Tag: books

Ross Reads: The House of the Scorpion

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this novel.  This is one of those rare few young-adult novels that adults will be able to read, appreciate, and enjoy as much as its "intended audience".  Like Heinlein's "juveniles", just because The House of the Scorpion's main character is a juvenile doesn't mean the writing, plot, and characterization have to be second-rate.

This book paints a very interesting picture of a quasi-future where Mexico and the US have made "The Devil's Pact"; they have turned over a tract of land between the two nations to a group of drug-lords known as the "Farmers" who grow and harvest poppies for opium in return for curbing all illegal immigration between the two surrounding countries.  In the 100 years of their existence, the Farmers have created a civilization of their own, rich and isolated and abusive of its workers, most of whom have computer chips implanted in their brains that turn them into "eejits", or zombie-like workers who won't even take a drink of water without being told to do so.

The main character is a young boy who is a clone, but a very special one: he is the clone and heir-apparent of El Patron, the despotic dictator of the country of Opium.  And as he grows and begins to learn about what makes him different from all the servants and other clones in this repressed land, the household cook Celia (his adoptive mother) and El Patron's most trusted and faithful bodyguard, Tam Lin, help him discover some shocking truths about himself and the world into which he has been delivered.
 
View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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Ross Reads: Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book
Connie Willis

I stayed up late last night to read almost the last 100 pages of this book to finish it off.  Doomsday Book is a very entertaining read, but it started off so SLOW that it took me almost 6 months of reading in fits and starts to get through it.  It wasn't until about halfway through the novel that I found myself drawn back into the book with a desire to put off doing other things to finish the novel.  This is the only reason I gave it 3/5 stars instead of a higher 4/5 stars rating.

In one sense, Doomsday Book could be described as the cousin of Michael Crichton's well-known thriller Timeline, but with less overt action and a far more introspective and thought-provoking study of human nature and emotion.

A historical researcher named Kivrin is sent back through time from 2048 to the Middle Ages, circa 1320.  An influenza epidemic sweeps through "present-day" Oxford, stranding her in the past just as she discovers that an error in the transport has dropped her into 1348, right before the Black Plague had started to kill approximately half the entire population of Europe.  The book jumps back and forth between Kivrin's struggles to survive and care for the family who took her into their home, and her colleagues in 2048 who are struggling with their own version of the plague while still trying to figure out how to rescue Kivrin.

Willis has a talent for imbuing her characters with a three-dimensionality and emotionally investing the reader in their lives.  The descriptions of the Middle Ages were fantastic, and it was interesting to see not only the range of wealth and poverty that existed even within a single village, but how Kivrin interacted with these people who had never been exposed to almost anything that denizens of the 21st century take for granted.  Willis holds up a mirror of human nature to contrast the behaviors and beliefs of present-day people with those of the past, with thought-provoking and sometimes surprising insights about ourselves and others around us.

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Maybe I’ll See You on The River, Philip Jose Farmer

From PJStar:

Science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer died this morning at his home. He was 91.

The Peoria-based writer had written more than 75 books and was awarded the top honors in his field. That includes the Grand Master Award for Science Fiction in 2001, an award also given to noted authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein.

I "discovered" Philip Jose Farmer when my I was a kid – my father owned or gave me a copy of the first book of his Riverworld series To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and I remember really enjoying it, even though there was no way I was mature enough at that time to comprehend much more than the main plot of the book.  Any novel whose scope is so great that it includes all 36,006,009,637 people ever born on earth (from to origin members of homo sapiens through the early 21st century) is sure to make a lasting impression that stays with you.  My father told me that he read all of the Riverworld series and some of the other Farmer novels, and I planned to follow suit. 

Somewhere along the way I couldn't find any more books by Philip Jose Farmer at the library and forgot about searching for them until my interest was rekindled this month when I began to re-read the Riverworld series all over again (as you'll see from my GoodReads profile, if you're following me there).  Although the series does have some minor issues, it's as awe-inspiring now as the first time I read the novels.  Maybe even more so as I'm catching philosophical, theological, and historical references that totally blew by me when I was younger.

The world has lost a great author today, and is a little bit darker for it.  Farmer was one of those great authors whose works I could read over and over again.  There's a lot of his novels I haven't yet read, but now each one that I pick up will remind me of the passing of a writer who had such a strong influence in developing my love for reading in general, and sci-fi in particular.

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More Valuable Websites I Use

I'm not an overly big fan of the social networking and/or 2.0 websites, but I do use a few of them.  The big ones (Facebook, Last.fm, Delicious, Flickr, and Twitter) have already been rehashed in great detail, but there's a couple others that really do what I need them to do, and are worth a mention here – namely, Goodreads and RunningAHEAD.

Goodreads

Goodreads is my favorite book-related website.  In essence, it's a way to catalog and organize books.  You can use it any number of ways – as a way to log what books you read, categorize books in your library using "bookshelves" (essentially tags, so you can put one book on multiple "bookshelves"), review & rate books, and then add friends so you can view all of this information on other like-minded people's accounts.  I find it a great way to keep track of what I'm reading, how many books I'm reading a year, whether I already have a book in my library and whether I've read it, whether I'm borrowing/lending a book from/to someone else, and even my wish-list of books (hint: make a bookshelf called "wish-list" and then you can direct people to the books on it directly). 

In addition, everything is hyperlinked, so clicking on the author of a book will bring up a list of his/her works, clicking on the title of a book will show links to pages where you can read reviews and/or purchase the book, cover art is imported automatically, and you can subscribe to a feed and/or summary email of someone's activity, if you want to see what they've read/rated lately.

Goodreads is completely free, with no limit on the number of books you may have in your library.  They even have easy ways to import books from a spreadsheet or from ISBN numbers, if you already have them in some other format.  If you join or are already a member, be sure to add me as a friend – I love to see what other people are reading and how they rate the books they've read.  My profile is here, and it's easy to sign up and start keeping track of your own books!


RunningAHEAD

Recently, I've gotten back into running regularly for exercise, and as part of my efforts, I find it interesting and motivational to log my running activity.  Prior to signing up with RunningAHEAD, I used to keep all my runs in a spreadsheet on my computer.  The biggest issue with this was I never seemed to have a copy of the spreadsheet on the computer I was near after finishing my run.  Now I have a single, centralized location where I can enter my workout information, track my running shoes and the mileage I've put on them, and even map routes and add extra information about my run.  The website also has some decent graphing and trending tools to allow you to visualize any of the data variables you choose to record regularly.  The site even has capabilities to join or start a training group – all members that join are listed together under the group heading, and you can then chat in a separate group forum, share running reports, etc.  Overall, a very nice little site that does what it should do, and is free to boot.

If you want to see my RunningAHEAD info, my info is here.   Be aware I only update on a weekly/biweekly basis with all of the runs I did that week, once I download them from my Forerunner, so it may not show the most recent run status for me.


[NaBloPoMo 2008 – #29/30]

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Ross Reads: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie, is the first Christie novel I've ever read.  Surprisingly, it's one of those stories that I've always heard the title of but never knew anything about (never seen any of the movie-versions either).

In the book, Detective Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective, is a passenger on the fabled Orient Express train as it travels from Istanbul to Paris.  During the lengthy train ride, someone murders a much-hated millionaire, and all 13 of the suspects on the train with Poirot may have had reasons to commit the crime.  When the train is stalled on the tracks due to inclement weather, Poirot takes advantage of the isolation to investigate the crime, vowing to determine the identity of the killer before the train gets to Paris.

The novel was quite interesting.  I'm sometimes in a mood for a mystery, although I haven't read any of this style (apparently it's a variation on the theme of the English house-party mystery)  The style seemed a little dated & quaint by today's rough-hewn murder mystery plots, but it was well done.

The book definitely left me guessing all the way up until the very end.  Minutiae mentioned in passing are somehow mentally tucked away by Poirot until he can make sense of them all and come up with a reasonable explanation for the events that have occurred.  The ending itself left me with a lot to think about as well, bringing up issues of morality, justice, and society in a way that left all judgments on the issues to the reader.

Orient Express was a quick read, as I'm sure most of Christie's mysteries would be.  I'll be looking into more of her stuff when I go on trips or to the beach, as it's very suitable for times you just want a lighter, but still entertaining mystery.

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Ross Reads: Phule’s Errand

Rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was surprised to find another book in the Phule's Company series in the bookstore, as I hadn't heard anything about it.  Apparently it was published in 2006, which makes me the latecomer to the party, but I expect I didn't hear much about it because it's such a lackluster addition to the Phule series.

The novel itself follows in a similar vein to the others in the Phule's Company series, but just doesn't have the same sparkle or life to it.  In all the other novels, the whole Omega company of the Space Legion (composed of misfits, in the most worthless branch of the military) has to adapt to a new assignment on a new planet, and succeeds, thanks in part to a bit of dumb luck and the willingness of their Captain (Willard Phule) to spread his inestimable wealth to give his company the best operating equipment and facilities in the new location.

This novel focuses less on the Omega Company and more on only a handful of its members.  Phule has to rush offplanet in attempts to catch his butler, who has gone on vacation but didn't leave his security-code for Phule to access his financial records.  A couple of his soldiers surreptitiously follow to aid Phule in his efforts, but always end up a step behind their commander, who in turn is always a step behind his butler Beeker.  This departure from the typical Phule novel might not be so bad except that the execution of the subsequent events is done in such a way that the story itself is not enough to retain the reader's interest.

The hijinks on their tour to four new planets are reminiscent of an old Marx Brothers movie (but not in a good way) and leave the reader wishing Phule would just catch up to his butler and end the "suspense".  The parallel plot of Phule's commanding officer, General Blitzkrieg, performing a surprise inspection while Phule is gone is almost as uninteresting, although it is tempered a bit by a little interaction with various members of the Omega Company.

As (I'm assuming) this is the final book in the Phule's Company series, this was a sad way to cap off the stories about Captain Jester and his ragtag band of misfits.  I know it may not have been planned to be the last in the series, but it still felt like it was a "straight-to-video" addition to the series tacked on just to take advantage of the name and characters Asprin worked so hard to develop in the early 90's.

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