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Thursday, February 02, 2006
50 Book Challenge 2006: First Update
I had fun doing it last year and it's not like I'm going to stop reading...so here's my first list of books for this year's 50 Book Challenge. I have commented on some of the books I read, but not all...

Another year and another challenge. Here's some of the books I've read so far on the challenge and some of my comments about them.

1. The Historian by Elizabeth Kordova
2. Gateway by Frederick Pohl
3. Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan
4. Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
Big things come in small packages. It’s an old cliche but it applies here. This small sized book packs quite the thoughtful punch. One part philosophy, one part science fiction this is a series of essays on the nature of time. It sounds a bit cut and dried, but physist Alan Lightman insteads gives us a short essay on a variety of worlds in which time runs at different rates, speeds and works in different ways. The pieces are thought-provoking, interesting and entertaining. This is a book you’ll read and still be thinking about later.

5. Alone by Lisa Gardner
Until the last 50 pages, Alone is a fast-paced, fun suspense/mystery that keeps the pages turning. There are three separate storylines running, each of them interesting and each of them to some extent connected. But then, about 50 pages from the end Gardner throws in a plot twist to try and explain a central mystery of the novel and the whole thing goes out the window. What had been an effortless, entertaining story until that point instead becomes cliched, overdrawn and full of amazingly overdone coincidences to reach the end of the story. It feels as if Gardner’s editor told her—well, Lisa, you’ve got 50 pages so let’s wrap this thing up and she did. A disappointing end to what was, up to that point, an entertaining novel.

6. Mad River Road by Joy Feilding
Touted as a suspense thriller, this one is more like a rather predictable thriller. Part of it is that the central twist of events is way too easy to guess if you’ve ever read any other books in this genre. Add in rather static characters and you get a frustrationg reading experience.

7. Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams
8. So Long and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams
9. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Three separate mysteries involving families losing someone—one is a disappearance, two are murders. The story isn’t as concerned with the who done it aspect (thought it is important) as the impact of the loss on the characters. All three stories are linked by private detective Jackson, who is asked to look into all three cases, some years after the fact.

Definitely worth reading.

10.The Washingontienne by Jessica Culter
Jessica Culter rose to fame when her kiss and tell blog went mainstream, creating a huge uproar both on and off line. Now Cutler turns her story into a poorly written novel that’s a thinly veiled autobiography.

Cutler is obsessed with the use of the f-word and seems to derive a great deal of pleasure from spending entire pages talking about how hot her protagonist is. If this is intended as a defense or explanation of the events that led to her infamy, it only makes her come across as a crass, shallow woman. I keep reading thinking--dear heavens, I hope not all women are this shallow and self-absorbed. And the men they encounter are no better. Neither gender comes off well in this "novel."

And it really is hard to muster up any sympathy for a protagonist who knowingly sleeps around with a variety of men, some of them married, starts a blog about it and is then upset when her actions come back to bite her in the you-know-what in the end. If anything, I felt like she was reaping what she sewed and had no sympathy for the character at all based on the events that had preceded. Yes, it's horrible, but you come away thinking--but you brought this on yourself, so why are you surprised by any of this?

Don’t bother. It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.

11. Coming Home by Dan Lewis
12. Batman: Hush Volume I and II (Graphic Novel)
13. Doctor Who: The Novel of the Film by Gary Russell
14. Dave Barry's Money Secrets by Dave Barry
In a word: Hilarious!

15. It's Superman! by Tom DeHaven
A re-telling of the origin of Superman that in some ways mirrors what’s being done over on Smallville, though without making the characters quite as compelling or interesting. The time is the late 30s and we see the creation of Superman from Clark Kent. An interesting start quickly peters out into a rather tedious storyline that features few, if any characters, wroth caring about. Clark’s transformation into Superman takes forever and by the time it came around, I was more bored than interested.

Not a great book.

16. Love Monkey by Kyle Smith
I’m sure a lot of guys read or saw High Fidelity and thought—I could do that, it seems to easy. In fact, Love Monkey by Kyle Smith references this fact early on in the story with our narrator, Tom, saying that book was nothing more than top ten lists and a way to get girls’ phone numbers.

But the thing about Nik Hornby’s book is that it was so good, he made it look easy.

Not so much here.

Not that book isn’t good, but you never got the feeling Rob was as self-aware as Tom is.

Anyway, onto Love Monkey. Tom is in love with Julia, who he works with. Julia has a boyfriend who she may or may not be in the process of breaking up with. The story follows that romance as it were as well as Tom’s other conquests and attempts to get some action. There are times when the book is staggeringly funny and realized and times when Tom is too much a bore to garner much sympathy. The whole books reaches a crossroads with 9/11 and how those events shape our hero. Not sure it’s a great way to end a book.

17. Essential Amazing Spider-Man Volume 7
Until a few years ago when Marvel inflicted that wince-inducting clone arc on us, this was one of the forgotten eras in Spider-Man history. Taking place after the huge events of the death of Gwen Stacey and before the Hobgoblin emerged on the scene, this era of Spider-Man is good but mostly forgettable.

The thing is—this is an era I grew up with reading in Marvel Tales and in the Spider-Man books. So, it was a fascinating journey down memory lane for me (at least the later tales) and rediscovering old friends. The stories are, for the most part, good and indicative of their era. Spidey faces some of the classic rouges gallery such as Sandman and Doc Ock and he faces down some forgettable new villains such as the Grizzly and Mirage.

18. Cell by Stephen King
For a man who retired after he finished the Dark Tower saga, Stephen King sure is working hard. Not that I’m too upset about it, mind you since I’m a big fan and every new book by King is like crack with pages to me.

King’s latest novel is an end-of-the-world type thriller similiar to The Stand in that things go to hell in a handbasket and a group of rag-tag survivors must band together to figure out what happened and survive. Instead of a deadly plague, this time the end of the world comes from cell phones, which all send out a deadly pulse that turns users into zombies. The world descends into chaos as the zombies take over, but instead of just running around undead and eating brains, the zombies begin to organize and follow a group-mind mentality ala the Borg from Star Trek. We meet a group of people, led by Clay who are struggling to stay alive and for Clay to get back to his family.

King does a great job, as usual, with taking an every man character and putting him into an extrodinary situation and seeing if and how he’d cope with things. The overriding arc of Clay’s wanting to get home to his family drives the story and the story does end on a Twilight Zone like moment. It’s not so much an ending where everything is neatly resolved so much as it’s that this part of the story has reached a conclusion. King recognizes this and doesn’t let the story over stay its welcome, though I imagine some readers may be disappointed by that.

I wasn’t.

While it’s not as great as The Stand or Bag of Bones, Cell is still an example of why Stephen King is one of the best writers we’ve got working today.

19. Lost in Rooville by Ray Blackston
I picked up Ray Blackston’s first novel a few years ago just because the title was so great. I mean, titling your first novel Flabbergasted is a great selling point and I will admit that I came away from the first book feeling just that. Blackston’s story of Jay Jarvis, a single guy who visited various churches to meet single women and found the girl of his dreams who turned his life upside down was a hoot.

So, I quickly read it and then its sequel. Now, come the latest entry in the series that finds Jay still dating Allie and moving toward taking the new step in the relationship. And the thing is—three books in, Blackston still makes all of his characters feel authentic. Jay struggles with his faith journey, but it never feels contrived or predictable like you get in other contempoary Christian fiction stories, such as any book with the name Tim LaHaye on the cover. The book starts off slowly as Jay and Allie, Steve and Darcy all take a trip to the Outback of Australia. Jay intends to propose to Allie while Steve has planned the same. But, as is typical for a Blackston book, things go a bit awry. OK, they go a lot awry. Before you know it, Jay and Ally have wrecked their Land Rover and are stuck in the Outback with no way to communicate and call for help.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a stretch, but the thing is Blackston says—just go with me here and as a reader, I can. Because he makes the characters so interesting. Also, the question of will she say yes does keep you turning the pages.

Anyway, to say more would be giving away much of the later portions of the book, but I will say this—the momentum picks up in the second half of the book. My only real complaint is the ending which is a bit contrived. Blackston takes his characters to a crisis and gives them an almost fairy-tale like ending that just doesn’t quite ring true. But hey, it’s not enough to make you not enjoy the overall book.

Give this series a try—I think you might like it.

So, out of the batch of books I've read, which ones would I say are worth the time if you're a fellow book-a-holic? Of those 19 books, I'd unreservedly recommend Case Histories, Cell, Einstein's Dreams and Lost in Rooville as the cream of the crop. I'd recommend staying far from It's Superman and The Washingontienne.

posted by Michael Hickerson at 2/02/2006 08:27:00 AM | |
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