Friday, October 30, 2009

Peter & Max (Bill Willingham)

I've had a hectic week, but it involved lots of flying, so I was luckily able to finish a book in time for today's review anyway. If you're not familiar with Bill Willingham, that's understandable, since Peter & Max is his first actual novel. He's probably most famous as being the writer/creator of the multiple-award-winning Fables, which I would say is one of the greatest comic book series of all time (and is allegedly being turned into a TV show by ABC eventually? maybe? so they say?). Fables is based around the idea that the characters in fairy tales are real, and are forced to move to our world after an evil emperor invades their Homelands. They try to live their lives in peace among us mundane humans—or "mundys"—but due to their near-immortality and magical nature, find it hard to fit in, and so set up their own secret neighborhood in New York City: Fabletown. Peter & Max takes place in the Fables universe, but introduces many new characters and doesn't require the reader to be familiar with the comics.


The story opens in the present, when a man named Peter and his paraplegic wife, Bo, receive news that Peter's brother Max has resurfaced. Peter is shaken by this, but is determined to hunt his brother down, despite the warnings from Bo and the Fabletown officials who first pass along the news. Flashback a few centuries to one of the old Fable Homelands: Max and Peter Piper are two young brothers traveling with their mother and father as part of a family minstrel act. On their way to a large festival, the family stops to spend a night with their friends the Peeps at their country estate. After an evening of feasting and beautiful music, the two families settle in for the night. While everyone else is asleep, Johannes Piper passes down his most prized possession, a flute named Frost, to his younger son, Peter. Peter doesn't understand why Max shouldn't be the one inheriting the heirloom, but Johannes explains that Peter is the better musician, and therefore would make better use of this magical instrument.

The next morning, Max awakes to find two startling sights. The first is the presence of a column of invading soldiers claiming the estate for their emperor. As terrible as this is, however, the second is much worse to Max. While huddled together with the Pipers, the Peeps, and the Peeps' servants in the great hall of the estate, Max notices that Peter is holding Frost. Thinking it stolen, Max tries to retrieve what he thinks is still Johannes' flute, citing his maturity and seniority as oldest brother. When Peter claims that Frost was actually given to him, Max flies into a jealous rage. His tantrum is cut short, though. The adults plan an escape from the estate to a nearby city that they believe can withstand the siege of the invaders. Max sees this as his opportunity to get even with his brother, and as the group sets off into the haunted depths of the Black Forest, he comes up with a plan of his own.

That's only about the first quarter of the book. The narrative goes back and forth between the Piper brothers' past and Peter's present as he sets off to find and kill Max. Willingham uses the tricky dual narrative structure very well, and keeps the foreshadowing simple. Questions are raised early on in the present timeline that are gradually answered in the past timeline, but never in such a way as to make you think the writer is trying too hard to be clever. The reader knows from very early on that Peter and Bo are married, that Bo was somehow crippled, and that Max is some kind of extremely powerful evil sorcerer, as well as some other bits of pertinent information. The rest of the book becomes about discovering how those events and others came to pass, and witnessing the final confrontation between the two brothers.

I was pleasantly surprised by Peter & Max. The very first chapter breaks the "show, don't tell" rule fairly often, so I was initially worried that the rest of the book would continue the same way. I guess it was necessary to explain how the Fables universe works, but I thought that it could have been explained more subtly. As the story progresses, however, it definitely picks up a lot. Having read all of the Fables comics, I can't really know if this is true, but I'm pretty sure that the novel stands on its own really well. Willingham works in the real stories behind the nursery rhymes and fairy tales that made Peter Piper and Bo Peep famous—something that he's exceptionally talented at, having the last eight years of writing Fables as practice. The story isn't overly complicated, but fun to follow along. You can tell that Willingham has the entire history and universe of Peter & Max worked out behind the scenes, but he doesn't write in more than is necessary to tell this story. On the whole it's rather accessible. It's also got some nice illustrations by comic book artist Steve Leialoha to reinforce the already visual writing. If you're into comic books, fantasy, fairy tales, or simple stories you can probably finish in an afternoon, I suggest picking this one up. It just came out a couple weeks ago, so it should be pretty easy to find, either at comic book shops or bookstores.


Peter & Max: A Fables Novel
by Bill Willingham

Although it takes place in the Fables universe, this is a self-contained story. Willingham does a great job writing a compelling book set apart from the comic series in a way that makes it interesting for fans and newcomers alike.

It's a great book, and, as I said, fans of Fables will probably like it just as much as the people who've never read a comic book in their life, but I'm not going to pat him on the back for doing the same thing in a different format. Congrats on the first novel, but next time try something new.

It's a quick, fun read. I really had a good time with it. Even if you're not someone who's likely to stop into a comic shop, if you enjoy books like Wicked or Ella Enchanted, anything with that kind of "fairy tale reimagining" style, you'll probably enjoy this, too.


What are you reading? What have you heard about recently that you'd like to see reviewed? Drop a comment and let me know what's going on in your literary world!

Keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (Douglas Adams)

I had some extra time this past week, so instead of reading one novel I read four (and a short story). While The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide: Five Complete Novels and One Story is, as its name implies, five novels, I didn't have time to read the fifth. I will eventually—maybe even today—but I figured I could probably get away with only reviewing the first four. If you don't like the first one, you'll most likely not like the rest anyway, and contrary-wise as well. Also, I found out today that Eoin Colfer, writer of the Artemis Fowl series, just released a sixth Hitchhiker's Guide book on October 12 (with the approval of Adams' widow, of course), proving once again that the universe works in mysterious ways—though don't ask me when the first time was. I'm gonna use that as an excuse for why this 30-year-old series is relevant to your life.


Arthur Dent is boring. He lives in England, works for the BBC, doesn't really do much. One day he wakes up to find bulldozers outside his front door, prepared to knock over his house to make way for a new highway bypass. Try as he might, he can't figure out a way to stop this from happening. Luckily for Arthur, Earth is destroyed just after lunchtime, so the problem mostly solves itself.

Thus begins the first novel of The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide, inexplicably titled The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur is saved from an imminent demise by his friend Ford Prefect, who is not from Earth at all, but actually from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. Arthur and Ford hitchhike off the planet in time to watch it explode, along with everything and everyone Arthur has ever known, loved, or was marginally aware of existing at some point in his life. They meet up with Ford's semicousin Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy, who is piloting a stolen spaceship prototype with an Infinite Improbability Drive, along with a chronically depressed robot named Marvin, and Trillian, the last human female in the Galaxy. They then have a series of highly unlikely adventures, including but not limited to: discovering an undiscoverable planet; killing a potted plant; learning the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything; watching a whale explode; and meeting the man who built Norway.

Somewhere in all of that is a plot, but who really cares? The subsequent books continue on in similar fits of improbability, and the whole shebang is generally quite hilarious. It's really interesting how well the humor comes across, considering these books were written decades ago in England. For the most part, I would have believed they'd been written yesterday in New Jersey or something if that's what you told me. Sometimes humor loses its luster over time, but these don't feel dated at all. The books are absurd, but accessibly so. I saw the film version when it came out a few years back, and reading the books now I was surprised at how well the tone was copied. It was difficult not to picture Mos Def as Ford Prefect and Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox as I was reading, but as it turns out the casting for the film was pretty phenomenal, and the picture in my mind throughout all four novels synced up well with what I'd been supplied with by the movie version. I usually read a book before I see its film adaptation, but I think in this case it genuinely doesn't matter which you experience first. The film is slightly more plot driven than the book—the novels all introduce plots, and then proceed to not really worry too much about them—and I think the book is a little bit more fun, but on the whole they both offer up some decent entertainment.

One thing I really enjoyed about these books—aside from the humor, the tone, the improbable events, and the talking mattresses—is that Douglas Adams makes the actual The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy a real book. There are tons of references to different entries from the guide, and Ford Prefect is himself a researcher for the publisher (he got stuck on Earth for fifteen years when he popped down to update its entry and couldn't find a way off the planet again). Adams is also excellent at using these random entries and factoids to subtly foreshadow events that happen later on in a book or later on in the series. Some of these are casual, offhand remarks made to be humurous, but others are introductions to aspect of the story that become major plot points, and you never quite know which is which. It reminded me a lot of Harry Potter in that way. The universe of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy exists already in its entirety; we're being told just a few of its infinite number of stories.


The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide: Five Complete Novels and One Story
by Douglas Adams

It definitely helps having all of these novels together in one place. They read more like pieces of the same large book, and it all fits together very nicely in this format. I got mine at B&N for like $20—a nice leather-bound edition, too—but I'm pretty sure there are several versions.

The absurd, improbable, humorous tone is consistent throughout. Also, some of the chapters are of a normal, average novel chapter size, but some are only half a page, or a sentence, and it's nice that these are injected into the story every so often.

All of these books are fun and easy to read, but filled with thought-provoking ideas and universal questions. They all mesh together nicely, but aren't overly formulaic and don't seem like the same plot on a different day. It also isn't nerdy or overly sci-fi. I loved Dune and Ender's Game, don't get me wrong, but this is absolutely nothing like either of those.


I'm definitely going to finish that fifth novel, partly so I can read the new one, but mostly because I'm going to assume that it's just as entertaining as the other four. Adams kept my attention through four novels (and a short story) in under a week. That's nothing to shake an Arcturian Megadonkey leg at. Keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (Kiran Desai)

About a year or so ago I picked up a random book off one of the paperback tables at Barnes & Noble called The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. It had a decent cover and it said it had won all kinds of prizes so I gave it a shot. It wound up being an incredible book (that I highly recommend), so when I saw another Kiran Desai title last week on a similar paperback table at B&N, I figured I'd take a look. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is actually Desai's first novel—so I guess I technically read them out of order, oh well—but I'm excited to say it's just as good as her second.


Sampath Chawla is a twenty-year-old boy living in Shahkot, a small village in northern India, with no goals, ambitions, aspirations, or real prospects of any kind. He's lazy, has no desire to work or learn anything new, and is in fact a bit stupid. Mr. Chawla constantly spouts off bits of advice in the hopes that this might help motivate his son, but none of it seems to stick. When Sampath is fired from his job at the post office, he decides he's had enough, and runs away from home to live in the branches of a guava tree in an orchard outside of town. Life is wonderful in the guava tree for Sampath: he eats whenever he likes; he sleeps whenever he likes; he is no longer bothered by the constant prattle of people telling him what to do. Unfortunately for Sampath, however, this peaceful state of living does not last long. Upon finding him living in his guava tree, a group of villagers determine that Sampath must be a holy man, and the Chawla family sets up a permanent residence at the base of his tree to capitalize on their son's newfound fame.

Now, that might not sound like the most exciting idea for a novel ever, but this book is actually pretty hilarious. It reminded me a lot of 100 Years of Solitude, but in a lighter, funnier way. All of the characters are completely ridiculous: the Chief Medical Officer for the village is a hypochondriac; there's a spy from the Atheist Society determined to prove Sampath is a fake; a band of alcoholic monkeys takes Shahkot hostage as they ransack every house, store, and car while looking for booze. It's a study in ineptitude, since no one can figure out what to do with the monkeys. The superintendent of the police wants to be demoted so he won't have as much work to do. The Brigadier of the army would rather bird watch from the comfort of his toilet. Sampath wants the monkeys to stay, since they are fun and bring him peace, but Mr. Chawla wants them to go, since they disrupt the worshippers who pay to come see Sampath. Even the worshipers themselves end up at odds, and split into two separate religious factions. Everything gets completely out of control, which only makes each character's reaction even more amusing.

The entire novel is a beautiful satire on family, religion, and life in a small town. What's nice, though, is that the tone remains light throughout. I never felt weighted down with a message or the seriousness of any one situation. Desai's other novel, Inheritance of Loss, is an amazing piece of writing, but it doesn't have the same tone. It's much more serious, and I'm impressed that she is able to set two of her books in a similar setting during a similar time and have them be so vastly different. If you see either one of her novels while you're shopping around for something new to read, definitely pick it up.


Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
by Kiran Desai

Desai plays to her strengths, and doesn't make the book overly long. It's a light, quick read, but it's also not a pushover. This is a solid piece of writing.

Sampath, Shahkot, and everything about this book comes alive. It's possible that I'm getting so caught up in this one because everything I've read in the past month has been so serious, but I'm pretty sure it's just good writing.

Ok, this has absolutely nothing to do with the book itself, but check out the wikipedia page for the actual village of Shahkot. Amazing.


Keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Zahir (Paulo Coelho)

Lately the universe seems to be conspiring towards introducing me to as many books on spirituality and self-discovery as possible. I found The Zahir on my girlfriend's bookshelf, and even though I've seen it there for months, for some reason now seemed like a good time to take a look. Paulo Coelho is a great author—I've already read The Alchemist, The Devil and Miss Prym, and By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, though several years ago now—but I'd begun to think of him as a one-trick pony. He writes books on the power of love and discovery and the way we all should live our lives. After avoiding him these past few years, as I tend to do when I overexpose myself to any writer (I did the same with Chuck Palahniuk around the same time, actually), I decided to take one more look at Coelho and see if he had anything new to offer me.


The Zahir tells the story of a man whose wife, Esther, mysteriously disappears one day from their home in Paris. All of the evidence available leads the man—a famous writer of the same kinds of books Coelho writes—and the authorities to believe that Esther was not kidnapped, but has simply run away. A small scandal erupts in the tabloids, and for a while the writer has a difficult time getting his life back on track. Eventually he writes a new book that deals with his loss. The book becomes a best seller, and the writer rejoins the world he once knew, only to find himself feeling empty without the love of his wife. Then, at a book signing event near his home, the writer is confronted by the man who he believes his wife ran away with. This man ultimately helps the writer begin a spiritual journey that will hopefully reunite him with his estranged wife.

All of Coelho's books are about a spiritual journey of some kind. The Alchemist is one of my favorite novels, because the story is so simple and the message so powerful. In The Zahir, Coelho's beliefs have seemed to evolve somewhat, and while the depth of spirituality feels like a natural evolution from his other works, I'm not yet convinced I feel he made the right choice. It's difficult to objectively critique a book that does its absolute best to make a reader question themselves and the way they live their life—in a good way—by forcing them to take a look around and think about what's really important to them. The Zahir talks a lot about things in life that people focus on too much or too little. The word "Zahir" itself refers to an object, person, or idea that someone cannot get out of their head no matter how hard they try. The Zahir takes on mythical, or even mystical properties, leading the person to believe that their life would be complete if they could just find this one missing piece. In the novel, the writer's missing wife is his Zahir, and he spends most of his time worrying about how to get her back instead of how to improve himself as a person. As is usually the case, I understand and appreciate most of what Coelho writes about in The Zahir. I think he has a tremendous gift for writing down ideas in ways that are easily accessible. That being said, I'm still not sure how I feel about this book.

As I mentioned, I love The Alchemist. It's an exceptionally well-written novel. Coelho's message is framed in such a way that the story can be enjoyed on its own, without the reader feeling weighted down by the spiritual subtext. It's subtle, beautiful, and filled with little one-line mantras that are easily remembered, like "When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too." The Alchemist reads like a fable, and a reader can take what they are ready to take from it and hopefully grow from there. The Zahir doesn't work that way, though. It's not a fable at all, it reads more like a memoir. The narrator—the writer who loses his wife—is basically Paulo Coelho, except some of the titles of his previous books are changed, along with the names of the people in his life. My main issue with The Zahir, though, is that it feels inaccessible to anyone who is not reading it at the exact right time in their life. It is at times quite preachy, and the message is heavy-handed and repeated often: give up your personal history; live in the present; let the energy of love flow through you. As you guys know from the last few weeks of reviews, I've been reading a lot lately about how, more or less, the energy to change a person's life resides within that person. The Lost Symbol was all about discovering apotheosis and the god inside of man. The Gnostic Gospels, while boring, discussed an early form of Christianity that had more to do with an individual's spiritual rebirth than with the physical resurrection of Jesus. The Zahir really dives into an aspect of this type of thinking, the idea that the universe conspires towards your happiness as long as you see the signs and do your best to keep improving yourself. It's just a little too preachy. There were too many characters who seemed to have all the answers, and while I found ways to apply some of their theories to my own life, I wasn't able to connect with them. Maybe it's because I'm young, and unmarried, and not looking back at twenty years of marriage wondering why I don't love my wife the way I did on our wedding day. Or maybe it's because I'm not spiritually ready to let go of my personal history and assume complete responsibility for my happiness. I don't know, though, I've been very happy lately. I'm on a personal journey that's allowing me to do things that I really enjoy and can see myself doing for the rest of my life, and much of that is thanks to a positive attitude I picked up from The Alchemist years ago. The Zahir just didn't hold the same power for me, not at this point in my life anyway.


The Zahir
by Paulo Coelho

This seems like the same product in a different package, and the new package isn't as good as the old package. I needed to connect with the characters a little more.

I'll give the guy props for staying on message, and for having the talent and wisdom he has to write this book as a novel instead of a work of nonfiction. The problem, though, is again that he's done this same thing in the past, but better.

It's a very interesting book, and it's a quick and painless read. I was intrigued by the narrator's journey and did want to know how things turned out in the end. It's possible this is the kind of book that takes a while to sink in, and maybe in the long run it will change my life, but I think it could have been written better.


If any of you have read this one before, please feel free to comment. I'd love to hear what others thought about The Zahir since I'm still kinda up in the air myself.

Keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, October 2, 2009

John Dollar (Marianne Wiggins)

Wow. So my uncle gave me this book a while back and told me it was great, but it just sat on my shelf for a few months while I was reading other things. This week I decided to pick it up and check it out finally, and I am sure glad I did. John Dollar is an excellent book, poetic and surreal. It's the first time I've ever come close to using those lame, New York Times Book Review words like "haunting, devastating, powerful," and all that. This book is incredible.


Shortly before the end of World War I, recently widowed Charlotte Lewes decides to leave England and everything that reminds her of her late husband. She heads to British-occupied Burma and becomes a teacher for the children of English citizens living abroad. After slowly alienating herself from Burmese society over the course of several months, Charlotte eventually meets John Dollar, a sailor, and the two fall in love. A brief time later, the parents of Charlotte's students decide to go on a short pleasure cruise to visit some of the local islands. Tragedy strikes, however, when an earthquake-spawned tidal wave wrecks the ships and strands John, Charlotte, and eight young girls on a deserted tropical island.

Long story short: Lord of the Flies, but with girls. It's so much more than that, though. For some reason, novels set in and around India and Southeast Asia—Inheritance of Loss and Life of Pi come to mind—always tend to have this mystical air about them. This one's not any different. Wiggins' writing makes Lord of the Flies seem stiff and heavy handed. She doesn't overload the book by inserting all kinds of political and social commentaries. Instead, she deals with the warped reality perceived by these young girls, who had hardly begun to understand their own world before being tossed into this new, deadly paradise. Wiggins also makes some very interesting choices in John Dollar that I think pay off in the long run, such as never getting overly technical, instead keeping the narrative on the fringes of reality. She intentionally leaves certain aspects of the story out and describes some scenes or passages of time only vaguely. This sparse, poetic style helps the reader focus in on what really matters. I never felt bogged down or as if I just had to get through this lengthy description before I got to the good stuff. The whole thing is the good stuff. I flew through this book—it's just over 200 pages—and couldn't stop thinking about it during the moments when I wasn't reading it. There's not a whole lot more I can say about it, other than this is a fantastic novel and you should definitely check it out. Feel free to borrow it from me if you have to; I'd gladly let you have it for a few days, because that's all you'd really need.


John Dollar
by Marianne Wiggins

Yes, it's another "what happens when society is not around to enforce its rules" book. No, it's not like any other I've ever read, though. Wiggins takes control of the situation in a way I didn't think was possible, and revives a timeless idea. She doesn't make it about society and it's rules. The book is about these poor girls and how they react to what's happening around them.

The writing is so beautiful, but not in a lofty, lyrical way. Wiggins handles sex and cannibalism with equal grace and poise. Ugh, I hate how I sound right now, like some kind of stuck up literati. This book=SO GOOD.

John Dollar is concise, there's really no other way to describe it. Marianne Wiggins gives you exactly what you need and nothing more. I'm extremely impressed.


I really hope you go check this one out if you can. I don't think I ever would have picked this book up on my own—the cover is kind of ugly, and that's how I usually judge books :P. I'm definitely going to have to thank my uncle for handing this one off to me (thanks Uncle John!). Have you read any great books lately that I should check out? Feel free to make suggestions.

Keep reading, Genoshans!

Contact Information and FTC Disclaimer

FTC Rules: While I do not make any money from authors, publishers, or anyone else related to these books in exchange for these reviews, there have been times where I've received free copies of a book to be reviewed, and may receive more in the future. Due to FTC compliance rules, however, you should always assume that I have an ulterior motive, and thank them for their unceasing vigilance in the face of this ever-increasing threat of blog advertising.

If you would like to contact me regarding a book you would like reviewed, or for writing matters in general, feel free to email me at