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.

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.