Fri, Aug 14, 2015

: One Shot

This is the book the Jack Reacher movie was based upon, and after reading this, I understand more why the movie flopped. Tons of tiny things were changed for the movie for no real reason whatsoever, changing a beautifully constructed plot into an amorphousness mess.

For example, the heart of the movie revolves around a sniper shooting, seemingly random, by a madman. In the book there’s a ton of psychology around how four men and one woman were shot (a sixth shot missed), while in the movie they showed several women getting shot, I can only think to evoke more viewer sympathy for the victims. Even dumber, the crime in the book is all about how this is an expert sniper as evidenced by him pulling off six shots in something like seven seconds, while the film has the scope darting around potential victims (even following a woman with a baby in a stroller as though she might be murdered) and the whole shooting takes 30 seconds.

The reason these changes are significant is that in the book that’s how Jack Reacher figures out what is going on — by understanding the psychology behind the crime and how it doesn’t match up to the patsy they’ve set up for it. All of that is lost in the film, which is turned into more of an action movie instead of a detective story. Lame!

The book is so much better because it allows us to see what’s really going on. Take the scene where the pretty girl tries to hit on Reacher as a way to set him up for a beating. In the book the scene is set by showing us how sexily she’s dressed, her blatant flirting, and the dialog between her and Reacher. In the film the girl just shows up across from Reacher’s table in the bar and starts talking — no preamble. The dialog falls flat, the wit completely lost. The resulting setup feels forced and pointless, not a key part of the plot like in the book.

I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s an excellent book, with typical Jack Reacher superiority; the movie turns him into an ordinary guy. Read the book and skip the movie.

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Sat, Aug 01, 2015

: Off to Be the Wizard

What a fun book! This is a hilarious adventure about a modern computer programmer who’s a bit of a dolt, who manages to find a file that seems to control reality. He realizes that all of reality is a computer simulation and by manipulating items in the file he can change whatever he wants. For instance, simply find the entry that holds the amount of money in his bank account and a few zeros and suddenly he’s rich, tweak the setting for his height and he’s taller, or change his GPS coordinates and he teleports. Pretty cool!

Of course, he hasn’t thought any of this through and soon gets in trouble, and to escape he goes back in time (after all, time is just a setting of the computer program) to the days of Merlin and tries to be a wizard. There he discovers his not alone and gets himself in a real pickle, but eventually becomes the hero who saves everyone.

Sure, this is pure silliness, but it’s done in a witty, clever way, with realistic computer programming tech. (There are a few liberties, such as how there can only be one “reality settings file” in the world and how ancient computers like a Commodore 64 or a lowly smartphone can open and work with a multi-gigabyte text file that takes even a fast desktop computer several minutes just to open, but you can overlook those flaws for the sake of the fun story.)

Definitely a must-read for those who like humor with their tech or tech with their humor.

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Fri, Jul 31, 2015

: Gateway

Author: Frederick Pohl

Interesting book. Supposedly a classic, but left me a little flat.

I love the basic idea — our main character’s story is told via flashbacks during his ongoing sessions with an artificial intelligence psychoanalyst — and it’s a good story about exploring space via mysterious spaceships abandoned by unknown aliens eons earlier.

The ships are so advanced we don’t even know how they work or how to control where they go, but they’re able to jump through a wormhole across vast amounts of space; the problem is that they’ll often end up in a bad place, or the trip takes longer than estimated and the crew starves to death before they can get back. Either way, it’s risky, so the rewards for successful exploratory missions are huge.

That’s a wonderful idea and quite plausible. What I didn’t like was that the psychology explored in the analyst sessions is trivial. It acts like it’s deep, but it’s not. Yes, there are some deep emotions at stake as our hero is recovering from a terrible tragedy, but the way that’s explored comes across as ordinary. (My reaction could be tainted by the audiobook performance, as it was occasionally strident, especially when the hero got angry at the computer psychoanalyst, which felt over-the-top and phony.)

Still, it’s an interesting book with some great science fiction ideas, and an unusual presentation. Definitely worth reading.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Jul 06, 2015

: The Dragon in the Sea

Author: Frank Herbert

This an interesting older Herbert book, set during some future war, about a submarine “tugs” that tow undersea barges of oil. The unnamed enemy has been intercepting and sabotaging every oil run, so the authorities think there’s a “sleeper” agent. Our hero’s a psych guy who can supposedly use his skills to ferret out the mole.

The story’s about one run, during which everyone is paranoid and suspicious of everyone else. There are multiple sabotage events, a murder, enemy subs tracking them, and all sorts of life-threatening mechanical problems they have to solve.

Unfortunately, it’s more technical than interesting, and the mole aspect is just confusing. It’s hard to keep the various characters straight. The conclusion is unusual, though the sleeper agent aspect is a letdown. All-in-all, it’s easy to see why this is a forgettable Herbert novel.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Jun 28, 2015

: The Enemy

Author: Lee Child

This is another Jack Reacher book, more recent, but it’s a prequel, set back in the first day of 1990 while Reacher was still in the army and his brother and mother were alive. That’s rather cool.

Unfortunately, the plot is… unsatisfying. The story involves an army conspiracy, but Reacher’s not in a position of great power, so he’s forced to wade through a ton of government bureaucracy. We see hints of classic Reacher personality as he cuts through some of the red tape, but not nearly enough of it (as his “just do it” attitude in the other books is what makes him such an awesome character). A huge part of the book is us learning about how the army works, which, while interesting, isn’t drama.

A side effect of this plot — which involves several murders happening and Reacher investigating — is that be don’t learn what’s going on until the very end. Worse, nothing at all connects until about the 80% mark, which means for the majority of the book we don’t have a clue what’s going on, who the bad guys are, or where the story is going. That makes it a bit of a slog. It’s still interesting with side storylines and personal stuff, but the main plot feels almost like an afterthought.

Things do tie together in the end, though the whole thing is a stretch and a rather strange conspiracy, but I wouldn’t put this up there as my favorite Jack Reacher novel by any means. I do like the series and plan to read more, though.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Jun 01, 2015

: Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire

Author: Ruth Downie

Strange book. It mixes genres in a way that’s both intriguing and incomplete. For instance, despite its historical setting, it’s not really a historical novel, and the bulk of the story seems to be a mystery, with our hero, a Roman physician (Medicus), acting as a detective, searching for who has been killing several prostitutes.

The problem is that he’s a terrible detective, the mystery takes forever to solve, and in the end seems to be resolved on its own, not by anything he did in particular. It’s also not a mystery the reader is very interested in solving, since the dead girls are already dead at the start of the novel and no one we knew and cared about. Their deaths also seem trivial in light of life in Roman times, where much worse things are happening all the time.

Most of the book is about the man’s financial problems as he juggles debts, and his rebellious new slave girl, Tilla, who keeps running off on her own and disobeying him. I really didn’t care about his finances, and there really was very little about his supposed medical skills.

Also, the tone of the book is very modern. Except for a few bits of Roman jargon and some missing technology, it could have set today. Some aspects of Roman life portrayed surprised me, such as the detailed ledgers and accounting books that were kept, and how a doctor’s pay was calculated and distributed (with deductions that sound remarkably like the way it works today). I would have liked more of an explanation for that kind of thing (the same goes for the medical practices, which aren’t explained at all).

But a bigger issue is that the main character has such modern sensibilities that the whole novel feels preachy and forced. There’s no explanation for the man’s beliefs, no reason he should be that way, or defense of him being that way. He’s basically considered normal except that he doesn’t think like any of the other Romans. For instance, he seems to think slavery is bad, despite being an upper class citizen in a society dependent upon slave labor. I’m find with him being anti-slavery — but for his character to be complete, we need to understand what makes him that other. Since we’re not told that, he feels out of place, as though he’s a time traveler from our day.

Ultimately, the novel’s mildly interesting, but the “mystery” is both weak and too convoluted, and the story rambles all over without any real focus. The author has potential, but this definitely feels like a first try.

Topic: [/book]


Thu, May 28, 2015

: Killing Floor

Author: Lee Child

This is the first Jack Reacher book and it’s excellent. The actual mystery isn’t that mysterious (the big reveal at the end I predicted the moment I read that the conspiracy was about counterfeiting), but the way it’s presented is so good that doesn’t really matter.

The basic story is that Reacher’s a loner, out of the army after decades of service and growing up an army brat. He doesn’t have a job or a place to live, but just wanders. Thus he’s an easy suspect for a murder when he happens to pass through a tiny Georgia town and ends up stumbling into a massive conspiracy. It really sets up the one-guy-agains-the-world scenario, but Reacher’s such an awesome fighter (he was in the Military Police, so the bad guys he hunted there were trained killers, meaning he had to be even better trained) he just ruthlessly gets by anyone who stands in his way.

One aspect of that I liked is that the author doesn’t try and cripple Reacher in any way. A lot of authors are afraid of making their hero too heroic and therefore unrealistic, so they limit the guy. Reacher’s just deadly and there is no apology or limitation. It isn’t always easy for him — he’s not superhuman — but at least he’s not artificially limited.

The book’s excellently written, where we really get into the mind of the main character and understand how he does what he does, and the story’s interesting. I’ll definitely be reading more in this series!

Topic: [/book]


Sat, May 02, 2015

: Childhood’s End

Author: Arthur C. Clarke

Intriguing classic science fiction from Clarke. The premise is that an advanced alien race arrives on earth and brings in an era of peace. All weapons and war are eliminated, hunger is cured, no one has to work, etc. It’s nirvana.

Or is it? The expectation is that the aliens have some sort of nefarious agenda, but Clarke goes another direction. I can’t explain without giving away the novel’s secret, but let’s just say it’s unusual and involves the human race’s next evolution.

It’s a fascinating idea, though quite out-there. I don’t really buy it, but the novel’s worth reading just for the concept. It’ll make you think and that’s rarely a bad thing.

Topic: [/book]


Tue, Apr 28, 2015

: Hard Magic

Author: Larry Correia

This is a surprisingly excellent novel. It’s the first in the “Grimnoir Chronicles” and is set back in the 1950s in an alternative history in which magic exists. The idea is that back in the mid-1800s people started being born with magical abilities. At first it was just a few people, but then more and more, and now there are thousands. The novel opens each chapter with a quotation, often from famous historical figures such as Albert Einstein, talking about magic. The presence of magic, of course, has thrown society off course, so this world is quite different from our own.

The tone of the story is very much 1950’s pulp crime novel, but with magical abilities. I love the way magic is portrayed: people generally only have a single ability — such as the ability to heal, control fire, effect gravity, or teleport — but within the confines of that skill they can do some amazing things. The magical battles we encounter are truly exciting and different. There’s also a very deadly edge to everything, as people are severely injured and do die: this isn’t a Mary Poppins world.

The author’s done a lot of serious thinking about the consequences of magic and it shows in subtle details. For instance, one of the key characters is a young orphan girl who has the ability to teleport (she’s a “traveler”). This sounds harmless, but very few travelers make it past puberty: it’s far too easy to teleport yourself into a tree or wall before you’ve learned to master the craft. Even just moving to a place a few feet away is difficult, as the girl learns she has to make herself appear a few inches above the field lest she materialize with grass literally growing through her feet. In one scene she ends up with a living beetle in her heel: it just happened to be in the place she transported to and got embedded inside her. Ouch!

What really impressed me is that though I was perfectly willing to accept as this magic as merely a setting for this world, the author actually comes up with a scientific explanation for why this magic exists. It’s a key part of the plot that’s revealed in the story’s climax. And it actually makes plausible sense!

The story itself is about the battle between good and evil, and it’s really well done with a terrific, satisfying conclusion. Thus we end up with a great story in a fresh setting: a winner all around. I can’t wait to read more in this series!

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Apr 10, 2015

: Exoskeleton

Author: Shane Stadler

Very strange book. I’m not sure how I ended up with it, but it was not at all what I expected. I assumed from the title it was some sort of science-fiction story involving exoskeleton technology and someone would be doing cool, superhuman feats. It’s nothing like that.

Instead, this book is about torture. And not the good kind. The main character is convicted of a crime and chooses one year in an experimental “accelerated punishment program” instead of twenty-five years in prison. He’s then installed inside an exoskeleton which tortures him every day, taking him to the brink of death but using the exoskeleton’s tight connection with his body to just keep him alive and then repair him after his ordeal so he’ll be ready for more the next day.

Thus about 65 percent of this book is ready about a trapped guy having dental surgery without anesthesia, having his limbs stretched and bent the wrong way, and so on. All in excruciating detail. Literally.

There is sort of an absurd point to all this. I won’t spoil it by revealing it, but let’s just say it’s really out there, involving a government conspiracy, Nazis, and the supernatural.

Yeah. I’ve no idea what genre this book falls under — it’s some sort of bizarre scifi/horror/paranormal category.

In short, the book is an extremely unpleasant read, it makes no sense, and the twist is so ridiculous it’s just silly. I’m baffled at how this even got published, let alone why it’s getting good ratings on Amazon.

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Tue, Mar 17, 2015

: Android’s Dream

Author: John Scalzi

What a crazy novel! It begins with the assassination of an alien via farting during a peace negotiation, and then things get odd. The plot has something to do with a custom breed of blue-haired sheep called Android’s Dream that’s key to preventing a war, but I won’t say more than that because it’s really impossible to explain anything about the story without a lot of detail that would spoil everything.

Just understand that while the book is hilarious and absurd, it’s extremely clever and doesn’t take any cheap shortcuts. (It’s actually plausible in terms of science.) Reminds me a lot of the HItchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. Two thumbs up.

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Tue, Jan 27, 2015

: Twelve Red Herrings

Author: Jeffrey Archer

I’ve never read Jeffrey Archer and I think I thought these were mystery stories, but they turned out to be simply little quirky things, sometimes about crime, but often about ordinary life. Not bad, but nothing truly remarkable. My favorite was one in which a guy meets a beautiful woman and it had four different endings, ranging from him getting the girl to not getting her. Quite fun.

I did really enjoy the short story format — it’s been years since I’ve read short stories and I need to get back into writing them.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Jan 18, 2015


Author: Warren Meyer

An interesting book. I discovered the author after reading a free story of his on Amazon, and there were some positive comments about his novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite have the right idea of what it was from the description. The idea sounded neat: something about a company that invents a way to market coolness to teens. The reality is a lot more prosaic, however, as the novel isn’t something innovative but descends into a mere trivial thriller with murder and mayhem.

That said, it’s still a pretty good read, and I would have had a lot more fun if my expectations hadn’t been so high. I was anticipating something intellectual and the book hinted at a lot of that. There’s a really cool character of a certain rich guy who seems to be able to see money-making ideas in unusual places. For instance, he notices people throwing coins in a mall fountain and wonders who gets the money. He talks to the mall owners and finds out they donate the coins to charity. So he creates a company that gives fountains to malls and other locations, and offers free lifetime maintenance… in exchange for keeping all the coins. It turns out to be quite profitable.

There’s also a shady underground organization which controls a media empire and has hooks into senators in Washington and a powerful attorney. The three of them help each other out. The media can make the politician look good, while the attorney sues the politician and media guy’s enemies. They decide that BMOC (Big Man On Campus), the rich guy’s new radical company to sell coolness to teens, will ruin the media business, since that’s basically what they do in a less direct manner. So they organize a plot to ruin him. They murder a teen and make it look like suicide, with her note blaming BMOC.

Everything up to this point is excellent: great characters, interesting conspiracies, and a terrific plot. Then everything just becomes a bit of an action farce, with shootouts and chases and an ending that’s far too wimpy. That’s disappointing, as the first 70% of the book was outstanding. The book’s also slightly hampered by a few amateurish typos and glaring errors (such as using “site” when he means “sight”), but then it was only a $1 in Kindle format. It’s still a fun read, and even the weak ending is fairly exciting.

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Mon, Dec 22, 2014

: The Martian

Author: Andy Weir

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It tells the story of a NASA astronaut who gets stranded on Mars.

This is written with modern-day technology in mind, not magic or future science, so the problems the astronaut faces are truly insurmountable. He’s millions of miles from Earth and missions to Mars take years to plan and execute. He’s only got a limited amount of food, but will have to live for at least four years before he could possibly be rescued. It’s basically a cross between Apollo 13 and Gravity — except his odds of survival are even lower.

Though the novel is extremely realistic with details on math, chemistry, botany, engineering, and other sciences the astronaut has to master to survive, I was impressed both in the elegance of the explanations and how they aren’t boring in the least. That’s because they’re so crucial to the story — like when the guy has to extract hydrogen from jet fuel to make water. It’s just amazing.

The book sounds like it could be a depressing and overly dramatic novel, but what makes it work is that it’s written in first person from the astronaut’s viewpoint and he is absolutely hilarious. He writes with snark and self-effacing wit and makes the most awe-inspiring tragedies seem like ordinary obstacles.

For example, in one sequence after his supplies are running dangerously low, he writes: “Today I had Nothin’ tea. Nothin’ tea is easy to make. Just take hot water and add nothin’.” This upbeat attitude makes his circumstances bearable for us.

This is just a terrific tale of remarkable survival and the fact that it’s fiction does not lessen its drama in the least. It’s a fast, fun read, and I highly recommend it.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Dec 17, 2014

: Fahrenheit 451

Author: Ray Bradbury

I haven’t read this since high school. I thought I didn’t remember much beyond it’s about book-burning, but I was really surprised at how much I did remember. There were little futuristic touches — like billboards hundreds of feet long because cars zoom by so fast — that I hadn’t remembered came from this book.

But what really impressed me is the quality of the writing. It’s been a while since I’ve read Bradbury. I’m a big fan, certainly, but I mostly remember reading his stuff for the stories. With this book I was struck by how masterful a writer he is (was). The descriptions, pacing, and artful way he tells a simple story is just brilliant. It’s no wonder this is a classic.

Another thing that I noticed is how prescient the book is — the book-banning in the novel was not caused by a dictatorship or evil plot, but simply out of convenience to keep the mobs satiated. It developed gradually over a hundred years of publishing fluff and nonsense, where people read less and less and focused more on mindless entertainment via TV. That’s really the core of Fahrenheit 451: it’s an attack on stupidity. Reading it now, it sounds like a diatribe against reality TV and 200-word “articles” on Internet sites! So scary that a book written 60 years ago would describe today’s world so accurately.

Topic: [/book]


: Mr. Monk On the Road

This is one is weak on mysteries and focuses more on the relationship between Monk and his brother, Ambrose. It’s Ambrose’s birthday and as a present, Mr. Monk has the far-fetched idea of renting an RV and taking his brother out on the road (since Ambrose hasn’t left his house in 30 years).

It’s definitely well-done and I did enjoy reading about familiar places I’ve been (like Santa Cruz), but in the end it’s not a very satisfying Monk book. Sure, he finds some murders and solves them, but they’re minor, and the resolution isn’t that great. I like the Ambrose character, but this book just didn’t work as Monk book for me.

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Thu, Dec 04, 2014

: Mr. Monk is Cleaned Out

I remember when I got this I wasn’t too excited: the premise sounded too depressing. Basically Monk loses everything in a Ponzi scheme, so 80% of the book is him and Natalie struggling for money. Yeah, lots of fun. They get low-end jobs and are promptly fired when Monk is Monk (i.e. telling pizza restaurant patrons they’re all going to die because they’re eating with their hands). Only mildly amusing.

Fortunately, there are a couple of “impossible” murders for Monk to solve, and though those aren’t impossible to figure out, they are clever and well-done.

Overall, this is a below-average Monk book: limited humor, only a handful of mysteries, and a rather depressing economic situation. But that still is better than most books and if you’re a Monk fan, it’s not a bad read.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Dec 03, 2014

: Mr. Monk on the Couch

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a Mr. Monk book. They’re usually great, but because they each have to be written as somewhat standalone books, they get rather repetitive when you read several in a row as the whole Monk premise (a severely obsessive-compulsive detective) and I got rather burned out on them.

This was a delightful way to get back into it. I loved that the book is full of tons of little mysteries he solves while the big murder mystery continues in the background. In this one the big mystery was predictable (several murders that turned out to be related), but it didn’t bother me as it was an entertaining read. As always, it’s full of terrific humor and Monk insanity. One of the better Monk books.

(I still can’t believe they canceled the TV show. I miss it so much! But at least there appears to be a slew of new Monk books for me to check out.)

Topic: [/book]


Thu, Nov 13, 2014

: The Scarecrow

Author: Michael Connelly

Apparently this is a sequel to a previous book, The Poet, that I hadn’t read. That’s not a big deal as this one happens ten years later. In that one our journalist hero tracked down a serial killer and it made his career. In this one he’s a victim of the fall of the newspaper industry and is being downsized. He’s got two weeks left and in those few days, he uncovers the biggest scoop of his career.

Random women are being murdered and left in the trucks of cars, but the murderer is a technical genius who is incredibly careful to not leave any clues and to vary his crimes so that no one even realizes it’s a serial killing. He always sets up a patsy to take the fall.

What I liked about this is that how our journalist uncovers this truth is believable and not forced. He’s soon on the trail of an unknown subject, while at the same time, the hacker already knows he’s being stalked and is hunting the hunter. The result is a cool cat-and-mouse game with some thrilling suspense.

The book’s a few years old (2009), so some of the tech is dated, but it’s surprisingly realistically done. The ending is a little anticlimactic, with Connelly trying too hard to be unpredictable, but it’s still a fun read and above average. Recommended.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Oct 03, 2014

: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

Author: Steig Larsson

This is the third book in the Millennium trilogy. It picks up right where The Girl Who Played With Fire left off, dealing with the aftermath of Lisbeth being sought and caught for murders she didn’t commit. We also continue to explore the conspiracy that was revealed in the second book, and we learn a lot of Lisbeth’s history which helps make the entire series make more sense.

In this one, the main plot involves preparation for Lisbeth’s trial and her defense, with many friends coming to her aid, while enemies plot to convict her. I really enjoyed this, particularly with how Lisbeth, despite being confined to a hospital and under guard, is able to do her computer hacking and help stop bad people. I also like that this finally concludes all the storylines and is a satisfying finish to the series.

(I hear that Larsson left behind a half-finished fourth novel and plans for more, and those might be written by a ghost writer. I’m not sure I’m too excited about that, but that mainly depends on how complete his notes were.)

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Aug 08, 2014

: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Author: Steig Larsson

I finally got around to reading the second in the trilogy that started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was a bit of a slog — Larsson is ridiculously detailed — and it took me until halfway through to really figure out where it was going, but in the end it was fascinating with a pretty terrific plot.

The basic idea is that it picks up about a year after the first book, with Lisbeth off roaming the world with her new money. She and Mikael have broken contact (her choice, because she’s fallen for him), and while he gets involved in a new mystery involving the sex trade, she seems to have nothing to do with the story. When she returns to Sweden she finds herself in the middle of his mess, and ends up framed for murder and on the run. It all seems far-fetched and odd, too full of coincidence, but in the end, when everything is explained, it does make shockingly good sense.

Overall, two thumbs up. I finished this one and went right into the third book, which I’m reading now. That should tell you something.

Topic: [/book]


Tue, Mar 25, 2014

: The Ice Limit

Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

I really knew little of what to expect, but I really enjoyed this adventure tale. The story involves the quest to retrieve the largest meteorite every discovered, and is mostly about the massive engineering operation in a remote location at the bottom of the world, mixed in with mysteries surrounding the giant orb. Though some of the events are far-fetched, it still made for a great story.

But what I most enjoyed was the fascinating character of the leader of expedition, a man who predicts every possible outcome and always has a backup plan. He has never failed. When the meteorite proves unpredictable, it was awesome to see the two square off.

The ending has a nice twice that’s plausible and ominous. Good fun with a lot of intriguing science.

Topic: [/book]


Thu, Jan 23, 2014

: Innocent

Author: Scott Turow

This is a follow-up to Turow’s classic Presumed Innocent, about a lawyer having an affair being tried for murder when his mistress ends up dead. This story is set some twenty years later with the main character now an appellate judge about to be appointed to the state supreme court. He’s remarkably stayed married to his wife from the first book, but their marriage is very troubled: she’s got mental problems and he stays with her out of guilt for his first affair. Then he gets really stupid and has another affair. This time it’s his wife who dies in a questionable manner, and the same prosecutor that fought him in the first book, is back to nail him again.

Overall, it’s a good story: the plot isn’t exactly innovative, but the way the trial is handled is interesting and dramatic, with tiny details the key. The ending is too long and goes all over the place, but it does wrap up all the loose ends nicely.

I found it hard to get into the story at first because the book is all first-person, but each chapter is told by a different character, and the chapters jump throughout time. So the prologue is “present day” while other chapters flash back to before the trial and during the trial. That made it very confusing, particularly with the audiobook where I couldn’t look back to compare the dates. I couldn’t figure out which character was which and since the voices were all by the same reader, it was confusing. Eventually this problem settled down and went away, but it was a rough beginning.

In the end, it’s a capable sequel. It was fun seeing how characters had aged, and the implausibility of the same guy making the same mistake twice is handled about as well as it could be (he himself marvels at his own stupidity). I did find it weak in terms of those characters — even though they’re first person narratives and we’re supposedly in the heads of people, because of the nature of a suspense novel, some info had to be withheld which made it difficult to really understand who these people are. There was a lot of more telling rather than showing. Still, it’s an interesting book, though I suspect that people who haven’t read the first book (or seen the movie) won’t be nearly as entertained.

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Tue, Dec 17, 2013

: A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One

Author: George R.R. Martin

I’ve been curious about this since the series first launched on HBO and I got to see the first episode for free, but I wanted to read the book before watching the series. It’s taken a while. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for months! It just goes on and on and on and on. It’s not uninteresting at all, but it’s such a mammoth tale that it feels like there is no conclusion.

It’s a difficult book/series to describe. It’s a fantasy like Lord of the Rings but in a more Medieval setting, with knights and kings, battles and betrayals, and plenty of blood and sex. There’s magic and supernatural stuff, but in this first book that’s mostly only hinted at (I suspect that more is coming later in the series). It’s basically a sprawling epic with thousands of characters (and this is just the first book).

To give you a brief overview of the myriad characters we have three basic groups of people:

  • Queen Lanister, her son and twin brother, and her other relatives and friends, who are trying to take over the throne.
  • Lord Ned Stark and his many children (ranging in age from 9 to 15), who rule the wintery land of the North. He’s been asked by his old friend, the King, to become the King’s “Hand” (his right-hand man) after the previous Hand died (we later learn it was murder).
  • A brother and his thirteen-year-old sister who are distant exile, the last of their line, and apparently the original heirs to the throne who were defeated. As the novel starts the brother sells his sister to be the wife of a wealthy savage (he has 100,000 men on horses) in exchange for an army that he will lead to defeat the current king and regain his family’s throne.

What works is the awesome level of detail and vivid world history in the story. The characters are all three-dimensional and the verisimilitude of the setting is amazing. There’s eons of history to draw from, multiple cultures with their own traditions and languages, and very real conflicts. The writing is excellent, and the plots are as intricate and fascinating as spiderwebs.

The main flaw I note is the one that nagged me throughout this book, and sadly, even after I finally finished it: the question of why. Why was this written? What is the point? What am I supposed to get out of it? Is this mere entertainment or is there a higher purpose?

While it’s wonderful to have such well-rounded and non-black-and-white characters, this series does not really give us clearcut heroes. Pretty much everyone is somewhat evil or at least it seems that way. I suppose that’s more like real-life, but it makes for depressing reading. There’s no one really to cheer or root for, and I really have no idea where the series is going (and in a way, nor do I much care since I can’t cheer for any particular character). There are people in the stories that I like and admire, and there are some that are wonderfully bad, and most of the characters are very interesting — but there’s really nothing here for me to sink my teeth and say, “Ah ha! This is who the story is about.”

Now it’s very possible that the story is just so massive (we’re up to five huge books now, out of a planned seven) that such a core character will be revealed later in the series, but I’m sure I don’t have the patience for that. While I like complexity and realism, there is a limit. This book left me dead inside. While it is fascinating and entertaining, and I’m curious what will happen to the various people, I just don’t care enough about anything. The world the story is set in is distant and strange, and I’m honestly not even sure if these people are human. They’re violent, nasty, and cruel, and the world they live in is violent, nasty, and cruel. There are wars and beheadings and maimings and rapes and murders and very little in the way of anything nice. There are some innocent children in the story, but they don’t stay that way for long in such an environment.

Ultimately the questions I had when I started reading this are still unanswered. Why was this written? What am I supposed to get out of it? It is mere entertainment? At least with a traditional good-versus-evil story we know who to root for and why. This is just nasty people stabbing equally nasty people in the back.

Now I do like the way the book sets things up for the future: we’ve got a lord with a bunch of children that each are having their own adventures, and I’m fascinated to watch them grow up and see what becomes of them. But that’s the big picture. Judging this book by itself, it’s woefully incomplete despite being a zillion pages long.

That said, I have started watching the TV series and while I see some differences — plot points condensed, new scenes written to give us information in a different way, and typical arbitrary changes for unknown reasons — I am enjoying the TV version far more than the book. It moves at a faster pace and yet it’s more understandable. The book is so vast with so many characters that I have trouble keeping track of who is related to who and what the relationships are, especially when certain people go for hundreds of pages without a mention, while the TV series makes that much more clear.

I’m glad I read the book, but I don’t recommend it except for the most avid readers. For most people the TV show is far more accessible. I basically could have watched all 30+ hours of the three years of the TV show in the time to took me to listen to this one book! So watch the show — I really like it — and if you’re infatuated with this world you can always explore the books later.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Nov 23, 2013

: Solo: A Memoir of Hope

Author: Hope Solo (and Ann Killan)

I’m not usually much into biographies, so I was surprised at how much this one captivated me. I read it within a 24-hour period. I couldn’t put it down.

I’m a huge soccer fan and I love Hope Solo, the goalkeeper for the U.S. Women’s National Team. I’ve followed her career but didn’t know much about her past. This book is an incredibly intimate look at her trouble life.

Hope’s always been outspoken and frank, and this book is no different. She unflinchingly talks about her father’s criminal life and bizarre behavior, her dysfunctional family life, her own sometimes inappropriate lifestyle, the 2007 World Cup controversy where she was suddenly benched before the big semi-final with Brazil — a game the USA lost horribly — and where her critical post-match comments ostracized her from her teammates who felt betrayed, as well as the tremendous triumphs of winning Gold medals in the Olympics and World Cup.

The story of Hope’s childhood and family I found very moving. The love-hate relationship she had with her father is heart-breaking. On the one hand, he could be a great dad at times, but other times he betrayed Hope’s mother, was incredibly unreliable, and committed crimes. One of my favorite scenes is a tiny one: Hope writing about how ashamed she was when she saw her father stealing coins from Hope’s friend’s car when given a ride (he was homeless at the time). So sad and tragic.

Yet despite everything, Hope managed to keep her family somewhat together, and she and her father eventually had a good relationship — right before he suddenly died. I’d heard bits and pieces of that story in the media but hadn’t realized what a profound story it was: Hope had sought a relationship with her missing dad her whole life and just as she finally got it and he was getting his own life together, he’s taken away. Worse, that happened just before a major tournament where Hope needed to be focused.

Another part I really liked about this book was learning about all the behind-the-scenes of the women’s soccer team. I had known there was some bad blood, but hadn’t realized just how bad it was (or who was on which side). While Hope clearly presents her own views of the situations, she does so in a way that doesn’t feel phony as though she’s attempting to rewrite history to paint herself in a more favorable light. She seems willing to admit when she’s wrong and when she makes mistakes (goalkeepers have to be good at that) and her perspective feels genuine. That’s impressive.

It was also fun reliving the highs and lows of various tournaments. I had not realized just how badly Hope was injured prior to the 2011 World Cup and the amount of physical therapy and medical treatments she had to undergo just to play.

There are some negative things you learn about her in the book: it’s easy to put our athletes up on a pedestal (especially clean-cut female athletes) and think of them as angels, so it can be troubling having that view shattered. For example, most of the sounds bites we hear are censored (or at least carefully selected), so it can be a shock to see that Hope — and others - use a lot more profanity than is necessary.

Still, that’s a core theme of the book: Hope is basically giving a big middle finger to whoever wants to judge her. While she seems to accept the burden of being an idol, she doesn’t want the pressure of living up to that impossible standard to break or change her.

Ultimately, this is a fantastic book. It’s incredibly well-written and almost disturbingly honest. It’s definitely worth the read if you’re into soccer or the women’s national team. I came away with a much deeper understanding and a deeper appreciation of Solo as an athlete, and as a person.

Topic: [/book]