Vampire$ Rothdas book review RSS
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

An adventure book about hunting vampires in the 1980's. Has weird gender and religious politics, and a hilarious eroge interlude in the middle of the book, but the action sequences are of an enjoyable quality.




Personality Disorders and Other Stories by Juan Jose Millas Garcia
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Sharps by K.J. Parker
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A delightful book. At its best it takes the gritty-sword-and-shield action of Glen Cook and combines it with something approaching the fecund and inventive world building of Ian Banks. I'm not sure that the plot quite holds together under examination, but the individual scenes are generally great fun to read. In particular, Parker does a great job with the fencing scenes which are the heart of the book.




MM9 by Hiroshi Yamamoto
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Short stories about the government agency that fights Kaiju (Godzilla type monsters) which periodically invade Japan. The stories are written like Saturday morning cartoons, using light and broad strokes. The stories are generally enjoyable but not too deep.




Godslayer (The Sundering, #2) by Jacqueline Carey
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

I know I am giving up all of my GoodReads cred by saying this, but I liked this book a lot. To repeat my review of _BaneWreaker_, this is a well done Sauron apologetic which re-arranges the original story in interesting ways while still managing to be its own tale.

As a small example, take the cover page of the book. You have your generic fantasy title, which ends up referring to something completely different than you would think. You have a noble white stallion (a Shadowfax analog), which used to be our protagonist's favorite horse, until Gandalf stole it and brainwashed it. And then you have the Gandalf-analog, who is a complete ass. He is like the snooty, too-perfect British suitor in a Rom-Com; there is basically no scene where you are not rooting for him to get stabbed.

This book isn't on the same level as Beowulf/Grendel, but it is still a fast-paced and enjoyable read that manages to turn its fantasy-cliche vices into virtues.




Banewreaker (The Sundering, #1) by Jacqueline Carey
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This is by far the best Sauron apologetic that I have read. While there is not an exact mapping, the characters and events in the book are clearly modeled after the The Hobbit and The LoTR, with just a bit of Covenant and other fantasy mixed in. However, the focus of the story has shifted completely, so that the reader is in the boots of the Orcs/Banelords/Dusky Easterners, and facing the threat of renewed Gondorian/Elven aggression.

Despite drawing so directly on Tolkien, this is still very much its own story. It presents a fantasy world closer to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, where both sides have grievances that go back to the First Age of Man. And the Mordor side is never a caricature; the author does a good job of portraying their affections, values, and viewpoint in such a way that you root for them at least as much as opposing side. The various events and set-pieces have also been moved around, so that while you might know the events that will happen, you are not sure of when they will happen, or who will fill which role. For example, mid-way through the book I was terribly anxious that the Gandalf-analog would carry out a Helm's Deep type charge from behind, ruining the plans of our heroes and their orcish army. Something else happened, but still, half the fun of the book is re-arranging the various puzzle pieces of known events and trying to guess how they will be arranged into the story.

Another selling point to the book is that it is much more straight forward than the original. Characters are clear and distinctive, and events move at a fast pace. Rather than rambling on about elven poetry, this book dives straight into the strategic/magical balance of power. Altogether delightful, assuming you are into this sort of thing.




The Killing of Worlds (Succession, #2) by Scott Westerfeld
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A perfectly enjoyable and fast-reading space opera. One third of the book goes to space battles, one third to politics/world building, and one third to surprisingly non-terrible romances. The world building and sci-fi elements are well thought out, meaty, and occasionally clever. They aren't as brilliant as you would find in M. Banks, and there are occasional mis-steps (authors, please stop mixing psionics in with your sci-fi stories! Keep the psychics in the fantasy ghetto! Thank you!), but overall the story doesn't make you feel dumb when you read and enjoy it. Oh, and the big reveal at the end was a bit underwhelming. Still, it seems like a solid foundation for a new series.




The Risen Empire (Succession, #1) by Scott Westerfeld
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A perfectly enjoyable and fast-reading space opera. One third of the book goes to space battles, one third to politics/world building, and one third to surprisingly non-terrible romances. The world building and sci-fi elements are well thought out, meaty, and occasionally clever. They aren't as brilliant as you would find in M. Banks, and there are occasional mis-steps (authors, please stop mixing psionics in with your sci-fi stories! Keep the psychics in the fantasy ghetto! Thank you!), but overall the story doesn't make you feel dumb when you read and enjoy it.




Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

An extremely engaging, informative, and detailed history of the Civil War. I read the first 200 pages straight through, which is usually something that happens with trashy fantasy novels, not histories of the US politics of 1830-1860. The book has great quotations and excellent maps. I also found it to be an enjoyably inflammatory book; after that first 200 pages I was completely ready to join the Union army and shoot Confederates. I think this might finally be the book that cements the history of the Civil War in my mind.




Dies the Fire (Emberverse, #1) by S.M. Stirling
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Terrible. God-awful. Racist. Cliched, like literally adventurers-meet-in-a-tavern cliched. Fellates SCA people like Cory Doctrow does IT people. These are a few of the things I thought while reading the first part of this book.




The Russia House by John le Carre
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




The Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

In many ways, this is the same book as _In the First Circle_. In both books, plot is mostly tossed out in favor of dozens of slices of life from various people in a collective. It's difficult to identify a common tone of these snapshots, since each character has their own viewpoint and circumstances. A muddled grey maybe? This time the setting is a Soviet cancer ward rather than a Soviet gulag, but the cheerfulness of the stories is about the same.

After reading 750 pages of slice-of-life in _First Circle_, I'm not sure that I needed another 500 pages from _The Cancer Ward_. There are some differences between the books, but they're mostly negative. Both books are semi-auto-biographical, but in _Cancer Ward_ the author's stand in graduates from bit player to main character, and gets a third of the total pages. This is unfortunate since while the author is not bad, he's not really the most interesting character in the book, and his sections veer between seeming somewhat Mary Suish, to taking the piss out of himself. Again, I'm not quite sure what to make of it, whether it is an author who has started to buy into his own fame, an unsparing self portrait, or maybe a self portrait that was meant to be flattering but comes across to modern, enlightened readers such as myself as unflattering. While the author's writing benefits from his lived experiences, he is pretty much a 1950's Russian nationalist with some Tolstoy thrown in, and I don't really know that I need to read his more general musings. Or to put it another way, I do appreciate the experiences he has brought back from the extremes, but don't think he has that much to say about the more everyday parts of life.

There are excellent chapters in this book, and there are themes that it covers that are different from the other gulag novels. And _Cancer Ward_ is a somewhat more optimistic book, in that Stalin has died and past repressions are being rolled back. Still, I can't say that this book produced much in me besides a general feeling of malaise.




In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A depressing book, but high quality and occasionally quite moving. The First Circle refers to a system of gulags for the engineers who are too useful to be sent to hard-labor camps. Those in the First Circle of hell enjoy a measure of safety and physical comfort, in exchange for working on technical projects for Stalin's regime. The book itself is a 48-hour window into the lives of those engineers and the people around them. Generally, each of the 50+ characters will get one PoV chapter, and the book covers not just engineers, but also wives, girlfriends, security officers, janitors, administrators, and party bosses. There is a plot to the book, but it is rather slight and incidental. The majority of the book's 750 pages consists of camp stories and life histories from those under the regime.

These life histories are well done, and they take a foreign and confused time and make it vivid and real. At its best, the book manages to convey and make real the immense human potential that was squandered by the regime. The author spent 10 years in the gulag system, and that lived experience comes through in his writing and in a wealth of small details. For engineers, this book will have an extra piquance, as there are many recognizable scenarios from your own life in the book. There are tech demos, schedule estimation meetings with the boss, and being called away from interesting work in order to attend Human Resources Communist Party meetings. Of course, each these scenarios in the book has its own special Stalinist flavor.

I feel like a bit of an asshole for not giving this book 5 stars, however the high points of the book were too diluted with writing that was merely good. There were too many characters for me to keep track of their interrelations, and this was compounded by the short PoV time for each character, as well as the fact that each Russian apparently has 5 different names. I also felt a slight disconnect from the story in many places, which I think is partially due to the fact that it is translation, and partially due to the fact that it is from a different culture. So in that sense I couldn't appreciate the nuances as much I could with someone like Nabokov.




Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Well, this novel certainly was surprising. Like _Downbelow Station_, the previous book I read by CJ Cherryh, this one starts with a vulnerable young man being sexually tortured by a 100+ year old harridan with immense political/military power. Ok, I thought, apparently that is Cherryh's thing. Kind of an odd authorial fingerprint, but hey, the 60's were kind of crazy. But then other oddities started to mount up. Tons of yaoi theming? Detailed and believable psychological modeling? Wait a minute... CJ Cherryh is a woman! And its true, wikipedia confirmed it. Solving that mystery, and the other mysteries in the text, made the first 250 pages of this book a 5-star delight.

This enjoyable first half of the novel is basically Dollhouse done right. It covers a political intrigue in the Union, a group of separatist planets which relied on birth tanks and automated psychological programming to supply soldiers for their war of independence. Now that the war is over, these programmed people ("azi") are the back bone of their society, and Reseune Labs is where the magic all happens. The main characters are primarily scientists at the labs, and the action has to do with their intrigues as they try to bribe, threaten, blackmail, subvert, and murder each other. This is enjoyable! And while I feel Cherryh incorrectly models how some of these technologies would play out and be used, if you assume they would be employed as she says, the characterization and detail of what it would be like to live in such a world are top notch. At its best it is as if someone had written a real, honest to god literary novel in a world with mindwipes, skill-tapes, and perfectly devoted azi slaves.

And then there is the second half of the book, which at 350 pages is a very large half. Nothing new happens in this half. The same tensions/blackmail which animated the first half are endlessly rehashed. There aren't any significant plot developments, and we wade through chapters of made up psycho-science (fun game, count how many times she uses the word "flux" on a page. Note, *do not* try to make this into a drinking game). It's like she wrote the first part and then called Robert Jordan to ghost write the remainder. And finally, the whimpered ending that we've been expecting for the last 350 pages.

In summary, parents, please keep your teenagers away from Cherryh.




Maelstrom (Rifters, #2) by Peter Watts
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

After the cliff-hanger ending to Starfish, I was really excited about starting Maelstrom. That excitement steadily drained away over the course of this dreary book, until by the end I had precisely zero interest in the series.

Why is that? One factor is that while Starfish had a developing plot line and unraveling mysteries, in Maelstrom things just fall apart. The entire book is about people trying and failing to contain viruses, mostly because the world's author has decided he doesn't like people and wants their defenders to have really bad luck. A second factor is that in this book Watts stops writing about what he knows (marine biology), and starts writing about things he doesn't know (computers and people).

The many parts of the book that talk about future computers and future internet and future computer viruses are just painful. Watts is intent on applying his biological models to absolutely everything, and ends up with these absurd computer viruses and computing paradigms. In his world virtually every computer is running Windows 95 and has been rooted, and viruses are continually playing elaborate games of Core Wars in order to propagate themselves, and none of the ruthless, all controlling mega-corps have just said f'it and made their networks into fully trusted walled gardens.

The sections on personal motivation are no better. Every main character turns out to be some sort of anarchic nihilist, who would much rather watch the world burn than, say, continue to enjoy their luxurious upper-class existence (spoiler!). There is one exception to this, but apparently she is the villain? It is a bit like reading a Warhammer 40K book, if it was set entirely amongst Nurgle and Tzeentch cultists, and if the gleeful absurdity of 40K was drained out and replaced with a sort of adolescent anger and self importance. Watt's caustic view on things can be enjoyable when diluted with other plot lines, but in Maelstrom he just kind of wallows in it for 350 pages.

Overall the experience of reading the two books was a bit like reading Watt's blog. At first there are some good entries, but then you come across ones like where he goes to a con and makes an ass out of himself (http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=1488). You then realize that in addition to his admirable qualities, Watts is also kind of an angry and self-righteous drunk.




The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture, #10) by Iain M. Banks
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Surface Detail (Culture, #9) by Iain M. Banks
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A middling Culture novel, which is to say a great sci-fi novel. You have many of the standard Culture tropes, however the quality and inventiveness of the details is such that even a partial re-tread is still a delight to read. The story itself is somewhat meandering, and follows a variety of different entities at various levels of technology, intellect, and reality. Some of these story threads threads taper out and some don't really connect to the others, so it is more of a slice of life novel rather than one that comes to a sharp point. There's a little twist at the end, but it's nothing like, say, _The Use of Weapons_.




Inversions (Culture, #6) by Iain M. Banks
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A nice, filling portion of Banks. Not his greatest book, but Inversions is still a solid Culture book which is a very good thing indeed. Although perhaps "solid" isn't the best way to describe a book about deceptions and reversals. The story is somewhat odd in that it never mentions the Culture explicitly, so if you haven't read several of these books you will miss out on a sort of invisible half of the plot that is entirely off screen. On the other hand, if you have read several Culture books, then some of the major plot twists are going to be predictable, since Banks has typical ways in which he twists. Still, enjoyable. It is a bit reminiscent of _Despair_ or other Nabokov in its profusion of mirrored images and, well, inversions.




So Far From God: The U. S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848 by John S.D. Eisenhower
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A decent summary of a mostly uninteresting war. I've never read much about the Mexican-American war, and I picked up this book to fill that gap. Every battle in the war follows the same basic pattern:
1) An advancing American army moves up to a Mexican army that has 2-4 times as many troops
2) The Mexican army is hunkered down in defensive positions, since they don't have the leadership, training, or morale for offensive operations.
3A) The American army uses its superior artillery to blast away at the defenses, and then charges in after several hours or days of that. Or,
3B) The American army moves around to a vulnerable flank of the defenses, and starts rolling the defensive line up from one side to the other.
4) Massive route/surrender of the Mexican army, starting from the top.

This process happens ~8 times over the course of the war, with only one deviation. After that, viola, the bloody and unjust war of expansion is complete.

I feel somewhat dumb for saying this, but my favorite part of the book was the portraits. After 30 years of fighting, General Taylor looks suitably nonplussed by the whole experience. Polk looks eerily like Lucius Malfoy. Winfield Scott is suitably craggy and blustery.




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