American Gods by Neil Gaiman : Mini Book Review

American Gods

American Gods

10 words or less : Overrated. Unbelievable situations. Good sections, but twists visible miles away.

Long version : I need to preface this by saying I am not a fan of deep-end fantasy books. Magic, enchanted objects, and out-of-the-butt mystic speak?


Characters who are supposed to be gods relating to humans with the equivalent of “Oi m boyo! C’mere and have a beer!”?

Hell no.

Having said that, I picked up American Gods by Neil Gaman based on the multiple four and five star reviews on Amazon as well as critical praise on the jacket cover. General fiction is fine with me, so I thought I would give this book a try.

The book is about the “American Gods”… gods that were brought over to America by the immigrants who believed in them. As the people who believed in these gods blended into America’s culture (or flat out died), the transplanted gods withered and turned mortal-ish.

Que Joan Osborne.

Anyhow, some “new” gods eventually appear on the scene, and they were (off the top of my head) the god of computers, credit cards, TV, media and “Mr. World”.

Wait! It gets better!

The “new” gods are tired of the old gods hanging around taking their mojo. So a “storm is coming”… as every single character says over and over and over and over.

The main hero, Shadow, is the chosen one. He has a hobag of a woman who keeps showing up for him a lot like Jack Goodman did for David in the movie American Werewolf in London. Except this character is played seriously.

On a side note – Shadow. Who the hell names their kid Shadow?

Anyhow, fantasy ensues. A few plot twists and pages and pages later, “the storm is here”.

Not to ruin anything, but the book didn’t have Mohamed or Jesus in it. Every other god with a popular identity shows up throughout the book, and most get to fight in the big finale, so where were the top two representatives of the current religions? If the god of computers can be a card carrying member of the almighty god club, where the hell were the big players in this book? Where was THE big capital-G God in all this? If gods exist just because people believe in them, shouldn’t the capital-G God, Jesus and Mohamed have been in this book putting the smack down?

See, stuff like this is why I can’t read these kind of books.

The book has the main character travel through America as part of him finding himself and his allies, but you’ll get more “real” America from Alton Brown’s road trip series.

It was entertaining in sections, and the writing style flowed fairly well. A few chapters were really imaginative, but most of the chapters were tedious and overly detailed. I see the author was going for a slow buildup over the 600 plus pages of the book, but I could see the “twist(s)” coming five chapters away. Even in the dénouement.

I recommend reading the first few paragraphs of the Wikipedia page on “American Gods” that summarize the book to see if it’s for you. American Gods won the Hugo and Nebula awards (among many other sci-fi specific writing awards), but it was nothing more than moderately entertaining summer-like reading for me.

Three out of five stars.

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel : mini book review

10 words or less : Incredible. Fun and entertaining. A very moving and symbolic story.

Life Of Pi Book

Life Of Pi Book

Long version :  The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is a wonderful read. It’s the kind of book that will raise the bar on the kind of material you will want to read afterward. It’s a relatively short book, around 300 pages, but it works on so many levels… both as a superficial “look-no-deeper” story and as a very, very symbolic multi-layer opus.

The top-layer story is basically about a shipwrecked boy who is stuck on a lifeboat for 227 days in the Pacific Ocean with a tiger, hyena, zebra, and an orangutan. The pacing is so well structured you will be halfway through the book before you know it.

The Life of Pi won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the South African Boeke Prize, the Le combat des livres reading competition, CBC Radio’s Canada Reads, and the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. It won all these awards even though it was only the second book from the author at the time.

There’s almost 2,000 reviews for it on at this time, and even a new deluxe illustrated version that I’m going to have to get for the bookshelf. Be careful on Amazon, though. Many people posted the entire story in their review, which ruins the thrill of reading the book for the first time.

Supposedly Ang Lee is going to make a movie about the book for release in 2011. I’m not sure he can pull it off, but I’ll be in line to see it on the big screen.

Five out of five stars.

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson : mini book review

10 words or less : Absolutely brilliant. Best comic ever. Still fun after multiple readings.

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

Long Version : I love the complete Calvin and Hobbes collection. I’ve read it cover to cover many times already, but I still flip open this collection’s books and scan ten to twenty pages a week. I finished another umpteenth re-reading last night, and even though it’s not a new book, it still merits reviewing.

Calvin and Hobbes became something far more than ink on newsprint in the short time it was published. I still can not think of any other strip that I couldn’t wait to read in the newspaper. Bloom County, which ran around the same time as Calvin and Hobbes, did have its’ moments, but I thought it was eventually dragged down by heavy handed preaching and outlandish scenarios. Calvin and Hobbes was always fun to read. It never beat me over the head with its’ views, never took itself too seriously, and seemed to be perfectly centered for both kids and adults to enjoy. This series still genuinely makes me laugh, and leaves me with a little more appreciation of the everyday things in life.

If you haven’t read it, you need to. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t have any “used” versions of this series, but that also says a lot about this collection.

Fortunately, Bill Watterson walked away before Calvin and Hobbes were commercialized and “cheapened“. The result of his then-unheard of act is a perfectly preserved work of art. There are no studio actors’ voices to muddle your thoughts when reading this. There are no slick but soulless animations to glaze over on a television set. There are no stuffed animals that cement in reality what each character looks like. Everything is still alive and up to your imagination with every reading.

Bill Watterson? Thank you.

Five out of five stars.

Sony E-reader Cover with Light for the 505 series

I’ve been very, very happy with my Sony E-reader 505 and am still chewing through my first ebook on the device. (American Gods by Neil Gaiman – I’ll post a quick review it when I’m done) Yesterday I got lucky and found a lot of accessories for the Sony 505 e-reader on clearance at a local store and grabbed everything I could.

The big find was a “Sony E-reader cover with light for the 505 series”. The new cover is black on the outside, which is a much better look than the muted brown cover that initially came with the 505. Inside the new cover is a small glass-like square that just covers the LCD screen of the 505. It’s not actually a light in itself, but illuminated from a light source inside the spine of the cover. It works by sending light into the glass and not illuminating from it… kind of like putting a flashlight under bottled water.

The light pane can be moved out of the way to the left side just like a page of a book, and has two intensities to select from, depending on how much light you want to frame the LCD screen with. I found the first intensity setting perfectly acceptable for both low light and complete darkness.

This is how the 505 looks with the new cover in very low light…

Sony 505 e-reader in dim light

Sony 505 e-reader in dim light

…and this is how the 505 looks in complete darkness.

Sony 505 e-reader in complete darkness

Sony 505 e-reader in complete darkness

Not bad at all!

The cover with light does add a little weight to the overall feel of the e-reader, but it’s not enough to change how I’ve been using it. It still fits in the same dimensions the previous cover did, and the light pane is barely noticeable if left in position while it is powered off. The new cover uses AA batteries, but it has a 30 hour runtime estimate.

Overall, I think this is a fantastic accessory for the 505. Even though the newer and touchscreen-enabled versions of Sony’s e-reader are hitting the store shelves, you can’t go wrong picking up a “previous generation” 505 and one of these cover lights if you can find them. Four and a half out of five stars.

Sony PRS-505 : mini book review

10 words or less : Awesome for book junkies. Portable. Holds several books. Decent speed.

Sony PRS 505

Sony PRS 505

Long version: Ok, so it’s not a book review. It’s a book reader review. But this device is definitely a gateway drug for those of us who are book junkies. I just picked this up on clearance a few days ago, loaded it up, have been completely satisfied with it.

With the recent announcement of touchscreen-enabled readers, the Sony 505 I have is now officially the “previous generation” ebook reader. But the 505 is still being sold at retail outlets at a discounted price from the initial $299-$350 range.

The 505 works on a PC with the provided Sony reader software, but I found it much better to use a open source (free) program called Calibre to sync it on my PC as well as my Mac. (Sony does not provide Mac software for the 505, so Mac users will definitely have to install Calibre.)

There are tons of free books you can download, but you can also drag and drop in your own PDFs, Word files, LRF files (Sony reader files), and text files to read. You can also convert .mobi files through Calibre to use on the 505. MP3s and AACs audio files are also supported, as well as JPEGs, BMPs, PNGs and GIFs (which will only show in black and white on the 505 screen)

Reading with the 505 has been great. The 505 boots up instantly most of the time, and always to where you left off. The screen is very easy to see and the scalable font makes it easier to adjust the size of the text on screen to a comfortable level. The 505 also has fairly decent built in memory. I loaded 8 full books with plenty of room to spare. You can also add Sony’s Pro Duo or any SD memory cards to the expansion ports on top of the device if you want to carry your entire library with you.

The load and response times are very good. You can back up to a main menu where you can bookmark pages and pick up another book to read while keeping your place in the original book. You can also get a book’s Table of Contents (if it has one), sort by author, sort by title, sort by date or sort by collections. You can also listen to any music you uploaded while you are reading.

The 505 also lets you rotate the books horizontally, lock the device from unauthorized use, and make selections with the numeric row on the right column of the device.

The best part of the 505 is that is about the thickness of my 1st generation iphone, and about 7″ long by 5.25″ wide with the provided leather case attached. Very portable!

Now for the bad.

The 505 does not come with a charger. Sony does sell them separately, but you will have to charge the 505 out of the box from any USB port on your machine.

There is no backlight on the 505, so you can’t see the screen in dim light. Sony, conveniently, sells a very fancy cover/light combo separately as well.

Some very large or graphics intensive PDFs don’t like being scaled up or down and will take a loooooong time to refresh. This is a hit-or-miss problem, and I have only seen it once out of the 50 PDFs I tested.

Reading documents on the 505 is always decent, but nothing beats a document specifically formatted in LRF format for the 505. You can convert most anything to LRF with Calibre though.

All image files will only show in black and white on the 505 screen.

And finally, when you turn pages on the 505, there is a brief contrast change as the new page loads. You won’t notice it after a few pages of reading, but it is distracting to see at first.

But aside from that, I have no complaints.

Having books available to instantly read is a great way to pass the time. And while this is not the latest ebook reader from Sony, at its’ current reduced price, this could be something to get more people introduced (and hooked) on ebook systems.

I highly recommend the Sony 505. Four out of five stars.

And, very briefly, on a related topic, what do I think of the 505’s competition, the Kindle? They suck! Simply because they can delete any books you purchased at anytime without any warning or reason. The 505 won’t (and can’t) do that to you.

New Rules by Bill Maher : mini book review

10 words or less : Funny and sharp. Quick reading. Will probably offend most conservatives.

Bill Maher - New Rules

Bill Maher - New Rules

Longer version: “New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer”  by Bill Maher was in a local bookstore’s bargain bin. Since I haven’t finished unpacking, I picked it up to pass the time.

The book was easy reading, but I liked it. “New Rules” is a good intro to his sense of humor if you haven’t seen his HBO show. Part of the fun is how he obviously goes out of his way to offend people with highly conservative values. Most of his book is common sense, but he does fly off on a wild tangent every so often.

Unfortunately, like all standup comedian and talk show host books, the book uses an oversized font. Single one-thought paragraphs take up full pages. And the book’s sentences are more than double spaced. The entire thing should have been less than 114 pages, and not 228.

Aside from that, I thought it was good stuff.

Three out of five stars.