Review: American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics

American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and PoliticsAmerican Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics by Dan Savage
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the avid Savage fans out there, this book might be unnecessary. If you’ve read Savage Love religiously, if you’ve read all of his other books, if you’ve followed his work very closely, you may not feel the need to pick this one up. There’s a feeling early on that there isn’t as much “new” stuff here, that these are topics and discussions that Savage has covered before. The subtitle for this book might be “the complete Dan Savage primer.”

And yet, even if you’ve read the entire Dan Savage canon, I still think this one is worth your time. Savage’s writing style is just so crisp, so compulsively readable, that his books are a pleasure to work through, even if the topic is deeply serious.

Of particular interest to me were the chapters about growing up Catholic (I can relate to that) and his experiences when his mother passed away (which, fortunately, I can’t relate to yet), the latter of which prompts some thinking on the death with dignity movement and physician assisted suicide (both of which I support whole-heartedly).

There’s so much more to be enjoyed, however. I love his frank style. I love the practical approach to sexuality. At one point in the book, Savage describes a particular piece as “the kind of discussion you’d have with someone after a few glasses of wine.” I think that’s a perfect description for the book as a whole, as wine-fueled discussions can be serious, deep, silly, opinionated, intense, thoughtful, and everything else one can imagine, but never boring.

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Review: The Last Wish

The Last Wish (The Witcher, #1)The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After spending almost two months enmeshed in the video game “Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” I wanted to explore more of Geralt’s world. While the game itself was made very accessible to a newcomer in the series (despite being based on a book series and being the third game), I knew there was so much more going on that deeper fans would understand that I was missing out on. So here I am, having finished the first book, which is a collection of short stories.

“The Last Wish” made me realize how narrow my world can be sometimes. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? It makes it sound like this was a bad book. But it’s not.

“The Last Wish” was written in 1992. It’s been out there, all this time, and yet I was wholly unaware of it until it gained enough fans to warrant a translation into English. How many other wonderful worlds are out there that I’m oblivious to? How many amazing stories are there to discover? I’ve heard constantly that the fantasy genre is shackled to the formula set down by Tolkien, but it wasn’t until “the Last Wish” that I realized what a breath of fresh air it was to be in a different style of world.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still elves and dwarves here, but the core of the Witcher’s world, the skeleton of it is based on dark fairy tales. It’s not the same old fantasy, but it reminds me of the early days when I’d first discovered fantasy novels and that feeling of diving headfirst into a mythical world. I’ve grown jaded and bitter in my grizzled old age, having read so many stories that followed along the well-worn path. But “the Last Wish” proves that there’s more out there, more to be discovered. It’s a good feeling and a great reminder.

And the book itself? You don’t need to play the game to read this book; if you like fantasy AT ALL, it’s worth your time. But there’s a very good chance you’ll want to pick up a controller after spending even a little time in Geralt’s world. Either that, or the next book in the series. Either way, it’s worth your time.

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Review: Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal

Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and BetrayalHatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A taut, well written, and gripping narrative about the rise of Twitter and the intrigue that led to a Game of Thrones-style power struggle, although without the head lopping. As a narrative, it’s excellent and excellently readable, although I can’t help but wonder about author Nick Bilton’s personal allegiance.

This is a story with pretty clearly defined heroes and villains and Jack Dorsey is definitely the book’s villain. He’s credited as having provided interviews which led to the writing of this book, although the author notes that not all interviews were necessarily happy to provide them. If he wasn’t displeased before, I can’t imagine he’d be happier now, because Bilton pulls no punches in how he depicts Dorsey as an egomaniac, a manipulator, and a Steve Jobs wannabe.

On the one hand, this is troubling; one expects such an account to be as neutral as possible. And while Ev (the other main player in the Twitter power struggle) has his own flaws, they’re usually not depicted as severely as Jack’s. It’s possible that these two men really are that different, but it still feels like we’re meant to root for Ev and feel hurt by the betrayal that ousts him from his own company. So does the work succeed, even though it doesn’t feel neutral?

On the other hand, this book is written really, really well. It’s a hell of a tale and it’s a rare talent that can turn board room politicking into exciting drama. The emotional content of the book is above and beyond any other “corporate narrative” I can recall; this book is many things, but it’s not dry. It is a quintessential ‘can’t-put-it-down’ read.

My personal recommendation? If you’re reading this to make a judgment about Jack Dorsey’s personal character, or if you’re, say, writing a research paper about Twitter . . . I’d hesitate to consider this one a source. My feeling coming away from the book is that there are two sides to every story and this book is only one side.

On the other hand, it’s damn fun, full of highs and lows, and it explains the genesis of Twitter perfectly; the early days of the Fail Whale, why the damn site crashed all the time, why it all felt like it was cobbled together with superglue and wishful thinking (because it really was), and all the other quirks that have become part of Twitter’s character and its charm. From the inability to actually explain what exactly Twitter is (even the creators disagree!) to its evolution from “What are you doing” to “What’s happening,” if you’re a Twitter user, this is a book you’ll want to pick up. Even if you’re a Twitter agnostic, or even just Tweet-curious, it’s a fine book of corporate narrative drama that delights and entertains.

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Review: And Yet . . .

And Yet ...And Yet … by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t always agree with Hitchens’ views. In fact, I don’t think I even often agree with them. Despite a brief flirtation with the New Atheists a few years ago, I’m unwilling to consider myself more than a spiritual agnostic. I disagree with his embrace of war and military intervenionism. And yet. And yet.

Hitchens was one of the best goddamned writers of . . . possibly ever. Even when I completely disagree with his thesis, he’s delightfully readable. And I don’t disagree on everything. His more wry observations of life and culture and literature are a true delight and one comes away from a good Hitchens essay with the feeling of shared a drink with a brilliant and eloquent intellectual.

Of this final collection of essays, book reviews, and other short pieces, I will say this; I’m going to miss that voice. His thoughts on quitting smoking, getting healthy, and doing the physical makeover are bittersweet and poignant, the words given an unintended emotional gravitas when you consider how closely they were written before his own death.

This is more of a ‘completionist’ work of Hitchens writing than a ode to ‘the best of the best.’ Book reviews from books that are ten or more years old tend to feel dated, even for books that are remarkable. There isn’t really a true standout piece here and if you were new to Hitchens, this isn’t where I’d start. Despite that, there also isn’t anything that falls flat and nothing that isn’t interesting. It was nice to spend a little more time with a voice that I have missed and will miss. Overall, a very solid collection.

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Review: Purity

PurityPurity by Jonathan Franzen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was so very difficult to decide what to rate this book. Rarely has a book character just flat out irritated me so much . . . but irritated in a way that compelled me to keep reading. (For what it’s worth, I’m referring not to Purity, the main character, but Anabel, who shows up in one of the branching narratives. Purity herself was okay.)

This is often my experience with Franzen’s writing. Can I say that I really liked this book? If I didn’t like it, why couldn’t I put it down? Why did I race to finish it when my library’s due date edged closer? I’m convinced that this is indicative of a subtle talent and a prodigious skill, that I just. Kept. Reading. It’s still incredibly hard to know how to describe that feeling or even if I’d recommend the book. “I didn’t enjoy my time and yes, I was reading for pleasure, but it’s still a really good book?”

The story itself is classic Franzen, a world full of deeply flawed people. Purity herself breaks the mold from previous Franzen protagonists in that she’s actually a pretty likable person and her story is deeply compelling. The woven narrative between multiple characters creates a complex approach that I really enjoyed.

This book’s deepest flaw (aside from Anabel, who just drove me crazy with every page) is at that a book with sex and sexuality as a core theme, it’s a very unsexy book. I’m not sure if this is Franzen’s own writing style, if it’s intentional, or it’s due to the creepy Lolita vibe throughout the work, but I found myself skimming whenever clothes started coming off. Fortunately, that’s only a small percentage of the total book, so it wasn’t too much of a distraction.

I did roll my eyes at the line about how “Jonathan” just sounds like the name of a great writer. Really? Reeeeally?

And so we’re left with a flawed book that annoyed me more than almost anything I’ve ever read for my own enjoyment, but that I still read compulsively and could not put down. I don’t know what to make of that. I’m convinced that it means this work is brilliant. But it’s a weird place to be, mentally, and it makes for a hilariously awful blurb on the dust jacket.

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Review: Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal

Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic RenewalXbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal by Robbie Bach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes a book presents itself as being about something and when you read it, you realize it’s actually about something else entirely. Other times, however, the book itself is pretty clear about its topic, but the reader’s perception is that it’s going to be about something else.

With the exception of the title and the stylish black-and-green color scheme that was the banner of the original Xbox (oh, how I’ve missed that look), “Xbox Revisited” is clear that it’s a business book, not a gamer book. It even says in the subtitle that it’s more about “corporate and civic renewal.” This focus is not hidden! And yet . . . and yet . . . it was recommended to me via whatever computer algorithms seek out those connections. “If you liked Console Wars, you’ll like this book!” So, while it might be a lesson about the recommendation process rather than a comment on the quality of the boo itself, I must admit I came into this book expecting an entirely different experience. And that isn’t really the book’s fault, in this case.

I was hoping for a “Console Wars” style narrative about the development of the Xbox, which has long been my favorite video game console. I was hoping to see more about how it was developed, what it was like in the trenches at the very beginning; in short, how it all happened. Unfortunately, “Xbox Revisited” focuses on the development only at the highest level and summarizes most of that story. Author Robbie Bach even says he isn’t much of a gamer and so isn’t equipped to provide a gamer’s perspective. Thus, while Xbox is the product that’s at the center of the discussion, the book isn’t actually about Xbox.

Instead, the focus is on Bach’s business management theory, which is called the 3P Framework. Not being a business manager myself, I can’t speak to how effective it might be. As a reader, it does feel like a bit of a stretch to take the business plan that worked for a video game console and apply it to the rest of the country. Your mileage may vary.

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Review: Halo: Escalation (Volume One)

Halo: Escalation (Volume 1)Halo: Escalation by Christopher Schlerf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now this is a damn fine Halo story and an example of what I think should be the standard for other Halo graphic novels.

As mentioned in my “Halo: Initiation” review, this book does a much better job of introducing Sarah Palmer as a likable character, as not only is she devoid of much of the arrogance from her previous version, she even apologies to another character for being “unprofessional” at one point, which I think indicates the author has a better handle on her character. The cast is also much larger and more diverse, with a few different plotlines woven together. In particular, I really enjoyed Commander Lasky and Spartan Ray working together and their subplot was, I think, the most interesting.

I’m also a big fan of the Arbiter (he might even be my favorite Halo character, in fact) and so any book that gives him a role will make me happy, even if he’s mostly a side character.

But what made this book great for me, aside from the strong cast of interesting and likable characters, was that it wasn’t afraid to really dive into the plot and world building. We’re getting a look at the universe in the post-Covenant era, full of warlords and feuding and attempts at diplomacy. We see Sangheili that are becoming money-driven information brokers and Jiralhanae that are actually more than just berserker monsters (though only barely).

It’s a world that fills vibrant and alive, and focuses on a story that’s more than just “kill these guys and blow this thing up.” It even brings back a tantalizing glimpse at a story element from the somewhat forgotten game “Halo Wars” which wasn’t terribly popular, but one I really enjoyed. I won’t spoil the details here, but it was great seeing the UNSC Spirit of Fire getting mentioned again.

“Escalation: Volume 1” sets a high bar and I’m eager to see if Volume 2 can continue this level of momentum. Regardless of how the next book plays out, though, I would say this is a must-read for any series Halo fan. It has a bit of everything: action, plot, Spartans, aliens, and action, and it’s all wonderfully balanced. This is what a Halo graphic novel should be.

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Review: Halo: Initiation

Halo: InitiationHalo: Initiation by Brian Reed

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Based on her role in Halo 4, it seems like Sarah Palmer was intended to be the “face” of the new Halo generation and the Spartan-IVs. And on the surface, she seems like a pretty great character; she’s a Commander, which is cool, and she’s voiced by legendary voice actor and perennial fan favorite Jennifer Hale. Unfortunately, her characterization throughout the game is uneven and even somewhat unlikable, and those problems extend to this book which was meant to serve as an origin story for the character.

Palmer’s character is, for lack of a better term, just flat-out unlikable as a protagonist. It’s always great for characters to have flaws, of course, but those flaws do need to be tempered with characteristics that cause an audience to identify with the main character. Even worse, Palmer is uneven, at first disliking the Spartans for being “superior” and then lording that same superiority when she becomes a Spartan herself. There’s also the odd inconsistency in her rank and promotion: originally, her character was supposedly a lieutenant before she became a Spartan, which would make sense, but here she’s a lowly corporal . . . which means that, by the time of Halo 4, she’s jumped how many ranks in how short a time?

Basically, it’s just hard to root for her, and as this story is entirely focused on introducing us to her character, it drags the entire story down, even though the rest of the book is pretty decent. Fortunately, I’ve also read the next book in the Halo graphic novel line, Escalation Volume 1, and that story does a great deal to redeem Palmer’s character.

Thus, I’d say skip this one entirely. It doesn’t do anything for the character except make you dislike her, which is a huge problem for a backstory book.

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Review: Halo: Helljumper

Halo: HelljumperHalo: Helljumper by Peter David

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For me, the best Halo stories are the ones that dive headfirst into the Halo universe’s deep well of lore. Most of the games barely scratch at the surface of this universe, only lightly touching or referencing the deep mythology. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the action of the games themselves is so deeply satisfying.

“Helljumper” has the problem of trying to be more like the games than other stories. It’s very light on the story, focusing on the bond-of-brother-soldiers thing between Romeo and Dutch, two of the characters from Halo: ODST. Romeo was always my least favorite of the ODST cast, although to my surprise, he reads very differently than his game counterpart. Regardless, the focus of the book is largely on ODST action, kicking butt and killing aliens. Which is . . . okay, but the games handle this action-first focus far better.

Things like “the Knowing” which could be deeply interesting questions to ponder and investigate are instead reduced to a McGuffin that needs to be kept out of enemy hands or humanity is doomed, though we’re never told how exactly, as the McGuffin is blown up about four pages after it’s revealed.

Helljumper doesn’t really do anything wrong, but it doesn’t play to the strengths of its medium. Dutch and Romeo are likable and their bond is a good one, and I did like how the story ended on the question of whether they will transfer out or not. So while Helljumper doesn’t make any mistakes, it plays things too safe.

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Review: Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest

Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific NorthwestStarvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest by Gregg Olsen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun and thrilling dive into local lore that unfortunately fizzles out at the halfway point.

The first half of this book basically demands to be made into a horror movie (and that’s a good thing). It has all the trappings of the best horror tropes; naive, unaware victims, a scarily commanding and charismatic doctor, and then a spooky and remote location that serves as a backdrop. It’s great. Dr. Linda Hazzard operates a “sanitarium” in the backwater location of Olalla, WA, where she promotes her “fasting cure” which is really just starving people to the brink of death. Two English heiresses, Claire and Dora, are intrigued by the promise of perfect health and are lured into the doctor’s clutches and gradually weaken as the starvation takes hold. The tension builds and you feel the pressure as you try to will Claire and Dora to escape and then the desperate hope as someone attempts to intervene on their behalf. It’s an excellent story.

Unfortunately, around the middle of the book, the escape from Dr. Hazzard’s sanitarium happens and the book transitions to a courtroom drama in an attempt to stop Hazzard from inflicting her “cure” on people. This has the potential to be interest, as the case centers around the question of whether or not the deaths caused by Hazzard’s “treatments” were intentional, negligent, or the result of patients too far gone to be saved. Was she “really” starving people?

Well, we know that she was, because we just saw it happen through the proceeding action. The courtroom drama is then mostly a retread of ground that we already covered, with a few witness accounts and other details sprinkled in.

Had the story been arranged differently, perhaps with the courtroom narrative serving as the structure for the book as a whole, I might have enjoyed it more. It would have been excellent to have the reveal of Hazzard’s starvation “cure” come towards the end of the book, as opposed to in the first third. As it is, though, you’ve got half of a great campfire story and then a courtroom drama about it, which ends up making this merely a good book, instead of a great one.

Also, purely as an aside: some of the metaphors and similes here were very . . . odd. “He turned two shades closer to the color of a holly berry” as a way of describing someone getting mad is . . . well, it’s certainly unique, though not to my taste. Your mileage may vary.

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