Tuesday, October 01, 2019

The Darwin Elevator, by Jason M. Hough

The Darwin Elevator (Dire Earth Cycle, #1)

Not quite 300 years in the future, Earth is visited by a mysterious alien ship that doesn't make contact or communicate, but builds an advanced space elevator over Darwin, Australia and then goes quiet. Eleven years later a worldwide pandemic strikes that either kills humans outright or transforms them into a violent feral state, save for a 4km radius right around the alien elevator. Almost five years after that, the elevator begins to fail...

I was skeptical when starting this novel; despite the fantastic premise it seemed like the characters were going to be shallow and clearly divided into "good" and "evil." While that is more true than it isn't, I found myself liking the leads quite a bit. Hough has a tendency to kill off these people as well, which coupled with the brisk pace of the plot creates quite a bit of suspense. The ending promises a bit of status quo to stretch until the next book in the series, but the whereabouts of several figures are left murky. Fun book, and I am looking forward to the next installment!

First Sentence:
Blood streamed down the inside of the tiny vial and pooled at the bottom.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Angry Optimist, by Lisa Rogak

Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart and The Daily Show was must-see television for me for years. His ability to skewer the news (and the newsmakers) was both hilarious and educating, and his eye for talent was amazing: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, and Josh Gad (among many others) all made names for themselves on the show. This biography covers Stewart from birth to around 2015 when he left The Daily Show. Largely a recitation of the main points of his life (birth, high school, college, stand-up, TV, marriage) there actually is an interesting tidbit here and there, such as officially changing his name to Stewart (after his middle name of Stuart) not to appear "less Jewish" but to distance himself from his father. Not a lot of insight into Stewart or what makes him tick, but as he is a largely private man a lot of what is in here was new to me. Clearly an unofficial biography.

First Sentence:
When Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz was born on November 28, 1962, in New York City to Donald and Marian Leibowitz toward the end of the huge postwar baby boom, he began a typical middle-class American childhood that was unremarkable for the time, and apparently very much strived for by the majority of people in the United States.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (The Song of the Shattered Sands, #1)

This is book one of The Song of the Shattered Sands, and if it is typical for the series, promises a rollicking ride. It takes place in a world with distinct Greater Middle Eastern influences: the women wear silk dresses, headscarves, and jalabiyas, while the men wear kaftans, abas, and burnooses. The city of Sharakhai is in the middle of a huge desert, the most unique feature of which is using boats with runners and sleds to sail over the sand. A major difference in the narrative from its real-life influence is that women aren't treated as a second class; the (female) hero doesn't have to fight prejudice, genuflect to men as a rule, or disguise her sex to be effective and respected. What she does fight are immortal wizard kings and disfigured nightmare creatures right out of the supernatural horror genre. Combined with blood magic and gods that still walk the earth, this is a fascinating world in which to tell a story.

The plot is fairly straightforward, with only a partial resolution—fitting for the beginning of a hexalogy. It does bounce back and forth in time which I found a bit jarring in places; Beaulieu always prefaces a time jump backwards with a phrase such as "Five years earlier..." but doesn't indicate when the narrative returns to the present. This made the narrative seem choppy to me, especially as the denouement approached. That said, it didn't significantly damage my enjoyment of the book, and can certainly see myself picking up more books in the future. Recommended for anyone that likes magnificent world-building, strong female characters, and a compelling story.

First Sentence:
In a small room beneath the largest of Sharakhai's fighting pits, Çeda sat on a wooden bench, tightening her fingerless gloves.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Last Sheriff in Texas, by James P. McCollom

The Last Sheriff in Texas

This book chronicles the changes the state of Texas underwent after WWII, moving from mostly rural to mostly urban, and seeing the cowboy fade from a real profession to a role in the movies. Sheriff Vail Ennis of Bee County was a violent, uncompromising man with a flair for violence—he shot and killed eight men while in office between 1944 and 1952. Johnny Barnhart was raised in Bee County, but while attending the University of Texas uncovered a passion for civil rights that set him apart from his conservative neighbors. These two icons clashed during the election of 1952, forcing citizens to choose between frontier justice and law and order, changing Texas politics forever.

The story is told primarily via interviews and reminiscences with a healthy amount of historical context thrown in for good measure. I found it to be compelling (if very repetitive), although I can easily see how someone that isn't familiar with life on the Texas Costal Plain might find it slow and meandering. The book is part true crime, part political history, part biography, and part memoir resulting in a style that is a bit offbeat. On one page there will be a excerpt from a newspaper article, and on the next conversational dialogue from people long since dead. I found this see-sawing between fact and fabrication hard to get used to at first, but eventually settled down and enjoyed the story.

First Sentence:
The man who shot the sheriff was Roy Hines, thirty-four, ex-con, a grifter on his way from Oklahoma to Mexico.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Outcasts of Order, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Outcasts of Order (The Saga of Recluce)

This is the 20th entry in the Saga of Recluce and a direct sequel to The Mongrel Mage. Like many (if not most) of the books in this series, the basic plot points are the same: talented young man develops a unique set of skills, falls afoul of the power structure, and uses his wits to stay alive and safe while cultivating a group of unbelievably nice and honest people. While not breaking any new ground, Modesitt imbues a life into his characters that invests you emotionally and keeps you turning page after page. Once scene in particular brought a tear to my eye; the wife of a recently killed man (Barrynt) is speaking at his funeral. "It was when Barrynt and I first rode up to this house. He turned and looked to me and said, 'You're home now.' I was, but what made it home was Barrynt." The sentiment perfectly captures the love two people can have for one another. I greatly look forward to the next volume in the epic.

First Sentence:
Beltur sat bolt upright in the dark, sweating and shivering, the echo of thunder in his ears so loud that it took a moment before he could hear the pelting of heavy raindrops on the split slate roof.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

This novel tells the story of a near-future revolution that replaces the United States with the Republic of Gilead, an oppressive fundamentalist Christian theocracy. We are vividly shown the dark side of religion, what happens when those beliefs are taken to a tyrannical extreme: women are forbidden to own property, vote, read, or write; homosexuality and heretical ideas are punished by death. Basically, what Vice President Mike Pence would call an ideal world.

I found the book difficult to read not because of the disturbing content, but due to the stilted language: "I walk around to the back door, open it, go in, set my basket down on the kitchen table." The choppy writing gave me fits for some reason; I had to re-read sections often because I wasn't parsing the prose properly. Given the environment I was expecting to discover that the author was secretly writing down her thoughts to explain the odd syntax, but in the epilogue we learn the author recorded everything on tapes—meaning the writing should have been more fluid, not less.

I would have liked to see more about the mechanics of the revolution (an ongoing war is mentioned multiple times, and at one point the Republic of Texas is shown to be an independent country again) but given the author is a woman and therefore forbidden from knowledge and news the lack of detail makes sense. Regardless, this is a thought provoking read and should be required reading for anyone interested in a "fair and balanced" world.

First Sentence:
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Masters of Doom, by David Kushner

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

This is a fascinating and well-written history of first-person shooter video games and the two geniuses behind them, John Romero and John Carmack. The "Two Johns" are the gaming equivalent of Apple's Jobs and Wozniak, with Romero being the visionary and Carmack being a programming virtuoso. These two personalities initially combine with great synergy to create some of the greatest games ever made (Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake to name a few) but as success finds them they start to move in different directions. Eventually the conflicts are large enough Romero is fired from the company he founded with Carmack, signaling the beginning of the end.

This book reads more like a novel than a typical corporate history, which keeps it entertaining and captivating throughout. Thoroughly researched, the timeframes cover the rise of personal computers and the part games played in their growth. Hacker sub-culture and government outrage factor in largely as well, giving a holistic look at the rise of immersive computer games. I'm not much of a gamer myself (although I did play a fair amount of Doom back in the day at the office during lunch) but this book does a great job of keeping the subject matter interesting, focusing on the people rather than the games themselves. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the culture of computers or gaming in the 1990's.

First Sentence:
Eleven-year-old John Romero jumped onto his dirt bike, heading for trouble again.

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