Religious Orders

Short-Ass Book Reviews for Late Summer 2014

Posted: Monday August 25 2014 @ 5:43pm

Religious Order: Books

More books!

Going Interstellar - Les Johnson & Jack McDevitt

This in an intriguing combination of fiction and non, all dealing with interstellar travel. The fiction is pretty sweet, going beyond the usual. (Buddhists in space? Really?) The non-fiction is good, but focused solely on drive alternatives. I would have liked to see some other aspects covered.

One bonus is that most of the non-fiction pieces reference other books that would be of interest. I bought a couple, but have only read one, so far. How did that go? Well...

Back to the Moon - Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

China has secretly gone to the Moon, but are in trouble and need rescuing! It sounds like a smaller, earlier version of The Martian. So I gave it a shot.

Ugh. This is awful. I abandoned it after four chapters. It reads like competent-men SF from the fifties, yet is only four years old. The characters? Here's Bill:

Bill rose from his chair and strode to the table, the alpha male in the room by the way he carried himself and his purposeful stride to the chair adjacent to the one Carlton had just occupied.

Here's Millie:

She had been Stetson's secretary, or, to be politically correct, his management support assistant, for almost five years.

Seriously, Millie the secretary?

Then there are the long rants at NASA, for making space travel boring. Legitimate gripe? Oh yes. Do you want to spend time with folks continually making said gripe? I don't.

After four chapters, I checked out some reviews, to see if this got any better. What I found was that the characterization became even worse once the Chinese showed up, and the rants at NASA continued.

Remember, kids, life is too short to waste it on bad books.

Starhawk - Jack McDevitt

McDevitt has a problem. He has this nice series of books about a Space Academy, featuring Priscilla Hutch Hutchins. The books are, generally, really fun reads. The problem? Hutch was getting old. In the fifth book, he moved her into a desk job, to the book's detriment. Turns out, this really isn't the Academy series. This is the Hutch series. Hutch needs to be the star player. Book six put her back into space, which was great to read, but the book suffered in other ways. Plus, now Hutch is, in the book's universe, getting a little old for action-packed space adventure.

What to do. What to do.

Ah ha! A prequel! See the start of Hutch's career!

And, you know, that's not a bad idea at all. The books isn't perfect. The overriding plot is thin. Hutch herself doesn't really do a whole lot of note. (Although that fits the prequel nature.) There are mysteries brought up that aren't resolved, presumedly as fodder for further books. (This sort of thing is awkward in a prequel, as none of the earlier-yet-later books mention these mysteries. Or maybe they do. It's been years since I read them. Hell, they're paper books!) Overall, a much improved read over the prior two books and a nice return to form for a great series.

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Short-Ass Book Reviews for Summer 2014

Posted: Monday August 11 2014 @ 10:23am

Religious Order: Books

Holy crap! Nearly two months since a blog post? Well, here ya go, then!

The Ebony Exodus - Candace R. M. Gorham

Full title is The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion - and Others Should Too. While that title is a mouthful, the book itself is very, very good. About two-thirds of the book consists of stories of black women and their relationship with the Black Church. (Black as in racially black, not satanically black.) These aren't the rantings you might be expecting if your atheist readings have consisted of lots of white folks. Every women in this book has her own personal story and perspective. Some are more ambivalent than others.

The other third consists of essays from Gorham herself on the negative aspects of the Black Church and how it harms black women while at the same time acting as a support system. If you're looking for more straight-up criticism, this is where you'll find it. Gorham's writing is so clear and direct that it cuts like a scalpel. (I don't mean that in terms of Wow! Look at that articulate black person! I mean as a contrast to the overly-philosophical mental noodling you see in a lot of atheist writing.)

I'm going to lob one criticism at this book, and it's one to which the author alludes in her introduction. The book is too short. Gorham bemoans having to take excerpts of her interviews for the sake of book length. I really wish she hadn't. The book could have been, seriously, twice as long and it wouldn't have worn out its welcome with me.

Of course, as a suburban white guy, I'm just getting exposure to issues about which I was utterly clueless. I can't speak to the level at which this book can help black women. I sure hope it can, though.

The Martian - Andy Weir

This one is odd. The story is simple: A guy gets marooned on Mars and has to use his wits to survive. It's almost like Verne's The Mysterious Island, minus the last third or so. Much of it is very technical, which will thrill hard sci-fi fans. Indeed, many folks have given it high praise. There exists a subset, including me, who find the first-person narrative grating.

The book bounces between first and third person, which is fine. The problem is that the first-person narrative, that of the eponymous Martian, is a wise-cracking quip monster. He's like Deadpool in space. It's actually a three-fold problem. One, it just gets old, quickly. Two, it clashes with the technical parts. Three, it's the laziest possible characterization.

Seriously, the joking wiseacre is the go-to character for those who don't want to bother fleshing out a real character. Clearly, more time was spent on the technical challenges and their resolution than on the characterization.

Another problem with the book is that the question of whether the guy ought to be rescued at all never really arises. It's hinted at, once or twice, but not actually dealt with. Should we expend millions of dollars to save one guy? What are the trade-offs here? That could have been a nice addition to the story.

All that said, if you can get past the tone of the narrative, it's a swell read for fans of rock-hard sci-fi.

Planet of the Apes - Pierre Boulle, Xan Fielding (Translator)

This is the novel from which all the movies derive. It's not exactly the same as the first film. (To understand why, give my buddy JC's article on it a read.) That said, overall knowledge of the film plot will blunt many of the dramatic turns here. Still, it's a great read.

It's also interesting to see how the story changes for the films while still incorporating other aspects. It's my favorite book/film combo right now. (Subject to change on a whim.)

One aspect I really loved was the turning of the trope of Medieval Stasis right on its head. Instead of being a weakness, it's an important plot point.

Little Fuzzy - H. Beam Piper

This one is a classic. It's extremely charming and a worthwhile read. My main complaint is that it raises philosophical issues around which it then makes an end-run, rather than actually trying to resolve them.

Null-ABC - H. Beam Piper

Entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. It takes place in a world where reading is met with derision by the masses while also being jealously guarded by a learned elite. It ain't no Fahrenheit 451, although it includes the usual Piper rootin'-tootin' gunplay.

One day, I'll open a bookstore called Montag's Books. In the window will perpetually hang a sign exclaiming Fire Sale!

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Short-Ass Book Reviews for June 2014

Posted: Friday June 06 2014 @ 12:53pm

Religious Order: Books

Whee! Short book reviews! In no particular order!

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World - Haruki Murakami

There's really two things you need from a book with parallel plot-lines:

  1. Do you stay interested in each plot?
  2. Do they come together in a pleasing way at the end?

This book succeeds at both. The two plot-lines trade chapters and I was continually looking forward to each switch. Neither overshadowed the other. The conclusion and melding also worked for me.

I've read that this isn't his best work. I don't care. I'm not familiar with his other work, and I liked this book.

Note: It was part of an article on SF books by non-SF authors. I'm still trying to find Gore Vidal's apocalyptic fiction book.

The Great Agnostic - Susan Jacoby

Readable and short biography of Robert G. Ingersoll. He was a pretty freakin' awesome guy, ahead of society in so many ways. Jacoby works hard at rehabilitating Ingersoll's chumminess with plutocrats.

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller

Gee, Henry Miller really likes the word cunt.

I'm tempted to leave it at that, but I won't. Yeah, the controversial stuff doesn't hit with much of a wallop anymore. Yeah, he's a misogynistic racist. No, there's no real plot. Is it a commentary on the human condition? Eh, certainly not my human condition.

All that said, there are some simply wonderful descriptions and passages here, interspersed in a lot of tedious nattering. I read it in segments, which is easy to do when there's no plot.

The 34-Ton Bat: The Story of Baseball as Told Through Bobbleheads, Cracker Jacks, Jockstraps, Eye Black, and 375 Other Strange and Unforgettable Objects - Steve Rushin

Entertaining book about baseball stuff. Not just a list of oddball [heh] baseball trivia, it has a nice cohesive flow that takes you through several aspects of the physical objects surrounding the game.

Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons From Science Fiction - Nathan Shedroff & Christopher Noessel

Entertaining look at human interfaces in the world of science fiction movies and how they can be applied to real-world stuff. Entertaining, but not gripping. This is a book to peruse, not read straight through. Suffers in eBook form, on an eInk eReader, due to the poor resulting quality of the example screenshots.

The Edible Exile - Carl Hiaasen

Hiaasen found an old short story of his and decided to publish it. It's not very good. The found copy was missing its ending, so he added a new one. It's also not very good. I mean, it's somewhat entertaining, but overpriced for what you get.

Assemblers of Infinity - Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason

Serviceable SF. It's not great, but it's entertaining enough. The authors have a really bad habit of changing scene without any notification to the reader, so there are plenty of places where I was momentarily confused. The ending isn't much of a conclusion, serving really more to try and draw you into future books.

Alligator - The Harvard Lampoon

I mentioned last fall how much I disliked a history of the National Lampoon I read. It did make be curious, however, about a James Bond spoof they wrote back in the day called Alligator. So I read it and enjoyed it plenty. It's funny and clever for fans of the books. It may not work for you if your only experience with James Bond is via the movies.

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An Experiment Gone Meh

Posted: Friday May 23 2014 @ 6:17am

Religious Order: Books

John Scalzi has reached a point in his career where he can do pretty much whatever he wants. This lets him experiment, the results of which can be awesome, or, well, meh.

A good example of this experimentation working well was Redshirts. (A number of his fans think that it was his worst book ever. They're wrong. Clearly his worst book ever was The Android's Dream.)

So, while writing his latest novel, Lock In, he thought something along the lines of Hey, I've always wanted to write an oral history. I'll write a novella intro to the book as an oral history!

How do I know this? He told us all. He tweets a lot.

Anyway, so he wrote the novella, called Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome. How is it? Meh.

It's not bad. Scalzi's too skilled for that. It's just not compelling. None of the characters stand out. It reads more like a Wikipedia history section minus the neutral point of view. Without fleshed-out characters, what's the point of an oral history?

The novella includes the first chapter of Lock In. That first chapter is meh, too. It appears to be The Caves of Steel, except R. Daneel Olivaw is remote-controlled by a person.

Okay, seriously, I suspect it'll be much more than that, but I base that suspicion on Scalzi's skill, not on the provided first chapter.

Despite all the meh, I still pre-ordered the full book. It's a very rare occasion when Scalzi writes a bad book. (See The Android's Dream, above.)

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A Love/Hate Relationship

Posted: Wednesday April 16 2014 @ 6:23pm

Religious Order: Books

Back when I used to read paper books, I picked up Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark from a paperback swap club. Then I bought a Nook, and the book sat with a bunch of other paperbacks on a shelf, neglected. This winter, I purchased an exercise bike, to try and keep up some sort of exercise regimen during the cold days. Since I didn't want to drip sweat on my Nook, I've been going through old paperbacks, starting with the long neglected The Speed of Dark.

If you look at reviews on Goodreads, you'll see some folks who think this is the best book ever. Others think it's crap, an inferior rip of Flowers for Algernon. Neither are fully correct. I both liked and disliked it intensely.

On the positive side, most of it is from the first-person perspective of an autistic man, albeit one with some near-future therapies applied. These parts are really touching and insightful. They do make you look at folks differently, with better understanding. It's very effective and evocative writing. I fully understand readers who laud the book based on this, and while I'm only dedicating a paragraph to this aspect of the book, it's equally as important as all my complaints to come. For you see, The Speed of Dark has a, well, dark side...


Actually, it's nothing sinister, it's just that the story is tepid and antagonists are awful. Let's talk about the story first. The gist of the book is that the protagonist has a chance to take advantage of a new treatment for autism. Should he avail himself of it? Seems simple, no? The story tries to be a mechanism by which the protagonist grows as a person, but it's utterly unnecessary. His growth occurs as part of his daily activities, which happen alongside the main storyline. Meanwhile, the main storyline itself churns along, adding very little. Yes, it forces a decision, but it does so in a very clunky manner. Midway, there's some intrigue suggested behind the therapy, but it's just left to sit there, as a vague threat. It's never developed. (If you want to see this threat actually developed, I highly recommend Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. That book also does an excellent job providing a viewpoint from a radically different perspective.)

The book would be better without that storyline. Just give us the day-to-day personal growth of a compelling individual.

It's also worth noting that the whole book is very different from Flowers for Algernon in that most of the book leads up to decisions about the treatment. The book would have been fine stopping at the decision rather than continuing on with a couple more chapters showing the ramifications. The decision stands alone without need to be justified either way by subsequent events.

The second problem is with the antagonists. There's a main one, who propels the main storyline. He is, well, just awful. He may as well be twirling a mustache while he cackles his hatred of the protagonist, a hatred which is neither explained nor justified. It reminds me of reviews of The Lord of the Rings, complaining that Sauron is just this evil bad dude with no real motivation. (He actually has tons of motivation, but you need to read much more Tolkien before you see it. Or so I'm told. I haven't read that much.) Every time the book brings this guy in, I would cringe.

The second and tertiary antagonists are more realistic, in different degrees. It's weird. I totally buy the tertiary one and partially buy the secondary. It seems like the less central the antagonist, the better job she does making them real people with real motivations.

One other aspect that bothered me was that most of the book is written in the first person perspective, but it occasionally shifts to third-person to show things not apparent to the protagonist. This causes two problems. First, it lends an objectivity to the antagonists described above. Without these third-person sections, I could chalk the shallowness of the characters up to the differing perceptions of the protagonist. With those third-person sections in, I have to accept that those characters are just poorly written.

Second, it takes me out of the sense of immersion into which she so masterfully puts me for most of the book. Because most of these third-person sections involve the main storyline, they could just as easily be jettisoned.

So, final judgment? It's a really great book with some really big flaws. I enjoyed my time reading it, but I never felt compelled to read more. Normally, it's the plot that drives me to keep picking up a book. Instead, I picked it up, here and there, eventually reaching the end.

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January 2014 Books Reviews

Posted: Monday February 03 2014 @ 7:11pm

Religious Order: Books

In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World - Ian Stewart

This book is one of those attempts to liven up a dull list of sciencesque things by providing some of the story surrounding the things. (The Disappearing Spoon being the canonical example of this genre.) It's not bad, but nor is it all that good.

Part of the problem is the limited audience. Unless you already know some of this stuff already, the book will be rough going. It's not pitched at someone new to science and math. Luckily, I'm new to neither science nor math, so it wasn't a problem for me. Alas, the blurb for the book claims it's approachable, a claim I suspect is shaky for many folks.

Given that I'm in the audience for it, I enjoyed it, despite some drawbacks. He does a nice job showing the history leading to the entitled equations, sometimes making my jaw drop. (Wow! Lorentz contraction equations derived from Pythagoras? Hell yeah!) He also does a decent job showing the ramifications of these equations. So, what's the drawback?

The author jumps on his soapbox too often. He rails against current theories regarding quantum mechanics and dark matter, based on little more than a personal discomfort with them. He ends the book with a rant against the financial folks who crashed the economy recently. While I agree with him, it's really jarring to find personal rants in the middle of talk of equations. It doesn't ruin the book, but it sure detracts from the larger points.

Parasite (Parasitology #1) - Mira Grant

Oh, how I wanted to love this book. It starts so promising, with a luscious blend of Brain on Fire, zombies, and a more engagingly written Andromeda Strain. Things are fine up to the mid-point of the book. Things move along. Characters are developed. Mysteries deepen.

At the mid-point, we're treated to some tasty reveals. They're not all that surprising, at least they weren't to me. Plus, another extra tasty one is hinted at, too strongly.

What the author really should have done is made the extra tasty reveal, then stopped the book right there, but she didn't. Instead, we spend the second half of the book mostly puttering around until the end. Much of what happens seems unrealistic in terms of character reactions. At the end, the reveal which has now been obvious for half the book is, well, revealed. Thus the book ends, with no real plot resolution.

It just doesn't work. The reveal doesn't come as a surprise by that point. Mid-book it hits with a hell of a wallop. End of book? Yeah, we know. We've known for a while now.

That said, I still liked the book, especially the first half. Note that it's part of a (still to be written) series. I'll likely read the whole series. Unlike many others who have reviewed it, I liked the protagonist and found the other characters interesting. I love the ideas underpinning the story. I'm keen to see what happens.

But I sure hope the next one is better structured.

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December 2013 Book Review

Posted: Tuesday December 17 2013 @ 7:33am

Religious Order: Books

The Wind from Nowhere - J.G. Ballard

Finally got around to snagging a copy of Ballard's first novel. Apparently, he himself disowned it. Indeed, it isn't a very good book. That said, I think it's worth reading for fans of Ballard. It's interesting as a proto-Ballard work. I've mentioned before that I think Ballard wrote the same book, over and over. There's always a male lead that's actually Ballard. Society gets shaken up in some fashion and people form new ways of being, well, a society.

This book shows glimpses of this. There's an ever increasing wind scouring the globe and folks have to deal with it. There's no single character filling in for Ballard himself, but you can see aspects in some of the male leads. Society gets shaken up, but never really forms an alternative.

The ending fizzles, but, again, that's typical for Ballard. His books aren't about the ending; they're about what happens in between. Alas, the Ballardian framework isn't yet in place, so not much of interest happens in between.

One bonus with the copy I have is that it features a Pelham cover. In the 70s, Penguin books reissued four Ballard novels with Pelham covers. They're pretty awesome. When I looked in my bookshelf for my copy of The Drought, I was delighted to realize it was from the same reissue. So, of course, I hit eBay to pick up the other two. Maybe I'll scan them in, print them out big, and hang them on the wall.

Double Down: Game Change 2012 - Mark Halperin & John Heilemann

This is a sequel, of sorts, to Game Change, this time focused on the 2012 campaign.

Content-wise, it's very interesting. It tends to try and paint folks in as positive a light as possible, accepting their stated motivations at face value. I don't know whether I like that. (Reminds me of Huston Smith's The Religions of Man.) Still, very interesting.

Stylistically, it's an awful mess of pretentious writing. Every few pages, they toss in an obscure word, simply because they can, I guess. Is the ability to use a thesaurus that notable a skill? It really detracts from the book. At least, on my Nook, I could easily look them up. I can't think of any instance where the word they used was obviously more appropriate than more generally known terms.

Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond

This is a crowd-funded collection of short stories focused on adding a little color to speculative fiction. Don't expect this to be just a bunch of sci-fi, only with black folks. Actually, don't expect a whole lot of sci-fi at all. There's some, but it's a broader, more varied look at speculative fiction.

There's a bunch of quality work here with a great amount of diversity, diversity of all kinds. I can't think of a real clinker in the bunch.

The only point of disappointment was that I didn't really feel challenged. I'm a white guy from the mild streets of Minnesota's suburbia. I was expecting more of the stories to make me feel uncomfortable, but, with one exception near the end, none of them did.

Super Stories of Heroes & Villains

This collection of sorta-superhero stories left me feeling meh. Some of the better ones I had read before in other collections. Others were very far afield, too far to keep me interested.

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Fall 2013 Short-Ass Book Reviews

Posted: Friday October 18 2013 @ 6:41pm

Religious Order: Books

So Young, So Wicked - Jonathan Craig

I picked up a bunch of pulp novels at Munseys recently and started with this one. I don't know if I lucked out or what, but this is a pretty damn good little book. I was a little disappointed at first because, well, it wasn't tawdry enough. Plus, it was well written! It became more tawdry and remained well written as I read on.

The plot is that a professional killer is sent to rural upstate New York to bump off a 15-year-old girl. Things go way wrong and bad people do bad things. There's a great conceit about the killer also being a pianist. It comes up in the way he thinks, the way he talks, even in the way he fights. It's well used.

Things wrap up nicely and horribly in the end. I was completely satisfied.

(It's important to note that, while bad and tawdry things happen, it's not really explicit about it. This disappointed me, at first. I thought pulps were, well, pulpier.)

My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places - Mary Roach

Clearly, I love Mary Roach's books. (See here and here and here.) Turns out she also does a humor column for Reader's Digest and this is a collection of those columns.

They're short and they're funny. But they're not at all on par with her books. Each column is structured similarly and, after you've read a bunch in a row, it starts to feel rote. Alas, the short nature of each makes it tempting to keep reading just one more. But, frankly, that will do the book a disservice. I think the best way to read the book is to leave it in the bathroom and read a few columns at a time.

One complaint about them is that Roach is very wedded to traditional gender roles. I'm not that wedded to such roles, so humor based on them falls flat. It's 2013. Those kinds of observations aren't funny anymore. (Perhaps they still are to Reader's Digest's readership?)

So, if you're new to Roach's work, start with her other books. If you're already a fan, feel free to give this a read, now forewarned that it's not as good as her books.

That's Not Funny, That's Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream - Ellin Stein

I read this on a friends recommendation. He liked it. I really didn't. It's a smug self-satisfied book about a bunch of smug self-satisfied people. I found it torturous to read. I made it partway through the fifth chapter until it became too painful to continue. After a break of a few days, I flipped ahead to around chapter 20, where Animal House comes into play. It had become a better read by that point, humorously in direct correlation to how much it became about Saturday Night Live actors over National Lampoon writers.

God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States - Karen Stollznow

This book is an examination of the weirder stuff in the world of religion. It suffer from the same weakness that many popular science books have: If you're at all well read on this subject, then you already know most of this. That said, it's still an interesting read. While I was familiar with much of the information, it's good to have it clearly written down all in one book. (Plus, the Quaker stuff was new to me.)

One weird thing is that the author visited many of these folks, to gain some insight. Alas, those sections seem shallow and tacked on for the sake of being able to say she did it. If you're going to try and gain real personal insight, you really need to throw yourself into it. See Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters with the Right Taught Me About Sex, God, and Fury by Donna Minkowitz for a good example of this.

On the other hand, a weakness Ferocious Romance has is that the author becomes fond of the folks she visits and is thus unable to really lay into them when they deserve it. (By my vague memory, at least. I read it years ago.) Stollznow has no such qualms. However, instead of a detailed criticism, she unloads with paragraphs of invective, but leaves the details to sources listed in the bibliography.

All of which makes this an odd book. The author doesn't gets personally involved enough to provide a good personal take, yet nor does she provide detailed critical analysis. That just leaves descriptions of the weird stuff. For many folks, that will be plenty. It just wasn't enough for me.

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

Alternate reality novel in which the Axis won the war. Don't be expecting a German-oriented book. Most of the story takes place along the Pacific coast of the US, in Japanese-controlled territory. It's an interesting read. I enjoyed most of the characterization although there isn't really much of a plot. You pick up on the lives of folks, follow them for awhile, and then the book ends. There's a wee bit of alternate-alternate reality in the form of a book-in-a-book that posits a world in which the Allies won, inside this world where the Axis won. The ending of the book tries to make something of that, but it really didn't do much for me. I'd rather have had it stick to just being an alternate reality. But, I suppose that isn't enough for an author like Dick.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness - Susannah Cahalan

This book is, in a word, harrowing. Mysterious illness strikes the author and doctors try to figure it out. The condition itself erased her own memories of much of the time. Reconstructed from interviews and video footage, she's really telling a third-person account of her own first-person story. Sounds confusing? It's not. It's very well done.

The only minor criticism I could lob is that I wanted a little more coverage of her rehab and less of her post-rehab activities. Minor nit-picking, nothing more.

It's Kind Of A Cute Story - Rolly Crump and Jeff Heimbuch

Rolly is a Disney Imagineer. He's pretty famous for it. This book is simply his recollections of his time designing fun things, at Disney and away from the Mouse. The stories are indeed cute. The style is quaint in a captivating way. It sounds corny, but it does feel as if he's sitting there just telling you these stories. It's a delightful read.

Don't read it looking for dirt on the inner workings of Disney. It's not that kind of book.

The Eyes of Heisenberg - Frank Herbert

Strange book. Don't go into it expecting Heisenberg-oriented hard sci-fi. That's not what it is at all. Rather, it's about the Optimen who control the rest of humanity, using them for work and breeding purposes. Of course, some normal folk rebel. There's a bunch of set-up that seems promising. Then there's some action and a chase. And then it just gets boring and noodling. The ending feels pretentious, without there being any there there.

Blackdog - K.V. Johansen

Like pretty much everyone else who read this, I picked it up because it was billed as an epic tale in a single book. Like most other folks, I found it lacking in terms of storytelling and characterization, which may well be unavoidable in a single-book epic tale.

There are some interesting ideas here, particularly regarding the world's gods, but the plotting lags. Midway through the book, I really had to push myself to finish. It wasn't bad, but it just wasn't holding my interest. I did push on, but the ending doesn't really make sense and I didn't feel adequately rewarded for the effort I put into it.

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Happy Atheists?

Posted: Tuesday August 27 2013 @ 6:25am

Religious Order: Books

Finished PZ Myers' The Happy Atheist last night. Not an earthshaking work and it suffers from a lack of direction. Despite that, it's a good fun read and I recommend it.

On the negative side, it reminds me of a lot of popular science books in that there's a lot of stuff that any decently well-read atheist already knows. It also reads more as a series of blog posts than as cohesive work. Until the very end, where it then attempts to string some chapters together. Which, at that point, merely illustrates the lack earlier in the book.

On the positive side? It's well written. It's breezy and fun while still being serious. There isn't a really bad chapter to be found. And there are some really good insights and examples that were new to me. It's not a wheat/chaff situation at all.

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July 2013 Book Reviews

Posted: Friday July 19 2013 @ 9:52am

Religious Order: Books

Geez, I haven't reviewed any books for a long while. So these'll be short:

The Universe in the Rearview Mirror

Ooo! Science non-fiction!

There's a problem with science non-fiction. The problem is that it rarely hits the sweet spot for me. I have a year of college physics under my belt, along with an interested layperson's perspective. Actual technical papers are far beyond me. Yet most popular books about physics are well below my knowledge level. I want something beyond Gee, aren't black holes awesome!

A Universe From Nothing hit the mark pretty well. I think it's a good sign that The Universe in the Rearview Mirror does as well. No, I didn't understand all of it, but I did understand most and got the gist of the rest.

Here's an example of hitting the mark: Spaghettification. If you're in the market for this book, you know what that is and why it occurs. This book also details the forces at certain distances. It's that added step of technical detail that can make or break a science non-fiction book.

The overall premise is to explain how symmetries define our universe, while breaks in that symmetry are responsible for our very existence. Heady stuff.

The book is also packed with awesome illustrations in a great old-timey style. One benefit of the ePUB format is that the books are, literally, just ZIP files containing HTML, CSS, and image files. So I was able to easily extract the images and use them as screensavers for my Nook. (Once I stripped the DRM, which you should always do. But don't then give out copies. Don't be a dick!)

The downside to all the illustrations is that they bogged down my eReader. Page turns were slower, dramatically so in illustration-heavy chapters. (Nooks appear to cache a chapter at a time.)

The book is also packed with geek culture asides. Maxwell's Demon is drawn as a Cylon, for example. While entertaining and enriching, this does lead to a problem, at least in an eBook. The asides are presented as end notes. So, each time I want to see one, I have to tap on a wee little asterisk. Then I have to remember to tap on the Done button at the top of the screen instead of mistakenly hitting the Page Back button. Because the Page Back will indeed take me back a page, to the prior end note, not back to the text. And then I can't hit the Done button because changing the page makes that button go away. And then I have to go to the Table of Contents, go to the correct chapter, then page forward to where I left off, which is a pain with this book as the page turns are slow, as mentioned above. And that's a lot to bother with just to read a one sentence aside. Just put those suckers in parens, dammit!

Note that it also inflates the page numbering. I don't mean that as a criticism, as the book is a good length. But those last hundred pages? A hundred plus end notes, one per page.

Doctor Who: Harvest of Time

So, Alastair Reynolds wrote a Doctor Who novel. I guess I should read that.

Now, I'll be clear up front, I haven't watched Doctor Who since the Tom Baker days. To me, Tom Baker is Doctor Who. (I know, the mythology of the series itself explicitly allows for different actors. Logic really isn't going to sway my feelings here.) The Doctor in this novel is actually an earlier one than the one of my youth, and his manner is quite different than Tom Baker's portrayal. So I had this ongoing mental confusion where my mental image clashed with the book. I know, that's my problem, not the books.

The book itself was fun, a good read throughout. The plot ticks along and the various threads come together in a satisfying way.

My only real criticism is that Reynolds seemed to borrow visual imagery from his earlier books, particularly The Prefect.

Troika, The Six Directions of Space, and Thousandth Night

Like Scalzi (see below), Alastair Reynolds has been dipping into the eBook waters with some shorter works. Troika is a Big Dumb Object story, but a well done one. The Six Directions of Space is a bleeding multiverse sort of thing, with interesting characterization and settings. Thousandth Night is a precursor to House of Suns.

All are worthwhile reads. They're short and cheap and if you like Reynolds at all, then you outta pick them up.

He also has a few more short stories out there as eBooks. I'm not listing them here because I either haven't read them yet or I can't remember the name off the top of my head and I'm too lazy to look them up.

Various Sci-Fi Short Stories on Gutenberg

The Gutenberg Project collects up works that are now in the public domain. So you can read them for free! And they have a Science Fiction section! Most of the works are short stories or novellas. The quality varies from superb to pulpy. I tend to read a few in between longer books.

They also have downloadable disc images of the full Sci-Fi collection. Be aware that these images contain TXT files, not ePUBs. If you have an ePUB-compatible eReader, you'll probably want to download them individually.

The Good Life Lab

The Good Life Lab is about a couple who had meaningless jobs that contributed nothing to society, so they moved to a rural area and made a homestead that provides minimally more value to society. Being unduly proud of themselves, they wrote a book about it. I haven't officially abandoned this book yet, but I have set it aside for awhile. I never got to the actual homesteading part. I couldn't wade through all the self-congratulatory build-up to it.

Maybe it's because my job is both meaningful and contributes to society. I dunno.

Other reviews have noted that the actual DIY stuff is minimal. So, maybe I should consider this abandoned.

Trick or Treatment

Alternative medicines, do they work or are they crap? Trick or Treatment delves into the question. (Spoiler: They're mostly crap.)

It's an okay read. It melds the history of evidence-based medicine into an examination of some of the major alternative medicines. I don't think that structure works very well here. It comes across as if they're grasping at straws to explain away results they don't like. I know that's not the case, but that's how it would look to someone steeped in woo. The writing is stilted, too. It feels more like an academic paper than a book meant for public consumption.

The reference section at the end is more useful.

Overall, it's a great concept with a flawed implementation.

The Human Division

One thing I love about Scalzi is that he's willing to experiment with online publishing. For The Human Division, he released it in a serial format, doling out one chapter a week. (I did quick reviews of chapters one and two.) The assertion up front was that each chapter would be a self-contained story, yet you would still have a complete novel by the end. Did he make good on this assertion? Partially.

Don't get me wrong. I liked the book. I didn't drop what I was doing each week to read the newest chapter, but once I finished whatever I was reading, I did read the latest chapter. Each chapter was indeed a decent story on its own. Some were really good, most were okay, a few were obvious.

The novel as a whole was lacking. There was no real resolution at the end. Then, a week later, all was explained. This wasn't a traditional series of chapters forming a standalone novel. This was more like episodes of a TV show, with the book comprising a season.

So, first off, a quick fuck you for keeping that to yourself. Would I have still bought the book? Yeah, probably. But I do prefer to be an informed consumer. I do want to know whether the book I'm buying relies on me buying future volumes. Not being clear about that up front is a dick move. (Yes, he intended this approach all along, but didn't tell us until he knew the first season would be successful enough to justify a second.)

That said, when thought of in terms of a TV series, the book makes sense. Like any good TV show, some episodes are great, some okay, some clunkers. The season finale resolves just a little bit of plot and leaves open a bunch of questions to get you to tune back into the next season.

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