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.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rule 34

Rule 34 is a science fiction novel by Charles Stross that takes place in the near future. The use of 3D printers has become popular, and there is a dark underworld market of unlicensed or illegal blueprints for obscene or immoral creations. Liz is a detective with the Edinburgh police in charge of a task force that monitors the Internet for fantasies that cross the line into forbidden acts. Police work is aided by constant monitoring, a smart online repository for data called CopSpace, and semi-intelligent bots that can do minor police processing. Liz is called to check on a suspicious death and quickly determines that it must be a homicide. The man was found in the bathroom with an enema machine that malfunctioned and somehow poisoned him.

Anwar is a Muslim ex-con trying to make a living in Edinburgh to support his wife and kids. Unfortunately due to his conviction he is prevented from doing any computer work online. He meets with his friend called the Gnome, who gets him involved in a questionable position as an honorary consul for a breakway republic in central Asia. The Gnome insists that there is an angle where they will be able to profit from his position, but the only activity Anwar finds is a case of bread mix that might be used to turn into an illegal industrial product with the right secret ingredient and process. Anwar is a type common to crime novels; he is a common criminal who aspires to the big time, but he is really more of a mark than a con man. Whatever scam he gets involved in ends up getting the better of him.

One mysterious character is referred to as the Toymaker; he uses the alias John Christie, which happens to be the name of a long-dead serial killer. Christie is a sociopath with paranoid delusions that barely kept at bay by the medication he takes. He arrives in Edinburgh to set up a local franchise of the sort of business that Liz would be interested in investigating. However he is stymied by the fact that the first potential business associate he goes to meet is the man who was killed by his enema machine, and the second woman he visits is dead and shrink-wrapped to a mattress full of outdated banknotes. Christie has to manage to not cross the line into insanity while dealing with these setbacks.

Liz finds another suspicious death in Germany that she thinks may be related, and soon many other deaths come to light in the same time frame that are all connected by the fact that home appliance software has malfunctioned in a very specific way. The question comes up of whether these deaths, assuming they are indeed all connected and directed, have behind them a human directing them or an AI. Computer systems have become very sophisticated, though they have only so far only excelled at specific tasks such as driving a car or recognizing a human face.

What's most interesting about this novel is the fast-paced, dense language that Stross uses. There is a bit of Scottish dialect, and I was afraid it was going to be distracted, but thankfully he finds the right balance. The language is full of in-jokes and references that many readers may not appreciate, but I think Stross really knows his audience and hits the right notes. I think I got about 99% of the references, and the important stuff is explained. There are several lines of the plot going, including the central Asian republic's plot to double-cross the investment bankers intending to short its bonds; Liz's ex-lover Dorothy arriving in town to do an audit; and Anwar's job checking out malware for his brother-in-law. There's enough going that you can't tell which is driving the plot and which is just an interesting tangent. In the end, most of it manages to pull together and make sense, though the ending feels just a bit rushed. It's still a fun ride. B+

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is two stories wrapped up in one novel. The first is a tale of generations of a Greek immigrant family as they settle in Detroit and make a life. The other story is that of Cal, the grandchild of the immigrants. When Cal is born, the elderly doctor at the delivery does not notice the baby's ambiguous genitalia. The parents name their child Calliope and raise her as a girl. When Calliope becomes a teenager and doesn't physically mature, everyone believes she is a late bloomer. It is not until Calliope has an accident and the emergency room doctor notices something that the family takes Callie to a specialist.

But the story starts in western Turkey in 1922. Cal's grandparents are Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides, brother and sister living in a small village in Asia Minor. When the area is filled with turmoil, they escape on a ship to America. On the voyage, they transition from brother and sister to husband and wife. They manage to keep their true relationship secret from everyone except their cousin Sourmalina. This secret is a tragic flaw that ends up affecting their grandchild Cal. The flaw takes the phyical form of a genetic defect due to inbreeding, but encompasses the divided life of immigrants as well as Cal's split male/female nature.

Lefty and Desdemona move in with Sourmalina and her husband Jimmy Zizmo in Detroit. Their relationship isn't perfect, but it is good enough to produce two children. Their son Milton ends up marrying Tessie, the daughter of Sourmalina and Jimmy and his own second cousin. But their relationship is at the cost of Father Mike, an Orthodox priest who was in love with Tessie. Mike is resentful of Milton and the belief that his money helped steal Tessie from him. The whole family is like a Greek drama, with dark secrets and desires.

The story is narrated by Cal as an adult intersex man. He describes his parents' and grandparents' life as well as their thoughts and feelings. This transition into omniscience helps drive the mythological aspect of the story. It is also crucial in narrating Cal's life growing up as a girl. There are flash forwards to Cal's current relationship with a woman, so this keeps us grounded in the knowledge that Cal is currently a man who transformed from a girl. This brings an interesting perspective on Callie's girlhood, even when it isn't explicit it comes out in the style. When he starts trying to behave as a man he remarks at one point that it is not so different from a boy growing up and acting like a man. This insight of the interwoven nature of the sexes is typical of the novel.

When Callie is fourteen she starts to develop feelings for her best friend, an intriguing girl referred to as the Obscure Object. She does not know how to deal with these feelings, not suspecting her true nature. She lets her friend's brother Jerome have sex with her but the sudden pain starts questions, and the truth is soon revealed. In the crisis that follows, Callie must determine her fate, with her dual nature pulling her both ways.

I felt the first half of the book was slow as it builds to Callie's birth, but the stories of the family members have their own fascination. There's the speakeasy that Lefty opens during Prohibition; Desdemona's silk work with the Black Panthers; the Detroit race riots. The silk worms serve as a link to the family's past in Asia Minor, but also as a symbol of fragility and transformation. Milton's beautiful and sexy seduction of Tessie involves playing his clarinet against her body. On a mystical note, Tessie's and Desdemona's attempts to choose and divine Cal's sex in the womb seem to be an attempt to force the hand of fate, which backfires when Cal's sex finally reveals itself. The novel is enjoyable as a story of a family through the years and the personal journey of a young girl's transformation into a man. The characters are fun to watch as they change and grow and clash and love one another. The author blends several themes to make the novel work on many levels. A-

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Saturday, February 18, 2012


I've had a copy of Stan Nicholls' novel Orcs on my bookshelf for over a year waiting me to finally pick it up and read it. When I was about ready to go on vacation and needed something to read I picked it up and started it. The book is a fantasy where orcs--the standard stock bad guys--are the central characters. This is an interesting conceit, a twist on common tropes. Yet, I feel like it would have been done better by another author.

The first chapter starts out strong, with an exciting battle scene. The orc leader is Stryke, captain of the orc warband called the Wolverines. His sergeants are Coilla, a female; Jup, a dwarf; Haskeer, an argumentative orc; and Alfray, a wizened old warrior and healer. Jup is a mercenary, selling his services to the warband. He and Haskeer are always arguing and trading insults. There are about twenty other grunts who don't figure much into the plot. The group works for Queen Jennesta, a caricature of an evil character. She is completely greedy and selfish and cares nothing about her minions. She thinks nothing of having her leaders killed for not fulfilling the tasks she assigns them. She is part human and struggles for domination over her sisters and the land.

Stryke and the others take an artifact and head back to Jennesta, but are attacked by a band of kobolds. They fight them off but the kobolds escape with the artifact. Knowing that to return to Jennesat empty-handed is a death sentence, they go after the kobolds. They manage to sneak into camp and retrieve the artifact and rescue an ancient gremlin. The gremlin tells them that the magical item, which they refer to as a "star" due to its shiny gem-like quality, is one of many that are sought after for their power. After surviving an attack from a rival orc leader sent to bring him back, Stryke decides to go after the remaining stars.

There are many battles throughout the book, but they end up feeling all the same. The orcs are strong and great warriors; they cut down their enemies without breaking a sweat. There is really no suspense as to the outcome of each battle. It made me wonder how there could be any balance in this world if orcs could overpower everybody. They even infiltrate an underground troll kingdom and kill most of the trolls and steal their star. The one time it was interesting is when Coilla is tracking Haskeer after he starts hearing music and steals the two stars they have. Coilla is captured by three bounty hunters who decide they can get more money by selling her to slave traders. The orcs track them to the slave traders and for a moment it feels like they are trapped. Yet they get away with barely a scratch again.

The world is full of a potpourri of fantasy creatures, from centaurs to dragons to nayads. In this sense it felt like Narnia. Yet it doesn't have the heart of a good fantasy world. The only character with any real depth is Stryke. He is thoughtful and concerned about the world at large. He begins soon after finding the first star to have visions of an ideal world where orcs live in harmony with one another, without humans or other races to harass them. These visions start to infect Stryke with a sort of idealism, and he becomes driven to find all the stars and unite them, even though he has no understanding of the power. It all feels a bit strange and empty, as if the plot must keep moving so Stryke is forced to make inexplicable decisions.

I was hoping for an interesting story that told of brotherhood and duty, and I did not get it. The plot and characters are too simplistic to really enjoy. The one big plus of the book is the dark humor, though sometimes even that gets old. I found Jennesta to not only be unlikable, but unbelievable. Stryke's interactions with the warband, and their interactions with the other races, are mostly formulaic. Perhaps someday someone will write a great book about orcs, but this isn't it. C

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Maus I

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History is a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman detailing his mother's and father's experiences as Jews in Poland during World War II. The story is told to him by his father during Art's visits to his father's and stepmother's house. The conversation between Art and his father Vladek is more than a framing narrative. Art wants to learn his father's history, his experiences trying to survive during the Holocaust. During the narration Art asks questions, and Vladek relates stories to the present. Vladek's life before and during the war is contrasted with his life with his current wife. The six chapters were published separately in the early 1980's.

Vladek's story begins in southwest Poland in the 1930's. He becomes a successful businessman and meets his future wife Anja. Anja's father helps him start up a textile factory. But war is approaching with Germany. When war start Vladek is drafted and is soon on the front line, and soon after that is captured. He and other Jews are forced to work under harsh conditions. Eventually he manages to get free and get transported to his family.

One of the notable elements of the graphic novel is that the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazis are cats. This both co-opts Nazi propaganda and makes the Nazis feel very sinister and threatening.

Also the Poles are protrayed as pigs. This illustrates the difference between Gentile Poles and the Jewish Poles. The Jewish Poles cannot always trust that the other Poles will not turn against them. When the Jews are trying to pass as Poles, they wear pig masks.

Vladek and Anja must continually find places to hide and scrounge for food. Sometimes they hide with other Jews and sometimes with friendly Gentiles. Often they are betrayed. They depend on family connections and bribery of Poles and Germans. They send their son to another city where they think they will be safer, but learn later that the woman he was with poisoned herself and the children she was keeping when the Nazis came for them. As things get worse the tension grows and the Jews become more and more desparate. As the story closes (this is only part one) Vladek gets sent to Auschwitz.

This is a very touching story that is very well dramatized. Vladek's feelings are expressed in words and pictures, about his family, his friends, his losses. The story is strengthened by Art's interest in his father's past and his troubled history with his mother. All of them suffered last effects from the struggle to survive the war. The illustrations are very expressive and show the suffering of the characters. Even though the story is dark, it is informative and poignant. I would recommend this to anyone. A

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