The God Delusion

June 29, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

godThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins


It’s been about seven years since I declared myself an atheist. I was hesitant to make a big deal out of it, since, like a person’s religion, I felt it was a private matter that didn’t have much bearing on day-to-day life. In a world where evangelism is common, where the converted will knock on your door to talk about Jesus, I felt like it was appropriate to keep it to myself.

Richard Dawkins doesn’t feel this way. In fact, I wonder if I’m even the target audience for The God Delusion, since his intention with the book is to convince religious people to give up their gods. His arguments are intended to knock down the tenets of religion, leaving believers with no choice but to give up God and become atheists. In short, the book is evangelism. It’s atheist evangelism, to be sure, but it’s evangelism nonetheless.

The book is also unnecessarily confrontational, and even insulting. When looking at opposing arguments (religious ones, that is), he uses words like “silly” or “infantile” or “ludicrous”, and I can’t help but wonder how he thinks he will convert people using language like this.

This is all a shame, not only because he takes this approach to the subject matter, but also because the arguments he makes are meritous and worth considering, religious or otherwise. I waffled with whether I was agnostic or atheistic for years, and had I read this book when I was younger, it would have helped me realize my position much sooner (had I been able to get beyond Dawkins’ tone).

I listened to the audiobook edition of the book, which was narrated by Dawkins and his wife. In one respect, it was helpful to have two narrators. Dawkins quotes long pieces from other works, and it helps to know when the quote begins and ends, since one narrator will pick up the quote and return to the other narrator when the narrative returns. In another respect, though, it was distracting. Sometimes they shifted speakers for no reason, and it was sometimes hard to manage the thread of the conversation.

I found a lot to like in The God Delusion, but I found a lot I didn’t like, too. It’s a weird blend of good content buried under a stratum of aggression, but those who can stick with it will leave with a lot to think about. I have a hard time seeing how a Christian would (a) choose to read the book, or (b) be convinced by Dawkins’ arguments. I think it’s a book best geared toward those who are examining their own lack of faith.

Started: May 8, 2018
Finished: May 19, 2018

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The Plant

June 28, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

plant.jpgThe Plant by Stephen King


I am a Constant Reader. When I was younger, I had a copy of the Stephen King Encyclopedia, and I tracked down as many of his errant stories as I could, including buying a copy of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes so I could read “The Doctor’s Case”. (This was long before Nightmares & Dreamscapes was published.) For all that, I’m surprised that it took me until 2018 to finally read The Plant, especially when I was one of the financiers of King’s pay-what-you-want release of the story.

Reading it now, I can see why it remained unwritten for so long. It’s just not that great a story. True to King form, it involves writers and editors, all of whom are being terrorized by the author of a book they reject in the form of a plant. It feels a little weird, but it’s important to remember this was written around the time King wrote about a haunted car, a haunted bathroom, and an all-powerful word processor. King was writing whatever came to mind during that era.

There is a fifteen-year gap between the first part of the story and the second, and it’s pretty clear where that divide is, since King’s style is so different between the parts. It merges well, but King takes advantage of the gap to add a kind of prescience to the story that wouldn’t have existed had he written the whole thing in the time it’s set, which is the early 1980s. In the later portion of the story, he has a character come up with an idea that’s identical to “Survivor”, and treats it like it’s some ground-breaking idea. It rings false, and forced me out of the story. He does this more than once, too, and the more he included these references (including one to Carrie, though that was in the early portion), the more eye-rollingly annoyed I got.

He also includes another black character who talks like the most offensive charicature of the blackface era, much like Detta Walker, though without her crass obscenities. This character, Riddley, is smart, and aspires to be a writer himself, but he chooses to speak this way as a means to … something. I’m not entirely sure what his intentions are there, since his coworkers (the editors) don’t understand why he talks the way he does. It was odd, and I don’t feel like it ages well.

However, without Riddley, I wouldn’t have been able to discover that he’s from Blackwater, Alabama, and that his extended family is named McDowell. That bit made my day.

It’s hard to judge a book that’s incomplete, but I feel like we’re not missing anything by leaving this story unfinished. It’s familiar territory for any Constant Reader, in character and plot, and they might find themselves annoyed at how this epistolary novel takes a long, third-person omniscient tangent in the later part of the story. I will say I’m glad this story has been available in an affordable format, since when I first discovered its existence, the only available copies were from Philtrum Press. I’d recommend the story only to the most constant of Constant Readers.

Started: May 3, 2018
Finished: May 18, 2018

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Shadows of the Empire

June 27, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

shadowsShadows of the Empire by Steve Perry


I have a vague memory of when this book came out, thanks in part to being a LucasArts fanboy for many years. I remember it was a major multimedia release, with the game, the book, the comic book, and probably some other materials all tying together to tell the whole story. I remember playing the game, but I never delved into the other material.

Shadows of the Empire was among the first of the Expanded Universe releases after Timothy Zahn rekindled interest in it with the Thrawn trilogy, and it shows. It’s a solid read, with enough throwbacks to the original trilogy, along with new characters to breathe new life into the EU. This was the first novel that addressed what happened between Empire and Jedi, and it introduced Prince Xizor, a character who is still prominent in the new canon.

In the story, Xizor is making a play to replace Darth Vader to become the Emperor’s right hand through a plot to kill Luke Skywalker. At the same time, Leia is trying to track down Boba Fett and rescue Han from Jabba, and Dash Rendar signs on to help them. Dash is a stand-in for Han, which is unfortunate since he comes across as a carbon(ite) copy of Han in some parts of the story. I’m not sure how much that decision came from Perry, and how much of it came from Lucasfilm.

This is one of the stronger titles in the EU, and is definitely among the must-read books in the universe. I might have to see if I can find the game to see if I can get any more details about the larger story.

Started: May 5, 2018
Finished: May 12, 2018

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June 26, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

descentDescent by Ron Dee


Here we’re into the next book in my Abyss reading project, and Lordy, what a mess it is. We have the rock star trope, the usual excess that comes with rock and roll and horror, and then a psychosexual ghost story that rambles about without much point. Amidst all that is a woman who has recently lost a baby and is now unable to have one, and is so hung up on how much she can’t possibly be a woman now that it could only written by a man. It’s ridiculous, overwrought, sensationalized, and pointless. Is this what the whole genre was like during its heyday? If so, what the hell was I thinking that I read these books?

Dee’s first book in the line, Dusk, was pretty bad, but Descent is somehow even worse. Aren’t writers supposed to get better with experience? This book is an insult to the good books also published in the Abyss line. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s not nearly as bad as Obsessed by Rick R. Reed, but we’re still scraping the bottom of the barrel either way. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.

Started: May 8, 2018
Finished: May 12, 2018

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Six Wakes

June 25, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

wakesSix Wakes by Mur Lafferty


One of the conceits of this novel — that people can clone themselves and load their consciousness into the clone, only losing whatever memories were recorded since their last backup — has been done before, most notably (in my memory) in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I’ve gotten fed up with Doctorow’s self-promotion in and out of his works, so I figured I could see what a better writer would do with this conceit. Lafferty takes it in a new direction and does a great job with it.

Six Wakes is a locked-room mystery, as the clones in question are on a spaceship heading to a distant world, but they all wake up to find they’ve all been murdered. There are only the six of them aboard the ship, all of whom are criminals, so suspicions begin to fly once they discover they’ve lost twenty years of their memories, the cloning machine has been sabotaged, and the ship’s computer isn’t responsive. The race is on to discover their killer before they all face real death.

By itself, this would be a compelling story, but Lafferty makes it more than that. She addresses moral issues related to cloning, privacy, and secrecy, and those themes weave in and out of the story. It makes the book more significant, without sacrificing the story. Lafferty’s characters are easy to like, and every character in the story has the means and the motivation to be a suspect.

Six Wakes was a finalist for three science fiction awards this year, and for good reason. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes a good mystery, a good science fiction story, or a good moral dilemma story. I guess I would recommend it to anyone, period.

Started: May 4, 2018
Finished: May 12, 2018

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles / Usagi Yojimbo: Expanded Edition

June 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) ()

tmntTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles / Usagi Yojimbo: Expanded Edition by Stan Sakai


I was unaware that this crossover event had happened. I wasn’t surprised, partly because this isn’t the first time that the turtles have crossed into Usagi’s timeline, and partly because I don’t follow the individual issues of Usagi. Once I saw it was available, though, it was a no-brainer that I would read it; I have 35 collections on my shelf to prove it.

This isn’t the tightest Usagi story, partly because it’s so short. What I like about the collections is the way they string stories together into an overarching story, and that’s missing in this crossover. We do get throwbacks to one of the major stories that has played a part in the series over the last several collections, which is nice, but I feel like I could have skipped this issue all together and not missed anything. Which, on the other hand, is probably what Sakai intended with the crossover — to bring something new to the constant readers without alienating readers who missed it.

Still, this is Stan Sakai, and the story has all the charm and history one expects from his stories. I think Usagi fans will get more out of this issue than Turtles fans will, since it’s all Sakai’s style. This is the expanded edition of the issue, which includes other crossover stories that have appeared before (in some cases, even in the collections), which is nice. It still clocks in under 75 pages, though, so anyone looking for a more solid Usagi story might want to look elsewhere. It’s more Yokai than Grasscutter.

Started: May 12, 2018
Finished: May 12, 2018

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Archie: Volume Five

June 21, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) ()

archie5Archie: Volume Five by Mark Waid, et al.


This was the first collection of the reboot I read since watching Riverdale, which takes a lot of liberties with the Archie characters. Waid’s take on the characters is much more traditional, which isn’t a surprise since his notes in the first volume were that he wanted to do no harm to the characters. After Betty’s accident in the last collection, though, I wondered if he had forgotten about that promise.

Waid wraps up that story arc well, concluding the events without resorting to cliches or obvious resolutions. He also avoids the “woman in a refrigerator” trope by having the accident affect Betty’s own resolve, instead of having it as a reason to develop the other characters. That happens, too, but it’s not the primary result of the accident. I had concerns at the end of Volume Four because it seemed like he was taking that route, but he pulled it off well.

I grew up on Archie, so I’m the target audience for this title, but I think it’s doing some impressive things with the characters. Where Riverdale takes the license as a place to begin a noir story that does what it needs to with the characters, regardless of their background, Archie is staying faithful to the characters as they’ve been for so long. It’s no surprise that I’m preferring the comic to the show (and I do like the show!).

Started: May 12, 2018
Finished: May 12, 2018

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June 20, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

masteryMastery by Kelley Wilde


Moving along in my Abyss reading project, Mastery is the next book in publication order. This is also a re-read for me, and I remember a handful of things about the book, but what stands out the most is Wilde’s obsession with lavender in this story. He uses it as an adjective to describe things like sounds and smells. I’m not even sure this is supposed to reference the color.

Wilde is a poetic writer, enough so that when I was thinking back to Kathe Koja’s unusual style, what I was actually remembering was Wilde’s style. He doesn’t paint a perfect picture with his prose; instead, he describes it more abstractly, making you pay closer attention to what he’s writing. The good thing is the style means he shows more than he tells, which is a nice alternative to some of the books I’ve been reading lately.

I’m a function-over-form reader, so I expected to be more frustrated with Mastery than I was. Maybe it was because it was in the middle of some other poorly-written books in the line, but I found myself enjoying it. It wasn’t easy getting into it, but I did end up hooked, and was interested in seeing how it played out. It’s a werewolf/vampire story (it feels more like the former, but other readers consider it to be the latter), set amidst a time-travel story set in early 20th-Century San Francisco, but it seems inconsequential against Wilde’s style, which is the real star of the book. It’s not the tightest book I’ve read, but I enjoyed Wilde’s imagery and themes enough to make it a solid middle-of-the-road book.

I would recommend Mastery, but with hesitation. Horror readers would probably get the most out of it, but readers who like stories that are told non-traditionally might enjoy it, too. I don’t think readers of Faulkner or Joyce would like the story that much, but Wilde’s style reminds me more of their styles than, say, Stephen King’s.

Started: April 17, 2018
Finished: May 5, 2018

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The Man Who Folded Himself

June 19, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

foldedThe Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold


Need a primer on time travel? Look no further than The Man Who Folded Himself. In this novel, Gerrold examines all aspects of time travel and what it would mean to have control over the time stream, all in less than 130 pages (and that includes the afterword!). In a word, it’s remarkable.

Gerrold also tells a tale of vulnerability, as Dan (or Don, or Daniel, or Danny, or whomever) examines his own loneliness over decades of travel through time. It’s told in an almost flippant style, but don’t assume this will be a glib look into the character doing the time travel. To tell anything more would be to spoil the novel, but rest assured that it’s worth the read.

This is a reprint of the original edition, and it includes a foreword that contains a mild spoiler. It seems more and more classics are doing this, under the assumption that the reader has already read the book, and I need to get out of the habit of doing so. Also, the book has been updated with some more modern references than it contained in its original publication in 1972, and that always bugs me. I’d prefer to read the original text. On the bright side, this is a novel I will likely read again, so when I do, I’ll track down an earlier release to see how much they differ.

For a good story, and a good time travel handbook, start with The Man Who Folded Himself. Fans of science fiction have probably already read it, but readers coming late to the genre, like me, may have overlooked it, and that would be a shame. If this book isn’t listed among other classics like The Stars My Destination or Gateway, then it should be.

Started: April 30, 2018
Finished: May 4, 2018

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

June 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hiddenHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly


This was a deal-of-the-day on Audible around the time the movie came out, and I couldn’t resist it. Like almost every book I buy, it lingered in my “To Be Read” (Listened?) pile, but a long commute pushed it to the top of the list. I enjoyed the movie, so I expected to like the book, as well.

What fascinates me most of all about the book is how little of it actually focuses on the space race (it doesn’t come up until chapter 16, and the book is only 24 chapters long). The central characters of Shetterly’s biography had worked in Langley for almost twenty years before the launch of Sputnik, and the author tells us how their intelligence, persistence, and dedication brought them to be the key figures of this story. The movie shifts some things around, placing some of the achievements from their earlier days at NACA so they’ll occur during the space race.

It turns out the movie took a lot of liberties with the book, which I guess is to be expected, but when a movie purports to present history, it bothers me a lot more. Dorothy’s promotion came over ten years before depicted in the the movie; Mary’s request to attend the whites-only high school was granted without a court order, or any other apparent fuss; there was a colored bathroom at Langley, but the rules weren’t enforced; Katherine gained access to the meetings through her own persistence, and it was because she was a woman, not a black woman, that she was excluded to begin with. The NACA was more progressive, thanks in part to President Truman’s executive order to desegregate the federal government, issued in 1948. That’s not to say they were free from racist comments, but the way Shetterly tells it, those came from outside Langley, not in it, because those in the organization were focused on work, and winning wars, and representing the country. Race seemed irrelevant when put it contrast to all that.

To me, this makes for a more interesting story. The women gained respect and a place at the organization not because a white savior had to step in to make it happen, but because their own determination and skills proved they were more than their sex or their race. Why the movie chose to ignore that angle of the story mystifies me.

As for the book, I appreciated learning the more authentic story of the main characters, and seeing the details of how far they rose through the organization. We don’t get as vivid a look at the three women as the movie presented, but we learn more about the social issues of the time, and see their story more in context with what they overcame in their professional growth. It’s well researched, and presented well, even if the characters don’t leap off the page.

I would recommend this book to history buffs, especially those interested in the Civil Rights movement or World War II. I definitely recommend it to those who enjoyed the movie, since it gives a larger, more cohesive picture of the lives of the women and the organization they represented. Plus, the book gives the NACA the recognition it deserves for being at the forefront of desegregation, and not the then-backward place the movie makes it out to be.

Started: April 25, 2018
Finished: May 3, 2018

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