Monday, July 27, 2015

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

JK Rowling
Completed 7/10/2015, Reviewed 7/13/2015
5 stars

At last I am done.  This was quite a ride reading the whole series in two months.  I think I had a much better experience overall reading them all together.  There were some tears this time, and not where I expected.  But just like my first attempt, getting through “Deathly Hallows” was tough because I was both excited that it was finally reaching the conclusion, but also sad that it was the conclusion.  There are a lot of naysayers about the series, citing Rowling’s heavy use of adverbs, that it was derivative of the boarding school genre, and that it had no literary value or moral complexity.  Sure there were lots of adverbs, sure I thought of “A Separate Peace”, sure it was no “Grendel”.  But who cares?  I think it was fun, scary, and terrific storytelling.

Warning:  There are spoilers in this review.

“Deathly Hallows” is a direct continuation of the “Half Blood Prince”, feeling more like the second half of “Prince” than simply another installment in the series.  The story picks up with Voldemort successfully overthrowing the Ministry of Magic.  The Death Eaters are running the wizarding world, including Hogwarts, they’re rounding up of all Muggle-born wizards and witches, and the search is on for Harry.  Harry doesn’t return to school.  Instead, he, Ron, and Hermione go into hiding to continue their search to destroy the remaining hoarcruxes, which was begun in the previous book.  This of course leads our heroes to a near apocalyptic showdown between Harry and Voldemort.

There are more deaths in the march to apocalypse.  None hit me quite as hard as Dobby’s.  The first time we come across him, I could only imagine him as he was depicted in the movies, irritating.  But somewhere through the series, perhaps because of the introduction of other house-elves, and Harry and the gang’s trials and tribulations with all of them, I found I loved him.  When he dies and Harry digs his grave, I had tears pouring down my face.  This scene and the little funeral are perhaps the most touching in the whole series. 

My favorite part of the book is when the gang returns to Hogwarts before the final battle, only to find Neville leading the resistance.  Neville’s growth through the series is perhaps the greatest arc of any of the supporting characters.  And no, it’s not because Matthew Lewis, the actor who portrayed him in the film just posed in his underwear a few months ago.  It’s because he starts out as inconsequential comic relief with no talent, and ends up being a leader in his own right.  It’s more satisfying than Hermione and Ron’s growth from stereotypes to personhood.  I think it’s more dramatic for Neville because you only see him in a few scenes per book and then suddenly, he has a pivotal role in the plot.  It’s like that uncle from the other coast who only visits every ten years catching glimpses of his nieces and nephews turn from babies into fully realized men and women.

I only had one complaint with the book.  The chapters where Harry and the gang are going from forest to forest, hiding while they search for the hoarcruxes, dragged in places.  One can say it’s the calm before the storm.  I found it to be lacking in energy.  The pace rather went like:  low, low, low, HIGH, low, low, low, HIGH.  These low spots lacked a growth of tension that was I thought needed to create a more fluid buildup to the apocalyptic denouement.

Despite this one complaint, the pursuit of the hoarcruxes is exciting and imaginative, and the twist after twist with Snape is simply tremendous.  And while an ultimate battle between good and evil has been done before, Rowling’s seven novels worth of character development make the details of the battle gripping.  Before Harry Potter, I hadn’t read much YA lit.  It opened me up to a whole subgenre of YA SF, Fantasy, and Horror that I never knew existed, let alone realize was worthwhile reading as an adult.  Five out of five stars.  

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ready Player One

Ernest Cline
Completed 7/3/2015, Reviewed 7/4/2015
5 stars

This book came recommended by a Powell’s employee.  He said, “If you played video games in the ‘80s, you’ll love it”.  I was hesitant.  Then I started hearing around that this book had a sort of cult following.  So when a friend gave me a Powell’s gift card, I thought, okay, I’ll bite.  And what a juicy novel it turned out to be.  Part “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, part “Ender’s Game”, part “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, this virtual adventure kept me reading for almost two days solid.  Despite a slow beginning, it was literally one of those books I couldn’t put down.

Wade Watts is an orphan in a future destroyed by the greed of capitalism.  His only refuge from his destitute, multi-family double-wide trailer, abusive aunt with her boyfriend du jour existence is playing in the OASIS.  This free on-line universe is where he goes to school, visits friends, and of course plays games.  The creator of the OASIS has died and his multi-billion dollar empire is up for grabs by anyone who can solve the three-part puzzle.  Almost everyone in the OASIS tries to solve it, hoping to be the lucky one to inherit the massive fortune.  After five years, Wade stumbles upon the first key.  Soon, some of his friends find it, as does IOI, a huge mega-corporation, hoping to finally acquire the OASIS and charge for access to it.  Soon Wade and his friends are caught in a deadly race to beat IOI to the end of the puzzle.

As much as I loved this book, I don’t know if it’s for everyone.  I have concerns that if you missed the dawn of video games or 80s films, TV, and music, you might not get all the references, and there are tons.  The book definitely falls in the sub-genre of meta-fiction, like Jo Walton’s “Among Others”.  Half the fun is finding out what video game is part of the next puzzle.  If you don’t know the reference, you might not be able to follow the action.  But the book is very well written, so I think most people should be able to get caught up in it. 

I have to admit, the book is fluff.  There is no deep morality here.  The good guys are clearly good and worth cheering for.  The bad guys are very bad.  Most corporations are the bad guys, trying to eke out every penny from the already destitute population, recreating their own debtors’ prison, and turning the government into their castrated puppet.  Most people should be able to recognize such themes as Apple vs. Microsoft, Linux vs. Windows, and Comcast against all.  There’s even an amusing reference to Cory Doctorow, the author-activist who devotes his energies to freedom of information and post-scarcity economics, and even more amusingly, Wil Wheaton, who is currently enjoying a return to pop culture through his gaming videos and “Big Bang Theory”.  The joy of the book lies in Wade Watt’s fight against IOI, trying to stay one step ahead of them, and relying on his love for the OASIS and his obsession with its founder to keep it out of their filthy, greedy paws. 

It’s worth noting too, that the author makes sure to be very inclusive.  The OASIS isn’t just a haven for asocial boys.  Most of the population thrives there.  Wade’s strongest competition, besides IOI, is his female friend and romantic obsession Art3mis.  I always appreciate when there are strong female characters busting through the target demographics. 

I’m the kind of person who cringes when someone says, “You HAVE to read this book” or “You HAVE to see this movie”.  If I actually take their advice, I usually have to bust through my own skepticism and apprehension to come to my own fair opinion.  With the slow first few chapters of this book, I though I wasn’t going to be able to do it.  So I was glad I did because this it was worth it.  I was completely immersed in Wade’s world, often having to force myself to breath through some of the sequences.  “Ready Player One” is probably one of the most riveting books I’ve read this year.  Five out of five stars.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

JK Rowling
Completed 7/1/2015, Reviewed 7/6/2015
5 stars

With every book in the series, the tone gets darker and darker.  “Half-Blood Prince” is no exception.  The coursework at Hogwarts has taken a back seat to the battle against Voldemort, Harry has become obsessively suspicious of Draco and Snape, and Dumbledore is tutoring Harry in Voldemort’s past.  At the end, a major character in the series dies, signifying the Dark Lord’s rise to power and the despair of our heroes.  Fortunately, there is still some humor in what is probably the most gripping and gut-wrenching book of the series.

I’ve spaced my reading of the series with one or two unrelated novels to help me separate the books in my head.  Still, they begin to run together and leaving me feeling like I’m reviewing a chapter in one massive tome rather than one large book itself.  So I’m finding myself digging for differences. 

Perhaps the one thing that separates this book from the rest is love and relationships.  Harry realizes he likes Ginny, and Ron and Hermione realize they like each other.  I remember the films hinting at sexual tension between Harry and Hermione as well, but there are no such hints in the book, for which I am truly grateful.  The development of these two relationships have enough complications without a love triangle.  They’re both done really well, particularly in its forcing Ron to grow up.  Up to now, he’s been the goofy guy who you’d expect to be running around shouting “Cooties”.  He finally gets to mature, and it’s not easy for him or his friends.  They all make a lot of mistakes in their awkward mating dance.  I really liked it though, because it was much more realistic than some of the literary adult romances I’ve had to bear, particularly in science fiction. 

The other relationship of note is between Harry and Dumbledore.  Now with his godfather Sirius Black having been killed, he was without a guardian or mentor.  Dumbledore picks this up by offering Harry training.  Rather than actual wizarding lessons, Dumbledore takes him through the little that’s known of Voldemort’s past from the memories of the few who knew him growing up, hoping to find a way to destroy the Dark Lord, or at least weaken him before the final confrontation.  It also helps repair the damage done in the last book when Dumbledore was avoiding Harry for the psychic link he had with Voldemort.  The scenes are touching, and reading them filled me with a sense of sanity and safety when the rest of the events in Harry’s life felt completely out of control. He’s like that teacher you had in school who had confidence in you when you were losing confidence in yourself. 

To review Voldemort’s past, they use a “pensieve”, a magical bowl that stores and replays memories.  Harry accidently fell into it in an earlier book, but here he goes in accompanied by Dumbledore.  The best thing about the pensieve is that it is perhaps the ultimate exposition tool, catching you up on Voldemort’s life while keeping the plot moving.  Going into the memories through the silvery liquid in the bowl is far more exciting than having Dumbledore say, “Sit down and let me give you a brain dump of everything I’ve discovered so far.”

There’s so much more to “Half-Blood Prince than these few items.  Luna is still whacky as ever, and the once mousey keeps on putting himself in the thick of things.  Love also sprouts among two of the members of the Order of the Phoenix, and even one of Ron’s brothers finds himself in love.  And of course, the climactic ending with the death of the major character (which isn’t a spoiler because it was leaked before the book was initially published, but I still won’t say who it is, just in case).  Whereas the last book felt like it could have been pared down, every part of this one felt necessary.  Five out of five stars.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tolkien: A Biography

Humphrey Carpenter
Completed 6/27/2015, Reviewed 7/42015
5 stars

I first acquired this book as part of my introductory offer from the Book of the Month Club, so I’ve had it since about the time it was published.  I’ve started it many times, but I often have to be in the mood for non-fiction, and for some reason, I couldn’t get past the first chapter.  Now, while still immersed in my Tolkien challenge, having read more than just the Lord of the Rings, I think I was ready, finding it an engrossing account of an obsessive academic who studied words, drank a lot a beer, and wrote one of the greatest books of all time. 

Tolkien was a very unassuming man.  He never really looked for fame.  He simply wanted to do what he loved, create a mythology complete with its own languages.  From early in his childhood, he realized he loved words.  He studied Latin, Greek, old and middle English, including of its many dialects, Germanic, and Norse.  He invented his first language before college, which eventually became one of the languages used in his masterpiece.  He went to Oxford for philology, the study of language.  He loved old literature and the epic poems.  Soon he was writing stories and poems that would become the foundation for the mythology of Middle Earth.

Of course the chapters detailing Tolkien’s writing of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are engaging, with his obsession about details, procrastination, and perfectionism, but so is the beginning of his life.  His father died when he was three, and his mother when he was twelve.  He lived with relatives, and eventually went to Oxford to study philology.  He married the only woman he ever loved.  He eventually returned to Oxford as a teacher of philology and Middle English.  It doesn’t sound very interesting, but Carpenter tells the story as well as any narrative of fictional character study.  The amount of detail is astounding, from his rapid-fire mumbled way of speaking to his procrastination and inability to complete much of his work.

Tolkien was a lonely man, craving the friendship of other men.  This is evidenced by the clubs of which he was a founding member.  The most well-known was the Inklings, the club he started at Oxford.  It included C.S. Lewis and author writers.  But this was just the last in a series of such clubs which he created, the first of which began in high school.  The main point of all of them was to discuss ancient literature or read the work they were currently writing, providing each other with complements and critiques.   But besides this, it also provided Tolkien with the companionship of other men, complete with beer and pipe-smoking. 

Despite his devotion to his wife, these groups were part of the cause of domestic uneasiness, as well as his procrastination.  He desperately loved her, often referring to her as the Luthien to his Beren, the main characters from his epic tragic love story.  But his groups were a different part of his life.  In a way, it was a double life, one academic and social, and the other domestic.  It wasn’t until the near the end of their lives that they lived in what we would consider a “normal” marriage. 

Tolkien despised biography.  He didn’t believe that biographical information was necessary to understand the work of an author.  He also didn’t like allegory, refusing to admit any influence of his Catholic upbringing or either World War on his work.  Still, I think when we find an author we like, whose works we love, we want to know something about him or her.  It’s the nature of fame and fandom.  If you follow Tolkien’s premise and divorce yourself from the search for meaning and influence from his life experience, this book is still captivating.  If nothing else, Carpenter satisfied my own craving to know a little more about the person who wrote my favorite book of all time.  And a well-written biography such as this beats the dryness you’ll find on Wikipedia any day.  Five out of five stars.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Gospel of Loki

Joanne M. Harris
Completed 6/24/2015, Reviewed 7/42015
3 stars

Loki is part of the Norse pantheon.  He’s the trickster, called out of the fires of Chaos by Odin, the thorn in the side of the other gods and humans alike, and the instigator behind Ragnorok, the “doom of the gods”.  For the first time, Loki tells his side of the story.  Told with contemporary language and slang, “The Gospel of Loki” is a fun introduction into the Norse gods.  However, as a novel, it left me a little disappointed.

Harris creates a fun, interesting character in Loki.  Most of the book consists of tales from mythology told from Loki’s point of view.  No matter how tragic the stories are, his perspective adds a dry, ironic sense of humor.  In every one of the stories, he always finds a way to make it come out in his favor, more or less.  Not all of the gods find this humorous though.  Eventually, it puts him at odds with everyone, even Odin, his main benefactor. 

Unfortunately, that’s the where the book falls apart for me.  I like Loki, but the nature of the stories and the nonchalant narrative style kept me from developing a deep relationship with him.  So when his lovers, children, and the other gods begin to turn on him, it didn’t have much emotional impact.  Without this, I found it difficult to buy into his revenge game. 

This book is quite short.  It makes me wonder if it was edited too heavily, leaving out deeper character development.  I often come across books that I think could have used a hundred less pages.  This is perhaps the first that I’d say could have used a hundred more pages.  Gaiman’s “American Gods” featured Norse gods with much more depth despite relatively little page time.  I’d recommend that over “Loki” if you want a meaty novel.  While this book is not geared towards children, it reminds me of the “children’s versions” of the Greek and Roman mythologies I read from Scholastic press as a kid myself.  I remember the kid’s version of the Odyssey, thinking it fun, rather than tragic.  That’s how this book left me.  It’s a fun, light read, but sorely lacked any emotional depth or detail.  It mostly succeeded in making me want to take a course on the Poetic Edda.  I give it three out of five stars.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

JK Rowling
Completed 6/21/2015, Reviewed 6/22/2015
4 stars

Suffice it to say that each book in the series gets darker than its predecessor.  “Phoenix” is no exception.  The book opens with Harry and his obnoxious cousin nearly being killed by Dementors.  At Hogwarts, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor physically and emotionally abuses him.  The tie between Voldemort and Harry becomes more terrifyingly real.  And for a second time, one of the characters dies.    Unfortunately, what is most memorable about this book is that Harry is annoying, angry, and full of teen angst.

In a way, the book fits perfectly with its audience.  Harry and his crew are now about fifteen years old, the perfect age for teen angst.  He is completely self-absorbed, making everything incredibly difficult, from relationships with friends to learning new ways to block his mind meld with Voldemort.  He screams, he shouts, he rages against the magic machine.  He does what you’d expect for a boy of his age in the situation he’s in.  However, in an 870 page book, it got a tiresome.  I lost my empathy and wanted him to just grow a pair.  And that’s the sort of thing I usually don't think too often.  I usually can empathize with powerlessness and internal rage.  This just went on too long.  I felt like some judicious editing could have made it more poignant, keeping me inside Harry’s head rather than making me step outside and harshly judge him. 

Ironically, I found the deliciously evil Dolores Umbrage a lot more tolerable than I thought I remembered from my first read of the book.  Her harsh physical punishments, her disbelieving of his encounter with Voldemort, and her assumption that she is the absolute authority brought back my memories of the evil teachers (nuns and lay alike) from elementary school.  So maybe I need to give Harry a break, because even I wish I could torture Sister Ewalda, Sister Terenia, and Mrs. Gora today, firmly believing that eternal torment in hell is just not enough for them. 

My favorite part of this book is the creation of Dumbledore’s Army.  Hermione comes up with this idea as a way for the kids on Harry’s side to train in defense against the dark arts in preparation for the threat of Voldemort and the Death Eaters.  What I like particularly is that this is the first time we really see Neville Longbottom succeeding in his wizard training.  Up to this point in the series, he’s sort of a bumbling mess, being more accidently helpful rather than intentionally.  In the final climactic scene, he still bumbles, but at least he’s a lot more confident.  After four books of his focus being mostly comic relief, his development here is very satisfying.

I give this book four out of five stars.  It has all the elements to be mind-blowing, including another exciting and devastating ending.  I could have given this book five if it wasn’t so filled with angst-ridden rage.  If I was fifteen when I first read it, it probably would have been my favorite book in the series.  Instead, my response to Harry are the three words that I never thought I’d hear myself say:  Get over it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Ramez Naam
Completed 6/12/2015, Reviewed 6/23/2015
3 stars

When this book was picked for the July read in my SF book club, I groaned.  It’s cyberpunk.  Not my fave.  I was also put off by its win of the Prometheus award, given to SF books that exemplify the libertarian ideal.  But it sucked me in pretty quickly with a graphic sex scene right at the beginning.  It’s not that I need graphic sex at all, but it was an intense way to introduce the drug Nexus and its impact on humanity, upon which the premise of the book lies.  When ingested, Nexus creates the ability to program the brain like a computer.  It also gives you the ability to network with others who are on Nexus and share their thoughts and feelings at a deep, intimate level.  It represents the next step in human evolution.  And it’s illegal.

One of the masterminds behind the next generation of Nexus and its programming is Kaden Lane.  He and his posse are being pursued by Samantha Cataranes, a government agent.  She infiltrates a party where they are experimenting with Nexus and captures them, but takes Nexus herself and experiencing the intense effect.  Kaden is given a choice:  Everyone captured goes to jail for a very long time, or he helps the government find and eliminate a brilliant Chinese neuro-scientist who seems to be planning global domination with the people modified by the Nexus, trans-humans.  He agrees and the intrigue begins.

There’s a lot of action, which I often find hard to read.  Instead, it was pulse-pounding excitement.  So I have to give credit to Naam for writing the action so well.  He also handles the explanation of the science pretty well.  Naam is actually the author of non-fiction work on trans-humanism, that is, the next step in the evolution of humans through technology.  It’s all very interesting, but also scary. 

The book deals a lot with the morality of the use of Nexus vs. the government’s suppression of it.  Naam makes the convincing case that the government is bad (hence the Prometheus award) and that the only moral thing to do is to help humans evolve into trans-humans.  But what’s scary about it is that inevitably, it creates a new world order, replacing one oppressive government with another.  It reminds me of the Nazi-propaganda film in the movie “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, where the woman fighting against the Nazis is eventually captured, told the "truth" about how they are helping mankind, and converts to being a Nazi supporter.  It doesn’t matter that some will have to die for the greater “good”, as long as that good is achieved.

I have to say that if I hadn’t known that this book won the Prometheus award, I may not have made the connections.  I pains me that a really good action story is the medium for propaganda.  I feel like in my head I have William Hurt arguing that it’s a beautiful movie and Raul Julia horrified by the realization what it’s really about.  So do I give this book four stars for excellent execution or two stars for deplorable content?  Let’s settle on a wishy-washy three stars.  Of course, isn’t that the attitude that puts me in the cattle car on the way to the concentration camps?