Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

"If there really were vampires, what would they do for a living?"  That is a question that this book became the unexpected answer to, according to the author on her blog.  As for me, although I've read that Harkness hasn't read the popular YA series, I'd dare say this book could be considered a Twilight for adults.  Compliment?  Or criticism?  You decide.  But at its simplest, there are vampires, witches, and daemons.  (If you're not sure what a daemon is...think borderline insane, ADHD, wildly creative person...beyond that, I haven't figured it out in terms of superpowers or anything).

Here's what I like about the book, and it mostly concerns the author.  Harkness is a historian.  She has several degrees and teaches at USC and has extensively studied the history of magic and science in Europe from 1500-1700.  If you, like me, have ever wondered why classes like this exist beyond giving history buffs something random to chew on, maybe this novel is one.  Harkness' love for these things is obvious from reading A Discovery of Witches, which is a historical work of fiction.  There are all kinds of allusions, most of which were lost on me, to scientists, authors, and novels.  The story spans a range of geography and time, and Harkness seems comfortable with it all.  At times, I feel our 1500 year-old, well-learned vampire Matthew can get a bit pretentious, but understanding Harkness' love for history forgives that for me.

The story begins with Diana, an alchemical history professor at Oxford university (if there is such a thing at Oxford, I wasn't able to figure it out from their website).  Diana is descended from a prominent line of witches, but has shunned her magical ability, at least to the degree it's possible (WHY!?!?!).  During her studies, she is able to recall an old, long-thought-lost volume of magic called Ashmole 782, and this draws the attention of not just her fellow witches, but other supernatural creatures as well.  While Diana doesn't realize the significance of her finding, it sets in motion a series of events that make magic an inevitable part of her life.  As she becomes entrenched in the mystery of Ashmole 782 (which you can read about on Harkness' blog), Diana meets Matthew, a geneticist (and also a vampire).  Why would a vampire be interested in an old book of magic?  Is there something extraordinary about Diana that Matthew sees?  How could Diana's find be the catalyst for a war between witches and vampires?

These are the questions A Discovery of Witches begins to answer, BUT...and here's where other reviewers and I agree, the pacing is slow.  In fact, it took me several months (if not a year) to get through this book as it was a between-book-read.  But I felt, by the end, Harkness had really laid out her premise and introduced her characters fully.  It also helped that the book picked up steam near the end and left off on a cliff-hanger that makes me really curious to see how she handles book two (yes, this is a trilogy...and yes, there is a movie in the making).

So, to be honest, this was a book I almost gave up on.  But in desperation for something to read, I finished it and now want to read the second book.  Probably not for everyone, but if I had you at "vampires" or "Twilight," then we already know you'll want to read it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Here's the next big YA trilogy, the first book of which has already been released to the big screen.  It has all the sexy elements a YA dystopian thriller needs to be teenagers (going off of the movie trailer a bit on this one)...Ok, wait.  Did I just say "hot teenagers"?!?  Creepy.  I'm way too old to be saying things like that. (I was going to put "waaaaaaaay too old" but no, I'm just "way" too old).

Which brings me to my next point, maybe I'm not the target audience for this genre.  Or maybe the genre is being diluted...I don't know.  Whatever it is, I wasn't totally sold on Divergent.

Okay, back to the "hot teenagers" comment.  This is bothering me.  When a book about 16 year olds is made into a movie that is marketed to adults and teens alike, what the hell am I supposed to think when "Four" is played by a chiseled 30 year old?  I guess technically his character is 18 so I'm in the clear.  Okay, glad we hashed that out.

Back to the book.  Basically everyone in...Chicago (from what I can gather) decided that the ills that plagued them could be boiled down to one thing.  What is that thing?  Well, depends on who you ask.  Some people say it's ignorance.  Others say it's selfishness, or dishonesty, or cowardess, or just plain being mean.  So society split into 5 factions, each trying to embody the opposite of what they believed was the root evil of mankind.  When an individual reached the age of 16, he or she could choose which faction they wanted to become a part of.

So Beatrice grew up in Abnegation, which is a fancy term for self-sacrifice.  But she doesn't quite feel like she fits in.  She isn't down with wearing gray clothes, and not having mirrors, and always being stuck at parties cleaning up.  She's intrigued by the Dauntless (or fearless), who don't just ride the train to and from school, they riiiiiide the train to and from school (the extra i's in that word mean the train doesn't ever stop, it just rolls by while all the Dauntless kids jump in and out of the cars, because they're Dauntless.  And they don't need no stinking train stops).  I could see why that might be appealing enough to make me leave my family too.

So before "The Choosing," Beatrice undergoes evaluation to determine which faction best suits her.  Her test results are abnormal...Divergent, if you will.  Which, apparently is a bad thing.  But really, the fact that people fit cleanly into just one category had me scratching my head.  But okay.

Despite the results, Beatrice ultimately has the choice of which faction to join.  She makes her decision, and most of the book deals with the initiation process that entails.  Then there's some evil plot to take over Chicago (I don't think Chicago is ever mentioned but that's what wikipedia says), and hilarity ensues.

Okay, the book is better than I'm letting on, but it's not the greatest YA novel I've read.  I think my biggest problem was that I couldn't sign on with the premise that people fit into just one category.  Not only does Roth create these clean lines and divisions, but she goes overboard with the stereotyping.  Really?  NO ONE besides Abnegation can help out after an event?  ONLY Amity can be caretakers?  How the hell do children survive in the other factions?  "But that's the point!" you're probably screaming at me.  Yeah, well, if it's that glaringly obvious from the get-go, then what the hell am I doing for the next 400 pages?  And I think we already know that being "divergent" really is the rule, not the exception.

So what's the payoff here?  I'm not sure.  Maybe a great story? Maybe a chance to live in another world for a brief period?  Those are the optimistic options.  The realistic one?  For me?  To skip the rest of the series and diverge to something else.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog by Chad Orzel

I'm a bit of a closet physics fan.  It's hard to admit, seeing as the classes I struggled with most in college were my physics courses.  But if you don't force me to work out equations for things like how a ball bounces, and just talk to me about all the weird stuff that physics predicts, I'm an enthusiastic student.  While there are a lot of mysteries to be understood in this world, there is one thing that really bothers me.  I don't get relativity.

You know, Einstein?  E=mc2, and all that?  Of course, if I can't even figure out how to superscript the squared in this equation, what hope do I really have?

Einstein's theories of special and general relativity are elegant and straighforward, as far as these things go (at least I've been told).  It's the ramifications of these theories that will blow your mind.  Things like black holes, time travel, and spaghettification (not a pleasant thing) become topics of discussion.

Orzel frames his book as a series of discussions with his clever dog.  While in theory, the premise is cute, it comes across as contrived.  Orzel's dog listens intently to each argument and then asks highly intelligent questions that my little mind didn't have the capacity to form.  And while I get the impression Orzel is a really nice guy, his jokes fell flat.  But he tried.

I also had a hard time with the diagrams.  I am a very visual learner and the diagrams just didn't do it for me.  I found them confusing and difficult to follow.  I guess I'm a sucker for Hawking's books (something I think Orzel wouldn't be thrilled to hear).  Is it possible I just wasn't Orzel's target audience, and this book was geared toward a more learned audience?  While that might be the case, in a book that's supposed to be understandable to a dog, it's not what I would expect.