Massive by Ian Sample

If you don’t know what the Higgs boson is (and you’re not a physicist) then don’t feel too bad. For us non-physicists, the concept is fascinating, but still rather obtuse. If you are a physicist and don’t know, then you may consider seeking a different profession because this has been one of the most, if not the most, compelling questions in science for the past forty years. Discovery of the Higgs boson could have profound ramifications on how we know our universe and even our very existence. The media has bestowed upon the Higgs boson the unfortunate nickname “the God Particle,” a name universally loathed in the scientific community for its pretense. Peter Higgs, one of the original theorists and for whom the particle is named, prefers to call it the “so-called Higgs boson,” recognizing, with characteristic modesty, that he was not the sole scientist who worked on the original theory.

Whatever you wish to call it, you’ll have to wait at least through next year for the big news. In 2012 a particle was discovered at CERN that is a likely candidate for the Higgs boson, but the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is undergoing maintenance and doesn’t come back online until next year. In the meantime, you have the opportunity to bone up on particle physics before then. A good way to start is with Ian Sample‘s Massive: the missing particle that sparked the greatest hunt in science.

First, just to make sure we are on the same terms, let’s talk about what a Higgs boson is. Now, as I mentioned, I’m no kind of physicist, but if I had to give a quick explanation (as I understand it) the Higgs boson is a theoretical particle that answers the question of why things have mass and why the universe is not a hot mess of energy zipping around in all directions. Here’s a little illustration I’ve stolen that explains it:

And here’s a self-test I’ve stolen from somewhere else to check if you do understand:

Now that we’ve got that settled, Massive is a surprisingly understandable and entertaining account of the search for the Higgs boson. Sample does an admirable job of making this concept something even I can understand (even if tenuously) and does so in an often dryly humorous manner. But even though the book centers around the Higgs theory and other related theories, the real story is about the scientists behind the search, the sometimes cutthroat competition and raging egos between them, catastrophic setbacks and the media, who does their best to misunderstand the concepts in favor of big headlines.

★★★★✩ (4/5 stars): Massive is an excellent account of the search for the Higgs boson, and the exciting part is that the search is on-going, with potentially significant results next year. Maybe most important is Sample makes science accessible and engaging and to wrap your mind around this stuff really makes you feel more in tune with the world around you and realize what an amazing thing life and the universe can be.

If I were to suggest improvements to the book, I’d add a section of photos. I like to connect the names of the scientists involved with faces and I think visual representations of the particles at play would help in a great way. Furthermore, a photo of a supercollider would certainly show more effectively how awesome these devices are. Lacking photos, I went to Google:

That is really something.

Despite the lack of photos or illustrations, Massive is fascinating and a must for science buffs. Originally published in 2010, try to find a newer copy published in 2012 with a new afterword by Sample and is more up to date.

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Wolverine: The Best There Is— Not so fast, bub.

I’ve been a fan of Wolverine ever since I was but a wee nerd, spending my hard-earned 60 cents on The Uncanny X-Men issue #173. Comic prices may have gone up, times may have changed, but thankfully Wolvie is still “the best there is” at what he does…and what he does “ain’t pretty.” I remember getting all excited when Wolverine and the X-Men made an appearance on the cartoon Spidey and His Amazing Friends, but now we have movies with Wolverine! And Hugh Jackman is probably the best actor for Logan there could be (even though he’s too tall). Yeah, Wolverine is a bad ass. But Wolverine: The Best There Is isn’t. The best there is, that is.

Charlie Huston writes and Juan Jose Ryp illustrates this tale in which Logan is captured by a psychotic asshole named Contagion who is collecting super-types with survivability powers. As we all know, one of Logan’s mutant powers is fast healing (case in point, remember when the Silver Samurai sliced through Wolvie’s torso, only stopping because of his adamantium-fused spine? If you can remember this, respect, my fellow comic nerd). Contagion also has some obscure super-types helping him, like Madcap and Yi Yang (remember her? Yeah, neither did I. I think she only appeared in Marvel UK books around thirty years ago) and is trying to save his son who is horribly afflicted with some kind of sickness. Thus, Logan, with his exemplary regeneration powers, becomes the subject for Contagion’s sadistic experiments.

Well, that’s basically the start of it. It goes on, but who cares? I expected more from Charlie Huston, but this Wolverine story arc (twelve issues of it…geez) just wasn’t very good. Logan had little personality beyond the stuff he’s known for and he was generally ineffectual here. This is not the Wolvie I know. It seemed like Huston let Wolvie’s agency in the story take a back seat to all the stupid supporting characters who no one cares about. Despite all the “action,” it was boring.

Speaking of “action,” this was the bloodiest, goriest Wolverine comic I have ever read. I know that Wolverine is a violent character and I’m not averse to gore when it has a purpose, but this was just ridiculous. This was like a horror show, like if Wolverine was in a Saw movie. There were times I wondered if I was reading a Wolvie comic or the super-gory Faust. Heads are decapitated, limbs are severed, guts are puked out, there is blood everywhere…but for some reason the profanity is replaced with “#######,” as if letting a “fuck” or “shit” slip by is going to offend someone after seeing a blood soaked Wolverine impale Yi Yang with his claws (and she gets off on it!). It’s just dumb.

While Ryp’s art has a certain distinctive style, I don’t think he’s a good fit for Wolverine. I particularly hated the way he drew his face and could not maintain correct height proportions (yes, I am a nerd, but this is canon: Logan is 5’3″ according to OHOTMU. In another title I may have enjoyed Ryp’s art more, but for this title it just wasn’t a good fit.

The verdict: ★★✩✩✩ (2/5 stars). Wolverine: The Best There Is is sadistic, ridiculous and boring. Just because Wolverine can recover from anything doesn’t make torturing him fun to watch. But to make matters worse, Wolverine is pretty lame here and settles with being carried away with the plot rather than kicking the plot in its ass. I expected better from Charlie Huston, but maybe he’s just not a comics guy. Ryp’s art saves this from being a 1-star production. Even though I didn’t care for it here, I can tell he’s got some drawing chops. Wolverine: The Best There Is is not even close to the best. I’d pass.

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Portland Noir, edited by Kevin Sampsell

(Akashic Books, 2009)

I’ve been to a lot of places, but I’ve never been to Portland, despite having lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of my life. I’ve been to Ashland once for the Shakespeare festival, but have to admit that I rarely even think of Portland. When I do think of Portland it is usually because I am remembering the Dead Kennedys’ song “Night of the Living Rednecks.” These days I am reminded of Portland when I remember that I’ve been meaning to check out the show Portlandia, which I understand is pretty funny but have never seen. Or I think of the Portland-based singer Luz Elena Mendoza who appears in the recent Portland tourism ads and she’s pretty cute in that commercial. But I understand that Portland has become quite cool of late, a veritable hipster haven. I may be totally off, but I sort of imagine Portland as a more-hip Tacoma. Portland Noir is one in a series of noir short story collections by Akashic books, each centering on a locale and featuring writers from that area, in this case, Portland, Oregon. The idea is intriguing and i really like the idea of exploring noir-style in settings other than the usual L.A. or N.Y.C.

Portland Noir is edited by Kevin Sampsell and features stories by Ariel Gore, Jess Walter, Bill Cameron, Karen Karbo and several others. With sixteen stories in the book, it’s enough to keep you busy and give you a pretty good representative view of Portland’s writing talent. Most of the stories are good and provide a sense of the Portland area. I particularly enjoyed Dan DeWeese’s “The Sleeper,” which, though not a crime story, has a wonderful noir-feel of nocturnal loneliness and desolation. A few of the stories are a little mediocre, though, and failed to make much of an impression on me.

One thing I noticed, though, that many of the stories weaved in the image of Portland being a hip town a little heavy handedly, like I’d be out of place if I wasn’t wearing a vintage concert tee, skinny jeans and horn-rimmed glasses while saying ironic things to my equally hip friend over some kombucha mocha lattes after biking to the coffee joint on my single speed road bike. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but the hipness was just a little self-conscious in some of the stories and I had the impression that Portland has a lot more to offer than that. Sampsell writes in the intro:

Later, in the 1940s and ’50s, the city practically thrived on criminal activities. Speakeasies, brothels, and gambling dens popped up across the downtown area. The police, the district attorney, and local Teamsters were all in bed with the local vice pushers. Portland became known as quite the decadent town, even prompting Bobby Kennedy to wrangle up its main bad guys for a televised Racketeering Committee meeting in 1957. One senator said at the hearings, “If I lived there, I would suggest they pull the flags down to half-mast in public shame.”

Ah, yes. This is the Portland I was hoping to read about. Sin and corruption is far more interesting than lentil loafs and skinny jeans.

The verdict: ★★★✩✩ (3/5 stars) Portland Noir is a good collection of some very good stories and some “just okay” stories. Portland is a setting that is fully ready for the noir treatment, but I would have preferred a more consistent feel that is more tied down to Portland’s history rather than its current hipster-vogue status. Nevertheless, Portland has got some great writers. I’d like to check out the also-available Seattle Noir next (Seattle being described by Sampsell as Portland’s “creepy old uncle,” a more accurate and complementary assessment I could not imagine).

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The Enemy (Jack Reacher #8) by Lee Child

It’s New Year’s Eve, just on the cusp of a new decade, 1990, and military police officer Major Jack Reacher has just arrived at his new command after being inexplicably reassigned. He doesn’t have time to enjoy rolling in the new year though because before he’s even settled he gets a call from the local cops. A general has been found dead in a cheap motel room, apparently of a heart attack. The situation seems hinky to Reacher, but what can you do? Even general officers might have liaisons in cheap hotel rooms. At least he went out with a bang. But when the general’s wife is found murdered in her home and other seemingly unrelated murders start occurring, Reacher knows something is dirty. With the help of a young, female MP lieutenant, Reacher uncovers a plot that extends into the highest ranks of army hierarchy.

The Enemy is Lee Child’s eighth Jack Reacher book and now that I’ve read it I’m done with the entire run of novels until Personal comes out in September. I guess I’ll have to read some of the short stories to tide me over. Anyway, I would have preferred to have completed the run of novels on a high note since I really enjoy these Jack Reacher books in general, but The Enemy, while starting off promisingly, managed to be one of the weaker novels in the series.

As mentioned in the synopsis above, The Enemy is one of those Reacher novels that go back to his army days and it’s written in a first person perspective. It’s always kind of fun to see what Reacher was like in the old days, but as I have mentioned before in other reviews, Child does not write convincingly about the U.S. Army. I guess it doesn’t really matter, but a lot of it comes across as kind of goofy, like driving around in humveess all the time rather than a GSA vehicle (oh, and humvees don’t have a “big red start button”; it’s a switch). It’s like if you’re a medical professional and you’re watching some TV show where the doc stabs the patient in the heart with a giant syringe of atropine and says “Live, dammit!” and you’re like, “Noooo…come on.” It’s like that. But I guess I don’t mind the inaccuracies too much. I just kind of correct things in my mind as I read.

But even though Reacher has made a career of the military, with all the rules and regulations it’s not his best environment. Reacher doesn’t do rules and I like him best as a wandering loner. And the plot of The Enemy didn’t really capitalize on Reacher’s particular talent for causing all kinds of physical mayhem and violence. Of course we know that Reacher’s a pretty clever fellow, but let’s be honest. We all like to see him bust some heads. There is little head busting in The Enemy. The plot mostly involves Reacher and Summer (the female MP lieutenant) checking things out and following up leads. That, in itself, is okay, but the mystery they’re solving is just so convoluted and far-fetched that it’s a little preposterous.

There are, however, some good moments, like when a hungry Reacher urges Lt. Summer to ask a nun if she’s going to finish her in-flight meal, or Reacher’s funny (but juvenile) way of dispensing justice to the main bad guy in the end. The Enemy also incorporates a significant event in Reacher’s life, the death of his mother by cancer and he and his brother Joe must come to terms with that.

The verdict: ★★★✩✩ (3/5 stars). The Enemy is not the strongest Jack Reacher book, but is a serviceable mystery. Though it’s light on action and the coherency of the plot is questionable, Reacher’s humanity is highlighted as he deals with the death of his mother and this part for me made up for the rest of the novel’s shortcomings.

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Strange days: What It Was by George Pelecanos

(Reagan Arthur/Black Bay, 1012)

It’s 1972. Roberta Flack is at the top of the charts and bell bottoms are in style. Soul brothers carefully shape their afros, while ads urge men to not be a stiff and get the dry look. Cars are big and use a ton of gas but who cares? It’s not like we’re gonna run out.

Derek Strange, just a few years after leaving the metro D.C. police, has gone on his own as a private investigator and he dreams of buying a neon sign for his office, the kind with a magnifying glass in the design. When a young woman hires him to recover a missing ring, the investigation uncovers some unlikely leads. Strange crosses paths with his old partner on the force, Frank Vaughn, and they inevitably team up to stop a ruthless killer known as Red Fury who’s popping dudes all over town.

That’s what it is in What It Was, the fifth Derek Strange book by George Pelecanos, but the first in the series I’ve read. I can already tell that Pelecanos is well on his way to becoming one of my favorites. Like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, Pelecanos has a mastery of casual language, the simplicity of which belies its ability to express. It’s not laconic, clipped prose. It’s just slick and easy and you can’t help but get caught up in the flow.

Pelecanos’ characterizations are also great. I have to admit that the name “Derek Strange” had me conjure up images of some sort of paranormal investigator or something, but Strange isn’t strange at all. He’s a young (in 1972) black man trying to get established as a private investigator after quitting the police force. He’s got a girlfriend he loves, though he admits that his wandering eye is a weakness. He loves his mom and brings her take-out from their favorite diner when he visits. All in all, Strange is a cool, confident man, but working hard to grow out of youth and he’s still got a lot to learn along the way.

Frank Vaughn is also an interesting guy. An older white man with a lot of time on the police force, Vaughn isn’t exactly racist, but he’s a “product of his time,” and though he really tries to open up to the changing times it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. He’s good guy at heart, but he’s also an old-school cop, not unwilling to get rough or bend the rules to get justice.

In the hands of lesser authors, these characters might be somewhat cliché, but Pelecanos carries this off adeptly. Likewise, the setting and time period could easily have come off as kitschy, or maybe like a Tarantino-esque homage to blaxpolitation films and funk hits, but Pelecanos’ early-’70s D.C. rings true, capturing well the racial tension of the time though Strange and Vaughn’s unlikely friendship.

The verdict: ★★★★✩ (4/5 stars) What It Was is really a great crime book. I might almost go as far as to give it 4.5/5 stars, but I’m trying to be discerning in my ratings these days and reign in my enthusiasm. But it could easily have received the additional 1/2 star. I’d heard of Pelecanos before and I understand he writes for the show The Wire, but I’ve never seen it (I’m terribly behind the times). Just judging by what I’ve read in What It Was, Pelecanos is going to be my next favorite author. He’s just awesome.

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Already Dead by Charlie Huston

(Del Rey, 2005)

Those stories you hear? The ones about things that only come out at night? Things that feed on blood, feed on us? Got news for you: they’re true. Only it’s not like the movies or old man Stoker’s storybook. It’s worse. Especially if you happen to be one of them. Just ask Joe Pitt.

There’s a shambler on the loose. Some fool who got himself infected with a flesh-eating bacteria is lurching around, trying to munch on folks’ brains. Joe hates shamblers, but he’s still the one who has to deal with them. That’s just the kind of life he has. Except afterlife might be better word.

From the Battery to the Bronx, and from river to river, Manhattan is crawling with Vampyres. Joe is one of them, and he’s not happy about it. Yeah, he gets to be stronger and faster than you, and he’s tough as nails and hard to kill. But spending his nights trying to score a pint of blood to feed the Vyrus that’s eating at him isn’t his idea of a good time. And Joe doesn’t make it any easier on himself. Going his own way, refusing to ally with the Clans that run the undead underside of Manhattan–it ain’t easy. It’s worse once he gets mixed up with the Coalition–the city’s most powerful Clan–and finds himself searching for a poor little rich girl who’s gone missing in Alphabet City.

Now the Coalition and the girl’s high-society parents are breathing down his neck, anarchist Vampyres are pushing him around, and a crazy Vampyre cult is stalking him. No time to complain, though. Got to find that girl and kill that shambler before the whip comes down . . . and before the sun comes up.

That’s from the back cover of Charlie Huston’s Already Dead, first in the series starring his vampiric private eye Joe Pitt. I normally try to write my own summary of whatever book I’m reviewing, but this back cover copy pretty much covers it, as well as the hard-boiled tone of the book. Anyway, I’m a little behind in my book blogging “duties” so I’ll just cut to the chase.

Already Dead is a vampire book I can really sink my teeth into (Har-dee-har. You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to use that one). I’ve complained before about not being able to find an “urban fantasy” type book that I could really enjoy. I haven’t read very widely in the genre and there are a few here and there that I really got into, but there seems to be an abundance of ones that are little more than tedious romances with brooding, snarky protagonists, or tough women in leather pants with katanas (not that I mind that per se, but I’d say the market is flooded). So it was a pleasure to read Huston’s hard-boiled prose. I can only take so much thoughtful introspection from a protagonist. Joe Pitt’s first-person narration is refreshingly matter-of-fact.

Also, Huston’s vampiric underworld is well-thought out, with a lot of interesting characters among the vampire (sorry– Vampyre) cliques of NYC. While this is a point in its favor, it’s also sort of a criticism. The world is well-thought out but I don’t think we necessarily have to be introduced to it all at once. It seemed like Huston was in a hurry to get us up to speed with the haps in the vampire world. While the other vampires in Pitt’s world are pretty interesting characters, it seemed like introducing us to them, one episode after the other, felt forced and sort of drove an already convoluted plot further astray.

Speaking of plot, Joe Pitt didn’t seem like a very effective character to drive the plot. It often seemed like the plot drove him, with him getting knocked out and captured all the time (well, at least twice, if I remember). Pitt may be a tough guy, but he didn’t seem particularly competent. I realize he wasn’t really a professional PI or anything, but I kinda need a little more than that.

I have to admit, personal taste may have prevented Already Dead from attaining “excellent” status for me. For one, I kind of prefer my vampires to be of the supernatural sort, whereas the vampires of Pitt’s world have been infected with the Vyrus (not to be confused with the Miley Vyrus. Ha-ha. No? OK.). Not a big deal, it’s just personal preference, but I generally don’t like too much logic mixed up into what I feel like should be more of a supernatural thing. I sort of think that vampires should be monsters and not simply people afflicted with a disease.

And, finally, sometimes I just didn’t feel like it was a fun thing to read all the time. I mean, it was dark and gritty–hard-boiled, noir, and all that– but sometimes it was just a little too much so, to the point that I didn’t really feel like visiting Pitt’s NYC as much as I would have liked. Seemed like Huston was really working hard to push the noir aspect that he pushed it over the edge. In the same vein (pun unintended, but I’m happy to oblige) I felt the punk band name dropping was a bit too much effort for a retro-hip vibe.

The verdict: ★★★✬✩ (3.5/5 stars). Reading all my complaints, you’d think that I didn’t enjoy Already Dead, but overall I liked it. I like Huston’s writing style and I think I’ll probably enjoy the rest of the series. I’m hoping that my criticisms just stem from the fact that this was the first in a series and maybe Huston tried a little too hard to establish atmosphere and introduce the world. Hopefully the next volumes will feel less forced. Complaints aside, Already Dead is a cool, dark, bloody mystery and fans of gritty, urban vampires won’t be disappointed.

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Jack Reacher gets Personal in September

I’m reading Charlie Huston’s Already Dead right now. I’m about halfway through, so no review this week. I like it so far. It’s not a long book, but I’m taking my time with it.

But yesterday I learned that the next Jack Reacher book, to be entitled Personal, comes out in September!

I guess it’s not really new news. I think it was announced in January. Nor is it unexpected, either, I guess; Child’s been pretty steady with a book a year. But still, it’s good news. I don’t know why I didn’t know about it sooner. Here’s the synopsis from the official website:

Jack Reacher walks alone. Once a go-to hard man in the US military police, now he’s a drifter of no fixed abode. But the army tracks him down. Because someone has taken a long-range shot at the French president.

Only one man could have done it. And Reacher is the one man who can find him.

This new heartstopping, nailbiting book in Lee Child’s number-one bestselling series takes Reacher across the Atlantic to Paris – and then to London. The stakes have never been higher – because this time, it’s personal.

I was previously a little bummed because, aside from the short stories, I only have The Enemy left to read and then I’d be all out of Reacher. No Reacher to reach for. But now I can look forward to Personal. I know it’s not high-lit, but these Jack Reacher books are my mac ‘n’ cheese; they make me happy. When I start to feel bad about my life (…gotta mow the damn lawn again, grumble grumble…property taxes are due, grumble grumble…toilet’s acting up again, grumble, grumble…) I can read about the adventures of an oversize homeless man with a penchant for head butting fools. So I guess now I can get around to reading The Enemy soon.


Oh, hey…I almost forgot to mention, it’s 3.14. Happy pi day, you nerds (yeah, I’m a nerd, too).

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This sex doll may save your life: The Book of Survival by Anthony Greenbank

(Hatherleigh Press, 2004, Third revised edition)

I enjoy checking out survival and wilderness manuals from time to time, but most are kinda boring. I mean, they all feature pretty much the same info. For practical purposes you don’t need to look far beyond a couple of titles, like “Lofty” Wiseman’s SAS Survival Manual or the US Army’s survival manual (published in civilian formats and available online for free around the internet), but sometimes you come across a survival book that’s just…well, different. Enter The Book of Survival by Anthony Greenbank.

I don’t know too much about Anthony Greenbank, except that I think he’s a British journalist and outdoors type of guy. The Book of Survival was originally introduced in the late ’60s. This edition I read is the 3rd edition, written to accommodate situations that are relevant to a post-9/11 world. For the most part, The Book of Survival is like other survival manuals. There are sections on land navigation, first aid, water collection, all that good stuff that every other survival book has and most of the info is pretty sound. There are also sections on avoiding fire and dangerous crowds, self defense and other things that pertain to the average urban dweller and this, too, is mostly sound information.

But then there are some sections that are pretty goofy. I daresay, downright weird. Take this bit, for example:


Use any means to give yourself company if in doubt (even speaking into the end of a fist-held-spectacle-case as a pretend-mobile-phone).



BUY balloons/protective sheaths/plastic bags and blow them up and stuff them down the sleeves and inside the space of a buttoned-up coat/jacket/sweater…

I actually think I saw that in a sitcom once. Here is another tip that may save your life:


The best way to survive any attack/assault/trouble from other human beings is by avoiding last-ditch measures at all costs. It is only by blending with the wallpaper that you can survive in the city and other environments where a mass of people pose unknown threats in all directions.

Example: in bad areas with cheap accommodation and poor locks on bedroom/apartment/house doors and windows save a heart-pounding-as-you-screw-your-eyes-shut-feigning-sleep-while-a-flashlight-dazzles-your-face situation.

Go to sleep wearing a balaclava/monkey mask/ski hat to get this response:

“Jeez, man, hey take a look, wilya?” breathes the voice. There’s a sharp intake of breath. Another voice whispers, “You, one of us! A Brother!”

And your wallet on the dresser is left untouched. Such a ruse has worked.

Taken to extremes, such chameleon-like behavior may seem humorous.

But it is deadly serious.

Yeah, besides all the normal survival stuff, there are a bunch of sections that detail techniques of dubious value, all written in that choppy technical manual tone and arbitrary use of upper-case letters. There is a section entitled “CHILD’S HEAD STUCK BETWEEN RAILINGS” (another sitcom scenario). Greenbank lets you know how to differentiate a REAL ghost from your own imagination. The dangers of holiday turkeys are detailed and we are instructed on precisely how to place one into an oven without injuring our backs (also beware: overcooked turkeys may burst into flame as they are full of grease!). There is a (rather long) section on amputating your own limbs in an emergency. Also, we learn how to deal with “natives” (“…Be friendly…Aim to see headman…Give gifts…Respect customs…” etc.). I don’t think that situation comes up too often, unless you’re in an Abbott and Costello movie or something.

The verdict: ★★✩✩✩ (2/5). This book is a hoot. It’s great fun to read and there is worthwhile information in there, but let’s face it, it’s hard to take seriously when the goofy stuff in mixed in. As far as survival books go, there are others far better, hence my 2-star rating. But I do recommend checking the book out for fun.

Anthony Greenbank has apparently authored another book about urban survival written in the early ’70s (Survival in the City, or something like that) in which he instructs the reader on how to escape muggers, turn the tables on pickpockets and avoid the advances of aggressive transvestites! I must find that book. It sounds too wacky to pass up!

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The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

(Leisure, 2008)

I’m going to change that now if I can. I’m going to tell our little story. Straight as I can from here on in and no interruptions.

And I’m writing this for you, Ruth. Because I never got to pay you back, really.

So here’s my check. Overdue and overdrawn.

Cash it in hell.

Horror fiction to me is a lot about fun. Despite however much fear, blood, gore and horrific goings-on, there always has to be an element of fun, a little bit of perverse glee that you can’t take seriously. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, however, goes beyond all that. It is too horrific, too brutal, too real. The Girl Next Door is not a horror novel; it is a frightening display of human depravity, and a deeply moving paean for the innocence of childhood. The Girl Next Door is not a horror novel, but it is a superb novel and one that, if you can make it through, will stick with you for a long time.

The narrative is told through 41-year old David as he recollects Wonder Years-style on his childhood in the 1950s. It’s summer, carnival is coming to town and a new girl moves in next door. After the death of her parents in a car accident, Meg and her little sister Susan move in with their cousins, Ruth Chandler and her boys. David befriends Meg and develops a little crush on her, but soon this childhood idyll turns sour when David learns that Ruth has it in for Meg and has it in bad. From aversion, to hostility to downright hatred, Ruth, with assistance from her boys, makes life a living hell for her new ward. Eventually, even some neighborhood kids are enlisted in this torment and David finds himself in the middle of an ever-increasing whirlwind of sadism and brutality, one which David is helpless to stop, to his lifelong shame.

The Girl Next Door is based on the real-life case of Sylvia Likens, whose situation bears a nearly identical resemblance to Ketchum’s fictional story. Ketchum explains in an afterword that one of his intentions in writing The Girl Next Door was to express his own revulsion of the perpetrators of the real-life crime. This is something I can understand. The case of Sylvia Likens was an event of nearly unbelievable wickedness and the perpetrators, in my own opinion, never got the punishment they truly deserved. In Ketchum’s own way, the perpetrators did, and Meg is presented not only as a victim of cruelty but also as somewhat of a hero or a martyr. Like David’s overdue, overdrawn check, this is payback, maybe as best we can. But it’s apparent that no one comes out of this unscarred.

The Girl Next Door is horrific on several levels. It’s horrific because it’s real; no monsters here, except of the human variety. It’s horrific that one can be blind to such cruelty, either unwittingly or willingly. It’s horrific that children should be cheated of their deserved innocence, that their senses of the world should be tarnished so soon. The Girl Next Door is a hard novel to take in, but Ketchum’s handles it well, expertly expressing the atrocity with a sensitive touch as well as the narrator’s sense of guilt and shame at his helplessness to prevent it, or his complicity. This is not torture porn horror. There is no sensationalism or revelry in the atrocity. On the contrary, it is heartbreakingly sad.

The verdict: ★★★★✩ (4/5, excellent) The Girl Next Door is frighteningly excellent and deeply moving. This was the first Jack Ketchum novel I’ve read, but it definitely won’t be my last and, judging by his work here, he may go on to be one of my favorites. This paperback edition I read also includes an interview section and two short stories (“Do You Love Your Wife” and “Returns”).

But make no mistake. The Girl Next Door is highly disturbing. This is not the kind of horror that makes you giddy with fright; it’s the kind that makes you sad for humanity and hope that a hell exists because some people don’t deserve to rest in peace. It’s definitely a novel worth reading, but make sure you have a happy place to go after you’re done. You’ll need it.

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Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

(Little, Brown and Co., 2007)

In 2005 a team of US Navy SEALs conducting a mission in north-eastern Afghanistan encountered heavy opposition from Taliban forces. After receiving catastrophic losses, an additional team of SEALs designated as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was flown in on a chopper operated by the US Army’s 160th SOAR to recover the imperiled team, however that chopper, it’s crew and passengers were destroyed when it was struck by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade. In light of the overwhelming enemy forces and the extremely inhospitable mountain terrain, it was thought that there were no survivors from this mission gone awry. But there was one, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, and he tells his story in Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.

As a veteran myself (army), I have to say that I hold the SEALs in awe. They can truly do it all, sea, air and land. Luttrell begins the narrative by describing the hard path to becoming a SEAL. While this takes up most of the first half of the book and is somewhat obligatory to SEAL memoirs, it’s a pretty good setup for letting us landlubbers get to know the kind of guy that can make it through the brutal selection and training of Navy SEALs. It also sets the foundation for the sacrifices to be made in the future.

Luttrell’s story in the latter half of the book is nothing short of extraordinary, as he survives a Taliban onslaught and, broken, battered and near death, manages to contact US search and rescue with the aid of a friendly Afghan village. Maybe more importantly, Lone Survivor is a fine testament to the fallen SEALs, one that is both touching and inspiring. Luttrell’s story also says much for the humanity of the Afghan people, whose hospitality and ancient code of honor made them willing to risk their own lives while protecting their inadvertent American guest from the Taliban.

Co-written with British author Patrick Robinson, Luttrell’s narrative voice is conversational, fitting for the plain-talking Texan he is (my dad was Texan, so I know that Texans are born storytellers). I sometimes wondered, though, how much of it was Robinson’s voice since I noticed that some Anglicisms sneaked through (like “aerial” for “antenna,” etc.). You can’t fault Luttrell for that, but Robinson could probably have shown a little more care for details like these. In spite of that, it’s not a big thing and the narrative is a brisk and absorbing read. On a more serious note, there is always the question of accuracy in war memoirs and, while I believe both Luttrell and Robinson are sincere, I’d expect some discrepancies to exist with other reports or even expedient alterations to accommodate an editor’s wishes. A significant event in the narrative (no spoilers here) seems particularly worthy of scrutiny, but it’s not for me to be an armchair general and second-guess tactical decisions. It’s just that the particular event doesn’t make a lot of sense to me as told.

One small criticism I have, though, is the running polemic against what Luttrell calls “liberals” and the “liberal media,” which I felt was kind of misguided, out of place and does little to quell the partisan rivalry in American politics. Furthermore, I’d rather not tarnish a tribute to fallen warriors with talk of politics. But I do understand and sympathize with Luttrell’s concerns and frustrations with constrictive ROE (Rules Of Engagement), but I’d argue that all politicians–liberal or conservative– are risk averse and few are in touch with the actual real-world concerns of our fighting forces. And as for “liberal media,” I think the media is more concerned with making a buck rather than pushing a political agenda. So I think it’s unfortunate that Luttrell feels that “liberals” are out to get him and other US service members. I personally don’t know a single person, regardless of personal politics, who do not hold US service members in the highest esteem.

The verdict: ★★★✩✩ (3/5) Writing inconsistencies and political harangues prevent it from being perfect, but nevertheless Lone Survivor is an engrossing story of survival and selflessness, and bring credit to some of the finest young men America has to offer.

Luttrell was medically retired from the Navy and has since established the Lone Survivor Foundation, a Houston based organization that helps wounded service members rehabilitate from their traumas, both physical and mental.

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