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.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Cartomancy is the second book in Michael A. Stackpole's The Age of Discovery series. It's a wide story of a family of cartographers, the principality they live in, the former empire of the land, and many other things. The story takes place over two continents, four principalities, a wild land scarred by magic, an imaginary land come to life, and the realm of the immortals.

Keles Anturasi is a gifted cartographer, part of the famous family of cartographers. He is kidnapped by Prince Pyrust to serve him by helping to rebuild his capital city. Keles complies but knows he has to try to escape or Pyrust will kill him when he's done. His brother Jorim is on another continent, exploring a new civilization, and coming to believe that he is a god reincarnate. Ciras is a swordmaster, traveling the wild lands of flowing magic with Borosan Gryst, a tinkerer and creator of magic-powered toys that can do useful things, even attack enemies. They are looking for the last empress, said to be sleeping and awaiting a return to her people in their time of need. Prince Cyron is fighting off an invasion of the principality to the south, western lords who are resentful and rebellious, Prince Pyrust who is invading the principality between them, and the missing head of the cartography family. And assassination attempts. An unnamed swordmaster we know as Moraven Tolo, the former occupier of his body, travels through the southern principality fighting off the strange invaders and helping warriors regroup. Nirati Anturasi finds herself living in her own imaginary land after her death, created by her grandfather, and consorting with the man who nearly destroyed the empire hundreds of years ago.

That's a lot to digest. Each chapter changes point of view. It was about the eighth chapter before a familiar character came back. It was a little much to keep in the mind at once, though the story is broad enough to require it. The pace is pretty fast, and there are definitely a lot of little details that get left out and referred to later on. This tactic can work well if done with skill, and I think the author does well here. The scenes for each character take place at distinct events, skipping the parts that can be glossed over. Still, the brief chapters left me sometimes feeling I was reading a treatment of a story instead of the story itself. There are so many characters that none of them is very deep, though there are some lively ones.

Parts must have been fun to write, like the scenes in Ixill, the land of wild magic. The great battle between the empress and her rival took place there and unleashed magic into the land, where it turns things into strange versions of themselves. The twist at the end was a lot of fun too.

It's a pretty good middle novel of a trilogy (assuming there are only three volumes), and I'll give it a B+. Some in the middle does get a little slow, and one wonders where everything is going, or if anything important is going to happen. That and the short chapters jumping around made it a slightly hard read. But it was very enjoyable and worth reading. I'll definitely be looking for the next book when it's released next year.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Surgeon's Mate

Patrick O'Brian's The Surgeon's Mate takes over where the previous book left off. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin arrive in Halifax, Nova Scotia on the Shannon, the ship that has defeated an American frigate for the first time in the war of 1812. The story follows them on their passage to Britain, where Jack sees his wife and children for the first time in what must be two years. He has financial problems with the man who has convinced him that Jack has a silver mine on his propery. But he doesn't say long, joining Maturin on a trip to an island in the Baltic where Catalan troops are stationed for Napoleon.

This is where things get interesting. We get to see Jack's skill with a ship, the politics involved with the many nations involved in the war, and a little of Stephen's diplomatic skills with the Catalan troops. We don't actually get to see Stephen negotiate with the troops. He's part Catalan, and has to convince them that their countrymen are no longer fighting for Napoleon but against him, and they should give up the island to the British.

The maneuvers to be able to reach the island take up a good part of the middle of the book, since the last British ship to approach was shot with mortars and exploded, killing all on board. Jack has to take a smaller ship and capture a Dutch merchant ship, and commandeer that ship to get it near the island. The chase and the ensuing battle are very entertaining.

On leaving the island and escorting the troop transports, Jack ends up giving chase to a French ship, getting lost in the fog, and eventually grounding on the French coast. They end up in a prison in Brittany, and get taken to Paris. The authorities are on to Stephen and his work as an intelligence agent. The subsequent events and escape attempts are also entertaining.

The title refers to Stephen's attempt to get Diana to marry him at the beginning of the book. As an English woman living in American, her immigration status and suspicions as being a spy are unclear. Diana puts him off, even when he suggests the marriage will help the child she is carrying. They travel to Paris to a conference for natural scientists (before the Baltic expedition), and Diana ends up staying there. Stephen believes that he's only interested in Diana's hand for legal reasons, since he doesn't feel for her the way he used to. But by the end of the story, he has come full circle and wants to marry Diana also because he really loves her.

This story has a lot more action that the previous one. The pace keeps moving, and the scenes keep changing. There are all sorts of elements that come into play, from Stephen's work as an agent to Jack's infidelities in Canada, to Stephen's love for Diana, to Jack's maneuvers with his ship. The story keeps going from one place to another, and never slows down. Definitely a strong and satisfying episode in the series, I'll give it an A.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

American Gods

The theme behind American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, is that the gods of the Old World came to the New World along with their followers. The old gods, including those of the Norse, the Irish, the Indian, the Egyptian, the African, the Russian, and others, are fading away, and the new gods of America are ascending.

The book details the events surrounding a big clash between the old and new gods. The old gods are losing their potentcy due to their followers dying away and losing their beliefs. Obviously the gods need followers to keep their powers. Americans apparently worship new gods such as Media, the Internet, and Money.

The main character, who we only know as Shadow, leaves prison after learning that his wife has just died. He meets a man calling himself Wednesday, who convinces Shadow to be his bodyguard. Shadow comes to understand that Wednesday is really Odin, and he is traveling to meet fellow gods and get them to join him in the fight against the new gods.

Much of the book is devoted to scenes where they meet new gods and discuss the problems facing them. They travel across the country, mostly by care but sometimes by plane. Most of the gods are reluctant to join Wednesday, since he has a reputation as a con man. But he has allies, and convinces others of the need to fight against the new gods, who are determined to wipe out the old ones.

Shadow spends a good amount of time in a small town called Lakeside in a cold northern state in the winter. There Wednesday says he will be safe from the other side, who has kidnapped him and interrogated him. He only escaped because his wife, back from the grave, comes to kill the kidnappers and release him.

The story starts strong, gets bogged down in the middle, and has a somewhat satisfying end. There's a pretty good twist (keep in mind Wednesday's reputation). Shadow goes through a lot, including a trip through the underworld, or afterlife, but at least he has guides from the people he's met. But I don't think the story as a whole works as well as it could. The middle third is too slow, and I was a bit disappointed. Seeing Shadow and Wednesday go "backstage", into a shadow realm, and then visit a Native American spirit, was the high point.

I'd give the book a B. Somehow I expected a little more for a book with its setup. But it was generally satisfying, with an interesting theme. The plot lines and themes did come together pretty well.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I figure anyone who is going to read this book already has. My comments here probably won't make much of a difference either way. Seems like most people either love or hate Harry Potter, but I'm strangely in the middle. I find J.K. Rowlings's books interesting, but mostly on a juvenile level. They're probably great for kids and teens, but there really pretty light.

That being said, Order of the Phoenix is certainly the darkest volume yet, and perhaps the deepest. It covers Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts, and the summer before. In fact, it takes about 200 pages before Harry actually steps onto the grounds at Hogwarts (the book is 870). The entire first book was only 309 pages. That say something about the bloat. The whole thing could have using paring down by about 100-200 pages.

Harry is concerned about the return of his nemesis, Lord Voldemort. But he's also troubled by the fact that many people in the magical world don't believe Harry's story about Voldemort's return and events at the end of book 4. The credibility problem, where his adversaries call Harry arrogant and an attention obsessed storyteller, creates a lot of tension and empathy for Harry, but frankly it got pretty tired. I can only hope that (SPOILER) with the head of the Ministry of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, finally believing that Voldemort is back and others falling in line, this all means that the "nobody believes Harry when he says evil has returned" plot device is in the past.

Ron and Hermione are back of course. I was pleased with one student's question about why Hermione is in Gryffindor when all the smart kids are in Ravenclaw. I had been thinking the same thing myself, and I wonder if fan comments led the author to slip that in. Ron is a prefect, and has to deal with his own troublemaking brothers. The real problem is of course the new professor for Defense Against the Dark Arts, Dolores Umbridge, an associate of Fudge's. Of course she doesn't believe Harry or even like him. She puts him in detention for saying that Voldemort is back, and even bans him from playing Quidditch (I've never understood why the teachers are always so concerned about the students' private lives and trying to annoy or please them...shouldn't they be above all that?) She sucks up so much power that eventually she convinces Fudge to have her replace Dumbledore as head of the school. Dumbledore is chased off when he takes the blame for Harry's secret classes and acts like he's actually creating the secret army that Fudge suspects. Here's where I have another problem. Dumbledore's actions are somewhat explained, as always, but I have trouble believing that he would 1, let someone like Umbridge be in charge of students he's supposed to protect, especially Harry, and 2, leave the school to her and not be able to protect any of them. We can guess that he's keeping an eye on them from afar, but he doesn't do a very good job of it. I know he's not as powerful, having been stripped of some of his positions by Fudge and his followers, but he's still got followers of his own.

Dumbledore says something very wise at his usual end-of-term dialogue with Harry (it seems he only will talk to Harry at the end of the school year, leaving the rest of the year to be very mysterious and have Harry get irritated with him). "Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young..." This put succintly something that I've thought for years, older people forget what it was like to be young. So suddently I saw Harry's petulance and withdrawing and selfishness in a new light. He was jealous of Ron being prefect; why? did he really want the job? He'd never expressed an interest, and in fact had made fun of Ron's older brother. But it's a typical reaction for a teenager (well, typical enough for some). And when he doesn't want to talk to Dumbledore about his problems, instead blaming him for being distant (!), I can understand that too.

Much of the heart of the story is Harry's relationship to his godfather Sirius, who is is only connection to his parents. Harry alternates between wanting to help protect Sirius and seek his protection. I wasn't happy to see Snape played in a different light. We get to see his shabby treatment by Harry's father and friends, through a memory of Snape's. Harry's father turns out to be a jerk! Snape is the one who gets picked on. It is interesting to see the elder Potter as something more than an idealized dream. I'm glad that it helps Harry grow. But I had gotten used to Snape being the older version of Draco, sort of always annoying and nasty and, well, unfair. Somehow it undercuts his personality by making his treatment of Harry a symptom of how he was treated by Harry's Dad. If his treatment in school is part of what made him so nasty, then why doesn't Harry's general goodness conduce him to treat Harry better. We find out that the students all do better potions work when he's not around anyway.

Snape should be Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in book 7.

In the end, Harry and his friends survive (mostly) and they all learn something more than spells and potions. This is a stronger book than the first few, but not quite satisfying as either a children's book or an adult book. I'll give it a B-. The overall plot works enough to excuse the extra padding and tired formulas. Will I read the next one? Well it's almost inevitable. I'll end up reading it before the movie version comes out. Always like to compare how a book is adapated. The adaptation for this book should be interesting.