Plus some other crap you aren’t expecting!

It’s been a while since our (my) last meeting, and I have to take some time out to thank Facebook for having applications like iRead and Goodreads and all these other virtual bookshelves that served to remind me of the many tomes I have consumed over the past few months.  Not that there was much worth remembering, but how would I have known that otherwise?  Answer:  I would not have.  And so much the poorer would be this edition of Mad’s Book Club.  So count your blessings, amigos, it could have been worse.

I will start off by reviewing two YA series that have graced the virtual pages of this category before:  Scott Westerfield’s Uglies trilogy-cum-quadrology and Erin Hunter’s Warriors.

Scott Westerfield

I read Uglies a couple years ago and was sufficiently entertained and intrigued by it that I decided to read the rest of the series.  Unfortunately, I had gotten Uglies on loan from the library, and the wait for Pretties was so long–something like 209 holds, or whatever–that I put off reading it until my kids bought me the whole series for my birthday this year.  The original trilogy (ending with Specials) centers on Tally Youngblood, a teenager in a dystopian future where government maintains social and ecological stability by surgically altering the citizenry’s brains, suppressing those unwanted human tendencies that lead to violence and exploitation of natural resources.  Oooh!  When you turn sixteen you get compulsory cosmetic surgery that makes you conform to an approved standard of beauty and also turns you into something of a dingbat, albeit a happy one.  All fifteen-year-old Tally wants is to become pretty and “bubbly,” but when her best friend runs away to escape the compulsory surgery and join a group of ugly rebels who still have their wits about them, the government tells Tally she must go find her friend and help the government destroy the rebel cause or she can’t get the surgery, which means she will stay ugly forever.  Bogus!  That is the premise of the first book.  It’s difficult to talk about the premise of the next two books without giving away crucial plot twists.  Suffice it to say that Tally Youngblood’s work is never done–nor is her suffering for a cause greater than herself.

I quite enjoyed Uglies and Pretties, but by the time I got to Specials, I was finding Tally just a teensy bit tiresome.  She had become a tragic figure–still a complex character, but somehow just not as sympathetic as she should have been, all things considered.  Maybe I’d just had enough by then.  Unfortunately, my son had already bought me Extras, so I had to read it, even though my enthusiasm for the series had waned.  Fortunately, Extras shifts perspective from Tally to an entirely new character and a brand-new dystopia.  Extras sort of takes it for granted that you’ve read the Uglies trilogy, but it’s about a society newly freed from government mind-control and now based on a “reputation economy.”  Instead of everyone being pretty (and the same), now everyone competes for fame and attention.  As usual, while the citizenry is preoccupied with shallow pursuits, something sinister is going on behind the scenes.  Extras breathed new life into the series, although I can’t imagine where it can go from here.

Warriors:  The New Prophecy by Erin Hunter

I call these the “fighting kitty” books because they’re about feral cats who have organized themselves into clans who live by what they call “the warrior code.”  For feral cats, they are surprisingly civilized.  Not like those rogue cats you find hanging out in barns.  But I get ahead of myself.  Of course I have already reviewed Midnight in a previous edition of MBC, but now I am able to tell you that the rest of the New Prophecy series is FREAKING AWESOME, particularly the last three books.  I couldn’t put them down.  Well, I had to, so I did, so obviously I could, but I didn’t want to.  I was totally invested in their kitty lives.  The premise of this second Warriors series (I haven’t read the first) is that the kitties’ forest home is in danger from the Twolegs (humans) and four cats are called by Star Clan–their warrior ancestors–to lead their clans through this perilous time and to eventually find a new settlement.  I don’t think I am giving anything away there, but if I am, screw it.

These books have everything–adventure, battle, blood feud, mystical visions, existential angst, tragedy, romance–yes, I said romance, kids!  Sometimes you even forget you’re reading about a bunch of cats–until they start licking each other’s ears or something, and then you remember.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that they’re really good books.  Highly recommended!

Three by Tom Perrotta
The Abstinence Teacher
Little Children

This isn’t a series of books, but for some reason I got this wild hair to read Tom Perrotta in bulk, so I read all three of these books within a couple weeks, and in the order shown here.  The Abstinence Teacher is about this sex ed teacher, Ruth, who runs afoul of the neighborhood evangelicals, who force an abstinence-only curriculum on the school.  That’s bad enough, and then Ruth’s daughter’s soccer coach, who seemed like a cool enough guy when she first met him, turns out to be a member of that crazy evangelical church that’s making her tell her students that sex is bad for you until you get married.  When the soccer coach, Tim–an ex-druggie/hippie-turned-born-again dude–leads his players in a team prayer, Ruth flips out and then it is so on, crazy evangelicals.  Actually, the book is not just about Ruth and her hostility (duly earned, I must say) toward the crazy evangelicals but also about Tim, who is evangelical and crazy but not so certain how he fits into the crazy evangelical world now that the initial afterglow of finding Jesus has worn off.  I quite enjoyed reading about his struggles with trying to be a good husband and a good father and a good Christian.  I even enjoyed reading about Ruth and her issues, but I think I would have enjoyed her less if she hadn’t had such colorful gay friends.  I found the ending a tad abrupt and unsatisfying, but perhaps Perrotta meant to leave me unsatisfied, kind of like abstinence itself.  I don’t know.  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all.

Little Children is, I think, a better-realized novel than The Abstinence Teacher, but one of the most depressing books I have read in quite some time.  It’s primarily about Sarah, who spends her days caring for her three-year-old daughter because she never did figure out what else she wanted to do with her life, and Todd, who is playing stay-at-home dad to his three-year-old son while ostensibly studying for the bar exam.  Todd is married to a gorgeous woman who has more ambition for him than he has for himself.  Sarah is married to an older man she doesn’t love and who doesn’t love her.  Why they got married in the first place is one of the story’s unanswered questions, but then, no one really cares because the point is that Sarah and Todd have an affair and that’s when everyone starts realizing how totally freaking unhappy they are with their lives.  I cannot tell you kids how painful this novel was to read.  I mean, it held my interest, and I cared much more about these characters than they had any right to make me care about them–which makes me wonder what it is about me that makes me so sympathetic to such people, unless it’s that I too have failed to live up to the expectations I set for myself when I was younger, but then again, I have not found myself committing adultery with hot SAHD’s on the playground, so whatever.  Where was I?  Oh yes.  As I got closer to the end of the book, I kept thinking, “There is no way this can end well,” and sure enough, I got to the end and all I could think was, “I’m so depressed now.”  Did anything tragic happen?  No.  I had just been pumped full of the awful loneliness and disappointment of too many strangers’ lives.  What does that say about the book?  I couldn’t tell you.

Election is a short book–I read it in about an afternoon–about a high school student election with more behind-the-scenes intrigue than was ever evident the student elections where I went to school.  Of course, at my school we didn’t have a candidate who’d supposedly slept with a teacher and ruined his marriage and career, nor did we have a brother and sister competing against each other because the sister’s girlfriend decided she didn’t want to be a lesbian and threw herself at the brother, who then had no idea why his sister was suddenly so mad at him and her former BFF.  What am I giving away here?  Nothing.  What happens in this book?  There’s an election.  People screw each other.  (Figuratively, but in several respects.  There is no literal screwing because that would involve hardware, and no hardware is mentioned in the book.)  They sign yearbooks.  The end.  I can’t say if I liked this book or not.  It was a diversion, but in the end, I was like, “What?”  I can imagine the movie might have been better.

One thread that runs through all three of these books is this:  marriage is for chumps.  You get married, you inevitably fall out of love, start to resent the person, and then you end up committing adultery or something equally unwholesome.  It is unavoidable.  At least for heterosexuals.  It is unclear whether or not homosexual couples must necessarily meet the same fate.  We will probably have to wait until there is more data to interpret.

Four Random Books

A Dry Spell by Susie Moloney

I bought this book used, on a whim, mostly because I was under the impression that Stephen King had endorsed it.  Not that I trust Stephen King with all my literary decisions, but you know, Stephen King is a Veronica Mars fan, so I trust him to a certain extent, on a certain level, about certain things, such as whether or not a book will entertain me on my long “vacation” to California.  As it turned out, though, Stephen King did not write an endorsement for A Dry Spell, but I was reading the endorsements so quickly that I read a blurb that merely mentioned a comparison to Stephen King as being a blurb by the actual Stephen King.  So there it is.  Let the buyer beware, kids!  Read those jacket blurbs very carefully.

Actually, A Dry Spell isn’t a bad book.  It’s about this midwestern town that’s having a really long drought, totally inexplicable as every neighboring town has gotten rain over the last four or whatever years, but not Goodlands.  How’s that for a ham-fisted name?  It’s almost like it’s supposed to be symbolic or something.  Well, Goodlands is apparently suffering some cosmic punishment, but the banker who’s become the town pariah for foreclosing all these good people’s farms decides to take matters into her own hands one drunken evening and she hires this cat who’s supposed to be a rainmaker.  Well, he is a rainmaker–a strangely attractive one, as it happens (wink wink)–but can he make it rain in Goodlands, which is not suffering your garden-variety drought but some cosmic-retribution drought?  That is the question.  And if he does make it rain, interfering with cosmic justice, will there be cosmic consequences?  That’s the other question.  Yet another question might be, “Can he end the drought that plagues our put-upon banker’s heart?  Can he bring moisture to the dry plains of her soul???”

Here’s the answer:  Eh.  Like I said, it wasn’t a bad book.  It entertained me well enough for the $3.50 I paid for it.  I have no regrets.  Unlike some people in some books I could mention.

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

Now this book I liked.  It’s about a woman who gets struck by lightning and falls in love for the first time in her life.  It’s a lovely book about grief and loss and human relationships and the joy of living.  I would tell you more about it, but really, there’s not much more to say.  It’s a good book.  What does it say about me that the books I like best get the shortest reviews?  I think it says that I am tired and have been writing too long about things that aren’t interesting, and now I have no energy left for what ought to animate me.  My priorities are out of whack.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

As the front cover promises, it is the same classic romance, only with an ultraviolent zombie subplot.  In this version, all of the Bennett girls have been trained in the deadly arts to combat Satan’s undead army.  It’s humorous because the plot goes on as it’s supposed to, only every so often they have to fight off some “unmentionables.”  Oh, and Darcy takes it on the chin from Elizabeth’s roundhouse kick at some point.  Anyway, it’s just a novelty.  How much you enjoy the book will depend on what your threshhold is for zombie-related humor.  Perhaps you will find that it grows tiresome, in which case you should probably just re-read the real Pride and Prejudice.  If you’re looking for something with a little more action, maybe this is for you.  The romance is still what drives the story.  It’s a good one, with or without the undead.

Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain

Did I mention that I got an autographed copy of this book?  I missed Cain’s appearance at Powell’s by two days.  I was on vacation or I would have caught it.  So disappointing.  Well, whatever.  Where was I?  Oh yes.  As for an actual review, what can I say?  This is the long-awaited follow-up to Heartsick and Sweetheart.  There is no point reading the third if you haven’t read the first two, but those of you who have been following my sick obsession with Cain’s sick, sick story about a homicide detective’s struggle to overcome his obsession with the serial killer who held him captive and tortured him will be glad to know that this is the last book in the series.  At least it appears that way.  One never knows, but I certainly hope so because I can’t afford to invest any more of my soul in such a depraved world.  I devoured it.  It was disgusting and wrong, but I did it anyway.  And now I’m going to read some Henry James.