28 February 2013

Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was amazing.

The book is, as the title says, Stephen King writing about writing. It's separated into three parts: a mini-memoir that tells a bit about his life and how he came to be the person he is (with details of how certain parts of his life dictated his stories), a larger section about writing itself, and then a recap of his recovery of being hit by a van in the late 1990s.

This, surprisingly, was my first Stephen King book. All this time, I've never actually read King, and I can see why he's so popular from this alone. The guy knows how to turn a phrase, plain and simple. What's interesting is how matter-of-fact his advice is and, more to the point, how he's up front that writing may not be for everybody and that you probably can't turn a bad writer into something a bad writer is not.

(Yes, I still want to write. More than before, in fact.)

Either way, I absolutely devoured all 220 pages of this over the course of a few hours one night, and I'm immensely glad I did. It made me appreciate Stephen King the author that much more, made me respect the craft of writing a lot more, and perhaps inspired me to consider giving writing another go.

We'll see about that last part...

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25 February 2013

A bunch of cheap ebook goodies!

Amazon has their semi-regular "Big Deal" sale going, and there's a bunch of good stuff to highlight: * Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, both by Dale McGowan, which are great atheist parenting tomes. The physical editions have a prominent space on our shelves. * Lamb by Christopher Moore, where Moore does the Jesus story from the point of view of Jesus's best friend, Biff. Hilarious. * Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens. It's Hitch on Jefferson, need we say more? * The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes, a book I noted in my review of Coolidge. My favorite economic history of the Great Depression. * A Boy and His Bot by Daniel H Wilson, a middle grade book that does what it says on the tin. Worth your cash!

23 February 2013

Review: Coolidge

Coolidge by Amity Shlaes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my favorite economic history books is The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes. A take on the Great Depression that you rarely see from mainstream writers, it did a great job cutting to the chase regarding Depression-era economics. When I saw that Shlaes was doing a biography on Calvin Coolidge, all the better!

First, this is very much a political biography. While there's plenty about his family and his life before politics, it's all framed within the context of his politics and political career. With that in mind, it's a biography that really could only happen in today's political and economic climate, with the record amounts of government debt and with Keynes all the rage. Coolidge, with his tax and budget cutting ways, is an easier sell to an audience as a result.

The book itself is solid. It's highly detailed, with copious notes, and is informative without being dry. For a 450+ page book, the narrative is also very tight, and, at least when it comes to the political history, I didn't feel like I was missing a lot. The downside is that, without a strong focus also at the non-political Coolidge, Coolidge does come across as a little more eccentric than he may have been. For all I know, he may have been a strange man on a whole, but strange people generally don't get elected to the presidency.

If there is a downside, it's that the book is clearly looking to build the case for Coolidge based on his actions. We get very little negative information about Coolidge that might help round out his presidency, and it makes things somewhat lacking as a result in that area. It's not a fatal flaw, but given the overall lack of knowledge people may have of Coolidge, this may not be the fairest introduction for many. On the other hand, this is not an introductory tome, so there's that to consider.

Overall, however, a great book with a lot going for it, and a strong take on a president who, at best, is largely forgotten and at worst unfairly maligned for issues he didn't cause. Worth reading for anyone interested in the political aspects of the 1920s and the aftermath of them.

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22 February 2013

Review: Aquaman, Vol. 1: The Trench

Aquaman, Vol. 1: The Trench
Aquaman, Vol. 1: The Trench by Geoff Johns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wouldn't have normally picked up Aquaman, seeing as how few take him seriously, he wasn't that interesting in the first New 52 volume of Justice League, and my closest association in my brain is the Entourage arc.

Then the story disarms us immediately with Aquaman not being taken seriously in his own universe.

Right away, the attitude changed for me. Knowing that I was coming on board with something different here laid the groundwork for what actually ended up being a really interesting story with a character I knew little about, but saw receive a significant amount of justification for existence. We get to see a lot of who Aquaman is, what he can do (and, perhaps more importantly, what he can't and doesn't do), and get a good pile of mysteries to move forward with as well.

It's probably closer to a 4.5, but I really had a lot of fun with this one. In the off chance you've been on the fence, it's worth giving a shot.

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20 February 2013

Review: The Boys, Vol. 10: Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker

The Boys, Vol. 10: Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker
The Boys, Vol. 10: Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker by Garth Ennis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


So, when it comes to The Boys, I've never really found The Butcher to be all that interesting. I know most who love the series love The Butcher, but he too often felt like a ringleader type with an interesting cast of characters surrounding him, not a major piece of the overall puzzle. So when I went to pick up the next trade in line and saw it was an extended Butcher series, I was a little disappointed. Having seen a glimpse of the overall endgame in the previous arc, to spend time away from that with a character I didn't especially care much about in either direction?

Boy, was I wrong.

As a basic place in the story, the arc itself does a tremendous job fleshing out a significant background for a character that has more or less kept it tightly bound. We get the rage, we get the skill, and, devastatingly, we get why he hates the Supes now, and the over-the-top brutality that this series is known for finally has a purpose.

As actual storytelling? Even better. The quality of writing, the way everything is lined up from start to finish? Flawless. Up there with some of the best I've had the privilege of reading period. The final scenes where The Butcher finally learns about what happened? Just gut-wrenching.

I get that The Boys isn't for everyone. Heck, I doubted it was for me for a time. Not only did this arc fully and completely validate the entire series for me up to this point, but it really validated where Ennis sits in comparison to his peers, how he can create something so out there, so over the top, and yet so effective at pulling the right strings.

I wish this was something I could hand to people as an individual issue, to say "read this and you'll get something out of it." Without the rest of the story to fuel the necessary knowledge that makes this book work, it's just a story of a man dealt a tough hand. In context, it's a brilliant character study instead.

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19 February 2013

Review: iZombie Vol. 4: Repossessed

iZombie Vol. 4: Repossessed
iZombie Vol. 4: Repossessed by Chris Roberson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a first for me: the first time I've read a comic get rushed to a conclusion because it was cancelled. iZombie survived for 28 issues over four trades, and it's a bit of an abrupt end, but still a good payoff for what ended up being a solid series after a few missteps here and there.

The first couple chapters/issues are very "...huh?" inducing, and then things pick up really, really quickly. There's a lot of plotting and a lot of action in a little time over the course of the rest of the book, and it really works out well. For a series that may have moved a little too slowly for me at times, picking up the pace works.

Plus, there's Lovecraftian elements! I'm honestly not sure if this was the overall plan or something cooked up after the quick cancellation, but the key plot to finish things out is straight out of a good old Cthuhlu story, and if you know me at all, you know that it's going to get my attention and quick.

Overall, it's hard to really pinpoint my feelings on the series on a whole. It's sort of like Dollhouse, or the last few episodes of Angel, where we get a glimpse of what might have been but ultimately end up kind of hustled off to the exit. It's not the fault of anyone involved with the series, thankfully - it was a fun ride with a lot of charm unlike anything I'd ever read in comic form. It's just a shame it had to end so quickly.

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17 February 2013

Review: The Dirty Streets of Heaven

The Dirty Streets of Heaven
The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure if I'd go as far as to call Tad Williams a favorite author, but he created so much good will with me considering how amazing Otherland is that I will pretty much go after anything he writes. Some of it will be solid (Shadowmarch and the like), some good but different (War of the Flowers), some might not work, like some of his short stuff.

The Dirty Streets of Heaven is an urban fantasy wrapped within religious warfare, and it's a great concept. Bobby Dollar is an angel who collects souls and defends their cases to get those souls into heaven. He gets caught up in an inter-planary conflict that really throws a lot of theology and order in disarray, and it's a fun world that's been created for what's going on.

The issue with this is part me and part the book. It's part me because I struggle a lot with urban fantasy, and this was no different in that regard. I spend so much time getting invested in the world that the story seems to falter as a result. There's a good comparison to Three Parts Dead setting-wise that's worth noting, but the issue with me is that I liked the way the angels and hell demons played off each other. The issue with the book is that it simply becomes too many things. Is it a murder mystery? A treatise on belief? A standard boilerplate urban fantasy? In reality, it's many/all of those things and more, and the result ends up being a bit frustrating on a whole.

I honestly feel like this is Williams's first actual miss for me, and it still might appeal quite well to people who enjoy this genre and who have more tolerance for it. As it stands, I doubt I'll look out for the second book in this series and be patiently awaiting the next series that comes out.

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09 February 2013

Review: Father Ernetti's Chronovisor: The Creation and Disappearance of the World's First Time Machine

Father Ernetti's Chronovisor: The Creation and Disappearance of the World's First Time Machine
Father Ernetti's Chronovisor: The Creation and Disappearance of the World's First Time Machine by Peter Krassa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 3.5

I first heard of the Chronovisor in Matthew W. Rossi's Bottled Demon, and thought the concept was so weird and ridiculous that I needed to learn more. The only full-length English book I could find was this one, a translation and expansion of the original Italian text.

The Chronovisor stuff? Mostly good. The translation is a little rough at times, but in terms of the basic claims and information about the Chronovisor and what was allegedly observed by Father Ernetti, the book does a good job presenting it. Ernetti is also interesting in and of himself, as we learn a bit as to why such an outlandish claim was so well-accepted, given his life as the Vatican's best exorcist. It's an interesting story that can really get some traction as a story on Vatican scientific ignorance, or of basic confirmation bias.

The chief problem with the book, however, is that the interesting story that exists is largely ignored because the book is steeped in a pseudoscientific history lesson that weakens the entirety of Ernetti's story as a result. This is not to say that the Chronovisor story is not, in itself, what we'd call truthful, but the loose ties to Edgar Cayce, to Whitley Strieber (really?), are hardly worth the time in context.

I think there's a worthwhile pseudoscience text out there that can cover a lot of this. I hate to even slog the book on that level, but the sleight of hand of presenting an interesting quirk as a launching pad for your favorite pseudoscientific adventures just comes across as dishonest.

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08 February 2013

Review: A Lost Argument

A Lost Argument
A Lost Argument by Therese Doucet

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There was a movie that came out 10 or so years ago by Richard Linklater called Waking Life. It was a strange movie, for sure, but had its moments as it took a loose narrative and attached a significant philosophical discussion/debate around the plot. At the end of the day, the movie didn't do a ton for me, but it was an interesting way to present a certain philosophy.

A Lost Argument is very much a literary Waking Life in a lot of ways, as the story follows a female Mormon student as she traverses life and love in those weird college years where you're trying a lot of different ideas on for size and often throwing things against the wall to see if it sticks. The plot is there, but it's almost secondary in presenting a discussion of significance to everyone involved.

The book works for the most part. The voice feels sincere and realistic, the story (which comes across as pseudo-biographical whether it is or not) is relatable, but the book truly shines in the overarching debates over religion, philosophy, and belief in all sorts of ways, ranging from religion and gods to love and sex. It's pretty well done overall.

While it wasn't the book I was expecting, it was absolutely the book I wanted to read in retrospect. Definitely worth your time if you're feeling significantly introspective.

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06 February 2013

Review: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life

The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life
The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm pretty sure that every high school party I went to at my friend's house had one constant in the background: Can't Hardly Wait. While many people's "teen movies" are some John Hughes thing, it will always be Can't Hardly Wait as the constant memory, and always be the thing I think of when I consider the actors and actresses who were in it and still act today. The plot was just ridiculous enough to be absurd, but not so unrealistic as to think it couldn't happen in your world as well.

The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life is the perfect teen movie encapsulated into a 200-odd page book. It doesn't try to be anything it isn't, any "deep" moments are put aside in favor of a short block of time involving a high school's yearly scavenger hunt. And it's marvelous. The book wastes no time getting started, shares the absurdity of a scavenger hunt, toys with a little drama, goes for some fun and cheap laughs along the way, and ties up the loose ends in a completely viable, satisfying ending.

There's so little that needs to be said overall. It's the best kind of candy, it's exactly the shot of whimsical fun I was looking for, and this should get a lot more attention than I feel it has up to this point. If you like young adult books, it's worth a few hours of your time,for sure.

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01 February 2013

Review: My Grandfather's Son

My Grandfather's Son
My Grandfather's Son by Clarence Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To say that Clarence Thomas is one of the most polarizing Supreme Court justices is probably an understatement, and given that his confirmation was over 20 years ago at this point, many of us coming into politics now, or coming into it in the last decade, know very little of him outside of what is reported and what happens on the Supreme Court.

It was with some excitement (after having a copy of this book for nearly five years) and trepidation that I picked this up to read with all of that in mind. The good news is that there's a lot of good biographical information and stories in here. We get a good look at how Thomas came to be as a person, and how his childhood and education formed his work ethic. We get some flashes as to his demeanor as well, something that doesn't come across very well on the Court given his general silence. In that area, the book is very successful.

The one downside, and a major one for me, is that this book is basically apolitical. Politics come into play, for certain, but mostly as sidebars to the more important stories he's telling. If you're looking for any real insight as to his judicial philosophy or how he got there in terms of explicit legal or political reasoning, you won't find it here. You can definitely connect plenty of dots along the way, but in terms of what I think I came here to get, it just wasn't there.

This is definitely a good read, and I recommend it for any court watchers out there, but hopefully we'll get something similar to Scalia Dissents for Thomas sometime in the future.

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Review: The Last Dragonslayer

The Last Dragonslayer
The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very Fforde-ian take on the traditional fantasy genre. This is a good thing.

Essentially, there's one dragon left, and it may be why there's still magic in the world, and a lot of the land is blocked off to keep the dragon in and the people out, and a girl needs to track down the reason why there's visions of this final dragon dying at the hands of the dragonslayer.

It feels traditional, and it is in a lot of ways, but because its Jasper Fforde, it's definitely a little off kilter and mostly a good time. It takes a little while to get its footing, but I was able to get pretty into it about halfway through. As a short read, I'm glad I stuck with it, as the payoffs were excellent.

One weird thing, though, is the positioning of this in the US as a young adult book. I get that, with a teenager as a protagonist, it makes sense, and probably since YA is in right now...but it's not a very young adult book at all. It has a very traditional adult feel, and Fforde isn't really a kids writer. Didn't take away from the book at all, but still an interesting note.

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