Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick CoverRick Deckard is a bounty hunter on the now sparsely populated planet Earth. His job is to hunt “andys,” slang for androids, that have escaped from the human colonies on Mars and Earth’s Moon. The latest model of cylon, er android, the Nexus-6, is particularly wily; they resemble humans more closely than ever before. Most importantly, the Nexus-6 can almost pass a Voigt-Kampff examination, which tests an intelligent being for empathy, a quality androids don’t possess. As Deckard pursues the six andys that eluded his predecessor, he finds that the line between human and android isn’t as defined as he previously believed and starts to question the morality of his undertaking.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the second Philip K. Dick work I’ve read (the other being A Scanner Darkly) and there is a theme that the author explores in both novels: an understanding of the quality that makes us human. In A Scanner Darkly, Dick was able to create a sympathetic character out of a double-crossing, drug-addicted undercover informant. Similarly, Dick makes sympathetic characters of his androids, showing their humanity even though they are not human. The bounty hunter Deckard starts to notice this too.

Deckard begins to question his preconceptions when he is pursuing the opera singer Luba Luft. She cunningly accuses Deckard of being an android because of the ease with which he “retires” androids without feeling any empathy toward them. Deckard, of course, denies this, but a change in his attitude is revealed shortly, after Luft has been retired by Phil Resch, another bounty hunter. Deckard was touched by Luft’s musical skill and starts to think that robbing the world of her talent, android or human, is insane. This is the first time Deckard feels empathy toward the “things” he hunts.

Luft’s death makes Deckard aware of the difference between himself and Resch. He is convinced that Resch is an android because of Resch’s quick trigger finger (and his indifference to art, perhaps, as well). Deckard tells Resch, “You like to kill. All you need is a pretext. If you had a pretext you’d kill me.” Despite his conviction, however, Deckard’s test reveals that Resch is human. The result of the test is significant enough for both bounty hunters to try to make sense of it, with Deckard reasoning that Resch has a defect that makes him unsympathetic toward androids. Resch points out, though, that this isn’t a defect; if he felt any empathy toward androids, he wouldn’t be able to kill them.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Is filled with conundrums of this sort, in which the qualities that make humans human and androids android are flipped, mixed, rearranged and contemplated. Deckard, a bounty hunter, mourns a dead android and finds he has too much of the quality that androids don’t possess. Those humans that can afford it use a machine to program moods for themselves; Iran, Deckard’s wife, even programs depression for herself twice a month so that she feels bad about being left on Earth. John Isidore, a human whose intelligence was affected by the nuclear fallout on Earth, is considered sub-human, below the level of animals even, which are now highly sought-after because most of them died from radiation poisoning. The only friends he has are the escaped andys.

In addition to the thoughtfulness Dick puts into his examination of how intelligent beings treat one another, he includes many great ideas that have since turned up elsewhere. His andys are the precursor to the humanoid Cylons featured in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, and he explored the issues of what makes humanity before the show did. The empathy box that humans use to “fuse” with their savior Wilbur Mercer and other humans is not unlike the Matrix that Neo and the other freedom fighters jack into. When a human is experiencing Mercer’s life in the machine and has a rock hurled at him, his physical body is actually injured, just as humans harmed in the Matrix manifest injuries in the real world.

This novel, with its quirky plot and plethora of future-gazing ideas can be discussed and dissected endlessly, but the multi-layered theme of the novel remains its most engaging and enduring element: the search for what is in us and in others that makes us human.

Rating: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick CoverDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick CoverDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick CoverDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick CoverDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick Cover

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Final Crisis #7

Final Crisis #7 CoverThe Story: The Fourth World ended with the cataclysmic fight between the New Gods Orion and Darkseid. The Fifth World is arising on Earth with Darkseid and his minions inhabiting mortal bodies and corrupting humanity and superheroes alike using the Anti-Life Equation. Darkseid’s plan is to remake the multiverse in his image, and with most of Earth’s heroes defeated already, it looks like he will succeed.

The Recap: Captain Marvel defeats the corrupted Mary Marvel by grabbing her and screaming his magic word. Wonder Woman has spread a disease that is depowering the superheroes. Luthor and Dr. Sivana turn on Libra. Batman, breaking his vow against guns, shoots Darkseid with the bullet that killed Orion, but is still hit by Darkseid’s Omega Sanction beams, burning the flesh off his bones.

This Issue: The Flashes lead the Black Racer directly to Darkseid. Spacetime collapses with only the Fortress of Solitude remaining to shelter mankind. Superman reconstructs the Miracle Machine from memory, with the help of Luthor, Sivana, etc. Supermen from 50 realities, together with Green Lanterns and others, defeat Mandrakk.

Grant Morrison continues to do what he does best: tell a colorful, mind-bending, epic tale with significant ramifications for its participants, though at the expense of some coherence and understanding of his story. In the frame of other series he was involved in, 52 and Seven Soldiers of Victory, Final Crisis makes sense and delivers a good, not great, ending to a long story arc involving the New Gods. It’s a shame that JG Jones couldn’t complete the art in this last issue to give the series a uniform look, but Doug Mahnke does a terrific job considering the time constraints put on him. Pay particular attention to how much detail he puts into the scenes showing the Supermen of the multiverse. The overall impression Final Crisis evokes is similar to the impressions that most Morrison comics give: lots of good ideas that could have been executed better and more cohesively.

Morrison took out the big three superheroes: Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman early in the series, to really give weight to “the day evil won.” Wonder Woman is handled well; she fights Mary Marvel and gets infected with virus that makes superheroes lose their powers. Batman is handled poorly; he is captured by Granny/Kraken, placed in a machine whose function is never explained and then he disappears for a few issues (before popping up out of nowhere to shoot Darkseid/Turpin). Superman is handled worst of all: he is confronted by someone in a costume in Final Crisis #3 and only shows up again in Final Crisis #6, having somehow been transported to the 31st century with barely an explanation as to how he got there (it appears that Superman’s whereabouts during most of Final Crisis are explained in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond, but one shouldn’t have to buy an auxiliary series to make sense of the main one). This kind of storytelling, with characters popping in and out with few explanations is just sloppy.

Another major negative is the handling of the other villain of the series (if he can be called that), Mandrakk. Although alluded to earlier in the series as a darkness greater than Darkseid, Mandrakk is as underwhelming as they come. He looks like a worse-for-wear Monitor that’s been zombified. What threat he poses, other than his desire to eat Superman is never made clear. And apparently he’s the father of Nix Uotan, the Monitor of Universe 51 who was stripped of his power and exiled to New Earth, then reborn with some new powers with the help of Metron. Mandrakk is defeated in one page, leaving the reader to wonder what was so scary about him in the first place.

It’s the little out of sync or unexplained details that make it difficult to follow the narrative for many readers. In issue #4, how did Barry Allen break the spell of the Anti-Life Equation on Iris by kissing her? In issue #5, how did Green Lanterns Rayner and Gardner know the scar on Jordan’s head hid an implanted chip? In the same issue, Lord Eye is introduced; seemingly a newer version of Brother Eye. Who built it? How did they do it? Why didn’t it turn evil like the original? Why was the Black Racer after Barry Allen? Who was Libra really (I don’t buy Luthor’s explanation of Libra being the Anti-Life Equation)? In issue #7, what were those creatures surrounded Earth that the Green Lanterns had to get through? How did they end up getting past them? These inconsistencies, a frequent occurrence in works by Morrison, make comic reading a frustrating experience.

On the other hand, sometimes it is these small, unexplained details that enrich his tales like few other writers. How great is it that the black Superman is also the President of the US? How ironic is it that Superman’s home, the Fortress of Solitude (somehow merged with the Watchtower), is the final piece of Earth remaining, the planet that was once his home? Whereas the planet of humanity was Superman’s refuge, it is now his home that is refuge for a planet-less mankind. Who doesn’t love the idea of a Miracle Machine from the future, capable of turning thoughts into things, laboriously built from Superman’s memory with the help of the greatest minds of Earth? Although I was bothered by the lack of explanation for Lois’ miraculous recovery from issue #2’s injuries, I loved the parting of ways with Superman where he promises to bring her back after the final battle, before sending her off to be shrunk and frozen with rest of humanity. Only in a Grant Morrison book can you get quirky details like this.

When Morrison is bad, his writing is hard to follow, but when he’s good, his works shines. In one of the most badass moves ever, he brought together the Supermen of 50 realities to fight Mandrakk. In issue #6, he showed the coolest anthropomorphic tiger fight ever. Earlier in the series, he had a virus sent to every single email address in the world to enslave humanity. And the death that started the whole series was caused by a bullet sent back in time, which, after killing Orion in the present, buried itself fifty years in the past. These ideas are priceless. Perhaps the most touching scene in the entire series is after Superman has made an unpronounceable sound to counter-vibrate against the resonance of spacetime. Having taken great care to protect what is left of humanity, it is up to Superman to finish the Miracle Machine. He finds Element X, the Fire of the Gods, and the image evokes the fire of Prometheus, a destructive gift for humanity with the potential for good. As Superman steps up to the Miracle Machine, powering it up with his own solar energy, one can’t help but feel safe knowing Superman is the right person for the job of making a wish to save the world.

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Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer CoverTwilight tells the story of Isabella Swan, a teenager who has decided to move from Phoenix, Arizona to live with her father in the rural town of Forks, Washington. Bella is mostly ambivalent about her new living arrangement but is somewhat put down by the unfamiliar green scenery and the perennial cloudy/rainy weather conditions. Her biggest concern, understandably, is fitting in with her peers (she is a teenager, after all). Bella is quickly thrown off balance by a seemingly hateful glare from Edward Cullen, a pale, devastatingly handsome boy who only hangs out with four other pale, devastatingly good-looking people. Edward’s glowering fades away after saving Bella from a swerving truck and he starts getting chummy with her. As things heat up, Bella notices odd things about the Cullen clan and starts to suspect Edward is a vampire. Edward admits to craving Bella’s blood, though he claims that his feelings for her are forcing him to control himself. He tries to dissuade Bella from having a relationship with a blood-drinking non-human, but she has already fallen in love with him. Just as Edward starts to trust himself with Bella’s life, an unexpected visit from other vampires puts Bella’s life in danger and forces the entire Cullen clan to try to keep her safe.

To put it bluntly, Stephanie Meyer’s writing style is plain. She doesn’t have the beautiful prose of Anne Rice or even the vocabulary of your typical best-selling YA writer. Imagine a friend telling you about a dream they had and you’ll have a sense of how the story unfolds. Most of the time, Meyer telling you what is happening with the characters instead of showing you. And yet, something about the story kept me reading. Maybe I just like vampires. The book kept me interested through the boring parts because Meyer threw in little tidbits of Edward’s true nature as the story progressed. If the details about his special abilities and those of other vampires weren’t thrown in, I probably would not have been able to continue with the book. Thankfully, the story picked up a little bit in action and suspense in the last few chapters. If not for the “other” vampires that appeared late in the story, this book would have been mostly boring from cover to cover.

In terms of characters, little to nothing is developed for most of them. What is disturbing is the lead character’s lack of personality. The reader is beaten over the head about Bella’s clumsiness and god-worship of Edward. The object of her affection is repeatedly described as a gorgeous, messy-haired, tight-muscled specimen of physical perfection. He’s smart in school, graceful in his step and a wonderful musician. Oh, he also has a major temper problem, frequently reminding Bella and the reader about how easily he could crush the weak humans around him when he’s angry. It’s difficult to see why he’s attracted to Bella at all, as she seems to be just as generic as her new classmates in Forks. It’s one thing that the majority of the characters can be described in ten words or less, but for the protagonist to be so under-developed makes me wonder how the manuscript got past the editor. Or maybe I just don’t get teenage girls. Are they always melting at the mere thought of an unusually handsome boy who wants them for something other than their brains?

In any case, I suppose I can understand the attraction of this tale to a certain demographic. Teenagers can relate to a story of a girl trying to fit in at school. And I’m sure it’s a pretty common for a teenage girl to dream about the most beautiful boy in school falling in love with her just the way she is (even if that happens to be vapid, clumsy and boring). However, if you’re looking for a good vampire tale, I would suggest reading Interview With the Vampire. Unlike the sparkle-like-diamonds-in-the-sun Cullens, it has real vampires, the prose flows off the page like poetry and the character-driven story is so engrossing that it’s hard to put down. And there’s actually a point: the question of what it is that makes us human, what makes us capable of compassion and what type of person is suited toward an immortal life.

Meyer’s work, on the other hand, seems to be concerned with the question of how well humans can control their urges. The vampires that cannot are “bad” but the ones that can are “good.” Some have said that Twilight is an allegory for abstinence: Edward desires Bella’s blood but refuses to take it, while Bella seems to be too dumb to pay attention to the danger she is putting herself in. This leaves one to wonder: is Meyer suggesting that girls aren’t aware of the danger they’re in when dating boys? That it’s up to the boys to control themselves? Somehow, this doesn’t compute. Bella’s melodramatic attraction to every aspect of Edward, from granite chest to sweet breath, and desire that he turn her into a vampire send a very mixed message about abstinence. Since Edward’s super-strength makes anything but light kissing and petting dangerous, the reader can guess that Bella will be have to be made into a vampire at some point, because it’s clear Edward is not going to eat her.

Although I enjoyed the clash of the vampires near the end of the book, I was tired of Bella’s clumsiness and constant swooning over Edward. I would normally move on to the next book in the series, but the idea of having to trudge through any more of Meyer’s plain writing and Bella’s boringness has me wary of starting New Moon. That Edward, perhaps the best part of Twilight, has a much smaller role in the second book is definitely swaying me towards holding off from jumping into the next novel lest I turn myself off of the series entirely. The reluctance I feel about continuing with this series makes me think that this entire review might have been too positive.

Rating: Twilight by Stephanie Meyer CoverTwilight by Stephanie Meyer CoverTwilight by Stephanie Meyer CoverTwilight by Stephanie Meyer CoverTwilight by Stephanie Meyer Cover

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Jews, God and History by Max I. Dimont

Jews, God and History by Max I. Dimont CoverJews, God and History is a phenomenal work which undertakes the difficult and tedious task of presenting the 4,000 year history of the Jewish people. Instead of presenting this history from an insulated point of view, author Max I. Dimont shows the history of the Jews in the context of the entire world; in the vast tapestry of human history on this planet, the Jewish people are shown to be a strand that makes its way through every corner of the fabric.

Dimont immediately draws the attention of the reader in his introduction, musing about how such a small population of people have had such influence on the greater world. Some of the most influential people in history were Jews: Moses, Jesus, Paul, Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein. Two of the largest world religions, Christianity and Islam, grew out of Judaism. The Jews introduced to the world the concepts of monotheism, prayer, church, redemption, universal education and charity. Perhaps the most interesting idea that Dimont brings up in his introduction is the age of the Jewish civilization; whereas all the other pagan civilizations that existed at the time have long since disappeared, the Jews are still around today. Dimont goes on to say,

“The Chinese, Hindu, and Egyptian peoples are the only ones living today who are as old as the Jewish people. But these three civilizations had only one main cultural period, and their impact on succeeding civilizations has not been great. They contained neither the seeds for their own rebirth nor the seeds for the birth of other civilizations. Unlike the Jews, they were not driven out of their countries, nor did they face the problem of survival in alien lands. The Greeks and the Romans are the only other nations which have influenced the history of Western man as profoundly as the Jews. But the people who now dwell in Greece and Italy are not the same as those who dwelt in ancient Hellas and Rome.”

Needless to say, these facts makes the reader wonder “what is so special about the Jews?” and Dimont makes his best effort to answer this question in the most scholarly way possible, even explaining eight different theories on interpreting history and how they apply to the Jewish people.

Although Dimont uses the Bible as a source for his telling of early Jewish history, he makes it clear that he is approaching the material from a secular standpoint. On the subject of Abraham having a vision from God, Dimont states that the most important part of the encounter is not if God actually appeared to Abraham or if Abraham dreamed up the whole thing; what matters is that Abraham decided that he had a covenant with God, and his descendants continued to have that covenant. Dimont stresses that this point so important that Jewish history is built on it: the covenant that the Jews believed they had with God gave them the will to survive as Jews, which is a main reason why the Jewish people didn’t simply disappear into the many civilizations they lived in throughout history.

In the chapters where he describes the Jewish religion, Dimont really shines. He explains the beliefs, rituals and scholarship in a way that is both accurate and accessible to people completely new to the material. It is in these chapters that he describes a crucial moment in Jewish history: the shifting of the religion from sacrificial rituals in the temple to prayer, scholarship and the expansion of morality and justice. These changes were instrumental in the preservation of the Jewish people; without being near their temple and their High Priests, the Jews might have simply given up on their religion while in foreign lands (a fate that occurred to most of the pagan civilizations of the time).

I’ve learned so many fascinating things from this book that I want to go on and on about: the exchange of ideas between the Jews and the Greeks, the Jewish Reformation Movement, the vital role of Jewish people in medieval society, the Jewish influence on both capitalism and communism, etc. This book is crammed with information, but Dimont’s lucid writing style and occasional injection of dry humor and wit definitely made this book much easier to read than your typical history tome. For both Jews and non-Jews alike, I think this book is a must-read if you have any interest in world history.

Rating: Jews, God and History by Max I. Dimont CoverJews, God and History by Max I. Dimont CoverJews, God and History by Max I. Dimont CoverJews, God and History by Max I. Dimont CoverJews, God and History by Max I. Dimont Cover

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Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser CoverNot just a great book, but a life-changing book. It’s been several years since I’ve read it, but I still cannot bring myself to eat at a McDonald’s-type fast food place, for health as well as moral reasons.

Schlosser describes in great detail just what it is you support every time you give your money to a corrupt company as influential as McDonald’s. They engage in a number of unhealthy and unethical practices to keep their profits at record highs. I don’t want to name all of the bad policies facilitated by the fast food industry, but here are a some of the most important ones we contribute to every time we eat fast food:

  • The unhygienic and inhumane treatment of cows and chickens – Animals kept in tight, enclosed spaces don’t get the exercise or fresh air they need to be healthy. The natural food source of cattle is grass, yet they are fed a low quality corn meal mixed with hooves, horns, stomach lining and other cattle remains from previous slaughters. Similarly, chickens get fed some grain and the stuff left at the bottom of the cages of earlier chickens (shredded newspaper and feces) mixed with feathers, claws, beaks and other unused chicken parts. Schlosser notes that feeding animals feces and the remains of other animals have been linked to the spread of diseases like Mad Cow Disease and E. Coli.
  • A substandard quality of food – Animals eating the trash mentioned above plus being pumped full of anti-biotics and hormones (to create the semblance of health) creates low quality food eaten by millions of Americans, which contributes to poor health, food poisoning and spread of disease. Not to mention that random tests at fast food places found that there are feces in your hamburger.
  • Dangerous and unsanitary working conditions at meat factories and slaughterhouses – The safety standards and worker’s benefits are very low at the factories where meat is processed, creating an environment with a high number of work-related injuries and little help for the injured employees. A number of meat factories bus illegal immigrants in from Mexico to work in these factories, who are provided with even fewer benefits and compensation than American workers. These unskilled laborers are frequently injured and contribute to the contamination of meat because of their low training.
  • Pressure from food corporations on Congress to keep worker wages down, and consequently, profits high – Fast food companies seek to make food preparation more and more automated, to be able to hire workers and train them as little as possible. This creates an “expendable worker” and nearly unlimited supply of employees who can be easily and cheaply replaced.

Reading this book made me realize how much damage I was causing in supporting fast food restaurants and the infrastructure that uses poor people and forces low-quality and unhealthy food on us. McDonald’s and the like will never get another dollar of my cash to damage this country further.

I haven’t given up on meat by any means, I just make sure that I’m eating animals that were treated well, fed real food, not pumped full of antibiotics, and handled properly when slaughtered to avoid contamination. To eat any other way is just too scary to comprehend.

Rating: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser CoverFast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser CoverFast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser CoverFast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser CoverFast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser Cover

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Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe by Lisa Alcalay Klug

Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe by Lisa Alcalay Klug CoverCool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe by Lisa Alcalay Klug CoverThis review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Although meant to be a hip and humorous guide to modern Judaism, Lisa Alcalay Klug’s Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe requires forty years of patience to schlep through. The book is packed with what is meant to be cute little “yiddish-isms” that get tiresome very early on: shnooked, shtickl, sh’mantra… How many words starting with “sh” can you possibly fit into one book? The author herself states at one point that the “sh” words can go “…on and on without end!” It certainly seemed that way.

Klug’s writing style is sprinkled with awkward phrases that I can only guess are attempts at sounding hip and/or cute. Here’s an excerpt from the first page of the first chapter:

“…as a Heebster, you don’t just survive, you thrive! Being Jewish is about much more than bagels and loxy. It’s about moxie, about feeling Yiddishe foxy! Because when you’re of Da Tribe, you’ve got Da Vibe. It’s not about deprivation. It’s about celebration, exclamation and exaltation! When you embrace Da Place, you’re blessed with grace. So let go of the pain. You’re a link in the chain. Shun shame and embrace fame. Take charge and live large.”

If you thought the above excerpt was clever, then you should definitely check out this book. However, if you groaned when you read it, like I did, then you’ll have a tough time getting all the way through the guide. By the time I was done with this book, I was glad to leave all the “kabba lah lahs,” “oyPods” and “Mani’s” behind.

Another big problem with this book is that it is not very accessible to outsiders. I’m Jewish and attended religious school for over a decade and there were many jokes in “Cool Jew” that went over my head. I imagine non-Jewish readers will be quickly fazed by all the inside jokes.

The book is packed with quizzes that force you to turn the book upside down to find the answers. With a quiz appearing every third page or so, I was quickly tempted to start skipping the quizzes because I was tired of constantly flipping the book. It’s a shame, really, because the most interesting info about modern Judaism was located in the quizzes (such as different classic Jewish dishes and Yiddish words).
Not everything about this book was annoying. In between silly rap songs and overly-cutesy turns of phrase in modern Yiddish, occasional nuggets of interesting information shined through. For example, the descriptions of G-d and Birthmarks in the unfortunately titled Kabba Lah Lah chapter. And the descriptions of many Jewish dishes. And the multitude of Jewish-themed websites that I had no idea existed. It’s too bad a lot of the good stuff was buried beneath writing that tried too hard to be funny in a way that few will get.

And this might just be a personal peeve, but I was hoping for more information about the less mainstream Jews. Perhaps 80%-90% of the book was focused on Ashkenazi and Hasidic habits, dishes, customs, etc. There was mention of Shephardic Jews, but hardly any information about what differentiates them from the other groups. Bukharian Jews, of which there might be more than 50,000 living in the USA (concentrated mostly in Queens, NY) only get a mention about having a unique yarmulke and language (to add insult to injury, the word “Bukharian” is misspelled in one place). The section about the lost tribes of Israel would have been the perfect place to go into detail about the customs, traditions and cuisine of this sizable group that were cutoff from mainstream Jewry for over 2,000 years. I guess Klug thinks all Jews eat cholent, gribenes and herring (I’ve personally had none of the above).

The bottom line is this: there are some sections of Cool Jew that yield thoughtful and interesting information. Unfortunately, wading through Klug’s annoyingly insistent yiddishified language and humor will have you running to a different source for information about Jewry (Wikipedia?). Or, if you come from a European Jewish background, you might understand more of the book, but I can’t imagine how you could read this book without wincing at the non-stop barrage of bad puns.

Rating: Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe by Lisa Alcalay Klug CoverCool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe by Lisa Alcalay Klug CoverCool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe by Lisa Alcalay Klug CoverCool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe by Lisa Alcalay Klug CoverCool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe by Lisa Alcalay Klug Cover

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How To Hide Anything by Michael Connor

How To Hide Anything by Michael Connor CoverThis guide has some interesting ideas for hiding places (false pipes in the bathroom, the bottom of a pot of food, etc) as well as tried-and-true favorites (hollowed-out books, false-bottom drawers). There are also some fun ideas for hiding people in hidden rooms and floors.

Although there are tons of pictures, some of the descriptions may be a difficult for a person who is not familiar with construction. A few extra diagrams might have helped.

In general, it’s a quick and easy read and is sure to get your imagination going. I especially enjoyed the author’s emphasis on hiding things in plain sight. If anything, this guide will get you to think about everyday items and places as potential hiding places.

Rating: How To Hide Anything by Michael Connor CoverHow To Hide Anything by Michael Connor CoverHow To Hide Anything by Michael Connor CoverHow To Hide Anything by Michael Connor CoverHow To Hide Anything by Michael Connor Cover

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Realty Check by Piers Anthony

Realty Check by Piers Anthony CoverRealty Check was not a book I expected to read; I intended to just skim through the first pages and see if it was worth keeping. Before I knew it, I was 30 pages in and fully engrossed.

The story opens with Penn and Chandelle, an elderly couple, looking to rent a house for a few months during the summer. They end up at a strange house that appears to anticipate their needs and wants. The house is furnished the way they like, the closets are filled with clothes and shoes that fit them perfectly and even the refrigerator is filled with food they like. They also discover a computer and a television setup with seemingly limitless access to the internet and an infinite number of channels. Most intriguing about the house are the front and back doors, which can be programmed to open to a variety of different locations and times.

They soon invite their teenage grandchildren, Llynn and Lloyd, to join them at the house to help them figure it all out. They discover hidden chambers, languages and devices that can do everything from enhancing a person’s physical abilities to healing wounds. They are eventually joined by a brother and sister they aid in a dangerous situation. All occupants of the house feel an intense desire to explore it’s many secrets and find out the purpose of the house.

Piers Anthony has created an interesting concept that snags the reader’s attention almost immediately. However, the book is flawed. The dialogue in many cases isn’t realistic. While it’s interesting to follow along with the logic of the characters as they think out loud, it’s also simplistic. There also seems to be an unusual amount of sexual tension in the book, much of it incestuous.

Despite its flaws, Realty Check is a fun book. I enjoyed reading about the different uses the characters found for the devices found in the house and found the final explanation for the purpose of the house to be intriguing, if somewhat unsatisfying. I thought the theory conjectured by the characters right before they discovered the truth to be more satisfying and sinister: that the purpose of the house was to lure in humans of various ages so that aliens could run a captive breeding experiment with them (and it would have explained all the sexual tension throughout the book). The actual explanation, about the occupants of the house being host bodies and tour guides for alien minds was neat and cute and ultimately… meh.

Rating: Realty Check by Piers Anthony CoverRealty Check by Piers Anthony CoverRealty Check by Piers Anthony CoverRealty Check by Piers Anthony CoverRealty Check by Piers Anthony Cover

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Jumper: Griffin’s Story by Steven Gould

Jumper: Griffins Story by Steven Gould CoverHaving read the first two Jumper books by Steven Gould, I was interested in seeing if this book would fit into the continuity of the books or the movie adaptation (which departed from the books significantly). Apparently, it’s the latter, much to the detriment of the book. It’s quite unfortunate, actually, that this book and the movie seem to overwrite the events of the first two books with a completely different story.

Personally, I preferred the world of the first two books, where jumpers were extremely rare, jumping didn’t damage the environment around the jumper and bring debris from one location to the next, and most importantly, jumping could not be sensed by “sensitives.” On this last point, the book focused a lot of time talking about how jumps could be sensed by Paladins, whereas the movie seemed to completely ignore this ability. Why waste so much time on an issue the movie doesn’t even use? The Paladins aren’t a bad idea, but they were ineffectual in the book (actually, you find out nothing about who they are and why they do what they do until the movie). The villains of Reflex (Jumper 2) were much more cool and fun.

The main thing missing from Griffin’s Story is the sense of wonder, introspection and investigation into the nature of jumping that David Rice had in the first two books. Like David, Griffin uses his powers to help himself, but unlike David, he doesn’t eventually decide to use his powers to help people (except the ones he has led into trouble himself).

In any case, my recommendation is to skip Griffin’s Story and the movie and just read the first two books.

Rating: Jumper: Griffins Story by Steven Gould CoverJumper: Griffins Story by Steven Gould CoverJumper: Griffins Story by Steven Gould CoverJumper: Griffins Story by Steven Gould CoverJumper: Griffins Story by Steven Gould Cover

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Reflex by Steven Gould

Reflex by Steven Gould CoverAlthough it took a while, it’s a good thing that Reflex, the sequel to Steven Gould’s Jumper, came along. The main problem with the first book, despite the appealing premise, was the lack of a plot-moving conflict until late in the story. Reflex redeems the series (can it be called that?) by getting the action started very early on and the book thrills almost until the last page. Like the first book, Gould spends a considerable amount of time on speculation and experimentation concerning Davy’s teleportation ability, but unlike Jumper, it doesn’t become the main concern of the book.

Reflex opens ten years after the end of the last book. Davy and Millie are married and the former is doing occasional work for the NSA, sticking to ethically acceptable missions. Davy is drugged and kidnapped to a secret location by a shadowy organization that appears to have great influence in political and economic affairs, and ties to the NSA. They chain him to a wall to prevent him from teleporting and implant a device in his chest that is used to both torture him and condition him to do their bidding. Gould does a great job coming up with a method for his seedy antagonists to stop Davy from teleporting away when unchained, and at the same time, forcing Davy to cooperate with them. The more you learn about the system, the more ingenious it seems.

Meanwhile, Millie uses her newfound teleportation power to search for Davy. Through contacts in the NSA, FBI and witnesses of Davy’s kidnapping, Millie pieces together many clues that lead her very close to where Davy actually is and put her in danger as well.

Gould’s writing in this sequel seems to have grown up along with his characters. Gone are the angst-filled moments that Davy frequently had in Jumper and the writing style is generally more reader-friendly and less cringe-inducing (Jumper was definitely Young Adult, while Reflex seems a bit more mature). For some reason, I particularly enjoyed that the chapters alternated between Davy and Millie’s point-of-view. Whereas Jumper lacked any well-developed antagonists, Reflex has a few, most notably Hyacinth Pope, the femme fatale that kidnapped Davy and antagonizes him with threats of abuse and seduction. All in all, Reflex was an exciting read. The polish and development of this book makes Jumper seem like it was written solely for the purpose of getting Reflex made. Although I haven’t seen the movie Jumper, it’s pretty clear they made major changes to give the story a better plot and more action than the first book had. Instead of going to all that trouble, I think they should have skipped Jumper and made a movie from Reflex. It would have been more of a spy thriller than a sci-fi blockbuster, but there are plenty of moments for action and CGI effects (and it would have been truer to the source material). The experimentation with teleportation, the human element of Millie searching for her husband, the interesting baddies to root against and the solid plot of Reflex would have made a much better choice for movie adaptation, just as these elements made Reflex a better book than Jumper.

Rating: Reflex by Steven Gould CoverReflex by Steven Gould CoverReflex by Steven Gould CoverReflex by Steven Gould CoverReflex by Steven Gould Cover

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