These are reviews originally posted to Amazon as customer reviews. They're intended for entertainment and informational purposes only. (Apologies for any typos, bad grammar, or offensive language.) This isn't sponsored by Amazon or represent them in any way, although they do have a very nice site and I recommend checking it out for your next book purchase. Feel free to comment on the books if you've read them or tell me how much my reviews suck or whatever.
That is all.

Friday, May 22, 2009

American Gods

American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

(4/5 stars)

I mentioned this in my review of "Good Omens" but just to recap, I came by this book after reading Terry Pratchett's fabulous Discworld series. From there I went to "Good Omens", an apocalyptic comedy penned by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. So now I'm segueing to Gaiman solo in "American Gods." I have to say, for the record, I think Pratchett's books on the whole are a lot more fun. While there is humor in "American Gods" it's darker and a little more subtle--ironic might be the best way. The difference is probably that the Discworld books are written as comedies while "American Gods" isn't. I still enjoyed this, but in a different way.

"American Gods" covers territory covered by Gaiman and Pratchett (or Pratchett & Gaiman) in "Good Omens" and by Pratchett in Discworld books like "Small Gods" and "Hogfather." That territory is the concept that gods exist because people believe in them; gods are an extension of a human belief to believe in something. Over time, for a variety of reasons, belief in gods rises and falls. For instance, thousands of years ago no one outside the Middle East had ever heard of the god we know as GOD. They believed in their own more local gods, some like the Greek/Roman gods we studied in school and still remember because they're named for things like planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto) or Greek restaurants. Others have pretty much faded away from memory entirely, except perhaps for an artifact in a museum.

What Gaiman does in "American Gods" is to take that concept a step farther. For thousands of years people have been coming to America--"Native" Americans, Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and of course the Vikings--and with them they bring their gods and make sacrifices to them and build places of worship to them and so forth. And in the process they give life to those gods in America. But what becomes of the gods after war, disease, slavery, and assimilation have eroded that belief in them? Basically they're left roaming the countryside, living essentially as mortals.

A big man named Shadow gets out of prison and meets one of these fallen gods, a grifter now going by the name of Mr. Wednesday. With no job, no family, and no place to live, Shadow agrees to become Wednesday's bodyguard for a dangerous mission that takes them across the United States, though much of the action is centered in Illinois and Wisconsin. There's a storm coming, one that threatens not just Shadow but the entire fabric of reality. Because, you see, there are new gods being created everyday--gods of Technology and Media and so forth. When old gods and new gods clash, all hell is bound to break loose.

As for Shadow, he has to confront his tragic past and his destiny. Plus he has to find a way to bring his zombie wife back to life.

Overall this is a good book, though the ending seems pretty anticlimactic. I guess that's how life is sometimes. It would help too if you knew more about mythology than I do; I know a little about Greek and Norse myths from school but Gaiman includes myth creatures from pretty much every culture in the world. (Though it seems like the Greek gods like Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, Poseidon, and so forth are missing.) Anyway, I think this is the kind of book I'd really have to read a second time--or possibly more--to GET it because there's so much going on.

Of course a lot of people will probably steer clear of a book like this because it might challenge their personal beliefs. Though I personally like a religious philosophy where pretty much everyone can be right.

That is all.

PS - I feel a little ethically compromised because Mr. Gaiman is my "friend" on the Goodreads site and I follow him on Twitter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Where You Belong
by Patrick Dilloway
(5/5 stars)

In my review of Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March" I wrote:

"When I thought about it deeper and looked more closely I decided what gave this "great American novel" status is not the story itself but the underlying sense of optimism as Augie never loses hope even after the love of his life leaves him and his Merchant Marine freighter gets torpedoed. It's that same spirit that sent explorers to these shores and propelled pioneers ever westward in search of Manifest Destiny."

In a much similar fashion, "Where You Belong" by Patrick Dilloway is a Great American novel in spirit because while the protagonist of the story--a man with the unlikely name of Frost Devereaux--loses the love of his dreams, he never gives up hope of finding a better life just around the next corner.

Another novel "Where You Belong" draws comparisons to is John Irving's "The World According to Garp" and not just because the main characters in both have unusual names. Like Garp, Frost Devereaux is raised for a time by a nurse (though in this case the nurse is not his mother) and grows up to become a writer. Unlike Garp, though, Frost is never able to find and hold on to his one true love.

Through most of his life, Frost's true love is Frankie Maguire. Frankie, an energetic tomboy who dreams of becoming a Broadway star, is Frost's best friend and first crush, who abandons him in junior high to seek out older boys. This leaves Frost with a hole in his heart that is never filled until Frankie returns to him. If this were a fairy tale they would ride off and Live Happily Ever After, but this isn't a fairy tale.

Frost's search for a love that lasts leads him across the United States, from his boyhood home in an Iowa town noted for the stench of the fertilizer it produces to an all-boys school in upstate New York with a dark secret to an artist's colony in New Mexico presided over by a French-Canadian lumberjack to the Manhattan apartment of Frankie's twin brother, a powerbroker in the Gordon Gekko mold. Each step along the way Frost discovers more about the world, the people he cares about, and himself.

I really enjoyed this book because of that Great American Novel spirit I talked about and its similarities to "Garp." Like the better John Irving novels, Mr. Dilloway attempts to tackle a large social issue without losing sight of the personal story. The character of Frost Devereaux is depicted as naïve and vulnerable, especially when it comes to his feelings for the Maguire twins, which in some ways makes him a more sympathetic character than TS Garp who, let's face it, could be a real jerk by sleeping with babysitters and so forth. By contrast, Frost is the one who gets cheated on, not the one who cheats.

Still, for the seriousness of the topics covered in the novel, it never loses a dark sense of humor, putting Frost in bizarre situations and with even more bizarre characters. For that reason fans of Irving's work should love this novel. Of course it wouldn't really be fair to compare the writing of a young unknown like Mr. Dilloway to great authors like John Irving or Saul Bellow. There are few who can really compete on that level. Nevertheless, the story is solidly written and hopefully the start of more to come.

That is all.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Good Omens

Good Omens

by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett (Or Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman depending on your edition)

(5/5 stars)

In 1988 two great British humorists got together to write a story about the end of the world. I'm overselling a little here, but think of it as if the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin got on stage to jam together in the early '60s or so before they were huge stars. As you'd guess, the result is something unique--and hilarious.

How can the end of the world be funny? Watch and learn.

Long ago in the Garden of Eden, a demon named Crawly tempted Eve & Adam to eat the apples off the Tree of Knowledge and thus get kicked out of the garden. Taking pity on them, an angel named Aziraphale gave Adam his flaming sword to use for protection and making fire. Since then Aziraphale and Crawly (now known as Crowley) have formed a friendship even as their masters (ie Heaven and Hell) plot to destroy each other.

Along comes the big moment when Crowley is supposed to deliver the Antichrist to a satanic group of nuns, who will then switch the evil baby for the normal one born to an American cultural attache--a reference to "The Omen." Except one of the nuns messes it up and the Antichrist ends up going to a normal British family in a place called Lower Tadfield while the supposedly evil baby is watched closely by the minions of Heaven and Hell.

Skip forward eleven years to when the time has finally come. The Four Horsemen are getting to ride out--for fans of Pratchett's Discworld series the Horseman of Death is the same as in those books with the speaking IN ALL CAPS and the same dry wit--only now they've upgraded to Harleys. The lost continent of Atlantis has risen to the surface once more. And other weird stuff is happening, but now someone needs to find the Antichrist.

Crowley and Aziraphale, who have grown fond of if not humanity itself then at least all of humanity's stuff like books and Bentleys, set out to avert the seemingly inevitable End of Days. Their efforts are joined by a witch whose distant relative Agnes Nutter wrote a book of prophecies that never sold because of their terrible accuracy, a pair of witchhunters, and a gang of kids. But can they avert the Apocalypse in time? (Well, we're still here, aren't we?)

It occurs to me now that director Kevin Smith really should have read this book (and taken notes) before making his lamentable "Dogma" that dealt with similar concepts but was bogged down with too much information and not enough laughs. Gaiman/Pratchett (or Pratchett/Gaiman) manage to seamlessly blend in Biblical elements without sacrificing the humor. But as I've come to expect at least where Mr. Pratchett is concerned, there's intelligence behind the humor. Some of it may be a little too British (like Mr. Shadwell's terribly thick accent) or a little dated (like the jokes about answering machines, computers, and cassette tapes) but even so it's hard not to go more than a page without laughing.

This is a superb book that I think would make even those most fundamental Christian crack a smile. And as I said at the beginning, you're probably never going to see two masters get together like this again, so don't miss this opportunity.

That is all.

(BTW, as I finished Pratchett's Discworld series I thought this would make a perfect segue into my next book, Gaiman's "American Gods.")

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Darkest Evening of the Year

The Darkest Evening of the Year

by Dean Koontz

(1/5 stars)

I've never read any Koontz before and never intended to except I needed something quick--and cheap--and my selection was limited. My question is: are they all this terrible? Seriously. This book went from mediocre to bad to terrible to outright laughable by the end.

I'm not sure, was this supposed to be suspenseful? The villains were more goofy and cheesy than scary in any way. The mystical twists struck me as hokey more than anything. And there was never any time when I didn't know I was reading a book.

To get to the dull story, it's about Amy Redwing, who was orphaned at two and has a Mysterious Past. Amy lives in California, where she rescues golden retrievers and rehabilitates them for adoption. One night she and her architect boyfriend Brian--who also has a Mysterious Past, though presumably is not an orphan--go to the home of an abusive drunk, where Amy pays two grand for the drunk's golden retriever named Nickie. The dog also has a Mysterious Past that is part of Amy's Mysterious Past. As well the drunk has a seemingly autistic little girl with Mysterious Eyes. Amy rescues the girl as well, but pays far less for her.

Meanwhile we have "Moongirl", an evil pyromaniac and her lover Harrow, who obviously are Mysterious as well because they don't have real names. Their lives are entangled with Amy and Brian's, but I won't get into how so I don't spoil anything and subsequently get yelled at by people for ruining a perfectly ridiculous book. There's also a hitman who has an obsession with literature, going by the name Billy Pilgrim from Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse V."

The only character I felt any connection to was the hitman and that's because I like Vonnegut's writing far more than Koontz. As I mentioned before, there was never a time where I didn't think of these characters as just characters; none of them ever seemed even the teensiest bit real. I feel a little duped by the back cover because the story to me sounded like Amy and the dog are sitting around on a presumably dark night when bad things start happening and they have to overcome them. As a concept there was at least some prospect for suspense there in the "things that go bump in the night" category. Instead we're treated to silliness about angels and Mysterious Pasts and girls/dogs with weird eyes. Ugh.

The dog angle only adds to the cheesiness of the story, as it's hard to gather any suspense when you're talking about dogs peeing or begging for treats. The whole thing has the feeling that was tossed off in a few hours on a lark to make a few bucks. Though I suppose it might help educate people about dog abuse, so there's that.

The only good thing is that the book is so easy to breeze through. I could get through 100 pages of my paperback version in about an hour, which means it took only about 4 1/2 hours. 4 1/2 hours I'll never get back! I'd have wasted them anyway.

At one point Moongirl tells Brian that Amy seems like Sandra Bullock, which is a vibe I picked up on. She'd be great in a movie version of this that would probably work better as a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime or something like that. Then it could be shortened to only kill 2 hours of your life.

BTW, People magazine describes this as "Silence of the Lambs" meets "Marley and Me." I take it they meant that as a compliment.

That is all.