Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Future Two-Fer:: Rut by Scott Phillips & Selected Shorts and Other Methods of Time Travel by David Goodberg

I'll start with the not-as-good.
Rut was received from Concord Free Press.

Rut. Rut is a not-too-distant futuristic novel that sort of tracks a biology PhD student's interest in amphibian life in the small, former ski town, Gower, Colorado. It's about 50 years in the future, and humans have already trashed the place (the earth, that is). Cars are incredibly rare (government issue and rich people, plus, I believe, people in the big cities "on the grid"), medicine is readily available for almost anything (new eyes, new hair, new limbs, boner-pills, etc.), and electricity has become almost prohibitively expensive (for things like phones and non-solar energy). Bridget, the biology student, finds in Gower a lake/pond with non-mutated (though incredibly large in her eyes) frogs, so she settles in for the long haul (a year of research, observation, and sending reports back to her base). In the meantime, she also finds a "pond" with giant tadpoles (and no evidence of any morphing into frogs), clearly mutations, and sends samples back to her base for likely use in future research and development of pharmaceuticals.

But the thing is, even all of that description is most of what happens with Bridget. There's a little romance, a little crush, a little adultury (with other characters), a local business owner with two prosthetic legs (the image on the cover, apparently), a lot of conspiracy - most of which is neatly explained by the end, and a local stiff doctor who ends up learning probably more than any other character in the novel. In other words, there is a lot of life happening, but not much climax. There came no point in the novel where I felt I just *had* to know what was going to happen next. It was all mildly interesting and mildly amusing, but neither fascinating nor inspiring. In the end, I was happy to be done with it but not too excited for whatever I
had to pick up next.

Which was...
Review based on ARC.

This is David Goodberg's debut and a collection of shorts. I almost hesitate to put that in the beginning of the review because a lot of people avoid short story collections. However, if you like time-travel and a wry sense of humor, read it! It was a thoroughly enjoyable collection. Again, I was grateful to follow a bit of a drag-read (Rut) with something so full of life, recharging my reading-stamina.

The short stories in Selected Shorts are amusing with often serious underlying morals or implications. Following each short story was a blurb, lesson, thought, etc. -- sort of a mini-story that filled up less than a page. These blurbs were at least as enjoyable as the stories themselves and often gave me pause. The stories are tied together by the world that has been established by Goodberg, even if the characters within the stories have nothing to do with one another. (e.g., the companies that developed time travel are frequently discussed, even if a character from the first story would never come into contact with a character from the 10th story, who lived a couple hundred years earlier/later in time).

Overall, the book kept my interest and each story only made me want to read the next more. Oh, and the illustrations warrant note: they were a perfect companion! I refrain from saying anything more beyond, Pick it up and read it. It is worth your time. (hehhehheh...)

Rut: THREE of five stars. Recommended for people with a less-than-optimistic view of our not-too-distant future.

Selected Shorts: FOUR AND A HALF of five stars. Recommended for people who like time travel and have a sense of humor... not to mention Hope for our future!

Monday, November 22, 2010

2-Fer: IOU: New Writing on Money edited by Ron Slate and The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot

Received IOU as part of the mission of Concord Free Press.

Thank goodness for Meg Cabot, because after finishing IOU, I felt ready to put off reading for the foreseeable future. It's not that it was bad, it just draaaaaaagged. A few of the stories within were even quite engaging, but overall, it was difficult to keep going. But keep going I did, and here are my thoughts.

The book is comprised of short stories (some in the form of "advice"), poems, and two interviews. All of the pieces deal with money in some form. If you like poetry or spoken word, you may actually enjoy a good portion of the book. If I am going to read poetry, however, it should be moving, engaging, not just a series of short phrases, truncated for appearance-sake, about something not-that-surprising or unique. But, like I said, if you enjoy reading poetry, you will probably enjoy at least half of this book.

The two interviews are interesting. One is with a woman who was involved in a bank robbery in 1970 (Katherine Ann Power) and the other is with a woman who pled guilty to embezzling a couple hundred thousand dollars from her bank-employee (Donna Lee Munson). If not insightful (though the second certainly was), the interviews were entertaining.

And then the stories. These really varied, story-to-story. If I may be allowed a moment to go through, briefly, the stories w/ my quick thoughts... (if you would like to skip this section, please proceed to the Boy Next Door review, below):
  • Interest by Michelle Huneven: It is a slow read, hard to get involved, but I appreciated the pay-off. No real climax, but an interesting view of father-daughter interaction wherein the daughter has asked her father for assistance purchasing a home.
  • Tycoon by Michael Greenberg: I start to realize that this type of short-story does not necessarily have a point. I liked some of the information therein, though - the perspective of a man who briefly entered the stock market.
  • Dear Yale by Jess Row: I actually loved this one, though it was also a slow-read. The story interchanges between a letter from Yale asking for contributions and a "response" from the old man who delves into his private and what should be embarrassing stories before his answer.
  • Income by Dolly Freed: I hated this one. It was advice in the form of a "story"?
  • Free Meals by Jonathan Ames: Pretty uninspired story about an adult who needs money from his/her parents. Like hearing a story from a friend where you smile politely at the end.
  • From Ghostbread by Sonja Livingston: Another somewhat entertaining but pointless read from the perspective of a child whose mother has the collectors calling.
  • Coins by Mona Simpson: I did not like this at all - the perspective of the foreign nanny in a big city. It was just a stream of consciousness with the point, of course, being that foreign nannies are respectful and their employers are shallow, pointless, rich people. And I say this with a sister who is a nanny and coming from a family that has never been affluent enough to afford one. I am not in defense of those families (or on the other side of the fence, as it were), but come on. Cliche.
  • The Entrepreneurs by Tony Eprile: This was interesting. A Zulu man desiring to be rich seeks his answer in the form of a "secret" from a washed-up teacher and finds trouble. The story is interesting and rewarding.
  • Poetry and Blue Jeans by Jenny Boully: I did not like this one either. It was another hate-the-Man, companies are evil, feel bad story. I know. These stories need to exist to establish sympathy or at least awareness. But, again, show some originality in your presentation.
  • Broadway Taxes by Geoffrey Becker: Wonderful. Well-told and interesting. A man seeks to sell his tax-preparation business.
  • Local Money by Douglas Rushkoff: Again, not a story. I mean, maybe the "writings" did not need to be in the form of fictional stories, but that was what I had been anticipating. Maybe that was my bad... But interesting information explaining the benefit of "local money" (complementary money).
  • An Inheritance by Dan Pope: This was interesting with a good "conclusion" (short stories don't really seem to "conclude," do they). A man deals with his aunt's illness.
  • Immorally Bankrupt by Augusten Burroughs: This was a very short, fun little story. As expected.
  • The Back of the House by J.C. Hallman: Very interesting story of a dealer in a casino.
  • Nannies, Maids, and Money by Kate Clanchy. This was from the perspective of the employer and it was a little more original. I enjoyed the story and the information - it was morose but somehow hopeful.
  • The Price of Waterfalls by Michael Guista: A man makes money instead of pursuing his passion. Not terribly interesting or original.
  • Sixty per Bird by Samantha Peale. I really enjoyed this story about a prodigal artist and the one who sells out to pay the rent.
  • Old Money by Terese Svoboda: In the end, the story was interesting. As in, looking back on it, I like what it did. But while reading about the two spinster sisters, I was uninspired.
  • The Price of a View by Castle Freeman, Jr: A story about buying property with nothing surprising or particularly informative (unless, I suppose, you know nothing about property).
  • Plunder by Jane Delury: I loved this one. The story is about an elderly couple with the husband very ill. The story weaves around the past and present and draws the reader into the pain. I actually cared about the characters in only 12 pages.
  • Where the Money Went by Kevin Canty: Interesting. Well done in the less-than-2-pages.
As you can see, overall, the book was disappointing because my feelings were often summed up with: "so, what's your point." Overall, 2 of 5 stars. Because some of it was really good. But, I needed something interesting, stat!

Along came The Boy Next Door. This was the first book by Meg Cabot I have read. I am glad I did! I read the book yesterday evening. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram called it "A fast, addictive read." Indeed it was.

The book takes the form of emails. The entire story is told through emails. It's like those books written through letters or a diary. Except this one was well done. The story was complete but did not feel unrealistic. The emails were not so complete as to render them unrealistic, and yet all of the facts were disclosed in a timely and interesting manner.

Mel Fuller, gossip columnist for the NY Journal, meets her neighbor Max Friedland, who is really his friend John Trent "of the Park Avenue Trents" because of an attack on her elderly neighbor, Max Friedland's aunt and only living relative. Max, of course, is too busy to take care of his neighbor himself, which is why he sends his friend John in his place.

It was so enjoyable to read. The story was somewhat "fairy tale," but in a real-life kind of way. To top it off, there was also a mystery to be solved?! For a girl, at least, the story had it all: mystery, friendship, parent-interaction, job drama, and love. Highly recommend for a quick escape into a wonderful fantasy where men are somehow both sensitive and masculine. 4 of 5 stars.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

This was my first Palahniuk. I had heard that this book was incredibly disturbing and was, of course, intrigued. The book was disturbing, I suppose, but I would not add the modifier "incredibly." The book is, however, graphic and detailed and delves into the more deranged parts of the human mind. Although I had not read Palahniuk before, I have of course seen Fight Club, and I understand that Palahniuk takes extreme situations and explores human interactions and reactions within those situations. Haunted does this and takes it just one step beyond "the line."

The way I think of the book is as a warped reality tv show gone wrong. Imagine a group of people, psychologically messed up because of the realities inflicted upon them and because of the choices they have made. Lock them together in a building with no escape for three months and see what happens. It's like The Cube meets Saw. Palahniuk's characters are actually believable in their extreme behavior and those with weaker stomachs should refrain.

The format the book takes is relatively unique. The characters in the book are identified by nicknames that somehow represent how the author is warped. Each "chapter" includes a narrative, a poem, and a story. The narrative is told from the perspective of one of the individuals locked in the building -- though we are never quite sure which aspiring author is speaking. The narrative is followed by a poem "about" the aspiring author, which hints at something the author has experienced and sheds a little light on the nickname the author has received. The poem is then followed by a story written by the character that has been discussed in the preceding poem. The story explains the primary traumatic incident (or portion of that incident) that resulted in the author's warped personality and nickname.

I liked the format of the book and appreciated Palahniuk's timing. Some of the most intriguing (to me) characters' personalities and nicknames were revealed at the end of the book, which certainly kept me attached to the book -- even though it almost read more like a series of non-related short stories than a novel. In addition, although it was not immediate, I was eventually drawn into the narrative of the authors trapped in the building and felt invested in how it would all play out.

The writing was great, too. I suppose the reason I'm still rambling about this, somewhat incoherently, is because I recognize the good qualities of the book, cannot think of any particularly bad ones, but still was not blown away by the book. I expected to be more disturbed, more intrigued, more saddened, more anything... but mostly I was just reading without much emotion at all. It was certainly good enough to continue reading and good enough to casually recommend, but it made no strong lasting impressions on me.

Recommended for someone who likes gore and exploring the deranged ways in which humans can behave in extreme situations.

THREE AND A HALF of five stars.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Vanishing Girl: The Boy Sherlock Holmes - His 3rd Case by Shane Peacock

Review based on ARC.

It is quickly apparent why Peacock's works have won him several awards. Vanishing Girl is the third in a young adult series establishing Sherlock Holmes' detective career and prowess. I had not read the first two when I received this book. Although it would have added a little bit of clarity to the past referenced throughout, it is certainly not necessary to have read the other books before enjoying the third.

In Vanishing Girl, Holmes attempts to beat Scotland Yard to the solution of the kidnapping and burglary crimes. In the process of discovering the answers and solving the riddles, Holmes learns more about himself as a young man, as a friend, and as a detective. He employs many of the technical skills he has begun to learn to solve the crimes, but the real reward arrives when he learns what kind of person he will choose to be.

Peacock weaves a believable and solvable mystery around a great story of a young man with a troubled past and a complicated future. I was drawn into the mystery and its facets, but I was even more taken by Holmes, his guardian Bell, his friend Irene, and all of the minor characters that plotted the story. I look forward to reading more of the books in this series.

Highly recommended for all young adult readers, mystery readers, and Holmes fans.

FOUR of five stars.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Spooky Little Girl by Laurie Notaro

This was my first Notaro. Being drawn to funny and supernatural, I thought it would be a perfect introduction, even though I understood that it would be different from her "essays." Overall, Meh.

The book is good enough, interesting enough, and original enough to keep you reading, and pretty quickly. It did not, however, in any way impress me. But it was enough to pass the time.

The book starts with Lucy, the protagonist, who has a terrible day and then, to top it all off, dies. She ends up in Ghost School where she will need to learn the tricks of the trade, and then apply them to determine how she moves on. The idea is intriguing and has a fun spin to it, but, in the end, it fell a little flat. It was hard to care a whole lot about ... well, any of the characters. They were amusing enough but, again, didn't leave any lasting impressions.

Nevertheless, I would recommend to Notaro fans and people looking for a light, quick read.

THREE AND A HALF of five stars.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Painted Darkness by Brian James Freeman

Review based on ARC.

This is a creepy little page-turner that explores the boundaries between reality and imagination.

Freeman tells dual stories surrounding Henry, an artist with a dark imagination. Henry's story is told through chapters that alternate back and forth between "The Present," when Henry is an adult artist who paints to master his dark imagination, and "The Birth of the Artist," when Henry is five and experiences a trauma that shapes the remainder of his life.

Although the novella is short, it is replete with details that create an ambiance of danger, mystery, and threatening darkness. Freeman effectively uses this interplay to drive the narrative forward and urge his readers to uncover the mysteries of the past and the present.

I definitely recommend for readers who like to be a little creeped out.

FOUR of five stars.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Wow. I can see why this book has attained "classic" status. In a mere 200 pages, Achebe presents us with an intimate look into a world with which most are wholly unfamiliar. The book does not have a "plot" per se, but is more one of those series-of-events types of books.. However, it is written so well, it feels as if it does, indeed, center around a plot and the reader is driven forward to find out "what next".

Although the characters are not particularly empathetic.. they are incredibly engaging. You feel very strongly about what is happening and the motives behind it, without being traumatized by the events.

So much happens in such a short amount of space -- love, hate, pride, loathing, joy, fear, excitement, life changes on grand spectra, shock, comfort... it is, somehow, all there.

Absolutely, positively, without a doubt, you will enrich your life by reading this book. Do it.

FIVE of five stars.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dr. Hackenbush Gets a Job by Ginger Mayerson

Review based on ARC.

This quick pleasure reads like a detective novel.. but without the crime. Dr. Hackenbush is a sarcastic, pessimistic-optimistic, competent, talented 30-something who, at the beginning of the story, loses her ukulele and, as a result, her income. Needing an expensive car repair at the same time, Hackenbush finds herself at a corporate temp agency and is assigned to a difficult law firm to raise enough cash to fix her ukulele and her car.

As someone who has been a temp in a big city, someone who has a love for and a background with music, and someone who has worked as staff in a law firm and, now, as a lawyer... I was impressed with Mayerson's portrayal of the many worlds and the people therein.

The book is set in the 80s and, of course, some things have changed in the past 30 years, but it is still a current tale, highlighting some of the struggles and tensions between artists and the business world, between men and women, and even among people of the same social groups.

The story reads very quickly and the plot is interesting enough, but it is the characters that really move the reader. Hackenbush herself is moderately endearing, and you do care what happens to her. However, I found myself caring more about some of the more peripheral characters - feeling disgust, hope, confusion, and even attachment.

I recommend to anyone who is looking for a light quick read with perhaps a few lessons along the way...

FOUR out of five stars

Dracula's Guest by Michael Sims

Review based on ARC.

This is an excellent introduction/compendium of victorian (as well as some pre-victorian and post-victorian) vampire stories.

Michael Sims does a superb job of not only gathering some of the most noteworthy and influential pieces of the genre, but he introduces the work as a whole and each piece with aplomb.

I typically do not read the introduction to a book until after I've read the book (and only then if I feel that it's "worth my time"). I know that this is counter-intuitive, but generally I want to read the work without someone else's opinion about the work first. (I typically do not read reviews until after I've read the book either.)

In this case, however, I read the introduction as it was meant to be read -- first. What a wonderful introduction. I have dog-earred many pages (I know, gasp!) in the intro for me to follow up on and read more about the topic. I also note that Sims explains his choices effectively and intriguingly. I could not wait to get started.

The stories themselves are wonderful. They represent true vampire culture and fears in the earlier times and we are able to see the morphing of the culture of vampire lore.

All in all, excellent choices and excellent work.

I would not recommend this book to people who think that Twilight is the end-all of vampire tales. But for those of you who are interested in the backdrop of current lore, the history, the progression, and are willing to take the time and energy to read victorian style prose... by all means, sink your teeth in...

FOUR out of five stars.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Creative Writer's Survival Guide: advice from an unrepentant novelist by John McNally

Review based on ARC.

There is an abundance of information in this small, quick read. It is well written, funny, and even moving at times. Wait, am I talking about a nonfiction "how-to" book directed at creative writers? You bet. Somehow, McNally entertains while giving golden nuggets of ... well, gold. I hesitate to call it advice or information because those words do not seem to quite cover how valuable the information contained within this book is.

I signed up to read the book on Early Reviewers because I'm a "someday, maybe" sort of hopeful writer who has several (so many severals...) actual-hopeful writers within my immediate circle. I thought that I would enjoy the read, but that my friends/family would (hopefully) benefit from it. I was spot on.

The book, as implied by the subtitle, will not inspire the weakly-motivated, somewhat ambiguous, would-be writers to take on the enormous and often disheartening world of writing and/or publishing, but it proceeds to give information (gold) upon information (gold) upon information (and more gold) to those writers who legitimately could not imagine a life without writing. I appreciated the honesty... the sometimes very brutal honesty that McNally employs to impart his "guide." And, really, it appears as if it is all there.

For those of you who are tentatively considering writing: read the book. It will not dissuade you, but it will allow you to consider the many different aspects of publishing and, perhaps as it did with me, spark an idea for a slightly-alternative career path. Or it might convince you that writing really is the path for you. Either way, it will inform you. Read it.

For those of you who have no choice but to write: read the book. It provides a logical, practical, manageable path, with advice about how to tackle every step along that path. It is realistic without dashing hopes. It is hopeful without permitting starry-eyed naivety.

For those of you who aren't interested in a career in writing: read the book anyway. It is a fascinating view of the life-of-a-writer and the world of publication. It is eye-opening and, somehow, inspiring, even to those without intention to write.

The only criticism I have is *very* minor. There occasions where I felt that McNally was just a *little* bit snarky about the academic snobs. While I agree that there is no need or even use for that type of academic snobbery (whether it applies to what kind of degree you have, what you have published, with whom, where you are in the writer "hierarchy", etc.), McNally came off as just a little bit bitter despite his successful career. Most of the book is straightforward, optimistic, realistic, positive. But every once in a while, I got just a little hint of a tone of "bounces off of me and sticks onto you" ... but it never lasted long and it's certainly no reason to disregard such a useful tool.

The book is also chock-full of good reading ideas. And I look forward to reading The Book of Ralph...

Overall, excellent. Highly recommend.
FOUR AND A HALF of five stars.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz

Review based on ARC:

This dense little book took me much longer to read than I had anticipated by both the length and the description. I expected a light romp through the everyday experiences of the islanders and a longer foray into the "book" around which the island appears to be focused. Instead, I found an intellectual, philosophical, and incredibly thoughtful mock travelogue. The island of which the narrator speaks has an influential method of living, which pervades every aspect of the islanders lives, from their history, to the food that they eat and how they prepare it, to their so-called occupation, to their architecture, etc. This is initially described by the narrator, but as the travelogue proceeds, it becomes ever more apparent how pervasive the islanders' life view is.

The only exception to the islanders' seemingly lackadaisical and irreverent style of living seems to be their "book" -- the one "artform" that appears on the island. The book is what most of the reviews seem to focus on, logically so. Although "the book" itself is not really discussed and experienced until at least halfway through the travelogue, it is the most interesting and even unique aspect of the islanders life. Yet, even though "the book" is not really discussed until later in the travelogue, the first half of the travelogue is clearly necessary as background, so that "the book" is fully understood and appreciated. "The book" itself is interesting, but the tales within are absolutely fascinating. The reader almost feels as if he is losing sight of the beginning of any given tale, as it spins and diverges, but Ajvaz is skilled at bringing his reader full circle -- even if we need to wait a few more pages than is common. The wait, as Ajvaz himself notes, is often worth it, and the tale (within the tale within the tale...) is always rewarding.

Michal Ajvaz is a master at his art and has created a world that operates almost completely outside of most societal norms. He is adamant that he imparts no overall judgment either on the islanders or on the rest of the world, and I was convinced of his assertion. For me, the best parts were the divergent tales, both within "the book" and without. However, although the rest of the travelogue was not as "fun" as those tales, they were interesting and necessary to the whole.
I would not categorize this as "light reading," but I would highly recommend to anyone who is looking for something different, something a little chewy, and something to make you pause and think.

FOUR AND A HALF of five stars.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Review based on ARC:

When I received this book, I started to read the first few pages, even though I was in the middle of another book and was not able to yet devote my full attentions. Although I had only read a few pages, I found myself constantly thinking about it and eager to start.

After about 60 pages or so, I made the mistake of "doing a little research" on the book at work because I couldn't read it, but I wanted to at least read *about* it, if for only a few moments. I say it was a mistake because, even though I only glanced at a few reviews, it gave away information that I was not yet prepared to have.

However, for those reading this review, let me tell you that I would *not* categorize this book as a "vampire" book as so many have done. Not only is this really a mischaracterization of the novel and its characters, I believe it also diminishes what Justin Cronin has done in creating this epic tale.

The book is analogous to I Am Legend in that it starts in real life and science ("light" science fiction), and, although using elements of the supernatural, focuses on humans, the human perspective and struggles, and how humans might operate in an extreme situation.

The first 200 pages are some of the best pages I have read in fiction in a long time. Cronin perfectly sets up the tragedy that will befall the almost current world in which it is initially set. His descriptions of the characters, major and minor, are impressive. I found myself attached to many of the characters, some of who only graced the book for a relatively short amount of pages. Although the novel initially has several origins and characters with nothing (yet) in common, each line of the story was intriguing and clear, eventually coming together seamlessly.

The next 400 or so pages are very good to great. These pages are set a bit in the future, after the "tragedy" has settled in the world. We find ourselves in a world that is dealing with the consequences of its ancestors. I know I am being somewhat vague here, but I believe this novel would be best read with the least amount of information possible. These pages draw the reader into the daily lives of the characters and their motivations, actions, feelings, fears, and attachments -- without slowing the novel too much. Cronin, again, does an impressive job making his characters real, with real human qualities -- both the good and the bad.

The final 200 (or so) pages, the "climax", are, again, fantastic and wonderfully paced. I could not stop reading these last pages until the novel was complete. The ending is satisfying and yet ensures that the reader will be eager for the next installment in this epic trilogy.

I highly recommend.
(I prefer this second cover for the book, though I received the ARC with the first.)

FOUR AND A HALF of five stars.


In short, scientists and the army seek to create super humans that are not subject to the illnesses and typical lifespans of normal humans. A handful of super humans are created from death-row convicts, but in an imperfect and uncontrollable form. These super humans are "akin" to the oft mentioned vampires because of some of their characteristics and weaknesses. Finally, the scientist succeeds in creating the formula and successfully injecting it into Amy, "the girl from nowhere." The super humans break out of their "cages" and run rampant over the country (and perhaps the world).

Pass about 100 years into the future into a world in which the "virals" or "jumpers" reign. A small pocket of humans, protected by "the lights" rule themselves and attempt to survive in the world of the virals. However, the psychological pull of the virals begins to invade the humans at the same time as a few of the humans realize the batteries for the lights are beginning to fail (which would leave them in darkness at nights, when the virals are out).

Several of these humans, along with Amy, embark on a mission to find out what happened at the source of the virals and Amy, and if there is any help to be found there.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill

Wonderful. The back of the book asks, "What real reader does not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of his or her heart, for a ... ghost story written by Jane Austen?" The publisher bemoans that that cannot be accomplished, but promises that this book is the next best thing.

Somehow, this British author published a book in the 80s that manages to accomplish just that... a ghost story in Austen style.

Without being too weighty in language and description, without actually venturing back to Victorian times, Hill creates a victorian ghost story.

Because I feel that any added description that I could offer would add nothing, I decline to do so. However, I highly recommend to anyone looking for a spine-tingler of a more mature variety for those dark and dreary nights.....

FOUR of five stars

The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire

This is one of those novels where you care... but then you don't. For some reason, as interesting and extraordinary as the characters were supposed to be, most of the time I could not bring myself to *really* want to know what was going to happen. Maybe because they were *all* written as extraordinary, they all became ordinary within the novel.

I will be more specific. You have a stereo-typical evangelical christian who gets conked on the head while sneaking in the basement of the neighboring catholic church with, of all things, a statue of a catholic figurehead, her "slutty" and "stupid" daughter, her bully son, and her other highly effeminate, "confused" son. After being hit in the head, Leontina (the mother)'s behavior becomes bizarre---though never quite bizarre enough---cutting off the beginnings of her words, acting like a child in many ways, and eventually shutting down (much more interesting examples exist, but I do not wish to spoil any of the story). This all happens while her children, 17, 15, and 13 (ish.. I am not sure of the age of the youngest), are "taking care of" her and attempting to move forward and grow in their own lives. Just to add a little more, the daughter is also suffering from a boyfriend who is suddenly unavailable, as well as being the object of grown men's attentions.

And that's just one of the story lines. The other centers around three gay guys in this small new york town who need to practice for their singing group in a building housing a dozen or so elderly nuns. One of the guys, who also happens to be the musical director for the catholic church in which Leontina hit her head, is fighting demons from his past, another of the guys is fighting his too-catholic parents as well as a life-threatening disease, and the third is jewish.

In under 300 pages, the book became a series of events instead of a novel wherein the reader could actually feel attached to any of the characters. In the end, it was difficult to feel anything---sympathy, joy, laughter, pain---for the characters because they had all become caricatures of who they could have been.

Criticism aside, Maguire is still a great writer with interesting approaches, good ideas, and a nice use of words.

I would recommend this book to people whose favorites books are among the "drama" or "life" books.

THREE of five stars

Alternating Worlds by Gary Wolf

This book is true sci-fi, taking place in the far future on spaceships and other planets. I think the book's biggest challenge in gaining the readership it deserves is the first ten pages and the cover. The cover seems to indicate (and did indicate to anyone who saw me reading the book) that it is a new age book, not a "space opera" with bad guys and wars. The first ten pages unfortunately centers around the weakest dialogue---that between the main character, Rohde, and his first mate, Jensen.

However, once I started page 11, the page numbers became insignificant as the story developed. An antique art historian and art dealer is an unlikely hero, but he has enough gusto to overcome his trade.
Wolf does a great job creating relatively vivid characters and an intriguing plot. At times I felt that the parallels between the political struggles in the book and in our current world were a bit obvious, but turned the pages all the same to find out how it resolved itself in the future. I thought the concept of a planet that seeks to give full, fair, and equal credit to all of the beliefs of all of the people since (the dawn of?) time was an incredibly creative and fascinating concept, and I was particularly impressed by the paradox of true alternance that arises near the end of the book (not wanting to spoil anything, I refrain from further explanation).

The personal stories of and the dialogue between Rohde and Jensen were just a bit too "normal" (boring). But the story line, the tension within the main story, and even the conversations between people of different planets made those Rohde-Jensen conversations minor blips.

I recommend to sci-fi fans and *strongly* urge to move beyond the cover and the first 10 pages if those are, indeed, obstacles. A great sci-fi read!

THREE AND A HALF of five stars

Gray Apocalypse by James Murdoch

This is a good, page-turning, sci-fi, thriller. I would say it is in line with the Dan Browns and the Grishams of the world.... but the writing is a little bit novice. The author is quite adept at enticing the reader to turn the page to find out "what next?!" However, it seemed apparent to me, whether true or not, that the author had taken some tricks on "how to write a novel" and gone just a little too far with them.

In particular, there were a few sentiments that were repeated in *over*-abundance. There really was no need to "repeatedly repeat" the "if only!!" thoughts of the main character. Also, the stories of romance between the main characters and their ladies were a bit cliched. You know, the better-than-average, yet romantically-inexperienced guy with the so-beautiful-she-turns-everyone's-heads, brilliant lady. And this line appears not once, but twice in this novel!

All that being said, I would still recommend to anyone looking for a good conspiracy-theory thriller about those little gray guys coming to take over the world.

THREE AND A HALF of five stars.