Saturday, December 28, 2013

read: NOS4A2 (4 stars)

NOS4A2NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very well-told tale. It's definitely horrific, and not just because of the supernatural elements. There are horrifying people and situations throughout. But that doesn't detract from the quality of the writing, which draws the reader in and holds onto them until the climax.

Holding the reader's attention for all that time is a neat trick. This is a long book. It covers many years. The protagonist is not all that likable. There are two antagonists and they are both despicable. Even the supporting characters are more than flawed. So it seems it all comes down to story, and storytelling. The author keeps things interesting and dynamic so that the reader is compelled to find out what happens next (and next, and next).

I don't usually go in for books that fall into the horror genre. But I like this writing enough that I will probably try another Joe Hill book.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

read: Cain's Blood (3 stars)

Cain's BloodCain's Blood by Geoffrey Girard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone not expecting a book about serial killers, or in this case, clones of those serial killers, to not be sick and twisted is fooling themselves. What we have here is a solid first novel that is genuinely creepy and not for the squeamish.

What's also a little creepy is the encyclopedic knowledge about serial killers, their lives and their 'careers' demonstrated by (and freely acknowledged by) the author. He uses this knowledge to build a world where he can freely explore the issues of nurture vs. nature and the consequences of unfettered scientific inquiry and military avarice along the lines of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The characters and settings here are well-drawn. The prose is strong and the plot well-developed.

What knocked me out of the story from time to time were the glaring inconsistencies and implausibilities in the science. Is this about cloning and genetics and free will? Or is it about a nerve gas that overrides all three? It tried to be about both, using the latter to provide a (superfluous) ticking clock to add urgency to the story about the former.

It will be interesting to see what this author does in the future. He's already published a young adult novel that is a companion to this book.

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

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Monday, December 9, 2013

read: Steelheart (4 stars)

Steelheart (Reckoners, #1)Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fast-moving super hero story where the supers are not heroes. The physics in this story are beyond ridiculous, basically comic book science, but the story and characters are well told and well drawn.

The story is told in first person by a young man out to get revenge against the Epic (that's what the super baddies are called) that killed his father. He insinuates himself into a revolutionary cell that he thinks will help him achieve his goal. Along the way to a satisfying conclusion that sets up a sequel, there are complications and angst about the morality of their actions.

Bring a heaping helping of suspension of disbelief and hang on for a wild ride.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

NaNoWriMo Washout 2013

So I didn't finish NaNoWriMo this year. Again. This was my ninth attempt but only my second washout.
It doesn't seem like anyone is surprised. Except me. At least a little. I really thought I could do it. Maybe.
I knew I could overcome the usual odds: only about 30% of participants achieve a winning word count. After all, I've finished seven times before, plus three successful attempts at Script Frenzy. I've had fun. Writing is almost always fun. The words start flowing and as long as I have the time and focus, I can pound out the requisite 50,000 words and still have a bit of a life in November. 
The last time I didn't finish, there were extenuating circumstances (which you can read about here). This time around I guess I saw the writing on the wall and simply chose to ignore it. What happened?
  1. Not to be too blunt about it, but this year my Dad passed away. It happened 5 weeks before the start of NaNoWriMo. He was pretty sick for a couple of months before that and I was pretty wrapped up in helping my family take care of him. Then he was gone and it hit us all pretty hard. But I decided that at least trying to accomplish another NaNoWriMo was better than not trying at all. If I was lucky, I might even get some sort of a crappy draft I could use to write a real novel some day. Nope. No such luck. Grief is a tricky beast. It sits there quietly for a while, letting you think everything might be all right and you can get back to living your life. You even get some days when you write 3 or 4 thousand words. Then it sits up and simply devours your life for a time, hours if you're fortunate, days if you are not. It consume several days of writing in November. I had a lot of days with nothing to show. And just as many with only a few hundred words.
  2. Family is a wonderful thing and usually pretty manageable in November. Most years, we NaNoWriters only have to worry about losing Thanksgiving Day itself to family, along with a few other obligatory hours here and there. This year, however, in the context of the loss of my Dad, family time became precious time and it was difficult to let any of it go. That cost me at least another five full days. It's possible I could have written for at least part of a couple of those days, when I was just traveling. But truth be told, my heart wasn't really in it.
  3. That's really the core issue here. This year, my heart just wasn't in it. On top of the obvious, I chose the wrong story to work on this year. I needed something that would fire up my imagination, something that would get me out of the here and now, and something that didn't require a lot of wrestling with reality. I needed something big and bold and crazy. For some reason, I instead chose a quiet mystery story where I didn't understand the mystery or the characters involved or the McGuffin. I thought I had enough to just get rolling and let the writing lead me, but that didn't happen.
So here I am at the end of another NaNoWriMo with only about half the words I need to win. As recently as yesterday, I thought maybe I could use the last three writing days to at least put me over 30K (or even 35K!). It's not happening. Am I disappointed? Only a little. At least I tried. At least I had a bit of a distraction from all the other stuff. And maybe I learned a couple of things.
  1. If I ever tackle another straight up mystery, I can't settle in with a subtle antagonist. I need somebody with a genuine evil purpose. I need someone trying to make something happen that captures the attention of my protagonist. I need something more entertaining than based in reality. I also need to work out the antagonist's plans and purposes before I dive into the protagonist's story of discovery.
  2. Corollary to that, a mystery requires a more detailed outline, timeline and map. Who's related to whom? On what days do things happen? Where do things happen? Those questions have to be answered before writing the first sentence. I was already becoming convinced of this. Now I'm more convinced. I just need to do it. This requires patience and focus and application.
  3. Corollary to that, next time I come up on NaNoWriMo and want to participate and don't have a well constructed outline, etc., I will rummage around in my trove of story ideas and, instead of choosing the most sensible one, I will choose the most outlandish one. Maybe that will give me a big enough sandbox to play in and write 50K words in 30 days.
In the meantime, where's the remote? I've got 3 or 4 weeks of television to catch up on.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

read: Fiddlehead (4 stars)

Fiddlehead (The Clockwork Century, #5)Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cherie Priest takes her Clockwork Century series out with a bang with Fiddlehead. She gives us a crazy scientist predicting the end of the world, spies, counter-spies, corrupt politicians, and plenty of wacky steampunk technology that has no business existing in the mid-nineteenth century.

The writing, as usual, is crisp and clear and fun. It takes things just seriously enough to keep the reader in the story, but adds the dash of fun that's needed to propel things past the preposterous. On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed by the kitchen sink approach to this entry in the series. Especially toward the end, there were callbacks to characters and situations from previous books that felt a bit forced and rushed. Sort of, 'Hi there. Remember me?', over and over to wrap things up in a neat package. Some of the connections could have used more elaboration (but without belaboring them).

The bottom line is that I enjoyed the ride and am sad that it's over (for now, at least). I'm looking forward to future offerings from Cherie.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

read: Still Foolin' 'Em: Billy Crystal (5 stars)

Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My KeysStill Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys by Billy Crystal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Very entertaining survey of the comedian's life. I recommend listening to the audiobook version to get the extra inflection of Billy Crystal's voice.

The reader/listener will be shocked (shocked! I say) to learn that Billy grew up in a happy home, has always been pretty funny, and didn't go into comedy right away. I should have recalled, but learned more deeply here, that Billy has a love of baseball, especially the New York Yankees, that is long and deep and is rooted in the limited time he had with his father.

This is a love story between Billy and life, with a little death thrown in for added poignancy and drama. Recommended for any fan and even non-fans.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

read: October Fest (4 stars)

October FestOctober Fest by Jess Lourey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thoroughly enjoyable mystery set in small town Minnesota. This is the sixth book in the series, but the first one I've read. Fans of Lake Wobegon and residents of the Midwest will recognize the cozy setting immediately.

The author does a fine job of getting new readers up-to-speed and into the story world without belaboring the point. This sort of story needs plenty of quirky characters, interesting settings, and seemingly mundane activity surrounding a viable mystery-to-be-solved with multiple suspects. October Fest provides all of these in a highly readable, fast moving volume.

I did find myself wanting a bit more Oktoberfest activity, though, since that is the title of the book. But beyond the immediate context of the murder, much of the story delved into other happenings in town.

I am looking forward to many happy returns to Battle Lake, Minnesota.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

read: Bad Monkey (3 stars)

Bad MonkeyBad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was kind of funny. Not laugh out loud (LOL!) funny. More like occasional amused smirk (lol) funny. The mystery was engaging, if a bit drawn out by the side adventures and extraneous activity. The characters were well drawn, if a bit over-the-top and all-over-the-map. This ain't Elmore Leonard, but who is?

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

read: The Wee Free Men (4 stars)

The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30)The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun frolic through an engaging fantasy world. The characters are all quicker of wit than you or me, even when they are in mortal danger. This is the story of a young witch in the making and how she comes to discover that she is both a witch and a grown up. Her allies in her quest are a band of 'Pictsies' known as Nac Mac Feegle (or Wee Free Men), who will fight and drink nigh anything and speak in a brogue so thick it's often easier to skip past it and rely on the context to understand their meaning. It all comes together for great fun, perhaps even a 5 star read for the right crowd.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

read: The Three Little Javelinas (4 stars)

The Three Little JavelinasThe Three Little Javelinas by Susan Lowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not much more explanation is needed than "The Three Little Pigs" recast as javelinas outsmarting a coyote. Well told, well drawn, well done.

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

read: 2312 (A Novel) (3 stars)

23122312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An epic tale of a possible human future.

You can't fault the author's imagination here. He obviously spent some time extrapolating science and human nature 300 years into the future and came up with some pretty off-the-wall stuff. The problem for me was mostly the shear overwhelming volume of it all. This future is so wildly imaginative that I could scarcely keep my feeble brain wrapped around all the concepts.

I also had some difficulty identifying with the main characters. One is a 140 year old, hermaphrodite, mostly female, galactic hippy that usually acts about 1/10th her age. The other is a younger and often wiser mostly male who's having a mid-life crisis and follows the woman around the solar system in an infatuated fog.

I almost gave up when the story kept bogging down describing cities that crawl around planets and asteroids (become spaceships containing odd self contained communities) that rocket between planets and avoided describing the very interplanetary conflict that was supposedly driving events. But I powered through for the sake of my book club and wound up appreciating the sweep of the story.

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

read: Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman (3 stars)

Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan ShermanOverweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm a big fan of Allan Sherman, but not so much of this book. While I appreciate the obvious breadth and depth of research, and even the author's often insightful analysis of Sherman's work, the narrative got bogged down in irrelevant details (I don't need everyone's address and the name of every uncle, aunt, and cousin) and repetitiveness.

On the positive side, when the book covers the comedian's work and Business dealings, this reader learned things he wanted to know (I had no idea Sherman was instrumental in Bill Cosby's career). I just longed for more of this sort of thing.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

read: A Once Crowded Sky (3 stars)

A Once Crowded Sky: A NovelA Once Crowded Sky: A Novel by Tom King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I read the cover blurb for this, it sounded like something I would really like--an examination of super heroes, power, failure and redemption along the lines of Watchmen, but in prose. It is all that. But it takes a while to get there. And the reader is required to put in some effort to jump into a story in progress and hold onto the disparate story threads until they are woven into something more coherent.

The writing is good, if at times a little stylized, written in the present tense like a comic book. This keeps things moving. The characters are many and varied and have realistic, for the story world, reactions to things.

What ultimately disappoints is that the story feels like it wants to be epic. The characters and setting demand and imply it. But it's not. It's a little thin and repetitive where it should be dense and action packed.

I think comic book fans will be intrigued enough by the premise to push through and enjoy this book. Fans of literature might also be interested enough to see how this experiment turns out. I doubt that others will find enough here to captivate them through the end.

[Disclosure: I received a free copy for review.]

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

read: The Devotion of Suspect X (2 stars)

The Devotion of Suspect XThe Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I almost did not finish this one. The prose is repetitive and uninspiring, the characters are flat and barely distinguishable, making the entire experience feel like watching the pilot of a cop show from the 1980s that did not get picked up. The only reasons I pushed on to the end were that this was a book club pick and there was just enough suspense that I had to see what the author had cooked up as the final solution.

That final twist is the only thing that bumped this from one star to two. It's a pretty good twist. But then the author goes and ruins it with a denouement full of melodrama. Maybe something was lost in translation.

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

read: The Loch Ness Legacy (5 stars)

The Loch Ness Legacy (Tyler Locke, #4)The Loch Ness Legacy by Boyd Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Boyd Morrison knocks it out of the park again. His globe-trotting engineer, Tyler Locke, is swept into the middle of a yet another global threat and once again he uses logic, science, and action-hero skills to save the day.

This time the threat involves biological warfare and the Middle East. The puzzles revolve around Charles Darwin, Nazis, and the Loch Ness monster. The action starts in Paris on top of the Eiffel Tower and travels to the remote reaches of Washington State and back to the depths of Loch Ness.

Once more, the author takes some liberty with science, a bit more with history, and manages to create an almost believable situation that keeps the reader turning page after page. The writing is solid, smart, and sometimes funny.

I recommend this for those who enjoy the adventures of James Bond or the books of James Rollins.

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Saturday, August 3, 2013

read: Telegraph Avenue (3 stars)

Telegraph AvenueTelegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was so looking forward to this book. After the over-the-top suspense of The Yiddish Policemen's Union and the bittersweet comic book epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, I was hoping for more fine writing set in the California music world. Boy am I disappointed.

First, the cast is too big. There are really six main characters (four too many) and they are all supporting characters for each other, along with the other (even more!) supporting characters. Thankfully, Chabon does a reasonable job of making them distinct individuals. I found it difficult to pick one to identify with for the duration of the story.

Second, the prose suffers from authoritis. It's just too much. I like it when an author spends some time choosing their words and constructing beautiful sentences. It gives life and adds poetry to what can become dull deliberation. But there was so much of this here that it felt like Chabon was just showing off.

Third, the large cast meant that there were too many plots. Each of the main characters had a life changing situation to deal with and most had sub-plots. Chabon may have been going for realism here, but this is a novel and too much realism makes the story lack focus. It feels jumpy and full of vignettes, rather than a continuous stream. Perhaps that what the author wanted, but I didn't like it.

Fourth, there were too many side-trips to nowhere. I don't need the complete backstory of every mother the midwife tends to. I don't need President Obama popping up at a party for no good reason.

On the other hand, there is a richness to this writing that immerses you into record shop and the apartments and the cafes and the warehouses these people inhabit. If you have the time to spend meandering through this world, you may be rewarded. But if you don't have patience for it, you may just be frustrated.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

read: Snow Crash (4 stars)

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

Absolutely bonzo extrapolation of a privatized future and science fiction application of computer viruses to the human condition. When the protagonists are samurai pizza delivery men, renegade computer hackers, underage skateboard messengers, Mafia dons, and Asian businessmen, you know things are messed up. But it all seems perfectly plausible here.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

read: Sniper Elite: One-Way Trip (4 stars)

Sniper Elite: One-Way Trip: A NovelSniper Elite: One-Way Trip: A Novel by Scott McEwen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once you've invented and built a killing machine, turned it on and pointed it at an enemy, you'd best get out of the way while it does its work. That's essentially the story here.

On the one hand, the killing machine is a man. He has hopes and dreams, desires and loves. The story tries to get a bit of that in. This helps humanize things and get the reader to identify with the sniper. We also see how it motivates the machine.

On the other hand, the man is a machine. A deadly machine that observes, calculates, attacks, survives and kills. Most of the story is about the machine and how it single-mindedly fulfills its mission, even without the approval of its masters.

The writing is compelling, especially the latter half. It's full of (almost too much) detail and realism about the military, the politicians and bureaucrats trying to control them and the opposing forces. The reader can almost be excused for believing the story is non-fiction.

The book almost lost me at a few points. During the first half, there seemed to be a few too many viewpoints. The time spent with the bureaucrats as they discussed the situation dragged on and on. During the operation, I got the feeling that the depiction of the main character, the sniper, was going a bit too far. He was too good, too smart, too resilient to bullets and bombs. This made him a bit more like James Bond than the realistic character the story called for.

All in all, though, this was a very enjoyable book.

[Disclosure: I received a free copy for review.]

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

read: Catching Fire (4 stars)

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is very good sequel, indeed. And Indeed it is a sequel. If you didn't read the fist book, you would be lost in this story (go and read the first one, now). As it is, it is a challenge to associate all of the returning character names with what happened in the previous volume. On the other hand, the key characters are just as distinct and memorable as ever. Once again, the story takes off and doesn't let go. The pace is not quite as breakneck as the first time around, but the author doesn't waste anytime making life difficult for Katniss and her family. And then things get worse.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

read: Ready Player One (4 stars)

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if all those hours (days, weeks) you spend playing video games and watching trashy television could pay off with a huge fortune and controlling interest in the largest corporation in the world? What if life in the real (AKA outside) world was generally so crappy that most people find refuge inside a ubiquitous, immersive video game (called OASIS) controlled by that same corporation? These are the big questions posed and addressed by this romp through 1980s nostalgia set in a bleak near future of 2040. Really, this is just a giant 80s nerdgasm.

The story is really quite simple. A poor boy, Wade (AKA Parzival, nee Percival), from the stacks (of mobile homes near Oklahoma City, a nigh-impossible construction given the huge tornado-magnetism of such a thing) seeks a better life and goes on a quest. Along the way, he makes friends and enemies, meets and loses a girl, triumphs over challenges, and meets his greatest enemy on a field of battle. In other words, this is a quest.

What sets this telling apart is the constant barrage of references to pop and geek culture from the 1980s, due to the fixation on the era by the creator of OASIS. Most of the time, this is plenty charming. But it does get a bit wearing after a while. I also have my doubts that any one person could absorb an entire decade's worth of pop culture, secondhand mind you, in the space of a few years. Much less also have the wherewithal to master most of those video games, plus the worlds of OASIS. But that is the conceit of the book and Wade's superpower.

The writing is pleasing and crisp, though a bit episodic. There's a bit of a deus ex machina (or two) to help wrap up the ending, but they are somewhat excusable (I kept waiting for a twist that never happened). All-in-all, this is a decent read for fans of the 80s or video games or pop culture or all of the above.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

read: Without a Summer (3 stars)

Without a Summer (Glamourist Histories, #3)Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been enjoying these Glamourist stories, but this one didn't quite do it for me. The writing is still top-notch. The characters, their conflicts, and the world they inhabit are well-rounded and true feeling. This one just lacked enough story to really pull me in.

Mostly, the problem is probably my own. I'm not really in the target audience for stories that revolve around the crises of society, love and marriage. There's a lot of that to endure when all you want is to get to the 'good parts' of intrigue and global cooling.

It turns out the true cause of the 'year without a summer' is only briefly touched on in the book. I wanted there to be more of that. And more debate and conflict about it. Instead, the unseasonably cool weather is widely blamed on the coldmongers with only token protestations by those who know better.

Those who go in for this sort of thing will certainly enjoy it. As for me, give me something more like the previous volume, Glamour in Glass.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

read: Scarlet (4 stars)

Scarlet (Lunar Chronicles, #2)Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another fun 'retelling' of a fairy tale in a sci-fi future. It's all here: red riding hood (Scarlet), her grandma, the wolf (of sorts), plus a bunch more thrown in because the simple RRH story would not fill a novel. But once again, what could have been a five-star book for me has to get knocked down a point.

This time it's for violations of physics. This has nothing to do with suspension of disbelief to allow for cool future science. This has to do with simple stuff, like you can't jump onto a moving train and just ride it around when this is the future and trains are moving at high speed. Even if you did survive the jump, the turbulence would push you right back off. Also, why are people commuting around France in rocketships? It makes as much sense as another SF book I read where everyone has their own helicopter. Not gonna happen. Too fuel inefficient. And rockets are for getting Into Space, not for travel to a nearby city or town.

On the bright side, we got more cyborg Cinder. We got more background on what's going on in the world and that whole plague thing. And we got more conflict and character development. All good stuff. Once again, I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

read: China Airborne (3 stars)

China AirborneChina Airborne by James Fallows
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having not read too much about life in China, other than what occasionally makes it into the news, I found this to be a thought-provoking, if somewhat repetitive, analysis of the aerospace industry in China. I had not given enough thought to how a Communist country even went about trying to foster a high-tech industry that seems to thrive on competition and innovation. The answer, as seen in this book, is that it cannot. As long as the government sets the parameters for growth and success, its version of the industry will always be at least a step behind the rest of the world.

This book is easy to read and often interesting. The main issue is that about a third of the way through, the author has really made all of his main points. The rest of the book becomes more of the same. But if you haven't kept up with what's going on in China, this can be an easy way to get a glimpse inside.

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

read: Zero Day: A Novel (2 stars)

Zero Day: A NovelZero Day: A Novel by Mark Russinovich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book. The author is a software engineer; I'm a software engineer. He wrote a thriller; I want to write a thriller. He got published; I want to get published. I'm going to work hard to make my first published fiction better than this, however.

This is not unreadable, but it's overwritten and not compelling. I found myself skimming through it at a dizzying pace because not much was happening and most of the words on the page were giving superfluous backstory and description. This is supposed to be a thriller, pared down and full of impending doom and action. The author tried to create a sense of the former by describing the consequences of some computer crashes and tacked on the latter toward the end when our deskbound heroes suddenly started surviving gunfights. And then there is the gratuitous PG-13 sex thrown in to spice things up. What is needed are some stakes that really drive the story and the characters, not just a series of scenes that would barely support a Lifetime movie of the week.

There might be an interesting story in here somewhere. And some interesting characters. An agent or editor needed to tell Mr. Russinovich to go back and write another couple of drafts and find them.

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

read: Amped (3 stars)

AmpedAmped by Daniel H. Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is full of interesting ideas and interesting characters. A runaway plot powers everything along with reckless abandon. Underneath it all are the big questions of what it means to be human and what happens to a society definitively split between haves and have-nots. The writing is good enough that I went along for the ride. But the whole is less satisfying than all the parts led me to expect.

The biggest problem is that the main character spends most of his time reacting and recovering, rather than acting. We don't know what drives him, other than he has a chip in his brain and this puts him in peril from those who deem such 'amps' as a danger. He's too much of a blank slate for someone in their twenties that's made it through school and is a teacher.

For their part, the antagonists were not much better. For most of the book it appears that they are opposed to amps and want to round them up because they don't like them. That seems overly simple and so they all come across as dastardly villains, rather than real threats. Even the most developed antagonist is complex mostly because he is inconsistent, other than his consistent efforts to work against his own interests.

Bottom line is this is another fantastic concept of a book from Daniel Wilson, but once more he disappoints in the execution. Even so, I look forward to his next effort.

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

read: Pirate Cinema (4 stars)

Pirate CinemaPirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lively story that puts faces on the debate about copyright and intellectual property right protection.
On the one hand, I liked this story quite a bit. It's got good dollups of technology from the present and ten minutes into the future, along with a healthy dose of present day politics projected ten minutes into the future. I also liked the characters and Cory's writing brings them and the London setting to life.

On the other hand, it all seems a bit contrived. I never quite believed that the hero, Cecil B DeVil, and his companion squatters could be quite as successful as they are described, living on the edges of society. Then again, don't have any direct exposure or experience with such things.

There are long passages of explanations about copyright and intellectual property rights. It's pretty obvious that the author has an axe to grind here and things get a little preachy. Thank goodness that most of this gets broken up with some action or emotion and the the techno-babble is kept within palatable limits.

This is an easy and fun read and will get the reader caring about the characters and thinking about the issues involved.

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"Robot & Frank" [B]

"Robot & Frank" is a quiet, subtle film about a man and his robot. The man is a retired burglar, played by Frank Langella. The robot is an automated care companion foisted upon him by his son. He hates it. When the nameless little appliance demonstrates it might have skills beyond cleaning and cooking and the occasional enema, Frank decides it might be useful afterall. It's the sort of heartwarming setup that could easily descend into mindless humor and cliche. But it is saved from that fate by decent writing and a sly, low-key performance by Langella.

The story dances the knife edge of Frank's issues with memory and loss. It's obvious he's slipping away, more obvious to others than himself. But his flashes of insight and craftiness keep the audience guessing about his true mental state right up to the very end.

This isn't a science fiction film, or a caper film. It's the story of man grasping to hold onto what's left of his life. And the surprising helper that shows up just when he needs it.

Robot & Frank (IMDb)

Friday, February 22, 2013

read: The Fountainhead (1 star)

The FountainheadThe Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I really did try to get through this thing. But I can't finish it. It has no story. It has no humor. It has no character. It has no setting. It has no life. My life is too short to give any more of it to this.

It has humorless, cardboard cutouts without souls moving about amidst a sketch of mid-20th-Century New York, pontificating about architecture, life, and economics. The author understands none of these (or at least is unable to express any real passion about them).

Count me among the many who find Ayn Rand's reputation and fame to be out of synch with her talent.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

"In Time" [B-]

Pretty solid science fiction adventure, even if the economic system doesn't jive with the technology. Essentially, you have enhanced genetics for endless lives and wireless interpersonal monetary exchange and all sorts of digital tracking and communication. But time is always passed around through physical contact? And there are big banks (because time is passed through contact with physical media)? And there are no (seen) networks of transactions? It just didn't quite make enough sense to me, although the story was reasonably fun.

In Time (IMDb)

"Argo" [A]

I've now seen a grand total of two of the nine films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar of 2012. And even though this was a fantastic film, from the writing all the way down, odds are I still haven't seen the winner. One thing this film demonstrates is that it's possible to create two hours of tension and suspense without any on-screen gun battles or explosions. Real spies are so much more interesting than fake ones, even if the movies artificially compress and distort events to heighten storytelling.

Argo (IMDb)

Friday, February 15, 2013

read: The Roswell Conspiracy (4.5 stars)

The Roswell ConspiracyThe Roswell Conspiracy by Boyd Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved this book. It's not perfect, but it's the perfect blend of international action, science speculation, and mystery for me. The one thing that doesn't quite work is the title. It's a bit misleading and probably a barrier to many folks who would also love this book and an attraction to another population that will be greatly disappointed it doesn't take the Roswell connection far enough.

This is the third Tyler Locke book, but it stands fine on its own. The characters are likable and believable, if a bit familiar and flat at times. The settings, action and plot sweep the reader right past those patches and plunge you into exotic locales and heart-pounding situations in New Zealand, Australia, Easter Island, South America, and Mexico.

The physics, history, politics and archeology are a little speculative, but not far off the mark. This isn't off-the-charts goofiness. The author does a good job of weaving together disparate notions involving rogue Russion spies and scientists, ancient peoples, modern weapons research, and the privatization of space while keeping things feeling real.

I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys the adventures of James Bond or the books of James Rollins.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

"Les Misérables" [A]

Before this, sad to say, I had not seen any of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. I think it must be a grand conspiracy by filmmakers to dump all of the contenders into the holiday time period and I wound up busy with family obligations, etc. I'm glad I can see one or two before the Oscar ceremony. Then again, I'm still working through the lists from previous years.

I'm not sure what the Oscar chances are for this one. Yes, it's magnificently shot and acted. The directing and production values are amazing. But I found myself a bit disappointed. I have not seen the show on stage, but I think the music must work better there. It didn't really work for me here. It seemed flat and repetative. The added realism that the film brings made the story seem that much more trite. Even so, I found myself genuinely weeping at (the appropriate) points. So the film was doing something right.

Les Misérables (IMDb)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" [B+]

I was pleased that this turned out to be even a little better film than I hoped. The on-location shots in India are fantastically alive with energy, color, and light. The camera shows both the beauty and the squalor without judgement. The story is simple and heartwarming and the star-studded cast bring the characters to life and show why they are stars. Highly recommended.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (IMDb)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

read: Matterhorn (4 stars)

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam WarMatterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gritty. Raw. Violent. Tender. Heroic. That's war. That's what this novel captures and conveys. For those of us fortunate enough to have never experienced it first-hand, this book takes the reader as close to the action as most of us would ever care to be. We've seen some of this on television and in film. Yet in many ways this novel makes it more intimate, more personal, more real.

The descriptions are spot on and tactile. Some situations make the reader squirm. The story is heartbreaking. Boys grow into men in no time at all. Strangers become brothers. And then some of them are dead. This is war. Victory is elusive. Glory is fleeting. Heroism is unsatisfying.

The narrative starts by following the story of a Marine lieutenant fresh out of boot camp. Mellas is out of his depth, and so is the reader. You're just starting to get acquainted with him and his viewpoint when the perspective shifts to that of another officer and his ruminations about Mellas and the situation. That should be well and good. A limited third-person narrative can use multiple viewpoints. But the author gets a little liberal in his 'head hopping', handing the baton to any convenient character and sometimes doing it in rapid fire within a scene. The narrative even slips into omniscient viewpoint, describing things from beyond any single person. The overall effect created a distance between this reader and the characters. A tighter focus might have created more intimacy.

This could have been a great book. As it is, it's still quite good and I would recommend it. Just be ready to put some effort into slogging through the jungle with these grunts.

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