Review: This is Where I Leave You (now with Hobbits!)

Looks like once again time managed to get away from me. One minute you’re just getting into your yearly reading challenge, the next minute Borderlands gets ported to the PS4 and all of a sudden it’s practically May. Looks like you win this round, Handsome Jack.

     But even though I might have fallen behind just a bit, I’m still pushing ahead to finish my challenge of 60 books in 2015, and since my last post I have added three more to my completion list. The first one was “What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” and was a pretty fun read for something based off an internet site (and had lots of pictures, which is nice). But I knew I needed something more substantial to get my book engine running again, so I returned to an old favorite:


There’s really not much to say about the Hobbit. It’s a classic and one of my all time favorite fantasy stories, and I mostly picked it back up just to get a sense of just how much stretching Peter Jackson did for the movie trilogy, which is a whole hell of a lot. The funnies thing about the book compared to the movies is that in the book Tolkein repeatedly glosses over parts of the story because they aren’t necessary to the overall plot, even making a point in his narration to tell the reader that he’s skipping ahead to cut out the boring parts. Despite my general tolerance of the movies I love the book and could read it a hundred times and still be entertained, so it was a good place to get my feet wet again.

With the Hobbit out of the way I wanted to find a book similar to one of my other favorites, The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. I finally settled on This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper, mostly because the characters reminded me a lot of my family. The book tells the story of Judd Foxman, who after a losing his wife to his boss is summoned home to spend a week in mourning with his family after the death of his father. Judd and his family have an extremely pessimistic and honest view on life and each other, and their interactions with each other are the highlights of the story. They don;t hold anything back and every dirty secret the family has is dragged kicking and screaming out into the open as they spend seven days under the same roof. Meanwhile we also follow Judd’s search for meaning after losing everything in one fell swoop after his wife cheats on him (an event he discovers in a hilarious scene involving a cheesecake and some highly flammable lube), and his fight with depression and a sense of worthlessness is a story that’s easy to identify with. Overall, I really had a lot of fun reading this one and I recommend it to anyone who was brought up in a “say what you’re really thinking” family.

Just try and get through it without picturing Jason Bateman as Judd, I dare you.

     I still haven’t decided what I’m going to read next, but now that I’ve shaken off the dust from the past few months I’m all set to get really moving on my reading challenge. I’m always looking for suggestions so please don;t hesitate to leave me a comment with a book I should check out!

Two reviews for the price of one!

This was a slow month for me. I only managed to finish two books and neither one of them was what I would call difficult, it was just one of those months where I wasn’t really in the zone. But even though I didn’t lost a little ground in my reading challenge the two books I did read were still good and well worth the time. So without further ado let’s get down to the reviewening.

The first book I read was The Deep by Nick Cutter. Now you might remember that back in January I read Cutter’s other novel, The Troop, and though it was awesome, which I stand by. Cutter has a lot of potential as a horror author and has a really good eye for what gets under people’s skin so when I saw this book I was on it like a hobo on a ham sandwich. It’s just too bad that The Deep is inferior to The Troop in almost every respect, mostly because it tries to do too much at one time. The Deep is the story about a research station built on the seafloor (at the very bottom of the Marianas Trench) where a group of scientists are hoping that a newly discovered substance nicknamed Ambrosia  holds the key to curing a brain disease that is currently decimating the global population. Unsurprisingly, the scientists have ceased communications with the surface so Luke, brother to one of the scientists, volunteers to go down and find out why the team went dark. Cutter plays with a lot of themes here, specifically claustrophobia, and the book has a lot of genuinely scary moments. It’s got a good Lovecraftian vibe and when the story is focusing on Luke and his journey through the underwater station The Deep is utterly sublime. Unfortunately the story is filled with flashbacks to Luke and his brother’s childhood under their tyrannical ex-prison guard mother, and even though these sections are good there are simply too many of them and they come at the most inopportune times. It was just distracting. Not to mention the disease they are trying to cure, which causes you to slowly lose your memory until you forget how to function and is 100% fatal, is barely mentioned at all despite it being super creepy and pretty much the whole reason they are down there in the station to begin with. That sucks because there could have been a whole novel about the disease alone, and that particular storyline never even gets any payoff. All things considered though The Deep is another solid entry from Cutter and well worth your time if you like horror novels.

Final score: 6.5/10 (has more than it’s fair share of moments, but tries to pull you in too many different directions).

My second book this month was a little bit more subdued after the batshittery that was The Deep (and I mean that in the best way possible). Richard Matheson is one of those authors that I always enjoy, and his novel I Am Legend is one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. Hell House is Matheson’s attempt at old school horror, and while it was by no means the scariest thing I’ve ever read it was still a fine haunted house story that had me on edge more than once. Hell House is about a team of four people sent by a dying millionaire to discover the mysteries of life after death. The subject of their study is Belasco House, “the Mount Everest of haunted houses”, and the site of countless deaths. The four researchers include a scientist and his wife who believe the “ghosts” are nothing more than pent-up psychic energy, a medium who hopes to spiritually connect with the entities in the house and the sole survivor of the previous attempt to investigate Hell House. The characters are nothing special and aren’t even that likable, but you still root for them anyway as they face off with the overwhelming power of the house. There are a lot of good scenes throughout the story and it clips along at a brisk pace, but far and away the scariest part of the book comes from the origin story of the house about halfway through, which is both unnerving and somewhat believable. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the market for a good old school ghost story.

Final score: 7/10

Keep checking back for more reviews coming so as I keep moving forward with my reading challenge, and please leave me some suggestions for books you think I should read!

Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

I don’t mean to brag but when it comes to horror novels, I’m pretty salty. There aren’t a whole lot of things that can jump out and get me, but every now and then a book comes along that manages to hit that sweet spot and really throw a scare into me. The Troop by Nick Cutter (real name Craig Davidson) is one of those books, and was a hell of a way to kick off my 2015 Reading Challenge. Just to sum up the plot the Troop is about a group of five scouts and their scoutmaster heading off to a weekend hiking trip on an island just off the coast of Canada. The scouts are all your classic horror movie stereotypes featuring Kent (the jock), Newton (the nerd), Max (the voice of reason), Ephraim (the hot head) and Shelley (the quiet weirdo). Rounding out the group is the stalwart Scoutmaster Tim Riggs, who also serves as the town’s only doctor. Isolated on the island with no communication to the outside but a radio for emergencies, the group suddenly finds themselves playing host to a very sick man who seems to be suffering from extreme malnourishment. Turns out, he’s carrying a very contagious sickness and the boys find themselves fighting for their lives as the military seals off the island and leaves them to fend for themselves. Now all of that is pretty basic and has been covered in a lot of other works with Lord of the Flies, 28 Days Later, and Under the Dome immediately coming to mind. The thing about The Troop is that when the actual details of what the infection is and what it does comes to light, things get taken to a ridiculous new level. I’m not going to spoil it because that would give away the big reveal of the story but needless to say I wanted a shower after I finished the book. I’m naturally paranoid of germs and things like that anyway so this was one of those things that hit me right in the soft spot. It’s just so over-the-top crazy that you can’t help but get just a little queasy at the thought of it and rest assured The Troop isn’t a “shadows in the night” kind of story but rather a “things that make you go buhhhhh” kind of story. Pure body horror in the vein of The Thing and The Fly, which is always fun. Sprinkled throughout the story are a series of interviews and news excerpts that shed a little light on the infection and the people responsible for it, as well as the fate of the boys. I really enjoyed these sections since they really managed to not only show just how far up shit creek the scouts are but also explain why they are being confined to the island in the first place without so much as a supply drop. As far as characters go none of them are really anything you haven’t seen before but Cutter does manage to really make you hate some while begging for others to make it out okay. It’s tense and unpredictable and a really effective horror story. It’s not perfect, but I can’t help but give it props for managing to be so damn unsettling. I enjoyed it. If you’re a fan of horror stories and like to see just how much you can stomach then you’ll probably have fun with The Troop. It can drag on a little bit and more often than not crosses the line into “over-the-top for the sake of being over-the-top” but it’s still worth checking out if you find yourself in need of a good shake-up. Final score: 7.5/10

To Kill A Mockingbird Part II: Scout’s Revenge

I’ll be honest when I first saw that Harper Lee was releasing a new book this coming summer, I thought it was an outright lie. If you don’t know, Harper Lee wrote the now legendary novel To Kill a Mockingbird way back in 1960. It won a Pulitzer Prize and dealt with a lot of heavy issues such as racism, scapegoating and small town injustice and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, is now considered one of the most noble and selfless characters in literature. Now Harper Lee has never released another book and now at the age of 88 she has announced a book called Go Set a Watchman to be released this year that will serve as a follow up to Mockingbird.

Harper Lee, 1960.

I’ll admit I’m very excited about reading a new book from Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books that makes an impression on you and it has a special significance for me. First of all, it was the first major novel I can remember ever reading that was set in my home state of Alabama. Now even though Alabama is a state that has progressed tremendously since the 1960s it’s still a place that has deep seated feelings of racism, especially against black people. I grew up in the 1990s in an almost entirely white community (I’m white also) and have been exposed to ideas of racism for basically my entire life from a lot of people in my peer group (especially those my own age, surprisingly). To Kill a Mockingbird is literally the first book I can remember reading that outright said that judging a person based on race was wrong, and it made a big impression on me. Not only have I read the book several times but I’ve also seen the play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (which I highly recommend checking out if you’re ever in Montgomery, they do great work) and the movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. Also when I was in high school we had an essay contest with the first prize being a signed copy of the book and a chance to meet Harper Lee, in which I placed second (shit).

Now granted it’s not 1960 anymore and people in general have changed a lot when it comes to not being so openly horrible to each other, but the book is still relevant today and has held up surprisingly well given its age. Nowadays Harper Lee still lives in her home state of Alabama in an assisted living home in Monroeville, and the book that is to be released was (as best that I can tell) written some years ago and has simply sat unpublished. Now a lot of people are worried that Harper Lee is being taken advantage of in her old age and that the book is being published against her wishes, but Lee has always struck me as sharp in the interviews I have seen of her and from what I’ve read, and she seems to be very excited about this work going public.


As for me, I really don’t know enough to say for sure as details have been hard to pin down on this story. For Harper Lee to suddenly decide to release an unpublished story that is also a sequel to her one great work after years of letting Mockingbird exist as it is, strikes me as slightly (read: extremely) shady and I can’t help but think something else is going on, but that could just be me being paranoid (I want to think so anyway). Harper Lee has a lot of people in her life, including her lawyer Tonja Carter (who also has power of attorney over her), who could be influencing her decision to release her unpublished work, which would be the mark of a really shitty human being. I’ll be keeping an eye on this book as we get closer to the projected release date but in the meantime I encourage everyone to read (or re-read) To Kill a Mockingbird if you haven’t already because it really is one of the great American novels (buy it used, just in case). Regardless of whether or not this new book gets released I just hope that it is done based on the wishes of Harper Lee, because taking advantage of her simply for personal gain is pretty much stepping on everything her book has taught people.

And we’re back!

    

     Remember way back in December when I said I was going to rank all 50 of the books from my 2014 reading challenge? If not then there’s no need to worry because I never really got it put together anyway between work and the fact that I got Dragon Age: Inquisition for Christmas, which turned out to be a very long game. Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system though I can jump into 2015 with a whole new reading challenge to take on, and this time I’m upping the stakes with a goal of 60 books and the rule that I can’t read any Stephen King books for the challenge (since he made up the bulk of my 2014 reads). Needless to say I like to live life on the edge.
But just because I never got to do a full ranking of my 2014 books doesn’t mean I’m not going to talk about it a little bit. I got to read some really amazing books last year and want to take some time to mention a few of my favorites with the hope that you’ll pick them up yourself and see what they have to offer. So right quick here are four of my favorite books that I read last year:

• Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo – a novel about the effects on war and the military on the individual soldier told from the perspective of a heavily wounded WWI soldier who is confined to a hospital bed and has lost all ability to communicate with those around him. It’s extremely dark material and can be trying read, but getting inside the head of protagonist Joe Bonham is an eye-opening experience and something I wish more people had read.


• Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty – This was the last book I read in 2014 and also one of the best. It’s a memoir about the death culture in America told through the eyes of a mortuary assistant in California. The book not only gives an inside look at what happens to the recently deceased but how in this country it’s becoming more and more common to turn a blind eye to the natural parts of death. The book is also a critique of the funeral industry and its practices which might have you changing your mind about how you want your remains to be treated.


• The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez – I feel like a lot of people gave this book bad reviews because they expected action and instead got drama (also known as “The Jarhead Maneuver”). Yes, it is set in South America during the rise of Pablo Escobar and yes it does deal with the effects of the cartel wars that took place during that time, but this is not Breaking Bad or Scarface. This book is instead a very personal look at the far-reaching effects of those things and barely has any scenes of drugs or violence at all. Antonio Yammara is the main character, who goes on a fact finding mission after a casual friend of his is shot down in the street. It’s a small scale story and a slow burn, but it is beautifully written and manages to tell a story about the drug wars better than Scarface ever could.


• The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury – I still can’t believe I managed to get all the way into my twenties without reading this gem from the man who wrote Fahrenheit 451 (another of my favorites). It’s a book of short stories that tells the overarching tale of mankind’s arrival, colonization and eventual departure from the planet Mars. I enjoyed almost all of the stories in the book but a few a few like “There Will Come Soft Rains” and “The Silent Towns” stand up great on their own.
There are a lot more books I read last year I would love to talk about but since we’re already well into 2015 I’m just going to go ahead and move on to the books I’m reading for this new challenge. So I hope that you’ll keep checking back in with me for more articles coming soon!

Review: The Rook by Daniel O’ Malley

I’ve always approached the internet with a heavy dose of skepticism, and with good reason. I wasn’t fooled when I read an article about Wayne Knight’s death and I shrug off the countless reports about teenagers finding new ways to get high, but that doesn’t mean i don’t still get fooled. One website that I’m pretty fond of, which covers news on video games and movies, made a trailer for a Harry Potter spinoff called The Aurors, which focused on the series’ band of dark magic hunters. Needless to say I was devastated that the whole thing was a prank since I thought the idea was amazing, and couldn’t help but hope that someone would actually make it one day, which they didn’t. Enter Daniel O’ Malley’s The Rook, which serves not only as the Auror story we never got, but a very good fantasy story on its own.

The Rook follows the story of Myfawny Thomas, a young woman who wakes up bruised and beaten in a park with no memory of who she is or how she came to be surrounded by dead bodies. Thanks to a letter in her coat she discovers that she is a high ranking officer of The Checquey, an underground order of the British government dedicated to protecting people from supernatural threats. Knowing that she would lose her memory Thomas left a series of instructions to herself so that she could resume her place in The Checquey and find the person who tried to kill her. This of course leads to her stumbling into what could be a major conspiracy to destroy the order as she tries to conceal the fact that she is essentially a whole new person.

Like others in her order Thomas was born with special abilities (in her case the ability to remotely control and interrupt the actions of others) but gained her high ranking status due to her extraordinary ability as an organizer. She’s actually got a reputation as being both timid and weak in the field, much to the frustration of the organization that raised her from childhood. This makes her very likeable both in the letters that she leaves for her new self and in her “new life”as she rediscovers her powers and tries to integrate herself into The Checquey. There’s a good supporting cast as well including a hive mind that is spread amongst four bodies, a vampire, a woman who can walk in and out of people’s dreams and Thomas’ hyper organized secretary. There’s a lot to juggle in The Rook and a lot of names and places get thrown around, but if you can keep it all straight there’s a lot to like. The hardest part will probably be buying into the fact that Thomas is a completely separate person from the Thomas that lost her memory and left herself letters, but to be honest the letters (which give exposition and backstory into the world of The Checquey and make up probably a third of the book) are some of the novel’s best moments. One in particular involving a dragon egg and another about a psychic duck had me laughing my ass off and are definite highlights, but all of them are entertaining and shed a lot of light on the world O’ Malley has created.

The conspiracy side of the story doesn’t fare as well, starting out really promising and then sort of going all over the place toward the end, but is still good and manages to tie up all of the loose ends while still leaving things open for a sequel (which is called Stiletto and is due out next summer). Needless to say The Rook reads like an adult version of Harry Potter and if there ever is a novel focusing on the Aurors it could learn a lot from it, so if you’ve still got a Harry Potter itch that you need to scratch then this a good novel to try out.

All Harry Potter similarities aside this is just a really good book for fantasy and science fiction fans with a good twist on both the government conspiracy story and amnesia stories, and even manages to be a touch sentimental in the end. It’s not perfect and it can be a little all over the place at times but it has everything I like in a fantasy novel. It’s funny, weird, has a great cast of characters and even manages to slip in some cool references (references!) into the mix. Definitely pick this one up.

Final score: 8/10 (Pure fantasy goodness with a very likable protagonist).