Posted in Reviews

Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

thejunglesinclairI’ve spent the majority of my 28 years with a vague notion of the book that is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I think I first learned about it in middle school, in relation to early 19th century American history and how it caused a ruckus with food safety regulations. Years ago, I picked up a copy of the book (a free Kindle edition) out of a faint desire to read it. Unfortunately (or fortunately for you, dear reader), I didn’t actually act on that desire until a week or so ago.

In order to understand my review of The Jungle, it is pertinent to understand the history of the book, as I took this knowledge on the journey through the stockyards of Chicago. I viewed the book as both a story and historical work.

Sinclair was a muckracker, a journalist who specialized in exposing corruption. His goal in writing The Jungle was to showcase the plight of immigrants to the US, as well as the working class of Americans at this time. Perhaps the most telling aspect of what the public actually took from the book (food safety reform outcry) is Sinclair’s own quote: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

To summarize the novel, a group of immigrants from Lithuania heads to Chicago, having heard of the large fortune to be made working in the stockyards that prepare most of America’s meat products. Unsurprisingly, there’s little wealth to be had for unskilled foreigners, and Jurgis and his family become a cog in the machine of poverty. The book generally follows the rule of “if something bad can happen, it will happen,” so it isn’t exactly a cheerful read. In the end, Jurgis joins the socialist party and begins to almost maybe survive in a way that is somewhat tolerable. The end.

As a story, the book is a bit bloated and odd. Most likely a sign of the time period in which it was written, certain aspects of the story seem long winded, especially when it comes to recounting different political speeches. If you’re a fan of descriptions, the book does a great job of setting the scene for what it’s like living and working in the stockyards in this time period, which is most likely what drove people to clamor for food safety regulations. The parts of the book describing the stockyards practices and procedures (chock full of corruption) aren’t suitable for the faint of heart.

The ending of the novel is odd, slowly tapering to a stop like a soapbox derby car reaching the end of what friction will allow it to accomplish. In the end, there’s simply a series of multiple-page conversations with one person speaking, followed by a single speaker making a call to action about socialism. The entire last 5% of the book is really socialist rhetoric. As such, it isn’t much of an ending. I guess the hero of the book wins, maybe?

From a historical point of view, the book was fascinating. The depiction of life, poverty, and the overall horrific conditions in which people worked, lived, and ate from are pretty horrendous and seem like they must be hyperbolic, but that isn’t the case. It’s pretty crazy to think that life and work in this area was actually like this at one point in time, and it’s hard to comprehend from today’s standards. It’s also horrible to think that there’s a lot of things about today’s standards and practices that we probably don’t know about, or that we do condone, that might horrify future generations.

Overall, I’d call this book a READ WITH CAUTION. As a historical research read, it’s pretty fascinating, but the story is bleak and isn’t much of a plot aside from heartache and death after heartache and death.

 

 

Posted in Reviews

Review: The Unbroken Line of The Moon by Johanne Hildebrandt

http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQmlxaqUmO3NLJtQd85BnHtW_AKjn6YL8a9Jp6iG7pbvkV2UPzvWhere the heck have I been? In short, I’ve been editing my soon-to-be-husband’s book, Transmuted. As an editor by trade, adding more editing to the load at night meant that I pretty much didn’t want to read for a while, so I’ve been very absent from this blog. I’m back now, but thus far it’s been a bit iffy.

As you may know, Amazon Prime members get to choose one of a selection of Kindle books for free at the start of each month. When this program first started, I was able to grab several decent books. As time has gone on, I have been less and less interested in the selection, and the books I have been interested in have been mediocre at best. For a few months straight this year, I haven’t even picked up any of the free books because none of them were even remotely interesting. As such, I was relieved to see a historical fiction centered on vikings a few months ago in the Kindle First lineup, and grabbed it.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t really that great.

I’ll start this review by saying that I did not finish The Unbroken Line of The Moon, by Johanne Hildebrandt. The basic plot revolves around two to three main characters, and switches between their perspectives. Unfortunately, only one of those characters maintained any sort of compelling story for longer than a chapter. As the book went on, I found myself skipping large swaths of text, and eventually I no longer had interest in trudging through the boring character’s chapter to get back to the mildly fascinating.

The Unbroken Line of The Moon follows the interconnected tale of a few young people in the age of vikings when they had begun to truly clash with Christianity. Several of the viking tribes have actually converted to Christianity (even if only in name), but the main characters are loyal to the Norse pantheon.

Throughout the book, the reader must question whether the intervention of the Norse gods (think Freya, Thor, and the like) is actually happening, or if it’s a random coincidental course of events that makes it believable. I enjoyed this aspect.

The author also did her research. Whether it’s the politics of the age, the pantheon itself, or the mention of an Ulfberht sword, the author did due diligence when researching this period in history. Unfortunately, that research does nothing to bolster the bland, vapid characters and plot.

Perhaps I’m a jaded curmudgeon, but I saw the plot coming from a mile away. Don’t get me wrong, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of books I’ve read where I could guess the plot, but it was still interesting to read because the characters and circumstances had real substance. Here, the plot was weakly filled in by a cast of ghost-like characters who were ruled by overt religious feelings and destiny in such a way that nothing really exciting ever happened.

I can’t comment about more than 60% of the book, because that’s as far as I got before I had to stop. That being said, I feel confident in saying that unless you really, really like Norse mythology and politics of that time period, this book is utterly skippable. Even with my interest in the time period and mythological stuff, I just couldn’t get into it.

Glad it was free. Did not finish.

Posted in Reviews

Review: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

51qov-pgncl-_sx330_bo1204203200_TL;DR: This is a book of decent advice hidden in a sea of excess examples, author ego, and general organizational issues. 25% stuff, 75% fluff.

Review:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, is mentioned by several sources as a go-to book for those looking to learn more about editing fiction. As a professional editor wanting to learn more about the ins and outs of editing fiction narratives, I thought it might be a good resource to try.

Overall, the book had some very interesting and important things to teach. This includes dealing with narrative distance, considering how dialogue is presented (and tagged), and the importance of show, don’t tell. I downloaded the sample chapter and was pleased with what I read, even if I felt like there were a few too many examples.

Upon reading the entirety of the book, though, I’m not sure the writers drank enough of their own Kool Aid. Elements of style and examples were treated inconsistently (for example, halfway through the book they decided to use bold text to convey meaning). Some sentences simply didn’t make sense, either because of some slang term I wasn’t privy to, or simply because they were trying to force a casual tone.

I respect the authors for trying to weave in as many examples as they could to show the points they were making, but often they would throw several different excerpts of varying lengths at the reader and then expect you to refer to a point made with the first example many pages later. By the end of the book, I found myself skipping examples altogether out of boredom. I feel that more succinct, carefully chosen examples would have been far more effective. Many reviewers seemed perturbed that the book chooses to critique The Great Gatsby. I found that example to be effective in how it shows the emotion written into the scene already. The authors readily acknowledge that fiction writing style has changed since then, and are merely making a point with a familiar, widely-accepted piece of prose.

Throughout the book, the authors have added in half-page comics that are extremely odd and distracting. Not only do the comics not make much sense with the context of their placement half the time, but the text on the comics is written in an untidy scrawl that requires decoding and is often longer than a few sentences. They were certainly a flop with me, at least.

I take issue with the authors repeatedly referring to perpetrators of the issues they warn against in this book as “hacks,” implying that every author that might employ a technique they don’t agree with is maliciously intent upon tricking their readers. The authors also state that since they’ve published the first edition of this book, they’ve noticed writers seem to take their advice too much to heart, which is a somewhat pompous assumption at best.
I do think the authors of this book intended to make a friendly, casual learning text for authors and editors to reference in order to learn how to look at fiction editing. It includes exercises and bulleted lists of the big topics at the end of each chapter, which is good. If you can successfully navigate the excess in its pages to find the good information, it can be a beneficial read. Unfortunately, I have to call this a READ WITH CAUTION.

Posted in Reviews

Review: The Last Girl by Joe Hart

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Joe Hart’s The Last Girl is a forgettable dystopian “thriller.” I’m honestly not sure why it’s classified as a thriller. In basic summary, the world has suffered a widespread issue (virus? plague? genetic abnormality? microwaves?) where no girls are born. As such, this causes problems and the globe eventually swings into political and societal turmoil. The protagonist is a young woman housed in a facility that is supposedly trying to find a cure. Nothing felt particularly new or original about this novel, though the characters weren’t awful and it was somewhat entertaining. I’m glad I got it free through the Kindle First program. If you’re looking for a generic novel about survival in a dystopian world, this might not be a bad read for you. In my recommendation, however, it is definitely a READ WITH CAUTION.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Hart’s The Last Girl attempts to create tension and suspense with the mystery of the “facility.” As with many stories of this type, the protagonist is essentially a prisoner inside a system that is trying to research a cure for the issue that caused the birth rate of baby girls to drop significantly enough to change the entire world.

The main character is smart, and there is definitely tension among the characters themselves. There’s a variety of clandestine romance, as well as a few tense moments, but overall you simply find out about how the facility is not what it seems to be in more detail as the story goes along.

The main character’s breakout was just this side of realistic. She at least had the foresight to pay attention to things and watch for openings, which helped her in escape. She also didn’t get herself killed going back for the other women, which would have made her escape impossible and completely ruined the validity of the novel. After this bit of saving grace, she survives a helicopter crash–but at least had the decency to be injured.

I liked the concept of the society, and felt that the world was fairly true to what might be if such a global disaster were to happen. The facility itself and the “Fae Trade” in the outside world that sold women were both believable. The main character’s level of suspicion was also refreshing, along with the diversity of the group of survivors. Old man sniper, younger soldier type, and mute seen-to-much young boy were fairly stereotypical, but had enough personality to not be too boring. I’m still not quite sure exactly how they used a boat to break into the facility through a laundry chute, but at this point I’m not going to dedicate the brain cells.

The ending, while believable in a certain sense, was a touch too melodramatic for my tastes.
Unless you’re incredibly interested in this type of story, I’d pass. I call it a READ WITH CAUTION. It’s certainly no Arena One or Armada, but it definitely isn’t compelling.

Posted in Reviews

The Negligence Roundup: Fairy Tales, Space Princesses, Androids, and Air Castles

I tend to do these roundups when I haven’t read anything particularly enthralling. A combination of writer’s block, distraction, and the inability to ascertain why I liked a few elements of some books led to this entry. So, this is more of a catch up post — my apologies for my negligence.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

61gtghmu28l-_sy344_bo1204203200_This story was a less compelling Howl’s Moving Castle, without the charm and with a much more “new adult” feel. The story involves a wizard known as the Dragon who takes a girl every few years from the villages in the valley he protects. The girls and villagers don’t know what he does with them, but each girl is released many years later and chooses not to return to the valley. The girl chosen in this particular instance is the unexpected choice, and she ends up finding out that she has an aptitude for magic.

It was predictable, but in a pleasing way that many fairy tales employ. The story was too long in some parts, such as exploits in the city, and the same points were made again and again. The types of magic were interesting and each user specialized in his or her own type, though the main character’s seemed a bit convenient. It fit her personality, but felt contrived within her abilities. The characters were a little flat, though I could see the efforts made to make them more compelling.

With a good base needing a bit more polish and a much too drawn out ending, I call Uprooted a READ WITH CAUTION. I would much have preferred an actual dragon.

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I chose this book because it’s considered a seminal work of science fiction, and also a-princess-of-marsbecause it seemed like a decent adventure to read about. I was both surprised and not surprised by its contents. Basically, a veteran of the American Civil War is transported to Mars, where he learns to deal with the indigenous peoples, cultures, and eventually falls in love.

The notions of the novel are very old school, with honor and bravery being at the forefront of manliness, and womanliness being pure and worthy of defending. The story was fast paced, but at times the time line seemed to jump a bit unexpectedly. I would think only a few months passed, but it ended up being years. The fauna and flora of Mars was described with a surprising hard sci fi kant, while some other parts were more inexplicable. The main character, John Carter, always has the answer, which was both likeable and annoying.

The whole story line of love/friendship conquering even savage hearts and humanity being sealed in the notion of love as we understand it in modern times was a little trying, as were the very odd and archaic use of commas throughout the work. It wasn’t a bad read, though, and anyone wanting a bit of retro sci fi adventure would probably enjoy it. I call it a READ WITH CAUTION.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K. Dick

doandroidsdreamThis is one of those novels that I liked a lot, but I’m unable to properly articulate why. The elements of the story are fairly simple. A cop hunts wayward androids for bounties in the post-ruined Earth, when most of the “good” parts of humanity have settled off world to escape the radiation and squalor. In his day of bounties, the main character confronts many concepts of identity, humanity, and religion.

The society was very interesting, as well as the story and how it kept me guessing. Usually, I can spot how a story is going to go, but these twists and turns kept me guessing far more than usual. I also enjoyed how the characters and story intertwined with one another, along with the insight into the self and humanity as a whole. I was expecting a different route for the story with each new fact I found, and I was almost always wrong. I especially enjoyed the almost 1984-flavored ending.

It was definitely a good read, even if I can’t get into the specifics of why and how without considerable writer’s block. As such, I would call this a READ.

Castle in The Air by Diana Wynne Jones

After enjoying Howl’s Moving Castle so much, when I found out it had a sequel, I decided to castle_in_the_air_coverpartake. This starts in a different land, one that might be at home as the setting for 1001 Arabian nights. Abdullah is a carpet salesman who daydreams about a beautiful princess and palace. After he’s sold a magic carpet, he is accidentally transported to this area — and eventually must save his princess and all the princesses of all the lands. The story is fairly cliche, but it has its quirks that render it amusing and fun to read, similarly to Howl’s. About halfway through the story, a sudden twist occurs, and a familiar character shows up.
I was completely thrown off by a few of the other reveals, despite being quite cynical when reading most books. Overall, it was a fun story, and if you enjoyed Howl’s Moving Castle, I’d say it was a READ. My opinion may be colored by my love for the characters, because much like Richard and Kahlan from the Sword of Truth series, I could read about Howl, Sophie, and Calcifer in nearly any situation. Otherwise, I think it’s a READ WITH CAUTION, as it’s not without its flaws and Abdullah’s prose gets a little hard to handle.

Posted in Reviews

The Jaded Roundup: The Decent, The Unenthralling, and The Downright Awful

Occasionally, I do these reading roundups because either the books themselves don’t warrant a single review, or more frequently, because I’ve read several dull books. This time, we’re looking at the second book in a series, a first book in a series, and something that tried to be a book but should probably have been a made for TV movie.

220px-academs_furyAcadem’s Fury by Jim Butcher

Overall, this wasn’t a bad read. Maybe I’m just burned out on fantasy for a while, but though I enjoyed Butcher’s world in the Codex Alera book one and two, I just don’t feel particularly intrigued to go further. The basic story of book two involves Tavi at an academy to learn to be a Cursor while the rest of the realm fights and sputters over different threats, some real and some imagined. I highly prefer the parts of this world that involve the non-human races like the Marat and the Canem. To be honest, I just really didn’t find reading about Tavi to be that great anymore. I wouldn’t say no to reading the rest of the series in the future if I felt like it, nor would I necessarily discourage others from reading it, but it just wasn’t for me. So, this was a READ WITH CAUTION, and where I’ll end on the series for now.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas81pujydq2yl

I started this book with the thought of really tying to enjoy it. I wanted to like this. I really did. Sometimes I think I get bogged down in genre or general story themes, so I tried to keep an open mind about this. It wasn’t written poorly, and the story wasn’t necessarily bad, but it just didn’t capture me. The novel follows an assassin who has been sentenced to work in the mines for her crimes, but is then “rescued” to compete and become the King’s champion. To become the champion, she must fight her way to the top. The wind up to the real meat of the story takes a while, and even then it’s bogged down with many points of views, odd love triangles that aren’t love triangles, and threads of story that are dropped and picked back up at random times. At a certain point, I put down the book after a reading session and just didn’t pick it back up. Eventually, the library check out expired. I’m going to call this a READ WITH CAUTION, because I feel like it does have potential, but it failed to ensnare me, and as such I didn’t feel it was worth my time.

PrintArmada: A Novel by Ernest Cline

After reading the book jacket blurb on this book, I knew I was in for something less that thrilling. I thought, however, that it might be pulled off well. Cline is known for Ready Player One, a book I enjoyed. As I’m a pretty geeky person who plays video games, I thought a novel written by Cline that supposes video games have been training people to fight in a real alien war could be fun. Boy, was I wrong. Armada isn’t awful from the get out. It’s written in what I call a simplistic young adult sense, with a lot of stream of consciousness. I could get by with everything that happened, from government conspiracies and aliens showing up to people playing a game to train for the military without knowing it, but then they had Carl Sagan tell me the aliens drew a swastika on the moon Europa. And a little girl’s synthesized voice said we’d disturbed their holiest temple and must die. It was at that moment that I put the book down and thought for a moment. I picked the book back up a day later and read on. Things did not improve. While I wasn’t expecting much, Cline seemed to think he could take a very similar premise as to what gained him fame beforehand and just shove it in a slightly different box. The prose felt like it was simply there to hold every reference to science fiction that Cline could come up with, to the detriment of the story and conversation. Pages go by with in-depth description the reader doesn’t need or even want, and then the things that are really interesting are left unexplained. Add in an awkward romance angle where the main character meets a girl that should basically be named Geeky Stereotype Badass Dream Girl #1, and it’s just a bit too much. Plus, the book takes a leap a bit too far into the realm of suspension of disbelief by presupposing, apparently, that no amateur astronomers exist. Anywhere. So, this is a RUN. Don’t do it. Just don’t.

Posted in Reviews

Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is a solid dystopian novel that imagines a future where genetic engineering and scientific modification has flung itself forward with little regard for the ethics and moral practices that drive our current society. The overall world was intriguing and the structure of the story was interesting, as it built on different bits of knowledge revealed by the memories of the main character and his journey back to the source of everything going awry. This intrigue was marred a bit by a feeling of bland post modernism that bordered on boring, as well as a disproportionate amount of scientific jargon and explanation. This is a READ WITH CAUTION. If you’re looking to dive into Atwood, I’d check out The Handmaid’s Tale first, which is actually one of the first books I reviewed on this blog.

Here, There Be Spoilers

The overall story of Oryx and Crake is a discovery of what came before through the memories of one of the last remaining people who actually existed pre-apocalypse. Snowman, as he named himself, is the narrator, taking us through his life with snippets of memories and explanations gleaned from interactions with the odd human-like people he is caring for: the Crakers. As the tale unfolds, you learn more and more about Snowman’s life, who Crake and Oryx were, and ultimately that Crake was right off his rocker. There’s a good dynamic of reader info given, reader guesses made, and actual info given to the reader throughout the story.

The tone, or perhaps more appropriately, the feeling evoked by this book was one of dryness, of casual desolation and the silence of once-occupied emptiness. It was similar to walking into a once-bustling warehouse that is now musty, dark, and quiet. The immediate timeline setting was more interesting than most of the memories you encounter within the novel, and I would almost have liked a book more about the present than the past, though the two are woven together decently.

Atwood employs the use of dystopian-style words and phrases a little too liberally for my tastes, taking the general satire of naming conventions in modern culture further than Orwell or Huxley might have. Corporations, products, medicines, and even foods are all given branded, corporate-funded names that are quite obvious notes to the reader about the society, but it easily becomes overwhelming alongside all the scientific mumbo jumbo.

It was interesting to read about Snowman’s depiction of the familiar plight of word people versus number people. That is to say, word people often end up feeling less valued than number people, and tend to hold jobs viewed as less important, even though the value of marketing the projects the number people produce is quite emphasized within the novel. As a word person, I know that feel, bro.

The ending was interesting in that it totally let the reader decide what Snowman would do. You’re left to contemplate and weigh the consequences of all the ways he might act. I appreciate the elegant tie in to the beginning of the story, as well as the thought behind all the different avenues that Snowman might take.

There’s also some very interesting commentary about art versus science versus religion, specifically shown with the Crakers themselves. Even without influence from the previous culture, they start to create–a thing that Crake warned would bring nothing but trouble. Did Crake leave them too human, or did Snowman influence them too much? Was it Oryx who succeeded in squandering Crake’s dream of perfect humans? We’re left to wonder.

Overall, it was a decent enough book set in a familiar and alien world. I call it a READ WITH CAUTION. If nothing else, the mental image of men with erect, bright blue penises waggling them in a greeting dance to a random woman was amusing.