Category: book review

Book Review: Zodiac

ZodiacZodiac by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You ever have an author who writes in a style you personally can’t put down, but which you can understand other people might not care for nearly as much? That’s Neal Stephenson for me. Not to say that his books aren’t well liked. He’s a very popular author. But each time I come across one of his books I haven’t read, I check out the reviews ahead of time, and often they’re mixed.

People enjoy them well enough. But I don’t really want to read a book I just “enjoy well enough.” Especially not a Neal Stephenson book. His stories can be hard to get into. They’ve got a steep learning curve, as you have to figure out just what his characters are talking about when you start to read. He dives deep into their heads. Not that his sentences are unintelligible, but his characters will use lingo you’ve never encountered. It can be overwhelming.

And yet, despite the mixed reviews, I inevitably read the book anyway, because Neal Stephenson. Zodiac was a book I’d been avoiding, because it didn’t seem to be the typical Stephenson I like so much. I love his science fiction, and this book was about . . . lobsters? And the environment? Maybe it would be best if I avoided it.

Until I couldn’t avoid it. I was ahead on my reading schedule, so I thought it was worth a risk. I’m really glad I took it.

As usual, the book is hard to understand at first. It’s not until 20 or 30 pages in that I started to understand a bit about the life of the main character. How he’s an activist fighting against pollution, and not afraid to get his hands a bit dirty in the process. It’s him and his team vs. big corporations, and he’s made enough of a name for himself that those corporations are worried about him.

He stumbles across something that might (or might not) be a huge environmental disaster. It’s definitely a mystery he wants to unravel. And unravel it he does.

I read the book very quickly. I was squeezing in pages wherever I could. I felt like I learned a lot about pollution and how companies can get away with it. (One of his best lines was on how thrashed communal spaces become. I could relate to this, as when I lived in Germany as a Mormon missionary, the shared apartments had a tendency to get very . . . “well used.” No one had an incentive to keep them up to snuff. When it comes to the oceans and rivers, the same principle is at work. No one has any stake in the game when it comes to defending them. Keeping them clean. And so people abuse them.)

I personally feel like Stephenson’s writing and plotting justify the hard entry into his novels. They can be frustrating at first, but he does such an excellent job of bringing his characters to life, that all that struggle feels worthwhile at the end. If you’ve held back from Stephenson because he does sci-fi more often, then give this one a shot. And if you’ve been holding back from Zodiac because it’s not sci-fi, hold back no longer.

It was a great read.

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Book Review: Island of the Blue Dolphins

Island of the Blue Dolphins (Island of the Blue Dolphins, #1)Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

Every now and then I like to go read something from a while ago. Something that’s not new at all, though it’s new to me. I’d heard about Island of the Blue Dolphins growing up. I remember seeing it on the shelf in my school’s library, though I always avoided it. It looked far too much like a dreaded “girl book,” and it definitely wasn’t fantasy, so why bother?

Of course, now that I’m older, other things catch my interest. Things like “Scott O’Dell” and “Newbery Winner,” along with a slew of other awards. So when it went on sale for Kindle a while ago, I snatched up a copy, and I was able to read it last week.

What a great novel. It tells the story of a young girl on an island in the Pacific. Her life is turned upside down when her island encounters seal hunters from a distant land. I’d say more about the plot, but honestly one of the things that attracted me most to the story was how it kept doing things I didn’t expect. A bit of the way in, I assumed this would be a “slice of life” story, and so I was pleasantly surprised when it turned a different way. More assumptions followed that turn, and they were once again foiled. Always nice when that happens. In this case, a clear advantage to reading the book electronically and having just heard of it through vague memories. I knew the title, the author, and that’s it. No reading the jacket or book blurbs.

It isn’t terribly long (184 pages), but it’s well written, with the good historical details you expect from O’Dell. I was even more pleased to find out it’s based on a true account.

Would I have liked the book if I’d picked it up and read it back in grade school? Probably not. But I loved it now, and I’m going to point my 9 year old daughter in its direction (as soon as she finishes the Percy Jackson series, which she’s devouring at the moment.)

Highly recommended.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking to get to $10/month to justify the amount of time I spend on this blog. I’m at $6/month so far. Read this post for more information. Or click here to go to Patreon and sign up. It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out.

Book Review: Oathbringer

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive, #3)Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another Sanderson tome in the record book. This one was a bit of a different experience for me, and I’m not sure why. There’s a chance that I’m changing as a reader. In the past, I’ve loved diving into Brandon’s worlds. I remember with Way of Kings, I loved just hanging out in Roshar, finding out more about the world and its cultures and creatures. Words of Radiance was also a blast.

In a typical Brandon book, there will be a fair amount of set up as he lays the foundation, getting it ready for the huge payoff at the end of the book, where all the dominos fall into place, and Awesome happens. Oathbringer definitely had that cascade of events at the end, and it was most certainly awesome. But the foundation-laying section at the beginning felt like it went on too long for me. Enough so that I would give this 4.5 stars instead of the full 5, if I could. I rated it a 9/10 in my personal records.

But then again, it also took me a long time to finish the book. I started it at a busy time, and it’s long. 1200 pages is a lot of pages. It’s at the end of the year, and I’m trying to meet my goal of reading 52 books this year. So I have to wonder if I didn’t start to get impatient in the first two thirds of the book. There were sections I felt like things were dragging, but was that because I was worried about how long it was taking me to get through them?

And on the other side, if those sections weren’t there, would the payoff at the end suffer? I have to think that it would.

But really, this is a book for Sanderson fans. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to pick it up who hasn’t already read the first two books. And I also can’t help feeling like I would have had a better experience if I’d read the first two books more recently. But I don’t have time to do that, so I had to just read the summaries and try my best to remember. That inevitably makes some of the sections, with more obscure characters and plot arcs, suffer.

Some of this is the nature of epic fantasy. It feels like more and more, big fantasy books are tunneling into online message boards and fan forums, as people devote tons of time to figuring them out. They’re giant puzzles, and authors deliberately hide nuggets in there that will make fans debate events for months, if not years. I don’t think I’m that kind of a fan. I don’t think I ever was. I’m not a person who reads all the histories of Middle Earth. Until Game of Thrones was adapted, I had a hard time telling the myriad characters apart. I loved The Wheel of Time. It had a fair level of hidden things, and plenty of things to debate, but it didn’t feel overwhelming. They were more like sidequests that I could think about if I wanted to.

Epic fantasy these days seems to be swinging further into the side quests, and if you’re going to understand and enjoy them, you’re going to have to reread the books at the least, or dive into fan forums. In some ways, it feels like epic fantasy is going all TS Eliot on me, where “good” fantasy requires big time investment. Time I just don’t have.

This review has gotten a bit too cerebral for me, and I apologize. Let me sum up. Adored the ending. Really enjoyed most of the novel. Felt like some of it went too long or else got too into the weeds for me. If you’ve read the other two, why in the world aren’t you already reading this one?

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Book Review: The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom (The Saxon Stories, #1)The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to this book on audio while I was driving to and from Atlantic City a month ago. At the time, I enjoyed it well enough, but it’s been a book that’s stuck with me since finishing it, and not all books do. So I was surprised to discover that I hadn’t given it a review, and I thought I’d take a minute or two today to correct that.

The premise is straightforward enough: it’s an historically-based fictional account of the invasion of England by the Danes in the late 800s. The main character, Uhtred Ragnarson, is fictional, but he interacts with people from history and gets directly involved in historical events. Some books try to pull this off and it feels odd, but I didn’t have that issue with this one. Perhaps some of that is because the exact history is murky. There are some reports and accounts of what went on, but there’s a whole lot of room there for interpretation.

Cornwell does a really good job making the characters come to life, and presenting history in an engrossing manner. I got caught up in the story, but I still felt like I was learning something. That said, at the end of the book, I didn’t have a huge desire to read the rest of the series. Not because it was bad, but because I felt like I’d gotten what I wanted to from it.

On the other hand, I then went on and watched the TV show with Denisa, and that’s made me appreciate the books a whole lot more. It’s a fine show, and diverting enough (in a “BBC tries to do Game of Thrones” sort of way that makes you wish BBC would be able to do it without the gratuitous spurts of blood and absence of clothing from time to time), but I kept being frustrated with how the characters were portrayed. Cornwell creates very consistent, believable characters. Conflicted characters that make mistakes, but you can understand them. The show flattens these characters and makes it seem like they keep being inordinately stupid. Basically, they try to rush through the story, and it makes it all feel hurried and haphazard in the end.

If you enjoy a good story and want to learn some history while you’re at it, I heartily recommend this book. I think I might go and read the sequel, now that I have a bit of space from it. 4.5/5

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Book Review: Trespassing Across America

Trespassing Across America: One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the HeartlandTrespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland by Ken Ilgunas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a tough book to figure out how many stars to give. On the one hand, the subject was very interesting. Ken Ilgunas decides to walk the whole length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Much of it is across private land, so he has to essentially trespass the entire way.

The closest analogue would be Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods, a book about hiking the Appalachian Trail that I adored. This one wasn’t at the same level, though it dealt in similarly interesting subject matter.

I learned a lot about the Keystone XL pipeline and what sort of an impact these pipelines are having on the country and the world. It’s one thing to read about it, but Iglunas’s trek across the length of it was fascinating. He meets a variety of people who give many different opinions on the subject as he goes.

At the same time, however, he clearly has an agenda and does little to hide that fact. I would say I definitely fall on the “environmentalist” side of the spectrum, but I do like to have a balanced presentation on both sides of an argument, and I felt like this novel unjustly slights the pro-pipeline side. At the same time, it’s not like I’ve done extensive research into the matter, so perhaps my feeling on this is wrong. But the overarching impression you get from the book is that there are almost no solid arguments in favor of the pipeline other than money. When the author admits he’s making the trek to try to convince people against the pipeline, it becomes hard to entirely trust everything he’s saying.

There’s also the simple fact that he’s not as accomplished of a writer as Bryson. (Though you can’t completely hold that against him. Bryson’s got a slew of novels under his belt and tons of experience.) But there were times in the book where I felt the descriptions simply became too focused on sounding good or “literary” as opposed to simply describing things well. It’s the difference between a great story and one that feels like it’s trying to hard to be great. The language got in the way of the ideas from time to time, and that’s a problem.

But as far as a launching point to discuss the issues at hand in oil use and the environment, I see this working very well. More than that, it made me think a lot about how the firsthand impressions we can get of a thing or a place or a group of people can be wildly inaccurate. For me, I thought about my time as a missionary for the LDS church. I lived in several cities in Germany for about 6 months each, and when I left each of those cities, I felt like I knew them well. However, now that I see missionaries come and go through my town in 6 months, I feel like there’s no way they could possibly understand all the nuances of the place. Even after you’ve lived in an area for years, you still just see a slice of that area, a fact I’m reminded of when I speak with other people in my town about what life is like for them.

And Ilgunas tries to make conclusions about people and towns and entire states based on a single walk through that state. I don’t think it can be done. It’s impossible to draw conclusions about a region based on a few encounters. It’s unfair to the region to judge it based on some dogs or some unfriendly people. And that’s what I kept thinking of as I read the book.

In any case, it was a thought provoking book, and it’s one of the books my library has chosen for its “On Our Minds” programming this year. I think it provides plenty of fodder for topics of discussion, and so in the end I bumped the rating up from three stars to four for that alone. It’s a fast read, and interesting. Well-written and it flows well. There were just significant parts I wish had been improved.

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