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Posts posted by Goodwich

  1. Well, here's something very different. An Kindle book I was able to read for free by an author I've never heard of. But I'm glad I did because The Wellbaby is a refreshing change from the genre fiction I've been reading lately and one of the best fiction books I've read in a long time. And it's viciously skewers the provincialism of small town, small-minded Americans, so what's not to lie?


    The Wellbaby tells the story of Amanda Prahl, who earned her fifteen minutes of fame when she fell down a well in the early 70s in a small Oklahoma town, creating a media sensation in the states that ended with her being rescued, minus two of her toes, by a local volunteer fireman, Floyd Smoll. The story starts 17 years later, in 1988, when Amanda, now a teenager who lives alone and works as a waitress at a diner (won't get into the details of this setup here) prepares to take all the money in a Trust fund set up for her with donations Americans gave her after her original rescue. She's in for a rude awakening when she finds out the Trust fund is now worthless due to a failed stock play that is connected to the sudden bankruptcy of the town's largest employer, an apparel manufacturer, which puts a quarter of the town's population out of work, including Floyd Smoll. 


    The rest of the book follows a one-year period in the lives of Amanda, Floyd, and other key figures in their small down as they struggle to find security and happiness in an America whose Reagan-era prosperity has passed them by. Along the way we get scenes of near-rape, police brutality, right-wing violence, political corruption, economic greed, family dynamics, graphic consensual sex, spiritual redemption, teenage drinking, Hell's angels and more. 


    This may sound like a downer but in spite of many very dramatic (and often tragic) scenes, The Wellbaby is hilarious at times, especially in scenes where Amanda, a rebellious, hard-drinking, sexy working class hero faces off against the town's male authority figures. She's a classic female character. Her white-trash manners and accent betray a keen, streetwise intelligence and a take-no-crap attitude. What I love about her is that she's flawed and understands her flaws. She often makes terrible choices (usually regarding men) and knows that she's responsible for not trying harder to escape the life and town she's endured her whole life (although, as we see, she's had numerous strikes against her in her young life, and only the thought of getting her Trust fund kept her going all these years).


    The Wellbaby is not a fast-paced nail-biter. Grenville is not just interested in telling a story; he creates an entire town (in this case, a fading oil town named Iron Lake), with a rich geography, history, folklore and eccentric population. Tall tales and folklore are woven into the narrative, and they truly enrich it. The story of the original Wellbaby event is told from different points of view, each with its own interpretation of the significance (for example, the corrupt mayor of the  town labels the event a tragedy not because Amanda lost her toes but because the town failed to commercially "cash in" on the event). While some of the characters seem like small-town stereotypes at first, Grenville is wise enough to give nearly all of them their own backstory, motivations, and traits that make them fully fleshed out. This is particularly important in the case of Floyd, an introverted loner and laborer whose tragic upbringing make his keenly vulnerable to the forces of extremism that fold too many Americans into their grip.


    Unfortunately, the book is only available on Amazon Kindle although the author does say on his website that a print-to-order version will be available at some time. You can read the first few chapters on Amazon to give it a try and Grenville has another one available on the book's web site. I thoroughly recommend it.  









  2. I hate typos in general, but in all fairness to e-books, I haven't read a printed fiction book, even those by top authors, in the past 5-6 years that hasn't had at least three or four glaring typos. And this isn't a recent thing. I recently read an early edition of The Great Gatsby and the number of typos and grammatical errors was astounding. Indeed, one of the e-books I'm reading now has the fewest number of typos I've found in any book this year, which is pretty amazing given its length and the fact that it's self-published. 

  3. Has anyone read this two-book series by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett?


    I just finished the second book, The Long War


    The concept of the series is interesting although not highly original. At some point in the near future, people discover that an infinite series of 'parallel Earths' exist to which people from our Earth (called the Datum) can travel to in a process called "steppiing." While each of these Earths has its own characterisics (some are hotter, some are colder, some are forest world, some are deserts, some never developed life at all, etc.), each one is its own pristine world awaiting human exploitation. 


    The first book, The Long Earth, centers around a long journey undertaken by a 'pioneer stepper' in the company of an artificial intelligence named Logsang. Along the way they discover several sapient lifeforms never seen on Datum earth and uncover mysteries that are clearly meant for sequels. 


    This kind of parallel earth thing has been done before but the neat twist here is that there are literally millions and millions of these earths available for colonization, This causes many "Datum Earthers" to leave our dying planet to start pioneering life on some of these other Earths. This naturally causes economic problems (a lack of labor) and jealousy (among those who are unable to 'step' to these new worlds) that leads to the formation of 'anti-step' Tea Party like zealots on Earth.


    The sequel, The Long War, takes place ten years after the first book and takes the "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to encompass politics, phrenology, religion, cultural relativism, military/civilian conflicts and a dozen other themes in an incredibly long-winded and tedious narrative that subjects the reader to over 150 pages of tedious exposition and backstories before any real plot begins, and  and then in splinters off into multiple strands that seem to serve no purpose than to set up a third book. 


    I'm a huge Terry Pratchett fan, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of his writing in either book. There's no wit, no economy of phrasing, or any of the other qualities that characterize Pratchett's best work. The 'voice' seems to be all Baxter's (an author I never heard of until this series) and if his solo work is as bad as this I'm glad I never encountered him before. It's really too bad than a series whose theme has boundless narrative potential is so heavily earthbound. 



  4. While I like Bryson's travel books ("A Walk in the Woods" is hilarious, and "In a Suburned Country" is almost as good), Paul Theroux is still my favorite travel writer, although I'm not as captivated by his more recent works, which are revisits to the places he covered previously. In the earlier books there was always this tension of danger; he was an unknown writer traveling in potentially dangerous places. In his later travel books he's the Famous Writer who works book signings and conference into his itinerary. They just don't carry the same level of drama. 


    One recent travel book that should have been much better than it was is Ed Stafford's "Walking the Amazon." It's the story of his 2-year walk across the entire length of the Amazon basin, from Peru to Brazil. While his feat was admirable, Stafford spends far too much time complaining about all of the technologies that break down, his financial problems, and his own depression, as well as his increasingly mistanthropic attitudes toward the many many natives he meets along the way (the book effectively dispels the myth of the Amazon as a barely inhabited Eden; it's actually very populated, and most communities he encounters have general stores and many have electricity). Unfortunately, you expect a lot of description of nature in a book like this and Stafford is not enough of a naturalist to immerse the reader in his surroundings. 


    Another much better South-American themed travel book is "Rounding the Horn" by Dallas Murphy. He combines a history of circumnavigation of Patagonia and Cape Horn from Magellan through Darwin with a travelogue of his own modern voyage around this same area in a very small boat. 

  5. Even though I'm not a huge fan of the fantasy genre, Terry Pratchett is one of my favorites. However, I started with one of his later books, Carpe Jugulum, which I happened to find in a library. I'm glad I started with that one rather from the his first book because for me CJ is one of his best (even though I had not read the earlier books in the particular 'grouping'). I ended up reading the "groupings" series first and then went back to the first books, which I still find nearly unreadable.


    Personally, I suggest starting off with one of the 'groupings'. These are essentially the "Watch" books, which focus on the Ankh Morpork City Watch headed by Sam VImes (Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud and Snuff), the "witches" series (Wyrd Sisters, Witches Aboard, Lords and Ladies, Masquerade, Carpe Jugulum) the loosely defined "Death" series (Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, Hogfather, Thief of Time) the "Moist Van Lipwig series" (Going Postal, Making Money), and my least favorites series, the "Rincewind" series (The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Sourcery, Eric, Interesting Times, The Lost Continent). Then there are some "one offs" like Equal Rites, Pyramids, Moving Pictures, The Truth, Unseen Academicals, and one of my all time favorites, Small Gods.


    I definitely think that Mort was the turning point in his literary evolution. Before that, Pratchett seemed mostly interested in becoming the Douglas Adams of fantasy and cleverness was accentuated over character development.



  6. Do you like "humorous" serial killer books? If so, you might want to try Florida author Tim Dorsey. His main character, Serge Storms, is a hyperactive, compulsive historian of Florida's history, and drives around the state with his stoner friend Coleman, visiting various cultural landmarks (such as the hotel where the Beatles stayed in their first U.S. tour). Serge gets very irritated with the never-endling supply of drug dealers, bullies, jet skiers, environmental polluters and rednecks who populate the Sunshine State, and he find very ingenious, Rube Goldberg-esque ways to make the world a better place by ridding it of these vermin. 


    There are about 15 books in the series, and most of them are hilarious. The series started before Dexter and I suspect that the latter series is somewhat influenced by the form. The first book, Florida Roadkill, isn't his best because Dorsey was working on the formula. By the third book he gets it down. I highly recommend it if you need a good laugh and want to let more about one of the strangest states in the U.S.