book review

Apr 292013

Book: A Universe From Nothing by Laurence M. Krauss
A Universe From Nothing
Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing
by Laurence M. Krauss

Ymabean and I decided to read this book together at the beginning of the year. I’m only now getting around to the review.

This is dense book that will really make you think. One of the things you’ll think is “I don’t have the math for that” as the author walks the average person through some definitively complex topics. A few hundred pages progress through possible explanations of the universe and stuff; including, but not limited to what is “nothing” and what is “something”, dark matter, the small but awesome scientific discoveries ( and mistakes), the different types of universe (flat, expanding, etc), multiverses, string theory, quantum fluctuations, black holes, general relativity, and relevant philosophy. If that isn’t enough, there are also charts and graphs and descriptive drawings, which if you are reading on a ebook will be small, hard to read and out of order. I recommend a physical purchase of this book, for visual ease as well as passing along to the next guy ease. You will want to.

Now, let me emphasize that many of the concepts, conclusions and speculations in this books are intricate and demand some sophisticated thought in subjects most of us (I don’t personally know ANY astrophysicists or cosmologists) are not accustomed to giving technical thought to. It is not an easy read, but it is an interesting, fascinating and accessible book. I think it is wonderfully worthwhile, but I don’t know if I would suggest it for everyone.

tl;dr: Dense on subject, slim on page count, discussion of THE UNIVERSE.

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Apr 022013

Book: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
The Willpower Instinct
by Kelly McGonigal

Surprisingly good. Seemed to be common knowledge fluff, but settled in to useful knowledge stuff.

There are 10 chapters which can be read at any pace, best in order though. We start off with the basics; pay attention, sleep enough, exercise, eat better. These are true, but also common knowledge. No one doubts that being tired, sore and distracted is a recipe for failure. After these basics are laid out and agreed on, though, we move into finer points like behavior justification, desire vs. satisfaction, emotional feedback, future self, and social motivations. This is where the books shines, putting psychology and a few study results into an easily understandable message and action path for anyone seeking to improve their own will power. The tone is general and friendly, although I could have done without the ‘witty’ side jokes peppered throughout. I am sure lots of people like that ‘girlfriends chatting at the water color’ level.

This is not hard science, to be sure, but general self-help with scientific ideas. The studies referenced are used only to further the theme of the chapter, and they are handled well. I think anyone could read this and find useful bits. The suggested exercises sum up the information of the chapter and hand the reader short, simple directions to try. It could be especially useful for those who will never read it – those who believe they have excellent willpower. It would be helpful to the many who think that willpower failures make them weak and somehow lesser; to learn why we react the way we do and what exactly to do about it.

tl;dr: Good willpower improvement book, light science references.

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Jul 022012

A two-review post this time.

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook is the first novel for this Iron Seas world. Part alternate history, part steampunk, the world of The Iron Duke has an invasive and ruthless Asian empire along with an Industrial Revolution that took a sharp, expansive turn. The main characters in the tale are detective inspector Lady Wilhelmina Wentworth and the eponymous Iron Duke Rhys Trahaearn. The two traverse the lands by mechanical spider conveyance, trains and airship seeking to identify and stop the murderous, mind-control plot by the villians – all whilst falling in love, of course. Also, zombies.

Most of this book I loved. Steampunk, nanotechnology, airships, mechanical conveyances, sea adventures, sky adventures, strong female characters, moderately involved plots and politics, alternate historic points, romance, a richly described world, and building drama hit all my reader buttons. Also, since I was reading this on my Kindle, I didn’t have to concern myself with the display of the cover, which was merely a focus on male abs. (I selected a different cover for my media icon on this site.) The writing was decent to good, the world was fairly easy to realize and the imaginative inventions of fiction were completely comestible. As I’d assumed this book would focus on romance and sex with a bit of fiction thrown in for page count, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Iron Seas a world I wanted to explore. The descriptions are sustaining, the dialog fine, action and excitement levels intensify at the desired rate, and the general story plot is interesting.

While I enjoyed the well-crafted tale and the subjects, there was one major problem with this book. I’m willing to overlook a number of minor flaws and misalignments of whatever variety, but some things are not okay, no matter how the author thinks they have crafted the viewpoint to make it okay. In my view, rape is a worse crime than murder, even if “it’s okay because she only said no because she was scared” and “he was abused himself, he didn’t understand so it’s okay” gets written in heavily. No, that’s not okay. This huge and monstrous flaw means that I don’t know if I would actually recommend this book to anyone. If you’re able to block out this section (or I guess, if you’re into rapey story sections) then go ahead and read this book. It’s a real shame, too; because this would have been an excellent sci-fi romance book if the author (or editor!) could have simply left out one ignorant, oxymoronic literary trope.

tl;dr Good steampunk, romance adventure, but marred by nasty scene.

– and –

Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook is the second novel set in the Iron Seas, although it is not precisely a sequel. We readers met Captain Yasmeen Corsair and Archimedes Fox (think Indiana Jones, but less of a jerk) in the first book, and this edition of the series follows their obviously-left-open story line. Captain Corsair and Archimedes team up to recover a valuable archeological find, travel via airship, fight and flee zombies and help a rebel group overthrow a hollow, but symbolically oppressive regime – all whilst falling in love, natch. Also, more zombies.

Despite the fatal failing of the first novel, I did read this book and it hit most of my same reader subject buttons: airships, nanotechnology, detailed steampunk inventions, light political intrigue, layered characters, sky and sea adventures, romance, drama, action and some strong ladies who aren’t taking shit from anyone. Again, the cover is a bare-chested man with a sword, for awkward display issues – spared by my Kindle. (Also again, I chose an alternate cover to more accurately reflect the main character.) A few generous servings of the history of the Iron Seas (one told around the traditional campfire at night) is equally as satisfying, yet more meaningful, as in the first book. The dialogue is harmonious and acceptable, the plot is interesting enough, and the action is appropriately dramatic and does illicit the expected amount of interest and entertainment. Don’t forget this is a romance, too; you’ll see a number of crackling interactions as the lurve grows. Basically, it is precisely what you would expect from this book, solidly delivered.

This book didn’t suffer from an unforgivable flaw like the first one did and I found myself frankly relieved by this fact by the end. Heart of Steel has less world-building work than the first, which I missed; it instead turns focus on the main characters, which I found genuine and enjoyable, if a tad unrealistic – but this is fiction, after all. Reading about Yasmeen’s love of air sailing nearly brought tears to my eyes and I think anyone who climbs mountains, sails seas, or likes to fly would appreciate the emotional resonance. Yasmeen and Archimedes have a good amount of humor, sweetness, respect and sensibility which make them worthwhile. I liked the racial (almost specific or maybe generic) diversity bit and the gender role assignment flexibility was well done, well reasoned and welcomed. Overall, it delivered as expected.

tl;dr Great steampunk adventure romance. Airships! Zombies!

– and –
Further reading in the Iron Seas world:
A short story prequel, “Here There Be Monsters” in the Burning Up anthology and short story concurrence “The Blushing Bounder” in the Wild and Steamy anthology.

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May 012012

Wizard of Earthsea, original cover

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin is a short novel following a young wizard, Ged, from his ambitious beginnings as a student, through a life-defining and life-altering fall caused by pride and on to responsible adulthood as he has wizardly adventures, battles and various encounters, finally conquering his mysterious nemesis while learning about himself and the greater balance of his world in the process.

This book is an unusual reading experience. It is much less like reading a typical fantasy novel and much more like siting around a campfire on a long, dark night listening to tale. The unusual structure of the story (ex: five pages for a single event, the next five pages cover five years, spotty dialogue, time and atmosphere jumps) and heavy narrative could be frustrating, but if you’re willing to let the book sweep you along in its current, and not fight against it, it is fine. The stories are heavy in philosophy, anthropology, psychology, mythology, and packed with archetypes and classic concepts. While the book was commissioned of LeGuin as a story for older children, a child or adult could read the book as mere entertainment and probably be satisfied. But; this tale, set in a fictional world and packed with layers upon layers of meaning and significance can be relished and pondered in its intellectual depths by any age.

While the uncommon pacing of the book might put some off of reading it, I say go for it. Just don’t think of it as a story, but a story-like book. It is short, it is worth it, and anyway there are five more books (in more traditional story styles) in the series featuring these characters, in this world, that make the book an investment in future reading, if nothing else. You will get more out of it; I’m certain. Our main character, Ged, has an active and sometimes painful journey to adulthood, but he gets there. Everyone can relate to at least some part of his journey, and you get magic and dragons along the way, too.

tl;dr: Archetypal fantasy story, short and probably worth it.

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Apr 182012

Double Dexter is the sixth addition to the Dexter book series by Jeff Lindsay. In this book, Dexter gets sloppy and is witnessed in his play, spawning a stalker obsessed with becoming like Dexter, only better and without the deeply ingrained moral code. While this stalker taunts him from many steps ahead, Dexter struggles to identify the stalker, placate a suspicious Rita, throw off his enemies in the police force, and generally keep up appearances along the way to the foreordained conclusion.

This book was unimpressive in any positive ways. The bothersome flaws of the previous books in the series have grown into stinky, noxious flaws in this release. Sloppy, dull, self-indulgent and simplistic are words which come to mind when considering this one. The story is slow, predictable, narrow and somewhat unexciting. As well, it seems rather hasty. Normally, finding a book to be this short is a disappointment for me, but when the quality of the writing and story is this unsatisfactory, I’m simply relieved to have it over with and done – like getting shots or cleaning up excrement. If I didn’t absolutely love the television show, I wouldn’t read these books (certainly not this one) – and I wouldn’t pay money for this heap of words.

ETA: Okay, I realize now that a count of 320 pages isn’t all that short. Sorry, I guess after Alexandre Dumas, GRR Martin, and Patrick Rothfuss, my book-length scale was a bit skewish.

The Dexter character in the books seems to be getting slower, dumber and less interesting as the series continues. The supporting characters are fumbling, obvious and poorly drawn, but fortunately they are so one-sided and shallow you don’t care much about their behavior. And the dialog! While I wouldn’t say this book (series?) has some of the worst dialog I’ve come across, it is definitely from the dark, sediment-ridden bottom of the creativity, clarity, and flow barrel. I don’t know how I’ll convince myself to read what I imagine must be the inevitable next book in the series.

To Jeff Lindsay: please hire a ghostwriter to clean up your mess. Some of us still care about this story.

Surprisingly, this is NOT the worst book I’ve ever read in my life, so if you have to murder some time without thinking much, this will get the job done.

tl;dr: It’s dreadful, but quite short.

Apr 162012

Cover, The Count of Monte Cristo

Please note, I refer to the unabridged version by the Gutenberg Press, which is a free electronic version, but used the Penguin Classics cover for visual purposes. The Penguin Classics unabridged translation by Robin Buss is another well-received version.

By now, most people have seen one or another movie version of The Count of Monte Cristo and are, therefore, at least marginally familiar with the general plot. The book opens on a young man in the nineteenth century, a naive and innocent sailor, on the verge of promotion and marriage who is betrayed by friends and condemned to life imprisonment in a solitary dungeon. There follows a loss of innocence, an education, love, and purpose. His daring and heart-pounding escape ensures and actualizes his rebirth into an avenging angel of sorts; the innocent youth Edward is stripped away and Dantes is honed into the harsh agent of retribution, the Count of Monte Cristo. We follow the new Count through his mission of recompense, and later, his adventures in vengeance amidst the Paris social scene of his persecutors, and finally, the gentle and sweet release from his undertaking.

This book is an excellent example of why I’ve decided to read some of the classics I’ve missed in my three reading decades. While the book is well over a thousand pages, I was enthralled by this exciting, Romantic story every bit of the way. I’m not daunted by a page count and I hope that, if you are willing, you partake of the unabridged version as well, for there are many supporting character tales along the way which make for a richer, fuller adventure than if your unabridged version leaves out the entirely enjoyable small bits. As this was originally published in parts over two years, you can be assured of fairly constant interest. That said, if you’re going to take your time reading this you may wish to refer to the Wikipedia page or some summary type page to keep your memory fresh with the many characters, their interactions and such over the years (either in the novel, or your own life!).

The Count of Monte Cristo includes themes of love and hope, betrayal and loss, political intrigues, honor, greed and deception, disguise, wit, art, insight and philosophy, despair, murder, a prison escape and moreover; revenge, retribution, justice, gratitude and appreciation, human determination and constant adventure. Of course, it isn’t perfect. There are detractors in the writing, there always are; they are but a tiny annoying fly in a sweeping landscape of reading pleasure. I highly recommend you read this, if you are okay with the size, for it now lives on my favorites short-list.

tl;dr: Very long, very good adventurous tale.

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