (and soul mate) leads them both to centuries of pain.  It is not something that can be just brushed off.  It’s a mistake she made, yes, but just because it was a mistake doesn’t mean she can just say sorry and make it all right.  On that note, Kiriakos/Seth also made mistakes when they were first together that he also has to work through.  They both learn through time that you can’t just sit back and let the marriage happen.  You have to pay attention, invest, and work at growing together.

Woman in white and wearing a cross standing in front of a foggy sky.The fun setting, tantalizing sex scenes, three-dimensional characters, and unexpected yet beautiful overarching plot about the nature of good and evil and love and redemption makes this series a stunner in urban fantasy.  Highly recommended to urban fantasy and romance fans alike, although those who are irritated at the concept of soul mates might not enjoy it as much.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap, library, gift, Audible

Books in Series:
Succubus Blues, review, 4 stars
Succubus On Top, review, 4 stars
Succubus Dreams, review, 5 stars
Succubus Heat, review, 4 stars
Succubus Shadows, review, 5 stars
Succubus Revealed, review, 5 stars

Series Review: The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

December 21, 2013 2 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.

Woman's body mirror imaged.Summary:
In the not-too-distant future, the heavily populated world is run by corporations instead of governments. The corps keep their workers and people in Compounds where they’ll be safe from the rampant crime in the rest of the world. Supposedly.  Those who can’t get jobs at a corp must live in the pleeblands, essentially ghettoes.  The pleeblands are haunted by painballers–people who fought their way out of prison in a gladiator-style competition and who are usually now addicted to drugs.

The world isn’t entirely humans and corps, though. There are also a whole slew of new GMO plants and animals, such as rakunks and pigoons.  Children can buy bracelets with live fish inside them as wearable pets.

Jimmy works in a corp with Crake.  Crake is a genius who the corp allows to create basically whatever he wants.  They share a love interest in Oryx, who works with them, caring for the creations Crake makes.  Toby lives in the pleeblands, working in fast food restaurants.  She is being pursued by a violent stalker, who she is sure will kill her one day.  Then she discovers God’s Gardeners, a vegetarian cult that lives on the rooftops of the city gardening, learning all the species of the planet, and preparing for the impending End Times.  And the End Times come in the form of a virus released by Crake to destroy humanity and make room for the new breed of humans he has created in his lab–Crakers.  Crakers are herbivorous, polyamorous, and turn blue when they are in heat.  The pandemic wipes out almost everyone, but not quite.  Jimmy is left to care for the Crakers, and Toby survives, reminiscing about how her life has gone.  And there are some that Crake gave an immunity drug to.  They gather together and attempt to survive, guide the Crakers, and ponder on how things turned out this way.

covertheyearofthefloodReview:
The future world Atwood creates in this series is inventive and engrossing.  Unfortunately, many of the characters and some of the plot fail to fully engage the reader.

The future world, prior to the virus outbreak that destroys most human life, is incredibly imaginative and simultaneously realistic.  It is by far the strength of the series.  Atwood takes real modern day science and intelligently extrapolates how that combined with our evolving culture would affect life on Earth.  The change from politicians and nations controlling the world to corporations doing so makes excellent sense.  The types of animals those corps create are also logical both within that context and from a scientific perspective.  For instance, the mo’hairs are sheep who have had their genetics modified so that their wool is instead human hair to makes wigs out of.  How the world works makes sense and is slightly frightening at the same time.  It’s a subtle dystopia.

The post-apocalyptic setting is slightly less creative.  Only a few humans survive and quickly leave the cities to live in the countryside.  Conveniently, at least half of the group of survivors are from the vegetarian cult, God’s Gardeners, who predicted the end times, and so are well prepared for living in the wild.  This setting is much staler compared to the pre-apocalypse dystopia.  It feels as if the characters are just sitting in a clearing in the woods chatting at each other.  This would not be a problem if the characters were rich enough to sustain the plot when the creative world has disappeared.  But most of them are not.

Atwood is known for writing richly imagined female characters in scifi settings.  Unfortunately, this series is dominated by men, with the women mostly relegated to secondary roles, with the exception of Toby.  Toby starts out strong, and the book focusing on her story (The Year of the Flood) is the strongest of the series as well.  But in the post-apocalyptic setting, Toby loses all of her vim and three-dimensionality.  She becomes a woman obsessed with a man and pining for things she can’t have.  The male characters who dominate the story lack anything compelling.  Crake reads precisely as a slightly creepy genius.  Jimmy is difficult to get to know since he spends most of the series narrating when he is out of his mind from the effects of the apocalypse.  And Zeb reads as a muscled thug who comes to his senses when it best suits him.  None of these male characters show real breadth or true humanity.  They could have carried the story well, although I would still have missed the strong female presence Atwood brings to scifi.  However, these men seem more like caricatures of types of men we meet throughout our lives.

An egg with a handprint on it sits in a nest. The title of the book and the author's name are in gold near it.The plot is clearly meant to show us how the world could be destroyed and also how new life begins, complete with religious mythology.  Some of the plot twists that go with this core of the plot work and others don’t.  For the world destroying, the plot approaches it in two ways.  There’s telling how the world ends from an outsider, underprivileged perspective of a woman who happens to survive.  This aspect of the plot had enough twists and differences, such as Toby’s involvement in the God’s Gardeners cult, that it maintained interest.  The plot also tells how the world ends from the perspective of a man caught in a hopeless hetero love triangle with a kind woman and an evil genius.  This common trope takes no different plot twists or turns.  It is entirely predictable and dull.  A bit of a flop.  The twists in the final third of the story, how the world begins and the last of the prior world fades out with a murmur, does nothing truly daring.  Toby’s romance ends essentially as expected.  Loose ends are tied up.  And the Crakers take over with a new mythology given to them by a flawed human being.  I’m sure this is meant to say something radical, and maybe someday to someone it will, but to the reader who has already read many thinly veiled take-downs of religion and where it comes from in scifi, it was rather ho-hum and long-winded.  Particularly when compared to the much shorter and more richly written work by Atwood taking a similar anti-religion stance: The Handmaid’s Tale.

Overall, this is a series with two-thirds of the plot set in a richly imagined and intelligently extrapolated subtle dystopia future.  The basic plot of dystopia to apocalypse to post-apocalypse is told slightly non-linearally with some interesting poetic-style writing inserted in-between chapters.  Most of the characters feel flat against the rich backdrop, although one female character at first stands out then slowly fades.  Recommended to readers interested in a realistic near future dystopia who don’t mind a rather typical plot and two-dimensional characters will enjoy most of the series, although they may enjoy the first two books more than the third.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap, library, and Audible

Books in Series:
Oryx and Crake, review, 3 stars
The Year of the Flood, review, 4 stars
MaddAddam, review, 3 stars

Series Review: The Monstrumologist Series by Rick Yancey

October 19, 2013 1 comment

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.

Bird on a cross against the moon.Summary:
A nursing home contacts a researcher.  An elderly man has passed away.  He identified himself to them as Will Henry, but they can’t find any record of him or living relatives.  He left behind four folios, telling what he claimed to be his life story.  The first folio begins when his parents die in a fire, and he is left in the care of his father’s employer, Dr. Warthrop.  In the 1800s.  Over 100 years ago.  And Dr. Warthrop is a Monstrumologist.  He specializes in the study of aberrant biology, or monsters.  And Will is now his apprentice.  The first thing Dr. Warthrop tells Will is that Will Henry contracted a parasite from his father.  Normally deadly, he is mysteriously a safe host.  The parasite will make him abnormally long-living, and any contact that is too close will make him pass it along to another.

What follows over the course of the folios is the tale of the monsters Will Henry faced alongside and because of Dr. Warthrop.  The anthropophagi–headless creatures with mouths in their stomachs.  The wendigo–similar to a werewolf.  The Typheus Magnificum–the Holy Grail of Monstrumology that may or may not exist.  And finally the Titanoboa Cerrejonensis–a giant snake.  There are these monsters, yes.  But there are also the questionable choices and personalities of the various Monstrumologists, and the slowly unwinding monster inside a boy who has seen too much and been loved too little.

The question left for the researcher is how can Will Henry continue along an increasingly dark path when all signs indicate he eventually happily married his childhood sweetheart?  And are these ramblings true or just the fairy tale of an elderly man?

Monsters and madness encircle Will Henry, Dr. Warthrop, the researcher, and the reader as the folios slowly reveal all.

Black silhouette of birds and trees against a moon and a red background with a face just discernible in it.Review:
There is a lot going for this series that makes it unique and highly recommendable, particularly among its competitors in YA.

It’s horror based in the realms of science and the grotesque.  Wanton blood and guts, serial killers, etc… won’t be found but it also doesn’t shy away from bits of the criminal underworld or real bodily danger.  Will Henry loses a finger at one point. The monsters are real and frequently either eat people or turn people themselves into monsters.  It combines to elicit horror in the reader in the tradition of Frankenstein.  It’s perfect for readers who shy away from slashers or crime novels but still want a dash of terror.

In lieu of a romance, the relationship at the center of the series is between Will and his guardian, Dr. Warthrop.  Yes, the series repeats the common YA trope of an orphan, thereby getting rid of the parents, but just because there are no parents doesn’t mean that there’s no guardian/young person conflict.  In fact, I think that having the conflict be between Will and a, to him, incomprehensible older guardian allows for a more free exploration of the difficulties that can arise in this relationship.  The fact that Dr. Warthrop is not his father means that Yancey is freer to quickly move into the mixed emotions and misunderstandings that can so easily happen in this type of relationship.  Dr. Warthrop has many flaws as a guardian, but he does truly love and care for Will.  Will at first feels lost and no connection with Dr. Warthrop, then he grows to love him in spite of his flaws, then he slowly starts to loathe him.  Whether or not this loathing is warranted is left up to the reader to decide, and I do think that Yancey succeeds at making it a gray area that each reader will reach a different conclusion on.  This relationship gets just as much, if not more, time as the monsters, and it’s one of the things that makes the series worth reading.

Tree and birds silhouetted against a moon and a green background.Yancey isn’t afraid to not just use, but embrace poetic language and literary allusions.  I was truly stunned at the beauty of the language when reading the first book, and that beauty continues throughout the series.  It’s like reading an old, Gothic novel, setting the perfect tone for the world building.  A YA reader who perhaps hadn’t previously experienced narration like this might after reading it be inclined to seek out similar writing, thus finding some classics.  And even if they don’t, it’s a wonderful change of pace for YA.

Setting the story of Will and Dr. Warthrop in the context of the mystery of the modern elderly man, his folios, and the researcher looking into them lends an extra layer to the story that increases its complexity.  The researcher is just as curious as the reader to find out more.  He also provides some necessary historical facts and questions the veracity of some of Will Henry’s statements.  Throughout the series, the researcher is wondering if this actually happened or if it’s all just the imaginings of an elderly man.  The ultimate reveal still leaves this a bit of a mystery, letting the reader decide for themselves what they would prefer to be the answer.

The strength of the monsters varies throughout the series.  Some are perfectly crafted, such as the anthropophagi.  Others can be a bit less frightening or too predictable to be as engaging.  This definitely lends to an uneven pace of suspense in the series and could be disappointing to a reader who is more invested in monsters than in the character development.

Cover of The Final Descent. An orange sky with a moon is covered by a black silhouette of birds on tree branches and a bridge.The ending.  The ending must be discussed.  *spoiler warning* Will Henry in the last book has turned into a dark, lawless, desperate character.  He has been changed by what he has seen.  His childhood sweetheart, Lily Bates, finds him frightening and lacking in morals.  He blames Dr. Warthrop for all of his issues.  While Dr. Warthrop definitely is at fault for not treating Will Henry like an adult and keeping him in the loop for his schemes, Dr. Warthrop also never taught Will to be so cold, desperate, or that it’s ok to wantonly kill.  Will ultimately goes on an opiate and sex binge in a prostitution house.  Dr. Warthrop finds him and pulls him out, in an attempt to save him.  It is then that Willl finds out that the parasites he is infected with will spread with sexual intercourse and kill his partner in a truly grotesque manner, eating them from the inside out.  Will gives up on Dr. Warthrop and all relationships and proceeds to travel the world aimlessly.  The researcher ultimately discovers that Will later runs into Lily with her new husband.  It is then that he reveals that Lily’s husband’s name was Will Henry, and he stole it as a pseudonym for these stories.  So he never married Lily.  Was never happy.  He is now nameless.  It’s an incredibly dark ending that leaves the researcher, and the reader, reeling.  It was honestly a bit too hopeless for me.  It felt as if Yancey was saying Will got sucked down into the monsters in his soul and could find no escape.  I prefer to have a bit more hope in the world than that, particularly after spending four books with a character and growing to care for them.  *end spoilers*

While I can still appreciate what Yancey was doing and what he was going for–a truly dark book–I feel that any potential readers or gift givers should be aware that it starts dark, gets darker, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

There is also a bit of a dearth of female characters in the series.  In the two middle books, we get brief exposures to Dr. Warthrop’s old sweetheart and Lily Bates.  That’s pretty much it.  I’m ok with that, since much of the time is devoted to Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop.  I also understand that the time period in which it is set definitely would not have had a female monstrumologist.  I think Yancey tries to make up for this by having Lily be determined to be the first female monstrumologist, but I also think he steps back from this plotline in the final book, which disappointed me a bit.  Essentially, be aware that if you’re looking for a strong female presence in the plot of your series, look elsewhere.

Overall, this is a unique series that deserves to be in any YA collection.  It address young adult/guardian relationships in the rich wrapping of Gothic style horror narrated with a beautiful poetic language.  Its historical setting and focus on the boy and his guardian doesn’t lend itself to a strong female presence in the series, although the female characters that do exist are good ones.  Its darkness increases throughout the series, so don’t come into this expecting a happy ending.  I’m pleased I took the time to read the entire series, and could see reading it again.  Recommended to both YA fans looking for something different and Gothic horror fans who don’t normally do YA.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift, Audible, and Amazon

Books in Series:
The Monstrumologist, review, 5 stars
The Curse of the Wendigo, review, 5 stars
The Isle of Blood, review, 4 stars
The Final Descent, review, 4 stars

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

Series Review: The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King (spoiler warning)

October 25, 2010 6 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.

Crow in front of silhouette of man.Summary:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”  This famous opening line begins the distinctly American fantasy epic tale of Roland the gunslinger’s quest for the Dark Tower.  In this fantasy, there are multiple parallel universes, referred to as whens and wheres.  The one Roland inhabits that is home to the Dark Tower and beams that keep all the worlds together and operating functionally just so happens to distinctly resemble the old American wild west.  Gunslingers in this world are like the knights of the round table in old England, and Roland is the last of his kind.  He’s on a quest both to reach the Dark Tower and save it and the beams, as Three doors.they seem to be breaking.  Through the course of his quest, Roland draws three new gunslingers and a billy-bumbler to become his ka-tet–his family bound by ka (fate) not blood.  These new gunslingers all come from America, but from different whens and versions of America.  Eddie is a heroin addict.  Susannah is an African-American woman from the 1960s who is missing both of her legs from the knees down and has Dissociative Identity Disorder (more commonly known as multiple personality disorder).  Jake is a boy from a wealthy family in NYC that hardly pays attention to him.  Oy is a billy-bumbler; a creature from Roland’s world that looks a bit like a dog with a long snout and a curly tail but is able to talk.  After training and bonding together, they continue on their quest for the Dark Tower.  A quest that leads them through old ruined cities in Roland’s world, gangster territory Spooky train.and rural Maine in America, a countryside farming community where almost all births are twins, and much much more.  The ultimate questions of ka, how the worlds are bound together, and just what role this gunslinger has to play in all of it loom at the center of this epic tale.

Review:
The interesting thing about the Dark Tower series is that each book has its own unique vibe, feel, and style to it, yet they together work to make up a complete whole that has its own unique feel to it too.  Because of this, certain entries Purple glass ball.in the series may appeal less to some people than others.  For instance, I did not enjoy Wizard and Glass, because it was essentially a slow-paced wild west romance story, yet I know some readers enjoy that entry immensely.  Similarly, I love Song of Susannah for both its horror and the way King structured it using song stanzas to correlate with the sections of the book, yet I know some people who found it too dense for one entry in the series.  The thing is though, to me, the Dark Tower is more about the experience of reading the series as a whole than the individual books.  I’m perfectly willing to work through a book or a few chapters that aren’t quite the genre I prefer, because I know that will change up later on and whatever is being discussed is important to the story as Building in a field.a whole.  It frankly is interesting to read a series that explores so many different genres within itself.  It makes the whole concept of parallel worlds more believable as each area they go through feels different.

The characterization at first seems simplistic.  There’s Roland the gunslinger.  He’s got a one-track mind in pursuit of the tower.  He’ll do anything to reach it, even if it’s questionable.  Is he justified in his vehemence?  It’s hard to tell at first.  Similarly, the man in black who he is originally pursuing is extraordinarily one-dimensional.  He is just an evil magician, and that is all.  Similarly, when Eddie, Susannah, and Jake are first drawn into Roland’s world, they are also one-dimensional.  Eddie is just the junky.  Susannah is the crazy woman with multiple Park bench in blue fog.personalities.  Jake is a lonely, frightened little boy.  Yet as the series progresses, King gradually develops the characters to be rich and multi-dimensional.  Their characters are so intensely vivid, including even Oy, that I actually found myself crying as bad things happened to various members of the ka-tet.  Eddie overcomes his addiction, as well as the emotional wounds inflicted on him by his older brother to grow up and become a true man.  Susannah does not lose her multiple personalities, but she learns to work with them.  They are a part of her, and she grows to accept that.  She stops being bitter about her accident and her lot in life and comes to be self-sufficient and caring of those around her.  Jake quickly grows to become a confident young man who cares for his ka-tet, but especially Oy and Roland.  Finally, Roland gradually learns to open himself up to relationships.  Although Rose in the foreground. Tower in the background.the tower still calls to him, he finds himself questioning if maybe the ka-tet is better than the tower.

The horror elements in the series definitely live up to what one would expect from King.  There are disgusting moments, such as a man sick from the weed drug in Roland’s world that makes users go insane.  There are also truly terrifying moments such as when a baby boy turns into a spider and eats his own mother via her breast.  Then there are mentally disturbing themes such as the children who get stolen by the wolves and are returned with their brains completely ruined.  It is later discovered that their brain power was fed to telepaths in service of the Crimson King who is seeking to destroy all the worlds.  Whatever flavor of horror suits you best, you will find it in the series.

The themes of love and building your own family and being at the hands of fate are what truly carry the series, though.  These themes are what make the reader care about the horrors that are happening to Roland and his ka-tet.  They’re what makes it possible to suspend disbelief about multiple worlds being held together by a tower, a rose, and beams.  The ideas of self-sacrifice, serving your purpose, and caring for others who ka has brought into your life are powerful and subtly expressed.  To me the whole concept of making your own family is the most endearing part of the series, and I loved seeing it portrayed in such a subtle, tender manner.

Of course what really brought the series to a whole new level for me is the ending.  It blew me away.  It was completely unexpected.  Roland reaches the tower after having lost his ka-tet.  He goes in and climbs with each floor displaying items and smells to represent each year of his life.  He reaches the top door and pulls it open only to realize, horrified at the last moment, that he is being pulled through back to the desert where the series began.  The voice of the tower speaks to him about his journey.  That he’s done it before.  That he’s learning a little each time.  It points out that Roland realized his mistake in not taking a few moments to pick up the horn of Eld, so this time, it is strapped to Roland’s side, where it wasn’t originally.  For a moment Roland remembers what has just occurred, but soon he just feels it was all a mirage.  A heat-induced daydream of finally reaching the dark tower.  He continues on, ending the series with the same sentence it began with.

Personally, I feel that this puts the series in a whole new light.  Who exactly is this Roland that he is so important that he has to redo this quest until, presumably, he gets it right?  Why did King choose to tell us about one of the times he didn’t get it right?  What did he get wrong?  What lessons is Roland supposed to be learning?  Will Roland ever escape the cycle or is it some sort of hell punishment he’s doomed to repeat forever?  Of course, it all reads a bit like the belief in reincarnation and learning something each life cycle.  In any case, it made me personally want to immediately start rereading the series, searching for clues about the repetition of the journey.  It brings the series to a whole new philosophical level that truly elevated it in my mind from a fun fantasy to an epic.

Overall, there are parts of the series I didn’t enjoy, and due to the vast variety of genres represented in the series, most people will probably dislike or struggle with at least bits of it.  However, when the series is put together and all the pieces click together in your mind, it becomes an unforgettable, completely American epic.  A wild west fantasy is unique, and the themes and philosophical questions explored underneath the entertaining prose make for something even deeper than that.  I am incredibly glad I took the time to read this series, and I would recommend it to anyone.  It is well worth the time invested.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: borrowed, Harvard Book Store

Books in Series:
The Gunslinger, review, buy it
The Drawing of the Three
, review, buy it
The Waste Lands, review, buy it
Wizard and Glass, review, buy it
Wolves of the Calla, review, buy it
Song of Susannah, review, buy it
The Dark Tower, review , buy it

Series Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (spoiler warning)

August 30, 2010 55 comments

Introduction:
Since I’m starting to finish up a bunch of series I’ve been reading for quite some time, I decided it’d be nice to reflect on the series as a whole after finishing.  I tend to do this in my head anyway, and it’ll be nice to get it out in writing.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers for every entry in the series.  This is about analysis and reflection and conversation with others who have read the series.  If you’re the type who likes spoilers before reading a series, you’re of course welcome as well.

Black cover with gold pin.Summary:
The Hunger Games trilogy is a post-apocalyptic dystopia set in the small nation of Panem, which we assume is what is left of livable land in what used to be the USA.  Panem is divided into 12 districts.  It is a dictatorship that faced a rebellion previously by the 13th district.  Every year each district, except the Capitol, must send one girl and one boy, chosen by lottery, to participate in the Hunger Games–a reality show in which they must fight to the death until only one survivor is left.  Katniss lives in District 12 and volunteers to go in place of her younger sister, Prim.  She forms an alliance with the boy from her district, Peeta.  When they are left the only ones standing, they grab poisonous berries, planning to thwart the Capitol by leaving no survivors.  They, of course, are stopped and are paraded around as engaged lovers for a year.  The President is angry at them, but they believe themselves to be relatively safe from his wrath as national heroes.  The next year, however, it is announced that this year’s Hunger Game will consist of the victors from the previous games.  It is believed that this act of violence will help squash the rebellion that is brewing.  Some of the victors plot with the rebels, however, and Katniss and some other victors escape with their aid and join in on the revolution, with Katniss the symbol of the rebellion.

Brown bird on orange background.

Review:
I first stumbled upon this series last summer.  I’m not sure how exactly, but given that I love dystopias, and it is one, it’s not too surprising.  I loved that for once in YA lit there was a main female character who was interested in something besides the mysterious new boy at school or make-up.  She is focused on survival and caring for her family.  I also enjoyed how she is presented as powerful, strong, and deadly.  It’s a nice change of pace from what generally is out there for teens to read.  I thought the teens fighting to death as punishment concept was unique, and was ranting about it one day to someone else who said, “That sounds a lot like Battle Royale.”  And that’s when my entire view of the series started to change.

I watched the Battle Royale movie, which is based on the manga series of the same name, and I was flabbergasted to discover the exact same basic concept of a corrupt government forcing teens to battle each other to the death once a year.  There was less backstory on the characters, and Battle Royale has the teens actually behaving as sexual beings and is more violent, but the basic driving plot is the same.  Battle Royale, the manga and the movie, was released in 2000.  The first book of the Hunger Games was released in 2008.  I immediately investigated to see if Collins admits an influence or even discusses a similarity between her trilogy and the Japanese series.  She does not.  She claims her influences were purely from watching reality tv and war coverage, as well as from Greek myths.  She never discusses the similarity between her own books and Battle Royale.  This is disrespectful at best.  Most writers are influenced by other writers, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it is acknowledged.  Yet Collins refuses to even acknowledge the similarities between her own books and Battle Royale.  She doesn’t have to admit to swiping the idea and Americanizing it (although, I personally believe that is what happened).  She doesn’t even have to say she was influenced by it (this is what I believe she should do).  She should at least talk about how the two are similar and recommend the Battle Royale series to fans of her own series.  It’s the only respectful thing to do.  Now that that’s out of the way, let’s ignore for the moment the questionable origins of the story and focus on the content.

White bird on blue background.Katniss spends the entire series struggling against forces that are bigger than herself.  She sides with the rebels only to find herself questioning them as well, and in the end, she causes the death of both President Snow (inadvertently) and President Coin (directly by shooting her).  Katniss claims she wants things to be different, yet all she sees is power hungry people all around her.  She winds up doubting in humanity as a species, wondering at a species that repeatedly sacrifices its children for their own amusement and gain.  I agree that humanity is pretty fucked, although for different reasons than Katniss’, so I enjoyed seeing this viewpoint in print.  I was therefore a bit saddened to see in the epilogue that Katniss winds up settling down with Peeta and having babies in District 12 (and apparently doing nothing for the rest of her life?).  This sounds to me like she didn’t know what to do with her depression or her accurate viewpoint of the world, so she just decided to hunker down and live it out as quietly as possible.  You would think that someone who had seen what she had seen would find comfort and solace in working to improve things for others who suffer instead of living in luxury in the victor’s village.  Of course, Collins doesn’t have to provide a positive ending, but the thing is, I believe that she thinks she did.  Katniss goes through all of this and winds up with the “American Dream”–the white picket fence, husband, and babies.  It feels like a serious cop-out to the critics of her much more realistic first two books to me.

I was similarly disappointed to see a love triangle introduced in the second book.  Why must every YA author include a love triangle?  What is up with that?  I was enjoying Katniss falling for Peeta and realizing Gale might just be her childhood best friend/crush, but then she whips around changing her mind constantly between the two of them.  Peeta and Katniss have the bond of the arena, an experience Gale cannot possibly share or understand.  Katniss continually behaves in a disloyal manner to Peeta in a way that seriously makes me doubt the quality of her character.  She acknowledges this in the third book when Peeta, upon returning from being tortured, tells her all the ways in which she has been cruel to him and to others, and they are true.  Gale knows it too, as he tells Peeta in the third book that Katniss will choose whoever helps her survive better.  In the end that’s pretty much what she does.  Gale failed her by designing the bombs that killed her sister.  Peeta is the only one who understands her pain, so Peeta is the one she “falls in love with,” yet everything about Katniss is so self-centered that I was left wondering why she should wind up with anybody at all.  That said, I did enjoy that Katniss recognized that herself and Gale were too similar to be together.  They both had too many violent tendencies to make a healthy couple, so she went with her opposite–the calm, peaceful Peeta.  They balance each other, and that aspect of the romance made me smile.

Katniss’ original selfless love of her sister Prim gradually disappears over the course of the trilogy.  When the bombers are coming to District 13, she forgets about her sister entirely, and it is Gale who ensures she gets to the lower levels safely.  By the end of the series, Katniss has lost all the beauty of her personality found in the first book.  She went from a selfless love to a self-centered, revenge-driven person who will sacrifice almost anyone in her quest to kill Snow.  Even though she periodically has glimmers of recognition that everyone has been wronged by the Capitol, and indeed, some people more than herself.  Finnick who was forced to give his body away to anyone he was told to in the Capitol.  Johanna and Annie who were tortured.  Peeta who was brainwashed.  She has glimmers of sympathy, but overall she has essentially turned into an automaton, a Terminator, if you will.  Yet Collins still writes her with a sympathetic tone.  Why?

I have no issue with blood, violence, graphicness, or battle scenes used in the context of a story.  That’s not what bothers me about the trajectory of the Hunger Games.  What bothers me is that Katniss realizes the hopeless situation the human species is in, something I entirely agree with.  She then proceeds to let it turn her into the worst humanity has to offer.  She then realizes this and instead of working to change things, she just gives up.  She gives up and bows her head and succumbs to a submissive life.  The Katniss of the first book would do anything to defy the expectations and mores of society, but in the end, she sees that society has not really changed with the change of rule.  Indeed, the most active thing she does is also one of the worst.  She votes in favor of having another Hunger Game featuring the children of the Capitol.  Maybe this is realistic and most people would either join the evil or give up, but I’d hoped for more in a series so beloved by so many teenage girls.  Yes, the world sucks.  Yes, it’s a constant struggle.  Yes, it hurts and you may never succeed, but never stop trying.  That was the message of the first two books, and yet it was entirely tromped on by the final entry in the series.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by that, given the ethics of the author.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: library, borrowed, and Amazon

Buy It

Books in Series:
The Hunger Games, review
Catching Fire
Mockingjay, review

ETA Note: I wrote this post BEFORE the series was a hit or popular and long before a movie was on the horizon. Before most of America had read the books. I didn’t read them or write about them to get blog hits or because they are popular. I read them because they were IN MY LIBRARY.  I long ago stopped responding to comments on this post, while still approving them and letting them show up, because my blog is not a ya lit blog!  I don’t want to spend my time discussing a trilogy that I didn’t even like that much when I can be focusing on the adult literature I vastly prefer.  Additionally, I learned long ago that fans are called fanatics for a reason. They won’t listen to any criticism of something they are a crazy fanatic about.  So feel free to comment and discuss amongst yourselves.  I approve every comment that shows up. But don’t expect this 20-something to waste her time responding.  You’ll note that I made this decision long ago, as I haven’t responded to anything since May of 2011.