Books

Alphabetical by title. ... See also favourites.


A

Adiamante
Modesitt, L.E. Jr.
1996
1st
Tor
yes
Modesitt tackles the ethics of war in the distant future with differently modified versions of humanity coming together. The title comes from the hardest substance any of them are capable of making: almost, but not quite, totally indestructible. Well written and thought-provoking.
The Age of Speed: Learning to thrive in a more-faster-now world
Poscente, Vince
2008
1st
Bard Press
yes
Reading Poscente is like getting a lecture on speed from an articulate ADHD sufferer. Chapters are never more than four pages long. By the second chapter he had proven that facts weren't going to interfere with him making the point he wanted to make: he talks about how airplanes crossing the Atlantic are getting faster and faster, and very soon we'll have the Aerion corporate jet that does Mach 1.5! This presents two possibilities, neither of them good: either he's never heard of the Concorde and has done no research at all (both of which seem unlikely), or he's willfully ignored the Concorde. Either way I had a strong distrust of any further "facts" he might provide. But that was okay, because he preferred to use generalizations and aphorisms such as "faster is better" and "faster doesn't necessarily mean less time for relaxation." This is a 225 page book with enough content for a half page newspaper article: and at that, you could probably figure most of it out on your own with an hour's thought.
The Alchemist (orig. O Alquimista)
Coelho, Paolo
1988
?
HarperPerennial
yes
Translated from the Portuguese by Alan R. Clarke. Taken by many as life guidance for adults, it struck me as a nice fable for children. It encourages us to pursue our "Personal Legend" by listening to our hearts and reading the signs. Our hero, Santiago, pursues his personal legend from Spain and across Africa to the pyramids and back again over a couple years, at great risk to life and limb. A sweet story, but I failed to find the depth in it that many seem to have.
The Alchemist's Apprentice
Duncan, Dave
2007
1st
Ace
?

Our narrator is Alfeo Zeno, the young (intelligent, smart ass) apprentice to Maestro Nostradamus. A society murder in Middle Ages Venice leaves Alfeo working very hard to find out who did it while also helping his master who has his own way of solving things. Lots of clever, and fairly enjoyable, but hardly a great book.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Chabon, Michael
2000
1st
Random House
yes

I stalled out on page 165 of 656 of this book. The writing is very good, the characters are good, the story is interesting ... and yet every time I put it down it was a struggle to pick it up again. I couldn't tell you why, except he does develop the story very slowly.

Sam Clay is a young New York Jew who meets his cousin Joe Kavalier for the first time in 1939. Joe has just escaped prosecution as a Jew in Prague. Driven forward by Sam's exaggerations, excellent comic book storytelling, and occasional outright lies, plus Joe's superb drawings, the two of them look set to launch a successful comic book career on the eve of the Second World War.

American Gods
Gaiman, Neil
2001
1st
William Morrow
yes
A whole bunch of interesting, clever ideas in search of a plot. Sure, there's a plot, and a main character named "Shadow." But Shadow is a cypher: partly because Gaiman draws him that way, partly because Gaiman's just not a good enough writer to leave any impression at all with a character he wants to be mostly a shadow. Quite possibly worth reading for all the nifty ideas about the gods in America, but doesn't hold together as a story.
Ancillary Justice
Leckie, Ann
2013
1st
Orbit
yes

Ancillary Justice was Ann Leckie's first novel: it won both the Hugo and the Nebula award.

Our main character is, or once was, a space-faring ship called "Justice of Toren." It takes quite a while before we learn how that separation came about as we follow two threads, the events of 20 years ago (at which point she was still the ship) and today (in which she is a single "ancillary" - a more or less human body whose memories are those of the ship). Toward the end of the older story, perhaps two thirds of the way through the book, we finally find out why she's hell-bent on revenge ... and who it is she intends to kill.

I found a number of elements of the book unsatisfactory: right at the beginning of the current day storyline, our protagonist saves the life of Seivarden Vendaai, someone who had served on Justice of Toren, but whom she didn't like. I could have lived with that, but the trouble (life-threatening trouble) she goes to to keep Seivarden alive makes no sense at all. Nor does Seivarden's eventual conversion to ally.

And the gender thing: I don't think our protagonist's gender is ever discussed. And our protagonist is constantly getting other people's gender wrong, and rather randomly switching gender pronouns for people because she's unable to figure them out. It was really annoying, and, ultimately, unexplained. Wikipedia says "The Radchaai do not distinguish people by gender, and Leckie conveys this by using female personal pronouns for everybody, or by having the Radchaai main character guess wrongly when she has to use languages with gender-specific pronouns." That doesn't seem like a sufficient reason. I assumed there would be some pay-off or reason given after 400 pages of ambiguity, but ... nothing.

There's some interest in her implicit questions about morality and identity, but mostly it's a fairly traditional space opera. The success of the book has spawned two sequels, but I won't be returning to the series.

The Android's Dream
Scalzi, John
2006
1st
Tor
yes
Keith Laumer's Retief mixed with Bill, Galactic Hero - but happily no one portrayed here is quite as stupid as that would imply. You'll also have to add some violence to get the right kind of picture. The book is meant to be a farce, a comedy, and there are several places where he manages multiple pages of hilarity. But then he moves the plot forward with brutal violence and several deaths, which darkens the mood just slightly. If you decide to read it, brace yourself for a start that includes one of the most extended fart jokes ever written: but I have to give him credit, it's fairly clever and pretty funny. A diplomat sits across a table from an alien trade negotiator: the alien in question communicates in part through scent. The diplomat has an ... insert ... that allows him to send some very nasty messages to his counterpart without the point of origin being obvious, until the alien works himself into an apoplectic rage and dies of a stroke. If that kind of absurdity amuses you, go pick up a copy.
Anya's Ghost
Brosgol, Vera
2011
First Second (Roaring Brook Press)
yes

This is a young adult graphic novel, done in grayscale line art.

High school student Anya Borzakovskaya falls down an abandoned empty well, and makes a new friend of sorts - a ghost, a young woman whose skeleton has been down there 90 years. Initially her new friend is great company, but there's a darker side to her.

The art is simple but both effective and quite nice, and the story is good.


B

Barrayar
Bujold, Lois McMaster
1991
?
Beat Procrastination and Make the Grade
Sapadin, Linda and Jack Maguire
2005
1st
Penguin
yes
Aimed at students, but most of what it says applies to adult procrastinators as well. Looks quite good, but I didn't read much of it.
The Beast Master
Norton, Andre
1959
Harcourt

Our hero, Hosteen Storm, is an ex-soldier, Navajo, Terran - shortly after the destruction of Terra. He settles on another human-colonized world with his team of animals (who he is partly telepathically linked to) with the intention of settling a long-held grudge against a man named Brad Quade.

Norton wrote considerably better than most of the authors of her generation. And because she mostly stayed away from technology, this book has aged particularly well. But the blood oath he's sworn against Quade is brought up multiple times - without ever explaining it, which struck me as a considerable and annoying cheat. Overall a fairly good book, mostly intended for teens.

The Belgariad, Books 1 and 2
Eddings, David
1982

The first book of The Belgariad, David Eddings' five book high fantasy epic, appeared in 1982. I was at the time old enough to have concluded I didn't read children's books any more. In looking back recently, the series came up as a well known and well regarded series I'd skipped over. So I read the first two books, Pawn of Prophecy and Queen of Sorcery.

Our protagonist is Garion, who is 13(?) when the first book starts. He lives a quiet and rather idyllic life on a farm in a peaceful country, watched over by his Aunt Pol. Although if you read the ponderous introduction about the world's prehistory and gods, you will immediately identify her as the very long-lived sorceress Polgara - a "revelation" that comes about half way through the book. Like many children's books, our protagonist constantly stumbles on the most important events in the country and overhears or influences them. Eddings leans heavily on the idea that evil people are ugly and/or smelly: by the second book he's working a bit on bringing home the lesson that "you shouldn't judge a book by its cover," but bad people are still scarred or have "dead eyes." Life lessons are laid on with a trowel: my favourite was "don't marry for looks alone," with Garion's travelling companion Barak being burdened with a resentful and cold wife ... but it's by no means the only one. There are lessons about being considerate to others, thinking before you act ... I'll spare you the dozens of others.

As a fantasy book, it strikes me as a cross between The Lord of the Rings and Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, which is also a five book series about a young boy coming to adulthood as his entire kingdom falls into war against an unthinkably powerful enemy. Lloyd Alexander's Taran is also an orphan, but Eddings' Garion has shown by the second book that he is himself a powerful (if uncontrolled) sorcerer, whereas Taran does what he does with no powers at all. But both travel with their wildly varied party of life-lesson-giving friends, and I suspect that in the second book of the Belgariad we've already met Garion's future bride - who bears a remarkable similarity to the Princess Eilonwy of Prydain (we'll see if I'm right about that). We could also compare Belgarath and Dallben (both essentially immortal sorcerers). Eddings' target audience is two to four years older than Alexander's, but Alexander got there 18 years prior and set the bar pretty high. Eddings' prose is slightly better, but two books in I'm favouring Alexander ... Don't get me wrong: I'm enjoying it, but one thing I won't be accusing it of is originality.

Which leads me to a weird digression: if you want original fantasy, something different than anything else you've read, go try Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. Okay, the man writes lousy prose, but since The Lord of the Rings the whole sword-and-sorcery-with-a-quest thing has been the only paradigm that exists in fantasy. There's a quest in Mythago Wood, but the ideas are the most radically different from any other fantasy you're going to find.

Second prize in the category of original fantasy ideas goes to Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, which is somewhere in a totally unoccupied zone between fantasy, steam-punk, and the modern world ... and better written than any of the other books mentioned here.

The Belgariad, Books 3, 4 and 5
Eddings, David
1983

Pawn of Prophecy and Queen of Sorcery are followed by Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanter's End Game. These three books close out the story of Belgarion's ("Garion" by his new name) rise to power and further adventures. The prose is of a style with the first two books, as is the structure of the story. The broad sweep of the story was fairly predictable (I was right about the bride) and the slightly ponderous prose had grown somewhat tiresome. Overall, a somewhat disappointing series.

Bellwether
Willis, Connie
1996
1st
Reilly
yes

Willis goes for comedy-by-exaggeration - a lot, apparently. I was introduced to her through The Doomsday Book, which I still think is one of the best SF novels ever written. Even in that she has moments of absurd/obsessive behaviour, but they serve to leaven an otherwise extremely harrowing book. This is more like a shorter version of her To Say Nothing of the Dog, with the young statistician/historian Sandra Foster trying to track down the origins of fads (and based to some extent on the Robert Browning poem "Pippa Passes"). Foster is surrounded by incompetent or obsessed co-workers as she stumbles on with her research and begins a new project researching the trainability and the spread of fads in sheep.

The Best Time Travel Stories of All Time
Malzberg, Barry N., editor
2002
?
ibooks, New York
yes
Malzberg seems to have a particular penchant for depressing tales. The 15 stories are all fairly good, but most of them are pretty damn depressing. I was hoping for more convoluted logic and difficult paradoxes - there were some - but I realize that's not all time travel stories are about. Overall a passable but not great collection.
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon
Pohl, Frederik
1980

Gateway by Fred Pohl is one of the best known SF novels in existence (although at 40 years, its age may slowly be overcoming its reputation). This novel is the direct sequel to Gateway - a book I read more than 30 years ago.

Robin Broadhead, the protagonist of the previous novel, is older, still filthy rich, happily married, and nevertheless still feeling very guilty about his actions in the previous book. As a result of that guilt, he's obsessed with Heechee technology (the alien race that built Gateway) and funds a trip to a Heechee artifact called "The Food Factory." Part of the book is also seen through the eyes of the Herter family, the people travelling to the Food Factory. A horrible years-long trip, followed by all kinds of discoveries both good and bad.

The writing is acceptable, but not great. The characters are utilitarian. The plot is scattered, split as it is between multiple viewpoints. The mysteries - of what things are, and why they are the way they are - are at least somewhat interesting. But the book isn't nearly as good as its predecessor ... or at least not nearly as good as I remember its predecessor to be, although I suspect I would be more critical of the first book now too. Read Gateway - I'm not sure you need to read this.

The Black Cauldron
Alexander, Lloyd
1965
?
?
yes

A children's fantasy novel, the second in "The Chronicles of Prydain" sequence of five after The Book of Three. Taran goes on a quest to destroy the titular Black Cauldron. As usual, he is accompanied on and off by Eilonwy, Gurgi, Doli, and Fflewddur Fflam. But they have another partner of sorts, the very poor and excessively proud Prince Ellidyr.

This is in some ways the darkest of the Prydain books. There are more deaths in The High King, but the tone in this is dark from end to end as the cauldron's one and only use is to turn dead people into emotionless, tireless, unkillable warriors. As with the others, a very good book.

Followed by The Castle of Llyr.

Blackdog
Johansen, K. V.
2011
Pyr
yes

"Otokas was not a particularly devout man. Prayer had always seemed a pointless ritual. ... The goddess met his eyes and smiled, a neat, correct figure standing against the west, patience itself in a girl's small body. Attalissa had heard the prayers as many times as he, the same words wearing the same deep grooves in the memory, until one did not hear them at all and could not remember if the ceremony were ending or had only just begun. ... The words of the prayer ran on. Did they make any difference, and had they ever? ... Prayer is for them, dog, not for you and me, she told him, in the silent speech, mind to mind, that they shared."

I love the idea that devotion and belief are so unimportant in a world where there are hundreds of gods. Attalissa is one of them, and Otokas, the Blackdog of the title, is her protector.

Within a few pages, both their lives are changed forever as their temple is invaded by a powerful sorcerer intent on taking Attalissa as his bride - or consuming her powers, or both. The Blackdog and Attalissa flee to the desert, where they hide in a trader's caravan for years. Most of the story revolves around that, and the developing politics of the situation in the place she abandoned and among her devout followers who have scattered to the surrounding areas to avoid persecution by the sorcerer, who has permanently set up house awaiting her return.

Some interesting ideas, but too long - it took a long time to get into it, and it was a struggle to get through the middle section. Decent characters and writing.

Blood Music
Bear, Greg
1985

Vergil Ulam is a biotechnologist in a future so near you can touch it. Brilliant but sloppy, and also believing the rules don't apply to him, he starts experimenting with human blood cells (his own), turning them into rudimentary computers. When he's caught at it, he's fired but has a few minutes in which he ... re-injects the modified blood into his own body, with the intent of filtering it out later. But he doesn't get around to it - and his body starts ... changing.

I can't tell you much without getting into spoilers. But I will say that I think this is one of the greatest books of SF ever written, terrifying and exhilarating, thought-provoking and all too possible. Everyone should read this.

The Book of Three
Alexander, Lloyd
1964
?
?
yes

A children's fantasy novel, the first in "The Chronicles of Prydain" sequence of five. This book introduces "Assistant Pig Keeper" Taran, who pursues his pig into the woods and ends up running all over the country in the company of the high and mighty on both sides of the battle of good and evil.

I read these when I was a kid, and in hindsight I think they significantly changed both my thinking (they're full of lessons - not particularly subtle, but nicely embedded in wonderful writing) and my future reading habits (I've been a fan of SF and Fantasy most of my life). This is a great set of stories.

Followed by The Black Cauldron.

The Books of Magic
Neil Gaiman
1993
1st
DC Comics
yes
I borrowed this from the library because Gaiman wrote it, and as I see it, this is proof that that's a bad policy. Long winded, thinks it's an epic, and it's just stupid. Fits into DC's universe, mostly referencing (that I recognized) Constantine and elements of the Dreaming. Timothy Hunter is a young boy who has the potential to become possibly the greatest magician ever, so four men (Constantine is one) take him on bizarre tours, to see the past, to meet the greatest magicians of the current day, to see other worlds, and to see the future. Hunter is a vehicle, not a character, so that leaves little to engage with.
Born on a Blue Day
Tammet, Daniel
2006
1st
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
yes

Tammet is a savant - but unlike most savants, he's not significantly damaged in any other way. He's on the autistic spectrum, has Aspberger's, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell in most circumstances (look him up on YouTube). He's the first of eight children, and his fifth(?) sibling, a brother, had recently been diagnosed as being autistic as well. So, this man who can multiply massive numbers in milliseconds and memorize entire languages in a week decided he should write a book to help others understand what his brother is going through.

Tammet's writing is about as pedestrian as it gets - I'm afraid it reminds me of Oscar Wilde's quote "The man who calls a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for." As Tammet himself explains (or at least mentions in passing), complex or ornamented language can severely confuse people on the autistic spectrum: they expect literal information and metaphors, double negatives and similes all confuse them. So he uses none of them. But he's a fascinating guy who's had a very interesting life, and it's enough to hold you through the book.

Buddha 1: Kapilavatsu
Tezuka, Osamu
2003
1st
Vertical, Inc.
yes
From the man who brought us "Astroboy," and more recently "Metropolis," we have an epic interpretation - in comic form, eight (how appropriate) thick books - of the life of the Buddha. This is the first. The black-and-white line art varies between the ludicrous and the sublime. I don't know the story well enough to know which characters are added and which are original, but it seems to be targeted at quite a young audience and even for them I'm not sure it's being told all that well.
Buddha 3: Devadatta
Tezuka, Osamu
2004
1st
Vertical, Inc.
yes
Moving on in the series ... I have to re-assess who this is aimed at ... There's enough sex, swearing, and violence that this is definitely not for children, but the humour and plot development are ... rudimentary. Sure, he's got a huge cast of characters to keep track of, but if he can't do anything better with them ... Siddhartha enters his time of trials. Several other characters are being developed to join him later or cause him trouble later (sometimes he flat out tells you this, sometimes it's just painfully obvious).
Buddha 4: The Forest of Uruvela
Tezuka, Osamu
2004
1st
Vertical, Inc.
yes
Siddhartha moves on to the Forest of Uruvela, there to undergo trials and privations on his way to understanding that all life is equal and that adding more suffering to a life of suffering gains us nothing. A bit better than the previous books.
Buddha 5: Deer Park
Tezuka, Osamu
2005
1st
Vertical, Inc.
yes
Lots of filler material - Tezuka-created characters fighting it out and trying to decide if Buddha is actually worth listening to - fill out this book. Buddha gives his first sermon.
Buddha 6:Ananda
Tezuka, Osamu
2005
1st
Vertical, Inc.
yes
While this American version is a different number of volumes than the original Japanese series and thus is out of step with them, the title "Ananda" is certainly fitting for this book. It's very much about the people-hating bandit Ananda who becomes Buddha's main aide - and I think it's one of the better stories that Tezuka has told in the sequence.
Buddha 7: Prince Ajatasattu
Tezuka, Osamu
2005
1st
Vertical, Inc.
yes
Buddha is injured, and tended to and assisted by Ananda. Buddha's friend Seniya, now a king, has his son Ajatasattu locked up in the hopes that he will be prevented from fulfilling the prophecy that says he will kill his father. In the manner of these things, the imprisonment more or less guarantees that it will happen. Buddha decides to begin travelling to spread the word, despite his increased age and relatively poor health. Ananda goes with him.
Buddha 8: Jetavana
Tezuka, Osamu
2005
1st
Vertical, Inc.
yes
The title derives from the park and temple where Buddha gave many of his sermons later in life. Of all the books, I suppose I found this one least memorable. It being the last one, it's not surprising to find that it ends in his death (I'm not giving anything away here, am I?).
Burma Chronicles
Delisle, Guy
2008
1st
Drawn and Quarterly
yes
Delisle is an animator from Quebec, now living in France, who does comics on the side. His life has taken him to some very interesting places, most notably Shenzhen and Pyongyang, both visits he did graphic novels about and which I enjoyed considerably. This time he's tackling a country I spent a month in - staying part of that time with relatives who had been there for a couple years - so I know more about the place than most of his readers. His portrayal of the country struck me as accurate in every respect that I was aware of, so I'm more inclined to credit the rest of his work. The book is highly episodic and not sequential: sets of two to ten(?) pages address a particular issue, whether it's the bizarre houses, daycare for his child, or a visit to an HIV clinic in a far corner of the country. Some are told without words: I felt a couple of these could have used a bit more explanation, but overall it's a good book and a good introduction to the country.

C

A Canticle for Leibowitz
Miller, Walter M.
1960

Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the most celebrated books in all of science fiction, a post-apocalyptic novel about the endurance of the Catholic Church and the inevitability of man's self-destructiveness as a species. I've known about the book for as long as I've been reading science fiction (since my early teens), but for some reason I never read it until now. I'm glad to say I now understand why it's achieved the renown it has. One reason is that he's a damn good writer: the prose is an order of magnitude better than any other SF coming out of the 1960s, except possibly Ursula LeGuin. Another reason is that he's created an incredibly enduring look at the apocalypse: he postulates a society slightly more advanced than ours that's destroyed itself in a nuclear holocaust, and the entire novel takes place across centuries after that event. Most science fiction "ages out," with their predictions becoming blatantly incorrect. He starts by blowing up our society, and from there on his speculation is ... universal.

The novel is in three parts, the first of which amounts to the Dark Ages. It establishes the Catholic Order of St. Leibowitz, which preserves "the Memorabilia" - documents of science and technology from before the "Flame Deluge." The second part is essentially a Renaissance, and the third amounts to the equivalent of our 21st century - a technology slightly more advanced than that of 2016.

Miller seems to have a very high opinion of the Catholic Church. Most of the major characters are priests and abbots and, while each is a fully developed character (and he's very good at character), they're all good people doing the right thing. I wonder if his characterization of the church would have been significantly different if he'd written the book after the revelations of the sexual abuse scandal in Boston (and the rest of the world). (I'm aware that this doesn't condemn the entire church ... but his view of it is more positive than I think is warranted.)

This is not an upbeat book. He believes - and argues very convincingly - that we're condemned to repeat our mistakes and destroy ourselves. But it's a superbly written story that should be read by not just fans of the genre, but by everyone.

The Castle of Llyr
Alexander, Lloyd
1966
?
?
yes

Third in the Prydain series (preceded by The Black Cauldron and followed by Taran Wanderer). Taran has got slightly less hotheaded, but if you started with this book you'd be hard-pressed to believe that. This book sees Eilonwy sent off to the Isle of Mona to learn to "be a lady." As she prefers to sleep in the woods, ride with raiding parties and swing a sword, this is something of an uphill battle. But taking her to Mona isn't as simple as it seems, and Taran and his companions are shortly off on another adventure.

Castle of Wizardry
Eddings, David
1984
Castle Waiting Volume 1
Medley, Linda
2006
yes

One of the longest graphic novels I've read at 450 pages: but it goes relatively fast for such a thick volume. The story starts with a retelling of "Sleeping Beauty," although "Beauty" herself is a minor character - we're setting up the people who live in the castle. Then we see the young and pregnant Jain travelling the country to get to Castle Waiting, where she settles in as a new resident among the several oddballs who already live there. But she's not to be the protagonist either, although Medley leaves some significant questions dangling about Jain, who now almost disappears as other people tell very long stories at the castle.

I was particularly amused by her use of Saint Wilgefortis. Most readers will recognize some (although probably not all) of the dozens of other stories Medley is riffing on (the already-mentioned Sleeping Beauty, the Canterbury Tales, Iron Henry, etc.) But I suspect that most people will think she made up Wilgefortis - a bearded female saint. She didn't. I know this because I encountered Wilgefortis in a church in Prague - although Medley has slightly changed the story ... I don't think there were ever nunneries of bearded women.

I found the structure of the story quite frustrating, but at the same time the black-and-white artwork, the characters, the dialogue with its occasionally modern language, irony, and mores, and the stories-in-the-story are all marvelous - to the point that I immediately placed a hold at the library on Volume 2. Has some annoying features and may frustrate those looking for straight-forward story-telling, but overall an elegant and very enjoyable book.

Castle Waiting Volume 2
Medley, Linda
2010
yes

I really enjoyed Castle Waiting Vol. 1, and moved on to Volume 2 immediately on receiving it from the library. The previous one was a series of not very closely related stories: this one is more the day-to-day life of the castle. This includes their odd visitors (a couple dwarves), the things they find (a secret passage), their weird goat, and bits and pieces of nearly everyone's backstories. And if you haven't gathered ... not a damn thing of significance happens. Despite which, I liked this even better than the previous one. Once you get on her wavelength and realize this isn't about big events, you settle into enjoying the story-telling and artwork ... both of which are superb. I highly, highly recommend both books.

Chicken With Plums
Satrapi, Marjane
2006
1st
Pantheon/Random House
yes
I came to this right after reading the excellent "Persepolis" by the same author. This is another graphic novel and a huge disappointment. We are told from the beginning that this is the story of her uncle, a musician, who essentially lay down to die after his favourite instrument is broken. Perhaps Satrapi isn't as good at writing fiction as she is at writing her own life, because most of what we see in this book must be speculation even if the main concept is truth. There's a haze of depression lying over the whole story as we know from the start it culminates in his death. No tension, and not a great deal of interest in the stories told.
Chronicles of Amber, Books 1-5
Zelazny, Roger
1978
Doubleday
?

I read and loved these as a teen, but approached them with some trepidation in 2013. A number of books that I read at that age turned out to have truly terrible writing, no matter how good the story. Zelazny's writing is a product of the Seventies ("Can you dig it?" "Whatever") and not his best - it feels kind of rushed - but it mostly works, and the story is every bit the rip-roaring fantasy adventure I remembered. The tale is narrated by Corwin, who awakes on our Earth with no memory, and stumbles into the company of two of his treacherous group of siblings, while slowly figuring out that they are all princes (and princesses) of Amber, and that they're all incredibly powerful (but not entirely unkillable). I enjoyed reading them again.

Chronopolis and other stories
Ballard, J.G.
1971
?
Longmans Canada
yes

Ballard's characters are all self-destructive, and generally a little deranged. It's hard to feel much empathy for them, and harder still to find an upbeat story. I could have forgiven this if he had put some serious thought into the consequences of his various ideas, but generally each story focused around one idea, and one idea only. The corpse of a giant washes up a beach ("The Drowned Giant") or people's time becomes massively over-regulated ("Chronopolis") or surgery removes the human need for sleep ("Manhole 69"). Each of these ideas has side effects, often massive ones, which he completely ignores in pursuit of the one idea. In the end, each story becomes a small psychological exercise about unsympathetic characters with a thin veneer of "science fiction."

Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love
Roberson, Chris and Shawn McManus
2010
1st
DC Comics
yes

After the "Fables" series ended, of course they were going to be spin-offs. It was too popular for there not to be. And Cinderella was one of my favourite characters: she looks like she's jetting around the world attending parties, but she's actually one of Fabletown's best spies (used to work for Bigby, now works for Beast). So I thought this book was a good idea, and the cover and inside cover art are fantastic. Unfortunately, "Fables" has run its course and Roberson's story isn't clever enough to resurrect it: the ideas in the book just aren't that interesting.

City at the End of Time
Bear, Greg
2008
yes

City at the End of Time starts simply enough, with people in modern-day Seattle. But they aren't normal people, and they have a connection with a future multiple trillions of years from now. In that future, the expansion of the universe has led to a weakening of the fabric of reality, and from that is born a non-reasoning entity called "The Typhon" that is destroying the laws of physics and eating reality.

But I've already misled you: the first chapter is in fact the very last. It doesn't make a lot of sense when you first read it because you don't have the context for it yet, but you'll come back to it at the end of the book and it'll make a bit more sense. Bear has constructed the book with multiple chapters out of order, so you jump about in time from the present day to the end of time and back, seeing the connections between the players and how the universe got to be in the mess it's in. Both the problem and the solution have to do with words, storytelling, and Mnemosyne (the Greek goddess of memory). And some of the stories within the story don't actually make any sense at all.

If it sounds confusing, it is. I didn't find it made much more sense after reading 500 pages, and I found those pages a brutal slog. It took me six months to get through this one - it's heavy going with a lot of ideas about how stories and words shape reality ... which, when I write it out, sounds good, but in practise was merely soporific.

About half way through I abandoned it long enough to re-read Bear's Blood Music - now that's a good book.

Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity
Smith, Virginia
2007
1st
Oxford University Press
yes
On the surface it sounds like an interesting book (to my eclectic tastes, anyway). Smith manages to avoid using academic jargon, but rambles and manages to sound like she's writing for an academic journal despite apparently targeting the rest of us. Over-long and not well delivered.
Cloud Atlas
Mitchell, David
2004
1st
Vintage Canada/Random House
yes

Six nested stories from the 1830s to a far distant post-apocalyptic future, all connected. Each of the first five stories is interupted by the next story, the sixth story being complete and leading to the completion of each of the interupted stories. Each written in a radically different style, all extraordinarily well written. The ending was a let-down for me, as it seemed to me that the story had peaked after the completion of either the second or fourth storyline, and it was downhill from there. But there's quite a reward in the reading: the structure is brilliant, and the prose is among the best you'll ever read.

Cockeyed: A Memoir
Knighton, Ryan
2006
1st
PublicAffairs (Perseus)
yes
Knighton has Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that has caused him to go slowly blind starting when he was 14 or so. He's articulate and funny, and avoids being maudlin. I wasn't crazy about the writing style, but the story was definitely worth it. It's an education in what it's like to try to lead a normal life as your eyesight goes away.
Conscience of the Beagle
Anthony, Patricia
1993

I'd previously read Anthony's Cold Allies and Brother Termite. Cold Allies left me with an abiding respect for her: here was someone who said "if we ever meet aliens, we would NOT understand them" - an argument I'd been making for years (given our inability to understand the people on the other side of the planet), and she wrote a good book based on that premise. Brother Termite is her best known book, but I didn't like it much. But when Conscience of the Beagle showed up at the library's discount store, I thought that an SF noir police drama sounded like a good thing.

The book is told entirely from the point of view of Major Dyle Holloway, who's just been assigned a job on the planet Tennyson. He and his team of three others are sent there to figure out who's been planting bombs and killing the populace. One of his teammates is a construct of Hoad Taylor - a human-looking reconstruction of the person Hoad Taylor used to be. "Beagle," as Dyle refers to him, was the best investigator the Earth had ever had.

But Dyle is barely clinging to his sanity: the book is staccato stream-of-consciousness in Dyle's mind, essentially SF William Faulkner. Dyle is incredibly paranoid, forgetful, and depressed, a stumbling wreck of a man ever since the death of his wife a year and a half previously. Prior to his wife's death, he'd solved some of Earth's biggest mysteries, but now it's clear that he should be in a psych ward rather than on a case. Even barely functional, Dyle is still a surprisingly effective investigator. I think Anthony wants us to think he's operating "on instinct," but since he has trouble remembering anything and is staggeringly paranoid and afraid of what's around every corner, I didn't think he'd be able to operate even as well as he did.

Anthony has a propensity for unsympathetic main characters. This is a personal preference I've mentioned many times before: I prefer my protagonists sympathetic. The end result is that I think it's a passable book ... but I didn't like it much.

Consider Phlebas
Banks, Iain M.
1987

Our main character is Horza, a Changer (given a few hours - or days, depends on the change - he can change his appearance to that of another humanoid, complete with fingerprints). The book opens with him chained up in a room attached to the toilets of the banquet hall above him: his execution is to be by slow drowning in the shit and piss of the partyers above him. Banks spends several pages on this, including lots of unpleasant detail. All of which reminded me that Iain Banks famous first book, The Wasp Factory, was notorious for its violence and grotesquery (Wikipedia says 'The book sold well, but was greeted with a mixture of acclaim and controversy, due to its gruesome depiction of violence. The Irish Times called it "a work of unparalleled depravity."') I hoped that this lovely introduction had him getting it out of his system, but it was not to be: about a third of the way through the book he introduces us to a cult that eats only refuse. Except for their extremely obese prophet, who eats people while they're still alive (that section gave us 40 pages of the grotesque without advancing the plot at all).

This combined with the oft-repeated out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire events that leave Horza constantly in danger and travelling all over the galaxy while barely advancing what I had thought was the main plot about the war between "The Culture" (an "anarchic utopia" of Humans and A.I.) and the Idirans (religious fanatic aliens that Horza has chosen to side with "because at least they're on the side of life" - he's not a fan of A.I.) nearly put me off the book - but his writing was otherwise good enough and mostly entertaining enough to keep me going. Still, the last 50 pages of this 450 page monstrosity (what makes it a monstrosity is that it should have been 250 pages) were a horrible slog - I was just sick of it by the end.

Banks' The Player of Games and Use of Weapons (the next two books in "The Culture" series) are highly recommended, both by the SF community in general and by a friend who didn't think much of Consider Phlebas either - he thought it was too long, and too grotesque. Given the similarity of his point of view, I should probably move on to the other two titles. But I've been so put off by this one it may be a while.

Consolation
Redhill, Michael
2006
1st
Anchor (Random House)
yes
Chosen in late 2007 to be the book "all Toronto should read," Consolation is very much about the city - both in the present day and in 1855. In the present, a researcher determines that a photographer made a record of the city in 1855, and the negatives are buried in a boat wreck near the lake's edge. He commits suicide, and his wife tries to vindicate him. In the past, we learn something of the life of the photographer. Unfortunately, Redhill's characters are inflexible to the point of woodenness and unbelievability. And his endings leave something to be desired: not only does he not wrap up some plot threads, he unravels others that you had thought were concluded.
Contact
Sagan, Carl
1985

I remember Carl Sagan from my childhood - I would have been 15 when "Cosmos" was broadcast, and I thought he was an egotistical, over-explaining pedant. Don't get me wrong: I liked the show - I just wasn't a big fan of him. Because of that, and despite my love of the movie version of "Contact," it took until now for me to read this book. It turns out his voice as an author is radically different from his voice as a TV presenter, and in most ways better: he surely doesn't over-explain as an author, you need to pay attention. Although he's still a bit long-winded.

The main character from the movie is much the same - Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway is a very intelligent child who grows into a hard-working radio astronomer and SETI ("Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence") scientist. Her career is languishing (SETI is considered fringe science in the book as it is in our world) when it gets one hell of a kick in the pants from an ET broadcast originating in Vega. She fights for, and eventually gets, a seat on the might-be-a-spaceship Machine that the message describes.

But the book, like the movie, is less about aliens than it is about humanity - particularly the divergences and similarities of science, belief, and religion. I found Sagan's introduction of Ellie at the beginning of the book particularly effective, a series of vignettes of her at different ages - a dedicated scientist from an early age. And he had a fine selection of quotes starting each chapter. Overall I found the book a bit too long and rambling: the movie loses some important subtleties from the book and is occasionally over-acted, but mostly it's better focussed on the points it wants to make about science, belief, and religion.


"I wish to propose for the reader's favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it." - Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays, I (1928)

As technology developed and the cities were polluted, the nights became starless. New generations grew to maturity wholly ignorant of the sky that had transfixed their ancestors and that had stimulated the modern age of science and technology. Without even noticing, just as astronomy entered a golden age most people cut themselves off from the sky, a cosmic isolationism that ended only with the dawn of space exploration. [Sagan]

If we like them, they're freedom fighters, she thought. If we don't like them, they're terrorists. In the unlikely case we can't make up our minds, they're temporarily only guerrillas. [Sagan]

The casually dressed scientists ... spilled out of doors, where, illuminated by cigarettes and starlight, some of the discussions continued. [Sagan]

"The God whom science recognizes must be a God of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business. He cannot accommodate his processes to the convenience of individuals." - William James The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

Drumlin, like many others she had known over the years, had called her an incurable romantic; and she found herself wondering again why so many people thought it some embarrassing disability. Her romanticism had been a driving force in her life and a fount of delights. [Sagan]

"I don't see how the governments could convince people this is a hoax," she said. "Really? Think of what else they've made people believe. They've persuaded us that we'll be safe if only we spend all our wealth so everybody on Earth can be killed in a moment - when the governments decide the time has come." [Sagan]


The book also introduced me to the terms "chiliast" (chiliasm is "the doctrine of Christ's expected return to reign on earth for 1000 years; millennialism" - I lost track of how many times he used this word) and "ecdysiast" ("a facetious word for 'stripper'" created by H.L. Mencken(?)).

Cordelia's Honor
Bujold, Lois McMaster
1996
1st
Tor
?

Omnibus edition including Bujold's Shards of Honor and its direct sequel (and Hugo winner) Barrayar. Shards of Honor is about how Cordelia Naismith of the planet Beta meets enemy combatant Aral Vorkosigan. Barrayar follows them together on Vorkosigan's home planet of Barrayar, through their first year together and the birth of their son, Miles Vorkosigan - who Bujold has written so many stories about.

I don't generally read military SF and have never been a fan of the Miles Vorkosigan books. But this book was recommended by a friend and I've cut Bujold a lot of slack because of Curse of Chalion, which I consider one of the best fantasy novels ever written. Sadly, this struck me as being nothing more than well-written military SF - no genius shining through, no heart-stopping moments. Just ... well written. Although I did love one particular quote: Cordelia is in her late thirties, and when she encounters a 20 year old military service man she refers to him as too young to believe in the experience of death after life.

In the afterword, she writes: "I paused briefly, flirted with a really bad scenario about a convenient alien invasion that would force Barrayar and Beta to ally, decided 'Why should I make things easy on my characters?', and plunged on to the much better and more inherent idea of the Escobar invasion, thus accidentally discovering my first application of the rule for finding plots for character-centered novels, which is to ask 'So what's the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?' And then do it."

I really didn't need to see behind that curtain. But it does explain the entirety of Miles Vorkosigan's life - all ~13 books as of 2013 - and why I don't like it much: his life is achievement and suffering, rinse and repeat.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Haddon, Mark
2002
1st
Doubleday Canada
yes
The story is written from the point of view of 15 year old Christopher, who is autistic. Brilliant at maths (this is a British book), and possessed of a mostly photographic memory, he doesn't understand people's emotions at all and is easily overwhelmed by new situations. One day he finds a neighbour's dog dead, and sets out to "detect" who did it. This leads to a bunch of interesting discoveries - many of which he doesn't understand, but we do - related in a very plain style. With this limited literary palate, Haddon has fashioned a poignant, hysterically funny, and often gut-wrenching book. Highly recommended.
The Curse of Chalion
Bujold, Lois McMaster
2001
1st
HarperCollins
yes

It was a novelty and a blessing to open this book and find myself reading good writing. Her descriptions were excellent, the pictures drawn in your mind vivid. And the plot that unfolds is exquisite. Our main character and point of view throughout the book is Lupe dy Cazaril, who we meet first as a severely damaged man having spent two years rowing in a slave galley and then nearly being whipped to death. He finds a place in a household he used to work in, and is set as tutor to a young woman whose political importance increases with time, and so he's drawn into a world he had hoped to avoid. Cazaril is a wonderful character, although his brilliant-mind/broken-body dichtomy is a little too like Miles Vorkosigan: a favourite of Bujold's but not mine. That's my only complaint about an otherwise superb book: read it. This really is one of the best fantasy novels ever written.


D

The Dark is Rising
Cooper, Susan
1973
1st
Atheneum/Macmillan
yes

Several children's librarians I know swear by this book, claiming it's one of the best children's books ever. But to me, I find a young boy (Will, 11) flailing about in the clutches of forces he doesn't understand - forces without an internal logic, never mind one that makes sense in our world. This is a fantasy overlay on Great Britain of the 1960s or 1970s. Will is told he is the Sign Seeker, and sets out on a quest to collect the six signs. He randomly pops through time and to weird locations outside time, frequently has nonsensical guidance from people called "Old Ones," and is attacked alternately by "the Black Rider" and a swirly black tornado that is the power of the Dark. The complete failure of internal logic bothered me immensely, and the limited explanation of what had happened toward the end of the book absolutely did not make up for the fumbling around in mystery throughout the rest of the book.

Darwin's Radio
Bear, Greg
1999
1st
Del Rey
yes

A little too reminiscent of the "Golden Days" of SF, with a brilliant idea and a poor plot. I adored Blood Music, also by Bear, but this isn't even in the same ball park. The first two thirds of the book is more biology than plot, all to explain that junk DNA isn't actually junk, it's co-operative. And gradual evolution isn't: we're about to evolve suddenly. But most experts within the book take the manifestations to be disease. I'm not explaining it well, but it's a brilliant idea. He explains it too well, and comes up with too many not very well conceived characters. Too bad.

The Deluge Drivers
Foster, Alan Dean
1987
1st
Del Rey/Ballantine
yes

The third (and we hope, final) book in the series that started with Icerigger. While the first book wasn't brilliant, it was a very enjoyable adventure story. I don't remember Mission to Moulokin (the second) well. Ethan Fortune, Skua September, and Milliken Williams are all back - they all meant to leave the planet because they were tired of freezing 24X7, but a drastic change in the climate of the planet itself is endangering their native friends, the Tran.

The problem here is that Foster has gotten very sloppy with his logic. Things happen that simply don't make sense - even in the context that he's constructed. I enjoyed it as a return to characters and a place I enjoy reading about, but it's not a particularly good book.

The Devil's Disciple
Shaw, George Bernard
1897
Gutenberg Project
?

One of Shaw's earliest plays, and possibly my favourite. During the American Revolution, Dick Dudgeon, the outcast son of a Puritan woman, comes home after the death of his father. Having inherited the house, he goes on to offend almost everyone present by declaring himself "The Devil's Disciple." The local minister makes an effort to befriend him, which leads to unexpected complications in which we discover (typical of Shaw) that the Devil's Disciple has moral standards that don't match his self-chosen title, and the minister is in the wrong line of work. It's both thought-provoking and charming, and I highly recommend it.

DHTML Utopia: Modern Web Design Using Javascript & DOM
Langridge, Stuart
2005
1st
Sitepoint
yes

I've tried a lot of Javascript and DHTML books: this has been the only one I felt was really good. Doesn't include AJAX.

The Difference Engine
Gibson, William and Bruce Sterling
1991
1st
Bantam Spectra
?

An interesting idea with poor execution. An alternate history in which Charles Babbage's Difference Engine becomes the motivating force of Victorian England as the computer is the motivating force of the modern First World. Their speculations on the repercussions are interesting, but I found the whole vision ... annoying and the persistent Victorian slang and word usage tiresome. I gave up about half way through because I wasn't enjoying it at all.

Docker Up and Running
Matthias, Karl and Sean P. Kane
2015
O'Reilly
yes

This book covers version 1.10 of Docker - which is important, because Docker is developing very quickly indeed. The book is an excellent resource, covering getting started through to orchestration, each in considerable detail ... with one gaping hole. At one point they say "this is what a Dockerfile looks like." And that's the end of the discussion of creating Docker images. I realize there's more to dealing with Docker than creating images, but without the images, Docker does nothing. And creating images is NOT simple: it can be a long and sometimes rocky iterative process that deserves a chapter. This is one of O'Reilly's thinnest books at 210 pages, and a 15 page chapter on building images and working with Dockerfiles would have been greatly appreciated.

I'm not usually one for giving "stars," but in this case it will demonstrate how badly broken the book is. If it had had a chapter on Dockerfiles and making Docker images, I would have given this five stars out of five - it's that well organized and written. But this takes it down to three stars.

The Doomsday Book
Willis, Connie
1992
Bantam Spectra
yes

In the relatively near future (2051, I think), a "historian" is someone who does the research and then travels back in time to the period they're interested in. Kivrin (young, intelligent, and determined) has decided she wants to go to the 1300s, a time that's previously been off limits because it's too dangerous. Dunworthy tutors her, and they form a bond. Against his wishes, an incompetent administrator decides to send Kivrin. Problems crop up at both ends as we follow both stories. There are several places where Willis telegraphed coming events a little too heavily, but that's the only complaint I can find about this otherwise brilliant piece of SF. Hilarious, poignant, extraordinarily well researched, and possessed of vibrant characters, It's one of the best pieces of SF I've ever read.

Doorways in the Sand
Zelazny, Roger
1976

Our main character, Fred Cassidy, has spent the past 13 years avoiding graduation by repeatedly changing majors at his university: his uncle's will stipulates that he will be fully supported until he graduates. He's very intelligent and - at this point - very well educated. He's also a huge urban climber, scaling every building on his campus and many others besides. But a duplicate of an alien artifact on loan to Earth vanishes from his apartment, and everyone wants it and seems to be willing to commit mayhem to get it ... and they all think Fred has it.

The story is told from a first-person point of view, and the wise-cracking, well-spoken and slightly sarcastic viewpoint of Fred is a pretty good way to read a story. Except that nearly every chapter begins with him explaining some horrible crisis situation he's found himself in, and then jumping back hours or days to explain how he got there. This is a relatively common literary device, and used sparingly it's okay (although I've never liked it much). But used constantly, it causes significant problems remembering where you are if you put the book down for more than a few hours: it was kind of a pain in the ass to read. And the deus ex machina reappearance of one of the characters near the end of the book was also unimpressive - and unexplained.

Despite my annoyance at the over-reliance on a couple unnecessary literary devices, I still enjoyed the book: it's a pretty good story.

Double Star
Heinlein, Robert A.
1956

Double Star is a science fiction novel by Heinlein published in 1956. It's a Ruritanian Romance - specifically, a down-on-his-luck actor is asked to temporarily double for an unspecified public figure for a couple days. Ruritanian Romances usually centre on the idea that some member of royalty has a visual double out there in the world, and the affairs of the two become entangled.

In this case, our first-person voice is "The Great Lorenzo" (actually "Lawrence Smith"), the actor in question. He's direly in need of money, so he accepts the job - only to find out that it's extremely dangerous and involves Martians, who he hates.

The politics are Heinlein - free trade, expansionist, and mildly sexist (although he thought he was being open-minded). Lorenzo's voice is initially so spectacularly conceited and self-centred that I really hope this was intended as a teen novel: it's unnecessarily over-the-top. But it develops nicely, and the story is pretty good: there's a reason Heinlein's name is still remembered to this day. He was a good writer.

The Dragons of Babel
Swanwick, Michael
2008
1st
Tom Doherty
yes

I have a love/hate relationship with Swanwick: I think Stations of the Tide is one of the best SF novels ever written, up there with Dune and Hyperion, but I've found some of his other books unreadable. Most notably, the precursor to this book, The Iron Dragon's Daughter. But when I got to page 19 of this book and found this paragraph:

As for his aunt, Blind Enna was little more to him than a set of rules to be contravened and chores to be evaded. She was a pious old creature, forever killing small animals in honor of the Nameless Ones and burying their corpses under the floor or nailing them above doors or windows. In consequence of which, a faint perpetual stink of conformity and rotting mouse hung about the hut. She mumbled to herself constantly and on those rare occasions when she got drunk - two or three times a year - would run out naked into the night and, mounting a cow backward, lash its sides bloody with a hickory switch so that it ran wildly uphill and down until finally she tumbled off and fell asleep. At dawn Will would come with a blanket and lead her home. But they were never exactly close.

I read that, and I knew it would be alright. Consider what he's done in one paragraph: told you a great deal about not only the characters of Will and Enna, but also about the society they live in. All while entertaining you, not loading on the exposition. The plot wanders, with massive digressions for stories told by other characters, some of which helped the book along and others of which were just ... annoying. And there's a hell of trap sprung on you in the last pages of the book, but it's a good one. One that really moved my appreciation of the book up a notch. He's a hell of a writer. I don't always like the places he goes, but when I do (as this time), it's a hell of a ride.

Dragonsinger
McCaffrey, Anne
1977
1st
Bantam Books

The second of the "Harper Hall Trilogy" - the first is Dragonsong. Menolly has been "discovered" and taken in by the Harper Hall, where she's apprenticed. She has many problems to overcome, including severely undervaluing herself, and her overabundance of fire dragons. Everything I wrote about the first book applies to this one as well: message, sentimental, cute.

Dragonsong
McCaffrey, Anne
1976
1st
Bantam Books

The first of the "Harper Hall Trilogy," our heroine is the 14 or 15 year old Menolly. She lives in a fishing village (or the equivalent thereof in McCaffrey's universe), and isn't allowed to play music after her teacher/mentor Petiron dies - music just isn't something girls do, despite the fact that she's a talented musician. She eventually runs away from home, and accidentally impresses nine baby fire lizards. Etc.

McCaffrey's writing is functional but not brilliant. It's also got a message, and it's incredibly sentimental. And cute.


E

Eat, Pray, Love
Gilbert, Elizabeth
2006
1st
Penguin
yes

Gilbert sets off fleeing a very unhappy life and a brutal divorce to spend a year (funded by an advance from her publisher, which led to this book ...) in three places for four months each: eating and learning Italian in Italy, praying in an Indian Ashram, and finally balancing pleasure and devotion in Bali. I found her writing for about the first third of the book both hilarious and annoying because of the constant joking, it was strange. But she's a charming person and a good writer with a hell of a story to tell. Most of us can't afford to take a year off to sort out our lives, but most of us don't need to quite as badly: this is a good antidote for those of us who can't take the year.

Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time
Tracy, Brian
2001
1st
Berrett-Koehler
yes

Tracy takes a very declarative approach to improving productivity: "this is what works for me, so you're going to do it too." He doesn't present choices, just a prescription. Some of it makes a lot of sense, but a bit of mental editing goes a long way with his opinions. His repetition of the phrase "Eat that frog!" (in reference to taking on the biggest and most unpleasant task at hand first, always) becomes extremely annoying.

Eifelheim
Flynn, Michael
2006
1st
Tor (Doherty)
yes

This book splits its time between 1348/9 Germany and the present day. In the present day, a historian with a math and statistics bent is wondering about a town in Germany depopulated by the Black Plague - but unlike every town surrounding it, never repopulated. His physicist girlfriend is working on multi-dimensional forms of space. Gee, will these two ideas coincide? In 1348, we find a group of aliens stranded near a small German town by a malfunction of their spaceship. The two threads play out in parallel. I give little away in saying that the town is decimated by the Plague, so you know that thread isn't going to end particularly happily (reminded me considerably of Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book). And I had huge problems with the narrative style of the modern thread: it occupied less space, and so he seemed determined to paint the characters in broader and more caricature-like strokes. And he threw in dozens of phrases in non-English languages: Italian, Greek, Latin, plenty of German, a bit of French, and even one in Vietnamese - all without translation. Very annoying. But more annoying than that was the apparent departure from third-person-omniscient to "I" that appeared two or three times in three hundred pages and is only clarified rather abruptly in the last 25 pages - not well handled, definitely not necessary. I thought the whole "aliens-in-Medieval-Europe" story was handled quite well, but it had no real conclusion, needing the bad modern-day wrapper story to effect that. So ultimately not a very successful book.

Embroideries
Satrapi, Marjane
2005
1st
Pantheon/Random House
yes

The idea is small - a group of women of various ages, mostly from one family, sitting around talking for an evening - but the topic and the execution turn this into a really hilarious, poignant, and mesmerizing read. It's about relationships and sex - as seen from a very Iranian perspective. Very nearly as good as the excellent "Persepolis."

The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery
van de Wetering, Janwillem
1972
?
Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
yes

The author (who is from Rotterdam) spent a year and a half at a Zen Monastery in Kyoto. It's fairly well written (better than Seven Years In Tibet) with some good stories - both his own and Zen fables - but he went in with little focus and the ending is ... nothing. He just leaves, feeling as if he has learned very nearly nothing, achieved nothing. Still, an interesting read.

Enchanters' End Game
Eddings, David
1984
Equal Rites
Pratchett, Terry
1987

This is Book 3 in the long-running Discworld series, and the first to feature the rather marvellous Granny Weatherwax. Granny is a witch, and a fairly good one. She's a deep believer in "headology," the idea of convincing someone that something will work just by being who you are (ie. "a witch gave me this remedy, it's got to work!" ... Granny and/or the Discworld don't have the term "placebo"). Although she's somewhat disappointed she's never managed to grow a single wart in her many years. More central to the story - although not quite so entertaining as Granny - is Eskarina, the eight son of an eighth son and thus destined to be a wizard ... if only she'd been male. So we follow her and Granny to Ankh-Morpork, where Esk attempts to study at Unseen University, which has only ever had male students. As usual, the plot is very much in the service of the humour, and the humour is good. His stuff is just fun to read.

Eric
Pratchett, Terry
1990

Eric is the ninth Discworld novel. On the cover it says Faust but there's a line through it, with Eric written underneath. Eric is thirteen years old, and extremely determined to summon a demon to grant his three wishes. He succeeds in summoning something from the Dungeon Dimensions, but that something is ... Rincewind, who was trapped there at the end of Sourcery. His three wishes are: "to be ruler of the world," "to meet the most beautiful woman in all history," and "to live forever." Rincewind discovers that he's been handed a demon's power: snapping his fingers transports the two of them ... elsewhere. Of course, none of Eric's wishes turn out anything like the way he intended them to (isn't that how it always goes with demons?).

As this is the eighth straight Discworld novel I've read in a row, all in about three months, I'm getting a little jaded. It's amusing, not the best but not the worst.

The Etched City
Bishop, K.J.
2003
1st
Bantam Spectra
yes

Gwynn and Raule are former comrades-in-arms, now on the run for their part as mercenaries on the losing side of a war. Together they find their way to the city of Ashamoil, where they part ways but see each other occasionally. Raule is a doctor in search of her conscience, Gwynn is an intelligent, musical, and extremely lucky (and skilled) killer whose only morality lies in his loyalty to friends.

A cross between China Miéville's Perdido Street Station and Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword and falling somewhere between the two in bleakness of vision. Like both of these others, the city is a major character, and a very dirty and often unpleasant one. Also like the other two, the writing is very good - although often hobbled by pseudo-philosophical mumbling in many passages. The ending also kind of just ... fizzled.

The Eyre Affair
Fforde, Jasper
2001

In 1985 in a United Kingdom somewhat similar to the one we know, Thursday Next is a literary detective. In her U.K., riots and brutal violence erupt over the interpretation of any form of art, although what we mostly hear about is literature. The U.K. is still at war in the Crimea more than one hundred years later, and ... there's time travel.

The first significant literary crime we hear about is the theft of the original manuscript of Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit by Acheron Hades (who is invisible to cameras, almost totally impervious to physical violence, and ... oh never mind, he's very, very hard to kill and very smart. Here's the biggest problem with the book to my mind: Acheron Hades is supposed to be this incredibly horrible man who kills on a whim. Which is fine and good ... until he opens his mouth and issues these long-winded and ludicrous speeches that are meant as humour. It kind of takes the threat out of his presence. Completely. It's meant as a comedy, but I think you need to leave the villain as a credible threat to have some actual weight to the plot. Other than that it's quite funny and, as goofy as it was, I enjoyed the book. At the prompting of a friend, I had read Jane Eyre just prior, so I was ready for the references. It would probably help to have read Martin Chuzzlewit as well (and in fact have a massive grounding in English Literature as he's throwing out other references left and right), but Jane Eyre is the most important. Wikipedia appears to be filing this under "alternative universe," but I think it would be more accurate to consider it absurdist magic realism.


F

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall
Willingham, Bill
2006
1st
DC Comics
yes

A 'Fables' tale outside the main thread of the stories, this predates the material most readers are familiar with. I've loved the main Fables storyline, but this book was a bit disappointing. We find Snow White in the land of the Arabian Fables, trying to make a pact with them. But she finds herself under threat of death, and telling stories to stave off death each night. Sound familiar? Each story adds background to the history of the Fables, and each is illustrated by a different artist. It's interesting if you're familiar with 'Fables,' but probably confusing and pointless if you're not. And even if you know the background, it's not as good as the main story.

The Fall of Hyperion
Simmons, Dan
1990
1st
Bantam
yes

Not the equal of its brilliant predecessor, Hyperion. But a good book nevertheless, and worth reading for the conclusion of everything started in Hyperion. The structure isn't nearly as good (most of it looking at events through the dreaming mind of a cybrid who can "see" events across hundreds of light years in real time ... uh huh). And involving both the "Ultimate Intelligence" created by the machines (read "God"), and an equivalent essentially dreamed-into-being by humanity. Better than that implies, it's still good, but it definitely feels like he's struggling to write himself back out of the corner he got himself into.

The Farthest Shore
Le Guin, Ursula K.
1972
yes

The sequel to Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. In A Wizard Ged was 15-18 years old. In Tombs he was a secondary character, but he was perhaps 35-40. And now, he's become archmage of Roke (as mentioned at the end of the first book), and I would guess between 55 and 60 years old. The book starts with the prince Lebannen from Enlad coming bearing the news that there are rumours that magic is failing in the Reaches. Ged sees something in Lebannen and Lebannen worships the ground that Ged walks on (this isn't particularly well played by Le Guin), so the two set out on a archipelago-spanning journey to try to find the cause of the problem.

Much of the book is about dealing with the fact that you will eventually die - no one lives forever. Ged is apparently the only person in the world who truly believes this, and those that don't believe are all being influenced by ... something.

While I enjoyed revisiting the single greatest hero of my childhood (Ged), this is definitely the weakest of the three books in the initial trilogy (Le Guin wrote these three in a clump around 1970, but would after 1990 revisit it with a couple more novels and some short stories). It's heavy-handed and pedantic in its lessons about accepting what we've been given, and the story has little joy or pleasure in it.

A Fate Worse Than Dragons
Moore, John
2007
1st
Ace Books
yes

Moore writes comedy fantasy, in this case about a knight (Terry) in love with a princess he's too poor to marry. She loves him too, but is under threat of an arranged marriage. So to solve this problem, Terry sets out to kill a dragon in the kingdom because then he'll get the princess - after all, it has the force of law and legal precedent (and there are plenty of lawyers in this kingdom). He succeeds in killing the dragon after several weeks of hunting ... only to find the border town he's been hunting by has been effectively re-zoned and now (by force of law) he may be bound to marry the crazy princess from the next kingdom over ...

This is the kind of humour Moore uses, contrasting standard fantasy tropes (knight and princess) with modern concepts (lawyers, re-zoning, sliced bread ...). The writing is utilitarian, but he manages a lot of laughs and I enjoyed it.

Feet of Clay
Pratchett, Terry
1996

Feet of Clay is the 19th Discworld novel, which introduces golems. We see the City Watch (including characters we already know, including Vimes, Carrot, Angua, Detritus, Nobby, and Colon, plus a new dwarf named "Cheery Littlebottom"). Golems are made of clay, and must have a master - for whom they will work tirelessly 24 hours a day. They're nearly indestructible, and when one apparently goes on a rampage, the watch has some very tricky detective work to do. At the same time, Lord Vetinari is also being poisoned, causing further problems.

I wasn't expecting to enjoy this one much - I suppose I keep expecting the Discworld books to fall off in quality as they progress, in large part because I know I wasn't that enthusiastic about 2003's The Wee Free Men. But, while they've been uneven, there hasn't been the slow downward trend I keep looking for. I enjoyed this one a fair bit, and thought he managed to pull of one of his best interchanges ever towards the end of the book.

SPOILER ALERT: what follows is a spoiler, not because of what's said, but because of who says it. So stop reading this review now if you're planning to read the book.

Another priest said, "Is it true you’ve said you'll believe in any god whose existence can be proved by logical debate?"

"Yes."

Vimes had a feeling about the immediate future and took a few steps away from Dorfl.

"But the gods plainly do exist," said a priest.

"It Is Not Evident."

A bolt of lightning lanced through the clouds and hit Dorfl's helmet. There was a sheet of flame and then a trickling noise. Dorfl's molten armor formed puddles around his white-hot feet.

"I Don't Call That Much Of An Argument," said Dorfl calmly, from somewhere in the clouds of smoke.

"It's tended to carry the audience," said Vimes. "Up until now."

The jokes about religion and authority are very good for most of the book, but this particular joke is a favourite.

Fifth Business
Davies, Robertson
1970
1st paperback
Signet
?

Superbly written, a rather bizarre story of the life of a man. Very hard to explain. I put it down for eight months - the plot isn't captivating, but the writing is. Very good.

Finch
Vandermeer, Jeff
2009
1st
Underland
yes

The first book I read by Vandermeer was Shriek: An Afterword which thoroughly impressed me. It's a dark book, but the prose is convoluted and elegant and the story is positively psychedelic. Finch is set in the same city of Ambergris roughly 100 years later - the city is now partly flooded and is fully under the control of the sentient-mushroom gray caps. "Finch" is a detective for the police, trying to solve a double murder - one man, one gray cap. The prose is choppy and much more direct than that in Shriek: it's probably a deliberate attempt to imitate a more "noir" style of writing (possibly even successful) but hugely less appealing to me. The story is also too long, and incredibly grim, making Shriek look like a sunny walk in the park (it isn't). If you're a fan of noir, steampunk, and psychedelia, this might appeal to you ... but it definitely wasn't for me.

Finder: Dream Sequence
McNeil, Carla Speed
2003
1st
Lightspeed Press
yes

McNeil's work is uneven but always interesting and beautifully drawn. This is a hell of a whack at the possibilities of cyberspace and some of the issues that might arise.

Magri White is an artist of sorts: his mind holds the place "Elsewhere" that thousands of people visit through their computers every day. It's a wonderful place. But Magri's family wasn't very nice, and since he's a place he hasn't slept since he was eight years old. What happens if he has psychological issues?

Finder: Five Crazy Women
McNeil, Carla Speed
?
1st
Lightspeed Press
no

I read this as McNeil posted it online, and was completely sucked in. It's written from the point of view of a man, and I was very surprised that this storyteller who had the male viewpoint completely nailed was a woman. A brilliant artist with a lot of insight into human behaviour - this is a really great graphic novel.

Finder: King of Cats
McNeil, Carla Speed
2001
1st
Lightspeed Press
yes
Finder goes to the theme park "Munkyland" and ends up spending a lot of time with the locals (the Ascians - this is science fiction, and they have some similarities to modern American Indians) and the Nyima - lion-headed humans. They try to manipulate them, he aims to solve their problems in his own (always unique) way. One of her better books.
Finder: Mystery Date
McNeil, Carla Speed
2004
1st
Lightspeed Press
yes
This is probably my least favourite of the McNeil graphic novels I've read. Still fascinating, but Finder himself is one of my favourite characters and he plays only a very small role here. The main character is "Vary," a young prostitute in training taking on a very strange relationship with two of the professors at her university, one of whom is completely non-human (in McNeil's universe, there are degrees of humanity). Vary is a bit of a goof and a lot of what goes on is tangential and somewhat unrewarding.
Finder: Sin-Eater Volume One
McNeil, Carla Speed
1999
1st
Lightspeed Press
yes
The first, and probably the best, of the Finder graphic novels. Finder (aka "Jaeger Ayers") is painted as being almost supernatural, something that is glossed over to better effect in the later issues. But it's a good start for a good character, backed by great drawings.
Finder: Sin-Eater Volume 2
McNeil, Carla Speed
2000
1st
Lightspeed Press
yes
A continuation of Sin-Eater Volume 1, although the style has shifted somewhat. I didn't like this one as much: it's staggeringly disjoint in time, often each page in some other setting days or months apart - but you aren't told, so you have to guess. There's a good story in there, and her drawing is always excellent, but I found the structure disorienting.
Finder: The Rescuers
McNeil, Carla Speed
2005
1st
Lightspeed Press
yes
Graphic novel. Deals with the differences between justice in a bureaucracy and justice at the tribal level. One can't assume a happy ending with McNeil, but this one is pretty depressing. A child is kidnapped from a rich family, the bureaucracy uses its broken methods to track the lost child, and a native tracker (the ever-present Jaeger Ayers, McNeil's favoured "Finder") provides a native solution that's unusable within the bureaucracy. Leaves you with more questions than answers, but pretty good.
Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly
1997
1st
HarperCollins
yes

Csikszentmihalyi was the originator of the term "Flow," the idea of getting so into your work when it's the right combination of challenging and interesting that you fail to notice time passing. This isn't his first book on the subject, but I chose this one because of "engagement with everyday life" in the title. It's a fascinating book, he's researched the subject in considerable depth. It's also inspired me to find more things that put me in a "flow" state, which is a very good thing.

I got to page 110 of 147 (excluding notes, index ...) - TPL doesn't have many copies and I couldn't renew mine because someone else had requested it.

Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life
Jamison, Christopher (Abbot)
2008
1st
Liturgical Press
yes
Jamison is the Abbot of a Benedictine Monastery. While he's definitely Christian, his ideas on finding happiness apply to people of any religion. He advocates ("preaches" would be a bit strong) finding happiness before pleasure because "Pleasure is a perfectly moral and desirable part of life. Yet such pleasures do not of themselves make a person happy; they can only be enjoyed fully if one is already happy." He is also an advocate of moderation rather than abstinence (at least on the subject of alcohol), an idea I couldn't agree with more. These are simply examples: there are many other lessons to be had in this excellent book.
Fire Watch
Willis, Connie
1985
Bantam/Spectra
yes

A very well-known book of short stories by Willis, including her well-regarded "Fire Watch" in which a young university history student is sent back in time to the London Blitz during the Second World War. The story shares the same universe as the brilliant The Doomsday Book, and in fact the protagonist's roommate is Kivrin of that title.

I was singularly unhappy with the collection as a whole: "Fire Watch" wasn't bad but neither was it great, and the final story "Blued Moon" was likewise okay. I disliked many of the stories, and truly hated "All My Darling Daughters." It's in a style radically different than anything else Willis has written, and both the statements and the implications of the story are staggeringly repulsive.

Firethorn
Micklem, Sarah
2009
?
yes

Another author aspiring to write a trilogy, starting with this, the first book she's ever written. Micklem is very good at world-building, bringing us to a land ruled by those of "the Blood." They are the medieval nobility to the "mudfolk" peasants. It's quickly established that there is no law beyond what the Blood do: if they harm mudfolk, the only problems caused are if you've damaged someone else's worker so they can't work. The mudfolk were created by the gods, but those of the Blood are descended from the gods - or so we're told, but although there was a lot of worshipping, there was no visible action from any god during the book. While much is made of the difference between Blood and mud, they can (and often do) interbreed.

Our main character is Firethorn, a mud woman who follows a knight of the Blood to war (or at least to the King's preparatory war camp, where nearly half the book takes place). And her life is miserable. There's sex, there's scalping, there's mud, unhappiness, rape, poisoning, murder. There's no happiness and no beauty anywhere to be found in this book, and that's where it fell down for me: I don't need unremitting grimness from a book, it needs bright spots, achievements - that's why I read. Ugh.

Forest of Memory
Kowal, Mary Robinette
2016
1st
yes

I've read the first two of Mary Robinette Kowal's "The Glamourist Histories" books. I quite enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey (the first in that series and her first published book): she did a fine job riffing on Jane Austen's style and settings, and bringing magic into that world. It was a good book that didn't need a sequel, but apparently the sequels were successful without my being interested in them - imagine that. Recently I found out she'd written a science fiction novel about memory in the age of perpetual connection, I was immediately interested because she's a good writer with interesting ideas. (This isn't strictly a novel: it's published in book form, but is only about 15,000 words / 75 pages of text, making it what the Hugo awards call a "novella.")

The book finds antiquities dealer Katya Gould typing on a 1913 typewriter about her bike ride in the woods. The typewriter thing is one of the conceits of the book: there are typos throughout, and the occasional cross-out. The exact date is never established, but the antiquities she deals in would seem to indicate that our time is perhaps 50 years behind them. She often records huge chunks of her life and uploads it to the cloud as she goes. This is so common that it's a horrible shock to her when she becomes disconnected in the woods - that NEVER happens. A man shoots some deer in her sight (in itself an unusual and improper act) and then kidnaps her. But she cannot record, she has to remember it for herself. And no one is going to believe her because there's no recording.

She survives to type the story on the antiquity she was transporting at the time, although she never actually determines what the man was doing or why she was kidnapped. But she speculates a bit, and it's somewhat alarming.

The book made me think a bit about what it would be like to live when recording of everything is very common, and about the mutability of memory. But these are both subjects I've thought about before (which is why I was interested in the book), and while she did a decent job, it certainly wasn't ground-breaking.

Four Roads Cross
Gladstone, Max
2016
yes

The fifth book that Gladstone has written in the "Craft Sequence" - although fourth chronologically within its world. Gladstone's penchant for writing out of order has significantly reduced the suspense that could have existed in his stories had we not already known that certain characters survived.

We find Tara Abernathy as house counsel to the Church of Kos Everburning in the city of Alt Coulumb. She's stayed on after the events of the first (written) book, Three Parts Dead - an odd behaviour for a Craftswoman, as Craftsmen are in general on the opposite side of the table from gods. And now she has a significant crisis on her hands, because Kos loves Seril, and Seril, although resurrected, is A) still technically dead, B) weak, and C) likely to be perceived as a significant financial liability to Kos when the truth comes out ... which of course it does.

Several other major and minor characters from Three Parts Dead reappear. The writing is consistently good, with moments of excessively clever: "The Evangelists, thank any and all gods, had coffee: grim, nasty stuff, notes of hydrofluoric acid, undertones of charcoal, ground glass mouthfeel, aftertaste of squid. The sheen across the top reminded Tara of oil slicks she'd seen. But at least it was coffee, by someone's definition." I think it's a great description, but it's more an author showing off ("look what I can do") than working hard to tell a story. Gladstone writes a lot of his prose like this, although happily not usually quite so flashy, but it's sometimes a bit tiresome to read. Again, as with his other books, the story is good. But this book sees his promise of "four books in the Craft sequence" (which he made after the first or second book) fall by the wayside. This is the fifth book, and I really wish he'd stuck to his promise. It's by no means a bad book, but it no longer has the spark and the life that was most visible in the first book and which has been slowly fading ever since. He's a hell of a world-builder, and he should go build another world.

A Fraction of the Whole
Toltz, Steve
2008
1st
Bond Street Books (Random House)
yes

I didn't get anywhere near finishing this book (76/530 pages). It's a venomous satire - although of what hadn't quite become clear yet. Perhaps just daily (Australian?) life. It's very well-written, it's occasionally funny ... but I just felt like I had other stuff I wanted to read more.

Fuzzy Nation
Scalzi, John
2011
1st
Tor
yes

Scalzi's reboot of H. Beam Piper's minor classic Little Fuzzy. I've heard Scalzi talking about this book a couple times, and he explained how even though Little Fuzzy is now in the public domain, he and his agent went to the Piper Foundation (now owned by Penguin I believe) and wrote them a cheque for the privilege of doing this reboot.

It's been a long time since I read the Piper, but I've always been fond of it. I don't remember it well, but it seems that Scalzi has actually done a fairly good job with it. It's updated, it's amusing, it's an enjoyable read. I don't think Piper was aiming for anything more, and Scalzi doesn't aim higher either.

For people who are already fans of older SF, I'd recommend they find and read Little Fuzzy. For younger fans and those put off by the inherent Sixties assumptions of older SF or fans of the original looking to revisit these old friends, the Scalzi version is a fun ride.

Full Fathom Five
Gladstone, Max
2014
1st
Tor
yes

The third book in Max Gladstone's Craft series, Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise. Gladstone continues with the impressive world-building and the slightly hallucinatory combination of religion, magic, and technology. As he puts it in the afterward, "Every book's a journey - sometimes you go to Hawaii, sometimes you go to Mordor. For this book I did a bit of both." Our main character is Kai, a priestess at a factory/temple that builds idols. The idols are essentially non-sentient gods, which means that in his mythology ... they're essentially off-shore, non-taxable(?) bank accounts. Although they require worship and good handling and deposits of soul. Which all undoubtedly sounds weird if you haven't read any of his books, but it really works. Kai's problem is that she tried to save an idol as it died as a result of bad investments ... and while she's recovering from that near-death experience, her company side-lines her. We also follow the story of Izza, who is the story teller of a small band of street kids in the same city as Kai. They seem to have had a series of small gods, who helped them - on an island that is officially free of all gods. And Izza is helping Cat (who was in Three Parts Dead), who's recently arrived on the island on an unexplained errand.

An academic somewhere could write a long and very interesting paper about Gladstone's views on police. In the first book, "Justice" is a group of people who are linked to a semi-sentient authority, and essentially controlled by it. But Justice isn't actually very good at looking at the facts, and the off-duty Justice workers tend to have horrible addictions because going off-duty is a wickedly bad come-down. The portrayal of the police in the second book is the most positive of the lot: on duty, they're only semi-human, they're heavily fortified ... and still seriously outgunned. In this book, we have the Penitents: these are three metre tall stone giants that enforce the law, each of which has a person trapped inside it for months or years: and they scream in pain the entire time. He's very inventive, but I wonder about his views on justice and the police.

Anyway, another good book. I've had the impression that the next will be the last in the Craft series. I hope so, although this is one of those very rare cases where I think he could actually continue to mine this idea further.


G

Sandman: A Game of You (Volume 5)
Gaiman, Neil
2011
?
DC Comics
yes

Originally Sandman 32-37. At its best, the original Sandman series is among the best comic books ever created. This one tells the story of a young woman who doesn't dream, and her friends in New York City. She finds herself back in her very well constructed dream, but it's been taken over by "the Cuckoo," and a couple of her friends from the real world have been dragged into the fight. Good, but not Gaiman's best.

The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists
Strauss, Neil
2005
1st
Reilly
yes
Strauss was a writer for the New York Times, and was asked (around 2002?) to do an article about "Pick-Up Artists." A short, balding guy who was never good with women, he takes a seminar by a pick-up artist named "Mystery" and becomes utterly hooked. He spends the next couple years becoming a major player in the community, teaching seminars of his own, and eventually becoming disenchanted - fortunately for him, right around the time he also finds "true love." In case you're wondering, this is not fiction. It's a fascinating read, although it often has the feel of a car wreck: you know you should look away, but you can't.
Gateway
Pohl, Frederik
1977

Considered one of the great books of the genre, I direly wanted to re-read it after I read the sequel Beyond the Blue Event Horizon recently. That's an unimpressive book: this, on the other hand, has re-affirmed itself as one of the best SF novels ever written.

Our main character is Robinette Broadhead, living the high life on an over-populated Earth. He's seeing a computerized psychologist he calls Sigfrid, who over time slowly pushes him toward a deeply traumatic moment in his life. The novel alternates between his sessions with Sigfrid (in which he mostly avoids talking about his past) and flashbacks to his time on Gateway, which is an alien artifact circling the Sun left half a million years ago by an alien race known as the Heechee.

Gateway is littered with Heechee ships. The problem is, humans don't know how to fly them. You can make them go, but where you end up is a total crapshoot. And whether you come back is equally a crapshoot. Not too surprisingly, Robin is terrified to go. And he meets a woman on Gateway, Klara, with similar issues. But eventually they go out together - a long trip in a small tin can that produces nothing of value ... a trip that deepens their relationship in ways both good and bad.

All of this and much more is slowly and painfully revealed through the course of the book - interspersed with mission reports, personal ads, letters home, and various other Gateway documents that really add flavour to the place. The ending is seriously shocking, and still a hard thing to read even knowing the outcome from my previous (long ago) reading of the book.

Gatherer of Clouds
Russell, Sean
1992
Daw
?

The sequel to The Initiate Brother, and the end of this two book series. The book follows the Shonto defense of the Empire against an invading army - while simultaneously dealing with an emperor who refuses to believe that the invasion exists. It's also about "the initiate brother" of the previous book, Shuyun, who comes into his own. Spectacular.

The Ghost Brigades
Scalzi, John
2006
1st
Tor
yes
A decent book by Scalzi, lacking most of the humour of Old Man's War, and burdened by huge chunks of exposition (two people talking at each other for pages telling each other stuff they already both know so that you, the reader, can be informed) that were much more discretely distributed in the first book. This one follows attempts by "The Ghost Brigades" to prevent an interstellar war, including implanting the personality of a traitor on a body genetically identical to the traitor in the hopes of finding his motivations - and the whereabouts of his precursor. The story is seen through this person's eyes.
Ghost in the Shell
Shirow, Masamune
1995
1st
Dark Horse Comics
yes
Shirow's name is a pseudonym. How anyone could look at this disjoint mix of fan service and intellectual musings on the future of computers and technology and see anything resembling a movie in it, never mind a really good one, is beyond me. The only reason this was comprehensible to me was precisely because I'd seen the movie. Shirow does bizarre little short stories in a universe he's constructed in his head. Unfortunately, many of the essential bits of information never make it out of his head and onto the page. See the movie, don't read this.
The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Johnson, Steven
2006
1st
Riverhead Books (Penguin)
yes

There aren't a lot of mesmerizing non-fiction books in the world, but this is one of them. It takes a certain skill to make the tale of John Snow and Henry Whitehead read like a detective thriller, especially when the author declares the outcome in the first few pages. This is all about how Snow and Whitehead dissected and stopped the 1854 Cholera epidemic in London, and how Snow eventually convinced the world that the disease was spread by water, not smells. And the effect that revelation had on both medecine and the way we build cities.

The book drops off considerably in the last chapter and a half as Johnson switches from historical narrative to future speculation. But to that point it's admirable and utterly fascinating.

Second Review:

My recent reading of Where Good Ideas Come From by Johnson inspired me to re-read his brilliant The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Both a grandiose title and a big claim - and not inaccurate. I used to claim that it reads with the tension of a murder mystery - even though you know the outcome. On this second reading I was astonished at the immense amount of technical information he goes through. And not about inherently exciting subjects: an incredible number of deaths, water pumps, sewers, cesspools, diseases, and informational maps. The success of this book suggests I wasn't the only person who found his coverage of these topics fascinating: he lays out the state of science at the time (a deep belief that bad smells aka "miasma" spread disease) and the uphill battle that John Snow and Henry Whitehead had to prove that cholera was in fact a waterborne disease. That idea of Snow's was incredibly radical at the time, and Whitehead went from being his greatest adversary to being his greatest supporter.

Possibly the best non-fiction book ever written about any aspect of science, I cannot recommend this one enough. In the last chapter he does some speculating about the future of science based on what he's written and that part is a bit off-key, but ... seriously, read this. It's pure genius.

ghostopolis
TenNapel, Doug
2010
Graphix/Scholastic
yes

A live boy is transported to the afterlife by a ghost hunter who accidentally returns both a ghost and the live boy. The problem is ... it's hard to return someone after they've been sent. A motley crew attempts to catch up to Garth (the boy) as he goes trotting about the landscape on the horse skeleton that got him sent over and that subsequently befriended him. But there are strange forces at work ...

A good story with good artwork in a single self-contained volume.

Gifts
Le Guin, Ursula K.
2004
1st paperback
Harcourt
yes
Le Guin returns to something much like the setting of A Wizard of Earthsea, one of my favourite books and the one that's kept me looking at her books for years. As with the Earthsea books, there's a feeling of barrenness to this - in the setting, in the lives of the people. In this case, the people of the area have "gifts," magical (although that word is never used) abilities of shaping or destroying the world around them. Our hero has an uncontrollable talent for "unmaking" things, and thus is permanently blindfolded to prevent him destroying things. It's a coming-of-age tale, but if you want one of those Wizard is better.
Glamour in Glass
Kowal, Mary Robinette
2012
Tor
yes

Kowal continues the story of Jane, now with her husband. They go on a honeymoon to Belgium, where they encounter the return of Napoleon and things get unpleasant. It felt awkward and contrived and I was sick of Jane's damaged sense of self-worth that Vincent is constantly having to prop up even before I started this book: it gets very tiresome by the end. Kowal is a decent writer but I think her energies would have been better spent on new material: instead this series (this is the second, following Shades of Milk and Honey) extends (at this writing in 2014) to four books.

The Goblin Emperor
Addison, Katherine
2014
1st
Tor
yes

Maia is the exiled fourth (or fifth ... I lost track) son of the emperor - banished to a country estate in part because he's half goblin in a land of elves - when the airship carrying his father and all his brothers explodes. Suddenly this untutored 18 year old is in charge of a large empire. The book follows his struggle to come to terms with his change of status and try to rule justly while not getting killed, a rather difficult thing given that he knew no one at court when he started.

Addison has a particular love of multi-syllabic names for people and places that I found fairly annoying, a fine example being "Untheileneise'meire" (with the knowledge from the pronunciation guide at the back of the book that "There are no silent letters in Ethuverazhin"). Addison's main aim seems to be to show that Maia is swamped in court politics that he doesn't understand: she does this passably well, although I think "The Initiate Brother" does the politics substantially better. But Maia is a likable guy and the book is overall a fast and enjoyable read: recommended.

The God Box
Longyear, Barry B.
1989

Our narrator, Korvas, is doing a sideshow talk to a crowd and trying to part them from their money to hear his story. He's a former cheating carpet merchant, obnoxious, hypocritical, a boaster, and many other things besides ... but he's a self-aware and intelligent obnoxious boaster and he has one hell of a story to tell. You see, Korvas has inherited (from someone he didn't know, which kind of surprises him) a small box with four drawers. These drawers provide him with things: rarely ever things he wants, but always things he needs - even though he often doesn't see it that way. The box may contain the power of the gods, or it may be a god ... in any case, it's going to take him for a hell of a trip whether he wants to go or not.

The story doesn't go beyond the relatively common fantasy quest format as Korvas tries to figure out how to A) save himself, and B) save the world, but it's a fairly unusual quest with an entertaining narrator, and I found it a fast and very enjoyable read.

Gods Behaving Badly
Phillips, Marie
2007
1st
Random House
yes
It turns out that the Greek Gods are not, in fact, dead. They're living in an incredibly squalid house in London, doing the things (Greek) gods always do: grandstanding, hitting on mortals, acting out on petty jealousies, and getting laid. The first fifty pages are hysterically, laugh-out-loud funny, but the rest of the book doesn't live up to that. Still, engaging characters and an enjoyable plot make this a light and easy read. Imagine Terry Pratchett with sex thrown in: and the similarities don't end there, she borrows from his and Neil Gaiman's views on old gods. I wonder if the name of one of the main characters being "Neil" is just a coincidence ...
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
Pullman, Philip
2010
1st
Knopf Canada
yes

Mary had twins, the brothers Jesus and Christ. Christ was very pious, always going to temple and studying scriptures. Jesus was a wild child, always causing problems - and often bailed out by Christ. But in later life it was Jesus who preached, who had followers, who saw the coming Kingdom of God. And Christ became the quiet man in the background recording Jesus' progress.

Pullman has re-envisioned the story of Jesus Christ. I would say he was trying to make sense of what the real happenings were that led to the scripture we know today, but I don't think that's where he's coming from as an avowed atheist. I think it's more likely he thinks of it as a vehicle to place doubt in the mind of Christians. But when asked, he can retreat into another entirely plausible explanation: it's about storytelling, and how stories change through time and retelling, and how they can be made more powerful through correct choices of those changes. Unfortunately, he's opted to use very simple language and very little in the way of description - presumably to have something similar to a storyteller's verbal delivery - and thus has left us with a sparse and unexciting story of morality.

This book is of course controversial with the Christian Church. The irony of that is that if they'd simply ignored it, this story would have had very little power because ... well, it's just not that good. I like Pullman and I wanted to like this, but it's succeeding because of the controversy, not because it has much merit.

Good Omens
Pratchett, Terry and Neil Gaiman
1990
Ace

Good Omens spends a great deal of time examining The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Many people prophesied that a book written by Pratchett and Gaiman would be very good, but I'd have to say that's kind of a gimme - not a hard prediction to make. And one that turned out entirely accurate (and, in fact, "nice," in the sense Agnes Nutter uses it, meaning "precise"). Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are both famous on their own - Gaiman best known for The Sandman (also known for many other things), and Pratchett for the Discworld series of books. Their working together was a dream come true for many fans.

The end times are nigh, and the angel Aziraphale ("An angel, and part-time rare book dealer") and the demon Crowley ("An Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards") - who have both been stationed on Earth and have become friends - are NOT looking forward to having their comfy jobs terminated by the Apocalypse. Of course they have jobs to do, and authorities to report to ... but they're both going to bend the rules as much as they possibly can ... Due to a mix-up at the children's hospital, the son of Satan is placed with a perfectly ordinary British family and named Adam, instead of becoming the son of the American diplomat in the U.K. And so Adam slowly warps the small town of Lower Tadfield into his own image of perfection (which Wikipedia points out is almost exactly like an old series of British children's books called Just William).

A blurb on the cover from the New York Times declares this "A direct descendant of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," and that's a very accurate assessment: this is to religious fantasy what HHGttG was to science fiction. As with so many Pratchett books, the plot isn't really the point - although in this case I think Gaiman's influence led to a plot more thought-provoking than Pratchett's usual stuff. And I think that together they've also produced better characters than they do alone, even if most of them are still drawn in broad strokes. Intermittently hysterically funny, and always entertaining. Highly recommended. I wish they'd written another book or two together.

The Graveyard Book
Gaiman, Neil
2008
1st
HarperCollins
yes

Illustrations by Dave McKean. Gaiman is clearly a fan of McKean, having worked with him on numerous occasions. But this is perhaps the first time I've liked his illustrations, in this case rather simple monochrome sketches.

The story is about a young boy growing up in a graveyard. His family was murdered, and "the man Jack" who did it is determined to kill him ... but loses the baby boy when one of the graveyard's residents puts him off the trail. And so the boy, now known as "Nobody Owens," is raised by ghosts, and acquires some very strange talents, and equally strange friends.

Gaiman's writing is excellent, with a particular knack for giving substance to characters with only a short description. Very enjoyable.

The Great Good Thing
Townley, Roderick
2001
Atheneum
yes
The main conceit of this YA novel is that the main character (and her family and friends) are all characters in a book. When someone reads the book, they have to sprint about, reading their lines. The concept is cleverly developed, and there are many good ideas, but none can equal the initial concept. It's a very good book (even for adults) that doesn't quite live up to its initial brilliance.
Gridlinked
Asher, Neal
2001
1st
Tor
?
Post-cyberpunk action-adventure SF. The main character, Ian Cormac, is what amounts to a federal agent, defending the integrity of Earth Central(?) and the other planets in the empire. When the book begins, he is "gridlinked," permanently connected to all the computers and AIs surrounding him - but shortly finds out that he has to become un-gridlinked or permanently lose his humanity. Which he does - and is then confronted with an unusual case while a psychotic maniac from a previous case attempts to track him down and kill him. The book is definitely an enjoyable read - reasonably well written, lots of action. But the ending is extremely unclear about what happened, and I found that pretty annoying.
Guards! Guards!
Pratchett, Terry
1989

The eighth Discworld novel, Pratchett introduces the Night Watch, Carrot, Captain Vimes, Sergeant Colon, and Corporal "Nobby" Nobbs. The Night Watch has been beaten into complete insignificance by the crime in the city, and Captain Vimes of the Watch has slowly slid into alcoholism (although Pratchett would never use that word, seeing it as merely heavy drinking in the face of an obstacle and easily solved ...). Things begin to change when a dragon starts attacking the city and Carrot joins the watch. Carrot Ironfoundersson isn't a dwarf, although he's having trouble adjusting to that fact. He grew up as a dwarf after his parents found him as a baby. By the time he got to be 6'6", his parents found it necessary to admit to him that he was, in fact, an adopted human. And so he ventured to the city (Ankh-Morpork, of course) with his unbending morality, durable sword, and not terribly swift brain to make his way in the world.

The Watch are one of Pratchett's more memorable crews, particularly Carrot. I prefer my heroes reasonably intelligent, but I'm willing to make an exception for one as charming, literal-minded, and funny as Carrot.


H

Halting State
Stross, Charles
2007
1st
Ace
yes

The book is written in the second person, with chapters being from one of three perspectives: Sue (a cop), Elaine (a forensic database analyst), and Jack (a game designer and programmer). They are dealing with a huge bank robbery inside a MMORPG - an apparent impossibility in a non-PvP zone - and the massive real-world fall-out that follows.

The writing style is an incredibly annoying conceit. The ideas on near-future gaming and espionage are actually quite interesting and the book is structured reasonably well, but the writing style wore me down to where finishing the book was a bit of a chore.

Have Spacesuit, Will Travel
Heinlein, Robert A.
1958
?

A science fiction fan friend of mine has been maintaining for years that, despite my issues with Heinlein's politics and later writing, I should read Have Spacesuit, Will Travel - one of Heinlein's early juveniles. And he was right: it's a bit dated, but it's also a thoroughly enjoyable story of a teenager who wins a used spacesuit in a contest. He repairs the spacesuit and tests it thoroughly (this is a very scientific-minded story), and, in his determination to get into space, eventually (and somewhat involuntarily) goes on a very long journey indeed.

Head First HTML5 Programming: Building Web Apps with Javascript
Freeman, Eric and Elisabeth Robson
2011
1st
Head First
yes

"Head First," a division of O'Reilly, has been making a series of technical books for several years. They tend to be quite thick because they're stuffed full of pictures and diagrams, with lots of space on the pages. The idea is to use a more conversational and visual style that's more conducive to learning than the more traditional, more densely packed text books.

I find the so-cool (but as inexperienced as you!) web designers/programmers having self-educating conversations to be incredibly annoying. But the well-constructed, slowly developed, and meticulously explained examples are hugely helpful. If I'm deeply interested in a subject, I can wade through the dense and barely explained examples in more traditional technical books, but reading the sections that aren't currently of interest to me can be extremely tedious. As annoying as the Head First style is, I did find I learned very well from it. In this case there was some content that I already knew, and some that wouldn't be of use any time soon - but I still worked through more than half the book (not consecutive).

Hector and the Search for Happiness
François Lelord
2010
Penguin
yes

I found out about this book when I saw a trailer for the (upcoming at the time) film starring Simon Pegg. It sounded interesting and I borrowed it from the library. The primary conceit of the book is that it's written in a voice appropriate to a children's book. Hector is a psychiatrist who is unhappy with his life and decides to have a big trip around the world. The content is assuredly not for children: Hector has a girlfriend, and yet he sleeps with two other women on his adventures around the world, one of them a prostitute.

One of the funniest books I've read in years, and simultaneously one of the most insightful: it has a lot to say about happiness (and given that Lelord himself is a psychiatrist, he seems to be up on his happiness research). It's also easy to read, and I got through the entire book in three and a half hours. Highly recommended.

Don't mistake this for a recommendation of the movie: the movie is quite bad. Its fangs have been pulled (Hector doesn't sleep with anyone) and the lessons carry much more weight when you're reading and stop to think about them.

Hellsing
Hirano, Kohta
1997-2008

About a decade ago I saw a part of the "Hellsing" anime and enjoyed it, so as part of my recent graphic novel binge I decided to read the Hellsing manga. Admittedly I missed volumes 4, 5, and 6 because the library doesn't have them, but returning to 7, it seems the only thing Kohta Hirano cares about is stylish black-and-white bloodspray - 185 pages of it. It looked like the only bit of detail I may have missed in those intervening volumes was that Alucard's protégé Seras Victoria found a man to love. In any case, logic really isn't important to Hirano - and in fact characters aren't important either. Or perhaps they are, but they're intensely ludicrous (and that's okay with him). All he cares about are the images, and man, they're glorious. Over-the-top, certainly, but a lot of his drawings are magical. So much so that I stumbled through seven volumes (it would be ten, if you can get the whole series) of a non-sensical story about Alucard (the greatest vampire who ever lived - see, that's "Dracula" spelled backwards, so clever ...), the Hellsing organization (super-secret British government operation that manages Alucard), the fifty-years delayed invasion of Britain by a Nazi army of vampires and werewolves, AND the Holy Roman Catholic Army (or whatever he called it). And let's not forget the awful, awful use of bad accents and slang to let us know that these people are ENGLISH, GERMAN, and in one case FRENCH. I kept reading because a single book can be consumed in 30 minutes (that's all the content it's got) and it was free (from the library). But ... it was more stylish and successful when the full-on bloodshed was interspersed with people and less bloody action, as in the earlier books - before he started to reveal how little sense his full story arc made.

Did I mention the bloodshed?

The High King
Alexander, Lloyd
1968
?
?
yes

The final book in the five book Prydain series that started with The Book of Three, the book starts with bad tidings and sees the entire realm go to war against the great evil in the land. Taran has come of age and leads war parties (notably from the Free Commots, where he spent so much time in the last book). He loses a number of friends in the war - Alexander has brought in death as a possibility through the course of the series, and here we see just how bad war is. Good triumphs, but not without losses. A good conclusion to an excellent series.

A History of Violence
Wagner, John and Vince Locke
1997
1st
Vertigo (DC Comics)
yes

I read this because I saw and loved the movie. Right up to and including the confrontation at the McKenna's house, it's very similar to the movie, but when Tom McKenna is recovering in the hospital, the two part ways - pretty much at right angles. Yes, Tom has to deal with his past. But his past is very different, and what happens because of that is also very different. I wouldn't have read this without the movie - it's fairly good, but incredibly creepy. I prefer the movie, but the comparison is fascinating.

Hooked!: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume
ed. Kaza, Stephanie
2005
1st
Shambhala
yes
An uneven collection of essays by various Buddhist writers and speakers. I wasn't particularly impressed by the first, but the second, by Pema Chödrön, was quite good. I didn't get any further than that as I had to return the book to the library.
How to Lie with Statistics
Huff, Darrell
1954
yes

It's always great to find a book that deserves its stellar reputation: How to Lie with Statistics was first published in 1954, more than sixty years ago, but chances are very good you've heard the title and it's still in print (or at least available new on Amazon).

He demonstrates a variety of ways to lie with statistics: one of the first he presents is choosing amongst the mean, median, and mode while simply referring to it as "the average" - a method that can throw a statistic into a radically different light if you don't bother to ask which "average" you were just handed. One of my personal favourites is graph-shortening, in which you present the range on a graph from say 900 to 1000 and then claim it to be wildly active because the value has risen (or dropped) by the entire shown value - whereas if you'd shown from 0 to 1000 it would have been clear there wasn't much fluctuation at all. Then of course there's post hoc conclusions: "this fluctuates at the same time as that, therefore this causes that." Actually, you usually have no proof at all of any connection: just because they both moved doesn't mean there's a direct association ("correlation does not imply causation" - I don't think he quoted that, but happily that's often referenced now). He concludes by pointing out that even with the best of intentions, statistics remains as much an art as a science and may deceive without even intending to.

The book is short, well written, and quite entertaining: apparently it was a university introductory stats text for many years. I wish my textbooks were this readable! Highly recommended.

The Human Division
Scalzi, John
2013
1st
Tor
yes

Scalzi returns to the universe of Old Man's War, dealing with the fallout of John Perry's visit to Earth in The Last Colony. Scalzi presents the book as a novel, but he wrote it (and sold it) as 13 related short stories. And that's how it reads - it certainly doesn't feel like a novel.

As with most of Scalzi's tales, this one stars several ultra-competent protagonists, most notably Harry Wilson (one of Perry's companions from Old Man's War). During the book, through incredibly improbable luck and occasional cleverness that Scalzi dresses up as genius, Wilson saves the day several times. And yet - there's a dark force at work in the universe, first surfacing about a third of the way through the book. Things become considerably worse as the book progresses, and for the first time, Scalzi simply leaves everything dangling at the end. All his previous Old Man's War books have been related, but could more or less stand alone. This one cannot: the ending is this close to being a cliffhanger. Apparently Scalzi plans to continue writing quite a number of books in this universe.

Given that the books have been getting steadily worse since the seminal Old Man's War and this one is notably worse than the last, I'll be departing Scalzi's universe. I'm sorry to go - it started so well.

The Human Story: Our History, from the Stone Age to Today
Davis, James C.
2004
1st
HarperCollins
yes

Davis is a university professor first, and a writer second. His delivery is somewhat pedantic, and just ... heavy. It's not as bad as you'd expect from a university text, but it's not an ideal read. I read this directly after "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson, a hugely entertaining piece of work despite being a couple hundred pages longer and dealing with an equally dry subject material. In Bryson's hands it flies, in Davis's, it walks.

As promised, he covers the stone age through 2003. I felt several times that he should have gone into more detail, but if he had, the book could easily have run to several thousand pages - he had a lot of ground to cover. He also tended to cover generations and/or dynasties in one region, then move to another region and do the same thing. This left me with no sense of the connection of events between regions. The alternative would be to go strictly chronological and constantly be switching areas: I can see there are problems with both methods.

Hyperion
Simmons, Dan
1989
1st, 11th printing
Bantam Spectra
yes
Prior to the publication of this book, Simmons was known as one of the better authors of horror. I'd never read anything by him because horror doesn't interest me. But I read this, and it's breath-taking. He takes the structure of The Canterbury Tales, with seven pilgrims headed to and across the world of Hyperion to visit the very deadly Shrike. As they travel, each tells their tale. So we end up with seven novellas, each of which stands as an excellent piece of writing and together provide a staggering, epic view of a galaxy-spanning society in turmoil and simultaneously show us the very personal stories of our travellers. It's an amazing achievement, and stands as one of the best pieces of SF ever written. Keep your eyes open for other literary references: the one to Romeo and Juliet in the Consul's tale is blatant (although I somehow missed it the first time). The sequel, Fall of Hyperion, is not to be missed either: which is good because the end of this one does leave you dangling a bit.

I

Icerigger
Foster, Alan Dean
1974
1st
Ballantine
no

One of Foster's earliest books, he was already showing a preference for throwing out big words in inappropriate places. Nevertheless, while it's not a great book, it's a hell of a lot of fun. Ethan Fortune (salesman), Skua September (adventurer, giant, and misfit), and Milliken Williams (school teacher) accidentally become involved in a kidnapping on a luxury cruise ship, and end up stranded on an ice world. They and the two targets of the kidnapping find themselves attempting to circumnavigate the planet with the assistance of medieval-level alien locals (who are physically better equipped for skating than walking).

Ignition! An Informal History of Rocket Propellants
Clark, John Drury
1972

A friend recently (2017) pointed out that archive.org has made this book available in multiple downloadable formats here. He then characterized the book by saying "If Jerome K. Jerome had been born a half-century later and had been a rocket scientist he might have written this." Quite the sales pitch. It didn't hurt to hear from another friend that Elon Musk is also a fan of the book.

John Clark was a rocket scientist. The book has leapt on to my very short list of non-fiction books that are genuinely entertaining to read, the other two entries being The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson and A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. A basic understanding of Chemistry and Physics (high school level) is required to understand the chemical reactions detailed and the thrust calculations he eventually gets to. Like Bryson, he makes otherwise dry material fascinating by explaining the details of problems. A text book might explain that a particular propellant was sensitive to explosion and leave it at that - it's an important detail, but doesn't leave much impression. But Clark does: "I used to take advantage of this property [the exceptional reactivity of mixed acid] when somebody came into my lab looking for a job. At an inconspicuous signal, one of my henchmen would drop the finger of an old rubber glove into a flask containing about 100 cc of mixed acid — and then stand back. The rubber would swell and squirm a moment, and then a magnificent rocket-like jet of flame would rise from the flask, with appropriate hissing noises. I could usually tell from the candidate’s demeanor whether he had the sort of nervous system desirable in a propellant chemist."

Johnson fills you in on which propellants smell truly horrible - and even which smell good: "One of the oddest combinations to be investigated was tried by RMI, who burned d-limonene with WFNA. d-limonene is a terpene which can be extracted from the skins of citrus fruits, and all during the runs the test area was blanketed with a delightful odor of lemon oil. The contrast with the odors of most other rocket propellants makes the event worth recording."

His writing is quite eloquent and generally a pleasure to read. I'll give you a few more quotes to show you what his writing is like. (You'll need to understand "hypergolicity:" this is the concept that two substances should ignite immediately on contact without the need for a spark or catalyst: this greatly simplifies rocket motor starting.)

He didn't like peroxide much as an oxidizer: "[A] splash of peroxide on a wool suit can turn the wearer into a flaming torch, suitable for decorating Nero’s gardens." "The only thing to do was to keep the peroxide in a tank made of something that didn’t catalyze its decomposition (very pure aluminum was best) and to keep it clean. The cleanliness required was not merely surgical — it was levitical. Merely preparing an aluminum tank to hold peroxide was a project, a diverting ceremonial that could take days. Scrubbing, alkaline washes, acid washes, flushing, passivation with dilute peroxide — it went on and on. And even when it was successfully completed, the peroxide would still decompose slowly; not enough to start a runaway chain reaction, but enough to build up an oxygen pressure in a sealed tank, and make packaging impossible." And finally: "And there was always the problem of gross pollution. Say that somebody dropped (accidentally or otherwise) a greasy wrench into 10,000 gallons of 90 percent peroxide in the hold of the ship. What would happen — and would the ship survive? This question so worried people that one functionary in the Rocket Branch (safely in Washington) who had apparently been reading Captain Horatio Horn-blower, wanted us at NARTS to build ourselves a 10,000-gallon tank, fill it up with 90 percent peroxide, and then drop into it — so help me God — one rat."

In reference to chlorine trifluoride aka "CTF:" "All this sounds fairly academic and innocuous, but when it is translated into the problem of handling the stuff, the results are horrendous. It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that’s the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water — with which it reacts explosively. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals — steel, copper, aluminum, etc. — because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminum keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes."

He found quite a few new expressions for what most of us would have called an "explosion:" "And when you have a turbine spinning at some 4000 rpm, and the clearance between the blades is a few thousandths of an inch, and this sticky, viscous liquid deposits on the blades, the engine is likely to undergo what the British, with precision, call 'catastrophic self-disassembly.'"

"Isolde" was a monopropellant his crew worked with, made from diisopropyl amine: "If you have a monopropellant blow in your motor, that’s one thing. But if that detonation propagates back (at some 7000 meters per second, usually) through the propellant line to the propellant tank, and that blows, then you can be in real trouble. If the diameter of the propellant line is small enough, the detonation will not propagate and dies out — the limiting diameter being called the “critical diameter.” It varies with the nature of the propellant, the material of which the line is made (steel, aluminum, glass, etc.) with the temperature, and maybe with a few more things. (When we found that a detonation in Isolde would propagate nicely through hypodermic-needle tubing, our hair stood on end, and we perspired gently.)"

A mixture of dinitrogen tetroxide and the IsoButylene Adduct of tetrafluorohydrazine: "So there was a large audience for the subsequent events. The old destroyer gun turret which housed our card-gap setup had become a bit frayed and tattered from the shrapnel it had contained (The plating on a destroyer is usually thick enough to keep out the water and the smaller fish). So we had installed an inner layer of armor plate, standing off about an inch and a half from the original plating And, as the setup hadn’t been used for several months, a large colony of bats ... had moved into the gap to spend the winter And when the first shot went off, they all came boiling out with their sonar gear fouled up, shaking their heads and pounding their ears. They chose one rocket mechanic — as it happens, a remarkably goosy character anyway — and decided that it was all his fault. And if you, gentle reader, have never seen a nervous rocket mechanic, complete with monkey suit, being buzzed by nine thousand demented bats and trying to beat them off with a shovel, there is something missing from your experience."

He leaves you with a knowledge of where liquid rocket propellant technology stood in 1972. If anyone ever manages to write a history from then until today that's half as entertaining, I'll read it immediately.

IRL: In Real Life
Doctorow, Cory and Jen Wang
2014
yes

I borrowed this from the library after it was recommended by 100 Greatest Graphic Novels: The Good, The Bad, The Epic. This had an immediate draw as I'm a fan of Cory Doctorow, one of Toronto's smartest exports. Cory lays it out in the written introduction: this is about gaming and economics. Rich North American kids and poor Chinese kids playing the same MMO for totally different reasons. Our main character is Anda, a 14 year old girl in Flagstaff, AZ, who goes on a few raids killing gold farmers, but eventually befriends one - and finds out that the money he makes in the game is what stands between him and a life of poverty.

Doctorow's best known (and best) book is Little Brother. Now he undoubtedly had an agenda when he wrote that: it's rabidly against Homeland Security and the paranoia that's infected the United States ever since September 11, 2001. But he had a full length book to fill out some really good characters and a very convincing story. But this time, he's got what amounts to perhaps 10 pages of prose (although the graphic novel is 175 pages), so he's laying it on thick to deliver the message. It's cute and not bad, but decidedly heavy-handed.

Jen Wang's artwork is really lovely, and would have really brought alive a less politically-driven message.

In the Skin of a Lion
Ondaatje, Michael
1987
1st
Vintage Canada (Random House)
yes
The wandering, disjoint plot is incredibly annoying. "Why are we following this person? What does she have to do with anything else?" It comes together in the last couple pages, but more cohesion was really needed. But you don't read Ondaatje for the plot, he's never really been good at that: you read him for the prose, every paragraph a jewel. He's still a poet, novel or not. I think The English Patient and Running in the Family are better books: in the first he managed to hold the plot together rather better, and in the second the disjoint style fits a whole lot better.
The Initiate Brother
Russell, Sean
1991
Daw
?

Russell's first book. I was initially drawn to it for its martial arts elements - I was still practicing the martial arts at the time. The book lays out the land of Wa, a place that combines aspects of Japan and China perhaps 1000 years ago with elements of fantasy. The writing and dialogue are very formal, reflecting the very formalized society. Shuyun - the "initiate brother" of the title - is a young Botahist monk (a religion clearly based on Buddhism with its Seven-fold path, although with the addition of magic) who is assigned by his order to live with the Shonto, a powerful and noble family in the empire.

What makes this book extraordinary is the meticulous and formal writing, the incredible care that went into both the plot structure and the prose. Russell paints an immense empire divided by decadence, invasion and civil war - all while beautifully playing out the political wrangling and the personal lives of everyone involved. It and the sequel Gatherer of Clouds are two of the best fantasy novels ever written.

Interesting Times
Pratchett, Terry
1994

Interesting Times - the 17th novel in the Discworld series - sends Rincewind to the Aurient (not surprisingly, Pratchett's parody of China and Japan). He brings in Cohen the Barbarian, and even, eventually, Twoflower - who we haven't seen since The Light Fantastic (the second book in the series). Rincewind is sent, involuntarily, to Agatea when the Agateans demand the presence of "The Great Wizzard" - the spelling being a dead give-away they want Rincewind.

Pratchett is happily mocking the worst of dictatorships and politics, and having a bit of a go at the cultures of Japan and China. Unfortunately, it wasn't very funny and the plot was one of his weaker efforts.

The Intuitionist
Whitehead, Colson
1999
yes

The book is about Lila Mae Watson, the first female African-American (called "colored" in the book) Elevator Inspector in an alternate-universe New York. The city is never named, but I'd concluded it was New York long before I read the reviews that have others saying the same thing. And by the constant use of the word "colored," the prevalent racism, and some other social and technological hints, I have to assume the period is the late 1950s to the early 1960s. I'm referring to this as an "alternate universe" because of the considerably heightened interest in elevators - to the point that it's almost a religion, but it's still a commercial enterprise so that the mob controls much of the market. It's also "alternate universe" because of some of the implicit technology involved.

I was intrigued by the whole elevator-as-fetish idea, and there's some of that, but Whitehead seemed much more interested in making the book a discussion of racism. Since I was looking for a bit of escapist reading, it wasn't quite what I expected. From p.43 and 44: "Lila Mae lived in the janitor's closet because the Institute for Vertical Transport did not have living space for colored students." "Lila Mae did not mix much with the other students, who were in turn thankful that she had spared them the burden of false conciliation." "The admission of colored students to the Institute for Vertical Transport was staggered to prevent overlap and any possible fulminations or insurrections that might arise from that overlap." Whitehead ensures that there's also discussion of racism of African-Americans toward other African-Americans.

The author also has a penchant for big words: "He turned the pages slowly, moving on to other metropolitan catastrophes, the next mithridatic outrage, the pages fluttered behind the front page but the headline remained the same, in the same place hovering across from her." (p.180) Dictionary.com defines 'mithridatism' as "the production of immunity against the action of a poison by taking the poison in gradually increased doses." He had me running for the dictionary to look up "adumbrates" a few pages later, and at least a couple more times: I have a reasonably large vocabulary and popular fiction usually doesn't involve a dictionary more than once per book so this was pretty unusual.

His writing is very ... angular, jagged. It's good, but becomes wearing after a while. He works hard to make his characters, and the places they visit, unsympathetic and unattractive. We spend much of 250 pages with Lila Mae, but get very little sense of personality from her: she puts on her "game face" when she goes to work, and the book gives us very little sense of what goes on behind that game face. Other reviews made much of the metaphor of the elevator, and I got that he was trying for ... something, I just don't know what.

Invincible: Family Matters (Volume 1)
Robert Kirkman (writer) and Cory Walker (artist)
2015
Image
yes

This graphic novel has a fawning, ass-kissing introduction by Kurt Busiek (another comic author) that I didn't manage to finish reading - it was just that sick-making. And seriously overblown for the content: he's claiming this is incredibly awesome, just overwhelmingly fantastic ... and yet, reading this first book of the Invincible series, you'll probably react as I did: this is utterly bog-standard superhero fare, a little witty, but nothing to write home about. The art is good, but not great - just colourful, traditional superhero stuff. I'll continue with the series as friends have told me it's good and I think he's headed somewhere with it, but it hasn't really grabbed me yet.

In the following volumes (I got through #4, "Head of the Class"), we had endless new supervillains, superheroes, and battles ... the man spends more time fighting than living, and that's just not interesting to me.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter
Swanwick, Michael
1993
Millenium

The story starts with Jane, a young human changeling who is a slave in a dragon factory. Dragons are essentially an analogue to jet fighters in our world - except that these dragons are nasty and intelligent. The world is dominated by elves, but there are trolls, pixies, half-animals, morphs, you name it. And Swanwick doesn't bother explaining anything, just mentions that this kid has the head of a deer, or that the intelligent mechanical horse has an incredibly foul mouth. That's just the way it is, keep reading.

We watch Jane grow, and while she's not a horrible person, neither was she someone I particularly liked. Swanwick seems to see the novel as a subversion of the fantasy genre, and there's certainly a degree of that. But it's also about the power of sex and/or sex magic. And it runs in fairly tight circles, with Jane meeting a couple of people several times - they have different names, different bodies, but the same soul, and their stories play out similarly in relation to her. That got a little old, with a feel of going in circles. And the ending ... I can see how he got there, but it still felt kind of abrupt and not quite right.

I read this in 2015, well after I read The Dragons of Babel, another novel set in the same universe. It's made me reassess my view of The Dragons of Babel: while that was a pretty gritty world, this seemed much darker and they're supposed to be the same place. Strange.

Well written, as usual, but I just didn't find the book enjoyable. I would recommend the utterly brilliant Stations of the Tide or The Dragons of Babel.

The Isle of Battle
Russell, Sean
2003
?
HarperCollins
yes

The second book of three in the "Swan's War" series, following The One Kingdom and preceding The Shadow Roads (which I can only hope is better than this one). If you're considering reading the first book, don't read this review as it will give away a great deal. And if you've never read Russell before, start with The Initiate Brother, read its sequel, and then ... stop.

Alaan attempts to lead Hafydd into the Stillwater, an immense swamp that is very nearly impossible to exit. He succeeds, but not in quite the manner he'd hoped as pretty much every one of our major characters ends up in the Stillwater too. And this is perhaps the book's biggest problem: at 460 pages, we spend more than 260 pages with our characters stumbling about in a bog. It gets real old. Russell drags in a lot more magic - which worked much better when he used it more sparingly. I like several of the characters - the two children of Wyrr who aren't Hafydd are quite compelling, as are several of the others both mortal and the very long-lived. But this book is ... tedious. I hope for better in the closing episode.


J

Jack of Shadows
Zelazny, Roger
1971

Jack is a Darksider, born on the dark side of a tidally locked planet. Lightsiders are human: they grow old, they die, they have no magical powers. Darksiders on the other hand are reborn after death and have magical powers. Jack is also a thief, and the reader's first impression of him is "charming rogue," but after he's been killed and reborn (not a pleasant process), he dreams of brutal revenge. Having broken the social compact on the Darkside, he's forced to flee to the Lightside - he's one of the very few Darksiders capable of this, as most Darksiders have to stay in their "place of power." There he uses science - and a computer - to try to change the balance of power on the Darkside.

You can take some hints from the name of his only friend: Morningstar, a gigantic gargoyle-like creature moored to a mountain until he sees sunrise as a punishment (on a tidally locked world where the Darkside never faces the sun, that's a very long time). And Jack is pursued for much of the book by "the Borshin," a hideous creature made by a Darksider interested in science who was trying to create life through magic. "Abortion" anyone?

Jack is initially an appealing character, but he becomes less and less so as the book progresses. The magical world where he initially resides is kind of interesting, but it becomes pretty unpleasant as people try to catch and kill him or torture him for all eternity and he pursues his own revenges. What drives both magic and science on this strange world remain almost entirely unexplained - and what Jack learns that tips the balance of power so spectacularly is totally unexplained. I like explanations and I like sympathetic characters. The book was kind of interesting, but lacked both so I'm not much of a fan.

Jane Eyre
Brontë, Charlotte
1847
yes

My first issue with Jane Eyre was that the first 15% of the book was spent on her childhood and was, well, a bit boring. And annoying (although that was a recurring theme - but it's better than "boring"). My second issue was that Charlotte Brontë seems to think that almost everything you would need to know about a person can be determined from their brow, or - should the brow not be sufficient - their face. And the writing style is ponderous. My principle enjoyment in the book was that it wasn't Jane Austen. Don't get me wrong, I love Jane Austen: but Austen totally ignores the servants, and everybody is incredibly formal. Bronte presents a much more earthy and passionate view of the same period and place.

SPOILER ALERT: From here forward there will be multiple spoilers. Don't read the rest of this review if you care. After managing to get through Jane's rather tedious childhood, we enter her employment with Mr. Rochester. The banter between the two was very entertaining - right up until the point when they agree to marry and Rochester turns into a simpering idiot. First, I don't think anyone changes that much on acceptance of a marriage proposal, and second - not him, of all people. The banter also got a lot less interesting and a lot more annoying.

After the dramatic break-up of her would-be marriage to Rochester, Jane runs away - without a penny to her name. I don't think Jane wasn't religious before she dumped Mr. Rochester, but it suddenly became a huge theme as she's trying to starve herself to death. Despite which I did particularly like this line: "Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour ..." Good point.

In a little while young Charlotte (oops, I mean "Jane") has moved into her humble schoolhouse. She really got religion after she dumped Mr. Rochester, didn't she? Her writing is ponderous, and the situation she puts herself in (oops, I mean "puts her character in") is so exactly like her own ... with two wonderful sisters and a charismatic brother, all in a small house on the moorlands they love ...

And then Jane finds out she's rich because her uncle left her a fortune. Colour me unsurprised. That was telegraphed half the book ago, and I don't feel she deserves it - never having contacted him at all, not even by letter. It's not that I dislike Jane herself. I dislike her author's transparent desire to be a tragic heroine. I'm hoping her sister's writing isn't quite so wish-fulfilling, as I'll be moving on to Wuthering Heights.

I'm afraid that my reaction on reaching the end of Jane Eyre was to think "There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison." So I resorted to Austen to summarise Brontë, which doesn't bode well for Brontë. I kinda guessed his previous wife would die horribly ... and that he wouldn't be the cause. I didn't guess he'd be terribly maimed, but that was quite a charming touch.

JavaScript Demystified
Keogh, Jim
2005
1st
McGraw-Hill
yes
A good beginner's book, as far as it goes. Which isn't terribly far. When it should have been getting into some of the more complex subjects of JavaScript, it instead included a fairly extensive chapter on how to obfuscate your JS so others can't steal it. Useful for some, perhaps, but not what I was looking for.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Clarke, Susanna
2004
1st
Bloomsbury
yes

I first read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in 2014. When I saw the brilliant BBC TV mini-series of the same name in mid-2016, I decided I needed to re-read the book. It's a 780 page trade paperback, and glacially paced. This isn't what you'd call "a light read" in either the physical or the mental sense. This second read took me about six months at a few pages a day. But I loved every minute of it.

The story starts with the date, 1806. We first meet Mr. Norrell, a British magician - perhaps the only practising magician in the world. He's rather determined to keep it that way, buying up every book on magic he can find, and finding ways to drive others away from magicianship. And yet, Jonathan Strange appears - and does magic with considerable ease despite lack of training.

As the book proceeds, Norrell brings a woman back from the dead, Strange gets married, Britain goes to war with Napoleon, Strange goes to war ... Plenty happens, but the tension doesn't really ramp up until the last 150 pages. Most people find the book far too slow to ever read. And I get that. But ... they're really missing something. A friend of mine managed to articulate at least a part of the reason the book is such a treat to read: many, MANY people have attempted to emulate the writing of the early to mid-1800s. It was the time of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Charles Dickens ... so it must be quaint, charming, and awesome. But prior to Susanna Clarke very few even came close to the writing style of any of those authors, as much as they tried. Clarke didn't just come close: she completely nailed it. It seemed effortless (although undoubtedly it was not). The writing and world-building are exquisite: fantasy writing doesn't get any better than this. I loved her portrayal of magic, and of the two men stumbling around, essentially playing with forces they have no idea of and hardly any control over. The pacing may make it a struggle to read, but believe me - it's absolutely worth it. One of my top three fantasy novels of all time.

John Constantine, Hellblazer: Staring at the Wall
Carey, Mike et al
2006
1st
DC Comics
yes
It smacks of desperation to me when a comic book plot line resorts to saving the entire world from destruction. Here Constantine ends up fighting (with help) a would-be world-destroying demon (but not Lucifer, who does a cameo in his walking-among-humans role). And it's so overblown and stupid that it has no appeal at all. Perhaps Constantine works better saving the world in ones and twos. Or perhaps the authors feel they've exhausted all other options. Either way, this is definitely one of the poorer Constantine books.
Johnny and the Bomb
Pratchett, Terry
1996

Johnny and the Bomb is a children's book. It's the third (and final) book in the series about Johnny Maxwell. A slight misunderstanding on my part had me reading the third book first. Oh well.

Johnny's world is much the same as that in which Pratchett wrote: late 20th century Britain. Except ... when Johnny is around, things often get weird. This time out, Johnny and his friends encounter Miss Tachyon, who we (the readers) know was around the same town in 1941, looking much the same. Miss Tachyon is a crazy bag lady with a shopping cart. Contact with the shopping cart sends Johnny and his friends skidding through time. A lot of the book is spent on one particular evening in 1941 that Johnny knows a lot about because it was the only time in World War 2 that a bomb was dropped on their small hometown of Blackbury, and he was assigned to do a project on it.

Goofy and mildly fun but no great work of art, this should probably only be read by hardcore fans of Pratchett who've already read the first 20 Discworld novels.

Jumper
Gould, Stephen
1992
1st mass market
Tor
yes
The recent movie starring Hayden Christensen was based on this. It was a BAD movie, and having read this they had no damn excuse. The question asked is: if a 16 year old could teleport, what would he do? And it's answered over the course of 340 pages, answered logically and with clear, unaffected prose. It's extremely well thought-out, it's tense, it's exciting. The initial setting is similar between the movie and the book, but the movie diverged with every step: and every choice they made to move further from the book's plot was a bad one. This is good stuff, very well done.

L

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories
Clarke, Susanna
2006
yes

After watching the BBC mini-series of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell recently, I gave some serious thought to re-reading the book. I eventually decided to read something new set in the same world, namely The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, which is a collection of short stories by Clarke published two years after Strange and Norrell. The stories considerably expand upon both the ideas of magic in that world and the character of fairies. The book includes an "introduction" purported to be by an expert in Fairy studies that pretends the whole thing is a textbook - a conceit I hardly found flattered the material.

The stories are both goofy and a bit nasty - Grimm-lite, you might say. They also felt a little like she was doing feminist penance for making the previous book all about men: there was an enchantress mentioned in Strange and Norrell, and the female leads are strong and likeable women, but every single person who is or might be a magician is male. So why did you write it that way? Couldn't you have closed with Arabella studying magic? The title story in particular shows three women confounding Jonathan Strange.

Revisionist works like this (Le Guin's later Earthsea tales particularly come to mind) gall me. I understand the motivation: the author feels they did something wrong with a story - or even a series of stories, as with "Earthsea." But I would much rather they retconned the entire thing than twist and distort an existing story, which says "hey, that world you read about, really it's not like that, you got it wrong." It distorts and taints, possibly even destroys, the fan's memory of a work they loved. Just write an intro saying "I'm seeing this differently now - this is a different world." Make a separation.

Setting aside my frustration with the revisionism, this is a light and fun read - although it doesn't carry the weight or presence of Strange and Norrell.

Lady of Mazes
Schroeder, Karl
2005
1st
Tor Books
yes

Utterly brilliant world-building. Schroeder borrows the concept of ring worlds from Niven, although significantly modified. But that's not the big thing here at all: he's created a society based on the idea of "manifolds," where what you see and who you associate with are entirely mediated by the computer network. So a "modern" society (or "manifold") such as the "Westerhaven" of our heroine Livia Kodaly can co-exist in the same space as a deliberately spiritual/retro one like "Raven," where the people choose to live by a code involving low technology and Indian spirits. And they exist in that same space without ever seeing each other unless they consciously choose to. In fact, many are incapable of a shift between manifolds, but it's one of Livia's skills. Having set this society up in the first fifty pages or so, Schroeder then begins to tear it down - and therein lies our story.

Lady Susan
Austen, Jane

Jane Austen is famous for six novels (in no particular order): Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility. Also available for the serious fans are her letters, and two novellas titled Love & Freindship (sic) and Lady Susan. Recently, director Whit Stillman decided to bring one of these to the screen. You might be forgiven for thinking it was Love & Freindship, given that he titled his movie "Love & Friendship" (spelled correctly) but you would be wrong. It is in fact Lady Susan. Not knowing this, I initially set out to read the Project Gutenberg version of Love & Freindship. This turns out to have been written by Austen when she was 15 or so, and it's a farce meant for the entertainment of her family. It's so absurd that I was having a lot of trouble imagining it being successfully turned into a movie. I quit about half way through (I may yet return to it) and switched over to Lady Susan, which seemed a somewhat more likely candidate for a movie. Both are epistolary novels, but Lady Susan has much more of the wit and skill we expect from Austen. And while Austen has had some nasty characters in her novels, "Lady Susan" is the only nasty protagonist she's created, bringing this a very different feel from Austen's other works. I was pleased to hear that Kate Beckinsale pulled down the lead: before she spent a decade being a homicidal vampire in leather tights, she was the lead in the BBC's lovely version of Austen's "Emma," and I'm very pleased she's returning to Austen. Beckinsale is now the right age, an excellent actress, and definitely beautiful enough, to play the gorgeous, manipulative, and widowed Lady Susan.

But on to the book itself. The title character is recently widowed, and has a daughter who is 15 or 16. She goes to visit reluctant relatives in the country to avoid the scandal she's created with a married man (and another man!) in the city. Where she proceeds to have a go at seducing the family's prized son while attempting to marry off her cowed daughter to an extremely rich moron that her daughter hates. This is told mostly in the form of letters from Lady Susan to her friend who she tells all, and letters from the matriarch of the country family to her mother.

I found the ending somewhat abrupt and unexpected, although I suppose it suits Austen's sensibilities. The book is short - perhaps 50 or 60 pages, I'm not sure as I was reading an e-book version. It isn't Austen's best writing, but it's fairly good and is definitely worth a read for fans of her better known books: it's short and it's very different.

The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch
Delaney, Joseph
2006
yes

I always find books that say "Book 1" on them incredibly pretentious: if you want to write to a sequel, more power to you, but acknowledge the possibility of failure, however faint, by not putting "Book 1" on the cover.

I read this book after seeing that the upcoming (as I write) movie "Seventh Son" was based on it.

Our hero is Tom Ward, who at the age of 12 (which would appear to be the target reading audience) is being sent out into the world as an apprentice to "The Spook." Tom is the seventh son of a seventh son, and therefore well qualified for the job of Spook - it's implied that no one else need apply. While most people realize that Spooks are necessary, nobody likes them: they deal in ghosts, boggarts, and witches. As is traditional in these stories, Tom creates his own greatest challenge, unleashing a particularly vile witch that he must eventually defeat.

The writing is exceptionally plain, even for 12 year olds. The story is okay, but rather uninspired, and lays on the life lessons quite thick.

I went back and watched the trailer for "Seventh Son" after reading the book, already knowing that the plot of the movie retains little more from the book that three or four names - so I was unsurprised to notice the line "Inspired by the Acclaimed Series." "Inspired by" means "we did a total rewrite." Although I'm not sure this is such a bad thing in this case.

The Last Colony
Scalzi, John
2007
1st
Tor
yes

Still reading the prolific Scalzi, primarily because of the excellent Old Man's War. This is the sequel to The Ghost Brigades, which was itself a sequel to Old Man's War. We follow John Perry, his wife Jane, and their daughter Zoë from the colony where they settled to a new colony - one that's even more unusual than it appears to be at first, and unwittingly a pawn in a galactic war. Scalzi puts a lot of responsibility on Perry, in some ways more than I was willing to believe. But he had several things assisting him - like a character in a video game who keeps leveling up ... Again, a little hard to believe. I like the characters and it's reasonably well written, but ... it's too much. You might be best off to read Old Man's War and be done.

Last First Snow
Gladstone, Max
2015
1st
yes

I've been a big fan of Gladstone's "Craft" series Three Parts Dead through Two Serpents Rise and Full Fathom Five. He's been claiming that there will be four in the series, making this, Last First Snow, the last. As it was just published this year (2015), we'll see if he actually sticks by that: he's a hell of a world-builder and the "Craft" series feels like a huge world full of potential. On the other hand, if he's such a good world-builder ... he could build another world too.

This story is set in Dresediel Lex as was Two Serpents Rise. Several characters that showed up in previous stories resurface here: Caleb Altemoc is a minor character (he was the protagonist in Two Serpents Rise), his father Temoc (also from Two Serpents Rise) is a major character, Elayne Kevarian is the protagonist (she's appeared in at least two of the other books, although not previously in the lead), and The King in Red (who had a small but significant part in Two Serpents Rise) has a major part here. But by the time you get 100 pages in, you realize that this is set 20 years prior to Two Serpents Rise. The problem then is that you already know that all the major characters are going to survive, which removes a lot of threat. It's intensely frustrating, as this is otherwise a very good book that I would probably rate as second in quality in the series after Three Parts Dead.

The story is about the "Skittersill Uprising," which was mentioned a couple times in Two Serpents Rise. Temoc is a priest who fought in "The God Wars" against the Craftsmen - among them Elayne and the King in Red - who ultimately defeated and destroyed most of the Gods. But Elayne respects Temoc (and saved his life during the God Wars). Now he's a leader in a morally justifiable social uprising in the poor Skittersill area - an uprising that the King in Red has hired Elayne to quash.

The politics - both the talk and the fighting - is played out exceptionally well, and the characters are very good. But I was very upset to have a huge part of the suspense destroyed for me by this turning out to be a prequel ... which meant there was no threat of death for several characters. If you read this as the first or second in the series, it would be an excellent book.

The Last Mimzy (formerly "The Best of Henry Kuttner")
Kuttner, Henry
1975, 2007
1st
Del Rey/Ballantine
yes
Brought out to compliment (or cash in on) the movie "The Last Mimzy," which was (loosely) based on the leading story "Mimsy Were the Borogroves." This is a short story collection, most of them having been written in the 1940s and 1950s. The prose is immensely better than most writers of that period, Kuttner's major failing being the use of "great horking chunks of exposition" to explain what's going on to the reader. But the characters are genuine and the ideas good, worth a read.
The Last Stormlord
Larke, Glenda
2009

Glenda Larke's The Last Stormlord and its two sequels showed up for free recently and sounded interesting enough to give it a shot. The premise is fairly simple: we have a land almost entirely devoid of water, and "water sensitives" of varying power who can find or bring water to the land. But there's only one "Stormlord" left, a man who can reach far enough to bring water from the ocean - and he's growing weaker with age and overwork because there used to be several stormlords to share the workload.

Our main heroes are Shale and Terelle: Shale is a male child in the poorest area of the country, an undiscovered water sensitive of considerable power. Terelle is a girl child at a whore house, approaching saleable age and desperately trying to get out. She has power too, of a different kind.

Larke works hard to build up the ecology and politics of a mid-sized continent under a harsh water limit. One review I saw made the rather cogent guess that the continent was based on Australia: it seems likely given that Australia is mostly desert and is Larke's homeland. But comparisons to Dune are also likely, and Larke's work doesn't hold up well when that book comes into the picture. Larke's characters are okay, but her politics are at best mediocre and her plot contrivances often painful. Shale and Terelle are always in bad situations, but every escape they make is from the frying pan into the fire.

And at the end of the book, Larke leaves you with a full-blown cliff-hanger: for example, two of the more likeable characters are left seconds from drowning in a water reservoir. Cliffhangers strike me as the author showing an utter lack of faith in either their own writing or the interest (or attention span) of their readers (these are very similar things in this context), making the author feel it's necessary to leave the reader with unresolved problems they have to buy the next book to relieve. It's a manoeuvre almost guaranteed to drive me away, although Larke lost me a couple hundred pages before that: each of the three books in the series is 650-700 pages, which is just too long given her skills. I've binned (literally, the recycling bin) the entire series.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume II
Moore, Alan and Kevin O'Neill
2003
Wildstorm (DC Comics)
yes

The League helps to fend off the H.G. Wells-based War of the Worlds Martian invasion. While Mr. Hyde is an entertaining (and thoroughly grotesque) character and the artwork is quite good, this was at best mildly entertaining.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1910
2009
Wildstorm (DC Comics)
yes

The League now consists of Mina Harker, Orlando, Allan Quartermain Jr., and Carnacki (I may be missing one). The latter is predicting some sort of apocalypse, but while hunting for that they fail to note that Nemo's daughter is in town trying to escape her fate (taking over dad's submarine and piratical behaviour). I found it annoying in its inconclusiveness, and learning that this separately packaged book is part of a three book sweep doesn't help much.

Learn Vimscript the Hard Way
Losh, Steve
2013
1st
no

This book is available in multiple formats: PDF, epub, paperback, hardcover, and online, in its entirety. I worked from the online version for several months, but found myself referencing it so often I went to lulu.com to buy a paperback copy. I was pleasantly surprised not only by Lulu's very fast delivery, but also by the physical quality of the book: it's very nicely put together. As to the writing, I think it's the best technical book I've ever read (and I've read quite a few): meticulously structured, he teaches you what you need to know in the right order, at the right pace, with excellent examples. Anyone interested in improving their Vim experience should seek out and read this book NOW.

The Lies of Locke Lamora
Lynch, Scott
2006
1st
Orion
yes
Set in a medieval technology sort of half SF half fantasy alternative Venice (although not by that name), we follow the life of Locke Lamora and his friends, the Gentleman Bastards. Locke is a con artist par excellence, and his friends are pretty damn good too. My description doesn't do it justice: written with wry humour and intelligence, it's a good read. The only thing that disappoints me is the statement "Book One of the Gentleman Bastards Sequence," but I guess that's unavoidable these days. The short inclusion from the second book isn't a sales pitch so much as a promise that you won't want to read it: a Mexican stand-off of the stupidest variety and none of the humour that graced the first book. But do read the first book: it stands on its own quite well.
The Light Fantastic
Pratchett, Terry
1986

I must have read this book before because I could remember upcoming details - but it must have been a couple decades ago. The book picks up, with essentially no explanation, from where The Colour of Magic stops - too bad I didn't read that first this time. This completes that story line started in that book. The story follows the continuing adventures of the incompetent and cowardly wizard Rincewind, and the Discworld's only tourist, Twoflower. Twoflower is also accompanied by "The Luggage," which deserves to lay claim to such a singular and capitalised title. It's made of sentient pearwood, and is incredibly loyal to Twoflower ... and more than a little bit dangerous to people it doesn't like.

The plot is ... unimportant, even though it involves the potential destruction of the entire Discworld. Because everything that happens is in the service of a very goofy and enjoyable sense of humour. Quite enjoyable.

Linux Cookbook
Schroder, Carla
2005
1st
O'Reilly
yes
This is a must-have book for Linux users. It's more oriented to servers and CLI stuff than desktop prettiness, but the amount of practical knowledge packed into one book is staggering. I used bits and pieces from everywhere, and was horrified to have to return it (it was a library book). Going to have to buy my own.
The Linux Cookbook: Tips and Techniques for Everyday Use
Stutz, Michael
2004
2nd
No Starch
no
There are large chunks of this book that I skip as being too basic for my purposes, but it's very well constructed and full of excellent ideas. Even in the areas I've skipped, I've discovered in browsing that it has a lot to teach me. A very good book.
Linux Desktop Hacks
Petreley, Nicholas and Jono Bacon
2005
1st
O'Reilly
no
Quite good, includes a lot of interesting stuff. Tends to be fairly advanced, and some of the software recommended isn't entirely stable. But many of the ideas are very good. I also get mentioned in the section on Bash prompts. :-)
Linux in a Nutshell
Ellen Siever, Aaron Weber, Stephen Figgins, Robert Love, Arnold Robbins
2005
5th
O'Reilly
no
I have owned this in two or three editions, although I don't own the 5th edition. The 1st edition was very good, but had minor organizational issues. These were fixed in the second edition and some material added, creating the single best reference to Linux known to man. The third edition was equally excellent. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth edition the "in a Nutshell" title became a fairly serious misnomer: this book weighs in at 925 pages with all the added material and is going to be rather a pain to carry around. The quality of work appears to have been maintained, and I will undoubtedly be buying it when I have more cash.
Linux Programming by Example
Robbins, Arnold
2004
1st
Prentice Hall
yes
My previous experience with Robbins's books has been quite good, and this is no exception. The "examples" that Robbins uses are the source code for V7 Unix (for simplicity) and occasionally (of course) Linux. I like the idea: V7 is free, works fine, and is simple. I need to get back to this when I have more time.
Little Brother
Doctorow, Cory
2008
1st
Tor
yes

In the very near future, a terrorist bombing in San Francisco brings in the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) in full force - to the point that you can't blow your nose without being observed, and possibly detained if you don't normally blow your nose. Our hero is Marcus Yallow who is near the site of the bombing when it happens, and is immediately detained. When he gets rebellious about the passwords on his phone the questioning gets more intense and unpleasant. When he's finally released, he starts an underground youth rebellion against the DHS and its suppression of the life of the city.

This is a teen novel. I've read a couple of Doctorow's other novels (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Eastern Standard Tribe) and this is "the one." This is good stuff. He uses "massive horking chunks of exposition" (as his old writer's group used to say) to tell you about cryptography and social engineering ... but it's well integrated into the text and done in an entertaining way. And the story itself feels realistic, both in the ideas of what a government crack-down would be like, and in the behaviour of the teen protagonist. A very good read.

Living Without Procrastination: How to Stop Postponing Your Life
Roberts, Susan M.
1995
1st
New Harbinger
yes
Possibly the best book I've seen on the subject so far. Unfortunately it offers no "magic bullet," only hard work to a way out. Sets you tasks to work your way out of the hole you've probably dug yourself if you've picked the book up in the first place.
Load Balancing with HAProxy
Ramirez, Nick
2016

I've been working with HAProxy a lot recently. Their documentation has the dubious honour of being the most man-page-like of any man pages I've ever seen. The problem with man pages is that they're perfectly clear after you understand them ... which is a bit of a catch-22. They're useless for learning from, and this has never been more true than with the HAProxy documentation. Don't get me wrong: it's extensive, it's accurate ... and it's still completely useless if you don't already know what you're doing.

I turned to Nick Ramirez's Load Balancing with HAProxy. It was the only choice (in late 2016 there were NO other books available on the topic), which made it doubly lucky that it's actually a very good choice. Ramirez understands something that a lot of authors of technical books don't get: you start with the simple stuff, you explain it with plain words, and you advance through examples that make sense with the student's current knowledge. It sounds simple and obvious, but I've read a lot of technical books that started in the middle, used unnecessarily florid language, gave examples where they had to say "oh, you'll understand that bit later," or went out of sequence to show you something more interesting early on - with the only possible end result being confusion.

HAProxy's configs make sense, but they're distinctly opaque until you've got a good explanation to read. And this is the help you need: this is a cleanly written book, beautifully structured to build from chapter to chapter on the knowledge you've already acquired, and exactly what you'll need to learn how to configure HAProxy. Highly recommended.

The Long Earth
Pratchett, Terry and Stephen Baxter
2012
yes

The Long Earth is based on the idea that there are a series (possibly infinite - they pass 2,000,000 in the book) of different Earths, accessible to humans by a simple device called a "Stepper." But there are no other humans on any of these alternate worlds, so most of these Earths are almost uninhabited. And ... one small detail: you can't take Iron with you (blood is explained away because it's an Iron compound, not raw Iron). This takes an old idea (parallel Earths) and wraps it in pseudo-scientific jargon (an idea I should possibly be filing under my "Fantasy" rather than "Science Fiction"). And then tosses in a Tibetan motorcycle repairman (name of Lobsang) who's now re-incarnated as our Earth's only sentient AI. The two ideas are so jarringly unrelated that it felt like a dissonance in my head for the entire time I was reading the book. As far as I can tell, they added Lobsang as a means to travel the Long Earth quickly because they couldn't think of a better one.

I found their ideas about the politics of the Long Earth quite interesting: what happens when you have infinite plenty a "step" away, and likewise what happens when you can escape any restrictive regime or political movement by simply shifting a world over with a box made from $5 of electronics components? And what about the people who can do this without a stepper - what will they do, how will they be treated ... That part of the book was pretty interesting. But Baxter and Pratchett focussed more on the voyage of Joshua and Lobsang trying to map out the limits of the Long Earth, by going farther from "Datum Earth" (our home) than anyone else had ever done. So they spend a lot of time on creating different variants of Earth, where evolution took a different course (and sometimes physics, such as an asteroid strike). To me, it felt like we had two different novels mashed together: one grand but unthinking adventure story (Joshua and Lobsang exploring) and another thinking piece of work about the politics of the freedom of infinite worlds. The latter was the better of the two, but got less airtime.

And then, just to piss me off further, the book ended ... not with a cliffhanger, but like a chapter end in the middle of a larger book. Two of our heroes arrive at a disaster site, and someone there hands one of them a phone and says "it's for you." Literally - that's the end of the book. So several very interesting - but not exactly "science fiction" - ideas in a book with too much adventure and not enough thought. I don't think I'll be continuing with the series - there are another four books, the last two of which were published after Pratchett's death (and I'd rather be reading him that Baxter ...).

Longitude: the True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
Sobel, Dava
1995
?
Walker
yes

I saw the A&E miniseries based on this book in 2006, and was impressed that they could make a mesmerising drama about making and repairing naval chronometers. It helps that I'm an engineer, but still - impressive. So when I went to London in May of 2012, I was fascinated to see all four of Harrison's chronometers in the Royal Greenwich Observatory and that inspired me to lay hands on the book and read it. While it doesn't measure up to my benchmark for non-fiction, the incredibly gripping Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, this is a light, informative, and enjoyable read about a very important part of our scientific history. It discusses both Harrison's 40 or 50 year struggle to get his chronometers recognized as a solution to the "Longitude Problem" (and history has proven that they truly were), and to a lesser extent, Rupert Gould's restoration of them. The latter features more prominently in the movie.

Lord of Light
Zelazny, Roger
1967

Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light is a weird hybrid, something he's listed as one of his "experimental" books. It seems initially we're in a low-tech world where the Hindu religion rules. But you'll find out (this is kind of a spoiler, but we're only about 20% into the book when we learn this) that the gods are very real - and in fact they're the first human settlers of this planet. They use technology to rule as gods while keeping the technology level low - and if you do what you're told, you'll get a new body when you get old (through a technological process dressed up as religion). One of the first settlers who calls himself Sam (short for "Mahasamatman," although he has many other names as well), walks among the main populace and preaches the word of the Buddha. He's set himself against the other "gods," being in favour of letting the people use all the tech that's available.

Some of the writing is either drawn from books like the Vedas or at least made to look like it. Some of the interactions between gods are written in an incredibly stilted way. I found the book quite entertaining for how it twisted religious teachings of three different religions and forced you to think about them - and about the differences between religion, magic, and technology. But it's a slow read with some structural problems - I suspect it may put some people off.

Lords and Ladies
Pratchett, Terry
1992

Lords and Ladies, the 14th Discworld novel, is set in Lancre during "circle time," at which point the barriers between worlds of the multiverse is particularly thin - a concept that Pratchett has already visited several times in his previous books. In Lancre (home to his well known characters Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick) the "lords and ladies" (the elves - who should never be referred to by name, as they come when called) are trying to get in. The problem is, most people don't remember the horrors after centuries - they remember how beautiful the Lords and Ladies were. Although even that was false, a glamour, a spell that they weave.

This book borrows the St. Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth at one point, characteristically mangling it horribly in the name of humour, but is mostly based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - except that these elves are incredibly vile. "What's the word, starts with 'M'? Elves got none of it." "You mean 'empathy?'" "That's it."

And towards the end he goes with the "temporary change of personality" routine again to get out of a narrative hole, having the normally very meek Magrat go on a totally atypical rampage. He explains it, but not terribly well in my opinion: it seems like a cheap trick to allow him to mess about with a character.

It's okay, but not my favourite Pratchett.


M

M is for Magic
Gaiman, Neil
2007

M is for Magic is a 2007 short story collection for teens/young teens by Neil Gaiman, with a title based on the similar Ray Bradbury titles. The stories are mostly fantasy, with a bit of horror and science fiction thrown in. I was surprised at how consistent the tone is across the stories since they weren't written as a unit, but it's Gaiman: he has an elegant simplicity to the way he writes. Sometimes his adult stuff gets a bit sexier or darker, but it's always him.

Something I've found odd is that in that "elegant simplicity," he almost never achieves greatness in the writing. American Gods has always been my premiere example of that, with its brilliant ideas and non-entity lead character. I absolutely loved Good Omens, but that was co-authored with Terry Pratchett. Sometimes his work achieves greatness in the presentation: The Sandman in particular comes to mind.

In this case, every one of the stories was quite good - which is unusual in a short story collection. But none was great. It's a quick read, and enjoyable.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent
Beckett, Galen
2008
Advanced Reading Copy
Bantam
yes
Beckett has deliberately combined the styles of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë with magicians. His imitation of Austen's writing is very good, and can be found in the first 200 pages. I found the change from third person Austen to first person Brontë to be quite jarring (even though it's our heroine who takes up the pen). To go with this change we suddenly have isolation and a huge Gothic mansion and an ominous housekeeper. I can't vouch for the quality of his Brontë imitation as I haven't read any of her work. That carries us through page 340, and the remainder of the 500 pages are in third person in a kind of hybrid style. One of our major leads, Mr. Rafferdy, didn't feel quite like the Austen character he was initially played as, and I knew I'd encountered someone very similar before: by a remarkable coincidence, I watched the 1999 version of "An Ideal Husband" the night after I finished reading this book. And there was Mr. Rafferdy, going by the name of Arthur, Lord Goring - complete with father whom he has precisely the same relationship with in the book and movie. So Beckett is pulling from Oscar Wilde as well, consciously or not. Overall it's an enjoyable book, the only remaining disappointment being that this is clearly meant as the first book in a series, but this one stands reasonably well on its own. There are elements that are left unresolved, but the character's lives are in good order.
Magician's Gambit
Eddings, David
1983
The Magus: a revised version
Fowles, John
1965
?
Little, Brown
yes
I was inspired to read this by a recommended reading list at TPL written by another author: he referred to this as "the biggest mindfuck ever." When I found it on another author's recommended reading list, I picked it up. The story concerns a young man teaching on a small Greek island, where, in his boredom, he meets a very wealthy man who begins to play mindgames with him. At 650 pages it's at least 200 pages too long, and after I got tired of multiple reversals of understanding, I skimmed pp.300-550. So this review is suspect. I can tell you his prose is astonishing: elegant, funny, concise.
The Man Who Lost Himself: The Terry Evanshen Story
Callwood, June
2000
1st
McClelland & Stewart
yes

Toronto's well-known social activist Callwood wrote this 300 page book about Terry Evanshen's horrific car accident and very slow and incomplete recovery. Evanshen was one of the CFL's best players through the Seventies, but in 1988 he drove his car through a green light only to be hit by a drunk driver and hurled from his car. He suffered massive brain damage and it was more than five years before he returned to anything resembling paying work. Callwood leaves the story in the year 2000, with Evanshen working as an inspirational speaker (something he continues in 2008).

Callwood nearly lost me around page ten when she referred to his wife as "plucky," and her use of adjectives never improved. This is also a 300 page book that should have been 50 pages - but then, where would you publish it at that length? The level of detail about medical problems and emotional and family trauma is at times excruciating. But the story is nevertheless a moving one, and I followed it to the end.

Manage Your Time
Hindle, Tim
1998
1st
Fenn (Dorling Kindersley)
yes
A very thin, small book full of advice about time management that border on aphorisms. Not good for procrastinators (what I was looking for at the time), but looks fairly good for time management for managers.
Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy
Frankl, Viktor
1992
yes

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. From that experience he wrote this book and created a system of psychotherapy called Logotherapy. Modern editions of the book (such as the one I read) contain the original text (125 pages) and several letters and papers, most by Frankl but one about his life and distinguished post-war career.

Two thirds of the original text details his experience in the camps, and it's tough reading. But he makes his point: we're more than Freud's base desires and drives, we can always make a decision about how we behave. Even in the worst possible circumstances.

He's very fond of the Friedrich Nietzsche quote, "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how."

"It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man's main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning."

"But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering -- provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause ... To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic."

Frankl apparently tended to avoid reference to his own religious beliefs: "He was fond of saying that the aim of psychiatry was the healing of the soul, leaving to religion the salvation of the soul."

I would have loved to meet this man. Within a couple years of the end of the war, he was condemning the concept of "collective guilt." It makes sense in his philosophy: everything is the action of individuals, their choices. His willingness to forgive and live a meaningful life after that experience leaves me in awe.

I have a couple complaints about the book: some of the essays tacked onto the book directly repeat some of the material contained in the main work - the repetition is annoying. And some of the writing on the subject of logotherapy is a bit ponderous in its choice of words and sentence structure, although this can perhaps be blamed in part on translation from the German. But these minor problems aside, this is a book I'd recommend to anyone: it's a brilliant and very wise take on how we can and should live our lives.

Mansfield Park
Austen, Jane
1814
1st
yes
Fanny Price is probably Austen's most disliked heroine. She is certainly shy, easily tired, and not particularly good at defending herself. I didn't mind her although Elizabeth Bennet is perhaps a more charming character. Nevertheless Mansfield Park is full of Austen's typical writing, funny and observant.
Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky
Pauli, Lori
2003
1st
National Gallery of Canada in association with Yale University Press
yes
This is a large, although not terribly thick, book. There are several essays about Burtynsky that I didn't read, although I noticed some interesting paintings and photos by other artists in a style similar to his. I borrowed this book from the library after seeing the movie of the same name: his photos are ... breath-taking. He photographs the hideous destruction of our planet, photos that are dazzlingly beautiful while sometimes simultaneously provoking anger. For me the Quarries and the Shipbreaking are the best, although some of the "Urban Mines" are very fine too. I would love to have any of these hanging on my wall. The reproductions are excellent.
Marooned in Realtime
Vinge, Vernor
1986
1st
Baen
?
Vinge posits the creation of the "bobble," a contraption that encases you in a perfect sphere that stops time completely inside it for a certain length of time. We meet our characters 50 megayears down time: somewhere around 2215 it would seem that humanity at large simply ceased to exist: only a few hundred bobbled past that time, and are trying to settle differences and set up a colony. But as they phase through time as a group (awaiting the opening of another bobble full of people) one of their members is maliciously left behind: not an easy feat given the computer firepower aimed at preventing just that. So our hero, once a detective and maliciously bobbled himself, has to contend with a lot of different agendas and technology he doesn't fully understand to figure out who caused it. Not a great book, but fun.
Maskerade
Pratchett, Terry
1995

The 18th Discworld book.

Magrat Garlick has kind of been promoted to queen of Lancre, which leaves Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax as only a pair of witches. They decide that Agnes "Perdita" Nitt should make up the third in their party, only to find out she's gone to Ankh Morpork to pursue a career in opera. Agnes is an incredibly talented singer (she can sing two voices at once, or project her singing voice half way across the room - and she has actual talent besides). But strange goings-on are afoot at the opera house: someone in a mask is going around murdering people. Nanny and Granny see a disturbing future for Agnes and head to Anhk Morpork to help out (or "meddle," depending on your point of view). Pratchett harps on about the shape of stories, and how they like to play out in the manner they expect.

Perhaps I'm a sucker for pot-shots at Opera - I'm definitely not a fan of that particular form of music. Or maybe Pratchett was more on form than the previous book, Interesting Times - which hardly made me laugh at all. There are lots of opera and "Phantom of the Opera" jokes, and a lot of them are quite good. I thought the portrayal of Granny Weatherwax was very good (that's varied between books), and the jokes around her were quite funny. Not least among these was Nanny's reluctant admission to Granny that she had a name among the Trolls, "Aaoograha hoa." Which apparently means "She Who Must Be Avoided." I'm not convinced the conclusion with Agnes was justified, but most of the book played out very well and I enjoyed it considerably.

Mastering Linux Shell Scripting
Mallett, Andrew
2015
Packt

I got this book through Packt's daily give-away of technical books. It's a program I've come to value highly, having given me a number of very useful books. This one is particularly good: the author has managed the obvious - but apparently very difficult, given how few technical books achieve it - trick of introducing the most basic stuff first and then building on it piece by piece while carefully explaining the constructs as he goes. He's also managed to choose an excellent selection of tools after developing your Bash programming skills, moving on to basic introductions to sed, awk, Perl, and Python. I was particularly impressed with his intro to awk: I've always found awk useful, but very difficult to get my head around. His intro seems to have finally got me past whatever mental blocks I was struggling with.

Men at Arms
Pratchett, Terry
1993

Book 15 in the Discworld series finds the guards of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch trying to sort out an unusual set of murders. This is complicated by the impending retirement of Captain Vimes to marry Sybil Ramkin (the courtship occurred in Guards! Guards!), and the addition to the watch of a troll, a dwarf, and a werewolf (in the name of equal opportunity and mockery thereof). It should be noted that trolls and dwarves hate each other, and most people don't trust werewolves - even vegetarian werewolves. Gaspode the talking dog - last seen in Moving Pictures - and his acerbic tongue return, although Angua, the werewolf, is the only person who actually hears what he says.

The books are getting more polished as the series progresses - mostly, but not entirely, a good thing. The biggest flaw to me was that Carrot got smarter - or at least more devious. He was as dumb as a stump in his last outing, and this time around, while he remains entirely honest, he manipulates people by his implications that he might do something to them they wouldn't want (he's 6'6" and can take a troll in a fight - on the rare occasion that he threatens, people jump). This is a huge change in intelligence and a significant change in behaviour since Guards! Guards!. I have mixed feelings about this: I like Carrot better in his less stupid form, but it still feels like Pratchett is cheating. Of course, all in the name of comedy - and some of it is very funny.

Midnight Riot
Aaronovitch, Ben
2010
yes

Aaronovitch started his writing career doing Dr. Who novelizations, but I was assured this shouldn't be held against him. The book's original (and more appropriate) British title is The Rivers of London. And the first paragraph is one of the best first paragraphs in the history of fiction writing:

"It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the West Portico of St. Paul's at Covent Garden. Martin, who was none too sober himself, at first thought the body was that of one of the many celebrants who had chosen the Piazza as a convenient outdoor toilet and dormitory. Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the "London once-over" - a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-Samaritanism in London is considered an extreme sport - like BASE jumping or crocodile wrestling. Martin, noting the good quality coat and shoes, had just pegged the body as a drunk when he noticed that it was in fact missing its head."

Nobody can keep that up for an entire novel, but he makes a hell of an attempt: it's a very funny novel. Our main character is London policeman Peter Grant who finds himself interviewing a ghost at the scene of the crime. He's pretty sure this is going to get him sent to the worst possible assignment, but instead he's assigned to the more-or-less covert magic division of the Metropolitan Police. He has to juggle his interactions with a woman he's really interested in, an increasingly nasty series of supernatural murders, his own apprenticeship in magic, and a disagreement between the spirits of the rivers of London - one of the more attractive of whom keeps coming on to him (thus the original title).

I felt there were unfortunate overtones of Harry Potter as he learned to make werelight and move objects with his mind. But the writing is so much better. Highly recommended to fans of the genre (or anyone who liked the first paragraph).

Millennium
Varley, John
1983

Our two main characters are Louise Baltimore, who lives in the distant future, and Bill Smith, who is an air crash investigator in our time (or what was "our time" when Varley wrote this novel in 1983). Their descriptions of events are intertwined, one chapter after another. Louise is an ancient but still beautiful 27 years old from what she refers to as "The Last Age," and a "snatch team leader." She and her team use a time machine they don't fully understand to go back to an incipient terminal air crash in the current day, where they pull all the "goats" (as they call them - the passengers) from the plane and replace them with already dead bodies. When the crash occurs, they have the still alive people, and hopefully no one notices the switch as that would create a time paradox. Bill Smith is 40(?) and a heavy drinker, the lead investigator of the two most recent air crashes that Louise and her team have harvested. But he begins to see anomalies.

The story is fairly well written, and the characters are well drawn and memorable. The ideas involved are ... a little bizarre even by science fiction standards. The ending inevitably involves a twist that's the result of a paradox (it is, after all, a time travel story). But Varley springs another twist on us in the last four or five pages that I felt was both dumb and over the top: let's just say he suddenly gets significantly religious despite having given no warning during the book. So a passable story with an ending that had me thoroughly unimpressed.

Mind Hacks: Tips and Tools for Using Your Brain
Stafford, Tom and Matt Webb
2005
1st
O'Reilly Media
yes
O'Reilly has a series of "Hacks" books, mostly for computers, that are very good. But in this case, the subtitle seems to be a flat-out lie: it should be called "Oddities and Quirks of Your Brain" because they spend their time showing you where your blind spot is, not telling you how to avoid being fooled by it. Not that it's bad to know this, but I the title is misleading and the book disappointing.
Mistborn: The Final Empire
Sanderson, Brandon
2007
yes

The story starts on a plantation, which allows Sanderson to lay out the social order. The common people, called skaa, are horribly oppressed by the noblemen who own the plantation. The skaa are beaten or killed at the whim of the noblemen, and sometimes the noblemen take a pretty skaa woman to rape - and if they do that, they always kill the woman when they're done in days or weeks. Into this steps Kelsier, an unusual skaa: he can do things that shouldn't be possible. An explanation of his powers has to wait until later, as we're introduced to Vin. Also a skaa, she lives with a gang of criminals in the capital city where she's horribly abused - but also kept around as a good luck charm, because she can do something in her mind that influences the behaviour of other people (such as those her gang is trying to con).

We eventually find out that Kelsier is an Allomancer, a "Mistborn:" someone who can ingest metals and use them to perform what we would consider magic. He finds and recruits Vin, and teaches her to use her powers - while also trying to teach her to trust those around her given her history of abuse and betrayal. On top of this, we have the story of Kelsier's attempt to overthrow the entire oppressive political regime that's lasted a thousand years with a history of failed revolutions.

I had mixed feelings about the concept of Allomancy: "fantasy" as a genre of fiction generally implies "magic," and "magic" means a system of abilities that remain unexplained, or at least mildly mysterious, to the reader. This mystery is, at least to me, implicit to fantasy - and the extensive explanation of which metals can be used for which powers (it felt more like superhero powers than magic) felt kind of weird to me. But Sanderson's characters are quite good, as is his world-building, and I got thoroughly wrapped up in the world. There are two more books in this series, and I'm very much looking forward to them.

Mistborn: The Well of Ascension
Sanderson, Brandon
2007
yes

I went into this one with a lot of enthusiasm, but exited with a great deal less. Early on in the book Sanderson strongly re-enforces the video-game-like quality of Allomancy, having Vin discover what amounts to the 10X multiplier metal - with it, the effects of any other metal are multiplied. The first half of the book sees our heroes trapped in Luthadel, which is under siege from one, two, or three armies depending on the point in the book we're at. Unfortunately, while Sanderson is reasonably good at writing characters, he's not very good at political manoeuvring, and if you can't write that well a siege isn't a good situation to get yourself into.

The last moments of the book see Vin release a horrible power into the world (with the best of intentions), and her discovery of another major power-up. So, while not precisely a cliffhanger ending, this one is much more fraught than the last, with massive danger hanging over the Empire.

I was most bothered by Sanderson's use of deliberate blindness in his characters. He revealed things to his readers AND to his characters, and then left the characters acting unaware of the things they'd learned. It was unimpressive, and left me a lot less happy with this book.

Mistborn: The Hero of Ages
Sanderson, Brandon
2008
Tor
yes

The final book in the series ... although it's now "the third book in the original trilogy."

Less video-game-like than the previous book, this one is incredibly bleak - mostly consisting of watching our heroes watch people die of war and starvation. And they fight on, knowing that the world is coming to an end, but hoping for salvation. Salvation is late arriving after much of the world's population has died, and, despite Sanderson's attempts to set it up, still reeks of deus ex machina.

Sanderson's writing style is heavily reliant on laying out problems early on, and then constantly hinting at them throughout the book. The hinting is annoying enough, but when he sets a problem before a character and the character knows it's a problem but "doesn't have time" to deal with it during a 550 page book and gets the problem trap sprung on her/him at the end of the book ... Urgh. And his characters are so ponderous - "I am constructed just so, so I will follow the precise guidelines of my character behaviour." The first book was fairly good - in part because I wasn't yet seeing the man behind the curtain. But after two more of his books, I don't think I'll be returning to his worlds ever again.

Mister X: Razed
Motter, Dean
2015
Dark Horse Comics
yes

I think The Return of Mr. X (1987), the first graphic novel by Dean Motter and the Hernandez Brothers about Mr. X, is a masterwork of comics. It includes the first several issues of the original set of comic books, probably the first six: the Hernandez Brothers left after issue six and were replaced by Seth, who isn't mentioned in the credits of The Return of Mr. X (thus my assumption that it's only six - or less - episodes). And because I like that one graphic novel so much, I keep returning whenever I see a Motter graphic novel at the library. The latest of these, published by Dark Horse Comics in November 2015, is Mister X: Razed. Motter's afterword includes a phrase that sums up almost the entirety of Mr. X's milieu: "... yesterday's vision of tomorrow ..." He's also admitted to a strong interest in "sleeplessness and somnambulism," which covers Mr. X himself ... well, that and drug addiction.

The Return of Mr. X is a more cohesive and continuous story, where this book is very clearly a series of several comic books and plots brought together. Subjects, settings, and protagonists vary, although Mr. X himself shows up momentarily in almost every episode. He varies between saving lives and taking falls: he's not the compelling character he used to be. Some of the stories are mildly entertaining, but this can't begin to compete with the original.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Heinlein, Robert A.
1966

Written in the 1960s, the book is set in the mid-2050s on the Moon. At some point - previous to when I was most recently reading the book in 2014 - the Moon was set up as a penal colony. Now the colonists, many free-born, live under the rule of the Lunar Authority - no particular laws are applied, but most farmers have to sell their produce to Authority far too cheaply (especially as they buy services from Authority for high prices) for shipping to Earth. We see everything through the eyes of Manuel ("Man" or "Manny") Garcia O'Kelley-Davis, who speaks "Loonie," English with some grammatical structure and words imported from Russian. He's apolitical, part of a line marriage, and works on contract to Authority repairing their main computer. Except ... their computer rarely needs fixing anymore: it's gone intelligent, but only Manny knows it. And revolution is brewing on the Moon.

Delivers a massive dose of Heinlein's anarchist politics, with good doses of racism and sexism for flavour. This was a favourite book of mine when I was 15 - at which time I didn't really notice any of that stuff. I was surprised to find I still enjoyed the book in 2014, primarily because Heinlein - despite the weight of politics - kept a lot of the focus on the people. And I like the characters, particularly Mike (the computer).

Moon Over Soho
Aaronovitch, Ben
2011
yes

The sequel to Midnight Riot, we find our hero Peter Grant hunting a local killer who appears to kill via vagina dentata, and following up on a series of deaths of local jazz musicians.

Aaronovitch keeps up the sarcastic and witty patter that were a primary characteristic of the first book and it's an enjoyable read, but the plot isn't as clever as the prose and the prose is becoming a bit tiresome. He's also introduced a new and very nasty villain, and this time he's kept the villain around for the next book - which suggests (to no one's surprise, but to my disappointment) that he intends this to be a long-running series.

Moontide and Magic Rise
Russell, Sean
1995
Daw

I fell in love with Russell's work after a chance encounter found me reading The Initiate Brother, which led very quickly to my devouring Gatherer of Clouds, the sequel and closing book of the series. And I still believe those two books are quite possibly the best work of fantasy anyone has ever written.

This series, Moontide and Magic Rise, comprised of the two titles World Without End and Sea Without a Shore (each 600 pages in length) tell the story of Tristam Flattery, a young naturalist in a country similar to Victorian England, several decades after magic and the last mages died out from the world. But it becomes clear that magic hasn't been entirely quenched, and that Tristam (despite his dedication to empiricism and his disbelief in magic) may well be the focal point of the return of magic. The setup reminded me to some extent of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but the similarities are fewer than they initially seem.

The first hundred or hundred and fifty pages are set-up, and are quite lovely - his writing is very good, and his characters very well drawn. But somewhere around the 200th page, Tristam gets on a ship bound for a Hawaii-like island nation, and things don't go quite so well after that. I read these books in 2015, years after Russell has shifted the focus of his writing to historical naval novels. And with that in mind, the very long-winded, nautically-detailed, and not overly comprehensible sections about life aboard ship show where his interests lay. Not that it was actively bad, and in fact it's good to believe that it was all technically correct. But the second half of the first book and the first half of the second book consisted of trudging through not terribly exciting naval and political details, interspersed with a very slow spray of the tiniest hints about magic and what is coming.

All books do this to some extent: you can't (generally) tell the punchline at the beginning of a novel and actually have any tension in the telling of the story. So the truth comes out slowly. But there needs to be suspense, things going on (as there were in The Initiate Brother). But here, the pace is glacial until the last 300 pages of the total 1200 pages, when quite a bit happens - although still perhaps in too much detail. He even had us listen in on some of the characters who actually knew something of what was going on conversing with each other - and yet they spoke in vague terms to each other to give nothing of the central mystery away. This is a literary mechanism that annoys me, and a weakness in the book: if you feel that much need to disguise the actions and motivations of these characters, only show them in the third person, let us learn of their actions through the characters whose eyes we are meant to see through.

Overall, somewhat better than the Swans' War series, but nowhere near the quality of The Initiate Brother and Gatherer of Clouds.

SPOILER ALERT: if you want to read these books, stop reading now. I'm about to blow the ending because I have a major gripe with it.

Why do people read fantasy? The commonest reasons are escapism and the desire for magic. And this book appears to be about magic re-entering a world from which it's been, in effect, exiled. Very exciting. And near the beginning of the second book, it's revealed to us that a world ruled by empiricism would lead to a future very similar to our world, dominated by war, pollution, and poverty. The people in the story don't recognize that similarity of course, they just see it as ugly and undesirable in the extreme - but Russell is clearly targeting the modern world. But very near the end of the book he reveals that if magic is returned to their world, it will mean the complete destruction of mankind and possibly a world-level extinction event. So they slam the door on magic, shut it down forever, and steer their world to become our world. Wait, what? I just stumbled through 1200 pages of heavy prose to end up in MY WORLD and without magic? Not the kind of escapism I'd hoped for.

Mort
Pratchett, Terry
1987

Mort is the fourth Discworld novel, and it's about Mort, a young man who finds himself apprenticed to Death. Mort is a bit clumsy and too much of a thinker for his farmer father, but earnest. Unfortunately, on his first run harvesting souls on his own, he's sent to collect a beautiful princess - but instead of doing so, he saves her from the assassination attempt - and thus alters reality on the Disc, sending repercussions throughout the Disc.

Pratchett's personification of Death is one of his best and most enduring literary creations, and Pratchett has a good time here with Death being tired of his job (which has, quite literally, lasted for eternity). So he gets to turn many of our ideas about death (and "Death") on their head, to fairly humorous effect.

Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
Bryson, Bill
1990
1st
Avon
yes

Another excellent book from Bryson. He discusses the origins of the English language, and how it came into being in Britain. Then he discusses how it has spread, borrowed words, and mutated since. His research isn't 100% (he mentioned the now-discredited "Inuits have 36 words for snow" idea that he could have cleared up if he'd gone to primary sources) but is nevertheless very good, and as always his writing is hugely entertaining.

Moving Pictures
Pratchett, Terry
1990

Pratchett is parodying Hollywood - even more transparently than usual, with the area in question being "Holy Wood." Alchemists (not, it's important to note, wizards) create "the clicks," silent moving pictures. And this slowly allows a weakening of the boundary between the Discworld and other dimensions. Some of the parodies of particular movies and actors were kind of amusing, but not a great book.

Ms. Marvel: No Normal
G. Willow Wilson (writer) and Adrian Alphona (artist)
2014
Marvel
yes

I'm not sure what to say about this one: "pretty good for Marvel Comics" is incredibly dismissive and a bit unfair.

Our main character is Kamala Khan, a teen in Jersey City with a restrictive Muslim family. She gets her powers from Ms. Marvel, and voila - we have an origin story. Origin stories are often the best part of a character's story arc: the idea is fresh and new, not old and worn. Kamala's story is good, but her "origin" is not: there's a weird fog over Jersey, Ms. Marvel appears to her and says "you want to be a hero? Give it a try." And Kamala has powers. Seriously? That's the best you could manage? Aside from that, Kamala and her friends are well constructed characters, and the story is both irreverent and current. The art is up to Marvel's standards, but nothing to write home about. I'm going to read the second in the series (also recommended by 100 Greatest Graphic Novels) but I expect I'll stop after that.

Mythago Wood
Holdstock, Robert
1984
1st
Grafton Books
?

Holdstock seems to be a "tell don't show" author, and I definitely didn't like that aspect of this book. But the very interesting ideas helped to make up for the poor writing. Our protagonist starts the book convalescing after World War II in a town in southern France, but shortly returns to his family's run-down estate in Great Britain. His father was, and his brother now is, obsessed with the wood out back of the house. Old growth oak, ash, and elm, it's one of the largest contiguous woodlands in Britain at about three square miles. And myths grow in it. In fact, his brother married one of them. Eventually the protagonist sets off into the wood with a companion, and discovers, as his father and brother did before him, that the further you get into the woods the bigger it is. And that the wood is generating people and animals that simply can't exist in modern Britain. The writing continued to annoy me, but it was nevertheless an unusual and thought-provoking read. Books that come up with a genuinely new idea in the fantasy genre are rare, but this is one. Essential reading for fans of the genre.


N

The Name of the Wind
Rothfuss, Patrick
2008
yes

Book One (aka "Day One") of the Kingkiller Chronicle.

The story opens with several characters: Kote the inn-keeper, his student/assistant Bast, and "Chronicler." Kote turns out to be Kvothe, the Kingkiller, a legendary hero - who is only about 25 or 30 years old. This is our frame story: soon Kvothe is telling the story of his life to Chronicler to record it accurately. We see Kvothe at age nine, happy in his life as a travelling actor with his family, just starting to learn magic. The frame story breaks in occasionally to prove that Kvothe is every bit as intelligent and dangerous as he eventually claims in the story. While the story of his childhood is initially quite happy, it turns brutal fairly quickly. He ends up at "the University" (for magic) soon (I'm not telling you any more than the blurb on the back of the book does), and most of the story takes place there. But unlike most students, Kvothe doesn't just eat, sleep, and study: he makes discoveries, has epic battles, etc., etc. I don't remember university being like that.

And then ... the book ends. Kvothe has been telling his tale for one day, and they all go to sleep. Kvothe was still 15, still at university. We know he's going to get booted out of the university and into the real world and become a blackened hero. But the story just stops. The book was published in 2008, and it took until 2013 before the sequel "The Wise Man's Fear" came out, and in 2014 the third book is nowhere in sight. And from what I've read of the sequel, a third book will be insufficient to wrap the whole mess up, even though the telling of the tale was supposed to take "three days." I don't like dangling endings.

I read this immediately after I read Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: I'm trying out recent, well-regarded fantasy stories. Mistborn has its issues, but when you get to the end of the book - despite it being the beginning of a series - there is wrap-up, conclusion, satisfaction. Sure, he set the ground work for the following stories, but he wrapped up the story he started with a solid and rewarding finish. This has left me eager to return to the world he created. Rothfuss on the other hand has shown an inability or disinclination to terminate things, and it's extremely frustrating: I don't think I'll be returning to his world.

Neverwhere
Gaiman, Neil
1996
1st Perennial
Perennial
?

Gaiman's first novel after a substantial history in comics and graphic novels. Tells the story of Richard Mayhew, who, walking in London one day with his fiancée, finds a young woman bleeding on the sidewalk and helps her. His act of charity draws him inexorably into her world, "London Below," where homeless people, eccentrics, and magic live. In fact, he essentially ceases to exist in "London Above," and is unable to remain there simply because of his contact with her. As she's the only person he knows - and he quickly discovers that there are a number of very unpleasant and dangerous people below - he follows her on her quest to avenge the death of her family.

I read this in 2012, after having seen the mediocre British miniseries of the book and read a couple of his other books. My reaction to his books has been pretty consistent: several brilliant ideas wrapped around a poor plot to create a not-quite-cohesive whole.

Nimona
Noelle Stevenson
2015
HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
yes

The quirkiest of all the graphic novels I've read, and also among the most entertaining. The artwork is, umm, middle-school. It actually goes well with the bizarre content, but it's not the reason you might read this. You might read it because it's funny as hell, and as it progresses it becomes more and more thought provoking. "Nimona" (the character) shows up one day at the house of Ballister Blackheart, wanting only to be his sidekick. He refuses, until he discovers she's a shapeshifter. Ballister is the evil nemesis of Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, the champion of the kingdom. He's not actually all that evil, his relationship with Goldenloin isn't quite what it seems, and Nimona is more important than any of them know ... Highly recommended: the laughs fade as the pages go by, but by then she's built a lot of momentum on a really interesting story.

Norstrilia
Smith, Cordwainer (Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger)
2002
?
ibooks
yes

First published as a full book in 1975, nine years after Linebarger's death.

The main character is "Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan the Hundred and Fifty-First," occasionally known as "Rod McBan," but Linebarger seems to prefer to give him his full name, which gets awfully tedious after 280 pages.

Here's some prose: "Rod, goodbye. I'm taking a chance with you, but it's the best chance I've ever taken. You can trust the Catmaster, here in the Department Store of Hearts' Desires. He does strange things, Rod, but they're good strange things." This is followed by a chapter titled "Counsels, Councils, Consoles and Consuls."

The story has the logic and rhythms of a fairy tale, or maybe just a tall tale. It's not science fiction, although it's called that - which bothers me. It's not fantasy, although that's a closer classification. It's absurdist. Maybe it's a morality tale. Whatever it does, it doesn't paint recognizable human interactions. Sorry, didn't like this one.

Nothing But Blue Skies
Holt, Tom
2001
1st
Orbit
yes
Dragons cause rain (and thunder and lightning). So it's not really the fault of the weathermen that they're always wrong. Dragons can also assume human form, although it's a little uncomfortable and limiting to do so. And apparently they can also become goldfish. But when a dragon in human form falls in love with a human, and a weatherman decides to take action against the creatures that make him wrong so frequently, things go kind of sideways. Holt's logic doesn't quite hold together, but it's mostly breaking down in the service of humour. It's a funny, silly book.

O

Old Man's War
Scalzi, John
2005
1st
Tor
yes

In Scalzi's vision of human expansion into the galaxy, he sees the Colonial Defense Forces recruiting old people: you sign an agreement at 65 and join the forces at 75. People on Earth (including the governments) know essentially nothing of what the CDF does, and the old people know nothing of what they're signing up for - except that they're supposed to get young again. No one knows how. Most SF fans will recognize what the old folks run into: it's Heinlein's "classic" (but unpalatable) Starship Troopers. Too bad we couldn't have skipped straight to this re-write right away: Scalzi does a good portrayal of the old-as-young-again. Good story.

100 Greatest Graphic Novels: The Good, The Bad, The Epic
Hill, Katrina and Alex Langley
2016
yes

I borrowed this from the library, expecting to be disappointed - but instead came away fairly impressed. People love to make lists, and the Internet is utterly littered with them - everybody has an opinion that they know you need to know (says the man writing the blog). The question is ... did the tree die in vain? And the happy answer here is "no."

They include almost all the staples: The Watchmen, Persepolis, Maus, Sandman, V for Vendetta, and several other very famous titles. I can name three I think should have been in there but weren't, two of which I get: The Return of Mr. X by Dean Motter is kind of Canadian content, and hasn't achieved the fame it deserves. The second is The Surrogates, a very good graphic novel that Hollywood destroyed when it turned it into a movie. But the last, and the one I really don't understand, is Fables. Yes, it's devolved into a long-running unimpressive money-maker, but the first three graphic novels (Legends in Exile, Animal Farm, Storybook Love - possibly more) are some of the most brilliant comics ever put on paper.

They introduced me to several titles I really want to look at, including We3 (also highly recommended by a friend of mine) and In Real Life (IRL) (I didn't know Cory Doctorow authored a graphic novel!). They include good descriptions both of the content and the reasons they think each title deserves inclusion on the list. And they use their glossy paper to good effect, showing not only the cover, but usually a page of artwork as well. This really makes it a good way to find your next read - or your next several reads.

They also included Scott Pilgrim, and won back some of the respect they'd lost on Fables by including Understanding Comics as their very last title. It's not strictly a "graphic novel" - it's a work of non-fiction - but it's an absolutely brilliant work about comics and graphic novels that should be read (NOW, and probably at least TWICE) by every fan of the genre.

So ... not a perfect list, but a damn good one: well researched and well presented.

The On-Time, On-Target Manager: How a "Last Minute Manager" Conquered Procrastination
Blanchard, Ken and Gottry, Steve
2004
1st
William Morrow
yes
Large print and a positive attitude do not a page-turner make. This is badly written. It may have some good advice in it, but I never got that far. Might be worth a try, as it's a slim book (with large print).
The One Kingdom
Russell, Sean
2001
?
HarperCollins
yes

I loved Russell's The Initiate Brother and its sequel, but found his next book (World Without End) unreadable with its ponderous writing style. He seems to have lightened up on that, and I found the travels of our three young protagonists quite engaging.

Three young men set out from a very isolated town, traveling down river to find a brief adventure before returning home. They get a great deal more than they bargained for, as their story intertwines with that of several people in a kingdom split by two families who have been at war with each other for about a century.

One of the things I love about Russell's writing is that he sneaks the magic up on you - initially, you're not sure it exists, and those that do believe in it are clearly regarded with some scepticism. But as the story progress, things happen. Some are explainable, but eventually it has to be acknowledged that there's magic loose in the world. A very good book, right up to a rather sloppy and poorly staged ending. There are two other books in the series: the next is The Isle of Battle.

Only You Can Save Mankind
Pratchett, Terry
2005

The first in Pratchett's series of three books about Johnny Maxwell. I accidentally read Johnny and the Bomb (the third book) first. This book finds Johnny playing a video game called "Only You Can Save Mankind," but in his case it gets a bit more personal: the aliens request a truce and ask him to protect them from the other players (this is NOT how the game is supposed to go). And then he starts waking up in the cockpit of his ship, flying with the aliens. As he leads the aliens away from game space, the game company finds itself in trouble because players can't find any enemies to fight, and Johnny's sleep gets steadily poorer.

I thought Johnny and the Bomb was the better book ... and I didn't think much of it. I like Johnny and his friends, but not enough. I don't think I'll be reading the middle book in the series.

Over Sea, Under Stone
Cooper, Susan
1965
Harcourt Brace
yes

One of the classic children's books, it's the first book in "The Dark is Rising" series (although the four sequels followed considerably later). There are vague hints of fantasy elements, but the book is essentially a children's mystery novel set around the time of publication (1965), although it seems the series as a whole is decidedly fantasy.

The story follows the siblings Simon, Jane, and Barnabas ("Barney") on vacation with their family to visit their Great Uncle Merry in the town of Trewissick. Merry is established as a generous, commanding, wonderful and mysterious gentleman. The children find an ancient map/manuscript in the attic, and with Merry's intermittent help begin to search for "the grail" by following the hints in the manuscript and map. They are pursued and hindered by "the enemy," people who have turned to evil. Fairly good, although I was hoping for something with much stronger elements of fantasy.


P

Painting the Web
Powers, Shelley
2008
1st
O'Reilly
yes
A comprehensive look at graphics for the web, including looks at file formats, photography editing, workflow and display, all kinds of graphical elements that aren't photographic, and how to display all of it most effectively on the web. It appears to be a very good book: every part of it I read was both well written and helpful. Powers is a bit long-winded and the book could have stood to be a bit more concise - but as I said, the quality of the writing is actually exceptionally good (particularly for a technical book) so the verbosity is fairly acceptable. This would be a very useful book if I could find the time to read the rest of it!
Paladin of Souls
Bujold, Lois McMaster
2003
1st
Eos (HarperCollins)
yes

The sequel (indirectly connected) to Curse of Chalion finds Dowager Royina Ista setting off on a religious pilgrimage - more with the intention of getting away from her keepers than religion. But having been a conduit for the gods previously, it may not entirely her choice driving the pilgrimage. Not quite as good as Curse of Chalion, but still excellent.

Passage
Willis, Connie
2001
1st
Bantam
yes

This is possibly the most frustrating book I've ever read. It earns that title because I forced myself to continue reading it despite my frustration when I should have tossed it aside. Partly because it's Willis (who, after all, wrote The Doomsday Book), and partly because it has some good elements.

Willis goes for her trademark comedy-of-manners style, with Doctor Joanna Lander researching Near Death Experiences. She joins Dr. Richard Wright to continue her research, as he's working on chemically inducing an NDE state. And both of them spend much of the book avoiding Mr. Maurice Mandrake who is researching "Near Afterlife Experiences" with a religious slant and no attempt at objectivity. While negotiating the maze-like and oft-repainted halls and stairs of the Mercy General Hospital.

Willis' writing is good, but the book is 600 pages long, consisting of the dropping of the slightest hints, obsessing over those hints, and repeating old hints with the slightest bit more detail. Her "good" characters are well drawn, although the ones-to-avoid are unbelievably obsessive and incredibly annoying. And nothing happens but this endless stream of tiny hints and recycling and obsessing for over 400 pages. Then she drops a horrible death into the middle of her comedy of manners. As Mr. Henslowe said in "Shakespeare in Love": "That'll have them rolling in the aisles." And then we're back to tiny details for another 150 pages.

This would have been good at 100 pages, but as it stands it may be the end of my interest in Willis. Still, you should read The Doomsday Book.

The Past Through Tomorrow
Heinlein, Robert A.
1967

This is a massive book containing much of Robert Heinlein's "Future History" series:

  • "Life-Line"
  • "The Roads Must Roll"
  • "Blowups Happen"
  • "The Man Who Sold the Moon"
  • "Delilah and the Space Rigger"
  • "Space Jockey"
  • "Requiem"
  • "The Long Watch"
  • "Gentlemen, Be Seated"
  • "The Black Pits of Luna"
  • "It's Great to be Back"
  • "We Also Walk Dogs"
  • "Searchlight"
  • "Ordeal in Space"
  • "The Green Hills of Earth"
  • "Logic of Empire"
  • "The Menace from Earth"
  • "If This Goes On—"
  • "Coventry"
  • "Misfit"
  • "Methuselah's Children"

They're presented chronologically (by the time they're supposed to represent, not the time at which they were written). Much of the science in the earlier stories is now blatantly incorrect, so you'll have to accept that incongruity. I worked through it out of respect for Heinlein, but it was in fact "work:" had I known that, I probably wouldn't have read this. A couple of them ("Methusalah's Children" I remember because it was the last one) are almost novel-length.

"Delilah and the Space Rigger" was Heinlein's attempt to show how not-sexist he was. It may have been forward-looking for the period (1949), but by modern standards still makes him look pretty damn sexist. In fact, his female characters are routinely poorly written: they're usually drawn as intelligent, competent, and often commanding ... in fact the only difference from Heinlein's male characters is their names and physical build. They're men in a woman's skin - I guess we know what Heinlein's ideal woman is like.

"If This Goes On—" was both surprising and predictable - surprising in that it tackles big religion head on, something Heinlein rarely did. Stranger in a Strange Land is all about that - but more about creating a new religion, not Christianity. "If This Goes On—" is about the U.S. ruled and utterly controlled by a former charismatic revivalist preacher and his dynasty. The story was predictable in that it features Heinlein's favourite themes: revolution, politics, fighting for what's right, the everyman.

"Methuselah's Children" struck me as being a fairly traditional "generation ship" and "voyage of discovery" type of science fiction stories. It was written in 1941, and comments on Wikipedia suggest I'm not giving it enough credit: it was probably ground-breaking for the time. But this brings me to my major problem with the entire work: Heinlein was one of THE major writers of science fiction from the 1940s through the 1980s, and as such his work has been influential on every SF writer since - most of whom I've read. So what may have been his original ideas I know from dozens of other writers and the ideas no longer appear original. The one thing that could make such an epic work worth reading would be the quality of writing ... and Heinlein just isn't that great a writer. He wrote better than almost all of his compatriots from the 1940s through the 1960s (when SF was the domain of men (and men only) of ideas, not men of artistic skill), but he wasn't a good writer. Some of the shorter stories were fun to read, but as a whole the thing was a slog.

Pawn of Prophecy
Eddings, David
1982
The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbours
Niedzviecki, Hal
2009
?
City Lights
yes

I saw Niedzviecki speak at NXNE 2012. He's a very smart guy who's clearly thought about this stuff a great deal and has a lot of insights into the subject. Unfortunately, the book doesn't come across as well as he does as a speaker when he's more constrained in the amount of material he can present. As a writer, he's ... bombastic. And he overstays his welcome. Still, if you can get through his heavy prose and occasionally not-so-well directed chapters (I only made it to about page 120 of ~250), he does indeed make a lot of very good points about the society we're creating by giving away our privacy and reveling in watching each other's most private moments.

Penny Arcade 1: Attack of the Bacon Robots!
Holkins, Jerry and Mike Krahulik
2005
1st
Dark Horse
yes
The first collection of Penny Arade comics. Bill Amend (author of "Fox Trot") says it best in the introduction: "Penny Arcade channels some sort of raw, unfiltered gamer id in ways that are not for everyone. The Web is the unsupervised wild west of cartooning, and these boys are running around with BFGs. If you are easily upset by gore, four-letter words, sacrilege, juvenile wang jokes, or don't know what a BFG is, do yourself a favor and put this book down before you wind up rinsing your eyeballs with Clorox. If you're unsure, at least have a bottle ready to go in the cupboard." While I kind of like PA, it's a bit sad that the funniest thing in the entire book is the introduction - by someone else. Perhaps it's better for gamers (even though I know what a BFG is, I don't really qualify).
Penny Arcade 2: Epic Legends of the Magic Sword Kings
Holkins, Jerry and Mike Krahulik
2006
1st
Dark Horse
yes
More of the same: weird comics with comments that vary from insightful to incomprehensible - often in the same sentence.
Permutation City
Egan, Greg
1994
1st
Millennium/Orion
yes
My friend Karl is a Science Fiction author. He told me that in his writer's group, many years ago, they came up with the phrase "great horking chunks of exposition." This is when the author finds it necessary to get away from the plot to explain the history and/or technology so that the reader can understand what's going on. Permutation City is about 300 pages long. Of that, about 200 pages are exposition. The underlying idea is so nutty and lives in such rarified air that Egan spends that much of the book expounding layer upon layer of theory so you can understand the ludicrous concept that underpins the book. You see, what we experience as life isn't really life, or could easily not be life: we are just cosmic dust visualized across slices of time. Egan makes it only marginally more palatable than that explanation.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Satrapi, Marjane
2003
1st
Pantheon/Random House
yes
A graphic novel portraying Satrapi's childhood growing up in Iran, watching the havoc of war created by the Islamic Revolution. She plays it straight, bringing to life things from her childhood that many of us might have left out from embarassment. But she included all these touches of life, and created a brilliant story. Deserves to sit right next to Maus on the shelf.
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
Satrapi, Marjane
2003
1st
Pantheon/Random House
yes
The story picks up in Austria, with Marjane at age 15, alone and very unsure of herself. She stays several years, then returns to Iran, where she finds herself just as much an alien as she was in Austria. Another excellent book.
Persuasion
Austen, Jane
1817
yes

Austen's last work, published posthumously. Love postponed, but not forgotten. Our heroine (Austen wrote what she knew, never attempted male protagonists) was persuaded when young to turn down the advances of a young man of no fortune. Now he has entered her life again, eight years later.

Pirate Sun
Schroeder, Karl
2008
1st
Tor
yes

The third book in the Virga series after Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce, this follows the adventures of Chaison Fanning. Initially busted out of jail in Falcon Formation by his wife (although he doesn't know it until the end of the book), he spends the book slowly making his way back to his own nation, Slipstream. As usual, the world-building and "visuals" are spectacular.

Plague Ship
Norton, Andre
1956
?
?
?

Probably the book that got me started on science fiction - I borrowed it from my junior high school library when I was perhaps 12 years old. The members of the Solar Queen (I find in 2011 that this is the second in a series of four books about the crew of the Solar Queen) are trading with the aliens on planet Sargol where they run into resistance from another human trading organisation. After overcoming that roadblock, they take off with a full cargo hold and find that the crew members are falling into a coma one by one. The ultimate solution makes more sense in both a teen context (it's a teen book) and in a 50s context (when the book was written) than in a current one. Still, an enjoyable read.

Pnin
Nabokov, Vladimir
1953
Vintage
yes
I read "Lolita" many years ago and don't remember it too clearly. Here we have a much lighter novel, more or less a farce. Pnin is an expat Russian in America in the 1950s, a academic in possession of extraordinarily bad English. Nabokov, on the other hand, has no such problem: his writing is among the most luminously superb I've ever read in my life. Every paragraph is a work of art.
The Power of Habit
Charles Duhigg
2012
Random House
yes

An interesting book about habits, and how doing stuff by habit saves you a lot of brain power (when a thing is new and you have to think about every step, you're using a lot more of your brain to do it). He also gets into the power of habit in communities and corporations, which I was less interested in (although he made it more interesting than I expected).

Pride and Prejudice
Austen, Jane
1813
Project Gutenberg

Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are probably Austen's two most famous creations, and Austen writes brilliant comedy of manners - particulary in the first 100 pages and the last 30. In the middle there's still quite a bit, but the trials, romances, and tribulations of the sisters occupies more of the text.

Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It
Burka, Jane B. and Lenora M. Yuen
1983
1st
Da Capo Press
yes
Looks good. By psychologists about the genesis and handling of procrastination.
Promethea: Collected Edition Book 1
Moore, Alan, J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray
1999-2000
1st
America's Best Comics
yes

Promethea is a female heroine, whose realm is the imagination ... although it fully ovelaps a slightly science-fictionish New York City. Promethea is a normal human woman who shows interest in the mythology of Promethea. We meet Sophie Bangs when she goes to interview Barbara Shelley, who was associated with older fictional accounts of Promethea. Shortly after she expresses this interest, Sophie rather abruptly and somewhat involuntarily takes on the role of Promethea. If this doesn't make much sense, I don't think you'll find the original makes a great deal more sense: it's a bizarre idea. Certainly something Moore would come up with. The artwork is excellent, and the dialogue is good. I'm still trying to decide if I actually liked it though. [No: Book 2 got too crazy.]

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
Delisle, Guy
2003
1st
Drawn and Quarterly
yes
Delisle spent two months supervising animators in Pyongyang, North Korea, for a French company. Pyongyang sounds like it is possibly the single most controlled environment in the world: each foreigner is assigned a guide and/or translator, and is always accompanied by them. This graphic novel tells the story of his time there - I'm pretty sure that North Korea won't let him back in after reading this. It's certainly an interesting (if limited) view of the most secretive and isolated country in the world. I read in an article about the book that it's our good fortune that the company he worked for went bankrupt: he had a non-disclosure agreement with them, and they were unhappy he did the book and were planning to try to stop him before their financial failure.
Pyramids
Pratchett, Terry
1999

Our main character is Teppic, son of the king of Djelibeybi, the Discworld's equivalent of Ancient Egypt. Teppic is sick of pyramids before he even grows to adulthood, so when he's given the opportunity, he goes abroad. To study how to be an assassin in Ankh-Morpork. But immediately after graduation, he's called home after the death of his father - a death that makes him king.

Assassin school is mildly amusing, but the majority of the book is political wrangling and pyramid building. Which Pratchett applies his usual weird humour to, but with immensely less success that usual. Teppic is a decent character, but not a great one. The last fifty pages (in which the kingdom slips sideways out of reality and is eventually returned) is somewhat more like the inspired lunacy I expect from Pratchett, but this is the least successful book in the series so far - and by a fairly wide margin.


Q

Queen of Candesce
Schroeder, Karl
2007
1st
Tor
yes

Follows Venera Fanning after the events of Sun of Suns. She flies (extremely sunburned and unconscious) onto the miniature world of Spyre, where she causes her own brand of havoc (and finds a conscience). The action moves along at a hell of a clip in the last half of the book, it's quite gripping. I wasn't entirely happy with the ending as I didn't see Sacrus causing the destruction it did without its desired target in hand, but otherwise it was very enjoyable.

I assume the next book follows Hayden Griffin in his efforts to start his own sun: I look forward to that too. (No, it doesn't - despite the name.)

Queen of Sorcery
Eddings, David
1982
Quofum
Foster, Alan Dean
2008

When I was in my teens, I read a number of Alan Dean Foster's books: most memorable among those were Icerigger and The Tar-Aiym Krang. I re-read both in the last few years, and discovered that, while his writing isn't precisely Michael Ondaatje, the stories are a huge amount of fun. And - important to the review at hand - self-contained.

Recently, I stumbled upon a copy of Quofum by Foster (I believe I got it from the Library's discards store for $0.50). Like most of his other books, it's set in the Humanx Commonwealth. Our protagonists are a group of explorer-scientists sent to the world of Quofum, which is interesting because it's not always there. This is somewhat disconcerting, as it's an approximately Earth-sized world that just ... vanishes occasionally. So a small team is sent to land and see what's going on. What they find is a world teaming with life - in fact, a variety of life so diverse that it makes no sense: mutation and evolution gone insane, but without the radiation that they would expect to cause such a thing.

The list of things wrong with this book is so long that I'm going to make it literally that: a list.

  • his prose has smoothed out a bit, although it's still utilitarian adventure-writer kind of stuff, but now without the characters and interesting ideas that made his early work appealing
  • the characters are generic and barely distinguishable once you get past the mid-point of the book
  • Flinx (Foster's best known character) is mentioned in the blurb on the back of the book and yet never appears in the book
  • the book opens on a character called Tellenberg, and he sort of feels like the main protagonist ... but he's killed at the mid-point of the book (I didn't bother with a SPOILER ALERT because this book is so godawful you'll never read it)
  • the "bad guy" is a "Qwarm," the bad guys he's used since the third or fourth book he wrote: no effort is put to motivation or reason, it just is
  • the "discoveries" our explorers make are throw-away: Foster's not going anywhere with them, there's no real point and no real interest
  • the conclusion is so blatantly deus ex machina that it's kind of jaw-dropping: oh look, the planet is the product of a massively advanced technology
  • our protagonists are left in limbo (it's not even a cliffhanger - it just ... stops)
  • our antagonist (such as he is) is left in limbo
  • the great evil in the book is ... "The Great Evil" - really
  • the book initially appears to be stand-alone, but the ending makes it clear that it's just a tiny and unimportant piece in a bigger - and not remotely interesting - puzzle

Publisher's Weekly was more polite, saying "... it's hard to see why one needs an entire book of what is, essentially, backstory."

I get most of my books from the library (I work there). Of those I acquire, they usually go one of two places: if I really love them, they stay on my shelves. The rest go down to the laundry room in my building, where there's a shelf of books people leave for others to read. But Quofum has a special place: it went into the recycling bin because no one else should be forced to waste their time on it.


R

Rake Task Management Essentials
Koleshko, Andrey
2014
1st
Packt Publishing
yes

I read this book in electronic form through Toronto Public Library's access to Safari Books Online. Not a glowing experience, but it worked - although it requires a near-continuous internet connection.

A reasonably good book on Rake marred by terrible editing: the author's English isn't that great, but that's a problem that should have been sorted out by the editors - but no editing at all seems to have been done. The indexing is also pretty awful: there are a number of things in the book that I read and then wanted to find again later but couldn't because they don't appear in the index even though they were distinctive topics that should have been indexed.

I worked through about 75% of the examples and found them to all be technically sound and fairly well presented and explained. The only out-and-out inaccuracy I encountered was the use of rails g ... This is a direct copy of his opening example in the Rails chapter:

        $ gem install rails
        $ rails g test_app

I'm not a rails expert, but it looks like he's trying to use rails g instead of rails new and it doesn't work if done this way. This meant that the entire chapter on "Introducing Rake's integration with Rails" is going to be a complete fail for those who aren't already quite familiar with Rails (like me). I'm not sure I could recommend purchasing this book, although as of 2014-07, this is just about the only book available on the most recent version of Rake and may be worth it for that alone.

Reamde
Stephenson, Neal
2011
?
Morrow
yes

Near-future SF, although Stephenson spends so much time mucking about with kidnapping, terrorism, and the interactions of his vast ensemble of characters that he might as well have set this in the present day. But he's an "SF writer," so setting it in the near future may have helped to make it appeal to his fans.

The "Reamde" of the title is a piece of ransomware that affects players of T'Rain, a hugely successful MMORPG owned by Richard, one of our main characters. When a Russian mafia figure has the data file and only access point for a huge sum of cash ransomed, he takes Richard's favourite niece (and a couple others) hostage. But that's not complicated enough, so Stephenson drags in a bunch of nasty Islamic terrorists and sends the entire ensemble traipsing all over the globe in small and ever-shifting groups.

While the characters are exceptionally well drawn, the level of detail is agonising, running the book in excess of 1000 pages ... sort of like Cryptonomicon but without quite the same level of quality and reader absorption. The long and drawn out ending also shows the author's hand as he carefully kills off the bad guys, but none of the good guys, "oh wait, let me choose one or they won't believe it, he's relatively minor and nearer death than the others, I'll kill him." <sigh>

Reaper Man
Pratchett, Terry
1991

The 11th book in the Discworld series sees Death being fired by "the Auditors of Reality" for the mistake of having developed a personality. Death is actually sort of excited by this: he has time, something he's never had before (he's always had eternity, and a job that used up all of it). So he goes off and tries to have a normal life. In the case of most personifications like Death, another immediately arises. But in this case there's a delay - so no one dies, and the life force builds up on the Disc with some awkward side-effects.

For reasons I can't fully articulate (isn't that always the way of it with comedy?), this book really struck home with me. It was partly because I thought the humour was better than usual, but I think it was also because I just like Death: he's a charming guy, despite his skeletal appearance and professional calling.

Among the best jokes: the Patrician (ruler) of Ankh-Morpork has always been described as tall and very thin. This time he's referred to as looking like a "predatory flamingo." Pratchett also referred to a funeral as "a reverential form of garbage disposal." And there was the cuckoo joke: "Isn’t there a sort of cuckoo in the Ramtops that builds clocks to nest in?" said the Bursar. "Yes, but that’s just courtship ritual," said the Lecturer in Recent Runes airily. "Besides, they keep lousy time."

Red Planet
Heinlein, Robert A.
1949

Red Planet is another early Heinlein juvenile, this time set on Mars. It includes canals (with water) and Martians - not exactly our modern vision of the planet. Our young hero and his friend leave their colony to attend school, where they shortly encounter significant problems with the new military-oriented headmaster who has some interesting political connections and effectively takes the pet of one of the boys hostage.

To me the book felt a lot like a rehearsal for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a somewhat later Heinlein book that I used to really love. Both involve revolutions on a planet or moon, although this one has lots about the kids and doesn't involve as much of the mechanics or politics of the revolution. Not bad, but hardly a favourite of mine.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Hamid, Mohsin
2005
1st
Bond Street Books/Doubleday/Random House
yes
The entire book is a first person narrative, one side of a conversation between a native Pakistani in Lahore and a nervous American. The monologue takes place over the course of one afternoon and evening. Our narrator is Changez, who grew up in Lahore, but went to school at Princeton, worked in New York, and fell desperately in love with a very damaged girl there. If you've ever wondered why large chunks of the world dislike the United States, this pretty much covers it. Changez is charming, extremely intelligent, a very good story teller, and just a bit creepy. Mesmerizing.
Rendezvous With Rama
Clarke, Arthur C.
1973

One of Arthur C. Clarke's most famous novels, up there with Childhood's End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It concerns what's now known as a "Big Dumb Object" - an immense object of alien origins that (in this case) transits through our solar system. It's an alien spaceship, but the lack of intelligent occupants reduces it to BDO status. The book is set in the year 2131, and having located the object coming through the solar system, an earth ship is sent to intercept and explore.

The problem is that Clarke's primary interest in the book is with the technology. He absolutely adores the technology involved, and the characters are interchangeable and unimportant chess pieces moved about to make further points about the super-cool technology of the Rama cylinder. Rama appears to be a generation ship, a cylinder 20 km in diameter and 54 km long spinning fast enough to produce almost Earth-like artificial gravity. When the earth ship arrives, the whole thing is a frozen tomb - but as the sun heats it up, what appear to be automatic systems start to activate and do stuff. Clarke spends the entire 250 page book ranting joyfully about the wondrous science involved, and never provides characters we care about or a plot that matters beyond the science.

As a mechanical engineer and a long-time SF geek, I admit the science is fascinating. But Clarke's stories - with this a classic example - utterly lack human warmth.

Rex Libris: I, Librarian
Turner, James
2007
1st
SLG Publishing
yes

"The astonishing story of the incomparable Rex Libris, Head Librarian at Middleton Public Library. From ancient Egypt, where his beloved Hypatia was murdered, to the farthest reaches of the galaxy in search of overdue books, Rex upholds his vow to fight the forces of ignorance and darkness. Wearing his super thick bottle glasses and armed with an arsenal of high technology weapons, he strikes fear into recalcitrant borrowers, and can take on virtually any foe from zombies to renegade literary characters."

While very funny in places, I found the story was too disjointed to hold together well. The author seems to think this is a good thing: Rex is in the middle of a fight, suddenly an out-of-place character appears in frame, and the next frame is Rex arguing with his editor that they shouldn't insert a space amazon at that point in the story. Still, amusing for librarians. I particularly like the line "Since at least the Sixth Century all librarians have received extensive combat training and are lethal with even the common toothpick."

Ringworld
Niven, Larry
1970

Niven wrote a lot of books set in "Known Space," and I read pretty much all of them when I was in my teens (he's published a few since). I was curious to see what Ringworld looked like more than 30 years later.

The premise is fairly simple: a ring of material spins around a star, about one Astronomical Unit (ie. the orbit of the Earth) in radius. The ring is a million miles wide, and has an edge a thousand miles high to hold in the atmosphere that's held down by centrifugal force. The surface area is three million times that of the Earth.

But that isn't where the adventure starts: it starts with Louis Wu, 200 years old, being approached by a Pierson's Puppeteer (a race that had left Known Space 200 years previously). Eventually, he, the Puppeteer, a Kzinti called "Speaker to Animals," and another human - a young woman called Teela Brown - head for the Ringworld the Puppeteers have discovered to investigate.

In light of modern technology there are some blatant failures: I particularly remember them making sketches of maps they couldn't remove, whereas any of us today would snap a photo on our cellphone - but in 1970, Niven hadn't anticipated our favourite do-anything device. There are some other problems like this with the novel, but for the most part his speculations about aliens and technology are fascinating, and the story is very well constructed. Still a very enjoyable book.

The Road to Little Dribbling
Bryson, Bill
2015
yes

I first encountered Bryson's books on the backpacker trail in southeast Asia. Near the cheap hotels there are small bookstores specializing in English language books where the hippies and the hipsters go to trade in the books they've read and collect another couple they haven't read. Bryson has done a lot of travel writing and he's often funny, so his work showed up more than most - about the only books that outnumbered his were used travel guides for the countries in the region. Inevitably, I ended up reading a couple of his books and mostly enjoying them. He's funny, but he often comes across as a bitterly unhappy man.

Roughly twenty years ago, he wrote a book called Notes from a Small Island about touring around Great Britain (I haven't read it). In 2015, he published The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island. As it turns out, he married a British woman and has lived in the UK for much of his life. I've enjoyed his books, but particularly Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way and A Short History of Nearly Everything. They convinced me I should continue to read his stuff: I love the detours he takes, as in A Short History where he talks about the personal lives and eccentricities of famous scientists as much as the science they brought us.

The Road to Little Dribbling follows Bryson as he once again travels around Britain, mostly visiting places he didn't go for the previous book. He's mellowed with age and is clearly desperately in love with the countryside of his adopted home ... but his way of presenting it can be somewhat jarring. He tells you how awe-inspiring Stonehenge is, and how much better it is than 20 years ago now that the car park is half a mile away instead of right next to it. He also covers some of the stranger scientific details of what we do and don't know about the place. And in the next paragraph he explains how he went to the sandwich shop next to the monument and stabbed the attendant in the head for some minor infraction of etiquette. This is of course meant to be humour, but it's incredibly jarring after his paean to Stonehenge while simultaneously throwing into question the accuracy of his narrative. This happens repeatedly throughout the book, with equally discomforting results. I think I know when things are meant to be "humour" and when they're meant to be "factual," but after 350 pages of these violent contrasts, I ceased to be sure what was correct and what wasn't. Representative of this is that he never mentions "Little Dribbling" in the book at all - and in fact it doesn't seem to exist.

In the end, I enjoyed the book ... but I end up feeling that it's a work of fiction rather than fact.

Roadmarks
Zelazny, Roger
1979
?
Del Rey
?

There's a highway that certain people can find that runs through time. You can drive through time to the last exit to Babylon (featured on the cover of the book, and in the climax). If you find the right exit, you find alternative histories. There are also dragons, although they appear late and have a rather bizarre relation to the people who are at the centre of the narrative.

The narrative is extremely non-linear but otherwise fairly normal, but this is still one of Zelazny's weirder books - and not a particularly great one.

The Rosie Project
Simsion, Graeme
2013
yes

A first person tale delivered by our antagonist, Don Tillman. Tillman is a Genetics Professor who believes in efficiency, scheduling every moment of his life, and is no good at all at reading other's emotions or reactions (although at least he's aware of this). Early on, a friend of his gets Tillman to do a guest lecture on the Autism spectrum and hints to Tillman he might be on that spectrum - a hint that Tillman completely fails to get. So I guess that hint was for the reader, and also to let us know what his friends know what he is.

Tillman embarks on "The Wife Project," which has him creating a detailed questionnaire for prospective candidates by which he can filter out unsuitable women (all in the name of efficiency). He's unimpressed that people don't fill it out completely, or at all - don't they understand how much time it saves both him and them? His progress on The Wife Project is somewhat derailed by the arrival Rosie, a young woman looking for assistance in locating her genetic father. This turns into a long-term project for Tillman, despite the inefficiency of it - and he's not even sure why he's doing it. Certainly, Rosie is a totally unsuitable candidate for The Wife Project: she's often late, and she smokes. But The Father Project continues.

About 60 pages in, I nearly gave up in disgust: Don Tillman is a bit of an ass, and despite being extremely intelligent he's so staggeringly blind to other people's emotions as to be unbelievable. (I know this is a characteristic of people on the Autism spectrum, but even given that I think it was overplayed.) But the arrival of Rosie made the book rather better. For the most part, the book is a quick and easy read, and fairly entertaining. It reminded me considerably of the excellent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which is also written from the point of someone on the Autism spectrum.

I was amazingly blind to cultural references in the book (is it possible they weren't there?): I assumed it was at an American university. About 170 pages in, someone said "I was taking the piss," and I still thought they were a British import. It wasn't until page 200 (of a 320 page book) that I finally found out that we were in Australia - when it was directly mentioned.


S

The Sandman: Endless Nights
Neil Gaiman
2003
1st
DC Comics
yes
A companion piece and follow-up to The Dreaming sequence, each chapter is about a different member of the Endless, each drawn by a different artist. The styles varied radically - I suppose I like the more "traditional" stuff better. Fairly good if you're a fan of The Dreaming, but not the best of the lot.
Scott Pilgrim et al
O'Malley, Bryan Lee
2004-2010
1st
Oni Press
yes

Scott Pilgrim is a 23 year old slacker who lives in Toronto and occasionally plays bass in a band called Sex Bob-Omb. He meets the girl of his dreams (literally) and thus starts dating Ramona ... only to find that to continue to date her he's going to have to defeat each of her seven evil ex-boyfriends in battle. While Scott isn't shown playing video games much, it's clear he knows the tropes and you'd better too. When Scott defeats the first ex-, there's a small shower of coins that Scott scrambles to pick up.

I find O'Malley's (black and white only) drawing a problem - his characters are quite difficult to tell apart. Scott himself is annoying: he has the attention span of a gnat, little-to-no morality, and a really crappy memory. But the Toronto references are fun, the dialogue is generally quite good, and the story arc is entertaining. I picked these up because I really enjoyed the trailer for the upcoming movie, and I'm glad I did.

Sea Without a Shore
Russell, Sean
1996
Daw
Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace)
Tan, Chade-Meng
2012
1st
HarperCollins
yes

Tan is one of Google's earliest employees (#107), and his official job title is "Jolly Good Fellow." He's an engineer by trade, but a world-saver by preference. The book is essentially a paper representation of this course he and several associates came up with for Google - not surprisingly called "Search Inside Yourself." The content is about Mindfulness/Meditation and Emotional Intelligence.

As a long time half-assed Buddhist (and thus half-assed meditator), the first 100 pages of the book presented effectively a light-weight refresher course for me. But Tan is - as mentioned - an engineer, and big on the whole "proof" thing, so it was nice to see solid evidence that meditation is as good for you as I've always liked to believe. I started reading Buddhist texts of various types about 20 years ago: at the time, there wasn't a lot of backing for the value of meditation, but Tan is all about "show me the numbers," so he includes the research from the last 30 years. It shows - repeatedly - that meditation/mindfulness has significant (in fact huge) benefits in a Western lifestyle. Confirmation of something you believe in is always a good thing.

But I was wondering what value this book would present to me - I know a fair bit about Buddhism and meditation already. Tan's primary addition was to bring "Emotional Intelligence" into the mix - mostly in the form of the work of Daniel Goleman. But it was his discussion of personal goals and understanding yourself that caught my interest. "Understanding yourself" is something that meditation is supposed to provide, but the general conclusion is that if you don't understand yourself, you should meditate more. Tan's book brings more concrete exercises to the table to help out with that.

Tan's sense of humour is ... annoying. It's not awful, but it's not great, and he waves it like a flag throughout the book with silly cartoons throughout. But it's a good basic introduction to mindfulness and meditation, particularly for the technically inclined. It also includes some interesting stuff about dealing with difficult personal interactions - including how to do this by email, placing it currently in the present day. Not a great book, but both current and good, and recommended to anyone in the realm of technology who has an interest in the subjects it covers.

Seconds
O'Malley, Brian Lee
2014
1st
Random House Canada
yes

O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim was something of a goofy masterpiece, but it's important to note the "goofy" part. This is his follow-up graphic novel, in colour (Scott Pilgrim was black and white) and in one volume (Pilgrim was six volumes).

Katie is a successful chef in her late twenties(?), trying to open a new restaurant and sort out her romantic entanglements. She gets magic-mushroom-do-overs for her own life, courtesy of a house spirit - but she abuses her power trying to make things perfect. It's about as weird as that sounds.

He's trying to be a bit more serious (less goofy) this time, and I don't think it flies as well. The themes addressed are much the same: growing up, getting a life, being happy with what you have. One of the great things about the previous series was the endless comedic video game references, and he's found nothing to replace that with. His artwork is better, but not enough to bring the depth he needs. And I saw a good portion of the punchline coming by the time I was half way through the book, never a good thing. Not bad, but not as good as I'd hoped for after Scott Pilgrim.

Seeker
McDevitt, Jack
2005
1st
Ace
yes
I'm told McDevitt really likes his BDOs ("Big Dumb Objects"). This certainly has a taste of it, and the title character is a huge derelict ship - but its origins and purpose are well known (usually not the case for BDOs). An enjoyable and mostly unpredictable tale of the far future - a lot like our own time, but I don't disagree with that - and the archeology of the future.
Seven Soldiers of Victory, Volume 1
Grant Morrison
2006
1st
DC Comics
yes
Morrison decided he wanted to do an "epic" comic book series, and resurrected an old title with almost no reference to the characters in it - instead populating it with minor and new characters from the DC Universe, who together (without ever meeting) have to tackle a threat to the very fabric of the universe. There are superheroes, there's magic, there are alternative worlds, there are pirates on trains under New York, there's time travel ... It's a bizarre and crazy mess that somehow manages to be quite compelling. I don't particularly recommend it, but if "over-the-top" works for you, give it a shot.
Seven Soldiers of Victory, Volume 2
Grant Morrison
2006
1st
DC Comics
yes
I said of the previous volume that it managed to be "compelling" despite being over-the-top and a crazy mess. This one continues to be the latter two without managing the compelling part. I'm giving up at this point, it no longer seems worth pursuing.
Shades of Milk and Honey
Kowal, Mary Robinette
2010
Tor
yes

Kowal acknowledges in the afterword that she styled the book heavily after Jane Austen, and it certainly shows. We have a young, very attractive and mostly talentless (or at least unwilling to apply herself) sister, and the older, less attractive spinster sister with immense talent, our heroine. We have a sensible father and a witless, fainting mother. We have balls, social engagements, competition for suitors, and noble and questionable men. But this differs from Austen in several ways: it was written by an American and published in 2010 - and the talent I mentioned earlier is with "glamour," which essentially means magic and/or illusion. One of the author's cleverer ideas was providing a reason women of that period tended to faint: over-exertion in the use of glamour. Happily, this is equal opportunity, and male glamourists faint as well. Kowal's writing is charming, but neither so subtle nor so elegant as Austen's (but whose writing is?), with the attendant problem that the very small problems of their lives seem of less consequence than Austen could manage. The end product is a light and reasonably enjoyable read, in which our heroine journeys from her state of spinsterhood to an appropriately Austen ending (although the denouement has more action than Austen ever wrote, the only action in the book). I'm starting the sequel (Glamour in Glass) with some trepidation: it seemed to me she'd said everything she could with this character. We shall see.

The Shadow of the Wind
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
2001
1st
Penguin Press
yes

Translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves.

Young Daniel is taken by his father (a bookseller) to the Cemetery of Lost Books, where he will find a book to protect and cherish for life. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. As he grows up, he finds out that there's a lot of baggage associated with Carax's works.

I found the writing style disconcerting - it often seemed to be written for children, even after we pass out of Daniel's childhood years. And that style seemed terribly out of place when we're talking about sex, beatings, torture, tragedy, and death. As I'm unable to read the book in the original Spanish, I have no idea if this is the original style or a product of the translation (which otherwise seems pretty good). Zafón has a lot of fun with the circular structure of the book, having Daniel's life reflect that of Carax as Daniel slowly uncovers what happened to Carax. Many of the characters are haunted by a sense of doom, either real or perceived, partly a result of much of the story taking place around the bloody Spanish revolution.

A long read, often fairly bleak, but quite good.

The Shadow Roads
Sean Russell
2005
1st
HarperCollins Canada
yes

The third and final book in the "Swan's War" series after The One Kingdom and The Isle of Battle. I was struck in the first half of the book by the sloppy writing - not just the prose, but also the treatment and behaviour of the characters. It got better in the second half of the book and the series came to a passable ending, but the writing was a far cry from the incredibly meticulous work he produced in both The Initiate Brother and its sequel Gatherer of Clouds. I realize I've mentioned these books in every review for this series, but they are the ruler by which everything else he does is measured.

This book finds pretty much everybody alive (which, after spending most of The Isle of Battle in running battles in an almost-impossible-to-exit swamp, makes no particular sense) and back in the "land between the mountains." There they chase each other about some more. The last half of the book was a bit better written and went in some slightly surprising directions (a good thing), but not enough to redeem an unsuccessful series.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage
Bryson, Bill
2005
1st
HarperCollins
yes

Bryson explains what an incredible amount of information we don't have about Shakespeare. As usual, he does it well. This is less funny than A Short History of Nearly Everything and Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way, but just as fascinating (if you're interested in Shakespeare). He covers exactly what we know, who threw their theories into the ring, which of those became widely believed, and finally spends a very convincing final chapter debunking all the "Shakespeare was written by someone else" theories.

Shards of Honor
Bujold, Lois McMaster
1986
?
Shenzhen: a Travelogue from China
Guy Delisle
2006
1st
L'Association
yes

Delisle is a comic book artist and animator. This graphic novel is the story of his three month stay in Shenzhen (which he likens at one point to one of the circles of Dante's Hell). I have relatively recently returned from southeast Asia (although I didn't visit China) and it was fascinating to see remarkable similarities and huge differences to what I had encountered. The drawing is chunky and rough, but supports the narrative well and all together it paints a memorable picture. An enjoyable, easy read.

The Ship Who Sang
McCaffrey, Anne
1969

I assumed that McCaffrey wrote this as a young adult book, but it turns out that she wrote the five sections of the book as separate short stories that were published in various well-known science fiction magazines of the time, and then eventually assembled into the novel.

I liked this book as a kid, but the heavy-handed emotional manipulation, poorly handled human interactions, and blatant sentimentality and romanticism all made the story hard to swallow as an adult. It also felt a lot like a bad role-playing game: in the end, she (Helva, the singing ship) finishes the game at the pinnacle after getting all the power-ups . It's cute, but not much more.

A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bryson, Bill
2003
?
Anchor Canada
yes

A fascinating book about the history of the universe, the history of the sun, solar system, the earth, and the species on it - and the state of our knowledge about all these things. I had thought this was a condensed replay of recorded history, but it's not that at all. What makes the book so remarkably readable is his discussion of the various scientists who have brought us to the knowledge we have about these various histories, and how badly astray they went in other areas of research. I was most amused by the younger Haldane, who subjected himself to endless experiments in a pressure chamber to determine the effects of various gas mixes and pressures on divers - and the bizarre side-effects he happily inflicted on himself and dozens of (sometimes famous) experimental subjects. Very educational, very readable.

Shriek: An Afterword
VanderMeer, Jeff
2006
1st
Tor
yes

The basic premise of this book is that Janice Shriek, after the apparent death (or disappearance) of her brother, is writing an afterword to one of his history books. But it's a lot more complicated than that: you're reading not only about him, but also about her and their whole family ... and the context in which she's writing impinges on the story. And then, to confuse things further, her brother has written extensive notes that are dropped in throughout the text. And the city of Ambergris, which they're both writing about, is a very, very weird place. For example, about half way through the book, two publishing houses go to war for several years, with one of the sides using fungal bombs that dissolve people and leave mushrooms growing all over. I read at about one quarter of my usual pace, working through the dense prose and layers of narrative - not an easy book to read. It's worth it though: it will burn itself into your brain and leave you thinking about it for weeks. Very good.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: a novel
Marina Lewycka
2005
?
Penguin
yes

A first novel by an author who is uncomfortably similar to her own protagonist: middle aged woman in Britain of Ukrainian descent. But her effective exaggeration (we hope!) of the wild behaviour of her family makes for a very funny and memorable read. Definitely recommended. The first few sentences are printed on the cover of the book (and they're representative): "Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade ..."

Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye
Miller, Frank
1991-1993
2nd
Dark Horse
yes

Marv is one of the greatest comic book characters ever created: I'm not big on revenge stories, but this is done with so much style it's breath-taking. Miller's art is fabulous, at least in this case. It's black and white ... not "gray scale," BLACK. and. WHITE. Period, full stop. Beautiful stuff. I saw the movie first and thought it was pretty good - I'm not sure that reading this makes it better, but it does make it more impressive: Rodriguez brought the vision provided in the graphic novel to the screen with an accuracy that's truly astounding.

Sin City Volume 2: A Dame to Kill For
Miller, Frank
1993-1995
2nd
Dark Horse
yes

Dwight, the main character in this story, isn't quite as entertaining as Marv - although he's rather brighter. Marv resurfaces (apparently this story plays out prior to Volume 1) and looks pretty dumb, which was kind of disappointing. The novelty of the graphics is starting to wear off, but it's still really good. The story is good (but not one of the ones that made it into the movie, although Dwight makes it in).

Sin City Volume 3: The Big Fat Kill
Miller, Frank
2005
2nd
Dark Horse
yes

I continue to read the series because I'm enjoying it - but if I were paying for it, I probably wouldn't bother. Miller has a knack for larger-than-life characters, and they're pretty enjoyable. More massive, brutal violence.

Sin City Volume 4: That Yellow Bastard
Miller, Frank
2006?
2nd?
Dark Horse
yes

Miller adds a touch of colour (in the most literal sense) to the very Black and White format of the Sin City graphic novels. This story finds Hartigan, one of the very few honest cops in Sin City, saving the life of a very young girl from a child-molesting son of the all-powerful Roark family, and shows us the incredible price he has to pay for it. Not exactly cheerful stuff.

Six Records of a Floating Life
Shen Fu
1983
Penguin Classics
yes

Six Records of a Floating Life is the autobiography of Shen Fu (1763-1825). I read it in the 1983 translation by Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-hui from Penguin Classics. Their introduction is an excellent primer on the period.

The phrase "floating life" comes from a poem, "...The floating life is but as a dream; how much longer can we enjoy our happiness?" Shen Fu was born into a wealthy family, but was a conspicuous failure. Happily for us, his autobiography doesn't appear to gloss over that fact (unless he was actually considerably worse than he was willing portray himself). What makes this most interesting, and historically important, is that he gives a lot of time to the daily details of life in his period - something that has nearly been lost to history with the exception of this book.

The book is divided into four sections:

  • Wedded Bliss
  • The Little Pleasures of Life
  • In Sorrow
  • The Joys of Travel

You were expecting more? There were originally six, but the remaining two have been lost to history. Contrary to most modern autobiographies these chapters aren't sequential, but detail different aspects of the same lifetime. "Wedded Bliss" portrays his very happy relationship with his wife - including her ongoing efforts to get him a concubine. "The Little Pleasures of Life" is much as advertised: I will freely admit I skipped over some parts of the section about how many vases of chrysanthemums were appropriate to place on a table at one time. "In Sorrow" is where we find out about things like his wife's frequent illness and his own stupidity about money. A fine example is his guaranteeing a friend's loan for "50 gold," despite not having anything like that sum of money because he "would have been embarrassed not to." The friend ran off on the loan, leaving Shen Fu on the hook and ultimately causing him and his wife to run away in the middle of the night essentially abandoning their children (arrangements were made, but ...). Another bizarre and dubious moment comes when Shen Fu runs out of money, and is contemplating selling his undergarments. The book has extensive and helpful notes, and in this case it points out "This may sound like an odd operation, but the literature is full of examples of it." Here they cite another book where it happens. "Presumably this is because a gentleman's underwear would have been made of finely woven silk and be worth some money."

I didn't finish the book (I'd kept it too long and had to return it to the library), but will recommend it anyway if you have any interest in Chinese history.

Small Gods
Pratchett, Terry
1992
?

As I mentioned in the review of Witches Abroad , Pratchett was very fond of the idea that the power of a god is proportional to the number of its worshippers. This book draws the most heavily on that idea. Our main character is Brutha, a novice at the temple who incidentally is the only person left in the entire world who believes in the Great God Om. Om - because of his lack of worshippers - has found himself re-incarnated as a turtle, and unable to summon up a thunderbolt larger than a weak burst of static electricity. While Brutha is entirely unable to read or write, he does have an eidetic memory, and one of the most lethal high priests latches on to him to use this skill. So Brutha has to juggle the demands of his god and the demands of his priest. The "small gods" of the title are those who no longer have any worshippers, or who have never had any.

Pratchett is happily having a go at organized religion and its effects on politics. And once he warms to the subject, he takes a good swing at the Ancient Greeks and particularly their philosophers - although they don't take quite as big a hit.

Perhaps not Pratchett's best plot, it's nevertheless one of his funnier books: I enjoyed it considerably.

Snow Crash
Stephenson, Neal
1992
?
Bantam
?

I read this around when it came out, and then again in 2013. I got a lot out of it the first time around, and even more the second time. One of the seminal works of SF. It's cyberpunk, but it's a whole lot more than that. Half way to a parody, and yet he delivers the goods while you're laughing your ass off. Of course to get there you have to wade through about 100 pages on the Sumerian language, cryptography, and neuro-linguistic hacking, but he does even that well.

Our hero is ... Hiro. Hiro Protagonist. That's his name. And he's a hacker, although when we first meet him he's the Deliverator - which sounds really cool until you realize two pages later that what he's delivering is pizza. But he loses that job pretty soon - and pretty much has to save the entire world, in a grungy and disturbingly likely near future. Highly, highly recommended.

If you read this and are looking for a recommendation, I didn't like The Diamond Age as much, and Zodiac is one of his poorer outings. I'm also not a fan of Reamde. But Cryptonomicon ... put aside some time as it's 900 pages and some of it's really heavy going (details of cryptography), but it's just as brilliant as this one.

Soul Music
Pratchett, Terry
1994

The sixteenth book in the Discworld series, and the weakest of the lot so far (I've been reading them sequentially).

The story follows the birth of "Music With Rocks In" on the Disc, with Pratchett creating a stand-in for Buddy Holly, up to and including their tragic death (although the outcome is somewhat different on the Disc). Simultaneous with this, Death stops working, and his adopted teenage daughter Susan Sto Helit (aka "Susan Death") steps in to the role for a while, creating chaos in her own way (territory he'd already explored in the more successful book Mort, about Susan's father).

The problem is Pratchett's plotting - never his best feature - is sloppier than usual, simultaneous with this being one of his least funny books.

Soulless
Carriger, Gail (aka Borregaard, Tofa)
2009
1st
Orbit
yes

Our heroine is Alexia Tarabotti, an extremely self-possessed young woman in a Victorian London populated with werewolves, vampires, and ghosts. She is a supernatural creature of a different variety: she has no soul. As such, physical contact with any supernatural will turn them fully human on the spot. The book finds her flirting with the head of the BUR (Bureau of Unnatural Registry?), the extremely eligible bachelor and tempermental alpha werewolf, Lord Maccon. Although she's also decidedly uncomfortable about her own appearance and a notorious spinster.

I'm not usually much for vampires and werewolves, and throwing in a touch of steampunk makes it an even tougher sell. But Carriger (pen-name of Tofa Borregaard) is an entertaining writer, combining some Jane Austen sensibility with some modern ideas to good effect. It's a lot of fun, but I completely fail to see how the characters and ideas can support another two books (already written and heavily advertised). Fortunately this book stands well alone (it ends with everything wrapped up decently) and I have every intention of not reading the sequels.

Sourcery
Pratchett, Terry
1989
1st
Roc (Penguin)
?

The story is nominally about a very young boy called Coin, who is the eighth son of an eighth son - and thus a "sourceror" in Discworld's mythology, a person who is not only a magician but also a source of magic. Massive, world-destroying magic. But the story is more about Rincewind, Pratchett's favourite failed magician, and Conina (the petite daughter of Cohen the Barbarian, who wants to be a hairdresser but is far, far too good at killing people) and various other characters who are trying to prevent the end of the world.

I didn't much like the idea of the book, and Coin is essentially a non-entity - not a great thing for a person who's the main plot driver. Having just read Discworld books 2, 3, and 4 (with this being #5), I'm getting a little tired of him threatening the entire world every time to generate a story. Conina is a pretty good character, but Pratchett is bending Rincewind into occasional acts of bravery: he tries to explain it away (Rincewind has always been a horrible coward), but not terribly successfully. But I shouldn't be worrying about the plot - it's not as important with Pratchett's work as the other question, "is it funny?" And I think this one falls down fairly badly on that as well. Not his best.

Star Beast
Heinlein, Robert A.
1954

Another Heinlein juvenile. Our hero is the owner of a massive alien pet that's been passed down from his great(?) grandfather, one of the first interstellar travellers - although it was small enough to fit in a duffel bag when it came to Earth. Each of the humans is named "John Thomas Stuart," this one being "John Thomas Stuart XI." I don't think his age is ever stated, but I have to guess between 13 and 16. He calls his alien creature "Lummox" because its incredibly strong and has a tendency to break things. At which point he gives Lummox a stern talking to - which doesn't always work, because Lummox has a reasonable grasp on the English language and a lawyer's grasp of logic, so anything that John Thomas didn't specify as off-bounds is clearly okay ... Not that Lummox is a deliberate trouble-maker, just occasionally bored. John Thomas is, as a result, often in trouble with the local police.

This all gets more complicated when a new alien race comes calling to Earth. John Thomas isn't initially aware of this, but we see the political manoeuvrings of Secretary of Interstellar Affairs (or some such) Mr. Kiku as he attempts to satisfy their request and not have our home planet blown up. According to Wikipedia (and I suspect they're quite correct), the fact that Mr. Kiku was a black African in a position of power in an American book written in 1954 was incredibly forward-looking and novel at the time. Lummox's relation to the visiting aliens becomes important.

My favourite exchange is between an alien interpreter and one of Kiku's associates:

"All languages carry in them a portrait of their users and the idioms of every language say over and over again, 'He is a stranger and therefore a barbarian.'"

Greenberg grinned wryly. "Discouraging, isn't it?"

"Discouraging? Why, sir? It is sidesplitting. It is the only joke that God ever repeats, because its humor never grows stale."

John Thomas is an appealing character. His mother is overbearing and unpleasant, and as the book progresses, she becomes less and less believable. The political tricks and twists vary between brilliance and pure idiocy in a way that's quite astonishing: there were several points where I wondered how Heinlein could have thought something through so well, so thoroughly, and come up with such a fine solution ... and then a couple pages later he'd come up with another "solution" so sloppy and silly that even the target audience would be forced to wonder what world it could happen in.

John Thomas' romantic interest is a young woman who initially comes across as both hyper-competent and quite charming, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that she'll ensure that everything will go her way: she's incredibly and unpleasantly domineering.

Overall, a good story that could have been great but for some rather odd missteps.

Stardust
Gaiman, Neil
1999
1st
Spike/Avon
yes

I read this because I absolutely loved the movie. It's a fairy tale for adults, although it's written in words that make in sound almost as if it were for children. Right up until you hit the sex scenes or the occasional violent death. The spirit of the movie is much the same as the book and they share characters and many scenes - although the grand finale of the movie is most certainly not in the book. The book ending is more elegant and less spectacular. I have to give the movie big credit for making the brother's ghosts much more entertaining. In any case, I really enjoyed the book - although I would have enjoyed it less without the movie in my mind.

Starship Troopers
Heinlein, Robert A.
1959
?
Ace
yes

Our hero is Juan Rico, a young man who rather randomly joins the military infantry of the future. The book looks short at 200 pages, but 150 of those pages are boot camp and undigestible politics, mixed with 50 pages of action. Or am I exaggerating? There may be less action than that. How did this become a "classic?" How did I like it as a kid? Let's see: only ex-military can be in the government. The only way to be allowed to vote is to have a military career and an honourable discharge. Flogging for crimes isn't merely a good idea, it's essential. Hanging is good. If an insane person kills someone, and you were to make them sane again, their only acceptable course of action - knowing what they'd done - would be to kill themselves. So let's just short-circuit that and hang them now. These are Juan Rico's politics: perhaps they're not Heinlein's. But the glowing pro-military prose is all him, so you have to wonder about the rest of the politics. The action isn't bad, but conversely it's not terribly good either. Not a good book.

Sun of Suns
Schroeder, Karl
2006
1st
Tor
yes

Full disclosure: Karl is one of my best friends.

This is old school space opera at its best - it reminds me a lot of Niven's Ringworld. He's invented a world, or series of worlds, and thought through the consequences of the bizarre physical arrangement. And then he's anchored a good story in that context. I had expected a more upbeat ending, but ... he made it right, although not enormously happy. It works. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel.

The Sunless Countries
Schroeder, Karl
2009
1st
Tor
yes

The fourth book in the Virga series, following Pirate Sun. Our heroine this time is Leal Maspeth, a history professor in a settlement in Virga far from any suns (which will only make sense if you've read a Virga book). She crosses paths with Hayden Griffin (who has appeared in at least two of the previous books) and tries to figure out what exactly is trying to invade Virga. As Hayden goes about it in his hero-ish way, she consults the history books. Inevitably she's dragged into the action - partly because of what she knew, partly because of her conscience.

Super Mutant Magic Academy
2005
1st
Reilly
yes

This turns out to be Canadian - who knew? It's more like a collection of comic strips than a graphic novel: most pages are single strips, not directly related to the strips before or after. People recur, so we get a sense of personality for many of them and a sense of place. The last forty pages are relatively cohesive, telling the story of several characters on the evening of their final prom.

The art is fairly simple and almost entirely black and white - but the occasional jolt of red shows up to add a bit of spice. Like "Ghostopolis," this keeps everything in one book with a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. Not deep, but quite entertaining.

Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way
Tom Morris and Matt Morris, eds.
2005
1st
Open Court
yes
Twenty essays about superheroes, intelligent without getting bogged down in an excessively literary style. Fascinating.
The Surrogates
Venditti, Robert and Brett Weldele
2006-2008
1st
Top Shelf Productions
yes

A near future science fiction graphic novel, positing that the vast majority of us will use "surrogates" (human looking robots) to go to work for us, live our lives for us. If they're damaged, get another - it's not you that gets hurt. But someone is out destroying surrogates, and the story focuses on a police investigator trying to determine why. Science fiction, detective story, social commentary: it's a very good story (good enough that Hollywood decided to turn it into a movie and change the plot). Unfortunately I wasn't as happy with the artwork: the drawing is rough but not too bad, but colour is only used in full panel washes - it adds a bit of atmosphere, but could have been done much better. Nevertheless, the story definitely makes this worth a read: definitely deserves to be better known.

Swallows and Amazons
Ransome, Arthur
1930
Penguin

Despite its considerably advanced age (the book was written in 1930), Arthur Ransome's book remains one of the best known children's books ever written. This isn't a thin book either: the 1973 Penguin printing I have runs to 360 pages, and the print's not big. I was reminded that I hadn't read it by a trailer for the 2016 movie.

The story is about the four Walker children, John, Susan, Titty, and Roger (The Swallows) and Nancy and Peggy Blackett (The Amazons). Considerable speculation was to be had in my family about Titty's name: given the age of the book, my mother and I both independently guessed it was a contraction of "Titania," but we were wrong. According to Wikipedia her name is from the children's book Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse. Few will be surprised to hear that the character's name was changed to Kitty for one movie production, and Tatty for another.

The book sees the Walker children at a lake in the Lake District in Britain, where they sail and camp and have adventures, including mock wars with the Amazons, during their summer vacation. Ransome likes his sailing details, and I have to admit there's enough of them that I glazed over a bit. The most dramatic action of the entire book was the theft of a chest from a houseboat by some unseen thieves, but for the most part the book is utterly devoid of tension or drama. It has a certain amount of old-fashioned charm, but having read one, I have no intention of tracking down any of the eleven sequels (as thrilling as it was to hear that they have independent titles, like Pigeon Post and The Big Six ... so refreshing that they're not Swallows and Amazons III).

Sweet Silver Blues
Cook, Glen
1987
1st
Signet
yes

The first of the Garrett P.I. novels. Fantasy world - gnomes, dark elves, vampires, etc. Of course our hero (or anti-hero) is called on to deal with pretty much all of them at one time or another. It's an easy read and better written than most fantasy, but Cook wasn't aiming high and this didn't inspire me to read any more of the 20 or so Garrett books.

Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods
Lemire, Jeff
2010
1st
Vertigo
yes

Graphic novel, collection of the first five monthlies. Post-apocalyptic - some disease has caused most humans to die, and the remaining humans are slowly dropping off. There are a number of animal-human hybrid creatures around, and our main character is Gus (aka "Sweet Tooth" for his love of chocolate) who has antlers coming out of his head. He claims to be nine years old, but since the disease started seven years prior, no one believes him. After the death of his father, he's rescued from hunters by Jepperd. The two set out on a cross-country trip to a promised safe place for hybrids.

This comic has been praised extensively, but to me it's just another post-apocalyptic tale. I didn't think much of the art - he made it so high-contrast at times that he made Gus look like Hitler - a moustache of shadow under his nose.


T

The Tar-Aiym Krang
Foster, Alan Dean
1972
?
Del Rey
yes

Many years ago, Foster wrote entertaining adventure stories. Not particularly good, but entertaining. This is a fine example, and I was also very fond of Icerigger (1974). This is the story that introduced both the Humanx Commonwealth and the character Flinx. Foster has set dozens of novels in the Humanx Commonwealth (including Icerigger), 14 of which have starred Flinx (as of 2010). He is - or was - a fairly appealing character, although perhaps not 14 books appealing.

Taran Wanderer
Alexander, Lloyd
1967
?
?
yes

Fourth of the five Prydain books, Taran is getting into his existential angst phase. He wants to know who his parents are, and what he's meant to do with his life. There are of course adventures to be had, but Taran tries his hand at a number of professions in the Free Commots on the way to understanding himself (and other people) better.

Preceded by The Castle of Llyr, and followed by The High King.

Tea With the Black Dragon
MacAvoy, R.A.
1983
1st
Bantam

Our main characters are Martha MacNamara and Mayland Long, who meet in San Francisco's James Herald Hotel. Martha has just flown out from the eastern U.S. on a mysterious summons from her daughter, who she cannot find. She and Mayland get on well: so well in fact that Mayland applies his extraordinary talent for languages - which extends to computer languages - to assist her in locating her daughter (who is a programmer). As they dig into the mystery, things get a little ugly.

A very thin paperback at 166 pages, defining this as "Fantasy" strikes me as something of a stretch: Mayland Long claims he used to be a Chinese Imperial Dragon, and is perhaps 2000 years old. But even when we reach the end of the book we have little to go on other than some odd characteristics and his claim. I think we're meant to believe him, but not only are there no traditional fantasy elements in the story, there's nothing that makes it more than a standard mystery beyond his odd claims (which are perhaps backed up by the odd shape of his hands and his strength). It has nevertheless claimed its place among the fantasy books of the period (it was published in 1983) with several important awards and nominations. And it's definitely a charming book that I enjoyed reading.

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments
Johnson, George
2008
1st
Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf
yes

Galileo - William Harvey - Isaac Newton - Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier - Luigi Galvani - Michael Faraday - James Joule - A. A. Michelson - Ivan Pavlov - Robert Millikan

This is an interesting but ultimately forgettable book. Johnson was trying to find experiments that clearly and concisely tested for something, eliminating all misunderstanding. Which is actually very hard to do, so it was a good idea for a book. And he does explain the experiments fairly well, and I enjoyed reading about them, but it didn't really stay with me.

Terminal City
Motter, Dean and Michael Lark
1997
1st
DC Comics
yes

A graphic novel much in the spirit of Motter's previous "Return of Mr. X," although I'm afraid this one isn't as good. Very retro-futuristic, with an appearance from the 50s but much more modern technology. We follow the goings-on around the hotel the "Herculean Arms" in the centre of the rather shabby city - if there's a main character, it's Cosmo, who used to be a stunt man called "The Human Fly." He and several daredevil/thrill-seeker friends of his were all discredited simultaneously just before the "Brave New World's Fair" quite a few years ago. The book is full of bad puns and bizarre references - there are characters called "Huxley" and "Orwell." A great number of plot threads and characters simply go unexplained at the end, although most major ones are wrapped up. Read the Mr. X stuff if you get the chance.

Three Parts Dead
Gladstone, Max
2012
1st
Tor
yes

I occasionally do a search for "best science fiction 2014" or whatever last year was, and then read a bunch of reviews. The most intriguing to me - although not the most mentioned - was Max Gladstone's Craft series - the review was of the third book. I started with the first, Three Parts Dead. I liked the idea of the technical side of religion, and the world-building.

Our main character is Tara Abernathy, a recent graduate of the Hidden Schools ... although immediately after her graduation she was, shall we say, let go by the school. Over a three mile drop. Her rather debilitated state upon landing is where we start the book. I enjoyed him just hurling concepts and pieces of his world at the reader, leaving you to file it and figure it out later. The last fantasy I read (other than the stack of Pratchett, most of which I've read before) was Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series with it's plodding and tediously careful exposition so you always understand what's going on - unless of course he's pretending something is a "mystery." Sanderson treats his readers as slightly dumb, to be led by the nose: Gladstone figures you have the brains to keep up. And, more importantly, he writes well and makes it worth your while.

Tara practises "The Craft," which can be viewed as either magic, or the power of the gods (although on a more human scale). And she's hired by a Craft firm, despite her problematic graduation, to help find out why the god Kos Everburning has died. In her world, gods have contracts with other gods and organisations, and their power is drawn and then returned with interest. But Kos was overdrawn and died. But his church kept meticulous records of power in and out and ... well, you get the idea. Although I'm painting it as if a god is just a battery, but they're much more than that: they're incredibly powerful intelligent entities as well.

I enjoyed it most in the first third of the book as I was trying to wrap my head around the world, absorbing all it's aspects. There was still lots to learn in the last two thirds, but perhaps not quite as good? The ending was satisfying (even if I did see one of the resurrections coming). I'll be moving on to the next book in the series fairly soon.

Tigana
Kay, Guy Gavriel
1990
?
Penguin
?

The story takes place in a medieval timeframe, in a place similar to our Italy in both geography and language. But they have two moons, and magic. And a significant problem: the nine small warring kingdoms of "The Palm," the region where the story takes place, have been divided between two magician conquerors from overseas. And one has set a spell to completely obliterate the name and history of an entire region ("Tigana"), because they killed his son. Now, twenty years later, a group of people set out to break the spell and stop the conquerors.

I hadn't read anything by Kay before this, but had heard this was one of his best. His need to tell you what to think of a person's actions (rather than showing you their behaviour and personality and then allowing you to decide for yourself if a particular action was characteristic) irritated me. His need to keep all of his main good guys alive in the middle of a war was probably the downfall of the story in my eyes. 680 pages, not disastrously bad, but I wasn't terribly impressed.

The Time Traders
Norton, Andre
1958
electronic
Baen
?

Our hero is Ross Murdock, a tough criminal caught and facing sentencing, having to choose between a possible mind-wipe type thing or "the project." He leaps at the latter, and eventually finds out that he and his cohorts are being sent back in time. As it turns out, he's pretty good at it. He assists in trying to determine what it is, exactly, that the Russians are looking for through time.

There's an old expression, "out of the frying pan and into the fire." But what Norton has arranged for Murdock is an almost endless cascade of frying pans which, despite relatively good writing, became quite tiresome. When I discovered that the book I had was in fact two books, with the first ending very abruptly and clearly leaving the door wide open for sequels, I gave up in disgust and didn't read the attached Galactic Derelict.

To Say Nothing of the Dog: Or How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump At Last
Willis, Connie
1997
1st
Bantam
yes

Willis has a go at a farce, very much in the manner of Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome. It is, in essence, a tribute to that book - set in the same universe, with some of the same characters, as The Doomsday Book but with a radically different tone. This time our hero is sent back to Victorian England, where he encounters eccentric Oxford dons, a beautiful woman who is his contemporary, a medium and her accomplice, and ... the butler did it. In fact, Willis is also having a good time parodying Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Arthur Conan Doyle (and possibly even Wodehouse). To really appreciate it, it would probably be best to have read all of these - but most certainly the Jerome (which is well worth reading!). But like her source material, there are places where the narrative lags: she spends a great deal of time having the main character hashing over whether or not he's causing a time paradox. Willis thought she was being funny, Jerome thought he was being serious, but both bogged down in places. And both have many hysterically funny moments.

The Tombs of Atuan
LeGuin, Ursula K.
1970
yes

LeGuin wrote A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968 - a book that was to become one of my favourite books in childhood. To my surprise, the writing is so strong that it's remained a favourite of mine throughout my life, and I've read it multiple times. The Tombs of Atuan is the sequel, although the book belongs more to Arha (also called "Tenar") than Sparrowhawk (the wizard of the previous title). Arha is being raised to be a priestess to the Nameless Ones on the isle of Atuan, and a good portion of the book is about her upbringing and training. It isn't until page 64 of a 163 page book that Arha first encounters Sparrowhawk (and immediately locks him up).

Like its predecessor, the book is a coming-of-age tale. That and a shared setting in Earthsea is pretty much the end of the similarities to the previous book: this one has a darker and more barren feel to it, and relies less on magic. Both our heroes are prisoners: Sparrowhawk in fact, but Arha is bound by tradition and a lifetime of having known nothing else.

I've never liked this one as much as A Wizard of Earthsea: it's bleak, and constrained to the religious compound Arha lives in (and - even more grim - the unlit labyrinth underneath it). But it still reads well, and is a story about the choices we make with our lives: I've probably read it five times so far.

Towing Jehovah
Morrow, James
1994
Harvest (Harcourt Brace)
no

This is a hard book to find. It came highly recommended by a couple friends, but it's not a common book: eventually I borrowed it from one of the friends. I've filed it under "Fantasy," although that's a bit of a stretch. But "Science Fiction" wasn't any better - and it did win a World Fantasy Award. It's set in the modern day world, but God has died and his two mile long corpse has landed in the mid Atlantic. And the archangel Raphael is hiring the disgraced captain of the Exxon Valdez (actually called the "Carpco Valparaiso" in the book, but the story is essentially the same) to pilot the Valdez to retrieve the corpse and inter it in the Arctic where it won't rot. I'm not giving anything away here - this is all revealed in the first ten pages.

The book is generally considered to be a satire - considering the subject matter, you're probably not surprised. One quote mentioned over at Wikipedia struck me: "What makes this novel so buoyant and, ultimately, a little disappointing, is that Morrow doesn't care as much [as Vonnegut]" (the Los Angeles Times). The book is a farce, but the quote struck home because Vonnegut could make a farce carry a significant amount of weight: Morrow doesn't really manage that. He's a good writer though, and it's a funny and interesting read.

Truckers
Pratchett, Terry
1988

Truckers is possibly my least favourite Pratchett book so far. The premise is that Nomes (4 inches tall, according to Wikipedia - the book itself only made it very clear they were quite small) living unseen among humans in our current world. They move immensely faster than humans - although they're also commensurately shorter-lived. Masklin is the hunter for a group of Nomes that used to be much larger. He comes up with the idea of climbing onto a human truck to find a new place to live, and so they end up at Arnold Brothers department store. The store is already occupied by thousands of Nomes: the welcome they receive is mixed. But Masklin finds even the department store Nomes looking to him to guide them when it's discovered that Arnold Brothers is closing and will be demolished.

The plot, of course, has never been the point of Pratchett's books. The point is the humour, and for me it fell totally flat in this book. Huge swaths of it are based on the Nomes misinterpreting human English, such as "Road Works Ahead" is determined by them to mean that the road functions well ahead. He was creative in the extent of his misinterpretations, but I found it remarkably unfunny. I don't expect I'll read the two sequels.

Two Serpents Rise
Gladstone, Max
2013
1st
Tor
yes

Sequel to Three Parts Dead in the Craft series, Two Serpents Rise is set in the same universe as the other book - but passing mentions of a couple names (such as the starring city in the previous book, Alt Coulumb) and the interaction between the Gods and the Craft are where the associations end. The previous book was arguably about a sort of European/North American culture: this time he's invoking a weird cross of modern business culture and an Aztec/Mexican history - complete with gods who demanded human sacrifice and the priests who made them.

The city is Dresediel Lex, a coastal city of 16 or 17 million that's in a desert and relies - very heavily - on the Craft of Red King Consolidated to provide the huge quantities of clean water a city of that size needs. Our protagonist is Caleb Altemoc, risk manager at RKC, and the man who's called in when the biggest water supply they have is contaminated. Don't think poison - think demons, or at least something similar. Oh - and did we mention that Caleb's father is an outlawed high priest who's still fond of stone altars? Or that Caleb is a gambler who's developing an interest in a woman named Mal who likes freerunning and causes him to take some insane risks?

Gladstone, I'm beginning to see, likes his stories - no matter how messy they get in the middle third - tucked away as neatly as a newly made hospital bed by the end of the book. I admit that I like this, but at the same time it has a certain feeling of improbability about it. This book is a bit grittier and nastier than the last one, and I didn't enjoy it quite as much - although it's still well written with good characters and an interesting plot line. If you've read my review of Three Parts Dead, you'll know I started the Craft series because of a review of the third book - I guess that's where I'm headed now.


U

The Uncommon Reader
Bennett, Alan
2007
1st
Faber and Faber
yes

One day the Queen (of Britain) is walking just outside the grounds of the castle when she encounters a library bookmobile. Having stepped inside, she feels compelled to read a book. And then a couple more. And then many more, and her reading distracts her occasionally from affairs of state. Bennett writes the Queen as a very distant character, and it's hard to empathize with anyone in this mildly amusing and very short book. It was kind of cute and slightly funny, but not terribly engaging and rather unsatisfying.

The Unhandsome Prince
Moore, John
2005
1st
Ace Books
yes

I read this after A Fate Worse Than Dragons, one of Moore's later books. This is a little less funny, but shares a lot of common elements. The story starts out with a very attractive and extremely determined girl systematically kissing every single frog in a swamp until eventually one of them turns into a prince. But, contrary to fairy-tale custom, he is not handsome. And she is duly disappointed. Moore's humour, as in the other book, comes from writing standard fantasy and contrasting it with modern-day life. For example, at one point the daughter of a sorceress complains (rough translation) "Mom may not have written papers or gone to the big conferences, but she was very good at what she did!" Moore is good at creating charmingly imperfect, distinctive, and likable characters, and that keeps the book readable.


V

The Vengekeep Prophesies
Farrey, Brian
2013
yes

This is a fantasy novel for those in the 10 to 14 range, starring Jaxter Grimjinx - born into a successful family of thieves, he stands out for both his inability to pick a simple lock and his skills with non-magical solutions to magical wards. Jaxter is our narrator through this enjoyable tale of saving the town he lives in - mildly self-deprecating but not excessively so, he's aware of his limitations and becomes more aware of his skills as the book progresses. The book carries a fairly clear message to its readers ("do what you love"), but does it gently with grace and humour. And the belief that your family - who love you very much - will support you in whatever you want to do. I'm not a fast reader, but the print is fairly large and of course a book targeting an audience as young as this doesn't use heavy prose ... I got through the 400 pages of this one in about four hours of reading.

Despite having enjoyed it, I should add that I have almost zero interest in looking up the sequels: this one was a lot of fun, but nothing unique and I rather doubt he's done anything better in the follow-ups.

Veniss Underground
VanderMeer, Jeff
2003
?
Bantam Dell
yes

I read this after reading the superb Shriek: An Afterword by the same author. This book contains a short novel and three or four short stories set in or near Veniss. All of them share elements of tragedy and horror, neither a favourite genre of mine. This earlier book shows him doing more surreal, his writing less controlled, not as good as it was in the later Shriek. This is still better written than most SF and Fantasy, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped.


W

The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle
Pressfield, Steven
2002
1st
Rugged Land
yes

I like the idea - a book about how to overcome all the things that are stopping you from doing your art, whatever that may be. The problem is, Pressfield is a novelist who has confronted his own demons, and he knows that those are the exact same ones you're confronting. And if they are, then this book will probably help you a lot. But I'm guessing they're not: so instead we get a rather religious book about overcoming procrastination. It's interesting, but only occasionally helpful. He makes some helpful points, but spends so much time telling us how to battle his inner demons (in the name of ours) that it's not nearly as helpful as it could be.

We3
Grant Morrison (writer) and Frank Quitely (artist)
2005
Vertigo
yes

Go out and read this graphical novel now. Be warned though: it's pretty dark. I was surprised when it arrived from the library - it's very thin. But it carries a LOT of weight in those 100 pages.

"We3" are three animals, a rabbit, a cat, and a dog, that have been modified and weaponized. Now that the program is being shut down, their creator decides that they deserve freedom (and that she herself deserves death for what she's done to them). They rocket out of the lab ... and bypass her. And now we have three fantastically heavily armed semi-sentient beings on the loose and approaching a large city.

What makes this utterly heart-breaking and so successful is a superb combination of writing (the animals don't understand what's been done to them, but we do) and the art (it's not just good - the choices of tiny squares of information all the way up to single frame two page spreads are used to spectacular effect). You'll weep for these poor animals as they rip hundreds of people to shreds, because you won't even think of it that way. It's an amazing piece of work that I cannot recommend enough.

The Weavers of Saramyr
Wooding, Chris
2003

Chris Wooding is a British author who became well known writing children's books. The Braided Path - the sequence of three books that starts with The Weavers of Saramyr - is his first adult work.

The country is Saramyr, and the problem is "The Weavers." They're a group of people who've made themselves indispensable in this very large country by making long distance instantaneous communication possible (and other things, like influencing people at a distance or even killing them) in an otherwise late-18th century technological environment. Unfortunately, if you employ them, you also have to keep them supplied with whatever they want - which is often little boys to rape and kill.

And from this springs my first major problem with the book. The Weavers are presented as the great evil (he's not being remotely subtle here) that have insinuated themselves into this society. Fine. But he proceeds to present a number of people who employ Weavers as being somewhat heroic (most notably the empress), and - despite the "necessity" of their powers - I find it hard to accept people as "heroic" who think it's okay to sacrifice several-to-many young boys per year to keep their Weaver happy. It's morally repugnant and underlies the premise of the book: this society is built on this horrible behaviour and many of our "heroes" are complicit in this behaviour.

Wooding tries to build up this big and politically complex country, with many nobles controlling portions of the land. He wasn't terribly successful. I compare it to Sean Russell's The Initiate Brother, and Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion, both of which build up complex political landscapes with elegance and ease. Wooding's efforts pale by comparison.

The writing's not that great either - I've chosen a sample of text. Prior to this he's already pounded home the fact that Mishani's family is suddenly on very bad terms with the family of the scholar she wants to see. And that she's missing an important meeting to visit this scholar:

His face turned from annoyance to puzzlement as he saw who it was. Before he could protest, she laid a finger on her lips and slid inside, shutting the door behind her.

...

'My, my,' he said. 'Mistress Mishani, daughter of my master's newly embittered enemy. I take it you have something very important you need, to come see me like this. And miss the council with the Empress too.'

Mishani looked over the old man with an inner smile that did not show on her face. He always was quick, this leathery, scrawny walnut of a scholar.

So this is your proof of intelligence? Something any person with two brain cells to rub together could have worked out knowing the circumstances? While re-iterating something you've already told us ...

The writing isn't as ponderous or as predictable as Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series (which I read relatively recently), but his poor attempts at political complexity and the moral morass his characters stand in - without the author even knowing it - put me off enough that I won't be reading the remaining two books in the series.

The Wee Free Men
Pratchett, Terry
2003
1st
HarperTempest
yes

Not consistently funny as some of his earlier stuff was - I would sometimes read 50 pages without laughing once, but then there were episodes that would cause fits of hysterics. Which is better than some of his other recent stuff. The cover concerned me: "A Tiffany Aching Adventure." So we're to have more. Tiffany, nine years old, lives on the highlands and helps her family raise sheep. She finds herself taking on the mantle of a witch as her land is invaded by the fair people (hasn't Pratchett mined this territory before?) with the assistance of a bunch of not very bright but very strong and fast "Nac Mac Feegle," aka "The Wee Free Men."

Where Good Ideas Come From
Johnson, Steven
2010
Riverhead
yes

Steven Johnson caught my attention with The Ghost Map, which I consider - without exaggeration - to be the best non-fiction book ever written. In that case he's tackling a subject where the reader knows the outcome (even if he didn't tell you in the first few pages, you could probably guess that the guys he's talking about solved the mystery or he wouldn't have been writing about it) and yet the book reads like a tense and well-written murder mystery. It's a brilliant and eye-opening book about the changes the 1854 London Cholera epidemic brought to science, medicine, and sanitation. So when I went looking for another good non-fiction read a month ago and his name came up attached to Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, I immediately ordered the book from the library.

He examines not just "ideas" - which most of us read as "inventions" in this context - but also "ideas" as the changes wrought by evolution, both Darwinian and metaphorical. He introduced several concepts I wasn't familiar with: "the adjacent possible" and exaptation being the most interesting. One of his big examples for "the adjacent possible" is Charles Babbage's Difference Engine. The Difference Engine was essentially a calculator: it was a breakthrough invention, but previous ideas had brought to light the concepts necessary for its construction. Those previous ideas open the door to "the adjacent possible" (a term Johnson borrowed from scientist Stuart Kauffman). Insights combine available ideas to create something that's possible and conceivable by the right person at the right time. Likewise, life itself came from a slow series of recombinations: DNA isn't within the adjacent possible when all you have is a soup of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus: you need quite a number of other reactions to happen first to create the base molecules that DNA is built out of. After Babbage invented the Difference Engine, he dreamt up the Analytical Engine. It was, essentially, a mechanical implementation of a modern computer. And it was so far beyond the adjacent possible of the time that it proved impossible to build. Johnson offered that as "the exception to the rule:" concepts like that, relying on multiple leaps of logic, are fantastically rare (and rarely useful).

Exaptation is the process of a thing being successfully used for something it was never initially intended for. The primary example he uses is dinosaur feathers, which were initially intended simply to keep the animals warm ... but were co-opted and redesigned by nature for flight. The same process can also be seen in the history of invention, his favourite example being Gutenberg's use of the screw press (used by wine makers to extract juice from grapes) to create a printing press.

Some of the other subjects he covers are related to the environments and circumstances most likely to produce good ideas: cities are hotbeds of creativity, and people are more creative when they talk to others (rather than working alone in their office or garage).

I was mildly disappointed - but not surprised - that by the end I didn't have a silver bullet to start spewing brilliant ideas all over the place. But the book was a really fascinating read on the subject, and his closing paragraph summarises a number of the processes that lead to good ideas:

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, re-invent.
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
McGonigal, Kelly
2013
yes

Self Help books got a bad reputation - much of it deserved, as one person concludes that the process that helped them will help everyone else and creates a badly written book about the subject. A recent spate of self-help books have been less prescriptive, more explanatory, and also much more based on science. This book is a poster child for that trend - excellently researched, well structured, well written, and simultaneously educational and often funny. The content has essentially been road-tested with "The Science of Willpower" course she runs at Stanford, so she's had feedback not only on what techniques work, but also on when she's getting to dry and scientific, and how to make the content memorable (usually through humour). Highly recommended.

Witches Abroad
Pratchett, Terry
1991

Terry Pratchett has always pushed the idea that gods are only as strong as the number of their worshippers - it's an idea that's propagated through fiction, to be seen in not just Pratchett's work, but also Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (2007), K.V. Johansen's Blackdog (2011), and the entirety of Max Gladstone's Craft series (2012-2014). Although this raises an interesting thought for me: was this Pratchett's idea, or someone in the 1950s, or was it one of the Greeks in 500 BC?

In Witches Abroad, he extends the idea to stories: stories with a lot of people who are familiar with them are more likely to "be told" in the world ... and are also harder to derail. And so in this book there are fairy godmothers, glass slippers, girls in red capes, etc. as Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick (unmarried, despite the antics in Wyrd Sisters). The three of them set off for foreign parts (a place that's one part Venice to three parts New Orleans) to see that a happy ending is achieved after Magrat inherits a wand that can't do anything except pumpkins.

Mildly amusing, but not up to the standards of my new favourite, Reaper Man. I admit this is in part because Granny Weatherwax - previously one of my favourite Pratchett characters - comes under close scrutiny and turns out to be less appealing than I found her in the previous book. Not a bad person (in fact, that point is closely examined), but neither as well written or as likable.

A Wizard of Earthsea
Le Guin, Ursula K.
1968
Puffin
yes

I've lost count of how many times I've read this - perhaps 12? With The Phantom Tollbooth (which I've also read multiple times), my two favourite children's books. The story is fantasy, and tells the tale of a young man called Sparrowhawk, who has huge magical talent - and a great deal of pride. We read about his childhood and his schooling. And then, through his own talent and pride, the creation of his nemesis. The second half of the book is about his quest to understand what he's done and destroy the nameless shadow he's created. A really fantastic coming-of-age tale with superb prose.

World of Ptavvs
Niven, Larry
1966
yes

I read this book 30 or more years ago, and re-read it in 2015 right after re-reading Niven's very good Ringworld. I wanted to re-read Protector because of its relation to The Ringworld Engineers, but this one was immediately available at the library.

The book centres around Kzanol, a Slaver - a race of aliens who lived two billion years before humans reached space, and controlled a vast empire with powerful telepathy. Kzanol becomes an issue for humans because they accidentally bring him out of his exceedingly long stasis, and he attempts to retrieve the telepathic amplifier he knows is hidden on one of the outer planets that would give him power so great he could easily enslave the entire human race. Humans race to stop him, while also avoiding his already rather potent unamplified telepathic control. Etc.

It's not a bad story, but it's also not terribly memorable, and like most SF that's 50 years old, suffers from significant technological changes that have cropped up since. And it's not a good enough story to compensate for that - as Ringworld was.

World Without End
Russell, Sean
1995
Daw
A Wrinkle in Time
L'Engle, Madeleine
1962
yes

I remember loving this as a kid. Re-reading it as an adult in 2017 - because of the upcoming movie - I can only say that it's insane. I guess it works in kid-logic, but as an adult it's beyond absurd. Three modern-day kids meet three weird ladies who live in the woods (who turn out to live for millions of years, and bear a strong resemblance to angels in their "true form") who take them off to rescue their father who's been missing a couple years. He's a few thousand light years away, a prisoner on a planet that's succumbed to evil. And the three children (with very limited help from the three weird ladies) are supposed to rescue their father from a power that's subjugated an entire planet very similar to Earth.

Some of the book's lessons are fine, such as "accept your own flaws" (although I wouldn't go too far with that one). Some are less impressive: if you get the feeling someone is trustworthy, they are. And the inverse is also true: if they're creepy or weird-looking, don't trust them. Perhaps this is a product of the era, but these days trusting strangers isn't something we normally teach children. Personally, I'm also not much of a fan of "we are all God's foot-soldiers," another lesser theme.

I'm really struggling with the idea of this becoming a movie (due in March 2018): I'll be shocked if it isn't laughed out of the theatre. The inclusion of Oprah Winfrey does not reassure me.

Wuthering Heights
Brontë, Emily
1847
yes

Ever heard of "Heathcliff?" This is THE Heathcliff. And he is somewhat less than charming. The story is presented to us by Mr. Lockwood, who has come to rent Thrushcross Grange from Heathcliff (who owns and lives at Wuthering Heights), and then when Lockwood is laid up ill, he has the story of Heathcliff's history from his housekeeper, Nelly Dean.

Heathcliff was adopted, probably a gypsy. Dark-skinned, he stands out in his new upper-class British family. He falls desperately in love with his newly adopted sister Catherine, and they do everything together. He runs afoul of his new brother Hindley, who believes that Heathcliff is taking all his father's affection. But when Catherine marrys a neighbour rather than him, his truly vicious nature shows itself - and he spends the next 30 years pining for Catherine and revenging himself on everyone else.

The quality of the writing (and to some extent the story) is substantially better than sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre, but the unremittingly dark tone of the book put me off about two thirds of the way through. But I struggled through to the end, only to find an absurdly sunny ending that improbably materializes in the last 30 pages of the book.

Wyrd Sisters
Pratchett, Terry
1988

Pratchett finally (in this sixth book in the Discworld series) reels back the disaster level: it's not the entire world that's under threat, it's just the kingdom of Lancre. Happily, this is where Granny Weatherwax lives - one of Pratchett's better characters. And he also introduces Nanny Ogg, another entertaining witch. And to better make them conform to the Shakespearean ideal that he parodies throughout the book, there's a third witch - Magrat Garlick. We start with one of them screeching "When shall we three meet again?!" followed by a much more normal tone from one of the others expressing how impressed they were with the quality of the screeching. So lots of Macbeth going on there. But Pratchett drags in jokes from King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and very likely several others I missed. And then there's Hwel, the playwright, who channels Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and a variety of other acts from our world that make no sense on the Disc.

The book starts with the king of Lancre dying. This may have been caused by the tumble down stairs, but more likely it was the knife between the shoulder blades. While the witches regard this as a perfectly normal process of succession, they aren't impressed with the behaviour of the new king and they also discover that the entire kingdom (which turns out to have a personality of its own) doesn't like him at all. And so they get involved in politics.

He goes to a lot of trouble with the Shakespeare parodies, and yet I didn't find them particularly funny. Despite this, I actually quite liked the book: the story was a bit more structured than the previous ones, and when he stayed away from Shakespeare it was actually one of the funniest things he's done.


Y

Y: The Last Man: Unmanned (Book 1)
Vaughn, Brian K.
2003
1st
DC Comics
yes

The art style is very generic modern DC/Marvel, nothing too unusual there. The story is somewhat interesting, about a young man with the unfortunate name of Yorick who is the only man on the planet left alive after an unexplained catastrophe. The women are all still there, but things are pretty ugly, particularly since all male animals also died - with the exception of "Ampersand," Yorick's Capuchin monkey. It's fairly well thought out.

Y: The Last Man: Cycles (Book 2)
Vaughn, Brian K.
2003
1st
DC Comics
yes

Yorick is a wiseass, and has become a little annoying. And his sister Hero is the most problematic element of the entire series for me: she's essentially a walking plot device. The other characters act consistent to the personalities that have been drawn for them, but Hero does whatever the author(s) think is needed to drive the plot in the direction they want it to go. She's not a good character, and it's making it harder for me to read the series as a whole.

Y: The Last Man: One Small Step (Book 3) and Y: The Last Man: Safewood (Book 4)
Vaughn, Brian K.
2004
1st
DC/Vertigo
yes

Yorick and 355 have remained consistent, but many of the events seem terribly contrived. No doubt there would be a lot of turmoil around the one man still alive on the planet, but it seems like he and his companions are constantly running into all kinds of craziness that have absolutely nothing to do with his unusual status. And which also seem distinctly unlikely, even in a post-apocalyptic world. Thus my word for these two volumes: "Contrived."


Z

Zita The Spacegirl
Hatke, Ben
2010
yes

Goofy fun graphic novel about a very young girl who gets sucked off Earth through an interplanetary portal and has to rescue her friend before getting back home to Earth. Good illustrations too. Probably targeted at 10-12 year olds.


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