Friday, September 16, 2011

"Warm Bodies" by Isaac Marion

241 pages

What is left of us? the ghosts moan, drifting back into the shadows of my subconscious. No countries, no cultures, no wars but still no peace. What’s at our core, then? What’s still squirming in our bones when everything else is stripped? (p 148)

Zombies have taken over pretty much everything and the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. R lives with many of his fellow Undead in what used to be an airport. However, he's not like the others. He'd rather be listening to Sinatra and riding the elevators (when the electricity sporadically kicks on) than. He wants to remember his previous life, but all he gets are flashbacks here and there. As for his name, he just knows it started with "R." Although he craves human flesh, something about feeding on it seems wrong to him. He feels that he has no other choice, though, so he goes along with the zombie hordes. During one attack, R devours a young man and experiences some of the victim's memories as he eats the brain. This gives him a glimpse into the life of Julie, the young man's girlfriend. In a rash moment R decides to protect Julie instead of eating her. Then some pretty weird stuff starts happening (weird even for a post-zombie-apocalypse world). What results from R's decision might just change not only his own life (using the term "life" loosely) but also the world.

This is not your typical zombie book, and I loved every minute of it. At first it seems like it will be just a more manly than usual tale of paranormal romance, but it turns out to be much more. Ultimately, this is a story about what makes a human being human, the line between being alive and being dead, and having hope. The writing is beautiful without being cheesy, and the story is meaningful but not without moments of (dark) humor. There's enough gore to keep it interesting but it's not so over-the-top that the weak of stomach can't handle it. It gave me my zombie fix but also made me pause and think. Fantastic! This is Marion's first published novel, and I am anxious for more.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Sing You Home" by Jodi Picoult

466 pages

One miscarriage too many spelled the end of Max and Zoe Baxter's marriage. Zoe wanted to keep trying to have a baby, but Max couldn't stand to go through all the stress or see his wife get hurt again. After veering into alcoholism, Max becomes a born-again Christian and falls into the arms of his brother's super-conservative church. Meanwhile, Zoe finds comfort in a new friendship with Vanessa, a school counselor she met earlier through her job as a music therapist. Before long, however, Zoe and Vanessa realize that their feelings for each other are deeper than they initially thought. After a whirlwind romance, Zoe and Vanessa get married and decide to have a baby together so Zoe can finally be a mother. They plan to use the leftover frozen embryos from Zoe and Max's in vitro attempts, but first they have to get Max's permission. Feeling pressure from his pastor and congregation, Max takes Zoe to court to keep her from using their embryos to have a baby with Vanessa.

Of the Jodi Picoult books I've read so far ("My Sister's Keeper," "Change of Heart," "Nineteen Minutes"), this is my least favorite. The pacing just seemed so off to me. Zoe's shift from Max to Zoe (and straight to lesbian) seemed abrupt and unlikely, as did Max's sudden conversion to fundamentalism. I didn't have any trouble predicting the ending, either. I liked getting the different viewpoints on this controversial issue, but both sides seemed oversimplified to me and I couldn't relate to any of the characters. The conflict was interesting enough to keep me reading, but that's about all that made me continue.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

X/1999: Volume 15: Waltz

by CLAMP, 180 pages

As a trusted soul is secretly consumed by its other, darker self, the Dragons of Heaven are unwittingly led into danger. If the dreamseers' fateful visions come to pass, where the reinvigorated companions seek victory they will find only death and defeat.

This volume is yet another example of hope mixed with darkness. Seal Yuzuhira finds the strength to protect herself and her friends and rediscovers her lost spirit-dog companion; but dreamseer Kakyo's sweet vision of Hokuto Sumeragi, Subaru's dead twin sister, proves to be just a recurring heartbreaking dream, like a broken record, with no hope of resolution. Which tone will win out in the end? Whose beliefs will be legitimized and whose invalidated? Those who affirm the immutability of fate...or those who challenge it? Obviously, the reader is all for challenge. It's human nature, after all. But whether unpredictable CLAMP will choose to support that notion and, if so, to what degree, remains to be seen. Either way, I'm sure they'll make the journey to that revelation as twisted and hard-won as they can.

Blade of the Immortal: Volume 2: Cry of the Worm

by Hiroaki Samura, 165 pages

Rin and Manji roam the country searching for her parents' killers, Anotsu Kagehisa and his Ittô-Ryû, a revolution-minded school of swordsmanship bent on eliminating all others while incorporating the most powerful elements of their styles. When the pair comes across a young monk who not only is an Ittô-Ryû member but also offers Manji the chance to join him in overthrowing them, the immortal samurai wants no part. He's after Anotsu for Rin's sake and his own mission, not for the meaningless, dangerous, absolute power that taking over the school would give him. But when he trades what should have been fatal blows with the determined monk, he realizes he's not the only one out there with time on his side...although he may not have it for long.

Manji's immortality stems from the thousands of kessen-chu, or bloodworms, that reside in his body and immediately go to work repairing the damage whenever he's injured. As much as he'd like to get rid of them and die like everybody else, he's not ready to throw in the towel just yet. So, naturally, he's none too pleased, and in a world of pain, to find they've suddenly gone on vacation and left to reopen every wound he's incurred since their introduction to his system. Being something of a fatalist, however, he's prepared to go if go he must. But more than for himself, he fears for Rin and what will happen to her if he's gone.

This volume's rumination on the flipside of immortality ventures beyond the usual topics of loneliness and boredom one might find in the more thoughtful of vampire tales to include the idea of value relative to what one does with all that extra time. No extension of seconds or years or centuries will make you something you are not. If you waste them dreaming and not doing, then you are nothing more than you ever were, whatever excuses you may make for your lack of progress up to now. What does "life" really mean, then? How do you make it count for something? These are questions Manji, his opponent, and even Rin must all ponder and answer for themselves.

While I occasionally enjoy a cold, detached, unreadable hero, sometimes it's nice not to have to guess what's going on behind a stony expression. As strong and cool as Manji is, Samura never completely closes the door to his emotions. When he's surprised, he looks surprised; when he's inordinately pleased with himself, he looks as smug as all get out; and when he's worried for Rin, his concern is clearly written on his face (although he may hide it with a snide joke or a convenient pocket of shadow). That accessibility makes him less invulnerable than he'd care to appear, but it also makes him deeper, more human, and easier to identify with. Similarly, Rin, an emotional teenager forced to grow up too quickly, is just as open, though with more naïveté than, and with nearly as much bravado as, her cocky, cynical bodyguard. It's no wonder she cries whenever he's hurt, even though she knows he'll heal--pain is pain and no one wants to see someone they care about suffer. With his choice to make his principals so visually emotionally honest, Samura ensures that that "no one" includes the reader.

Bride of the Water God: Volume 4

by Mi-Kyung Yun, 172 pages

Mui succeeds in bringing Soah back to Suguk, but what future awaits them? As Soah grows more torn than ever in her feelings toward Haebek and Mui, not realizing they are one and the same, other players take turns moving their pieces on the board and sitting back to watch the results.

Too many secrets and misunderstandings cloud these characters' lives for them to move forward safely. Why doesn't Haebek tell Soah the truth directly? Or maybe he can't? This story reminds me of those puzzles with the little numbered tiles that you have to scoot around with only one blank space to get them all in order. No piece's place is truly set until the last one slides into its rightful spot. Who can Soah trust? Can these characters even trust themselves and their own memories? Dunno, dunno, but I'm sticking around till I find out!

Bride of the Water God: Volume 3

by Mi-Kyung Yun, 188 pages

Haebek sends Soah back home with no memories of her time in Suguk, but the vast majority of her once-again-drought-stricken village is less than pleased at her return. Why did he send her away? And why does Mui, unrecognized, keep showing up when she needs him if he really doesn't want her around?

The answers appear, in part, to lie with the emperor of the other world. What with his shape-changing and too-keen curiosity and gleeful messing about with other people's hearts just to see what happens, Haebek's sovereign takes unusually active interest in the personal lives of those beneath him. The reader doesn't even know what he's capable of, but Yun makes it clear from Haebek's reactions that there's definitely something to fear there, despite the friendly and familiar exterior. And so this story adds yet another player with shrouded motives to the game of intrigue and mystery, plots and counterplots. It's all a little confusing, but engaging enough to make the reader dig for deeper understanding and wait impatiently for the next volume.

The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty

by Robyn Griggs Lawrence
(2004 | 179 p)

"Simply put, wabi-sabi is the marriage of the Japanese wabi, meaning humble, and sabi, which connotes beauty in the natural progression of time. Together, the phrase invites us to set aside our pursuit of perfection and learn to appreciate the simple, unaffected beauty of things as they are." -- Robyn Griggs Lawrence, The Wabi-Sabi House

I bought The Wabi-Sabi House 4 or 5 years ago. I remember really enjoying the book but somehow it got put down unfinished, until recently. My current fascination with the philosophy of Taoism brought this book back to mind. I found that many of the ideas I was reading in the books on Taoism mirrored concepts I'd seen in The Wabi-Sabi House all those years ago. So I fished this book back out of the bookshelf and gave it another go, this time getting all the way to the end before it was again tucked away on the shelf.

I'm clearly no wabi-sabi aficionado, but my understanding is that this Japanese aesthetic is rooted in Zen Buddhism. And in my readings on Taoism I did learn that Toaism had an influence on that particular school of Buddhist thought. The concepts of simplicity, humbleness, and appreciation are clearly shared by both philosophies.

This book was very wabi-sabi in its own right. The focus is on home decor from the wabi-sabi perspective, but there are segues into voluntary simplicity, the art of tea, and other connected ideas. Pictures were sparse throughout. I can understand why this was done (it's very wabi-sabi) but would have liked illustrations of the various schools of design that were discussed. Someone without a background in home design (like myself) was a little lost in the sea of name dropping. The only name I recognized was Frank Lloyd Wright, the rest was white noise. But a full list of resources in the back gives websites for further research so I suppose I shouldn't really complain.

And, in any case, after reading this book I found myself looking at the well-loved but aged things in my home a bit differently, with more appreciation and acceptance. I will definitely learn more about wabi-sabi and hope to incorporate it into my home. For these reasons alone I'd gladly recommend this book to anyone interested in paring down and finding the beauty of life as it happens.

"Black Hole Sun" by David Mcinnis Gill

340 pages

In Annos Martis 238--Mars Year 238--Durango is a Regulator, a specially trained operative hired by rich people to retrieve their kidnapped loved ones. He's rough, he's tough, and he's seen it all...that is, until he's approached by representatives of a mining community who want him to help them get rid of the Draeu, a violent, cannibalistic subspecies that terrorizes the miners. Durango agrees to take the job despite the fact that it's not his typical work and it takes him farther out on the Martian frontier than he's used to. He sets off with his crew: Vienne, his beautiful, loyal, tough-as-nails second-in-command; Ockham, an aging Regulator veteran; Fuse and Jenkins, a pair of super-goofy Regulators; and, last but not least, Mimi, the snarky artificial intelligence unit "flash-cloned" to his brain. When they arrive at the mines and start learning more about their mission, it becomes clear that there's more going on than they're being told. The Draeu are after more than simply people to eat--they believe that the miners have a treasure. Not just any treasure, either--a very dangerous treasure that Durango is all-to-familiar with.

It took me a while to get into "Black Hole Sun," but when I did I really liked it. The action is non-stop but there's a lot of humor mixed in as well, which isn't the case with many sci-fi novels. Durango, Vienne, and Mimi are characters who are very easy to like and it's not hard to relate to them despite the unfamiliar environment and situation they are in. The plot is interesting and there's a nice surprise at the end. My one complaint is that I wish the author explained more about the world this story takes place in. There are a lot of new terms and jargon that aren't defined, and this made the conversations and action sequences hard to follow sometimes. I think that's part of the reason why it took me so long to get into this book. Other than that, I found "Black Hole Sun" to be a fun, interesting story, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.