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, December 17, 2010

Star Wars: Red Harvest

Star Wars: Red Harvest
by Joe Schreiber
(2/5 stars)

When I read and reviewed "Night of the Living Trekkies," which covered similar bloodstained ground, I complimented the book for delivering exactly what it promised. Such can not be said of "Red Harvest," which fails to deliver on the promise of Jedi/Sith fighting zombies.

Oh sure there are zombies and there are two Jedi and some Sith, but it never really amounts to anything. From a pure geek standpoint there's nothing COOL about any of the fights. There are a couple of times when a Jedi or Sith hacks apart a few of the zombies with a lightsaber. But there's nothing that comes within tauntaun spitting distance of the sweet lightsaber fights from the movies--even the dreadful prequels. That's a big letdown and as something of a Star Wars geek (especially when it comes to lightsaber battles) I can't overlook it.

If you want a plot summary it's pretty simple. Long ago during the time of the Old Republic (some thousands of years before even the Star Wars prequels) there were a lot more of the evil Sith lords (the "dark side" of the Force like Darth Vader in the Emperor if you're not up to speed on all the prequel stuff) who have their own academies, which are like an evil version of Hogwarts. The head of this academy is Darth Scabrous, who is researching a way to become immortal, which requires a very special orchid.

Just such an orchid is being raised by a Jedi named Zo Trace. What's so special about the thing is that the orchid requires the Force to grow, so it essentially has bonded with Zo. When a bounty hunter comes to steal it, Zo has to go along or else the plant would die.

Once they get to the planet, Scabrous uses the orchid to create some weird concoction that causes some of the Sith students to become zombies. They in turn start attacking others and from then on it's a fight for survival.

The zombies generally operate under "28 Days Later" zombie rules, which means they're fast, as opposed to the shambling "Night of the Living Dead" zombies. What would have made things better is if the zombies could use the Force and their lightsabers.

The author does such a poor job juggling the characters that I question if he's seen any zombie movies at all. I'm not exactly the expert, but I've seen a few, enough to know that you have to have your varied characters come together into one tight-knit group. (See "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead," "28 Days Later," "Zombieland," and even "Shaun of the Dead.") But this never happens until the very end; the characters remaining isolated from one another until that point. Really, there is a formula to writing a good zombie story and if you're going to deviate from that you need to have something better than this.

Also, the author at a couple points uses colloquialisms with the Sith students. Star Wars characters do not say "Whatever" or "Fail." I don't care what year it's taking place in the Star Wars universe, that just shouldn't happen. At least they didn't say, "Talk to the Hand," so we got that going for us.

From a purist standpoint this book itself is an abomination, a cheap way to cash in on the resurgence of zombies in popular culture. I would have been willing to give it more slack if it was fun or had some good fight scenes. Since it doesn't, I definitely can't recommend this.

That is all.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Before, After, and Somebody In Between

Before, After, and Somebody In Between
by Jeannine Garsee
(4/5 stars)

In terms of wicked mothers, Martha Kowalski's might not be in the same league as the mom in "Carrie" or Joan Crawford in "Mommy Dearest" but she's close. Martha's mother is more often than not drunk or high, and very often emotionally abusive if not physically abusive. The sort of men she hangs out with, like redneck slum lord Wayne, are just as bad.

Like a lot of books of this type, it begins with Martha and her mother moving into Wayne's house in inner-city Cleveland. Martha's upstairs neighbors are the Lindseys and she forms an attachment to Jerome, who is about her age and dreams of being a nuclear physicist.

Martha goes to the public high school, where an older girl named Chardonnay makes her life a living hell. When Martha finally snaps under the strain and her mom's addictions take a turn for the worse, Martha winds up in a foster home.

Then in a Dickensian twist Martha winds up with the affluent Brinkman family. She adopts the name Gina and most everything seems to be going her way, except for the Brinkman's annoying daughter Nikki. But it doesn't stay that way forever...

Anyway, it's hard to say I could "enjoy" a book like this. It's not exactly a happy story of hope and redemption or anything like that. But there are some valuable lessons to be learned from it. The writing is solid and while the pace lags a bit at times, it generally held my interest.

That is all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Blood Song

Blood Song
by Cat Adams
(4/5 stars)

I've never been a fan of vampires or werewolves or any of that of that paranormal stuff.  "Blood Song" really didn't change my opinion of that.  I have to say upfront, though, that if you are into that I think you'll find this book enjoyable enough.

In the world of this story there are vampires, werewolves, mages, and ghosts all living amongst us.  Unlike say, "Twilight," the vampires are not very nice; mostly they're evil fiends who feast on the living.  One night while working for a prince of fictional Rusland (which was also called Ruslund a couple of times) professional bodyguard Celia Graves is ambushed by the bloodsuckers and bitten.

She's not fully turned, so like "Blade" she's only half-vampire.  She doesn't need to drink blood but she can't eat solid food.  She can go out in the daylight, but it smarts after not long in the sun.  She can heal quickly, but not as quickly as a vampire.

After that the story focuses on Celia trying to adjust to life as an "abomination" and avoiding various attempts on her life.  There's also unraveling who was behind the ambush that nearly killed her.

The latter is not brought to a very satisfactory conclusion.  Especially the subplot about her "sire" or the one who turned her, which is dealt with in an extremely offhanded fashion.  I found most of the story very plodding and slow, really about 100 pages longer than it needed to be.  A lot of it seemed to be setting up characters for future books, which didn't help to make this first book all that memorable for me.

But I'm still going to give it 4 stars because it's capable enough and as I said at the beginning, if you're into vampires and werewolves and such without the "Twilight" teen angst then you'll probably enjoy this more than me.

That is all.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sunset Park

Sunset Park
By Paul Auster
(4/5 stars)

Previously I had only read Auster's "Book of Illusions" and didn't really care for it.  But since this was free, I decided to give it a try.  For some reason I can't explain, I really liked the book and when I wasn't reading it, I wanted to be.

My best guess is because the focal character Miles Heller is near 30, a baseball fan, and had an annoying brother.  So we have some things in common there.  That usually helps to like someone, as various scientific studies have pointed out.  (Other studies probably say the opposite, but that's neither here nor there.)

When the book begins, Miles is living in Florida.  It's 2008, in the middle of housing bubble collapse and Wall Street collapse.  Miles works cleaning out houses of those who have been evicted from their homes.  The love Miles's life is a Cuban girl named Pilar, who is only 17, 11 years his junior.  Miles plans on marrying her once she turns eighteen.  Then Pilar's sister gets involved and Miles has to flee.  Unlike Humbert Humbert, he doesn't take his Lolita with him.

Instead, he goes alone to New York.  Specifically to Brooklyn and a house in the neighborhood known as Sunset Park.  A college chum and two of his friends are living there already, rent-free because the house belongs to the city after its former residents were evicted.  (Irony, anyone?)  So Miles and the others squat there for a few months, waiting for the police to lower the boom on them.

As much as I really wanted to like this book and give it five stars, I can't overlook the fatal flaw.  There are too many characters and too many things going on.  There are the four housemates, Miles's parents, and his stepparents, all of whom except Miles's stepparents get a turn at narrating.  With so much going on in a book that comes in at less than 350 pages, there just isn't time for Auster to deal with everything.  So it comes off as shallow, the characters, situations, and conversations as sketches instead of fully-formed. 

While I enjoyed Auster's writing, I think the story would have been vastly improved if he had just picked one or maybe two narrators (like Miles and his father) and focused on them.  That or make the book about 300 pages longer.  Because as it stands, while the housemates Bing, Alice, and Ellen are interesting, their potential is squandered.  Just as squandered are the interactions between the housemates during the squatting in Sunset Park.  Really you get more drama from an episode of "The Real World" or "Jersey Shore" or any "reality" show where people are cooped up together than you get from these four.

So in the end it's a good book and I really liked it, but it could have been a lot more.  While I liked it more than "The Book of Illusions" I doubt it's his best effort.

That is all.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


By Elmore Leonard
(2/5 stars)

Elmore Leonard has written a lot of books, but the only one I've ever read is "Get Shorty" that I enjoyed. Still, I thought I'd seize the chance to get a free copy of his latest effort, "Djibouti." Now I wish I hadn't.

The first third of this book was torture to plow through. Leonard lost me on the first page with this sentence: "By 8:30 the once-a-week Air France was in, the stairway wheeled up and a gang of Arabs and Dara Barr coming off, the Foreign Legion checking out the passengers, seeing could they tell a terrorist they saw one." It's really the last part of the sentence that threw me. It sounds like it's missing two different "ifs" in there. I suppose this was supposed to be from Xavier's point of view, though it's so early in the book that we don't really know anything about Xavier yet, so at that point it didn't make much sense to me.

After that, so much of the first 100 pages is just Xavier and Dara sitting around talking about what they shot. It's extremely boring. I got to thinking, "How can a book about pirates be this DULL?"

The thing is, the book isn't really about Somali pirates. That's just what the book jacket might say. Really it's about the harebrained plot of a wanna-be bin Laden that intersects with a couple of documentary filmmakers, a pirate, a crazy lawyer, and an eccentric billionaire. (Are any billionaires not eccentric? In books and movies it seems they're always up to some crazy scheme or another. I suppose there probably are noneccentric ones who just stay in their mansions and sip their brandy.) What this reminds me of is less "Get Shorty" than the Coen brothers movie "Burn After Reading" that I described as "a battle of wits between the witless."

So here are all the players. First there's Dara Barr, the documentary filmmaker who like all women in this type of story is a bit of a tomboy but would probably be attractive if she bothered to clean up. Her cameraman is an old man named Xavier, who previously worked with her during Hurricane Katrina. They come to Djibouti to make a movie about the Somali pirates. One of the pirates is Idris, who would like to be sophisticated and like many of the pirates has found the good life by ransoming Western ships. Harry is a British-Arab lawyer who ostensibly tries to talk the pirates out of pirating. Also there is the billionaire Billy and his hot girlfriend Helene, who will only become Billy's wife if she completes a trip around the world by boat with him. Billy is sort of a conspiracy theory type who has the money to waste paying people to feed him information to fuel these theories.

Then there's Jama, who's an American who converted to Islam in prison. He made contacts with al-Qaeda and has been doing some work for them. He comes to Djibouti as well, hoping to make a big splash.

As I said, most of it was pretty boring to me. I think it would have been better if it'd just stuck to the pirates. The Somali pirates are relatively new enough to be interesting and fresh. Maybe too new and fresh for an octogenarian white guy in Detroit to write about, so instead he falls back on the old terrorism story while leaving just enough of the pirate thing so they can put it on the book jacket and make you think that's what you're reading about.

Anyway, if you've read a lot of Leonard books maybe you'd like this more, because it's probably the same general thing he's done a dozen times before. I really could never get overly interested in the slow-moving plot or the thin characters. Of special note (which I almost forgot to mention) was the terribly contrived way in which Dara figures out Jama's real name.  Just really implausible.

It makes me think, though, someone should update "Casablanca" and set it in Djibouti with Somali pirates. I'm sure Dara and Xavier could think up who to cast in it.

That is all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Human Blend

The Human Blend
By Alan Dean Foster
(3/5 stars)

Here's the definition of MacGuffin from our friends at Wikipedia:

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction".[1]  The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Common examples are money, victory, glory, survival, a source of power, or a potential threat, or it may simply be something entirely unexplained.

A MacGuffin then is what drives "The Human Blend" and in theory the books that follow it.  In this case the MacGuffin is a silver "thread" that is some kind of data storage device.  A thief named Whispr finds this thread after he and his friend Jiminy Cricket (his chosen name, not his birth name) mug a guy in Savannah.

An explanation of the world this takes place in is probably in order.  In this future (how far into the future I'm not exactly sure, but probably late 21st or early 22nd Century) flooding from global warming has put most of the North American coast under water.  Cities like Savannah survive by putting the old buildings up on hydraulic platforms.  (Others like Washington use dikes to hold back the waters.)

The biggest change, though, is with people themselves.  Cosmetic surgery has allowed everyone to add all sorts of "melds" to themselves to alter their appearance.  You can look like a famous celebrity, a historical personage, or even Big Bird.  Though by this time, most people like Whispr just use melds to help them in their line of work.  In his case, Whispr is ultra thin and quiet.  Jiminy Cricket can jump long distances.  Police are built like weightlifters on steroids.

Some, though, don't take melds, like Dr. Ingrid Seastrom.  She's content to be just your normal young, hot blond doctor.  She has a practice in Savannah and a comfortable life and a seldom-seen boyfriend.  Then of course Whispr shows up looking for medical help--and with the thread.

Most of the book is devoted to various people like the assassin Mole (Mo-lay, not Mole) or some other assassins chasing Whispr and then Whispr and Ingrid to get the thread.  Meanwhile, Whispr and Ingrid try to find out what it is on the thread.

Of course they don't find out what's on the thread, because that will be dealt with in future books.  Future books I have no interest in reading because this one didn't really hook me.  It was an OK sci-fi thriller, but it never rose to the level of Philip K. Dick or "Neuromancer."  It's more "Paycheck" than "Minority Report" or "Blade Runner." 

Or in other words, it's a competent book, but it feels paint-by-numbers.  The characters aren't all that interesting and the uniqueness of the melds and the world these people inhabit just didn't come to life enough for me to really care that much.

But if you're less discriminating than me, you'll probably enjoy it as a beach/airplane/subway read.  And maybe you'll be interested in following the Quest for the Thread.  I'll just wait until the last one comes out and peek at the last pages to see if they throw it into Mt. Doom or not.

That is all.

PS:  Foster does have a character call the thread a "maguffin" at one point, so at least he has a sense of humor enough to recognize this.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Unseen Academicals

Unseen Academicals
(Discworld Series #37)
By Terry Pratchett
4/5 stars

In the "Star Trek:  The Next Generation" series there was an episode called "Lower Decks" that focused on a group of young people serving in minor positions on the Enterprise instead of the usual group of head honchos.  That is essentially what happens in "Unseen Academicals" which focuses on the people who work in the Night Kitchen and the candle vats of Unseen University, the school for wizards in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

Ostensibly though the book is about the game of foot-the-ball or football (or soccer as we call it across the Pond).  In Ankh-Morpork, the game of foot-the-ball is actually more like rugby, with a lot of tackling and fighting and very little scoring.  Young Trevor Likely's father was a legend because he scored 4 goals.

Trevor works in the candle vats of Unseesn University with Nutt, a very learned goblin who talks like a shelf of self-help books.  Nutt has a Mysterious Past that not even he remembers.  Eventually though Trev and Nutt go up to the Night Kitchen, where they meet the plain, fat Glenda and the beautiful, ditzy Juliet.

As it happens Juliet is from the Stoops family, who are sworn enemies of Trev's family because of their foot-the-ball allegiances.  Trev & Juliet doesn't play out like Romeo & Juliet because tragedy is not ever really on the menu in the Discworld.  Nutt does a little Cyrano in writing a poem to help woo Juliet, which would work better if Juliet could read words of more than one syllable.

Oh yes, there is a football game in there too.  The wizards of Unseen University discover that they have to play a game of football in order to keep a bequest that keeps their Night Kitchen stocked.  (If there's one thing wizards really like it's their kitchen.)  When some new old rules are "discovered" from a museum, a new brand of foot-the-ball is born with Nutt taking the lead as coach.

This book utilizes two recurring theme-like items in the Discworld series.  One is equal rights/tolerance, which is embodied by Nutt.  Goblins (or what Nutt really is) being the latest in a line that includes dwarfs, trolls, werewolves, vampires, and golems who break the racial barrier in Ankh-Morpork.  The other theme-like substance is modernizing the city.  The police force, post office, bank, and Unseen University itself have all been dramatically remodeled since the earliest Discworld novels.  As well football joins other modern things like newspapers, movies, the Internet, and rock music to become part of the fabric of Disc society.  So really while the book is entertaining (as most Discworld books are) it's not anything fans of the series haven't really seen before.

What bugged me about the previous book "Making Money" was that there was no money made in it; the actual printing of money seemed like it would be taking place off the pages.  I feared that Pratchett was going to do the same here and have the football game take place off the page, but he does at least manage to get it in, even if it is a bit underwhelming.  While it was nice to see Rincewind (with a cameo by The Luggage) and the Librarian again, I wish they could have been used more.

That the book doesn't focus on any of the major characters in the end means that this can be filed away as "Minor Discworld" along with one-offs like "Pyramids," "Small Gods," "The Truth," and "Monstrous Regiment."  Since football (soccer) hooliganism isn't a big thing here in the States, I'm sure some of the jokes in this one went over my head; British readers would then probably enjoy this more.

Still, it's not a bad entry in the series, but not an overly important one either.  You could do a lot worse.

That is all.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Post Office

Post Office
By Charles Bukowski
(4/5 stars)

If you really hate your job, "Post Office" beats a whole stack of Dilbert cartoons or watching an endless loop of "Office Space," "Clerks," and other workplace comedies.  From the way Bukowski describes the post office, it's no wonder "going postal" entered our lexicon.  It's probably also why my uncle who worked for the post office for a number of years was always so cranky.

The story concerns Bukowski's alterego Henry Chinaski.  When he's a younger man, Henry does his first stint at the post office as a substitute mail carrier.  As the motto says, he winds up trudging through rain (and mud) and dark of night, occasionally being attacked by the odd dog or two.  This finances Henry's life of drinking and cavorting with Betty.

Eventually Henry moves on to other jobs and other women, including a wealthy heiress with a thing for animals and geraniums.  He drinks and cavorts a lot with all of these and even fathers a child with one.  To support this lifestyle Henry is drawn back to the post office, this time working as a clerk.  It's a maddening, routine job that his supervisors only make more maddening.  One of the funniest parts is early on when Henry's supervisor keeps writing him up for ignoring his write ups, which Henry keeps throwing in the trash.

Despite that his style is like a seventh grade student's, Bukowski's writing has a drunken swagger that makes it enjoyable.  I have to wonder how much of what happens was based on real events and how much was just bravado.  While it never rises to the level of "Catch-22" or "1984" it still demonstrates the crushing effect of a soulless bureaucracy on the common people.

Of course a lot of people will not want to read this because of the bad language, the sex, the violence to women, and so forth.  But if you're a fan of writers like Hemingway, Chuck Palahniuk, or Bret Easton Ellis or you just have a really crummy job, then you'll get a kick of this.

That is all.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Stuck in the 70s

Stuck in the 70s
By Debra Garfinkle
(4/5 stars)

I guess you should really be careful around hot tubs.  Party girl Shay falls asleep in hers in 2006 and wakes up in a bathtub in 1978.  She finds herself in the house of nerdy Tyler, his Betty Crocker-type mom, and sister Heather.  The early part of the story then focuses on Shay surviving, obtaining clothes and a plausible excuse to stay at Tyler's house.

Then in "Back to the Future" style, she starts helping Tyler try to be cool, though she doesn't need a radiation suit and Walkman playing Van Halen to do it.  In turn she winds up making over Tyler's sister and mother, which in turn throws everything off balance.  At the same time, Shay and Tyler make halfhearted attempts to send her home.  (Though in the old "Twilight Zone" tradition we really have no idea how she got there in the first place.)

I breezed through this book in about two hours.  It's really not a very difficult read.  If not for a sex scene it would probably be more interesting for middle schoolers than actual high schoolers.  Though since there are no sexy vampires or wizards or anything, I'm not sure how interested kids would be in it, since none of them would have been alive in 1978 and unless they watched "That 70s Show" it's unlikely they'd know much of anything about that time period.  (It doesn't seem to me like much of a time worth remembering or reliving unless those were your golden years.)

Anyway, my rambling aside, it was an entertaining book, but the end disappointed me.  Shay never actually deals with her issues of her bad mother or absent father.  In fact, the way things play out it's like the author is tacitly condoning running from your problems.  I think it would have been better if Shay had been able to interact with her mother in 1978 and maybe convince her to be a better mom in 2006.  But that's probably just me.

That is all.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mercury Falls

Mercury Falls
by Robert Kroese
(4/5 stars)

When you write a humorous story about scheming angels and the Apocalypse, you're just asking to be compared to "Good Omens" by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  And going against the combined talents of two great humorists like that, it's not going to go very well for you.  Still, "Mercury Falls" at least manages to be a fun read.

When the story begins, Christine is a reporter for The Banner, a Christian magazine, despite that she's not much of a Christian.  She lucked into the job after writing a news story about a doomsday cult and since then she's had to traipse around the country, profiling other doomsday cults who are inevitably wrong about the date of the world ending.

But after getting some new linoleum installed in her breakfast nook--which is a crucial plot point--she takes an assignment to Israel, where tensions are heating up in the middle east near a little place known as Armageddon.  After nearly being killed in a rocket attack, Christine finds a strange attache case and eventually finds her way to another cult leader who calls himself Mercury.

Mercury is an angel, but he's closer to the Joker than any of the angels you might remember from the Bible.  Really all Mercury wants is to sit on the sidelines and wait for the world to end, but when Christine shows up, he gets dragged into all the plotting and scheming between Heaven and Hell.

The rest of the story follows Christine and Mercury as they try to stop the Apocalypse, or at least make it less destructive.  There are the annoying "Dogma"-like moments of characters having to explain Biblical things, though not to the extent that pretty much destroyed that Kevin Smith movie.  Also unlike that movie it doesn't focus solely on Catholic dogma, so that a reader from any Western faith (or lack thereof) can follow along.  Since there's really not much talk about Jesus or the Messiah, Jews or Muslims as well as Christians should be able to read it.  Whether you're offended or not depends on how seriously you take your beliefs.

This is clearly not a book for the true believers, as it makes light of both Heaven and Hell.  The writing is nothing special, but the author does manage to make it entertaining enough that it doesn't drag along.  You probably aren't going to get any spiritual enlightenment from reading it, but it's not a bad time either.

Though of course if you haven't read it, "Good Omens" is a much better use of your money.

That is all.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Night of the Living Trekkies

Night of the Living Trekkies
By Kevin David Anderson
(5/5 stars)

This is one of those things like "Zombie Strippers" or "Lesbian Vampire Killers" or "Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter" that you have to watch (or read in this case) just because of the title. As someone who grew up watching a lot of Star Trek (more of the Next Gen/DS9/Voyager/movies than the Classic series) and has watched a few zombie movies, I couldn't resist something called "Night of the Living Trekkies."

They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in this case that actually works. "Night of the Living Trekkies" provides you exactly what you'd expect: Trekkies fighting zombies. There's not much more or less to it. Also as you'd expect, this is not to be taken seriously.

The plot works pretty much like any zombie movie. Things are going along, then some alien parasites break out of a secure government facility outside of Houston. They cause people to become zombies and spread into the city, where there's a Star Trek convention being held at the Botany Bay Hotel. (The name of the hotel is one of the many references to Trek for obsessive geeks.)

Another reference is the main character's name: Jim Pike. This is an amalgamation of Jim Kirk and Christopher Pike, the two captains of the Enterprise in the original series. Jim has served two tours in Afghanistan and come home to take a job at the hotel. He's on duty--in a uniform eerily similar to those worn by Starfleet officers in the first six movies--when strange things begin happening at the hotel. Most of these strange things involve people being bitten and/or disappearing.

The book pretty much then goes on like "Dawn of the Dead" where Jim, his sister (dressed as an Andorian), a Princess Leia impersonator, and a couple other geeks struggle to survive as the zombies continue to multiply.

Where it veers off from most zombie movies is that the book provides some evil mastermind behind it all. If they can survive long enough, Jim and the others might find out who it is.

As I said, this book provides you exactly what you expect and not much more. The writing isn't pretty or anything special, just your basic potboiler fiction. The characters are pretty thin and most of the time is spend eluding zombies. But again, that's what you expect.

Overall, though, it's a fun, brisk read recommended for fans of Trek and zombies.

That is all.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
(3/5 stars)

I was all set to give this at least 4 stars--and then came the last fifty pages.  I haven't been this disappointed with an ending since reading "Next" by James Hynes.  (Admittedly that was only a few months ago.)  Amazon's review calls that ending "ingenious."  I would call it "far-fetched," "ridiculous," "implausible," "deux-ex-machina," and most of the 7 words you can't say on television.  It's an ending that completely destroys an otherwise good novel.

This is one of those "alternate history" novels.  Only Roth's is more plausible (until the end) than say Harry Turtledove's "Guns of the South" where time travelers give machine-guns to the south in the civil war.  Roth's scenario all turns on Charles Lindbergh running for president in 1940 and winning.  I'm not sure Lindy could have beat an experienced politician and campaigner like FDR even if he had run, but that's not important.

Instead of focusing on Lindbergh, FDR, or any historical persons, most of the story revolves around Philip Roth and his family.  (Because if there's a subject Philip Roth really loves it's Philip Roth.)  Philip is 7 at the start of the book and lives in a flat with his older brother Sandy, his insurance salesman father, his stay-at-home mother, and his orphaned cousin Alvin.

After Lindbergh takes office, his parents--especially his father--fear that America will turn into a fascist state like Nazi Germany.  He has reason to fear when Lindy signs an "understanding" with Hitler to maintain peace between them.  Cousin Alvin goes off to Canada to join the British in opposing the Nazis while Sandy becomes smitten with Lindbergh after a stint on a Kentucky farm through the "Just Folks" program that sends urban kids--mostly Jews--to rural areas to spend a summer.

That kind of cultural assimilation is the most anti-Semitic it gets through most of the book, except for an incident on a trip to Washington DC.  Most of the time the Roth family's fear and paranoia is the real enemy.  There are no concentration camps or gas chambers.

Most of the book then is a portrait of how fear can tear a family apart, as it nearly does the Roth family.  Fissures form between Philip's father and Cousin Alvin, between Philip's father and Sandy, and between Philip's mother and her sister, who marries a rabbi who advises the new First Lady.

Where the book really goes astray is by trying to tack on a sort of happy ending.  OK, here's your spoiler alert:

There's the spoiler space!

Anyway, in the last 50 pages, Walter Winchell makes wild accusations about Lindbergh on the air and gets fired.  When he decides to run against Lindy (a campaign with as much chance as Stephen Colbert in 2012), he's assassinated in Louisville.  This sparks riots and anti-Jewish attacks.

That's all fine.  Where it really goes wrong is that Lindbergh flies to Louisville in the "Spirit of St. Louis" and delivers a brief speech to reassure people.  After that he disappears!  The plane presumably crashes somewhere.  Like something out of "24" the new president starts arresting people right and left, including FDR.  He even goes so far as to have Mrs. Lindbergh committed.  But she escapes and delivers a speech accusing the new president of treason and he's arrested and a new election held.  FDR wins this election and from there everything goes back to the timeline we know.  The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and America enters the war.

And in less than 3 years we're victorious!  That's the most implausible part of all.  The Germans are more entrenched, as are the Japanese, and yet we defeat them in less time?  That's absurd.  This whole part becomes some bizarre patriotic flag-waving exercise that makes no sense at all.  It also relies on the deux-ex-machina device of a plane crash, after which Roth piles one absurdity onto another.

It would have made more sense to end the book unhappily.  Have the Roths flee to Canada.  Have Lindbergh set up concentration camps.  That would make sense.  Trying to make this end in a somewhat happy fashion, especially one this implausible, does not work.

There, now you can't complain about the spoilers!  The ending is one of those that makes me so angry and disappointed that it's hard to remember the rest of the book was good.  Maybe not as good as "American Pastoral" or "Portnoy's Complaint" but still better than a lot of books.

It was still better than Michael Chabon's "Yiddish Policeman's Union" which is a similar Jewish-themed alternate history.  That was wrapped in a lame Dan Brown-style thriller plot.  Roth's family drama makes for a better read--at least until the end.

(Actually they both have terribly ridiculous endings.  Maybe alternate histories just inspire that.)

That is all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Father of the Rain

Father of the Rain
By Lily King
(4/5 stars)

One thing I've mused about in a couple of different reviews is that sometimes it takes a while for a book to get going. In those instances, being patient can really pay off as by sticking it out the end makes up for the slow beginning. "Father of the Rain" doesn't quite fall into this category, but almost.

The story starts off in Massachusetts in '73 or '74, during the Watergate scandal. This is used as a backdrop to the dissolution of Daley Amory's parents' marriage. Daley is 11 at the time and her father is like Archie Bunker, only with more alcohol. He's not (usually) physically abusive, but his recklessness and insensitivity emotionally abuse Daley, her older brother Garvey, and in particular their mom.

Mom finally moves across town with Daley while Daley's father shacks up with another woman named Catherine. She too is recently divorced, has three kids, and likes to drink. It's a match made in Heaven...or somewhere a lot hotter.

This first part of the story bored me. It all seemed so cliche, like something taken out of a Judy Blume novel or an After School special about coping with divorce and drinking. Even the idea of using Watergate as a backdrop is a cliche. (For instance, I used this in a short story 5 years ago--if you have a Kindle you can read it as part of my collection "The Carnival Papers." It also took place in Massachusetts.)

The second part of the story picks up more momentum. In that, Daley is 29 and an aspiring professor at Berkeley. She's dating a black philosophy professor named Jonathan. But then she gets an urgent call that brings her back home, where her father has lost another wife.

Daley attempts--quixotically everyone thinks--to get her father on the wagon. She hopes to not only get him sober, but in the process to repair the shattered bond between them.

I'm not sure why exactly the first part of the book didn't work for me and the second part did. It might have to do that as an adult I can relate a lot easier to Daley's struggles as an adult than as a child. Especially since unlike 50% of people my parents didn't divorce--and didn't drink either--so none of that really hits home for me. Whereas an adult trying to reconnect with a parent is something I can understand better.

The writing is sound. I don't really see any benefit from using present tense instead of the more traditional past tense, but it doesn't really hurt the story either. It's solid literary writing, but nothing beautiful or particularly memorable.

Anyway, I enjoyed the last 2/3 of this book and other people will probably enjoy 3/3 of it. Then others will enjoy 0/3 too. Still, it's worth a look.

That is all.

(PS: The author also lost points with me for making Michigan outside of Ann Arbor sound like Mississippi in the '50s. We ain't all a bunch of slack-jawed yokels out here in the sticks.)

Monday, August 16, 2010


By Mark Ellis
(5/5 stars)

A perennial hot button issue in science and religion is on the origin of life. Were humans created by God--in which case, whose God?--or by evolution or by something else entirely? In "Cryptozoica," Mark Ellis adds fuel to the fire by offering another theory on the origin of man that involves dinosaurs and some very special goo.

Like "The Da Vinci Code," the story also involves secret societies. In this case it's the School of Night, an ultra-secret club of scholars that included Charles Darwin himself. In the book's prologue, we learn that Darwin and the crew of the Beagle ran across the Tamtung islands, which were home to some very weird creatures. They didn't really know what to call them since the word "dinosaur" hadn't been invented yet.

Skip forward to the present. "Tombstone" Jack Kavanaugh is living on Little Tamtung along with his friend Crowe. They, along with an eccentric billionaire, tried to start a sort of Jurassic Park/dinosaur safari on Big Tamtung, but the venture was shut down after three people died. Now the School of Night is getting involved, along with some Asian gangsters who helped bankroll the original venture. This means that Jack, Crowe, and some new and old friends all have to return to Big Tamtung and unlock its secrets.

What secrets are those? You'll just have to read to find out.

"Cryptozoica" is a taut and engaging pulp adventure. If I have one complaint, it's that there wasn't enough of a body count. I wanted the dinos to munch a few more people. Still, this is a fun, exciting read with some great illustrations too that should bring to mind old school adventure stories like "The Lost World" while adding a little modern science and conspiracy theory to the mix to freshen it up.

That is all.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Koko Be Good

By Jen Wang
(4/5 stars)

I got this because I thought I should read some graphic novels and it was free, so what the heck.  This is just a bit different from the Batman graphic novels I'd read previously.  There's no one wearing a cape and tights, though there is some overlap in that "Koko Be Good" concerns itself with heroism and what it means to be "good."  There's also a Nick Hornby novel called "How to Be Good" that similarly considers what it means to be a good person.

Most of the story revolves around a young man named Jon, who is about to follow his girlfriend to Peru to work at an orphanage.  One night while he's out and about, Jon meets Koko, who's a real wild child with no home, no family, and no job.  Koko winds up with Jon's tape recorder, which has a tape from his girlfriend on it.  He tracks Koko down to get it back and after hearing about what he's doing, Koko decides that she'll try to be a good person.

Her efforts to be good backfire for the most part.  When she works at a rest home she winds up being terrorized by the old people.  Working at a soup kitchen, day care center, and so forth mostly leave Koko feeling tired and still unfulfilled.  Meanwhile, Jon is having second thoughts about going to Peru.

There's also some kid named Faron.  I couldn't really follow his story or what exactly his relationship was to Koko.  Makes me think at some point I should read it again; despite being 300 pages it only took me about 90 minutes to read through it.

As for the artwork, it's pretty cartoony with a muted color palette.  Sometimes it was difficult to decipher what was going on, especially in action sequences.  But I'm not really an expert on art design so my judgment means nothing on that subject.

Anyway, about the best I can come up with for a moral is that maybe you should just relax and not worry so much about trying to be "good."  Certainly being "good" didn't make Koko or Jon much happier.  That was actually about the same thing in the Hornby novel too.  And, well, Batman's not exactly a happy camper either.

That is all.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Knight Returns
by Frank Miller
(3/5 stars)
I wasn't a big comic book fan even when I was a kid, so I missed out on when this first came up and by all accounts was a Really Big Deal.  It's pretty easy to tell this is the same guy who did the crummy "Robocop" sequels and equally crummy "The Spirit" because of the ridiculous plot, absurd newscasts, and hammy noir-ish narration.

As the title suggests, the story is about (initially) an older Bruce Wayne taking up the old cape and tights ten years after retiring.  Somehow this morphs into a plot involving Superman and nuclear holocaust.  Many of the familiar players like Commissioner Gordon, Two-Face, and the Joker are featured.  There's also a new, female Robin.

Since this was written in the mid '80s it focuses on the Cold War and ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation.  Alan Moore's "Watchmen" similarly covered this ground, only in a less heavy-handed, juvenile fashion.  They're both pretty dated, though this one feels more so.  If you were going to read just one major graphic novel from the '80s, read "Watchmen."

I obviously don't know much about artwork.  Sometimes the crude drawings were distracting.  Especially during some action scenes it was hard for me to tell what was going on.

Despite that I thought this was pretty silly, it was grimly fascinating.  And really it only takes a couple of hours to read through.  But I guess to really appreciate this you would have had to have read it when it first came out.

That is all.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


By Susanna Daniel
(3/5 stars)

I think the simplest way to sum this up is to say:  If you liked "The Stone Diaries" you'll like this book.  I thought "The Stone Diaries" was an exercise in tedium, so there you go.

The problem with this book is that the life of the narrator Frances is so ordinary that it's dull.  I always say that if I want to read about an ordinary life I can read my journal.  The reason most of us read books is that we want to read about lives that aren't ordinary, about people who have experiences that we ourselves don't have in our ordinary lives.  Until a terminal illness is thrown in for the last third of the book, there's nothing that even remotely qualifies as anything extraordinary.

The more cynical reader of this review would sneer and say I want car chases and explosions and that.  No.  I would appreciate some kind of conflict and drama, though.  Really, Frances goes through the first fifty years of her life without anyone dying.  By the time I was half that I'd lost both grandfathers plus numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins.  That's just symptomatic of the problem that really nothing of interest happens through the first 2/3 of the book.

Here's what happens:  a woman named Frances goes from Atlanta to Miami with a friend and they go to this place called Stiltsville, which is a group of houses off the coast of Miami built on stilts.  She meets a man named Dennis.  They date, get married, and have a kid.  There you go.

On rare occasions you can get away with telling an ordinary story.  I point to "Breathing Lessons" by Anne Tyler as the gold standard for that.  But to be successful, you have to really make the characters and their world come to life.  You have to make the ordinary seem extraordinary.  The mistake the author makes is writing this as a first-person story.  Frances' narration is about as interesting as talking on the phone with my mom.  Her voice is dull and that makes her life seem dull.

The terminal illness at the end almost redeems this, but it comes too late.  Anyway, I'm a guy so I'm not really the target audience.  I imagine women might find it a better read.  Though why they want to read something that would only reinforce the dullness of their own lives is beyond me.  (But hey, if I knew anything about women I'd be a lot further along.)

That is all.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Model Home

Model Home
By Eric Puchner
(4/5 stars)

In the sub-genre of "suburban families whose lives go into the crapper" there are the truly standout examples like "White Noise" by Don DeLillo and "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth.  Then there are those highly regarded examples like "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen or "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold.  (And there are probably dozens of other examples I can't think of at the moment.)

Since his book takes place in the 1980s and a toxic incident is prominently featured, Puchner is clearly aspiring to be "White Noise" but his story and characters all have a been-there, done-that sort of feel to them.  It's a decent enough read, but it's not enough to make you forget the books I mentioned above, plus probably a number I didn't.  And we could throw in movies like "American Beauty" as well to murky the waters a bit more.

Anyway, as mentioned the story takes place starting in 1985 in suburban Los Angeles.  The Ziller family has moved from Wisconsin a couple of years ago so patriarch Warren could launch a housing development in the desert.  Except the government decides to put a toxic waste dump near the development (the toxic incident I mentioned) which wipes out Warren's dreams of wealth.

He keeps his looming bankruptcy a secret from his wife Camille, who makes educational videos for the local school district and if this were the '90s would be driving an SUV and described as a "soccer mom."  The good thing for Warren is that his three children are all too engrossed in their own lives to notice the handwriting on the wall, even after Warren's car and the furniture in the house are repossessed.  18-year-old Dustin dreams of being a punk rock star.  16-year-old Lyle (short for Delilah) dreams of books and escaping her embarrassing family.  And 11-year-old Jonas dreams of Mandy Rogers, a missing mentally handicapped girl.

The first act of the story begins the unraveling of the Ziller family.  Warren tries in vain to sell houses in his development.  Camille thinks he's having an affair and takes up smoking.  Dustin becomes obsessed with his girlfriend's sister.  Lyle starts seeing the older boy who works the gate of their subdivision.  And Jonas starts wearing all orange.

The second act is when things really hit the fan.  Like in the movie "A Serious Man" it's like the God of Job shows up to shower plagues upon the Ziller household.  Really all you needed was the frogs raining down from the sky.

The third act then is picking up the pieces to get to the message such as it is.

Really I gleaned two messages from this book.  The first is that if you have a family, you should value your time with them.  Not just the big moments like holidays and such, but the little ones.  This I found to be very true when thinking of my own family.  For instance, I remember one time my dad was in the hospital and my siblings and I were just hanging out late that night, eating pizza and watching a rerun of "Wings" on TV.  It's little things like that stick in your memory years later when time and space conspire to tear you apart, because you realize that just being together meant as much or even more than big gestures like Christmas or birthday presents or what have you.

The other message might not have been intended, but really when the book gets to the second act it seems like someone should be wearing a sandwich boards and shouting, "Repent, ye sinners, ye relentless consumers worshiping the false idol of Commercialism!"  Because think about it, the Zillers go from idyllic Wisconsin to California, that hotbed of commercialism and phoniness best exemplified by Hollywood, and live well beyond their means in an attempt to accumulate more wealth.  Then, as if in retribution, all this bad stuff happens to them.  Maybe I'm overthinking this point.

Despite the problems I've mentioned, the book was interesting enough to keep me moving forward.  Puchner's writing is sharp and witty, though again it's not going to make you forget about DeLillo or Roth.  Parts of it in the second and third act drag a little and really the story ends with more of a whimper than a bang.

Still, I'd recommend it as a decent enough read that should remind you of the value of family and perhaps the evils of commercialism.

That is all.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Imperial Bedrooms

Imperial Bedrooms
by Bret Easton Ellis
(1/5 stars)

It's just as well that JD Salinger never published a sequel to "Catcher in the Rye" with Holden as a middle-aged man because it probably would have turned out like "Imperial Bedrooms."  While Ellis' "Less Than Zero" wound up being the '80s version of "Catcher in the Rye," perfectly capturing the emptiness and wastefulness of that decade, "Imperial Bedrooms" has nothing to say and really no reason to exist.  It's just a dull Hollywood thriller like the type we've seen dozens of times before in books and films.

Picking up 25 years after "Less Than Zero" the novel again features Clay as the narrator.  It might have been helpful to have reread "Zero" beforehand because the first few pages go on about how someone wrote a book about Clay and his friends back in the '80s but it wasn't really Clay, it was someone else who like Nick in the "Great Gatsby" was close to the action but not entirely a part of it.  The book then goes on about the difference in the movie version, which is remarkably different.

Then it finally gets down to the brass tacks.  Clay is a screenwriter and like most stereotypical Hollywood screenwriters is an alcoholic and fringe player on the scene.  The rest of the book goes on as a B-movie-style thriller involving Clay, his friend Julian, and the stereotypical struggling actress/whore Rain Turner.

None of this rises above the level of cliche and really the only thing you could take away from this is something I figured out a while ago:  most people don't really "grow up," they just get older.  If you were looking for Ellis to provide some kind of commentary on 21st Century society, think again.  He gets bogged down in the cheap TMZ tabloid theatrics instead.  But maybe the point as I said was that nothing's changed for Clay.  He's still a selfish idiot, only now he abuses alcohol more than cocaine.

In short this was a disappointing book that smacks to me of a cash grab.  If you're reading this and you haven't purchased the book yet, then don't waste your money.  Just go pop "LA Confidential" in the DVD player instead if you want a good Hollywood thriller or reread "Less Than Zero" if you want a nostalgia fix.

That is all.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Play Dead

Play Dead
By Ryan Brown
(3/5 stars)
I've never actually read a book featuring zombies before, but I have watched a few zombie movies like "Night of the Living Dead," "Shaun of the Dead," and "Zombieland" so I am familiar with the subject.  All of those movies I'd say are better than "Play Dead," a book I'd give 4 stars for the concept and 2 stars for the execution.  A lot of potential was left in the locker room instead of on the field, not to mention an overall pedestrian writing style.  While the book is easy to read and not really terrible, it could have been a lot better too.

The story is about football--and zombies.  In Texas there's almost nothing the people care about more than football, so that the people of Killington (pun intended?) are crazy about their team even though they're about as good as the Detroit Lions.  Things seem to be finally going their way with the emergence of quarterback Cole Logan, who has the team one win away from the district finals against the hated Elmwood Badgers.  The Badgers have made a successful run in large part because their team is more doped up than the East German Olympic team.

Everything's bigger in Texas, including the pranks played on the opposing team.  Instead of stealing the Killington mascot, the Badgers attack Cole with a hatchet and then run the team bus off the road, seeming to kill everyone but Cole (who wasn't on the bus) and Coach Hickham, who managed to escape out a window.  That's where the zombies come in, thanks to a football-crazed witch.  From there it's down to a showdown between the zombie Killington team and doping Elmwood team.

The game itself is almost an afterthought, crammed into the last 30 pages of the book.  The other 310 set up the bus accident, the zombies, and the game itself.  Most of this is devoted to the emerging romance between Cole and ace school reporter Savannah Hickham, also the coach's daughter.

In the hands of a far more gifted author--like Stephen King maybe--this situation could have turned out to be much more interesting.  As it is, the characters are stock and the Killington players have no personality BEFORE becoming zombies.  Even the name "Cole Logan" seems like something pulled from an Action Movie Cliche guidebook.

In the hands of a gifted satirist the Texan love of football, various football cliches, and so forth could have been exploited to better advantage than they are here.  There is some of that, but not enough to make this a truly great book.  That's too bad because Brown has a fun concept but he's the wrong author to pull it off effectively.

I mentioned the pedestrian writing earlier and overall I felt this was the kind of story I'd see in an online writing critique group.  One particular issue was the author's heavy use of dialog to the point he actually describes Savannah through dialog thusly:  "Oh, she's a doll.  Red hair.  Green eyes.  That adorable figure."  That just made me shake my head sadly.  For one it's unbelievable dialog and for another it's just plain sloppy writing.  Probably the only worse way of describing a character would be to use a police APB.

Anyway, this is an OK book, not a great one.  It is light beach/airplane reading that seems destined to be made into a movie with a Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart lookalike in the Cole and Savannah roles.

That is all.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Serialist

The Serialist
by David Gordon
(4/5 stars)
I was predisposed to liking this book as I wrote a very similar character to Harry Bloch in my novel Where You Belong.  That is a writer who gets by writing under pen names that sometimes are not of the same gender as the real author.  In my case the male author wrote a YA sci-fi series under the pseudonym of an Irish woman.  In "The Serialist," author Harry Bloch writes porn, sci-fi, "urban" detective novels, and lately vampire novels by using a variety of aliases; the pseudonym for the latter series is actually his mother's identity.

Despite publishing dozens of books, Harry has never published under his own name and he makes only enough money to get by.  He lives in his mother's former house, alone after his ex found greener literary pastures.  The closest he has to an agent is a 15-year-old girl named Claire whom he "tutors" by writing term papers for her.

So it's not much of a surprise that Harry jumps at the opportunity to ghost write the autobiography of notorious serial killer Damian Clay.  Clay is on death row and slated to be executed in just three months.  In exchange for providing his story, Clay wants Harry to visit some of Clay's fans and write perverse stories about them for Clay's amusement.  While Harry is reluctant to go along with this, ultimately it's an opportunity he can't pass up.

From there things take a deadly turn.  Really the second half of the book plays out like a two-part episode of "Murder She Wrote" where Harry takes on the case.  Actually it would make for a good series on the USA Network with the unconventional detective and his equally unconventional sidekicks Claire and a stripper named Dani who's the sister of one of Clay's victims.  The last fifty pages especially drag along as Harry unravels the last few clues of the mystery and things run their course.

I suppose, though, that if this never turns into high art or "literature" that's keeping in character.  It's hard to believe someone like Harry could suddenly create a stunning masterpiece.  Then again it's hard to believe he does a number of things he does in the book, so here we are.
Anyway, the narrative is witty and engaging.  Harry is a lovable loser, not a Sam Spade-type detective, which makes the story fun as it goes along.  I am disappointed though that, as I said, the second half comes off as a TV detective show, but then I was probably hoping for something too much from a mere serialist.

That is all.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


by Pamela Klaffke
(5/5 stars)

I'm surprised I liked this as much as I did because I'm definitely not in the book's target audience.  For one thing, I'm a guy.  For another I don't know anything about fashion.  I've never seen an episode of "Sex and the City" or "Ugly Betty" or "America's Next Top Model" or "Project Runway."  I never watched "The Devil Wears Prada."  I did read one "chick lit" book solely on a whim because it was super cheap and I was bored.

But I did really enjoy this book because it's so funny.  The story centers around Sara B., a cofounder and photographer for "Snap" magazine.  Sara's main contribution is to take pictures of people who are then labeled as "DOs" or "DON'Ts."  She's been doing this for almost twenty years to the point that she's now 39 and most of her subjects are far younger than her.

Despite the success of the magazine, Sara feels generally unfulfilled.  She's never married or had children like her friends or really even had a serious relationship.  She drinks and smokes almost constantly, often to the point of excess.  And when she takes the picture of a young woman with a parrot on her shoulder whom she calls "Parrot Girl" she realizes her passion for the job is waning.  Not long after this, she meets a perky young woman named Eva, whom Sara makes her assistant and takes under her wing.  Except of course Eva is a backstabbing phony out to usurp Sara's job--not that she really cares.

The story is narrated by Sara and full of hilarious asides and fantasies, many of which are darkly comic like a game show where only the fastest shoppers survive while those who use coupons and write checks are shot.  A lot of her asides are also self-deprecating about her enlarging rear or sagging breasts or flabby stomach.

I think what I enjoyed the most is that while Sara goes through changes, she never really changes entirely.  There's not that "A Christmas Carol" moment where she decides to change her ways and be "good" forever.  Nor does she decide that to be happy she needs to settle down in the suburbs like her friends and have kids.  In other words, she never sells out herself.

The story doesn't contain many surprises, but it's enjoyable guilty pleasure reading--even for dudes.

That is all.

Friday, March 19, 2010


I really enjoyed the first two-thirds of this book.  It's too bad the story did a horrible 180 for the last third that completely ruined my enjoyment.  If not for that I would have definitely given it 4 if not 5 stars.  But 3 is the best I can do and that's being generous.

In those first two-thirds this seemed like one of those books that seemed so closely tailored to me I thought the author must know me--if not actually then through some kind of telepathy.  The story focuses on Kevin Quinn, a Michigander (like me!) who was raised in Royal Oak in suburban Detroit.  Later he went to Ann Arbor to the University of Michigan, where he cycled through several majors before earning a worthless General Studies degree that earned him a job as an editor at the university's Center of Asian Studies.

The main problem is Kevin's life is that he's drawn to women much younger than himself.  While Kevin is 50, all the women he's been with are significantly younger.  His current girlfriend Stella is 35 but tries to pass herself off as 29.  It's this attraction to younger women that lands Kevin in trouble on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Austin, Texas for a job interview.  Sitting next to him is a girl named Kelly who is half his age, if not younger.  But Kelly reminds Kevin of Lynda, the fling of his youth, the memories of which call to him like a siren's song.

When Kevin sees Kelly again outside a Starbucks in Austin, he finds himself following her around the city.  This is only the first act of the story.  The second focuses more on Kevin and a Latina doctor who aids him in a moment of need.  Kevin also evaluates his relationships to Stella, Lynda, his father, a girl he met before Linda referred to as The Philosopher's Daughter, and a woman he spent a number of years with named Beth.

This story could have been turgid and boring, but Hynes's writing is witty and insightful enough to keep things humming along.  It helped for me that most of his observations about Michigan and Midwesterners were bang on the money.  (The only thing I'd take issue with is that the author kept referring to Detroit's main airport as "Detroit Metro."  That's fine if you're an out-of-towner but there's no way Kevin would think of it as "Detroit Metro" any more than someone from Chicago would think "Chicago O'Hare" or "Chicago Midway."  Usually we refer to it simply as "Metro" or "Metro Airport."  Adding the "Detroit" seemed like a bit of authorial intrusion to indicate to the reader that it's located in Detroit--actually, in Romulus but let's not quibble.)  The only significant issue I'd had was I would have suggested the author scale back the current pop culture references.  Those sound nice in the moment and I got most of them, but in 5-10 years references to "Sex in the City," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Battlestar Galactica," "Lord of the Rings," and so forth are going to seem moldy.  Still, for me the first two-thirds then were a breeze to read and very enjoyable.  The way Hynes delved so deeply and entertainingly into Kevin's inner life brought to mind Richard Ford's "Independence Day" and especially David Gates' "Jernigan."

It's such a shame then that after creating this wonderful portrait of a character, Hynes decides to throw his story away and turn it into "The Towering Inferno."  (Slight spoiler.)  It just seems lazy to me, like when an excellent thriller movie devolves into a series of car chases and kung-fu fights at the end and you just wonder why the filmmakers felt they needed to dumb down the product at the end for the popcorn crowd.  Though the best example might be "Huckleberry Finn" where Twain/Clemens had such a great story going with Huck and Jim and then threw it all away by inserting Tom Sawyer and his shenanigans into the end.

In the same way I feel betrayed here.  I followed Kevin this far, I wasn't going to stop reading just because there wasn't enough "plot" to the story.  More to the point, I liked Kevin and I wanted to see him work things out--or not.  Instead, the book takes a shortcut that left me unsatisfied and angry.  To me it just seems like Hynes lacked the courage to let the story unfold naturally, so instead he fell back on a deux ex machina device.  It's quite a wasted opportunity.

I'd definitely recommend reading the first two-thirds of the book.  Once you get to Part 3 though you might want to stop reading.

That is all.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner

By Khaled Hosseini

(4/5 stars)

The structure of this story should be familiar to readers of Charles Dickens, John Irving, or Patrick Dilloway.  It starts off with a young boy who grows into a man and then deals with some of his lingering issues.  The only difference is that instead of taking place in London or New England or Iowa, it's taking place in Afghanistan.

Amir's mother died in child birth, something his father (referred to as Baba) seems to hold against him.  As much as Amir would like them to be close, Baba always seems disappointed in him.  They live in a well-off neighborhood in Kabul in the '60s and '70s, back when Afghanistan was still a monarchy.

Amir's best friend is his servant Hassan.  Hassan is an outcast not only because of his harelip and occupation, but also because he's a Hazara or someone with Mongol blood to give him a more Eastern appearance.  Despite this, Amir and Hassan are as close as brothers, in large part because they suckled at the same breast.

Then after a kite fighting tournament to which the title refers, something terrible happens that creates a rift between Amir and Hassan.  Not long after, they're separated when the Soviets begin moving in, setting off political chaos that remains to the date of this review.  Amir and his father go to America, while Hassan and his father stay in Afghanistan.

Over the ensuing 25 years, Amir becomes a man and finds a wife, but he never forgets Hassan or the moment of cowardice that ruined their friendship.  The only way for him to redeem himself--to be good again as a friend says--is to go back and face his demons.

This is definitely a book that came along at the right time.  With the 9/11 attacks planned by terrorists sheltering in Afghanistan and the subsequent US invasion, the American public was obviously hungry for any insight into Afghanistan and its people and Islam.  And the author doesn't disappoint here.  The problem the US faces, as did the Soviets and British before them, is that Afghans are reckless and not prone to following rigid rules, as Hosseini describes during the kite fighting.  And it has its own melting pot of cultures that to outsiders would seem trivial but to them (as demonstrated by the very different lives of Amir and Hassan) are extremely important.

There isn't a lot I can say negatively about this book.  My main complaint was that the ending was so obvious.  It's the kind of ending where you know what's going to happen 50-100 pages in advance, so you wonder why it takes Amir so long to figure it out.  I won't say what exactly, but if you read the book you might see what I'm talking about.

Other than that I only have a couple of nitpicks.  One is that after Amir gets into his fight and gets his jaw wired shut, he mentions that his voice sounds like Al Pacino in "The Godfather."  I assume he meant Marlon Brando with the cotton stuffed in his cheeks.  Maybe this was intentional to show Amir's incomplete grasp of American cinema.  Or it's an oversight.  Not a big deal, but a little jarring considering "The Godfather" is one of the 10 greatest American films ever so you'd think an author would be able to keep track of who played what character.

The only other thing is I found it a little odd and creepy that Amir romanticizes a woman's unibrow and big nose.  Maybe it helps if you're from Afghanistan on that score.

Anyway, this overall is a good book.  I wouldn't put it up there with Dickens or Irving's best works, but it's close.  Generally though it follows the same pattern of following the main character from pretty much birth to present, so that even though it focuses on a different culture it should seem pretty familiar.  If you're looking for a similar book that's a bit more challenging, check out "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie.

That is all.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Control

In Control
by Ethan Cooper
(5/5 stars)

If I told you this book was about a bank facing financial ruin when the real estate bubble bursts, you'd probably think this book was set at the end of the 2000s. You'd probably never guess that the story takes place in the early 1990s in Minneapolis and that the book was published in 1999, nearly a full decade before some banks ceased to exist while others were deemed "too big to fail."

The story focuses on Limestone Bank in Minneapolis, which is run by the manipulative Harry Kramer. During a real estate boom, the Minneapolis skyline changed drastically as companies began building huge skyscrapers. There seemed like no problem at the time when Limestone gave a loan to Aldco to build another skyscraper for a large company. Then that company decides to back out of the deal, leaving Aldco building a tower with no tenant and Limestone with a huge loan that might end up defaulting.

Another CEO might have decided to bailout and take his golden parachute or whine to the government about needing a bailout. Not Harry Kramer. No, Harry is always in control of the situation. The book then follows how Harry manipulates events and people to wriggle free of the trap and avert financial disaster. At the same time, we also see into Harry's personal life with his amiable partnership to his wife Holly, strained relationship with schoolteacher son Harry, and far less strained relationship with his doctor daughter Elizabeth.

I was reminded a little bit of Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" that focused on a businessman, who beneath the gilded veneer of financial success faces personal turmoil. Harry's life isn't nearly so much disarray, but behind his success at the bank we can see that his marriage is passionless, his son a disappointment, and his protege Gordon Elliam a fraud. So maybe Harry isn't as in control of things as he likes to think.

In the end if you've ever wanted to see what makes these high-powered movers and shakers tick, "In Control" is a good start. Not to mention the sort-of-sequels "Smooth in Meetings" and "Tom's Job." They all provide a fascinating look beyond the headlines in the Wall Street Journal.

That is all.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Last Night In Twisted River

(This is going to get creepy, but bear with me.  May contain spoilers.  You’ve been warned.)

Dear John:

This is hard for me to say because I love you.  Not as a person as we’ve never met.  I love you as a writer and a reader.  Your book “The Cider House Rules” made me want to be a “serious” writer.  I loved the intricate plots and memorable characters; I hoped to someday do something just as well.  Maybe I didn’t love the semicolon as much as you obviously did, or wrestling or Vienna or Exeter in its many forms, but part of love is overlooking faults, seeing only what we want to see.

It was in reading “Until I Find You” that I knew something was wrong.  It just didn’t make me feel the same as “Cider House Rules” or “World According to Garp.”  The story seemed like a jumbled mess, the plot elements borrowed from previous novels, and the characters unmemorable.  When you kept describing Jack’s “little guy” it got to the point where I almost couldn’t finish.  But I did in the vain hope it would get better.  It didn’t.  This failure left me shaken.  I said in my Amazon review that it was probably time to hang it up, mostly to spare me the grief of having to go through another experience like this again, one that might taint your considerable legacy.

When I heard about “Last Night In Twisted River” I felt a mixture of hope and dread.  Hope that maybe you’d exorcized your personal demons with “Until I Find You” and now the magic could return.  Dread that “Until I Find You” wasn’t an aberration.  I received my copy of the book in November, but I put off starting it for another two months because of this trepidation.

It didn’t take long for my fears to be validated.  I nearly fell asleep trying to read the first 50 pages of jumbled background about the characters.  You killed poor Angel on the very first page and yet it seemed in no time we were forced to endure the life story of the logging camp cook’s son Daniel and is father Dominic in addition to lengthy passages about the logging industry and Coos County, New Hampshire.

Maybe you could salvage it, I told myself.  Sadly not because of a serious miscalculation.  You have Danny accidentally kill a woman and then he and his father flee from Coos County—not before Dominic dumps the body in the house of Carl, the county’s resident cop and the woman’s lover.  Then you try to cast Carl as the villain, repeatedly referring to him as “crazy,” “stupid,” and “a coward.”  It never seemed to occur to you that Danny is the killer and he and Dominic the stupid cowards who try to frame the cop and then run away.

Moreover, you don’t have Dominic and Danny show much in the way of remorse for what they’ve done.  They certainly don’t show any remorse about framing Carl for murder.  Mostly, you indicate what an inconvenience and bother it is to noble Danny and Dominic to have to move from Boston to Iowa to Vermont to Canada.  You only compound this when you have Danny allow a friend to sic a vicious dog on another dog that had bothered Danny while he was running.  Certainly I didn’t expect Danny or Dominic to be saints, but these crimes are far greater than merely stealing a loaf of bread and yet you want us to believe that Danny and Dominic are the ones who are being persecuted.  Did you think that Carl should have just been cool about it when Dominic dumped his girlfriend’s body in his house so Carl would think he’d killed her?  Am I really supposed to believe his reaction was unjustifiable?  And how stupid are Dominic and Danny that they know Carl’s history and try this stunt anyway?  Didn’t they know it would only make things worse?  And did you really expect me to root for the ones who framed an innocent person (at least innocent of that particular crime) for murder?

Only compounding these mistakes further is that by constantly ridiculing Carl, you negate any value he might have as a menacing figure in Danny and Dominic’s lives.  He’s certainly no Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.”  You probably should have read that book or at least watched the movie to get a better sense for how this is done.

Could I overlook these huge flaws?  Perhaps if there was a great story to go with it or some memorable characters.  Sadly the way the elements of the story play out is like a Greatest Hits collection of your previous works—and your own life.  Danny goes to Exeter like you did and Ruth did in “Widow for One Year” and Jack did in “Until I Find You” and Garp, Owen Meany, and the Berry family did in previous novels—though in thinly veiled versions of the original.  Then he goes to the University of New Hampshire like you did.  And he goes to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to be a writer, like you did.  He even teaches there when you did and knows the same people, like the dearly departed Kurt Vonnegut.  Danny goes to Vermont like you did and then to Toronto like you did.  And yet you chide reporters for asking how much of Danny’s novels are autobiographical.  The sad hypocrisy of this made me laugh.

Even sadder is that these interludes added nothing to the story.  We’re introduced to a bevy of Asian characters in Iowa as well as Lady Sky the naked parachutist, but none of them have any impact on the overall story.  It’s the same everywhere else Danny and Dominic goes.  They meet people and things happen to them, but none of these seem to matter.  By the time the book ended, there were very few of them I could actually name and it would be harder still for me to list any purpose they served.  The only interesting character in the book was Ketchum the logger and only because he reminded me of Yukon Cornelius in the old “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” special. 

I saw that you described the book as a “political novel” but I failed to see anything political about it.  Ketchum rants about George W Bush and Danny meets a woman who allows him to knock her up so he can avoid Vietnam but those are the only “political” elements that I could make out in all of this.  Really the criticism of Bush on September 11th struck me as writing in hindsight.  I’m not a Bush lover by far but there seemed nothing original or fresh about Ketchum’s rants.  They didn’t add anything and they certainly didn’t open my mind to any new insights about the situation.  Not the way “Cider House Rules” did.

The book jacket tries to make the case that Coos County is a microcosm of America in the last 50 years and how hate has driven us apart.  Or something like that.  Maybe this is supposed to be why the novel is “political.”  In that case, who do Danny and Dominic represent?  Who does Carl represent?  I don’t really see it.  Maybe at some point I will.

At any rate, now is the time to say goodbye.  We’ve had some wonderful times since I first picked up “The Cider House Rules;” nothing will ever be able to take those away from us.  But like all good things, this must come to an end.  I’m sure you’ll land on your feet as you still have millions of loyal, adoring fans who seem far more able to overlook the flaws I’ve noted above.  Given time I’m sure I’ll find another author to love, though perhaps not as much.  Certainly you’ll always be my first and for that I’m grateful.

Best of luck to whatever you do next.

BJ Fraser

PS:  For a novel more closely resembling vintage Irving classics, check out “Where You Belong” by Patrick Dilloway