Tuesday, June 25, 2013

After the First Death (novel), by Robert Cormier

This was one of the most satisfying books I've ever read. Let me start with how I found it.

As much as I love reading now, it was not always so. I was one of those high school students that learned the individual requirements of my teachers, studied how they graded, and devised a plan, unique to each class, to get an "A" while doing the least possible work. That included how to pass English without ever reading a novel. For all four years.

That is, with one exception.

My sophomore year, I remember reading a book about the hijacking of a bus full of school children. I don't actually remember if I read it or if the teacher read it to us, but I remember that I was riveted and absolutely loved the story (a secret I kept to myself, of course).

Years later I set out to find that book. My searches always came up empty. I couldn't remember the title or the author, and only a few vague scenes from the story itself. A few months ago, I decided to try my luck again (yes, 20 years later I still thought about the book and was seeking to find it). Google proved worthy this time around and I found the book. After reading the description of After the First Death I knew I had struck gold. I quickly bought it on Amazon for about 50 cents.

This week I got around to cracking it open. It took me a matter of hours to read it. After the first Death is gripping from the first page and compelling to the last word. It is the story of terrorists that hijack a bus full of elementary school children. But this is not the typical fairy tale that you'd see in a Disney-produced movie. It's not even the kind of story you'd see in a dark Hollywood movie. No, this story is real. Not "real" in the sense that it's based on a true story (it's not), but in that it feels real. There is nothing contrived, nothing extravagant for the sake of "good fiction." This novel gets you inside the head of terrorists in a way that, dare I say it, you can almost sympathize with their cause. Or if not, you at least understand where they're coming from, how they were trained and how they think.

I couldn't put this book down. I love a good book that I can't put down. This was not due to the endless action sequences (which there was not) or intense mystery (also not present), but because of the gripping reality of the subject covered. Cormier does not attempt to cater to the typical format of fiction in which the heroes always win. He tells a real-world story where anything can happen. It's hard to explain more without giving away some of the plot developments. But trust me, in Cormier's book anything is possible. We're even treated with somewhat of a twist at the end. It was a very gratifying twist. Very. As a matter of fact, I was about to chalk this up as only a "very good" read until the last 10 pages or so. Suddenly more of the previous story made sense, ends were tied, and the twist put a final gratifying touch to the whole experience of reading this book. "Very good" was now "Insanely amazing."

If I had to complain about one thing it would be Cormier's use of selective omniscience (writing term). In short, from paragraph to paragraph you're sometimes inside the terrorist's mind, and then inside the bus driver's mind, and then inside someone else's mind. That made for occasional sloppy story telling in my opinion. It wasn't so much of a distraction to make me dislike the book or really for it even to become too much of a bother, but it was an annoyance I had to put up with. That's writing 101--stay to the mind of one character at a time.

While it contains small print, it's only 220 pages long so it's a quick read. Some of you faster readers will read this in a single day. I will be seeking out more of Cormier's books after this. I can only hope his other fiction is half as good as this was.

My Rating: 5/5

My Recommendation: Do you have to ask? Get thee to Amazon and buy this book immediately!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

John Carter (movie)

I had never heard of this film or (I'm ashamed to admit) this classic book. I saw it as a new release online and watched the trailer to see what it was. The trailer looked great so I decided to give the movie a try.

It. Was. Epic.

John Carter is the story of a man from the late 1800s that is magically transported to Mars. Once there, he quickly learns that his dense bone structure, coupled with his having grown up on a planet with a more intense gravity, allows him to essentially have super strength and near-flight capabilities on Mars. And that's just the beginning.

I won't say much because, as always, my reviews are spoiler free, but he becomes involved with the people on Mars and learns about himself in the process. The special effects are great, the story is epic and (mostly) original.

There is NOTHING not to like about this movie.

Only AFTER watching it did I learn that this movie was basically the largest flop in Disney history. My reaction: WWHHHHAAAAATTTTT!?!?!?!

How is this possible? The movie cost $250 million (money well-spent) and it only grossed $71 million domestically! This is a travesty!

I'm chalking this loss up to poor advertising. Granted, I don't watch TV and so I don't often see previews, but I certainly had never heard of it. I'm guessing it did so poorly because no one else heard it existed either. That's all I can think of. It was a masterpiece of story and cinema.

Everyone must watch this move immediately.

My Rating: 5/5
My Recommendation: See it, buy it, watch it over and over.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The War of the Worlds (book), by H.G. Wells

There is a place in my heart for the classics. And as a lover of science fiction, it was high time I picked up this novel.

Written in the late 1800s, this classic is no stranger to most readers and movie-goers, so I won't bore you with the details of the plot. All I really want to say is that it was tough to get through this one.

Admittedly, I'm conscious of the fact that I found this story fairly boring, likely due to my modern mind. Today's stories are filled with suspense, plot twists, sub plots, and various story lines that interweave. It seems that in H. G. Well's days, a single linear story was enough, and the subject matter was more important than the exposition of the matter.

I've read a few Jules Verne books (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth), as well as other H. G. Wells novels (The Time Machine, and The Invisible Man). As far as sheer enjoyment goes, I enjoyed this one the least of those listed here. Verne's 20,000 Leagues was a phenomenal book, and I also really enjoyed Wells's Invisible Man. The War of the Worlds doesn't compare by today's standards in my opinion.

It should be noted, however, that every time I put myself in the place of someone in the late-1800s/early-1900s, I could easily understand how this book would have been revolutionary. 50 years before Roswell, 70 years before the moon landing, H. G. Wells was already writing about space travel and aliens. He paved the way for much of today's science fiction and I will forever be grateful for that.

Is The War of the Worlds a literary classic? A revolutionary novel that deserves a place in history? Absolutely. But if I am to be honest and base my rating and critique on how much I enjoyed the book, on how interesting and captivating it was, then I have to say that it bored me and I couldn't wait to finish it so that I could move on to something else.

My Rating: 1.5/5
My Recommendation: If you're a science-fiction reader, then you should read this if nothing else then for context in your genre of choice. Otherwise, based on the shallow and dull story, I say look elsewhere for a more interesting novel.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

11.22.63 (book)

I love Stephen King's writing style. His prose is vivid and gripping. I haven't read many of his books, however (about 5?), for a couple of reasons: he often writes supernatural horror which I'm not expressly into, and he tends to use extremely foul language, which I'm also not into.

However, when I heard that he was going to write a novel based around time travel, I couldn't help but to put it at the top of my wish list (time travel is probably the most fascinating fiction topic for me).

11.22.63 (the title of this book is the date that John Kennedy was assassinated) did not disappoint. It was, in a word, fantastic!

My review here doesn't contain anything that you wouldn't find on a dust jacket so read on with confidence (I never post spoilers, just in case you want to read it as well).

11.22.63 is about a high school English teacher that (essentially) stumbles upon what he calls a "rabbit hole": a portal to the past. 1958 to be exact. Stepping through this rift in time will take him back to the same day, the same moment, every time. He could go back for a month and return to the future, and when he went through the portal again, it would be to the exact moment as the first time he went. Each time is the first time.

So what do you do with that? Can you actually change the past then? Would you want to? You'll have to read the book yourself to find out the answers to those questions. But let me assure you that King takes a unique perspective on time travel (something that is hard to find in modern fiction). The tale of this English teacher and the incredibly difficult task he has set himself to is gripping and full of adventure.

I love to read but I can only name a handful books that have pulled me in so deep that I couldn't put it down. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, Pathfinder and The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card, and Jumper by Stephen Gould are among these great novels that make me want to neglect the rest of my life just to read a few more pages. 11.22.63 fits right in.

I haven't decided if I will put it on my top 10 favorite books yet, but if I don't, it's close.

If you're looking for a story with heart-pumping adventure and the excitement of possibility, written by an author with impeccable world-painting and story-telling technique, then 11.22.63 is a must read.

The downside? As is typical with King, there is a bit of language. A bit more than I would have liked but no more than expected.

Also, I'll just put this out there on the off chance that someone actually reads my blog: something VERY uncanny, scary almost, happened to me (based on this novel) on the day I finished reading it. I can't tell you what it was without totally giving away the book. You need to read the full book, all the way to the last page, and then ask me about it. If you're half way through the book, then you'll know what I mean when I say I experienced a "harmonic" of my own.

My Rating: 5/5

My Recommendation: This is a must-read. Put it at the top of your list. You'll love it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Time Travelers Never Die (book)

I haven't written a review in quite some time (almost three years). Truth be told I forgot I had this blog. :)

Yesterday I finished the book, Time Travelers Never Die, by Jack McDevitt. If you know me, you know I love stories about Time Travel. This novel, by an author I'd never read before, was extremely fun and enjoyable.

I'm not going to pretend that it was a masterpiece of literary genius, but it was a story I couldn't put down once it began. As always, no spoilers, so read on.

The book read, at times, like a travelogue that didn't advance the plot. Even so, I found those sequences interesting due to the nature of where (or when?) they were traveling.

The time travel theory was pretty solid and stayed consistent throughout the book--something difficult to find in fiction. The author found a creative, if not trivial, way around paradoxes that I had never thought of before. Perhaps it was a plot device, but it worked.

If I had to point out one main flaw in the book, I would say that it was extraordinarily predictable. Throughout about 60 percent of the book, I already knew what would happen next, or down the road. Some things were plainly (and painfully) obvious. The main characters didn't seem to be able to figure out how to solve problems they were encountered with until chapters (or even half the book) after I had already figured it out.

Don't get me wrong. It may sound like I'm being nothing but negative about this novel. In spite of the predictability I found it extremely enjoyable to read. It was, as I said, a very fun story. It was not overly nail-biting or suspenseful but it was an adventure that I didn't want to end.

The final few pages were a bit confusing, and there's one major point that was so confusing that I actually went back to re-read the chapter. It didn't help. Still, it wasn't enough to ruin the book for me. It left me wondering a bit, but did not affect the overall story.

One thing that struck me about the book after I had finished it was how clean it was. Hardly any bad language (if any), and no sexual content. Just an overall fun adventure through time with a few small mysteries mixed in. I enjoyed this book, and the author, enough that as soon as I put it down, I went to the computer and bought another book by the same author.

As it turns out, the author is 81 years old and has written many novels (and won many awards). His newest book (which sounded very interesting) turned out to be book 6 in a series. So I went and ordered book 1 of the series: A Talent for War (Time Travelers Never Die is a stand-alone novel and not related to this 6 book series). I'm excited to find a new author to read and hope this next book of his will be just as good.

My Rating: 4.2/5

My Recommendation: Read this book if you enjoy time travel stories. It was well thought-out and well executed. I didn't give it a 5 only because, while I loved this book, I can't say it's on my top list of best books ever. I just can't bring myself to categorize it with other great books that I've given a 5 to. This is likely due to some sections that seemed a bit slow in travelogue style. But don't let that sway you. It is fun and WORTH READING! :) Enjoy.