August 2012 Month in Review

Another month has come and gone, and now I get to do another post about what books I read this past month.  Sadly, for the second time in 3 months I didn’t hit 3,000 pages.  There were two main problems with trying to hit 3,000 pages this month, the first was that The Hero with a Thousand Faces took me  about a week to read, and the second and more important reason is that I got a full-time job a couple of weeks ago.  I’m still reading as much as I can, but my reading is mostly left to my lunch breaks at work, a little time once I get home, and then weekends.

My semi-stated reading goal for the year was to average about 100 pages a day during the course of the year.  Thus far I’m up to about 27,000 pages for the year, which puts me well ahead of the 100 page a day average, and gives me a lot of buffer for the upcoming months where I’ll be working and bowling a lot more for the rest of the year.

So anyway, on to the books I read this month:

So for the second time in the history of my blog, I have a book that I didn’t fit into the standard rating system.  I didn’t want to give God’s Debris a simple number score like I did with the rest of the books I’ve reviewed, so I’m leaving it as an N/A for the rating.

I’m reading On A Pale Horse by Piers Anthony right now, and I’ve got about 75 pages left in the book, so expect a review for it tomorrow.  Otherwise, I was at work all day and then bowling tonight, so I’m going to bed.

The Stepsister Scheme

I talked about how I first heard of Jim C. Hines in my review for Goblin Quest, so I don’t need to go over that again.  So I’ll take this a slightly different direction.  By the time that I decided I wanted to read some of Jim’s books, he had two series completed.  The first one was the Goblin series, and the second was the Princess series.  Well, if you’re a guy who’s going to pick up one of Jim’s books, I’d bet that 99 times out of 100 you’ll go for the Goblin series, which of course I did.  After reading the Goblin series, I decided it was time to start reading his Princess series, and right now I’m kind of mad at myself because I only bought the first book instead of the entire series.

Book Stats

344 pages

Fantasy, Satire

First book in the series

Characters

The main character in this book is Danielle Whiteshore, better known to most people as Cinderella.  The book starts a couple months after the end of the fairy tale as we know it, with Danielle happily married to Prince Armand and getting accustomed to life as a princess rather than as a servant to her step-mother and step-sisters.  The other two characters are Snow White and Talia (better known as Sleeping Beauty). All three of the characters have varied skills (magical and otherwise) and have deep backstories based largely upon their respective fairy tales.  But while the characters are based upon the classical stories, they’re their own people and have their own challenges as they go through the story.  The characters are interesting on their own, but the twist that Hines puts on their backstories makes them especially deep and interesting characters.

Setting

The book takes place on the island nation of Lorindar, and goes a little further into the fairy realm as the story continues.  It’s nothing you haven’t seen before in Fantasy books, but it’s very well done.

Plot

Danielle is still adjusting to her life when she is attacked by her step-sister Charlotte, who has somehow learned new magic that she uses to try and kill Danielle.  Of course this starts Danielle on a quest to overcome her stepsisters and help to rescue Armand.

Enjoyment

I loved this book.  Just like with the goblin books, Hines does a fantastic job of taking all of the stories that we’re familiar with and knocking them all off to the side.  Everything in this book is recognizable if you’re familiar with the stories (whether the more commonly known Disney versions or the older versions from Grimm’s Fairy Tales) but taken a step further.  For example, Talia (Sleeping Beauty) was blessed by the fairies and given supernatural grace, which she promptly uses to become a master of martial arts.  Snow White is a master of mirror-based magic, and Hines take on the seven dwarves might be one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a book (it’s also in the last 50 pages or so, so I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read the book).

Although a large part of the book rides upon your preconceived notions of the stories that the characters are based upon, there is a solid quest story underneath everything.  Much like I’ve said with all of Christopher Moore’s books, it’s easy to dismiss these books as simply poking fun at the source material, but if you do that you’re going to miss out on a great story.  I really enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the series.

Overall Grade

A wonderful take on the characters and stories that you thought you knew, and a fantastic story to go with it.

9/10

God’s Debris

So about a week ago I mentioned that I re-read the novella God’s Debris by Scott Adams.  I also invited anyone who read that post to read the story and then I posed the two questions that Adams asks about the book.  (My original post is here, and you can find the full text of the novella online for free here.)

Book Stats

132 pages

Thought Experiment (I have no idea what genre to call this, so it gets it’s own tag.  I suppose that now I’ll have to try and find something else to include in this tag.)

Summary

A young adult working as a delivery man takes a package to an old man.  Upon entering with the package, the old man asks some very cryptic questions, and offers strange – but plausible – answers to those questions.  After talking with the old man for a while, the younger man soon realizes that the older man literally knows everything.

Thought Experiment

So where does the thought experiment begin?  It begins when Adams asks the reader two questions:

  • Try to figure out what’s wrong with the simplest explanations.
  • Try to figure out what’s wrong with the old man’s explanation of reality.

And with that, we move on to my thoughts about the questions.

I’m going to start with the second question first, because it’s my blog and I can.  I’m also choosing to start with it because I think that it’s the easier of the two questions.  The initial question that the old man asks is “when you flip a coin, what are the odds of it coming up heads?”  The younger man immediately says about 50/50, to which the old man asks why.  This leads to the idea of probability.

During their discussion about probability, the old man says that probability is the one thing in the universe that can’t be explained.  And it really is difficult to discuss probability without using words such as odds or chance, which are simply different words for probability and leads to a circular definition.  While almost impossible to describe without reverting to the circular definition, probability is something that affects quite a few aspects of our lives.  In science, one of the main things that experimenters look at is the difference in overall effect size and the odds of whether or not the displayed effect could have happened simply by chance.  This applies to everything from psychological research to testing the effects of medicine before it is released to the population as a whole.

But here’s where the problem comes from, the old man uses probability to explain everything.  Inadvertently he falls into the circular definition by using what he says can’t be explained to explain everything.  It works well enough as a simplistic explanation, but when you stop to look at it too closely it falls apart.

And speaking of simplistic explanations, that brings us to the second question Adams asks about the story.  What’s wrong with the simplest explanations?  This one is a lot more difficult to come up with a solid answer, because truthfully, we fall back on simple explanations many times even when we know that the more technical answer is out there.

The simple truth is that most of the time we don’t need to know the technical answer.  Take a car for example, I can kind of explain the process of how they run, but I know next to nothing about the internal mechanics of the engine.  And for that matter, I don’t care about the exact mechanics.  As far as I’m concerned, you could tell me that the car runs because of gerbils running on wheels under the hood, if the car works and gets me from point A to point B I don’t really care about the exact details of how an internal combustion engine works.

The biggest problem with the simplest explanations is that they don’t allow you to reverse engineer the process.  If my car breaks down and I don’t have the money to pay a mechanic to fix it, trying to give the gerbils extra vitamins isn’t going to help my problem a whole hell of a lot.

The reason that we use the simplest explanation in many cases as opposed to the more technical answer is simply that we don’t have the capacity to fully understand everything that goes on around us.  I’m a nerd in every sense of the word, I’m very intelligent and I have some knowledge about a very wide variety of subjects, but there are still a great many topics that I know nothing about.  Some of these are by choice (lets face it, we all have some things that we just don’t care about) and some topics are things that I’ve never really had a reason or opportunity to learn about in depth.  In these cases, I have no problem saying gerbils are the reason my car allows me to drive.

It’s often said that the simplest explanation is the best, but my car example shows that this is far from the truth.  In any answer, there is a balance between the thorough but complicated and the simplified but concise answer.  The major distinction comes in where you put the balance, and for every possible topic for each person, we have our own preference for where we fall on the line from complicated to parsimonious.

So what’s the problem with the simplest answer?  It depends on how much you really need to know about the subject.

So there we go, my thoughts on the questions that Adams asks about his story.  What do you think?

 

Blackout

Quick bit of admin stuff: last Friday I talked about having a kind of review/discussion for Scott Adams’s novella God’s Debris posted today.  I’m going to delay that slightly and I’ll have my thoughts about the novella up either tomorrow or Sunday.  It’s been a long week adjusting to my new job and I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to think about the ideas, and I’d like to read it again before posting and talking about it.

Now that that’s over with.  Blackout is the third book in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy (after Feed and Deadline) and having just finished the book, I think it was a fitting close to the series.  Onward to the review.

Book Stats

632 pages

Science Fiction

3rd book in the series, sequel to Feed and Deadline

Setting

The book obviously continues with the same setting as the first two, and while I don’t remember if I said this in either of the previous two reviews, but the setting for these books is incredibly original and very well detailed.  Well worth looking into if you’re tired of the same old settings in books.

Characters

The first book focused primarily on Georgia, the second book primarily on Shaun.  Of course at the end of the second book we find out that Georgia is somehow alive, and this book takes after both previous books by having both of their viewpoints.  Shaun is largely the same character he was in the second book, quite possibly insane, still hearing his dead sister’s voice, and still out to avenge her death.  Georgia definitely has more character growth throughout this book, as she realizes how she was brought back to life and struggles with the necessary adjustments that will entail.  All in all the characters are very strong throughout all three books in the series.

Plot

Again the book picks up where the second one left off, with Shaun trying to avenge George and uncover the secret plots of the government as they’re trying to cover everything up.  Of course there are a lot of twists and turns, but the book is paced very quickly, and it’s a fun read.

Enjoyment

One of the biggest things that I enjoyed about this book took place in the opening chapters.  Grant does an excellent job of reminding you what happened in the previous books without taking a long time to do so.  I read Feed last October, and Deadline in January, almost immediately I was right back into the swing of the story after starting this book.  I read a lot of different series, and not many authors do as well as Grant in reminding you what happened in a previous book without bogging down the story.  For a lot of series, I’ll re-read the earlier books so that I know what’s happening (or I just wait till the series is complete and then read straight through it) but with this series you could easily go a couple of months between picking up the books and you won’t miss any major details.

I also have to applaud Grant for one thing with the ending (which I will discuss in very vague terms here so I won’t be spoiling exactly what happened).  With a lot of media – movies are the worst, but some books also do this – the writers try to give you the fairy tale ending where they all live “happily ever after.” But the truth is that those endings are almost impossible to come by.  The ending to this series isn’t the super happy ending, it’s just the right ending.  After all that Shaun and Georgia have been through, they weren’t going to to be able to.

Overall Grade

A very solid book, and a solid conclusion to a good series.

8/10

Series Thoughts

Here there may be spoilers for all three books, you’ve been warned.

This series does a lot of interesting things.  For one, it really changes tone between the three books.  The first book was a lot of political wrangling and setting up the conspiracy, but then it ended up with a chaotic and fast paced ending.  The second book kind of reversed that, being very quickly paced throughout until the ending got back to more of the conspiracy.  The third book does a good job of mixing the two, and for me the alternating viewpoints between the two characters helped to keep the pace going much faster than the beginning of the first book or the ending of the second book.

There was one part in the third book that I had a problem with when I first read it, and it still isn’t sitting that well with me.  When the cloned Georgia runs into Shaun (literally) they question her at first, and to verify that she’s the real deal (or 97% of the real deal) Shaun asks her what the one thing that they never wrote down was.  And what was this world-shattering secret?  That they were lovers as well as best friends.  Even though they explain that they were both adopted, and that they went so far as to get DNA testing to make sure they weren’t in any way related, it just didn’t seem like it worked for me.  Thinking back through the series – and again, it’s been quite a while since I read the first two books – I could only think of one thing that would have foreshadowed this twist.  In the end it wasn’t really that big of a deal for the story as a whole, but it just didn’t sit right with me.

All in all, I’m really glad that I read the series, it has an amazingly original premise, and then it backs up that idea with a solid story.  There’s not a whole lot more that you can ask for from a series.

Series Grade

8/10

Midweek Update

Right now I’m about halfway through Blackout by Mira Grant, which is the third novel in her Newsflesh trilogy after Feed and Deadline.  I’m really enjoying the book, which is why it’s kind of surprising that I haven’t finished it already.  Don’t worry, there’s a good reason for that.

I have a job now.

While I didn’t mention it often, those who have followed my blog for a while know that I graduated from college in May of ’11 with my B.A. in Psychology, and I’ve spent the time since then working part time in a bowling alley and looking for a full time job.  So of course when I finally get a full time job it’s one that has absolutely nothing to do with Psychology.  I’m currently working in a warehouse for a distributor of bowling products, which right now is about as close as it gets to a dream job for me.

Along with the fact that I’m now working 40 hours a week (or I will be from now on, this is still my first week there) I’m also going to keep working a couple of nights a week at the bowling alley, and I’m also bowling on 3 leagues every week plus a fourth league that bowls every other week.  In short, I’m going to be busy.

I’ll still have some time to read though.  Right now I’ve been eating breakfast before I go to work, and then with a small snack during lunch I’m ok until I get home, which means I’ve been using my lunch hour to read, along with reading some once I get home from work.

My book reviews have been the primary focus of this blog since I started it about a year and a half ago, and they’ll still be a big part, but it’s going to be a little more difficult to keep up my current pace of reading for the foreseeable future.  I’ll still try to post 2-3 times a week about various things, and I’m still very much intending to keep my Wheel of Time re-read at the brisk pace of a book a week until A Memory of Light comes out, but my reviews will be a little fewer.

I just wanted to explain why I haven’t been around quite as much for the past few days.  It’s been an adjustment getting back to working full time, but I’ve been glad to do so.

A Spell for Chameleon

Still kind of reeling from reading Campbell, I decided that this was a good time to go back and revisit one of my favorite books of all time, and one of the series of books that were a big part of the reason I started to get into reading.

A Spell for Chameleon is the first novel in Piers Anthony’s Xanth series.  This is a sprawling series very similar to Pratchett’s Discworld (except I like these books).  Each book is set in the same world, but tells the stories of different characters throughout the world.  Side characters in one book become the main characters in later books, and then go back to being side characters after their adventure.  Xanth is a fun world with a lot of interesting magical plants and animals, and I love the books.  This is also one of the biggest series that you’ll ever find, with 35 books already in print and several more either being written on planned for the future.  (I own and have read the first 32 Xanth books.)

This book won the August Derleth award in 1977, which is an award given by the British Fantasy Society for the best novel of the year, and it’s still a great book to read.  This is the beginning of a wonderful series of books.

Book Stats

344 pages

Fantasy

First book of the Xanth series

Setting

These books all take place in the magical world of Xanth, where a lot of magical creatures and plants exist.  One of the unique things about Xanth is that every character in the world has their own magical power.  These can range from simple and fairly useless such as putting a spot on a wall to complex and powerful such as being able to control the weather, or to transform a person or animal into another creature at will.  All of the books take advantage of this, and throughout the series there are a lot of different people with a wide variety of magical powers who all use them in interesting ways to complete their adventures.

Characters/Plot

The main character in this book is Bink, a young man who lives in the North Village.  Bink is a likable person who is kind hearted and cares for the people he knows.  Unfortunately Bink also has a huge problem, he doesn’t have a magical power.  While this has been simply an inconvenience for most of his life, it comes to a head as he nears his 25th birthday, as royal law has decreed that all citizens much demonstrate their magical power before the age of 25 or they will be banished from Xanth.  So as a result Bink starts on a quest to find the Good Magician Humfrey who will hopefully be able to find Bink’s magic power so that he can stay in Xanth.

Enjoyment

I love this book, it starts out as a fairly simple quest, but then each event leads seamlessly into the next until Bink has been on a truly memorable quest, complete with all the standard fantasy tropes of fighting the evil magician, saving the girl, and fighting off a horde of monsters in order to save the entire kingdom.  While there is a lot going on throughout the course of the book, Anthony does a great job of foreshadowing the reasons behind everything occurring, so that when he finally explains what happened, it makes perfect sense.  He also does an excellent job of telling a complete story in this book, while setting up the premise for the next book.

Overall Grade

One of my favorite books of all time, a delightful story with fun characters that introduces a fun series of books.

10/10

A Thought Experiment

After going through The Hero with a Thousand Faces over the course of the past week or so, I decided that I needed to pick up something a little quicker to read.  The book that I picked up is God’s Debris by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.

The first thing you need to know about this book is that it is not a Dilbert book.  It’s not a comedy, and in the introduction to the book Adams brings up the question of whether the book should be considered a fiction or a non-fiction book.  He contends that it’s a fiction book because the characters in the book aren’t real.  Other people consider it non-fiction because the thoughts and ideas raised could have a lasting impact on the reader.  I’m going to label the book as he does and simply call it a thought experiment, and here’s where the fun comes in.

The last thing that Adams’ says in the introduction is that this book is best enjoyed in a group where you can have an ongoing discussion with other people.  I would like to host this and I invite anyone who is interested to partake in the discussion.  God’s Debris is a short novella, about 130 pages long, but you can easily read the book within an hour, and best of all, it’s available online for free at this link.

I encourage you all to read the book, as it’s very thought provoking, and to think about answers to the two questions that are asked in the book.

  • Try to figure out what’s wrong with the simplest explanations.
  • Try to figure out what’s wrong with the old man’s explanation of reality.

Right now I’m planning on putting up a semi-review of the book next Friday, and I would encourage everyone who reads this post to read the book and come up with your own answers to the questions and we’ll discuss them next week.

If you’re interested in reading the book and taking part in the discussion, just leave a comment to this post and look forward to my post next Friday discussing the book.

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

So a couple of days ago I put up a short post about how I was partially through Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Well, today I finished the book, and there’s a lot to talk about with it, so I’m just going to get on with my discussion.

Book Stats

337 pages (plus about 80 pages of notes and citations)

Non-Fiction

Thoughts

My first thought is what ultimately led me to want to read this book.  I’d heard about it on many different occasions from listening to or reading a variety of different things where people have discussed writing.  One of the most common things to come up in the idea of storytelling (and mythology) is The Hero’s Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell in this book.  The basic premise can be broken down any number of ways, but I’m going to outline it very briefly.

  • The hero receives a call to adventure
  • The hero passes an early trial often with the assistance of another person (or god)
  • The hero travels from the known world to the unknown world
  • The hero accomplishes their goal (defeating a monster, or rescuing someone from said monster), again, often with divine assistance
  • The hero returns to the known world to share their newfound knowledge or power with the rest of society

That’s a very simplistic breakdown of the Hero’s Journey, but it has many of the pivotal points included.  If you look at nearly any story (be it mythological or simply fictional) you’ll find that this is a very common series of events for the hero to go through.

One of the most well known examples of the Hero’s Journey in modern times is of course Star Wars.  Lucas was very deeply immersed in Campbell’s ideas (I believe that he personally knew Campbell, but don’t quote me on that) and used them to shape the story in star wars.  I’ve heard some discussion about how effective this is as a method of constructing a story, but I’m not going to get into that here.

Getting back to the actual book, there are issues with it if you’re a casual reader.  The first is that the book was not written to be read casually, this is an academic text, and it shows.  There are some large sections where the book was a difficult read, and even with the easier sections I found that the best way to read this book was to read 10-15 pages, then go do something else for a while, then come back and read another 10-15 pages (which is part of the reason that it took me a week to get through the book).

Another issue that I have with the book is that it’s a little dated at this point.  The original edition was copyright 1949 and a very large part of the discussion is based directly around Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis.  This is a large part of why the book is difficult to read.  I have some familiarity with Freud’s ideas (as we discussed them in nearly every Psychology class I took) but I don’t have a deep understanding of them because for the most part Freud was wrong about nearly everything.  Freud was absolutely vital in getting the ball rolling on psychological research, but his theories were based almost entirely upon his own life and he had no empirical evidence to back them up.

The second section deals with more of the common aspects of the worldview of mythology as opposed to the hero’s actions and motivations and as a result is a much easier (and in many ways more interesting) read.  It’s interesting to see just how common most of the ideas that occur in mythology and religion from around the world really are.

So what’s the verdict on the book?  It’s easily one of the most influential books of the 20th century because it inspired so many different stories.  But while it’s important, it’s not something that I would suggest for a casual read.  If you’re a writer interested in the Hero’s Journey, there are various other places where you can find all sorts of information about the stages of the Hero’s Journey that are much easier to get through than this book.

Overall Grade

A monumentally important book that I would never suggest as a casual read.

6/10

Campbell in Progress

It’s been about a week since my last post, and I really hate going this long without posting anything.  But to be fair I was working all weekend, and then I had my sport bowling league last night.  To go along with this I’ve been reading The Hero of a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

This is a book that a lot of people are familiar with, even if you haven’t read it.  In many ways this book is a foundational book to all of genre fiction, since it’s looking at a lot of the common archetypes that have arisen in stories throughout all of human history.  It’s an interesting book, and I’m slowly working my way through it.  I should finish the book in the next couple of days, so my full review will be up then.  This post is really here just because I think I’ve gone too long without a post and I felt like posting today.

Starship Troopers

I’d first heard of this story years ago when I saw the movie that is very loosely based on the book.  It was interesting, and so going into the book I thought I had an idea of what to expect.  Well, I was wrong.

Book Stats

335 pages

Science Fiction

Characters

The main character of the book is Juan Rico.  The book covers the course of his life through what ends up being the “bug war,” a major war involving humans and an alien species trying to destroy them.  The book is written in a way that it reads more like a memoir than a typical book, with Rico reflecting on his past experiences.  As a result of this, many of the other characters fall kind of flat, but it’s still an interesting book.

Setting

Earth and various other intergalactic destinations in the future.

Plot

The book opens with an action sequence, but then goes back to Rico remembering why he joined the Army’s Mobile Infantry in the first place.  From there it traces his life in the military from basic training through officer school and then ultimately through the end (maybe) of the bug war.  While the book follows Rico’s life, the plot is really more of a setting to discuss some larger ideas.

Enjoyment

One thing that I wasn’t expecting when I bought the book was one of the taglines on the front cover: “The controversial classic of military adventure.”  And as I started to read the book, I really wondered why it was so controversial.  From what I remember of the movie (it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it) a lot of the controversy was left out of that version, and instead they focused more on the action aspects of the book (because lets face it, for most people, that’s a better movie).

But when you read the book, you find quite a few ideas discussed by the characters that would be very controversial today.  The first is when they’re discussing the discipline system of their society as compared to our current system (in America at least).  They discuss how most offenders are given warnings or just a slap on the wrist when they commit a crime, which doesn’t scare them away from committing more crimes at all.  By comparison, in the futuristic society Heinlein creates, people are regularly punished (often physically) for even slight violations throughout their entire lives.  This can start with simply paddling people in school, and advancing to much more painful punishment such as flogging or lashings as adults.  And these displays of punishment are also public, so along with the physical pain, you’re given the psychological shame of everyone knowing that you were punished.

Another idea that Heinlein discusses is the ideology of how you fight a war.  A direct line from the book, when talking about the defensive mindset that most people have when they encounter violent oppression is to act defensively and protect the homeland.  Heinlein’s characters look at it a little differently saying: “This is sill, of course; you don’t war a war by defense but by attack–no ‘Department of Defense’ ever won a war; see the histories.”  This is one area where I have to say I completely agree.  Look at the way that we’ve handled the situation in Iraq.  Trying to peacefully occupy the country, rules of engagement for what we will and won’t do, etc.  If you’re serious about winning a war, don’t mess around.  Get it, get the job done, and get out.

The last idea that I’m going to bring up is why they only let citizens who have served military service vote.  The idea is that most people do things in their own self interest (that’s hard to argue) including voting.  However, if you’ve been through the military as it’s described in this book, you obviously care about more than just yourself.  They make their military difficult to join and easy to drop out of.  This means that the only people who serve their full term are those who are willing to put the good of society as a whole ahead of their own good.  Those are the exact kinds of people that you would ideally want to vote for anything in a society.

Overall Grade

The story in this book serves more as a vehicle for ideas than what we normally think of as a story in a novel.  But it’s very well written and the ideas will make you think, it’s a solid book.

7/10