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.

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.