Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Reviews, Fiction

When She Woke – Hillary Jordan

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is probably one of the ‘hottest’ books being hand-sold these days. Published by Algonquin after a large number of other traditional publishers passed on the book [To my great surprise and pleasure, the author, Hillary Jordan has corrected me on this part – other publishers passed over Mudbound, but rather, Algonquin bought When She Woke upon first showing. Whoever was responsible for this acquisition should be promoted at Algonquin. – (see first comment)], it addresses one of the toughest issues in America today. Books should make you think, and even with this adage in place, too many books have been published about nothing at all. This is not an issue with When She Woke. One of the most volatile issues in the current state of our world is that of abortion. Throw in a second issue that is no less incendiary in that of the separation of religion and government, and even a third issue with the topic of capital punishment and the criminal justice system. Blend with a plot alluding to racism and the Underground Railroad and you’ve got a strange amalgam of concepts that have somehow been interwoven into a stunning story by Hillary Jordan.

The protagonist, Hannah Payne has been convinced of murder in Texas for having an abortion. Her sentence is to undergo a dyeing process known as ‘melachroming’. The convicted criminal has their skin altered to match the type of crime they committed. Murderers are chromed as Reds. Lesser crimes are chromed to different colors matching the general category they’ve been placed upon the color wheel. And the use of the red chroming color leads us to a general allusion to The Scarlet Letter, and also produces a distinctive and striking cover image that summarizes the book’s entire plot within a single image.

The dye isn’t fully permanent, and to prevent tampering with the dye itself, the scientists have combined it with a virus that causes a criminal to slowly go insane if they don’t get periodic re-injections of the dye, which allows the government to keep track of the criminals. All of these technical details are presented rather off-handly, as the novel focuses on the story and the general concepts without delving whatsoever into any actual science. We’re provided with this information so we don’t wonder why ‘Chromes’ don’t just wander off on their own. After melachroming was introduced, the prison system was almost eliminated by allowing the Chromes to reintegrate into society instead of being held in prisons.

Colorism is in full-swing, and in some cases it is justified, but for other cases, it may not be. There is no difference between a serial killer and a woman who has had an abortion. They are both chromed as Reds. There are no hues. And Chromes are pretty much given no opportunities, live in slums, shunned, and abused in general. Even extreme religious groups hunt down Chromes to murder and victimize them. All of this takes place a few decades in the future, yet it repeats the history of the Jim Crow South during the early 20th century. Jordan goes a few steps beyond what Orwell did with Animal Farm to represent the Russian Revolution, making me wonder if the entire novel was written as a plea not to repeat history.

Nothing really befalls the man if the woman has an abortion. Only the woman is Chromed. Maybe the man is shunned and ostracized as well, but he won’t be Chromed. Sexism is alive and prevalent, perhaps more so in this futuristic society due to the amount of abuse that can be piled upon Chromed females. Exploitation and other atrocities frequently occur on an ongoing basis. The only option for females that have been Chromed red for abortion are to get assistance from radicals or from an underground society that has built a sort of underground railroad to Quebec, the last bastion of freedom. Other countries have generally shunned the USA’s melachroming practices, but Quebec is the closest country that offers both amnesty and a rumored reversal of melachroming.

There are other underlying plots added to this tangled web that help make When She Woke a delicious read. The storylines combine and enhance each other to create a wonderful story that kept me turning the pages until I finally finished the book. It’s probably best if you have some background in the American South and American History to appreciate all the allusions and metaphors that have been sprinkled across the book as literary garnishments to a seven course meal that leaves you feeling satisfied with your time well spent.

After having read When She WokeI can understand why so many publishers passed on publishing Jordan’s book, because as good as it is [that is, if they had seen the manuscript and passed over it], the society described in it hits a little bit too close to home. Just witness the hypocrisy and Tebowmania that manage to co-exist hand-in-hand today. It’s one thing to hold up Tebow as a paragon of Christianity without examining what he actually stands for. The evangelical movement doesn’t belong to any specific creed or organization. So in general, this brand of Christianity can generate anything from the most pious of worshipers, to mega-churches, to cults, and yes, even to warmongers.

Blind faith is required in religion. Blindly supporting humans is not (certain personality cults excluded). And living an unexamined life is akin to not living at all in my opinion. This sort of situation also arises in When I Woke, with religious offshoots. Even some of the hate groups in history have been based on religion, so this is on-topic and something that can actually occur. All in all, When She Woke is certainly a difficult novel that doesn’t advocate one position over another, but merely comments about what may occur when choice has been revoked, and of the integration of government and religion. I don’t think that the book itself advocates abortion, especially when there’s several scenes about the regret of some women that have undergone the procedure. Removing choice from someone else based on your own beliefs that they may not share is not essentially correct.

One note I’d like to make is that a nuance was made in the book that may have been intentionally added to lessen any backlash – all abortion has been banned. Including ones where the mother’s life is in grave danger, incest, rape, and pretty much every other “situation” that some pro-life supporters concede as being acceptable. It certainly helps the book’s comparison to a totalitarian society based on a single religious viewpoint.

Overall Grade: A
Publisher: Algonquin Books (October, 2011)
ISBN: 1565126297
Page Count: 352
Original Language: English

Book Reviews, Fiction

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Ready Player One was a novel that I wanted to read from the second I heard about its premise. A futuristic apocalyptic society where the common escape from reality is a massively multiplayer online game that uses haptic equipment and virtual reality? And to boot, it focuses on retro video games and movies from the 1980s? Where do I sign up!?!

Needless to say from my brief capsule overview above, I was excited about this novel and would have been sorely disappointed if it hadn’t delivered just a tiny portion of its massive potential. Luckily, I wasn’t let down by Ernest Cline, who has crafted a wholly believable and organic world that is at once both technologically advanced and downtrodden. Nuclear catastrophe has wiped out parts of the world and dust bowls have returned worldwide as a great recession has gripped the entire world. Trailers have been stacked to create slum apartments around the few remaining habitable parts of the world. Currencies have pretty much been inflated to the point where the online credit has become the de facto monetary unit worldwide to supplement a bartering system already in place. The multiplayer game (OASIS) has become the refuge of most humans who want to escape the horrors of reality.

Welcome to 2044.

The founder of OASIS has become the world’s richest recluse (a la Howard Hughes, but with way more money). The OASIS programmer input a challenging treasure hunt within the game itself with the prize for the winner being his entire estate including all property real, virtual, and intangible, monies, and whatever else he possessed. Obviously, this sparked a worldwide hunt for the ultimate ‘Easter egg’, and the people treasure hunting for the required items are considered to be ‘gunting’ (egg-hunting). A Gunter is a person who has dedicated himself to analyzing every facet of the founder’s life, his cultural tastes, and in short, the nerd-geek culture of the ’80s. Movies such as WarGames and Ladyhawke play a prominent role. Games such as Adventure, Joust, Zork, and other classics are also central to the plot itself. In short, if you know more about the video game culture of the 80’s and cult-classic movies beyond just Pac-Man and The Goonies, you’ll rather enjoy this novel.

While the real world has essentially been turned into a desolated wasteland with outposts of humanity scattered throughout, the virtual world has multiple planets, and an infinite number of things anybody can create. As such, there’s an entire universe to explore online. However, just moving around (transporting) between worlds costs real money. That’s how the company makes its money when the game itself is essentially free for anybody to join and play. Some people attend virtual mega-churches. Others visit tawdry places, while still others lose themselves in recreated memories of the past.

The majority of the action takes place within the simulated world of OASIS. If you’ve ever spent any time playing any sort of MMORPG or even a MUD, you’ll recognize how authentic the descriptions of the OASIS experience are. And if you’ve got any sort of experience with the video games in the book itself, several nice memories from the past will pop up and probably give you an itch to start playing some ‘classic’ video games from your own past. And they won’t necessarily be the ones mentioned in the book itself.

While reading the book itself, I was reminded of several classic arcade-rooms and arcade-games from my past, conjured up by some paragraphs describing how older people on OASIS had recreated the arcades from their childhood down to the games contained within there and the shabby theadbare carpet. In my childhood, I loved the arcade, especially the wide variety of games that could be found in the random assortment of establishments that I frequented. One of them even rented out time to play home consoles such as the NeoGeo and TurboGrafx-16. Now you may be wondering why we’d even bother paying something like $1 to play five minutes on a home gaming console. Well, the console itself for the Neo Geo alone was $400 USD. And the games were $200 each!

This is also the same reason why you’d see the advent of those Neo Geo “Pick 10” standalones in places such as Pizza Hut. Since the machine stuffed 10 different games into one box, Pizza Hut would often just have this machine alone, or perhaps two arcade games with Pac-Man being the other one. Most of the Neo Geo games have been classics that have held up very well over the years, to the point where the original console and games have actually somehow appreciated in value. Most other game consoles and games at least had a dip in value somewhere along the line, but apart from a few outliers, most of them haven’t retained their value well.

Back from the tangent – I enjoyed playing Samurai Showdown and of course all the Metal Slug games. The TurboGrafx-16 also got some love, mainly for Bonk’s Adventure. But this specific arcade also had several other classic games over the years, to the point where I think it was curated by a genius. Dragon’s Lair? Check. 720°? Check. Street Fighter II Turbo? Check. NARC? Check. Smash TV? Check. Even the apparently rare Pigskin 621 A.D.? Check. And it had an unusual assortment of several different rotating games that included WWF Superstars (1991). About the only thing it never had was one of my favorite games of all-time, Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off-Road. That was an addictive game and usually only found in odd places, such as roller-skating arenas.

Anyway, if any of my rambling diatribe about a very specific arcade that contained these items interests you or sounds familiar to you, drop everything and go pick up Ready Player One. You’ll love the novel. While it’s not a literary masterpiece, it reads fast, smooth, easily, and of course, is an excellent read. So far, it’s retained the title of ‘Best 2012 Read’ into mid-February. I don’t want to give away more of the plot itself, but suffice it to say that even if you’re not familiar with all the offbeat references, you’ll still enjoy this novel if you enjoy fantasy, science fiction, or even just a thriller. It can function as all three genres at once.

The edition that I reviewed was the first edition hardcover.

Edition: Crown (August, 2011) – 1st ed.
ISBN: 978-0307887436
Binding: Hardcover with dust jacket
Page Count: 384
Original Language: English
Overall Grade: A

Since March Madness is nearing upon us, I also have to express my great disappointment that The Morning News did not include Ready Player One in its bracket for the Tournament of Books, 2012 edition. While I can understand some of the books selected, I really can’t fathom how Ready Player One couldn’t replace some of the books selected, such as The Devil All The Time, Green Girl, The Cat’s Table, or even State of Wonder. Oh well. Even though I know Ready Player One wouldn’t have won the literary contest, it’d still have been nice to have been invited to the dance.

Book Reviews, Fiction

Some Things That Meant The World To Me – Joshua Mohr

Joshua Mohr’s stunning debut novel explores the life of its central figure, a man called Rhonda. I read the entire novel knowing that Rhonda was suffering from ‘depersonalization’, but didn’t know what that meant medically. By the end I thought I had figured out what that malady was – a psychological affliction that was the result of Rhonda’s extremely warped upbringing at the hands of his alcoholic mother and her abusive boyfriend, Letch.

The psychological aspects of this novel ring true to the point where one suspects Mohr may actually have suffered from depersonalization himself at one point in his life. The reflection of the psychological sessions on Rhonda’s life is done authentically and allows the reader to learn more about Rhonda via a combination of his childhood as told to his psychologist, commingled with Rhonda’s disjointed present-day experiences. Mohr’s prose deftly transports the reader into Rhonda’s twisted persona, and we’re left to divine the meaning behind little-Rhonda and old-woman-Rhonda. No answers are given by the end of the novel, and that’s the way that it should be for Rhonda’s story.

The publisher, Two Dollar Radio prides itself on finding unconventional (but good) books that are then published as paperback originals. Just a few months ago, this family operation moved its home base to Columbus, Ohio. I look forward to reading some of their other books, especially those by Mohr, if they all live up to the standard set by Mohr’s debut. I stalked Two Dollar Radio’s website for a couple of years, especially after finding it via the links section of Maud Newton’s blog, but didn’t really know which book to take the plunge in on. Reviews were scarce on the actual books themselves, but across the blogverse, I could only find laudatory comments for Two Dollar Radio itself. So when the ‘personalized recommendation’ option became available on their website, I couldn’t resist and sent in an email.

To my rather pleasant surprise, I received an email back from Eric Obenauf (editor in chief) commending me for my obscure pop culture selections (he had never heard of two of my favorite movies – Stalker(1979) and Primer (2004)). I got my list of recommendations, and based on that list, I decided to order the ‘Year 3 subscription’ as it contained three of the recommended books on my list. All of the books look great, and while I provided the Amazon link for this book – you would be vastly better off ordering directly from Two Dollar Radio. They have subscriptions for each year they’ve printed books in, and $50 for five high-quality paperbacks (including shipping) is a far better deal than you’d be able to find elsewhere. They’ve also been running some recent sales such as a ‘Santa Fucked Up’ sale (any 2 books for $15, any 4 for $30 – the sale has already expired). In short, you can usually score just about any book you want for $10 each (including shipping).

Back to Some Things That Meant the World to Me – one of my only complaints is that the pigeons depicted in the Rorschach blot on the cover is from an incredibly specific scene within the book. That scene was only a page out of the entire novel and I would have much preferred to have seen sidewinders depicted on the cover instead. The sidewinders would have been a much better reflection on the novel as a whole, although the Rorschach blot image itself was the right concept to use. (Two Dollar Radio contracts out its cover artwork, so I’m really just niggling here.)

Rhonda turns out to be an unforgettable and sympathetic protagonist due to the warped and twisted nature of his experiences. But the novel itself is a looping surreal existence that couldn’t have been pulled off by an author with less literary talent, and for this to be Mohr’s debut novel must give several authors literary envy. The only other author in recent memory that I recall having comparable verbose virtuosity in their debut novels are Karen Russell (Swamplandia!) and possibly Téa Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife), which I have yet to complete. Frankly, I kept hoping for the story to continue past its slim 205 pages since Eric Obenauf recommended this novel based on my love for Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (1991, I’ll review it someday). There are indeed some elements comparable to Sophie’s World in Some Things That Meant the World to Me, but it’s not a direct comparison – although if you enjoyed Sophie’s World, and don’t mind some dark material, you’ll enjoy this novel.

Overall Grade: A
Edition: Two Dollar Radio (June, 2009)
ISBN: 978-0982015117
Binding: Perfect-bound paperback
Page Count: 205
Original Language: English
Other Notes: Paperback original

Book Reviews, Memoirs, Nonfiction

Open – Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi was the first male tennis player to complete the Golden Slam (win all four majors: Australian, French, Wimbledon, and the US Open, along with an Olympic gold medal). During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Agassi was best known for his flamboyant dress and the hair, which he translated into an advertising campaign with Canon using the tagline, “Image is Everything”. In later years, he was considered the best returner in tennis history and his battles with Pete Sampras were usually titanic struggles between two extremes: serving and returning.

Andre has served up a hugely pleasing read with his autobiography. Brutally honest, almost to the point of being caustic – you’re introduced to Andre’s tennis life starting with his father training him to become the best tennis player ever. Growing up in Las Vegas, winning tournaments, and then moving to Florida to train at a tennis camp before dropping out of school in the ninth grade and finally turning professional at a tender age. All along the way, Andre hated tennis. A recap of some of his early professional years are included, where he met with success and failure in equal measures.

The book isn’t just about tennis though. Andre writes about important moments in his life, and the most important relationships he has had in life, both good and bad. The most important person in Agassi’s life has been his trainer Gil, who acts as a rock for Agassi throughout his life after becoming his trainer. The relationship with Brooke Shields is outlined and from Agassi’s description, it seems as if that relationship was doomed to failure after a few months.

Open is a gripping read, and the last quarter of the book or so deals with how Agassi entered his relationship with his current wife, Steffi Graf, and his late-career resurgence. Andre also writes about his new passions in life, and how he has come to terms with tennis’ role in his life. After Agassi retires, Open comes to a swift end, although Agassi’s journey in life has only removed the active professional tennis role from its list of activities. The reader is certainly left wanting more from Agassi, especially with how much access he allowed us in Open.

Simply put, Open has redefined the sports figure autobiography. The bar has been raised far above the level of every other similar work. One can only hope that future sports autobiographers take note and grant us the level of access and interesting anecdotes that Agassi granted to every one of us with Open. If you’ve enjoyed reading other autobiographies, you’d be better off not reading Open. It’ll ruin the pleasure of every other single work that attempts to reach its level and fails. But if you just want an easy-reading outstanding narrative that brings back memories of the early nineties tennis scene, or always wondered about something about Andre Agassi, definitely pick Open up!

Overall Grade: A+
Edition: Knopf, 1st ed. Deckle Edge (November, 2009)
ISBN: 978-0307268198
Binding: Hardcover with dustjacket
Page Count: 400
Original Language: English
Other Notes: Autobiography – Sports (Tennis)