Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Book 10/60: Water for Elephants

And now, for a bit of variety. Huzzah!

Following a couple of fantasy novels, we've got Sara Gruen's historical romance novel, Water for Elephants. Elephants is a newer book, published in 2006, and Gruen is a newer writer, pursuing writing full-time for the first time in 2001. She's got four books published, and animals feature prominently in all of them. According to the inside flap, Gruen lives "with her husband, her three children, four cats, two goats, two dogs, and a horse in an environmental community north of Chicago." Here's her website, which features a "Critters in Need" link for animal activist organizations.

Anyway, this book has made its way onto a slew of bestsellers lists and has garnered some pretty high praise, so I'm looking forward to the read. The story is set in a Depression-era traveling circus. It follows the protagonist's budding relationship with the girl who rides the elephant (and, in what I assume is a completely non-romantic sense, his relationship with the elephant as well). That's about all I know, thought the author has said that the backbone for her story parallels the Biblical story of Jacob, so that's an interesting twist as well.

Finally, I have to finish this book by the 5th of October, because it's on hold and I can't renew it, so awaaaaay we go!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dragonflight: Closing Thoughts

# of pages: 288
# of pages read so far: 2,876
Avg pages/book: 319.6

Why do I keep those numbers? Because I love numbers.

For some reason, I don't have a ton to say about this book. It was pretty good. I had trouble getting into it because I thought the lead characters were a little bland, and while I ended up really liking the story, I still felt that Lessa and F'lar were both fairly predictable. Maybe that was the point, and I just missed it. That happens a lot. Anyway, I wouldn't mind reading the other books in the series, but I'm not dying to, either. (Unlike when I finished Ilium a while back) I did, however, find the twists and turns in the latter half of the book to be really pretty cool.

**Consider the following comments spoilers**

I mean, you're giving me dragons AND time travel? That's fantastic! And, as with any good time travel story, it requires a you to be willing to drop a bit of "Wait, but how did this happen if it needed that to happen first?" questioning, which I'm totally willing to do if you're going to give me dragons and time travel in a way that's well thought out and entertaining. Unfortunately, the end of the story seemed a bit of a foregone conclusion, because basically everything the hero tries in this story works almost perfectly, so there wasn't a ton of drama leading up to the resolution. That, however, gave you a bit of a sense of being "in on the joke," which was fun in a scene or two. Still, I kinda wanted to smack F'lar and tell him to calm down, since obviously everything would go according to plan. And it did. Ultimately, though, the wrapping up of this story served the purpose of setting up for the others, I'm assuming, and that was done admirably, leaving the narrative at an exciting place to pick up with whatever the next book is.

**end spoilerish discussion**

All in all, a fun read. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a decent, short, fantasy-adventure story, but it's not on my list of "things you must read before you die."

Come to think of it, I have no such list. I should make one.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Book 9/60: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

I'm not very good at keeping my initial thoughts updated any more. That's probably because I usually start these books late at night and don't feel like blogging, and then I just don't get around to it.

Anyway, I've started this book already, but I can remember my "initial thoughts" pretty easily.

Dragonflight is the first book in the famed Dragonriders of Pern series, and it's one that people will generally recommend to the "beginner" when it comes to reading fantasy novels. Anne McCaffrey is actually an author I've been meaning to get around to for awhile, so I'm looking forward to this book.

The first segment of this book (which I've just finished reading) won a Hugo Award, and the second won a Nebula Award, both in 1968. (Those are both fairly big deals)

There's not a whole lot else to say except "yay, dragons," I suppose.

288 pages
Trade paperback edition copyright 2005 Del Rey Books
Originally copyright 1968; copyright renewed 1996 by Anne McCaffrey (cause she was bored)
Originally published in the U.S. by Del Rey Books (an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group) in 1968

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Cestus Deception (Closing thoughts)

# of pages: 401
# of pages read so far: 2,588
Avg. pages/book: 323.5

I like Star Wars. From start to finish (well, at least through Episode VI, as I haven't read anything about VI-IX), I think it's a fantastic story. I think the telling of the main narrative (the movies) of the story is oftentimes clumsy, chocked full of unnecessary and awkward moments and poor dialogue, but that's okay because really, it's just supposed to be fun. And it is fun. It's entertainment, folks.

The Cestus Deception follows that mold pretty closely. It's fun. It's entertainment. It's not great literature, but it's not supposed to be. I jokingly commented to my wife that it felt like Steven Barnes hit some sort of performance bonus in his contract if he hit 400 pages (the book is 401, exactly 400 if you don't count the one blank page between the end of the story and the afterward), because right around page 300 it felt like the relatively fast-paced story suddenly found itself meandering fairly aimlessly through a series of episodes that could have been tightened up (or, in some cases, omitted entirely). The dialogue and internal monologue was occasionally hackneyed or cliched, but whatever. It's Star Wars, right? I can forgive a multitude of transgressions on that front alone.

Besides, once you've committed to reading a 400+ page book, I've found it helps if you commit to try to like it despite its faults rather than hate it because of them. Makes the journey much more pleasant.

As for the story itself, the majority of the novel splits between Obi-Wan Kenobi and clone soldier A-98, or "Nate". Nate's story is generally the more compelling and rewarding element to the book as the clone soldier who has never questioned orders before is confronted with the question of what it is to be human, and whether he really is human, and all of those sticky philosophical things that come with such journeys of self-discovery. While this storyline occasionally falls into the realm of predictability, I have to say the payoff is satisfactory, and after appearing an afterthought to what is the main coursing of the plot throughout the novel, Nate does a pretty good job of finally tying everything together at the end.

Obi-Wan's story is pretty much a stock Star Wars story, though I have to admit I was a little disappointed in the Jedi characters throughout. They just seemed a little dumber than I remembered from other Jedi incarnations I've seen. Furthermore, the Force appears to be a very fickle weapon. (I've always thought this, though; for example: why, in the beginning of Episode I, do Qui-gon and Obi-Wan use light sabers to battle the first several battle droids they meet, but when reinforcements come Qui-Gon just waves his hand and disables them. Why not do that in the first place???) Seems there were certain things Obi-Wan and Kit should have had no trouble with that, for dramatic reasons, were suddenly worthy adversaries.

But whatever. It's Star Wars, right? ;-)

Finally, I have to imagine it's great fun for a writer to be given permission to play in another creator's sand box, especially one so iconic as Star Wars. (Barnes speaks to this effect in the afterward) I mean, I'd go crazy if Marvel asked or allowed me to write an original story in an Avengers novel, especially if it were to become part of Marvel canon. (Admittedly, Marvel cannon is far more complicated than Star Wars canon, but you get the idea) You know, now that Disney has bought Marvel, I can't help but think that a Spider-Man and Wall*E crossover novel may just be a necessity to North American pop culture...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book 8/60: The Cestus Deception (middle-ish impressions)

I meant to post some initial thoughts, but I never got around to it, and now I'm literally halfway through with this book.

The Cestus Deception is a Star Wars novel from the untold Close Wars saga. (Funny side note: I first accidentally typed that as "Cone Wars". Ha. Haha. Cones fighting. Classic) I've never read any of the Star Wars books, though I've seen a few trillion of them. What's confusing to me is that I guess some of them are considered cannon and some are not? Further, I've been told that a few are really very good, while many are forgettable.

This book appears to be "official" and licensed by Lucasfilms as part of the extended universe. According to the information on the inside of the book, if you want to get the FULL story on the Clone War, you have to buy x number of books as well as this certain graphic novel, this comic storyline, and these video games on different systems in addition to watching the cartoon series and movies.


Man, and I thought it was inconvenient when Kingdom Hearts started releasing in-betweequels on other platforms...

Now that I'm a good deal into this book, however, it looks like it's really not necessary at all to understanding the main Star Wars narrative (i.e., the six films). Rather, it's a story that happens between episode 2 and episode 3, so if you enjoy these characters you may enjoy these further exploits, but if you miss The Cestus Deception you're not really missing anything that corresponds to the main Star Wars storyline.

So there's that.

Anyway, book is written by Steven Barnes, who also wrote some episodes of Stargate-SG1, Andromeda, and (oddly enough) Baywatch. He's also an expert in martial arts and kickboxing. He's also won an Endeavor Award for distinguished sci-fi/fantasy written by a Northwestern writer (for his novel Lion's Blood).

So, yeah. Halfway through, not bad so far. Enjoyable reading, and not quite so philosophical as Flatland. Fluff. One of Dave's "palate-cleansers," which are always fun and, properly placed in your reading diet, quite necessary!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Closing Thoughts: Flatland

Pages: 147
Pages read so far: 2187
Average pages/book: 312.43

Flatland is, I think, pretty much everything everybody cited in the post before claimed it to be. At first, I called it the "nerdiest book I have ever read," and it was true. The first seventy or so pages address the physics of what it would be like to live in a world of two-dimensions: how do these entities recognize one another? How do they differentiate between other shapes? What affect have sharp angles when they come in contact with flat sides? It's all very well thought out and written in such a way that it's still interesting to read, even if it is essentially high school geometric theory to the nth degree, where n = someone-spent-way-too-much-time-thinking-about-this.

Throughout this section and the sections that follow, the book seems to be a running social commentary as well, and since I'm not terribly well-versed in Abbot's society I don't feel qualified to comment on it, but there were a few points toward the middle when it started to lose me.

I found the debate amusing as poor A. Square attempted in vain to explain the complexities of two dimensions to the king of line land, and when you hear Square using the exact same arguments when the great Sphere enters his world, you get the feeling that Flatland is about more than the time and place immediately surrounding Edwin Abbot (whose middle name was also Abbot, it turns out). I felt it touched on all our natural inclination to create the world in our image, to broaden the horizons of those who know less than we do, but to vehemently deny that there is a bigger picture than our own big picture. Square's unfortunate downfall is also a bit of a foregone conclusion, as Abbot's picture of mankind is somewhat bleak and closed-minded (though not entirely off the mark).

I'm not certain what Abbot's intent in writing Flatland was, nor whether or not he felt he achieved it. Regardless, it's a fairly quick read, and an interesting one, where story is clearly not the defining element but is present enough to make for an enjoyable read. (Admittedly, had it gone on for much longer, the thing may have started to grow annoying)

This seems to me an unsatisfactory reflection on this book; however, it's a difficult book to reflect back upon, so I'm just going to post it and move on with life.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Book 7/60: Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

I can think of nothing that I can add to preface this book that would sufficiently expand on the following two thoughts. First, from the new introduction by Valerie Smith:

"Abbot's other works have been fairly easy to classify, but Flatland has been referred to variously as a mathematical or scientific novel, a social satire, a work of science fiction and fantasy, a philosophical treatise, a mystical adventure, an artistic inspiration, a fictional work of travel, and 'a very puzzling book.'"

Second, the description from the book's back cover:

"With wry humor and penetrating satire, Flatland takes us on a mind-expanding journey into a different world to give us a new vision of our own. A. Square, the slightly befuddled narrator, is born into a place limited to two dimensions--irrevocably flat--and peopled by a heirarchy of geometrical forms. On a tour of his bizarre homeland like that taken by Gulliver, A. Square spins a fascinating tale of domestic drama and political turmoil, from sex among consenting triangles to the intentional subjugation of Flatland's females. He tells of visits to Lineland, the world of one dimension, and Pointland, the world of no dimension. But when A. Square dares to speak openly of a third, or even a fourth, dimension, his tragic fate climaxes a brilliant parody of Victorian society."

All righty, then.

Stats: 147 pages
First published: 1884
This edition published: 2005, Signet Classics (a division of Penguin Group, USA)
Major awards: Apparently none

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Closing Thoughts: Boy

You know, up until we did James and the Giant Peach at our children's theater four full years ago, I still thought Roald Dahl's first name was actually "Ronald."

Dahl's autobiographical look at the first twenty years of his life is--whoops, almost forgot!

# of pages: 160
Pages read so far: 2040
Average number of pages/book: 340

Sorry about that.

All right, Dahl's autobiographical look at the first twenty years of his life is a quick and interesting read. I've really never read biographies or autobiographies frequently, but they are a fantastic reminder that the world is a huge place with tons of diversity, especially when you start reaching across historical eras. The headmasters of English boys' schools in the 1920s would likely be fired, fined, and/or arrested in 2009 American school systems. Also, kids dying young has been a fairly regular occurrence throughout history and still is in many parts of the world, especially death by diseases easily treated here. Dahl's life story was a reminder to how incredibly blessed I am to live when and where I currently live.

Dahl's Boy is an especially interesting read if you are familiar with his works; otherwise, it might be relatively dull. With some authors, there are veiled clues toward their stories and characters found in people, places, and events in their histories. Dahl's are all incredibly clear. A child's distrust of grown-ups; evil and abusive schoolteachers; fascination with chocolates, especially experimental new types; loving, trustworthy grandparents; the delightful, naughty fun that comes from farting socially; these are all ideas taken quite obviously from his childhood, and it's kind of fun to see where these stories came from.

It's also sad (from my perspective, anyway) to see when and how Dahl lost his faith in faith. The headmasters who would unjustly cane Dahl and his schoolmates happened to be the same men who led prayer and worship on Sunday, one even eventually becoming the Archbishop of England. He had trouble reconciling the unfair treatment he received on Friday with the message of love and mercy he heard on Sunday, and so he decided that something in the Christian message was not quite right. A sobering reminder of the power of a Christian witness, both positively and negatively.

Also (and, in my book, probably related) found this tidbit interesting: late in the book, Dahl is describing his first job as a businessman, and how much better of a life that is compared to that of a writer:

"I enjoyed it, I really did. I began to realise how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do. The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn't go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly ever writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it." (emphasis mine)

I feel like I have a lot to say about this passage, but it needs more thought before I can say it clearly or correctly. Something about this paragraph doesn't sit quite right, and while I know there's some tongue-in-cheek going on there, I also know that there's usually a shred of truth in sarcasm.

Maybe after I've reasoned it out I'll post more thoughts on this one. (WHAT? Books make you THINK???) For now, however, think on these things, and think very hard on what it is you do to give yourself faith, hope, and courage, either in art or in life. Because chances are, the two are very closely linked.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Book 6/60: Boy by Roald Dahl

Ah, Roald Dahl: the fantastic, creative writer of children's fiction who seems to have lost a letter for his first name at some point in his life.

I love Dahl's stories. I love his heroes and heroines, I love the way he relates so naturally to his audience, I love his love for the mildly crude things like nose-picking and gas-passing, I love his use of magic and wonder to spark the imaginations of his readers. This book, however, is something entirely different: this is a collection of stories and memories from Dahl's own childhood. Scattered throughout are black-and-white photographs of Dahl's family and childhood homes. It is autobiographical, but it is not quite an autobiography.

From the author:

"An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details.
This is not an autobiography. I would never write a history of myself. On the other hand, throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten.
None of these things is important, but each of them made such a tremendous impression on me that I have never been able to get them off my mind. Each of them, even after a lapse of fifty and sometime sixty years, has remained seared on my memory.
I didn't have to search for any of them. All I had to do was skim them off the top of my consciousness and write them down.
Some are funny. Some are painful. Some are unpleasant. I suppose that is why I have always remembered them so vividly. All are true."

160 pages
Published 1984
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
No significant awards or nominations
Dahl's autobiographical tale was continued in a later book, Going Solo

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Closing Thoughts: Neverwhere

# of pages: 337
Total pages read: 1880
Average pages/book: 376

You like how I added that last one in there? I love averages.

Speaking of average, let's talk about Neverwhere!

I'm kidding, it's actually far above average, but that was just an awesome transition and I couldn't waste it.

As I think I said before, this isn't my first Neil Gaiman book, as I've read and enjoyed Stardust, and I also remembered recently that I've read his 1602 Marvel Comics graphic novel. The similarity I see in all three of these is that they're great ideas formed into good stories with decent characters that are always interesting and enjoyable, but somehow I always feel like there could have been more there.

I liked Neverwhere, and once I got near the end of Richard's journey to get back to the Angel I found myself unable to put the book down until it was finished, leading to yet another 3:30 a.m. bedtime. (Books are bad for sleep, by the way) I particularly loved the villains (not loved the villains in that "lovable bad guy" way but in the "wow, these are fantastic villains, I hate them" way that I find so appealing in adventure stories) and thought the final confrontation scene was fantastic. The book also did a great job of avoiding the "being weird for weirdness' sake" trap that can be so tempting when a particularly colorful imagination gets hold of an untouched fantasy world, for which I was very grateful. Parts of this story were downright creepy without betraying the generally fun mood that ran throughout the majority of the narrative. It felt as though I was in on a joke that the poor unfortunate protagonist just couldn't quite grasp, and that's always fun.

For me, however, this was probably the only strike against the novel. After awhile, I found myself thinking, Yes, I get it. He's awkward and out of place and the others all pity him for it. There were probably thirty or so variations of the phrase "as if speaking to a child" and, while it fit the story, it got a bit old to read over and over again. There also seemed to be an inconsistency to Richard's willingness to believe the unbelievable. On one page he's accepted that the best way to survive was to accept things at face value, but then a few pages later he's throwing a tantrum because there are no such things as angels. I just felt it would have been stronger for him to just move one way or the other rather than waffling for the first half of the book.

That's a really minor complaint, though. This is a fun read and a good story, and while not every element comes to a satisfying payoff, and there's at least one major plot element that still doesn't seem to make any sense, I'd recommend this book to anybody who's not scared away by language.

Oh, right, a brief synopsis for posterity (and, potentially, for the curious): Richard Mayhew thinks he leads a perfectly happy life in modern-day London, England. He's satisfied with his job, he enjoys his fiance and their social situation, and as far as he can tell he's definitely on the up and up. Then he meets Door, a young woman from London Below, an entire society that exists invisible to those who live above but exists in the tunnels and trains below the city. Door is being chased by some underworld assassins when she opens a magic door to "someone who can help." That someone ends up being Richard, who takes the girl back to his apartment, helps her clean her wound, and delivers a message for her to a curious marquis who lives in some sort of illogical dream-world. When Door leaves with the marquis, Richard believes that everything is back to normal, and for the most part it is, with the tiny exception of the fact that he no longer exists. His apartment is being rented out to strangers, no one at work has ever heard of him, his bank card is rejected by the loveless ATM machine, taxis refuse to stop for him. Richard has "fallen through the cracks" and is now a part of the bizarre and magical world of London Below of Door and the marquis. And, because this is how these stories work, the only way to get his old life back is to go on a dangerous quest that will tie his destiny with Door's and, ultimately, all of creation's, and if he gets to the end he may no longer recognize the man he is.

Which, of course, may not necessarily be a bad thing.