Thursday, September 03, 2020

The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory

The Other Boleyn Girl (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels, #9)

This is the story of Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, and her sister, Mary. Gregory takes known dates and events and weaves a rather gripping story around what might have happened to cause these to occur. So even though the ending wasn't in question, the journey was quite fun.

While amusing, the portrayal of Anne seemed inconsistent. At the outset she is clever and witty, plotting with her family to advance their station in life. When she catches Henry's eye she becomes conniving and ruthless and helps to oust a sitting queen, and when she becomes queen herself she turns into an outright shrew, shrill and unpleasant. The well-known adage "power corrupts" could be an explanation, but the intelligence shown early seems to fade with Anne becoming a caricature of the megalomaniac queen.

The writing style is straightforward, with a minimum of flowery romance-speak—something I appreciated. A bit long, but the action moves quickly enough it doesn't feel like a 650+ book. More entertainment than biography, this makes me want to read a more factual account of the time. Certainly kept my interest, and well worth the time it took to read.

First Sentence:
I could hear a roll of muffled drums.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was an asshole. He was brutally honest, took credit for other people's work, and believed ordinary rules didn't apply to him. (My "favorite" example of this last attribute is that he never put a license plate on his car and always parked it in a handicap spot.) For someone that is renowned as an artist and visionary, he ironically saw the world in black and white: everything was either "genius" or "bullshit." Despite all this, he changed the world in a profound way that hasn't been seen since Thomas Edison.

Isaacson does an excellent job of describing this mercurial and complicated person. Jobs comes across as temperamental and unsympathetic, but his passion for his work shined through allowing his friends and employees to forgive a lot of his behavior. He had the uncanny knack of seeing to the heart of a problem, but still allowed himself to be swayed by psychics, herbal therapies and natural healers, and bizarre diets and cleanses. He raged against Microsoft and Google, often accusing them of stealing his work, when in reality he himself stole virtually everything unique about the Macintosh from Xerox. Isaacson takes the difficult task of describing an unlikable man and achieves something amazing: at the end I found myself admiring Steve Jobs.

First Sentence:
When Paul Jobs mustered out of the Coast Guard after World War II, he made a wager with his crewmates.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, by Josh Noel

Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business

This is more than just the history of Goose Island Beer Company; this is the history of how Anheuser-Busch went from ignoring craft beer to trying to kill craft beer to (somewhat) embracing craft beer.

Goose Island was founded in 1988 and fairly quickly established themselves as a solid brewer in Chicago. In 1992 they basically invented the bourbon barrel-aged movement with their Bourbon County Stout and placed themselves among the leaders of the growing craft beer movement. Around this same time the explosive growth in craft beer started cutting into the profits of Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors so they did what any near-monopoly does: they tried to kill their competitors. This cold war between large and small brewers continues through today, but in 2011 a major shift happened: AB InBev bought Goose Island outright. This was seen as traitorous by the craft industry and the Brewers Association which governs craft reacted by officially defining craft beer as "small, independent, and traditional" which meant that Goose Island went from a leader in the industry to an outsider overnight.

Noel does a good job of telling the story and showing the logic behind the decisions of the major players. He is fairly even-handed (if anything, he may have underplayed the outrage and sense of betrayal that occurred when the purchase occurred) and accurately noted that the craft beer community breaks down into two camps: people that care about how the beer tastes and people that care about who profits from the sales. (Personally I feel more of a kinship with the first group, but certainly understand the animosity towards "big beer" and their bully pulpit.) This is a fascinating and entertaining narrative, and Noel describes it well. His conclusion is spot-on, capturing the bittersweet result of the war. "Craft beer won: it forced the biggest beer company in the world to change. Craft beer lost: it had been commandeered by the biggest beer company in the world."

First Sentence:
On a Thursday evening in 1986, as a spring storm pounded the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, John Hall sat in an airplane on the rain-glazed tarmac and did something he would recount for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

A Chain of Thunder, by Jeff Shaara

A Chain of Thunder (Civil War: 1861-1865, Western Theater, #2)

This book tells the story of the Campaign for Vicksburg during the Civil War. I've visited the National Military Park there a couple of times and always find it both fascinating and moving. Shaara does a good job of providing varying frames of reference from both sides of the battle, generals and enlisted men alike. There are several maps throughout giving a feel for the movement of troops, which is nicely juxtaposed with the southern civilian viewpoints who were only told their position was impregnable and chose to believe it.

This is clearly a well-researched novel, with detail after detail about the quality of life as well as the military strategies. I was surprised to find that anti-vaxxers were not a recent idiocy but were alive and well in the 19th century. "It amazed Bauer that so many in the town, and in the army, had responded instead with outcries against the vaccinations that seemed born of nothing more than superstition." With all this detail, though, there is a surprising lack of what life was like for the slaves in Vicksburg—none of the narrators were Black. When white civilians during the siege were reduced to eating dogs and rats, what the slaves ate isn't stated. Considering this was a war over slavery, this lack of insight hurts the overall narrative.

It was strange reading a novel about the Civil War during a time where it feels our country is splintering along similar political lines, if not physical ones this time. On the North side Grant and Sherman fought to hold the United States together. On the South, Pemberton fought out of loyalty to his Virginia-born wife rather than dedication to the Confederacy. The Northern soldiers fought for duty, the Southern desperate to maintain their way of life. Both sides are depicted fairly nobly, and the institutional racism at the root of the conflict isn't a part of the story. Makes you wonder how the raging racists running Washington will be depicted in literature a century from now.

First Sentence:
The ball was a glorious affair, the Confederate officers in their finest gray, adorned with plumed hats and sashes at their waists.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward (Skyward, #1)

I've liked everything Brandon Sanderson has written, and this book is no exception. Skyward tells the tale of young Spensa that dreams of being a pilot like her father, fighting the aliens that keep them trapped on a desolate world. Unfortunately, her father mysteriously went from hero to traitor during a battle and she has been branded the daughter of a coward, unsuitable for society—much less a candidate for flight school.

Sanderson's world-building and magic systems are legendary, but neither are really present here. This is targeted at young adults, but it felt dumbed-down compared to his other works which was disappointing. YA novels tend to be coming of age stories and shy away from extreme themes, but that isn't any reason to have one dimensional characters or a by-the-numbers plot. Look at The Outsiders or Ender's Game for better examples of the genre. That said, this is still an enjoyable read with a good hook and nice twist at the end setting up the sequel.

First Sentence:
I stalked my enemy carefully through the cavern.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive, #3)

This third book of the Stormlight Archive might be the best of the three so far. The main players have all been introduced, but their roles are continually changing keeping them interesting. The war hinted at in the previous novels is here in full force, and yet rather than devolving into battle after battle the plot is still filled with mystery. The twist in motives towards the end was masterfully done, arriving as a surprise yet clearly being obvious in hindsight.

Sanderson's writing continues to sparkle, sometime taking me out of the story entirely with wonder. When one character wakes up with a stiff shoulder he thinks to himself, "He had found middle age to be like an assassin—quiet, creeping along behind him." Having turned 50 myself this year, I found this to be a delightful and sobering description of life these days. And speaking of sobering, one character discovers to her delight her magic can immediately cure her drunkenness. Now that is a power I'd like to have!

Rhythm of War is the next book and is due out later this year. With ten books being planned for the series, my worry is that this will deteriorate into a George R.R. Martin-style of delay after delay, but am willing to give it a chance. At least for a while!

First Sentence:
Eshonai had always told her sister that she was certain something wonderful lay over the next hill.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons

The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons #1)

This novel explores a rich fantasy world, complete with dragons, magic, quests, and prophecies. It is also confusing as hell, with characters that switch bodies, get resurrected or are seemingly immortal, a narrator that makes comments and footnotes as the story unfolds (and is himself a player), and a storyline that jumps back and forth in time with each chapter. I was hooked when I read the blurb on the back: "Then again maybe he isn't the hero after all. For Kihrin is not destined to save the empire. He's destined to destroy it." A lot of promise in that statement, and as the main character (Kihrin) isn't really likable as most stereotypical heroes there seems to be some weight to the premise. Sadly, the outcome is muddled, almost as if Lyons couldn't decide what to do. Hard to follow, but I think I'll give the next book in the series a chance.

First Sentence:
"Tell me a story."

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny

A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #2)

The second in the Inspector Gamache series brings back many of the same people from the first novel and introduces several more. The mystery here wasn't nearly as interesting this time around—the big reveal with the letters was pretty obvious—but the characters are why we keep reading. We get a peek into Gamache's past, which seems to be an overarching story that is told across the books; a bonus for people that read them all in order, but I suspect a detriment for anyone first picking one up later in the series. Penny's style is laid-back but engaging, with a lot of literary references thrown in throughout: Georges Simenon, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the Old Testament all figure in to the narrative. (And don't think this means the book is too haughty; Casablanca and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer make an appearance as well.) A pleasant read and a nice diversion.

First Sentence:
Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift.

Friday, June 05, 2020

The Gray Man, by Mark Greaney

The Gray Man (Gray Man, #1)

This book reads like a bad action movie. No real plot other than save the captured princess (here the princess is played by twin girls) while racking up a huge body count all across Europe. The hero is an assassin with a heart of gold: "Court Gentry was the Gray Man simply because he believed there existed bad men in this world who truly needed to die." Two thirds of the way through, Gentry has a gunshot wound in his leg, a broken rib, a severely swollen wrist, deep lacerations on his knees and the bottoms of both feet, fallen off a mountain, and received no medical attention for any of these injuries. Seemingly cornered, he manages to perform a standing leap to grab a rafter, pull himself into an attic, and crawl through a small vent to safety. He later takes a vicious stab to the gut requiring stitches (delivered without anesthetic in a moving car which he was driving) and a blood transfusion. This all sets the stage for a huge gun battle where Gentry shoots his way into a fortified castle to confront his enemies. The Gray Man is part Jack Reacher, part Jason Bourne, and part Batman, but possessed none of the depth of those characters. This is a series, but not sure I'll read any more. Not bad, but not good either.

First Sentence:
The first gunmen arriving at the crash site were not Al Qaeda and had nothing to do with the shoot down.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive, #2)

This is the second book of the Stormlight Archive, following The Way of Kings. It has some of the failings of a middle book, being somewhat slow moving and largely preparing for the following novels, but certainly stands on its own. Heck, Sanderson kills off a major character from the first book not even 10% of the way through! The most interesting thing here is that the protagonists and antagonists aren't entirely clear. The war between the humans and the Parshendi heats up, but it is revealed that the Parshmen were enslaved centuries ago so is this truly an unjust war? The Radiants and the Voidbringers are basically gods and seem to be the ultimate factions of the conflict, but it appears that tools from each are used by both humans and Parshendi. And division is rife within the human cabals as well, with some trying to gather power to preserve humanity from the assumed arrival in the flesh of the Voidbringers while others are trying to destroy that same power, fearing that it is what is drawing the Voidbringers in the first place. A book of contradiction and ambiguous motives, this is setting up to be a very interesting opus.

The length is a bit of problem here again, weighing in at over 1300 pages. Several sections felt like they dragged on when I was reading them, but on reflection I'm not sure which ones I'd edit. The curse of good writing, I suppose! Speaking of good writing, one line has stuck with me since finishing the book. A main character defines a good life as "A day of honest labor, followed by an evening at the tavern with friends." That strikes me as a wonderful description and resonates deeply with where I find myself these days.

Many of Sandersons novels take place in a shared universe, called the Cosmere. Occasionally characters cross from series to series, but usually play only a minor role. However, in the closing pages of Words of Radiance a sword oozing black smoke is found. "Hello, a cheerful voice said in his mind. Would you like to destroy some evil today?" I can only hope this is Nightblood from Warbreaker, another novel that takes place on another world in the Cosmere. Things are about to get entertaining here...

First Sentence:
Shallan pinched the thin charcoal pencil and drew a series of straight lines radiating from a sphere on the horizon.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive, #1)

Sanderson is a genius at the art of world-building and creating unique yet consistent systems of magic, and The Way of Kings is absolute evidence of his mastery. Humans are the main characters here, but far from the most interesting. Spren are spirits of a sort, described as concepts given physical form by our collective subconscious. Most wildlife is crustacean based, such as the giant crab-like creatures that act as oxen. Plant life is also unique; the land is ravaged on a regular basis by powerful and deadly storms, so the flora has evolved to pull into the ground or stones during a gale to protect themselves. Finally, the Parshendi are the antagonists (of a sort) being at war with the humans, and they are a bit of a mix of humanoid and crustacean. Magic is called surgebinding and is a collection of several different abilities all powered by the storms. For example, one form can affect gravity and adhesion, another can transmute objects from one thing to another. There are magic items in this world as well, including indestructible swords that can be ordered to appear and disappear by their wielder and armor that regenerates when damaged. All fascinating, and all just a backdrop to a gripping adventure.

My biggest quibble with this book is its length—over 1200 pages. While I dearly loved the peek into the world in which it is set, several passages and quests could have been shortened or left out entirely without harming the overall narrative. That said, once the story gets rolling it is quite good and many characters are both complicated and quite witty. One line uttered by an academic researcher especially rang true: "Proof that one can be both intelligent and accept the intelligence of those who disagree with you? Why, I should think it would undermine the scholarly world in its entirety." While referring to academia in the novel, one could easily (and sadly) apply it to the divisive political system in our world today.

This is the first in a series of twelve novels, only three of which have been released to date. Luckily there is an actual conclusion here; plenty of loose ends and setups remain for future episodes, but there is an actual denouement and resolution, not just an abrupt pause in the action waiting for the next book like some authors seem to enjoy. If the other eleven books are of a similar length (and in general, fantasy epics like this tend to get longer, not shorter) we are looking at some 15,000 pages of material to read. While daunting, I find myself eager for the next entry, Words of Radiance.

First Sentence:
Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Tarzan of the Apes: The First Three Novels, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Tarzan of the Apes: The First Three Novels (Tarzan, #1-3)

Any character that remains popular for over a century has something unique to offer. Tarzan could easily be called the first superhero: he possesses extraordinary strength, stamina, speed, agility, healing, and intelligence—basically Captain America without needing the Super Soldier Serum. Tarzan can speak with apes, kill gorillas, lions, and crocodiles with his bare hands, and his senses of hearing and smell rival those of bats and bears. His skill handling animals is also remarkable; at one point Tarzan trains a group of apes to man oars and sail through the Atlantic Ocean. There isn't much depth to these books (the volume I read collects the first three of twenty-four) but they are thoroughly entertaining pulp novels.

Both set and written in the early twentieth century, the style of writing suffers from what we expect today. Plots are melodramatic and driven by coincidence after coincidence, the characters are thin and one-dimensional, and the rampant negative stereotyping exposes the widespread sexism and racism common in the period. Despite all this, there is an undeniable charm to these stories and it is easy to see why they remain in favor today. Escapist and fun, the Tarzan books are a wonderful set of adventures.

First Sentence from Tarzan of the Apes:
I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.
First Sentence from The Return of Tarzan:
"Magnifique!" ejaculated the Countess de Coude, beneath her breath.
First Sentence from The Beasts of Tarzan:
"The entire affair is shrouded in mystery," said D'Arnot.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Little French Bistro, by Nina George

The Little French Bistro

This book starts darkly, with a desperately unhappy sixty year old German woman attempting suicide. On a trip to Paris Marianne slips away from her controlling, philandering, and dismissive husband and deliberately herself into the Seine. Unwillingly saved before drowning she is hospitalized; there she is captivated by a small painting of the French coast. She promptly escapes, making her way to the sea, alone, friendless, not knowing the language, and determined to try to kill herself again.

Despite the tragic beginning, The Little French Bistro tells the story of a woman learning to trust herself for the first time and discovering she has wants and needs of her own. "I never even noticed that I am alive, she thought." At the same time, the small group of people she falls into help themselves by helping her, binding them all together in camaraderie and companionship. While sharing Marianne's journey out of depression George brilliantly illustrates the unbounded healing power of friendship. I found her description of the simple gaze of friends as "a balm for all the tears a woman shed over her lifetime—tears of passion, longing, happiness, emotion, rage, love, or pain" especially moving. An uplifting story that was welcome in our isolating times.

First Sentence:
It was the first decision she had ever made on her own, the very first time she was able to determine the course of her life.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Chicago, by David Mamet

Chicago: A Novel of Prohibition

Mamet is known for his dialogue (Alec Baldwin's monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross is maybe the best 7 minutes of film in existence) where characters often interrupt to finish each other's sentences, punctuated with obscenities. Chicago lives up to this reputation, filled with mobsters, whores, and reporters in a post-WWI era Windy City. Sadly, the writing overshadows the plot with the result feeling more like a badly edited short story stretched out to novel-length.

Nothing really happens in the first half of the book, and then another third has the "hero" trying to drink himself to death. The conversations are quite good and occasionally insightful ("Why do we lie? To obtain something from our listener.") and the individual scenes often are as well (I especially liked the discussion of why you shouldn't carry a gun or a flashlight when cracking a safe) but they are only tenuously connected and thinly strung together. It almost feels like a series of vignettes featuring Chicago, but the characters and settings don't change enough to pull this off. If you like the glib pen of Mamet this may hold your interest, but if you are looking for a gritty tale of mobsters during prohibition maybe check out Dennis Lehane's Live by Night instead.

First Sentence:
Parlow and Mike sat quiet in the duck blind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Success of Open Source, by Steven Weber

The Success of Open Source

Parts of this book are interesting and engaging, and parts are mind-numbingly boring. The author is a professor at Berkeley and his scholarly background shows through strongly. The history of open source software is fascinating, and Weber does an excellent job of walking the reader through its genesis at AT&T Bell Labs to the widespread acceptance found today. His description of open source as "an odd mix of overblown hype and profound innovation" is spot-on, and his comparison of open source to religion was insightful—anyone can read the Holy Bible without a "license" from a Christian sect. The description of the constantly evolving social dynamics of open source is similarly compelling. Where the book drags interminably is during the discussions of the economic and political bases of the movement. Sadly, these last discussions are interspersed through all the interesting parts, making me almost afraid of turning each page for fear of encountering a discourse on tracking "the institutional isomorphism literature by encouraging hierarchical governments to remake their security organizations as networks to interface successfully with their networked adversaries." Well worth your time for the history and underpinnings of open source, but unless you are a political scientist or economist be prepared for a bit of a slog.

First Sentence:
This is a book about property and how it underpins the social organization of cooperation and production in a digital era.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Punishment She Deserves, by Elizabeth George

The Punishment She Deserves (Inspector Lynley #20)

Occasionally Elizabeth George is determined to put at least one insufferable character in the forefront of each of her Lynley novels. In Believing the Lie it was Deborah St. James, and here it is DCS Isabelle Ardery. Luckily for the reader, Ardery is given an interesting (if depressing) character arc: her alcoholism as demonstrated in the last few novels escalates and George does a brilliant job of depicting both the downward spiral and the desperate self-justification that accompanies it. "She calculated that a mere few shots of Grey Goose would not lead to another day of oblivion. So she had them." Coupled with the bizarre subplot of Barbara Havers learning to tap dance and a (unusual for George) throwaway pop culture reference to Luther, this depiction saves a rather mundane plot that seemingly paints every university student as a sex-crazed partier. Not a great entry in the series, but better than recent efforts for sure.

First Sentence:
The snow began falling on Ludlow town in the evening, while most people were doing their post-dinner washing-up as a prelude to sitting down in front of the television.

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.

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