Saturday, February 16, 2008


Trying to review PERDIDO STREET STATION is like trying to explain how the cosmos looks to a blind man; you just have to see it for yourself ...somehow.

Equal parts horror, science fiction, fantasy, and slipstream, Perdido is an incredibly broad novel, covering everything from genetic mutation to magic, and author China Mieville does it all within one town, New Crobuzon, a city of creatures known, unknown and previously unimaginable.

In the simplest terms, it is the story of two characters: Isaac, a scientist who learns about something called "crisis math" which would allow for the resolution and fixing of just about everything; and about Yagharek, a species of flying creatures known as garuda (no, it’s not a type of cheese) who was punished by having his wings brutally removed secondary to a crime he committed amongst his kin. When Yagharek asks Isaac to find a way to make him fly again, Isaac becomes obsessed with the idea. Surrounded by his khepri (half human/half insectile) girlfriend named Lin, a militia that squashes its people like ...bugs, and a group of flying slake-moths determined to eat the minds of anyone who dreams, Isaac and all who become associated with him are headed straight for danger and persecution.

The weaving of an incredible facet of characters and surroundings makes this novel feel epic in scope. A map at the beginning of the book can be used (and recommended) in order to orient the reader to various locales that Mieville frequently refers to (including river byways, railways, streets, and slums).

The horrors of a dictatorial-type government with the capability to "remake" its citizens as punishment is also a pivotal point in the book. Remaking is the process of altering one’s physical and genetic makeup. For instance, if someone were to kill their child, the government could attach the dead child’s arms to their forehead, appendages they’ll carry around for the rest of their life. It also allows Parliament (as they see it) to build unique fighters amongst their militia, enabling those in power to brutalize its citizens.

Although I’ve spelled out a few items contained within Perdido Street Station, I’ve really just brushed the surface. It is a multi-genre, multi-species, and multi-brainbusting novel that enraptures readers and pulls them in. Don’t be surprised, though, if you find yourself scratching your head on occasion and saying, "WTF?" The weirdness of it will probably require at least a few head gouges from anyone. But that’s what makes it so engrossing. You keep reading so that you’ll understand what these characters are and how this society functions under the weight of a near nightmare dreamscape that all culminates at a place known as Perdido Street Station.

Friday, January 04, 2008


5 out of 5 stars

Ella Minnow PeaA book for linguists, logo-rhythmic lovers and political satirists, Ella Minnow Pea doesn't just make plays on words, but on letters.

Taking place on the fictional island of Nollop (an autonomous nation of letter writing lovers off the coast of South Carolina and named after Nevin Nollop who coined the pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog"), readers are introduced to this (initally) utopian society that has shunned technology and has an Office of High Council members who become dictatorial when tiles placed nearly 100 years ago on a cenotaph of Nevin Nollop begin falling off. These tiles are letters that spell out Nollops famous aforementioned pangram.. The first letter to fall was a "Z" from "lazy" and the High Council (in all it's venerated wisdom towards Lord Nollop) decide that it's a sign from Heavenly Nollop himself that they are to strike the letter Z from all correspondences and speech. Libraries are divested of any books that contain the offending consonant. Punishments/laws are laid out for those who use it (1st offense: warning. 2nd offense: flogging or being placed in a headstock in full public view. 3rd offense: banishment from the island. Refusal to leave the island shall be punishable by death), and anyone whose name has a Z in it must change it.

It all seems a bit ridiculous and inconvenient, but most Nollopians go with it on the off-chance that the council is correct. But then more tiles begin falling and more letters deleted from the islanders lexicon. People rip through 1st, 2nd, and 3rd offenses. Families are torn asunder or removed from the island completely by its militaristic henchmen who are guided by the Council.

But what if the Council is wrong? What if it's just wear and time that've caused the tiles to break loose and not some otherworldly message from Lord Nollop? Nonsense, says the Council. It's a sign.

As more and more families are forced to leave their Island sanctuary, the Council becomes greedy by confiscating the evacuated landholdings left behind and claiming it in the name of governmental need.

A challenge is finally put forth to disprove Nevin Nollops saintliness by coming up with a new pangram shorter than the original. But can it be done in time to save the island and its inhabitants?

The comedy is pretty high in Ella Minnow Pea. Told via letters written to various Nollopians, author Mark Dunn eliminates the lost consonants and vowels from his narrative as the story progresses and tiles are lost; a funny set of narratives that becomes a challenge as the story evolves. Example: months and days of the week are renamed with hilarious abandon ("Sunshine, Octane 22" ...That's Sunday, October 22).

Politically the focus is on the dangers of letting something truly ridiculous become accepted practice. But the narrative is handled so well that the nature of the story doesn't seem ridiculous at all. Mr. Dunn is in complete control of his twisted wording and language challenges, which makes Ella Minnow Pea such a unique and enjoyable read.


Vinnie's Head3 out of 5 starsJohnnie LoDuco isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer but he does have dumb luck on his side. After fishing best friend Vinnie’s head out of a river near Long Island, Johnnie finds himself in a real pinch. Already on the lam from the cops for a convenience store heist he didn’t commit, he now has to decide what to do with his buddies disembodied body part.

The head is the driving force behind everything else that happens in the story. Johnnie carries the head around, locks it in a freezer, even stuffs it in a carrying cooler. And death follows the head. Gangsters, a beautiful fem fatale named Jennifer Smeals, dirty cops, and a pretty young thing that Johnnie falls for named Patrice. On top of this, Johnnie has to try and avoid a bounty hunter named Stosh who’s dedication to his profession astonishes both character and reader.

But why is everyone interested in the head? Especially Jennifer Smeals and a local thug named Malatesta? Close examination of it by Johnnie and Patrice reveal nothing except noxious odors. But Paraguay, smut books, computer programs and deadly folk all play a part in what lay ahead for Vinnie’s head.

There’s a lot of dry wit (perhaps too dry) in author Marc Lecard’s debut comedy crime-noir novel but with an ending plot that is — unfortunately — over-the-top. Death and redemption go hand-in-hand as Johnnie discovers all of the cons within cons that are designed to divest him not only of money, but probably his life. The overly-complicated ending plot wrap-ups didn’t fit well with the dumbed-down LoDuco (the story is told in first person via Johnnie) whom most readers will probably sympathize with and get angry at for not seeing what’s right under his nose.

That said, the story is a breezy read (up until the end) and has some chuckle moments but nothing that’ll cause serious belly laughs.

A fun read that most readers should be able to finish in one or two sittings.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I challenge you, Stephen Colbert! You are not a true American!

America, we’ve been duped. Stephen Colbert is not who he claims to be (he may actually be an automaton from the future who’s trying to dupe us). He’d have you believe that he’s some right-wing fanatic when, in reality, he’s only a right-beak or maybe a foot. And I can prove it!

From chapter one of his book, I AM AMERICA (AND SO CAN YOU!), his family values seem admirable but fail to go the distance (got your boxing gloves on, Colbert?) He only hints at the disease that is homosexuality (i.e., Hollywood gaydom). I mean, these individuals (do not call them people!) are doctors, lawyers, judges, and porno store owners. We need to step back a few decades and purge these people (gah!) from our communities. Does Colbert say this? No! Shame on you, Steven (I’ve removed the "ph" from your name and put in the standard "v" for "victory" which is much more American and saves text space. Should you decide to reprint your book, Ste"v"en, you can send me a check for the amount of page space I saved the printer).

The left-wing liberal media is destroying our country but Colbert, again, doesn’t step up and hit a home run (baseball references are very American, too). Nowhere does he mention the need to shut down these outlets, only to try and help them change venues. I say no! We need to get rid of these newspapers, magazines, and other forms of knowledge. Does he ever say that ignorance is bliss? Again, no! If God had wanted us to have knowledge, he wouldn’t have gotten so miffed at Adam and Even when they ate from the darned tree! (Note to self. "Miffed at Adam and Eve" to be new chapter included in next bible reprinting. Start writing now!)

Religion. Oh boy, Steven. You really missed the boat on this one. Our forefathers (there were only four?) who, ironically, came over on a boat, helped spearhead the way for Christianity in the U.S. by helping the Native Americans turn to Jesus. We also helped them build up their immunity by giving them small-pox blankets and showing them close-ups of lead-filled musket balls. Spreading the word of Jesus went hand-in-hand with the spread of disease (and lead). White man’s disease, that is (syphilis comes later, too, but is icky to talk about). Colbert fails to mention this. Poor sap.

And I have to mention Steven’s last name and his lame (and misguided) attempts to get Chevron to sponsor portions of his book. Steven, your last name is Colbert. Has a certain "energy" ring to it, doesn’t it? And it isn’t "gasoline." Colbert. Coal-bert. Get it! You should be showing Americans the dangers of alternative fuels by supporting the coal industry, Coalbert. Wind and solar power? You can’t even see them! How can you trust something that hides from you and produces no greenhouse gasses? I mean, come on!

Also my attorneys will be contacting you, Steven Coalbert, because there wasn’t sufficient warning regarding putting this book down slowly and, like you, I injured my wrist in doing so. You can avoid any nasty and lengthy court trials, if you’d like, by sending me a check for $1 billion to: The

Sunday, November 11, 2007


What can medicine do to improve the quality of patient care around the world? That is, at its heart, the question that author Atul Gawande throws at readers and practitioners alike. "We can do better," he tells us, and thus begat the title: BETTER.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Complications, I decided to check out Dr. Gawande's other writings and was pleasantly surprised to find this collection of stories. Although both Complications and Better are short story compilations,
lacked cohesiveness whereas Better had no such problems.

Leading us down simple and often shocking paths, Gawande gives us complicated facts but in laymen's terms. The simplest would be his chapter on hand washing, and how effective it can be for preventing the spread of infection, especially such newly dangerous things as MRSA, an antibiotic resistant bacterial strain that is killing hospital patients far too often. The ease with which its spread is preventable is as simple as a hand cleanser, yet getting doctors (and other medical staff) to do this is nearly impossible. "We can do better."

The beleaguered medical malpractice insurance requirements that plague every doctors pocketbook is hit hard upon, including a look at why it is necessary and why the system is headed for deep trouble. "We can do better."

Probably the most telling chapters were directed at Dr. Gawande's return to India (his national homeland). Polio is on the run and is nearly extinct as a disease. Yet in small Indian provinces, occasional "hot spots" flare up and a band of less than 10 medical men and women must vaccinate over 4 million children in less than two weeks. And they do it. Gawande tells us if this is possible, can't the U.S. do better at fighting infection? The other striking aspect is how India's doctors often work with substandard supplies (or minimal) on dangerous cases. Or perform a surgery they've never done before or are ill equipped to handle. But handle it they do. One such case involved a boy with hydrocephalus ("water on the brain" caused by a build up of cerebral spinal fluid). No physicians at the hospital Gawande visited had ever done a shunt, the procedure necessary to relieve the pressure. But they eventually do a makeshift surgery that saves the boys life "using about as few supplies as I'd use for a suture repair." Quite an eye-opener. "We can do better."

The chapters on CF (cystic fibrosis) are exceptionally well rendered as we learn that doing better at one thing can have huge benefits. When physicians focus all of their talents on cystic fibrosis, the result was astounding. Life expectancy for CF patients jumped from 17 years of age to over 40. And now it looks like they may very well be able to live into the 70s. It isn't some new super-drug that's extending these peoples lives, but looking at the disease process in terms of better treatment strategies; living proof that doing "Better" can help medicine achieve miraculous results.

Atul Gawande is to be commended for writing a book that flays open the medical system and exposes the diseases beneath; diseases that we can do better at.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Being in the medical field, I found myself pretty engrossed in Atul Gawande’s COMPLICATIONS. But even if you’re not in medicine, there’s no reason you shouldn’t pick up the book. Focusing on both sides of the scalpel (those that get cut as well as those that do the cutting), the vignettes sketched out here are hit upon with compassion, thoughtfulness, and razor-sharp telling ("We have taken [medicine] to be both more perfect than it is and less extraordinary than it can be.")

Gawande holds back nothing in his narrative. One chapter will discuss the evolution of a surgeon and how perilous and dangerous it can be ("Everyone wants a surgeon with experience, but how does a new surgeon become the veteran?"), while the next will look at how effective specialized medicine is (a hospital that does ONLY hernia operations and how incredibly successful those surgeons are).

The most frightening portion of the book — for me — was the discussion on dangerous doctors (chapter 5: When Good Doctors Go Bad). When MD’s get older and can’t function as well, or get burned out, or simply can’t keep up with new medical technology, there’s no system in place to remove them. The AMA, local affiliate groups, none have the sole power to remove a doctor until it is often too late for the patients (Gawande’s examples are horrifying, showing us an orthopedist who had more law suits pending against him than patients in his practice, and still he practiced and operated).

The big flaw with this "novel" is that it isn’t novel at all. It is a compilation of short stories without a core. Whipping back and forth between medical superstitions in one chapter to the study of subjective pain the next, there’s no rhyme or reason to the placement of chapters within the book. This isn’t all bad, though, just something the reader should be aware of before digging in.

Regardless, it is an eye-opener to those in the medical profession and those who are patients within it. Gawande is as sharp with his pen as he is with his scalpel. And he spares no one; from the physicians within his own cadre, to the misconceptions patients hold for their care givers.

Complications should be required reading by all physicians, past, present and, especially, future simply because it is brutally honest and keeps its perspective tightly woven toward patient care.


Dan Simmons is a phenom. Being able to write aptly in just about any genre of his choosing, this proficient author continues to surprise and amaze readers.

I was first introduced to Mr. Simmons’ novels via his excellent HYPERION series (science fiction). I then ventured to SONG OF KALI and CARRION COMFORT (horror) and then touched his JOE KURTZ series (Mystery, PI). Enjoying all of them, I finally found THE TERROR sitting on my local bookstore shelf and promptly snatched it up.

Certainly Simmons has a way with prose. It is this that keep most readers reading his stuff. Without this ability, though, I fear I might not have been able to finish The Terror. And what I mean by that is that the story sags in the middle (heavily) but then picks up nicely in the end. If Mr. Simmons didn’t write so well, I feel confident this book would’ve gone unfinished.

The story is that of the fatal search for the Northwest Passage by the infamous Sir John Franklin expedition. This portion of the novel is certainly relegated to nonfiction, but mixed with fiction via Simmons’ own imagination. Sir John takes two large ships with him on his quest, The Erebus (Franklin’s own vessel) and The Terror (captained by Francis Crozier, whom takes up 3/4 of the book’s story). Trapped in the ice for far too long, we get to read about the slow demise of the crew via deadly scurvy, near mutinies (that eventually flower into a full-blown one of sorts), and the stalking and killing of the expeditioners by a powerful creature nick-named The Terror also.

If this sounds depressing, it is. As a reader you often get in tight with certain characters (if the author does his job right) and certainly some of them must die. But all of them (this is not a spoiler; you can find out about The Franklin Expedition by looking at any encyclopedia)? I became somewhat close to one of the medical personnel. Reading about him was fascinating but his death seemed harsh and unnecessary. Then to read about the other deaths was almost too much; the entire book seemed to be spiraling into a dark pit. Again, had it not been for Mr. Simmons’ able writing skills, I might have put The Terror down and moved on. But I persevered.

The ending was surprising and a bit uplifting (if unreal). There is one particular item that is left up to the reader’s interpretation (I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that I felt Captain Crozier and The Terror — both monster and ship — had to move on).

This isn’t Simmons’ best work but it is a valuable read, both historically and fictionally. The Washington Post called it a "Patrick O’Brien meets Edgar Allen Poe.." story, and I would most certainly agree with that summation. But I would’ve liked to have seen more O’Brien and a bit less Poe.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Damage ControlGiving positive reviews to a book such as this seems like madness. Can just about anyone these days write a murder mystery and get it published? It’s more likely that this is related to established authors (although Mr. Dugani has only one other notable book in his arsenal, THE JURY MASTER, it is still in the same genre and was fairly well received). I don’t mean to bash publishers but I felt pointing out these possible flaws might help guide readers in the right direction when jonesin’ for a good book.

If you’re reading this review, you’ve probably been a fan of the murder mystery genre and are wondering if you should pick up this novel; or maybe you already have and are wondering what others thought of it. If you’re in the first category, you might want to bypass this book in favor of something more appetizing. I’m not saying that Mr. Dugani is a horrible writer; he’s not. But he does do some irritating things with his prose that’ll drive readers to distraction. This is immediately evident in the very first paragraph of DAMAGE CONTROL. And here it is:

"Dr. Frank Pilgrim adjusted the flexible lamp clipped to the edge of his cluttered metal desk, but the additional illumination did not keep the typewritten words on the page from blurring. He set his wire-framed glasses above his bushy gray eyebrows and pinched the bridge of his nose. His eyes had reached their limit; they could no longer take the strain of night reading small print."

Although not too poorly put together, this is a prime example of what the remaining 401 pages contain as far as style goes. You’ll note that there are three references to Dr. Pilgrim’s failing eyesight in this one short paragraph. Perhaps the author was afraid we wouldn’t get that the character was old, but the gray eyebrows were pretty much a dead giveaway (example: " from blurring." and "..had reached their limit" and "...could no longer take the strain..."). We get it already! Please don’t beat us over the head with things like this!

The only redeeming qualities are that the novel is plotted well and with enough baggage plopped on top of the main protagonist to make her a very sympathetic character. Disease, divorce, murder of a loved one, and face-to-face encounters with a psycho-killer all make Dana Hill (the main character) endearing to readers. A distracted love story between Dana and the investigating detective, Logan, is a bit odd and contrived but still a necessary element that added a touch of light to an otherwise dark tale.

Going into detail about the story’s machinations is fairly useless, too. If you’ve ever read a murder mystery, you know exactly how this one’s structured: murder happens, loved ones grieve, detective gets in over his head with a family member of the deceased, family try and help solve the murder and put themselves in harm’s way, murderer stalks main character, blood is spilled, happy ending. Similarly, Damage Control sets everything up in a pretty ending package for the reader, making it so sweet you’ll probably gag on the final few pages.

For some truly great murder mystery stories, try picking up an Ian Rankin Inspector Rebus novel.

Friday, April 13, 2007


Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins: The Autobiography of Rupert Everett "Caution" is the best word used when approaching an autobiography about an actor who’s still living, especially when that autobiography is written by the actor himself. Pretentiousness and self-importance are often affiliated with those who believe their acting gives them license to note how they "have affected the world around them."

I "cautiously" cracked open this book and began reading, wondering if I might throw it aside in disgust. But I didn’t. Mr. Everett doesn’t fall into the pretentious or self-important pit, but instead notes how the world manipulated him and how he came out the other end.

Starting with his days at a religious school, Rupert quickly learns that religion isn’t for him. He finds the school overly-strict because "like bowel movements, punishment was always dictated at the appropriate time" (that’s not the exact quote but the meaning is there).

Being gay was also an issue as he grows into manhood ("queenhood?") and then eventually learns the terribleness of the impending AIDS epidemic. Friends fall to the disease and Rupert wonders if he’ll be the next one caught in its death-trap.

Mr. Everett also doesn’t spout off all of the fantastic movies he’s been in and instead gets us into the dirt on those films that were less than stellar. Falling into and out of the theater, Rupert Everett stumbles and swaggers through films, plays, and voice overs (he was the voice of Prince Charming in Shrek 2). He sugarcoats nothing, including his elicit drug use, alcohol abuse, and his interactions with stars great and small (from Elizabeth Taylor to director Marek Kanievska).

There is a bit of name-dropping toward the middle and end of the book, as well as some scattered thoughts about travels hither and thither, but the strong writing and its excellent insiders view make this autobiography a surprising winner.