Category Archives: Books

Book Review: Garlic And Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Jean-Paul’s rating: 3/5 stars

I have been living my life all wrong.  Instead of cultivating friendships with restaurant critics who would then take me for free meals while they review restaurants, I have this motley group of friends every single one of which is decidedly not a restaurant critic.  Friends, you have all failed me.  Completely and irrevocably.

How cool would it be to be friends with the New York Times restaurant critic?  Especially if hat person is Ruth Reichl.  That is the main conclusion I come to after reading “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise”.  The book follows her time as a restaurant critic between leaving the LA Times in 1993 for The New York Times till her departure from there for Gourmet magazine in 1999.  Now, you might be thinking that a book about a person’s time as a restaurant critic sounds like an incredibly boring story, but you’d be wrong.  Reichl, you see, has a hook.  After discovering that her likeness was pasted across all the popular restaurants with instructions for the staff to be on the lookout for her, Reichl decided to develop disguises complete with alternate personas.

The book is equal parts Reichl developing her disguises and trying them out at restaurants and just random weirdness that happens to you when you happen to be The New York Times food critic.  It is then padded with some filler copy of reviews straight from the newspaper and fleshed out with select recipes of some of Reichl’s favorite dishes.  The personal experience stuff is fun to read, if a little too polished.  In the afterword, Reichl does explain this polishing for time, flow, and various other literary reasons to create a book worth reading, which I appreciated.  The newspaper articles, with an exception or two, mostly break up the flow of the narrative and feel out of place.  And as for the recipes interspersed throughout, I WANT TO MAKE ALL THE THINGS!

If you enjoy food, you will likely enjoy this book.  It’s light reading and perfect for a beach vacation or airplane fodder.  People who do not like food will probably not get much enjoyment out of it, but you people are barely human so you don’t even count.

Now, to begin stalking Phil Vettel

Book Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

In the history of literature, you would be hard pressed to come up with a character who is more full of himself than Humbert Humbert.  This is a man who believes all his actions justified and all his reasoning flawless.  A man who finds everyone around him faulty except for one; his Dolores, his Dee, his Lolita.  The words he uses to describe Lolita and his actions with her and his thoughts about her are absolutely beautiful and flowery and flowing.  Coming from the right man, they are words that would make women melt and Humbert Humbert will readily tell you he is the right man.  And he’s right.  They are gorgeous words and they flow effortlessly and effusively from his tongue to his object, Lolita.  Then you remember that Lolita is a 12 year old girl and you get the heebie-jeebies.  Nabokov must be greatly commended for pulling off that feat.  This is not a puerile or erotic book despite its subject manner.  You won’t find lurid descriptions of two people rutting, but you will find incredibly imaginative ways of Humbert Humbert telling you that he has an erection or that he came in his pants.  Seriously, there were parts where I had to reread because I was like, “Did he just describe what I think he described?” and the answer was always yes.  it takes a while, but you get used to it.

This is not an easy book to read, not just for its subject matter, which is disturbing, but also for the depth of its prose and the breadth of knowledge of its author.  The allusions and references are so obscure and the use of the French language so frequent that I was left wondering if maybe the joke was on the reader and the whole purpose of those passages was to make them think that Humbert Humbert was a man of the world when in reality he was mostly talking out his ass and just making this stuff up.  This belief was solidified by the fact that not only did I have to look a record number of words up, but many of the words were not found in the dictionary provided by my Kindle.  The artists and poets and philosophers he references are, indeed, real though, and there’s nothing I can find that says much of Humbert Humbert’s words were BS so I have to assume that it’s my poor dictionary and my lack of vocabulary that are to blame.  Do not worry too much about this if you decide to pick up the book.  I would have liked to be able to fluently read the French in the book, but the rest of the dense passages have enough context around them to maintain comprehension despite the feeling of ignorance you may feel.

I have a theory.  Everything that happens in “Lolita” is all in Humbert Humbert’s mind.  From the introduction by a psychiatrist, to his “affair” with Lolita, to his eventual unwinding and jailing.  The only truth may be his remembrance of his childhood and possibly his predilection for nymphets.  His story is a little too perfect, a little too full of coincidences to be real.  “Lolita’ is his imaginings of what he would have liked his life to be.  The psychologist’s foreword represents his need to feel important.  Lolita represents his repressed childhood romances.  His manic search for justice, the longings of an impotent man to make his mark on the world.  No, Humbert Humbert is sitting in a psych ward somewhere getting the help he needs but will not accept.

Book Review: The Best Of Spanish Steampunk edited by James & Marian Womack

Jean-Paul’s rating: 2/5 stars

I do not know who to blame for the piss poor editing in this collection of short stories.  It’s either the Womacks or whatever hack digitizer that was used to make the ebook version of the collection.  There are typos on just about every page.  Some are inconvenient like changing ‘he’ to ‘the’ and requiring a rereading of the sentence to make sense of the story, while others take multiple rereads to try to suss the original meaning.  In an original English manuscript, this would all be difficult enough, but the stories contained herein were translated from Spanish, also by the Womacks, and while they did a pretty good job, there are more than a few translational weirdnesses that make digestion even more difficult.

Another big minus to this collection is that it’s only nominally steampunk.  It’s steampunk in the same way that dude at the Renaissance Faire on Steampunk Day that is wearing a top hat with goggles attached to it is steampunk.  Most have just an amuse bouche of steampunk, a flying ship here, a gear there, a ridiculously complicated contraption tertiarily related to the plot.  That sort of thing.  None of this really bothers me, mind you, as I don’t really fall into the steampunk fiction wheelhouse, but it would certainly piss aficionados of the genre off to find out it’s more “waterpunk” than “steampunk”.

The biggest strike against the collection is the misuse of the superlative “best”.  If this is the best that Spanish steampunk has to offer and the definition of “steampunk” was stretched this thin to make up the collection, then Spanish steampunk doesn’t have much to offer.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t good stories contained therein.  There are.  But there are also no excellent stories and plenty of dullish stories.

All of the above make it very difficult to recommend this book.  The biggest frustration was definitely the crappy editing, though.  Maybe the print version is cleaner and would lead to slightly better enjoyment.  If you do decide to get this collection, definitely stay away from the ebook version.

Book Review: 2016 Revue

I read a lot.  Sadly, books are probably only about 25% of what I read.  Here’s what I read in 2016.  11 measly books.  Sheesh.  I pretty much stuck to sci-fi this year, with a little non-fiction thrown in.  There were a bunch of short story compendiums that were mostly so-so except for the wonderful “The Other Half of the Sky”.  David Foster Wallace was definitely the highlight of the year and, sadly, the first book I read this year.  I’m going to try to branch out from sci-fi in 2017, but 2017 is certainly going to need some good escapism.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace – 5/5 stars

The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene – 3/5 stars

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – 4/5 stars

Crandolin by Anna Tambour – 2/5 stars

The Narrator by Michael Cisco – 1/5 stars

Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen – 3/5 stars

The Bestiary edited by Ann VanderMeer – 3/5 stars

The Eisenberg Constant by Eugen Egner – 3/5 stars

The Other Half of the Sky edited by Athena Andreadis – 5/5 stars

Clarkesworld: Year Six edited by Neil Clarke – 2/5 stars

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick – 2/5 stars

Book Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

I have come to think of “A Scanner Darkly” as an artifact of its time.  It is semi-autobiographical and written about a time in Philip K. Dick’s life where he was recently divorced (again) and spent a few years in the early 70s inviting various teen-ish druggies to live in his house so he wouldn’t be alone.  Obviously, he did a lot of drugs in that period.  He also lost a lot of friends to drugs during that period.  Thus was born “A Scanner Darkly”.  I say the book is an artifact of its time because the drug culture back then was vastly different from what it is today, or at least vastly different from how popular culture portrays the 70s drug culture vs. the 90s and beyond drug culture, because let’s face it, a drug culture expert I am not.  “A Scanner Darkly” is not violence-free, but it’s a far cry from the hyper-violent drug culture we see today.  That makes it very difficult to relate to the individuals who are just going through their daily motions and decidedly not in a buddy drug comedy a la Cheech and Chong or Harold and Kumar.

The story deals with Bob Arctor who is really “Fred”, an undercover agent whose identity is even hidden by his bosses by a scramble suit which jumbles a person’s appearance.  In the line of duty as an undercover druggie, Bob gets addicted to Substance D, a made up drug that plays into the story.  Much of the story is about Bob’s descent into addiction and the symptoms he starts to exhibit.  It’s a bit trippy and somewhat interesting from a psychological perspective, but it’s mostly dry and plodding as a story.  Bob’s addiction is a very necessary plot point in the story, but the entire book is basically Bob’s addiction with a loose plot to give the book some semblance of a narrative.

“A Scanner Darkly” is basically an attempt to keep kids off drugs.  It’s every bad anti-drug commercial from the 80s.  This is drugs. *holds up egg*  This is your brain on drugs. *cracks egg into hot frying pan* Any questions?  Only 200+ pages of it.  Personally, I’d rather have watched the commercial again and saved myself hours of reading.

Clarkesworld: Year Six edited by Neil Clarke

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Clarkesworld” is an online, totally free collection of sci-fi and fantasy short stories that also publishes a magazine of said stories.  Neil Clarke is the purveyor of said totally-free-if-you’d-like endeavor and all sorts of kudos to him for keeping this alive.

“Clarkesworld: Year Six” is a collection of all the fiction stories the magazine produced in its sixth year.  As you might expect from a totally-free-if-you’d-like collection of stories, it’s very hit and miss, mostly miss.  There are a total of 34 stories that comprise year six and only a handful are good.  My favorite story is probably “Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes” by Tom Crosshill.  It can be a little hard to follow as it blurs the line between humanity and AI, but the exploration of that line is well crafted and intriguing.  Another story that left an impression was “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia.  It is about a young girl growing up in a ghost town filled with robots that time has forgotten, but all is not what it seems.

This is not a terribly good collection of stories, but you should buy it and support things like “Clarkesworld” anyway.  Why?  First off, did I mention it was free for people who can’t afford it?  Beyond that, though, writing short stories is incredibly hard and getting your short story published is even harder.  Magazines like “Clarkesworld” provide a needed outlet for would-be writers to show their stuff to a wider audience beyond their tiny little blog that about 10 people read.  *looks around furtively* Outlets like this are vital for incubating new talent and should be encouraged and supported.  I mean, seriously, the dude asks for a donation of $1 per month to keep the magazine going.  Switch your order from a daily venti latte to a grande and support 20 magazines like this.

Book Review: The Other Half Of The Sky edited by Athena Andreadis

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

This may be the single best collection of multi-author science fiction short stories I have ever read.  I would recommend each and every story in this collection to anyone who enjoys sci-fi.  While some are obviously better than others, each and every story is unique, imaginative, and compelling.  Let’s get into why I like this book so much.

Women are criminally underrepresented in science fiction.  Both as authors and as protagonists.  The main theme of this book is women.  Almost all of the authors are women and every story has a woman as the protagonist.  For better or for worse, women see and interact with the world differently than men and that can be seen in their writing, which in this case is definitely for the better.  This book treats you to some completely different worlds that you won’t find in the minds of men and even those worlds that could come from the minds of men are seen in a polarized light that reveals a different side of familiar scenes.

I have a passion for language.  And by that, I mean that you don’t want to get me started on how stupid gendered nouns and pronouns are and how they reinforce gender stereotypes.  That’s why it was pleasant to see that some of the stories in this collection embrace gender fluidity as a norm.  It is a concept somewhat on the fringes of sci-fi and only normally used as an afterthought to shape a world instead of being front and center as it is in the stories in this book.  Given the gender fluidity of humans, of course aliens may be much more gender fluid, of course future humans may fully embrace their own gender fluid nature.  Reading these stories it’s kind of a “well, duh” moment that these ideas would be explored but it’s good to have them explored nonetheless.  And while it may be somewhat discomfiting to some, reading gender neutral pronouns like zie and zir and zem in a story, it is a great introduction to those who still think of gender as binary.

If you like science fiction, you should run out and get this book right now.  If you like the stories in this book, you should run out and get more books by the authors in question.  I haven’t had a feeling of such pure delight reading sci-fi in quite some time and this book completely put me in my sci-fi happy place.  That said, this is also what I would call softer science fiction so it is also very accessible to those not really into science fiction.  I don’t mean that to sound like an insult, as the worlds created in this book are rich and complex, but they are told more from a viewpoint of taking the advances in technology for granted, like we would if we were writing a story where someone calls someone on their cell phone, instead of getting bogged down in technical details of warp drives and tachyon fields and such.  That’s how I define soft vs. hard science fiction.  Regardless, everyone should buy this book and give the authors all their monies.

Book Review: The Eisenberg Constant By Eugen Egner

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

This is more of a short story or maybe novelette than a book so I’m not entirely sure why it came as a stand alone story, but that’s what you get sometimes when you buy e-books in bundles, I guess.

The premise of this story is pretty cool.  A technology exists which can create a time loop which allows super rich lonely people to relive the same week over and over again.  You have full autonomy and can basically do whatever you want but your actions have no consequence and at the end of the week, everything kind of gets reset.  Since reliving the same thing over and over a la “Groundhog Day” would get pretty tiresome pretty quickly, the technology has some randomness added to it using a device called the Eisenberg Constant.  People aren’t necessarily going to be in the same place at the same time, individuals won’t react the same way in the same situation, etc.  Things are going swimmingly for Henry Selinger until things seem to start going awry with the Eisenberg Constant.  A locomotive-like vehicle has crashed into a nearby field.  Strange voices can be heard in his bathroom.  The news on the radio is getting weirder and weirder.  An exceedingly frightening creature is haunting his dreams.  And the Eisenberg Constant repairman won’t be here until Monday!  What’s a man to do?

I should probably give this story 4 stars because it really is a fun and interesting read, but man is the ending unfulfilling.  The curse of the short story.  Egner has a very interesting writing style and he clearly describes some pretty absurdist stuff in this story.  It would be interesting to read some of his other works.  Unfortunately, it looks like this is his only story that has been translated from his native German into English.  Oh well.

Book Review: The Bestiary edited by Ann VanderMeer

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Reading “The Bestiary” is like reading a more mundane version of a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual.  It is a collection of short stories from various authors each of which describes a not-quite-of-this-world animal.   I am not sure how the authors or the stories were selected for this compilation or if the stories were written specifically for this compilation, but it is interesting how similar in scope much of the bestiary ended up being.  I would say fully half of the stories describe either parasitic or mimetic animals.  I found this very strange until I thought about it for more than a few seconds.  Bestiaries of the past were fantastical because so much was unknown.  A modern bestiary needs to be somewhat more grounded into the reality we now know and the obvious choice for animals are those that can blend and those that live off others.

Overall, this is an ok collection of stories even if some are a bit of a slog to get through.  They range from the mundane to the fantastical to the downright weird.  There are 28 beasts in total, one for each letter of the alphabet plus two non-alphabetic animals.  I will say that I had more of an affinity for the parasitic type stories just because they seem more believable.  There were also a few mind controlling ones that were fun reads as well.  Favorites include “The Counsellor Crow” by Karen Lord, “Daydreamer by Proxy” by Dexter Palmer, “Pyret” by Karin Tidbeck, and “Zee” by Richard Howard.

Can I recommend the book?  Eh, yes?  I would say that if you love reading Monster Manuals, this book has a lot to offer even if it is missing the “claw, claw, bite, rake” portions of Monster Manuals.  For others, I’d give the same warning that I give every collection of short stories:  There’s good stuff to be found here, but as with every collection, your mileage may vary.  Personally, I think that as long as there are a few gems, it’s worth reading.  This collection doesn’t quite hit that mark but it comes close.

Book Review: Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

The protagonist’s name in “Not Dark Yet” is Brandon Minamoto.  If you’re going to read this book, remember that because it is only mentioned in the very first sentence of the very first chapter.  In fact, I thought the main character was nameless throughout until I read someone else’s review and they said his name was Brandon.  I had to actually do a search of the ebook to see if the author actually did name him.  I can’t recall how far into the book I had read before I realized that I didn’t know this man’s name, but I do recall finally getting the style of the prose after I realized he was repeatedly not named.  It’s an interesting style and it reflects nicely the nothingness feeling of the character.  Until that point, I was quite confused and it was an ah ha moment that made me enjoy the novel much more than I otherwise would have.

The setting is somewhere in the near future and the planet is beginning to reap the whirlwind of global warming.  States and countries are mostly a thing of the past, though governments still exist.  Food and water shortages are rampant.  Riots are a daily occurrence.  The weather grows more unpredictable and more violent.  This is the world that Brandon is floating through.

The novel starts with a jumble of stories from random moments in Brandon’s life.  Only with some thought can you later piece together those snippets into some sort of chronological order.  By the end, the pieces are all there to figure out, but it’s quite the jumble.  The problem is there’s not much reason for you to want to care about reassembling the jumble since nothing really exciting happens throughout the book to make you want to care.  If you bother, you will see that despite the book’s bleak ending, the real ending is possibly hopeful.

Despite the zero-sum nature of the novel, I found it enjoyable to read, if slightly disappointing given the abundant attention to detail without the corresponding fleshing out of any real connection of the main character to anyone or anything.  For that reason, it’s difficult to recommend the book to those who are looking for a more novelistic read.  If upon reading my review, it still sounds worth it, I don’t think you will be disappointed reading it.