Archive for November, 2016

Review: Boneshaker

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is a solid steampunk thriller set in 1860’s Seattle.  Also, zombies.

And quite honestly, there’s not too much more to say about it.  Priest builds a believable, pretty consistent clockwork milieu and throws some vibrant characters into it.  There is a good mix between emotional stakes (mom seeking her lost son, son redeeming his father’s legacy), action sequences, and big reveals.  It’s a good popcorn movie of a book.


Review: Everything I Never Told You

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

The more I turn this book over in my mind, the more I admire it.

In Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng has created an intricate and polished depiction of tragic events in a claustrophobic and contracting family sphere. Every time I consider another angle – themes, tone, iconography, historical context – I’m impressed by the care and sophistication of the work.

Tonally it reverberated with Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Stephen Dobyn’s Church Of The Dead Girls.  They share the sense of a series of moments that illuminate a lingering initial image in a cloistered world.  Ng brings that seeping revelatory technique to a family in small town Ohio pre-1980.  I feel the echoes of those other works but Everything is distinct.

The plot and characters all mesh intricately and organically.  It opens with a tragedy and oozes outward, though Everything is not a mystery. The puzzle frames the ideas rather than being the end.  That’s true of well-crafted mysteries as well – and I cast no shade on the genre – but Everything‘s world is messier and earthier than most genre settings. Different readers will come to different conclusions about the family here, yet the motivations and themes are clear and complex.

In addition to its literary power, Ng connects her plot and characters into a world that is simultaneously realistic and nostalgic.  One can feel the nods toward popular culture and the care given to accuracy. Those can be at odds, and Ng chooses the cultural iconography and historical themes well.  even things that feel incidental often become more illuminating on reflection.

The narrative incorporates more traditional literary iconography as well. Ng does the tricky work of balancing her characters’ realism and structural roles with uncommon skill.  Symbolism that might be too on the nose in a similar plot almost snuck up on me here.

It’s also a compelling read.  I’d like to say it’s a fun read, but that’s false.  The experience is a lot like my idea of wrestling a boa constrictor.  Everything about the novel becomes more claustrophobic and urgent as the narrative catches up to the climax from multiple angles.  As the book goes on and the characters grow more defined, individual scenes seamlessly jump between points of view.  That results in a sense of simultaneous disorientation and intensity.  Other techniques are deployed with similar virtuosity.

Overall, it’s a deep powerful novel.

A must.

Review: The Singularity Is Near

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

Ray Kurzweil is an advocate for the idea that strong artificial intelligence will develop in the fairly near term and merge with human intelligence. He believes that this, combined with a combination of personality uploading and biohacking, will extend human lives arbitrarily.  The Singularity Is Near is one of his books outlining that position in some detail.  I’m unconvinced.

Part of this is undeniably because Singularity was published in 2006 and there’s a certain datedness to the text and technology. It makes the read feel like Kurzweil is behind the times, though at the time he obviously wasn’t.

That wasn’t where his arguments fall apart for me, though.  Kurweil spends a lot of his time talking about the accelerating performance of technology, but little on accelerating depth of understanding.  It seems to me that until we understand what we’re talking about when we talk about consciousness, there’s little hope of capturing it. I don’t believe that there’s any mystical element to capture, but whatever complexities produce a sense of self remain elusive.

It was an interesting read, but to me more of a diverting artifact than a convincing argument.

Review: Marked For Death

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

I should really confer with my friend Jeff before I write any of these capsules.  I’m frequently lukewarm on a book until I tell him about what I found out from reading it.  This is written after such a session, so I may actually be too excited about James Hamilton-Patterson’s Marked For Death.

Marked is a history of World War I aviation from a British author and perspective.  That’s an unusual one for me, as most of what I’ve read has been from the American  point of view (or from American or German participants.)  Hamilton-Patterson is very explicit that Marked is not a linear narrative of the war, but a ramble through topics about WWI aviation that interest him and that have been under-represented.  It’s an interesting set of topics, and clearly of our modern era.

He spends his time talking about how the UK bureaucracy inhibited adoption and development of aviation early in the war, some under-explicated specifics of the aircraft design, the structure of flight training, and aeromedical issues.  One gets the sense that he’s a pilot, as many of these issues are hot buttons in our fraternity.  It was a pleasure to learn more about many of them.

While I did enjoy the ramble, the lack of narrative focus did allow some of the chapters to drag.  I’m largely a motivated reader on many of these topics, and I felt the momentum flag at several points.

Overall, Hamilton-Patterson brings a fresh perspective and solid research to under reported topics in WWI aviation.



Saturday, November 5th, 2016

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but life intervenes.

I’ve made an odd impact (ha, ha) on the LA biking and aviation worlds.  As readers may recall, I had a pretty exciting wake turbulence encounter in a construction zone near LAX this year.  I mentioned it to Ted Rogers who runs the spectacular Biking in LA blog, and he posted it. A few weeks later, the I saw this update.

Here’s a link to the sign.

Review: Sidewalking

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

Sidewalking is David Ulin’s collection of thoughts composed while walking the streets of downtown LA.  Of course he’s polished those thoughts more than that, but that’s the idea.

Ulin is a New York City transplant and academic, which shapes his thought and writing style.  His views of LA are informed by comparisons to NYC’s own vibrant street life.  These places are very different, though the differences seem to constantly surprise those raised in either place.  I say that as a transplant myself who has been surprised by the differences between LA and my life.  Everyone’s experiences light LA from a different angle, and Ulin’s are both interesting and well expressed.

Ulin does have the perspective of writing as an academic.  Again, I have some experience in that world, and we often write for posterity.  Ulin does this, citing historical perspectives and framing his physical and literary ramblings against the policy initiatives that LA city government are carrying out to revitalize downtown.  It’s a nice combination of erudition and street experience, albeit from different streets.  For me many of his thoughts are as much conversation starters as pronouncements. I keep wanting to say “yeah, but in Southern California…”

And I’m no native.

Overall, an interesting read.