Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ticker, by Lisa Mantchev

This week I'm looking at another steampunk novel, this one titled Ticker. Although, like last week's review this is really more of a novella and is fairly short, which allowed me to finish it in very little time. Ticker follows the adventures of Penelope Farthing, the first of the Augmented. The Augmented are people who have received a clockwork implant replacing a broken or defective body part. In her case, Penelope has received a clockwork heart which is required to keep her alive. Unfortunately Penelope's heart is only a prototype as Dr. Warwick, the surgeon who developed and implanted her heart, killed numerous people in experiments to prove the heart would work and is currently on trial for murder. Despite her parents' best efforts, Penelope seems unlikely to receive a replacement. In addition, an increasingly violent protest movement against any and all Augmentation has made research and development of Augmentation increasingly difficult.

The story begins with Penelope racing to meet her family at the city courthouse on the day of Warwick's sentencing. This turns out to be anything but a sedate day when Penelope arrives at her family's factory to pick up her brother Nic, and the factory promptly explodes. Fearing the worst, Penelope and Nic rush home to discover their house has been ransacked and their parents kidnapped. A strange ransom demand sends the Farthing siblings and their friends on a mad dash across the city, hoping to save what family Penelope and Nic have left.

Overall, this book was kind of interesting, even if I found myself rushing through it. I will say that opposed to a variety of steampunk literature which is set in alternate Victorian or Edwardian pasts, this book is definitely set in its own universe. I could hardly see Victorians dying their hair blue, much less having visible tattoos and facial piercings. The book definitely takes at least a little bit of its aesthetic from modern steampunks rather than history. However, I think that's quite all right and it still manages to keep the steampunk aesthetic, although giving the book a bit more of a modern feel.

As I said, I found myself rushing through the book, and I think part of that is because of how relatively short the book is. I felt like there were a lot of plot threads which could have gone off in a variety of interesting directions, and there were some ideas or pieces of characters' personalities which I felt could have used more development. Instead we kind of stick with one or two main plot threads and the characters almost don't have time to sit still during most of it. There might be little breaks here and there, but before you know it they're rushing off to the next thing.

I will say that Mantchev appears to have done considerable research into this book with numerous types of foods and clothing described in almost excessive detail. Quite a few of which I had to look up on my kindle's dictionary. Plus there are a handful of clever references, such as in the name of a steamboat, so that shows Mantchev has put a lot of work in gathering the research material for her book. I just kind of wish that it could have been developed further than the relative brevity of the novel.

Ultimately I feel it comes down to whether the plot as it's described interests you or not. If the idea of a steampunk mystery chase with intrigue and betrayal appeals to you, I think you'll probably find yourself enjoying this book. If none of those things interest you, then you're better off avoiding it. Really just depends on what you like.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore

This week I'm reviewing The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a book which charts the life of William Marston, the creator of the iconic superheroine, in fact the most popular superheroine by almost every metric by which such things are judged. It also, to a lesser extent, talks about Marston's wives, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, as well as the variety of influences which culminated in the creation of Wonder Woman in the 1940's. Although Wonder Woman was the last thing Marston produced in his long, and rather checkered career, it is by far the most enduring. With access to documents and papers which have for decades been hidden from the public eye, Jill Lepore is able to craft a narrative which explains the numerous influences which came together to create one of DC's Big Three, a history which has not been thoroughly explored before because it was hidden.

I was first made aware of this book a little over a year ago when there was a promotional article included in Smithsonian, specifically this article. I had been vaguely aware of the identity of the creator of Wonder Woman, William Marston, which had been public knowledge for quite some time. I had also been aware of his somewhat less than traditional domestic arrangements, which had been public knowledge for considerably less time. What I didn't know was the body of suffragist literature and imagery from the 1910's, including the use of chains, ropes, and gags, which served as one of the influences for the bondage imagery so prominent in Golden Age Wonder Woman comics. However, I felt that the Smithsonian article protested a bit too much in saying Marston was in no way interested in practices that we would call BDSM today. (Specifically the amount of detail which Marston spends talking about the placement of chains in surviving scripts implies, to me, far more than a casual interest.) So I was a little concerned that this novel would try very hard to deny those influences.

To my pleasant surprise, Lepore actually builds a much stronger case than the one in Smithsonian, which reads much like a watered down summary of one of her topics. On the one hand, Lepore admits that yes, Marston seemed to have an interest in what he called ''love binding'' and there is evidence he was involved in at least one sex cult so we cannot say that his interest in bondage was purely platonic. However, Lepore also does an excellent job of providing example after example of imagery and literature from the suffragist movement, a movement both Marston and Holloway experienced in their impressionable college years, which we certainly would be foolish to discount as an influence on Wonder Woman some thirty years later. In fact there is an entire genre of literature about an island inhabited by women who rule in peace before men arrive, very similar to Paradise Island in the Wonder Woman comics.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me is that the early feminists of the 1910's experienced some brief successes, especially after the 19th Amendment secured the right to vote in 1920, and women made tremendous gains in higher education and in the workplace. However, shortly afterwards, in the late 1920's and into the 1930's, women were pushed away from these areas and back towards the home as their proper place. I find this interesting because there is a similar event in the 1860's after the emancipation of blacks across the country. Initially black men, especially in the south, see incredible gains and are heavily involved in local government and enjoy a number of benefits. However as time goes on, those benefits are slowly pushed back under the regime of Jim Crow, which would persist for another hundred years until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. Women, likewise, saw this brief period of advances, before suffering a push back from the establishment which would require later generations to fight against. (And in both race relations and gender relations we are still struggling with an imbalance in the United States that we are trying to rectify, with limited success.)

Wonder Woman, at least in her early years of the 1940's, comes out as a strong advocate of the feminist agenda, proving that women can do it just as well as men. This message became even more important as women became critical to the wartime economy of America during World War II, replacing the millions of men drafted in military service. Unfortunately even in the heady days of the 1940's Wonder Woman drew criticism for being untraditional, which only increased with the general fervor against comic books in the 1950's. Like so many other women in the 1950's, Wonder Woman was pushed into a more ''domestic'' role and eventually lost all of her powers, much to the frustration and annoyance of her fans. But with the resurgence of feminism in the 1960's, Wonder Woman has, and continues to be a powerful icon of feminism, although exactly what brand of feminism remains in dispute to this day.

One of the things I found most interesting about Marston's life, as it's recounted in this book, is the sheer amount of things that he failed at. He practiced law for a time, but was utterly uninterested in the practice and soon abandoned it. He taught at a number of universities, but due to a variety of poor judgements and minor scandals on his part he was kicked further and further down the academic ladder until finally being blacklisted from any academic position whatsoever. As he was quick to remind everyone at every opportunity, he invented a lie detector device, measuring systolic blood pressure, but it never worked to the satisfaction of anyone but himself. He worked briefly in film in an advisory capacity, but so irritated studio executives he was soon dismissed from that as well. In fact, considering the amount of complaints he got, it's a surprise he wasn't booted from Wonder Woman as well, but Marston's supreme confidence in himself and what he believed carried him through setback after setback. In fact Lepore, who does an excellent job of narrating her book for the audio version, fills every line from Marston with a voice supreme self-confidence bordering on impetuous arrogance. Truly he was a man immune to criticism and failure.

Overall, I think this was a very interesting book and I highly recommend people read it. I've only managed to touch on a handful of the subjects covered in the book and I think anyone interested in feminist history will find this a fascinating, if somewhat lurid read.  My one frustration was the shift very early in the book from talking about Marston and Holloway to talking about Olive Byrne. It probably was worse because I was listening to the book instead of reading, but it was rather confusing to begin talking about Ethel Byrne and Margaret Sanger, pioneers of the birth control movement, when we were just previously talking about Marston and Holloway. However, this is clearly a work of passion for Lapore which is made apparent in her loving narration. (And, as I said, she manages to put arrogant self-confidence, which Marston seemed to have in no short supply, into every one of his lines.) I definitely recommend it for everyone to read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Woodcutter, by Kate Danley

This week I'm reviewing an e-book that came to my attention some while back. It's a fairly short book, really more of a novella which I feel ends up being a weakness of the work. I say that because the book definitely could have used some fleshing out and expansion, instead it feels like a rough outline of a much larger work. There are some really great ideas with the plot and the author incorporates quite a few European folk tales which shows the author has done her research. It's very much in the vein of the tv show Once Upon a Time, where you take a bunch of cool fantasy ideas, toss them in a blender, and hit puree to end up with an even more awesome fantasy smoothie. If that metaphor makes sense.

The plot is about the titular Woodcutter, an individual who is responsible for overseeing and keeping peace among the Twelve Kingdoms, all of which are tied to the Woodcutter's wood. The Twelve Kingdoms were created when twelve tribes of humans warred with the magical fae. The humans lost, of course, and were divided into their respective kingdoms ruled by a blue-blooded monarch. However, an unintended yet beneficial side effect was that the fae monarchs fell in love with humans and, bound by the power of true love, ruled benevolently for many generations. This cemented the alliance between humans and fae and it's the power of true love which keeps the kingdoms at peace.

Unfortunately, there are people who want to upset this balance and rule all of the Twelve Kingdoms, as well as the Wood at their center. When the Woodcutter finds out about this it's his responsibility, as arbiter and keeper of the peace, to find out who's behind it and stop them. I will say I've had to reveal stuff that was further on in the book than I thought it should be, but I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the basics of the plot so I thought it best to summarize it here.

As I said earlier, I kind of wished this book was longer because there are parts that aren't terribly fleshed out. For example, the Woodcutter can create rings with his pipe that never lie, but we're never told what they never lie about. I assume that they're some form of divination that he can utilize, but that's a best guess on my part. In addition, we don't really know where the bad guys come from or why they're planning what they're planning, it's just a sort of a generic take over the world, thirst for power plot. Which I guess is okay, especially in fairy tales, but I just got the feeling there was more to these characters than that. Overall the idea is very interesting and I quite enjoyed reading it, I just wish Danley had gone into more detail on a lot of things.

I did have some issues at the beginning when the Woodcutter refers to his wife merely as “Wife” and it describes them as being married for ten years and ten years more. It just felt weird to me that someone would refer to their spouse by just “Wife”, and also the word for ten and ten is twenty. They were married for twenty years. But aside from these really rather minor complaints and my lament that the book felt underdeveloped, overall I really enjoyed it. And with some characters, such as the Lady in Blue or the Duke, it makes slightly more sense for them to be named that because characters in fairy tales often have names akin to that. And being someone who's read quite a few folktales I rather enjoyed seeing the numerous references in the book, including some that are less well known. (Such as the soldier who captured Death in a bag, one of my favorite stories.)

If you're a fan of fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and especially if you're a fan of the series Once Upon a Time you're definitely going to enjoy this book. As I said, it feels more like an outline at points and could have benefited from some fleshing out, but other than that it's a pretty good read, and not terribly long if you don't have a lot of time.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Allegiance, by Timothy Zahn

This week I'm dipping, at least for a little bit, back into the world of Star Wars with another Timothy Zahn novel, in this case Allegiance, which is read by Marc Thompson. Readers of my blog may be passingly familiar with Timothy Zahn as I've mentioned him before on the blog and actually have reviewed one of his other books, Scoundrels. And when I was younger and only slightly more foolish than I am now I also read probably Zahn's most famous work, the Thrawn Trilogy, as well as the Hand of Thrawn Duology which followed much later. Overall Zahn has a very good reputation as a science fiction writer in general and specifically in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (which of course is all irrelevant now anyway, but that's another conversation.)

Quality has always been a bit of a problem in the heady days when the Expanded Universe grew free like a kudzu vine, smothering everything with its choking and expansive embrace. Some of the books read as little more than very bad fanfiction which was given the Lucasfilm sanction, if we're being entirely honest, to get another dime out of the franchise. (A favorite example one of my friends likes to bring up is the truly awful Jedi Prince series, which the excuse of being made for children simply does not excuse its numerous sins.) Zahn stands out in this field for creating compelling and interesting storylines as well as depicting Imperial characters, who were all too often depicted as third-rate stage villains chewing the scenery and gloating in being evil for evil's sake, as actual three-dimensional characters with motivations and reasons for behaving the way they do. They may not be terribly good reasons, but they're still good reasons. And with a title like Allegiance, I was hoping Zahn would deliver more interesting characters and situations.

The story is set sometime between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back where the Rebellion, although buoyed by its success in destroying the Death Star, is still a long way away from toppling the Empire and restoring freedom to the galaxy. In fact the Alliance is still in very great danger of falling apart at the seams. The plot starts out with three separate threads which eventually come together into one overarching plot towards the end of the novel. First we have what I consider the least interesting plot, which is Han, Luke, and Leia who are doing a variety of things to keep the Alliance functioning, such as investigating pirate raids on rebel supply lines and playing the careful game of diplomacy among the Alliance's more individualistic leaders.

I say this plot is probably the least interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, thanks to the movies we know what happens to Han, Luke, and Leia so there're protected by plot armor the entire time. They may be in danger, but they'll be alive and well for Empire, as we already know. Secondly, you remember how Luke was still kind of a whiny kid in A New Hope and how Han wasn't really into the whole Rebellion thing in the first place? Zahn really emphasizes that in this novel and while it's certainly true to the characters, it's traits that I don't really enjoy in them as characters. Luke especially is far more enjoyable when he grows into being an awesome Jedi Knight instead of the whiny farm kid from nowhere. And finally Zahn also brings back a really awkward and unfortunate aspect of the old trilogy. See, you guys kind of remember how in A New Hope and in Empire Strikes Back there was that vague, poorly developed love triangle between Han, Luke, and Leia? That was like vague enough to not be fully developed but unfortunately included this?
Which gets really really awkward in hindsight when they decided to make Luke and Leia siblings? Yeah, Zahn brings that vague, uncomfortable sense of awkwardness back with a bit of a vengence. I could also go on about how there's a point where Luke gets out of a situation only because the voice of Obi-wan Kenobi, who apparently read the script, tells him exactly what to do, but on further reflection that's actually not that far off from the movies either so I'll just let it go at this point.

The second plotline involves Mara Jade in her role as the Emperor's Hand, something which old veterans of the EU such as myself would be familiar with but maybe not newcomers. Basically while Darth Vader was the highly public enforcer of the Emperor's will, using the sledgehammers of Star Destroyers and stormtrooper legions, Mara Jade was more like a scalpel. The Emperor used her to infiltrate and investigate all levels of the imperial hierarchy, searching for and exposing treason. While she could act publicly, she much preferred to act clandestinely from the shadows. In this book Mara's investigating a plot which could involve an entire sector government for all she knows. This plot's slightly more interesting, for me at least, but as I also know what happens to Mara in the EU there's that lack of tension as well.

The third plot, and what I consider the most interesting, revolves around a group of five stormtroopers who eventually call themselves the Hand of Judgement. All five of them had seen the Empire do good things for the galaxy, bring about law and order, suppress pirates, help fill the vacuum after the Clone Wars, and all of them jumped at the chance to serve in the Empire's elite stormtrooper corps. However after a massacre on Teardrop, when they're ordered to eliminate an entire village of civilians just because they're suspected of being Rebel sympathizers, they begin questioning if the Empire's still worth serving. After an incident on their Star Destroyer in which one of them accidentally kills an officer, they're left with no choice but to run and question whether the Empire is still worth serving. This was the plot I was most interested in, if for nothing else than it introduces new characters who aren't guaranteed to come out of this alive, and I've always had a bit of fondness for redshirts and their cousins across science fiction, like the stormtroopers. If the book had been more about these guys, with just a little bit less about more familiar characters I think I'd recommend it more strongly, but they unfortunately have to share the spotlight in this instance. 

I do want to compliment Marc Thompson who goes to great lengths to provide unique voices for the characters in the novel. He certainly does a serviceable young Luke and Han Solo impression and while it's a little odd to hear a stormtrooper with a Texas drawl or a vaguely New Jersey accent, it certainly helps to keep the characters apart when you're listening instead of reading. The inclusion of music from the series, as well as sound effects, also helps to make you feel like you're really there in the Star Wars universe and makes it a more complete experience. My only regret is that Thompson, through no fault of his own, really only has one voice for female characters so Leia and Mara Jade ended up sounding a lot alike to me. I know it would probably add to the cost, which they might not be willing to pay as there's a tragically low number of female characters in Star Wars, but I think it would certainly help to have a female voice actor for the female parts in novels, but that's just me. 

Overall, the book is okay, but not great. Like I said, two of the three main plots didn't overly interest me so it was kind of hard to get too terribly invested. There are some interesting character debates about allegiance, as per the title, and what they're loyal to and why they're loyal to the things they are, but it's probably not the best work done on the subject. Zahn's writing is okay, but there were definitely some weak points and I don't think this is the best thing he's produced for the EU. The introduction of new characters and pointing out that not everyone who serves the Empire is blind to its problems certainly adds depth to the series, but there are better examples from this author, let alone this series. 

- Kalpar

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf

This week I'm reviewing the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, by Gary Wolf. Most of my readers probably recognize this as being the novel which the simultaneously surprisingly good and terrifying movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is very loosely based upon. I say very loosely because aside from there being a murder investigation and the names of certain characters being the same, the book and movie are two entirely different animals. Not just in overall plot but definitely in tone as well. While the movie is simultaneously fun and also terrifying (Judge Doom, anyone?), the book has a far more serious and even darker tone. There's also the barest element of race relations in the book, but that's a part that I felt barely gets any development.

To provide some context for my readers, who I'm pretty sure have seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the book varies in some very key differences. Toons and humans still coexist, but in the book version whenever they speak they leave word balloons above their head. Some Toons are able to suppress their word balloons with concentration and vocalize instead, but this is the exception rather than the rule. A significant number of Toons work in the comic book industry, with comic characters such as Dick Tracy and  Hagar the Horrible getting cameos. Comics are made by having the Toons act out the scenes of the comic as each scene is photographed. If a Toon is required to do something dangerous they can produce a doppelganger, a temporary extension of themselves which can then have a safe dropped on them or a stick of dynamite blown up in their face or what have you. This ability is very important because unlike the movie universe, Toons can die, with sometimes disastrous results.

The plot follows Eddie Valiant, a private detective hired by Roger Rabbit to find out why Rocco DeGreasy, head of the cartoon syndicate which has Roger in a twenty year contract, won't give him his own comic strip despite promises otherwise. Valiant does some poking around but it seems that it was merely an empty promise to keep Roger working with the DeGreasy Syndicate. He's about ready to drop the case when it becomes infinitely more complicated. On the same night both Rocco DeGreasy and Roger Rabbit are found in their homes, murdered. The police think they've got the case pretty well tied up, but Valiant isn't so sure. This is further complicated when Valiant finds a doppleganger of Roger's, who has about two days until he disintegrates, and desperately wants Valiant to finish the case in the time he has left.

As I said, this book definitely has a darker and grittier tone than the movie. A good example is the character of Jessica Rabbit, Roger's wife. In the movie she has all the hallmarks of a femme fatale but is deep down good-natured and loves her husband. In the book she's emotionally manipulative and interested only in herself, with absolutely no love for Roger. Jessica is also willing to utilize seduction to get what she wants and there are multiple male characters who are absolutely convinced they're the ones she's truly in love with. There are some jokes and funny parts to the book, but considering you've got two murders and evidence of the DeGreasy Syndicate utilizes exploitative contracts to control its talent for their own benefit.

As I said, there's also the element of race relations involved in the book, although again I feel like this isn't developed enough to be a proper theme in its own right. You do have Toons being segregated to their own neighborhoods, or mixed neighborhoods being described as ''blighted''. Human police refusing to handle Toon crimes and leaving that to a separate Toon department, and within the book's universe history Toons being imported by the boatload to assist in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Plus there's the whole issue of humanoid Toons who try to pass for humans, such as Jessica Rabbit. This is an issue that has considerable history in the United States in specific and could be a fascinating metaphorical examination of race relations, but it kind of takes a back seat to the murder mystery investigation. As it stands in the book, it's more interesting background material more than anything else.

This book does have some interesting twists and turns, as well as some red herrings, so it works pretty well as a detective novel. I wasn't entirely sure of the ending by the time I got to it, but I don't read terribly many mystery novels so I probably am out of practice in puzzling together mystery plots. Overall I'd say this book is interesting and very different, but definitely very different in tone from the movie so keep that in mind going in.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix

This week I'm actually reaching back a bit and talking about an audiobook I listened to quite a while ago in October, Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix. As regular readers are probably aware, horror is not my usual bailiwick but the concept as described in the blurb was intriguing enough for me to want to give it a chance. The edition I listened to was narrated by Tai Sammons and Bronson Pinchot.

The Plot of Horrorstor is set in an Orsk store on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. Orsk is a big box retail assemble-it-yourself furniture store and deliberate American knock-off of Swedish immigrant Ikea, from the labyrinth of its store showroom to the cafeteria with its meatballs to the phony pseudo-Swedish names given to every piece of furniture. However the Cleveland Orsk store has lately been suffering a rash of vandalism, made all the more curious because it seems to be happening during the night and the security cameras have been unable to provide any useful information about who, or what, might be causing the damage. As a last resort, Basil, one of the store managers, recruits Amy and Ruth-Anne, two of the staff members, to stay with him in the store through the night to see if they can catch the perpetrators before corporate is forced to step in. However the night ends up not being quite what they expected in the least.

A lot of Horrorstor's humor comes from Hendrix's ruthless satirizing of corporate culture and the experience of working retail in specific, something I'm sure almost anyone can sympathize with and understand. Bronson Pinchot reads a variety of inserts included within the story, such as official Orsk literature and memos, and every chapter is started with an advertisement for a piece of Orsk furniture, complete with a narmy description of how this piece of Orsk furniture will fit into your lifestyle. Pinchot does an excellent job of capturing the mild, bland, inoffensive, and absolutely stupidity behind Orsk (and most other) company culture with his tone of voice and some of the inserts are downright hilarious. I can only think that this may have been made better in the paperback edition which is described as similar to a glossy furniture catalog in its design. Alas, this was something I was deprived of with the audio version.

Tai Sammons does most of the heavy lifting, so to speak, by following our protagonist of Amy as she tries to survive the soul-crushing monotony of Orsk. And while I can understand and sympathize with Amy's frustration, having worked in retail myself, Amy isn't exactly the best protagonist. As it's pointed out in the book she's kind of shiftless, gives up when things get too hard, and doesn't follow through on things despite wanting to escape from the trap of working retail. It may just be because it falls too close to my own personal experiences, but I feel like Amy brings most of her problems onto herself and looks to blame other people for them rather than taking responsibility. The result is I end up with very little sympathy for Amy as a character. Fortunately she does go through some development, but it's kind of a long time coming in the book.

I will also say I don't know if I really like the pacing of the book terribly much. It's very reasonable to guess from the title and the genre that something creepy is going down. It's why you picked the book up after all, anyway. For the first half, though, things in the book seemed fairly mundane. A little odd perhaps, but not necessarily creepy. Once you get to the second half, things go from zero to straight up terrifying in a matter of minutes and I felt kind of like I was scrambling to catch up. There's also sort of the drawback of knowing exactly what the danger is, which makes it far less scary than knowing there's something dangerous out there but not knowing what exactly it is. I felt like the book could have benefitted greatly from a little better pacing and working to weave the creepiness throughout, in addition to the theme of soul-crushing monotony.

The other thing I noticed was that the book ended rather abruptly and on a cliff hanger, which felt vaguely unsatisfying. Granted, there was the much-needed character development, but we're left with a bit, "what happens next question?" This is of course a means of ending books which has been done before, Heinlein being an example of an author who enjoyed doing this, but at the same time it could also be a setup for a sequel. In either case I was kind of disappointed because in the case of the former, this being the final word and us being left to imagine further adventures, the conflict within the book isn't really resolved, just delayed until its inevitable return. In the case of the latter, I'm not sure if I really care quite enough about the characters, in spite of their development to sit through a sequel. Or for that matter if there's really enough material still there to flesh it out into a full book on its own. So given those two options, it feels like an unsatisfying conclusion.

I am of course aware that I'm not exactly an aficionado of the horror genre so don't have a lot of experience and this may be perfectly normal for the book. In fact my opinions on what makes a good horror novel may be entirely at odds with what everyone else thinks makes a good horror novel. But in my opinion, at least, this book had some serious issues and left me feeling rather unsatisfied. It wasn't throw-against-the wall bad, but I didn't think it was terribly good either.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

Fitzpatrick's War, by Theodore Judson

This week I'm reviewing a book which was loaned to me by a friend titled Fitzpatrick's War. This is a book set in an alternated twenty-fifth century where the world has gone through some serious changes and the United States is dominated by the Yukon Confederacy, a highly religious and militaristic government. The book itself takes the form of a memoir written by Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce, a military engineer and war hero as well as close personal friend of the Consul Fitzpatrick the Younger. Bruce's account goes against the traditional history the Confederacy knows about Fitzpatrick. I rather enjoy this format because included is annotations from a historian who offers necessary exposition as well as pointing out how Bruce is wrong because of key differences from the official version. Although personally I found myself believing Bruce by the end rather than the pompous Professor Van Buren.

In the world of Fitzpatrick's War technology has become dependent once again on the steam engine. Thanks to a series of conflicts known as the Storm Times, as well as technology used by a mysterious organization known as the Timermen, electrical technology no longer works on Earth. The Yukon Confederacy, which inhabits Australia, the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, benefits from their alliance with the Timermen and have the most advanced technology of the remaining power blocs, but do not have an overwhelming advantage by any stretch of the imagination. In this story we meet Bruce when he is a student at the Confederacy War College and earning extremely high marks in his engineering classes. This brings him to the attention of Lord Fitzpatrick, son of the current Consul of the Yukon Confederacy and heir apparent. Bruce gets brought into Fitzpatrick's circle, which eventually puts him at the center of events in Fitzpatrick's quest to conquer the world.

I think the strongest thing about this book is that some of the characters are really well developed. Bruce is rather likable, and although tempted by power and the benefits of friendship with Fitzpatrick, he retains an element of goodness in him, which is greatly aided with his relationship with his wife, Charlotte. By far Charlotte was probably my favorite character in this book. Granted, her courtship with Bruce basically amounts to her meeting him and deciding, "Yep, I'm going to marry him." but she's got a great personality, sticks up for herself in a patriarchal system, and keeps Bruce grounded when he's most vulnerable. My only regret is she didn't get to be in more of the book than she was because she was an awesome feisty Irish lady but she and Bruce spend a lot of time living apart during the course of the novel. Pularski is also an interesting and I feel very complex character who shows considerable hidden depths despite his outward appearances of just being a bodyguard.

Fitzpatrick is also interesting because he's not a very good person and we can see how that develops over time and the excesses start building up. Especially since Bruce only sees him at different points in Fitzpatrick's life and the changes are far more pronounced than if they'd been gradual. And it's really only with the benefit of hindsight that Bruce is able to analyze from the very beginning and realizes that Fitzpatrick was planning on becoming the next Alexander from the start and was manipulating Bruce's career before Bruce even knew him. Fitzpatrick, like most of the characters, is trained in the classics and is fully aware of Alexander's story, but becomes far more unhinged as time goes on. It's really rather fascinating in that respect.

Over the course of the book I also rather enjoyed Professor Van Buren's protests which became far more strident. By our standards, Van Buren's an outright prude who finds the idea of men dancing with women absolutely disturbing and the parts where Bruce and Charlotte do just that were actually censored from earlier printings in the book's universe. It's almost astounding to see the mental acrobatics Van Buren goes through to deny the destruction of an army of twenty million Chinese which Bruce himself was witness to and a participant in. By the end we even get to learn why Van Buren is so tied to the standard version of events, as the historian who wrote the official version is from his same university. Although extremely distressing to me, also a historian, I found it rather believable and to an extent enjoyable as well.

I will say that really liked the first half or so of the book, which seemed to have a far more natural pacing to it than the latter half. There's a point about two thirds of the way through where the story gets dominated by a battle scene, which is pretty big and important in the overall plot, but for me it felt way too long. The events after the battle scene, compared to the first half of the book, feel considerably rushed. I almost got the feeling the author had more that he wanted to talk about, but just wanted to crank the story out and get it finished. Although if the second part of the book went into as much detail as the first part it probably would have been a much longer book, but I'm not entirely opposed to that.

Overall it's an interesting book that's a little bit different in its own way. If the description of an annotated autobiography of a steampunk future sounds interesting to you, I'd definitely check it out.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Before I get to the book review proper I want to speak a little bit about an odd situation I find myself in recently. I am not big on audio books. Or podcasts. Or radio programs. Really anything which is just spoken words. Honestly I'd rather be watching something or reading something instead of listening to something. Unless, of course, part of me needs to be focused somewhere else, such as driving on long car trips. Then these become a much-needed relief from the tedium of monotonous tasks while allowing me to focus a sufficient part of my attention to the task at hand. Recently I've found myself in a situation where I have quite a bit of time where I can not only listen to audiobooks, but they're actually quite beneficial to helping time pass. And with the assistance of my local library I can actually listen to (hopefully) hundreds of audio books through the power of my trusty (albeit somewhat dated) kindle.

I wasn't entirely sure if I should review these book on the blog. After all, it's not like I'm properly ''reading'' them and I'm still reading books in a more traditional format in my spare time. But considering that this will continue to expose me to a variety of books, and there's at least one person who asks for my opinion on the literature I'm exposed to, I decided it was worth giving it a try. My hope is from this point on to provide a review of an audio book I've listened to every Tuesday, as well as continuing my reviews of text books I've read every Thursday. I'm sure my writings will continue to go unnoticed by the majority of the internet, but it may also prove beneficial.

I'm beginning, perhaps somewhat inauspiciously, with The God Delusion, by renowned atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. I started with this because I figured it was one of those pretentious books I probably should have read, but never got around to reading because I was busy reading books about robot tanks. But with plenty of time available to me, it seemed like as good an opportunity as any. (And I suspect this trend of listening to books I probably should have read but never got around to will continue if I proceed with this experiment.)

The audiobook is actually read by both Richard Dawkins and his wife, Lalla Ward, which I actually want to talk about first and I have a suspicion my opinions on the reader's performance will factor into quite a few of my reviews. In the case of The God Delusion Dawkins makes use of a variety of quotations from numerous sources, and occasionally utilizes dialog to help illustrate points. Lalla Ward is a great asset because she helps let you know when Dawkins is quoting something or keep track of the different voices in an argument which, while it could certainly be done with a voice actor, are much easier with two voices instead of one. Also the book is written in a very conversational tone with the reader so having the author himself read it makes quite a lot of sense. It makes you really get the sense that Dawkins is trying to have a conversation with you about his viewpoints and makes the experience, of the audiobook at least, that much more personal.

I have not had much experience with Dawkins previously. I had been vaguely aware he was a strong atheist and proponent of science, as well as religious people not caring for him terribly much. Other than that I had very little knowledge of his exact viewpoints. This book was very enlightening as to Dawkins's own views on a number of subjects, as well as the precise reason why so many religious people seem to hate him. Dawkins certainly doesn't pull any punches in this book and calls a variety of arguments made by theists as childish, fatuous, vacuous, or downright insane. Even the title of the book stems from Dawkins's thesis that religious belief, in all its hundreds of varieties, is merely insanity made legitimate through its ubiquity.

I find myself of two opinions on Dawkins's rancor towards religion, to the point of calling religious education of children as the equivalent of child abuse due to the long-lasting mental effects it has. On the one hand, I'm left with the feeling that in his opposal to religion he goes to the opposite extreme, which may be off-putting to people who are still wavering on whether or not they believe in a deity. On the other hand, I can see how Dawkins, who has been debating with theists on whether or not god exists for decades, is probably just utterly exhausted with the whole process. In his refutation of a variety of arguments for the existence of god, both ''evidence-based'' and ''logic-based'', quite a few are arguments that have been put forth for decades, if not centuries, and have been tidily dismissed as insufficient for years. I can see how year after year, hearing the same dozen arguments brought up again and again as if this time it'll really stump him, would wear a person down. So while I may not entirely agree with his vitriol, I can at least somewhat understand the source of his frustration.

Dawkins also covers a variety of other subjects, such as talking about the different possible origins of religion and how institutions could grow and survive over time. Dawkins of course goes much further to explain why religion is no longer necessary for these causes. For example, knowledge of how the world came to be the way it is, once a central point of a variety of cultures' creation myths, can now be explained through various fields of science such as evolutionary biology and physics. And although explanations may not be complete, such as the competing hypotheses about the Big Bang and the nature of the universe, science and the quest for more information will continue to provide us with better and more complete knowledge.

People are of course quick to point out that even if religion is no longer necessary to tell us how we got here, religion can still be a source of morality for people. (Although a distressing number of people still think the world was created in six twenty-four hour days less than ten thousand years ago.) But as Dawkins counters, there are plenty of people who live good and moral lives without any influence of religion at all and it is still possible to live a full and happy life as an atheist. So clearly religion is not necessary to be a good person and there are numerous examples of philosophers attempting to define morality without relying on religion anyway. Besides, as Dawkins provides with extensive examples, the Bible as a document written, transcribed, and edited over hundreds of years is contradictory to the point of being schizophrenic and much of the morality it proposes is utterly barbaric by modern day standards. So if we're using the Bible (or any holy scripture) as a source of morality we're ultimately picking and choosing which parts we're going to use rather than strictly adhering to it. And at that point, do we really need the book to tell us to do? Aren't we capable enough on our own to decide what is right and wrong?

Dawkins also goes into a great amount of detail about how religion can be a force for bad in the world, which is also a very strong source of his frustrations with the entire affair, and touches on two specific examples. The obvious example is the large amount of religious conflict which has occurred throughout history and across the globe. Of course this is one of the first arguments anti-religious people bring up and there is inevitably a lot of quibbling and back and forth. However Dawkins goes even further to say that religious belief, even moderate religious belief, provides a safe haven for extremist ideologies to grow. Something that has become all the more relevant in recent years as the political situation deteriorates even further in the Middle East and, rather concerningly, increasingly reactionary and inflammatory rhetoric becomes common place here in the United States as well.

Dawkins's other main complaint is that religion establishes a pattern of belief without evidence, or sometimes in the face of all contradictory evidence. As much as people like to say that he believes in evolution, he goes to great lengths to explain the large amounts of evidence used to justify that belief. And most importantly like all scientists and the science-literate, Dawkins is willing to change those beliefs based on the revelation of new evidence. Religious belief, however, often makes it a virtue to believe without evidence, or in the face of evidence, and encourages people to remain steadfast in their beliefs despite whatever new evidence comes their way. On a related note, Dawkins also cites examples where religion makes a virtue of contentment and ignorance, while discouraging inquisitivity and curiosity. Many things which aren't easy to understand, an example being the concept of the trinity, are explained away as a mystery which is beyond human comprehension. Very often people like to say there are things which we'll never understand or hope to understand and that's where god is, similar to a god of the gaps argument where gaps in knowledge are explained away as god. However, there have often been claims made in the past that we'll never truly understand some aspect of knowledge, which only ends up being overturned much later by additional research. Saying that there are things humans are incapable of understanding is ultimately short-sighted and to reveal yourself ignorant of history. Which makes progress all that harder to achieve. While I may not agree with Dawkins's contempt for religion in general, I can at least understand a little bit of where he's coming from.

I've really only touched upon a handful of things talked about in this book, and Dawkins goes over quite a lot of material, summarizing at various points the absolute plethora of talking points he's covered. I will concede that Dawkins is far more polemic in his writing and goes to greater extremes than some other people, but I can at least understand why he feels the need to express himself the way that he does. It's certainly a thought-provoking book, but I fear in issues of religion it may not be very useful in changing people's minds.

- Kalpar