Thursday, March 19, 2020

Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001), by Don Felder

Heaven And Hell: My Life In The Eagles (1974 2001)

I've always loved the Eagles; they are one of the few bands that I regret not getting to hear in person. (I'd dearly like to find a time machine and go back to a show in 1977 when Jimmy Buffet was the opening act!) They are still touring, but not with the same members that created the magic in the 1970's. One of those former members is Don Felder, guitarist and the primary writer of (among others) "Hotel California"—one of the greatest Eagles songs ever.

This biography comes across as fairly honest; Felder doesn't gloss over how poorly he treated his father or first wife, although he does try and justify the behavior a bit. The highlight, of course, is the history of the Eagles that is included along the way. Don Henley and Glenn Frey have terrible reputations (sadly not uncommon with talented musicians; see Eddie Van Halen, Ike Turner, Morrissey, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, ...) and Felder does nothing to clear their names. In 2001 he was fired from the band and subsequently filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination and breach of fiduciary duty. Unfortunately the book only lightly covers this, unlike the great amount of detail that went into the time leading up to the acrimonious split. It isn't clear if the lack of substance here is due to a confidentiality agreement or not wanting to relive uncomfortable memories, but it hurt the overall story quite a bit—almost like reading a mystery with the last chapter missing. Despite being one-sided, I found this to be a compelling read and had me listening to the Eagles on repeat on Spotify.

First Sentence:
We could hear the rumble of the crowd in the dressing room.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Still Life, by Louise Penny

Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #1)

I hadn't ever heard of Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache before my mother mentioned him, even though there are 16 books (so far) in the series dating back to 2005. I'm glad she did! This modern-day (and male) Miss Marple is thoroughly entertaining. "I watch. I'm very good at observing. Noticing things. And listening. Actively listening to what people are saying, their choice of words, their tone. What they aren't saying. ... It's as simple and as complex as that. And as powerful. So when I'm observing, that's what I'm watching for. The choices people make." A good match for a character driven mystery.

Set in Quebec, Still Life reflects Canadian values quite well. Nature, politeness, and outdoor sports abound, although I suppose the murder does run counter to good manners a bit. In keeping with the gentler mood, there is no sex and very little violence—not at all like the Reacher series. It was kind of nice to read a mystery that didn't feel as if it were being crafted for a major motion picture, but instead unfolded at a leisurely pace; satisfying but not suspenseful. It is the kind of a book that is great to read on a rainy afternoon sitting in a big window seat; more cozy and less beach-read.

The mystery wasn't as interesting as the characters, but all the clues were there for the reader to follow. I thought I knew what happened at one point, but a well-done red herring convinced me I was wrong. Turns out I wasn't, and the misleading clue was explained away quite nicely. I like plots that surprise me and characters that actually change, so I certainly look forward to reading the next entry in this series.

First Sentence:
Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Terminal Uprising, by Jim C. Hines

Terminal Uprising  (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse, #2)

A sequel to Terminal Alliance, Terminal Uprising picks up just a few months after the first left off. The plot here wasn't as engaging as the original, but the humor is still spot on. “"The true origins of McDonald's have been lost," said Khatami. "From what we've pieced together, we believe it was founded by an old circus clown named Willard Scott."” The highlight here is the time spent on a decimated Earth with a group of surviving librarians. Yes, that's right: the heroes of the book are janitors and librarians! Something seemed a bit off to me about the entire book, but hard to put my finger on what. Maybe the pacing was uneven, maybe the serious nature of the agenda contrasted with the humor, or maybe reading a book about a plague that nearly wiped out the human race was just a bit disturbing with a worsening pandemic causing so much uncertainty and havoc. Good book, bad timing.

First Sentence:
In human chronology, it has been four months and eight days since the Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team of the EMCS Pufferfish went rogue.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Bonk, by Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

If you are shy or uncomfortable with the topic of sex, then this is not the book for you. The title of the introduction is "Foreplay" and it ramps up from there. Bonk is subtitled The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and this is not an exaggeration. From scientific examinations of the penis, testicles, and clitoris to coital imaging to sex toys to genital transplants and implants, this book has it all. Oh, and it is funny as hell, too!

Roach has an amazing writing style that allows the reader to delve deeply into the mechanics, psychology, and science of intercourse while maintaining a laugh-out-loud approach to the topic at hand. For instance, by taking MRIs of people in flagrante delicto scientists learned that after penetration the penis has the shape of a boomerang. Roach helpfully adds, "But not the precise dynamics. If you hurl an uprooted penis into the air, it will not come back to you. It will most likely, and who can blame it, want nothing to do with you." We also learn that sex hormones "make individuals perceive other individuals as more attractive than they'd normally perceive them. Hormones are nature's three bottles of beer." Even the footnotes are hilarious: "Nasal congestion is an erection inside your nose." "Who clubs a hamster? What would you even use to deliver “a blow” to a head that small?" "The Anal Pad should not be confused with a prior invention called the Anal Napkin, which, in turn, should not be confused with the dinner napkin." "Nominations for a Nobel Prize ... remain secret for fifty years. You make the claim, and nobody can prove otherwise until after you're dead. Add one to your résumé today!"

I enjoyed her earlier book Stiff (about cadavers, not erections) and this one was just as entertaining. If you are interested in how scientific research about sex is conducted or the physiology of the reproductive system (or simply want to laugh a lot), Bonk is a good choice. If, however, you are less interested learning in what an orgasm scientifically is and would rather learn how to cause an orgasm, maybe check out Ian Kerner's She Comes First.

First Sentence:
Albert R. Shadle was the world's foremost expert on the sexuality of small woodland creatures.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Three Californias, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Three Californias: The Wild Shore, the Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge

This is a collection of three novels depicting three radically different futures of Orange County, California. None of these futures is particularly appealing, but each shows fairly effectively that no matter what, life goes on. Besides the setting, the only commonalities are an archeological dig giving a quick look at how we get from our world to theirs, a severe reduction in nudity taboos, and a man named Tom Barnard, a wise elder serving as a mentor to each of the three young protagonists.

The Wild Shore is set after a Russian terrorist attack that saw thousands of neutron bombs all set off at once in major cities across the US. Life wasn't exterminated in North America, but Russia and Japan keep the survivors isolated and restrict any serious recovery. The plot mainly follows three groups of people: a community of peaceful farmers and fishermen, a somewhat militant group that wants to restore the United States, and a group of scavengers that collaborate with the foreign oppressors for their own gain. The most disturbing group here was the militants (living in the shockingly large city of San Diego, almost 2000 people strong); the book was written in 1984 but these jingoist patriots want to "make America great again" which has a very uncomfortable ring to it today.

The Gold Coast describes a world where our current culture of hedonistic sprawl continues on, resulting in widespread casual drugs, self-driving cars, multi-level freeways, and an ever-growing military-industrial complex. Unlike the first and third novels, nature here has basically vanished. "The county was crowded, they needed that 66,000 acres [of national forest] for more homes, more jobs, more profits, more cars, more money, more weapons, more drugs, more real estate, more freeways! And so that land was sold too." Fairly sobering, as that sadly seems the path we are following as a country.

The last book, Pacific Edge, describes what happens when the world suddenly takes climate change very seriously and transforms into an ecology-first society. It seems like a utopia at first, but as the tale progresses an oppressive socialistic government starts to be revealed, with politics and corporate greed still alive and well. The main conflict is over the potential commercial development of the last remaining bit of wilderness in the area; contrasted with the multi-level freeways and near-total lack of vegetation of the previous novel it makes the protective group seem hugely entitled.

All three were fairly interesting, but if they hadn't been bundled into the same physical book I'm not sure I'd have read them all. The Wild Shore was easily my favorite, showing how quickly history and culture are mangled and forgotten: Shakespeare being a great American from the state of England, for instance. Pacific Edge was probably intended to be a brighter future after the darker path of the first two, but a zoning fight in a liberal tree-hugging utopia simply doesn't make for a believable or compelling story. Taken together, though, they make for thought-provoking reading, and one can easily see the germs of what became the wonderful Mars Trilogy in Robinson's writing.

First Sentence (from the forward):
Triptych: a medieval painting made of three separate panels hinged together, so that as well as sharing a subject or a theme, the pictures can be turned to face each other, to start a silent conversation with each other.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson

The Bookshop of Yesterdays

A love letter to reading, The Bookshop of Yesterdays is both enjoyable and disappointing at the same time. Miranda, the narrator, unexpectedly inherits a bookstore from her quirky uncle Billy and a scavenger hunt to boot. While the characters are paper thin and largely selfish, the quest for answers is oddly compelling. Each step in the hunt started with a few lines from a literary classic—The Tempest, Frankenstein, Fear of Flying, Bridge to Terabithia, and so on—and led to an important person in her uncle's past, each holding a clue to the reason for the abrupt fallout between Billy and her mother years ago. The story is pretty repetitive: decipher the clue, find the book, locate the person, learn something new about Billy, obtain the next clue. All this leads to a conclusion that seemed obvious to me a third of the way through, but still comes of as satisfying. Luckily, the clear love of literature and solid writing help overcome the monotonous story and unlikeable characters. Hard to recommend, but hard to pan as well. It did make me want to go hang out at a independent bookstore, though!

First Sentence:
The last time I saw my uncle, he bought me a dog.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2)

Another 1100+ page book, still seemingly nowhere near a conclusion. And, frustratingly, after finishing this I discovered that despite being published in 2011 the final entry in the trilogy hasn't yet been completed. That is a lot of time invested in an incomplete story!

To be fair, though, Rothfuss has penned another good tale, although it could have used some serious editing. At one point there is a huge adventure while traveling between two distant lands that is disposed of over the course of a few sentences—"Over the course of my trip I was robbed, drowned, and left penniless on the streets of Junpui. In order to survive I begged for crusts, stole a man's shoes, and recited poetry. ... Over the last two span everything I owned had been lost, destroyed, stolen, or abandoned."—whereas later in the narrative there is a fairly uninteresting adventure that takes twenty chapters to fully relate. While meandering, though, the world building here is once again excellent.

When discussing how magic in this world works one of the character asks, "Where does the extra energy go?" How often does an author consider kinetic and thermal energy when designing a magic system? Another fascinating touch is a language that in addition to spoken words uses hand signals to convey emotion and context. When reading, I couldn't shake the idea that this is how emojis would work if somehow incorporated into our verbal communications.

While I enjoyed this novel, it is covered with the stink of "second book in a trilogy." A heck of a lot of things happen, but everything is simply building slowly to the conclusion in the final entry. As a bridge book it isn't bad at all, but with the finale not yet written it seems to suffer quite a bit. Worth reading, but you might want to wait until the final chapter is published!

First Sentence:
Bast slouched against the long stretch of mahogany bar, bored.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys

Set in the American South of the 1960s, this is a book with Jim Crow at its heart. Racism and unfairness saturate each page, coupled with sadness and misery, cruelty and inequity. Amazingly, the spirit of the main two boys keeps the story from becoming depressing, and in fact, was quite an engaging and even uplifting read.

Based loosely on the real-world Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in Florida that was violently abusive to its charges for virtually all of the 111 years it was open, The Nickel Boys tells the story of Elwood Curtis and his friend Turner. While violent, the dignity and dedication to survival the boys possess prevail over the casual racism shown by not just the craven staff, but the rest of the world in general. "They had whipped Elwood. But he took the whipping and he was still here. There was nothing they could do that white people hadn't done to black people before, were not doing at this moment in Montgomery and Baton Rouge, in broad daylight on a city street outside Woolworths." (Sadly, racism hasn't been vanquished in the decades since segregation fell out of favor, but simply driven underground until the recent rise of the alt-right and its seeming embrace by the Republican Party. It is hard not to read this book and see the parallels to what is happening today in migrant detention camps.)

The surprisingly short book is broken into three parts: the first two parts are presented sequentially and in a straightforward manner, but the third starts jumping backwards and forwards in time causing the narrative to be a bit hard to follow. This change in style makes sense once reaching the epilogue, but until then the chapter breaks can be a bit jarring. Entertaining seems an odd word to use for such a bleak plot, but I did truly enjoy reading this thought provoking novel.

First Sentence:
Elwood received the best gift of his life on Christmas Day 1962, even if the ideas it put in his head were his undoing.

Friday, February 07, 2020

The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, by Leonard Goldberg

The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes (The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries #1)

In 1914 Sherlock Holmes dies, but Dr. Watson lives on at 221b Baker Street. Unbeknownst to anyone save Watson, Holmes had a daughter with Irene Adler due to a singular night of passion. This daughter, Joanna Blalock, was adopted immediately after her birth (Adler died during childbirth) with her true parentage unknown. However, she has inherited Sherlock's keen observational skills and eidetic memory and so when she crosses paths with Watson and his son she gets pulled into a mystery, quickly taking the lead with her deductions.

This is a very "Sherlockian" tale, with a very straightforward plot and many, many asides where facts are determined by deduction that is beyond anyone but Joanna. Once you accept the coincidental notion that virtually every main player is a descendant of someone from Holmes lore—besides Watson's son and Blalock, Lestrade's son is now a police detective and the villain is the son of Colonel Sebastian Moran, a criminal with whom Holmes crossed paths—the story is quite entertaining. There are a few odd asides, such as a short history of the Rosetta Stone for no apparent reason, but overall quite charming.

The book is positively riddled with nods to the Conan Doyle stories, some obvious and some not so much. One throwaway line from Blalock towards the end really caught my attention: "I have read about a chap in Paris who uses my methods, and they say he is quite good." As this takes place after the Holmes chronicles, I don't think this is referring to a Conan Doyle character, but instead to some other contemporary literary sleuth. Joseph Rouletabille seems a likely suspect, but Arsène Lupin would be a good choice as well (although being a thief some of the symmetry with Holmes is lost).

Not amazing, but enjoyable; a nice homage to the classic Sherlock Holmes epics.

First Sentence:
As was my custom, I visited my father, Dr. John H. Watson, every Friday to make sure he was comfortable and not in need.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Endgames, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Endgames (Imager Portfolio, #12)

Unlike most of the Imager Portfolio, the plot here is more political than magical. The times, they are a changin', and the land of Solidar is experiencing an industrial revolution which in turn is causing the rank and file workers and crafters to lose their jobs to cheap imports and increasingly mass-manufactured goods. The ruling class is struggling to maintain their civic dominance, and the new middle class of factory owners and bankers are just tasting power for the first time and reluctant to give in to the rioting lower class people. The ruler over all this recognizes that change needs to happen and is slowly trying to modify the government to include representation from everyone, causing broad strife and upheaval (and a few assassination attempts).

The plot is rather pedestrian for Modesitt, with heavy introspection and long descriptions of practicing a musical instrument rather than battles, action, and intrigue. That said, the debate on a minimum wage was pretty interesting as was the one on church versus state. The arguments on either side largely came from two sources: negotiations in council meetings and the press. The players in council had fairly predictable points of view with the king forcing a compromise, but more fascinating was the role the press had in reporting the results of the meetings (not having access to the discussions, just the outcomes). There are two newspapers, one reasonably fair and unemotional, and the other radical and biased (think AP vs. Fox News). This dichotomy demonstrated quite well how people can and will spin situations according to their own worldview, facts be damned. Modesitt's exploration of the proper limits of power and the role of economics in social change was not only compelling, but very appropriate with our real-world political situation.

While well-written and entertaining, this novel is a bit disappointing simply because the actual magic takes a back seat to politics. It felt a little more like a separate, parallel story set in the same universe as the other books than the conclusion to the entire series. If you are looking for a fantasy novel with a heavy dose of world-building and exposition, this is a great choice. If you are looking for an exciting adventure with battling magicians and powerful villains, maybe look elsewhere.

First Sentence:
On Lundi morning, the sixteenth of Juyn, Charyn was up earlier than usual, most likely because the day promised to be particularly hot, a reminder that the first days of spring, heralded by the Spring-Turn Ball, were some three months gone, and there wasn't that much of summer left.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)

On the surface this could be described as "just another fantasy novel." The main character is an unusually skilled and implausibly intelligent child named Kvothe raised in a troupe of talented roving actors and musicians, who after a tragedy becomes a homeless street urchin, eventually enrolling in a university for magic, and becoming a hero at the close while still not fulfilling his quest. Surrounding Kvothe is an endless series of one dimensional characters: doting parents, the wise teacher, bullies, beautiful women, best friends, eccentric professors, and the enigmatic love interest. Finally, the story is long and meandering—this copy came in at 722 pages and is only the first in a trilogy (of which the third book is yet to be released despite this one coming out in 2007). That said, it is anything but rote.

The Name of the Wind is an incredibly vivid fantasy in the vein of Raymond E. Feist or Brandon Sanderson. The rich world building weaves two plotlines (or three counting the overarching villain's backstory) fairly seamlessly, leaving the reader wanting more after each chapter. And while as mentioned above many of the notes are common, the writing is uncommonly organic and addicting throughout (despite the length I finished this in three days!). Emotional, engrossing, and exceptional, this is a true gem of the fantasy genre.

First Sentence:
It was Felling Night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci

Before reading this biography I'll admit I didn't know a lot about Leonardo da Vinci other than being the painter of the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man. Now I know he was a true Renaissance man—arguably the first Renaissance man—and a man ahead of his time. Centuries before minds like Newton, Galileo, Bernoulli, and Valsalva were experimenting, da Vinci was discovering concepts in a huge number of fields: relativity, motion, metallurgy, fluid dynamics, cartography, anatomy, optics, geology, ichnology, and even stagecraft just to name a few. The reason we don't associate Leonardo with all these topics is that he largely kept his discoveries in his personal notebooks rather than publishing. When he died these notebooks were scattered amongst collectors, not being catalogued and available for general study until well after other luminaries had rediscovered what he already knew.

Isaacson does an amazing job examining much of da Vinci's art in detail, discussing the approach to light and shade, perspective, and color and pointing out how the pursuit of science (especially anatomy and geology) was accurately reflected in his work. While impressed at the detail, I admit that after the first few my eyes would glaze over a bit as it all seemed a bit repetitive; I apparently don't have the right genes to truly appreciate art at this level. I much more enjoyed the history of the paintings, learning which pieces were actually finished (not many!) and which have been lost to time.

Many, many of Leonardo's notebook pages are reproduced here as well, and these are the true heart of the book. The detail in everything from horses in motion to deconstructed machines to muscular and skeletal body parts is both amazing and beautiful. His notes are on nearly every page as well, sometimes right over the drawings or in the margins. da Vinci wrote in mirror script (right to left) and in Italian, giving even a simple paragraph a look of beauty.

Isaacson's admiration for da Vinci's genius shines through nearly every page, causing a sense of wonder for the reader. Weighing in at over 500 pages this isn't a quick read, but well worth the time it takes. I could have done with less art criticism and more actual history (topics like his homosexuality and his intense rivalry with Michelangelo are only briefly covered, and the oft-changing politics of Europe at this time even less so) but this is still a wonderful book.

First Sentence:
Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock.

Search This Blog