Those Across the River, by Christopher Buehlman

Those Across the RiverMan.  I really dislike it when I think a book is going to be awesome, or, as is the case here, pretty decent, and then I read it and it’s just… not.

This book was pretty bad from the start, but it was the only thing I had to listen to at work when I ran out of podcasts every day, and so I forced myself (seriously, I was like, self, do I have to?) to continue in the hopes that maybe it would get better. It refused.

Those Across the River opens with the narrator all caged up with potential cannibal people and he’s all, man, I made some serious mistakes in getting here and let me tell you about them. So then we learn, very slowly, that our friend Frank has moved to Georgia with his lady-friend (whom he stole from a former colleague who subsequently prevented Frank from getting hired anywhere) to write a book sometime after World War I, of which Frank is a veteran, I think. So that’s already lovely. Then it turns out that Frank was never supposed to move there at all because his aunt what bequeathed him the house was also all, I am totally batshit crazy but you should definitely trust me and not live in the damn thing so just sell it, okay? Which, I mean, come on. Crazy lady tells me not to do something? I’m going to at least check it out.

And so of course the house is fantastic but the neighborhood is also totally batshit crazy and there are creepy people Across the River who totally want to scare the poo out of Frank and also everyone else because they aren’t getting pigs to eat anymore (just go with it) and are maybe looking to eat some people.

This could be sufficiently creepy to make me a happy listener, but there were so many things that prevented my happiness. First, the whole “no really don’t come live here thing” was, as I mentioned, totally never going to work and “but she’s a CRAZY person” is not enough to keep my disbelief suspended indefinitely. Then there’s this whole vibe of the Across the River people being out to get Frank that was very Castle-esque and with him being a vet I was like, oh lord, he totally came here with a PURPOSE and there’s going to be TORTURE, and I was not exactly wrong, actually, though it was not as terribly written as that awful awful book. And then, spoiler alert, it turns out that Those Across the River are totally werewolves, but Buehlman refuses to call them werewolves even though they change into wolves at the full moon and can be killed by silver bullets and I am pretty sure that… okay, I just looked it up, and werewolves weren’t actually much in pop culture at the time so maybe I can give Buehlman a pass on historical accuracy. But it bothered me while I listened to it, so it still counts.

Soooooo yeah. It’s certainly not the worst book I’ve ever read, but it’s so solidly meh that I can’t help but dislike it.

Recommendation: If you’re more into horror than I, you might stand a better chance.

Rating: 3/10

How the Hippies Saved Physics, by David Kaiser

Hey, look, I finally finished this book, first mentioned on the blog back at the end of July. I had to return the book pictured, but then found the audio version on OverDrive, so I couldn’t help but listen, right?

Right.

Okay, so. First of all, this book is not exactly about how hippies saved physics. The title is based off of some study called How the Irish Saved Civilization, and the hyperbole is intentional, so I guess I’ll let it slide. It is about hippies, and about hippies doing physics, and about hippies doing really weird things with physics, so if you’re into that sort of thing you won’t be disappointed.

On the actual surviving physics side of things, there’s a lot of info in the book about quantum physics and how absolutely insane it is, with entangled particles and the double slit experiment and quantum encryption and of course Schrödinger’s cat, which is probably still causing (and not causing) Schrödinger endless amounts of frustration.

I majored in physics, so mostly in this part I was like yeah yeah whatever none of this is really new or interesting.

BUT THEN.

Soooooo it turns out that more than one physicist in the 60s spent some time doing research into extrasensory perception, on the government’s dime. And then some more on other people’s dimes. And that is really the selling point of this book for me, because WHAT. Apparently there were some physics dudes and chicks totally into that Uri Gellar guy and other people who claimed to be able to see the future or see the other side of a playing card or whatever, and the U.S. government was like, well, we’d better play it safe and pour some money into this research just in case the Ruskies get there first. Fantastic! And even when said government stopped pouring money in and most people were like, eh, whatever, probably not, there were still physicists who were like, but MAYBE.

And I am a sucker for a crazy person story, so I liked this part of the book, and the part where Kaiser goes off about one of the non-government money-pouring people who totally turned out to be a murderer. WHAT.

Also, I love the guy who narrates the audiobook (he also did The Disappearing Spoon), whose delightful voice got me through all the boring parts just fine. I totally want to go find a list of his work and see if he’s done any other books I’m interested in reading.

Recommendation: For those who need some crazy science-related anecdotes to throw around at parties.

Rating: 7/10

Geek Girls Unite, by Leslie Simon

Hokay. So. I mentioned in my last post that I had picked this book up for no real reason but that it looked interesting and name-dropped some people that generally intrigue me. It is possible I did not even crack it open to look inside, just said, ooh, pretty purple cover and went for it.

Because prooooobably if I had looked inside I would not have brought this home. See, what I thought I was getting was a look at “geek girl” culture and, per the cover, how these girls are “taking over the world.” Well, I did get that, I guess, but I also got a lot of stuff I was not expecting.

The book is set up so that each chapter covers a specific style of geek girl, starting with a quiz on your knowledge of the style (spoiler: all the answers are C and the A and B answers are often ridiculous), providing a stereotypical description of such a geek girl, giving a history of awesome girls who fall into the category, naming some current “geek goddesses,” describing people these geek girls shouldn’t be friends with and boys whom they should date, and offering up required reading/listening/clicking/watching/etc.

The parts with the historical context and the current “goddesses” are interesting, because they give me cool people and things to look into and are, like, factual and stuff. But all the other parts were either just okay or kind of lame, and I think it’s at least partially because Simon and/or her publishers don’t seem to know what audience this book is for.

Is it for girls who want to find their geek clique? Well, they won’t be able to tell from the quizzes, since the right answer is generally very obvious even if you haven’t figured out that it’s always C. Is it for girls who want to read about themselves and their chosen clique? Maybe, but when I turned to what I thought would be mine, the “Literary Geek Girl,” I found out through the “character sketch” that I’m going to have to become completely immune to fashion and popular music and also go back in time to undo all that Cliffs-Notes-ing I did of really terrible books, and I’m just not willing to do that. Is it actually for boys, considering the “geek love” sections seem directed at the boys (very specifically boys, too) who want to win over a geek girl’s heart?

I don’t know. I wish the book had been less segmented and more about the generally geeky girl, and I wish there had been more factual stuff and less Seventeen filler, but I suppose that wasn’t meant to happen here. And so I am disappointed by my own high expectations. But I give Simon props for using actual geek girls as primary sources for the book and giving me scads of new books and albums and websites and movies to procure and devour, and really any book that’s going to get people interested in new things is good by me.

Recommendation: For the girl who has always wanted to be a [insert geek style here] Geek Girl but never knew where to start.

Rating: 7/10

The Postmortal, by Drew Magary

Dudes. Dudes. How did you let me not read this for so long? I picked it up because a) it has to go back to its library home soon and b) I hadn’t read anything in a week and it looked like it would go quickly. You should pick this book up because it turns out to be pretty fantastic!

I guess there are some caveats to the fantastic, as you kind of have to like a few different kind of things to get into this story. For one, it’s a semi-dystopia — “semi-” because the world isn’t ever really advertised as utopia, but it’s definitely got that dystopian/apocalyptic air to it. Two, it’s written as a series of blog posts, which I of course think is delightful but maybe you read enough blogs already? Three, for a book about quasi-immortality, a lot of people die in it, and not very nicely at that.

So. Yes. The background to the story is that some ginger guy invented the cure for aging instead of the cure for gingerness (sorry, Mary!) and everyone is like, “I gotta get me some of that.” And that’s kind of the story itself, too. We follow this guy John’s blog posts as he guides us through 60 years of almost no aging, from right before The Cure is legalized to everyone getting them some of that to those who aren’t everyone beating up/throwing lye in the eyes of everyone to some people deciding that cure, whatever, it’s time to die if that’s cool to government-sponsored bounty hunting to government-sponsored murder. It’s pretty intense. And of course the whole time the population is increasing like crazy and all the countries are freaking out at each other and a plane ticket costs $12K because there is no oil left and the lines just to get on the highway (in your plug-in, of course) are hours long because America still won’t get behind useful public transportation.

That last is probably (and sadly) the little detail that makes this story ring most true to me, but there are plenty of those little details in Magary’s story. This whole book, although it’s told as John’s story and follows his generally poor handling of all the crazy going on in the world, is really about those details and how on earth the Earth is going to handle a population that suddenly can’t get old. And Magary does a great job of showing every facet and really making you think about how this universe is going to play out.

And I really like the blog conceit, which exemplifies the intense nose-to-smartphone social media obsessiveness that Magary predicts will only increase in the next seventy years (right, the book starts in 2019, which is not that far away oh no!). There’s a brief intro at the beginning that sets up the story as coming from a hard drive on a discarded old smartphone, with the entries in this book selected to construct a narrative, so right away a couple levels of unreliable narrator, which is excellent. But also I like the blog posts because they convey the right tone for the story, which is this sort of personal-but-one-level-removed, kind of journalistic, kind of diary-ish tone that, and this is key, doesn’t really allow John to go exposition crazy because he’s nominally writing for people who know what the hell is going on. It would be so easy to go exposition crazy in this kind of story (see Torchwood: Miracle Day, which I would compare and contrast to this except it would end in me yelling), but for the most part Magary avoids it (except for a stray “as you know,” which, yelling).

It’s not a perfect book, and I found myself super-annoyed with John at many points in the story, some of which were probably not supposed to make me annoyed, but on the whole I found it quite intriguing and thought-provoking. In fact, I had to stop more than once along the way to play “what-if” with my husband, who was trying to play a video game and is probably now trying to figure out how to get one of those cycle marriages all the fictional people are talking about, only maybe five years instead of forty because he’s not going to live forever.

Recommendation: For enjoyers of dystopia, sad truths, and a little gratuitous violence (not too much).

Rating: 9/10

Doctor Cerberus, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Okay, so, not technically a book, but it’s audio theatre, and if I read a play, I’d post it, right? Ah, who cares about rationalization! There is Simon Helberg to be had!

That’s really why I picked this recording up. It came down the line with Simon climbing out of his television at me, and I just knew it was meant to be. And the description, which says things about a nerdy teenager who’s way too into those Saturday night horror movies… I’m not that nerd, but I love that nerd.

Also, the recording is like two hours long, since it is a play and all. You don’t even have to put that much effort into listening!

So, the story: there’s this nerd, Franklin, and he’s way too into those Saturday night horror movies, and has a sort of crush on Doctor Cerberus, the host of said movie nights. He also has a real crush on his older brother’s best friend, who happens to be the high school quarterback. He also has low self-esteem and weight issues. I’m sure you can identify with something here! Anyway, Franklin’s uncle shows up to live with the family for a bit, and he turns Franklin on to the idea of being a horror story writer, and this makes Franklin’s life awesome, except then his uncle goes away and his parents don’t know what to do with him and it’s all a dysfunctional mess. And then it gets better, as all lives tend to do.

It’s an adorable little recording, and there was a lot of on-the-nose dialogue from all of the characters, all of whom you enjoy and hate at various points during the play. They’re not exactly fully realized, there being only two hours of them, but certainly none of them end up exactly where they started, or even where you expect them to end up. And I like that.

Also, Simon Helberg. Come on.

Also also, I’m kind of liking this idea of plays on audio, because maybe I’ll actually get around to “reading” some. And L.A. Theatre Works knows how to sell its stuff — Macbeth with James Marsters? I’m gonna need my library to go buy that right now.

Recommendation: For nerds, nerds-at-heart, people who root for nerds.

Rating: 7/10

Go the Fuck to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach

Sorry for the swearing, up there, but what can you do? Actually, since I read this book while I was, um, cataloging it, I know exactly what you can do — the catalog record offers up a second title of Go the Fok to Sleep because the cover has a convenient moon in the middle. And maybe people don’t know what it really says?

But I do! Oh, I do, because after all the internets hullabaloo about this book I couldn’t help spending a couple minutes paging through this before sending it out to be processed. That’s right, a couple minutes. I was thinking about not even writing up for the blog, but I realized that I could maybe save a few of you those couple minutes that you could use to, like, sleep in a bit one morning, or something.

Yes, indeed, this book is not nearly as exciting as the internet made it out to be. I can hear your shock from all the way over here!

You’ve probably heard the premise of the book, but if not — it’s in the style of a kids’ rhyming book, and ostensibly of the go-to-sleep genre of such. I’ve seen it compared to Goodnight Moon, but it’s not quite the same tone. I would say it’s trying very hard to be more Dr. Seuss-y or somesuch, but Seuss is a way better poet.

And maybe that’s a weird thing to be picky about, but, I mean, the book is like ten pages long and it’s entirely made up of these little poems, and the poems are not very good! Mansbach forces words into patterns where they do not fit, and I found myself having to really think about how to make a line go “ta dum dum ta dum dum” more often than I’d like.

Unrelatedly, I just tried to Google some of the lines to show you what I mean, and I discovered that Google won’t let me see the results for “go the fuck to sleep,” though it will allow “go the f to sleep.” Anyone know how to fix that?

Right, anyway, some of the rhymes were off, and also, for as short as this book is, it seemed like Mansbach ran out of steam after the first few poems, because they become increasingly nonsensical and also more “angry” than “tired and frustrated and irritated,” which is how the book begins and ends, so I’m not sure what happened in the middle there.

Now I’ve spent more time writing this book up than reading it! Nuts! Uh, sorry, I guess I didn’t save you any time after all!

Recommendation: If you’re gonna read it you’re gonna read it. At least it’s quick!

Rating: 5/10

Regarding Ducks and Universes, by Neve Maslakovic

How could I not read this book, with a title and cover like that? Impossible.

It also helps that the book is a bit of a sci-fi romp, a biiiiit like Shades of Grey or The Android’s Dream with the science and the touch of satire and the all-around amusement the author obviously has with his/her own book. I’m a fan.

The fun science here is a bit baffling, but once your head gets around it it’s pretty cool. Basically, in the late-ish 1980s of an alternate history (I mean, already alternate before this crazy thing happened), there was a Mad Scientist type who managed to split off the universe into a Universe A and a Universe B that share a timeline and population up to said split, but then anything that happens after the split is one-universe-only. So if this split happened tomorrow, there would be a You A and a You B who are exactly alike tomorrow, but in thirty years maybe one of you is a movie star and the other is not, or one of you lives in Iceland and the other in California, whatever. Awesomely, the Mad Scientist (I think, it could have been someone else) also invented a transporter thing that allows for people from the two universes to travel between them, provided they don’t go seeking out their alters (i.e. You A seeking out You B) without permission from said alters.

Are you confused now? Good!

Because of this crazy science, the book is pretty exposition-heavy at the beginning, which is slightly annoying. But then you start getting into the plot part, and that’s pretty darn interesting too. Here we have a Felix Sayers (who totally wishes he were related to Dorothy) off to visit Universe B ostensibly for funsies, but actually because he’s just found out that he’s really Felix A and that his parents lied about his birthdate for some unknown reason. He’d like to figure out why the lying, of course, but he’d also like to make sure that Felix B hasn’t gone and written the mystery novel that Felix A has been meaning to get around to, someday, you know, maybe. Things only get stranger when two competing research teams start following Felix A around and he finds out that he might already be a bit more important to history than he ever hoped to be.

I had a lot of fun with this book. There’s confusing science, of course, but there’s also a healthy dose of vintage mysteries with Sayers and Christie, and some social commentary on environmentalism and social media and e-books that is amusing in small doses, though Maslakovic goes a little too far every once in a while. But! Anyway! Otherwise delightful. Also, there are fun side stories including some corporate espionage, violations of the Lunch-Place Rule, and illness by almost-dog. You know, normal stuff.

“There is something to be said about being unreachable, especially when you are trying to avoid being prodded by your boss to engage in regulation-breaking activities of the sourdough kind.”

Recommendation: For fans of the sci-fi romp, Agatha Christie, and sourdough bread.

Rating: 9/10
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