The Shambling Guide to New York City

The Shambling Guide to New York CityThe Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like urban fantasy.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I like the idea of urban fantasy. I like the idea of a secret hidden world within our world where magic is real, monsters live among us, and only a select few know about it.

What I don’t like is much of what is published under the heading of “urban fantasy,” most of which is really paranormal romance. Yes, I’m talking about Twilight. Vampires are predators who feed on the living, not sparkly emo stalkers obsessed with high school girls eighty years younger than they are. I read one of the Sookie Stackhouse novels that the TV series “True Blood” is based on and the less said about my opinion of that, the better.

That’s why it’s such a pleasure to find something in urban fantasy that isn’t about whiny, co-dependent relationships with a vampire who is little more than a human with an eating disorder. Mur Lafferty has been a fixture of the podcasting world pretty much since there have been podcasts. She’s been doing her writing show, “I Should Be Writing” for several years now, so it’s great to see her long overdue major press publication.

The cover art alone tells you that this is something different from most urban fantasies. It eschews the leather-clad heroine with a tramp stamp holding a weapon in the moonlight. Instead, we see a professional woman walking down the street with various creatures in the background.

The protagonist of “The Shambling Guide to New York City” is Zoe, a travel writer. After a disaster of an office romance left her employed and forced to move, Zoe lands a job editing a travel book about New City. The catch: The book isn’t aimed a humans, but the various vampires, demons, fey, and zombies that visit the Big Apple. Office politics take on a very different meaning when half her coworkers would just as soon eat her as take writing assignments from her. Managing a writing staff consisting of zombies, vampires, a death goddess and an incubus (there are no sexual harassment laws covering her new job) is challenging enough, but when the new HR director turns out to be golem made from the head of an ex-boyfriend, Zoe starts to think that maybe someone at the publishing company is out to get her.

“The Shambling Guide” is a fun, quirky book. Lafferty balances light humor and dark horror with a skill well above that of most first-time novelist. Zoe avoids many of the stereotypes that plague urban fantasy heroines. She doesn’t waste her time mooning over unrequited love or overcompensating for deep insecurities. Zoe is smart, clever, and assertive while clearly aware that she has step in over her head. If you’re tired of emo vampires, pick this up.

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The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the PrimatesThe Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates by Frans de Waal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To review this book, I have to start with this video:

That’s the author of The Bonobo and the Atheist, Frans de Waal narrating the video. What we see here is a clear demonstration of a Capuchin monkey protesting about receiving what she perceives as an unfair reward, or at least, a reward that isn’t equal to what the other monkey is getting.

What the The Bonobo and the Atheist is about is the question of whether certain animals, especially those closest to humans, have any sense of fairness, of right and wrong. The monkey experiment indicates that many do. De Waal has been studying animal behavior for decades and his conclusion is that morality is something innate in social animals, like apes and monkeys, and humans. It’s what he calls “bottom up morality.” Instead of the popular theory of “top down morality” in which people need to be taught about things like cooperation and fairness, de Waal makes the case that such feeling are an evolutionary necessity for animals that like in social groupings.

To support this thesis, he takes the reader through numerous experiences of various animals cooperating to obtain a reward. We meet elephants who work together to pull too ends of a rope to get some food. In this experimental setup, if just one elephant pulls on the rope, it unravels and the elephant gets nothing. Only by cooperating and pulling together, can they get the reward.

In another experiment, two chimpanzees are confronted with a box containing a treat. Only one chimp can access the box while another has the tool needed to open the box. Only if the second chimp passes the tool to the other can the box be opened. If chimpanzees were motivated totally by selfish desires, the first chimp would keep all of the treat for himself, since the second chimp can’t reach the treat once the box is opened. Instead, he invariably shares it with the second chimp.

There are more stories like this about chimpanzees, bonobos, and other primates acting to keep the peace among their group and enforce rules that appear to be universally understood by everyone. The behaviors he notes include consciousness of guilt and even justice.

It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.

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Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing EscapeBeyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third book on the Church of Scientology that I’ve read this year. Unlike the previous books, Going Clear and Church of Fear, Beyond Belief is an insider’s account of life growing up in the church built by L. Ron Hubbard.

Jenna Miscavige Hill is the niece, David Miscavige, the current head of the Church of Scientology. You would think that this would offer her a position of privilege in the organization. Instead, Miscavige-Hill begins her narrative at the point where her parents made the decision to commit themselves the Sea Org, Scientology’s bizarre “monastic” order. From the age of six, Jenna is sent to The Ranch, where she and numerous other children, separated from their families, are put to work doing manual labor to rebuild an old ranch into a working facility. She gets no real education in what would be considered normal for kids her age. Instead, she is thrust into Hubbard’s argyle-bargle newspeak that makes of the weird philosophy behind Scientology.

And that’s just beginning. Her life training for the Sea Org is little more than being exploited under near slave conditions as every aspect of her life is rigidly controlled, including who she is permitted to date.

You can’t read this book without realizing that there is something seriously wrong with Scientology. If half of what Jenna has described had occurred in any other organization, they’d be under investigation for running a slavery ring. Reading this book will forever alter your perception of celebrities like Tom Curse, Kirstie Alley, and John Travola. You can’t read Jenna Miscavige Hill’s life story without wondering if these stars are complicit in this abuse or are they just willfully blind?

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An Atheist in the Foxhole

An Atheist in the FOXhole: A Liberal's Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing MediaAn Atheist in the FOXhole: A Liberal’s Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media by Joe Muto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 2012, Joe Muto gained brief notoriety at the “Fox Mole”. The plan was for him to post a series of anonymous blogs about life working at Fox News on the Gawker website. But, within 36 hours of his first blog post, management at Fox News had discovered that Muto was the Fox Mole and fired him from his job as an assistant producer for the O’Reilly Factor.

“An Atheist in the FOXhole” is Muto’s account of how a liberal ended up working for the conservative news network. Starting from his desperate bid to get a job after college graduation, Muto details his rise from lowly, underpaid production assistant to an assistant producer and his ignominious fall. He takes the reader through a series of anecdotes, mostly detailing about how cheap Fox News is towards its employees, despite being a hugely profitable cable channel.

Ultimately, though, this book is about a guy who did something incredibly stupid and torched his career. This is a shame, as Muto demonstrates some real creative talent here. Whether it’s his account of racing to be the first network to announce the death of Marlon Brando (Who one producer allegedly calls the “fat fucker”) or his brief stint as an ambush producer at Rosie O’Donnell’s book signing, this is a funny, entertaining book.

I’d recommend this book for anyone starving to see an insider’s account of life inside the conservative behemoth. If you hate Fox News you’ll be pleased to here confirmation of how they “Foxify” the news to give it a conservative slant. On the other hand, if you love Fox, then you’ll probably cheer as Muto destroys his career.

Either way, you’ll be entertained.

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The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Book of Revelation

The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Book of RevelationThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Book of Revelation by James Stuart Bell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Or at least it’s how Saint John the Divine saw it in the First Century.

If you’ve ever wanted to really understand the Book of Revelation as it was written and not filtered through the political and social views of the writers behind the Left Behind series, then pick up The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Book of Revelation.

Bell breaks Revelation down into manageable chunks and spreads it across several chapters, which digesting the final book of the Bible a lot easier. Revelation is chock full of imaginary and much of it is bloody and arcane. Bell goes through each passage and puts them in context of how fit into the the time it was written. He also unwinds the dense text and puts into the simple terms so that modern readers can grasp what is being described as the Seven Seals are unveiled, the Seven Trumpets are blasted, and the Beast rises out of the sea.

So, what does it all mean? Well, who knows. Maybe John really did have a revelation or maybe he was just tripping on mushrooms. Either way, he had something to say to the Christians of his time.

Bell spends most of his explanations based on two assumptions 1) That the John who wrote Revelation was also the author of the Gospel According to John (Many scholars point to the differences in writing styles to argue against this) and 2) John really was writing down what he saw as it was “revealed” to him. It’s only in the back chapters that Bell devotes time to discussing the idea that Revelation is a metaphor or a description of events contemporary to the author.

Still, Bell manages to give the modern audience and approachable glimpse into how early Christians viewed the apocalypse that many were sure would happen in their lifetime.

In that respect, not much has changed in two thousand years.

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The God Virus by Darrell Ray

The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and CultureThe God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture by Darrel Ray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Metaphors are useful in describing any social phenomenon. In the case of Darrell Ray’s “The God Virus”, the metaphor is pretty obvious: Religion is like a virus of the mind. It “infects” the brain and reshapes our thoughts. Just as a virus hijacks the machinery of the host’s cells in order to reproduce more viruses, so does religion cause us to “infect” others with religion by seeking out converts.

Ray compares religion to real life diseases like toxoplasmosis, a disease that causes mice and rats to lose their fear of cats and actually make them attracted to the scent of car urine. Toxoplasmosis needs to pass through a cat’s digestive track in order to complete its life cycle, so, by changing the behavior of rodents, it encourages them to get eaten and thus the virus gets inside a cat. So, under this metaphor, people infected with religion have had their modes of thinking that alters the way they view themselves, sex, and how they relate to others. Your particular strain of the virus also “inoculates” you against other strains. Thus, if you are a Christian, you develop thought patterns that “immunize” you against becoming a Muslim or vice-versa.

It’s an interesting way of looking at religion, one that addresses how religious beliefs use conformity of behavior, community, fear of the outsider, and guilt to reinforce their grip on society, though Ray often stretches this metaphor well beyond the breaking point.

Ray is a former minister turned atheist and naturally, has a negative view of the affect religion has on society. He has little positive things to say about religion, so be aware that this is not an evenhanded examination of the impact of religion on society. Indeed, his thesis is that religion is a disease and needs to be eradicated for our good. He makes many arguments and examples to bolster this view, some of which are more convincing than others, but at the very least, he gives readers something to think about.

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Church of Fear by John Sweeney

The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of ScientologyThe Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology by John Sweeney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book about Scientology that I’ve read recently. You can check out my review of Going Clear for my earlier impression.

Unlike Going Clear, Church Fear makes almost no attempt at objectivity and for understandable reason. During the course of filming a documentary about the Church of Scientology, John Sweeney engaged in a series of escalating confrontations with church spokesman, Tommy Davis. These culminated in a screaming match between the two, in which they both end up trading accusations about the other being brainwashed. The video of this argument became something of a YouTube sensation. Sweeney is very candid about losing his cool with Davis and admits that he behaved poorly, comparing his actions to an “exploding tomato.”

Church of Fear the chronicles adventures of Sweeney and his film crew as they travel around America, filming their documentary for the BBC. He describes interviews with critics and former members of the Church of Scientology. In almost all of these interviews, Davis, accompanied by a film crew, shows up to discredit the interviewee. He describes car rides in which they appear to have been followed. He also interviews celebrity members of the church, including Kirsti Alley, Anne Archer, and Leah Remini, all of whom give curiously rehearsed answers to his questions. Another highlight is Sweeney’s visit to Scientology’s exhibit on psychiatry, which they allege is behind many of the horrors in recent history, including the Holocaust. It was after this visit that Sweeney had his famous blow up with Davis.

As with Going Clear, Church of Fear documents numerous allegations of vicious physical and mental abuse committed by the church’s leader, David Miscavige. All of which, of course, the Church denies. But as allegation after allegation piles up, it’s hard not to see a pattern.

Sweeney writes in an accessible style, with British self-deprecating humor and humility over losing his temper. Which this explosion of tempers is not the highlight of his career, his willingness to frame this book around his mistake speaks highly of his character. In comparison with Going Clear, Church of Fear is much more readable. It’s more of a written documentary than compilation of research, but it does give some truly disturbing insights into this bizarre religion.

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Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of BeliefGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

There has been a spate of recent books about the Church of Scientology published recently, most of which have not been complimentary to say the least. Everyone who has any dirt to dish on the Church of L. Ron Hubbard seems to have a book on the shelves these days. Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief takes the reader all the way back to Hubbard’s childhood. Wright attempts to dig through the various contradictory accounts of Hubbard’s education and military career. He finds many instances in which the official church account conflicts with government records and other reports. Piecing together the disparate stories about Hubbard’s life could not have been easy for Wright as he acknowledges the contradictory nature of what has been said and written about. For example, Hubbard has, at various times, claimed to have been an engineer, a physicist, and a plant physiologist while in reality, he never finished college. Hubbard has also made claims at having been a war hero, though the official record indicates that his one command of a patrol boat resulted in him accidentally bombing Mexico after claiming to have spotted a German U-boat.

In Going Clear, Wright presents a picture of Hubbard of a colorful figure with a dark, even abusive side. During World War II, Hubbard appears at once to have been eager to show he could be a great leader, yet always finding some health reason to get out of assignments that might result in him having to prove himself worthy of that ambition. Wright then takes the reader through Hubbard’s post-war life, detailing various failed marriages and relationships, his health problems in the late forties and his supposed discovery of a self-cure for all of his ailments through Dianetics, the forerunner of Scientology. The reader is presented with details of drug use, spousal abuse, and financial shenanigans as Hubbard founded his religion, all of which, of course, the Church of Scientology denies.

Throughout the book, however, Hubbard remains something of an enigma. Wright doesn’t assert whether Hubbard is an inveterate liar or a con man who fell victim to his own hype. Instead, he presents what he could document, either through records or witness accounts, and lets the readers draw their own conclusions. As the book reaches Hubbard’s final, paranoid, and reclusive years, the narrative shifts to his successor, David Miscavige. As with Hubbard, Stewart traces Miscavige’s life to his early childhood and how he quickly rose to be one of the most powerful leaders in the church while still in his twenties. There have been numerous allegations of abuse made against Miscavige over the years, and Stewart appears to document them all. Miscavige comes across as a psychopathic megalomaniac who dishes out physical and emotional abuse to his staff on a regular basis. Stewart describes sadistic games of musical chairs designed to pit executives against one another under threat of firing if they lose. The conditions under which members of the Sea Org (Scientology’s version of a monastic class) allegedly live boarder on slavery.

As the subtitle implies, Wright spends a lot of time focusing on the strange relationship between Hollywood and the Church of Scientology. He discusses the recruiting of celebrity scientologists like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but if the book can be said to have a main protagonist, it’s writer/director Paul Haggis. Wright begins the book with Haggis’ recruitment into scientology and ends when he leaves it.

Stewart brings many allegations of abuse and criminal activity to life and he carefully names his sources, mostly ex-members of the Church, many of which once held high ranks in the organization. He describes the Church’s actions and history and explains many of the Church’s arcane words, with often a strange mixture of naval terminology and corporate buzzwords. Often, Scientology appears more like a never ending corporate pep rally than a religious organization. His descriptions of the abuse becomes so commonplace that the sentence, “The Church denies all of these allegations” becomes almost a standard coda for every page.

Going Clear is a gripping, well-research exploration of one of the world’s most bizarre religions and the strange hold it has on people. It is not an easy read, but anyone with an interest in Scientology should definitely pick this up before they attend their first “auditing” session.

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Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

They say that in the past, even the nostalgia is better. Ready Player One challenges that assumption and nearly turns 80s pop culture nostalgia into an art form in the process. In the near future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, but only online.

Our hero, Wade Watts, is a standard issue geeky teenager. He lives with his aunt and her boyfriend of the moment in the “Stacks”, a series of trailers piled on top of each other in towers that are every bit as safe as that sounds. Life in the mid-twenty-first century has taken a serious dive. Oil has run out and the global economy has collapsed. Reality, as they say, bites. Wade in particular has a lot to contend with: Poverty, an aunt who took him just for the extra government assistance and his invisibility to the opposite sex. It’s no wonder he prefers retreating into the OASIS.

Years before, billionaire game designer James Halliday created the OASIS, a virtual reality where literally anything can be created. Picture everything Second Life has the potential to deliver. Entire planets based on movies like Star Wars and Dune as well as role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, exist in the OASIS. If you’ve got the credits, you can buy your own X-Wing fighter, flying DeLorean, or even a dragon. In no time, OASIS grew from a gaming platform to the place where people conduct business, hold meetings, and attend school by logging on the virtual world.

Upon his death, however, Halliday left a pre-recorded message in his will: He’s hidden a series of keys in the OASIS and whoever can find them all and makes it to the Gate, will inherit not only his entire
fortune, but control of the OASIS itself. To find the keys, one must solve a series of riddles which leads the player through challenges that include deciphering Devo lyrics, playing a virtual version of an old D&D module, and reenacting scenes from War Games.

Needless to say, with a prize that big, everyone is a player. This includes an evil corporation that cheats by using bots and hired guns to feed answers to their virtual avatars and have no problem killing people in the real world to get what they want.

At first blush, Wade doesn’t seem to have a chance. An impoverished, overweight high school student, Wade can’t even afford the teleportation fees to leave the virtual world containing his high school. But Wade has spent his entire life studying the history and preferences of his hero. There isn’t a game, movie, song, or TV show from the 80s that Wade hasn’t desiccated an analyzed in order to figure out the first clue. Then, against all odds, Wade does it and becomes the first person to find the bronze key.

After that, the race is on as Wade, with the sometime help of other top gamers, tries to get to the Gate before the bad guys do.

If you remember the 80s and have fond memories of leather ties, high tops, leg warmers, and the days when MTV actually stood for “Music Television”, you’ll love Ready Player One.

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Nobody Gets the Girl

Nobody Gets the Girl (Whoosh! Bam! Pow!, #1)Nobody Gets the Girl by James Maxey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Rogers had a life. Not a perfect life, but it was his. He had a marriage, a job, and even a side career as an up and coming standup comic. Oh, he lives in a world where superheroes and the major cities are being put under domes in order to protect them from threat like a giant robot baby with a gun for a head.

Then one day, he wakes up and finds his life never happened. No one remembers he ever existed, not his wife or his parents. A side effect is that he’s also invisible to most people and, unless no one is looking at him, completely intangible. One of the few people who can see him is Doctor Knowbokov, a genius scientist who recruits Richard to help him save the world. Richard becomes Nobody and becomes part of a trio of heroes. The other two are Knowbokov’s daughters: Rail Blade, who has the almost unlimited ability to control ferrous metals, and The Thrill, who can fly and make people do whatever she tells them. While much of their work involves defeating the plans of Knowbokov’s arch nemesis Rex Monday, Knowbokov has wider plans which include global peace, whether the people want his solution or not.

Of course, not everything is as it seems and Nobody soon finds himself questioning the ethics behind many of Knowbokov’s plans. Soon he realizes that the professor has a deep Machiavellian streak and willingness to use people in disturbing ways.

Written in a light, breezy style, Nobody Gets the Girl nonetheless tackles some pretty heavy issues about the ends justifying the means and whether great power comes with great responsibility. Nobody initially joins Knowbokov’s mission out of a feeling that, his old life forever lost to him, he has little other options in life. But as he learns more about what he’s signs onto, he begins to take more control of his destiny and re-assess his relationship with the people around him, including Knowbokov’s family and the “villain”, Rex Monday.

Most superhero stories tend to be told in a very black and white terms: You have a good guy and a bad guy. Nobody Gets the Girl, however, is painted in various shades of gray and Nobody is often not sure who is the hero and who is the villain. The book packs a number of surprises, not the least of which is the identity of the girl in the title. Recommended for fans of superheroes who are looking for a little ambiguity in their fiction.

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