Carl’s Geek Notes

September 2, 2015

Book Review – Saving Kabul Corner

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , — Carl @ 2:42 pm

3 stars. N.H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul was a book that I enjoyed quite a bit, so I was eager to read Saving Kabul Corner. This book was enjoyable but didn’t have quite the same appeal to me; themes were not as weighty and a little heavier on tween girl drama. The detective part of the story was interesting (though simplistic with a bumbling and cookie cutter “bad guy”), and themes of friendship and communication were well-presented without being too overt. The real star of the book is the author’s lovely look at Afghan culture, and the overtones of tradition vs. fitting in will give more thoughtful young readers a treat. A pleasant read, all in all.

September 1, 2015

Book Review – Airs Above the Ground

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , — Carl @ 2:37 pm

3.5 stars, rounding up to 4 for the pleasant memories it elicits. Airs Above the Ground is a trip down memory lane for me, taking me back to sitting on the staircase of my grandparent’s lake house with the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books version. Mary Stewart’s thriller of intrigue and the Lipizzaner stallions against the backdrop of the Alps still stands up well, with a compelling plot, enjoyable characters, and a very strong heroine. References are, of course, dated, and a fair amount of the plot could be rendered obsolete with the ability to send a few text messages, but part of the fun is the era in which it is set. Despite not having read this in over 20 years, the story stood out pretty well in my memory; Stewart writes her characters and events powerfully.

August 31, 2015

Book Review – Splendors and Glooms

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , — Carl @ 12:53 pm

4 stars. The sooty side of Victorian England comes to life with a creepy, magical twist in Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. Three children are caught up in the machinations of the sorceress Cassandra and her one-time paramour Grisini who betrayed her. Schlitz slowly unwinds the tale; many will find it slow but I enjoyed the richness of setting and character that this allowed.

The real power of this book is in its characters. The depth of the relationship between Cassandra and Grisini gives both horror and poignancy. Clara becomes the emotional crux, caught between grief and the desire to live. The characters pay homage to Dickensian archetypes; dextrous young thief Parsefall would clearly find kinship with the Artful Dodger and Lizzie Rose is the ideal Victorian heroine.

The plot twists and turns, not necessarily unexpectedly, giving moments of action, drama, and horror. Splendors and Glooms is a “read and think” book more than a “cover to cover” book, and it rewards those who immerse themselves in its pages.

August 30, 2015

Book Review – The Martian

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , — Carl @ 1:36 pm

5 stars. Some days I start a book, and know almost immediately with a mix of excitement and anticipation of sleeplessness that I’m not going to stop reading until the final page is turned. Andy Weir’s The Martian was exactly that kind of book. Astronaut Mark Watney’s story of abandonment, ingenuity, and survival completely engrosses, with mental challenges combining with tension and drama on the harsh surface of another planet.

What really impressed me was the resourcefulness and methodical work that Watney employed. Problem solving, prioritization, planning ahead, and imaginative use for all the materials available to him are front and center, along with an understated will to live that is the mark of good survival literature. Weir’s strong grasp of science and ability to relate scientific and engineering concepts holds the tale together.

I freely admit that I’m a geek. I found Watney’s sense of humor to be spot on–part smartass, part gallows humor, all nerd. The almost flippancy of his journal entries that comprise the bulk of his narrative is made far more human and approachable through his corniness.

Yes, there is an element of “problem occurs, Watney comes up with a clever solution and averts disaster, repeat” to the book; however, none of the man vs. nature conflict is contrived. All are issues that an intelligent person can truly see happening to someone in that position–a chain of events that feels inevitable.

Pacing of the story was excellent, with lots of little moments building towards the grand finale. Weir also resisted the temptation of throwing in lots of “What Watney didn’t know was that the fribbilizers were only capable of handling 6.23 megawhoops instead of the 7.8 that the high goober content allowed through the Martian air”; heavy-handed foreshadowing that would have ruined the book.

Equally compelling is the drama that happens away from the Martian surface. Were this simply the story of Watney, many of the most moving and insightful (not to mention stand up and cheer!) moments of the tale would have been lost. Weir chose to make this a story about humanity rather than simply just one man’s survival.

My favorite book of the year by far. What a great ride! The Martian is a book that I will read over and over.

August 29, 2015

Book Review – Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , — Carl @ 10:34 am

4 stars. Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon combines science, spycraft, and history into a breakneck-paced volume written for a middle reader level. He presents secret agents, spy gear, and techniques, nuclear physics, world politics, and military tactics in a compulsively readable, richly illustrated volume.

One of the things that impressed me about Bomb is how its clear presentation of complex science and world events never “dumbs down” the subject matter. Explanations are cohesive and easy to understand, factual and at perfect readability for children. Sheinkin also presents the moral dilemmas surrounding nuclear power at an age-appropriate level without being patronizing or preachy.

Bomb is exactly how nonfiction for children should be presented, a book that entertains and enlightens.

August 28, 2015

Book Review – Hiking Tennessee

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , , — Carl @ 2:33 pm

Hiking Tennessee by Victoria Steele Logue
Human Kinetics Publishers, April 2015

3 stars.
The good:

-Hike descriptions are super-detailed. A few of them might even take longer to read than to hike! Emphasis is given to pointing out natural and historical features found along the trail, making the descriptions far more than simply directions on how to complete the hike.

-GPS points are given for virtually every feature identified in the hike descriptions.

-This book is an excellent guide to Tennessee’s state parks. I think every state park with a trail or path of any sort is featured, with the exception of the two newest that opened within the last few months (Seven Islands and Rocky Fork). On the flip side, all but four of the areas listed are state parks–and there are tons of great places to hike in Tennessee that aren’t state parks!

-The overview text of each park is extensive, educated, and readable.

-I like the “hike finder” chart listing at the beginning, that shows the types of terrain and natural features found on each trail.

-This is a pretty book, well organized and a pleasure to read. The author is both knowledgeable and a clear communicator.

The bad:

-The emphasis seems to be on very short trails. I count 14 “trails” under 1 mile, and 56 that are under 3 miles. In many cases, significantly better trails at a park are overlooked in favor of short jaunts. As an example, the wonderful 4.5 or so mile Cub Creek Lake Trail at Natchez Trace State Park is well worth a visit to the park for its water features, walk across the dam, combination ridge and bottomland hiking, and optional wire traverse across a stream (not to mention that it’s a loop that connects with a pair of beautiful bridges across the lobes of the lake, not a one-way trail as stated in the guide). The Fairview Gullies Trail, a 1 mile loop through astonishing erosive features, is another great choice. But this book gives a full page description of the half-mile Fern Nature Loop instead–a cute interpretive trail, but it’s not going to inspire anyone to drive the 100 or so miles from either Nashville or Memphis to hike it, whereas better choices would.

-The maps are very simplistic, just black and white drawings of roads, trails, water features, a few icons, and numbered points along the trail that refer to the legend and text descriptions. In many cases, these could be simply labelled on the map. No topo lines are shown, so ridgelines are not obvious at all, a glaring oversight. No scale is given. The overview maps of the park frequently don’t identify the trailheads for the hikes (and sometimes don’t even share any features!), which makes it difficult or impossible to match up the hike detail map to the park map.

As an example, check out these two maps from the Reelfoot Lake State Park entry.  The first one is the overview of the park.  The second is the trail map.  Try to figure out where the trail is in the park.  From the legend, it is clear that there are roads and bridges along the hike.  Why are those not indicated?

Reelfoot LakeReelfoot Lake - Airpark Trail

-Elevation data isn’t readily found. This is a must for any Tennessee hiking book!

-The book is a big, heavy 8.5×11″ package that I really couldn’t see taking on a hike. Hello, scan and print and the questionable copyright law interpretation that entails…

Probably more “Walking Tennessee” than “Hiking Tennessee”. Good for its coverage of lesser-known trails, but all too frequently these are lesser known because they don’t present much in the effort/reward ratio. This volume could have been considerably better with improved maps and more compelling hike choices.

August 27, 2015

Book Review – God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , , — Carl @ 11:20 am

4 stars. Some travel books inspire the desire to hop on a one-way flight to the featured destination this afternoon. This is not one of those travel books! God’s Middle Finger lets me know that the Sierra Madre is nowhere I need to visit any time soon (but I was pretty darn glad Richard Grant took his trip and chose to write about it).

The beautiful mountain country of western Mexico sounds stunning, remote, and dangerous. More dangerous by far are the petty criminals, violent offenders, and territorial hodgepodge of the narcotraficantes’ turf. Life is cheap, and murder and rape are all too often commonplace. Grant starts with a harrowing account of being chased through the woods by homicidally inclined, gun toting men near Durango, hooking me right from the beginning.

Grant writes with a descriptive eye and an obvious feeling of shared humanity for even the most wretched people he encounters (well, except for the pair entertaining themselves by doing their level best to shoot him, for which I think I can forgive him). He doesn’t miss the humorous and the ludicrous either, such as picking up a hitchhiker before going into certain areas because there’s safety in numbers, or how the drug kingpins have made the Copper Canyon area very safe for tourists (because they have too much financial stake in the money laundering opportunities presented by tourism). I also had a wry smile at the tradition of “coming down to the Sierra to get away from the law, or ‘for their health’ as [they] say here.”

God’s Middle Finger can’t really be termed a “fun” book–a rogue’s gallery perhaps?–but I certainly enjoyed its edge-of-my-seat tale (from the comfort of my own house). This was an impulse purchase from the used bookstore, and it proved to be well worth the cost and the pleasurable time spent reading Richard Grant’s puckering story.

August 26, 2015

Book Review – Casual Friday [John Lago series]

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , — Carl @ 1:19 pm

3 stars. Fun and exceedingly violent little short about John Lago that whets the appetite for The Intern’s Handbook. This short stands on its own, as the descriptions and setups duplicate those in the novel a little bit. The intro to John Lago’s character and Human Resources Inc. is breezy and satisfying. I read this after finishing The Intern’s Handbook; nothing from this short is essential when reading the novel.

August 24, 2015

Book Review – American Vampire, Volume 7 [American Vampire series]

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — Carl @ 1:35 pm

The seventh American Vampire installment takes a dark turn as a new villain, the Gray Trader, is introduced. This volume is definitely setup for future plotline rather than a complete story arc, leaving me looking for more at the end–not a bad thing, per se, but that’s the way graphic novels go sometimes. Pearl’s story continues to be an excellent parallel to Skinner Sweet’s. The presentation of Cold War America was interesting, and a good bonus story rewards readers. The artwork is both vibrant and malevolent, like a crisp nightmare that etches itself in the brain.

Book Review – The Intern’s Handbook [John Lago series]

Filed under: Books, Reviews — Tags: , , — Carl @ 7:26 am

4 stars. A seriously tongue-in-cheek assassin novel chock full of white-collar commentary (think Grosse Point Blank meets The Office), The Intern’s Handbook is a breezy guilty pleasure page turner that consistently delivers action, fun, and snark. The protagonist, John Lago, narrates from a tone of arrogant unlikability that is very humorous to read; his dry, factual observations really make the novel. I can see how some readers will never make it past his ego, which simultaneously makes the character shine brightly with realistic motivations and be a total jerk. The action is relentless and bombastic, inspiring thrills, eye rolls, and laughs in equal measure. This is a book to be enjoyed, not taken seriously, and I had a blast reading it.

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