Thursday, April 10, 2014

read: All You Need Is Kill (5 stars)

All You Need Is KillAll You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I prefer to read books before they're adapted into films. I don't mind it the other way around. But reading the book first gives me a chance to establish the character in my head before seeing it on screen. When I started seeing previews for the film Edge of Tomorrow and discovered that it was based on this book, I made sure to snap it up ASAP. The premise sounded very interesting and I wanted to be sure to read the source material before Tom Cruise got too far into my head. I'm glad I did, because he's almost the exact opposite of the twenty-something Asian protagonist of the novel. On the other hand, he's so different that it would be difficult for anyone to mistake his world-weary fifty-something American character for the same guy. It will be interesting to see what bits the filmmakers kept and what they completely reinvented.

The premise is simple. As the film poster puts it: Live. Die. Repeat. This is basically Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers. Keiji Kiriya is a fresh recruit in a war against alien invaders. He's thrown into battle, barely prepared, and comes to a pretty quick end. But then he wakes up and is pretty sure it was only a dream. Except he re-lives the events of the dream in startling detail until the sense of deja vu is overwhelming and only explanation is that it wasn't a dream. He's actually stuck in some sort of time loop.

Since this is translated into English from Japanese, it's difficult to know how much of the terse writing style comes from the original author and how much from the translator. I'm sure it's a bit of both. It fits the story and keeps the reader turning pages. It's very readable and I never felt lost. Description and introspection is applied appropriately. War is gritty, messy and painful. Soldiers are real people. Backstory is skillfully woven into unfolding events. The story keeps moving. I'm sure the word count puts this more into novella territory than novel, but there is plenty of character and story to make this a novel.

I really liked this book. It's well worth reading before Tom Cruise gets into your head.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

read: The World Below (3 stars)

The World BelowThe World Below by Paul Chadwick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Paul Chadwick notes in the introduction to this collection that this series was his attempt to broaden his audience and write something different than his successful title, Concrete. It focuses on an ensemble cast, rather than a single main character, and hearkens back to old-time adventure stories as well as new ones, like Lost. My personal take is that it's basically "Journey to the Center of the Earth" meets "Alien".

As an adventure with a sci-fi tinge, it measures up on several fronts. There are plenty of weird creatures and situations in a totally alien setting. It's handy to be on, or rather under, the Earth so that its not unreasonable for the team to be small and privately funded. On the other hand, the landscapes would make much more sense as the surface of a different planet. My educated brain couldn't make the leap to allow for so much undetected subterranean space and variety of life forms (even if they are supposed to be from another world).

The art is often up to Chadwick's fine standard. The humans are identifiable and relatable. The layouts and angles and settings are beautiful. Some of the alien creatures and machines are amazing and alien. Many of them aren't. They're muddles that seem like random collections of pieces and parts that barely make functional, much less anatomical, sense. This may have been intentional, in fact a couple of creatures seem to be capable of trading limbs and at least one machine appears to be made up of somewhat independent parts. And they are supposed to be alien and mysterious.

The characters are serviceable, if not entirely relatable or rounded out. Chadwick attempts to make them distinct and three dimensional through conflict and flashbacks, but with so much else happening on each page and the constant tug to move on to the next situation, much of this seems tacked on and easy to ignore. As he admits in the Intro, the first couple of issues are a bit short on exposition and this is exactly a few more bits of background might have created a firmer foundation for the cast.

I had a fine time reading this book. I enjoyed Concrete immensely and had looked forward to this title since I first heard about it. If it weren't for the problems with subterranean geology and biology (and some clunky writing), I'd probably give this four stars. As it is, I give it a solid three.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

read: Apocalypse: A Novel (3 stars)

Apocalypse: A NovelApocalypse: A Novel by Dean Crawford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At its core, a techno-thriller needs three things: a high concept (technology or device de jour), an irresistible force (the villain and his scheme) and an immovable object (the hero and his convictions). All three have to be believable to make the book hold together. The rest -- characters, plot, settings and writing -- are what make the book enjoyable. Dean Crawford's "Apocalypse" has all of the above, in various measures, and turns out to be a reasonably enjoyable read.

The device de jour in this case has something to do with time travel, and it takes pretty much the first half of the novel to get any kind of traction into what that's about. The latter half of the novel continues to ruminate on this concept, pretending to go into details (though sometimes contradicting itself) about how that might be accomplished. It's a high concept alright, and tons of fun (until someone gets hurt), and complete hogwash if you think about it hard enough.

The irresistible force in this case is Joaquin Abell, who the world sees as a philanthropist. But whose true motivations, of course, turn out to be questionable at best. He plans to use the time travel technology for the betterment of mankind. The problem is that he isn't all that interested in what mankind has to say about the matter or how many casualties there are along the way.

The immovable object is Ethan Warner (and his partner Nicola Lopez) a freelance private investigator with government ties and a suitably unfortunate background that is alluded to from time to time, but doesn't affect the enjoyment of the current situation. They're brought in when one of Abell's scientists is suspected of killing his own family, but calls the police himself and causes quite a stir when he seems to accurately predict the future. He inexplicably insists that they call in Warner to get to the bottom of things.

What works: The time travel concept is presented with just enough hand-waving to make it seem plausible enough for the purposes of the story. It is used to good effect to create an intricate plot that mostly holds together over the course of the story. There are no egregious bouts of info-dump to spoil the pacing. Just a few pages here and there that could have been pared down a bit more. The large cast of characters is well wrought and well used, though I think there are a few too many. The fight and battle scenes are pretty detailed and realistic.

What didn't work: I think both the character problem (which led to a few pacing issues) and some glaring issues I have with the author's prose could have been remedied by a couple more ruthless rounds of editing. There are some turns of phrase that are repeated, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, as the author keeps trying to string together too many thoughts into a single sentence. And as he stumbles his way in and out of situations, instead of just letting them transpire. To top it off, there is a glaring violation of the story's own rules about how time travel works. For a page or two, I thought the writer was going to turn it into a certain kind of plot twist, but instead he blundered right into and through it, and left it lying there, ignored, as he wrapped things up. Oh well, it wouldn't be a time travel story without a paradox of causality.

All the good stuff adds up to at least a four-star novel. Some rigorous editing would have gotten it there. With one star knocked off for the bad stuff, this is still an enjoyable three-star book. It's definitely something to read on the plane or beach this summer.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

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read: A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel (3 stars)

A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical NovelA Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel by Gaurav Suri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another book I had high hopes for, based on the blurb and the recommendation of a friend. It has math. It has philosophy. Since those subjects both interest me, it sounded full of potential. But I wound up disappointed. I was so disappointed, I almost didn't finish the book.

My main disappointment is with the plot, which was paper-thin and obvious from the beginning. There's this guy and he, through a few quickly dispensed situations, winds up in college with graduation day approaching. A series of unconvincing events puts him in a class that is part math class, part philosophy discussion. He makes new friends. He meets a girl. Already you know that they will discuss math. They will discuss philosophy. He might get involved with the girl.

So they do all that. The author tries to make things more interesting by adding the sudden discovery that the guy's beloved grandfather spent time in jail and so he has to research that, too. But all that plot description makes it sound more interesting than it really is, because that takes up about 25% of the words in the book. The other 75% is taken up with endless dialogs about math and philosophy, either presented in the classroom, or a jail cell (while a judge and the grandfather work through the motivations for the grandfathers 'objectionable' behavior), or at various contrived situations around campus.

At various points the endless dialog, which is always in language far to lofty to come out of ordinary, human mouths, is broken up by fictionalized letters and journal entries from historical mathematicians and philosophers. These are also written in language either too lofty or too modern to be based in reality. The contrived and awkward situations, discussions and documents all kept me from connecting with the story and characters and really enjoying the ride.

This book would be improved by either ditching the 'novel' portion or making it stronger. As it is, the math exposition, while interesting and central to the theme, overwhelm the fiction.

The only reason this gets 3 stars, rather than 2, is because of the intriguing subjects. It did get me to thinking deep thoughts, which I believe was the point of it. But the lack of personal connection and the awkwardly scholarly language kept it from approaching 4 stars. Only recommended if you like math (or are unoffended by it) and are likewise unoffended by flowery dialog and thoughts that do not reflect the way real people behave.

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

read: Pacific Rim: Tales from Year Zero (4 stars)

Pacific Rim: Tales From Year ZeroPacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero by Travis Beacham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fun preface to the blockbuster movie. Gives a little context to the strange world of Kaiju and Jaegers.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

read: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal (4 stars)

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book fooled me (in a good way). Having not previously read anything by Christopher Moore, my expectations were entirely set by the title, the blurb, and the recommendation of a friend. I thought for sure that it would be nothing but throw-away zingers on the order of Monty Python or Douglas Adams (or even Harvard Lampoon), that any historical and religious reality would be right out the window, and that any resemblance to the life of the Biblical Jesus Christ would be entirely coincidental. I was (mostly) wrong on all counts.

There are plenty of zingers. But usually not in the set 'em up and knock 'em down one-liner style of Python or Lampoon. The humor here is usually more subtle, between the lines. I'm sure (as evidenced by other reviewers) that one can enjoy the stories and jokes at face value. But readers that can bring a deeper understanding of history and culture will catch and enjoy oh so many more twisted references to both ancient and modern culture.

Don't get me wrong. This is not a history book. The author confesses as much in a much appreciated Afterward. This is a story. But the author did do his research and tries to keep things real, even as he's stretching the truth and warping time to make things funny. It's also not a religious book. Nope, it's pretty profane. And also vulgar. The former is probably necessary for the humor. You don't get laughs without breaking a few rules and knocking down some icons. The latter is just for style.

To say this is an irreverent portrayal of the life of Christ would be an understatement. But the undocumented years of the life of Jesus of Nazareth (or Joshua bar Joseph, as portrayed here) give the author a vast playground in which to play. Looking back over two thousand years, who can say what the boy was really like? The teen? Probably not the contemporary kid portrayed here. But just as unlikely is the sanitized, homogenized version that many Christians and popular culture have in their head.

To those who say that this goes too far in skewering cherished doctrine, as well as those who don't think it goes far enough in knocking down religious mythology, I say, in the words of Foghorn Leghorn, "It's a joke. I say, It's a joke, son." This is a funny story loosely based on the life of the Messiah, the Son of God. But it is a story. And it is funny. And if you choose to believe the Jesus would have never had a friend named Biff nor an almost girlfriend named Maggie, that's your choice. But I found it fun to make believe for a few for hours that they did exist and that they did enrich the life of that young man.

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

read: The Wobbit: A Parody (2 stars)

The Wobbit: A ParodyThe Wobbit: A Parody by The Harvard Lampoon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book. My recollections of its predecessor Bored of the Rings are of an uneven, but chuckle-filled, delight that I wanted to share with my friends. Unfortunately, this book is only uneven, sprinkled with a few smirks, and I can't recommend it.

It's a shame, really. Tolkien's books seem like a prime target for parody. As are the overblown films that Peter Jackson makes out of them (and I enjoy the heck out of both). If parody is defined as a deliberate copy done for comic effect, this book only vaguely fits the definition. All that is borrowed from the original work is a rough outline of the plot (with little comic effect) that is used to string together a hodge podge of cultural reference one-liners that don't even come close to telling a story.

A few jokes are amusing. There are some good shots at Aaron Sorkin and the walk-and-talk. Dumbledalf's conflation of the worlds of The Hobbit and Harry Potter brought a couple of smiles. Also humorous were characters like L. Ron and his disciples, the Internet Trolls (actual trolls), and the idea of Elvisking.

What didn't work at all was the character of Billy Bagboy, the obvious stand-in for Bilbo Baggins. Rather than be the charming, confused, and frightened center of the story and thoughtful representative for the reader, he was presented as an obese, lazy oaf. Without a likable character for the reader to identify with, the book counted on its jokes to drag the reader through to the end. And since most of the jokes seemed to misfire, it was a real slog to push through the whole thing.

Read the cover. Skim the first chapter or two. If you're laughing out loud, or even giggling, you might enjoy this. If not, I'm afraid it doesn't get any better and you should give this book a pass.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

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