29 July 2013

Review: The Sea of Tranquility

The Sea of Tranquility
The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not entirely sure what I expected when I went in on The Sea of Tranquility. A friend read it late last year and has been raving about it ever since, but my standards for contemporary young adult fiction has become really high, having read so much of it. The title is vague enough where I thought I might have been going in on a science fiction title, but it turns out that this is not only one of the better contemporary young adult titles I've read in some time, but also sets the bar fairly high for the genre.

The story itself is pretty basic. On one side, you have Josh, a loner type for all sorts of reasons. On the other is the new girl, Nastya, who is brooding and mysterious and went through something really bad that isn't revealed until later. She and Josh begin a relationship of sorts - it's not really a romance, but it's hard to call it a friendship, either. Regardless, they become unwittingly dependent on each other as they navigate the reality of high school and the craziness that goes along with it.

It feels like a standard trope, but the story is much, much more than that. For one, it is extremely realistic. Nothing seems out of place or contrived for plot purposes, it just feels like a dark time for a few kids in high school. The adult characters are basically nonexistent, the teens genuine. Everything feels like it rings true, and that sort of voice, frankly, seems rare in a lot of the genre.

There's plenty to love within the darkness of the book, too. There's plenty of realistic sexual tension, solid handling of very difficult issues, and an ending that was both surprising and satisfying. I can't say enough good things about it at this point.

Highly recommended. Get your hands on this if you're looking for a change from what seems to be published over and over.

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27 July 2013

Review: The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty: The Game, the Team, and the Cost of Greatness

The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty: The Game, the Team, and the Cost of Greatness
The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty: The Game, the Team, and the Cost of Greatness by Buster Olney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a diehard Red Sox fan, I came to this book for the anti-Yankees schadenfreude. I left, however, with a greater appreciation for exactly what the Yankees accomplished in the second half of the 1990s, for baseball in general, and for Buster Olney.

Olney, in the introduction to the Kindle edition (at least), talks about how the title of the book is a little misleading given the Yankees successes beyond the early 2000s. Granted, they only won one World Series past 2000, and while they contended throughout, they never really hit the mark, it's fair to say that the title itself might have been a little misleading in a way. However, the book also does a solid job showing that the problems that the Yankees faced (and it's a problem the Red Sox recognized, thankfully) and what has effectively lead them to their right-now-fourth-place muck and mire.

The book flips back and forth between a detailed game log of the 7th game of the 2000 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks and biographies/baseball histories of some of the key Yankee players in that game. So we get a lot of biographical information on folks like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but also of Yankees I had frankly forgotten about, like Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill. Plus, the game itself was a good one anyway, and the detail is excellent. A great reminder of how good a writer Buster Olney is.

I knew I'd like this book because I enjoy good baseball writing and the game itself. I didn't expect to love it as much as I did, and this will quickly go down as one of my favorite baseball books.

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22 July 2013

Review: The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the announcement hit the news regarding Robert Galbraith actually being JK Rowling, I decided to jump on it. Rowling had talked about writing a crime/mystery novel before, she obviously has plenty of good will saved up, and there's definitely a benefit to her writing something that has the possibility of a lot more action in it.

Unfortunately, the best thing I can say about The Cuckoo's Calling is that it's better than The Casual Vacancy, and that's a really low bar to clear.

Here's the good: having read a decent amount of crime fiction lately, it is right in line with some of the good stuff I've read. The mystery believable, the story feels credible (although it's pretty British, and there may have been subtleties I missed), and the characters quite good. That's always been a hallmark of Rowling's writing, even when the plotting fails like in Vacancy. Plus, really, knowing it's Rowling writing almost makes one feel like it shouldn't have been a surprise that she was the writer of this, because the feeling of the writing tosses out a very Rowling vibe. Finally, the last 100 pages in particular, where everything starts coming together and making sense? Very solid stuff, and easily my favorite part of the book. If the rest of the book was as good as the conclusion of this one, I probably would have enjoyed it more.

The bad is, unfortunately, most everything else. Cormoran Strike, our hero, seems almost too perfect, except when he's off, say, getting drunk in what comes across as a naked attempt to make him more realistic. Where there's a good deal of mystery, there's not a lot of danger or suspense to go along with it, and it feels very non-urgent throughout. This may be more the tone than anything else, but even in other crime novels I've read as of late, the stakes felt higher. I get why this was regarded so highly by those who are fond of the genre, but it falls into a lot of the same traps that make the genre so difficult for me.

Once again, as with The Casual Vacancy, there's a lot of potential here, but not a ton of success. I'm not ready to throw in the towel on Rowling yet (at least not as an author of adult books), but this is another step in that direction for me. My hope was that we'd continue seeing some boundary-stretching from Rowling that would result in something different or better, and that doesn't happen with The Cuckoo's Calling. If you're not a fan of the genre, be wary. If you're a Harry Potter fan who enjoyed The Casual Vacancy, however, you'll probably get a lot out of this.

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17 July 2013

Review: Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream - and Why It Matters

Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream - and Why It Matters
Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream - and Why It Matters by Helen Smith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I expected better.

There's a knee-jerk reaction in internet circles to dismiss any concern of the state of men in any form as basic "men's rights" complaints that tend to go too far or address really minor points in a broader scheme. While there are a lot of extremists on all sides of the gender divide, that many will dismiss this book outright because it's about how men are perceived in society and how that perception is impacting men's participation in society in general is wrong. Unfortunately, for anyone with more than a passing curiosity on the issue, this book brings nothing new to the table while presenting an argument sure to turn off exactly the people who might need to hear it.

The good things this book does is bring a lot of the legitimate complaints to the forefront - for example, that there is an adverse and irrational fear of men around children, that universities and colleges have swung rather wildly in the direction of some of the more extreme feminist points of view in reaction to how higher education treated women before the feminist movement, the inequity in family court proceedings, and so on. As a case study of the current situation, it works.

The biggest problem is the ideological bent. The author, Helen Smith, puts her libertarian leanings on display very early. On one hand, it's good to see a person profess their leanings up front. On the other, that she leans so much on Objectivist language, including references to Ayn Rand and "going Galt," it's almost sure to turn off a lot of people who should be aware of the situations she writes about from the start. There was no need to frame the arguments in that way, as it is sure to leave out many people on both sides with an interest. A close second is the "handbook" of sorts at the end of how men can avoid being trapped in bad situations, which just comes off really poorly and reinforces stereotypes rather than offering positive options. It left me less sympathetic than I was going into that final chapter.

There's definitely a book that needs to be out there regarding men's issues and how they relate to the current world, especially involving education and family/divorce issues. This book is getting a lot of press, and while attention to the issue is a good thing, this book probably shouldn't be the one to do it.

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13 July 2013

Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I do feel as if I could read anything about Scientology at this point, there's definitely some reason to think that we might be hitting a saturation point when it comes to highly detailed Scientology pieces. Lawrence Wright has written an exhaustive (and, often, exhausting) piece on Scientology that ends up being a definitive entry in the modern publications, but one that has limited value if you're well-read on the topic.

Wright relies heavily on the history of movie director/writer/producer Paul Haggis for a lot of the perspective the book comes from, thus the focus on Scientology's relationship with Hollywood. Thus, there is a lot of different insider stuff mixed in with significant research and intelligence regarding the inner workings of the church, as well as plenty of conjecture regarding the interaction between the church and the Hollywood community based on Haggis's experience. We learn rather quickly that Haggis was not as high up as you might have thought, and with much of the framework of his issues with the church being Proposition 8, it makes for a different point of view.

With that criticism out of the way, it's worth noting the true breadth of Wright's research. The first hundred-plus pages are some of the most comprehensive looks at L. Ron Hubbard in the Scientology context I've seen yet, and he pulls no punches with people like David Miscavige (who took over for Hubbard) and Tommy Davis (who was a key player with Scientology and Hollywood). Some of the most interesting information comes from the look at celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, who are handled in a very fair way without being painted as lunatic cranks or unwilling dupes. Wright is clear who the bad guys are in this case, and that's to the benefit of the read.

My chief complaint, outside of the focus, is just that it's very detailed, almost too much so. This is based more on my own experience with other Scientology books and research, where so much of this is a retread, but with nothing much to set the duplicative information apart (which is not always an issue with other topics that have multiple writings), it creates a situation where the read feels like a slog from time to time.

I don't want to point anyone away from reading this. If you've not read anything in detail about Scientology, this is probably a great place to start. If you feel you're well-versed, it may be worth more of a scan than a full read. Either way, it's a solid entry in terms of popular examination of Scientology.

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02 July 2013

Review: Damocles

Damocles by S.G. Redling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've noted before that I'm a sucker for a good first contact story, and while my preferred first contact is aliens coming to Earth, there have been some solid books about Earth going to different places for the first time (perhaps best exemplified by The Sparrow), and Damocles is a surprisingly great entry in this subgenre.

The plot is very simple, which is why it works. Meg is a linguist on an exploratory crew from earth. They land on a planet that is part of a multiple-star system, and quickly make contact with the beings on the planet. The book jumps back and forth in point of view between the beings on the planet and of the Earthers.

The book works well because it's a very realistic portrayal of future technology aiding (and often impeding) communication between alien races. Much of the book is the two sides trying to communicate, which is ultimately more riveting than you might expect. We get some misunderstandings, some humorous moments, it's actually really more fun than it has some business doing.

The one downside is the last bit of the book, where we get to meet some other Earthen voyagers. The people sent on this trip along with Meg and her crew are genuinely terrible, and it simply doesn't make any sense that they would have been vetted through the process of sending them off. There's a place for the semi-charming, semi-rude Jayne-from-Firefly-type when it comes down to people on the fringes of interplanetary society, but not necessarily in this context. It really brought the narrative down for me.

Regardless of that hiccup at the end, this was a great read, and I'm glad I grabbed it. A fun, light sci-fi read that's probably going to surprise you a bit.

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