BOOKS


"I cannot live without books." - Thomas Jefferson


"When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." - Erasmus


"Let's face it, I'm a book freak." - Dwight V. Swain


I love books. I read books all the time, and when I'm not reading books I'm reading magazines or comics or newspapers or web pages. Or playing games, but that's another story entirely. This page is dedicated to books, of various kinds and persuasions. Currently the page consists of book reviews and the gargantuan list of books I need to get to at some point. I don't read just books, of course. I get over a dozen magazines (I actually read most of them), and I also collect and read comic books. The actual time I spend reading books does vacillate heavily from month to month, depending on whatever else is going on and if I'm reading books strictly for pleasure or for research on a project I'm working on at the time.

Because my genius really does need to be retained for future generations, I have begun reproducing my reviews from this page on the BN.com website. I am only doing this with reviews that are old enough that they are being taken off this page, however, so if you want the latest and greatest, continue to come here. I recommend visiting once a month for the most new content per visit, though if you really need to visit every hour, by all means feel free. Just don't expect anything to look different. If you have any suggestions for how I can improve this page, or just want to chat about books, please send me an e-mail.


What I'm currently reading
Eyes of Silver, by Michael A. Stackpole

What I need to get to at some point
Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant
Dark Forces: Rebel Agent, by William C. Dietz
Arabic Short Stories, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith
How to Think Like a CEO, by D. A. Benton
The Second Book of Lost Swords: Sightblinder's Story, by Fred Saberhagen
The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunnits, edited by Mike Ashley
A Quest-Lover's Treasury of the Fantastic, edited by Margaret Weis
The Japanese Sword, by Kanzan Sato
The Sword & the Mind, translated by Hiroaki Sato
The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Transitive Vampire, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
Fenwick Travers and the Panama Canal, by Raymond M. Saunders
Storm Season, edited by Robert Asprin
The Face of Chaos, edited by Robert Asprin
Wings of Omen, edited by Robert Asprin
Sanctuary, by Lynn Abbey
Beyond Sanctuary, by Janet Morris
When Genius Failed, by Roger Lowenstein
Hope is Not a Strategy, by Rick Page
Janissaries, by Jerry Pournelle
Medieval Folklore, by Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, and John Lindow
Alexander the great, edited by Tania Gergel
Albuquerque Remembered, by Howard Bryan
Empires of the Word, by Nicholas Ostler
The New Tea Book, by Sara Perry
The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg
Chasing Daylight, by Erwin McManus
Night Fighter, by C. F. Rawnsley and Robert Wright
Eyes of Silver, by Michael A. Stackpole
Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
The New Faces of Christianity, by Philip Jenkins
Presidential Courage, by Michael Beschloss
Dune, by Frank Herbert

Impressive, isn't it? And those aren't listed in any real order, as nobody knows which ones I'll get to next...


What I have read recently...

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His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik, 2006, Del Rey
I first heard about this book when it was published last year in the United States. Even though the author lives in New York, the series was first published in the U.K. by a separate publisher. Finding success on the other side of the pond, a U.S. publisher decided to give it a shot over here, and I am glad that they did, for this is a very enjoyable book.

The basic plot is this: the Napoleanic wars of the early Nineteenth century, but all sides have dragons to make a rudimentary air force. With this as a backdrop, we are introduced to our hero, a British naval captain who has the good fortune (or mis-fortune, as some of his comrades think) to capture a French ship transporting a dragon egg. The egg hatches before the ships can return to port, and our hero captain ends up bonding with the dragon, leaving the navy, and joining the dragon aerial corps. The majority of the book deals with everyone's adjustment to this new situation, and the training that both the human and the dragon do through. The only real action is at the end of the book, but that was very well written and quite exciting.

The real reason this book is so enjoyable is the characters. The hero, Captain Will Laurence, is a fine, upstanding gentleman of good breeding, but his dragon, Temeraire, is wonderful. Sometimes in dragon stories the dragons actually get to play second fiddle, but Temeraire's personality gets just as much attention was Captain Laurence's, and you can really follow the dragon's growth as he matures and grows into his full powers. If you don't like dragon stories than you probably won't enjoy this book that much, but dragon and alternate history fans should find a lot to like here.
Review added 4/14/2007

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Candyfreak by Steve Almond, 2005, Harcourt
As a person with a serious sweet tooth, I knew that I had to read this book, which recounts the author's journey into the joys and pains of small-time candy makers in America. Living in the shadow of the giants (Hershey, Nestle, and Mars), these entrepreneurs strive to bring the best chocolate they can to people. In fact, I should note that while the book is called "Candyfreak," it is really all about chocolate bars. Gumdrops and jelly beans are mentioned in passing, but it is chocolate that is the author's passion, and it shows.

Overall, the book is an absolute riot. The way that the book is written is rather different than what you are probably used to. This is because you are probably not used to the author admitting right up front that he is an absolute freak and in need of serious help. This man absolutely loathes his own existence on this planet. He loathes his government, he loathes is city, he loathes the air he breathes. He loathes everything, in fact, but chocolate. Chocolate is his escape, his way to bring some relief into his life. Thus, when a favorite chocolate bar is taken out of circulation, it is felt as a punch to the stomach. I must admit, I really can't relate to this.

Overall, the book is quite good, and it was a very enjoyable read. There are unfortunate detours into political polemics about how bad George Bush is. This is all well and good in a political book, but this is supposed to be a book about candy. it was really out of place. I will also note that while this is a book about candy, it is not for children, as the author talks about "the ways of a man with a woman" at times, and mentions how he inspects himself for testicular cancer, which I wouldn't necessarily want to have to explain to my 10 year old. Overall, this was a great book, but with some very oddball (nee, freakish) digressions.
Review added 4/24/2007

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Slayers: the Ruby Eye by Hajime Kanzaka, 2004, Tokyopop
I picked up this book because I found the anime series based upon the novel series to be very entertaining. I will admit that I wasn't sure if the goofy humor in the TV show came from the books themselves, or if it was added by the director. It turns out that the goofy humor came from the books themselves, which is both good and bad.

It is good, in that the book is humorous, and humorous books are usually much easier for me to read than heavy, pondering books. It is bad in that the humor isn't very good. One example of the humor in the book revolves around one of the bad guys, a werewolf named Dilgear. The lead character, Lina, takes to referring to the werewolf in her internal monologues as "Dildork." This is done a lot. Other humor revolves around making fun of the lead character's physical underdevelopment, and the fact that her sidekick, Gourry, is dumb as a box of rocks. So, rather juvenile humor, and I would expect a more developed sense of humor from a good fantasy novel. You know, something intelligent.

The other thing that I didn't like about the book involved Lina's internal monologues. There are a lot of these, and they wouldn't be annoying except that a lot of them deal with Lina's "color commentary" on what is going on around her. This also wouldn't be a problem, except that Lina thinks everyone is an idiot, so this generally devolves into Lina giving everybody stupid nicknames to describe how dumb they are. I should also mention that this book is short, slightly under 200 pages, also they use double-spaced lines, so you really have about a 110-page book here, which they charge $7.99 for. You might find that to be a good value, but I do not.
Review added 4/27/2007

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Loves Me, Loves Me Not by Laura A. Smit, 2005, Baker Academic
The subtitle of this book is The Ethics of Unrequited Love,, which I thought was an interesting topic for a book. First, because nobody really talks about the topic within the Christian community, and second because that is pretty much the only kind of love I have had the privilege to know. I was therefore expecting a long discussion about how unrequited love arises, how to respond to it, and so forth. While these discussions do take place, there is a second aspect to the book that is somewhat radical.

Specifically, the author takes on the modern Protestant church for its "idolatry of the family," as evidenced by the fact that unmarried people are considered freaks at worst within the church, and harmless but odd at best. The author posits that New Testament teachings show that the unmarried life, which can be fully focused on God, rather than focused at least partially on a spouse, is the new standard for Christians. Jesus was unmarried. Paul was unmarried. Paul even wrote that he felt that being unmarried was a preferable state to being married, though he had nothing against marriage, per se. The author also notes that Jesus told the Pharisess that in heaven there will be no marriage. Therefore, the author posits that the modern church is in a time between the Old Testament times, when everyone was married for societal benefits, and the New Jerusalem times, when nobody will be married. Therefore, some of God's Children in this age will be called to marriage, but some will be called to be NOT married. Mainstream (and even fringe) Protestant and Evangelical churches don't take this approach, often seeing unmarried people as objects of pity or concern, rather than as independent adults of equal value in Christ's Kingdom.

Another aspect of this theory is that an unmarried Christian should consider their singleness to be their default state of existence, and if an opportunity for a romantic relationship arises, the relationship bears the burden of proof, and its pursuit needs to be justified. This is opposed to the general attitude of modern American culture, which posits that being in a relationship is the default condition, and if you choose to stay out of a romantic relationships you need to defend that position as being abnormal. I am with the author all the way on this aspect of her theory, as I have always felt this to be the proper way to approach life.

This is a very deep book, and will likely require a re-reading down the road to make sure that I am properly understanding it. I did find all of it useful, though, and I would recommend it to pretty much anyone in the modern Christian church, whether married or not, as this book is starting a debate that really needs to happen.
Review added 5/12/2007

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Cartomancy by Michael A. Stackpole, 2006, Bantam Spectra
The second volume in Stackpole's latest trilogy is even more convuleted than the first volume was. There are literally six different plot threads weaving throughout the book, and while at the end of the book a couple of them come together, the whole "plots within plots" flow of the story really makes the book feel like the middle of a larger story. About a third of the way through the book you just know that there is no way things are going to get wrapped up properly, and the attempt really isn't even made. So, your enjoyment of this book will completely revolve around how much you enjoy the setting and the setup from the first book.

All of the plots from the initial book are still here, and they are generally going strong. Keles Anturasi ends up moving away from the rest of the group into his own plot thread, and Moraven Tolo heads off on his own (nicely circling back to the woman he encountered at the begging of the first book). The only real twists revolve around some kind of reincarnation idea, where various people discover that they are actually gods, or that they contain the spirits of long dead heroes. Honestly, I found that this plot twist lessened the impact of the story for me. I had come to really like some of the characters, and to find out that they aren't really who I had been led to believe seemed kind of cheap to me.

Still, the storytelling is good, and even though the book is quite long, it didn't feel like I had to slog through it. If anything, Stackpole is getting better at creating characters as he goes along, which seems almost impossible, since that has been the hallmark of his stories for years. I must admit that the world itself could stand some more explaining (what are these 5 princes that keep getting talked about, and why should I care about them?). Still, it is characters, not settings, that make a story, and to that end this story has everything you could want.
Review added 5/21/2007

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The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard, 2003, Ballantine Books
Even though I have liked heroic fantasy for years, I was very late to the game when it comes to the Conan stories. In fact, before I read this book, I had never read an original Conan story by Howard himself. I had heard a lot about them, of course, and I had read some comic book adaptations and a short story written in more modern times by a different author, but nothing by the original creator. However, last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Howard's Soloman Kane collection (also by Ballantine), so I figured it was time to give Conan a try.

After finishing this book, I have to say that I am impressed. Howard writes with a certain unique drive that just pulls you in and compels you to keep reading. I also appreciate how Conan is the hero of the stories but is generally not shown as a nice guy. He is a mean, tough barbarian who kills people without second thought and really does not fit in with civilized society at all. The only thing that bugged me about this collection, and this is a minor gripe, is the fact that the Conan stories don't really fit into any overall timeline. The way that the stories were handled really struck me like the way the TV show "Seinfeld" was written. Specifically, you have your set characters, and then they get involved in various schemes and have to deal with it. At the end of the story, everything resets back to the beginning. So, in one story, Conan will be a king, in another story he will be a pirate, and in a third story he will be a mercenary. There isn't really anything to tie all of the stories together. As I said, that is a minor gripe, but I figured I should point it out.

As far as this specific collection goes, I have no complaints. Printed in the large-form trade paperback format, the book contains excellent artwork to accompany the stories, and the text is superbly edited and typeset. The book also contains extras such as maps of the land, an original history of the Hyborian Age written by Howard, and early drafts of numerous stories, for those who are interested in how stories changed over time. Overall, this is a fine collection that any fan of fantasy fiction would be proud to own.
Review added 9/01/2007

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The Annotated Dragonlance Chronicles by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, 2003, Wizards of the Coast
I have been a gamer for over 20 years now, and a lover of fantasy fiction for basically as long, but I had never read the Dragonlance books. Part of it was that I never played the Dragonlance role-playing games, and part of it was that I was really enjoying reading other stuff, so why bother? Well, a couple months ago I decided that the series was popular enough, and was approach classic status, so I probably needed to read the original trilogy. At my local bookstore I found this book, a giant (over 1300 pages) omnibus edition of the original trilogy. But there's more! It's called The "Annotated" Chronicles because the original authors (and their helpers) have margin notes all throughout the book. Sometimes the margin notes recount humorous stories from the old days of writing the books (or the game adventures), or what the inspiration was for a specific poem, stuff like that. Other times, the margin notes point you towards other books or short stories that expand on events only hinted at in the books. I personally found it all quite interesting, even though I have never read the stories before.

So, what of the actual story? I thought that it was good. In parts it is great, and in parts it isn't. I didn't really like the ending, for example; it had too much deus ex machina, where things just magically work out, for me to be happy with it. I think I have to agree with the original authors (as denoted in the margin notes) that the second book in the trilogy is the strongest. It just flows great, and has a ton of good character development in it. And, really, that is where the book shines the brightest. All of the main characters show a lot of thought and ingenuity, and I really came to like most of them by the end of the book. For others in my situation, who like heroic fantasy but haven't read the Dragonlance books, I can recommend this one as a good way to enjoy the original trilogy while getting a bit into the mind of the creators. It was a fun ride.
Review added 11/06/2007

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Hobby Games - The 100 Best edited by James Lowder, 2007, Green Ronin Publishing
This book was a real treat to read. It consists of 100 essays by noted game designers and/or publishers, where they write about one of their favorite games. Even though the title hints that this is a "top 100" listing, it really isn't. In the foreward, the editor notes that the intent with this book wasn't to try to rank order the best games of all time, which wouldn't really be possible due to the different kinds of games (card, board, roleplaying, wargaming, miniatures, dice games, etc.) covered. Rather, each of the 100 writers was asked to submit three games that they wanted to write about, and then they were assigned to write about their highest-ranked game that nobody else had claimed yet. The result is a highly eclectic, yet fascinating look at gaming across the last 40 years or more. Old standbys like Diplomacy, Axis & Allies, and Dungeons & Dragons receive coverage, along with highly obscure games that most people have never heard of, like The Great Khan Game, Renaissance of Infantry, and My Life with Master. The currently popular Euro-style games get lots of coverage, but so do a bunch of old Avalon Hill games from the '60s and '70s. It can also be interesting which games people choose to write about. For example, Tracy Hickman, noted fantasy author and creator of the Dragonlance series, writes about an American Civil War boardgame; or Warren Spector, noted computer game designer, writing about the boardgame Tikal. If you like playing games, this book will provide you with dozens of inspirations for games that you may have never heard of before, but that you will suddenly feel you need to play, since other people seem to love them so much. A highly recommended book.
Review added 12/26/2007

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The Dragon Scroll by I. J. Parker, 2005, Penguin Books
This is the first book in a series of mystery novels set in 11th century Japan, starring Sugawara Akitada, a young inspector out to make a name for himself. The plot starts in a seemingly simple way, with Akitada heading out to a provincial town to investigate some missing tax shipments which never made it to the capital. Of course, in fine tradition, Akitada's presence merely set events in motion, such that all sorts of mishaps and fiendish deeds occur arround him, which may or may not be related to the missing tax shipments (though you know everything will come together in the end).

If my facts are correct, this is the author's first novel. And it shows. There are no real flaws with the book, but it just doesn't have the narrative flow that more accomplished works have. I don't doubt that the author has gotten better over time, though; I got this book because I had heard very good things about The Hell Screen, which is another book further on in this series. But one should start at the beginning, of course. In fact, the writings gets better as the book goes along, though this may have more to do with the fact that the plot threads started coming together about halfway through the story. The characters themselves are pretty good, though some of the characters outside of the main trinity of Akitada, Seimei, and Tora did not get fleshed out very much, and it wasn't always possible to really understand their motivations. But in the end those are minor marks against it, as this book was an enjoyable read, and I will most likely seek out more books in the series.
Review added 1/7/2008

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The New Faces of Christianity by Philip Jenkins, 2006, Oxford University Press
I got this book for Christmas this past year. I wanted it because I really know nothing about the growth of Christianity in Africa and Asia, and I wanted to know more. While this book is not a history of Christianity's growth in the twentieth century, it is a survey of what African and Asian Christians generally believe, and how that differs with what is known as "Western Christianity," which is Christianity as defined by the mainline U.S. and European denominations.

The author does a very good job of laying out the ways in which the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, resonates with African and Asian Christians. Because they live in a less-advanced society, Old and New Testament stories that seem anachronistic to an American like me can have direct relevance to someone who spends their life in subsistence farming, lacking adequate government services and health care. For most Africans, their daily life doesn't differ much at all from New Testament times, so it seems more relevant to them. We in the West, with ~1500 years of Christian culturation, have also lost the newness and the shock that can come from the gospels, as what Jesus had to say is in many ways quite radical; we're just so used to it that we can't see it.

It isn't all good, though. The author also talks about some of the ways that Christian teachings have been mixed with native Confucian or pagan beliefs, and how the scriptures are sometimes highly mangled to try to make them fit pre-conceived notions. Nothing that we haven't seen before, of course, but a good counterpoint to the general feeling that African and Asian Christianity is truer to the actual written words of the Bible. Overall, this was a fine read, and both encouraging and thought-provoking in its protrayal of the growth of Christianity in other parts of the world.
Review added 1/30/2008

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