Andrea Blythe (blythe025) wrote,
Andrea Blythe

Books Completed in December, Part I

I still have 11 more books to read in order to meet the goals of the category reading challenge I started at the beginning of the year, which I think I just might accomplish. It'll be a photo finish though. In the meantime, I thought I would split the month, so the post isn't too long.

1. The Walking Dead: The Calm Before, by Robert Kirkman
2. The Walking Dead: Made to Suffer, by Robert Kirkman
3. Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater
4. The Crack in Space, by Phillip K. Dick
5. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
6. Watership Down (audio book), by Richard Adams
7. The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
8. Zombies Are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead, edited by Christopher M. Moreman and Cory James Rushton
9. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
10. Duel, by Richard Matheson


1. The Walking Dead: The Calm Before, by Robert Kirkman
2. The Walking Dead: Made to Suffer, by Robert Kirkman

It's been a while since I've continued reading any of the comics, so much of my understanding of the stories and characters had been supplanted by how they are portrayed in the TV show (which is AMAZING). Thus, it took me a little while to readjust to the comics.

The differences between the show and books are at once subtle and large. It's hard to explain if you haven't read or seen either. In any case, both are great for different reasons. In both, there is an interesting mixture of despair and hope, as the stories continue to focus on the humanity or lack thereof of the characters.

Volumes 7 and 8 are as strong as the rest, with a brief reprieve in The Calm Before, before the chaos and brutality and blood spilling in Made to Suffer. The series continues to be great and I'm definitely looking forward to read more.

3. Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater
From the back cover: "Grace and Sam share a kinship so close they could be lovers or siblings. But they also share a problem. When the temperature slips towards freezing, Sam reverts to his wolf identity and must retreat into the woods to protect his pack. He worries that eventually his human side will fade away and he will left howling alone at the lonely moon."

I had low expectations of Shiver, because of how often it had been compared to Twilight (which don't get me wrong, I enjoyed even though it's not a silly book). Certainly, they are similar with their focus on young love, in which a girl falls for a supernatural creature. However, the comparisons pretty much fall off there.

Grace's friendship with Sam goes back a long way. As a young girl, she meets him as a wolf, and for years after, they continue to watch each other -- she as girl, he as wolf, each longing for companionship, each wanting to shift and live as the other does. There is a mutual loneliness of both, which the reader becomes aware of because the author jumps back and forth between Grace and Sam's point of view.

Also, both Grace and Sam are independent individuals outside of each other. For all their affection for each other and their sense of rightness when together, they also have interests and relationships that are not centered around romance. Both have ambiguous relationships with their parents, but have friendship to fill in the gaps. Grace has Rachel and Olivia, and Sam has Beck and the pack.

I also really appreciated the twist on werewolves. Instead of stretching the supernatural to the ridiculous (sparkling vampires, anyone?), the author asserts that the change to wolf occurs because of the cold. The colder it is, the quicker the person begins to change. Furthermore, there comes a point when the wolf can no longer return to a human state. All of which presents logical enough reasoning for such a story and an interesting obstacle for the characters to overcome.

The writing style also worked well for me. It was clean and even occasionally presented metaphors or turns of phrase that amused me. All in all, a good read, and the sequel, Linger, has jumped up on my TBR list.

4. The Crack in Space, by Phillip K. Dick
In an overpopulated world, millions of people have elected to become bibs (cryogenically frozen until the job market opens up), abortion centers are prospering, and prostitution has been made legal on orbiting satellites (to ease "frustrations", while preventing pregnancy). It's a huge problem faced by the presidential candidates, who must present solutions to this problem if they are to be elected.

Jim Briskin announces in a public speech a possible solution. A company has stumbled upon a portal to a parallel world, apparently uninhabited, to which people can emigrate. This announcement opens a whole can of worms and new problems, especially when they find out the alternate world was not as unpopulated as they all thought.

Mixed in with all the population stuff are constant commentaries about race relations, most notably because Briskin, a Col, could be the first black president of the United States. I couldn't help but read this and think about the fact that President Obama is currently in the white house. The race question gets confounded even further once the people on alt-earth are discovered.

It's a fairly short read, and it goes very quick. But a lot gets packed into it, and there's a lot of jumping from character to character. Dick doesn't seem to be as interested in achieving an emotional connection with the reader as an intellectual one. You're not meant to feel for the characters or get to know them, you're meant to get a taste for their point of view. Every one's got an opinion, and the author presents many of them, so many that it's not entirely clear where he stands on anything. This is a thinking book, certainly fun, but one that I would like to sit with a book group and chat about. A reader could come at it from many angles -- each would be correct.

5. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
From the book cover: "Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs... for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind."

"I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once." ~ John Green
I can't fully express my admiration for John Green and his ability to write books that move me to bouts of interspersed laughter and tears. Though terribly sad (and how can a book about kids with cancer not be on some level), this book is sweet and humorous and wonderful.
“Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.” ~ John Green
A deep relationship with death is natural for teens confronted with cancer, who measure their lives in probabilities of survival. It would be easy to define these kids by their cancer, and certainly it is a constant in their lives, but Green's skill as a writer, brings the characters to a place beyond that. They are also readers and philosophers and video gamers and jokers and lovers and so much more than the disease that consumes them. So much depth abounds in these brilliant teens who are not always brave or good or kind in the face of tragedy.
“I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?” ~ John Green
I love this book for so many reasons, for the characters, for the beautiful writing, for the way it makes me want to look newly at the world and really see it, for the way it shows people are so amazing in such subtle ways, and more and more. I couldn't read anything else after finishing The Fault in Our Stars. I needed to just sit in silence for a while and let it all absorb.

6. Watership Down (audio book), by Richard Adams
When Fiver has a vision of great destruction to the warren, he and Hazel and a small group of other rabbits head out for unknown pastures in search of a new home. Along the way they meet with many adventures, from eery and docile rabbits to a great warren ready for war.

One of the many great things about this book is that though this story was intended to just be a story about rabbits, written for his children, it doesn't talk down. It just tells a story with clean, vivid language. This apparently caused trouble with publication as the publishers thought the language was too adult for younger kids, but that older kids wouldn't want to read a story about rabbits. I'm glad it finally found a home, because I thoroughly enjoyed the adventures presented.

Another thing to love is how well Adams created a series of interesting characters who happen to be rabbits. They could just as easily been people, except that he also makes them very much rabbits with the traits and behaviors and survival instincts of rabbits. Combined with that is its own set of folklore with the rabbits telling stories of a rabbit king, trickster and brave hero, who they love to tell tales about in the dark of their warren.

In his introduction to the novel, Adams asserts that Watership Down was not intended as an allegory. However, there is enough depth of plot and character that it leaves plenty of room for interpretation and one could easily write an essay about it being about the negative aspects of tyranny. There's enough layers for this to be enjoyed by adults, and though sometimes bloody, it is full of adventure and humor and fun characters for kids to enjoy.

7. The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
I don't know what the title has to do with anything, since, as far as I can tell, no postman every rings once, let alone twice. What the book does have is a drifter who takes up a job at a roadside dinner and after about two minutes of meeting the proprietor's wife, launches into a tawdry affair. It thus follows, of course, that drifter and femme fatale, must now murder the husband to be free to have each other.

While this was a quick and snappy read, there is virtually no characterization. The story consists of sex and (bungling) murder, which is fine and good, but I there wasn't much for me to care whether they succeeded or got caught or not. I'm not even particularly thrown by the sexism and racism, given the time period and the fact that most of it came out the main character's mouths, both of whom were not very likeable anyway.

Things did get more interesting as the story twisted this way and that way, not entirely unexpectedly. It was, I suppose, an entertaining enough story, however, I wasn't invested in it much one way or the other.

PS. Discussion of the title can be found here.

8. Zombies Are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead, edited by Christopher M. Moreman and Cory James Rushton
(Note: This book was an ARC given to me through LibraryThing's Early Review program.)

If you're looking for a fun, intellectual romp through the geektastic joys of zombie movies, books, comics, and games, you're probably looking in the wrong place. This book veers toward more serious and dense academic discourse, and the fun in most case gives way to metal cartwheeling, leaving the reading experience rather dry.

The first essay, "Your Zombie and You," for example spends a significant amount of time defining kinds of fear with the differences between so subtle I went cross-eyed trying to make sense of it and was nearly scared off of reading the rest of the book.

Most of the rest of the essays managed to be both interesting and readable, however. "Porn of the Dead" looks at a pornographic film of the same title, which actually subverts gendering to present a somewhat feministy perspective.

Other essays look at the use of zombie as metaphor in modern case law and examine the references to the living dead within the Bible. The intertanglement of religion and blasphemy within the Lucio Fulci zombie movies is also examined with an emphasis on how the visceral images within the movies go beyond schlock as they leave a lasting effect on the viewer.

"The Mutated Spirit" looks at Hollywood zombies a psychopomps, couriers to the land of the dead. The zombies in this case are couriers of individual souls, but of whole societies.

I also enjoyed both essays examining the connection between zombies and video game culture, as well as the final essay, "Plans are Pointless: Staying Alive Is as Good as It Gets," which looks at movies that reveal how sociology breaks along new lines when society is faced with the walking dead.

Zombies Are Us presents an opportunity to look at the walking dead from a multitude of new points of view, and reveals just how thoroughly these monsters have become a part of our modern culture. For the most part, it's worth the the work the reading requires.

9. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
The plot is simple: innocent virgin falls for mentally screwed up billionaire with a passion for BDSM. Many people have talked about this book and it's relation to [Twilight], their opinions ranging from abject hatred to adoration. Had it not been for Christian-obsessed sisters and friends insisting that I read it, I probably wouldn't have bothered. That's said, here's my two cents. If this review sounds muddled, it's because my feelings are muddles.

For anyone who actually cares, I shall be dropping SPOILERS into this review.

What I like:
— Ana has friendships and interests outside of Christian Grey. Maybe they kind of vanish when she's around him, but they are there, at least in the peripheral.
— Though Ana submits to Christian and she tries out being his submissive, she has boundaries and stands by them.The love she supposedly has for him allows her to push past her comfort zone in many ways, but once her hard boundaries are crossed, she walks, even though it breaks her heart. Maybe she vacillates in the next book, but the fact that she says, this is what my needs are to make this work, and then sticks with it is a good thing.
— They talk about their relationship. A lot. And yes, it gets tedious, but communication in relationships is important, and Christian and Ana have a lot of conversations about how they feel, what their boundaries are, and what they're comfortable with. Neither of them goes in entirely blind (though that doesn't stop them from being blindsided). Subsequently, Christian does try his best to respond to her emotional needs and make her happy.
— The amble use of condoms and birth control, as well as the open discussion of STDs, all of which are often left out of romance novels, but are vital aspects of relationships in the modern world.

What I'm on the fence about:
— The sex, which is very entertaining, does get to be repetitive. Honestly, how many times can a couple have fabulous sex with raging orgasms and no awkwardness? For that matter, how many girls have experienced next to zero pain AND an orgasm their first time having sex? The whole thing gets to be way over the top.
— Ana's seemingly split personality. She refers to both her subconscious ( a judgmental figure) and her inner goddess (who revels in the sex). I guess it's a way to show her mixed feelings, but it's kind of an awkward way to do it.
— Christian. He is a control freak jerk, and Ana acknowledges this, except that sometimes he's not a jerk. He's screwed up in many ways, and much of this is supposed to come from abuse experienced as a child. In a way, the abuse explains his need for control, since he used to have so little of it. But abuse only explains, it doesn't excuse. Many of the same friends who wanted me to read this are of the opinion that they or I need a Christian in their lives. I can't understand why. His attractive exterior and great abilities in the bedroom would be amusing, but don't make up for his behavior, and being in that kind of screwy relationship would be an emotional kick to the gut that doesn't sound all too fun.
— Many times, Christian says, "I am going to...," and then tells her what he's going to do to her before he does it. On the one hand, this gives Ana space to prepare herself and potentially say, no, if she's uncomfortable. On the other hand, it gets really repetitive and began to induce me to roll my eyes after a while.
— Ana falls for him with the idea that she can change him, and continues this path as she learns more about the level of abuse he's been through. However, she demands too much of him too quickly. People who have been abused so thoroughly need space and to have their boundaries kept, too. At the point when she says she loves him, and he rejects the idea, she's only known him a couple of weeks. Considering the abuse, his inability to accept love, and the strides he made (breaking some of his own rules to adjust to her needs and beginning to want more), it seems a lot to ask that he then and there be willing to accept her love. That said, if a person is in a situation that could be emotionally or physically harmful, it is more than acceptable for them to walk away from that situation. So, yeah.

What I don't like:
— The writing is bad. Really, really bad. Repetition is a huge problem (for example, passages would say things like: "I'm going to make an omlette," I said. Then I went into the kitchen and started putting together an omlette.), which sometimes made me want to throw the book across the room. And every one had hyphenated looks on their faces (such as, "She looked at me with an I-don't-know-what's-gotten-into-you face). In the first few chapters, the writing was so bad, I almost stopped reading.
— Ana starts out as a virgin and has orgasmic sex the first time she does it with our sexually skilled hero. My hatred of this trope is not limited to this book. It's a big pet peeve of mine.
— Stalker tendencies or behavior are presented as not only okay with in the book, but flirtatious. Ana's reservations about this behavior are considered moot because Christian is just so hot and she wants him, so no big deal, right? Wrong.
— Christian's jealousy and need to control every single aspect of Ana's life. Back off, dude, seriously. Accept that she loves you and can make her own decisions.
— "I do it because I can," says Christian several times. The ability to something does not imply that it's acceptable to do something. "Could" doesn't mean "should."

To sum up:
I understand why people hate this book. I also understand why people love it. My feelings are entirely ambivalent.

Would I recommend it? No. You really don't need to read this, unless you're dying to. In which case, who am I to stop you.

Will I read more of the series?
*sigh* Yeah.
I'm just curious enough to want to know what happens.

10. Duel, by Richard Matheson
I loved I am Legend, which was an amazing twist on the vampire genre and had an ending that wasn't happy, per se, but had me grinning from ear to ear. This collection of short stories, however, was not so great. At best I will say they were okay. Most of the stories were written in the late fifties through the sixties, which explains the old fashioned style of the stories, most particularly the reliance on withholding important information to deliver a "surprise," which is not so surprising because you're looking for it. The stories rely heavily on idea, rather than character, which is not so much my cup of tea.

The title story, "Duel," is interesting because it was made into Stephen Spielburg's first film of the same title. The story itself, about a saleman driving cross country and getting into a life threatening situation with a nameless truck driver, was just okay. I haven't seen the movie, but I am curious about and want to see it so I can make the comparison with the story.

"Return" was the first story in the collection I really enjoyed. It involves time travel, and a man who desperately wants to return to his own time and his pregnant wife. The twist ending works here, because of its emotional impact (as opposed to intellectual impact).

"Lover When You're Near Me" was a disturbing tale about a man managing work on an alien planet. An alien woman is assigned to help him as a kind of maid. She communicates via telepathy and becomes like a grasping leech, trying to dominate the man's mind and make him her lover. While this story is sufficiently disturbing to be entertaining, one of the most disturbing aspects of the story for me was not what happens to the poor man, so much as it's the way the female aliens have turned the men of their planet into mindless drones. The female aliens are seen as grasping, desperate, manipulative, man-devourers, sucking out a man's freewill to make them theirs. And while these are alien women, there is no doubt that this is a not so subtle commentary on women in general, which I find unsettling.

"SRL AD" was a funny story about answering personal ads from aliens. It made me smile.

"The Last Day" was great. It was a bitter sweet story of returning hom before the end of the world.

The last story in the book, "Steel," was kind of fun and reminded me a bit of the movie "Real Steel," mostly because they both have fighting robots with an owner desperately trying to make just a tiny bit of money from whatever fights he can. The similarities story and movie end there, however.

There were many other stories interspersed with the ones I mentioned, and none of them stood out in my mind for particular note. I am not put off Matheson, however. I think I just shy away from his short stories and stick to his longer works. I'm rather interested to read Hell House, or What Dreams May Come, or A Stir of Echoes, for example.
Tags: books, reviews
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