Sunday, March 9, 2014
If you like: Blue Balls * monsters * Mommy
In Nocturnal, a strange series of murders leads police inspectors Bryan Clauser and Pookie Chang to make unexpected discoveries about the world they live in. Initially, it appears there is a cover-up reaching through all levels of the police force. As the investigation goes on, they learn that there is a much darker explanation. Along the way, Bryan makes some unexpected discoveries about his own life, and must let go of everything he believes about himself and his life in order to move forward.
Nocturnal explores the mysteries of science and society. The monsters are a secret race from a parallel evolutionary branch. Many appear to be normal humans, but have extraordinary abilities. Others have a different genetic fate, and pay the price for their superiors skills with physical and mental deformities, or inhuman physical characteristics. It is unclear whether it is an essential development to their survival or an inherent part of their nature, but all of the monsters hold an innate preference toward violence and killing. They work to confirm that trait in their traditions and interactions -- teaching children to hunt ruthlessly from a very young age. Though they are a powerful group, they are greatly outnumbered by the general population, and live in secret to avoid being put to extinction. There are some members of society that are aware they exist. These people have worked to keep the monsters a secret. Not because they wish to protect them, but instead because they wish to protect innocent people who might be accused of carrying the mysterious new biology and murdered along with the vicious hunters they are suspected of being related to. This secret group despises these creatures, but must also protect them in order to maintain their agenda of public normalcy.
In Nocturnal, the real monsters are not just those who live underground. Some of the biological monsters are completely unaware that they could live without harming others. They have never had the chance to try to live a normal life, and so they behave in monstrous ways became they do not know there are other ways to live. There are, however, many human monsters. Abusive parents, school bullies, and corrupt police are all humans who commit monstrous acts. On the other hand, there are monsters who occasionally do the right thing. Savior shares the biology of the monsters, but acts against them instead of with them. Those who live in the area between are the most difficult to assign to one group or another. Amy Zou, the Chief of Police, often believes she is doing what is for the best, but is more than willing to compromise traditional morality to do so. In the past, she believed in black and white, in good and evil. Now she knows the lines are not so clear cut, and walking the path between them puts her in a compromised position. She has learned that doing what is right does not always have the best results, and sometimes the wrong thing protects the most people. For the monsters, who have a biological imperative to murder and kill, there is a still an element of choice. Bryan and Savior both choose to be something different. They could easily be ruthless monsters and terrorize everyone, but instead choose to hunt their brothers and sisters. This is the difference between good and evil, monsters and heroes. It would be easy to give in to nature and expectations. Fighting who you are and who you could become to work toward the greater good is what makes a hero.
If can’t resist an appealing smell, read Nocturnal.
Sigler, Scott. Nocturnal: A Novel. Crown Publishing Group, 2012. Kindle Edition.
Friday, February 28, 2014
If you like: PTSD * falling in love * quarries
In The Impossible Knife of Memory, Hayley is adjusting to life in high school after years on the road with her dad, Andy. They have lived a nomadic life, running from the pain of the past. He is an injured veteran, and a widower. She has learned that there is nothing more important to her than helping her dad to make it through each day. Together they have survived, but they have also begin to reflect each other. Their bond is close, but seeing each other in constant pain is hard for both of them. Hayley’s friend Gracie introduces her to Finn, and she reluctantly begins to fall in love with him. Adding another person into her world is a complicated process, but an irresistible one, too.
Hayley is a teen in remarkably difficult circumstances. At a time that is significantly difficult for any kid — applying to colleges, trying to find yourself, trying to fit in with classmates — she is facing the task of learning how to adjust to a traditional schooling environment, and being away from a father who she has been inseparable from for years. The pressure of taking care of her father has shaped Hayley in dramatic ways. Not only does she feel largely responsible for anticipating everything that might come his way, but she also won’t let anyone get close enough to help them. Being raised by a man who has suffered greatly is not easy, and she inherits some of his symptoms without realizing it. Though looking for threats and assessing the safety of a situation is important, she is unable to enter into normal interactions without constantly being on alert for threats, and being overwhelmed by too many stimuli. Though they don’t always make things easy for each other, the love between Hayley and Andy is what carries them both through each day. It is rarely easy, but that makes them fight all the harder to get through for each other. From the outside, it could look like Hayley is using her father as an excuse to remain apart from her school and the people in it. In reality, the perceived normalcy of their day-to-day lives is painful for her. Taking care of her dad is one way of coping with being different, and is a thread of consistency in a life that is constantly changing.
The Impossible Knife of Memory faces the pains of PTSD unblinkingly. The mental anguish of war is so hard to understand. For those of us who haven’t experienced it, it impossible to understand what a person has been through. The best of intentions can lead to harm. The sharp edge can slice up a person, rather than cut their bonds. The Impossible Knife illustrates that all the love in the world is not enough to pull a person through on its own, but it is the strongest tether for a person to hold onto. The internal battlefield of a person’s past can only be navigated by their own mental map. This doesn’t mean that they can’t call out for someone to walk the path with them. Hayley and Finn have both walked their paths alone for a long time. Though it is hard, it is what they know, and the idea of sharing that with another is terrifying. Slowly, they begin to see that each person has a different pain and may not need to deal in the same way. The most important tool is empathy. Being there and letting the harsh words roll off your back can be the most important thing to a loved one in a difficult situation. For Hayley and her father, the situation is a little different. Both are afraid of bringing the other person down, so they put their pain behind thinly constructed walls that are constantly threatening to topple and crush them. It is only after all the walls are taken down, and they are left with their raw emotions that they can see how much they really need each other — broken or not. It is only when this is accepted that they can make the first confident steps to finding a way to get through every day without it being too much to bear. These mental scars are deep for both of them, and will never truly go away. It is only when we accept the scars that we are able to walk on proudly, as survivors.
If you have ever tiptoed by, hoping for a better tomorrow, read The Impossible Knife of Memory.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. The Impossible Knife of Memory. Viking Juvenile, 2014. Kindle edition.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
If you like: platypuses * the creepy-crawlies * extinction events
Pandemic is the third book in the Infected Trilogy. Five years have passed since Margaret Montoya nuked Detroit in order to prevent the spread of the infection. There has been an ongoing search by the US government to locate the fallen Orbital – to ensure it is no longer functional and obtain it before anyone else does. Unbeknownst to the many crews, other countries seek the alien technology, as well. In fact, not everyone believes that the technology was alien, and some think it is a new super weapon created by the US in the hopes of achieving world domination. The Orbital was not destroyed before it was able to prepare one last canister that contains multiple enhancements on the previous designs. Without the fastidious care and understanding of the original investigation crew, there is no question what discovery of the Orbital’s payload could unleash.
The world five years after an alien invasion is very different from the world before. Though there are those who refuse to accept what happened, many are far better attuned to the danger of the world around them. The resources dedicated to the scientific investigation are substantial. Unfortunately, the lack of new data during the period has allowed people to lose any sense of urgency in creating new defenses. The biggest reason for this is the change in Montoya. Though she has always done everything necessary to fight the infection, the consequences of her actions in the last stand of Contagious have gotten to her. She can no longer separate her personal morality from scientific necessity, and is barely functional because of this. Not only does this leave the investigation without its strongest resource, but it means no one who faced the monsters personally is involved. The scientific leadership is not the only area that has seen change in the past five years. Though the White House has experienced turnover, there are still key individuals in place to inform the new regime of what matters most.
The Infected series has always pushed the limits of doing what is needed no matter what the cost, and Pandemic is no different. From the very beginning, there have been individuals who are able to fight the influence of the triangles and other vectors in order to become key assets in the resistance. Though no one can possible compare to the strength and power of Perry Dawsey, it is a relief to see there are others who will take whatever physical measures necessary to stop their personal conversion and make a difference. In Pandemic, several individuals must make decisions that have a direct impact on the survival of the human race. Some make the easy choice and avoid conflict, receding to places they feel are safe. Others know that safety is a thing of the past. Though no one rushes to commit mass murder, some realize that the Converted must be stopped at all costs. Though the high numbers of casualties are startling, it is the personal actions that are the hardest to take. When it is a close friend or loved one that is changed, it is all the harder to be the one who stops them. Knowing that the person you have loved is gone forever in mind but not in body makes it so much harder to eliminate their final essence. When these people take the necessary steps in order to prevent an extinction event, it makes the cowards seem even worse in comparison. Failing to make a decision is as bad or worse than making the wrong decision in a full scale invasion. One can easily see how much would be different if the original leadership of the resistance had survived, but it is hard to know if they would have truly been able to direct the action any better. The most hope is provided when someone who seems to always act in their own best interest makes the unselfish move, and realizes their own survival is nothing compared to the end game of the invasion. In the end, the greatest mistake of the Orbital was seeking to destroy the human race, because nothing brings out the exceptional warriors like facing the end. No one is stronger than when they know they have nothing left to lose.
If you keep trying to fight the feelings that are overtaking you, read Pandemic.
Sigler, Scott. Pandemic. Crown, 2014. Kindle edition.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
If you like: video games * zombies * brothers
In The End Games, Michael has convinced his five-year-old brother, Patrick, that the ongoing Bellow (these zombies holla back!) invasion is a real life video game. As long as they follow the rules of the Game Master they will get through anything. Slowly the Game begins to change and the Bellows start to evolve. Other survivors as scarce and Michael begins to worry that he will not be able to make the Game last long enough to get them to the safe zone. Just as they get closer to the safe zone, they encounter a group of religious fanatics believing the Bellows are the result of some sort of rapture, and should be worshiped rather than destroyed. Along with other survivors they encounter, Michael and Patrick battle both these fanatics and the Bellows in order to try to win survival of this apocalypse.
The End Games provides a unique spin on the zombie apocalypse. Two young brothers surviving for weeks on their own without losing their spirit or turning on each other is rare. Michael is smart and cleverly stays one step ahead of everyone throughout the story. Not only does he continually find supplies and evade the zombies, he also manages to keep Patrick from being overwhelmed by the devastation that surrounds them. The origin and evolution of the Bellows is an interesting trajectory that really drives the story quickly. They are clearly dangerous and murderous creatures, but they also repeat back whatever you say, providing several moments of levity in the story. It also leads to deviation from common zombie fighting strategy; there is no need to carefully check every nook and cranny — just shout into any building and if there are Bellows around you’ll know. As they evolve into increasingly more dangerous creatures, the stakes are raised far more than one would expect from a YA novel. Though the violence is not graphic, the lack of any safety is palpable and the reader will truly fear for the survival of the protagonists.
The link between Michael, Patrick, and their survival extends far beyond the invasion of the Bellows. The two boys come from a broken home. They share a mother who loves them and does her best, but she is a battered woman trying to survive through the obstacles life brings her way. Michael’s step-father is the monster the boys are far more experienced in dealing with. Michael has tried to protect Patrick from Ron’s violence. This protection is what helped him to create the Game in the first place. The experience of planning to deal with Ron has prepared Michael for all of the dangerous situations that they face throughout the book. He knows how to deal with prickly egos and how to fight through his emotions and pain in order to protect his brother. This is their true story of survival. Though they outlast most people, it isn’t until they face their more human foes that they are able to come through to the end of the apocalypse. The Bellows are nowhere near as dangerous to Patrick as him losing control of himself and mentally collapsing under the weight of what he is living with. He trusts in the Game because he needs to trust in something. As a young child, it is easy to see how the reality of his situation could cripple him, but it is almost unbelievable that he is willing to ignore reality so much. On the other hand, sometimes children are remarkably resilient and know that they need to play along with their guardians just as much as their guardians need to protect them from the harms of reality. In this way, Patrick and Michael could never have survived separately they way they do together. Their bonds allow them to give and take from each other without hesitation in the way that they always have. This helps life to feel normal while the world is falling apart around them. It is only when this bond is compromised that the true horrors begin to set in.
If you know you can win if you follow the rules, read The End Games.
Martin, T. Michael. The End Games. Balzer + Bray, 2013. Kindle Edition.
Thursday, February 6, 2014
If you like: creepy kids * dream worlds * badass heroines
NOS4A2 is the story of Vic, a woman who has been able to transport herself over a bridge that no longer exists in order to find things she desires, and Charlie Manx, a serial abductor with a car that can take him along highways that cannot be traveled by ordinary means in order to get to “Christmasland” where he brings children to exist in a perpetual state of uninhibited “fun” and mayhem. Traveling these dreamscapes, or inscapes, is an incomprehensible prospect that only rare individuals are capable of. Vic doesn’t even realize she is traveling across one for several years, or the toll that it takes on her. Manx, on the other hand, utilizes his Rolls-Royce Wraith to commit gruesome acts in the pursuit of a life of fun for his two daughters and the other children whose youth he feeds upon.
The appearance of everyone and everything in NOS4A2 is constantly changing. Perceptions cannot be trusted. Manx's whole being is centered around deceiving those around him. Though he relies on the power of the Wraith to get him what he wants, the inscape is still driven by his twisted mind and idea of what is desirable. He takes Christmas, which is viewed with unending joy by children and recognized by adults to be stressful slog it is all too often, and corrupts it into a nightmarish hellscape. The titles that Manx uses conflict with the nature of what they are. Christmasland is more of a nightmare. The House of Sleep is not a respite, but a place that leads to the eternal sleep of death. Vic is also constantly changing depending on how far removed she is from her inscape. As a child, when she is unaware that anything is unordinary about it, she is able to exist happily with her ability and the normalcy of her family. Once she begins to understand that she has repeatedly done the impossible, it begins to take a toll on her relationships. Though she is always a girl who loves her bike and driving too fast, the bike changes and so does the rider. Her desire to find is the true power behind her speed, but it is her desire to return with what is missing that keeps her pushing over the bridge. By all appearances, she is a deadbeat who has given up. In reality, the desire to find and collect the things that are missing are what has torn her apart. Just trying to attain that which she does not have is what prevents her from having it. Her son, Wayne, illustrates the change the best as he attempts to hold onto his sense of self while being drawn in by the magic of Christmasland. Wayne is perhaps the person in the story who is most able to inhabit this transient state and come out whole on the other side. Living in a nightmare will always take a toll, but you have to know that you can leave it behind once you wake up in order to survive.
NOS4A2 is not a book that shies away from the dark or gruesome. The creepiness of the children that Manx has manipulated cannot be properly captured in a review. Somehow, they still maintain their childish innocence while acting like deranged psychopaths. Playing games like “scissors-for-the-drifter” and sporting rows and rows of sharp, fish hook teeth, these children act anything but innocent. It is not just Christmasland or Manx that provide the dark aspects of the story. The consequences of traversing an inscape provide a bleak view on sanity. The implausibility of the actions causes irreparable harm to those who interact with them. As with many seeming super powers, there is always a cost. Being able to see beyond the normal realm will always raise questions of sanity. Knowing things one shouldn’t, or going to impossible places will make people doubt your credibility, but keeping the secret is also harmful. The burning power of touching an inscape leaves lasting, cumulative scars on each person who does it. Knowing that harm will be caused does not make the possibility of achieving the unbelievable any less desirable. Instead, the element of danger almost makes it more appealing. The higher the cost, the more attractive an idea is. The combination of gruesome violence, creepy children, and questionable narrators makes NOS4A2 a haunting read.
If you don’t know where you’re going, but you aren’t afraid to drive, read NOS4A2.
Hill, Joe. NOS4A2. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2013. Kindle edition.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
If you like: out of body experiences * looking back * the cello
If I Stay is the story of Mia, a teen who is involved in a deadly car accident with her family and must decide to stay and deal with the physical and mental pain, or to go and leave everything behind. Her life does not flash before her eyes; instead, she reflects on a series of important moments carefully and thoughtfully. She is also aware of what is going on around her body, and allows that to influence her decision. Her disconnection from her physical form is both beneficial and harmful. She cannot feel the pain she is going through, but the longing to connect with her loved ones also influences her decision.
If I Stay is a collection of moments and memories that come together to make up the life of Mia. Each interaction in her post-accident life reminds her of her the past. Though this could easily be heartbreaking, the warm love and joy she re-experiences is tactile and full. Though her life holds much promise, and at seventeen is no where near its rightful end, her recollections reassure the reader that she has had vast experiences. A child of rare parents, she was allowed to freely explore her passions and was supported in her quest for greatness. The bond between her family is strong, and her parent’s palpable desire for her to succeed at whatever fills her heart is endearing. Her friendship with Kim and love with Adam also illustrate the fullness of her life. Not everyone gets to have a best friend who pushes them to be everything they can without jealousy or competition. Experiencing the kind of love that has immense depth at such a young age is rare. Mia and Adam may not have had a journey that is completely smooth, but their respect for each other’s talents and easy rapport make it difficult to imagine Mia giving up a chance for more time together.
Though the book is couched in the decision whether to stay or not, it is never revealed that Mia actually has a choice to make. Though she hovers on the rift between life and death, there is no guide or outside force pushing her to decide. Throughout her painful experience there are many omens that feel like they could be the turning point in her future. Each time she lingers, her strength and life-force wane and expand. It is unknown how long she can sustain between holding on and letting go. Things that might make her hold tighter sometimes seem to encourage her to let go. At other times, she grips onto her continued existence with surprising force. In the end, when she has taken stock of her life before and what her life will be after, it seems as if she never really had a choice to make at all. Has her ethereal state been nothing but a delusion of a mind pushed to limits of pain and circumstances? So much is unknown about comas, and what really happens to the brain in that state. Perhaps her wandering mind is a coping mechanism to separate herself from the pain of her mangled physical form. Together with the pain, she might not be able to take in the love from all of those who visit her. Separated from her self, she is able to reflect on and understand all of the dramatic gestures each person who comes to see her makes. She is able to strengthen her resolve by separating herself and use the energy to weave a protective armor around her spirit. As outsiders, we each hope that being by the bedside of a loved one can give them the extra support they need to fight; this is just what Forman intends. We may not know that we can change the fate of those we love, but just believing there is a chance we might is enough to carry us all through.
If you don’t know how you find the strength to fight, read If I Stay.
Forman, Gayle. If I Stay. Penguin Group, 2009. Kindle Edition.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
If you like: self-help * lifehacking * cookies
The Power of Habit seeks to help readers understand why they do many of the things they do throughout their lives. Many of us have created habits without realizing it. Large parts of our day have been conveniently automated by our brains, but sometimes we need to recalibrate those automations in order to achieve the best results. Though this automation sounds problematic, it is often very helpful, and frees up our minds to focus on more complex tasks and intellectual achievement.
Determining what you do by habit and by choice can be difficult. All too often people find themselves acting out habits that they don’t even notice they have. Uncertainty is problematic, and so our brains quickly learn to apply prior choices and results to everyday situations. Though this can calm anxieties and smooth transitions, it can also lead to a narrow life view or unhealthy habits. It takes careful observation to determine what actions are part of a habit loop. Some things are easy to see: you make your sandwich the same way every morning when you pack your lunch. Other things are more difficult: you find yourself eating a cookie from the plate by the water cooler before you even notice you have picked it up. This may start because you take a cookie to be polite, and then your habit loops take over and you automatically take a cookie when you walk by. Realizing this is only the first step. You must carefully experiment to figure out the real reason you always take a cookie, and then find alternatives that provide the same reward as eating a cookie. (I find very few things can compete with the reward of eating a cookie!)
The Power of Habit is primarily focused on identifying the parts of habit loops. First, it addresses the role of habits in both evolution and our day-to-day lives. Then, it seeks to explore just what is misunderstood about habits and what drives them. After that, there are several chapters about people and organizations with successful habits, and ways that transformation is possible. Though it does not give the impression that it will improve your habits, many readers might be disappointed that a guide for rewriting habits is relegated to an appendix, rather than the final focus of the book. The vignettes are inspirational, but do not in any way resemble a how-to manual. Perhaps this is the first habit that needs to be changed. Readers look to these type of books as a magical cure that will fix everything they are doing wrong. Rather than guaranteeing your success, Duhigg asks readers to live their lives with awareness. Rather than spelling out each step for succeeding in all aspects of life, he provides the template for self-reflection and empowerment. There is no power besides personal drive that will get you through the process of finding out the habits you’ve created and improving the ones you don’t like. It is not enough to understand that your life is made up of sequences of repetition; you must accept that this is okay, and see how this could make cold turkey changes difficult. More than anything, The Power of Habit will help you understand how to make meaningful shifts in your life using the joy of experimentation instead of the dread of deprivation.
If you flick the light switch when the power is off, read The Power of Habit.
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House Publishing Group, 2012. Kindle Edition.