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Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one has been on my list for a while, discovered somewhere online. It seemed right up my alley. I was reminded to tackle it after my friend Emily read it recently, and I wanted to see if my impression lined up with her criticisms. This book continues my post-apocalyptic theme. It was another very fast read – I devoured it in two sessions in a total of about 3 hours.

Spoilers are below the cut, although the narrative style of the book (found documents) makes that largely moot.


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American Craft Beer Fest

A few weeks ago, my cousin Mark had an extra ticket to the American Craft Beer Fest (ACBF). After a lot of waiting in line in the rain, and some initial confusion as to whether a digital copy of my ticket on my phone would be acceptable, I got inside and started tasting brews. I tried to branch out into varieties I don’t usually drink, but I generally wasn’t convinced. I also tried to avoid repeats, and targeting breweries that I haven’t seen available in stores in this area. I ended up trying 23 beers in a couple of hours. It’s a good thing Mark remembered to bring pretzels!

Quick comments on beers below the cut. If you follow me on Untappd, these are repeats. The highlight of the show was decidedly DC Brau’s On the Wings of Armageddon, both for the awesome name and for giving me another super-hoppy imperial IPA to enjoy.

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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 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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George Lucas’ crimes against nerdkind are, at this point, well known. One of the better overviews of this nerd tragedy is an episode of John Siracusa’s podcast Hypercritical from a few months ago. No matter how you feel about the so-called Special Editions, or other rereleases, including the in-progress 3Dification, the simple fact is that Star Wars, as originally released in theaters, no longer exists. Yes, you can torrent the laserdisc version, or hold on to your old VHS copies (as I have), but the original film negatives are not available, so without a massive restoration and reediting effort, we are unlikely to see a digital release of the original trilogy.

I am not arguing that a filmmaker isn’t allowed to modify their work after the fact, creating new versions and refining their masterpieces; nor am I claiming that almost every draft and notecard should be made public, as the Tolkien estate has chosen to do. In this context, I mean that a culturally relevant work, one that changed sci-fi filmmaking and spawned a huge (one might say galactic) fictional universe that is still generating new content in all sorts of media, was not saved. They had that additional responsibility: preserving the original version in a form that would continue to be accessible to future generations. Lucas himself used to agree.

Where George failed utterly, another science fictional universe even more dear to me than his films has succeeded beyond my best hopes. I write, of course, of the recently announced project to remaster all of Star Trek: The Next Generation into high definition. What’s exciting about this is that they went back to the original film negatives, which Paramount has apparently been storing in a salt mine somewhere. I’m also glad someone decided to record the show on film and not NTSC television cameras, making this project possible. The one disappointment is the schedule – it sounds like they’re planning to release two to three seasons a year.

A few weeks ago, Emery hosted a viewing of Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level, a Blu-ray disc featuring a sample of three remastered NextGen episodes: the pilot “Encounter at Farpoint”, plus “Sins of the Father” and “The Inner Light”, which are among my favorite episodes. The first establishes Q as a nemesis (and bookend) for the entire series, the second really kicks off the “modern” Klingon storyline, which gets touched on even more in DS9, and the third is probably the most emotionally powerful episode of the series, and a real demonstration of Patrick Stewart’s acting ability. Overall, good choices to demonstrate what the HD conversion process entails, and how much is being preserved.

The thing that’s really striking is that the conversion to HD really highlights the work of all of the artists who aren’t on camera – the set designers, the matte painters, the model builders. You can see the slight color variations in the Enterprise-D’s duranium hull plating, the texture of every wall panel, the tiny buildings in the distance on Qo’noS, the fact that the post-atomic horror officer’s inhaler reads “ARMY” in a futuristic font. The key thing, however, is that most of these increases in detail are just capturing what was already there, not adding gewgaws where there were none, as Lucas has done. Apparently there are a few places where visual effects were completely replaced, but it’s generally pretty subtle, since they tried very hard to preserve the original look.

The one downside is what we already knew about HD – sometimes it is unkind to actors and sets. You can now see askew hairs, more wrinkles, faint stains in the carpet on the bridge, and the like. However, in my mind, these slight jars from immersion are far outweighed by the visual “wow” of the improvement in detail. I did notice one brief clip from a scene in Farpoint that was clearly just upsampled; presumably for whatever reason that section of film was too damaged to be restored, so they had to go back to the SD video. Hopefully the occurrence of those is rare.

Even though I already own all of TNG on DVD (a bulk purchase made several years ago, and totally justified by number of viewings), I’m excited by this huge effort to preserve this key segment of geek culture for future viewers. I can’t wait to see how the rest of it turns out, and I do plan to eventually rewatch it all in order in HD. Suffice it to say that their initial pass is amazing, and I hope it sets an example for other shows and movies.

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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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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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