Re-reading Gatsby

Sometimes it can be enlightening to revisit a book.  Your tastes and preferences certainly change with more experience.  You can develop more patience for  some aspects of a story or text even as you solidify definite likes and dislikes.

And so every once in awhile I’ll re-read a classic or a favorite from my youth.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby qualifies as the former more than the latter.  I remember plowing through this book in high school, being vaguely impatient with the pacing and more than a little annoyed with the main characters.  Unsympathetic, selfish and rich and not all that interesting.  Even Gatsby himself, man of mystery seemed pretty boring in his single-mindedness…  In truth, I likely scanned the last third of the book in my younger days – just get through it enough to know the material for the test.  And if it seemed more like a history lesson back then than a study of literature, well, that’s education for you. Continue reading

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You gotta read this, Dad…

This is what my 2nd grade son told me this past weekend.  He handed me a comic book, a trade paperback we’d actually picked up for the kids 2-3 years earlier.  The book:  Sidekicks by Dan Santat.  The boy must have found it on his shelf somewhere, and he probably checked with his sister to get her opinion.  Then the read, then him placing it in my hands and telling me to get to it.

Considering where he was with his reading this time last year – doing it but having to be prodded and cajoled – we are pretty excited.  For a book family like ours, getting our first you gotta read this is almost like that first music recital or first base hit.

The boy really started enjoying and self-initiating his reading this past fall.  Think it was a mix of maturation and the competition of his school reading log (he always wants to be at the top for minutes read a month).  That and he was just starting to get enough words to make it more fun.  He was into Star Wars and Super Hero reference books.  He recently discovered the Beast Quest books and is onto the second series there.  He even read about Einstein recently for a school bio project. Like his big sister, he will read at bedtime until he gets tired (sometimes too long).

As far as the referral:  Sidekicks features a team of critters who happen to be the pets of aging hero, Captain Amazing.  When the Captain announces he needs to recruit a new sidekick, the pets start competing and training for the job.  Along the way they learn about their strengths and weaknesses, developing into a team.  It’s well written and drawn, with good underlying themes…  and jokes.

The boy is all about the jokes.  As I was reading the book on Sunday, he would come by the couch once in awhile and point to the page and laugh and read along with me.  Oh yeah, Dad, wait til you see what comes next…

Books: The Twilight Herald

In Brief: Tom Lloyd’s second in this series, The Twilight Herald, continues recounting the ascent of Isaak, a former wagon boy,  to Lord of the Farlan and chosen of the gods.  The book strives for a legendary tone, with powerful characters seeking artifacts, weapons, and bold military and strategic victories.

Pros:  Lloyd’s familiarity with many of the conventions of high/epic fantasy (along with, presumably, his editorial background) helps him avoid pitfalls and cliches.  The main characters, including Isaak, are strongly written and fairly approachable (no mean feat since some of them are super-heroic and/or immortal).

Cons:  The pacing seemed uneven at times, with a lot of slow building as the players make their way to Scree and the big showdown.  The insertion of certain bits of background history and prophecy seemed labored, almost ham-fisted at points.  This is a second book, and it has that feel of setting up for the next one.

Review:  The Twilight Herald picks up directly after the first book in Tom Lloyd’s fantasy series, The Strormcaller (reviewed here).  Lord Isaak has only just assumed the mantle of Duke of the Farlan, and he immediately faces a rebellion of some of his own banner men, as well as the political fallout from new alliances and the previous Farlan Lord’s death.  Isaak faces these challenges with measure of clumsy resolve, humility, and raw power.  Understandable, as he’s a young White-Eye still learning about his power and the nature of his bond to Nartis, God of Storms, and patron of the Farlan.

Meanwhile, in the City-State of Scree, Rojak, a mysterious servant of the shadow-god Azaer, has begun putting on very strange plays in the heart of the city.  Scree is on the verge of civil war, with the ruling White Council having been defeated elsewhere in the region, and the regent of Scree has begun employing mercenaries to assist with defenses.  Among these is Zhia Vukotic in disguise.  Zhia is a powerful vampire cursed with a soul and a conscience, who, like Isaak, carries a crystal skull (ancient artifact of power).  Also in Scree, the Abbot of a sacked monastery, who is hiding his own crystal skull from the former monk who burned the monastery and killed many of his brothers.  This rogue monk, we soon learn, serves Rojak now.

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Books: The Wise Man’s Fear

In Brief:  Patrick Rothfuss returns to the saga of Kvothe (aka The Boss) in this beautifully written book.  It’s Portrait of the Wizard as a Young Man, with Kvothe telling the continuing story of his days at the University, his ongoing love with Denna, and adventures out in the world.

Pros:  Rothfuss can really, really write, and with Kvothe he’s created a wonderfully accessible and fascinating lead character.  This volume of the story features adventures outside the university, to include a trip to faerie and a sort of internship with a quasi-bushido culture.

Cons:  The books is long, long, long, and the pacing drags for at points.  Also, the sense of tragedy within the third-person frame started to feel strained.

Review:   Since this book was published, I’ve been looking forward to diving in.  It had been sitting on my shelf, awaiting the right time in the old reading schedule (it is nearly 1,000 pages after all).  I was pretty certain  The Wise Man’s Fear would deliver, based on how much I enjoyed the first book (The Name of the Wind), as well as the knowledge that Pat Rothfuss was doing it right, taking some time, and getting the second volume out on what we can assume was something close to his timetable. It was worth the wait.

Kvothe is a wonderful character, flawed, self-aware, sensitive yet prone to temper-induced lapses of judgment.  But always, he’s a kind and decent soul at heart – the kind of guy you can root for.  And it just so happens that he’s the most famous magician of his time.  As in volume 1, Kvothe is telling the tale of his youth to the Chronicler, so most of the book is a 1st person recounting of adventures.  The third person frame takes place in a distant future, with Kvothe surviving as a simple innkeeper, seemingly a shadow of his former self.

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Books: Star Wars – Scoundrels

In Brief:  Set right after Episode IV, Timothy Zahn’s Scoundrels finds Han Solo and Chewbecca looking to score some bank from a heist of a local crime lord.  Of course it’s more complicated then that, especially when Lando shows up…

Pros:  Zahn’s done his homework on plotting – anything from The Sting to Sneakers to Oceans 11.  He also knows the Star Wars universe well enough to add some easter eggs for the hardcore fans and has a good sense of dialogue for the established characters.

Cons:  Any good heist story involves a lengthy setup and establishment of the rules of the target.  While Zahn does a solid job here, especially with incorporating the tech of the SW universe, this may cause the book to drag for some readers.

Review:  Your devoted Star Wars geek knows of Timothy Zahn, long considered one of the best novelization authors out there.  His Heir to the Empire series, which takes place soon after Episode VI, was good enough to draw me in to several more of Zahn’s books.  With that history, the Scoundrels premise (and cover) grabbed me as soon as I saw it in the store.

Scoundrels has Han and Chewie looking for work in the months after the destruction of the first Death Star.  Han has already lost his reward from the Rebel’s victory at Yavin, and Jabba’s bounty hunters are moving on him again.  An encounter with a young man called Eanjer opens up an opportunity. Continue reading

Books: The Buntline Special

In Brief: Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special is a steampunk alternate Western with fantastic trappings.  That’s a lot of genre-melding.  Familiar events in Tombstone proceed down a different path amidst shamanic magic and alternate Tom Edison’s inventions.

Pros:  Resnick is a master of dialogue and a student of the real history of the West.  The characters are so familiar (based on real people we know from history and other media), and its fun to see them reimagined within this setting.

Cons:  The dialogue-heavy and scene-by-scene style really stretches at times.  The pace suffers as a result, and you may find yourself wondering if this story is a novella dressed in a short novel’s clothing.

Review:  The Buntline Special is the first in a series of Weird West tales penned by legendary sci-fi writer, Mike Resnick (check him out).  We’ve been reading Resnick since first discovering sci-fi novels and also enjoy his series of reflections with colleague Barry Malzberg  on the state of business and writing in the speculative fiction world.  So a Weird West series, with obvious steampunk and fantasy element (just look at the cover), written by a great sci-fi author…  We’re in.

Mostly, it’s a fun read that goes quickly.  Mostly, it works.  Here we are in Tombstone, Arizona.  The Earp brothers are feuding with the Cowboys, led by the McLaury brothers.  Wyatt Earp has sent for Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson.  Sound like any one of many familiar movies?  Tombstone is the one that plays in my head here.

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Books: House of Suns

In Brief:  Alastair Reynolds’ epoch-spanning, pan-galactic novel features very intelligent, very human characters questing after universal mysteries while confronting the seeds of violence and intrigue sowed from within their own neo-utopian society.

Pros:   Reynolds, who worked for years as an astrophysicist with the EU Space Agency, has an unwavering command of the scale and breadth of his galaxies.  His ideas can be eye-popping and wondrous, and yet they come across as grounded in scientific reality.  The plot is fairly tight, the lead characters approachable (for post-human clones).

Cons:  Reynolds sometimes writes with the detached sterility of an astrophysicist.  The front-loading required to get the plot moving in the first 50-75 pages may require some patience.

Review:  Alastair Reynolds has received good pub on his science fiction novels for more than a decade.  He’s an author I’ve been meaning to read for quite awhile, having started but put down one of his earlier books.  I picked up House of Suns after seeing several good reviews elsewhere; I’m glad I did.

As with any new sci-fi novel or series, the first points the author needs to establish, in addition to the characters, are how the technology works and its relative level of advancement.  We get an early glimpse in HoS with lead characters Pursulane and Campion building and deploying a star-dam for a grateful civilization.  The star-dam is a series of interlocking fields designed to keep the star in place, regulating its energy dispersal as it goes nova, thus giving any nearby inhabitants millions more years to live in the region.  Cool concept, expertly described here.

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