Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The House of Hades

by Rick Riordan

Story summary: Sequel to The Lost Hero, The Son of Neptune, and The Mark of Athena, as well as the first "Percy Jackson & the Olympians" series. In this one, everything gets worse, as the poor demigods have to fight with Titans, giants, strange cows, and sorceresses, as well as heartbreak, loneliness, fear, and much physical pain.

Thoughts: I never quite like Riordan's middle books as much as the the first and last books. In fact, even though I remember loving the first Percy Jackson series a lot, when I think back, I realize I only skimmed through some of the middle books. So I definitely think Riordan has improved since then. However, this still did feel very much like a middle book, and I think it was my least favourite of the new series so far. This series is also considerably less funny than the first series, which is too bad since it was one of my favourite parts of the first series.

But there was a lot of Nico in this one, which made me extremely happy. He has always been my favourite character. There was quite an interesting development in this one, which is now the talk of Tumblr. I don't want to spoil too much, but suffice it to say, I think it was handled in a fashion perfectly in keeping with the teachings of the Church.

Grade: 3 stars

Friday, March 21, 2014

Retro Friday Review: Deep Wizardry

by Diane Duane

Retro Friday introduction:
Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie @ Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be a favourite, an under the radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print etc.

Story summary: The second book of the "Young Wizards" series, set after the events of So You Want to Be a Wizard?. Nita and Kit are helping their fellow wizards who live under the sea: the whales and the dolphins. They agree to take part in the Song of the Twelve, a sung ritual which will help keep the Lone Power at bay. But they realize they've gotten into more than they bargained for when they discover what's actually entailed in the Song, and meet one of the singers:  the master of all sharks, an ancient great white shark who's job is to end pain--usually by death.

Thoughts: This is a fabulous series, and definitely deserves more attention. The series was started far before Harry Potter, but sometimes gets unfairly compared to it. It really isn't very similar at all, except for that it's about some children learning about wizardry, and there's the whole Good vs. Evil thing going on.

As a Catholic, I really love some of the explanations of spiritual concepts in these books. They can be terribly inspiring. There is some weird philosophy/theology from a Catholic standpoint (e.g. the redemption of the Lone Power, or the Devil). But the good stuff more than makes up for that.

I love this series more and more as it goes on, with high points in the third book, High Wizardry, and the sixth book, A Wizard Alone. This particular book is excellent, of course, but I must admit, I mostly like it for Ed (short for ed'Rastekeresket t'k Gh'shestaesteh), the Master Shark and Pale Slayer. (In fact, the only characters I can think of right now that I like better or equally are Dairine's computer, Spot; Darryl, the autistic wizard from the sixth book; and Fred, the star from the first book.) He is dry and amusing and mesmerizing and altogether quite fascinating. He's sort of the equivalent of an atheist in this universe, as he doesn't believe in Timeheart (sort of the equivalent of Heaven) or the "Heart of the Sea" (the whale's source of wizardry). His character arc is one of the best ones among the secondary characters in this series as well.

Grade: 4 stars

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Testing

by Joelle Charbonneau

Story Summary: In a world recovering from a horrible, civilization-destroying war, Cia is one of the top students in her class, and is chosen to participate in the highly sought after Testing process, to see if she's suitable for the University. But there's more going on in the Testing than she thought, and she's thrown into death and danger and survival.

Thoughts: I thought this was quite derivative of The Hunger Games and other such YA dystopias. There was the post-disaster North America, divided into small areas which each focused on a separate societal task (called Colonies this time round instead of Districts). Then a bunch of teenagers get called into a series of game-type challenges where most of them die, and many of them kill each other. Plus, of course, there's the underlying issue of a very shady government trying to be evil under the guise of helping the nation survive.
It was a gripping, easy read, though. So there's that. And I enjoyed the first bunch of tests which involved intelligence related testing. Some day I'm going to come across a well-written book which actually delves into that sort of stuff in more detail.
I haven't yet decided whether I'm going to read the sequel, which came out recently. I think I might not, unless I hear really good things about it. Although I was interested in the Michal character, and I might want to see what happens to him. (He seems like the Cinna equivalent from THG, and Cinna was always one of my favourite characters from that series.)

Grade: 2 1/2 stars

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Story summary: Through three eras, three distant periods of Earth's history, a single blueprint is discovered, and treasured. And I don't want to give away too much more of the actual plot, so that's all you get. You can read the Goodreads description if you want more. It's nice and not spoilery.

Thoughts: For such an excellent, classic, and well-loved scifi novel such as this, I really don't feel adequate to properly review it. I'd need to spend more time thinking about it and discussing it with other people, and what with the enormity of school's stress right now, I just can't do that. It really deserves it, though. It's a fascinating book, which manages to portray insights into humanity as a whole, whilst still having interesting and complex characters.

 So here are a couple points we'll have to make do with:
--It gave me a similar feeling to the play "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard, in some ways. There were the contrasting eras of history, and how the future viewed the past. And there you were, outside it all and viewing the flow of time, and how certain small things unknowingly had huge repercussions.
--The view of the Church was excellently done as well, I thought. You could see how different ages of the Church had different difficulties and errors, but it still "flies thundering through the ages, [...] reeling but erect" (from Chesterton's Orthodoxy).
--The characters were a good example of these two above points. They were firmly trenched in their own period of history, with definitive faults and strange ways of thinking, but still people. I also got the impression that we would appear equally faulty and strange to those in the future, though I do think most people have a perhaps unconscious belief that we have now reached a new height of understanding in our age.
--I was happy to note that there was a short reference on page 213 to St. Augustine's evolution-like theory of creation. In fact, that whole section with the scientist discussing science with the monks was quite amusing and enjoyable. It quite annoys me how there is a tendency to think the Church as a whole was anti-science, when in fact, quite the reverse was generally the case.

Grade: 4 1/2 stars

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

by Oliver Sacks

Thoughts: A collection of interesting and unusual anecdotes about strange musical happenings related to brain functions,  from musical hallucinations to perfect pitch, brain worms to synesthesia. Oliver Sacks is a physician and professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry, and man must he have an interesting life if even half of these stories were true. (And they almost definitely are, by the way. This is a fairly well documented and scientific sort of book.)

Some interesting things I learnt:
--A professional musician's brain has an enlarged corpus callosum and increased volumes of grey matter in motor, auditory, and visuospatial areas of the cortex and cerebellum. It is more unique and recognizable than that of a visual artist, writer, or mathematician. (pg. 94) Similarly, there is a striking change in the left hemisphere of children who've had a only a year of violin training. (pg. 95)
--Physical music practice increases activity in various areas of the brain, but mental practice excites those same areas (i.e. going through the motions in your mind). (pg. 95)
--There is a theory that perfect pitch is inborn bust lost. Infants, apparently, rely much more heavily on absolute pitch cues, and adults on relative pitch cues. (pg. 129)
--On of the longer stories (pg. 188 ~ 205) was about a man called Clive Wearing who couldn't remember anything longer than a minute or so at most. And yet he could play entire pieces of music with as much fervour as before his accident. There is a documentary about him on Youtube which is quite interesting. There are also many other stories of people who have completely lost their memory, and yet still retain their memory for music, which is quite astounding. (See some of these on pg. 337-9.)
--Apparently there have been children that have had their entire left hemisphere removed from their brain, and yet still recovered speech and language. (pg. 220)
--Freud hated music. In his own words, "Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me." (pg. 293) I find this really interesting, and as someone who's not a huge Freud fan, I'm rather pleased to find him with such an unusual weakness.

Grade: 3 stars