Steelheart

Another day, another Sanderson book completed, and another series that he’s started that I already want to read the rest of.  I’m a huge fan of his writing, so it’s no surprise that I’ve already finished reading this book despite starting it only yesterday.  Being on vacation from work for the week also gives me a lot more time to read, which I love.

Book StatsSteelheart

384 pages

Science Fiction

First book in the series

Characters

The main character is David, a teenage boy who is living in the ruins of a future Chicago which has been transformed by Epics (more on that later).  David is in many ways a typical 18 year old kid, but he’s quite different in that he’s driven to kill the self-imposed emperor of Newcago.  He’s also somewhat unique among many of the characters that I’ve read in books because he has a tendency to craft extremely bad metaphors, which is a very subtle part of the book, but it’s always good for a laugh when they show up.

Setting

At some point in the future there is an event that the characters simply refer to as the Calamity, which led to many people acquiring superpowers.  In most stories where there are people with superpowers, some of them become heroes and some become villains.  Unfortunately in this world there are no heroes, and the regular people are left to the whims of whatever the Epics feel like doing.  As always with Sanderson all of the worldbuilding is well thought out, and never knocked me out of the story.

Plot

10 years before the start of the novel, David was at a bank when it was attacked by first one Epic, named Deathpoint, and then another, Steelheart.  During the chaos that follows David sees something that shouldn’t be possible, he sees Steelheart, an invincible High Epic, bleed.  Shortly after this Steelheart kills David’s father, which sets David on a lifelong quest to do the impossible and kill Steelheart.

Enjoyment

It’s really interesting having listened to several years of the episodes of Writing Excuses and then reading his books, because I’ve heard him explain so much of his process I can read his books and see a lot of what he’s doing.  It’s also interesting to go through his books and see all of the subtle foreshadowing that he has in place for the ending.  The consistently high level of Sanderson’s writing shows that he really is a master of his craft, and I look forward to being able to read so much more of his writing over the coming years.

Overall Grade

Another solid book by Sanderson with a really interesting take on the idea of superheroes.

9/10

Among Others

Among others is a novel by Jo Walton, which many people have probably heard of after it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, which are probably the two highest awards given out in the Science Fiction and Fantasy community.  I just finished the book today and I enjoyed it, so we’ll get on with the review.  I’ll have some minor spoilers for the book in the review, but it’s a good book that’s well worth reading.

Book StatsAmong Others

302 pages

Fantasy

Characters

The main character in the book is Morwenna Phelps, but to be honest I had to check the back of the book to make sure that I had her name right.  The book is written as though it’s her personal diary, and she writes down what happened in her life over the course of about a year for the book.  The book has some interesting ideas, but the thing that really makes it work is the narrative voice.  If you tried to tell the same story without Morwenna’s voice, it would have fallen flat, and there were a few times for me where the plot seemed mostly non-existant even with her voice.  All of the other characters in the book are written as Morwenna sees them, they’re all interesting characters and come across as real people.

Setting

The book is set in England across the fall of 1979 and spring of 1980, it’s basically the real world, but there are fairies around that Morwenna sees from time to time.

Plot

Overall I think the plot was the weakest part of the book.  Basically the plot is simply following Morwenna around as she lives a year in the life of a 15 year old boarding school student.  She’s very intelligent, but doesn’t fit in with many people in her school in large part due to her having a leg injury that requires her to use a cane.  There are a few points where she uses magic in the book, but the magic in this book is very subtle and Mor even says that the way the magic works you can explain it as a series of coincidences that led to the end result.

Enjoyment

This book was a little too close to the literary fiction side of writing for my taste, but – as I said earlier – ultimately the narrative voice makes it work.  There are some fun ideas in the book, one of the ones that I most enjoyed was the fact that Mor reads a lot of SciFi and Fantasy books, and I always thought it was fun when she mentioned a book that I’ve read and enjoyed.  Although I was a little upset when she said she didn’t like A Spell for Chameleon, the first book in Piers Anthony’s Xanth series.  Some of the later books in that series get to be completely absurd, but A Spell for Chameleon is a wonderful book that I’ve read multiple times.

To me what this book really was was a long question into the idea of faith.  Mor believes that many of the events are the result of magic that was done by people, whereas anyone else would see them as coincidences.  It’s similar to the story about a man lost somewhere in Alaska.  After being lost for some time, he realizes that he’ll never find his way out, and despite not being a religious person, he prays to God for help.  Shortly after praying, a man with a dogsled comes by and rescues the first man.  When talking about it later, someone says that God helped the man, whereas the lost man says the man with the dogsled saved him.  Was it going to happen anyway or did his praying retroactively set into motion a series of events that led to his being saved?  Towards the end of the book Walton goes through a series of events that get rid of most of the ambiguity that the first 2/3 of the novel builds up, and overall I think it weakens the book as a whole.

Along with the question of faith, the book also deals with a question of what it’s like to be forced into a place where you really don’t belong.  I think this is where the title comes from, and Mor refers to people around her occasionally as the “others,” whom she is forced to be among.  It’s interesting to see how she deals with it, by staying secluded and reading all the time while also intentionally saying and doing things to make the other students wary of her.  But while Mor has done things to intentionally separate herself from the rest of the school, she also really wants to be part of a group, which is a strange situation, but probably not a very uncommon feeling, especially among people who still read a lot in a world where fewer and fewer people do.

Overall Grade

Closer to literary fiction than I normally like to read, but a solid book driven by an excellent character voice.

8/10

How I Met Your Mother

A couple of weeks ago I started watching How I Met Your Mother on Netflix, and as a lack of recent posts by me shows, I’ve been watching it obsessively and just finished watching the last episode of the 7th season.  Sadly, Netflix doesn’t have the 8th season of the show yet, and because I don’t want to watch the episodes out of order if I can help it, I’m not going to start watching the ninth season when it airs starting Monday.

HIMYM

There aren’t a lot of TV shows that I watch, and there are a few reasons for that.  The first is the time commitment, with working full time (plus having a decent commute), along with bowling in 3 leagues a week, I’m a fairly busy guy.  Along with that I still try to read as much as I can, which leads to another reason why in many cases I prefer books to TV.  With books the author knows that there is going to be an end, so the characters have growth arcs that they go through, and when they’re done with that arc, the story is usually over.  There are some TV shows that do a very poor job of that because they refuse to let the characters finish their arc, or you’ll run into a show where the writers don’t give the characters room to grow.  Or if the show runs a long time, the characters will finish an arc and then get another arc forced on them (this happens in books as well, and I complain about it with books as well).

Lastly, when it comes to comedies, there are a lot of times when the humor just doesn’t work for me.  With something like Family Guy, the show is almost entirely comprised of non-sequitar jokes, which – to me at least – get old pretty quickly.  Then there are shows like The Big Bang Theory, which I can’t stand because it does nothing but make fun of nerds for every episode, and being a nerd, that bothers me.  It also has a tendency to make fun of Sheldon being an extremely anxious person, which also bothers me as a person who has an anxiety disorder.  (And once again for clarity, it’s self-diagnosed, but I did study psychology so I have a semblance of an idea of what I’m talking about.)

Two of my favorite shows of all time are M*A*S*H and Scrubs, because I think both shows do a fantastic job of being outrageously funny while being able to stop on a dime and deliver some of the most poignant moments you’ll ever see in TV.  I can easily add How I Met Your Mother to that list, because it does so many things so well.

The most important thing about any TV show is the characters, and the 5 main characters on this show are wonderful.  They each have distinct personalities and a number of quirks that separate them from each other, but also allow the characters to play off of each other as well.  From Ted’s intellectualism, Marshall’s earnestness, Lily’s innocence, Robin’s bluntness, and Barney’s insanity, they all work perfectly on their own but they work just as well when mixed with the other characters.  In some ways, it’s exactly what made Joss Whedon’s Firefly work so well, you put a bunch of unique personalities together and you see what the results are.  And just like in Firefly, the results are wonderful here.

Another thing that the show does a wonderful job of is not overusing it’s jokes.  There’s a fine line between a running gag and beating a dead horse, and this show runs it perfectly.  It’s one thing to watch a season over the course of 6 or 8 months and not overuse a gag, but I watched 7 seasons of this show in 3 or 4 weeks and never got sick of the jokes.  I suppose the only way I can finish this paragraph is by saying that the writer’s willingness to show restraint in not overusing their jokes was legen – wait for it – dary.

One of the more interesting things that this show does is also one of the harder things to do in fiction, it tells a compelling story when you know the ending.  Because of the flashback nature of the show, there are parts of the show where you already know how it’s going to end.  The obvious example is Ted and Robin dating.  You’re told early in the first season (maybe even the first episode, I don’t remember offhand) that they don’t get married when Ted tells his future kids about how he met their Aunt Robin.  Yet even though you know they don’t end up together, they’re dating for most of season two and it’s still great to watch.

This is a show with fun characters, great humor that is never overused, and at the same time the show is able to stop and deliver a truly touching moment.  This is one of the best comedies that I’ve seen in recent years, and it’s one that I’ll definitely go through and watch again in the future.

HIMYM2

The Magician’s Guild

This is a book that I had on my TBR stack for quite some time, but didn’t get around to reading until recently.  And part of the reason that I decided to pick it up was reading this post by Becky where she raves about the series, and after finishing the first book, I’m definitely interested in reading the rest of the series.

Book StatsThe Magician's Guild

365 pages

Fantasy

First book in the series

Characters

The book follows a variety of characters from the get go, which is both a good and a bad thing.  It can help to get more people interested in the book since there are a wide variety of characters to get invested in, but it also slows down how quickly you learn about the characters.  The main character is Sonea, a young girl who has been living in the slums of the city of Imardin.  She’s an interesting character in that she is the person in the series who is able to learn magic, but she seems reluctant to enter the guild where they can truly show her how to use her powers.  A lot of the time in Fantasy novels the characters seem eager to learn to use the magic, and it was a welcome change to see a novel where the character was more reluctant to do so.  All of the other characters in the book where well written and very consistent in their actions.

Setting

Imardin is a fairly generic Fantasy setting, well executed but nothing you haven’t seen before if you’re well read in the Fantasy genre.

Plot

While going through a yearly ‘purge’ to rid the city of undesirables, the Magicians Guild gets a bit of a surprise when a young girl throws a rock that manages to pierce their magic shield and injure a magician.  The rest of the book follows their chase of the girl as well as her path to controlling her magic.

Enjoyment

This book is different in many ways from other novels that I’ve read.  The main conflict of the book doesn’t have to do with a journey to look for an artifact or to defeat the evil lord, but with Sonea’s decisions as she struggles with her magical abilities.  Because of the generally lower stakes of this book compared to many other novels, it almost felt unfocused at times.  This was especially true because the book focuses on one characters decisions while trying to focus on 5 or 6 different characters.  Ultimately the book works out because of the interesting characters.  The book also does an excellent job of setting up the conflict that will be dealt with in the second and third books in the series, which I am definitely looking forward to reading as soon as I go buy them.

Overall Grade

The book seems a little unfocused at times, but it tells an interesting story and does an excellent job of setting the stage for the rest of the series.

7/10

D.C. Shooting

As I’m sure you’ve all heard by this point, there was a shooting near Washington D.C. that left 13 people – 12 victims and the gunman – dead this morning.  As sad as this is to say, I’m not terribly surprised that something like this has happened again.

Yes, I said again.  One of the first things that came to mind when I got home and heard my parents talking about this was something written in a blog post by author Dan Wells shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings late last year:

America has a mass murder about every six months, on average, which makes this one horrific and shocking but, sadly, right on schedule. Sometime in the next five to eight months we will have another.

So what does this show, that he was off a bit, we made it almost 9 months before this happened today.  Everything that Dan talked about in his post about Sandy Hook can be applied to this shooting as well.  Talking about how easy it is to blame the abundance of guns in our culture for everything.  Guns end up being the weapons used in the attacks, but a lack of guns wouldn’t necessarily prevent the attacks.

Already on CNN.com there is an article about how the gunman had a “pattern of misconduct” throughout his life, and how he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the article also says that there were signs the shooter was unhappy, and that he had also had a history of anger management issues.  Much like in every other article about a shooter such as this, there are quotes from family and friends saying things like “we didn’t see it coming” or “I could never imagine him doing something like this.”

Maybe if we made it more acceptable in our society to admit that you need help, that you’re depressed, that you’re angry, that you don’t know what to do.  But no, we live in America, where only complete whack-jobs should ever even think about going to see a psychiatrist or a psychologist to talk about what’s bothering you.  Where we immediately dismiss anyone who isn’t perfectly normal as “crazy” or “a psycho” and talk about them as if they’re sub-human.

Are stricter gun laws the answer?  Maybe they’re part of it.  I think that a much larger part of it would be to make mental health care both more accessible and acceptable in our society.

Because the posts are worth reading again, here are the links to both Dan Wells’s post about Sandy Hook as well as his brother Rob Wells’s post about mental health, along with my original post about Sandy Hook.

Dan Wells post – Mental Health, Mass Murder, and So On

Rob Wells post – How Close are we to More Killings?

My Original Post – Sandy Hook and Mental Health

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Whenever I wander throughout Barnes & Noble I always take a few minutes to look through the tables where they have books that have been assigned for students to read for their classes.  I’m always interested in seeing what teachers have assigned for their students to read, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when I see a book that I really enjoyed on those tables.  I’ve seen The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, and Variant by Rob Wells which were all books that I enjoyed.  But then I also cringe every time I see Shakespeare (I’m not a big fan) or Dickens (Great Expectations is on the shortlist for the worst book that I’ve ever read).  Anyway, recently while looking through those books, I found The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells and just finished reading it this morning, so here we go.  There will be a couple of spoilers in here, but the book is almost 120 years old at this point.

Book StatsDr. Moreau

140 pages

Science Fiction

Characters

The characters in this book are possibly the weakest part, but I think this mostly comes from the book having been written nearly 120 years ago, and the simple fact that writing styles have changed over time.  The book is written as though it’s a memoir of the main character, Edward Prendick.  There’s really nothing about any of the characters that stands out, this book is really more about the ideas presented in it.

Setting

An island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

Plot

After being shipwrecked, Prendick is rescued by a passing ship and ultimately deserted on the Island of Dr. Moreau, where he learns about the experiments that Moreau has been conducting in transforming animals into humans.  His experiments are in some ways largely successful, as the animals are able to speak and conduct themselves as people for most of the book.

Enjoyment

The first thing that I noticed about this book is how badly dated the writing style feels compared to, well, pretty much every other book that I’ve read recently.  In a nutshell, this is the biggest problem with a lot of books when you look at them long enough after they were written.  Styles of writing change, hell, the English language changes over time, and that’s what makes it so hard to back and read some books that were written a long time ago.  Once you get past the writing style, there is a very interesting story within the book, by the standards of books today, it’s more of a story seed or an outline than a book in itself.

The main idea of the story is that through surgical techniques you could make animals almost human, if the book were to be written today, instead of surgery it would be genetic therapy or some other type of gene modification, but the idea still works.  I thought that the most interesting aspect of the book was how they manage to control the beast-men.  They created a litany of laws that they all follow, and in some ways they worship Moreau as a god.  It also shows some of Prendick’s intelligence in that he realizes this and tries to use it to control the beast-men once Moreau dies.

Overall Grade

Some really interesting ideas, but an extremely dated writing style.  Worth looking into if you’re a fan of Wells’ other books or if you’re interested in some early Science Fiction.

6/10