Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Glen E. Page - The Last Plague (book review)

"The Last Plague" (Amazon: US, UK)
by Glen E. Page
Format: Paperback, 448 pages
Publisher: Synergy Books
A young girl is brought into Dr. Douglas Hunter's ER one night with her abdomen ripped open. One of her ovaries has been stolen; the other is as hard and black as coal. When the bodies of more young girls are discovered, their ovaries also missing, Dr. Hunter and his family of adopted misfits find themselves unwittingly drawn into a dark plot of government intrigue and biblical prophecy. As Dr. Hunter investigates the cause behind this mysterious plague, he and his family uncover unsettling connections, not only between their own painful pasts, but to war crimes in Nazi germany and even events from the days of Christ. The investigation attracts the attention of a group of ruthless people with mysterious powers who are determined to keep the plague a secret. But as more secrets come to light, Dr. Hunter realizes his family may be facing the last plague, the beginnings of the Apocalypse.

I've already mentioned a few times that I like post-apocalyptic fiction. That was one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, why I accepted to review “The Last Plague”. To be honest, I thought it could be a great book when I first saw it – a nice enough cover (not as ‘suspicious’ as, let's say, "Unholy Domain”) and although the killer-plague idea itself has been done to death, it does not necessarily mean that the book is completely unoriginal. I like to read about plagues. Too bad it turned out that “The Last Plague” has (almost) nothing to do with a plague whatsoever.

When I turned the first page, I already found myself fully engaged in a certain happening. Wait, what? I checked the cover again to make sure that it was really the first book in the series. It was. For the next couple of chapters nothing changes, everything’s a total mess. It’s true that sometimes, it’s good to plunge into the middle of action right away, but I rather see that the book starts ‘slow and easy’, keeping things more or less clear and straightforward. I doubt that any reader likes to be (and stay) confused from the beginning on, having absolutely no idea what’s going on and who is who. For me, at least, it was damn annoying. I kept mixing the names of the demons and the doctors, and when I somehow managed to sort out the names of the former, the latter remained a bunch of unconnected names right up until enough of them died that I could distinguish between the ones that remain. I believe that the editor of “The Last Plague” could do much to improve this (especially in the beginning); it seems to me as though some parts were just skipped where editing is concerned. Sometimes, names are being needlessly repeated over and over again, even the sentences seem identical and piled one over the other (see the below example).
"Hey Indian, ever hear of pheromones?"
"Nah," Indian answered, but Indian's gaze just caught sight of something else in the distance.


Cautiously she walked down the hall to the staircase. Hurriedly she climbed the steps to the empty surgical suites one floor above. Gently she opened the double doors leading to one of the suites.
But the main problem of the book is that there are great many characters trying to do great many things. The good guys being two doctors, their friends and families (including a number of people who used to work with the army intelligence, a Native American named Indian (but of course) who is literally a killing machine, one Mexican – once upon a time a monk – everybody laughs at, a supposedly dead wife, and two kids: a boy – the 'chosen one' - and an African girl that carries the plague), Mountain People who are rarely, if ever, seen, a guy that can heal with the touch of his hands, a guy who claims to be one of the 11 Apostles, and a group of Jewish people (I’m not really certain what their role is, but they are involved nonetheless).
I’m pretty sure there is an Asian or two I’ve somehow managed to miss. Where’s the point of skipping them, if you’ve included all of the other races?

The bad guys are a bit simpler to discern: they seem to represent every single person with authority (except for one sheriff) that the good guys manage to encounter. The most notable among them are the military and a certain cult, whose members believe to be Lucifer’s adopted children. The latter group contains those that infected humanity with a virus that causes ovaries to blacken. The leaders of this cult is someone named Niac (later in the book a ‘shocking’ detail is revealed: his true name, in fact, is Cain). There is not much of actual fighting between the good and the bad; the good are mostly fleeing, trying to survive and to figure out what the virus that causes black ovaries really is. And, of course, the good and the bad are so tightly intertwined that you can’t be really certain who is working with whom (and the fact that some of the people change their mind somewhere in the middle of the book doesn’t help much). Once again, it is a complete mess.

Wait! Did I mention that the good guys are in fact chosen by God? Somewhere in the last part of the book, everything shifts from a simple ‘run away, they’re trying to kill us’ gig to a sanctimonious mission. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not overly fond of books that are trying to convince me that God exists, and that He has a Plan. If the author convenes religious beliefs in inoffensive and unobtrusive manner (King did this in “The Stand” and it was perfectly digestible) or turn it in a underlying message, that's perfectly fine with me - but don’t drop it fervently right on top of my head. Just for example, I loved “The Book of Joby” (even if by that time I didn’t know that Book of Job really is about a bet between the God and the Devil – but that only made me love "The Book of Joby" more after I found out); those of you who read it know that there is a lot of religious content included. I usually don’t mind this, as long as it doesn’t take on a persuasive note, and that, unfortunately, is exactly what “The Last Plague” did.

As said, there is hardly any mention of an actual plague. There is some speculation about the origins of 'the black ovaries' virus, but the good guys are too preoccupied with surviving – miraculously, might I add – to give much thought to why-s, where-s and how-s. I couldn’t really discern much signs of apocalypse, but there is a lot of talk about military secrets and army intelligence and so on, and that brings to a fact that “The Last Plague” is more of a thriller than anything else. But even so, it’s a badly written one. There is practically nothing to draw the reader to read on or to make him care for the characters, but the flaws regarding style or plot are present aplenty, luring you to put the book down.

The only thing that saves “The Last Plague” from being an utterly unreadable drivel are the parts of the book where nothing “extraordinary” is happening (e.g. when a whole family gets down to take a dinner) and much of it is based on dialogue and humor. These parts are actually quite good. The humor can be pretty wicked sometimes – maybe I’m sick, but I laughed my guts out at the dead guy joke. But sadly, that’s just about it. When the talking is over, it is usually followed by a tiresome, annoying and in most cases a confusing situation. If it wasn’t for the laughs, the time spent reading “The Last Plague” would be surmised as completely and utterly wasted.
~ Trin ~

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Reviewing books we like

It started when I wanted to do a review of Stephen King's 'The Stand'. 'The Stand' is a book I 'traditionally' re-read every year when I’m at the seaside with my friends, and since it is such a huge book (around 1400 pages), I discover something forgotten every time I read it, be it little details or the more forgettable chapters. You could say that I like this book very, very much.
But there was a sudden problem: I caught myself wondering if I was really able to write a good review. Firstly, can I explain all the reasons for why I like this book so much? And secondly, can I remain objective the whole time?
I figured out that reviewing books you like very much is a kind of a problem, and I gave it some thought.

There are, if you ask me, two basic types of books one likes very, very much:

*books you read and really liked, so you re-read them many times and marveled at how great they are every time anew
*books you just read and really liked, so you’ll probably re-read them but you can’t know that for sure (of course, there are books you read and simply know you will re-read them one day, but these are fairly rare) – neither you know it you will find them as great (or even greater) as you did the first time.

It’s easier, I think, to review the latter type, though none of the two is really easy to review. Why?

You can like a book for a number of reasons: because the style of writing is good, because the characters seem as if they were real, living persons, because the world-building is so superb that you feel as if you were there yourself. These reasons are just slightly subjective, but fairly easy to agree on and very easily explainable. They are, of course, based on our personal preferences, but I’m fairly sure there are some objective guidelines that apply to what we’d call a ‘good’ style of writing. I’m saying that because there are also various ‘wild’, completely subjective (and often even a bit silly) reasons you like a book for, which often appear with your ‘all-time favorite’ books: because The Hero is such a badass, because you always wanted to be an astronaut when you were a kid or because you too have a cat named Pestilence and it’s really great to pretend that it could shoot laser beams from its eyes, just like the one in the book. These reasons are in no way inferior to those former ones (after all, they made you love the book just as well), but their subjective nature makes them much harder to explain. ‘All in all, the book was awesome mostly because The Hero is such a badass’ is, after all, a bit silly thing to write in a review.

Not that this is the only problem. Sometimes, you don’t even know why exactly you like a certain book or genre so much. Myself, I adore most of post-apocalyptic novels, but I’m not really certain why that is so. I know that it’s not because I’d wish to see humanity destroyed or because I’d hate the world. I mean, I saw this old movie where, at the end, there is no more life on our planet (I googled it out later; it's "On The Beach" (1959)) and I had nightmares about it for a week afterwards – but still I’m drawn to this genre. Maybe I just like to read about how people react in case of a global destruction and what kind of societies they form afterwards, or facing the unknown and unpredictable (that would explain why I liked Terror so much). I admit, I don’t really know – but if I can’t even figure it out myself, how can I explain my liking for a certain book in a review, to other people?

To make things worse (or at least more complicated), the above mentioned problems appear when you try to figure out the reasons for really liking a book which otherwise has many good qualities – in other words, when the style is great, the plot even more so, the world-building is ok, but the best thing is that you like it for a reason that is totally subjective and that makes it one of your all-time favorite books. But it sometimes happens that the book has one really awesome element, while the others are pretty mediocre (it’s rare, I think, to adore a book which has one good element while all the others are dreadful). Or you love the book, but you can’t really put your finger on the reason why, so you ascribe it to the style, the plot, the characters … and when you do so, it’s easy to miss some facts and/or exaggerate a bit. If it was one of those subjective reasons that made a book so great to read, you can easily overlook how flawed the plot was or that there wasn’t much world-building included. You don’t do that willingly – it’s just that you are too overwhelmed with what you like. And, in fact, a book can’t be really bad if it managed to impress you so.

But the question here is: can you write a good review in such case? Can you even remain objective while reviewing one of your favorite books, or do you just say that you’re being much more subjective than usual, even though you can’t explain everything?
And if you decide to look at the book objectively, regarding its possible flaws as well as its qualities – what if that ruins the book for you?

Option A: it can’t, if you are a type of person that loves the book despite its flaws* and if the qualities are still bigger than flaws
Option B: it can, because you were so ‘blinded’ before that you didn’t even notice that nasty flaw there and you’ll be never really able to enjoy that book again.

*I found an interesting solution to the ‘review full of praise, but bad rating at the end’ (or vice versa) problem in Option A – what if that’s not a sign of reviewer’s dishonesty, as some suggested, but the other way around? You can try and expose the flaws in your review, but since you like the book, you’ll give it a good rating, or the other way around – you’ll write a review and tell everyone how much you like the book, but since you know it has flaws you barely mentioned, you’ll rate it lower. Happened to me, too.

So, at the end we’re down to our duty as a reviewer (search for possible flaws so you can judge and present the book fairly) vs. our right as a reader (enjoy the book). What shall one choose?

I guess I’m more inclined to my right as a reader. I like to read better than I like to review (but that’s mostly because I like to read better than anything) and if enjoying books without analyzing them thoroughly means that I’m being blinded, so be it. There are books that are technically good, but otherwise annoying, and books that are really loveable but technically mediocre. I guess I prefer the latter ones. Maybe not everyone judges a book based on a feeling it left – but your average reader surely does. So if a book left a bad feeling with me, I look for flaws that were the reason, but if a book is good, I don’t really care. Do you?

I have to say that my reviews don’t always reflect the opinion I expressed above – it’s because I’m still relatively new to the world of reviewing and am yet to set my final criteria.

Also, there is a lot left to say on topic of reviewing books you like; it’s just that it’s hard for me to write it all down, especially in a foreign language, so I ask you that if you have any thoughts, comments or experience on the topic, do share it with us in the comments.


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