Review: The Gates by John Connolly (Samuel Johnson #1)

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: October 31 to November 11, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: Steph from Bookish
Recommended for: fans of Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams

♫ Can’t feel my face when I’m with you ♫

Or, you know, an hour after shoveling the driveway and sidewalk in 15° weather with 3° windchill. Good times.

I am blessedly snowed in today and too comfortable to leave the vicinity of my plushy sofa, not after that “grueling” hour outside. Normally I’d read (of course) but the ereader needs a chargin’ and I’ve been neglecting this blog for too long. Apologies for the unplanned hiatus. Part of the reason is real life; I write every day, not about fun things like books, but about annual predictions and other abstract things. So whenever I sit down to write, it feels like work, even when I write about fun things like books. The other part of the reason is I read much faster than I write, oftentimes jumping from one book to the next without a break. Breaks, even short ones, tend to lead to reading slumps for me, so by not stopping, I’ve been able to plow through a great many books in the last couple of months which I will compile in a “catching up” post later.

For now, this book, this charming little book, deserves some attention because it’s pretty damn good. It’s been a couple of months since I read it and it still makes me laugh.

I first encountered John Connolly when I read The Book of Lost Things and loved it. He has a way with words and a lovely, captivating way of weaving darkness into his writing. The story is a fairy tale as fairy tales are meant to be told. It’s chilling, beautiful, and memorable. I expected The Gates to be similar, but to my surprise, it’s a lighthearted hilarious romp through a sleepy town in rural England.

The plot is simple but you’ll have to take it for what it is and not ask too many questions–amateur Satanists accidentally open a portal to hell and a few hellish creatures escape to clear the way for the Great Malevolence; unfortunately for them, precocious 11-year-old Samuel Johnson foils their plans again and again; it’s then up to him, his dachshund sidekick, and a couple of friends to save the world. The writing is a riot, especially the narration and footnotes, almost every page had me laughing out loud. And the characters, main and secondary alike, are endearing.

Although this book was written for a younger (middle-grade) audience, it could be a hit with older readers too. The unnamed narrator is witty and charming and only occasionally patronizing, but that’s for the benefit of older readers. I’m sure much of what they find hilarious would fly over the heads of most middle-grade readers, such as references to debauchery within the Church during the Dark Ages. Another thing I like about the narration is its uniquely British way of telling the story, that occasionally breaks the fourth wall, though not enough to take you of the story. For instance, the way in which the narrator explains natural science, the universe, and the inner workings of CERN is all factually correct but hilariously summed up.

The best thing about this book, though, is its re-readability. I will never tire of John Connolly’s sense of humor.

Rather than continuing to tell you about how great the writing is, I’ll just leave these choice passages here.

Demons

He had never really speculated about this before, since demons came in all shapes and sizes. Indeed, some of them came in more than one shape or size all by themselves, such as O’Dear, the Demon of People Who Look in Mirrors and Think They’re Overweight, and his twin, O’Really, the Demon of People Who Look in Mirrors and Think They’re Slim When They’re Not.

Nurd, the Scourge of Five Deities

The title “Scourge of Five Deities,” which Nurd had come up with all by himself, was technically true: Nurd had been something of a bother to five different demonic entities, but they were relatively minor ones: Schwell, the Demon of Uncomfortable Shoes; Ick, the Demon of Unpleasant Things Discovered in Plug Holes During Cleaning; Graham, the Demon of Stale Biscuits and Crackers; Mavis, the Demon of Inappropriate Names for Men; and last, and quite possibly least, Erics’, the Demon of Bad Punctuation.

[···]

“You know, there’s a demon who looks after the little bit of toothpaste that you can’t squeeze out of the end of the tube, even though you know it’s there and there’s no other toothpaste in the house. There’s even a demon of shyness, or there’s supposed to be. Nobody’s ever seen him, so it’s hard to know for sure.”

[···]

There was a wail, then a splash, followed by a long, smelly silence. Finally, Nurd’s voice spoke from the darkness.

It said, somewhat unhappily, “I appear to be covered in poo.”

Mrs. Abernathy

“I can make it so that you simply fall asleep and never wake up again. But if I choose, I can ensure instead that you never sleep again, and that every moment of your wretched existence is spent in searing agony, gasping for breath and begging for the pain to stop!”

“It sounds like gym class,” said Samuel, with considerable feeling.

The verger and the vicar

“What do we do now?” asked the verger.

“We’ll call the police,” said the vicar.

“And what’ll we tell them?”

“That the church is under siege from gargoyles,” said the vicar, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Right,” said the verger. “That’ll work.”

[···]

“Mr. Berkeley,” said the vicar patiently, “in case you haven’t noticed, the dead have arisen, there are gargoyles bouncing around on the church lawn, and we have been insulted by a stone monk. Under those circumstances, [the deceased] Bishop Bernard’s conversational skills are unremarkable.”

Biddlecombe’s finest

Biddlecombe’s police station was a small building set in a field on the outskirts of the town. It had replaced an older building on the main street that had become infested with rats, and which was now a chip shop that nobody frequented unless they were very drunk, or very hungry, or rats visiting their relatives.

[···]

“We’re going to put a stop to it, Constable,” said Sergeant Rowan, with the kind of assurance that had kept the British empire running for a lot longer than it probably should have.

[···]

Two members of the Biddlecombe First XV rugby team had been swallowed up during evening training when, somewhat against the laws of nature and, for that matter, rugby, a pair of fins had erupted from the ground and the unfortunate players were dragged beneath it by what very much resembled sharks armed with webbed claws for digging. The rest of the team had promptly harpooned the monsters with the corner flags.

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Review: So You’ve been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

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Rating: ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Date Read: April 1 to 3, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: BOTM (book club’s choice)
Recommended for: anyone curious by the title

We were not going to tolerate a resurgence of old-time bigotry, and as a result of our collective fury, Marks & Spencer and Nestlé demanded their advertising be removed from the Daily Mail‘s website. These were great times. We hurt the Mail with a weapon they didn’t understand–a social media shaming.

[…]

I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.

The operative word here being “collective.” When people gather en mass and focus their attention on just one thing, that one thing escalates. It’s human nature, made worse (and easier) by the internet.

This book is interesting but not as interesting as it could have been, which is let down considering it’s written by Jon Ronson. Funny, witty, accessible Jon Ronson and his offbeat choice of topics and his unconventional method of investigation. I was expecting him to dig a little deeper into the concept of public shaming in this age of social media, with the focus being on how and why some things pick up speed and go viral while other things are brushed aside. But instead, Ronson delved into the lives of people who’ve been publicly called out for their (alleged) transgressions, most of which occurred on twitter. He also followed up with these people and discuss how they’re doing now and what their lives are like currently (and existentially) in their post-shame existence.

And these people are Jonah Lehrer (plagiarist), Justine Sacco (AIDS tweet), Max Mosley (former Formula 1 boss), Adria Richards and Alex Reid (donglegate), Mike Daisey (Apple exposé), and Lindsey Stone (silence and respect). Ronson visited with each individual and interviewed them at their leisure. It’s all very casual and friendly. Ronson gave them each a chance to share their side of the story and explain the events leading up to their public shaming, which the internet was particularly not interested in hearing at the time (or ever?). There’s no judgment or dissection of anyone’s conduct or intention; all Ronson wanted to know was how their fall of grace played out on the internet, how that event affected them during and afterward, and how they’re dealing with it now. Like I said, very casual and friendly and on the surface.

The weakest part of the book is the ending. Ronson doesn’t wrap things up in a conclusive manner. He leaves a lot hanging about, as a matter of fact. Which is why I don’t know what to make of this book.

Reading this book and following along on Ronson’s journey was a lot like reading a tabloid magazine in the sense that I didn’t learn anything new, but I did get a run-down of things I’ve only heard in passing. The content of the book is shocking, the people familiar, their stories fascinating to watch (unfold as they combust), and I found it hard to put the book down, even when I had to google references I didn’t understand–dongles and forking. With the exception of Jonah Lehrer, I’m only vaguely familiar with these other stories and I only know them by their brief appearances on the blogosphere. Then it occurred to me that I never actually took the time to think about the repercussion these people faced following their internet expulsion. This book brought that to light, and I’m glad for that perspective.

However, I don’t think I’ve learned much from Ronson’s journey, and I still know very little of the concept of public shaming. The whole thing is still elusive to me; I see it the same way I see natural disasters–vortex-like and unpredictable. There’s no way to tell who or what will be hit next, or what kind of content will get the unanimous attention and ire of the internet and what will be ignored. There’s no pattern, that we can see anyway, and that’s fascinating to me. Jon Ronson doesn’t touch on this in the book, and that’s a letdown. But that’s on me, my expectations are off the book’s mark.

Something I’ve always liked about Jon Ronson’s writing is that he has a way of explaining slippery, difficult to grasp subject matter and putting those things in the form of humorous and/or enlightening anecdotes. Although his writing is funny, it’s never intentionally harsh or cruel, and the people in his stories are never the butt of the joke. I’m glad to see he still takes the same approach with this book.

Some thoughts RE: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

The ever-hilarious Jon Ronson is back with another investigation into pop-psychology, or rather the collective psyche of that mob mentality on social media. Some call it a social movement. I have no idea what it really is, but I’m fascinated by its energy. Here is a snippet from Ronson’s meeting with Jonah Lehrer, the now infamous self-plagiarist.

For the last hour Jonah had been repeatedly telling me, in a voice strained to breaking point, ‘I don’t belong in your book.’

And I was repeatedly replying, ‘Yes, you do.’

I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I was writing a book about public shaming. He had been publicly shamed. He was ideal.

Now he suddenly stopped, mid hiking trail, and looked intently at me. ‘I am a terrible story to put in your book,’ he said.

‘Why?’ I said.

‘What’s that William Dean Howells line?’ he said. ‘“Americans like a tragedy with a happy ending”?’

The actual William Dean Howells line is ‘What the American public wants in the theatre is a tragedy with a happy ending.’ I think Jonah was close enough.

Hah, way to kick him when he’s down.

Aside from self-plagiarizing, Jonah Lehrer has also been found guilty of misquotations and, in some cases, mangling Bob Dylan’s words. That was his downfall–mangling Bob Dylan. It was a small, barely noticeable, lapse in Lehrer’s huge body of work. By the time anyone (Michael Moynihan) found that tiny piece of loose thread and pulled, Lehrer had already become a popular successful author. And he’s so young too. Everyone had been amazed. So when the boy genius fell from grace, it was a big deal. It rocked the publishing world. But the fall out didn’t stop there. People went back and meticulously combed through everything he’s written and found that almost every essay and two books, now pulled from publication, contained self-plagiarism.

You may not think that’s a big deal–so he didn’t cite himself a couple of times, so what? Here’s what: he did it repeatedly and, I would assume, deliberately. But you’ll have to read Moynihan’s side of the story and decide for yourself. Anyhow. The point isn’t that Leher “forgot” to cite himself. The point is he recycled old material and passed it off as new…and got paid handsomely for it. If Lehrer were to cite himself properly in each of his essays, almost every single paragraph would have been a quotation taken from essays he’d written in the past. Very little of the new essay would contain new or original content. So if not for the recycled material, there would have been no new material to publish or sell. It was essentially a scam, and Lehrer did it knowingly. That is the point. Another point is no one looked twice because he’s a young educated fellow from a prestigious background, but that’s another thing entirely.

So far I haven’t learned much about the concept of public shaming, other than how it plays out, but I did learn what self-plagiarism is in the publishing world. And yes, it’s a difficult thing to avoid when you’ve written so much for so long on just one topic. Sometimes you’ll end up repeating what you’ve already written in the past; the lapse in memory is bound to happen sooner or later. It’s an honest mistake… if it happens once or twice. But in almost every essay? That shows intent and deliberation.

Jon Ronson writes in a very funny and engaging way. I find myself reluctant to put this book down.

 

[ETA] I did some digging and it looks like Jonah Lehrer’s transgressions extended further than self-plagiarism. People have found actual plagiarism in the two books that were pulled and many of his essays from Wired.com and The New Yorker. Only 18 essays were pulled for closer examination, and of those 18, 17 were found to contain plagiarized material. People have also found instances where Lehrer pulled a Stephen Glass, formerly known as a Janet Cooke, and made up facts and sources to pad his writing (source).

Jon Ronson seems to think we’re all being too hard on Lehrer. Maybe it’s time to forgive and forget? Maybe. After all, “we’re not monsters.” Hah hah…hah. Ahem. We’ll just have to see how much plagiarism is in his new book to determine whether or not it’s forgivable. Oh btw, he’s sold a new manuscript (source).

Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: March 20 to 27, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by:
Recommended for: animal lovers

A quick, fun, humorous story about ecology, sustainable living, ethics, and a snarky unfortunate contractor, Jack Holloway, who’s down on his luck. By mere chance, he accidentally struck gold which set in motion a series of events that pits him against Zaracorp, a powerful corporate entity that more or less owns the planet and is looking to exploit Holloway’s discovery. In short, they want him out of the way, permanently, but he wouldn’t give in so easily. What follow are hilarious exchanges of corporate speak and lawyerly threats, coming from both sides. As this is happening, a family of small cat-like creatures befriend Holloway and decide to move into his cabin in the trees. They seem awfully intelligent and intuitive for mere animals, and that’s because they’re sapient. Since universal laws protected sapient life forms at all costs, the creatures’ existence poses a major threat to Holloway’s and Zaracorps’ claims on the planet’s resources, just as these claims are a major threat to all life on this planet. Holloway, who up until then only cared about his rightful share of the profits, has to decide whether or not to go public about the fuzzies.

John Scalzi captures everything just perfectly, from the corporate talking heads to the actual corporate head, right down to the snotty heir whose face demands that you rearrange his nose with your fist. Everything about it just inspires fury and righteous indignation from people outside the closed circle of power and privilege. Jack Holloway had once been a part of that world; now he’s fallen from grace and has become an outsider looking in. But since his fall from grace, he’s learned a thing or two about humility. I wouldn’t say he’s a likable character, rather he’s in a situation that makes it easy to sympathize.

Another thing John Scalzi does right is present environmental ethics in a way that enhances the narrative. He takes complicated ideas and weave them into the story arc to make them easier to digest, which makes them more memorable and easier to deconstruct. What Scalzi’s writing accomplishes isn’t too on the nose, but it’s just enough so that you’d consider the fuzzies’ plight, their planet, and the future of their species–as well as our own. Scalzi makes writing about difficult subject matter look easy.

Last but not least, the animals in this story are fascinating and full of personality. The fuzzies of course, but Carl especially.

“Congratulations, you are now officially as smart as a dog,” Holloway said [to a fuzzy]. Carl looked up at the word dog. Holloway knew it was only his imagination that the dog appeared somewhat offended at the comparison.

The fuzzies and Carl together make for great comedy

The cat thing set its fruit down, pulled its legs up from the edge, grabbed its fruit and then walked over to the window. Carl stopped barking, confused by what the creature was doing. The cat thing sat down, millimeters away from the windowpane, stared at Carl, and then very deliberately started eating its fruit in front of the dog. Holloway could have sworn it was intentionally chewing with its mouth open.

Carl went nuts barking. The cat thing stayed there, eating and blinking. Carl dropped from the window; two seconds later, there was a thump as Carl’s head hit the dog door. The manual lock was still on. Carl showed back up in the window a few seconds after that, no longer barking but clearly annoyed at the cat thing.

I absolutely love this book and will be rereading it for years to come. I love this book so much I initially gave it 5 stars upon finishing, but it’s not exactly 5-star material, not compared to other books I’ve given 5 stars, which isn’t a dig at the story or Scalzi’s writing. Sometimes a book isn’t a literary knockout, but it just hits that sweet spot for you and it’s love at first read. And although it doesn’t quite stand up to the other greats you’ve read and loved in the past, it’s still special. That’s what Fuzzy Nation is for me, special, because it’s got that unique blend of heart, humor, and great comedic timing. I started it on audio, but didn’t like it. I liked the story just fine, just not Wil Wheaton’s rendition of it. So I spent the following weeks hunting down the hardcover because, even only 10 pages in, I knew I would reread it for years to come.

What’s a review of my favorite book with my favorite moments.

Later Holloway was trying to work out the kinks in his muscles with a hot shower in the cabin’s tiny lavatory when Baby Fuzzy pulled aside the curtain and got her first glimpse of naked, soap-covered man.

“Do you mind,” Holloway said, mildly. He was not an exhibitionist, but being watched by a fuzzy while he showered didn’t trigger any modesty concerns. It was like your cat watching you while you got dressed.

Baby turned her head and squeaked. Five seconds later, four other heads peeked into the shower, watching the funny hairless thing doing its incomprehensible water ritual. Now Holloway felt vaguely uncomfortable.

“Are you taking notes?” Holloway said, to his audience. “You could all use one of these, you know. You don’t smell as adorable as you look. Especially you,” he said, motioning to Grandpa. “I woke up smelling your furry ass. You need an intervention, my friend.”

Carl poked his head into the shower, as if to see what he was missing. Holloway turned the nozzle on the lot of them and smirked as they scattered.

[…]

The zararaptors began pounding on the skimmer windows with their hands, first in open palm smacks and then with fists. The windows rattled but held; they were composite windows built to survive bird impacts at nearly 200 kilometers per hour. They could handle an animal fist.

One of the zararaptors broke away from the skimmer. Holloway, despite himself, watched the thing go. Its gaze was fixed on the ground, as if looking for something. Suddenly it paused and bent down and came up with an impressively large rock. It looked back at the skimmer and then swung its arm back in a frighteningly accurate simulation of a cricket bowler.

Huh, tool user, some part of Holloway’s brain said. I’ll have to tell Isabel about that. Then Holloway ducked involuntarily as the very large rock sailed through the air at a viciously flat trajectory.

[…]

“Do you ever stop to think how lucky we are that, in this part of space at least, humans were the sentient creatures who got smart first?”

“It’s crossed my mind,” Holloway said.

Isabel nodded. “Now,” she said, “imagine what would have happened if half a million years ago, some alien creature landed on our planet, looked at our ancestors, decided that they weren’t actually people, and just took all the planet’s ores and oil. How far would we have ever gotten?”

Isabel motioned to the Fuzzys, who were now all asleep on the cabin floor. “Seriously now, Jack,” she said. “How far do you think they’re going to get once we’re through here?”

Carl makes me miss having a dog.

“Sit,” Holloway said to his dog. Carl actually glanced over to the cabin window and then back at Holloway, as if to say Dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of the new guy. But he sat, an almost inaudible whine escaping as he did so.

“Down,” Holloway said. Carl lay down, dejectedly. His humiliation was complete.

Review: The Art of Eating through the Zombie Apocalypse: A Cookbook and Culinary Survival Guide

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: December 24, 2014 to February 24, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: no one; it was a gift
Recommended for: beginners on the run

Would you survive the apocalypse? Think that you can? I thought I’d do okay…and then I read this book and now I’m not so sure anymore.

As an introductory crash course to surviving on the run, this book has all the necessary things one would need to know to get by in all sorts of worst-case scenarios. It’s written in a light and fun way, as if to make it seem like you’d be going on a quest–to survive.

Before setting out, you’ll have to gather necessary essentials and prepare for the worst, which could range from the bizarre like zombie hordes to the tedious like severe weather conditions. If you remove the zombie apocalypse, this book is like any other survivalist how-to guide to living on your own, literally. Imagine that you’d be on your own and have to make/build everything from scratch or scavenge for whatever else you need. You have to know how to forage, hunt, fish, clean and dress your own kills. And that’s just one part of survival. You also have to know where, how, when to hide and where, how, when to run. As if that’s not hard enough, there are zombie hordes lumbering down every street and alley. (Post-apocalyptic scenarios are thrown in for fun, you know, to keep up with the times.)

What I like most about this book is the way it’s formatted, with you, the beginner, in mind–let’s imagine you’re a beginner. There are detailed sections on packing, going on the run, scavenging, looting, various ways to make camp, build fires and snares/traps, fishing, cleaning and dressing kills, avoiding detection, and much more. The first few sections of the book are on packing survival kits and making the tough decision to bug-in (stay put and fortify) or bug-out (go on the run); many of these sections are geared toward bugging out. If you have the “should I stay or should I go” dilemma figured out, you have a fighting chance. The other sections deal with various necessary preparations, most of which requires a lot of pre-planning, pre-zpoc planning. Like, start now if you want to live. So that if you are to survive the initial chaos of the apocalypse, you would be extremely prepared to live several months or even years by yourself before the apocalypse becomes post-apocalypse. Things would eventually settle down and you’d be able to venture back to civilization again. But what you find there is anybody’s guess.

A big downside to this book is its foraging section. It’s not as thorough as it should be. Half of this book could be focused on foraging alone and that might increase your chance of survival, and personally I think foraging would be much more useful to lone survivors in the wild. Much of your post-apocalyptic diet would–I have to keep myself from typing “will”–consist of plants and roots because they’re safer, less time and energy consuming than hunting and trapping. But wild vegetation is dangerous, berries and fungi especially. There are tell-tale signs to determine if a berry bush or group of mushrooms are edible, but that requires some training and experience. If you don’t know how to tell the edibles from the poisonous ones, there’s no point in trying. It’s just too risky. You could do a taste test, but that takes time and patience, which people on the run don’t have. Undead flesh eaters are on your trail.

Although I find this book funny and its take on impending doom practical, it really got me thinking about all the things we depend on to get through an average mundane pre-zpoc day. Fresh, clean water. A roof. A safe place to sleep. A warm bed. A sense of security. All of which would disappear once the electricity goes out and society breaks down exactly like Cormac McCarthy imagined it would. There’d be chaos, violence, turf wars breaking out everywhere… and while imagining all of this, I couldn’t help thinking how I’d never have perfectly cooked, seasoned food again. All that chaos and violence wouldn’t bother me as much since I expect that to happen. It’s the idea of never being able to prepare my favorite dishes again that gets to me. Spices are out of the question, unless you somehow loot a grocery store in time before the hordes overtake it. Forget about breads, pastas, and all diary products. Baked goods and sweets are history, literally. And these are just the simple things. It would be all about living the Paleo way of life from here on out. Way to get me all choked up, book.

Anyhow, this was a fun read, like a romp through an abandoned city that’s gradually being taken back by nature. But take away all the zpoc doom and gloom, and you have a beginner’s guide to venturing out into the wilderness all by one’s lonesome. Great for people on the run, whether it’s from zombies or federal agents or assassins or drug cartels.

Review: How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date read: February 20 to 21, 2014
Read count: 1

This short story is exactly what the title says it’s about: talking to girls at a party. What sets it apart from other how-to-pick-up-girls guides is it doesn’t show how to pick up girls because it’s actually a story, and the girls are not like other girls. And by that, I don’t mean they’re not like other girls (click for further explanation).

As far as Gaiman short stories go, I like this one about as much as the others. It’s funny, smart, and unusual, like its forerunners. What’s different here is its purposefully stumbling awkward humor.

The year is 1970-something and the place is somewhere in the UK. Vic and Enn are two teenage boys experiencing a teenage rite of passage; they’re invited to a party and they’re determined to interact with girls. However, Enn is inexperienced and has no idea what to expect. So naturally he comes off as awkward and self-conscious (and hilarious but in that secondhand embarrassment kind of way). Vic, on the other hand, is a bit more of a smooth operator.

The girls are portrayed as exchange students, and the boys don’t doubt that for a minute because, like it’s been established, they’re inexperienced, but we, as more experienced worldly readers, know better. We pick up on the nuances and various moments between Enn and Vic and the girls that don’t seem quite right because they’re more awkward than the usual teenage awkwardness.

Half of the fun of this story is in the boys trying to figure out how to talk to these girls all the while figuring out they’re not like other girls. Literally.

Review: Gil’s All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: November 26 to 30 , 2013
Read count: 1

After a month of leafing through summary reports and skimming predictions for next year, I was tired of reading and even more weary of the idea of starting a new book that might require some effort to enjoy. So it was with relief when I came across this book and remembered I’d been meaning to read Martinez for some time now. This book was just what I was looking for: a weird quick and easy read. Because that’s what it, and I suspect all of Martinez’s writing, is–an amusing break, from boring repetitive routines, that doesn’t require much brainpower to enjoy.

The writing is light, fast paced, and doesn’t take itself or anything else seriously. It’s funny at times and somewhat poignant at other times when you least expect it. The humor is not what I’d call sharp or hilarious, but it’s absurd enough to carry the story through to the end and unusual enough to hold my attention. My attention span wanes easily around this time of year, so it takes some effort for me to concentrate. I tend to abandon slow-moving books while in this mood, and yet I was able to just breeze through this story with minimal effort.

Here are a few things that made this story easy breezy:

Characters: So a vampire and a werewolf walk into a diner and find themselves in the middle of an impending apocalypse… that’s the joke. The punchline is this kind of thing happens all the time. Gil’s Diner is the unfortunate focus of the apocalypse. The rest of the story takes off from there like a ditzy adolescent Satanist-in-training bent on opening a portal to hell.

Characterization: Each character is defined by the crazy and absurd things they do and say more than their supernatural species or physical descriptions. They’re also defined by the crazy and absurd things that happen to them. Almost every character is an otherworldly creature, and yet they’re very much like the crazy people you might run into every day on the street.

Absurdities: In case you don’t believe how weird things can get in this story, take these things into consideration

  • a diner in the middle of nowhere experiencing some otherworldly troubles
  • occasional zombie ambushes
  • a walk-in freezer that has a tendency to surprise
  • pig Latin is revealed to be the preferred language of hell raisers

And this is just the opening chapters.

Tone: A lot of fun. So much fun, in fact, that I’d originally mistaken this story as a tale for middle-grade readers, but the amount of gore and bloodshed that followed the first chapter made me reconsider.

Humor: Subtle, yet effective. It doesn’t draw attention to itself or to all the weird things that keep happening in and around Gil’s Diner. Instead, the focus of the story is on finding the culprit of the weirdness and putting an end to whatever that happen to be. The highlight of Martinez’s writing is in his ability to keep the narration as close to being unintentionally funny as possible, while letting the characters, supernatural elements, and other absurdities carry the story.

Duke (the werewolf) and Kopp (the Sheriff) having a chat:

“I’m a werewolf.”
Kopp went to the cooler and grabbed a soda. “Figured it was sumthin’ like that.”
“How’d you know?”
“Oh, I’ve had plenty of experience with this sort of thing. ‘Bout seven years back, had an outbreak of vampire turkeys. And four years before that, Charlie Vaughn’s daughter got herself possessed. And the Stillman’s scarecrow took to wandering around at night and scaring the bejeezus outta the kids. Point is, Rockwood has itself an unusual history, and being sheriff means dealing with those problems.”

Something something about a cult:

Kopp flipped through the purse. “Ah hell. Not another cult.”
“‘Fraid so,” Duke confirmed.
“Another cult?” Loretta asked.
“Yeah. Seems like one pops up every couple of years. It’s gotta be the heat.”
“You need a movie theater,” Duke observed.
“I’ve been trying to get a public swimmin’ pool.”
“That’d help.”

You don’t go into a book like this expecting it to make sense or for it to provide interesting commentary or even play by its own rules. What you can expect is for a good time and a few laughs to be had and maybe for events in the story to tie up with some satisfaction at the end, which they do. This book was exactly what I needed this past weekend. I read it on and off, in between visits to and from family and friends, and I even read it while on the road, and not once did I lose interest in the story’s absurdness. It was a nice break from “serious” reading and too much family time.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but now that I think about it, Martinez’s writing style and sense of humor are similar to Christopher Moore, albeit Martinez’s is more mouthy, profane, low-brow than Moore’s. Still entertaining though. Martinez also reminds me somewhat of Douglas Adams. Fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide would definitely take a liking to Gil’s Diner.

Review: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: August 16 to October 22, 2013
Read count: 1

If British humor, especially British apocalyptic humor, is not something you enjoy, then look elsewhere.

I like the concept, I like the writing, and I like the story overall; however there were certain time periods that dragged on for a couple chapters too long and a couple subplots that stayed past their welcome. The characters were fun though, and the dialogue was clever, witty (without being punny), and hilarious at times (again, without being punny). All of these things appeal to me because I enjoy British humor and a chatty meandering narration. If neither of these things interest you, then I would imagine you’d have a hard time getting through this book.

That’s also to say I had a hard time getting through this book (notice the date read) even though I liked almost everything about it. The sequences following the opening “baby switching debacle” were most difficult for me. I found Adam’s formative years to be quite a drag, not because this subplot was poorly written or too British for my understanding, but because I just don’t like reading about overly precocious children in general and often find many of stories about clever children to be a bore, regardless of the strength of prose or story. Once I got through Adam’s childhood and adolescent years, the story picked up speed and I couldn’t wait to get to “the end of times.” And what a ride that way.

This book is the first Neil Gaiman book that does not have a disappointing ending, imo. I think Terry Pratchett must have helped a lot on this front.

* * * * *

Still as good and as satisfying as I remembered.

It’s not often I say this, but the audiobook is really good and a joy to listen to. The narrator, Martin Jarvis, really gets much of the book’s humor and you can tell he fully embraced its zany, over-the-top-ness, so listening to him read was almost like watching the book come to life. And I really like the way he portrayed Crowley and Aziraphale, esp during their mad sprint to stop the apocalypse.

The only thing that I still quibble about is the ending. Seems somewhat lacking considering this is a story about the end of the world and all. I just wish there’d been more to the inevitable showdown, instead of an ending that leaves room for a possible–wishful?–sequel.

Review: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: March 23 to 27, 2013
Read count: 3

I read this book every Easter to remind myself of the more “important things” in life around this time of year, such as pastel-colored eggs and bunny rabbits…

Currently looking for a new or like new leather-bound copy that’s reasonably priced.

Original review to be found here.

Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: December 29, 2012 to January 08, 2013
Read count: 1

After putting off this book for the a very long time–two decades actually–I finally had time to read it. I liked it. That’s all, just like. Perhaps I’d put it off for too long and the threshold to enjoy this book has passed me by.

Original review to be found here.