Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Books 11, 12 & 13: The Farseer Trilogy

Books 11, 12 & 13: The Farseer Trilogy
By Robin Hobb

I know it’s pretty much cheating to lump all these books together, however, I read them all at once and feel it’s far more fair to judge a trilogy vs. individual books, because MOST likely, once you begin a trilogy, you’re not going to stop at the first book.
So. The Farseer Trilogy. I LOVED these books. Seriously. Great mental vacation that wasn’t entirely mind candy. It’s in the fantasy genre, and is set in a medieval-ish time period with a few twists. I went into it thinking the storyline would be fairly predictable: Bastard son of the king is discovered, grows up receiving specialized training, and eventually after hardship and a pretty awesome battle-scene climax becomes the best (enter role here) in the world!!!!
However, that was not the case.
 First, in the world where the book is set, there are certain kinds of ‘magic’. One is called Skill, which allows you to sense/see the world at large with your mind. The other is called The Wit, which allows you to bond to one animal, communicate with them, and augment your own senses with theirs. While the concepts sound a bit cheesy, it’s a credit to the author that they don’t come off as such in the book, and they aren’t ‘abused’ as overdramatic actions throughout the story.
The book’s main character and narrator is FitzChivalry Farseer, and he’s the bastard son of the crown prince, Chivalry. Once Fitz is discovered to be alive, the prince steps down from the throne in shame and his younger brother, Verity, takes over the role of king-in-waiting. However, while this is going on, there are raiders attacking the country by sea, and they do an odd thing to their victims called ‘forging’. Think zombies, and you’ll have a pretty good view of what forging is. Medieval zombies! Too fantastic for words! Again, a silly concept that worked really well in the books.
Like most fantasy books, there is Impending DOOM to life-as-they-know-it unless something happens to change the course of time. That’s, more or less, Fitz’s job, though he is very reluctant to do it. He stays in the castle, is trained as an assassin, bonds to a wolf, and assists Verity in the fight against the raiders. There are many underwoven plotlines throughout the main plotline that accentuate the storyline very well.
They storyline is good, but that’s not what I loved most about the books. What I loved is that in the book, there weren’t clear delineations between good vs. bad, which is so often the refuge of simpler stories and authors. The good guys had serious character flaws, and there were really only a couple people I could definitely characterize as ‘bad’, though even they were the product of other character’s actions. Throughout the story the unwillingness of the main character to engage in the quest gave the story credibility. It tracks very closely the process of a kid becoming a boy, becoming a man and the relationships that he navigates and chooses to engage and leave behind as well as the reasons behind the motives. It was not incredibly full of fight scenes, but it was still very captivating to read. The moral aspects behind many of the relationships and storylines made the reading both interesting and ‘real’.
Throughout the book, Fitz grows and develops, and becomes very disillusioned with his existence and how people are using him. The author uses the magic of The Skill and The Wit, not to impress the reader with grand displays of visual magic, but to enhance both the communication between characters and development of the storyline, which was fascinating.
The end of the book had a mostly happy ending, which I appreciate. I don’t read three books to cry my eyes out and question the meaning of life. However, it wasn’t an overly joyous ending, it was, again, very authentic. While good triumphs over bad, the sacrifices and costs made you as a reader wish certain circumstances and characters had turned out differently. Bittersweet would be a good descriptor for the ending.
However, the excellent news is that there is ANOTHER trilogy which picks up where The Farseer Trilogy left off, and (you guessed it) I’m smack-dab in the middle of that. The book leaves you as a reader wanting redemption for the characters so badly, I’d be surprised if anyone stopped at the end of the first series.
Definitely a recommended read. Preferably for vacation when you have real time to devote to mowing through these books as you aren’t going to want to set them down once they get going.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Book 10: The Elegant Universe

Book 9: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

By Brian Greene

Well. Where to begin. Part of why I haven’t updated this blog is because the review of this book was exceptionally intimidating. The book took me quite a while to read, (about 3 weeks) not because it was long, but because the concepts were difficult ones. However, this is not a book that I will brag that I read because it didn’t really make me feel SMARTER for having read it. Rather, I’d like to hide this experience under the proverbial bushel because god forbid someone ELSE read this book and would like me to speak intelligently on it with them.

Not going to happen. Because, even though I read it, I still don’t understand everything it was talking about. Let’s just keep that to ourselves. That’s a lot of time invested to not understand something very well.

The writing itself was well done. I can say that I understand the concept of the constant of the speed of light quite well now thankyouverymuch (having read that particular section 4 times). I got a bit lost in other parts, mostly because it’s difficult to keep ALL the different nomenclature for bits of physic thingies (my own grouping) straight. Branes and colors and quarks all blended together quite well and I had a hard time keeping it all straight. Which, over time, was quite a problem.

One thing that was communicated very well was that the universe runs according to a set of principles which are applicable here, there and everywhere (to quote the good Dr. Suess). And that IS amazing. Gravity, light, sound, it’s all the same IF the conditions are the same. And where the conditions are not the same, well, it behaves in a manner that is predictable with equations. The more I thought about it, the more that it boggled my mind. So, the if the title of the book is also the objective…well I get it.

String Theory…notsomuch. I now understand that Newton’s laws and Einstein’s laws are NOT in agreement. They work on large or small scales, but are not resolvable. So that is where string theory is supposed to come in. I didn’t get it.

Happily, I did some side internet research and found that String Theory is actually a bit outdated and has been experimentally and theoretically proven ‘wrong’. Something about the math being incongruent. I’d LIKE to say that I didn’t understand the book because I’m clearly far too intelligent and discovered the incongruities early on, but that would be a lie. I didn’t understand the book because I just didn’t get the concepts. Still, I did get some of them and that was more than I had understood before so it’s not a total loss.

Would I recommend the book? Sure! You may get it better than I, so I say…GO for it. And when you understand it let me know. I may just want you to talk to me about it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book 9: The Host

The Host
By Stephanie Meyer

Yes, I have TWO other book reviews to do. I’m a bit behind and really it’s unfair that I would review THIS book first. However, I loved this book, read it in two days, and felt like reviewing it first. So here goes.

First, stop it.

Those of you scoffing the fact that I would read Stephanie Meyer. To you I say; “I also loved the Twilight Series”.

So there.

I am in no ‘Edward’ or ‘Jacob’ camp, I’ll take any guy who spends the majority of his waking hours vexing about how I’m doing, what I’m feeling, and if I’m eating enough.

Unfortunately (especially for those who read these books not yet old enough to know better) these guys don’t actually exist. Everyone has a life and whether you are with someone or not, you need to get on with it. A guy who obsessed like these characters would most likely be in an unhealthy mental state.

However, this is why I love reading her books, and probably why lots of reasonable, thinking women do to (though most will not admit it). They are love stories without excessive clothing casualties, and the guys DO obsess about the woman, all the while remaining effective in every-day life, and the woman is usually in need of some sort of protecting (because she is forever helpless), and there are lots of really cool details about everyday life in a world we don’t exist in.

In this book, much like in the Twilight series, the main character Melanie, or rather, Melanie’s parasite – named Wanderer; is so blah and plain that you can instantly step into her as a reader. I do get a little exhausted with how weak, and scared, and silent, and helpless, and ‘silently strong’ Wanderer is. Much like I got a lot exhausted with reading about how golden Edwards eyes were.  

Still, that’s allright.

Because it’s the END of the WORLD! (in the book)

There are very few humans left, and the parasites are called SOULS and they live inside humans and make everyone peaceful. However, the original Melanie is still in her brain, and she’s not going down quietly, and she’s still in love with Jared. What fun! So there is a body, with essentially TWO  consciousnesses in it, and it drags Wanderer to this human colony where Jared is dwelling. Who is still in LOVE with Melanie but who HATES Wanderer (because only Wanderer can talk) and another guy who falls in LOVE with Wanderer but isn’t so keen on Melanie. TWO guys hopelessly in love with the same body, but two different people!

Yep. Lots of fun. Hardly makes sense to type it out, but it was very well executed. Well, OK, it was very well executed if you hadn’t read Twilight. If you HAD…well, then it was all very predictable because very nearly the SAME character transformations happen in each book. But that doesn’t really make it any less enjoyable, much like eating one delicious brownie doesn’t really ruin you on ANOTHER delicious brownie. You just need to space them out a bit.

It was mind candy. It was wonderful. I would recommend it, especially if you need to tune out and head somewhere else for a couple days.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Book 8: Horseradish: Bitter Truths you can’t Avoid

Horseradish: Bitter Truths you can’t Avoid
By Lemony Snicket

Given the light of the recent global events, the book I had originally chosen to be a quick read through midterm week turned out to be more depressing than funny. So this review will be bent towards my state of mind while I was reading it and perhaps, not the best of reviews of the book itself. However, I loved the book. Perhaps you will too by the end of this post.

“The moral of this story, if you are interested, is that there are bitter truths you cannot avoid in this world.” 

I am very inclined to agree with the author. Indeed, this whole week my husband and I have been monitoring the disasters in Japan; grappling with the idea that there is a nuclear plant at the edge of meltdown, watching people separated from loved ones, people searching through wreckage for bodies and memories, hearing about freezing temperatures and blackouts and being overwhelmed by just how cruel it all is. 

And the death. 

The needless, tragic deaths of people who were, for all intents and purposes, as prepared as they could be for such an event…and who died anyways. Grandparents, children, parents, the stories of people being swept away telling the utter helplessness against a massive tidal wave. 

"What happens in a certain place can stain your feelings for that location, just as ink can stain a white sheet. You can wash it, and wash it, and still never forget what has transpired - a word which here means 'happened, and made everybody sad'."

The humanity in death. 

The grandmother found dead in her home clutching her three year old grandson, the mother who rushed her small children to safety before being swept away herself, the elderly husband who disappeared into the chaos to find his wife….it’s too much for the mind to take. It’s shocking, it’s terrible, we rail against the idea that so many who should have lived a bit longer were taken so quickly, so cruelly. 

"It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things."

And the humanity in life.

The stories of the daycare reopening so children could have a sense of normality again. The ‘Fukushima 50’ who are on a suicide mission to save their people from nuclear devastation,  the people opening their homes and lives to complete strangers, sheltering them from the elements and sharing meager supplies. The village who, not waiting for rescue, began rescuing themselves; setting up water, food, shelter….community.

"It is so rare in this world to meet a trustworthy person who truly wants to help you, and finding such a person can make you feel warm and safe, even if you are in the middle of a windy valley high up in the mountains."

As Greg and I talked back and forth, back and forth trying to determine the best way to help and if it would do any good and what organization had the most impact…we came to the realization that our best efforts will not rebuild Japan. It will not bring back loved ones or houses or jobs or food or cool the nuclear plants. It will help buy blankets. Some may say that is a lot. I say it is nothing really, compared with what is unfolding. And so we sat back and realized that we will help….and it will not fix things.

"It is difficult, when faced with a situation you cannot control, to admit you can do nothing."

Our conversation shifted. It shifted to what WE would do. What we’d need to take with us if we had to evacuate, if a tornado took out our house, if water was shut off, if some event happened, were we prepared?

“It is very easy to say that the important thing is to try your best, but if you are in real trouble the most important thing is not trying your best, but getting to safety.”

We decided that we weren’t really as prepared as we could be. So we’re focusing on that. Should some natural disaster affect our lives, we’re a little more prepared, perhaps even a help to people in our community. We’re being CPR certified and will be part of a Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) soon. It’s not a lot, but it will fix things should they go wrong here…in a part of the world where we can directly assist. 

There aren’t words to define how terrible this disaster, among so many the past few years, is. There simply isn't a good way to communicate that dull ache that lives in your chest when shown that amount of human suffering. People just like you and me. The fact we live in a world connected by all sorts of communication methods means that, on some level, this affects everyone. Our hearts and hope are with the people of Japan as they start to move forward into a future which is vastly different from the past of a week ago. I can only hope that the following eventually rings true:

"At times the world may seem an unfriendly and sinister place, but believe that there is much more good in it than bad. All you have to do is look hard enough. and what might seem to be a series of unfortunate events may in fact be the first steps of a journey.”

If you are interested in any preparedness measures for your family, please visit the following excellent links:

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book 7: Tick Tock

Tick Tock
By Michael Bennett

Attempting to introduce balance into 2011’s reading, I decided to do a quick thriller to tune out for a few days and catch up a bit on my backlog. I am so very sad that I did. This book was pathetic. Warning, I didn’t finish this book and so it hardly counts as book 7. Still, I did get halfway thru and devoted 3 days to reading it so I decided to count it anyways. It was, seriously terrible. Before reviewing the book, let me introduce you to two types of genres that I love.

The first is Mindcandy. Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt stories are an example of this type of story. The plot line is wildly unrealistic, the characters are deliciously cheesy, the villains are appropriately villainous, and the guy always gets the girl and/or good always triumphs over evil. I love it! It is as Mindcandy should be and I very much enjoy it. Just as I don’t expect a McDonald’s cheeseburger to delicately introduce me to the wonders of fine dining, but enjoy it very much nonetheless…that’s how I feel about Mindcandy books.

On the other end of that spectrum there are fabulous thrillers that are so horrifying to read and so well written that you just. can’t. put.  them. down. And night after night you lose increasing hours of sleep trying to get to the end hoping and praying that everything turns out all right. ‘Hannible’ is an excellent example of this type of book.

I like both genres, though the latter is a bit more suited to plane-rides and vacations as I can quickly become obsessed with them.

This ridiculous book fell way before the Mindcandy spectrum attempting to meet the qualifications of the ‘Fabulous Thriller’ category. The result was dismally-written dialogue with a copycat plot line and seriously brutal murder scenes that took all pleasure out of reading the rest of the book.

I draw certain lines in books. I don’t like reading about a certain variety of scenes, and top on that list are when kids get hurt/abused/killed, even if it is just fiction. The world can be cruel enough to kids without exploiting them in storylines as well. I despise books that utilize that kind of emotion to illustrate just how bad a character is. It’s ridiculous. A well-written author need not stoop to that level as a well-written book simply doesn’t need it. The scenes are tense and the reader’s vivid imagination is fully utilized. THAT is art in writing. Michael Bennett clearly doesn’t have that kind of skill. He killed off a 4-year old girl halfway thru the book, committing a cardinal sin of writing.

So I shut it down. Nope, didn’t finish the book. Don’t want to. At halfway thru, someone else would have had to take over the writing in order to finish it off in any sort of decent matter but to be honest, I just wasn’t interested enough to persevere. So don’t read this book. Avoid it and apply your time to a Crichton book you haven’t read yet or even a Cussler book you haven’t read (he cranks out 1-2 a year so you have plenty to choose from).

I’m heading back into the world of science for another book or two, reading ‘The Elegant Universe’ by Brian Greene. More to follow shortly…

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book 6: Why We Get Fat, and What to do About it

Why We Get Fat, and What to do About it
By Gary Taubes

Continuing what is, apparently, the theme of this year, I learned a LOT in this book that I didn’t know before. I will preface this with a small insight into my life. I love food, and I’m a big fan of nutrition books, like to give them a go, and see what happens. I get really enthusiastic about menu-changes. 

But, usually it is a matter of more vegetables, or more fruit, or less processed food or, for a year, strict vegetarianism…I just love it.  

The premise of this book was very unconventional. VERY.  I’ve never been a fan of the Atkins diet (or way of eating) because it flew in the face of everything that NORMAL nutritionists tell you to do. However, this book by Taubes clearly promotes an Atkins-style of eating to promote weight loss and overall general health.
The great thing is that he actually backs his ideas up with extensive research and medical studies. Something which, up until recently, I hadn’t really thought of as missing from other nutrition books. 

Oh yeah, and no sugar. No fattening carbohydrates, and DEFINITELY no sugar. Which is a bit depressing for me as I am, admittedly, quite addicted to all things sugary. However, giving those items up (it can apparently take up to 18 months to fully quit a sugar-addiction and no longer have ‘intrusive thoughts about sweet food’) have extensive benefits. Good cholesterol goes up, bad cholesterol goes down, you drastically reduce your chances of heart-disease and even cancer and you don’t have to work out. In fact, until your body adjusts to the new food, you shouldn’t work out. Ha!

Here’s the thing. You have short term fat (essential fatty acids, or, EFAs) and long term fat storage. Short term is constantly going in and out of your fat portion of your body, keeps you from getting hungry at night…etc, and insulin regulates all this. However, carbohydrates and sugar drastically increase your insulin-levels which in turn starts the process of shuffling away short term fat into long term fat storage (these are layman’s terms. I’d highly recommend reading the book) and as time progresses you get fatter because your insulin is out of whack and fat is just going straight into long-term fat storage rather than being burned consistently. 

Reduce (or eliminate) your sugar and carbohydrate levels, and (after suffering about a week or two of withdrawl symptoms) you’ll bring your insulin levels down and start burning fat as you were meant to do.
It removes a lot of the guilt from people who are obese. 

There are plenty of studies that state that diet + exercise doesn’t work for the majority of the population, and people who are predispositioned to get fat simply can’t do much about it as your body WILL store whatever fat it feels it needs to. In fact, in a study done of a family of rats bred for weight-gain, one half of the rats were fed however much they wanted and the other half was fed an extremely restricted diet. BOTH groups gained the same amount of weight, but the rats on the food-restricted diet had shrunken internal organs from the lack of food. Rather than burn fat, their bodies simply took what it needed from vital functions. 

Obviously, this is not the case for everyone, but it does shed light into what I feel is a huge area of discrimination in our society. Obesity is not necessarily a choice, and sugar has addictive properties like that of heroin or cocaine in its dopamine-release structure. 

So, I’m cutting back based on this book and am trying to get used to coffee with JUST a bit of cream, no sugar. A big ‘meh’ so far but still better than black coffee. We’ll see how it goes, but if it ultimately helps with heart disease and cancer risks…well, it’s something I’m certainly willing to work on. We're also eating more protein now. I don't know if we'll go full-blown into the Atkins 'Induction Phase' of quick weight loss because seriously, I don't have a lot of time for that, but we are going to go mostly on a protein-based diet and see how we feel. So far, withdrawal has sucked.

Read the book. I imagine you’ll be just as surprised as I was at a number of the falsehoods the FDA, Department of Agriculture and nearly every diet book and cook book on the market attempt to teach. Still, it's interesting how ingrained (pun intended) those ideas are. I still like the food pyramid, I like the idea that if I burn 3,500 calories I will lose a pound of weight. Now I just have to keep switching my brain over to tell myself that's simply not true.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book 5: A Demon-Haunted World

A Demon-Haunted World
By Carl Sagan

I apologize for not putting a book up last week. When I started this blog I had not foreseen becoming somewhat passionate about science and was thinking my reading would involve mostly dramatic paperbacks. Mind-candy.  It was a strange form of events, from watching a video on YouTube recommended by a friend to then reading a book referenced on the site of that video, and then finally deciding to read a book by Carl Sagan, a man who was often vilified from the pulpit of my small-town church growing up.

 But then you see pictures like this: 

That little dot on the lower right-hand side...in that band of light? That's Earth.

In 1990, at the request of Carl Sagan, NASA sent a command to the Voyager 1 spacecraft, on its way out of the Solar System, to turn its camera back towards Earth and take a picture. The above image is the result, and I get goosebumps every single time I look at it. 

I think it is very rare for a book to be life-changing, and by that I mean paradigm-changing. This blog is not to delve into my personal beliefs, so I will leave it at this book changed my paradigm, and I am so very sad that Carl died as young as he did. We need more people like him in this world lighting more candles. 

The book itself was one of the best I’ve ever read. It was entertaining and fascinating and taught much. It delved into alien abductions, religion, ghosts and the dangers of frenzied group think. A part I found particularly interesting and devastating was when he chronicled the witch hunts in Europe and America. I personally had no idea so many women and children (yes, even young girls) were killed – estimates put it as many as 2 million.

The first half of the book talked extensively about paranormal events while the second half of the book really discussed all that science had done for us as a people, how far we’ve progressed and how far we have to go. I appreciated that Carl pointed out the fact that science doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a God, I also appreciated his desire to really know, not believe, things. Carl’s enthusiasm for science is inspiring, and his style of writing is fantastic and entertaining. He quickly has topped the list as one of my all-time favorite authors. 

More than anything, the book made me think about what I want my children to know and appreciate. Geology in college taught me an enthusiasm for old rocks and dinosaurs and wildly large mammals. Now, I can add the importance of space knowledge and biology to that list. It’s the great thing about kids, you can learn right alongside them and there are so many items readily available to us like telescopes and microscopes and chemistry kits etc… ignorance does no one any service. 

One of my favorite quotes of the book was this:
“Every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.”

And really, what’s more fascinating, the idea that God snapped his fingers and we popped into existence? Or the fact that ‘all the atoms that make each of us up – the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the carbon in our brains – were manufactured in red giant starts thousands of light years away in space and billions of years ago in time. We are, as I like to say, starstuff’.

Thanks, Carl.