Water for Elephants

Water for ElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. I’m not even sure what to say. I read it all in one day and I only put it down once, which was to run to the pet store because the filter on our fish tank broke and the fish might die if I didn’t buy a part for it.

Probably the only thing I can say against it is that it’s a bit cliche, particularly in the romance department… but things become cliches because they are really good. There are some complaints about gratuitous sex scenes, and the thought that they were perhaps a bit unnecessarily detailed did cross my mind when they came up, but I decided to forgive it.

I was particularly impressed by the clarity of the writing. It really sucked me in and made everything vivid. At several points I thought “This is going to make an awesome movie”, but then we went and watched the movie afterward (I tagged this for both book and movie since I think it’s a fair comment on both) and… well… it wasn’t bad but they took all the best parts and condensed them for time (understandable I suppose), and stripped them of all subtlety, leaving it with nothing but an incredibly visible and un-subtle formulaic plot. The formula is right there in the book, too, but the writing and vividness of the book is what really made the story work. (And also the humour, which the movie seemed to completely lack. What an odd thing to strip for time…)

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Omnitopia Dawn

Omnitopia Dawn (Omnitopia, #1)Omnitopia Dawn by Diane Duane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That was certainly a story! I’m not really sure what to say about it.

The book is about a MMORPG that is on a level past what we see today. People actually log into it as a virtual reality, and within the world there are little sub worlds of different themes and game types. In many ways it’s like the internet itself with various web pages, except the pages are worlds where people take on roles. Most of the ones described are your typical fantasy tropes with orcs and elves and swords, but it passes through historical scenarios and even one called “Million Monkeys” which is entirely text based, where people are attempting to improve on Shakespeare.

The story spends less time talking about the game worlds and more time talking about *creating* the game worlds. Someone who has no interest in MMO style games and no understanding or interest in computer programming will probably not enjoy this book. Someone who knows a LOT about computer programming might find it annoying, because it uses a made-up futuristic language which falls into a lot of “ooooooh it’s the fuuuutttuuurrreee” traps and does a lot of unlikely things that a pedant will be annoyed by, like having a glowing sword that physically leads your programmer to any potential bugs in the system (which would be frikkin cool, but I’d like to see how that would work…). It also attempts to portray hacking attempts as in-game battles which really didn’t work for me, but at least the battles were interestingly portrayed, if a little far-fetched. If you are someone who likes MMO style games and either have enough knowledge of the workings of programming, or at least the ability to enjoy sci-fi movies where you don’t think too hard about how things were accomplished, you will probably really enjoy this book.

I found the writing style to be very vivid, to the degree that I could easily imagine this being a very good movie. The special effects paint themselves out for you. I also appreciated that the book knew when not to take itself too seriously, while never becoming too silly. There is some quality writing skill on display in this book.

I do have some writing critiques, though:

The story itself is quite slow to get going, and in the end it leaves you wondering how much else could have been included if it had been properly paced. It felt like the author was so excited to describe the world to you that they forgot to get the plot rolling until halfway through, and then they didn’t have a whole lot of time left. Fortunately, everything is described really well, so I really only noticed it when I thought about it too hard. Still, it could have been improved. As it is, it’s almost as if the plot is the fact that the game world exists, and then it goes “Oh and uh, then they fight.” The fight is set up throughout the book, but it feels a little shallow.

There also seemed to be a lot of exposition on things that didn’t really matter in the end. We spend a lot of time with Rik and his microcosm, and it was really cool to see how the worlds are built, and the subplot with his wife coming around and becoming involved was all cool… but what was the point?

[Spoiler]

His world crashes because of the bug with the CO

[/spoiler]

[His world crashes because of the bug with the CO (hide spoiler)] … sooo was the the entire reason for this character? Because nothing else really important happened, there…
And then the bit at the start with the statue honouring the character/player who discovered how to travel to other worlds. That left me a little confused because it seemed like it was introducing something really important that would be vital to the story. Does it mean the world is actually linking to something outside of code??? Are there other gateways that will be discovered??? Are they going to discover it in this book??? …nope, we’re just never going to mention it again. So, was the gate placed there by the programmers as an in-game event and that character was just the first lucky one to discover it, or… I feel like I’m missing something and I’m not sure that it’s entirely my fault.

Chekov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the second act you should fire it. Otherwise, don’t put it there.”
This book is a veritable armory of Chekov’s guns that are never fired and have no immediate purpose. Since this is a series, perhaps they will be important later… but I feel like I spent a lot of time reading about things that ultimately didn’t matter, which makes me feel like I wasted time trying to get to the plot. Books should not leave their readers feeling like they wasted time :/

Secondly, the characters are entirely too black and white. The worldbuilding is amazing, but the character development borders on cartoonish. The good guy is sooooooo good and everyone loves him and he is so humble and caring and gosh isn’t he great? And the bad guy is sooooo bad that he is just a bastion of evilness and bitterness and spite and you half expect the next scene to be him in a big chair stroking his fluffy white cat. There is no human motivation behind either of these characters, and it leaves them feeling artificial. The best characters are shades of grey. Their motivations are clear and relate-able, even if you don’t agree with them. The good guy here is a CEO who apparently has such pure and altruistic motivations for his company that he has managed to create a blockbuster company and become the seventh richest man in the world without ever having a selfish thought for himself or his profit margins. Everyone loves him unconditionally (except the bad guys of course. But they’re just jealous…) Humans do not work this way. It just usually doesn’t happen. Companies who are entirely too altruistic go broke because they don’t plan things properly, but this guy just doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes. Even when he fucks up, it all works out in the end. When he farts, it smells like roses, and everyone thinks it’s hilarious. Meanwhile, bad CEO is so consumed by thoughts of revenge that he’s willing to put his entire (currently successful, just not *as* successful…) company on the line just to get back at good CEO. Bad CEO’s company probably wouldn’t be as successful as it is with such single-minded logic behind it. I feel like it all should have been fleshed out just a little bit more…

Not that I didn’t enjoy the characters, I just feel that giving them more human motivations would deepen the story without losing anything. It felt like biased character development, where it was too risky to give the characters flaws or sympathetic points, lest we didn’t view them in the intended way. But the result is somewhat artificial…

Those points aside, I really enjoyed this book. The story was unique in that I haven’t read a whole lot of books about MMOs like this (maybe they exist and I’ve just missed them somehow, but I found it refreshingly unique anyway), but the ending was fairly predictable too (especially since the characters pretty much *can’t* deviate from their stereotypes). It didn’t stop me from blowing through it in two days. You know it’s a good book when you get on your exercise bike and then notice an hour and a half later that your butt went numb.

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Out of the Dark

Out of the DarkOut of the Dark by David Weber
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Alright. I stumbled through the first 30% of the book and came away with the impression of a book that used vivid writing to create nice scenery, some interesting characters that you might be able to relate to and grow to enjoy, and waaaayyy too many words. It takes 25% of the book for anything to even happen because it’s too busy describing things, and then once something happens, it has to stop and describe that too. It’s great if you like reading about military hardware or computer hacking in painful, pedantic detail, but I felt it was unnecessary and bordering on some kind of writing equivalent of masturbation. “Look! Look how much I know about these topics! See, I know all these tiny little details about them, isn’t that impressive? Aren’t you impressed?” No, I am not. I did not need all these details to understand the story, so you’re just wasting my time.

Around 30% is when the war starts rolling, except it was filled with the aliens being blown away by the Americans and continually being shocked about it and thinking to themselves “Hmmm how can this be, these humans are so puny – how is it that these “Americans” from this “United States” are so good at fighting us???”. I was already low on patience from all the wordy descriptions, so the prospect of wading through a book full of all the worst parts of the worst alien invasion movies was not appealing to me. I held out hope that it was going to get better, but I peeked at some other reviews and spoiled myself to see what might be up.

At which point I learned that the end of the story consists of…

This is a spoiler!

God forbid I ruin this shitty book for you!

…DRACULA rescuing humanity?

Really?

Really?

Yeaahhhh… I’ll go read something else for now. :/

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Earth Abides

Earth AbidesEarth Abides by George R. Stewart

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Final Word: A resounding “meh”. The first part was boring, the second part was stocked with characters I hated, or characters with no personality (which I hated), who all made dumbass, arrogant decisions that made me hate them… and the third part was just fine, but not quite enough to redeem everything else. The third part is *almost* the book that I WANTED to read, showing humanity solving problems and adapting to the changes in the world. Instead, the entire book focuses on a bunch of ungrateful whiners who refuse to get off their ass and do anything, and somehow succeed anyway thanks to amazing engineering. Seriously, I think my city has more technical problems with things that *are* maintained than these guys have over the course of 50 years with things that are completely and utterly forgotten about. It would have been nice if they were at least shown trying to maintain things. Then they would have at least been problem solving something… instead, things break over the course of like, a decade, and then they’re all “gee what happened!” Well doesn’t this suck now we have to do stuff fuck this.[the entire reservoir leaks dry over the course of like, a decade, and then they’re all “gee what happened to the water!” Well doesn’t this suck now we have to pack buckets fuck this. (hide spoiler)]

I wish I could give it 1.5. Starring it “I didn’t like it” would be accurate, but I think it deserves a bit more than 1 star, if only because it’s interesting to see a precursor to the more modern day post-apocalyptic stories.

The rest of my review follows, which was pieced together as I went.

—-
I’m half way through now but I’m going to start writing my review anyway.

I was pretty excited to read this book. I love post apocalyptic stuff, I love survival stuff, and I even like “The World Without Us” stuff. This fits the bill perfectly!

The disaster happens and Ish wanders around until he realizes that serious shit went down, and then he has a moment where he’s like “Well, I like to observe things. I’m going to observe this!”

And that is pretty much the first half of the book. It plods along as he drives from place to place and observes what happens when things aren’t maintained. Some of it is interesting, but we now have books that do a much better job of it (like, “The World Without Us”…). There is literally no other plot. I kept waiting for something to happen, but the most interesting thing was the discovery of Princess, and even that was described in an outsider-style “Hmm this dog’s behaviour suggests…” sort of way.

There was never a point where he was really in any sort of danger, or anything tense happened. He panicked about driving through a desert and starts stockpiling backup plans, lest something go wrong… and then just as he gets started doing that he goes “Well fuck it, I should be dead anyway” and so much for that.

And then he goes home. End the first half of the book.

The second half has some interactions with actual characters, but perhaps that is a generous description of them because there hasn’t been any building of personality. I just finished “The Quick Years” and they certainly were quick. It was practically a bullet point list of 15 years worth of happenings which read like “This happened. Then this person showed up. Then babies were born. Then this person died. Then this happened.”
There were some opportunities for interesting things in those years, like the plagues of rats and grasshoppers, the various illnesses they dealt with, what to do if someone was injured… but instead it was more stand-offish observation narration which completely fails to get the reader involved emotionally. I was more emotionally invested in the grasshopper plague described in Little House on the Prairie than I was in this book’s description of the decimation of possibly the only garden on the entire planet.

The characters are continually spared of anything interesting. The rest of the city crumbles around them but oh hey, they found someone who’s a carpenter so their houses weren’t touched, even by earthquakes. They just observe everything else happening, never really getting involved themselves. There is no survival in this post apocalyptic world (They even have a never ending supply of canned food and medicine, thanks to being in a city), other than the occasional offhanded mentions of “This character that was introduced a sentence or two ago and never had an opportunity to gain a personality has died. Gosh look how dangerous things are!” (Hmm I wonder if they were wearing red shirts…)

Perhaps it is to this book’s credit that I am still interested despite that, but I feel like it could be so much more.

Starting in on the second half now. This review may be updated if things change!
—-

In the second half, things start to break down and everyone spends their time whining about it, refusing to do anything about it, or whining about how everyone refuses to do anything about it. (While also refusing to actually do anything about it because, well, no one else is so why should I!)

I really dislike arrogance, and that is one of the best words to describe the majority of these characters. Ish is arrogant about how much smarter he is than everyone else and laments how there will be no smart people left when he dies. Yet he doesn’t particularly want to encourage anyone else to use his precious libraries, either. “His ego was not above being pleased with the belief that he was a demi-god. Was this a way to treat a demi-god?” fuuuccck you. Whenever he starts ranting about how no one will think of the future, everyone interrupts him with ironic clapping. Arrogance. Splashes of good old fashioned misogyny and prejudice (appropriate for the time I suppose) mixed in for flavour too, whenever they declare how inferior women are or how the dim witted shouldn’t be breeding.

Maybe it’s a deliberate anti-humanity statement, in which case it’s effective because none of the characters are likable and I am rooting for them all to hurry up and die so the Earth can cover their corpses in Kudzu or something.


Annnd done. Whew! Part three was better, mostly because everyone I disliked was dead, and Ish was too senile to be an arrogant ass. He still managed a bit, though. The outcomes were more believable and it was nice to see some of humanity not portrayed as dipshit elitists. It’s unfortunate I had to wade through the rest of it to get here, though.

The final part of the book, after the next generation takes over and becomes a hunter gatherer society, is the book I would have WANTED to read. Unfortunately it’s a footnote tacked onto the end of the story of the group of whiny assholes who sat around eating canned food and bitching that they have to dig outhouse pits and take care of the girl who has a mental deficiency. Disappointing, although I do have to admit I am impressed that Stewart portrayed the subtle changes in mannerisms and tribal behaviours in a realistic manner, given when the book was written.

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Legacy Book Reviews

Just a quick note, in case someone is ever skimming through all of these… I was reviewing books on Goodreads far far before it ever occurred to me to make a blog, so I didn’t bother to port all the old ones over (just a few favourites).  If you care, you should be able to access the older reviews through the Goodreads widget, or through the link it helpfully plasters onto the bottom of every review I cross-publish.

Or this link! http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/5300963?sort=review&view=reviews