Monthly Archives: July 2009

“This Is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper

This Is Where I Leave YouJonathan Tropper has carved a niche for himself in the Nick Hornby corner of the literary world.  And on some level it would be easy to dismiss him as a imitator of Hornby if not for one simple thing–his novels are always so damn good.

“This Is Where I Leave You” is no exception.  In fact, it’s the novel that takes all the Troopper tropes and pulls them together in a fascinating new character examination novel that is both compulsively readable and utterly fascinating.

Judd Foxman is in his mid-30s and facing a crossroads.  He’s separated from his wife, who he caught in bed with his boss and radio shock-jock, on her birthday.  That led to him quitting his job and as he wiles away days in a basement apartment with nothing but a TV and a few random pieces of furniture to keep him company, he’s summoned home to sit shiva for his recently deceased father.  Apparently, it was dad’s dying wish for the family to sit shiva for him, something that none of the siblings are too thrilled about.  Seven days at home with family could and does bring up some family issues that have been lurking under the surface for years but no one has ever had the time or energy to dig up and resolve.

As if that weren’t enough, Judd’s wife announces she is pregnant and he runs into an old high school flame who he made a pact with that they’d get together at 40 if they weren’t married or significantly involved.

It sounds like a lot to juggle in one novel, but Tropper deftly juggles all the storylines into a coherent, funny and fascinating whole.  Weaving together the various threads of the past, present and potential future keep the page turning and Tropper utilizes well-placed flashbacks to reveal pertinent backstory at the right moment.  He makes it look effortless to sew in seeds of the story and then allow us to witness the actual events at just the right moment for both the readers and Judd.   The fact that Judd used to date the now-wife of his older brother pays an interesting and humorous dividend as well as an emotional one as the story unfolds.

In the week, revelations will come for many family members.  They all feel authentic as we take this journey with Judd and as you read the story, the title becomes more and more relevant to the story.  It was a story I didn’t want to end, but I can understand why Tropper chose this week-long snapshot of Judd and his family.  I wouldn’t mind a return visit in the future (which would be a first for Tropper).  That said, I did leave the novel satisfied with the journey and feeling like it reflected real life and that Judd was a living, breathing character.  Things don’t always wrap-up neatly or as expected.

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“The Strain” by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

The Strain (The Strain Trilogy, Book 1)Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan originally conceived “The Strain” as a serialized television series for the Fox network.  After Fox execs balked at the original vision, insisting the writers inject more humor into the storyline of a modern-day vampire apocolypse, del Toro and Hogan decided to take their toys and go home.  Rather than create a movie version of this modern day retelling of “Dracula,” the two decided to go literary.

The result is a new trilogy of books, the first of which debuts this summer and is called “The Strain.”

And it’s one hell of a scary, thrillride.

The story’s television roots show throughout the novel with a huge cast introduced early in the story, many of whom are vampire-fodder by the mid-point of the story.  Del Toro and Hogan’s characters aren’t exactly deep, but we do get to know them enough to care for them, even as many of them succumb to the mysterious new virus that is infecting New Yorkers.

“The Strain” is a scary book that comes along at the right time.  Del Toro and Hogan’s decision to have vampirism spread not through one vampire creating another via bites but as an airborn pathogen is particularily chilling in the time of the H1N1 scare.   The story more than chillingly describes how the virus takes over its human hosts, rapidly transforming them into undead vampires.   And because this is a book with only the special effects limits of your own imagination, be prepared for to be grossed out at times.

You should also be prepared for some unrelentingly creepy moments.  The novel’s opening scenes with a jet plane sitting on the tarmac at New York airport, silent and completely dark are among some of the more unnerving moments in the book.

And while “The Strain” clearly owes an enormous debt to both “Dracula” and “The Stand,” it’s not quite in the same league as either one.  While the novel is populated by a sprawling, diverse cast of characters, many of them are two-dimensional, at best.   “The Stand” spent time developing its characters in its virus-induced apocolypse, making many of them cannon-fodder over the course of the story but still getting us to care about them.  “The Strain” has an equally high body count, but you won’t find yourself as invested in many of the characters here.

However, the pace and horror of what’s unfolding will keep you reading this one.  If your only love of vampires is those created by Stephenie Meyer, then you’ll want to skip this one.   “The Strain” returns vampires to the dark, scary recesses of the imagination, where they belong.

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“Sucks To Be Me” by Kimberly Pauley

Sucks to Be Me: The All-True Confessions of Mina Hamilton, Teen Vampire (maybe) Seventeen-year-old Mina Hamilton has a seemingly normal life with one small exception–her parents are vampires.  Mina’s known for years, but when the vampire ruling council discovers this, Mina is enrolled in a crash course about everything it means to be a vampire and given a deadline to make one of the biggest decisions of her life–whether or not to join the ranks of the undead.

With the current crazy of teenager vampire books flooding the market, “Sucks To Be Me” stands out from the crowd for several reasons.  One of them is the central narrator and our hero, Mina Hamilton.  Told from Mina’s point of view, the story allows us to see into Mina’s thought process which is, at times hilarious, at times self-pitying and always authentic.

Another stand-out point is the novel’s creation of its own vampire mythology.   While it’s not groundbreaking, the novel does feature several points in which Mina debunks or backs up vampire lore.  The fact that Mina’s English class is reading “Dracula” as the book unfolds only helps things.  First-time author Kimberly Pauley has created a fresh, interesting new potential vampire lore in her book and while this story is complete in and of itself, more entries in this universe and involving Mina would be welcome.

Thirdly, the book is populated by an engaging group of characters.  The biggest of these is Mina, but there are a wide array of supporting characters to get to know and love over the course of the story.   And these characters behavior make for some genuinely laugh out loud funny moments such as Mina’s mom explaining vampire sex to her potential date over the family dinner table.

In a perfect world, a novel as fun, refreshing and as fun as “Sucks To Be Me” would do equal or better numbers as the Twilight saga.  With teenage vampire romance novels being the current rage in the bookstore, “Sucks To Be Me” stands out from the field with its good sense of humor, engaging characters and well-crafted romantic tension.


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“Star Trek: Troublesome Minds” by Dave Galanter

Star Trek: Troublesome MindsWhen the Enterprise rescues a ship from near destruction, they bring on board the mysterious Belis.  Part of an alien race, Belis has the ability to project his thoughts and will upon people–and that includes Spock.

By saving Belis, Kirk and company may have inadvertently started a war between two neighboring planets. Belis was sentenced to death as part of a peace agreement between the two people.  But when Belis is returned, he begins to take over the will of the people slowly as the other side escalates toward full-scale war.

Added to the dilemma is that Spock may or may not be under the influence of Belis.

The dilemma of what to do about Belis and how the Prime Directive applies to the situation makes for the kind of moral quandary novel that “Star Trek” does so well.  The ethical considerations for Kirk of whether or not the greater good needs to be served over the rights of an individual is a fascinating dilemma.

That said, a solution to the problem comes out of left field a bit, thus negating some of the ethical dilemma and giving our heroes an easy way out.

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“WWW: Wake” by Robert J. Sawyer

WWW: Wake (Www)Good science fiction speculates on things that are theoretically possible given some of the conditions and advances of our current level of technology. In many cases, the advances may be years or decades away from becoming reality, but in the case of Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel, “WWW: Wake,” part of his speculated future has become a reality far too quickly.

It’s disconcerting to pick up a novel that speculates on the future and find one plot element concerning an outbreak of a new form of the flu virus. In fact, the virus that breaks out is the H1N5 in the novel, possibly some distant cousin of the current virus that is creating a global scare and a potential world-wide pandemic.

Of course, I shouldn’t be shocked that Sawyer has done has homework and is able to predict things that could happen in the near future. He’s had a long, distinguished career of doing just that and his new novels are always those I look forward to reading next.

“WWW: Wake” is no exception.

The start of a new trilogy of novels, the story follows several different threads. One is the story of teenager Catlin Decter, who has been blind since birth. A new technology could possibly open give her sight for the first time by making use of the power of the Internet. But there’s something lurking out in cyberspace, building itself up and slowly becoming more and more aware of itself.

Stir in a story about China’s dealing with an outbreak of the H1N5 virus by removing the affected areas and shutting off communication with the outside world for several days and a plot about a highly intelligent hybrid primate and you’ve got a lot of ground to cover in this first installment. And make no mistake, this is clearly a first installment. Sawyer introduces a lot of threads and a lot of fascinating ideas in the course of his story and while he does wrap-up most of the immediate plot threads in this novel, he still leaves you hanging in the end, wanting the next installment immediately, if not sooner. There’s not a character in peril type of cliffhanger here, but instead there are several intriguing points that Sawyer leaves the reader to mull over and consider as we wait for the next installment.

But while the book is full of big ideas, those ideas are grounded in identifiable characters. The main focus of the story is Catlin and her journey from lack of sight to her new ability to see. Sawyer ably puts the reader inside the mind and experience of Catlin, making us see how she works within the world while being blind and how she must learn to adapt to a world where she can see. Catlin’s story will have you feeling her joy, her frustration and her curious nature in how she relates to the world. And a revelation about her father half-way through the story is ably set up and paid off in the course of this first installment.

The only real criticism I can come up with this one is it ended too soon and left me eager for the next installment. And that next installment cannot come soon enough…

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“Relentless” by Dean Koontz

Relentless: A Novel When it comes to reading novels by Dean Koontz, I always have the same issue.  I’ll pick one up and within 20 pages I find myself with a remarkable sense of deja vu.   Koontz’s novels are all so remarkably similar in style and writing voice that it’s hard to really remember details about them, even moments after you’ve put them down.  I refer to Koontz as the bubble-gum writer–his books are memorable while you chew them but the flavor fades quickly and you’ll forget them within a few minutes of spitting them out.

So, when I saw the premise for “Relentless,” and read the first few pages, I was happy to see that while there were several standard Koontz cliches at work in the book (a smarter than average dog, the everyman narrator, the guy who out-kicked his coverage in marriage), I became more and more annoyed that he’d wasted all that creative effort on this novel.

To say that “Relentless” requires a big time suspension of disbelief is an understatement.  Our narrator is Cullen “Cubby” Greenwich is a best-selling author and regular guy.  He’s got the requisite great wife, a precious son and they’ve got a hyper-intelligent dog.  Greenwich’s latest novel is reviewed by reclusive and acerbic book critic Shearman Waxx.  The review is less than favorable and Cubby begins to obsess about it.  To the point that he discovers the critic eats at a local restaurant and he heads there to get a look at the guy.  An incident in the restroom where his son accidentally pees near the critic leads to Waxx telling the family the word “Doom,” and then leaving.

The set-up along requires such a huge suspension of disbelief alone due to a series of coincidences.  Waxx’s column appears in a national paper, published in another city but he happens to live near our hero.  Not only that, but he goes to a restaurant our hero knows and can visit and the waiter has tipped our hero off on when to see him.

Then things take a turn for the stranger.  Cubby begins to see Waxx around his house.  Apparently Waxx has some kind of superpowers because he can sneak in a house with an alarm system and not wake said dog that is repeatedly talked about as this great protector.  He tazers our hero and his wife and then blows up their house.  At this point, I was rolling my eyes and wondering how much more insane the book could get.  It also made me wonder if Koontz has had one too many negative reviews and if “Relentless” is meant as some kind of purge of the negative feelings he has toward those critics.   Maybe so, but next time he should leave the book with his therapist and not inflict it upon the rest of the reading world.

From there, the novel continues to have one baffling turn after the next as Koontz piles onto this already outrageously unbelievable story.   You may keep reading, hoping that it will all somehow make sense in the end, but you’re going to be disappointed.

“Relentless” is a terrible book that will sell well based on name recognition.  I suppose every writer is entitled to publish one bad novel.  But this one really sets a new standard for bad books.

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