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Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens
Brandon Sanderson
Progress: 10 %
The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
Progress: 35 %

Reading progress update: I've read 35%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien The first book is done; on to The Two Towers.

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia - Brandon Sanderson

Alcatraz finally got to visit his mysterious native land. What was supposed to be a time of quiet and peace turned exciting deadly even before the poor guy stepped on the said land: his air vehicle was blown from the sky. Excitement followed the hero even when he met his (unfailingly very quirky) relatives and meddled in local politics. At least with the latter case everybody knows politics is supposed to be deadly, mystical land or not. Horror of horrors, Alcatraz might have to ask a librarian for help – this is a guy who fought them through the whole series.

 

Librarian

 

Before I say anything else I would like the say the following. This is a good book. I rated it with 3 stars, but I gave the same rating to much weaker ones. I laughed while reading it at least once and I did have a few chuckles. So why such a low rating? There are several reasons.

 

I began to feel pity for Alcatraz: a big no-no when you read a humorous book – in my opinion. Poor guy was hoping to find his parents for as long as he could remember. There is a saying, be careful what you wish for as you might get your wish fulfilled. In Alcatraz case it is very much true. His mother is evil – there is an indication in this book that she might not quite be Sauron-level evil, but still. His father is a jerk. How big is a jerk he is? Let me just say that had I been this kind of father I would have kicked myself hard between the legs. Repeatedly. While wearing steel toe boots.

Steel Toed Boots

I believe this method is the only hope of curing this kind of jerkiness.

 

My perpetual complaint about this series – breaking of the fourth wall – applies here as well. I mentioned in the last book these breaks were localized to the beginning of chapters. Here they are much shorter in the beginnings (thank God!), but also scattered all over (oh no!). I really hated most of them; they were out of place, they broke the flow of the story, and they were not amusing – most of them. “Kill them with fire!” I say.

 

In the previous installments Alcatraz infiltrated a Downtown Library and the Library of Alexandria: both are fun and evil places. His native mysterious land is kind of boring. At least I was not that impressed with it. On the positive side his newfound relatives are at least amusing. Of a special notice is his aunt whose talent is to say the most inappropriate at the moment things. Imagine her mentioning to a young woman that her fiancé (who had a misfortune of being Alcatraz aunt’s son) that the guy just recently stopped wetting his bed. No wonder Alcatraz and other people related to her try to keep the distance from their “talented” relative.

 

As I already mentioned it is a better book than my rating of it might indicate. It did not diminish (much) my wish to continue reading the series. Join the fight against evil librarians!

 

P.S. Why do knights of Crystallia strongly remind me Redshirts from Star Trek? Not as fast to be killed, but equally useless. 

RedShirts

Reading progress update: I've read 26%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

Moria at last.

Reading progress update: I've read 47%.

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia - Brandon Sanderson

A furry-legged British guy had to throw his uncle's ring in a hole of in the ground. Very funny description, especially considering my current second read is The Lord of the Rings. 

Reading progress update: I've read 19%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

Half of the first book (Fellowship) is done.

Reading progress update: I've read 15%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

Enter Aragorn.

Reading progress update: I've read 11%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

I hate Tom Bombadil. There, I said it. I mean who would like a completely pointless guy speaking in bad poetry?

 

Something the movie has done really well: he was not in it.

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones - Brandon Sanderson

People that read the first book of the series know that our world is in the clutches of the Evil Librarians. They control the flow of information and he who controls the spice information controls the universe. Exactly like the news outlets do. If this is not the proof that the Evil Librarians are real I do not know what is. 

 

Last time the main hero Alcatraz had to infiltrate their stronghold: a downtown library. This time stakes are much higher than that. Can you think of a biggest baddest place for Evil Librarians? Unsurprisingly this is the Library of Alexandria.

The Library of Alexandria

Its librarians are the undead Curators ready to suck your soul out the moment you start reading any of the library books. This is the place Alcatraz headed this time, hunted by a librarian assassin who reminded me of a cyborg.

Cyborg

Fun follows.

 

Let me start by saying that this is a funny book which made me smile a lot and laugh out loud a couple of times. I would also be the first one to admit it is not as good as the first one. The reason for this is breaking of the fourth wall, like the following:

Fourth Wall

 

Each chapter starts with such breaking. It is long, sometimes mildly amusing, but most of the time boring. This made me feel dreadful approaching a beginning of a chapter knowing I was about to be subjected to a long pointless rant which is supposed to be witty. All the time I kept saying, “Dear Mr. Sanderson/Alcatraz. Please stop. Pretty please? Pretty pretty please? Please with a cherry on the top?”

 

Last time we learned Alcatraz’s mother was not a nice person. This time we learn that when it comes to being a bad parent his father can give her a good run for the money. Poor guy was looking for his parents all of his life and ended up with… these. This was neither fun nor amusing. To add to the insult, his grandfather is not entirely here to be a good substitution. At least his uncle seems to be a decent guy even though he and Alcatraz did not like each other in the beginning.

 

If there ever was a book with exactly 3.5 star rating, it is this one. Good, but the parts I mentioned above really drag the rating down. 

Reading progress update: I've read 7%.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

Still in Shire. This time around the beginning is not as boring as during my previous read. 

The Hobbit

The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

I find it hard to believe there are people who have no clue what the book is about. Still the possibility exists so I will give the high points of the plot. See there once was a hobbit (a race entirely created by Tolkien and endlessly recycled since under name halflings - for copyright reasons) named Bilbo Baggins. Think a humanoid creature of about half of a grown-up adult human height with furry legs who goes barefoot - it is a hobbit.

Halfling

These guys live underground in holes similar to rabbit's, but much more comfortable. Speaking about comfort, they love it and for this reason never ever go adventuring. 

 

One fine day Bilbo was sitting outside minding his own business when Gandalf showed up. Gandalf was a wizard who gave birth to practically all mighty wizards appearing in any art form. Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter is probably the most famous example and yes, he would not exist without Gandalf.

Dumbledore

Anyhow, for reasons entirely unclear through the whole book Gandalf decided to involve poor hobbit into a grand adventure - the kind where heroes go from a mortal danger to being miserable from hunger and weather having just escaped said danger and to yet another mortal danger again, still remaining miserable. Who would not want it? By the way, this never-explain-your-reasons-and-motivations thingy is a trademark of all mighty wizards that come after Gandalf. 

 

And so off to a grand adventure Bilbo went, accompanied by 12 dwarves and Gandalf himself who kept them company only part way. Adventure they wanted, and adventure they got, full of misery and dangers. 

 

I said it before and I will say it again at the risk of making some people very angry: this is a children tale; nothing more, nothing less. If you are trying to find some deep philosophical meaning in it, you are wrong: it is not supposed to have any. You might as well find some hidden messages in Itsy Bitsy Spider.

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Just look at Gandalf: the guy who dueled Balrog in the Lord of the Rings (this is an adult tale) at times looks like a total fraud in Hobbit: at one time he was sitting in a tree throwing flaming pine cones at wargs and set the forest on fire - his own tree included. As I said, a simple tale. 

 

It does not make the book bad by any means. It is a children classic for children and adults alike for a reason. I had a blast reading it in my childhood; I reread it later and liked it and I still like it after my latest reread. The rating is 4 very solid stars. 

Sky Ghosts: The Night Before

Sky Ghosts: The Night Before - Alexandra Engellmann

This is a short prequel story which is supposed to be an introduction to the series. It is also a freebie, so I will not spend too much time describing the plot or the world. Basically there are bad guys called Sky Beasts who use their powers for entirely selfish reasons and there are good guys called Sky Ghosts who try to protect the innocents from their power-hungry counterparts. This resulted in a practically all-out war invisible to outsiders.

Pain (Patricia) and Marco are two friends of the good guys' team. They used to hate each other's guts and beat the crap out of each other, but this is another story. This time they decided to spend some quality time hunting Beasts (This is Pain's favorite pastime with Marco hanging alone for the company). Lots of fights that would make Quentin Tarantino giving up filmmaker's career in shame follow.
Dragon Ball Z

I always find hard to review a short story as there is always an ever-present danger to writing a review bigger than its source material. This is a big no-no in my book. So let me take the following approach: I will take a look at the description and just say if the story delivered what it promised. This is an introduction to the series? In this it works perfectly fine. I would also like to note that this is the most violent story of the series so far.

So a short introduction to the series, decent one too; 4 stars.

Reading progress update: I've read 37%.

The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

It is funny to see a mighty wizard who fought Balrog in The Lord of the Rings on equal footing resorted to cheap tricks with burning pines to scare off wargs (and setting the whole forest on fire).

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians - Brandon Sanderson

Meet MC; his name is Al short for Alcatraz (it is not his fault the evil librarians use the most famous names of his dynasty for the most notorious prisons). The book starts with poor guy being tied to a bunch of outdated encyclopedias and is about to be sacrificed (Indiana Jones and the Tempe of Doom way) – say what you want about the evil librarians, but they sure got style.

Temple of Doom  

 

Chronologically it all started innocently enough. Alcatraz was an orphan who was changing foster parents faster than you can say, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. He had no clue about his parents or any living relatives until he received a gift for his thirteenth birthday, supposedly from his father. Inside the package there was a bunch of sand and nothing else. It seemed like a pointless poor joke except for the fact that the said sand caused Alcatraz to meet a crazy guy claiming to be his grandfather and to follow him down the rabbit hole – literally speaking.

 

You see, the world as we know it is controlled by evil librarians through careful distribution and suppression of information. They are about to conquer what remained outside of their influence and Alcatraz had the key to opposing them. Whether he wanted or not, he was in the game: a gun pointed at you from a blank point range makes you decide which side you are on really fast.

 

If all of the about sounds like a cliché, you are completely right. Brandon Sanderson makes fun of a lot of them among other things. Do not take this book seriously as it is not supposed to and you will like it.

 

Brandon Sanderson has a lot of dedicated fans. For this reason I am very surprised at the relative obscurity of this series which I would not hesitate to call quite underrated. I forgot the last time I read equally good humorous YA fantasy. I also learned that Sanderson can write funny humorous books – a lot of people can write humorous books, but funny is something only few succeed in. When the book is not funny it is at least amusing.

 

One example of this: there is a guy who has a very powerful talent: he is always late. How powerful the talent it? It turned out the guy is impossible to kill with a gun as he would be late for the meeting with his bullet. Another guy has a talent for very effective falling down. Once again it turns out he does it right before a real danger so if you see him doing this you better follow his example and hope you hit the floor faster than him.

 

My only complaint about the book is the following. The narrator – Alcatraz himself – often breaks the fourth wall. While it is always amusing, for me it comes out way over the top and sometimes forced to be really funny. This is even though one such breakage contains possibly the best part of the book: I am talking about Alcatraz’s musing about sadistic authors – spot on. This in my only complaint, but it is a big one.

 

To make a long story short the rating is firm 4 stars and I will most definitely continue reading the series. Avoid it like plague if you are in the mood for something serious like a book about a dying dog, or something similar (I am quoting Alcatraz here), otherwise read it and have a good laugh. All hail evil librarians!!!

Robot Visions

Robot Visions - Isaac Asimov, Ralph McQuarrie

This is a collection of short stories and essays related to Asimov’s visions of robots in the future. It contains quite a few stories from a better-known anthology I, Robot. Actually the latter has only 5 entries not found in the former.

 

Before Asimov practically every story related to an artificially created life (or its semblance) starting all the way from myth of Ancient Greece ended up with the creation turning against its creators – robots turning against humanity for our particular case. Hollywood still milk these stories for what it is worth (Terminator franchise, anybody?)

Terminator

Asimov decided it would be a good idea to create safeguards in robots against such case. Thus The Three Laws of Robotics were born. To make a long story short these are included on the most fundamental level of an artificial brain and prevent a robot from doing a harm to a human in any form. Sufficient to say they were taken seriously by contemporary artificial intelligence researchers – in real life that is.

 

What is so exciting about 100% obedient robots that warrants a fairly big story collection? It is quite possible to have a situation when the three fundamental laws conflict among themselves and Asimov was quite good at coming up with such situations. How does cold logic cope with a seemingly unsolvable paradox? Read the anthology. The stories take place during different times between the appearance of first robots (according to them we should already have more advanced forms of them by now) to humanity settling in deep space. Some characters appear in several stories.

 

Asimov is considered to be one of the major classics of science fiction and these stories are part of the reason. Please do not get me wrong, they are good. The criticism that follows resulted in my rating being 3.5 stars as opposed to 5.

 

The biggest reason for my (slight) disappointment is that the stories and essays aged. Let me explain. Since the time serious research related to computer science began a lot of effort was put into work on artificial intelligence (AI). Around 60 years later there were practically no results to show for it. AI practically became modern equivalent of snake oil.

Snake Oil

It is so bad that recently Microsoft trying to show something connected a database to voice system and proudly called the outcome breakthrough in AI. For people unfamiliar with the terms: it is nothing of the sort. So fear not, Skynet is not coming anytime soon. For this reason The Three Laws are not as relevant for modern life.

 

What is interesting is that Asimov often uses robots and machines (meaning computers) interchangeably. Here I have to admit that when it comes to computing we achieved more than Asimov envisioned. In one story he described a robot which essentially performed what we now call spell-checking. It only took a robot around 20 minutes for a book. Any decent modern word processing program can do it in seconds. As another example in the distant future machines designed higher-level machines that in turn designed even higher-level machines: ten times total. In the end the level of sophistication was completely incomprehensible to humans. These days we can design equally sophisticated computers ourselves and the design can still be comprehensible – at least to specialists.

 

What did we achieve with such powerful hardware? We managed to create slower and slower software so regarding the user experience in performance the old program on an ancient PC build at the time when dinosaurs rules the Earth

Old PC

is the same as a modern program on a modern PC/tablet/smartphone. In fact I am continued to be amazed by the tricks people come up with - always and without failing - to make programs even slower: I am saying this as a person who works in IT industry.

 

This brings me to a question about what do we have to show for developing such powerful computers? I am not really sure. Do grown up guys going off a high cliff playing Pokémon Go count?

Pokemon Go

Now that I put it this way, we – humans – are pathetic.

 

Coming back to Robot Visions my advice would be to read it in small doses as the stories can become somewhat repetitive. Blah blah The Three Laws blah blah Susan Calvin will fix the problem blah blah… This would be the plot of the vast majority of them.

 

Considering all I said (“ranted about” would be a better term) the final rating is 3.5 stars as I mentioned before. I am still willing to sign any form that states that the anthology is a classic of science fiction.

Reading progress update: I've read 67%.

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians - Brandon Sanderson

Very funny, but way over the top at times.

The Case of the Lame Canary

The Case of the Lame Canary - Erle Stanley Gardner

A woman came to Perry Mason for a consultation regarding her sister's divorce problem - granted it was a fairly complicated one. Usually the famous lawyer specializing in criminal cases does not touch divorce cases with a ten-feet pole. This time however he was curious: the woman in question came to him with a canary in a cage - almost nobody brings this kind of a pet to a lawyer. 

 

Tweety

You would not think I can discuss a book featuring a canary without an image of Tweety, would you? 

 

Further inquiries uncovered yet another irregularity about the canary. It turns out you need to clip canary's claws from time to time. Never having owned this bird I cannot really say if it is still a common practice, but at least it used to be in the middle of the last century. Anyhow, all the claws on the left feet were clipped fine - except for one which was not touched at all, and all the claws on the right leg were clipped twice. If it sounds complicated trust me when I say the murder which quickly followed was even more so.

 

When I describe the series to people unfamiliar with it I say that usually there is one murder per book, but it is always a very complicated one. This is a notable exception as there are more than one corpses showing up during Mason's investigation. Out of the top of my head this is the only time this happens. 

 

My usual rating for a Perry Mason book is 4 stars. This time I rated it higher. I gave the same rating to some classic books. Does it mean this book is a classic? No, but the mystery was so complicated I could not see the solution until Mason finally got a clue and explained it to the court and the readers. Do I need to say that a good mystery book must have a good mystery? Sorry for a bad pun, I cannot really resist. Add very rare moments of romance between Perry Mason and his secretary Della Street and you have a higher-than-usual rating.