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And thanks to the holidays, I managed to catch up on my reading and my Goodreads Reading Challenge, in which I pledged to read 60 books in 2016.

I read 61. Goodreads says 62, but they’re counting that Borges book which I actually gave up on, so I don’t think it should count. And of course a couple of the “books” I read were actually short stories or novellas, so it’s all relative.

Which is why next year I’m going to lower the bar for the reading challenge – my reading schedule isn’t going to get any better this year, and a couple of the books in my to-read pile are pretty thick. And actually I dislike feeling pressured to get a book read because there’s a deadline involved. So I’m going to go easy on myself in 2017. I’m thinking 40 is a good safe number.

Anyway, here’s what I spent the last days of 2016 reading.

In Praise of DoubtIn Praise of Doubt by Peter L. Berger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’d be surprised the things you’ll find at a Christian bookstore clearance sale –like this book from a pair of sociologists (one of whom also has a PhD in philosophy) who essentially argue in favor of doubt as a necessary quality in religion, politics and culture. The book essentially argues that fundamentalism (religious or secular) and relativism are two sides of the same extremist coin, in which a person/group either claims a monopoly on truth/morality or declares that all truth/morality is subjective and therefore equally valid. Doubt is the middle ground that can strike the balance between these two extremes – and without sacrificing moral convictions. It’s hard to do the premise justice in a capsule review, but as someone who didn’t know that much about the sociological or philosophical aspects described here, I learned a lot. And in today’s polarized religious and sociopolitical climate, it’s one of the most sane arguments I’ve read in a long time. People who lean towards fundamentalism or relativism may be less receptive to this book (which is part of the problem, of course). And there are obvious paradoxes and limitations to practical application (which the authors fully admit). But it’s a thought-provoking conversation starter that I’d recommend to anyone with an open-enough mind and a tolerance for philosophical discussions.


The Continual Condition: PoemsThe Continual Condition: Poems by Charles Bukowski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Bukowski for decades, but for some reason I’ve always been a bit wary of his posthumous books – there’s always the worry that unpublished works won’t measure up. Which is silly, I know. And this collection (which is a mix of unpublished poems and previously published but never anthologized poems) proves it. Here, Bukowski covers all the usual bases – drinking, horse racing, crazy women, low-lifes, writing, misanthropy, alienation, loneliness, the perils of success, wry humor – to the point where I’m amazed that he was able to cover the same ground for 50 years and still make it seem fresh. That said, not everything here works, but even average Bukowski is better than the best work of many, and there are a number of real gems that shine through here. When he nails it, he nails it hard. It’s been ages since the last time I read Bukowski – it was a pleasure to read him again.


CountdownCountdown by Deborah Wiles

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Billed as a “documentary novel” set during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, this is the fictional story of Franny Chapman, an 11-year-old girl just trying to get on with her life as the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war and the country lives in fear of nuclear annihilation. The narrative is punctuated with collages, news photos and quotes, as well as quick bios of FDR, Pete Seeger and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer (underscoring the racial and social issues also in play in America at the time) – and it’s a nice gimmick for what it is, but not all of it integrates smoothly with the story. And despite the book’s premise of documenting the fear that families lived under at the time, that didn't really come across for me – not until a little over halfway through the story when the Cuban Missile Crisis actually starts. Up to then, Franny spends more time dealing with standard pre-teen family/friends melodrama than worrying about nukes. Which may be realistic, of course, but pre-teen family/friends melodrama isn’t really my thing. So there wasn’t much here for me. That said, I can see this being a good and educational read for YA audiences (which is more the suitable audience, perhaps). So the two stars are more of a reflection of my personal taste than the book’s quality.


Fell, Volume 1: Feral CityFell, Volume 1: Feral City by Warren Ellis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Warren Ellis started this as an experimental comic in the sense of compacting a single-issue story into fewer pages to knock the cost down. Apart from that, it’s basically a police procedural comic set in Snowtown, a fictional slum on the other side of the bridge of a major city, where police detective Richard Fell has been assigned – apparently as a kind of punishment or exile. The story follows Fell as he adjusts to the corrupt realities of Snowtown case by case and refuses to compromise his sense of justice just because everyone else does. In a way it’s one of Ellis’ less imaginative works in terms of setting and situation – there are no SF/F or supernatural elements in it. But like a lot of his best work, it’s the characters and dialogue that draw you in, and somehow Ben Templesmith’s surreal haunting artwork serves to enhance them. Sadly, series production has stalled for whatever reason, so I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for Volume 2. But as for Volume 1, I liked it.


The End of All ThingsThe End of All Things by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sixth book in the Old Man’s War series, and the second to consist of shorter stories that form a continuous story arc, although this a slightly different format – while the previous book, The Human Division, was structured like a TV series bookended with a pilot and series finale, The End Of All Things is four connected novellas. The previous book focused chiefly on Lt Harry Wilson and his team of Colonial Union diplomats trying to deal with both the CU’s fallout from Earth and the alien alliance known as the Conclave – this one takes the spotlight off Wilson for three of the four stories as the CU finds itself dealing with a new menace: a mysterious group called Equilibrium that is secretly trying to turn the CU and the Conclave against each other in the hopes of destabilizing or destroying both. The End Of All Things is somewhat more focused on the political tactics and challenges presented in the situation, but there’s still plenty of space action to be had, and as always Scalzi is a skilled storyteller who knows how to keep the pages turning. It’s a good and entertaining addition to what has been a reasonably consistent and fun series.


BullittBullitt by Robert L. Pike

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Originally published as Mute Witness, this novel is of course the basis for the famous Steve McQueen film, and I was curious to read the source material. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s very little resemblance apart from the basic plot – when a gangster who plans to testify against his bosses is killed, the cop assigned to protect him must find the killer before the DA learns his star witness is dead. The novel is set in New York, not San Francisco (which of course means no iconic car chase), and Lt Clancy is almost the opposite of McQueen’s Frank Bullitt – hot-tempered, sleep deprived, prone to making bad decisions and not at all cool. Which at least makes it somewhat realistic. However, the same can’t be said for the key plot twist, the success of which relies on certain characters being incredibly dumb and/or lazy – which is not impossible, but still. Anyway, it’s an okay read, but it’s also one of those cases where the film version is an improvement on the book.


The Star DiariesThe Star Diaries by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been awhile since I read Lem, mainly because his books are not always easy to find and they’re often somewhat expensive when I do find them. This one is a classic collection of the interstellar voyages of his astronaut protagonist Ijon Tichy, as he embarks on random Gulliverian trips around the universe that satirize human society in general. Like other Lem books I’ve read, the stories here are fast-paced, wildly imaginative, philosophical and often quite funny – problems with time travel (to include Tichy’s stint heading a group whose mission is to renovate Earth’s past), a civilization that takes genetic engineering to insane lengths (which has a profound impact on religion), evolved potatoes, lost penknives, diplomatic faux pas, rebellious computers, hunting for squamp on a planet where people keep backups of themselves in case of meteorite storms – there’s a lot here, and while the philosophical parts can get a little heavy, it’s Lem’s sense of the absurd that keeps me engaged.

View all my reviews

That’s a wrap,

This is dF
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