Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review - Allison Hewitt is Trapped, by Madeleine Roux

A woman fighting zombies with an axe in a bookstore? How could I not be curious after just looking at the cover? I saw this one getting decidedly mixed reviews, but honestly, I found it to have nearly everything I was looking for in a zombie apocalypse book. Granted, there are a few things that I think could have been done better, but generally speaking, I had a great time reading this.

The title aptly describes the framework and entry point of the book: Allison Hewitt, a literature major and bookstore employee, finds herself locked in her place of employment after the zombie apocalypse spills across her town. Against all odds, she manages to find a wireless Internet connection near the bookstore, through some kind of emergency network called SNet. Allison begins to record the daily horrors of her new existence, initially as a way of staying sane and embracing something that seems normal. Eventually, however, the detached snark of her entries evolves into something else, as she moves to increasingly tenuous sanctuaries and her circumstances grow more desperate. Meanwhile, a community of survivors grows out of the blog's comment threads. Her new, faceless audience provides solace, warning, and advice as she decides to risk everything and strike out on her own to find her mother.

The story progresses exactly as one would expect, and though it contains plenty of familiar tropes, it feels distinctly like homage rather than retread. The secondary characters are just fleshed out enough to avoid being cardboard cutouts, but honestly, Allison has such a strong voice that I was largely fine with focusing mainly on her. The current example of a contiguous ensemble piece in the zombie genre is The Walking Dead comic, and that has rapidly devolved into a histrionic melodrama; comparatively speaking, I find the focus on one character to be refreshing. Her constant sarcasm does threaten to get in the way of the dialogue and action from time to time, especially when Roux puts especially elaborate one-liners in her mouth. However, it’s a fair price to pay for the creepy sense of whistling in the dark that it provides. Naturally, there’s plenty of wading through zombie gore and battling past sinister human survivors, and the book never gets boring, despite the various claustrophobic settings in which Allison finds herself trapped.

I do think that the book’s gimmick falls a little flat, or at least falls short of what it could have been. Telling the story of the zombie plague through a blog is a really neat idea, even with the vague and unrealistic setup it gets here. The comments, especially, are an intriguing way to move the story along. While Roux does some interesting things with this in the beginning, it eventually tapers off in favor of long-winded posts that look suspiciously like book chapters, with a few repetitive “good to see you’re still alive” comments tacked on. It doesn’t feel like Roux fully commits to the idea of this story being a blog. Between the weird present-tense delivery and the gradual inclusion of very specific narrative detail, the posts just don’t seem like posts. Nobody writes a blog like that, even if they have nothing else to do. There are a few instances of awkward writing that I choose to attribute to Allison instead of the author, but I wanted more consistent dedication to the format.

That particular failure to suspend my disbelief didn’t take away from my enjoyment, though. Terror, humor, violence, and romance are deftly mixed, and I found it genuinely hard to put down. Though this book isn’t particularly elegant, it’s still going up on my zombie pantheon shelf alongside Max Brooks.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Book Review - Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko

This one has been on my radar for a while, but I was expecting something completely different from it. By all appearances, it seemed to be a humorous period piece aimed at younger teens, with a smart-aleck protagonist and a hilariously absurd premise. The book had a lot of this in the background, but most of it was ancillary to the main story, which was a surprisingly sweet testament of a boy’s love for his sister.

Moose Flanagan is not impressed with his family’s recent move to the infamous island of Alcatraz. He misses his friends back home in Santa Monica, and is resentful of all the time his father spends at his new prison guard job. Most of all, he’s skeptical of the reason for the move: a chance to enroll his developmentally disabled older sister, Natalie, in a prestigious San Francisco school, the latest in a long string of attempts by his desperate mother to get Natalie the help she needs. When things don’t go as planned, it falls on Moose to safeguard his sister, while simultaneously trying to find his place in the odd community of prison staff, their families, and the mysterious convicts in the cell house.

The book is fairly quick read, and while a lot of attention is paid to details of 1930s Alcatraz, the story centers on the daily life of the Flanagan kids and their new friends, both on and off the island. Moose tries to make friends and settle in, but is hampered both by the politics of life at Alcatraz and by the need to watch and protect Natalie. Meanwhile, Natalie is imprisoned within herself by autism, in a time when nobody knows what autism is. As she rapidly approaches the age where the world will give up on helping her, she struggles to be what her family needs her to be: normal. The frustration, selflessness, and affection between Moose and Natalie shines throughout the story. The book ends on a somewhat abrupt note, but the last third as a whole is perfectly written; despite the Flanagans’ efforts to keep up appearances, their struggle not only touches the families around them, but the cons locked up next door. Including the most famous of them.

The story meanders a bit, but it’s never boring. Choldenko has a knack for stringing small, daily vignettes together to create a subtly adept, ground-level character study. The book is rather short, and some of the supporting characters feel undeveloped enough to be somewhat interchangeable. Besides that little issue, though, this is a solid, touching story that has the added bonuses of period Alcatraz authenticity and a frank depiction of dealing with autism. It’s a great option for middle-grade and teen readers.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Friday, April 6, 2012

Graphic Novel Review - Mass Effect: Redemption, by Mac Walters and Omar Francia

First and foremost, for those who feel like making a glib remark about Mass Effect 3: I haven’t reached the end yet, and have no intention of joining your gibbering horde of self-involved diaper babies should I end up being disappointed with it. So, shut up.

Okay. Now, I’m a big fan of Bioware’s games, but after being thoroughly underwhelmed by David Gaider’s debut novelization of the Dragon Age universe, I’ve largely gone back to my tried and true philosophy of avoiding game tie-ins. I’ve heard good things about the Mass Effect novels, though. Though skittish about trying this stuff again, I figured that this graphic novel would be a safe bet. I liked it for what it was (a brief aside for existing fans of the games), but I’m hard pressed to find anything else about it to compliment.

The story follows Dr. Liara T’Soni in the aftermath of the Normandy SR2’s destruction at the hands of the Collectors. Desperate to find what has become of Commander Shepard, she journeys to the outpost of Omega and falls in with a shady Drell named Feron, whose allegiance seem to shift on the hour. Caught in the middle of a standoff between the elusive Shadow Broker, the human-supremacist organization Cerberus, and the sinister Collectors, Liara struggles to save Shepard’s body from the murky schemes that have risen up around it.

This series of comics promises to tell the story hinted at by Liara in Mass Effect 2, and, well, it does that. That, and not much else. Liara meets Feron, throws around a lot of biotic bodyslams, and plucks Shepard from the clutches of the Collectors. To wit, she did everything she said she did in the few lines of dialogue on the subject from the game. I mean, that’s not really a bad thing; I wanted that story, and I got it. I was just hoping there was a little bit more to it than that.

There is definitely some extra material in the suddenly sexed-up rendition of Liara, however. I feel like I shouldn’t complain, since Liara has been my Shepard’s nerdy blue girlfriend since the first game. However, Francia's art contorts Liara into a centerfold pose at every... literally, every... opportunity. Apparently, arching your back, thrusting your chest out, tilting your hips backward, spreading your legs, and looking over one shoulder is the natural and comfortable position one would take when recovering from a fall. Or being held by the arm. Or sitting in a chair. Or watching your ship being blown up. Or, you know, whenever. I understand that female characters being drawn for the male gaze is a pervasive issue in comics, and I realize that these panels aren’t any more gratuitous than, say, the cornucopia of Miranda ass close-ups in the games. But Liara isn’t really supposed to be a sexpot, at least in my interpretation of her character. Combined with the erratic behavior that I guess is meant to indicate her transition to the more streetwise Liara of the second game, this version of the character just didn’t feel true.

If you take this one at face value, though, you’ll enjoy it. It’s not a shining example of the artform, and it’s not going to have much appeal for those who aren’t already fans. But it’s a quick and diverting read, and a nice collectible for those who love the series.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review - Memories of the Future Vol. 1, by Wil Wheaton

I’ve been following Wil Wheaton for quite some time, mostly by happenstance. I stumbled upon his blog back around 2001 or so, led there by my long-standing fondness of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and ended up being a fairly active participant on the message boards he maintained at the time. Since then, I’ve enjoyed watching him on his ascendant path to nerd spokesman, but for some reason have never gotten around to reading any of his books until now. While this one is a little rough around the edges in a few places, it delivers a perfect mix of snark and nostalgia.

The book is a collection of short reviews that Wil originally published online with AOL TV Squad. The reviews cover the first thirteen episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s uneven first season, and Wil apparently subjected himself to extensive rewatches while writing them in order to refresh his memory. If you own the series on DVD or have access to Netflix streaming, I highly suggest you do what I did: follow his example and watch each episode before reading its review. It definitely heightens the experience.

The first season of TNG has its high points, but it often swings between unintentionally hilarious and plain awful. Honestly, it’s hard to take seriously the vision of the future presented by the hair and makeup stylists of the late 1980s (I sensing something, Captain. Aqua Net. Aqua Net and... and rouge. So... much... rouge!) Wil calls out the inherent silliness of these early episodes from the perspective of someone who worked behind the scenes, enriching the hilarity with trivia and personal recollections. Best of all, he does it with a palpable fondness, contrasting the ridiculous bits with the truly good ones, and taking plenty of time to give credit to his wonderful costars as they navigated through a show with questionable writing but enormous potential.

The only problem I have with the book comes from the format it was initially presented in, I think. Wil initially wrote each review as a humorous online column. Thus, he packs a lot of one-liners into each chapter, and flavors them with plenty of inside baseball from Star Trek and general nerd culture. Being a Star Trek nerd, I appreciated most of these asides, but there was a groaner every now and then. It was never enough to detract from my enjoyment of the book, but a few paragraphs skirted the line of reaching just a bit too much for a joke.

Minor quibble, easily forgotten. Honestly, this is a great book for anybody who has ever watched the series, and a perfect companion piece for watching it again. It’s also worth looking at for anybody who has a general interest in science fiction, since it offers an acerbic and often hilarious look at a seminal science-fiction franchise.

Verdict: 4 / 5