Monday, November 24, 2014

Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages by Michael Largo



The title--and the cover--of this book made me think that GENIUS AND HEROIN was going to be an in-depth analysis of famous, brilliant heroin (and other drug) users throughout history that researched some of the links between brilliance and mental illness. On this note, the book is highly misleading.

Yes, GENIUS AND HEROIN does feature famous people who died of drug overdose who also happened to be brilliant... and yet, it also features people who died of heart attacks, in car accidents, or even by suicide or murder. The people featured in this morbid encyclopedia range in profession to regent, writer, and obscure silent film star.

Part of the problem with GENIUS AND HEROIN is that it is packaged as something it is not. The misleading title is one thing; but it extends to the content, too. The illustrations often have nothing (or little) to do with the text they're placed alongside. The quotes are anachronistic and sometimes irrelevant, as well -- for example, you might find a quote from Voltaire in Ivan the Terrible's passage, or Christopher Morley in Diogene's (in fact, that's exactly what happens).

Each famous person ("genius," I guess) has 1-2 pages (often less) outlining what they were known for and how they died. It gets very tedious after a while. I suppose this is one of those books that isn't meant to be read in an entire sitting, but I don't have a lot of time to read anymore, and when I read a book, I want something that I can devour greedily, not choke on with only tons of effort.

How serious are these problems? If this were an article written by a prestigious newsgroup, people would be accusing them of resorting to click-bait, and questioning whether they have moved out of their golden age and into a slow decline.

1 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer



THE SHORT SECOND LIFE OF BREE TANNER is an imperfect book. Bree is not a compelling character. She is a device employed by the author to shed more light on the established canon characters, in the guise of new material.

Bree was introduced briefly at the end of ECLIPSE. After the big vampire/werewolf/evil vampire battle, one of Victoria's vampires surrendered and the Cullens briefly entertained the idea of taking her under their wing, and introducing her to their ways.

But then the Volturi came along, and did their rule enforcement thing, and killed the vampire. And that vampire was Bree.

In TSSLoBT, Meyer gives Bree her own book. Well, novella. Basically, Bree is in vampire boot camp, with Riley being as vague as possible, lying to the vampire trainees about everything under the sun (including the sun itself). Bree suspects that Riley is maybe not as shit-free as he claims, but as a fledgling she's pretty dependent on him, and it's a little terrifying to think that your maker might have Sinister Plans for you. Bree also has a sort-of romance with co-trainee-vampire, Diego. Their romance is poorly done and one of the worse parts of the book. BFFs, are you serious? Their banter was painful.

The best part of the book is probably the last thirty pages, which makes me think that this would have worked better as a thirty-page short story that she could have put up for free on her website or something, instead of bloating it out, and trying to make a(n ill-fated) love story out of it.

THE SHORT SECOND LIFE OF BREE TANNER, as others have said, really highlights a lot of the issues with the TWILIGHTverse world-building.

For example, vampires apparently sparkle because the sun reflects off their skin. (But why?)

Vampires have venom instead of blood/saliva/semen. (But then how are babies made?)

Vampire gifts are really rare -- 1/50. Since there are seven Cullens, plus Bella, the probability of them all having special talents is 1/50 x 1/50 x 1/50 x 1/50 x 1/50 x 1/50 x 1/50 (+ Bella = x 1/50).

Do you know what the possibility of that is?

1/781,250,000,000

One in seven-hundred and eighty-one billion, two-hundred and fifty million.

Talk about your special snowflakes.

I also found it weird, how vampire "taste" is explained. So Bree and co. feed off "dregs", which are basically prostitutes, pimps, and the homeless (or teen runaways). Apparently, they are all on drugs, so humans who don't do drugs taste better. Which I guess would make sense. But then, Bella apparently smells excellent to all the vampires, which puzzled me. Does that mean that there's something else added to the mix? Because I thought she was supposed to be irresistible only to Edward. What makes her smell so sweet? Is it the fact that she's a virgin? But surely there would be some virgin teenage runaways who don't do drugs.... It's all very confusing, and really says a lot about how Meyer views the lower classes (drug-addled sluts, clearly).

It was weird in general reading a Stephenie Meyer book that was under 500 pages. I actually like her style of writing, and it was nice to revisit the book series. It's sad that she doesn't write anymore. Maybe she's happy she no longer needs to. Maybe she's pissed off that people keep publishing (and cashing in on) fanfiction based on her work -- I know I would find that upsetting, as well.

Overall, THE SHORT SECOND LIFE was a disappointment. Definitely one of her worst books (although a sight better than the monstrosity that was BREAKING DAWN). It passed the evening, and now I think I'll pass the buck (I mean book) along to my sister. See what she thinks.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy



THE TRUE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL is a holocaust book. It is also a retelling of the classic German fairytale, Hansel and Gretel. TTSoHaG is not the first book to do this: Jane Yolen also wrote a fairytale retelling about the holocaust called BRIAR ROSE.

TTSoHaG takes place in Poland. Why Poland? Because, according to the author, it was "the Devil's anvil" of WWII -- I guess the Nazis went there a lot to get stuff done. As far as atmospheres go, Murphy has woven a pretty fearsome one. SS soldiers are everywhere, and so are their spies. Some are living in a haze of war-fueled moral ambiguity. Others wallow in their depravity (like a certain Oberfuhrer who gets sexual gratification from blood transfusions from Aryan women because he believes it gives him power). The Russians are coming, and pushing back the Germans, but they maybe aren't so great, either.

Hansel and Gretel are on the run with their father and stepmother. They are on a motorcycle, and the stepmother points out that they will be faster without the deadweight of the children. So they abandon the children in the woods. The children leave a trail of breadcrumbs (ha) behind them as they push further into the Polish wilds, and end up in a small village, where they get taken in by a Rom woman named Magda, who has been (unfairly) branded as a witch because of her Gypsy ancestry.

Hansel and Gretel were given new German names by their father to help them hide better, and Magda takes it a step further by completely consuming their identities (ha). She gives them a new backstory, saying that they were put into a Karaite camp by their crazy mother, who imposed a circumcision on the boy. She dyes Hansel's hair blonde with peroxide. She tells them to avoid notice. Because the SS are abducting children -- perfect, blonde, blue-eyed, Aryan children. And Gretel fits the bill.

So does Magda's niece, Nelka, and her baby.

The fairytale references were pretty clever. At one point, Gretel goes into a cage because she keeps lashing out while she's in a fever. Magda moves the cage near the fire to keep her warm. When the Nazis come, Magda hides the two children in the oven.

One thing that really bothered me was that there was a lot of cruelty to children in this book. It's a holocaust book, so I wasn't expecting a happy ending, but I was surprised by how dark and terrible the content was. Gretel gets raped...while she's still a child. Nelka's lover, Telek, decides that the children of the village need to be horribly mutilated so the Nazis won't want to take them away, so there's a lovely description of that going on for about a chapter. Gretel gets molested by the crazy, creepy, blood-transfusion-loving Oberfuhrer.

I liked TTSoHaG, but it started to bog down towards the end. It was just misery heaped upon misery, and it didn't look like it was going anywhere for a bit. Also, Nelka and Telek's plot arc halted pretty quickly, which was a bit surprising considering the big role they played in the story. So one chapter they're there, and then that's the end of it? Okay, then.

The Polish setting was novel, and I liked the backdrop of TTSoHaG, but it was nothing special. The author said she did a lot of research about Poland and the Bialowieza forest for her story, and it really shows and adds a lot of atmosphere to the book. But I also feel like the characters became a bit nebulous at times, because there was less importance placed upon them, especially the children. When the two of them were walking alone in the forest, on the run, it dragged on and on, and I got flashbacks to RPG games where you're stuck in a desert, or a forest, looking for the magic switch that will get you the hell out of there. Meanwhile, enemies keep coming. That was this book.

3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Soppy: A Love Story by Philippa Rice



SOPPY definitely lives up to its name. Done entirely in black, white, and red colors, SOPPY is a graphic novel about love in its simplest and most rudimentary form: comfort and kindness.

Reading this graphic novel actually reminded me of the "Weird Things Couples Do" series from Buzzfeed, with Justin Abarca and Elizabeth Triplett. Seriously, they have to be the cutest couple ever (and yes, they really are married).

With abusive pseudo-BDSM relationships being the current vogue, a lot about what really constitutes love gets lost in translation. The sheer number of women claiming that they want these abusive men as boyfriends boggles my mind, because I have never wanted that.

This is what I want. Someone who is always there, rain or shine -- but especially in the rain. Holding the umbrella. And my hand.

4 out of 5 stars.

The Art of 5th Cell by Edison Yan



I would call myself a girl gamer, but I'm afraid I'm pretty stereotypical -- I like the cutesy sim and platformer games. Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, the Mario games, Yoshi Story, Chibi Robo, Pokemon...these are all games I own and love. I suspect a lot of people would probably laugh and sneer and say, "Of course, typical girl games." But whatevs. They're cute, and fun, and I like them. I like more "male"-targeted games, too, like shooter games, RPGs, and I'm just getting into the Zelda (fucking Ocarina, y u so hard?!) series, but sims and cutesy platformers have always been my favorites.

I stopped buying handheld consoles with the Gameboy Color, so I'm pretty limited in terms of the games I own. But I've been thinking about getting a DS for a couple years now, and THE ART OF 5TH CELL has given me a push in that direction. The games it features--Drawn to Life, and, of course, Scribblenauts--look right up my alley.

I like behind the scenes concepts, and the artist has a really great voice when he discusses his art and the process behind his work. He doesn't come across as pretentious at all; instead, he seems like a really cool, geeky guy who loves what he does and is lucky enough to be able to do it for a living. His art is great, and quite versatile, and a couple endearing typos on his blueprints (like 'guages' instead of 'gauges') made me warm to him that much more.

It's kind of surprising, the different kinds of games 5th Cell put out. For example, there's a phone game called Run Roo Run that looks an awful lot like Angry Birds. Then there's a first-person shooter game with futuristic guys in space suits and high-tech guns called Hybrid. And then there's the puzzle adventure games, DtL and Scribble, and, lastly, the RPG with anime-style characters, Lock's Quest (I'm getting a steampunk Tales of Symphonia vibe).

THE ART OF 5TH CELL works well as a standalone. Even if you haven't played any of the games, the art is still pretty impressive. I never really thought about the backgrounds of a game, but they do add a lot to the atmosphere of a game (and a level) and often go ignored. It's interesting to see the schematics behind what often goes unappreciated in game design. It's also a commercial success, in my opinion. THE ART OF 5TH CELL is basically a 168-page advert for 5th Cell's games, featuring a sneak peek of up-and-coming games by the company at the very end. It's fluff, but fun, and would make a great addition to any gamer's coffee table. And on that note, my thumb is starting to itch for an A-button to press.

3 out of 5 stars.

Good-Bye Geist by Ryo Hanada



Two words: cat deaths.

Yuki is pretty much the epitome of the Japanese schoolgirl stereotype -- tiny and petite, pretty and popular, and a little too free with her emotions. When she's not being groped by perverts and filmed by other perverts (who later turn out to be love interests), she's caring for people and filling her eyes up with earnest tears.

There's a bit of a love triangle. Chiba, her best friend, is in love with her, and so is Matsubara, the creeper she befriends on the train who video-records her with his phone. (Later, he claims that he did it because he wanted to get to know her better. Uh-huh...)

The thing about Matsubara is that he might also be Spirit, a serial-killer wannabe who slaughters cats (the bastard!) and biology lab frogs that are slated for dissection (why?). The killings are eerily similar to another set that happened seven years ago, culminating in the death of a boy named Tsuji. (I just tried to spell culminating with a 'K.') Is it the same person? Or a copycat? Is Matsubara a killer as well as a lonely pervert?

DUN, DUN, DUN.

I haven't been on Netgalley in a while, so GOOD-BYE GEIST was my first foray back into internet crackdom. As far as hits go, it gave me a non-existent buzz. Don't get me wrong; as an indie author myself, I can really appreciate attempts to showcase indie work, and that's what Gen Manga does. They publish indie manga (doujinshi) that isn't available anywhere else, translate it, and then publish it directly to the masses without the use of an intermediary. It's a great idea, and I've read some pretty interesting work from them. Artists struggle even more than writers, because the effort put into their creative output really exceeds the pay-off, unless you are both extremely talented and lucky.

But GOOD-BYE GEIST was a miss for me. The cat deaths really put me off. I love cats, and Yukiko, one of the victim cats, looked a lot like my own pet cat, Yang. And like Yukiko, Yang was also abused and has trust issues, so the whole time Yukiko was in the plot, I was thinking about my poor itty bitty kitty, and, well... I WAS NOT HAPPY, OKAY?

The use of "sexual violation" for titillation was a bit trashy and circumspect, too. And I feel like "sexual violation" is a bit...sensationalist for what actually happens. It suggests sexual violence, when all that happened (unless I missed something) was a grope. (Although the groper does at one point shove an umbrella under her skirt, and into her panties--so maybe that's what they were referring to? I don't think it's actually shown in the panels, but the characters were discussing it at one point and I was like, DA FUQ.) There doesn't seem to be much point to it either, except to provide a way for Matsubara to take an interest in Yuki, which isn't cool. I don't really like the two-opposite-sexed-characters-meet-and-bond-over-thrwarted-sexual-abuse trope. It suggests (to me) that women need men to help save them from being raped... which is a disturbing message to send.

Another thing that annoyed me was the fact that the identity of Spirit is never revealed. There's a flashback at the end that is maybe supposed to provide background to the mystery, but if the killer was revealed, I never figured it out. (I was kind of suspecting Yuki or Chiba, but hey, your guess is as good as mine.) That lack of closure was irritating. I feel like making it through a book entitles you to something. Leaving the reader hanging, that's just bad manners. And that's the problem with this book: GOOD-BYE GEIST is too nebulous, and uses violence and sex to keep the reader turning the pages.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs by Elissa Wall



One of my favorite videos on Youtube is called Mind Control Made Easy, or How to Become a Cult Leader. It is 12:37 minutes long and worth every second, because, if you have read any books about cults or cult survivors, the tactics are there.

I studied psychology in school, and one of the facts that was always emphasized was the plasticity of the brain. It's pretty easy to shape, and under rigorous abuse, the mind tends to change pretty dramatically anyway, purely as a survival technique. When people are in cults, their entire lives become enmeshed in the cult superpower. It's the framework with which you live your life; and when that framework is gone, you feel totally lost.

For these reasons, I am really interested in radical religions, cults, and fundamentalism. I am not at all religious, so it is interesting to see the devoutness with which people approach religion in their daily life, imposing limitations, suffering under the yoke of constant guilt. I can't imagine putting faith in something other than myself so unequivocally, to the point where I would even compromise my own well being because it was this deity's will. It is such an alien thought to me, that I can scarcely comprehend it.

STOLEN INNOCENCE marks the third polygamy memoir I have read. The first was ESCAPE by Carolyn Jessop, which is probably the most famous. Carolyn's ex-husband, Merrill, is actually mentioned in this memoir, because Elisa and Allen end up going to his hotel to be married by Warren Jeffs, if I recall correctly. Ms. Jessop's story was powerful, and her narrative voice was very strong. Since she was a little older at the time of her marriage, the horror was mostly from the abusive family dynamic, which was enabled by the closed-door policy of their religion. I actually reviewed this book, so if you want to read more on my thoughts about it, you can check out the review here.

The second memoir took a totally opposite interpretation of polygamy. It was called LOVE TIMES THREE by the Darger family (the man and his three wives). They were one of the families that inspired the popular TV drama, Big Love. The book itself wasn't all that good, but having read STOLEN INNOCENCE, I can see a lot of the things that Elisa talked about -- the defense mechanisms, the self-contradiction, and the knowledge that what they are doing goes against society's norms and laws, and yet attempting to rationalize the illicit marriage as a holy thing. LOVE TIMES THREE is actually a better book if you read between the lines, because it is a powerful work of psychological turmoil and stress coated in thick layers of having "kept sweet." I reviewed this work as well, so if you would like to read my thoughts on LOVE TIMES THREE, you can do so here.

It's difficult to put my thoughts about STOLEN INNOCENCE into words. Even though I'm working all the time now, I devoured it in just under three days. It was compulsively readable; the horrors Elissa went through as a young woman were just so awful. At fourteen she was married to a cousin that she hated, because of how cruelly he treated her when they were children. He raped her for years, and Jeffs would not let her quit the marriage and get a release, and she received pressure from her whole family to "keep sweet", put a good face on things, and pop out babies. So she was raped for years, and suffered through three miscarriages and a still birth -- which, according to church doctrine, were all her fault for not being devout enough and not loving her husband enough. Can you imagine living in a society in which woman is the fault of everything, whether it is from a lapse in health, or a man's straying? I can't. But Elissa can, because she did, and her experience is disturbing.

It should have dawned on me that many aspects of the religion were based on revoking the rights of women. If a girl speaks her mind, get her married. Once she's married, get her pregnant. Once she has children, she's in for life -- it's almost impossible for any FLDS woman to take her children if she leaves, and no mother wants to leave her children behind.

Even when Elissa did manage to leave, most of her family stayed behind, and when she acted as a witness against Jeffs in court, members of her family signed affidavits against her, and friends testified against her in court. The web was that powerful, and even when she was allegedly free, Elissa still felt its stranglehold.

I think one of the saddest parts of the book was when Jeffs was fleeing, and in the car the authorities found a duffel bag of tithing letters from FLDS Mormons. Jeffs hadn't read the letters; he had just extracted the money they contained to help him run away. That just about broke my heart.

STOLEN INNOCENCE is a good book to read because it offers much in the way of discussion. I could see this being a good book club book, because even if you don't like Elissa (I did), you can still respect the enormity of what she did and how much bravery was required to do it. Her escape from the FLDS community was an incredible triumph over adversity, and I can't even imagine how she began to summon up the courage required to turn away from everything she had ever known in life in order to gain back her freedom.

4 out of 5 stars.