Unique Critiques

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastards, Book 1)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

I’m very surprised I haven’t found Lynch’s work until now.  It’s odd to have such a strong series be completed without any of the Amazonian algorithms pushing a book of this quality my way.

One of the first things you’ll discover with this book is that you have sailed right off the map of young adult fiction.  Maybe it’s the line, “I told you they were shit-flinging little monkeys when we made the deal…” which happens in paragraph four that instantly gave me the sense that this was going to be a book written for adults by and adult.  Refreshing.

That being said, I have to say that I struggled a little getting into the novel.  There was a little too much Dickensian aspiration for describing a scene.  In several sections you simply can’t wait for him to just get to the fucking point.  When I discovered this was Lynch’s first novel, it made a little more sense.  Describing the scene at this level of detail is akin to literary masturbation, it’s important and gratifying to the author but not something you need to share with your friends.  Lynch is more than talented enough with his prose that he will get past this.

Other than that, the writing and the character building is spot on.  He runs a tidy past and present three card monte on you that introduces you to each character through flashback side stories.  This is nice because there is always something new and surprising to learn about each of these new and surprising characters.

This is the story of Locke Lamora, an incredibly successful thief who seems to be lacking direction.  We are not talking about a moral compass here, he has no illusions that he is the good guy, but he and his band of Gentleman Bastards have amassed a fortune that they don’t really know what to do with.  They work within an organized crime syndicate, kind of like the Sopranos move to Westeros.  Locke is the lieutenant of the smallest crime family that reports to the Capa.  He and his team have done a masterful job of hiding their wealth, not only from other thieves but also from the Capa.  They always pay their weekly tithe on time and on budget but they never draw attention to themselves.

What nobody knows is that Locke is also the Thorn of Camorr.  The Thorn is talked about in hushed tones and only in myth and rumor. He has become this mystical figure that runs the biggest, most audacious scams in the city.  He preys only on the nobles of Camorr so fancies himself a bit of a Robin Hood character without the whole inconvenience of giving back to the poor.  His schemes are clever and seem to be a rich source of entertainment to the Gentleman Bastards.

His two concerns are: one, getting found out by the Capa, which would mean a quick and toothy death at the fins of some particularly graphic sharks which seem to be a large part of the culture of Camorr.  And two, at the hands of the Spider, the mysterious spy master that pulls all the strings in the duchy.  That is until a new player comes on the scene, the Gray King.

The Gray King is over the top nefarious.  He employs an even nastier free lance sorcerer with a hybrid scorpion hawk for a familiar.  The Gray King doesn’t fuck around.  Without giving away any important plot points, he puts Locke in a world of hurt while at the same time turning the crime syndicate and the entire city of Camorr upside down.  Locke has to figure out how to counter this shady figure and do his best to keep him and his gang breathing while doing so.

Once you get into this book, it is almost impossible to put down.  It has an unexpected yet satisfying conclusion that reminds me a bit of the Ocean’s Eleven style hi-jinks.  Don’t miss this one, it is well worth your time.  I have already started the second book.

Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

Rocket Fuel is a Wickman follow up to Get a Grip, albeit with a different co-author (or perhaps integrator).  Where Get a Grip was broad and inclusive to the entrepreneurial organization as a whole, Rocket Fuel is narrow and focused on one thing, the relationship between the Visionary and the Integrator.  We will spend more time defining those two terms in a moment but these are basically the top two spots at a company and when these top spots are in sync, you get magic.  When they’re not, you get garbage.  This book teaches how to get these two players playing the same game.

Our authors start by defining the players.  The first is our Visionary.  The Visionary is typically, but not always, the founder of the company but they play the role of idea guy.  They have twenty ideas a day if not more.  Most of these ideas stink but one or two are brilliant.  They have the passion and the drive.  Or as our authors put it, they are most commonly the, “Entrepreneurial spark plug, Inspirer, Passion Provider, Developer of new/big ideas/breakthroughs, Big problem solver, Engager and maintainer of big external relationships, Closer of big deals, Learner, researcher and discoverer, Company vision creator and champion.”  These are fun people to be around because they pick you up when you’re feeling down and make you see things their way.  What they are typically NOT so good at are the details.  They don’t pride themselves on the day to day nor do they do a great job of following up.  They are not finishers, they are starters.

One of the primary reasons the book was written is that the dynamos known as Visionaries quickly become disillusioned and frustrated once their business starts becoming successful because they run into what our authors call the “Five Frustrations: 1. Lack of Control.  You started this business so you could have more control over your time, money and freedom-your future.  Once you reach a certain point of growth, however, you realize that somehow you actually have less control over these things than you’ve ever had before…2. Lack of Profit.  Quite simply you don’t have enough…3. Nobody (employees, partners, vendors) seems to understand you or do things your way.  You’re just not on the same page.  4. Hitting the Ceiling.  Growth has stopped.  The business is more complex, and you can’t figure out exactly why it isn’t working.  5. Nothing is working.  You’ve tried several remedies, consulted books, and instituted quick fixes….you have no traction.”  At some point of growth this seems to be the fate of almost every Visionary.

Enter the Integrator, stage right.  The Integrator is the yin to the Visionary’s yang.  The Integrator “harmoniously integrates the major functions of the business, runs the organization, and manages the day-to-day issues that arise.  The Integrator is the glue that holds the people, processes, systems, priorities, and strategy of the company together.”  One obvious trait of the Integrator is communication but more importantly they play the role of filter to the “Visionary’s ideas, which helps to eliminate hurdles, stumbling blocks, and barriers for the leadership team.”  This is not the easiest pill to swallow because it also means that the Integrator has to challenge these ideas and put the grit of reality into the purity of the Visionary’s dream.  This means having to say no. A lot.  To your boss.  This means a ton of work with very little of the glory.  It means being the man behind the Man (or woman in either case).  So, who the hell would sign up for that job?  Turns out, you don’t have much of a choice.  You’re either wired this way or you’re not.  If you are, you loooove to see stuff done right.  And you’re the one making sure it’s happening.  Glory means less than success to the Integrator.  Discipline and accountability trump all.

How you get these two very different people together and working effectively is the content of the rest of the book.  It all starts with the accountability chart.  If you read Get a Grip, this is a bit of a review but still a salient point because of how important it is to get the accountability breakdown correct.  An accountability chart is an org chart on steroids.  It is done on a role based methodology, where you diagram all of the roles that a team needs to succeed and only then put your people in those roles.  In most cases people play multiple roles but even then it becomes clear for what each person is held accountable.  Most organizations do this backwards where they will build the org chart around the people they have instead of the roles and create a broken, convoluted reporting structure.  They reemphasize the point that more than one person can’t be accountable for something because then nobody is accountable.  I love that maxim. The focus in this book is more on the accountability trade off between our top two and how important it is to define who is going to handle what.  They also make the point that the rest of the leadership team reports to the Integrator but that the Integrator reports to the Visionary.  This has the caveat though that if the visionary is wearing multiple hats, like VP of sales and marketing, when playing that role, they do in fact report to the Integrator.

Accountability brings us to the five rules that Wickman and Winters lay out for this relationship: “1. Stay on the same page 2. No End Runs 3. The Integrator is the Tie Breaker 4. You Are an Employee When Working “in” the Business 5. Maintain Mutual Respect.”  These are great rules of thumb because it starts to assist the Visionary in giving up some of the control and hassles of the business.  This is an underlying theme throughout the book that all of this will fail unless the Visionary is truly ready to give up some of the responsibilities of running the business.  According to our authors this is one of the main reasons the relationship fails, Visionary readiness.

One of the last interesting stats they throw at us before closing the book is that about 22% of people out there have the capacity to become a Visionary where only about 5% are wired to be an Integrator.  This creates a 4:1 gap making strong Integrators very much in demand.  If the Visionary can find a good one and put these elements in place, add a dash of productive tension, that’s when you go from gasoline to rocket fuel.  Only then is the business ready for lift off.

 

 

 

Traveler’s Rest

Fantasy Book Review

I’d like to start by saying that Morris is a beautiful writer.  The way he can capture a theme or a feeling will make you feel like you are riding shotgun in each character’s tormented lizard brain.  That being said, the story felt very derivative.  Not that derivative is always bad, it was just a little too on the nose.  It felt almost like a mix between Stephen King’s The Shining and Sartre’s No Exit.  It’s one of those novels that you start reading and immediately think you know how it is going to end.  The good news is he surprises you with the ending, the bad is that he takes a little too long to get you there.

Morris can do creepy and do it extremely well.  There was all sorts of creepy in the novel, especially in the beginning when the table is being set for the main course.  It’s been a long time since a book actually got my heart beating fast while reading it.  I distinctly remember at one point putting the book down at around 2 AM, taking a leak then literally running back to the safety of my bed, Morris’ phantoms giving chase an inch behind. It’s the kind of creepy that gets under your skin and stays there like a spider bite.  One of the reasons the creepiness is so effective is that he captures the essence of dreams so fluidly that it feels like a dream that you might have had and somehow shared with the author.  The novel is a little disjointed, certainly incomplete but it hits the primal high notes of fear and confusion in a relentless avalanche of icy chill that leaves you deliciously wanting.

The book kicks off with our small family of a mom, dad, son and fucked up druggy brother to dad that end up pulling off the highway and into a small town due to a raging blizzard. They end up at the Traveler’s Rest, a gorgeous old hotel that is clearly out of place in a town that had its hey day many decades before.  The hotel belongs to the past, or the past belongs to it but either way it is a place out of time.  They check in as the storm continues to rage and that’s when the mayhem begins.  All four characters end up getting separated and quickly tossed into some level of existential frustration that makes up the rest of the book.

The mom and the dad get it the worst.  They get put on the dream treadmill and neither seem able or willing to get off.  Their disappointments with how their lives ended up become fodder to the dream factory that ultimately traps them in a constant rerun.  What appear to be strengths of each character are quickly turned to weaknesses and what these characters believed to be important can’t make it past the snow imposed malaise that continues to pile on the consciousness of these tormented few.

It’s a study of the human condition but not a happy one.  Morris gives you the data and seems unconcerned with how you will take it.  My only real criticism is that the middle of the book drags a bit as our author seems to get a little too impressed with the dream land he has created and selfishly wants to extend it long after making his point.  Other than that though, it is a quality read that kept me thinking about it long after I finished the book.  It’s worth your while.

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

I first heard about Achor’s work through his brilliant Ted Talk.  The thing that struck me about the Ted Talk was how funny  it was and how obviously delighted the speaker was about the work he was doing.  He clearly practices what he preached because Shawn Achor looks and sounds like a very happy man.  This, more than anything, sold me on the book.  Just like choosing a personal trainer who looks fit him or herself over some overweight alternative, you want your happiness expert to be a happy guy.  Not only is Achor happy, as a Harvard researcher he also has the credentials.  In this book he is presenting a fair amount of his own research as opposed to just taking you through one man’s personal experience.  The book is written with a fun, anecdotal and playful tone but backed by some hard data, as Mark Watney would say, ‘he scienced the shit out of this thing.”

Achor’s primary thesis is that due to the data gathered from the cutting edge science of positive psychology, “we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result.  And that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement – giving us the competitive edge that I call the Happiness Advantage.”  He starts by getting into the sad reality that most of us are very unhappy with our jobs and the work we do.  In fact, “A Conference Board survey release in January of 2010 found that only 45% of workers surveyed were happy with their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling.  Depression rates today are ten times higher than they were in 1960.”  This is an unhappiness epidemic.  The good news is that we can do something about it.  As he and other researchers have discovered, “Once our brains were discovered to have such built-in plasticity, our potential for intellectual and personal growth suddenly became equally malleable. … studies have found numerous ways we can rewire our brains to be more positive, creative, resilient, and productive – to see more possibility where we look.”

Before he takes us into the detail of how we get closer to happiness, he does us the favor of defining it first: “Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future.  Martin Seligman, pioneer in positive psychology, has broken it down to three, measurable components: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.”  After that definition he pounds home the point again that, “based on the wealth of data they compiled, they found that happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.”  In short, if you want to be successful work on being happy first.

What I loved about the book is that he didn’t stop there.  He then takes us into some real life, helpful tips about how to get us to our happy place.  Here are the biggies:

  • Meditate.  Meditation takes practice, but it’s one of the most powerful happiness interventions.  I highly recommend Buddhify if you haven’t tried it.
  • Find something to look forward to.  One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27%.
  • Commit conscious acts of kindness.  The important note here is that they need to be conscious, you need to make the intention to commit these acts.
  • Infuse positivity into your surroundings.  Look at the desks of your co-workers that have tons of pictures and memes, those folks are normally the happiest of the group.
  • Exercise.  If you’re not doing this already, it’s time to start.  Not only does exercise pump up the endorphins, it also boosts mood and enhances work performance in many other ways.
  • Spend money (but not on stuff).  “Contrary to the popular saying, money can buy happiness, but only if used to do things as opposed to simply have things.”
  • Exercise a signature strength.  Do the things you are good at every once in a while to boost positivity.

This is a wonderful  DIY road map to getting on the happy train.  I’ve done some of these in the past but have since added several more of these arrows into my quiver and it is definitely making an impact.

He also covers the concept of the fulcrum and the lever and why that physical principle has an impact on our brains.  Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”  Achor takes this into psychology, “What I realized is that our brains work in precisely the same way.  Our power to minimize our potential is based on two important things: (1) the length of our lever – how much potential power and possibility we believe we have, and (2) the position of our fulcrum – the mindset with which we generate the power to change.”  This is another way of saying that if you look at every task you do with the mindset that you can pull something positive from it, you probably will.  One of the things I liked the most about this approach was when he brought it to our jobs.  “We view our work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling.”  Guess which one will make you the happiest?  In his consulting work, he encourages employees to “rewrite their ‘job descriptions’ into what Tal Ben-Shahar calls a ‘calling description’.”  This highlights the meaning of the work that we do.  I started with myself and I have asked my employees to do the same.  It is incredibly illuminating about what people find important.  The other side of the coin of happiness is bringing it to others.  He dives into the “Pygmalion Effect: when our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life.” Another way of saying, pass it on.  He challenges all managers to ask these three questions: “Do I believe that the intelligence and skills of my employees are not fixed, but can be improved by effort?  Do I believe they want to make that effort, just as they want to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs?  How am I conveying these beliefs in my daily words and actions?”  The world is not fixed, it is relative and we can have a serious impact upon it.

He then dives into what he calls the Tetris effect.  The Tetris effect comes about when people spend tons of time playing the game to the point that everything looks like a block to be arranged somewhere.  Most of us fall into the negative Tetris effect where all we see are problems.  If everything looks like a problem it is very difficult to find happiness.  However Achor encourages us to rewire this into the “Positive Tetris Effect: Instead of creating a cognitive pattern that looks for negatives and blocks success, it trains our brains to scan the world for opportunities and ideas that allow our success rate to grow.”  If you are constantly scanning and focusing on the positive, you end up with a lot more happiness, gratitude and optimism.”  The road map here is: “start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career and your life.”  At the very least, start by covering the three good things that happened today.

His next section was about Falling Up instead of Falling Down.  “Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth…the people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what happened to them, but by what they can make out of what has happened.”  I have found this personally true after getting hit with cancer and thankfully beating it.  I have found that many years after the event, I am grateful for the disease because it helped mold me into who I am today.

The next principle he covers is what he calls the Zorro Circle or as Covey has called it your circle of influence.  “Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance. …these kinds of gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have.”  Back to the lever and the fulcrum, we have a lot of power by using our mindset of how we look at control in our own lives.  The only way to find this control is to start small.  Recognize the little things that you have absolute control over, own it, then start to expand upon it.  Don’t play the victim, take responsibility.  One way to do this is to make two lists, the first of the things that you do that are within your control, the second is those things that you don’t control.  It is always surprising how many things fall in the first list.

Principle #6 is the 20 second rule.  In countless studies we have found that we have a finite bucket of willpower and that “our willpower weakens the more we use it.”  I loved this quote, “Inactivity is simply the easiest option.  Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy it nearly as much as we think we do.  In general, Americans actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work.  If that sounds ridiculous, consider this: for the most part, our jobs require us to use our skills, engage our minds, and pursue our goals – all things that have been shown to contribute to happiness.”  He also goes on to show that we are drawn to what is easy even when we know that active leisure is much more enjoyable than sitting on your ass.  The problem is that it takes action to be active, where sitting on the couch doesn’t.  His advice is, “Lower the activation energy for the habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid.”  His example is that he pulled the batteries out of his remote and instead put books in his living room.  When he did this, it became much easier to read a book then getting up, grabbing the batteries to the remote and turning on the TV.

The final principle he covers is social investment.  He starts off with a very powerful piece of data, “researchers have found that social support has as much effect on life expectancy as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and regular physical activity.”  These relationship, especially at work, are your lifeline to being happy or not.  “When over a thousand highly successful professional men and women interviewed as they approached retirement and asked what had motivated them the most, overwhelmingly they placed work friendships above both financial gain and individual status.”  One of the most important relationships at work is the boss to employee relationship and it is critical to get this right.  One of the ways to get this right is to share positive news and react with authentic positivity to those that share positive news with you.  If you are a boss, get this right because it seriously impacts the happiness of your employees.  Finally, gratitude and sharing that gratitude with your employees is also critical to their success.  Do it often and do it publicly.

This is a great book that provides an atlas to find your happiness.  Read it.  Now.

Planetfall

Science Fiction Book Review

This was my first read of anything by Emma Newman and it won’t be my last.  She is an expert at capturing ambiance and the overall feeling of a scene.  The plot was almost an afterthought to the character development and putting the reader in the back seat of this new world that felt like it was pulled from a Madeline L’Engle acid trip.

Our main character is a futuristic biological engineer by the name of Ren.  She is part of a community/cult of early space travelers that are chasing the dream of her messianic ex-girlfriend.  They end up on a world that contains what is known as God’s city.  Our messiah led them here across the stars to seek the age old answers that Douglas Adams so neatly summed up with the number 42.  Newman doesn’t sweat the details of the trip or the science that got them there.  The book’s focus remains on the world they ended up on and the mystery of several plot holes that she grudgingly fills in through a series of flashbacks.

The mystery drives the plot and the character development.  As each tidbit is revealed over the course of the novel, you gain more and more insight as to why the characters are so deliciously broken.  Not surprisingly, the fractures come from deceptions so big that they can and do create fissures of characters that sets up our main character as the star of her own personal Hoarders episode.  This flaw seems somewhat irrelevant to the overall plot of the book until the next reveal when it all makes sense.  Newman captures the essence of this mental split in a series of gut wrenching experiences that makes you want to crawl into a corner with Ren and slowly rock yourself to sleep.

The science Newman does feed us is a fascinating prediction of what biotech could evolve into.  Ren has the ability to build living structures.  Each structure regulates itself by biological rules.  Instead of carpet, you get moss, instead of chairs, I imagined some elaborate looking mushrooms.  Newman doesn’t take you that deep into the details allowing you to imagine it on your own which is better anyway.  Whatever Ren comes up with in her biotech architecture, she ends up printing somewhere and integrating the new print into an existing ecological system.  Very cool stuff.

One of the most interesting elements of the world was God’s city.  The city is one enormous biological entity.  Travel from room to room within this gigantic entity is done, sickeningly, through valves and sphincters.  Needless to say, mucus seems to be the primary wall decoration as she swims through rivers of snot to try to discover what it all means.  I did struggle a little with the imagery of God’s city.  I often found myself re-reading passages several times to relate a little better until I finally decided that the vagaries were Newman’s recipe to let the reader try to work it out for ourselves.

The ending was excellent and I found myself thinking about the book long after I finished.  Read it, it sticks with you.

Dragonvein

Fantasy Book Review

After an absurd amount of travel, I’m finally getting the chance to get back to some of the fun things in life namely, writing about books.  Over the holidays I did get the chance to read Brian Anderson’s Dragonvein.  Unfortunately, it was just meh.  This is pretty vanilla epic fantasy that can make your list if you’re planning an 18 hour plane flight to Dubai where you pre-downloaded it and ended up on an aircraft without wireless but otherwise, I’d skip it.

When I say vanilla, I’m talking Lora Doone fantasy wafers.  They don’t taste bad but after you consume, you kind of wish you skipped the empty calories and decided on something a bit meatier.

The book begins with promise, with our hero Ethan, entrenched over enemy lines in the midst of World War II.  He and his BFF find themselves in a shit storm of Aryan proportions when they discover an old stranger who doesn’t speak the language, English or German, in the middle of what is about to become a major skirmish.  Ethan, a best friend proclaimed boy scout, decides that now would be a good time to take on nursemaid duties and helps the old man.  Turns out he’s from another world and the trio narrowly escapes the Krauts by opening up a portal to that world.

This is where the formula kicks in.  Ethan slowly discovers that this world is under the iron fist of a Hitler-esque, Sauron-esque, Darth Vader-esque, Emperor.  Furthermore, there happens to be a prophecy of some Dragonvein character that is supposed to have the utility belt with the full on kung fu grip that can take down our bad guy.  Any guesses who that is?  Ethan finds himself on the run with the old man, Jonas, our wise adviser, picks up a roguish warrior and a healer and creates a merry band.  Oh yeah, and the world has elves and dwarves in it.

The character building is not bad.  He creates some believable tension between the leads but the plot is just too played.  You also get the sense that Anderson is far too in love with the main characters that there is no chance that any of them will expire of anything other than old age.  This eliminates the chance for any believable fear that these guys might not succeed.

All in all, not worth the price of admission.

David and Goliath

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

Gladwell is masterful at taking a concept and making his point by wrapping it in a series of compelling stories that makes that point very sticky.  I wouldn’t call David and Goliath his best but it is still a wonderful read and has plenty to teach.  The central concept is that you should never take on the Goliath where he is strongest.  If you take the battle to the giant, don’t let the giant dictate the terms and certainly don’t try to beat the giant at their own game.  Instead, change the game and turn their greatest strength into a weakness.  Yes, very Sun Tzu.  What is most fascinating about Gladwell’s approach is he spends time showing you how the underdog beats the super power and it’s very rarely for the reasons that you may think.

Gladwell kicks us off by diving into war.  He asks the question: “What happens in wars between the strong and the weak when the weak side does as David did and refuses to fight the way the bigger side wants to fight, using unconventional or guerrilla tactics?  The answer: in those cases, the weaker party’s winning percentage climbs from 28.5% to 63.6%.”  This makes it very obvious that the underdog can have the advantage as long as they are willing to change the rules.  Most of the time, they don’t change those rules.  Why?  Gladwell goes on to state that: “to play by David’s rules, you have to be desperate.”  And if you are desperate enough you might be willing to put in the hard work to change the rules.  The fact is, desperate, underdog strategies that have any chance of success come from a hell of a lot of hard work.  Underdogs rarely win because of luck.

He next takes us into the concept of the inverted-U curve.  “Inverted-U curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic.  There’s the left side, where doing more or having more makes things better.  There’s the middle, where more doesn’t make much of a difference.  And there’s the right side, where doing more or having more makes things worse.”  This curve in many ways is the central tenant behind the book.  It can be applied to almost any discipline in life.  Gladwell discusses it in the context of parenting and class sizes but this is easily extended into all walks of life.  A quick search on the internet shows tons of examples but the central concept brings us back to a saying that many have used but few have explained so thoroughly than Gladwell and that is: in many cases, less is more.

The next topic he takes us into is desirable difficulties.  Gladwell uses dyslexia as an example of one of these desirable difficulties.  One of his interviewees makes the statement, “The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we get out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed.  And so we look at most situations and see much more of the upside than the downside.  Because we are so accustomed to the downside.”  Because of these desirable difficulties, it gives those folks that get put through the ringer the ability to be a little more disagreeable.  Being disagreeable is one of the pre-requisites to challenging the status quo and the first step in changing the rules.

He then dives into the trickster mythologies.  He uses some good fables to explain the relevance but ultimately, “The lesson of the trickster tales is the third desirable difficulty: the unexpected freedom that comes from having nothing to lose.  The trickster gets to break the rules.”

The concept of the inverted-U curve comes up again in his explanation of the principle of legitimacy in the context of power imposed on the people.  The principle of legitimacy is based on three things, “First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice – that if they speak up, they will be heard.  Second, the law has to be predictable.  There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.  And third, the authority has to be fair.  It can’t treat one group differently from another.”  Some of our most turbulent periods in history were when the law is applied in the absence of legitimacy.  This doesn’t produce obedience, this produces backlash.  Gladwell nicely sums this up in the context of prison and Ireland’s times of trouble.

He summarizes with the Vietnam war.  One of his quotes here nicely ties the theory behind the book up with a bow, “It was not that the Viet Cong thought they were going to lose.  It was that they did not think in terms of winning and losing at all – which was a profoundly different proposition.  An enemy who is indifferent to the outcome of a battle is the most dangerous enemy of all.”  This is what underdogs do, they change the rules.  They disrupt.  And when they do, they often win.  Read it, it’s worth your while.

Of Darkness and Dawn (The Elder Empire: Shadow Book 2)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

Of Darkness and Dawn is the second round of Will Wight’s experimental bifurcated story telling in the elder empire series.  This is Book Two of Shadow side where we continue to follow the mean underbelly of the impressive world that Wight has built.  The author reintroduces us to Shera, Lucan and Meia along with the rest of the Consultant guild.

I mentioned in my review of the initial round of books that I appreciated the experiment of telling the same story from two different viewpoints.  As the story goes on, I find myself liking the approach less and less.  In the first installment I read both books back to back over the course of several days.  While reading the first book it felt like I was always missing a piece of the story which the second book nicely wrapped up in a satisfying whole.

Now a year has passed.  In that time, I have read another hundred or so new books and I have forgotten a lot of the story.  Now, when I tried to pick up on the story that I knew had gaps that would be filled in by the opposing viewpoint I had a really tough time getting back into the flow of plot.  Anytime you pick up a subsequent story in a series you always spend a little time rebuilding the mental architecture that takes you back into that world and its characters.  The new book constantly gives you hints that brings you back into that flow.  However, when those hints are incomplete, as this experiment dictates, it becomes twice as hard to rebuild that mental framework.  Sadly, it made this book seem very disjointed and because of that, somewhat boring.

We can’t blame Wight’s writing style as there is nothing wrong there at all.  It boils down to the failure of the experiment during the writing timeline.  For a reader that picks these up five years from now, I doubt they will have the same problems if they can progress from one novel to the next without pause.  It just doesn’t seem to work if you are trying to stay current and picking up the books as they are released.

Anyway, back to the story.  This books picks up where the last one left off. Shera and her crew are now on the defensive after the passing of the emperor.  They, and the Consultant guild, find themselves in a battle with the factions of light.  Another annoyance with this book is that we spend very little time in the present.  Most of the novel takes us deep into the backstory.  This is something that is always appreciated as it really fleshes out and gives life and builds empathy to the characters but it feels like the plot that takes place in the present is just not moving forward at all.  If this were a marathon, the first book took us nicely past the nine mile mark.  This second installment takes us just one mile further while spending almost all of its time talking about why we decided to get into running in the first place.

I did appreciate that Wight was not afraid to move major characters to the headman’s block.  This keeps the sense of danger that anyone can die real and meaningful.  The characters become even more relatable and interesting over the course of the novel but again my primary complaint is that they just don’t accomplish enough in the present.

If you were a fan of the first round of this series, it’s worth continuing but I would recommend waiting until the second novel for the light side comes out so you can read the two book together.  My hope is that will bring a little more clarity to the plot.

Rogue: The Paladin Prophecy Book 3

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

Frost continues to deliver in the third installment of the Paladin Prophecy.  Frost is the real deal when it comes to writing, having paired up with David Lynch on Twin Peaks and solo writing a bunch of novels along the lines of The Greatest Game Ever Played.  It’s hard not be interested in a writer of this caliber’s attempt at some fantasy even if it is set in a young adult world.  It’s almost like hearing Dave Chappelle is going to do Shakespeare.  Whether or not he pulls off a compelling Othello or Macbeth you sure as hell know it is going to be entertaining.

Frost takes the urban fantasy approach.  He doesn’t veer too far from the Harry Potter formula: bunch of young kids enter a school where the outrageous begins to happen.  Our main character’s parents are missing/dead and he is ushered to the school by a Hagrid like character.  Thankfully, it begins to find it’s own tune shortly thereafter.  Our main character, Will, enters school as a late add and is inserted with four other extraordinary roommates in a school so elite that almost no one knows about it.  Throughout the first two novels, each of the four roommates begin to develop powers that complement Will’s own.  Will has always been fast, but as he exercises his powers they begin to evolve and expand until he could give the Flash a run for his money.  The same holds true for the rest of his team, they’re getting significantly stronger as they mature.  In the first two novels the team is trying to understand how and why they got into this situation.

In the third, some of these answers are revealed.  Frost goes the genetics route to explain what’s behind their amazing powers.  Not so surprisingly, we find out that the genetic tampering is an offshoot from the illicit eugenics programs that the Nazis gave us pre World War II.  What is surprising and a lot more interesting are the secret societies that back the Paladin program.  Behind these secret societies lies yet another level of power, the silent brokers behind the silent societies.  Turns out our characters are smack dab in the middle of a secret war between two powerful groups that have been here for millenia.

Frost uses a couple of very cool writing techniques that brings life and relatability to his characters.  The first is Will’s rules to live by.  In the first two novels, these were written by his father and passed down to Will.  In the third novel, Will has evolved to an extent that he has learned these lessons but is mature enough and experienced enough to start writing rules of his own.  What I like about the rules is that they are a list of explicit core values that makes up the heart of who our main character is.  Core values is a term that is bandied around a lot in business but very few people actually know what it means.  Core values means that these are the ingrained values that draw lines that you will not cross.  In business, they should be serious enough that you will hire by them and fire by them.  This firing also includes customers who push you in a direction that would require you to break your core values.  Frost does a wonderful job of turning every situation our characters find themselves in to a test of Will’s core values.  While Will doesn’t always succeed in the short term he never gives up his integrity and so his core values remain sacrosanct.  In the traditional definition of the word, this is what a paladin is, one who never gives up his own integrity no matter the situation.

Frost also does a good job of managing the interplay and dialog of a lot of different characters at once.  This is tricky, with a lot of characters in the same place at the same time it is very easy to lose track of each of those characters’ personal agendas or worse, have one of these characters fade into the background and no longer contribute in a meaningful fashion.  Frost does a masterful job of weaving this delicate balance in a way that all the characters evolve around the different situations in a very natural progression.

It’s a good, fast read and well worth your while.  My only complaint with these novels is that they are not long enough.

A Tale of Light and Shadow

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

I first read Jacob Gowans with his Psion series and absolutely loved it.  The first book of the Light and Shadow series really struggled to hold my attention.  I normally crank through these type of books but this one took me over a week because I just kept finding better things to do than read something that is only slightly entertaining.  Don’t misunderstand, reading the book is not like going to the dentist, more like going to a family wedding.  There is some fun to be had, maybe Aunt Maureen starts to grind on one of the groomsmen who is half her age, but at the end of the day, the weekend could have been much better spent.

The story is not bad, a young carpenter by the name of Henry falls hard for a down on his luck nobleman’s daughter named Isabelle.  It turns out that the nobleman is a world class prick who puts his daughter in a situation that requires some serious rescuing.  Our carpenter enlists some friends and through a barely believable scheme he does that rescuing in epic fashion.

The rest of the book is spent on the run.  Our carpenter and his merry band get themselves into and out of a number of perilous situations that ultimately ends in a cliffhanger eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.  The plot moves forward at an OK pace, but there is nothing remotely original in it.  Gowans creates some believable tension between the characters and the situations they find themselves in but the resolution to the tension is as bland as a nutri system cookie.

The thing that bothered me most about the series is that the characters don’t ever seem to evolve until the very last scene. Both Henry and Isabelle have very little depth.  They are both kind to a fault and their relationship feels like a third grade romance.  The most interesting character is the lovable rogue Ruther and he is not that lovable and not that roguish.  What is seriously missing is a taste of the extreme.  We read books either to learn or to escape.  Sadly, this novel didn’t offer either of these things.  I will not be continuing the series.  This is one to skip.

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