I knew next to nothing about steampunk, other than the fact that it attracts a devoted following and looks like a really interesting genre. I wasn't eI knew next to nothing about steampunk, other than the fact that it attracts a devoted following and looks like a really interesting genre. I wasn't even completely certain how attracted I would be once I truly explored it, but, finding the visual aesthetic appealing in the handful of films I've watched, and the conventions that some friends attend, I wanted to explore what steampunk was like on the printed page, how it played out in deeper story-telling. The Clockwork Dagger seemed a popular choice, so I decided to make it my entry point.
This is Beth Cato's first full-length novel, and we all know that first novels deserve a certain understanding in some areas. Many authors are still finding their voice with that first publication, and so some faults are to be expected. That said, I was impressed with how strongly our protagonist, Octavia Leander’s, voice came through. I could hear this character speaking clearly on the first page, the cadences and tone of her voice clear in my perception, and growing clearer with each chapter. I'm quite impressed with how Cato developed Leander through the course of these 200 + pages, and I felt that I had met a character that I truly knew by the time I closed the book. The other primary characters receive an equally just treatment..all are developed thoroughly and carefully. Occasionally, a piece of reflective or introspective dialogue felt forced, but this was rare, and ultimately never broke my suspension of disbelief. The greatest strength of Cato's writing in this debut is the care with which she permits her characters to come to life. This is accomplished in no small regard due to her handling of the language, which is clever and inventive, merging well a period piece and modern language as seems a requirement for this genre.
Second would be the world-building. This novel is as steampunk as they come. We're introduced to a nice balance of Victorian dialogue, whirring machinations and inventions, magical spells and curses, and a mystery playing out aboard a dirigible. I was surprised by the magical components of the book...surprised in a good way. It's just that I hadn't really known how much a part of steampunk that magic is, but there you have it...this was a part of my education. I’m actually surprised with the depth of complexity that Cato captures in this world, given that the novel is relatively concise in length, but every nuance of the political structure, the economic issues between nations, and an industrial revolution run amok in war are designed with each detail considered and completely working. The warring nations and corrupt leadership form a fascinating backdrop to the story, without becoming overly didactic in their metaphor.
What Cato tackles head-on in this work is the seeming conflict between faith and science.
Octavia Leander, you see, is a medician...a healer who understands the natural ways to heal that the earth provides, as well as possessing magical means of mending broken people. More than this, these magical abilities are derived from a religious faith, a faith in the Lady and her Tree. Legend holds that the Lady received her power after asking God for the ability to heal more people, and the medicians follower her order. Octavia is ridiculed by many who trust in the rapid new technological developments of the age, yet her abilities cannot be questioned. She is a gifted healer, perhaps the most gifted known in recent memory, and it is for this reason that she is hunted. Most simply end up accepting her abilities with some awe, while concluding that such a path is not for them, thus walking away and attempting to reconcile the visible effects of an unseen faith with the measurable, quantifiable and tactile world of technological advances around them. That reconciliation seems to occur on mostly a surface level, never delved into too deeply...just as in our culture today. I think that this faith in a more ancient knowledge is the thesis of the novel, and what I especially appreciate is that Cato handles it adeptly without ever leaving the reader groaning or resentful. She never develops this into any sort of theology. She is content with the imagery that she is presenting, and it does its job well.
There's a romantic sub-plot that the book could simply live without. Each development in this regard feels forced and un-natural, and, on the rare occasions in which I did feel that something was out of place, it was in those moments. That said, I have no interest (and barely any tolerance) for the romantic genre, so this could just be my own clouded perceptions, and I'm willing to own that.
The ending feels a bit...stretched...but not to a point in which I feel anything is lost. Simply, proportions of things seem to become very large and epic very quickly, an abrupt step from the heavily interpersonal plot that Cato has developed up to that point. I think that it would have worked better with a bit more transition, but, while trying to avoid spoilers, I’ll say that this could also be seen as a device to further her emphasis on the power of faith.
I expected steampunk to be a bit of escapism, as it has always felt a bit whimsical in my previous (brief) experiences. I certainly didn’t expect it to deal with something deeper and thought-provoking, but I was pleasantly surprised here. I’m certain that, if you’re already a fan, this is already on your list or on your shelf. If, like me, you’re just exploring what this whole thing is all about, then this is a good first read…the kind of novel that stays with for a bit after you’ve finished. I think Cato’s future works will get better, but I’m glad that I’ve met Octavia Leander....more
This is great book to keep your skills sharp. It assumes that you have a working knowledge of back-end development, so it's going to be over your headThis is great book to keep your skills sharp. It assumes that you have a working knowledge of back-end development, so it's going to be over your head if you're new to PHP. I particularly enjoyed the work with various MySQL techniques (prepared statements, etc.). Ullman provides great discussion of security considerations in e-commerce, and there's hands-on experience with PayPal, Authorize.net and (best of all) Stripe.
I disagree with some of Ullman's coding practices (personal preferences). My biggest complaint is that the template he uses for the second site built in the book is not web standards compliant. However, since the purpose of the book is not the front-end development, something needed to supplied, so this is a minor issue.
This is a worthwhile read for any developer working in the e-commerce space....more
This is an excellent primer on basic and intermediate functionality in Git. I found it especially useful, having worked first in Subversion and then fThis is an excellent primer on basic and intermediate functionality in Git. I found it especially useful, having worked first in Subversion and then finding myself in a collaborative environment that used Git, and needing to get up to speed quickly. ...more
That is perhaps what rings in my ears the most at the conclusion of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, a heavy novel at just nThis is a bad land for gods.
That is perhaps what rings in my ears the most at the conclusion of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, a heavy novel at just north of 400 pages that alternatively was either difficult to pick up or difficult to put down.
I had never experienced Gaiman in literary form before this book. I knew him from his comics writing, most notably The Sandman, and was curious as to his other writing. The title of this one arrested my attention, and it took me a bit to decipher what's going on within the pages.
I'll set the stage: Our protagonist, Shadow, is released from prison days early because his wife has been killed. He encounters a gentleman who wants to hire him as a sort of bodyguard while traveling to the funeral, and he agrees. He is then caught up in a brewing war...a war between the old gods, those of Norse, Roman, Greek pantheons as well as from various other traditions and countries...and the new gods, the gods of technology, of media, of all the things that America holds dear. Those are the gods that Americans have come to worship, and leave the old gods are fighting for their survival.
Yet...this is a bad land for gods.
It sounds gripping, right? And certainly, at the end, you're drawn into the climactic conflicts in true graphic novel style. The book takes a while to pick up momentum...I was over 150 pages in before I felt like I was really moving, and after that point it was very start-and-stop. I found the novel outright difficult to continue at times, and, at around 250 pages or so, I was forcing my way through only because I refuse, on principle, to stop reading a book that I have started. Now, while that sounds bad, I'll say also that the pacing is my only complaint about Gaiman's craft here. His narrative is clear and imaginative, his dialogue nothing short of brilliant at times. I'm perfectly willing to concede that the pacing problem was me, not the author, and his craft at painting these gods...these gods in our country...is original, resourceful, and thought-provoking. Gaiman weaves in ancient religious traditions throughout the novel that I found myself wishing I knew more of, and I'm left with the feeling that these were frequently over my head.
So, my disappointment in the novel has nothing to do with Gaiman's skill as a writer. What gives me pause is the discontinuity is what the novel says, the commentary (if I may over-use that word) that it makes. America is, in fact, a bad land for gods, as Gaiman states. It is a country of mis-matched origins, of disconnected histories woven into one, each bringing with it its own beliefs and traditions that have melded in a collision with a lack of history. Thus, traditions have been forgotten, and, in the rush of modern life, former religions are left by the wayside, discarded as futile and ancient, while new religions of business and technology replace them. Yet, even these religions hold little power, and are quickly forgotten as new religions are spun to take their places. And so, we reap the fruits of a shallow existence, of one without history or tradition or belief in anything other than what is most convenient. This is the world that Gaiman gives us in American Gods, and this is the critique that I find most true and lasting. And, in fact, had it been left there, I think that this would have been an outstanding novel because, agree with the statement or not, it is a powerful statement to make.
This, however, is merely (if I can apply that descriptor) the foundation for Gaiman to explore the concept and power of worship. The gods are left with power only when they are worshipped. The gods worshipped the most have the most power. As the protagonist tells us, human beings believe...it's what we do, and thus we will believe in something, however shallow that something is as the former things fade into the background.
Is it, then this scattershot belief that makes this such a bad land for gods?
Again, that question is worth unpacking, and is enough for two novels. I applaud Gaiman for letting this circulate through his story.
Then, however...then comes the excessively didactic proclamation that the gods are, in fact, created by man, and only have power when man worships them...that man has not accepted responsibility for his inventions of belief, which now run amok and do damage while left unattended, eventually withering and dying away, impotent and powerless when forgotten. The breadth of Gaiman's closure here seems to sweep all religions into this net, no faiths excluded, thus diminishing the very metaphysical statement that he makes earlier. Man, then, is the being with all the power, here, and the only true worship is self-worship...a remarkably shallow statement that leaves the reader empty after so much promise.
And yet...Gaiman hints at surprisingly redemptive moments through human belief. Shadow's relating of the account of the thieves hanging on either side of Christ during the crucifixion, and reminding that the thieves should perhaps be remembered because perhaps they know spiritual realities more than many others, is quick, simple, and wants to be powerful. Later, the gods tell Shadow that it didn't matter that he didn't believe in them, because they believed in him...both stories of faith in something larger that ourselves that can salvage us despite our inability to do anything in our own favor. Is this fundamental state of the human condition also manufactured, left empty as it relies only on gods that we have created and are thus less than are we? Perhaps then, we are sacrifical to ourselves, or to our own creations, as would seem to be the case when Shadow hangs on the tree in the final chapters, an attempt at a Christological metaphor so obvious and so dysfunctional that I couldn't have handled anything more glaring and in our face than it was.
I had read and heard much praise about this novel and, while certainly well-written, it left me profoundly disappointed in it's lack of coherency and connectivity. Gaiman's prose adeptly proclaims one thing, only to contradict it later. Perhaps that's the point, and I'm missing something larger here, but I expected more of Gaiman. This novel is worth exploring...sort of. If your curiosity isn't nagging you to read it, though, I can't say that you'll be happy it's on your shelf....more
A clear, concise, and absolutely necessary introduction and reference to the principles of responsive design. Ethan begins with how to design a fluidA clear, concise, and absolutely necessary introduction and reference to the principles of responsive design. Ethan begins with how to design a fluid grid, and covers everything from that point forward: responsive images, media queries, progressive enhancement. This is a quick read, and absolutely necessary on the shelf of every designer and developer. ...more
This is a really good book conceptually, intended to provide working examples of ways to approach common functions in front-end design. The issue thatThis is a really good book conceptually, intended to provide working examples of ways to approach common functions in front-end design. The issue that I experienced is that the author uses Prototype as his framework, and, while he sometimes does an excellent job of comparing this with the other frameworks (I'm a jQuery user), he often leaves you to figure it out on your own. Perhaps if I ever have the time to dive into Prototype and learn its nuances, this book will raise a couple of stars in my estimation. ...more
My curiosity has been easily piqued by books in this vein...that is, popular culture and philosophy examinations. I'm interested in them because the cMy curiosity has been easily piqued by books in this vein...that is, popular culture and philosophy examinations. I'm interested in them because the characters and worlds of the books that we read, and programs and films that we watch, provide so much insight into the philosophical and theological through-lines of our generation and culture. Batman has long been one of my favorite superheroes, because his existence on the edge between hero and antihero...the way in which he embraces the darkness in order to attempt to use it for good...is simultaneously disturbing and enthralling.
I anticipated Batman and Philosophy to be an interesting and fun read, but didn't think that it would be quite as thought-provoking as it turned out to be. I'll say up front that, if you've done any serious study of philosophy or theology, then you will likely, as I did, anticipate a more academic tone in the writing, but remember that this is geared to a more general audience. I think that's a good thing, because it doesn't become bogged down in the trappings of academic writing, but I don't think that it will feel shallow to any reader. The writing styles, as with any collected volume, vary greatly, and are disappointing at times. While some of the contributors don't shy away from the more formal tone of their discipline, others make attempts at interjecting humor that left me scratching my head more than laughing.
That said, there are extremely well-crafted analyses of the Dark Knight and his world lying behind that forced humor, and I found myself in deep thought more often than not as I worked my way through these pages. In fact, I'll admit that, in all of the thought and exploration and appreciation that I have given the character of Batman through the years, some of the deeper questions raised by the writers of these chapters had never occurred to me. Moreover, once they're presented for your consideration, you're left with that wonderful feeling of having so much more left to think about on the topic.
My favorite chapter was "Alfred, the Dark Knight of Faith: Batman and Kierkegaard", in which Alfred appears as the true hero through the lens of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling (I've always had an existentialist tendency, I'll confess). I also found the chapter, "Could Batman Have Been the Joker?" and it's exploration of modal logic and possible worlds in relation to the genre of comic book literature at large to be absolutely fascinating. There are thought-provoking discussions of identity, as well...one of the central tenants of many superhero characters. And, of course, the discussion of whether or not Batman is better than Superman...well, that's just fun.
Some chapters dwelt a bit too heavily in a humanist philosophy for my taste, and others left obvious holes in their arguments (debating whether or not Batman was ethically justified in permitting Robin to accompany him ducks the fact that Robin is a moral free agent).
What I found particularly engaging about this collection is that the authors are well-read in the literature. Not only do they display their expertise in their discipline, but each chapter is well-noted with specific Batman story-arcs, including examples and dialogue, to provide cases to which to apply their analyses. In many instances, I found myself digging back through my bookshelves to re-read these stories (and, in one case, purchased a graphic novel that had been glaringly absent from my shelf).
Batman and Philosophy is a surprisingly deep and provocative exploration of the Dark Night Detective and his world, as well as his place in the larger DC Universe and comic book history and thought in general. The book is a light read at under 250 pages, accessible while not boring, and I found myself engaged with each chapter. If you're a Batman fan, and especially if you enjoy philosophical discourse at all, I would recommend you treat yourself to this collection....more
Most writing in superhero mythology paints the heroes as larger than life, more powerful than we could hope to be...gods among us, if you will...swoopMost writing in superhero mythology paints the heroes as larger than life, more powerful than we could hope to be...gods among us, if you will...swooping in when all hope seems lost to fight the evil that we could never fight ourselves. The heroes are distant, aloof most often, typically because their position and power has left them that way, too far separated by definition from those that they pledge to defend...or, in the case of the villains, attempt to enslave. Due to their power, they can never be like us, and understand the obligation that comes with that power.
The better writing in superhero mythology explores the heroes' struggle with that power, with a destiny that has often been thrust upon them by forces outside of themselves. They take up the mantel of defender because they have no other option. With great power, Uncle Ben reminds us, comes great responsibility.
The best writing in superhero mythology steps back from this, though, and remembers what the heroes truly are: people like the rest of us, but choosing to use what they have been given for good. Aliens, perhaps, or mutants, but still touched by a common thread of humanity that leads to a driving impulse to preserve life. Our heroes find common ground with us, even when they are so much larger than us.
There are a few explorations of the people behind the masks that are original enough to cause us to re-examine what lies behind their heroic natures, a handful that are memorable enough to, while not re-defining of a genre, certainly motivation to re-examine a genre. Somewhat out of the blue, Carrie Vaughn, a self-proclaimed lover of comic books and superheroes, has done exactly that, and done so with an interesting starting point: what if these huge, larger-than-life, indestructible heroes were but a blip in the history of heroism? What if their self-sacrificial desire to place the good of others, of their cities, before themselves were not tied to their superhuman abilities, but rather merely better facilitated by them? Wouldn't that make them even greater heroes?
And wouldn't that widen the definition of who we consider to be a hero, and what we consider heroism to be?
Vaughn's protagonist, Celia West, is the daughter of the greatest superheroes that Commerce City has known. Her parents formed a team known as the Olympiad, fittingly titled protectors who watch the city from on high and strike hard against evil. Yet, she is born with no abilities, and lives in the shadow of superhuman parents whose superhuman nature has exacted a toll on their family life. Celia fights for good in her own way, however, in her role as an accountant of all things, with the same determination and passion to right wrongs that her parents hold, without all of the grandiose battles and conflicts. Yet, she is constantly compared to them, constantly made to appear to fall short...and constantly haunted by the one mistake for which she will seemingly find no forgiveness, despite her attempts to make her repentance felt.
Vaughn pays homage to the superhero tales of our youth in an offhandedly humorous but deeply respectful way that demonstrates her love for the tradition, gently touching stereotypes with the love of genre conventions without ever making anything seem unbelievable or silly. Her characters stay with you, her succinct prose and thought-provoking dialogue leave the reader with the moments that define a great book: the moments when you have to put the book down and walk away to digest what it is you've just read. Vaughn isn't just de-constructing classic superhero story arcs here, she's using the mythology to examine much larger questions: destiny vs. free will, the nature of a hero in each of us, the driving impulses behind self-sacrificing behaviors. She's questioning what it means to be a hero from every angle, and disabusing us of many of the notions that we have held with conviction up to this point. The heroes that are most visible, we realize, perhaps aren't the greatest heroes after all, but are merely following in the footsteps of heroes that are greater, and more normal, than we might otherwise imagine, heroes whose convictions were stronger than their powers.
This is the first novel I've read from Vaughn, and I'm impressed. The pacing is fluid, the story accessible and only minimally predictable. On the rare occasion in which I found myself suspecting that something didn't fit, she made it fit within a few pages. Vaughn has done something fascinating with superhero culture here, something redemptive in it's own right. If you grew up in love with these heroes as I did, this is a novel that will broaden the way you think. If you didn't, you might just find yourself falling in love with the genre for the first time, because it is accessible to everyone in Vaughn's prose.
In fact, of all the legacy that this book is likely to leave, that may well be its greatest.
An easy read at just under 400 pages, I recommend this novel for anyone.
While the title of "Quiet" intrigued me, and Cain's interview on NPR piqued my interest in the book, it was, as always, a recommendation from a friendWhile the title of "Quiet" intrigued me, and Cain's interview on NPR piqued my interest in the book, it was, as always, a recommendation from a friend that tipped me over on the decision to read. I've spent a good deal of my post-college days attempting to fit myself into what Cain refers to as the "Extrovert Ideal," and, as a relatively recent out-of-the-closet introvert, I've enjoyed reading material on the psychological evidences of introversion, in the way that someone does when they're looking for affirmation that they're still a functioning human being without any critical psychoses that require attention. What Cain does, though, is of even more interest to me, and that is to address how introverts struggle in a culture that prizes extroversion and views an introvert as someone who has something very wrong with them.
Now, before you find yourself thinking that Cain is launching into a conspiracy theory about how extroverts are taking over the world and the rest of us are left in the shadows to be forever forgotten, let me point out that Cain is, in fact, presenting a well-researched, well-balanced, and passionate exploration of how introverts can thrive in situations that ostracize them by nature, as well as the positives that extroverts contribute to society. She doesn't shy away from condemning what requires condemnation, though, and begins by identifying the "Extrovert Ideal:" the structure of our culture which is constructed in a way to reward and set up as a role model the extrovert, the person who thrives in a crowd and is seen in the spotlight saying all the right things and knowing all the social graces. Her problem with the Extrovert Ideal is that it forgets the contributions of the introverts, or, worse, places them into a position where they cannot be productive in their special ways due to pressure to conform to a standard that they are simply not hard-wired to meet. This results in introverts making poor career choices because they receive the unspoken (or, perhaps, clearly spoken) message that something is wrong with them because they don't enjoy being around people in large groups.
Cain, of course, brings prominent examples of introverts to the table, introverts whose work have changed our culture (Steve Wozniak and the first Apple computer, to name one). She also discusses at some length the trend in American public education to place students together in "pods" or groups that reward extrovert personalities while inhibiting introverted personalities from learning. Perhaps most compelling is Cain's presentation of research that indicates consistently poor decision-making in a group context, as opposed to much more sound decision-making occurring when individuals work alone, regardless of whether or not they are introverts. This is particularly impactful to anyone who suffers through the endless meetings of the corporate world in which nothing is ever accomplished.
My wife and I have long discussed that we meet each other in an interesting place on the introvert-extrovert continuum: I am a social introvert, she is a shy extrovert. Cain confirms the existence of this continuum, using the terminology of high and low "self-monitors." This discussion occurs within the context of introverts assuming a certain role that is out of character for them in order to accomplish a specific task about which they are passionate, as well as those who pretend in order to get through the day in careers which make them miserable. Both are survival skills, one is more effective than the other.
More fascinating research results discussed by Cain are current observances of behaviors in small children, and how future introverts and future extroverts process unexpected stimuli differently in infancy. Cain uses this research in the context of enforcing that we cannot choose to be introverted or extroverted, but are quite simply born as one or the other. She insists, however, that this must be balanced with the knowledge that we can control the extremes of our natural tendencies...as Jung said, anyone on either extreme end of this continuum would be insane. Thus, all of us have a bit of both tendencies, and this is healthy.
To list all of the perspectives Cain presents in this book would be far too lengthy for a review, and would not do her work justice. This book was very impactful to me, especially in her concluding call and encouragement for introverts to make the changes, accepting that we are who we are, to either make reasonable adaptations that we can live with in order to pursue our passions, or to leave the way that we are merely surviving in order to pursue our passions. There's a danger here, of course, in the sense that an attitude of entitlement can suddenly exist when one is told that she is a member of a group who, unable to help who they are, have been oppressed by the culture and prevailing attitudes of those around them, leading to a sudden demand for unrealistic change and compensation. If taken to its extreme conclusion, Cain's call to action could certainly be seen this way. However, to see this book through such a lens would fall into the same fallacy as being on the extreme ends of Jung's continuum: the sanity of such a calling would be in question.
Ultimately, this is a worthwhile read for absolutely anyone, because it speaks to our businesses, our schools, our social strata, and how to best appreciate the humanity of, and interact with, those around us, regardless of their introversion or extroversion. As Cain's concluding remarks state, introversion is not something that needs to be cured. We can as easily infer from this that extroversion is not, either. Cain's book helps those among us who prefer to work in quiet to accept who we are, and to recognize that co-existence with those unlike us is not the pipe dream we once considered it to be. Whoever you are and whatever your interests, do yourself the favor of reading this book. ...more
This is the first I've ever read of Stephen King. I've never found myself attracted to King's writing...a couple of glances at the films made of his nThis is the first I've ever read of Stephen King. I've never found myself attracted to King's writing...a couple of glances at the films made of his novels and overhearing descriptions of his writing have generally been enough to rule him out for me. That's not because I don't think he's a good writer...I've heard everything to the contrary. Its just that suspense and horror aren't my bent.
What I have found myself drawn to lately, however, is the SyFy Channel's original series, Haven. The series is based off of The Colorado Kid, this short novella by Stephen King. Some of the behind-the-scenes videos from the series discuss how veiled references to King's other stories appear throughout the series, much to the delight of his fans. While I'm not interested in reading the rest of his canon...or really anything else by him...I was very interested to read the basis for the just-eery-enough program upon which I've become so hooked.
And when I call this a short novella, its just that: the ebook version finishes at less than 200 pages, so if you pick it up with any time to devote at all, you'll likely finish it in one sitting. Like the television series, the story is set in coastal Maine. This proves to be the perfect setting for a mystery, because, as King states in his afterword, nowhere is quite so isolated to provide for the mysterious as an island. The story is of a man who is discovered dead on a beach by two high school students one morning, and the subsequent investigation that is sold short by local law enforcement, and performed largely at the hand of the two old newspaper reporters of the local paper (who will be instantly recognizable to fans of Haven). The unidentified man, to whom they begin to refer as the Colorado Kid, is eventually identified, and discovered to have not only be from Colorado, but to have been seen in Colorado hours before being discovered dead on a beach in Maine. Thus the mystery begins...and it proves nearly unsolvable.
What King does here that's so fascinating is that he leaves the story at that: an unsolvable mystery (although he hypothesizes the potential for solutions in his afterword, he never identifies any). Rather, this is a story that explores the phenomenon of mystery, the fact that human beings are confronted with (what King views as) the unsolvable mystery of life, and compelled to reach toward it, to keep trying to solve it regardless of how unsolvable it turns out to be, and to keep our future generations motivated to continue probing the unknown, as well. The newspaper reporters pass on the unsolvable story to their college intern, who has become passionate about staying in Maine and carrying on this small newspaper. She is the heir to the story of the Colorado Kid, and we know that she will continue to pursue it. In his afterword, King states that wanting to know can more important than knowing. As much as he seems to eschew any rhyme or reason to the tragedy of life in his thoughts, he seems to be exploring an almost theological idea here, nothing short of the knowledge of good and evil.
There's nothing frightening about the novel. I was left with some chills when I read it late into the night in a quiet apartment with most of the lights off, but they weren't the "something's coming to get me" chills, but rather the chills that accompany an excellent mystery. And that, ultimately, is exactly what this is: an excellent mystery. The supernatural element that drives Haven is absent (although one does ponder paranormal solutions to the mystery when all rational explanations seem to fail), and the reader is drawn into sleuthing with amateur sleuths who are passionate about discovering the answer to the mystery. King even weaves in a classic quote from Sherlock Holmes, and its very much at home here, even though the truth isn't discovered by the end.
But the reader is still left with the hope that it could be discovered. And so we're driven to always keep wondering. And that's the part of the human condition that King is probing here, the thing that drives us to seek answers to "why?" when we're confronted with the unanswerable.
You don't need to be a fan of Stephen King to love this book. You don't even need to be a fan of Haven. If you are a fan of a good mystery, then this should be on your shelf. ...more
"The Night Circus" began as a book club nomination, and is yet another example of why I love my book club, as this was likely not a book that I would"The Night Circus" began as a book club nomination, and is yet another example of why I love my book club, as this was likely not a book that I would have picked up to read on my own. Discovering that the author lives in an area with which I am familiar adds a degree of connectedness to the book, and the first 100 pages drew me into this quirky and unusual story so completely that I imagine one could hear the vacuum as I left reality. I remember sitting on the sofa with my wife, who was also beginning a new book, and reading nearly the first quarter of this novel in one sitting.
Which speaks to the aspect of "The Night Circus" that I think is its strongest, and that is the originality of the concept. This is the most original idea for a story that I have read in over a year, and that alone made the book difficult to put down, at least initially. Morgenstern introduces us to a magician and illusionist whose stage name is Prospero the Enchanter. Prospero, while in his dressing room in the theatre, is introduced one night to a daughter he didn't know he had, and who has been left with him. The interesting thing that the reader learns about Prospero is that his illusions are not tricks of mirrors and distraction, but actual magic. We soon discover that there are many in the world who can manipulate various forms of magic, and that Prospero's daughter is particularly gifted. So gifted, in fact, that an agreement is made between Prospero and a man we initially believe is his colleague or long-time friend (no spoilers from me here) for a competition, pitting their students against each other in a duel of magical skill that lasts until one of them no longer stands. Prospero's daughter and her competitor, Marco, are unwittingly and irrevocably bound to this competition, unable to withdraw, having no choice but to complete the contest until only one of them survives.
Which is complicated by the fact that they fall very much in love with each other.
The circus, which appears without warning, is the venue for this competition. The circus only operates at night, opening at dusk and closing at dawn. It leaves as suddenly as it appeared, traveling around the world, and dazzling curious audiences with feats that could only be magical...and which, of course, are exactly that.
The issue with the plot is that it is its own worst enemy at times. It was around 100 pages from the end when it began to feel like a "love conquers all" story, which made me nearly not want to pick the book up again. And, in the end, it was a struggle to finish the book. Part of this is because explorations of magical illusions, tarot cards, and enchanting spells really aren't my cup of tea. That said, the plot really did slow down in the end, although, to Morgenstern's credit, it managed to conclude in a way that I found I hadn't seen coming.
Morgenstern writes with the annoying habit of substituting commas for periods, creating run-on sentences that walk a thin line between being the signature style of a writer and a perpetual grammatical error. I'm not sure I decided on which it is, but it drove me to distraction throughout the novel, forcing me to stop and re-read sentences that sounded like a mash-up in my head. Which is a shame, because Morgenstern has a true descriptive genius in her narrative, invoking scenes in such sensory detail that I can still close my eyes and know what it would be like to walk through this circus. She quite deftly uses a technique of inserting the reader into the circus through short explorations of different tents at the beginning of each section of the book, walking the reader through what you see as you explore the circus, and combines these scenes with some foreshadowing that, on at least one occasion, was quite clever. Her dialogue, also, flows easily and has flashes of brilliance that caused me to stop and take note of the sorts of lines that you really have to digest before you can more forward.
Her characters are very well developed, and the reader has no issue knowing them at the end of the ebook's 384 pages. Particularly, I found myself mourning their deaths, almost moreso than applauding their successes.
Perhaps a more substantive critique of the novel than stories about love and dark magic not suiting my particular palette, is that a theme never really develops by the end. Unless "love conquers all" is what Morgenstern was going for, she missed. Or she never intended a theme to be present. This, however, seems unlikely, as several potential themes manifest throughout the novel, but are never fleshed out into any complete thoughts. The closest I could get is that love empowers us to choose our own destiny over that which is written for us, but even that is shaky.
The novel would have been more satisfying had I been able to walk away with some sort of meta-message, but here it disappoints. If you're interested in reading a debut novel that has achieved some popularity in popular circles, then "The Night Circus" might be a book you would enjoy. In fact, if you follow popular new releases, then you likely have it on your list already. If not, though, I'm hesitant to recommend it. I am, however, interested to see how Morgenstern's career develops from here. ...more
The advantage to being in a book club with a group of friends that have widely eclectic reading tastes is that you find yourself exposed to books thatThe advantage to being in a book club with a group of friends that have widely eclectic reading tastes is that you find yourself exposed to books that you probably would never have heard of otherwise, to say nothing of actually reading. This is the case with "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," a book that I didn't know existed until it became my book club's reading choice for September. I feared it was a children's book at first blush, and it is, in fact, a young adult novel. A close inspection of the cover told me this would be a suspense story, and a scan of the synopsis told me it would a mystery. So, we have a mysterious suspense story. Or so I thought.
This novel was absolutely nothing like I expected. And I loved every page of it.
We're introduced to our protagonist, Jake, the son of a wealthy family in Florida who really has no friends to speak of. His uncle is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, and tells Jake stories about his time in a home for peculiar children, where his companions held mysterious and altogether odd abilities, and were chased by monsters. Jake spends his childhood looking at old photos that his uncle shows him, photos that are too strange and mysterious to believe. He grows up knowing, as does his family, that his uncle is senile. Until one afternoon when his uncle makes a frantic phone call that "they" have found him, and Jake goes to see what is wrong, only find his uncle brutally murdered. Then, Jake sees the monster. From there, we're propelled into a search for a home for peculiar children as Jake realizes that the fantastic stories were true, exploring themes of acceptance and heroism along the way, along with love interests and a good dose of time travel thrown in, as well.
What Riggs does that is ingenious is that he takes authentic photographs, black and white images from collectors that he has painstakingly researched, and compiles them here as central to the narrative. These are the sorts of old photos that we've seen, and at which we've laughed: a teenage boy lifting a huge stone with one hand, a young girl levitating above the ground, a girl standing over a pool with two girls reflected below her. These are the sorts of photos that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you first see them. They make you question, "that can't be real, can it? They didn't have the means to alter photos back then...did they?" Then Riggs builds a story around the photos (which are reproduced strategically throughout the book, and credited in the end, if you're interested), asking "what if?" What if those images were real, and weren't altered? What sorts of events...what sorts of people...would make up the story behind that? That story, as Riggs sees it, is the novel. While none of his ideas here are particularly new or groundbreaking, combining them under this premise is one of the most creative exercises I've seen in recent memory.
To make the novel more fascinating, Celtic mysticism lies hidden throughout, with veiled references to "thin places," as well as a Celtic holistic view of Creation that runs as an understated through-line to the time travel plot device that Riggs uses so adeptly. In fact, the portal between realms lies inside of a cairn...and, while this felt a bit like he might have taken the idea from Stephen Lawhead, the fact remains that you can't get much more Celtic than that.
Riggs has done his research, not only with the photographs, but also with the species of birds that develop into character types (no more on that lest I leave you with spoilers). While his writing is not astounding in its complexity, keep in mind that this is a YA novel, and he's writing to that demographic. Still, his prose is punctuated with a dry wit that will leave you laughing, and occasional flashes of descriptive brilliance that made me stop to re-read the sentence.
As much as I've read critiquing how the plot devices are not overly original, the book still moves the reader through an unpredictable arc, and what I particularly love is that it doesn't tie up all of the loose ends. In fact, the journey is only truly beginning for these characters by the final chapter, leaving me wondering if another novel might follow. Fans of the superhero genre will appreciate the exploration of duty to others and responsibility that comes with power, and fans of the suspense genre won't be disappointed with scenes that are outright creepy if you're reading late at night with only a single light in your apartment.
Whether or not YA generally suits your palate, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is a book that I would recommend to anyone. A delicious read that just leaves you smiling in the end...and perhaps wanting more...it is not a book that pretends to be more than it is. But it does what it sets out to do well, and is a refreshingly original way to construct a novel. Add this book to your shelf...and please let me know what you think. ...more
Fictional stories that spin off of historical events are always fascinating. I don't mean fictional accounts of the lives of historical people...althoFictional stories that spin off of historical events are always fascinating. I don't mean fictional accounts of the lives of historical people...although those are fascinating as well. I mean novels that take a historical event and ask, "what if?" That is what Tom Cain does with The Accident Man, and he chooses a particularly sensitive subject historically: the death of Princess Diana. Specifically, Cain uses the fictional premise (although he specifically denies attempting to set forth or support any sort of conspiracy theory in his preface) that Princess Diana's death was not accidental, but rather an assassination. His protagonist, Samuel Carver (who will debut here and will recur in future novels), is the assassin. He specializes in making his hits look like accidents, and only assassinates people whom he deems to truly deserve their fate, without knowing from whom his orders come. With this job, however, Carver has been double-crossed, and unknowingly murders one of the world's most loved public figures, in order to further the political and financial goals of his employers. The rest of the book is about his discovery of this, his employers' attempts to in turn kill him when he displays a conscience, and his quest for revenge.
I've always loved the espionage and suspense genre, and have gravitated toward books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the Bourne trilogy. I grew up devouring the entirety of the James Bond library, from Ian Fleming's original works forward. What strikes me the most about this book is the consistency between Cain's world and Fleming's world for Bond. For example, when Carver takes a shower, he first takes a steaming hot shower, followed by an ice cold shower. This was a trademark of James Bond when Ian Fleming wrote him; Bond always took his showers this way. I was also struck by the female character's (an unwitting spy who is drawn into a job she hates by people she hates) line after they sleep together, something to the effect of "it's never been like that before." I thought to myself, if that wasn't a James Bond-like line, I don't know what is.
The reason that I find this fascinating is because this is the first of Cain's books featuring Carver's character. He is creating a character much like Bond, and doing it well. However, he is creating a darker version of Bond, one that doesn't function with patriotic allegiance, but rather with allegiance to the highest bidder, justifying his relativistic ethics with a survival instinct. This can be taken as an interesting commentary on how our world is now as opposed to the Cold War era of Fleming. In essence, Cain is asking a second question in this novel: what would James Bond look like in a modern world of blurred lines between nations where patriotism is no longer an acceptable motive and anyone or anything can be purchased, including life and death?
Cain develops his protagonist fully as he follows a very Bond-like plot, mastering what Fleming did so well with his master spy: balancing his human vulnerability with his deadly professional expertise. Carver's backstory is interspersed well throughout the book, never bogging the reader down and always contributing to what Carver is doing at that moment. Cain uses interesting language choices for his narration, drawing emotional analogies to the sorts of physical items that would appear in a spy's life, for example. Cain also develops his other characters, although his villain is not nearly as original or even as memorable as a Bond villain. He makes up for this, however, in the brutality of his villain.
And therein lies part of the problem. The story absorbs the reader breathlessly until around page 300. From that point until the end of the book, Cain moves the plot in a direction that is decidedly like Casino Royale, with some notable differences: the twist with the female character doubles back on itself, the torture scene is even more savage (as unbelievable as that sounds), and the protagonist is not pictured as recovering well. In fact, we wonder how he will return in future books at all after the abuse he survives and the condition in which it leaves him. The interrogation and torture scene goes on for multiple chapters, and left me disturbed well into the next day. I found this to be un-necessary (especially as other characters undergo interrogation during the course of the book, with significantly less graphic descriptions) and so long that it completely robbed the story of its momentum in the closing chapters. The plot line for these adventures, after all, is relatively predictable: we know the protagonist will be captured and interrogated. That's just part of the genre. This is one area, however, in which Cain shouldn't have attempted to out-do Fleming, especially as Cain had done so well at making his violence succinct and effective up until this point.
Cain's dark, post-modern version of Bond is worth reading, if only to experience this contemporary take on the master-spy character in literature. If you like the genre, and can handle the graphic violence in the closing chapters, this would be a good book for you. Tom Cain has given us a character to consider, and Samuel Carver may well be a spy that will be mentioned in all future discussions of the genre. Time will tell. Will I read another Samuel Carver novel? Only time will tell that, as well. ...more
Remember when Michael Jordan retired? I mean, the first time? He made that amazing, game-winning shot, and left at the top of his game. When he returnRemember when Michael Jordan retired? I mean, the first time? He made that amazing, game-winning shot, and left at the top of his game. When he returned from retirement, I was disappointed. I felt it would be almost impossible for him to improve on his amazing success.
John Twelve Hawks' first book in the Fourth Realm Trilogy, The Traveler, was suggested to me by a friend and fellow science-fiction lover. I was immediately impressed with the freshness of the idea, and completely plausible near-future, surveillance society dystopia in which the characters struggled to survive. The conflict between the Harlequins and Brethren was gripping, and some fascinating metaphysical questions were raised. The action was not overstated, and the characters engaging. The originality of the premise kept me turning pages, eager for more.
Of course, this review isn't about The Traveler, but rather about it's sequel, The Dark River. Which is a shame, because there was so much to say about The Traveler, and only one striking thing to say about The Dark River: Like Jordan, Hawks should have stopped when he was on top. The Dark River is a profound disappointment on so many levels. The novel reads more like a script for a Hollywood sequel, picking up where the The Traveler left off, but capitalizing only on the fact that we wanted to know what would happen to Gabriel, Maya, and the rest of his characters. No new twists to Hawks' fictional world are presented until the end, and then in such a way as to make the reader think he was hastily throwing together a mish-mash of world religions to perpetuate his nebulous ideas and intentionally leave a cheap cliff-hanger ending so as to keep the reader returning for the third book in the series.
The book isn't all bad. Hawks does develop his characters a bit, but it is difficult to do as violent action sequences begin with the first five pages and don't stop until the final scene. The development that does occur feels forced and formulaic at times. In short, The Dark River left me with the same impression as one gets when an excellent and original feature film is turned into a television series for continued profit. There really isn't much here that's new, only a continuation of the same ideas that leads to different spectacular fights and occasional intrigue.
For this series to take such an enormous fall in quality between the two novels is astoundingly disappointing. So disappointing that I likely won't be returning for the third book. The epic shot was made at the end of the first, and I prefer to remember the series as it was when it was on top of it's game. ...more
Amazingly, amazingly disappointing. The publisher obviously hired a great copywriter to generate the book jacket, because it lures you into a story thAmazingly, amazingly disappointing. The publisher obviously hired a great copywriter to generate the book jacket, because it lures you into a story that almost is and never quite materializes.
In the first fifteen pages or so, I came to the conclusion that Goolrick has some mastery of language, but that the story was not going to move me. In fact, the story is worse than boring...it's packed full of potential that it never fulfills, teasing the reader with something profound that waits just over the horizon and never materializes. Periodic breaks of character don't help, and the editor certainly missed some critical copy mistakes that pull you out of the story at times.
Speaking of the characters, they were so complex...potentially. But it's never realized. There were so many themes that could have been explored...despair, a messy theological statement about redemption, even a commentary on the evils of captialism and an industrialized culture...and none of them received more than a surface gloss.
The plot had me at moments, it did. But then it didn't. Goolrick tried really hard to make this a work of fiction that could be a thriller, but couldn't quite pull of the pacing or the descriptive prose. Yet, he toyed with character development and thematic issues that begged (and leaves the reader aching for) more development. One of Goolrick's strengths as a writer is his dialogue. The dialogue flows like a good play, and you can't just read it...you have to pause and hear it. The moments when he permits the characters to speak are golden...and the moments when he attempts to prosaically bring the reader into their thoughts fall hopelessly flat, or become terribly cliche. I imagine seeing this story performed on the stage, because the themes could be treated so much more in depth, and the characters could be permitted to come alive. I think Goolrick would make a much better playwright than novelist. This was a great effort at an interesting story that fell victim to the wrong medium of delivery. ...more
Shuffled naturally into science-fiction as I was during my childhood, I grew up with the post-apocalyptic noir of the cyber-punk genre, and grew to loShuffled naturally into science-fiction as I was during my childhood, I grew up with the post-apocalyptic noir of the cyber-punk genre, and grew to love the visual aesthetic. I had looked forward to reading Snow Crash for some time, and was immediately drawn into frenzied pace of the first pizza delivery.
Something that good science fiction does is present a statement, often a warning, of the outcomes of current courses of events. One of the markers for good science fiction in my mind is if I'm troubled by the world presented, and can think, "I see how we get there from here." Science fiction plays with the "what if?" that society needs to read and see to be aware of where we could be headed if we keep doing what we're doing.
In that vein, the world that Stephenson presents is instantly captivating. Even within cyber-punk, this is the most original setting I've read for some time. Within these pages is a wonderful commentary on the ludicrous impulse of the American experiment to privatize everything. This is what happens if the Libertarians take power. The characters are living in the context of the anarchy that complete privatization and lack of government brings. Then, they create the Metaverse (the last peaceful place in existence), but it, too, becomes violent. Man remains unable to find himself benevolent in any way as his narcissistic collection of franchised conformity spirals out of control around him in a hail of bullets.
What took me aback about Snow Crash was the religious component. There's a theology at work in Stephenson's thought; a really strange, mish-mashed attempt at a theology, at least, that reaches a disappointing fruition. In cyber-punk, humanity melds itself with technology in an attempt to make it's own eschatology. Here, Stephenson seems to make a full-blown religion out of man's technological foray. His thrust is that modern "hackers," or dualistic philosophers (he ties binary code to philosophical dualism), are simply the modern extension of his own little creation narrative. That creation narrative is complete with it's own Fall narrative. And Hiro (aptly named) becomes a savior metaphor of sorts. The theology unravels, though, into a nihilism: anything spiritual is notably absent, and only the practice of religion can keep the virus (read: sin) from permanently destroying man. The sin is never defeated, only held back. This doubles back on itself, though, because he's also painting religion as the "bad guy," in the sense that the conspiracy for the Snow Crash virus is packaged within religious practice. He's essentially saying that all religion, despite the fact that it's holding this virus back, is bunk, or has become that way, as the quantifiable world rules out faith.
So, his theology is a dis-jointed one...almost a theology of an absence of theology.
While Stephenson's imagination is energizing, his craft is disappointing to me. His writing style smacks of a Hollywood action flick, and many of the fast moving sequences of the book felt like Tron meets the Transformers. For a book considered to be (as I understood it) a modern science fiction classic, I had higher expectations. Heinlein or Asimov this guy isn't. His characters are left extremely two-dimensional and undeveloped, although his rapid and abrupt changes in points of view do occasionally place the reader well into their psyches.
That said, there is something oddly arresting about Y.T., the skateboarding teenage professional messenger who throws out some of the most amazing lines in the story. I found her to be the only character I could completely visualize as I read the novel...the only one who truly had a face.
The best thing I took away from the book is the view of the future. As a speculative warning of what the future could hold, I think this book was excellent. And, as I said, that's what good science fiction does. As an attempt at a metaphysical or theological statement, I think it failed miserably. Stephenson provides his backstory and ties together his loose ends well, yet still manages an ending that falls flat.
In the end, I found this book to be wanting. ...more