Posts Tagged With: Book Review

Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs

the-year-of-living-biblicallyThe Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
I heard about this book a couple of years before I got around to purchasing and reading it. I know a lot of people who claim to take the Bible literally and who claim to live their life as closely to the guidelines set out therein. Well, the author did just that and his results are wildly different than the people I know.

While trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible, A.J. Jacobs discovers contradictions, some explicit, others springing from differences in translation and interpretation. He has difficulties incorporating the realities of modern life (like having to carry a chair with him so he doesn’t accidentally sit in a seat a menstruating woman has been in; it’s unclean) and it is only due to the eternal patience of his wife that he is able to live within some of these restrictions (although she draws the line at a rule that states he can’t touch her at ALL for weeks after her c-section delivering their twins; spoiler: he suspends his “quest” for about a month after their birth).

The challenge the author undertakes in this book is something I, myself, would NEVER attempt, but I did find his account illuminating. Like him, I think a lot of people seek to live the best lives they can by following tenets set out in the good book, but being human, fail to varying degrees. Jacobs’s quest did lead him to being a kinder, more thoughtful person, so even as a self-described agnostic, by the end of his journey, he felt it was worthwhile.

I don’t want to go too in depth about my views on religious; my personal beliefs aren’t relevant to this review. It’s a well-written, engaging, funny account that answers a lot of questions I had about how would one have to live if they really took the Bible as literally as they said they do. His conclusion confirmed what I suspected: it’s impossible to follow ALL the rules literally and EVERYONE cherry picks.

But don’t take it from me. Read this and be yourself, enlightened. It’s not going to make you a true believer (it certainly didn’t affect my beliefs in any way), but it might increase your understanding.

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REVIEW – Star Wars: Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston

ahsoka-coverFor those of you who don’t know who Ashoka Tano is, a quick introduction. After Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, an animated series debuted on Cartoon Network called “Star Wars – The Clone Wars.” In it, we are introduced to the previously unknown apprentice of Anakin Skywalker (he who would become Darth Vader): a young Togruta named Ahsoka Tano. She was essentially the breakout character of that series after a bit of a rocky start (i.e. once the writers figured out how to write an adolescent in a war without making her too annoying). When the series ended, the explanation of why she wasn’t in Revenge of the Sith was satisfactory, but her ultimate fate was left unknown. She reappeared fifteen years later (in-universe chronology) in the current Disney XD show, “Star Wars – Rebels.”

This novel fills in some of the between the end of The Clone Wars and Ahsoka’s appearance in Rebels. Specifically, it shows how Ahsoka came to the attention of Bail Organa (Princess Leia’s adoptive father) and became the agent known as Fulcrum.

We see how the New Order of the Empire affects the regular, rural people of the galaxy and Star Wars: Ashoka takes time to show us how nasty the Empire is to everyone who isn’t part of their very narrow view of “acceptable.”

Without giving too much of the plot away, I will say the book is tight; it moves quickly and I was never lost or confused. I found it thoroughly enjoyable and, in fact, would rank it near the top of all the Extended Universe novels and thus far, the best of the new EU continuity. While I appreciate what some other authors bring to the EU, I didn’t have to fight against the writing style (which is a completely subjective judgment), and it certainly made reading more pleasurable. My only real criticism is I felt the climax was a bit rushed, particularly Ashoka’s confrontation with her nemesis, an Inquisitor (fans of “Star Wars: Rebels” will be familiar with the type). Still, I suppose it is good to occasionally show the bad guys getting curb-stomped because they underestimate their opponents, and it is a known flaw of the Empire.

For too long, and with few exceptions, EU novels focused on the exploits of the Skywalkers and Solos we came to know and love in the films. With seemingly every event in the galaxy revolving around Luke, Leia, and Han, it made the universe feel very small.

Expanding the cast of characters novels can focus on helps with that tremendously. For all the awesome things about Star Wars, there’s really very few role-models for young women and the franchise sorely needed more. Ashoka Tano is a good one. She’s witty, strong, competent and self-sufficient. She’s not shown to need help to accomplish the most basic tasks and when she does need help, she recognizes it, formulates a plan, gets the help she needs and gets things done. Without a doubt, Ashoka Tano continues the tradition of strong female characters in sci-fi and fantasy and she is a fine addition to the heroes of Star Wars.

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REVIEW – The History of the Commodore 64 in Pixels by Chris Wilkins

C64 in PixelsTonight’s review is a bit of a departure, as the book I’m reviewing is not sci-fi or fantasy. In fact, it’s non-fiction. While it’s not the first non-fiction book I’ve reviewed here, non-fiction is definitely not the focus of my reviews. While you can find The History of the Commodore 64 in Pixels on Amazon, getting a hold of it might be challenging; I don’t believe it’s in general distribution. I received this book as part of a Kickstarter to which I contributed last year. In short, this book recounts the history of an oft-forgotten member of the gaming scene, the Commodore 64 personal computer.

When you think of what they had to work with: a roughly 1 MHz processor and 64K of RAM, it’s really amazing what the programmers from around the world accomplished on the brown, breadbox-shaped machine.

There’s a common element in a lot of the stories told in this book: the SID chip, a powerhouse (for the time), 3-voice synthesizer widely recognized as a musical instrument in its own right. The music and sound-effect capabilities of the C64 were unparalleled in the home PC market.

All of this are told as a series of essays by the people who were captivated and inspired by this machine to try their hand at programming and composition and created some of the great games for which the C64 is remembered.

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REVIEW – Thieves at Heart by Tristan J. Tarwater

Thieves at Heart coverTavera, or Tavi, as she’s known is the young half-elf girl at the heart of this short novel. Orphaned as a child, taken in by prostitutes, then sold to a man to raise as his own daughter and train as a fellow thief, Tavi has a better life that one would expect. Thieves at Heart tells her story as she grows up (with all the tribulations puberty entails), trains as a thief, and sets off on her own.

It’s a quick, entertaining read. I’m not sure I’d say there’s anything deep to the story; it doesn’t feel like something with a profound message. Of course, many books are just written to be entertainment and that’s good, too. It does speak, I think, to experiences a lot of women have as they’re coming of age (I can only speculate here, as I am not a woman). Thieves at Heart does this in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or exploitative. It feels real.

I may be overthinking or overanalyzing. I enjoyed Thieves at Heart. I was curious to see how the author’s long-form fiction was since I enjoy the webcomic she writes. Give Thieves at Heart a shot, you might enjoy it, too.

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REVIEW – Redemption: In Her Name Omnibus

In Her NameI picked up In Her Name (Omnibus edition, comprising Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle) to read on vacation not knowing what to expect. Once I started, I was sucked in and could not put it down. Michael R. Hicks has a way of leaving you wanting more at the end of every chapter. The characters are fully-realized and three-dimensional. The protagonists are sympathetic and relateable while the villains are despicable More than once I wanted to just fast forward to see the villains get theirs, so much did I hate them.

The alien race featured in this stories, the Kreelan, are a warrior culture who fights for honor and the love of personal combat. It would have been easy to make them Klingon-clones, but as Hicks develops the culture you learn about their tragic history and the Kreelan become more sympathetic than most of the human characters. I had a hard time sympathizing with the human desire for ultimate victory once I bought into the Kreelan Way. Though, I did get worried when I detected a bit of the Mighty Whitey trope in play. Fortunately Hicks handles this well with just enough of a twist to remind us that tropes are not necessarily bad.

When I detected the story was near its end, I started to get sad, because I didn’t see how a happy ending was going to be possible with the perceived amount of pages remaining, but I put the book down satisfied with the resolution and wanting to learn more about the cultures to which I’d been introduced.

In Her Name is good space opera with a healthy dose of fantasy (though, is it? Any sufficiently advanced technology will appear magical to outsiders, a point was very happy to see acknowledged by one of the characters.). It is by far, one of the best books (well, three books, actually) I’ve read on my Kindle thus far, and one of the most entertaining sci-fi series I’ve read period since I first read Michael Stackpole’s X-Wing novels.

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REVIEW – Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Aftermath coverWriting this review was difficult. I intended/expected to blow through this book as quickly as I did Wendig’s Heartland Trilogy, but I just couldn’t. Oddly, I had the same trouble getting through the last media tie-in novel I read, Star Wars – A New Dawn, but more on that later…

If you want the short, short version: I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. I really wanted to like it. I’ve read the majority of the Star Wars Extended Universe novels now relegated to Legends, and I have no beef with Disney essentially wiping out the EU to start over.

The longer version: Aftermath starts off after the Battle of Endor as seen in Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Some time has passed as the New Republic is established with Mon Mothma at its head (much like in the old continuity). It’s easier to just cut & paste the plot blurb from Amazon than for me to write a whole new one, so, from the Amazon blurb:

As the Empire reels from its critical defeats at the Battle of Endor, the Rebel Alliance—now a fledgling New Republic—presses its advantage by hunting down the enemy’s scattered forces before they can regroup and retaliate. But above the remote planet Akiva, an ominous show of the enemy’s strength is unfolding. Out on a lone reconnaissance mission, pilot Wedge Antilles watches Imperial Star Destroyers gather like birds of prey circling for a kill, but he’s taken captive before he can report back to the New Republic leaders.

Meanwhile, on the planet’s surface, former rebel fighter Norra Wexley has returned to her native world—war weary, ready to reunite with her estranged son, and eager to build a new life in some distant place. But when Norra intercepts Wedge Antilles’s urgent distress call, she realizes her time as a freedom fighter is not yet over. What she doesn’t know is just how close the enemy is—or how decisive and dangerous her new mission will be.

Determined to preserve the Empire’s power, the surviving Imperial elite are converging on Akiva for a top-secret emergency summit—to consolidate their forces and rally for a counterstrike. But they haven’t reckoned on Norra and her newfound allies—her technical-genius son, a Zabrak bounty hunter, and a reprobate Imperial defector—who are prepared to do whatever they must to end the Empire’s oppressive reign once and for all.

There are a lot of elements I should like in Aftermath. For years, I wanted more novels focusing on new characters; I felt the adventures of the core trio (Leia, Luke, and Han) were overplayed and tired. My favorite Star Wars novels are the X-Wing series written by Michael Stackpole for that very reason. Quirky, wierd characters like the re-programmed Mr. Bones tend to be among my favorites. The cameos by existing characters like Wedge Antilles and Admiral Ackbar don’t overshadow the actions of the protagonists.

Still, there was something about the novel that didn’t gel for me. It wasn’t the point-of-view. I was well-acquainted with Wendig’s use of present-tense and was used to his writing style since I finished three of his books just prior to starting this one. The new characters didn’t resonate with me, not Norra and Temmin Wexley, Rae Sloan (a character returning from Star Wars – A New Dawn, which I mostly enjoyed), nor turncoat Sinjir or bounty hunter Jas Emari. I didn’t dislike them, per se, I just didn’t get strong feelings for them. Maybe I just really wanted to read more about Wedge’s adventures, and if you go into this novel hoping he’s a main character, you’ll be disappointed.

I get that some people don’t like Wendig’s writing style. One thing I’ve learned from decades of reading and writing is that not everyone’s writing style is compatible with everyone’s reading style. There are well-regarded, immensely popular authors I don’t read because I can’t stand their writing style. I’m not going to say they’re bad writers; their success belies that claim (and yes, bad things can be successful, but art is subjective).

I can’t quite place why this novel didn’t appeal to me. And no, it had nothing to do with the so-called “homosexual agenda” in the book. One character stating his or her preference does not an agenda make, nor I did feel it was “shoved down our throats.” (There was a second couple featured, too, if I remember, but again, it’s not A Thing; it just is.) Frankly, it’s good to see greater representation for all gender and sexual identities in popular media. It’s good for us as a species to accept what is different. It’s how we grow.

Maybe, my Star Wars tie-in fiction burn-out is complete. The Force Awakens was great and I enjoyed it more than any Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, but ever since the New Jedi Order series, I have had a very difficult time enjoying any Star Wars novels.

Still, I won’t say “don’t read this book.” Aftermath is well-written and well-paced. It’s certainly not the worst Star Wars novel I’ve ever read, but it’s not the best, either. Above average, maybe? I did grow on me as I got further along, but overall, it just didn’t resonate with me as a Star Wars fan. If you’re a die-hard fan who is eager to see what await in the new continuity, you’ll probably enjoy Star Wars: Aftermath. If you’re a die-hard “The Old EU is Sacrosanct!”-type, you’re probably not even going to bother. If you don’t care about the EU one way or another, perhaps you’ll find something of value here. Certainly, there are worse ways to return to a galaxy far, far away. This is definitely another case where I wish I could award half-stars, so just add another 1/2-star on mentally.

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QUICK REVIEW – Shadowrun: Nigel Findley Omnibus

shadowrun-nigel-findley-omnibusYou don’t have to be a fan of the Shadowrun setting to enjoy these urban fantasy/cyberpunk novels by the late Nigel Findley. The stories are all engaging, illustrative, and thoroughly enjoyable. While some knowledge of the Shadowrun world is helpful, you should be able to catch on fairly quickly through context. If you’re not familiar, the world is our future, magic has returned and so have elves, orcs, dwarves, trolls, and dragons.

I do love these stories, but I there are numerous typos, some of which cause me to re-read the sentence several times to work out what the word really means. I haven’t yet determined if this is a problem with adapting these books to the Kindle format, or if these typos existed in the original work. Still, they aren’t a show-stopper, and I’m sad we will get no more from this talented author.

It appears that neither the Omnibus, nor the individual stories, 2XS, Shadowplay, Lone Wolf, and House of the Sun are available on Amazon anymore, or anywhere I can find in electronic format. It’s a shame; from what I hear, Nigel Findley is among the most well-regarded of Shadowrun authors and the loss of his work in this format is a travesty.

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REVIEW – Wolf Tower: The Claidi Journals I by Tanith Lee

Wolf TowerI picked this book up as part of my coursework in my Children’s Literature class mistaking Tanith Lee for another author I had read (obviously, this was some time ago, I’m going to say 10 years now). I’d heard of Tanith Lee, of course, but I was mistaking her for someone else. So, it turns out that I was completely unfamiliar with Mrs. Lee’s work up until now.

I found “Wolf Tower” to be a fun and engaging read. It would be a good start to ease young readers into fantasy fiction as it doesn’t have an epic, world-shattering plot, and the fantastic elements it employs aren’t too weird–they all seem to fit logically within the world Tanith Lee has created. Speaking of which, the world in which the story takes place is not dissimiliar to our own, making it even easier to get into the story without having to learn a bunch of strange geography.

The protagonist, Claidi, is a likeable, if downtrodden, girl who grows emotionally during the story into a likeable young lady. The way she deals with events and other characters is admirable and can serve as a good example for young readers.

The story itself is interesting and Tanith Lee does a fine job keep us guessing as much as Claidi who is really telling the truth, and indeed, what that truth is. The ending is satisfying, yet leaves things open for a continuation of the story, and I found myself wondering “What happens next?”

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REVIEW – Twitter for Writers: The Author’s Guide to Tweeting Success (Writer’s Craft Book 8) by Rayne Hall

Twitter for WritersI consider myself a fairly proficient Twitter user. I have two accounts (though I limit myself to @hccummings these days) and well over 35,000 tweets under my belt. So, not everything in this book was news to me, but there was still a fair amount of things Rayne Hall covers that I was unaware of.

If you’re an Author/Publisher or an Author just looking to drum up interest in your novels and you’re thinking about using Twitter, you need this book. It explains what Twitter is, how it works, how to use it, and common pitfalls of using Twitter. Sharing her own mistakes, Rayne Hall distills the pros and cons of Twitter into an easy-to-read guide. And believe me, if you’ve ever followed writers on Twitter, many of them make the very mistakes she covers in this book. Don’t be one of those writers. No one wants a feed full of advertisements.

Using Twitter as a marketing tool is difficult and time-consuming. This book will help you make the most of your limited time and help keep you from being a nuisance on Twitter (it’s really easy to do, and most of us are guilty of at least one of the mistakes Rayne Hall talks about).

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REVIEW – Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia

MHI coverI tore through this book like a Master Vampire through a Newbie, In other words: faster than more recent books I’ve read, which, to be honest have been few and far between in the last couple of years.

While I think The Chosen One trope has been played out for now, and the whole perfect mate thing was a little contrived (I would have paired Owen with Holly, for example as I think she was a more interesting character than Julie Shackleford), I really enjoyed the story. Urban fantasy is a genre I haven’t read a lot of, but I definitely see the appeal in having fantasy intrude on the real world. It makes it easier to buy in to compared to a world where none of the geography and/or geopolitics are familiar.

MHI reminded me a lot of the Anita Blake series, except without the sex and glorification of vampires. I love vampires as monsters. I hate them as people. I especially enjoyed the twist on orcs and elves in MHI, and I look forward to reading book two. Hopefully, the characters won’t get a significant power upgrade with each book, because they’re already (at least Owen and Julie) a little too perfect, despite their “flaws.” Still, they have fun personalities, and good characters can make an otherwise average book cross the threshold into good or even great, because, as a reader, I tend to connect more with the characters than with any particular plot details.

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