Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Things We Didn't See Coming" by Steven Amsterdam

...nine connected stories set in a not-too-distant dystopian future in a landscape at once utterly fantastic and disturbingly familiar. Richly imagined, dark, and darkly comic, the stories follow the narrator over three decades as he tries to survive in a world that is becoming increasingly savage as cataclysmic events unfold one after another. In the first story, "What We Know Now" - set on the eve of the millennium, when the world as we know it is still recognizable - we meet the then-nine-year-old narrator fleeing the city with his parents, just ahead of a Y2K breakdown. The remaining stories capture the strange - sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny - circumstances he encounters in the no-longer-simple act of survival: trying to protect squatters against floods in a place where the rain never stops, being harassed (and possibly infected) by a man sick with a virulent flu, enduring a job interview with an unstable assessor who has access to his thoughts, taking the gravely ill on adventure tours. But we see in each story that, despite the violence and brutality of his days, the narrator retains a hold on his essential humanity - and humor. Things We Didn't See Coming is haunting, restrained, and beautifully crafted - a stunning debut.

In an attempt to take a break from my normal reading fare (i.e., more paranormal stuff), I decided to run through my I-want-to-read-this-someday-down-the-road list and see if anything looked good. This seemed to fit the bill - definitely not supernatural, and short to boot. I placed my reserve and when it came, I checked it out thinking I might eventually get around to it.

It didn't take long to start reading it, and once I started, I found I couldn't stop. There's something about this book, something that compelled me to keep reading. It's an odd format - nine "stories" that are more like snapshots of the narrator's life at different times over 30 years. Luckily, the stories appear sequentially, so there's no jumping around in time. But it's still strange to read about someones life like this; I found myself wondering how he got to where he was in each story. It's stories without background, if you will. And you never do learn the name of the narrator, so he could be just about anyone.

The scenes follow the narrator after the world takes a complete nose-dive on New Year's Eve, 1999. Remember the whole Y2K fiasco? Well, in this book, the fearful were absolutely right to worry - the planet evidently cannot survive the transition to the year 2000. The narrator is taken to his grandparents house by his parents, his mother being a naysayer and his father being a true believer. Obviously, this will cause problems down the road for his parents, and indeed, when he visits them in later stories, they are no longer together. His grandparents make an appearance again in one of the stories (one of the more touching entries), along with crazy weather, the flu-like plague (which reminded me quite of bit of Stephen King's Captain Trips illness from "The Stand"), and other challenges the narrator faces.

It's a strange work, but the point is, it works. I thought the character development was quite good considering that it's not done in the typical fashion; I wanted to find out if the narrator was going to survive. I also thought some of the peripheral characters were interesting and well-done, too, no small feat when they make such short appearances. It's a good little book, and I truly believed that some of this gloom-and-doom world could happen. I'm curious to see what Amsterdam does next.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"The New York Regional Momon Singles Halloween Dance" by Elna Baker

It's lonely being a Mormon in New York City. So once again, Elna Baker attends the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance - a virgin in a room full of virgins doing the Macarena. Her Queen Bee costume, which involves a black funnel stuck to her butt for a stinger, isn't attracting the attention she'd anticipated. So once again, Elna is alone at the punch bowl, stocking up on generic Oreos, exactly where you'd expect to find a single Mormon who's also a Big Girl. But loneliness is nothing compared to what happens when Elna loses eighty pounds, finds herself suddenly beautiful...and in love with an atheist.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is a memoir about a girl who's as paradoxical as the city she's coming-of-age in: a girl who distresses her family when she chooses NYU over BYU; a girl who's cultivating an oxymoronic identity as a bold, educated, modern, funny, proper, abstinent, religious stand-up comic - equal parts wholesome and hot. As Elna test-drives her identity, she finds herself in the strangest scenarios: selling creepy, overpriced dolls to petulant children at FAO Schwarz; making out with the rich and famous; nearly getting married in Utah; and arriving at the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance in an obscene costume.

It all boils down to a young woman wondering where love comes from and what will make her feel the least alone in a city full of strangers. Brazenly honest, this is Elna's hilarious and heartfelt chronicle of her attempt to steer clear of temptation and find out if she can just get by on God.

Again, this is one of those little gems that appeared in our outside book drop one morning. See why I love working at the library? Anyway, the title caught my eye, as well as the cover art. I read the inside blurb, and even though I'm not really interested in the Mormon religion, or anyone struggling with it (think all those books that have come out lately by women escaping the more fanatic sects of said religion), I decided there might be something to this book. It looked like it would be funny, and funny is always good in my world.

Well, the book is funny, but it's also quite serious at times, too, which caught me off guard. Elna is a perfect example of the new modern religious dilemma - can you be true to your religious upbringing (especially one that isn't considered "normal" by a lot of the free world) and also true to yourself? I was very moved by her plight; once she moves to New York, she finds herself drawn to all the wonderful people and places that she wants to be a part of: the acting community, the stand-up community, the famous that wine and dine at a the restaurant where she hosts, etc. But there are so many things that she can't/shouldn't do as a good Mormon - and she does consider herself a good Mormon. So no drinking, no smoking, and when she goes out with a guy, nothing other than kissing. No easy task in the Big Apple! And definitely no easy task when you'd really like to be doing some of those things, especially the "more than kissing" part. Elna makes it very obvious that while she remains true to her faith, she's also very much a woman, one with feelings, and yes, needs.

What I found very interesting were her parents. They sounded very much like my own, and no, we're not Mormon, not really any particular denomination at all. Her parents had five children and attempted to show them the world, even while remaining true to their faith. Indeed, at one point in the book, Elna overhears her parents discussing her unmarried status (being single and in her 20s equates spinsterhood in the Mormon faith); they worry that perhaps they were bad parents by exposing their children to so many things when they were young. A very normal concern, I think, for any parents of any faith. I thought her parents were so cool! I really liked the way her dad would let them choose where they went on vacations; he didn't use any method I'd ever heard of before, but it was really neat.

And yes, there's true heartbreak here as well. It's very obvious that Elna truly loved her boyfriend the atheist, but like many couples, they couldn't overcome their religious differences. What's worse is that while I read her account of the relationship, it became clear that he really loved her too. How sad is that - two people that are truly in love, but cannot stay together because of their religions? The boyfriend issue isn't the only thing Elna struggles with - she's always asked questions of her faith, and she finds herself asking even more after the failed relationship with the atheist. I found that heartbreaking, too, that Elna might have to choose to leave her religion because she starts to find herself at such odds with its dogma. When you've been raised one way, and then start to realize that it may not be the way you want/can live your life, that's a very scary time. I just wanted to find her, give her a huge hug, and tell her that everything will be OK.

I think what surprised me the most was her weight issue. I wasn't shocked that she was a woman wanting to lose weight - half or more of the world's female population believes they're "fat" at any given moment of any given day. What surprised me was that it didn't play as big a part in the book as I thought it would. Or maybe I just didn't notice it all that much. However, how she does finally lose the weight plays a big part in her questioning her faith, and that really struck me.

This was a wonderful find for me, and I would definitely recommend you find a copy for yourself. It's not a very big book, so consider it a short read. I think it's a very interesting story, that of Elna's life, one full of humor, angst, and a girl just trying to find her way in the world.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Nightlight" by The Harvard Lampoon

"About three things I was absolutely certain. First, Edwart was most likely my soul mate, maybe. Second, there was a vampire part of him - which I assumed was wildly out of his control - that wanted me dead. And third, I unconditionally, irrevocably, impenetrably, heterogenously, gynecologically, and disreputably wished he had kissed me."

And thus Belle Goose falls in love with the mysterious and sparkly Edwart Mullen in the Harvard Lampoon's hilarious send-up.  Pale and klutzy, Belle arrives in Switchblade, Oregon, looking for adventure, or at least an undead classmate. She soon discovers Edwart, a super-hot computer nerd with zero interest in girls. After witnessing a number of strange events - Edwart leaves his Tater Tots untouched at lunch! Edwart saves her from a flying snowball! - Belle has a dramatic revelation: Edwart is a vampire. But how can she convince Edwart to bite her and transform her into his eternal bride, especially when he seems to find girls so repulsive? Complete with romance, danger, insufficient parental guardianship, creepy stalkerlike behavior, and a vampire prom, Nightlight is the uproarious tale of a vampire-obsessed girl, looking for love in all the wrong places.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I was a huge fan of the Twilight saga - about two years or so ago. I read the first three books with utter delight, and I recommended them to several library patrons (and not just teenagers, I might add). Unfortunately, I feel like the almighty SM jumped the shark with the fourth installment, a book so heinous to me that I stopped reading it just a tad after 100 pages; my feelings about Bella and Edward have been tainted every since. And after rereading "Twilight" last summer (brushing up on it before a library program I did), I realized that SM wasn't nearly so wonderful a writer as I had originally thought. Call it a bad case of reader's rose-colored glasses.

Anyway, having once loved the series, and now being a bit of a hater, I thought I'd give this satire a shot. After all, it isn't easy to do good satire - just ask Weird Al Yankovic. A little goes a long way, and the people at Harvard Lampoon wisely keep this offering very, very short, not even reaching 200 pages. The book isn't really laugh-out-loud funny, but for those who can recognize the flaws of SM, it will make you smirk. The writing is deliberately over-the-top, and Belle is so self-absorbed as to completely ignore those around her, not only their actions but even when they speak to her. Unlike the heroine of "Twilight", this girl is convinced that she's the greatest thing on Earth since sliced bread and beautiful to boot, so it's no wonder to her that all the boys have massive crushes on her. All except Edwart, of course!

It's a wonderful lampoon of the uber-popular teen paranormal romance series, and my hat is off to the writers at Harvard Lampoon. What's even more amazing is that they've managed to drop little kernels of truth in their story, things that those reading the original should be thinking about. My favorite is one of the "regular" kids responding to Belle's completely unreal response to someone asking her "what's new?" The mere mortal derides her about her response, then goes on to say, "Besides, isn't it a little soon to cut yourself off from the rest of your peers, depending on a boyfriend to satisfy your social needs as opposed to making friends?" A sentiment that I truly wish more teen girls would hear and take to heart.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay" by John Lanchester

For most people, the reasons for the sudden collapse of our economy remain obscure. I.O.U. is the story of how we came to experience such a complete and devastating financial implosion, and how the decisions and actions of a select group of individuals had profound consequences for America, Europe, and the global economy overall. John Lanchester begins with "The ATM Moment," that seemingly magical proliferation of cheap credit that led to an explosion of lending, and then deftly outlines the global and local landscapes of banking and finance. Viewing the crisis through the lens of politics, culture, and contemporary history - from the invention and widespread misuse of financial instruments to the culpability of subprime mortgages - Lanchester draws perceptive conclusions on the limitations of financial and governmental regulation, capitalism's deepest flaw, and , most important, on the plain and simple facts of human nature where cash is concerned. Weaving together firsthand research and superbly written reportage, Lanchester delivers a shrewd perspective and a digestible, comprehensive analysis that connects the dots for the expert and casual reader alike. I.O.U. is an eye-opener of a book - it may well provoke anger, amazement, or rueful disbelief - and, as the author clearly reveals, we've only just begun to get ourselves back on track.

I never thought I'd really want to read a book about the recent financial meltdown that most of the world has recently experienced. Why bother reading about it when I've been living it for the last two years? But this book looked a bit different. It purported to show the "how it all happened" on a fairly grand scale without necessarily pointing fingers at political parties. And some of the bits and pieces I read seemed slanted to the funny side, which would be a welcome relief - a book that didn't take everything super-seriously. I think the author really had me though when he quoted someone saying "we're rubbish at thinking about risk". Because we really are - we always want something for nothing. And a big something for nothing is even better.
The book turned out to be very well written and very informative. I learned a great deal about the financial world, including how a select few put together the now-infamous sort of loans that really sunk everything. Loans that were so complicated that a lot of bankers didn't even understand what it was they were selling. And Lanchester very wisely points fingers at everyone - including us. Many of us wanted these loans that seemed to hold no risk, even though we knew they were too good to be true. Regulators relaxed rules because they wanted the economy to keep growing. Basically, we stuck our collective heads in the sand and hoped that if we didn't see anything, then nothing bad could ever happen.

We all know how well that strategy worked, don't we?

I would definitely recommend this book, and not just to people that have been affected by the economic downturn of the last two years or so. I think everyone could benefit from reading it; it makes a great lesson in history, and as Winston Churchill said "Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it". I don't know about you, but I don't want to repeat this financial fiasco - ever.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"The Box: Uncanny Stories" by Richard Matheson

Matheson is one of the granddaddies of horror, having written a little book called "I Am Legend" that was made into no less than three movies that I know of. He's written numerous books, screenplays, and short stories, and is still with us at the wonderful age of 84. I saw this in our collection and thought it would be worth picking up, plus I remembered that they'd just put out the movie "The Box" not too long ago (not to very good reviews, if memory serves me correctly).

Well, having read "Button, Button", I gotta say I'm not surprised the movie tanked. This is not one of Matheson's best: incredibly short and I saw the "shock" ending coming a mile away. Then again, it was first published back in 1970, and perhaps it was shocking at the time. But there have been too many other similar stories since then for it to hold up.

There were several stories that I read but didn't really feel were all that wonderful. "Girl of my Dreams" had a real nasty husband taking advantage of his wife's visions of the future; the slimeball gets his just desserts."Dying Room Only" was a strange story about a couple stopping at a diner in the middle of nowhere. It reminded me of that movie with Kurt Russell where his wife is kidnapped (think it was called "Breakdown" or something like that...); the ending of "Dying Room" was anticlimatic at best. "A Flourish of Strumpets" asks what would you do if the hookers started coming directly to your door? Gives new meaning to an interesting proposition, I think. "Pattern for Survival" was just odd, and if I read it correctly, there was only one character in the whole thing. I think....

The story I liked the least was probably "The Jazz Machine". It's written in verse form, perhaps trying to catch the feel of the music. In any case, a black musician is approached by a white man (keep in mind this is back in the 40s or 50s); the white man tells him he has a machine that can translate the black man's music into words so that the white man can better understand it. The black man goes along with the idea, until he realizes that the machine actually works - then he destroys it, saying that the "we" need to keep something for ourselves. Obviously supposed to be a commentary on race relations, but still not a story I got into.
I think the best story is also the longest. "Mute" is about a boy who was part of an experiment by four couples trying to raise/nurture their children's skills at telepathy. Paal, the boy, lives in the USA and when he's seven, his parents die horribly in a fire. He's found wandering in the woods with nary a scratch on him and appears to be mute, whether by shock or some medical problem, they don't know. He's taken in by the sheriff and his wife (their own boy drowned in a lake a few years earlier), and they try to figure out why he can't/won't talk. They also finally enroll him in school, something that traumatizes him. Then one of the other parents shows up searching for the reason they haven't heard from the boy's parents in over two years.... A very good story, good character development, etc. This was definitely the jewel of the works.

Overall, I still like Matheson, but boy - the short stories really do show their age.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"The Gone-Away World" by Nick Harkaway

This will be short and sweet. I didn't finish this book - got to page 55 and just gave up. It took me two weeks to make it that far, mostly because I kept falling asleep or got confused enough that I had to go back and reread the previous section (although come to think of it, some of that could be from the falling asleep....) Rather than my own review, let me show you what Publisher's Weekly said, then we'll discuss, OK?

"This unclassifiable debut from the son of legendary thriller author John le Carré is simultaneously a cautionary tale about the absurdity of war; a sardonic science fiction romp through Armageddon; a conspiracy-fueled mystery replete with ninjas, mimes and cannibal dogs; and a horrifying glimpse of a Lovecraftian near-future. Go Away bombs have erased entire sections of reality from the face of the Earth. A nameless soldier and his heroic best friend witness firsthand the unimaginable aftermath outside the Livable Zone, finding that the world has unraveled and is home to an assortment of nightmarish mutations. With the fate of humankind in the balance, the pair become involved in an unlikely and potentially catastrophic love triangle. Readers who prefer linear, conventional plotlines may find Harkaway overly verbose and frustratingly tangential, but those intrigued by works that blur genre boundaries will find this wildly original hybrid a challenging and entertaining entry in the post-apocalyptic canon. (Sept.)"

As I said before, the only challenge I found was staying awake and comprehending this book. And can I just tell you how disappointed I am? From the jacket blurb and some of the Amazon reviews, this really sounded like my cup of tea: weird, very out-there, full of just crazy stuff. And yet, I never did warm up to it. I don't know if the author was trying to be too.... hmmm, not really sure what word to use here, so let's just go with "whatever".... or if the editing was bad, or what the problem was. I can't really say it's a bad book since I didn't get very far into it. What I can say is that I knew after struggling with it for said two weeks, I got past the Nancy Pearl-librarian-extraordinnaire rule to read at least 50 pages before you give up - and I gave up. I just was not loving this work, and I have way too many other titles waiting to be read before I give up. LOL!

If anyone out there has read this book or is reading it and enjoying it, I'd like to hear from you!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"The Devil You Know" by Mike Carey

Felix Castor is a freelance exorcist, and London is his stomping ground. It may seem like a good ghostbuster can charge what he likes and enjoy a hell of a lifestyle - but there's a risk. Sooner or later he's going to take on a spirit that's too strong for him, and he'll be lucky if he only ends up dead. So Castor plans to get out of the game - right after he pays the bills with one last case in an old museum. But instead of driving out the ghost, Castor stirs up a life-leeching demon, a were-beast, and a ruthless East End gang boss, all of whom want to stop him from getting too close to an unpleasant truth. Stop him cold... 

I had read somewhere (probably in a review) that while Jim Butcher is good, Mike Carey is better; Harry Dresden is entertaining, but Felix "Fix" Castor is the real deal. Well, now I've read books by both authors, books in both series, and I have to say.... I like them both, just in different ways.

Felix is not a wizard, just an exorcist. He uses music, usually provided by a tin whistle (and for reasons I don't entirely fathom, the tin whistle works best and invokes the most fear in the spirits), to trap the ghost/spirits and send them on their way. Unlike Harry, he's only got one trick up his sleeve. Like Harry, he finds himself taking cases that he doesn't want to, thus resulting in lots of mayhem and danger. Harry works in Chicago; Fix is in London. Etc, etc.

This book is the first in the Felix Castor series, so there's a lot of set-up and expostion. It doesn't always move at the best pace, but I can forgive that in the first book. I thought the character development was interesting, and I really liked Felix. His roommate was cool, too, and there's obviously a bigger story there (which will hopefully be revealed in time). I won't say too much else about the book, but yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit and have already put the second title on a list of "to-be-read-in-the-not-so-distant-future" titles. Check it out if you've done the Dresden series; it's interesting to compare the two. Check it out if you just like a good read, too!