Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy Habits for Every Couple, by Roger and Kathy Lipp

I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  I think a married couple can always benefit from input to improve their marriage.  Roger and Kathy Lipp have written a brief, practical, and entertaining guide for couples to use to encourage and enjoy one another.  Happy Habits for Every Couple: 21 Days to a Better Relationship gives daily exercises for couples to try.  The Lipp's don't guarantee a revolution in your marriage, but I don't see how their suggestions could hurt anything!

They don't write as counselors, therapists, or experts, but as a couple who has been through divorce, remarriage, raising teens, and the ins and outs of marriage.  They "gleaned and condensed the very best advices from every marriage books on [their] shelves into short, doable projects [they] could work on together."  The result is 3 weeks of daily projects that anybody can do.  Just like anything else, it may take some planning and effort to pull off, but will be worth it.

As stated in the introduction, "the essence of Happy Habits for Every Couple is about becoming a person of encouragement who serves the one you love."  That is what sets Happy Habits apart.  It's not about fixing a marriage, inducing guilt, or pointing out what goes wrong in a marriage.  It's all about building one another up for a few weeks, and building some habits that can be practiced continually.  It's fun, practical, doable, affirming, and marriage-building.  Give it a shot!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Clutter Free, by Kathy Lipp

Just in time for your new year's resolution to get your house in order, Kathy Lipp has a few suggestions for you.  Clutter Free: Quick and Easy Steps to Simplifying Your Space not only gives practical suggestions for cleaning out your closets and drawers but helps with an understanding of the acquisitiveness and impractical thinking that leads to our being swamped with stuff.

Lipp defines clutter as "anything that is in your house that hasn't earned the right to be there, or it has earned the right, but hasn't found its permanent home." More than just finding a place for everything, she emphasized contentment and simplicity.  "Instead of thinking, How do we earn more so we can buy a bigger house? your thoughts must turn to, How do we get rid of more so we can enjoy the house we're in?" Sound thinking, in my book.

As an example of her practical thinking, she mentions considering the purchase of a new egg slicer, which "is going to save me from the laborious task of slicing all those eggs."  It might save her six minutes a year, but what about the time spent earning money to buy it, time shopping for it, "the time I will spend hunting for it the three times a year I want to use it,"and "the time I spend moving it out of the way when I want to find another gadget and have to dig through all the other time-saving devices." Sometimes those labor-saving tools add complexity in other ways.

The main action item of Clutter Free is the Lipp's 2000 things challenge.  She and her family got rid of 2000 things in a year.  It sounds like a lot, but when you start thinking about toys the kids don't play with, clothes you never wear, egg slicers and other gadgets you never use, and countless things stored away in the attic or garage, 2000 begins to sound doable.

Clutter Free is practical, useful, and helpful.  The appendices provide some of her nuts and bolts methods which can help you get started.  Lipp challenges the reader "not simply to get rid of stuff, but to uncover and appreciate the treasures you already have . . . the people, the memories, the treasures that you love."  Now I think I'll go clean out my closet. . . then my attic . . . and the garage . . . and my sock drawer. . . .

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Finding Jesus, by Winston Rowntree

Do you love the Where's Waldo books?  Do you love Jesus?  Then you'll really love Winston Rowntree's Finding Jesus.  Just like Martin Hadford did for Waldo, Rowntree creates crowded scenes and places Jesus there among the masses.  He's at the grocery store, shopping mall, campground, concert, airport, really anywhere you would go.  Hey, that's a pretty good theological point!  As Rowntree says in the introduction, "if you look closely enough, somewhere in the blur of people J.C.'s waiting for you to spot him."

Rowntree's illustrations are full of funny details.  I prefer looking at the pictures for the little funny scenes and jokes, and just happening across Jesus.  If you just look for Jesus, you miss out on lots of the humor.  I was a little bothered by the number of people who look like Jesus.  At times, I wasn't sure whether I had found him or not.  Of course, that's part of the game, but I need a little more certainty in my life.

Rowntree, a cartoonist and columnist, is apparently "a non-religious person" doing "a harmless, lighthearted novelty book that barely involves Jesus."  I have no idea what his true religious background is.  I have no idea if he published this book to mock or honor Jesus.  I'm taking it at face value: In our crazy, chaotic lives, whether we are shopping, working, relaxing, or partying, Jesus is there among us.  He wants to know us, and although he may seem elusive at times, he truly does want to be found.  As Rowntree reminds us on the back cover, Jesus said, "Seek and ye shall find."

Thanks to Blogging for Books and Three Rivers Press for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Macaque Attack, by Gareth Powell

Ack-Ack Macaque is back!  After the saving the world in Ack-Ack Macaque and Hive Monkey, Ack-Ack and his friends have to step up to save the world yet again.  The familiar characters and conflicts from the first two Ack-Ack novels are included, and Powell introduces some new faces and wrinkles to the story.

Macaque Attack opens with Ack-Ack and his companions returning to their London of origin, after traveling to various parallel universes.  They have freed many of Ack-Ack's counterparts, other uplifted monkeys and apes, but have also discovered that the villains against whom they have been fighting also have counterparts in other parallels, who have plans to invade again across dimensional borders.

Ack-Ack fans will enjoy the way Powell draws story threads from the first two books, while introducing new elements.  I have not read Powell's novel The Recollection but he brings in characters from that storyline as well.  That's the kind of thing you do when you create a world in which there are an infinite number of parallel universes.  Speaking of parallel universes, just when I (and everyone else in the book) thought I had figured this out, another twist is introduced, sort of Matrix-like.  Interesting. . . .

I'm not sure Macaque Attack is as good as the first two books in the series.  Ack-Ack reflects on his body aging and slowing down.  Paul, Victoria's husband who died but lives on electronically, is deteriorating as well.  In spite of Powell's trademark non-stop action, including lots of explosions, and Ack-Ack's new choice of weapon (a diamond-blade chainsaw works especially well against the cyborg army), I almost felt like this story was running out of steam while soldiering on.

Nevertheless, Powell leaves the ending wide open for a sequel, even referring to the Ack-Ack "trilogy/quartet" in the Ack-Acknowledgements (although he may be referring to the original Ack-Ack short story and the three novels).  If he does write another Ack-Ack novel, I will definitely pick it up.  Mars awaits!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gray Mountain, by John Grisham

John Grisham has issues.  This is no surprise to Grisham fans; many of his novels make a statement about one issue or another.  His latest novel, Gray Mountain, takes on the coal industry, as well as addressing legal issues of the rural poor.  I did enjoy Gray Mountain, but the issues distracted from the story more than Grisham usually allows.

The story: After years of contracts and skyscrapers at a huge New York firm, the recession forces downsizing, and she takes an internship at a legal aid clinic in tiny Brady, Virginia.  She gets a quick course in black lung disease, strip mining, and the evil, unethical practices of big coal.  The story progresses in classic Grisham fashion, although the death of a key character caught me by surprise.  The ending winds up rather quickly, with most of the resolution left to assumptions.  Again, this isn't necessarily uncharacteristic of Grisham, but seemed to be more the case with Gray Mountain.  

I wonder about the coal industry.  Grisham paints them as pure, unadulterated evil.  They lay waste to pristine landscapes and treat miners like dispensable tools.  The only positive nod to the coal industry was a reference to a bumper sticker that read "Like electricity? Love coal!"  I do love electricity.  But is there any way to defend the coal industry?  Not according to Grisham.  It might have been more interesting had there been some characters sympathetic to coal.

The bottom line is that this is not the best of Grisham's novels, but mediocre Grisham is still pretty terrific.  Grisham fans will love it, and even if this is the first Grisham novel you read, I thnk you would be sufficiently impressed to want to pick up some of his other novels.

Monday, December 22, 2014

You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can't Make It Scuba Dive), by Robert Bruce Cormack

As much as I enjoyed the oddball characters and off-beat humor of Robert Bruce Cormack's novel You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can't Make It Scuba Dive), I was disappointed that story never really emerged.  Cormack writes funny scenes, but he couldn't seem to pull together an actual plot.  There is an argument for character development; there is some of that, to be sure.  But I kept waiting and waiting for a point to come, and it never really did.

When Sam Bennett gets fired from the advertising agency where he has worked for thirty years, he's not sure where to go next.  When his daughter and son-in-law come for an extended stay, and he starts hanging out with a security guard from his former employer, they all get into assorted mischief and entrepreneurial pursuits.  House painting, web casting, catering, and children's books take up the group's time, fueled by copious amounts of pot brownies.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water isn't a bad book, it's not poorly written, it just never goes anywhere.  If that suits you, check it out.  If you are like me and seek a little more from novels you read, you will likely be disappointed.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Zippy the Runner, by JiYu Kim, illustrated by JeongHyeon Seon

My son Zippy came home from school with a low grade in gymnastics.  Why?  They had a timed mile run, and he didn't make the target time.  He was discouraged, because he knows his asthma slows him down (not to mention his preference for playing video games over playing outside!) and he doesn't want to be the last kid to finish.

About that time, I happened to see JiYu Kim's new book, Zippy the Runner.  What a perfect way to inspire him!  Unfortunately, my Zippy wasn't too impressed with the book.  Granted, he's 13, so he thinks he's above such children's books!  But I was impressed.  JeongHyeon Seon's illustrations are cute and the story is sweet.  I like the fact that Zippy the zebra is always last, yet because he loves to run, he still competes and is willing to help other runners.

As a back-of-the-pack runner myself, I think it's important to acknowledge that even with lots of hard work and dedication, you might still lose every race.  But that doesn't have to get in the way of your love of running and racing.  My Zippy is doing better on his timed runs.  I just hope he'll come to love running as much as Zippy the zebra does, last place or not.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Free, by Alfred Mele

Like any philosopher worth his salt, Alfred Mele pursues questions that the rest of either don't spend any time thinking about, or stay up talking about in late-night bull sessions.  The question of free will is hotly debated in philosophical circles, but you may not be as aware that other fields have tackled the question as well.  Mele explores several scientific denials of free will in Free: Why Science Hasn't Disproved Free Will.

Mele "explains why the scientific experiments that are most often claimed to prove that there's no free will in fact leave the existence of free will wide open."  His  conclusion is modest.  He points out the flaws and weaknesses of each theory, but does not make claims of his own.  That seems a worthy goal, and he does it well.

Free is brief and readable, and serves as an interesting review of the neurological and psychological challenges to free will.  There are many facets of the debate over free will that aren't covered in Free, but Mele's focused arguments will provide some useful content for those late-night bull sessions.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stuff You Should Know about Stuff, by Tripp and Tyler

Tripp and Tyler are a couple of very funny guys.  If you've heard of them, it's probably because of their popular YouTube videos.  If you haven't heard of them, go watch their YouTube videos!  Here:  I guarantee they are more entertaining than this review!

For those of you who prefer the written word over video, or paper over pixels, they have published some of the wisdom and humor of their videos in a portable format that requires no external power source.  It's a book called Stuff You Should Know About Stuff: How to Properly Behave in Certain Situations.  Funny, random, and, at times, even informative, SYSKAS can mostly help you not be annoying to Tripp and Tyler.  As a bonus, you will become less annoying to just about everyone else, too.

You will relate to Tripp and Tyler's examples of behavior that needs correction and guidance, and you might even feel the sting (in a funny way) of their criticism.  However, they are not afraid to point the fingers back at themselves.  In the section regarding identifying insecure men, they write: "Did he publish a book that makes fun of various types of people?  This is the deepest form of insecurity.  There is no hope for these men."

On the contrary, there is hope for a couple of guys who can be hilariously funny without being crude, racist, or using foul language.  Now, back to the videos. . . .

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Love Without Limits, by Nick Vujicic

I'm continually impressed with Nick Vujicic.  Read his books, watch his videos, and you'll see a man of faith with a passion for life and a contagious joy.  All of this is on display in his latest book, Love Without Limits: A Remarkable Story of True Love Conquering All, which he co-wrote with his wife, Kanae.  In his prior books, Vujicic has told some of the story of his courtship and marriage to Kanae, but here we get the full story.

Even with his contagious joy and his "ridiculously good life," Vujicic confesses that he struggled with loneliness and rejection.  What woman, he thought, would want to marry a man with no arms and legs?  For Kanae, his lack of limbs turned out not to be an issue.  They fell in love, and even though their early romance was delayed by a romantic comedy movie style mix-up, they married and now have a beautiful baby boy.

Readers will enjoy hearing Nick's stories.  He leads an interesting and entertaining life, and has no shortage of anecdotes.  Kanae makes her contribution as well, writing several extended sections giving her perspective.  Some might object that a couple who has been married only a couple of years, and whose child is barely a toddler, doesn't have much business writing a book about marriage and parenting.  It's a fair point, but the Vujicics approach the subject with humility and a recognition of their youth and inexperience.  Many of their prescriptive sections are focused on single people and newlyweds, such as tips on purity during dating, the proposal, wedding planning, and life with a new baby.  These sections are helpful and practical, and I felt like they did not try to speak outside of their own experience.

When I read Vujicic's books, one thing that stands out is how normal his life seems.  He does talk about living with a disability, and much of his ministry is to others with various disabilities, but mostly he talks about the same things everyone deals with in life.  His wisdom, youthful though it may be, about life, love, and marriage is worth hearing, no matter your age or no matter your disability.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and WaterBrook Press for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Real Santa, by William Hazelgrove

George is having a bad day.  He gets fired, then, to make matters worse, he comes home to find that his 9-year-old daughter is having doubts about the existence of Santa Claus!  He still harbors bad memories of his own father's revelation about Santa, and is determined that his daughter will believe, even in only for one more Christmas.  In Real Santa, William Hazelgrove tells George's story.

George comes up with a fantastic plan, which gets more and more elaborate--and expensive--as time goes on.  Along the way, he angers his daughter's teacher, alienates his neighbor, risks ending his marriage, nearly bankrupts his family, but might just pull off being Santa for his daughter.  Not content simply to dress up in a Santa suit and make an appearance in his living room, he is determined to land a sleigh on the roof of his house, complete with nine reindeer, go down the chimney, put presents under the tree, then climb back up the chimney and fly away.

Hazelgrove has middle-aged, suburban male angst down pat.  As he did in Rocket Man, Hazelgrove captures the struggles of the guy who wants to be a great dad and husband, wants to excel in his career, wants to make a mark on the world, but who faces setback after setback.  Regardless of the consequences, George determinedly pursues his dream of proving to his daughter that Santa is real, and learns quite a bit about himself, and the real Santa, along the way.

Real Santa is a bit madcap.  George goes over-the-top crazy in pursuit of his project.  It was a bit unbelievable that a guy who just lost his job would spend tens of thousands of dollars to play real Santa.  Regardless, Hazelgrove makes it work.  The story is thoroughly entertaining, and has a nice family message.  (I should add, though, that the language is not family-friendly.)  Hazelgrove and George make many references to classic Christmas movies, and part of the story is a movie-within-a-movie, so it's no surprise that Hazelgrove has sold the movie rights to Real Santa.  This is a fun story, and will certainly be a Christmas favorite.  And the Kindle version is only 99 cents!  Check it out!

Thanks to Mr. Hazelgrove for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fallen Leaves, by Will Durant

My parents didn't argue much when I was growing up, but I do seem to remember some contention on bookshelf space.  Dad, a voracious reader, had shelves full of books.  Mom, who loves a neat, aesthetically pleasing home, thinks bookshelves should look nice.  So they jockeyed for space, with nick-knacks and decorative items competing with Dad's library for shelf space.  On more than one occasion, I remember those conversations ending with Dad taking boxes of books to donate to the Corpus Christi Public Library.

A large percentage of that portion of the shelf space reserved for books was taken up by a multi-volume set which I never read, but I always felt smarter just looking at those books.  The set in question was Will and Ariel Durant's 11 volume The Story of Civilization.  This popular and widely published (if not widely read) history, covering ancient times up to the Napoleonic Era, earned the Durants a Pulitzer and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Durants both died in the 1980s, but a Durant scholar uncovered a decades-old manuscript for a final book at which Will Durant had only hinted.  Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, God, and War contains the reflections of a very smart and very opinionated writer who knows he's on his last lap in life.  Covering the stages of life, religion and morality, social issues, politics and war, art and education, the essays are at times rambling, often come across as a bit archaic, and are written, for the most part, in beautiful prose.

Like I said, I never read The Story of Civilization or any of his other works, but based on what I know about Durant, I think he let his hair down with Fallen Leaves, writing a much more personal book.  I had the feeling of sitting on the back porch with him while he, finally, told me what he really thought about these topics.  But unlike your stereotypical cranky old man, Durant has a vast knowledge of history, philosophy, and culture, along with the broad perspective that knowledge brings.

However, like cranky old men everywhere, he is set in his ways. He criticizes modern, abstract art ("empty vanity of an undisciplined mind"). He bemoans youthful ignorance (Life "gives us wisdom only when it has stolen youth."). He upholds traditional morality ("I still believe it advisable to discourage extramarital relations, just as it is useful to  inculcate honesty, though we know that there will be many lies.").  He has the amusingly endearing attitude of an old man who still enjoys the sight of a beautiful woman ("I think the architecture of woman is superb from whatever angle seen.")

I was most interested in Durant's views on morality and religion. Raised a Catholic and, for a short time, a seminary student, Durant has a good working knowledge of Christianity. But early on, he was led astray by Darwinism and other influences. He still admires Christ and his ethics, and calls for "a great union of creeds and sects preaching the ethics of Christ."  He makes a "persistent effort to behave like a Christian" but he "reluctantly abandoned belief in a personal and loving God."

So he finally turned toward a sort of utopian fantasy. At this point I began to wonder about this historian's grasp of human nature and human society. As a Christian, I am inclined to believe that without a personal, loving God, the ethics of Christ are unsustainable. It seems to me that the twentieth century taught us the hazards of separating morality from God.

Durant wasn't too concerned about religious views of eternal life and salvation. "I am quite content with mortality. I should be appalled at the thought of living forever, in whatever paradise."  I don't know about his soul, but he achieved some measure of immortality through his books, as shown by the several feet of shelf space my mother somewhat reluctantly yielded for him.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Running Blind, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher can't win a break.  He tries to mind his own business, wants to live an anonymous, solitary life.  But his Army past won't leave him alone.  In Running Blind, when he's ambushed an taken into custody for questioning, it quickly becomes clear that his captors don't really believe he is the perpetrator of a series of bizarre murders, but that they need his help solving the mystery of the deaths.  All of the victims are women who brought sexual harassment complaints during their times of service in the armed forces, and Reacher was the MP on the case.

Like a good mystery writer, Lee Child builds a case, only to tear it down and take the resolution in a direction that the reader never saw coming (but that you realize you should have suspected!).  Child's unexpected twist was certainly clever, but it was almost too clever, maybe a little groan-inducing.  But Reacher's path to figure it all out was impressive.

This was not my favorite Reacher book, due to the evidently improbable resolution, but I did enjoy it.  Child's books are a great commuting partner.  Child has Reacher wrap up the case, but, similar to an episodic television show, he leaves the ending wide open for the next episode.  I'll be tuning in for sure.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Christmas Horror Story, by Sebastian Gregory

Here's a great book for your Advent devotional reading--not!  In A Christmas Horror Story, Sebastian Gregory tells the story of Santa Claus's alter-ego, der Kinderfresser or Child Eater.  Rather than bringing a sack full of toys to children everywhere, the Child Eater grabs children and carries them off in his sack--so he can eat them!

The main characters are three siblings whose mother is stuck at a long shift at the hospital, then is unable to get home due to a snow storm.  With the three of them home alone, the power goes out, and the precocious little brother speculates that the sounds on the roof might be the Child Eater, which he read about in his Tome of Dark and Mysterious.  When the Child Eater grabs the two younger children, the intrepid big sister sets out to find them and defeat the Child Eater.  The story is a bit creepy, but more in the vein of a campfire ghost story than a real horror story.  Gregory includes some flashbacks to the Child Eater's victims in the past, tying the stories together with dreams that bode ill for the dreamers.  Altogether it's a bit disjointed, mildly amusing, and a little disturbing.

I would say if your children are OK with the Santa Claus legend, and [spoiler alert!] understand that there really isn't a jolly old elf who comes down the chimney to deliver those toys (which they actually saw last week on the shelf at Wal-Mart), then they are old enough to hear the story of the Child Eater without fear.  But if they open their gifts, only to find the boxes contain only coal, they'd better beware that it's not Santa coming down the chimney, but the Child Eater, and he's very, very hungry.

Thanks to NetGalley and the ulisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, December 5, 2014

All I Really Want, by Quinn Caldwell

One thing I love about the Advent season is the opportunity to turn back to daily scripture reading, meditation, and prayer.  If your devotional life has fallen off a bit, Advent lends itself to daily anticipation of Christmas and redirecting your thoughts to "the reason for the season."  All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas accomplishes just that.

Quinn Caldwell, a United Church of Christ pastor in New York, has written this little book to encourage the reader to "create room--maybe just enough room--for God to show up."  His short pieces, one for each morning and evening of the Christmas season, are amusing and sometimes insightful and inspiring.  (By the way, I like the fact that the readings extend into January, completing the full 12 days of Chistmas.)

The tone is consistently light and breezy, easily accessible and broadly appealing theologically.  If there is an overall theme of the devotionals, it would include minimizing Christmas consumerism, enjoying the Christmas spirit, focusing on others, and being thankful to God for the gift of his son.  Caldwell strikes a nice balance between embracing the fun trappings of Christmas--recognizing "some Christmas things that have nothing to do with Jesus' birth, but in which I believe God is at work anyway" and encouraging Christmas decorations that "look like a party,"--and focusing on acts of service and devotion.

The devotional-ending prayers, only a sentence or two, are on target but sometimes I felt like they were a bit too trivial (though amusing):
"For evolution, thank you. . . . For not giving me a protruding brow ridge and shallow brain pan, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.  Amen."
"God, I know I get on your nerves sometimes.  But you get on mine, too.  Thanks for loving me anyway.  Amen."
"OK, God, I'm willing to go [to church on Christmas].  But I'm totally going to hide out in my room for a week after that, and you can't stop me. Amen."
While most of the content is unobjectionable and will appeal to Christians (and other Christmas celebrators of all kinds) across denominational lines, there were enough hints of a rather liberal perspective that I suspect many believers will be put off.  Environmentalism, social justice, pacifism, and gay rights (the author is homosexual) are not central to the book, but raise their heads enough to raise some hackles for a more theological conservative believer.

But rather than focus on the many points of contention I may have with the author, I was happy to appreciate his consistent focus on turning our hearts to Jesus this Christmas season.  He ends on a hopeful eschatological note.  We may not get everything we really want for Christmas (such healing, reconciliation, peace) but "Advent isn't just about fulfillment.  Advent is always about longing, and it's always about longing that's not going to be fulfilled for a long time.  Christmas didn't fix everything; it started fixing everything."  And that is why Christmas is merry.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Genome, by Sergei Lukyanenko

The Genome, by Sergei Lukyanenko, is a very good sci-fi novel.  I'm tempted to call it great.  Lukyanenko, a Russian writer, creates an original, rich future history, featuring colonization of other planetary systems, contact with other species, and, most importantly for this novel, highly advanced human genetic engineering.  Plus he tells a great murder mystery.

Alex, our protagonist, has been released from a long stay in the hospital and just happens to see an ad seeking a pilot to serve as captain on a new spaceship.  He's a spesh, genetically bred to be a pilot, and jumps at the chance to sit in the captain's seat.  He gathers a crew and gets his first assignment from his mysterious, absentee boss: to take 2 "others" and their bodyguard on a tourist trip to several planets.  When one of the guests is found brutally murdered in the quarters, and every member of the small crew has a possible motive, things get interesting.  Oh, and by the way, the murder could lead to an all-out inter-galactic war.

Lukyenko builds the story carefully, in such a way that I enjoyed the atmosphere, the characters, and the universe he constructs, without really worrying about where the story was going.  I knew there was some inevitable conflict on the horizon, but did not expect what happened.  After the murder, a spesh named Sherlock Holmes (I know, it sounds a little silly, but it works) comes on board to investigate.  With large doses of homage to Arthur Conan Doyle, Lukyanenko turns the story into a classic murder mystery, complete with the gathering of all the suspects for the big reveal.

Lukyanenko brings together all the elements of a terrific murder mystery and sci-fi adventure in The Genome, while delving into the shaping of our personalities and our very identities.  Even in a world where not only physical characteristics but also emotional and psychological traits can be determined in the womb, Lukyanenko asks, Can an individual still be autonomous?  The Genome is a fun read and an interesting story.  I hope more of his work is translated into English.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

Sometimes a literary device is original enough and well-executed enough that it can overshadow a mediocre story.  A great example of this is Garth Stein's popular novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain.  The entire novel is told from the perspective of Enzo, a mutt whose owner Denny is a race car driver.  Enzo, who thinks he is, or will be, human (don't all dogs?), has plenty of clever insight into the strange behavior of his human companions.  Stein's canine point of view is very entertaining, and makes what would be a melodramatic, contrived story into a decent book.

Denny goes through lots of hardship, losing his wife, suffering insufferable in-laws, being falsely accused of a terrible crime, and struggling to get his racing career off the ground.  But just as a good driver isn't deterred by the hardship of rain on the track, neither is Denny beaten by his challenges in life.  The Art of Racing in the Rain is not a great story, but told with great execution.  I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, but for the curious reader it's worth picking up just for Stein's unique story-telling acumen.