Sunday, July 22, 2012

To Green Angel Tower

To Green Angel Tower, Part 2 (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, #3; Part 2)To Green Angel Tower, Part 2 by Tad Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This series requires a lot of patience. The most important conflicts are metaphysical, and much of the time is spent with single characters struggling with their situation, with no one around to interact. The first couple books can be forgiven their slow pacing, as the pace gives you a tone and evokes feeling, but eventually, you need interaction or actual action.

I did enjoy the series, it was a throwback to my high school days. There were things that are well done. Binabik and Tiamak are great characters, with unique, creative backgrounds. The book subverts the Sword of Plot Advancement trope, though in the end, the method of victory feels unsatisfying.

Given the changes that epic fantasy has seen in the past 2 decades, this series feels a bit vanilla. It's a pretty good vanilla, but there's nothing truly new happening here.

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second book(first: Never Let Me Go) by Kazuo Ishiguro that I've read. This is a quick read(I read it on vacation in about a day or so). Though the two are quite different in content, I think I have a sense of his style/writing technique.

With intransigent problems, human nature is to avoid deep thinking on the subject. In order to live daily life in relative happiness, our brains ignore things we can't change. But every once in a while, we're forced to confront them.

Ishiguro carefully builds undercurrents. The narrator of the book withholds emotional information, sometimes drowning themselves in minutiae, tangents, or technical details, in order to avoid discussing the main point. Often times, the tangents appear to have real weight, and often entertain in themselves, but they're used as a way to draw your mind away from the central problem. But eventually, you begin to feel the shape of the emotions. In the end, you feel the same sense of lost opportunity as our butler does. One review describes the resolution as devastating. This might be an overstatement, but the tragedy is palpable.

I feel like I need to justify why this literary fiction deserves 5 stars when I gave but 3 to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Both novels are introspective, atmospheric, and set in important historic times. In character, plotting and tone, Ishiguro has superior skill. His characters are more likable, his plot more satisfying, his tone is more deeply woven into the narrative. Both books are tragedies, but The Remains of the Day attains a catharsis, while McCullers' tragedy never breaks the surface. In other words, Ishiguro is just better at it.

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart is a Lonely HunterThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is literature. For people who don't like literature, it's a book where nothing happens, where navel-gazing characters interact without changing anything about one another. No challenges are overcome, no lessons are learned, no problems are solved.

For people who like literature, it's a fascinating dissection of loneliness, the futility of human communication, the divisions caused by poverty, race, disability, and non-conformity.

For me, it's a little bit in between. While I was reading, I found the characters' voices interesting. Their philosophy was so different from my own, that it was like a window into an alien mind. When I wasn't reading, I had no reason to pick up the book. There were no dangling plots to tie up, no intrigues to follow, and no underpinning story arch. The ending is extremely anti-climactic, with characters ending up almost exactly where they started. No one's life is improved. While there is tragedy, there is no catharsis.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Dragonbone Chair

The Dragonbone Chair (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, #1)The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Starts off with a vibe like the Disney cartoon Sword in the Stone, moves to something a bit more Tolkeinish, but has underpinnings of norse mythology menace. The book never leaves behind that feeling of Arthurian legend.

I first read this book a long time ago, probably back in high school. I'm always curious to see how books I read then will hold up now that I'm so much more mature, wise, and world-traveled. This one stand up well.

I found myself liking the chosen teenage boy protagonist a lot more than I thought I would. This is probably due to a tricksy author, who spent a lot of time with him living his castle drudge life, not hating it, but acting pretty much like a normal teenager. He is witness, not actor throughout most of this section, and witnessing the slow decline of a kingdom after its beloved king dies. Accordingly, there is a slowness to the start of the novel. For some readers, it might be too slow, but for others, it's just a little luxury. Tad Williams varies the pace rather well. There are some breakneck paced sections, but this is not a breakneck paced book.

The Dragonbone Chair was originally published in 1985, so if you get annoyed with classic fantasy story elements, you may find yourself rolling your eyes some, but there are genuinely original elements and feel to the book.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The MagiciansThe Magicians by Lev Grossman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Narnia, Hogwarts and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, mixed in uneven amounts. Doesn't rise to the level of any one of those books, but provides a little bit of commentary on each of them. The author is consciously drawing on the first two books, with subtle commentaries on the unreality of them, so I don't take points off for that. The protagonist is taken from a real world, put into a fantasy where everything is great, then dumped back out into the real world with fantastical powers, then goes back into a fantastical world with real consequences. In some sense it's pretty cool, but the hero is a little whiney, a little too imperfect. Sure, it's hard to live in a world where you can get by without doing much. There are tons of college graduates struggling with it right now. But in the end, you need to join the community and contribute. I can't really sympathize with someone who reacts by partying and losing his moral compass.

That sounds really negative. I did enjoy this book. It was fun to explore this new world. The characters are original, even in this consciously derivative world.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #1)Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In some ways, this book is deeper than a standard military fantasy book. It's politics resemble those of the historical hundred years' war, but in an alternate setting. For the most part though, it is what it probably aims to be, a dark, fun book with a sense of comraderie among likable villains. When I say villains, they really are villains, not rogues with a heart of gold. The book begins with a scene of looting, murder and rape(offscreen) in the aftermath of a battle against poorly armed farmers. You never quite root for them, except in the sense of turning their destruction on more worthy targets. In all, a book for those who enjoy this type of book, not for everyone.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

One Night

I've been watching a BBC program called "One Night". It's one of those shows that uses multiple viewpoints to slowly reveal and fully explore a single event in the format of Rashomon.

 It's a really well-made show, with quiet moments, action that could never be mistaken for glossy or glamorous, some beautiful shots, and interesting commentary on human behavior. It takes the little frictions we experience in our daily lives: a bad experience with customer service, the insecurity of throwing a party for someone you want to impress, the fallout of random acts of vandalism, the expectation of persecution among those living in dangerous places coupled with the sense of superiority of those living just outside them. All of these social rough spots are woven together into a beautiful and tragic story.

Its setting is somewhere between suburban and urban, and they use real UK accents and slang, so it can be a bit hard sometimes for the american ear. In particular, the second episode, it took me a long time to really sympathize with the boyfriend, instead of just thinking the girl was wasting her time. That may be by design, but it could also be that I couldn't parse the slang and find the flirtatious content. If you can be patient, the story is worth it. It's just 4 episodes, each an hour long, so it's less of an investment than most American TV. I give it 5 stars.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A modest proposal

I'm going to break format here for a second. I was listening to This American Life, and they were discussing money and politics. They were doing their best to follow the money and find where it comes from, who it goes to, what effect it has on elections and what effect it has once the election is done.

Off Topic: One of the most surprising things they found is that lobbyists don't hound politicians, politicians hound lobbyists(like a telemarketer hounds senior citizens).

For those with short attention spans: click here

I think that everyone has decided that there's too much money in politics. Even if you don't think it corrupts the process, you have to think, there must be some better use for this money. Imagine if all those millionaires and billionaires were to use that money to fund new businesses(job creators!), or even just donate it to their favorite charity. I'm not really going to argue this point here, but you can if you want to in the comments.

But assuming money is bad for politics, the real problem is, how do you divorce money and politics? Everyone knows it takes a lot of money to run for office. Many congresspeople spend at least some time every day(365 days a year) doing fund-raising. Every attempt at campaign finance reform has tried to control the source, or the expenditure of the money. What if instead, they just cut off money for campaigning for everyone? I mean, maybe in this day and age, with the magic of the internet, we don't need so much money for campaigning, right? I'm about to get radical, and probably infeasible.

What I'm thinking is this: For any given office(senator, representative, city council), there is one campaign. The campaign sets up events, debates, town hall meetings, televised or not[1], depending on the budget, and importance of the office. The campaign has a certain(preferably small) budget, provided by the state, local or federal government. All the candidates for that office are invited to all these events set up by the campaign[2]. The campaign provides equal time at events to each candidate(or equal space if it's a meet and greet), and an equal budget for signage/publicity materials[3].

Candidates are required to qualify by some method. It could be paying a fee(somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000), which they can raise however they wish or maybe by getting enough signatures on a petition[4].

Candidates can use twitter, facebook, or any other free service to get their message across. They can create a website on a space provided by the campaign. They cannot buy any advertising. Premium services can either provide free access to all candidates, or to none.

In short: I propose that no one contributes to political campaigns[5], and that for any one office, there is instead a single budget shared between multiple candidates, with the side effect of prohibiting political ads.

Does that sound crazy? Is there any way to get from here to there?

A few notes:
1. I'm guessing that there would be a lot less politics on the TV. In the age of the internet, maybe that's ok, since you can still get your message out to anyone who wants to hear it. But would this mean less political conversation in our society? or just less work for that guy who does voice overs for attack ads?
2. Who's going to work at the campaigns? What if they aren't impartial? Who do they report to? I'd like their philosophy to be: "My job is to make this the best race for treasurer there ever was. We'll have 10 people at our meet and greets instead of 5(including the candidates)."
3. What if you get 20 candidates who qualify? I guess that just means you split everything into smaller slices, but then how do voters tell that 15 of them are crazy? I guess you have to set the qualifying bar sufficiently high to avoid this, but you also want to set it low enough that grassroots efforts can reach it.
4. One danger of having all the parties in the same place for events: riots, or compromise. Currently, there's a subculture of heckling at political events, but maybe if there was more political mixing... Of course, we could just have separate but equal events...
5. The constitutional argument being that maybe money isn't speech after all, so no one should get to vote with their wallets.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Desolation Island

Desolation Island (Aubrey/Maturin, #5)Desolation Island by Patrick O'Brian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a while, Hollywood tries to put together a nautical tale of courage and danger. White Squall, The Perfect Storm, even a movie based on this series of books -- Master and Commander. There is something about the sailor's life that is compelling. Months at sea, close quarters, the variable morality of those before the mast(the enlisted men) and those abaft the mast(the officers) cause a certain social tension.

In a book such as this, the discussion of pintels, forecastles, orlop decks, hawsers can either turn you off the book, turn you to a dictionary, or turn you into a willingly ignorant, but bedazzled spectator, as the intricacies of managing a ship are described in details that allow you to understand only the broad strokes of the action. I actually feel a lot like Dr. Maturin in the novels. I somehow feel like a knowledgeable amateur, when in fact, I only kind of know the difference between a wear and a tack(wearing is a slower way of turning to catch the wind when it's not blowing in the direction you want to go).

Somehow, above these details, the action in this entry in the series is particularly riveting. Sea chases, monster storms, and antarctic shipwrecks make for exciting reading, aside from the spy intrigue and shifting loyalties of the crew which a careful reader can get much satisfaction from. Patrick O'Brian is never one to point out the subtleties. An example is a midshipman, nervous of heights, takes one trip up the main topmast with his captain. We're never explicitly told, but his name is mentioned later, and we know his continued presence speaks of his loyalty to Lucky Jack Aubrey.

The movie made from these books is kind of a conglomerate of the novels, and it seems a few of the elements were pulled from this one. If you liked that movie, there's a good chance you'd like these books.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

The Kingdom of Gods (The Inheritance Trilogy, #3)The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In elementary school, we read stories about Icarus, Hercules, Midas and Zeus. We learned that Hermes was fast, and a messenger. And maybe he towed the Sun across the sky in a chariot? Neptune was kind of a jerk, and Hades was evil, but not? And of course, our Greek mythology was confused with Roman names, and there was something about the titans who wanted to swallow the world. Anyway, it was cool. Everyone likes mythology when they're little. Even if it's just for the pegasi, or the medusa.

N.K. Jemisin has tapped into that same sense of delight at a world where the powers that be are personified. These mythological characters spend most of their time loving, betraying, holding grudges, and considering the value of keeping mortals around. Then, sometimes they have to keep the world from being torn apart by crazed, ambitious, or vengeful siblings and/or offspring.

This isn't the kind of book(series of books, this is the third) I would normally like, but something about the prose, or about the characters kept me really interested. There was just enough political maneuvering, mystical action, and metaphorical adventure.

I have to mention that there was a lot of morality bending in this book. The gods' genders are malleable, and their attitude towards sex is that it is never a shallow thing, but monogamy is for mortals. I was never very comfortable with the author's treatment of all things sexual. There were two things that made it bearable. Sex was always described in spiritual terms, and almost never physical. The morality of gods was distinct from the morality of mortals. I never felt like a certain idea was being pushed. It was just that they were entirely different things.

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Simon of Space

Simon of SpaceSimon of Space by Cheeseburger Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 2005, just before Episode III of Star Wars came out, there was a story on about a blog, The Darth Side: Memoirs of a Monster, which was fan fiction, written as if from the journal of Darth Vader. At times it was funny, at times human. It was well timed for all those eagerly waiting(despite the disappointments of Episode I and II) for the birth of Darth Vader. And I think it did prepare me in some way, it made the movie seem deeper. Soon after reading the Darth Side, I saw that he had written a novel, in blog form, called Simon of Space. I began reading, and found a very compelling story and world. Melinda is wary, she doesn't like Space novels. But this is a very human story.

Simon is an amnesiac. He lost his memory in a hyperspace travel accident. Sounds like a bad sci-fi movie? That's what everybody tells him. What makes this book so enjoyable is Simon's optimism, decency, and friendliness. That and the unconventional prose. Matthew Hemming (more commonly known as CheeseBurger Brown), has a way of approaching things from a different angle. Comparing the first moments of memory to the first day of an infant's life is but one way we are able to inhabit Simon's head. The absurdity of his life encompasses the basest, crudest functions and interactions: bowel movements, hot nurses, and farting dogs, as well as the deep, complicated things: trust and fatherhood.

As Simon takes his tour, trying to find his purpose, the imagination, and preparation of Mr. Brown becomes evident in the variation and beauty of the worlds. There is obviously an entire universe with its own history to explore, and we're only seeing parts of it. He's written more stories in this universe, and if you enjoy this book, they're well worth visiting.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

March Violets

March Violets (Bernard Gunther, #1)March Violets by Philip Kerr
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This hardboiled detective novel was set in 1936 Nazi Germany. Melinda immediately asked if he was after Nazi treasure, because she was just expecting the cliche. The novel doesn't fit in that cliche, though it probably follows the film noir detective plot pretty closely.

The little bits of life under a Nazi regime are fascinating, with associations for ex-convicts, secret police, unsecret police, the non-military military uniforms, propaganda, and the olympics. These setting details don't get in the way of the story, though I sometimes wish they did. I find the details of governing through fear fascinatingly horrifying.

Unfortunately, I don't think the hardboiled genre is for me. Up until the last 3/4 of the novel, it was amusing to read the similes and metaphors that drive the point home, this guy is tough, bitter, and cynical. In the last 1/4 of the novel, it just got too dark. And it wasn't the Nazis, but the treatment of women. This just wasn't the right book for that content. I'm sure that sometimes our literature needs to expose the injustices of the world, and that sometimes means including scenes that are dark and evil. But this wasn't that book. And I'm not sure I want to read those books. I guess I'm judging a little harshly for what was probably one page of the whole book. But I didn't like that page. And it kind of ruined the book.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Kingdom on the Waves

The Kindgom on the Waves (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, #2)The Kindgom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not a happy book. The tragedy is eloquent and slow building. It's almost enough to make you wish the redcoats had won. But in the end, neither side is that sympathetic from the perspective of the slaves.

The Revolutionary war tends to be romanticized, cast as a conflict of freedom versus tyranny. A war of rhetoric and patriots. Patrick Henry: "Give me Liberty or give me death." The federalist papers. George Washington crossing the Delaware. Minutemen militias and muskets.

All of that is true. But it's all a little sanitized. The rhetoric was passionate, but also inflammatory. The Boston tea party was a mob, and they were not kind to those loyal to the king. Liberty was a grand new(ly important) idea, and it was still incomplete. Liberty to own slaves was as important as taxation without representation.

This book is about the part of the revolutionary war that was a war, with soldiers, cannon, imperfect officers, disease, poor rations, and death. The author in his afterword talks about how he wanted to dispel the historical fog that surrounds the revolutionary war. I think he did that.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Astonishing life of Octavian Nothing

The Pox Party (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, #1)The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this while at the same time I was watching the Civil War documentary by Ken Burns. The combination of reading about a slave living through the American Revolution and watching the terrible war fought over the evil institution made me mad. It made me mad to think that some people still try to frame that war in terms of State's rights. In reality, it was a war fought for the southern elites' right to own slaves, fought by an army where very few of the soldiers owned slaves.

Back to the book. I found the feeling of uncertainty that the characters felt about the cause of Liberty to be insightful. They were conscious of the hypocrisy inherent in rousing rebellion in the name from Liberty, while fearing that their slaves might be incited to revolt against them in retaliation. I felt that the characters exhibited true human reaction to great times, from calculation, to rapture, to misgivings and misery.

The prose, while not usually dense, leaned toward a more formal tone, emulating the letters of the time. I love reading words used in slightly different ways than we are used to. It stimulates a part of my brain that uses words. I write more when I'm reading those kinds of books, and I feel like a more interesting person.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Some Original Fiction

Snow Crash, despite it's pulp fiction pace, still has a couple insightful moments like this one:

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherf... in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
This rang so perfectly true, not for me, but for my wife. She's constantly playing out scenarios involving mexican drug runners, dark alleys, and martial arts(or knives, or guns). And she loves bunnies. So I wrote a story for her:
Melinda was an english lop with long, silken ears. They were finely veined, and Melinda was always careful when grooming them to never leave a mark.

Melinda was never the biggest bunny. Sometimes, in fact, she was the littlest rabbit, but she was always careful to eat healthy foods, and exercise regularly. She would tie her ears back, and make experimental runs in her little part of the forest.

Melinda had a little sister that she loved to visit. They liked to talk about different ways to spruce up their burrows, or different ways to prepare their meals of Italian parsley, with Cheerio croutons, and garnished with small triangles of banana.

One day Melinda heard about a new way to make a banana pie. She wanted to share this with her sister. As she hopped towards her sister's burrow, she began to worry. Something seemed off. Maybe there was too much quiet, or maybe some of the undergrowth wasn't where she remembered it. By the time she got to her sister's burrow, she was creeping forward on her belly.

She sat just inside a hawthorn bush and watched and listened, waiting, almost paralyzed. Finally she heard scuffling, and a group of chinchillas were backing out of her sisters burrow. Dragged behind them, kicking powerfully, and swearing as only she could, was her sister.

Melinda's first instinct was to charge. She always imagined herself as hardcore. She knew she was in shape. She knew she had an aggressive streak. She knew... that in reality, she was the littlest rabbit. And littlest rabbits don't win by charging. Littlest rabbits observe from the shadows. They look for advantages. They find leverage, and they are patient. So she squashed her instinct, opened her eyes, and watched, disapproving, as the chinchillas did their slow, nefarious work.

She saw their darting gazes, alert for dangers from every dark crevice. Melinda saw her angle. She darted from bush to bush, pausing only long enough to rustle a branch, or to leave stones skittering behind her. When the chinchillas, obviously out of their element, began to look all around them in alarm, Melinda leaped, with a prodigious thump, high into the air.

Later practitioners of the buninja arts would call what she did then, "death from above". Her work done, melinda licked her ear. Her sister stepped away from the chinchilla she had disposed of in the chaos of the fray, and invited her back for a cup of mint tea. Melinda and her sister enjoyed a beautiful banana pie.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Snow Crash

Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great fun. This book barrels along at a fast pace, and never slows down. Has a bit of swearing, and one sex scene, which is pretty easily skipped.

In a world where the government has downsized to a small suburb in LA, and Corporations have franchised the functions of government, traffic travels at a pace somewhere between Mad Max and Falling Down, and customer service is king.

It's meant to be outrageous, not careful, so an elite hacker samurai, who delivers pizza for his living is perfect for a protagonist, especially when his name is Hiro Protagonist.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Baker's Boy

The Baker's Boy (Book of Words, #1)The Baker's Boy by J.V. Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Very different from her Sword of Shadows books, this world is populated by villains and innocents. She avoids complex characters, right up until the end of the book. The simplicity is sometimes in itself entertaining. The villains are mustache twirling plotters, the innocents are a maiden and a baker's boy, both running from home. With interjections of guards telling each other (mildly) dirty stories, and dropping hints about the intrigue between the villains, the book feels like a melodrama. The shadows of complexity arrive in the storylines about Tawl, a knight, and Nabber, a child pickpocket. Starting from far away, their trajectory seems to place them like a meteor streaking between the villains and innocents, and it's not exactly clear what their influence will be.

I'll be reading the next book in this trilogy, though I don't find it as original and compelling as her later books.

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