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A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few weeks ago I made a silver lining out of a flat rear tire on my bike to read this one on my commute to and from work, either walking through Danehy Park or taking the Red Line. Since my commute is normally so quick, I don’t have a block of time to read on public transit or hypothetically listen to podcasts or audiobooks in a car. That means I mostly end up reading before bed.

Overall, I think this book was a bit of an improvement in the writing style, but I didnt like the directions in which he took some of the plots. It did make me realize I have no idea where he’s going with all of this.

Below the cut are giant spoilers of the who dies variety!

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A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings
A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suppose it’s problematic when I don’t write book reviews until well over a month after finishing the book in question. In my defense, I finished this book on the plane back from Cancun, and then immediately had two insane weeks of coding for my final project. I was to some extent additionally demotivated by the fact that this is the second book in an as-yet unfinished series, which are always difficult to write up because they neither start nor end stories.

This review does not contain spoilers.

As I mentioned in my review for A Game of Thrones (from before I was cross-posting reviews to my blog), I had actually started this book a few years ago, although going in I thought I hadn’t gotten to this one. As I was reading, I kept thinking that I had gotten to a new-to-me section, only to find a familiar scene in the next chapter. I think the point where I had given up on it previously was somewhere around two thirds through the book. For various reasons, even though I was initially ahead of the popularity of the series due to the HBO television adaptation, I set it down and didn’t come back to it until this year. Speaking of, even though I’m only a few episodes into the first season, it’s been amusing seeing people tweet about the second season, which corresponds to this book.

Overall, this book seemed more solid than the first book. I don’t know if that’s because the pace was picking up, or if the characters had a bit more agency, or what. I think the fact that it ended with most of the main characters embarking on a journey helped frame things nicely, in setting up the third book (which I will review shortly).

In terms of characters, it’s really hard not to love Tyrion, even if he is a twisted little imp. He got a great storyline, and as a nerd I have to respect his reliance on his wit as a strength in the face of pretty awful events. I also really enjoy Arya and Jon Snow; I assume to some extent they’re written to be more likable. It will be interesting to see where their journeys take them in the third book.

I thought one of the weakest story lines was that of Theon Greyjoy. He gets an entertaining introduction with his homecoming, but after that, it’s pretty bad. I think the character needed to be introduced more in the first book, to help us understand the motivation behind his actions in this book.

My usual complaint about the level of violence, and the creepy sex, stands. I think an epic fantasy tale with a lot of intrigue and war could be told without quite so much gory detail. I won’t deny Martin’s penchant for the descriptive when it comes to helping a reader visualize all of it, but the exact nature of the content still dulls my enjoyment of the world building.

On to Storm of Swords…

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Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination

Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination
Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination by Misha Berson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a Christmas gift this year from my mom. For those who are wondering why I’d receive a book seemingly outside my usual interests, that’s probably because you’re unaware that I participated a lot in theater up through high school. In 11th grade I played “Baby John” in Breck‘s production of West Side Story, which was a ton of fun. Parts of the musical are thus pretty ingrained, even almost 15 years later.

As is typical for my non-fiction reads, what I enjoyed the most was the trivia. In this case I was interested in all of the artistic choices that went into the musical, especially when they got into the differences between the original Broadway production and the film version, including some pretty significant differences in song ordering.

One of the interesting and surprising historical anecdotes was that Jerome Robbins was called to testify before HUAC, and named names, thus chilling his relationship with his co-creators. It’s striking how pervasive the fear of Communism was at the time.

I think the author was stretching things a bit when trying to make broader cultural claims about the influence of the musical as a reflection of youth culture of the time, but I expect that sort of thing from art critics. I suppose to some extent it confirms that some aspect of the Romeo & Juliet story is pretty timeless, no matter the incarnation.

Overall, it made me a bit nostalgic, missing my participation in theater, even though I doubt I ever had the chops to continue performing even as an amateur. If you are a fan of this musical, I would definitely recommend reading this book.

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Mockingjay

Mockingjay
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this third and final book on the plane down to Cancun a few weeks ago. I didn’t get a chance to review it on account of the travel and then the end of the semester. Up front: I liked it, although not quite as much as I enjoyed Catching Fire. All kinds of spoilery thoughts on this book and the series as a whole below the cut.

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Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finished this one a week ago. On a few levels, I liked this second book in the trilogy more than the first. In particular, the balance between world-building and action was better: I preferred the history over the combat. I would guess that is equivalent to my interest in the extended universes of, say, Middle-Earth. There were a few things that annoyed me, however.

I know that this trilogy is geared towards younger readers, and I’m fine with how it’s a relatively easy read – but I don’t like being treated like I’m stupid and have no memory. There are several points early in the book where Katniss reintroduces concepts that were clearly explained in the first book, as if we didn’t know what was going on. It annoys me when serial television does it (“Last time, on…”), and it’s worse when books do it. That’s the main reason this doesn’t get five stars – the story is great, but the writing feels just a tiny bit condescending.

Maybe this makes me a total snob, whining about too much accessibility. If anything, I should be celebrating yet another series that has triggered a spike in teens reading books that have interesting settings and characters. Maybe turning up the maturity dial would mess with it too much, and ruin some of its appeal. It’s likely I don’t relate to the characters as much as some readers, since I wasn’t an angsty teen, nor did I grow up in a dystopian future.

Speaking of dystopian futures, I like that Collins dove more into the political system in this book. I’d like to know more about how Panem came to be organized, who decides who lives in which districts, where President Snow’s powerbase is, that sort of thing. Perhaps Mockingjay will explore some of that.

So far it seems that if you start this trilogy, it’s worth reading all of them, because the plots are directly connected. I imagine it could be published in a single binding with 3 (or 9) Parts, similar to the way there are 6 “books” in some printings of The Lord of the Rings. On to Mockingjay

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been out for a while, and has been on my list for some time, based both on the general buzz and direct recommendations, not to mention that dystopian near-future young adult sci-fi is right up my alley. I got the boxed set as a Christmas gift, and I started reading after finishing up some non-fiction that I was in the middle of tackling.

A non-trivial motivation was, of course, the upcoming film; I strongly prefer to read the book before seeing the movie, so that my imagination can run a bit more freely than whatever vision the filmmakers may have. I do very much enjoy what the director and various designers manage to do in bringing words to life (the Lord of the Rings films, for example), but the written word gives me the ability to see things in my own way. I was thinking about this more recently in the context of Yahtzee’s recent blog post on movie adaptations of video games. In this case that’s a little broken by having seen some of the trailers already, and having an awareness of the casting, but I think I was able to keep that out of my mind while reading. Collins is pretty good at describing the visuals of a scene, through Katniss’ eyes.

Overall, this was a good, exciting read, and because it is so action-heavy, especially in the second half, well-suited to its film adaptation. I was a little worried that the first-person narration by Katniss would annoy me, but I think the dystopian setting managed to mute whatever teenage angst might otherwise have dominated.

Another aspect of its YA target audience is that it was an extremely fast read for me – I was getting close to 3 PPM, and read the whole thing in just 3 sessions. On the other hand, that confirms that it’s a good read, and tough to put down once the plot gets going. I have a tendency to devour books in this way, especially fiction that I find immersive.

I was also glad that the plot wasn’t too predictable, particularly with regards to who would live and who would die, while still touching on the expected tropes. Obviously the availability of a trilogy implies certain things about the survival of certain characters, but that’s nigh impossible to avoid.

I would recommend to anyone of any age with a slight sci-fi bent that they pick up this trilogy and dive in. I am definitely looking forward to the movie, which opens next weekend. My librarian friends are as well.

 

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The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet
The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought this with an old gift card at the Harvard Coop last week. I’ve long enjoyed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s hosting of NOVA scienceNOW (a show I DVR), as well as his various guest appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and I had followed the news coverage of Pluto’s demotion by the IAU in 2006.

This book is a nice overview of Pluto’s discovery and eventual reclassification (as the subtitle indicates), written in Neil’s whimsical style. There are some funny photographs of various astrophysicists, and good coverage of the cultural impact of Pluto’s demotion, such as various editorial cartoons and handwritten letters from elementary schoolchildren. I’m glad the appendices included song lyrics (including one by JoCo!) and the full text of various documents regarding Pluto.

My only complaint about the book is that I would have liked a little more detail, both in the history and the science, but of course it’s intended to be accessible to a general audience, a task at which it succeeds.

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Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth

Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth
Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth by Trevor Norton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I checked this one out from the library at work. It’s a basic collection of science anecdotes, mostly from the Enlightenment period up through WWII. The author is a British marine biologist, so most of the scientists mentioned are British, and the modern-day stories in particular naturally focus on the author’s mostly British contemporaries in the marine sciences.

One fairly clear agenda that the author has is wanting to recognize various scientists who made major “home front” contributions during WWI and especially WWII, often risking their lives to develop all sorts of non-weapon technologies necessary for the war effort, such as bomb disposal and submarine escape hatches. Many of them were Quaker conscientious objectors, and received no medals or official recognition of some of the dangerous experiments they performed on themselves to save lives on the battlefield.

There are a number of gross-out moments, mostly related to the symptoms of various terrible things either self-inflicted or applied to the public due to bad science.

I suspect there are fewer post-war anecdotes thanks largely to the standardization of experimental procedures with regards to informed consent and other protections for test subjects. Overall interesting, but not engrossing (as evidenced by it sitting on my shelf half-read for a few months).

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REAMDE

Reamde
Reamde by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Neal Stephenson is my favorite author, so it is probably no surprise that I tore through this book in just a couple of days and gave it five stars. I remain in love with his overly verbose writing style, and his nerdy asides. I’ll echo something Fritz said when we discussed the book briefly, which is that it hearkens back to some of his earlier work, before the heavily researched and almost academic vibe of The Baroque Cycle and Anathem. That is to say, this book is heavier on the action, but even that action is incredibly detailed, all the way down to what you could easily classify as “gun porn”.

I very much enjoyed his portrayal of the MMORPG T’Rain, and the amusing barbs directed at fantasy writing and settings wrapped up in that. I would definitely play a game with that level of obsessive detail, especially the geophysically realistic terrain generation and real passage of time, although I doubt it would turn out to be a WoW killer because it wouldn’t have that broad of an appeal.

The near-future setting felt realistic, especially because he regularly refers to real-world companies and internet services. It’s interesting to me that from a trademark perspective, an author can do that in writing, but present-day movies generally have to make up news networks, search engines, etc. because otherwise they’d have to pay for the rights. It’s jarring when they’re forced to do that, so I’m glad that distraction wasn’t present here.

One of the more amusing examples of Stephenson’s style was his apparent obsession with the word “talus“. I guess he didn’t like “scree” or “loose rock” and really wanted to emphasize the instability of the terrain the various characters were walking on. I think the final chapters mentioned it on about every other page.

As for the characters, I generally wanted to like everyone, even the bad guys. I think a big part of this was that almost all of them were non-stereotypical or outsiders in some way, making them not fit our assumptions for how they should look/sound/act.

If you like Stephenson, you definitely won’t be disappointed; if you’re new to him, this iteration of his work is also considerably more accessible than some of his work in the last 10 years. I think I will still stand by my claim that Snow Crash is the best introduction, but maybe that’s just because that’s the first book of his that I read, and I was hooked. REAMDE stands alone in his various universes, and is a bit less geekily intimidating than his other books.

 

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Steve Jobs: A Biography

Steve Jobs: A Biography

Steve Jobs: A Biography by Walter Isaacson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think the main feature of this book that I would emphasize is that it is, in fact, a biography about a flawed man, and not so much a history of his technical achievements. As a computer geek and long-time MacAddict, I found that a little disappointing; I didn’t care as much about every anecdote of his emotional instability, I cared about how he did what he did at various companies. There was barely anything on his time at NeXT, and even the major changes at Apple in the last 15 years pretty much got a single chapter each. I was also surprised to find a couple of spelling mistakes, although I suppose since I read an electronic version that could get patched later.

Overall I would echo John Siracusa’s Hypercritical podcast episode in which he reviews the book as having been writing by “the wrong guy”, making the point that Isaacson is someone who was generally incurious about technical matters. I think my rating of this book would be higher if he had delved into that side of Steve more.

That all said, it is probably the best collected summary of what he was like, mostly due to the access Isaacson had. I learned a lot of trivia, and there were a lot of interesting quotes that I marked in iBooks. I knew very little about his early life, or his family life. I just would have liked more of a study of what made his technical and design successes. There were some good stories from, among others, Bill Gates, Jony Ive, and Steve Wozniak.

I think it’s a reasonable first look at The Steve, but I would definitely read other history books first, or generally familiarize yourself with the history of Apple, NeXT, and Pixar. For the latter, the documentary that appears on the WALL-E DVD, The Pixar Story, is excellent.

I think my favorite quote from Steve featured in the book was this one, which is more philosophical than technical: “The job of art is to chase ugliness away.”. As in my initial reaction to his death, I think Steve clearly achieved that.

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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