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Archive for the ‘One Star’ Category

Dietrich, the main protatonist, is a Catholic priest in the small village of Oberhochwald in medieval Germany. In the summer of 1348, just before the Black Plague ravages Europe, a spaceship crashes in the nearby woods, setting off an electrical storm, lightning and fires. Some aliens are wounded, but most survive.

The aliens are adapted enough to earth’s atmosphere that they can exit their craft and survive. They are lanky beings, their heads smaller than human heads with huge yellow bulging, insect-like eyes and antennae. Their mouths are wide and they have soft front lips and horny side lips. With long arms and legs they are between five and over six feet tall. When they haunch down and sit, they hug their legs and their knees extend above their heads. They communicate by creating hissing and chirping sounds out of their side lips and by rubbing their serrated forearms together. To medieval Germans, they look like giant grasshoppers.

Of course, to medieval Germans, who are deeply steeped in religion, they also look like demons. Fortunately, the aliens have universal translating machines and head harnesses that they and humans can wear which do the translating. The translation software has to learn the vocabulary, and it gets built over time. This capability of the aliens saves them, since some of the humans quickly figure out that there are a lot of advantages that come with advanced technology. For instance, the aliens have flying harnesses. They have weapons with bullets, explosives, cameras, medical tools, all of which come in handy when you have to defend yourself against crooks and neighboring war lords.

The story plays in 1348 and 1349, but there is also a frame plot that plays today, where a historian and his physicist girlfriend figure out that there were aliens through a complex set of circumstances. This makes it a book with complex material, and that is confusing and distracting at times.

Flynn writes extensively about medieval lifestyle and history, and you really get immersed into that long-ago world.

He knows a lot of languages, and he shows off his Latin, Greek, German and French, sometimes without translation. I was able to get most of it, but the average American reader would simply not be able to follow. His language is stilted, and people talk unnaturally, or perhaps they really talked that way in the 14th century, and it just seems unnatural to me.

He uses an abundance of German, with German names of people and places, expressions, exclamations, all intended to make it seem real. Sometimes I wondered why he didn’t place the story into medieval England or Ireland. The spacecraft could easily have crashed there. He could have accomplished the very same goal, but with less confusion, because he could have remained in the English language, alas, he could not have shown off his German.

He waxes extensively about advanced physics and cosmology. This book would have been just fine with a little more focus on the real story and leaving out the modern physics. It simply didn’t connect.

Did he want to write a book about cosmology, the plague, medieval Germany and medieval religion? Maybe. He did write a book about what might happen if an advanced technological and completely alien race were to be mixed up with a feudal, pre-industrial society. That’s the part that kept me reading to the end. All the other stuff was interesting, but distracting and took the story out of focus.

Rating: *

DarwinCatholic: Here is another good review with a theological angle.

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The book “The Shack” with the subtitle “where tragedy confronts eternity” was a challenging book to read and it’s going to be more challenging to review. According to the cover, there are more than three million copies in print and it’s a #1 New York Times bestseller.

I didn’t  pick up the book myself, since it advertises its religious content, and I am generally not much interested in the subject in fiction. A dear friend gave me the book, though, and said it was excellent and I’d really enjoy reading it.  So I did.

First, the author’s short bio on the back cover caught my attention:

Wm. Paul Young was born a Canadian and raised among a stone-age tribe by his missionary parents in the highlands of what was New Guinea. He suffered great loss as a child and young adult and now enjoys the “wastefulness of grace” with his family in the Pacific Northwest.

Clearly, there is an indication of first a very different viewpoint, one that most of us cannot even fathom, and second, some deep struggle to explain severe adversity and possibly evil when there is presumably an all-loving God, particularly when your parents are missionaries and presumably deeply religious.

If you were a devout Christian and had something horrible happen to you, and you needed to come to terms with it, you’d write “The Shack.”

The story is quite simple: a family loses a small child to a deviant repeat abductor and murderer. We never get to meet the criminal, but from the evidence of his deeds we can conclude that he performed unspeakable atrocities before eventually killing the child. The rest of the family has to live with this and they all try to blame themselves for what happened. After years of grief, Mack, the protagonist, receives a note that he cannot explain other than that it came straight from God. His instructions are to come back to the shack, the location of the heinous crime years before.

He arrives alone, and indeed meets God. There are as many interpretations of God as there are religions and subreligions. For Mack, God shows himself as three people. Papa is God, the father, who is first a large black woman and later an aging hippie with a long grey pony tail and a goatee, in jeans and hiking boots. Jesus is God, the son, a stocky Middle-Eastern looking man in his early thirties, who is a handyman around the place and likes to build things with his hands. The Holy Ghost is Sarayu, a middle age Asian woman who likes gardening and is restless, flitting about and sprinkling wisdom around. The three spend the weekend with Mack, going on various walks, hikes and activities, talking and giving lessons. Mack is enlightened and eventually returns home.

I won’t tell you any more than this, lest I spoil the story and enjoyment. It’s an intricate plot, a well crafted and almost engineered story line. The author tries to make things come alive in front of you, but I don’t think he succeeds. I am constanly reminded of the fact that I am reading a book I was asked to read, and I make myself turn the pages. When Steven King tells of a group of good old boys sitting around in the lobby of a Texas gas station on plastic chairs, popping open cans of Bud Light, you can smell the beer, feel the Texas heat, smell the gasoline fumes and see the greasy fingers of the attendant. You are there. When Young elaborates on a point that is irrelevant to the plot but he makes it to paint the picture, you see just that, he’s painting the picture, and you wish he got on with it. There are several places in the book where Jesus or Papa tell Mack to “grab a bite” in the kitchen before they embark on something. The vision of “grabbing a bite” simply does not make things come alive for me.

The majority of the story is comprised of conversations between Mack and one or more of the personifications of God. They are talking about the original sin, Eve giving the apple to Adam, they are explaining good, evil and free will, they show why Christ died and how this somehow saved the world, and every other Christian theological topic you can think of. Young is obviously a preacher who wants to explain the whole of Christian doctrine in terms that people in 2009 can understand.

If you are a Christian, you will enjoy the new interpretations and answers to questions you may have harbored deep within you for a long time. You will probably interpret some of the dialog as theological discourse. You may find the story as creative and possibly spiritually profound and life changing. Every Christian will enjoy the book and the pages will keep turning automatically, regardless of the at times cumbersome prose and predictable plot.

If you are not a Christian, like me, you will simply be bored, when you realize about one third into the book that for the rest of the story, you will be presented with one interpretation of Christian doctrine after another, neatly packaged in conversations directly with God, speaking through characters manufactured to be likable.

The book is only 250 pages long, and it took me more than two weeks, on a business trip, to read, since I had to keep telling myself I was interested in this and keep turning the pages for that reason. After a few pages I’d fall asleep and I’d start over the next day. Without acceptance of a holy trinity the whole story does not make much sense. In my mind, the trinity was represented by a God father, an old bearded and long-haired man in a throne, Jesus, a guy in a robe with long black slightly wavy hair and a beard, and the Holy Ghost, a white dove. Ok. Now I have a big black woman, a Middle-Eastern man and an Asian woman. It does not help or expand my picture of Christianity.

People of other religions may have similar trouble reading this. The concept of the original sin does probably not filter through to a Hindu, but I am only guessing here. Having Jesus help Mack walk on water might elicit a good chuckle for a Christian, but it won’t invoke the same response in a Muslim.

This is a book written by a devout Christian struggling with the concepts and tenets of his religion, trying to make sense of it, for the audience of all other Christians with the same trouble. That’s why it’s a bestseller.

For everyone else, it’s just 250 boring pages by a mediocre writer.

Rating: *

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Sunstorm is the sequel to Time’s Eye by Clarke and Baxter. It is also the second book of the ‘Time Odyssey’ by the two authors. I just finished reading Time’s Eye last week in Boston and I went ahead and bought the next book right away.

Why it is a sequel I don’t really know. There is only a lose and contrived connection between the first book and the second, and they both could have stood alone just fine. There is one character only, Bisesa, that appears in the first and second book, tying the story together.

Sunstorm was nowhere near as exciting as Time’s Eye. It almost landed in my pile of “books (not finished reading)” which you can review by clicking on this categories item on the right side of the screen. When I was about a third of the way into the book I got bored with it. Fortunately, I was on a cross country flight with nothing else to read, so I kept going.

If you are interested in the physics of the sun, this is the book. You learn more about the sun than you ever wanted to know, unless you are a physicist or astronomer. There are also a few concepts of grand space engineering, highly improbable in the near future (2040) and a side plot of a human mission to Mars. All is done fairly well, but you simply can’t get away from the reality that there are two science authors who want to impart their skill and they are writing the story so they can weave in all this stuff they want to talk about. Nothing ever seems real, nothing gets deep, the characters are all caricatures and you keep turning the pages to find out what’s next.

Will I buy “Firstborn,” the third book of the trilogy? Probably. I’ll check it out next time I am at the bookstore. I’ll read the back cover and decide. But I have gone through two out of three, why not go all the way.

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In May 2005 I read the book Nights in Rodanthe – by Nicholas Sparks and this is what I wrote then:

When my daughter saw a Nicholas Sparks book on my nightstand, she actually asked me why I was reading it. I told her I tried to keep an open mind and read a “sensitive” book once in a while. A “chick book” as she would probably call it.

Here is a book that follows a well-tested formula and it is anything but unique. As I was working my way through it I kept thinking of how closely it followed “The Bridges of Madison County.”  Bridges, however, was much more fresh and surprising. Bridges, when I first read it, made me cry out loud, a first when reading a book. Rodanthe made me sniffle a few times at best.

The story was the same one:

A successful surgeon neglects his family all his life for his career. He gets burned out in his fifties, after he loses his wife to illness and his son to neglect. Then he sells his house, his practice and his life, and gets on his way to Ecuador to try to reconcile with his estranged son. He plans to be there for a year.

A housewife and mother of three school-aged children lost her husband to a younger woman and cannot forgive him. She cannot make ends meet, but is dedicated to raising her children to the best of her abilities.

Chance has it that the two of them are holed up in a bed and breakfast in a small coastal town in North Carolina by the name of Rodanthe. The woman, Adrienne, is taking care of the B&B for a friend of hers for the weekend. The surgeon, Paul, is the only guest of the B&B. They are there for a long weekend of four nights, during a severe storm that for the benefit of the plot keeps away all visitors and any other guests. Stuff can happen when two lost souls are together in a nice and romantic setting. And stuff does happen indeed.

As the plot goes, the first day together they get to know each other and we get to know the players. On the second day they fall in love and lust. That love gets consummated on the third and forth day, and then they part. Fate has it that they never meet again. Both are desperately in love, and for both there will never be another partner, not to mention a partner of true love and soul-mate-ship as they were to each other.

Bridges was that way, too, but it was a better constructed and more credible novel. Bridges seemed real, while this seemed contrived. Two middle-aged hapless souls meet and mate, and their lives are changed forever. Okay. What else?

In stories like this, there are way too many characters that are just not real. Paul, for instance, is a brilliant doctor, nationally renowned for his skill. But he is also a world-class runner, which helps make his body trim, muscular, and apparently sexy for the females in the story. Not only is he extremely successful, but he also has rugged good looks, a sensitive soul that, of course, is only brought out by the female protagonist, and it even surprises him himself. When he dresses, he just “throws on” a pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt every day. The shirt shows his muscular arms and back, to the enticement of the female. His intense gaze and his humble demeanor round out his attractiveness.

Both characters “throw on” jeans at times in the story. That “throwing on” of clothes reminded me of another fairly weak book I had read a couple of years ago by Sandra Brown: A Kiss Remembered. Those guys also kept throwing on clothes.

My point is, why can’t Paul be a credible and normal character. Yes, he can be a doctor, he can be anything, but it would have been more credible if he had had some flaws, if he had been a real person, not some superhero of the American society in the early 2000’s. Give me a shoe salesman, give me a carpenter, give me a postman, give me anybody that I am likely to run into at the supermarket, and I’ll get into your story. Give me real persons, not cartoon characters of precise drawing and coloring.

I could not quite picture Adrienne in this book. She is in her late forties, somewhat overweight and rounded, and with a few facial flaws, like a hooked nose. Of course, the plastic surgeon eventually tells her she does not need any surgery. Hmmm. We never really find out what’s up with her, and why he is all engrossed by her. She is a “normal person,” not a superhero like he. She works in a library. What exactly attracts Paul to her? Is it her looks, is it her smarts, is it her personality? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because she is the only woman there in the B&B, and all the women get sexier as closing time comes nearer.

Maybe I will stay away from any more “chick books” for a while. On second thought, perhaps just Nicholas Sparks books.

Today I watched the movie:

Richard Gere plays Paul, Diane Lane plays Adrienne.

The story is the same one, only more watered down. It’s supposed to jerk your tears, and a few do come out.

The best part is the house on the beach. The front porch posts are in the surf, no kidding. It’s supposed to have been there since the owner’s great grandmother lived there, but when we watch it during the hurricane we can’t believe it’s still there the next morning. Who put that house there, and what were they thinking? But it does look good, and the third floor art studio would be my favorite room, if I could live there.

I won’t tell you about the movie. The acting is ok and the actors make it through a  contrived plot. But you read all that above.

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It was time for some epic science fiction. So I bought this 1000 page book by Hamilton, and in a lot of ways it did for me what I wanted. I love stories of mankind mingling with aliens, and there were plenty of aliens in this book. Not the kinds of aliens we find in Hollywood movies, humanoids with two legs and two arms, and knees and elbows just like ours, and heads with two eyes and two ears.

If we ever find aliens, there is a very small chance that they will be bipedal, let alone with the same number of ligament segments we humans have. That’s just convenient for movies, so you can put a person into an elaborate costume and makeup job just to make it work. Also, aliens are not likely to talk, using sound waves coming out of orifices used for eating in the front of their heads. It is very likely that we would not be able to figure out how to communicate with them at all, for years, for decades perhaps.

In Pandora’s Star there are individual aliens the pass the plausibility factor, races that communicate using telepathy, others using ultraviolet signals, and others yet using strange song patterns, goofy-seeming aliens.

It is the year 2380. Human civilization has spread over 600 planets in a spherical area around 300 light years across, with a few outposts further out. This was possible through the discovery of wormholes, shortcuts through space.

Space travel has the ultimate speed limitation of the speed of light, which no ship can theoretically approach. This makes it virtually impossible for us to reach even the next star, Alpha Centauri, about 4 light years away. Let’s say we figure out how to build an engine that can accelerate to one tenth the speed of light, and to make the math simple, that it can accelerate and decelerate quickly so the ramp up and down time is negligible, it would still take 40 years for that ship to reach the nearest star. Assume we stay there for a few years to explore, and then come back, more than 80 years will have passed when we return home. To make matters worse, there is no way of knowing if there are any viable planets to explore at Alpha Centauri, so the whole trip could be a big waste of time.

Hamilton’s wormholes bypass this problem. If you have watched the Stargate series on TV, you get the picture. You simply walk through the wormhole and you come out on the other side in a completely different place. Complex math and immense power make it possible to place wormholes so accurately that you can build train tracks through them. Humans board a train at LA Galactic (vs. LAX) and drive right through, coming out on the planet Anshun, 25 light years away,  under a dim pink sun. This network of wormholes enabled humanity to spread, and new frontiers are being discovered all the time, ever outward. Just like traveling by plane today from San Diego to Springfield, Illinois, requiring a stop-over in Chicago, traveling to distant planets via wormholes requires tickets on trains, complete with layovers in interim hub planet stations, to get to your destination.

Hamilton paints a rich tapestry of a utopian world in this book, with extensive character development, neat technology, a few heroes and interwoven plot lines with many subplots and side stories. You can delve deeply into it and lose yourself. You can experience alien thoughts. You can explore with the explorers.

However, I didn’t care for the side stories. There was way too much distraction with politics, the president of the Commonwealth, blustering senators, criminals, terrorists, subversives. Some of the characters were introduced, and we spent 40 pages following them, and then they seemingly disappeared from the story. I admit, out of the 1000 pages, I read perhaps 500 of them, those segments that were of interest, and I turned the pages through the endless boring sections that I didn’t care about, simply was not interested in and that apparently didn’t contribute to the main plot enough for me to miss them or be confused. Hamilton could have written this tome in 500 pages, and it would be a much better book for it.

In the end, the story didn’t complete in any satisfying manner. I believe a novel that is sold on its own should be able to stand on its own. This didn’t. It just ended, as if it was a chapter all by itself. The final war was not completed. The fate of humanity remained undecided, albeit tenuous. One major character, Ozzie and his small entourage, spend the entire book on a weirdly implausible excursion without any connection to the main story. I kept waiting for Ozzie to loop back into the plot, and he never did. Ironically, I enjoyed Ozzie’s adventures enough to read them all the way through. Why was Ozzie there? I do not know. So Hamilton could have written another book the Ozzie Story, in about 300 pages, and he would have had two books that I would have understood and read and enjoyed, versus one that confused me.

When the book finally ended, Hamilton wanted us to go to the bookstore and buy the sequel. I am not going to buy it. I know that 500 pages will be boring peripheral stuff I am not interested. The other 500 pages will be more core material I really do enjoy, but not enough to go through that again. Ozzie was fun, but not that much fun.

So I got my technology fix, my science fiction epic fix and my alien immersion. That was good. Hamilton is a good story teller and a creative writer. He just packs too much bullshit into the stories and thus dilutes them to a point where they become a pain to read.

And why was it named “Pandora’s Star?” Probably a pun on Pandora’s Box, but never mentioned in the book. I probably turned the pages over it. Oh well. Done with Hamilton.

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This book plays in the middle of the 21st century, in near future, as science fiction would label it, and describes an earth on the brink of self-annihilation, mostly at the hands on incompetent politicians worldwide.

Then, suddenly, an astronomer discovers a signal from space. Aliens announcing their arrival three months hence. This puts events in motion on earth, of course, and we get to follow those.

The author tells the story from the perspective of dozens of participants, quickly switching around, making it difficult to follow. To make matters worse, the characters are fairly one-dimensional and I simply didn’t find them interesting enough to follow. I did read the book, if you count my quickly skimming over the boring parts, those where I didn’t care about the characters and I didn’t find enough interest in their contributions.

The story was not as interesting as I’d hoped from the back cover description, which was the reason I picked it up in the first place. It was worth a read, but that’s all. This was only the second Haldeman book I have read, so I can’t cast judgment yet. If this had been my first Haldeman, I would never have picked up another one. Given I loved The Accidental Time Traveler, I’ll go for a few more.

But I think you can skip this one.

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When my daughter saw a Nicholas Sparks book on my nightstand, she actually asked me why I was reading it. I told her I tried to keep an open mind and read a “sensitive” book once in a while. A “chick book” as she would probably call it.

Here is a book that follows a well-tested formula and it is anything but unique. As I was working my way through it I kept thinking of how closely it followed “The Bridges of Madison County.”  Bridges, however, was much more fresh and surprising. Bridges, when I first read it, made me cry out loud, a first when reading a book. Rodanthe made me sniffle a few times at best.

The story was the same one:

A successful surgeon neglects his family all his life for his career. He gets burned out in his fifties, after he loses his wife to illness and his son to neglect. Then he sells his house, his practice and his life, and gets on his way to Ecuador to try to reconcile with his estranged son. He plans to be there for a year.

A housewife and mother of three school-aged children lost her husband to a younger woman and cannot forgive him. She cannot make ends meet, but is dedicated to raising her children to the best of her abilities.

Chance has it that the two of them are holed up in a bed and breakfast in a small coastal town in North Carolina by the name of Rodanthe. The woman, Adrienne, is taking care of the B&B for a friend of hers for the weekend. The surgeon, Paul, is the only guest of the B&B. They are there for a long weekend of four nights, during a severe storm that for the benefit of the plot keeps away all visitors and any other guests. Stuff can happen when two lost souls are together in a nice and romantic setting. And stuff does happen indeed.

As the plot goes, the first day together they get to know each other and we get to know the players. On the second day they fall in love and lust. That love gets consummated on the third and forth day, and then they part. Fate has it that they never meet again. Both are desperately in love, and for both there will never be another partner, not to mention a partner of true love and soul-mate-ship as they were to each other.

Bridges was that way, too, but it was a better constructed and more credible novel. Bridges seemed real, while this seemed contrived. Two middle-aged hapless souls meet and mate, and their lives are changed forever. Okay. What else?

In stories like this, there are way too many characters that are just not real. Paul, for instance, is a brilliant doctor, nationally renowned for his skill. But he is also a world-class runner, which helps make his body trim, muscular, and apparently sexy for the females in the story. Not only is he extremely successful, but he also has rugged good looks, a sensitive soul that, of course, is only brought out by the female protagonist, and it even surprises him himself. When he dresses, he just “throws on” a pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt every day. The shirt shows his muscular arms and back, to the enticement of the female. His intense gaze and his humble demeanor round out his attractiveness.

Both characters “throw on” jeans at times in the story. That “throwing on” of clothes reminded me of another fairly weak book I had read a couple of years ago by Sandra Brown: A Kiss Remembered. Those guys also kept throwing on clothes. Have you noticed that only superhero doctors with perfect bodies, or 23 year old female Ph.D.s in Micheal Crichton stories can “throw on” jeans and T-shirts and get away with it?

Why can’t Paul be a credible and normal character. Yes, he can be a doctor, he can be anything, but it would have been more credible if he had had some flaws, if he had been a real person, not some superhero of the American society in the early 2000’s. Give me a shoe salesman, give me a carpenter, give me a postman, give me anybody that I am likely to run into at the supermarket, and I’ll get into your story. Give me real persons, not cartoon characters of precise drawing and coloring.

I could not quite picture Adrienne in this book. She is in her late forties, somewhat overweight and rounded, and with a few facial flaws, like a hooked nose. Of course, the plastic surgeon eventually tells her she does not need any surgery. Hmmm. We never really find out what’s up with her, and why he is all engrossed by her. She is a “normal person,” not a superhero like he. She works in a library. What exactly attracts Paul to her? Is it her looks, is it her smarts, is it her personality? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because she is the only woman there in the B&B, and all the women get sexier as it gets closer to closing time.

Maybe I will stay away from any more “chick books” for a while. On second thought, perhaps just Nicholas Sparks books.

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Before boarding a plane for Europe in Dallas, I knew I was going to run out of reading material. I stopped at the only bookstore in the terminal, and when I couldn’t find anything else, this was the book I picked.

The story seemed intriguing. It’s a family drama, told from the omniscient perspective of the writer that can get into the heads of the various characters, at different times. It tells the story of twins, separated at birth by a twist of fate and a moment of very bad judgment by their father.

The writer delves into the thoughts of the various family members and tells their stories and feelings with great detail, to the point, that I would start speed reading, or skimming, to get over the sections that didn’t seem to contribute to the story other than providing more detail about the characters.

The truth is, while I found the story and plot intriguing, the characters didn’t really ever interest me. I was constantly aware of the fact that I was reading a fabricated novel. I was following a story that somebody had made up, making an effort to keep it interesting. There wasn’t really that much going on. There was a lot of telling, but not much showing. There was a lot of thinking, but not much acting.

In the end, I put the book away, glad that I stuck with it all the way through, but also glad that I could leave the characters and I wouldn’t have to spend any more time with them.

The critics on the back cover call the novel mesmerizing. I call it sleepy. I recommend you pass.

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