Monday, November 13, 2017

Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection

Arcanum Unbound is a collection of short stories in Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere universe. It is presented as a double abstraction, with an in-universe historian providing the background of the planet and the situation, as well as the author providing commentary on the story. Being fantasy, some of the stories are novella length on their own. There are some that focus on characters familiar to readers of other books he has written, while other stories are minor or new characters that have not had any significant appearances. Some served to add background to characters and events in his other novels. Others, were more random ditties. It felt like a fun dumping ground for interesting thoughts and stories that did not fit into the primary novel sequence.

Michael Vey 7: The Final Spark

In the final Michael Vey book, the resistance comes close to total defeat. Hatch continues to be portrayed as evil incarnate. He was close to defeat, but manages to enlist the Phillipino navy to capture most of the electric children. He also has a tick up his sleeve - a final "glow" that can take other glow's power. She is able to grab the power of the mind reading and use that to find out who the resistance members are and where their locations are located.
Michael himself seems to be dead, but makes appearances in various dreams. It is almost as if he has been resurrected as a god. He has been learning how to harness his powers, and eventually comes back to lead the good guys to a supernatural victory.
The book suffered from the same storytelling problems of the other books in the series. It spends time building up suspense and difficult situations, but then resolves them too quickly. It felt like I wasted time going through the build up, because it was obvious the solution would be easy.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Rising Tides: Destroyerman 5

Rising Tides is the fifth book in the "Destroyerman" alternative history/science fiction series. Some world war 2 ships end up in some alternate earth filled with sentient animals. There are crazy mean monsters as well as cats that serve as crew. The author is obviously a military buff and spends a lot of time talking the details of military equipment. The plot is confusing with a large number of characters and animals doing various things. The book just had no appeal to me.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club

At the outbreak of World War II, Germany marched into Scandinavia. Norway put up a fight. Denmark, however, capitulated quickly. Businesses were more than happy to earn money from the German "protectors". Germany treated the Danes as a near-equal (they were the right race), and still let them govern themselves. However, the Germans occupied some of the key strategic areas for themselves. While many Danes objected to this, few were willing to take action. Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club were some that did.
They were teenage students that did not like the Nazis. They committed small acts against their oppressors. They stole weapons and vandalized Nazi holdings - often in broad daylight. However, they were primarily upper middle class teenagers and didn't have the heart to seriously injure others. In the book, it felt like they were building up to their big acts of sabotage as they finally destroyed some Nazi holdings. However, shortly afterwards, they were caught and jailed. Half the book details their activities after being caught. They were unwilling to back down. They pretty much forced the government to jail them (otherwise the Nazis would have excuse for taking over the justice system.) Even in jail, they had many a sympathetic Danish ear, and some were able to sneak out of their cell and wreck havoc at night before returning to their cells. Some were moved to German controlled cells and treated much worse. Eventually, they were freed and some were able to participate in the resistance movement at the end of the war. Some of them were able to go back to school and continue on with their lives afterwards. Others were seriously traumatized by the experience. What they accomplished did very little to directly impact the occupation. However, they did provide the seed for the later Danish resistance.
I was initially expecting some bold events in the story. But, in typically Danish fashion, there is very little drama going on in Aalborg. It is the subtlety of the Danes that undermines. The book shows the kids with a strong rebellious defiance, even if they are not able to accomplish much with it.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Wrath of the Storm

The conclusion of the Mark of the Thief trilogy amps up the stakes significantly. Our hero, Nicolas Calva escapes certain death in numerous occasions. He also finally shares his feelings towards the girl he loves (and realizes that his "competition" for her actually has a ting for his younger sister. During the story, Nicolas makes a habit of ignoring the advice of others. This causes him to get into deeper and deeper trouble. However, it ultimately leads to him saving the empire and fending off war among the gods and men. The ending takes perhaps too many turns before it finally comes to its conclusion. I wonder how many of the characters are actually based on real ones, and how many are purely made up for the story.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Rise of the Wolf

Rise of the Wolf weaves together an interesting historical fiction narrative. It is set in a Roman fantasy world where the Roman gods are "real" and magic is just an everyday thing that people use. This second book in the Mark of the Thief series continues the episode of our young hero as he tries to "save" Rome from those that want to create a war among the gods. He learns that other our really his friends. He also finds he has feelings for "the girl" when his friend asks her to marriage as a means of saving her. Most of the book is dominated by his morality. He feels a strong desire to save Rome and save those he loves, while not inflicting harm on others. He feels a kinship for magical creatures (such as the unicorn he meets.) He does not for anyone to be hurt. He has grown more powerful in his magic. However, he has learned to control it better. Sometimes he withholds the use for the greater benefit. He is ostensibly not a slave anymore. However he often seems to be in a battle of wills between his grandfather and the Praetors. A chariot race is one event where he is expected to use his cunning to achieve victory. However, the other sides "cheat" in various ways, and there are numerous twists and turns before the unexpected ending. The book ends as a typical middle book in a serious with everything falling apart and the possible beginnings of a great war.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Michael Vey 4: Hunt for Jade Dragon

In the fourth episode of the Michael Vey series, our heroes go to Taiwan to rescue Jade Dragon, I deaf mute autistic savant girl who has discovered the "key" to electric youth. Along the way they do some stupid things, but end up creating plans to get out of them. Hatch and his gang don't play much of a role in this book. However, when they do appear, they are portrayed as one-sided evil. His "kids" have no problem hurting others just for fun. Hatch disposes of the former Elgen chairman by aid of false promises to his banker. There is almost no "good" in his character. He also uses the talents of Tara to appear as Michael's father. Michael believes he is his true father, despite what he says. (As a reader, I could tell he was a snake. Would the kid be this gullible? Well, he is a teenager, so maybe.) The "good kids" also go against orders to explore a night market. You just feel they are doing something stupid for the sake of moving along the plot. And of course, it leads to their capture. Luckily, they manage to break out of the unescapable prison. The final capture of Jade Dragon is almost an afterthought that comes about too easily. The character development of the "good kids" is much better than the bad. They seem well rounded, yet they have a propensity to do things just to advance the plot. They are asked to be joined by Michelle, Hatch's previous electric youth torturer. The interaction with her feels forced. It fits with the plot, but there are too many holes to make it believable. As long as you can suspend belief, this book would make a great special-effects driven Hollywood action film.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Michael Vey 3: Battle of the Ampere

The Battle of Ampere is one of the darkest of the Michael Vey books. Hatch takes over the Elgen company by brutally overcoming the board. Characters that we have got to know are killed (as are entire groups of people.) The book starts with Michael Vey hanging out with a native tribe. There he meets another electric child who had escaped from the Elgen compound. They meet up with Jaime who can communicate with the "Voice". They also find the other children are caught. Peru has lost power, and the whole country is against them. This can be both good and bad. (The military are less knowledgable about the "special powers", but they have a lot of military firepower.) Eventually, they escape. Then they have a grand mission to complete to help save the world. However, the bad guy escapes and the book ends with a new mission.
This series now has the feel of a TV show. The main characters go through all sorts of great adventures, but are left essentially where they started, ready to start the next episode, ready to start the next episode. However, we do also have some character development. They go through traumatic experiences, separate and get back together. They feel more unified and are now a team ready to help save the world.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life

The author of Well-Tempered City likes urban planning and music. As a Bach fan, he was inspired by his well-tempered musical work to create the concept of a well-tempered city. It is a city that has a diversity of functions and a balance of how they are carried out. The first part of the book is a historical review of cities. He starts back at the beginning with hunter-gatherers that gradually join together to live in small social groups. Man had a habit of hunting large animals in their reproductive years, thus reducing the reproductive ability of their prey. This, along with environmental changes forced man to seek other sources of food. They began to encourage the growth of plants they saw and thus started agriculture. The domestication of crops encouraged people to bind further together and remain in the same place. (The monoculture also had negative impacts on the environment as well as people's health.) Rules and additional communication came out as people were joining together. Religion and a creation myth was important in binding people together and ensuring adherence to a moral code. (Science, democratic capitalism and the "theory of evolution" fills the same role in today's society. However, it is relatively new, so we have yet to see how it will survive.) Many societies collpased due to warfare, inequality and environmental degradation.
Two primary ideals of city development have dominated the world. The Greek model considers a number of different parts that exist together. The Chinese model focuses on the whole environment, with different areas fulfilling the function of the whole. The United States, alas, took the Greek model to the extreme.
The discussion of cities in the US is quite depressing. There was a great degree of self-inflicted harm. Zoning began in New York as an attempt to improve the quality of life of residents by allowing some distance from noisy factories and to provide light for residents. However, it soon was adopted as a way to segregate functions, leaving people in isolated residential pockets of single family homes. This produced traffic and ironically more noise and pollution. The federal government heavily subsidized highways, and tore through cities to build them. "Urban renewel" would often rip apart functional neighborhoods and lead to their decline. Housing policy heavily subsidized loans for single family houses, while neglecting multi-family rentals. The government insisted that subsidized multifamily housing only be allocated to the poor, rather than mixed income. This along with restrictive covenants (meant to improve single-family home values) resulted in the drastic decline of cities and the growth of sprawl.
The book then goes on the explore the people in the city. Social programs and diversity help make a good city. However, incomes should not be too diverse or else conflict starts to arise. Europe has created greater peace by supporting the common good (through parks and social programs) and thus narrowed the income gap. Third world cities often have very high inequality and plenty of conflict.
The discussion of social aspects of a city is important in understanding how cities work. However, it spreads the book too far. There are plenty of things to talk about, but it is difficult to tie everything together into one comprehensive thesis. The book would have been better chopping off some of the later chapters and just mentioning their key points in the discussion of city layout.

Michael Vey 2: Rise of the Elgen

In the second book, Micahel Vey has escaped from the Elgen compound with some new friends. They get close to being captured, but are aided by some mysterious strangers that manage to send strange communications just in time. However, these anonymous helpers only help them after they have done everything else they could do. (In an early chase, they elude a couple cars, while one still manages to keep going. The helpers manage to blow it up.) This book has a brief bit where the "anonymous" board of Elgen decides to cancel Hatch's "superhuman" project. Hatch doesn't take it well. I wonder if these board members are connected with the "voice" that is helping out Vey.
This book is loaded with action. We get more of the Hatch and Elgen backstory, but in a less annoying manner. The groups become closer together and seem more like real people.