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I like big books.

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work - Shawn Achor Yet another surprising read from the field of psychology and neuroscience this year. The Happiness Advantage is NOT a self-help book - and it's a good thing, because I loathe the genre. Achor culls real applicable lessons from fascinating studies in classical and modern psychology as well as neuroscience (a field I have much more respect for as a materialist) into a plan of action for individuals as well as organizations to make the most out of the way our brains work productively and creatively. The gist of the argument: nearly every fMRI and productivity study, whether in terms of finance or academia, out there shows that happy people are more successful. Not just in the crass way of being able to enjoy the fruits of their labors, but that their happiness transforms both their brain chemistry and their mindset to enable them to recognize opportunities and take advantage of them more frequently, endure stressful situations and setbacks and find greater meaning and satisfaction in the work they do. Well sucks for me, right? I'm cynical and jaded and I enjoy being more critical and skeptical. It's the way I was born. Don't worry, there's hope for you too. Modern neuroscience and biology has all but erased the old adage "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" and you can change your brains pathways and functioning with relatively simple exercises that can pay huge dividends.

Far from the hokey "everyone's a winner"/"I'm okay, you're okay" psychology of the 70s and 80s, Achor compares the Happiness Advantage more to seeing out of "rose tinted glasses" rather than "rose colored glasses" and he does a great job at being a realist while extending what is probably the most hopeful too-good-to-be-true sounding lifelines to overwhelmed working people out there: if you're happy about your work, you'll do it better and it will be easier AND you can make yourself happy with ANY job, no change of careers necessary.To be sure, more cognitive work will be required of some people than others depending on your genetic predisposition, the depth of the cognitive habits you've developed and the nature of your work, but Achor acknowledges this and makes sure that the principles and practices he recommends are easy enough for the most stressed and busiest of us all to follow a piece at a time.

There's nothing to be bought here, and Achor comes across more as an academic and professional than the salesman consultant (even though he is one) types that I have, unfortunately, too much experience with in the field of education and every claim he makes is backed up with a fully referenced study from a professional journal or organization. It isn't a fad or an idealistic model with no function in reality either. Beyond the psychobiological studies and evidence he draws upon, Achor has a wealth of anecdotal evidence from his own personal experiences as a college RA and advisor as well as more rigorous and financially documented transformations from Fortune 500 companies he has advised in the past as testament to the real life working ability of the Happiness Advantage.

The writing is cogent, well-organized and balanced between academic jargon and relatable content with principles grounded in real world examples. It's hard to deny that Achor is on to something very significant by the time you reach the end of his seven principles - in fact, I'm willing to bet that even the most cynical and skeptical reader will be willing to try out at least something he's presented whether it's the "20 Second Rule" or "Zorro's Circle" and you'd be hard pressed not to find something personal in this book you can't relate to, whether it be stress, the paralysis of difficult choices or just sheer willpower fatigue in your career or, like me, finishing chores around the house. I'm seriously contemplating finding a way to present this in the form of curriculum to my college-bound seniors after AP exams because I think it will be enormously beneficial to them as they make the transition to the more competitive and rigorous university system. Looks like I'll be applying some of these principles to my own work life earlier than I thought...

The Book Thief

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak So I'm pretty much emotionally spent and feel completely inadequate to the task of reviewing this book. It's too good. Like reviewing a classic, the first words that come to mind as I sit to write this is, "Who are you to critique a book like this?" It's that good. Most of my favorite books have their great moments. Moments of clear and precise prose that somehow captures reality in some way that has always escaped me, but has been living inside me my entire life. These books relieve pressure for me, because I go my entire life feeling things and observing things that I can't quite put my finger on and express adequately and when I read the right turn of phrase, the perfect reaction to some aspect of the human condition that we all understand, I'm finally able to say "That's it," and let it go. My favorite books find ways of relieving that pressure of held experiences and emotions in bits and pieces. The Book Thief finds a way to relieve them all. In 550 pages of pure poetry, The Book Thief took each and every one of those remaining inexpressible sentiments and set them free.

Liesel Meminger is taken in by the Hubermann family after tragic circumstances (and what isn't tragic about Nazi Germany?) force her mother into accepting the fact that she can no longer care for her children. The shock of this early experience is accompanied by the strange discovery in the snow of Liesel's first book, the appropriately titled The Gravedigger's Handbook at the hastily thrown together funeral of her brother Werner. The desire for distraction creates in Liesel a desire to bury herself in its pages. There's only one problem. Liesel is ten years old and Liesel can't read. Haunted by her past and the ambiguity of the circumstances that tore her family apart and thrust her into a new home on Himmel Strasse, Liesel is visited by nightmares that wake her nightly. Luckily for her, she wakes into the arms of the kindest, most gentle man that has ever graced the pages of literature: Hans Hubermann, who teaches Liesel to read one word and one night at a time from The Gravedigger's Handbook, sparking in Leisel a passion for words and writing that leads her down a noble path of criminality with her good friend Rudy Steiner (also one of the finest characters ever written).

The Book Thief is a tragedy of really epic proportions, but it's also unquestionably one of the most triumphant novels I've ever read in my entire life. Narrated by Death, it offers a great perspective on the human condition with all its petty shortcomings and exultant moments of kindness. This duality of humanity is something the narrator struggles to hold in his mind, as do we all. How can a species be capable of such massive evil and such ordinary greatness at the same time? The novel's narrative structure is unique and refreshing with poetic asides and observations by perhaps the one entity with the perspective necessary to tell such a small, human tale in the midst of one of the greatest whirlwinds of humanity in all of its sad history. The prose is nothing short of poetic without being excessively lofty or cloying and each and every metaphor is inventive, insightful and captivating; they catch in your mind and force you to roll them over and over again, until you're four pages past and realize you haven't been paying attention to anything since. It's a book that commands your undivided attention. It commands meditation and introspection and cannot be dispensed with in a weekend. It commands rereading at every stage of your life and I'm convinced if it was mandatory reading for every human being the world would be a much better place. There are not enough superlatives or Best Book lists to describe this book. It's a crowning achievement of the entire human race and Marcus Zusak deserves to be recognized with the best of the world's classic authors. Forever.

Wonder Woman, Vol. 2: Guts (The New 52)

Wonder Woman, Vol. 2: Guts - Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, Tony Akins, Dan Green Azzarello's work on Wonder Woman has been nothing short of impressive, and it's quickly become my favorite of the New 52 titles. Completely self-contained, the story arc is a great introduction to the DC universe for new fans or those coming back to comics. Reading this story brings to mind a modern day Xena - a refreshingly reimagined and modern mythology. Not only is the work visually stunning, but the writing (not just the intricate plotting, but the dialogue of all things!) is probably the best of any currently running title. Rich with literary, mythological and artistic allusions, the story satisfies on an intellectual as well as a baser more action-oriented level.

Volume two continues Wonder Woman's quest to rescue and protect Zola, mother of Zeus's latest unborn demigod progeny from Hades, while Hera continues her jealous machinations against the child and its mother, siding with the ambitious Apollo in an ambitious bid to bring the child under her control and simultaneously discover the whereabouts of Zeus. The tale is the ultimate mob-style family power struggle, with serious character commentary and insight into old standbys like Hades that are clever, funny and fresh.

Bold coloring, character design and crisp, witty dialogue make's Wonder Woman my favorite comic title of 2013.

Old Man's War

Old Man's War - John Scalzi I think it's the most human of all questions to ask yourself (at any stage in life really), if you could do it all over again, what would you do differently? That question takes on greater weight in the twilight years of our life and wisdom mingled with regret and nostalgia gives us an imagination rooted more in reality, but perhaps just as vivid and active as when we're children. John Scalzi's Old Man's War explores this very topic with as much subtlety as it has force in a story that's as much Arthur C. Clarke speculative fiction as it is gritty Robert Heinlein military fiction and social commentary. On the surface that's a jarring combination, but it works wondrously in Scalzi's hands from the quiet end-of-life introspection to the fantastic reaches of an opened up universe and man's violent place in it.

Widower John Perry is in for the ride of his life. In some sense, he's been waiting for the end, not with a sense of dread, but with anticipation. On Perry's Earth, in the not-too-distant future, human beings have the opportunity to sign up for the Colonial Defense Forces at the ripe age of 75. The CDF only takes geriatrics. It provides humanity on Earth with protection from alien hostility in a universe teeming with life and guarantees humanity's spread throughout the stars and its very survival. It can do miraculous things with technology centuries in advance of what the Earth currently has. And no one has any idea how they do it. The CDF is cloaked in secrecy and the only real way to find out what's going on above Earth's horizon is to join them. In exchange for a tour of duty, older people get a "new lease on life" - whatever that means. On his 75th birthday, Perry begins the adventure of a lifetime.

Old Man's War is clearly patterned and influenced by Joe Haldeman's fantastic hard sci-fi Forever War and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. We follow Perry's adjustment from civilian life through basic to joining a squad and getting his first taste of war and beyond. The narrative does all that it's predecessors did well as well. It raises ethical questions about warfare, militarism and perceived cultural superiority, and morality when it comes to interspecies (read: international) relations with groups that seem hopelessly alien to us. On top of that, Old Man's War also raises very interesting questions about personality and identity in a unique way by supplanting the previous life and existence of the central narrator with an entirely new one, forcing him to adapt to a radically altered state of being and environment, to develop a new sense of self while maintaining a sense of self at his core that allows him a bit of psychological respite. Mingling and intertwining elements of his past and present life lead Perry down a rawly emotional path that you can't help but empathize with, no matter how absurdly alien things become to us. It's a brilliant narrative ploy as well. It grounds the reader in the "normal" while exposing them to the fantastic and aids in the suspension of disbelief, which is very difficult to achieve in some sci-fi pieces. The concept seems hokey when you read a blurb about it, but it actually works quite well.

Being scientifically-minded, I was immediately drawn to the more literal aspects of "selfhood" presented by the narrative's central conceit - unfortunately filled with spoilers that ruin the suspense of the first quarter of the book, so warning, don't click the following link unless you've read the novel. If our sense of selves are rooted in our consciousness, of what is our consciousness composed? Can it be copied? Or transferred? In the novel, Perry's consciousness is mapped by recording his psychological and neurological reactions to certain emotional stimuli. The data is then used to create a pattern which is "transferred" to a new body that is genetically altered and adapted to be combat ready. Is the new being that inhabits the new Perry body (built in part with his DNA) and patterned after his consciousness and brain functioning in fact Perry? In other words, is it still really the same Perry from the old body in the new? Or is the "exact" copy a new Perry that is indistinguishable from the first with every mannerism and memory down to the second of the transfer (and thus unaware that he's a copy)? Is continuity essential from consciousness? And what would this imply for consciousness if it was actually the same Perry? Couldn't you copy it a million times over in a million new bodies? Would Perry, as a conscious entity be aware of all the others and experience all of their realities simultaneously? In an infinitely large universe (or multiverse) could you die, have your atoms scattered, but through a stroke of luck be reconstituted in the same configuration (brain-wise) at a different place and time and become conscious again? In a way it reminds me of the whole Star Trek teleporter debate: if you're disassembled at the molecular level and reassembled somewhere else do you die and come back? Or is the teleported version of you just a copy? My mind is thankful that Scalzi doesn't indulge this philosophical discussion for very long or I wouldn't have been able to sleep at night.

And thus while the main reason I loved this book was mainly scientific, the one problem I had with it was also, very scientific. Again, spoilers follow. The CDF's skip drive technology is based on the Many World's Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Essentially, the drive tears a whole in the multiverse and moves the occupants of the ship to a neighboring universe in the location they'd like to be in. So every time they skip, they change universes. With me so far? This presents a little bit of a problem for humanity's main goal of spreading through the universe, colonizing and holding new territories. Let's say your colony is attacked and you send word of the attack to the local CDF garrison via skip drone. That message is delivered, but in another universe that is very similar to our own, but NOT our universe. You wait for a response and you receive none, because in your universe the CDF did not get the message. In the "new" neighboring universe, they did. They send a response force to defend you via skip drive...which arrives in a neighboring, similar but not SAME universe. You die. So ultimately, in one of many new universes in the multiverse, humanity expands and thrives among the stars because of all of this back and forth, but not in yours. Also, I'd be tempted on the face of the theory that all possible universes do in fact exist to simply reason that humanity would have thrived anyway in one of them. In addition to that, since I've got the spoiler tag up, I don't feel like the explanation for why the CDF is so secretive about its extraplanetary operations was ever fully given, making the mystery of the first part of the narrative seem kind of pointless beyond a narrative gimmick. It really had no plot consequences at all, even speculatively. So, basically if you don't really have a more than average understanding of quantum mechanics then suspending disbelief in this respect is very easy...luckily for the more discerning audience, the action and development of Perry as a character take precedence and help you get over your cosmological trepidations.

Scalzi's work is a page-turner that would be a wonderfully adventurous jaunt for hardened fans of the genre and more sentimental readers interested in the more reflective aspects of fiction as a mirror of life. A surprisingly great read here at the end of the year and I'm definitely looking at finishing the series in the next couple weeks of vacation.

Congo

Congo - Michael Crichton Don't judge me.

I read Jurassic Park as a kid and remember loving it since I didn't have the money to go see the movie when it first came out, but I was an undiscriminating twelve years old at the time. I felt the stirrings of adventure covering Stanley's escapades in Africa teaching imperialism and decided to give Congo a go, and man was I impressed. I don't think I fully appreciated Crichton's attention to scientific detail in anything I've ever read of his before. Congo tells a story that's at the intersection of insatiable cutting-edge corporate greed and the drive and ambition of pure science. A corporate-funded jaunt into the Congo to look for a natural source of ultra-rare type II blue diamonds for next generation optical computers violently and mysteriously disappears. Hoping to get back in the game and to edge out the competition Earth Resources Technologies sends in a back-up team led by an insanely book smart and ambitious Karen Ross with the support of mercenaries and the erudite, but self-absorbed primatologist Dr. Elliot and his gorilla Amy, who's been troubled by nightmares of a mysterious lost city that just so happens to be near the site of the purported diamond mine jackpot. The ensuing adventure is both romantic and scientific and Crichton's writing strongly reminded me of the best of Arthur C. Clarke - informative, daring and exciting all in one. Crichton, like Clarke, seems to have mastered the skill of the academic aside, seamlessly transitioning between narrative and well-researched (often footnoted) information dumps that are as colorful as the best of BBC's Planet Earth or Africa series.

Crichton was way ahead of his time. Published in 1980, the book utilizes what must have seemed like purely fictional gadgetry that is relatively common place and in use today. In fact, if it hadn't been for the explicit reference to political developments in the central African region dated to the 70s, I'd have thought the story was taking place in the early part of the 21st century. All of the technology is within the realm of the plausible, and never the product of pure invention to satisfy particular plot points, as is so often the case in science fiction. The technology is made to serve the story and the story at times feels like a vehicle for spreading the joy of discovery, the wonder of the natural world and a conservation ethos. Braniacs are the heroes rather than gunslinging cowboys and there's a lot of interesting anthropological anecdotes and observations along the way too.

Purely superficial, but I could still revel in the romance of the old-school adventure/travelogue story, especially where lost cities and new undiscovered species are concerned. I'm going to have to give the rest of Crichton's works a look.

Kenobi: Star Wars

Kenobi - John Jackson Miller This was one of the most satisfying Star Wars novels I've read in a number of years. I'm leery of prequel stuff in general; not only were the movies bad, but a lot of the EU stuff from the prequel years has been really bad as well. I picked this one up off of pretty rave reviews on a bunch of different book blogs and hardened Star Wars fans who have similar tastes, and I have to agree with almost everything they've said. Kenobi tells (partially) the story of Obi-wan's exile on Tatooine, waiting for Luke to come of age and fills the gap between the close of Episode III and Ben's wizard-like appearance saving Luke from the Sand People in Episode IV.

Kenobi has a very "western" genre feel to it. Set amidst a moisture farming community near the Jundland Wastes, the novel describes Obi-wan's frustrating attempts to blend in and disappear in a small rural town where everyone knows everyone else and anyone new is the source of unending gossip. Structurally, it's a story we're familiar with and its alien environment only adds layers to it. The beauty is it's a simple story well-told. You don't have to be a Star Wars junky to enjoy this one at all. I'd even wager that if you're a fan of gunslinging westerns there's much to enjoy here for you as well. You have hostile natives whose ancestral lands and traditional way of life is being threatened by outsiders, the mysterious stranger who's good in a fight, the widowed store-owner trying to make ends meet for her kids in a rough world and a community of ranchers struggling to survive on the fringes of civilization.

There's no shitty re-used dialogue here with obligatory "I have a bad feeling about this." The characters are human, say real things and have relatable feelings and make relatable mistakes. Miller manages to set a story in the Star Wars universe and tell a human story without getting caught up in the set pieces. I especially liked the depth he gave to the Sand People and the "Settlers and Indians" dynamic he sets up between them. Not only is this a story about fate and small actions having galactic consequences, it's one of cultural misunderstandings and mediation. Obi-wan is fantastic in this story; guilt-ridden and coming to terms with massive personal tragedy, he's emotive and real rather than the wise sage and guru we're used to seeing in ghostly form. The novel also connects nicely to one of my other EU favorites, the Legacy graphic novel series centered around Cade Skywalker, which I also highly recommend.

For long time EU followers, this one is perhaps the best in the EU since the last Zahn book. For those of you new to the Expanded Universe, this is a great entry point. If you enjoy it, follow it up with Zahn's Heir to the Empire and you'll be hooked....at least until Abrams's new movie retcons everything and wipes away the EU as canon.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel - Neil Gaiman This book was another pleasant surprise! While I love Sandman with a passion, I was not enamored of American Gods at all (I know, I know, spare me the hate mail. I'm the only one in the reading universe that thinks that novel was lame). I'm just not a fan of modern fairytales. As a rule I hate urban fantasy, but this was so different and unique. A contemporary setting with fantastical and scientific elements.

Ocean tells the story of an unnamed narrator's search for bridges between his largely unsuccessful and unhappy adult life and his happy, but fragmented memories of the past. After a funeral, he returns to his family home seeking solace and context only to find his memory violently jarred by the surrounding countryside - in particular the pond behind his childhood friend Lettie's home. When the floodgates open, we're taken on a magical journey where a lonely, book-bound boy befriends a strange girl and her family, who open up his world to new wonders and new dangers. On one such jaunt into the fantastic, Lettie and the narrator attempt to exorcise the presence of an evil spirit sowing discord among members in the community who find themselves hard-pressed for cash and unknowingly unleash the vindictive wrath of Ursula Monkton a spirit that takes on physical presence and residence in the narrator's home, turning his family against him and making his life miserable. The rest of the tale is one of personal bravery, imagination and sacrifice with a lot of endearing familial moments along the way. The language is expressive and poetic and the story is genuinely emotional. I rarely have intense feelings of dislike for a story's villains, but I'd put Ms. Monkton on par with Dolores Umbridge or the Dursleys - characters of such ill-repute that I was forced to put down the Harry Potter books several times in disgust and anger.

This is a story that would be totally awesome for kids as a great imaginative fantasy with strong characters - minus a couple of scenes that push the limit of appropriate for younger audiences. I couldn't help but think of the story as semi-episodic and almost perfect for nighttime reads between parents and kids - the type of experience that builds lifelong readers and learners who crave good storytelling and remember what makes a great one.

Shutter Island

Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane Impressive! I'd forgotten how much I liked Lehane's writing because it's been so long since I read Mystic River, but the man's got a way with words. More thorough review after some much needed sleep!

Wonder Woman Vol. 1: Blood (The New 52)

Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: Blood - Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, Tony Akins A breath of fresh air after reading a bunch of poorly written, groveling female characters from the 1970s. Azzarello does something really fantastic here: he manages to write urban fantasy that is not lame. The Greek gods are alive and well, plotting and scheming (and sleeping with) mortals for their entertainment and career advancement. You see, Zeus has gone missing, and the Throne of Heaven is vacant. Diana, Princess of the Amazons chances upon an assassination plot and becomes embroiled in the contest for the throne. Along the way, we're reintroduced to the gods and goddesses, the new geography of the mythic world and the rebooted origin story of one of DC's most beloved characters.

I've enjoyed this New 52 reboot more than any single other title so far. Azzarello tells a tight story and no outside information is needed. Events in Wonder Woman don't crossover with other titles, so it's easy to follow the narrative without feeling like you're missing something. I appreciate that. When reviewing graphic novels, I usually don't even bother mentioning art and instead stick to story, but I feel like the artwork, in particular the character design, deserves mention here. It's phenomenal. I don't like contemporary re-inventions of classic mythology almost as a general rule. I find most of it hokey wishful thinking on the parts of adults who are trying way too desperately to convince themselves that their childhood fairytales are still real and right around the corner. But this... this feels like something special. Cliff Chiang and Troy Akins deliver stunning updates to the beloved pantheon of Greek gods, re-imagining them in extraordinary ways that remain true to the core of their mythological personalities. I feel like that alone did wonders for my ability to swallow this modern mythology tale without gagging.

Nine Princes in Amber

Nine Princes in Amber - Roger Zelazny Two multiversal books in a row? And fantasy books, no less. Enter Corwin, amnesiac prince of Amber on a mission to find out why he woke up under forced sedation in a hospital on our Earth and the events that led him there. The journey of discovery takes us beyond the veil of our own world (and many others like it) to the one true world of Amber, of which all other realities are shadows. Along the way we're introduced to the key players, mostly members of Corwin's family, rivals as much as friends, for the throne in Amber. Corwin's tale is a tale of discovery and revenge in a moderately inventive world, given the original date of publication.


I have to admit pure puzzlement at the ardor of love professed by advocates of this book. I can only chalk it up to sentimental value for those that read it at a more impressionable and less critical stage in their reading careers. The Kindle version I read was a poor adaptation with tons of typographical errors that distracted me, but beyond that I thought the writing was poor to fair at best. Zelzany delivers the occasional great metaphor or line, but the combined usage of 70s colloquialisms and high fantasy rhetorical thees and thous was jarring, awkward and ridiculous. It sounds strange to read epic fantasy where characters end info dump paragraphs that are semi-enjoyable with "dig?," get high when they have some down time and have random, consensual cheesy 70s sex with relative strangers. The pacing is pretty horrendous too. It's a quick read and the plot moves along without significant drag, which tends to be the bane of a lot of modern fantasy novels. However, it does so in fits and starts that are simply colossal in magnitude. Mild spoilers ahead: After a rather long accounting of epic battles involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers and thousands of ships, Zelzany condenses the Siege of Amber to an uphill battle on a mountain trail wide enough to only fit one man abreast. We're led through martial exploits of derring-do as the vanguard in front of Corwin and his brother Bleys is whittled down, numerically, paragraph by paragraph over the course of several pages only to reach the penultimate moment with this line: "Let's be brief. They killed everyone but me." To make matters worse, after being led to believe that the entire army had been decimated, Zelzany clearly indicates that there were some troops in reserve behind the Princes. This sort of narrative oxymoron appears time and again throughout the story. Long detailed sections describing the passage of time, cut short by phrases like "Then a lot more time must have passed." It's the literary equivalent of "Oh man I got in an accident because I was in the right lane and a red sedan with one headlight and a "Praise Jesus" bumper sticker cut me off at the intersection of Vermont and Olympic when it was 65 degrees outside and the humidity was 5%...and anyway some other stuff happened and now I'm being released from the hospital...A month and a half later." I just wasn't a fan of the narrator in general and I felt that he stated the obvious in odd little sentences that my brain go into mini-convulsions of rage. I mean come on, "I rubbed at the stubble on my chin and went where they took me"? Really? Of course you went where they took you. I think apologists might defend that sort of thing by saying it adds authenticity to the first-person narration, but I just find it sloppy. Once I could forgive, but Zelzany makes a habit of it and it happens far too many times in 175 pages he used to tell this story.

Does Nine Princes have anything to recommend it? Well, the world itself isn't too shabby and the power that the denizens of Amber have over the fabric of the multiverse has some intriguing possibilities. I didn't feel that Zelzany sold the war for the throne convincingly enough as motivation for Corwin, and I felt that he participated in that venture more out of the expectations and tropes of the genre than because of anything personal, but perhaps that's because the reader spends half the novel in the dark along with Corwin himself. The amnesiac bit was a good way to introduce the reader to the world as Corwin's quest of self-discovery is a convenient vehicle for informing the reader, but that's also a convenient way to sidestep the usual narrative rule of "show don't tell." Compared with my recent read of Terry Pratchett's [b:Guards! Guards!|64216|Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8)|Terry Pratchett|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347382469s/64216.jpg|1128601], where a similar technique is employed using the man-dwarf Carrot Ironfoundersson, I found Zelzany's usage amateurish. Corwin himself is rather interesting and you can tell his years of self-discovery on Earth have definitely changed him in significant ways and the humanistic and compassionate urges he feels, but can't necessarily explain throughout the story preserve the kernel of an idea about redemption and personal transformation that could lead to more interesting choices and critical moments in the future of the story if handled deftly enough. The problem I'm having at the moment is that Zelzany hasn't really inspired a lot of confidence in me that he'll take the story to those potential high points.

Still, this series is solidly embedded in NPR's list of top 100 Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels and it certainly has a huge fan base. I take some hope from Tor.com's Rajan Khanna. In his blogged re-read of the series, he observes, "One of the amazing things about this novel is that it’s mostly set-up for what comes later. It’s certainly engaging and exciting, but it has very little to do with the storyline that becomes the focus of the next four books. What it does do is introduce us to Corwin, show us his family and their allegiances, and explains Amber, the Pattern, and the Trumps. All of these elements will be tweaked a bit in later books, but they’re established here for later use." I don't know about "amazing," but that sounds kind of promising. Given that the series spans ten books, maybe a little more investment is required to see things start to pay out. And hey, [b:The Guns of Avalon|62012|The Guns of Avalon (Amber Chronicles, #2)|Roger Zelazny|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1368213721s/62012.jpg|1105543] is only 223 pages, so maybe I'll invest one more day before abandoning ship.

The Guns of Avalon (Chronicles of Amber, No. 2)

The Guns of Avalon - Roger Zelazny Nope.

Guards! Guards!

Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett It's easy to see why Pratchett and his Discworld series are so highly recommended and beloved by fans across the multiverse. Pratchett has the dry, sardonic literal comic fantasy genre down pat. In fact, I can't think of another fantasy author who has bothered with the same approach. Pratchett is to fantasy what Addams is to sci-fi, or perhaps it's the other way around, and if you're a fan of one, you'll most likely be a fan of the other.

Discworld is a difficult series to approach. Its canon is massive and the chronology complicated - especially for sticklers of order and continuity like myself. I studied like five reading order guides before finally figuring out how it's all put together and choosing a starting story arc and I still feel like I'm missing half the references, which I'm sure is the point and ultimately leads to the series re-readability. If you're in the same boat, the most helpful guide I've found is this one. It's simple, visually neat and pretty much self-explanatory for the non-initiate.

Guards! Guards! is a clever mish-mash of genres from comic fantasy to police procedural and focuses on the rather underwhelming City Guard of Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett introduces us to the city and the wider Discworld through the character of Carrot, a human being who believes he's a dwarf as he travels from the mine he's called home for as long as he can remember to go out and "live amongst his own kind." While not necessarily the central character, new readers might feel more of an affinity for Carrot as a stand-in. He's as new to the city as we are and we meet it's denizens with the same confusion and curiosity (although perhaps with less literal-mindedness). The story semi-centers around Carrot's joining of the Guard, his integration into Ankh-Morpork society as he learns the ropes from veteran guard members Vimes, Colon and Nobbs. We're simultaneously introduced to the plot that binds the multiple narratives of Guards through meetings of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night (which seem more like comic AA meetings rather than the meetings of a secret society), as they attempt to overthrow the Patrician of the city with an elaborate scheme involving the summoning of a dragon and the invention of a dragonslaying puppet king. Can the inept, lazy, corrupt City Guards unravel the plot and save the city? Will the introduction of Carrot Ironfoundersson to the Watch be a catalyst for their transformation? Only time, a peculiar property of the Discworld Universe can tell.

Pratchett is a quippy and observant commentator on the human condition, projecting silly aspects of contemporary society onto a fantasy canvas where their absurdities can become readily apparent and safe for discussion and dismissal. He's also a very, very smart man. The narrative builds in references to complicated physics, a vast knowledge of history and popular culture that makes it difficult to tell the relationship between the fantasy Discworld and our own for they seem to share a lot of properties. Pratchett's prose is easily readable and his voice has the lulling quality of campfire oral tradition that is the mark of a master storyteller. I always find these types of stories intellectually appealing (the same way Addams or Vonnegut are), without being totally engrossing. There's something about the overly-sophisticated and smart narrative that disconnects me from the plot as I appreciate and spend time dissecting the means by which the story is driven along. It's not a terrible thing. In fact, it's refreshing to take a story and just think about word choice and construction every once in a while. I just haven't found an author who manages to do both in a completely immersive fashion.

Still, I count this as a successful first foray into the Discworld Universe and definitely adding the rest of Pratchett's works confidently to my to-read list. I can't say for certain until I've read more of the series, but I thought this was a fantastic place to start.

The Republic of Thieves

The Republic of Thieves - Scott Lynch Gods' immaculate piss, but this is an absolutely fantastic read that has rescued me from a serious and year long book slump. Lynch trades masterfully intricate plotting for some very serious character and relationship development in a necessary change for the series. The Republic of Thieves is wonderfully layered, filling some of the tantalizing gaps in the personal history of Locke Lamora while propelling the series in a new direction with some greater definition. Rather than a series of loosely connected heists and wonderfully rigged scams, the tale of the Gentlemen Bastards has taken to the epic, widening in importance and provides the sense of an endgame down the road in book seven. Thieves is a powerful entry in the sequence for the frustratingly ominous foreshadowing that takes place throughout the book and the introduction of new-old characters that we've been waiting to meet (and be re-united with) since the beginning.

Picking up immediately after Red Seas, our favorite hucksters find themselves out of funds and nearly out of time as the poisonous leftovers of Archon Maxilan Stragos's ploy to control Locke and Jean drain Locke of the final dregs of his bitter life. As Jean desperately searches for a remedy (and stronger and stronger cups of coffee), larger forces at work in the lives of the Bastards converge to offer them a way out. The Bondsmagi return with an offer that Locke can't refuse: life and a chance to be re-united with the enigmatic Sabetha in exchange for services in electoral shenanigans in Karthain. Bondsmagi being bondsmagi, there's more to it than that and when the Bastards arrive in Karthain to begin work, Locke finds himself thrust back into a familiar rivalry with Sabetha; one that their lives depend on, which nicely allows for the seamless and layered building of dual storylines set in the past and present and allowing Lynch to fill holes in the past and open possibilities for the future in clever, creative and often jaw-dropping ways.

It's a testament to Lynch's creativity that he can still shock me by twisting the plot when I least expect it. Just when I seem to have a handle on things, he seems to have the perfect curve ball waiting in the wings to confound me and keep me up past my bed time or sitting in my car outside my classroom finishing a chapter before I drag myself up the stairs and try to actually focus on doing something productive. Thieves is tales within tales and, again, as a testament to Lynch's ability, I found myself valuing both storylines (as well as the plot of Lucarno's play) equally. Usually when an author divides their attention and creates multiple threads I find myself preferring one narrative line over the others, obligatorily drudging through intervening chapters to get to the ones I really care about. Not so with Thieves. In fact, the flashback parallels the current narrative in ways that flesh out the relationship of the principal characters with past and present are so mutually revelatory, not necessarily with plot points, but flesh for the lives of characters that they're inextricable. Thieves gives a sense of the cyclical nature of life, bringing out strong themes of identity, fate and self-determination with characters that you fall in love with and whose failures and personal travails hit you in the gut like bad news from old friends.

Lynch caps off wonderfully inventive storytelling with the strong mechanics to back it up. There's solid world and history building in Thieves in the hands of a master storyteller with the ability to make swearing into an art form. Witty repartee and zingy one-liners have the distinct character and flavor of exotic and fantastic locales without the usual accompanying cringes that are the usual hallmarks of this particular genre. Besides the profane, Lynch shows commensurate skill with the divine, as his own yarn bears strong parallels the fictional work of his world's Shakespeare, Lucarno. The flashback plot's unfolding and eventual performance of the titular play displays firm command of lofty language, subtlety and symbolism to rival some of the best contemporary writers - and that's just the subplot.

One could complain that the great con at the center of this novel lacks the gravitas and consequences of the previous novels, which removes some of the tension from the story, but the relational tension more than makes up for it. I never really believed any of the characters were in any real danger in Thieves. That being said, I found it to be an even bigger page-turner than the previous novel. I thought the transition from art and coin heists to political campaigning both appropriate and refreshing. Part of me simply enjoys inane pranking, and there's enough of it in the novel to make even stalwarts of good old 19th century American party machines blush and take notes.

What sets Lynch apart from the shitwits and wastrels of the sword and sorcery flock is his intelligence. Smart stories, smart characters (including the opposition), and cuttingly smart dialogue. Fans of fantasy - and just all around good storytelling - do themselves a disservice by not picking up this series.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag - Kang Chol-Hwan, Pierre Rigoulot Riveting more so because of the light that it sheds on perhaps the most secretive society in the world than its compelling narrative, The Aquariums of Pyongyang presents a view of North Korea's gulag society that is a chilling study of brutality, greed and survivalism on par with some of the greatest stories of despotism to come to us out of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. I think the language barrier prevents some of the direct communication that would have given the narrative a more personal touch. In fact, the formalized ideological speech patterns of his youth probably impose a lasting cadence to Kang Chol-Hwan's voice that often seems remote and observational at moments the reader feels should be incredibly moving. Perhaps it's a coping mechanism as well.

The most painful part of the narrative is the descent of the family from plush prosperity in Japan to imprisonment as political prisoners in the North - commitment to the cause of communism and the Kim dictatorship unjustly rewarded with the denial of life and liberty for no other reason than petty greed. Most surprising to me is Kang's portrayal of North Korean society as disorganized and rampantly corrupt. The outward image projected by the Hermit Kingdom is one of absolute control and order, with the threat of severe punishment so real and close that in an Orwellian sense, to even think disobedience could mean life in the camps or death. Instead, Kang tells of thriving black market sales and the relative ease with which people can travel and acquire needed items or services if you have the ability to grease the wheels. Its a nakedly capitalistic system covered by a thin veneer of communistic ideology, where the threats to your person come not from breaking with the party line necessarily, but from drawing too much unwanted attention to yourself from greedy people with power who use their positions to enrich themselves at your expense. North Korea is full of petty tyrants and people trying more desperately to secure status and a decent standard of living than in the most capitalist of countries (ironic).

There are areas that I felt were lacking. I just had so many questions, that went unanswered - none of which is Kang's fault. Access to information is severely restricted and most people in the North only know what they see directly, which is surprisingly little if you're trying to keep your head down and avoid getting into trouble with the authorities. Believe me, there's plenty in here to get your blood riled up and its day to day accounting of gulag life is thorough. I think what I wanted, and perhaps what I'll look for next, is more of a political study of the country. As horrible a place as North Korea is, it's a fascinating psychosocial experiment. How in the world a regime as brutally repressive as the Kim regime is can exist without suffering from a revolution or large-scale rebellion is beyond me. It certainly took far less oppression in places like France or even Russia for the people to decide to risk life and limb. Why not Korea? Or have the people tried and we just haven't heard? There's so much to learn and so much to hope for for the Korean people in the coming century. I seriously hope I live long enough to see the people parade Kim Jong Un's ridiculously round, absurdly childlike head through the middle of Pyongyang as they march toward unification with their family to the South and a better future. He and his family have to be some of the most evil people to have ever walked the Earth.

Child of God

Child of God - Cormac McCarthy I don't think I was in the right frame of mind to properly enjoy or digest this. I'm a huge fan of McCarthy, but this one was a touch too surreal for me. He went all in on the Southern Gothic front and it was way too heavy for me given all the other things I'm trying to digest. Of course, being McCarthy, the prose is as beautiful as it is austere. But the narrative jumps around quite a bit - especially on the Kindle version I have.

Shelved for re-reading.

From a Buick 8

From a Buick 8 - Stephen King From a Buick 8 is the strange tale of a mysterious car that serves as a nexus between worlds. At least that's what it is on the surface. The truth is, those aspects of the story are rather uninteresting. Certainly there's potential in the kernel of the idea, but the Buick never seems to manifest any serious threat and the storyline connected to the Buick seems rather flat and lacking in tension. A lot of that has to do with the narrative style of this book. King experiments with multiple perspectives - different narrators bridging the gap between two eras as the men and women of Troop D in Pennsylvania help young Ned Wilcox come to terms with the death of his trooper father using the mysterious vehicle as...well, a vehicle. I was not a huge fan of the structural choices in this novel. First person accounts of the mysterious happenings in Shed B, which houses the Buick 8, remove any dramatic tension from the story because you know the characters survive whatever experience they're relating. You know a priori that these people aren't in any real danger and so the various manifestations of threat emanating from the Buick seem more like curiosities than monstrosities. King knew that to be the case, which is why he relies on the reader's sense of curiosity to drive them through the story. In fact, he says so explicitly several times, making Curt Wilcox and his son Ned avatars for the reader who can't help but want answers to very strange questions regarding everything Buick related. "Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back." Only it doesn't really, does it? The novel's theme is predicated on the idea that in real life, you're not entitled to all the answers to all the questions you have and that the path of indulging your curiosity never leads to anything remotely close to satisfaction. This is an artful dodge narratively speaking because it allows King to avoid giving the reader any answers at all about the Buick, but you can't argue with its truthiness.

As always, King writes amazingly realistic dialogue full of one line witticisms that are heartrending, hilarious and pithy. I don't know how the man does it so consistently. He's a regular galaxy of everyman proverbs. Whatever you may think of his plotting as a "popular author" (eye-roll), you can't deny the sheer genius and wisdom that flow from the tip of this man's pen on such a regular basis. I wonder if they're little bits of wisdom he's collected and latched on to in his wide travels and long life or things that he comes up with in the shower while rubbing the shampoo out of his eyes. Whatever it is, it's astonishing and an author with a tenth of the insight this man has into the human condition would count him or herself incredibly lucky.

What shines her are the interpersonal connections and portrayal of family. There were certainly themes of causality more than just hinted at, but never realized in quite the astonishing way I expected given the build-up throughout. Certainly it doesn't show the polish of some of King's other more celebrated novels. The afterword is fantastic, so be sure to stick around for it. A small window into King's creative mind and a recounting of the genesis of this particular tale.