Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History

The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History by Adam Selzer
Delacorte Press - December 22, 2009
336 pages

Do you know America? No, I mean, do you REALLY know America? Would you recognize John Adams in a lineup? Can you identify any presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt?
Hmm. I thought so.
Well, you really need this book.
Not only will it improve your sorry historical knowledge, it will crack you up, and give you material to throw your teachers off-balance for entire class periods. Identify their lies! Point out their half-truths! And possibly, just possibly, gain some extra credit for yourself.

For the record, the presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt are Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Alan Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland again, and William McKinley. I knew that before even opening the book; I've actually memorized the presidential order; it just takes me a second to think of the number. Usually it's in some relation to the assassinated ones (16, 20, 25, and 35, but that's if you count Cleveland twice).

I found out about this book when I was doing some research into the poem written by Charles Guiteau (the assassin of Garfield; see Destiny of the Republic) right before his execution, "I am Going to the Lordy". The book is presented in textbook style, so there are questions after every chapter; there was an "Extra Credit" section where you had to say what Guiteau's poem sucked more than, such as being a capitalist at Leon Czolgosz's dinner parties.

I was immediately sucked into the book within minutes of opening it; the pictures and sidebars especially are humorous, as they used only public domain pictures. This resulted in a picture of four dots being an overhead shot of the Beatles, and James Monroe as a substitution for Marilyn Monroe. It also teaches you actual history, such as how Victoria Woodhull tried to run for president when women couldn't vote, she wasn't even thirty-five, and she was in prison on election day.

It's not even just for kids or teenagers; anyone can enjoy it, even if they know all of the history. For example, I already knew about Charlie Guiteau, but the sidebar on him was still great because of the take that they used (not unlike my own when I'm describing the assassination to people).

Grade: A

The Teleportation Accident

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
Sceptre - July 19, 2012
357 pages

When you haven't had sex in a long time, it feels like the worst thing that is happening to anyone anywhere. When you're living in Germany in the 1930s, it probably isn't. But that's no consolation to Egon Loesser, whose carnal misfortunes will push him from the experimental theatres of Berlin to the absinthe bars of Paris to the physics laboratories of Los Angeles, trying all the while to solve two mysteries: whether it was really a deal with Satan that claimed the life of his hero, the great Renaissance stage designer Adriano Lavicini; and why a handsome, clever, charming, modest guy like himself can't, just once in a while, get himself laid. From the author of the acclaimed Boxer, Beetle comes a historical novel that doesn't know what year it is, a noir novel that turns all the lights on, a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner, a science fiction novel that can't remember what "isotope" means, a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it.

You know those summaries of books where you really wonder if whoever was tasked with doing that truly read the book or if they just skimmed it and decided to come up with a wild hook to get people into the novel? Well, I think that's what happened here. Maybe thirty pages are devoted to the Lavicini mystery, and it isn't even about a deal with Satan, It's about whether the "Teleportation Accident" of 1679 was actually an accident.

So, the book. Not one of my favorites. I think it might have been my fault, because I was thinking to myself one day that I had read so many good books, and I would just love to rant and rant about how horrible a book is. Unfortunately, I haven't gotten something that horrendous. In fact, I've gotten stuff I've forced myself to finish, felt bad about finishing, but didn't want to go crazy ranting about it like I had Mockingbird.

I simply didn't care about any of the characters, which was good considering how many of them popped up and then disappeared. In addition, the last few chapters skip about ten years, and you're expected to understand everything that happened in those ten years. The plot isn't a clear, defined one, much like The Dead Zone; instead it aimlessly wanders around, pausing at times to poke at something that might become sort of a story before the author gets bored with it and throws it away. He even grew bored with the era of the 1930's/40's, so near the end he just skipped a decade per chapter and expected you to know what was going on.

I don't know why I forced myself to finish this. Maybe I thought that it would get better? Whatever the answer is, it didn't get better. There's no plot, just some meandering stories that happen to feature an unlikable protagonist and his interactions with unlikable people. I would give it an F, but then I remind myself of Mockingbird.

Grade: D-

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
William Morrow and Company - June 18, 2013
192 pages

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. It is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

A lot of the people who have been giving this book bad reviews say that it is just a puffed-up short story that was "expanded" by the author just to illicit more money out of his readers. My complaints are different.

I like Neil Gaiman, I really do: I like Coraline and The Sandman and The Last Temptation, a sort of comic collaboration with Alice Cooper and Michael Zulli. I think he's a great author. This one I wouldn't recommend to a Gaiman beginner who wanted to see how he writes (much as I probably wouldn't recommend The Dead Zone to a Stephen King beginner).

Gaiman tries much too hard in this one to be confusing in a good way, where you're not always supposed to understand what's going on, but you still read it because it's fun to go along. This wasn't the case. There are so many layers of nonsense and craziness that it's impossible to find anything fun in it.

The characters are all pretty lackluster; Gaiman decided it would be "edgy" not to give his protagonist a name, which has already been done in Fight Club, Invisible Man, and Rebecca. I swear, if this were a normal-sized book, I probably wouldn't have gotten through it.

Grade: D 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Chomp by Carl Hiaasen
Alfred A. Knopf - March 27, 2012
304 pages

Wahoo Cray lives in a zoo. His father is an animal wrangler, so he's grown up with all types of creatures in his backyard. The critters he can handle, but his father is another story.
When his father takes a job for a reality TV show called Expedition Survival!, Wahoo has to do a bit of wrangling to keep his father from killing the star, boneheaded Derek Badger, before the shoot is over. Things keep getting more and more complicated as Derek insists on using wild animals in his stunts. Then there's Wahoo's new shadow Tuna, a girl with an abusive father who needs somewhere to hide out.
It's anyone's guess who will actually survive Expedition Survival!...

I had to cut a paragraph out of that description because it pretty much gives away a chunk of the story due to the type of lousy publicity that Hiaasen has that decides to spill out over half the novel in a 3 1/2 paragraph description.

I love Carl Hiaasen, especially his YA books about the Everglades: Hoot, Flush, and Scat. I've been waiting more than a few years for the next one, and I can tell you that Chomp sufficiently meets my expectations. Instead of being about saving a species, like burrowing owls or Florida panthers, this is about a  broke wildlife wrangler and his son who take a job for a "reality" show to pay off their debt.

In the usual Hiaasen way, Chomp is enough to make you laugh out loud on several occasions and is filled with nearly caricature characters, but it also has elements that I don't remember seeing in previous YA Hiaasen Everglades books: actual suspense and danger where you legitimately worry about the lives of the characters.

Ladies and gentlemen, what can I say? Hail...to...Hiaasen! (If you don't get that reference, brush up on your controversial musicals)

Grade: A

The Catswold Portal

The Catswold Portal by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Roc Hardcover - April 7, 1992
405 pages

There is a door in an artist's garden: an elaborate carved passageway into a realm ruled by a dark sorceress queen. There entities strange and wondrous roam the Netherworld--yet none as astonishing as the shape-shifting Catswold...
Raised by the old witch Mag, Melissa discovers a perilous secret. She has more than one form--human girl and magical cat--and once inhabited two worlds. And it is her destiny to return to a mystic realm of wonder and terror, to do battle for her people's liberation and the crown that is rightfully hers.
A man beset by tragedy, painter Braden West is intrigued by the calico cat who has charmed her way into his studio. But his "guest" is more than she seems, and Braden's very existence will be radically altered as he follows Melissa from the Hell Pit into the dread perils of an evil ruling court, thrust into the heart of a magical conflict with more at stake than he could have possibly imagined.

(Spoiler level: Moderate)

About a few hours after I closed the book, I was about to sit down to eat dinner when a scary thought hit me.

Melissa...was...seventeen. Braden was, what, twice her age? All those scenes. Eeeeeeeeeew.

Anyway, on to the rest of the review. This is supposed to be a prequel of sorts to the Joe Grey Mysteries by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, which I also enjoy but don't review here because I started reading them so long ago. It's technically a prequel in that the Catswolders are supposed to explain how Joe Grey and Dulcie can talk. It's not a prequel in that it was actually written before Joe Grey, and the word "prequel" is a term for a book that is written after another but takes place before. It's also not in that it doesn't take place where Joe Grey does and has none of the same characters.

There are two protagonists here: Melissa, who is Catswold (meaning that she's a cat shapeshifter) and living in secret for seventeen years. Then there's Braden, who is just a human trying to live a normal life after his wife got hit by a car. Melissa is perilously boring, so I kept anticipating another Braden chapter; unfortunately, they were few and far between.

The antagonist, an evil queen, is also pretty lackluster. As a whole, in fact, the fantasy Underworld is pretty basic. Fortunately, Murphy keeps things moving pretty fast. Sometimes too fast, but anything to distract you from how regular the world is.

Grade: B-