Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The House Of the Scorpion

by Nancy Farmer

In a future where a wide swath between Mexico and the US is a recognized fiefdom known as Opium ruled by opium warlords and cultivated by lobotomized “eedjit” zombies, a young boy named Matt lives on the compound of a feared drug lord named El Patron.  Early on, he learns that he is a clone of the ancient, decrepit kingpin himself.  Aside from a friendly bodyguard and the woman who raised him, he’s treated with scorn and disgust by most of the family and employees, although El Patron orders everyone to act normally around him.  Gradually, Matt realized why El Patron needs a clone, and it’s not because he wants an heir.  Making his escape, he spends some time in a pseudo-socialist Mexican orphanage workhouse before finding his childhood friend, and some measure of meaning in his life.

This is an interesting and original book; Matt’s slow realization as he learns what the reader already assumed gives it a chilling suspense, and the pacing is good.  I thought the quality fell a bit in the Mexico section; Farmer seems to have been intent on critiquing the hypocrisy of an Orwellian socialism, which is not only attacking a strawman, but is rather out of place compared to the overall tone of the book.  Worse, the main resolution of the book happens off-scene, and Matt is simply told of the fate of everyone he knew at the hacienda in Drugland.   It’s a bit of dramatic let-down, though it sets things up nicely for a sequel. 

four stars

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


by Cornelia Funke
translated by Althea Bell

Meggie and her bookbinder father live alone in a house crammed with books and the joy of reading.  When a mysterious visitor named Dustfinger arrives, calling Meggie’s father “Silvertongue,” Mo acts secretive and alarmed.  They take a trip to the house of a relative, Elinor, who is just as book mad as they are.  There, however, they are set upon by kidnappers who want a specific book, and Mo himself.  When they’re captured, Mo reveals his terrible secret.  When he reads aloud from books, he brings the characters to life, literally. Ten years previously, he read so lyrically from the book Inkheart that a pair of the book’s villains appeared in our world, while his wife was spirited into the book!  With some help from Dustfinger, who is by no means an ally but wholly self-interested, the three try desperately to work out a plan that will end the villain Capricorn’s reign of terror as well as get his wife back – a plan that depends on help from Inkheart’s own author.

I was not bowled over by this book.  It’s an interesting premise, even if it has been done before, but the book is overlong at 540 pages or so.  The characters are flat (the villains uninterestingly and thoroughly villainous; Meggie and her father are selfless and beatific), as well as obtuse, which I found irksome.  It’s absurd to think after you’ve been kidnapped from your own home by a mad, violent, powerful man who wants something from you, and then escaped, that you can simply meander back to that home with your ordeal over.  It’s downright stupid to think that situation can be resolved by talking. Some of the conceits of the plot are also a bit ridiculous: a normal, illiterate man from a magical but medieval world appearing here with nothing but the clothes on his back, somehow rising to become a crime lord?  And even established as he is in the story, Capricorn is the sort of tyrant who could be dealt with by two men with handguns; hardly an indefatigable enemy.  Finally, once the main conflict has been established, the book drags; the plot repeats itself and Funke takes a dreadfully long time to get to the real point of Capricorn’s plan, to unleash a murderous magical creature on this world.  For all that it is a love letter to classic children’s literature (Tinkerbell is appropriated as a minor character, as is a figure from The Thousand and One Nights), I found it more boring than engrossing.  I’d rather reread E. Nesbitt.

three stars

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

by Gabrielle Hamilton

The author recounts her life, both personal and professional, from growing up in a large tight-knit family with a French mother who taught her kids about real food, crusty bread, creamy cheeses, and the like, through the parents’ divorce and Hamilton’s rise from thirteen-year-old waitress to line cook to chef.  She also discusses her marriage of convenience to an Italian man and her trips to Italy, which grow more bittersweet with every year.

I have mixed feelings about this book, because as a reader I take the narrator’s tone very personally; other readers might not.  At first, I enjoyed the book with unalloyed pleasure.  I got the title from a list of food writing Anthony Bourdain recommended, and it’s easy to see why the book appeals to him.  Hamilton is an unflinchingly honest narrator, and a brilliant writer.  She matches Bourdain's opinionated partisanship, visceral attitude, and past replete with scofflaw delinquency, and, I dare say, her writing is more fluid and expansive.  Her commentary on the value of hard work, making one’s own way, and dealing with hardships is admirable.  Her opinion of the perennial hand-wringing over “where are women in cooking” question has a steely practicality and impatience for attention seekers (“cook, ladies, cook!” – and the rest will follow).  But it’s her section on her marriage that marred the book for me.  Just as I couldn’t stand the fictional Jane Eyre’s dithering and self-pity, I can’t stand the real-life Hamilton’s dithering and solemnity about her unhappy marriage.  She knew she was marrying him “as performance art,” as she puts it several times (to get him his Green Card actually).  She’s unhappy, yet she won’t leave him.  Only a complete ignorant fool – which she is not – would think that marrying a doctor means that you’re marrying a good husband, or that an Italian man is somehow a good or exciting man.  So it may be because of my own life, which this book hits too close to the bone, but I just soured on Hamilton as a person and narrator after that.  Too bad really; she writes vividly and has a good story to tell.  I just want to hear the professional part.

four stars

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones

by Anthony Bourdain

Just what it says on the cover, a collection of previously published pieces of food, chefs, travel, and cultural commentary (plus one fiction piece).  I’m a Bourdain fan, but most of these essays are simply too short to have any real impact.  That’s not to say they’re not bad; they have his trademark snide remarks, the New York swagger tempered by open-minded desire to learn more about others.  In a magazine I’m sure they’re fine.  But, for example, a mere three printed pages on Bourdain’s first taste of Szechuan food is nearly pointless; he barely begins to describe the taste before the essay is over.  A lengthy examination of Brazilian food and culture demonstrates how much more powerful his travel writing can be when he has room (on the page) to explore.  This edition had some commentary by Bourdain on his own pieces since their publication; some of his opinions have changed, and it’s fun to read him mocking his old self as briskly as he used to mock TV chefs.

three stars

Friday, October 18, 2013

Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable

by Dan Gutman

Twin 12-year-olds Coke and Pepsi McDonald, on a cross-county vacation with their professor father and writer mother, uncover a secret government plot to use “YAGs,” or Young American Geniuses, to solve the complex problems of the nation, and find that they are on the list.  When they learn that a shadowy group is preparing a terrorist attack at (one of) the country’s biggest ball(s) of twine, their road trip becomes a race against time, made all the more desperate by the fact that their parents know nothing about their mission and by the fact that dangerous “dudes with bowler hats,” as well as their old health teacher, are trying to kill them.

It’s a very light, silly book, crammed with gimmicks like codes presented within the book and a suggestion that readers follow the trip via Google Maps.  With lots of actual spots of Americana oddities mentioned, such as the Donner Party Memorial, the PEZ museum, a Yo-yo museum, and the House on the Rock, the book is at times more gimmick than plot.  Some parents might find it troubling that the preteens are instructed by a stranger to keep secrets from their parents, but it’s all in fun, with no real violence.  It’s a simplistic kid’s book with some humor, such as when the kids gets their spy bags with Frisbees, cards, and fruit, which the kids are disappointed to learn are not laser Frisbees, spy camera cards, and bomb fruit, but actually just plastic toys and food.

four stars

Saturday, October 12, 2013


by Christopher Buckley

In the not-so-distant future, America teeters on the brink of economic disaster as the baby boomers start retiring. Enter beautiful young ex-Army-turned PR flak, coulda-gone-to-Harvard-but-Daddy-spent-the-tuition-money crusading blogger Cassandra, who on her blog suggests that Baby Boomers voluntarily kill themselves for tax breaks, saving Social Security costs.  When young people take to the streets, the ineffectual president (who happens to be in cahoots with her father, who is now a software tycoon and party patron) makes her an enemy, as does a TV preacher.  But the cause is taken up by a young congressman who shares an eyebrow-raising past with Cassandra, and soon people are starting to talk about actually passing the “Transition” bill into law.

I wasn’t too impressed with the previous Buckley I read, Supreme Courtship, and this book is of about the same weight.  Buckley’s satire, as I said about that book, is the toothless satire of the contented conservative shooting blanks at straw men.  The fact that his heroine must be “hot” and blonde “with liquid, playful eyes and lips” shows how concerned he is with serious ideas.  In over 300 pages, none of the characters seem very interesting, and the dialogue at times is positively ridiculous; his ideas about software are equally out of touch. His scenarios are mildly amusing but not actually comic, and he has no real point to make about Washington, just a modern modest proposal.  Light, frothy, somewhat arch, but it lacks punch.

three stars