Book Review: Bloodsucking Fiends, by Christopher Moore

Oh look, I’m reviewing yet another vampire novel. Whatever. Just be happy I haven’t resorted to Twilight yet.

Bloodsucking Fiends tells the story of a newly formed vampire who, in order to function in modern society, recruits a human to do stuff for her during the day. Inevitably and for no good reason, they fall in love with each other.

Christopher Moore is known for writing humour, and that is really the main draw here. The ridiculous situations and jokes embedded in every sentence make for an entertaining read.

Plot-wise, it’s not as strong. Events seem to unfold only for the sake of setting up the next event, or sometimes for no reason at all other than for a punchline. Entire plot lines are introduced with good promise, but then left as pointlessly dangling as a classic vampire’s cape. Maybe the two sequels pick them up.

If you’re into sexy vampires, there are certainly less sucky ways to spend your time than reading Bloodsucking Fiends.

Double Book Review: Books With Weird Titles Edition: Wool and Draculas

Here are two books I’ve read recently, with not much in common other than having weird titles and being released directly to digital.

Wool, by Hugh Howey

Wool is the first in a long series of books about wool about people living in a mostly-underground silo after some sort of apocalypse makes the outside world inhabitable. Their only view of the outside world is through cameras that get dusty over time, until someone is sent out to clean them (with wool), then inevitably succumb to the poisonous atmosphere.

It’s a small book with big ideas. It’s small in its novella length, but also in its limited scope. It follows one character through an intimate story, never straying too far into the larger consequences of it. Yet the small story explores bigger themes of, among other things, truth and beauty.

There’s nothing too new here, but it’s nicely written, and balances emotional depth with hard sci-fi ideas. The second one was also good, but felt more like a tour of the setting to set up future instalments than a story where anything actually happens. Each instalment is only a few bucks and they are released frequently; it’s definitely worth checking out the first one to decide if it’s worth jumping into the rest of the series.

Draculas, by Jeff Strand, F. Paul Wilson, Jack Kilborn, Blake Crouch, and J. A. Konrath

Yeah, four authors. Yeah, Draculas with an S.

When an elderly, dying millionaire buys a skull with sharp, stabby teeth, then proceeds to stab himself in the neck with it, it starts an outbreak of vampires with similar bitey stabby tendencies. That’s the premise of Draculas, in which vampires are slobbering, near-mindless animals with rows of needle-sharp teeth that need blood like we need air. It’s a refreshing take on the played-out vampire trend.

The violence in Draculas is over the top, managing to be both hilarious and disturbing. It’s clear that all four authors had a hell of a lot of fun writing it, which makes it a hell of a lot of fun to read.

There’s not much in the way of plot; this is a summer action movie in novel form. But having no idea who will live or die keeps it interesting enough, especially with the strong characters. I particularly liked Randall, the borderline-challenged lumberjack whose substitution of “vampires” with “draculas” spreads through the characters faster than the vampire epidemic itself. And I won’t spoil anything, but Benny the Clown’s story takes some of the greatest twists and turns.

Despite the police-lineup-sized list of authors, Draculas is one cohesive novel-length story. On top of that, the Kindle Edition of Draculas comes with a bunch of DVD-like extras in it, including short stories by the authors and deleted scenes. Of particular interest to me as a writer, they included the unedited string of emails between authors that got the project going and worked out the logistics of writing it. It’s fascinating — maybe even more fascinating than the book itself — to get that raw look at the creative process.

Anyway, if you’re into monsters with sharp teeth and their intersection with human flesh, give Draculas a try.

P.S. It was almost impossible to write that review without mentioning sparkly vampires.

On Lying

I recently finished reading Sam Harris’s short essay on the topic of lying, which is called, no lie, Lying. In it, he explores the rationality of communicating things that are not true, and comes to the conclusion that it is wrong to lie.

Yeah. Obviously. But Harris goes further than what many people mean when they say “it’s wrong to lie,” arguing that even seemingly justified forms of lying, like little white lies, lying to protect someone, and false encouragement, are all wrong in their own way.

He’s convincing, for the most part. Take false encouragement; the lies we tell without a second thought, like “yeah, I love your blog, you are such a good writer.” It seems harmless, and it would be awkward to say otherwise to someone, but Harris makes a good point: “False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose.”

I’ve always been a big believer that the truth is the fastest route to success, both on a societal level (hence my interest in science) and on a personal level. It would be easy to get carried away with this, becoming one of those people who spouts his opinion whether asked for it or not, and is rarely invited to the next party. However, I think it is possible to tactfully express the truth whenever asked to.

I appreciate blunt people. Others may not, but even they can be served well by the right kind of bluntness. If I tell you that yes, you actually do look like a giant turd in that brown dress (like really, brown dress? What were you thinking?), it might hurt at first, but when you show up to the party in a different dress and get genuine compliments rather than awkward false encouragement, you’re better off in the long run.

Harris also makes the point that lying is not only harmful to the people being lied to, but taxing for the liar. Keeping up a lie takes a lot of mental effort, since the lie was fabricated in the liar’s mind. Every time the lie comes up, the liar has to check against his memory of previous lies, who knows what, how the lie affects everything else; he essentially has to store a new version of reality entirely in his head, often fabricated in real-time. When the truth comes up, though, it’s easy to keep track of; the truth-teller only has to keep track of one version of reality. The real one.

Many of these examples assume the people involved are regular, sane people, who ultimately just want to get along. Where Harris starts to lose me is when discussing situations where this arrangement breaks down. He discusses a hypothetical situation of a murderer showing up at your door looking for a little boy who you are sheltering. Should you tell the murderer the truth? Harris argues that lying could have unintended harmful consequences; the murderer might go to the next house and murder someone else, or at best, it just shifts the burden of dealing with the murderer to someone else. Instead, a truth like “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew,” coupled with a threat, could mollify the situation without a lie.

I’d argue that, when facing someone for whom cooperation and rationality have obviously broken down (e.g., a kid murderer), sometimes there are known consequences of lying (e.g., saving a kid’s life) that are almost certainly less harmful than far-fetched unknown consequences. Harris later makes this same point on a larger scale, when justifying lying in the context of war and espionage, saying the usual rules of cooperation no longer apply. I think blowing up a city with a bomb and stabbing a kid with a knife are both situations where cooperation has broken down, and both situations where lying can be a tool used in good conscience.

There are no absolute moral principles that work in all situations. Life is too complicated for that. Trying to summarize it in simple prescriptive rules (as many religions have) doesn’t work. So, the rule “lying is always wrong” can’t work. There are extreme situations where the rule breaks down.

Luckily, most people will never encounter such an extreme situation in their daily lives. This is where Harris’s main point is spot on: we should lie a lot less than we do. If everyone told the truth in every normal situation, relationships would be stronger, and people would be happier and more productive. I’ve certainly been more aware of my honesty since reading the book, so it’s fair to say it literally changed my life. That’s certainly worth the $2.00 it costs (buy it here). No word of a lie.

Book Review: Moonwalking With Einstein, by Joshua Foer

Memory is often taken for granted in a world where paper and transistors store information better than neurons ever could. Moonwalking With Einstein shines a much-needed light on the art of memorization. It could have been a dry collection of basic science and light philosophy on the subject, but Foer makes it riveting by telling the story of his own head-first dive into the world of memory as sport.

I had no idea this went on, but every year, there are regional and worldwide memory championships in which people compete to perform seemingly superhuman feats of memory, such as memorizing decks of cards as fast as possible, or recalling hundreds of random numbers. After covering one of these events, Foer became so curious that he began training to participate himself.

What he discovered is that these impressive acts of memorization actually boil down to a few simple tricks that anyone can learn. While not a how-to manual, the tricks are simple enough that anyone can pick them up just by reading about how Foer learned them. I can still recall a list of 15 unusual items (in order) that Foer’s mentor, Ed Cooke, used to first teach the memory palace technique. It’s only a matter of practice and refinement for anyone, no matter how forgetful, to memorize several decks of cards.

This humanization of the extraordinary carries throughout the book. Foer himself keeps a modest tone about his damn impressive accomplishments, emphasizing that he’s just a regular forgetful dude who lives in his parents’ basement. The other memory championship contestants, too, can do amazing things during the contest, but it’s clear that the ability to memorize a poem doesn’t translate to a successful personal life.

In fact, Foer is critical of those who do profit from using memory tricks. His contempt for Tony Buzan, the entrepreneur who makes millions on books and sessions related to memory, comes through every time Buzan’s name comes up. He might as well add “coughBULLSHITcough” after every claim of Buzan’s. More substantially, a tangent on savantism takes a strange turn when Foer begins to suspect that one self-proclaimed1 memory savant, Daniel Tammet, may have more in common with the memory championship contestants than with Rain Man2. When Foer confronts him about it directly, things get a bit uncomfortable.

By wrapping fascinating facts and anecdotes about memory up with his own story, Foer keeps it riveting throughout. This is one of those books that I literally had trouble putting down. Anyone with even a passing interest in the human mind should remember to stick Moonwalking With Einstein in their brain hole.


1 And expert-proclaimed; psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes relation) studied Tammet and was more convinced of his traditional savantism.

2 The inspiration for Rain Man, Kim Peek, also makes an appearance and is more convincing as having freakish memory naturally.

Book Review: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

You could describe Ender’s Game as Harry Potter in space. It’d be a pretty crappy way of describing it, since Ender came long before Harry , but the similarities are there. We’ve got a school full of kids who are special, an upcoming war, a sport that involves flying around and reaching a goal, and one really special angsty kid who’s destined to save the world.

The similarities “end” there, though. Ender’s Game is not fantasy, but hard science fiction. For a geek like me, it was a delight to read the intricate details of how to maneuver in zero gravity; not only how it affects people physically, but mentally as well (“the enemy’s gate is down”).

The sci-fi doesn’t come at the expense of character development, however. Ender is a flawed, rounded out character. Flawed in a Jack Bauer kind of way though; you always know he’ll figure out a way to deal with any obstacle. Often violently.

I was amazed at the prescience of Card’s vision of the future. The short story the book is based on was written in 1977, yet many of the technologies described are just coming to maturity in 2010. The Internet plays a large role (especially in the interesting but ultimately rather pointless side plot about Ender’s sister), taking over media and political influence in a way we are sure to see soon. He even threw in a line about kitchen appliances being online; in the 80s, the idea of a human being able to type something up then post it for the entire world to see (hi) would have been mind-blowing, but somehow Card was already imagining Twittering fridges.

Part of his genius was keeping descriptions just vague enough that your mind fills in the details with plausible technology. For example, the students’ “desk” computers are described as fitting on a lap and having a screen, but the exact control mechanism is never specified. Of course, I imagined them as iPads.

Speaking of which…I got an iPad. This is my first post written on it. My typing is slower and I can’t figure out a way to include a picture, but I still feel like I’ve arrived in the friggin future. Full impressions coming up later.

Book Review: World War Z, by Max Brooks

World War Z was not what I expected. Brooks’ previous effort was The Zombie Survival Guide, and I thought World War Z would be his attempt at a straight-forward zombie novel. That is not the case.

The book can be considered a collection of very short stories that take place in the same world (which happens to become overrun with zombies). They are in rough chronological order, so an overall timeline develops, but characters only rarely appear in more than one chapter.

The amount of detail, breadth, and creativity in these tales is incredible. Brooks is well aware that no segment of society is safe in a worldwide zombie apocalypse. Stories cover everyone from Paris Hilton and her chihuahua to the K9 units in the military to the soldiers who specialize in fighting zombies under water.

Each chapter is great as a standalone story, and that’s both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Just as you’re getting into a situation, the chapter ends. There’s something to be said for leaving the reader wanting more, but when there is no more, it can be frustrating. Many of the ideas here are so damn good they could have been expanded into full novels of their own, and sometimes I wish they were.

Still, bite-sized giblets of zombie goodness are better than nothing. World War Z is essential reading for anyone who loves the living dead as much as they should.

Book Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavres, by Mary Roach

Stiff tells various tales about what happens to our bodies after we die. From experiments with car crashes and bullet impacts, to good old cannibalism, it’s a fascinating look at some stories that would usually remain buried.

Aside from being willing to go places few people would dare, Roach’s strength is in the personality that comes through in her writing. Rather than a dry reporting of facts, she describes in first-person her experiences with people—both living and dead—who she sought out to research the book. Describing her own reaction to every odour adds a real punch, but her sense of humour is always there to keep it from going too far.

I listened to the audiobook edition, and Shelly Frasier’s narration is perfect. Her perpetually sardonic tone perfectly captures Roach’s darkly sarcastic writing.

It doesn’t all come up roses. The gross chapters—like the one devoted to research on human decay—are always, um, engrossing. Others can be dry. In the chapter on new methods of disposing of bodies (such as removing all the moister, shattering them, then using them as compost), Roach describes, in great detail, a conference she attended where these methods were debated. While an inside glimpse into the politics of the funeral industry is interesting for a few pages, it goes on for way too long.

Stiff is lively more often than not, though, and is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in the deader side of life.

Book Review: Marvellous Hairy, by Mark A. Rayner

The copy on the back of Marvellous Hairy bills it as a novel about a man who is turning into a monkey. However, it goes far beyond that. The story revolves around a giant, evil corporation nicknamed Gargantuan Enterprises and the people who want to bring it down, then before you know it, there are ghosts, kidnapping, lizards, sex, and drugs thrown in for good measure.

Let me make a confession: I don’t find monkeys inherently funny. Their similarity to humans is amusing, sure, but it’s been overdone. Given the premise of Marvellous Hairy, I was a bit worried that its humour would rely on “anything is funny if you mention the word monkey alongside it” school of thought. Luckily, its absurdity is only partially monkey-based, and it delivers some genuine funny. Many scenes had me smirking as hard as I have at any Douglas Adams novel (yeah, just smirking; it takes a lot for me to physically LOL at text).

A lot of the books I’ve reviewed recently, they’ve been trashily entertaining (see: Charlaine Harris), or had great ideas despite mediocre writing (see: Cory Doctorow). But Rayner is actually a damn good writer. Every paragraph is packed with clever wordplay and subtle allusions. E.g., “He had long greasy black hair that clung to his head like an octopus humping his skull” (ok ok, maybe not always subtle).

Not all is warm and fuzzy. The novel could have used some edits; the language can be wordy, the plot takes a while to get going, and a certain subplot doesn’t feel like it fully connects with the rest of the story. Also, the quasi-omnipotent first-person narrative is jarring, especially when it needs to be explained, though it does add to the surreal bizarreness of the whole thing.

That is where Marvellous Hairy shines: it is such a bizarre barrel of words that you can’t help but have fun reading it. Mark (full disclosure: I can go all first-name-basis because we’ve met IRL) recently tweeted that his next novel may be even sillier, and if that’s the case, I can’t wait to get my paws on whatever he comes up with.

Book Review: Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I’ll keep this short, because Freakonomics is a pretty simple book. It takes a look at various topics—the effect of names on success, drug dealer salaries, cheating in sumo wrestling, etc.—through the eyes of an economist.

This book is a few years old (and has a sequel out now), and it took me a while to get through it, mostly because it’s been my “sit on the bedstand and read for a few minutes before bed” book for a long time. And that’s the ideal context for it. Read a few interesting facts, go “huh, that was interesting,” then put it aside and go to sleep.

There’s some weird deifying of Levitt that just feels out of place, but aside from that, the authors do a good job of merging interesting anecdotes with potentially dry number crunching. The accuracy of the conclusions is sometimes questionable, though. While there is a section about the difference between correlation and causation, causal claims based on correlational data are still presented with more certainty than is warranted.

Much has been made about some of the more controversial topics in here, such as racism, and abortion. For example, they claim that legalizing abortion can lead to a drop in crime rates years afterwards. This may be true (or may not)—and certainly this fact should inform moral judgments about abortion—but the fact itself has no morality attached to it. Presenting such a fact is not a moral stance. Information itself is neutral; it’s what we do with it that determines morality.

Anyway, I’d recommend Freakonomics as a nice little entertaining read for anyone interested in some offbeat conclusions that have been drawn from studying economics. I wouldn’t take it any further than that.

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven tells three interwoven true stories: the history of the Mormon faith, the current life of Mormon fundamentalists, and the 1984 murders of an innocent woman and her baby daughter at the hands of brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, two such fundamentalists. The implication is that the Lafferty murders were not an isolated incident, and indeed, the history and current practice of Mormonism are littered with acts of brutal violence.

Krakauer writes as if he takes the insane things that the killers and other Mormons believe at face value. It’s sort of an inside perspective, describing not what is objectively true, but what the major players believe to be true. This can be humourous when writing about, say, Dan thinking that his bowel movements are a sign from God. Krakauer doesn’t need to inject his own opinion into the descriptions; the stories are ridiculous enough in a straight telling.

That same matter-of-fact style can also be heartbreaking. Like when describing the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormon militia slaughtered an entire wagon train of innocent travelers. Or when the timeline of the Lafferty murders is described in great detail, partly through Dan Lafferty’s own unrepentant words (Krakauer interviewed him directly in prison, where as far as I can tell, he still lives to this day). It’s hard to understand how any sane person could murder a baby.

Yet Krakauer argues that the Lafferties are not insane. The take-it-at-face-value writing underscores that, given what the brothers believed and their rationalizations for any setbacks, they acted rationally. At worst, he identifies Ron as having symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. The combination of the radical beliefs of Mormon fundamentalists, coupled with an extreme personality — the same sort of personality that has fueled the prophets behind all of Mormonism’s violent history — can be a dangerous mix.

This quote illustrates some of the workings of extreme religious minds:

“In one of Ron’s revelations, God had, in fact, instructed him to send his brother Mark to Nevada to wager on a horse to race to raise funds for the City of Refuge. With the Lord letting Mark know which mount to bet on, it seemed that they couldn’t lose. But they did. Afterward, Onias couldn’t resist telling the brothers ‘I told you so,’ causing relations between Ron and the prophet to deteriorate even further.”

With examples like these, on top of more serious ones, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could believe in prophets. In the history of mankind, no prophecy capable of coming true has ever come true. Ever. The bickering and splintering of the church over whose “divine” revelation is better further emphasizes that they are pure fantasy. Yet people do believe. There are over 13 million Mormons worldwide, their faith based on a prophet who, less than 200 years ago, claimed to have “translated” a book of golden plates an angel showed him in the woods, by putting a magical rock in a hat then stuffing his face in the hat. And these are the less delusional, non-fundamentalist ones.

What may disturb readers is that their own beliefs — especially other religious ones, but this applies to some atheists too — could be just as unfounded and dangerous if left unchecked. Krakauer briefly makes an explicit link with Christianity, but I think the lessons of this book are even broader. All beliefs should be questioned, as should all sources of authority – be it the voice of God, a charismatic prophet, or Richard Dawkins.

If I had to complain about one aspect of the book, it would be its overemphasis on polygamy. The polygamist relationships of both modern and historical Mormons are whipped out as if the mere mention of multiple partners should send shivers up the reader’s spine. I may write a follow-up post to this, but my opinion, in short, is that it’s not polygamy itself that is troubling. Rather, it is the irrational beliefs that are the cause of polygamy in Mormons, and the monumental abuse of women and girls that polygamy often (but not always) leads to, that should be eradicated.

Sarah lent me this book, thinking it’d be up my alley, and she was so right. It’s hard to say I “liked” it, since much of my reaction to it is jaw-dropped horror, but especially in the early chapters when both the historical background and the murder story are fresh, it is an astounding, mind-blowing read. Anyone with any interest in religious belief, true crime, or both, should pick up Under the Banner of Heaven immediately.