Saturday, June 28, 2008

p90x Phase 2 Week 7 Day 2

I just finished plyo today, and although it went well, it never fails to challenge my limits. I find I can do the first two "parts" in plyo (2 rounds each) without pausing at all! Not only that but I'm jumping higher too. I should definitely take some pictures as documentation of my progress but I keep putting it off. I'm really pleased with my progress in the yoga as well. Previously, I would fatigue and wear out in the middle of the vinyasa's but now I can complete that whole opening sequence in yoga (which includes the various warrior poses and the twisting half moon's at the end) no problems! The balance postures I could always do, but I still can't hold crane or do the advanced wheel move for longer than 10 seconds. The Yoga Belly part of the Yoga X routine is no walk in the park either but I'm improving there as well as I take less breaks. I'm actually liking the yoga routine a lot. It's one of the routines I really look forward to during the week and I was big skeptic to begin with. The Yoga X routine has stretching, strength (both in arms and legs), flexibility and balance, not to mention a part which focuses on abs.

As for my pull-up progress. I can now do 10 (sometimes 12) wide front pull-ups without any chairs, which is huge for me as one of my weakest areas. My abs and upper body continue to exhibit stronger and stronger definition. With many of the weight lifting exercises, I'm lifting heavier weights and doing more reps. For example, I started out doing static arm curls at 20 lbs for 16 reps but now I can do that move at 30 lbs for 16 reps in the Back-and-Bicep routine. After lifting heavier weights for some of the tricep exercises in the Shoulders-and-Arms routine back in Phase 1, I was disappointed that I couldn't lift the same weights in the tricep exercises found in the Chest-Shoulders-and-Triceps routine of Phase 2. I think I understand the reasons (focusing on a different combination of muscle groups), but it was still disappointing.

My favorite routines are the Shoulders-and-Arms, Yoga, and Back-and-Biceps (can you say ouch! on corn cob pull-ups!). Back in Phase 1, I substituted Shoulders-and-Arms/Ab Ripper X for two of the X Stretch days because I liked Shoulders-and-Arms so much. In spite of popular opinion, I actually don't like Kenpo all that much. I can do Kenpo without pausing at all now for the past 2 weeks, but I find I sweat more during the "breaks" than during the actual fight exercises. And I'm moving my hips like crazy. Plus I did Kenpo last week bare foot on carpet (don't ever do that) and now I have blisters all over my feet. You're swiveling your hips and rotating your feet on your heels a lot.

Tomorrow, it's Back-and-Biceps. Corn cob pull-ups and strip set curls here I come!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Malazan Book of the Fallen series
1. Gardens of the Moon (1999) *
2. Deadhouse Gates (2000)
3. Memories of Ice (2001)
4. House of Chains (2002)
5. Midnight Tides (2004)
6. The Bonehunters (2006)
7. Reaper's Gale (2007)
8. Toll the Hounds - forthcoming
9. Dust of Dreams - forthcoming
10. The Crippled God - forthcoming

Normally, a book/series where anything/everything goes would present some intriguing elements for readers. Normally, I enjoy a book where conflict and war reign throughout. Usually, I don't mind a generous display of magic. Unfortunately, I found Steven Erikson's GARDENS OF THE MOON way too convoluted for an opening installment to an epic SFF series. All of the following severely handicapped the reading experience: Erikson's liberal use of magic, nonsensical events, and intricate names of races, people, gods, creatures, magical houses/warrens, history and places, all of which develop Erikson's world. Oftentimes, I doubted even Erikson's capacity to keep everything straight. GARDENS OF THE MOON appears to emphasize world building above all else and I thought suffered from it as a result. The history, the races, ascendant hierarchy, etc. all detracted from the characterizations, prose, the pacing and even the plotting. I found the characterizations one-dimensional, the prose below-average to average, the settings sorely lacking, and the pacing dull. Unlike another book I'm reading (Jim Butcher's episodic page-turner ACADEM'S FURY), Erikson's GARDENS OF THE MOON never really grabs you. Two very different books obviously but unlike Butcher's series, I was never really interested to read more in GARDENS OF THE MOON, much less entertained. I just continued to read out of rote since I harbor an obstinate habit of trying to finish books I start.

I thought Erikson did a relatively decent job of crafting the same event from multiple perspectives. For example, when the book first introduces us to the central focus of the novel -- the city of Darujhistan -- Erikson crafts a night from multiple perspectives: from a common thief, from an assassin, from various killers, and then from other Phoenix Inn regulars in the city. Erikson pursues a similar style at Lady Sinital's Fete in the finale of the book as the plotting comes to a head from various points of view: the alchemist Baruk, the eccentric sorcerer Kruppe, the thief Crokus, the assassin Rallick Nom, Captain Paran, Whiskeyjack and our antagonist Adjunct Lorn, or the Empress's right arm. Unfortunately, many obtuse occurrences jarred the reading experience. For instance, Paran at Hood's gate (entrance to death) early in the novel and salvaged by the twin gods of luck and chance, Oponn. Tattersail's bizarre reincarnation in Kruppe's dream, and Paran randomly hijacked by the House of Shadow late in the novel. The Jaghut Tyrant and his source of power in an object (Finnest) develops as the primary threat late in the novel despite the Malazan Empire and its quest to conquer the city of Darujhistan. Meanwhile, the 7-foot tall Lord of Moon's Spawn Anomander Rake evolves as the most powerful entity in the story. Also towards the end, Rake seems to randomly appear, saves Paran from the House of Shadow's hounds, and then Rake compels House of Shadow's King Shadowthrone to recall his assassin partner the Rope from possession of the girl Sorry's body thereby rescuing the Coin Bearer Crokus in the process. Convenient? Yep. Convoluted? Yep. Entertaining? No so much.

The Story, such as it is.

In the prologue, Surly (later, she fashions herself as Emperor Laseen) wrests the Empire from Emperor Kellanved in a coup with her "Claw," or a specialized force of assassins able to blunt magic with an "Otataral" sword. Many years later, Empress Laseen pursues her quest to subdue the free world and we pick up her plight in the siege of the city Pale. Immortal players from High House of Shadow (Ammanas, Cotillion or the "Rope") and High House of Dark (Anomander Rake) confound Empress Laseen's efforts along with the twin gods Oponn. The Empire, High Mage Tayschrenn, and High Fist Dujek (military commander) successfully conquer Pale but at a high price ultimately obliging the Empire's adversary Lord of Moon's Spawn (Anomander Rake) to retreat. The Empire's advance military task force responsible for fomenting dissent and clearing obstacles in a target city are called the Bridgeburners. The Bridgeburners, headed by the wily old veteran Sergeant Whiskeyjack, play a significant role in GARDENS OF THE MOON when after Pale, the focus shifts to conquering the free city of Darujhistan. Meanwhile, High House of Shadow's assassin the "Rope" has possessed a young fisher-girl (initially called Sorry and later named Apsalar) to impede Empress Laseen's progress. High Fist Dujek and Whiskeyjack's popularity compels a ruthless Laseen to eliminate Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners. The Bridgeburners, it would seem, do their job too well. Laseen dispatches Adjunct Lorn for this special task.

As events shift to Darujhistan, we're introduced to a group of Phoenix Inn regulars that will eventually play critical roles: the assassin Rollick Nom, a petty young thief Crokus, the eccentric Kruppe, Murillio, T'orrud Cabal's leader alchemist Baruk, Crokus's Uncle Mammot and the Lady Sinital. Whiskeyjack and his squad arrive in the city to make contact with the city's assassin guild in order to eliminate the real power of Darujhistan: members of the T'orrud Cabal including Baruk thereby paving the way for conquest. The Lord of Moon's Spawn Anomander Rake allies himself with Baruk and Rake's band of Tiste Andu begin to eliminate Darujhistan's assassin guild hoping to ensure the security of Darujhistan's power. Most of the book centers on the Empire's efforts to conquer the free city of Darujhistan and all the various mortal and immortal players that obfuscate the endeavor. The Empress's "right arm" Adjunct Lorn, Anamonder Rake, Whiskeyjack, Captain Ganoes Paran, Baruk, Rallick Nom, and Crokus all play various roles. Darujhistan's Phoenix Inn regulars Kruppe and Coll also turn out to be more than they initially appear.

In the end, I found the characters stodgy, the events and magic jarring, the world building too involved for an opening installment, the settings entirely lacking and the prose pedestrian. I felt like I wasn't reading a story with interesting characters but rather a history text on a world of magic.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Academ's Fury, by Jim Butcher [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Codex Alera series
1. Furies of Calderon (1/5)
2. Academ's Fury (1/5)
3. Cursor's Fury
4. Captain's Fury

It's remarkable that Jim Butcher hooks readers (like me) enough to keep reading this very episodic Codex Alera series in his second installment titled ACADEM'S FURY (*). ACADEM'S FURY perpetuates much of the serial-like plotting and pacing found in the opening installment of this series FURIES OF CALDERON (*). Similar to the romance genre, the science fiction and fantasy genre contains books characterized by greasy burgers-and-fries and other books represented by delicious gourmet meals. You know Butcher's Codex Alera series isn't good for you, you know what you're going to get, and yet you return. Well, greasy burgers and fries aren't bad every once and while right? Right?

Similar to various parallel plots in FURIES OF CALDERON, we find three concurrent plots in ACADEM'S FURY: Amara & Bernard's struggle against a virulent "vord" queen out in the country and their serialized romantic plight (this time, surrounding marriage and children), Isana's journey to Alera's "capital" Alera Imperia to meet with the First Lord and ask for his aid on her brother's Count Bernard's behalf, and finally, seventeen year-old Tavi's continuing maturation as page to First Lord Gaius and his evolution as an Academ studying at the Citadel in Alera Imperia. Of these three disparate and disjoint plots, I found Isana's the most engaging (again) as enemies from the past realign their alliances for political gain. I found Amara's storyline the most taxing to read. Like tall, dark and handsome rogues in historical romance, Bernard and Tavi's friend Max symbolizes sexual eye candy for the female readership, and Amara renews her ardor for Bernard's strong physique. Like an exasperating serial, Amara at first confronts Isana regarding Isana's resentment towards Amara, then grapples with her inability to give Bernard children, struggling to part with Bernard when the Cursor Serai comments that Amara must inevitably leave Bernard. From a pure entertainment standpoint, I most enjoyed Tavi's capture of the mysterious thief "Black Cat" and their subsequent breach of the impregnable Grey Tower to liberate his friend Max. Also like FURIES OF CALDERON, the ending here in ACADEM'S FURY exaggerates the theatrics from different perspectives and two locales like a soap opera (Amara's perspective out near Aricholt in the country and Tavi's perspective in Alera Imperia). Like the previous installment, the seemingly innocuous Fade showcases his mastery with the sword at the end, this time against 9-foot tall Canim creatures (we learn more about Fade's history also). The book crosses its t's and dots its i's in order to accommodate a role for every character from Tavi's small friend Ehren to Captain Miles. ACADEM'S FURY throws 17 year-old Tavi a bone in the finale when he must battle an injured Canim all by himself while a bruised and battle-weary Amara dispenses of a vord queen by herself. Despite threats to both Tavi, Amara and Bernard, I never once felt like they were actually going to die. I thought Lady Aquitaine's impressive exhibition of power at the very end overshadowed everything else.

One of the big reasons to read SFF and historical fiction - world building - disappointed big time in ACADEM'S FURY. Although the prose and world building in FURIES OF CALDERON wasn't great, it deteriorates tremendously here in ACADEM'S FURY. The people, creatures, world, society and magic of Alera never felt real. A good SFF book portrays its fictional magic, world and people so it feels and seems real. ACADEM'S FURY failed in this respect. Maybe it was just me, but reading Tavi's story, I felt like I was back in high school fighting a bully or back in college cramming for final exams. Reading Amara's storyline, I felt like I was was reading a potboiler romance. Random and seemingly arbitrary rules for the vord creatures exacerbates the reading experience. For example, each vord queen multiplies exactly three times (something simply known from Marat folklore), and there exists a hierarchy of vord from the queen to Keepers, to Takers, to Warriors. The Marat barbarian Doroga relays most of the vorg mythology via conversation. I thought ACADEM'S FURY consistently violated the cardinal sin in storytelling by telling us instead of showing us. Fancy names and titles like Maestro didn't change my feeling that all of this is just too fake. Amara even uses the phrase, "We will agree to disagree..." in a conversation with Isana once. In various conversations, the book further explains how country furies are more powerful than city furies (the rural vs. urban aspect). We as readers know the SFF story isn't real, but the base quality of the world building and conversationalist prose in ACADEM'S FURY mar the entire reading experience.

As for the characters, again I found myself drawn to the Jim Butcher's "gray" characters: Lady Aquitaine and Fidelias. Lady Aquitaine thoroughly steals the show in ACADAM'S FURY, and I thought Butcher's efforts to inject caring introspection in Fidelias' characterization detracted from his cynical outlook. Tavi was better here (he didn't cry) but Butcher is very careful to develop him very slowly, just enough to keep reading the next book. The book persists in highlighting Tavi's impotence from his point-of-view. By the end of the book, Tavi still doesn't have a fury and must continue to rely on his own instinct. Kitai was just plain fun. I liked Isana's characterization and the book reveals more of her mysterious history, her connection to the First Lord Gaius and her nephew Tavi's hidden parentage, as formulaic as all of this seems. Amara inspires two things: aggravation and annoyance. If ever Amara and Bernard actually die, I'll be a happy camper.

The Story, possible spoilers.

ACADEM'S FURY picks up from the best part of FURIES OF CALDERON: Tavi and Kitai's race in the Valley of Silence. We learn that when Tavi ignited the 'croach' (glowing, web-like material) in the valley from FURIES OF CALDERON, the ensuing conflagration awakens a vorg queen. The vorg queen promptly spawns three more. The Marat barbarian chieftan Doroga battles one of the queens and her nest with two thousand warriors. The ensuing battle leaves Doroga with two hundred remaining but he manages to eliminate the nest and queen (we don't actually witness the battle, we see the results). Two vord queens remain: one headed for Tavi in Alera's capital Alera Imperia and another in the slopes of the mountains surrounding the country near Isanaholt. From various conversations, we learn more about the vorg, that takers assimilate other beings essentially killing the spirit inside, and keepers and warriors hunt and protect for the vorg queen. The queen herself is very quick.

Isana travels to Aleria Imperia to ensure her beloved nephew's safety and seek aid from the First Lord for her brother Bernard and Amara as the two travel to confront the queen in the slopes of the mountains. Tavi meanwhile fends off bullies at the Academy and we're introduced to Brencis, son of Lord Kalare, a new player in Aleran politics. The bastard son, rogue, and ladies' man Antillar Maximus (Max) rescues our protagonist Tavi more than once. The lords Kalare and Aquitaine are at odds with each other for succession to the First Lord Gaius (who lacks an heir) and the phrase "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" compels unlikely alliances. When a coma-like condition claims the overextended First Lord Gaius, Gaius's page Tavi must scramble to keep the realm functioning. Max poses as the First Lord at various events while the real First Lord lies unconscious (despite almost all Alerans possessing magical powers, apparently only Max is trustworthy and capable enough to pull it off). When failing to reach the First Lord frustrates Isana, love for her family compels Isana to turn to Lady Aquitaine for succor. The Canim Ambassador Varg also fails to reach First Lord and instead drops Tavi subtle hints as to critical developments in the Deeps underneath Alera Imperia.

Like the prior novel, ACADEM'S FURY features a long and protracted finale often shifting perspectives and locales under the threat of death to a major character at a critical juncture in time. However, not once did I feel anyone major would die. Events climax around protecting a comatose First Lord against "taken" Canim coincided by eliminating the vorg queen out in the country from Amara's perspective.

The book is episodic fluff, but continues to hook me enough to find out what happens next. Astonishing.