Friday, May 31, 2013

Kickin' Ass and Takin' Names

Badass:  The Birth of a Legend

by Ben Thompson

Published by Harper Perennial

3 Out of 5 Stars


Behold!  Herein is contained a collection of history and pop culture's most notorious badasses.  These guys and gals kick ass, take names, never give a crap, and spend their days punching humanity in the nutsack just because they can.  They believe that, if you're looking for sympathy, it's in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.  There's no challenge they won't accept, no life they will spare, no vengeance they won't seek, no maiden they won't fondle!  Why?  They all suffer from the totally sweet fever known as badassitude.  And, as we all know, there's no cure for badassitude and, even if there were, who would want it?

Yeah, was all that a little too much for you?  Well, it was for me, too.  I will readily admit that I am indeed juvenile enough to have found the cover amusing, as well as sentences like this one describing the Egyptian gods: "As an added triple-shot of one hundred-proof badassitude, almost all of these bitchin' all-powerful smite-masters were represented by human bodies with insane animal heads grafted on top, making them so King Kong mega-weird-looking that it's like riding a surfboard of insanity down the Uncanny Valley."  However, 300+ pages of this became tedious--so much so that I had to reduce my reading to a chapter or two between other books. 

It wasn't long before every chapter began to sound as though a potty-mouthed version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Michelangelo was "Cowabunga"-ing his way through the narrative.
However, there were some bright spots:

1)  The variety of cultures and time periods represented is impressive.  We have everything from Viking, Aztec, Greek, Egyptian, Vodoun, Anglo-Saxon, to various African mythologies represented, as well as more modern cultural icons.  (Any book where Skeletor and Darth Vader are rubbing shoulders is automatically worth 3 stars.)

2)  Hell, yes for the women represented in the book!  Kali, Oya, Atalanta, Bradamant of Clairmont, Skuld, The White Tights (it's worth reading this chapter alone), The Furies, Baba Yaga, and, my personal favorite, Medea, are all here, proving you don't have to have *ahem* a sword *ahem* to be a badass.

3)  This is the type of book that I could definitely see turning around a boy who is a struggling reader.  It's fun, opens up a variety of mythologies for further research, and uses a language all teenage boys understand.  Sure, you could get your panties in a twist because words like balls, douche, badass, scrotum, and several juvenile sexual references are made, but if you think teenage boys aren't already using that language then you are not a badass.  You're a dumbass.  And I'm of the opinion that if it takes pandering to the lowest common denominator to hook a kid on reading, it's well worth it.

Despite the fact that the "badass" conceit wears pretty thin, this is a moderately entertaining and very well-researched read.  I can honestly say that I learned a few things from it, added a few books for further reading to my "to read" list, and now have the line "He gets more ass than a public toilet seat" in my arsenal.  It was well worth the read.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Across the Universe

Saga:  Volume 2

Written by Brian K. Vaughan

Illustrated by Fiona Staples

Published by Image

4 Out of 5 Stars


In the first 6 issues of Saga (which comprised volume 1 of the trade edition), Brian K. Vaughan threw in enough weird ass shit to keep me in a delightfully perpetual state of "what the hell was that?" So much so that I worried the inventiveness might eventually wear thin, begin to feel as though it's trying too hard (as I sometimes feel with China Mieville's Dial H), or simply create such a labyrinthine mythology that it's just not worth trying to puzzle it all out. The second 6 issues have definitely allayed those fears as they are as outrageous and genuine as the first story arc, losing none of the batshit craziness or heart.

Hazel, the newborn daughter of Marko and Alana, continues to narrate the story of her parents from an unknown point in the future. Marko and Alana, both soldiers from two warring alien races, have a romance that reads like Romeo and Juliet on crack. On the run as fugitives from their respective races, they continue to search the universe for a safe place to live, love, and raise Hazel. But, alas, bounty hunters continue to plague them and, worst of all, the sudden appearance of ex-flames (an enraged Gwendolyn, Marko's one time fiancée) and in-laws (Marko's parents seek out their wayward child at the worst possible of times, complicating his escape with Alana).

This arc provides background on several significant characters, including how Marko and Alana met, as well as the history of the relationship between The Will and The Stalk, the star-crossed (and bad ass) bounty hunters hot on their trail. For those uninitiated to Brian Vaughan's work, however, be forewarned: there will be sex scenes, giants with pendulous scrotums, and enough deviant behavior to make Sodom and Gomorrah blush with shame. However, I also appreciate the maturity with which the relationships are portrayed--they're real without being romanticized. Saga works beautifully because of this and because of the huge debt the series owes to illustrator Fiona Staples. The work of any other artist could have made Vaughan's ideas too cartoonish, too over-the-top, but Staples's work is the right mesh of quirky and realistic that roots this world in an organic quality that gives it weight and authenticity.

In short, I can't praise Saga highly enough. It's a testament to what comics can achieve when writers and artists are let off the leashes of pre-conceived, "safe" concepts and allowed to chase after their most vivid, fevered imaginings.

Not Original Enough

Original Sins

by Peg Kingman

Published by W. W. Norton & Company

1 Out of 5 Stars


There will be spoilers. Be forewarned.

If it hadn't been for the fact that I had agreed to review this book in order to receive a free copy, I would have abandoned it long ago. Alas, I am a woman of my word (at least when it comes to getting free stuff), so I trudged through all 400+ pages. I may have to alter this view and just stick to paying for the good stuff in the future.

Why did I volunteer to read this book, other than the fact that I received it ex gratia? The advertised premise intrigued me: "Why would a runaway Virginia slave—having built a rewarding life in the East Indies as a silk merchant—risk everything by returning to America in 1840, eighteen years after taking her freedom?" Hmm. I like stories about the East Indies, I like stories about the silk trade, and I like stories about repressed people making good. That was my line of thinking. However, did I get a story about the East Indies? about the silk trade? about repressed people making good? The answer to all of these is a resounding no. What did I get instead? A story about an insufferable and arrogant New England portrait painter who goes and plays Nancy Drew for 3/4 of the story at a Southern plantation. And now I shall, in list form for the sake of clarity, enumerate the many reasons why I did not like this book.

Things I Did Not Enjoy About This Book:

1) The main character of Grace MacDonald Pollocke, the fiery, short-tempered, independent red-head (what I wouldn't give, just once, to meet a literary red-head who isn't a cliché; if all fictional blondes aren't dumb, then why are all red-heads tempestuous and feisty?) who is our protagonist. Grace was born in Scotland, but raised in India and China and now lives in America. She's a cultural mutt. Grace is a self-sufficient woman, an atheist, a political astute, and an abolitionist. Grace is something of a superwoman. There's nothing she can't do. If there's a wrong being done, she'll recognize it. If there's a clue overlooked, she'll find it. If there's a flaw in a line of reasoning, she'll mend it. She is so obnoxiously perfect that I just once wanted to see her fail. But, oh, no. We can't have that. In one scene, it's even revealed that she can read a daguerreotype of a document (which appears backwards) without the aid of a mirror, all thanks to an unexplained childhood accident (seriously, that's all it says--because of a childhood accident). Why couldn't the author have just let Grace go get a friggin' mirror like everyone else?

2) The novel relies heavily upon coincidence. Everything falls into place just perfectly for perfect Grace. The narrative feels contrived and loops back around so nicely to tidy everything up that I could never give myself over to the story. I was always too aware of it as something being "made". It's akin to seeing a beautiful item from a distance, but when you get up close you can see the seams or stitches holding it together. You can see every seam and every stitch here.

3) And another thing about Grace. Oh, how she hates America. We're a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites who know nothing of our founding documents or about proper grammar. Grace takes every opportunity to contemplate what a bunch of assholes we are, far inferior to every other culture that she's ever encountered. I'll admit that, yes, all of that probably was (and is) true to an extent, but all Americans (with the exception of Grace's husband and Miss Julia Grant, the beauty who would have been as ignorant as everyone else if she weren't marred by her lazy eye--being seen as undesirable has left her with oodles of time for independent thought) are portrayed as ignorant, religious zealots. But it's like having family members that you hate--you can bad mouth them, but woe upon anyone else who does. It just gets tiresome, this intolerance she has of everyone while at the same time bemoaning how intolerant Americans themselves are.

4) A lot of the book reads like a 2nd grader proudly saying "Look what I learned!" There is so much unnecessary historical detail crammed in that it bogs down the narrative. Much of it is also presented in the form of long-winded dialogue, because there's no legitimate way of making it part of the story without doing so; one character may espouse the merits of bleach for an entire page, as well as explain how the process works. It's very obvious that Kingman did her research, but what a wealth of information is included here. A historical fiction should have historical detail, yes, but it should be applied judiciously. It is, after all, still a fiction. If one wants to write about chemistry in 1800 or about the daguerreotype process, maybe one should consider writing a non-fiction book. Just saying.

5) In one scene, Grace plays a chess game against the plantation master. The master chooses the white chess pieces (which remind Grace of white supremacy) and Grace chooses the black chess pieces (which remind her of Cleopatra and the other dark races). Grace wins. Got symbolism?

6) The most fascinating character, Anibaddh Lyngdoh, is seldom on the page. This should have been her story. Anibaddh began as a slave known as "Annie Bad" for her unruly ways and was sent to Scotland with Miss Johnstone (who was sent to bring her brother-in-law's orphaned niece, Grace, back to America). When things go awry, Miss Johnstone kidnaps Grace, but it's Anibaddh who saves Grace and obtains her freedom when she runs away from her white master. Anibaddh later marries the Rajah of a West Indies nation and becomes a wealthy, educated, and independent woman. She returns to America to search for and buy the freedom of the mulatto daughter she had to leave behind. However, Anibaddh's story is subjugated to Grace's as it is Grace who is sent to the plantation to find out if Anibaddh's daughter is still there. Why this is necessary is still a mystery to me--Anibaddh seems perfectly capable of finding her daughter on her own. As she tells Grace time and again, she's not ignorant. She has already taken proper legal steps for protecting herself from re-enslavement while in America and for securing her daughter's freedom. In a novel whose main character is constantly reminding us that blacks should be equal to whites, it's rather ironic that we have to get the black woman's story through the white woman's.

7) The most intriguing part of the book is when Anibaddh's daughter is spirited away from the plantation where Grace is staying. Grace strongly suspects that Anibaddh arrived in the middle of the night and rescued her daughter (again, begging the question posed in #6--why was Grace even needed?) During the following days, the plantation crops are destroyed by a variety of caterpillars and silk worms (about which Anibaddh was an expert). Grace begins to think, while suffering qualms of loyalty for so doing, that Anibaddh unleashed a series of plagues upon the plantation as retribution for past sins. But did she? We never find out and there is the suggestion that it was all coincidence, which just takes an awesome premise and undermines it for fear that we might then see Anibaddh as a bad person. Damn it, I want to know for a fact that she went back there and wreaked havoc and I want to know how.


Things I Did Enjoy About This Book:

1) Finishing it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Medieval Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem

Cruel as the Grave

by Sharon Kay Penman

Published by Ballantine Books

3 Out of 5 Stars

This is one of those "I have no idea what compelled me to buy this book" discoveries on my bookshelves. It very clearly states on the front "A Medieval Mystery." Now, the only thing I hate more than a mystery is the Medieval time period. The wimples, the tonsures, the Lord this, Lady that, the tunics, the mutton, the mead, dear God, the drinking of the mead--it's too much bad fashion, bad food, and bad social hierarchies. And heaven forbid there be a sex scene because I assume everyone in the Medieval period had a hygiene level basically on par with that of Courtney Love. So why did I buy this book?

After discovering the novel while "weeding out" the old bookshelves to make room for some new goodies, I thought I would at least read the first 5 to 10 pages. You know, just enough to ease my conscience that I had at least given it a shot before putting it in the donation pile. So imagine my surprise when I look up nearly an hour later and I'm already 40 pages in. Cruel as the Grave is a serviceable mystery that doesn't browbeat you with historic detail and is a surprisingly accessible, swift read.

Set in--shall I say it again?--Medieval England during the imprisonment of Richard the Lionheart, the novel focuses on Justin de Quincy, the bastard child of a bishop, who has surprisingly risen through society's ranks to become the "Queen's man." As Eleanor of Aquitaine's trusted servant, Justin becomes embroiled in palace intrigue and the bitter rivalry between King Richard and Eleanor's youngest son, John, who has put his own machinations into motion as he tries to take the crown for himself in Richard's absence. In the meantime, Justin also investigates the murder of Melangell, a young Welsh girl used by (and most likely killed by) two privileged brothers whose status within their own family (the handsome and chosen firstborn versus the "black sheep") mirrors that of the royal brothers. Feeling an outsider's kinship with the dead Melangell, Justin becomes determined to bring her murderer to justice instead of allowing her life and death to be simply swallowed up by a London that is indifferent to its poor and foreign inhabitants.

While I found the overall mystery surrounding Melangell's murder rather pat with no surprises, it was an enjoyable read. Penman isn't a slave to historical detail; where many historical writers would find an excuse to weave in every bit of meaningless trivia gleaned from their research, Penman uses it judiciously to provide authenticity to the setting without overwhelming the reader. My understanding is that these are meant to be her "fun and fast" takes on history, so her more serious works may include much more historical detail if you're a fanatic for that type of read. For me, this was a fairly painless excursion into Medieval times.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I Think This King Guy May Have a Future in Writing

The Drawing of the Three

by Stephen King

Published by Plume

5 Out of 5 Stars


"What the hell was that?!!?" basically sums up my response to The Drawing of the Three. And I mean that in the best possible way.

As I opined in my review of The Gunslinger, I have avoided The Dark Tower for so long because it's a series and usually series books serve up a formulaic reheating of what happened in previous books. I usually enjoy the first book, like the second book, and begin to get that deja vu feeling that I've read all of this before somewhere around book three. Not so with this bad mamma-jamma. The Drawing of the Three couldn't be more different from The Gunslinger--and yet it works. The Gunslinger offered a bleak, apocalyptic world and a terse writing style to match as we followed the Man in Black along with Roland, the last Gunslinger. At the end of the novel, Roland is told that three people will be key in aiding his quest to the Dark Tower, leading into The Drawing of the Three.

In the second novel, the narrative begins with a shocking development in the first few pages that instantly causes us to reassess the character of Roland in terms of his abilities and his physical/emotional limits. Under considerable strain and a very real life-threatening situation, Roland begins to draw the three prophesied. As he does so, Roland breaks the barrier between his world and ours while discovering unlikely connections among the three people he encounters.

Unlike The Gunslinger, the writing here is more descriptive and King does a superb job of capturing Roland's awe with the plenty offered in our world in contrast with the world that has "moved on," as well as creating tension with the character of Detta Walker (I was as on edge during her scenes as Roland was; reading chapters with her was emotionally exhausting). In the first novel, Roland talked about how the Dark Tower was some kind of nexus holding worlds and times together and The Drawing begins to explore and clarify this idea more so than the previous book did.

It's very difficult to say much about the book without spoiling it, but King is to be commended for writing a book that varies in so many ways from the first novel and yet still seems a natural part of the world he created. If this continues, I may be one very happy series reader indeed.

Now I just hope that I don't order the Lobstrosities the next time I'm at Red Lobster. Seriously, I'll never look at lobster in the same way again.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

More Fun Than a Barrel of Sookies

Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs

by Molly Harper

Published by Pocket Star

3 Out of 5 Stars


Sometimes I think there is a checklist being passed around among writers of vampiric fiction, a kind of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Vampire Fiction, if you will. If so, this novel ticks off the following standard hallmarks:

--two possible love interests (one noble and one a scrappy rogue) for our female vampire
--creation of a synthetic blood substitute so vampires don't have to kill to get sustenance
--the vampire community "coming out" while other supernatural creatures (werewolves, witches, etc.) hang back to see how that works out for them
--a vampire society with a hierarchal structure and a couple of powerful Old World vamps hanging around
--a predictable mystery that sets our heroine at odds with the vampire elite

Having said that, I enjoyed the hell out of this book. In terms of plot, it is predictable, but what makes this such a refreshing read is the humor provided by the main character, Jane Jameson, a newly turned vampire who has to juggle her new undead status and the pesky societal pitfalls that plagued her in real life. There were times I laughed out loud (particularly after Jane and her best friend, Zeb, spend an evening injuring Jane with increasing degrees of violence just to watch her regenerate).

This is light, fluffy fun and sometimes that's more than enough.

Earnestly Entertaining

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

Published by Prestwick House

4 Out of 5 Stars


I have come to a basic conclusion:  Oscar Wilde was the man.  And this play proves it.  Full of zingers, witty banter, the well-crafted insult, and all things that make Wilde, well, Wilde, the play had me laughing out loud at lines like "The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else if she is plain" or, as a resigned Jack realizes none of them may be married, "Then a passionate celibacy is all that any of us can look forward to."

Also characteristic of Wilde is that there is a lot more going on here than comedy.  With a sharp eye, Wilde cleverly satirizes all aspects of aristocratic life.  For all their cleverness, these are despicable people.  They are petty, vain, arrogant, and vapid.  And hysterical. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Soldier's Tale of Cowardice and Bravery

If I Die in a Combat Zone (Box Me Up and Ship Me Home)

by Tim O'Brien

Published by Broadway

4 Out of 5 Stars


For me, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is the most powerful book that I have every read and it's the standard against which I judge all things O'Brien. In The Things They Carried, O'Brien utilizes a nonlinear and fragmented narrative structure, magical realism, and the power of storytelling to capture the visceral truth that telling the real story can't quite capture. For O'Brien, we must sometimes turn to fiction to capture what is "emotionally true" and, in doing so, be less concerned with an objective reality. In a way, If I Die in a Combat Zone makes this point for him. Written 15 years before Things, If I Die is a memoir of Tim O'Brien's experience in the Vietnam War. There is no metafiction razzle-dazzle, but rather a straight-forward, linear narrative that begins when O'Brien is drafted and ends as he boards the Freedom Bird headed toward home. It's powerful stuff, but not nearly as powerful as his fiction work. Despite that, anything by Tim O'Brien is better than almost anything else out there--fiction or non-fiction.

Having grown up in the post-World War II glow of American military might, O'Brien was raised in the ask-no-questions patriotic culture of the Midwest. Real men were expected to fight. Real men were supposed to look forward to war. Real men craved the opportunity to serve their country and protect their families. O'Brien doesn't reject these values, but these views are complicated by his own philosophical inclinations. He questions the nature of bravery, as well as how American intervention in Vietnam is protecting the average American's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the aftermath, he's left with no certain answers: "Now, war ended, all I am left with are simple, unprofound scraps of truth. Men die. Fear hurts and humiliates. It is hard to be brave. It is hard to know what bravery is. Dead human beings are heavy and awkward to carry . . . Is that the stuff for a morality lesson, even for a theme? . . . Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories."

And that's what O'Brien does in the novel--he tells war stories. He tells of the tedious days of repetition, punctuated by brief bursts of action; he tells of military incompetence and the frustration of not knowing who the enemy is in a land where farmers by day picked up guns at night; he tells of how cruel being sent on R&R was, knowing the brief return to normality would not last. And he does all of this without being preachy; he simply shows us what life was like for the average soldier and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. His language is at once poetic and precise, getting to the heart of all things. No one can capture the peculiar mix of fear, adrenaline fed excitement, and remorse of a soldier's most introspective moments like O'Brien.

At one point, O'Brien ruminates on Ernest Hemingway's fascination with war: "Some say Ernest Hemingway was obsessed by the need to show bravery in battle. It started, they say, somewhere in World War I and ended when he passed his final test in Idaho. If the man was obsessed with the notion of courage, that was a fault. But, reading Hemingway's war journalism and his war stories, you get the sense that he was simply concerned about bravery, hence about cowardice, and that seems a virtue, a sublime and profound concern that few men have." It's a concern that permeates all of O'Brien's work and his treatment of it is indeed sublime.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Arcadia Falls . . . and Fails

Arcadia Falls

by Carol Goodman

Published by Ballantine Books

2 Out of 5 Stars


In the beginning, I really wanted to love this book. I really, really did. Toward the middle of the book, I was just hoping to like it. By the end, I was ready to bid it a not-so-fond farewell and move onto something else. The novel sounds as though it's tailor made for me: there's the strained mother/daughter relationship, the pastoral setting at a private school for the arts, dark and eerie fairytales, a judicious dollop of death, and a mystery from the past that is being explored in the present. It's an ambitious mix and, in the end, the novel is weakened by its interwoven plot lines as it desperately tries to tie everything up into a neat little bundle.

Meg Rosenthal is trying to build a new life in the wake of her husband's unexpected death. Even more unexpected is that he mismanaged their finances and, despite the lavish lifestyle to which they were accustomed, he left them with virtually nothing. In the middle of her PhD in literature, Meg sells everything they own and moves her bitter and distant daughter, Sally, to Arcadia Falls, the site of a private school for the arts where she has been offered a teaching position. The job is ideal for Meg as she is studying the feminist fairytales written and illustrated by the school's founders, Vera Beecher and Lily Eberhardt. Sixty or so years ago, Lily died under peculiar circumstances while going to meet her lover, Virgil Nash, and her body wasn't recovered for several months. While it appeared as though she fell off a cliff during a blizzard, rumors and gossip have circulated in the art community and in the small town of Arcadia Falls for years as to whether Lily's death was just an accident. When a young student, Isabel Cheney, falls to her death (in the exact same way Lily did so many years earlier) during the pagan celebration that traditionally opens the new school year at Arcadia, the questions about Lily's death resurface and Meg finds the key to unraveling the truth about what really happened at Arcadia.

The book is beautifully written, although Goodman does have a tendency to throw in too much minutiae that slows down the pace of the story. Other problems that I had with the novel include:

A) Weak, one dimensional characters. The school dean, Ivy St. Clare, walks around the school with apparently little to do other than harass Meg (which begs the question of why she would hire her to begin with). She's so obviously the villain that I'm surprised she didn't walk around rubbing her hands together and cackling with all her maniacal might. Sally is the stereotypical sullen teenager who hates her mother, hates her new school, hates the new town, hates their new house, and, well, just hates everything. Then there's the town sheriff, Callum Reade, our knight in shining armor who shows up occasionally so Meg can get irritated at him without knowing why and he can get irritated with her without knowing why and then they can have sex later without knowing why. I didn't give a rat's ass about any of them.

B) Meg is also an unlikable character. She seems passive, just allowing things to happen to her. At the school, she shrinks away from or avoids any situation in which she might have to act like an adult authority figure. She spends her days reading Lily's journal and never seems to have any actual teaching responsibilities. She occasionally comes up with a lesson plan while crossing the school campus, but that's about it.

C) Meg finds Lily's hidden diary and, while reading it, begins to piece together the events that led to Lily's tragic death. However, she takes for-eh-ver to read it (I would have had that puppy read in one night) and I found the story in the diary to be far superior to the one in present day. Lily and Vera were lovers, but Lily also fell under the spell of Virgil Nash, the painter for whom she became a muse. This love triangle and these characters are far more intriguing, but sadly take backseat to Meg and Sally.

D) The book seems to want to be in the gothic or magical realism genre, but just can't quite bring itself to commit. This just pissed me off because it was billed as both.

E) So many things are just half-assed: Isabel's death is forgotten as soon as it happens, the folk legend of the white woman of the falls is a bizarre little footnote, a promising character named Toby Potter is made unforgettable and then readily forgotten, etc.

F) Women in this book have a nasty habit of running to the cliff when in danger. It's akin to the slasher film phenomenon of the beautiful girl running upstairs instead of out the front door. Everyone knows disaster happens at the cliff, but they take off like lemmings for it when things go wrong.

G) I had the end figured out halfway through the book. I won't spoil it for you, but I saw that one coming from about twenty miles away and it requires some serious suspension of disbelief. At one point the main character says, "I have to admit it all sounds a little far-fetched." And to that I say, spot on, Meg, spot on.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Disgust and Disquietude

Lolita

by Vladimir Nabokov

Published by Everyman's Library

3 Out of 5 Stars


In a word: unsettling. Lolita is beautifully written, full of lyrical prose and clever word play, and I commend Nabokov for the obvious skill and talent it took to write a novel in a language other than his native Russian. Having said all of that, no matter how beautiful, how inventive, how genius: I don't want to read about a pedophile, especially from the perspective of a pedophile. There's not a whole lot that I shy away from while reading (all sins are welcome here, for the sake of entertainment), but a pedophile who kidnaps the object of his affection and repeatedly rapes her during a cross country journey just isn't my bag, baby.

What makes the novel particularly terrifying is Humbert Humbert. To the outside world, he is a suave, sophisticated intellectual with movie star good looks--he's decidedly not someone one would look at and think, "Hmm . . . I bet he gets his jollies from playgrounds and little girls." I think many of us expect a pedophile's tendencies to somehow manifest themselves in the physical appearance: we expect the old man with a nervous twitch and a wanky eye (or the pop star with a high pitched giggle and a freakin' Ferris wheel on his property), but not someone who appears as civilized as Humbert. Admittedly, this is a stroke of genius on Nabokov's part as there are probably far more Humberts in this world who slip under the radar than we would like to admit. Even worse, Humbert seems to displace the blame on the girls themselves. Oh, sure, there is the occasional reference to himself as a beast or an ape and he comes to mourn Lolita's lost childhood at the hands of his unwholesome desires, but far more often there's the view of the nymphettes as demonic--something otherworldly, tempting little femme fatales in boy shorts with scraped knees and poor Humbert is powerless against their siren song. In addition, he seems to justify or rationalize what he does because he's an intellectual with the capacity to appreciate the aesthetics and sublime pleasures of the young (he often compares himself to poets and artists who loved their young muses, as though this somehow justifies his actions). The man is sick and, while I think he knows it, he doesn't know how to handle it.

To all of this, I can only offer a highly intellectual "blech" or "yuck" and move on as quickly as possible to the next book.

Monday, May 20, 2013

“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

The Things They Carried

by Tim O'Brien

Published by Mariner Books

5 Out of 5 Stars


Awestruck may be the best way to describe how I felt upon reading this book the first time. So how did I feel upon reading it the second time?  The third?  The fourth?  I just want to bow at Tim O'Brien's feet while muttering a Wayne's World style "I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy." 

Using non-linear narrative and stringing together seemingly unrelated stories into one ultimately cohesive work, O'Brien achieves something that traditional narrative never could:  his work reflects the emotional truth of what it was like to be a soldier in Vietnam and to be a veteran still living with memories that, when triggered, seem as real and visceral as if they were happening in the present.  This is memoir, metafiction, magical realism, and a whole grab bag of other literary genres rolled into one.  O'Brien himself admits that we as readers may not know which of the stories are "happening-truth" (what objectively happened) and which of the stories are "story-truth" (stories that may not have happened but because they strike the right emotional chord are more valid than what really happened).  However, the reader should not feel manipulated by this storytelling technique as it seeks to forge a connection between those who were there and those who were not; it does not seek to tell what happened, but to make you feel what it was like to be there.  The book is nothing short of a masterpiece. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Failed to Make a Dent

Embedded

by Dan Abnett

Published by Angry Robot

2 Out of 5

Embedded is set in a future where humans have begun to colonize other planets. Eighty-Six is the most recent settlement and it's where universe-weary, award-winning journalist Lex Falk has arrived to investigate rumors of political unrest and a military lockdown on all information leaving the planet. Falk's clout gets him embedded with the military, but it's not until he's approached by a clandestine party that can actually embed him into the body of Nestor Bloom, a combat soldier, that he gets the real story about what's happening on Eighty-Six.

Elmore Leonard famously advised "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." If Dan Abnett had taken this approach, the novel could have been about 150 pages shorter and far more enjoyable. He has apparently never met a simile that he's not keen on rubbing up against.

The book is far too descriptive and I know many people might argue that such is necessary for believable world-building, a sentiment with which I might normally agree. If you're going to present me with an alien world, I want to see it. The problem here is that Eighty-Six isn't much different from Earth. There are no alien life forms, no exotic landscapes, no cultural clashes. And yet Abnett is always keen to tell us what shade of blue the sky is and what the green trees in the forest look like. Other than the existence of "blurds" (some form of insect/bird hybrid), there's really nothing unusual about the setting. And there's nothing particularly futuristic other than the ubiquitous presence of a poison called Insect-Aside and apparently inorganic foodstuffs that always end with the suffix "-effect" (such as chicken parmigiana-effect, which can be washed down with a can of tasty NoCal cola-effect). Even the tech through which Falk is embedded into Bloom is clichéd--Falk is suspended in a Jung tank, which is just a clever name for the science fiction trope of a womb-like tank in which Falk is suspended in a viscous, amniotic-like liquid. None of this is particularly bad, but none of it is particularly good--and it's been done much better before.

The book takes forever to get going, developing characters and relationships that are promptly jettisoned as soon as Falk is embedded within Bloom. The actual embedding--the part of the story with the most promise--missed out on so many opportunities to explore the psychological issues of dwelling within another's mind. If Bloom and Falk had been inhabiting the same consciousness throughout most of the narrative, there could have been some really standout scenes. However, Falk is simply a repressed observer, a passenger, within Bloom until Bloom is shot in the head. At this point, Bloom becomes an unconscious passenger in his own body and Falk has to take over, a plot that still has some possibility as Falk is not a trained soldier. However, every time Falk gets into a jam, Bloom's muscle memory arrives to save the day, allowing Falk to blast his way out of every inconvenience with which he comes into contact. When Bloom is shot and his persona disappears, the book basically becomes a stripped down version of Avatar, only without the aliens.

Other issues include:

1. From what I can tell, the U.S. is now the United Status (no explanation is given for this) and the army with which Falk is embedded seems to be U.S. As a result, all of the British spellings for words seemed incongruous and often jarring. A minor pet peeve, I understand, but there it is.

2. So we're apparently centuries into the future, colonizing planets, and the two dominant powers are the U.S. and the Bloc, who speak Russian and whose military vehicles are all adorned with red stars. That's right--we're fighting a Cold War with the Communist Bloc in outerspace. I might forgive this in a piece of 1950's science fiction, but in 2013? We can't come up with a fresh new narrative for who the bad guys are?

3. It is never made clear as to how Bloom's body is still functioning after he's been shot in the head, right below the eye. The mental image I kept getting as Falk tried to will Bloom's body to do his bidding was Weekend at Bernie's in military garb.

4. The ending. What. The. Freek®. So, in the last 10 pages, Falk actually, against all plot odds, discovers something half ass interesting. But that's the thing--only half ass. We don't get the whole ass. What he finds is only hinted at and the repercussions are ambiguous. Basically, it took 400 pages to get to the real story and then it just stops. I wanted to hit something and hit something hard when I reached the end.

5. The whole use of Freek® as a linguistic patch that prohibits a person from using any expletive other than "Freek."

In the end, I can only offer this advice: read John Scalzi.

Friday, May 17, 2013

God Save the Queen (of the Damned)

Anno Dracula

by Kim Newman

Published by Titan Books

2 Out of 5 Stars


In Victorian England, history has taken a peculiar turn: Queen Victoria has married Vlad Tepes, who has turned the Queen, restored her youth, and given her eternal life. With the Queen of England and her Prince Consort counted among the undead, it's not long before it becomes a fashionable choice, and even a political necessity, to embrace the Dark Kiss that brings immortality. High-born and low-born alike have renounced their "warm" lives in favor of the "red thirst." To accommodate the societal change, most business is conducted at night, silver is in restricted supply (hide grandma's tea service!), and humans increasingly find themselves in the minority. In the midst of this societal upheaval, a new threat has emerged as poor, eviscerated vampire prostitutes have been found in Whitechapel, "ripped" by a murderer with his own violent agenda. Welcome to A.D.--the year of our Dracula.

Anno Dracula is an inventive premise that eventually collapses under its own weight. Newman's novel builds upon a reimagining of events that occur in the wake of Bram Stoker's Dracula had it been history instead of fiction. In Newman's Victorian England, the hunt is on for the murderer known as "Silver Knife" until he is given a new moniker upon receipt of anonymous letters signed "Jack the Ripper." Turning the killing spree of Jack the Ripper into a hate crime against vampires is brilliant, but instead of being the axis of the book's action it serves only as a loose framework. We as readers know the identity of the killer within the first 20 pages, but this revelation never creates any real sense of dramatic irony. If anything, it lessens the suspense that could have been created by a tense manhunt through the streets of London. The characters purportedly brought in to track the murderer do little other than show up at the scene of the crime and discuss everything but Jack the Ripper. No one character seems truly invested in tracking the madman. In fact, it's possible to forget the Jack the Ripper angle for entire chapters as characters fall in love, fall out of love, and engage in all of the social duties expected of the upper class.

The two primary characters (and it's hard to narrow it down to just two because you need to fill out a dance card to keep up with who you're supposed to focus on in this large cast--a problem further complicated by a constantly shifting point of view between chapters) are Genevieve Dieudonne and Charles Beauregard. Genevieve is a vampire elder, older than Dracula by half a century. Mirroring European snobbery based upon pedigree, she is of the pure bloodline of Chandagnac and looks down upon those from the "polluted" bloodline of Dracula. An undead philanthropist, she works in a free clinic for newly turned vampires, shows up everywhere looking beautiful and refined, and, for reasons that are murky at best, is asked to begin looking into the Jack the Ripper case because of her unique insight (of which she basically has nil). Charles Beauregard is a member of the Diogenes Club, a secret organization of powerful men who pull the strings in London society. Charles rejects the idea of becoming a vampire, shows up everywhere looking handsome and refined, and, for reasons that are murky at best, is asked to begin looking into the Jack the Ripper case because of his unique skill set (of which he basically has a silver sword concealed in a cane). Given that these two have nothing to do at the crime scenes other than shake their heads sympathetically over the gruesome loss of life, it's inevitable that they will fall in love. In terms of characterization, we're wading in some shallow waters. Neither character seems anything more than a fictional construct simply acting and reacting in ways that move the plot forward in a serviceable, if not seamless, manner.

In regard to the large cast of characters, Newman has considerable fun weaving historical and fictional characters into the plot. Bram and Florence Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, Mina Harker, and several Victorian societal and political luminaries either make appearances or are alluded to throughout. Even Lestat de Lioncourt makes a brief appearance as a foppish rebel against the Christians who denounce the rise of the undead. Now, initially this might sound like fun, but these characters make appearances so brief that they don't really add anything to the narrative. It's name-dropping in lieu of a clever conceit; basically, it's the literary equivalent of spotting Angelina Jolie in a crowded airport, snapping a photo as she whisks through the terminal, and then boring everyone for the rest of your life with a photo of the back of her head. And, in grandiose terms, you shall forever refer to this event as "the day I met Angelina Jolie."

The book is not entirely without its merits and I can certainly see where hardcore Dracula fans or Victorian Era Anglophiles would enjoy the hell out of this. As for me, it was a marvelously ingenious idea that ultimately felt as cold and stiff as a vampire sleeping it off in his crypt. The absence of Dracula until the last 20 pages also added to the disappointment and, while the scene in which Genevieve and Charles finally visit the vampire court is horrifically twisted, I was disappointed in the anticlimactic ending that was over with too quickly and easily.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Bard Would Not Be Amused

Spanking Shakespeare

by Jake Wizner

Published by Ember

2 Out of 5 Stars


When I saw the title of this book, I immediately let loose with one of those Beavis and Butthead snort-laughs. Then I saw the words "lewd," "hilarious," and "vulgar" on the front and back cover and knew it had to be mine. If only I had ended my relationship with this book there because the funniest thing about the novel is the title.

The novel was, as promised, crude. However, it failed to deliver on the hilarious part. When one is dealing with bathroom/sexual humor, there's a fine line between being funny (like American Pie or The Hangover) and just being disgusting (like the American Pie and The Hangover sequels). A willingness to talk about defecation and erections does not automatically humor make. Sure, there were a few amusing moments, but very few. Also, I didn't relate to the characters at all. They seemed flat and one dimensional, especially Shakespeare's friends. Shakespeare himself seems a stereotype--a self-pitying wannabe writer who is a senior in a high school the likes of which I cannot imagine existing (Hemingway High, where students are apparently allowed to write about their embarrassing encounters with sex and porn in the school newspaper and one teacher is allowed to constantly refer to his left testicle). In the end, I just didn't care about Shakespeare and his struggle with his hormones. Also, I had trouble buying that he was a talented writer as his writing assignments (scattered throughout the book) were mediocre at best. The nice thing about the book is that he does mature by the end and learns to care about someone other than himself. Too bad I never cared about him.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Even Bad Guys Have a Code

The Ethical Assassin

by David Liss

Published by Ballantine Books

4 Out of 5 Stars



Set in the 1980's, Lem Altick has just graduated high school and desires nothing more than to escape the cultural vaccum that is Florida by going to college at Columbia. That Lem is actually a nice guy is pretty surprising given the hand that life has dealt him so far: a deadbeat dad who stopped calling ages ago, a mother so zoned out on pills that she naps all day and only awakens to prepare meals and clean house, and a verbally abusive step-father who has reneged on his promise to help Lem pay for an Ivy league college. Desperate to make money quickly so he can pay his tuition, Lem becomes a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. If he can just get through this summer, then he might be able to escape his dead end life. But life isn't finished screwing with him yet, not by a longshot.

Lem's carefully constructed plan for his future begins to fall apart when an assassin walks into the trailer where Lem is about to close his last encyclopedia sale for the day. Lem watches in horror as the trailer's occupants, Karen and the aptly nicknamed Bastard, are shot in the head. Now a witness to a murder for which he may be blamed, Lem finds himself mixed up in a tangled criminal web that includes an on-the-wagon pedophile, a rapist town cop, a bikini-clad Siamese twin, and an assassin who is, of all things, ethical and the only person Lem can trust. As Lem and the assassin navigate this world of drugs and animal cruelty, Lem learns more about who he is and what he's capable of than most people learn in a lifetime.

This is messed up stuff and Liss is definitely treading on ground traditionally covered by Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard, so it's no surprise that I enjoyed it. There's a dark comic streak throughout the novel and several witty one-liners (and not so witty; I readily admit that my favorite line may have been "It smelled like the shit that shit shits out its asshole"--sophistication is never an adjective to which I've laid claim). In the beginning of the novel, it's a bit confusing as it changes from Lem's 1st person point of view and moves to a 3rd person examination of some of the other key players, but if you let yourself give into it you'll find that Liss is giving background about characters who will be prominent later. He wraps everything up and doesn't leave a loaded gun in the corner unless someone's going to blow someone else's ass off with it. And that's really all I expect from an author.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Undead Don't Thrill Me at All

World War Z

by Max Brooks

Published by Three Rivers Press

2 Out of 5 Stars


I have biblio-cooties.

There. I said it and I accept it. Because the majority of my friends really, really loved this book. And I fear they will reject me now that they know that it did little to nothing for me. I shall have to sit alone in the library, other readers keeping a wide berth for fear of contagion, but I cannot tell a lie and I stand by my pronouncement: Hi, my name is Amanda and I did not enjoy World War Z.

In the past, I have ripped into books I disliked with a gleeful, almost maniacal abandon, and so there are some who may suspect that I will do so here. But this is an entirely different case, for World War Z's fault is not that it's a bad book. It's well-written, it's got an intriguing conceit (the tale of the zombie apocalypse told in journalistic hindsight from the perspective of those who survived), and some imaginative scenarios (sure, we've all thought about zombies on land, but what about zombies underwater?).

In fact there's no fault at all here other than the fact that, as far as undead ghouls go, I'm Team Vampire. I've never really found anything that frightening about zombies, other than a certain "Eww" factor that compels me to think about how I need to stock up on hand sanitizer and wet wipes in a zombiefied world because they're leaving nasty bits and pieces everywhere. To me, there is nothing more frightening than intellect coupled with either undeniable evil or with moral apathy. Since zombies are basically husks driven by a biological imperative instead of conscious thought, they're not my monster of choice. The only zombie flicks I've enjoyed have been Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland. Humor + zombies = a win. Horror + zombies = not so much.

So I knew going in that this was likely a swing and a miss, but it had received such rave reviews that I couldn't resist. I thought the journalistic style might appeal to me, but few of the voices were clearly differentiated enough for me to connect with any one character. There were 3 or 4 stories that really engaged me, but not enough to enjoy the overall experience. What was really frightening, however, is that Brooks does an excellent job of showing how ill-equipped we are globally to deal with any type of rapidly-spreading contagion. He also captures the fear and panic that comes out of facing an unknown. Particularly in first world countries, we are so complacent with "knowing all the answers" and controlling everything that the mental toll of facing a problem we can not solve would be just as damaging as the physical threat. Brooks does an excellent job of realistically portraying this.

So, I'll say it again: not a bad book. Just not for me. Now I'll go sit in my corner and wait for someone else to catch biblio-cooties. It shouldn't be long. I just have to wait for someone to write a 1 star review of an Orson Scott Card or Janet Evanovich book and my transgressions will be forgotten.

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”

The Age of Innocence

by Edith Wharton

Published by Everyman's Library

5 Out of 5 Stars

Part of why I love The Age of Innocence so much is for the very reason my students hate it--the subtlety of action in a society constrained by its own ridiculous rules and mores.  In Old New York, conformity is key and the upper-crust go about a life of ritual that has no substance or meaning.  Both men and women are victims in this world as both are denied economic, intellectual, and creative outlets.  All the world's a stage in Wharton's New York and everyone wears a mask of society's creation.  Such is the norm until Newland Archer.

Symbolically, Newland represents an America on the cusp of modernization, the awkward period of transition between the Victorian era and World War I.  At first a devout member of New York aristocracy, Newland is awakened as one from a trance with the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska.  Ellen decides to separate from her abusive husband, Count Olenski, and is rumored to have escaped the Count by having an affair with his secretary--a scandalous circumstance that brings her back home to her native New York.  Vibrant, intellectual, and free-spirited when compared with the dowdy and restrained women he's known, Ellen's predicament is a revelation to Newland.  As he himself has just ended an affair with a married woman and knows the ease with which society forgave his indiscretion when contrasted with Ellen, Newland begins to acknowledge the inequality amongst the sexes.  However, there's a serious roadblock to Newland ever being with the captivating Ellen:  Ellen is the cousin of May Welland, Newland's fiancée. 

Wharton writes with cutting wit about the hypocritical and ludicrous customs of blue blood society and cunningly plots events to work against Newland, the archer whose target is a "new land" in which he and Ellen can be together.  The pity is that, ultimately, May proves to be the more cunning huntress who cleverly stalks and traps her quarry in the labyrinth of society.

Monday, May 13, 2013

This One's For the Ladies

Think:  Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World

by Lisa Bloom

Published by Vanguard Press

5 Out of 5 Stars

In Think, Lisa Bloom asserts that society has succumbed to our narcissistic, self-indulgent, consumer driven culture. Women today are smart and have more options available to them than ever before, yet what are most of them doing? Applying for The Bachelor, wondering what the hell is going on with Kim Kardashian's marriage or divorce or whatever it is at this point, considering a plethora of cosmetic procedures, and reading online gossip blogs (if they're reading at all). What are they not doing? Using their intellect and first world education to address serious problems, like poverty, hunger, and the repression of women in countries far less fortunate than ours. In other words, they're not thinking. Amen, amen, amen! Obviously, Lisa Bloom is preaching to the choir here and I'm probably not her target audience, but it is certainly nice to feel some affirmation for the intellectual and educational choices I make on a daily basis since they do go against the norm. For example, most women would rather lose their ability to read than their figure (oh, hell no!) or win America's Next Top Model than win the Nobel Peace Prize (my heart weeps).

I'm not necessarily giving Think a 5 star based upon its writing style (although it is accessible and often funny) and there are some points that ever-so-slightly rubbed me the wrong way. For example, Bloom asserts that cleaning is not a woman's job (no complaint from me here) and we should simply outsource it to someone else so we have time to read and think. We should also have our children pitch in and do their part. These are not concepts with which I disagree, but they are easier said than done. Many women can't afford to hire a maid (even on a bimonthly basis) and even the most cooperative of teenagers will pitch a hissy fit upon occasion when asked do their part, yet Bloom makes it sound so effortless. However, I am giving it a 5 star because anyone who advocates the need to read and asserts that it's valuable and worthy of our time is someone with a message that today's culture needs to hear. Don't believe me? Check out the NEA statistics from the 2007 To Read or Not to Read report (also quoted in Bloom's book):

--80% of American families did not read or buy a book last year
--70% of adults have not been to a bookstore in the last 5 years
--1/3 of high school graduates never read another book after graduation

I've read several reviews that scoff at Bloom taking the time to talk about how to make time for reading books, how to choose books, and how to savor books, as though this is "duh" information and unnecessary. Based upon these statistics, I would argue that such information is urgently needed. I teach in a high school classroom and, when my students come to me, most of them are not readers. They don't know how to make time for reading or even how to pick out a book. Reading is not valued in their households. They don't ask for books for birthdays or Christmas. Their parents don't read. There are too many electronic diversions in their lives. I'm proud to say that, by the time they leave my classroom, most of them are readers. Why? Because I've taught them the simple things: how to create and value quiet time for reading, how to choose good books, and how to reflect upon their responses to literature. That's right--I'm bragging, and I should. Because there's nothing more valuable to leading a productive, happy life than reading. And it's a skill that has to be consistently taught and modeled--and that's what Bloom is doing in those chapters. Sure, if you're reading this review, you may not need it as you've obviously bought into a love of reading if you're on a social media site dedicated to it, but I'm willing to bet you know people who probably do. And Think is for them. I, for one, plan on pushing this book like crack-cocaine to the people in my life who need it--especially teenage girls in my classroom. Whether you agree or disagree with Bloom's liberal views, just the advocacy for thinking is worthy of the time it takes to read the book.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Growing Up Is Hard to Do

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

Published by Scribner

4 Out of 5 Stars


I recently re-read this book for the AP class that I'm teaching and I was reminded of what a deceptively simple book this appears to be on the surface. Set in Devon (an all boys prep school) during WWII, A Separate Peace explores how the encroaching reality of war affects the psychological and social development of all the boys attending the school. The poignant irony of providing these young men with a classics based education at a prestigious school just to be sent into war to kill and be killed effectively shows how, before they even make it to the battlefield, the war cripples them--for one physically, for the others psychologically. The book focuses on the relationship between Finny, the popular and perfect athlete, and Gene, the intelligent and dangerously introspective one. Gene's all-consuming envy toward Finny causes him to shake the tree limb both are standing on; Finny falls to the ground and breaks his leg. The event serves as a metaphor for how Gene's betrayal of the friendship has broken Finny.

Effective use is made of Finny as a Christ figure and we witness as Gene grows psychologically in response to the realization that he has destroyed not just Finny's athletic career, but also Finny's essence. Gene comes to understand that the real enemy is the enemy within and, through Finny, Gene finds a form of salvation from his dark, neurotic tendencies.

Knowles does so much with setting and imagery in the book that I pick up on something new every time I read it. Wonderful novel. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Impressive Beginning to Young Adult Series

 

Daughter of Smoke & Bone

by Laini Taylor

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

4 Out of 5 Stars

 
Sometimes I think that I should start a young adult shelf in my house just in case I decide to have kids. Then I'll have all of these amazing novels waiting for them, like gleaming gems plucked out of the murky waters of young adult literature. The Hunger Games will be there, as will the Chaos Walking series, The Dust of 100 Dogs, and now I think I'll toss Daughter of Smoke and Bone onto that imaginary shelf as well. (This shelf is likely to remain imaginary as I'll probably spawn only illiterates or, worse yet, Valley Girl types who, like, soooo totally want to know where the Twilight books are.)

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a unique fantasy with a quirky, blue haired main character named Karou. Karou is an art student living in Prague where she is surrounded by musicians, artists, and actors--all delightful Bohemian types who live to create and entertain. However, Karou's friends are often frustrated by her mysterious disappearances and her evasiveness about her family and past. We soon discover that Karou has a reason for her caginess about truth--she was raised by monsters. Chimera, to be more exact, who inhabit a portal between our world and another. Karou was raised by Brimstone, the part man, part lion, part crocodile, part ram "wishmonger" who trades wishes for teeth. What he does with the teeth and why he's willing to pay such a high price remains a mystery as not even Karou is trusted with this secret. As black handprints appear on the doorways Karou uses to travel the world in search of Brimstone's precious teeth and sightings of angelic beings with wings of fire are reported, Karou begins to unravel the secrets of her origins and her role in the battle for another world.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is elegantly written, far from formulaic, and embraces the outcasts among us. It's obvious that Laini Taylor took her time with crafting this story and draws upon a variety of cultural sources (as well as her own imagination) to create a world unlike any other. Karou is a kick ass heroine, able to take care of herself in volatile situations, but there's still a recognizable and flawed human beneath the tough veneer. The story of the war between the chimera and the angels is also compelling and I'm anxious for the second book as I hope the focus shifts more to this alternate reality.

The first half of the novel immediately drew me in and maintained a brusque pace. However, after the arrival of the angel Akiva, the narrative slows down somewhat as we have the inevitable "love at first sight" plot device that no young adult novel with a female protagonist can do without. And now, a quick rant: seriously, why can't we hold off on the romantic entanglements until the second or third book of a series? Why can't we develop a female character who doesn't have an immediate choice to make between two male characters who are foils for one another? Why must we always be presented with the amazingly talented, self-reliant, strong woman who turns out to be a quivering damsel in distress underneath all the aforementioned bad-assedness? Or, better yet, why can't she meet the potential love interest in the first novel and get to know him before giving her heart to him in the sequel? Young adult writers of the world, hear me! Give us a woman who proves she doesn't need a man by taking the time to convince us she's powerful, strong, and independent by letting her carry a novel all by her little ol' lonesome before we bring in the inevitable love interest.

So, anyhoo, I freely admit to much eye-rolling and muttering of "you've got to be shitting me" during this part of the book. Of course Akiva is unbelievably beautiful (although thank the heavens that he doesn't sparkle) and spiritually broken because of a past love-gone-wrong. But he begins to hope again when he meets Karou. I was ready to mark the book down to a 2 1/2 star based upon that alone. However, I will say this--at least Taylor later provides a reason for the love at first sight scenario that allowed me to give her a pass (although I still think a little less time could have been spent rhapsodizing about Akiva's beauty).

All in all, with the exception of the blossoming romance bit, I really loved this book. It has it all: gorgeous description, exotic locations, believable characters, humor, and some of the best world-building I've seen in a young adult fantasy. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Tripe and Tedious

Emma

by Jane Austen

Published by Penguin Classics

1 Out of 5 Stars

And, now, perhaps the briefest review ever--my interpretation of the first 60+ pages of Emma:

"Oh, my dear, you musn't think of falling for him.  He's too crude and crass."
"Oh, my dear Emma, you are perfectly correct.  I shan't give him another thought."
"Oh, my dear, that's good because I would have to knock you flat on your arse if you were considering someone of such low birth."

Yawn.  I tried, but life's too short.  Plus, I like 'em crude and crass.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Scarred and Flawed

Scar Night

by Alan Campbell

Published by Bantam Spectra

2 Out of 5 Stars


I desperately wanted to love this book, but to quote Gregory House quoting the philosopher Jagger, "You can't always get what you want."  There are so many amazing concepts in this book, but that's part of the problem--there are so many potentially engaging ideas brewing in here that it's like Campbell couldn't decide on just one so decided to toss them all in at once.  The result is that no one idea or character receives the full attention it deserves.  For instance, the most compelling character is Carnival, a several thousand year old angel who, to maintain her immortality, must drink the blood of a mortal each month.  She terrorizes the town of Deepgate when the moon goes dark--Scar Night--and she seeks out her prey.  When she does kill, she inflicts another wound upon herself as punishment for once again sating her need.  As a result, her body is lined with scars.  She is at once a demon and a pitiable creature.  She alone would have made a fascinating focus for the book, but, no, we have to be introduced to a cast of hundreds.

Some positives:  Campbell has done a stunning job of creating a complex and thought provoking mythology that explains how the city of Deepgate, built in an abyss and cradled by a network of chains, came into being as a means of honoring the fallen god of chains, Ulcis.  Campbell's descriptions help the reader envision such an unlikely setting as though it could truly exist (therein, though, lies another problem with the book--the lengthy and sometimes unnecessary descriptions slow the narrative pace down). 

On the cover, Hal Duncan proclaims that Scar Night is "A gripping, ripping yarn which rattles along at a great pace."  If by "gripping" he meant lackluster and by "ripping" he meant tedious, then I agree with him.  If not, then Hal and I must part ways in our requirements for great fantasy.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Not New Enough

The New New Rules

by Bill Maher

Published by Blue Rider Press

3 Out of 5 Stars


A collection of "New Rules" (brief and sarcastic commentaries on the idiocy of pop culture and the oxygen thieves who drive it) and essays from his closing segment on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, The New New Rules has some obscenely hysterical and politically incorrect moments, as well as enough Sarah Palin slams to keep me smiling for a week.  I give Maher credit for doing exactly what a lot of politicians should be doing right now:  sticking to his convictions and calling things as he sees them with no allegiances to anything other than what he sees as the truth.  He mocks Republican stupidity and Democratic impotency and takes politicians who are in the pocket of corporations to task.  Sure, he's kind of an unapologetic asshole while doing it, but at least he's intelligent, funny, and (more often than not) right. 

So why didn't I give the book higher than a 3 star?  I love Bill Maher's Real Time and faithfully tune in each week.  I realized after the fact that I probably would have enjoyed the book more if I had purchased the audiobook version.  His delivery adds to the sly sarcasm as Maher knows how to bring the snark.  Fortunately, I've seen enough of the show that I could "hear" Maher reading this as I read along.  And that brings me to the other problem.  I'm such a devotee of the show that I had actually seen a lot of this material before, and the pre-2011 stuff seems pretty stale in terms of relevancy.  It's also not the kind of book to read in one sitting (although it would be very easy to do).  I had to dip in and out of it while reading other books, but found that it made for a nice "palate cleanser" between book selections.  This is well worth a read for those who enjoy this brand of offensive humor, don't watch the show too often, or are diehard Maher fans.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Diabetics Need Not Apply

The Sugar Queen

by Sarah Addison Allen

Published by Bantam

2 Out of 5 Stars

The Sugar Queen is a book clearly written for a particular type of woman.  And that woman is not me.  I'm not immune to the charms of chick lit, but I do require it to be witty, have quirky characters, present a plausible and realistic relationship (notice I did not say a "romance") that is not the axis upon which the main character's world turns, and a strong female lead.  After reading Garden Spells by the same author last year, I knew that Sarah Addison Allen did not meet this criteria.  Alas, I had bought The Sugar Queen from the bargain bin before my disappointing experience with Garden Spells and felt compelled to at least give it a whirl.  After dutifully trudging through it, I can report that I was every bit as underwhelmed as I expected to be.

Josey Cirrini has a secret--a deep, dark secret.  One that could ruin her life.  She's embarrassed and humiliated by what she hides from the world.  Want to know what it is?  Come closer and I'll tell you.  It's--are you sure you can handle this?  I'll understand if you're not ready for such a shocking revelation.  Okay, well, you're still here, so it's . . . a closet full of candy and romance novels.  Hey, don't blame me if you weren't ready for that kind of dark and twisty.  You were forewarned!  And now Della Lee Baker, the lovable town skank has claimed squatter's rights on Josey Cirrini's closet.  You see, Della Lee is on the run from a man that she can't resist and, like one does in such a situation, she immediately runs to the nearest stranger's closet.  Della Lee professes her desire to help the shy, awkward Josey find a way to free herself from her overprotective mother and take charge of her life.  Secrets are revealed, new loves are forged, old loves are rekindled, and a kind of awkward magical realism is sprinkled throughout.  I could go on, but if you're rolling your eyes by now, then I think you get the gist of what Allen is peddling here. 

Allen's books have been described as "light" and "fluffy"; I would add "saccharine" and "predictable" to the list of adjectives.  I did not like nor identify with this group of characters and, while there's nothing offensive enough to warrant a one star rating, the novel certainly isn't exceptional in any way.  It's a romance, plain and simple, written for women in their 20's and 30's who have forgotten the thrill of a first love and want to vicariously reconnect with that, but preferably not in a way that involves a creepy emo vampire.  And, if that's your bag, baby, then groovy--go ahead, pick up a copy, make yourself a nice cuppa tea, grab a blankie and have an estrogen fest.  Right now, I'm going to try to restore balance in my reading life by seeing if there's anything on my bookshelf that might involve someone's jugular being ripped out.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Nightlife Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

Nightlife

by Rob Thurman

Published by Roc

2 Out of 5 Stars


I have come to the conclusion that I should not buy urban fantasy books that were first published as mass market paperbacks.  I can only assume it's the publishing world's version of "straight to DVD" or a SyFy original movie.
  
Nightlife isn't terrible, but it isn't great.  It's been-there-done-that territory for me and just wasn't worth my time. The plot is somewhat original:  The Auphe (apparently another name for elves) need a human/Auphe child to help them open a gate to the past.  The problem?  Auphe aren't the Keebler elves:  they're hideous, monstrous creatures who only live for violence and destruction.  Not exactly what a woman wants to cozy up to for a night of passion.  So the Auphe find a drunken gypsy whore who will do anything for money.  Apparently they had to wait centuries for a woman depraved enough to sleep with anything that could provide adequate coin as payment for the experience (on which I call "bullshit" as this is the stuff of pure fiction--Hugh Hefner manages to find such a woman every fifteen minutes).  Anyway, 9 months after this crime against nature occurs, little Caliban, named for the offspring of witch and demon in Shakespeare's The Tempest, is born.  Cal and his half-brother, Niko, escape their terrible childhood together and spend the rest of their lives on the run from the Auphe. 

What's not particularly original about the novel is the execution.  The characters are stereotypes to the urban fantasy genre.  Niko is some sort of concrete jungle ninja; he walks around packing enough steel that he's at serious risk of shish kebabbing himself every time he sits down. He must also be as stealthy as a drawer full of silverware.  Despite being so deadly, he's gorgeous and has blonde tresses that would be the envy of Lady Lovely Locks and the Pixietails (how's that for an obscure 1980's toy reference?)  Cal, the supernatural part of the duo, is like Harry Dresden's younger brother.  He's snarky and sarcastic in a not particularly clever manner.  And this is problematic for me because I'm sick of this ultra-hip, pop-culture spouting, always quick with a quip in the heat of battle, "I'm such a smart ass, but I just can't help it" persona of the protagonists in these types of novels.  It gets grating after a while, which is why I finally gave up on the Dresden Files and it's a big part of the reason as to why I'll be giving up on the Cal Leandros series.  This smug glibness seems to be a literary sleight-of-hand for distracting the reader from a lack of character development, which is fun at first but gets tiresome after the second or third novel of this type.

Another reason Nightlife didn't particularly hold my attention is because it begins with the resolution for what should be the novel's climax and, sure, the opening certainly gets your attention, but by the time you make it to what should be the most suspense filled part of the novel you realize, "Oh, hey, this has looped back around to the beginning. Damn!  I already know what's going to happen."  It's as anticlimactic as the Anthony Weiner scandal (c'mon, we all knew that was his junk).  This foreknowledge certainly makes the last 1/4 of the novel tiresome. 

Again, I can't say the novel isn't worth reading; in fact, it might be okay for those new to the genre.  I've read so much of this stuff that I know I've become jaded and from now on, if it wasn't first issued in hardback, I'm going to take a pass on this genre. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Will the Real Howard Campbell Please Stand Up?

Mother Night

by Kurt Vonnegut

Published by Dial Press

4 Out of 5 Stars

When most people think of Kurt Vonnegut, the novels Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle immediately come to mind.  It's a shame that more people aren't familiar with Mother Night, a novel in which Vonnegut explores the nature of moral ambiguity and what high-minded ideals we sacrifice on the altar of war.  It's a skillful blend of Vonnegut's trademark dark humor and philosophical musings about human morality as observed through the lens of war.  To put it simply, this is some good stuff.

Sitting in an Israeli jail and writing his memoirs, Howard Campbell awaits trial for war crimes as a Nazi in World War II.  As Howard himself says, "I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination" (1).  And this is the root of Howard's problem:  he has no true identity.  As he ruminates on his past, we see how the apolitical Howard was drawn into events that eclipsed the simple life he longed to live as an artist writing plays for his muse and wife, the lovely Helga. 

Howard's situation is a unique one.  An American who moved to Germany as a child and seamlessly assimilated into German culture prior to any rumblings of war, Howard makes the perfect candidate for an American spy.  However, to remain above suspicion, Howard must align himself with the Nazi cause by pretending to be a Nazi propagandist, eventually becoming the voice of the Reich through his radio broadcasts.  Through a series of coughs, sneezes, and sniffs, Howard sends coded information out to the Americans at the same time he spews vile invective against the Jewish people.

So what's the problem?  He was a good guy, right?  That's how it would normally be perceived, but as Vonnegut cautions, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be" (v).  Maintaining this dual identity weighs heavily upon Howard in the years after the war which robbed him of everything:  his family, his friends, his art, and his Helga.  Howard excelled as a propagandist--so good, in fact, his father-in-law tells him that Howard, not Hitler and not Goebbels, convinced him to become a Nazi.  Howard's American handler even claims Campbell "was one of the most vicious sons of bitches who ever lived" (188).  Knowing that it was his words and his voice that convinced so many to hate in the name of God is a guilt that Howard can never alleviate, especially given that his communications with the Americans never took the form of words.  He never knew what information he was passing on to the Americans, nor what, if any, good came from it.  In the end, he can never be certain if the good he did outweighed (or at least balanced out) the evil his words inspired in the hearts of men.  The question is, do pure motivations absolve heinous outcomes?  As Howard's past begins to catch up with him, he must confront these questions and try to determine who Howard Campbell has become in the shadow of war. 

I think what is most intriguing about the novel is that Howard Campbell is the ultimate unreliable narrator.  A man who is skilled with words and at shaping the perceptions of others, it's important to remember that, in this metafiction, it is Howard Campbell writing his own life's story.  Even in the end we cannot be certain whether or not we come to know the real Howard Campbell as the resulting narrative may be Campbell's masterwork of propaganda--rewriting his own history with an eye to posterity.  Howard Campbell may be a fiction created by the man himself, a constantly shifting personality recreating himself to fit the times in which he lives.  After all, we become what we pretend to be.

How the Mighty Have Fallen

Olympic Games

by Leslie What

Published by Tachyon Publications

1 Out of 5 Stars

There seems to be a literary trend of late that involves taking the gods of ancient times and throwing them into a modern day setting.  These once powerful deities have been forgotten and struggle to adjust to the mundane day-to-day existence afforded them in an increasingly secular world with little time for or interest in religion. As an early devotee of Edith Hamilton, one might assume that these have been heady times for me.  Unfortunately, this genre has been kind of a mixed bag.  There's been the good (Neil Gaiman's American Gods and some of Piers Anthony's older Incarnations of Immortality series) and the meh (Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief and Marie Phillips' Gods Behaving Badly).  And now we have the bad--Olympic Games

This is a book that I wanted to love, but it fell short for me.  To begin with, there is one fundamental problem with writing about the gods:  in the original myths, they're two dimensional characters who only exist to either cause or react to events.  Because the gods primarily existed to explain natural forces, they were devoid of personality beyond what was necessary to explain their component in the natural world.  That's fine for reading brief myths presented in summary format or stories where the gods appear occasionally to help or hinder a beleaguered hero.  It's an entirely different matter when they become the focal point of a full length novel.  In fact, Olympic Games began as a short story entitled The Goddess is Alive and, Well, Living in New York City.  I would like to find What's original short story as I have a feeling it would be a more successful read for me.  As it stands, the gods in Olympic Games remain two dimensional, which may be traditionally accurate but makes for tedious reading.  I did not care about any of the characters--not even the humans, who themselves remain two dimensional.

The story focuses on Zeus and Hera.  In my opinion, these are the two least interesting gods.  Zeus just tossed around the occasional lightning bolt in between bouts of screwing anything with two--or four--legs and a heartbeat; Hera seemingly only existed to bitch about it.  So guess what they're doing in present day?  Zeus is philandering and Hera is chasing after him.  There's little new here.  They occasionally encounter difficulties with modern day life, but only to inconsequential and humorless effect.  Their powers are used primarily to beguile humans into doing their bidding and, in Hera's case, to constantly change her hair color, her body shape, her sandals, her wardrobe, etc. (a joke that tires very quickly as that ability is possessed by most mortal women and does not a goddess make).  There's nary another god in sight as, during the last 1/4 of the novel, it's explained that the others succumbed to ennui (an explanation that should have been provided earlier to give context as to why the other gods are inexplicably MIA).  This is a shame as the lackluster narrative involving Zeus and Hera could have been spiced up with the appearance of Athena, Poseidon, Ares, Aphrodite, or just the occasional demigod. 

The novel is billed as a screwball absurdist romp, a la Christopher Moore, but there's little in the way of humor here.  Sure, there's plenty of absurdity, but it's not particularly funny.  There are some clunky and obvious one-liners.  If nothing else, the novel made me wish that Christopher Moore would try his hand at this gods-in-the-modern-world genre.  If you’re interested in mythology based literature, I would recommend any of the novels previously mentioned in this review or, hey, kick it old school and get a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology or revisit Medea, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, The Illiad, or The Odyssey.  I think you would find any of them a more rewarding experience.

Rise of the Machines

The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

by Nicholas Carr

Published by W. W. Norton & Company

4 Out of 5 Stars

For the last few years, I've noticed that I seem to have developed a form of ADD.  This was always the most apparent during the first few weeks of summer vacation when I would start and stop projects with lightning speed, when I couldn't sit still to read a book or watch a movie all the way through, when I couldn't clean my house all in one day, when I couldn't keep my mind on just one train of thought.  As someone who had always lived for structure, who craved the routine and the predictable, who always finished one task completely and thoroughly before moving on to another, this was quite alarming to me.  I blamed teaching.  My mind had adapted to the need to deliver content, monitor student behavior, answer questions, pass out papers, remind everyone for the umpteenth time that classwork is to be turned in to the orange basket, run the PowerPoint, avoid saying anything that might get me fired (“do not tell little Johnny that there is such a thing as a stupid question and he just asked it”)--and the need to do so all at once.  Turns out there may be something to my theory.  And it turns out that this manner of thinking, the need to hyper-multitask, may be exacerbated by the rise of technology as a conduit to information.  It’s comforting to know that, if I’m mentally deteriorating, it’s not entirely my fault.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr questions the impact technology has upon our lives.  What’s most important here is that Carr is in no way advocating a return to the pre-technology era.  He admits that much good has been done and will be done by technology, and he fesses up to loving and relying on technology himself.  However, he examines the idea of neuroplasticity—the idea that the brain rewires itself to adapt to the stimuli it encounters.  During the age of the book, the brain had to rewire itself to be able to focus for long periods of time upon text and to think about that text deeply.  This didn’t happen all at once, but was accelerated as books became more readily available to a more widely educated public.  The mind became accustomed to taking in information intensely, if not rapidly, as the brain had time to ruminate on and process the information it encountered.  The result was a deep thinking, literate individual.  People became experts in specific areas and the keepers of knowledge associated with their particular field of specialty.  They were responsible for filtering, critiquing, and judging the quality of new knowledge which had to be “vetted” before it could be accepted as accurate and true.  

So what have we sacrificed in this age of point and click?  We’re losing the idea of specialization, which is one of the more frightening aspects to me.  Any idiot with access to a keyboard and an Internet connection can post anything he wants online and it’s accepted as truth by the great majority.  A society that becomes accustomed to finding any and all information online may never learn anything deeply (and what will happen when Skynet becomes self-aware, takes over, and the machines rise against us?)  Instead, people will have little pockets of knowledge supplemented by what they can find online.  Also, I have to wonder how many innovations and ideas were serendipitously created when answers weren’t easy to find.  When an answer can be found through a quick web search, the deep thinking that may lead to phenomenal breakthroughs and intense creativity may be forfeited.  In addition, our attention spans are suffering.  We bounce from hyperlink to hyperlink, chasing new pieces of information which we scan quickly and, because we read over it so rapidly, it’s never stored in our long-term memory.  The next time we need that information we’ll have to log back on and find it again instead of relying on our ability to recall it.

Carr’s book is not the ramblings of an ill-informed radical.  This book is well-researched and Carr traces how the human brain has evolved throughout history, including pre-technology, to show that neuroplasticity has allowed us to adapt to our ever-changing environments.  There’s hard science here as well.  If you don’t agree with Carr’s thesis by the end, there’s no denying that he's done his homework. 

I love technology and I think Nicholas Carr does, too.  Carr’s book is not an indictment of technology, but rather a call for the public to be cognizant of the ways in which technology is affecting us—both the good and the bad.  Our society has so quickly and readily embraced technology that we haven’t thought about the potential long-term tradeoffs.  When we think about it and realize, “Hey, wait a minute.  This food I’ve planted on Farmville—I can’t eat one damn bit of it,” then we might become more responsible about how and when we use technology (and maybe we’ll go plant a garden in the backyard).  I know that I, for one, have started logging off more frequently and making sure that the time I do spend online  is enriching my life in some way.