Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fooling Houdini, by Alex Stone

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, by Alex Stone

This autobiography describes the journey of an magician from student to professional, while attempting along the way to explain the lasting appeal of the art of illusion. Stone lifts the veil on how a few tricks are done—earning the wrath of several of his brethren—but not so much that the sense of wonder is spoiled. Just reading how a double lift or a blind shuffle are executed doesn't give me the ability to know it when I see it, and certainly not the skill to pull it off myself! I imagine the next time I see a card trick I'll appreciate the hours of practice that make the tick possible as much as the illusion itself.

The cast of characters we meet along the way are what really make this book shine, though. Richard Turner is the world's greatest cardsharp and a blind man whose sense of touch is so sensitive he can tell you how many cards in a pile by running his finger along the edges. Whit Haydn is a reformed con artist that teaches street scams in his School for Scoundrels. Wesley James is called the greatest underground magician of our time, earned a PhD in computer science, and holds court every Saturday at a ratty pizza place in NYC. All these and more... every chapter seemingly introduces a new and fascinating personality.

Being written by a magician it isn't surprising that the craft is held up to high standards, but the level of reverence the subjects gets is way over the top at times. "We'll run out of melodies before we run out of magic." Yeah, no. 😀 Other than that the writing is consistently strong and surprisingly difficult to put down. I learned a lot about illusions, mentalists, Three-card Monte, and card manipulation, and enjoyed every minute of it.

First Sentence:
In the foyer of a hotel in downtown Stockholm, a stunning twenty-two-year-old Belgian girl with dark brown eyes and long chestnut curls had attracted a small crowd.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Terminal Alliance, by Jim C. Hines

Terminal Alliance: Book One of the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse, by Jim C. Hines

I enjoy Jim C. Hines' writing, so when spotting the first entry in a new series at the bookstore I grabbed it. A couple of centuries in the future the human race has become feral zombies, but compassionate aliens save as many as they can, using their advanced tech to bring them back to civilized beings and take them to the stars. Our heroes are saved humans now serving as janitors on an interstellar warship. Their jobs saved them from a bioweapon that wiped out the rest of the crew—they were wearing futuristic HazMat suits—and they proceed to uncover a conspiracy that would drastically change the balance of power in the galaxy... and it isn't clear if that is a bad thing.

The setup follows the same basic notes as The Expanse: underdogs band together and take control of an advanced warship while fighting a conspiracy on multiple fronts. Terminal Alliance, however, largely replaces space opera dramatics with humor, to great effect. The beginning of each chapter has a bit of history from the aliens POV about humans, largely about trying to understand our pre-feral history. One of my favorite bits was a passage about reconstructing literature:

  • "Reviewed complete works of Dr. Seuss. These books are not, as first assumed, a guide to obscure Earth creatures. I suspect Seuss lied about being a doctor. Conclusion: total gibberish, completely untranslatable.
  • Have reviewed the history and causes of Earth conflicts through the ages. Recommendation: do not translate or republish human religious texts.
  • Works tagged 'fantasy' should be ignored. Based on early estimations of restored human intellectual capacity, these stores would only confuse them."
Another funny excerpt discussed our menu: "Humans' eating habits are, from an objective scientific perspective, disgusting. ... Some of the preferred meals we've reconstructed from their cookbooks and other literature include:
  • The organs of an animal called a sheep, prepared and cooked within the stomach of the same creature.
  • Tuna eyeballs.
  • 100-year-old eggs. It's a wonder this species didn't go extinct sooner.
  • Pufferfish. The toxins of this fish were highly deadly to humans. I originally assumed this meal was used as a means of suicide or execution, but in fact, humans ate this for pleasure. The risk of death was part of the appeal.
  • Something called a Fried Twinkie. A slower method for humans to kill themselves."
Good story, snarky characters, and a compelling universe makes this a fast, fun read.

First Sentence:
"Marion Adamopoulos."

Thursday, March 14, 2019

King of Ashes, by Raymond E. Feist

King of Ashes, by Raymond E. Feist

I thoroughly enjoyed Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga and the follow-up The Empire Trilogy, but didn't carry through the other 24 (!) books in the series. I spotted King of Ashes and discovered when reading the back cover that it was the first in a new series. It sounded interesting so I picked it up. Good idea!

The novel is clearly the first in what I expect will be a long series, and thus largely serves as an introduction to the main heroes in the conflict: the last heir to a lost kingdom, a young assassin, the grandson of a powerful crime lord, and an orphan virtuoso blacksmith. Throw in a few warring kingdoms, a powerful church exterminating rival religions, a coven of powerful witches, a banner of magical knights, and at least one evil secret society, and this has the makings of a great saga. As a 494 page long introduction it is a bit slow in places and Feist is overly repetitive in his descriptions, but the promise of future novels makes up for everything. I look forward to the next chapter!

First Sentence:
His name was Hatushaly, though the other boys and girls called him "Hatu."

Search This Blog