Saturday, January 03, 2015

Book Review - Forcing the Ace

As a kid, when asked "what do you want to be when you grow up," one of my answers was always "Magician." I had a collection of books on magic, magic props and often performed magic tricks in my elementary class talent shows. My goal never came to fruition but it did make the premise of Forcing the Ace appealing to me.

In Forcing the Ace, we follow the life of Alex, a teenage boy with aspirations of becoming a professional magician. He has significant enthusiasm and talent for magic but has less devotion or skills for the other elements in his life, particularly his schoolwork, much to the chagrin of his surgeon father.

In the first chapter of the book, Alex is performing in a local magic show with the hope of attracting the attention of a sponsor for a professional magician competition. Unfortunately, his act ends with a significant injury to his hand and it looks like his hopes for the prestigious competition are shattered. His luck changes when he is noticed by Jack, a retired magician who tells Alex that he'll sponsor him but only if he pairs up with Zoe, another teenage magician from the town. Alex has always been a solo act and has no desire to share the glory with anyone but he reluctantly agrees and they begin training.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Book Review - Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What PeopleHear

Decades ago I was sitting in my Sophomore High School English class and we had an unexpected visitor. A previous "English Sterling Scholar" for the school stopped by to visit with our teacher and he was asked to give us an impromptu presentation. He'd gone on to major in English and was currently doing an internship on a speech writing team for one of our state politicians in Washington D.C. I remember him saying that he had a lot of people telling him that his English degree would be useless and he should choose something else. He told us that they were wrong and that there were plenty of job opportunities for people with English degrees. In fact, he suggested that a degree in English would be vital since more and more the future will have a dire need for people with the ability to write, read and understand language. He talked a bit about his experiences with political speech writing as well as opportunities to be professional writers for executives, colleges, research groups and others. I didn't have a great passion for politics so even though the speech writing thing sounded fun, I focused more on his points that an English degree had value. By that time I'd more or less decided I wanted to study English literature and writing but I had no idea what career might come of it. I definitely don't credit his entire impromptu speech as the impetus for my educational choices, but he did help me feel more confident in my plans.

I was given the book "Words That Work" as a gift by someone who knows my love of language and writing. Just glancing at the title I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from the book but I dove in, eager to find out. The author, Dr. Frank Luntz may well be one of the "end results" of the path started on by my visiting English Sterling Scholar mentioned above. Dr. Luntz has a passion for language and has taken that passion not only to Washington D.C. as a speech and campaign writer but also to numerous high profile corporations and non-profit groups. He stepped beyond the "simple" role of being "just" a speech writer and has taken on a role of helping a person shape their language into the best possible form for the desired message.

Much of the book includes anecdotes and references to real-world experiences that the author had with some politician, executive, or other highly visible individual. Truly he has had a star studded career having worked with US President's, Congressional/House Majority leaders, Fortune 100 Executives and Hollywood stars. Many of his stories were rather funny even if only for the unfortunate results of poorly structured language. I had a hard time relating directly to the many examples that were deeply entrenched in political or corporate dealings. still, the construction and results were intriguing.

The subtitle of the book "It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear" was the main focal point that Luntz returned to again and again. He presented a number of rules and bits of advice to help ensure your message is received in the way you intend. The first step, of course, is to make sure you are personally very clear on the desired message. After that, you need to very carefully and methodically analyze and choose words with special focus on your audience. Every listener comes with his or her own paradigms or prejudices which can taint certain words or cause even a seemingly simple and straightforward message to be misunderstood.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books Read in 2014

For the past few years (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 has 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.  In 2013, I was significantly below my goal.  Oh well.

This year (2014) I plan to improve on my downturn in 2013.  If I hit 50, great, but at the very least, I hope to reach 40 books read in 2014.  I will also try to share all of my reviews here so you can get a feel for what I liked or didn't like.  That said, I generally only pick up a book to read it if I feel like it "speaks to me" in some way, so chances are, most of my reviews will be fairly positive.  Even then, I'm sure I'll come across some stinkers.  :)

If you have any suggestions for books to read or ways I can make my reading goal more exciting, please let me know.

And now, without further ado, here's the list of books I've read so far in 2014:
(I will be updating this post each time a new book is read/reviewed)
  1. The Martian
  2. The Forbidden Stone (The Copernicus Legacy Book 1)
  3. At First Light
  4. The Orphanage of Miracles
  5. The High Druid's Blade
  6. The Conjuring Glass (The Phoenix Girls Book 1)
  7. The Bluest Eye
  8. Frostborn (Thrones and Bones book 1)
  9. Death in Venice and other tales
  10. Shell Game (Kingdom Keepers #5)
  11. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  12. Around the World in Eighty Days
  13. The Rule of Thoughts (Mortality Doctrine #2)
  14. Rat Runners
  15. Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear
  16. Forcing the Ace
And for additional reference, here's a link to my "to be read" list over at Goodreads. This list includes purchased books on my bookshelves (but not read) as well as tons of books that have been recommended to me over the years. As you can see, the list is huge...and never really shrinks since there are always new recommendations coming in. So tell me...what good books have you read lately that I should add to my list? Any that I "MUST" get to ~immediately? :-)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review - Rat Runners

The blurb for Rat Runners had a number of things that grabbed my interest. The whole concept sounded pretty fun. Some of the preview blurbs called it an "Oliver Twist for the 21st Century" and "Blade Runner meets 1984."

Set sometime in the future, the story takes place in a dystopic London where high tech security organization WatchWorld keeps crime and violence under control through the use of countless street cameras, drones and satellites as well as "Safe Guards" patrolling the streets and buildings of the city. The cameras and drones are equipped with state of the art hardware and software to allow them to quickly analyze video and audio to quickly pinpoint crimes as they happen.

The technology goes a step beyond that with X-Ray scanning, audio analysis of voice and even heartbeats and chemical/sensory analysis of increased body temperature or sweat. The "Safe Guard" is a human wrapped up in armored technology in a way that reminded me of RoboCop but without being wholly roboticized. The human inside is given orders and information on their visor and is shielded from the outside world in a way that eliminates the appearance of humanity to an external viewer.

WatchWorld has full control and autonomy to stamp out crime in whatever way they see fit. Naturally this pushes the criminal element "underground" into "voids" they've created to keep out the peeping eyes of WatchWorld. Even though the general public allows WatchWorld to carry out this intense level of surveillance, the public wants to maintain at least some privacy for their children. As a result, the criminal underworld uses children and young teens to help with their legwork above ground. The book title comes from the skinny alleyways, nooks and crannies that the kids run through to avoid being caught on camera or stumble across a Safe Guard patrol. Because even though WatchWorld can't explicitly spy on a child, if they have enough suspicion that the child is involved in illegal activities, that rule changes.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Book Review - Around the World in Eighty Days

Jules Verne is considered one of the early authors of the sci-fi genre. While Around the World in Eighty Days may not immediately fit our mold of "science fiction", when you figure that this was originally written in 1873, the science involved is pretty significant even if it is all based on accurate science rather than fanciful imaginations. Prior to reading, I knew the basic story and characters but not much more than that. Eccentric and meticulously orderly Phileas Fogg places a bet with members of his social club that he can travel around the world in 80 days. The date is chosen based on a loose claim listed in the newspaper based on the outlined timetables for trains and ships.

The first thing I found interesting was the character of Phileas Fogg. Based solely on my knowledge of the plot, I had expected him to be some wild and crazy madcap character with all sorts of outrageous behavior. Instead, Verne spends the first many pages showing us that Fogg is very much a creature of habit with ordinary behaviors. If anything, Fogg is a bit boring as a character. He has a precise daily and weekly schedule dictating when he wakes, when he sleeps, when he eats and everything he does in between. He doesn't have any extravagant hobbies or pastimes and doesn't do much of anything to engage in social events of the day. His flippant and sudden placing of the bet seems out of character and is quickly followed by quick adaptation to a new schedule as he immediately rushes home from his club, packs a quick bag, grabs his servant and proceeds to his first destination. Even in his quick trip, we seldom see him Fogg rushing or impetuous in any way. He is the picture of calm even as his trip faces adversity.

As a contrast to Fogg, his servant Passepartout is a very emotional character full of as much passion and frustration as Fogg is full of calm. Passepartout is stymied by his master's wager but rushes along with him on the adventure, excited to see the world. He is dismayed as he realizes that the whirlwind tour will result primarily in him seeing the cabins of ships or trains and very little of the world they're passing through. With each obstacle that comes their way, Passepartout practically shrieks in frustration and really adds to the sense of suspense and tension in the adventure. He is a great counter to Fogg's character and really helped make the book more entertaining.