Thursday, November 10, 2011

Acacia: The War with the Mein

Acacia: The War with the Mein (Acacia, #1)Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has a great plot structure. The arc of the story is well planned, and has potential for interesting conflicts and characters. The weakness comes from:

1. a sometimes too obvious use of a trope, such as Chekhov's Skill, or Orphan's Ordeal.*

2. related to 1, an uneven level of character intimacy. Two characters(the daughters) get great treatment of their progression, their conflicts, their relationships. They are in interesting predicaments, and you see a definite progression from one plot point to the next. You're shown the progress from A->B->C, not just told about being at A, being at B, being at C. The other two characters(the sons), we just get little vignettes where there is more explaining than exposition. This shallow approach makes it feel like those tropes have sharp edges sticking through the fabric of the story.

This is this Author's first fantasy book, coming from Historical Fiction. As such, I can see his predilection for understanding conflict as being a product of the past. There's definitely understanding of the relations of great powers, and the ability of an empire to co-opt it's conquerors.

Surprisingly, his grasp of the fantastic elements are quite good. He creates magic that is unruly, mystic, and has real drawbacks. When you finally do understand the "Tunishnevre", the mixed sense of menace, horror and pity is well portrayed.

In all, I think there's potential here. I'll check the next books out of the library,

* Using tropes in fiction is not a problem, in fact fiction is built out of tropes. Sometimes it can be fun to just list all the tropes in any fiction. We depend on a shared framework of storytelling for drama. It's natural, but the skillful storytellers cloak the tropes in characters, prose and action.

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very easy to read, format of letters to a stranger creates an intimate, well-divisioned story.

Like most fiction, this story takes all the dramatic things that could happen to the character, and they all happen. Which, while unbelievable, is a useful device for exploring the drama of being a teenager, and being a teenager who doesn't quite fit in the normal high school crowd.

The amount of sex doesn't jive with my own experience as a teen, and there's definitely some graphic content here. It mostly falls short of being explicit, however. I think I'd have a hard time saying it was ok for a teen to read, but for adults wanting to develop more sympathy for the teenage years, it's a great start.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Epiphany of the Long Sun

Epiphany of the Long Sun (The Book of the Long Sun, #3-4)Epiphany of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A continuation of "The Book of the Long Sun", which I reviewed earlier, this continues the story of a priest become revolutionary.

Gene Wolfe can write character voices. There's a lot of dialogue in these books, and sometimes there's not a lot of tags, like "he said, she said". It's still obvious who's speaking. After a couple words, you know if it's the always polite(politeness so sharp it can be a weapon) Patera Silk, the slang-dealing thief Auk, or the constantly hemming and hedging Patera Remora.

For a book that is so quick to read, I was surprised at how it had me using more words in everyday life. Some books are hard, and they exercise your brain, stretching it to places where it stores those more rarely used words. This book was able to do that without bogging down in parenthetical phrases.

As a book driven mostly by dialogue, some people will be annoyed by some of the voices, the tendency to interrupt, or fail to explain fully a point. Also, the action often happens in the dialogue. Threatening words might connote a raised gun. Of course, if you read the first half, then of course you won't be bothered by those things, so check out the first couple of chapters of the first book before committing to these two books.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

The Gates

The GatesThe Gates by John Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since I read "The Book of Lost Things" by this author, my wife saw this in the Library, and decided that I would like it. She read it first, and loved it. I read it second.

The author certainly has a theme: childhood lost. In the first it was because of a parent dying, this one because of divorce. The difference between the two books is in tone, and appeals to a bit different audience because of it. The Gates has a very light tone. The author uses the well known British humo(u)r to keep a story about Hell, demons, and the end of the world, appropriate to younger kids. The same humo(u)r might make you laugh out loud.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5)A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A continuation of the dark, complicated, political, magical(not in the fairies and unicorns kind of way), conflicted, frustrating(why aren't the good guys winning? Why can't I tell which ones are the good guys? Why did that guy, who I spent the last 4 books following and rooting for die?), surprising(see previous), and satisfying(some of those bad guys are getting what's coming to them) series, recently made popular by a TV adaptation by HBO. I love it, but there are many people who will be turned off by the dark nature of the book. If you can, it's a great series to read. If you can't, don't force yourself. It's good, but no one "has" to read this series.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

King's Dragon

King's Dragon (Crown of Stars, #1)King's Dragon by Kate Elliott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A pretty standard, kingdom in turmoil, invaders from the north, treachery from a royal sibling, mysterious waif loses guardian to nefarious forces, adopted bastard chosen by fate to be protector of the kingdom type of book. The execution however, is pretty good. The waif suffers true trauma. The kind of thing that can damage a person for a long time. And it's not how her guardian dies, but what happens after.

The religion is very catholic-like, with saints and priests, though a more gender-neutral(or even reversed) version of the church hierarchy and dogma. Religion is depicted mostly positively, though some members use the church as a vehicle of their ambition, others are sincere. Saints do appear in exceptional circumstances, but most of the time, people have to follow their religion the same way we do, with faith.

The structure of the kingdom is interesting, with a roving court, a semi-autonomous church authority, and a semi-matriarchal line of succession. The politics are introduced slowly, only halfway through the book are we given a real picture of how the land is governed.

The characters have some real progression, with loyalties tested, religious callings conflicting with religious morals, trauma forcing an escape inwards, and imperfect mentors.

I'll be reading more of this series. I'll let you know if it loses its interest. But I'm optimistic.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Riverworld, book 1 and 2

The Fabulous Riverboat (Riverworld 2)"To Your Scattered Bodies Go" and The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip José Farmer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I checked this out from the library, and I'm glad I didn't purchase it. The edition I checked out was an omnibus of the first two books of the Riverworld series.

My feeling is these books are like, "Wouldn't it be really cool if..." all the interesting characters of history were all living and ran into each other. And, yes, it's cool to think about, but it's not something you can base a novel on. It's more like a dinner party idea. Though, I've never been to that kind of dinner party.

The reason the idea doesn't really work is that the characters are restricted. Or at least, the author's ability to be creative with the characters is restricted. So the first book, written with a relatively unknown(at least to most modern audiences) character has a somewhat more interesting characterization. The second, starring Samuel Clemens, seems more forced, less natural.

The world is a little interesting--an artificial world with one long river, food and clothing supplied daily, but very little in the way of natural resources besides wood--but also unvarying. In a way it's an advantage, since after a single description of the landscape, it's easy to visualize wherever the characters may travel. You never feel like you don't know the place. The only difference is in the cultures of the people inhabiting the area. This gives you a sense of humanity being the landscape.

One thing I found surprising was the female characters. They were essentially objects. Not necessarily sexual objects,(though they sometimes were) but things to be acted upon, not actors in themselves. Sometimes Fantasy and Science Fiction are harped on for their depictions of women, and this book made me understand why. There's a big gap between the way Brandon Sanderson writes women, and the way Farmer did.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Bikes of New York

Something slightly different, free fiction, read it in full here:
The Bikes of New York


I read this a few years ago, but this story on slashdot reminded me of it.

A novella about the pressures of feeding a family and the difficulty of maintaining an ideologically pure rebellion. Starting with a startlingly believable premise that our economy fueled by oil crumbles, and instead of an unrecognizable world, it's a limited world. Cities are not graveyards, but they are dark at night. There's still money, there's still government, but the streets are filled with pedestrians, and power from an outlet is a luxury.

If it sounds like there's too much going on for something that's not a novel, set your worries aside. This is a focused story, with a sympathetic and flawed protagonist, action, villains who are both sinister and pathetic, and great speeches about the freedom to work.

If you don't like Science Fiction, try this anyway. Seriously. If you do like Science Fiction, try Simon of Space afterwards.

Has some profanity, and one euphemistic use of the word "Servicing".

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Shadow in Summer

A Shadow in Summer (Long Price Quartet, #1)A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Really a 3.5, but I wouldn't recommend this to non-fantasy fans.

A fantasy book with an eastern flair, and a tragic end.

Some people are annoyed with books that introduce fictional cultures and settings. This book is not for them. They'll complain about how that element was stolen from some culture, or how it interrupts the narrative when the author mentions a formal "pose" as a method of communication. And it's true, there are a few moments where it's not quite carried off the way it should. There are moments where the novelty of the culture is a little too intrusive, but they are just moments.

Mostly this is a political tragedy around a love affair. The love affair is not greatly explored, but it's motivations are clear and sympathetic. The politics are complicated by personal relationships that the players must betray. In the end, the book explores love that is not eros.

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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2)The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is storytelling. There is a cadence to the story, a pace that is just perfect. The story teller, telling his autobiography, lives in tragedy, yet the story he tells of his past seems to be that of a conquering hero. The juxtaposition underlines even the best outcomes with a sense of dread. You know that somewhere in these victories, lies the seeds of destruction. You could complain that everything seems to come too easy to our hero, that every obstacle is demolished, and every pitfall narrowly avoided. But Rothfuss has provided a frame, that allows the user to see the undercurrents of failure. Yes, the pitfall is avoided, but an enemy is left behind. The obstacle is demolished, but innocent blood was spilled.

The online literary term for the always too perfect hero is Mary Sue. I believe that Patrick Rothfuss wanted to play with the idea of the Mary Sue. He created a hero for which everything is just so easy, whose weaknesses are trivial. Then he fast-forwarded past everything, and imagined what might actually happen to someone who always won, without thinking of the consequences. Eventually, something Bad happens. We just don't know when yet. And that gives a darker tone to this otherwise bright tale.

*This was the first book I read on my iPod Touch. I enjoyed how easy it was to always have with me. I could bring it shopping with my wife, and while she picked out dresses, I could read my book. That's transformative.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost ThingsThe Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book about children in transitional situations, and the difficult feelings insecurity can cause. It is not necessarily a book for children, and is sometimes quite dark. The author dips deep into fairy tales, and pulls the darker elements out to create a phantasmal world to reflect the emotional fears of a child. Like me, David loved books. He felt the power of a story, how they can pull you along, and come alive. I can say that during times of my life that I felt insecure, reading was a way of escaping, forgetting, and recovering. Reading a triumphant story could help me feel triumphant, that awesome things (things full of awe?) do sometimes happen. Perhaps only in my mind, but that made them no less real.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dragon Keeper

The Dragon Keeper (Rain Wild Chronicles, #1)The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like Robin Hobb. She's very good at writing an epic story where the characters spend most of their thoughts and efforts on non-epic subjects. In most of fantasy, there is a quest to save the world, and most of the time, characters talk about or work on this quest. Robin Hobb's characters spend a lot of their time thinking about who they're with, what their place in a group is, what they have to do right now, and often don't have much of a plan, just like real people. I think it is telling that the magic of her world has nothing to do with fireballs, healing or dark wizards. Instead it is about relationships. The magic affects bonds between people, and sometimes animals.

This book deals with feminism, dominating partners and closet homosexuality. There is no actual sex, but there is a viewpoint character who is attracted to men, and describes his first encounter with someone of the same orientation. This made me a little squeamish, but not terribly so. I thought the relationship with the dominating partner was very insightful.

Another angle that piques my interest is ecological. The dragons in this book are the remnants of an almost extinct species. Due to natural disaster, their life cycle was interrupted, and their habitat changed entirely. The river valley that once was their breeding ground has become a wide swathe of swamp, marsh and rain forest, with no dry land to build on. The water is always slightly acidic, and after earthquakes, will sometimes run white and strong enough to scald. Humans have built in trees, and have found the ruins of ancient cities, which they excavate for treasures that they do not understand. Dragons can no longer sustain themselves and must rely on the humans for survival.

As interesting as I make this sound, in the end this is a book about dragons. If you can't take dragons, you won't like this book. If you haven't read any of Robin Hobb's books, I would suggest starting with the beginning, Assassin's Apprentice, set in a different part of this same world, but more accessible, told in first person, from the point of view of a child growing up. Melinda didn't finish it, but I think it should be enjoyable to a wider audience.

*This was the second book I've read on my iPod Touch, and I quite enjoyed it. I may begin reading more ebooks.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Memorial Day by Vince Flynn

Memorial Day (Mitch Rapp, #5)Memorial Day by Vince Flynn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

24 in a book.

Like 24, if you try to take this book seriously, you can find plenty to critique. It's treatment of terrorism lacks nuance, and every character is a perfect physical specimen.

But if you're doing that, you're reading it wrong. The quote on the cover says "The king of high concept political intrigue". If you replace the "concept" with "energy" then it's right on. The story is kinetic.

Because I started this on the 6th book, I didn't have as much connection with "Mitch Rapp, Superagent", so sometimes didn't sympathize with him. I felt a little like my approval for his actions was taken for granted, even when those actions were very extreme. I believe that had I started with the first book, my ability to suspend disbelief for a story that I had invested in would be stronger, and my enjoyment better.

Now, because I think it's interesting, I'm going to talk about some things that prove I sometimes was "reading the book wrong".

1. In real life, I think Mitch Rapp would be very messed up. He would need serious counseling to function in civilized society.
2. In real life, the ticking time bomb situation is probably hopeless. If your intelligence has failed to that extent, it's probably too late to save it by torturing people for information. But maybe you do it anyway, because you have to try?
3. In real life, terrorists have a lot of different kinds of motivation(nationalism, personal revenge, power fantasies, religious radicalism). Not every terrorist is motivated by a radical reading of the Koran.

To be fair, this is a fantasy though. It's the author's attempt to say, "Wouldn't it be amazing if there were an agent like Mitch Rapp, working against terrorists, keeping us safe?" And even a way of saying, maybe there's not one person doing all these things, but it's amazing the things people are doing to keep us safe.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Warded Man

The Warded Man (Demon Trilogy, #1)The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can only barely give this 3 stars.

The world is quite interesting. A post apocalyptic fantasy world, where much has been lost, and the world is shrinking. Humans are losing a war with the demons who cavort in the night. The small towns on the edges of human society are dying out slowly through terror and despair. The Free Cities who depend on the raw products are unable to extend their protection further than their walls.

See, doesn't that sound interesting? The author is really good at setting up opportunities for himself to shine. He can focus on the small terrors and hardships of poorly slept nights, or the banality of laying your head down with only the wood walls between you and whatever stalks the night.

He could explore the frustrations, inadequacies and pettiness of the leaders in the cities, and explain how easy it can be for people living in The City to forget that anything important happens anywhere else(Yes that means you, New Yorkers).

He tries to discuss the difficulty of teaching hope to those who have lost it, but the big problem here is that this is his first book. At least, I hope that's the reason he couldn't build the atmosphere to go with his world. With just a little bit of gray, his book is filled with Black and White. His powers of description fail to bring the terror to life. His characters fall in love unconvincingly.

Now that I have picked on him, I have to say that the book was entertaining. It was imaginative, fast-paced, and the action was good enough. I'm having a hard time deciding if I will buy the second book. Authors often improve dramatically after their first book, so I think I will.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Everything is Illuminated

Everything Is IlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a 4.5-star book that I had to downgrade to 3 stars because of semi-graphic sexual content that was at best tangential to the book.

A story of culture clash told in two timelines. The modern timeline was my favorite, and is where all the punches land. The older timeline feels more like it's giving depth. It's the story of a town, and the author wants you to feel the weight of its history, its humanity. And he does that, generally following the descendants of a single family, but branching out with other little anecdotes and documentary bits.

The newer timeline is really fun, told by a ukranian guide with an interesting grasp on English. The characters start with self-deception and posturing, and there really are interesting depths that they discover.

The sex is never quite graphic enough to stop me from reading, but was enough to make me feel uncomfortable recommending this book. The point of its inclusion was lost on me, except that I think the author considers it an important element of humanity?

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Litany of the Long Sun

Litany of the Long Sun (The Book of the Long Sun, #1-2)Litany of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The good things about Gene Wolfe:

He relies upon, and builds the reader's intuition. When characters interact especially when strong emotions are at play, Wolfe doesn't underline anything. There are no expository emotional statements. We're expected to intuit from the tone of the conversation and the physical manifestations the emotional charge of a conversation. At first, this can leave you feeling quite lost. In fact I missed some moments for sure. In the beginning, when something of import occurs, I sometimes didn't realize until a few pages later. As I read, I got a sense of how characters talked, and how they reacted to things. It became easier to spot when their tone changed, or when they might be lying. This same technique is used when exploring the world. There aren't any places where you're told, the world is like this. This word means that. The immersion in the world isn't because he's drawn you a picture. He wants you to instead be a pair of eyes, dropped into the world. Much of what you first see doesn't make sense, because it's all new to you. Eventually, it comes to feel natural.

The bad things about Gene Wolfe:

His plot relies a lot on luck. Not the kind of I win at everything kind of luck, but the kind of luck that places the right people around you. The kind of luck that takes a character with no political ambitions, and places him in the center of things. In reality, unambitious people are never at the center of world events. Perhaps that's part of what he's trying to say. Our idealized concept of leadership is never met today, because our systems prevent any such people from attaining positions of power. But at the same time, it weakens the plot.

The good things about Litany of the Long Sun:

The main character is religious. And he's not ridiculous, stupid, vain, annoying, or any other stereotype that is often placed upon religious characters in modern fiction. Instead, he is sincere, devoted and loving. He is not perfect, he acknowledges his sins, and is not incapacitated by guilt.

Wolfe's prose reads at an elevated level. Not to say that it's better or worse than the prose of a writer like Brandon Sanderson, but it's written in a more grand(?), poetic(?), literary(?) kind of voice. In all honesty, if every book I read was written in this voice, I'd get tired of it. But I really enjoy it every once in a while.

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Friday, January 7, 2011

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other StoriesThe Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Short stories are difficult, because they have to hit it out of the park. While none of these short stories was great, they were ok. Not as good as the Jonathan Strange/Mr Norrell novel was.

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