Friday, November 26, 2010

I Am Not A Serial Killer

We're going to start off the proceedings with an entirely new author! His name's Dan Wells, and writing about creepy guys is his specialty. He's only got two books published as of now, the first two books in a trilogy, and I've had the priviledge of reading them both. Here's the thing: Dan Wells is one of the most promising new writers I've read in recent memory, and I Am Not A Serial Killer is a real genre-defying delight.

John Wayne Cleaver is something of a troubled teen. By "troubled" here I mean of course that he has all the indications of growing up to be... well, you know. Even though he's a sociopath, he really doesn't want that. So he studies up on famous serial killers to give him an idea of what not to do.

But there are some issues. Like the fact that his family owns a morgue. And the fact that some murder victims are arriving, looking to be more and more like the work of a serial killer. So John's faced with a smidgen of a problem-- finding and stopping the killer without anyone else knowing... or without succumbing to the temptations of blood himself.

It's impossible to classify a book like I Am Not A Serial Killer. It involves a teenage protagonist, but it's a bit too gruesome to be classified as YA. And there are some twists which make it hard to place in any specific genre at all. But that's okay, Dan Wells's book isn't any worse because of it. This is a truly original work (although comparisons to Dexter will inevitably be made, it's way too much of a stretch) with a chillingly complex narrator.

More about that narrator. John Wayne Cleaver's voice is what guides us through the book, and Dan Wells has absolutely nailed it. He's nailed it so well that I'm almost worried about his state of mental health. John is both a teenager and a sociopath, a paradox when it comes to emotions, something which in the hands of a lesser writer would only lead to disaster. But Dan Wells is Not A Lesser Writer. John is a protagonist you will in turn root for and be unnerved by, a diamond in the very, very rough. It's what had me coming back for more in the sequel, Mr. Monster.

In short, I Am Not A Serial Killer is Not An Average Book. The characters are fascinating, the plot page-turning, and the attention to detail on the part of the author unnerving. In short, I recommend it highly.

My rating: 9.5/10

Coming Soon: Mr. Monster and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

I'm Back!

I'd like to start off by saying I'm terribly sorry about the lengthy hiatus from the blog. I've been extremely busy, and I've hardly had time to get to a computer. This is perhaps the longest I've ever gone without a post, and for a brief period of time, I was contemplating not coming back. After all, Speculative Horizons just recently bid farewell, and since I reviewed such a good book for Classic of the Month, I considered just leaving it at that.

But I couldn't let it sit anymore. And I'm not going to let it sit anymore. The Writer's Notebook is coming back up, starting now, and I've got some really explosive reads for you now! New authors, new books from old authors, and a new look! I appreciate any and all of you who actually read what I write, and I look forward to continuing this journey.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Classic of the Month: Les Miserables

Hi, there. I think it's time I wrote about what is quite possibly the best book I have ever read. This time on Classic of the Month, I'm going to take a look at the greatest thing to come out of France, and one of those books EVERY PERSON should read before they die. Period. I am of course referring to Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

First of all, yes, the musical is fantastic, but if that's all you know of this story, you're missing out on a beautiful experience. The movie with Liam Neeson is a terrible adaptation, and I'm still astonished the filmmakers got away with it. Now, onto the top ten reasons why I love this book so much:

10. The Structure. Les Miserables was published in fifths. Each section has its own feel to it, as well as rising action and a major climax of sorts. At the same time, each part fits in with the whole seamlessly, creating one massive, complex arc of love, loss, and redemption.

9. The Setting. Victor Hugo picked the perfect time for his masterpiece to take place. The revolutionary turmoil serves as a superb backdrop for all the characters' internal confusion, and when the two become linked closer to the end of the novel, it is immensely satisfying.

8. The Thernardiers. M. and Mme. Thernardier, who go by different aliases throughout the novel, are some of the most repulsive villains to ever be written. But they aren't the only ones I'm talking about. Their children, notably Eponine and Gavroche, live lives of hardship and tragedy, but push on and keep fighting until the end. I promise, if you haven't read this novel before, this family will elicit stronger emotions from the reader than you could ever imagine.

7. The French Atmosphere. The world all the magnificent characters inhabit is undeniably French in every way. The novel doesn't deny this at all, but instead uses it as a way to further enrich the story.

6. The Writing. As if all that weren't enough, Victor Hugo is one heck of a writer. When even the translations feel fluid and poetic, you know there is some fantastic talent present. I have been tempted to learn French just so I could read the novel in Hugo's own words.

5. Fantine. Perhaps the most tragic character the Greeks or Shakespeare didn't think up. Fantine is willing to give everything, go through anything, just to keep her daughter alive. Her selflessness in the face of insurmountable odds is inspiring, and her ability to weather through all the world throws at her will make your heart break.
4. Marius. Marius is the character most short-shrifted in any adaptation of Les Miserables I have ever seen. Everywhere else, he exists primarily as a love interest for Cosette, but in the actual novel he has a backstory, one that is rich and ties in with other plotlines and characters as well. Readers who have only known the musical will have a newfound respect for him before the book is halfway done.
3. Javert. It may seem strange to not list the characters as one point, but there is so much going on with each and every character that to group them all together would be a massive disservice. Take for example Javert, the prime antagonist of Les Miserables, the embodiment of the unjust law. Javert spends his whole life hunting after Valjean, and through this chase we discover his character is deeper than what he seems. He lives in constant inner turmoil, and Valjean brings into uncertainty everything he once thought was truth about human nature. His inability to reconcile the real world with his preconceptions provides for the driving force of later parts of the book.

2. The Raw Emotion. Another sign that this novel is indeed French is the sheer peaks and valleys the characters go through. Fantine's struggles, Valjean's sacrifices, Javert's epiphanies, Marius and Cosette's unrequited love, and the fierce passion of the barricade all hit the reader hard (or at least this reader). I found myself on multiple occasions reaching for a tissue when such an action seems unusual for me. It's all so stunning and beautiful, but at the same time like daggers to the heart. What more can I say? It's Les Miserables.

1. Jean Valjean. He is the focus of Les Miserables, the crux of the action, the reason the novel is the classic that it is. Released from jail on parole (he was there for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread), an encounter with a merciful bishop turns his life around. His goal is at first just to escape, but slowly he changes and wants to make a difference in the world. He strives to prove Javert wrong, that people can change, and he puts his life on the line time after time for other people when he has no reason to at all. His story is the entire point of Victor Hugo's novel, and it is an unforgettable one.

So there you have it. I don't have much more to say that wouldn't seem like mindless ramblings, although I could do those about the novel for hours. Now go read it. Enjoy it. I know you will.

My rating: 11/10. (I know, I know. It seems immature. So sue me.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chuck: Season 3

It's time for a new season of television to begin! That means it's time for me to stop being lazy and post some reviews for TV! I'll start with a show whose fourth season has its premiere tomorrow night: the imcomparable, unstoppable Chuck.

Chuck has survived being an on-the-bubble show for three seasons, and it's remained delightful the whole time. Season 3 was no change to the formula, while bringing major changes to the formula. How is this possible? Only in the nonsensical and addictive world of everybody's favorite Nerd Herder.

Chuck Bartowski has gotten an upgrade, downloading the Intersect 2.0 in his head in a last-ditch attempt to save his friends. It worked, and now he knows kung fu. The new Intersect allows Chuck to "flash" on skills as well as information. In other words, he can play the guitar on sight as part of a cover in a Mexican restaurant or perform feats of impressive acrobatic ability to retrieve a case for the CIA. But there are some problems with the new Chuck. Namely, the Intersect doesn't work when Chuck's emotions are in flux. And with Sarah around, that's a bit of a problem.

I know there was a lot of negative fan reaction to the series around Episodes 7 and 8, which slowed the romantic progression of a couple of characters down considerably. Looking back, it's not nearly as big a deal as the raving fanboys made it out to be, and the episodes are still fun on their own. Besides, this season had 2 finales (originally, Season 3 was given a 13-episode run, and by the time NBC extended it to 19, the 13th episode had been written), as well as the first major villain for Chuck to fight on his own. In addition to this, there are some great twists, and the finales aren't afraid to give the audiences some gut-punches.

One thing I liked about this season that I know a lot of people hated was the slightly darker tone. We're talking slightly here. There were still some hilarious gags, but the characters were dynamic enough that some of the darker moments of development hit hard. Personally, I'm glad that Chuck has changed a lot from where he started in Season 1, and while I doubt the darkness will be anywhere near as present in Season 4, I think this was a necessary step.

Now that that's said and done, here are my favorite episodes:

Chuck vs. First Class: Chuck goes on his first solo mission. On a plane to Paris, he finds out that his mission is sitting right next to him, in the form of Ring operative Stone Cold Steve Austin. Honestly, how do you top that? I'll tell you: fencing in the cargo hold of the plane.

Chuck vs. the Beard: Chuck's secret is getting a tad less secret, and when Ring operatives infiltrate Castle via the Buy More, Chuck is going to need some emotional help to flash. Also of note: the Buy More revolution is one of the best, most hilarious things I've ever seen on the show.

Chuck vs. the Other Guy: Chuck/Sarah shippers, your glorious moment has come! Seriously, though, the original Season 3 finale is full of great twists and character development, including a huge step in Chuck's character.

Chuck vs. the Honeymooners: Chuck and Sarah are thinking about quitting the spy life together on a train in Europe. However, they end up having to go behind each other's backs and then work together in a fantastically coreographed fight to solve one last case.

Chuck vs. the Subway: The first part of the 2-part finale is an earth-shattering one. Everything starts to fall apart. A recurring character is killed. Chuck goes to prison, and is in danger of losing his sanity. All in all, a great preparation for...

Chuck vs. the Ring, Part II: The finale. A bit of espionage work, a daring rescue, a massive twist, and a fight between two human Intersects with a Jeffster music video playing in the background. If this episode were a drink, it's be called Liquid Awesome.

So there you have it. I'll be tuning in tomorrow to see how this incredibly fun show continues for what could, unless ratings improve, be its final season. The antics of the lovable Nerd Herder may not always be new on TV, but they'll certainly be in my DVD collection, between LOST and Firefly, where I can relive the humor and action whenever I want.

My rating: 9.5/10

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dean Koontz

It's time to spotlight a gaping hole in my reading: I've never experienced a Dean Koontz book. Never. I love a good thriller, but I for some reason haven't gotten around to him. Well, that needed to change. I decided to read two books by him, back to back. The books were selected at random (probably not smart), and read quickly, as per the norm with thrillers. My two-book experiment consisted of Relentless and Velocity.
While these titles sound related, they really aren't. The first is about an author who is pursued to point of near-insanity by an inhuman reviewer (which seems like a chance for Koontz to make himself feel better). The second is about a bartender who keeps getting notes with deadly choices for him, along the lines of, "Who would you rather die?" See, two very different books. Now let's get specific.

Relentless: This one is the more recent (and worse written) of the two. Now, I haven't read nearly enough to call myself an expert on Koontz, but I'm going to assume the style is a bit different from his usual thrillers. In Relentless, Koontz strives to keep things more tongue-in-cheek. The overall effect, however, is jarring considering the situations the characters find themselves in. Half the time, he seems to want us to take things seriously, be concerned for it all, and the other half of the time, he seems to be laughing at himself. In this volume, I'm not sure which works better, because the story is far-fetched enough to warrant many a raised eyebrow.

There are also too many things that are just weird for the sake of being weird. The genius I'm-not-Charles-Wallace-from-A-Wrinkle-in-Time-I swear kid, who makes something bizarre...because Koontz wills it. Then there's the certifiably insane in-laws, who have an underground booby-trapped lair in case of Armageddon that they really enjoy spending time in. I think they're supposed to be endearing, but it comes off as forced.

And yet... at the same time, I couldn't stop reading. Koontz's writing was fluent enough that I was able to get through all the rough spots and still have a decent time. Decent enough that I tried something more up his alley.

My rating: 6.5/10

Velocity: Now there's why this guy is so popular. Interesting moral dilemmas, dangerous situations, tense moments, and a anil-biting roller coaster ride all around. The protagonist is more normal this time around (except for the violent and traumatic backstory, which seems so far to be a Koontz staple), and his descent into paranoia and the gray areas of morality are extremely compelling and vivid. I couldn't put the book down, and I didn't want to.

There is a negative, though. The end, where the true villain is revealed, seems to exist for the sole purpose of being unexpected. The motivation seems beyond forced, and I was glad when the scene ended.

But the ride getting there was intense and awesome. I'll definitely be reading Dean Koontz again, just maybe not the most recent Dean Koontz.

My rating: 9/10

Coming Soon: The Way of Kings and more backlog reviews.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Old Man's War

I've had a bit of a backlog of books to review for a while, so I thought that while I read The Way of Kings (which is fantastic so far, but I'm trying not to read it too fast, and it's really long), I'd get through some of them. The first of these showcases a negligible hole in my reading: Sci-Fi. I love the genre on film, as well as the pseudo-sci-fi movies like STAR WARS, but in book form, I've read hardly any of it. I've read most of Orson Scott Card's Ender and Bean books at some time or another, with the exceptions of the most recent volumes. I've read some Asimov. A fair bit of Bradbury. A smidgen of Peter F. Hamilton, but not enough to formulate my opinions on the author. And that's it, for my entire life.

I've heard for years about the famous/infamous John Scalzi, especially in regards to his Whatever blog. However, one thing wasn't really disputed: he was a good writer. So I decided to pick up a copy of his debut, and dive in, after going years without reading a full sci-fi book.

It was awesome.

Old Man's War tells the story of John Perry, a 75-year-old man who, since his wife is dead, takes the most sensible course of action. He joins the army. Don't worry, this is centuries into the future, and this is how all wars are fought. The soldiers are given new bodies, shipped out to planets to win them over for human inhabitants, and never look back. By never look back, I mean there's a contract saying they'll never return to Earth. Which maks sense, bacause Perry's new body is green.

This book is full of fun touches and interesting details that serve to remind me that sci-fi needs worldbuilding, too. The characters, first person narrator John Perry especially, are dynamic and compelling from the start. I know it's been said before, but this is the closest thing I can think of to Stephen King writing in this genre. It's all about the characters, and the conversational style of the prose makes the pages fly. The book isn't too long either, unlike some Orson Scott Card books became (I'm looking at you, Xenocide!).

There are a number of scenes that stick in your head long after the reading. John first getting his new body, recognizing a member of the Ghost Brigades, and fighting an extremely aggressive yet tiny species of alien come to mind instantly. I cannot recommend it enough, even if sci-fi isn't your thing. You'll have fun, and the book won't take too long to read.

After getting through it, I can say with some certainty that I'll return to the genre soon. I'll definitely return to John Scalzi soon. A great, fun ride.

My rating: 9/10

Coming Soon: The Way of Kings and more backlog books!

Thursday, August 26, 2010


I'm writing this after taking only a few minutes to collect my thoughts on what is probably the biggest YA release of the past few years. Mockingjay brings to a close the events Suzanne Collins began in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. By the way, before I launch in to review this book, which will undoubtedly be absurdly polarizing for its fans (how many times have I used that word this month?), I'd like to point out that there will be spoilers for the first couple of books. Unavoidable, I'm afraid, but you should really have read them by now. Go ahead. They're quick reads. You can finish the whole trilogy in a week without a problem.

Here we go.

Katniss Everdeen has survived the Hunger Games, not once, but twice, and is being torn every which way. She is in the mysterious District 13, the face of a full-scale revolution going on all across Panem. But it's not that simple. Can she really trust District 13? Can she trust Gale? Can she trust anyone?

That's all I'm willing to say, because what makes this novel so great is that it is full of twists. Suzanne Collins has deftly woven the plot to make it look like the entire trilogy was heading a certain direction, then masterfully switched its course. The Hunger Games, and their close-up violence is gone, replaced with a solid, moving war novel. A warning: this series veers more towards the "Adult" side of the YA market, and it goes some dark places that will rattle even older readers. Older meaning adults.

This isn't a perfect, polished story, but that's not what Collins wanted to write. Instead, she has given us a true war novel, delving into the psychological aspects of warfare and not being afraid to showcase some of the innocent lives lost on the sidelines. This is a book full of political manipulation, gray areas, and tough choices. (Speaking of choices, there is a certain one all the female readers are clamoring for. Don't worry, it gets answered, in perhaps the only way that it could.)

Because this isn't a perfect story, it isn't about tying up all the loose ends with a pretty bow. Actions have consequences, and war has repercussions. Anyone who's read Collins's excellent Underland Chronicles (starting with Gregor the Overlander) will know this is one of the themes she stresses. I'm pleased to say she handles it even better here than she did there, providing a truly strong conclusion.

There are a lot of people out there who will hate the ending. And I understand where they're coming from. Certainly it's not what any of us expected. But it's true to the characters and the spirit of the previous two volumes, as well as the confused narrator of Katniss, whose voice Collins absolutely nails. This story has a bite to it, yes, but it provides a bittersweet end to what will surely be remembered as a highlight of YA fiction.

My rating: 10/10

Coming Soon: More stuff. Eventually, after it comes out, The Way of Kings. But it doesn't come out till the 31st, so there might be something else in between.