Mini Reviews

The Great Gatsby (book) – millions of school children likely hate this book after being forced to read it. But it is quite good. It is short and punchy and moves. The plot is predictable except for one plot twist. But it is about character and setting and theme more than plot.

Its greatest strength is the language. Fitzgerald writes and conjures.

Its greatest weakness, IMO, is that all the characters are weak. Their flaws are their defining traits – never their strengths.

It has one of the best and saddest last lines in all of literature. Go look it up. Or read the whole book and get there naturally.

Oblivion – packed to the brim with sci-fi goodness and yet it was dull.

The movie presented itself as a big action, dramatic visuals, neat concepts type show. But it really wanted to be a thinking man’s sci-fi. But there weren’t new ideas to ponder and debate – there was just the setup for the next plot twist. But it moved too slowly.

I did enjoy it. But it was no Matrix.

Now I will spoil the plot twists.

Spoilers – gonna give some space

List of sci-fi tropes in show. Incomplete:
– aliens
– the aliens are after our water
– the aliens are machines
– memory wipe
– the robots will turn on us
– oops, working for the bad guys
– the guys we thought were the bad guys and aliens? Those are the human resistance.
– clones
– “Nuke them IN orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. “

Advertisements

Cold Days – a review

Cold Days is the new Dresden Files novel by Jim Butcher. My review should be spoiler free for the novel itself, but if you haven’t read Changes or Ghost Story then there are huge spoilers for those books.

The Plot

Harry Dresden awakes in Actis Tor and assumes his duties as the winter knight. Faerie Winter is a dangerous place and Dresden has already made enemies here in previous books. There is thread one. Then Mab, the Winter Queen, assigns him his first task. And we have thread two. Of course, a mission from the treacherous is probably not what it seems. Dresden can’t take it at face value and this thread three. Unsurprisingly, Dresden’s task takes him back to Chicago. Here are the last two threads. The first as Dresden encounters friends from his previous life. The last as it turns out that there is a supernatural “bullet” threatening Chicago and the entire Midwest.

Does it seem like a lot? Well that is just the surface. The various plot threads circle and intertwine and separate again. None are isolated and eventually they all come together. And none of the plots are what they seem at first blush. Dresden’s investigation of Mab in particular expands the scale and threat of the Dresden files dramatically.

Dresden’isms

Things I like is a Dresden book that are present:

  • Dresden is in way over his head
  • Dresden pontificates about doing thing the smart way, but ends up blowing stuff up
  • Faeries are not nice. (Except for Toot)
  • Dresden gets beat up. And then he gets beat up a little bit more

Ghost Story seemed like a bit of an experiment. This book is really a return to the series strengths.

I’m not really writing this review for a Dresden newbie. Book 14 of the series is a bad place to start. Go back and start with book one.

For those who are invested in the series – there is a lot to enjoy.

New elements

One of the nice aspects of the series is that every book the world building is expanded on. In this book that expansion is quite dramatic. That was easily the best part of the novel. Seeing the old bits was comfortable. Seeing the news ones is exciting.

After Changes, it was hard to imagine that the scale could grow. But it does. Boy, does it ever. And the huge status quo changes there is almost matched during the climax of Cold Days.

Disappointments

Some minor annoyances. Although the scale and scope of the Dresden universe grows so much, Dresden still solve problems in much the same way as book one. He punches them in the face or shoots a well timed Fuego (or thematically Infriga). It seems to me that at this point most foes should need more than a face punch.

Ghost Story was about learning about choice and that Dresden always has one. For much of Cold Days that lesson seems to be forgotten. Right into the denouement, the theme of being forced into a role continues.

Next, I realize it is part of the genre Butcher is using, but Dresden’s insistence to try a play the lone wolf is annoying. It means that every time Dresden encounters another character there is an angsty paragraph or two where he worries about involving them and getting them hurt. Sometimes a whole scene. Every. Time. Just once I’d like him to just be thrilled when someone gets involved.

Other stuff

It is book 14. Who needs a review at this point anyways? Butcher is not my favourite author (though he is always enjoyed) but this is my most awaited book of the year. Why? Because everyone reads this. I have a least 5 friends reading it tonight. By the end of the weekend, I will surely not be the only one finished. I look forward to discussing the plot and action with them in a spoiler filled fashion.

Stay cool!

Redshirts – A review’ish blog

I’ve been on a bit of a reading kick lately.  It is cutting into my time watching Lost.  Lessee – I read Railsea by China Mieville, The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski, King’s Blood by Daniel Abraham, I’ve started At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson and the Feynman Lectures by Richard Feynman.  I could take a week just doing book reviews here in the ole blog.

Finished Redshirts yesterday.  It is the new novel by John Scalzi.  I’d previously read the first two novels in his Old Man’s War series.  I follow him on Twitter and generally find his Twitter feed and blog better than his novels.  Not that there is anything wrong with the novels.  They just aren’t my type of thing.

The setup for Redshirts is that Adam is assigned as a junior ensign on the Starfleet flagship the Intrepid.  Four other ensigns start the same day as him.  Soon they all realize it is because during away missions and other encounters, the junior officers have a very high mortality rate.  The more experienced officers have noticed and do everything in their power to avoid being called on such missions.

The book is actually four separate stories.  The main story of Adam and his fellow ensigns dealing with the perilous situation in which they find themselves and three short stories told around minor characters encountered during the main adventure and told as epilogues to the main tale (Scalzi calls them Codas).

The main story has a lot in common with the movie Galaxy Quest.  It is primarily a comedy, but it uses that to slowly build up its characters and surprise you with moments of drama.  When I say comedy though I don’t mean sitcom style.  But the situations the characters find themselves in are so ridiculous that even the characters comment on it.

The plot has an easily guessable mystery at the core, but the resolution to their dilemma is clever and well worth reading.  There is a Grant Morison style twist in the last chapter that I don’t feel added much to the book – maybe it was mind blowing for those who hadn’t encountered similar twists before, but it feel a bit flat for me.

The story ends with a final joke that I found to be very funny.

I approve quite whole heartedly.  It was funny and sometimes a bit poignant, but most impressively a compulsive page turner.

The codas on the other hand are a different kettle of fish.  Scalzi tries to be clever here.  He switches the tone and style in each coda.  And he does so noticeably by changing the narrative voice used in each one.  First person in the first, second person in the second and third person in the third.  Each coda also becomes more dramatic and less humorous as they progress.

I had a few problems with the codas.  They seemed too obvious as storyteller tricks – I could feel myself being manipulated.   That was on purpose – Scalzi is trying to show the strings.  But it didn’t fit my paradigm of appreciation. Second, there is a reason very few books are written in the second person voice.  It is hard to write, hard to read and the second story didn’t really have a reason for using that voice other than to fit the conceptual framework of the book.  Finally, I thought the main theme of the book had been elucidated sufficiently in the main story.  The three codas offering variations on that theme felt like a sledgehammer.

In total, I though the codas read like a college creative writing assignment.  They were professionally done rather than amateurish, but still not great.

So I recommend the book, but mostly for the main story rather than the short stories at the end.

I referenced the main theme before.  I read it as a theme of taking control of your own life.  I wasn’t going to mention that because it might reveal too much of the story twists.  But in mentioning it above, I can’t very well not spell it out.

I liked all four books I’ve mentioned  as having finished in the last few weeks.  Redshirts and the Wheelman are the most engaging and readable.  And Redshirts is likely my favourite of the bunch.

Let’s see if I get around to reviewing the rest.

 

Reamde – A review

On my scale of Neal Stephenson books, Reamde ranks near the bottom.  On my scale of all books, it ranks near the top.

Anathem was one of the most innovative books in that last several years.  Reamde resembles Anathem in its weird name, but Reamde is no Anathem.  But what is it?

Reamde is a page turner.  900 pages of “I can’t put this down.”  It is an action adventure story.

In chapter one we meet Richard and Zula Forthrast.  Richard is a Steve Jobs type computer company owner.  He has one product, a giant MMOPRG, called T’Rain,  that competes with WoW.  Zula is one of his nieces – twice orphaned and a former refugee from Eritrea – now she is a recently graduated university student who comes to work for her Uncle.

In chapter two, we find out a bit more about each character.  Richard has always been a bit uncomfortable in every role he’s occupied and has an incredibly colourful past.  But it is Zula’s choice in her most recent boyfriend that will drive the plot.

In chapter three, the action starts.  It never really stops for the rest of the book.  Peter and Zula become involved with Russian mobsters and Chinese fraudsters.  The MacGuffin is a file encrypted by the virus REAMDE that all three groups want.

The rest of the book?  Running and guns.   Explosions and hostages.  In addition to the Russians and Chinese layer on a bewildering array of Islamic Jihadists, American survivalists, Canadian bike gangs, British spies and one Hungarian hacker.  The first half of the book, novel length in its own right, deals primarily with the Russians and the encrypted file.  The second half, also book length, shifts to the Jihadists.

Stephenson has always loved geeks.  They get a lot of love here.  The staff of Richard’s company, Company 9592, is a lineup of interesting nerds.  Add in the Chinese virus writers, Zula’s boyfriend Peter and the hacker, Csongor and there is a lot for fans of Stephenson’s work to enjoy.  His use of action and technology is also exciting and familiar.  (Although I think Cory Doctorow’s For the Win dealt with the Chinese gold farmer is a more in-depth manner.)  But there is no science-fiction here.  It is set firmly in a present day world.

He explores the dynamics of a game company.  He looks at global terrorism.  He spends time with the MMORPG game world (but not in an Otherworld way).  And whenever something comes up that is important to the plot it gets described in detail: guns, treaded pickups, global flight paths, etc.  But most of the book is spent on the madcap action that spans the globe.  I think people will likely dislike the book for two reasons – the descriptive asides are either too frequent and distracting or Stephenson focuses too much on the plot and not enough on the exploration of these various topics.

Zula and Richard aren’t the only main characters either.  Zula drives the plot, but a vast array of people assume roles as important as Richard’s as the book progresses.  Stephenson gives each of them time in the spotlight.  The asides I explained above and the time spent with each character explain the book’s incredible length.

Why do I rank it low in the Neal Stephenson ouevre?  I miss the sci-fi.  I wanted more depth in the asides – I missed the insane detail into basically philosophy, logic and math shown in Anathem for instance.  But I was also disappointed in the end.  It surely pays out the main premise in a very satisfactory fashion.  There is a climatic gun fight that spans more than 100 pages.  But some plot elements seem to just get forgotten.  The biggest is that a war in the online world is left hanging with a game character literally wandering undirected through the game landscape.

This book most closely resembles Zodiac of Stephenson’s previous books.  That might help i the rest of my review doesn’t.  Of other writers, I don’t know of anyone quite like Stephenson.  If you have never tried him this is an easy introduction to his work.  It is hard to put down and that is trouble when there are 900 pages to turn after the first one.

But that is a good problem.

Note: I finished the book yesterday before supper.  This morning my e-mail informs me that a corrected version is available to download online.  I imagine that the revision corrects some typos, but if there is actually any major changes to the text, they are not covered in this review.

Good Things List

And so…

When I review something I always find caveats.  Nothing is ever perfect.

True nuff.  I’m not likely to read the perfect book or see the perfect movie.  Regardless I worry I sound like a curmudgeon.  ‘Cause I like stuff, don’t cha know?

So here is a list of things in the last year that I’ve liked.  No review or commentary.

  1. Dr. Who – Season 6.
  2. Eureka – Season 1 and 2.
  3. The Good Wife – Season 2.
  4. The Big Bang Theory – Season 4
  5. Source Code
  6. Donnie Darko
  7. The King’s Speech
  8. Captain America
  9. Leviathan Wakes
  10. A Canticle for Leibowitz
  11. The Wise Man’s Fear
  12. A Dance with Dragons
  13. Lady Sabre and the Ineffable Aether
  14. Morning Glories
  15. Non Player
  16. Echo

 

Writer Responsibility

So a friend said to me, on Friday, that he was done with George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series.  The reason he gave was that Martin isn’t fair to his readers.  (My words – I could have the sentiment wrong.)  That is an interesting statement that I’d like to explore.  Partly because I responded flippantly to its utterance.

The first idea to look at is if there is a contract (social not legal) between an author and the readers.  That is pretty tricky.  Mostly I’d say there isn’t, but there is a little.  Writing is mostly a solitary pursuit.  An author writes and, perhaps, a reader reads.  The two actions are separate and inherently different.  From what I’ve read a writer generally has an exemplar reader in mind when they create.  It might be themselves – writing a book they’d like to read.  It might be a family member or a friend.  It might be no one in particular, but just an imaginary person who they think wold enjoy the work.  But what it isn’t is the reader.  And for good fiction it isn’t a type of reader either.  Writing for a type of person produces marketing not literature.  Or maybe Micheal Bay movies.  So I’d say that certainly the author has not betrayed you if you are dissatisfied with their work.

But, what about writing within a genre?  Genres have rules much like a haiku has rules.  If you break them what you have produced is not longer a haiku.  Even more to the point within a series the writer has created an expectation that what comes after will resemble what comes before.

Of course the strictures of genre fiction aren’t nearly as inflexible as the structure of a haiku.  It is said that there are only a few master plots. (I’ve heard as few as two – Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk – to a number around 20.)  Within those limitations it is how an author build character and mood, or uses suspense and style that makes one book different from another.

Now there is a reason why within a genre there are rules.  The most popular and successful works within the genre adhere pretty closely to those rules.  For instance, the differences between Harry Potter and The Once and Future King are pretty vast, but there are a lot of similarities too.  Breaking from them might be satisfying to an author but will usually end up alienating many of the readers.

On the other hand, it is the tweaking of those conventions that some readers look for.  Ever wonder why movie critics dislike most of the good movies?  They’ve seen it before because they’ve seen a million movies.  They either go back to the source of an idea – an idea that may seem raw and unsophisticated now – or they laud what is different because it is different.

Readers grow the same way.  Using the word growth is misleading here – maybe change is better.  Certainly within fantasy I am most intrigued by what is different – Stephenson, Mieville and Martin rank at the top of my must read list, because, in large part, I’m not sure what to expect next from them.  Of course neither a reader nor an author should thus expect to enjoy everything they encounter.  And if an author is playing fair with their readers they will announce fairly early on that this work will be circumventing certain conventions.

Which comes to a third way the author could betray the reader.  They could cause the reader to think they are delivering one thing and instead deliver another.  I felt this way about the latest Dresden novel.  I thought I was promised a murder mystery, but that was only a sideline and instead there was a novel about coming to terms with guilt.  I read a post lately by an author, Daniel Abraham, who felt exactly that sort of betrayal from Stephenson.  Let me find it: here.

I’d certainly say that if you encounter that it would seem to be a betrayal of the relationship between the reader and the writer.  I’ve read Cryptonomicon and didn’t have that same issue, but I can certainly see Abraham’s point.

Then there is one final way to look at it.  Maybe a person just doesn’t like it.  Maybe, as Martin’s books do, they spend an inordinate amount of time in showing the actions and motivations of cruel and evil people.  Maybe, the book seems to relish in the suffering of its characters.  I can relate to that – I can’t watch reality tv for exactly that reason – it seems to be like watching a car wreck.  But in fiction I feel the opposite.  My favorite genre would be film noir which pretty much always ends in a tragedy that the protagonist brings about on themselves.  And that same criticism could certainly be leveled at Martin and be very hard to defend.

Here the betrayal isn’t dishonest – the book might be doing what it says it will on the cover, but the betrayal is still felt since the reader leaves the experience feeling – hmm violated is too strong a word, but I can’t think of another, so just dial violated down do a less extreme meaning.

In the end, what it comes down to is that you shouldn’t feel pressured to like something just because others do.  Hmm, no that is a lousy in the end.  Scrub that.  Try this:

The relationship between a reader and a book is between the words on the page and the way they influence the reader, but it isn’t between the reader and the writer.  There are lots of reasons to dislike a book.  It could be badly written.  It could be morally offensive.  Or it might just nor be your thing.  My high school english teacher used to tell us that we weren’t allowed to say that a piece of classic literature sucked.  The novel/play/whatever had been proven throughout the generations.  That may be true, but that still doesn’t mean that I need to like it.

And Martin is fair from writing the next War and Peace or Hamlet.

A Canticle for Leibowitz – A Review

I like this book.  I recommend you should read it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter J. Miller is a post-apocalyptic tale with radiation and mutants and craggy, barren wastes, but is nothing like the image my words are currently conveying.

St. Leibowitz is the founder of a monastery dedicated to preserving knowledge after a nuclear cataclysm.  The novel is divided into three books each set hundreds of years after Leibowitz and each other.  The books show the gradual renewal of mankind.  They depict the life and happenings with the monastery.  But mostly they portray lives with hope, despair, foolishness, courage and faith.

This is also a book about miracles.

It is a pure form of science fiction asking what does humanity look like after it has tried to destroy itself.

I posted a list early this week of fantasy and science fiction novels.  More than any other list, this one contained more books which I had read, but it also had many which I hadn’t.  Canticle was the highest ranked that I had never encountered.  It should be ranked higher.