Odd Girl Out by Timothy Zahn

Odd Girl Out by Timothy ZahnThis is the third book in Zahn’s Quadrail series and I liked it much better than the last two, though it still feels like a whole lot of lost potential.

Zahn posits a system of interstellar travel that is based off of trains. In fact it is almost exactly that. The Quadrail is a train that can travel across lightyears in just a few days. The hitch is that there is also some sentient coral that wants to take over the galaxy. The coral can implant itself in people’s minds if they touch it and it can take over their thoughts. It has already done so to millions of people across the galaxy.

If any of that sounds like too much of a stretch to you then don’t go any further because those are the least ridiculous things in these books.

Frank Compton and Bayta have been hired by the Spiders — the strange seven-legged robots that run the Quadrail — to stop it by being spies and detectives, because, obviously two versus millions sounds like fair enough odds.

So far that has lead to a couple interesting adventures but nothing that appears to be in the way of true success. I suspect that’s being saved for the last two books — at least I hope so.

This book starts, as almost all good thrillers do, with a strange visitor in Compton’s apartment. When he sends her away she turns up dead, shot with the gun that she stole form his bedroom. Compton gets launched into a chase across a backwater world that is filled with genetically altered aliens, mind-controlled assassins and layers and layers of deception and mystery.

I’ve been trying to decide why I liked this one better than the previous two. At first I thought it was because so much more of it took place on a single planet and avoided the Quadrail for once. Then I realized that that’s only partially true. Instead I think it’s because the stakes got real in this book. People get killed left and right and not all of them are irreversibly mind-controlled enemies. Previously Compton has been mostly loathe to kill people, unless he had to, and the Modhri (the sentient coral) tended to avoid it as well. Suddenly, in this book they both get desperate and the body count explodes.

Having people die does not make a story good but it can give a story more meaning. In this case it raises the stakes. There is never any doubt that Compton will live but he’s not the only character that could get killed or horribly mutilated.

That said, it still felt kind of bland. I’m not sure why this is. Usually Zahn tells an action-packed yarn of a story with compelling mysteries. This series has left me vaguely disappointed at every turn. With the first book it felt like a fluke, Zahn just had a miss. Then he decided to make the miss into a five book series… Each one is entertaining enough. I don’t put it down. I want to read the next one, just to see what happens and as a break between more involved fiction that requires more thought.

But it feels, wasted, somehow. Like there is a great series of ideas lurking here if only he could muster up enough courage to pull it off.

All things considered, this is a Timothy Zahn book, which means fun action, interesting mystery, smart characters and fantastic aliens. I just wish it had more… something.

Queen of Sorcery by David Eddings

Queen of Sorcery by David EddingsOnce again I have to say that this book has the most magnificent cover. The art is fantastic. The border just screams fantasy novel. The map in the background makes the whole thing feel epic — like a world-spanning story. Then there is the subtle image of an owl in flight and Polgara being scary and it leaves no question who the titular character is.

In Queen of Sorcery David Eddings decided to double his cast of female characters by adding one more. Now Polgara is no longer the only one. Ce’Nedra has a bit of a convoluted story for why she is with them but it mostly holds together, especially in the world it takes place in.

Once again we see that everybody in any given country can be defined by certain racial stereotypes and those stereotypes are not wrong. This time we get to pass through Arendia, where the people are excited about being medieval and self-absorbed and chivalrous (they have many good qualities but they are kind of dumb and overly pretentious). Next is Tol Nedra which is a money obsessed version of Rome, complete with Legionnaires and a succession war that has started before the Emperor has died. These people are defined by their love of money. Then we go to Nyissa where the people all wander around naked in the swamp and do lots of drugs and poison people.

Honestly I’m not sure why we’re supposed to think the Nyissans are any better than the Murgos. They have presented much more of a problem so far and are significantly creepier.

For that matter, why is racial prejudice okay in these books?

I enjoy the story. I like the books. I love the dialogue and the characterization — Eddings is truly a master at dialogue. Everything comes out natural, humorous and with layers of expression with only the words and no description needed to explain how it was said.

But everybody is racist.

Hettar kills Murgos because they are Murgos and never gets tried for murder. In fact they joke about killing Murgos as a pastime. Any time they find out a Murgo has been in the city they immediately jump to the conclusion he is up to no good. And they are never wrong about that.

In fact, now that I think about it. The entire group of ‘good guys’ is a mess of sociopaths. Barak is constantly offering to kill people for their convenience. Silk will barter a beggar out of his last penny before stabbing him in the eye and hiding the body. Hettar kills Murgos simply because they are from the same country as the people that killed his parents (it was brutal and he’s got a lot of emotional baggage from it, but it’s still murder). Even Polgara encourages Garion to burn a man to death by manipulating him and then expressing pride when he goes through with it.

At least Garion and Durnik show a little restraint.

That brings me to something else. I’m not sure who is the protagonist of this story. Garion is ostensibly the point of view character but there doesn’t seem to be much that he wants, other than to grow up and be independent in that way that most fifteen year old boys want. There is very little hindering him from that except himself and his own maturity. Perhaps Belgarath or Polgara. They want to reclaim the Orb of Aldur from Zedar who stole it from the throne of Riva.

Which might be the problem with this book. The point isn’t very clear. I know they are following Zedar south until he turns east into Cthol Murgos (which, why didn’t he do that to start with — oh, that’s right, we needed a tour of the western kingdoms). Other than that the characters have little motivation to be there. Barak just likes to kill things I guess. Silk likes to be devious. Hettar must think they offer him a better chance of meeting Murgos that he can kill. I know that there is a prophecy that says they will be together at some future point but I can’t decipher why they are together right now, other than that they are an entertaining bunch of characters and Eddings is brilliant at rolling them together so that friendships seem natural and the banter is truly delightful to read.

And that’s really all I have to recommend this book. I do think that some of the ridiculous is still meant as a satire. The single trait shared by everybody from a single country could be nothing else. I also think Eddings has imagined a world that, while simplistic in many ways is also very nuanced in others. There is a sense of history here that stretches back millennia and it feels right, somehow, like this is how things would happen in a world like this.

But the casual racism and the psychotic main characters aside, the dialogue is great. This book is worth reading just to watch how smoothly Eddings can layer meaning into a few spoken words. Most of the personality of these characters comes from the words they speak and few authors can do it as well as Eddings.

Star Wars: Young Jedi Knights: Heirs of the Force by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta

Star Wars- Young Jedi Knights- Heirs of the Force by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca MoestaThis is a pretty mediocre book as these things go.

On the one hand, it’s a story about Jacen and Jaina Solo learning to be Jedi at the Jedi Academy on Yavin 4. On the other hand, it’s mostly poorly written and more than a little silly.

I feel like each of the main characters has exactly one personality trait. Jacen likes animals, Jaina fixes mechanical things, Lowbacca fixes computers (except his little translator droid who somebody thought it was a good idea to model after C-3PO — which brings up another point, why is the most annoying character the only one that the authors can get the voice right? Luke Skywalker talks like an eighth grade version of a zen buddhist, Han Solo talks like a sixth grade image of how fathers talk — i.e. no personality — and Chewbacca can’t even roar right), Tenel Ka is athletic. That’s it. That’s all there is to them.

I know the tendency is to say, “Well it is a kids book,” but that is no excuse. You don’t get a pass because you are writing for kids. You don’t get to be lazy and incompetent just because the kids will read it anyway. Kids have a right to read good books too and there are plenty of examples of better written, and better told stories for kids.

Part of the problem is that there is a lot of setup to introduce the characters, and there is a lot of establishing the setting and there is a lot of delivering the materials needed for the plot to take place.

All of those things felt clunky and with uninspired writing that sounded much like a very amateur attempt to tell a story by explaining what each characters emotions were, rather than giving the reader an attempt to figure them out by showing clues. In other words the book is written like the reader is not smart enough to understand — which is probably not intentional but a mistake of poor writing and not trusting the reader.

The plot revolves around kids being kind of dumb but then really awesome and some truly bizarre circumstances. They find a TIE fighter that crashed twenty years earlier during the battle of Yavin. Then they decide they can fix it. This means that we have to believe that those TIE fighters that blew up whenever anybody sneezed in their general direction could survive a free-fall crash through atmosphere and exist in good enough shape that a group of super brilliant and talented teenagers could get it into flying shape again — but also with a hyperdrive, because they’re are that much better than the Imperial engineers who built them in the first place.

Then the plot thickens. You see, the pilot is still alive as well. One arm is horribly bent and twisted because, even though he learned enough survival skills in the Imperial Academy to stay alive for twenty years on a hostile jungle planet that regularly kills Jedi with just a blaster (that he obviously didn’t need to use much because it’s still fully charged) he never learned how to set a broken bone. That doesn’t stop him from capturing Jacen and Jaina, shooting down Lowbacca’s ship and shooting wildly into the trees when Tenel Ka runs away.

This was a significant flight away from the Jedit Temple but both Lowbacca and Tenel Ka are able to make it on foot in one night, because they are that awesome. Jaina fixes the TIE fighter by herself, because she is that awesome. Jacen plants an invisible crystal snake in the cockpit because he has no other skills.

However, all that aside. My five-year-old loved it. There were blasters and a TIE Fighter and young Jedi being smart and tricky and interesting and animals and cool things happening and annoying droids and a growling Wookie. What’s not to love?

(Although even at five he had a lot of questions about how a crystal snake can move if it’s made out of crystals — some questions you just don’t ask.)

There are better kids books. There are probably better kids Star Wars book but I have never gotten into those so I can’t confirm. Kevin J. Anderson has a track record of writing ridiculous settings and plots with a cast of poorly conceived simulacra of actual characters. I’ve read a bunch of his books and this one is pretty much on par. If you enjoyed any of his other books you might like this one. I found it not terrible enough to put away, not good enough to want to read. And that’s a terrible place to be because it failed to illicit any emotion at all.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind by Patrick RothfussI resisted reading this book for a long time. I resisted when people talked about how great it was. I resisted when I discovered Patrick Rothfuss’s blog and found out he was not only funny and interesting but also a really intelligent and good person. I resisted even when Jo Walton started a reread on tor.com. I resisted when the second book finally came out. I told myself that since it was only a trilogy I could just wait. I could just wait until the third one was done and then I would read all of them.

The last straw, the one that broke the proverbial camel’s back was when a friend started telling me about them and he mentioned that there were so many things he wanted to talk about with me, if only I had read the books. This hit me right in the gut because that is basically my modus operandi. That is why I started this blog. That is why I recommend books to people. That is what I hope to get from every book. I want to talk about them, to discuss the various points, why I liked what I like and why I didn’t. I want to discuss the mysteries and the foreshadowing.

If the book is the kind that has mysteries and foreshadowing.

The Name of the Wind is like the perfect book for nearly every fantasy reader. It checks all the boxes. It is long. It has some very subtle foreshadowing. It is filled with mysteries, histories and ancient ruins. It has fantastical creatures, magic and a redheaded protagonist who starts out with a lowly upbringing and rises to lofty heights. It even starts in an inn with people eating stew.

But to sum up The Name of the Wind with those cliches is to do it a great disservice.

Rothfuss wears his inspirations right out on his sleeves, their pretty plain to see. However, unlike other books where tropes and characters and story elements are lifted whole from their inspirations (I’m looking at you Paolini) Rothfuss takes them and weaves them together and makes them wholly his own.

There is a sprinkling of Dickens, a splash of Gene Wolfe, a whole lot of LeGuin and an even mix of Robin Hobb and Peter Beagle as well a smatterings of nearly every other popular fantasy scattered throughout. What holds it all together is Rothfuss’s obsession with words and his brilliant use of poetry.

I like to think that Rothfuss’s writing is like a really good pie crust. You know how a good one is flaky and light and almost has layers of gentle flakes that encase a filling of tart sweetness? Rothfuss has prose that is buttery smooth and yet, flakes away in crispy and delicious layers to reveal that every word has been chosen with absolute precision. Rothfuss doesn’t just throw out details to deliver a bit of verisimilitude. He throws out details because they are hints and bits about the world, about the story being told, about the characters being met. Then inside it all he wraps those words around a story that is part cocky young hero, part beautiful love story and part devastating pain and pounding triumph.

Rothfuss also tells this story in a bit of a break from tradition. He actually created a frame story that is written in third person, while the rest of the story is written in first person. This isn’t unique, but it’s different and seldom done well. Rothfuss pulls it off so well that I’m a little bit confused about how it worked. This is the kind of thing that an author does after several books and a large following of fans that trust that things will get interesting. Rothfuss does it on his first book and sucks the reader in right away despite that obstacle. The frame story was obviously written after the rest of it. The writing is much more mature and almost poetic in it’s precision of language.

That’s not to say the rest of the book isn’t well written. On the other hand, Rothfuss makes even the act of bathing sound poetic and powerful.

The real strength of the story is Kvothe, the main character, and how Rothfuss so seamlessly weaves a pattern of legend and story and song into a narrative so that when Kvothe whispers a children’s rhyme about what amounts to the boogeyman it sent chills down my spine.

In short, for non-spoilers, this is the kind of book you will want to read again and again. This is an instant classic. This is one of those books that people will be reading long after the author is dead. If he never writes anything again, it will still be special and he will still be loved.

Now I will talk about possible spoilers. Skip to the end to miss them.

One of the things I love most in fantasy books is the mysteries and the clues that are planted — and the red herrings that go along with that. Rothfuss litters his prose with little details that feel so important they must be telling me something and I want to know what it is.

Little things like Denna being mentioned always in conjunction with the moon and how it shines, her name is also very similar to Diana, the goddess of the moon. Also, about Denna, the drug Denner that so many people get addicted to, has a very similar name and it is pretty apparent that Kvothe is addicted to Denna in much the same way. He talks about watching a Denner addict begging, being willing to do anything for a fix and he compares that to his music and how he is willing to make financiallt stupid decisions in order to have his music but he is completely blind to the fact that the same behavior applies when Denna is not around and he misses her. Also, whenever Kvothe describes Denna to other people he lapses into verse. Rothfuss writes it out like prose but the line breaks are fairly obvious. Kvothe speaks in love poetry.

Auri, being scared of the moon and speaking in rhyme, must be significant. Also the gifts that she gives Kvothe have to be important, they have so much weight.

Lorren’s behavior implies heavily that he is one of the Amyr from legend. I’m pretty convinced of this.

The point in the book where I finally got it still sticks out to me. Kvothe says at the beginning that, whereas other people struggle to remember things, he wishes that he could forget. When the Chandrian kill his parents and his entire troupe he loses his memory. Trauma forces it out of him. After that he plays his lute until the strings break then he makes his way to the city. There his lute is broken and he lives for three years a street urchin, forgetting his name and his past. The three things that make him who he is, music, name and past are taken away from him. The three things that, in the beginning of the book (the frame story) he does not have.

When I first read this part it bothered me. He goes three years with no memory. Then he encounters a story teller — who is most likely also one of the Amyr — who tells him a story about the Chandrian that forces him to remember. The man then calls him by name and suddenly he gets it all back, his memory his name his intelligence. It seemed too convenient to me. Until I remembered something.

When Kvothe sees the Chandrian the leader tells one of them to make him sleep. The phrase at the time sounds like he means to kill Kvothe and be done with it. However, immediately after they leave Kvothe falls asleep and when he wakes up his mind is asleep for the next three years. Something magical happened in that encounter and it wasn’t until Kvothe was named (another theme in the book) that he was able to wake up.

Shortly after that he borrows a lute and plays a song and starts to heal, his music coming back.

When I realized that I suddenly realized that this wasn’t a book with a hokey excuse to have a Dickensian street urchin. This was a book with detail and hidden features. This was a book to watch because it was tricky.

I speculate, then that the Kvothe of the frame story must get those three things back as well. He is telling the story, so his past is coming back. He has been named, Kvothe, by Chronicler. He just needs his music and he will truly be Kvothe again.

Other things also made me smile. The club where Kvothe wins his talent pipes and meets Denna for the second time is called the Eolian — which is a word that means rebirth.

The heroes journey that Joseph Campbell talks about in his book, the Hero with a Thousand Faces is here but it’s so much more craftily hidden than in most stories that it has to be picked out. One of the stages of the hero, mentioned by Campbell is the threshold, the rebirth, usually signified by water (often total immersion, but not always). Kvothe crosses a bridge to get to the Eolian where he really and truly gets his music back completely and often meets Denna. I don’t think the names or the crossing of the bridge are a mistake.

And I love it. I love all the mysteries and details. I love that Kvothe tells us to always buy what a tinker offers and then he doesn’t and ends up needing all the things that he didn’t buy from the tinker in the next chapters but he never explains that, he leaves it up to the reader to remember that the tinker offered him a rope and a bottle of strawberry wine. I love that he explains that charcoal is a way to dilute the effects of Denner right before he tries to poison an animal that basically eats charcoal and he is surprised when it doesn’t work. What I love about these things is that these are flaws that Kvothe never figures out, or at least never explains in the narrative. Rothfuss trusts his readers to pay attention and he rewards those that do.

Spoilers over.

I love this book. I love the poetry of it. I love the precise placement of every word. I love the story being told and the flawed protagonist who is basically an arrogant and insecure teenager. I love how real it feels and how full it is. I love the whole of it. And that is not something I say often.

A Wanted Man by Lee Child

A Wanted Man by Lee ChildThe idea behind this plot is so obvious I’m surprised Child never did it before. Jack Reacher is a drifter. He’s a fighting machine and an ex military cop, but he’s also a drifter. When he hitchhikes his way into a car filled with two wanted fugitives and their captive he gets tossed into a book full of mysteries, intrigues, mayhem, terrorist cells and government coverups.

This is Lee Child at his best. Jack Reacher is like a giant thug version of Sherlock Holmes. He notices everything. He analyzes everything and he figures everything out. All while punching all the bad guys into submission.

The usual flaws remain. Child seems to have only a very basic understanding of what happens in small town America and he seems to want to repeat that in every book. I get the idea he saw a small town once and decided to throw it into every one of his stories. I don’t know what his fascination with small American towns is but he seems to think that the people who live there are idiots who have no recourse for the law when things go bad.

Child’s idea of giving his character some flaws is that Reacher is a lousy driver — meaning he’s about as good as the next guy but maybe not the best in a car chase. Everything else, he knows it and is awesome. He knows more facts than Wikipedia. He understands people and how they are going to think almost instantly. He obsesses about numbers at an almost autistic level and he charms every person he meets (especially law enforcement) into trusting him by being gruff and honest until they give in and let him tell them what to do.

The other flaw is that Reacher figures everything out. Sometimes he guesses wildly. Sometimes he has clues. He’s never wrong.

If you can accept those three things then this is a fun action movie of a novel. There are tense moments. There are real mysteries. There’s even a final climactic take-down of the bad guys where Reacher shows that he’s basically an army all by himself.

Anybody who has read a Lee Child novel knew this already.

There’s little else to say about this book. If you want something that will let you just go with the action from page one and pull you through to the end, this is about as good as it gets. If you want something deep that explores human nature or shows you flawed but likable characters — look somewhere else.

Atoms in the Family: My Life With Enrico Fermi by Laura Fermi

Atoms in the Family by Laura FermiThis is truly an amazing book about an inspiring family. Enrico Fermi was a physicist who quite literally gave his life researching nuclear science. He is one of the many scientists we can thank for nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

Laura Fermi gives a rare view into the life of one of the great scientists of the twentieth century. Fermi and his family are Italian. They lived in Italy during the rise of Mussolini. When it became apparent that Mussolini was going to cow to Hitler’s demands to ostracize Jews they decided to flee. The problem was, Laura and the kids were Jewish.

This book is the story of Laura and Enrico. How they met, how they fled and came to America where Enrico became one of the many people shipped around the country to work on the top secret Manhattan Project.

For years Laura didn’t even know what her husband was doing. She knew they were moved to Chicago and then to Los Alamos. She knew he was working for the government and she knew many of the scientists that he worked with. She knew it was for the war. But, like most of the families she didn’t know what they were doing until the bomb dropped. Then everybody knew.

This is a powerful story about a family, made especially powerful by Laura’s wit and wisdom in how she tells it. She doesn’t seem to sugar coat things. She describes herself and her husband — who she refers to as Fermi, throughout — in frank terms and details some amusing tidbits about his personality that make him sound hard to live with.

This is one side of the war. This is living through all the secrecy. This is the story of one family and their journey to do their part to stop a war that spread across continents and devastated entire countries.

It’s also a love story. It wasn’t love at first sight. In fact there was very little Hollywood style about their lives. But that’s what makes it so real. These were real people. They loved each other. They raised a family, changed the world and built the first nuclear bomb.

Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy

Clear and Present Danger by Tom ClancyTom Clancy is a highly respected author. Just putting his name on a book sells about a million copies. For the life of me I can’t see why. In fact, I’m beginning to question all the super popular books. Dan Brown turned out to be basically terrible. Clive Cussler leans so heavily on the worst sexist tropes that its a wonder his books don’t collapse under the weight of how terrible they are.

To say this book is overhyped is probably the most severe understatement of the century. This is probably the worst case of self-congratulatory, poorly written, purple prose I have ever encountered. To top it all off, it’s also really boring.

The story goes something like this:

Character, back story, back story, flashback, boring back story, breakfast.

New Character, boring back story, flashback, boring back story, dramatic statement.

Mix. Repeat. When you get to character number twenty or so. Then start over at the beginning.

Now the fun part. Give all the characters kind of similar sounding names so when the reader finally gets back to character number one they don’t really know who that is. Is this a new guy? Is this somebody I’ve read about before? Oh, he must be new because we just launched into a backstory. Wait. This is the same background as the first guy. Why are we doing this again?

To mix it up we’ll have character (a) be a widow, her husband died. Of cancer. Her boss, character (b), is a congressman whose wife died. Of cancer. Character (c) is some kind of super genius married to a rich surgeon. His best friend is dying. Of cancer.

Did Tom Clancy have a message buried somewhere in the all the nauseum or did he just not realize that here are other ways for people to die?

Or maybe this book is about cancer and how evil it is and how it changes people and makes them different. Cancer is a Clear and Present Danger and we’re gong to fight it. With helicopters and guns.

Only its actually drugs. The war on drugs is getting real. We’re going to invade foreign countries, perform espionage and train an elite group of soldiers to stop drug trafficking. It’s the ‘90s and we don’t have Russia to be scared of any more so we have to have something to shoot at. Lets go kill some South Americans because they are responsible for drugs. Which probably caused all the cancer.

I think I could have handled all of those things if the book hadn’t been so boring. I’ve read books that are riddled with cliches. I’ve enjoyed movies that are nothing but stupid piled on stupid (one of my favorite movies is Sahara — which just doesn’t get any stupider — though part of the reason I like it is because I don’t think the movie is taking itself seriously) but this is aggressively boring.

It takes nearly one third of this dangerously long novel to even see the name of the main character, who turns out to be capable at everything he does and his best friend is dying of cancer.

Clancy had a middle schoolers view of politics and how they work. He also has almost no understanding of law, international relations or even critical thinking skills. There are senators and vice presidents and attaches and spies and drug dealers and consuls and not one of them seems able to scrape a couple brain cells together long enough to make an intelligent decision.

But they have backgrounds. And loved ones who have died. Of cancer.

I will give him two things. When the action starts the reader is there. You are in the cockpit, you are firing the gun, crouching in the jungle. You are in the fight. It only lasts for about a paragraph but that paragraph is pure gold.

Hopefully you’ll live long enough to find the next action scene.

The other thing is closely related. Clancy gets military culture and equipment. His use of those things is obviously meticulously researched and deployed to deadly effect. He understands how intelligence gathering works, and how training works. He knows all the different weapons, how they work, what they do, their weaknesses, their strengths. He knows how it feels to pull a six gee turn in the cockpit of a fighter. He knows how it sounds to fire a sniper rifle with a silencer firmly attached to the barrel.

I have no idea if he really knows those things but I know he convinced me. For what that’s worth.

If you distill this book down to its discussions of military equipment and materiel and the action scenes. It would probably be only about ten pages but it would sure be a lot more fun to read.

Maybe I expected too much.

Books I read, Pictures I take.

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