Carl’s Geek Notes

February 2, 2015

Book Review – Doll Bones

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , — Carl @ 3:50 pm

4 stars. Doll Bones is the deliciously creepy tale of the imaginative game of three longtime friends that takes a very eerie twist. Zach, Poppy, and Alice have dealt with the pressures of growing up through their play, but now that they’re 12, the pressure from Zach’s parents to fit in forces him to stop hanging around with his pals. Then the uncanny china doll in Poppy’s house becomes restless, sending them on a quest to bring her peace.

This book has plenty of adventure, well-conceived characters, a good understanding of what is left behind in growing up, and some wonderfully spooky moments. Imaginatively written, and with some sweet moments as well, Doll Bones is a very enjoyable read of friendship and the supernatural.

January 30, 2015

Book Review – The Old Ways: A Journey onFoot

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , , — Carl @ 2:52 pm

4.5 stars. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is a story about the relation between landscape and people, and the ways that both leave their mark on the other. Robert Macfarlane conveys, through beautiful language, an appreciation of pathways, the feet that make them, and the terrain that directs their course. The journeys are set primarily in England and Scotland, with excursions to Spain, Palestine, and China. Along the way, Macfarlane discusses a variety of topics, ranging from the colorful people he meets to history to geology to literature.

This book is excellent as an inspiration for wanderlust. I particularly loved his descriptions of the Broomway, the pass through Lairig Ghru, his journey on the pilgrim’s way of Camino de Santiago, and the trek at Minya Konka–all of those seem like bucket list hikes!

Macfarlane is very talented with phrases. So many artfully-worded passages ring true:

“Paths are the habits of a landscape.”

“We easily forget that we are track-markers, through, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete–and these are substances not easily impressed.”

“Time is kept and curated and in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them. This discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting.”

So, why not 5 stars for a book that I enjoyed so much? Mainly for Macfarlane’s tendency to use prose and quotations not to enrich his passages, but to show how terribly clever and educated he is. Some parts of The Old Ways plod along, with erudite phrase after phrase, until my eyes glazed over.

I also found the chapters that concerned his journeys to be interesting, and those that concerned his ruminating to be less so. I was least taken with his capsule biography of poet Edward Thomas and his account of two sailing voyages in the Hebrides (this was, after all, subtitled “A Journey on Foot”). This is a “chapter a night” kind of book, not a “sit down and read it all the way through” book. Also, I’m a maphead–where are the maps? This book without maps is like a biography without a portrait of the subject!

January 29, 2015

Book Review – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , — Carl @ 2:11 pm

Sherman Alexie draws heavily from his experience growing up on an Indian reservation in Washington for the semi-autobiographical The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Arnold “Junior” Spirit struggles to fit in both in his culture and that of the nearby town where he attends school, trying to be his own man amidst the weight of his people’s expectations and the alienness of attending a white school.

This book succeeds on many levels. First, Junior is an engaging, witty protagonist with a determined attitude and a likeable nature. His relations with family and friends unfold realistically. The themes of fitting in versus being your own person are well crafted, and the conflicts are intelligent. His story runs the gamut of emotions, from exultation to heartbreak. Alexie’s prose is direct and searing, where every paragraph makes an impact on the story and the reader. Seeing life on the “rez” through Junior’s eyes gives insight into the bitter realities of Indian life–alcoholism, unemployment, loss of heritage.

The illustrations by Ellen Forney add to the story, providing dark comedy at exactly the right parts to keep the tale from being melodramatic or overbearing.

Book Review – Saga, Volume 4

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , — Carl @ 12:58 pm

Definitely an enjoyable installment, continuing the pattern of coalescing and fragmenting storylines.  I thought this volume both jumped around more and resolved less than previous ones, but what a cliffhanger end!  I especially like the attention to character and development that has been invested in this series, which pays off with the believable tensions in this volume as the plot turns toward family relations.  Saga also uses full-page art panels very effectively, combining beautiful art and color for maximum visual impact.  Brian K. Vaughan also has the ability to present incisive social commentary in a very subtle manner that toes the line between humorous and sarcastic.  The best graphic novel series currently in publication for sure.

January 28, 2015

Book Review – The Eyes of the Dragon

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , — Carl @ 3:38 pm

The Eyes of the Dragon is an enormously satisfying read, from its page-turning plot to its well-crafted characters to its resonant themes of falling to and overcoming evil. Prince Peter of the Kingdom of Delain is shaping up to be one of the best-loved kings of the realm when he is framed for the gruesome murder of his father and imprisoned while his brother, the pliable Thomas, ascends to the throne. Thomas is ill-used by Flagg, the kingdom’s magician, a malignant force of ruin and destruction.

Stephen King weaves this tale together deftly, with humor, cleverness, warmth, and intelligence. He goes beyond simple fairy tale caricatures, giving real depth to the inhabitants of his kingdom. Even Thomas is painted compassionately, yet held accountable for his actions. I also appreciate that the small details of the story are important, from manners to napkins to the overwrought reaction of a boy bursting into tears at an inopportune time. Yet King gives the feeling that his story hinges on consequence, not coincidence.

Written for the upper YA reader, yet not dumbed down and not without intense moments and bad occurrences. King writes in straightforward prose that makes one sentence flow into the next; his characters and events live beyond the mere words. He also has many second-person asides to the reader that are witty and well-placed, an homage to the genre that never gets overused.

The Eyes of the Dragon is a book that I have enjoyed ever since it first came out (in fact, I still have my original hardcover edition), and will continue to reread in the future. This is a story told for the joy of storytelling, designed to bring characters and places that never existed to life.

December 28, 2014

Book Review – The Last Season

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , — Carl @ 8:17 pm

A strong 5 stars. Eric Blehm’s The Last Season is a biography of seasonal ranger Randy Morgenson, a veteran of nearly three decades in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. A committed naturalist and environmentalist, he was drawn to the solitude of high peaks. He was also a talented photographer and budding but frustrated writer. One morning he didn’t answer his regular radio check-in, leading to a huge search and rescue (SAR) effort and unanswered questions for his coworkers, friends, and long-suffering wife Judi.

The author skilfully interweaves biographical segments, natural history, and accounts of the SAR. The pacing is just right–the SAR sections are edge-of-my-seat suspenseful, and the rest is alternately enlightening, educational, and pastoral. Blehm’s extensive research gives him authority, whether he’s recounting Morgenson’s history, discussing SAR techniques, or describing the geography of the park.

Blehm lets Morgenson speak frequently, quoting short and long passages from his logbooks and personal diaries. Morgenson’s love of nature comes through very strongly; he clearly felt a distinct call to the Sierra Nevadas above all else, to the detriment of his marriage. He was a strong and distinct person, sometimes a curmudgeon, sometimes a son-of-a-bitch, and sometimes an inspired prophet, but always interesting.

As a hiker, backpacker, and outdoorsman, The Last Season was a very meaningful read for me. It is written by an author who loves the wilderness about a man who loves the wilderness. Blehm’s writing invites a feeling of kinship with both the author and the rangers of the parks. While the book does not gush with prose about the beauty of the locales, I know the emotions and feelings that these remarkable places inspire, and he evokes those emotions regularly. Morgenson’s borderline obsession for environmental preservation will stay with me, over and above “Leave No Trace” ethics that I already practice–it’s going to be damn hard to pass a piece of litter in the woods without thinking of his career-long haul of 21,000 pounds of litter removed from the backcountry, much less choose a campsite without considering the impact of my tenting location!

I will also take from this book a stronger sense of enjoyment in the wilderness. It’s safe to say that one of Morgenson’s legacies is that the outdoors are full of things to be enjoyed, from the minute to the colossal in scale, wanting only patience and attention to be revealed–a very valuable lesson in a culture with a terminal obsession for the fastest. I will think of this book on many trails to come, I’m sure.

December 26, 2014

Book Review – Fables, Volume 20: Camelot

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , — Carl @ 8:33 pm

A resounding 5 stars. The last volume seemed like a total dismantling of the Fables universe, making me think that its ending at issue 150 couldn’t come soon enough. Camelot makes it seem as if that is far too soon. This volume is everything that I love about the series: heroic deeds done very tongue-in-cheek, a smart awareness of culture, snappy dialog, and an innate understanding of the role of stories. The threads of the end of the series are coming together, unfolding with the dignity and solemnity of a classical tragedy.

The relationships between the characters continue to evolve, giving richness to the story. Ultimately, that is what drives the Fables universe, and the conflicts, friendships, and alliances are unique and memorable because they both draw from and build upon the popular legend source material. The Arthurian legends that serve as the basis of this volume are resonant and strong, tapping into a primal vein of chivalry that runs deep through fantasy.

Camelot also contains the most valedictory story since The Good Prince, presented as a beautiful interlude in the woods. This segment reminded me of Harry Potter’s vision towards the end of The Deathly Hallows–high praise indeed!

December 24, 2014

Book Review – American Vampire Volume 6

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , — Carl @ 4:53 pm

3 stars. This volume, composed of several short stories set in the American Vampire universe, was entertaining–nothing more, nothing less. The stories don’t seem to advance the main plotlines greatly, offering glimpses at capsule events and depth to some minor characters. The artwork varied greatly with the guest illustrators. The best of the stories was the Hattie Hargrove one, with a delightfully chilly ending. My least favorite was Bleeding Kansas; its artwork seemed jarringly out of place with the rest of the volume and its story was very disconnected from the series. Largely filler (but decent filler) until the next volume is published, I’m afraid.

Book Review – Jennifer Blood Volume 5: Blood Legacy

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , — Carl @ 4:44 pm

3 stars. The best of the last few Jennifer Blood volumes, moving beyond the garish violence of the last couple of installments with a much more complex morality. Jennifer faces the horrible cost of her choices, both in and out of prison, and ultimately has a slightly redemptive moment at the end. The plot is tense and readable, recapturing the guilty pleasure feel of earlier volumes.

December 22, 2014

Book Review – Carbon Grey Volume 3: Mothers of the Revolution

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , — Carl @ 5:03 pm

2 stars. Per the rest of the series, the artwork was stellar and the storytelling was OK… right until the end, which pretty much ruins the entire series. I’m sure the creators thought they were making a larger point, but they failed rather miserably. The ending twist served merely to trivialize the entire creation of 2 1/2 volumes, making it all seem rather silly and pointless. A real shame, because the depth of mythology and beautiful panels deserved far better.

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