Thursday, March 20, 2014

Shakespeare's Pub, by Pete Brown

Shakespeare's Pub: A Barstool History of London As Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub - The George Inn, by Pete Brown

Pete Brown truly understands the appeal of a pub. Not just the camaraderie when sitting on a stool with a beer, but the security blanket aspect they can project in absentia as well. "We take pubs for granted. We think they'll always be there when we need them, unchanging, just how we left them. And if we don't visit them for weeks, months, or years, and we come back and find them changed, we're outraged. If we come back and find them closed, we berate all the other people who should have come here more often and kept them in business." This innate understanding of our relationship colors every word of Shakespeare's Pub for the better.

I enjoy hanging out at my local pub, but I certainly couldn't write over 300 pages about its history. Of course, B. B. Rover's hasn't been around for over six centuries, either. The George Inn at the foot of London Bridge is so old that the actual opening date is lost to the dusty past, but Brown does an entertaining job of sleuthing and maintains that it goes back to at least the 1380s. "If you are writing a history of anything, it makes sense to start that history with the date the damn thing was first built, invented, born or otherwise hurled into existence." He then proceeds to cover the entire history of the inn and southern London through the present day. This time period covers the rise of live theater (Shakespeare's Globe Theater was nearby), popular literature (Dickens used the George as a setting for Little Dorrit), and the entire stagecoach era (the George is the last remaining coaching inn in London). Pop culture references are used throughout (the TARDIS is used as a literary device to occasionally change the time period) and the footnotes often had me in stitches. This is the first of Pete Brown's books I've read but it certainly won't be the last.

First Sentence:
A century and a half, or thereabouts, after the last stagecoach thundered under the arch and out of its yard, the George Inn can be reached easily via the number 149 bus.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Heir Apparent, by Vivian Vande Velde

Heir Apparent, by Vivian Vande Velde

My mother gave this book to my son as a gift and he liked it enough that he wanted me to read it as well. I'm glad he wanted to share it with me and can see what he liked about it, although it wasn't exactly to my liking. Set in a near future where immersive virtual reality games exist, a fourteen year old girl named Giannine gets trapped in an artificial fantasy world where she has to solve the game or die in the real world. When the heroine makes mistakes she can reset the game and start again; while it allows Giannine to learn and grow it makes for a very repetitive read. I enjoyed sharing this with my son, but it is way too simplistic for my tastes—even for a book aimed at kids.

First Sentence:
It was my fourteenth birthday, and I was arguing with a bus.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stories I Only Tell My Friends, by Rob Lowe

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, by Rob Lowe

Rob Lowe is a fascinating man. He is best known for playing Sam Seaborn in The West Wing, but I always think of him as Billy Hicks in St. Elmo's Fire. Lowe's autobiography is told in an easy manner and brimming with wonderful anecdotes. Being a successful actor, the fact that it is filled with stories about other famous people isn't surprising, but the number of stories where he interacts with recognizable names as a pure coincidence is amazing. At one point Lowe ran into a guy at a Dodgers game that just happened to operate Scooter and subsequently got to visit the set of both The Muppet Movie and The Tonight Show. Lowe's mom married a psychiatrist whose brother worked as a CGI animator on a "cheesy Western" set in space—Star Wars—and invited Lowe and his brother to visit that set as well. At sixteen he meets a girl on the beach that he dates for a while whose parents turn out to be Dyan Cannon and Cary Grant. Lowe was born in Ohio but when he moved to Malibu in 1976 the house in which they lived was down the street from the Sheen family and Rob became close with Emilio and Charlie.

Other stories are more what you'd expect, such as becoming friends with Tom Cruise and Patrick Swayze on the set of The Outsiders, hanging out with Bill Murray in Paris, or a friendly rivalry with Michael J. Fox. You know, normal movie star stuff. Besides acting, though, Lowe is also known for his addictive lifestyle and a sex tape with an underage girl. He covers these topics as well, although not in great detail. Considering the book is named Stories I Only Tell My Friends this isn't surprising; when friends get together they tend to not focus on the negative. This is an entertaining, lighthearted read that gives an interesting peek into the life of a celebrity.

First Sentence:
I had always had an affinity for him, an admiration for his easy grace, his natural charisma, despite the fact that for the better part of a decade my then girlfriend kept a picture of hi running shirtless through Central Park on her refrigerator door.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Tour of the Merrimack, by R. M. Meluch

Tour of the Merrimack: Volume Two, by R. M. Meluch Tour of the Merrimack: Volume One, by R. M. Meluch

Straight up military space opera often feels a lot like a B action movie, and the Tour of the Merrimack is no exception. The Volume One omnibus comprises two novels, The Myriad and Wolf Star, and is followed by Volume Two which contains The Sagittarius Command and Strength and Honor. Set over 400 years in the future, the Roman Empire never actually fell but simply went underground as a secret society and survived throughout the ages. When America colonizes a planet named Palantine and the Romans come out of hiding and rebel, a space-borne civil war erupts. That conflict immediately stops and causes enemies to ally when a truly alien race called the Hive appears and threatens humanity itself.

The setup is fairly interesting and Meluch does a good job of depicting uneasy allies, but other than the plot there isn't a lot to recommend here. The novels are riddled with contradictions. Despite being much more advanced technologically than the US, the Romans can't seem to build battleships that can stand up to the Merrimack or her sister ship the Monitor. The Romans claim their society survived hidden for centuries because they passed their secrets down through the years to worthy individuals regardless of race, color, sex, or creed, yet when they arose again they immediately reintroduced slavery to the universe. The Hive are depicted as omnivores that exist only to eat and destroy and are vicious enough to force bitter enemies to come together to survive, but fairly easily dispatched by our heroes who just happen to be armed with swords. In space. Yup.

The plot structure is by far the best part about this series. The entire first novel is basically foreshadowing for the next two and there is a great twist at the end. The action is fantastic as well—hard not to like US marines in space fighting tentacle monsters with blades—and exhaustingly non-stop. There is a smidge of political intrigue as well and some of the most awkward romances I've ever read, but it is the fast moving adventure that makes this worth the time. These four novels make for an entertaining read, but thin enough that I'm not going to seek out the fifth.

First Sentence (from The Myriad):
A nightmare runs over and over again in a loop.
First Sentence (from Wolf Star):
"Occultation, nine by twenty-five by eighty-eight," the tech at the sensor station rang out.
First Sentence (from The Sagittarius Command):
The harsh white sun and the softer yellow day star shone directly overhead.
First Sentence (from Strength and Honor):
Lieutenant Glenn (Hamster) Hamilton was Officer of the Watch when the Emergency Action Message came in.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

I like Sanderson so much I might have to finally get around to reading the end of the Wheel of Time series. When Robert Jordan died Sanderson was hand-picked by Jordan's family to write the last book (which turned into the last three books) of the epic, but I never did get around to reading them. Sanderson is an engaging author, showing such a talent for dialog, plot, and characterization that even though I haven't had good luck with posthumous stories I think I'll give The Gathering Storm a chance. None of which has anything to do with Elantris other than my fanboy ravings, of course.

Elantris follows three main characters; Raoden, a prince afflicted with a magical disease, Sarene, a political whirlwind determined to save a country, and Hrathen, a priest determined to convert the world to his religion. All three are fully fleshed out characters, but Hrathen was my favorite despite being the villain of the piece. I really enjoyed Sanderson's approach to religion here, depicting Hrathen as being a zealot with a lack of faith. Hrathen is motivated by the mental challenge of converting an unwilling populate to his religion, but without the mindless zeal and fervor of his peers. Priests and monks are normally depicted as either heroic and perfect or wild-eyed and cruel in fantasies (true here as well other than Hrathen); seeing a thoughtful friar facing a crisis of faith made for a refreshing change.

As with his other books, the system of magic Sanderson creates in Elantris is unique. AorDor is a power that allows its practitioners to sketch symbols in the air that can heal, transport, and create illusions among other things. The twist here is that the magic is broken somehow, and Raoden's quest to figure out why drives a third of the novel. Towards the end Raoden gains a deep understanding and starts to realize there may be many other forms of magic that can channel the underlying power of AorDor, which alludes to the overarching universe Sanderson is creating that houses all of his books called the Cosmere. I hope this growing awareness of an inhabitant of this ecosystem points at stronger contacts between worlds in the future and more hints towards the mysterious backstory linking it all together.

Fantastic effort, and I look forward the inevitable sequels.

First Sentence:
Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Sex on the Moon, by Ben Mezrich

Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History, by Ben Mezrich

In 2002, Thad Roberts stole of some of the most rare and valuable items anywhere: moon rocks. Told in Mezrich's fictional non-fiction style, this is an entertaining romp telling how a brilliant kid with the world at his feet ended up in prison. Roberts is a fascinating person; raised in a strict Mormon household, when going on his mission trip he and his companions all told each other they'd already had sex. Roberts went one step further, though, and as he had been taught, confessed to his mission president. Instead of absolution, he was abruptly thrown out of the mission and the church, and after being returned home thrown out of his family as well. At nineteen years old, he was on his own with no support structure. From this inauspicious beginning, he reinvented himself as a scholar (majoring in geology, astronomy, and physics at the University of Utah) and an adrenalin junkie (becoming a pilot and a certified scuba instructor, and bicycling across the country), and eventually accepted into one of the most prestigious student programs in the country at NASA.

Why would such a confident and successful person commit such a public crime? The difficulty of the problem appealed to his intellectual side and the audacity of the act appealed to his daredevil side, but that is simply what made the act successful. What set Roberts off was when a scientist referred to the rocks as trash because they'd been outside of controlled environments and thus contaminated. Being a boy who had been disposed of by his religion and his family for being worthless, Roberts has a unique view on finding value where others do not; this view of the world is what led him to collect things he saw as unwanted. At Utah he stole "trash" fossils from the geology department for the same reason.

Doing a bit of research shows that Mezrich amalgamated several characters and there is a lot of dialog that couldn't possibly be authentic, explaining why this often reads more like a screenplay than a research paper. The gist of the story is accurate, though, and I learned quite a bit about a unique pop culture event—the theft of extraterrestrial material. While Sex on the Moon may be more "based on a true story" than "narrative nonfiction" it is still highly entertaining.

First Sentence:
There was something vaguely menacing about the folders.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Garner Files, by James Garner and Jon Winokur

The Garner Files: A Memoir, by James Garner and Jon Winokur

As a kid I used to watch Maverick reruns with my dad, and we both liked The Rockford Files as well. On the silver screen we were both fans of The Great Escape and Grand Prix, and Support Your Local Sheriff! remains my favorite western comedy (yes, it is better than Blazing Saddles, but they are close!). So yeah, I have always liked James Garner. His charm is evident on both the big and small screen, but that is what comes of being a top-tier actor. What is the man like off-screen? Turns out, pretty much the same.

Garner comes across as honest and sincere on paper, and not far from that self-confident image seen in much of his work. This isn't all that surprising as he doesn't consider himself a great actor in the classic sense, but simply reacts to what is happening in any given scene by drawing on his personal experience. In The Great Escape he plays a scrounger, which is what he did while serving in the Korean War. Maverick was a drifter, and so was Garner before he landed in Hollywood. He loves to race cars, competing in the Baja 1000 multiple times, making his performance in Grand Prix that much more authentic. He did many of his own stunts as well, ending up in the hospital entirely too often. He was once in a car that was expected to briefly burst into flames, but the fire didn't go back out as expected. The crew reached him in time and no harm was done, but his insurance policy for the film was cancelled. Garner continued to drive and finished the film, all without insurance. If that isn't the definition of macho, I'm not sure what is.

A lot of Garner's attitude towards life comes out here as well, and interestingly I seem to either passionately agree or passionately disagree on many topics. He is a huge fan of the Oklahoma Sooners; I love the Texas Longhorns. He is a self-described "bleeding-heart liberal," where I lean more to the conservative side. On the other hand, his approach to religion matches mine closely ("I don't like people who try to ram their religious beliefs down my throat. Hey, if it works for you, fine, but it doesn't work for me, okay?") and I was impressed by his early definition of self-respect: "I thought [Uncle John] was the most successful man in the world because he was content with what he had." Oh, and we both despise onions. Having drinks with Garner would be a fascinating evening.

Great actor, great guy, great book.

First Sentence:
Norman, Oklahoma, is located near the center of the state, in the middle of "Tornado Alley" where, April through June, dry polar air from Canada mixes with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico to produce hundreds of tornadoes.

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