Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Review: The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings, #2)The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second volume of The Lord of the Rings continues Frodo Baggins' journey towards the dark land of Mordor while the rest of his companions deal with armies of the Great Eye and the traitorous Saruman.  'The Two Towers' is where J.R.R. Tolkien showed the reader the danger his world was in and raising the stakes by showing the effects of Sauron's darkness was already having on lands he had captured.

'The Two Towers' contains the third and fourth books that Tolkien divided The Lord of the Rings into.  The third book begins with Company, sans Frodo and Sam, battling the machinations of Isengard in various ways.  The fourth follows Frodo and Sam from their split from the Company to the very edge of Mordor itself thanks to Gollum.  Throughout Towers, Tolkien continually builds the tension and the stakes all the characters deal with as the darkness threatening their world goes on the move.  Although he separated the two story arcs into different books, Tolkien drops hints to his overall timeline by the flight of the Nazgul that all the characters see at various times.  Unfortunately Tolkien's decision to split the story arc of the rest of the Company into two created the need for a flashback retelling of the Ent march against Isengard instead of a 'first-hand' account of the battle.

Although the material in Towers was originally intended by J.R.R. Tolkien to be directly in the middle of an entire one-volume story, a publisher decision to split the tale into three volumes creating mixed results for Towers.  As intended by Tolkien the material increased the tension and action the characters experienced, only to suddenly cut off as events seemed to be gaining traction.  However, the cliff hanger quality that Tolkien intended at the end of Book Four as it finishes Towers is retaining making the reader want to see what happens next in the story of Frodo and Sam.

'The Two Towers' reads like it was intended, the middle part of one-continuous story, resulting in it never really feels like a individual book.  In Towers, the characters introduced  in Fellowship continued to grow and start interacting with various new characters stepping onto the stage of the story.  Along with character development, the increasing action and rising tensions between good and evil build up the overall story of The Lord of the Rings.  Upon finishing The Two Towers, readers can not wait to see how Tolkien's epic is completed in 'The Return of the King'.

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Book Review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pyramids (Discworld, #7)Pyramids by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The seventh installment of Discworld finds Terry Pratchett giving the reader a glimpse into the Kingdom of Djelibeybi and it's Assassin Guild-trained new king, Teppic.  The story revolves various themes such as tradition vs. innovation, belief vs. reality, three-dimensional thinking vs. four-dimensional thinking, and what's the deal with pyramids all with a humorous twist.

The two main characters are Teppic, first a prince training to be an assassin only to become king right after finishing his Guild-training, and his father King Teppicymon XXVII, first the god-king of the Old Kingdom then a ghost watching as his body is prepared for his eternal afterlife.  The two face their new situations wanting to change things only to find the Chief Priest Dios standing in the way, only for young Teppic to outdo the Priest by ordering the biggest Pyramid ever for his father to catastrophic results when he along with everyone else learns what pyramids actually do.

Besides the father and son duo who dominate the majority of the point-of-view scenes, other secondary characters have several moments to themselves including the aforementioned Dios.  However only Dil the chief embalmer really stood out compared to those who technically might be more "important."  Unfortunately what was suppose to be the big joke that was foreshadowed throughout the first half of the book turned out to be a dud when it turned out a camel was the greatest mathematician on the Disc.

Overall the general story arc(s) and the humorous, yet catastrophic, events are a fun read even with less than enjoyable secondary characters and the dud "big joke.  Pyramids might be a "one-off" in the Discworld series, but it's a fun book.

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Book Review: A World of Ice & Fire by George R.R. Martin

The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of ThronesThe World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The newest literary extension to George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series is a history of Westeros extensively cataloguing the reigns of the Targaryens and their fall, giving a backstory to the events of Martin's main work.  A collaboration between Martin and Elio M. Garcia & Linda Antonsson, "The World of Ice & Fire" is not a mystery-solving or spoiler revealing book but gives the reader the historical knowledge that the characters of Martin's series had giving them a better appreciation to the numerous references that characters give one another.

The oversized 300+ page book with over 170 original illustrations reads like a scholarly work that some times borders on being dry, however the information is pretty well thought out and expounded upon by all three authors as they give depth to the backdrop that is Westeros in ASOIAF.  The illustrations include many portraits and landscapes, some of which reveal for the first time people or places mentioned in the books but not traveled to.  "World" begins at the literal beginning of Martin's creation as the fictional author recounts the legendary beginnings of Westeros and it's peopling through with the inclusion of other parts of the world that have a later impact on the continent.  The majority of the first third of the book deals with the near 300 year history of Targaryen Conquest, Rule, and Fall.  The next third is the individual histories of the main Kingdoms of Westeros both before and after the Conquest, as well as family histories for all the leading families of the realm.  The final third deals with the world beyond Westeros, which includes many strange people and places.

Although some might dislike the sometimes dry recounting of history that in various ways still keeps certain mysteries, well mysterious, in truth it's hard not to find something to dislike in this book.  While a map with location names would have been nice for places beyond Westeros so the reader would have a better sense of a location's relationship to everything else, one could argue that was located in another literary appendage.  The artwork was fantastic though on a few occasions the same individual was depicted multiple times by different artists but looking completely different, which sometimes made the reader do a double take.  However one has to appreciate the audience-creation that each artist did in relation to the same information given them.

Overall "The World of Ice & Fire" should be thought of as a in-universe history book that allows readers to see Westeros the same as the characters, especially the nearly 300 year history of the Targaryens on the continent that shaped the landscape of ASOIAF.  As long as readers and fans approach this book in the correct way, they will enjoy it (even with the arms of House Blackfyre mysteriously on the cover).

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The dystopian literature classic "1984" by George Orwell is known today by the general public through catchphrases and Super Bowl commercials, however the introduction of the "Orwellian nightmare" this novel presented in the late 1940s were eye-opening at the time.

The novel begins with Winston Smith making his way to his apartment and putting his crimethink into practice by starting a diary.  We then follow Winston as continues his one-man rebellion against Big Brother and the Party.  Soon Winston finds a comrade in Julia, a rebel from the waist down, and the two begin an affair.  The affair and their rebellion ends when the Thought Police arrest them, led by Inner Party leader O'Brien, who Winston believed to be a rebel as well.  Then Winston is tortured and brainwashed into becoming a loving member of the Party, happy to return Big Brother's love and can not wait to announce his crimes.

The broken and oppressive world in which Winston lives is a stunning contrast to what the reader is accustomed to as well as the contradictory political language that the Party uses in its rule.  These foundational constructions by Orwell using Winston's internal thoughts help the reader understand the Oceania of 1984 as well as Winston's acceptance of already being dead.  The misunderstanding by Winston of who was his friend and who was his enemy is done expertly by Orwell, giving the novel breathe as well as some added character depth.  Orwell's unsettling writing of Winston's imprisonment, torture, and brainwashing make the last third of the book the most powerful as we see the character we've gotten to know for almost 200 pages change in front of our eyes.

However, Orwell's Party doesn't seem that bright given what O'Brien states during Winston's torture.  The Thought Police had been following Winston for seven years, which meant they were allowing Winston to potentially infect other Party members with his crimethink.  The fact that they were able to capture Julia, a rebel of her own, seems like an attempt by Orwell to save the Party's face but it only makes it more glaring.  For all their talk of power, they seemed pretty powerless to just let Winston keep walking around free for seven years.  This one flaw leads to the reader noticing some others less egregious flaws in the overall work, but nothing that doesn't effect the overall quality of the writing.

In the end, the themes and ideas that Orwell introduced continue to be debated even today with government surveillance and media manipulation.  However what Orwell could never have imagined was the individual people could compete with the government and media in distorting the truth by way of Photoshop.  "1984" is a warning about how man could be robbed of his human nature either through passive education or more extreme persuasion, the story of Winston Smith keeps reminding the reader that everyone needs to fight to keep their basic nature.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Review: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

City of Ashes (The Mortal Instruments, #2)City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The second book of The Moral Instruments, "City of Ashes" continues Cassandra Clare's overall story right where the first book left off as well carrying over all the "meh" worthy characteristics presented in "City of Bones".

Clare begins her book with action from the beginning and sets the plot in motion, however everything then starts going downhill.  The main characters Clary and Jace remain the same as when we first seem them in "City of Bone" only now with the added taboo sibling romantic love angle between them, which is beyond weird since both know about their familial relationship now.  The weird sibling romantic angle isn't the only love connection that is just off the rails, Magnus and Alec is completely eye rolling for the simple fact that a 300+ year old warlock is hosting a 16 year old kid in his house a lot.  Then there is the introductions of more Clave members, especially two adult women who unfortunately are some of the worst written characters of the book---Maryse Lightwood and Inquisitor Imogen Herondale.  And that is just the beginning of all the frustrating things in this book that ended with another thud epilogue like "City of Bones".

The only thing that kept me continuing reading was the quick pace of the overall narrative, which allowed me to have an overall "meh" with the entire book.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowlings

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third time I've read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but the first since finishing Deathly Hallows and first time reading it critically. I've tailored this review in the following in mind: the intended audience for the book (much younger than myself) and it's place in the series.

Like the first book in the series, Chamber of Secrets features brevity in length which can be easily explained as Rowlings tailoring the book to her primary audience of tweens.  Just like in the previous book, Rowlings' word choices are brilliant in giving vivid descriptions of the events that are transpiring as well as the background information that she built upon from the series first book.  Like the first book Chamber of Secrets involves a mystery, but this time the consequences are truly life-threatening to Harry and his friends especially Hermione and Ginny Weasley.

[Spoilers Below]
The second installment of the Harry Potter series is a mixture of elements for the first and new things, a critical decision by Rowlings to advance the overall story.  From the start Harry is touched by the magical world with the introduction of Dobby attempting, multiple times, to prevent Harry from returning to Hogwarts.  The rescue of Harry from the Dursley's house by the Weasley brothers and his stay at the Burrow is a wonderful extension of world building Rowlings began in Sorcerer's Stone.  The biggest debut in Chamber of Secrets is the first Horcrux in the story with Tom Riddle's Diary, though we only find this out later in Half-Blood Prince.  The climax which has only Harry and Ron figuring out the clues as to what was in (with help from a petrified Hermione) and where the Chamber of Secrets was, different from when all three of the main characters worked together, Rowling would reverse the situation in the next book with Harry and Hermione the main actors in the book's climax.

Overall, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a wonderful second installment of Rowlings magical series. The reader's view of the wizarding world grows a little without overwhelming the book's main audience too soon in the series.  Like it's predecessor it is stands up over time.

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Two-Disc Special Widescreen Edition)

3.0 out of 5 stars Faithful to the Book For Both Good and Ill
The film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a wonderful and faithful to the book as well as to it's main audience of young readers. Director/Producer Chris Columbus worked deftly with his young stars and acting veterans to bring J.K. Rowlings' Hogwarts to life as young Harry Potter discovers his place in the wizarding world.

While the film is faithful to the book, this a determent as well. The attempt to replicate as much as possible the well loved book to cater to the film's young audience, drags down the overall product as many favorite scenes that could have been skipped or shortened were in the film whole. The decision to cater to the millions of young readers is understandable, however it created several instances of plot dragging which is very noticeable on film than on a page.

The acting is very good and natural for main of the young actors, many of whom were doing their first acting jobs in this film. The veteran actors on the cast did a superb job in their characters--whether teachers, relatives, or other adults--which provided the world Rowlings created with an air of realism and not the sense that they were doing the film for a paycheck.

Overall, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a wonderful film that this faithful to the book for both good and ill. It is a fantastic first installment of the Potter film franchise that any new young reader of the Potter books would greatly enjoy.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Book Review: Helsinki Noir edited by James Thompson

Helsinki NoirHelsinki Noir by James Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The fourteen story collection of “Helsinki Noir” is the latest installment of the Akashic Noir Series, focusing around the Finnish capital.  Edited by expat James Thompson, also a contributor, the stories range from dark and brutal to partially sunny and almost positive in overall tone.

The main characters of the stories generally are on the criminal side, including a few police officers, which slant the stories more to the dark side of the spectrum.  Even when the main character is on the right side of the law, their perspective is darkened by their years fighting crime or living a psychologically scared life.  If the tone of noir is meant to be dark, this collection definitely qualifies.

The further one gets into the books, the overall quality of the stories improves even though two of the best 5 stories appear early on in the volume.  The characters and story structures are for nearly all excellent with only an exception there and there.  If anything the biggest dislike of this book was amount of graphic sexual content that stressed my personal comfort zone.

Overall "Helsinki Noir" is a good collection of short stories that inclines towards being very good with only one exception.  Not knowing what to expect, I was both surprised and disappointed with what I encountered in reading.  Given the very dark tone of the majority of the stories, be prepared for some dark times.  However if dark criminal stories are not your cup of tea then I suggest passing.

I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

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To read my thoughts on each story see the links below:

Review: Helsinki Noir Part IV

The Broker by Karo Hamalainen
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

A fantastic story of greed meeting greedier, youth getting schooled by the experienced, and all set up by an intriguing prelude. Unlike the rest the collection, this story features two criminals who see each other as a way to make more money without bloodshed or gore. Definitely the best story of the collection.

The Script by Antti Tuomainen
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The penultimate story in the collection is another strong entry as a major Finnish producer who is into drugging his conquests goes out on the town. Unfortunately he doesn't know he's not the only one out hunting, though by the end it's definitely too late as he gets a taste of own concoction and a lot more.

Stolen Lives by Johanna Holmstrom
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The final story of the collection is psychological journey as a woman dealing with long-term PTSD, who has decided her neighbor doesn't deserve the husband and child she has. Following the woman's stalking of her victim is wonderfully written, however the formatting of the dialogue is the only thing that brings this story slightly down from a 4 star review.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Review: Helsinki Noir Part III

Snowy Sarcophagus by Jukka Petaja
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

After a wonderful establishment of the setting, the story goes off kilter a tad once the main character is introduced. The investigation of the death of two Nigerian women found in snowmen outside a church is complicated by both illegal immigration as well as the assigned police detective's sour look on life, which takes a little too much time that makes the resolution to the case seemed rush when it is not.

Dead Cinch by Tuomas Luis
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The central character gets stuff on his mind at his AA meeting and notices someone new at the meeting. The new man follows him and strikes up a conversation in which the man just lets things out, all centered off his wife which lead to drinking. A few weeks later his new friend gives details on why he drinks, because he likes killing people but only does it once a year. A deal is struck, instructions given, and everything seems to go as planned until the surprising twist.

Good Intentions by Jesse Itkonen
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The story focuses on the main character's attempt to help women in situations of domestic abuse. In the end his attempts are unappreciated and he decides not to bother anymore when at least one woman goes looking for another "real man". A well written story and given more meaning because of the recent public attention that has entire issue has received after this story was written.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review: Helsinki Noir Part II

Hard Rain by Tapani Bagge
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The central character, plus narrator, is a racist soon out of work security guard that aims to sweep the foreign and weak elements of Finnish live out into the sea. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, the "hard rain" of the title only lasts 5 minutes and ends with a cruel twist.

The Silent Woman by Joe L. Murr
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

A wannabe musician deals with his girlfriend who is upset with her rich father, who want let her go to L.A. to pursue modeling. From the beginning, the course to the narrative is obvious and it is no surprise that the rich dad dies. The end of the relationship is also obvious, however the twist ending embodies the story's title as does the musicians' thoughts has he leaves her.

Little Black by Teemu Kaskinen
My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

A racist police officer uses his position to exploit foreign women for sexual favors. Although the officer's power trip and sudden demise leaves the reader happy for the women who brought it about, the sexual details are a little over the top for my tastes and I almost skipped the rest of the story twice.

Silent Night by Jarkko Sipila
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The grisly death of a recently released gang member spoils Christmas Eve for several police detectives. The investigation and the detective's use of it to keep from thinking about their lonely personal lives is a fantastic narrative as is use of details in the beginning before the call to the murder leads to the culprit.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review: Helsinki Noir Part I

Jenkem by Pekka Hiltunen
My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

The opening story of this anthology collection features a gang of juvenile delinquents led by a 33-year old who lies about his age, who narrates. The narration is a bit off putting, especially if one has no clue about huffing "culture". However the ending is blatantly foreshadowed just a few pages before the story's conclusion thus rendering most of the story as elaborate window dressing. When I started this book, a story like this wasn't what I expected.

Kiss of Santa by Leena Lehtolainen
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This story was what I thought the collection was going to be like. The main character a female private detective, who can convincingly mimic a man especially in a Santa suit. A department store is getting robbed from the inside and the detective is hired to find the culprits. The detective's investigation is well crafted and the resolution to the not-so-nefarious crime wave is unfortunately ruined by the titular kiss.

The Hand of Ai by James Thompson
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The contribution by the anthology's editor, like the first story focuses on the crime but with better narrative flow. Some interesting details at the beginning of the story come into full focus by the end, a feature of a fantastically structured short story. The adolescent titular Ai, narrates the story giving a horrifying autobiography of his life up to when the reader first meetings him.

St. Peter's Street by Riika Ala-Harja
My rating: 1 out of 5 stars

This story follows a young woman having a hard time with a break up, unfortunately this very short story really didn't make any sense except for the woman being delusional.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The restoration of English magic by 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell' is a wonderful alternate history fantasy novel set in Regency England during and after the Napoleonic wars.  The decade-long crafting that Susanna Clarke put into her genre mixing first novel rewards the fantasy reader with something different than they have read before.

The premise of the novel is that magic returns to England after disappearing two centuries with the works of Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange, who then put their 'powers' to work in helping Great Britain in the fight against the Emperor Napoleon first on the sea and then on land.  However, the personalities and magical philosophies of Strange and Norrell are completely different from one another which leads to the split of their pupil-tutor relationship and mild rivalry especially when it came to the figure of the mysterious Raven King of Northern England.  Intertwining with the main story arc are numerous secondary characters with their own arcs that combine in the novel climax that the reader doesn't see coming but is satisfying once completed.

Clarke's combination of faux-Austen and faux-Victorian prose give the novel an authentic feel to set-up the alternate historic aspects of the novel as well as the class distinctions between various secondary characters that come into play.  One of the greatest aspects of the novel is the worldbuilding that Clarke puts into her story, which can be seen in around 200 footnotes that cover everything from reference books of magic to folklore concerning various English magicians including the Raven King.  The distinctions between northern England, the former realm of the human-fairy Raven King, and southern England/London is not just rural and urban but romanticism and rationalism concerning magic that Clarke uses effectively.

Although the faux-Austen/faux-Victorian prose does give the story an authentic feel, it does take time for the reader unfamiliar with them to get use to.  Although Clarke creates a wonderful alternate history of Regency England using magic to face Napoleon, she does forget to take in account the effects of the long reign of the Raven King in northern England would impact all of British history due to the dynastic implications of various nobles not influencing the politics of England and Scotland because they no longer have their lands.  While one can forgive Clarke's mistakes in alternate history because she focused on the bigger story, the one thing I personally was upset with was that the reader wasn't given a name for the antagonistic thistle-down haired gentleman.

Upon completion of 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell', I felt very satisfied with the time I spent reading this wonderful novel.  Adding fantasy to Regency England and the influencing the Napoleonic wars really awakened the history buff in me adding to my enjoyment of the novel.  If you are an open-minded fantasy reader, I recommended this book to you.

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