Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Not My Cup of Joe

Something More Than Night
by Ian Tregillis
Published by Tor
2 Out of 5 Stars

**I received a free copy of Something More Than Night from Tor in exchange for an honest review.**

A swell angel, Gabriel, takes a powder by way of the big sleep. But what kind of button man has the juice to take down a big player like an archangel? It's not long before heavenly forces put the screws to Bayliss, a two bit angel confined to the dive known as Earth, where he's spent centuries tipping a little rye, smoking pills, and eyeing dishy kittens who know how to fill out a skirt. Heaven wants Bayliss to case the joint and find a mortal palooka he can knock off to fill Gabriel's slot in the universe. Hoping for a mark who won't ing-bing, Bayliss instead ends up with a flametop twist who stirs up all kinds of heavenly trouble. Now Bayliss is behind the eight ball, the immortal bulls want answers, and Bayliss suspects he and this new dame may be the patsys in a universal game of whodunit. Savvy?

Of all the bookshelves, in all the towns, in all the world, this book makes it onto mine.

Something More Than Night is going to appeal to a niche group of readers: hardcore noir aficionados, of whom I am not one. I like my noir like I like my coffee--black. But with sugar and cream and flavoring so it barely resembles coffee anymore. In other words, I like my noir to be not-so-noirish.

Ian Tregillis presents a concept that sounds entertaining, but quickly becomes tedious. Beginning with the death of Gabriel as he flames across the night sky, questions are quickly asked by Bayliss, the only heavenly being who seems interested in getting to the bottom of the angel's murder. Through his investigation and the inclusion of Molly, the mortal Bayliss has bumped off to plug the hole in the universe left by Gabriel's untimely demise, we learn that, in the beginning, there was not light, but angels. Angels free to do and imagine the universe as they pleased until METATRON, the voice of a higher power, clipped the angels' wings by chaining them to the mortal realm. Denied the right to roam the universe as they once did, the angels chafed against their chains but their proximity to one another created the MOC (Mantle of Ontological Consistency) that ensured existence for mortals would continue through the angelic consensus of what reality is.

As Molly comes to terms with her divinity and Bayliss seeks the truth behind Gabriel's murder, Tregillis builds a heaven of quantum physics only tinged by religious philosophy. While I enjoyed his vivid descriptions of the angelic hierarchy and the individual Magisteriums each angel builds as a personal hideaway, his descriptions of the universe veer into physics-based purple prose. Initially, I found this inventive and enjoyed passages such as:

He'd been collecting little odds and ends since at least the double-digit redshifts. The interior reality of Gabriel's Magisterium burbled and shifted like convection currents in a star on the zaftig end of the main sequence. Because, I realized, that's what they were. Dull dim light, from IR to X-ray, oozed past me like the wax in a million-mile lava lamp while carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen nuclei did little do-si-dos about my toes. Every bubble, every sizzle, every new nucleus, every photodissociation tagged something of interest to Gabriel . . . Nuclear reactions unfolded with the calm susurration of solar wind upon Earth's atmosphere, seeding cloud formation and rain. Convective cells furled about me with the low, slow, sonorous peal of cathedral bells mourning a monarch's death. X-rays fizzed on my tongue . . . " (64).

Got physics? Because you'll need it to slog your way through endless passages like this, which, while serving to capture the complexity and immensity of creation, do nothing but slow down the narrative. The combination of unceasing physics jargon with the unending noir slang became too much for me. Add to that the fact that Tregillis's world-building on the Earthly plane is sketchy at best (we get the sense that it is set in a dystopian future, but the futuristic elements seem wedged in and serve no defined purpose) and the novel begins to buckle under too many clever ideas.

The ultimate twist is a letdown as it seems contrived to get the plot out of the corner it had painted itself into. As the reason for the narrative's reliance on the noir genre becomes obvious to the characters, one muses, "But why go to all this trouble? What did it achieve, turning himself into a hard-boiled detective pastiche in an archetypal story" (250).

Why, indeed.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Go Along for the Ride

Backseat Saints
by Joshilyn Jackson
Published by Grand Central Publishing
3 Out of 5 Stars

To the outside world, Ro Grandee seems to have a good life: she's a beautiful woman married to a good looking and attentive husband from a well-respected family in Amarillo, Texas. However, after an airport gypsy tells Ro that she must kill her husband, we learn that Ro's picture perfect life is a facade that hides a marriage full of fear, violence, and abuse. Now, armed with only her pawpy's old gun, Ro plans her husband's murder, but will she be able to pull the trigger?

Backseat Saints begins with a bang and, unfortunately, ends with a whimper.

There's a lot to like here and, for the most part, I enjoyed the book. Joshilyn Jackson writes with wit and honesty about the South and its people (her dialogue is some of the best I've read), and to balance the darkness of spousal abuse with the humor of daily life is quite a feat.

What I appreciate the most about the book is that Ro never becomes a blank cipher for spousal abuse; many books of this nature focus on the violence and the abused remains a flat character with no real dimensions beyond the relationship to the abuse. Told from the first person point of view, Ro reveals the two halves of her personality. There's Ro Grandee, the lovely, submissive housewife, and then there's Rose Mae Lolley, the small town girl from Alabama who came to believe that love should be tempered by pain when her mother leaves and her father begins physically taking his anger out on Rose. Ro maintains her own personality (although secreted away in interior monologue that is Rose Mae Lolley's voice) despite being dominated by her husband, Thom. Her fear and her attraction to Thom become palpable and we see her foolishly clinging to hope in the good periods when he resolves to control his temper, and we see her anguish when he falls into familiar patterns. Like a meteorologist, Ro can predict the storm of his anger building but lacks the power to take shelter. While it's easy for those of us who have never been in an abusive relationship to become frustrated with her for her seeming refusal to leave him, Jackson does a good job of demonstrating how running is a luxury afforded to those with power. And Ro has been stripped of all power--financial, social, personal--by Thom, who has created a life that cages Ro in dependence upon him.

The novel, however, is problematic in two ways. The first is Ro's Catholicism, which seems surface at best and only to exist so that the novel could be given the title of Backseat Saints. The "saints" of the title are seldom brought into the narrative and never serve to move the plot forward. Entire chapters will pass and then a definite sense of "oops, haven't mentioned a saint in a while" crops up, a saint's name is dropped, and the narrative moves on--conspicuously saint-less.

The second issue is Ro's insistence on finding her ex-boyfriend from high school in the hopes that she can convince him to kill Thom. This plot line exists so Backseat Saints can dovetail with Jackson's novel, gods in Alabama (my personal favorite), which opens with Ro as a minor character appearing on the doorstep of Arlene Fleet's apartment in Chicago, demanding to know where her high school boyfriend is. The rest of gods is about Arlene making peace with a past she left behind in Alabama and Ro pretty much disappears as a character. I get that it was that particular character that inspired Jackson to write Saints, but instead of this segue feeling organic, it's been shoehorned in and makes for a strange, disjointed narrative. It also seems implausible that Ro would take such a risk, knowing the reaction her husband will have upon finding out she's been to Chicago without him. To have made Ro a character independent of gods would have tightened the narrative and cut some of the wasted length other reviewers have noted.

Despite these flaws, Backseat Saints has some lovely writing and I enjoyed the time spent with such complicated, flawed characters.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Finds the Right Balance

Finding Lubchenko
by Michael Simmons
Published by Razorbill
3 Out of 5 Stars

Not too shabby. It definitely was a welcome diversion from all of the supernatural/romance/football books that currently glut the young adult genre. Evan MacAlister is rich, but not spoiled--at least from his point of view--and this is his main complaint. As a way of retaliating against his father's strict discipline and aversion to giving Evan everything he wants, Evan begins to swipe high tech gadgetry from his dad's office and sells it online to earn an income worthy of a respectable rich kid. However, when his dad is framed for murder and the laptop Evan recently stole contains evidence that may free him, the choice to Evan seems clear--crack the security codes, retrieve the information, and go after the murderer himself. After all, he doesn't want to risk getting caught, then there's the fact that his dad once made him spend the night in jail for a relatively minor offense.

Evan is a character much like Ferris Bueller: entitled, yet entertaining so we're willing to forgive him his faults. The book is amusing and despite the fact that Evan and his friends don't really exert much influence over the events in the story as they unfold, it's an entertaining enough way to kill an afternoon.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Weak Hand

The Hand You're Dealt
by Paul Volponi
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
2 Out of 5 Stars

Huck Porter is a poker prodigy, having been groomed by his father (much to the chagrin of his mother) from a young age . Every year the local church hosts an annual Texas Hold'em tournament and sends the winner to Las Vegas to play in a high stakes tournament. The standing agreement is that whatever money is won will be split between the winner and the struggling community. Huck's father has been the tournament champion for the last three years and it's only as his father is dying that a new tournament champion is named:  Mr. Abbott, the meanest math teacher to ever dust an eraser. When Mr. Abbott stiffs the town by refusing to split his earnings, Huck sees this as an insult against his father who once donated all of his winnings to the town. As a result, Huck decides it's time to humble Mr. Abbott both in the classroom and at the poker table.

While the opening chapter offers a lot of promise (Huck and the other poker players are being robbed at gun point in an elevator), it quickly loses momentum from there. The premise of a small time, small bets poker tournament being used as a means of sustaining an economically depressed community is far fetched and Mr. Abbott is almost cartoonishly evil in his tyranny over the classroom. In addition, Huck is dealing with some pretty heavy conflicts, but they're glossed over and resolved in simplistic ways.

For the target audience, which I assume to be 13-15 year old boys, this is probably a good read (especially for struggling readers) for all the reasons that I didn't like it. While the chapters are short and keep the action moving along, there's not a lot of description or character development, and there are several implausible situations/details that will probably sneak right on past a young reader. While I will certainly recommend the book to my students, it's not something that offers satisfaction to a more sophisticated reading audience.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

No Child Left Behind Taken to Task

The Death and Life of the Great American School System
by Diane Ravitch
Published by Basic Books
4 Out of 5 Stars

I have been a public school teacher for less than a decade and already I'm suffering severe whiplash from the various educational fads that come and go at the speed of light. When I left college, I was excited about the opportunity to share great literature with my students, to explore universal themes that have shaped and influenced humanity, to encourage them to be avid readers and competent writers, to help them think for themselves and to eloquently articulate their thoughts and beliefs while still respecting and listening to those who opposed them. Imagine my disappointment when I found that the main focus of my job was to teach my students how to speed read a passage, correctly answer the related multiple choice questions, and to provide one well-written open response to a given prompt--all in 25 minutes. I wanted to help my students become literate and thoughtful individuals who will become responsible and informed citizens; my government, however, wants me to churn out professional test takers. Welcome to the world of No Child Left Behind.

Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System takes No Child Left Behind to task and Ravitch willingly admits that she was once one of its fiercest champions. However, she now (just as candidly) admits that she was wrong and this book is her explanation of how she came to realize NCLB has been one of the most detrimental attempts at school reform. Others have lambasted Ravitch's mea culpa as "too little, too late" and have shamed her for being part of the government system that created this problem. However, I appreciate that, in this political climate, a public figure can actually have the integrity to say, "I was wrong" (as she quotes John Maynard Keynes, "When the facts change, I change my mind"). We have now lived with NCLB for nearly a decade and the facts are in.

NCLB is a grand aspiration; however, aspirations by their very nature often set their sights higher than what is attainable. I do not have a qualm with the hope that all children will receive a quality education and be able to attain certain standards of academic excellence. That is, after all, why I became a teacher. Yet this aspiration can only be reached in a perfect world where every child comes from the same economic background, has a support system at home that values and champions education, has the same intellectual capacity, and has the same intrinsic motivation to learn. To say that 100% of children in American schools will be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014 is ridiculous; it is admirable as a hope, but not as a mandate. To borrow an analogy from Ravitch, that would be the equivalent of the government declaring that all crime in America will be eliminated by 2020 or that cancer will be cured by 2017--and, if not, then policemen and medical researchers will be fired, and ineffective police stations and hospitals will be shut down. That is essentially what is happening in American education. Schools that don't meet this deadline risk government takeover and teachers risk losing their jobs. They've given us an impossible task and will punish us if we fail to deliver the goods.

Some highlights from the book include:

*NCLB dictates testing in only two areas: literacy and mathematics. As a result, many schools actually narrow the focus of education as all the time and energy becomes focused on passing the test. Literature, social sciences, fine arts, the sciences, etc. do not receive as much emphasis--or they become utilized as hours of extra practice for these tests. The tradition of producing a well-rounded citizen through a liberal arts education is a thing of the past.

*NCLB is all about assessment, but provides no national curriculum. Each state is allowed to set its own standards and assessment strategies. Therefore, a child labeled as "proficient" on the Alabama state test might score "below basic" on the Massachusetts state test. With such a disparity in what a student is expected to know, it is impossible to say that the children in one state are outperforming students in another.

*States can manipulate test data by actually readjusting the cutoff for what is proficient; in addition, when a state's scores dramatically increase, the public should look to see if minority or low SES students are being systematically pushed out of the education system. For example, Ravitch reports that many scholars claimed that "the [2000] gains in Texas were a mirage; . . . the testing system actually caused rising numbers of dropouts, especially among African American and Hispanic students, many of whom were held back repeatedly and quit school in discouragement" (96). Many states who report dramatic gains in either literacy or mathematics do not see these gains reflected in data from NAEP, ACT, or SAT national tests that are beyond the state's control.

*A school with 56% student proficiency may not suffer any consequences if they have made their projected gains for the year; however, a school in a nearby district with 86% proficiency may be subjected to school improvement and labeled a poorly performing school if it failed to make its projected gains or failed to move one subgroup up to the appropriate rate of improvement. Never mind that the school has a higher proficiency than the other school; such confusion in standards leads to public confusion as to which is the better school. I'd want my kid in the school with 86% proficiency, projected AYP be damned.

There's so much more here that I could rattle on about, but I'll leave it at simply encouraging everyone to read this book. You may agree or disagree with Ravitch and her proposed solutions to education; that's fine. What's not fine, however, is that most of the American public doesn't understand what role government and private sector interests are playing in our educational system. We passively sit by and assume that the government is doing everything it can to make our nation's schools more competitive with other countries. We see newspaper articles about improved test scores, witness state politicians bragging about the significant gains made by the students in their constituency, and cheer as teachers are being fired and schools are being shut down when test scores are dismal. We think that there's a new sheriff in town and, by God, someone is doing something about those fat cat lazy teachers (a hilarious offering from The Daily Show regarding this perception http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon...)! What we don't see is how the data is flawed, the curriculum is narrowed, and educators have become the sacrificial lambs in a system that is broken. There needs to be a rigorous national curriculum, a standardized method of assessment that is used to improve and enhance curriculum (not as a data-driven witch hunt), and a renaissance of the liberal arts. None of that is happening under NCLB.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Failed to Cast a Spell

The Color of Magic
by Terry Pratchett
Published by Harper Perennial
2 Out of 5 Stars

Meh. It just didn't do it for me. Unfortunately, this book has been recommended to me so many times by well-meaning friends who know my love of absurd British humor that it couldn't possibly live up to the hype. It suffers from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy syndrome. For years, everyone I knew--friends, family, students, co-workers--would ask me if I had read Hitchhiker's and their mouths would drop when I admitted no, I hadn't . . . yet. Their response was always the same, "Oh, but you have to! It's like it was written for YOU!" By the time I got around to reading it, there's no way it could have lived up to the expectations that had been percolating for years. Ditto for The Color of Magic

I'll admit, Pratchett has a way with words and there was the occasional turn of phrase in response to which I made that air-escaping-from-the-nose sound that's not full bodied enough to be considered a snort of laughter. There was the infrequent half-smile. A few head nods in appreciation of a clever conceit. But, alas, there were no tear-inducing uncontrollable fits of laughter, which is what I expected. Will I read more Pratchett? Yes, because I have at least three more books by him lying about. I just hope they're better than this.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Now It's a Rat Writ, Writ for a Rat

True Grit
by Charles Portis
Published by Overlook TP
4 Out of 5 Stars

I recently reread this book for a book club meeting and was just as struck by Portis's prose as I was the first time I read it. The movie version (which I watched repeatedly as a teenager) is surprisingly faithful to the book's narrative. 

The story of the headstrong (sometimes obnoxiously so) Mattie's quest to kill the coward Tom Chaney is every bit as entertaining to me now as it was then. Of course, the real star of the book is the brutish and brash Rooster Cogburn, the U. S. Marshal Mattie hires to help her track down Chaney, who shot her father in cold blood. In the contrast between Mattie and Rooster is the contrast between the rapidly disappearing uncivilized frontier, as well as the strong, hard-bitten men and women it produced, and the introduction of societal mores and conveniences. Despite this contrast, there is a stubbornness in Mattie and Rooster that is recognized and respected by each. 

Portis's use of language is stripped of "fluff" and moves the story along brusquely, but not at the sacrifice of character or plot development. The dialogue is often unexpectedly hilarious and, as an Arkansan, it's also refreshing to read about an Arkansas that is not that of the stereotyped backwoods full of rednecks and outhouses. The historical details are accurate (including Fort Smith's famous "hanging judge" Judge Parker) and paint a vivid portrait of frontier life in Arkansas.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Villain or Unfairly Vilified?

Finding the Dragon Lady:  The Mystery of Madame Nhu
by Monique Brinson Demery
Published by PublicAffairs
4 Out of 5 Stars

"Another focus of the article was on Madame Nhu--a woman who seemed to be a fascinating character to the journalists of the time as I found several references to her in more than one Newsweek article, and as many pictures of her in fashionable dress. It's reported that Diem is little more than the puppet of Madame Nhu and her husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu. She's portrayed as an almost comic book like villain--an Asian femme fatale known as 'the dragon lady' by journalists in Saigon. She is described as being 'imperious and iron-willed,' 'a devious, chain-smoking intellectual with a low, rasping voice,' and 'molded into her . . . dress like a dagger in its sheath.' While she's acknowledged to be a serious threat to the United States, much focus is placed on insignificant details about her life. I found it unbelievable that the author of this article made constant reference to how dangerous she was, yet never bolstered these statements with any concrete fact. More time was devoted to her romanticized childhood and her couture clothing than her politics. It made me curious--was the lack of information because she was simply a woman and her dress was more interesting than her politics, or was there a lack of specific information about her involvement in the crimes being committed by the government?"

So, yes, I've quoted myself here. This is from a paper I wrote in response to a Newsweek article entitled Getting to Know the Nhus from September 9, 1963. One of my favorite assignments in my Literature of the Vietnam War class was the personal reaction papers that sent us scurrying to the library and pulling the old bound periodicals from the shelves and reading articles from magazines like Time and Newsweek. Others would simply grab a book, photocopy the first Vietnam article they came to, and trot off to write their paper. Me? I spent hours flipping through the yellowed pages and photographs before I settled on one for my article. And that was how I first encountered the petite dynamo that was Madame Nhu.

While she certainly piqued my curiosity, it quickly became obvious that learning about the real Madame Nhu was virtually impossible due to the obvious negative bias of the press, as well as Madame Nhu's own role in crafting her own image. So when Monique Brinson Demery's book about her personal relationship with Madame Nhu was released, I was excited by the prospect of finally meeting the "real" Madame Nhu.

And did I? Well, yes and no.

This is not a criticism of the book, but rather a reflection of the fact that Madame Nhu was the product of endless contradictions. Born in another time, another culture, another economic class, she certainly could have been a shrewd and intelligent politician. However, her arrival as an unwanted and unloved middle daughter (her mother always suspected she had been "switched" with a common child while she was left in the care of her paternal grandmother) created a keen sense of inferiority that she railed against her entire life (a defiant streak nurtured by a fortune-teller's prediction that "Her star is unsurpassable" and that the young girl was destined for greatness). Her upper-class family had both royal and colonial ties, leaving her oblivious to her Marie Antoinette-like disconnect from the common people (even commenting that she would she would clap her hands as Buddhist monks "barbecued" themselves). Raised in a Buddhist and Confucian household, her later conversion to Catholicism was embraced with a zealot's fervor--and a hurried convert's misapplication of principles (her morality laws banning contraception, polygamy, dancing, gambling, and, of course, the evils of the underwire bra quickly turned her people against her, despite her belief that she was protecting women in particular with many of these edicts).

It's no wonder that the girl who should have been a boy, the Vietnamese woman who couldn't understand the Vietnamese people, the Buddhist who became the dogmatic Catholic, the very embodiment of the collision of East and West, would become such a polarizing and often confusing historical figure.

Demery embraces these contradictions and presents Madame Nhu as a flawed woman with extraordinary potential--a woman desperate to blaze her own trail, yet restricted by her time, her gender, and her own misconceptions about the world. Demery's portrait does not shy away from the vain, arrogant, and manipulative aspects of Madame Nhu's personality. Indeed, we see Madame Nhu baiting Demery with promises that she will release her memoirs to her, as well as controlling and dictating the terms of their relationship. Demery becomes exasperated with Madame Nhu's machinations, but holds out in the hope that their continued exchanges will reveal something genuine about the woman history has both fairly and unfairly maligned. And she succeeds in this. While Madame Nhu is never exonerated by Demery's story, Demery does succeed in creating some sympathy for a woman who, behind closed doors, was pained by the failure of her marriage, desperate for love and approval, and denied the ability to help her husband and her brother-in-law, President Diem, sidestep some of their more foolhardy missteps.

Compelling and readable, Finding the Dragon Lady does not attempt to put Madame Nhu on a pedestal, but rather to dust away some of the misconceptions that have settled over the years on the legacy of the dragon lady.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Pyramid Built of Problems

The Age of Ra
by James Lovegrove
Published by Solaris
1 Out of 5 Stars

See that cover? That is a kick ass cover. So the next time you're in a bookstore, stop and gaze upon its beauty--then return the book to the shelf and slowly back away because that moment, the moment where you gaze upon that glorious golden image of Ra and then wonder at the contradictory image of a modern day soldier in front of a battlefield and think WTF--that's as good as it's going to get, baby.

I have put off reviewing this for days because reviewing it seems cruel, like kicking a three legged puppy for not being able to run fast enough. I knew that I was in deep suck by page 20, so it's my fault that I kept reading. And I know, I know--there will be those who say, why did you keep reading if you hated the book so much? A) I bought it, so I felt a misguided need to get my money's worth, B) this is my busy time of year, so reading a crappy book almost ensured I would more readily turn my attention to grading semester finals, and C) I can't count the number of times I have despised a book right up until the very end and something clicked, the other shoe dropped, all was revealed and, hallelujah, it's a literary miracle--the book was amazing! There were no miracles this time. I clapped my hands and really believed, but Tinkerbell never came back to life. This sucker was DOA and should have come with a DNR. Damn, I kicked the three legged dog, didn't I?

Age of Ra has an interesting premise. The gods of old are real, they go to battle for dominion over man, the Pantheon of Egypt wins by destroying all other gods. This idea isn't entirely new, but usually these types of books focus on Greek and Roman mythology. The Egyptian slant seemed promising. But this type of book has been done better by Gaiman's American Gods or even Max Gladstone's created mythology in the Craft Sequence books Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise. There are several issues:

1. All nations now worship Egyptian deities, but align themselves with different gods (some Asian countries worship Anubis, England worships Osiris, South America worships Horus--you get the idea). These countries now choose their allies and their enemies based upon which gods their chosen deity considers friends and enemies. The god also blesses his or her people with his divine power, or ba, as a power source to charge weapons and vehicles (but, don't worry, if your god forgets to send you some of his mojo, there's still gasoline). This sums up all the interaction the gods have with their people; much of the book consists of military battles that simply throw the gods' names around but really don't rely upon the gods at all. So all that amazing gods-among-men anticipation I had built up was a serious letdown.

2. The Egyptian gods defeated all other gods 100 years ago, yet the novel is set in what seems to be roughly the present day. Within a century and in the face of the knowledge that the gods are real, one would think the Egyptian culture and mindset would have radically changed society and redrawn the map. Nope. Apparently not. We still have Russia, Japan, China, and all the other countries and societies speaking and acting as they always have. 

3. The integration of Egyptian culture into present day is unimaginative and lazy at best. We still have the United States, but its president is now known as the Pastor President. We still have Britain, but its head of state is now His Pharaonic Majesty. We still have Mercedes Benz, but it's now known as the Mercedes Lotus. We still have tanks, but they're known as Scarabs. The world-building is weak.

4. It's also laughable that, in a world that still has high tech weaponry and alternate fuel sources, our hero enters combat with a crook and flail. Or that mummies so clueless they make zombies look like the life of the party are sent into battle against tanks and artillery. Or that high priests use wooden birds to carry their consciousness for reconnaissance missions, but, if that fails, they send out the planes we would normally use for reconnaissance. Because a high priest in a trance forever is always preferable to the intel a plane could send back in a fraction of the time. The inclusion of modern technology in the book renders the Ancient Egyptian inspired tech moot and useless by comparison.

5. Cardboard, stereotyped characters so one-dimensional that they make the Kardashians seem human; an obligatory will-they-won't-they romance with less passion than a Liza Minnelli marriage; plot twists so obvious they practically nudge you ("You'll be so surprised! You'll never guess what's going to happen! Here it comes, here it comes! Did it get ya?").

6. The best part of the book? The gods. One can tell that Lovegrove really did his research here and he's smart enough to realize that the gods have to adapt and change somewhat to move the plot forward. Holding them to their archetypal roles would have added little interest whatsoever. As Ra begins to develop a consciousness outside of his divine role and manipulate the Pantheon to avert disaster, it's easy to think something might be salvaged. However, the god chapters are too few and far between (and ultimately anticlimactic) to add much to the narrative. 

There was an idea here, somewhere beneath all the problems, but it never delivers on the promise presented by that beautiful cover.

Check, Please!

Waiter Rant:  Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter
by The Waiter (Steve Dublanica)
Published by Ecco
2 Out of 5 Stars

How did I come to possess this book? Well, the combination of a Books-A-Million going out of business sale, my mistaken assumption that it would be a collection of essays written by various people who had once waited tables, and a cover blurb from Anthony Bourdain calling it "painfully funny" was apparently a heady combination that led to this bit of buyer's remorse. 

To be fair, this is not a bad book, nor is it a terribly interesting one. Alas, Waiter Rant is by one waiter who depends upon his anonymity as he blogs about his job while still in the trenches (he has since been revealed to be Steve Dublanica). Dublanica finds himself middle-aged and without steady employment, so takes a wait job as a stopgap between careers--and then never really leaves. The rest of the book follows his adventures and misadventures with the surly kitchen staff, incompetent wait staff, and the snooty, entitled patrons who can make a waiter's life a living hell. 

I assumed (based on the description and various blurbs) that all of this would be funny. Except it's not. By one-third of the way through, it failed to elicit a chuckle, a twitter, a smirk, or even one of those weird laughs that consist of basically blowing air out of your nose really hard when something catches you kind of off-guard and you're not sure if it's appropriate to laugh. And I like to think that I'm not humor impaired. I laugh and laugh often. The problem here is that being cynical is not the same as being funny. Now when funny and cynical come together with a dash of acerbic wit, it can be a beautiful and miraculous thing (I'm looking at you, Anthony Bourdain), but there's no magic here and I'm reading it because--once again, I'm looking at you Anthony Bourdain. 

The other reason it failed to entertain me is because its main message seems to be that people suck. And they do, I'll not argue against that. But waiters don't have the market cornered on I-don't-get-paid-enough-to-put-up-with-ungrateful-and-crazy-all-day-long. Anyone who has any job that requires contact with the public knows this spiel. I've been a waiter, a cashier, a secretary, a teacher and the dynamic is always the same--as long as there's a customer, someone's going to be an asshole because you're there to serve them and, by God, that means doing precisely what they want when they want it and if not then they will be talking to your supervisor. Having lived this, reading about it is not how I want to spend my hours away from work.

Throughout, Dublanica comes across as some kind of super-waiter and, while I have no reason to doubt that he was good at his job and took it seriously, his stories fail to come to life as he seems incapable of portraying himself as flawed. He always seems to have the upper-hand and becomes the sage keeper of knowledge for the younger employees. It also makes the dining experience seem all about the waiter: what's best for the waiter, how to keep your waiter happy, tips that help make the waiter's job easier, etc. as though it's the customer's job to cater to the waiter. Now, as previously mentioned, I've been a waitress (briefly; as part of my training, I was seriously told to "kiss the babies and flirt with the old men"--homey don't play that game so apparently my "perkitude" wasn't up to their standards and I was unceremoniously fired). And, yes, people can treat waiters terribly and there are things one can and should do to make a dining experience pleasant for all involved. Most of those things involve simple human decency. But Dublanica makes it sound like such a one-sided affair that waiters should be leaving tips to customers who jump through all the hoops outlined in the book to make it a pleasure to serve them.

While some of the information about the dynamic that exists among the employees in a restaurant is mildly interesting, there's nothing really surprising here.