Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth is roughly 970 pages long and, at times, it felt even longer. That isn't to say that it isn't a good story - it is - just that, occasionally, I wished the story would reach it's conclusion. That may be more a commentary on me and my impatience than it is on the book; I'm not sure.

The story is focused around the construction of a fictional cathedral in the small English village of Kingsbridge. It seems rare to me that a building is in fact one of the main characters of a story but Ken Follett not only selected an unusual protagonist he pulled it off quite well. The cathedral isn't the only protagonist, not by a long shot, but it is the focus of the actions all of the other main characters, both good and bad, take throughout the majority of the novel.

The story takes place in medieval England and, as such, it can be fairly graphic and violent in places; further, because the story takes place around the construction of the cathedral there is quite a bit of Christian dogma cited by various characters towards myriad ends. Of course, even without the cathedral the presence and power of the catholic church in Medieval England would have guaranteed some strong religious overtones in the weekly lives of the various characters.

Essentially there are four characters within the book who server as our protagonists. Prior Phillip, the leader of a conclave of monks who are the lords of Kingsbridge and who contract out the construction of the Cathedral. Tom Builder is the master builder who is tasked with constructing the cathedral. Jack Sharebourg, the step-son of Tom Builder and a fine stone carver, has a smaller role that builds to a more critical one as the story goes on. Last, but not least, is Aliena, the daughter of the local earl. Aliena is an unusual medeival woman in that, while she is treated, at times as less than human, she manages to do some amazing things that I doubt were wholly probably in the factual middle ages.

I, almost always, cheer for the good guys and find them to be the more interesting characters in a book. However, at times, a novel comes along with such sufficient insufferable bad guys that they steal the show. That was the case with all three of the antagonists in The Pillars of the Earth. The most powerful of the three, at least politically, is the snake like Bishop Waleran. He is a manipulative backstabbing and power-hungry bastard who, for the majority of the novel, goes out of his way to prevent the construction of the cathedral even though it is within his own Diocese.

Just slightly less powerful but significantly less intelligent and scheming is the ruthless William of Hamleigh. While William is a competent knight he is both vicious and full of spite; by mixing those two character flaws with a serious inferiority complex and a paranoid suspicion that everyone mocks his family William really does become the embodiment of evil throughout the story. I'm ashamed to share his name.

The final villain is Alfred; Tom Builders eldest child. Alfred is cunning and strong but also intellectually stunted. Further he is consumed by jealousy of Jack who is both more talented and smarter but much smaller and weaker. Their conflict is full of petty injustices spearheaded by Alfred's malicious desire to simply make Jack's life miserable. Alfred is a real ass who I kept hoping would get his due.

Overall all of the characters are believable, but, at times, their reactions to different events are not. For instance, Tom Builder's second wife, Ellen, is an anomaly who has a secret that keeps Bishop Waleran in fear. However, considering the power that the church had in the time period it is hard for me to believe she was allowed to remain alive; and, not just living, but thriving within the town of Kingsbridge as Tom's wife. Further, after she performed some sufficiently sacriligious acts I was amazed she wasn't captured and burned at the stake as a witch; especially considering the entire religious population of the region had denounced her as just that - a witch!

I suppose Follett had to take some artistic liberties to keep the story flowing and for that I am glad because it is a good tale full of both victories and defeats for "the good guys" which was refreshing considering how often the good guys just seem to easily come out on top in most tales. At times the story does get bogged down but, fortunately, it picks back up again before too long and you once again forget it is a 970 page book.

My youngest brother Chris gave me the book and a recontamination to read it and I'm glad I took his advice. I give it a 3.5 out of 5 star rating.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Towers of Midnight

Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time)

I started reading the Wheel of Time series in 1989. Twenty-one years ago and, yet, I stick with it. Some people would think I am a glutton for punishment however, books like "Towers of Midnight" serve as a reward for my patience.

Sanderson took over the writing duties for the series in the previous book, "The Gathering Storm" and he took a while to get comfortable with each of the characters which is why I felt the second half of that book was much better than the first. Fortunately he continued to improve as he wrote "Towers of Midnight" and, I think, at this point he has hit a great stride.

It took until the 12th book of the series for me to start like Nyneave; I think Sanderson's take on her is sufficiently different as to make her a more believable character. While Jordan was penning the series many of the women just seemed so depressingly disgusted with everything any man did that it became offputting to read. I can remember Jordan saying that the women in his books were written as he has experienced women and, if that is true, then I am sorry for his experiences. The Nyneave that came forward in "The Gathering Storm" is still a strong and confident character she just doesn't feel the need to treat all men like they are shit anymore. It's refreshing. In fact, she even is willing to admit that Rand doesn't constantly have his head firmly up his ass all the time now. Granted, emotionally Rand was pretty crazy for a bit but that should be expected considering all of the turmoil he is going through. However, some of the people he dealt with such as Cadsuane and Nyneave could have shown a touch of empathy considering Rand is probably in his early 20's and is being asked to not only overcome his own inner demons but also to gather the worlds forces and, while he's at it, prepare to face off against the most powerful and evil force the world has ever or will ever know - the dark one himself.

In "Towers of Midnight" Rand, thanks in no small part to Nyneave's improved demeanor, Rand completes a metamorphosis that began in "The Gathering Storm." Now, Nyneave has the unenviable task of convincing and converting every other Aes Sedai she meets so that they might trust Rand to not be a completely wool-headed farm boy. It won't be easy especially considering that Egwene still thinks she knows everything (even though she too is only in her early 20's) and Elaine hasn't learned any humility at all yet and still refuses to learn pretty much anything from any of her experiences.

Fortunately, we see little of Elayne or Egwene in this book. Instead, the majority of the tale is focused on Perrin and, to a lesser extent, Mat. In fact it felt like nearly 60% of the story revolved around Perrin. While he isn't my favorite character I am very glad his story arc finally moved forward a significant amount. Perrin, much like Rand, goes through a personal metamorphosis that is not only long overdue but much needed. An additional plus is that Faile isn't completely unreasonable in every one of her interactions with Perrin again. In fact, she shows a bit of empathy for his situation which is refreshing to say the least.

Mat and Thom finally make their move toward the Tower of Gengji but not before facing a dark nemesis that has been trailing them for quite a while. Overall I didn't really feel like Mat, as a person, changed much however he does finish up a story thread that has been dangling loose since back in the Great Hunt (book 2!) so it was great to reach that milestone. The best news about Mat in this book is that Sanderson is finally starting to get comfortable with his wise cracking personality. Mat's still missing a lot of his "zing" but he is much better in this iteration than he was in "The Gathering Storm" where he had become sort of a petulant child.

Towers of Midnight does an admirable job of pulling a wide variety of story lines forward and setting the stage for the last battle while at the same time another new dilemma is revealed that Rand and Aviendha are going to have to resolve. Further, the division within the Black Tower is more fully explored but no apparent progress is made toward resolving it. I imagine that will be something Rand has to face early on in "A Memory of Light." Honestly, at this point, I'm not entirely convince the series can really be finished in the next book but, supposedly, it will be. Sanderson has a herculean task on his hands but if he continues on as he has I think he is up to it. I certainly hope so because I am not sure I can keep reading until year 25!

I gladly award "Towers of Midnight" 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Crusade

Crusade

I am a big fan of three genres; military fiction, historical fiction, and speculative fiction (particularly those worlds that resemble medieval times on our planet) thus, it was with great interest that I picked up Robyn Young's novel, Crusade. Crusade is a historical fiction story based on the Templar's and their ongoing clashes with the Mamluk's that dominated the middle east during this period of the middle ages. It seemed like a perfect confluence of elements that couldn't possibly let me down.

I imagine, at this point, you've already figured out the kicker to this review. The story did let me down; in many ways. First and foremost Young just isn't good at describing battle sequences. Fortunately for her there are few in the book. In fact this story is kind of a misnomer as little of the story is about the Crusade's but rather it is about a small group of Templar's and their efforts to prevent another crusade.

Ms. Young also does a poor job of getting me to care about any of the protagonists; Will Campbell is a likable guy but he seems to lack depth. Meanwhile, his secret love, Elwen, comes across as a shallow, selfish, and completely clueless girl which seems to directly contradict the character Young tries to create in Elwen. The little bit of actual description of Elwen led me to believe she would be a wise, savvy, and worldly lady who had experience far beyond her years and station. However, she constantly came across as clueless and naive. It was a shame because she, Elwen, had great promise when she was first introduced in the story.

The only character's that I really felt anything for were Garin, a drunken and selfish ex-templar who rightfully so merited nothing but contempt from me. At times it seemed that Ms. Young was apologetic for making him such as scoundrel and at least twice she tried to make excuses for him being a complete ass; but his utter lack of real redeeming qualities belied her efforts. The other interesting character was Kalawun - the mamluk conspirator with the Templar's trying to keep the peace. However, some elements of Kalawun were also completely unbelievable.

A prime example of the disconnect between Kalawun and his principals can be found in Kalawun's son, Khalil. The two of them have such divergent views concerning peace in the middle east you might think that Kalawun had no involvement in his children's lives. Yet, early on in the book Ms. Young suggested that not only was Kalawun involved in their lives but he was also close to them. Therefore, it made no sense to me that Khalil didn't at least understand his father's position and that Kalawun didn't raise his children to understand his point of view. How could Kalawun possibly hope for a lasting peace if he didn't even strive for it within his own household?

The story had a lot of promise but, sadly, the lack of believable characters just destroyed the book for me and I can't give it any higher than a 2 out of 5 star rating.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fevre Dream

Fevre Dream

Imagine a silent paddle-wheel cruising the Mississippi river in the still of the night stopping only to allow it's passengers the opportunity to feast upon the blood of the unwary populace sleeping in range of the shoreline. So long as the captain were to avoid a predictable pattern of stops they would be able to terrorize the entire length of the Mississippi and it's tributaries for generations.

This is the horrific possibility that Martin conjures within the dark pages of Fevre Dream; a tale of ruthless vampires, a riverman looking for redemption, and an idealistic young vampire who sees a future where vampires no longer need to succumb to the allure of drinking the blood of man.

Fevre Dream is a slightly different take on the traditional vampire story. It is set in the busy river-boating days of the late 19th century America. Martin does a few interesting things with the vampire legend that help set this story apart from others covering the same topic. For example he provides a compelling and believable backstory to the drinking of blood while at the same time he obliterates some of the more cloying bits of folklore about how to defend against a vampire.

I normally don't read "horror", however Martin's deft hand produced a tale I still enjoyed quite a bit. It's easy to read and flows along as smoothly as the river the book is set upon. To fans of George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy series "A Song of Ice and Fire" Fevre Dream will come as a bit of a surprise; however, it is interesting to note that Fevre Dream was originally published in 1982 and thus gives you a glimpse into the evolution of his writing style. I think that if you like A Song of Ice and Fire you will also enjoy Fevre Dream; just in a different way.

I give this book a 4 out of 5 possible stars.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Whole New Mind

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

I was given this book when I joined a group called Create Huntington. It was given as sort of a home-work assignment as we work toward building a more creative community in my small hometown of Huntington, WV.

Overall, I think Pink hits the nail on the head though, truth be told, I began reading the book with a bit of animosity considering he attacks my profession, Software Engineering, right off the bat. Fortunately I think he misses the mark in regards to that particular field in his failure to understand the amount of creativity that is needed within it.

Pink makes a simple but effective case, in general, for why manufacturing jobs and anything else that just takes people and time won't be the future of the US economy. We can't even begin to compete against nations such as India and China where they have millions of people training in the traditional "powerhouse fields" of medicine or programming as well as nearly endless supplies of lower wage laborers who can assemble things just as well as anyone in the states.

Instead our future is in providing creativity and generating value out of the leisure time can afford to apply to the products and services the rest of the world is creating.

Granted, I don't think that we will survive just be being creative; we need to become the producers of things as well but the only way we will be able to leverage our production is by making the end product stand out and the only way we can do that is by applying our creativity to the problems the products solve.

We don't own the market on creativity but, as a people, we have more time and freedom to pursue it so we need to lead the way before we find ourselves being left behind.

RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Scar

The Scar

I bought this book at the same time I bought Perdido Street Station and I can thankfully say this story was much better, to me, than the other. I didn't really like any of the main characters but I was, at least, sympathetic to their plight.

I imagine my enjoyment is incremented somewhat by my lessened expectations. I had high hopes going into Perdido Street Station but I was barely willing to open The Scar after that let down.

This story doesn't really take place in New Crobuzon but the dark city still has its place in the tale and the the city's looming presence seems to exist on every page due to it's threat to the floating city of Armada.

Armada is a city of remade (creatures, including humans, who have been substantially altered) and outcasts from the mainland. For the most part the city thrives on piracy and they maintain genetic diversity via kidnapping and assimilation. It is this pattern of kidnapping and assimilation which brings the reader, via the interpretor, Coldwine, onto Armada.

From the point Coldwine arrives on the floating city onward the story is one of intrigue and deception with an ending, much like Perdido Street Station, that I found disappointing. In fact, it is the ending which led me to give this book four, instead of five, stars.

Overall I enjoyed the completely different style that MiƩville has though I do wish he would use the term "opaque" a little less often.

Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station

I had pretty high hopes going into Perdido Street Station so I am a bit disappointed to only be giving it three stars. I had heard from so many different sources about how great this book was that I often found myself wondering if I was reading the right book.

To be blunt the story just didn't engage me at all. I managed to work my way to the finish but reading a novel shouldn't be work - it should be an entertaining escape. Yet, somehow, Mieville managed to turn this novel into a chore.

The first problem I had was that I never cared about any of the characters. I couldn't feel sympathetic to any of them. In fact, the whole story seemed more about the city itself than any of the characters; as if "Perdido Street Station" where intended to introduce me to New Crobozun; the sentient characters were just there to help guide me through the dark.

The city itself is interesting but it just wasn't enough to convince me to like this book.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire
I picked up both this book an "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" at the same time and read them back to back. The story of Lisbeth Salander is a pretty dark and compelling one and The Girl Who Played With Fire finally gives us some insight into the issues that plague Lisbeth and cause her to be so uncomfortable with people.

While the main characters, Lisbeth and Mikael, are the same in this story their relationship is entirely different. Mikael has lost all contact with Lisbeth and spends the vast majority trying to help Lisbeth without her even knowing about it. Listbeth, on the other hand, is living an even more complicated life than she had in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo".

Thanks to the money she managed to acquire near the end of the prior book Lisbeth is finally in a state of economic contentment; however, her personal life becomes even more tumultuous as she deals with various men who are preoccupied with exacting vengeance upon her for past deeds; including her reclamation of independence in the first book.

Over the course of the story Salandar seems to open up a bit more and to trust others a little more and, once again, when she faces her personal protagonist I found myself hoping she would once again be brutally vicious in punishing him. Normally I'm not a very violent person but I can't help but feeling a little "old testament eye-for-an-eye" behavior is justified when it comes to Lisbeth.

When I started reading "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" I had bit of a desire to visit Sweden; however, by the time I finished "The Girl Who Plays With Fire" I had begun to reconsider it for fear of what might happen to my wife and daughters as we walk down the street. I'm sure I'm being entirely irrational but if there is one thing you can say for Steig's books; they don't really sell Sweden as a place that is friendly toward women.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo




I picked this book up because Sweden itself keeps popping up into my everyday conversations. The story painted Sweden with a not-entirely flattering brush - which surprised me; specifically the underlying theme of misogyny that permeate the tale. I don't mean to suggest that the main characters are misogynistic - far from it - but their lives are constantly shaped by the misogyny around them. It makes me wonder how prevalent the attitudes described in the book are in actuality with Sweden.

The title character, the girl, is Lisbeth Salander. She is a bit of an enigma who has clearly suffered some horrible tragedies and is thus completely anti-social toward almost everyone. However, she is also a talented hacker who utilizes her skills in her position as a security researcher for a private security company. Because of this position she is eventually drawn into a nightmarish tale that dates back over 40 years. Fortunately for Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist who is equally committed to the tragedies, Salander is also a tenacious fighter who hates one thing above all else - women hating men; which coincidentally is close to the original name of the book "Men Who Hate Women." Had I known that before picking up the novel I wouldn't have been so surprised at the attitude of so many of the secondary male characters.

The story starts leading the reader to believe the tale will be about the Wennestrom affair but the majority of the novel basically ignores Wennestrom and, instead, focuses on the Vanger family - a wealthy but disfunctional family with sprawling, but fading, business interests within Sweden.

Stieg Larsson does a fine job of telling a compelling tale that kept me sucked in and awake late into the night as I poured through the pages in order to find out the resolution. However, at times, Larsson seemed to get bogged down in excessive details; specifically about particular items aquired by the characters. For instance, at no point did I need to know the amount of RAM within Salander's new Macbook. Fortunately, that is the only real criticism I have of Larsson's writing style and I throughly enjoyed the book.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Slow Reading

It may seem like I haven't read a new book in a long time and that's because I'm reading some really dry books (non-entertainment stuff) that has been slowing me down. I am currently reading:
  1. A Whole New Mind - Daniel Pink
  2. Bowling Alone - Robert Putnam
  3. The Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany - William Shirer
  4. The Ancestors Tale - Richard Dawkins
  5. The World is Flat - Thomas Friendman
I had actually started most of those books quite a while ago but they kind of fell to the wayside as I started digging into some good speculative fiction. However, over the past couple months my reading time has gone back to non-fiction. Hopefully this list will help explain why I've read nothing else of particular interst of late (or at least I haven't mentioned anything).

I did read "The Gathering Storm" over the past couple months but for some reason I have failed to write a review. I'll have to rectify that soon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass

The third installment of Pullmans' "His Dark Materials" is, by far, the longest and, at times, it sort of felt like it was a little too long. However, I still enjoyed the story and, in a rare act for a bit of fiction, it left me thinking.

Typically, when I read a novel I just go into it for the entertainment and the escape. I don't try to analyze or dig deeply into the hidden layers of meaning however Pullman makes it almost impossible for me not to think about the allegory that his entire series seems to act as.

For the time being, however, I'll ignore all of that and just point out one nit in the story that really bothered me. How did Mrs. Coulter get Lyra and herself all the way to a cave in the Himalayas so fast? She didn't have any kind of special equipment or magical devices and yet she was able to get somewhere far away in, what seemed like, a day. Meanwhile, Will, with his magic knife had to travel for weeks to reach the cave. It honestly didn't make any sense and that disconnect bugged me throughout the entire book.

One of my favorite parts of the series was the fact that Pullman never really let you know if Mrs Coulter or Lord Asriel was really good or bad. In fact, I detested both of them throughout the series even though they seemed to have completely conflicting purposes. At least Asriel's demaon was likable but perhaps that was because we barely got to know it - meanwhile Mrs. Coulter's monkey was easy to dislike. Throughout the series I kept waiting to learn some secret about that Monkey and Mrs. Coulter so I was a little disappointed when it was all said and done.

It is easy for me to overlook my problems with the story though and just say, "I liked it." I hope to get my daughters to read the series at some point even though Lyra became a weaker and weaker character as the story unfolded.

RATING 4

The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife

I flew through this book even though in one critical way it disappointed me greatly; Lyra didn't seem as confident in herself nor as bold in this chapter of the trilogy.

"The Subtle Knife" takes place on three worlds; the first is the same as that which dominated the first book. The second is the Earth we are familiar with and the third is a planet that is haunted by Specters that drain the spirit from adults they encounter.

In neither our world, nor the world of Specters, do the humans have an animal companion as in the first world - yet Lyras' Pan does not disappear even though all the people she meets elsewhere have their spirits within themselves. It's an odd inconsistency considering the one person we end up meeting in Lyra's home world who was from Earth has an animal companion.

This volume stars a young boy, just older than Lyra, named Will who serves as her fighting protector and guide when she visits earth. Will is an interesting character who has his own very unique story and he adds an interesting twist to the overall tale being told but the focus on Will, at Lyra's expense, disappointed me after having Lyra presented as such a strong character in "The Golden Compass."

To be honest this book did nothing towards helping clear up the alignment of the motives of Lord Asriel. While, I'm intrigued with the concept of destroying "God" I'm just not sure if Asriel's motive is a good one. I'm anxious to read book three, "The Amber Spyglass" to see the resolution.

RATING 4

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass

I picked up this book, well the series really, in order to spend some time reading a few stories to my eight year old daughter. However, she wasn't very interested in the book because there were so many words she didn't know the definition of. However, I fully enjoyed the tale.

I picked this book specifically because it appeared to have a strong young female lead character and the story didn't disappoint in that regard. In fact Lyra is, perhaps, one of the bravest characters I've ever read. Considering she is, maybe, 11 years old she faces and overcomes incredible circumstances throughout the book.

The setting of the book is an alternate earth that is very similar to our own world, but in an age gone by, but also one that is very foreign. For instance Texas is a country and Polar Bears are warriors who can talk. However, the most unusual part of the world is also one of the main elements of the overall story - the daemons; an animal representation of each person's soul.

Lyra and her animal companion, Pan, experience a wide range of adventure as well as a a colorful cast of characters. One of the coolest aspects of the book is that it isn't obvious who is actually doing good and who is doing evil - or if either of the two main characters that are a focus of Lyra's attention are doing good at all. The only thing we really know is the people who befriend Lyra all seem like really good people.

I hope to get my daughter to come back and read this book either by herself or with me in the future because I think she would really enjoy the story

RATING 4

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Best Served Cold



If you enjoyed Abercrombie's prior books (The First Law series) chances are good you'll like this one too.

Not a very detailed review is it? No, I guess not and it does tend to ignore everyone who hasn't read a prior Abercrombie book (what? you haven't? Go read them, they are very good!). Okay, well, I'll try again then.

Best Served Cold is about revenge; all sorts of revenge. The book opens with a betrayal and then spends the rest of the tome describing how the betrayed, Monza Murcotto, exacts her revenge on those that betrayed her.

Monza is a well drawn character who's backstory is filled in as the novel unfolds. And, as we learn more about Monza, she is joined by a variety of characters that you may remember from the First Law books thus providing a robust cast of characters that, at times, keep the tale more interesting than the activity surrounding them.

Overall I thought this story was a bit simplistic but it was still a fun read and I wouldn't hesitate to suggest to others. However, as in the First Law books, there are some scenes that may be disturbing; especially scenes detailing torture so proceed with caution if that type of action, in it's written form, is difficult for you.

RATING: 4

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Stupidest Angel



The Stupidst angel is a pretty short and simple book. No big surprises beyond the fact that it is the wackiest Christmas story I've ever read. The book features a "B" movie starlet and, quite frankly, the whole book had a "B" movie quality to it. In fact, if it were made into a movie, it would probably end up with a cult following.

This story gives you a bit of everything from pot smoking cops, to crazy sword wielding naked women, a death by shovel, and a collection of brain sucking zombies - all just in time for Christmas.

Much like the book this review is short and simple. It was a fun read and light read that can be read anytime of the year - Christmas not required.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Great Expectations



This was the first book by Dickens I have read and, based on this one, I'll definitely read another. At times the vernacular was a little clunky and hard to follow - but that is just because of the change in times and, more than likely, the British influence.

As much as I enjoyed the book I think I'd rename it to "Great Coincidences" as it is chock full of them. In fact every relationship, except those between Pip and his Joe are pretty much purely coincidental and yet those ties interweave throughout the story and continue to build and pile upon one another throughout the tale. Pip, Miss Havisham, Estella, Jaggers, Magwitch, etc. They were all coincidentally connected. Yet, for all of that, I still enjoyed the story.

Pip, as a kid was amiable enough and, as an adult, while he clearly had some failings, he grew on me and remained likable and decent to the core. Perhaps his failings made me like him all the more because he seemed to be altogether believable.

I hope Dickens other works have survived as well as Great Expectations over the years because, if they have, I have a nice new collection of books in my to-read pile.

RATING: 4 out of 5