Book Review: Rambler: A family pushes through the fog of mental illness



Title: Rambler: A family pushes through the fog of mental illness

Author: Linda K. Schmitmeyer

Published: September 25, 2018

Pages: 374

Genre: Memoir/Nonfiction

Synopsis: When Steve, a successful young engineer, suddenly quits his job after a fight with his boss and begins exhibiting troubling signs of mental illness, a family’s seemingly idyllic middle-class life is thrown into chaos. Rambler takes the reader on an incredible 10-year quest of a family to stick together through the worst of his troubles and find answers from a medical community whose understanding of mental illness was lagging in the 1990s.



Final Thoughts:

In the realm of memoirs and nonfiction books based on medical issues, sometimes there are Important books, and there are Good Reads, and they do not always overlap. Many readers know the experience of trying to plod through an book just because they feel they should. The end result may be gratifying, but the doing is not. Or the act of reading a book whose narrative breezes along, but in the end, nothing of value remains.

This book is one of the fortunate few that exist in both spheres. Linda’s long career as a journalist and writing instructor is apparent, as events are presented in an engaging and easy-to-understand style. Despite the seriousness of a family struggling with the weight of bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, Linda is self-aware enough to find a dark humor in her life, through things like her husband’s idiosyncratic obsession with Rambler automobiles, and an odd sequence of events that led to the cover photo of Steve standing triumphantly atop a Rambler half-sunk in the middle of a pond.

These are counterbalanced by heart-rending details of events occurring while Steve was having an episode and the family’s ensuing struggle to cope with all of the chaos that entailed, emotionally, socially, medically, and financially. Steve’s personal battle would reach an apex when, after losing his engineering job, he was arrested and placed in a psychiatric hold during an engineering conference in Detroit, Michigan. Unfortunately, it would still be several years before the medical community caught up with Steve’s issues and figured out both an appropriate diagnosis and a mixture of medications that could quiet his mind. These years were a trying time for a family who had effectively lost their primary source of income, and for whom medical answers were not readily forthcoming.

Although the family very humanly experienced wistful despair and even anger at their situation, through all of the struggles is an undercurrent of love. Childrens’ love for their father. A wife’s love for her husband. A father’s love for his family. Each are strained to their limit in turn and for different reasons, but their resiliency and dedication to holding together as a unit is truly uplifting.

Rambler is a worthy companion to recent popular nonfiction books regarding mental illness, like Brain on Fire, by Susannah Calahan (encephalitis); and fictional entries like Still Alice, by Lisa Genova (Alzheimer’s). Especially given that this books offers something that many others do not: the first-person perspective of a family member.

The book is now available on Amazon, here.

On a final, personal note, I know the Schmitmeyer family, although not especially well. Linda and Steve were a part of a “card club” including my parents when I was growing up, and their children were a frequent part of the cast of characters at a pool belonging to a mutual neighborhood friend in the summers. Although much of the events of this book took place before I was in high school and thus my understanding of both mental illnesses and the family lives of others was extremely limited, I was very surprised upon reading at how much of the Schmitmeyer’s struggle was kept quiet within the neighborhood community. I knew Steve to be a charismatic and fun-loving person, who had a 1000-megawatt smile and an eager laugh. The family’s reasons for their reticence to share are eminently understandable: the stigmas surrounding mental illness are still very real, and even today’s relative state of enlightenment is a far cry from society’s general views in the late 90s. But, I think this is an important lesson; not that we should pry into the lives of others where it is not wanted, but that we should be aware that we may not know what our friends are going through at a particular time, and to do what we can to offer a hand or even an ear when we sense a need, because the issues may run far deeper than we realize.



Thanks for reading.

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Book Review: The Underland Chronicles (5-book series)

Series: The Underland Chronicles
Titles: Gregor the Overlander; Gregor and the Prophesy of Bane; Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods; Gregor and the Marks of Secret; Gregor and the Code of Claw

Author: Suzanne Collins

Published: 2003 – 2007

Pages: 336; 320; 304; 352; 416 (from Amazon data, but I think these are based on small pages with a large type-face)

Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 9+ Swearing and sexual content is basically non-existent, but the books get progressively scarier and more violent. Click here for the Common Sense Media Guide!

Synopsis:

Gregor is an ordinary 11-year-old boy who lives in a run-down apartment building in New York City with his mom. Gregor’s father disappeared from his life two years prior, leaving behind Gregor, his mom, and his two younger sisters, Lizzie (7), and Boots (2). As the oldest child, Gregor feels immense pressure to help his mother care for his sisters while he watches bills pile up and the family struggles to eat.

One day, while helping with laundry in the basement of the building with his baby sister Boots, Gregor observes that she is playing perilously close to an old air duct. Too late, he dives after her, and just like that, they both find themselves plummeting… but the fall lasts far longer than it should. At long last, Gregor and Boots arrive unharmed in a cave at some unknown depth. Before he can stop her, Boots sets off exploring, and she abruptly finds some very strange company. Before he can catch his breath, Gregor and Boots are caught up in the midst of a prophesy, with the fate of thousands hanging in the balance. And maybe, just maybe, the possibility of a reunion with his long lost father.

Gregor soon learns that he and Boots have landed in the Underland, a realm where cockroaches are nearly as big as humans, and rats are a great deal larger. Not to mention vicious. And they hate humans.

The Underland is home to a lost race of humans who have been underground for thousands of years. The humans have been at war with the rats on and off for generations. Upon arriving at the human kingdom, Gregor learns that the rats have a particular aversion to “Overlanders” due to an ancient prophesy predicting that one would essentially bring about the end of the rat kingdom.

When the human  leaders learn that Gregor’s father had mysteriously vanished two years prior, speculation abounds that his father had been captured by rats, which means that Gregor may be “The Warrior” referenced in the prophesy who could save the human race. An expedition is launched (owing much to The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit) to find Gregor’s father, fulfill the prophesy, and save the Underland human race in the process.

Joining Gregor in his quest are Luxa, the young heiress to the human throne, her cousin Henry, their two bats Aurora and Ares (who are bonded to their human partners sort of like Han and Chewie, but in an official capacity), two cockroaches named Tick and Temp, and a gigantic rogue rat named Ripred.

Unfortunately for Gregor, his adventures in the Underland do not end with one simple quest. No sooner has he found himself home than he is drawn unexpectedly into further adventures, with ever more complications, as Gregor’s friendships and stature in the Underland both develop and deepen.

Final Thoughts:

While Suzanne Collins is now far better known for her popular dystopian Hunger Games series, she kicked off her published writing career with the Underland Chronicles back in 2003. This is a different type of story, but built on a framework with some obvious parallels.

Like Katniss, Gregor is constantly driven by his love for his family and his desire to protect them at all costs. Also like Katniss, Gregor’s extreme selflessness in furtherance of this goal sometimes lends him a mythical quality to those around him, even though his inward thoughts show his fear and innocence. Both characters have lost their father and felt the need to step up in his absence. Gregor is perhaps more reserved in his acceptance of violence as a means to an end. When Gregor discovers that he has a particular talent for fighting, he is sickened, literally, by the idea, and wants nothing to do with any prophesy that could refer to him as a “warrior.”

In the sarcastic and battle-toughened rat Ripred, we see perhaps an early template for Haymitch. In the cold and calculating human leader Solovet are shades of President Coin.

To me, where this series diverges sharply from Hunger Games is in world-building. Pan-Em was an almost completely abstract representation of society with its rigid lines defining zones with ultra-specific economic purposes. The Underland is not a post-apocalyptic vestige of mankind. It is a fully mature civilization existing alongside ours. While Underland areas are divided mostly by species, each species functions independently and apart from the others except for profitable trade exchanges. While the humans and rats appear perpetually at war with each other, creatures like the cockroaches spiders, and numerous others fall into something of a neutral territory. The idea of impartial observers in a global conflict is something that is generally absent in Hunger Games.

At times, Gregor’s indifference for his own well-being and efforts to help others belie his tender age and strain credulity. But, perhaps his years spent without a father have toughened him and forced him to mature far faster than an ordinary pre-teen. Again and again Gregor willingly throws himself into danger to save Boots, to help the rest of his family, and, later, to do right by his friends in the Underland. As an adult reader I could not help rolling my eyes at times when Gregor took on the aura of a superhero, and adults in the Underland willingly sent him into extreme danger for their benefit, as if no one at all is on hand to say, “Hey, isn’t this kid, you know, like 11 or 12? Maybe we should help… a little?” And yet, the earnestness with which Gregor engages in his adventures is constantly endearing, and makes this an appropriate venture for younger readers. We never lose sight of exactly why Gregor is doing what he is doing, and neither does Gregor waver from his sense of what is Right and Just in furtherance of his goals. It doesn’t make his decisions throughout seem terribly complex or weighty, but sometimes it’s nice to have a simple read, in a world of black and white.

Romance is almost completely absent in books 1-4, but it does make an appearance in book 5. Unfortunately, these passages are rushed and underdeveloped, and feel almost as if they were shoe-horned in to add some emotional stakes and provide some additional ties for Gregor to The Underland rather than his family. On the other hand, keeping in mind that Gregor is still only 12 at the conclusion of book 5, I’m not sure increasing the romance is the answer. Perhaps simply an unbreakable friendship would have worked better and developed more organically over the course of all 5 books.

Ah, well, but I am nitpicking here, because I did greatly enjoy my time with Gregor in the Underland, and I would gladly venture back if ever Collins opens the door to return. I read the series over a couple months and found it to be a fun and refreshing diversion from more serious novels. I give the series 3.5* out of 5 stars.

Have you read this series? Let me know your thoughts!

 

 

*For reference, I’d have given Hunger Games a 4.

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Series: Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children (Book 1)

Author: Ransom Riggs

Published: 2011

Pages: 382

Genre: Horror/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 14+ Lots of spooky monsters and some adult subjects that may be just a little bit inappropriate for younger children. Click here for the Common Sense Media Guide!

Synopsis:

When Jacob Portman was a small child, his grandfather often regaled him with tales of the orphanage that “saved his life” during World War II. Abraham Portman’s stories were colorful, to say the least. They were populated by amazing children with special talents, like a girl who could float like a balloon on a string, and a boy who was so strong that he could toss a boulder as easily as a basketball. Jacob listened with awe to his grandfather’s stories as a young boy, but with the passing of time came a growing cynicism. Eventually, Jacob dismissed the stories as mere fairy tales, and they fell into the dark recesses of his mind, alongside Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

At the age of 16, a gruesome discovery at Jacob’s grandfather’s home shakes Jacob to the very core, and he is forced to challenge his beliefs regarding reality and fantasy. The discovery sets Jacob off on a mission to investigate the site of his grandfather’s former orphanage. He soon realizes that his grandfather’s stories were far more literal than he ever expected.

Final Thoughts:

Well, here I am at 30 years old and reading yet another Young Adult novel. You know what? It’s fine. 30 is still pretty young for an adult. I don’t feel like an adult. Why should I read like one all the time?

A Young Adult novel is comforting. Themes and conflicts are simple and easy to understand. You rarely need to check the dictionary when you read the sentences. It’s nice. If that’s what you want, Miss Peregrine is probably for you.

If it sounds like I’m qualifying my praise, it’s because I am. For me, there was just something missing in this book. I’m not quite sure I can put my finger on it, but I’m briefly going to try.

Perhaps the main thing is the ending. I’m not going to heavily divulge spoilers here, but suffice to say that it is unsatisfying. I have nothing against cliffhanger endings. Love them, in fact. There is nothing that makes me want to keep reading more than a final couple chapters that blister my fingers as I read them only to have the rug pulled out from under me. It’s exhilarating.

But when the book builds slowly but surely, and then, just, meh… Oh my god, is that disappointing or what? It’s criminal. I feel victimized!

I get that Riggs was setting up for a series of books, and he has since continued the story, but this particular book peters out in such an unsatisfying way that I really have no desire to find out what happens. There is no culminating moment to make me feel, “Okay, I’m really glad I read this.” It’s not that the stakes are low. The world is basically at stake (isn’t it always?), but there is something missing.

That being said, I place this book firmly above what I experienced in Veronica Roth’s Divergent universe. The romance in particular, which is still light and somewhat juvenile, is a bit more nuanced. Oh, who am I kidding? Hey guys, this book is not another shameless ripoff of Hunger Games (which is itself an amalgamation of other work)!

So it’s better! But honestly, if you’re treading around in this genre and you haven’t read The Giver, just go do that, OK? That’s the one you need.

Let’s see here… some other positives. The world Riggs builds is really a pretty original and interesting one. We get into a bit of light time travel, which is always good for some fish-out-of-water fun, by way of Marty McFly.

Riggs does a great job with descriptive passages. You can really feel the claustrophobically secluded atmosphere and the damp countryside soaking your bones. Given the disparate settings within the book, the story seems to take on different ambient temperatures throughout.

Overall, I thought this was a fine diversion. While I’m not sold on reading the sequels as of yet, I think Riggs has created an interesting mythology and cast of characters, and it is an easy read. I give it 3/5 stars.

Have you read this book? Let us know what you think!

MIss Peregrine is currently scheduled to hit theaters on September 30, 2016. Directed by Tim Burton, the movie stars Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, and Samuel L. Jackson. So, read the book now so you can watch it come to life this fall!

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Game Review: Vault-Tec Workshop (Fallout 4 DLC)

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: Vault-Tec Workshop (Fallout 4 DLC)

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios

Platforms: PS4, XBox One, PC

Release Dates: July 26, 2016

Genre: Action RPG

Players: Single player

ESRB Rating: M

Kid Friendly Rating: 17+ Ultra-violence, gore, swearing, sadistic activities.

Personal Rating: 3/5

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Synopsis:

Bethesda’s Fifth DLC for Fallout 4 is an interesting one. Once the wastleland wanderer reaches Level 20, they detect a new radio beacon. Tuning to this frequency triggers the start of the DLC. The beacon draws the wanderer to a vault buried beneath Quincy Quarries.

Upon arriving at the Quarries, the wanderer must fight their way through a horde of Raiders and heavy rads before arriving at the underground vault entrance for Vault 88. Once inside the vault, the wanderer meets Overseer Barstow, a ghoul who claims she was appointed overseer of Vault 88 long ago, but due to a series of mishaps and delays, the vault never properly got underway. In the intervening years, the Vault caverns have become overrun with all manner of wasteland creatures, including feral ghouls, mirelurks, molerats, and deathclaws.

Barstow tasks the wanderer with clearing out the vault caverns so that the vault can be inhabited and put to its original purpose, which was (according to Barstow) to conduct “experiments” on the vault dwellers.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a handful of story missions included in this DLC, as I was expecting nothing more than a brief “Hello,” and “Here are your vault tools. Have fun!” All told, there are eight missions here:

  • Vault-Tec Calling
  • Better Living Underground
  • A Model Citizen
  • Explore Vault 88
  • Power to the People
  • The Watering Hole
  • Vision of the Future
  • Lady Luck

Unfortunately, only the first four missions include what I would regard as substantive content (i.e. missions involving core gameplay action, like shooting bad guys and looting containers). The final four missions basically boil down to teaching tools for how to run the “experimental” vault facilities.

There’s no getting around the fact that this DLC contains, in large part, a bunch of “fluff,” as one of my co-wrkers would put it. For longtime Fallout gamers who have been turned off by the extensive people-managing and crafting found in Fallout 4, this will be disappointing overall. It contains a lot of it, and even the core gameplay pieces are mixed in with some tedious bits.

My gameplay falls somewhere in the middle. I enjoy the crafting, and I take a perverse pleasure in stripping down a settlement to its bare bones in a materials-gathering frenzy. The building of things, not so much. So why strip things down if I don’t like building much? BECAUSE I HAS SO MUCH MANY MATERIALS.

There is plenty to tear down in the vault tunnels, so lots to scratch that itch, and along the way, the wanderer encounters a fair amount of high-level foes, like legendary ghouls, a mirelurk queen, a deathclaw king, etc. That stuff is fun if you like the game overall. But, the DLC tails off in a collection of Sims-like activities, until finally the wanderer is presented with the vault, to use as sort of a blank canvas. This is where it loses me. And I’m not sure I’ll go back. But it was fun while it lasted!

A quick tip… The wanderer will find Vault 88 equipped with a pretty hardcore amount of power, but there is no obvious way to access it. Bethesda is amazing at not explaining things. They’re pretty much the best at it. The power is in the vault walls. All you need to do is install a vault conduit in the wall to access it. HOWEVER, in their infinite wisdom, the level designers did not provide power to wall pieces already installed in the vault. So you’ll need to strip down everything in the atrium and rebuild it before you can use it. Notice I said atrium. You can’t conduit the walls in the vault entrance, even though they have lights. Don’t ask me why.

Movie Review: Inside Out

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: Inside Out

Director: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen

Release Date: June 19, 2015

Genre: Adventure, Comedy

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 95 minutes

Starring:

  • Amy Poehler
  • Phyllis Smith
  • Bill Hader
  • Lewis Black
  • Mindy Kaling
  • Richard Kind

Kid Friendly Rating: A few moments may be scary for some children, but mostly the movie is firmly in imagination-land. There are some sad scenes, but that’s sort of the point. Recommended 6+. Click here for the Parent Rating Guide!

Personal Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:

Reilly is an eleven-year-old girl whose life is upturned when her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco for a new job opportunity. While she tries to make the best of the situation, the stressful situation combined with her developing emotional maturity quickly sour on Reilly, and she is left feeling lost and out of place.

Inside Reilly’s mind, Joy is the leader of Reilly’s five key emotions, also including Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Together, Reilly’s emotions work in “headquarters” to guide Reilly through her day-to-day life. In the midst of the tumultuous changes in Reilly’s life, Joy and Sadness suddenly find themselves sucked out of headquarters and lost in the vast stacks of Reilly’s memory banks. Together, they work to find their way back to headquarters to help Fear, Anger, and Disgust, who are floundering with Reilly in their absence.

Pictures:

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Memorable Quotes:

  • Congratulations San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza! First the Hawaiians, and now YOU!
  • All these facts and opinions look the same. I can’t tell them apart.
  • Your dad’s under a lot of pressure, but if you and I can keep smiling, it would be a big help. We can do that for him. Right?
  • Things couldn’t be better. After all, Riley’s twelve now. What could happen?

Fun Fact:

According to director Pete Docter, each emotion is based on a shape: Joy is based on a star, Sadness is a teardrop, Anger is a fire brick, Fear is a raw nerve, and Disgust is broccoli.

Final Thoughts:

This movie has quickly become one of my 2.5-year-old daughter’s favorites, probably due mostly to the beautiful artwork, physical comedy, and superb voice acting by the lead characters. However, the thoughtfully written and layered innuendo which has become something of a trademark of Pixar movies ensures that there is something here to enjoy for every age group. Older audience members may find the movie somewhat more emotional than the kiddos, because there is a lot of wistful nostalgia regarding the process of growing up and maturing emotionally. There are a few laugh-out-loud situations that I don’t want to spoil, but suffice to say the actors were well-cast for their comedic roles.

If there is one real drawback to the movie, it is that there is not a ton of educational value. The various areas of the brain are cleverly plotted, but don’t offer a lot of insight on brain functions or psychology, but, perhaps this is really not the appropriate venue for those topics. On the other hand, there is one central lesson; the idea that as we get older, our emotions become less clear, and opinions about what once was simply good-or-bad, true-or-false, tasty-or-gross, may end up somewhere in the middle. And this lesson may hit home stronger with growing children than some denser educational content, anyway.

Book Review: Tarzan of the Apes

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Title: Tarzan of the Apes

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

Published: 1914

Pages: 279

Genre: Action/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 11+ Parents may (or may not be) surprised to learn that the original work contains considerably more violence and racism than expected for a pop-culture touchstone. Click here for the Common Sense Media Guide!

Synopsis:

A cruel twist of fate cursed the English lord John Clayton and his pregnant wife to be stranded in the wild jungle of the southern African coast, with little hope of rescue. Miraculously, the young couple gives birth to a healthy baby boy, but further tragedy strikes, and the child is left alone, abandoned and parent-less.

When a grieving mother ape happens upon the young boy, she adopts him as her own, names him Tarzan, and raises him among the ape tribe. As Tarzan grows both in stature and intelligence, he begins to question his place in the world. In his adulthood, a chance meeting with a marooned group of English people sets Tarzan upon a course of self-discovery, heroism, and romance.

Final Thoughts:

Typically, I would hesitate to write a review for a hundred-year-old book, but as I read this one, I couldn’t help but notice that this book either directly or indirectly inspired many of the massive summer blockbusters and comic books of today. Tarzan of the Apes predates the late 1930’s debuts of popular DC comics like Superman and Batman by over a quarter century. While he is not the first “superhero,” having been predated at least by Spring-heeled Jack, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Burroughs’ own John Carter of Mars, he is certainly among the earliest and most enduring literary hero figures.

But is Tarzan truly a superhero in the traditional sense? The answer, to me, is unequivocally yes. Tarzan’s abilities manifest at two different levels, depending on his company. Among the apes, he is physically outmatched, but he is as quick and agile as any ape due to both his quick reflexes and his ability to process information quickly. His advanced mental acuity saves him from several sticky situations with rival apes. This first occurs when, as a child, he teaches himself how to swim, to the astonishment of other apes who are typically afraid of water. The divide between man and ape irrevocably widens when Tarzan discovers knives and rope, and quickly becomes the most fearsome hunter in the jungle.

It takes other humans to arrive in the jungle for Tarzan and the reader to realize his superiority over fellow man. While Tarzan’s intellect and intuition still appears remarkably strong (although raw) among other humans, his real advantage over other people is his prodigious strength, coupled with his intimate knowledge of the jungle animals and tribes. Fellow characters observe Tarzan’s incredible strength and grace with awe, as Tarzan rescues people time and again. At one point, Captain Dufranne, a hardened sailor in his own right, refers to Tarzan as a “superman,” long before this word entered the popular lexicon.

Of course, as with any superhero story, there are moments that defy logic for the benefit of the narrative. Tarzan rather improbably teaches himself to read, progressing from observing “little bugs” in children’s books he finds to becoming a rather adept reader before he ever meets an Englishman. Despite being unable to understand spoken English, he somehow manages to piece together how to spell “Tarzan,” the name given him by his ape mother.

Nevertheless, it is very easy to overlook these little details for what is a very readable and interesting story. Burroughs excels at describing tense moments of action in vivid detail. Tarzan’s jungle fights are violent, bloody, and merciless. As action abounds throughout the story, it is mostly fast-paced, although it takes a few chapters for the narrative to really hit its stride.

Some readers may be turned off by a few racist passages, particularly regarding Jane Porter’s servant Esmeralda, and the African tribe that frequently runs afoul of Tarzan in his adventures, but the story is not aggressively racist. These brief moments largely seem to be a product of the less-enlightened time in which the book was written.

Overall, I found this book to be a truly enjoyable read. For me, this was the type of surprise, in terms of the readability and action, that keeps me returning to well-known older books periodically. These books are just sitting out there, waiting to be read, for free! You never know what you might fall in love with.

I give it 4/5 stars.

The book is available to read for free at Project Gutenberg; free Audiobook versions at Gutenberg and Librivox; and if you have a Kindle or the Kindle reader, you can find a free no-hassle version onAmazon.

Tarzan of the Apes is set for yet another movie adaptation, this one a live-action release scheduled for July 1, 2016, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, and Christoph Waltz. Read the original work now so you can watch it come to life!

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Book Review: Metro 2033

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: Metro 2033

Author: Dmitry Glukhovsky (translated by Natasha Randall)

Published: 2005 (Russia); March 28, 2010 (U.S.)

Pages: 460

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Metro 2033

Kid Friendly Rating: 13+ Features some swearing, but mostly a read for young adults due to themes. The book is not nearly as violent as the video game series, but the situations are equally tense and twisted. Also contains some dense passages that may be difficult to navigate for younger readers.

 

Synopsis:

Artyom is a member of the last vestige of the human race. Following World War III, residents of Moscow have taken refuge from the radioactive and chemically defiled landscape in the labyrinthine caverns of the Moscow subway system. While horrific beasts patrol the lands, humanity lives on in utter darkness below ground, scraping together a meager life from mushrooms, rat meat, and a handful of farm animals taken underground. Artyom was just a small boy when the world ended. Now 20, his life and countless others have been spent almost entirely underground in the various stations of the Metro.

After a mysterious man named Hunter blackmails Artyom and hands him a mission allegedly vital for the survival of the human race, Artyom embarks upon an odyssey that thrusts him through several unforeseen and extremely dangerous adventures.

This book was the inspiration for the well-received Metro 2033 (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS4) andMetro: Last Light (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4) video games.

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Final Thoughts:

I confess I am guilty of over-confidence in books that have been translated into different forms of media. As my thinking goes, there must be something great in the story if someone thought it worthy of the time and effort to put it in a new form. Generally, I’ve found this to be a good formula for finding fun reading material. Most often, the stories turn out to be engaging and fast-paced, if not particularly deep.

As an unapologetic PlayStation loyalist, I’ve not had the opportunity to play Metro 2033, which apparently follows the plot of this novel very closely (with considerably more shooting), but after playing Metro: Last Light on PS3, I felt strongly that I was looking at only a small part of a complex larger picture, and I wanted to know more about this world, in which the entire human race lives underground.

In this respect, I was not wrong. Glukhovsky has essentially created an entire miniaturized society to fill the Moscow metro system, filled with haves and have-nots, Neo-Nazis, socialists, religious zealots, soldiers, civilians, farmers, prostitutes, monsters, ghosts, and many things in between. The book is a remarkable piece of world-building, and for many readers, this may be enough to satisfy.

Unfortunately for myself, I am typically not this kind of reader, and though I patiently worked my way through the book, I largely felt that the narrative was missing something to pull it all together and drive the story forward.

I’m not sure how to go about further discussion without getting into spoilers, so for anyone who would like to tune out now, here is my rating: 2.5/5 stars. In world building, I give it a 5. In the context of a compelling narrative, I’ll give it a 2. Obviously, I’m weighting one of those much more strongly than the other.

** SPOILERS AHEAD  **

Artyom’s journey begins in a poor station unfortunately situated near to a hive of so-called “dark ones,” a race of human-like monsters who are feared for their ability to drive humans mad and to their death. After a man Artyom doesn’t really know convinces Artyom to confess a deep secret, he uses the secret to blackmail Artyom into undertaking a dangerous mission. Artyom must journey through the metro system to Polis in order to deliver a message that may save the human race.

Each subsequent chapter begins essentially a new “episode,” as Artyom finds his way through one unlikely predicament after another. One episode includes a broken pipe through which voices are heard that hypnotize the listener. In another Artyom is captured by the “Fourth Reich” and sentenced to death. In another Artyom is sold into a year of servitude cleaning shit pots in the wealthy area of the metro. In another Artyom is forced to go above-ground and meet the horrors there in order to rescue an artifact for religious zealots. In another, Artyom encounters a group of cannibals who worship “the great worm” who truly carved out the metro tunnels.

The tale begins to follow a predictable pattern of predicament-solution-escape, and at times Artyom makes it out alive through no ingenuity of his own. At times, the circumstances of Artyom’s survival feel just a little too convenient, or the manner of his rescue arrives from such a sharp left turn that it feels cheap. Not much connects the episodes apart from the fact that Artyom exists in them. New characters fade in and out, but few have any importance except to provide Artyom, through discussion, new theories on the purpose of his adventure, and of life in general.

The pacing of the story is a problem throughout, but on this point I hesitate to criticize too heavily, noting that the original work was written in Russian. In any translation, you have to wonder if some of the heart, humor, and wordplay that may have helped to make the story readable has been lost in the retelling. The book seems to have been a remarkable success in its native language, so it is possible some aspect of it was unfortunately left behind, despite a faithful translation.

Artyom ultimately succeeds in delivering his secret message to the proper recipient. It turns out there is an intact missile facility dating back to before the apocalypse, and if they can find a man who knows how to fire the missiles, they may be able to destroy the hive of the “dark ones” and cease their incursions. If such a solution seems overly simplistic at first blush, it probably is. There are a variety of threats both above-ground and below in this world, and while the “dark ones” may be the scariest to the inhabitants of the Metro, they do not especially feel that way to the reader. The “dark ones” seem to have the ability to create insanity and fear of impending doom in their human counterparts, but they still feel like only an abstract threat, in that they make few incursions to the Metro. There are far more terrifying creatures that Artyom encounters throughout his adventures, including demonic librarians, wolf-like creatures in the city, an amorphous blob deep underground that convinces people to sacrifice themselves to it, and humans themselves.

At various times during his journey, Artyom gethers the vague sense that he is on the precipice of greater understanding, of the world, of his fate, etc., but Glukhovsky chooses not to develop this idea in any appreciable way. At the end of the story (literally the last few pages of the book) Artyom finally has an epiphany that the “dark ones” were only trying to communicate with the humans, and the greater understanding that he’d felt on the edge of during his journey was that he was their “chosen” one to deliver the message to the rest of the Metro and enable a new age of understanding between humans and “dark ones.” It feels rushed, and though the theme had potential, the ending is ultimately unsatisfying.

Bottom line, if you want to know more about the Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light video games you loved, or if you’re curious to see this underground world in action, it is a perfectly acceptable adventure, but you may feel that there was a missed opportunity for a greater story.

Book Review: The BFG

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: The BFG

Author: Roald Dahl

Published: 1982

Pages: 240

Genre: Fairy Tale/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 6+ Click here for the Common Sense Media guide! The book may be a bit violent by current kid’s book standards considering the Giants’ general habit of eating humans, but it is not any more grisly than many traditional fairy tales.

Synopsis:

Sophie’s life as an orphan meets an abrupt change when she spot a massive figure roaming the streets at night outside her orphanage. Fearing for his own discovery, the figure takes Sophie hostage and transports her to a far-off land, where Giants roam.

Fortunately for Sophie, she learns that she’s been captured by the world’s only “friendly” giant. After learning a great deal about each other, Sophie and the Giant hatch out a plan to rid the world of the evil, man-eating Giants, once and for all.

Final Thoughts:

Whenever I talk about this book, I like to tell people that I literally read the cover off of my copy as a kid. Which is true. I loved the book so much that I read it several times, and eventually both the front and back covers took so much abuse that they simply fell off. It may say more about the age of the copy and my cavalier treatment of it than my readership, but I still think it says something. And there really is no doubt that I loved this book.

And still do. I was very happy to discover upon re-opening it this week, that the book still contains some of the magic that I so thoroughly enjoyed as a young reader. What’s more, some of Roald Dahl’s clever jokes, which undoubtedly flew right over my head as a kid, are now right on target. For instance, the BFG informs Sophie that Giants travel to Wellington to eat humans for their “booty” flavor, and to Panama when they want a taste of hats.

The BFG’s manner of speaking is endearingly mixed-up and silly, which is also fun for kids as well as adults, like when the BFG refers to humans as “human beans” and his favorite author as “Dahl’s Chickens.” He also has a favorite soda-like drink called “frobscottle” with upside down bubbles that induce a certain silly bodily function that the BFG gleefully refers to as “whizzpoppers.”

The BFG’s hobby is to catch and categorize dreams. He has a collection of many thousands of dreams in jars which he enjoys blowing into the bedrooms of young children at night. Sophie is very curious about the dreams, and both she and the reader will find a lot of fun in reading the BFG’s descriptions of the dreams he has caught. It is this very hobby that led to Sophie’s discovery of the Giant, and ultimately gives rise to their plan to do away with the evil Giant brethren that torture the BFG when they are not hunting abroad for dinner.

Near the end of the book, there is a very funny fish-out-of-water scene in which the BFG meets the Queen of England, and her butler becomes increasingly exasperated in his attempts to accommodate the BFG while maintaining his proper royal butler dignity.

All in all, I give it 5/5 stars, regardless of age!

Note: This book is set to be released as a live-action Disney movie on July 1, 2016. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, the movie will star Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Bill Hader, and Jemaine Clement. Watch the first trailer, below!

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(Bad) Movie Review: San Andreas

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

TLDR: Watch for irony only.

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Title: San Andreas

Director: Brad Peyton

Release Date: May 29, 2015

Genre: Action/Sci-Fi

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 114 minutes

Starring:

● Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

● Carla Gugino

● Alexandra Daddario

● Paul Giamatti

Kid Friendly Rating: 14+. The movie features a violent earthquake and all of the associated blood, death, and otherwise scary scenarios. Click here for the Parent Rating Guide!

Personal Rating: 1/5

Synopsis:

In the latest mega-budget apocalyptic movie, a massive earthquake has struck the San Andreas fault and laid waste to California from San Francisco to Las Angeles. Will The Rock save his marriage, his daughter, and the WORLD? Can you smell-el-el-el-el-el what The Rock is cooking?

Pictures:

sanadreasdaddario sanandreas-giammatti sanandreasrock sanandreasteens

 

Final Thoughts:

Brad Peyton is the latest in a long line of directors to bring your real-world worldwide disaster fears to the big screen. These types of movies have a checkered past. From the historically-based (A Perfect Storm, Apollo 13, The Impossible) to the freaking crazy (2012, The Core, The Day After Tomorrow) to the vaguely plausible (Twister, Armageddon… everyone knows roughnecks make the best astronauts, Independence Day …we all agree aliens are real and will attack us, right?), these movies range from great to historically bad.

Fortunately, the viewer usually does not have to be terribly discerning to separate the decent movies from the utter, complete crap. Aaron Eckhardt was great in Thank You for Smoking and The Dark Knight, so The Core must be pretty good, right? No? Crud. Well, all children of the 80’s know John Cusack does great movies, so 2012 was a can’t-miss. Right? Foiled again!

Fortunately, patient reader, you have knauff13 to guide you through this minefield of turds.

Might as well start with the director who guided this slag heap through the finish line. Brad Peyton was the obvious choice for a big-budget action thriller, based on his overwhelming success with such vaunted flicks as, um, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012), and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (2010). Not a joke. I could probably stop right there. Seriously, everyone, someone in Hollywood is making these spending decisions. Why can’t it be you, instead? It’s hard to really tell whether the story faltered by Peyton’s ham-handed touch, or at the direction of an unforgiveable script, but either way. This is the man that put it all together for ya.

***Spoiler Alert*** I especially liked the part at the end, where a gigantic American flag materializes and gets unfurled above San Francisco in a shameless attempt to manipulate American pride in place of quality storytelling. Peyton, however, decided the viewers might not quite get the symbolism and decided to smash them across the face with it once more, as Carla Gugino asks The Rock, “What will we do now?” The Rock gazes across a ravaged landscape and solemnly intones, “Now, we rebuild.” HA! The Rock will fix everything! USA! USA!

Dwayne Johnson (I’ll give him the benefit of his chosen moniker from here out because I don’t actually dislike him) is mostly likeable as a leading man, but placing him in a role requiring some dramatic range does expose his limitations. I think somewhere in his stoic demeanor, I was supposed to detect hints of alarm for a daughter in grave danger, sadness over a long-deceased second child, and wistful regret over a marriage that failed in the wake of said lost child. Did I say Johnson is good at being stoic? The scenes requiring Johnson to act the conquering hero were believable, occasionally, but if the viewer wants any sign of emotion from a father in extreme distress, it’s not here.

And, last, but not least, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this movie’s painful objectification of women. Look, I know it happens, even sometimes subconsciously, but this is bad even by Hollywood’s low standards. Within the first few frames of the movie, we see Alexandra Daddario in a bikini, for absolutely no narrative reason whatsoever. Later, as Daddario and her companions fight their way through the wreckage of San Francisco she literally strips off her clothing to fight through the earthquakes. Not making that up. Look at the pictures above for the before and after. The kid has managed to keep his jacket AND shoulder bag. The young man’s shirt has come untucked to show that he’s been through a scuffle. Daddario has lost two different tops in the same time. Weird. It really is a shame, because Daddario’s character is written as a remarkably savvy survivor who often puts her fellow male companions to shame.

I like Carla Gugino as an actress a lot. She’s better than this movie allows. That being said, there is a scene involving Gugino as the lone survivor of a collapsing building. She scrabbles madly and across shifting concrete and girders, finally jumping to her safety in a helicopter. In HEELS! Why??

All told, if you’re looking for a big blockbuster-type movie, you can do far better. Go rent The Martian instead.

Book Review: Joyland, Stephen King

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Title: Joyland

Author: Stephen King

Published: June 4, 2013

Pages: 288

Genre: Mystery/Crime

Kid Friendly Rating: 12+ Like most Stephen King novels, the book contains some adult themes and situations, but it doesn’t stray very far into adult territory.

Synopsis: 

 

Devin Jones is a college student in 1973 who takes a summer job as a carny at a run-down theme park in North Carolina, Joyland. As an employee at the park, Devin discovers he has the dubious honor of a special talent for “wearing the fur” (playing the park mascot, Howie the Hound), and further earns the trust and respect of park management by saving a girl from choking on a hot dog.

Over the course of the summer, Devin learns about a grisly murder mystery that occurred years ago in the park’s haunted house. To this date, rumors swirl that the victim’s ghost is sometimes seen walking the grounds. Devin’s curiosity gets the best of him, and he can’t resist attempting to piece together the crime and solve the mystery of the alleged ghost.

Stephen King’s status as one of the world’s preeminent horror fiction writers is virtually unquestioned, but one of the interesting things about his writing, to me, is that he puts out some really fantastic work when he strays slightly from the familiar pure-horror genres. The Body (aka Stand by Me), Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Hearts in Atlantis and The Green Mile stand among some of his most interesting titles. Although each of these stories still have one foot in horror or the supernatural, each seem a good deal more sentimental than King’s norm.

My wife (who is also an avid reader of Stephen King) and I have also lamented to each other that sometimes King seems to drive his own stories off the rails by doing what we call, “and then there were aliens.” From a Buick 8 and The Tommyknockers come to mind. Nothing against alien/monster stories, mind you. It just feels like low-hanging fruit at times to inject some type of mythical creature when the narrative is strong enough without it.

With all of this in mind, I was immediately interested to find that King was taking a stab at sort of a pulp-crime novel, and I was not disappointed.

The book contains shades of The Body’s coming-of-age themes, as Devin enters as an uncertain college kid trying to keep his mind off the girlfriend who chose a summer job in Boston with a friend over him. As his relationship with his girlfriend further deteriorates, Devin becomes immersed in the culture of Joyland, and grows into his role, both as an employee, and an individual young man.

King has noted Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH, as one of the main sources of inspiration for Joyland as a theme park, but it stands as sort of a embodiment of many old-time local theme parks around the United States. Readers will probably find lots of parallels between this place and the familiar haunts of their youth. I myself was reminded constantly of Kennywood in Pittsburgh, Pa.

While the book winds down to a somewhat predictable conclusion, this did not greatly affect my overall enjoyment. As they say, the fun is in the journey, not the destination. King paces the story very quickly, and at only 288 pages, it’s over a bit too soon, if only because I would have liked to spend more time reading it.

Final thoughts:

This should be a fun, quick diversion for any longtime fans of Stephen King, or fans of mystery/crime novels, generally. I give it 4/5 stars.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)