Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A trilogy? I never would have expected that from you, Nora!

Blood Brothers
By Nora Roberts

The first in her latest trilogy, about a trio of men who've known each other since birth, which is interesting because they share a birthday. On their tenth, they accidentally released a demon from its captivity, and now it comes back to terrorize their town every 7 years for the week following their birthday. Cal is the town's golden boy/mayor/owner of the bowling alley, while Quinn is an author specializing in supernatural stuff. She shows up after hearing rumors about the town. Blah, blah, demon's getting stronger, all three women get introduced and paired off with their guys right away, blah, blah, Cal's dog is lazy but hates the demon, Cal and Quinn are in love, and then the book ends. Sorry, Nora, but you should have just written the whole thing as one big book with a trio of couples, because this definitely didn't have an actual plot other than being introduction and checking off the box for "couple #1 falls in love".

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posted by ket at 10:05 PM


Trifecta of Imperial Doom

Title: American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
Author: Kevin Phillips

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, penned by lapsed Republican Kevin Phillips, is an interesting and informative read. Nevertheless, the thesis of the book can be summed up in a simple syllogism.

Major Premise: All empires crumble.
Minor Premise: The United States of America has become an empire.
Conclusion: We’re going down, friends.

Phillips’ book excoriates the Republican coalition that has dominated American politics for the past several decades, unified by an unhealthy reliance on oil, radical religion, and ballooning levels of national and consumer debt. If these three trends continue unchecked, Phillips argues, we’re heading for a massive meltdown. I read American Theocracy months and months ago, long before the home mortgage crisis, $125/barrel oil, and the advent of Mike Huckabee. Given the events of the past few months, Phillips just might have a point. It’s a little (ok, very) frightening.

This book is chock full of facts piled upon facts piled upon more facts. My sieve-like memory has retained very few of them, except for the general outline of how imperial Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain exhibited symptoms similar to the United States’ current woes before fading into (relative) imperial obscurity. And the chapters that outlined the history of the oil industry in the United States were surprisingly gripping, full of political shenanigans and examples of our cultural and social reliance upon black gold. In fact, Phillips was so effective in illustrating the United States’ reliance upon oil, and the dire consequences that may hold for our future, that even I began to have an imperial hunger for places like Iraq. If the President was determined to invade Iraq and wreak havoc, the least we could have done was secure cheap oil to feed our addiction! (Don't worry, I snapped out of it soon.)

Phillips’ arguments are appealing and appear to make sense, but I don’t consider myself sufficiently informed to judge whether he’s correct or not. That’s a job for history and better economists than I. Still, my view of the upcoming decades is hardly rosy. The United States might not slip into Phillips’ predicted headlong decline, but we may as well be prepared for the possibility.

A recent editorial by Phillips reminded me that this review was long overdue. I don’t really expect my fellow Ragers to read this behemoth of small type and doomsday commentary, but the article is brief and gives you the general idea.

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posted by Elizabeth at 7:30 PM



Title: The Archimedes Codex: How A Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist
Authors: Reviel Netz and William Noel

Apparently there's very few records of Archimedes' work; none that survive today were written in his hand. His scrolls were transferred to parchment around the end of the first millenium, and some of those were subsequently scraped down and reused, as scribes in those days often did.

The one in question here turned into a prayer book in the 1200's. That prayer book survived, though it was neglected, and was put up for auction in the late 1990's, purchased by an anonymous but very wealthy man. At that point, it was in terrible shape, ravaged by mold, bookworms, missing pages, general deterioration, and a few forged drawings on top of the prayers on top of the Archimedes.

Noel is the conservator of a museum in Baltimore that ended up leading the attempts to restore and decipher the book, while Netz is a mathematician/historian/Archimedes scholar. They wrote the book together, alternating chapters, describing both the work taking place in modern day and also discussing Archimedes' theorems, proofs, and discoveries (which are rather incredible).

At first, the fact that neither Netz nor Noel identify themselves when they start their chapters is a bit confusing, but then you realize that the chapters themselves are very, very focused - all math, or all conservation/restoration. They each manage to simplify their topics such that anyone can follow along, though the geometric proofs were so simplified and glossed over that I found them more confusing than if they'd actually gone step by step.

The conservation process sounds incredible - they managed to use all sorts of new technologies to decipher the ancient text, resulting in new discoveries both in the science of reading ancient texts and in the knowledge of Archimedes' genius.

Also fascinating was how many of the people involved in the process were volunteers. Noel got the press to do stories on the book, and all sorts of people volunteered time and knowledge. He posed issues to scientists, and for the promise of a negligible prize and the satisfaction of solving a major problem they did so. There may be a documentary out there about this saga; I haven't put any effort into tracking it down. Either way, you can get more information at www.archimedespalimpsest.org.

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posted by ket at 3:07 PM


Friday, May 16, 2008

Formula for a Dean Koontz Thriller*

Title: The Good Guy
Author: Dean Koontz

Bookmark: my library card. That keeps me from checking out something else before I've finished.

"Where does an ordinary bricklayer suddenly get the grit to walk into the path of a car driven by a hitman , and shoot out the tires?"
"I'm not an ordinary bricklayer. I'm an excellent bricklayer."
Yes, sharp, snappy and occasionally campy dialog is a major part of any Dean Koontz book (especially if it involves obscure words, phrases, or usages that only a few people like surfers, masons, or poetry fans would understand), but what else do you need to write a full-fledged Dean Koontz thriller? Follow these easy steps and you, too can become a creepy horror writer!

  1. Introduce the Hero. Most likely a loner, he should have little to no family, but very close ties with his friends. To him, they are his family. Strong, possibly incorruptible moral fiber. Enjoys a cold beer, but does not use any illegal recreational drugs. Has a big secret in his past which has formed a good part of his current ways and personality. Military experience ranging from heroic to epic, though possibly clandestine. Even if no military experience is evident, your main character should still know how to operate and accurately fire any gun that may find its way to his hand.
  2. Introduce the Heroine. That's right. Not the "female lead," "love interest," or "damsel in distress," (though she might also be any or all of those things as well) but the heroine. Koontz writes strong, capable, professional female leads, who often end up saving the day themselves, or playing a vital role in the hero's saving of the day. The heroine should be attractive, though she does not need to be movie-start gorgeous, and in most cases is not.
  3. Introduce the Villain. Even if the "bad guy" is really a "bad corporation" or "bad shady government entity" or "bad troop of rhesus monkeys," there has to be a face by which we can associate the bad people. The bad guy is as morally corrupt and dark as the hero is good and wholesome. There should be no ambiguity or question in the readers' minds that this dude is a bad, bad man. For some interesting flavor, try any of the following variations: bad guy has special powers or abilities; bad guy thinks he has special powers or abilities, but doesn't; bad guy thinks he has special powers or abilities, and it is never made clear whether or not he does; bad guy is hideous mutated freak. For added fun, try two separate, unrelated villains. The main villain might also be very well-connected, with access to a wealth of information and digital tracking ability, so that the protagonists must (eventually) stop using credit cards, lo-jacked vehicles, or their own phones. At the end of the book, kill the villain.
  4. Introduce the Dog. Everyone likes dogs. Koontz is enamored with dogs. I can't say that I disagree, but dogs play more vital roles in his books than some people do in the works of other authors. If you want to write your own Dean Koontz Thriller, use a Golden or Labrador Retriever. It should always be intelligent, but may be of above average or super-human intelligence. The dog may even have entire chapters of its own narration. At the very least, it should make an appearance, and save an important character with good-doggie instincts.
  5. Introduce the Friends. The protagonists don't always save the day on their own; they often rely on a small but fierce network of friends, often connected in law enforcement, computers, or science, but might just be very clever surfing buddies. Naturally, these friends may be endangered in the course of the book, but generally come out of it intact.
  6. Set the story in California. This is non-negotiable. You want to have them travel to Vegas, or move around in California, or maybe close the book in some other state or country, fine--but the bulk of the story is in California.
  7. Additional Vital Koontz Elements. Describe buildings, interiors, faces, and flora in rich, bizarre detail. Use strange, quirky imagery to do it. Don't be afraid to suggest a massive conspiracy, but if you do, try to wrap it up hurriedly in the last couple chapters. The main cast of characters should be very clever, sharp people. Even most incidental characters should be strong, smart survivor-types. The occasional idiot may be introduced, but these characters are never as simple as they seem, and often know something vital. Use some Asian flavor--maybe just a character or an old Chinese proverb, maybe extensive use of Asian food, art, and architecture. At least one character should have abuse or some great trauma in their past. If they haven't overcome it by the time the story starts, then they should come to terms with during the story, while being hunted crazy people/ hitmen/ mutants/ all of the above.
  8. Conclusion. Good guys live. Bad guys die. Often horribly.
Sure, there's a pattern here, but it's a winning pattern. I liked the book, I liked the whole premise (Wikipedia wraps that up without spoiling much), and this formula will in no way prevent me from eventually seeking out the Odd series. Because even though Koontz may be a little formulaic, he's very good at what he does, and I like it.

* That's right. I said it.

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posted by reyn at 7:35 AM


Monday, May 12, 2008

We Are Quite Amused

Title: The Uncommon Reader
Author: Alan Bennett

Chasing after her escaped corgis, the Queen of England one day finds herself in a place of great wonder and enchantment – the bookmobile that pays weekly visits to Buckingham Palace. Out of politeness and a sense of civic duty, the Queen checks out a book. Royal literary hijinks ensue.

The Queen has read dutifully throughout the seven decades of her life, but has always been more engrossed in things like horseback riding and breaking bottles of champagne against royal ship hulls. But she finds this rare experience of pleasure reading enjoyable, and chooses another book the next week. And then she reads another, and another, and before she knows it, she’s embarrassing the President of France during a state dinner when she pointedly inquires after his opinion of Jean Genet. “Homosexual and jailbird,” she quips, “was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted?” (And no, I have no idea who Genet is either.)

Alan Bennett’s novella poses – and answers – the question of what would happen if the Queen of England suddenly became an engrossed bookworm. How would her subjects react when the first question she asks during audiences is what they’re reading? How would her handlers cope with a monarch who is slowly losing interest in her daily public duties? And could stoic Britain bear the scandal if her Queen suddenly decided to -- *gulp* -- write herself?

Funny and thoughtful, this is almost a perfect little book. Bennett’s Queen fascinates. Despite her public fame and extensive experience, her view of the world is very limited – almost naïve. But she’s curious, witty, and intelligent, and it’s fun to watch her character grow as books gain a stronger and stronger hold on her.

If you miss this book, you would be remiss!

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posted by Elizabeth at 10:21 PM



Title: Orient Express
Author: Graham Greene

A few weeks back I was in the mood for a romantic adventure on a train. Graham Greene does foreign adventure, and he wrote a book about a train – Orient Express. So I checked it out from the library, hopes high.

It wasn’t even worth the $1.35 in late fees.

Basically, a cast of idiosyncratic characters interacts on a train. The problem is that none of them have the personality of a sponge. (Really, Sponge Bob is vastly superior.) Even the two noblest have irksome moments. The Socialist revolutionary is a melancholy, self-obsessed moper, and the innocent choir girl decides to sleep with a stranger because he buys her a train ticket when she’s sick (because, she figures, good girls are expected to pay back men who are kind to them). Imperfect characters are fine, but when they’re also boring and about as intelligent as the lint you pull from a drier, I lose interest.

Yeah, and it was published 1930-ish, and reads very dated. And there’s a vague streak of potential anti-Semitism that could raise modern eyebrows (lots of talk about the characteristics of the Jewish race).

So basically, neither substantive nor entertaining nor full of good moral lessons. I skimmed the action-packed climax at the end. This supposedly was the most exhilarating part of the book, but I just couldn’t be bothered any more.

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posted by Elizabeth at 10:16 PM


Saturday, May 03, 2008

where do you want to go today?

Title: Changing Planes
Author: Ursula K. LeGuin
Bookmark: train ticket to London

Recently I started spending more time with a big LeGuin fan. I thought it might be worth seeing what all the fuss was about, so I went to the L section of the library and found individual volumes from her more well-known series (though not the whole set) and a couple odd cast-offs. I chose this one because it had a naked woman on the cover--admittedly, she was half corn--and the jacket hinted at it being connected to the boredom of airports, and at the time I checked out, I had a lot of that in my future.

Sita Dulip figured out a way to slip between "planes" (apparently similar to our idea of parallel worlds, but not direct Earth analogs) and told her friends. One of those friends is our narrator. Each chapter discusses the culture and people of a different plane.

Some of the planes are obvious parables about human follies and nature. Some are just tidy little stories on their own. Overall, it's what a lot of people refer to as a "beach book." Great to have with you when you need a gentle distraction, and don't want to get really involved in what you're reading. This worked out well for me when I started it (on the aforementioned train, just after finishing another book), and between the airports and planes that day, I got through over two-thirds of the book without realizing or trying. Plus I watched three movies (long flight).

This is one of LeGuin's more recent works, and I'm willing to give her a lot of leeway for that. Fact is, I wasn't impressed. Her planes are very imaginative, but they're almost all imaginative in the same way. Pick one personality trait, expand it to a culture, and apply evenly to all inhabitants. Almost all of her planes are less technologically advanced than our own, though one was apparently equal to or greater than us technologically until some great unspecified cataclysm, and the culture in each one is homogeneous. Granted, this is a flaw common to a lot of sci-fi (LeGuin is mainly known as a fantasy author--it's hard to say into which camp this falls), but even the Ferengi have scientists.

It's a good read when you don't have much time or attention to devote to it, but don't expect to feel involved. Each chapter stands on its own--and the end of each chapter is a good stopping place.

(note: the narrator's home plane doesn't quite seem to be our own. There are small hints to this throughout the chapters, though she refers to several cities in our plane, but closes by talking about her flight to Los Engeles.)

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posted by reyn at 11:30 PM