Monday, August 25, 2014

ALS, My Mum and My Ice Bucket Challenge

I know some of you find the Ice Bucket Challenge silly or childish. A part of me could probably have done so only if my mother weren't suffering from ALS.

She got diagnosed with ALS a year ago. As you can imagine it hasn't been easy since then. Not for her, not for us... I guess, only a fool would think that one is immune to bad things in life. But we are good at pushing away thoughts about bad possibilities. You hear these things around you. Terrible accidents, cancer, heart attacks... Then one day, this dark shadow, this bringer of bad news, is right next to you, in your house. You don't hear it from a friend or an acquaintance but it's your mother or father telling you about their condition.

Then you don't know what to say... for a while, at least. Normally, you never think of inquiring about your parents' or one of your family members life expectancy. You try to find encouraging words, ways to say "hang in there. Be strong. We'll fight it together." But in the case of ALS the fight is a downhill one. Many times, I envied, in my ignorance, cancer patients and their relatives. Just for their hope, their hope of beating their disease. Unfortunately ALS is not like that. It is a debilitating disease. Hope is not about defeating it but only about slowing down the worsening of the patient's condition.

Of course, this is the case today. I'm sure medicine and science will overcome ALS and many other things, given time and resources. This is where the initiatives such as Ice Bucket Challenge become very important. Not only they raise public awareness about these terrible diseases, they also create much sought out resources thanks to people's generous donations. So, please donate generously. You may be helping a relative or a friend who's going to be an ALS patient in the future.

Stay healthy. Stay happy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review: Parasite by Mira Grant

Title: Parasite
Author: Mira Grant
Publisher: Orbit (Oct 29, 2013)
Hardcover: 512 pages
ISBN: 978-0316218955
Series: Parasitology (Book 1)
Electronic Copy: Provided by the Publisher

"A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of sickness and disease.

We owe our good health to a humble parasite -- a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. When implanted, the Intestinal Bodyguard worm protects us from illness, boosts our immune system -- even secretes designer drugs. It's been successful beyond the scientists' wildest dreams. Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them.

But these parasites are getting restless. They want their own lives . . . and will do anything to get them."

I recently noticed that Mira Grant's Parasite had been sitting on my NetGalley dashboard for a while. And I knew it had been very well received by the readers therefore I decided it was time to wear my lab coat, safety goggles and rubber gloves to handle this specimen.

Parasite is narrated from the point of view of the main female protagonist Sal (Sally) Mitchell. When Sally was 20 years old she had a seizure while driving. She lost control of her car and drove straight into the path of an incoming bus. The two vehicles collided without slowing down and the impact sent Sally slamming into a nearby wall. After the accident she was pronounced "clinically brain dead". Her parents and sister hoped that she might wake up one day but the damage from the accident had been too great. She was gone. She was not coming back. Or so everybody thought. Thanks to her intestinal bodyguard, Sally (Sal after the accident) woke up with total amnesia, even unable to speak. She was born again.
"I am alive because of a genetically engineered tapeworm. Not a miracle; God was not involved in my survival. They can call it an "implant" or an "Intestinal Bodyguard," with or without that damn trademark, but the fact remains that we're talking about a tapeworm. A big, ugly, blind, parasitic invertebrate that lives in my small intestine, where it naturally secrets a variety of useful chemicals, including - as it turns out - some that both stimulate brain activity and clean toxic byproducts out of blood." 

You see... We think that there are going to be nanorobots controlling many aspects of our bodies in the near future but in Parasite, SymboGen do better than that. They genetically engineer custom tapeworms, SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguards, for each willing patient.
"Without SymboGen, I would have died. I needed to remember that. No matter how much I hated the therapists and the tests and everything else, I owed my life to SymboGen."

Parasite is the first book of Mira Grant's that I've read. Contrary to most bloggers around me I hadn't read her Newsflesh books so I won't be able to compare Parasite with her earlier works. But I can say that I was pleasantly surprised with her prose and her energetic dialogs. Opening of the chapters with descriptions of video footages recorded by various protagonists certainly added to the story and to the general atmosphere of the book. Unfortunately these weren't enough for me to love Parasite. It's such a pity that the plot couldn't be on par with the author's prose.

The story lacked considerable pace, especially at the first half of the book. Twice I thought we were shifting up gears, a third through and halfway through, to be disappointed shortly after. I kept waiting for the action during a story that mostly came across flat.

Furthermore, the plot was unable to convince me. I haven't done any research on it but most of the time, at least about anything that's not instinctive, I would have expected Sal to behave like a 6 year-old. She was far from that. Her speech, her thoughts and especially her analytical capabilities fully reflected her adult age.

I also felt like the profession of Sal's father and sister, and the introduction of a dog were too convenient... too contrived. Dad and sister's working for the San Francisco branch of USAMRIID - the United States of America Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases helped certainly the author in adding some twists to the plot. Introduction of the dog wasn't necessary in my opinion. It was a cheesy move. I would not have been too surprised about it if it were done 30 years ago much more skilfully by King or Koontz. Perhaps the dog has a role to play in future instalments of the series.

Parasite, the first book of Mira Grant's that I've read, was unable to satisfy me. The author's prose makes me certain that I will try another book of hers in the future, truly hoping that she can create better plots.

Overall: 6/10
"Roll the dice but count the cards,
Break the glass but keep the shards."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review: Half A King by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Half A King
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Hardcover: 352 Pages
US Publisher: Del Rey (15 Jul 2014)
UK Publisher: Harper Voyager (3 Jul 2014)
ISBN-10: 0804178321
ISBN-13: 978-0804178327
Series: Shattered Sea
Electronic Copy: Sent by the publisher

"I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.”

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver.

Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.

The betrayed will become the betrayer.

Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.

Will the usurped become the usurper?

But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi finds his path may end as it began—in twists, and traps, and tragedy."

Half A King’s setting is reminiscent of the Viking era. The main protagonist, Yarvi, is a prince. He is the second son of his father, trailing a strong brother groomed to rule one day. Yarvi has a deformed hand so he is considered unfit to rule in a land where physical power is what a great leader is expected to have.

Young Yarvi learns the death of his father and his brother when he is about to become a minister, readying himself for a life of celibacy. Because of his handicap he has never imagined he would rule. But when his Uncle comes unannounced and kneels before him saying “My King” he understands that his father and his brother are dead. And this changes his life forever.

"He had expected to be a minister. To give up wife and children with hardly a thought. Kissing the aged cheek of Grandmother Wexen when he passed the test was the closest he had hoped to come to romance."
In Half a King, Abercrombie has created a world with a hint of mythology that I hope we would discover in more details in the series' future instalments. In this world, Elves are the legendary powerful beings who lived a long time ago and who vanished leaving buildings and all sorts of artifacts behind. It is told that they haven't been seen "since the Breaking of God" and "for thousands upon thousands of years".

This world has also many gods: "409 small and 6 tall". I really liked how the author created dualities by calling the six tall gods: Mother Sea, Father Earth, Mother Sun, Father Moon, Mother War, Father Peace.

When the new book of one of my favourite authors lands on my desk I drop whatever I’m reading in order to savour this precious newcomer. However it is not easy to review such a book. Not because I feel like I have to write a good review but because of expectations and standards. To me, the book of a top author comes with a heavy responsibility: to live up to the standards set by the author in her previous books. And this is where it gets tricky because having high expectations is the enemy of great entertainment. Therefore, opinions expressed about such a book should be considered in this context where disappointments could seem much larger.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to say that Half A King is a bad book. But… (You knew there was going to be a “but”, didn’t you) since the moment I turned the last page of the book I’ve been telling myself “there’s something missing in Half A King. Something that made me love Abercrombie’s books”. It’s hard to put a finger on it. I guess what I missed the most in Half A King was the stomach knotting, gut wrenching, kick in the balls moments that leave you breathless and that make you shake your fist to the heavens. Those are the side effects of an immersive reading that usually earn Abercrombie 10/10 from me and I really missed them.

Then, maybe it’s also due to the “tone” of the story telling. I know some readers complain about cursing and sex in books but those are part of the reality, aren’t they? Think about the Viking era. Or about a medieval setting. Do you think that baddies, mercenaries, soldiers, sailors, slaves, whores talked like they were part of the royal family? No, of course not. Same goes for sex. They didn’t live their sexual lives like 13 year olds stealing kisses from each other. In my opinion those details add reality to a story and help in creating the immersive experience that I always look for in the books that I read. So maybe they were part of the things that I missed in Half A King.

Last but not least, the book also felt pretty short. I would have expected Abercrombie to develop certain parts of the story in more detail. I'm not sure whether this was due to editing or just due to the style of the story telling but that's what I felt. Now... this could also indicate a good story as in "pages turned themselves" or "read it in one sitting". You could be the judge when you read it.

I enjoyed Half A King but it didn’t satisfy me as fully as Abercrombie’s pervious books. It was like being very thirsty on a summer day, grabbing the last bottle of your favourite beer and finding it not as cold as you imagined it. Nonetheless, I would recommend it. It is a good story told masterfully by one of the best fantasy writers. You can’t go wrong with it. Get your copy, enjoy it and look forward to reading the second book of the series.

Overall: 8/10

Memorable Quotes:

"The fool strikes. The wise man smiles, and watches, and learns. Then strikes." - Queen Laithlin

"A king must win. The rest is dust." - Odem

"Enemies are the price of success." - Queen Laithlin

"The wise wait for their moment, but never let it pass."

"When a wise minister has nothing but enemies, she beats one with a worse." - Mother Gundring

"When you’re in hell, only a devil can point the way out." - Yarvi

"The great warrior is the one who still breathes when the crows feast. The great king is the one who watches the carcasses of his enemies burn." - Nothing

"You cannot expect all the heroes to survive a good song." - Yarvi

"You may need two hands to fight someone, but only one to stab them in the back." - Yarvi

"A wise king always has someone to blame." - Mother Gundring