Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Childhood Revisited



To celebrate my day off of work yesterday, I was poking around in a store that sells dvds.

I carefully went through the whole movie section, not really looking for something in particular, just looking. And then, there in the "S" section, I saw it: a copy of The Empire Strikes Back in the special limited edition.

I grabbed it off the shelf and went to the front immediately to pay, as if someone would realize what I had in my hand and offer to fight me for it.

As the guy at the counter rang up my sale, he looked twice at the dvd box, then looked up and said, "You know this is the special edition, right? The one with..."

"The one with my childhood on it?" I interrupted. "Yes, yes I do."

It's true, you know. As big of a geek as I am, and as much as I love Star Wars (and I was 11 when the original movie came out, so you can just imagine how much I love it), this is the first copy of any Star Wars movie that I own.

I didn't want something prettied-up, tweaked and "improved." I wanted the movie that I sat through far too many times, that I could quote dialog from, that was the basis for untold games and flights of imagination. I wanted my childhood, and no amount of all-new explosions or digital manipulation or added scenes meant a hill of beans to me, because none of that belonged to (or in) the movie that was a part of me.

Would I prefer a shiny HD Blu-ray version? Certainly. And maybe someday I'll get it, sans ham-handed alterations. Until then, I'll be popping up some popcorn, making a Suicide soda (keeping an eye out for swooping bats--thanks, Rialto Theater) and spending some quality-time with an old friend.

Friday, September 30, 2011

September Reads




September coincided with "buy new books for the library" month, and I went on an absolute reading binge: fiction, non-fiction, juvenile, YA--whatever sounded good I took a gander at, to the tune of 39 books all told, leaving me at an even 230 books for the year so far. There's some really good stuff here, Like Lansdale's All the Dust, Thrown to the Sky and Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. I've also decided that Susan Casey is edging into Mary Roach territory for me--must-reads. Oh, and those of you with a penchant for the odd and unsettling get your orders in now for Kafkaesque. So without further adieu, the list:

Atwood, Margaret Cat's Eye

A semi-famous artist returns to her hometown for a retrospective and remembers her childhood as tormented and tormenter and how it influenced her art. Atwood is awesome, and I love the interplay between the descriptions of the paintings (which we can interpret just fine, being privy to the author's thoughts, memories, and actions) and the interpretations hung on the paintings by others, who, of course, see what they want to see.

Barnhill, Kelly The Mostly True Story of Jack

Jack is ignored by everybody: teachers, strangers, family. He's so ignored he's practically invisible. But when his parents split up, he's sent to live with his aunt and uncle, and suddenly people are paying attention to him: his aunt and uncle actually talk to him, kids want to be his friend, and he even gets beaten up by a bully. There are strange goings-on in this town, and Jack is right in the middle of it. Well-written, engaging, and Jack is an awesome character (as is Wendy).

Beauman, Ned Boxer Beetle

What do you get when you combine a closeted “gentleman entomologist” with a passion for eugenics & a man-crush on Hitler, a violent alcoholic boxer (also gay) who's almost completely controlled by his id, a group of effete, squabbling fascists, a vicious gangster, & a beetle built to be nigh-invulnerable? One of the oddest books I've ever read. It's funny (in some places hilarious) and horrifying all at once in that peculiar British humor tradition where truly awful things happen to people, but it's funny instead of sad because they're awful people.

Casey, Susan The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

Casey's account of huge waves, their unpredictability, their destructive power, and the quest to surf a 100-foot wave is absolutely unputdownable. She has a remarkable way of making everything fascinating. Awesome.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 01: Marked

Vampyres have always existed. They are not created by being bitten, they simply are, and as teens they are “marked,” physically and societally and separated to begin their education, which not all of them survive. Zoey Redbird is not just marked, but chosen by Nyx, the Goddess of Night. Marked is the story of Zoey's being chosen and of her life adjusting to her new self in a new school. Who knew vampire schools had Heathers?

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 02: Betrayed

Beginning immediately after book 01, Zoey is still trying to organize the Dark Daughters, avoid her human ex-boyfriend who may or may not be imprinted, and pining for her almost-boyfriend Eric, who's away at a contest. Then human boys start disappearing and are found dead drained of blood, causing suspicion to fall on the vampires in general & Zoey in particular, as she knew them. In the middle of all this, a teacher seemingly hits on her, a friend is sick, her grandmother is in danger, and something is off with her mentor, the High Priestess Neferet. There's a lot of story packed into this relatively small book.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 03: Chosen

Zoey is trying to do the right thing, but it all turns out wrong. By keeping secrets to protect her friends, she ends up turning the away from her just when she needs them most. She also dithers on deciding between the boys who like her, makes some truly horrible choices, and ends up all alone. Although you often want to pinch her little head right off, Zoey is so fundamentally likeable that you end up rooting for her, even when she's being bone stupid. Kudos to the Casts for a truly great character.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 04: Untamed

Zoey's trying to win her friends back because of a vision of her death that leads to a horrible human/vampire war. She makes progress, but things still go all to hell by the end of this book. Again, Zoey is awesome, and for such a dark book, I laughed out loud more than once. Excellent.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 05: Hunted

Living in the tunnels with the red fledgelings, Zoey and her friends try to deal with Neferet and Kalona. Aphrodite is convinced that Stevie Ray is hiding something about the red fledgelings. Erik is being a possessive butthead again, and Stark has reawakened as a red fledgeling and is working with Neferet and Kalona, who are pretending to be the incarnation of Nyx and Erebus. Lots of action and intrigue, leading to a climactic showdown with the evil Neferet and her consort Kalona.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 06: Tempted

Kalona and Neferet have been temporarily banished, but Kalona is still connected to Zoey in her dreams. Heath is back, re-Imprinted stronger than ever, Erik's still around, and now there's Stark, the red fledgeling archer who's so connected to Zoey he can sense her emotions. Stevie Ray is definitely hiding something about the red fledgelings, and now everyone except Stevie Ray has to go to Italy to attend the Vampyre Council with Neferet & Kalona, where something so terrible happens that it literally shatters Zoey's soul.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 07: Burned

Stevie Ray has saved an injured Raven Mocker and can't tell anyone. Zoey and the pieces of her shattered soul are in the Otherworld with Heath. Stark undertakes a deadly journey to try to help Zoey mend herself & also to protect her from Kalona, who Neferet Has sent to kill Zoey. Lots of intrigue and lots of hard choices as everyone (except Neferet) tries to make the right choices.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 08: Awakened

Zoey is back together, Heath has moved on in the Otherworld, and Zoey & Stark are now together. Stevie Ray has grown close to Rephaim, but still keeps him a secret from her friends. Neferet has fooled the council into thinking she was under Kalona's sway, but now she's better, so she returns to Tulsa where her first act is unspeakably evil. Zoey and her friends return to try to take back their home, but Neferet is able to twist the homecoming, leaving Zoey & friends to depart the school to make their own way in the tunnels. Again, excellent characters, and no matter how tragic, you'll still laugh out loud more than once.

Collins, Suzanne The Hunger Games

Oh. My. Dog. What am I paying you people for if it's not to insist that I read books this good? All the hype and popularity is well-deserved in this gritty tale of institutionalized cruelty and the teens forced to fight each other for everyone's amusement. You will never forget Katniss Everdeen.

Collins, Suzanne Catching Fire

Katniss has unwittingly become a symbol of rebellion, and her punishment is a return to the Hunger Games along with a slate of other former winners, including Peeta. Dark, depressing, and cruel to be sure, but there are lessons of compassion and honor as well. Katniss, taught from a very early age to make hard decisions, is torn between what she wants and what she has to do to make that happen. Incredible characters and an awesome story.

Collins, Suzanne Mockingjay

Now there's a full-scale rebellion and the rebels want Katniss to be their symbol and rallying point. Peeta is in the hands of the government, calling for Katniss to stand down. Gale's hatred for what the Capitol has done to his people leads him to create ever crueler weapons, and Katniss is slowly realizing that people who resort to inhuman acts to push their agenda are all alike, no matter what their politics.

Cook, Kevin Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything

Titanic Thompson was not just “Runyonesque”--he's the guy Sky Masterson was based on. His life was full of card sharps, hustlers, and gangsters, and it's utterly fascinating.

Crowell, Rodney Chinaberry Sidewalks

Country singer/songwriter Crowell's book is less an autobiography than a study of his parent's turbulent and sometimes violent realtionship and the effect said relationship had on them and on him. There's some terrific detail, and by the end you're encouraged to come to the same peace with these fierce, proud, volatile folks as Crowell did.

Datlow, Ellen Blood and Other Cravings

Datlow's new anthology involves vampires, but makes the point that not all vampires feed on blood. A Datlow anthology is always first rate, and this is no exception. Favorites include "baskerville's Midgets" by Reggie Oliver, "Sweet Sorrow" by Barbara Roden and Carol Emshwiller's "Mrs. Jones."

Feynman, Richard Surely Your Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Less an autobiography than a manic guy telling stories at a party, Feynman is alternately completely, hilariously fascinating and something of a jerk. It's great to experience his personality first-hand, as it were, but there's not enough contextual detail to really make it stick.

Gangi, Tony Carny Sideshows

Always fascinated with sideshows, Gangi decides to attend the classes offered by the Coney Island sideshow to learn such skills as how to drive a nail your nose, how to lay on a bed of nails, and how to eat fire. Interspersed with his account of learning his new skills (and believe me, no 12-year old boy could be giddier than Gangi about sticking a nail up his nose) are interviews with sideshow folk and a bit of the history of the sideshow, its acts, and its performers.

Kessel, John and James Patrick Kelly Kafkaesque

Co-editors Kessel & James Patrick Kelly have put together a winner: an homage to a very singular writer that's more than one slick pastiche after another. The stories gathered here do manage to evoke Kafka, whether directly by featuring him as a character or riffing on a particular story or indirectly by capturing that mood that is distinctly Kafkaesque. Many favorite stories, including “The Jackdaw's Last Case” by Paul di Fillipo, “Report to the Men's Club” by Carol Emshwiller, & “Bright Morning” by Jeffrey Ford. Highly recommended.

Keyes, Ralph Euphemania

Keyes looks at our fascination with euphemism through the ages and argue that the kinds of things that we create euphemisms for can tell a lot about the society that created them.

Lansdale, Joe R. All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky

The Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the 30s is no place to be. After Jack's mother dies and his father hangs himself, Jack hooks up with Jane & Tony, two other abandoned kids and tries to make to to East Texas to find Jane & Tony's relatives. It's a fast-moving story, with gangsters, crooked lawmen, kind widow-ladies, and carny-folk, but all of that pales once you meet Jane: smart, stubborn, clear-headed, good-hearted, and as gifted a liar as ever came down the pike. It's Jack's story, but just like him, once Jane comes along you'd follow her anywhere.

Lansdale, Joe R. Flaming Zeppelins

Two of Lansdale's alt-history mash-ups together in one package. Book one, "Zeppelin's West," tells the tale of Wild Bill Hickock, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, & the living head of Buffalo Bill Cody (it's kept alive in a jar), the Wild West show, a zeppelin crash, Frankenstein's monster, Captain Nemo, & the wildest version of the Island of Dr. Moreau you're ever likely to see. Book two, "Flaming London," involves Ned the Seal (a talking seal we met in the previous adventure), Mark Twain, Jules Verne, the Flying Dutchman, invaders from Mars, and H.G. Wells himself. Funny, fast-moving, & profane, these books are some of the most enjoyable time I've spent reading.

Lansdale, Joe R. Hyenas

A Hap & Leonard novella along with a short story featuring a teen-age Hap Collins. The novella is pure Hap & Leonard—Leonard's been in a bar fight (the other guys started it) and beaten 3 men bloody (one's had his head pushed through the men's room wall and is still dangling there). Nobody presses charges, but one of the guys tries to hire Leonard to scare his little brother (who's fallen in with a bunch of bank robbers) straight. Hap & Leonard feel sorry for the guy and decide to try, but of course, everything goes wrong in true Hap & Leonard fashion. I really love those guys.

Lansdale, Joe R. Unchained and Unhinged

A collection of Lansdale's columns for Subterranean & some short stories. As fun as reading a Lansdale story is, reading his non-fiction is even moreso. His voice is unmistakeable, a good ol' East Texas drawl that was made for telling stories. You might not agree with what he has to say, but it sure is fun to hear him say it.

Maney, Mabel Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy

Maney, author of some parodies featuring Nancy Clue and the Hardly Boys, takes on James Bond. In this light-hearted romp, James Bond is a drunken cad who's been institutionalized for enforced “rest.” When the Queen wants to give him a medal, Bond's masters enlist the aid of his lesbian twin sister Jane to keep the Queen (and everyone else) from finding out Bond's not well. Jane's not much like her famous brother, except, of course, for her fondness for young women, and her adventures as a reluctant spy are quite funny.

McMann, Lisa The Unwanteds

Quill's society is very rigid: the Wanteds are strong and smart & hold privileged positions, the Necessaries are exactly that—necessary for the labor to keep the Wanteds in power, and the Unwanteds, who are all creative. Every year comes the Purge, where all Unwanteds are put to death. Aaron is a Wanted; his twin Alex is Unwanted. When Alex is Purged, he discovers the secret: all the Unwanteds have been saved by a powerful mage, who has created a perfect land for them to fulfill their creativity and grow. Naturally, conflict ensues. Some interesting stuff here, but a bit too one-sided and didactic for me.

Perez-Reverte, Arturo The King's Gold

Upon his return from Flanders, Captain Alatriste and Inigo are hired to steal some gold. The gold technically belongs to the King, but it is undeclared and being smuggled into the country. Of course, this job runs them afoul of old enemies, and of course, things don't go quite according to plan. It has been fun watching Inigo grow up, but I sincerely hope we will soon actually get to see some of the adventures he refers to in his reports. The books are quick, but I'm beginning to want more.

Roberson, Chris Iron Jaw and Hummingbird

Set in Roberson's Celestial Empire, a world where China never turned inward and so went on to be one of the Earth's dominant empires, Iron Jaw & Hummingbird is the tale of two young people, one a child of the streets, one a child of privilege, who together form a rebel army to topple the governor of Mars. It's got action and adventure aplenty, but what really shines for me is the detail of Roberson's world.

Rothfuss, Patrick The Wise Man's Fear

As irritating as the wait for book two was (and I had it a lot lighter than most), it really was worth the wait: huge and detailed with great description and fabulous characters that truly come alive. Talented and hot-headed, the young Kvothe is cunning, clever, naive, and occasionally bone stupid. We get a front row seat on how both his talents and his flaws came together to create a legend. Unbelievably awesome.

Selznick, Brian Wonderstruck

The stories of Ben, a young boy in Minnesota in 1977 (told in words) and Rose, a young girl in New Jersey in 1927 (told in pictures) converge in unexpected ways involving New York City, a bookstore, The Museum of Natural History, and a book called Wonderstruck. Selznick is a wonderful storyteller no matter what medium he's using, and he can make you feel every ounce of hurt or terror or wonder that his characters are experiencing.

Stiefvater, Maggie Forever

Book 3 in Stiefvater's werewolf trilogy brings a nice conclusion. It's not up to book one, but it's better than book two.

Tremlett, Giles Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain & Its Silent Past

British journalist Tremlett, a long-time resident of Spain, looks through Spanish history for clues to understand the Spanish people and why they think and act the way they do. It's a very general overview, and shifts between history and current times, but it's an interesting intro and piques the interest for more detailed explorations.

Vordak the Incomprehensible Rule the School

Since no one used his first book to step up and rule the world, Vordak has unretired to get rid of Commander Virtue once and for all. Unfortunately, a slight problem has left him 12 years old and in middle school. Hilarious misadventures just begging to be read aloud.

Walker, Brian Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau

A lovely retrospective and history of Doonsebury, with some fun biography on Trudeau and some surprising insight on how the comic strip works.

Willingham, Bill Down the Mysterly River

Max the Wolf, intrepid Boy Scout and Bot Detective, comes to with only hazy memories of how he might have gotten to the woods he finds himself in. While trying to figure out what might have happened, he meets a talking badger named Banderbrock. They are both attacked by someone who seems to know who they are and who holds a glowing blue sword that can do amazing things. They escape and along the way meet up with an ugly and irritable yellow tomcat who calls himself MacTavish and a not-too-bright but goodhearted bear named Walden, who fancies himself a sheriff. Still pursued by the Blue Cutters, Max & his gang make their way towards the Wizard Swift to try and solve the mystery of how they all got there. Lots of fun, a ton of humor, and a genuine sweet, gooey heart in Walden the Bear.

Wilson, Edward O. Kingdom of Ants: Jose Celestino Mutis and the Dawn of Natural History in the New World

A small monograph of Jose Celestino Mutis and his contributions to the study of ants in Central & South America and how that pioneering study shaped how natural history was studied.

Yancey, Rick The Monstrumologist

The Mostrumologist purports to be the journals of Will Henry, born in the late 1800s, orphaned, and taken in by his father's employer, a monstrumologist (one who studies monsters). This well-writen story is dark and disturbing not just for the gory stuff (and there's plenty of gory stuff), but for the character of the monstrumologist himself, a man so self-absorbed he seems incapable of noticing that 12-year old Will is actually a person. The doctor is, indeed monstrous (although not the most monstrous thing you'll run into here), but Yancey manages to make him an object of humor and of pity, too. Well done!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Gianna's Challenge: the Answers

We're edging up on a week, and no one has spotted the cowbird hiding in the nest. For those of you playing at home, I will now match the descriptions with their titles:

1. In an alternate, steampunk Victorian England, an opium-addicted special agent must help his assistant and the Queen's chief investigator to find a killer.
The Affinity Bridge by George Mann

2. A secret service agent in love with a married woman gets involved with a covert baseball game between the Secret Service and the CIA, and falls into disfavor when he fails to stop the White House chef from serving Spam to the President and an honored guest.
Night of the Avenging Blowfish: A Novel of Covert Operations, Love, and Luncheon Meat by John Welter

3. Raleigh Hayes, an upstanding citizen of Thermopylae, N.C., and Mingo Sheffield, his needy next-door neighbor are on a two-week odyssey. They encounter a bizarre cast of characters during their adventures, including Raleigh's criminal half-brother Gates, his prison buddy Weeper Berg, and aging jazzman Toutant Kingstree. Their quest is to recapture Hayes's ailing father, who has escaped from the hospital with a young black woman in a recently-purchased Cadillac convertible, and who has left Raleigh a strange set of tasks to fulfill before a planned rendezvous in New Orleans.
Handling Sin by Michael Malone

4. Frank has built an elaborate device in a giant clock wherein a different death awaits the wasp put into it behind each number. He believes the death 'chosen' by the wasp predicts something about the future. He kills other animals as well, and uses their bodies to "protect" his territory. He occupies himself with his rituals and an array of weapons to control the island and occasionally gets drunk with his dwarf friend Jamie in the local pub. Frank's older brother Eric is in an insane asylum. He escapes and rings Frank from phone boxes informing him he is coming to visit.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

5. A scientist in a surrealist society kidnaps children to steal their dreams, hoping that they slow his aging process. When his little brother is kidnapped, a strongman joins forces with a young girl to rescue the children.
City of Lost Children directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro

6. A pilot for a cosmetics company crashes the company plane while having sex. This event causes him to be blacklisted from flying in the United States, so he accepts a lucrative offer from a doctor-missionary on a remote Micronesian island to transport cargo to and from the island and Japan. He moves to the island, along with a male Filipino transvestite navigator and a talking fruit bat.
Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore

7. When their traveling circus begins to fail, a couple devise an idea to breed their own freak show, using various drugs and radioactive material to alter the genes of their children. The results are a boy with flippers for hands and feet; Siamese twins; a hunchbacked albino dwarf; and the normal-looking baby of the family who has telekinetic powers.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

8. Doug Hoover never liked work and he changed jobs and women frequently. Dissatisfied with his current life, he hooks up with Sue Jean and takes off. When he comes to the end of his journey, a wonderful town where everything costs a nickel, he realizes he has died and must decide whether or not to go back in another form. Some of the people he discusses this with are Billy the Kid, the Red Baron, and assorted Wild West and World War I aces. The heaven they are in has cars, dogs, cats, ribs, saloons, and sex.
The Hereafter Gang by Neal Barrett, Jr.

9. Since the death of his young daughter, a successful children's book author has begun seeing the fantastical creatures from his book come to life. He's also being stalked by a lunatic who claims to be his biggest fan.
Zod Wallop by William Browning Spencer

10. The president agrees to appear in a series of dangerous illusions for a magician. All seems well, but when the president dies mysteriously hours later, the magician has to flee the country. Pursued by hapless of FBI agents, he falls in love with a beautiful blind woman and confronts an old nemesis bent on destroying him.
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

11. Recovering from the death of his wife, Jack, an engineer living in Austin, Texas, meets and falls in love with Lily, a perfect beauty except, perhaps, for her wings and clawed bird-feet. Lily is the goddess of the moon and can meet Jack only when the moon is full, and then only if he awaits her outside, stark naked. When this requirement leads to his being arrested for indecent exposure, a motley crew of friends comes to his aid.
Lunatics by Brad Denton

12. In the hospital recuperating from an attack by a rabid squirrel, Hap wonders why his best friend hasn't been by to visit. Turns out that Leonard, upset by his boyfriend leaving him, goes to the biker bar and beats Raul's new man up.When the biker turns up dead later that night, it doesn't take long to guess who the primary suspect is--especially with Leonard nowhere to be found. After Hap checks himself out of the hospital and finds Leonard hiding in his bed, they stumble onto a conspiracy involving gaybasher pornography and Leonard's ready to exact some vigilante justice.
Bad Chili by Joe R. Lansdale

13. A split-brained data processor is summoned by a deranged scientist and his granddaughter and told that the scientist has devised a perfect secret code by operating on the brains of selected computer workers. Alternating between these encounters with the scientist, the scientist's granddaughter, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, and various thugs, librarians, subterranean monsters and bully-boys bent on finding out what he knows, there is the story of the ancient walled town at the end of the world.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

14. In a near-future city, there's a private dick in a world where asking questions is taboo,leaving memory as his sole resource. Government-distributed mind-altering drugs are everywhere, and each citizen carries to keep track of his or her karma points. Most of the menial work is done by genetically engineered English-speaking, bipedal "evolved" animals, and a kangaroo is gunning for the detective.
Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

15. A highly unorthodox detective and a conjurer by profession whose act has fallen on hard times has cracked some of the city's most notorious murders. Now, he's leading the investigation into a shadowy religious group aiming to overtake London and do away with its oppressive, bourgeois tendencies. His partner—a giant, milk-swigging mute—doesn't appear to be human at all, yet serves as the detective's moral as well as intellectual compass.
The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

Description #5, although just as odd and compelling as the others, is, in fact, a movie, not a book. The others, in all their glorious awesomeosity, are among my favorite reads.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

August Reads



August was a slow reading month. I'm going to go ahead and blame the heat. A mere 18 books last month (putting me at 191 for the year), but some of them were doozies: Ernest Cline's love letter to 80s nerd-dom, Sam Irvin's unputdownable book on Kay Swift, Steve Martin's latest novel (is there anything that man can't do?) Avi Steinberg's story of his time as a civilian librarian in a prison. Plus, now I have to track down James Reston's other books, especially Dogs of God, his book about the Spanish Inquistion (cue Monty Python jokes here).

Bujold, Lois McMaster Cryoburn

A new Vorkosigan story is always cause for celebration. Imperial Auditor Vorkosigan is sent to investigate a planet where cryogenics is the norm and, via companies holding their proxies, the dead can vote. A botched kidnapping attempt gets Miles involved with a local kid and an off-the-grid cryo-facility and more twists and turns than you can shake a stick at. There's also a powerful set-up for the next book in the series which breaks my heart, yet I can't wait to read.

Cline, Ernest Ready Player One

For its audience, this is near-about perfect. Games, quests, nostalgia, programming, hacking, trivia, movies, TV, computers—if you're into any of this, check it out. If you were into it in the 80s, stop reading this and read it right now. My full-length review can be found at RevolutionSF.com.

Elton, Charles Mr. Toppit

A severely (albeit comedically) dysfunctional family is turned inside out when the father, an unsuccessful screenwriter and author of a not-terribly-popular series of kids books, is run over and dies. Suddenly the American woman who rode to the hospital with him is an indispensable part of the family, the cranky German lady who illustrated the books is feeling left out and pushing her way into the funeral plans, and the 2 kids,brother and sister, are left on their own. The main character in the books was named after the brother (to his mortification) and the sister was not mentioned at all, which has torn at her mind. The key to everything is a third child who died and is never talked about. Interesting story and characters, but it was sold by quote and description as hilariously funny, which it wasn't, at least for me.

Finn, Mark Road Trip

A hitchhiker who looks like Elvis is picked up by a vintage pink Cadillac driven by a bitter and angry Cupid. They road-trip down to Texas to try to find Cupid's mom, rumored to be living in a trailer park near the beach. There's a lot here about old gods and new gods and how gods come into being and fade away, but truly I was charmed by cranky, foul-mouthed Cupid.

Gaiman, Neil The Graveyard Book

Clever readers will notice that this book popped up on last year's list as well. Stuck with a lack of new reading material, I picked up an old favorite for a re-read. It holds up very well, indeed. Bod's story is perhaps Gaiman's most effective book because it's his most accessible. Humor, horror, life, death, and through it all, love.

Golding, William; Wyndham, John; Peake, Mervyn Sometime, Never: Three Tales of Imagination


A story each by William Golding ("Envoy Extraordinary"), John Wyndham ("Consider Her Ways"), and Mervyn Peake ("Boy in Darkness") on the theme of imagination, all top-notch. Golding gives us a man thinking far ahead of his time in ancient Rome and the unexpected problems he encounters. Wyndham imagines a future without men, and Peake takes a lost boy on a surreal and dreamy trip involving human/animal hybrids and a mad animal king.

Greenburg, Martin H. and Silverberg, Robert The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse

Science fiction has long been fascinated with apocalypse stories, and this is a good collection of same. The stories are from a wide range of eras, yet don't seem dated. A particular favorite is Nancy Kress's “By Fools Like Me.”

Irvin, Sam Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise

I had no idea who Kay Thompson was, other than the connection to Eloise, and now having read the book, I can say with authority that my ignorance was a crime. What a fascinating person! Beyond her own eccentric personality, she knew EVERYBODY. And I mean everybody: Judy Garland (she was Liza's godmother), Danny Kaye, Cole Porter, Bogie and Bacall, Orson Welles, Gene Kelly, Andy Williams, Halston, Yves St. Laurent,...the list goes on and on. Staggeringly talented, brimming with ideas, and her own worst enemy—I couldn't put it down, and I can't wait to see Funny Face.
(If you're curious about Kay Swift, try Katharine Weber's The Memory of All That--Weber is Kay Swift's granddaughter and a mighty fine novelist to boot.)

Johnson, Angela A Cool Moonlight

8-year old Lila has xeroderma pigmentosum, which renders her deathly sensitive to light. She narrates the story of her reversed life in a dreamy, poetic way that's impossible to put down. Although she longs for the sun, she eventually embraces her role as “the moon girl.”

Martin, Steve An Object of Beauty

In his third novel, Martin takes us on a tour of the art world from the late 1990s to today, following the career of Lacey Yeager, a take-no-prisoners girl determined to come out on top. Martin tells us Lacey's story through the eyes of Daniel Franks, art writer and friend of Lacey. There's a great deal about art, both the business of it and the, well, art of it—the elusive qualities that make a painting great. It's a fascinating story, both funny and sad, and I didn't want it to end.

Reston, James Defenders of the Faith

A history of Europe and the Middle East at the end of the Renaissance/beginning of the Reformation, focusing mainly on Suleyman and Charles V, both officially Defenders of the Faith for their respective religions. Quick-moving and very readable, Reston's book makes clear just how close we came to Muslim rule up to the Rhine river during this time. There was so much waffling, back-stabbing, arrogance and intrigue going on, it's a wonder Christianity and European culture survived at all.

Rushdie, Salman Luka and the Fire of Life

Haroun Khalifi had his adventure in the marvelous Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Now it's little brother Luka's turn, and the stakes are much higher. Their father is dying, and Luka must journey through the same world as his brother did and steal the Fire of Life to save his father. There's a lot to love here: Luka is a great character, the language is beautiful, there's a sense of humor to go along with the sense of wonder. That said, I just didn't like the videogame concept, and, although the stakes were higher, I found the story weaker than Haroun's. It was still an enjoyable read, just not as enjoyable as Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Skye, Obert Leven Thumps and the Whispered Secret

As with the first book in the series, there's not a whole lot new here: child treated badly discovers that he has powers and ends up on a quest. But also as with book one, the way that the story is told is quick and entertaining and fun. Clover is an awesome character, and the fact that he will be directly threatened in the next book could easily deepen the emotional impact of the story.

Skye, Obert Leven Thumps and the Eyes of the Want

Leven's story continues to that mid-series, everything falls apart, how-will-we-ever-get-out-of-THIS-one point. Somebody's been lying, and everyone is suspect. Leven meets the Want, who is an irascible loony and he tells Leven that Geth has been lying to him. Geth & Winter have been captured by Geth's one-time ally Azure, who tells Geth that the Want has been working towards the destruction of Foo. Given that we're at a depressing part of the story, the humor now seems forced and unpleasant. I'm no longer sure that I want to find out what happens to these people.

Steinberg, Avi Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

A most excellent opening paragraph leads the way into a a book that's part memoir, part expose, and part biography of the prisoners Avi meets. It's funny and fascinating, but it's also thoughtful and poignant. If you're looking for answers one way or the other about prisoners and the prison system, this isn't you book. But if you're looking for a chance to meet some interesting people and see the impact of prison on them, them on prison, and all of it on a civilian employee, then definitely give this one a try. (P.S. The book cover, with Steinberg's portrait created entirely out of library date stamps, is to die for.)

Travers, P.L. Mary Poppins

Long one of my favorite movies, this was my first reading of the book, and I was nervous. There's nothing worse than really wanting to like something and just not being able to. Luckily, I very much liked the book. The book's Mary Poppins is delightfully vain and brusque. Although you eventually realize that she does really care for the children, it's not as obvious as Julie Andrews made it. Plus, Mr. Banks isn't nearly so much of a twit.

VanderMeer, Jeff and VanderMeer, Ann The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

I fell head over heels for the first Lambshead collection, and I'm loving this one, too. Many top-notch authors explicating individual treasures from the famed doctor's infamous cabinet or denouncing conspiracies involving same. I love the playfulness, and the editors do an outstanding job of creating a unifying voice. I only wish there was more from my one true love, Dr. Buckhead Mudthumper.

Willingham, Bill Fables 13: The Great Fables Crossover

After leaving (being kicked out) of the Fables narrative, con man Jack has had his own series, where he learned some of his origins and also of a threat to the Fables. This is what happens when Jack crosses back into the lives of our Fables, bringing with him someone who can change their reality at the stroke of a pen—or erase them entirely. You will never forget the sight of Bigby Wolf as the angriest little blonde girl you're ever likely to meet.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Challenge for Gianna




Recently, after I mentioned the title of a book I had enjoyed ( One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead" by Clare Dudman), my friend Gianna said that she'd never heard of it. In fact, she insisted, she'd never heard of ANY of the books I talked about, and she accused me of making them up. So I thought I'd create a little challenge. I'm going to post a bunch of descriptions. Most will be of books that I've enjoyed (all released in the US, most from major publishers). One will not. Can you spot the thing that's not like the others? No fair Googling!

1. In an alternate, steampunk Victorian England, an opium-addicted special agent must help his assistant and the Queen's chief investigator to find a killer.

2. A secret service agent in love with a married woman gets involved with a covert baseball game between the Secret Service and the CIA, and falls into disfavor when he fails to stop the White House chef from serving Spam to the President and an honored guest.

3. Raleigh Hayes, an upstanding citizen of Thermopylae, N.C., and Mingo Sheffield, his needy next-door neighbor are on a two-week odyssey. They encounter a bizarre cast of characters during their adventures, including Raleigh's criminal half-brother Gates, his prison buddy Weeper Berg, and aging jazzman Toutant Kingstree. Their quest is to recapture Hayes's ailing father, who has escaped from the hospital with a young black woman in a recently-purchased Cadillac convertible, and who has left Raleigh a strange set of tasks to fulfill before a planned rendezvous in New Orleans.

4. Frank has built an elaborate device in a giant clock wherein a different death awaits the wasp put into it behind each number. He believes the death 'chosen' by the wasp predicts something about the future. He kills other animals as well, and uses their bodies to "protect" his territory. He occupies himself with his rituals and an array of weapons to control the island and occasionally gets drunk with his dwarf friend Jamie in the local pub. Frank's older brother Eric is in an insane asylum. He escapes and rings Frank from phone boxes informing him he is coming to visit.

5. A scientist in a surrealist society kidnaps children to steal their dreams, hoping that they slow his aging process. When his little brother is kidnapped, a strongman joins forces with a young girl to rescue the children.

6. A pilot for a cosmetics company crashes the company plane while having sex. This event causes him to be blacklisted from flying in the United States, so he accepts a lucrative offer from a doctor-missionary on a remote Micronesian island to transport cargo to and from the island and Japan. He moves to the island, along with a male Filipino transvestite navigator and a talking fruit bat.

7. When their traveling circus begins to fail, a couple devise an idea to breed their own freak show, using various drugs and radioactive material to alter the genes of their children. The results are a boy with flippers for hands and feet; Siamese twins; a hunchbacked albino dwarf; and the normal-looking baby of the family who has telekinetic powers.

8. Doug Hoover never liked work and he changed jobs and women frequently. Dissatisfied with his current life, he hooks up with Sue Jean and takes off. When he comes to the end of his journey, a wonderful town where everything costs a nickel, he realizes he has died and must decide whether or not to go back in another form. Some of the people he discusses this with are Billy the Kid, the Red Baron, and assorted Wild West and World War I aces. The heaven they are in has cars, dogs, cats, ribs, saloons, and sex.

9. Since the death of his young daughter, a successful children's book author has begun seeing the fantastical creatures from his book come to life. He's also being stalked by a lunatic who claims to be his biggest fan.

10. The president agrees to appear in a series of dangerous illusions for a magician. All seems well, but when the president dies mysteriously hours later, the magician has to flee the country. Pursued by hapless of FBI agents, he falls in love with a beautiful blind woman and confronts an old nemesis bent on destroying him.

11. Recovering from the death of his wife, Jack, an engineer living in Austin, Texas, meets and falls in love with Lily, a perfect beauty except, perhaps, for her wings and clawed bird-feet. Lily is the goddess of the moon and can meet Jack only when the moon is full, and then only if he awaits her outside, stark naked. When this requirement leads to his being arrested for indecent exposure, a motley crew of friends comes to his aid.

12. In the hospital recuperating from an attack by a rabid squirrel, Hap wonders why his best friend hasn't been by to visit. Turns out that Leonard, upset by his boyfriend leaving him, goes to the biker bar and beats Raul's new man up.When the biker turns up dead later that night, it doesn't take long to guess who the primary suspect is--especially with Leonard nowhere to be found. After Hap checks himself out of the hospital and finds Leonard hiding in his bed, they stumble onto a conspiracy involving gaybasher pornography and Leonard's ready to exact some vigilante justice.

13. A split-brained data processor is summoned by a deranged scientist and his granddaughter and told that the scientist has devised a perfect secret code by operating on the brains of selected computer workers. Alternating between these encounters with the scientist, the scientist's granddaughter, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, and various thugs, librarians, subterranean monsters and bully-boys bent on finding out what he knows, there is the story of the ancient walled town at the end of the world.

14. In a near-future city, there's a private dick in a world where asking questions is taboo,leaving memory as his sole resource. Government-distributed mind-altering drugs are everywhere, and each citizen carries to keep track of his or her karma points. Most of the menial work is done by genetically engineered English-speaking, bipedal "evolved" animals, and a kangaroo is gunning for the detective.

15. A highly unorthodox detective and a conjurer by profession whose act has fallen on hard times has cracked some of the city's most notorious murders. Now, he's leading the investigation into a shadowy religious group aiming to overtake London and do away with its oppressive, bourgeois tendencies. His partner—a giant, milk-swigging mute—doesn't appear to be human at all, yet serves as the detective's moral as well as intellectual compass.

I'll post the book list after everyone has had a chance to guess.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

July Reads




Summer is in full blast now (or should I say blast furnace), and any time spent outside causes me to wilt like the delicate flower that I am (shut up, Klaw). In times like this, the only thing that makes sense is to stay indoors and get to reading. 27 books make this month's list, ranging from silly, gross schoolday tales to true stories of some extraordinary women. Both The Tin Ticket and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should not be missed and Margaret Atwood's In Other Worlds was a sheer pleasure to read. Fictionally, it's safe to say that I'm completely hooked on George Mann and can't wait to get my hands on The Osiris Ritual. For those keeping count, I think this brings my total to 173 books read since January. That's a lot of books!


Anderson, M.T. The Game of Sunken Places

Called to visit an eccentric uncle, 2 boys find themselves competing in a game that no one can (or will) explain. Some adventure, and a couple of likeable characters, but overall an unpleasant bunch of folks to spend time with.

Atwood, Margaret In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

In this collection of essays and reviews about science fiction, Atwood proves herself to be an savvy writer, a deep reader, and a charming companion. Elegant and wide-ranging, insightful and humorous—it's a delight to spend time in Ms. Atwood's company.

Black, Holly & Justine Larbalestier Zombies vs. Unicorns

Back in 2007, Black and her co-editor Justine Larbalestier began an argument over the relative merits of unicorns (Black) and zombies (Larbalestier). This anthology is the culmination of that argument. The stories are good, but the joy of this anthology is the continual sniping between the editrixes before each story. Favorites include Naomi Novik's “Purity Test,” Scott Westerfield's “Inoculata,” Meg Cabot's “Princess Prettypants,” and Libba Bray's “Prom Night.”

Buford, Kate Native American Son: the Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe

Buford takes an in-depth look at the life of Jim Thorpe. She wades admirably through the layers of myth and legend and gives us a portrait of a greatly gifted man who was victimized by others, but who also caused or worsened many of his problems through his own behavior. Buford also gives a detailed portrait of Native American life at the turn of the century and the government and society's attitudes toward Native Americans.

Cremer, Andrea Nightshade

Teen werewolves, along with some other supernatural elements. It's a new spin on werewolves, and there's some interesting story going on. What there wasn't was any indication that this was “book 1 of some indeterminate number,” so the complete non-ending was intensely irritating.

Durham, David Anthony The Sacred Band: Acacia, the War With the Mein 3

You know, until the little “The Story So Far” introduction, I had forgotten just how many plot threads were left dangling at the non-end of book 2. Re-connecting to the multitudinous characters and plot threads without a re-read is not easy, but the characters are so well done and the plot threads are so intriguing that you get all caught up in them anyway. I would have thought that it would take a much bigger book to bring things to a satisfying conclusion, but Durham manages very well. The story moves so fast it fairly sings, and the conclusion is extremely satisfying.

Irwin, Stephen M. The Dead Path

The first flat-out horror book that I've read in a while, The Dead Path really keeps you hooked. It's fast-moving and admirably creepy (and the book cover glows disturbingly in the dark). After a short stint in London, the bulk of the book takes place in Australia, and Irwin is adept at putting a plot that involves the highly British legends of the Green Man into the more rough-and-tumble Aussie language and setting. One thing—if you have a problem with spiders, you might want to give this one a pass. Seriously.

Kakalios, James The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics

It's no secret what drew me to this book: the subtitle is A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World. Math-free? That's for me. Sadly, as Kakalios admits in his introduction, it's not really math-free, merely math-simple (as defined by a physicist). Still and all, it's an enjoyable read. Kakalios is a self-admitted nerd and geek, and he draws his examples and illustrations from comic books. He's got a very accessible, conversational style, and he's not above a bad pun or two. Do I understand quantum mechanics now? No. Am I closer to understanding quantum mechanics? Definitely.

Kinney, Jeff Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

Greg Heffley is back, and his problems haven't gotten any better. Greg's jokes all backfire, his schemes come apart, Rowley is more popular (especially with the girls), and his older brother Rodrick gets away with everything, including making Greg's life miserable. Do you think Greg will ever realize that 98% of the problems he faces are his own fault? Nah, probably not.

Knowlton, Nancy Citizens of the Sea

A compact compendium of facts about the ocean and its critters chock full of gorgeous photos and fascinating tales. Awesome!

Lockhart, E. The Boy Book

School has started up again, and Ruby Oliver is still a pariah. None of her former friends are speaking with her, she has no boyfriend, the whole school thinks she's a slut, and she's still seeing a shrink. When Kim (her former best friend) goes to Japan for a semester abroad, Jackson (Ruby's ex, who Kim stole) starts to get friendly again. Ruby tries to regain her friends, sort out her feelings for Jackson (and Angelo, and Noel) and get some kind of handle on her life. Ruby's not perfect, but she is funny and a delight to spend time with.

Mann, George The Affinty Bridge

Damn you, George Mann! Zombies & steampunk in the same book, and he makes me like it. The man has some kind of infenal powers. The inaugural adventures of Sir Maurice Newbury and Veronica Hobbes is an excellent introduction to the series. A series of murders in Whitechapel may or may not have supernatural origins, so Newbury is called in to investigate. In the middle of this case, the Queen calls him to the scene of a mysterious airship crash which has taken the life of a Dutch cousin. Things are odd at the crash site, with the pilot missing and the passengers perishing while tied to their seats. Is there a connection between the two cases? Zombies, automatons, a smattering of the occult, laudanum addiction, and the revelation that, unbeknownst to Newbury, Hobbes is also an agent of the Queen, hired to keep an eye on Newbury and his addictions.

Perez-Reverte, Arturo The Sun Over Breda

We finally see Captain Alatriste at war, as Spain tries to hold onto its martial glory in Flanders. Despite his worship of Alatriste and a boy's excitement about war, glory, and honor, Inigo learns that there is no glory in war, and honor only in those who fight unflinchingly, because that's what they said they would do.

Raskin, Ellen The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues

Mini-mysteries set inside a larger mystery. Lots of silliness and wordplay, but very dated.

Russell, Thaddeus A Renegade History of the United States

A very interesting way of looking at American history, and some truly fascinating information. But my interests do not coincide with Russell's, and where he spent pages I would have preferred paragraphs, and where he had a few paragraphs, I would have preferred pages. The radical notion that Russell proposes is that democracy isn't about freedom; in fact, it's often more repressive than other systems of government, but the repression comes from the individuals rather than the government. He also takes pains to point out the freedoms we enjoy today that would not have been possible without prostitutes, drunkards, and organized crime. Fascinating stuff.

Sachar, Louis There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom

Bradley Chalkers is the boy everyone avoids, students and teachers alike. He's weird, he's mean, he doesn't do homework, and he doesn't have friends. But then he meets the school counselor, Carla, and discovers what it's like to not be judged and to not have to hate all the time. It's a quick read, with a lot of humor, and Bradley Chalkers will charm your socks off and break your heart.

Schroder, Monika Saraswati's Way

Akash has a gift for math, but his family is in debt and cannot afford to continue his schooling. When his father dies, his grandmother gives him to the man who holds their debt, who forces Akash to work at his quarry. When the first payday comes, Akash's abilities allow him to see that he will never be able to work off the debt, so he runs away. Falling in with a gang of street kids, Akash finds himself challenged: exactly how far is he willing to go to earn the money for tutoring? Fast-moving, and Akash is certainly likeable, although you never really get the sense that he won't succeed.

Skloot, Rebecca The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

When Henrietta Lacks, poor and black, went to the doctor because of pain, a doctor took a sample of her cancer cells without asking her (or even telling her). Henrietta died, quickly and in great pain, and for her family, that was the end of it. For doctors, however, the story was only beginning, because Henrietta's cells lived on, becoming the first strain of cells hardy enough for testing and experiments. Doctors, hospitals, and labs around the world made great breakthroughs (and, not incidentally, a ton of money), while Henrietta's family couldn't even afford health insurance. Skloot covers issues of privacy and ownership and scientific gain, but the heart of this story is Henrietta's family, cut off and wounded, and their rediscovery of their mother.

Starr, Douglas The Killer of Little Shepherds

Although certainly not the first serial killer, Joseph Vacher was the first to be caught using what we would think of as the modern tools of criminal investigation: careful autopsy, scientific testing, profiling, and correlation of data from different areas. Vacher was an odd and interesting killer, but the real fascinating stuff here is the birth of modern forensics and the personalities involved in it. Good read!

Stine, R.L. Rotten School 4: Lose, Team Lose

Early chapter book for kids with no supernatural bits and no horror (except for the gross-out factor of frequent hurling or a gassy bulldog). Bernie tries to turn around the football team's losing season and ends up having to spend time with Jennifer Ecch, who's totally, horribly in love with him. Light and funny with some terrible puns (i.e., Coach Manly Bunz).

Stine, R.L. Rotten School 5: Shake, Rattle, and Hurl

Bernie schemes to win the school talent show by using Chipmunk, the shyest kid in school. Fast-moving shenannigans and a hero who just won't quit.

Stine, R.L. Rotten School 6: The Heinie Prize

Bernie's slave, er, friend Belzer gets a letter telling him his parents are tired of hearing about Bernie, so they're going to pull him out of school. Unwilling to loses a well-trained slave, Bernie pulls out all the stops to make sure Belzer wins the Heinie Prize for outstanding student.

Swiss, Deborah J. The Tin Ticket

Just prior to the reign of Queen Victoria, the British government attempted to solve two of its problems (the threat of losing its Australian colonies due to a lack of colonists and a massive underclass of working poor forced to steal simply to survive) by transporting its prisoners to the far-flung colonies and forcing them to serve their time there. Some 25,000 of these transportees were women (their dependent children were often transported, too), most convicted of petty theft. Their lives in Britain were miserable and cruel, prison was worse, the transport itself was dangerous, and the life awaiting them was no improvement. Swiss uses the stories of a few women to illustrate the whole situation, and does a remarkable job. It's impossible to read about these women's lives and not be moved by their sheer stubborn survival. Awesome book.

Thomas, Scarlett Our Tragic Universe

Intricate character detail and some heady science and philosophy about heaven, hell, and the nature of existence weakened by an insistence that, if a novel has a plot, it is generic and somehow inherently less (artistic, literary, worthy) than one solely concerned with ideas.

Tolan, Stephanie S. Surviving the Applewhites

Jake Semple has been thrown out of every school he's been put into, the last time, it's rumored, for burning the school down. As a last ditch effort, he's sent to the Applewhites, a disgustingly creative family (mom's a writer, dad's a director, the kids are dancers, sculptors, etc.) whose kids are given free reign over their own education. E.D., the only non-artistic Applewhite, is also the only Applewhite who cares about schedules, organization, school, & she & Jake clash from the start. There's a lot of humor in the Applewhite's chaotic household, but there are a lot of jerks, too. Everyone is selfish, forgetful, and neglectful, and dad's an outright jackass. Sure, they all pull together to put on a show out in the barn, but you never get a sense that they have any idea just how awful they've been to Jake, to E.D., and especially to 4-year old Destiny.

Trevino, Elizabeth Borton de I, Juan de Pareja

Juan de Pareja was born a slave in 17th century Spain. When his mistress died, he was sent with the rest of her goods to her nephew, the painter Diego Velasquez. Despite their differences in station, the two men become friends, and eventually Juan becomes an artist in his own right, despite it being illegal to teach a slave any of the arts. Very interesting story, with a lot of detail about life in Spain and Italy during that time.

Yovanoff, Brenda The Replacement

Mackie Doyle is an outcast at school—too pale, eyes too dark, sickly, faints at the sight of blood. He hates being different, but the thing is, he IS different. Mackie Doyle isn't really Mackie Doyle at all—he's a replacement, left behind when the real Mackie was taken away, never to be seen again. Kids have always gone missing in Gentry, but now it's the little sister of a girl Mackie likes and he's determined to get her back. Along the way he meets his own people and discovers the dark secret that links his people and the town of Gentry.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The June Book List




July 1st, and y'all know what that means: it's time to share my erratic reading journey once again. I'm all over the map this month: history, classics, literary fiction, SF, horror, biography, and so on. I'm really intrigued by the idea behind the Pulp History series (represented on the list by David Talbot & Spain Rodriguez's collaboration Devil Dog) and I'm looking forward to trying some more of them out. Goodness knows I'd have been more likely to sit down and read a history book if it looked like that when I was a kid. I also really loved my second go-round with Matthew Dicks. He has a gift for making really outrageous situations seem plausible, plus he makes me laugh. Annie Jacobsen's history of Area 51 was right up my alley (those who remember my bookstore days will perhaps remember my fondness for the Insurrection/Conspiracy section), and I plan a more in-depth review of it, but if I had to pick a favorite, I think it would be the ARC of George Mann's The Immorality Engine. Tell the truth, Jim: you were reading the description, got to the words "seedy opium den," and automatically thought of me. Well you were right on, because that was pure fun to read. I've got The Affinity Bridge sitting on my stack even as we speak, and I can't wait.

So without further adieu, let me introduce you to the 22 books I read in June:


Atwood, Margaret The Penelopiad

Atwood re-imagines The Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope and the 12 young maids who were hanged upon Odysseus' return. Interesting, funny feminist twist with points to make about sex roles, history, and myth-making.

Burgess, Matt Dogfight: A Love Story

Alfredo Batista is 19-years old. He's a small-time weed dealer and he's broke, which means he can't do a lot for his 7-months pregnant girlfriend, Isabel. His violent older brother is about to be released from prison, and even if he doesn't believe that Alfredo ratted him out (as the rest of the neighborhood does), he's not going to be thrilled to find out that Alfredo got Isabel (who was HIS girlfriend) pregnant. Funny and sad.

Cleary, Beverly Dear Mr. Henshaw

A boy struggling with his parents' divorce writes a series of letters to his favorite author. Sad and funny and a good quick read.

Conlon, Christopher He Is Legend: an Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson

I'm a Matheson fan, so I came to this anthology with high hopes. I wasn't disappointed. The editor assumes that anyone interested in this anthology is well aware of who Matheson is and is already familiar with his stories. In most cases, the short description of the Matheson story that inspired the new story is enough to jog the reader's memory. Given that “Prey” is my favorite Matheson story, and that Joe R. Lansdale is one of my favorite authors, it's no surprise that “Quarry” tops my list.

Dicks, Matthew Something Missing

Martin Railsback is a thief, and he's very good at it. He is not, however, your typical thief. He takes things you won't miss: a couple of rolls of toilet paper, an extra bottle of Liquid Plumr, the dusty china at the back of your cabinet that you never use, or, brilliantly, one diamond earring. This enables him to return to the same houses over and over again, with no one ever suspecting a thing. Martin researches his “clients” thoroughly, and keeps up with their lives. In fact, he's now come to think of these clients as friends, and one day he takes the unusual step of actually helping out a client. It's complicated and way out of his comfort zone (which is small and OCD-like), but success is intoxicating. Now one if his clients is in real danger, and Martin has to figure out how (or even if) to help. Really funny, with likeable characters and a quick pace.

Ellroy, James The Hilliker Curse

Ellroy's second non-fiction book. The first was compelling and off-putting all at the same time, leaving you fascinated, but not quite sure that you'd ever actually like to meet the man. This one leaves no doubt. Written in clunky Kerouac-ian jive, this is Ellroy's story of the women in his life, starting with the beautiful mother that he wished dead only to have her actually murdered. Unsurprisingly, this messed him up and he's never quite recovered. While Ellroy doesn't shy away from his own mistakes and hang-ups, it's still difficult to connect with him, perhaps because his conversational style seems so artificial and off-putting.

Jacobsen, Annie Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base

Superior documentation, a thorough yet casual writing style and a real “Holy F___balls!” moment make this a treat to read. Jacobson tries to find a balance between the times when secrecy really did save lives and the times when it was simply used to sweep embarrassing (and lethal) failures under the carpet. Is the grand reveal true? I don't know. But it's certainly possible, and I wouldn't put it past anyone involved.

Jamshed, Nabila Wish Upon a Time: The Legendary Scimitar

There's a plot in there somewhere, but the author is far too in love with her own voice to make the journey pleasant. There's some fun stuff here, but over all it's jerky, draggy, and the characters and their motivations are often confusing.

Mann, George The Immorality Engine

I am late to the party on George Mann (this being book 3 & me having not yet read books 1 or 2), but I intend to make up for lost time. DAMN but that was fun (with steampunk, even!)! Check out these elements: Victorian England with steam-driven carriages & airships, seedy opium dens, secret agents, secret societies, reckless thieves, duplicate people, steam-driven shoulder cannons, clairvoyance, the occult, and, at the center of the web, Queen Victoria herself, literally heartless, with only clever machinery and a mysterious fluid keeping her alive. I will acquaint myself with the other books with all speed.

O'Brien, Robert C. Z For Zachariah

A 16-year old girl who lives in a valley believes that she's the only survivor of a nuclear war. She makes do on her family's farm as best she can, until the day she realizes she's not the only survivor. Mr. Loomis, in his early 30's, arrives in a radiation suit. He becomes ill, but as his strength returns, the girl realizes that his intentions are not honorable—he's killed before and won't hesitate to do it again. Very realistic, and therefore very depressing.

Peck, Richard The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts

An old-timey, turn-of-the-century type story told by a boy whose greatest wish (the death of his teacher, Miss Myrt) and greatest fear (his own bossy sister Tansy becoming the new teacher) come true. Hijinks ensue. It's a quaint book, with a lot of humor. Given that it was written in 2004, Peck does a fabulous job of capturing the early 1900's both in description and in style.

Perez-Reverte, Arturo Purity of Blood

Captain Alatriste agrees to help an old ally who has friends wishing to rescue their daughter from a degenerate priest in a convent, even though attacking a convent will put them afoul of the Inquisition. Unbeknownst to them, old enemies are in league with the Inquisition and a trap has been set. Alatriste escapes, but the narrator, 13-year old Inigo, is captured, tortured, and scheduled to be burned at the stake. Alatriste must decide whether to risk himself to rescue Inigo. Poetry, history, politics, religion, honor, venality, degeneracy—what more could you want in a book?

Potok, Chaim The Chosen

Potok's story of two very different Jewish boys growing up in the shadow of World War II is a classic, and justifiably so. Potok plays no favorites, letting the boys discover the pros and cons of their own choices and their own faiths. An absolutely beautiful testament to friendship.

Rhodes, Richard The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Rhodes' exhaustively-researched history makes for some fascinating (if math/chemistry/physics-intensive) reading. He produces as balanced a portrait as possible about the men and women who created the bomb and the reasons that they did. Still, perhaps because of its age (originally published in 1986), I wonder if some of the history might read differently today with some of the more recent declassified documents. In any event, a worthwhile read.

Ribowsky, Mark Ain't to Proud to Beg: the Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of the Temptations

The story of the Temptations is complicated and fascinating. Ribowsky does a good job with the history, and most of the time with the descriptions of the songs (although sometimes he seems a bit over the top). It seems (to me, anyway) to be pretty fair to everyone involved—nobody is a hero, and nobody is completely a villain. Fast-moving and fun to read.

Talbot, David Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America

Devil Dog is the opening salvo in a new series called “pulp history,” where author Talbot and illustrator Spain Rodriguez use a myriad of techniques to tell the story of a forgotten historical figure, in this case Smedley Darlington Butler, one of the most highly decorated Marines ever. It's a fascinating story, covering the Boxer Rebellion, wars in Nicaragua and Haiti and World War I. Butler was a gung-ho Marine, but he was also an intelligent man who questioned the reasons behind his assignments and later used his fame to assist returned veterans being shabbily treated by our government and even to foil a plot against the President. Great story, and an interesting format.

Turner, Joan Frances Dust

Yeah, I know: I said I was done with zombies. It seems like every time I decide that, something comes along that sounds just interesting enough that I have to try it. I'm glad I did. Turner has a fresh take on zombies, and gives us a zombie-eye view of her world. You can't help but root for Jessie, and there are some pretty amazing twists and turns to be had here. It's gross and horrible and funny and sad and an excellent read.

Wilder, Thornton The Bridge of San Luis Rey

An ancient bridge in Lima, Peru collapses, killing 5 people. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan, investigates their lives to try to find out why God took those five people. Although a Divine reason is never found, love, in all of its forms is the bridge connecting both those 5 people and all others. The character portraits are absolutely stunning.

Willingham, Bill Fables 12: The Dark Ages

Having finally defeated the Adversary, a new scourge arises to make life miserable for the Fables. Gepetto has been given amnesty and moved to Fabletown (Pinocchio's price for the information that allowed the Fables to defeat Gepetto), but, not surprisingly, he is not having a smooth transition. His constant complaints about the way Fabletown is run actually make some good points, but no one's paying attention. As Gepetto's magical protection is slowly undone, powerful magic beings that he captured and harnessed are being released, and they're not happy. Mr. Dark, former owner of the Cloak, is awake and wants to punish those who've used it in his absence. He strips the magic from Fabletown, destroying it completely & forcing everyone to the Farm, where they proceed to marginalize the talking animals yet again. The other fallout from the destruction of the Cloak is the lingering illness and eventual death of Little Boy Blue. His friends hold out hope that his story is strong enough to bring him back, but no one knows what will happen. Tons of action, new characters, and further development of those we've already come to know. Fantastic.

Wyndham, John The Day of the Triffids

When a cataclysm that may or may not be man-made causes most of the population to go blind, civilization quickly falls (aided by mobile plants that may or may not be intelligent and may or may not be man-made). We follow William Masen in his attempt to find and make a new life. Ya know, I understand that this was written in the 50s and all, but jeezum crow I wish that all women weren't A) bubbleheads, and B) only useful as baby-makers. Sometimes I can let that go and sometimes I just can't. It's not that Wyndham doesn't have points to make about war, power, and Things Man Was Not Meant To Mess With, it's just that I have trouble following them over the grinding of my own teeth.

Yu, Charles How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Charles Yu is a time travel repairman who uses his time machine to hide from life in this extended metaphor about loss, regret, and connecting. Funny, sad, and very clever.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bad Movies, Good Company



Recently I had the chance to get together with some people that I knew back when I was in college (1984-1988): Leigh, Trina, and Kyle. Our connection back then was The Rocky Horror Picture Show, beginning as fans and eventually leading to the performance cast; in short, we spent an inordinate amount of time running around in darkened theaters in our underwear (or less) shouting profanity at the tops of our lungs. Good times.

Leigh and I were already friends when we met the other two, and Leigh and I kept in touch through the years, remaining friends. Contact with Trina was more sporadic (totally my fault), but we had recently re-connected via mutual friends, a fondness for ArmadilloCon, and facebook. Kyle I had not seen or spoken to since college.

I was curious about the weekend we planned--sure, we had a lot of fun back then, but a lot of time had passed. Would we still have stuff in common, or were we in for a polite yet brutally uncomfortable time together?

The theme for the weekend was Bad Movies (okay, technically it was Bad Movies and Alcohol), with everyone bringing stuff to choose from. As we started unpacking our choices and looking over everyone else's, the conversation took off: categories of "bad", bad slasher films, Troma, SYFY crappy-mutant-monster-of-the-week movies, etc..

As we happily kibitzed and argued and teased each other, it was clear that our shared Rocky Horror past wasn't the only thing binding us together. These are genuinely smart, funny, knowledgeable people, and while are tastes aren't necessarily the same, they do overlap quite nicely. In short, a geek twenty years ago is probably still a geek today, so chances are you'll still have lots of common ground.

Re-connecting with old friends can be a fine, fine thing, because sometimes you need to discuss the relative merits of Sharktopus versus Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (Sharktopus wins, hands down) or reduce the frankly awful Sleepaway Camp to a chorus of "Is it me, or does that chick have man-hands?" or decry the woeful lack of lesbians in a film called Blood Sisters of Lesbian Sin (and no, Lloyd Kaufman, an introductory sequence of you leering at two girls making out does not count).