Book Review: Club Dead, by Charlaine Harris

Club Dead is the third book in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries series. See my reviews for Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas for the general gist of the series. Vague spoilers for Club Dead lie ahead, but nothing you won’t forget before you get around to reading it.

A lot is familiar here, having read the first two books. The writing is better but still full of awkward moments. I suspect Harris started following some new writing advice, such as mapping out her locations before writing about them (in too much detail; “I walked into a 100 square foot room with a window in the wall in front of me, a door in the center of the right wall that lead into a hallway that lead into a bedroom which also had a window, and a broom closet on the left wall. I then left and never came back”), and buying a word-a-day calendar (which she cleverly gives to Sookie as an excuse for the sudden appearance of big words). Vampire Bill is still up to his delightful rapist ways, and adds a few other unforgivable wrongs on top of that (which are quickly forgiven). But this time he’s joined by a whole cast of loveable sexual predators.

Oh, and maybe I’m beating a dead horse here (LOLvampirehorse), but Sookie’s extreme shallowness also makes a return. Seriously, she’s about to go on dangerous mission with dangerous people, her life in jeopardy, and the first thing she thinks of is what to do with her hair. The world conspires to conform to her bizzarre superficial wishes, and the whole next chapter is spent describing her getting a surprise makeover. Let me reiterate: in this book full of vampires and werewolves and telepaths, a whole chapter is devoted to a fucking makeover.

As the hero of the novels, Sookie doesn’t really do many heroic things. For example, here is the complete Sookie Stackhouse Manual for How to be a Detective:

  • Get your hair done. Find a cute outfit.
  • Show up somewhere where there may or may not be stuff relevant to the case.
  • Get seriously injured.
  • Get saved by a supernatural creature.
  • Wake up in the right place at the right time to witness the mystery’s solution.

But there are a lot of good reasons to read the book anyway. For the first time, I felt there were actually some compelling mysteries, with answers that made sense but weren’t completely obvious. Also, that really dumb character I alluded to in my review for Dead Until Dark makes a significant reappearance, but this time doesn’t seem so out of place, and his silliness does add some comic relief.

All in all, I give Club Dead the same recommendation I did the other two books: read it for cheap thrills and nothing more.

Book Review: Living Dead in Dallas, by Charlaine Harris

Living Dead in Dallas is the second book in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, and the basis for the second season of True Blood. It follows the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, redneck vampire boinker, as stuff happens to her in her small hometown of Bon Temps, then different stuff happens in the titular Dallas, then in Bon Temps again.

Most of what I said about Dead Until Dark still applies here. Harris’s writing is full of personality and small moments of brilliance that almost make up for the rest of the awkward prose. It’s nice light beach reading, though, because of both the simple writing and the tendency for characters to mindlessly repeat events that just happened (sometimes on the previous page), ensuring that if you get distracted there will always be a “previously on True Bl- Living Dead in Dallas” style review.

The plot is kinda interesting, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to describe this book (or the last one) as a detective story or murder mystery. First of all, there are pretty much two entirely separate stories in the book. The main plot taking place in Dallas has nothing to do with the murder occuring on the first page. Second, the murder plot that bookends the Dallas stuff is only a detective story in the Harry Potter sense: i.e., the main character happens to be around when the rest of the characters spell out the solution to the mystery then proceed to resolve it, but she didn’t do much “detecting” other than knowing where to show up.

I also need to comment on some of the, uh, “character flaws” here. Sookie is a selfish, petty, and manipulative “hero.” Her biggest worries seem to be not about the safety of her loved ones, nor even her own safety, but rather the state of her hair, and whether she is wearing an appropriate outfit or not. Seriously, she cries over messy hair. She is also willfully stupid, specifically refusing to think through actions that destroy others’ lives. Her boyfriend has the excuse of being a vampire, but he’s not entirely innocent either; he’s a bit of an abusive rapist who thinks all problems can be solved with sex, violence, or violent sex. But Sookie seems to fully agree, so maybe it’s a match made in heaven.

Just like the TV show, Living Dead in Dallas is glorious cheesy mess of violence, sex and character drama that, even if not thrown together very tactfully or providing any heartfelt messages about doing the right thing, is damn entertaining. Which is why I will resist the urge to end this review with “hah! More like Living Dead in Dallass“.

Oops.

Book Review: Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

Two of my favourite TV shows ever are Six Feet Under and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So when I heard that the creator of Six Feet Under was helming a show about vampires, I had to check it out. As predicted, I enjoyed the crap out of True Blood, which lead me to impulsively buy the series of books that it’s based on.

The first book starts off with a great opening line: “I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.” Immediately from there, it launches into the story of Sookie Stackhouse, a Southern small-town waitress with two disabilities: the curse of having to read peoples’ minds, and a really stupid name. The first one is what first draws her to the vampire, because she can’t read his mind, which she thinks is awesome because men are scum and they only think terrible things. And although not mentioned, the stupid name problem probably helps her to relate to Bill, which is a pretty dumb name for a vampire. After she meets him, people start dying, hell breaks loose, etc etc. You know the drill.

True Bl Dead Until Dark is written in a first-person style from Sookie’s perspective, and indeed the novel feels like the rambling diary of a realistic, naive young woman who isn’t particularly good at writing, being full of awkward sentences and tactless exposition. This either means: (1) Charlaine Harris is really good at simulating how much Sookie sucks at writing; or (2) Charlaine Harris just sucks at writing.

But let’s just pretend it’s (1) and focus on the positive. Partly because of the informal first-person style, Sookie’s personality comes through, and the little expressions she uses and social conventions she frets over help to bring the Southern setting to life. I could’ve done without her agonizing over what to wear in every single chapter and the sickening mind-games she casually manipulates the males in her life with, but intentional or not, she at least seems like a flawed, real (albeit stereotypically female) person.

There is a murder mystery that ties each chapter together, but the characters seem more interested in short-term questions about cleaning the house, work timetables, and vampire ejaculation than about who’s killing their friends and families. Some chapters can feel separated from the rest of the story, as if nobody remembers what came before. As a single book it’s disjointed, and actually feels a bit like a big pilot episode, with dangling plot elements that exist only to set up future installments. But since there are plenty of future installments, and there is a TV series based on it, this episodic storytelling isn’t entirely unwelcome.

The novel departs from the first season of True Blood in quite a few significant ways. Most obvious is the complete lack of Tara in the novel, the alternate reason for Bill’s little trip late in the book, and the ending. There is also one plot element missing from the show, which is a great thing because, while I hate to use this word, it can only be described as retarded. Without giving anything away, it starts with “B”; anyone who’s read it will know what I’m talking about. True Blood also added a few entirely new subplots that I thought worked as well, if not better, than what was from the novel. This gives me hope for the show, because many of the show’s flaws were inherited from the book, and the creators’ willingness to depart from it can only bode well for future seasons.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit snarky in describing Dead Until Dark, but I did enjoy it quite a bit. It’s not a masterfully told story, but it does a few new things with the crowded vampire genre, and has just enough sex and violence to provide some cheap thrills. I recommend it for fans of the show looking to see what inspired it, or anyone else who likes cheesy vampire crap.

Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin

Before I begin, let me just say right off that I enjoyed reading this book a whole lot and I heartily recommend it. The following harsh criticism is partly because I care enough to wish it was just a bit better, and partly because its subject matter falls in my own general area of expertise (psychology), so I’m bound to be nitpicky.

This is Your Brain on Music explores the science behind music, drawing from the latest research in psychology and neuroscience to explore various facets of creating and listening to it. After reviewing some basic information about music and music theory (most of which was new to me), Levitin begins describing the science behind topics such as categorization of music, the role of emotion in music, and musical expertise.

My first beef with the book is in its accuracy. Vague hypotheses and tentative research findings are often presented as established fact. However, this is to be expected in any science book written for a popular audience (again, me being a nitpicky psychologist). But there are other little errors. Levitin briefly mentions that Canadian psychologist Glenn Schellenberg was an original member of the popular 80s band Martha and the Muffins. However, a bit of Googling reveals that Schellenberg seems to have only played a guest role on a later album of theirs.

This only caught my attention because I’m currently running a study that Schellenberg kindly provided some audio files for. And speaking of name dropping, Levitin devotes many words to telling us how many famous people he has chilled with. At one point, he suddenly goes from talking about the role of the cerebellum in music to an elaborate tale of how he attended conferences with all his scientist heroes and even met Watson and Crick. This autobiographical stuff is interesting enough, but it ruins the flow – the rhythm, if you will – of the scientific stuff when the two are discordantly mashed together.

This haphazard organization is also exemplified in the book’s final chapter. During a discussion of music’s primary role in human evolution that is finally starting to lead somewhere, Levitin suddenly jumps to a vague hypothesis about mirror neurons fueling cultural evolution, then jumps again to a rambling, repetitive paragraph that pretty much says “humans live in groups” 5 times in 5 slightly different ways, and then, the book ends. No real final thought; no paragraph even trying to tie the preceding chapters together, just a random stopping point when he ran out of facts and anecdotes to throw onto the page.

Did I mention I liked this book? While it may be a disorganized collection of facts about music, each fact is fascinating on its own and well worth reading about. We often fail to think very much about the music we listen to for hours each day, and This is Your Brain on music, while it could use improvement, is an eye opening exploration of the deeper layers of the magical human experience that is music.

Side note: In this post, I wondered about the underlying reason for certain musical conventions. For example, why do minor chords sounds sad? Is it arbitrary and cultural? Or is there a more concrete reason? This book answers some of those questions. Long story short, like usual, it’s both. The laws of physics are responsible for some combinations of sounds going well together, but arbitrary choices and conventions also play a large role. E.g., apparently not every culture thinks minor chords sound sad. Interesting stuff.

Book Review: Playing For Keeps, by Mur Lafferty


I love Mur Lafferty. Her podcast, I Should Be Writing, was one of the first I ever downloaded and it hasn’t left my mp3 player(s) since. She’s come a long way, from a self-described “wannabe fiction writer” to full-blown published novelist.

So is she any good at practicing what she preaches?

Let me get the negatives out of the way first. This is Mur’s first novel, published with the small new publisher Swarm Press, and the lack of experience shows. Nearly every chapter is full of one or more typos, grammatical errors, or otherwise awkward prose. Jarring continuity errors crop up (e.g., there is off-hand mention of demons long before they actually show up), and characters often do inexplicably random things. A lack of polish usually doesn’t get in a way of a good story, but here it is so rampant that it can obfuscate the plot and kill any sense of immersion. One careful proof reader could have fixed this. They should hire a teaching assistant, like me; I brutally criticize writing for a living, and do it for almost no money.

But pushing past technical issues, there is a creative and exciting story here. Playing For Keeps tells the story of the superpowered people between superheroes and supervillains. They’re not good nor evil, just ordinary, and while they can do extraordinary things, their abilities are so specific as to be useless outside of a single purpose (e.g., a cook who can predict anyone’s perfect meal; an old man who can take off and regrow one leg). The highlight of the novel is seeing how, when put to the test, even seemingly shitty powers can be jiggered to do incredible things. The plot moves at a Flash-like pace, with twists and turns happening at the end of nearly every short chapter, making it a quick, fun read that’s hard to put down.

Playing For Keeps is a flawed, awkward mess, but it’s very hard to not have a great time reading it. With unlimited sequel and spinoff potential, and hopefully a bit more time and experience for polishing up future endeavors, I can’t wait to see more from Mur Lafferty and the Playing For Keeps universe.

Book Review: Snuff, by Chuck Palahniuk

In Snuff, Chuck Palahniuk takes on the world of porn. It’s not like this is a big departure from his previous material (see my reviews for Invisible Monsters and Haunted), so he’s right at home here. Snuff tells the story of an aging porn star who sets out to break the world gangbang record; 600 dudes in a row.

It’s typical Palahniuk, with troubled characters, gross-out moments, shocking twists, “true facts” that may or may not be true, etc. It’s a much simpler story than some of his others, feeling more like an extended, shallow short story than a complete novel, but it’s an entertaining quick read for any fans of his previous work.

Snuff also has the best collection of porn movie titles I’ve seen. World Whore Three: The Whore to End All Whores is just the beginning.

Palahniuk’s style does get a little grating after reading several of his books. Characters in his stories never really have conversations; they just talk to themselves while in close proximity. Sure, they’re all a bit fucked up, but it would be nice if, just once in a while, characters actually responded to one another like normal people.

Also: I’ll be happy if I don’t have to read the words “shared meatloaf” ever again.

Book Review: Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk


In Chuck Palahniuk’s world, nothing is what it seems. Something sinister lurks behind the scenes of everything ordinary. Homelessness, feng shui, those dolls you practice CPR on, talk shows; they’re not what they seem to be. It’s an interesting place to visit, but you wouldn’t wanna live there. That’s what makes Haunted – a collection of bite-size chunks of story – such a perfect window into Chuck Palahniuk’s world.

Haunted squishes together short stories, poems, and a novel in a semi-coherent fashion. There is an overarching story, but it’s really not the main attraction. It’s the short stories, presented as if they were written by the characters in the main story, that really shine here; and by “shine”, I mean “make you gasp, barf, and possibly faint.” They’re horrific, but for the most part, not in a supernatural way; this is all real-world horror. Palahniuk claims that many of them are true. At the same time, though, they are so over the top that they must be exaggerated beyond recognition. At least, that’s what you gotta tell yourself, because like I said, Chuck Palahniuk’s world is not the one you want to be living in.

He ends the book with an autobiographical story about the power of books, and their freedom and necessity in a world of mass media. It’s both inspirational and frightening. If you are looking for a book that can affect you in ways that television and movies never do – though not always in a good way – then look no further than Haunted.

Arthur C. Clarke, RIP


Arthur C. Clarke died today (*). The man was a genius. I’ve only recently started reading his books, but his impact has been felt throughout my life. Nearly every piece of science fiction created since the 50s owes something to Clarke. More directly, seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a kid, even though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, probably had quite the impact on me. It’s a testament to human curiosity about life’s most perplexing questions, and the fact that there is more to life than this earthly existence, with no need to invoke the supernatural to appreciate it. Perhaps this was part of what sparked my interest in science.

Speaking of which, anybody interested in science should take note of Clarke’s laws of prediction:

  • 1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  • 2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • 3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

There’s a lot to take out of those three little statements. But I think the main message is one of hope rather than cynicism. What seems impossible may very well be possible; what we consider magic today may be within our reach tomorrow.

Even though it’s impossible, let’s hope Clarke is now a glowing fetus looking down on us from a bubble floating in space. Float in peace, Arthur C. Clarke.

.

.

* Actually, he died tomorrow, since he was in Sri Lanka, where it’s already Wednesday.

Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert


As anyone who has studied any psychology knows, humans have one of the most advanced brains out of all the animals on this planet, but they’re far from perfect. There are a lot of situations in which our brains make minor mistakes, and some situations in which they outright betray us. Stumbling on Happiness is an overview of many of these mistakes, with a special focus on mistakes we make when we remember how we felt in our past, or try to predict how we’ll feel in the future.

The book is extremely easy to read. It’s often hilarious, and not just in a “I’m a clever scientist so I’ll throw in a reference to some obscure work of literature and everyone will laugh” sort of funny, but actually hilarious. It also stays clear of any psychology jargon or statistics. As someone studying psychology, I could complain that he oversimplifies things sometimes (for example, discussing the theory of cognitive dissonance without ever calling it by name), but really, the book isn’t meant for psychologists. Anyone could read this and learn a lot about how the mind works, then go read the original research for the details. And even though I don’t fully agree with every conclusion he reaches, I’m glad he never simplifies to the point of being dishonest (like some popular psychology books are prone to doing), such as offering an easy answer to eternal happiness. In science, and especially in psychology, there are no easy answers.

A caution though: the book is more about stumbling, less about happiness. As Gilbert clearly states at the beginning, this isn’t a book about how to make you happy. It’s about how you often suck at predicting what your future will be like, and that happens to include how happy you’ll be. This book can teach you a bit about human psychology, but it cannot teach you how to be happy. He does give one scientifically verified suggestion for how to predict your own happiness, but you won’t like it.

I really enjoyed reading Stumbling on Happiness. Or at least, I currently think I enjoyed it. My brain may not be entirely accurate when retrieving my past happiness while I read it. But I’m pretty sure that anyone interested in psychology could amplify their own future happiness by picking up this book.

Book Review: The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil

The singularity refers to a time, sometime in the future, when machines become more intelligent than biological humans, and technology begins to improve rapidly as a result. The Singularity is Near is Ray Kurzweil’s attempt to justify his belief that the singularity is coming sooner than most people think, and what consequences it will have.

Oh, what consequences.

Kurzweil envisions a future where almost nothing is impossible. Human-machine hybrids live forever in a world with very few problems, playing and engaging in intellectual pursuits in any virtual reality environment they can imagine. This isn’t your typical flying-car future. What use are flying cars when anybody can instantly obtain any information, or experience any location, just by thinking about it? It sounds like science fiction, but Kurzweil convincingly argues that it is not fiction at all.

The best part is that, if he’s right, almost everyone reading this can experience this future in their lifetime. This book should be prescribed to suicide-prone people. With a Utopian future just a few years off, why end it now?

Some would probably argue that Kurzweil is too hopeful. He does seem a little, uh, off at times. The dude is on a radical diet involving dozens of drugs and food restrictions, just so his aging body can last long enough to see the singularity he so believes in. And how many times do we need to be reminded that in the future, you can become the opposite gender and have sex with whoever, or whatever, you want? That’s cool if you’re into it, but in a world with almost no limits, I think most people will come up with even more interesting stuff to do with their time. And although he argues each point well, if he’s wrong about even one – for example, one fundamental limit on technology is reached, or one catastrophic world-altering event sets us back – all his predictions could fall apart.

Still, even a small chance that he’s right should give us all an enthusiastic hope for the future. Reading this book (and its shorter predecessor, The Age of Spiritual Machines) made me happy to be alive in today’s world; I don’t think I could give a book any higher a recommendation than that.

P.S. I wrote more about this book at this post. Yes, it took me more than 6 months to read it. In fact, it probably took me over a year. It’s damn thick. But although it does have boring bits, it’s worth the time investment.