Back to Books ~2010 Summary

•January 23, 2011 • 1 Comment


Patrick Ness
The Chaos Walking Trilogy

The Knife of Never Letting Go
The Ask and the Answer
Monsters of Men


Extraordinary and unforgettable, Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy is a fantastic series in its own right, owing very little to those before it. To peg the series as another YA trilogy is to ignore how uncommonly real and whole its characters are, how fully realized its world, and how even the typeset jangles off the page. There are small imperfections here, but Chaos Walking is still a head above its peers.

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Jasper Fforde
Shades of Grey


There is no explaining, or even summarizing, Shades of Grey. Jasper Fforde has a secret stash of brilliant ideas the way most of us have junk drawers full of old pens and outdated carryout menus. Class stratification based on color perception. Killer swans. Carnivorous trees. Improved queuing. Shades of Grey is creative to the point of lunacy, outrageously witty, and totally disinterested in banality.

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Peter S. Beagle
We Never Talk About My Brother


Most writers take an entire novel to do badly what Peter S. Beagle can do remarkably well in just a handful of pages. We Never Talk About My Brother is a collection of short stories that are each delivered unquestionably whole and could have been done no other way. Peter S. Beagle has such a command of voice that his characters take up no unnecessary space. The stories are masterfully crafted and are only ever too short because they end too soon.

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Scott Westerfeld
Behemoth


Scott Westerfeld’s Behemoth is the second book in his presumed-dead-on-arrival new series. Its predecessor, Leviathan, was too clumsy for someone with so much work behind him, but Behemoth somehow emerges from its shadows with enough wit, action and heart to recapture our hopes for the series.  This steampunk version of a wildly different WWI pits Clankers (wielding machinery) against the Darwinists (wielding less-than-natural selection). Secrets, deception and plenty of fighting keeps Behemoth an engaging wartime tale. If Westerfeld can keep the momentum he’s gained, the upcoming third installation, Goliath, should be a satisfying conclusion.

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Book Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth

•May 24, 2009 • 2 Comments

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The Forest of Hands and Teeth
by Carrie Ryan

As Carrie Ryan’s first novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a small step above its contemporaries.  Although there is nothing new in its subject matter – visions of 28 Days Later abound – Ryan comes at it with near-solid footing.  But, in spite of a strong opening and decent construction overall, The Forest of Hands and Teeth has its inadequacies, not the least of which is the nagging suspicion that the words keep piling up merely to fill space.

The constant fear of the Unconsecrated – the undead that populate the Forest that surrounds the village – is the driving force in Mary’s life.  Her village, overseen by the Sisterhood and protected by the aptly named Guardians, is encircled by a fence meant to keep the undead at bay.  It is taken for granted that there is no world beyond the village, and to travel beyond its boundaries means death at the hands of the Unconsecrated – and then rebirth as one of them.  Only when an outsider appears does Mary begin to question whether there is something worth finding outside the haven of the village.  It’s a story we’ve heard before, and will undoubtedly hear again, as Mary faces off against the Sisterhood, her family, and her village to discover the truth.

[…full review…]

Book Review: Let Me In

•March 9, 2009 • 2 Comments

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Let Me In
(New English release title: Let the Right One In)

by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Vampire lore has suffered an unintended devolution from horror to comedy over recent years, and bookshelves have no space for additional stock-quality vampire novels.  Thankfully, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s first novel is anything but what has come before.  Let Me In, the source for the critically acclaimed movie Let the Right One In, is equal parts horror and romance, if not exactly where expected.

letmein_bookthumbOskar, a friendless boy living with his mother in an all-too-common nowhere, is struggling to deal with life as the target of his classmates’ cruelty.  His role makes the unending loop between invisible boy and scapegoat until he meets Eli, the odd and inquisitive girl who moves into the apartment next to his.  As he and Eli develop a tentative friendship, Oskar slowly realizes what she is, and he begins to understand that there are worse things than not being human.

The story may be familiar, but it is the simultaneous innocence and wisdom of its young characters that makes Let Me In so casually heartwrenching.  The ease with which Oskar accepts Eli as a vampire is only the first of many compromises as they find ways to make their need for each other more important than their differences. 

While only mildly grotesque in terms of anything expected of vampire lore, Let Me In will still turn more delicate stomachs.  The book’s exploration of human darkness through sadism, pedophilia, and disfigurement will leave more than a few mainstream readers appalled.

Let Me In sacrifices plausibility for horror in places, but it is a fault of any book in the genre. The prose is quick and occasionally stunted, but whether this is by Lindqvist’s design or translator Ebba Segerberg’s taste for brevity is a topic for debate.

Where Lindqvist excels — and what makes Let Me In so unlike its peers –  is his knowing handling of his characters.  It is Lindqvist’s multi-faceted portrayal of human cruelty that makes such a miracle of Eli’s appearance in Oskar’s life.  Theirs is an impossible love and, for all Anne Rice’s tomes on the subject of vampiric angst, Oskar and Eli manage to make theirs uncomplicated — and still hauntingly sweet. Let Me In is the vampire novel that we hadn’t realized we needed.

Excerpt (p. 39):

“Aren’t you cold?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

The girl frowned, wrinkling up her face, and for a moment she looked much much older than she was.  Like an old woman about to cry.

“I guess I’ve forgotten how to.”

let me in book review let the right one in book review John Ajvide Lindqvist

Rating: A-

[Amazon]

Book Review: Elsewhere

•January 11, 2009 • 1 Comment

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Elsewhere
by Gabrielle Zevin


For a story that begins after the death of its 15-year-old protagonist, Elsewhere is surprisingly rich in hope. There is an utter lack of pathos, as if the author intentionally withheld the obvious sorrow of a life cut short. Instead, Liz Hall’s life continues long after the hit-and-run, and she faces many of the same challenges she would have if she were still living. Elsewhere touches a number of issues but lingers on none of them, and provides readers with a transporting backdrop to some very human questions.

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Zevin’s vision of the afterlife is a charming and well-thought-out reassurance of life after death.  The newly dead are carried by the SS Nile to Elsewhere, where they are met by loved ones who had passed on before them.  In Liz’s case, her grandmother awaits her arrival at the dock, having died of cancer before Liz was born. Even before they reach home, Liz transforms into the picture of teenage rebellion, rejecting her grandmother’s loving support and doing everything in her power to return to her previous life. More than just a story about death, Elsewhere is the universal message of growing up and accepting the unavoidable.

The land of Elsewhere owes its easy believability to Zevin’s attention to detail.   Elsewhere is the flip side of life — the dead grow younger and eventually return to Earth as infants.  It’s an interesting and complication-riddled twist on the usual scene of harps and halos, but the system seems so obvious in hindsight that it demands credibility. Smaller details, such as the Observation Decks where the dead can keep up with the day-to-day lives of those they left behind, give Elsewhere an additional nudge toward authenticity.

Zevin’s prose is straightforward and only occasionally clumsy, and her use of the present tense forces the afterlife into a sense of immediacy. Liz’s voice is fairly reliable, if only in the sense that it demonstrates a teenager’s inability to focus beyond what she wants or feels at any given moment.

If there is one shortcoming in Elsewhere, it is that Liz bothers to see so little of it.  As a narrator, Liz is a less than ideal proxy for the supernatural setting, as she stoutly refuses to explore it on our behalf.  Her self-imposed alienation limits our understanding of Elsewhere as well as her standing in it.  Liz’s only friend disappears after the first few chapters, and her grandmother slowly fades to irrelevance.  By the end, the story revolves around Liz and her love interest. The angle might suit the age but not the setting, and we can’t help but feeling the tiniest bit cheated.

While Elsewhere’s basic story may seem familiar, Zevin’s creativity buoys it above the usual fare. The sheer newness of Elsewhere breathes life into its lessons of forgiveness and acceptance.  Elsewhere is charming, uncomplicated, and imaginative in a way that should prove embarrassing for readers who arrived with low expectations.

 

Excerpt (p. 39, paperback):

“We’re here!” Thandi is looking out the upper porthole when Liz enters the cabin.  She jumps down from the top bunk and throws her solid arms around Liz, spinning her about the cabin until both girls are out of breath.

Liz sits down and gasps for air.  “How can you be so happy when we’re…?”  Her voice trails off.

“Dead?” Thandi smiles a little. “So you finally figured it out.”

“I just got back from my funeral, but I think I sort of knew before.”

Thandi nods solemnly.  “It takes as long as it takes,” she says.  “My funeral was awful, thanks for asking.”

Rating: A-

[Amazon]

gabrielle zevin elsewhere book review aydee

Book Review: The Graveyard Book

•December 27, 2008 • 7 Comments

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman


gbbook1Unlike Gaiman’s earlier works, The Graveyard Book is almost strictly about atmosphere.  There is the graveyard itself, which Nobody Owens calls home; the mysterious and sinister creatures that populate the night; and the ghosts, who are both otherworldly and utterly familiar.  Gaiman weaves a dark  mood in the first chapter that lingers right through to the end.

The Graveyard Book is captivating from the start, aided by the simple and yet effectively creepy illustrations by Dave McKean.  The story is set as an infant escapes his family’s murderer, only to find sanctuary in the local graveyard.  The kindly ghosts take him in and raise him as their own, and Bod — short for Nobody — grows up amidst all the imagination Gaiman has to offer.

Gaiman’s strength lies in his ability to think in unexpected patterns, but he has not yet perfected the art of making them work toward a common goal.  Bod’s adventures in both the world of the living and the world of the dead highlight points of change or lessons learned, but the effect is never cumulative.  The pacing and story stumble through numerous time leaps as Gaiman jumps to his favorite parts and abandons the rest.  As the timeline vaults years to keep up with Bod’s age, the story fragments along with it.  We see the pieces of Bod’s life which Gaiman has deemed important or necessary, but they never feel natural and do little to complete an overall portrait of Bod’s world.

Unsurprisingly, the quality of writing is at its worst when Gaiman works hardest at it.  Some of the descriptions ring true, but far more bewilder.  In an effort to keep atmosphere at the forefront of The Graveyard Book, Gaiman has turned to the familiar weapon of the purple prose writer: flat-out incomprehensibility.

The Graveyard Book, p. 194

“You will do as you are told, boy,” said Silas, a knot of velvet anger in the darkness.

There are several spots like this, in which Gaiman strains so hard to keep the mood that the readers can very nearly hear him striking the keys harder than usual.

The title of The Graveyard Book alone begs comparison to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  But, where Mowgli has no choice but to return to the human world, Bod is less inclined to rejoin the living.  His forays into the world of the living are never what he expected and almost always disappoint; and when he finally does go out into the world, he does so unarmed and unprepared.

Overall, The Graveyard Book is by no means an unpleasant read, but it leaves its audience wanting.  Bod’s inability to fit in anywhere — either in the world of the dead or of the living — cast his return to life in an uncertain light.  The Graveyard Book is thematically enjoyable but suffers from plotting issues that leaves it holding decidedly less than it should.

Atmospheric but lazy and ultimately disappointing, The Graveyard Book can’t match the thoroughness of Gaiman’s Anansi Boys or Neverwhere, but it should still find a ready audience among the younger set.

Excerpt:

 
 

The child had been here. It was here no longer. The man Jack followed his nose down the stairs through the middle of the tall, thin house. He inspected the bathroom, the kitchen, the airing cupboard, and, finally, the downstairs hall, in which there was nothing to be seen but the family’s bicycles, a pile of empty shopping bags, a fallen diaper, and the stray tendrils of fog that had insinuated themselves into the hall from the open door to the street.

The man Jack made a small noise then, a grunt that contained in it both frustration and also satisfaction. He slipped the knife into its sheath in the inside pocket of his long coat, and he stepped out into the street. There was moonlight, and there were streetlights, but the fog stifled everything, muted light and muffled sound and made the night shadowy and treacherous. He looked down the hill towards the light of the closed shops, then up the street, where the last high houses wound up the hill on their way to the darkness of the old graveyard.

 
 

Rating: C+

[Amazon]

neil gaiman the graveyard book book review aydee

Book Review: Ink Exchange

•August 21, 2008 • 8 Comments

• Ink Exchange •
by Melissa Marr


Much like its predecessor, Ink Exchange is all sensation and no substance.  Rather than using the book to improve upon the world of fey, Marr lets her impatience with topics already covered in Wicked Lovely rob Ink Exchange of any sort of depth, and the story becomes a flashily sensuous joyride that never dips beneath the surface.

Marr’s second book is a weaker carbon copy of her first, as if she’d merely traced over the lines of Wicked Lovely and inserted less compelling characters. Once again, a human girl is tempted by the king of a fey court who believes that she is destined to belong to him. Once again, she must find the strength to overcome his conviction and his deceptions in order to save herself. However, where Aislinn had a long-standing dislike of the fey and knew how to fight back, Leslie is little more than a “broken toy,” as the Dark King deemed her in the first chapter. Marr tried to give us a heroine who had seen and survived living hell, but Leslie falls far short of the task, and does little more in the end than give others permission to save her.

iebookUnlike Aislinn, whose Sight enabled her to see the invisible world of fey, Leslie is a victim of her own life and others’. Stuck with an alcoholic father and abusive brother, Leslie finds refuge in her friends and in the tattoo she chooses from Rabbit’s shop. Unfortunately, Rabbit is fey, and Leslie’s tattoo turns her into a siphon for emotions, which the Dark King uses to sustain his followers.

Without Wicked Lovely to bolster it, Ink Exchange has no history and even less complexity. The world of fey, so haphazardly described in Wicked Lovely, is even more scattered this time around. And, since we’ve already seen Seth struggling to accept the supernatural, Leslie’s reaction is an even briefer recap of his denial: little more than an impatient pause on Marr’s way to bigger and more dramatic things.

Throughout Ink Exchange, suspense is nonexistent. By the time Leslie’s life begins to change, we’re well aware of what’s really going on. Marr has little interest in hiding the puppets’ strings, as we’re given full access to all of the characters, human and fey alike. There are no surprises because there are no motives that aren’t described by the individual harboring them. At every step, we know what drives the Dark King, what haunts Leslie, and what choices those who love them have to make. Like Wicked Lovely, Ink Exchange is more a melodrama about free will than a fantasy. Once again, human strength is pitted against the depravity of the supernatural, with expected outcomes on both sides.

Emotions run high throughout Ink Exchange, some well beyond the point of plausibility and into absurdity. A tense staring match between the Dark King and the Summer Queen is a melee of flame and shadow, which is enticing at first but quickly grows tiring as none of the fey can seem to have a conversation without setting something ablaze. Most of it runs past –- and through –- the heroine, who spends at least a third of the book as a magic addict and couldn’t be any less interested in heroics. Somewhere near the midpoint, Leslie’s usefulness disappears entirely, leaving others to bicker amongst themselves and coax the plot into action again.

Unlike Wicked Lovely, Marr’s second book has no clear goal and ends up being a showcase for uncontrollable and nearly poisonous emotions. The humans learn to believe in themselves, the fey learn responsibility and mercy, and attraction flows in every direction. A vaguely guilty read without the follow-through, Ink Exchange takes the first book’s strong points and inverts them, leaving us with a few hundred pages of angst but very little worth remembering.

 

Excerpt (p. 23):

 
 

Mine. The thought, the need, the reaction were overpowering. Her stomach clenched. She pulled her gaze away, and then forced herself to keep looking. She looked at the other tattoos, but her attention returned to that image as if compelled by it. That one’s mine. For a moment, some trick of light made it look as if one of the eyes in the image winked. She ran her finger over the page, feeling the slick-smooth plastic sheet covering it, imagining the feel of those wings wrapped around her — somehow jagged and velvety all at once. She looked up at Rabbit. “This one. I need this one.”

 
 

Rating: C-

[Amazon]

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Book Review: Metal Gear Solid

•August 17, 2008 • 16 Comments

• Metal Gear Solid: the Novel •
Original story by Hideo Kojima
Novelization by Raymond Benson


Warning: SPOILERS!


I don’t read novelizations — that is, books that have no business being books in the first place — all that often, if ever. But, being a loyal MGS fan, I had no choice when it came to Raymond Benson’s attempt to transform a much-beloved Playstation game into a 319-page paperback. And when I say “attempt,” I do so under the assumption that Benson was honestly trying to remain fair and faithful to the Metal Gear Solid plot and to Kojima’s occasional brilliance.

The book isn’t just a train wreck.  In fact, it’s hard to come up with something appropriately catastrophic to compare it to.  If the book had to be a wreck of some kind, it would most likely involve a handful of 747s, flaming meteors, and a great white shark. Any survivors would promptly be attacked by bears.

And I like Metal Gear Solid.

There are plenty of bad books on the market (some of which I’ve read and enjoyed immensely, if only for the opportunity to laugh when laughter is not appropriate). But, in a show that puts every other crap writer to shame, Metal Gear Solid: the Novel is easily the worst of the lot. From blow-by-blow descriptions of Solid Snake disabling enemy soldiers to flat-out bewildering word choices, the Metal Gear Solid novel is the funniest thing available on paper, however unintentionally.

wtfI’ve been trying to decide exactly who might find the novel more bewildering: those who’ve played the game, or those who haven’t. On the one hand, those of us who’ve played the Metal Gear Solid games know Solid Snake with an imagined intimacy that probably keeps David Hayter from a good night’s sleep. We love the eternally just-rolled-out-of-bed timbre of his voice, we cherish his oft-deserved witticisms, and we thrive on his woefully frequent lapses in tact.

Those who’ve never played can’t see Vulcan’s towering, adorably geometric bulk when Benson narrates a boss battle.  They don’t hear Sniper Wolf’s near-subsonic purr.  And they don’t understand why Meryl’s behind is so damn inspiring.  But at the same time, they’re incapable of being disappointed.

Lucky SOBs.

 

 

The only dialogue that sounds remotely natural is what’s lifted directly from the game, but that may be because we’re already expecting it.  When Benson’s left to his own devices, things get far more entertaining.

Take our good friend Solid Snake.  We’ve always appreciated his ability to shoot first and ask questions later — or sometimes not at all.

The Benson-ified Snake boasts all the verbal wit of a 13-year-old on Xbox Live, to his horror and ours.  Throughout the book, we’re treated to a parade of one-liners not usually heard outside of 1960s Gotham.

•-•-•-•-•-•

“Merry Christmas,” Snake said as he delivered two powerhouse punches, left and then right, into the guards’ faces.  The soldiers plopped to the floor.  “I forgot to tell you — Christmas is early this year.” (p. 34)

The man snored loudly and woke himself up.  His head rose to the level where Snake wanted it.
“Sounds like you’ve got sleep apnea,” Snake said.  “Better get that checked out.” (p. 40)

“I suspect that [the Genome soldiers] are equipped with the same antifreezing peptide I gave you.”
“That won’t stop me from putting them on ice.”  (p. 33)

Snake grinned and contacted Natasha.
“Hey, I got me a Stinger.  I just wanted to brag.”  (p. 205)

“Did you know that it was the French who first thought of using electrical shocks as a means of torture?”
“That figures.  They also like Jerry Lewis.”  (p. 176)

“Colonel, I’m on my way to the first-floor basement.  The show’s just getting started.” (p. 48)

“Well, I’m not like you,” Liquid said.  “Unlike you, I’m proud of the destiny that is encoded in my genes.”
“Encode this, you bastard!” (pp. 279-280)

•-•-•-•-•-•

Snake isn’t the only one to suffer such indignities, of course.

•-•-•-•-•-•

“Stay here and kill anything that moves!” (Genome soldier, p. 109)

“Of course I am, you idiotic buffoon.  I am beyond your pitiful intellect.  I can destroy your mind.  I will make you break down and cry like a baby!”  (Psycho Mantis, p. 145)

“The road is closed, Snake!  Detour!  Detour!” (Liquid Snake, p. 202)

“Solid Snake, come on down!” (Liquid Snake, p. 277)

 

 

Don’t go thinking there’s salvation in silence, either.  When Snake isn’t making remarks to himself externally, it continues unabated in his head.  Which, thanks to Benson’s keen sense of sadism, is also well within our grasp.

“Yes!  The pain!” the ninja cried.  “I’ve been waiting for this pain!”
The guy’s crazy as a loon!
(p. 123)

The rancid commercial tobacco actually tasted good this time.  And he didn’t cough.
Things are definitely looking up…! 
(p. 191)

The Stinger!  It’s the only way!  (p. 281)

[Snake finds body armor.]
You don’t find many of these in Cracker Jack boxes! 
(p. 193)

Snake opened one eye.   He lay on the bunk bed, broken and exhausted.  He was too sore and shaken to sleep.
I’m wired — ha ha!  (p. 193)

 

 

For Benson, the devil is in the details.  And he isn’t going to let us get anywhere until he’s illustrated every…single…one.

   “Well, we will see if there is iron in your words!”
   With that, Vulcan Raven swung the M61A1 at Snake and let loose with a barrage of 20-mm shells.  It was only Snake’s anticipation of the attack and his years of training that got him the jump — literally — on his nemesis, for Snake executed a perfect sideways cartwheel just before the bullets struck him.  (p. 231)

That’s right: He narrates entire boss battles for you, play-by-play.  Isn’t this the very reason they made it a video game in the first place?  Every corner Snake turns, every sentry he dispatches, and every chaff grenade that sends a surveillance camera into a seizure gets red-carpet treatment, courtesy of Benson and his detail brigade.

 

 

Remember all those little things in Metal Gear that chipped at your sanity?  Like the fact that none of the Genome soldiers find it odd that one of their own chooses to use the ladies’ room?  Or how Liquid somehow manages to fool half a dozen people into thinking he’s Master Miller, using only a pair of sunglasses and a hair tie?

Don’t expect Benson to help you fill in the blanks.  He’s actually here to make things worse.

 

#1: Questionable torture

It was as if he had been struck by lightning.  Every nerve erupted with a thousand screams.  Every muscle exploded in agony.  Every cell in his skin, his blood, his organs, and his brain ignited with the heat and intensity of a million suns.  All his senses — sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch — shut off and focused on one thing only: extreme and unimaginable pain.  (p. 177)

My brain happens to be an organ. And wouldn’t it be difficult to experience pain with your senses shut off?

 

#2: Semi-nude showdown

Recall, if you will, the hand-to-hand battle that Snake and Liquid have atop the remains of Metal Gear.  Incredibly, the force of the explosion knocked Liquid’s shirt and Snake’s entire sneaking suit off.  Incredible!  Both were left ready for the big showdown, half-naked and unarmed!  We didn’t know why; but then, perhaps it was safer that way.

Benson has no answers, either.

   The haze slowly dissipated.  Snake opened his eyes to see a dark room highlighted by bits of flame and smoldering brick and steel.  He was lying on something hard that was somehow familiar.
   His sneaking suit had been removed.  He was bare-chested, wearing only skintight pants.
   “Sleeping late as usual, Snake?”
   Snake’s eyes rolled toward the voice.  Liquid stood twenty feet away.  He, too, was dressed only in tight pants.  (p. 288)

Oh, Kojima.  How you toy with us.

 

#3: One liberty too far

   “Snake…she’s my daughter.”
   “What?”
   “Meryl’s my daughter.  I didn’t find out until recently.  I got a letter from her mother…my dead brother’s wife.  I was going to tell her after the operation was over.  I guess that’s another secret I kept from you.  And her.”
   Snake looked at Meryl, and she mouthed “What?”  He shook his head and replied to the colonel, “Colonel, that’s…”  He had to laugh rather than finish his sentence. (p. 314)

And Naomi is your second cousin once removed.  It’s complicated.

 

#4: General writing WTFery

“The Les Enfants Terribles project.”  (p. 5)  (Or, in English, “The the Terrible Children project.”)

He squeezed the trigger and bombarded the cyborg with several rounds. But the ninja knocked the bullets away with his sword!  (p. 233)  (emphasis not mine)


•-•-•-•-•-•


wtfSo, should you read Metal Gear Solid?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  Ignore the blatant half-anachronisms (characters from a game released in 1998 talking about 9/11), ignore the fact that Benson can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag, and cuddle up with some good old-fashioned B-movie material in book form.  Play the game first, set your standards firmly below sea level, then pick up a copy of the Metal Gear Solid.  If you aren’t laughing, you aren’t reading it right.

At $12.95, the paperback’s a little expensive for a joke, but I found a copy at my local library.  Grab the book — and the drink of your choice — and settle in for a gut-busting afternoon.

Because, as our hero Solid Snake reminds us:

“You interrupted a very pleasant dream I was having about berries.  This had better be good.”  (p.13)

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Rating: so bad it’s awesome

[Amazon]

[excerpt]