Freakonomics, by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (2005) K

Date Read: 1.7.07
Book from: Boston Public Library
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Levitt and Dubner explore several unorthodox theories behind crime and parenthood using their own statistics.

Review

I started reading Freakonomics with *a lot* of expectation from all the hype and word of mouth. It was an incredibly short read, and in the end, I felt like I had just finished a really long newspaper article instead of an engrossing book. It was enjoyable, but I really wasn’t impressed. First of all, I expected the concepts and economics to be… deeper? I felt like there wasn’t enough “intellegence” or solid insight to the chapters. Most of the book read like a statistics report, and while statistics were certainly crucial, I felt like the book as a whole was a bit of a cop out, relying on filler reports and less on thoughtful extrapolation.

Freakonomics is often seen as a melding of pop culture and economics. And in support, Levitt and Dubner argued points like how Roe vs. Wade was responsible for the last decade’s decline in crime, that parents actually do not matter in child development, and discussed teaching methods in school using statistics as proof. Basically… it was all fine and dandy to read and enjoy but it was all rather vague and I felt like it was simply another sensationalist story “supported” by statistics which you can never be sure are accurate. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the super skeptical mathematician within me speaking. But don’t get me wrong– it was still a fun read.

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Steven Levitt
Stephen Dubner

The Millenium, by Upton Sinclair (1924) K

Date read: 12.24.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

(Copied from the back of the book). The year, 2000; the place, Central Park’s 100-story Pleasure Palace, built expressly for the “pleasure of the ruling class.” Shortly before the opening ceremony a radiumite explosion kills everyone in the world … except for the eleven people already inside the Pleasure Palace. Most of the eleven survivors are wealthy and can’t imagine living in a world without servants or luxuries: “No more quail in aspic, no more theatre parties, no more tailors,” they moan in unison. As the group battles to exist in a chaotic world without rules or structure or money, three of the survivors, led by Billy Kingdom, the poor yet resourceful outsider, go off to build a new utopian society, the Co-operative Commonwealth, on the banks of the Pocantico Hills of the Hudson River, north of new York City.

The Millennium was first written as a four-act drama in 1907, after the collapse of Sinclair’s own “Co-operative Commonwealth” in New Jersey. Its production on Broadway was delayed over and over until all copies of the play were lost. In 1924 Sinclair rewrote the story in novel form.

Review

Well, pretty much all you need to know is actually on that back cover summary– it tells you exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Overall, The Millenium was exactly how it sounds– a funny, informative, quirky, and insightful read. It is painfully clear from the dialogue (dramatic, very exclamatory), static settings, and narrative that the work was meant to be a drama and the style is rather enjoyable as long as you are expecting it.

The Millenium is a humorous dose of… everything that goes wrong with every form of government. Basically, after the explosion, the survivors cycle through all sorts of governments including Socialism, Communism, Captialism, Feudalism, and plain Survivalism. It was incredibly funny to see each form of government build itself up around one ridiculous product (nutrient pills, which in this futuristic society were the only form of sustenance) and the workings of the “economy”. You also get to see these intense, miniature forms of government comprised of 2-6 people clash against each other and watch one muscle its way to victory.

There really is not much in terms of character or setting development– the characters were very apparently only tools for Sinclair to use. And, well, the moral of the story was that governments suck and utopias rule. But what else can you expect from Sinclair?

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Upton Sinclair

FreakAngels, by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield (2008-200*)

FreakAngels is an ongoing sci-fi/steampunk comic by Warren Ellis, syndicated online for free in weekly, six-page installments. It was begun in February of 2008, and I’ve been following it since then (I think I first saw it publicized on Coilhouse, my favorite blog). It follows the adventures of a group of young psychics who’ve dubbed themselves the FreakAngels, and hold down a corner in a Thames-inundated London.

It’s variously a futuristic survival story and a character-based drama, with a cast of somewhat cliché (one of the characters is basically a clone of Delirium from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; unsurprisingly, she seems to be the fan favorite) but likable protagonists. The cool, clean art, by Paul Duffield and a team of colorists, tends to be shaky anatomically speaking – noodle fingers are frequently in evidence – but the characters are attractively drawn and the backgrounds are very satisfyingly detailed, especially when it comes to architecture. If some of the FreakAngels’ outfits (and hair colors) are somewhat improbable given their living circumstances… can’t have steampunk without fun clothes. It’s also clear that Ellis has put a good amount of thought into his characters’ survival strategies, so it’s fun to see their efforts at scavenging and rebuilding society via a mix of past and present technology – steampower and solar panels have both come into play.

All in all, FreakAngels will probably appeal to fans of Firefly and similar tales of scrappy, foul-mouthed, hyper-competent, and-therefore-you-must-love-us families thrown together by circumstance. (I personally have mixed feelings about that particular formula as perfected/beaten to death by Joss Whedon, but clearly am susceptible to the charm anyway.)

I suspect I might be hooked in part because of the method of delivery – getting my FreakAngels story kick is a fun way to start a Friday. Print collections are also being issued as the comic goes on.

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Warren Ellis

M is for Magic, by Neil Gaiman (2007) K

Date Read: 7.4.07

Book From: Borders piracy

Reviewer: Kakaner

M is for Magic is a collection of short stories written for children. I had been eagerly anticipating the publication of this collection because I find Gaiman’s writing tends to come across warmer and his characters more relatable in his children works (Coraline, Wolves in the Walls, etc.).

I am sorry to say that this collection was sorely disappointing. First of all, I had already seen about half of these stories in other collections, for example, “Troll Bridge”– for the third time– and “Sunbird”. The first story in the collection, “The Case of The Four And Twenty Blackbirds”, was abysmal. It literally hurt me to read it. It was incredibly contrived, and each paragraph seemed to end with a terribly joke or pun. To top it off, the story was also filled with sexual innuendos written in a childish manner, a clear attempt to transcend the boundaries of the age bracket of the genre through clever humor. I couldn’t believe I was actually reading children’s literature or Gaiman’s work for that matter.

“The Case of The Four And Twenty Blackbirds” certainly spoiled the rest of the collection for me. There was no spark and nothing remarkable in the rest of M is for Magic. Despite the overall lackluster appeal of this collection, I still have great respect for Neil Gaiman and am still looking forward to his new works.

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Neil Gaiman

100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg (1995) E

Date Read: 6.1.09

Book From: Personal collection (purchased via BetterWorld Books)

Reviewer: Emera

100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories (ed. Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz, & Martin Greenberg) and I have a history that, like its title, is long and sordid. I first found a battered paperback copy on my fifth-grade teacher’s bookshelf and brought it home with eager trepidation. After reading two or three stories, I got so scared that I brought it back to school and put it back on the shelf. Then, in my typical fashion, I furtively picked it up back off the shelf about a month later and, over the course of the next three or so months, methodically scared myself to death on a regular basis. A++ judgment abilities, as always.

Several of the stories stuck in my head very firmly, and in high school I actually fantasized several times about sneaking back into my middle school expressly to steal my teacher’s copy for keeps. (Yeah, I need better hobbies. But what was the probability of anyone but me reading a book like that anyway?) So egged on by niggling remembrances of moonlit magnolias and glasses full of blood imbibed at spas, I finally ordered a copy of my own (no dust jacket, sigh) from BetterWorld Books this past winter, although I knew that the majority of the book was probably dreck. Continue reading 100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg (1995) E

The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003) E

Date Read: 5.24.09
Book From: Borrowed from kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

The Etched City is one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the best and most memorable fantasy books I have ever read. I hate to make hand-waving pronouncements like that, but I really can’t think of any other way to begin this review.

The book follows two protagonists, both wanted for having fought on the losing side of a civil war: Raule, an emotionally deadened physician, and Gwynn, an elegant, amoral, and apparently indestructible gun- and swordsman. Somewhat begrudgingly reunited by circumstance, the two flee the Copper Country, to lose themselves in what Raule prematurely hopes will be a “proper” civilization.

Bishop’s writing in the beginning is stark and straightforward, but daubed with bursts of unexpected vividness, as she describes the Copper Country, a searing, deathly land that seems equal parts Middle East, American Old West, and Australian outback. The scenes are painted with a memorable and somehow terrible clarity – there’s a frightening kind of oppression and lostness to the Copper Country, with its sand-channeled beds of nail grass, black ruins, and rotting hamlets whose stillness is punctuated only by gunfights. (The book opens with a gratifying bang, as a four-man gunfight ends in the shooting and decapitation of three of the four.) The weight of the country, the sense of both mythic and mundane desolation, actually reminded me of many scenes in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle. Continue reading The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003) E

Beauty, by Robin McKinley (1978) E

Date Read: 5.27.09

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

McKinley’s first published novel is actually one of the last of hers that I read, when in high school I belatedly rediscovered her books and went on a rampage through nearly all of her work – when much younger, I had tried and failed to get through The Outcasts of Sherwood, and hadn’t gone back since. (Actually, I’m currently still not up-to-date on her newest two novels, Dragonhaven and Chalice.) From what I’ve seen, Beauty might also be the most widely beloved of her work, in competition largely with the Damar books (The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown).

I remember that my working backwards to Beauty actually had an adverse effect on my opinion of it at first read – her later books tend towards much weightier plotlines and intricate, metaphorical language, so that I found Beauty simplistic by comparison. On re-reading it, I found that simplicity to be a great part of its charm. McKinley’s later books can perhaps be overburdened by axe-grinding (Deerskin), lengthy protagonist hand-wringing (Sunshine, which I passionately love nonetheless), and other excesses. (On reading Rose Daughter, McKinley’s second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, one of my roommates frankly remarked that McKinley “could use an editor.”)

By contrast, Beauty is fresh and openhearted, and although the prose may not be as elegant as that in McKinley’s mature works, her descriptions are exuberant and generously enchanting. Beauty, whose nickname here is ironic, is immediately recognizable as the archetype of McKinley’s heroines: likably bookish, plain, and straight-spoken, these anti-damsels may now litter the YA fantasy landscape, but McKinley’s are some of the first and definitely still some of the best. Beauty’s voice is funny and thoughtful, and being an inveterate lover of books, horses, and gardening myself, it’s pretty hard not to identify with her.

Continue reading Beauty, by Robin McKinley (1978) E

Welcome to the Jungle, by Jim Butcher & Ardian Syaf (2008) E

Date Read: 6.3.09

Book From: Library

Reviewer: Emera

A prequel to the first Dresden Files novel, “Welcome to the Jungle” is the first graphic novel addition to the series – a full adaptation of the first novel (Storm Front) is to come, apparently. The four-issue comic’s plot is boilerplate Dresden Files: a gruesome murder, this time at the zoo, has Lt. Karrin Murphy of Chicago PD’s Special Investigations calling in Harry Dresden, the only professional wizard in the phonebook. Harry has 24 hours to uncover the killer, and, of course, has no idea where to start. In the meantime, the murder has been pinned on one of the zoo’s prized (and innocent) gorillas, lending extra urgency to Harry’s search for the real culprit.

Unsurprisingly, the Dresden Files, with their spectacular action scenes, car chases, and colorful magical rituals, translate perfectly to comic-book form, with quick panels here capably taking the place of the lengthy descriptions required in the book. Indeed, Butcher explains in his introduction that his storytelling is strongly influenced by the multitude of comics that he read when young (something that I definitely sympathize with).

Continue reading Welcome to the Jungle, by Jim Butcher & Ardian Syaf (2008) E

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion (2009) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date Read: 3.31.09
Book From: Personal Collection

Warm Bodies is the tale of a zombie in a society of zombies. R (he can’t remember the rest of his name), originally the entirely nameless protagonist of Marion’s beautiful “I Am a Zombie Filled With Love,” here has his story extended: during a raid on a human encampment, he inexplicably makes the decision to shelter a living human girl, so that they make their way together in a stagnating world.

I would primarily describe this novel as cinematic, both in good and bad ways. Good because so many of the scenes are uniquely vivid and striking and just beg to be visualized – zombies swaying back and forth in “church;” R riding an airport’s moving walkway and coming to a stop just opposite his soon-to-be zombie wife; the Stadium that is the center of life for a surviving human community. Bad because most of the plot and execution is cheesy as hell.

This really just needs to be stripped down and rewritten, or at least have a stronger editing hand. It’s not just some of the questionable language (“the sun stood over us like a royal guardian,” “my mystique has thickened and intensified like balsamic reduction”), it’s the overall plot concept. A rebellious, artsy-bohemian girl who Changes Everything by having the protagonist fall in love with her? [SPOILERS FOLLOW; HIGHLIGHT TO SEE] Humans literally being so soulless that they turn into zombies? Please. Pleeeeeease.

The original short story was charming and likable because it was quirky, lovely, and unexpected – this beats all of its loveliness and unexpectedness into a sticky, saccharine pulp. I read most of this with a sort of mild curiosity as a result, rather than real interest, despite the many excellent individual concepts. Still, I love Marion’s work in general, and am extremely excited to see his career take off,  so I’m very happy to own one of the few copies (I think about 220 were printed in the end) that he designed and self-published. Signed, too!

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Warm Bodies (2009) [K]
Isaac Marion
Some words (and exploding high-fives) with Isaac Marion

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion (2009) K

Reviewer: Kakaner
Date Read: 3.15.09
Book From: Personal Collection

Summary
A zombie in a post-apocalyptic desolate landscape befriends a rare living girl and finds himself being transformed by his relationship with her. An extension of a short story by the same author: I am a Zombie Filled with Love.

Review
This was… sadly underwhelming and disappointing given Marion’s previous works. I was initially very excited to read this because 1) ZOMBIE FICTION MOG! and 2) the short story was pretty amazing. The first chapter opens up with the original short story, a very poignant 1st person zombie narrative describing the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the narrator during one slice of a day. There is emphasis on the zombie’s inability to think coherently, speak, or process thoughts quickly. The zombie’s outlook on the world is extremely complacent and only slightly quizzical, but it is apparent the zombie brain cannot handle being inquisitive.

In order for Marion to tell the story he wanted to tell, he had to break away from the narrative restraints he set up in the short story by giving his narrator a larger capacity for thought and purpose. However, the result was a rather obvious discontinuity between the first chapter and the next couple chapters in narration, and the subsequent abrupt change in atmosphere and storytelling wasn’t handled very well. Overall, the characters and story were rather predictable, and as ashamed as I am to say this, the story was just cheesy. All of Marion’s works are very romantic, and usually he manages to either avoid cheesiness or fully embrace it and turn it into something special. I lost interest about halfway through Warm Bodies, frustrated by the narrative inconsistencies and the plot.

Although The Inside wasn’t perfect, I think it suited Marion’s style and storytelling better. There was a lot more confidence, atmosphere, and passion in that novel. I guess Warm Bodies still makes for an interesting casual read because it is still zombie fiction for once NOT presented in graphic novel form.

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Warm Bodies (2009) [E]
Isaac Marion
Some words (and exploding high-fives) with Isaac Marion