Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spotlight on Non-Fiction

Most of what I read is fiction, of all sorts of genres. So, when I do go for non-fiction, I'm pretty choosy. I don’t want to be one of those people, though, who (for example) has only ever gone to one musical and then tries to convince theater-loving friends that one was the best thing ever. I don’t read a ton of non-fiction (I’ve only ever read one book about painting and it made the list), so if you take this list with a grain of salt, I won’t be offended! And if you have recommendations, feel free to share in the comments!

Here's some non-fiction I've enjoyed in the last year:

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku. Complex science, explained in easy-to-understand terms, all springing from science fiction concepts. What's not to love? We see how far science has come in recreating the sort of stuff we see in the movies (yes, there are people out there today working on teleportation), and how science fiction has been the inspiration behind some of the research. Plus, we get a history of humanity's fascination with the Sci-Fi concept (force fields, time travel, invisibility). It does get pretty complicated, going into topics like string theory and Schrödinger’s cat, but even when I didn’t completely understand it (how can the cat be dead and not dead at the same time!?!), it was still fascinating.

Untended side effect of reading this book: I understood the characters of Big Bang Theory even more ... and I was already a little frightened of how much I related to them (Sheldon: "Windows 7 is much more user friendly. I don't like that." ha!)

Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman. I know Eat, Pray, Love has been in the news lately, with the Julia Roberts movie, but I really enjoyed the style of this travel memoir, and had heard from a friend that it was better (can’t compare myself as I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love). A woman facing a huge life change (separating from her husband), decides to leave her world behind and immerse herself in the culture of another country … and another country after that … and then a few more. In each place, she lives as the local people live, leaving behind (as much as possible) her own Western viewpoints. The writing style was relatable, and the adventures compelling. I wish I had this author’s courage.

Color and Light by James Gurney. A painting book brought to you by the artist who did Dinotopia (warm fuzzies to Dinotopia). Some fascinating stuff about how colors interact, how light and shadows behave in various settings. Everything from scientific explanation of cones and rods in your eyes to easy ways to set up your palette for painting en plein air to tips on photography (that is, taking pics to be painted later or pics of your paintings). Some eye-opening stuff, and some cool artwork throughout.

The Most Human Human by Brian Christian. A look at what artificial intelligence means for humanity & how we view ourselves. A surprisingly wide array of topics (philosophy, science, history, technology) spring from this topic of how our author might convince the judges of his humanity and earn the "most human human" prize in the Turing test. (The Turing test is a challenge to programmers to fool at least 30% of human judges that computer software is a human in a text-based 5 minute conversation).

What non-fiction books do you enjoy?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday - Christy

Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace
Pub Date: April 19, 2011
Random House Digital, Inc.

Summary from Goodreads: In the summer of 1890, in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He died two days later, at the age of thirty-seven, largely unknown despite having completed over two thousand works of art that would go on to become some of the most important and valued in the world.

In this riveting novel, Carol Wallace brilliantly navigates the mysteries surrounding the master artist’s death, relying on meticulous research to paint an indelible portrait of Van Gogh’s final days—and the friendship that may or may not have destroyed him. Telling Van Gogh’s story from an utterly new perspective—that of his personal physician, Dr. Gachet, specialist in mental illness and great lover of the arts—Wallace allows us to view the legendary painter as we’ve never seen him before. In our narrator’s eyes, Van Gogh is an irresistible puzzle, a man whose mind, plagued by demons, poses the most potentially rewarding challenge of Gachet’s career.

Wallace’s narrative brims with suspense and rich psychological insight as it tackles haunting questions about Van Gogh’s fate. A masterly, gripping novel that explores the price of creativity, Leaving Van Gogh is a luminous story about what it means to live authentically, and the power and limits of friendship.

I love Vincent Van Gogh's art, and I've always found it sad that his fame only came after his death. (I will also admit to a bit of boost in interest in what he was really like after the Doctor Who episode that featured Van Gogh.) I'm not familiar with this author, but the description sounds interesting. I'm looking forward to checking it out!

What are you waiting on this week?

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review - Trapped by Michael Northrop

Summary (from Goodreads): The day the blizzard started, no one knew that it was going to keep snowing for a week. That for those in its path, it would become not just a matter of keeping warm, but of staying alive....

Scotty and his friends Pete and Jason are among the last seven kids at their high school waiting to get picked up that day, and they soon realize that no one is coming for them. Still, it doesn't seem so bad to spend the night at school, especially when distractingly hot Krista and Julie are sleeping just down the hall. But then the power goes out, then the heat. The pipes freeze, and the roof shudders. As the days add up, the snow piles higher, and the empty halls grow colder and darker, the mounting pressure forces a devastating decision....

I chose to read this book because, well, I love survival stories. I have to admit, I’ve thought more than once about how long the contents of my pantry would last in a disaster. Also, my area had just got hit with a snow storm (hopefully the last of the season) that took us from muddy grass to a thick blanket of white overnight. It was kind of an awesome time to be curling up in the chilly basement, reading about surviving a giant nor’easter. It got to the point where I had to put the book down and turn on the TV just to convince myself that we hadn’t lost power like the characters in the book (even though at that point, I was reading under electric lights and drinking hot coffee and it had stopped snowing hours ago… clearly my situation was not dire).

A chilling story (sorry for the pun, not intended). Not so much action-packed but there is an underlying sense of urgency throughout the book. How long will the storm last? What will they do about heat, food, rescue… And does anyone even know they’re at the school?!?

I would have rated this book better if there had just been one more chapter. The ending was unnecessarily jarring and abrupt. It wasn't about finding out "what happened next". I can guess enough to be satisfied (mostly). It was that things happened quickly toward the end. There were even super-short chapters to quicken the pace, and then it was done. End of story. The book desperately needed one more chapter to unwind the tension the climax of the story had built up. As it was, I felt cheated out of an ending.

The whole story was told in a "let me tell you about" tone, very conversational. From the beginning we, the readers, got spoilers of things to come, from comments liked “we didn’t know it at the time but…”. It added an extra bit of creepy, especially when the narrator says things like “our numbers would only get smaller from here”. This also made the abrupt ending even more annoying… our narrator didn’t do anything to catch us up to his “now” even though we know he’s telling us this story after at least a little time had passed.

I enjoyed the group dynamic, how the characters change how they interact when suddenly their world is down to just seven kids: Les, the trouble-maker; Elijah, the weird goth kid; two girls: beautiful Krista and her friend Julie; our narrator, Scotty; and his two friends, Pete and Jason. Kids who normally wouldn’t have known much about each other are suddenly relying on each other for survival. Social hierarchy isn’t completely gone, though, just different. The little groups of friends still stick together mostly, and the presence of girls in the room get the guys tangled up in knots. But Jason’s knowledge of construction and home repairs is suddenly an asset. They learn Les’ has more of a problem with rules and adults than other kids. And the goth kid’s not really goth at all, just different, even funny.

Bottom line: It's an entertaining survival story with an annoyingly abrupt ending.

Lit Snit Verdict: C (but would have been a B+ if only there had been an ending)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review - Waiting For Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk

Summary (from Goodreads): On a beautiful April morning, a man is brought to an insane asylum in contemporary Spain, claiming to be the legendary navigator Christopher Columbus. Found in the treacherous Straight of Gibraltar, he is clearly delusional and has suffered a trauma so severe that he has turned away from reality. As he spins the tall tales of adventure and romance of someone who existed in the late fifteenth century, the lonely Nurse Consuela can’t help but be enchanted by his spirit. Who is Columbus? Where did he come from? This dazzling story about one man’s painstaking search for truth and loyalty will haunt the reader long after the final page.

Modern-day Spain is beautifully blended with the 1400s Spain, as the man who calls himself Christopher Columbus tells nurse Consuela his stories. A chapter might start with a scene in the institution (playing chess or talking to another inmate who believes herself to be the pope), and in the next scene, we’re in Spain in era of the Inquisition and the push for finding a new route to Marco Polo’s Indies, hearing about the lovers Columbus had, the attempts to convince Spain’s royalty to back his explorations.

Nurse Consuela is intrigued by Columbus… Who wouldn’t be? A masterful storyteller reminiscing on the days (in recent past, according to him) of struggling against the perception that the world is flat (though Columbus is quick to call anyone who still thinks that an idiot). Still, it is a challenging feat to get the queen and king of Spain to buy into Columbus’s obsession with learning what would happen if you sail West. The question is not whether or not the world is flat, but how big the world is. Could a ship can survive long enough to make it to the other side?

My one gripe with the story (and it’s a small one) is that the book switches point of views a lot. The three main perspectives were Consuela, Columbus and Emile (an Interpol investigator looking for a missing person). Even in Columbus’s stories to Consuela, though, we might find ourselves switching--mid-scene--to seeing the story from inside the head of Queen Isabella, perhaps, or his friend Benito. While each of these perspectives were interesting, I found myself needing to pay more careful attention than I was used to, rereading passages when I missed a POV switch.

There is a love for the written word in this tale. The characters have discussions of philosophy, religion and poetry. This is not a plot-heavy story. Most of it is told through the flashbacks (as Columbus is telling Consuela). Peeking through the story of Christopher Columbus is perhaps a real man hidden behind the historical figure. He wears a wedding band. His stories contain elements that don’t belong in the 1400s. He wants to call the queen on the telephone. How much of his stories are real? Why does this man think he is Christopher Columbus?

This was memorable story with a satisfying conclusion.

Lit Snit Verdict: A-

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review - The Birth of the Dread Remora

Summary (via Nathaniel Demming is a midshipman aboard the HMES Remora, the very first ship to go beyond their world's waters and out into the ether. He and the rest of the crew are ready for adventure, eager to explore the unknown and chart a new course for the rest of their world to follow. But what they find out there will change their lives, and their perspective, forever. The ether is not empty at all, but teeming with life--including vicious marauders waiting to prey upon the hapless Remora. Can Demming help his friends and fellow officers through the crises that await? Can they survive the dangers all around them? And can he convince them to transform their ship and themselves into the antithesis of everything they trained for, while still holding true to everything they believe in?

Birth of the Dread Remora is the first tale of the epic Scattered Earth saga, and the first in a series of swashbuckling adventures about the space-pirate ship the Dread Remora!

This book has a really unique premise. In a future era of the human race, people live underwater. Knowledge of the universe has been lost since our time, but the people here know that above the water is air, and above the air is ether, but what's in the ether? When a strange, new light appears to be coming from beyond the air, a mission is formed to learn more. The story begins on the maiden voyage of Remora, the first ship to travel into the ether.

The ether is nothing like they expected. The main conflict in this book centers not on the mysterious light (which is forgotten fairly quickly) but rather around tension between the ranks and encounters with aliens who lurk in the ether and attack the Remora. The officers must find a way to protect themselves from dangers they weren’t prepared for.

This is book one of the Scattered Earth series, which I was interested to learn is / will be written by three separate authors. While this book followed Demming and his crew, the Scattered Earth series promises three worlds, three storylines, all ultimately connected.

There were several times throughout the book where I had a "wait, what??" moment, reading something that I wished had been explained better. Like, the underwater galley being stocked with soup and crackers, a girl sheened in sweat after a workout (still underwater), aliens who speak English. And at one point they mentioned seeing a burning globe like the sun, but much larger--what was that supposed to be? Unless I got their travel-time/speed wrong, the whole story took place within the solar system. Maybe there are good explanations for these things, but the idea of an aquatic race eating soup & crackers still puzzles me.

I liked the characters in this book. Our main character, Demming, is so eager to be a part of this mission. In his hopes to make the cut, Demming takes stock of each of the character's strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and it is from this perspective that we meet the rest of the crew.

Despite the "what, what?" moments, I did enjoy this story. It was an interesting premise (really, how often do you get to take a ship filled to the brim with water and explore outer-space & meet aquatic characters who are neither mermaids nor clown fish?), and I'm curious to see where the next installments of the series takes the story.

* This book was supplied by the publisher for review.

Lit Snit Rating: C+