Thursday, January 31, 2013

Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr.

Rating: 3.5/5

Hmmmm. You know, I get why people might really like this book. It's contemporary fiction with a dash of sci-fi, and it is well-written. It has a reassuring message, even though it's full of tragedy. Everything matters - people want to believe that. The thing is, it doesn't work for me; I'm not buying it. I'm too far gone in my existentialism or fatalism or nihilism or whatever the hell is wrong with me. I mean, at this point, the entire question of whether or not anything matters doesn't matter to me. Things just are. This book attempts to stir something in its audience, but misses the mark (mine, anyway). Currie's trying to sound like he knows the truth about meaning and wants to share his sage-like wisdom, but as a source, he's just not credible. He's pretty young. Maybe he's even a genius like his protagonist, but IQ doesn't equal wisdom. Maybe he's figured out his own truth, and thinks it should apply universally. However it stands, it's a decent attempt, but doesn't quite get there.

The story itself is told from the perspectives of several characters, most of which sound very much alike in voice. One notable exception is the disembodied omnipotent voice that speaks directly to Junior, calling him "you", and conveniently revealing details about everyone and everything that would be more difficult to show in a conventional narrative. We never find out why that voice is there, who it belongs to, and why it's taken an interest in this particular man in this particular multiverse. Even Junior doesn't seem to ask "why me?", he's too preoccupied with what to do (or not to do) with the information he's being given, and what it means about what matters.

There's a lot of exploration of father-son dynamics in this book, which I couldn't relate to. The female characters didn't feel as fully realized as the male ones. The narrative is mostly about the major and minor events of mundane living, and sometimes it got a little boring, occasionally it got implausible.

So these are my complaints. Despite all of that, it's not a bad book. It's often compelling, even when it veers into the fantastical. The relationships between characters were interesting, with good dialogue. I guess the main feeling I have is that this story feels like it's telling you how mind-blowing or heart-wrenching or philosophical it is, but my mind is not blown, nor my heart-wrenched. So maybe it's trying too hard or taking itself too seriously. Or maybe I just don't like how this book made me feel I was supposed to be learning an important life lesson from it. Then there's this line: "Irony is a luxury the doomed cannot afford." Which I totally disagree with. If you're going to hell in a hand-basket, you need all the laughs you can get.

- signed, an overly jaded reader

See my review of Ron Currie Jr.'s Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today by Kate Bornstein

RATING: 3/5

If you're looking to read a memoir about sexual/gender identity, this is a four star book. If you're more interested - as I was - in reading a memoir by an ex-Scientologist, Ms. Bornstein has thoughtfully included a list of such books at the end of hers, because this wasn't about Scientology. Sure, she spent twelve years doing apparently boring work for the Church, and it definitely colored her thinking for the rest of her life. But that's actually the least interesting part of her story, oddly enough.

Bornstein is a unique individual who has had a great number of rare experiences. She writes well, and her ideas have apparently caused a lot of controversy. This book may shock and/or disturb the less open-minded, but how many like that would even read it?

I can appreciate the author's struggles and humor in the face of them, but I do get the sense that she uses that humor to undercut the severity of her pain. Takes one to know one.

The thing is, I really wanted to read a comprehensive and sensational insider's indictement of Scientology. So I was disappointed, and feel a bit misled. Bornstein doesn't satisfactorily explore the effects being in a cult - and it IS a cult - has had on her psychology. She calls her own veracity into question, probably in an attempt to avoid an attack by the Church. I can't blame her for that, but it also makes me sad.

I'd like to ask Bornstein: where is your anger? Even a "beta wolf" as the author calls herself, gets angry, and after everything the world has put her through, I can't imagine she's not been overcome by rage. It's hiding under the jokes, isn't it, Kate? It's too bad she couldn't be honest about it. This book might have been more relatable and compelling. People like to share each other's outrage, but Bornstein doesn't let us. So instead of a hot, soul-baring story, it's luke-warm, defenses-managed one. I say, if you're going to write a memoir, let it be brutal. Still, it took courage to share as much as she did, especially with all the conservative hate in America these days.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Wool Omnibus (Wool, #1-5) by Hugh Howey

RATING 4/5

Wool Omnibus is a collection of the 5 stories in the Wool series. Each story gets longer, with Wool 5 at 60,000 words. To be honest, I preferred the shorter ones, books 1-3, because the last two seemed to gain their length from having so much technical action. That's probably not the best phrase to describe it, but what I mean is that there's SO much "then she stuck this in there and wrenched it around". Every movement Juliette makes is described in detail, which slows down the pace of the story and caused my mind to drift away. The first three parts were not like this, they were concentrated on character psychology and important plot events were described with just the right amount of detail.

Still, overall this series is excellent, and I find it bizarre Howey had to self-publish it. His writing us nearly flawless, and he knows how to create emotionally engaging characters. The dystopian vision is clear and plausible, though I suppose you could nit-pick a few details if you wanted (I won't). I will say that I started to notice most of the male characters had a sort of childlike quality to them. They were emotionally sensitive, sometimes immaturely, where the women seemed practical and less emotional. I don't know if this reversal of stereotyped gender roles was intentional, but it is interesting.

I very much enjoyed Wool Omnibus, and recommend it to fans of science fiction and dystopia. With so much garbage being put out by publishing companies, it's a real crime a great writer like Howey didn't get a book deal. But he did get a movie deal, and I'll definitely be watching that.

Friday, January 18, 2013

419: A Novel by Will Ferguson

RATING 3/5

Well-played, Mr. Ferguson, you have successfully 419'd me into reading a book about Nigeria, a topic I had - and still have - little interest in.

My name is Laura Curtis, and I am the daughter of a middle class American man who has lost everything to a 419 scam! Please, you must read my story!

Every time I was ready to abandon this book because it wasn't about Laura, but other, unrelated (until the end) people in Nigeria, the author would toss me a Laura bone to keep me invested. Ferguson bait-and-switched me into throwing good reading time after bad.

If I were to rate this book solely on my enjoyment of it, I would've given it 2 stars. But I must give Ferguson a half-star for being meta, intentionally or not. Another half star because it's not his fault I'm totally uninterested in Africa. (Lest you think I'm being ethnocentric, I studied world cultures in university, and was fascinated by a lot of them, but the only thing I find intriguing about Africa is the animals. Personal taste, not prejudice.)

This book was well-written, but really not my cup of tea. I have to admit it's disappointing, because Ferguson's Happiness was brilliant. If this book's mimicry of a 419 scam was planned, I'll go ahead and say Ferguson himself is brilliant. I'm just glad I didn't send him my money (library loan).

Monday, January 14, 2013

Son (The Giver, #4) by Lois Lowry

RATING 2.5/5

Kind of a snoozefest, especially the first part. Maybe I would've found it more interesting if it hadn't been so long since I read the others, but I really couldn't remember them. The ending was somewhat anti-climactic, despite being "happy", but at this point I'm just glad to be finished.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Alexandria Link (Cotton Malone, #2) by Steve Berry

RATING 1.5/5

So I decided on a whim I wanted to read a fictional book about the Library of Alexandria, and this was the only one I could find at my library. I'd read The Templar Legacy and given it 3 stars, so I figured I'd give The Alexandria Link a try. Turns out there is very little of the Library in this book, it is more about the search for the location where its contents may have been moved. It's a political adventure/thriller. I gave it a half star because Berry has good grammar and obviously did some research. Too bad he didn't research how to write better characters.

An international cast, and all of them have the same voice, with two exceptions: the good-old-boy president who speaks like a redneck, and Cotton Malone's teenage son, whose dialogue and character were more like a very placid, obedient six-year-old. What adolescent gets kidnapped and witnesses murders and basically just shrugs his shoulders, sits around and says, "let me know when things get resolved"? He must take after his emotionless dad, who thinks his son won't care when he finds out Cotton isn't his biological father.

Cotton's stereo-typically annoying ex-wife gets dragged along through the whole adventure, which makes this the longest escort mission imaginable. Of course she steps into the line of fire several times when she's asked to stay put. Then there's the obligatory fights about their past. Supreme annoyance that Pam is, I actually began to sympathize with her, because there is nothing that drives a person crazier than being in a relationship where your partner is so stoical and emotionally unfaze-able that he treats you with complete indifference. At one point, Pam kicks Malone in the nuts, and after he catches his breath and picks himself off the ground, he mentally shrugs and says "Oh well, I deserved it."

The rest of the characters in this book are bland, stereotypical and/or ridiculous. Stephanie, a 61 year old experienced government intelligence agent, continuously makes irrational, impulsive decisions unbefitting her position. In the end, the President of the United States points out all of her grievous mistakes and then immediately offers Stephanie her job back. At one point, a hired professional kidnapper tells Cotton to take the magazine out of his gun and throw it away, conveniently leaving Cotton with a gun in his hand (and a bullet in the chamber) with which to kill him.

There are just too many nonsensical events in this book, including the plot itself, which is so unnecessarily complicated, it passes into convolution. Maybe some readers get impressed by a plot that leaves them confused ("it must be good, since I didn't understand it!"), but sometimes I think writers use constant plot twists in order to cover up what is lacking - in this case, everything else. In essence, most of the plot that occurs in the United States between government agents is completely superfluous.

My ebook copy had some formatting issues, which made dialogue especially difficult to follow, because there were long stretches of back-and-forth between 2-3 characters with almost no descriptions about who was speaking each line.

And then there was this sentence:

"They stepped inside and stared at the opulence."

In summary, this book was a total bust.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There by Richard Wiseman

RATING: 3.5/5

Pop psychology at its most palatable. Wiseman treats his subject with humor and levity, debunking the paranormal with a wide brush. He gives many sensational historical examples of paranormal phenomena, and explains how they were faked or misinterpreted by the brain. There are some areas of the paranormal he fails to look at, however (remote viewing comes to mind). Having recently read Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable-And Couldn't, I have to say that Wiseman's book fails to reference a great deal of recent research, instead focusing on "famous" cases from history. While it does seem like he's managed to explain away a vast majority of anecdotal paranormal phenomena as tricks of the mind (or tricks of a human illusionist/con artist), I still question the certainty of his conclusion that ALL phenomena has been adequately accounted for. I'm not saying I'm a believer, but that, like author of Fringe-ology, my mind is open to the possibility that there are things still unexplained. I wouldn't expect any author to be able to debunk every single claim in existence, but that might be the only way to convince me the matter is a closed one. Still, this book is entertaining and highly readable (by which I mean it is written to be completely accessible to the "layman" - those with no knowledge of psychology or science). It is non-academic and simplistic, and makes a lot of generalized conclusions.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

UR by Stephen King

Rating: 4/5

I don't know whether it was Stephen King's idea to write about a Kindle or if Amazon paid him a lot of money, but after the first chapter I felt like UR was to be an extended advertisement, drilling the words "Kindle" and "Amazon" into your head. Which would be stupid, since the only way you can read this book is if you already own a Kindle (or can sneak it on to another ereader - cough). But it actually turned out to be a really good story. I got giddy imagining having access to books written by my favorite authors in alternate universes (more Jane Austen? Whee!) This story got all alien-y at the end, and referenced the mysterious dark tower (I haven't read that series yet), but King tends to do that (Under The Dome, anyone?) and it didn't bother me. Probably not in my top five King short stories, but I enjoyed it a lot.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere by Lauren Leto

Rating: 3.75/5

Leto's memoir-ish reading guide is amusing, highly readable, mildly irreverent and ultimately irrelevant. Her only qualification is her avid readership, and though she has read widely, there are gaps in her library. Her stereotyping is funny, but not useful. I would not recommend using this book as an actual guide to impress people, it's more like a parody intermixed with anecdotes illustrating her sincere love of reading. I may not share many of Leto's opinions and attitudes, but I found this book very entertaining.