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I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President
I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book I received for Christmas three years ago and hadn’t yet read (hi mom!). The ego and attitude of the narrator initially turned me off, so I went in with kinda low expectations, but with an Aaron Sorkin joke on page four, and some great explicit and implicit Ray Bradbury references, Lieb had me hooked on this simple concept: the lowest-on-the-totem-pole kid in the entire middle school is not at all who he seems.

One thing I really appreciated was the narrative style – I think talking to Andrle about reading and writing has made me more aware of the distinctions. I believe this would be considered “first-person conversational”, because we are listening entirely to the main character’s thoughts as events unfold, his knowledge of events is limited to personal experience (i.e. we are surprised with him), but he regularly breaks the fourth wall to involve the reader in his thoughts about his family and classmates, using constructions such as “Remind me to…”. The narrator is also explicitly aware that we are reading this in a book, referring to pages, images, and chapters as he lays out what story is to come.

Lieb also used two interesting formatting tricks – first, there were visual aids (consisting mostly of oddly photoshopped composite images of events that were being described to or by the main character), and second, there was interesting use of chapter boundaries to pace the narrative, such as very short chapters used to indicate emotional state.

The narrator has a lot of interests that I suspect are more reflective of the author’s tastes (e.g., music) than a realistic middle school boy. This is by no means the most unrealistic thing in the story, so you just have to run with it. As an aside, it helps to have a familiarity with several elements of the James Bond canon, although probably the stuff that gets mocked in Austin Powers is sufficient.

The Bradbury references I mentioned earlier are the only spoilery part of this review. In the early chapters, the students are discussing Fahrenheit 451 in class. Shortly after that, the narrator describes how he’s been fully sentient since before birth. This immediately made me think of the short story “The Small Assassin”, about an infant who apparently causes the accidental deaths of its parents. For a more recent pop culture reference, think Stewie from The Family Guy.

Overall, a funny, quick read that made me chuckle more than once. It has a lot of cliches, but that’s okay… they’ll make you smile. A fair number of nerdy references on top of it all.

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A Feast for Crows

A Feast for Crows
A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No spoilers for my thoughts on this one. First, on a metapoint, I thought about holding off on a review until I had finished A Dance With Dragons, because this book doesn’t really come to a conclusion and focuses on an overlapping timeline with just a subset of the characters. I definitely missed a few of the narrators, because of that split, but I was glad to see more of the “bad” guys getting to tell their stories.

I don’t remember the exact publication dates, but Martin’s writing style has definitely evolved somewhat over the series. There were a few things I noticed. For a few of the narrating characters, instead of the chapter headings being their first name, they got some other identifier, which was an interesting touch. The other large difference was that a lot of the action was elsewhere, so we had a lot of events that weren’t directly experienced by the characters either being relayed to them in dialogue, or recently past events that they were thinking over. This can be bot an interesting style choice, and an annoyance, because you get weird verb tenses and don’t just see the action as it occurs. Obviously one of the factors here is that we had to know what other narrating characters who weren’t covered in this book were up to.

The ending to this book wasn’t as nicely wrapped up, I guess because of the two-parter effect. It also didn’t have the surprises that really shocked me near the end of Book 3. This is part of why I gave this book a slightly lower rating than the rest of the series – it felt mostly like filler leading to the big confrontations in the next book, instead of having a lot of interesting stuff on its own. That is, most of the characters were either alluding to events coming soon, or talking about events that had happened in Book 3, without making as much happen themselves.

It’s still a necessary read for the continuity of the series, but definitely not as impressive. I don’t know what kind of pressures Martin had from his publishers, but I think he would have been better off waiting to produce one large volume. I wonder how the hypothetical fourth season of the HBO series will handle it – I suspect they’ll interleave characters more, since they don’t want to not feature actors for an entire year.

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5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth and Other Useful Guides

5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth and Other Useful Guides5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth and Other Useful Guides by The Oatmeal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As with most collections of existing material, if you like content at theoatmeal.com, you will probably like this book. It is nice to have some of Inman’s classic comics and lists in hard copy. That said, this book falls short in two ways: first, in terms of content, there is no added value; second, in terms of layout, a number of Oatmeal comics were originally created as a scrolling web page and so don’t adapt well to being broken up into multiple printed pages. I am still glad we bought a signed copy, because I like supporting digital artists whose work I enjoy, but I was expecting a bit more.

I mention the content issue because I think the Penny Arcade guys set the standard for providing backstory, notes, and other “DVD extra”-style stuff in between the printed versions of comics originally published for free online. Other than the introduction, this is just a dump of the art. Given Inman’s background as a web designer, his sometimes interesting blog posts, and some of his more infamous online clashes, I was hoping to see some additional context. As for the layout, that’s really just a minor quibble, but it is noticeable for some of the longer informational comics how the flow had to be forced into having page breaks.

On a somewhat related note, I have been following this Funny Junk lawsuit with morbid fascination. Obviously Funny Junk is engaged in massive copyright violation, and Inman called them on it. Their lawyer apparently takes an online insult as inspiration for suing The Oatmeal. From what I can tell, the only bad part about this story is the web vigilantism that was indirectly inspired by Inman’s posts on the matter. Carreon is clearly a jerk, but I don’t think he deserves to have his online life ruined just for picking a stupid fight.

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Robopocalypse

Robopocalypse
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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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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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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