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Review: Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt

Aftermath - Life DebtAftermath – Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Looking over other reviews of this book, it seems folks are very hot or cold on “Life Debt.” As the second book in the new Aftermath trilogy, “Life Debt” has a lot to prove. We’re past the point of being able to say “well, this is an introduction to a brand new expanded universe, so give it some time.” At this point, we need to start seeing some payoff. The question is; do we?

Yes. And no. Man, this book is all over the place.

First, I have to say; I really can’t stand reading fiction in the present tense. I’m sure this isn’t the first book I’ve read in the present (pretty sure Aftermath was like that too, though I listened to that one on audio, so it wasn’t as distracting), but man, it was a problem here. My attention kept sliding off the text; I likened it to the feeling of stepping on a slick rock in a stream. I just could not stay on the page. Present tense. Not a fan. Let’s move on.

There are some amazingly good things here, even so. Let’s talk about Han Solo. I’m not sure whether author Chuck Wendig (who seems like a really cool guy, I follow him on Twitter and usually like his content there) watched Harrison Ford’s entire body of work on DVD repeatedly or if Disney let him follow Ford around for a month with a tape recorder or what; but when it comes to Han Solo’s dialogue, Wending FUCKING NAILS IT. And he nails it so well that it’s made me realize just how much previous authors struggled with Han’s voice. Wendig’s Han sounds like movie Han. It’s incredible. It makes me wish I’d listened to this on audio. I still might anyway.

Wendig’s original characters are back and I like them, especially Sinjir, who adds a good amount of snark every time he shows up. But here’s where “Life Debt” runs into a rather strange problem and I’m not sure it’s one anybody could have predicted or could do anything to fix.

I read my first Star Wars novel in 1994 (I think). It was only a few years into this idea of there being such as thing as an “Expanded Universe.” The prequels had yet to be announced, ditto the “Special Edition” of the original trilogy and the feeling at the time was that the novels were going to be Star Wars going forward. And I read them all and devoured them, and I promise you, this is not going in the direction that you most likely think it is.

This is not nostalgia for the old EU. I still have all my old Star Wars books. I’ve gone back and paged through them as an adult. You know what? A lot of them are fucking terrible. Absolutely awful. There are gems there, but they are few and far between (no surprise, Timothy Zahn’s work stands out as a solid gem). So it’s not as though I’m nostalgic for the old EU.

But there’s this weird feeling that results; the fact that the old EU is there and that it formed at a more impressionable age for me, and the fact that there’s just so damn much of it, all that contributes to a feeling that it’s “what’s real.” And that makes a lot of Aftermath feel like, well, fan fiction, for lack of a better term. I keep having this feeling that “Rae Sloane” can’t be the person who tries to pull the Empire together, because that role was supposed to go to Thrawn or Daala (even though I hated Daala). I know that Disney owns Star Wars now, I know that “canon” (which is a term I don’t like anyway) is whatever the creative director of the IP says that it is, I know that all of this will tie into the new movies eventually, I know, I know, I know. And yet. I feel like I’m reading fan fiction. Fan fiction written by a professional, mind you, and even with the annoying present tense, Wendig on his worst day is better than the atrocity that was the last original EU novel “Crucible.” Even so, the feeling persists.

We’re talking about fictional universes and yet, my mind wants to draw a distinction between the “real fiction” and the “pretend fiction.” Even being aware of it isn’t enough to stop the feeling. It’s very odd.

It might be that the new stuff will continue to accrue and eventually supplant the old EU. Maybe it’s just a question of time and the amount of content. I’ll be interested in seeing where it all goes.

So, should you read “Life Debt?” I’d say yes. It’s a good book, with great moments, and a few problems. But this is Star Wars now and there’s a lot more to come. I think it’s worth sticking around to see how it goes.

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Review: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's SyndromeUnlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fun fact: the copy that I read was part of a limited print run of 1500 copies, all of which were numbered and signed by the author. Mine was 1384, which found its way to the King County Library System’s collection. Anyway.

This book is a companion novella to the novel “Lock In” and as such, it’s a slim, quick read. And you know what? That’s a goddamn shame! I enjoyed “Lock In” quite a bit . . . but “Unlocked” is something really special and it manages to hit all the right buttons in my brain.

I attribute this largely to its format, which is entirely done in an interview style of various individuals discussing the spread of “Haden’s Syndrome,” the effect which causes the “Locked In” condition that sets up the rest of the world. This interview style is very, very reminiscent of “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” by Max Brooks, although without the zombies.

There’s something powerful in telling a story entirely through interview, which I suppose might be why interviews as a thing are reasonably popular. But fictional interviews are even better, because you’re not limited to how people actually talk, but can craft interesting, narrative driven responses that paint an entire world piece by piece. It’s considerably more interesting, which might be one of the reasons I never pursued a major in Journalism.

This novella was released before “Lock In” was published, so if you haven’t read either yet, do yourself a favor and read this one first. I’m more than willing to imagine that some of my concerns about the full novel would have been assuaged had I actually done things in the proper order. Even if you’re not planning on reading the full novel, “Unlocked” is an interesting little book that will occupy your mind far longer than it takes to get through it. Always a good thing, in my opinion.

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Review: Lexicon

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t realize the “thriller about words” could be a genre, but I’m definitely on board. While most people recommend and remember Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” because of the cyber-punk and cyberspace elements, that book was really more about words and the idea of words as being able to have this viral programming effect on humans. For the nerd in your life who got into THAT aspect of “Snow Crash,” you’ll definitely want to recommend “Lexicon.”

It’s not a perfect book, but there’s a lot to love here. The author does a very clever bit of work with a dual narrative that moves around in time, but never actually states the time/date or any sort of “Then/Now” chapter notation. It’s up to you to figure out how the narrative pieces together, which you can do from context and feels incredibly rewarding as a result. I like it when books and authors treat their readers as very clever and able to figure things out; this is something else that author Max Barry and Neal Stephenson have in common and I approve.

The book is at its absolute best as it explores its ideas; what is a word, really? How much power do they have, in the literal sense of being able to reprogram human cognition. You’ll find yourself thinking about it long after you put the book down, which for me is always a plus; see the previous paragraph about authors and reader cleverness.

Where this book wanders away from being perfect is when it decides to be a thriller. Simply put, there are a few thriller tropes that really grate. We never really find out WHY the poets (the main organization) are amassing all of this power or why the main antagonist makes any of the choices that he/she (keeping it ambiguous to avoid spoilers) makes. We’re left to assume and thus the overarching plot has a bit of an “evil for the sake of evil” mastermind bit going on that’s at odds with how clever the rest of the storytelling is.

Regardless, this is a book that I can highly recommend, especially for people who like their fiction to feel as smart as they are.

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Review: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species DivideBeing a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I started off greatly intrigued by the premise, but my expectations for what the book was going to be ended up not panning out. From the author’s forward, what I imagined I would be reading was a series of narrative nonfiction essays told from the perspective of the various beasts. Each beast would be a different character and various things would happen to them; all approximated, of course, because of the whole subjective nature of individual minds, especially human minds trying to approximate nonhuman minds. However, none of those expectations panned out.

Ultimately, we have musings that wander back and forth through various topics while making commentary on eating earthworms, tasting slugs (seriously, don’t ever do that), and rolling around in the woods for a while. While it started out interesting enough, the essay on otters started to lose me, as the author begins to create an emotional understanding of different animals that feels painfully antiquarian. And then, of course, there’s his opinion on cats (he hates them) and that was where I found myself in the weeds with regards to “Being a Beast.” I finished it out of a sense of obligation, having come so far (also I never allow myself to review books that I have not read in their entirety.)

Final verdict: a weird book that starts off with an interesting premise, but meanders and chases its own tail. There are a few interesting anecdotes along the way (such as the discussion with a police officer about how the author is “trying to be a fox”), but they are few and far between. It becomes increasingly difficult to determine when the author is being sincere and when he is being hyperbolic. I came away from the book feeling mostly disappointed by my misunderstanding of the premise. Which might say more about me than the book (it does), but that’s what you get when you read reviews from nonprofessional dilettantes such as myself.

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Review: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the TaleThe Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale by Susan Maushart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First, an observation; if you want a particularly surreal reading experience, read a book about forgoing screens on an ereader or tablet device, as I did. As the author describes giving up the iPhone, iPad, other i-prefixed devices, you can reflect on how for you do to likewise would mean not being able to continue reading. It’s a weird feeling.

Anyway, author Susan Maushart decides her family is too wired, too jacked in, too tuned in, etc. and decides to Thoreau (hah!) all away for six months of digital exile. It’s an interesting idea that gains a fair bit of traction when you read about various family members falling asleep with their devices; even as a ferocious gamer and person who spends most of his day tied to a screen at work, the Maushart house’s level of digital dependency felt extreme.

And yet. And yet.

It’s not going to come as a surprise that Maushart’s decision to cite Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” immediately dropped my estimation of this book (for those who haven’t been reading my reviews that far back, Bauerlein was one of my most scathingly negative reviews I’ve ever posted). Maushart walks a finer line on the topic, but eventually she succumbs to the same age-ism of Bauerlein and points out that “no, things really were better in my day” even after pointing out that every generation since Socrates was “ruined” by whatever new technology came along (for Socrates, it was the written word and literacy that were ruining the youth of Athens). Many of the things that Maushart seems certain of about the relative merits of her youth to her kids’ youth seem to be little more than the trap that we all fall into as we get older.

Returning to the point about the fact that I read this book on a tablet; my larger problem with Maushart’s disconnection experiment is that never once is the subject of the content itself addressed. This isn’t a “well, just watch the documentary” argument, it’s good for you (most studies have shown that watching documentaries has a negligible positive cognitive effect), but instead realizing that not all screen time is created equally. The reality is that we are never again going to live in a society that is not infused with technology and as much as I love Walden Pond, a Thoreau-like existence is not feasible on a large social scale. Rather than trying to go without, we should be learning techniques to manage the role of tech in our lives.

Also, the fact that, despite all the amazing personal gains and achievements made during “the experiment,” very few pages are spent talking about the aftermath once the screens came back led me to believe that the effects were short-lived. Was the son still practicing his instrument religiously after the experiment was over? The book doesn’t say.

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Review: Steve Jobs

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This is going to be a warts-and-all biography. I’m going to tell it like it is! No sugarcoating! But the thing is, the person in this biography has no flaws! Let me tell you how the person I wrote about is absolutely perfect, who has only the sorts of flaws that seem to make this person even better.” Yeah. How many times have I read that introduction? How many authors have promised to give all the whole story and then delivered a glossy highlights reel rather than the real thing?

I’m pleased to say that Walter Isaacson did no such thing. He promised us an intimate portrait of a brilliant, driven man who could be cold, could be ruthless, could be manipulative. Isaacson delivered on that promise.

I’m not going to go into the details of Jobs’ life; that’s what this book is for, after all. Instead, I want to tell you about the book itself. And the thing I want to tell you most is that the book is very, very good and you should read it.

I also want to tell you that I read this book on my Microsoft Surface tablet and that I’m about as dedicated a Microsoft fan as they come (ZUNE FOREVER!!!!) I’m not an Apple man. I might be in the future (ALMOST picked up an iPhone this time around, but the high price point eventually drove me off), but when I read this book, it was deep in the throes of my Windows devotion. So that’s the kind of person who is giving this book five stars. The kind of person who Steve Jobs would denigrate, were he among the living. The kind of person who doesn’t buy his products, hasn’t ever watched a product reveal, a person who doesn’t find the term “reality distortion field” as something that’s charming.

And yet. And yet.

I still love this book. I loved reading about Jobs’ life. I love tech, and love him or hate him, Jobs shaped the tech world as we know it today. Most of all, however, I loved Isaacson’s writing style. I loved his approach, the exact perfect balance between fly-on-the-wall, recounting Steve’s own voice while sometimes inserting his own editorial voice to counter some of the claims made by the reality distortion field. It’s the best kind of biography, because it’s not a monument, not a tribute, not an ode or a paean, it’s simply the story of one’s life. That’s a rare treat in and of itself, but it’s made all the more special because of the care Isaacson shows his subject. You can feel the exhaustive level of research that went into every page.

After reading this book, I’m absolutely certain I would never have wanted to work with Jobs (not that I have the technical skill to do so anyway, I won’t flatter myself). I’m not particularly certain I’d ever even like being around him, reality field or no. But I spent the past weekend with him and I am better for it. I’m better for having read his story as the world is better for having his influence through his work and his legacy. I can think of no higher recommendation than that.

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Review: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every TimeThe Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Must read. “The Confidence Game” is one of those books that you’ll find yourself referring back to, over and over, reflecting on the lessons contained within and how you can apply them to your own life. But far from being a self-help book or a guide on how not to get scammed, it’s also intensely fascinating and full of history and psychology. It’s very likely that you’ll experience a bout of intense cynicism after reading it, however; I couldn’t help but reflect on the times when I might have fallen for a scam myself (usually the “I need a few bucks to get home” variety). And of course, I wonder about all the possible scams that I might have encountered without even realizing it, which is more than a little troubling.

Regardless, “the Confidence Game” is as alluring and engaging as any good con artist might be. It’s the kind of book that stays with you, that keeps you thinking long after you’ve finished it, and that’s as much a testament to Konnikova’s good writing style as it is the importance of the subject itself. And if it helps you avoid a scam in the future; well, that’s just a bonus. Even if the research suggests that overestimating our abilities makes us more likely to fall for a scam, so it’s possible you might actually be more likely to be scammed after reading this book. Such is the dark web that the con artist weaves. Regardless, you should still read the book.

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Review:The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms

The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of FirearmsThe Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms by Iain Overton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poignant, thoughtful, and surprisingly balanced, which isn’t something you see very often with a topic as divisive as guns. Author Iain Overton travels around the world to understand the gun from the many, many different people whose lives it has affected: victims, killers, traders, creators, hunters, enthusiasts, and doctors. He doesn’t hold anything back; if the best way to understand hunting is to be a hunter, he goes out and does that. His expression of remorse and regret after killing an animal on a hunting trip in Africa was particularly emotional and heartfelt.

This is a book I would absolutely recommend to people who want to dive into the discussion about firearms and their place in the world. Overton doesn’t hold back on any aspect; he acknowledges that guns are power incarnate and that shooting them can feel very, very fun. He acknowledges that they can be collected and can be valuable and historical. But he also faces what they do to people, what they do to bodies and lives. And the result of his experiences are a decidedly less sanguine feeling about them as a whole, even as he understands them.

Unfortunately, Overton’s experiences tell us that guns aren’t going away. Not soon, maybe not ever (or if they do, it’s only because something more powerful replaced them). Nevertheless, understanding them can help come to terms with their role in shaping our world and for that reason alone, this is a book I think you should read.

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Review: Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century

Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American CenturyExit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century by Daniel Oppenheimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book largely due to the chapter on Christopher Hitchens, who has long been a writer I’ve admired (his support for the Iraq War notwithstanding). I was very interested in seeing a neutral perspective on Hitchens, since I already have read at length what Hitchens himself said about that decision.

Before we get to the Hitch, however, we move through history as we explore the political careers of several other Leftists who ultimately, well, left. On the first few chapters, I am more ambivalent; these stories are likely going to be of more interest to those who are familiar with the men in question. I myself had only the vaguest recollection of who Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham was (before going to look it up on Google).

Although it was likely not the author’s original intention, what struck me as most interesting about the chapters on very early Leftists like Chambers and Burnham was the stark reminder of the history of the Left. It’s so very easy in political history to assume that the arrangement that exists today is equivalent to what came before; the Left is liberal, the Right is conservative, end of story.

But we forget that the political Left went through a long history with competing ideologies and that the social liberalism that brought me to the Left once struggled for intellectual oxygen against communism. These days, the idea that “Lefties are all commies” is basically a dead horse trope, a political joke that’s amusing irrelevant. So irrelevant, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that it used to be true. But I digress.

The most interesting chapters were on Norman Podhoretz, Ronald Reagan, and the Hitch. Podhoretz isn’t someone I was familiar with, but his story is so fascinating in its self-destruction that you can enjoy it entirely on its own merits. The ill-advised publication of the book that led to his public humiliation and ostracization doesn’t need you to be political to relate to what is basically a very human story. Especially when you consider how many people tried to warn him about what he was doing.

I list Reagan and Hitchens as the other highlights of the book as these were the individuals who were most relevant to me personally, since Reagan continues to cast a long shadow over the political landscape even today and I’ve read most of Hitchens’ books. It’s also interesting to contrast Reagan with the other figures of this book, as he’s the only one who isn’t described as an academic or intellectual. His story is a different one and at the end of it, I wonder what would have happened had he never been shifted to the right (although such a shift seems inevitable, given his personality).

Finally, we come to Hitchens. It’s unfortunate that Hitchens is one of the shorter chapters, because this was what I most wanted to read about. While author Daniel Oppenheimer generally takes a fairly neutral tone throughout the book, never allowing his own politics to color his prose, he describes Hitchens in particular as having fallen as a result of his rightward drift. Not because Left = Good and Right = Bad, but because the decision to double down on the Iraq War ultimately seemed to demolish Hitchens’ own vitality when the war effort began to unravel. Oppenheimer describes Hitchens’ best work as having come before the Hitch left the Left, which I would agree with.

It should go without saying that this book is for those with more than a passing interest in political history and thought. But for readers of that persuasion, it’s a fine read. It’s particularly refreshing in its balance and even tone, neither sanctifying nor demonizing of Left or Right. That’s something that’s increasingly rare in modern political thought (unfortunately, and yes, I hold myself as having failed this standard). If you’re interested in the topic, even a little, this book gets a solid recommendation.

Finally, I’d like to note that although it’s only described in the foreward and postscript, Oppenheimer’s thoughts on the nature of political allegiance and ideology were especially important to me. More and more, I’ve fretted about how people on “my side” can hold what I feel to be profoundly stupid ideas; most anti-vaxxers are on the Left rather than the Right, for instance. How can people who hold compatible ideas to my own be so misguided about other things, I would ask myself?

Oppenheimer reminded me that Left is a broad category and that many competing ideologies fall under its umbrella. He describes the Left and the Right as suits that don’t entirely fit right; maybe they bunch in the shoulders or have sleeves that are a little too short. But we pick the one that fits the best and ignore the little ways it doesn’t fit. Oppenheimer offers his book up as a challenge “to wrestle with the ways in which his or her own political suit might strain at the shoulders a bit more than is comfortable to admit.” And while it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll be leaving the Left any time soon (if ever), this book helped sharpen my perspective.

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Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art Book

Rise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art BookRise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art Book by Andy McVittie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This absolutely beautiful book managed to make me feel surprisingly guilty.

I loved Rise of the Tomb Raider; it’s a worthy sequel to the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot (which I also loved). This book is, as you might expect, a collection of concept art and design documents that led to the creation of the game’s characters and environments.

The reason why this beautiful book made me feel so guilty is because it shows you just how much care and detail went into the environments and backgrounds that I cruised through as I jumped from one ledge to another on my way through the game. I love the Tomb Raider games and I get totally immersed in the world when I play . . . and yet I never spare more than a passing glance at the lovingly crafted ruins, relics, and other pieces that artists worked to create. There’s a page about a few chalices and other Byzantine relics that talks about how much realism the art team tried to create, but this chalice isn’t part of the plot (as chalices are wont to be). It’s just a nice looking ancient cup. I probably ran past it at top speed without ever noticing.

I play games to be immersed, but when that immersion happens, I give the credit to the writers who created the story and the actors who brought the characters to life. Maybe I spare a thought for the programmers who actually built the thing and maybe, maaaybe I think about the art team when I appreciate a well crafted character model or a pretty forest. But when you see just how much care, just how much craft and attention to detail goes into all of this, even a little cup that’s just a setting detail, it makes you appreciate how absolutely spoiled gamers are when it comes to our digital worlds. There’s an entire world of art around every moment and for the most part, we just treat it as window dressing as we focus on the shoot-shoots and the booms.

If you’ve played Rise of the Tomb Raider, I recommend picking up this book from your local library and paging through it, giving the artists a few moments’ consideration for all the work they did. We appreciated it, even if we were running by their work too quickly to notice.

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