Monday, December 26, 2011

Pop Review: The Birth of Venus

Author: Sarah Dunant
Genre: Historical Fiction
Warnings: Rape, Misogyny, Death, Asshole Priests
Pages: 416
Rating: 3/5

"The Birth of Venus" by Sarah Dunant is the coming of age story of Alessandra Cecchi, a young woman in 15th century Florence. Like many mainstream stories about young adults, this book is not for teenagers, or even written by teenagers. Do not ask me why, apparently everyone wants to keep reliving the same four hormone-ridden years in high school. Sadly for us Florentine isn't so hot on women having lives outside of gratefully raising children, so some parts of Alessandra's story are remarkably predictable: she doesn't know anything about sex expect for those tinglings in her britches until marriage, where regardless of her personal feelings or ambitions she settles down to have a kid. No matter how overdone I think coming of age stories are, this one has a few surprises up it's sleeve. For starters, her city is in turmoil and there is a rather scary priest rising to power during all of this.

For one, Durant's characterization was great. All of the characters were as fleshed out as their role required and their interactions were believable, especially the awkward teenage groping! I have my doubts that the idioms and slang are historically accurate, but luckily that's not what I was reading this book for. My absolute favorite character was Alessandra's husband. Since there is a theme of woman's lib running throughout this book, it would have been easy to make him a villain, nor was he some fumbling buffoon. Instead Durant creates a man who is poised, intelligent man who was also suffering under the pressures of Florentine society, with a very human set of blind spots. In my mind he remains the best example of Durant's ability to create complex and empathetic characters in this book.

I typically enjoy historical fiction but this particular period didn't come across as very interesting to me. I'm not sure if it's because I have about as much fascination for paintings as a cat does (which is to say, only if there's a bug on one) or if Durant presented the least appealing bits to me. I feel this way because the location and time period had very little affect on the story itself. Sure, sure she got married when she didn't want to. There are certainly no where else during that era and no other time period in history when women got married because it was expected instead of out of love. Her city fell at least partially under the sway of a radical man. The only obvious way in which this affected Alessandra's life was one or two scenes where she didn't go to church and where she got hassled for walking outside after dark. Hell, Florence getting invaded by an army had only one affect on the story that I could see: Alessandra's wedding date got moved up. This may have been a historical fiction, but the history functioned primarily as a background for the plot. This is not an inherently bad thing, but I do feel it's worth pointing out. It's also totally why I am not mentioning anything about painters.

My main complaint about the plot is that there was not nearly as much action as I was expecting. I respect a good story that doesn't have sweeping story arcs that encompass epic events, but only when I'm not promised them. Even the really dramatic twists were rather underplayed, and everything had a haze of normality to it. This could just be me, but I swear the prequel suggested the book contained a lot more sex (or at least sexual tension) which it failed to deliver on. I kept reading until the last chapter waiting for something more impressive than a few mildly vanilla sexual encounters and perhaps the least awesome explication for her tattoo. Seriously, I can not even imagine a less cool way for Alessandra to have gotten that tattoo.

There is a very reasonable argument to be made that stories full of real, not dramatic people trying to successfully navigate the challenges of their daily lives wouldn't come of as dramatic, to which I say: "Pah." I am reading a book about a teenager. I remember being a teenager, and let me tell you, every day was the Thor-damned end of the world. On the other hand, gentle reader, you may not feel the same. I suppose my final assessment would be: I've had better. If you really enjoy the romances of teenage girls (really?) or 15th century Florence, have I got a book for you. If you have a quiet afternoon or two and nothing to do, go for it. Otherwise find a different book. There are plenty other fish in the sea! 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: Guns, Germs and Steel

Author: Jared Diamond
Genre: Non-fiction
Warnings: Nothing really
Pages: 512
Rating: 3.5/5

Wow, there is so much that is worthwhile in this book! Holy crap, there is just a LOT of information in this book! It covers several observed general trends in the development of human civilization across the majority of genetically modern human history. And when I say the majority, I mean before roughly the 1800's back to the first time humanity became genetically similar to us. It's inclusive, extensive and just detailed in every respect. Diamond's goal is to treat history more like a hard science by framing architectural evidence as uncontrolled experiments that can be used in conjuncture to identify independent variables, which is an admirable goal and resulted in a sweet book as far as I can tell.

More than just marking the trends of civilization from less to more complex hierarchies, this weighty-ass tome attempts to explain some of the many interrelated reasons why civilizations develop at different rates. Diamond identifies technology that resulted in one state dominating another multiple times in the archaeological record, and then creates a plausible chain of reasoning that connects them to the attributes of each state's locality. An example would be illustrating that the vast differences in sophistication between the tools in Europe and the Americas during the 1400's are a result in the disparities of domestic-able plants and animals on the two continents. I can not tell you how much I appreciate this attention to detail, and how valuable the documentation of Diamond's thought process is to me. I also think this book represents an important shift in what history means and I felt my world was enlarged by reading it.

One important warning to any potential readers: this book is really boring. The prose reads a lot like a textbook, and it makes this book difficult to get through. It's size and it's dryness it is a real deterrent to anyone outside of academia. However I cannot state strongly enough that if you're interested in the subject matter, you should check it out anyway. Just... remember to pick it back up after you've put it down.

Associated Website

Similar Books and Authors
"The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
"A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: And Then There Were None

Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Warnings: Brits, Murder (obviously)
Pages: 247
Rating: 4/5

This is a really great mystery novel. It's quick, fascinating and fun. I've never read any Agatha Christie novels before now, but her other works are on my to-do list now.

I liked that the characters reminded me a little of the secondary characters in Doyles "Sherlock Holmes" stories, possibly because Christie was also an upper-crust Brit, although from two generations later. However the break from a sleuth main character was excellent, because the first person perspective lent a sense of urgency to the wholw thing. I enjoyed the shifts in perspective, which happened often enough and were well-placed enough to keep the identify of the murderer a secret from me.

Like I said, this book was quick. I  finished it in one sitting, which is terrible for the sort of literary analysis more involved than "So who is killing everybody?" On the other hand, this novel didn't have to be ripe with flowery language to be interesting. This is common for mystery novels, but agonizing over the villain (or villains) is usually the only draw a good mystery novel uses, and the only one it needs. I found that to be the case here. As Christie herself pointed out, there's something truly impressive in a killer that manages to kill ten people in a way that keeps a casual reader interested.

Similar Books and Authors
"The Complete Sherlock Holmes" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review: Young Miles

Author: Lois Mcmaster Bujold
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: 1-3/22+
Warnings: Ableism
Rating: 4.5/5

There is something fantastically wonderful about this series. I'm revealing my preferences here, but these books have a feminist sensibility that is beyond refreshing. In addition they're all short with thrilling plot-lines! It makes it hard to put a Vorkosigan book down once you've started. Still, there is so much worthwhile going on in these books. They're fantastic! Check 'em out.

I should point out that "Young Miles" is actually an omnibus of Vorkosigan books, starting with the novel in which Miles is the youngest and continuing with two short stories in internal chronological order. In the case of this omnibus all three stories are also in real-world chronological order, but that isn't always the case. I think it's pretty cool that a few of the books that take place later in Miles' timeline were written before parts of "Young Miles" (publishing order can be found here). My general stance on anthologies from a single author is "No, thank you," because all the books are written by the same author around the same period of time, so they share similar themes and ideas. However this anthology (less so than "Miles in Love")  feels like it was written by several different authors.The staggered nature of each story in the publishing order does a good job of cutting out any feeling of monotony.

For this reason I'd prefer to offer a short review for each book:

The Warrior's Apprentice (1986)
This was the weakest book in "Young Miles" in terms of plot. Looking back, it felt like Bujold had a very specific set of things that she had already determined would happen in this book and had to fit them in. However, it took a while for me to reach that realization: the plot is rushed in the same way as a movie chase screen. While reading, I paused maybe once in the 200-some pages to wonder if everything was falling into place just a little too ridiculously perfect, but then I immediately dived back in.

In terms of characterization it was a fantastic hook, clearly showcasing the best aspects of Miles Naismith: how brilliant, charismatic and goddamn lucky he is. If you need a reason to read these books, Miles is it. He's one of the greatest main character's I've ever read. Sure, he's a walking cliche, but the Vorkosigan books in general and "The Warrior's Apprentice" in particular serve as a reminder why cliches exist: when done well, they're irresistible.

The Mountains of Mourning (1989)
This is a very touching short story, but I don't think murder mysteries are Bujold's (or Mile's) strong suits. I found the plot good, but not great. All the characters beyond Miles were only mildly interesting (aside from Ninny, obviously) and the conclusion of this story was far sadder than I was expecting.

I sometimes imagine the Barrayarans as slightly British in the sense that they cling pretty desperately to their monarchy, and they all have an attitude of stiff upper lip when it comes to personal tragedy. Many of the characters across the Vorkosigan universe never speak openly of exactly what's bothering them, and it lends a sense of authenticity to everything. Out here in the real world, few people will open up and spill their deepest secrets after you've known them for a few days, but the characters in "The Mountains of Mourning" did. I recognize the brevity of the story is partly at fault, but it still bothers me a little.

Something wonderfully positive I'd like to say about this book is ahead of it's time in representing ableism.

The Vor Game (1990)
This was my favorite book of the "Young Miles" omnibus! It has all the same rushed, thrilling plot as "The Warrior's Apprentice" but it didn't seem as outrageous. One of the strongest points about Bujold's writing is her ability to create a sense of suspense that lasts an entire novel. There was no point in this story where I didn't desperately want to know what was going to happen next.

Bujold is also good at creating a memorable cast. Tung, Bel and Gregor are all distinct, interesting (fictional) people who it's possible actually care about. Miles is the creme de la creme of poignant characters, as you might imagine. He reminds me a little of Ender from "Ender's Game" with his unflappable charm and brilliance. Unlike Ender he's around 19 at this point and significantly more interesting for it.

"The Warrior's Apprentice" and "The Mountains of Mourning" located free online.

Similar Authors and Books
"The Dispossesed" and "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Usrula K. Le Guin
"Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review and Recommendation: Delusions of Gender

Author: Cordelia Fine
Genre: Non-fiction
Pages: 338
Warnings: Eh
Rating: 5/5

I can not recommend this book highly enough. This was one of the coolest books I have ever read. I wish everyone would read it! There's a wealth of information how we think that I find fascinating. Some of the theories suggested are a bit scary, and some feel like a missing piece of a puzzle falling into place. Beyond the arresting subject matter, I appreciated Cordelia Fine's excellent writing style and the sense of purpose it gives her book. This book is personally appealing to me, but I believe everyone could take advantage of it's demand to see gender as a much more flexible concept than our parents led us to believe.

First and foremost, as I said above, awesome information. I spent no small amount of time after reading this book  actually following the footnotes to studies. I'm not going to pretend I read them all, but I was emboldened to critically consider the methods used to collect data in popularization, even those that Fine referenced. I am also more aware of those really irritating assumptions about an entire gender's mental capacity. I really hate those. If I heard someone say that all Asian people are worse at math than white people, I sure and heck wouldn't just accept that.

Fine's writing style was also just what I wanted. Her prose is witty, interesting and her conclusions are unabashed. All of her theories are backed up with a chain of evidence presented in reasonable journal articles, but she takes time to pepper her prose with anecdotal evidence. These asides keep "Delusions of Gender" from being a dry textbook and make the ideas Fine endorses (that ladies aren't inherently empathetic to everyone, stupid or more irrational than anyone else) more accessible. After all, we're not talking about ancient history or hypothetical people. This book posits theories about people right now, about culture as you know it.

So, if you're a feminist, or if you don't call yourself that but get frustrated when someone suggests women are "just bad at math" read this book. You'll love it. If you may have said women are just naturally bad at math, but when asked why realize your only answer is "because", check out this book. You might like it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: Ember and Ash

Author: Pamela Freeman
Genre: YA Fantasy
Pages: 498
Warnings: N/A
Rating: 2/5

I don't have a strong endorsement of this book. There were some wonderfully entertaining qualities to her prose, particularly the well-developed setting, probably because this book is a one-off of her Castings trilogy. However the characters were a real weak point for me. I had trouble distinguishing their personalities, and I didn't care too much for any of them aside from Martine (Ember's mother).

Freeman's setting is top-notch. The environment created by the local gods who oversee matters local matters like death with the Powers who function as the Elements at their most animated was lovely. I appreciate the depth that went into them, as well as the myriad of people who communicate, worship and work for them. I got the feeling Freeman created a complete world and only showed us the bits we needed to see, which I love.

However, there were some really annoying aspects of this book that I want to caution readers about. There is a host of side-characters, and it's really obvious they have a sub-plot created especially for them with no real value to the Ember/Ash storyline. The sense of urgency created by the sub-plot involving Arvid (Ember's father) was just unnecessary. I was also irritated by the scene where Ember, Ash, Holly and several unnamed guards left the Last Domain's capital. It seemed sloppy to me that anyone reading that scene knew the "unnamed" guards were going to die, and soon, to emphasize how dangerous it was. I completely respect an author who's willing to kill off characters, but this was so obvious a plot point I couldn't take it seriously. Mean as this sounds, if Freeman can't bother to introduce the readers to a set of guards, why are we supposed to care if they're hurt? Altogether, I didn't see the same attention to detail in the smaller plot points of "Ember and Ash" that I so enjoyed in the setting.

I have to reiterate that the characterization in this book wasn't top notch. I expect a lot from my fantasy books, and interesting, believable characters are a big part of that. While some of the characters in "Ember and Ash" were likable enough, but I couldn't tell their internal monologues apart. On a much more personalized note, I thought the separation of Ember and Ash was ill conceived and story ended just when things were getting sexy.

I thought this was a reasonable bit of fluff-fiction, and I'm interested to see what else Pamela Freeman writes in the future. It was a fun read while it lasted, so if you've got the time and you like elementals, I would suggest this book.

Things I'm curious about: Did anyone else hate Arvid? Is there any saucy Ember/Ash fanfiction, hidden away in a dark and dusty corner of the internet? Can anyone explain what was up with Ice? I know the assumption that elements are mercurial was worked into the plot early, but still.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review: The Immortal Life if Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: Historical Non-Fiction
Pages: 362
Warnings: References to Tuskegee and other racial injustices, e.g. Jim Crow south, freaky descriptions of early radiation treatment
Rating: 4.5/5

Usually I read fiction (fantasy or science fiction or whatever) because I need a compelling story-line to keep me engaged. For me, it isn't enough for an author to have great skill at crafting sentences, their books also need a reasonably cool plot. I completely understand why the books of non-fiction writers are never judged based on how well they make a tale hang together, but there it is. I'm pleased to say that "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" delivers on all fronts. This book was a fantastic read by any way I measure it.

While the narrative Skloot writes about are anything but simple, her style of writing is easy to follow and her structure flows well. For clarity's sake, the year in which the majority of the chapter's action takes place is labeled at the beginning of the chapter. The first plot-line follows Henrietta Lacks herself, a woman born in 1920 and who died of a vicious strain of cervical cancer in 1951 (source). The second is about how Rebecca Skloot approaches and gradually wins the trust of Deborah, Mrs. Lacks' youngest daughter (in the early 2000's). The third story is a more clinical view of the history of consent in medicine (which sounds slightly textbook-y because it is), which converges on the HeLa case and branches off in some notable directions.

I hate to divulge too much of the book if it will stop anyone from reading it on their own time, but I want to state there are some admirable qualities to Skloot's narratives beyond being compelling as heck. Early on, Skloot makes it clear that she is a white woman telling the story of a black family. She doesn't avoid the fact that her being a white women that has her coming from a completely different, privileged world. As another white person, I can't make any definitive statements about how Skloot portrays Mrs. Lacks and her family; however I believe she is trying to be a respectful ally. That means Skloot presents the details of Mrs. Lack's life as accurately as possible, without malice or judgement. It means that she portrays the hurdles she has to leap to gain even the tiniest bit of trust trust from the Lacks family as  reasonable road blocks the family has created after numerous people have tried to take advantage of them (which is what they are).

On the other side of the immensely personal retelling of Mrs. Lacks life and death is a small-scale retelling of how medical science used and misused Mrs. Lacks' cells, code named HeLa. There is a brief overview of other cases that share similarities with Mrs. Lacks'. You see, medical science has no small history of experimentation on minorities, and of taking and using remarkable tissue samples without asking. HeLa was probably the most fascinating example of how patient's and doctor's best interests can diverge. No matter how I look at it, I feel like Mrs. Lacks was treated to a grave injustice, as was her family.

I think this book is the complete package. Skloot is descriptive without being wordy, her writing juggles several intertwining story-lines without getting confusing and she has a knack for getting her readers emotionally invested. It was a lot more focus on a good, evocative story than I was expecting from a non-fiction book, so if you would prefer facts over feelings, this book might not be worth it to you. If you're traditionally a fiction reader like myself, this is a great way to get into absolutely wonderful non-fiction, where I realized stories can mean more when they're real. More than that, this book started me asking questions about how the legal relationship between medical professionals and patients should look. I don't know the answers, but those are questions worth asking. One warning: I'm not sure if this will affect anyone else quite as strongly, but the descriptions of early radiation treatment for cervical cancer freaked me out!

Questions and Comments Welcome~

Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: Crossroads Road

Author: Jeff Kay
Genre: Fiction, Humor
Pages: 196
Warnings: Fat Hatred, Race and Gender Fail
Rating: 2.5/5

In the interest of full disclosure, I received this book from the LibraryThing Member Giveaway.

"Crossroads Road" is main character Jovis' account of a series of intentionally ridiculous events. Jovis' mother-in-law, whom he has lovingly dubbed "Sunshine", wins the lottery and several million dollars. She's willing to give her children and their families a large chunk of it (2 million dollars) so long as they agree to live on a cul-de-sac with her. All of her children agree and hijinks ensue.

I have to say it right away but this book didn't get funny for me until after the halfway mark. Kay seems to rely on two major sources of humor, and I only found the second method effective. The first half of the book is intended to be situational comedy regarding Jovis' outrageous in-laws. I can enjoy this style of humor based on my intense love of Terry Prachett's Discworld series, but Jovis' rubbed me the wrong way. To be fair, Jovis' in-laws do behave in some ridiculous ways, but most of the scene-building is punctuated by the narrator's internal monologue. Spoiler: Jovis is a raging asshole. I suspect most of the narrator's snide remarks about his family are supposed to be funny, but they just struck me as mean-spirited.

For clarification purposes, let me provide a slice of each family's specially-tailored funny attribute. Also Jovi is married to Tara.

Sue is Tara's sister, and married to Matt. Sue is fat. All the jokes about Sue, and Sue's family, ultimately fall back of the fact that she's overweight. She "fakes" her way into needing a scooter, she's needy for attention,  she requires a special toilet seat and her husband got tricked into marrying her when she was young and not-fat. I do not get why someone who is overweight can suddenly become the butt of every joke and the ultimate villian in every situation. Suffice to say: fat jokes do not hit the spot for me.

Nancy is also Tara's sister, and married to Kevin. Nancy and Kevin are academics, and therefore eat gross food, are never on time to anything, don't watch new TV and have weird sexual fetishes. I will admit that I did find some of the jokes about Nancy and Kevin a bit more funny, but again Jovis' tone just made me feel like an jerk for wanting to laugh.

Ben is Tara's brother, and Buddy is Tara's step-sister, and I don't remember them being the butt of too many jokes. I wonder if it's because they're men, and there just aren't enough noxious stereotypes to play off of? On that note, there is a woman named Carina who is the only non-white character and she is impossible to understand (because of the accent).

Luckily, the second half of the book was funny when you realized that Jovis, dear sweet Jovis, was the butt of all the jokes. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be laughing with Jovis or at him, so it took a while for me to recognize that his mean-spirited remarks where supposed to illustrate what a giant douchebag Jovis was. While he's busy judging the other characters, they're busy judging him! That was when it started getting funny for me. Instead of viewing an event as a chance to laugh at Jovis' "crazy in-laws" I got to laugh at how his need to be the good guy kept making him snotty martyr. It is kind of fun watching an asshole dig their own grave. For that reason I loved the ending.

This book was just not as funny as I hoped it would be. I wasn't sure if I should be laughing at the main character's faux-witty remarks or how incredibly obnoxious he was being. When I finally settled down into mocking Jovis, I chuckled, but I didn't make me belly-laugh. Now the ending brought out a real laugh, but I don't think I should read 196 pages of build-up for one joke. If you really, really like fat jokes or if you like seeing assholes get what they deserve and you have a few hours you don't want back, this book is for you. If not, oh well.

And now, for some Terry Prachett!
People who are rather more than six feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders often have uneventful journeys. People jump out at them from behind rocks then say things like, "Oh. Sorry. I thought you were someone else."(source)
Comments and Questions Welcome~

Monday, May 30, 2011

Update: Out of Town

Hey all: I'm currently on vacation, so there will be no posting for the rest of the week. Expect to see regular posting resume during the second week of June!

For now, here is a picture of me in Amsterdam! For clarification purposes only, I am the one with flowers on my shirt.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: Naamah's Curse

Author: Jacqueline Carey
Genre: Alternate History Fiction
Pages: 537
Warnings: Sexual Harassment, Consensual sex between adults
Series: 7/8(?) in Kushiel's Legacy
Rating: 3.5/5

Jacqueline Carey's "Naamah's Curse" is a reminder that the first requirement of a good book is to be entertaining. It took me over a week to read "The Sword of Shannara", and I had almost nothing else to distract me. In contrast I breezed through "Naamah's Curse" in a day and a half. I won't say I couldn't put it down, but I didn't have to: this book is very easy reading. It picks up immediately after "Naamah's Kiss" with Moirin traveling through psuedo-China (Ch'in) as she chases after Bao.

If you've read the previous book this should come as no surprise, but Moirin is very sexual. She sleeps with almost every major character in the book. It would differentiate this from harlequin romance novels though, as the descriptions of sex aren't terribly explicit, where explicit includes more than flowery euphemisms for vulvae and penises. However if you're uncomfortable with causal sex between members of any gender, avoid this book. You will not enjoy the opinions expressed in this book regarding sexual relations. Luckily for me  I really appreciate her attitude towards sex, although I was not interested in "Kushiel's Dart".

Something that did leave me concerned was the portrayals of the psuedo -Chinese (Ch'in), -Mongolian (Tartar) and -Bhutanese (Bhodistanese). Warning bells start ringing in my head when a book is written in English about non-English-speaking cultures, even if they're dressed up with different names. Typically such portrayals are stilted, with characters that are presented as over-played caricatures (like Mr. Miyagi from the movie "The Karate Kid", which always makes me cringe). As part of the intended audience instead of the intended subject matter I'm not in a great position to judge how stereotyped the non-native characters are, but I'd welcome critical analysis of it.

The only borrowed culture I do know for sure was one-sided was that of the Russian (Vralians) Christians. I know Carey made a point of stating that the Vralians in the novel were from an intolerant sect of Eastern European Christians, but they were all uniformly incapable of having healthy sex lives. While I have personal qualms about the more extreme sects of Christianity's opinions about sex, I seriously doubt that even the most uptight families are as repressed as Aleski's, and they were the only Vralian family mentioned. More importantly, being prudish isn't the same thing as being hateful. In all of the other civilizations Moirin meets a wide swath of people, while in Vralia she only meets sexually repressed, unhealthy people.

If you'd like an easy to read story, with some mildly interesting characters and a plot, I would encourage you to read this book if it's readily available. I will probably read the conclusion to this trilogy, but I am unlikely to go back and read any of the previous books in the series. However if you're likely to have any disagreements with the philosophy espoused within (that sex is awesome, and can be shared between any two people who are attracted and care about each other) ... I'm sorry. Also you shouldn't read this book.

Questions and Comments Welcome~

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: The Sword of Shannara

Author: Terry Brooks
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 726
Warnings: Death, some imagery of violence death, Tolkien-clone
Rating: 2.5/5

One of my friends suggested I look into Terry Brook's Shannara book series, but it took me no small amount of time to decide which book to start with. After a bit of research I gave up trying to be systematic and settled on "The Sword of Shannara". It's the first book in the series Terry Brooks wrote, although it takes place towards the end of the universe's chronology.

I swear, "The Sword of Shannara" is a clone of Tolkien's style, archetypes and plot. This goes beyond the basic similarities most high fantasy books share. Some of the similarities were positive, but Brooks also copied some of my least favorite aspects of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The wholesale borrowing of major plot points is the most obvious.

The plot is as follows: A mysterious wizard druid arrives in the peaceful Shire Shady Vale and informs Frodo Shea that only he is qualified to destroy wield the legendary One Ring Sword of Shannara so it can't be used by the evil Sauron can be used to kill the Warlock Lord. He and a few close companions travel to an official meeting in Rivendell Culhaven, the home of the elves dwarves. Along the way they are harrowed by Ring Wraiths Skull Bearers. There the main characters band with a group of humans, elves and dwarves to quest for the ring sword. During their travels they shortcut through the cursed mines of Moria Hall of Kings. After a certain amount of running around which I can't be bothered to remember, the party gets split into at least two groups culmination of the story. The majority of the humans, elves and dwarves converge on the kingdom of Rohan Callahorn, where they must free the king from the evil influence of Wormtongue Stenmin. Then his people retreat to Helm's Deep Tyrsis, a highly fortified keep where they attempt to hold back the forces of evil. After a long and painful siege, the elven army comes to their rescue, and the army of Mordor the Skull Kingdom is defeated. At the same time the main character and his stalwart sidekick Samwise Panamon Creel travel to the heart of enemy territory with their guide Gollum Keltset to destroy the ring use the sword.  After a certain amount of soul-searching, their mission is accomplished, and everyone who's still alive goes home!

To be fair, I did simplify some points to emphasize their similarity and skipped over some of the more boring fight scenes in LotR. However with only mild embellishment most of the major plot points of "The Sword of Shannara" are a name-change away from those in "The Lord of the Rings". On the plus side, that meant the plot was solid, and could be described using words like "epic" and "legendary". On the down side, I've already read LotR. For anyone else who also just happens to have read Tolkien's trilogy, there will be zero sense of suspense generated by Brook's book. For instance, when the heroes traveled into the Hall of Kings, I already knew there was a terrifying monster lurking at the end. The surprise? It was a water-monster instead of a fire-monster! There is very little different material, so I'll try to avoid revealing any more of it.

I can't fault Brooks for using the same species list as Tolkien, since almost every high fantasy writer draws from said list. I believe there are good fantasy books that feature species aside from Elves, Dwarves, Trolls and Gnomes out there. I do! Brandon Sanderson, back me up here.

Another characteristic of Tolkien's that I would have preferred Brooks left alone was his overly wordy prose. It took me almost a year to finish "The Two Towers", because I just lost the motivation to read it three times and didn't come back to it for months. Brook's first book is a little better, but I found myself skipping over huge chunks of descriptive paragraphs to get to dialogue. My interest in hearing more about some of the characters who diverge from Tolkien's template warred with my disinterest in his prose. The result was that I finished this book, but I didn't like it all that much. I don't want to read any more novels written by Brooks unless I can get some assurance he stopped trying to be Tolkien.

Some of the areas I thought Brooks shined as an author was when he left Tolkien alone. I enjoyed all of the new characters Brooks created, like Panamon Creel, and Menion Leah. I thought they were most interesting personalities because they didn't have analogues to Tolkien's characters and because Brooks spent more time fleshing them out. I also liked that "The Sword of Shannara" is set on a post-nuclear-apocalypse Earth, which was a relatively new story idea in 1967.

If you liked Tolkien, you'll like Terry Brooks. You'll definitively like "The Sword of Shannara" for all the same reasons "The Lord of the Rings" tickled your fancy. Enjoy rich fantasy worlds, with an author who dreamed up a timeline lasting thousands of years before or after the book you're reading? Like the reassuringly familiar structure of high fantasy, the straightforwardness of Good versus Evil in Black Cloaks? Have a crush on elves? Good, you should read this when you have some free time. If you've already read LotR and you don't want to read it again, stay away from this. Go read some science fiction, for goodness sake.

Questions, Comments and Kvetching Welcome~

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Review: Heirs of Mars Preludes

Author: Joseph Robert Lewis
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 28
Warnings: Gynoids!
Rating: 3.5/5

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of this book through the  LibraryThing Member Giveaway. Thanks!

So, this is a set of three short stories that all take place prior to "Heirs of Mars". Adorably, their names correspond roughly to the setting of each story, and create a nice triumvirate (Heaven, Earth, Hell). Be warned though, these stories are quite short, I blew through them in one sitting.

The first story, "To Reign in Heaven", is set in the space around Venus, where the infamous Mother has recently come into sentience and is sending her Cartesian children packing for Mars. The bulk of the story centers around India, a gynoid left behind inside the weather satellite that is Mother. India was my favorite character of the anthology actually; she's got immense strength of character and painfully human emotions to back it up. I don't want to reveal too much of the plot, but this story certainly suggested there could be an official sequel to "Heirs of Mars".

"To Walk the Earth" was another snapshot, this time of Victoria, the woman who refused to go to Mars with Asher. Victoria was a strong character as well, but strong to the point of being inflexible, a flaw I can appreciate if not enjoy reading about. The premise was classic sci-fi, about Victoria and Asher questioning humanity's current dependence on media for stimulation. The ending didn't sit too well with me because I thought it was a little over the top.

I enjoyed "To Serve in Hell" the most, because it showcased Lewis' ability to present two opposing viewpoints of the same event realistically. It is from the perspective of the farmers who beat up Asher in the beginning of "Heirs of Mars", who I originally had no sympathy for. Their ringleader's name is Neil, by the way. Experiencing Neil's point of view was painful and illuminating. My conclusion is that Neil is still a dick, but I can sympathize with what drove him to be that person.

There are two ways to evaluate "Heirs of Mars: Preludes": as a stand-alone anthology and as an expansion of the original novel. I enjoyed the set of short stories as an expansion because I wanted to hear more about the characters. Naturally anyone who liked "Heirs of Mars" will enjoy these stories as well. However I do think it's possible for someone to enjoy them without having read the novel. Lewis does make a point of developing India, Victoria and Neil enough that they can breathe without the life support of the original book, although I don't think they'd be as rewarding a read.

Comments and Questions Welcome~

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review: Look for Our Mother and Our Father

Author: Anonymous
Genre: Spiritual
Pages: 237
Warning: Fiction
Rating: 1/5

In the interest of full disclosure, I received this book through the Librarything Member Giveaway.

"Look for Our Mother and Our Father" is a series of related essays about how European-centric culture is all that is wrong with the world. Most of the author's criticisms are directed specifically towards the United States of America, but a certain about of blame for the state of the universe is laid on it's European predecessors.

First and foremost, I found the writing style to be consistent but jarring. The extensive use of parentheses was distracting. It was not uncommon for there to be several sentences in parentheses on a single page, which doesn't lend itself to coherent essays. There is little logical connection or narrative flow between paragraphs, and it took me a long time to distinguish the point the author was driving at. The style and organizational structure are very similar to preaching. This is effective when the author is trying to evoke emotional responses, but I confess my own responses were primarily negative.

Despite this there were some passages that I resonated with me, and my understanding of truth. For instance, there was a portion of a paragraph that explains how the American/European viewpoint towards animals is barbaric. This is illustrated in part by the historical slaughter of the plains bison in the 19th century. If you don't know what I'm talking about, American settlers killed bison to the point of extinction, ostensibly for their skins. This hunting was subsidized by the railroad industry to starve plains tribes. While I was not personally responsible for this event, I feel great shame to be part of a country that felt this was an appropriate response, and for all the benefits I have received since being born that are a result of the subjugation and destruction of the Native American Nations. Throughout the essays there are several more current examples of wrong-doing perpetrated by America which I also think all of it's citizens should recognize.

On the other hand, there are some things I just blatantly disagree with, like "Gravity and other natural laws are culture-specific phenomena, just like human nature; they are not universal laws."(pg 36) I cannot agree that gravity is a cultural construct, there is nothing that supports this.

The following passage was one that I found particularly frustrating, which illustrates a concerning trend in the logical premise of "Look for Our Mother Our Father". It suggests that only European-ish cultures are the only ones to use irrigation. For clarification purposes PEOC stands for "Person of European-Originated Culture"(pg 8).
PEOC's, on the other hand, would like to control everything and every part of the environment. To control water, we use concrete canals, dams, pipes, and faucets. Instead of letting water flow freely, as it used to move through the world, we try to capture it and direct it's course. The natural water features which used to grace the harshest deserts have all but vanished in PEOC countries (and countries we are forcing to develop). (pg 149)
Awkwardly, many South American civilizations used irritation. The Chimu Empire, which was in power from roughly 800 to 1470 AD, built a canal between the Chicama and Moche valleys to artificially boost the amount of water which would reach their capital city of Chan Chan. While I would agree that Americans have done all of the things referenced in the quote, and we alter the landscape to do so, the author's assertion that this controlling nature is a direct result of having a European-derivative culture is factually untrue. It also suggests the author has made some broad generalizations about human nature that zhe can't back up.

I suspect that some of the authors's assertions arise from a Noble Savage complex. It is possible that the author has chosen to generalize about all Native American cultures in order to preserve the anonymity of the tribes zhe knows intimately about, to which I applaud zhe's respect. However the sheer number of sweeping statements in the text about Native American lifestyle makes this unlikely. The majority of the author's statements about Native American culture are broad generalizations, which suggests zhe knows very little about the individual tribes. Zhe also fails to specify any tribe, although there were many different Native American cultures that existed across time and geography. It seems improbable that every Native American tribe exhibited all of the characteristics the author ascribes to them. My favorite example of the ridiculousness of the author's claims is "If it doesn't break down and need replacement, it needs maintenance. Everything needs maintenance: buildings, roads, landscaping ..."(pg 127) I can only think of two interpretations of this statement: a complaint about everything, or an implication that Native Americans are better because nothing they built has ever needed repairs. Ever. I make this point because if I'm correct and the author is placing Native American culture on a pretty inhuman pedestal, without bothering to learn anything about the cultures zhe claims to revere.

I believe the author's fundamental argument is untrue. European-centric cultures commit wrongful acts, but this has less to do with some inherent flaw in only European-centric cultures than with a basic flaw in powerful agrarian societies. The author constructs Native American culture as the opposite, and in doing so ignores their complexity and humanity. The author just generally has an inability to tell reasonable critiques of agrarian societies from nonsense. While I am aware, at it's heart, the argument that American society has problems is true, "Look for Our Mother Our Father" is a terrible critique of it. This book is little more than one disappointed individual complaining about their lives, and indiscriminately laying blame.

I struggled through 162 pages of this book, but now I'm just happy I've given up on it. It's a lovely day outside, and I'd much rather enjoy that.

Questions or Comments Welcome~

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review: Machine of Death

Author: Various
Genre: Fiction Anthology
Pages: 439
Warnings: Lots of Death
Rating: 4/5

"Machine of Death" is a fiction anthology in a universe where there is a machine that can predict the exact cause of an individual's death. Every short story comes starts an illustration. I haven't enjoyed such a high image/word ratio since I was in elementary school, but this anthology is the exception which changes the rule. As far as the content goes: sometimes the Machine was required for the storyline but usually it was part of the background of the story.

I was surprised by the huge variation in the quality of the stories in the anthology. Most of them were fun. I would say I really loved maybe five, and I completely skipped two. There's something very liberating about starting a story, realizing you're already counting the pages to see how many are left, and deciding to screw it. There are enough stories that's it's worth sitting down to enjoy only the ones you want to. And no matter what your fancy, I predict you'll find enough stories likable to make it worth purchasing the book.

Plus, because I love the internet, I want to point out the idea for the "Machine of Death" was conceived at Dinosaur Comics! I appreciate that the anthology pays tribute to it's origins by placing the comic on the second page. It's adorable, so you should follow the link and see for yourself.

I was also surprised to see some of my favorite online personalities contributing. Kate Beaton of  Hark a Vagrant (who draws the most adorable web-comics in the history of the internet) was an art contributor so I was delighted before even starting the story. Ben "Yatzee" Croshaw also wrote a story, which was unexpected. I know his cutting wit from the Escapist where he reviews video games, but his story is devoid of cock-related jokes. The entire work is an exciting collaboration of young artists and authors who make the internet worthwhile.

I don't read anthologies a lot, so I'll review four of my favorites and touch on four of my least favorites. The summaries will be borrowed from the official website.

Flaming Marshmellow
Author: Camille Alexa
Summary: This story of high school cliques was funny and genuine, with a great, punchy ending.
Rating: 4.5/5
I was surprised by how much this short affected me. "Flaming Marshmellow" was a disturbingly accurate illustration of a teenager just beginning her life by receiving a slip of paper that tells her how she'll die. I took an immediate liking to the main character, and to her father, who shows up to drive her to the MoD. The ending made me cry and laugh at the same time.

Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions
Author: J. Channing Wells
Summary: Hands down the funniest story we read, this one also had a great take on the insurance implications of the Machine.
Rating: 5/5
I think I giggled the entire way through this one, just like the summary said. Not just because the main character has a healthy sense of humor (and irony?) but because it's great to imagine a world where finding out how you're going to die makes you happy. Who would have though "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions" would be the most exciting part of your life?

Author: Alexander Danner
Summary: A pitch-perfect story about a magician who hates insipid party games.
Rating: 4.5/5
Another humorous story: I'm sensing a pattern here. Unlike "Devoured" this one is all about the punchline. I mean, yes it's entertaining to read before that, but the last bit really makes this story. If you don't like it, don't worry. Most of these stories are hardly more than 20 pages.

Prison Knife Fight
Author: Shaenon K. Garrity
Summary: The worst fate for a child born into privilege? Perhaps, but a delightful story for the rest of us.
Rating: 5/5
I usually have very little sympathy for characters who are too "well off". That just sounds ridiculous to me, like they're complaining about how being able to eat ice cream whenever they want destroyed their love for the food because it wasn't a treat anymore. Boo hoo. "Prison Knife Fight" made room in my cold heart for children of the wealthy. I'll never pity Cotton (the main character) but I can respect his loneliness.

Author: Kit Yona
Summary: [The] story of a young couple forever(?) in love.
Rating: 2/5
Erk. Even I can tell that the main character's going to have trouble in his relationship. Even though he's supposedly "in love"  his description of his girlfriend sounds more like an advert for a porn-bot than a person. Wow, she's blond, hot, loves to wear the naugh-tay lingerie you buy her and go shopping. I mean, yes, there are women who have those characteristics but only if you cut out lots of other interesting bits.

Author: Tom Francis
Summary: This story about the accidental inventors of the machine felt brutal, desperate, and real.
Rating: 0/5
I don't know why this story rubbed me the wrong way. Part of it's probably the reductive description of the main character's girlfriend (again). Maybe it was the choppy storytelling. Either way, I didn't make it through this story, so I don't have anything else to complain about.

Author: Randall Munroe
Summary: What happens when physical science rejects the idea of precognition?
Rating: 0/5
I don't like westerns. This story wanted to cast John Wayne for the main character so bad it made me cry a little. Or Bruce Willis. Either way, this story screamed Manly, or Rugged. I only made it two pages in.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review: Fool's Errand

Author: Robin Hobb
Genre: High Fantasy
Pages: 662
Warnings: Acts of torture are mentioned
Rating: 3/5
Series: 1/3 of The Tawny Man

Before I comment on the quality of "Fool's Errand", there is a rant that I have to get out about series in general. For reasons I cannot fathom, every time a new book in a series comes out, the first quarter of it is devoted to recap. Who is this recap for? Not the loyal fans, who if they have free time have already re-read the entire series so the knowledge is fresh in their minds, and if they don't will remember it as they go. I can almost, almost imagine the author is recapping for the first-time reader of the series, but so often I get to hear about crap that doesn't matter to someone who just picked up the book. It's such a waste! It makes me a little crazy, because it's such a common narrative choice.

"Fool's Errand" is more guilty of this than most book's I've read, but in Robin Hobb's defense there is significant action which takes place well before the book starts. This book is actually the seventh book in this universe, following two other trilogies. While it does help the reader to know who is friends with who, and why their bond is so close, I could have lived with a book that felt like it was jumping into the middle of a story. There's nothing wrong with a detailed history that the reader doesn't know about. It creates a sense of mystery, which is something high fantasy books don't have a lot of.

I should warn you that I haven't read the Farseer Trilogy or the Liveship Trader's Trilogy, so the first 200 pages or so of this book were a complete surprise for me. I think those pages would have dragged much, much more if I had known any of the things that were being recapped. I don't know a lot of the details even now, and that's okay for me. It's a better motivation to go back and read the first six books. I would strongly suggest you try reading from the end at least once.

Anyway, on to the actual novel. "Fool's Errand" is the (continuing) saga of FitzChivalry Farseer. From what I estimate, the book picks up 15 years after the previous trilogy. Fitz has been living a simple life raising Mishap, his adopted son. Nigheyes, his awesome wolf companion, has grown old and Mishap is ready to make his own way in the world. While Fitz is slowly coming to the realization that his life must change, Dutiful, his royal son, vanishes. It takes a lot of convincing from all of his old friends (and lots of oh-so-subtle references to the previous two series) to get Fitz moving. Eventually he rescues his son and saves the day, but I figure you should read the book to find out how.

I feel like the action in this book isn't very smooth, but it works out well enough. The first third of the book involves lots of talking and place-setting, which makes the character's interplay during times of high stress much more believable. The other two thirds of the book are lots of travelling interspersed with some fight scenes. It played out nicely, because constant action or constant talking gets boring.

As usual the most fascinating part of this book for me was the characterization. Fitz, the main character, is difficult to like and to get along with, but since the story is first person, it's hard to tell that he's scary. There's a disconnect between how Fitz sees most of his actions (and therefore how the reader views them) and how others interpret his behavior, and Robin Hobb does an excellent job of highlighting this. At one point his companion runs away from him in the middle of the night. In addition, Fitz's has many secrets, and no single character knows all of them. It's wonderful to see an author that can write such a complicated set of characters well.

Nighteyes and Fitz's friendship was lovely for me. As far as magic systems go, the Wit is one of my favorites. In terms of story-telling, the lack of barriers between Nighteyes and Fitz is a counter-point to the levels of secrets between Fitz and everyone else. As odd as it is to see characters keep things from each other for longer than a book, it's odder to see two characters who are essentially soul-mates.

So, typical fantasy fare. I think the main attraction to me was that I started at the end, and don't know how Fitz got his scars, or became friends with Fool among other things. Unlike most fantasy stories, characters were able to keep really valuable information from each other, and I spent part of the book holding my breath, waiting for someone to slip up. Otherwise, the characters carried an acceptable but hardly original story. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: Heirs of Mars

Author: Joseph Robert Lewis
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 275
Warnings: References to terrorism, death, descriptions of really gross injuries
Rating: 4/5

I really have to read more Science Fiction! This book only proves that I'm overlooking a simply fantastic genre. This book is chock full of poignantly cruel ethical dilemmas as well as a rich cast with conflicting morals and goals. The setting was internally realistic, with an attention to detail on the science that the engineer in me loves. I am going to read so much more Joseph Lewis.

The story was a little difficult to follow at first blush, with three major storylines and three sets of characters with separate sets of ambitions and histories. The first group to appear are Asher, Priya and Martin. Asher and Priya are two humans with a shared tragedy, and Martin's the comic relief. In the next chapter we're introduced to Holm and his robot cohorts, who haven't yet been vilified in the story, and never really do with Holm there to narrate from their (his?) point of view. A little later Selene and Niobi are introduced, a pretty awesome pair of rangers, the bounty hunters/mercenaries of Mars. All three groups offer a different perspective on what's happening on the red planet.

Naturally the situation isn't simple either. There is a lot of tension on Mars since the development of "clones", mental copies of terminal human professionals. They're intended to replace stressed out colonizers so it's a feature rather than a bug that they can't learn anything new, or deviate from their donor's personality. As if that wasn't cool enough the story follows the narrative path to the defeat of the final robot rebellion, artificial personalities that are slightly tweaked copies of Mother, a satellite over Venus that became sentient. Either of these concepts could have been a story unto itself! Together the gimmicks lie a little thick on the ground, but that's the worst I can say about Lewis' book.

After finishing this book I spent some time thinking about what makes a being sentient. Technically the clones are alive, but they are incapable of changing at all from the moment they're created. One of the clones, Toshiro, suffers immensely because the last thoughts of his donor were terror of the robots but he can't hack his own brain enough to stop having nightmares. I consider my sentience is a result is my ability to adapt my personality, even my way of thinking. I can try to be anything, but the clones can't. Does that make them human? Jut how cruel is it to create something that can realize they're frozen in time? The robots from Venus make a much better case for a truly sentient being. They have diverging goals from Mother and they occasionally defect. Who counts as alive? I have no idea.

"The Heirs of Mars" roused these questions in me, but they didn't seek to answer them. Very few of the characters voiced their opinion, although many of the decisions characters made reflected their personal opinions. No one... preached about it though, so in the end I felt the question of which AI's were sentient was my personal problem. In fact, the climax of the novel took all of this "sentience" stuff as unnecessary. The primary question was more "who deserves to live on Mars", and that was answered easy enough: whoever can survive there.

The novel finished after the defeat of the last independent robot, but nothing is really resolved. It's likely that time (a few generations) will give Martians the maturity to deal with clones kindly. Asher is still suffering from the loss of his daughter, and he's still digging at the past. The hope is that everyone can deal with their issue and live happily ever after on the red planet, (what? this is very surprising to me) but at the end of "The Heirs of Mars" none of this has happened. I can't help it, but I prefer that sort of ending to some sort of "happily ever after" nonsense.

If you remove all of the science fiction window-dressing, this was well-written story about a lot of people during the worst week of their life. Sometimes they came through, sometimes they didn't. The human vs. robot storyline was significantly less fun than the clones vs. humans one, so I was pleased that more time was spent following it. I flew through this book, and it's because there were so many little moments when I felt Lewis did things just right. This book reminded me of my love of the genre, and this author impressed me on many fronts. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Review: Among Thieves, A Tale of Kin

Author: Douglas Hulick
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 414
Warnings: References to death, descriptions of fighting.
Rating: 2.5/5

"Among Thieves" is the story of Drothe, an information gatherer who works for a gang boss called Nicco. However Drothe is much more than his ties to Nicco, and this story follows him through the usual treacharous underworld hijinks as he gets beaten up, crosses swords with some pretty crazy villains, breaks (and makes) promises and eventually rises to fame and power in the sprawling city of Ildrecca.

There was one aspect of this book that struck me early on, and really brought down my interest. Initially the "sleazy underworld where the main character has a heart 'o gold" scenario irritated me because it's cliched, but in addition to that Hulick would stop the action and Drothe would to give a brief explanation from his first person perspective every time a new word was mentioned. This takes the reader out of the action, it's heavy-handed and it's not necessary! If Hulick couldn't express the meaning of underworld jargon with context, he shouldn't have used it. This drove me up a wall, and I couldn't get interested in the book until it stopped.

Once we moved out of the introductory phase of the story, I was able to appreciate some of the well-written parts. Hulick creates a multi-facated world, with political, religious and magical systems that I'm dying to hear more about. He also wrote some of the most convincing sword-fighting I've ever read.

This was primarily a story about Drothe, a completely un-collected, stressed-out Nose who survives a unhealthy amount of close calls. His best friend and sidekick Bronze Degean was a good counter-balance (and probably the reason so much of Drothe's schemes worked).  I liked Deagan's solid competence more than Drothe's suaveness, but both were fun characters.

The overarching plot was pretty good too. I think some of the page-to-page details could have been better staged, but once I figured out the big picture, I was pretty interested. It's a good big picture, with all the right plot twists (some obvious and some not) and a great deal of information about Drothe's potential left unanswered. There are also a huge amount of double-crossing and Hulick handled this well.

I am naturally suspicious of books that center around a "criminal underworld" element. It's probably unfair to some really good writers out there who love writing about thieves (or assassins), but I've found it's an excellent tool for cutting down on the number of bad books I read. In general I avoid fantasy books that borrow a big part of their setting from something that's overdone, because it's usually a sign the book is written by a bad author trying to hide their lousy writing with a bunch of flash, or a new author who isn't secure in their own narrative voice.

Thus I started reading this book with tensed shoulders, waiting for the author to trip up and write something insanely stupid. That didn't happen. Sure, there are a few things that I think Hulick could polish, but there was nothing in this book that made me just want to set it down and walk away (which has happened before). What actually happened was the inverse. It took me about 150 pages, but I this book eventually drew me in, despite my resistance. The book improved in quality towards the end. The author's note indicated that Hulick wrote this book over several years (and in between much of his life) and I noticed the improvement in his writing. I look forward to Douglas Hulick's next book.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Review: The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Author: Stieg Larsson
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 526
Warnings: Descriptions of violence, references to abuse
Series: 3/3 in the Millenium Trilogy
Rating: 4/5

The final installment of the Millennium Trilogy begins immediately after "The Girl who Played with Fire" as Lisbeth Salander is transported to a hospital in Gosseberga. The book climaxes with Salander's trial, but the meat of the story is the investigation of Zalachenko undertaken by Michael Blomkvist. A huge part of this book goes into answering any questions I had about the who, what, when and how of Zalachenko's exploits and the people who covered it up. True to form, Larsson reveals all.

Aside from the primary Salander/Blomkvist plot line, Erika Berger had a great story arc following her new job as editor-in-chief at SMP, the conservative-ist, boy's club-ist newspaper in Sweden (maybe? I hope so). Berger's plot line, which has no bearing on the main story arc, fits in nicely with theory that Larsson's books all have some feminist theme.

The first book in the trilogy focused on physical violence against women, with the rape of Lisbeth being a prime example. The second book emphasizes gendered psychological prejudice in the form of some really judgmental publicity during the police investigation and roughly everything Detective Faste did (man he was an asshole). The last book's theme was a little harder to guess, but I think it's about how women fight back. Obviously a court trial is one way for women to defend themselves against illegal attacks (which is what Salander does despite being the one on trial), and Berger's plot line is all about standing up for herself SMP.

Salander spends much of the book in a hospital bed, which means she played a smaller role this time. However there were a lot of other awesome characters who took up the slack, one of which was Berger. Monica Figuerola, a confident workout fanatic and Security Police agent, becomes a fixture when Sรคpo begins an investigation of the mysterious "Section" within their ranks. Annika Giannini, Blomkvist's little sister, takes charge as Lisbeth's lawyer and rocks at it. Several other characters are also pretty cool women: Sonja Modig is still present, Malin Erikson takes over for Berger has head editor at Millenium, and... you know what? I think there are more female characters than I should mention by name! In fact, I can't think of a single evil, incompetent or even mean woman in this entire book! It's unrealistic, but it's so nice to read about non-stereotyped women that I absolutely refuse to complain.

I loved reading about Salander's revenge towards the end of the book, where Giannini just crushes Salander's accusers in the courtroom. I grinned like a fool during the entire thing, because it's so gratifying to see her win. Salander personally never expected to have anyone on her side, but it's so wonderful to see the justice system cover her and in general to see good things happen to a person who deserves it.

Lisbeth is obviously by far and away my favorite part of this book, and I felt that in "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" Larsson drew our attention to Salander's weaknesses. As a result of her injuries she spends a lot of time relying on other people. Salander is completely out of her element, and it shows when talks with anyone, let alone when she tries to thank her friends. She is really, horrendously awful with people.

So many awesome women! I'll miss reading books where roughly half of the characters are female and none of them are damsels in distress. On the other hand, I am okay reading less about violence against women, which is why the first book in this series was so rough on me. Luckily I was still interested after finishing "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and the trilogy got better and better for me. I know the sheer about of detail is annoying for a lot of people, but it never bothered me that much, and it even works in Larsson's favor in this book, because there is a lot of information about Zalachenko that I wanted to know. I had a lot of empathy for many of his characters, even Blomkvist. "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" was definitively my favorite of the Millenium series, and I'm a little sad that I've finished them all. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review: The Toss of a Lemon

Author: Padma Viswanathan
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 616
Warnings: Very few, actually.
Rating: 1.5/5

This book chronicles 70 years of Brahmin family life in Tamil Nadu (one of the southernmost states in India). I almost didn't finish reading this book, most likely since the prominent characters didn't come into play until much later on because they had to reach adulthood. At about the halfway point the book stopped being a litany of who begot who and the various players started interacting, and in my estimation this book went from a 1/5 to a 1.5/5.

A lot of this book was focused on the ceremony of being Brahmin in southern India, and I was incredibly pleased not to be treated like a tourist. This meant that since I have no familiarity with any aspect of Indian culture, I also spent the first half a the book wondering what was going through everyone's head. I would not be surprised if a lot of information flew right over my head while I was trying to get my bearings. I am completely okay with this, since I didn't pick up this book to gawk at anybody or undermine their traditions. At absolute best, I am now in a better position to educate myself about Brahmin and Tamil culture, and I plan to do so in a polite and respectful way. After reading a few historical books that stomp all over indigenous cultures (I'm looking at you, Sherlock Holmes) this book's attitude (considering it was written for an English-reading audience) was a welcome respite.

Most of the plot of this book was focused on the interplay between the family members, which was primarily about getting married, having children and living happily; there was also an undercurrent of discord beyond the normal family disagreements over the country's political shift. The vertex of this conflict is between Sivakami, the conservative matriarch of the family and her vindictive son Varium. All of this drama, as it were, was understated and subtle, as family foulness usually is. My response to this was that I wanted to slowly trudge through family heartbreak, like most human beings I don't have to read about it. More than that, the book's plot was just too close to boring to appeal to me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: The Girl who Played with Fire

Author: Stieg Larsson
Genre: Fiction/Mystery
Pages: 471
Warnings: References to violence and prostitution, graphic descriptions of dead bodies
Series: 2/3 in the Millennium Trilogy
Rating: 3.5/5

This book picks up almost two years after "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (18 months later to be exact, and I know that because it was repeated like 5 times). After a brief interlude in the Caribbean, Lisbeth Salander is accused of killing several people. The first half of the story leaves you in complete suspense about whether or not she committed murder, and the second half has of several major revelations that clarify her relationship to the murders in the beginning of the book.

Compared to the previous book in the series, which took place decades after the mystery being investigated, Stieg Larsson's second book is... just as slow paced. I was surprised at how plodding the story was, considering it was during an active police investigation. I was expecting a lot more action, and I did not get it until the last 20 pages so be prepared for that. The pace makes sense when you consider Larsson likes to describe obscure details about scenes. For instance, when Lisbeth was buying apartment furniture I was lucky enough to read exactly which model of kitchen tables, chairs and bed-stands she bought. This emphasis on minutiae isn't all bad though, because I thought it lent an intimacy to my relationship with the characters. I mean, your friends will tell you what type of bed-stands they buy too.

Good news to anyone who made it through the first book but was bothered by the violence: there is much less in this book! I get the feeling Larsson is creating a feminist theme for each of his books. The first in the trilogy was about physical violence and the theme of this one was unconscious bias/prejudice. Basically there were a lot of assholes in this book. Two prominent characters, one from Milton Security and one from the police force, were almost comically homophobic and sexist; most of the background cast was at worst mildly prejudiced. Since every women in the world has faced at least one such asshole, this form of discrimination was much easier to stomach.

Other awesome news: Lisbeth Salander is still kicking ass! This book was much more focused on her actions and her past, which is the primary reason I loved it. It was lovely to see characters come out of the woodwork to defend and support her. There can always be more badass women.

While Larsson's style of writing is not my favorite, for the reason mentioned, I think he has great skill creating realistic and likable characters.  This is where that overuse of detail comes into play. When I learn exactly what's in Lisbeth Salander's satchel (which happens at one point), the mundane details make her more realistic. Larsson portrays his characters like he's a little embarrassed to let us see their private lives, which feels so natural that you relate to them more like an actual human being, not a plot device.

Just like the previous book, the plot is focused more on the motivations behind the murders than on the murder part. Just like the previous book, interesting things happen, but they are all packed in the last hundred or so pages. Again Lisbeth Salander is freaking fantastic and Michael Blomkvist is mediocre. If you liked the first book for these reasons, you'll like this book. If you liked Salander more than Blomkvist, you'll like this book even more!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume 2

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: Fiction/Mystery
Pages: 871
Warnings: Some Racism, Sexism, Murder and Kidnapping
Rating: 3.5/5

The Return of Sherlock Holmes
The Valley of Fear
His Last Bow
The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes

I suppose I started reading this collection for the same reason I watch regular TV shows every week. I wanted consistently interesting short stories, and that's exactly what I got. However I made a mistake reading them all straight through in this convenient collection, and the formulaic plots bothered me more than they would have otherwise.

One thing I cannot get over, and I think the whole Sherlock collection looses points for, is the lack of humor. There is just no comic relief in these tales, which made them difficult to read one after the other. I don't think this would have bothered me as much if I'd had another book to alternate between, but I was in a bit of a dry spell, literature-wise. Some might argue Sir Doyle attempts humor in those scenes where Holmes asks Watson what he thinks about such-and-such then corrects him, and the reader is supposed to laugh at the doctor's thick-headedness, but I just felt bad for him. Watson is a dear character, and when you that remember from the reader's point of view (based on the evidence the reader has) his guess is just as likely to be true as Holmes', the whole joke seems very mean-spirited.

I mentioned it in my review of Volume 1, and I will only bring it up briefly, but Sir Doyle's portrayal of minority characters (anyone not white, land-owning, and male) leaves a lot to be desired. If he can't write non-priveledge bodies as being anything but a stereotype, I'd rather he didn't write them at all. Less briefly: it bothers me even more after reading "The Case of the Three Students", where the Indian student is treated by Holmes exactly like the two other (rich, british, white) students in the context of the story, which proves Sir Doyle could have written much more humanistic characters.

I did notice an improvement in terms of the mystery complexity, which I appreciated. No where is this more evident than in "The Valley of Fear", which uses an extremely similar set-up to "A Study in Scarlet". Both stories have two parts, the first of which takes place in 1890's England and the second some years previous in America. However everything else about "The Valley of Fear" is a vast improvement! The murder mystery is much more clever, the action is better paced, and the second part was well-introduced as well as being a mystery story in it's own right! Clearly Sir. Doyle had come into his own as an author by this point, and his skills greatly improved with practice.

I also enjoyed the change in Watson's "voice" over time. Sir Doyle seems much more comfortable in his writing abilities by "The Valley of Fear", and I felt there was less awkward prose. I noticed Sir Doyle has a very fanciful way of describing the scene, which appeals to me greatly. I shall always imagine a foggy London day as John Watson saw it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: Ending Elder Abuse, A Family Guide

Authors: Diane S. Sandell and Lois Hudson
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 144
Warnings: Descriptions and images of Abuse
Rating: 2/5

There is so much valuable information contained in this book! I wish it had been presented in a way that didn't take away from the content. Despite the title "a family guide", this book seems to have at least two additional goals. The book starts by telling the story of Ms. Sandell's personal experience with elder abuse, which is obviously not a guide, but does make the reader aware of the horrors of elder abuse. Mingled in the family guide are encouragements to lawmakers and CEO's to take elder abuse seriously, and consider creating grass-roots groups that would be able to enact change. Instead of being a family guide this book opens with a personal testimony and combines family-specific advise with advocacy advice, and this lack of clarity left me without any clear guidance.

I have no problem with Ms. Sandell's personal testimony, because the story itself was heartbreaking, and it encourages readers to use the data in the guide portion of the book. Ms. Sandell relates how she placed her mother, Bessie Jarvis, in a nursing home nearby. One day an orderly called her to say her mother was injured. When Ms. Sandell arrived her mother was covered with bruises, including a hand-print on her face. No one had reported this incident, and she was told by the facility that sometimes the elderly bruise easily. No one wanted to accept or admit what happened to her mother. It was terrible to read, especially when I imagined something like that happening to my loved ones. However Ms. Sandell refused to let things lie, and she discovered a network of people who were working to stop elder abuse, in all its forms. She went on to affect legislation in her home state of California, and continues to this day to participate in community outreach programs. 

The next few chapters are a jumbled mass of suggestions, advise, resources and coping mechanisms, in a haphazard and disconnected order. I believe the remaining chapters are meant to function has a comprehensive personal guide for caretakers when their elders can no longer live alone. However the formating in these chapters is variable, and the content is not organized. I feel the later chapters in this book could benefit greatly from rewriting. 

All together, this book was only a partial success. The first few chapters made me aware of elder abuse as a systematic and absolutely awful tragedy. They also left me with an urge to do something to affect positive change in this dire situation. However, the "guide" portion of this book was highly confusing, and left me with no clear idea about what I could do. There was some very useful advice for how to assess long-term facilities, but they were hidden in the back of the appendix!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Review: Talyn

Author: Holly Lisle
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 592
Warnings: References of forced sterilization, violent sex and rape
Rating: 4.5/5

By no accounts was this book perfect, but I'm willing to forgive a book a lot more if it makes me laugh. Right from the start the main character, Talyn, has a fantastic sense of humor that would have kept me interested in a much worse book. Talyn is a character I think most people can empathize with. She's straightforward, proud, and vivacious. Right from the first chapter I cared a lot for her, and I was emotionally invested in what happened to her.

Luckily, Talyn the book is a reasonably good piece of work, so there was very little to forgive. The plot is not at all what the first chapter leads you to expect, a routine war story. It's got fighting mind you, but that's not the book's strong point. In fact, it's for the best that the main focus of the storytelling it's a war, because the scenes which contained actual battles were a little lopsided. Instead Talyn's story takes you down a completely different track than a typical high fantasy war story, and I think it's all the better for it.

My biggest complaint with this book would have to be the ending. In fact, the last few chapters all feel a little haphazard, but the wrap-up was especially lousy. In Lisle's defense endings are the hardest part of a book for most authors, though. Still, I was disappointed by the sudden drop-off in quality.

Something that readers absolutely must be warned about is that this book doesn't shy away from sex. I find this to be a major plus, because I enjoy sexually liberated characters and raunchy jokes. Sex is by no means a major focus of this book, nor are the sex scenes terribly graphic. I just feel that if you're uninterested or unprepared to read about Lisle's forthright portrayal of sexual relationships, you might want to skip those portions of the book. Unless sex between a man and a woman, specifically rough sex, makes you very uncomfortable there is no reason to avoid this book!

The world Lisle creates is very interesting, specifically the conflict between the two nations in conflict, the Tonk Federation and the Eastil Kingdom. The entire book is spend in the Federation, a loose collection of city states united by their ethnicity (Tonk). Lisle favors the Tonks, which I don't mind terribly, because it's so rare for a egalitarian, chiefly society to be portrayed in as much detail in fantasy books. Usually the main culture is a kingdom (or kingdoms) and chiefdoms are on the fringes.  The Tonk/Eastil magic system is equally unusual. The change in pace is refreshing.

There are a lot of good technical points in this book's favor, but I like it so much because it made me laugh, over and over again.