Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book List 2011: Part 5's been awhile since I've bothered to do another edition of my booklist. The books just keep stacking up so I'd better start mentioning them before I forget them all.

* = reread

John Dies at the End
by. David Wong

[I've come to the decision that when a reread a book that I've already talked about in a booklist, I'll make an attempt to get someone else's opinion on it for you. Anyways, I read this book last year. And since I also lent this book to my friend Max this year, I got him to write a little review for you.]

A John Dies at the End Review
by. Max Rewitzer

       “If there’s anything I enjoy more in a work of fiction than a page-turning plot; it’s a work of fiction that’s also filled with bouts of black humor, absurd situations, and hilarious dialogue. Throw in a recurring joke about bratwurst and you have the recipe for an instant favorite. John Dies at the End, written by Jason Pargin, under the pseudonym David Wong (of notoriety), is exactly that sort of story.

       It’s hard to convey in a review why I liked this book; there are so many good things going for it. But one of the most enjoyable aspects is the characters. In most popular fiction you’re lucky if you find at least some of the characters relatable, but in the case of John Dies at the End, they all are.

       The main character, David Wong, is a twenty-something with a jaded attitude who works a dead end job at a video rental store. He’s bored with his life and ends up killing time with his best friend, the titular John (who may or may not die at the end of the story…you’ll have to read it to find out!). David and John are written with honesty, their dialogue is believable (not to mention unbelievably hilarious), and they’re instantly likeable. Just two normal guys who get lost in the plot of a supernatural-horror-comedy-action-sci-fi thriller and react the way you’d expect people grounded in reality to react.

       John Dies at the End suffers from no slow points, as far as I found. Pargin keeps the pace fast and throws as many twists and turns to the plot as he can. Many of the situations the characters find themselves in will leave you simultaneously busting a gut from hilarity and on the edge of your seat in anticipation of what happens next.

       Overall, John Dies at the End is a fantastic read that panders to nobody and doesn’t hold anything back. It’s a book that you can lose yourself in and not notice the passing of time. And it’s a definite must for any fan of the horror/comedy genre and any fan of good fiction.

       Highlights to look forward to:
  • Camel Holocaust
  • The puns, oh man, the puns are hilarious
  • Any scene with bratwurst
  • The twists and turns near the ending
  • Elton John”

       And watch out for Molly. See if she does anything unusual. There’s something I don’t trust about the way she exploded and then came back from the dead like that.”

[P.S. A movie adaptation is coming out and judging from the trailer it's gonna be amazing.]

The Lock Artist
by. Steve Hamilton

A boy discovers he has a talent for picking locks. Unfortunately for him other people discover this as well. Before he knows what's happening his life becomes wrapped up into a world of crime and can't get out without putting the people he cares about at risk.

I read this book on a whim because Joey Comeau mentioned it in a tweet. Usually I don't have the best luck when I try out books just because someone mentioned them. However, this one caught my attention right of the bat. It's got a little something for everyone: an interesting main character, the criminal intrigue, the mystery of the boy's tragic past, and there's even a bit of a love story.

But there were two things that especially got my attention:

1. The main character doesn't talk. He doesn't say a single word throughout the entire story. He serves as the narrator so you can tell what he's thinking, but he doesn't actually speak to anyone. I don't think I've ever read a book where the main character has conversations without ever saying anything. It really made the whole thing rather fascinating to read.

2. I really like all the detailed stuff about picking locks.

       I took out one of the tension bars. Not the smallest, not the biggest. I slid it into the bottom of the keyhole. I put one finger on the right side and pushed it ever so slightly. Then I took the hook pick and felt along the line of tumblers. I had already done this lock before, of course, so I knew exactly where to go. It was a very basic setup, six pins, one tight combination in the back but otherwise nothing too tricky. It had taken me all of three minutes with a screwdriver and a bent safety pin. With these perfect tools—hell, it wouldn't even take me more than thirty seconds.


        I popped the back pin, worked my way carefully past the fifth. With the good tension bar, it was much easier to keep the last pin engaged. I felt that satisfying little click with each pin as I made my way to the front. I could feel that I had it halfway done. With the mushroom pins, I knew I had to go back and do them all one more time. There were just the tiniest slivers of metal standing in my way now. Six notches on six little pins, and then the whole thing would turn free.

       The two men were quiet now. I worked my way through the pins again, back to front. I was about to pop that last pin when something made me stop.

       Think about this, I thought to myself. Do you really want to prove to these guys that you can break into this house whenever you feel like it? Into any house? Is that the kind of thing you want everybody to know?

       "Is that it?" Mr. Marsh said. "Are you giving up already?"

       "Playtime's over," the locksmith said. A sneer on his face. "Remember this the next time you feel like shooting off your mouth."

       Not the right thing to say to me, I thought. I looked the locksmith in the eye as I tapped up the last pin. I turned the knob, opened the door, and gave him back his tools.

       Then I put my gloves on and went into the backyard to start digging.

Write More Good
by. The Bureau Chiefs

A guide to writing from the people that brought you the Fake AP Stylebook.

I really don't know what else to say. It's a fake guide to journalistic writing on various subjects: Media, Sports, Technology, etc. More importantly it is often amazingly clever. In fact, it has some parts that are so hilarious you really don't laugh out loud because you're in shock at how clever the joke was. Additionally they seem to know their subject matter extremely well. If you're a journalist then you'll probably enjoy it on a completely different level than anyone else reading it. But even if you're not and you just like the stuff from their Twitter feed then you'll probably like this as well. If nothing else you should find a copy just to look at the glossaries at the end of each chapter, because they are absolutely priceless.

loose ball - The male equivalent of a nip slip.

March Madness - A term used to describe the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Avoid using, as the term is offensive to those who suffer from the real 'March madness,' described in the DCM-IV as 'a persistent and overwhelming obsession with the music of John Philip Sousa.'

NBA finals - The tests that all NBA players must cram for the night before or pay the team doctor to take for them.

offensive pass interference - Pass interference that simply goes too far. I SAID GOOD DAY, SIR!

The Sisters Brothers
by. Patrick deWitt

In the wild west, a pair of bandit brothers set out to collect a bounty, but the trip turns out to be more than they bargained for when setback after unusual setback befoul their trip.

I always seem to come across books that I have mixed feelings about and I'm never sure how to describe them. I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of it, but it lost a lot of steam at the end. So how do you describe something like that? Despite a bit of a lackluster ending, the beginning and middle are a lot of fun. The bizarre situations the characters kept getting themselves into and the people they come across were pretty great.

So yeah, if it sounds up your alley give it a try, and just know that if it starts getting boring near the end, then it's perfectly okay to stop there, because you won't be missing much.

       Staring out at the steam rising in the field, I felt a gladness at having survived the recent series of happenings: The spider, the bloated head, the curse averted. I filled my lungs with all the cold air they could hold. "Tub!" I shouted into the wilderness. "I am stuck inside the cabin of the vile gypsy-witch!" He raised his head, his jaw working on a mouthful of crunchy grass. "Tub! Assist me in my time of need!"

The Hunger Games
by. Suzanne Collins

To save her sister a girl must compete in a battle to the death. And it seems that surviving is just one of the challenges she'll have to deal with.

Let me just say this up front: I really loved a fair amount of this book. And by a fair amount I mean approximately 3/4ths of it. It had me hook line and sinker.

That being said, it somehow managed to completely destroy that hold in the last 1/4. I Just wow. I said something similar about The Sister Brothers, but let me clarify: The Sister Brothers' ending was just a little disappointing because it seemed to lack the purpose and charm the rest of the book had. The Hunger Games, however, trashed the entire story. I mean lazy writing and bizarre choices were flying everywhere.

I could rant about it for a long time (and I have done so to some poor friends of mine who couldn't care less). So I won't inflict that on you. Especially since to properly rant about it I'd need to spoil the entire ending, because that's where the main problems lie. Let's just leave it at this: unlike Stephanie Meyer, Suzanne Collins can actually write well. However, there are certain things she doesn't know how to write and she uses rather clumsy and lazy methods to try and cover it up. You can build a good plot with some lazy pieces, but you need to have the proper keystone to lock it all together. And I just feel this book lacks that keystone element and so the plot just ends up collapsing at the end.

        “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

       I prop myself up on one elbow. There's enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother's body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim's face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

       Sitting at Prim's knees, guarding her, is the world's ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he's a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

       Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.

The Most Human Human:
What Talking With Computers Teaches Us About What It Means To Be Alive
by. Brian Christian

A man decides to try and be the most convincing human at the Loebner competition, but to do that he's first got to learn what exactly it is to act like a human.

I should probably explain a couple things right off the bat, otherwise this book just won't make sense to some of you. The Loebner competition is a well known Artificial Intelligence competition. More specifically a competition where people pit their AI programs against one another by means of Turing test. You see a Turing test is a type of test designed to see if humans can tell whether they are talking to a real person or with a computer. Contestants instant message with a group of humans and computers, then try to guess which ones were people and which ones were computers.

Now that that is out of the way, this book was fascinating. Brian Christian lands the role of one of the humans in the Loebner competition and sets out to train to be the most convincing human he can be and win the competition's "Most Human Human" award. So he starts training to be the best human he can be. While doing so he starts to uncover some fascinating ideas about what being human really means and what it'd mean if a machine beat us at it.

My one criticism is that the writer often doesn't seem to realize what writing for a layman means, as he occasionally seems rather condescending in what he chooses to explain, and other times doesn't explain complex and esoteric parts at all. Despite those times, however, it really was one of the most interesting science books I read this year.

If, or when, a computer wins the gold (solid gold, remember) Loebner Prize medal, the Loebner Prize will be discontinued forever. When Garry Kasparov defeated Deep Blue, rather convincingly, in their first encounter in '96, he and IBM readily agreed to return the next year for a rematch. When Deep Blue beat Kasparov (rather less convincingly, I might add) in '97, Kasparov proposed another rematch for '98, but IBM would have none of it. They immediately unplugged Deep Blue, dismantled it, and boxed up the logs they'd promised to make public. Do you get the unsettling image, as I do, of the heavy-weight challenger who, himself, rings the round-ending bell?

       The implication seems to be that—because technological evolution seems to occur so much faster than biological evolution, years to millenia—once Homo sapiens is overtaken, it won't be able to catch up. Simply put, the Turing test, once passed, is passed forever. Frankly, I don't buy it.

       IBM's odd anxiousness to basically get out of Dodge after the '97 match suggests a kind of insecurity on their part that I think is very much to the point. The fact is, the human race got to rule the earth—okay, technically, bacteria rule the earth, if you look at biomass, and population, and habitat diversity, but we'll humor ourselves—the fact is, the human race got to where it is by being the most adaptive, flexible, innovative, and quick-learning species on the planet. We're not going to take defeat lying down.

       No, I think that, while certainly the first year that computers pass the Turing test will be a historic, epochal one, it does not mark the end of the story. No, I think, indeed, that the next year's Turing test will truly be the one to watch—the one where we humans, knocked to the proverbial canvas, must pull ourselves up; the one where we learn how to be better friends, artists, teachers, parents, lovers; the one where we come back. More human than ever. I want to be there for that.

Forty Tales From the Afterlife
by. David Eagleman

A collection of possible versions of what comes after we die.

I got this book from the library on a whim after putting myself on the waitlist for a different book he had written. I really don't know how to describe it, but it's one of those books you just keep thinking back to long after you've read it. The different versions of the afterlife he comes up with are all intriguing and beautiful in their own ways. You find yourself to be uplifted in a very odd way after reading them. They're all rather short so it's a very easy book to pick up and read a section from.


       When soldiers part ways at war's end, the breakup of the platoon triggers the same emotion as the death of a person—it is the final bloodless death of the war. This same mood haunts actors on the drop of the final curtain: after months of working together, something greater than themselves has just died. After a store closes its doors on its final evening, or a congress wraps its final session, the participants amble away, feeling that they were part of something larger than themselves, something they intuit had a life even though they can't quite put a finger on it.

       In this way, death is not only for humans but for everything that existed.

       And it turns out that anything which enjoys life enjoys an afterlife. Platoons and plays and stores and congresses do not end—they simply move on to a different dimension. They are thing that were created and existed for a time, and therefore by the cosmic rules they continue to exist in a different realm.

       Although it is difficult for us to imagine how these beings interact, they enjoy a delicious afterlife together, exchanging stories of their adventures. They laugh about good times and often, just like humans, lament the brevity of life. They people who constituted them are not included in their stories. In truth, they have as little understanding of you as you have of them; they generally have no idea you existed.

       It may seem mysterious to you that these organizations can live on without the people who composed them. But the underlying principle it simple: the afterlife is made of spirits. After all, you do not bring your kidney and liver and heart to the afterlife with you—instead, you gain independence from the pieces that make you up.

       A consequence of this cosmic scheme may surprise you: when you die, you are grieved by all the atoms of which you were composed. They hung together for years, whether in sheets of skin or communities of spleen. With your death they do not die. Instead, they part ways, moving off in their separate directions, mourning the loss of a special time they shared together, haunted by the feeling that they were once playing parts in something larger than themselves, something that had its own life, something they can hardly put a finger on.

48. 49. 53.
Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War
Abarat: Absolute Midnight
by. Clive Barker

Candy Quackenbush comes from the most boring town in the world, until the day she finds an ocean in the Midwestern prairies and travels to a world where there is an island for every hour of the day.

The Abarat series is one of my absolute favorites. Most people know Clive Barker for his horror writing, but it is his Children's books that I love. The best kids' stories are the ones that have those elements of real darkness and his mastery over that is what really separates his books from other authors. His tale of the Abarat is overflowing with imagination. It spills over the pages, both figuratively and literally as he creates hundreds of color paintings that inhabit the pages of the books.

At first glance it would be easy to dismiss it as just another Wizard of Oz/Chronicles of Narnia type of story, however, I would argue that it is quite different. Its scope is much grander and its approach much less traditional. Just when you assume that you've got the story figured out and the plot predicted, the story will twist out of your grasp and into an uncharted territory you hadn't seen coming.

       The storm came up out of the southwest like a fiend, stalking its prey on legs of lightning.

        The wind it brought with it was as foul as the devil's own breath and it stirred up the peaceful waters of the sea. By the time the little red boat that the three women had chosen for their perilous voyage had emerged from the shelter of the islands, and was out in the open waters, the waves were as steep as cliffs, twenty-five, thirty feet tall.

        "Somebody sent this storm," said Joephi, who was doing her best to steer the boat, which was called The Lyre. The sail shook like a leaf in a tempest, swinging back and forth wildly, nearly impossible to hold down. "I swear, Diamanda, this is no natural storm!"

        Diamanda, the oldest of the three women, sat in the center of the tiny vessel with her dark blue robes gathered around her and their precious cargo pressed to her bosom.

        "Let's not get hysterical," she told Joephi and Mespa. She wiped a long piece of white hair out of her eyes. "Nobody saw us leave the Palace of Bowers. We escaped unseen, I'm certain of it."

        "So, why this storm?" said Mespa, who was a black woman, renowned for her resilience, but who now looked close to being washed away by the rain beating down on the women's heads.

        "Why are you so surprised that the heavens would complain?" Diamanda said. "Didn't we know the world would be turned upside down by what just happened?"

        Joephi fought with the sail, cursing it.

        "Indeed, isn't this the way it should be?" Diamanda went on. "Isn't it right that the sky is torn to tatters and the sea put in a frenzy? Would you prefer it if the world did not care?"

        "No, no of course not," said Mespa, holding on to the edge of the pitching boat, her face as white as her close-cropped hair was black. "I just wish we weren't out in the middle of it all."

        "Well, we are!" said the old woman. ...

Catching Fire
by. Suzanne Collins

Katniss Evergreen must compete in the Hunger Games again. But this time? It's personal.

Like I said earlier, I really like 3/4ths of The Hunger Games. I liked that 3/4ths enough to gamble on the fact that she was capable of writing something interesting. However, this book isn't like that 3/4ths. It is like the last crappy bit. Except longer. And quite possibly dumber. As you might guess I have not read the third book and chances are very good that I just won't bother.

       Last year, the supplies were spread out quite a distance around the Cornucopia, with the most valuable closest to the horn. But this year, the booty seems to be piled at the twenty-foot-high mouth. My eyes instantly home in on a golden bow just in arm's reach and I yank it free.

       There's someone behind me. I'm alerted by, I don't know, a soft shift of sand or maybe just a change in the air currents. I pull an arrow from the sheath that's still wedged in the piled and arm my bow as I turn.

       Finnick, glistening and gorgeous, stands a few yards away, with a trident poised to attack. A net dangles from his other hand. He's smiling a little, but the muscles in his upper body are rigid in anticipation. "You can swim, too," he says. "Where did you learn that in District Twelve?"

       "We have a big bathtub," I answer.

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