31 July 2012

Review: The Help

The Help
The Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the books I've ever read, I'm not sure I've read one that's more divisive among my friends. One side has been trying to get me to read this since it came out, extolling its virtues and talking about how entertaining a read it is. The other condemns it, whether it be the book or movie, as various levels of racist in part due to its white author and/or due to its white protagonist heroine. As I haven't seen the movie yet, and may not see it at all, I'm not sure how much of the criticism can be levied on a movie that may not be as detailed, or subtle, or perhaps careful, as the book, but the book itself is surprisingly good, especially for a popular mainstream read that I did not have high hopes for.

I don't need to detail the plot at this point, as you already know what it's about unless you've missed the popular media over the last year and a half or so. The book separates the plot into point-of-view stories from three characters - two of the domestic maids, and the white woman who's compiling their stories. Thus, the plot is jumping back and forth between the collecting of the stories and the situations coming up in Jackson at the time - before, during, and after the publication of the book in the story.

Since Goodreads doesn't allow half stars, this is closer to a 3.5 for me. Parts of it felt real, others contrived. The book was probably a little longer than it needed to be, but it does flow rather nicely and is entertaining overall, even if it's a little superficial. Having not read any fiction that comes to mind about this specific aspect of the era, I can't speak to whether other books - written by white people or minorities - handle the subject matter better or worse, but this does a slid job for what it is - a popular mainstream title.

Chances are that you've already read this if you actually want to. If you haven't, and you think you want to read it, you'll probably enjoy it. If you don't think you want to read it, the book is unlikely to change your mind on why you're avoiding it, for whatever reasons those may be. Such is the life of a popular, mainstream book, I suppose.

View all my reviews

30 July 2012

Review: Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election-Year Guide to Mitt Romney's Religion

Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election-Year Guide to Mitt Romney's Religion
Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election-Year Guide to Mitt Romney's Religion by Ryan T. Cragun

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are two things that are annoying about the Presidential coverage regarding Mitt Romney and Mormonism: 1) The way the media treats Mormonism and 2) the lack of good information coming from the media regarding Mormonism. I don't pretend to be an expert on the religion at all - I've read plenty about it, I consider myself informed, but I couldn't tell you much of anything in detail. Could I Vote for a Mormon for President is a solid entry-level reader into the Mormon religion, both in terms of history of the religion, a primer on the beliefs and traditions of the Mormon religion, and a great starting point for the political implications.

The book works well in part because the authors are so good. They're both academics, both former Mormons, and both capable of having an even-handed look at Romney and their former religion while being skeptical of both. The major media should really look at this as an example of how to be opposed to something they're covering, because this works very well. The book is divided into bite-sized chunks relevant to different topics, ranging from historical information to clearing the air on more confusing topics (such as the temple garments). It's short, sweet, structured well, and refers to more detailed texts at the end of each segment for those who want to know more.

I have very few complaints overall: I wish it was a little longer, and as someone who was already somewhat informed, more detail would have been preferable. With that said, it's a book a lot of people who are in the dark probably should read. I trust, given the publisher and the pedigree of the authors, that the facts are in place fairly well, which helps, but other than that, this is a really solid book that deserves a place in the discussion over the next 100 days, if not the next four years.

View all my reviews

22 July 2012

Review: Bottled Demon

Bottled Demon
Bottled Demon by Matthew Rossi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It might just be the crowds I run with, but I'd like to think we all know that person in our lives who's a bit overread, who knows a lot of bizarre, obscure facts, who has the best bookshelf in the region, etc etc etc. If that person wrote a book, Bottled Demon would likely be it.

The book is a ton of fun - there's a lot of obscure stories, fun conspiracy theories, weird occult stuff, the strange and bizarre that you always get inklings of but never think to follow up on. It's all wonderful, and the essays are short enough to read one or two and then put it aside. It's not so much that it was a difficult read that it took three weeks to finish, but because I took my time with it.

The structure is solid, and the significantly long bibliography at the end is worth it's $3 Kindle price alone. Really a ton of fun.

View all my reviews

19 July 2012

Review: The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's sometimes difficult to find a truly unique book when you read 200+ books a year and feel as if you've seen it all. The Shadow of the Wind is not only a super-unique book, but it's a book that does a lot of things at the same time, and all of them extremely well.

The book is centered around an author, Julian Carax, and his works. After Daniel reads The Shadow of the Wind, a book by Carax, he tries to seek out other works by Carax and uncovers a rather fantastical conspiracy involving murder, the Devil, and the author himself.

The book is a fantasy (the book was found in the Cemetary of Forgotten Books, a place with countless volumes), and a murder mystery/noir, and a fictional biography, and a love letter to books and reading and writing as well. It fills a lot of different roles, and does so with significant ease. Worth noting as well is that the book is a translation from Spanish, and it reads and flows beautifully in English - too often, translations lose the nature of the text, and that wasn't an issue here.

This is a book that, really, everyone should look into. Rock solid from start to finish, and it has become a series, so hopefully this can lead to even more stories from this universe.

View all my reviews

17 July 2012

Review: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up as a Star Trek kid. Didn't see Star Wars until high school, so I grew up on the Star Trek cartoon with the original cast and with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Q was - and largely still is - my favorite fictional villain. Deanna Troi my first celebrity/fictional crush. Star Trek is really the reason why I love science fiction so much today.

Redshirts is equal parts love letter and parody to the Star Trek I know and love. Clearly, John Scalzi knows how ridiculous many sci-fi tropes are, and they're lampooned perfectly here. The characters realize that the ship they're on is radically different than the others that the Federation is associated with, and how things work on a specific timetalbe, and it becomes very obvious very quickly where the plot is going (as if the title isn't a dead giveaway).

What follows is simply a lot of fun from start to finish. There's time travel, there's the uprooting of basic sci-fi conventions, there's just a lot of fun stuff going on from start to finish. Plus, the book ends with a number of postscripts from various characters we encounter along the way. I don't want to give those parts away at all, but I finished the main story very late at night and still wanted to plow through the extra stuff, as they felt like bonus features as well as fleshed out the story a bit more.

What's interesting is that the story may be a tad too long and unnecessarily profane to get to its point, but it's easy to forgive it because it's so much fun, especially the codas. I'd imagine the audience for this is very limited to those who have a soft spot for Trek and the like, but there is plenty to enjoy here on a whole.

View all my reviews

13 July 2012

Review: Lord of Chaos

Lord of Chaos
Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In 2003, Vincent Gallo released a movie called The Brown Bunny. It's eminently forgettable except for one rather explicit scene we won't talk about here and has no relevance to the Wheel of Time at all, but I bring it up for a reason that many people might not remember.

The one thing that sticks out to me about The Brown Bunny is a kerfluffle that occurred between Gallo and Roger Ebert. Ebert walked out of the screening at Cannes, calling it "the worst film in the history of the festival" and causing a pretty crazy war of words. As you see in the review I linked, though, Ebert found a lot to like in the movie after Gallo did some serious editing. Among the parts excised - over 8 minutes of bugs splattering on a windshield as Gallo's character drives through the desert, and nearly 5 minutes of cars racing aimlessly around a track.

About 2/3rds of the way through Lord of Chaos, Ebert's review flashed in my head. I literally haven't considered this movie in years, and I've never actually seen it, but nothing perfectly describes the Wheel of Time better at this point. There is a good, perhaps great, story to be found in the pages of this series. Unfortunately, we have to suffer through thousands of pages of ultimately meaningless fluff to get there.

There are things I liked about Lord of Chaos. I really felt the Egwyne-elevated-to-Amyrlin-Seat was the highlight of the book, Rand's kidnapping and rescue at the end was solid, and there were glimpses of great scenes and moments with Rand battling Lews Therin in his own mind. The problem, as always, is that it takes forever to get to those points. It's ridiculous.

I'm now 6 books in. I've effectively gotten through half of the Jordan-penned stuff. Part of me wonders if a new version of this series would be useful - where someone who knows a great deal about the universe and the books could just trim a lot of the fat and find the good book and good story that I know exist somewhere here. Make it about Rand, about the Aes Sedai, and about Mat at the Three Rivers, and be done with it. Cut the excess, nuke the 30 page chapters where literally nothing happens, and just get on with it.

I wish.

View all my reviews

06 July 2012

Review: Severance Package

Severance Package
Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 4.5 or so, but I'm willing to fudge things a bit for the sake of a great book.

Imagine getting called into work on a Saturday. Your boss brings you into a meeting room, there's cookies and champagne. And then he announces that he's there to kill you. It turns out your boss is part of an extra-governmental intelligence agency, and, well, the project is over and it's time for everyone to go now.

Thus begins a wild, bloody ride on an upper floor of an office building, where people are being killed, maimed, dismembered, where sarin gas bombs are attached to the doors to make sure no one gets out alive, etc. It's not exactly shocking as it is somewhat campy and definitely fun.

The book reads like an over-the-top movie screenplay in a lot of ways. It wastes no time, and it wastes even less prose. The book is perfect for what it's trying to be - a crazy, profane, ultraviolent romp. It's not trying to be much else of anything, and that works.

I purchased this book back when it came out and only got around to reading it now. I really wish I hadn't waited this long to do so. Highly recommended if you're interested in this sort of exploitation/b-movie romp.

View all my reviews