Tue, Nov 19, 2013

: Ender’s Game

What a beautiful novel.

It’s been a long time since I read it and I loved it even more this time around. It’s a novel that speaks to me as though it was written specifically to me. It’s a bit scary in that sense. I feel like I understand the character of Ender better than a brother — better than myself.

I was a lot like Ender as a kid. Older than my years, understanding things adults didn’t know I did, and that knowledge complicating my relationships with others and alienating me from my peers. Like Ender, I didn’t really fit in with anyone.

Of course, that’s only a fraction of what the novel is about. It’s also about war and xenocide, the nature of humanity, fate, religion, and much, much more. What I love is that despite such complex topics at its core, the novel approaches them via a simple story (in terms of plot). Ender’s just a little boy, bred to be a strategic genius, with the humble mission of saving all of humanity.

It’s brilliant. If he was an adult, our perspective of everything he does would be completely different, but since he’s so young, we’re forced to ask ourselves a million questions about his motivations — and ours. Is he evil? Is he innocent? Are his actions justified or is there blood on his hands?

Let’s cut to the chase: the book’s a must-read. Not just for those into science fiction, but everyone. If you’re a human being, you need to read the book. It’s that simple. It will change you, make you realize what being human means, and the world will be a better place with you in it after that.

(And if you’re not a human, then you still need to read it to help you understand us.)

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Aug 23, 2013

: First Family

Author: David Baldacci

This is a strange book. I can’t say I really liked it. There are two problems with it. First, it’s basically split into two plots that have no relation at all. In the main plot, which is the interesting one, the First Lady’s niece has been kidnapped. In the second plot, our two heros, former Secret Service agents turned private detectives, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, return to Michelle’s hometime because her mother has died and, of course, it turns out to be murder. I really didn’t care about the second storyline at all — it was too convenient having her mother murdered and she being a private eye, and the resolution of that story with all the family drama was terribly tedious and uninteresting and melodramatic.

The second big problem is that the reason for the kidnapping is saved as the big reveal until the very end of the book. Now that reason is actually interesting and quite dramatic, but it takes us 500 pages of boredom to get there. Instead, we must wallow through pages of inept mystery, tedium where shady people are doing mysterious things and every conversation is obtuse with all the key details carefully omitted so that the author can save the secret until the very end.

What’s really weird is that I didn’t realize this book was part of a series, nor that the new TV series King and Maxwell is based on these books, until I started in on this book and thought I was losing my mind! I’d just started watching the TV show and was freaking out a little at the similarities until I realized what was going on. The sad part is that I like the TV series much better: the characters have a repartee and distinct personalities. In this book, these two could have been anybody.

Worse, much of the “drama” of the detectives is based on their vague history and personal stories, which I didn’t know and didn’t really care about. To give you one example, the book opens with a dramatic burglary as Michelle breaks into her psychiatrist’s office and steals all her files. Then she throws them away without looking at them. As the reader, we’re left baffled. I don’t even realize that this woman is our main private detective hero, so I don’t know what’s going on. There’s mystery there, but it’s not interesting: just the author withholding information. And he does it badly: the files aren’t mentioned again until almost the last page of the novel!

The bottom line is that the whole novel is a mess of vague happenings, like watching people doing stuff from a mile away in the dark. You know something is going on, and it might be significant and interesting, but you can’t even see enough to know that. Sure, there are a few cool scenes, and I liked some aspects of the search for the kidnapped niece, and our head bad guy was also an unusual character, but because so much info is withheld we really can’t know anybody in the story: everyone is a mystery. The result is we don’t care about anyone or anything, and when you finally get to the end, the feeling is one of “Oh well, so that’s it.” A superior way to write this is to make the reader think they have all the info, and only reveal more at the end. Doing it this way is just cruel and unusual punishment.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Jun 23, 2013

: The Fifth Witness

Author: Michael Connelly

This is another in Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer series. I haven’t read any of the books, but I did see and liked the movie.

I also liked this book. It involves the same lawyer character, this time branching out into the foreclosure business because of the tanking economy (no one has money for lawyers). When one of his clients is arrested for murdering the banker foreclosing on her home, he takes on her legal defense.

It’s an interesting case, with mostly circumstantial evidence, but the lawyer’s got a stiff task trying to prove reasonable doubt. There’s a lot of mystery as too might have really done the murder and why. I was hooked throughout and loved the step-by-step detail of the courtroom process.

Unfortunately, the ending tries to be a little too clever. It’s not bad; it’s just too convenient and not especially believable (some aspects aren’t explained and I had more questions than answers). But the earlier parts of the book were so good that this weak ending doesn’t ruin the book at all. It takes the book from an A to a B+, but it’s a good read. I’m thinking I’ll have to get the rest of the books in this series.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Apr 27, 2013

: Citizen of the Galaxy

Author: Robert Heinlein

Fascinating low-key science fiction book from the 1950s. It takes place in the distance future when mankind has spread out among the stars, but it has its roots in the Roman Empire from thousands of years ago. That’s because the story is about slavery.

Yes, that’s right. We begin with a slave auction on a distant world, where a scrawny boy of unknown origin is so worthless that no one wants him, and just to speed up the auction and get to the good merchandise, the boy is sold for pennies to a one-legged beggar.

But it’s soon revealed that the beggar is more than he seems. He raises the boy as his own son, teaching him math, science, and languages, and operating in mysterious ways, spying on space ships that visit the planet for reasons unknown.

Eventually the boy makes it off the planet, adopted into a new family, and later discovers his origins and learns he’s the most valuable man in the universe.

I was slightly disappointed with the ending of the book, which doesn’t really end as much as grind to a halt, but the process of getting there was infinitely enjoyable and fascinating. The romantic idea of a low person being made high is as classic as it gets, full of irony and magic. I also loved the way Heinlein delves deep into foreign cultures and other worlds. The book’s slightly dated today, more than 50 years after it was written, but not much, which is remarkable in itself. Definitely worth the read.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Mar 29, 2013

: Dream Park

Authors: Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

This is a fairly old book — originally published in 1981 — and it some ways it’s remarkable and holds up quite well, while other parts feel oddly dated. Set in the future in a high-tech amusement park called “Dream Park,” which is a little bit like Star Trek’s holodeck except more mechanical, players play games that are very similar to today’s RPGs (role-playing games).

The game concept is actually very neat. For example, the cast is partially made up of actors who play various roles defined by the gamemaster, and swords have holographic blades so that players are not injured for real (the computer indicates injuries via a player’s colored “aura”). There are rules so that the game itself must be winnable (the gamemaster can’t put players into impossible situations), and players (and the gamemaster) win gaming points for the successful completion of tasks. Note that this isn’t a video game: players actually hike and camp out and fight monsters and whatnot, and after several days in such an immersive environment, it’s difficult to not believe the game is real.

Layered onto this story about a game in progress, we have a murder mystery. Unfortunately, our authors are not good mystery writers and it shows. The murder is strange (and not very interesting — one of the park’s security guards shows up dead), and Dream Park’s reaction is even weirder: instead of calling the police, they send their head of security into the game as a player to figure out which one of the players sneaked away from the game and killed the guard and stole some top secret Dream Park tech. Apparently stopping the game would be incredibly expensive, as well as a publicity problem, so sending in a spy seems to be better approach.

However, once our hero gets into the game, there’s very little about the murder investigation. The story is mostly about the game (which is important, since if the security guy gets “killed” in the game, the jig would be up and the game would have to be halted), but what intrigued me about the story (the double agent aspect) isn’t very significant for too much of the novel. Worse, the resolution of the murder is weak and not very satisfying. If this was strictly murder mystery and not sci-fi, it would be terrible.

Still, the main aspect of the story is the game, and that’s very well done and quite entertaining. It actually sounds like a fun game I’d be tempted to play. (Far more interesting than today’s video games.) If you read the novel for the game rather than the mystery, you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

Another flaw is that because the game has so many players (and most are suspects in the murder), the novel introduces us to a gazillion characters — the Dream Park personnel, all the gamers, the various people in the adventure game the players play, etc. It’s quite a chore remembering who is who and for large portions of the novel I was very confused and couldn’t figure out what was going on. (The authors exacerbate this problem by frequently referring to characters by their last name for long periods, so that you forget their first name and when that’s used you don’t know who it is, or using character’s nicknames or game names.)

Overall, this is interesting for socio-technological reasons, and not so much as a great novel.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Feb 15, 2013

: Hard Drive

Author: David Pogue

This is a technothriller I got way back in the 1993. Back then Pogue was an editor for Macworld magazine (he’s now world famous as the New York Times’ tech editor) and I read it out of curiosity. It seemed a little like he was just taking advantage of his reputation to make a buck selling a novel, but it’s actually a decent book. (I got mine for free with the purchase of a hard drive from APS — a brilliant marketing gimmick.)

Rereading the book now, two decades later, is quite thrilling. It’s extremely dated — hilariously so. For instance, at one point there’s talk of this thing called the “InterNet” which then was limited to big institutions and government agencies. David also is very focused on Apple computers, detailing them in almost every scene (and since this was back when Apple made about five million different models, there’s plenty of variety). It’s also delightfully refreshing to go back in time and remember what was considered state-of-the-art in 1993. Back then it was bulletin-board systems accessed via modems, everyone exchanged data with floppy disks, 8MB was a massive amount of RAM, and a 250MB (megabyte, not gigabyte) external hard drive was considered monstrous.

I especially liked remembering how much of society has changed since then. There were so many things I forgot about: ordering boxed software via mail order companies that charged $3 for overnight shipping, programmers having to be sure their applications were small enough to fit onto a 770KB floppy disk, user groups, printed software manuals, the power and importance of computer magazines (the fictional PowerMac magazine in the book has a circulation of half a million), etc.

The plot of the novel is so tied with tech that it’s unfortunate, as it really dates the story. It’s about a computer virus. It’s rather ironic, as the Mac is famous today for not having viruses, yet the whole novel’s about a Mac virus that’s going to destroy the world. Also, the spread of the virus back then was much more difficult, and the numbers are hilariously small compared to today. Today a virus can spread via an email and infect millions of computers within hours. Back then, it took weeks for it to spread to thousands of computers and yet the novel makes that seem like it’s potentially the end of the world.

There are also some questionable technical flaws. For instance, a significant part of the novel has the virus spreading from Macs to UNIX systems (thereby harming satellite and air traffic control systems). The way this is done is via some sort of Mac-to-UNIX virtualization software, but that makes no sense at all in spreading a virus as it would require all those other systems to also have the virtualization software. (There’s one sentence where it says something about “converting” the code for UNIX, which could allow a virus to be translated and spread, but elsewhere it’s very specific about it being an “interpreter” which means it’s live, on-the-fly translation, not converting the a Mac app to a UNIX standalone app.)

Even stranger is some basic math errors. A key part of the plot is the software company’s potential takeover by a Japanese conglomerate (this was back in the days when Japan had money and was buying up everything in the U.S.). There’s talk that if they don’t repay the $1.2 million investment by Tuesday, the Japanese company will take ownership of the U.S. software company. Yet the company has just sold 40,000 pre-orders of their exciting new software product… at $799 each! With my math, that’s nearly $32 million in income… more than enough to pay back the Japanese investors. Of course that limits the drama, but still seems like an obvious mistake that isn’t explained in the novel.

All that said, the story’s actually pretty good. It’s surprisingly well-written, and it reads quickly, despite being tech heavy — Pogue is excellent at simplifying the tech and explaining it in ways that non-technical people can understand. I also really liked the graphics: there are lots of Mac screenshots, demonstrating various dialog boxes and error messages, as well as BBS transcriptions, emails, computer magazine advertisements, computer source code, etc.

Too much of the drama is forced (the idea that a virus interferes with a military testing of a missile is just ludicrous), some scenes are cliché, and none of the characters are especially memorable, but Pogue does a great job of establishing the Silicon Valley setting and making the 1993 computing world come alive.

Ultimately, this is a minor novel, sadly so tech-specific it’s too dated to be very good as a story, but fascinating as a glimpse into a world most of us have forgotten. I really liked rereading it. I have no idea how easy it is to get a copy of the book these days, but it’s an enjoyable trip down memory lane and worth the read.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Feb 06, 2013

: Redshirts

Author: John Scalzi

I saw this on Audible and snagged it. All I knew was the title, which is from a joke about the Star Trek franchise where minor crewmen wearing red shirts are always killed off on away missions, and that the book was read by Wil Wheaton, a ST:TNG actor who has something of a cult following.

That gimmicky idea forms the basis of the story, which is about a ship in a Star Trek-like universe in which a disproportionally high number of low-ranking crew members are killed off in bizarre ways on away missions. A new member of the ship finds this trend disturbing, to say the least, since he’s exactly the kind of extra that’s likely to get killed off. He investigates and discovers the absurd truth — that their world is somehow warped in with a twenty-first century TV show. Whatever happens on the show happens to them in real life. So he and his friends go back in time to stop the TV show and save themselves.

This outlandish plot would be silly in any other book, but here it’s brilliant: the conceit is that this is a bad science fiction show, so any bad writing here (e.g. science that violates the laws of physics) is caused by the TV show and therefore makes sense.

The whole novel is hilariously snarky and perfectly delivered by the awesome Wil Wheaton (who does snark better than anyone — I highly recommend the audiobook). It’s just terrific.

But then the novel ends and we have three codas. These are extra stories, sort of a follow-up, if you will, on what happens to certain characters in the aftermath of the events of the novel. For instance, one is an amazing saga about a writer on that crappy scifi show who starts an anonymous blog on the Internet asking for help with his writer’s block because he’s just discovered that everything he writes gets people in the 25th century killed and now he’s too scared to write. This is just awesome; I can’t tell you how well it’s done. It feels like a real blog with real reader comments and this poor writer struggling to figure out his life. (It helps that the writer is snarky and funny, too.)

But what’s amazing about these codas is that they take what’s a very light-hearted and ultimately sort of silly gimmick novel into a place that’s very serious and cerebral. These codas are written as though everything that happened in the novel really happened and suddenly we’re looking at the entire novel in a new light. Instead of silliness, we’re feeling real emotion and genuinely thinking about the ramifications of what happens if a writer’s characters are real people in another space and time and everything the writer writes comes true. Totally awesome, and it makes the gimmick seem much less like a gimmick.

So basically the novel itself gets a solid B — it’s funny, wild, and well-written — but the codas turn the entire thing on its head and bring it up to A+ level. It’s just mind-blowingly good. Recommended.

Topic: [/book]


Tue, Jan 15, 2013

: Black Friday

Author: Alex Kava

I just recent read Exposed, which didn’t impress me much, and this is the next in the series. Like the last one it deals with a terrorist threat — this time a bombing at the Great Mall of America.

Overall it was much more enjoyable as stuff actually happened in the story, but the ending was disappointing as — spoiler alert — the chief bad guy gets away. I’m not sure if Alex is just leaving the door open for a sequel or if the entire point is that such terrorist plots are always built with cutaways and pawns so that the head guy can’t be traced, but as a novel it was unsatisfying. An enjoyable read, but rather light, and the emotional stuff comes across as forced. I still like the author and will continue to read her books as she’s had some really good ones in the past; but these last two feel too much like paint-by-numbers.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Jan 05, 2013

: Exposed

Author: Alex Kava

This is the sixth “Maggie O’Dell” book. I’ve read some in the series but missed a few, and I think that confused me, as this came across as rather odd. Many of the characters felt like they were existing ones in the series, so I wasn’t given much of a back story, and thus I couldn’t really them from the more minor characters. That’s a problem in a mystery, as I was trying to figure out who the bad guy was as I read, and in this particular book it felt like a cheat since the twist at the end is all about someone’s identity and I was completely confused as to who was who already.

The story itself is also painfully simple. Very little happens, really, but it’s stretched out over a whole novel. The plot is basically some guy is mailing the Ebola virus to seemingly random targets all over the country and going to start an epidemic. But our heroine, FBI agent Maggie O’Dell, is potentially invected right away, so she spends the whole novel in quarantine — which is tedious and boring.

It’s still well-written, there are interesting moments, and the identity of the killer isn’t too terrible (though it still felt like it was never properly explained as I was left with a lot of questions), but all-in-all this felt hollow to me. I never really felt like O’Dell was actually in jeopardy, so all her character’s worries about being exposed were meaningless. The bad guy mailing the virus was the most interesting part of the book, except those scenes were carefully written so that they revealed nothing about his identity, which is, of course, saved for the big reveal at the end. Ultimately, not a terrible book, but definitely the weakest Kava I’ve read (and I’m usually a fan).

Topic: [/book]


Tue, Jan 01, 2013

: 11-22-63

Author: Stephen King

I bought this just because I saw it was a new Stephen King book, and I didn’t pay attention to what it was about. It turns out the numbers on the cover were a date I should have recognized if I’d thought about it: the JFK assassination. Of course, if I’d noticed that, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the book, as I’m not a fan of politics or history. That would have been a shame, because I loved this book.

This a very different Stephen King: it’s historical fiction and there’s very little of his traditional horror. While ostensibly the book is about time travel to save Kennedy’s life, that aspect of the book is, in a way, a minor part of the story. The way time travel works in this novel is that the main character finds a “rabbit hole” that takes him back to September 1958 — always the same day. So he can always “reset” everything back to the way it was simply by going back through the hole, but he has no control over time itself. This means that to save Kennedy, he has to wait in 1958 until 1963 rolls around.

Thus the book is mostly about what he does in the meantime. It probably sounds boring, because he gets a job as an English teacher and falls in love — ordinary life stuff. But this works brilliantly for several reasons. One, King’s a terrific writer and his work shines here as he brings the 50s and 60s to life, painting wonderful pictures of a bygone era, and making mundane details seem extraordinary. Second, the man’s mission weighs heavily on every decision he makes, lending an import to the ordinary that makes the reader care about everything that happens. Finally, the story involves shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald and getting a glimpse into history, and while I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, this was mesmerizing. It felt like I was there and like Oswald was a real person.

One aspect of this book that I must point out — if you’re a teacher or know teachers, this is a must-read. It has some of the best stuff I’ve ever read about what a teacher’s life is life and how that teacher, with small gestures, can effect a student’s life. (As a time traveler, our main character is particularly sensitive to the long-term consequences of his actions.) There are several scenes that will have you tearing up and are just jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Though the book is very long at around 30 hours (I’ve been listening to it for months in my car), it’s so compelling you can’t put it down. Several of the smaller “side plots” would make killer short stories or novels themselves. For someone like me who doesn’t like this genre to recommend this should tell you something: I just adored this (and I bought a text copy for re-reading even though I own the audiobook). It’s just wonderful: simple, elegant, and not flashy or gimmicky at all despite the time travel angle.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Nov 24, 2012

: Deliver Us from Evil

Author: David Baldacci

This novel takes a fantastically interesting idea but doesn’t quite deliver on it properly. I found the setup fascinating: a woman is a member of a secret vigilante organization that seeks out evil people and kills them. For instance, she stalks and kills an ancient Nazi in his impenetrable bunker in South America. Another man is an agent for a U.S. covert agency (unnamed) that has carte blanche to find bad guys. So the two are similar, but different, each with a different view of “justice.”

Where the story gets interesting is when both the woman and the man go after the same target and get in each other’s way. They meet and pretend to be romantically interested in each other, but each is suspicious of the other and positive that there’s something else going on. It’s a neat game of cat and mouse, with neither a hundred percent sure if the other’s cover identity is real or phony.

Unfortunately, this game can’t last too long, and once it’s over and the truth about each is revealed, the story gets a lot less interesting. They cooperate to try and get the bad guy (who is really evil and awful), and then the bad guy finds out and goes after them. There’s a whole side tail about a female journalist who had a relationship with the man which I found very confusing. There seemed to be much unsaid about their story, which makes me think they are characters from a previous novel which I haven’t read. The ending is also poor and confusing, leaving more questions than answers, and the relationship between the man and the woman is very unclear. (I’m sure that’s intentional and supposed to be realistic or interesting, but I just found it annoying and bewildering.)

Overall, I’d love to recommend the book more, as it has some fascinating ideas, but the implementation isn’t great and the ending is a downer.

Topic: [/book]


Tue, Sep 04, 2012

: The Problem Child

Author: Michael Buckley

This is the third book in the Sisters Grimm series, and it’s the best so far. It’s got a more complete plot, doesn’t end in the middle of a sentence like the second book, and our children heroes actually do something to help save the day.

I also really liked the moral dilemma our main character (Sabrina) faces: she discovers the addicting power of magic and is lured down a dark road and has to make a key decision at the end as to which path she will take. That is excellent.

I’m still not crazy with some aspects of the story — the Little Red Riding Hood character is unpleasant and bizarre and didn’t make much sense, too much is happening (such as the Mayoral race, which felt superfluous), and too many things work out too conveniently (i.e. bad monster shows up when appropriate and not before) — but overall this is still the best of the three. I’m not sure I like the series enough to bother with subsequent books, however. They are getting better which gives me hope, but I feel like I’ve already wasted enough of my time on them. They’re a great idea, but the implementation is lacking.

Topic: [/book]


Thu, Aug 09, 2012

: The Unusual Suspects

Author: Michael Buckley

I wasn’t that big a fan of the first book in the Sisters Grimm series (about modern day descendants of the Brothers Grimm in a world where their stories were non-fiction), but I still like the concept and therefore I tried this second book. Unfortunately, it has similar flaws as the first one. For instance, the stories are very childish, clearly targeting a young audience, yet they’re filled with death and monsters and other gruesome imagery that I can’t imagine would be very appropriate for young children.

But I’ve narrowed down the chief flaw to the plots: they just don’t make much sense. Though supposedly the girls are fairy-tale “detectives” there can’t be much detecting, since the resolutions always involve strange magic requiring information we don’t have in advance (in other words, these aren’t like regular mystery books where the reader can solve the crime if clever enough). The first book had a weak plot and this one here has a strange one, one that’s really over-the-top and bizarre. (Without spoiling too much, it involves a character who can blow himself up like a nuclear bomb. Yeah, that makes sense.) Another frustrating aspect of these stories is that the main characters do very little to actual solve or resolve the situation. The girls stumble onto crimes (or the bad guy attacks them) and the ending involves another bad guy stopping the really bad guy — our heroines are pretty much useless.

Speaking of the ending, this particular book really gets on my nerves by not actually having an ending. It almost literally stops in the middle of a sentence with a “to be continued” encouraging you to buy the next book. Arghh! While we sort of get the idea that the bad guy has been stopped, even that isn’t completely clear, and the story ends with a setup for the sequel.

None of this means the book is horrible — there are some good moments, wonderful characters, and real quality writing in places. The setting is brilliant and the way fairy tale creatures are blended throughout is genius. But I just wish there were better stories underlying these books. Instead we have a one-gimmick premise with feeble attempts to wrap a “mystery” around it.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Aug 08, 2012

: The Mote in God’s Eye

Authors: Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven

This is one of those classic science fiction stories I’d somehow never managed to read. I am now wondering why it is so famous. It’s not a bad book or anything, but it is slow-moving and not a lot happens. None of the characters are very interesting — they are all stereotypical stick figures — and the story seems like it should be more interesting than it is.

The plot involves first contact with an alien race. While it has a solid-sounding scientific base and some unusual (and cool) ideas, there are many aspects I found too convenient. For instance, one of my pet peeves is how every alien race we encounter in movies and TV shows is humanoid — and most of those races think too much like humans. This sort of does the same thing. Here the aliens are physically somewhat different, but they have arms and eyes and there’s much talk about DNA and other physiological aspects that makes them seem too much like us. I did like that the aliens have a very different culture from us — aspects of which play a key part in the plot — but that culture is not conveyed very well. We learn about it bits and pieces over a long period of time which dilutes a lot of what makes that interesting. And the “dramatic” conclusion, where we learn the real motivations of the aliens, comes out of left field, isn’t very well explained, and feels awkward.

The bottom line is that while I found much of this intriguing and inspiring, the book itself didn’t deliver on that inspiration. The whole idea of “first contact” is fascinating, but it could be done better than this.

Topic: [/book]


Thu, Jun 14, 2012

: The Last Werewolf

Author: Glen Duncan

I really wanted to like this and it seems like the kind of book I would like. It’s not all action but a lot of existential angst, which should have made things deep and thought-provoking. Unfortunately the novel is sluggishly paced and tediously boring, and without context, the philosophizing is just random noise.

For example, our main character’s a 200-year-old werewolf, the last of his kind. He moans and groans about how he killed his wife (I guess we’re supposed to sympathize that he’s such a monster) but since we only know about that event via sketchy flashbacks, there’s zero emotional impact. Eventually I ceased caring about anything.

There is a bit of a plot, eventually, as our hero is being preserved for something by people he doesn’t know for reasons he doesn’t understand, but the payoff of that mystery isn’t that great and it’s not worth hundreds of pages getting there. The very end of the book is actually not bad, with a tiny twist or two and something interesting happening, but by that point my disillusionment with the novel was a foregone conclusion.

There are some interesting moments and a few intriguing ideas, but this is definitely not a book for all tastes. I imagine it’s a love-it-or-hate kind of thing and I didn’t love it.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, May 23, 2012

: The Fairy Tale Detectives

Author: Michael Buckley

I’m a big fan of the TV shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time, which are reinventing fairly tales for a modern audience, and the premise of this series — two little girls who are descendants of the original Grimms and who solve fairy-oriented mysteries — interested me.

We begin with the girls moving in with the grandmother they thought was dead, after a year of wandering in the foster care system after their parents mysteriously vanished. It’s their grandmother who reveals that the Grimm fairly tales are all true and fairy creatures live all over the town. When their grandmother is kidnapped by a 200-foot tall giant, it’s up the girls — ages and seven and twelve — to get her back.

The book is a lot of fun and surprisingly well-written at times, though occasionally it’s clear its target audience is the elementary school kid. It’s not quite as much fun or as well-done as the Harry Potter series, but it is an intriguing idea. My biggest disappointment is that there isn’t much detecting going on. The girls stumble through adventures and while I liked the way they stopped the bad guy and got themselves out of jams, the ending felt anti-climactic. Still, the mix of ancient fairly tale creatures set in modern times is delightful, and I like how the author has created actual characters instead of caricatures of various famous fairy tale people.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, May 05, 2012

: Dexter in the Dark

Author: Jeff Lindsay

This is a very bizarre Dexter book. I did not like it very much at all. It is very long and tedious, mostly dealing with Dexter’s impending nuptials, which isn’t very interesting. Normally what makes the whole Dexter thing work is the fascinating blend of serial killer and normal life. But here the plot is about how Dexter loses his ability to be a serial killer so all we have is the normal life part which is boring.

How does Dexter lose his serial killing ability? Now that’s the real flaw of this book. I hope I’m not spoiling anything by revealing this, but it’s impossible to comment on this book without explaining this aspect of the story. We’ve known about Dexter’s “dark passenger” for a long time. Like most, I just assumed that was a metaphor, and if Dexter actually had an inner person directing him, it was a manifestation of his warped mind.

But this book supposes that the dark passenger is really some sort of immortal demon. We follow this demon throughout the ages as he, apparently, is responsible for human wars and other mass killings, including strange religions such as the ancient worship of Moloch, which practiced human sacrifice. When a head demon comes to town and notices Dexter, his dark passenger disappears for the bulk of the novel. Great. A Dexter story effectively without Dexter.

What I really didn’t like about this aspect of the plot is that it takes away all morality. If Dexter isn’t doing the killing but an inner demon is, then he’s not responsible for his actions. Since the whole key to the Dexter character is the conflict behind the possibility of a “moral serial killer,” that ruins the entire concept.

Another flaw (and perhaps spoiler) is that this novel has Rita’s kids also becoming serial killers with Dexter acting as their mentor and trying to pass on Harry’s code. While that’s an interesting idea, it stretches credulity — if every abused child became a serial killer the world would filled with them. A key trauma in the past makes sense, and Dexter’s history is particularly horrific, but I couldn’t believe that Rita’s sweet kids would go that route.

Perhaps these flaws could be overlooked if the story itself was interesting, but there really isn’t much of a plot, per se. Ritualized murders are happening but Dexter is clueless without his dark passenger to give him insight, so we plod along for hundreds of pages with no progress at all. In the end — and this is a spoiler — the bad guy simply reveals himself with no detective work by Dexter required. How lame is that?

Though I can definitely say I vastly prefer the TV series to the novels (I’m rewatching season one now and it’s fantastic), this novel here pretty much ruins the series for me. I had considered getting a few more of the novels, but I’ve lost that motivation now. If an author can get his core character so wrong, it makes me lose faith in him as a writer. I’ll stick with the TV show where the writers know what they are doing.

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Thu, Mar 22, 2012

: The Hunger Games

Author: Suzanne Collins

I bought this book a year ago in anticipation of reading it before the movie came out, but of course I waited until the last minute to start it. I wasn’t the most enthusiastic, thinking of the comparisons I’d heard to the Twilight franchise. I figured this was going to be a silly teen book.

To my surprise, this is great literature. The premise is wonderfully simple: in a future North America, disrupted by wars and natural disasters, food is scarce and the government totalitarian. Every year each district must randomly select two tributes, a boy and a girl within the ages of 12 to 18, who are sent to a remote wilderness arena where they fight to the death and only one can emerge victorious. The entire process is televised so the whole world can watch, and the wealthy place wagers on the outcome. It’s a reality show like Survivor, only with real consequences and the contestants are children.

Our heroine is Katniss, a 16-year-old girl from the poorest district, who has grown up hungry and learned to survive by illegally hunting in the woods. She faces outlandish odds, considering the richer districts train their children in combat, and no one is likely to sponsor a long shot like her and give her gifts that might help her in the arena.

In a book like this the overall plot is predictable, so the trick is how well the author can convey the tenseness of the situation and make the story entertaining. Collins more than does this. I pretty much read the book in two days. I couldn’t put it down. She creates such wonderful characters and then puts them in such incredible peril with staggering odds that I just had to keep reading. The tension was unbearable.

Often in books like this the resolutions are questionable, and in this case, Katniss needs to defeat 23 other contestants, so I expected somewhat predictable and repetitive battles. Instead, the story surprised me over and over. The ways she conquers and survives are interesting and unexpected, yet always authentic and true to the world and the characters. There are no convenient rescues or easy outs: every win is paid for by great sacrifice or caused by Katniss’ instinctive abilities and naturally good heart. It’s flawless.

There’s also plenty of profound emotion: in places I read with tears streaming down, yet despite my sadness at the loss of wonderful people, I would not change a thing about the story (a sign a great story). The world of the Hunger Games is a harsh place and tragic deaths are necessary or it wouldn’t be realistic.

This is a truly amazing tale, nothing at all like I expected. It is deep, dramatic, and disturbing. It haunts you. You’ll fall in love with Katniss, and you’ll feel her helpless rage at the way her destiny is defined for her by faceless bureaucrats who treat her as nothing more than a worthless pawn.

I can’t wait to see the film. It may not be as good as the book, but I am anxious to see what they did. The book, though, is amazing and well-worth the read. I am so glad I read it before seeing the film. Just make sure you set aside enough time to finish it, as I guarantee you won’t be able to stop reading.

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Fri, Mar 16, 2012

: Dearly Devoted Dexter

Author: Jeff Lindsay

This is book two in the Dexter series. I didn’t like the first book quite as much as the TV series, in part because the story (about the ice truck killer) was familiar. Because this book involved a completely original plot (not something I’d seen on the TV show), I liked it better.

That said, it has a slow start, devoting too many pages to Dexter’s relationship with Rita (mostly involving Dexter whining about how awful this is). Once the plot gets going it gets better, but I still found the pacing a little odd. Dexter’s supposedly helping track down a deranged killer who cuts every body part off his victims and leaves them alive but a vegetable, but Dexter’s not very motivated and there’s little urgency in finding the killer. The ending is good, though a little anticlimactic. Ultimately there isn’t much that happens. Still, it’s interesting reading and Dexter’s style and personality make the book a worthy read if you’re a fan.

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Fri, Mar 02, 2012

: The Woman

Author: Jack Ketchum

Certainly not for all tastes, Ketchum’s horror novel is amazing to me in its brilliant simplicity. The plot is so bare as to almost be nonexistent, yet this is still a mesmerizing novel. I read it through in just a few hours.

Apparently the titular character is a creature from his novel Offspring (which I haven’t read and isn’t needed to understand this book). She’s basically a wild animal who lives in the woods, a savage cannibal who is a hunter and a killer. We constast her with a modern man, a seemingly respectable lawyer with a wife and three children. The question is, who is really the more savage?

The lawyer, while out hunting, sees the wild woman and decides she’d make a great pet, so he captures her and chains her up in his basement and tortures her. Yeah, he’s a really nice dude. Worse, he gets his son and wife to join in on the fun.

I really loved how the novel switches frequently to the wild woman’s point of view and we see the lawyer and his clan from her primitive perspective. While she’s a savage, she’s at least honest and genuine, and no different from say, a wild tiger that has no qualms about eating you (but it’s not personal).

This simple story doesn’t have a huge amount of depth (though there’s more than most throw-away novels), but it’s such an outrageous concept and executed in such a thrilling and entertaining manner that it’s defintely worth reading if you like this sort of thing. I’m impressed.

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Tue, Feb 14, 2012

: Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Author: Jeff Lindsay

I’m a huge fan of the Dexter television show — about a Miami blood spatter analyst who moonlights as a serial killer of serial killers — and decided I wanted to read the novel the show is based upon. I got the audiobook version and have been listening to it for the past couple of weeks.

At first I was surprised by how faithful the show is to the book as much was exactly the same as the first season of the show. But as the book progressed, the show goes a different direction. Usually I go for the book over the adaptation, but in this case I like the show better. The story’s more polished and seems to understand the title character better. Most of the differences are minor, some have to do with condensing the novel into a show, and some have to do with actors and how they portray various characters.

One interesting thing is that I so adore Michael C. Hall’s performance as Dexter and I love his narration that the audiobook felt awkward because it isn’t narrated by him (it was recorded before the show started). The reader just doesn’t capture Dexter’s fascinating quirkiness and dark humor properly. But of course that’s only a flaw of the audio version and it’s a very minor complaint.

Overall, I liked the book, though the ending veers severely away from where the show goes (no spoilers, but the book kills a character that the TV show does not). Very interesting. I prefer the show but I bought another book or two in the series and I’m going to read them and see if it’s worth reading all Dexter novels.

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Sat, Jan 14, 2012

: Foundation

Author: Isaac Azimov

This is a classic bit of science fiction that I’d somehow managed to avoid reading until now. A while back I read part of this book but never finished it. This time I bought the audio version and finished it. It’s very good and holds up surprisingly well even after 60 years.

Its major flaw is also its key gimmick, which is that the book takes place over hundreds of years and covers a lot of fictional history quickly. The premise is that a radical scientist has predicted the fall of the galactic empire thousands of years into the future and set plans in motion to prevent catastrophe. He can’t prevent the fall itself — that is inevitable — but he can minimize the darkness that follows, reducing the chaos to a thousand years instead of 30,000. His predictions are eerily accurate, as he re-appears from the dead in video form right on schedule during crises, having recorded speeches prior to his death.

While this is fascinating, the nature of such a spread-out novel can be tedious. We are offered deeper glimpses into various points of history, but this makes the book feel more like a collection of related stories instead of a novel. We don’t get the richness of characterization and plot of novel: everyone feels like mere sketches. Unfortunately, that is simply a drawback of this particular kind of story. To tell the entire galatic history in full novel form would be an encyclopedic venture and would take a lifetime to read!

So I basically get out of this what I can: I enjoy the little stories of conflict and resolution, and I marvel that Hari Seldon’s science can predict human behavior so many centuries in advance.

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Fri, Nov 18, 2011

: The Windup Girl

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a strange and fascinating book. While it’s beautifully written, it’s dark and depressing, with bad ends for just about every character. It’s science fiction set in a decrepit Thailand, in a future world devastated by food plagues that mean that calories are scarce. In this violent and unusual world, almost anything goes. There’s bribery and corruption everywhere, with everyone scheming on how to make a buck and get ahead.

Our characters include a Westerner, a “calorie man,” meaning that he works for a giant agrigen company that is seeking out disease-free seeds of fruits and plants that it can genetically modify and reproduce for world-wide distribution. There are also a couple of military people, an old Chinese man who is the foreman of the calorie man’s factory, and a genetically manufactured girl that is the source of the book’s title. She is “New People,” built and trained in Japan where her kind is accepted, but hated in Thailand where she lives in secret and where she’ll be destroyed on sight if anyone realizes she isn’t human.

The book has relatively little plot. While you’re reading it seems like much is happening — there’s political upheaval, a revolution being plotted, money-making and robbery scheme planned, escapes attempted and thwarted, and so on — but in the end nothing much has changed or happens.

I found much of the book confusing. Though I love science fiction and I thought the unusual Thailand setting interesting, the combination often left me baffled as to what was going on. There’s unfamiliar sci-fi technology as well as strange Thai customs and little of it is ever explained. (For instance, I never could figure out what the calorie man’s factory produced. They grew vats of algae but I have no idea what for.)

Some of the confusion happened because I listened to the audio book version: many times the narrator referred to “loading lamps with jewels” (apparently to charge them with power) which I thought was strange, and it was only much later I realized this meant “joules” as in units of energy.

The book is slow and ponderous, and while the writing is gorgeously descriptive, that sluggish pace, combined with baffling events, and the irredeemably depressing nature of the story, turned me off of the book. I did finish it, but man was I happy to be done!

Others may like it better than I did. It’s well-written and innovative, and the atmosphere and setting is certainly interesting. There were many individual scenes I thought were amazing. But endless descriptions of human filth, horrible violence and murders, vivid depictions of a ruthless world utterly without a conscience, and the hellish degradations forced on the titular character were just too depressing for me to enjoy much else about the book. It often left me feeling like I needed a shower or to go and look at something pretty just for the respite.

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Tue, Aug 30, 2011

: Five On A Treasure Island

Author: Enid Blyton

This is the second Famous Five book I ordered from England, though I did it backwards and this is the first in series. This one is about how the cousins meet and how they find treasure on George’s island. The treasure aspect is questionable (it was not particularly well hidden, so I can’t figure out how no one else found it), but I enjoyed the set up of the characters and how everything worked out well for everyone in the end.

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Mon, Aug 15, 2011

: The Famous Five Go Adventuring Again

Author: Enid Blyton

I read some of these “Famous Five” books as a child and I remembered them fondly, though I didn’t remember the author or titles — I only knew they were British and they were kids who solved mysteries. Recently I searched on Amazon and rediscovered the books. I ordered a few from England (about $4 each used, including shipping) and this was the first one I read. I somehow got mixed up — this is actually the second in the series — but that didn’t really hurt anything. I found the writing style to be remarkably well-written (though she uses too many exclamation marks) and it’s clear Enid understands what children like. The adventure involves the children finding a secret map that tells them of a secret passage that they use to stop a thief. Slightly far-fetched but just believable enough, but what I really liked was the way Enid blended the adventure with the children’s day-to-day life. For instance, there’s a whole side plot about a tutor the children are forced to have during the holidays and how George takes an instant disliking to the man because he doesn’t like her dog. The two have conflict throughout the story and it seems like it might just be a meaningless side story, but when George figures out he’s a thief no one believes her and her anguish at not being believed makes for compelling reading (and all children can relate to not being believed by friends or adults). Excellent, slightly dated, definitely British, and quite wonderful.

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