Category: Uncategorized

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.

“The Dark Side” by Anthony O’Neill is, at its heart, a typical murder mystery: a disgraced, disfigured, hardboiled detective named Justus (pronounced “Yustus,” not “Justice”) investigates the assassination of a high-ranking scientist, with an amoral billionaire and the billionaire’s promiscuous daughter as his prime suspects.

It’s very typical, except that the action takes place in the future. On the dark side of the moon. In a lovely city of Sin, set in the middle of the region known as Purgatory. Oh, and there’s a malfunctioning, homicidal android on a rampage toward the big city after a bug in his system caused him to take the business philosophy of the aforementioned billionaire quite literally, especially the parts about eliminating one’s competitors with extreme prejudice. (The resulting monstrosity would make even Ayn Rand blush.)

The narrative alternates between the robot and the detective, featuring the less populated parts of the moon as well as the conditions in Sin, the most crime-ridden city in the solar system. The characters – even the minor ones – are beautifully developed. One particularly chapter goes to great lengths to describe the society of high-class thieves. (Think “Ocean’s Eleven” in space.) As the plot progresses, the intrigues abound, the well-researched science continues to amaze, the action scenes excite, and the ending delivers in a beautiful, satisfying way.

I read a lot of science fiction. A lot those books are less than enjoyable, while some are passable but short of excellent. “The Dark Side” comes much, much closer to perfection than most other books in its genre, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Final score: 5 out of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I’ve received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Pre-order on Amazon (release date: June 28, 2016)

“Happy cows” – 370,000 search results on Google
“Aggressive cows” – 5,390 search results
“Sad cows” – 4,680 search results
“Calm cows” – 2,930 search results
“Indifferent cows” – 1,460 search results
“Upset cows” – 1,300 search results
“Ecstatic cows” – 1,150 search results
“Arrogant cows” – 736 search results
“Languid cows” – 730 search results
“Jubilant cows” – 351 search results
“Needy cows” – 345 search results
“Flabbergasted cows” – 327 search results
“Opinionated cows” – 180 search results
“Vigilant cows” – 135 search results
“Malevolent cows” – 112 search results
“Enigmatic cows” – 78 search results
“Grouchy cows” – 69 search results
“Somber cows” – 64 search results
“Conscientious cows” – 54 search results
“Exuberant cows” – 43 search results
“Despondent cows” – 42 search results
“Petulant cows” – 32 search results
“Compulsive cows” – 15 search results
“Queasy cows” – 10 search results
“Tenacious cows” – 9 search results
“Disdainful cows” – 7 search results
“Wistful cows” – 6 search results
“Quixotic cows” – 4 search results
“Rancorous cows” – zero search results

Imagine a couple of three-year-olds playing with their action figures: chasing and shooting and yelling at each other. Good. Now imagine them using a time machine in their disjointed, barely coherent, poorly scripted story as they chase one another around the house. If you do that, you’ll have a fairly good idea of what “Alternate” by Ernie Luis is like.

“Alternate” was a serialized Kindle book, written in four installments, presumably without any idea where it was going to end up. (See also: Lost – the TV show that was supposed to last only six episodes but went on for six seasons and ended in a bizarre, mind-twisting example of grown men writing themselves into a corner.) Mind you, sometimes serialized Kindle novels work – Hugh Howey’s Wool is a good example of that.

The concept behind the book (grandly entitled “omnibus”) is pretty interesting: a society of assassins that go back in time to kill their victims, and who someday might be able to go back and rescue the people from their own past. Think of it as a combination of “Looper” and “Wanted.”

Perhaps, in the right hands, with proper editing and proofreading, the book could have been great. Instead, it ended up poorly written and filled with plot holes: a frail sixteen-year-old girl armed with a knife is somehow able to keep hundreds of people (presumably armed with guns) under her control; the book’s villain leaves a whistleblower alone inside his unlocked office, with a loaded gun and an unlocked computer terminal that contains all the dirty secrets, conveniently written down and explained in great detail. Supposedly efficient assassins turns out to be horribly traumatized alcoholics with emotional issues that would put a typical 14-year-old emo to shame. The list goes on and on…

Some self-published Kindle books turn out perfect: look no further than Andy Weir and “The Martian.” “The Alternate,” on the other hand, is a perfect example why sometimes going the traditional route may be a good idea.

I’m giving this book two stars instead of one because the author did a fairly good job describing the emotional pain of the protagonist – a man who lost his 8-year-old daughter and would do anything to get her back. Too bad those raw emotional moments are grossly outnumbered by all the graphic “torture porn” scenes of people mutilating their doomed enemies just for the fun of it, to indulge some basic, id-driven, caveman instinct that, once again, is not unlike what you’d see if you watch three-year-olds play with their toys.

Final score: two out of five stars

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: X-Men Noir

“X-Men Noir” is a comic book (or a graphic novel, as all the cool kids call them these days) with an intriguing concept: what if everyone’s favorite X-Men lived in the gritty noir world of the 1920s? And what if they didn’t have superpowers?

The book’s creators (writer Fred Van Lente and artist Dennis Calero) made a good effort at exploring the concept, but the end result isn’t as user-friendly as it might have been. The art in the book is digital and not hand-drawn (think “Ex Machina” comics) and, while that’s not a big issue in and of itself, it’s difficult to tell apart the book’s many characters who talk, dress and look very much alike. The overabundance of dark colors in the book doesn’t help differentiate the characters and makes for some very confusing action scenes on several occasions.

As for the writing… Van Lente put together an interesting world where goodie-two-shoes X-Men are sociopaths, not mutants. Professor Xavier is a rogue psychiatrist who thought sociopaths were the next stage of human evolution. Thus, instead of the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters we have the Xavier’s School for Exceptionally Wayward Youth, where he helped his feral teenagers become better criminals. A lot of characters from the X-Men universe are featured in the book as main characters as well as cameos, but mostly under their regular, non-superhero names, which might confuse some casual comics readers. 

Personally, I know more about X-Men than most people, and even I had to turn to the almighty Google to look up just who the main character was supposed to be. (For some bizarre reason, he’s not even from the X-Men but from a comic book released some 30 years before the franchise was even created.) The book’s narrative seems too rushed and compressed – it may have worked better if it were stretched across 6-8 issues, instead of just 4. As it is, the ending, which combines just about every noir element out there, will probably leave you confused…

However, there are some good parts as well. X-Men are occasionally made fun of: Iceman insists on being called by his moniker and makes puns about “icing” his victims with an icepick; Professor X’s file on Beast notes that he likes to use big words he doesn’t always understand. There’s this gem of a quote: “They stole everything that wasn’t nailed down! And the they took the nails out of the rest of it and stole it, too!” After each of the book’s 4 chapters, there’s an installment of a short pulp story written by none other than Bolivar Trask, in which he talks about Sentinels and sewers-dwelling mutants. That makes for some interesting reading, especially if you like meta narratives.

Overall, the book left me confused and a little disappointed. Although it’s clear that a lot of people put a lot of work into it, no book should ever leave its readers scratching their heads and going online to figure out what on earth actually happened in the final scene.

Score: 2 out of 5 stars

Buy it on Amazon

“The other day I was pondering some crazy Japanese game show and I came to the realization that we probably have little hope of understanding an Alien race, because I can’t understand Japanese pop culture at all.”


(Oh, Internets, how much I love thee!)


Logging off Facebook,
Off to bed by eleven.
Healthy lifestyle sucks…

Here’s a great example of the difference between Russians and Americans. My yuppie American neighbors took down all of their pretty pretty decorations right after Christmas. In Russia they’d be left hanging for at least a month before somebody finally bothered to put them away.

Stars of the Lone Star State

I had forgotten how much I missed the stars. The other day I looked up as I was leaving for work. (Before the sunrise, as I always do.) The sight above shocked me: beautiful points of pure light scattered across the low, dark Texan sky. Those were the first stars I had seen in years…

That was quite likely the biggest reminder of just how much Nevada had changed me, altered me in ways I can neither imagine nor comprehend. That is something most people do not know about Las Vegas: it has no stars. The overabundance of light pollution from neon signs and casinos blocks out everything except the moon. The self-proclaimed city of sin is separated from the rest of the world by the desert; from the rest of the universe by its ego. A microcosm. A snow globe filled with sand.

I cannot help but wonder what subtle, hidden impact the utter lack of stars has on city dwellers. Is it at all possible that the Bronze Age sheep herders enjoyed more balanced, happier (though infinitely shorter) lives simply because they could fall asleep beneath the beauty of the Milky Way? Most of the world may never even know such view exists. The price of progress…

Quote of the day

“They weren’t the attractive Flipper kind of dolphins. They were regular dolphins that aren’t as pretty and don’t get cast on television. Maybe they just refused to sell out and see a plastic surgeon. I held up a fist to them. Represent.”
Jim Butcher, “Small Favor” (Book 10 of the Dresden Files)