29 November 2012

Review: The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It

The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It
The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It by Sean Trende

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If anyone is looking for a quick gift to get me, a hardcover copy of this would be nice. While I read a good deal of nonfiction, this may be the best, most indispensable book on electoral history and politics I've read in some time, and definitely the most important one in the last few years.

Sean Trende, a writer for Real Clear Politics and their chief political analyst, take a close, statistically-based look at the history of electoral partisan politics over the last few generations, and its applications to current trends and campaigns. For a short book (a little over 200 pages), it's incredibly exhaustive, relying on hard vote counts as well as pre-election and exit polling. It talks about a lot of the assumptions about electoral shifts, majorities, and why so many predictions ultimately fall flat.

Especially with the upheaval we've seen over the last few cycles, it provides a lot of insight into how the electorate works and what the trends might (and might not) mean. If elections and demographics are of any interest whatsoever, this needs to be at the top of your reading list, for certain.

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28 November 2012

Review: Knife of Dreams

Knife of Dreams
Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm officially at the end of the Jordan-penned Wheel of Time books, and I really can't say anything new about the experience. I've rated this low because it was, again, an experience lacking much in the way of joy or excitement or anything resembling basic interest.

The good:

* The book actually abruptly begins to resemble something that has an endpoint. Characters are actually acting in a way that resembles a goal! The cynic in me wonders if it was due to Jordan's declining health, but still, it was good to see.

* Action! Things occur in the book that progress the plot in meaningful, interesting ways. Granted, those scenes are roughly 5 pages long and there are only a handful of them, but hey, action!

The meh:

* I knew about the one big "spoiler" here regarding Rand's condition, but I didn't know the how. The how was extremely disappointing and anti-climactic, and almost comes across as sort of an afterthought. The fact that we barely see Rand again afterwards doesn't help.

The bad:

* Most everything else. Intrigue and commotion within the Aes Sedai is handled kind of ham-handedly, and the organization toward conclusion is thus left really stilted, since we've had so many books in a row with so much filler that it's difficult to care about what happens to so many people.

Plus, with all the hints that Rand is the guy who's important here, the fact that he's had a role that has been little more than a glorified extra for the last few books? Doesn't help much. I get that the books shifted from being centered around him to being centered around those who are centered around him, but...

The Brandon Sanderson ones are up next, and I'm a big fan of his, so it will be interesting to see if he can fix what's broken.

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21 November 2012

Review: Who Could That Be At This Hour?

Who Could That Be At This Hour?
Who Could That Be At This Hour? by Lemony Snicket

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I definitely consider myself a fan of Daniel Handler in all his iterations. As of late, to be honest, I've found his Handler-penned fiction to be the best part, although my love of the Series of Unfortunate Events knows few bounds. The Lemony Snicket character comes from those books, and has taken a bit of a life of its own - Snicket has written a few non-Series titles (including two very entertaining picture books), and this new series is back in the, uh, traditional Snicketverse.

It's just okay. I'll put that out there. While the Series books were fun because it was all a little absurd and the characters were really fun, this is more of a traditional mystery that stars a character we already know - in a way, it's like The Fourth Bear is to the Thursday Next books: nice to have, a good enough time, but hardly essential. As this is somewhat of an origin story for Snicket as well, we're lead on a wild goose chase of sorts.

That's ultimately what hurts this book for me. It's good enough, I suppose, but it lacked that sort of joy and fun that the Series had. It certainly tries to regain that magic from time to time, but ultimately fell short in a few ways.

Not a bad read per se, but certainly not one I'll be clamoring to revisit, either. Unfortunate.

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18 November 2012

Review: Various Positions

Various Positions
Various Positions by Martha Schabas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Every so often you pick up a book because of a random recommendation you read somewhere. You read the book, tear through it, even as you're making faces about how weird and dark and kind of bad it is, and yet you read on, not so much because it's a trainwreck (even though it is) but more because you end up kind of puzzled about how this came to be to begin with.

Thus is Various Positions, which is truly a cross between the show Bunheads and the movie Black Swan, with some truly destructive stuff going on throughout. We follow Georgia into ballet academy - only a freshman, she's pretty naive about the world around her, and her peers don't exactly help the situation. As she experiences a sexual awakening of sorts, and not a good kind (but not really a bad kind, either, to be truthful), her whole world as she knows it comes down around her.

I don't want to say this book was inappropriate, because that's the wrong word. A lot of inappropriate stuff happens in this book, and it's sad as opposed to played for anything else. What's worse is that it's the worst kind of inappropriate - the kind where bad things happen to people, and the only ones who face any real, clear, lasting consequences for their actions are the people not doing the bad deeds, but the victims of them. Worse, the key plot point is telegraphed very early on, and yet takes a turn to the bad in a way that...I don't know. It's not good.

I don't know. Avoid this one if you can, it's probably not what you think and almost certainly not what you want it to be. Chalk this one up as one I read so you wouldn't have to.

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17 November 2012

Review: The Obamas

The Obamas
The Obamas by Jodi Kantor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not someone who necessarily admires or likes the first family politically, so picking this book up came more from the interesting media feedback that came about upon its release than anything else. Especially after being disappointed in the election results, a little something to read about four more years of the Obamas can't be a bad choice. Interestingly, this book ended up providing an entirely different perception of both Barack and Michelle than I anticipated it would, and the book actually ended up being a valuable use of my time.

The key point the media appeared to prey on was this idea that Michelle Obama came across as more of the unfortunately stereotypical angry black woman. I'll be honest - not only does Michelle Obama not come across that way in the book, but she actually comes across as incredibly well-meaning and sympathetic. Her concerns are portrayed as incredibly relevant and well-thought out, she is brought across as the anchor of that family who shows deep care for her husband and children. While the general media perception of her seems to be a more driven, stern character, those lines are softened considerably in the detailed look at her life in the spotlight.

That contrast becomes even more apparent when placed against her husband. While Barack Obama certainly had some missteps during the first term, and perhaps misunderstood and underestimated the challenge the population and Congress would give him, incompetence was not the word I would have generally used to describe him in most areas. Unfortunately for the president, this book shows him to be wildly out of touch with the country he governs, with the expectations of the office he holds, and shows a rather disengaged, disappointed man who is holding an office much larger than he can perhaps handle. Reading this post-election makes it that much more stunning, and perhaps a little disconcerting.

This isn't a partisan book by any means - if anything, the classic New York Times liberal lean comes through from time to time in the descriptions of certain events that occur during the times observed. The book, however, is also a very solid look at two people we really know surprisingly little about given their status in the country. I wish more people had read it before the election, and I think more people should read it now after the fact.

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13 November 2012

Review: After the Golden Age

After the Golden Age
After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I generally don't do mystery books. I find them to be a little more contrived than necessary, and it just doesn't work for me. After the Golden Age is sort of a mystery, but more along the lines of a comic book in prose form, similar to Soon I Shall Be Invincible, while having some mystery elements like Powers (but not quite as good).

Anyway, Celia is the daughter of superheroes, but has no powers herself. She teamed up with the supervillain of the story in her teenage years mostly to irritate her father, and now she's an adult working for the district attorney. There's an ever-brewing battle between the super factions, and there's also a seemingly unrelated kidnapping/theft ring in play, and Celia's somehow ended up in the center of it.

This book went from being awesome to kind of rough to actually really good over the course of 300 pages. It's well-structured, it drags a bit once the setting and stuff is established, but races pretty well to the finish in the second half. That's not too shabby, and I come away from this liking it a lot more than I thought I would at its lowest point. Definitely worth a read.

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08 November 2012

Review: Professor Gargoyle

Professor Gargoyle
Professor Gargoyle by Charles Gilman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


So I'm on board with anything Lovecrafty at this point, and the fact that a) a middle grade Lovecrafty novel exists that b) is pretty much exactly a book I had started to write a year ago? Well, I can stop being annoyed that my idea got preempted and start reading it.

It's pretty much exactly what you expect - two kids are now going to the newly-opened Lovecraft Middle School, and something's not quite right. There's weird things going on, and there's also Professor Goyle, who's the strangest of them all. We then fall into fun horror tropes, some extra-dimensional stuff, nods to the Great Old Ones, and even a little R'lyehian tossed in for good measure.

While it's pretty good, and a solid not-to-scary introduction to horror as a genre, I can't help but feel like something was missing, or that it might have been aping other stuff a little too much. I enjoyed it enough, but didn't feel strongly about it, either, and I'm not entirely sure why. A strange read, but a decent one.

The Slither Sisters is out in January. I'll be looking forward to trying that one out.

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Review: Batman: Hush

Batman: Hush
Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So after how much I loved Court of Owls, the New 52 Batman trade, a friend recommended I check out Hush. He said it was one of the better Batman books out there period, and so why not? Strike while the iron is hot, right?

Hush does a few things really well. One, it establishes Batman's origin quick and easy - we all know the story, but it's good to know the story for this universe. Two, it then essentially tosses out one villain after another, from the ridiculous Killer Croc to tossing the Riddler out there for a time, and so on. It's a really fascinating way to run with the story, I didn't expect it to have them lined up in a row quite like that. It was a perfect way to introduce a lot of them to me, who only knows them third-hand - it was my second real exposure to Harley Quinn (first in the standard DC Universe), for example, my first non-Moore exposure to the Joker, the first time I have ever even heard of Killer Croc as far as I can remember. All of that was cool to me.

The writing was good, but felt a little forced. I don't necessarily get the artwork, but a lot of people love it and I think it may be more a lack of familiarity with the Batman comics than anything else - that and the fact that my first real exposures were the Moore comics and the Court of Owls, neither of which follow "traditional" comic art models. I definitely enjoyed this, and I spent a significant amount of time with it, but I didn't love it. I did like it better than the Moore versions, for what it's worth.

I'm coming around on Batman, though. I never liked him as a character before, now I'm getting there. I'm wondering where to head next.

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06 November 2012

Review: New Spring

New Spring
New Spring by Robert Jordan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Considering how immensely negative I was about Crossroads of Twilight, going back to a prequel, which one assumes will spend too much time on stuff that doesn't matter, would work out poorly. I was happy to be wrong.

New Spring is mostly about Moiraine and the Aes Sedai. As a 350ish page novel, it means that it has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Much of it is similar to what we saw in the prologue of Winter's Heart and some of the best of the early books regarding understanding and describing the Aes Sedai. There are some truly great scenes here, some nice hints, good callbacks, etc. It's a solid read.

The book certainly does meander, but given the small size of the book, it's held in check. This would work great as a stand-alone, and I almost wish I read it out of publication order in a way, as I might have found some of the overabundance of everything in the recent books more tolerable as a result. I don't know - it kind of speaks to my criticisms of the books on a whole: there's a good story in here somewhere if Jordan could have been bothered to trim away the fat.

I'm not going to say that this actually makes me optimistic for Knife of Dreams, but the series has effectively reeled me back in again, and I suppose that's worth something. What that something is? Your guess is as good as mine.

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05 November 2012

Review: Crossroads of Twilight

Crossroads of Twilight
Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This ranks up there as, contextually, one of the worst things I have ever read.

My frustration with the Wheel of Time books has been clear for a while, but this book seems to get there in a way that none have before:

* We start with a prologue of limited value to anything happening.

* We spent 200+ pages with Mat and Perrin, where they proceed in accomplishing little of interest.

* We spend 200+ pages with the Aes Sedai, who had the only interesting parts of this story outside of Rand in the last few volumes.

* We spend a hair of time with Rand, who is supposedly the star of this story, and only to note that he's now gettin' it on with a few ladies. Excellent, really.

The problem with this book series, and this book in particular, is twofold: one, up to the point we're at, we should care about the characters more, and I really cannot. They all feel rather one-dimensional, not all that complex, and rarely do they act in unexpected ways. Two, the books literally leave nothing to the imagination. Seemingly every detail is excruciatingly described, and often to the detriment of the already-starved narrative. If you don't care about the people being described, and what's happening is of limited importance, why on earth would this level of description be of value to the reader? So much excess, so much waste.

I'm feeling like I missed a key point along the way here. There's clearly some complexity buried within the story here, but who knows if I'll ever find it at this point - perhaps Brandon Sanderson will be able to unlock some of those mysteries, given that I'm two books away from his start on the series. To think that I still have 900 pages or so to get there, however, makes me feel like Lews Therin is in my own head, screaming to get out. And yet I soldier onward...

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Review: Saga, Volume 1

Saga, Volume 1
Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hello, my new favorite comic.

This, like most everything Brian K. Vaughan does, was absolutely brilliant. The story is, at least so far, about two rival beings from warring planets who have fallen in love, have a child, and are now running from the authorities. The authorities have hired all manner of hitmen and such to get them, and that's the bare bones of it.

The book's brilliance comes from so many places. One, the concept is old yet refreshing - it's a gritty sci-fi story with plenty of action, a lot of heart, with some humor and uncomfortableness mixed in as well. The artwork, something I don't always notice when reading comics, is great - eye-catching while being subdued, a complement to the text as opposed to overwhelming the story. The characters that come up are great, too - you get the complexity of everyone very early on, and I can't think of anyone in the comic that I dislike as a character so far even if they're a good or bad guy. That's great writing.

It's weird, yes. It's absolutely different than most anything I've read in comic form up to this point. It's not Promethea weird, it's just unfamiliar, and it may be why it feels so refreshing, but I essentially hated that I had to put it down late the first night I picked it up, and essentially put my evening last night on hold to finish it up. A rock solid, awesome piece that anyone with even a slight interest in sci-fi or comics should pick up.

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