Book Review #3: Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter

I am a fan of the original Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. It’s just so trippy and weird and punny and clever—you might say I have something of a kinship with this book, actually. (Here, I should say that by Alice in Wonderland, I refer to the combination of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.) As such, I am inclined to check out adaptations and spin-offs. Usually, I toss them away. (Confession: I have not seen The Mad Hatter Johnny Depp in Wonderland Alice in Wonderland. Three guesses and the first two don’t count as to why.)

Showalter’s Alice in Zombieland isn’t really what you’d call an adaptation, though. It’s more of a “loosely based on the ideas of” sort of deal. Which, honestly, is quite alright with me.

Straight from the beginning, though, I think there were a lot of unnecessary events. It’s no spoiler to say that Alice’s family is killed—it’s in the blurb! I suspect making Alice lose her father, mother, and sister was a ploy to make her tougher, or to make it so she has nothing left to lose. Showalter tries, but I don’t think she does a good job of achieving either. Alice’s emotional numbness makes sense, at least, though.

Another gripe of mine is the visions Alice and the of course stunningly beautiful, bad-boy-with-a-heart Cole. As a reason to get them together, it’s pretty weak. I’m a huge believer in self-fulfilling prophecy, but this… not feeling it, to be honest. Both Alice and Cole feel a little flat, and, while this is common in teenage relationships, they seem to have the same fights over and over again. Given their situation, especially Alice’s desires to prove her worth, it’s understandable, but re-hashing it for the last third of the book really didn’t help.

Kat, however, I appreciate, except for how preachy she is about not swearing. It’s fine that she doesn’t do it—don’t get me wrong. It’s just how she comes off saying it in the first place. I’ll give Showalter points in that it is a very typically teenager way, however. Kat is one of her best-written characters, I think. Showalter really had me going on what I thought Kat’s secret was, only to reveal it as something completely different. Unfortunately, I think I know what Kat’s fate is (I won’t reveal it because it ties into a spoiler about Kat), especially as it ties into Alice, and it makes me a little sad.

The one thing that really stood out to me was Showalter’s concept of zombies. In Showalter’s world, zombies are not flesh-and-bone beings, but spirit beings of evil, and even “good” people can become zombies upon their spiritual death. (Another thing Showalter is good—almost too good, as it gets kind of confusing—at: blurring the line between good and evil people.) Of course, there’s some serious tension between Cole and his zombie fighters, and another group focused on not destroying zombies, but figuring out how they work and harnessing it for *ahem* the “greater good”.

There isn’t terribly much action, but then, the story is still building, as this is the first book of at least two. (From the beginning, it’s clear we’re set up for at least one sequel—is the standalone just not a thing anymore?!) I can’t say I’m completely intrigued to see where it goes—after all, Kat’s fate is the one I’m most invested in. Unless Showalter pulls out all the stops in the next book, I fear she’s going to lose a lot of readers. After all, there’s only so much Alice messing up and Kat’s zaniness and Alice and Cole getting a little hot-and-heavy people will take. (Showalter is pretty preachy on the “no sex before marriage” thing, or at least “no sex before you’re ready”. I’m still not sure which one is her ideology. I’m totally okay with the latter, but the first just seems kind of forced.)

As a young adult book, I’d give Alice in Zombieland a solid B, bordering on B+ (3.5 stars). I wouldn’t read it again for fun, but it was an entertaining read the first time around, and very unique in its treatment of zombies. Again, I’m not sure I’ll pick up any future sequels, and I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone who isn’t a YA fan. If you enjoy YA literature, however, give it a read.

FabPhab: My Fabulous Phablet

I am now the proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy Note 2, and though I’ve had it for only a short time, I can tell you that I made the right decision in the phone I wanted to get.

Yes, my mobile service has it come pre-loaded with a ton of bloatware crap that I’ll probably never use, but since I’m not an “app junkie”, as the reviews describe frequent app users, I think I’ll be fine. I have a Kindle Fire I can populate with apps, anyway. (Would that I were joking…)

Honestly, I was a little apprehensive about taking the big step from “dumb” phone to smart phone. As a computer scientist, I’ve had it drilled into my head that if a piece of hardware or software doesn’t do what it’s designed to do, then it’s not worth it. From what I’d seen and done with smart phones (which admittedly wasn’t much), they weren’t always great at what they did. Some had great 3G/4G/wireless, but crappy call quality. Some had the opposite. Some had the worst freaking user interfaces I’d ever seen, and I’ve encountered (and even made, once) some pretty bad ones. I was especially leery of the keyboard, honestly. I was used to my slider phone that was bulky as hell, but had quite the functional keyboard… right up until the “n” key started not working and it started repeating letters when I pressed the button only once. I had to face the music—it was time to start looking for a new phone.

While I was still a little skittish of smart phones, I’d noticed that, more and more often, I was going “Jeez, a smart phone would be so useful right now!” When I was trying to find a bus to hop on, when I was trying to find a friend’s house, when I wanted to look something up during class and didn’t have my laptop on me. (That last one far less frequent than the others, though.) I just wanted something that I could be sure would work. I started browsing through the phones that my carrier was currently offering, and I started seeing a pattern: the Samsung phones had higher ratings than most of the other phones. Curious to see what the fuss was about, I perused those particular phones.

It was by chance that I clicked on the Note 2. It had 2 reviews, both of them talking about how they were excited for the coming release of the phone and how it was going to be the best thing since sliced bread. Yup, it hadn’t even been released at that point! I wondered if that was just hype to get people to buy it. At any rate, I figured I’d keep tabs on it, as I liked the look of the phone, and it seemed like it could carry out what it promised in terms of features. My contract wouldn’t expire until a few months after its release, so at least I would have some time to keep checking the reviews and make sure that users were pleased with it.

The release came and went, and the reviews started flooding in. They all seemed positive, but a lot of them were just in the vein of “omg this phones so gr8”, which didn’t really tell me anything. There were a few that were brutally honest, but even so, gave it four or five stars, typically. I also checked the low-star reviews, but one of those turned out to be about not to turn off the email signature, and business demands that it be turned off. (First: um, I’m pretty darn sure you can. Second: smart phones are fairly commonplace nowadays. I think people will be okay if your email was sent from one, unless it also adds that you were on the golf course instead of in your office.) Another few turned out to be about the size. While it’s a valid dig—the thing is HUGE!—it’s well-known that this is more of a “phablet” (a phone crossed with a tablet, for those not yet up to speed on their smart phone lingo) than your garden variety phone. For what it’s worth, I’d looked at and handled one in-store and knew what I was getting into on that score.

That cemented it. I was getting one. I kept on checking the reviews to make sure that there were no big issues suddenly discovered, and, lo and behold, there weren’t, so I went ahead and got it. It was love from the first. (Seriously, if you couldn’t tell, I am still totally excited about my new gadget.)

I can walk away from it, make no mistake. I’m not attached to it at the hip. Though, with its size it’s a little hard not to feel that way with it in my pocket—I’m still amazed that I can actually fit it in there! My friend has taken to calling it a “purse dog”, stemming from my likening this phone to a big dog that thinks it’s a lap dog.

I’m still learning how to use it, actually. The occasional “curse you, software!” can be heard from my room when I can’t figure out an action within a minute or two. The keyboard is actually pretty amazing, and I can, in fact, two-thumb type much as I used to, though I have to click back out of the symbols menu, which is a bit of a pain. The apps I can get for free (I’ve only grabbed a few ones; useful ones like “One Bus Away”) are decent, and the phone is good about notifying me when it wants something, like to be charged. The screen’s just sensitive enough, which is nice. I can shut it in its case, and I generally won’t open it later to find it already in an application. I’ve also learned how to lock it so that I don’t have to play application roulette when I don’t want to. The S-pen is easy to use, though because I tend to hold it at a slant, it doesn’t always work. It does not help that my handwriting is not the most amazing, but I can still read it, so it’s all good.

If it’s not already clear, I highly recommend this phone. The size is the main deterrent, but if you can get past that, it’s an amazing not-exactly-little device. The call quality is excellent (at least, in my area–I’ve heard differently from reviewers in other parts of the country). The interface itself is mostly straightforward, and (as noted before) the touch sensitivity is amazing. The battery just does not quit–it took two days of medium use for it to get to 17%! I haven’t dropped it yet, nor do I intend to, so I can’t speak for how it holds up when treated roughly. (I also have it in a monster of a case that has good protection ratings.) Hopefully, it has staying power, both market-wise and durability-wise.

Book Review #2: The Latter Two Thirds of “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

WARNING! HERE, THERE BE SPOILERS. I will try not to ruin the whole book, and I won’t say exactly what happens to Celia and Marco, but still, there’s a good reason I’m warning you. If you have not read the book and would like to unspoiled, read no further.

The mind’s-eye candy never changed, and I wish I could say that’s the only thing that didn’t.

The character development improved a little, but mostly for the secondary characters, and mostly in the form of revelations of secrets. Honestly, I suspected about half of what was going to happen, and it could have been written with completely different characters and I probably would never have noticed. Celia and Marco headed just the way I thought they would, including how they ended the story—it was just sort of inevitable, and, in my opinion, not entirely original.

I was also unimpressed with the character deaths—though there weren’t many who were killed off (the body count was 2 by the end—not bad), their deaths seemed to have little rhyme or reason, especially the first one that occurs. While every character has their purpose or being brought into the story, it seemed like removing them does not. I think each was meant to force a character’s hand, but I just really didn’t see it. Or maybe it was to show how the circus was falling apart as Celia and Marco’s attachment grew? I’m really not sure. Either way, they didn’t seem particularly necessary.

Bringing characters in does, however, bring me to Bailey. It seemed like he was who the story was about all along—he had the most to gain or lose based on his decisions. Don’t get me wrong—Marco and Celia did have a lot to lose based on the decisions they made, but their fate just seemed so clear to me that their struggle just wasn’t as engaging. By the end of it, though, Bailey, Poppet, and Widget were the real main characters, and while the whole passing-down theme is nice and rings true, it still wasn’t that much of a surprise that things ended the way they did.

I guess there were some nice in your face/my father does not control my fate, no matter what stupid games in which he decides to use me as a pawn moments, but even so… I just wasn’t feeling it, especially not with Marco. It was never clear to me why he decides to make Lefevre forget things, other than to keep control of the circus, and his methods certainly did not endear me to him. Also, dude, stringing Isobel along when you knew it wasn’t gonna happen: NOT COOL. (I speak as one who has been burned by such behavior, so it’s probably a little more infuriating to me than to some.)

I sort of guessed Tsukiko’s identity, or at least her importance to the story, fairly early on. However, I did not suspect that Isobel’s involvement was of such a similar nature. And, given their involvement, it is remarkable to me that they are as mentally balanced as they seem. Just saying. I really did enjoy Tsukiko’s character, though. For as enigmatic as she is, she doesn’t seem bothered by much, and that’s something I’m not but wish I was. I will admit that her ability to keep calm is a little eerie, given her history, though, and I guess that’s what I find unlikable about all of the characters: they never really seem to react. They all seem like they’re wrapped in cotton and can’t move very well.

All in all, the writing of the scenery in the final two thirds of the book was not magical enough to detract from the half-successful attempt at character development. It was just a little too fleeting and uninvolved when it came to the characters, and did not particularly leave me wanting more as a result. (As far as that goes, it’s good that this novel is self-contained and not part of a larger series.) The imagery was beautiful, though a little more neglected especially in the last third in order to leave room for character development that just never quite got there for me. I’m going to flash back to first grade and do a six traits assessment, though, because giving it just one rating while trying to take everything into account will not do the book proper justice. (For those unfamiliar with the six-trait system, here’s an overview. I will not be assigning a value to presentation, as it is not one of the original six, and doesn’t really matter in this case.)

Ideas: Fantastic on the illusion and attention to detail. The overarching plot, the thing we are supposed to learn from, is highly interesting as well. However, the characters could have used more work, especially as applied to the Big Lesson, such as it were, and when this was attempted, the scenery took a back seat. 3.5/5.

Organization: A little muddy, timewise, and this made it rather confusing to follow. Also, the short chapters were just a little too clipped. (This would fall under presentation, I suppose, but it is also an organizational issue.) 3/5.

Voice: A little too focused on the scenery rather than the message, which was clear from the beginning, and so just kind of beat into the reader’s head as you went along. Very little extraneous fluff to distract the reader from this, though, and in my book that earns her credit. 3.5/5

Word Choice: Smashing. Can’t praise it enough. 5/5.

Sentence Fluency: Strikes a very good balance that very successfully lands between too brief and too long. 4.5/5

Conventions: Given that this book was doubtless edited multiple times before it was printed, it’s not entirely fair to give it a grade, but it was broken up nicely in terms of paragraphing, and it was not poorly edited by any means (I tend to keep a keen eye out for misspellings, and I’ve read several books recently that contain them after editing, so this was rather a breath of fresh air in that regard), and it does seem like the original spirit of the book was kept nicely intact after editing. 5/5.

Overall, by no means is this a bad first novel. While the character development could definitely use work (as this is her debut novel, I will happily give her the benefit of the doubt and trust that it will get better), I feel that she has the rest of this writing thing down-pat, and I would love to see more imagination-candy from her.

Book Review #1: 1st Third of “The Night Circus”

I’ve wanted to read “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern for quite some time now. I’m only a third of the way in, but I have to say, it’s pretty brilliantly written. I did almost put it down in the beginning because it is emotionally brutal at times (especially considering its premise is using humans as pawns in a game meant to entertain the players), but the concept of the circus itself is fascinating and the imagery is dazzling. It makes me want to attend a Cirque du Soleil performance or go see a magic show or something. The only thing really lacking thus far is the character development of the leads, which I am hoping will pick up as the love story develops, but the imagery almost makes you forget that you want to know these shadow-in-the-night-as-of-yet figures. Oh, Erin Morgenstern, you play this game very well…

Now, for a quick plot summary up to the chapter entitled “Chaperoned” (p. 158 of the paperback):

A cold-hearted illusionist by the stage name of Prospero is suddenly delivered a child–his daughter–after the woman who bore her committed suicide. (Seriously, this is what you start with?!) Seeing that she has inherited his illusionist abilities, which are indeed magical/paranormal in this universe, he decides to train her as his pawn in a game he plays with another magician. They’re very shadowy about the terms, but I surmise it is to see who can produce the better illusionist. He drills her and drills her in the art, to the point of torturing her, once shattering her wrist so that she must heal it with her abilities. He seems to care nothing for her, and through a trick gone awry, turns transparent and must have Celia make her debut earlier than it seems he had planned, though he does follow her as a sort of ghost. It is at this point Celia claims she is married, and, with Marco’s skill with binding, and his master binding him with a ring earlier, it seems fairly clear who she is married to, though these two have not yet met.

We are also introduced to Prospero’s counterpart, a magician by the stage name of Alexander, who finds an orphan to raise as his pawn by means of isolating him and making him essentially learn by rote memorization the arts of illusion. This young man, Marco, grows up to help Alexander’s associate (Maybe? It is unclear…) establish the Night Circus, though Lefevre has no idea of Marco’s origins as an illusionist. Celia comes to audition for the part of the illusionist, and wins it brilliantly, and thus, the Night Circus is established.

During this time, we also meet several other players, among them, a boy by the name of Bailey, who sneaks onto the circus grounds on a dare by his older sister. This is strictly forbidden and a sign proclaims that any outsider caught on circus grounds between dawn and dusk will be exsanguinated. A little red-headed girl catches him and shows him out, giving him her glove as his token to prove that he completed the dare. Later on, he ventures back.

Marco has met a young woman by the name of Isobel, and clearly they are more than friends at this point, though as Marco grows more consumed by the Night Circus, he ignores her more and more, especially after the grand success of the grand opening of the Night Circus.

Now, some time is passed and I’m in a bit of a lull, but we’ll see how the rest of the book goes as Marco and Celia are doubtless drawn inexorably to each other and everything unravels around them (if the summary on the back is to be believed, anyway)… ‘Til then!