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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Books I Read: April - June 2010


State of Fear by Michael Crichton

I was reading this book all through March, trying to get it done so it could be on the last "Books I Read" list. No dice.

I love this book. Michael Crichton has pleased me in every book he's written, of which I've read three others ("Jurassic Park", "The Lost World", and "Timeline"). He has a way of blending action with scientific education, and he's famous for it. He can explain complex scientific theories better than any science teacher I ever had.

Characters are a bit of a problem for him though. Maybe because scientists in complex disciplines often turn out to be egotistical jerks. Although he does good at making the bad guys bad, he's not so hot at making the good guys good. I felt indifferent towards the main characters, and I had a hard time keeping track. Everyone kinda talks the same. And you can only tell who's who by the one doing the explaining, and the one asking questions. And he tries to make it more human by inserting a "which girl will he choose" plotline, which just fell flat.

But its full of action between lectures, almost to a fault. In fact, as soon as the lecture's done, you know it's time for dodging a lightning storm or getting kidnapped by cannibals. Overall, the story was predictable, but that's not why I read it. I read it to get some scientific education about the human effect on the environment in an easily digestible form--in a story. I tell you, after reading this book, I feel a whole lot better about the world surviving the human effect. Not so good about humans surviving the human effect.



Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

This book is a lot like the Go-Bots to Harry Potter's Transformers. Although the author knows his Greek myths, and it's fun to watch them translated to the present day, that also makes the storyline vastly transparent. Maybe God of War ruined Greek myths for me. Some of the story elements, like Poseidon wearing bermuda shorts, seem childish and ridiculous.

The book follows the standard Harry Potter trope of a kid from a broken home, who bad things just *happen* to. Then he finds he's actually got magic powers. In this case, he's the son of Poseidon, meaning he's got all sorts of unique water-based abilities that come out when he needs them. He conveniently knows swordsmanship, and he conveniently gets healed when he's close to water, and he can conveniently control water when he's inconveniently trapped in a convenient pool. Well, since the world was designed to regularly tunnel gallons of water to every building in the world, I think our hero will be okay. Imagine if 2/3 of the world's surface is covered with Immmortal Juice, and then worry about getting hurt.

Anyway, the problem is that it follows an overused MO with Greek gods instead of classic fantasy. It's high action and a speedy read. But that means it glosses over a lot of character development. The character's relationships are as one-dimensional as the paper it's written on. But I like that the hero's got a bit of bad attitude. Harry Potter just has that blank hero thing going, where he does things because its right and never complains or has second thoughts.



The Twits by Roald Dahl

I re-read this one for the fun of it. I was surprised at how short it was. I don't think it broke 10,000 words. It's not Dahl's best work.


Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

However, this is Westerfeld's best work yet. I'm glad I kept with him. You remember me getting sick of his YA universes with bad action scenes and annoying, self-centered characters. None of that this time. 

Westerfeld takes a jump back into the past with this, and glops on the awesome sauce. We're back in World War I, only instead of planes and tanks, the allies are using genetically engineered monsters, like balloon creatures and tiger-wolves. Meanwhile the central powers are using steampunk mechs, walking tanks, and big ass battleships that can go on air, sea, or land.

There are some awesome action scenes. I think Westerfeld's finally found his niche because he's found out how to create tension not based on creating a sense of doom, or an extreme rush, both of which are impossible to do in a written medium. These are big things trying to blow each other up. Bigtime war stuff.
And it got me asking my wife (she's a social studies teacher) a lot about World War I and how that all went down, to see how the book matched up to the real thing. It's a great book for recreation and for the classroom.




Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker

My in-laws have a cabin in Montana, and I think they bought this book because it mostly takes place in Montana and regions thereabouts, plus they like Westerns. It tells the story of "Liver-Eating Johnson", also known as John Johnson or Jeremiah Johnson (from the movie with Robert Redford, which is not a true story, but fictionalized. Kind of like 8-Mile), taken from the anecdotes gathered from the few living people who knew him.

I don't like to read much non-fiction, but this book kicks ass. Johnson is one badass guy. He actually did what the book said--cut out the livers of the Crow who attacked him and ate them. For real-real, not for play-play. He killed every single Indian who was sent out to kill him. Even the twenty "special agents"--elite Crow warriors who were independently sent out to hunt and assassinate him. Like Indian ninjas. They hunted and tracked him, some waiting for four years before making their move. And Johnson killed them all. He killed the last one when he caught the guy rifling through his biscuits. It sucks to have all that hard work ruined because you couldn't wait for dinner.

The book is not terribly long, and it's more than just Johnson killing everyone who gets in his way. His alliances switch as the various tribes use him as a pawn in their territory struggles. The Civil War, the Indian reservations, the logging industry, his friends getting killed--Johnson has to deal with all of it. But he just wants to trap and trade, just like he's always done. And anyone who gets in his way gets scalped. This guy is a better Western icon than Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok combined. He's like the Incredible Hulk if Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday were Captain America and Iron Man. I don't know why we don't learn more about him in school.




Percy Jackson & the Olympians #2: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Ah, the second book. The sophomore effort. Scourge of every author known to man. Now that the first book is out of the way, all the origin stories and exposition have passed. It's time to get to a real story. What do we do? Let's make it exactly the same as the first. Hot damn--that's capitalism!

This time, in order to liven things up, we kidnap one of the main characters, clearing the way for the girl who didn't get much screen time in the first book. This way we can build up her relationship with Percy. It's a transparent technique. It's difficult for a writer to make three-way dialogue. But when you have three main characters, what do you do? You take one out of commission. J.K. Rowling does it often, especially in Harry Potter 2 (Hermione turns into a cat) and 3 (Ron breaks his leg).

And we start in the exact same way. Monsters that no one ever sees ("mist" obscures the truth from mortal eyes--convenient, ain't it?) attack Percy in the middle of school. He gets away, and gets to camp where he discovers the real problem. Then there's a quest where we meet some standard Greek myths, like being tempted by sirens, succumbing to Circe's temptation (cleverly disguised as C.C., oh how did we not see that coming?). We meet our rival briefly, and we end up using swords and preteen wits to eliminate our antagonist at the last minute. And everything ends happily.

I was less than impressed with the novel, even though it had more elements (like ocean sailing and water-based myths) that I like. Tyson the cyclops is charming. I wish there had been more of him. But the other characters are starting to blend together. It feels like the author is trying to market these teens as the energy-drinking, cell phone-texting, adult-ignoring preteens of today. It's all action and whiz-bang allusions, and not enough character development.




The Sword of Truth #01: Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind

This was just the sort of thing I was looking for. Swords and sorcery. Hot, mystical women. Brash heroes. Humorous side companions. Corrupt governments and ancient castle-ular conspiracies. And one really bad antagonist.

What's interesting is how bad the writing style is, compared to today's standards. And by standards, I mean all the writing advice I hear these days. It's no wonder the thing is 300,000 words long. There's a lot of lines that are unnecessary. A lot of plot segments and sections that are unnecessary and clutter up the prose. A lot of needless descriptors and sentences that are repeating what the dialogue suggests. There's lots of adverbs, and lots of scenes and characters that don't add anything to the story. I doubt you could get a work like this published these days.

But you don't care because the story is easy to follow, and interesting. I don't know why. Maybe it's because of the little things, like the sausage & cheese and spice soup that add an air of world-building. Maybe it's the lovable characters (although Kahlan gets whiny and evasive with her *HORRIBLE SECRET* and Richard is a little too bulletproof and god-like smart). It makes them lovable because they're always "saving the cat", which is a standard, but cheap way to make a hero likable right off the bat (although you can also give them a dog). The world is complex, and there's a lot in the background that you need to know to understand the foreground. But it doesn't throw it all at you at once. It gives you what you need to stay satisfied.

Then it got weird when we got to the dominatrix.

I'm serious. The story takes a total 180 and we go to BDSM-land. The hero is unnecessarily kidnapped and forced into slavery as a part of this sect of S&M dominatrices who work for the evil ruler. And this goes on for about 1/6th of the book as the hero is sexually tortured beyond all measure of humanity. Then he escapes, but not before making his dom fall in love with him. Before, the tone of the book... well, it wasn't exactly kiddish, but it wasn't adult. It was general audiences. PG-13. But all of the sudden, he's getting some kind of magic cattle-prod pressed against his junk every day, and he apparently suffers no psychological damage. The next thing he does is befriend a mother dragon. Best WTF moment in a book.




Percy Jackson & the Olympians #3: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan

At this point I realized that all these books are the same. Percy starts at a school he's about to wash out of. He fights some monsters on campus. Return to Camp Half-Blood for a debriefing and a stupid camp game (like CTF). Gripe and wring your hands about a prophecy. Go on a quest that everyone says no to, to save some kidnapped friend/parent. Fight some things. Get in a confrontation with Draco Luke. Get drawn in by temptation a la some myth about Hercules or Orpheus or Homer. Have a fight scene where everything goes back to normal. Return to Camp Half-Blood. Hear ominous rumblings of prophecy. Sprinkle in some cuddly monsters and a few unimportant side characters. Don't Do forget to include character developments, and make sure that nothing changes by the end of the book.


For the Win by Cory Doctorow

After Doctorow's last YA effort, Little Brother, I was really looking forward to his next. I should not have been.

For the Win is character soup. They're all foreign people. And while I have no problem reading about foreign people, it give me problems finding the sympathetic character to identify with. I'll be the first to say it--I'm not interested in reading about East Indian or Korean gold farmers. There's nothing for me, an American audience, to hang a hat on. The people in these books obsessively play MMORPG's. They're sick. They need help, not encouragement.

This is a novel that's more interested in economics and politics than in the characters it's describing. Economics is a mystery to me, and it always will be. I have no interest in it, even though I should. To me, it's magic. And not the good kind of magic that Merlin uses. It's the "any sufficiently advanced something is indistinguishable from magic" that Arthur C. Clarke uses. I think all the youth of America agrees with me that economics + young adult = you're going to have trouble finding an audience while the next Twilight book is sharing your shelf space. This is now my least favorite Doctorow book.




The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

My wife recently joined a book club. This is one of the books that was on the list. And me, being the curious sort, read it too. After all this science fiction and fantasy, it's nice to see how the other world lives. What do you read on the literary side of the fence?

It turns out you read Lifetime movies. This is the same author who wrote "The Lovely Bones", which apparently was some kind of phenomenon. I should not have started with her sophomore effort. This is a scatter-brained novel. It reminds me of "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall", which is the short story we all had to read in literature class when we learned about modern American literature and stream-of-consciousness; techniques which are no longer used at all. And there's a reason. It sucks. It's incoherent to read. It's repetitive. And it does not add value to the plot.

The story takes place over 24 hours, as a woman who's just mercy-killed her mother, who was suffering from dementia and agoraphobia and generally became a nutjob who was making everyone's life miserable. Then we follow her around as the makes even more poor life decisions, like having sex with the 30-year-old son of her best friend, calling her ex-husband up from two states away, running away from the cops, lying to them. And interspersed in all these scenes are unreliable glimpses from her past, like her dad hiding in the attic from her mother, her dad committing suicide (or did he?), and scenes that just prove her mom was a douchebag and deserved to die a long time ago. In fact, I don't think the world would be so bad off if a lot of the characters in the book died. Skip this one.




The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks

This is the companion piece to "World War Z". Well, it was written first, but you know what I mean. This is the standard handbook guide to surviving a zombie apocalypse--a subject near and dear to my heart, and other organs. It's good instructions, with a lot of stuff that's useful for any apocalypse scenario. I really need to pick this up and keep it in storage, just in case I end up being the omega man.

But as far as entertainment, it's a bit dry and there's more information than you need. The bookstores categorize this in the humor section. I don't see what's humorous about a zombie invasion. It's a serious book. It's a handbook, meant for reference.




The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

Another book from my wife's book club. I had immediate sympathy for the main character before I opened to page one, because she suffers from selective mutism (not mutantism, which is something different. Learn the difference between the two or you will be sorely disappointed). I have a form of mutism wherein I simply have nothing to say, and everyone thinks I'm mute. But we're not here to talk about me.

My biggest problem with the novel is that it goes against good writing choices, and not in the "I know the rules so I can break the rules" way. There's a prologue which is totally unnecessary and only confuses the reader. And the prologue is actually a scene in the middle of the book, so it spoils as it repeats. It introduces characters before they're introduced and does nothing to enhance the story.

Then the main plot keeps getting shoved to the background so that it can tell the stories of all the peripheral characters. The perspective switches each chapter, which is fine, except that instead of focusing on what they do during the present day, they keep ruminating on all the crap that happened--all their past relationships, all their mistakes and regrets that really don't have anything to do with the story. Instead of finding the missing child, we hear about how the deputy and the mother were once romantically involved, until, for no good reason whatsoever, she married an stereotypical alcoholic trucker redneck. Everyone's so busy remembering, the story stands in the middle, being unresolved. It's exactly what they say not to do in writing.

Also, how did the mom who was so sweet and apparently raised correctly enough to be ready marry a sweet, college-bound guy, end up marrying an alcoholic named Griff. Her past does not reconcile to her future, and as an avid Loveline listener, I know these things. Always avoid people named Griff. Remember: Cafe 80's, guy named Griff, just say no.

The story is not terribly complex. It seems like a beach or airplane read. It's a simple story more focused on memories and memoir-based vignettes. The ending is not particularly thrilling and everything wraps up in a neat little package by the end. The bad guy dies. The mute becomes unmute. And everyone gets what they want. I didn't feel like anyone changed by the end of the story. Their mistakes were obvious to me, but it didn't look like anyone learned anything from the experience. So it's hard whether to recommend a read or a skip for this one.
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