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Date read: 9.8.10
Read from: Clarkesworld Magazine
Reviewer: Kakaner

Every station must have its doctor.

The first doctor was a collection of wetware and delicate machinery designed to serve deep-space astronauts. He was built because human doctors were too expensive, doing little most of the time while demanding space and oxygen and food. The modern doctor was essential because three Martian missions had failed, proving that no amount of training and pills could keep the best astronaut sane, much less happy. My ancestor knew all of tricks expected of an honorable physician: He could sew up a knife wound, prescribe an antipsychotic, and pluck the radiation-induced cancer out of pilot’s brain. But his most vital skill came from smart fingers implanted in every heroic brain—little slivers armed with sensors and electricity. A doctor can synthesize medicines, but more important is the cultivation of happiness and positive attitudes essential to every astronaut’s day.

I am the same machine, tweaked and improved a thousand ways but deeply tied to the men and women who first walked on Mars.

This is the narrator, half-human half-robot. More of which? We never really know. “The Cull” blends a slice-of-life snapshot aboard a space station with a dark insight into the methodology and sustenance of this future humanity incubated from, but at the same time reeling towards destruction. Reed paints the combination of human emotions and bleak reality in firm, knowing strokes yet never steps out of his narrator’s character. I wouldn’t necessarily say there are many hidden levels to this story, but I love that there’s at least one that examines the human psyche in a desperate society as well as a machine’s inability to refuse its programming. I’d go as far as to say this is one of my favorite sci-fi short stories I’ve read in a while, largely because its simple and elegant deliverance leaves enough room for the tragic beauty of the world’s circumstance to shine through.

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Robert Reed
Read “The Cull” at Clarkesworld Magazine

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Date Read: 9.07.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Beautiful Children brings together several perspectives of Las Vegas life– a lower middle class suburban family, a couple involved in the sex industry, a barely-capable artist, and a pack teenage runaways — unified by the themes of depravity, exploitation, and failure. One day, 12-year-old Newell, a comic-obsessed loser of a kid, disappears after going out with a friend. What ensues is an exploration of the grief of those affected by Newell’s disappearance, and a string of other interactions leading up to (but not necessarily connected to) the event.

Review

Uggggh. Where do I begin?

Beautiful Children was an impulse buy, something I almost never let myself get into. But once in a while, say, at a Harvard Independent Bookstore Warehouse Sale, I’ll pick up random remainders, convinced by the price and New York Times Bestseller stamps, and then never read them. This is because reading them has worked for me Very Few Times, and unfortunately, Beautiful Children was yet another reminder of why I should never let myself waste money like this.

You know a novel is going to be bad when it’s a bestseller you haven’t heard of it in any personal literary circles, and by page 150, there is more talk of sex than there is storytelling. At one point, there were literally 10 straight pages detailing the minutia of a father’s obsession with porn and all its accompanying activities, and while it was clearly there to illustrate the state of a broken marriage, it was entirely ungraceful and unwarranted. I think what frustrated me the most was how utterly uninspired the whole novel seemed– it was wholly inorganic and Bock simply didn’t bring anything new or fresh to a hackneyed setting. The characters were bland, predictable, and stagnant, which served to augment the faults of an awkwardly moving plot. And then there was the uncomfortable feeling that Bock had pulled out all the stops with this debut novel, pouring forth all that he had been waiting to tell the world about everything, whether it be rock music or TV commercials or pornographic preferences, and had pretty much drained his next novel’s potential to zero– a pity because Bock clearly demonstrated a great command of the English vocabulary, but not language. With some more polishing and a real story, he could probably produce something decent. A couple more descriptors: disjointed, clumsy, pretentious, contrived, and distasteful.

Although I have much more I could and want to say… it’s simply not worth the effort. I’m definitely going to play it safe and keep to pre-researched books for a while so I can save myself some brain cells and support better authors. Off to scrub my brain out and retreat into a corner to rejuvenate with a comforting childhood favorite. I’m thinking… A Wrinkle In Time.

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Charles Bock: bio and works reviewed

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Date Read: 09.01.2010
Book From: Dearest Emera
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

(Shamelessly stolen from Emera’s review— if it ain’t broke, why rewrite it?)
Princess Lissla Lissar lives quietly and invisibly in the shadows of her father and mother, who are worshiped by the people, and whose love for each other is all-consuming. When Lissar’s mother mysteriously wastes away, she forces her husband to swear that he will not remarry unless he finds a woman as beautiful as she was. This promise comes back to haunt the kingdom when Lissar, becoming a woman herself, attracts her father’s attention for the first time. Driven from the kingdom by an unendurable ordeal, Lissar escapes with her only friend, her dog Ash, and struggles to survive and reclaim her sense of self.

Review

The beginning of Deerskin was eye opening. As I started reading McKinley, who I haven’t picked up since Sunshine several years ago, I realized there was so much to her writing and storybuilding that I had not been able to fully appreciate before. Deerskin began with a delicate yet urgent account of Lissar’s childhood leading up to her escape from the kingdom. In my opinion, the gem of the novel was here– the elegant and insightful conveyance of the uncrossable distance that can form between a child and her parents, and the stunningly eerie account of the relationship between Lissar and her father. It has certainly been done before– stories in which royal children are neglected emotionally by the majesties– but none have devoted the same care as McKinley did here. The brilliance was the realization that something so little as lack of acknowledgment combined with an initial reverence for one’s parents can slowly ferment for years until it is replaced by fear. Here, I thought the execution was splendid and something that served to set this retelling apart from others.

Next, I apprehensively followed Lissar as she fled her kingdom and sought a bitter refuge in the wilderness, waiting to be impressed by Lissar’s independence, resourcefulness, and elegance in the face of hardships (as is to be expected of fairy-tale-retelling-heroines). This was the case, more or less, but as the story progressed, I was assaulted with pages of visions, repetitive daily monotony, more suffering than one reader can handle, ellipsis abuse e10, and a blind race to the resolution.

And may I interject here, did the climax really happen?  [not-really-spoiler-alert] Did she really honestly just pour forth a fountain of blood from her vagina, leaving a stain in the wood that was to be studied and used as an oracle for generations thereafter? I entirely understand what McKinley was striving for, and yes even though Deerskin is regarded as the Moonwoman, there are other ways to tie together “moon” and “woman” and “dark” and “fantasy”. I would expect a male author to commit such a transgression.

To be fair, I could chalk up my dissatisfaction with the second half to the fact that I simply have much more in common with a shy, black-haired, independent, voracious reader of a child than a lady who traipses through winterlands with a large dog in tow. Despite everything, Deerskin was still one of the most exciting fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time, and it is a dark fantasy novel that places great care in maintaining and exploring the different forms of love in all relationships.

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Robin McKinley: bio and works reviewed
Deerskin (1993)  [E]

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Date Read: 8.13.10 (reread)
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Review

I recently made the perilous trek through Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: The Black Dossier, which was a constant reminder that I should reread some Jules Verne. There have also just been a smattering of references here and there so I thought I’d pick up my middle school favorite, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

My experience reading it the second time around was so appallingly different from my middle school read that I couldn’t believe it was the same book. Right before I cracked the cover, I excitedly recalled the dashing, dark, mysterious, yet loveable Captain Nemo, a brave man-gang shaking their fists (harpoons and electric wands too) at giant sea squid, the hulking science-defying metal warmachine of the Nautilus,  a whirlwind of action, climax and resolution under the sea, and what I found were… dry characters and lots and lots of taxonomy. So much that I’m pretty sure there was more science in that one itsy book than in my high school biology textbook. On the one hand, I greatly appreciated the, um, education, but on the other, it was frustrating to move along in the story only to screech to a halt and have to plod through terribly strained dialogue for setting up long monologues of classification. I felt like my brain was being taxed to its limit having to conjure up all these detailed mental images of fish.

This is not to say that I think 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea lacks imagination. I still fully understand why I loved it so much, proceeded to read all of Verne‘s books I could find, and cited him as a favorite author whenever prompted. The concept, story, and scarily accurate scientific predictions were still impressive the second time around, but it would have taken a miracle for the book to have held up to the expectations I built for it.

But no, Monsieur Arronax was not quite the adventurous and fresh man of science I had always envisioned him to be, Conseil was basically a non-character, and Ned was indeed a rather infuriating spoil sport. I’m afraid I must admit that I defeatedly returned my little used copy back to its place on the shelf and called Jules Verne up to end our little affair. However, The Mysterious Island remains on my reread list because I still vividly remember it being a league above the rest of the books and I owe it to Captain Nemo to give him a second chance.

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Jules Verne

Aronnax

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Date Read: 6.27.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Malcolm Gladwell is a seasoned journalist and a staff writer for the The New Yorker, as evidenced by his tight, logical, and compelling writing. The Tipping Point explores the socioeconomic phenomenon of its namesake, “The Tipping Point,” or the point at which some product, behavior, or idea suddenly becomes a sweeping epidemic in a population. As demonstration, Gladwell explores a variety of fascinating and relatable social processes–   the teenage smoking epidemic, the sudden wildfire popularity of certain products, and the sudden decline in New York City crime– homing in on product, concept, and process development, marketing, and testing. He boils down the process for these phenomena to three common factors, linking together epidemics which we would have otherwise found unrelated.

Not being trained in any field of socioeconomics, I cannot offer insight or criticism into the technical elements of the book. All I can say is that this book provided an incredibly rigorous learning experience for me. Gladwell assumes a reasonably intelligent audience, and lays out his arguments and evidence concisely with appropriate depth. Gladwell lays out the “Law of 150”, a concept that proclaims that 150 is the maximum number of people that work and network together thoroughly and efficiently, and not only uses anecdotes and interviews to support his findings, but even digs a little deeper into anthropological studies on villages that support this law. It was refreshing to see an author work harder than usual to find his evidence and argue so fervently for a claim. And this is not the only case– he uses genetics and psychology to support his case study of teenage smoking, and specific, irrefutable examples of how predicting trends helped the Airwalk campaign.

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Date Read:4.27.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

A newspaper runs a peculiar advertisement calling all “gifted children looking for special opportunities ” to audition for a most prestigious and mysterious institution. Many respond to the ad, most of whom are goaded by their parents, but in particular, it is four family-less children who pass. Soon, they find themselves on a mission to save the world as undercover spies on an isolated island trying to bring down an evil institution from the inside. The children must use their extraordinary talents to circumvent barriers and gain the trust of the enemy, while discovering more about their own pasts and each other.

Review

Just as the reviews claim, The Mysterious Benedict Society reads like a fusion of childhood favorites– Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket– with strong “Codename: Kids Next Store” vibes, yet manages to retain a voice and characterization that is wholly unique. It features an ensemble cast of orphans– protagonists whose appeal have been proven time and time again by successful series such as Harry Potter, The Boxcar Children, and A Series of Unfortunate Events—  whose resourceful and quirky members are sure to engage any reader. The tale is a rather straightforward intrigue-filled adventure with a clear inception  and purpose. I found that although it was deftly and winningly told, it lacked some of the magical twists, turns and subplots that really set apart other children’s series. On the other hand, the writing was very intelligent, such that I felt like the reading level could cater to adults and children alike. Stewart is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and it is obvious that the substance of his literary education supports each word. Throw in terrific twists, mindbending (literally) obstacles, Cartoon-Network-esque acronyms, a world domination conspiracy, and you have a hefty contender for a childhood favorite. The Mysterious Benedict Society is absolutely captivating and casts a wide net, ensnaring the bold and shy, nerdy and adventurous.

I am not-so-tentatively labelling this as my new successful children’s series find- it is fresh, intelligent, exciting, and from what I hear, the second installment is even better than the first!

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Trenton Lee Stewart

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Translated 2009 by Deborah Boliver Boehm.

Date Read: 4.11.10
Book From: Personal Collection, from Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The Cat in the Coffin is a romance/suspense (rather than a romance/mystery as the back cover claims) novel set in Japan that revolves around three lives: Masayo, an aspiring painter who is simultaneously a casual student of Goro, one in a family of famously lucrative artists, and a live-in tutor for Goro’s reserved and precocious daughter, Momoko. As Masayo eagerly begins her duties in the househould, she beings to naively fall for Goro, until the entrance of an old flame sets catastrophic events into motion.

Review

Unfortunately, I have much more gripe than praise for this book, despite giving ample room for consideration given that I was not reading it in the original language. Overall, it is a superficial, cheesy, predictable, simple story, heightened by the fact that it is very apparent Koike was trying to weave a masterful complex tale. First, I would use this book for the classic lesson of “Show. Not tell.” Most of the suspense in the novel would have been halfway effective had Koike not prefaced every twist with flashing red warning signals. Momoko goes out into the snow at night, and Masayo is “filled with a sense of foreboding” and “knows something bad is about to happen.” As she rushes out in the snow after Momoko, she images a sinister scene unfolding (which, I might add, had been set up from the first chapters anyway), which lo and behold, just happens to be the same as the events that actually do take place. In this way, several crucial scenes are effectively ruined throughout the book. It’s actually pretty surprising how Koike manages to wrangle so many elements of Suspense 101 yet is still described as a celebrated mystery and romance writer in Japan.

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Featured here is a gnarly wrought-chocolate cheesecake to commemorate Alan Moore’s vengeful vigilante, Rorschach. Pardon the craftsmanship– Rorschach blots are definitely supposed to be more symmetrical, but with only a wooden spoon and various other home tools, this was the best I could manage.

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Date Read: 1.16.07

Book From: Boston Public Library

Reviewer: Kakaner

I happened across this book during one of my genre frenzies (this particular one being religious fiction), and after being bombarded with recommendations for this book in every genre search I conducted, I decided to read it. The story is about Father Agostino who is sent by the church inquisition to investigate Leonardo Da Vinci’s current painting, The Last Supper, and to find proof to convict Da Vinci as a heretic. Cue Christian religion conspiracy subplots.

As I am sure you can tell from the gist of my setup, this was like The Da Vinci Code in 300 pages, of which you may have already discovered Emera and I are entirely not fans. Admittedly, it wasn’t as excessively dramatic as The Da Vinci Code — now that would be an amazing feat– but it was an intensely painful read. Above all, it was *boring*, one of those books where you stop every 20 pages to look at the cover or read the blurb again to get a sense of what you’re holding out for. The main character was completely devoid of personality, although the supporting characters were slightly more developed. There was a crapload of anagramming and cryptogramming that required huge reaches of the imagination to seem plausible. Not only was the plot weak, but each 3-page chapter was also a subplot that didn’t really lend any meat to the overarching story, therefore rendering the quality of storytelling nil. Overall, I’d say this experience was a frustrating waste of time.

I’m curious as to whether this novel was influenced directly by The Da Vinci Code/Angels & Demons. After all, both garnered international fame and were published before The Secret Supper. However, it seems that Sierra has been publishing historical intrigue for many years and perhaps it’s just bad luck that he chose Da Vinci at this time and that I’ve been holding him up to Dan Brown.

Interestingly, The Secret Supper won the Premio de Novela Ciudad de Torrevieja award, a Spanish literary prize which is awarded to a promising unpublished novel and the third highest monetary literary prize in the world. Whew. I’d venture a guess and say Sierra‘s writing is probably stronger in his native language, and the translation may have messed with the word games, but I doubt it would still be able to make up for all the plot and story faults.

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Javier Sierra

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Author: Joe Hill

Date: 2.22.10

Book: Horns

Venue: Porter Square Books

Reviewer: Kakaner

Joe Hill Porter Square Signing Locke and Key Horns Heart Shaped Box reading

Porter Square Books is a quaint bookstore tucked away in Porter Square, Cambridge and features a popular fair-trade cafe. We arrived early for front row seats, and discovered while waiting that we had been seated in the… SAT prep and pregnancy help section. Huh?

Anyway, enter Joe Hill, tall and lanky, and a spitting image of his father. He exuded a very distinct “accomplished nerd” appeal, as in awkward yet confident. I have to say I was a little taken aback by his appearance because the only photo I had seen of him was this:

Which incidentally kind of coincides with the mental image I have of Judas Coyne from Heart-Shaped Box– jacket, rock, auto-enthusiast. Oh author portraits. How you mislead us so!

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