Friday, September 9, 2011

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

by Thom Dunn

The first thing I heard about The Night Circus was that it was "going to be the next Twilight." Naturally, this made me a bit skeptical, but when I heard the first chapter of the audiobook (narrated by Jim Dale!) at a lovely circus launch party in Concord, Massachusetts (where some of the book is set), I decided to get over my prejudices towards sparkly vampires and give The Night Circus a fair shot.

And you know what? It was good.

It wasn't great by any means, but I certainly enjoyed it. From the first chapter (both reading and hearing), I found myself swept up in the magnificent imagery of the story, and its sprawling, magical nature. First-time author Erin Morgenstern fills her story with charming characters, tortured and macabre and beautiful, and does a very good job of creating the world of this supernatural traveling circus at the turn of the 20th century.

Except when she doesn't.

Morgenstern's descriptions of the magical goings-on in each circus tents is mesmerizing — I can already hear the fans crying out about how the upcoming film doesn't do justice to the Ice Room, or the Wishing Tree, or the White Bonfire, as they appeared in the readers' heads — but she seems to focus so heavily on these descriptions that she neglects to fill in the details of the story. The book jacket describes it as a duel to the death between two apprentice magicians (the magic kind; not the hats-in-rabbits kind) who ultimately fall in love. That's there, I guess, but at no point in the book is there ever any sense of stakes, or drama. Sure, you get told that there's this mysterious "competition," and that there are "rules" and "players" that must remain secret until they are revealed. But other than that, it's just fanciful descriptions of magical midnight dinner parties (which, for the record, I quite enjoyed). The sense of mystery and intrigue that surrounds the story makes you want to keep reading, and the pretty imagery satisfies you for a while, but unfortunately, that's not enough to live on.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Story: 5.8
Somewhere in here, there is a beautiful, timeless story of two unwitting pawns bound by their lineage into an ancient struggle between good and evil, who try to overcome these forces in the name of love. Unfortunately, by the time that Morgenstern really gets into this Romeo & Juliet story, it's already too late. There seems to be some great history and story between Prospero The Enchanter, and the elusive Man In The Grey Suit — but it never really goes anywhere, and we never get much explanation for, well, anything. (It is, however, quite enjoyable to read about Poppet & Widget, the twins born in the circus on opening night, and their friendship with lonely farmboy Bailey. Maybe that should have been the A-Plot)

Style: 7.8
The style here is what saves The Night Circus. Chapters hardly ran more than five pages, and successive chapters focused on different characters, often in a nonlinear fashion. By jumping between time and character, Morgenstern is able to set up a captivating puzzle that, while simple enough to follow, still makes you want to read more. With such short chapters, I found myself constantly thinking, "Well, just one chapter more," hoping that I would soon return to one of the more exciting scenes or storylines. I also found it interesting that, barring a few one-page interludes rendered in the 2nd Person, most of the scenes were written in 3rd person present, which helped add to the mysteriously nonlinear suspense. And of course, as I've mentioned several times, Morgenstern creates some wonderful imagery in the story. It's not quite poetry, but it is certainly vivid and rich.

General: 6.3
The Night Circus was certainly an enjoyable read, and I don't doubt that it will be successful as a franchise. And for a first time author — who, if I'm not mistaken, has never had so much as an article or a short story published — it's admirable work. Still, for all its wonderful moments, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing.

Overall: 6.63

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Truth About Diamonds (Nicole Richie)

by Thom Dunn

Upon discovering that Nicole Richie (of "Nicole Richie" fame) was a New York Times Bestselling Author, I challenged myself to conquer the novel that brought her such a distinction, and to do so as objectively as possible, without simply writing it off as "Haha. Nicole Richie wrote a novel. Haha."

The Truth About Diamonds is the fictional story of Nicole Richie Chloe Parker, the adopted daughter of a famous musician, and her struggles with addiction and fame as part of the Hollywood A-List. The story is narrated by Chloe's good friend, Future Fictional Nicole Richie, and brings readers behind the scenes of Nicole's Chloe's reality television series The Simple Life with Paris & Nicole Magdalena Girls, and her rocky relationship with best friend and co-star Paris Hilton Simone.

Basically, The Truth About Diamonds is #1stWorldProblems in novel form. Nicole Chloe and her friends lead difficult lives as the children of wealthy and successful celebrities. They are forced to go shopping, eat expensive salads at lunch, go to fancy clubs, and get paid ridiculous sums of money to act as walking product placement for top designer brands. Sure, Chloe is forced to deal with her drug addiction and rehab, some annoying paparazzi, and the seedy machinations of reality TV producers, but these problems are only briefly touched upon, and even more quickly resolved.

Oh! Did I forget to mention that there's a totally sweet collection of glossy photos of Nicole Richie looking drugged up and sad inserted into the middle of the book? No? Whatever.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that next time I decide to take on such a challenge: please, for the love of God, talk me out to it.

The Truth About Diamonds, by Nicole Richie

Story: 3.3
You know how there's that whole school of writers like Bret Easton Ellis who like to expose the corrupt and twisted amorality of the American Upper Class in their work? This book's is kind of like that. Except no one's really that corrupted or twisted or amoral (or that complex or interesting). You catch a few glimmers of these treats in the books "antagonists" — mostly PR spinsters and paparazzi, but even then, they're not that bad. Every time an event seems poised to send our main character plummeting to rock bottom, leaving the empathetic reader to pine, "Oh no! How will she ever make it out of this one?", the problem is neatly resolved within 4 pages. Oh no! Nicole Chloe fell off the wagon and went back on drugs? Nicole Chloe made a fool of herself on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards? It's cool, she's an obscenely wealthy pseudo-celebrity, so obviously nothing that bad can happen to her, 'cause, I mean, duh.

Seriously, there's even a passage that details some of the possible side effects of withdrawal from Xanax (this during Chloe's 6-page stint in rehab) that ultimately finishes with: "Fortunately, Chloe's Xanax addiction was not as severe as they come, so she never came close to ending it all." So much for drama and extreme human emotion. Oh well.

Style: 4
I give this book a 4 on style simply because a stylistic choice was actually made in writing it. It follows the same kind of narrative style as The Great Gatsby, where the First Person Narrator (in this case, Nicole Richie herself) relays the story of our protagonist (Pre-Rehab Nicole Richie Chloe) while playing only a minor part in the story herself. Plus, the novel contains incredible wordplay like, "But in the boardroom, everything sounds boring." Get it? 'Cause "board" and "bor" are — ya know what, forget it. At least she tried.

General: 3.8
I mean, it's not a bad book I guess. It's just not particularly good, and I don't see a point to its existence other than paying for a new purse for Ms Richie. It wasn't necessarily a painful reading experience. Although in a way, I wish it had been — at least that way it would have been more dynamic. You can tell that Richie (assuming it was actually written by her, and not a ghostwriter) has personal stakes in the topic of drug addiction, because those moments in the book tend to have the presence and depth. But overall, there's no lesson, or message, or brilliant illumination of the human psyche, or really even a story, or any of those things that fiction is supposed do.

Overall: 3.7

Friday, July 8, 2011

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Charles Yu)

by Thom Dunn
I've been looking forward to reading this book since I first heard about it prior to its release last year. I was already familiar with Yu's short story collection, Third Class Superhero, and I enjoyed his dry humor, his simplistic approach to complicated scientific situations, and his complicated scientific approach to simple situations. Unfortunately, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe proved to be quite the popular book, and I had difficulty getting my hands on a copy until recently. I rarely approach a modern novel with a full year's worth of hype behind it, so I was increasingly worried about how disappointed I might feel after finally reading it.

Lucky for me, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe quite lived up to all of my expectations.

The premise of the book is absolutely delectable: Charles Yu (the character, not the author) is a time machine mechanic with a Masters degree in Applied Science Fiction. He spends most of his life in his time machine along with his non-existent dog, Ed, who was retroactively removed from continuity but, like all good dogs, still provides his master with unconditional love despite this paradox of causality. He will readily tell the long, possibly detailed story of not meeting The Woman I (he) Never Married. And so on. Charles Yu embarks on a quest to reconnect with his father, during which he accidentally shoots his own Future Self, who gives him a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is (or, more accurately, will be) written by Charles Yu (the character — wait, no, the author — oh, whatever).

That should pretty much tell me exactly what to expect from this book — ridiculous, self-referential, incredibly clever nerd humor disguised as ridiculously convoluted techno-babble. Charles Yu uses time travel as a means of exploring language, grammar, and the construction of our own memories. Don't be scared off by all the talk of Closed Timelike Curves and wormholes — even when he rambles on about technical terms you don't understand, he does so in an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek manner:

The base model TM-31 time machine runs on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology: a six-cylinder grammar drive built on a quad-core physics engine, which features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.

Or, as Mom used to say: it's a box. You get into it. You push some buttons.

In many ways, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe can be seen as a successor to Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Both tell psuedo-autobiographical stories (at least, stories initially inspired by personal histories) through the veil of time travel and other silly tropes of science fiction (fully acknowledging their own absurdities). This gives the author a chance to look at his own (fictionalized) life from the perspective of an outsider. Some of my absolute favorite parts of the story are when Charles Yu uses complex quantum physics (including some made-up psuedo-physical story terms) to discuss his relationship with his father, and the emotions that surround that relationship, as they offer a unique but undeniably sympathetic angle on the situation, something you don't often find when using technical science to explain how you're feeling.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

Story: 8.0
While the basic story doesn't stray so far from the established tropes of time travel science fiction (paradoxes, timeloops of cause-and-effect, etc.), Charles Yu still manages to create a unique and distinctive fictional world, one that is fully conscious of its own fictional nature but never loses its heart. The characters and situations are as absurd as they are endearing, and almost make you wish that you could live in a science fictional universe with them. But it's the meticulous plotting of such a(n intentionally) convoluted mess that is particularly impressive; Yu manages to spin his readers into a cloud of wacky metaphysical concepts and weird science, but never gets lost himself.

Style: 9.6
Cosines, physics equations, and chronodiegetical substrates have never been so hilarious or easy to understand. Charles Yu writes with an incredibly unique voice, exploring otherwise bizarre and emotionless situations with the raw heart and wonder of a child. The humor is subtle and dry and wildly clever, but the reading feels quick and easy.

General: 9.4
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is one of the most touching and entertaining books I've read in a long time. If you like humor, read it; if you like stories about father-son relationships, read it; if you like science, read it; if you like science fiction, read it; if you like memoirs, read it. It even manages to use all of those incredibly-clever-but-not-really-anymore-because-duh tropes of metafiction (like writing the story you're reading while you are reading the story that's being written) and makes them feel fresh and enjoyable, and actually have a greater resonance in the story as a whole. While some people might be put off by its seemingly esoteric (or just plain weird) nature, give this book a chance; I don't think you'll regret it.

Overall: 9.00

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Year We Left Home (Jean Thompson)

by Melanie Yarbrough

I've been frequenting the library like old times lately, and I picked up Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home. She's written familiar books such as Do Not Deny Me and Throw Like a Girl. It was on display on the New Books table and because of it's interesting cover (so sue me!), I picked it up. Don't you love the lack of consequences when you impulse grab things at the library? Me too.

Thompson's novel is structured by year and character. Throughout the novel, we travel to different parts of the country, getting good clues as to the political and economic climate of the country as well as the family that the novel chronicles. Thompson is strongest when she's in the characters' minds. Each section is written in third person limited, and the outcome is beautiful. Set in a rural farmtown in Iowa, the story starts out in 1973, mostly between Ryan and his cousin Chip, recently returned from Vietnam. Their exchange in Ryan's truck, smoking weed, takes place as much in what Ryan doesn't say as in what the two do say to one another. This introduction to both characters sets up an understanding of the family they come from that is essential to the novel.

My favorite part about the novel's structure was the way it dipped in and out of each character's life, showed us glimpses that we return to later in the book, decades later. The first half of the novel's sections end cliffhanger style. There's a build-up of suspense that creates a sort of sigh of relief sensation when you realize you've reached the half of the book that ties up those loose endings. But there is nothing particularly neat about Thompson's ties. There are lives forever changed by tragedy that we get to see once the initial support of the community dies down and the family is left to fend for itself. We are not present for every character's trajectory of growth, and so it seems that it's the circumstances rather than the journey that Thompson wanted us to focus on. Once history begins, there is no changing it until you are on the other side of it, still alive.

The Year We Left Home
by Jean Thompson

Story - 6.8
The story is basically centered around family. I enjoyed the way it stretched out, took on the shape of a tree, spreading in all different directions and winding back into itself. There are so many stories in this novel, but Thompson brings each of them back together nicely into one big story about one big family.

Style - 7.2
I'm a big fan of novels in stories, probably because I write stories and feel as though that style is my only chance to actually write a novel. I digress. Thompson doesn't focus on one character too much, and the third person limited of each section lends the perfect amount of distance and insight. I enjoyed seeing the family from all angles.

General - 7.5
I read this book fairly quickly, and that's usually how I judge if I'm really enjoying a book or not. I was eager to return to it, to sneak moments with it, to finish it. Each character is set up, tested in some way, and Thompson returns to each of them after they've moved past these times of trial. Whether they've changed for the better or worse after them, they are still together, still alive.

Overall - 7.2

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

by Emily Steers

If you’re a female between the ages of 13 and 45 and your love of fantasy and science fiction wasn’t completely stomped to pieces by the Twilight franchise, you’ve probably already devoured The Hunger Games and have a likeness of the protagonist on your computer desktop. If you aren’t in that demographic and value strong characters, vivid alternative realities, and unapologetic underdog stories, the first book of The Hunger Games trilogy offers an arresting summer read.


The Hunger Games begins with the first person, present-tense narrative of Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old woman living in the 12th district of the post-apocalyptic country of Panem. She’s a bit bitter, pig-headed, and armed to the teeth, though the latter is accomplished on the sly, because The Capital likes to keep the regular folk in check with the threats of violence and a perpetual state of near-starvation.

Katniss uses her analog weaponry (bows, arrows, knives, snares) to go hunting in the woods just beyond her district to feed her mother and sister. In true storybook fashion, her saintly father had taught her these skills but was killed off in a mining accident, leaving her mother comatose and unable to care for her two daughters; the entire district remains too poor and completely unable to lend a hand.

If living on the brink of starvation wasn’t a big enough F-U to the people of Panem, the Capital overlords keep an even bigger leash on the people by holding the Hunger Games, an annual event pitting one male and one female teenaged “tribute” from each of the twelve districts in a fight to the death. A televised, must-see-TV fight to the death. Harvested at random through a lottery, it’s “supposed” to be noble to participate in the Games, but obviously no one is too thrilled when the annual reading of names rolls around.

Katniss’s angelic younger sister Prim gets chosen, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. Using the survivalist skills she’s honed over the years hunting and keeping her family alive, Katniss takes to the Hunger Games in an emotionally fraught battle for survival.


The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Suggested to me by a 30+ year-old male friend, never has the story of a teenaged girl’s struggle with high expectations, growing up, and first loves been so completely universal—and, let’s face it, badass. If there’s a struggle to get young boys and men to connect with female protagonists, I suggest The Hunger Games be required reading for middle school classes. Throw out those beat-up copies of Jacob Have I Loved and let the guys connect with a girl who can stand up for herself.

The writing is filled with technical flaws. It’s difficult to read past the present tense verbs, and character development relies pretty heavily on the narration telling you things about each character rather than having personality traits divulged through action. Essentially, everything is told rather than shown. Additionally, since the world of Panem is entirely fictional and loosely based in reality, new “outs” are created on the fly, which can be beyond frustrating for readers used to more technically flawless books.

This book is difficult to put down. Because of the life-and-death nature of the conflict, the story is cinematic and very compelling. Collins is a young-adult and children’s book writer. Adults will have no problem breezing through the novel, and the content should be considered PG-13 for the gruesome demises of major characters.

Overall: 8.49

Make sure you have a free 24 hours to read this book from cover to cover!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Haiku Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, part 2

by Brian McGackin

Harry is seriously so annoying in this book.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Chapter 20: Hagrid's Tale

What I Did On My
Summer Vacation, Hagrid
Edition: Giants

Chapter 21: The Eye of the Snake

Prof. Umbridge audits
Hagrid's class. Harry kisses
Cho and bites Ron's dad.

Chapter 22: St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries

Weasleys and Harry
head to hospital, visit
snake-bitten Arthur.

Harry overhears
adult conversation: he's
possessed by Voldy!

Chapter 23: Christmas on the Closed Ward

Harry is angsty
until Ginny sets him straight.
Hermy ditches 'rents.

Back at hospital,
Harry and co meet Neville's
gran and addled mom.

Chapter 24: Occlumency

Snape and Harry start
anti-mind-reading lessons
(Dumbledore's orders).

Chapter 25: The Beetle at Bay

Death Eaters escape
from Azkaban. Harry and
Cho go on bad date.

Hermione has
Rita Skeeter write Harry's
story for Quibbler.

Chapter 26: Seen and Unforseen

Tabloid star Harry
sucks at Occlumency and
sees Voldy's bedroom.

Meanwhile, Umbridge sacks
Divination prof. Sibyl;
Dumbledore hires horse.

Chapter 27: The Centaur and the Sneak

Centaur Firenze—new
Divination professor—
says war is coming.

Cho's friend snitches so
D.A. disbands. Dumbledore
evades Fudge, arrest.

Chapter 28: Snape's Worst Memory

With Dumbledore gone,
the twins take their mayhem to
a whole new level.

Then, Harry sneaks peek
at Snape's worst memory: picked
on by Harry's dad!

Chapter 29: Career Advice

Despite Umbridge's
protests, Prof. McG vows to
help Harry find job.

Harry talks through fire.
Twins build portable swamp, fly
off into sunset.

Chapter 30: Grawp

Hagrid's bro-giant
is hidden in the forest.
Weasley is our King.

Chapter 31: O. W. L. S.

Fifth years take tests. Fang,
McG knocked out. Hagrid sacked.
Sirius tortured?

Chapter 32: Out of the Fire

Harry's annoying;
he won't listen to reason
about Sirius.

Rescue plan devised
but thwarted by Umbridge,
who Hermy then deceives.

Chapter 33: Fight and Flight

Umbridge abducted
by centaurs. Then Grawp rescues
Hermy and Harry.

Ginny, Neville, Ron,
and Luna duel Slytherins;
all mount bat-horses.

Chapter 34: The Department of Mysteries

Flight to Ministry:
Harry and friends search for Black,
find only weird rooms.

Chapter 35: Beyond the Veil

Harry finds glass orb;
Death Eaters arrive, chase kids,
try to steal the orb.

The Order joins in.
Dumbledore to the rescue!
Black killed by cousin :'(

Chapter 36: The Only One He Ever Feared

Dumbledore! Voldy!
Duel of the Century! With
help from some statues!

Defeated, Voldy
retreats. Fudge finally sees
Dumbledore was right.

Chapter 37: The Lost Prophecy

Harry learns truth 'bout
Voldy: neither can live while
the other survives.

Chapter 38: The Second War Begins

The Wizarding World
now knows Voldemort is back.
Dark times lie ahead.

Harry heads back home.
The Order inform the Dursleys
they better be nice.

I guess Hogwarts needs
a new Defense Against the
Dark Arts professor...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fun & Games (Duane Swierczynski)

by Thom Dunn

The latest novel from Marvel comics scribe and fervent crime fictioneer Duane Swiercyznski, Fun & Games is the first installment in a trilogy of novels featuring Charlie Hardie, an ex-cop (well, cop-ish) with a bloody past. This being a Duane Swiercyznski novel, the obligatory references to his hometown of Philadelphia still manage to sneak their way in, but for this story (and, presumably, the rest of the trilogy), Swierczy exiles his protagonist from this comfort zone and drops him right into the brushfires of Los Angeles.

Fun & Games serves as a kind of love-letter to LA noir and a wake to its history, embedded deeply in the Hollywood Hills. Swierczynski's excitement for the genre bleeds through his prose with a ferocious, whirlwind, almost ravenous energy that engulfs the reader with no apologies, from the epigraphs (quoted from film noir classics and more) to the biting, cynical criticisms of the film/media/LA industries.

It's kind of like Mulholland Drive, except it actually makes sense.*

You know, in a way, I kind of don't want to tell you. Because going into this book, I knew very little about it myself, and that may have made the ride even wilder. But here's at least a bit of background for you.

Charlie Hardie is a man with a past who now makes his living as...a professional house sitter. He arrives in Los Angeles to watch after the home of a successful film composer, who is off on business in Russia for a month. He is surprised to find a young, attractive movie star named Lane Madden hiding in the house, tripping on a cocktail of cocaine and heroin and hysterically ranting about some mysterious "Them" that's been trying to kill her. Charlie soon realizes that Lane Madden may not be as paranoid — or as innocent — as she appears, and finds himself wrapped up in a conspiracy of Hollywood insiders who might actually control the world through their (literal) plotting.

Fun & Games, by Duane Swierczynski

Story: 8.6
Fun & Games is the kind of story that grabs you by the shirt in the first few pages and then throws you off a cliff. And since it's the first book in trilogy, the ending offers you a small foothold, but its only enough to brace yourself for a moment before you continue falling down the rabbit hole. Swierczynski is an intricate master plotter, and the story is full of moments that shock you and then make you smack yourself in the head and go "Duh! Of course that was going to happen!" Everything has a payoff, almost as if Swierczynski wrote and solved a mathematical proof for an unashamedly juiced-up pastiche of pulp/noir stories.

Style: 7.8
While omniscient 3rd person narrators have never turned me off from a story, I have to admit that I've never been particularly fond of them (I like my narratives to have limits, or at least somewhat unreliable). However, Swierczynski employs a unique method here, which is multiple 3rd person limited narrations that hit you like a slurry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its affections for Hollywood and moviemaking, Fun & Games flows like a movie, full of fast-paced jumpcuts and surprising scene changes. Some of these changes come so rapidly after one another that it's hard to keep up (which is part of what keeps the reader on the edge the whole time), especially as it shares the same moment from multiple perspectives (and always in a carefully calculated way — Swierczynski knows how to reveal pertinent information with the strongest impact).

General: 9.4
Not only did I blow through this book in record time, but when I finally reached the end, I immediately tried to figure out when I could get my hands on a copy of the sequel, Hell & Gone. It's like a flash thunderstorm in the middle of a glorious summer day (or maybe that's just the weather outside right now -- yup, looks like). Anyone who considers him/herself to be a fan of mysteries, thrillers, noir, "the dark side of Hollywood," crime stories, or wild conspiracies would be a fool not to read this book. Swierczynski might not be breaking ground with his new Charlie Hardie series, but he's building such a labyrinthine structure of wheels within wheels that it's hard to resist. Fun & Games only shows us the tip of this conspiracy, but its undeniably intriguing, as Swierczynski offers us a well-developed and scathing commentary of what really goes on behind the scenes of Hollywood — and the world.

Overall: 8.6

Fun & Games is available June 20, 2011 from Mulholland Books.

*I actually quite enjoyed Mulholland Drive. I thought it was a very beautiful experimental/slipstream poem, on film. But let's be honest, that movie didn't make any sense.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Haiku Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, part 1

by Brian McGackin

Wherein Harry apparently goes through puberty.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Chapter 1: Dudley Demented

Dudley's soul almost
face-sucked out. Mrs. Figg knows
Harry's a wizard?!?

Chapter 2: A Peck of Owls

Harry gets expelled;
his aunt explains dementors;
Dudley voms on porch.

Plus foreshadowing,
yelling, a bit of intrigue,
and so many owls.

Chapter 3: The Advance Guard

Hodgepodge wizard pack
lies to Harry's guardians
and fly him away.

Moody, Lupin, Tonks,
Shacklebolt; how does Rowling
come up with these names?

Chapter 4: Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place

Who's a little prat?
Harry is. He's finally
with friends and flips out.

Chapter 5: The Order of the Phoenix

Sirius explains
the Order, updates Harry
on Voldemort news.

Chapter 6: The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black

Summer spring cleaning:
Grimmauld Place dolled up; house-elf
Kreacher hates Hermy.

Younger brother Black
is dead Death Eater. Blacks and
Malfoys: related!

Chapter 7: The Ministry of Magic

Apparently it's
Take Your Youngest Son's Best Friend
Harry To Work Day.

Chapter 8: The Hearing

Cornelius Fudge:
pretty much the wizarding
world's own Judge Judy.

Dumbledore and Figg
to the rescue! Harry is
saved from expulsion.

Chapter 9: The Woes of Mrs. Weasley

Ron, Hermy: prefects!
Mommy Molly Weasley's fear:
her family dead.

Chapter 10: Luna Lovegood

Only Harry and
Loony Luna Lovegood can
see weird bat-horses.

Chapter 11: The Sorting Hat's New Song

Who is this Umbridge
joker, and why is Seamus
suddenly a tool?

Chapter 12: Professor Umbridge

Umbridge is a bitch.
She gives Harry detention
for telling the truth.

Chapter 13: Detention With Dolores

Harry gets "I must not
tell lies" tattooed on his hand
during detention.

Chapter 14: Percy and Padfoot

Sirius speaks through
fireplace. Percy sends Ron mail,
condemns Dumbledore.

Chapter 15: The Hogwarts High Inquisitor

Ministry passes
stricter school laws. Umbridge starts
reviewing the profs.

People seem perturbed
by Umbridge's promotion;
Hermy has a plan...

Chapter 16: In the Hog's Head

Hermy convinces
Harry to head up secret
dark arts defense club.

Less than legal club
formed in dingy side street pub?
Nothing could go wrong!

Chapter 17: Educational Decree Number Twenty-Four

All Hogwarts clubs banned,
including those recently
started up in bars.

Sirius attempts
firespeaking with Harry, has
near miss with Umbridge.

Chapter 18: Dumbledore's Army

Start with the basics:
Harry teaches Dumbledore's
Army to disarm.

Chapter 19: The Lion and the Serpent

Harry and the twins
are banned from Quidditch for life
post-punching Malfoy.

Make sure you come back
next week when we finally
learn where Hagrid's been!

Friday, June 3, 2011

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (Robin Black)

By Melanie Yarbrough

Short stories: I can't get enough of them. Last year, I won a copy of Robin Black's collection of stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This from Fiction Writers Review, and it is one of the best collections that I haven't paid for. There are ten stories in this collection, six of which I absolutely loved. This is one of those collections where the title story is definitely the strongest and most haunting. Black's narrator in "If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This" elicits empathy without pity, anger without self-righteousness.

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black

Story/ies: 6.0
Like I said, six of these stories I absolutely loved. The other four, however, I felt lacked the rich characters in the other stories. Where structure and experimentation took precedence to character, I felt a little lost and unsatisfied by the end. Luckily, the ratio is 6:4, so I'd say it's a win.

Style: 5.8
Black does not hesitate to experiment, to tell the stories from many different angles, with many different voices. Some of these fall flat, while others fill up to their potential and carried me along to the end of the story when I realized I hadn't breathed since I started. In those, Black's style is strong, melancholic, and self-aware. She stares unflinchingly at the world and tells us exactly what she sees.

General: 6.2
I enjoyed the collection as a whole, despite my affinity for some stories over others. The stronger stories, namely the title story, kept me going and satisfied even when Black's structure or prose fell flat. The best part about short story collections is the ability to move on when one's not particularly working for you, and Black's collection is no different. The stories that worked for me were definitely worth the ones that didn't.

Overall: 6.0

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Haiku Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, part 2

by Brian McGackin

Part 2 of 2! My favorite book! Important stuff happens!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Chapter 20: The First Task

Harry Accio's
broom, avoids dragon, steals egg,
ties for first with Krum.

Chapter 21: The House-Elf Liberation Front

Ron stops being douche,
refriends Harry. Hermy finds
Dobby in kitchen.

Chapter 22: The Unexpected Task

Ron and Harry need
dates for the Yule Ball—Patil
twins will have to do.

Chapter 23: The Yule Ball

Pre-dance: snowball
fights, special socks, Fleur's a bitch.
Dance: Hermy's with Krum,

Fleur looks hot. Post-dance:
Snape is shady, Hagrid's half
giant, Fleur's a slut.

Chapter 24: Rita Skeeter's Scoop

Skeeter's exposé
on Hagrid's past leads to brief
vaca from teaching.

Chapter 25: The Egg and the Eye

Bath time research leads
Harry to believe the next
task involves merfolk.

Then he gets tripped up
in trick step and loses school
map to Prof. Moody.

Chapter 26: The Second Task

Harry grows gills, saves
Ron (and Fleur's sister) from lake,
shows moral fiber.

Chapter 27: Padfoot Returns

Big dog godfather
sneaks into Hogsmeade to dish
old magic gossip.

Chapter 28: The Madness of Mr. Crouch

Harry and Krum talk
Hermy, find crazy Crouch, and
go warn Dumbledore.

Chapter 29: The Dream

Harry passes out
in class and dreams a little
dream of Voldemort.

Chapter 30: The Pensieve

Dumbledore can't
leave Harry alone for five
minutes; the boy snoops.

Harry sticks his face
in a bowl of gooey white
stuff and sees visions.

Chapter 31: The Third Task

Quidditch pitch maze holds
monsters and magic to pass
through for the third task.

Harry battles Sphinx;
Cedric battles Krum; both fight
spider, tie for cup.

Chapter 32: Flesh, Blood and Bone

Oh snap yo! The cup
was a portkey?!? Cedric killed;
Voldy gets new digs.

Chapter 33: The Death Eaters

Daddy Malfoy and
other Death Eaters return.
Voldy monologues.

Chapter 34: Priori Incantatem

Harry, Voldy duel;
Voldy's victims' shadow-ghosts
help Harry escape.

Hmm, I wonder why
Voldy can't kill Harry. Will
this come up later...?

Chapter 35: Veritaserum

Oh $#!* Moody's not
Moody! He's Crouch junior, a
servant of Voldy!

Junior confesses:
killed Crouch senior, helped Harry
win cup/Voldy rise.

Chapter 36: The Parting of the Ways

Harry explains all
to Dumbledore. Minister
Fudge is a dumbass.

Chapter 37: The Beginning

Dumbledore tells school
Voldy's back.Twins given cup
gold to start joke shop.

Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle
are hexed unconscious on train
for being douchebags.

I guess Hogwarts needs
a new Defense Against the
Dark Arts professor...

OOTP! Part 1! Next week!

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Little Black Book of Big Red Flags (Natasha Burton, Julie Fishman, & Meagan McCrary)

by Suzanne Parker


Based on the blog The Little Black Blog of Big Red Flags, The Little Black Book of Big Red Flags outlines the top 200 warning signs you should never ignore, but usually do, when you start dating a guy. Conveniently divided into five distinct parts, the book guides you through every potential dating disaster you may encounter by providing real life examples and anecdotes.

However, it doesn’t tell you that if your guy is weird in bed that you should definitely ditch him. Hey, maybe you like that sort of thing. Instead, it gives you advice to help you figure out whether you can accept his quirks, or whether this “big red flag” is a relationship ender.

From “He’s Not Really Your Boyfriend” to “He Doesn’t Love You” to (my personal favorite) “He’s Just the Worst,” this witty little black book will certainly come in handy at pretty much any point in your relationship. Should you be doing his dishes when you
don’t even live together? Should you let him wear your lingerie even if he claims it’s just for one night? Should you be concerned if you’ve been dating for six months and have never met any of his friends? If you’re in need of further information on any of these topics, you might want to check out this book.

Even if you’re happily committed and not planning on dating again, you can still read this and laugh about someone else’s dating catastrophes and thank your lucky stars you’re done with all that.


The Little Black Book of Big Red Flags
by Natasha Burton, Julie Fishman, and Meagan McCrary

While there are plenty of stories in the book—most of them horrifyingly hilarious true accounts—there’s not really a story per se.

Interesting layout. I like the way it’s divided into different parts and then into different chapters. I also like that it lists the 200 warning signs all together as a quick reference guide. It's highly specific, though, and you have to be looking for exactly this type of book for it to have any real impact.

A good coffee table book. Definitely a conversation starter at a party. The stories are hilarious and fun to read aloud.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Haiku Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, part 1

by Brian McGackin

Part 1 of 2 covering my personal favorite book in the series! Super important stuff happens! The last three books are set up! How can you not love it?

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Chapter 1: The Riddle House

Voldemort is back,
killing witches and old folks,
Wormtail at his side.

Chapter 2: The Scar

Harry writes letter
to Sirius post-Voldy
dream; past books recalled.

Chapter 3: The Invitation

Grapefruit for breakfast,
World Cup invitation, and
birthday cake for brunch.

Chapter 4: Back to the Burrow

Dursley's living room
destroyed; Dudley poisoned by
the twins' cursed candy.

Chapter 5: Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes

Ginger twins aspire
to open joke shop. Harry
meets older Weasleys.

Chapter 6: The Portkey

Harry travels to
Quidditch World Cup by old boot,
meets Edward Cullen.

Chapter 7: Bagman and Crouch

Twins bet with bookie
Bagman, are bored by Crouch, both
Ministry high-ups.

Chapter 8: The Quidditch World Cup

Hot Bulgarian
chicks fight off leprechauns, turn
into angry birds.

Krum snags the snitch for
Bulgaria, but Ireland
wins, as twins predict.

Chapter 9: The Dark Mark

Death Eaters—Voldy's
former friends—mess with Muggles
post-match. Party: pooped.

House-elf Winky sacked
when found with Harry's wand 'neath
Voldy's calling card.

Chapter 10: Mayhem at the Ministry

Reporter Rita
Skeeter tears Ministry of
Magic a new one.

Chapter 11: Aboard the Hogwarts Express

Mostly setup: talk
of Hogwarts, other magic
schools, Mad-Eye moody.

Kind of a pointless
chapter, now that I’m really
thinking about it.

Chapter 12: The Triwizard Tournament

No Quidditch this year.
Instead, deadly tournament
against other schools.

Chapter 13: Mad-Eye Moody

Draco Malfoy: the
Amazing Bouncing Ferret!
That's Moody "teaching."

(Books' best line: "Can I
have a look at Uranus,
too, Lavender?"—Ron)

Chapter 14: The Unforgivable Curses

Moody teaches some
illegal spells, and maybe
hits too close to home.

First appearance of
Avada Kedavra. Plus,
Harry gets more mail!

Chapter 15: Beauxbatons and Durmstrang

Huge horses fly huge
woman's students; sailboat sub
carries Krum and co.

The two other schools
competing in Triwizard
Tournament arrive.

Chapter 16: The Goblet of Fire

Cedric, Viktor, Fleur...
Harry? Four champions of
TRIwizard tourney.

Chapter 17: The Four Champions

Gryffindors are stoked,
but everyone else is
pissed Harry got picked.

Moody thinks someone
wants Harry dead and that's why
he's a champion.

Chapter 18: The Weighing of the Wands

Skeeter wants Haryy
as scoop; champions’ wands weighed;
Hermy's teeth enlarged.

Chapter 19: The Hungarian Horntail

Dragon! A dragon!
I swear I saw a dragon!
...Wait...that's Pete's Dragon...

Hagrid lets slip first
task: dragons! Harry talks to
Black via fireplace.

Make sure to check back next week when Harry competes for the Triwizard Cup in part 2!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Haiku Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

by Brian McGackin

Book the Third, and many people's favorite HP. Since the series plot is thickening, some chapters are going to start getting two haikus. Upgrade!

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Chapter 1: Owl Post

A little boring:
Rowling recaps Harry's life,
he gets birthday gifts.

Ron's dad wins lotto;
owl cripple brings some letters;
Harry does homework.

Chapter 2: Aunt Marge's Big Mistake

Harry blows up his
cousin's fat aunt all Violet
Beauregard-style. Harsh!

Chapter 3: The Knight Bus

A Miss Frizzle-less
magic bus takes Harry to
The Leaky Cauldron.

Chapter 4: The Leaky Cauldron

Harry lives in a
pub now? Oh, and a psycho
killer wants him dead.

Chapter 5: The Dementor

Harry's happiness
is snacked on by some creepy
reject Scream villain.

Chapter 6: Talons and Tea Leaves

Malfoy almost killed
by magic horsebird thingy
in Hagrid's first class.

Chapter 7: The Boggart in the Wardrobe

There's nothing to fear
but that thing in the staff room
wardrobe—a boggart.

New prof. Lupin is
kinda cool and lets Neville
be the star for once.

Chapter 8: Flight of the Fat Lady

Mass murderer moves
to defacing sentient
works of art. The nerve!

Chapter 9: Grim Defeat

Dog and Dementors
interrupt sporting event;
Harry breaks his broom.

Chapter 10: The Marauder's Map

Twin gingers donate
absurdly powerful map
of school to Harry.


Chapter 11: The Firebolt

Hermy tattles, so
Harry's new broom—probs jinxed by
killer Black—taken.

Chapter 12: The Patronus

Professor Lupin
teaches Harry how to shoot
white stuff from his wand...

Ron's rat gets eaten;
Harry gets his broom back, eats
lots of chocolate.

Chapter 13: Gryffindor versus Ravenclaw

Gryffindor wins! And
Sirius Black tries to slice
up Ron with a knife!

Chapter 14: Snape's Grudge

Harry just avoids
expulsion but magical
map confiscated.

Prof. Snape professes
hatred of Potters.

Chapter 15: The Quidditch Final

Hermy quits Psychic
Class, but who cares? GRYFFINDOR

Chapter 16: Professor Trelawney's Prediction

Even a stopped clock
is right twice a day, and Prof.
Trelawney's broken.

Psychic Prof. predicts
Voldy's return; third-years take
exams; and horsebird...

Chapter 17: Cat, Rat and Dog

Harry and co chase
black dog Black to Shrieking Shack
for well-earned answers.

Eeeewwww! Ron's rat has been
a middle-aged wizard this
entire time? Creeper!

Chapter 18: Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs

Lupin's a werewolf.
Harry's dad and co magic'd
into animals.

Much exposition,
backstory, followed by a
Prof. Snape intrusion.

Chapter 19: The Servant of Lord Voldemort

So Sirius Black
is innocent! Pettigrew—
Ron's rat—was the spy.

More exposition.
Harry finally believes
godfather Black.

Chapter 20: The Dementor's Kiss

Lupin goes werewolf.
Dementors try to make out
with Harry and Black.

Chapter 21: Hermione's Secret

Seriously, Rowling?
Magic I can believe, but
time travel? Get real.

Hermy's necklace is
a time machine. She, Harry
save Black and horsebird.

Chapter 22: Owl Post Again

Lupin resigns; Ron
gets new pet; Hermy gives up
time travel; Summer!

Harry gains pen pal
in convicted murderer
outlaw godfather.

I guess Hogwarts needs
a new Defense Against the
Dark Arts professor…

Make sure to check back next week when we bring you part 1 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, my personal favorite! Until then, keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Meowmorphosis (Franz Kafka & Coleridge Cook)

by Thom Dunn

I hate cats.

Now we've got that out of the way. The Meowmorphosis is the latest installment in Quirk Books' literary mashups (made famous, of course, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). This time, however, they change things up a little bit. Rather than adding horror elements to a story, The Meowmorphosis takes an already frightening and bizarre tale — Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis — and injects it with irresistibly adorable charm.

Also giant kitties. Rather than waking up as a large insect, Gregor Samsa instead awakens one morning to find that he has been turned into a cat.

As a pet owner myself (a chinchilla — definitely not a cat), I often find myself trying to ascribe my pet with human emotions and thoughts to accompany her occasionally bizarre behavior. Part of the wonderful charm of The Meowmorphosis is the way that Coleridge Cook manages to do this for his feline protagonist, in an endlessly entertaining manner. He uses language and speech patterns akin to Poe and Lovecraft (I fear that calling it Kafkaesque would be redundant) to describe the satisfaction — and frustration — of a cat being petted, or chasing a piece of yarn, or even napping. The story still retains the same existential angst as the original book, but the tongue-in-cheek humor of a man suffering through these crises as a cat instead of a bug is truly hilarious.

Cook, along with his writing partner Kafka, also uses this technique to espouse philosophy from the mouths of cats, exploring what it is and what it means to be a member of their species. As someone who is not at all a cat lover (I have terribly allergies, and they know I have terrible allergies, so they like to screw with me), I was endlessly entertained by having an eloquent cat postulate about the things that make them superior to humans (because, as we all know, cats do think they're better than us). But Cook & Kafka manage to articulate why cats might feel this way, from their own point of view, and while the end result is humorous, it's also quite insightful. There were a few points in the book where the long-winded philosopher-cat ramblings carried on a bit too long, but for the most part, I was impressed by Cook's ability to get into the minds of an adorable kitty in such an amusing manner.

The Meowmorphosis, by Franz Kafka & Coleridge Cook

Story: 6.8
Most people are generally familiar with the basic story of The Metamorphosis, even if they haven't read it. For the most part, the story proceeds exactly as one might expect, hardly going past its initial premise but still exploring a plethora of ideas within a limited plot and setting. Basically the entire thing takes place in Samsa's apartment, with him as a giant bug, and then it's over. The Meowmorphosis, on the other hand, takes a bit of liberty with this, and allows Cat-Samsa to escape from the cage of his apartment and run free, as cats are wont to do. I enjoyed this part of the book immensely, but ultimately found myself wishing that there was more of it, and was slightly disappointed in how Samsa's outdoor adventure ended. Still, I commend Coleridge Cook for taking the story in a new and different direction, and I certainly can't blame him for having to adhere to at least some of the story guidelines set by Kafka.

Style: 8.92
Take the proper, long-winded horror prose that we've all come to expect of "classical literature" (specifically the early 1900s). Now add kitties. Some people find that kind of writing to be rather boring, but come on: kitties going on and on in the same way manner? It promises a certainly of ridiculousness, and on that it delivers. Coleridge Cook later lets his own voice shine in the Appendix, which includes a biography of Kafka, as well as Study/Discussion questions based on the book. Here he employs the same dry, ironic humor disguised as formal writing, and it just gets funnier. The Discussion Questions may have even been one of my favorite parts of the book.

General: 8.35
The Meowmorphosis is one of those books that delivers exactly what it promises. If you're a fan of mash-ups and parodies, this one hits the spot. It's a quick, easy read, full of comical beats (I definitely "LOL'd" a few times) and even some philosophical brain food.

Hilarious philosophical brain food.

Overall: 8.02

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Haiku Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

by Brian McGackin

Book two!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Chapter 1: The Worst Birthday

Remember Harry
Potter? Apparently his
friends don't. Bummer, kid.

Chapter 2: Dobby's Warning

Elf Dobby warns, "Don't
go back to Hogwarts," breaks stuff.
Harry: house arrest.

Chapter 3: The Burrow

Twin gingers and Ron
kidnap starving Harry, bring
him to magic house.

Chapter 4: At Flourish and Blotts

Back to school shopping
gone wrong: fist fights, expensive
books, fireplace travel.

Chapter 5: The Whomping Willow

Ron breaks his wand; that's
what you get when you fly a
car into a tree...

Chapter 6: Gilderoy Lockhart

Mrs. Weasley sends
Ron angry voicemail. New prof.
Lockhart is a tool.

Chapter 7: Mudbloods and Murmurs

Ron voms slugs, Harry
hears voices, Slytherins get
new brooms from Malfoy.

Chapter 8: The Deathday Party

Nearly Headless Nick
throws killer party. Cat found
hanging out half dead.

Chapter 9: The Writing on the Wall

Hermione stops
ghost prof.'s lecture, asks about
Chamber of Secrets.

Chapter 10: The Rogue Bludger

Freak sports accident
takes Harry's right arm. First-year
Colin petrified.

Chapter 11: The Dueling Club

Lockhart makes kids fight;
Hufflepuff fauxttacked by snake,
then attacked for real.

Chapter 12: The Polyjuice Potion

What's Christmas without
forced puberty, drugged tweens, and
identity theft?

Chapter 13: The Very Secret Diary

Who is Tom Riddle?
Why was his diary thrown
down a girls' toilet?

Chapter 14: Cornelius Fudge

Hagrid arrested!
Dumbledore kicked out of school!
And Hermione...!

Chapter 15: Aragog

Harry, Ron almost
killed by spiders in Forest;
flying car saves them.

Chapter 16: The Chamber of Secrets

Broken bathroom leads
to Chamber of Secrets where
Ginny Weasley lies.

Chapter 17: The Heir of Slytherin

Memory Voldy
thwarted by Harry; magic
bird real hero, though.

Chapter 18: Dobby's Reward

All's well that ends with
a house elf being handed
a wet freedom sock.

I guess Hogwarts needs
a new Defense Against the
Dark Arts Professor...

Friday, May 6, 2011

Art and Madness (Anne Roiphe)

by Melanie Yarbrough

Up until recently I've always been a strictly-fiction girl. But after a brief dry spell of creativity and reading inspiration, I decided to ask the powers that be what to read next (read: The Daily Beast). And lucky for me, Liesl Shillinger wrote about Anne Roiphe's most recent memoir, Art and Madness:

Reading Anne Roiphe’s riveting memoir of her tumultuous twenties, Art and Madness, written in a tone of Didion-like detachment, but saffroned with her distinctive, pungent regrets and her curious humility, I marveled at her depiction of George Plimpton’s Paris Review parties in the early 1960s, on the Upper East Side, near Manhattan’s East River. Thirty years later, I had gone to those parties, in those same rooms, when I was the age she was then. They did not resemble the bacchanals she remembers. For a while, I almost envied her. She describes “the heavy air of flirtation, the perfume of illicit sex that wafted through the book-filled rooms of George’s apartment,” and the power games played by the male guests, “the famous men or the would-be-famous men flexing their skills, strutting their stuff, talking of agents and publishers and rights to this or that.”
After reading Roiphe's enthralling account, I felt the same way.


One of the downsides to memoirs like Roiphe's are the poor schmucks like myself who read it and romanticize the Golden Age of writing. I've been doing the same thing as I read Raymond Carver's biography by Carol Sklenicka; naively overlooking the depths of alcoholism, adultery, and poverty to wish that I could live in an era where creative writers - creative minds - could be as adored and sexualized as in the olden days.

But Roiphe is steadfast in her seeming quest to quell any of those romantic ideas. She is brutal. Her past relationships and decisions are far from pretty; they are neither justified nor justifiable. She does not make excuses, instead she admits to giving up on her own writing in pursuit of her first husband's success. It's a frightening tale to read, as a writer myself, especially as a writer who has been struggling lately with the balance of life and the pursuit of a writing career. Roiphe remembers a time when she forgot herself: "I had to learn that muses can be fired or dismissed but writers either do or don't write without permission or encouragement from anyone."

The way she talks about her daughter, her affairs, and how she struggled with love and sex and growing up show life in its messiest of states, the sandpaper underbelly of the creative life.


Art and Madness by Anne Roiphe
Story: 9.0

While it's difficult to judge the "story" of someone's life, the tales Roiphe tells are intriguing and revelatory. There is not one wasted sentence. From walking through the snow carrying her husband's typewriter even after her water breaks (yes, that water) to multiple affairs including with the founder of The Paris Review, there aren't many dull moments. Even for those not interested in romanticizing the old world of writers, Roiphe has come out surprisingly whole after a difficult road, an inspiring story for anyone trying to recognize themselves again.

Style: 7.5

Shillinger compares Roiphe's style to Joan Didion in her review of the book, and I would have to agree. Roiphe is succinct without being exclusive; she tells you the whole story with a detachment that strips the sometimes heartbreaking parts of distracting emotion. She gets right to the point of the realities of her situation and their consequences. There are lessons without imposed morals.

General: 8.0

While my reasons for reading this memoir may seem a little sick - exploiting another woman's journey in the world of writers to substitute my own lack of revelry - the experience was very different than I intended. Roiphe glares at her past and, thus, so does the reader. Aside from the scandalous moments, the heart of her story is about a woman, a writer, who gave up her passion for writing and lived a difficult period of time for it. No one will fight for what you want, especially if you give it up so easily.

Overall: 8.2

I'd say this is a must-read for aspiring writers everywhere, or anyone who's given up something they felt defined them. Roiphe gives a great description for the feeling of being undefined.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Haiku Review: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone/Sorcerer's Stone

by Brian McGackin

Welcome to the Daily Genoshan's Haiku Review for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where each chapter gets its own 17-syllable recap! As I mentioned last week, for various reasons I actually used the UK edition, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, but they're basically the same thing.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Chapter 1: The Boy Who Lived

Wizard offers cat
candy. Baby with scar dropped
on fat uncle's porch.

Chapter 2: The Vanishing Glass

Ten years later: boy
can do weird stuff; tries to kill
cousin with big snake.

Chapter 3: The Letters from No One

Complaints about strange
letters go unanswered, so
family moves out.

Chapter 4: The Keeper of the Keys

Massive oaf, battered
orphan discuss scholastic

Chapter 5: Diagon Alley

Orphan Harry, oaf
Hagrid get ice cream, go on
wizard shopping spree.

Chapter 6: The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters

Harry can't find train.
Red-head Ron ogles, helps out.
Fat kid loses toad.

Chapter 7: The Sorting Hat

Harry: Gryffindor!
Ron: Gryffindor! Annoying
brunette: Gryffindor!

Chapter 8: The Potions Master

Prof. Snape hates Harry.
Annoying Hermione
knows everything.

Chapter 9: The Midnight Duel

Harry breaks rules: learns
to fly, joins a sports team, finds
three-headed guard dog.

Chapter 10: Halloween

Troll loose in Hogwarts.
Harry, Ron defeat it, save
Hermione. Friends!

Chapter 11: Quidditch

Harry plays Quidditch,
nearly dies, almost swallows
snitch. Secrets revealed.

Chapter 12: The Mirror of Erised

Hogwarts for Christmas!
Harry gets presents, can turn
invisible now.

Chapter 13: Nicolas Flamel

Three-headed Fluffy
guards Philosopher's Stone. Snape
wants stone for himself.

Chapter 14: Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback

Jerk Malfoy learns of
Hagrid's illegal dragon;
Ron's bro adopts it.

Chapter 15: The Forbidden Forest

Detention in the
Forest: dead unicorn, some
centaurs, Voldemort?

Chapter 16: Through the Trapdoor

Harry and co sneak
off to stop Voldy's theft of
Philosopher's Stone.

Chapter 17: The Man with Two Faces

Surprise! Prof. Quirrell
hosting Voldy parasite.
Harry saves the day.

I guess Hogwarts needs
a new Defense Against the
Dark Arts Professor...

Be sure to come back next week for the Haiku Review of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Announcing: Harry Potter Haiku Reviews!

by Brian McGackin

That's right. Harry. Potter. Haiku. Reviews.

Starting next week, on a joint venture with 5x500, the Daily Genoshan will be offering a NEW kind of review! Every Tuesday until the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, I'll be posting individual haiku reviews of each chapter, book by book, to give people the chance to catch back up without having to read through all three trillion pages of the series. Every single chapter, from "The Boy Who Lived" to "Epilogue: Nineteen Years Later," will have its own haiku review.

Wanna know when your favorite book will get covered? How about I just give you the whole schedule?

May 3—Philosopher's Stone*
May 10—Chamber of Secrets
May 17—Prisoner of Azkaban
May 24—Goblet of Fire, part 1**
May 31—Goblet of Fire, part 2
June 7—Order of the Phoenix, part 1
June 14—Order of the Phoenix, part 2
June 21—Half-Blood Prince, part 1
June 28—Half-Blood Prince, part 2
July 5—Deathly Hallows, part 1***
July 12—Deathly Hallows, part 2

*Even though I prefer the American editions—I'm partial to the typesetting and Mary GrandPré's art—I'll be using the UK editions for two reasons. The first is that they are smaller and easier to travel with, and the second is that my sister is borrowing some of my American editions.
**Starting with GOF, I'll be breaking the reviews into two parts to make it easier for both you to read and I to write.
***July 5, 2011, is a VERY important day for me, but more on that in a few weeks.

Be sure to check back in next Tuesday for the first set of Harry Potter Haiku Reviews!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Yo Momma So Extraordinary (Zachary Reese and Ethan McCreadie)

by Emily Zilm

It’s almost that time of year again. You know, that day in May that you never forget. No, not Cinco de Mayo, you drunken fool. Mother’s Day! Yeah, it’s cool. I always forget, too. Maybe this new release from Quirk Books can help you get in the spirit. Thanks to Yo Momma So Extraordinary: A Treasury of Yo Momma Compliments by Zachary Reese and Ethan McCreadie, now there’s a whole new way to express your feelings for that special momma in your life, whether it be your own momma, your momma’s momma, or your cousin's baby momma.

The jokes in Reese and McCreadie’s 144-page-long list of yo momma compliments follow the classic format of the insults that comedians throw at hypothetical mothers and high school boys (and girls) like to sling at their friends (or enemies). But instead, the authors insist that we respect mothers because, in the words of Mr. T, "If it weren't for yo mother then you wouldn't even be here. So you remember, when you put down one mother, you put down mothers all over the world.” Aww, how sweet.

The jokes span a wide range:

Some play up yo momma’s maternal qualities - “Yo momma so fancy she really outdid herself with those bologna sandwiches last Thursday. I love yellow mustard!”

Or her intelligence - “Yo momma so well read I can talk to her about the satirical portrayal of romance in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises without it seeming weird.”

Then there are the subtly sexual - “Yo momma’s hands are so soft. SO SOFT.”

And the outright dirty - “Yo momma so sweet I call her ‘Dessert.’ But I wish she would understand that I don’t need to eat three desserts in one night.”

But the most clever are those that start off sounding like an insult - “Yo momma has so many cats it’s like DAAAAAMN! Which one should I pet first?”

Through it all, though, the yo momma compliments stay true to a classic yo momma joke in that they still aim to hurt and insult the child of the momma in question. That’s the whole point anyways, right? Reese and McCreadie finally give us a way to get the job done without insulting a mother, who we probably don’t know, and who is probably a very lovely woman. And speaking of lovely women...

Each joke is accompanied by a silly photo illustration starring Kim Carl as the momma in question, surrounded by various goofy twenty-something dudes. Everything about her is the epitome of what a hot mom should be. You get the feeling that she’s one of those women, who turns “30” every year, and might fool you if you didn’t know her kid just turned 23. She’s got that nineteen-fifties sitcom mom twinkle in her eye and is just so classy.

Yo Momma So Extraordinary could be a good gag gift for your own Mama Dukes but may be more appropriate for a new young mother, or that girl you just started dating that you know has a kid but is too afraid to tell you because she doesn’t want to scare you away. Maybe your girlfriend’s teenaged kid thinks you’re sooo lame, but if you gave him/her this book they would start to see you as funny and hip and become best friends with you instead of screaming “You’re not my dad!” all the time. Or maybe you hate the kid and want to make him/her cry. Or maybe you need to freshen up the jokes you sling at your one friend with that smokin’ hot mom. Either way, respect yo momma and don’t forget to tell her how extraordinary she is on Sunday, May 8th!

Yo Momma So Extraordinary by Zachary Reese and Ethan McCreadie

Style: 4.0
I appreciate Reese and McCreadie’s creative, positive spin on yo momma jokes even though they're not my favorite. I guess the real style rating should be more about the visual style of this book, since it is so colorful. SO colorful. Each joke takes up an entire page in a bold, blocky font on a bold, bright background, opposite a color picture. There are so many colors it’s actually a little bit distracting, but appropriate for the overall look and feel of the book.

Story: 6.0
It’s pretty hard to give a list of yo momma compliments a story rating, so this number is for the pictures. Each single picture depicted the story implied by the joke, and Kim Carl and her co-stars’ poses and expressions may even be better than the jokes themselves. Photographer Steve Berkowitz’s skills ain’t too shabby either.

General: 5.0
It's not so much for reading as it is for flipping through once in a while.

Overall: 5.0

Friday, April 8, 2011

Expiration Date (Duane Swierczynski)

by Thom Dunn

Most people who know me can vouch for the fact that I love just about anything involving (a) time travel, or (b) noir tropes. Expiration Date, the newest novel by Duane Swierczynski, is a crime/noir novel about time travel, so needless to say, I was pretty excited to read it. It's like peanut butter and jelly, but with more pre-destination paradoxes.

Mickey Wade, the narrator and protagonist of Expiration Date, dies at the end of the novel. And that's just the beginning! (It's a time travel story, your temporal prepositions are bound to get a little messy) Prior to his death, Mickey Wade loses his job as a journalist for an alt-weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, and moves into his grandfather's apartment back in the crumbling neighborhood where he was born. The night that he moves in, Mickey has a few beers with a friend. He pops a handful of expired Advil before bed, and suddenly winds up in 1972. Stranger still, he seems to be invisible, and — oh yeah, his limbs fall off every time they come into direct contact with light. A few hours later, he wakes up in the present, sweating, with his limbs (mostly) intact. But on one of these trips, Mickey meets the 12-year-old boy who lives downstairs — the same boy who grows up and murders Mickey's father.

Swierczynski deals with some pretty heady concepts here, and under less skilled hands, these ideas could have easily stumbled into a convoluted mess. Fortunately, he approaches the story from a stable (and subjectively linear) first-person perspective, and relays the story in simple, relatable terms. Mickey Wade is a character grounded in reality, hard-up on his luck and out of cash, who finds himself thrust into a bizarre situation. This is further helped by Swierczynski's acute attention to detail. From the beer that Mickey drinks to the records that he listens to, Swierczynski writes with a specificity that paint a vivid and familiar portrait of his narrator. A Philadelphia native himself, Swierczynski's cartographic familiarity with the geography of the city helps to immerse the reader in the world he's created — you might not know where you are temporally, but he makes you feel at home spatially, to the point that you feel like you could give directions to a tourist upon your next visit to Philly. (side note: on my last trip to Philadelphia, I consulted Duane Swierczynski on places to go, and he recommended that I check out McGillan's Olde Ale House on Drury Street — the same place that Mickey Wade finds himself in the first chapter of the book. Behold, the power of Twitter!)

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski

Story: 7.1
On one hand, Expiration Date can be seen as a fairly typical time travel story. It's great appeal, however, is in the way it's told, as well as the personal stories of the characters involved. The book is meticulously plotted and full of wild ideas, but still manages to make for a quick, easy, and ultimately rewarding read. I would also be doing an injustice to the author if I didn't note the clever ending of the book, an ending which is rendered so effectively due to the First Person narration of the story.

Style: 6.7
Duane Swierczynski's prose is simple and effective, and therein lies its power. He is able to express these surreal concepts and experiences in a lucid, uncomplicated manner, which makes the book all the more enjoyable. I actually found the story so compelling that I read it in one sitting; even the most seemingly straightforward and civilian sequences ended with riveting twists that kept the book in my hands. Swierczynski certainly isn't writing poetry here, and he hasn't quite mastered the dense pulpy prose of noir legends such as Raymond Chandler, but his writing still manages to express ideas in an unequivocal fashion.

General: 8
Swierczynski's past works have proven him a master of the crime genre (and Swierczynski himself is a strong advocate of genre fiction as literary fiction), and his recent stint on Cable for Marvel Comics seems to have ignited an interest in time travel stories; by marrying the two, he has created a highly entertaining thriller full of mind-bending, almost Philip K. Dickian concepts that are still grounded in incredibly believable characters.

Overall: 7.267

Friday, April 1, 2011

Laughter in the Dark (Vladimir Nabokov)

by Melanie Yarbrough

I was excited to read the latest installment for my book club, Vladimir Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark to add to my list of Nabokov novels. Before this book, my list was at a measly one, having read Invitation to a Beheading. I'd begun and abandoned Lolita, so the diversion from the usual suspect was welcome. After two days traveling to and from work on the train, my Nabokov list reached its highest number at two.

It can pretty much be summed up the way Nabokov sums it up in the first paragraph of the novel:
"Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster." Of course, as Nabokov also points out, details are always welcome. And what great details they are.

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Story - 4.2: Slightly more than a predictable tale of a man infatuated with his young mistress and the mishaps that happen to him, the story of this novel feels pretty plotty. All of the pleasure is derived from Nabokov's gift with words.

Style - 6.7: Nabokov has a no-nonsense way about his stories. He tells you what's happening and manages to slink between characters' points-of-view without jerking the reader around too much. There is always an essence of tongue-in-cheekness that is the epitome of Nabokov's style, and has managed to win me over twice now.

General - 7.0: Despite the book's plotty feel and several of the characters' stockiness (in that we are told they are nothing more than evil, conniving, etc.), Nabokov's wit and flair for describing every aspect of a room and a moment without exhaustion fill in the gaps. From tragedy to tragedy, there is a balance of feeling guilty for a man whose bad luck can only grow (and does) and understanding that karma, indeed, is a bitch.

Overall - 5.97

Friday, March 25, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After (Steve Hockensmith)

Out in stores this week is the final installment of the Quirk Classic trilogy that began with Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and continued with Steve Hockensmith's own Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls.


Dawn of the Dreadfuls only earned a 7.62 in its review here. While still a fairly high score, it's abysmal when compared to the 9.22 received by the original, the 9.17 received by Ben H. Winters' Android Karenina, and the 8.89 for Winters' Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. So, understandably, I was a little nervous heading into Dreadfully Ever After. Thankfully my apprehension was completely unnecessary.

P&P&Z was simply a retelling of Jane Austen's masterpiece Pride and Prejudice, a Regency-era tale of wit and romance surrounding one Mr. Bennet's five daughters, but with zombies. Dawn of the Dreadfuls acted as a prequel, shining light on the story behind the Bennet girls' martial arts upbringing. Dreadfully Ever After is the true sequel to P&P&Z that I think many people have been waiting for. The novel takes place several years after the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, the final act of the original book. The Darcy's, once an abundantly happy couple, have fallen into a state of languor. Mrs. Darcy is depressed by the fact that it is not considered proper for a married woman in polite society to take up her sword and slay the undead. Mr. Darcy, ever the caring husband, is frustrated by his lack of ability to cheer up the woman he loves. All of this doubt and unhappiness is thrown brutally into their faces when Fitzwilliam Darcy is bitten by one of the sorry stricken. Elizabeth, mad with grief over the impending zombification of her husband, and feeling guilty over the fact that she could have prevented the tragedy had she been carrying her katana, pistols, or even a throwing star, accepts assistance from her most hated nemesis, running headfirst down a path of shame and subterfuge in an attempt to cure the good Fitzwilliam.

In Dreadfully Ever After, Steve Hockensmith is finally able to open himself up as a writer. With Dawn of the Dreadfuls, he was following up a huge success—one that had Jane Austen as a cowriter, no less—and was burdened even further by the fact that he was writing a prequel. Certain characters needed to be included, certain events needed to transpire, and certain questions needed to be answered. Not only that, but he wasn't really allowed to kill anyone important, which is always annoying. Dreadfully Ever After was essentially a blank slate for Hockensmith, and he made great use of the opportunity. While he remained true to each character's original motives, Hockensmith had the freedom to usher in growth for several of the Bennet sisters, making them much more interesting to read. Kitty Bennet, finally free from the shadow of her younger, but more headstrong, sister Lydia, makes great strides in self-discovery here. Even Mary, the middle Bennet sister—and certainly the most boring—is given new life and purpose. Hockensmith accomplishes all of this without any irrational character leaps or unexpected decisions; their progressions are fluid and natural.

Increased character growth isn't the only byproduct of Hockensmith's newfound freedom, though. No longer tied to points in a future story, the author physically takes the characters to new places as well. The plot is completely original, and introduces several new concepts and archetypes to the zombie mythos in general. While much of the story was predictable, especially the romantic attachments of several major characters, Hockensmith can only be applauded for maintaing that highly recognizable aspect of Austen's writing without the aid of a base text. At no point in time does anyone truly doubt that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy will end up married in the original novel. The joy of the read comes from the journey that the two lovers take to reach each other. Such is the case with Dreadfully Ever After. It is crystal clear that certain characters are burdened by a mutual attraction, despite class, race, and, in some cases, wooden barriers. Watching characters slowly fall for each other in spite of themselves is always fun.

Before wrapping up, though, one point should be made absolutely clear: the story itself is fantastic. Hockensmith is much funnier this time around, which is probably another byproduct of his creative freedom. Austenian writing, already among the most tongue in cheek in history, is updated and zombified to the nth degree here. Add tremendous amounts of gore, ridiculous conspiracy theories, and attempted regicide, and you've got the recipe for a novel that could have easily stood out strongly on its own. As it happens, though, the book sports some of the most memorable and recognizable characters in all of literature. While having read the first two novels will certainly make this one more interesting—the original is a must-read anyway—Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After is actually perfectly enjoyable by itself. Highly, highly, highly recommended.


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After
by Steve Hockensmith

Honestly, I liked being able to predict certain aspects of the story. I was curious to see how smoothly Hockensmith could work everything into its final place. It also made the plot points that were unexpected even more of a surprise.

Very much what I was expecting thematically, but it was nice to see that the quality was there to support the tone. Also, Hockensmith introduces a few ingenious new concepts into the zombie world. Maybe they existed already, but I've never seen them, and I think he deserves credit for his originality.

This is not a difficult book to read. While it's fun and engaging, though, it is most definitely not for people who don't enjoy zombies. The other Quirk Classics could get away with it a bit, because they were more strictly based on classic literature, but this is its own story. That's part of the reason I enjoyed this one so much, but it's also part of the reason why some people might not want to check it out.


Be sure to go out and pick up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After now that it's out in stores! And just in case you've forgotten, here's a recap of all of the other Quirk Classics and their DG ratings!

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
The original!—9.22

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters
More Jane Austen, but this time with a new coauthor!—8.89

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls
by Steve Hockensmith
Prequel to the original, and Steve Hockensmith's first foray into Regency-era zombieness!—7.62

Android Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters
Ben H. Winters' second title, the first non-Austen Quirk Classic, and my personal favorite!—9.17

Keep reading, Genoshans!

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