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I rarely read non-fiction. I’ve never read a travelogue. And yet I was pleasantly surprised by Tom Lutz’s latest book, “And the Monkey Learned Nothing: Dispatches from a Life in Transit.” At first, the book grabbed my attention with its title, followed by the synopsis. After I read the first few chapters, I knew I was hooked.

Lutz is a solo traveler who dreams of visiting every country in the world. He’s also a great and introspective writer. Each chapter is a short account of his personal experience in a new foreign country. They range in length and topic: walking through an empty Middle Eastern town; being stalked by an aloof young woman in South Korea; infiltrating the secret tango scene in Buenos Aires…

Like every other travelogue out there, this one is subjective. It reveals a fair bit about the author himself, while also describing the way others reacted to him. It also adds a great deal of cultural context or just funny (and occasionally disturbing) anecdotes.

Just about the only flaw I could find in the book is the dry nature of some chapters that discuss local politics. Those chapters, however, were outnumbered by the ones that gave great travel advice, made me reconsider visiting a few places (sorry, Cambodia) and taught me to avoid monkeys in tourist-heavy areas. (“They are sociopaths, like particularly nasty juvenile delinquents.”)

This book was a genuine pleasure to read. It would make an excellent present to anyone that’s curious about travel, the world, the universe and everything. Most and foremost, it’s a must-read if your wanderlust has overgrown the confines of your own country and inspired you to travel abroad.

I give this book five out of five stars.

Full disclosure: I received an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Buy “And the monkey learned nothing” on Amazon.

I want to be a stand-up comedian if I grow up. Might want to get insurance against pun-induced brain damage, though. Decisions, decisions…

iron punning

Kudos to Felicia Day for inspiring the pun barrage with this tweet.

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“The Hatching” by Ezekiel Boone aims to capitalize on two successful trends of science fiction and fantasy: serialized novels and the “oral history” format of “World War Z.” The result is mixed and, to be fair, perfectly average.

The premise is simple, though not very scary, unless you happen to be an arachnophobe: all over the world, ancient spider eggs start hatching and producing spider-shaped weapons of mass destruction that devour everything in their path. A lot of the book follows a female scientist specializing in spiders, a female US President (whose name is not Hillary, just in case you were wondering), and an assorted cast of ex-boyfriends, grad students and an occasional cop, with a few secondary characters thrown in.

The narrative is interspersed with “Word War Z”-esque dispatches of waves of tiny spiders devouring entire villages and then cities. That’s where the book fails to meet expectations. There are only so many ways you can describe a giant black wave of cannibalistic hive-mind creatures without being redundant, and in a lot of cases, there is no background on our temporary protagonists – sometimes we don’t even know their name.

I’m mixed on this book: on the one hand, main characters are fleshed out quite well for a sci-fi/horror novel. They all have their own lives, and the subplot about two pairs of survivalists in a small desert town is fun to read. (I think that’s the first time any work of fiction had a gay survivalist couple living in a bunker – well played!) On the other hand, the names are corny (one family has Annie, Frannie and Manny) and most of the characters spend at least half their time thinking about sex and/or hooking up with their former partners.

The book has some interesting trivia about spiders, but at the same time spiders make for the least convincing horrifying creatures imaginable. (Unless, once again, you’re a raging arachnophobe.) Hitchcock’s 1963 movie “The Birds” did not age well for that precise reason – if your main plot device requires willful suspension of disbelief in order to work at all, it may be a good idea to go with zombies instead.

Overall, “The Hatching” is a perfectly decent novel – not perfect and not terrible, but somewhere in between. In terms of pacing, it might have worked better to release 1 long book instead of starting yet another series with 3 average-sized books, where the plot slowly moves through the paces. Then again, if you’re just looking for a fun book to devour during your flight or while commuting to work, this is a perfectly good choice.

Final score: three out of five stars

Order “The Hatching” now on Amazon

Full disclosure: I received an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve recently written that Patrick Rothfuss’s Book-3 probably wouldn’t come out anytime soon. (Along with some other predictions.) Well, I guess I was wrong! In my not-at-all-obsessive quest for more video interviews with Pat, I found this recent (5/11/16) video interview.

Aside from the sheer awesomeness that is Pat’s office (I count at least 15 owl-bears), there’s also a very important update: he said he’s currently editing the book to get it shorter, better and more dynamic. In his own words, he’s going through it and trying to cut out approximately 100,000 words. It’s kind of humbling to think he’s going to cut enough words to write an average, non-Rothfuss-sized novel.

So, assuming the book is already written and currently undergoing the editing process, the release date draws closer yet. It probably won’t come out in time for Christmas, but who knows – maybe we’ll get it at some point within a year. Don’t know about y’all, but I’m going to make sure to have a week’s worth of vacation saved up and ready to use just for this occasion…

Robert Kroese is a funny guy and one of those improbable entrepreneurs that keep the Internet interesting: he’s a blogger, a philosopher, a prolific Kindle author, and now he just might become my favorite mystery writer.

“The Big Sheep” is a hilarious twist on the established archetype of Holmes and Watson – or, in this case, Erasmus Keane and Blake Fowler. The former is an eccentric, brilliant, occasionally charismatic and frequently quotable private investigator with a shady past. (Or “phenomenological inquisitor,” as he prefers to be called.) The latter is his sidekick and bodyguard – an average guy with a knack for guns and hand-to-hand combat, on a never-ending quest to find his missing girlfriend.

This dynamic duo works in Los Angeles in 2039, 11 years after the Collapse of 2028. The origins of the Collapse aren’t explained, but it ended up dividing the country, creating demilitarized “DZ” zones (essentially, feudal kingdoms for aspiring warlords) and inspiring a hit TV show, DiZzy Girl.

The book begins with Keane and Bowler taking the case of a kidnapped hyper-intelligent sheep, followed by another case from the DiZzy Girl’s starlet, one Priya Mistry, who is convinced her life is in danger. How are the two cases connected? Read on and find out for yourself!

The book’s dialogue, that “make it or break it” element of every detective novel, is brilliantly written. The plot is original, the setting is mysterious and sufficiently noir-like, the narrative is funny, and action scenes are written well enough to grab your attention. The only downside I can think of is the lack of character descriptions. We never learn what our two heroes look like, aside from the fact that they’re adult human males, and that was a bit of an oversight, in my opinion. Fortunately, that’s the only flaw the book has. I highly recommend it for your reading pleasure and eagerly await more books in this great new series.

I give this book five out of five stars.

Order “The Big Sheep” now on Amazon

Full disclosure: I received an advanced reader copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Making predictions is usually a losing game, but who knows, there’s always the chance of guessing just right. I haven’t been following the trilogy’s reddit or reading any other fan speculations, but here’s what I’ve deduced after re-reading the books and watching just about every Patrick Rothfuss interview on YouTube. (Also, fair warning – this contains spoilers to the first two books, so stop right here unless you want to ruin this amazing book series for yourself.)

  • The third book will come out sometime this decade, but not before November 2017.
  • Simmon will die. (In both books, Kvothe speaks of him very fondly – the sort of fondly one would use to describe somebody who is no longer with us.)
  • Kvothe and Fenton (the second-best sympathist at the University) will end up having a bona fide sympathy some point. (If only to settle once and for all which one is better.)
  • It’ll turn out that Ambrose has been quietly killing everyone who stands between his father and the throne. His family is, after all, known for their connection to pirates.
  • After Ambrose becomes a king, Kvothe will kill him. (There will be a lot of other stuff before that, of course.)
  • Whoever the unfortunate soon-to-be-king is, the assassination will happen in Imre, by the fountain. (See the “you’re him!” scene at the beginning of Book I.)
  • At some point, Kvothe will save a princess from a barrow king (see the boasting paragraph in Book I), possibly revealing that the shamble-men (sp?) are, in fact, real, just like every other allegedly mythical creature in the trilogy.
  • Kvothe will cross over into the fairy realm, where he’ll make enough of a splash that Bast’s father (a fairy king, I believe) will give him over as an apprentice.
  • Bast will briefly see Denna (see one of the interludes in Book I, possibly while eavesdropping during “the big goodbye” scene between her and Kvothe.
  • At one point, Chronicler said Kvothe met a god and killed an angel in order to get to him. I’m afraid the latter was Auri, if only by accident…
  • It’ll turn out that Kvothe’s world is just a barbaric imitation of the grand civilization that existed beforehand (as Skarpi said in Book I, the University was built on top of another, older university). Sort of a “Planet of the Apes”-type scene that shows just how backward the world is, by comparison.
  • Even with the barbarism, arcanists have the cold fusion technology. (See the minor comment Kvothe made about cold-forging iron in the Fishery – can’t recall which book it was in.)
  • Lorren (the Archivist) is one of the Amyr – pretty obvious, considering how quickly he got to Kvothe when he requested Chandrian and Amyr books from the Stacks, and how he asked Kvothe which Ruh troop he was from during his University admissions.
  • We’ll meet Abenthe again. (Kvothe said so in Book I, at the beginning of the Tarbean narrative.)
  • Late in Book III, we’ll meet
  • Kvothe will end up collecting the 7 old artifacts left over by the survivors of the ancient civilization and using them to open the Lackless door. (See the “Seven things stand before” rhyme by a traveling troupe’s boy in Book II.)
  • The magic Denna mentioned (whatever you write down will come true) is a subtle sort of magic, much like Bast’s explanation for the power of one’s self-identity. The Chandrian slaughter musicians and any potential witnesses because having their names written down (or even spoken out loud) will give readers or listeners a degree of power over them.
  • Kvothe’s adopted name – Kote – means “disaster” in Cealdish. (Briefly mentioned in Book I.)
  • Kvothe’s overall story is that of pride and arrogance – he starts a civil war and somehow opens the stone doors and lets the demons into the world, not to mention gets his friends killed, all because he thought he knew better. (See the shortest chapter of Book I – “Pride” – for a small example of his hubris backfiring.)
  • Elodin’s reaction to Kvothe’s question about names (end of Book II) suggests that it is, in fact, possible to fundamentally change one’s name. There may be a ritual for it and it’s not as easy as just adopting a new name. A story (in Book I, I believe) mentioned that a legendary character’s name was concealed in several hidden objects. The mysterious trunk in Kvothe’s room has his name locked away, and he’d need to be in the “Kvothe mode” to open it up. (“Open, damn you. Edro.” Book II,Ch.151)
  • Perhaps the most interesting part: in one of the YouTube interviews, Rothfuss reluctantly said that a gearwin (the popular gadget made in the Fishery) is a device that can “transform heat into angular momentum.” Essentially, the hotter it gets, the faster gears turn. That shines a whole new light on the myth of Tehlu binding the top demon (forgot his name) to an iron wheel and throwing him into a fire pit. Considering all the ancient devices with giant gears in the Underthing, that means gearwins are just a small vestige of the old technology. (Kvothe, as always, didn’t make the connection.) Furthermore, Kilvin has some secret place where he dumped the overflow energy from the fire at the Fishery. It might be connected to the world’s biggest gearwin – the one gearwin to rule them all!
  • The name of the wind is Steve.😛

Questions? Comments? Counter-theories? Post them here!

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Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” trilogy reminds me of DC’s comic book movies: the premise is great, but each new installment is grittier, darker and makes less sense than the one before it.

I’ll start with a warning: if you have any sort of trauma-related emotional triggers, the first 60 pages of “The city of mirrors” will pull them, seemingly just for the fun of it. In the very first chapters of the book, we encounter (in no particular order) a stillbirth, a series of rape-related flashbacks, a man telepathically cheating on his girlfriend, a sexually abused little girl, and a religious hermit who goes to wander in the desert and then either gets extremely lucky by finding a bona fide treasure or loots an emergency supply station while presumably leaving the next stranded traveler to die.

I honestly can’t tell why Cronin chose to assault his readers like this. It’s possible that he tried to shove as much potential shock value as possible to make the book more memorable (though not in a good way) – at one point in the book, there’s a fairly detailed description of live birth. (Not quite what one expects in what’s supposed to be a vampire book.) On the other hand, it’s possible he was just trying to pad the page count. “The city of mirrors” appears to be the shortest book in the trilogy, and that’s after all the shameless padding and all the hundreds of pages spent describing nothing in general.

In the middle of the book, there’s a 200-page novel in which Zero, the original viral, corners one of our plucky heroes and shares his origin story in a very unexpected, out-of-context way. Is it possible that Cronin always wanted to write a “coming of age” story and decided to force-feed it to his readers? Or was it just something gathering dust in his desk drawer that seemed good enough to turn a 400-page book into a heavy 600-pager?

Regardless, the notion of a 150-year-old vampire moaning about his lost college girlfriend is ridiculous, especially considering that his audience consists of a single person who grew up with only the most basic education and who wouldn’t be able to grasp even the most basic concepts – things like tenure or airplanes or upper-class socioeconomic class. The story would have been much more realistic and fun if Zero would have to stop every 5 minutes and explain what things meant, but nope, we’re all subjected to a ridiculously out-of-place stream of consciousness. (Can you imagine tracking down a rural bumpkin from the year 1900 and telling them about your computer problems? Yeah, it’s *that* ridiculous.)

I might have been able to overlook all of the above and give the book a weak 4-star rating, but there are far too many plot holes and, dare I say, poor writing for a book that’s been in the works for 4 years. Just a handful of examples off the top of my head… A 35-year-old horse can run as fast as a group of virals. A character goes for a long swim and produces a perfectly dry book of matches from their pocket. A deaf person devises their own sign language – so advanced that even “War and peace” can be translated into it. Automatic rifles last just fine for 120 years before suddenly starting to break down due to advanced age. Two people that discover potentially world-ending piece of news choose not to tell everyone but instead launch a sociopathic murderous cult that involves dozens of people over the course of 21 years, none of whom say a word to anybody. (Every spy agency’s dream!) A person that’s never been on a boat learns how to operate a cruise ship in less than a month. People of the future can’t tell the difference between 870 and 1,000 years. After restarting civilization, 870 years later the pinnacle of their technological achievement is dirigibles and flashbulb cameras. (Must have been all the inbreeding.) Virals discover brand new powers that can’t be explained by any virus and turn into shapeshifters. Half the characters in the book develop superpowers – either telepathic abilities that are ever so convenient, or the ability to run for 30 minutes while bleeding from an artery without any lasting damage.

If I sound just a little bit upset, it’s because I’ve spent 2 weeks of my life struggling to finish this book, waiting for a payoff at the end, but it never came. I downgrade the book to 2 stars for the most ridiculously stretched-out ending I have ever had the displeasure to read. It’s yet another novella about people we don’t know, doing things we don’t care about, who end up lecturing us about the things we already know and, in the end, do something so extremely stupid (but pretty and sentimental – yay!) that the entire struggle appears to have been for naught.

On the upside, the language of the book is occasionally moving and often beautiful. That is, of course, when it’s not talking about child rape, stillbirths, murderous cults, shapeshifting vampires, shapeshifting humans, shapeshifting vampires that become humans or shapeshifting humans that become vampires but then change their minds and switch back to being humans.

I give this book 2 out of 5 stars.

Pre-order it on Amazon here, if you’re so inclined. (Release date: May 24, 2016)

Full disclosure: I’ve received the advanced reader copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.