Monday, March 31, 2014

A Great New Protagonist from George Pelecanos


Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

The Cut introduces Spero Lucas, a new protagonist from George Pelecanos, the creator of such venerable characters as Derek Strange and Nick Stefanos. And as much as I've enjoyed those other characters, I can't wait to read more books featuring this one.

Spero Lucas is in his late twenties, an ex-Marine recently returned home to Washington, D.C. from the war in Iraq. He grew up in a racially mixed household where his Greek-American parents adopted three of their four children. He's devoted to the memory of his late father, who was clearly the strongest influence in his life; he visits his mother regularly and is close to his brother, Leo, a school teacher. His relations with his other two siblings are strained.

Like many other young people who spent much of their twenties in the military service, Spero is anxious to make up for lost time, and he has an eye for attractive women, even though he still may have some things to learn about relating to them. He remains fit and strong and is an avid cyclist and kayaker.

Lucas has no desire to be confined to an office and prefers working for himself. He's now an investigator, working principally for a defense attorney, but he takes on the occasional job recovering stolen property. His cut is forty-percent of whatever he recovers, which makes him a bargain relative to the legendary Travis McGee who always took fifty percent.

As the book opens, an imprisoned drug dealer hires Spero to recover three marijuana shipments that have been stolen from the D.C. crew that he runs from his cell. The crew cleverly Fed-Exes the dope to addresses where then know that the occupants will be away for the day. They then track the shipments on their smart phones and swoop in to pick them off the porches minutes after Fed Ex drops them off.

However, someone's managed to beat the crew to three deliveries within a matter of weeks, and the drug lord wants the thieves tracked down and the dope recovered. Lucas has no moral qualms about people who smoke weed--he smokes the occasional joint himself--and so takes the job. Given the value of the shipments involved, it could mean a huge payday for him.

Naturally, Lucas is now plunged into a world of seedy, amoral drug dealers, and before long, what seemed like a relatively simple investigation has become a complicated and very dangerous morass. A number of innocent parties get caught in the crossfire, and there's a very real chance that Spero's first major case may also be his last.

As usual, Pelecanos is at his best describing the D.C. environs that he knows and loves so well. There are, as always, a large number of musical references, most of them even more obscure than usual. (Or perhaps it just seems so to this reader who doesn't listen to much reggae. Happily, though, I am up to speed on The Hold Steady.) The dialogue is pitch perfect; the characters are all well-developed and the story carries you right along. I've been a huge fan of Pelecanos for years and, as I suggested above, I'm really looking forward to reading more of Spero Lucas.

Getting the Led Out

Led Zeppelin: Visual DocumentaryLed Zeppelin: Visual Documentary by Paul Kendall
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"JIMMY PAGE" the first page essentially shouts as it launches into the guitarist's history without any introduction for the overall book.

Fine. I think we can guess where a book called Led Zeppelin: A Visual Documentary is going. A quick flip through shows that it is set up first to give musician-by-musician background. At this point, a diehard Zeppelin fan will notice that often-neglected bassist, John Paul Jones, does not actually come last this time around! No, each of the band members are "introduced" in the order in which they joined. Fan-books like this have not always been created with great intelligence, but rather blind elation, a sort of groupie's verve. While this book has a love for the Led, it is comforting to know a little thought went into it.

However, when it comes to '70s rock/heavy metal, I've found you can never juice it with enough of the grey matter. Spinal Tap is hilarious for a reason. And so with that in mind, let's continue on into the book. After the band member section, we find Kendall has tossed in, in scrapbook style, a bunch of pictures, none of which come with captions. Most of them are of the band, so no problem there. But there are quite a few pictures of Led Zeppelin's entourage, other musicians, shots of tour guidebooks, ticket stubs, fanzine covers, posters, and buttons, none of which come with an explanation. So what's a fan to do? The answer's this way -->

Laid out between the pictures is a diary-style timeline of the band's history from it's inception to late 1980, when drummer John Bonham died and Led Zeppelin closed up shop (well, at least for a good long while, but that's another story.) The almost daily entries give a synopsis of the band's activities at the time. Sometimes it's no more than:

January 1970
Bristol, Colston Hall

But often the entries are fuller:

December 1975
After completing the album, the group went back to Jersey to continue their tax exile as close to home as possible.
John Bonham, John Paul Jones and Robert Plant return home to spend Christmas with their family, while Jimmy Page flies to New York to mix the soundtrack for the film. [The Song Remains the Same]

Also included are band member quotes along with the timeline's happenings, which will be of immense interest to rabid fans. Occasionally within the timeline can be found information that clears up what the pictures pertain to, but good luck matching them up.

Perhaps the thing that will interest fans the most and make them seek out this little gem is that it was published in '82, less than two years after the band's break up when rumors were rife of them finding another drummer or possibly forming a "super group" with another legendary band also on the rocks. We now know the course Page, Plant and Jones took post-Zeppelin, but it's fun to see the turmoil that was brewing at the time.

A Graveyard For Words

The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever ForgottenThe Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten by Jeffrey Kacirk
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Glory of glories! A book about dead words! HUZZAH!

Some English words are no longer used. Jeffrey Kacirk poured through old dictionaries and found some gems. Let's go already!!! --->>>

Roozles: Wretchedness of mind; the "miserables".

Quanked: Overpowered by fatigue.

Spermologer: A picker-up of trivia, of current news; a gossip-monger; what we today would call a columnist.

Beblubbered: Swollen.

Puke-stocking: "Wilt thou rob this…puke-stocking [knave]?" 1 Henry IV Here, puke-stocking probably means dark-coloured, perhaps equivalent to puce. That it describes the material of the stocking or hose is less likely.

A few of the words have died, but been reborn…or maybe I mean reincarnated. Have a look...

Spooning: Spooning, in rowing, is dipping the oars so little in the water as merely to skim the surface.

All sorts: A slang term designating the drippings of glasses in saloons, collected and sold at half-price to drinkers who are not overly particular.

Some words could use a more detailed or clearer definition:

Special-bastard: A child born of parents before marriage, the parties afterwards intermarrying.

Spoops: At Harvard College, a weak, silly fellow, or one who is disliked on account of his foolish actions is called spoops, or spoopsy.

Biggening: Uprising of women. SEE Crying-cheese.

All righty…

Crying-cheese: Cheese given to neighbors and visitors on the occasion of the birth of a child.

…and that helped clear up biggening how?

Whereas some words mean just what you suspect (E.G. Egg-wife-trott: An easy jog, such a speed as farmers' wives carry their eggs to the market.), others do NOT (E.G. Babyshed: Deceived by childish tales. [I was sure it meant a place where babies were kept.]

The Word Museum is…scrumtrulescent! A must-read for wordies!

Rating Note: This is a ridiculous 5 stars. This book is not perfect. It's not even great. But it's just right for me, because I like words.

Here's a crusty old video I just re-uploaded for this review. It's of me reading and reenacting some of the words within this book.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Alchemy of Stone

The Alchemy of Stone
by Ekaterina Sedia

Four out of five stars
Reviewed by Sesana

Publisher Summary:

Mattie, an intelligent automaton skilled in the use of alchemy, finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between gargoyles, the Mechanics, and the Alchemists. With the old order quickly giving way to the new, Mattie discovers powerful and dangerous secrets - secrets that can completely alter the balance of power in the city of Ayona. However, this doesn't sit well with Loharri, the Mechanic who created Mattie and still has the key to her heart - literally!
My Review:

What a strange, lovely book. I fully admit that I decided to read this book solely because it features gargoyles. I kind of have a thing for <a href=>gargoyles</a>. I'm pleased to report that Sedia delivered far more than just a favorite (and sadly underused) fantasy species.

The Alchemy of Stone is set in the fictional city of Ayona, built by the magical efforts of the stone-controlling gargoyles. The Ayona of the novel is in the middle of a power struggle, between forward-thinking, steampunky Mechanics and slightly more mystical Alchemists. Caught in the middle are the working classes, resentful of the power both Alchemists and Mechanics lord over them and of their often miserable positions in life. So yes, it is sort of a take on the Industrial Revolution, and revolution in general. It's a nicely constructed world, fascinating enough that I'd be happy to see Sedia write more books in this setting.

But as interesting as Ayona is, it's a backdrop to Mattie's story. Mattie is an automaton, an unusually bright one. She's smart enough to long for her own independence, and to have become as emancipated from her creator as it's possible to be. It's not enough. She wants to be the only one in control of her own destiny, to literally hold the key to her clockwork heart in her own hands and no one else's. It's Mattie's longing for freedom that drives the story, against her own construction and the will of her creator. The allegory there is obvious enough that it doesn't need to be pointed out, and it's effectively, movingly written.

I do wish that the revolution happening in the background had been a bit more than background, that we'd been able to see more of the wider story. But I'm also very, very happy with what Sedia did write, and with a perfectly ambiguous, open, satisfying ending. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review: Kindle Paperwhite (2nd gen)

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

For the last year and change, I’ve split my e-reading between my Google Nexus 4 phone and my Google Nexus 7 tablet and while they’re both excellent devices, reading novels on an LCD screen never really sat well with me. Before I go further, I should tell you that I’m not one of those people who refuse to make the shift from paperbacks and hardcovers to e-ink as I’ve previously been the owner of an e-reading device. I used to own a Kobo WiFi but it unfortunately met its untimely demise in the winter of 2012. Since then, I’ve been hemming and hawing over getting back in the e-ink game but for whatever reason, talked myself out of it.

“Why do you need that?”

“You have a tablet - it’s a waste of money.”

..I’m very good at sometimes talking myself out of things.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Steal Like An Artist

Austin Kleon

Workman Publishing

Reviewed by Nancy

3 out of 5 stars


You don’t need to be a genius, you just need to be yourself. That’s the message from Austin Kleon, a young writer and artist who knows that creativity is everywhere, creativity is for everyone. A manifesto for the digital age, Steal Like an Artist is a guide whose positive message, graphic look and illustrations, exercises, and examples will put readers directly in touch with their artistic side.

My Review

This eye-catching little book was wedged into the corner of one of the couches in the student lounge where I work. I was there for a cup of coffee, and since it was a rather slow day, I decided to pick up the book and read.

There’s a lot of common sense stuff in here for all types of creative people. You don’t have to be an artist or writer to benefit from these inspirational bits. They can help those who want to be more creative at work, or find room in one’s life for a hobby when time is in short supply. There are other tips for managing one’s life in order to be able to spend the time doing creative and fulfilling work.

I really like this advice:

"Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. You need to spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently than you. Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder."

It’s a short, fun book, and not a bad way to spend 30 minutes. Perfect to read in the student lounge, on the bus, or on the toilet.

Also posted at Goodreads

Thursday, March 27, 2014

V For Versimilitude

V for Vendetta

Alan Moore, David Lloyd (Illustrator)

Review by Zorena

Four Stars


A frightening and powerful tale of the loss of freedom and identity in a chillingly believable totalitarian world, V for Vendetta stands as one of the highest achievements of the comics medium and a defining work for creators Alan Moore and David Lloyd.
Set in an imagined future England that has given itself over to fascism, this groundbreaking story captures both the suffocating nature of life in an authoritarian police state and the redemptive power of the human spirit which rebels against it. Crafted with sterling clarity and intelligence, V for Vendetta brings an unequalled depth of characterization and verisimilitude to its unflinching account of oppression and resistance.
"Remember, remember the fifth of November..."

My Review

In a way I'm glad I read Moore's Promethea series before V for Vendetta. It made me appreciate it so much more. It has more depth and far less surrealism and existentialism. I like the stark look of the artwork more then the kaleidoscopic colours of Promethea.

I know a lot of people like to compare the book to the film but these feel like two separate entities to me.
While the film is fantastic in it's own right I get more of a feel for V and the other main characters in the novel. The Evey in the book needs to learn to feel free far more then the self assured Natalie Portman does in the film.
V is more unbalanced but just as poetic as his film counterpart. You get far more glimpses into his psyche.

The totalitarianism rings more true now then it did when the book was written and can also be taken as a bit of a cautionary tale. How much power should and do we allow others to have over us?

I am now sincerely looking forward to reading more of Moore's masterworks then I was before. I also think this book is a great introduction to just how good graphic novels are. Comics, not just for children!

Serial Killer--Who? Me?

The Sixth Extinction:  An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Reviewed by Amanda
4 Out of 5 Stars

Looking for a good horror novel that will keep you up late at night? One that features the most remorseless, inventive, and successful serial killer to ever stumble into the written word? One whose body count grows exponentially as his appetite becomes more ravenous, never sated? One who is so adept at killing that he does so without even seeming to try? Well, I have just the ticket: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is as frightening as it gets, people, and the villain here is us: me, you, and everyone else inhabiting this little blue marble called Earth.

Throughout history, there have been five mass extinction events: the Cretaceous-Paleogene, the Triassic-Jurassic, the Permian-Triassic, the Late Devonian, and the Ordovician-Silurian. All of these involve a cataclysmic shift in environmental conditions, some the result of an external impact. And now Kolbert reports that there may be a sixth extinction: the Anthropocene, caused by the impact of humanity on the environment. Many may believe that this is a byproduct of the Industrial Age, but Kolbert shows us how humans have always had a knack for wreaking wide scale environmental havoc. Always needing and wanting more from our natural resources, we, like kudzu, multiply rapidly, take over every inch of land available to us, and choke out the life that surrounds us.

Kolbert makes the case for recognizing the Anthropocene as a mass extinction event by exploring its casualties and its future victims. As she relates the extinction of the American mastodon, the great auk, and the Neanderthal, as well as the near extinction of the Panamanian golden frog, Hawaiian crow, Sumatran rhino, and several types of bats, one truth becomes increasingly clear: most of these extinctions began to take place when humans entered the environment.

Despite the disheartening nature of the topic, Kolbert writes with dry wit and gallows humor which (for me) always made an appearance at just the right time before things became too depressing. While there is a lot of science here, Kolbert keeps it accessible for those of us who don't while away our days reading scientific journals (you know, while our basic needs and consumer choices destroy everything around us), and her first person narrative keeps it from veering into textbook territory.

There's a lot here that I enjoyed, but three highlights stand out:

1) Kolbert's early chapters about men like Cuvier, Lyell, and Darwin, who were among the first to speculate on extinction and evolution. From our modern perspective, it's easy to forget that extinction, in particular, is a relatively new idea. There was a time when many scientists believed that nothing could become extinct over the natural progression of time; the discovery of fossils began to shift human understanding of the world and of creation. Reading as these men stumble in their understanding of the world, shifting and revising hypotheses, and ultimately discovering that there was a world that existed before mankind is fascinating.

2) The chapters on the sea and corals (which may eventually become extinct, taking with them several organisms that live symbiotically with corals) is particularly interesting for someone like myself who is happily landlocked. For those who don't live near or have a relationship with our seas and oceans, it's easy to see it as a vast nothingness and forget about the world teeming below our waters. The rate of ocean acidification is frightening.

3) The concept of a new Pangaea is an intriguing one. The ease with which we travel to other states, countries, and continents has, in a sense, reconstituted Pangaea in that we knowingly (and unknowingly) introduce new and often invasive plant and animal species into new environments. In doing so, these new host environments haven't developed nature's evolutionary safeguards to keep the balance between predator and prey, often with disastrous results.

While Kolbert makes all of this lucid and entertaining, as well as terrifying, I must admit to some fatigue when I got to the final chapters. Reading about mass extinction can really take a toll on someone whose worldview can basically be summed up as "people suck." Reading such incontrovertible evidence, and knowing that I myself cannot escape the guilt of this accusation, is, in the words of Kolbert on The Daily Show, "kind of a downer." However, we need more downers. We need to be more educated about what we're doing to our environment. Early man deserves a pass: you come into a place and think, "Damn. Look at all these mastodons. We can feast like kings!" So you settle in, live a life filled with mastodon hunts and mastodon meat, have several children, dress them in mastodon onesies, kill more mastodons, always assuming there will be more. After all, you've found the great all-you-can-eat mastodon buffet! You have no concept of the impact your consumption is having on the environment. You haven't seen Disney's The Lion King and therefore don't know of the majestic power of the circle of life (nor of the comedic gold of pairing a warthog with a meerkat). Such days of ignorance should be behind us. We know better, so we should do better.

Although, many of us are 4% Neanderthal because apparently early homo sapiens just couldn't resist the seductive power of a ridged brow. So maybe we're not so smart after all.  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Junky: The Definitive Text of Junky: The Definitive Text of "Junk" by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Morphine hits the backs of the legs first, then the back of the neck, a spreading wave of relaxation slackening the muscles away from the bones so that you seem to float without outlines, like lying in warm salt water. As this relaxing wave spread through my tissues, I experienced a strong feeling of fear. I had the feeling that some horrible image was just beyond the field of vision, moving as I turned my head, so that I never quite saw it. I felt nauseous; I lay down and closed my eyes. A series of pictures passed, like watching a movie: A huge, neon-lighted cocktail bar that got larger and larger until streets, traffic, and street repairs were included in it; a waitress carrying a skull on a tray; stars in a clear sky. The physical impact of the fear of death; the shutting off of breath; the stopping of blood.”

 photo burroughs-post-murder_zps6ca180ec.jpg
William S. Burroughs shortly after shooting his wife Joan Vollmer in the head during a drunken version of William Tell. Were you just drunk Bill or were you on junk too?

Back in January of 2013 I decided to reread Naked Lunch. I hadn’t read Burroughs since college so the dim memories of the first read had very little impact on the second reading. It was like (a virgin) reading Burroughs for the very first time again. Readers have a wide range of opinions about Naked Lunch lurching from the ecstatic high of one of the best books they have ever read to believing the book to be perverted garbage. Burroughs would be thrilled with either reactions because that is what the book is about, creating a reaction. It is probably one of the most creative books I’ve read, but also a book that frequently made me very uncomfortable.

So given the success of my second reading of Naked Lunch I decided to read Burroughs first published work Junky (British title) or Junkie (American title). Burroughs insisted for a long time in calling the book Junk, but the publisher refused to put that label on the book believing that the American public might actually believe it to be just that...junk. Allen Ginsberg is the reason the book even exists. He’d been in correspondence with Burroughs and had been impressed by how intelligent and fascinating Bill’s letters were proving to be. Ginsberg insisted that Burroughs needed to thread his life, from those letters, into a book.

 photo AllenGinsberg_zps26c4206b.jpg
Allen Ginsberg, the man who was determined to see Junky in print.

Thus begins the odyssey of Junk/Junky/Junkie trying to make it into print.

”H and coke. You can smell it going in.”

Bill Lee, starts off selling a few caps to make some extra money. He has a small habit, but nothing more than recreational use. It is under control, more like going to see a movie once in a while or going out for a really good meal. Dealers, even small scale dealers like Bill, soon start to see the desperation of having a full blown habit.

”Doolie sick was an unnerving sight. The envelope of personality was gone, dissolved by his junk-hungry cells. Viscera and cells, galvanized into a loathsome insect-like activity, seemed on the point of breaking through the surface. His face was blurred, unrecognizable, at the same time shrunken and tumescent.”

 photo william-burroughs-shooting-heroin_zps63365a7e.jpg
Burroughs shooting up.

We all know someone odd, someone living an alternative bohemian lifestyle, someone floating in a constant haze of pharmaceutical diversion, but most of us know maybe one or two people that would fit that definition. Bill starts to know so many people that match that profile that it becomes normal.

”What a crew! Mooches, fags, four-flushers, stool pigeons, bums--unwilling to work, unable to steal, always short of money, always whining for credit. In the whole lot there was not one who wouldn’t wilt and spill as soon as someone belted him in the mouth and said “Where did you get it?”

And that is exactly what happens.

Bill gets picked up and it soon becomes apparent that a conviction is imminent. What was jamming Bill up was the Harrison Act of 1914. It was a tax meant to regulate the market, but was interpreted by the law as a way to prohibit the sale of opiates. William Burroughs’s uncle Horace committed suicide just days after the act was passed. He was addicted to morphine, the result of several medical procedures, and he couldn’t face the thought of living without the necessary solace of the drug.

A good lawyer gets Bill bail, based on his good family name, and Bill knowing he can’t handle jail heads for Mexico. Due to stress or just having the ready access to drugs soon has him becoming a full time junky. When he is on junk his sex drive is diminished, but when he is off the junk his libido becomes as all consuming as getting his next fix.

”Angelo’s face was Oriental, Japanese-looking, except for his copper skin. He was not queer, and I gave him money; always the same amount, twenty pesos. Sometimes I didn’t have that much and he would say ‘No importa.’ (It does not matter.) He insisted on sweeping the apartment out whenever he spent the night there.
Once I connected with Angelo, I did not go back to the Chimu. Mexico or stateside, queer bars brought me down.”

Bill likes boys, but he also likes girls, well...pros... like Mary.

”It you really want to bring a man down, light a cigarette in the middle of intercourse. Of course, I really don’t like men at all sexually. What I really dig is chicks. I get a kick out of taking a proud chick and breaking her spirit, making her see she is just an animal. A chick is never as beautiful after she’s been broken. ‘Say, this is sort of a fireside kick,’ she said, pointing to the radio which was the only light in the room.”

Both scenarios...Vintage Burroughs.

 photo Junkieace_zpsd76f6c7d.jpg
An Ace Original published in 1953. Burroughs made one cent on each copy sold. The book now sells in shabby condition for $450 and in collector’s condition for over a $1000.

So after a lot of arm twisting Ginsberg finally convinces the owner of Ace Books A. A. Wyn to publish Junkie. Wyn didn’t like the book, but his son Carl Solomon had done a stint with Ginsberg in a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey and was also lobbying hard for the book to be published. There is a good lesson to be learned here, always use every opportunity to make new connections whether you are in a loony bin or attending an upscale cocktail party. You may find the same people both places.

Ginsberg had the thankless job of editing the book and being the middleman between a disgruntled publisher and a more and more recalcitrant Burroughs. Ginsberg was soon the only person in the equation that even cared if the book made it to print. Finally his dream is realized and the book is published as a paperback original Ace Double or what we used to call in the book biz a 69. The other book on the flip side was Narcotic Agent by Maurice Helbrant which was a nonfiction account of busting drug dealers. Burroughs was at first furious at the pairing, but after reading the Helbrant book he grudgingly admitted it wasn’t too bad.

 photo Narcotic-Agent_zps9234fdf0.jpg

It is impossible to separate William S. Burroughs from Bill Lee (William Lee was his pen name and the name under which he published this book). The writing style in Junky is not anything like Naked Lunch. This book is very accessible, honestly told, and graphically realistic. You will meet a cast of characters with names like George the Greek, Pantopon Rose, Louie the Bellhop, Eric the Fag, the Beagle, the Sailor and Joe the Mex. You will come away from reading this book believing you have a better idea of Burroughs the man. He lived it and he didn’t pull any punches about what it means to be an addict.

”When you quit junk, everything seems flat, but you remember the shot schedule, the static horror of junk, your life draining into your arm three times a day. Every time exactly that much less. “

Being on junk is like resting in the arms of a beautiful woman, but if you stay on it too long those arms become withered and instead of looking into the face of angel you find yourself staring into the face of a toothless crone.

I’m hearing about this new kick called Yage. "Yage may be the final fix.”

If you haven't read my Naked Lunch review it is actually not too bad. Naked Lunch Review

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

This Old House

Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England's Oldest Continuously Lived-In House 
 by Sarah Messer
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This was a mixed bag for me. It's half-memoir, half-history, and I much preferred the memoir part.

Sarah Messer grew up in a centuries-old "red house" in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Her father bought the home in 1965 from a descendant of the original owner, Walter Hatch, who reportedly built the house in 1647. The house was given a patchwork of renovations and over the years, and parts of it were in danger of falling down.

Hatch's will stipulated that the house should never leave the family, but for various reasons, Messer's father was able to buy the home, despite not being a relation. Messer alternates the chapters between her experiences of living in the house and the home's history, which she pieces together through documents.

The colonial history was a bit dry and required a fair amount of skimming to get through. By coincidence, I had recently read another book about Americana, Jill Lepore's "Book of Ages," which handled the history aspect more gracefully than "Red House."

My favorite parts of the book were Messer's childhood memories in the old house and how, as an adult, she and her siblings made efforts to repair and renovate it. There were also some great stories about ghosts who haunted the house, and how Messer herself talked to one of them in her sleep one night. Chilling!

I picked up this book after reading an interview with the author Elizabeth McCracken, who said this is one of her favorite books. While "Red House" won't be a favorite, I did enjoy it and would recommend it to anyone who likes reading about the history of old buildings.

The List of Seven

The List of Seven (The List of Seven, #1)The List of Seven by Mark Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Arthur Conan Doyle, doctor and aspiring author, witnesses black magic and murder at a seance. Soon, he finds himself on the run with Jack Sparks dragging him along. But is Jack Sparks an agent of the crown or an escaped mental patient? And why does a mysterious group want Doyle dead? And who are the people on the List of Seven?

A friend of mine started bugging me to read this in 2004. A decade later, I finally gave in.

The List of Seven is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche written by one of the co-creators of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost. It reads like Tim Powers writing an episode of Sherlock. In fact, I kept imagining Benedict Cumberbatch as Jack Sparks and Martin Freeman as Doyle.

Sparks and Doyle prove to be an effective team. I found Sparks' background incredibly interesting, as I did his sociopathic brother, Alexander. Doyle was a little more capable than Watson is normally portrayed, a master of deduction rivaling Jack Sparks.

This is a throwback to early steampunk, not the style over substance steampunk that's so popular these days. There are appearances by Victorian figures like Bram Stoker, Nigel Gull, and Queen Victoria, and also trains, mummies, zombies, and various other Victoriana, like seances and mediums. Again, it reminds me of Tim Power's Anubis Gates and other works, and also Jonathan Barnes' The Somnambulist and The Domino Men.

The writing itself was pretty good. There was a surprising amount of humor in the dialog. The plot about the cult was nothing spectacular since most cults in fiction have the same goals. The characters of Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack Sparks, and Alexander Sparks eclipsed the plot somewhere around the halfway mark.

If I had to complain about something, it would be the ending, which seems like it was probably changed at some point in the writing process to allow for sequels. It was kind of a copout. Other than that, I have no complaints. Four out of five stars.

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A Simple Plan

A Simple PlanA Simple Plan by Scott B. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hank and Jacob Mitchell and Jacob's friend Lloyd find a crashed plane in the woods. The pilot is dead but he has a duffel bag with 4.4 million dollars in it. The three men agree to sit on the money until they're sure no one is looking for it. But can they keep their mouthes shut? And what will happen when someone talks?

A Simple Plan is the story of three men in a difficult situation that quickly escalates into violence. The underlying theme seems to be how one lie inevitably leads to one more.

The main characters are fairly complex. Hank wants to protect his brother but also wants the money. Jacob wants to buy back his parents' farm with the money but he also wants to please his brother. Lloyd needs the money to pay back some gambling debts and can't wait six months. See where this is going?

Once things start going off the rails, they continue going off the rails for the rest of the book. The first murder is just the tip of the bloody iceberg. How much killing does it take to cover up one murder? Quite a few, it turns out.

Scott Smith's writing packs quite a punch. It's a cut above most thrillers and really makes me wish he wrote more than just this and The Ruins. Much like the Ruins, I wasn't sure how any of the characters would live much longer at the 50% mark.

The series of revelations near the end spell out the book's message: Crime doesn't pay. If I ever find a bag of money in the woods and I have people with me, we're turning it in to the cops. Alone, I could probably handle it...

Four out of five stars. Where's the next book, Smith?

View all my reviews

Monday, March 24, 2014

Alone in Space


Reviewed by James L. Thane
4.5 out of 5 stars

Looking at things on the bright side, if you're the only human being on an entire planet, you've got an awful lot of elbow room. On the downside, though, if even the tiniest thing goes wrong, you could suddenly be up that well-known tributary without a paddle.

Mark Watney was part of a six-person crew that constituted the third manned expedition to Mars. The mission was to remain on the Red Planet for thirty-one days, but six days into their stay, a huge dust storm blew up with ferocious winds that forced the crew to abandon the mission.

As they're racing toward the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) that will take them back to the safety of their orbiting space ship, a long, thin antennae blows free and slams into Watney, piercing his space suit and wounding him. The crew is moments away from disaster but searches through the swirling dust in an effort to find him. Unhappily, the antennae has also pierced his bio-monitor computer, which now flatlines. Watney's bio-monitor computer is networked to those of all the other crew members who see the data and draw the obvious conclusion.

Out of time, and perilously close to losing their own lives, the mission commander has no choice other than to abandon the search for Watney's body. She orders the crew to race to the MAV and the remaining five crew members make a very close escape, reluctantly leaving behind the body of Mark Watney, the first human being to die on the planet Mars.

Except that he didn't.

Those NASA guys make great space suits and Watney's functions exactly as it should have under these circumstances, saving his life and allowing him to live another day. Some minutes later, he recovers consciousness and discovers his fate. His first conclusion is the obvious one: he's screwed big-time. He's alone on Mars, and while he does have the crew's living quarters which survived the storm, it's designed to last for thirty-one days. He has a limited amount of oxygen and water and enough food to last three hundred days, if he rations it carefully.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the next manned mission to Mars is four years away and will be landing way the hell and gone away from the site assigned to Watney's expedition. Additionally, he has no way of communicating either with NASA or with the crew that left him behind. So yup; he's pretty much screwed.

But Watney is a very clever and resourceful guy. He was the mission's botanist and engineer, and he refuses to accept the inevitable. He gets down to work, determined that he will not be the first person to die on Mars if there's any possible way of avoiding it. In the process, he begins a journal, detailing his efforts to survive, and the journal constitutes the bulk of this book.

Though a nerd at heart, Watney is also irreverent, funny and mischievous, and thus turns what might have been a dull, technical treatise into a gripping read. His story is part Apollo 13, part Castaway and a helluva ride. The beauty of the book, which is set in the not too-far-distant future, is that it all makes sense and seems perfectly believable. This is not the science-fiction of Star Trek or even of Arthur C. Clark; rather it's a tale of one man's gritty effort to survive under impossible circumstances that would defeat anyone of lesser spirit.

A special shout-out goes to my friend Kemper. This is not the sort of book I would have ever found on my own, but he wrote such an intriguing review that I not only ordered it immediately, but read it the second it hit my mailbox, rather than letting it sit on my books-to-read stack for months on end. So thanks for that, Mr. K. While I have a couple of minor qualms about the book, I enjoyed the hell out of it and it's an easy 4.5 stars for me.

Introduction to Rocking Your Socks Off

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing the Guitar [with CDROM]The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing the Guitar [with CDROM] by Frederick Noad
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the spine, the title is written so that the words "The Complete" and "Guide to" are very small indeed, so small in fact that when reading the title from a few feet away it appears as if this book is called Idiot's Playing the Guitar. I kinda wanna read that book.

I'm not saying this is a bad book, not in the least! However, it's still a boring old text, regardless of the Idiot's Guide's attempt to fun-it-up with some "kooky" cartoons. Nonetheless, if you're picking up a guitar for the first time, you could do worse than to make this your beginner's go-to text...believe me. The only book I had while learning was one that was nothing more than page after page of chords, hundreds of diagrams of hands on the fretboard. No how, what or why ever explained. This one does a very good at walking you through the basics.

It begins with a bit of history, moves on to explain what a guitar is (remember this is an Idiot's Guide), gives you tips on what to look for when buying a guitar, as well as advice on how you're going to be handling your ax (<- data-blogger-escaped-actual="" data-blogger-escaped-and="" data-blogger-escaped-br="" data-blogger-escaped-for="" data-blogger-escaped-guitar="" data-blogger-escaped-kids="" data-blogger-escaped-music.="" data-blogger-escaped-of="" data-blogger-escaped-playing="" data-blogger-escaped-proceeds="" data-blogger-escaped-rock-n-roll="" data-blogger-escaped-s="" data-blogger-escaped-slang="" data-blogger-escaped-that="" data-blogger-escaped-the="" data-blogger-escaped-then="" data-blogger-escaped-to="">
You can learn the musical staff if you wish (and if you're plaining a professional career in music you absolutely should), but if you're just learning to play for fun or starting a band with friends, tablature - the guitarist's cheat sheet - is provided for every song included in the book for practice.

Every chapter has a half-page section called "Guitar Gods," in which they give a brief rundown of a virtuoso. And it's not just all about popular rock guitar gods either. The book has various sections detailing a number of different styles of music in which the guitar plays a prominent role, and each of those "Guitar Gods" sections includes relevant players to that style.

I'm trying to figure out how I came into possession of this one. My edition is from 2002. That's about 14 years after this kind of basic, intro to guitar playing info would've been helpful to me. I bet my brother bought it and it ended up in my collection when he moved and unloaded some of his crap on me. Oh well, this might actually come in handy. My teenage-aged dreams of being a rock legend have slipped away, but now and then I occasionally like to bust out with "Iron Man," but I am admittedly quite rusty. Running through the songs herein might help oil the ol' finger joints. Plus, I never did learn the flamenco style...Oh good lord, if I learned flamenco my woman would want to make the sweet, passionate love to me all the day and all the night! I'm not sure I've got the cojones for that...

A Faeriely Good Fantasy! (That was terrible, I'm sorry)

Artemis Fowl (Artemis Fowl, #1)Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the get-go it appears Artemis Fowl is going to be about Artemis Fowl, a criminal boy genius with Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction, but then bomb squad-esque faeries take over the story and we end up spending just as much time, if not more, reading about them. That's fine since they're interesting and their story moves with a good dash of fun and excitement.

This is another of those books with a redeemable bad-guy protagonist. We shouldn't, but we do root for him, at least in some way, shape or form. In the natural (or "typical") way of things, that would mean the antagonists are good guys, who we're hoping won't succeed, at least not 100%. I haven't tired of this formula just yet, plus Colfer has handled it well and crafted a fast, short read that doesn't give you much downtime to reflect on any potential faults.

I found this book to be very similar to Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand with its snarky protagonist, its magic-in-a-modern-setting, its fantastical creatures and its infusion of light-hearted comedy (Things slowing down due to necessary exposition? Throw in a fart joke!).

You can tell Colfer did a bit of research into mythology and magical beings, as we see some creature attributes from the old traditions. For instance, I like his portrayal of a burrowing dwarf.

He also had fun with meshing the modern aspects with these old notions, technology with mythology. I've not always been a big fan of that genre (parts of the Ralph Bakshi movie "Wizards" annoyed me the first time I saw it), but Colfer balances and blends the two together pretty well, almost seamlessly.

Rating Note: This was such a strong 4 that I decided to go with 5 stars.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Knife of Never Letting Go

Patrick Ness
Walker Books Ltd.
Reviewed by: Nancy
3 out of 5 stars


Prentisstown isn't like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee -- whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not -- stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden -- a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.

My Review
Young Todd Hewitt is on the verge of manhood and living in Prentisstown, a world without women and where the thoughts of men and “creachers” can be heard.  Todd’s dad died of illness and his ma was the “last of the women”, according to Ben, one of two men who are raising him.  Todd likes to go to the swamp to collect apples, because it is the only place where he can get a break from men’s “Noise” – their secrets, their thoughts, their memories.  While out on a walk with his talking dog, Manchee, Todd encounters a break in the Noise, a pocket of silence.  When Todd and Manchee return home, their Noise reveals what happened in the swamp, and Todd, with Manchee, a packed bag, Ben’s big hunting knife, and his mom’s journal, is sent away from the only home he’s ever known. 

When Todd encounters a girl on his travels, and comes across towns filled with men and women, everything he’s ever known about the world is changed in an instant.  The men of Prentisstown are harboring a terrible secret and will stop at nothing to get Todd back. 

I really wanted to love this story.  It won several major literary awards, including the 2008 Tiptree Award, and a few of my Goodreads friends enjoyed it.  I had reservations about reading this, because it is the first in a series and I knew it had a cliffhanger ending. 

It wasn’t a bad book.  It took me just a few pages to get used to Todd’s language that reveals his innocence and lack of education.  At the same time, he is a very well-developed character, with strong sensibilities, hope, and a will to survive.  From the start, Viola and Todd are bonded together in a quest for freedom and survival.  There is no romance, for which I am thankful.  Since Viola doesn’t have any Noise, she is shrouded in silence.  It takes a little longer for Todd to get to know her, but he eventually does and is able to read her thoughts.   The development of Todd’s and Viola’s relationship is my favorite part of this story.  One thing I am bothered about is there was no mention at all of Ben’s and Cillian’s relationship.  Were they roommates, best friends, lovers?  Why was the nature of their relationship kept a secret, while everyone else’s thoughts were laid open?  Since they were such a significant part of Todd’s life, I would have liked to know more.  

The Knife of Never Letting Go was fast-paced, dark, and compelling.  I liked the plot, the suspense, the world, and the concept of hearing every man’s thoughts while women’s are much more difficult to read.  I would have liked more well-developed secondary characters and less chase scenes.   The story engaged my emotions, made my heart race, and left me exhausted.  It also left me feeling vaguely empty and unsatisfied.  I knew about the cliffhanger at the end, but nearly every chapter had a cliffhanger as well.   At times I felt I was watching a TV show instead of reading a book.  And I won’t even talk about Aaron, the charismatic preacher of Prentisstown, who was one of the most one-dimensional characters I’ve ever encountered in YA fiction. 

Also posted at Goodreads

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What's Wong With This Story?

John Dies at the End

David Wong

Review by Zorena

3 Stars


You should not have touched this book with your bare hands.
NO, don’t put it down. It’s too late.
They’re watching you.
My name is David Wong. My best friend is John. Those names are fake. You might want to change yours.
You may not want to know about the things you’ll read on these pages, about the sauce, about Korrok, about the invasion, and the future. But it’s too late. You touched the book. You’re in the game. You’re under the eye.

The only defense is knowledge. You need to read this book, to the end. Even the part with the bratwurst. Why? You just have to trust me.
The important thing is this:
The drug is called Soy Sauce and it gives users a window into another dimension.
John and I never had the chance to say no.
You still do. Unfortunately for us, if you make the right choice, we’ll have a much harder time explaining how to fight off the otherworldly invasion currently threatening to enslave humanity.
I’m sorry to have involved you in this, I really am. But as you read about these terrible events and the very dark epoch the world is about to enter as a result, it is crucial you keep one thing in mind:
None of this is was my fault.

My Review

What do you get when you cross Christopher Moore's writing style with William S. Burrough's Naked Lunch? You get Wong's book John Dies at the End! When I first saw horror and humour mixed together I said “Sign me up!” I was an avid horror reader but all the books started to blur and then became too gore soaked just to keep people's attention so I love a good stab (yes I know bad pun) at satire on the genre. This book does not disappoint on the gore and gross level.

Where it does disappoint is when it verges on the too stupid, which is a shame as a lot of the story is well written and keeps you tumbling along with some of the more audacious antics. This was certainly aimed at his Cracked audience and doesn't make much effort to reach past them. A lot of scenarios are just one-upmanship in the gross out arena of a previous scenario.

It's not a book I'd recommend to most people but if you like juvenile and scatological humour you'll love it. Yes I chuckled more than once and yes John dies at the end, sorta.

Catnip for Bibliophiles

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan
Published by Picador

Reviewed by Amanda
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

A charming, quietly amusing book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is the literary equivalent of a congratulatory pat on the back in recognition of loving books. "Oh, you read? Well, good for you!" It's a book designed to make the bibliophile break out into a near terminal case of the warm fuzzies, overcome with a sudden desire to break out a blanket, brew a pot of tea or coffee, and settle into a comfortable chair for a day of hardcore reading until--oh, wait!--I'm already doing all of that! Silly me! So the only thing one can do is snuggle into the cushions more deeply and turn the pages more quickly.

Now, for those who know me, that probably comes across as a bit snarky and, to be fair, it is and it isn't. I admit that there's a part of me whose switch isn't flipped by these books that so overtly and blatantly cater to bibliophilia. After all, I'm a lifelong reader and it seems a bit daft me reading a book about loving to read a book. But, damn it, there's a part of me that can't help but be beguiled by it and, if I'm going to go down that road, it might as well be with Mr. Penumbra and crew. Despite a certain predictability and a certain lack of suspense, there's nothing too twee or adorable about it, and the characters are quirky without being too eccentric and are amusing without being too culturally hip, self-referential, and smugly ironic. These are people I wouldn't mind knowing and people I can imagine existing.

Clay Jannon is struggling in his career and in life. A victim of the recession, Clay's once promising public relations career has imploded. Having to redefine his vision of the future, Clay needs both money and direction. He finds both in a "Help Wanted" sign outside of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Thankful to find gainful employment, it takes Clay a while to acknowledge the peculiarities of a 24-Hour bookstore. An excited clientele eagerly returns night after night to check out books from the "Way Backlist," a group of books on impossibly high shelves. The bookstore doesn't so much sell books as loan them to members for purposes Clay can only imagine. It's not long before Clay finds himself embroiled in secret literary societies, an impossible ancient puzzle, an adorable Googler, and a breakthrough that may exist at the nexus of the written word and technology.

I loved the narrator's unusual sense of humor and, despite myself, even grinned over some predictable tropes. So why only a 3? Well, it's more like a 3 1/2. Despite enjoying it, it didn't linger long in memory and the unraveling of the mystery wasn't particularly satisfying. Granted, the mystery here serves as more of a MacGuffin that allows Sloane (via Clay) to wax at length about the glories of reading, whether they be in the form of a book, an ebook, or an audiobook (all readers are welcome here), as well as the glorious possibilities afforded the human imagination through technology, but I still wanted a resolution with more substance given the build-up.

Again, 3 1/2 stars. And I would be lying if I said that half star isn't being thrown in just because of the extra bit of delight in realizing that, when I placed the book on the nightstand and turned off the light, it freaking glowed in the dark! I felt like a 7 year old getting excited over those glow in the dark planetary stickers. I'm telling you, this damn thing is just a giddy machine.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Slumdog City

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is an amazing story about families who live and work in a Mumbai slum. It's one of my favorite nonfiction books I've read in recent years, and I wish the author would write a follow-up so I can learn what the families are up to now.

Katherine Boo spent years reporting in the airport settlement of Annawadi, and the book unfolds like a novel. It's a fascinating look at how the underclass tries to survive and get ahead in a 21st-century economy. One of the things I found most interesting was how the families were constantly fighting with others in the slum, literally over scraps. And the police, the courts, the hospitals -- everyone, really -- were so corrupted that they're all trying to fleece somebody. In the author's note at the end, Boo points out how there was little sense of a shared community, because they were all so desperate to get ahead of their neighbors. In one disturbing scene, a man in the slum had been hit by a car and was left on the side of the road. Dozens of people walked by, but no one stopped to help because they were too wrapped up in their own affairs and couldn't afford to waste time helping him. After several hours, the man had died, and only then did people stop to help pick up the corpse.

Despite the abject poverty, I found the book to be inspiring because so many of the families were hopeful that they could someday rise up out of the slum and join the more prosperous middle class of India. As Boo noted, there were three ways out of the slum: an entrepreneurial niche (like scavenging for scrap metals), politics (meaning corruption), or education. I'm pinning my hopes on Manju, a young woman who will be the first person in the slum to have graduated from college. Rise, Manju, rise!