Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: Kraken

Author: Wendy Williams
Title: Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid
Description (source):  Kraken is the traditional name for gigantic sea monsters, and this book introduces one of the most charismatic, enigmatic, and curious inhabitants of the sea: the squid. The pages take the reader on a wild narrative ride through the world of squid science and adventure, along the way addressing some riddles about what intelligence is, and what monsters lie in the deep. In addition to squid, both giant and otherwise, Kraken examines other equally enthralling cephalopods, including the octopus and the cuttlefish, and explores their otherworldly abilities, such as camouflage and bioluminescence. Accessible and entertaining, Kraken is also the first substantial volume on the subject in more than a decade and a must for fans of popular science. (Amazon)
ARC source: netgalley
Writing style: Williams has an engaging and easily readable style that will make this book of science accessible and interesting to the lay reader. She is happy to let the scientists she interviewed speak for themselves and to present herself as a learner along with the reader.
Audience: the book will appeal to readers who are intrigued by the complexities of nature, biology, and the undersea world.
Major ideas: squid and their cousins the cuttlefish and the octopus are both unutterably different from humans (ever noticed that Cthulhu resembles a squid? Davy Jones?) and at the same time, similar enough to us that scientists have made breakthroughs in human physiology by studying cephalopods. Williams writes with considerable empathy for both the scientists and the animals.
Wrap-up: I would say that I’m definitely in the audience for a book like this, although I don’t read this type of non-fiction as often as I would like to. I was really interested in the book all the way through; I loved the anecdotes about squid and octopuses, and wanted to know more. I did think the chapter on the squid’s nervous system dragged a little, which is why the book gets 4/5*.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Love the title!

Author: Adam Chester
Title: S’Mother: The Story of a Man, His Mom, and the Thousands of Altogether Insane Letters She's Mailed Him
Description (source): Adam Chester is the son of a very loving mom, who for almost 30 years has peppered his life with unsolicited advice, news updates, and opinions in the form of thousands of inappropriate, embarrassing, and utterly crazy letters. S'Mother is a hilarious memoir based on this correspondence showing the pathological extremes maternal instincts can take. Why is a grown woman so frantic that her adult son screw on his windows to keep out killer bees? And are adult trick-or-treaters really that much of a threat? Adam saved his mom's letters as proof this all happened and reproduces many of them in the book. And now, with time, perspective, and plenty of therapy, he acknowledges and accepts the comedy of it all and is proud to share his story with you, if for no other reason than to make you feel better about your own mother. (netgalley)
ARC source: netgalley
Writing style: The format of this book is basically a letter, transcribed word-for-word (and perhaps a scan of the same letter) and then some witty comments from the letter’s recipient, Adam Chester. The letters are pretty funny; they aren’t written to be funny, but the mother really is a character. Adam’s comments can’t quite live up and often consist of him wondering how he grew up to be such a normal person with this kind of mother. Since the reader doesn’t know Adam, we only have his word for it. (his job is playing piano and pretending to be Elton John--check out the video...)
Audience: people who like lighthearted memoir
Major ideas: none, really—it’s a book of humor. Perhaps that people can grow up to be “normal” even with really weird relatives.
Wrap-up: I almost never comment about format in my reviews. I review from ARC’s a lot of the time and I understand that they aren’t finished. I also review from both print and kindle, and I rarely comment on that. With this book, though, I have to comment. I had a kindle proof supplied by netgalley, and it was literally unreadable on my kindle. I could read the text, but every time there was an illustration (including the many scanned letters), it would show up as a small corner of picture and a large blank space—for dozens of page-advances. I counted over twenty page flips at least twice before I would get to more text that I could read. When I hit about 90%, the kindle locked and refused to open the book again. I re-imported it and paged back from the end. I could only get to 92% before it locked up, so I must confess that whatever is in the book from 90-92% was not read by me. I recommend strongly against buying this on for kindle! Normally I don’t let format govern my reaction to books, but this one was painful. It would probably have received 3.5* had I had a print copy, but my review is 2/5*.

p.s. I'll bet his blog works a lot better!  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book Review: Steam and Sorcery

Author: Cindy Spencer Pape
Title: Steam and Sorcery
Description (source): Sir Merrick Hadrian hunts monsters, both human and supernatural. A Knight of the Order of the Round Table, his use of magick and the technologies of steam power have made him both respected and feared. But his considerable skills are useless in the face of his greatest challenge, guardianship of five unusual children. At a loss, Merrick enlists the aid of a governess.

Miss Caroline Bristol is reluctant to work for a bachelor but she needs a position, and these former street children touch her heart. While she tends to break any mechanical device she touches, it never occurs to her that she might be something more than human. All she knows is that Merrick is the most dangerously attractive man she's ever met-and out of reach for a mere governess.

When conspiracy threatens to blur the distinction between humans and monsters, Caroline and Merrick must join forces, and the fate of humanity hinges upon their combined skills of steam and sorcery... (netgalley description)

Review copy source: Netgalley

Plot: The plot had three main strands: the romance, the relationship of the two protagonists with the children, and the mystery of why vampires were suddenly working together (and working with humans). Of the three, the children’s subplot was the most enjoyable; each of the children had a special gift and a unique personality. I would have liked to see this take up even more of the book. The romance was ok, and I would have preferred to be without the mystery; it didn’t seem to matter except to take up time in between romance and kids. The heroine discovered something revelatory about herself, but it did not matter to the plot at all.

Characters: As I mentioned, the childrens’ characters were very well written, and the secondary characters (the aunt and the tutor) were entertaining as well. The two main protagonists, though, were pretty generic.

Writing style: This was my first steampunk romance (is that even a genre?) The author used some steampunk details in the story, but it probably could have been set during any historical time period. The one steampunk element that was important to the story was one of the children’s gift for mechanics.

Audience: Romance readers, especially of the steampunk subgenre. Paranormal fans would probably also like it, as well as folks who like governess stories.

Wrap-up: A pleasant read; I’m not the main audience for this book (as I don’t read paranormal or steampunk romance), but I would probably not seek out other books in the series or by this author. 3/5*

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: Winged Obsession

Author: Jessica Speart

Title: Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler

Description (source): One of the world's most beautiful endangered species, butterflies are as lucrative as gorillas, pandas, and rhinos on the black market.
And in this cutthroat $200 million business, no one made more money than—or posed as great an ecological danger as—Yoshi Kojima, the kingpin of butterfly smugglers.
Determined to capture Kojima, rookie U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent Ed Newcomer became close to the smuggler, posing as a young apprentice eager to learn the smuggling trade. But twice the agent's inexperience allowed this criminal, with a nearly supernatural sense of survival and an overwhelming sense of paranoia, to get away.
Just when it seemed Kojima was out of reach, Newcomer was given one last chance to reel him in. Somewhere in the hunt, Kojima had become obsessed with the agent. This obsession, along with his continued mania for butterflies, could finally spell the downfall of the untouchable smuggler.
But the story doesn't end there. Working under-cover to research this book, Jessica Speart befriended Kojima as well. Like Newcomer, she was going to betray Kojima. What she didn't know was that this cagey smuggler was planning to turn the tables and use her as a patsy for continuing his illegal butterfly trade. (cover copy)

ARC source: Library Thing early reviewers

Writing style: Engaging, but can be awkward (especially when the author is inserting quotes from those not involved in the action). I question whether there was really enough material here for a book—from about the midpoint on, it just seemed to be one Skype session after another.

Audience: I include the “audience” in my reviews because if the book isn’t one I would normally read, I might review it more harshly just because of that, so it’s only fair to note. This book, though, would be one I would pick up, based on its description and on the fact that it sounds like The Orchid Thief, which I really liked. This book would appeal to environmentalists and perhaps those interested in true crime (although it’s not exactly lurid).

Wrap-up: I had to compare this book with The Orchid Thief, since I read the latter less than a year ago and since the books have so much in common. I’m afraid that Winged Obsession suffers in the comparison. Susan Orlean is one of the main characters in The Orchid Thief. The book essentially follows her as she learns about the world of orchids and meets the various key players. Jessica Speart is not in Winged Obsession at all—until the last chapter, when the point of view suddenly changes to first-person. I can understand why she wanted to meet Yoshi, but structurally, this didn’t work for me.  Her intrusion into the narrative feels forced and uneven compared to the rest of the book. Another difference between The Orchid Thief and Winged Obsession is that Orlean writes from nature a lot. She visits the Everglades several times. She goes to orchid shows and describes orchid-gathering adventures. Winged Obsession is primarily set in Newcomer’s bedroom, mainly covering Skype session after Skype session. The only outdoor scenes were in relation to a different case. This book was a quick read, but I wouldn’t seek it out for quality of writing or story. 3/5

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Love Shrinks

Author: Sharyn Wolf
Title: Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor’s Divorce
Description (source): For twenty years, Sharyn Wolf, a practicing psychotherapist and "relationship expert," has helped revitalize the marriages of countless couples. But while she was being interviewed on Oprah and 48 hours to talk about her nationally bestselling books that instructed millions on how to flirt, find mates, and "stay lovers for life," she was going home every night to a dark secret: a totally failed marriage of her own to a good man she just couldn't leave.

In Love Shrinks, Sharyn tells the mindbending—and yet deeply relatable—story of her (third!) marriage. In anecdotes that range from poignant to horrifying to side-splittingly funny to heart-rending, she explains how it is possible for two good people to make each other totally miserable and yet still be unable to leave. In fifteen years of marriage, she and her husband had sex twice. Despite the fact that Sharyn was a national bestselling self-help author, her husband couldn't bring himself to read a single one of her books. Communication between them had failed so utterly that the simple domestic activity of buying a couch together escalated to disastrous proportions. Yet through it all, they stay together—even though neither one knows why. Sharyn ends each chapter with a touching story of why she could never bear to leave this man who made her so unhappy.

Painted against the backdrop of her psycotherapy practice, real-life illustrative cases of her patients, and the wacky story of career trajectory, Sharyn turns her analytical eye on herself and her husband and deftly depicts a marriage on its long last legs. The result is this beautiful and sad tapestry of a hidden and omnipresent human condition. You will not be able to put her book down. (Amazon)

Review source: Netgalley

Writing style: Wolf is a facile writer and has a knack for writing vignettes that reveal much in a few words. The book was terrifically readable.

Audience: This one stumps me. I read the book because (basically) I wanted the dirt on a bad marriage—you know, like peeking at the carnage from the traffic accident.  I guess the real audience might be women in bad marriages who are afraid to leave the marriage. Not sure.

Major ideas: I wouldn’t really call this an ‘idea’ book. It’s basically a memoir: marriage expert fails at marriage. About half of the book is about her marriage, and the other half is about her therapy practice. She has this notion about therapists having therapists and making a giant “therapy chain” and that makes her happy and secure.

Wrap-up: At the end of every chapter, she tells a story about a reason she stayed with her husband for so long, and frankly, I found myself really liking the guy. The reasons she gives for wanting a divorce: he didn’t read her books, he was messy, he was often late. Wolf was sexually abused as a child, so she entered the marriage with some unresolved issues; this fact tells the reader more about the broken relationship than the stories of spats over furniture. In tale after tale of therapy sessions, the author brings her patients’ stories to bear on her own problems—perhaps this was a way of saying that therapists don’t always have it all together, but it came across more like she couldn’t stop thinking about herself and her problems for even one minute. By the time I finished the book, I was completely convinced that I wouldn’t be able to stay married to someone like this either, and I hope that after the divorce, her husband (who she never gave a name to, even a fictional one) found someone who could love him. The book gets points for the readable train-wreck aspect but loses points for not having one thing useful to teach. 2.5/5

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review: Digital Disciple

Author: Adam Thomas
Title: Digital Disciple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World
Description (source):  We connect with people everyday around the world through websites, blogs, and a myriad of social networks. But do we really connect while we're isolated in the Internet bubble? In Digital Disciple, millennial, blogger, and Episcopal priest Adam Thomas explores this contradiction between connection and isolation through the perspective of one who's always known a world with the Internet. (publisher’s info)
Review source: ARC provided by publisher through Netgalley
Major ideas: Adam Thomas writes from the perspective of a digital native wondering what effect the internet (and related technologies) will have on his relationship with God. Mostly, Thomas sees a pretty bleak picture of separation, disembodiment, lack of mindfulness, and even addiction as he reflects on Tech (as he terms it) and the changes it has made in society. The solutions he offers, then, are for the most part suggestions about how to live without the internet.
Writing style: As I was reading, I was trying to figure out the audience for this book. Thomas includes definitions of really basic tech terms throughout (i.e. “google,” “facebook”); these make you think that the book might be geared for someone who knows nothing at all about the internet. But really, who is left in our society who doesn’t know what Google and Facebook are? There are a lot of books being written right now that deal with these ideas from a secular viewpoint (Lessig, Shirky, etc.); Thomas did not seem to have engaged with these authors much if at all. His few references were to the standard Christian authors like C.S. Lewis.
Take-aways: Because of my confusion about his audience (or perhaps because I was not his audience), I sometimes found myself frustrated that Thomas did not really grapple with some of the issues that he raises. In other words, I found the questions raised in the book to be pertinent and thought-provoking; the suggested solutions much less so. My take-aways from the book will be the questions: What might it mean to “do church” online? How will the internet change society, the church, and the individual believer? Does the disembodied self of the avatar deny the incarnation?
Wrap-up: I would recommend this book for the layperson who wonders about the difference between Millennial and non-Millennial believers, or about the ramifications of technology upon faith. I would not recommend the book for anyone doing scholarly work. 3/5*