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, December 15, 2011


by Cindy Borgne
(4/5 stars)

This is from that old school of space opera with lasers and space ships and not a lot of highly technical explanations for everything.  It's not as cheesy as say old "Flash Gordon" serials, but it's not "hard" science fiction either.  Which is fine for people such as myself who enjoy "Star Wars" and the like.

The story takes place on Mars, which is divided into a bunch of corporate factions.  The largest faction is Marscorp, whose goal it seems is to return to Earth.  Marscorp's philosophy is that if you don't agree with us, then prepare for a hostile takeover.  (And we're not talking about buying out your stock.)

To help them with this, they recruit a couple of young psychics, Ian Connors and his friend Nate.  One day Ian has a vision of himself with a beautiful redheaded girl and becomes obsessed with finding her.  But she turns out to be part of a rival corporation, Gentech.  Ian has another vision of her in trouble during a Marscorp attack, so he goes to the battle to try and help.  But that only winds up getting Nate killed and Ian in big trouble.

As the plot progresses, Ian discovers that while he's the one with the visions, a lot of things are not what they appear.

I found the plot intriguing.  As I said at the beginning, it's not really hard sci-fi.  There aren't explanations of how everything works.  That's just as well for me, because that stuff can get tedious.  Though I was curious why radar deflection is such a big deal.  We have stealth technology on airplanes now that uses radar deflection.  There was even a prototype ship made using those principles, though it was too expensive to put into production.  Since this is in the future, shouldn't they have something better?  At the very least if radar isn't working, shouldn't they have infrared or something to spot the ship?

Other than that, some of the dialog was kind of cheesy.  Like many self-published novels it could have used another editing pass to eliminate some errors.

Overall though it was an exciting light read that's worth the discount price.

That is all.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Merlin's Charge

Merlin's Charge
by Peter Joseph Swanson
(4/5 stars)

The Arthurian legend is a subject that's been around so long that there are all sorts of adaptations of it from realistic takes like Bernard Cornwell's "Warlord Trilogy" to musicals like Camelot to cartoons like Disney's "Sword in the Stone."  "Merlin's Charge" falls on the "Sword in the Stone" end of the spectrum.  It's a lot of whimsical, lighthearted fun, though not quite as campy as the Disney movie.

The story takes place in the 5th Century when he Roman Empire is fallen.  A terrible drought has taken hold of Britain.  Mother Hubbard is looking after a group of children, using her magic to lay eggs for them after their magic cauldron was stolen.  Meanwhile, teenage Arthur is under the tutelage of the grumpy old wizard Merlin, learning what it's going to take to become king after he pulled the sword from the stone.

Eventually Mother Hubbard is arrested by the Church for being a witch and set to be burned at the stake.  Arthur pleads with Merlin to save her, which he does, though he has another purpose in mind--making Mother Hubbard his wife because even wizards need some company in bed.

When they compare notes, Mother Hubbard and Merlin decide they should try to find the cauldron, otherwise known as the grail.  Joining them in the quest are Parsifal, son of a Roman general, and a corrupt abbot of the Church, whose primarily function is to go around declaring everything evil.

The book isn't very long; it only took me a few hours to read it on my Kindle.  A lot of it is spent talking, which is good in some ways because it means no windy passages of description, although a few more descriptions might have been helpful sometimes.  I think what surprised me the most was that despite being called MERLIN'S Charge, Merlin is largely absent from the grand finale.

Still, if you're a fan of Arthurian legend, especially "The Sword in the Stone" then you'll enjoy this hilarious new take on the subject.

That is all.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The House on the Corner

The House on the Corner
by Andrew Leon
(3/5 stars)

This starts off like the stereotypical haunted house story.  The Howard family (Air Force master sergeant Will, his wife Claire, 12-year-old Tom, 10-year-old Sam, and 6-year-old Ruth) move from Denver to Shreveport, Louisiana.  The house they move into is old and spooky-looking with a lot of flaking paint, dusty, and overly large rooms.  Some of those rooms have strange things in them.  Oh, and the house's last inhabitants disappeared.

So through 40% of the book I kept waiting for there to be the bumps in the night and such that you would expect in a haunted house story.  But then the book does a 180 from that and becomes more like "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."  There becomes a lot of talk about fairies, Guardians, Towers, wizards, and a magic sword.  Which is a little surprising because there are so many Star Wars references.

The book gets much more interesting once that stuff comes into play.  Unfortunately at that point there's only 60% off.  I think the author bit off more than he could chew at that point.  It made for a rushed ending that wasn't extremely satisfying to me.

Also, the book is in dire need of a real editor.  A lot of typos.  Also, I'm not fond of authors who use the word "suddenly" a lot.

There are still a lot of good things about this book.  The first-person narration between Tom, Sam, and Ruth is a little confusing at first but gets easier as it goes on.  I liked the kids, especially Sam and Ruth.  The relationship between the kids was well-drawn.  And once the book really gets going it's hard to put down--or shut off the Kindle.

That is all.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Dead God's Wrath

A Dead God's Wrath
By Rusty Webb
(4/5 stars)

The Old West meets the future in this novella. It starts out as a fairly conventional Western scenario: Thomas's main squeeze Mary is kidnapped by the evil O'Malley brothers gang. They demand Thomas give them a thousand bucks (a lot of money back in 1895) by daylight or they're going to kill Mary.

Thomas of course doesn't have that kind of money. But no problem, because he runs into a black guy with a disfigured face who seems to be an old flame of Mary's. But as Thomas encounters the O'Malley's, he finds things aren't what they seem.

I think if I have any complaint, I wish this were longer. The author's notes indicate this is part of a universe, but without reading any of that, I'm not sure exactly what happens at the end. So I'm really hoping there is a sequel or expanded edition in the future.

Otherwise, this was an engrossing story that I read in about an hour or so. It's definitely worth the 99 cents. The formatting is good too for the Kindle, although I noticed a few typos that could be cleaned up.

That is all.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible
by Austin Grossman
(4/5 stars)

I'm not really much of a comic book reader, so most of my superhero experience comes from "Superfriends" reruns, video games, and the vast array of movies in the last decade.  Because of that I probably missed a few in-jokes in this book.  I'm just saying.

Anyway, the story for "Soon I Will Be Invincible" is pretty much a comic book without the pictures.  Though actually it's simpler than some of the big comic book story arcs I've read about in recent years.  I mean there's no time traveling or dimension hopping or any of that, though those things are referenced as having happened at one point.

When it begins, Doctor Impossible (the resident Dr. Doom of this universe) is imprisoned for the twelfth or more time.  Meanwhile, Earth's mightiest hero CoreFire (based on Superman) has gone missing.  Fatale, a cyborg who used to work for the government, is brought in as part of a new superteam known as the New Champions to find out what became of CoreFire.

Part of that involves interviewing Dr. Impossible.  He uses this as a chance to escape and begin with his master plan for finally taking over the world.  Fatale and the rest of the Champions--Damsel, daughter of a former hero and an alien princess; Blackwolf (based on Batman); Elphin (an elf warrior); Rainbow Fire, a teenage cyborg; Feral, a mutant cat; and Mr. Mystic (based on Dr. Strange)--go chasing after Dr. Impossible but in true superhero fashion are always one step behind.

Interspersed in the Dr. Impossible parts of the narration are flashbacks to his origins, although we never learn his entire real name.  There's also some stuff about some of his previous schemes and battles with superheroes.

The whole thing plays out pretty straight.  There's no real attempt to base the story in a realistic world like the recent Batman movies.  There are no social concerns like "Watchmen".  There's violence but it's not over-the-top without much in the way of gore.  Not really any sex either.  So basically it's a little more introspective Saturday morning cartoon.

Yet I have to say I was really curious to find out what Dr. Impossible was going to do and if he was finally going to succeed.

So overall it's fun light reading, especially if you like superheroes.  And in terms of plot it's a cut above the more recent "After the Golden Age" I read.

That is all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Chicago Lightning

Chicago Lightning
By Max Allan Collins
(3.5/5 stars)

In the introduction the author says how he admires Dashiell Hammett and that shows from these stories.  Hammett isn't a terrible writer, but Raymond Chandler is a lot better.  The stories in "Chicago Lightning" have more of Hammett's straightforward style than Chandler's complexity.

The stories revolve around Nate Heller, a former cop turned private investigator in Chicago.  The stories range from 1933 to 1949 and are arranged chronologically by setting, not in order they were written.  Most of the stories involve someone being murdered.

My main criticism is that most of the stories are so straightforward.  There aren't a lot of twists and turns in the mysteries.  I know they're short stories (generally about 30 pages) but having read the collection of Chandler stories, they were much more complicated, often involving multiple crimes.

While I don't usually get too much into particular stories, there were a couple that stuck out in my memory--mostly because they were the weakest too.  Also two of the earliest, written in the mid-80s, though they're put in the middle of the collection.

"Strawberry Teardrop" has Heller visiting Cleveland and his old friend Elliott Ness.  In the course of about 3 days--and 20 pages--Heller and a female sidekick solve the Kingsbury Run serial killings, which were never officially solved.  It seemed really unbelievable to me how easily these famous murders were solved.  Not really plausible in my mind.  Though I think Collins later adapted it into a full-length novel.

"Scrap" was probably the shortest of the bunch.  It's also a real nothing of a story.  Heller talks to some union officials.  That's about it.  Not a very interesting story.

Despite that it's called CHICAGO Lightning, about a third of the stories take place in Cleveland/Los Angeles.  Besides Ness, Heller also interacts with Capone successor Frank Nitti and Mickey Cohen, who was prominently referenced in "LA Confidential."  Nitti and "Boss" John Rooney also appear in "Road to Perdition" which was based on the graphic novel by Collins.  I'm not really a big fan of involving the historical figures.  That's hard to pull off very well and I'm a little skeptical that a low-level PI like Heller could really know all these people as intimately as he does.

Anyway, though I didn't like some of these stories and found them a little too uncomplicated, most of them aren't boring.  They make for some good, light reading.

On a side note, I know this was an advanced copy, but it was annoying not to have a Table of Contents.  Also, I hate short story collections that don't update the heading for the particular story.  Those both make it easy to know how where I'm at and how much farther I have to go for each story.  That's always nice to know when I'm reading at lunch or something.

That is all.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot
By Jeffrey Eugenides
(2/5 stars)

It was about eight months ago when I finished reading Richard Russo's "Bridge of Sighs" which was the first novel Russo published after winning the Pulitzer.  Overall I found it to be extremely dull.  Part of what I theorized was that Russo had tried way too hard to prove himself after winning the highest award of American literature.

I mention that because this is Eugenides's first novel after winning the Pulitzer for "Middlesex" and it suffers from the same problems, although it mercifully isn't as long.  Overall Eugenides's attempts to create something profound and deep winds up being a dull slog, not anywhere near as good as his two previous novels.

First off, I think his entire concept that the "marriage plot" doesn't exist anymore is flawed.  There are plenty of books that still deal with marriage.  (Even I've written one!)  Maybe there aren't as many waltzes and as much worrying about manners, but marriage still remains a key part of many literary novels.  More than a few of those are updates of Jane Austen or other Victorian stories too.  Really Jane Austen has been updated every which way by now from sequels to being told from different narrators to being set in modern day to adding zombies and sea monsters.  So there's nothing groundbreaking about this story.

This story takes place in the 1980s probably for the reason that it was easier for the author to write about twentysomethings during the period when he was twentysomething as opposed to trying to write about the 2010s.  Mentioning the recession of the early 80s is of course supposed to make us think of the parallels to now.

It all starts at Brown University in Rhode Island.  Spoiled little rich girl Madeline is pursuing a useless degree in English, focusing on Victorian literature.  You can afford to waste your life like that when Mommy and Daddy (which she still calls them despite being 22) are paying all the bills.  Madeline is finally graduating.  It takes Eugenides a good track of the audiobook to finally inform us that the doorbell is ringing and her parents are visiting to watch her graduate.

Weeks earlier she broke up with Leonard, a quirky poor boy from Oregon.  But on the way to graduating, she finds out Leonard is in the hospital after a nervous breakdown.  She finds out that he's suffering from manic depression.  Madeline is the type suffering from Florence Nightingale syndrome and soon becomes essentially Leonard's nurse.

At the same time, in a largely pointless subplot, Madeline's sometimes friend Mitchell is doing like so many kids his age and going backpacking through Europe with his friend Larry.  Along the way Mitchell obsesses about Madeline.  Why?  Because the plot calls for it.  I can't see much about her that's worth obsessing about.  He also becomes Born Again and says "the Jesus Prayer" about 700 times, which is really annoying in an audiobook because I wondered if the CD was skipping.  He finally goes to help Mother Teresa in India.

Eventually, thanks to unwisely cutting back on his meds, Leonard convinces Madeline to marry him.  Needless to say this doesn't work out so well.

To put it mildly, this book was drudgery.  None of the characters are very likable.  Madeline is a whiny bore.  Leonard is often a bully.  Mitchell is a creep who should be watching Madeline with high-powered binoculars.  There's no reason I'd ever want to read about any of these people.  Nor do I care who marries who or doesn't marry who.  They could all fall off a cliff for all I care.

The writing is mostly fine, though there was one laughable section where Mitchell stares at a French girl's butt and thinks that it's alive and looking at him.  That only made me think of Jim Carrey in "Ace Ventura" talking out his butt, which I do all the time.

What I hate most of all though is that it uses that structure where it starts in the present and then we have to go back through what's happened before that.  Often we have to hear what happens from Madeline's point of view and then Leonard's or Mitchell's.  There's often gratuitous exposition, most of it not mattering at all.  There's so much discussion of philosophy, literature, and religion classes that the reader should get course credit at Brown for reading it.

Really there are so many better books you could read.  For twentysomethings in the '80s read "Less Than Zero" or "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh."  For a novel about a woman torn between a man with a debilitating condition and another guy, read "The Dive From Clausen's Pier."  Or you could read Jane Austen.

That is all.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Machine Man

Machine Man
by Max Barry
(3/5 stars)

There are a lot of books that start off with a good idea, but then fade with the execution of that idea.  "Machine Man" is one of those.  It starts off with a good concept, but doesn't deliver.

Dr. Charles Neumann is an engineer who's always gotten along better with machines than people.  He works at Better Future, a research and development company that creates all sorts of products.  One day Charles is looking for his phone in the lab when he accidentally gets his leg torn of by a machine.

Charles is rushed to the hospital, where he meets Lola, who works with prostheses.  She shows him the variety of legs they have available and Charles laments how primitive they are.  So after returning to work, he decides to invent something better.  Which he does.  He creates mechanical legs that are stronger, faster, better.

But Charles doesn't want to stop there.  Nor does Better Future want him to.

I had to sympathize with Charles at the beginning.  When I get blisters from my stupid hammertoes I wonder why I can't get sweet robot feet that wouldn't blister or get tired.  Then I could walk all day if I wanted to!  At the same time I don't think I'd want to cut off my own legs to do that.  Nor would I want to turn myself into Robocop.

That's basically what happens to Charles as the book goes on.  Increasingly he becomes more machine than man as Ben Kenobi said about Darth Vader.  It's harder to sympathize with him then as the book goes on.  Really after the interesting concept at the start it keeps getting darker and darker.  That's not really where I wanted to see it go.  I was hoping for something a little more lighthearted, as it was in the beginning.  But I guess if you like your humor really black, then this isn't bad.

That is all.

The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man

The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man
by Michael Chabon
(2/5 stars)

Sadly the closest I have to a child is a niece and she's only 7-months old, which is probably about 17 months too young for this. I'd have to say the recommended age for this is preschool and below. Otherwise it's probably not that entertaining. The story is so bland, cliche, and predictable that only a small child would find it fresh or interesting. I figured out the "secret" by the product description alone. Really, this is the best a Pulitzer Prize-winning author could do? Very sad indeed.

Since I'm not an expert on children's books, I can't really say how good the art is or not. Like the story it's serviceable. Not really flashy or anything.

Overall this won't make you forget any of the great children's books of the past. Since everyone from Madonna to Terrell Owens to Hillary Clinton has a children's book out these days, I don't think the world really needed another one. But I guess if your kid likes superheroes and is bored of all the other books out there, then you could try this. Not that I'd recommend paying full price for it.

That is all.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

I'm A Box

I'm A Box
by Natalia Carrero
(3/5 stars)

Obviously I'm not much of an expert on world literature because I had no idea Clarice Lispector was a real person. Which actually makes "I'm a Box" even creepier than I already thought it was. As a writer it's only natural to idolize another writer; I have a serious crush on novelist John Irving. But the extremes Nadila goes to in this book border on the pathological.

Nadila, like many twenty-somethings is confused and trying to "find herself." And like many would-be writers, she tries to write but finds she doesn't have anything to say. This is probably because she's not a very interesting person. By all accounts she spends most of her time hiding from the world, reading Lispector's books. Nor does she seem to realize that writing isn't the kind of thing you can force like a bowel movement; the harder you try to force it, the less you'll accomplish.

Of course it's not just enough for Nadila to simply read Lispector's books. She's not the kind of fan who just appreciates the author's works and maybe writes a letter or something. No, she's that kind of obsessed, crazy fan who wants to BECOME the author. She tries copying Lispector's handwriting, she imagines long conversations with the author, and even goes around in a T-shirt with a line of Lispector's scribbled on it. The next logical step would have been to find Lispector's grave and ransack it. Maybe she didn't have the money for that.

The novel includes a lot of sayings of Lispector's that seem like literary fortune cookies. Surprisingly there's not much from her actual books. There are also pictures of other things, including Nadila's T-shirt I mentioned. At times the narrative gets confusing because some of it is taking place in the 1990s but then things from the 2000s are mentioned so I'm not quite sure when something is taking place.

As I said, I found a lot of this to go from simple hero worship to creepy obsessiveness. It's fine to respect an author and her work, but trying to commune with her dead spirit, staging fake conversations, and trying to interject yourself into her books goes beyond the rational to the point where you need psychiatric help.

That is all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Other Kingdoms

Other Kingdoms
by Richard Matheson
(3.5/5 stars)

The true test of whether you want to read this book might be: did you ever think Tinkerbell was hot? Or did you ever watch "Fern Gully" and wish you could be the guy who gets shrunk and live with pixies? Because that's pretty much what's going on here.

Though Matheson takes about 2/3 of the book to get up to that point. First, we have Alex White, who in 1918 joins the army out of spite because his abusive father is in the navy. Take that, Dad! Alex gets shipped to the trenches of France, which as we all know by now aren't a fun place to be. There he meets a British soldier named Harold and they become friends. Harold tells him about a village called Gatford that is just gorgeous--his word for it.

So after Harold is killed and Alex is wounded, he decides to go to Gatford. He soon finds that Gatford is a strange place, a place where they believe in "little people" or "faeries" or fairies to use the American spelling. But so long as you stay on the paths in the woods you'll be all right.

Except of course Alex doesn't stay on the path and comes under attack by something. He's rescued by a middle-aged redheaded woman named Magda. She's believed to be a witch by the townspeople. And Alex soon finds that out for himself. She's got some other weird quirks too.

But one day when Magda isn't around, Alex hears some beautiful singing and sees a tiny blond woman in the woods. Her name is Ruthana and despite not having talked to Alex before, she's madly in love with him and he's madly in love with her.

And the rest pretty much follows as a less happy "Fern Gully" or "Avatar" or "Dances With Wolves" or whatever movie you want to use.

The biggest drawback of the book is the narration Matheson uses. Alex is 82 when he writes the book and since his time in Gatford he went on to write a series of pulp novels under the name "Arthur Black." And he references this fact about 400 times during the novel, like every time he uses an alliterative phrase he makes an aside that it's a bad Arthur Black habit. Which is funny the first few times, but soon becomes a distraction and then an annoyance. I understand that Matheson was trying to show that Alex is rambling and a bit senile at 82, but he overplays it a bit too much for me.

The other thing is I don't know why Magda or Ruthana want Alex. There's nothing remarkable about him at all. Maybe it's because they don't get many 18-year-old Americans in the woods of Gatford.

I also thought the descriptions of the fairy village and lifestyle were somewhat lacking. I never really got a sense of where or how the fairies lived. Left to my own devices I start thinking of Keebler elves living in trees or Smurfs with mushroom houses. So that could have been handled better.

Despite all that I found this a compelling read. I ripped through it in about three days. It's the kind of book I wouldn't recommend paying full price for, but it's not a bad read. Though Matheson has done a lot better work in his career like "I Am Legend" or his work on "The Twilight Zone" for starters.

That is all.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Boxer Beetle

Boxer Beetle
by Ned Beauman
(4/5 stars)

There are quite a few times when I complain about a book's length.  Usually I'll say it's too long and thus drags at parts.  "Boxer Beetle" is one of those that's the opposite.  At roughly 250 pages, it's really too short for its interconnected plots.

The framing device for the story begins with a London man named Kevin who has a rare medical condition that causes him to smell really bad.  (There's a medical term for it I won't attempt to spell.)  Kevin is also a collector of Nazi artifacts.  Not because he is a Nazi or like Nazis.  Like the professor of Hitler Studies in DeLillo's "White Noise", Kevin just sees an opportunity to take advantage of a niche market.

Then one night his employer asks him to check on a private investigator who's looking into the whereabouts of the remains of Seth "Sinner" Roach, a dwarf Jewish boxer back in the '30s.  There's also something about a rare beetle bred by Dr. Philip Erskine, a fascist doctor in the '30s interested in beetles and eugenics.  But like in many mysteries, when Kevin gets to the PI's office, he finds the investigator dead and is soon visited by a Welsh hitman, who enlists Kevin's help in searching for the boxer and the beetle.

The framing story is then interwoven with those of Roach and Erskine.  I'm not sure how much I should mention about that.  Suffice it to say that Roach and Erskine's stories overlap in surprising ways.

As I said though, the story is too short.  Kevin and the hitman find clues much too easily, with no real obstacles in their path.  Their story proves to be less interesting than that of Roach and Erskine and really never contributes anything more than the framing device for the narrative.  The relationship between Roach and Erskine is interesting and could have used more exploration.  Roach himself is especially interesting and I wish there could be a whole book about just him.

The writing is good, though not great.  I found this one passage especially awkward:  "Although Sinner tried to be nearly as gentle with Erskine as he'd been with his sister, Erskine soon found himself biting into his own forearm through his shirtsleeve."  There's a lot of pronouns and it seems the author switches point of view in mid-sentence.  It's the kind of thing I would have pointed out in any critique group for the author to change.  Not sure why professional editors don't notice these things.

Anyway, this is an interesting book and a quick read.  In terms of historical mysteries it doesn't rise to the level of Byatt's "Possession" but it's not bad either.

That is all.

PS:  If you do read this, look for a cameo by the author as one of Kevin's Internet "friends."

Sunday, September 4, 2011


by Charles Frazier
(4/5 stars)

I read Frazier's "Cold Mountain" and while I enjoyed it, I think "Nightwoods" is a far more accessible book for more casual readers. After a slow start it becomes a thriller not unlike a Dean Koontz book I once read, though Frazier is a better writer by far.

This takes place in the 1960s in the Appalachians somewhere, a little lake town that isn't really named. Luce lives up there in an old lodge as the caretaker. She's alone since the old man who owned the place died. But then the state brings her slain sister Lily's two kids. You have to suspend a little disbelief that even in the '60s they'd give Luce custody of two small children--especially two small children with psychological problems--when she has no income to speak of and no home of her own. But I digress.

The children are named Dolores and Frank. They're a couple of little pyromaniacs who never speak. Whether they're autistic or something similar or just traumatized isn't entirely answered.

The next fifty pages or so are as dull as Maryanne Robinson's "Housekeeping" only with nature walks and lighting fires instead of braiding hair and making cookies. Things begin to pick up when the children's stepfather Bud is introduced. He of course murdered Lily and perhaps traumatized the kids. Though it's not intentional, he of course winds up in the lake town in search of thousands of dollars he stole and that Lily hid somewhere.

Also arriving on the scene is the beach bum Stubblefield. His grandfather was the one who owned the lodge where Luce and the children are staying. When he was 17, Stubblefield had a crush on Luce that was not reciprocated. But now Stubblefield sees a second chance.

Those are all the pieces of the puzzle. You might be able to figure out how they all go together. Much of it is predictable, though Frazier is a good enough writer that it never seems hackneyed. While it doesn't have the epic grandeur of "Cold Mountain" there's still a lot of rural, American Gothic flavor to be had. It isn't as good as Faulkner, but it's not as bad as Dean Koontz either.

Although something troubling to me is that the book slips from past tense to present tense in the last part.  I'm not sure why that happened.  It's always odd when authors do that stuff.

That is all.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Life of Pi

This was one of those books I heard people talking about seven or eight years ago and I kept meaning to get around to it.  Though after I read Martel's first novel "Self" I was less inclined to read this because that novel was so boring that it routinely put me to sleep.  But eventually I found a copy of this for a really low price so I figured I might as well do it.

I started to regret that decision during the first 150 pages.  Like "Self" these pages are so dull.  Mostly they concern Pi Patel as he tries different religions like an Indian version of "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret."  This might have been interesting if you haven't read any fiction about India before but I've read Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" and John Irving's "Son of the Circus" which were both far more interesting in terms of Indian culture.  Then too there was also the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" that also dealt with India and its religious divisions.

So all of that made those first 150 pages a chore to plow through.  I kept wondering, "When are we getting to the shipwreck with the tiger?"  That's the hook for this novel isn't it?  Boy in a lifeboat with a tiger?

Well it finally happened once Pi's father decides to move his family to Canada to escape the Idira Gandhi regime.  The ship they're on with most of the animals from their little zoo in India--to be sold to American/Canadian zoos--sinks shortly after leaving the Philippines. 

The crew throws Pi into a lifeboat, where soon he finds that he's sharing space with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger!  That's a lot of animals to cram into what's described as one hundred square feet.  Actually I have serious doubts that you could hide a tiger under a tarp in that small amount of space.

Anyway (spoiler alert!) it eventually ends up with just Pi and the tiger as they cross the Pacific Ocean.  The book at this point deals mostly with Pi's struggle to survive.  Not only to find food and water, but also to deal with his boatmate, the tiger named Richard Parker.  It's a constant struggle, one that forces Pi to compromise many of his religious beliefs, such as his aversion to eating meat.

This was where the book came to life and became much more interesting.  Though the problem with being on a lifeboat is that there's a limit to just how much you can do.  With "Robinson Crusoe" or "Lord of the Flies" or even "Gilligan's Island" where the main character(s) is marooned on an island, there's far more you can do because you have a whole island to explore.  That makes far more potential for adventure than a boat floating on the water, where essentially everything has to come to you. 

For the most part Martel manages to make this interesting with the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker.  Then there are strange incidents like meeting another lifeboat or the mysterious island they come upon.

Although what I think is missing is more about his spiritual state.  A couple of times he says it brings him closer to God, though which one?  Since he believes in the Christian God, Allah, and all the Hindu gods, which one(s) is he getting closer to?  Or maybe there's just one ubergod?

The ending is also a little disappointing and mildly offensive with the vaudevillian act between Pi and a pair of Japanese shipping company officers.  So basically everything off the lifeboat is far less interesting than everything on the lifeboat.  Maybe they should have stayed on the boat.

That is all.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Way Life Should Be

The Way Life Should Be
by Terry Shaw
(3/5 stars)

I vaguely remember hearing about the First Chapters contest on the Gather website back in 2007.  I'm sure I probably read about this book as it advanced through the contest and finally won.  But I'd pretty much forgotten about it until I saw this at the Bargain Books on clearance and then just for the irony decided to buy and read it.

I wouldn't be surprised if the author watched a lot of "Murder She Wrote" back in the '80s.  The book takes place in the small town of Stone Harbor, Maine, similar to Murder She Wrote that frequently took place in the small town of Cabot Cove, Maine.  The main detective is John Quinn, an editor and writer for the Stone Harbor Pilot newspaper.  Of course in Murder She Wrote the "she" was mystery writer Jessica Fletcher.  In both there's also a bumbling sheriff decrying the mystery solver's big city ways, although Alvah Sears is a bit meaner than the Tom Bosley character in "Murder She Wrote."

Like most episodes of Murder She Wrote, we start out with the murder.  In the case of this book it's Paul Stanwood.  He's at a local park late one night, presumably to check out reports of gay sex going on.  Someone beats him to death with a flashlight.

John Quinn comes onto the case as both reporter/editor and Paul's childhood best friend.  He bumps heads with Sheriff Sears (sometimes about literally) and other local figures, including his own cousin Seth as he investigates the murder.  Quinn faces danger a few times, notably during a hike in the wood where he and his son are shot at by a red herring.

I found most of the book to be underwhelming, probably in large part because I've read a lot of Raymond Chandler in the last few months; now there's someone who knew how to write a real mystery!  The writing is pretty amateur in that there's a lot of "head-hopping" in scenes and using adverbs, things that real agents and publishers say are no-nos.  The characters are pretty much stock, most probably familiar to "Murder She Wrote" viewers.  But I will credit the author in that I did not solve the mystery before it was revealed, so he's got that going for him.

Basically if you like cozy mysteries or "Murder She Wrote" then this is an OK book, but just an OK book.  And I have to wonder if this was the best of the 2,600 contest entries how bad the other 2,599 were.

That is all.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Great American Novel

The Great American Novel
By Philip Roth
4/5 stars

"The Great American Novel" is a baseball story but it's as far from "Field of Dreams" as one can get.  There's no schmaltzy father-son bonding or any patriotic nonsense about how important baseball is to America.  While Roth's novel does insinuate that baseball is a part of American life, what it shows is that baseball is largely a reflection of how foolish America can be.

Most of the book takes place in 1943, when the Port Ruppert, New Jersey Mundys are forced out of their home stadium to make room for soldier barracks.  Instead of finding a new park, like at a local high school or college, the Mundys are forced to play every single game on the road.

Making things worse the Mundys are a terrible team.  Not even terrible like "The Bad News Bears" or lovable losers like the Chicago Cubs.  No, the Mundys are irredeemably awful.  Their lineup features a French-Canadian who doesn't speak any English, a 50-year-old third baseman, a 14-year-old second baseman, a one-legged catcher, a first baseman who only plays well if he's drunk, and the only good player, an 18-year-old whose father pays the Mundys to take him to teach his arrogant son some humility.  Their pitching staff is even worse, featuring mostly elderly men, including a Mexican who rolls his pitches to home plate to save himself some pain.  When they do make a trade, they trade a one-armed outfielder for a dwarf pitcher.

Needless to say the Mundys do terribly.  So terribly their manager can't stand to look at them and instead goes to local churches to pray.  The only time when they do well is when one player spikes their food, which considering this book is from 1973 was rather prophetic about the steroids era 25-30 years later.

But the Mundys are undone, as is the Patriot League they play in, not by their terrible play on the field.  Rather they are done in by misplaced patriotism that creates a Red Scare years before McCarthy.

The Mundys and their league are a reflection of all of America's faults:  the fear, the greed, the arrogance, and the downright stupidity are just as much a part of American life as baseball and apple pie.

While most of the book is entertaining, the beginning and end are not all that good.  The lengthy prologue especially will prove daunting to readers.  Most of that entails the narrator (Word "Smitty" Smith, who used to be a beat reporter for the Mundys) trying to get baseball to remember the Mundys and Patriot League and discussing the concept of "The Great American Novel" with Ernest Hemingway.  But especially the first two pages of Smitty discussing the importance of alliteration might have the casual reader putting the book away.  As for the end, the Red Scare idea gets to be a little bit overdone and really makes you question how dumb some people can be.

Another word of warning is that like other Roth novels, it features some sexual humor that some readers might find offensive.  In particular is a scene where two Mundy players visit a very unique brothel.  Which again makes this a far cry from some other baseball novels.

Overall, despite its faults, I really enjoyed this very different take on baseball and America.  For another baseball book that isn't all happy or schmaltzy, check out "Battle Creek" by Scott Lassiter.

That is all.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bright's Passage

Bright's Passage
by Josh Ritter
(3/5 stars)
I own a couple of Josh Ritter's folk-pop (or whatever you call it) albums, so when I saw on the Vine newsletter that he had written a novel I thought I'd see how good it was.  My final verdict is that Ritter is a better songwriter.  In time he could become a decent novelist, but this is an amateur effort.  If not for the fact he's somewhat well known already, I doubt it would have been published, so it's up there with those books by the likes of celebrities like Snooki and Pam Anderson.

That's not to say the book is terrible either.  It's a serviceable book, but nothing that will make you forget about Cormac McCarthy either.

The basic premise is like "Cold Mountain" with a veteran taking a journey after a war.  Except it's World War I and the war's been over for a couple years.  Also, Henry Bright doesn't go nearly as far in his journey.

He also has along with him a newborn baby, his son, who is born at the start of the book.  The first moment you have to suspend disbelief is to accept the idea Henry can take a baby who was just born that day on an extended road trip by foot.  The second and bigger moment is that Henry talks to his horse and the horse talks back.

Henry believes the horse to be inhabited by an angel who protected him from harm in World War I.  The angel persuades Henry to abduct his cousin Rachel and "marry" her (though it's not a real wedding) and get her knocked up to breed the Future King of Heaven.  If Henry knew anything about the Bible he might be more skeptical about exactly what kind of an "angel" this really is.

But he doesn't, so he abducts Rachel and they're happy and have the baby.  She unfortunately dies in childbirth and Henry takes off to escape her vengeful father "the Colonel" and his two sons Corwin and Duncan.  The angel also tells Henry to burn down his cabin, which unfortunately leads to a wildfire that threatens to burn down a large chunk of West Virginia.

With his baby, the horse, and a goat, Henry tries to stay ahead of the fire and winds up in a coal-mining company town where he finds refuge at a hotel, but the the Colonel and sons are close on his trail!

Sprinkled in throughout are Henry's memories of World War I, which was pretty unpleasant with the trenches, mustard gas, and so forth.  This of course leads to Henry's first encounter with "the angel."

There's not much to fault in Ritter's writing style.  For a songwriter he does a pretty good job with the novel format, except for a bit of head-hopping here and there, something publishers frown on--unless you're a celebrity.  What brings the novel down are a couple of poor strategic decisions.

First is that Henry's journey isn't very long.  Equivalently it's like going from New York City to New Jersey.  Or at least it feels that way.  There's not the epicness of the soldier's odyssey in "Cold Mountain" or of course Odysseus in "The Odyssey."  Which is too bad because an epic journey lets you work in more interesting characters and situations.

The second problem are the villains.  The Colonel and his two bumbling idiot sons feel straight out of central casting.  It really brings the whole novel down a notch.  There was a good opportunity to write something thoughtful about faith, religion, and heroism and so forth but the stereotypical villains ruin all of that.

Those are the kind of mistakes I wouldn't expect a more experienced novelist to make, though they do from time to time.  Still, while it's not as bad as I'm sure Snooki and Pam Anderson's probably largely ghost-written novels are, Ritter still has a lot to learn about the book writing biz.

In the meantime I hope he gets back to songwriting.

That is all.

(PS:  I know it's an ARC, but this seems like it had far more errors than any of the previous ones I've read.  The editor has his/her work cut out for him/her.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Marbury Lens

The Marbury Lens
by Andrew Smith
(3/5 stars)

On the whole, I didn't find this a very satisfying read.  Of course I'm not into dystopian fiction, so I wasn't primed to like this in the first place, so feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt.  But for the most part I left this with far more questions than answers, which maybe was the point to set up sequels.  Though as I said in another book review, you have to hook me in the first book to make me read more and this did not succeed.

The plot involves 16-year-old Jack, who one night after a drunken party is abducted by a man named Freddie for a few days until he escapes.  With the help of his friend Conner, they kill Freddie but don't bother telling the police about any of it.  Instead they go off alone to England.  After another night drinking (because he didn't learn the first time) Jack receives some mysterious glasses.

These glasses transport him to the mysterious world of Marbury.  Though unlike Narnia, it's not a nice place with talking animals and centaurs and stuff.  Instead it's a dried-up husk populated by violent cannibals who at one time were maybe human.  Jack and two boys named Ben and Griffin seem to be the only normal humans around.  They struggle to survive and maybe find more people.

With the glasses and the help of a ghost, Jack keeps going back and forth from the "real" world to Marbury.  But what is real? 

It's too bad the story doesn't provide an answer to that or my other questions.  (My first question, why is it called Marbury? That sounds like the name for a brand of marmalade.)  Like I said, maybe Smith is hoping to answer the questions in a future sequel.  But also as I said, I wouldn't have much interest in reading it.  Unlike Narnia or Middle Earth or other fantasy worlds, I don't see Marbury as one worth revisiting.  Maybe if you like "The Road" or "Mad Max" or "The Postman" you'd find it worthwhile.

Also, as a backhanded compliment, Smith does a good job of making Jack a realistic teenage boy.  Unfortunately that means he's usually sullen and whiny.  I have no idea what the beautiful Nickie sees in him.  Well, hormones and all that maybe.

On a final note, if you're a parent, this isn't something you want younger children reading.  There's a lot of swearing, violence, and gore.  It's pretty R-rated for a YA novel.  I don't think I'd want my niece reading it until she's at least 17, if at all.  Though I have a long time to worry about that.

That is all.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Losing Graceland

Losing Graceland
by Micah Nathan
(3/5 stars)

The high concept pitch for this book would be:  "Blues Brothers" meets "Bubba Ho-Tep."  A decrepit old man who at least thinks he's Elvis Presley goes on a mission from God in order to rescue his illegitimate granddaughter Nadine, who's a stripper in Memphis.

Like both of those movies I mentioned, there needs to be a second banana.  This is Ben Fish, who recently graduated from college with a useless anthropology degree.  Ben sees an ad in the paper promising a lot of money for driving the old man from suburban Buffalo to Memphis.  It seems easy enough but of course it isn't.

Along the way, Ben and the old man run into numerous characters, like bikers, a half-Asian prostitute, and some girls in a bar.  They also fight a crooked construction company, confront a pimp, and enter an Elvis impersonator contest.  These incidents and characters sound more interesting than they really are.

I found the book entertaining enough and breezed through it in a few hours, but that's also the problem.  It's too short.  I think Nathan's strategic blunder was setting Ben and the old man in Buffalo.  That makes the journey far too short.  If they had been starting in Los Angeles that would have made for a much longer trip.  What would happen with the old man in Vegas?  Now that would have been interesting.  But maybe the author is far more familiar with the Buffalo area and didn't feel confident enough writing about anywhere else.

The other bugaboo is that Nathan frequently "head hops" or switches from one character's perspective to another.  This is the kind of thing that if I showed it to a critique group they'd scream bloody murder.  In this case I would have preferred to keep the focus on Ben and his growth as the road trip goes on.  Not that he grows an awful lot.  I won't give away just how much or how little.

Anyway, if you're a fan of Elvis this is a fun little read.  It won't really challenge you and you can finish it in a couple of hours and move on to something more substantial.

I hope this review satisfies your Suspicious Minds...(I got a million of those!)

That is all.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Raymond Chandler: Complete Short Stories

Raymond Chandler:  Complete Short Stories
by Raymond Chandler
(5/5 stars)

It’s always problematic in reviewing a book of short stories because it would take a long time to describe each story.  That’s especially true of this book, which collects all of Raymond Chandler’s short stories and comes out to a whopping 1,300 pages.  So I’m just going to deal with general issues and some highlights.

From the bibliography most of these stories were published between 1933 and 1939, when Chandler began turning these short stories into novels.  The last three or so were published near or after his death in 1959.

As you’d expect, most of these are detective stories.  They feature a variety of lead characters, who are generally all the same.  There’s the familiar Philip Marlowe from Chandler’s novels, but also Nick Carmady, John Dalmas, John Evans, and others.  By and large they are all private investigators, a bit world-weary and cynical, a bit down on their luck, but who maintain their own moral code.  They want to finish the jobs they start and do it right, though they have no compunction about hiding evidence from the law if they feel it necessary.  There are a couple of notable exceptions to this:  “Pearls Are a Nuisance” features a learned playboy as the investigator and “The Bronze Door” features an old henpecked British man.  The latter is actually more of a supernatural horror story than a detective story, one that could have made for a good “Twilight Zone” episode years later.

Generally, like Chandler’s novels, the stories feature the private investigator getting wrapped up into a case combining some (or all) of four crimes:  missing persons, murder, blackmail, and theft—the thefts usually involving jewels.  There’s usually a girl involved.  Sometimes she’s bad, sometimes she’s good, or sometimes she’s good and turns out to be bad.

As with most short story collections I’ve read (including my own!) there can at times be some drag involved from too many stories that seem the same.  None of the stories are really bad, but at times they feel a little too similar to each other.  If you’ve read Chandler’s novels then some of these might seem really familiar because he apparently used these stories as fodder for his novels.

My favorite of the collection is “Red Wind.”  This is a Marlowe story taking place on a hot night.  It involves murder, blackmail, and a jewelry heist.  The introduction talks about how in later novels Chandler began winding down Marlowe’s career (and his own) by having Marlowe get softer with the dames, going so far as to hook him up with one.  You can see the seeds for this planted in “Red Wind,” where Marlowe definitely has a crush on the girl involved, though things don’t work out.

Anyway, I think if you really like Chandler’s novels and want to see a bit of how they came about, then read this.  But at 1,300 pages I don’t think it’s for the casual reader.  A casual reader should try the novels first.  Might as well since they’re much the same, right?  So I’d recommend this for only the real Chandler enthusiasts.

That is all.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

After the Golden Age

After the Golden Age
by Carrie Vaughn
(3/5 stars)

Sometimes it's a good thing not to write reviews right away.  I was all set to give this book four stars.  Then nature called and while taking care of business, the realization hit me: most of this plot was meaningless!  All the digging for clues and setting things up didn't matter at all because in the end the villain calls our hero to tell her exactly where--and who--he is.  What the heck is that?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that really this could have been chopped into a short story because the rest winds up being filler.  Setting up all these relationships, what did it really matter?  All but one of the superheroes wasn't even present for the grand finale!

The mostly unimportant story is like "The Incredibles" if the kids didn't have superpowers.  Captain Olympus is like Superman and his wife Spark is like the Human Torch, only a girl.  They have a daughter named Celia West who doesn't have any powers, except being a hostage.  She's kidnapped about six times before the book starts.

The big nemesis is called the Destructor, who is like the resident Dr. Doom.  The superheroes have caught him at last and now he's facing a trial.  Celia is a forensic accountant assigned to the case despite that years ago she defected to the Destructor's side to get back at her parents.  Meanwhile some new criminals are stealing priceless violins and fish (no fooling) and unleashing terror while also abducting Celia a couple more times.

The ride getting up to the big finish is interesting enough, though it never gets much deeper than the back cover flap description.  This isn't in the vein of comics like "Watchmen" that try to have profound social messages.

The writing is pretty vanilla; it definitely is not going to challenge you.  Celia is your typical spunky female just dying to be played by Rachael McAdams or Amy Adams in a movie adaptation.  Though it's hard to have much respect for her since she gets kidnapped so many times before the story and four times DURING the story and yet still walks right into the trap at the end.  Yeesh, after a while you'd think she'd get wise and start taking some precautions.  And as I said, for all the digging for clues she does, it doesn't really have any impact.  It would also have been nice if she hadn't been quite so whiny about her parents all the time.

The romance between her and a police detective who is also the mayor's son, like so much of the story just doesn't matter.  In this case it's because another romance comes along, one that's a bit creepy.

Besides the end confrontation not being anything very exciting, the last chapter--which should have been an epilogue--quickly summarizes what happens to all the important characters.  Besides limiting the sequel potential, there's nothing emotionally satisfying about these little blurbs.

In all it's comparable to the lesser superhero movies at your local multiplex.  So long as you don't stop to think about it, it's not too bad.

That is all.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bridge of Sighs

Bridge of Sighs
By Richard Russo
(1/5 stars)

(I'm going to spoil the hell out of this, so please don't chide me about spoiler space.  You've been warned!)

Richard Russo's previous novel "Empire Falls" won the Pulitzer Prize, the highest award for American fiction.  The only award "Bridge of Sighs" should receive would be for Most Boring Narrator of a Novel.

And I'm not just saying that as some random crackpot or someone who reads Tom Clancy books all the time and stumbled on this one.  I've read all of Russo's other books, including his book of short stories.  "Nobody's Fool," "Empire Falls," and "Risk Pool" were all great novels.

Which is why this is so disappointing to me.  If I can speculate (and why not, it's my review) I think after winning the Pulitzer Russo wanted to do something "serious" to prove he was a Great American Novelist like Hemingway, Updike, etc.  So he tries all this misdirection and sleight of hand by changing narrators and tenses, creating stories within the story.  The problem, though, is that when unraveled the story is perfectly ordinary, a tale so shopworn no amount of magic tricks could make it seem original.

What it all boils down to are three kids and their parents.  There's Lou C. "Lucy" Lynch, who unfortunately narrates most of the story.  Lucy is such a boring, needy, neurotic individual that if he were real I'd want to knock his teeth out.  At 60 he still acts the way he did at 6 and his greatest wish would be that he could be 6 again and living with his mommy and daddy.  How sick is that?  I mean a lot of us would like to be in our late teens or 20s again, but Lucy actually wants to be a little kid.

Since there's no fortune telling machine around to do a reverse "Big" he's lucky to find a woman to wipe his nose and clean up after him.  Her name is Sarah.  She's a painter and substitute teaches art classes at the local schools.  She lost a breast to cancer and had a miscarriage and gave birth to their son Owen.  Of course we only get the bare minimum of detail about that so we can have hundreds of pages of Lucy riding in milk trucks and painting fences like the lost episodes of "Leave It to Beaver."

Sarah also loved another man, a far more interesting man.  His name is Bobby Marconi, later Bobby Noonan.  Where Lucy was the boring nerd like Richie Cunningham (or Potsy really), Bobby was the Fonz, with a motorcycle and tough guy attitude and probably a leather jacket.  Bobby's father was an emotionally abusive jerk, continually knocking up Bobby's mother.  This produced a series of boys who are referred to collectively, except one apparently was named David.  Anyway, once he comes back from military school, Bobby joins the football team and starts dating the beauty queen.  But he really wants Lucy's girlfriend Sarah.  And she really wants him, but she settles for Lucy, which as my Amazon friend Ethan Cooper said is obviously a sign of a character defect.  What girl is really going to pick Potsy over the Fonz?

Far, far too much time is spent on the saga of Lucy's parents opening New York's first convenience store.  I scoffed at how his mom spontaneously comes up with the idea of the modern convenience store.  According to our good friends at Wikipedia they already had 7-11 down south, but to hear Russo tell it Tessa Lynch is the one who came up with the whole thing.

A story with a boring narrator like Lucy can be successful if you can do at least one of two things:

1.  Move the character to interesting locations.
2.  Surround the character with interesting people.

Russo doesn't really do either.  Early on we're told that present day Lucy and Sarah are going to Italy, which is where Bobby is living after becoming a successful painter.  So it seems obvious that Lucy and Sarah should go there and see the interesting places like Rome, Florence, and finally Venice where Bobby lives.

But no.  Instead we stay moribund in Thomaston, New York, the kind of place only Lucy Lynch could love because it's so dreadfully boring.  Most Russo novels feature a down-on-its-luck small town in New York or Maine, but this seemed like the least interesting of any of them.  Well it's like they say, it's the people who make the town.

Which is the second problem.  Other than Bobby, no one else is all that interesting.  Lou's father is appropriately called Big Lou.  That's exactly what he is:  Lou, only bigger--and just as dull.  Lou's mom is most often nagging or bossing everyone around.  Sarah's only slightly better than that.  At least at times there was Uncle Dec there for a little comic relief, otherwise it'd be one bland scene after another.

So we have a dull location with equally dull people.  That leaves very little reason for any reader to keep trudging through the maze Russo sets up.  A smart reader would give up by 300 pages.  An inordinately stubborn reader would plow through to the end, hoping for something to make it worthwhile, only to be sorely disappointed.

This was obviously a misfire for Russo.  The only good thing is that his next novel, "That Old Cape Magic" was much better.  It far more succinctly dealt with the same issues of kids and their parents and a woman loving two different men.  So maybe Russo learned from his mistakes.  I hope so.

Now for my own amusement and to recap what I just said, here are the notes I wrote in the comments of Ethan Cooper's review:

BJ Fraser says:
I had to roll my eyes this afternoon when I got up to the part where his mom invents the convenience store. You really expect me to believe that, Richard Russo? He could have at least had her read or hear about it somewhere else first. As it is I doubt a bookkeeper in upstate New York came up with 7-11...but I'll have to go look it up in Wikipedia.

BJ Fraser says:
I've slogged my way through to nearly page 300 now. Except for the locked in the trunk part and the fight outside the movie theater there's really been nothing interesting as far as Lucy goes. The Noonan parts are better.

BJ Fraser says:
And to follow up to one of my comments, 7-11 began in 1927 in Texas and by the time Lucy's mom comes up with her convenience store, 7-11 already had a bunch of locations open from 7 to 11. The better way to do this would have been to have someone come back from a trip to Texas and mention something offhand to Lucy's mom instead of her seemingly on the spot coming up with the idea.

BJ Fraser says:
Lucy's stories really are tedious. His parents argue about money: whose don't? Even billionaire parents probably argue about buying a solid gold 747 from time to time.

When I did my Bildungsroman, I realized after going over the first draft I needed to get through the childhood stuff fairly quickly and move him to more interesting locales. But he has a Pulitzer and I don't, so what do I know?

BJ Fraser says:
I'm on the last 100 pages now. It all boils down to Lucy and Noonan both love Sarah. As if that hasn't been done a million times before. It's just a bunch of sleight of hand with the weird structure to make it seem like it's something different.

BJ Fraser says:
There is a little bit from Sarah's perspective back in high school/college. (Apparently we're never going to get to that period from between college to when they're 60.)

I'm thinking that Noonan runs away after high school (either because of guilt or dodging Vietnam or both) leaving Sarah to go with the boring guy or nothing at all. Many people probably would have chosen nothing.

I'm probably going to annoy people by putting in spoilers whenever I do finish.

BJ Fraser says:
You don't think The Boring NonAdventures of Lucy Lynch would be a great series? At least it would be good for those suffering from insomnia

BJ Fraser says:
Actually that sounds like a good idea for a series of Saturday Night Live skits. In one episode a quart of milk at Ikey Lubin's is nearing the expiration date. Shots of Lucy sweating and staring at the milk as the clock ticks with dramatic music in the background. Then just as Lucy is about to take the milk out, someone comes along and buys it. In the next thrilling episode, Lucy has only 4 pennies left in the cash register!

BJ Fraser says:
BTW, last year I used the Bridge of Sighs in a story. I wonder if Russo was aware of the tradition I found out from Wikipedia, which I assume is true:

Ahead I see there are already a pair of gondolas approaching the enclosed bridge between the old prisons and the interrogation rooms of the Doge's Palace. This bridge is called the Ponte dei Sospiri or later as the "Bridge of Sighs." I probably could have walked the interior of the bridge if any authorities in Venice had ever caught me scrambling around the city and peeping into people's windows.

"What are we doing here?" I ask Alejandro.

"It's a local superstition that if you kiss beneath the bridge at sunset, your love with last forever," he says.

"Did you kiss Aggie here?"

"No, but I want to kiss you here."

The gondolier finds some space for us to park beneath the bridge.

Though I know I shouldn't, I turn around to face Alejandro. As the sun sets, we each lean forward to kiss. It's a chaster kiss than we usually share, due to the presence of the gondolier and other lovers nearby.

BJ Fraser says:
And while I'm going on and on, perhaps the most unforgivable sin is not having Lucy and Sarah go to Italy as they'd been planning. Is there any question that Venice would make for a much more interesting setting than Thomaston, New York? You've got the art, the architecture, the history, and the canals in Venice. What's Thomaston got? A dirty river and a bunch of houses and businesses going to seed. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

BJ Fraser says:
Turns out you were right about Sarah. What happens is that her mom dies and then she collapses into Lucy's arms and that's how they wind up together.

But there was a little drama when Lucy found a love letter Sarah wrote to Bobby after a recent masectomy. They had a slight argument and then she went off to her mom's old neighborhood in Long Island. Of course she'll come back though. Maybe she'll run into Bobby in New York, though I doubt it.

BTW, what I find hilarious is that in the Acknowledgments he thanks his editor for "saving" this novel; I can't even imagine how terrible it was before the editor got to it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Radiant (League of Peoples #7)
by James Alan Gardner
4/5 stars

It took me a while to finally get to this book.  I read the last of Gardner's Festina Ramos books 9 years ago and just hadn't gotten around to buying this.  Since it's been several years since this came out and there's no sequel, I guess we can say that (for now anyway) it's the end of the line.  And it was a pretty good end.

Like all of Gardner's books in this series it's told in first person.  Except for "Expendable" these have all featured someone other than Admiral Festina Ramos, but she always shows up.  "Radiant" is no exception to this.  The narrator in question is Youn Suu, who hails from a planet colonized by Burmese people.  When something went wrong in her bioengineering, she was left with a deformed left cheek--on her face of course.

This gets her into the Explorer Corps.  The Explorers are all disfigured in some way because some scientific studies determined that people feel the loss of an ugly person less acutely than an attractive one.  On Youn's first real assignment she goes to a planet that's being attacked by glowing red moss known as the Balrog.  There she meets Ramos and gets bitten by the Balrog, so that it begins taking over her body's cells.

From there Youn and Ramos follow a distress call to Muta, where a colony of scientists has disappeared.  As they go down to the surface, they're attacked by strange smoke monsters who emit EMP to disable electronics.  In the process of determining who these monsters are and what they want, Youn and Ramos make some discoveries about the universe--and themselves.

Unlike when I read "Trapped" last year, which was mostly a spin-off of the same universe, for this one you really need to have read the rest of the series.  Given that this is sort of an ending, there are references to stuff that happened in the previous Ramos stories--Expendable, Vigilant, Hunted, and Ascension.  Since I hadn't read those in almost a decade I was a bit lost at times in remembering what Gardner was referencing.

The good thing is that if you like light space opera, then you'd find this series enjoyable enough to start at the beginning.  Actually I'd like to reread "Expendable" at some point but my copy pretty much disintegrated a while ago.

My real complaint is sometimes there was a little too much conversation.  This sounds hypocritical because in my blog I have a few times complained how much I hate writing action scenes.  But a little less hypothesizing and a little more finding out what things were would have been nice.

Still, like the rest of the series it's light enough to make it a quick read.  Recommended if you like "Star Trek" or similar fare.  It's too bad that there don't seem to be more of these forthcoming, but "Radiant" makes for a good ending while leaving things open for the future.

That is all.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

That Old Cape Magic

That Old Cape Magic
by Richard Russo
(4/5 stars)

There's a bit of jealousy involved when I read something like this.  If I queried an agent with a story about a neurotic middle-aged man who's unremarkable in any significant way who has a low-tempered midlife crisis, there's no way I'd ever get it published.  But when you've won a Pulitzer Prize you get carte blanche to write books that many others (including yourself) have already done before.

The neurotic man in question is Jack Griffin.  Long ago he wrote movies, that was until he married Joy, who gave birth to their daughter Laura.  After that Jack moved to Connecticut, where he teaches film classes while Joy works in the admissions office.

The only real problem in Jack's world is his troubled relationship with his parents.  His parents were both English professors who had a love of Cape Cod--the Cape referred to in the title.  Jack sees his parents, probably rightfully so, as snobs who looked down on everyone including Joy and her family, despite that they never so much as owned a house, preferring to ruin those of their colleagues.  Jack has spent a good portion of life trying not to be them, something that weighs heavier on him after his father dies.

During a wedding on the Cape for Laura's best friend, secrets are revealed and Jack and Joy's relationship begins to unravel.  His life goes south, his mother dying and her ghost haunting him--usually taunting him while he moves back to LA to try and write movies again.  Meanwhile Joy seems to be doing pretty well with a new man in her life.

I didn't hate this book, but I don't think Russo was really saying anything he hadn't said in all of his previous novels.  All of his protagonists are haunted by their parents, like all of us to some extent struggle to reconcile that our parents aren't perfect.  It was really hard for me to "root for" a guy who has such an obsessive fixation on his parents that he nearly lets it destroy an otherwise happy marriage.  Especially because while his parents were jerks they didn't beat him or molest him or anything like that.  You can look in the newspaper (or on the Internet) and see parents who are much worthier of obsessing about.  It's really amazing Jack hadn't gone into some form of therapy long before this.

Another thing that bugs me is Jack's story "The Summer of the Brownings."  He takes the unfinished story out of a drawer and finds some holes not only in the story but possibly his memory and then later finishes the story.  But we never really know exactly how he changed it and the story itself never seemed to have much significance.  I thought Jack's possibly faulty memory--brought up again when his mother is dying--would have some kind of an impact like in John Irving's "Until I Find You" but it didn't really seem to do anything.  It was more of a red herring than anything.

Another minor point is that although Jack is a screenwriter and a teacher of film, he doesn't seem to have much love for movies.  We never learn what Jack's favorite movie is or about any scenes or actors who meant anything to him.  We get vague details about some projects he worked on, and even those are treated with apathy.  Really I don't think the author thought any of that important, that Jack's career was just means to an end.  Interestingly Russo has worked on movies like "The Ice Harvest" and he's taught at universities, so it probably seemed easy enough to combine those two into Jack's career.  The way it's presented, though, Jack might as well have been a garbage man--not that there's anything wrong with that--because neither movies nor teaching seemed very important to him.

The good thing, though, is that a skilled novelist can manage to beat a dead horse and still make it interesting for the reader.  Despite that I've read numerous books and seen numerous films about a guy having a midlife crisis and parental issues, I was never bored with the book.  The narrative and dialog are quick and sharp, keeping the story from becoming a limp, inert mess as could have easily happened (and often enough has happened) in the wrong hands.

So even though Jack's story is probably familiar, especially to fans of Russo's other novels, it's still a lot better than a lot of junk put out there.

That is all.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Widower's Tale

The Widower's Tale
by Julia Glass
(4/5 stars)

A good litmus test for how compelling a book is is that when you put it down, you want to pick it back up again.  I put down "The Widower's Tale" on December 1, 2010 after muddling through the first 75 pages and then I didn't crack it open again until after the new year.  So it did in fact take me more than 40 days and 40 nights to finish reading this book.  Not exactly what you'd call a page-turner.

I think a lot of my problem in being able to plow through this book was I felt I'd already read it before--several times.  Much of it focuses on Percy Darling, a retired librarian in a wealthy Boston suburb called Matlock.  An academic from Massachusetts?  The late John Updike made a career with that formula.  The rest of it, though, reads less like Updike to me and more like the well-mannered sibling of Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections."  Glass uses a lot of the same techniques as Franzen, spreading the narrative among multiple characters, though Glass focuses outside the Darling family as well.  The chapters usually have the same structure where they start at a point in the future from the previous chapter and then work back to dovetail where we left off before.  This of course isn't unique to Glass or Franzen, which is only part of my larger point that "The Widower's Tale" presents little that's new.

The narrative I mentioned starts with Percy Darling a 71-year-old retired librarian.  His elder daughter Clover is a neurotic divorcee, who gets a job with a local preschool that takes over the barn on Percy's farm where his beloved wife Poppy used to practice ballet.  There's also 20-year-old Robert, Percy's grandson who goes to Harvard and is studying to be a doctor like his mother Trudy, a world-famous oncologist.  Robert's friend Arturo is a rabid environmentalist, who along with Robert and some other ecowarriors has been pulling various pranks against the affluent people of Matlock and other wealthy suburbs in a probably futile attempt to change the world.

There's also Celestino, an illegal alien from Guatemala who does some gardening work for Percy, and Ira, a gay teacher at Clover's preschool.  Glass could have saved a good 150 pages by eliminating their narratives, because neither really does much for the book.  Celestino's tale of being virtually adopted and taken to America by a wealthy French family is somewhat interesting, but doesn't really go anywhere.  Ira was the stereotypical effeminate gay type straight out of central casting, which I found mildly insulting and wholly unnecessary.

The plot, such as it is, involves multiple threads of Percy falling in love with a woman named Sarah Straight (Straight and Darling?  Really?), who is some 20 years younger than him and develops breast cancer that's treated by Percy's daughter.  The breast cancer part really made me yawn.  I think by now there are about 2,000 movies on Lifetime devoted to breast cancer.  Not that I have anything against people with breast cancer, but it's clearly been done before.  She's tired and loses her hair?  Really?  I'd never heard of that before!  (That might have been true if this were 1957.)

I'm being overly sarcastic here considering I'm giving it four stars.  Glass is a capable enough writer and I think a good many people will find it interesting and entertaining.  Those who thought Franzen's "Corrections" was too dysfunctional and mean-spirited would find this far more warm and soothing.  My primary complaint is that I felt overall I'd seen everything in this book before.  So while it was interesting, it couldn't hold my attention, as indicated above.

It's also the kind of book where a lot of stuff happened, but I didn't feel like I picked up anything of value from it.  I certainly wouldn't call affluent Massachusetts families, a day laborer, and a gay teacher a microcosm of modern American society, at least not a complete one.  Overall the message seemed to be that things change and you roll with the punches.  Wow, I've never heard that before.

That is all.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Geek Love

Geek Love
by Katherine Dunn
(3/5 stars)

A "friend" reviewed this novel and as something of a freak myself I couldn't resist reading a novel about freaks. But I found I didn't like this nearly as much as I thought I would.

The best way to think about this story is that it's like a darker version of "The Addams Family." Ma and Pa work for a traveling circus and decide that it's too expensive to recruit freaks, so they'll breed them! Ma takes all sorts of drugs and such in order to create deformed babies. Some of them die, but four (or five) survive. They are Arturo, a boy with flippers instead of limbs; Ely and Iphy the conjoined twins; Chick the boy with strange psychic powers; and Olympia the hunchbacked albino dwarf who is our narrator. As in most family sagas the narrator is the most boring character with the least personality. Arturo the Aqua Boy is the big star of the family. Ely and Iphy are second with their singing and dancing. Even Chick finds a niche when Arturo starts a cult devoted to making people into deformed freaks. Olympia's only real role is to be Arturo's valet and main worshiper.

I guess despite being something of a freak myself I'm not so deluded to think that being a freak makes someone special or better than "normal" people. As the story goes on I really found it increasingly grotesque and disturbing instead of funny or interesting. Adding to this is the portion that takes place in the present where Olympia is dealing with her daughter and a mysterious woman who thinks like Arturo that deformity is the key to enlightenment.

Anyway, other people obviously thought this was better than I did. I was just a victim of overly high expectations the book couldn't deliver upon.

That is all.