Monkey With a Typewriter

"...Look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty."
- Groucho Marx in Monkey Business, 1931

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Danny Wallace and the Centre of the Universe

This book is more of a long article, really, as it was part of a series of Quick Read Books published in England. Danny Wallace is one of my favorite comedic writers. He has a child's fascination with the world around him, always willing to go anywhere and do anything in the name of...well, mostly he only needs a very small reason to do anything. In this case, after having discovered his new apartment was near the center of the world (Greenwich, where the line of demarcation between the eastern and western hemispheres lies), he does a Google search for the center of the universe. And he discovers it's been found! It lies in a town in Idaho, right in the middle of the street. When Danny finds that the name of the town is Wallace, he decides it's cosmic fate, and he must travel to the Center of the Universe. Danny usually has a message in his books about the interconnectedness of people, the importance of our lives, and our place on Earth (it's subtle, butt it's there). There is some of that with this book, but the enjoyment (for me) came in the fact that the entire story takes place over the course of 24 hours and makes a tiny town seem like a bustling city. Another reminder from Wallace to look around you, lest you miss life passing you by.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

This is book 2 in Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy.

I was quite taken by Sanderson's first novel, Elantris. It was an amazing work of fantasy told in one volume, a rare find these days. I'm not a huge fan of Fantasy in general. The books all tend to be cookie-cutter, spending a few chapters building their world, explaining magic, creatures, the lay of the land, etc. I prefer books that get into character and politics, the latter of which Sanderson does quite nicely. At the end of Mistborn, the evil Lord Ruler had been defeated, the skaa (a slave class) had been freed, and the entire political spectrum of the world had shifted.

Book 2 begins with Elend, the loafing, somewhat brattish son of a nobleman, assuming the throne and attempting to put his political ideals into action. He's determined to forge a democracy where a centuries-long dictatorship once stood. There's an immense amount of political maneuvering to be done, and thankfully Sanderson paints these in broad strokes, not getting bogged down in minutiae while still creating a solid and believable "West Wing" scenario.

Vin, the titular Mistborn from book one, has grown into her powers, and now stands as Elend's royal bodyguard. She's overworked, as noblemen from around the land are all seeking to displace Elend's new government and seize power for themselves. The book continues the overarching storyline (the quest to understand who the Hero of Ages was, and why he'she would be able to save the world, and what went wrong when they did). The city falls under siege by two invading armies, and Elend must work to secure his people's safety while Vin works to solve the greater mysteries: the Mist that envelops the world at night seems to be lingering longer into the day, and at times seems almost sentient. On top of that, another powerful Mistborn stalks her in the night, with plans of his own for the future.

The book suffers a bit from "second part syndrome", setting things up for the third book while tying things up from the last book. The action sequences are tightly paced, and I'm definitely excited to see where this all leads. Unfortunately, late in the book, I discovered pages 528-560 were missing from my copy, and I got this a long time ago through Amazon, so there's a couple of things I'm missing (pretty important stuff for book 3 setup). I'll have to hunt down a copy in Borders and sit and read...


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Charactered Pieces by Caleb J Ross

A fantastic collection of short stories from up-and-coming author Caleb J Ross. He's been all over the place lately (even HERE with a guest blog! Is he man or is he machine?)

The table of contents is presented as a faceted gem, which is highly fitting, for each story presents a different facet of human nature. The stories are at times uplifting and insightful, but more often haunting and heartbreaking. A fantastic collection that's over far too quickly. It's difficult to describe the level of melancholy and depth of noble sorrow Caleb imbues in his characters. Most of them aren't people you'd have in your circle of friends, but he gives them quiet dignity on a level that makes you NEED to know them for the all-too-brief duration of each story. These flawed characters aren't trying to overcome their imperfections, but rather coming to accept them and shape their lives around them. The non-fiction piece "A Chinese Gemini" was my favorite, particularly because of the way it blends so neatly into the collection. The honesty of the tale merely strengthens Caleb's voice in the surrounding story collection.

Worth the read! Be sure to check out the links on Caleb's blog post and buy the book!


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Kaspar Traulhaine, Approximate

This is a fantastic and grotesque mystery from author Pablo D'Stair. The titular Traulhaine is a man on the run, haunted by guilt and hunted by forces he doesn't understand. He's recently committed a murder, and seemingly gotten away with it, until one day a strange man approaches and claims to have witnessed everything. In three days time, he'll turn Kaspar over to the authorities.

Thus begins a series of mind-bending occurrences for Traulhaine, as he's increasingly tormented by this stranger, an odd, slovenly man who may or may not be mentally deficient. Kaspar struggles with his options: to flee, to fight, to turn himself in, and with each minute that ticks by, his conscience and guilt slowly devour him.

As the end approaches, time seems to become more fluid, each minute a longer agony than the one prior. Regret hammers Kaspar like torrential rain, and the ending comes in a most unexpected fashion.

D'Stair does a fine job playing inside of the sandbox of Kaspar's brain. The story led me on a bizarre adventure that had me questioning the nature of reality and the reliability of the narrator, but never losing the thread of the story, the intense and growing dread, the impending doom. A tight and tense mental thriller that I'd highly recommend!


Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Longshot by Katie Kitamura

Kitamura's first book focuses on Cal, a mixed martial artist who's just crested the hill of "this kid is great" and started the descent into "this kid's a has-been". The story takes place over the course of a few days leading up to a big fight, and witnesses the slow tension build with Cal and his manager Riley as they prepare to face the sport's most dominant fighter, Rivera.

It's not so much a Rocky-type story as it is a documentary of sorts. You're with Cal as he prepares to do the only thing he knows how to do (fight) and slowly shuts down all other aspects of his life as the big day approaches. He's grappling with himself through the whole story in a search for purpose, a need to understand himself and why he puts his body through this torture. His manager Riley is a father figure to him, a man who wants nothing but the best for Cal, but who also has to deal with the fact that Cal's destruction is part of the job. He doesn't want to see Cal hurt, but he can't tell him to scrap the fight, either.

The build-up to the big night is slow, focusing on a lot of the mundane details that come with travel, training, sparring, and mental preparation. The fight itself, like any good MMA brawl, is short and shocking, and the ending leaves you to ponder what has been won and lost.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Every Dead Thing by John Connolly

I'm not big on mystery/detective fiction, mainly because I'm not a super fast reader. My busy schedule means longer books can take me 2-4 weeks to read, and trying to retain names, clues, and multiple plotlines isn't easy. In most detective stories, everyone is a suspect, so every name and every action gains heightened importance.

Connolly's book is a sprawling tale that takes place in New York and New Orleans (mostly) but it's structured in such a way that it almost feels like three books collected in one volume. Detective Charlie "Bird" Parker's family was brutally murdered on a night when he was out boozing. His wife and daughter were flayed alive, their corpses left in ghoulish poses in his kitchen, faces removed.

Years later, Parker is a freelance detective hired to track a missing girl. Searching for her also begins to uncover clues to the killer who evaded him so long ago, taking him south to New Orleans. Everywhere he goes, he brings trouble, as each step closer to the missing girl brings him deeper into trouble with local crime families, local police, the FBI, and ultimately, his family's killer. The book takes a few unexpected twists, about halfway through the person I thought would be revealed as the killer is taken out of the story. It's difficult to discuss specific plot points without revealing too much information, but the book definitely kept me guessing until the end.

There are some cliche elements as well, structured a bit like bad '80s action movies, but it added to the grit of it all. For a 500 page book, it's fast paced, fun, and fairly easy to follow, even for a mystery novice like me.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Major Inversions by Gordon Highland

Gordon Highland's first book is a stealth opus of sorts, borrowing from genres contemporary and historical. Greek Tragedy, Modern Comedy, high concept film, mockumentary, on-the-road epic, musical, you name it, it's in here! The story concerns one Drew Ballard, security guard by day, tribute band rocker by night, studio musician whenever he can land a gig or find the motivation...

Drew's trapped with an awful and manipulative roommate, trying to find his way in the world. He's at that tipping point from the inertia of a misspent youth into an unknown future as a "grown-up". It's difficult to get into major plot points without going spoiler-heavy, but suffice it to say Drew has his problems. He's tied up in Drug Dealing, a slowly failing band, a newly budding relationship, and new hauntings from ghosts of his past. It's simultaneously a slow dissolve into failure and an arduous climb to...if not success, then something that kind of looks like it.

Major Inversions is a solid first effort from Highland - if you like romance, slacker comedies, family dramas, if you're a music fiend, or you just plain want a good story, then pick this up. There's something in here to satisfy every taste.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Sunnyside by Glen David Gold

It was the period in history when the concept of memory changed forever: the invention of the motion picture. No longer would secondhand accounts, drawings, paintings, or song be needed to document history. With the camera, people gained the ability to experience an event long after it had happened, without being there.

Glen David Gold, author of "Carter Beats the Devil", weaves a complicated tapestry of the birth of the motion picture. It is a historical fiction, so it may become difficult to separate artistic license from reality, but then, that's one of the points of the story. A handful of protagonists carry a series of interconected stories, chief among them Charlie Chaplin and his struggle to become a bonafide artist.

Through the story, as America expands its military presence around the world, movie studios expand their presence in the farms and hillsides of Los Angeles. It is as if the military is establishing a beachhead worldwide, leading the way for Hollywood and the American Cinema to dominate the twentieth century popular arts scene. There is heartbreak, triumph, love, loss, marriage, divorce, all of the things you'd expect to find in a pastoral such as this.

While the scope of the novel is daunting for any author to tackle, Gold does an admirable job of holding the pieces together. The story gets convoluted at times, but the overall effect, the epanalepsis is the core of the book. Each character is repeatedly dashed against the rocks of history, but they find ways to start again, to keep moving, to search for meaning.

Like many early American films, this book is a profound, if occasionally muddled, marvel to behold.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

An easy read, and compelling enough to finish in just a couple sittings. The central relationship, that of Gretchen and Archie, is extremely fascinating, a cop with Stockholm syndrome, falling for the woman who's torturing him to death. And Cain doesn't hold back on the torture scenes at all, gritty graphic stuff.

It does feel a bit like a clone of early Thomas Harris novels. I think Susan the reporter felt underdeveloped and almost unnecessary. She was a prop throughout the story, not really driving the mystery forward, nor was any deep personal journey revealed. Her first meeting with the After School Strangler abandons all logic in a scene that is crucial to the finale of the story. It was like literary duct tape used to hold the beginning and end of the story together; both sides are pretty solid, but the bridge to get there is hastily constructed.

I enjoy the cat and mouse that takes place between Archie and Gretchen, but I'm going to wait to check out further installments in this series until I'm sure there's a finale (which could possibly be book #3, due out soon). While it's interesting to read the exploits of these killers, I'd also like to see them get what's coming to them, rather than book after book straining their mythos ever thinner...(ahem, Mr. Harris).


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

JPod by Douglas Coupland

After I read "All Families Are Psychotic"...or tried to, I was getting ready to give up on Coupland for a while. Every author hits a plateau where they either rehash their style, backslide into obscurity, or challenge themselves to try something different.

JPod is a fun read, mainly because it feels like Coupland is frustrated at being on the plateau and pondering where to go next. It focuses on a group of young slacker programmers, all working together by quirk of having last names that start with J. They're busy trying to find ways to sabotage their boss's latest addition to their skateboarding game while also trying to do as little work as possible. That, in a nutshell, is the large plot of the book. The tangential stories relating to the main protagonist (boy meets girl, boy's Mom sells drugs and needs his help to cover up her crimes, boy's father is addicted to ballroom dancing and is a struggling actor, boy's brother is a real estate tycoon who gets him inadvertently involved with an Asian crime kingpin) are where the story shines.

Coupland himself makes an appearance in this book, and meta-narrative of the story (Coupland's relation to the people he writes about) is an impressive piece of work.