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.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Thirteen-Gun Salute

The Thirteen-Gun Salute is the 13th novel in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. It takes the pair from England to the South China Sea.

Jack Aubrey has just been reinstated as a captain in the Royal Navy, after being stricken from the rolls due to a stock scandal case in the previous book. He takes the Surprise, now a privateer, out with Stephen Maturin. They are called away by Sir Joseph Blaine, who wishes Jack to take the Diane, which Jack captured in the previous book and the Navy put in service, to a distant country to help a treaty get signed. They will meet with the Surprise at a prearranged rendezvous.

They take with them Ambassador Fox and his servants. Fox turns out to be an unpleasant man who is full of himself, though he is very capable.

The voyage to Pulo Prabang, near modern-day Malaysia, is generally uneventful. The action starts when the ship reaches its destination. In addition to the English contingent, the French have sent a ship with their own ambassadors, including the English traitors Wray and Ledward. Dr. Maturin makes connections with the locals, including a fellow naturalist. He schemes against Wray and the French. Things fall his way when the Sultan's pleasure boy is found with Wray and Ledward. The boy is executed, and the two traitors barely escape with their own lives. Later, they are found dead, and Stephen brings them in to his naturalist friend for dissection.

With the French disgraced, Fox gets the English treaty signed. Captain Aubrey takes the Diane out, and Fox quickly makes himself disagreeable with the rest of the crew. They sail around looking for the Surprise, stopping at several islands. Before they can make the rendezvous, the ship runs aground on an hidden reef. As the tide goes down, Jack empties the water, canon, and stores from the ship to a nearby island. He sends Fox ahead to Batavia in a boat. Soon after, a storm comes up and breaks the ship apart, leaving the men stranded on the island.

I found the book a little hard to get into at first. The voyage out took too long and was too uneventful. But the action with the Sultan is exciting and suspenseful. Stephen Maturin visits a Buddhist temple on a mountain, providing a nice side story. The usual wit and charm is prevalent throughout the book. Fox turns out to be an interesting character, capable and cunning, but somehow clueless and arrogant, to the point that he ends up being the butt of jokes. I think this book, while good, is not one of the best of the series. I'll give it a B.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


One of the reasons I enjoy science fiction is I like to see visions of the distant future. There is a precept that technology advanced enough seems like magic, so part of the allure is the same as in fantasy, reading about fantastic sights and people. Especially intriguing is the idea of time travel. Every novel about time travel discusses the technology behind it, and most discuss the intricacies of what it involves. None I have read have gone into such depths as Neal Asher's Cowl.

The foundation of the story of Cowl is that in the distant future, two different races of humans make war on each other, eventually using time travel as a weapon. The Umbrathane and Heliothane have taken their war through time, bringing along innocent bystanders throughout history. The Umbrathane leader is Cowl, a genetically engineered creature who is both superintelligent and ruthless. Cowl has so little regard for human life that he destroys Jupiter's moon Callisto and the millions of Heliothane on it.

The story starts with Polly, a teenage prostitute in the twenty-second century, and a man named Nandru, who comes to her and embroils her in a dangerous scam. Nandru ends up dead, and Polly ends up with a scale from Cowl's immense time traveling beast, which sends her back in time. Joining her is Tack, an advanced agent from her time who also gets a piece of the scale in him. While Polly is dragged back in time, with Nandru's personality downloaded to a device attached to her, Tack is captured by Saphothere, an advanced Heliothane warrior from Cowl's time. Saphothere takes Tack back in time to Sauros, a Heliothane base in the Jurassic.

Tack is augmented physically and mentally. Polly struggles to survive as the scale, attached to her arm, drags her further into the past. Saphothere and Tack survive an attack by Cowl, then head back in time to reach his base. Cowl has set up a base just before the Nodus, when life begins to form on Earth, a time beyond the Heliothane's ability to reach him due to the immense power requirements. Polly and Tack and Saphothere all reach Cowl's base and have a part in the final battle against Cowl.

This synopsis is very brief, and there are many double crosses and intrigues throughout the book. I was struck by the plans and plots. Cowl is a formidable enemy, with vast amounts of power and technology at his disposal. The author does a great job of describing the technology that enables time travel, if not in complete detail. There is always a bit of hand waving at this point, but the author at least tries to settle the amount of energy that is required for the time travel. Interestingly, time travel is achieved through organic processes. And there is always talk about how different actions affect the ability to travel forward or backward in a time line.

The story is both large and personal. We follow Polly closely as she deals with the primal act of survival against dinosaurs and the elements. We also follow Tack as he becomes a weapon to attack Cowl, is reprogrammed with more abilities, and finally loses his programming and must create his own personality. The trip through history is entertaining, especially watching evolution in reverse, and seeing the Earth as a primordial barren wasteland. The book shows time travel in the extreme, discusses the evils of war, and shows personal survival against great odds. A-

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is best described as magical realism. It's the tale of a man named Alan, or Allen, or Andy, or Albert. His father is a mountain; his mother is a washing machine. His brothers are a fortune teller, an island, a dead man, and set of Russian nesting dolls.

That sums up the tone of the story. Alan's background and fantastical family defines his life, and he is always coping with ripples of his past. Alan lives in Toronto, where he has bought and rebuilt a new home. He meets his neighbors, one of whom is Mimi, a woman with wings that she cuts off when they grow too large. Her boyfriend Krishna dislikes Alan from the start.

Alan has opened and closed many successful businesses. He meets a punker named Kurt who searches dumpsters for computer parts to build wireless access points. His goal is to blanket part of Toronto with free wireless Internet access, and Alan immediately jumps on board enthusiastically.

The story alternates between Alan and Kurt's attempts to get store owners to install free access points and work on free machinery, and Alan's history with his brothers growing up in the mountain. As the oldest, Alan helps his brothers grow up and deal with being different. However, Davey, the fourth child, grows up with a chip on his shoulder and terrorizes the other brothers. Eventually Alan and the others kill Davey and bury him in Caleb, the island. But years later, Davey returns.

Alan has to deal with Davey again when two of the nesting dolls comes to see him and tell him the third has been kidnapped. Eventually the other two disappear too, and Alan tries to fails to track Davey. Later, Alan invites Mimi to stay with him to get away from her thuggish boyfriend Krishna. Alan helps her see that her wings are an important part of her, not something to be shamed about. The two of them go to Alan's home, and on the way they find the body of George, the smallest brother. They leave it at the cave where Alan grew up.

When they return to Alan's house, Alan finds that Davey and Krishna have teamed up against him. He also finds Billy, the second brother and fortune teller. With all the players together, Alan manages to escape his past and take Mimi with him.

I enjoyed reading this book. It had a good mix of reality and fantasy. Alan's past was presented in such a realistic manner that it becomes easy to suspend disbelief. He is an earnest character, so it's easy to identify with him. He's also dealing with his past and growing up in a strange family. I read the return of Davey as the impossibility of completely escaping one's past. No matter how much he wants to, he cannot live as if his family didn't exist--they are an important part of who he is. He uses his own background to help Mimi cope with herself, and she ends up truly embracing her body instead of rejecting it.

I was a little put off by how the story flowed. After Alan discovers that his youngest brothers are in trouble, I expected him to go after them and find Davey. But instead he goes back to work with his mission of making the free wireless network. I found the two different parts of the book a little strange, like they didn't go together very well. In the end though, the two worlds do come together, at least in a literal sense. I also found the very end to be a little jarring, as if I didn't trust how the story was unfolding. There's a certain amount of trust an author has to bring to the story, and it almost fell apart at the end. But it held up well enough to earn a B+.