Tag: reviews

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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Ross Reviews: Taken (Spoiler-free)

It's not often the Missus and I get a chance to go out to the movie theater, but we decided to make a special trip this weekend as part of a late Valentine's Day celebration.  There were only a couple of films that worked in the time window we had available, and Taken starring Liam Neeson looked like the best of the possible choices.

Overall, Taken is a fun little action movie where Liam Neeson gets in touch with his inner Jason Bourne and kicks asses all over Paris in an attempt to track down his daughter's kidnappers and rescue his daughter before she is inducted (permanently) into the human sex-slave trade.  The film feels a lot like a cross between an 80's action movie (but a good one) and the more recent Bourne series.  There's not a lot of intrigue or thought involved, but if you're an action movie fan, you'll get carried along in the flow of the film and enjoy the ride.

Neeson, an ex-CIA agent, badass, and devoted father, is the only actor worth mentioning in the film.  Everyone else just fills a role, which is not necessarily a bad thing in a movie of this type.  Unfortunately, the film's first 20 minutes are an attempt to build unnecessary characterization and leave you wishing the action would start already.  Once it does, however, it's almost non-stop action and plot development all the way through to the end.

The film is a little gritty, but avoids (for the most part) the shaky handycam sequences that so many directors seem to feel makes for "in-your-face" action.  The hand-to-hand action sequences and car chases sometimes move a little quickly, but in these situations there was definitely an effort made to pull back and let the viewer understand what just happened.  The dialogue is only there to carry Neeson from one scene to the next, and sometimes made me wince.  But if you can ignore this and the plot holes, and just sit back and enjoy the engrossing-but-brainless hour-or-so of action, I think you'll come out feeling entertained by the flick.

3.5 / 5 stars

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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 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!


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: Playing for Keeps

Please note this book is available for a free download as a .pdf file here. The .pdf also includes a short story that follows the novel: "Parasite Awakens".  If you like it, or just want to support the author, you can also buy this book from Amazon.com.

Playing For Keeps
Mur Lafferty

Hang on to your tights and secret identity!  Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty is an imaginative and entertaining new superhero story that will leave you looking at caped crusaders in an entirely new light.

The story revolves around Keepsie Branson, a bar owner in the shining metropolis of Seventh City, the birthplace of superheros.  Keepsie is also one of the group collectively known as the "Third Wavers", those second-generation super-citizens whose powers were not strong enough to make the cut as a Superhero Academy-recognized Hero.  Only recognized heroes are allowed to use their powers to stop crime, and furthermore, the majority of them are just plain jerks.  The Third Wavers try to get by as ordinary citizens, but there's a fair amount of friction between them and the holier-than-thou heroes of the Academy.

When some super-villains come back into town and try to manipulate Keepsie and her special power to help them accomplish their agenda, Keepsie and some of her fellow Third Wave friends find themselves caught in the middle of a city-wide war between egotistical heroes and cold-hearted, manipulative villains.

This book is a real treat.  The plot moves along rapidly, carrying the reader along for a great ride through the creation and evolution of the hero culture in Seventh City.  The resentment the Third Wavers feel for the heroes adds another dimension to the story, and as the plot unfolds and the characters are drawn further into the tangle of lies and deception that lay beneath the superhero regime, one gets a peek at the political and sociological elements that run beneath the surface of the novel.

The characters themselves have more depth than one might expect from a superhero story, too.  Lafferty does a great job of defining truly distinct personalities for almost all the players of the novel, each guided by their own thoughts and emotions.  The dialog further aids in bringing the characters to life, drawing the reader into the world of Heroes and Villains, and the grey area that exists in between.

There is some adult language and content, so I can't say I'd recommend this for anyone under about 14-15 years old.  However, the book really is a page-turner, and if you're not careful, you'll find yourself staying up all night to find out exactly how it all will end.

[NaBloPoMo 2008 – #12/30]

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Ross Reads: Watership Down (8th Grade Version)

Ok, I'm cheating a tiny bit here because in a sense, this is a guest entry.  But only because it was written by me, over 16 years ago!  Back in 8th grade, my English teacher was big on using book reports as an educational tool.  But ours were not standard reports – oh no! 

We wrote "Literary Letters" to the teacher, with 2-3 "letters" written per book.  Each letter was on a different literary aspect, such as the use of foreshadowing, characterization, setting, etc. in the novel.  We'd type up the letter, paste it into a composition book, and turn in the book for the teacher to grade.  We'd get it back a few days later, in time to see what we did wrong and prepare for the letter writing for the following week.  This was a completely novel approach to all of us students at the time, and a welcome change from the standard book-report format.

The letter below was written on Watership Down by Richard Adams shortly after I read the novel the first out of what has become many many times.  I'm re-typing the letter exactly as I wrote it back then, including all typos, spelling, and grammar mistakes.

92 October 31

Dear Mrs. Lister,

     In Watership Down by Richard Adams a group of rabbits leave the main warren to seek safety because a rabbit has prophetic dreams.  The book is about their struggle to survive in a strange world, a world of men, predators, and militias evil rabbits.

     There are many aspects of realism in a novel.  Some of these include setting, characters, and conflicts in the book.  Watership Down uses many of these aspects.

     The setting of Watership Down is very realistic.  It mainly centers on the group of rabbits' new home in a patch of beech trees on the down.  Other settings include the warren of the Efrafa, the fields at Cowslip's Warren, and the farm in which three rabbits are rescued from hutches.  These settings are all described so realistically that they could be just over the hill past my house.

     Even though the characters are rabbits, their could be real.  the speech, however, is not very real.  It is english mixed with the rabbit language.  A glossary of the language of the rabbits is in the back of the book.  I think the author used the rabbit language in the story to keep the animals from becoming too human-like, among other reasons.  This language reminds the reader the personalities he/she is reading about are animals and not humans.  However, the behavior is very realistic.  The book explains what kinds of running paces the rabbits use – headlong run for the bushes when chased by enemies and easy lope around the warren – and how they eat.  Using these explanations with the not-so-obvious reactions of rabbits such as jumping at every sound and sniffing for enemies, the author makes the rabbits seem like rabbits that live in the wild today.  I know this because I did some research on rabbits.

     My next topic for criticism is conflict.  Most of the conflicts in the book are not realistic.  These include leaving the warren because one rabbit says so, rescuing rabbits and getting shot by a rifle, and getting captured by evil rabbits.  Judging by what I know of rabbits, I would say none of these conflicts were really happen to rabbis.  On the other hand, these conflicts could happen to people.  This is because the rabbits are personified, as are their conflicts.  We find these sort of books interesting because they show how human life is and other people are very interesting.  If one was to just write about rabbits as they truly are, the book would be very boring. 

     Therefore, this story is interesting because it compares humans with rabbits; making what the rabbits do and what is done to them human-like.  But, these conflicts are a little far-fetched and exciting for regular life, and I think this story has "a little too much juice"; there are too many adventures than rabbits can handle.  In The Hobbit; Bilbo got tired of the adventures after a few exciting things happened to him.  On the other hand, the rabbits never seem to tire from their many adventures, so the book is not as realistic as I would like it to be.


Ross Goldberg

Just so you know, I got an A- on this letter.  Note my overzealous use of punctuation and my mixture of tenses; I struggled with these a good deal even in my high school years.  It's definitely fun to go back and see how I have improved in my writing over the years, though.  One of these days I'll actually try to work up something showing my progression of writing from elementary school through college.  I'm so happy my parents loved to save all my papers and reports from when I was in school.  I'll definitely be doing that for my kids as well.

[NaBloPoMo 2008 – #7/30]

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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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