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.

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.