Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Cherokee America

Cherokee America is a dense ramble that starts to get a little interesting at the end. It covers life in the late 1800s in Cherokee territory. Cherokee ended up sided with the south, and thus were not treated well after the Civil War. There are blacks, whites, and half breads living in the territory. People mate across racial lines. They also have more sexual concerns than we would care to know about. A man has an illegitimate child and a another person tries to find his family. It is hard to keep everyone straight. It is even harder to care about what happens to them. Near the end, there is a murder and the US marshals come in. That can only mean bad things. I was hoping for a more historical picture of Cherokee life in general. However, this was instead a microscopic drilldown into the lives of a few characters that just happened to live in Cherokee land.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Lost and Found

Lost and Found centers on a lonely North Carolina high-schooler, Ezekiel Blast. People avoid him because he has a reputation of stealing things. However, what he does is "find things". He has a "micropower" that leads him to the owner of lost objects. However, he has often been accused of stealing these things that he has found, thus giving him the reputation of a thief. One day, a "grade school kid" attempts to join him on his walk. She sees that people avoid him and wants to join in the bubble. It turns out she is actually a high school student with proportional drawfism. They become friends and she helps him discover more about himself.
One day a cop asks him to help out on a missing-child case. He is not able to find "people" because they are not "lost". (He is offended when people talk about his mom being "lost". She isn't lost. She died in a car crash.) However, he can use the "lost" objects of people to find the owner. Through this involvement he helps bring down a child pornography ring that also sought his friend.
There is not a lot of heavy drama in this book. The events tend to just unfold quickly as you would like. However, the story an exploration of powers makes it something difficult to put down. The micropower support group is especially fun. It is led by a researcher who has the power to determine if somebody has an "innie" or "outie" belly button. There are also participants who can mask smells and make people yawn. These powers are difficult to control, and even more challenging to utilize positively. They all provide a lot of fun to explore. What would be the positive use of a bizarre power? Do these "micropowers" really differ very much from the "powers" that people have today. Isn't being naturually good at basketball or math also a form of micropower? It just doesn't stand out because it is normal.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Light Princess

The "Light Princess" is light because she weighs nothing. The King forgot to invite his witch relative, and she cursed the girl to be "immune" to gravity. This made for an interesting life growing up. However, she did discover that gravity had a normal impact when she was in water. Thus she met a her prince int he water, and through his sacrifice he saved the girl and the kingdom. It is an enjoyable fairy tale and well done full cast production.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Fates Divide

The Fates Divide is a space opera, with the emphasis on "Soap Opera" rather than space. The setting may be a distant galaxy, but the characters are primarily youths concerned with the exact same things youths are concerned with today.
Some parts of the world believe in oracles. Others do not. One side also wants the oracle prophecies made public. This, however, leads to people trying to tempt fate. Alas, we find out there were some babies switched at births that somehow manage to "beat" the prophecy by meeting it. There are wars and battles, and people killing other family members in the name of planetary peace. There is also political drama, with the urbanized planets treating the oracle-believing snow-world as a backwater. It makes for a nice dose of teenage drama and modern politics all set in space.


As World War 2 was breaking out, people didn't regard the warnings that were given of bad things to come. They thought the Germans would continue to let them live in peace. Even when Jews were moved to Ghettos, there was still general contentedness with Jew self governance. However, that soon changed when they were hauled off to concentration camps. Survival often depended on lucky decisions. One had to be healthy enough to work, but not too healthy to have to put one's family in the furnace. The author jumped out of the infirmary when their camp was soon to be captured by the enemy, thinking all the sick would be killed. However, in that case, the sick were set free. (One can never know what will happen.) Sometimes small "bribes" given to a bully end up being for naught as the bully is soon chased away.
The book has a feel somewhat like Schindler's list. The concentration camps were part of the "coming of age" of a youth. It was the horror he lived through. He feels some regret about the poor decisions he made, as well as guilt about being a survivor when others did not. He was deeply involved in religious training before. He desires that we acknowledge the history to prevent it from happening again. It didn't seem possible when it happened. We should be careful to spot the signs before they happen again.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Book Thief

Liesel Meminger is a "book thief". She lives as a foster girl n Nazi Germany at the outbreak of World War 2. She remembers "communist" being spoken at her parents home. She lives with poor faster parents. She picks up a grave diggers instruction book at a funeral. She later steals a book from a Nazi bonfire. She loves to read, but her poor foster family can barely make out a meager existence. The father has painted Jewish houses. (He had served with a Jew in World War I). He has trouble getting membership in the Nazi party. The mother washes clothes, but sees that business gradually dry up. The girl spends time with her friend, a fast runner, who wants to be a Jesse Owens. They end up resorting to stealing food from farms and other areas.
They live through the rise of Hitler and World War II. The family hides a Jewish friend. The son of her foster-parents is an avid Nazi, who falls in Russia. Father eventually gets his Nazi party membership, along with a draft notice into the army. Through some luck he ends up coming home. They all suffer when the city is bombed.
The book provides a child's perspective growing up in Nazi Germany. There are many "bad" things going on. However, when that is all you know, it is hard to get too upset. She comes to the realization that Hitler has caused bad things to her birth family. However, she is resigned to know there is nothing she can do. She also sees the bad experience of the Jew hiding in her basement. She is friendly with him and realizes his poor condition, yet does not seem obsessed with it. She is living her life. Stealing a book from the mayor's wife is a more significant action in her life than the events of World War II. Hitler was simply a leader that everyone had to follow.

Erak's Ransom: Ranger's Apprentice, Book 7

Erak's Ransom is the seventh Ranger's Apprentice book, however, it takes place after the fourth one. It starts with Halt getting married and ends with Will becoming a ranger. In between, there is plenty of adventure in a land similar to desserts of Arabia and North Africa. Erak, the leader of the Skandians had an itch to go on a raid. He was tipped off as to a great potential city to raid. They went there, and it seemed too easy. Alas, it was. They were captured. Their captors specifically wanted Erak and demanded a ransom. Since Skandia was a long way away, they ended up at the wedding to beg for assistance. The princess ends up being part of the diplomatic mission. They proceed to the land and encounter numerous groups and find that it was a pretender to the Skandian leadership that had set them up.
Will loses his horse in a sand storm, and then goes to find it, only to lose his way due to the iron deposits in the landscape. Eventually, he ingratiates himself with a local tribe and helps to rescue others.
There are plenty of twists and turns. Just when you think the book is going to end, something goes wrong, causing more adventure. There is also a strong sense of protocol and order. It is important for the different cultures to adhere by their standards. One must work through the norms of a culture to get what one needs. (Will could not just claim his horse. However, he could get him back with a race.)

Monday, December 23, 2019

Magyk: Septimus Heap, Book One

Magyk is an interesting "fantasy comedy". The magicians and the custodians are in conflict. There are a few "orphan" children that end up playing key roles. One is identified as a princess. One is identified only by a military number, but later shown to be of magical origin. (Thanks in part due to an unintentional mix up.) There are also plenty of "magical" creatures, such as messenger rats.
The narrative was quick and compelling, and full of dry humor. I also loved the end where the other provided details of the fates of all the minor characters. I can think of many cases in other works where I have wondered how these events may have impacted this minor character. Here, the author seemed to have a lot of fun doing just that.

Ship It

Ship It starts out as R-rated gay fan fiction, then switches into a teenage coming of age book. It feels like something that was written from personal experience. It centers around a girl who is obsessed with a cult television series. She writes fan fiction where the two leads end up hooking up. The book also follows one of the lead actors in the series. This show was his first big break, and he is hoping to get on another video game adaption. There is tension with the characters discovering their sexuality and the relationship between artists and their fans.
One message the book asks is for media to have more characters that "look like me". Alas, this is a double edged sword. If the entire US population is targeted, then the characters should all be white to appeal to the majority. If the world is targeted, perhaps one white and one Chinese. Only with large ensembles would other racial groups start to appear. However, even these get tricky. How would somebody identify themselves to "see themselves" in the show? If the identify as human, then great, anybody can represent them. If they identify as 5% Cherokee, 20% Kenyan, 40% Portuguese and 35% Northern European, then it will be much harder to achieve the exact representation. And that only touches external race. What about religion or home country? Sexuality also opens up a whole new can of worms. The focus on this book is "queer" vs. "straight". But what about attraction to other physical characteristics? As audiences attempt to divide themselves into greater numbers of subgroups, it becomes more and more impossible to find the perfect subgroup that matches them.
That also brings up the "demonizing" of other subgroups. In the book, the "queer" subgroup is attempting to show their mark on the show. However, to do that, the group of masculine gamers is demonized. They are portrayed as homophobic thugs who don't want to have anything to do with the actor after he shows a sympathy to queer passion. Once a formerly oppressed subgroup gets their is a natural tendency to take it out on the others. Our societal harmony depends on not doing that and respecting the views of others even if they don't agree with ours. The does a good job in showing the fluidity of "queerness". A straight character can engage in a same-sex kiss, while one can be queer and engage in a positive heterosexual relationship. However, the focus is on giving in to passions. This sets up conflict with the "me too" movement and a legal code. There still needs to be restraint in place, even if chemistry appears to be present.

Seeing What Others Don't: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights

Gary Klein attempts to understand what causes people to come up with great insights. He categorizes many insight anecdotes to build his theories. A police officer sees a driver "ash" his nice new car, and guesses (correctly) that it has been stolen. A scientist studying transparent organisms gets insight after seeing other glowing organisms. A smoke jumper, unable to outrun a fire, saves himself by setting a fire ahead of his path. Some insights were made by putting logical pieces together. Others were made against the flow. He comes up with a theory that includes a nice chart showing how seemingly contradictory factors can work together.
Later chapters deal with what blocks us from making insights and what we can do to make more insights. Computer systems fit squarely into the "block" category. They guide us to a specific way of doing things. This constrains our ability to think outside the box. We also need to spend effort to meet the demands of the "tools". Presentations and diagramming tools are some of the simplest examples. It takes so much effort to get an idea into an electronic form. Even a simple improvement to a process may be weighted down by the effort of showing it on the diagram. Many other systems can be even more nefarious. We may not be able to do something better because our software wont let us. Business processes can also be a problem. If we want to avoid error, we must stick by the process. However, the process reduces our chances of getting insights that can help improve the process. Is somebody showing insubordination, or are they gaining a new insight? Leadership needs to facilitate risk taking and experimentation in order to gain new insights. Cross-collaboration can be helpful. (The story is given about Steve Jobs wanting only a single set of restrooms for Pixar in order to force employees to meet.) However, it is difficult to force insights. It is more important to not trample on the insights and the situations that allow them to be acted upon. A culture most allow insights to be acted upon, but not overwhelm with too many insights.
On interesting point made was on heuristics. These rapid assumptions because they can lead to biases. However, these are also an important factor in obtaining rapid insight. Studies typically have focused on their "negative side". However, very little has been done on the positive side. We should not throw them out because they can sometimes lead to bad. Like many other things, the quest for reliability often helps quash the needed future insights.
What is best for society? Large organizations crave predictability. It is difficult for them to encourage insights, even when they try. Efforts to encourage that behavior is beneficial. However, it will most likely be the loners and the smaller organizations that innovate.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Carve the Mark

Carve the Mark centers around two cultures that live on the same planet. They both think of each as a lesser culture. All the key people in the story have special "powers". One guy cannot feel pain. Another can swap memories with another person. There are many other various powers. One leader leads a kidnapping to attempt to get the "oracle" from the other culture. This causes two families from different cultures to be interrelated. One of the cultures in interrelated in the galaxy, while another tries to be insular. (However, the leaders do speak other languages.) There are all sorts of various conflicts. Sister is upset with brother, and falls for her forced "servant".
I often found myself confused with the many different supporting characters involved. The book wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible either.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World

Electric Universe explores how electricity was "discovered" and how it became a requirement for our society. The telephone came about due to Bell's crush on a deaf girl. Faraday made key discoveries but was not respected due to his lack of education. Volt is used as a measurement in part because the French decided and they were on good terms with Volta. The transatlantic telegraph table flopped at first because the backer listened to the scientist that told him what he wanted to hear rather than the truth.
The book tells the story of Hertz in his own words. It also has a number of stories from world war two. Britain had radar first, but Germany had an improved system. However, due to German culture at the time, they lacked skilled operators that could make quick alterations. Britain used this to their advantage by dropping "chaff". Programmable computers also gradually came about during the war, only to really kick off afterwards.
The story of many of the "big players" in electricity are tied together nicely in the relatively short book.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Dark Is Rising: Book 2 of The Dark Is Rising Sequence

While Over Sea, Under Stone was a nice contemporary book with fantasy elements, Dark Is Rising goes all in with good vs. evil fantasy. A kid is an "old one" and must help protect the world from evil. There are other old ones that have been around for centuries. It is mostly fantastical and very little contemporary. I struggled to keep going with the book.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Over Sea, Under Stone

Over sea, under stone is a "contemporary" fantasy, with an emphasis on contemporary. There isn't much to do with magic. However, it does focus on the quest for holy grail. Some kids happen to stumble upon a map of the location. However, others are keen to get it from them. They try to pass themselves off as the good guys, however, we see right through them. The kids, however, make a number of mistakes. They trust some people they shouldn't, and don't do things they should. They suffer a number of close calls, but in the end things work out well. There are some ties to King Arthur and the battle of good versus evil. However, for now, it is mostly a treasure hunt.

Rebel: Legend, Volume 4

In Rebel, the characters are no older. America is working towards a more democratic state. The younger brother of the "hero" from the first three Legend books is now becoming a man of his own, ready to graduate from college. He is living the "good life" in Antarctica. However, he pines for the lower classes. He has a girlfriend in the "lower city". He joins with her to enter illegal drone races and ends up meeting up with a crime lord (who his brother is trying to hunt down.) The crime lord has potential as an interesting character. However, he is never fully developed. His actions seem somewhat bizarre. In the end, the heroes win and help bring about more equality of opportunity within Antarctica's "point system."
While the first three books dealt with the overthrow of a corrupt system, this book focuses on change within. Both the American and Antarctic systems were put in place to help improve the lives of people. However, they morphed into a system that brutally separated the haves from the have-nots. The struggle is now to ensure the have-nots can more fully participate without alienating the haves. How do you prevent crime without unduly cursing the criminals and their families?

MILA 2.0: Redemption

In the final Mila 2.0 book, Debra Driza seems to have reached her word count mid-story and abruptly ended the book. I felt I must have been missing something when the tides rapidly turned and the book came to a conclusion. Through most of the book, Mila is becoming more and more human. However, she returns back to her android self to "save" herself. You just want to inject some sense in her. She gets stuck in some bizarre love triangle. She still has attachment to her old boyfriend (who totally freaked when she fessed to be being android and killing a relative.) The boy who is helping her obviously has affection, but she tries to deny it. She gradually gets back more memories from her "human" self. The evil military man is just too evil. He is "bad guy" cast from central casting. He is trying to sell mind-controlled teenage warriors to foreign governments. Somehow people continue to follow him through the most harebrained of ideas. Even an elite private school manages to be an inadvertent participant in his scheme. Mila seems to get lucky break after lucky break. Things get just bad enough to keep the action going. The book has some things going for it, yet the flaws are difficult to overcome.

The Wolves in the Walls

Neil Gaiman is a great storyteller. Nobody believes the child who says there are wolves in the walls. They have all sorts of excuses for the wolves being there. Finally the wolves come out and the family is forced to live outside. They finally sneak through the walls to get a prized possession and then retake the house. It is a simple tale of childhood innocence and ingenuity (as well as resolution of nightmares.)

The Secret History

Secret history reminded me of what high school friends expected of their immediate future. The characters are all very multidimensional. There was a murder, followed by another murder to get a blabber to stop talking. I wasn't sure if I wanted them to get caught or I wanted them to get away with it. (The author managed to get some form of compromise.) The book is a well written exploration of the struggles of young adulthood. As a reader you can see many easy ways out of various problems. However, the characters will go to great lengths to make things difficult for themselves.
The character of Bunny is perhaps the most negatively portrayed. He comes out as a stupid oaf, who almost begs to be killed. Yet, the characters are all friends with him. He is somehow in the ancient Greek class with them. He comes from a wealthy family, yet they give him nothing and he manages to mooch off everyone else (despite his elitist tastes.) The others, for the most part, come from wealthy families and just expect to have everything on a silver platter. The protagonist is an almost dispassionate observer, who is from a working class northern California home. He is remote from the east coast culture in both distance and temperament, yet gets sucked in to the whole adventure.

Endling #2: The First

Endling #2: The First. How is that for a confusing title? In this second book, Byx and her friends go on a quest to find other dairnes. They find the first "colony". But there are only two, and one dies after they meet him. They then go on to find a whole colony of them, only to realize they are under siege. Through friendships and subterfuge they are able to get help them out. There is plenty of action ot go around. The story, alas, is a typical fantasy quest.

Power Ambition Glory: The Stunning Parallels Between Great Leaders of the Ancient World and Today...and the Lessons You Can Learn

Steve Forbes read a book by John Prevas and eventually got together with him to a write a book combining biographies of ancient leaders with business leaders of today. The ancient leaders had many positive traits as well as weaknesses that led to their downfall. In some cases, the traits made them good for building an empire, but not so great at running it. The stories of modern leaders include some born in the 1800s, though have had their heyday in the past few decades. Some of the contemporary cases are intriguing. The positive leadership empire building of GE and Chrysler don't look so great right now. This does show that even great "empires" can crumble shortly after the tenure of the seemingly great leaders. The impenetrable foundation that was set up may not be so great after all.
Corporate leaders also feel like better comparisons than political leaders. The "path to the top" of many of the ancient leaders seemed to more closely resemble what is needed to get to the top of a major corporation. Empire building and conquests was also a key part of the activities of ancient leaders. This is done much more in business than in countries these days. The important of "employees" vs. mercenaries is also a key concern. (However, you can also see many similarities between Agustus and pandering to the masses and current populism and Trumpism.)

Friday, December 06, 2019

The Lord of Opium

Matt returns to the land of Opium as the new "El Patron." He starts out as an idealistic 14 year old kid. He wants to feed the microchip enslaved workers. However, he discovers that it may be impossible. He also learns he must act like a ruler to be one. He starts to adopt some of the cruelty. (After all, he is genetically identical to the original leader.) He tries to free "waitress". He sees some small emotion come out, but she still remains a "zombie". He wants to spend time with his friends. However, he also is required to be involved in many big issues of running a drug empire.
He gradually learns more details about how people are "enslaved". He is never able to free waitress, but he does manage to stumble upon the way to free others, but with a sacrifice to a space station. The novel spends just a few paragraphs covering what would be the very difficult task of repatriating this zombies into society.
The characters in the book are all quite complex. It is not a case of clear-cut good guys vs. bad guys. Instead, there are different characters with different values. There are often trade offs with many problems not having a clear-cut best solution. There are also plenty of coincidences that are needed to make the book move along. The ending is almost too "happy". The drug empire was essentially a garden of eden for the rebirth of the ecosystem after the ravages of humanity elsewhere. Oh, we could dream.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

The Battle for Skandia: Ranger's Apprentice, Book 4

In the series, the author occasionally drifts into technical discussions about various phenomena or tactics. I wonder if he is knowledgeable in the specific fields, or is just making things up. I guess it really doesn't matter, since this is his fictional universe, and he can choose how things should be.
The book starts out with a number of different narratives that quickly intertwine. Holt and Horrace are trying to find Will and Evelyn. Evelyn gets kidnapped by another group and Will goes to find her. One of the Skandians goes out to collect taxes. Eventually they all join up and uncover a giant army set to invade Skandia. Holt contributes tactics to the Skandians and helps them to battle the invaders.
The story is action packed, though there are plenty of lucky breaks that occur in order to have things happen properly.
The different groups have parallels to historical groups. The Skandians are Scandinavian vikings. They invaders are Mongols. There were also French group.

The Last: Endling, Book 1

Endling takes place in a world of sentient animals. There are a few major species that can talk and do magic. The book centers on the adventures of the dairne Byx. They are dog-like creatures that can identify when people are lying. She sneaks off from her family to see the ocean. She encounters a poacher and saves a small creature. When she returns she discovers that her entire family has been destroyed. From there, she goes off with the "quest" with a tracker, and many other animals. They get involved with various palatial intrigue as she hopes to find others of her species.
Humans get a bad rap in this book. They are the cruelest of the many sentient species. They are cunning and purposely kill off other species. The dairne ability to identify lies is extremely dangerous for people in power. However, if only one group controlled them, they could be very valuable. Other animals also don't understand why women humans are limited in their roles in society. This book follows the typical fantasy pattern of a "group of different beings assemble together to go on a quest." However, it keeps magic to a minimum and is more accessible than typical fantasy.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

I Survived the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863: I Survived, Book 7

The I Survived series looks like it would be a blast to write. As an author, you research historical events, and try to experience them yourself. The characters need to survive the event, but also see all that takes place around them. For the Battle of Gettysburg, the story is of two runaway slaves who end up with the Union Army at the battle. I wonder how reasonable it was for former slaves to be that accepted by the Union. (Is there perhaps a little too much of a modern viewpoint in place?) The audiobook is short, and there is just about as much commentary as actual audio. There is plenty of discussion of the Gettysburg address and the "short", yet memorable speech that Lincoln had made.

The House of the Scorpion

It took me a little while to figure out what was going on in The House of the Scorpion. The protagonist, Matt, gradually finds out more about his existence. He lives in the world of opium fields between the United States and Mexico. The inhabitants here are a motley bunch, including "eejits" who are laborers that have their intelligence removed (and are treated like as less than human) and a security patrol consisting mostly of men wanted for crimes in other countries. This land of Opium is ruled as an independent country by the ancient "El Patron", who is many decades past his 100th birthday. He likes to consider himself a near diety, similar to ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. We discover that Matt is actually a clone of "El Patron". We later learn that the purpose of these clones is to harvest organs for El Patron. (This is how he has lived to be so old.)
Matt hits puberty as El Patron has heart issues. As he is about to become an unwilling donor, one of his caretakers mentions that she has been feeding him just enough arsenic to make his heart useless for El Patron. This is too much for El Patron, and he dies. In the commotion, some of Matt's friends help him to escape. Matt sneaks across the border and then joins up with a group of other orphans forced to live in a pseudo-Marxist work camp of "the Keapers". He helps expose some hypocrisy of the organization and gets out. He is able to reach the convent where his "girlfriend" is staying. They are able to bust the keepers and then he is sent back to help find out what is wrong with his homeland. He discovers that El Patron had plotted to have the leadership die when he died. The land is in chaos, leaving things set up for a sequel.
There is an elaborate world created in the novel. Alas, the pieces we see don't give us a clear picture. What is the purpose of the "keepers"? Why do people let them exist, while despising them? And why are they busted for drug use, while at the same time El Patron's drug empire is allowed to thrive? What do regular people do? If people can have their intelligence removed to become "dumb laborers", why would regular jobs remain? Could a clone really be made to have the same fingerprints and other identifying markings? (If a clone is such an accurate identical copy, shouldn't we be concerned that Matt will be a megalomaniac dictator like El Patron?)