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.