Monday, October 31, 2011

God, No! by Penn Jillette

This was a total impulse buy. I just got paid and I was in the book store, saw a book by Penn Jillette about atheism, and thought, "Hey, sounds fun!" I was expecting an interesting, thoughtful, funny discussion of Penn's atheism and how it's affected his life.

Unfortunately, the book is a mess. I wouldn't mind that so much since a lot of the anecdotes are really funny and I don't mind rambling text if I'm being entertained. But there's almost no content. Occasionally he'll make a stab at explaining his views on atheism, but he's too easily distracted from the topic. Any points he brings up are lost in the bluster and noise of his writing style.

I started the book being open to his views; I'm certainly sympathetic to anyone who rails against lies and ignorance, whether I agree totally with them or not. And I've always thought Penn was a clever guy. But by the end of the book I was so turned off by his personality that he could have told me I needed to breathe air to live and I'd have thought, "You are so full of shit."

For someone who states repeatedly that people are mostly good, he sure hates a lot of people. He spends page after page trashing individuals who've slighted him in the past--sometimes decades before. Let it go, man. Geez. Women he's angry with he calls cunts, and women he's not angry with are pretty much 100% in the book so he can mention having had sex with them.

In short, it's a wankery of a memoir, not at all what I expected. I was disappointed, since it's not entertaining enough as a memoir and not intelligent enough as a discussion of atheism. I was particularly turned off by his increasingly ranty political essays, which were so weird that I wonder if the book fell through a wormhole from another dimension.

Although Penn's obviously dying to infuriate people who don't agree with him--he repeats himself when he gets sacrelicious, which makes me think he uses the same phrases a lot to shock people--there actually isn't much criticism of any religion except Islam, which he loathes with a white-hot passion. Christianity? Oh, well, his dad was a Christian and his dad was great. Judaism? Oh, well, isn't it weird that Jews can't eat bacon? That's pretty much it for religion. He doesn't even talk much about atheism beyond some generalities and a chapter on how Santa Claus is a stupid concept.

I can't imagine many atheists finding God, No! very interesting--there's just not enough substance. I suppose people who think they're fighting the good fight against atheism might pick up the book to see what their enemies are up to, but they'll be disappointed too. Unless they're really prudish about swear words, of course. Then they can get righteously angry.

B&N link

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Skunk Cat Book Reviews turns two!

Happy birthday to us! Skunk Cat Book Reviews turns two today. In the last year we've reviewed 112 books--one more than in our first year. So just projecting forward, next year we'll probably review 113 books.

Thanks to all our readers, and thanks to those authors and publishers who contact us asking if we'd like to review their books. Um, I don't reply to most of those emails because we get a billion of them. But we love you anyway.

Here's to another year!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I've read Dracula many times, but not recently. I picked it up this week to reread.

I'd forgotten what a remarkable book it is. It's an epistolary novel, told mostly by entries into various characters' diaries, and by letters between the characters. I watched the 1931 film version last night with Bela Lugosi, which was a lot of fun but no closer to the story than any other film version I've seen; so if you haven't actually read the book, you don't really know the plot.

Solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to finalize the sale of a London residence to Count Dracula. Dracula is creepy as hell, incidentally. He keeps Jonathan a prisoner once the papers are signed and sent back to England, but Jonathan escapes--but not before Dracula has left for England along with fifty boxes of graveyard earth. Meanwhile, Jonathan's fiancee Mina goes to visit her friend Lucy in Whitby, where a ship runs ashore in a storm--a ship with no one left alive except a large dog, which flees in the night and is never seen again. Lucy begins to sleepwalk at night, to Mina's distress, and to lose health and vitality, growing paler and paler. Also, Renfield the madman who eats flies; Van Helsing the Dutch doctor who is first to accept what's going on; and a cast of millions, including wolves, bats, and rats.

The first part of the book is my favorite, where the characters are still figuring out what Dracula is and how much danger they're in from him. The characters talk way too much, as was the style of writing in those days, until I get impatient and start to skim. But the plot is fascinating and creepy. I've never been all that fond of the last third of the book, which is basically a slow-motion chase, but the ending is satisfying.

I own two editions of Dracula, the nice hardback illustrated by Edward Gorey that my mother gave me, and a battered Wordsworth Classics edition published in 1993, which is the one I actually read (it's lighter and I don't care if it gets torn up). The text is in the public domain, so you can find copies everywhere.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear

I'm in the mood lately for denser fiction, which makes Elizabeth Bear perfect. She packs a lot into her sentences, and they take concentration to unpack.

Until this one I've never been able to finish a book by Bear, actually, because I just don't like her characters and she's so damn depressing. The main characters in New Amsterdam are more likable than I expected, although I never felt very close to any of them. And I admire her often-elegant prose enough to overlook the grim tone of her writing in this book.

Each chapter of New Amsterdam is more or less standalone, with a murder to solve in each and bigger events that arch from chapter to chapter and tie the book together. There's a term for this kind of novel, but I'm damned if I can remember it. It's set in the last year of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, in an alternate history where magic exists--as do vampires and other such creatures. The vampire Sebastien de Ulloa whiles away his empty years by helping solve crimes; sorceress Abigail Irene Garrett is a magical crime investigator for the crown in New Amsterdam.

Despite the murders and solutions--which get more complex as the book progresses--the book is not at all plot-driven. Its real purpose is to explore the meanings of love and loyalty. Sebastian is old enough that he's lost all purpose in life (or undeath) except his love for his protege Jack Priest; Abigail Irene has affairs with married, and powerful, men who don't deserve the loyalty she offers them. It's bleak, frankly. Bear's characters never feel joy.

I appreciated the writing, as I said, and the story kept me interested. I didn't love the ending, which felt abrupt--the book didn't so much end as just stop. There's a sequel, Seven for a Secret. I might read it.

B&N link (ebook)
Powell's link (used book)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Marx Sisters and The Malcontenta by Barry Maitland

These are the first two of a series. If I can chase down the third and fourth, expect to see review of them pretty soon. They're excellent. The first book was published in 1994, and the eleventh is being released next week. It looks like the second book is out of print. I found mine at a used book store.

The books are densely plotted, clever murder mysteries with two main characters, Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla of the Metropolitan Police--that's London--and Detective Chief Inspector David Brock of Scotland Yard. Their careers intersect in the first book when Brock is assigned to help Kathy on her first murder investigation. An old woman has died under questionable circumstances--the coroner isn't completely convinced it was foul play, but not completely convinced it was natural causes. Kathy is certain something fishy is going on. She and Brock piece together a profoundly complicated (and thoroughly satisfying) mystery.

The second book takes place about a year after the first. Kathy's been assigned to investigate a suicide at a health spa--but she and the coroner are pretty sure it was murder. But when she's abruptly taken off the case, which is then closed and labeled a suicide, she seeks out Brock for his advice. Again the mystery is complicated and satisfying.

I've seldom come across mysteries--or heck, any books at all--as well plotted as these. I had no idea who the murderer was or why he/she did it. The clues are planted deftly, the red herrings are all important to the overall story, and there are multiple motives. While I enjoyed reading the books and the fairly dark (sometimes claustrophobic) tone is lightened by flashes of low-key humor, they also took some concentration--although I never felt like I was trying to hold a timetable in my head.

The main characters are likable for the most part. They're hard to get to know. It's obvious the two feel some interest in each other, but their relationship moves very, very slowly. I like that. It's a nice change from so many mystery series where the main characters are starting to grope each other before the first chapter's over. I'm really looking forward to seeing how Kathy and Brock interact in the other books.

Like the subtle characterization, the pacing is slow and sometimes bogs down under its own weight. The first book had a lot of lengthy exposition which was mercifully absent in the second; but a big chunk of the first section of the second book is told in flashback as Kathy relates the events of her investigation to Brock, and a big chunk of the second part is Brock investigating on his own, after he checks into the health spa as a patient. I didn't mind the slow pace; it too is a nice change, and enough happens that it kept me interested and reading. I only caught myself skimming toward the end of both books, when I got impatient with having to read lengthy descriptions when urgent stuff was happening.

Murder mysteries in the 90s were big on having themes--usually social issues that the writer addressed as part of the plot. These two books are sort of like that, although I'm not sure Maitland was doing it on purpose or if it just fell out that way. The Marx Sisters seems to have the theme of Infidelity, while The Malcontenta seems to be about Sexism. I didn't notice the themes until the second book, when Kathy's investigation is shut down and she seeks help from Brock, and then I thought back and realized the first book had a theme too. Like I said, Maitland may not have intended these to be themed books, and the themes may very well run throughout the rest of the series. The only reason I really bring it up is because of a few lines in The Malcontenta which really, really bothered me.

Kathy has been explaining the situation to Brock, and here are a few lines of him mulling things over: "[H]e was concerned at her obvious antagonism towards Tanner, Beamish-Newell and Long--all of the main male characters in her account so far, apart from Dowling, whom she seemed to be mothering. He worried whether she was being objective enough in her assessments." (page 53 of my edition) It seems like an odd thing for him to wonder about, particularly under the weird circumstances of the case. And it didn't go anywhere: nothing to do with the main plot, nothing to do with the subplots, no further developments along those lines in Kathy's relationships with male characters in the rest of the book. So basically Brock just shows that despite his affable and polite appearance, he's actually deeply sexist himself and is ready to discount his colleague's account because she's female and can't handle working alongside males. It made me like him a lot less, and also made me hypersensitive to how Maitland, a male author, portrays Kathy, a female character. But Kathy is a believably strong woman, so I'll give Maitland the benefit of the doubt--although Brock had better not start spouting more of that kind of shit in the next few books or I'll drop the series.

Anyway, all that aside, I did really enjoy the books. I'm hoping the next ones are available as ebooks so I can start reading the third one tonight.

B&N link The Marx Sisters
B&N link The Malcontenta (used book)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

I've been meaning to read this book for years, and fate kindly intervened at DragonCon this year when I won a copy at a panel. The series is so popular that it seems pointless to review it, but I review everything I read here.

I was disappointed, actually. I found the plot predictable, the book overly long considering how little actually happened, and I thought Percy was kind of dumb for not figuring out who was betraying him when it was pretty damn obvious. The characters are flat, and I never got any sense of real friendship between Percy, Grover, and Annabeth.

Still, the story moves along briskly despite its length. Some of Percy's adventures are amusing or clever, and would probably seem a lot fresher if I were eleven years old and hadn't read all the books I've read. There were some really funny lines, too, and I did like Percy's relationship with his father (although his mother was such a marshmallow I found it offensive).

But you know what really annoyed me about the book? Grover, who is a satyr, eats tin cans. Goats don't eat tin cans. Mammals of any kind, whether real or mythological, cannot eat metal and live. Yes, it was played for laughs, and yes, it's in a book about gods that are real so it's not like it's a natural history story, but it's still stupid. And I dislike stupidity in the books I read.

B&N link

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Puzzle in a Pear Tree by Parnell Hall

Someone gave me this book or I'd never have read it. I was given the first book in this series years ago and couldn't finish it. These are terrible, terrible books. I suspect no one ever buys these books for themselves; they're only ever given as gifts.

This is the fourth book in the "puzzle lady" series. In this case, the puzzles are acrostics rather than crosswords. There are three or four of them in the book to solve, but if you don't want to bother the solutions are given a few pages after each puzzle. The puzzles are pretty good.

The writing, however, is awful. Every character speaks alike except for the "Scotland Yard" detective, who is so cheesy-fake-British that it's embarrassing. Author Parnell Hall uses the words wanna, gonna, gotta and so forth all the time, so that all his characters sound like they're speaking with mouths full of mashed potatoes. And his prose tics, such as leaving the conjunctions out of compound sentences, are so constant they started to get to me within a few pages--and even show up in dialogue.

The plot isn't all that great either. Cora Felton is taking part in the local Christmas play, as is her niece Sherry and pretty much everyone else in town as far as I can tell. When someone leaves an acrostic that, when solved, implies that the leading lady is in danger, Cora swings into action. Well, okay, she doesn't. For reasons no doubt made clear in the previous three books, despite being known as the puzzle lady, Cora can't work puzzles worth a damn. Her niece solves the puzzles. Then a high school girl playing Mary in an unrelated pageant is murdered, and the clues point confusingly to different people in different plays.

I won't spoil the plot, but I will say that it's one of those horrible mysteries where the clues hinge on timetables that are so convoluted no one but the author would be able to figure them out (or care). The murderer's motive is weak, and verges on ridiculous. The local cops are portrayed as morons who don't know the first thing about conducting a murder investigation, who are happy to take orders from the "Scotland Yard" detective (look, we do all know it's not called Scotland Yard anymore, don't we?), and who don't seem to care that Cora is committing felonies left and right as she "investigates." If I were a cop, I would shoot this book for being too stupid to live.

No one better give me any more of these awful books, because I refuse to read another one.

B&N link

Friday, October 7, 2011

No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer

I'm like a junkie with these Georgette Heyer mysteries. I try to stop, but then I pick another one up and want to just keep reading them and reading them. Eventually I'll have read them all, and then I don't know what I'll do.

Actually, I can just keep rereading one of them, since they're all pretty much identical. Heyer found a formula that worked and kept with it. In this one, the despicable Wally Carter is shot dead and everyone has a motive but no opportunity to have killed him.

Of course the murder takes place at a country estate, and the characters are pure Heyer: the rich wife who used to be on the stage, her frivolous nineteen-year-old daughter, Wally's sensible cousin Mary, a Russian prince who may be a fake and who's certainly only interested in the rich wife, the local farmer who loves the rich wife and despises the husband, the husband's ne'er-do-well friend, the local barrister's son, the local doctor, etc. As always, the real fun of a Heyer mystery isn't so much the mystery (although that's particularly good in this one, with a clever plot twist--I didn't guess the murderer) as the zippy, slang-filled conversation. I could listen to Heyer's characters talk all day long.

B&N link

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Royal Scam by Gini Koch

Full disclosure: I have a novella with this publisher (release date early 2012).

I really wanted to love this novella, the first installment of a space opera that looks like a lot of fun. It's about a band of spacers who pull elaborate cons--in this case, main character Danielle Daniels (known as DeeDee) has spent three months impersonating the youngest princess of Andromeda for reasons that are complicated (in a clever way) and lucrative (also in a clever way). There are hints that the group's ultimate goal is to restore the Martian royalty to the throne--and the royal brothers are part of the crew. In fact, one's the captain.

All the elements of a fun, swashbuckling space opera are in place: a motley crew of scofflaws, hidden royalty, old scores to settle with entire planets, alien beings that resemble frogs or spiders, and ships that can jump to hyperspace to travel between star systems. But nothing really gels. The characters are bland and all speak alike no matter how alien they look, and I never felt a sense of tension. Nothing seemed to be at stake, and sure enough, DeeDee and her friends got out of a small potential mess without any difficulty.

Worse, though, I never felt close to any of the characters. They just don't have much personality. I didn't care about DeeDee, and I certainly didn't care about any of her shipmates. She's supposed to have a romance with the captain, but there was no spark between them. I just didn't care, and I badly wanted to.

A note on the formatting: This is a PDF ebook. Like most PDFs, the text displays really, really tiny on my Sony PRS-505. Also like most PDFs, when I enlarge the text, it screws up the formatting. Part of my negative reaction to the story may be due to frustration with figuring out where paragraphs began and ended, which has nothing to do with the writing and everything to do with display. I hope the publisher can fix this issue for their future releases (although to be honest, nothing I've tried has made PDFs display better, so it may just be a sucky problem with Sony readers).

Musa Publishing link

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hero by Perry Moore

I think this is the first young adult novel I've seen that actually tells us on the back that the main character is gay. Good for Hyperion.

Thom Creed's father was one of the country's best-loved superheroes--despite having no superpowers--until something awful happened. Now Thom lives in the shadow of his father's disgrace, his mother took off when he was still little, and his father works at a factory and can barely make ends meet. Thom isn't allowed to talk about the League of superheroes his dad used to belong to, isn't allowed to talk about superheroes at all. But when Thom develops powers of his own and discovers some pictures of his mother hanging out with League members, he realizes he doesn't know much about his own family. And when the League finds out about Thom's superhealing abilities, they invite him to try out--and Thom wants to join the League as badly as his dad hates the League.

The book is slow-paced despite some good action scenes. I didn't exactly get bored while reading, but I did repeatedly think, "Geez, this book is so long, why is this book so long?" It's 428 pages, which seems excessive for a YA about superheroes. Then again, a lot happens. It just happens slowly with a lot of talking.

In some ways, Hero reminds me of Austin Grossman's brilliant Soon I Will Be Invincible, in that it shows some of the internal workings of a league of superheroes and in its awkward moments of character backstory infodumping. At least four times in the book, a character tells Thom his or her story at length and in decidedly literary (rather than conversational) language. I found it extremely jarring. I also found the writing rough at times, with transitions often so abrupt that I couldn't figure out what was going on. A couple of times I had to check to make sure I hadn't accidentally turned two pages instead of one.

The superhero plot is pretty good--not great, frankly, because there are too many holes. I didn't notice most of them while I was reading, but once I'd finished and was thinking about the book, I kept thinking, "Wait a minute, why did...? And what the hell did that scene have to do with...?"

Overall, though, the book is good--moving and interesting. Thom's romance with another character takes a long time to get underway, but it feels natural. I kept tearing up, too, because Thom's life really is shitty: he's terrified someone will out him to his dad, he's terrified his dad will find out he's joined the League, he's lost his place on the high school basketball team due to rumors of his being gay, his League teammates apparently all hate him, and he's trying to deal alone with superpowers he barely understands. The ending is satisfying, even if the book itself tends to be melancholy and occasionally depressing.

B&N link