Review: White Teeth

White TeethWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a funny book. White Teeth is about a whole bunch of things — growing up an immigrant in 1980s London, the feelings of displacement at trying to make a living in another country, World War II, Muslim fundamentalism, atheism, science, and alienation. Archie Jones marries Clara, a Jamaican immigrant and daughter of Jehovah’s Witness Hortense while his best friend and Bengladeshi immigrant Samad Miah Iqbal marries (the much younger) Alsana via an arranged marriage. They have Irie and the twins Magid and Millat, respectively. As Samad watches the children grow up, he wrestles with feelings of alienation and makes a fateful decision to send one son back home to Bangladesh to be raised "properly" while keeping the other one in London. They all intertwine with the Chalfens, an Oxford-educationed Jewish-English family.

The plot is a bit thin as is in any post-modernist novel drawn as a "portrait of a life" but the characters are compelling and distinct. Where these novels fall down are thin characterizations that cannot carry the narrative but that is not the case here. The women, especially, are clear and real and each one different than the rest. They aren’t just thin caricatures designed to hang off the main character’s arms and spout platitudes. They feel like flesh and blood.

For a longish book, it is a surprisingly quick and easy read. Highly recommended.

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Review: White Noise

White NoiseWhite Noise by Don DeLillo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Don DeLillo won the National Book Award for White Noise in 1985. Theoretically, as marked as our Great Minds as a Great American Novel, I should be very for this book. I picked it up because I am a fiend for all things David Foster Wallace and I know he had an ongoing professional relationship with Don DeLillo and took some of the craft of his dialogue for Infinite Jest from this novel.
So why didn’t I love it?

It’s a couple of things. The Kindle edition has a double space between each paragraph which throws off the flow of the dialogue which, I’m sure, was a mitigating factor. Some of the black comedic assessments of our media culture seem dated simply because they were so prescient. (A friend recently pointed out that science fiction that fails to come true is fascinating; science fiction that does is cliche. Think of the 20 page digression on SSH in Cryptonomicon. It was certainly interesting for its time and a pointless digression today.) Partly because the book seems, in the end, like it is trying to be a meaningful meditation on modern existence and it tries too hard.

Jack (J.A.K.) Gladney is a professor at a small midwestern college in Hitler Studies. He and his current wife Babette have numerous children from previous marriages. One day there is an enormous industrial spill — the Airbourne Toxic Event — where they all pile in the car and flee. During which, Jack is infected with a small dose of industrial compound and is informed that, some day in the future, it will kill him. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. Eventually. The last half of the book is consumed with Babette’s addiction to a drug Dylar, Jack’s obsession with the way Babette acquires the Dylar and the Dylar itself, and Jack’s obsession with death.

So we have the big themes: rampant consumerism (lots of scenes in the grocery store), death, more death, media saturation, underground conspiracies, the family, and violence.

Not really for everyone, no. White Noise is a black satire. It is humorous in places, and has some incredible bits of craft in imagery and language. I found myself highlighting some of the better and more interesting passages. But in the end, the story didn’t hang together as well as it could. This novel is definitely Your Milage May Vary.

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Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is the Coen Brothers meets Blade Runner.

It’s the 23rd century and global warming has run amok. The great cities of the world are under water. Enormous corporate conglomerates genetically manipulate strains of wheat and rice to feed the world while extorting the last bit of cash and blood. Countries incessantly war over resources. Genetically created diseases ravish societies. And the Japanese genetically generate the New People, their perfect servants to support a rapidly aging and non-replenishing society.

Set in Bangkok, Thailand, the book follows the stories of four main characters “Song of Ice and Fire”-like: Anderson Lake, the American ‘calorie man’ coming for Thailand’s stock of genetic diversity, Hong Seck a Chinese Refugee from the US, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai a “white shirt” Tiger of Bangkok who works for the ministry that polices the health of the country and Emiko, a discarded “windup,” a genetically modified human turned into the perfect servant but now without a master.

The four main plotlines sort of wander along telling four parallel stories that cross over and intersect and explode in exciting ways while exploring this science fiction future of ecological devastation. This is not an uplifting or positive book — it is /very/ Coen Brothers where people are generally awful in an ever increasing tide of awfulness until the plot explodes on everyone in a mess of fiasco.

It definitely does move. As a book, it is well written, if not meandering at times. The problem is that the plot does meander and some of the stories don’t feel terrifically satisfying. The story of Emiko the Windup Girl is by far the best of the four stories in the book but the other three tend to fall flat at times without drive.

I knock it one star for occasionally losing its point. As a science fiction book its a thinker. A downer, but a thinker.

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[Review] Smallville RPG

Smallville RPG by Cam Banks, Joseph Blomquist, Roberta Olsson and Josh Robey
From Margaret Weis Productions

I would never have picked up the Smallville RPG if it wasn’t enthusiastically evangelized to me from multiple sources. I avoid games based on licensed properties for a number of reasons.  It has the double whammy of being JLA and I am allergic to JLA in all its forms.  “It has a great relationship system!” they said.  “Character creation is neat!” I can be worn down by shameless promotion and, despite never having seen an episode of the show and breaking out into hives if I pass old Green Lantern collections, I picked up a copy from DriveThruRPG.  Never say shameless promotion doesn’t work.

First Impressions

The Smallville RPG PDF is one of those PDFs used as a demo piece to show off how well RPG PDFs can look.  The colors are sharp and crisp.  The font is clear and easy on the eyes.  The art is mostly, with some exceptions, stills taken from DVDs and photograph-clear.  It’s a pretty, professionally laid out game with top notch graphic design.  Dark blue on white for callouts is more effective than bold or italics, and the text scans easily.  It reads easily, too: the text is clear and takes an optimistic, upbeat tone.  I found few errors in the text throughout the book and found it surprisingly easy to comprehend. RPG texts are notorious for being muddied and confusing, but not so here.

The PDF itself has the same attention to detail as the art, text editing, and layout.  It reads a single page/screen on my iPad so no squinting required.  It has bookmarks.  However, the table of contents is not hyperlinked.  I never missed that feature, though.

The content flows from overview of Smallville -> overview of the game system -> character creation -> playing the game -> game resources -> Smallville reference.  The only issue I had was in flipping between the “overview of the game system” chapter (called “The Basics”) and the actual play chapters (“The Scenes”), and that character creation and character resources are separated by the chapter explaining how to frame scenes — a little awkward.  I never felt confused by the presentation and the information was well grouped together.  I just found it mildly strange going from the Basics to Scenes and back again to understand how to play the game.  It also had a bit of inexplicable filler in the form of an “online” chapter which should have been cut or placed at the back.  From 5,000 feet, I understand why the overview of the system is placed before character creation.  Otherwise character creation makes no sense.  How can a player buy anything in character creation without some passing familiarity with the system?  But still, it felt off.  Speaking of character creation…

Character Creation

Character creation is where the Smallville RPG shines.  It is a game within a game; a game session where the text recommends one puts out snacks because everyone is going to be awhile.

The heart of the Smallville RPG are character relations.  All of the player characters (called ‘Leads’ throughout the book) have interconnections. Character generation proceeds in rounds where each round is a stage of life.  During that stage characters increase in power, pick up major life connections, and move to new locations.  As characters change and grow during their formative years connections grow or whither, and some disappear all together to be replaced by new connections.  The process is visual where the GM draws circles and squares on a map to demonstrate the connections.

This section of the book is… stupendous, actually.  Not only is it chalk full of explanations and examples, but the book walks through the creation of a full map complete with all the important connections and life changes.  The end product is a dynamic game where all the players have a stake in each other’s lives.  Characters are not just people who hooked up in a bar and went off to go kill orcs.  These are people. And it makes me want to play the game. It deeply makes me want to play the game.

The character generation chapter is worth the price of admission alone.

Playing the Game

The system is dead simple.  Every stat, relationship, power, asset, or resource in the game has a die value associated with it (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12).  When characters get into conflict, they have a contest — and contests can be over far more than mere punching.  The Smallville RPG has no combat chapter, as combat — if it actually comes to blows — is another kind of contest.  When having a contest, one picks the associated drive (basic stat) and whatever relationship/asset comes into play, reads the dice value, rolls them, and adds the values together.  Whoever is highest, wins.  Whoever loses takes some stress.  That’s… pretty much it from what I can gather without having played it.

The simple system hides some neat subtleties.  The stress tracks ride along five different tracks: Anger, Exhaustion, Injury, Afraid and Insecure.  A contest can bring stress into play.  As a character takes more stress, the more an opponent can use it against them until the character ends up not in a hospital but curled up in a ball of fear or so angry they lash out at all around them.  It is very cinematic.

Why would anyone want to get into a contests?  Because contests yield up Plot Points, little bits of currency to spend in-game to make cool things happen.  New relationship!  New details!  More dice!  Activate powers!

The system works well with the recommended way to play the game: in tv show-like scenes. While most of this information feels a little filler at times, it does have good advice on how to frame, begin and end a scene so the game moves quickly. The chapter on how to build episodes through building on the existing character maps is interesting, especially when it explodes out into how to build in tension and conflicts into a gaming session.  Good stuff.

Examples, examples, examples.  The chapters with actual game information are full of examples.  The material presents so many examples even I can follow the basic gist of the system while reading the book.   Between the Basics, character generation, scenes and episodes, I find myself wanting to run the game.   It’s simple!  It uses dice!  It’s highly cinematic!  It looks like it is tons of fun.  But… then again…

Other Stuff

The Smallville RPG is still a licensed property, so a good third of the book is dedicated to setting information.  I cannot attest if this information is useful or not — I found it amusing to read some of the JLA members (Flash!  Black Canary! The Martian Manhunter!) written up as various characters in the show.  If nothing else, the large sections full of characters work as great examples and templates.  It’s all in there somewhere.

The episode writeups came off as a bit flat.  Having written these myself, I know they’re a drag to write.  Most of the seasons are hyper compressed into summaries.  Only the last two seasons are exploded out into full capsule summaries of each episode.  And having never watched the show, I couldn’t do much with the information.  It is aimed at the original audience of the game: fans of the Smallville TV Show.  It is telling that, on the strength of its game system, it has wandered past its intended audience and into the hands of the uninitiated.  It doesn’t help that Netflix doesn’t have Smallville on streaming.

Also, I so docked the game points for having writeups of the Wonder Twins.  I don’t care if they do or do not show up. Dude, no Wonder Twins.  Seriously.  I’m duding the game here, man! *shudder*

Overall

The Smallville RPG is a strange game.  I heartily recommend the character creation and the basic game system.  Typically, the mark of a good game is three game ideas after reading the source material.  But instead of three game ideas, I have three other games entirely I want to run and/or play using this system.  It is the perfect system for playing “The Tudors RPG” based on the (incredibly tawdry) TV show.  Or “The Reign of Elizabeth I — THE GAME.”  Or any soap opera-like game — it would be perfect for Amber RPG.  If I was going to pick a system for Amber, this would be it, the full on supers soap opera game.

I’m left with a mild glass-half full feeling.  Smallville fans will likely find the exhaustive list of leads, features, extras, villains, and locations satisfying but may not be completely happy with seasons 1-7 summarized and only seasons 8 and 9 broken down into individual episodes.  Those not a fan of the show may wish for more ways to adapt the system to other worlds and find the task of coming up with new Pathways or assets a bit daunting, and wish for a more generic game.

These are mild complaints.  Overall, it is a well written, well produced game with a clever system at its heart.  Character creation makes me desperately want to gut it and play my own supers/soap opera game with the rules.  This is a rare game where not only is playing a villain a viable option, it’s a desirable option supported by the game system and game mechanics.  The villain, the ultimate supervillain bad guy, has loves and hopes and wishes and backgrounds and has value as a PC — and that alone is worth the price of admission.  You can be the Professor X and you can play Magneto and you have dice on your sheet that shows their adversarial relationship — and they come into play.  Isn’t that what comic books are?  Soap operas with punching?

Worth purchasing on PDF.  I would run this game.

Smallville RPG: 4 stars out of 5

Review: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

5 stars is, alas, the most stars I can give this book. But I give it an extra imaginary star just for good measure.

What can I say about a book that, in concise and funny verbiage, examines some of the worst parts of a mission to Mars? Things you never, ever think about? How do clothes get washed? What happens if you have to go to the bathroom? What about food particles? G-forces? Can you jump out of a crashing space lander? How much food does it take for a two year manned mission? Can you have sex in zero-G? And really, how do they design the toilets?

And more. I loved Mary Roach’s previous books but this one is the best of all of them. If you are interested in manned space flight at all, this book is incredibly educational. And it will make you really think about the engineering of getting human beings to Mars.

Absolutely recommended. Brisk, fun, educational read. Available on the Kindle.

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[Review] Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians”

I am not an enormous fan of fantasy* but I have been known to make exceptions for urban fantasy. Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” popped up on a book list recommend by the lit snobs over at Slate. As I cannot resist lit snobbery, and it comes in convenient e-book form, it appeared on my Kindle.

Quentin, our super brilliant emo protagonist who normally would be in line for the new Arcade Fire CD, is whisked off mysteriously to take a bunch of entrance exams for some mysterious Wizard College. He gets in after some brutal and bizarre exams, because he’s the main character, and he gives up all the vestiges of his old life to become a wizard. The first half of the Magician’s is a bit of Harry Potter meets College Angst meets the X-Men. Quentin meets a whole bunch of other proto-wizards, makes a bunch of friends, and learns to become content with his weird wizarding self. This part of the book is more “New X-Men” than “Harry Potter” frankly — it feels more than a little like Professor Xavier and his secretive school for Mutants in Upstate New York than Hogwarts, especially once the students start to differentiate into different magical power specialities.

The second half is post-college early-20s angst with magic. The book picks up here. It feels like the characters are in a holding pen until they are let loose to go wreak havoc on the magical world. The book becomes funnier and it moves faster once it acquires something that resembles the vague outline of a plot; before then it was just a coming of age story set in a fantasy background. This book does have a lack-of-plot problem. The big evil is not well formed. The fantasy on a fantasy world is pretty vague although, to be fair, it is supposed to be. The fights are written well and the plot ends satisfyingly enough.

The book is highly readable. It doesn’t feel bogged down with turgid prose and it moves at a brisk pace. It mixes modern sensibilities and pop culture references (D&D references; fight club; drinks and drugs of all kinds) with urban fantasy into a nice little whole. The writing gets better as the book goes on, leading me to believe this is a sophomoric effort and leading me to hope for a possible sequel — something with a firmer plot with the same characters would make for a better story.

Originally I gave this book 3 stars out of 5 because I read it immediately following Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” If you have read Umberto Eco, you know it’s hard for a fantasy novel, let alone any novel, to follow up that act. I docked it a star merely because it came after a better written book. It’s unfair and I give it back half a star and upgrade it to 3 1/2 stars out of 5. It is good. Not great. Not fantastic. It is solidly a good and entertaining read.


* Exception made for Game of Thrones.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

It is easy to forget how far we all have come in medical science to get where we are today, and some of the ugly decisions made in the 1950s. Truly ugly decisions, nearly mad-science level decisions, have all been forgotten and brushed under the rug.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” isn’t just about the HeLa cancer cell line, although the book is about that. Henrietta Lacks was infected with a line of cancer that simply would not and will not, to this day, die; the line simply grows and grows, ignoring the Hayflick Limit and carrying on. It’s not just about the horrible things done during the times of segregation when people of one color were still seen as “less human” as those of another, or the impact to the family, or that the HeLa cell line forced science to examine its own sets of rules and ethics. It’s more about history — the history of this remarkable find of this cancerous weed, what it meant for science, and what it meant for the Lacks family.

As a book, this one is a pretty brisk read. The chapters are short and to the point. The narrative never lingers or dwells. It would be trivial to take a few of the points in the book and spend hundreds of pages on them but the book never does. It does have several “squick” moments here and there — some of the things that happened to Henrietta herself and to her family are amazingly awful. But the book also demonstrates that without the HeLa line, many things done in medical science today, while doable, would be far more difficult. This feels like a six of one, half a dozen of another situation: the family was shafted but humanity profits. Do we come out ahead?

This is one of those books I can recommend. I know it is already being made into a movie. It’s on all these reading group lists. Everyone and their cousin is reading it. It’s a good read for a book about science if not a bit depressing from its narrative viewpoint.

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Harvey Pekar

I was going to post a long diatribe about the passing of Harvey Pekar at the age of 70 in Cleveland, Ohio, but Anthony Bourdain sums up everything I was going to say and more so over on his blog.

You should go read the above blog post. And then you should go pick through the free stuff over on the Pekar Project.

Remember: not all comics are about four-color super heroes with over-inflated pecs. And without Harvey Pekar’s original work with American Splendor, most of the long story web comics we have today would be inconceivable.

Spurned by the Berenstein Bears

From somewhere, Katie acquired a copy of a Berenstein Bears book. She has lots of books. They come from everywhere. It ought to be pretty non-confrontational stuff — bears go to school, bears meet some bear conflict, bears resolve conflict through bear family unity.

But no!

When I read the book to Katie yesterday evening, one passage turned my vision red, boiled my blood, clenched my fists, and made me shake in the burning need to rant. For the bears had offended me and they must die. I am plotting their fuzzy death. Bears are a menace! You see:

Brother Bear, you see, is good at science and math, but is bad at language arts.
Sister Bear, on the other hand, is good at language arts but terrible at science and math.

Why? I thought. Why is Sister Bear good at spelling and reading and Brother Bear good at science and math, which presumably also needs spelling and reading? Because math is hard! We’re giving into gendered stereotypes! And Sister Bear is a girl.

I was coated in feminist rage. Why couldn’t Sister Bear be good at reading and science and math? Why does she have to suck at science and math? Is she not good enough? Is the teacher not giving her enough encouragement? And what does that mean, precisely? And why are you telling my daughter who is obsessed with how brains work and how much blood is in the human body* that Sister Bear sucks at math and science!

Sister Bear goes off to compete in a spelling bee, but in this book she decides to ditch the spelling bee progression right when she was winning because she would rather go play with her friends. Friends are awesome but hey, spelling bee! Father Bear, you see, gets guilt over pushing Sister Bear competitively to defeat her enemies with words and bathe in their spelling bee entrails. He decides he should back off instead. But would he get guilt over pushing Brother Bear? I bet not. No way, man.

Girl == go ditch out of succeeding, go play with your friends. Boy == KILL.

You suck, Berenstein Bears.

Grrr. I prefer stuff with Princesses. At least they get swords and stuff and have to go rescue the Prince from the evil witch. And hey! She would rather go see Despicable Me anyway because she wants a Minion. Not a stuffy. An actual yellow dude Minion.

* 10 gallons under extreme pressures. *SPRAY*

More eBooks

I saw yesterday some statistics that people are reading slower on their eBook devices then on actual books. I find that I read noticeably slower on the Kindle then the iPad, but not noticeably slower on the iPad than a real book. I’m not a jiffy speed reader anyway; I’m not sure it makes a huge difference. The stat I saw was 6.2%. A summary of the study is here.

But what did we learn? People hate to read off their PCs*, loved their iPad, and was still fond of the printed book. This is sort of a “duh” moment, but it is “duh” quantified.

I am firm in my belief that the codex is going nowhere. Not only are the devices expensive**, but they are good only for fiction and narrative-form non-fiction. I know that Amazon has a dream of getting into the textbook market but I have a hard time seeing how a math book is going to work on the Kindle.

Meanwhile, the market is predicted to grow to some 12.5% this year. Borders, late as always, opened their eBook store this morning with the execrable Sony Reader. Better late than never, I suppose. But I cannot seem to browse the store online to see if it has Pynchon in eBook form so it is dead to me.

For those of you who are sort of waffling on this eBook thing, I recommend downloading Arturo Perez-Reverte’s absolutely brilliant “The Club Dumas.” from the Kindle store to try it out and read it on whatever device has Kindle software (all of them). Or really, just read that book in general because it’s awesome.

* I am notorious for having to dump every PDF I get to the printer — or did before I had an iPad and the sainty perfection of GoodReader. I avoided long articles like the plague but now between Instapaper and GoodReader on the iPad, I can read them easily.

** w00t had a $150 Kindle and it sold out almost instantly. The Kindle is now at Target. I expect a sub-$100 reading device that doesn’t suck by Christmas. Even then, it will lock out a fair amount of the market in price.