Review: The Ballad of Beta-2 by Samuel R. Delaney

January 3, 2012 2 comments

I have started to develop a fondness for some of the science fiction novels/novellas of the 1960’s and 1970’s. I find that many of the ideas are clever and the writing is very tight.  I had read two of Delany’s novellas, Empire Star (highly recommended) and Babel-17 which you can find together in an omnibus edition. I ran across The Ballad of Beta-2 at a local used bookstore recently.

The conceit of this story is an anthropological study of a ballad composed by the people of a multi-generational colony ship. A student is assigned the task to decipher the history and meaning of the song. The words of the song are intelligible, but have either highly stylized meanings or the original terms have evolved over time, making the real message obscure.

The protagonist travels to the site of the surviving ships in a small research vessel which has the technology to create temporal bubbles. Once there, he attempts to locate records, both written and sound recording, to explain what happened to the ships and their inhabitants.

I found the novella very original in its themes of language shifts, idioms, and imagery, which rendered the original song mysterious to other civilizations.  Like Empire Star, it’s a story that almost has to be read again immediately after finishing to fully enjoy the book.

4 out of 5 stars (finished January 2, 2012)

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

Audible iPhone App upgrade to iOS5

November 7, 2011 2 comments

I recently upgraded my iPhone 3GS to iOS5 and wondered if my Audible stats such as badges and total listening time would be copied over when restored. I really like the app and hoped that I could continue to track my reading time.

The answer is: yes, but you must create a backup (or have a current backup) of your iPhone, iPad, or iTouch device first. After iOS5 is installed, you will restore your apps from the backup. All of my statistics and badges returned without any issue.

The only issue I encountered was that some (all?) of my downloaded audio files were corrupted or unavailable. In Audible’s FAQ, there is a message that some customers were receiving an error message, “Error playing title”:

This is because the storage location of downloaded audiobooks has changed in order to fulfill Apple’s iCloud requirements.  To recover from this error, please go to App Settings menu, then tap “Refresh Complete Library”. Once your library has refreshed completely, please re-download the titles you were listening to and playback should work again.”

I did lose my location in my book, but everything else worked correctly.

All in all, this was a minor inconvenience compared to the rather painful upgrade itself.

Categories: Product Reviews

Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

October 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I just finished The Magicians, a fantasy-type novel by Lev Grossman.  Prior to reading the book, I really didn’t know much about it except a comment made that there was some discussion whether to market it as genre or general fiction. It was ultimately sold as general fiction and in many ways I think that was a wise decision.

The novel opens as Quentin Coldwater, an uber-intelligent, but listless, high-schooler in New York, is whisked off to a strange place to take an entrance test for an exclusive college. Upon his abrupt arrival, he immediately wonders if he has entered the world of Fillory, a land in a much beloved series of children’s books he devoured as a child. These books describe adventures of the Chatwin children who are transported into Fillory much like the children in the Narnia books.

Accepted as a student, he pursues courses in magic a la Harry Potter, but much more monotonous and scientific than Hogwarts. As one student states,

The work is different, too. It’s not what you think. You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.

The problem is, however, it’s not Harry Potter. I love the fact that the book is a bit less silly and more gritty than the Harry Potter books, but the spark that’s missing is a sense of joy and purpose.

The beginning pulls you in: the mystery of the school and discovering how magic works.  But then, nothing.  There’s no great evil to overcome, there’s no purpose to magic in the greater world.

The Magicians seems to me to be a post modernist view of fantasy. There is no overarching morality or rules to follow. Instead, each person is just expected to follow his or her own code. Things just are — there is no meaning.

But, the fact of the matter is that the book is joyless.

  • The characters are joyless, looking for meaning in sex and drugs. They have few bonds of loyalty or comradeship between each other.
  • Magic is joyless: merely a memorization of endless charts and exceptions.
  • Any accomplishments are joyless, even the Harry Potter-esque geme of welters. Virtually all of the active magicians that are shown in the book are empty, purposeless shells.
  • And, when Quentin and his “friends” finally have the opportunity to visit Fillory, it too is a joyless occasion.
In some ways, the book is an homage to Harry Potter and Narnia. But, in many others, it attempts to extract and laugh at the innocence and the magic from those books.
I think I’ll read the sequel, The Magician King, but only after cleansing my palate first.

3  out of 5 stars (finished October 16, 2011)

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Currently reading:  The Myriad by R.M. Meluch and Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich.

Categories: Book Reviews Tags: ,

Review: Dragon’s Kin by Anne McCaffrey

September 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Dragon’s Kin is one of the more recent (relatively speaking) Dragonriders of Pern novels.  This book was coauthored by Anne McCaffrey’s son, Todd McCaffrey.

The focus on this book is the watch wher, the somewhat failed “cousin” to the magnificent dragons of Pern.  Set much earlier than the 6th Pass of the core “Dragonriders of Pern” novels, during an interval between passes of thread.

Kindan is the young son of a miner / watch wher handler.  Watch whers, who are able to see clearly in near dark, are being used in mines to detect “bad air” and to help locate miners who become trapped in cave-ins, almost a reptilian St. Bernard. If the mining camp can prove itself, a new Holding may be in the offing, but accidents and set-backs continue to plague it.

When Kindan’s father is killed in a mining accident along with his bonded wher, Kindan is assigned to the Masterharper. Ultimately, he must choose between his heart’s desire (to become a harper himself) and the needs of the community.

In my opinion, watch whers receive a bit of reconning treatment.  They are portrayed less like the ugly, twisted creatures of the earlier books — granted, however, their extreme loyalty to their Holders is admirable (recall the loyalty of the Ruatha Hold wher to Lessa) — and more like sturdy, likeable companions to their bondmates.  In this reconning, the authors demonstrate that whers can fly with their stunted wings, go between, and communicate telepathically.  The latter talent is greater than that of the fire lizards, but much less structured, intelligent, and self aware than the dragons themselves.

The companionship and the raising of a new wher is touching, however.  While I’m not sure that there is a whole story here, I found the book compelling and an interesting companion to the more dragon-centric novels.

4 1/2  out of 5 stars (finished August 31, 2011)

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Currently reading:  The Myriad by R.M. Meluch

Review: The Skies of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

August 23, 2011 1 comment

The Skies of Pern is the last Dragonriders of Pern novel chronologically, a direct sequel to All the Weyrs of Pern and The Dolphins of Pern.  As such, Anne McCaffrey had to tie up some loose ends and provide a satisfactory yet open ended conclusion to the 2500+ year history:

  • What will the dragons and dragonriders do once thread no longer falls on Pern?
  • How will the technological advances offered by AIVAS be integrated into Pern society without losing the uniqueness of the colony?
  • How will the author treat F’lar and Lessa’s lives through the end of the current Pass?

All told, the book is satisfying, although I’d argue that the plot thread of the Abominators was rather weak and fizzled toward the end. Very anti-climatic.

I found that the fate of F’lessan and Golanth was one of the most moving of the series (along with the end of Moreta’s ride and the passing of Robinton and his fire lizard).  I thought it was dealt with very well and was somewhat overdue (the roles of the dragonriders are dangerous!).

I’m now curious to read the books that Anne McCaffrey and her son Todd McCaffrey wrote about the earlier Passes and Intervals. I think they’ll be interesting because I’ve now seen the dawn of the dragons in the early years of Pern’s colonization and the latter years when thread is eradicated; how effective can the writing be if the results have little to no impact on the future?

4  out of 5 stars (finished August 23, 2011)

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Currently reading:  The Clones of Mawcett by Thomas DePrima

Review: A Galaxy Unknown by Thomas DePrima

August 22, 2011 4 comments

I had an opportunity via the Lendle service to borrow A Galaxy Unknown by Thomas DePrima.  I had seen the book on my Amazon recommendations several times, probably due to the Space Opera novels that I’ve rated there.

The book has many elements that I have enjoyed in many other series — for example,  the Honor Harrington novels by David Weber, the Seaforth Saga by David Feintuch, the Horatio Hornblower age of sail novels by C.S. Forester, and the Lost Fleet series (my review) by Jack Campbell —

  • An individual suddenly catapulted into command.
  • Having to lead by his/her wits, intelligence, motivation, daring, more so than by brawn.
  • Loneliness of command.

The difference between the above novels and A Galaxy Unknown is the former books’ strength of writing style and plotting.  This book seems still unpolished and too linear.

The first issue is the extreme “Mary Sue” nature of the main character, Jenetta Carver.  The skills she gains are more than convenient and unreal:  extreme beauty, a reshaped perfect body, enhanced longevity, quick healing, and pain becomes a non-issue (virtually a pleasurable experience.)

Another oddity:  the character is disqualified from command during her time in the Academy.  Her instructors find that she is indecisive and is unable to make the quick decisions required of an officer.  The author describes a single incident in one of her courses where she fails a critical engineering test and feels somewhat scarred.  However, once revived from a 10-year sleep in ship escape pod, she immediately becomes both creative and decisively competent.  Without much explanation.

In the Academy, Jenetta excels in the sciences.  I do think that it would have been more natural for some of her later command decisions to include her strengths in astrophysics or computer sciences to resolve the issue.  Perhaps the crew wouldn’t understand how exactly she was intending to get them out of the mess, but she’d come through anyway.

Other Oddities:

Weird stilted language.  I appreciate that the author suggests that books shouldn’t be dumbed down to the lowest level, but I suggest that many of the 50 cent words were contrived.

I think there were several jarring editing flaws:

  • insure vs. ensure
  • it’s vs its
  • innumerous vs innumerable

Virtually every character is described by height as if this were some magical characteristic that defines them.  It became a bit distracting.

Despite its flaws, I did enjoy the adventure and have picked up the second book in the series to see how the character grows and whether the plotting becomes tighter.

3 1/2  out of 5 stars (finished August 14, 2011)

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Currently reading:  The Skies of Pern by Anne McCaffrey & Valor at Vauzlee by Thomas DePrima.

Update: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons is released in HB and Kindle

Update from my earlier post in March.  My electronic Kindle version of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons was delivered automatically to my Kindle device today and I’ll start reading it tonight.

The Kindle ebook version as of July 12, 2011 is being sold on Amazon for $14.99 (the print version is currently $18.81) and is, of course, delivered immediately and readable on multiple devices including PCs, Macs, Android devices, iPhone/iPad devices, and Windows Phone 7.

I’m planning to take Thursday and Friday as vacation days to get a good start on the book!

Categories: Musings Tags: ,