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Shadows of the Dark Crystal #1 (Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal)
Shadows of the Dark Crystal #1 (Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal)
by J. M. Lee
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $10.58
51 used & new from $4.66

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Come back to this dark and beautiful world -- if you dare!, June 29, 2016
"Ahhhhhh, Gelfling!"

Stretched out in that high-pitched screech (Supplied by the inimitable Frank Oz), that phrase has been with me since my childhood. I loved the Muppets, loved Jim Henson's creations; The Dark Crystal most especially. It was one of the most magical fantasies I can remember, and elements of it -- Aughra's massive astrolabe, the singing of the Mystics, Fizzgig, the Landstriders, and of course, the Skeksis -- have never left me, never left my imagination.

And now I got to live them all over again. In "Shadows of the Dark Crystal," by J.M. Lee.

First, for fans of the movie, let me say: the book lives up to it. It has very much the same feel, that magical, soft-edged fantasy world suddenly interrupted and fractured by deeply disturbing and grotesque nightmares; going from the sweet, pastoral life of the Gelfling, to the corruption of the land by the flaw at the heart of the Dark Crystal, which creates and unleashes monsters -- the book is very much in line with all of that. It keeps the same essential storyline, as well; nothing in the book veers away from the original world. So if you loved The Dark Crystal, absolutely you should read this book.

For those who are not necessarily fans of the movie, let me say: this is a genuinely good book. It's a young adult fantasy, with the perfect heroine for the genre: Naia is the daughter of the clan leader of a tribe of Gelfling who live in the Swamp of Sog; she leaves home on a quest to seek out her twin brother, who left home to be a guard at the Castle of the Crystal, and now needs help. She is strong and brave and capable, but she is young, and so she suffers self-doubt and frequent moments where she is not sure what is the right thing to do. But her kindness and her courage carry her through, as far as those things can; what happens then, I'll leave for the book to reveal. The action in the story is exciting without being overly gruesome or violent; the language and the writing are interesting and well-crafted without going beyond the abilities of a young adult reader; the world is vast and beautiful and wonderfully described.

All that said: the book really does follow in the footsteps of the original movie, and so I would highly recommend watching that, first. If you like what the imagination of Jim Henson and Brian Froud created, you'll like what J.M. Lee added to it; if the movie is too dark or disturbing for you to enjoy or allow your children to watch, then you'll probably feel the same way about the book.

If I have any criticism, it's that I wish the storyline had started farther back: not to spoil anything, but I'd be more interested in reading about how the villains of the movie became that way, how the original problem started, rather than how the situation that exists at the beginning of the movie got to be that way, which is essentially what this book tells. However, there will be a series -- the novel isn't a cliffhanger, but the story doesn't end with the ending of this book -- and perhaps we'll find out more.

I am, without question, going to keep reading these books. And I'm going to go watch the movie again.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 1, 2016 5:19 PM PDT

Riddley Walker, Expanded Edition
Riddley Walker, Expanded Edition
by Russell Hoban
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.41
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4.0 out of 5 stars Need to read it, and read it again, May 11, 2016
Russell Hoban wrote one of the fondest memories of my childhood: Bread and Jam for Frances. He wrote a number of books about an adorable young badger named Frances, actually, but Bread and Jam was the one I had, the one I remembered, the one that, as a picky eater, I related to.

So when I found out as an adult that Russell Hoban also wrote several acclaimed science fiction novels, well. There wasn't really any question. Imagine if Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein wrote full-length novels. Wouldn't you be curious?

So I looked them up, found out that the most famous one – the one that won the John W. Campbell award for best sc-fi novel in 1982 – was this one, and then I went out and bought a copy.

And then I tried to read it. And this is what I found.

“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs anyhow ther hadnt ben none for a long tyme befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.”

That's right: the book is written in gibberish.

And it's absolutely brilliant gibberish.

The story is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age novel. Very post-apocalyptic, as it turns out. Riddley Walker is a 12-year-old young man in the ruined aftermath of what used to be England, but is now a feudal society called Inland, people living in small walled communities, hemmed in by packs of wild dogs that hunt and eat any humans who stray too far from their fences. The language they speak and write is in fact English, but it's an English that has changed as much from our language as our language did from Chaucer's time. Their myths and legends are of us: the primary one seems to be about the discovery of atomic power with the splitting of the atom; though there is much more to it than that, as there always is in myths and legends. Their world cherishes these legends, but it is a largely oral society; the government, what is left of it, is primarily responsible for spreading the stories that are the basis of their mythology and morality, the Eusa story, which they share ritualistically through traveling puppet shows. The basic canon of the Eusa story is written down and therefore unchangeable, but with each puppet performance, the Eusa men find new aspects to focus on, new morals to be drawn from it, just like preachers with the Bible. The towns where they perform have their own interpreters of these hidden messages and allegories, called “connection men;” when the story begins, Riddley has just become one such, replacing his recently deceased father.

But Riddley only makes one connection: soon he feels an irresistible urge to travel outside the walls, where he seems to befriend a dog pack; this dog pack takes him to Cambry, where he discovers a secret: the Ardship of Cambry, one of the Eusa people. Born without eyes, isolated from all of society, the Ardship has a secret buried deep inside: the secret that brought down the old world, the world that had boats flying in the sky. And the current head of the loose government in Inland, the Pry Mincer Abel Goodparley, plans to tear that secret out of the Ardship, unless Riddley can help.

But maybe Riddley thinks that Goodparley is right. Maybe they have lost much that once existed, and maybe they should try to bring that back. But maybe those secrets are best kept hidden.

I realize now that the book is extremely well known, and that my discovery is not this forgotten novel but rather my own ignorance of it – the thing has over 5000 Amazon reviews, for cripes' sake – but for me, this book was something of a revelation. It was also a real challenge. That language is freaking hard to read. It makes references to the society that preceded it, but that society, the society of the 1970's, is in some ways lost even to us: it took me the whole book to realize that one of the phrases, used to describe thinking something through and coming to a conclusion, was “pull data and print out,” as in, “We discussed the matter, pulled data and printed out a plan.” We don't even print out any more, so it was tough getting the meaning of that and a thousand other words.

But it's beautifully done, nonetheless. Because the Ardship of Cambry is the Archbishop of Canterbury – but he's also a man facing hardship, which point Riddley makes in the novel. And the Pry Mincer (Prime Minister) is a man who pries, but also one who minces words. Hoban didn't just mess with the English language: he remade it. He created something new, and difficult as new things are, but also brilliant.

It's a hell of a book. I need to keep it and read it again, and I want to do so. Maybe when I do, it will make more sense; on this first reading I felt like there were some pretty serious holes in the story, but there were parts that I just couldn't understand. But hey: I couldn't read Shakespeare and understand it all the first time, and the first time I read The Grapes of Wrath or Huck Finn or The God of Small Things, I didn't fully appreciate them; great literature requires effort. I would call this book an example of that.

Clarence Olgibee
Clarence Olgibee
by Alan Steven Kessler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $20.95
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1.0 out of 5 stars Olgibee? Oligbee? Ogilbee? Oglibee? Who knows?, April 26, 2016
This review is from: Clarence Olgibee (Paperback)
Clarence Olgibee
by Alan Kessler

I was asked to review this book and given a free Kindle copy in order to do so; I wish I hadn't been. Because if this hadn't been part of an agreement, I never would have finished this book.

This is not a good book. (If it is too presumptuous of me to actually pass judgment, then it is my opinion that this is not a good book.) The plotline makes no sense. It is purported to be a sprawling epic, and I suppose in that it covers about forty or fifty years and a dozen individual lives, it is. The problem is that there is no reason to connect all of those lives. You start with the title character, Clarence; he has a high school chum named Todd; Todd grows up to work for a man named Walters. So why do we need to hear about Walters? Or Walters's son, Donald? Walters and Donald are certainly connected to Todd, but they are not in any way associated with Clarence – and the book is called Clarence Olgibee, not Todd Munson. Or perhaps this book is an examination of racism: then why do we spend a full third of the book watching Clarence duck his mother and try to get laid? What has that to do with racism? It seems to me that the author could not decide what his story was really about, and so he included everything that he thought of in relation to it, background material, character development, everything.

Don't get me wrong: some of it is interesting. The part when Clarence is in the Navy was quite well done, overall, particularly the chapters in the Philippines. The author has a way with description, and also with dialogue, particularly hate speech, which enables him to create some very distasteful villains – and yeah, it was fun to see some of them get their comeuppance. But much of that is ruined by one simple fact: I can't stand Clarence. He's a jerk: he uses everyone around him, resents everyone, envies everyone, and complains constantly that he can't do what he wants – when what he wants to do is nothing. As he gets older, it makes more sense, as people actually treat him badly; but for the first half of the book, when Clarence is a teenager and his only problem is that his mother wants him to do his chores and homework, and the girl he's lusting after is a shallow, dim-witted bimbo, it's hard to feel sympathetic as Clarence lies and cheats and manipulates the good people around him – both of his parents (because I agree with his mother) along with his friends Willard and Todd – simply because Clarence's only influence is a cousin that crashed at his house for a few months. Now maybe that would happen, a teenager deciding to admire Cousin Ortis instead of his mother or father or friends or anyone else; but it's hard to like him for it.

What drives me crazy, though, is the fact that the author uses this. The story is of Clarence's redemption. He decides, at a very few times in his otherwise worthless life, to do the right thing; and when he does, it is – well, nice. I appreciated it. I thought, “Good for you, Clarence.” And then I watched him go right back into being a putz. At least when Huck Finn realizes he cares more about Jim than about his reputation, he goes about trying to free Jim. He learns his lesson. What's the point of a redemption that doesn't actually redeem the person? And again, if the point was that Clarence was broken by his ill-treatment in a racist society, why is the first half of the book about the villains Doing Your Chores and She Doesn't Want To Have Sex With You? Any chance of redemption was shot for me in Clarence's last scene with his parents. I just had to hate him after that. Because I really liked his dad. You putz.

I wasn't going to give this book that low a rating, because I do definitely see some good things, and I think the author has potential. He needs to work on telling one story that makes sense; this book should either be about racism, or about Clarence. He also needs to work on editing: because I can overlook a lot of things, but the main character's name is spelled at least four different ways in this book, and that's just ridiculous. The first chapter comes back around at the end of the book, yes, but only because the first chapter is an entirely artificial situation: the protagonist at that point, Jimmy, has literally no reason to commit the crime that he does. So it's not a mind-bending use of irony, it's a stretch, it's a moment that strains the reader's suspension of disbelief. And when the ending comes back around to that beginning point, the book should end. I hit that point and my Kindle said 94%. And everything that happens after that, I found just ridiculous and maddening, in the way it completely changed the narrative and asked me to go places I neither expected nor wanted to go, and tried to redeem Clarence when it was much too late to do that. That guy, and this book, were already lost.

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas
by John Scalzi
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.09
105 used & new from $1.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Is this your card?, April 21, 2016
by John Scalzi

When I bought this book, which is loudly proclaimed on its cover as a NYT bestseller that is a joy to read, with gushing blurbs from two authors I respect quite a lot (Joe Hill and Patrick Rothfuss), I was excited; but the clerk who sold it to me said something that cooled my ardor a little. “Yeah, I didn't love this as much as everyone else did. I don't really know why.” As I had been unaware that there was such a lot of buzz about this book, I was a bit puzzled by the comment; but now that I have read it, I completely agree.

I didn't love this as much as everyone else did.

There's something about John Scalzi's writing that doesn't speak to me. I don't know what it is. I've read a book of his non-fiction, excerpts from his blog; and now I've read this Star Trek-themed novel; and I didn't love either one. I feel like Scalzi is similar to what I've encountered in a lot of science fiction writers: their ideas are brilliant, but their prose leaves something to be desired. It makes for disappointing reading experiences, because I get excited about the book based on the concept, but then reading it leaves me a bit cold. Though it is entirely possible that this is my own subjective response, and not something that anyone else would experience. On the other hand: there are some real holes in the plot of this one, and even the short pieces at the end, the three codas that come after the main novel, don't really spackle those holes in very well.

The idea behind this book is great. For those who know Star Trek, I don't even need to explain it: the book is written from the point of view of the Redshirts. For those who don't know the original Star Trek series, I wouldn't recommend the book; it makes far too many inside jokes and references for those not in the know (And maybe, considering how much we nerds love a good reference, that's really the appeal of the book.). But essentially, imagine you were a low-ranking officer on a starship sailing grandly through the universe, going where no man has ever gone before, and you realized that every time the command crew went down to a planet's surface, or over to a ship that had sent out a distress call, somebody died: and it was always, always, somebody like you. The low-ranking officer. The captain and First Officer, the head of engineering and the ship's doctor – they always went on the away missions, always got in danger, sometimes got hurt; but they never died. It was always somebody else that caught the laser blast or the alien monster attack or stood too close to the explosion. Once you realized that, what would you do? And if you were assigned to the ship that had this record of chewing up and swallowing people just like you – how would you handle it?

That's a great set up. And the first half of the book, while the main characters are figuring it out while trying to stay alive, really is hilarious. It's when they figure out the answer that this book lost me. The last half of the book, when they find a way to solve the problem and their own lives, just kept going downhill. There are some funny moments, particularly when crew members meet their own doppelgangers from another universe, but the basic concept really didn't work. It's too unnecessarily complicated: the book is clearly, obviously a reference to Star Trek, and Scalzi goes away from that, connecting it to a different fictional universe based on Star Trek but not Star Trek. That was a mistake. The way the Redshirts get their way was too deus ex machina for me, even though that's the point of it; I would have preferred an actually clever solution, and I didn't think that was it. And then the protagonist's final realization of the layers of truth and fiction in his universe was far too precious for me. I feel like Scalzi was a stage magician waving his hands to distract me from seeing how the trick worked – but really, it wasn't that great a trick. The same went for the codas, which were not as clever as I think they were intended to be, and just ended up annoying me more than the book itself did.

So I don't know if it was just this book, which suffered from being an idea that is brilliant but probably too difficult to pull off well; or if it's John Scalzi's writing; or if it's just me. At any rate, I didn't think much of it.

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film
Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film
by Patton Oswalt
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.90
95 used & new from $1.02

4.0 out of 5 stars That Guy, April 13, 2016
Silver Screen Fiend
by Patton Oswalt

I never wanted to be a standup comedian. Too introverted. Which is good because I'm also not that funny.

But after reading Patton Oswalt's memoir of his early years as a standup, mostly in California, now I'm even surer that standup comedy is never a profession I would pursue. (Sorry, Midlife Crisis. Maybe there's an over-the-hill grunge cover band you can try out for.) And I've also learned that I never want to be a film addict, what Oswalt calls a sprocket fiend and what I would probably call a cinema snob: someone who's seen every movie starting with the 1920's, only watches them in the theaters, prefers French and Swedish existentialist cinema, and knows the genesis of every film, the backstory of every director, the influences of every nuance. Someone who would tell you that Bruce Willis's movie Last Man Standing is basically a remake of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns, which are basically remakes of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which are based on a novel that nobody has read. Except that guy.

You know that guy?

Patton Oswalt was that guy. The above paraphrase is actually from a conversation he relates in the book.

But here's the thing: That Guy is generally insufferable because he believes that everyone else thinks like he does, or at least should; he can't imagine why you wouldn't want to know the reason why a movie uses certain angles and certain shots, why certain lines are delivered in certain ways: he can't imagine just wanting to watch a movie and enjoy it. And while Oswalt was that guy for a while, he actually recognized that it wasn't a good thing. He describes his film habit as an addiction, and the description is apt: it was taking over his life, ruining his relationships, everything that an addiction does to a person while they are in the throes of it and sinking towards their bottom. He got into it with good intentions: he was going to become a director, a brilliant filmmaker, and he wanted to study his craft before he dove into it. But very quickly, it went too far.

This memoir is about that addiction. It is also about the other side of Oswalt's life, becoming a working standup and then a television comedy writer during the 1990's. And honestly, because I am neither a standup nor a sprocket fiend, there was a fair amount of this book that I couldn't relate to. I don't understand the experience of doing a good set of comedy and making an audience laugh; I don't understand the pleasures of finding a new and different way to perform that doesn't necessarily wow an audience, but impresses the hell out of the other comedians watching you. But it was nonetheless interesting to read about those experiences, as well as the life of a creative person, and about an unusual form of addiction – but still a harmful one.

My favorite aspect of the book was this wonderful analogy that Oswalt uses: the Night Cafe. The Night Cafe is a piece by Vincent Van Gogh, and for Van Gogh, it represents the beginning of his transition from talented painter to mad genius: and the beginning, too, of the madness that eventually destroyed him, while it produced some of the greatest art in history. Oswalt talks about the Night Cafe as a place that you can't leave unchanged, that once you go in, once you see it, you cannot be the same person. He talks about the different Night Cafes he has experiences, at least three of which happen during the time period this book covers (He mentions two others, and references the final Night Cafe that we all enter but never return from, the clearing at the end of the path), and how those experiences jarred him so seriously that he changed the course of his life. I thought that was brilliant, and even if I couldn't connect to the comedian or the sprocket fiend, I could definitely connect to the guy whose life was wrenched from one path to another by a single experience – and the guy who uses art to understand his world. I liked that guy a lot.

I liked the book, too. And I plan to give my copy to a young man I know who is already on his way to becoming a sprocket fiend just like Oswalt. Maybe it can be his Night Cafe.

The Cinder Spires: the Aeronaut's Windlass
The Cinder Spires: the Aeronaut's Windlass
by Jim Butcher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.63
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5.0 out of 5 stars Can't wait to read more, April 12, 2016
The Aeronaut's Windlass
by Jim Butcher

I'm tired, now.

I'm not tired because it's Monday (Okay, no, I am tired because it's Monday – but that's not the main reason.), but because I just got finished being dragged along, like a dinghy tied to the back of a battleship, in the wake of probably the best action writer working right now.

Jim Butcher.

Aeronaut's Windlass is the first book in a new series, The Cinder Spires; it is science-fiction, and it is steampunk. It is set in a world where the people live in impossibly tall structures, called Spires, that stand miles into the atmosphere; people travel between Spires on airships that fly using electrical currents in the atmosphere which they catch with great webs of silken ropes, like solar sails. The main characters include the captain of the fastest air ship on the planet – which is not Earth; it seems to be a planet with a much denser atmosphere, as the ships are described as sinking down into the permanent mist, or sailing up out of it in order to navigate or to fight – as well as a pair of what might as well be called wizards, master and apprentice Etherealists with strange powers and the strange penalties that so often accompany power. There are also a selection of nobles of the main Spire in the story, Spire Albion; nobles both wealthy and poor, honorable and deceitful, beautiful and deadly. They duel, they backstab, they fight for position and prominence and power. There are several soldier characters, as well, as this is the story of a war between Spires, or at least the beginning of the war: and the first strike is not only the deadliest, but it carries deeper meaning, as well. There are wheels within wheels, here, and fires within fires. There are also some of the nastiest villains I've read in quite a while: an evil Etherealist and her bodyguard, and they are extraordinarily vicious and disturbing. All I'll say is: their allies of choice are enormous alien arachnids that skitter up walls before they leap down and tear limbs off with their giant insectoid jaws, wrapping up their human opponents in strands of sticky web-silk. And those are the less-frightening ones.

But hold on: because all is not lost. As confused and desperate as these humans become – and the heroes really do sink pretty low, though I'll spoil this: they don't lose every fight – they still hold onto hope.

Because some of the characters in this book are cats.

That's right: steampunk, airships, war, magic, battle, alien spider-monsters – and talking cats.

And because it's Jim Butcher, the battle scene starts about a third of the way into the book: and then it. Does. Not. Stop. Even on the last page, we are finding out about new betrayals, new dangers, new challenges that face our heroes. It is enormous fun to read, because Butcher does it the right way: he has his characters face setbacks and surprises and even awful defeats; but then the right person with the right ability is in the right place at the right time, and out of that good fortune or good planning comes-- victory. At least a small one. Sometimes a large one. And you're cheering for them the whole way, because Butcher also writes wonderful characters, complex and intriguing and genuine, and of course, Butcher has that wonderful sense of humor, which sparkles through the whole book – particularly the scenes with the cat interacting with his human companions (and inferiors, as he sees them; he is, after all, a cat.).

It's not flawless; the way the airships function was hard for me to follow at times, and the world is larger and more complex than could ever be covered in one book unless that book was nothing but history and atlas. This one isn't, so there are things I want to know more about and things I don't yet understand. But this was tremendous fun to read. And for the rest?

You're durn tootin' I'm going to read the next book to find out. And the one after that.

MacHugh and the Faithless Pirate
MacHugh and the Faithless Pirate
by William S. Schaill
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.00
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good book, good author, good press., March 21, 2016
MacHugh and the Faithless Pirate
by William S. Schaill

First, let me say something about the publisher: because this book is from Fireship Press, a small independent press here in Arizona that specializes in nautical and historical fiction. I found this press, and this book, at the Tucson Festival of Books, a glorious local event that celebrates the printed word, and because I am a pirate fanatic, this book jumped out at me immediately. But Fireship has a number of authors, with a number of titles, and the books themselves are top notch, good printing, good binding, good cover art. The copy editing was imperfect -- but honestly, I just read another book published by Bantam Spectra which had as many typos if not more, so I won't split hairs. This is a good press that makes good books.

And this is a good book. It's not a great book, I'll say that; the characters are a little too simply drawn, and the main character annoyed me a little at certain places (Largely because he thinks of younger women as romantic interests, which was entirely accurate for the time period, but still a little weird to read -- a grown man going over to the home of a friend and checking out his daughter is just too funky for me.) and I wish the Faithless Pirate could have been more than just a villain, because I do love pirate narratives.

But this is, bar none, the best nautical action/adventure I've read, in terms of its accuracy and its verisimilitude and its author's encyclopedic knowledge of the sea and tall ships and marine combat. Reading about these men struggling with this ships on these seas, fighting weather and currents and politics, searching for pirates, finding them, fighting them, winning and losing various battles in various ways -- it was just great fun to read. The suspense is excellent, the action is exciting, and the historical and nautical details are as accurate as any I've known. For the sake of enjoyment, and for the sake of reading about cannons blasting and cutlasses slashing and blood spurting and everything else, this book was excellent. I hope the author continues to write MacHugh stories -- because whenever he isn't creeping on 18-year-olds, I thought this Scottish wine merchant/privateer was a great character (Though he did seem to have a whole lot of "In his younger days" adventures that made me wonder: just when did this guy start living this life of adventure? And did he ever, I don't know, take a week or two off?) and I'd love to read more.

The Fallen Country
The Fallen Country
by somtow sucharitkul
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
42 used & new from $0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Good idea, but flawed execution., March 21, 2016
The Fallen Country
by Somtow Sucharitkul

I think I may have learned a lesson from this book. Actually, two.

You see, I read this book when it was new, in 1986, when I was an angry twelve-year-old boy. I was angry for the usual twelve-year-old reasons, and to the usual twelve-year-old degree – for both, the answer is “Not much” – and reading this novel, about a boy who escapes his truly awful life of neglect and abuse through his neverending rage, which takes him into a world of snow and ice, where the cold deadens the pain and his white-hot anger is a great and powerful weapon, may have helped me realize that I didn't really have much to be angry about, and really, I wasn't all that angry. Not angry like this character is. There's a scene in the book where his friends accompany him to this world, the Fallen Country, and in order to take them there he asks them to think of all of the injustices they have suffered, all the torments they have endured, and focus all of their anger into helping him reach this other place; afterwards, they confess that they were thinking about – getting grounded. Or failing Algebra. Or being jealous when their crush was smiling at another boy. Only the main character is angry about the years of systematic, violent beatings he has suffered every night from his adoptive father, or the way his adoptive mother ignores this terrible abuse, along with everyone else he has ever known, who have all been unable to help him in his war against the Ringmaster, the evil god who enslaves and tortures all of the inhabitants of this magical realm.

I think now that this book may have helped me realize that I was more like the friends, and less like the main character. And that that was okay: because while his anger gives him great strength, and the Fallen Country sounds like a wonderful place to escape to – he rides a dragon and rescues princesses, slaying hydras with his ice-sword of rage – the point of the book is that this is not a good way to live. And it makes that abundantly clear: you do not want to be like this kid. Harry Potter does the same thing, shows that while it's awesome to be a wizard in a magical world, really, it's probably better to have parents that weren't murdered when you were an infant. Same thing here, only more so, because the beatings that Sucharitkul described are truly terrible.

And now that I have gone back and re-read it, here's the second lesson I learned: books I loved in my youth should, sometimes, stay there. You see, this isn't that great a book. There are some good things about it: the characters of the friends are nicely drawn, good renditions of Average-teenage-kid; the Fallen Country is incredible, both enchanting and terrifying, poetic and with the ring of truth; the plot and the final resolution between the main character and the Ringmaster are nicely done. But the way that the abused child is rescued by the people around him, after not having been rescued in the past, is cheesy in the extreme, and very hard to believe – nobody has cared before, even though he shows up to school daily with bruises and cuts and welts; then these characters decide to care, and lo, he is saved by their caring – and the adult characters are all awful. Not terrible morally, though the abusive parents certainly are; but just unrealistic and superficial. There's a school counselor who doesn't realize that her job is to report the abuse until she is talked into it by one of the teenagers. Whom she also flirts with. Yikes. It feels like the author was trying to simplify, as this is intended as a young adult book, but honestly, it my be a little too dark for that; and the result is a good book, based on a good idea, that isn't written very carefully, or very well. Sucharitkul underestimates his audience, assuming they will believe the cardboard characters, or at least not care that they are cardboard; and the same for the weak points in the plot.

You know, I wonder if the reason I liked this author so much was because none of my fantasy/sci-fi friends had ever heard of him; I discovered this book, and I was the only one who read Sucharitkul. I also remember being enchanted by the foreignness of his name; I remember memorizing the way it was spelled, and practicing what I assumed was the correct pronunciation (Since I was never exposed to any other Thai names at the time, I was probably wrong.), and thinking how cool it was that he was also an accomplished composer of classical music.

Dammit. I was a teenaged hipster. Yeah: some things should definitely stay buried in the past.

The God of Small Things: A Novel
The God of Small Things: A Novel
by Arundhati Roy
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.52
248 used & new from $0.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wondrous, March 17, 2016
I don't know what I can say about this book that hasn't already been said. It's a prize winner, an internationally acclaimed best seller, and has been for twenty years. But I read it for the first time in 2014, when I moved to Arizona and started a new teaching position with new materials, including this book; I liked it then, liked the style of it, liked the way Roy wrote and the things she had to say, but it was one of several books that I read in an awful hurry, and with a whole lot on my mind at the time.

I read it again, this past two weeks, just finishing it this morning. And this time, because I am encouraging my AP Literature students to read books actively, that is, with a pen in hand and the margins of the book's own pages as their paper, to comment and question and interact with the text, I did just that: I used my new purple ball point (Which may be the best thing about the gym that my wife and I joined last October: it has good equipment, but not great, and it had been fairly uncrowded until our last work out when a visiting college baseball team came in en masse and inundated us in jockery: but at least they give away ballpoint pens with purple ink!) so that the ink would stand out against the black typeface, and I underlined and I arrowed and I added everything I thought that I thought was worth thinking and adding to the text.

I read it more, this time. More carefully, more attentively, more thoughtfully. I was invested in the text, this time.

And this time, I didn't just like the book. I loved it.

I was actually enlightened by it. Roy made me think about my own society, and particularly my own family, in a way that I never had before. She crystallized some thoughts for me that might never otherwise have come clear. She also showed me an elegance and a musical grace in words that I never would have seen: words written backwards, and words broken up in new ways -- there is a Bar Nowl that lives in the warehouse and hunts mice on silent wings -- and a poetry that I don't ever see in prose. She showed a depth of perception, both in descriptions of environment and of character and of humanity as a whole that I don't know that I've ever seen done better. And she wrote this book on the other side of the world. In her second language. I don't know if that shows the grandiosity of her genius or if it reveals the power of an outsider's perception, both hers of my mother tongue and mine of her world and how it parallels my own; I think perhaps she was writing about what she knows, and I see the same things in what I know because people are people all around the globe -- but regardless, this book is magic. It is going up on my Very Top Shelf, with Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men and Shakespeare and ee cummings.

And that's what I have to say about this book.

Ready Player One: A Novel
Ready Player One: A Novel
by Ernest Cline
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.60
217 used & new from $4.22

5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible, February 20, 2016
I confess: I wish I’d written this book. I’m just a little bit too young – my brother, three years my senior, was the one who rode his bike down to the corner drugstore to play the new Pac-Man game when it arrived; I remember him telling the family about it, and being confused: so you eat the ghosts? – and not quite geeky enough, especially when it comes to Japanese anime and robot/monster shows, which I never got into. I watched Voltron (Both versions – everybody remembers the lions, but does anyone else remember the Voltron made of cars? Much cooler.) and StarBlazers and G-Force, but that’s about it. Fast forward a few years to Transformers and G.I. Joe, to Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, which featured a light gun shaped like a jet fighter that you could shoot at the TV screen and score hits on the bad guys, and I’m all in. I did play the role-playing games, and I watched the movies – War Games and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are also two of my favorites – but I never had an Atari 2600, so I never played Adventure seriously – just a few times at a friend’s house, where I got stomped by the dragons and opted for Pitfall or Centipede or Missile Command instead – and I never found the Easter egg in that pixellated dungeon.

So I couldn’t really have written this book, which explores geek culture from the 1980’s to a depth that I could not hope to plumb. But I am so very glad that Ernest Cline wrote this book, because I loved it. Absolutely loved it.

The book is about a video game challenge. It is set about 40 years into our future, when the internet has become a single enormous virtual reality environment, built by a Bill Gates-like figure who focused on video game design rather than operating systems and world domination. When this gaming guru dies, he creates a challenge for everyone in the system he created (which is essentially everyone around the world, in one way or another): find the secret challenges he left, conquer them, and you inherit his entire vast fortune, and control of the virtual world. And because this man grew up in the 1980’s, the entire thing is one enormous trip through the world of reminiscence: a kind of “I Love the 80’s” that focuses exclusively on geek culture and touches every part of life.

This is the first book in a long time that I actually didn’t want to put down, and at the same time, didn’t regret reading straight through: the excitement is excellent, but it isn’t constant, and so it didn’t feel exhausting. The dystopian elements were highly disturbing to me, particularly the mobile home “stacks” and the indentured servitude that came as a result of credit card debt, but they were wonderfully well done – and I especially liked that Cline also included some positive aspects: the idea of virtual school, with the improvements and limits that Cline describes, would be a dream come true for me, as an introvert who teaches high school English but would really like to spend lots of time playing video games and living through role playing adventures. I also loved that Cline managed to create realistic and genuine human interactions both within and apart from the virtual world; by the end, I wasn’t really sure if the hero would win the game, but I was really just hoping that he’d win the girl.

I identified with the characters, loved the plot and the adventure, and was completely enchanted by both the setting and the nostalgia. This is a geek masterpiece. You have my gratitude, Mr. Cline. Excelsior!

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