Shorter review: Read both of these books.
Boomerang by Michael Lewis is his extended vacation into the fun world of…well, the world, after the financial crash of 2008.
Lewis hits Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany, and briefly comes back to the US in his overview of what happened around the world when the markets tanked. His style is great - he is incredibly knowledgeable, and he puts what could be complex and dry economic writing into very easy to understand language.
It also really illuminates how utterly, unbelievably stupid a lot of people were being before the crash, and how some of them are still being stupid several years later. If the financial news from Europe and the EU has you a little confused, Boomerang is an excellent primer, and a great read to boot.
Another primer comes from Eben Weiss, who takes his Internet persona the NYC Bike Snob into the printed medium with Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling.
Weiss’s Bike Snob got its start and rose to popularity going after the Williamsburg hipsters on fixies in an awesomely snarky way. If you don’t know what those words mean, you should definitely pick up this book, because Weiss goes through the history of cycling in the US, and examines the weird subcultures that have sprung up in it today. Fun Fact: Madison Square Garden in NYC was originally built to showcase bike races.
Weiss writes a book that will unfortunately be read by bike people, and not by non-bike people. This is a shame, because it is really a book for the non-bikers; today’s cyclists (myself included) will definitely enjoy it, but they already ride, and don’t need encouraged to do so. What Weiss excels at is explaining that rather than bitch about those damn cyclists on the streets, people should become them, at least a little bit. He encourages people to ride more, either for fun or exercise or whatever your excuse is. He eschews the tribes that modern cyclists have built, and pushes the reader to just go take a ride. It’s great advice, and I wish more people would try it.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead was supposed to be the next World War Z. A character driven novel taking place after the now-seemingly-inevitable zombie apocalypse, it focuses on a young man engaged in the clearing and rebuilding of Manhattan island.
I was very excited for this book. io9 called it the next World War Z.
I. Loved. World War Z. I’ve read it at least 5 times. I had it sitting next to my bed for a year and would read random sections before bed. I probably have several sections committed to memory. And to paraphrase a popular quote this time of year, Zone One was no World War Z.
Zone One focuses on Mark Spitz, who is assigned to a 3-man team that sweeps out parts of Manhattan. The skyscrapers aren’t quite full of zombies, but there are a still a few of them kicking around. So Spitz and his team meander around and take care of them. This is about as boring as it sounds, so most of the book is played out through Spitz thinking back on the experiences he had leading to where he is now.
Unfortunately, Spitz is a very bland guy. He’s not particularly courageous, nor all that savvy, so he has survived on the goodwill of others and some serious good luck. This makes him fairly unlikable, which is not a good characteristic for a deep dive into a character. He isn’t really worth hating either…he’s just…there.
This makes his memories bland too. Maybe it’s because there has been such a glut in zombie media recently, but even the action scenes weren’t all that exciting.
Unlike WWZ, where characters you only knew for a few pages had incredible depth and humanity, Zone One had one character for hundreds of pages with about the same amount of depth, spread way too thin. Honestly, at least the zombies had some kind of clear motivation…
Overall, this book was like a Malcolm Gladwell/JD Salinger knockoff trying to be shoehorned into a zombie apocalypse book, and hoping that it would be such a unique chimaera that it would be attractive. Instead, it comes through looking more like a shop-worn Frankenstein monster, all rotting flesh and hex bolts.
The Scalzi march continues, this time with his Fuzzy Nation, which is kind of a mashup of Avatar and Boston Legal.
It’s a sci-fi tale on an Earth-like planet, but one that is still more or less completely virgin. The tale’s hero, a Han-Solo-like former lawyer-turned-mining-prospector Jack Holloway is out blowing the tops off of mountains when he comes across a particularly rich vein of the planet’s unobtanium stand-in. Soon he’s embroiled in a passive-aggressive battle with his employers over ownership of the minerals, giving the story a Wall Street/coutroom feel, even though it takes place millions of miles from Earth.
But shortly after his new find, he also discovers something else - a race of semi-intelligent creatures that look like anthropomorphic gophers. A small family of the “fuzzies” invade his house, but their discovery also adds new layers of complications to mining claim - in the future, there is still an EPA.
Fuzzy Nation is based on a short story called “Little Fuzzy” by H. Beam Piper - Scalzi took the idea and expanded on it. Scalzi’s trademark dialogue is put to great effect in Fuzzy Nation - there are few instances of sci-fi action, but the book hums along. Honestly, if it weren’t for the extra-terrestrial setting, this would have been a gripping, but funny, story about the occasionally disastrous effect of resource extraction.
I liked it because it had a lot of things I like - snarky characters, quick wit, and a borderline sociopathic evil mining company get their comeuppance. It is a good entre to the sci-fi genre for people that might not like the space ships and future tech of other interstellar sci-fi.
This isn’t a long review, and it wasn’t a long book. But where this review is “meh” at best, Fuzzy Nation was really good, and definitely worth a read.
Maureen Johnson is hip. She is one of the best authors on Twitter, hands down (@maureenjohnson).
I picked up Name of the Star because it came very highly rated, and frankly, was probably the only one of Johnson’s books that I could borrow from the library without ending up on a child predator list somewhere (her other novels are definitely geared towards young women, of which I am neither).
It’s a fun read - a young woman named Rory moves from the American South to a prep school in London, where a copycat killer is re-creating the murders done by the infamous Jack the Ripper.
However, Rory has bigger problems - a near death experience, that did leave her physically dead for a brief moment, has given her the power to both see and talk to ghosts.
She doesn’t realize this at first - only starts talking to people that her friends don’t notice. It isn’t until the Ripper killer strikes near her campus that she is introduced to a secret group of London police who specialize in tracking ghosts.
Rory’s new colleagues help her develop her skills, and she gets more and more wrapped up in the Ripper killings, which start to involve her more than she would like.
Johnson writes a good book. There is no other way around it - this is a hard book to put down. All of the characters feel real - the teenage girls act like teenage girls, not like tiny Sorkin-ite tiny adults. The action is fast paced, and the secret society of the X-Files feels pretty real too - a hidden agency with few resources aside from their own skills, rather than some CIA black ops agency.
Name of the Star is the first in a series - the next book comes out in March. It will be a long wait…
I’m “Lightning Round”ing two fairly different books because they are the literary equivalent of a Snickers bar: nutritionally worthless, but so, so good to eat.
Both of these authors have sold a bajillion copies of their books - and honestly, they are not bad books. But they aren’t Catcher in the Rye either.
Neverwinter is the latest from Salvatore’s ongoing chronicles of a dark elf named Drizzt. If you aren’t enough of a nerd to know who this is, after 20 years of books published in the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms universe, then skip on by.
If you do know Drizzt, you’re going to get exactly what you expect. Drizzt is without his previous companions (killed off in previous books to give him a fresh start), but a ghost from his past emerges, this time as an unexpected ally.
Neverwinter is pure fantasy pulp, and I loved every minute. It reads like Skyrim plays, where the action is fast and occasionally a little unbelievable. I don’t care. I’ll read every single one of these Salvatore writes, and I’ll know that it’s the fantasy novel equivalent of Honey Boo Boo.
Speaking of atrocities, what’s happening in the Nightside? You know, the seedy side dimension in London where it’s always 3 am and gods and monsters roam the streets?
The latest in Simon R. Green’s Nightside novels are a Tarantino like mashup of detective noir and all of the demons I drew on my middle school notebooks. That’s not a complaint, by the way.
In The Bride Wore Black Leather, protagonist PI John Taylor is being hunted by most of the seedy underworld known as the Nightside. Everyone from Razor Eddie, the Punk God of the Straight Razor to his own fiancee, the gun-wielding mercenary known as Suzie Shooter (aka Shotgun Suzie, aka “oh my god it’s her run!”) is after him for killing one of Nightside’s most beloved citizens.
The Nightside novels are another Snicker’s bar - a guilty pleasure. But they are also incredibly well written, lightning fast paced, and a really funny mashup of a lot sci-fi tropes. If you’ve never read any of them, pick up the first six books (they are really short), and thank me later.
If you’re a bit of a nerd like me, putting the name “Guillermo Del Toro” is pretty much bait. Putting his name on book that says “Book One of the Strain Trilogy” is a good way to get me to take all three out of the library, dust jacket unread.
I’m kind of regretting that decision…
The Strain Trilogy is a vampire tale - but no sparkly things here, these are old school nosferatu. They hate silver and sunlight, and don’t really care one way or the other for crucifixes, as long they aren’t made of silver (or, I guess, sunlight).
The first book, The Strain, is really good. The lead characters is a CDC expert named Ephraim (Eph for short) who is called in to investigate a plane full of dead bodies - people that all died between the plane landing and a few minutes later when all the lights went out on the plane.
Soon, four survivors are found, along with an odd missing item on the cargo manifest - a dirt filled coffin. Soon, the survivors begin to notice changes in themselves, craving something to quench their thirst and not wanting to work on their tans.
The Strain is very cool novel of pathogen containment. There’s an old man that has faced the vampire behind all of this before, and has dedicated his life to killing the beast. But even more interesting is how quickly the vampires spread - a parasite in the vampire blood creates more vampires. But the whole thing spreads like the virus in the movie Contagion, where misinformation and confusion allow the vampires to spread even further and more quickly.
The first book ends with New York City quickly reaching the tipping point, even though confusion and some odd government conspiracy are keeping many people in the dark.
This is about where the wheels come off of this train. The second book is about learning more about the lead vampire, naturally called the Master, and the continuing spread of the vampires. The problem here is that there are waaaay too many people in on the conspiracy, and at some point, realistically, someone wouldn’t play along (and you can’t just kill everyone in the government without raising a little suspicion). This book also hinges on another book - a book that supposedly tells how to kill the Master.
Finally, in the third book, everything pretty much falls apart. Eph’s son, who he has tried to protect, becomes the Master’s pet. This isn’t as tragic as it might sound, since neither Del Toro nor co-author Hogan really knew what to do with him. I was rooting for the vampires by the end.
The Strain trilogy starts very strong - the later books just didn’t keep up with the pace and tension of the first, and the story is worse for it. It’s still a good beach read, or something to read to cleanse your vampire palate of sparkly brooders and hunky werewolves, but if you want top shelf sci-fi/horror, look elsewhere.
I’m not sure why I picked this one up. I remember walking through the library and seeing another book by David Oppegard that had a neat name (yeah, I know, don’t judge a book by its cover, blah blah). It said that it was from the author of Suicide Collectors, so I figured I should read that one first.
Suicide Collectors is uplifting tale that takes place after most of the nation (and the world) has inexplicably gotten so depressed they kill themselves. Wait. That isn’t uplifting at all…
But that is the world as it was, with an unknown force that people simply call the Despair. Perhaps even creepier are the hooded figures that come to collect the people that ultimately give in to the Despair - the Suicide Collectors.
After his wife kills herself with sleeping pills, Floridian Norman decides it’s time to head out. Together with his neighbor, they start a journey across the country, following the rumors of wandering nomads that someone in Seattle has a cure for the Despair, and even a way to stop it.
Suicide Collectors is a mix of other post-apocalyptic novels, taking the empty landscapes of The Road and mixing it with the fractured communities like those found in the Emberverse novels.
Oppegard keeps the story going - introducing new characters like a young girl named Zero togive Norman a stronger sense of purpose. It’s certainly a bleak story - it quickly becomes clear that no matter how it ends, there is no good resolution. The dead will still be dead…
It was still a pretty good read, but not one of my favorites from the year.
The History Channel can take credit for this choice - their Hatfields and McCoys miniseries prompted me to find a book about this storied feud.
Blood Feud does a good job going through the sordid and often tragic history of the feud, which started shortly after the Civil War, with a Hatfield relation killing a McCoy in cold blood.
The feud simmers and boils over several times in the next decades, with lynch mobs, shootouts, massacres, prisoners, and the intervention of several sitting state governors. Throughout the sometimes confusing history, author Lisa Alther keeps things pretty straightforward. This herculean task occasionally gets the better of her, but for the most part she keeps it going.
Alther is a distant relation of the McCoy family, so there might be some family bias, but straight facts alone definitely bolster her case that the Hatfield family was the root cancer of conflict. There was never a knife-fight they didn’t feel the need to bring a gun to, even callously throwing friends and distant relations into the fray with reckless abandon. To give some flavor of the Hatfield family, the patriarch was a man named Devil Anse, who was described by contemporaries as “six foot of devil and 180 pounds of hell.”
More telling was how the society of the day let the feud continue as long as it did. Blood Feud is worth a read for the sociological aspects of the day. Reconstruction Appalachia was a land left out of time in a way, full of political patronage that was basically straight up graft. Normal operating procedures in the hollows and small towns would make New Orleans blush.
The feud wasn’t helped by the rise of the gilded age that saw the feud as an entertainment item. Popular metropolitan papers of the day sensationalized the feud, fueling the fire, and characterized both families as savage, backwater hicks.
This stereotyping obviously continues today (with good reason in some cases), but Alther highlights some of the long term effects it had on the people of the region. As the feud was winding down, industrial age barons descended on Appalachian coal country. With them came a new way of life - that in the industrial age. No longer could the residents of area depend on farming and hunting to feed their families, and instead were driven into the mines to support themselves.
While this in and of itself isn’t a bad outcome - it brought things electricity to isolated hollows, among other things - the idea that Appalachian residents were nothing more than brutal Hatfield-McCoy type savages or backwater hicks led to borderline exploitation of both people and land in the region.
These effects are still being felt today, as the coal industry now limps to its inevitable end. The fiery attitudes still exist, and sadly, so does some of the exploitation.
Author Seth Grahame is no stranger to alternate histories. His Pride and Prejudice and Zombies brought the walking dead into 19th century England, and now he sets his sights a few millenia earlier - right around the end of year 1 Before Christ.
Unholy Night is the story of the three wise men that visit the baby Jesus shortly after his birth. Except that unlike the stories we read in Sunday school, Smith posits that the magi weren’t wise kings at all, but criminals.
Led by the master thief Balthazar, the three thieves are on the run from Herod’s forces after breaking out of jail. Balthazar is haunted by his past, first as a pick-pocket, then a grave-robber in Syria, but soon shows his heart of gold as he takes a poor carpenter, his wife, and their infant son into his care.
Unholy Night does tell a story that isn’t told in church in more ways than one. Smith is historically accurate in that King Herod had dispatched his armies to kill every first-born son in Judea. The story quickly becomes the flight of Mary and Joseph, led by Balthazar and his fellow thieves, Gaspar and Melchyor. Other biblical figures like a brash, young Pontius Pilate and John the Baptist also show up.
Unholy Night isn’t as tongue-in-cheek as Smith’s other works, including Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. He pays care to respect the source material - never putting beloved biblical figures in compromising positions that would border heresy. At the same time, it is a high octane thrill ride, full of swashbuckling sword fights, mystical experiences, and daring escapes.
It might not fit into the weekly sermon on Sunday morning, but Unholy Night is definitely worth reading.
More Scalzi? MOAR SCALZI!!!
This time I’ve left the Old Man’s War universe, but Redshirts occupies a very familiar spot in popular science fiction. The junior crew of the
United Federation of Planets Universal Union flagship Enterprise Intrepid have a problem - they keep dying.
Their superiors, a group of good looking, specifically diverse officers often make seemingly unnecessary trips planetside to investigate something, and the junior crew that accompany them often end up dead. Usually in oddly gruesome ways.
Ensign Andrew Dahl is excited to be posted to such an important ship like the Intrepid, but quickly learns to avoid his superior officers, including his direct report, the coolly logical science officer.
If you haven’t noticed the allusions to Star Trek, notice them now. The officers, from the Spock-like Q’eeng, the Kirk-like Captain Abernathy, and the dreamy but borderline incompetent Lt. Kerensky all know that their away missions have terribly high mortality rates, but as the flagship they take on the riskiest missions. So it falls to Dahl and his cohort of junior officers and enlistees to figure out why an away team assignment is a death sentence.
Other odd things happen around the ship as well - a critical scientific analysis isn’t scrutinized by Q’eeng’s science team…it’s just stuck in a microwave-like black box that spits out all the answers. No one on the team knows why. Just that it works.
It isn’t until another crewmate, an elusive hermit who hides in the ductwork, does the crew start to understand what is happening to them.
I won’t spoil the plot, because you should definitely read it for yourself. Scalzi does a masterful job of taking a well-known sci-fi trope and turning it on it’s head. His writing is again razor sharp and charmingly funny. While the redshirts are expendable, losing one of them that you’ve gotten to know is a gut-wrencher.
The other emotional part of the book is the three codas that come at the end. These three short epilogues aren’t really needed, but their inclusion shows a little bit of the behind-the-scenes aftermath of the main plot. They also have some of the most poignant moments of the book, and fill it out emotionally very well.
Redshirts is an absolute must-read for pop-culture lovers, Star Trek lovers, and sci-fi lovers (frankly, there’s probably a lot of overlap in there). The book is accessible enough that even if your only nerd-cred is watching Big Bang Theory (which is a terrible show) you’ll still understand Redshirts, and probably think it is pretty damn funny.