Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1) by Brandon Sanderson Rothdas book review RSS
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Mostly delightful. The exploration of the world and its magic system was a continual draw, and was generally more compelling than the plot/characters. The magic system is original as far as I know, and if a studio somewhere is not making a video game based on it then our world is missing out. The plot/characters were entirely solid.




The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

I simply could not get into this book. The protagonist works at developing video games and this subject matter forms a fair bit of the start of the book. I have at least a tangential knowledge of video game development, and everything in these sections is just completely and totally wrong. The character's mannerisms try to sound up to date and witty and charming, but come off as just screechingly offputting. At 100 pages in I could not make myself care about the characters at all, and on skipping to the ending I found it was exactly what I expected. The basic idea of the book (i.e. Mercatorianism) is interesting to me and I would like to see it further explored, but the execution here was just abysmal.




Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Destroy All Monsters, and Other Stories by Greg Hrbek
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Reading this made me think of a relatively new insult in online gaming, calling someone a "tryhard". The author needs to learn to slow down. Don't whip out the heavy handed symbolism at the very start. Warm the audience up, introduce some character detail first. As is it reads as an overly earnest junior effort.




The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A delightful book. The first chapter is a bit overblown and had me worried, but after that it settles down into a series of beautiful vignettes from the GWOT. There is a very direct and unmediated feel to the stories. Physical events are described in a straightforward and detailed fashion. The stories coming from politicians, bureaucrats, sheiks, warlords, CIA agents, citizens, and soldiers are mostly given as is. There is some analysis and commentary, but also a steady acknowledgement of the limits of his knowledge, and the difficulty in separating truth from various falsehoods and translations. In general, the author maintains a humble aspect and is generous to the people he describes. Kudos to the NYTimes for supporting reporters and reporting like this.




The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy, #2) by Margaret Atwood
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

While not bad, The Year of the Flood was not up to the level of _Oryx and Crake_, and was at its worst where it intersected with the original book. Atwood should stick to her policy of avoiding sequels.

First, the good. Atwood's modeling of psyches and writing about relationships is enjoyable and deft. Even the somewhat hum-drum action that fills most of the book is made quietly enjoyable by this skill. Second, God's Gardeners (GG), the central religion of the book, is a delightfully imaginative and well fleshed out religion. This is one of the best versions of eco-Christianity I have seen, and is the primary reason I gave the book 4 stars rather than 2 or 3. Some of the hymns and sermons are just as good as the originals, and many have a quiet and delightful humor to them. The mix of absurd theology, cheerful euphemism, minor church politics, and unshakeable optimism in these sections was always enjoyable. Adam One was a particular favorite, and his canny intelligence, good humor, and wisdom and seemed like a bright mirror image of Crake from the first book. The Naruto to his Sasuke if you will.

The bad parts of the book are mostly where it ties into the original. In the first part of the book, you have well fleshed out, sympathetic, and very human protagonists growing up amongst the GG's. Unfortunately, they are then dropped into the compound world of Oryx and Crake, and Ren becomes obsessed with Jimmy. Fucking Jimmy. We've had enough of Jimmy, he had a whole book, and even there his best parts were when he was a mirror for the characters and events that surrounded him. We don't need more time spent on Jimmy, and certainly not by characters who are interesting and that we actually like. Even though this particular section ends fairly quickly, all of the parts that deal with the corporate world seemed like something of a second rate re-hash. This aspect of the world was already covered in great depth in the first book. The deafeningly tin-eared names for corporations, products, and tribes are still out in force. Editors, please don't let Atwood do this to herself again. Also, the plotting of the action, especially after the Flood, seemed rather weak. Zeb, the ultra-competent survivalist, is just fine sending out his two malnourished and untested friends on their own to hunt the Reaver-esque painballers. About ~80% of the named characters survive the supposedly species ending plague, and they all find each other in about a month. Etc. etc. Just as bad is what their survival does to all the themes and ideas in the first book. Crake's new creation and Crake's plague were supposed to be two sides of the same coin, with the plague eliminating the human stain that would otherwise destroy his perfect new creatures. If however plenty of humans survived the plague, then that elegance is right out the window, and the entire first book was basically for nothing. I try to make it OK by telling myself that the characters from The Flood will all die of skin cancer in a few years, but that's a wan comfort.

In conclusion, the Year of the Flood is a little flabby, a little overwritten, and has some major missteps, but is at least partially redeemed by a delightful religion and its adherents.




Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This is a simply excellent piece of work. One measure of its success is that after reading 700 pages of non-fiction, I was sad that the book was over and wished that it could continue on to cover more of history. The time period is meticulously researched, and the writing is clear, detailed, engaging, and thoughtful. Anderson's mastery of the subject is evident throughout the book, and really shines when he covers the details behind some of history's set stories (e.g. Washington vs Jumonville, Wolfe at Quebec). I was also greatly pleased by his coverage of the cultural factors in the struggle, and how they explain so much of the conflict and its results.

If I have one small quibble, it is that I would have liked modern, clearer maps (rather than, or perhaps in addition to, using the maps from the day).

Editor Note: 4-20-2018: *Vague Ramble Warning Engaged* Out of this entire 700 pages, one of the bits that has stuck with me and provided useful grist for further thought is this one little section near the end of the book, where he writes about the British Empire taking possession of various Western Hemisphere colonies towards the end of the war. In some places like the Caribbean this went extremely well for them, with the British rapidly and conquering and integrating the colonies with relatively little resistance or unrest or bloodshed. And that part makes sense, in that the British taking over the area from the French simplified or sorted out or made the economy of the region flow much more smoothly and rationally. Previously the area had been divided by the mercantile system, so that islands that were close to each and other and natural trading partners could not legally trade with each other. So you have one island making sugar, and another island 100 miles away with the distilleries to turn the sugar into rum, but because of the political divide and the mercantile system they weren't able to trade with each other without having to first ship the goods to their home capitals, pay various import duties, ship the goods back, etc. And then predictably smugglers came into the picture to circumvent those hurdles, which then were combated with enforcement ships and officers, and people being bribed and hanged and shot, etc. etc. So the previous situation didn't make sense and involved all sorts of wastage. But when the Brits took over all of the islands, suddenly the islands could trade with each other in a far more efficient and rational manner. Farms and factories were booming, the local elites were raking in profits, and basically everyone was happy with the new situation even though they had been conquered by their European foes.

And this contrasted with the attempted British occupation of the Philippines. The Brits were high from their Caribbean successes, and launched even more adventurous campaigns in the colonial theater. And they were initially successful in militarily taking over Manila. However, from there things went wrong, and they ran into the sort of bloody resistance that would re-occur in various forms for another 200+ years in the Philippines. And there are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is that the British occupation there didn't make sense, it had terrible feng-shui, it didn't make anyone's life easier. They had cultural differences and disconnects and lack of connections, they arrived in the area with a razing, they didn't make the trade and economies of the area work any better by their arrival. So the Brits were able to hold on to Manila until the peace treaty, but they never fully controlled the country and even their brief time there was marked by conflict and massacres.

Which then brings us to the modern day, and the various fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, and books like the Forever War and Crossing Zero and, well, Fiasco. And this is somewhat simplistic, but I think part of the reason for these failures is similar to what is outlined in the above. There is no feng-shui to them, they try and fight against the dao. Iraq was designed by the Brits to be ungovernable, that's why (or part of why) it is so difficult to govern. And I don't know that I have any concrete suggestions at this point, except to think more broadly about how places can be changed/organized so that our efforts there aren't constantly about trying to push water uphill. Phrased another way, if there is not some cleverness to the post war plan it is a bad plan. Anyway! Just some random thoughts that were sparked today while listening to the Hell of a way to Die podcast.




Downbelow Station (Company Wars, #1) by C.J. Cherryh
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

While slightly space opera-ish, this book mainly looks at the people who are usually on the sidelines of such stories. The novel focuses on the politics and life experiences of refugees, workers, administrators, and merchants caught up in an escalating war between two great powers. The common dilemma they face is how to react in the face of threats and coercion by the warring military powers. How much should they cooperate, how much of their old life can they save, and how can they protect their loved ones are the common questions. The writing and characterization are surprisingly good, and this would have been a fine story absent any of its sci-fi trappings.


The book does have some unfortunate flaws. The first and last 5 pages of the book are horrible. The first 5 pages have terrible world building, including manned sub-FTL ships which are apparently hauling minerals back to Sol from distant stars. I nearly stopped reading at that point. Fortunately, the world building improves from there, and most of the other tech details are left safely vague. The last 5 pages have a variety of well developed characters, who have spent the last 400 pages being murderous and amoral players of power politics, breaking character and suddenly deciding that they are in a different novel altogether. Additionally, there are some fuzzy type aliens who occasionally interject themselves into the story. These sections were very uneven, with some parts being great (seeing the sun from space), and others being eminently skimmable.






Hearts In Conflict: A One Volume History Of The Civil War by Curt Anders
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

At the end of this book, I was reminded of the end of _Burn After Reading_.

"What have we learned Palmer?"
"I don't know sir"
"I don't fucking know either"
"I guess we learned not to do it again"

I'm not sure if it was the fault of the book or of the war, but it really seemed like a giant muddle all the way through with no really clear lessons. Even examining someone like McClellan, who manages to exceed Joffrey Baratheon in sheer douchiness, and it is not clear what the correct course of action at the time should have been. For all of his horrible faults, McClellan did keep the Union line together and prevent a decisive Southern victory long enough for the northern war machine to get rolling. It's possible that with a more competent general, the dice would have fallen differently and prevented even that. So, a ton of mistakes, many poor/traitorous generals, toxic command relationships, key military decisions botched due to election politics, plenty of friendly fire, and communications tech that could not keep up with the tempo and scale of battle. Lincoln and Farragut are about the only ones who come out of it looking like adults.

Overall the book seemed perfectly acceptable. My main criticism would be that it needed more/better maps (i.e. show the positions as they develop rather than a single image of a single point in time), and maybe some diagrams of the command hierarchies at various points. This would be much clearer/faster than trying to convey the same information in type.




Troika by Alastair Reynolds
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1) by John Scalzi
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




The Passage (The Passage, #1) by Justin Cronin
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This book has major flaws. The first and unforgivable flaw is that from page 100 on, every POV character is being mind controlled by vampires. (Spoiler!) It is like this endless un-skippable cut scene, where none of the characters show any agency or awareness what so ever. Well, let me amend that. There is one character who has some mindfulness and resistance to subversion, but apparently he is a villain, and so gets killed off early. In general this reminded me of reading _The Ruins_, where half way through the book all the characters are irredeemably fucked, and you are just wondering why the other half of the book could possibly be needed. Which brings us to major flaw #2, the inordinate length of the book. The author needs to explain in detail the history of every little side character and event, making the story vastly, vassssstly longer than it needed to be. This compounds flaw #1. Actually, as a short story this could have been fine, and the internal justifications for carrying out the vampire's telepathic commands could have been interesting for the length of the story. After 800 pages though, this sort of thing just becomes terrible.


Sidenote:
One of the downsides of eBooks is that you can inadvertently pick up a giant tome like this. On a whim you start to read, and hours later you are only a third of the way through. Ughh.




Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World's Deadliest Place by Peter Eichstaedt
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Charleston Under Siege: The Impregnable City by Doug Bostick
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Kind of bad. In general it reads like a talented undergrad's paper, or maybe an autistic grad student's. The book suffers from a lack of context; often it will just start listing out facts and anecdotes without explaining how they fit into the larger picture of the war or why the actions were taken. Also has virtually no maps, and no useful maps, which is a problem when your book is all about the maneuvering of cannons and trenches in order to pull apart various forts. The ending is also somewhat disappointing; after a two year siege, the confederates just evacuated because they needed the troops elsewhere. They will need to jazz that up in the Hollywood screenplay.




Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire by Elizabeth Gould
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Somewhat interesting, but not very helpful. The book covers Afghan history, as well as the more recent and ongoing debacles in that country. Generally, the book regards the US/British as bad and the Afghan tribal councils as good. Which seems about half right. The main theme of the book is that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (the Zero Line) is where contradictory US policies meet and push against each other. This seems correct, and accords with what you would get from reading the NY Times, that our drug policies are conflicting with our counter-terrorism policies, our support for Pakistan is being used to undermine our forces in Afghanistan, and that the pachinko balls of violence and extremism that we unleashed on the communists have bounced onto our own side of the board. And at is best the book acts as a sort of negative _Connections_, tracing how these various hostilities and fuckups have pollinated and bred with each other. The solutions to the problem are the standard ones (scale back US militarism) plus some idiotic ones (another national jirga, which *this* time will certainly win out over the warlords, Taliban, ISI, etc.).



Other interesting bits:
- Referring to the famous annihilation of a British Army at Gandamark in 1842 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_Elphinstone%27s_Army), the book says: "In a final and fatal blunder the British departed from Kabul before an Afghan escort could be assembled. Having failed to include the Ghilzai tribal leaders and their allies in the final agreement, the British were attacked and slaughtered..." lol. This sort of amazingly blinkered view persists through out the book.

- introduced me to David Headly, the (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Headley), who was caught up by the DEA in the War on Drugs, turned informant & agent, was sent to Pakistan as part of the War on Terror, converted to their side, and then aided the Pakistan's extremist groups in their attack on Mumbai, as part of their War on Freedom.




The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1) by Suzanne Collins
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Finally, an Ender's Game for the fairer sex. In it a YA is forced, through no fault of her own, to be dressed up in beautiful costumes, debate which of two hawt boyfriends to choose, eat as much delicious food as she can stand, become a media sensation, and show off her awesome skills in a televised Battle Royale. The book is well designed and knows its audience. Parts of it are very well written, and the rest of it is certainly competent. The world building is somewhat absurd but can usually be ignored.




Kraken by China Mieville
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A pleasant, light, and well-written, book. While the story does have alien races and exotic planets, it is not really sci-fi and does not contain new ideas. Indeed, it is firmly rooted in the 60's-70's mindset that produced the original. For example, part of the reason corporations travel to new planets is so that they can extract petroleum, which they can then burn for energy. I'm guessing it's something like our ethanol program today? Anyway, a lucky-clever lawyer and his various cute companions fight to get justice from the greedy corporation that threatens the planet they are exploring/exploiting. It is an enjoyable story that is fast/easy to read, which is not a bad thing to be.




The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) by Lev Grossman
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




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