Children of Dune - Frank Herbert

Ok, this one was pretty bad. The focus is obviously on the twin kids of the god-hero of the desert planet that controls the spice (that which allows for accurate space travel) and there is trouble with Alia being possessed (again, Frank, do you have to tell us from the start that there is no possible way this isn't true? Can't you allow some mystery?) and there is a heretical preacher who we are basically told is that same god-hero (again, Frank, do you have to tell us from the start that there is (almost) no possible way this isn't true? Can't you allow some mystery?) causing trouble, and some other less interesting stuff going on. I originally liked it as I was interested in the idea of an empire that was collapsing on itself, but didn't find enough focus on those details. There is still more to this series and I should probably stop, but you know me.

Dune Messiah - Frank Herbert

I know he said just a couple days ago that I wasn't going to read this sequel the science fiction classic Dune, but I need something to read on the train and I wound up reading it in a weekend. I did liked it better than the first book, this one focusing on Paul, a one-time fugitive aristocrat, who now has turned his fanatical Arab--sorry, free men--sorry, Fremen desert people into a brutal intergalactic Empire, where he is God-Emperor and the death toll is in the tens of billions and rising. The story focuses on intrigues to overthrow him and his coming to terms with what he has created. It is a fast read, and has much that is interesting, but I still find my self asking "why did we just skip over/ drop this major character/event?" and am uncertain why this is often considered the greatest science-fiction series ever. dune

Dune - Frank Herbert

It would seem the movie I saw many, many years ago made some very bizarre choices in terms of what to include or not include (or just make up) from the book, a book that I've heard friends talking about for also many, many years. Therefore, when my building book exchange had this first part in the series, I decided to finally see what all the talk was about. I went through the first hundred pages very quickly, as it is often quick moving, intriguing, and exciting, but by the time I was 300 pages in I really started to slow down for the next 200+. The tale largely revolves around Lawrence of Arabia--sorry--Paul, the perhaps messianic son of a Duke (did I mention the story merges a feudal society with interstellar science fiction and religious overtones?) who is sent to replace their hated rivals, lead by Baron Harkonnen (I do like the way he's portrayed in the movie), as head of the incredibly desolate, but vitally important, planet Arrakis, where spice is mined that allows interstellar flight (how they got to the planet without spice to begin with, is only explained in the appendix). We are told almost immediately that the Duke and all his plans will be destroyed, leaving us with about 200 pages of false suspense, jumping far too quickly into a whole bunch of stuff of Paul being a magical hero, and finally culminating by skimming over a whole lot of potentially interesting scenes. Undoubtedly, the repulsive Harkonnens are the most fun to read about, but most of the time we deal with a glorified version of Arab desert culture--the book came out in 1965 so the stolen words and romanticized, orientalist ideas was probably largely unnoticed. I'm certainly glad I read this book, but it seems unlikely that I will read its sequels, especially as I hear that the final one appears to be a set up for a conclusion Herbert would, sadly, not live to write.

In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences - Truman Capote

The book is a documentary account (no, I'm not entirely sure what that means) of the 1959 murders of a family in a small town in Kansas. Oddly or unfortunately enough there were plenty of other murders, just as pointless, just as brutal, but apparently not as shocking or well-known, around the same time, so don't confuse the story as an end of innocence tale. Why Capote chose to write about this one, I don't know, but he does so with great eloquence and empathy making this work every bit as exciting and unbelievable as fiction. If you're interested in history--or in murder (I'm being flippant, but there's fascinating insight into the mind of murderers)--then you may well enjoy, for lack of a better word, this book. I also saw the movie, as I am planning to teach this text and I wanted to see what was covered and, more importantly, what wasn't. Unfortunately, the film is from the 60s, and suffers greatly from the point of view of a modern movie-goer who expects action and adventure, although it did a somewhat decent job painting a vivid picture in two hours what the book took 340 pages to do. In Cold Blood

The Land That Time Forgot - Edgar Rice Burroughs

The three part novel from 1918 should be classified as science fiction, but in our modern era it feels a bit more like fantasy. The creator of Tarzan brings us a very imaginative tale of evolution, mystery, (casual racism and sexism,) and action that is his trademark. A group of Brits, Americans, and Germans come across a hidden island filled with prehistoric people and animals and all the dangers such a place entails. There is certainly a lot to enjoy with this story, but I realize that I wish I read it as a younger man, when I could get more wrapped up in the excitement and less on the critique. As is, I was annoyed that certain parts (such as the trip to the island) are given dominance when I want to hear about others (such as the island!), and the ending of the third part kind of undermines major events of the previous two. To give credit where due, the novel is heavily influenced by other sci-fi works of almost the same name. Part of me wanted to read this as I have a vague recollection of watching on TV the 1975 movie version of this written in part by Michael Moorcock, which fascinated me even if I don't remember much of it. I doubt I'll ever see that movie as I'm sure to hate it and it is (perhaps) better to have the dream. 

All The Wrong Questions: "Who Could That Be At This Hour?" - Lemony Snicket

Snicket attempts to follow his successful A Series of Unfortunate Events (which I did some reviews for but, unfortunately, did not create a series of) by taking his author/narrator character and making him the center piece. So maybe the correct question is: Why isn't this story nearly as good as the last series? Well, the cast of characters are not as defined, there are less clever references to literature and language, the villain is obfuscated--a word here that means unclear and thus uninteresting--and the plot doesn't have the same drive for completion: There is nothing here to keep me on edge and hoping for success. The tale gives the early years of Snicket and how he became involved in a bizarre world of crime and deceit and how his cleverness gets him through it. He is teamed with an incompetent adult to recover a stolen statue for its rightful owner, except that it isn't stolen and the rightful is up to debate. Seth's art is always fun, but it is rare, with his main picture being of events not depicted in the story. Sadly, there is no reason for me to continue with the series.

Two Gun Hart: Lawman, Cowboy, and Long-Lost Brother of Al Capone - Jeff McArthur

Second generation Italian immigrant, horse rider/ acrobat/ boxer/ wrestler/ circus performer, music lover, blue collar worker, honored Veteran of World War I, Nebraskan Marshall, agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, temporary bodyguard to President Coolidge, delusional and intractable in seeing the world in anything but black and white, idolizer of movie star Cowboys, perjurer, and flamboyant enforcer of the 18th amendment, are all terms that could be used to describe Vincenzo Capone, or Richard Hart, or one of the other names he (and others) called “Two Gun,” but if you called him anything at all—and that is extremely doubtful for anyone prior to reading this book—you would have called him the big brother of Al Capone: the most notorious Prohibition gangster of them all. This is a story so unbelievable, so incredible, it can only be true. The author does a fantastic job painting a vividly detail portrait of a man most could not even have imagined existed. Seamlessly written, the author takes the life of Richard “Two Gun” Hart and breaks it down into digestible chunks, brilliantly illustrating the people, times, and events that surrounded, influenced, and shaped the “other” Capone. This is not simply a book one reads, so much as devours, and not alone, as I constantly felt the need to share in the discoveries of the book, reading passages to friends and family alike just to see the shocked and thrilled expressions on their faces that must have mirrored my own. Even people who lived to the times discussed, were still taken aback in disbelief. It is disappointing that the citations to clarify the many fascinating historical events are broadly listed at the end only, making it difficult to allow the reader to separate and make their own opinion about some of the speculations that the author engages in on occasion (for example, he continues with the faulty notion that a cow caused the great Chicago fire), although not without circumspection and insight. It additionally could be argued that the author is too reliant on integrating information about the criminal Capones with that of their long lost brother (who is, after all, the centerpiece of the story), a fact that he touches upon at the end, although the vast majority of it is clearly necessary to broaden the understanding of “Two Gun.”

The story is historically fascinating, poignant and deeply moving; a true adventure tale that speaks to the American character. It is a story about immigration, American values (and their mercurial manifestations), the (im)possibilities of (re)defining oneself, and family—for better or for worse. I can't imagine someone not wanting to read this book. Find out more about the author and his works here

The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch – Joseph Delaney

Book one of a series of who knows how many young adult tales about 13-year-old Tom, a boy who, like his mother, has supernatural gifts, such as being able to hear and see the restless dead. Being the seventh son of the seventh son in classic fairy tale lore, makes him a fine choice to be sent off to be trained by a Spook, a person whose job it is to deal with ghosts, witches, and other supernatural problems. The story itself is fine enough, decently written with interesting characters, drama, suspense, and enough problems and actions to keep you interested. Can I say that I'm intrigued enough to want to continue reading the series? I haven't decided that. 

Blink - Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell's book is based on the idea that most decisions can and are made unconsciously and correctly almost instantly. Don't misunderstand, the reason why this can and does happen is largely due to training and certain universals. If a person spends their entire life working in art history, there is a good chance they might recognize a forgery instinctively before they are able to communicate why they consciously believe a work is a forgery. This is due to an abundance of training. Likewise, it is suggested that all humans have certain facial expressions in common and some people can instinctively recognize these expressions and thus learn information about people without ever actually having to meet them or interact with them (such as just seeing a silent video of a person). While the information is very interesting in this book, I'm also concerned about it. It seems like people could hear about these theories and decide that instincts will serve them better than thinking through various processes (like how Republicans appeal to gut reactions to promote their agenda despite evidence to contradict their claims). Additionally, there seems to be an awful lot of examples of where these instincts go horribly, horribly wrong, to the point where I feel the examples used are rather hit or miss, in that you can look at any situation and find evidence to support this theory and find evidence of where this theory has gone wrong through "inappropriate" use of instinct. (And since this is my gut feeling about the situation I must be 100% correct.) There is also a section in the text wherein he discusses how the mind can be manipulated, for example how making margarine the same color as butter allows the mind to think it taste the same as butter. But later on he gives the example of how people’s biases made them think that women do not play classical music as well as men. But based on his earlier example, isn’t it then possible the people’s minds did actually make them hear women playing worse than men because their minds have been conditioned and not simply due to some silly bias? He seemed to have missed his own concept.

The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell

This example isn't in the book but might as well be: by the late 80s, glam metal bands were the rage. At the same time, a small music scene almost unknown outside of Seattle called Grunge existed. By the early 90s, with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (the band's frontman is mentioned in a quotation, once) exploding onto the world scene, Glam Rock was passé and a dozen Grunge bands flooded the airwaves. Soon the most popular band of the world was Pearl Jam, and high-end fashion shows featured the (once) cheap, dirty--but warm--flannels, that were the mainstay of grunge fashion. According to Gladwell's book, Grunge hit the tipping point. The idea is that a number of very small factors (i.e. situational context) or individuals (e.g. those who know their stuff (Mavens) or know tons of people (Connectors)) create massive impact that shape events in the street, politics, culture, etc. The book discusses in easy to read language, saving citations for the end as to not scare off readers, numerous examples of the tipping point in action and goes step-by-step and explaining the various types of people and situations that are necessary to cause a tipping point. Here's the problem: the book gives the impression that there might actually be mathematically or perhaps culturally devised ways to make something such as an economic or social trend tip, while if such a thing were possible you would probably have an awful lot of people and companies doing just that. Additionally, a problem with the text is that it further gives the impression that if something tips in remains tipped. This is honestly absolutely ludicrous; trends come and go, empires rise and fall etc. With only one weak example as an exception, there are no trends mentioned that tipped and then eventually fell by the wayside into obscurity (or at least admitted to in the book), and the example given is of a company that undermined itself. Perhaps that is why Grunge is not discussed--it is a trend that tipped and was un-tipped or overshadowed and thus would not fit within the book's model. The work is very interesting and informative, but it is likewise misleading, filled with cherry picked examples that never become un-tipped, and thus in the end it is somewhat disappointing, despite the fact that numerous pages are dedicated to the tale of the incredible and intellectual Mark Alpert—sadly that is not me, but just another namesake pushing me farther down of Google search result list. 

The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

How long has it been since I reviewed an actual book? It seems all I do is read academic essays for work and comics for fun. And yet it is pure fun to engage in this classic novel of betrayal, intrigue, revenge, and romance(!). Edmond Dantes's life looks like it is going to be awesome. Still a teenager and he is captain of a boat and marries his beautiful love. Naturally all his "friends" betray him and he is sent to the dungeons of France during the restoration of the monarchy (it helps to know a little about Napoleon in French history). There he meets the seemingly insane Abbe Faria who tells him of an incredible treasure they could share should they escape. All Edmond can think about is how he would use the fortune to manipulate events to horrifically punish those who have stabbed him in the back. What a great story, but a long one and I'm not sure those who would be most thrilled by the tale have the patience to get through it all.

Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States - Bill Bryson

By just about any account, American English is a pretty messed up language. The question is how did it get that way, and that's exactly what Bryson wishes to answer. Dividing up chapters by time periods and themes of industrial/cultural innovations, Bryson explains that the American language was shaped by its environment, interactions with multiple cultures, and technological innovations, all of which are unlike any other place on Earth. Bryson is a fine and humorous writer who weaves a mess into a fine tapestry showing the iterative process between a people and their world. The book is not for the faint of heart as there's a great deal to absorb both in terms of linguistic information and raw history. This is not to suggest it is a perfect book, there are various turns of phrases which I know are rather commonplace and yet are overlooked, especially in terms of urban argot, Yiddish expressions, and computer terminology (although perhaps that last one should be forgiven considering the 20 years since his book was written (a time when the Internet did not truly exist)). Expressions such as clicker for remote control, boob tube, idiot box, and Smart bombs are all terms that clearly fall under topics he has covered and yet are ignored. Additionally, while his scholarship is impressive, there are occasional lapses such as his refusal to dismiss the Kensington Runestone as anything but a hoax. In any event, the book is pretty amazing, and sheds light onto the American character as few books that I’ve ever read does. The perfect gift for anyone interest in history or language or America or any combination thereof. 

Jane, the Fox & Me - Fanny Britt & Isabelle Arsenault

In many respects this, originally French, book is a charming tale about a young, lonely girl who is dealing with typical problems of being ostracized at school and thinking she is fat. To escape she reads Jane Eyre and images her life as different. Not to give much away, but things change for the better, and that is where my problem comes from with this children's story. Helene's--the young girl--life takes a turn for the better with the introduction of a new friend. While this is fine, the message the book seems to relay is that your life can become better if you have a friend. No doubt this is true, but the end result is that the way to beat depression and loneliness is to be lucky enough to have someone just show up in your life and be your best buddy. There is no impression in the story to suggest that an individual can take control and do an action to make themselves feel better about life. In other words, a person is helpless without the miraculous intervention of someone who is happy-go-lucky. Being that I have three nieces, I am actually quite appalled with the just hang on and hope, passive attitude it suggests. Still, the art is lovely, I'm just somewhat shocked that the disappointing message seems to have gone under the radar. 

The Ambivalent Memoirist: Obsessions, Digressions, Epiphanies - Sandra Hurtes

This memoir recounts, as of course all memoirs do, moments in the authors life and times. Hurtes focuses on her strained relationship with her parents, their clinginess versus her desires to be independent, and a perhaps more strained relationship between her work life and her desire to be a famous writer. Incredibly well-written with very short chapters of quick snapshots throughout her adult life, the story provides both hope in achieving the life you want as well as stern warning as we recognize her sometimes self-sabotaging through an obstinance to rebel while at the same time wallow in regret over it. The writers life is not a glamorous one, nor an easy one, revolving around short-term writing assignments and slave labor teaching jobs. The work is a must read for those struggling with the adjunct lifestyle, and those interested in (or needing dissuasion from) becoming writers. It is also a powerful piece for independent minded women struggling to find their own voice, as well as poignant reflections for those that grew up in the shadow of Holocaust survivors, this book being part of the last generation that will be able to recount such events. Filled with clever and often hysterical turns of phrases (“hipsters take note – I had Brooklyn first!”), and painfully vivid memories of lost parents, my criticism is one of the author is probably already aware of, that despite the honesty of the work there are gaps to a larger story. It is in these gaps I believe a true novel awaits, yearning to break free of self-imposed restraints and self-criticism and doubt, so that the fuller story can be told. Perhaps one of the funnier(?) ironies to the tale is that the author, so eager to break away from family that wants to simply assist her in becoming herself and to show her love the only way they knew how: through random if obtrusive displays of assistance which she found stifling, and yet what has the author herself become, but someone whose writing is a gateway for others to find their own voice, and whose job it is to assist those who care nothing for writing, with all it formalities of grammar, and see no purpose in it, in order to help them become better people and to give them the skills, knowledge, and assistance they may not want, know they need, and/or certainly never asked for, simply so they can focus on their other more pressing pursuits.

Because the tale(s) jumps in time, in both the historical record and the more contemporary musings, it can be a bit jarring for the casual reader meandering through a short chapter here and there (I couldn't put it down, but others might not be reading it on vacation), especially in instances where she writes that Halfway Home is going to be referred to at HH from this point on, only to be spelt out at least four more times. Writers, pessimists (the latters aren't always the formers even if the reverse is usually true), and the perpetually envious like myself, will enjoy her constant begrudging of others' success, but I question if Hurtes actually recognizes that the success stories of others who took the roads she didn't are minuscule and far between, rather than just being a device to illustrate her mentality. Check her out at sandrahurtes.blogspot.com and/or @SHurtes

 

Matchless: A Christmas Story - Gregory Maguire

The destroyer of children's stories (just kidding, sort of) develops a little known--due to its sheer depressive quality--Hans Christian Andersen story "The Little Match Girl" into, if not fuller, then slightly less horrific tale of poverty and sacrifice, or as the GOP would call it: Socialist propaganda. Not badly done, if too sad for me to actually like. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

Actually the Swedish title is really Men Who Hate Woman, but that probably won't sell as well in the US. The first book of the Millennium Series trilogy, tells us about Mikael Blomkvist just after he loses a libel case against a rich and powerful industrialists (go figure, huh?). Mikael strangely gets a job uncovering the truth behind an old disappearance (read: murder). Needing help he is teamed with Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant hacker who has some serious mental issues (my guess is Asperger syndrome although it is never clear). Together they attempt to uncover the mystery. Popular in Europe and the US, both in book and movie forms, it is a shame the author didn't live to truly enjoy his success. I did like the book and thought it a lot of fun. I haven't read the rest of Larsson's work as I hear it isn't as good, but maybe I should judge that myself. I do have a problem with the Lisbeth character--who is central to everything--as she is presented as both completely divorced from reality, oblivious to people's general thoughts and ideas and even seems detached from being sexual assaulted (did I mention this book is not for kids?), and at the same time shown as a genius when it comes to both computers and impersonating character types. I find this too much of a stretch as how can someone who is confused over the idea that most people acknowledge the existence of each other can be so in tune with the every nuance of different cultures and classes as to perfectly portray them? Still, if you aren't as fussy as I am you will see past it.

Dalton Stark's Dinoacolypse Comics Review

  Cover to Dalton Stark's Dinoacalypse comicWhat can I say other than that I laughed my ass off. This is the story of Maxwell, a boy with a crush, and his friend Jeremy, the last dinosaur. Hilarity ensues as Jeremy seeks a metal enough gift that can represent his love for his fiery-haired ladyfriend in a tale that crosses aspects of Henson’s The Labyrinth with an episode of…well, it would ruin the surprise, so just buy the damn book and read it.

Who: Dalton Stark (and it’s not because he’s a former student that I pimp his work, but because it’s good shit).

Online presence: Facebook, Instagram: dolphinsharky, Ink361

Where: Zine Fest Houston 2013 or contact the creator, who is tabling at Zine Fest Houston 2014 also, though he said he’s not bringing old work! Why, damn it?! Let’s make sure he gets himself to Staple 2015 too! Because…Austin.

Cost: Priceless…but contact the creator for a better deal

How: Self-published with the support of Grandma

interior art in Dinoacolypse

Introducing Slavoj Zizek: A Graphic Guide - Christopher Kul-Want & Piero

Part of a series of books on deep topics that the publisher tries to make easy by calling it "introduction" and adding graphics. Often these titles are less informative or interesting than a regular text, but this one isn't too bad with clear topic headings and not too much text. Zizek is not always the easiest philosopher to grasp (like all those other "easy" ones) and mainly draws from Lacan (who is next to impossible to understand), so it is nice to have some basics to help one understand. Didn't care for the art; I'm not sure what the style was trying to add.