You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, January 28, 2013

His Majesty's Dragon

Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon is a blend of historical fiction and fantasy. It is the time of Napoleon and dragons are form a strategic part of the armed services of the major countries. In fact they have been bred for centuries for specific advantageous traits.

The story starts with Captain Laurence of the Royal Navy captures a French ship. On the ship is a large dragon's egg, which his advisers say is about to hatch. Knowing that the dragon will imprint on one of the first people it sees, he and his men draw straws to see who will approach it with a harness. Yet when the beast hatches it goes right to Laurence and speaks to him. Laurence has become the dragon's trainer, to his dismay, and he must give up his position as captain to become part of the air corps.

Laurence names his dragon Temeraire, and together they both learn about dragons and the air corps. They see a local expert who determines that Temeraire is an Imperial, a rare Chinese breed. The two of them are assigned to training. Most of the book is the story of their training as Temeraire gets used to flying in formations, Laurence gets used to a less regimented life, and they both get used to each other. Laurence makes some mistakes, such as interfering with another pilot's dragon, which causes some friction.

The story builds to a concluding battle, with a bit of suspense and treachery to make things interesting. The book is an interesting take on dragons and warfare in the Napoleonic era. There's not a whole lot of action, as a lot of it is exposition describing life as a dragon trainer at the dragon compound. But it works as a fantasy about dragons. The creatures themselves have personalities, and there is a good relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. There is also tension between some of the others, and Temeraire shows some awareness of his awkward position: being both owned by Laurence and having a mind of his own, he could foresee-ably have divided loyalties if either Laurence were to turn against the English or if they were ordered to separate. Overall a fun and amusing story. B+

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Djinn: A Novel

J. Kent Holloway's novel The Djinn has all the right elements for a great fantasy novel. There are ancient magical powers secreted in a hidden tomb. There is a mystical being with curious powers to find and subdue his enemies. The story takes place in the Middle Ages during the Crusades. Yet the story is not so well written to take advantage of these elements, and the characters come off as simplistic.

Baron Gregory De L'Ombre is the leader of European forces in Palestine, sent there by the Pope to find some arcane artifact. But he has turned his attention to a new mission: to find the tomb that houses the twelve golems created by one of King Solomon's wives and turned against him. With this power he hopes to rule Palestine and the world. His brother William is a leper living in a nearby compound. He was adopted by a wealthy Christian Arab after being rejected by Gregory.

Then there is the Djinn, a powerful mystical being who has been wreaking havoc on Gregory's plans. He frees Gregory's slaves and attacks his thugs. He has terrorized the locals, though Gregory insists the stories are all just legends. One of the problems with the Djinn is that there are some big hints as to his identity early on, and his identity is revealed to Gregory in the middle of the novel but not to the reader until nearly the end. For most of the book the author plays coyly with the question of the Djinn's identity, and it feels forced and too awkward. Scenes are written in a certain way and concealing certain facts that don't feel right.

The characters don't have much motivation other than one-dimensional goals. One element that works is the Djinn's secret relationship with Gregory's daughter Isabella, however it is not enough to help the whole story. Gregory is single-mindedly focused on his power grab. The Djinn is somewhat more interesting, and probably the most developed character in the book. Gregory's subject Horatio plays the part of the knight who comes do doubt his lord's mission, but he also lacks definition.

The best parts of the story are the golems themselves, though they get little time. The ending is mostly satisfactory, if a little too neat and easy. The elements never add up to a compelling whole. The story was not written as well as it could have been. C-

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Monday, January 21, 2013

A review of 2012

I read less in 2012. One of the main reasons is that my commute is shorter so I have less time in the car. The last book I listened to during my commute was The Night Circus. I've also had less time to read during lunch. Only 25 books in on year, less than the previous year. The television and Xbox are also to blame.

The highlights in 2012 were The Magicians and The Magician King. These were pleasant surprises. The concept was interesting, if unoriginal, but it was executed with originality. The sequel expanded on the themes and characters while providing a different challenge.

I was also pleased with A Storm of Swords and look forward to reading the next book soon. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was also a great read, and its sequel was fun. I've found myself reading much less nonfiction and focusing on science fiction and fantasy. This has been by design, though I hope to read more nonfiction in the future. I also haven't read any translated literature in quite a while.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Erik Larson's Thunderstruck is an account of the discovery of radio telegraphy intertwined with an intriguing murder mystery. Larson describes how Guglielmo Marconi invents a system to transmit signals through the air by a system of trial and error. The story of how a murder was solved and the murderer apprehended joins the story of radio in a case that made international headlines.

Marconi did not have any formal scientific training but was both confident in his understanding and obsessive in his tests. Through long hours of testing he was able to send a signal from one end of his lab to the other. Then he sent a signal over a hill. With his confidence high, he traveled to England to find financial backers. He found an immediate colleague in William Preece of the British Post Office. Preece was both knowledgeable and connected, and he saw promise in Marconi's invention. Unfortunately Preece let an agent of Germany view the invention, so the Germans acquire the technology. Marconi files for a patent for his invention and acquires investors. Yet he struggles to gain the one triumph he seeks, to send signals across the Atlantic wirelessly.

The other story follows Hawley Harvey Crippen, a homeopathic doctor who travels to London with his young vivacious wife to help run a patent medicine business. His wife Belle aspires to be an opera singer, though she soon abandons that idea to pursue a career in vaudeville. Despite his support and affection, she begins to resent him. He is short and soft spoken, while she is outgoing, boisterous, and tempestuous. Their marriage deteriorates, and he finds solace in his young assistant Ethel.

As the 1900's progress, Marconi faces difficulties. His devices are sold to shipping companies to allow ships to communicate while at sea, yet he faces competition from others and regulation from the British government. His investors are reluctant to keep financing his plans. He gets engaged, And his grand venture to prove that he can reliably transmit messages across the Atlantic has constant problems.

Harvey and Belle's problems get worse and she keeps threatening to leave. Her friends are shocked one day to discover that she is gone and Crippen says she has gone back to America. Then he tells them that she has died and begins showing up with Ethel, who wears Belle's clothes and jewelry. Some friends talk to Scotland Yard and an inspector comes to talk to Crippen. Crippen confesses that his wife has left him and he has been trying to avoid a scandal. But when he and Ethel disappear, the inspectors dig further and find gruesome evidence.

The ultimate crossing of these stories occurs on a ship on a trans-Atlantic voyage. With the use of Marconi's technology the captain is able to notify the authorities of his suspicions, and the international manhunt focuses on the ship. The case becomes a sensation, and the wireless device is the star. Larson is meticulous in his details and his digressions. I enjoyed the history of radio, especially how Marconi stumbled into his discovery. It was also interesting to learn about how his ideas were copied and became controversial when others said they had already made the same inventions. The story of Crippen and his wife is also riveting, a crime sensation of the early Twentieth century. A-

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Physics of the Impossible

Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel is an account by Michio Kaku of the different technologies that may or may not be possible given today's understanding of the laws of the universe. Kaku divides the ideas into three categories: things that are possible with today's knowledge but require more technology; things that science does not rule out but there's no known way to accomplish them; and things that physics says is impossible.

Kaku starts with ideas such as force fields and invisibility, which he says are possible impossibles. Force fields use basic magnetism as it is understood. An invisibility cloak could use metamaterials--substances with properties that affect how light works. Other ideas such as telepathy are an extension of technologies currently under study today. Mental images can be read from the brain with smaller and smaller resolution, and there is technology to send signals to the brain.

I was impressed with the fundamentals of science and presented in the book. Kaku gives an accurate and informative analysis of artificial intelligence and the possibilities it holds. There is a lot more to the science but his overview is pretty solid. He does end up pretty optimistic and, I believe, gives too little attention to the difficulties involved.

The next class of impossibilities are those that would require a new understanding of physics. He includes faster than light travel and time travel, both of which would require understanding the shape of the universe and the nature of existence. He gives a pretty good analysis of string theory and quantum mechanics and the extent of our knowledge of reality.

The only truly impossible ideas are precognition and perpetual motion machines. Kaku describes many hoaxes and frauds that claim to defeat the second law of thermodynamics. Overall I was impressed with the science background presented to explain the reasoning for each classification. Kaku selects some fun fantastic technologies and explores the scientific possibilities that would enable them. B+

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Saturday, January 05, 2013

The Prestige

Christopher Priest's The Prestige is a mysterious thriller set in the late 19th century England, at a time when the popularity of magicians was on the rise. The heart of the story is the rivalry between two magicians, a rivalry that lasts their whole lives and expands to affect their professional careers. The form of the book is that of memoirs written by the two magicians and their descendants in the present day.

In the opening, a young man named Nicholas Borden tells about how he has always felt he had a twin brother out there somewhere. He could sense his brother even though he had always known that he was a single child and all evidence of his birth showed that he had no siblings. When he is sent on assignment as a journalist, he meets a woman named Kate Angier who tells him that she has information about his past. He learns that his great grandfather was Alfred Borden and her great grandfather was Rupert Angier, and that the two men had had a great rivalry over a hundred years earlier.

The story follows in Alfred Borden's memoir. Borden is the son of a cabinet maker and learns the family trade, which helps him make devices for his magical acts. He is an acute student of the art of magic. He assumes the stage name Le Professeur de Magie. Borden discovers that there are unsavory magicians who are holding seances and using magic tricks to fool bereaved families. He sneaks into one such seance and disrupts it, exposing the medium as a fraud. The medium is Rupert Angier, and this starts the bitter feud that will entangle their careers. With the clever use of the form, we do not discover until we read Angier's account why the episode had enraged him so much.

Borden's big trick for his finale is The Transported Man. It is an act where he closes himself into a large cabinet and then immediately steps out of one across the stage. When Angier sees it, he cannot figure it out, and this drives him to distraction. Angier is a premier showman, but he cannot always figure out how magic tricks work, depending on the help of others. The conflict between the two men drives the story, particularly Angier's obsession with Borden's secret.

Angier's memoir follows Borden's, and we learn the other side of the picture. Angier's family is wealthy, though his older brother stands to inherit the estate. He tells of his attempts to disrupt Borden's shows due to his anger, but also his fascination with Borden's tricks. The obsession leads to an affair and the breakup of his marriage. When his mistress tires of him, she tells him she will leave him but give him one last gift, the secret of Borden's trick. When she hands him the note, it has one word on it: Tesla. Thus Angier goes to America to entreat Nikola Tesla to help him create a great trick to match Borden's.

The theme of twins is a critical part of the novel. In addition to Nicholas, there is the question of Alfred Borden's secret. Is Borden's magic trick so all encompassing that he has changed his whole life to make it succeed? And when Angier receives his magic device, there comes the haunting effects of doubling that he must deal with. (I have seen the movie and it is great; though the book is a little different it is also great.) The mystery deepens and gets darker throughout the memoirs. It is truly haunting when you realize what Angier means by the prestige materials. The final section, narrated by Nicholas as he descends to the Angier crypt, is chilling even as it ties his life to that of his ancestor. The mystery of the magicians' secrets makes for an exciting story. A-

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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Litany of the Long Sun

Litany of the Long Sun is the first half of Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun. It takes place in an artificial habitat in the distant future. Though the world is technologically advanced, the people who live in it do not know how it works and live a primitive existence. The story displays a blend of religion and strange technology.

The main character is Patera Silk, an augur (oracle) for a small manteion (temple) in a poor district. At the start of the story, Silk receives a revelation that he believes is from one of his gods. When Silk discovers that his manteion has been purchased by a crime boss named Blood due to unpaid taxes, he hatches a plan to sneak into the man's villa and force him to give it back. While inside, he runs into a strange woman named Mucor and a woman named Hyacinth working there as an escort. Silk falls and hurts his ankle and gets captured by Blood and his henchmen. Blood makes an agreement to sell back the manteion to Silk for a large sum of money, which Silk doesn't have. But before he leaves, a doctor named Crane fixes his ankle and sneaks him a weapon.

Silk makes plans to use the weapon to steal the large sum of money. He is so obsessed and committed to this goal that he barely thinks about the moral questions, only that he has to fulfill his duty to his gods. The next day Silk visits a brothel where one of the women has died. He discovers that another woman there is a spy and deduces that she works for Dr. Crane. As the first half ends, Silk performs an exorcism for the dead woman and a goddess manifests at the ceremony.

At the start of the second half, Silk officiates the dead woman's funeral and a vision manifests on the screen of the manteion, the first in decades. Then he realizes that Chenille, Dr. Crane's spy, has been possessed by a goddess. This possession is some sort of advanced technological ability, and the goddess is apparently an artificial intelligence. Now Silk hatches a plot to blackmail Dr. Crane, but to do this they need to travel to the nearby lake and fine the ruling council.

Here the story gets more interesting as Silk start to uncover a plot and learn more about Dr. Crane. Silk stumbles into a series of secret tunnels under the lake and the city. He discovers a chamber full of people who have been asleep for centuries. When one of the sleeping women wakes, he realizes she has been possessed by Mucor and exorcises her. Silk learns about the history of the habitat and his own gods, though he has trouble reconciling what he learns with his beliefs.

The strange things Silk sees and learns make the second part of the book more compelling. The first half is a bit slow, what with Silk's single-minded focus on Blood and his crazy scheme to compel Blood to give his manteion back. With the second half, forces become apparent such as the missing calde (ruler) of the city, the mysterious council, the goddess who possesses Chenille. Religion comes into play as Silk gains popularity with the populace (due to his visions and the appearance of the goddess) and this becomes a threat to the government. The reference to the story of Christ becomes apparent to me when Silk has a vision that includes seeing a man nailed to . Though Silk is a religious man who only wants the best for his people and doesn't care about the government, his popularity makes him dangerous and a target for the those who fear him. The end is a cliffhanger, to be completed in the next book, as Silk is captured by one faction vying for power. B+

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