Review: “Semmant” By Vadim Babenko

Ergo Sum Publishing was kind enough to make this eGalley available through NetGalley. Although it was provided to me at no cost, I am under no obligation to give a positive review.

Bogdan Bogdanov is a genius. Don’t take my word for it; ask him. He tells you as much early in the story. He’s unmatched when it comes to bits and bytes and putting it all together, especially when it comes to recognizing patterns. Not only that, he’s able to translate that genius to work on the computer where he creates the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence: a self-aware and learning machine which will not only learn from its mistakes but learn to anticipate and, yes, even show emotions.

In this incarnation we find the title character of the book, Semmant. Created as an exercise by Bogdanov to develop a program which can make money from the markets, Semmant learns from his mistakes and anticipates shifts and slides. But along the way, Semmant becomes much more than that: he learns to feel and like anyone who is new at that, sometimes it interferes with his day-to-day routine. Yes, he even falls in love.

Told in Bogdanov’s voice, the story is, regardless of what the title of the book says, about him first and foremost. And therein lies my only problem with the book: I never really got to where I cared about the protagonist. Now, make no mistake about it, I really got to where I liked Semmant and Lidia, Boganov’s primary love interest. Well, when he wasn’t bouncing around local houses if ill-repute, that is. Their relationship was on-again off-again and so volatile I was expecting a “War Of The Roses” type of finale, which isn’t far from where it started to go.

This book was written in Russian initially, but translated to English for publication. Babenko knows his stuff when it comes to AI and technology, putting aside a career in that field to turn author. As a computer developer and proud geek myself, I would have liked to have seen more technological aspects in the book, but being a work of science fiction, I suppose he had the have some vagueness. Still, I really wanted to know more about Semmant, not Bogdanov.

The prose in the book was a bit flowery and heavy at times, making it hard to plow through, but it’s not poorly written. It just makes me wonder if, when doing the English translation, a correct word was chosen instead of the best word.

And I hope you’re not offended by sex. While it’s not in-your-face graphic, it’s a recurring theme throughout the book. No graphic acts or anything like that, but it’s very omnipresent.

Overall, I thought this was a well-written book, and I love the way the author approached the concept of a self-aware electronic entity. The only thing that keeps me from giving it a top rating is that I never really cared about the protagonist. Lots happens to him, good and bad, but it always seemed like we were just skimming the surface of why he was like he was, other than being a super-genius lacking social graces. I also would have liked to have seen much more go into the titular character.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)


Review: “I Love Pasta” By Academia Barilla

Many thanks to Taunton Press for providing me with a copy of this eGalley through NetGalley. Although it was provided to me at no cost, I am under no obligation to give a positive review.

As I noted when I reviewed “Ivan Ramen”, I dearly love noodles. Well, most pasta is counted in there too. And what do you know, along comes a book called “I Love Pasta”. You just know I was excited to request it and did a Snoopy Happy Dance when I was given permission to get the eGalley (“Hey Hey, Macaroni!”). Yeah, something like this:

OK, on to the review. It only takes a quick glance at the cover to see the logo by pasta giant Barilla. Yes, they ultimately were responsible for putting this tome together, but in all fairness it wasn’t a cover-to-cover marketing ploy. Sure, the included recipes suggested Barilla pasta in each dish, but I don’t believe anyone is under any illusion they have to use Barilla pasta, although I have always liked it. The first twenty pages or so are a history of Barilla, but that’s a small price to pay for the goodness that follows.

First, the book does a wonderful job of explaining the history of pasta, including, one of the most fascinating aspects in my opinion, the etymological origin of each name. It also discusses why different pasta shapes and textures are better with some sauces and not so much with others. It was very nice reading some science behind the cooking.

Hands down the best part of this book is the recipes. Awesomeness.

There are three sections of recipes: long pasta, short pasta, and soup pasta. Each one includes about 30 recipes incorporating one type of pasta in that group. The recipes are straight-forward when it comes to ingredients and directions. They also include prep and cooking time as well as a difficulty level for each recipe.

But the absolute best part? Every single recipe is accompanied by a full color picture of the finished dish. Not just a small inset black and white picture. Full page, full color. Yeah, baby! While I’m not a professional chef and don’t expect my recipes to yield anything looking like those pictures, it’s still nice to see what it should look like when done correctly.

So, in case you can’t tell, I really enjoyed this book. I’m a big fan of cooking and have more cookbooks and cooking magazines than you can shake a proverbial stick at. Still, this is definitely one I’ll keep handy.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: “Six Women Of Salem” By Marilynne K. Roach

Many thanks to Perseus Books Group / Da Capo Press for providing this eGalley to me through NetGalley. Although it was provided at no cost, I am under no obligation to give a positive review.

Growing up, I was very fortunate to have my maternal grandmother and her husband work in the tourism industry in Williamsburg, Virginia. I got an early exposure to colonial America to go along with my always strong love of history in general. Naturally, I have also been interested in the happenings in Salem, Massachusetts, knowing it can be very difficult to separate fact from fiction from urban legend.

Enter this wonderful book by Marilynne K. Roach. It should be noted before beginning that this is not Roach’s first rodeo when it comes to scholarly work on the Salem witch trials. She’s well-respected in that area as a quick Google search will reveal.

That said, what Roach brings to the table with this offering is humanization of the accused as well as providing a smaller scope of the trials. Rather than looking at the trials in a larger overview, she takes six women accused of being witches and gets into extraordinary detail about their lives. With each woman, she digs into their family, genealogy and the events surrounding the accusations against them and subsequent trial.

This works very well to humanize the accused, as you can see them as individual persons, not just numbers or statistics. Additionally, Roach makes an effort to get into each woman’s head to try and see the happenings through their eyes. This further brings the subject to a more personal level.

The only downside of the book is that it does get tedious at times. It took me a bit before I really got rolling, once I finished the first woman’s story. Then I got into a flow with the remaining stories. But considering this is first and foremost a scholarly / academic work, not a piece of fiction, I am perfectly willing to sacrifice a fun read for a historically accurate read. In that, Roach is outstanding.

I definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in history, be it Colonial America, women’s studies, witchcraft, law, whatever. It certainly seems to be very well done.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: “Rasputin’s Shadow” By Raymond Khoury

I was provided a copy of this eGalley by Penguin Books as part of their First To Read program. Although it was provided to me at no cost, I am under no obligation to give a positive review.

First, let me say that since I have not read Khoury’s Templar series, I didn’t know the main character in this book, FBI agent Sean Reilly, was also featured in those books. So it would have helped to have read them first. Plus, I know things now that will be spoilers for the Templar series, but that’s fine. I’ll read them anyway.

This book is a thriller, flipping back and forth from present day New York City to early twentieth century Russia. In the present FBI agent Sean Reilly begins by tracking down the story behind a Russian diplomat who decides to go swan diving from an apartment window, ending up a crumpled mess on the sidewalk below. As Reilly and his partner work on locating Leo Sokolov and his wife Daphne, from whose window the diplomat went flying, the storyline gets more and more complex and more and more bodies begin piling up. The CIA and FBI want to track him down. As Sokolov is a defected Russian scientist, his motherland wants to locate him too. Add in a freelancing Russian assassin who has his own agenda, and things get complicated quickly.

In the past, the story is told of the infamous Grigory Rasputin and his rise to power under the tsar and tsarina. Helped along the way is Sokolov’s grandfather, Misha, who has devised a device which can affect people in different ways, depending on the purpose, aiding Rasputin in his cause. The story follows Rasputin’s rise and fall from favor and Misha’s trip with him along the way.

As the book progresses the stories intertwine. There is also a subplot that is apparently a continuation of happenings in the Templar series, whereby Reilly is on a personal quest that will definitely break some rules.

Add in some Korean mafia members, a possible double-agent, a threat on the life of the President of the United States, overworked coroners, more black SUVs than you can shake a stick at, and this book has more twists and turns than a Slinky.

As noted at the outset of this review, I’ve not read anything by Khoury before. Not for any reason in particular, I just haven’t. But I definitely became a fan of him with this book. I like his writing style, which is well-paced and supported by solid dialogue. There were some things that were predictable, but overall it wasn’t a complete tell of the ending, not by any means.

I will definitely be hunting down Khoury’s other books to give them a read.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Review: “Dukkha: Reverb” By Loren W. Christensen

Through NetGalley, YMAA Publishing Center was nice enough to provide me with a copy of this eGalley for the purposes of reading and reviewing it. Although it was provided to me at no cost, I am under no obligation to give a positive review.

If you are unfamiliar with the Sam Reeves series, as this is the second book, please check out my review of “Dukkha: The Suffering” here.

Sam Reeves is a police officer who also happens to be a martial arts instructor. In the first book, he found his long lost father Samuel, who he thought had died during the Vietnam War. He also was introduced to Mai, who he was strongly attracted to, eventually and thankfully finding out she is indeed not his sister. Both are well-versed in martial arts like Sam, which comes in handy throughout the book.

Much mayhem and violence ensues, much of it instigated by Lai Van Tan, a Vietnamese crime lord who heavy-hands all those around him, including Samuel’s jewelry shops in Saigon. Lai Van Tan’s son dies during a conflict with Samuel, and this sets the obviously unstable criminal off even more. The book ends following some horrific events at Portland State University, with Samuel and Mai returning to Vietnam.

This book takes off with Sam heading to Vietnam to meet his family several months after the events of the first book. On the flight he encounters Bobby, a sixteen year-old Vietnamese-American travelling alone, presumably under the auspices of meeting his family in Vietnam. Bobby happens to be a black belt in taekwon-do and looks up to Sam for his martial arts experience, once he realizes who Sam is.

Once in Vietnam, things really pick up for Sam. He meets Mai’s mother Kim, who is ill with tuberculosis, Mai’s sisters, and a whole bevy of Vietnam vets who fought for either North or South Vietnam. Samuel has taken them under his wing and even provided a home for them, for reasons that are revealed throughout the book.

The most engaging and comical vet is Tex Nyugen, a legless student of Samuel’s, as well as part of his security staff. Tex is a fan of American western movies, thus his nickname. He also provides much of the comic relief, often in a deadpan manner. Once while talking to Bobby, he comments that he saw Bobby practicing his kicks, and he was much better at it than Tex. 🙂

We are also introduced to Samuel’s sifu, an elderly man with almost mystical abilities, including the ability to feel disruptions in someone’s chi and tweak it to help them rest or feel better. Of course, his speed is incredible, as you would expect, putting even Samuel and Sam to shame.

Our heroes eventually learn Lai Van Tan is involved in a sex-trafficking business with young girls, and our heroes set out to put an end to it. Along the way, they are hampered by Vietnamese police and politics as well as Lai Van Tan’s power and influence among those in power. It’s also revealed that Bobby is in fact a runaway from his parents in California, contrary to what he told Sam on the airplane.

Will Sam, Samuel, Mai and friends be able to stop or even slow down Lai Van Tan? Can they help out some of the girls being held in preparation for their introduction into the sex trade? Will Bobby sort out the conflicts with his parents? Will Sam and Mai ever get a chance to further their budding romance?

Much like the first book in the series, this one keeps up a pace that makes the Energizer Bunny want to take a siesta. There’s always something going on, and it keeps the book moving along, making it a fast read for the size of the book.

Christensen kept true to his characters in the book, showing Sam continuing to fight his demons while also growing as a character. It’s also nice to see Samuel and Mai as fallible characters, even with all their upsides.

My favorite part of the book had to be the fight in a collapsing tunnel near the climax of the book. Christensen noted on his Facebook page that he had to keep stepping outside for fresh air while writing it, and I can see why. I could feel my heart rate quickening while reading it, and I was just the reader. It was very well done by the author, bringing forth the tension of the moment and the emotions of the characters outstandingly.

I am hoping Christensen continues with this series for some time. I can see lots of potential with it, as much of it so far has been about the past, and there are lots of possibilities in the future, with Samuel and his relationship with Sam, Sam’s relationship with Mai, and even possibly Bobby as a future student of Sam’s.

This book is perfect for anyone who loves fact-paced action thrillers, even moreso if you have an interest in LEOs, veterans or martial arts. The author is all of the above, which leads to a level of depth and authenticity that can’t be brought by someone just doing research.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: “Ivan Ramen” By Ivan Orkin

Ten Speed Press was kind enough to make this eGalley available, through NetGalley, for the purposes of having it read and reviewed. Although it was provided to me at no cost, I am under no obligation to give it a positive review.

Me: “Hi, my name is Bert, and I’m a ramen addict.”

Group: “Hi, Bert!”

OK, I have to admit it’s really all noodles, especially Asian ones. I do regularly have a lunch comprised primarily of the 20 cent packs from Wal-Mart, although I only use a minuscule amount of the seasoning and invariably add vegetables, meat and different seasonings. No, it’s not the same as homemade noodles, but it’s the concept and versatility of the dish that I love.

So here I have a book about a Long Island Jew who is similarly addicted to good ramen, who went through culinary school, and, after some bouncing around between jobs and the death of his first wife, eventually remarried, moved to Japan and opened up a ramen shop. But he is doing ramen his way, infusing a little bit of his culture and creativity while still being true to the concept of ramen. Yeah, I’m probably pre-disposed to liking this book, I’ll admit it.

The first part of the book is comprised primarily of Orkin telling his story. It’s fascinating and heart-breaking and even funny. The foreward, contributed by Momofuku owner David Chang, is absolutely hilarious too. The book also lays the necessary foundation for understanding why Orkin started his own ramen shop and, ultimately, why he has been so successful. The bottom line is, he makes a bowl of ramen that he likes, above all else, believing others will too.

And he’s been wildly successful. So much so that following the success of his first shop, Ivan Ramen, he opened a second location in Tokyo, Ivan Ramen Plus. Orkin is also, as of the time he wrote this, in the process of opening a new location in New York City, where his family moved following the devastating earthquakes in Japan in 2011.

After that backstory, Orkin goes and does something completely against the grain: he gives detailed instructions on how he makes his signature dish, shio ramen. He discusses exactly how he makes it, what all the ingredients are, how to make those at home, and how to put it all together. Of course, you will probably have to tweak it some for a home kitchen, but it’s there in its totality. After that, Orkin gives you other recipes you can use the base ingredients for, just in case you don’t want ramen all the time (although I can’t understand why not :)).

I haven’t had a chance to try any of the recipes, but I certainly can’t accuse him of not being up front with details. He even gives suggestions for substitutions in case you can’t find the exact ingredient stateside.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and it’s given me a new appreciation for what makes a good bowl of ramen. I can’t wait to dig into the recipes and then likewise dig into many bowls of ramen as I work on tweaking the recipe to my tastes.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: “Sky Jumpers (Sky Jumpers # 1)” By Peggy Eddleman

Through NetGalley, I received from Random House Children’s Book a copy of this book for the purposes of reading and reviewing it. Although it was provided to me at no cost, I am under no obligation to give it a positive review.

This novel takes place in a post-World War III world, where “green bombs”, which are supposedly not as deadly as atomic bombs, have decimated the world. The remaining residue of the bombs have rendered all magnetic devices inoperable, and since most of the world was destroyed, the remaining clusters of people must start over from square one for the most part. Because of this, extreme value is placed on the ability to invent, and this process is crucial in the schooling of all children in the city and is encouraged among the adults too.

Most of this story takes place in White Rock, a city located in a crater created by one of the bombs and named after the limestone mines surrounding the city. As the city is a crater with only one pass in and out, it’s very secure from the outside world. Add to that security a layer of dangerous gases above the city, named Bomb’s Breath, which is fatal to anyone who breaths while in that layer. This keeps attackers from coming over the top of the surrounding mountains, as they would never know the layer was there, and they and any other animals with them, would be killed instantly.

Into this environment is thrown twelve year-old Hope Toriella. Her father died on their trek to White Rock and her mother died shortly after Hope’s birth. Hope is strong-willed, very athletic, determined, free-spirited and a natural leader. Oh and she can’t invent to save her life, making her the scorn of much of the city. This also affects her sense of self-worth. One of her skills, which she can only share with her best friends Aaren and Brock, is the ability to cliff dive through the Bomb’s Breath where timing of breathing is literally a matter of life and death. Naturally, if her adoptive parents found out about this hobby they wouldn’t react too kindly.

Things are plugging along for White Rock until one winter, after the pass has been closed for the winter and many of the city’s young men have been sent to a neighboring city on the plains, one without mountains and a Bomb’s Breath to protect them. Bandits manage to find a way into White Rock and, after shooting in the leg Hope’s father, who had stood up as the town’s leader to protect the real elderly leader, demand all of the city’s antibiotics. Not only that, but the medicine must be created and delivered within two days or the bandits will kill most of the city.

In order to save her father and the rest of the city, Hope, Brock, Aaren and, without their knowledge until it’s too late, Aaren’s five year-old sister Brenna, must make a trek through the Bomb’s Breath, to the top of the mountain, then back down the other side through the Bomb’s Breath again, all in an effort to get to the city where their guard is stationed. Their hope is to bring them back in order to repel the bandits and save the city. Oh yeah, this is in the middle of the worst blizzard in recent memory.

Will they make it there and back in time? Can they manage the trek during the blizzard? How will a five year-old manage the trip when they don’t have enough snowshoes for everyone and the others must take turns carrying her? Can they know exactly where the Bomb’s Breath begin and ends while travelling during a blizzard?

This story has plenty of drama and twists and turns, and I really enjoyed it. The Random House Children’s Books website says this book is for eight to twelve year-olds, and that feels about right. There’s very little outright violence, which is sanitized, and death is talked about as a possibility and in an after-the-fact sort of way. There are even slight hints at romance, but not too much considering the ages of the characters.

Eddleman has solid character development for a first-time novelist, leading you to really care about the protagonists and despise the antagonists. This is the first book in this series, and I’m sure it will be successful, as will the follow-up books.

When I read children’s or young adult books, something I really look for, especially as a parent, is whether or not the books teach as well as entertain. In that regard, Eddleman is very successful. In this post World War III world where electrical or magnetic devices are unusable and steel has been weakened by the green bombs, the residents must be creative in how they adapt and re-create what existed prior to WW III, often times in much different ways. This can be demonstrated in how they tackle refrigeration, clocks, antibiotics, farm tools, transport systems, and even a farm implement being re-purposed as a weapon such as a bola.

I definitely recommend this book for children in the recommended age range. But I also believe it could be of interest to young adults and adults.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)