These are reviews originally posted to Amazon as customer reviews. They're intended for entertainment and informational purposes only. (Apologies for any typos, bad grammar, or offensive language.) This isn't sponsored by Amazon or represent them in any way, although they do have a very nice site and I recommend checking it out for your next book purchase. Feel free to comment on the books if you've read them or tell me how much my reviews suck or whatever.
That is all.

Sunday, January 25, 2009



Written by Allen Moore

Illustrated by Dave Gibbons

(5/5 stars)

I've never been interested in reading comic books, which is ironic because I watched comic book heroes on TV and in movies, but I never could get myself to read any of the source material. Because I'm so out of the loop on comics, I didn't know what a turning point the "Watchmen" series was for the comic book industry until I heard about it on the History Channel. Now with the movie coming out in March, I thought I'd finally give the source material a try. I was not disappointed.

It's important to note straight off that these are not your father's comic book heroes. What "Watchmen" did when it came out in the mid-80s was to make comic book characters REAL--or as real as can be expected. The "costumed adventurers" depicted in the series are not in it for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. They have varying reasons like psychotic obsessions, family pressure, fame-seeking, or just plain old curiosity. Most of these "heroes" might help you if you were being mugged or trapped in a burning building, but don't expect them to help old ladies cross the road or give a lesson on civics to a 3rd grade class.

The story begins in 1985, a very different 1985 from what you might remember. For one thing, Richard Nixon is still president and American won the war in Vietnam thanks to the costumed adventurers, most notably Dr. Manhattan, a god-like being who is blue and pretty much do whatever he wants to matter--including making it disappear. (Another difference is that thanks to Doc Manhattan electric cars were invented in 1960, thus global warming is not so much of a problem, nor are rising oil prices.) Only Dr. Manhattan and an aging mercenary known as The Comedian (like a sadistic Captain America) are still allowed to fight evil by working for Uncle Sam. The rest are all forced into hiding. Most find other jobs while some, like the obsessive Rorshach, continue to operate at risk of prosecution. (The premise of superheroes being outlawed was later used in the Disney movie "The Incredibles.")

One night, though, The Comedian is found dead in his apartment. As Rorshach investigates the case, he begins to see a conspiracy at work and not only because he's paranoid. Someone is out to eliminate or marginalize all the costumed adventurers. But who and why remains a mystery as the world teeters on the brink of Armageddon with a Soviet incursion into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Can the "heroes" find out what's going on and put a stop to it? With the USA and USSR turn the earth into a radioactive cinder? Tune in to find out.

I have to say, for a comic book (originally published as a series of 12 and now packaged together into a novel) this was fascinating. It's not just one slugfest after another between heroes and villains. The narrative not only goes into the mystery and conspiracy, but it delves into the backgrounds of the characters and includes interesting sidebars, notably a comic within the comic about an evil pirate ship of damned souls that makes the Black Pearl seem like a Carnival fun ship. The comic within the comic fits into one of the overreaching themes of the book, which is: do the ends justify the means? And as is frequently scrawled on walls in the book: who watches the watchmen?

Unraveling the various complexities and symbolic elements of this would take a long time, and I doubt I could nail them all own. Suffice it to say if you think comics are kid's stuff then you are dead wrong in this case. This is a comic for adults with adult situations like rape, impotency, and other stuff you certainly won't see on Saturday morning cartoons. "Watchmen" was one of the first books to really focus solely on the adults and revolutionized the industry. Its influence is still felt today in movies like "The Dark Knight" that strive for a more realistic approach to those costumed adventurers.

That is all.

(BTW, as I have no experience with graphic novels there's nothing I can say about the artwork. I thought it was good, but what do I know?)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Discworld Vol 12-14

NOTE: reviews for Volume 10 "Moving Pictures" and Volume 11 "Reaper Man" were written in separate reviews previously.

Discworld Volumes 12-14

by Terry Pratchett

Right, so to anyone still paying attention I'm continuing to plow through the 36-volume Discworld series. I've got 15-ish more left to go! Anyway, here are brief reviews of the last three volumes I finished.

Volume 12: Witches Abroad: Granny Weatherwax and the witches of Lancre are back, and this time hitting the road (or really the sky given they fly on broomsticks) to stop a royal wedding. The princess Ella is about to marry a Duc with clammy skin, weird eyes, and a prediliction towards eating flies unless the witches can get there in time to stop the Happily Ever After. This is the kind of anti-fairy tale fairy tale in the same vein as the "Shrek" movies, though written years earlier. Besides "Cinderella" other fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood" are also referenced with hilarious results. The best part is what happens to Nanny Ogg's fiendish cat Greebo; I could imagine my cat would be nearly the same under similar circumstances. A fun romp through classic fairy tales. (4 stars)

Volume 13: Small Gods: This story doesn't involve any of the main characters (except for DEATH, who appears in every book) taking place in the realm of Omnia. The people there worship the Great God Om--usually depicted as a bull--with a fervor enforced by the sadistic Quisition, obviously based on the Spanish Inquisition. There's just one problem: the Great God Om is trapped in the body of a tortoise and finds himself with just one true believer: a small-witted novice monk named Brutha. This book touches on a theme presented earlier in "Pyramids" (and possibly other books) and notably later in "Hogfather" that says gods come and go based on changing beliefs. What Pratchett suggests isn't atheism; it's more like universal apathy saying whatever you choose to believe in is as good as anything. When you think no one can really prove which god(s) is God this makes a lot of sense; after all, who's to say your toaster can't be God if you really, really believe hard enough? I like too the Discworld concept that the afterlife is whatever you believe it will be, something touched on in "Eric" among others. This is a book for the open-minded on the subject, not the true believers. (4 stars)

Volume 14: Lords and Ladies: In my review of volumes 1-6 I posited that "Light Fantastic" was the only direct sequel in the series. This is not the case as "Lords and Ladies" picks up after "Witches Abroad" though really it continues the events of "Wyrd Sisters." Granny Weatherwax and crew have returned home and now it's time for the young witch Magrat to marry the king and become queen of Lancre. As people arrive from all over the Discworld, all heck is about to break loose when elves return to plague the land. These aren't the cute Santa's helpers or even the beautiful, noble creatures from "Lord of the Rings." No, these elves are psychotic, sadistic monsters intent on enslaving humanity. Because of this, the book has a darker tone than others in the series. It draws from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" which I've never seen, so like with "Wyrd Sisters" there's probably a few references I didn't catch. I was happy, though, my second-favorite character the Librarian got significant time in this book. As well, this book and "Witches Abroad" helped evolve the witch characters, fleshing out their personalities a bit more. I wasn't sold on Granny and the others in "Equal Rites" and "Wyrd Sisters" but I've started to enjoy them with these two books. (Though other than the four YA novels I'm probably not going to read I think they only feature prominently in one more book--unless Wikipedia is lying.) (4 stars)

Overall these were three good books, well worth reading. And so now I press onward!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Discworld: Volumes 7, 9

I'm continuing my march through the entire Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. I opened my box of Discworld books on XMas Day and began with "Pyramids", volume 7 in the series.

Pyramids involves a kingdom loosely based on ancient Egypt, complete with pharaohs, mummies, and of course pyramids. The pharaoh's son Pteppic is sent to the city of Ankh-Morpork, where he becomes an assassin. But on the day he graduates, his father dies and he's brought home to take over as the god-king. The new pharaoh soon finds that all the real power in the kingdom rests with the high priest, who is so old and so much a fixture that no one can remember not having him around--there's a reason for this that's probably quantum. In one case, the high priest sentences a handmaiden to death in the name of the pharaoh, who then uses his assassin skills to rescue her, thus making him an enemy of the state--himself.

Meanwhile, construction begins on a pyramid for the previous pharaoh, one larger and grander than ever. But not only is the cost for this monstrosity devastating to the kingdom, the temporal energy it gives off threatens to destroy the entire kingdom.

I can't say I enjoyed this one a whole lot. Maybe I'm not into Egyptians and temporal mechanics enough. Or maybe because I was anxious to get at "Fall of Hyperion" that I bought myself after XMas. Or maybe like "Equal Rites" there wasn't enough of the main Discworld elements in this one to really pull me in. Or maybe I just like making stupid postulations. (3 stars)

(For Volume 8, See my review of Guards! Guards!)

Eric - This is the ninth Discworld book that comes in at a brief 197 pages if you don't get the original illustrated edition--which I didn't. In this one Rincewind returns from exile in the Dungeon Dimensions at the end of "Sourcery." A 13-year-old demonologist named Eric has brought Rincewind back, thinking he's summoning a demon who can give him control of the universe, the most beautiful woman in the world, and eternal life. To Rincewind's surprise, he actually does this--after a fashion, but as the say: be careful what you wish for.

I read this book in about two hours this afternoon, so it's a real light read. The way Pratchett melds ancient Greek and South American history to Discworld history is interesting, and his concept of Hell is funny for anyone who works in a cubicle. His Creator of the universe, though, seems borrowed in part from another Brit: Douglas Adams in the original "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

Anyway, probably because this was supposed to be a picture book there's not a lot of depth to it. It'll amuse you for a couple hours though. (3 stars)

I'll continue to add more reviews when and if I feel like it.

That is all.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Fall of Hyperion

Fall of Hyperion

by Dan Simmons

(3/5 stars)

I was trying to think of a good sci-fi related way to compare my disappointment with "Fall of Hyperion" compared to the original "Hyperion." To use a popular culture example, it reminded me of when I watched "The Matrix Reloaded." I really enjoyed the first movie and as I watched the sequel it seemed we were getting farther and farther away from what made me like the original in the first place. But at least it's not a shameful debacle like the regrettable "Star Wars" prequels.

Most of "Hyperion" was devoted to seven pilgrims gathered from around the Hegemony of Man to travel to the mysterious world of Hyperion and confront the dangerous spirit/monster known as the Shrike. Along the way the pilgrims told their stories "Canterbury Tales" style of how they ended up on the trip. The story was focused on these seven (six really) characters and the mystery of their journey. I was more than a little frustrated to realize I'd have to wait for another book to find out the solution to this.

Imagine my surprise then when the first third of "Fall of Hyperion" has almost NOTHING to do with the pilgrims or their mission. Instead, we're treated to the narration of "Joseph Severn" or John Keats mark 3. Severn/Keats is a clone of a clone of the 19th Century English poet who somehow has the ability to see what's going on with the pilgrims in his dreams. But mostly he's sitting around at meetings and parties as the Hegemony compares to confront the dreaded Ousters, a race of sort of humans who rejected the decadence of the Hegemony and its reliance on machines of the artificial intelligences known as the TechnoCore. At first this war relates only to the space above Hyperion, but soon it spreads all over. (I have to say that a space empire of 200-plus worlds that has a military of only half a million troops and 600 ships, one that KNOWS there are barbarians outside the gates, deserves to be destroyed. In Earth terms, it would be like tasking Portugal's military to protect the entire North American continent; you'll be spread just a bit thin.)

My reaction was: WHO CARES? I want to know what's going on with the pilgrims, Time Tombs, and the Shrike; I don't care about the silly Hegemony, barbarian hordes, and AIs that communicate in poetry. It seems almost spiteful for an author to lure you in with that first 484 page book and then make you wait hundreds of pages more to get back to that main point. And in the process, the story also lost much of its focus as it tried to spread around to Severn, the pilgrims, the Hegemony, and so on. For the most part then it lacked the humanity of the first book.

When Simmons finally gets around to solving the riddles of the Time Tombs and the Shrike, I found it disappointing. I had already figured out "Moneta's" identity in the first book, so when it's revealed at the end it was no surprise to me. (Though if I hadn't been right I'd probably be complaining about the solution being ridiculous.) Then there's private detective Brawne turning into some superpowered Virgin Mary--only without the "virgin" part--that seemed completely absurd. And really, what did Martin Silenius, the annoying 400-year-old poet, actually contribute to the story? The Tree Templar contributed more to the final result and he was believed dead/actually dead for most of both books!

(Possible spoiler: for a hint at what the final solution involves it'd be like the inhabitants of "The Island of Dr. Moreau" battling SkyNet and its army of Terminators.)

In the end, I came away disappointed with this book, but it's not a completely terrible book. Most of the writing was sound, though I found a little of it to be amateurish, like when a senator says something and then the author says, "She was a short woman with dark hair." which really had no relevance at the moment. While it was written in 1991, a lot of what it says about humanity's dependence on computers and scientific stagnation is still relevant in the 21st Century. The "datasphere" people plug themselves into to communicate with far-off people isn't so different from the Internet we use right now. It might have helped if I were familiar with the Keats poem that shares its title with the novel, but I don't really care about Keats no matter how many clones of him there are.

That is all.