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, August 27, 2008

Fire Logic

Every once in a while one comes across a book that has an excellent blend of plot and character, setting and theme. Laurie J. Marks' fantasy novel Fire Logic is such a book.

The background is a land in turmoil. The land of Shaftal has been invaded by the Sainnites, and the government has been overthrown. Zanja, a fire blood, is a member of the Ashawala'i, a tribe of people in the lands north of Shaftal. When the Sainnites attack her people, she is captured and tortured, the last of her people.

But she is rescued by Karis, an earth blood woman who is addicted to smoke, the Sainnite drug that has pervaded Shaftal. Karis heals her and takes her to her home. Karis' protector Norina, an air blood truthteller, forces Zanja to leave and join the Paladins under Emil, a commander at South Hill and another fire blood. There Zanja proves her worth, giving the Paladins information using her prescience. Zanja comes to realize that the Sainnites destroying South Hill have their own prescient, and eventually she meets him. What follows is an intricate dance between rivals, all the more intriguing when the enemy seer, Medric, announces he wishes to come to the other side and make amends.

Zanja is soon betrayed by one of her own and end up in the care of Norina. But soon they discover that Karis has been kidnapped and subjected to enough smoke to kill her. Zanja rescues her with the help of Emil and Medric. Later, the same people kidnap Zanja to for Karis to come to her aid. Karis finally connects with the Earth and rids herself of the smoke addiction. It is an awakening that is physical and spiritual, as well as sexual. Once again Karis rescues Zanja and takes her home, where they finally consummate their relationship.

It is a pleasant experience to read a story that is so fresh and interesting. I was genuinely surprised by some of the plot twists. At every turn, not only is there a new plot development, but we learn something about the characters. The powers of the characters are very subtle--the fire logic is not a wild flagrant kind of magic but a kind of extended intuition. The powers and the characters and the plots complement and build on each other.

The characters are strong and well developed. They stay away from fantasy stereotypes, and the results are refreshing. Zanja is a fiercely independent woman and a strong warrior. She and Karis share a close bond after Karis rescues her. Their relationship goes through shifts and transformations. Karis goes from the rescuer to the rescued, then regains her true powers and saves Zanja again. Emil is an intelligent leader in a tough position. Norina and Medric are less well drawn, but are still strong characters who help drive the story.

Karis' ability to heal and her painful weakness mirror the land that is split by the two peoples. Health and healing are a central theme of the story. Karis must heal herself, with the help of her friends, in order to heal others and the land. Nearly everyone is broken in one way or another. The ending is a terrific wrap-up of the plot. It's a great book and I look forward to reading the sequel. A

Sunday, August 24, 2008

On the Beach

Nevil Shute's On the Beach is a novel written in the 1950's about the aftermath of a nuclear war. It takes place in Melbourne, Australia where the residents are waiting for the winds to bring the deadly radiation south.

Peter Holmes is an officer in the Australian navy with a wife and baby daughter. He is assigned to a U.S. submarine under the command of Captain Dwight Towers. The Americans have placed their ships under Australian command since everybody in the U.S. and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is dead. Peter invites Dwight to visit him and his family, and also invites Moira Davidson, a young woman, to keep him company. Moira, a heavy drinker since the end of the war, gets along fabulously with Dwight, whose wife and family in Connecticut are dead. The two of them have a close relationship throughout the book, despite Dwight's insistence on remaining faithful to his wife. In fact, Dwight's steadfastness in holding to his rules is a central theme of the story. As the world falls apart around him, he clings to what he know.

Dwight and Peter take two trips in the submarine to test radiation levels around the world, along with a relative of Moira's named John Osborne. Their last trip is to the northeast Pacific, where they confirm that everyone is dead, and they lost one of their crew who wants to die in his hometown. They return with the somber news, and everyone is preparing for the worst. The radiation has moved continually southward, killing everyone in its path. People are dealing with it by acting as though there will still be a future. They plant gardens, fix up their houses, and even have a car race. Moira begins to sober up and takes classes to learn typing and shorthand.

People struggle with the decision to take the pills that will end their lives quickly. Nobody wants to die with the terrible symptoms they've heard about. Peter watches his wife and daughter pass away. The story ends as Moira drives to the ocean to catch a glimpse of Dwight's submarine as they take it out to sea to sink it.

This is not your average post-apocalyptic story. The whole story is about people dealing with the finality of death, not only their own but their civilization and the whole human race. Even pets and cattle are not immune. People deal with it in different ways. Dwight clings to the rules that he has lived his life by. His denial is almost pathological, but it lends him the strength to keep living. He acts as though his wife and children are still alive, even though he understands that everyone in the U.S. is dead.

The others all have their coping mechanisms. It is a grueling story to endure, and it makes one wonder how one would deal with such a horrendous fate. The characters are illustrated by their words and actions dealing with the inevitable winds. They live their life as best they can. The story is a bit dated in the attitudes and morals. I was half expecting some crazy scheme to solve all their problems, but they accept their fates. At the end, they start to drive their cars again, and it's both a refreshing reprieve from the coming fate, and an acceptance that there's nothing more to live for. B+.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Once Upon a Summer Day

In Once Upon a Summer Day, author Dennis L. McKiernan has created an expanded version of a familiar fairy tale. It takes place in a fairy land of many different worlds separated by curtains of darkness between them. Four of these worlds are the the worlds of Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn.

Prince Borel of Winterwood is sleeping at his brother's manor in Summerwood when he dreams of a fair maiden in distress. When he awakes he believes that the woman is real and decides to go find her. He travels to his home in Winterwood and rests for a day in his manor, then travels to find a seer to help him. On the way he stops by the house of the witch Hradian. He finds an incriminating letter there, but before he can get away the witch arrives and casts a spell, knocking him out.

He awakes in a dungeon without his weapons. He manages to escape from there and evade the goblins and trolls, with the help of a field sprite named Flic and his bee friend Buzzer. The three of them travel together, Buzzer leading them by taking them to where flowers are that Borel remembers. As Borel sleeps, he visits the damsel again and gets to know her. He discovers that her name is Chelle and she has been imprisoned by a witch. Borel realizes he knows her and her family, so he asks Flic and Buzzer to take him to her home.

On the way, they help a gnome escape from a difficult situation, and the gnome gives them aid in return. They discover that Chelle's home had completely disappeared along with her family and their servants, over eleven years before. Borel gets more help from one of the Fates, tames a Pooka (a wild changeling who is luring people to their deaths), helps a band of horsemen under a fairy curse, plays chess against a fairy king, gets help from more fates, and rides the king's horse to the Endless Sands. All the time he is fighting the Moon, for he knows Chelle's fate will be sealed at the next full moon.

Finally he reaches the manor of Chelle's family, fights his way through deadly thorns, makes his way up the tower while resisting the effects of the sleep spell, and rescues Chelle. The two of them manage to escape from the Endless Sands with the help of Flic and the the horsemen (now uncursed). He and Chelle, whom he has almost bedded in their dream visits but barely managed to stay chaste, go back to his manor, killing the witch Hradian, then go back to Summerwood to see his brother's wedding. After the wedding, they discover that with the witch's death all the people in Chelle's home are released from the spell and the manor is returned to is proper place after twelve years.

I found this book to be very entertaining. It was a little slow at first but really began to pick up when Borel is in the dungeon, and then it is full of action after that. It is an interesting plot device to have Borel and Chelle get to know each other in their dreams, especially since Chelle doesn't seem to realize what is going on. Borel fights his urges, not wanting to take advantage of Chelle in the situation. He gets help on his quest from his companions Flic and Buzzer and many others on the way.

One of the best things about the story is the language that McKiernan uses. He employs great fantasy words, including many French words that give the story a romantic feel. The effect works wonderfully. The characters and the narration give a great sense of a different world. It is truly the best thing about the novel. The characters are somewhat interesting but not very deep. Borel is motivated to rescue Chelle because of his intense connection with her through her dreaming, and the plot follows from there. There are typical twists in the plot, and each one is challenging and intriguing. The setting of the many different worlds of fairy feel like they have a lot of potential, even though they seem pretty sparsely populated. One of the best parts of the story is the banter between Borel and his helper sprite Flic. Flic turns out to be helpful and intelligent, and he almost could carry a story on his own. Overall, it was a pleasant read, and I think I'll be reading more of the series. B+

Friday, August 15, 2008

Old Man's War

John Scalzi's Old Man's War is a science fiction novel about a future where humanity is at war against many other species in the galaxy. Aliens and offworld humans are not allowed on Earth due to quarantine laws, but Earth and the rest of humanity are protected by the Colonial Defense Force. Humans are given a choice to enter the CDF when they turn 75. They are made young again and given training, then sent off to fight aliens.

John Perry joins the CDF in the beginning of the story. Perry's wife Kathy had died years before of a stroke. Perry is taken to orbit with other seventy-five-year-olds where they get on a ship headed for their training. They are given new bodies, genetically engineered and improved with special options like a BrainPal. Thrilled with their new bodies, they all begin having sex with each other.

When they reach the training camp the fun is over. They explore the limits of their new bodies. After training they are sent on missions to protect humanity. Except that in many cases, they are really the aggressors. The CDF drives off the residents of planets that humans find attractive. Perry comes to the realization of the ridiculous and violent nature of their attacks while stomping on one inch tall aliens on a planet they had colonized. Such a situation exaggerates the vicious nature of some of the human's attacks. Perry and some of the other soldiers question the strategy of violence, but in the end they follow orders. The one soldier who tries to make a truce with an alien species is blown to bits. This drives in the message that the galaxy is very different from anything the soldiers knew in their previous lives.

On a mission to defend a human colony from an alien attack, Perry's ship is blasted with a missile and his shuttle barely makes it out of the ship. The pilot gets the shuttle to the planet but it is blown up before it reaches the surface and Perry barely survives. He is rescued by two members of the CDF Special Forces, and realizes that one is his wife. He discovers that the soldier was created from his wife's DNA after his wife died before she could make her commitment to join the CDF. He and the new soldier have a bit of trouble at first but soon they get along well. She wants to get to know the person where her DNA came from and he wants to know the person created from Kathy's DNA. The story ends with a battle to retake the planet they lost to the aliens, and Perry heroically saving the soldier with his wife's DNA.

I enjoyed reading the book. It was full of action and humor. It is easy to join with John Perry as he discovers his new body and enjoys its new abilities. The battle scenes are pretty good though not great. I appreciated that there was some examination of the war on the part of the main character, even if it wasn't explored very deeply. There are certainly a variety of aliens and tactics and battles.

The novel is part war story and part love story. In the end Perry gets a sort of reunion with his wife, or at least a woman with her body. It makes a difference to him when he realizes he might have something better to live for. But most of the story is taken up with the new life Perry has chosen and the changes he and his fellow recruits go through. The dialogue is strong, and the characters are varied and well-drawn. As usual, the technology is whiz-bang, and often used for laughs. The book was fun, and I really felt for Perry through the story. B+

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Truelove

The Truelove is the 15th installment in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. The story starts as the Surprise sails east from Sydney. Soon Captain Aubrey, while inspecting the ship, discovers a woman stowed away. One of the midshipmen, Mr. Oakes, has brought her aboard to get her away from her confinement in Australia. After considering abandoning the two of them on an island, he decides to let them get married and take the to a South American port.

The Surprise is approached by a ship with a message for Captain Aubrey. His new orders are to go to the Hawaiian islands to settle a dispute there between rival monarchs and secure a superior position for England. Most of the journey is uneventful, the story is taken up with getting to know the young woman, Clarissa, the the problems her presence creates. In spite of getting married to Mr. Oakes, Clarissa has two other officers at odds over her affections. Jack is oblivious until Stephen informs him of the divisions on his ship.

After a brief action in the Hawaiian islands, Jack sends Mr. Oakes as prizemaster of the Truelove, with Clarissa on board with him.

This novel is light on the action and heavy on the characters. There was very little suspense throughout the story. Most of the plot involved Clarissa's presence on the ship and the difficulties that causes. There was less action involving the ship and any danger. I was a bit disappointed, because I was used to great sea chases or battles or even fights against storms. The characters were interesting, especially the relationship between Clarissa and Stephen, but I didn't feel it was enough to carry the whole book. The action at the end was not only brief but described by witnesses after the fact. It was almost like the action was an afterthought. At times I felt myself having a hard time staying interested in the stories. There were good interactions and divisiveness on the ship. Yet the lack of any real suspense was a letdown. C+

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Dava Sobel's book Longitude is an historical account of the search for the solution of finding the longitude of a location at sea.
Finding a latitude had been a common skill for centuries, based on the location of the North Star, or other stars in the southern latitudes. But finding a longitude was a difficult task and many ships ended up way off course or even crashing due to not knowing exactly where they were.

After a major sea disaster losing hundreds of lives, the English Parliament passes the Longitude Act in 1714, promising 20000 pounds for whoever can solve the problem. Many astronomers devote much time to methods of determining longitude by using the heavens. However, the methods are complicated and lengthy, requiring detailed charts and hours of computations. They also depend on either the Moon or Jupiter being visible.

John Harrison, a man trained in carpentry but not timekeeping, takes it upon himself to create a timepiece accurate enough to keep time on a ship traveling across the world. Harrison had already built a clock tower made of wood that still tells time to this day. After years of work, he demonstrates the H-1, a large timepiece weighing 75 pounds that was accurate to within a few seconds a day. The Board of Longitude was pleased and sent the chronometer on a voyage to be tested. It did well but he had to create another one, the H-2, which took many years to complete.

Finally after many years he produces a chronometer only inches big. The H-4 is much lighter and more accurate than its predecessors. Yet Harrison and his son have trouble convincing the Board that their solution is the winner. The Board is full of astronomers who think that a purely astronomical method is the only answer. Finally, soon before his death, Harrison's chronometer is awarded the prize.

I found the story very interesting and informative. It is full of details on astronomy and history. I would never have guessed that the pursuit of the solution of longitude would be as long, as complicated, nor as political, as it was. The chronometers themselves are complex and breathtaking in their ingenuity. I might have liked a little more detail on the working of the pieces, but the book did a fine overview. I think anyone interested in naval history or navigation needs to read this book. A-

The Children of Húrin

Reading Tolkien's The Children of Húrin is like returning to a group of old friends. Yet the friends have changed over the years. The Middle-Earth in this book is the First Age, but the story is woven through snippets of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. The style is much less ornate than the former, and much more detailed than the latter. In some ways it is more accessible than either.

Húrin is a lord of men who goes to war against Morgoth, the evil lord of the First Age. He is joined by other men and elves, including the elven king of the hidden city of Gondolin. Morgoth manages to defeat them and enslave Húrin. When his wife doesn't hear from him, she sends their son Túrin to live with the elves in the forest of Doriath. There he is fostered and becomes a powerful warrior. He leaves when he has a fight with an elf whom he ends up accidentally killing, though the elven king Thingol forgives him after he leaves.

Túrin becomes an outlaw and leads a band of ruffians. When his elven friend Beleg finds him and tells him he can return to Doriath, he refuses. They stick together and fight orcs with the outlaws. Eventually the orcs rout the band and capture Túrin. Beleg follows them close to Morgoth's lair before he is able to find and release Túrin. But Túrin is dazed and accidentally kills Beleg in his confusion. Another escaped elf takes him to the hidden elven city of Nargothrond. There he becomes a leader and convinces them to build a bridge across the river. This turns out to be their undoing as the orcs are able to cross the bridge into the city and destroy it. Glaurung the dragon helps them destroy the city and toys with Túrin before letting him go.

Meanwhile, his father's lands have been overrun by men who follow Morgoth, and his mother and young sister, whom he has never met, face trouble. They travel to Doriath where they discover that Túrin has left long ago and hasn't returned. They insist on traveling to Nargothrond to find him, but are driven away by Glaurung, who kills most of their companions. Túrin's sister Nienor loses her memory and is rescued by the men of Brethil. There, Túrin finds her after having visited his homeland and not finding his family. He is entranced by Nienor, though neither of them have a clue that they are related. They end up marrying, and soon after Túrin decides to fight Glaurung as he makes his way north. He succeeds in killing the dragon but is wounded, and when the dragon in its dying throes tells Nienor that she has found her brother, she throws herself off a ravine. When Túrin discovers what has happened, he kills himself with his blade.

There are many details that one would expect in a story about Middle-Earth. There is Túrin's special blade, forged by the elves; there's his dragon helm, legacy of his father's; there are lots of battles, though none are described in great detail. The story is told is a heroic/mythic style. It is a quick read, though it doesn't have quite as deep characterization as LOTR. As a travelogue, it is a great way to visit the mythic places of the First Age, especially Doriath and Nargothrond. There is always a sense that there is a bigger world out there, or that there is a lot more to the story that is abbreviated. The narrator explicitly says at one point that only a small part of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears will be told, that part bearing on Húrin.

Through Húrin his children are cursed, and everywhere that Túrin goes he brings doom. Of course, this may just be the nature of the dark times and his willingness to be at the forefront of the battles against Morgoth. For the most part, the story is a dark one, though there are some bright spots, such as the killing of Glaurung. I think it shows an important part of the vast history of Middle-Earth, one that most fans of LOTR would be interested in reading. I enjoyed it a lot. A.