Category Archives: Unfavorable

The World Is Fat by Barry Popkin

An advertisement from a publishing company about books in the food studies area came through our department a couple of weeks ago. I happened upon The World Is Fat from there. After all, I’ve enjoyed books like this in the past — maybe I’m a little masochistic and like to hear all about what we’re doing wrong. Remarkably, for a book that’s so short, Popkin manages to fit in quite a bit of repetition, and not even in an interesting way.

One interesting thing about The World Is Fat is that Popkin follows a couple of families (well, composite families) here in the United States, as well as his own upbringing in the middle of the century, and also talks about the habits of two families in India — one modern one, and one from the 1960s. I liked the insight into how families behaved in the mid-1900s.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t save this book from being one piece of repetitive propaganda. Popkin’s main issue is sugary drinks. (A lot of which he calls soda, which drives me nuts on another level — it’s pop!) Okay, we get it after you’ve said that pop, juice, and milk aren’t good for us. Except, sometimes milk is good for us. That story is never really fully ironed out. That’s not a problem for me personally, and I really think that most people know that, if you’re drinking regular Coke, you’re getting calories. The American media are saturated with this information about where your “hidden calories” are coming from.

Popkin discusses briefly how exercise and activity can help, and that McDonald’s has made steps in the right direction. It’s a shame that he doesn’t do a better job of pulling these other ideas into the spotlight; it’d be nice to read about other issues with the global food culture other than that people drink caloric drinks. I’d love to hear more about how the other aspects are serious (for example, he discusses briefly that other fast food outlets are going high-calorie and whether that has made an impact on sales for either them or McDonald’s), but I came away with a taste for saccharine — literally — and little else.

For such a short book, perhaps Popkin didn’t feel that he had room to include other issues. If it truly thought that, he should have called the book How Drinks Made the World Fat. It would be a more fitting title for a book so focused that advertised itself as a comprehensive study.

Rating: 1.5/5.


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Filed under 1.5/5, Book review, Nonfiction, Unfavorable

Threshold by Caitlín Kiernan


I have a feeling I’m going to have a lot of people disagree with my opinion of Threshold. From what I’ve seen, it, and the author, Caitlín Kiernan, are well-respected by a lot of other authors, and she has a devoted fan base. I have to say, though, that Threshold is, at best, a poor attempt at a Lovecraftian novel that manages to read more like a pretentious Christopher Pike manuscript.

The story starts out with a good introduction to Kiernan’s writing style. That was my first clue that I wouldn’t enjoy the book, and I honestly considered returning the book to the library. I hate to give up on a book, though, and the plot appeared to have some promise — we’ve got a young woman whose had most of the people she cared for die, one way or another, who appears to be in the grips of depression. Add to that Kiernan’s choice of nonlinear storytelling, and there’s a little bit of interest generated for me. So I stuck with it.

What a bad choice that was. As I got further and further into the novel, it dissolved into a messy mix of geology, nonsensical horror, and story lines that don’t appear to serve any good purpose. Add to that Kiernan’s affectation of forming her own compound words (for example, scorncold to describe looks Dancy, an albino character, gets in the library), and you’ve got one frustrating piece of fiction.

The plot, as it were, involves Chance, a young woman studying geology. She’s following in the footsteps of her grandparents, who raised her since the death of her parents. The book takes place after both of her grandparents have died. She has also had the recent suicide death of a friend. Her ex-boyfriend, Deacon, and his current girlfriend Sadie, come into contact with Chance when Dancy finds them in order to contact Chance. Fast forward a little bit, and we’ve got mysterious fossils that never get explained, malevolent creatures that are given no reason for existing, and some weird attempt at a tie-in with Beowulf. Let me tell you: Threshold is no Beowulf. The thought of it being referenced several times even kind-of made me angry.

The book doesn’t manage to end in a way that leads to any sort of satisfaction, in my opinion. I don’t know if reading the rest of the series would provide that sense of completion, but I’m not really interested in spending any more of my time reading any more of Kiernan’s work. I’ll give her a point for writing about geology, and that’s about as high as I can go.

Rating: 1/5.

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The Painted Darkness by Brian James Freeman

Like many people, I’m on a budget.  Entertainment is one of the things I cut first when money gets tight, so I was happy to find The Painted Darkness as a free eBook.  The plot sounded interesting, and, though I’d not heard of the author, I thought I would give it a shot.  Unfortunately, Freeman’s novel fell flat for me.

The main issue I have with The Painted Darkness is that I don’t feel like Henry, the main character, is well-constructed.  Freeman doesn’t even give him a last name, as far as I can see.  We don’t see him interact with people, for the most part.  We find out that he’s an artist, but other than that, there’s nothing that gives us insight into the character until, arguably, the very end.  Whether the reader feels that the little he gives us there is satisfactory is up to them; for me, it was not.  Henry feels generic in the extreme.

A secondary problem with The Painted Darkness is the split structure.  Freeman takes us back and forth between Henry at five years old and Henry today.  While some books employ this tactic in an effective way, the present-day plot line, in my opinion, relies too much on what happened while Henry was a child.  Spending more time with the childhood story before starting to intersperse the adult Henry would have been a much more satisfactory way to present the novel as a whole.

The Painted Darkness also has a problem with predictability.  I was able to guess at a lot of the events before they occurred.  While that might mean I’m a genius, I somehow doubt it.  I like to be able to feel sometimes clever by being able to predict one or two things ahead of the reveals.  I don’t like knowing the ending when I’m a good ways away from it.

The last main drawback to the book is the overall quality of the writing.  I feel bad for saying this, but, for someone who has apparently published at least one other novel and several short stories, his word usage is not good.  While I was reading, I noticed a lot of things that prevented me from enjoying the book.  This is not a good thing.

I’m not saying I could do better — on the contrary, I don’t think I’d fare much better if I were writing a piece of fiction.  I just don’t think I have that in me, no matter how much I wish the opposite were true.  As the old adage says, however, I don’t need to be a chicken to know what an egg is.  I have a feeling that Freeman is, like a lot of us, full of great ideas.  His execution, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

Rating: 0.5/5.

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Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling

Island in the Sea of Time sounded good to me.  I love alternate history and speculative fiction.  What could be better than a book that blended both in an innovative way, incorporating some science fiction into the mix?  Unfortunately, despite some good aspects, Island in the Sea of Time fell flat for me.

Let’s start off with the good.  I liked the idea of an entire island of people from our own time being suddenly tossed into the far past.  What challenges they would face?  How would they meet the obstacles facing them?  A fantastic plot, in my opinion.

I also delighted in the anthropological aspects Stirling put in.  Linguistics is an interest of mine, so I found some of the exposition language structure and evolution absolutely fascinating.  His conjectures on how various cultures functioned and how they would react to visitors from today’s world were obviously well-researched, at least on the European side.

The cultural part that I disliked, however, was the heavy focus on building or maintaining technological conveniences, creating weapons, military training, and warfare.  I just wanted to skip over the pages that dealt with this stuff, and that’s bad, since it makes up about half the book.  Many (and I mean many) of the characters have military training, which I found too convenient to be believable.  This leads me to my next issue with the book.

The residents of Nantucket are far too accepting of their situation.  There are a couple of freak-outs in the book, as well as allusions to points of crises within individuals.  I, however, find it difficult to believe that there wasn’t a wholesale rejection of the time shift.  There are off-hand comments about suicide, but they felt like they were obligatory mentions so that Stirling could get on with the story.  We follow no character who has such inclinations; this probably would have made Island in the Sea of Time more compelling, more human on an emotional level.

Character abilities and skills also felt too well-distributed to reflect reality.  A Coast Guard ship just happens to get trapped in the time shift, so we have a military force with at least one fighting ship, plenty of trained soldiers, and modern weapons.  There’s the woman who runs the greenhouse, so we have someone who knows how to grow crops and can teach others how to do so.  We have a librarian who is apparently so freaking talented that she can keep everyone apprised of the information they need to perform their jobs.  We have a historian with interests in the time period the island has been thrust into, as well as a working knowledge of linguistics.  We have an astronomer, who has the ability to communicate with the English tribes because she also can speak a Baltic language that is similar to proto-Indo-European. We have a captain who is, apparently, God’s gift to both military strategy and tactics.  And we have a native woman who is gifted in so many ways that it makes suspension of disbelief very difficult.  On top of that, we lose exactly one of the main cast of characters.  He doesn’t happen to be a central character, either; we probably follow him about a half-dozen times, whereas most of the other characters get approximately thirty to forty sections scattered throughout the book.  That smacks of the unreal to me.

Also unfortunate, in my opinion, Stirling focused on the prehistoric British inhabitants, which was baffling to me, seeing as the island tossed back in time was Nantucket.  We are given very little information about the Native Americans of the area; he allows us to read about their first encounter, and then leaves them almost completely.  This struck me as strange; why toss away a fascinating people who could help the Nantucketers with farming, gathering and the like — as well as trading — in favor of the long sea voyage and constant skirmishes in England?

The other aspect of this is, when we are allowed to view one extended encounter with Central American natives, they are portrayed in a horribly brutal light.  While this might be accurate, some of the actions taken by the Olmecs were horribly graphic — graphic enough to cause me to have a nightmare about one particular scene.  It freaked me out to no end, and also felt unfair to the indigenous Americans.  Why do they get to experience such a characterization, while the European peoples encountered are as nuanced as the Nantucket residents?

Based on the comments by Harry Turtledove and Robert J. Sawyer, I thought I was in for a spectacular read.  I’m saddened to find that wasn’t so.  A more Nantucket-based, psychologically sensitive book would have been fascinating.  Since this is one in a series of books, many of the battles could have waited.  As it is, Island in the Sea of Time leaves the reader with a dry book about martial history, martial tactics, and flat characters.

Rating: 1.5/5


Filed under 1.5/5, Book review, Fiction, Unfavorable

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy, Ph.D.

Book Cover

Before I start, let me declare my vegetarianism. Despite my inclination to be sympathetic toward animals, I found Joy’s book to be naive in the extreme.

I was expecting a book on the cultural reasons for why Americans have differing attitudes toward consuming different animals, and, while she has included some of that, there is also content I was not expecting — perhaps it is my own fault for thinking a book with an attractively cute title and describes itself as an introduction to “the belief system that enables us to eat some animals and not others” would be a bit more about that topic.

The one salient point of the book, in my opinion, is her discussion of the slaughtering process. Better oversight and more transparency is needed to ensure the safety of food that is consumed and to give food animals humane treatment at all steps of their lives.

The call to activism throughout the book is rather strident and unpleasant to get through. People can decide on their own whether to get involved, and providing some contact information at the end would be appropriate, but the oppressive nature of her encouragement is uncomfortable to get through.

Toward the end of the book, she encourages the reader to “view ourselves as strands in the web of life, rather than as standing at the apex of the so-called food chain.” From where I sit, the food web includes animals eating other animals. Humans are omnivorous creatures, and simply because eating animals is not strictly necessary for a complete diet does not mean that people are required to, or should, suppress the urge to consume animals.

Score: 1/5.

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Filed under 1/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Nonfiction, Unfavorable