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So, it's been a while since I posted a book review, hasn't it? It turns out that my first themed reading challenge didn't turn out like I expected. I was halfway through reading Book #4, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A'Lelia Perry Bundles, when I realized I couldn't enjoy the book because even though I wanted to read it I was being motivated by a quota instead of the pure enjoyment of reading, which is what the spirit of the reading challenge was supposed to be about. So I've abandoned the book for now and will return to it later when genuine interest in the story reignites again. Thus, when the deadline for my Summer Reading Challenge rolls around tomorrow, July 31st, I will have completed only 3 of the 6 books I intended to read in my first themed challenge.
My Rating: 2 out of 5  

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That certainly doesn't mean I've stopped reading all together. Since returning On Her Own Ground to the bookshelf, I have been exploring new books on Goodreads that are outside of my preferred genres. I decided to expand my horizons and take a chance on some new novels offered as Giveaways on Goodreads. I never entered book Giveaways before but it's been a great way to learn about new authors and bookmark new titles to read in the future. Surprisingly, I won 5 Giveaways in July! My first win was a hardcover edition of the newly published thriller/suspense novel The Last One by Alexandra Oliva which arrived in the mail just this past week. I breezed through the book in a few days.

In The Last One, twelve contestants are brought together to compete for a million dollars in a new reality TV show that tests survival skills and endurance in the woods. The only way out is to say a Latin phrase "ad tenebras dedi" (translated "to the night/darkness, I surrender") but our protagonist, a young woman nicknamed "Zoo," has already decided that no matter what happens she will never utter those words. Unbeknownst to the contestants who are isolated from the outside world, a mysterious illness breaks out during the course of the competition, infecting and killing millions of people at an alarming rate. Despite the horrors Zoo encounters in her quest to win, she refuses to quit, refuses to say those three words, even as the manipulated reality of TV blurs into a real life apocalyptic nightmare. She's going to be the last one standing, or die trying.

While I was intrigued by the premise of the novel and had high hopes for a good thriller/suspense story, the execution was in my opinion incredibly disappointing. Within the first few pages it became obvious to me that this was a debut novel because stylistically the writing structure was overly descriptive and repetitive, lacking the "show, don't tell" quality of more sophisticated writing. The author also wastes time providing nearly every character a physical description, even minor characters whose only presence in the whole book takes up two lines of text. I found this to be particularly annoying because good writing engages the reader by leaving insignificant details to the imagination. I understand that the plot revolves around the a visual medium (TV) so those details are important for the story but only up to a point. I will say that the writing did improve in some parts but I was regularly irritated by novice stylistic choices throughout and that definitely detracted from my overall reading enjoyment. I could have gotten over my distaste for the author's writing style if the problems weren't also compounded by glaring character development issues and inconsistencies.

The novel is structured with an alternating timeline where one chapter will describe events in the present and the next chapter will be a flashback to the beginning of the competition, then back to the present in the next chapter and so forth. I don't usually enjoy time jumps but it worked for me in this story and helped keep me interested mainly because I didn't find Zoo to be a particularly engaging character and she is alone in many of the "present" chapters but in the "past" chapters the story is carried by a nice variety of characters, nearly all of which I liked much better than the protagonist (even the so called villain). My problem with Zoo is that while all the other characters are distinctly developed--though somewhat stereotypical in their portrayal--she bounces all over the spectrum of characterization without a clear trajectory of development. There are long stretches in the novel where Zoo is alone in the woods and the author fills space with boring memories from her life before the show or, what I found incredibly annoying, Zoo becomes a mouthpiece for the author to inject her philosophies on god, motherhood, being a feminist "modern" wife, etc. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem reading views that contrast my own and happily agree to disagree for the sake of the narrative, but when an author's personal views appear in a text unprompted by plot and serve no function to propel the story then you disrespect the reader by wasting time preaching instead of storytelling.

Perhaps the reason I most disliked Zoo has to do with the plot. Readers are informed in the first chapter that there is a disease running rampant and people are dying all over the place, but none of the contestants know it. It is key to the story that Zoo thinks she's playing a game, while the reader knows when it's no longer a game. The element of suspense is lost from the very beginning but the story has to go on and the only way it can is with Zoo in deep denial about the reality of situation. I stomached her delusional rationalizations for a while but the author kept on beating that dead horse far longer than what was necessary. A third of the way into the story I started getting annoyed that Zoo wasn't getting it by now. Halfway through I was getting fed up rooting for Zoo if she was obviously too dumb to see what was really going on. 200 pages into the novel I was thoroughly bored (not a good thing for a suspense/thriller novel to do to a reader). My interest was piqued ever so slightly in the last 80 pages with the introduction of a new character. This character is the only reason I finished the novel because Zoo had become utterly intolerable on her own by this point, so deeply entrenched in bitter denial that I couldn't spare any more emotional attachment to her. I get that the author was trying to play up the psychological effects of extreme stress, malnutrition and competitive manipulation that occurs on a survivor type reality TV show, but it was too much of a stretch of the imagination for far too many pages. I did like the surprise twist in the last chapter and wished that more twists had been present throughout the story to add some excitement.

Anyway, I'm really sad that my first Goodreads Giveaway win was a bust. I've already started reading my second Giveaway novel, an advanced reader copy of Night Watch by Iris Johansen and Roy Johansen. After finishing the first two chapters, I'm optimistic that this is going to be a good one.