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.