What to read in a time like this?

I try to find the humor in every situation I face. Somehow, if I can laugh about something it just doesn’t seem that scary/depressing/overwhelming/(insert emotion). I remember when I was hospitalized for a three foot blood clot and I had made a joke about it to my wife (at the time). She doesn’t share my humor for laughing in the face of disaster.

Maybe that’s why we’re no longer together. Hmmm…

Anyhoo, so for those that are self-quarantined, staying away from the public, or just simply an introvert here are some choices in reading material for this time of season. And please, just know that even though this list is themed toward pandemics, it’s simply a literary book list with some dark humor to it.

So for your reading pleasure, here is my 2020 Pandemic Book List:

the stand1. The Stand, by Stephen King. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this horror classic. The premise of this ginormous novel is a detailed vision of the total breakdown of society after the accidental release of a strain of influenza that had been modified for biological warfare causes an apocalyptic pandemic that kills over 99 percent of the world’s population. It’s an amazing read about what happens to humanity and the good vs evil theme is quite page turning. I’m currently watching the television adapted movie and reading the uncut version of the novel. I’ve been sniffling and coughing up phlegm all the while.

Makes a man a bit paranoid, haha.

the-andromeda-strain2. The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton. First off, I love when people call books a techno-thriller. It’s such a great name for a genre. So this novel handles the narrative differently. It documents the efforts of a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial mirco-organism in Arizona.

Year-One-Nora-Roberts3. Year One, by Nora Roberts. Okay, so if you’re not that into Stephen King because of the length of books he writers, I get it. However, if you’re looking for a pandemic themed book that invokes King’s The Stand without the 1,000 + page count then this one is it. I’ll warn you though, it’s part of a trilogy so if you’re wanting a one and done read, then you may reconsider it. It’s a great read about a sickness that spreads suddenly and within weeks, everything starts to crumble. This is different than your basic pandemic. Where science and technology falls, magic rises and people start developing magical powers and turning into elves and other magical creatures.

world_war_z_book_cover4. World War Z, by Max Brooks. So, without getting into all the zombie fiction out there (and believe me there’s a lot) I’ll just offer this one beacon of light among the undead. This book, written by Director Mel Brook’s son, is a collection of individual accounts following the devastating global conflict against the zombie plague. For those that have read The Zombie Survival Guide, this is the same author and it’s equally well written. While the guide was written in a half-comical nature, WWZ is written in a serious tone that examines survival-ism, uncertainty, and the ineptitude of individuals and governments. It’s really a must-read.

As an additional note, I really disliked the movie simply because it was nothing like the book. In my opinion, it would’ve been better to make it a strict adaptation of the novel. And you can fight me on that.

dracula_book_cover5. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Okay, hear me out on this one before I get an angry voicemail about how I need to “get my facts straight.” Dracula is about a vampire that travels to England so that he may find new blood and spread the undead curse. However, the good Count is defeated by a band of humans that wield science as a weapon. Sound familiar? It should because that’s the basic theme of almost all pandemic themed fiction. I once wrote a college paper about how Dracula was a metaphor for Cholera. It was pretty good paper inspired by a very good work of fiction. Check it out.

Well, that’s five pandemic inspired fictional works. While I hope you all don’t fall ill with the coronavirus, I do hope you read some of the books on this list. All have a soft spot in my literary heart and have earned a place on my Hall of Fame for books.

With any luck, I’ll talk to you all next week.

Review of The Institute

institute.jpgLet’s get this disclaimer out of the way so that we can get down to the meat and potatoes of this book review. I absolutely, positively love everything that Stephen King has ever written. Not so much his film adaptions, but that’s another review for another time.

Released in mid September, the storyline of The Institute follows two main characters. The first readers encounter is Tim Jamieson, an ex-policeman that’s traveling to New York for a job. Following his intuition, Jamieson ends up in DuPray, South Carolina. He ends up being a Night Knocker. For those that don’t know what a night knocker is, don’t worry I didn’t know either. Basically, it’s just a lowly paid member of local law enforcement that walks around at night making sure places are locked up. Jamieson has his own interesting history and is developing a life in DuPray when the story shifts over to the central character of the novel, Luke Ellis. 

Luke is a twelve-year-old genius that’s about to enter college. One night, he’s kidnapped from his home in suburban Minneapolis and taken to The Institute. It’s a facility located in Maine. Luke soon finds out that he and all the other kids in the facility have either telekinesis or telepathy. Oh, and the facility is operated by a super secret shadowy organization.

Going into the novel, I was certain that it was a sequel King’s 1980 novel, Firestarter. It’s essentially the same premise. A child with pyrokinetic powers is hunted by The Shop, a super secret government operation that does drug testing on people with telekinetic abilities. Spoiler alert: Firestarter ends with The Shop reforming under new leadership. With Doctor Sleep being a sequel to The Shining, it wasn’t that hard to think that The Institute was a sequel to Firestarter. However, don’t get your hopes up. There’s no references to the book that was adapted into the 1984 film starring Drew Barrymore.

While I really enjoyed Luke’s journey of survival and vengeance, all I really wanted to do was get back to Night Knocker Tim. For some reason, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tim’s normal, everyday life compared to the freaky and slightly traumatizing tale of Luke Ellis. As you could guess, the two main character’s path eventually collide and that’s when the story picks up. To quote Pam Beesly-Halpert from The Office, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”

Stephen King is one of those authors that has an innate talent to craft a decent story with children as characters. The Institute is pretty much a mash-up of IT and Firestarter. You take a shadowy government organization testing children and the children must band together to survive. Luke and the other children share a deep relationship together and King so masterfully gives each child a story arc without bogging down the narrative.

The one thing that I truly did not like were the political digs at President Trump and the Republican Party. If you follow King’s social media, you’ll know that he doesn’t particularly look on them with a positive light. There aren’t many of these references, but they always made me cringe and pulled me out of the narrative when I read them.

I guess I wouldn’t be a good reviewer if I didn’t mention how the novel parallels real world events. When you finish this 576 page science fiction/horror thriller there are a few things that hit close to home in terms of vaccinations, missing children, and zealots that believe that the ends justify the means. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that The Institute is an interesting look into these issues and the deeper and terrifying implications they have on society.

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, The Institute will itch that literary scratch. For those that haven’t delved into the deep library of King, you’ll find this book a great introduction into it. The Institute is definitely one to put on your To-Be-Read list.

Finding the Time to Read

With only about 93 (at the time of this writing) days left in the year, I fear I’m going to fail another one of my New Year Resolutions I had made just 272 days ago. I’d failed just about every other resolution too, but this one was the one that I thought I’d be able to finish. It was the goal of reading 50 books in 2019. So far, I’ve finished 23 books this year. I keep track in my Goodreads app. If you’ve never tried GoodReads, I highly suggest it. If a group of librarians decided to get together and create a social media app, then that’s Goodreads.

Sidenote, follow me on Goodreads here.

There’s a quote from Stephen King I always like to pull out and dust off when people ask me what’s the big deal about reading. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

As writers, we must keep our skills sharpened. One way of doing that is reading books of different genres. By doing this, writers glean nuggets of wisdom from within the pages of those books. Examples of what to do, and what not to do. That means reading books that aren’t great.

One of the problems about reading is that it seems like I never have the time to actually sit down and enjoy it.

I remember when Stephen King released The Dark Tower. It was the very last book in his Dark Tower series. It came out Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2004. I graduated from high school in 2004 and had recently started college at IUSB. At that time, I was also working at the gas station in North Liberty. Back then it was still Citgo, right before they changed ownership to LuckyMart. Getting back on track, that weekend after the book was released, I had the weekend off. I’m not too sure how I was that lucky, maybe it was Ka (only fans of the book would get that). I read the entire book, all 845 pages, in that single weekend. I remember where I spent most of that weekend. It was on the couch of our living room (at the time I was still living at home). I remember crying at both sad and happy moments of the book. I also remember feeling that sense of shock at reading the ending of King’s magnum opus.

Having a weekend off is a rarity now a days.

King once said that books are “uniquely portable magic.” It’s important that we don’t forget that. As adults, we need to remember that and take time out of our day to read. It’s tough trying to find the time to read. As we get older, our lives get more complicated and we have more commitments and sometimes we just don’t have the time.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Listen to audiobooks while to and from work. I work about 30 minutes away from where I live. That’s about an hour of book consumption each day. Typically, books can last from four to seven hours. It depends on the length of the book. Think about this. There’s no commercials and no songs you don’t like. Whenever I look at what to listen to, I normally go for series. This spring I burned through the entirety of The Lunar Chronicles written by Marissa Meyer. When you get a talented voice actor that can enchant you mixed with superb storytelling, you’ll never want to press the pause button. Currently, I’m in book three of The Chronicles of Narnia (The Horse and His Boy).

 

  • Read an ebook on your phone. Waiting in line. Arriving at a movie theater a few minutes before the film starts. Sitting in the lobby of a busy BMV because you were too lazy to make an appointment. Eating dinner at a restaurant by yourself because that blind-date stood you up. All of these situations can be made better by reading an ebook. The great thing about an ebook is that you don’t need to have the Kindle app. There’s a variety of apps that’ll allow you to read books. And if you have a library card, then there’s Hoopla and Overdrive. Read my earlier post about the benefits of a library card here.

 

  • Sitting on the toilet. Let’s be completely honest we each other. There’s nothing to do except your “business” when you’re in the bathroom. Why not bring a paperback? Instead of playing Candy Crush on your phone (don’t deny it), just open up your Kindle app and read a few pages. Please be a little courteous, don’t take a borrowed book into the bathroom. That’s a bit icky. And, it’s probably not the first time that borrowed paperback has seen the bathroom. You didn’t think those were chocolate pudding stains, did you?

 

That’s it for this week. I know, it’s a shorter rant then what you’re usually used to, but I was too busy reading. See what I did there? Now go read something!

Review of The Dinosaur Lords

dinosaur lordsThe first thing that drew me to The Dinosaur Lords, written by Victor Milan, was the cover. As you read this, you all might be thinking about that old saying about how you should never judge a book by its cover. However, it’s always been my thinking that a good book deserves a good cover. If the author took the time and care to pen the adventure, then why would the author want that masterpiece wrapped in a cover that’s anything less than a masterpiece? It is a beautiful cover. The cover, done by Artist Richard Anderson, displays a medieval looking knight with a lance sitting atop what looks to be a velociraptor. The beast is all claws and teeth with a harness wrapped around its deadly jaws. The second thing that caught my eye was the quote by George R.R. Martin underneath Milan’s name that states “It’s like a cross between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones.” Both novels being favorites of mine, I didn’t think I’d be wasting money purchasing this thick paperback novel.

In all fairness to Milan, I didn’t waste my money. It was a decent read. However, it wasn’t as good as Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones either. What Martin said in his book blurb was accurate though. It was a combination between the two books in the sense that it was medieval knights, political intrigue, and dinosaurs. What I would have liked to see more of was the character development that makes Game of Thrones one of my favorite book series.

The quality of writing was almost flawless. Milan expertly crafts a unique fantasy realm that is both intricate and intriguing. Light on the magical, the world utilizes more sword and spears than it does wizards and wands. The amount of detail that Milan writes rivals that of George R.R. Martin. At the beginning of each chapter, Milan has an entry from one of the many fictitious tomes that are part of the fantasy world of Paradise. These entries serve to provide added details that aid the reader’s immersion.

The main drawback to this novel is the development of the characters. Where George R.R. Martin can switch from character to character with ease, Milan seems to have a difficulty. There are a handful of characters with their own storylines. The problem with the storylines is that there’s only one that I found interesting and it wasn’t even integral to the overall story until the last fifty pages. This lack of interest caused me to pause and set the book down.

While the creation of the interesting world, the detailed characters, the inclusion of dinosaurs used as war weapons are interesting elements, but it doesn’t compensate for the boring storylines of the characters. While I don’t believe that this book was a waste of money, after reading it I won’t be purchasing its sequel.

Review of Cinder

I really enjoy when artists take old stories and give them a new twist. Especially when they do this to fairy tales. Take the television show Once Upon a Time for example. So when a friend suggested that I give Cinder by Marissa Meyer a try, I was all for it.

Cinder is the first in The Lunar Chronicles and takes place in the future after the Fourth World War. In this futuristic world, androids aid humans in their daily lives. Cyborgs, humans augmented by technology, are treated as second class citizens. One such cyborg, Cinder, is a gifted mechanic with a mysterious past. Not only is Cinder looked down upon by her stepmother and stepsister, she is also looked down upon by the rest of society as a cyborg. Ashamed of her robotic parts, she hides them in shame. This doesn’t stop Cinder’s family from depending on her to earn the family’s only source of income, the mechanic shop in downtown New Beijing.

However, Cinder’s life is thrown upside down due to a chance encounter with Prince Kai. After that encounter, Cinder is thrown into a deadly game of intergalactic Risk. If she wins, Cinder could gain everything. If she loses, it’s not just her that suffers. The world might also suffer.

The first thing about this Young Adult novel is that anyone can find it entertaining. The storyline, the dialogue, even the plot is appropriate for both younger and older audiences. The second thing about this title is that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Marissa Meyer is truly an artisan at what she does.

The basic premise of Cinder is a retelling of Cinderella. An evil stepmother oppresses a poor orphan, a fairy godmother grants the wishes of the orphan, the orphan and prince fall in love, and the prince searches for his lost love, and eventually they all live happily ever after. What Meyer does is take that story and add a fun and interesting futuristic angle on it.

One such change is that of the protagonist, Cinder. She isn’t a helpless orphan that is granted everything she desires from her fairy godmother. Cinder has to struggle to overcome her weaknesses to prove not only to the prince and the “fairy godmother” that she’s worthy of her dreams, but she has to prove to herself that she’s able to do what must be done. Not stopping there, Meyer imbues Cinder with strength, courage, and stubborn determination to create an empowering character. Don’t enter this story expecting that it will be the prince that saves Cinder and the day.

Due to the fact that it is a retelling, there are positives and negatives. The one flaw that I had while quickly devouring this fantastic version of Cinderella was that, at times, it was predictable. I had predicted some of the end based on the prior knowledge of the fairy tale, but for the most part I was surprised. When there were elements of the fairytale that popped up into the novel I was pleasantly hit with nostalgia. I actually laughed out loud a few times when I realized what was happening.

If you have the capability, I would suggest listening to the audiobook version performed by Voice Actress Rebecca Soler. She did an amazing job bringing the characters to life. Each character had their own voice, she sped her reading when the action was kicked up, and you could feel the emotion in the scene through her voice.

If you enjoy popular fairytale retellings, then Cinder is one that you absolutely must pick up. If you did enjoy it then rejoice because it’s the first in The Lunar Chronicles, a series of books that put that same futuristic spin on popular fairytales.

Marissa Meyer creates a fantastic novel that will certainly entertain readers young and old. If you haven’t done it already, enchant your pumpkins, jump into that newly minted carriage, and get yourself to the nearest bookstore before the clock hits midnight.

Review of Bird Box

bird boxI only picked up this book because of the Netflix film, of the same name. I’d seen the film and thoroughly enjoyed it. Having seen the Netflix film, I knew what I was getting into when I started the debut novel written by Josh Malerman. Having said that, I’m glad I picked it up. Both versions of the story are equally great.

The story begins with the main character, Malorie, standing in the kitchen thinking. It’s been four years since the apocalyptic event that swept across the earth killing untold millions. What follows is a forty-three chapter game of tennis. Malerman switches from the present to the past almost every chapter. In the present, Malorie is gearing up to travel on the river with her two children, Boy and Girl. The destination is a promise of a safe place from the insanity inducing creatures. In the flashbacks, the reader gets the full story of why Malorie is alone and why she has two children of the same age with her.

This is one of the charms of the novel because when a chapter ends, it’s typically a cliff hanger and the reader won’t figure out what happens until a few chapters later. There were moments when I would reach the end of a chapter, look at the clock knowing I need to be somewhere, but couldn’t wait so I continued reading.

Another charming thing that Malerman does in his novel is never show the monster. The apocalyptic event is this creature that causes insanity in those that view it. So, reasonably, the reader never gets even the hint of a description other than it might smell bad. Even when the characters see the creatures, they don’t see the creature. For some writers, that might be a hindrance, but for Malerman he writes it really well. The way characters live in the world where vision is a danger, they wear blindfolds. This natural isolation makes even a leaf falling on the characters shoulder spooky. Is it a leaf? Is it a crazy person taunting the character? Is it the creatures? The characters don’t know and that’s when their imagination is the enemy. Even though it’s a leaf or a random twig breaking is intense to a reader because they don’t know either. They are, literally, in the dark like the characters.

The one thing that bugged me about the story was the lack of technology it employed. Presumably set in 2014 when Malerman wrote it, there isn’t much use of technology. Characters use phone books to call numbers using a landline. They don’t access the internet even though their power is still on. There is no GPS and the characters have to use mileage on their cars to judge distance. It felt like I had picked up a book from the early 1990’s. Which isn’t a bad thing, but for younger readers it may not be a relatable literary experience.

Bird Box is an interesting tale of survival and what a mother would do to protect herself and her two children. It’s an intense novel that’s a true page turner. Even though you know the fates of the characters, you’ll be cheering for the ill-fated characters during the flashback chapters. If you’ve never seen the Netflix film, give it a watch because it’s really pretty good. If you’ve never read the novel written by Josh Malerman, give it a read because it’s equally as good.

If you want to read an apocalyptic novel that doesn’t include the normal amount of blood and gore that is commonplace in most books of this genre, Bird Box is the novel for you.