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.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Assault on Reason

Al Gore is a hero of mine. I really appreciate his understanding of politics and society. He has a strong mind and is willing to explicate his ideas to others. His latest book, The Assault on Reason, is an attempt to describe the failures of our society and government over the last several years.

Gore has studied the Constitution and the other writings of the founding fathers of the United States. He brings a strond understanding of the kind of civil discourse they believed was necessary for a democracy to function. They also knew about the dangers of the concentration of power, and wisely split the powers of government into separate branches. They wanted a free and strong press, so that the people could discuss the government, and required that governing be open and free of secrets.

The Bush administration has pushed for more and more secrecy in government, which in my mind is one of their greatest crimes. Not far from that is punishing those to want to tell the truth, such as about global warming, or the cost of new Medicare programs, or the need for a follow-up plan for the invasion of Iraq. Moreover, they respond to their critics by calling their un-American and traitors. The truth is, criticizing one's government is very American.

Gore also talks about the use of fear in the rush to war. Bush insisted that war would be his last option, but it was always his first. He confused al Queda and Saddam in the public mind, and always warned about the worst imaginable dangers. Such fear stifled discussion, so that people were ready for war. He also uses fear to insist on more powers, such as holding suspects indefinitely or warrantless wiretapping. The Constitution is clear that such investigations require a warrant from a court, and Congress has bent over backward providing an easy court to grant fast warrants. Yet the administration still insists it is too difficult, and they should have the power to spy on people without any controls.

They have also twisted arguments in favor of the wealthy class. Millions of people go without health coverage, yet they are more concerned about a few wealthy billionaires who might have to pay an inheritance tax. They have convinced millions of people that their well-being depends on tax cuts for the wealthy.

Gore has a well thought out, well researched book. He knows the details of the Bush adminstration's errors, and he knows what our founders would see wrong. He has studied the effects of television on civil discourse, and is discouraged. Instead of a widely read press, we now have the one-way medium of television, where people received information but to not contribute, and politicians spend millions on short TV commercials to present one-sided, simple answers. People read less, and get more information from TV. He sees the Internet as having potential to spread better information and provoke a better civil discourse.

I am impressed with Gore's details and his breadth of knowledge. He quotes Jefferson, Lincoln, Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, Winston Churchill, George Orwell, and many others. He brings a wealth of knowledge from his years in Congress and as Vice President. The book is a strong A. I look forward to seeing how things change in the next administration, whosever it may be.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Cormac McCarthy's novels are filled with a gritty violence, and No Country for Old Men is no exception. The story starts with Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam vet and hunter, when he stumbles on the results of a bad drug deal in the desert one day. There are cars and trucks, dead bodies, automatic weapons, and a truckload of heroin. He follows a trail to another dead man with a case full of money, over 2 million dollars. He takes the money home but returns to check on one man who wasn't dead yet. Two other men find him and chase him, but he manages to get away.

Sheriff Bell is a long time sheriff who finds the crime scene. Chigurh is one of the criminals involved, who kills anybody who gets in his way. He uses a cattle gun to knock out locks and kill people without leaving evidence. He tracks down Moss's trailer after Moss and his wife Carla Jean leave town. Carla Jean goes to her mother's while Llewelyn goes to a hotel where he nearly loses the money to more dealers looking for it. Chigurh tracks Moss to another hotel near the Mexican border, and nearly gets killed. A shootout injures Moss and he travels across the border, leaving the case of money hidden.

Bell talks to Carla Jean, but she won't admit anything to him or help him find her husband. He follows the trial of bodies to the hotel near the border. Moss gets help at a hospital and returns to find his money. Chigurh calls him and tells him that his wife will die unless he hands over the money, but Moss refuses.

Moss picks up a young hitchhiker on the way to his wife, but more criminals catch up with them and kill them in a hotel room. Bell finds them at the crime scene. He comes back later and realizes that Chigurh, who he only knows as the murderer he has been tracking but never seen, has already been there and found the money hidden in an air duct. Bell tells Carla Jean that her husband is dead, but shortly after, Chirgurh follows through on his promise and kills her. The story ends with Bell talking about his past with his uncle, then trying one last time to track down Chirgurh, then finally quitting as sheriff.

Each part starts with a monologue by Bell, as he talks about how hard it is to be a sheriff and how it's getting harder all the time. He knows that the drug dealers are merciless and cold. Chigurh is the embodiment of cold evil, much like the Judge in Blood Meridian. He knows how to kill and won't let anyone stop him. That Bell cannot ever find him shows that he is almost a force of nature, like a ghost the Bell is chasing.

The action is fast and relentless, always on the edge. We see not only shootouts but the deadly results. It's telling that the money Moss uses to make his escapes is always covered with blood. The overall effect of the story is one of tense dread, the anticipation that there will always be more violence. And in the end Chirgurh gets away, is always out there, waiting to work another deadly job. The novel is a solid A. I look forward to seeing the movie.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Sentinel is D. M. Paul's sequel to One Wizard Place. It is a short Young Adult book.

The story starts with Fox Strongbow, a young sentinel, and his mentor Eldin. The sentinels are the protectors of the Elven king, and these are the last two. Fox has completed his training, and Eldin takes him on his final task. They travel to an island in the north to get materials to make his elven cloak: the camouflage skin of a lizard and the tough threads of a giant spider.

They fly their two large birds to the island with little trouble. When getting the spider threads, they have trouble when Eldin gets stuck in a web and one of the giant spiders nearly eats him. But then they leave and travel home. On the way home, an old black dragon attacks them. He wears down Eldin until he finally casts a spell to takes over Eldin's body with his soul.

Drago, the black dragon, takes Eldin's body and hatches a plan to capture the Wyrd, an ancient word of power. He gets a map, and using Eldin's knowledge, steals the key from the Elven city. Fox discovers that his mentor has been possessed, and that they original purpose was to protect the key and the Wyrd.

Fox and Enod, the Elven wizard, meet up with Kase and Murdox, the young man and his wolf-dog partner in the Incantation Enforcement Agency. Together, the four of them travel to the lowest level of the multi-level city of Cloudview, where they find the ancient temple that houses the tablet of the Wyrd. Drago fights a giant flame dragon, defeating it. Fox fights a Nargoyle an defeats it. The party of four catch up with Drago as he looks at the Wyrd and realizes he cannot read it. Kase uses a soul sucker to get the old soul out of Eldin, and everything is saved.

The story is exciting in parts, though slow in others. I did not enjoy the story as much as the first story, though part of that may be the excellent narrator of the audio. The first half of the book is missing fun dialog and play between Kase and Murdox. It is refreshing when they join the story. Fox and Eldin are both quiet, and there isn't much dialog or interaction between them. The fight scenes are pretty good, though a little simple. The different settings are fun.

I found the character of Fox more interesting in theory than in practice. He is almost too good, and too skillful. The nature of his special skill is not really explained, though it could just be that he's good enough to be a sentinel. The plot took one strange turn, Drago's possession of Eldin, which caught my attention. But other than that the story was relatively predictable. Given that only half the book is interesting and missing the best characters, it's only a C+.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Clash of Kings

George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings is the sequel to A Game of Thrones. A lot happens in the time between the two books.

Following King Robert's death, his brothers Stannis and Renly have declared themselves to be kings. Stannis is on the island of Dragonstone, and has allied himself with a priestess for a new god of light. He is biding his time before sending his fleet against King's Landing. Renly, the youngest brother, is slowly marching north and holding tournaments. Between them, King Joffrey, and Robb Stark who has declared himself King of the North, there are now four kings in the land.

Arya travels north with a group of men and boys destined to serve on the Wall. They are attacked by Lannister men, and only Arya and a few boys manage to get away. They end up captured by more Lannister men, and somehow survive until they are forced to work at Harrenhal, a huge ancient castle rumored to be haunted. One of the men she frees tells her he will kill three people for her. She has him kill a knight and her evil boss. She gets him to help free imprisoned Stark allies, who take over the castle. When the new lord of the castle says they will leave and not take her, she manages to escape with two of her friends.

Arya's sister Sansa still has to deal with being engaged to King Joffrey, who has his knights beat her when he gets angry. She befriends a knight who was made into a fool, and who says he will try to help her escape.

Jon Snow travels with the night watch over the Wall into wildling territory. He is sent with some rangers to track the movement of a wildling army. He captures a young woman and ends up letting her go. He and the ranger end up on the run, and the ranger tells him to join up with the wildlings if he has the chance, so he can find out their plans. When they end up trapped, Jon ends up killing his friend to prove his loyalty.

Daenerys, the last queen of her line, travels through foreign lands looking for a way to get her throne back. She ends up in the city of Qarth, where she deals with rival traders and mysterious wizards.

Catelyn, Robb's mother, travels south to meet with King Renly. When he is mysteriously murdered, she runs away with Brienne, his closest guard. Back at her home of Riverrun, she tends her dying father and confronts Jaime Lannister, the queen's brother and true father of King Joffrey.

The central story is Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf. As the king's hand, he is in charge of running the kingdom. He connives with the other leaders of the city, mostly for his benefit. He vies with his sister Cersei for power. He comes up with brilliant plans to solidify the family's power, including plans for defending the city from Stannis. In the final battle, the city is narrowly saved, but Tyrion ends up injured and under the care of his vengeful sister.

Meanwhile, Theon Greyjoy, a twenty-year-old man who had been a ward of the Starks, returns to his home on the Iron Islands, where he finds a demanding father and conniving sister. His fathers sends him to attack the Stark's allies on the coast. Instead, Theon makes a sneak attack against the Stark's home of Winterfell, taking it over. When the young Starks Bran and Rickon try to escape, he rides after them, bringing home bodies that he claims are theirs. In truth, they hide in the crypts, and when they come out, Winterfell has been demolished by another northern lord who takes advantage of the situation. The boys are hiding with one wildling woman and a brother and sister from the swamplands. In the end, the boys split up and go separate ways.

This book is a fine sequel; it extends and expands on the first book. There are new characters and new intrigues. Tyrion is the most fascinating character. He shows sympathy and even concern for Sansa, but still fights for Joffrey, mainly out of family loyalty. The rivalry between Renly and Stannis is a driving force of the novel. If the two could combine forces, they could defeat their enemies, but their personalities are entirely at odds. Between Catelyn and her sons, we see the sad results of war. Arya is also a compelling character, and we root for her to overcome deadly obstacles. There is more mystery and magic in this book, and it paints an enchanting picture.

The author shows even more minor characters. Sometimes it proves overwhelming, but it creates a full world. The characters are varied and colorful. They prove resourceful, though many are ruthless. Everywhere are the terrible results of war. Arya goes through hell, as do many other characters. I am definitely interested in the next book, which is a big plus. It's also an A-. I look forward to finding out what else can happen to the characters.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Hammer of God

It's a strange feeling to listen to an audiobook and experience deja vu the whole time. Arthur C. Clarke's The Hammer of God was so familiar, that I finally realized that I must have listened to it before, and forgotten about it.

Robert Singh is a space pilot, and we follow him from Earth to the Moon to Mars, and then he becomes captain of the Goliath, a large ship in Jupiter's orbit to monitor asteroids. When an asteroid is sighted that is headed for Earth, the Goliath is sent to retrieve Atlas, a mass driver, and take it to the asteroid to move it enough so that it will miss the Earth.

Everything goes fine, until just after Atlas begins firing and an accident blows it up. The crew is ready to leave for the Moon or Mars, until David, the ship's AI, points out that the Goliath itself can serve as a mass driver. The crew makes the adjustments, and the asteroid, named Kali, starts moving. It turns out that the explosion was due to a saboteur belonging to a faith called Chrislam, a melding of Christianity and Islam. Before Kali gets close to Earth, pockets of ice start heating up and spewing gases, pushing it off course. But it turns out it doesn't have too much of an effect.

The government of Earth decides to send a nuclear weapon, made from old designs, to blow up Kali into smaller pieces. Unfortunately, the changes in Kali get Goliath stuck, but the bomb still hits the target. But due to unforeseen circumstances, the trigger does not fire since the missile is moving too fast. Kali splits into two pieces from the impact, one pieces misses the Earth, and the other grazes the atmosphere.

The story is filled with science and history. The author tells about the creation of asteroids and their impacts on the Earth. He also talks about the features of Mars and how they got their names.

I found the characters to be so shallow as to be nearly one dimensional. Only Singh has any depth, and it's mostly from his life history. The dialogue is somewhat more interesting. There is a good bit of suspense about how or whether Kali will impact with the Earth, especially with the wrinkle of the doomsday cult. But that part is not fully developed. Clarke is more into the technical details of space travel and asteroids, which he nails. He's a very scientific and detailed writer. The book reads almost like an engaging textbook more so than a scientific novel. Given it's lack of real drama or strong characters, it's only a B-.