Sunday, June 14, 2015

#27 [2015/CBR7] "Last Sacrifice" by Richelle Mead

I've finally finished the six-book Vampire Academy series with Last Sacrifice (2010) by Richelle Mead! And with the conclusion, I've found a little closure, some satisfaction, and some annoyance. Much like the other books in this series, Last Sacrifice was a fun and fast read with plenty of adventure and romance. If you have any interest, stop reading this review and get reading with the first book. As for me, I thought I'd be done with this last one, but Mead has a whole new "Bloodlines" series that apparently continues this story from a different perspective. I know there are so many other books I should be reading, but I think I might have to keep going.

This last book finds Rose in jail, wrongly accused of the murder of Queen Tatiana. Things aren't looking up for Rose when it appears she's going to be rushed through a trial and conviction. Her friends make a daring prison break to get her out, and Rose is suddenly on a road trip with Sydney (the alchemist featuring in the next series) and her true love, Dimitri (even though Rose is ridiculously obtuse about realizing this).

Rose, Dimitri, and Sydney try to stay safe on the run while her friends attempt to figure out the mystery of who really killed the queen. All of that close contact with Dimitri inevitably ramps up the sexual tension, but Rose has decided that she's moved on and is dating Adrian. The main point of this story is the romance between Rose and Dimitri. The mystery is just there to keep them busy while they find their way to each other, and it serves that purpose adequately.

My main problem with this book is the unnecessary love triangle with Rose, Dimitri, and Adrian. It felt ridiculously unbelievable. I was willing to buy into this impossible love story between Rose and Dimitri: that they were practically perfect partners and soul mates. It was even romantic enough that I could turn a blind eye to the creepy age difference/instructor business. Rose dropped out of school and ran to Russia for Dimitri; she broke into prison--risking both her future and her friends' future; she is obsessed with him. I could see her possibly hooking up with Adrian out of despair when Dimitri turns away from her after he comes back, but that's it. Rose continuing to believe that Adrian is her boyfriend while she's gallivanting about the country with Dimitri doesn't even make sense, and it cheapens the real love that is supposed to exist between the two. If Dimitri is just a fling and Rose is too immature to realize that she doesn't really like Adrian, then she should not be hooking up with a teacher. There could have been just as much tension, and more believable drama, if Rose and Dimitri got to know each other and started trusting each other again on the road trip. Adrian did not need to be a part of it.

I did appreciate that Mead showed how upset Adrian was when he found out Rose was cheating on him--even though I found it hard to forgive Rose. It was one of the few times that Mead actually showed the repercussions of some of Rose's actions. She's constantly dragging her friends down into these schemes and everything seems to work out. In the real world, if you break out of prison, blow up walls, and beat up a bunch of guardians, you will answer for it, whether you were innocent of the original charge or not. But even with these problems, I'm kind of hooked into this world. I need a break, but I imagine I will find myself getting back into it eventually.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

#26 [2015/CBR7] "The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide" by Andrew Skurka

The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide (2012) by Andrew Skurka is another lightweight backpacking book I picked up when I latched on to my latest obsession. I didn't know this at the time, but Andrew Skurka is somewhat famous in the backpacking world for the incredibly long and ambitious backpacking trips he's undertaken, including over 4,000 miles in Alaska. He has an incredible store of personal knowledge of backpacking gear and what works best in what circumstances and he's put it all together in this book.

When Skurka wanders into the backcountry, his focus is hiking, traveling long distances and seeing the world. For that reason, he is/was an innovator for ultralight backpacking. The less weight you carry, the farther you can travel more comfortably. He makes a distinction between "stupid light" and "stupid heavy." Carrying so little that you are uncomfortable or put yourself in danger is "stupid light," while carrying the empty weight of unnecessary or useless objects is "stupid heavy."

This book is exactly what it promises, a sometimes dry--but always useful--book with plentiful technical advice for backpacking gear necessary in various climates and temperatures. Skurka has the experience to personally know how different fabrics and equipment work, and what will leave you wet and uncomfortable in the middle of the woods. He takes the time to list the benefits and detriments of different choices, leaving his personal recommendations to the end of each section.

I read this book straight through and learned more about what I'm looking for as I gear up for my own trips. I was sometimes frustrated by the price and specialization of each piece of equipment. There is some amazing stuff out there, but, my god, it's expensive. And what works for the wet East Coast does not work for the dry West. Every once in a while there are some cheap do-it-yourself tricks--like Skurka's cat food can alcohol stove (see Youtube), but those are few and far between. For the most part, you get what you pay for.

Although this book was informative, my favorite parts were when Skurka briefly described his personal experiences while backpacking. He's been so many places and he must have some amazing stories. I wouldn't have minded a little more story and a little less shop talk. I'm hoping that will be the focus of his next book.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

#25 [2015/CBR7] "The Girl With All the Gifts" by M.R. Carey

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her "our little genius."

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.

I can't remember what first led me to The Girl With All the Gifts (2014) by M.R. Carey, but the above blurb sucked me in, and I like to get out of my reading comfort zone every now and again with some less-read genres. Horror is something I usually avoid, so this was a good book for me.

What I didn't realize going in, is that this is a zombie book. The world is desperately fighting between the "hungries" and the uninfected in England. The story begins from Melanie's point of view, a little girl, and a very unique hungry. She is smart and curious and loves her teacher, Miss Justineau, more than anyone. The cast is rounded out with a battle-hardened Sergeant Parks, a results-oriented Doctor Caroline Caldwell, and the young, untested soldier.

The story moves in unexpected directions, staying suspenseful throughout. All of the main characters are three-dimensional and flawed. I could understand their motivations, and even though they were technically all on the same team, their conflicting goals kept tensions high and the story fascinating. This book was violent, unique, and disturbing but worth the read.

***SPOILERS***
The ethics of Dr. Caldwell using and torturing smart, hungry children to learn more and potentially find a cure for what's going on was fascinating and disturbing. Dr. Caldwell is heartless, almost to the point of crazy, but what if she were able to save thousands and millions of lives? What price is that worth? And how do we determine the value of lives that we deem less than human, whether they can feel pain or not?

The ending was also not what I expected and horrific in it's own way. On the one hand, Melanie turned out to be much worse than the humans feared, personally causing the end of the human race--a true horror. On the other hand, Melanie is smart and pragmatic. It was probably going to happen anyway. She was acting perfectly rationally from her perspective. Is it bad that the world is evolving? Only to those being left behind. And Miss Justineau will survive for the time being, but even as open-minded as she was in the classroom, this is not a world she wanted.

The only parts of the book that bothered me were when I felt that Carey had his characters do something beyond stupid in order to further the plot. I felt this the most strongly when Miss Justineau shot off the flare because she was worried about Melanie. Sure, it worked out all right in the end, but with the information she knew, some semblance of self preservation should have prevented her from doing it.

#24 [2015/CBR7] "Ultralight Backpackin' Tips" by Mike Clelland!

When I was a kid, my father would take me and by brothers backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park. I both loved and hated these trips. I was afraid of animals in the dark, could never sleep, and was always eager to get back to the comfort of electricity and showers. On the other hand, those trips were more than twenty years ago and I still remember them clearly. The self-sufficiency and adventure of backpacking is addicting, and I know our small trips formed my childhood in ways I still don't understand, probably making me tougher and more independent.

I have camped and even backpacked a couple of times since then, but never really on my own initiative. I was always lacking the right gear or the necessary time off, and I let it slip away. It really is so much easier to just stay at home. But I've always loved being out in the woods, and when I recently watched the movie Wild with Reese Witherspoon the urge to get out again hit me. I'd already read Cheryl Strayed's book, but it was the visuals from the movie that got me going. The idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, tackling such a huge distance and the commitment it would take is entrancing, but not remotely feasible if I want to keep my job. However, there are a number of smaller thru-hikes around the country that might be possible, and I want to take advantage of this time when I am healthy enough to do things like this.

And the more I looked into it, the more I learned about ultra-light backpacking. Instead of suffering through the torments on my shoulders, knees, and feet of a 50-60 pound backpack for miles on end, I could still hike and camp comfortably with a 20-25 pound pack. Suddenly the idea of really doing long treks seemed not only feasible but fun. I also need to have a goal: hiking through Colorado is much more interesting to me than wandering to the woods, being uncomfortable, and wandering back out again. I also like the idea of simplifying what you need down to the essentials. It's not necessary to have all the comforts you would normally have at home.

There are many blogs and youtube posts dedicated to the art of ultralight backpacking and in the midst of my searching, I found Ultralight Backpackin' Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping by Mike Clelland! [exclamation point included]. The title pretty much sums up what you're going to get. This book is short, helpful, and gets you into the right mindset for heading into ultralight territory. Although every once in a while, I detected an unnecessary "holier than thou" attitude towards traditional backpackers, the majority of the book was fun and informative. Comics scattered throughout also added some visual entertainment.

Most of Clelland's advice was practical and well-received by me. At times he seemed to get a little more hard-core than I am currently willing to go. For instance, he mentions doing crunches at night to stay warm, which is fine if you have to do it. But if I get that cold at night, I have planned very badly. Also, I need to be comfortable at night, so a full-length sleeping pad is important. A tiny, torso pad and your backpack under you legs does not sound remotely comfortable. On the other hand, advice on cat food stoves--the lightest and cheapest stove you can imagine--and using your gear for multiple purposes was right up my alley.

After looking at some of the reviews on Amazon, it seemed that Clelland's advice to save weight and take a razor blade for cutting rather than a knife was his most controversial piece of wisdom. Amazon reviewers are very attached to their knives, but I had no problem with it. I've used cutting tools to shape moleskin, but that's about it. If something goes really wrong, I will be hiking out. I'm not going to be killing and skinning animals or cutting off my own limbs (I will tell people where I am going to hopefully avoid that kind of situation).

Since reading this book I've been spending a lot of money and buying a lot of gear to get ready for a summer of backpacking. This summer will be a trial of sorts to see if I want to dedicate my vacation time for some of the longer treks next year. More backpacking book reviews will be forthcoming.

Friday, May 29, 2015

#23 [2015/CBR7] "The Maze Runner" by James Dashner

The Maze Runner (2010) by James Dashner sounded kind of interesting at first. Mysterious mazes and unexplained girls showing up--both curious and exciting. But then I read a couple of reviews and decided it wasn't worth reading. That decision held until my book club picked The Maze Runner for our next book. I could have easily skipped the reading. We usually spend more time catching up than talking about the book anyway, but my conscience wouldn't let me slack off.

I should preface this review with the fact that I came into it with a bad attitude. I'd already heard it wasn't a good book and was only reading it because I was being forced into it. For what it's worth, most members of my book club liked it. I think the mystery and excitement distracted them from the writing, although one of my friends said it was much worse when she went back to read it a second time.

Spoilers ahead--just in case. So, Thomas wakes up in an elevator that takes him up to a mysterious glade with about fifty teenage boys. He remembers almost nothing about his life before the maze. The boys are surrounded by huge walls that open during the day, leading out into a giant maze. Thomas quickly becomes acquainted with the run of the place. The boys are sent supplies once a week, a new boy is sent every month, the weather is always perfect, and the boys have split up into different work groups, including: farming, slaughtering, building, etc. to keep up their survival. One of these groups is called Runners. The runners go out into the maze every day to record changes in it and try to find a way out.

The boys' lives in this maze world has been pretty predictable for the last two years, but after Thomas arrives, things begin to change. The next day a girl arrives! And then she promptly faints and falls into a coma. But then the supplies stop coming and the sun turns off. When the walls don't close and the monsters in the maze start coming in the night to take and kill one boy per night, the urgency to find a way out increases.

I had a number of problems with this book, but my main issues boil down to the lack of characters' development or motivation, and the lack of--or confusing--world building. We don't know anything about Thomas except that he is very smart, the loss of his memory is weird, and almost all of his actions are either motivated by nothing or weird thoughts pushing him in that direction. He feels like he should be a runner because it feels familiar. He thinks he should tell the others what he knows, but he doesn't.

It might have been interesting to see how 25 boys thrown into such an odd situation manage to turn their world into such an orderly and productive place (which I thought was kind of unrealistic). But we never see how this maze society was built, It felt lazy to not give the readers some background or explanation.

In addition, Theresa's character and her relationship to Thomas have no substance. She shows up, mumbles some words and faints. Thomas likes her because she's beautiful, she seems familiar, and they can talk to each other psychically. They don't get to know each other, they are simply immediately attached.

Finally, this book makes no sense. I have not, and will not be reading the rest of the books in this series. It is possible some of my questions are resolved in later books, but we did touch on the later books in book club, and it didn't shed any light on what the hell was going on. Where exactly is this miles-long maze? Thomas rode up in an elevator for a half hour before coming out. Someone has control of the climate and the entire sky. Was a maze at least 25 miles in diameter built in the sky? Is the rest of the world living underground? The monsters in the maze made no sense to me, part rolling slug, and part metal arms with needles and saws. They can climb walls but apparently can't climb the walls that would get them into the glade at night. What is the point of the grievers and the "antidote" besides the vague "it was part of the test?" Apparently this incredible "experiment" was done to test the boys and see how their brains were different. Isn't there an easier way to test brains than to build this whole, ridiculous thing?

#22 [2015/CBR7] "Spirit Bound" by Richelle Mead (Vampire Academy, Book 5)

I accidentally fell into the Vampire Academy series when I saw a review and thought it looked fun, and here I am with Spirit Bound (2010), the fifth book in the series by Richelle Mead that revolves around teenage vampires. These books are sometimes fun, sometimes exciting, and sometimes a little irritating, but I obviously like them enough to push through the series. Spirit Bound was no different, but I would advise starting at the beginning if you have any interest. It wouldn't make any sense to read this review now unless you're familiar with the earlier books. (Spoilers ahead)

The drama between Rose and Dmitri heats up quickly again in Book 5 with threatening love letters from Rose's disgruntled and homicidal--only because he was turned evil--ex. Rose heads off to the wilds of Alaska and vampire prison with her gullible friends to let a criminal loose in order to maybe get some information to save her beloved boyfriend. However, when they get their criminal conquest to Vegas, they are attacked by Dmitri and his gang. After a blood bath with many human casualties, they head back to Court in shame.

But Lissa and Christian are later kidnapped by Dmitri. In the ensuing, chaotic rescue effort, Lissa and Christian are able to work together to turn Dmitri from the evil Strigoi he was back to a guilt-ridden dhampir. Dmitri refuses to talk to Rose because he feels so awful for what he's done, and Rose uses Adrian (again) after Dmitri's rejection. But when the queen is found murdered by Rose's stake, she is arrested and threatened with a death sentence. Dmitri's protective side comes out, and we are left with only the promise of the sixth and final book to somehow save Rose from the [in]justice of the courts, get some couples happily together and tie up the rest of the loose ends.

There were a couple of things about this book that I found irritating, mostly surrounding Rose's actions. On the whole, she is a very fun character: brave, strong, foolhardy, and talented. She can kick some Strigoi ass and doesn't worry about being proper. In many ways, she is incredibly refreshing. But she does have a habit of taking advantage of guys who like her and using them for her own purposes. She did this in the earlier books with Mason, who was subsequently killed, and she continues to do this with Adrian. "Don't worry, Adrian. I've run away from school and risked my life in Russia for the love of my life. And now I'm breaking out a horrible criminal from prison who tortured my best friend--all for the slight possibility of gaining information that will help bring my boyfriend back. But, y'know, if he comes back, I'm sure it won't change anything between us." Sure, Rose is a teenager and she's impulsive but that kind of willful ignorance is ridiculous. All it did was convince me that she was too immature, after all, to be with Dmitri. Also, Dmitri's wildly swinging drama between rejecting Rose and acting crazy protective felt a little overdone.

Finally (and I think this may already be obvious), I had a hard time with Rose's plan to break Victor Dashkov out of prison. It's one thing to run off to Russia to fulfill a promise to your recently-turned-evil boyfriend. It is quite another to fight against her own side to let a decidedly evil man out of prison. If she or her friends were caught, they could have been thrown in jail for the rest of their lives, yet she drags them down with her without even giving some of them a choice. And what about that poor guardian at the jail they used  compulsion on to make him help them? Now he's getting blamed for the entire thing, and Rose and Adrian are encouraging it so she doesn't get into trouble. Sure, Dmitri's life matters more to Rose than all these other people, but to use them like that for her own selfish purposes is inexcusable.

So, if you can gloss over that stuff, the rest of the book was pretty fun and I'm looking forward to the next one.

#21 [2015/CBR7] "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Once again, I find myself having to catch up with the rest of the universe, finally picking up Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel after its been reviewed, discussed and bookclubed by the Cannonball crew more times than I can remember. I guess it's not surprising that I first heard of Station Eleven on Cannonball. And despite some doubts and disinterest when I initially heard it was a dystopian story about a traveling Shakespeare Company, which sounded weird, it was the positive Cannonball reviews that convinced me to read it.

Because I read this one quite awhile ago and am having problems summing up this book in a couple of sentences, I will rely on Amazon:
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end. 

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

When I finished this book, I was tempted to go back and search out the reviews and discussions I had missed in order to get a better idea of what I had just read. But I resisted because I wanted to digest this novel on my own before having someone explain it to me. Minor spoilers follow for the two of you who haven't read Station Eleven yet.

Station Eleven was very well written and very interesting to read. The characters were real, sympathetic, and relatable. Despite the plethora of dystopian literature falling off bookshelves these days, Station Eleven is original and much more complex than a simple disaster book. It feels like a book where the relationships are more important than the survival aspect, which is unusual. Also, St. John Mandel has a remarkable understanding of  the pre-epidemic world and the nuances and influences that push it.

However, when I finished, I was a surprised that there was not more cohesion between the various characters. I assumed these disparate story lines would come together, the characters would meet, and they would understand their connection. This is not a complaint. Not tying everything up into a tidy bow is  more realistic. It was simply unexpected and made me think more about what I had just read.

The most memorable relationship in this story for me was between Arthur and his second wife, Miranda. Miranda's relationship with her artist boyfriend, subsequent marriage to Arthur and her discomfort of Hollywood, followed by her devastating divorce felt very real.. Arthur obviously loves her but acts callously human at the same time. Yet, what does Arthur and Miranda have to do with the epidemic? Sure, all of the other characters are tied in to Arthur in some way, but both Miranda and Arthur are dead by the time the fight for survival really begins. Arthur is perhaps one of the last humans to be untouched by the plague, to leave the world in blissful ignorance of what was coming. Perhaps Mandel was using him as a tool to highlight the differences between pre- and post-epidemic worlds.

Although I've read way too many dystopian novels these days, and they just keep coming, I really enjoyed Station Eleven. Thoughtful and well written, I can see why it's been so popular. "Survival is insufficient."