Thursday, September 30, 2010

Adventures from the Technology Underground

Adventures from the Technology Underground
by William Gurstelle
Random House, 2006
Hardcover, 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400050826
very highly recommended

The technology underground is a thriving, humming, and often literally scintillating subculture of amateur inventors and scientific envelope-pushers who dream up, design, and build machines that whoosh, rumble, fly—and occasionally hurl pumpkins across enormous distances. In the process they astonish us with what is possible when human imagination and ingenuity meet nature’s forces and materials. William Gurstelle spent two years exploring the most fascinating outposts of this world of wonders: meeting and talking to the men and women who care far more for the laws of physics than they do for mundane matters like government regulations and their own personal safety.
My Thoughts:

The full title of Gurstelle's book is: Adventures from the Technology Underground: Catapults, Pulsejets, Rail Guns, Flamethrowers, Tesla Coils, Air Cannons, and the Garage Warriors Who Love Them. That pretty much explains what it's about. We're talking about regular people who like to make or invent some interesting devices. After living with a design engineer for many, many years, I have an understanding about the fascination certain people may have in building some of these things in their garage (and he may or may not have built a few of these devices over the years, but I'm not telling.)

Chapters included are: High Powered Rockets, The Technology of Burning Man, Tesla Coils, High-Voltage Discharge Machines, Hurling Machines, Air Guns, Flamethrowers, Electrostatic Machines, Rail and Coil Guns, and Robots. The book includes separate sections with more technological detail on particular devices. Gurstelle suggests that you can read the sections if you are interested in more technical detail, but a casual reader can skip them. The sections are interesting, easy to understand (at least they were for this amateur), and include illustrations.

You need to know that this book is an introduction to the various catapults, aircannons, flamethrowers, etc., not a detailed set of schematics on how to build your own and what materials you'll need. There are notes and a further reading section if you really need to explore making your own "Punkin Chunk" air cannon or a personal Tesla coil. (Really, if you are expecting detailed instructions in a 224 page book that covers a wide range of projects, then you need to rethink that position.)

Gurstelle had five conditions that had to be met for inclusion in the book. Projects had to be founded upon physical science, the inventors had to have amateur standing, there are elements of danger involved, every project is high energy, the projects are recognized by others (pg 11-13).

With shows like Junkyard Wars, BattleBots, and Monster Garage, the whole idea of building something fantastic out of, well, junk or parts, is a concept many people can understand. Be forewarned, however, that this is not a book for the young scientist in your family - well, it might be with the exception of a certain section on, shall we say, "male enhancement," that might not be considered appropriate.
Very Highly Recommended - and I really want to see the quarter shrinking device. Really.


The people profiled here do what they do largely without regard to economics, profit, government regulation, corporate or academic practices, or even good taste. Most laws (except for those of physics), regulations, and building codes are skirted or ignored. pg. 9

This book is about the art and science of making catapults, pulsejets, flamethrowers, Tesla coils, high-voltage electrostatic machines, high-powered amateur rockets, air cannons, rail guns, fighting robots, magneformers, and more. It is as much about the people who make them as it is about the culture that engenders their creation. pg. 10

This book explores the making of all sorts of dodgy machines, from high-voltage, high-powered electrical apparatus to vegetable shooting plastic cannons. All of them can be dangerous. And here is a final word of advice for those who, after reading this book, may be considering making their own flamethrower: don't. pg. 20

Rocketeers both need and love wide-open spaces—the wider the better. Amateur rocket builders, especially those who specialize in building the largest and most powerful rockets, want only a couple of things: a lot of flat, open, unpopulated land in which to recover their rockets after flight, and clear, sunny skies. This makes places such as Texas, Kansas, and the Canadian prairie provinces ideal spots for LDRS gatherings. pg. 23-24

What rocket makers care about most is the physics quantity called "total impulse." Total impulse is the product of the force acting on a rocket (the thrust) multiplied by the amount of time the thrust is applied. Expressed mathematically, it is: Total Impulse = Average Thrust ´ Burn Time An engine that applies a lot of thrust, for a long period of time, is a high-performance engine. To a rocket engine maker, the goal is lots and lots of impulse. pg 28

This piece of equipment shrinks U.S. legal tender - Washington quarters - literally instantly, and powerfully. pg. 96

The World Championship Punkin Chunk is a key stop on any tour of Technology Underground festivals. It brings together some of the most massive, powerful, noisy, and entertaining technology in the world. pg. 107

As the gun holder steels herself for the expected recoil, you unscrew the cap to the combustion chamber and charge the gun with a two-and-a-half-second burst of Right Guard antiperspirant, which is mostly an aerosol mixture of butane and propane. pg. 141

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Just after Sunset

Just after Sunset by Stephen King
Simon & Schuster, 2008
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781416584087
Very Highly Recommended

Who but Stephen King would turn a Port-O-San into a slimy birth canal, or a roadside honky-tonk into a place for endless love? A book salesman with a grievance might pick up a mute hitchhiker, not knowing the silent man in the passenger seat listens altogether too well. Or an exercise routine on a stationary bicycle, begun to reduce bad cholesterol, might take its rider on a captivating — and then terrifying — journey. Set on a remote key in Florida, "The Gingerbread Girl" is a riveting tale featuring a young woman as vulnerable — and resourceful — as Audrey Hepburn's character in Wait Until Dark. In "Ayana," a blind girl works a miracle with a kiss and the touch of her hand. For King, the line between the living and the dead is often blurry, and the seams that hold our reality intact might tear apart at any moment. In one of the longer stories here, "N.," which recently broke new ground when it was adapted as a graphic digital entertainment, a psychiatric patient's irrational thinking might create an apocalyptic threat in the Maine countryside...or keep the world from falling victim to it.
My Thoughts:

Just after Sunset was an incredibly good collection of thirteen well crafted short stories. King concludes the collection with "Sunset Notes" in which he discusses what inspired the story or gives some information about it, which I found interesting. In the past I have generally avoided short story collections because I've always had a vague feeling that they tend to be lacking in character development or plot. King may have just made a new fan for the short story. Certainly he has shown what a truly accomplished writer can do with a short story.

In this collection King covers what really frightens us - things like divorce, life after death, random violence, OCD, wayward children, survivor's guilt, nuclear war, illness, and being trapped in a port-a-potty. The one story that was a miss with me, The Cat From Hell, was actually an early story of King's that had never made it into a collection before. A Very Tight Place totally grossed me out, but most certainly played on all sorts of real fears of small spaces, port-a-potties, and free-floating excrement.
Very Highly Recommended

Just After Sunset includes the following stories:
The Gingerbread Girl
Harvey's Dream
Rest Stop
Stationary Bike
The Things They Left Behind
Graduation Afternoon
The Cat from Hell
The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates
A Very Tight Place


You don't see what's right in front of your eyes, she'd said, but sometimes he did. He supposed he wasn't entirely undeserving of her scorn, but he wasn't blind, either. (Willa, pg. 5)

Only fast running would do.
After the baby died, Emily took up running. (The Gingerbread Girl, pg. 29)

The things I want to tell you about - the ones they left behind - showed up in my apartment in August of 2002. (The Things They Left Behind, pg. 147)

Janice has never settled on the right word for the place where Buddy lives. It's too big to be called a house, too small to be an estate, and the name on the post at the foot of the driveway, Harborlights, gags her. (Graduation Afternoon, pg. 177)

"What's wrong with me could be very dangerous." Another pause. "To me." Another pause. "Possibly to others." (N., pg. 190)

...- and the children growing up, which is a divorce of a different kind, and almost as painful - (N., pg. 199)

"He is very friendly," Drogan said. "At first. Nice friendly pussy has killed three people in this household. That leaves only me. I am old, I am sick... but I prefer to die in my own time." (The Cat from Hell, pg. 240)

There were three confession booths. The light over the door of the middle one was on. No one was waiting. The church was empty. Colored light came in through the windows and made squares on the central aisle. Monette thought about leaving and didn't. Instead he walked to the booth that was open for business and went inside. (Mute, pg. 265)

I didn't think I would ever tell this story. My wife told me not to; she said no one would believe me and I'd only embarrass myself. What she meant, of course, was that it would embarrass her. (Ayana, pg. 289)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Everything's Eventual

Everything's Eventual by Stephen King
Simon & Schuster, 2002
Hardcover, 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780743235150
highly recommended

From the stunningly fertile imagination of perhaps the greatest storyteller of our time, here are fourteen intense, eerie, and compelling stories, including one O. Henry Prize winner, stories from The New Yorker, and "Riding the Bullet" which, when published as an eBook, attracted over half a million online readers.
My Thoughts:

Having never read any of Stephen King's short story collections, I decided that it was about time. While some of the fourteen short stories in this collection do follow well traveled scenarios, others are unique or presented with a different spin. Several of them are more character studies than horror, which is okay with me. This collection includes the 1996 O. Henry Award winner "The Man in the Black Suit." King also has a story by story annotation, in which he shares what inspired him to write the story. My favorites were probably: Everything's Eventual, The Man in the Black Suit, All That You Love Will Be Carried Away, and L.T.'s Theory of Pets.

The collection includes:
Introduction: Practicing the (Almost) Lost Art
Autopsy Room Four
The Man in the Black Suit
All That You Love Will Be Carried Away
The Death of Jack Hamilton
In the Deathroom
The Little Sisters of Eluria
Everything's Eventual
L.T.'s Theory of Pets
The Road Virus Heads North
Lunch at the Gotham Cafe
That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French
Riding the Bullet
Luckey Quarter
Highly recommended, especially for King fans.


I am now a very old man and this is something which happened to me when I was very young - only nine years old. It was 1914, the summer after my brother Dan died in the west field and three years before America got into World War I. (The Man in the Black Suit, pg. 45)

It was a Motel 6 on I-80 just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. The snow that began at midafternoon had faded he sign's virulent yellow to a kinder pastel shade as the light ran out of the January dusk. (All That You Love Will Be Carried Away, pg. 71)

On a day in Full Earth so hot that it seemed to suck the breath from his chest before his body could use it, Roland of Gilead came to the gates of a village in the Desatoya Mountains. (The Little Sisters of Eluria, pg. 146)

I suppose you're wondering about the salary of this famous job. Well, I got to tell you, there's not much money in it. Might as well get that right up front. But a job isn't just about the money, or getting ahead. That's what Mr. Sharpton told me. Mr. Sharpton said that a real job is about the fringe benefits. He said that's where the power is. (Everything's Eventual, pg. 212)

My friend L.T. hardly ever talks about how his wife disappeared, or how she's probably dead, just another victim of the Axe Man, but he likes to tell the story of how she walked out on him. (L.T.'s Theory of Pets, pg. 266)

Richard Kinnell wasn't frightened when he first saw the picture at the yard sale in Rosewood. (The Road Virus Heads North, pg. 287)

I came to understand that here are things underneath, you see -underneath- and no book can explain what they are. I think that sometimes it's best to just forget those things are there. If you can, that is. (Riding the Bullet, pg. 408)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Otherland: Sea of Silver Light

Otherland: Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams
Otherland Series #4
DAW, 2001
Hardcover, 922 pages
ISBN-13: 9780886779771
very highly recommended


Otherland -- the private, multidimensional universe created and controlled by The Grail Brotherhood, an organization made up of the world's most powerful and ruthless individuals -- was crumbling. The Brotherhood's plans for immortality within the network had been shattered by the monstrous intelligence that ran the network, a presence known only as the Other, and by the even more monstrous human being who called himself John Dread. Seizing control of the network from his employer, Felix Jongleur, Dread had now made himself the god of this virtual universe and was systematically turning the network's worlds into killing grounds.

As helplessly trapped as Renie Sulaweyo, !Xabbu, Sam Fredericks, Martine, Paul Jonas, and the rest of the small band who had entered Otherland in an attempt to save the many children held captive within this virtual reality, Jongleur was now forced to make common cause with his enemies. Yet even as they struggled through the maze of invented worlds, striving to reach the true heart of Otherland, time was growing short.

My Thoughts:

The Sea of Silver Light is the fourth and final volume of the Otherland series. Williams includes a synopsis of the first three volumes, City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, and Mountain of Black Glass at the beginning, but trust me, it's better to just read them all together as one l-o-n-g book because that is what Williams considers them to be and that is how they are written. As previously mentioned, the Otherland series really rather defies standard classifications. It's a science-fiction-techno-cyber-fantasy-mystery-virtual-reality epic.

In this fourth Otherland volume, once again, Williams delivers the goods. More importantly, he provides a final conclusion to everything - and there is a whole lot going on in the virtual reality world as well as the real world. The Otherland series has a huge cast of characters and a complicated, multi-layered plot. Reading the four volumes together will help you keep track of everyone and the multiple storylines. I thought the characters were well developed and experienced personal growth. Let's face it, it's an accomplishment of the author if you learn something new about a character on, as an example, page 2800 in an approximately 3100 page story.

This final volume is not just a huge, padded conclusion to the first three parts. There were multiple new revelations, plot twists, answers and new questions. This is a detailed and complex series, but, I found it imminently readable. Where some reviews fault Williams for excessive descriptions, similes and metaphors, I enjoyed his writing style. (I included the last quote as an example of a simile that made me laugh.)

But I think the biggest praise I can give Tad Williams' Otherland series is that he wrote and created something new. Yes, there were plenty of references to other works in the context of the virtual reality world, but the series itself is unlike anything else I've ever read. It reminds me of the quote I saved from Orson Scott Card in the introduction to Ender's Game:
"In other genres, that desire is usually expressed by producing thinly veiled rewrites of the great work: Tolkien's disciples far too often simply rewrite Tolkien, for example. In science fiction, however, the whole point is that the ideas are fresh and startling and intriguing; you imitate the great ones, not by rewriting their stories, but rather by creating stories that are just as startling and new." pg. xii, introduction

The greatness I found in Otherland is clearly because Tad Williams created a brilliant idea for a novel and made a whole, new, complex world for his story. He did not just rewrite Tolkien (often the case in fantasy and why I tend to avoid it) or imitate any other author.
Very Highly Recommended


"I know. I hate the bastard-I'd like to throw him off the mountain myself. But we're going to have to live with Felix Jongleur until we get some answers to what's going on. What's that old saying about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?" Renie squeezed the girl's arm. "This is a war, Sam. Not just a single battle. Putting up with that terrible man . . . well, it's like being a spy behind foreign lines or something. We have to do it because we have a bigger purpose."
Sam looked down, unable to hold Renie's gaze. "Chizz," she said after long moments, but she sounded like death. "I'll try. But I'm not going to talk to him." pg. 16-17

She felt a brief desire for a cigarette, and realized with surprise that it had been a long time since she had thought about smoking.
Just too damned busy trying not to get killed, she decided. Effective, but there must be easier ways to quit.
Jongleur had his back against a rock some ten meters away and appeared to be sleeping himself, or at least his head was sunk on his chest and his eyes were closed. Renie could not help thinking he looked like a vulture waiting with the patience of millions of years of blind evolution for something to die. pg. 21

"I was just thinking about this place and how much like a dream it is. How nothing is quite normal, but in a dream that doesn't matter because you're waiting for something important to happen. And then I suddenly just thought, what if this place is a dream?"
!Xabbu cocked his head. "What do you mean?"
"Not a dream, really, but strange and unreal for the same reason that a dream is. Why is it that things happen all funny in dreams, things look funny? That nothing is ever quite . . . complete? Because your subconscious isn't actually very good at recreating the stuff the conscious mind usually sees, or else it just doesn't care."
Sam stirred in her sleep, disturbed by the urgency in Renie's tone, so she dropped her voice to a whisper. "I think the Other built this place. I think it meant us to come here, and it built this place out of its own mind, like a dream. What did Jonas call it? A metaphor." Spoken aloud, it did not seem as obviously true. It was hard to conceive of their own existence having any importance to that vast, suffering figure.
"Made this from its mind? But if this Other runs the system, then it has access to anything-all of those worlds, each one perfect." !Xabbu frowned, thinking. "It seems strange it should build anything so unreal."
"But that's just it," Renie said excitedly. "It didn't build those other worlds. Those were made by people-programmers, engineers, real people who know what a real world is supposed to look like, and how to make even an imaginary world look real. But what does the Other know? It's just an artificial intelligence of some kind, right? It sees patterns, but it's not a human. It doesn't know what would seem real to us and what wouldn't, just the general shape of things. It would be like giving a book to a very intelligent child who can't read, then telling him, "Now you make one of these books for yourself." The kid might have all the right letters to use from the one you gave him, but he couldn't make them into a story. So it would be a weird thing that just looked like a book. Get it?"
!Xabbu thought about it for a long moment. "But why? Why would the Other create a new world?"
"I don't know. Maybe just for us. pg. 23

Jongleur's smile stretched his lips but went no farther. "That is correct. So while you consider where your loyalties lie, take this into your counsels. That far-from-ordinary-psychopath Dread not only has control of the most powerful and complex operating system ever developed, that system itself has already managed to reach out of its Grail Project bottle and into my house network. Which means that the Other-and Dread, as its controlling force-can reach anywhere on the global net."
He stepped out of the crevice and onto the path, turned toward the downhill slope, then paused.
"The damage Dread can do here is nothing compared to what he'll do when he discovers his new reach." Jongleur spread his hands wide. "Just imagine. The whole world will be at his fingertips-air traffic control, critical industries, stockpiles of biological weapons, nuclear launch facilities. And as you have already discovered, Johnny Dread is a very, very angry young man." pg. 31

...she'd downed so much coffee the night before that even after five hours of ineffective sleep she could still feel yesterday's caffeine hustling around in her system like one of those horrible cheery people who live to organize neighborhood events. pg. 93

Monday, September 20, 2010

Otherland: Mountain of Black Glass

Otherland: Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams
Otherland Series #3
DAW Books, 1999
Mass Market Paperback, 784 pages
ISBN-10: 0886779065
Volume three, Mountain of Black Glass, not only brings Renie and the others closer to solving the riddles of Otherland but also brings them face to face with the Other, the network's greatest riddle, and reveals their true and most deadly enemy.
In the fourth and final volume, Sea of Silver Light, a number of surprising truths will be revealed, not only about the fate of the characters but also about the fate of all humankind.
My Thoughts:

Trapped in Otherland, the characters continue their separate and joint explorations into the heart of the virtual reality worlds that surround them in Mountain of Black Glass, the third book in the series. Synopses of the previous two volumes, City of Golden Shadow and River of Blue Fire, are included at the beginning.

At this point I will admit to feeling like mumbling "Pick up the pace" a few times while reading Mountain of Black Glass, but I think this feeling may be a typical third-book-in-a-long-series reaction. This time the characters don't go through as many different virtual worlds, but the ones they do are described in more detail. While more time is spent in the virtual reality world, Otherland, there is still action taking place in the real world. We do learn some new things about the Grail Brotherhood and some other answers are revealed at the end, but, of course, there is nothing close to a conclusion.

In an interview found on the Barnes and Noble site Tad Williams writes: "I always have a hard time explaining Otherland. In today's book world, where people (especially on the sales and marketing end) usually want a description in a few words, leading to a neat category, it gets called things like "cyber-fantasy," "science-fiction virtual reality epic," and other even more hard-to-wrap-your-brain-around titles. It is science fiction, with ideas about the world that's coming soon, the future of the Net, and the shrinking distance between humans and their creations, but it's also an epic fantasy, and the virtual universe I've invented is mostly an excuse for high adventure of the getting-chased-by-monsters variety."

I think that explains the Otherland series quite nicely.

Very Highly Recommended - but know from the start that the series is long


As she spoke, the flame of the oil lamp repeatedly drew his eye, a wriggling brightness that in such a still room might have been the only real thing in all the universe. opening.

I've got to learn the rules of this thing, he thought as he watched the seagulls wheeling below him. Not Greece, but the whole network. I have to make sense of it or I'll just wander forever. pg. 7

It was hard to be patient when he wanted to shout. He had waited so long - had been pushed and tugged and flung from place to place, always passive, always the one acted upon. pg. 17

"It's simple, really - the net simply replicates world economic inequality, the haves versus the have-nots. There was a time when people thought information technology would bring advantages to everyone, but it's clear that unless things change, the net will continue to be like everything else - if you can afford it, you'll get it. If you can't, who cares about you?" pg. 25

But I also want you to know that my mother was fear the modern life of instant communication and imaginary worlds - in short, the life of the net. pg 33-34

Waiting to die, as Joseph Sulaweyo discovered, was surprisingly like waiting for anything else: after a long enough time, your mind began to wander. pg. 47

"...We are the Circle, young man, and we are going to send every one of theses sinners and false gods down to hell on the express elevator. Now, s'pose you start talking." pg. 76

"Hearing them speak I cannot help wondering at how shot through with myth and story are all the parts of Otherland we have seen. It seems an odd obsession when one considers who built the place." pg. 173

Friday, September 17, 2010

Otherland: River of Blue Fire

Otherland: River of Blue Fire by Tad Williams
Otherland Series , #2
DAW Books, 1998
Hardcover, 634 pages
ISBN-13: 9780886777777
very highly recommended

Otherland. In many ways it is humankind's most stunning achievement: a private, multidimensional universe built over two generations by the greatest minds of the twenty-first century. But this most exclusive of places is also one of the world's best kept secrets, created and controlled by an organization made up of the world's most powerful and ruthless individuals, a private cartel known - to those who know of their existence at all - as The Grail Brotherhood. And now a small band of adventurers have penetrated the veil of secrecy that prevents the uninitiated from entering Otherland. But having broken into the amazing worlds within worlds that make up this universe, they are trapped, unable to escape back to their own flesh-and-blood bodies in the real world.
My Thoughts:

River of Blue Fire is part two of the massive four part Otherworld series by Tad Williams. There is a helpful synopsis of story at the beginning for those who don't immediately start the second part after finishing the first.

River of Blue Fire features a more adventures in virtual reality worlds, many of which are twisted versions of other novels, like The War of the Worlds or The Wizard of Oz. The online explorers are trapped in the virtual reality world, Otherland, created by the evil Grail Brotherhood and are following the river, which is the gateway to other worlds. While they are trying to figure out how to survive in the virtual worlds, there are others who are trying to unravel several related mysteries in the real world.

It is in the author's note found at the beginning of River of Blue Fire that Tad Williams addresses the lack of an ending to part one (and two):
"The only note of discomfort has been from some readers who were upset by what they felt was the "cliffhanger" nature of the first volume's ending.
I understand and apologize. However, the problem with writing this kind of story is that it's not really a series - it's one very, very long novel..."

And so the saga continues. I'm planning to keep going and start part three, perhaps right away. The various storylines and characters are all still intriguing and captivating, but, more importantly, it is complicated enough that I don't want too much time to lapse between reading the next book.
very highly recommended


There was snow everywhere - the world was white. Foreword, opening

He had been thinking and thinking, but he was no nearer to an answer. He seemed to be sliding through space and time, like something out of the more excessive kind of science fiction story. He had traveled across a boy's-adventure Mars, he remembered, and through somebody's cracked version of Alice's Looking Glass. pg. 3

Nothing around you is true, and yet the things you see can hurt you or kill you, the golden gem, the voice from the harp had told him. Whatever these men were, true or false seemings, hey were at home in this world in a way hat Paul most decidedly was not. pg. 5

If someone had told her that she would be transported to what was for all purposes a magical land, where history could be rewritten at a whim, or people could suddenly be shrunk to the size of poppy seeds, but that at least for this moment, her most pressing concern would have been the absence of cigarettes, she would have thought them mad. pg. 20

Perhaps that bullying ten-year-old hadn't deserved such angry reprisal, but he had never bothered Stephen again. Someone always had to stand up for the weak and the innocent. If she didn't do all she could, she would spend the rest of her life beneath a shadow of failure. And then, even if Stephen died, he would always remain in limbo for her, a ghost of the most real sort - the ghost of a missed chance. pg. 56

"TRESPASSERS WILL BE EXECUTED" it proclaimed in huge black letters. At the bottom, in smaller print, was written: "By orders of His Wise Majesty, the Only King of Kansas." pg. 148

Monday, September 13, 2010

Otherland: City of Golden Shadow

Otherland: City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams
Otherland volume 1
Daw Books, 1996
Hardcover, 770 pages
ISBN-13: 9780886777104
very highly recommended

Best-selling fantasy author Tad Williams begins a far-reaching cyberpunk saga with Renie Sulaweyo, a teacher in the South Africa of tomorrow, realizing something is wrong on the network. Some of the younger kids, including her brother Stephen, have logged into the net, but they can't get back out. The clues point to a mysterious golden city called Otherland, but everyone who tries to find out what's going on ends up dead. Settle in for a long, enjoyable ride, because this 770-page monster is just the first of four projected novels. Amazon
My Thoughts:

According to Tad William's website, the original title for Otherland was North on the Data Stream, which will give you a good idea of what Otherland is about. As the San Francisco Chronicle said, it really is "the ultimate virtual-reality saga." I feel it is science fiction, fantasy, cyberpunk, and a mystery novel all mixed together. And at 770 pages it is an epic saga.

In this future the internet and virtual reality have become a part of everyday life. The mystery is that children are lapsing into comas - and this is apparently related to their time online in certain forbidden virtual reality sites. But this is only one part of the novel. Williams follows several story lines. The main one follows Renie Sulaweyo, a black South African who teaches university students how to use the internet and virtual reality equipment. Her brother, Stephen, falls into a coma. The characters in the stories are so far removed from each other that at first it seems impossible that they could have any connection.

The real joy in this huge saga, which Williams acknowledges was "hideously complicated to write," is that each story line, each set of characters, is well developed and just as interesting and intriguing as the rest. As the action moves from one character to another I was equally interested in what was happening to every character. It is also all very well written. With Otherland, Williams has created a huge, intricate, complete world. It also didn't seem as frantic as the cyber punk I've tried to read in the past.

My one anxious moment came at the very end when I realized that it doesn't end. You need to go right on to the second book. Thank goodness I had the second book here and was able to start it immediately. Upon reading the preface in the second book, I discovered that Williams considers all 4 volumes (all 700+ pages each) to be one book and so the whole story will not be completed until the end. This will be quite the time investment, however, if Otherland is representative of the whole series it will be worth it in the end.
Very Highly Recommended


It started in mud, as many things do. opening

Things became even more complicated after Paul died.
He was dead, of course, and he knew it. How could he be anything else? He had seen the howitzer shell diving down on him from the sky, a wingless, eyeless, breathtakingly modern Angel of Death, streamlined and impersonal as a shark. pg. 7

Paul sighed deeply and stood up. He did not remember much about his life before the War, and at this moment even the immediate past was dim, but he did remember that there had been a certain kind of story in which an impossible thing happened, and once that impossible thing had proved that it was not going to un-happen again, there was only one course of action left: the impossible thing must be treated as a possible thing. pg. 9

"You're talking about a system crash on the net." She wondered for a moment if Stephen understood the difference between the net and real life. He's only eleven, she reminded herself. Things outside of his narrow circle aren't very real yet. pg. 26

That's what I need. She was bleary with approaching sleep; even her thoughts felt heavy, like a burden she ached to put down. I don't need more net, more full-surround realism, more pictures and sounds. I just need more time. pg. 29

a subscription to the Inner District net was very expensive, and so were the creative fashions necessary to retain one's place among the elite, but even if you couldn't afford a new and exotic sim every day, even if you couldn't afford to redesign your business or personal node every week. just keeping Inner District residency was still a major social cachet in the real world. These days, it was often the last pretension that the downwardly mobile would relinquish - and they did not give it up easily. pg. 39

She wasn't a bad girl, really, although once her fish died because she forgot to feed him for a bunch of days. She didn't think of herself as a liar either, but sometimes it was just... easier not to tell. So when her mother asked her where she was going, she smiled and said, "Portia has Otterland. It's new and it's just like you're really swimming except you can breathe and there's an Otter King and an Otter Queen..." pg. 45

She snorted, making her slow way up the stairs. "Falling to a low estate can do that - you see so much more of the world than you did before. You become very aware of how thin the line is, of how little safety exists." pg. 215

Friday, September 10, 2010

Still Missing

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
St. Martin's Press, July 2010
Hardcover, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780312595678
very highly recommended

On the day she was abducted, Annie O’Sullivan, a thirty-two-year-old Realtor, had three goals: sell a house, forget about a recent argument with her mother, and be on time for dinner with her ever-patient boyfriend. The open house is slow, but when her last visitor pulls up in a van as she’s about to leave, Annie thinks it just might be her lucky day after all.
Interwoven with the story of the year Annie spent captive in a remote mountain cabin — which unfolds through sessions with her psychiatrist — is a second narrative recounting the nightmare that follows her escape: her struggle to piece her shattered life back together, the ongoing police investigation into the identity of her captor, and the disturbing sense that things are far from over.
The truth doesn’t always set you free.
Still Missing is a shocking, visceral, brutal, and beautifully crafted debut novel about surviving the unsurvivable — and living to bear witness.
My Thoughts:

Still Missing, Chevy Stevens debut novel, is an intense psychological thriller set on Vancouver Island. The novel focuses on Annie, a realtor who is abducted from an open house and held captive for a year by a sadistic, controlling "freak". The book is written in the first person and the chapters are each a session number that Annie has with her therapist. In the novel she is trying to tell what happened to her and come to terms with her life now, after the abduction.

The fact that Annie survives is no secret, or she wouldn't be discussing her ordeal with a therapist. Her brutal treatment at the hands of her abductor is only half of the book. The rest of it deals with Annie trying to understand her experience and searching for answers as to why this happened to her. Annie's emotions and experiences were raw, and they are expressed and described with brutal honesty. You will understand the depth of the psychological damage Annie is struggling to overcome.

Once the sessions reach the present day, there were several completely unexpected plot twists. I will admit that at times Annie's language and the violence against her seemed excessive, but once I was really entrenched in Still Missing (pretty quickly) I could see where it served to explain Annie's current need for control - and to appear tough.

This is a very fast-paced novel and really was a nail-biting page-turner. There were a few things that I felt were unrealistic and maybe stretched credibility a bit too far (no spoilers), but in the end I was anxiously turning the pages to see what happened next, which is perhaps the best recommendation. If you like tense thrillers and can handle some gruesome scenes, you will likely appreciate Still Missing.
Very Highly Recommended


You know, Doc, you're not the first shrink I've seen since I got back. opening

And while we're getting s**t straight here, let's lay down some ground rules before we start this joyride. If we're going to do this, it's going to be done my way. That means no questions from you. Not even one sneaky little, "How did you feel when..." I'll tell the story from the beginning, and when I'm interested in hearing what you have to say, I'll let you know.
Oh, and in case you were wondering? No, I wasn't always such a bitch. pg. 2-3

Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. I could feel the gun grinding into my spine as he used it to push me forward. pg. 9

Before we wrap this session up, Doc, I think it's only fair I fill you in on something - if I'm going to climb aboard the no-bulls**t train, I should ride it to the end of the line. When I said I was screwed up, I actually meant royally f***ed. The I-sleep-in-my-closet-every-night kind of f***ed. pg. 14

There was no way I could protect myself, and no way out. I needed to prepare for the worst, but I didn't even know what the worst might be. pg. 21

If I unleash everything that's inside me, will I go floating down the river with it? Well, for now I think I'm going to go home and have a hot shower. And after that, I'll probably have another one. pg. 37

"The cleaning fluid will be locked up at all times and you'll never be allowed to handle hot water or any utensils I feel are unsafe. After you're done with your cleaning duties, I expect you to finish your personal grooming. Your fingernails, which are a mess, must be perfect, and I'll file them for you. Your feet should be soft and your toenails painted. Women should have long hair, so I'll rub conditioner in yours to help it grow faster. You won't be wearing any makeup.

"Our day will start at seven A.M., lunch is at twelve sharp, and afternoons will be spent studying any books I require you to learn. I'll inspect your chores at five, dinner will be at seven, and after dinner you'll clean up again and then read to me. After reading hour, I'll bathe you, then it's lights out at ten o'clock." pg. 41-42

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Beautiful Lies

Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger
Crown Publishing Group, 2006
Hardcover, 374 pages
Ridley Jones Series #1
ISBN-13: 9780307336682
Highly Recommended

If Ridley Jones had slept ten minutes later or had taken the subway instead of waiting for a cab, she would still be living the beautiful lie she used to call her life. She would still be the privileged daughter of a doting father and a loving mother. Her life would still be perfect—with only the tiny cracks of an angry junkie for a brother and a charming drunk with shady underworld connections for an uncle to mar the otherwise flawless whole.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, those inconsequential decisions lead her to perform a good deed that puts her in the right place at the right time to unleash a chain of events that brings a mysterious package to her door—a package which informs her that her entire world is a lie.
My Thoughts:

Lisa Unger's Beautiful Lies had me hooked right from the beginning. The novel starts with a brief glimpse into the life of a young woman in 1972. Next it jumps to sometime in the present day/future when two people are apparently hiding while running for their lives. Then we are formally introduced to our main character, Ridley Jones, who narrates the story in a first person account. Ridley contemplates how an infinite number of small decisions led to vast changes in her life and the lives of those around her. This is all clever enough, but then the story gets even better.

Unger is a really good writer. The characters are all flawed and their development is realistic. As Ridley delves into secrets from the past and questions how they are connected to her, her family, and her new neighbor, Jake, the treachery and intrigue (as well as sex and romance) increase. The fact that you know, right from the beginning, that things are going to go terribly wrong at some point and Ridley will be pursued by bad guys of some ilk, helps keep the suspense high. That and the fact that you don't know who is good, who is bad, or if everyone is a shade of gray.

This was Unger's debut novel and is quite impressive. There are a few little problems in the story, but most of them are not major and can be easily overlooked. While some reviewers didn't care for Ridley's first person narrative and her talking to the reader, I liked it.
Highly Recommended


There were times she wished he were dead. opening

It's dark in that awful way that allows you to make out objects but not the black spaces behind them. My breathing comes ragged from exertion and fear. The only person I trust in the world lies on the floor beside me. I lean into him and hear that he's still breathing but it's shallow and hard won. He's hurt, I know. But I can't see how badly. pg. 11

"Ridley, please, don't do this." The voice echoes in the dark and comes from up above me. "We can work this out."
I don't answer. I know it's a trick. Nothing about this can be worked out now; we're all too far gone. There have been plenty of chances to close my eyes and go back to the sleep of my life as it was, but I haven't taken any of them. Do I wish now that I had? It's hard to answer that question, as the wraiths move closer.
"Six," he whispers.
"You have six bullets left." pg. 13

Until recently my life has been fairly uneventful. Which isn't to say I was just plodding along when the single occurrence I am about to share with you turned my world on its axis, but now that you mention it, that's not too far off. And yet I have come to believe that it was not one event precisely but an infinite number of small decisions that led me into the circumstances that have so changed me and those around me. pg. 14

It's all these choices that we could have made, the things we might have done. We see them with perfect clarity only long after the moment has passed. pg. 25

And there was a note including a phone number and a questions.
It read simply: Are you my daughter? pg. 32

Smart impresses me; strength of character impresses me. But most of all, I'm impressed by kindness. Kindness, I think, comes from learning hard lessons well, from falling and picking yourself up. It comes from surviving failure and loss. It implies an understanding of the human condition, forgives its many flaws and quirks. When I see that in someone, it fills me with admiration. pg. 52

Monday, September 6, 2010

Lost on Planet China

Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost
Broadway Books, 2008
Trade Paperback, 400 pagesISBN-13: 9780767922012
not recommended


Maarten Troost has charmed legions of readers with his laugh-out-loud tales of wandering the remote islands of the South Pacific. When the travel bug hit again, he decided to go big-time, taking on the world’s most populous and intriguing nation. In Lost on Planet China, Troost escorts readers on a rollicking journey through the new beating heart of the modern world, from the megalopolises of Beijing and Shanghai to the Gobi Desert and the hinterlands of Tibet.
Maarten Troost brings China to life as you’ve never seen it before, and his insightful, rip-roaringly funny narrative proves that once again he is one of the most entertaining and insightful armchair travel companions around.
My Thoughts:
When Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation was first published I always planned to read it because I had enjoyed Troost's other two books,The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages so much. As I said in the review of The Sex Lives of Cannibals, " He is funny, often in a lighthearted, self-deprecating way. Troost can find humor in the most mundane daily tasks." This was the humor I was anticipating and looking forward too. Alas, it was not to be.

If I based a decision whether or not to visit China based on Troost's book, I'd never go.

He [the author] would write honestly about China. He would write from the perspective of a guy who neither speaks Chinese nor has all that much knowledge pertaining to things Chinese, a guy who spent month after month just kind of wandering around this massive and rapidly changing country, without a plan, learning and experiencing life there. pg. x

There are two kinds of people roaming the far fringes of the world: Mormon missionaries and Chinese businessmen. opening

But as I delved into his black and yellow Reference Book for the Rest of Us, I soon realized that if it was indeed sufficient to teach Chinese to a dummy, then clearly I must be a feebleminded moron. pg. 17

Elsewhere in the world, a four-lane highway suggests that no more than four vehicles can move side by side. Yet somehow, in china, seven cars manage to share a space designed for four. pg. 23

And now I learned that the grisly mass that lay before me was not a chicken but the brain of an unfortunate sheep. As I sat there, chopsticks in hand, it occurred to me that it was time to start paying attention in China, because there are consequences for not paying attention in China. Big consequences. pg. 27

How could people live in this? I wondered. How could they put up with it? The air was so rank and dense with pollutants that even a Republican would be hollering for clean air. Really, it's that bad. pg. 86

Japan has never accounted for its wartime atrocities, and it is this lack of remorse that feeds the well-justified hostility most Chinese have for Japan. pg. 130

Things get done in China. Lots of things get done. This is because the system that prevails throughout the country - the system that has always prevailed from the imperial days of yore to the Maoism of recent years to the hypercapitalism of today - is guanxi, the network of family, friends, and contacts that grease the wheels of life in China. pg. 229

Not even if I were high on crack would I have gotten on a motorcycle [taxi] in China. pg. 315

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Children of the Flames

Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz by Lucette Matalon Lagnado, Sheila Dekel
HarperCollins, 1991
Hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780688096953
Highly Recommended

During World War II, Nazi doctor Josef Mengele subjected some 3,000 twins to medical experiments of unspeakable horror; only 160 survived. In this remarkable narrative, the life of Auschwitz's Angel of Death is told in counterpoint to the lives of the survivors, who until now have kept silent about their heinous death-camp ordeals.
My Thoughts:

Children of the Flames follows in approximately chronological order the life of Joseph Mengele and several of the surviving twins from the Auschwitz (Birkenau) Nazi death-camp. Mengele, the Angel of Death, infamously experimented on twins, as well as others, in the concentration camp during WWII. The book includes 8 pages of family photos, 39 pages of notes, and an index.

This is more of a biography of Mengele with short selections of the survivor's stories italicized and interspersed in the narrative. It follows in approximately chronological order the life of Mengele and that of his victims. Experiments on them during WWII are not detailed but, rather, discussed in very broad terms. Much of the book covers post-war activities of Mengele and, in very brief paragraphs, the survivors.

While this is a story that needs to be told and kept in print I can't help but think that the actual style in which it was presented does a disservice to the survivors. With the surviving twin's stories scattered among Mengele's biography, the book has a disjointed feeling. While I can understand what the author was doing, it might have made a better, more cohesive book to tell one story at a time. It also would have been easier to keep track of everyone's story. The reason for keeping the disjointed style in the book may be because the author wrote a magazine article first. She may have simple chosen to keep the same format for the book rather than reworking and reorganizing the material.

Tell your children of it,
And let your children tell their children,
And their children another generation. - Joel 1:3 (pg. 15, preface)
Highly Recommended, because we can not forget

In the winter of 1984, I was asked by Parade magazine to seek out the long-lost child survivors of Dr. Joseph Mengele's experiments at Auschwitz during World War II. Of the estimated three thousand twins - most of them young children - who had passed through Mengele's laboratories between 1943 and 1944, only about a hundred were known to have survived. opening. preface

For many of the twins, simply telling what happened to them proved to be a release. pg. 8, preface

Mengele's passion for selecting the Jews for the gas chambers of Auschwitz had earned him the title "the Angel of Death." With a flick of the wrist, he would consign thousands to die. Among the few exceptions were the young twins he plucked out of the selection lines for use in his research. pg. 9, preface

Most of the twins began their descent into Auschwitz by witnessing their entire families being led away from them to be killed. In their special barracks, located just yards away from the crematoriums, they observed the Nazis' extermination of the Jews at close range. pg. 9, preface

Mengele's twins are condemned to live with a terrible double-edged sword: the hell they endured because of Mengele, and the life they owe to him as "his" children. pg. 11, preface

"And today, when I am asked that question [How could you have let the German's do this to you?], I tell people it doesn't matter whether you're Hungarian, Polish, Jewish, or German: If you don't have a gun, you have nothing." pg. 195