Book Review: “Aliens on Vacation” by Clete Barrett Smith
Book Reviews / April 19, 2014

“Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast” is the name of the series, as well as the place young David “Scrub” Elliott finds himself visiting over the summer between sixth and seventh grade. It isn’t that Scrub is into science fiction, so much. His main interest is basketball. He would rather be back in Florida, trading insane dares with his best friend and training for the all-star team. Instead, when his parents take off on separate business trips, he gets packed off to his grandma’s crazy, retro-futuristic themed hotel in the woods of Washington. Equal parts throwback to the hippie era and throw-up of sci-fi film cliches, the B&B seems to promise the lamest summer vacation ever. But that’s before Scrub finds out that his grandma’s clients are really visitors from other planets.

Review: “Railsea” by China Miéville
Book Reviews / April 12, 2014

I’m just going to come out and say this. It’s “Moby-Dick”, only without the boring bits. Well, no. What I just described would be an 80-page novella. This is a full-size book, filled wall-to-wall with thrilling action, squirm-worthy tension, weird discoveries, and warm, appealing characters. Also, instead of water, the ocean in this version of “Moby-Dick” is a seemingly endless landmass filled with merging, splitting, tangling, and criss-crossing lines of rail. Where the soil is loose enough for creatures to burrow in it, the railsea takes care of itself (or is maintained by some supernatural agency; but let’s leave the theological questions to one side). It isn’t safe for people to set foot on this ground because it is infested with mutant meat-eating oversized worms, insects, and furry things. The rockier bits, islands if you will, are populated by human settlements. The higher elevations, where the atmosphere is poisonous to earthly life, belong to creatures brought here and left behind by visitors from alien worlds.

Book Review: “The Idiot” by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Book Reviews / March 27, 2014

Published in a series of magazine issues in 1868-69, this is one of the masterpieces by the author of “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov”. It made me laugh a great deal, but it is not a comedy. Its climax is mysterious and chilling, but it is not a thriller. Dickensian in its large cast of vividly colorful characters and satire on the society of its time, it is not quite a picaresque. Tragic to a truly disturbing degree, it is too subtle and complex to make grand opera, too often given to immensely long talky scenes, featuring too many characters, to translate well into film—though the attempt has often been made to adapt it for stage or screen. It’s a great novel in which a sensitive reader can feel himself totally immersed, only to be shocked out of “willing suspension of disbelief” when its author breaks the fourth wall and begins commenting on his characters as fictional creations. Though it may come as a surprise to those of us who grew up watching a copy of the novel collecting dust in a reverential spot on our parents’ bookshelf, looking so serious and sophisticated that we could hardly imagine trying to read it, it happens to be a vastly entertaining novel. Once you read it, you will not forget it.

Book Review: “The Sign of (the) Four” by Arthur Conan Doyle
Book Reviews / March 17, 2014

The second book of the Sherlock Holmes canon was first published in 1890 under the five-word title “The Sign of the Four”. Since then, it has often been republished under the four-word title “The Sign of Four”. The confusion actually originates in the book itself, in which both phrases are used interchangeably. Although Holmes did not really become a hit until Conan Doyle followed up with a series of short stories (later collected in such books as “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”), this book is an important step in the development of a great cultural icon. This is the one in which Dr. Watson meets his beloved wife Mary. It marks the first time Holmes enunciates his famous dictum, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this novel, the sleuth’s craving for a seven-percent solution of cocaine is first mentioned, as is the name of the Baker Street Irregulars, those dirty-faced junior detectives of his. Viewers of TV’s “Elementary” will be thrilled to find Holmes here saying, for the first time: “You can… never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to.” And fans of the late Holmes film featuring a bare-knuckled boxing Holmes may be delighted to spot the first mention of his pugilistic talents, already in his second recorded case.

Book Review: “The Throne of Fire” by Rick Riordan
Book Reviews / March 15, 2014

In Book 2 of the “Kane Chronicles”, the Texas-based author of the “Tres Navarre” mysteries cleverly uses hilarious, romantic, magical, and thrill-packed entertainment to educate young adults about ancient Egyptian mythology. He’s very sneaky that way. But we’re not surprised since he did the same thing with Greek mythology in the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series. Ditto with Roman mythology in the “Heroes of Olympus” series. Face it, you’re going to need a roadmap to keep track of all the different ways Rick Riordan has brought the legends of ancient gods and heroes into the present day. But in spite of the globe-trotting complexity of the action in this book, and the relative unfamiliarity of the gods, monsters, and mythological concepts it introduces, this is a deceptively easy book to enjoy.

Book Review: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo
Book Reviews / March 8, 2014

Published in 1831 in French under the title “Notre-Dame de Paris”, this book has been made into an opera, a ballet, several stage plays, two musicals, and at least 15 films, including TV and animated versions. One conclusion I could draw from this is that it’s a very popular tale, and so there is a good chance that you already have some idea of what it’s about. Another conclusion that I came to while listening to David Case’s expert audiobook narration, is that it was written in a way that lends itself to dramatic interpretation. It’s not hard to see why so many theater and film producers have found it hard to resist the urge to adapt this book to their medium. It comes ready-made with dramatic set pieces, entertaining dialogue, moving soliloquies, skillfully blocked stage business, characters making dramatic entrances and exits, vividly described scenery, and impressive spectacles that leave one thinking, “I wonder how this could be engineered for the stage.” Sometimes its melodrama is downright operatic: “With a few cuts,” one thinks, “this could easily be made into a libretto.” As the villain struggles to hang on while dangling 200 feet above certain death, one thinks, “I know just how I would edit this scene, intercut with shots of the gargoyles and sculptures on the church’s facade.” You see where the idea comes from.

Book Review: “Jude the Obscure” by Thomas Hardy
Book Reviews / March 8, 2014

If I had read “Anna Karenina” after this book, it would have cheered me up. Hardy’s last novel, written in 1895, stirred up such harsh criticism that its author never wrote another novel, although he lived until 1928. In me, listening to the audiobook while driving a sales circuit of convenience stores in rural Illinois, it stirred up feelings of failure and disappointment in life. The character of Jude Fawley is a scholarly chap who aspires from an early age to study in the university town of Christminster (in Hardy’s fictional county of Wessex), become a clergyman, and distinguish himself in the world.

Book Review: “The Emerald Atlas” by John Stephens
Book Reviews / March 8, 2014

Kate P. barely remembers her parents. Heck, she doesn’t even remember her last name – only the letter P. Mostly she remembers the night her parents disappeared, when her mother gave her a cherished locket, told her to take care of her younger brother and sister, and promised to return someday. Since then, Kate, Michael, and Emma have spent ten years moving from one orphanage to another, never getting adopted, and never settling down for long. After the head of the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans reaches the end of her patience with them, the P. children are sent to a remote orphanage in far upstate New York., so remote and far upstate that even at the end of the dock where a boat is supposed to pick them up, nobody seems to know where it is. The orphanage turns out to be a seedy mansion overlooking a miserable village where everything seems blighted and where there have been no children for the past 15 years. This is due to a certain tragedy that no one wants to discuss. There almost seems to be a curse about the place. Naturally, Kate and her siblings are the only orphans. Could it get any worse than this?

Book Review: “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy
Book Reviews / March 8, 2014

To understand how these love stories fit together, it is probably best to introduce the not-so-happy couple first. That’s what Tolstoy does, anyway. We first meet the Oblonskys, Stiva and Dolly, at the moment when the love has gone out of their marriage. Dolly has caught Stiva having an affair with their children’s governess, and she is trying to decide whether to leave him when his married sister, Anna Karenina herself, convinces her to forgive him. Stiva and Dolly’s troubled marriage continues to simmer in the background throughout the novel. But while Anna is saving her brother’s marriage, her visit to Moscow has unintended consequences on the happiness of several other people—including, most fatefully, herself. The first person she meets as she descends from the train is a handsome young cavalry officer named Vronsky, who until that moment has been toying with the affections of a debutante named Kitty, who happens to be Dolly’s little sister. It is on Vronsky’s account that Kitty refuses a marriage proposal from a proud country gentleman named Konstantin Levin, and it is on Anna’s account that Kitty suddenly finds herself without any suitor and plunges into despair.

Book review: “The Last Dragonslayer” by Jasper Fforde
Book Reviews / February 3, 2014

In a twisted alternate world, the Dragonlands are situated between the Kingdom of Hereford and the Duchy of Brecon, in the west of a balnkanized version of England and Wales known as the Ununited Kingdoms. It’s a world where magic is slowly dying out, its practitioners reduced to delivering pizzas on flying carpets and rewiring houses by spell.