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.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25

The first Michael Vey book starts out with kids living a relatively normal life. Michael is picked on by bullies and has a crush on a cheerleader. One day, the bullies pick on him and he shocks them as she looks on. From this, they discover that they both have special power. They are eventually found out by Mr. Hatch and the Elgin. Here the book gets depressing. Hatch is just too evil, spending money as much as he wants and crashing airplanes for ransom. His strategy is to use carrots and sticks to gain control. He lavishes his "kids" with gifts and tells them how separate they are from other people. Then he gets them to perform "acts of loyalty" which often harm or kill others. Now he has their loyalty as well as potential crimes to hold over their heads. Of course, our heroes don't fall in the trap and they eventually escape. In the process they experience the joys of the big city from the point of view of a small town kid. Even sushi is something special.
There was something about the story that didn't quite seem right. The characters were too melodramatic and easily controlled. It felt like things were better adapted to the rural west than the many areas that were covered. Things were working well as an "awkward boy meets cheerleader" book, but had difficulty stretching into a superhero adventure.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Family Gene

The author of Family Gene has a rare genetic mutation that appears only in her immediate family. It seems to be sexed-linked, only passed down from mother to child. However, men are more severely impacted. It leads to bloating and excessive fluid production and an early death - though typically after child-bearing years. She is lucky enough to have connections to a medical research community that is studying her condition and seeking out a cure. Alas, for now all they can do is small treatments to help lesson the impact.
during much of her twenties she was quite a rebellious type (to a degree impacted by the decline and early death of her father.) She tried to get health insurance, however, was unable to due to a benign heart murmur that had been diagnosed earlier. This makes a good case for a better socialized medicine. She also found she was nearly completely Ashkenazi Jew. The narrow gene pool has allowed various mutations to propagate. (As a side, she also talked about the "blue" people of Appalachia who had a recessive trait that was passed along a tight-nit population.) You wonder how many other odd conditions are out there that we don't know about

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Colossus Rises


The Colossus Rises is the first book in a Seven Wonders Series. The series focuses on a group of kids with a unique genetic mutation. It gives them "super powers". However, it also causes health issues - including death at a young age. An "institute" comes trhough medical records to find those with the condition - often identified by a mark on the head. They usually intervene in the hospital after a kid has a serious medical condition and help cure him - and take him away.
The kids discover that their talents are amplified to "super" strength. They also try to escape multiple times and are put on a quest for Ancient Greek artifacts. They use codes to help communicate secretly. (Alas, they have been implanted with trackers, making it all for naught.) In the process, they run into various monsters and also "magic" such as healing water.
The book ends with one "quest" completed, but many more questions remain. Clearly, this is the start of series.
I found the book to be ok. The gimmicks (such as code and backward talking) got annoying. I did not find myself very attached to the characters or interested in the plot and don't have a desire to continue the series.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Michael Vey 6: Fall of Hades

The 6th Michael Vey book picks up right where the 5th one left off. This one would be a much better introduction to the series. It provides descriptions of the different characters and a lot of backstory to help understand what is going on. Hatch has taken over Tuvulu and is punishing his self-appointed "King" to teach them a lesson. They have created a fortified base where they have cut off communication with the outside world. We also learn that his company has been producing a source of super-cheap energy based on rats. They plan on selling these in a self-destructing sealed container in order to make a lot of money and prevent tampering. It is all part of Hatch's plan to take over the world. He is willing to kill anybody that gets in his way. The quest for clean energy is a noble one, but if things get in to the wrong hands, we could have serious problems.

Michael Vey 5: Storm of Lightning


In this book Michael sees the growing strength of his powers, as some of Hatch's underlings also begin to rebel. The book has a more right-leaning feel than most. Characters are military and police officers. They travel around western "red" states and foreign countries. They are also free to admit there are problems with cherished liberal values (like equality.) However, the politics is merely a slight slightly right-leaning undertone. The novel is primarily an action adventure with characters gradually coming of age in a decaying world.

Mark of the Thief

The Mark of the Thief starts out in a Roman slave-mining operation. The life of these slaves mixes in the life of Roman slaves with experiences of more modern African slaves. Life is hard, and the possibility of freedom is nonexistent. This mine is rumored to hold some great jewels from Caeser. One boy tries to escape, but is caught and then required to go down to retrieve the jewels. He finds it, but in the process befriends a Griffen and unleashes some magic that allows him to escape. He tries to remain free, but is caught many times. He struggles to find out who is friends and enemies are. Many times, it feels the author is telegraphing the role of characters to us, despite what the boy may feel. However, our impressions are not always right. The characters do not confirm to "good" and "evil", but instead have a multitude of interests and "uses" for others. We get to see stark contrasts in the lives of different classes of people, as well as the use of entertainment and violence as an elixir to keep them together. The book ends with more questions than it answers, leaving it as an obvious first book in a series. The characters and story structure feel very similar to those in the The False Prince series. The author appears to have found a style that works.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Supernaturalist

The Supernaturalist takes place in a not-so-distant future where humanity has struggled to solve its ills through whatever means possible. The protagonist is an orphan. An unsponsored orphan is relegated to a life somewhat between a guinea pig and a slave. He has no rights and is regularly used to test out new medicines or other chemicals. He escapes and joins with a group of "supernaturalists". They are trying to fight some parasites that seem to be taking away the life force of humans. However, it turns out this fighting has been causing them to multiple. These parasites have lived with humans and have helped to take away pain. However, there is an "evil scientist" who has discovered that they can be used to produce energy. The hero manages to use cunning to prevent his death and expose her and the company's evil plan. However, this merely leads to her reassignment. This is a cautionary tale about messing with the environment. We may be doing something that we think would help humanity at the expense of nature. However, it could very well be causing many more problems.

Friday, September 08, 2017

If You're Reading This, It's Too Late (Secret, Book 2)

With sound as the subject of the second "secret" book, listening to the audiobook seems to be the way to go. The audiobook production did not disappoint. Music and sound effects are added perfectly to bring about the theme of the book. Cass and Max-Ernest are two weird kids that seem to just as easily fall victim to the plots of the evil Midnight Sun as they are to follow the terces society. They also meet up with a new kid, a guitar playing Japanese student, who helps them on their way.
The author does a great job of making sure the kids are really kids. They make lots of mistakes and let emotions make them do stupid things. They need to be rescued at times. They are themselves, with all of the weirdness it entails.
The "author" of the book is constantly breaking through the wall to interact with the readers/listeners. The chapters are also numbered in countdown fashion, with chapter one being the last chapter. It all helps you to fell you are part of the action, rather than just a passive participant.
As for the plot? Well, there was an alchemist that created a living homunculus and found great secrets. He treated his creation poorly. A court jester talked to the homunculus, fed him and befriended him. The homunculus eventually turned on his master, burying him and his notes. He was not able to destroy the notes, but he hid them with the grave and did not want anybody to find out. The midnight sun wanted this knowledge. They used other girls and a pop band (Skeleton Sisters) to help get them. The good kids have to save the day, if they can convince their parents to not ground them anymore. The kids also find out more about their life and parents.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat covers odd neurological conditions. The eponymous man was a music professor that could communicate great with music. However, visually he was lost. He could not tell the difference between his wife and a hat. He had difficulty with all things visual, but no problem with music. Another man was stuck in 1945. He would forget anything new that happened more than a minute ago. There were also tales of people that lost their sense of "self". A man would find a foreign leg in the bed and throw it out, only to throw himself out of a bed. A woman lost her sense of self, and only with great difficulty would force her body to move. However, unlike losing the sense of sight, she did not appear to be so disabled, and thus suffered from harassment from others. There is also the tale of twins that were very low on the intelligence meter, but could identify large primes and calculate the day of the week over thousand year time spans. One man used his nervous ticks to improvise on drumming. When medication helped him not have the ticks, he skipped taking it on weekends so he could continue to have the creative impulses.
With many of these people they have lost some basic ability that we see common, yet they still have other areas that they can contribute to society. We can help them to utilize their special talents. Society has this narrow understanding of "normal". We like to pride ourselves on accepting "differences". However, these differences seem to be in the narrow band of standard behavior. Some of the more extreme differences may make it much more difficult for us to interact with others. However, these could also provide positive experiences for the people and society as a whole.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Click Here To Start

Click Here To Start has been described as a younger reader's version of Ready Player One. Both novels center around an expert video game player who uses video game skills to complete a real-life quest. They also have a "backdrop" (80s nostalgia or literature) peppered throughout the story. And they both take a few too many jumps to allow them to be truly believable.
Ted is a half-Jewish, half-Japanese twelve year old who is an expert at "escape" video games. His great uncle served as Japanese soldier in the American army during World War II. He recently passed away and left all to Ted (after praising his intelligence and skill at games.) Ted's Jewish dad was recently passed over for the position of English chair at their local Southern California college in favor of a wealthy east coaster. The new professor has a "too perfect" daughter Ted's age. She doesn't want much to do with him, but you can tell she will be part of the story. She, along with Ted and his friend end up solving the puzzle to find the treasure (meanwhile dodging the efforts of a rouge antiques dealer. In the process, they also grow to become good friends.
The mechanisms for solving the puzzles seems to stretch believability. Worse, however, is the video game that only shows up for Ted and exactly mimics some key real life escapades he will have. By never explaining this, the author leaves the novel in a slightly fantastic world, just unreal enough to make it annoying.

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

A River Runs Through is a collections of experiences growing up in rural Montana. Fishing is covered in great detail as are experiences logging. I had trouble getting engaged in the work. Though it has garnered awards and been turned in to a movie, so it must have its audience.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Dark Talent

The Dark Talent is the final book in the Alcatraz series. I had loved the earlier books in the series and had been eagerly anticipating this conclusion. Alas, it did not live up to my expectations. Perhaps it was due to the long wait. The story had plenty of good parts. However, it felt more forced than the other books. The unsatisfying ending also seemed to open more questions rather than resolve them. I was wondering where the rest of the book was. Perhaps the next "final" book in the series will preserve the magic.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Grit

The ability to persevere and continue in the face of adversity is a strong indicator of success. Grit's thesis is that success is often a result of this "grit". People that keep trying in spite of failure and adversity can eventually succeed despite overwhelming odds.

Hallucinations

There are a number of different neural conditions that can cause hallucinations. Different senses can also be involved. Visual hallucinations are well documented. However, sound and smell also occur. People may be reluctant to admit to "hearing voices" for fear of being branded crazy. Some medical conditions such as migraines and epilepsy may be associated with hallucinations. They can also be triggered by drugs (including recreational ones as well as others lake that used to treat Parkinson's disease.) The author of Hallucinations did some self-experimentation with various drugs in the 50s, but found he had to stop before his "experimentation" started creating problems in his life.
Hallucinations are usually outside the control of the person. Somebody may see people multiple or hear people where there are none. With some, it is common to see hallucinations based on past experiences. Musical notes appearing randomly seems to be a fairly common manifestation for those that spend a great deal of time reading music.
Some religious experiences may be scientifically explained as types of hallucinations. (If God works through natural means, then this could be a logical means that are used.) A final type of hallucination covered is "false limbs". People often "feel" a limb still present even after it has been amputated. However, when they start to lose other sensual confirmation, they gradually lose control of it. This can be counteracted by seeing visual confirmation of the activities (by a prothesis or other tricks.)
The book has a somewhat random assortment of stories and descriptions of cases where people's senses show them something that is not actually there, and seems to be written primarily to entertain.

Shadow Throne

Shadow Throne is a Medieval war book. Gunpowder makes a brief appearance. However, most of the battles are fought with swords, daggers and clubs. Jaron goes about doing things that seem patently stupid, yet they all work out in the end. The story-telling hides some of the aspects of the plan from the readers, letting us discover things just as the other characters are discovering them. However, even these plans often have some bits that require a bit of dumb luck. I didn't see how they could get out of some of the pickles they get in. However, once things are explained afterwards, it all makes sense. The romantic interests also take a number of turns. We are lead to believe things are set up for a courtly marriage, before all things turn around and everyone can marry for love rather than politics.