Archive for November, 2009

And Another Thing…

Sunday, November 29th, 2009


By Eoin Colfer

The Short Take:

Colfer picks up where the late Douglas Adams’ left his popular series, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For a huge Adams fan like me, this is very dangerous territory. I almost hate to admit that Colfer largely won me over. Honest.

Why?

Colfer’s own Artemis Fowl series (aimed primarily at young adult readers) has it’s own sense of the absurd, so one can see why Adams’ widow and daughter asked him to continue the Hitchhiker series. Though I’m not so sure there was any reason to continue: Adams’ last book had a very final feeling to it. Still, the deed is done.

While Colfer doesn’t have quite the twisted wit of the late Adams (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way as bricks don’t.” — Adams), but he does have an incredible imagination and peppers this “part six of three” with a wide range of bizarre creatures, cultures, and unexpected happenings. He is also quite sly with the names he gives random characters.

More important, Colfer stays true to the underlying theme of the Hitchhiker series of probability and improbability, the main characters continue to behave just as they should, and you still wonder what new craziness each turn of the page will bring.

So, don’t panic. After all, if we can’t have Adams on our planet any more, it is nice to have Colfer.

A Little Plot:

If you’ve never read any Adams, this is going to make no sense to you whatsoever. Sorry. (But it is kind of your fault for not reading Adams.)

The Vogons, who destroyed Earth at the beginning of the very first Hitchhiker, are intent on destroying Earth in every parallel universe as well as eliminating any stray humans in the galaxy. A reunited Arthur Dent, Trillian, Ford Prefect, and Random are on the next Earth to meet its doom when Zaphod Beeblebrox appears to rescue them.

Unfortunately the rescuer winds up needing rescuing. This gives rise to various deals being made that involve contacting the god Thor, transporting our refugees to a hidden colony of humans, ending the life of an immortal, and evading the hot-in-pursuit Vogons.

And that’s just the beginning. But that’s all you’re getting here.

There’s quite a website connected to this book that you might enjoy if you click here.

New World Monkeys

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009


By Nancy Mauro

The Short Take:

There’s a lot going on in this compelling and chilling novel. Immensely readable, with a primary focus on the troubled marriage of its two protagonists, the plot embraces a wide variety of sometimes bizarre situations. A vein of violence  — repressed and overt — courses throughout. It’s disturbing. That’s what makes it good.

Why?

That introduction was the hardest I’ve ever had to write, simply because Mauro’s first novel is so different. You think you’re in familiar reading territory — the troubled urban marriage. Then she sweeps you right down the rabbit hole into a looking glass world shaped by century old bones, a voluble pervert, townspeople that belong in a Stephen King book, and a shocker of an ad campaign for cheap jeans.

It sounds crazy but somehow Mauro makes it all work. In fact, as you are reading, it all seems completely logical. It’s only after you put the book down that you ask, “What the heck was that?” And then start really thinking about how the disparate elements relate to each other and to the floundering marriage of Lily and Duncan.

Ultimately it all comes down to human communication and its inherent inadequacies. Mauro’s Lily and Duncan spend so much time listening to their inner voices and looking for hidden meanings in the other’s words they’ve become emotionally paralyzed. Every other element ties into this problem of communication. As bizarre and disturbing as parts of this novel are, they all coalesce around this central theme.

A Little Plot:

Ad man Duncan and his dissertation-focused wife plan a summer where she stays in her family’s inherited country manor with Duncan coming up weekends. They both suspect this is the beginning of the end of their relationship. On their first drive up, a wild boar crashes into their car setting off a series of events that colors their relationship with each other as well as their summer neighbors.

Add to this the unearthing of human bones in the overgrown garden, Lily’s interest in the adventures of a local pervert, and Duncan’s development of a fantastic advertising campaign that could revitalize his career. Yes, there’s a lot going on in this novel.

But that’s all you’re getting here. If you want more, go to Mauro’s really great website by clicking here. It’s worth the visit. Just like her book is worth reading… and thinking about afterwards.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009


By Richard Dawkins

The Short Take:

Dawkins lays out all the evidence for evolution — from molecular genetics to poor body design to plate tectonics and more — in one easy-to-read and entertaining book. Even if you think you understand the process, Dawkins will enlighten you further.

Why?

I tried to approach this book as a sceptic. From that viewpoint, the first chapter is rather irritating: Dawkins can be downright snarky at times. He has no patience for those he calls “history deniers.” But once he got past his complaining, things really picked up and I quickly became engrossed in the depth, breadth, and clearness of the evidence he presented.

I’ve read a fair amount of popular paleontology books over the years and still learned (relearned?) new things from this book about atomic numbers, isotopes, and radioactive half lives; embryo development; and plate tectonics. Dawkins also included fascinating facts about different creatures from dugongs to koalas.

I can’t imagine any non-evolutionist reading this book and coming away with anything less than severe doubts about previous beliefs. Unfortunately, I suspect that due to Dawkins’ most recent and hugely successful book, The God Delusion, he won’t reach many of the people he purports to be writing for. Well, at least the rest of us can enjoy this work.

Even I approached this book with some trepidation, as a huge fan of the late Stephen Jay Gould. Gould didn’t quite agree with certain aspects of Dawkins gene-centric approach to evolution. I needn’t have worried, there was no Gould bashing. This book focuses on what is well known and accepted, not on the subtleties of their minor disagreements.

If you have any interest in evolution, this book is for you. It clearly demonstrates, as Darwin famously said, “There is grandeur in this view of life.”

What’s This Thing about Lee Child?

Thursday, November 5th, 2009


Lee Child seems to make women swoon. Why is that?

There are probably hundreds of mystery and thriller writers I have never read — many of them quite well known. Lee Child was one of them until I went to a book reading by Steve Berry and overheard a group of women talking about different writers. Someone mentioned Lee Child’s name and — in unison — every woman in that group went, “Lee Child! Oooh!”

That got my attention.

Now that my ears were perked to his name, I noticed that same reaction from women again and again. I had to read for myself.

Jack Reacher is Lee Child’s recurring character, and he certainly strikes me as a man’s man, not a woman’s fantasy. He’s a rolling stone, with no possessions other than the clothes he wears and a folding toothbrush. A loner by nature, he inevitably gets ensnarled in some evil activity and must use his wits and formidable physical skills to fight for survival — for himself and the inevitable other victim(s).

Blood is spilled. Often copious quantities. He has sex, which he appreciates but not enough to hang around for more. He is uncontainable and untamable.

So why do women find him so darn attractive? And his creator Lee Child by association (Lee Child’s cover picture looks a lot like his description of Jack Reacher. Accident? I think not!)?

Lee Child writes a good thriller — his language, pacing, and story structure are all strong. Especially for this genre. But I would think the aloofness of Jack Reacher and the bloodiness of his (always for good) actions would limit his appeal, not strengthen it.

Then I remembered Clint Eastwood and his movies from the High Plains Drifter era. Jack Reacher is very much a modern interpretation. I didn’t get why women liked Eastwood then and I don’t get why they like Lee Child now. But I watched those movies because they were good entertainment. And while I will never swoon, I will read every Jack Reacher book that Lee Child turns out.

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