Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review - Station Eleven

If you've been paying attention to books, movies or other entertainment, you've likely noticed an increasing trend of post-apocalyptic themed stories. The novel Station Eleven follows this trend but does so in a way that I found fresh and interesting. Many of the recent post-apocalyptic novels I've seen are heavily plot driven with action-adventure stories involving survival against some ongoing threat or groups struggling against some dystopic or overbearing government or organization. Station Eleven does have plot elements of struggle and survival after the fall of civilization, but this story is much more than an explosive adrenaline filled adventure with characters scrambling chaotically and fighting each other for survival or supremacy. Rather, Station Eleven focuses heavily on character development and following the lives of a few key characters over many decades. The novel navigates back and forth in time giving us snippets of the lives of these characters before, during and after the fall of mankind. There are most certainly action sequences like those you might expect in a post-pandemic setting such as this, but there are many more sequences that spend time exploring the lives of these characters and showcasing the things that make us human. By comparing these very human scenes before and after civilization as we know it, the author presents us with some interesting ideas about what is truly important and how we deal with changes to the things that matter most.

The high level synopsis of the book is that there is an outbreak of a new strain of the flu virus with a fast incubation period and a very high mortality rate. The flu is identified but due to how fast it spreads and how fast it kills, there is just no time to adequately or effectively treat the disease. Within a few weeks, it's evident that the world will never be the same and shortly thereafter, the various advances of modern society fall into decay and gradually disappear without adequate people to create, operate and maintain them. Electricity fades away leaving mankind in darkness and reverting communication methods by a century or more. Gasoline and oil supplies decay and run out, leaving people to travel by foot or using animal power. Luxuries and modern extravagances are set aside in lieu of the need to work just for survival.

The book opens in a theatre and we see an actor named Arthur Leander die on stage. Interestingly, he doesn't die from the flu. Instead, he collapses from an unrelated heart attack. Jeevan is an EMT in the audience who leaps to the stage to try unsuccessfully to save Arthur as a child actress named Kirsten watches. As the paramedics arrive, Jeevan leaves the theatre and walks through the city, thinking about priorities and life and trying to decide what he should do. At the same time, news of the flu begins to spread even though the full extent of the problem isn't yet known. Jeevan figures out that things are worse than expected and he goes to his brother's home to try and weather the storm. We are then taken to a time fifteen years later and learn that Kirsten survived the epidemic and is now part of a traveling troupe of actors and musicians performing music and Shakespearean plays to try and bring some joy to the world they wander.

Books Read in 2016

For the past few years (2015, 2014, 20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I've had a goal to read and review a bunch of books over the course of each year.

My goal had been to average a book per week and end up with 50 books read and reviewed at the end of the year. I usually don't include smaller books (early middle grade, picture books, etc) unless I feel really strongly about them. For the past couple of years I've dropped well below my 50 and only ended up reviewing 9 books last year (though I did read more than that). I'm determined to pick up the pace for 2016. I don't know if I'll get back to the ~50 range, but we'll see what I can do. Wish me luck.

  1. The Ocean At the End of the Lane
  2. You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir
  3. A Scanner Darkly
  4. The Game of Lives (Mortality Doctrine Book #3)
  5. The Girl on the Train
  6. The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One)
  7. At the Mountains of Madness
  8. Station Eleven

Monday, April 25, 2016

Book Review - At the Mountains of Madness

I knew almost nothing about At the Mountains of Madness before starting it. Basically I knew that it was by Lovecraft and it was the story of a scientific expedition to Antarctica and the horrors they found there....see, almost nothing. After reading the novella, I read up on it a little more because I wanted to know where it fit in with some of Lovecraft's other stories. This book is one of his later works, written 5 years after his more famous Call of Cthulhu. I was curious about the publication chronology of his stories because, similar to some of his other stories, there is a great effort given to the scholarly veracity of his tale. Specifically, this story involves researchers from the Miskatonic University (as referenced in many of his other stories) and references some of his other writings as well known books present in the university library. The Cthulhu Mythos and the "Elder Things" is well known by the characters in this story and it is presumed to be well known to other researchers and readers of this report.

The story is told hesitantly by a member of an expedition to Antarctica that happened in ~1930 and made some amazing discoveries. The narrator, William Dyer, explains that the reader is likely aware of some of the official reports that came by means of wireless transmissions during the early portions of the expedition but very few people know the entire story. Dyer says that he would much rather let the true story remain hidden forever but he feels like it must be told now in an effort to prevent subsequent expeditions from trying to pick up where his left off. He is afraid that additional expeditions will encounter the same sort of disasters as happened to him or, worse yet, they could set in motion larger scale horrors to the world.

Lovecraft, through Dyer, gives a very detailed account of the expedition in a manner that is both very scholarly and very accessible. Specific and minute descriptions are given of the purpose of the expedition, the tools and processes to be used and the findings made by the team through their various samplings and experiments. The group consists of geologists, biologists and other scholars with high-tech equipment used to bore deep into the frozen wasteland and excavate samples in the hopes of studying rock, soil, plant and animal fossils, etc. They have numerous small airplanes at their disposal as well as dogsled teams.

**

[CAUTION: minor plot spoilers -- Skip the next ~2 paragraphs to avoid the spoilers]

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book Review - The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One)

The Name of the Wind is one of those books that's received a ton of hype for years and has been both on my radar and on my shelf to read for quite some time. For the past couple of years it's collected dust on my bookshelf largely because I felt a little daunted and wary of picking up a sprawling epic fantasy. This is the first book in (at least) a trilogy of books telling the life history of Kvothe (pronounced to rhyme with "quoth"). Seeing the book clock in at over 700 pages and knowing there are at least 2 additional books, I was a bit uncertain if I wanted to take the risk on that kind of investment (having been burned in the past by other sweeping fantasy tales that fell flat after hundreds and hundreds of pages). Still, the hype continued to build and so I finally picked it up and dove in.

The first thing I noticed is that the style, voice and language of this book are unlike many other fantasy books (and even many other novels) that I've read. In many ways, it doesn't feel like the stereotypical fantasy novel most people would expect. The author, Patrick Rothfuss, has an almost poetic style in that he adds flourish and stylistic elements to otherwise mundane sentences. There have been some books I've read where an author tries to do this and it comes off as pretentious. Fortunately here, the author presents his language casually and with enough fluidity that it made for a beautifully enjoyable reading experience that really made the world and the stories more vibrant and interesting. Additionally, Rothfuss' story includes many mundane details that most fantasy tales disregard...the banality of daily life such as eating, working, shopping, etc. In that regard it felt more like a sprawling 19th century fiction from someone like Charles Dickens rather than a 21st century high fantasy novel with magic and demons. To me, this was a very refreshing and exciting change but I can see where some readers might get bored or bogged down with the more methodical storytelling in place of constant intrigue, action and adventure.

The story is broken into a couple of different plot lines. We have the "present day" in which Kvothe is the owner/operator of a small wayside inn and bar tucked into an average little village. We catch a few glimpses early on that tell us he is more than a simple innkeeper/barkeep. These glimpses expand as a man known as the Chronicler shows up and asks permission to interview and write the biography of Kvothe the adventurer. This begins the second plot line told in Kvothe's own voice beginning during his early childhood with a traveling group of performers (Rothfuss' version of gypsies). We learn of his aptitude for acting, music and his interest in the magical science known as "sympathy" which he studied under a scholar traveling with the troupe. His passion for learning leads to a desire to go to University to learn more. His plans are struck with a major detour when tragedy strikes the troupe and sends Kvothe into homeless poverty. Once he eventually makes his way to University, he has more struggles to try and work his way into the system and become all he wants to become. The historical story is interrupted from time to time with Kvothe taking a brief break to deal with things in the inn...which provides opportunity for some foreshadowing/reminiscing that provide minor hints and spoilers of things to come.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Movie Review - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

There has been a TON of hype leading up to the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Starting with trickling rumors years ago and cascading into a marketing behemoth, the movie finally released to an amazing opening weekend money grab coupled with a bunch of lackluster reviews. My suspicion was that after months (years) of anticipation, people went in with expectations that were just too high. Accordingly, I lowered my expectations slightly and went in ready for some fun-filled popcorn entertainment.
(NOTE: While I will try to stay away from major/specific plot points, this review will definitely teeter on the edge of having SPOILERS)

The story of this movie is very ambitious. It serves not only as a sequel/follow-up to Man of Steel but it also re-launches a Batman movie franchise and introduces Wonder Woman and other members of the Justice League. Even with a run time of more than 2 1/2 hours, that's a lot of story to pack into a single movie. As you might expect, there are some elements that felt well fleshed out while others felt a bit rough and disjointed.

The film begins by showing the final major battle from Superman's last film, Man of Steel in which he and General Zod fly around Metropolis leveling buildings and creating huge disasters. Bruce Wayne is on the ground struggling to reach his own Metropolis high rise in an effort to save his employees and the countless civilians on the ground.

The opening sequence is frantic and tragic and frames the animosity that Wayne/Batman has towards Superman. This anger drives Wayne/Batman to be more focused but also more ruthless and violent. Alfred tries a couple of times to point out to Bruce that he may be going a little too far.

Back in Gotham, we see Batman taking down criminals with violent resolve that attracts the attention of Clark Kent at the Daily Planet who pitches a story idea for someone to investigate and try to stop the violent actions of the Bat vigilante. Thus right from the beginning, we see our two heroes with their emotions on edge.