Friday, December 20, 2013

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (Part 11)

A.k.a. "Chris is coming down with a cold, so here's something to keep you off the streets over the weekend while he cuddles up under his electric blanket which, sadly, doesn't go to 11 like it really ought to."  Below the break, as always.

A Dance With Dragons (a.k.a. "The Fifth Game of Thrones book"), by George R.R. Martin

What it is:  Another thousand pages about Westeros, and the last ones written to date.

How I'm liking it so far:  First, a confession: I've just finished this story.  Usually I limit these posts to what I'm actually reading at the moment, since I think that's more interesting (and probably more revealing) than cherry-picking from what I've read over the last month or two.  But I'm making an exception for this one because of a conversation I had last week with a friend.  I told him I was nearly done with the last Game of Thrones book, and he told me that he'd gotten bogged down and given up partway through book four, when he realized that there just wasn't going to be any Daenerys, Jon Snow, or what have you in that book (gotta make room for more Dorne chapters, dontcha know).  Then, he told me that he was thinking of giving it another try, but alternating chapters between books four and five--since book five covers all those characters, and through the first two-thirds or so of its length is concurrent with book four.

Personally, I think that's a great idea, and I wish I'd read them that way.  Maybe if there wasn't so much Dorne all at once I'd have been less hostile to the glut of new characters seemingly replacing ones I'd already developed an interest in reading about, and there are several bits of Dance With Dragons which would have been stronger coming on the heels of an important revelation in book four, rather than being a hundred thousand words removed from it.  I mean, what would have been a really great idea would have been for Martin to keep the books basically chronological instead of splitting them up by characters, but here we are.

Recommendation:  Look, if you made it through the first four books, this one's not gonna make you give up the series.  I will say, though, that it's a definite step up from the almost aggressive directionlessness of book four.

The Physics of Christmas, by Roger Highfield

What it is:  Popular physics, presented through a thin veneer of Christmassery.

How I'm liking it so far:  Hey, 'tis the season!  I picked this one up because I like popular science, and I like Christmas, so what could go wrong?

Nothing too disastrous, thankfully.  The biggest problem with this book is that it doesn't really do much with its Christmas theme.  Sure, it uses "cooking turkey" as an excuse to talk about thermodynamics, but this is more "science" than "the science of Christmas."  If that doesn't bother you, though (and it doesn't me, really--it just feels like a bit of a bait-and-switch), then this is a well-written, accessible look at how the world works vis a vis reindeer, presents, and pine trees.

Recommendation:  This is definitely on the "popular" side of the popular science genre; it probably won't appeal to anyone heavily-read in modern physics.  But for dabblers like myself, it's a fun, seasonal read.

Battle Angel Alita, by Yukito Kishiro

What it is:  A set of graphic novels first published in the early 90s.  Set in a post-apocalyptic future, it revolves around the titular cyborg, her absurdly violent journey of self-discovery.

How I'm liking it so far:  Like so many, I went through a brief anime phase in high school, and this was my favorite series at the time (I understand that the author later rebooted the series, but I didn't read any of those).  I found the nine graphic novels which make up the series about a week ago, and have been re-reading them to see how they hold up.  

Turns out, they're a mixed bag.  On the plus side, the bizarre water-drop-in-place-of-expressions stuff that I've never liked is mostly absent here; with a few notable exceptions, the series is well-drawn, with plenty of attention to detail.  Also, the setting is great; the city where the first stories take place is literally "the Scrapyard," which has sprung up around the dumping grounds of the floating utopia of Tiphares.  On the downside, a lot of the stuff I thought was really clever when I was fifteen was, in retrospect, me feeling smart because I got some "totally obscure" reference which was the author's way of making himself sound smart.  That bit hasn't aged so well.  Plus, a lot of philosophical points are brought up, then immediately dropped, such that the end result is a muddle.

Recommendation:  This isn't something I'd much care for if I read it today, but it's definitely still a decent read.  For fans of graphic novels, especially hyper-violent dystopian ones, I'd feel comfortable recommending this.

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It, by Neal Bascomb

What it is:  The story of the three middle-distance runners who successfully broke the four-minute barrier in mile-running.

How I'm liking it so far:  I was vaguely aware that the four minute mile was a big deal before I started this book, but I hadn't realized just what a big deal it was.  It was compared (and not just by the runners) to the scaling of Mount Everest or the conquering of the poles, and many people believed that it was not physically possible (never mind that the record was something like 4:01:02 at the time; that extra second was impossible).  Bascomb has a knack for setting the scene and establishing his characters, though he does get a little to moralistic at times, when discussing the motivations or backgrounds of various persons.

Recommendation:  This is very readable, focusing more on the personalities than the minutia of running.  For readers looking for an accessible history of miling generally and the four-minute barrier specifically, or who're just looking for a sports book that you don't have to be a sports freak to enjoy, this is worth checking out.


  1. Wait...

    People STAY HOME when they get colds? I wasn't even considered sick unless I was vomiting blood. What a spoiled generation this is.

    1. If it makes you feel better, I went into work today despite being sick. I don't want to be "that guy who takes a 'sick day' to get a long Christmas break," even if I am actually sick.

  2. Dance with Dragons was a slow trudge for me. Perhaps it's because I had caught up with book four and DwD came about a year or two after that, so my terrible memory had forgotten many of the plot points. In either case, the story felt like it was spreading itself too thin with all the (to me, at least) tertiary characters. I get that he wants to tell the whole story, but they just aren't that interesting, nevermind the fact that everyone's hoping he doesn't keel over to do like his characters and die in a sudden way. Not exactly hale and healthy, he is. Finish the main plotline and then go back to do those side-stories.

  3. This is literally everything I know about Game of Thrones.

  4. Dances with Dragons is undoubtedly more entertaining than A Feast for Crows, but it still seemed like he was fumbling around in the dark. Whereas the first three books all seemed to be converging, book five seems to have the characters all moving away from each other, sometimes in directions that are fairly ridiculous.

    And it certainly doesn't help that I DON'T CARE ABOUT DORNE! He hasn't done one single thing to make me interested in that place in all the time he's gone back to it. I hate it every time we switch to that part of the story.

    So yes, I'm sticking with the series because it's still interesting in parts, but I'm far, far less interested than I was at the end of book 3. Book fours mire of boredom and pointless, coupled with book five's "those shit at the wall and see what sticks" feel has soured me on the series.

    1. I agree with pretty much everything you and Luc said, though I still enjoyed Dances With Dragons. I think it's just that book 4 was such a slog for me that it was a palpable relief to be getting back to some of my favorite characters, even if it did mean no Lannisters until towards the end.

  5. What? Most recent post since Peachgate, and nary even a passing "I don't get it or care either, so here's the review," in the introductory paragraph? I thought you were the fanfic guy, Chris. Instead I come in here and find that you've started reviewing graphic novels on the side now, flirting with other mediums like some cheap trollop.

    You changed, man.

    Also this right here is exactly why I never got into Game of Thrones. I keep getting it recommended to me, and then I come here and see everyone talking about how the series devolved into trash in the later books. I feel like if I read and actually liked the first book, I'd just be setting myself up for disappointment. It's like wondering if you want to get into the Mass Effect games when the first time you heard of the series was everyone raging over ME3's ending. Or if you were about to get into DC comics when suddenly there's a reboot and the regular readers online start making suicide pacts. It's just not a good sign, you know?

    1. I didn't comment on the Peachpocalypse because I have nothing to say about the Peachpocalypse. It's like the gak stories, or the pony instruction manuals before them; it's best to just roll your eyes and take comfort in the fact that it will soon be a memory, occasionally dredged up to confuse new fans but otherwise forgotten.

      As for GoT... I wouldn't say it was trash in the later books, but it definitely drops off in terms of narrative coherence; there's a difference between having a sprawling, loosely connected narrative (say, like in the first three books) and just having a bunch of people doing stuff.

    2. At the risk of learning something I'm better off not knowing... Peachpocalypse?

    3. Nothing too exciting; one of the FiMFic mods used something like "Twilight Sparkle Eats Peaches" as a hypothetical title in a post about story tagging, and then a bunch of people went and wrote stories about Twilight eating peaches. I didn't read any of them, but it was (and at a glance, still appears to be) a thing.

    4. "Trash" might be hyperbole on my part, but the basic problem is still there. You and Lightside and Juggernaught all talk about the quality of the series as having worsened, and I'm not seeing anyone disputing that. So what I'm getting from you guys is that if I read the whole series as it is now, I would not consistently enjoy it.

    5. If one wanted to read no further than the third book so as to avoid the deteriorating quality, would there be a good stopping point where things feel somewhat complete (like how A New Hope works as a singular Star Wars film)?

    6. Absolutely not, I'm afraid. Book three is where things get *really* interesting, so it's a set-up for even more disappointment.

      Thing is, I don't remember dislike the fourth one, just the fifth. Maybe I was just too caught up in the story to care at that point. Hopefully the sixth brings it all back together.

    7. The fourth book has some good stuff in it that's just as interesting as the previous books; the problem is that it keeps getting interrupted by far less interesting stuff.

      For an analogy, suppose you're watching an episode of a TV series you like. The main plot of the episode is really really great, but there's a B-plot that keeps interrupting it that's far, far less interesting. That's what reading the fourth book is like; you've got lots of interesting stuff that keeps getting interrupted by stuff that's less interesting.

      The good news is that it's not that hard to recognize which parts are interesting and which aren't, so it's not hard to skip or skim the more boring parts.