Jun 22, 2012

The Draco Tavern, by Larry Niven

The Draco Tavern is an interspecies bar and restaurant, sited at the point of landing and departure of interstellar travel, funded by the Chirps (who own the galaxy) and owned by Rick Schumann. What the Tavern really is, is Niven's playground of the mind. It is a meeting place for philosophies, sciences, ideologies, ideas, beliefs, and customs. It is an attempt to show how limited our own viewpoint is in scope, due to the fact that we are all humans, having been born on Planet Earth. These many short stories raise questions only - there are no answers - and they are delivered with Niven's customary intelligence and wit. A must for any Niven fan, but probably not the work I would first suggest to someone who hasn't read Niven yet.

Jun 21, 2012

Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin

It seems as though you can't throw a stick these days without hitting someone who has read Game of Thrones (or seen the TV show). Popularity does not necessarily equate to quality, as the "50 Shades of Grey" phenomenon makes obvious, but enough readers I respect had told me it was amazing that I was quite looking forward to it. Martin did not disappoint. He's a beautiful writer, a little wordy, yes, but very good with descriptions and emotions. His characters are easily believable and a pleasure to read.

The only problem I have with the book is existential. It's difficult for me to read about despicable people doing horrible things to good people, even when they're not real. It makes my sense of righteous indignation ignite, and there are some books I simply cannot read because of how horrible the characters were. Luckily, Game of Thrones has enough going for it, and enough decent (or at least partly so) characters that the horrible ones are less of an emotional burden, and I can honestly say that I cannot wait to read the rest of the series.

Jun 17, 2012

A Natural History of the Piano, by Stuart Isacoff

Isacoff gives us a history of the instrument as well as its most renowned composers and performers, and describes how the piano became such a long-lasting cultural phenomenon. As an amateur pianist myself, it was quite interesting to read about the piano's sometimes bizarre history, and Isacoff writes with sincere admiration for the incredible people who made the instrument what it is today. His writing is fast-paced and engaging, and his enthusiasm is infective. The only drawback is the awkward structure of the book. Interspersed every other page or so are secondary sections describing oddities, or extracts from others regarding the current topic. While these sections are fun and enlightening, their physical placement breaks up the flow of the main text, and they are long enough (most are a little less than a full page) to make you forget what you had been reading about before. I'm not entirely sure why this structure was chosen, as it makes the book somewhat like a textbook; but it is not so bad that it detracts too much from the book as a whole.

Jun 7, 2012

Advent, by James Treadwell

My boss gave me an advance reading copy of this book, and the blurb on the back makes it sound positively silly. I can now assure you, it is most certainly not that. Rather, it's an extremely well-written, hauntingly beautiful tale about the beginning of the end of the world. The novel starts benignly enough, with a 15-year-old Gavin feeling very much alone and different (and what teenager doesn't?) Things quickly devolve into true weirdness when it becomes clear that Gavin sees things others don't, though they are just as real as he is. We follow Gav on his trip to the coast of England, an estate called Pendurra where his aunt (and only beloved relative) is the caretaker. But Auntie Gwen isn't there, and it slowly becomes obvious that Pendurra is weird, weird in the same way Gavin is. Alongside this story, we also follow the tale of Johann Faust, that infamous magician who, supposedly, sold his soul to the devil.

The beauty of the language of this book is remarkable; many passages are more poetry than prose, almost reminiscent of W. B. Yeats, but not in an overwhelming way. The magical creatures of Pendurra and Faust are sublimely haunting and tantalizingly real. This really is a treasure of writing, and I'm quite happy that it's apparently part of a larger series. I just wish the title were a little less silly and more evocative of the tone of the novel. I fear that the title and blurb won't interest people, and that is a true shame as they will miss out on a wonderful read.

Jun 2, 2012

Pyramids, by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is very funny, and very British, and very good. This is the second book of his I've read, and though it wasn't quite as uproarious as the last, it makes up for it in philosophical depth. We follow Teppic, the son and heir of the king/god of the Old Kingdom, a desert country that has a fatal obsession with pyramids. These pyramids end up wreaking havoc upon the space-time continuum, and it's up to Teppic to set things right. Pratchett presents this novel with characteristic intelligence and wit, as epitomized in this passage:
"It's not for nothing that advanced mathematics tends to be invented in hot countries. It's because of the morphic resonance of all the camels, who have that disdainful expression and famous curled lip as a natural result of an ability to do quadratic equations." My, do I love the British...

Jun 1, 2012

The Downhill Lie, by Carl Hiaasen

This is not a book that any non-golfer would even remotely be able to understand, but those of us who do golf understand it all too well, and empathize deeply with Hiaasen's plight. This little book is the journal of Hiaasen's return to golf after thirty-five years, and it is quite a bumpy one. He plunges into the game, buying club after expensive club and gadget after useless gadget in the hopes that he can become a consistently decent player. Don't we all... His friends encourage him, yet sometimes can't help but laugh at his well-intentioned and disastrous play. He takes lessons from championship teachers, but nothing seems to help. He can't seem to get into the groove of things and take golf for what it's supposed to be: a game. With characteristic Hiaasen dry humor he recounts every shanked and pulled and sliced stroke; it is, admittedly, a bit like my father's own daily recital of his golf game, and can get to be a little much. The humor, though, and especially the parts where Hiaasen describes his young son's joy at the game as well as his own joy at getting to spend time with him, make it worth while.