Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Review: The Last One – Alexandra Oliva

The Last One – Alexandra Oliva

She wanted an adventure. She never imagined it would go this far. 
It begins with a reality TV show. Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to face challenges that will test the limits of their endurance. While they are out there, something terrible happens—but how widespread is the destruction, and has it occurred naturally or is it human-made? Cut off from society, the contestants know nothing of it. When one of them—a young woman the show’s producers call Zoo—stumbles across the devastation, she can imagine only that it is part of the game. 
Alone and disoriented, Zoo is heavy with doubt regarding the life—and husband—she left behind, but she refuses to quit. Staggering countless miles across unfamiliar territory, Zoo must summon all her survival skills—and learn new ones as she goes. 
But as her emotional and physical reserves dwindle, she grasps that the real world might have been altered in terrifying ways—and her ability to parse the charade will be either her triumph or her undoing.

Review: Oh, mixed feelings. I really like half this book and really don’t like the other half.

The narrator—a woman identified as Zoo—wants to have a final adventure before settling down and starting a family. She decides to become a contestant on a high-budget reality show. For an unspecified length of time, Zoo must survive alone in the wilderness and face whatever challenges the show producers throw at her.

“The first one on the production team to die will be the editor.” – The Last One

What Zoo doesn’t know is that while she’s in the wilderness, a plague sweeps through the eastern US and kills most of the population. When the show’s producers and cameramen suddenly stop coming to work, Zoo isn’t sure what to think. She’s completely alone in the woods. Is this part of the show, or did something bad happen? She doesn’t know how to react. If she does the wrong thing, she could lose her chance at winning the prize money.

This story is told on two timelines. The past timeline shows Zoo’s first few days in the woods—right before everything goes wrong. The present timeline shows Zoo wandering through a post-apocalyptic landscape, searching for reassurance that all the devastation is actually part of a TV program.

The Last One definitely made me think. It raises a lot of intriguing questions about reality. We live in a world of big-budget TV shows, holograms, Photoshop, and ultra-realistic special effects. Sometimes the line between real and fake can be blurry. As our technology advances, “real” and “not real” may get even more perplexing. Zoo’s confusion about the plague is completely believable. Something terrifyingly real is happening in a reality-show world where nothing is real. It messes with Zoo’s mind.

I love that this book attempts to show reality TV from the point-of-view of a contestant and a viewer. The show’s editors manipulate Zoo’s “reality” to make it entertaining for the TV audience. Zoo and the viewers are experiencing the same manufactured events in different ways. The reader gets to see those differences.

“They'll wait until I'm asleep—or nearly asleep—to strike. That's how they do it; they blur the line between reality and nightmare. They give me bad dreams, and then they make them come true.” – The Last One

I enjoyed the chapters that are told from Zoo’s point-of-view, but I got bored with the chapters that describe the show. Even though I watch a lot of reality TV, the show in this novel didn’t interest me at all. I wasn’t invested in it and didn’t completely understand the rules. Imagine you’re listening to your coworker tell you (in great detail) about a TV show you’ve never seen and don’t care about. That’s what those chapters feel like. I was tempted to skim them to get back to Zoo.

The pacing is also slightly slow. This is another post-apocalyptic novel where the character spends the majority of the book wandering around. Zoo meets some unusual people, but those meetings are interspersed with long periods of wandering.

“The brain is a terrifying and wondrous organ, and all it wants is to survive.” – The Last One

Like I said, I enjoyed half this book. It’s interesting to watch Zoo come to terms with what has happened to the world. She faces some unique problems that aren’t usually seen in post-apocalyptic literature. The author is a good writer and has fascinating ideas. I just never felt fully invested in the story because I didn’t care about the reality show.

TL;DR: What is reality? This novel does a brilliant job of exploring that question, but I got bored fairly often.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Review: The Dumb House – John Burnside

The Dumb House – John Burnside

In Persian myth, it is said that Akbar the Great once built a palace which he filled with newborn children, attended only by mutes, in order to learn whether language is innate or acquired. As the years passed and the children grew into their silent and difficult world, this palace became known as the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House. In his first novel, John Burnside explores the possibilities inherent in a modern-day repetition of Akbar’s investigations. Following the death of his mother, the narrator creates a twisted variant of the Dumb House, finally using his own children as subjects in a bizarre experiment. When the children develop a musical language of their own, however, their gaoler is the one who is excluded, and he extracts an appalling revenge.

Review: Well, that was severely messed up. It’ll be a long time before I can get this book out of my head.

I saw The Dumb House on a list of classic horror novels. It was first published in 1997, but I guess the book gods have already decided that it’s a classic. (Who decides which books are classics? I must Google that.)

Anyway, I was familiar with the story of Akbar the Great and his palace of silent children, so I was curious to see what John Burnside would do with that tale in The Dumb House.

The narrator, Luke, is an awful gentleman who’s obsessed with language, thought, and the soul. As a child, he attempts to dissect animals while they’re alive to see how their insides work. After his mother dies and he inherits her house, he moves on to bigger experiments. He convinces a homeless woman to move in with him and have his children. When his twins are born, he locks them in the basement and studies what happens to children if they never hear a human voice. The twins eventually develop a language of their own. Luke is so jealous of the twins’ love for each other that he decides to murder them.

“No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins, any more than it was my decision to bring them into the world.”  - The Dumb House  

Luke is one of the most screwed up fictional characters I’ve ever encountered. He’s realistically screwed up. This isn’t some over-the-top-supervillain nonsense. The guy is like a real serial killer. He has trouble connecting with people and gets violently envious of their relationships. He’s extremely selfish and doesn’t mind killing people or animals when he no longer has a purpose for them. Luke has no empathy at all. He believes that animals (and mute humans) are incapable of thought, so he doesn’t see the problem with killing them. He’s so creepy! Definitely not someone I’d want to meet in real life.

“If the components of the body were organs and veins and cells, then the components of thought and language were words and grammar.” – The Dumb House

I think Luke’s tone is what makes his narration so unsettling. He says all these horrific things in a very cold, detached way. He sees himself as a scientist, an observer whose job it is to learn about the world. He thinks he’s doing something good for humanity. His emotions only come through a few times, but they’re messed up, too:

“The very act of breaking the skin, of entering another human body, intrigued and excited me. I could see why people might kill for that sensation.” – The Dumb House

The story starts with Luke telling the reader that he murdered his children. Then he backs up to explain how he got to this point. I love the slow way the story unfolds. Luke was always a profoundly screwed up guy, but as the plot progresses, he becomes more isolated, more paranoid, and more violent.

John Burnside is a talented writer. Everything in this book is vivid and believable. As terrifying as this story is, I’m convinced that it could happen in real life. This story is scary because it’s so believable.

“When Mother had told me that animals found quiet, unexposed places to die, I had always imagined they knew they were dying, and accepted it, almost gratefully. Now I saw that this wasn't so at all: they crept into corners in the hope of surviving, they only knew they were weakened and exposed, easy prey, and their instinct was to find a hidden place and try to outlive whatever it was they were suffering. It had been a mistake to imagine they wanted to be alone, to die in peace. Animals have no knowledge of death: for them, death is the unexpected end of life, something they resist by instinct, for no good reason. In that sense their existence has an almost mechanical quality.” – The Dumb House

Since this novel is called The Dumb House, I expected the children to be a bigger part of it. They’re mentioned at the beginning, but then they don’t show up again until the last 50 pages. This is a slow, character-driven story, so it doesn’t have much of a plot. Toward the middle, I found myself getting impatient to read about the children. I guess it makes sense that they’re not a huge part of the novel. Luke is selfish. He wants to talk about himself, not them. They’re just pieces in his experiment. Still, I wanted to see more of them.

The Dumb House is only 200 pages long, but it’s one of the most subtly creepy horror stories I’ve ever read. I think the book gods made the right decision when they proclaimed this book a classic.

TL;DR: Slow and somewhat plotless, but the brilliantly messed up narrator makes it worth reading.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Sunday Post #136

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

On The Blog Last Week

On The Blog This Week

  • On Monday I review The Dumb House by John Burnside.
  • On Wednesday I review The Last One by Alexandra Oliva.
  • On Thursday there’s a tag.
  • On Saturday there’s a book haul.

In My Reading Life

Last week, I finished The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr and The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis. Then I read Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi. Right now, I’m reading Missing May by Cynthia Rylant and What is Not Yours is Not Yours: Stories by Helen Oyeyemi.

In The Rest Of My Life

Five things that made me laugh last week. (Olympic headlines edition):

1. Teenagers. *Sigh.*

2. Shut up, Brenda, you know nothing about snowboarding!

3. Teenagers. *Sigh.*

4. Ignore the trolls and be your fabulous self.


5. If you spend all your free time waving at cameras, you might as well make it interesting.

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other! See you around the blogosphere!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The “Vaguely Dystopian” Book Haul

Stacking the Shelves is hosted by Tynga’s Reviews. I get to show off all the books I’ve gotten recently.

Some of these books might not be dystopias, but they all seem to have some dystopian elements.

The “Vaguely Dystopian” Book Haul 

Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter

In a London flat, two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother's sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness. 
In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow—antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This self-described sentimental bird is attracted to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and physical pain of loss gives way to memories, this little unit of three begin to heal.

We Are the Ants – Shaun David Hutchinson

Henry knows that his mom is struggling to keep the family together, and coping by chain-smoking cigarettes. He knows that his older brother is a college dropout with a pregnant girlfriend. He knows that he is slowly losing his grandmother to Alzheimer’s. And he knows that his boyfriend committed suicide last year. 
What Henry doesn’t know is why the aliens chose to abduct him when he was thirteen, and he doesn’t know why they continue to steal him from his bed and take him aboard their ship. He doesn’t know why the world is going to end or why the aliens have offered him the opportunity to avert the impending disaster by pressing a big red button. 
But they have. And they’ve only given him 144 days to make up his mind. 
The question is whether Henry thinks the world is worth saving. That is, until he meets Diego Vega, an artist with a secret past who forces Henry to question his beliefs, his place in the universe, and whether any of it really matters. But before Henry can save the world, he’s got to figure out how to save himself, and the aliens haven’t given him a button for that.

Good Morning, Midnight – Lily Brooks-Dalton

Augustine, a brilliant, aging astronomer, is consumed by the stars. For years he has lived in remote outposts, studying the sky for evidence of how the universe began. At his latest posting, in a research center in the Arctic, news of a catastrophic event arrives. The scientists are forced to evacuate, but Augustine stubbornly refuses to abandon his work. Shortly after the others have gone, Augustine discovers a mysterious child, Iris, and realizes the airwaves have gone silent. They are alone. 
At the same time, Mission Specialist Sullivan is aboard the Aether on its return flight from Jupiter. The astronauts are the first human beings to delve this deep into space, and Sully has made peace with the sacrifices required of her: a daughter left behind, a marriage ended. So far the journey has been a success, but when Mission Control falls inexplicably silent, Sully and her crew mates are forced to wonder if they will ever get home.

The Passion of Dolssa – Julie Berry

Dolssa is a young gentlewoman with uncanny gifts, on the run from an obsessed friar determined to burn her as a heretic for the passion she refuses to tame. 
Botille is a wily and charismatic peasant, a matchmaker running a tavern with her two sisters in a tiny seaside town. 
The year is 1241; the place, Provensa, what we now call Provence, France—a land still reeling from the bloody crusades waged there by the Catholic Church and its northern French armies. 
When the matchmaker finds the mystic near death by a riverside, Botille takes Dolssa in and discovers the girl’s extraordinary healing power. But as the vengeful Friar Lucien hunts down his heretic, the two girls find themselves putting an entire village at the mercy of murderers.

The Last One – Alexandra Oliva

It begins with a reality TV show. Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to face challenges that will test the limits of their endurance. While they are out there, something terrible happens—but how widespread is the destruction, and has it occurred naturally or is it human-made? Cut off from society, the contestants know nothing of it. When one of them—a young woman the show’s producers call Zoo—stumbles across the devastation, she can imagine only that it is part of the game. 
Alone and disoriented, Zoo is heavy with doubt regarding the life—and husband—she left behind, but she refuses to quit. Staggering countless miles across unfamiliar territory, Zoo must summon all her survival skills—and learn new ones as she goes. 
But as her emotional and physical reserves dwindle, she grasps that the real world might have been altered in terrifying ways—and her ability to parse the charade will be either her triumph or her undoing.

The Wolf Road – Beth Lewis

Everything Elka knows of the world she learned from the man she calls Trapper, the solitary hunter who took her under his wing when she was just seven years old. 
But when Elka sees the Wanted poster in town, her simple existence is shattered. Her Trapper–Kreagar Hallet–is wanted for murder. Even worse, Magistrate Lyon is hot on his trail, and she wants to talk to Elka. 
Elka flees into the vast wilderness, determined to find her true parents. But Lyon is never far behind–and she’s not the only one following Elka’s every move. There will be a reckoning, one that will push friendships to the limit and force Elka to confront the dark memories of her past.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review: This Monstrous Thing – Mackenzi Lee

This Monstrous Thing – Mackenzi Lee

In 1818 Geneva, men built with clockwork parts live hidden away from society, cared for only by illegal mechanics called Shadow Boys. Two years ago, Shadow Boy Alasdair Finch’s life shattered to bits. 
His brother, Oliver—dead. 
His sweetheart, Mary—gone. 
His chance to break free of Geneva—lost. 
Heart-broken and desperate, Alasdair does the unthinkable: He brings Oliver back from the dead. 
But putting back together a broken life is more difficult than mending bones and adding clockwork pieces. Oliver returns more monster than man, and Alasdair’s horror further damages the already troubled relationship. 
Then comes the publication of Frankenstein and the city intensifies its search for Shadow Boys, aiming to discover the real life doctor and his monster. Alasdair finds refuge with his idol, the brilliant Dr. Geisler, who may offer him a way to escape the dangerous present and his guilt-ridden past, but at a horrible price only Oliver can pay.

Review: Guys, I love this book so much! My first five-star read of 2018. It’s not a mind-blowing, brilliant piece of literature, but that doesn’t matter because I basically inhaled this book. It’s compulsively readable. It kept me awake for most of the night because I had to know how it ended.

Alasdair is a Shadow Boy, a mechanic who builds prosthetic limbs. In 1800s Europe, this is a dangerous profession because people see the fusing of flesh and machine as disgusting and unholy. Alasdair’s family is forced to move from place to place to avoid prosecution. In one of those places, Alasdair meets Dr. Geisler, a man who is trying to do more with clockwork than just build limbs. The doctor is trying to bring corpses back to life. Alasdair doesn’t believe this is possible until his brother, Oliver, dies. Alasdair and his somewhat-girlfriend, Mary Shelley, use Dr. Geisler’s techniques to resurrect Oliver. But, Oliver comes back more monster than human. Then Mary betrays Alasdair by writing a book—Frankenstein—about their experiences. Now Alasdair really has some problems . . .

“You took my life and Oliver's life and made them into this book. You made us into monsters, both of us.” – This Monstrous Thing

I love every character in this novel. They’re all anti-heroes with complicated—and often selfish—motives. You can’t fully trust any of them. Even Alasdair (the narrator) keeps information from the reader. I can understand why. The dude has made some unfortunate decisions in his life, but he’s not so evil that I hated him. For me, he’s the perfect blend of good intentions and bad outcomes.

One of Alasdair’s flaws is that he sees what he wants to see in people instead of what’s actually there. This flaw comes back to bite him several times throughout the novel. I think it’s a relatable flaw. We all want to believe the best about people, but sometimes you’ve got to admit that certain people in your life are jerks.

“We're all monsters. We're all careless and cruel in the end.” – This Monstrous Thing

Since the characters are anti-heroes, the plot is very twisty. Especially at the end. I finished this book in the middle of the night because I couldn’t put it down until I learned which characters survive the ending.

Originally, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read this novel because I don’t like retellings, and I think Frankenstein is a boring story. I shouldn’t have hesitated. This book isn’t a retelling because Mary Shelley is a character in This Monstrous Thing. She’s not a minor character, either. She interacts with Alasdair and has a big role in the plot. I liked seeing a real person’s life fictionalized in a novel. It’s unusual.

(Also, unpopular opinion: Mackenzi Lee is a better writer than Mary Shelley. I studied Frankenstein in school and loathed every second of it.)

“Perhaps we all said the right things at the wrong time; perhaps we couldn't help it. Perhaps words became too heavy to haul, and the moment we let them loose was always the wrong one, but they needed to be free.” – This Monstrous Thing

Okay, I have to come up with something negative about This Monstrous Thing so it doesn’t just sound like I’m fangirling. Um . . . some parts of it are slightly obvious? There were times when I saw the answer to a problem long before Alasdair figured it out. Maybe the story also could have used more Oliver? Oliver is the resurrected monster, but we barely see him.

Those are tiny complaints. This book is a fun, escapist read with complicated characters and a cool steampunk world.

TL;DR: Why are you still looking at this review? You should be buying yourself a copy of This Monstrous Thing.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review: Ararat – Christopher Golden

Ararat – Christopher Golden

When a newly engaged couple climbs Mount Ararat in Turkey, an avalanche forces them to seek shelter inside a massive cave uncovered by the snow fall. The cave is actually an ancient, buried ship that many quickly come to believe is really Noah’s Ark. When a team of scholars, archaeologists, and filmmakers make it inside the ark for the first time, they discover an elaborate coffin in its recesses. The artifact tempts their professional curiosity; so they break it open. Inside, they find an ugly, misshapen cadaver—not the holy man that they expected, a hideous creature with horns. A massive blizzard blows in, trapping them in that cave thousands of meters up the side of a remote mountain . . . but they are not alone.

Review: I had such high expectations for this horror story. It sounds amazing, but when I finished it, I was very underwhelmed. Everything in this novel just seems so . . . average.

The first sentence of the synopsis is a lie. The newly engaged couple isn’t trapped in a cave by an avalanche. The avalanche exposes an ancient ship on the side of Mount Ararat, and the couple race up the mountain to be the first ones to explore it. Inside the ship, they find a cadaver with horns. As an archology team tries to excavate the remote site, the cadaver causes tension between the team members. Is the creature something evil? Does it prove that the world’s religions are real? Soon, the arguments over the creature turn deadly.

My main frustration with this novel is that the characters are archeologists, but they don’t discover anything. What are all these highly-educated people doing for weeks inside this cave? What else is in there besides the corpses? We don’t get any backstory about the ship, or the mummies, or why they’re on a mountain. The characters argue about whether this is Noah’s Ark, but that’s pretty much it. Whenever the author gets close to talking about the mysteries of the boat, he backs off and refocuses on the far-less-interesting personality conflicts between the archeologists. I think the story of the boat would’ve been more compelling than the angry-archeologists-murder-each-other plot.

Speaking of the plot, it’s too predictable for my tastes. I was really hoping this wouldn’t become a demon possession story because that would’ve been obvious. Guess what? It became a demon possession story.

I did like how the demon moves from person to person. The creature has an unusual way of jumping around. Still, I wondered how the demon got into the first person ever. The demon has a specific way of getting inside people, and I don’t understand how it originally found someone that met its standards. Once it’s inside someone, it can use that person to turn other people into its ideal body, but that still doesn’t explain how it got into the first person. I was hoping that question would be answered, but it wasn’t.

I’m not a big fan of the characters or writing, either. The characters are flat, and the writing feels amateurish. By the end of the book, I didn’t care about any of the characters. I just kind of shrugged when they brutally slaughtered each other.

So, I didn’t love this novel. It’s fairly fast-paced, which is good, and the religious mystery is intriguing. It just didn’t live up to my expectations.

TL;DR: Great premise, but it isn’t executed very well.