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The Children of Men

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At this point, this book is laboring to stay out of the shadow of its movie counterpart, which really is a fantastic film and deserves the positive reputation it has. I’d already seen the movie twice, but had this book recommended to me by a friend, who told me it was significantly different.

And it is significantly different. The movie departs almost completely from the book in terms of plot. It’s almost as if the movie was created by somebody who heard a friend tell them about the book once, and decided to make a movie based on the memory of the conversation.

But, the movie and the book have one thing in common, which is tone. Both have that melancholic, beat-down feeling in the first half, and the ambiguously hopeful feeling at the end. And that’s the best thing about this book. It will seize you along for an emotional journey in a way which few other books will.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/209500431

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The Vikings Reader

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Much more fascinating than it really has any right to be, the Vikings Reader is a chronicle of the history of the Vikings, as told by contemporary news stories, particularly from the local newspapers. Because the story is told from these contemporary sources, it focuses a lot on the emotion and perception of the local populace, rather than analytical 20/20 hindsight.

Almost by accident, the Reader ends up being a history of Minnesota sportswriting. The shifts in tone from the beginning to the end of the book are astounding. It really does show just how much even our sportswriting has changed from the 50s to today.

What really sets this book apart, however, is the focus on the off-field history. The on-field results of the Vikings are documented, sure, but in a long-view book like this, the most interesting stories happen off-the-field. The ephemera of sports shines through, like the constant stadium struggle, the coaching changes and the tailgating culture. The on-field results of all but the most exceptional teams and players fade from memory, but the swirling culture surrounding a franchise is enduring, and this book capitalizes well on that fact.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/209129342

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Atlas Shrugged

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There's a certain compelling rhythm to Rand's writing style, for sure, but the premises that this novel is based on are just so outlandish that I have a difficult time taking it seriously. Sure, there's noble individualism running throughout, but where The Fountainhead is usually tolerable with a bit of over-the-top moralizing, Atlas Shrugged is the inverse, with outlandish moralizing at every turn, and only the sparsest thread of sanity.

The premise is that there is a certain brand of person, a producer, who is the creator of everything and can do no wrong. Then there's the other kind of person, the looter, the one who does nothing other than live off the work of others. I'm not sure how Rand gets to this dichotomy, but she does.

Rand's ideas are so stark that they are ludicrous. This is an interesting book as a cultural artifact, but I just can't respect anybody who thinks that she's actually getting at anything serious with this book. I suppose that just makes me a looter in her eyes. Sigh...

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/205268509

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Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy

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Disclaimer: I have a distant personal connection to this author.

I really liked the first of Eire's books, Waiting for Snow in Havana, and I eagerly looked forward to this book. This book chronologically picks up right where Snow left off, as Eire lands in Miami after his flight from Cuba. But make no mistake, this is not a rehash of Snow, nor should it be.

Snow is a charming book told with dark undertones, Die is a darker book told with charming undertones. This grows organically from the topic being discussed; after all, this is about the loss of innocence, both the natural innocence of childhood and also the innocence of the rosy picture of the United States. Eire experiences both subtle and overt racism, as well as abject poverty, both of which have a tendency to eliminate any innocence you might have remaining.

But the thing which makes this book most fascinating is that Eire succeeds, despite adversity. In many ways, Eire is the embodiment of the American Dream: He arrived in America in poverty as an immigrant with poor English skills, but drew on industriousness and natural talent to climb the social ladder. In the end, he makes it all the way up to one of the classic positions of entrenched society, that of professor at Yale. The American Dream as literary device is overused to the point of cliche, and it’s easy to get crotchety and dismissive. But, sometimes, it actually happens, and when written realistically, as here, it is impressive.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/282174387

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The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2)

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I was not a huge fan of Rothfuss' first book in this series, The Name of the Wind. When I picked this new volume up, however, I was gripped in a way I never was with his previous offering. This is one of the ultrarare instances where a fantasy series has gotten better in its second book, which leaves me definitely looking forward to more.

I got fed up with our protagonist Kvothe in the first book. Because Rothfuss writes the whole story from Kvothe's first-person perspective, sometimes Kvothe comes across as bragging, unrealistic, and just plain flat. He's just so put upon by the whole world. Of course, Kvothe is never wrong, and he just so badass sometimes that it passes the plane of believability.

The second book has mostly left this behind. It's not that Kvothe has gotten less badass. He's still just as good at everything he does, and it's not that the world has stopped making it hard for him. But Rothfuss' style has matured in a very subtle way, where he has managed to make Kvothe less of a whiny brat, and more of a matter-of-fact teller of a tale. And though the change is a subtle one, it is definitely an important one.

This book has made me a believer in Rothfuss. While the first book had me grudgingly accepting that he had a talent for crafting a page-turner, this book gripped me in a better way. Sure, Kvothe is still pretty over-the-top, but the book holds its own despite that. Recommended for fantasy fans.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/99358105

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Freedom

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I hate to be another one of Franzen's raving fanboys, but goddamn this guy's a great writer. Freedom, much like The Corrections before it, is a tour de force, one of the few candidates for the title "Great American Novel" written in the past 20 years.

Franzen is so powerful because he has such a grasp on character, such a strong sense of what it means to be an American, and such immense writing talent that he is able to make every character feel like it's an aspect of the reader. I read Patty's section, and I see her behavior in mine. I read Richard, I read Walter, and I feel that they are thinking my thoughts. It is rare to feel such identification with even one character in a book, and Franzen has obviously labored very hard indeed if he is able to do it with several characters.

This is absolutely a fantastic book. The occasional oddness and distance that I felt with The Corrections is gone from this book. Unabashedly recommended for all readers of serious fiction.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/148541804

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A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of King Charles I of England and Henrietta Maria of France

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A Royal Passion is intensely well-researched. The author makes some claims that past research on this topic has been shortsighted and not as thorough. Assuming that her characterization of previous works are correct, she's done a good job of debunking those previous works. There are footnotes and quotes galore in this book, which just goes to show how much work went into this book. I don't doubt that this has become one of the go-to academic books for this topic, purely based on the strength of its research.

But, unfortunately, all those footnotes and all those quotes come with a heavy price in readability. The book takes such pain to make so many phrases as close to verbatim as possible that the language becomes stilted. Quotes, rather than being used to supplement the text, are in many places used to replace it. This is great, if you're looking for a thoroughly researched, dry academic text, but not so great if you're looking for a broader historical overview of the topic.

My rating for this book is probably unfair. This book does what it wants to do, as it establishes a very close relationship between Charles and Henrietta Maria. But it doesn't match what I wanted it to do.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/176897774

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Anathem

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Anathem is a great book, followed by a mediocre book. The great book comes early, as Stephenson builds a remarkable and convincing world surrounding a unique idea. Study and intellectualism are literally cloistered away in this world. When a person shows talents or inclination to study mathematical, philosophical, or scientific theory, that person is welcomed into a half-monastery, half-university community. That community keeps intentionally limited communication with the outside world. Although a few people of the community are allowed to talk occasionally with the outside world, most of the members stay isolated from that world, except for intervals of one, ten, one hundred, or even one thousand years. The rationale, in the society, is that technology and theory have been used in the past for remarkable destruction, and that it is better to keep such technology isolated from the greater world.

I wish Stephenson would have kept playing with this idea, and built the entire novel from it. But, after spending many, many pages laying out this convincing world, along with an entirely new set of language terms for the reader to get used to, Stephenson dispenses with it all and decides to explore an entirely different idea. I won't reveal it here, as it would constitute a spoiler, but it is significantly less interesting, at least for me. It makes all the social interactions, and the interesting world that Stephenson has built fall into the background, and that makes for a remarkably unsatisfying second half of the book. Sure, Stephenson kicks it into a high gear, with lots of ridiculously cool moments, but it just doesn't ring as true. It feels like Stephenson started with the idea of one book, got excited with the idea for another book, and rather than giving either the space that it really needs to develop, decided to write them together. It feels rather forced.

Still, a mediocre book mixed with a great book is still a good book overall. Just don't expect the volume to keep going at the same pace when you read it yourself.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/163832394

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V for Vendetta

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V for Vendetta is that oh-so-rare superhero comic that actually says something. The dystopian future that it warns of is very believable, and not nearly as far as we'd like to pretend. The title character is compelling and complex, with an obsession for art and violence and a past incident that twisted his mind. In other words, he's the quintessential villain, but in this book, he's not. He's struggling against the oppressive political system. This comic book has some literary chops in addition to it's great art and dialogue.

Comparisons with the movie are almost inevitable. The comic book is somehow richer, but I do enjoy the movie, and I do think that it does a good job with the source material. If you've seen the movie and enjoyed it, the comic book is certainly worth a shot. It's not going to be new, but it is going to be a bit darker, and a bit more complex.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/162704428

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Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time, #13; Memory of Light, #2)

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There's no question now, after this second book, that Brandon Sanderson has fully taken Robert Jordan's style and done what Jordan himself was having great trouble doing: progressing the story, and yes, even wrapping it up. And this climax is fulfilling all the promise that the series has had during its best moments. Finally, we get the denouement that we've been waiting for. Characters are finally coming into their own, and showing real growth rather than the stale stubbornness that was becoming the hallmark of Jordan's last releases.

It's difficult to write in enough depth about this book to make a good review, because so many of the elements that make this book good are inherently spoilers. I wish I could write all about the major events, and use them as examples to develop a point, but it is, alas, not possible while also leaving the book available for others to discover. Rest assured, however, that I can, once again, heartily recommend Robert Jordan's series without reservations. I no longer have to explain the awkward tailing off of the quality of the series, or the interminability of the later books, or the ever-expanding, wandering plot. These books have saved the series from irrelevance, and have solidified these books, once again, as the sole, unquestioned best epic fantasy series available.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/162008854

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