Monthly Archives: August 2011

Book Review: Your Voice in My Head

Your Voice in My Head
Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest can be very uncomfortable to read, not because it is a memoir about mental illness, depression, mania, cutting, attempted suicide, and death, but because it is a humorous memoir about mental illness, depression, mania, cutting, attempted suicide, and death.

To start, I have a confession to make. I didn’t know who Emma Forrest was before reading this book. She’s published a few other books, written screenplays, blogs, worked as a journalist, and has been involved in a high-profile Hollywood romance. And yet I didn’t know about her before now. So I started reading this book without any foreknowledge of who she is or what she’s done.

The book follows the author’s journey through being diagnosed with mental illness (more particularly as a manic/depressive) and meeting with a therapist, identified simply as Dr. R, who she credits with saving her life and being an eternal optimist. At one point, she calls his office to make an appointment and gets a machine saying that the office is closed, and then receives an email a couple of weeks later informing her that her therapist had died suddenly. None of his patients knew he was sick and was fighting lung cancer for several months. The book is sprinkled with short testimonials from Dr. R’s other patients about what he did for them or their relationship with him (these patients are not identified except for a first name or an initial to maintain confidentiality, as Dr. R is said to have had some high-profile patients).

Emma Forrest could be described as a serial dater, at least by her descriptions of her relationships in this book. During her dating trials, she settles into a relationship with a man she refers to only as her “Gypsy Husband,” or GH, who is a popular actor and celebrity. He is never actually named otherwise in the book, but it’s fairly obvious who it is, and you can find out who through a quick internet search. This relationship does not last, and is dealt with as one of the most heartbreaking moments in her life because they had been planning a family and they truly seemed to love each other. Be warned that this is not a tell-all book. Only the emotional parts of the relationship are described in detail, and only for a short time until the break-up. In fact, much more time is spent talking about the aftermath of the break-up than the relationship itself.

The writing style in this book is engrossing, to say the least. At times, it’s hard to say what’s real, what’s artistic license, and what is simply in the author’s head. Most of the time, it seems fairly obvious, but at times, I’m not too sure. But it’s also extremely disjointed, which may be a symptom of the author’s mania. The book is not told in an entirely linear manner, which sometimes gets a little confusing, but not too much so that it takes away from the book.

The voice in the author’s head is obviously supposed to be the therapist, to whom the book feels as though it could be written to as a single long letter. However, this sometimes becomes questionable as the author hears several voices in her head, such GH (especially post-breakup) or her parents. It can sometimes be downright scary as the reader genuinely wonders if there really are voices in her head, or if these voices are the same ones that everyone imagines at some point while they think things through.

Even with all of this, the story is generally told in a rather funny style. The author uses side thoughts and quips throughout the narrative that indicates that she has a sense of humor about herself and her own foibles. She’s genuinely able to look back and laugh at herself, even at times that seem inappropriate. During these humorous parts, the reader can feel weird or bad by laughing at things that it would be otherwise inappropriate to laugh at if the author hadn’t been describing it in a funny way and obviously laughing at it herself, and even then you can feel a little guilty about it. However, the book gets more serious and loses most of the humor near the end, which made the book very uneven. While the author ultimately moves on with her life, it still makes the book end on a down note.

I can definitely say that I liked the book, but I don’t know that can say that my feelings extend much beyond that. While the book is humorous and interesting, and it explores aspects of therapy and mental illness that aren’t often explored, such as what happens to the patients emotionally when a therapist suddenly dies, it’s also very uneven and feels whiny after a while. My sympathies extend to the author for her struggles and for her heartbreak, but it reaches a point where I don’t want to read about her self-pity anymore. It feels excessive. Other readers may feel differently, much like how different friends will have different tolerance for their friends’ self-pity during hardships. I feel for the author, but my pity can only go so far.

Overall, it’s a decent book with interesting aspects, but can get very frustrating at times, especially in the second half after her break-up with GH. It’s a personal story told from a unique perspective that deals with the emotion aspects of therapy and relationships and when they go wrong rather than simply the practical side of these events. But the author begins to wallow in self-pity so much that it becomes difficult to get through as you get to the end. This is what I would describe as almost a purely emotional memoir. Most of what we’re told is what the author is thinking or feeling, rather than what is going on in the real world. An interesting look inside the head of someone in mental and emotional turmoil, but frustrating, nonetheless.

Your Voice in My Head earns three out of five stars.

Note: A copy of this book was sent to this reviewer for free by the publisher (Other Press) through the Goodreads First Reads program. This did not affect this review in any way.

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Book Review: Muscle Memory 2: More Muscle, More Memory!

Muscle Memory 2: More Muscle, More Memory!
Muscle Memory 2: More Muscle, More Memory! by Steve Lowe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers from the first Muscle Memory. My review for that book can be read here.

Do I take the blue pill and forget any of this ever happened, or do I take the red pill and see how far down the rabbit hole goes?

There’s been something of an epidemic in films lately, although some could argue that it’s a problem that’s always been there. I refer to it as the Matrix Syndrome. Filmmakers create a great standalone film, one that is fantastic and could even be argued as a classic. That is, if they left it alone. These filmmakers decide that, rather than having the one great film, they want to turn it into a franchise, and they produce sequels that are not only terrible films, but are so bad that they tarnish would have otherwise been the sterling legacy of the first film.

When Steve Lowe announced that he was working on a sequel to Muscle Memory, I was understandably worried. Had the Matrix Syndrome infected the literary world as well? The first Muscle Memory was a very good book, with an unusual take on the body-swap meme. At the same time, it was also story of Billy’s self-discovery, and of his own obliviousness of his wife’s condition (postpartum depression) which he didn’t realize until it was too late. It was an excellent standalone book that couched a certain appropriate emotion impact within a bunch of craziness and general silliness.

So, having read the sequel, has the Matrix Syndrome affected Muscle Memory? Yes and no.

In the first Muscle Memory, Billy swapped bodies with his wife, who had poisoned him the night before, so he was trapped in his wife’s body, and his wife was now presumable in his dead body, or had been. Nearly everyone in their town had switched bodies with someone, usually whoever they were closest too at the time, while their neighbor Edgar swapped bodies with one of his sheep. You can interpret that how you want to. It ended with a machine that had supposedly cause the whole thing (at least, according to Terry Bradshaw) being switched back on, which would theoretically switch people back. Billy expects that he’ll be put back in his now dead body and therefore be dead. It ended with him seeing a blue flash of light.

Muscle Memory 2 picks up right where the first one ended. Since both books are told from Billy’s perspective, he obviously didn’t die. Instead it appears that rather than putting everyone back where they were supposed to be, it just swapped everyone again. This meant that while several people were supposedly put back as they remained close to the one who they switched with, other swaps wound up occurring instead. We have the return of several characters and references, particularly Terry Bradshaw, Kirk Cameron, and Agents Tim and Joey from the now kinder, gentler FBI,and we even get an appearance of a very gangsta Matt Lauer (portrayed in such a way that I’m now wondering if Steve Lowe had some kind of personal run-in with Lauer that left him with a bad taste in his mouth). I can’t go into much without spoiling this book given its short length, but suffice to say craziness and silliness ensue, and with more intensity than the first book.

The problem is that Muscle Memory 2 doesn’t have the emotional impact that the first book had, and a lot of the silliness seems to be there for the sake of being silly and nothing else. I’ll admit that I did chuckle out loud at Matt Lauer’s portrayal. The author raises more questions than were answered. While not everything was answered in the first book, it still felt like we knew what we needed to know and it remained satisfying. Muscle Memory 2 raises questions that feel like they need answers that we’re not given, and it left me feeling a little empty. Things also get more serious and intense that it felt like it actually dampened part of the fun that could have been had.

Don’t get me wrong. Muscle Memory 2 is not a bad book by any means. It’s still a fun read. But I could take a page from the movie “The Weather Man” and describe it as fast food. It may taste good, but at the end it’s not really nourishing. Overall, it’s not bad and doesn’t tarnish the first book’s legacy, so it doesn’t suffer from the Matrix Syndrome, but it is disappointing when inevitably compared to the first book. I’m not sure if Steve Lowe is planning on writing a third book. As many questions and situations that came up during this book, this feels like it needs to be a trilogy, even at the risk of full-blown Matrixitis. If he does, I hope he takes a little more time to write it, as this book felt a little rushed and that some of these problem could have been dealt with with a little more time and editing.

Muscle Memory 2 earns three out of five stars.

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Book Review: The Morbidly Obese Ninja

The Morbidly Obese Ninja
The Morbidly Obese Ninja by Carlton Mellick III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I try to describe The Morbidly Obese Ninja by Carlton Mellick III, there is only word that accurately describes it: FUN! I had great fun reading it. You can tell that Mellick had fun writing it. It is simply pure fun!

The story is pretty straightforward. Basu is a seven hundred pound ninja in a world where corporate espionage is a matter of daily life and hostile takeovers are literally hostile and involve the assassination of company board members. He follows a strict code of ninja ethics and obedience to his masters, the executives of the company he works for. While pulling a job to steal a “piggy bank” containing corporate secrets of a rival firm, he discovers that he is not the only one after them, including a group led by an old ninja rival. Thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse (or ninja-and-ninja) to obtain the piggy bank and return it to their executives.

Heavily inspired by anime, in case you can’t tell by the cover, the novel takes place in a future version of California which has been transformed into a psuedo-Japanese type of world. Cosmetic surgery to look like animals or anime characters is common place. In fact, cosmetic surgery to look like anime characters is so popular that they are considered a new race, called animese. Rather than basic weapons, the ninjas wield iKatanas, swords with vast electronic abilities in them that make them more like electronic Swiss army knives than simple swords. These are details scattered throughout the book, but they tend to be done in passing and do not become overbearing. Mellick focuses on the story and the character, and describes the people and places as necessary to paint a picture of the world in which the story takes place, but that is all. It’s like some well-prepared food, where the spices are added to enhance the flavor but not overpower the food itself.

Why is Basu so morbidly obese and still a ninja? This is an integral part of the plot, so I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say that there is a very good reason for it, and it doesn’t glorify obesity at all, as some who don’t read the book could possibly be concerned and complain about. In fact, while Basu has learned to use his obesity to his advantage in many ways, he also suffers from a number of physical problems as a direct result of his condition, which is not one that he chose.

If I have one complaint about The Morbidly Obese Njnja, it’s that it’s too short. The book felt like it could have been so much longer, with so much more to tell. The story could have been drawn out more, which is a rare complaint to make. It happens so fast, and I wanted to know more, have more action sequences, and I wanted a slightly more developed relationship between Basu and Chiya, the animese technician who works on his iKatana. I would have liked more history on Basu, and more history on the piggy bank itself. In short, I just wanted more. As a side note, I do like that Mellick does not go into how the world became the way it is, as usually things like that tend to detract from a story if it is too unbelievable, which it usually is. Mellick suspends disbelief by completely ignoring it, and in this case that method works wonderfully.

In the end, you wind up with a book that’s got really great action sequences, interesting characters that could use a little more development than is given to them, and a straightforward and easy-to-follow plot that I would have liked to see stretched out a little more. But this book’s strengths are so good that they overshadow its weaknesses very well. The Morbidly Obese Ninja is apparently the author’s 31st publication, but it is only the first book of his this reviewer has read. It will not be the last one I read. If his other work is as fun as this book, there will good times ahead.

A very solid 4 out of 5 stars.

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Not the Same as it Ever Was: Second Thoughts on Being a DM

ThumbnailAs a follow-up to my blog post last week, I thought it would be fun to give my second impressions on DMing in the new season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. Be warned that there will be spoilers for anyone who hasn’t played this game yet (which I know is rare, since most places hold the Encounters sessions on Wednesdays). Don’t worry, this probably won’t be a regular weekly thing.

Last week, I had my first experience DMing, which was a bit rocky due to a couple of factors, mostly having to do with the fact that I didn’t have a chance to actually read the module before the game started. While the first time running a game can be a major learning experience, I found the second time to be equally teachable, if not more so.

The chief organizer of the game at my location has done a pretty good job of keeping the tables together, keeping the same players with the same DMs. This helps immensely, especially for the DMs as I figured out that particular players have distinct play styles and keeping them with the same DM makes it more likely that the DM will be able to accommodate such a play style. For example, I’ve got one kid at my table who likes to play rangers, but is also a pyromaniac and likes to use fire at every opportunity. So, I have to know what is in the area ahead of time, particularly what is flammable. I also have another kid at my table who I’ve figured out likes to take everything that is not nailed down if it will have a potential use later. So I have to know what can be taken and if it will pose any difficulty later. Knowing my players this way helps me to prepare much better, and as a result allowed the game to go much smoother.

As for the encounter last night itself, the way it was written was perfect, and I hope that Wizards of the Coast does more encounters of this style, although not all of them as that would get boring very quickly. To recap, this encounter picked up immediately where the previous one left off, with a dragon landing in the town square. The whole encounter was little more that an enormous boss fight. It helped things to go much smoother as there wasn’t as much role-playing to deal with, which is both good and bad, and many of the regular players seemed to like having a slightly simpler session for a change. It was also great using the same map, as the players already knew the area from the previous encounter and had fewer questions. I wouldn’t mind being able to reuse maps in other sessions when appropriate as it made things much easier.

Reading the session beforehand was a huge help, obviously. I read it twice to be sure I had all the details. This helped me get the characterization down and figure out some general mechanics and strategies beforehand, which again made things very quick and made me feel more confident in answering questions, particularly in the psuedo-surprise round that started the encounter as the players tried to figure out what was going on between the dragon and the Lost Heir, and knowing exactly what to tell the playsers. On the other hand, I couldn’t actually tell them all that much because they kept failing their skill checks, except for one player. So, ultimately the “surprise” round was wasted, but it was a nice touch. In fact, the encounter was written very well, with it being mostly a battle, but with a few details scattered around the encounter that were nice touches and gave it some flavor. I’ll admit that I tried to drop some extra hints during the encounter to my players without directly telling them what they would have found out from the skill checks. We’ll find out if they picked up on any of those hints or not. One of them did pick up on a hint that was specific to the encounter last night, that being that the dragon was being hypnotized by the Lost Heir during the start of the encounter.

On the whole, I feel that I learned about as much last night I did during the first session last week. I’m going to see how this holds up as I’m going to be DMing the entire season. The general rule from this point forward is to pay attention to my players and prepare ahead of time for their more unconventional questions and actions. That should add to everyone’s fun, including mine. I haven’t read beyond last night’s encounter in the module yet, so I doubt that the following sessions will be as simple as last night’s, so they are going to take some extra preparation.

As a cool bonus, my girlfriend got me some McDonald’s Happy Meal toys last year from “How to Train Your Dragon,” and I got to use the Nightfury/Toothless toy to represent the dragon on the map. The players and the other DMs seemed to really like the tongue-in-cheek nature of my miniature. I’ll have to think of some clever stuff to use in later sessions.

Book Review: The Egg Said Nothing

The Egg Said Nothing
The Egg Said Nothing by Caris O’Malley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Caris O’Malley must be clairvoyant, because in writing The Egg Said Nothing, he has clearly been channeling the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut. This is not a bad thing, however, as Vonnegut is one of this reviewer’s favorite writers of all time.

Manny is a shut-in and a loner. He sits in his dark apartment, up all night watching late night television. He pays his bills by stealing change from local fountains (he justifies this by saying that they are no longer people’s wishes once they hit corporate waters and become extra income for those who don’t need it). He has a somewhat sketchy relationship with his senile mother. Until he wakes up one morning to find that he has laid an egg. Or he thinks he’s laid an egg. All he knows is that he woke up with an egg sitting between his legs. Where else could it have come from? So you start to wonder if this is going to be more Kafkaesque and if Manny is going to turn into a chicken.

Thus begins Manny breaking from his routine has he tries to nurture the egg like any loving parent would do. Well, a loving parent from another species, maybe, but a loving parent nonetheless. He meets and starts a relationship with Ashley, a waitress at a local diner. And then thing really take off and his life takes a turn for the weird as he discovers the true contents of the egg an begins receiving messages and visitations from himself in the future.

“Listen: Manny has come unstuck in time.” Or that’s what I expected to read at some point. The second half of the novel is heavily steeped in time travel and determinism. Like I said, O’Malley would probably make Vonnegut proud. As he starts to play with time very heavily, it can get a bit confusing, especially in keeping track of Manny’s different selves as they appear and disappear, not to mention the true nature of the egg. Early on, you start to wonder why this title would be part of the Bizarro fiction line of books as it seems unusually normal during the first half or so (aside from the protagonist laying an egg), but about halfway through the weirdness is ramped up big time.

This becomes a problem. The heavy weirdness starts so fast after a somewhat leisurely pace that the reader could feel like they’re getting literary whiplash. As such, uneven pacing contributes to some of the confusion I felt during the second half of the book. The reader might actually feel the need to start keeping a flowchart just to keep things straight in their head. I’ll admit that I was trying to mentally do so. Then again, with novels that play with time, this isn’t always unusual. On the other hand, the author kicks it up a few notches, making it feel like you need to be a Timelord to figure out who, what, and when people are from.

Despite this gripe, The Egg Said Nothing is still an excellent story that deserves your attention. At its heart, when you strip away the science fiction elements and the weirdness, it becomes a novel about the ultimate loser trying to break out of his own shell and not be such a loser anymore, to be someone and do something that matters, and how the most insignificant person could change the world simply by existing.

The Egg Said Nothing gets a solid 4 out of 5 stars. I hope this is not the last we’ll see of Caris O’Malley, as I would really like to read more from him. My only suggestion is that he works on his pacing a little bit.

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