Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Labyrinth Wall -- More Maze Runner than Hunger Games

The Labyrinth Wall (Obsidian Series Book 1), Emilyann Girdner, Luminous Words Press (2013)

Until I received an email from the author’s publicist, I had not heard of Emilyann Girdner or The Labyrinth Wall. But the offer of a free book piqued my interest. Reading the book description and several reader reviews heightened my curiosity and I felt compelled to enter this labyrinth.

The first chapter places the reader inside the labyrinth and introduces us to the protagonist, Araina, a teenage girl who’s only been alive two years. She’s a Mahk. This strange land has two types of people: the Creators, who live in the castle in apparent luxury, and led by the villainous Simul, and the Mahks, who live in the labyrinth. Their life is hard. Survival is the goal. Trust is absent. Hope is unknown.

One day Araina is defending her life in a fight with Darith, another Mahk, when they see a strange man emerge from the labyrinth wall. Determined to find out who this man is, especially since he seems to have the power to heal, these two form an unlikely alliance and embark on their quest.

Gardner fills the book with adventure after adventure, with a fast-pace that keeps the reader engaged. From Simul’s castle to the blood caves and onto the pit of snakes, the journey carries Araina into numerous dangers from magical attacks by the labyrinth itself to various creatures, such as saber toothed mutts and cannibals.

Despite the thrills of the quest, there are some problems with the book. Perhaps it is the pace of the plot, but the characters seem superficial. They could have been developed more. Without much history, the Mahks have little back story and we find out scant information about them. Even the villains remain distant, mysterious.

Then there is the suddenness of each episode. Darith disappears from the plot and is all but forgotten. Others emerge unexpectedly. And there seems too little credible connection at times.

Another problem centers on the loose ends and questions remaining at the end. There are so many questions that were popping into my head throughout. Who is Simul? Where did the Mahks come from? Why were they created? What is the labyrinth? Who is the mysterious stranger? Why were the Mahks created with different ages? With each new chapter it seemed new questions emerged. But very few got answered. I understand that this is book 1 of a series but I was hoping for more resolution.

There is little hope in the labyrinth, at least at the beginning. But the theme focuses on this concept, and as the story moves toward climax, we find hope emerge in a small band of characters. And their exposure rubs off on Araina, so that by the end of he book she has become more likable, someone I cared about.

In the book description, it says the book is “perfect for fans of adventure filled and imaginative favorites like The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games and the Hobbit”. Having read all the books in these three series (including Lord of the Rings), I entered the book with high expectations. I found it less like the Hunger Games or the Hobbit and much more like The Maze Runner. Simul is no President Snow, at least from what we see in this book. And Araina is no Katniss. The Hunger Games has better character development and a stronger plot. But being comparable with the Maze Runner is no mean feat. This one is worth a read if you’ve finished those other books. And I am hoping for more character development in book 2, and certainly want some answers to my questions.

*I was given an eCopy of this book, from the author, to read in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 10 Books Read in 2014

I read a lot of books in 2014, some non-fiction, mostly fiction. There were some dogs. There was some pulp fiction that helped me escape from the stress of work. But there were some real winners. Below is my top 10 list, formed without any real criteria; just the books I liked the most and would therefore consider reading again at some point. I recommend all of these for your reading enjoyment.

10 Consumer Detox (Mark Powley, 2011) This book was recommended by a friend. Lowly, a British clergyman, details how consumerism runs counter to the teachings of Jesus. For those that have become consumed with today’s consumerist culture, this book offers advice on how to detox and escape.

9 Moving Day (Jonathan Stone, 2014) A con man has created the perfect scam: show up to move the belongings of senior citizens one day early and drive away with a lifetime’s worth of stuff. But when he pulls this con on Stanley Peke, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, he has thrown down the gauntlet. Pete will not let some punk walk off with his belongings. This thriller pits two men against each other in what has become about more than just money. For Peke, this is about absolving the ghosts from his brutal past.

8 The Auschwitz Escape (Joel C. Rosenberg, 2014) Rosenberg’s latest novel is based on a true story. Jacob Weisz is a German Jew, who faces the terrible nightmare of the Nazi regime of World War 2. Captured and sent to Auschwitz, he determines to escape.

7 Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand, 2010) By now, everyone must have heard of Hillenbrand’s book, as Angelina Jolie has turned it into a major motion picture. This is the story of Louis Zemperini. A defiant and delinquent teenager, he became a legendary runner, before the Second World War brings him to an Army Air Forces bomber. Crashing into the Pacific, he survives over 40 days afloat before being rescued by the Japanese. The real story is his survival in the brutal prison camps in Japan, where the days of torture test his endurance to the limits if he is to remain unbroken.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl, 1946, 2006) Like Zemperini, Frankl was a survivor. As a psychiatrist in Austria before World War 2, he had the opportunity to emigrate to America but chose to stay with his family. But he lost them in the Nazi death camps. Sent to four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, the first half of the book tells the story of life in these camps while second half outlines Frankl’s pilosp[hoy of logo therapy and how man searches for meaning even in the midst of suffering.

5. Caught (Harlan Coben, 2010) Cohen’s thriller centers on a 17 year girl old gone missing along with a female reporter whose mission is to bring down sexual predators. The catch is she may have got it wrong with her last target, and she can no longer trust her previously reliable instincts. Bringing the focus on internet safety and the ease of destroying reputations on the internet, this thriller surfaces some challenging and relevant questions.

4. The Last Alibi (David Ellis, 2013) I do like legal thrillers. I came across defense attorney Jason Kolarich in this fourth installment. When a client comes into Kolarich’s office telling him that he believe he will become a suspect in two murders, Kolarich thinks this strange. But when more murders take place, Kolarich finds himself being framed and he goes from being defense attorney to defendant. This book twists and turns to the very end.

3. Blink (Malcolm Gladwell, 2007) I discovered Gladwell this year and this was one of the first books of his I read. In Blink he addresses how we make instant decisions. Bringing various stories to illustrate his points, he looks at why some people are brilliant decision makes while others aren’t, why following instinct brings success to some and failure to others, and why we can’t explain the best decisions. This is the book about “thin-slicing” — filtering down to the few factors that matter when making a decision.

2. Bright Empires Series (Stephen Lawhead, 2010-2014) When I read the first book in this sci-fi/fantasy series, The Skin Map, I was intrigued. A man has found the way to navigate the multiverse, moving from one place and time in one universe to another, and he has tattooed markers to help him remember on his skin. The second book, The Bone House, was a bit of a let-down the first time, as it has too many characters and plot lines which are left hanging. But, then I waited till all 5 books were done and went back to the start to read them all in sequence. And that is the way to attack this feast. By the time you get through books 3 and 4 (The Spirit Well and The Shadow Lamp), book 5 (The Fatal Tree) brings it all together for a satisfying conclusion as the band of intrepid questers seek to save the universe from the end of everything.

1. I am Pilgrim (Terry Hayes, 2014) Terry Hayes debut thriller is an epic and book-of-the-year nominee on goodreads. It starts with a shocking murder and moves from mystery to spy thriller. When the murder uses techniques written in the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation, it becomes clear that the author might help. But he is a pseudonym for a man who doesn’t exist: Pilgrim. Pilgrim, a spy for US intelligence, has retired, but is forced back into the game. What starts as a murder becomes a race-against-time to save America from oblivion. This is Bourne taken to the next level.

Monday, December 29, 2014

My Top 10 films of 2014

I didn’t get to see that many movies in 2014. This is partly due to increase in work, partly due to watching more TV shows (like Dr. Who), and partly to a decrease in desire to write movie reviews. But here is my top 10 movies made in 2014 that I saw. (I didn’t see that many more than this.) What I did see tells more about me than about the film. There is a preponderance of sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian futures.

10 Transcendence (Dir: Wally Pfister [debut])
Perhaps a little far-fetched, but poses questions about artificial intelligence and the confluence of man and machine. And it has Johnny Depp, even if in voice only for most of the film.

9. Mockingjay Part 1 (Dir: Francis Lawrence)
Jennifer Lawrence has made this role of Katniss Everdeen hers, and carries the film. Although this final book of the trilogy has been divided into two films (ala the final Harry Potter), this still was intriguing, if only to see the great Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final role.

8. Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir: Wes Anderson)
Too many stars to name, Wes Anderson brings all his regulars together in a beautifully shot, wonderfully scripted comedy. The movie is multilayered, told through story within story.

7. Gone Girl (Dir: David Fincher)
Gillian Flynn adapted her the screenplay from her own bestseller. Telling the story of a wife gone missing through flashback from a missing diary, the film pulls back the curtains on a seemingly wonderful marriage to show the dark underbelly beneath. Did he kidnap and kill her? Or is he innocent and being set-up?

6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Dir: Matt Reeves)
I liked the first reboot but found this to be even better. With Andy Serkis in the role of Cesar, this is the movie where the apes speak for the first time. We also find humans no better than apes, and some apes no better than humans. It sets the scene for the next installment well.

5. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Dir: Bryan Singer)
With Singer back at the helm, this seventh movie in the series brings back the cast of the original X-men trilogy along with the cast from First Class for a mash-up of past and future.

4. Non-Stop (Dir: James Collet-Serra)
Liam Neeson stars as a hard-drinking air marshall being set up in an airplane ransom. With most of the action in a claustrophobic cabin, this is not for those who have a fear of flying. And it just happens to have Lady Mary from Downton Abbey (Michelle Dockery).

3. Edge of Tomorrow (Dir: Doug Liman)
The tag line says it all: Live, die, repeat. Lima crosses “Groundhog Day” with “Starship Troopers” and comes out with a real winner. Disregarded as a typical Tom Cruise blockbuster, this epic day, fought many times over, is an adrenaline rush.

2. Snowpiercer (Dir: Joon Ho Bong)
Though made in 2013, this debuted in the States in 2014. The dystopian future has humanity’s only survivors of a global freeze traversing the world non-stop on a train, powered by an eternal engine. The film offers social commentary on the class system, and is a violent but action-packed journey.

1. Interstellar (Dir: Christopher Nolan)
Some loved it, some hated it. I loved it. Nolan sure knows how to make great films (Inception, Dark Knight, Memento). This epic story focuses on an interstellar space flight undertaken secretly as the only hope for humanity’s survival. It reminded me of 2001, another sci-fi epic that was received in bipolar fashion. The ending will keep viewers talking much like 2001’s did.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Turkey Films 2014

It's time for the annual Thanksgiving ritual. No, not sitting down to eat the big bird with family and friends. I mean coming up with the top "turkey films". You remember the rules. You substitute turkey for one of the words in the movie title. You don't use dinde or Turkei unless you're French of German. (But come to think of it why are you reading this or eating Thanksgiving dinner if you are French or German?)

Last year was Oscars. This year, we focus simply on films released since last Thanksgiving. Here they are, then, the top ten turkey movies of 2014:
  • InterTurkey
  • The Hunger Games: MockingTurkey (part 1)
  • Turkeys of the Galaxy
  • Gone Turkey
  • Turkeycrawler
  • The Theory of Turkey
  • Turkey of Tomorrow
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Turkeys
  • Sin City: A Turkey to Kill For
  • X-Turkeys: Days of Turkeys Past
And as a bonus, here are three American literary novels being read by one of my daughters in school (at least one was made into a movie):
  1. One Flew over the Turkey's Nest
  2. All the Pretty Turkeys
  3. The Turkeys they Carried

Happy Thanksgiving! Gobble, gobble, gobble.