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danskjavlarna: “ “Books cannot be killed by fire.” ”

[Via Gotankgo]

Choice of weapons,

This is dF
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The book reports, they are here.

Binti (Binti, #1)Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve never read Nnedi Okorafor, or seen any of her other work – in fact, I’d never even heard of her. But I came across this in the bookstore and was intrigued. The basic idea is a fairly simple SF trope – teenager defies tradition to attend the most prestigious university in the galaxy, but en route her ship is attacked by aliens. But like most good SF, it’s the details that really make it work, from the title character’s Himba heritage and culture to the technological MacGuffin that plays a part in the narrative and the interactions between Binti and the Meduse (the aforementioned aliens). Between the time I bought the book and wrote this review, Binti won a Hugo for Best Novella, and I can see why – it’s exceptionally well-written, well-told, imaginative and believable. I really enjoyed reading this, and I’ll definitely be looking for more of Okorafor’s work.

The Left Left BehindThe Left Left Behind by Terry Bisson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another installment from the PM Press Outspoken Authors series, from an author I haven’t read before. Terry Bisson does SF and speculative fiction, but also plenty of non-fiction, novelizations, plays and political writing (sometimes all at once). He’s also been the one handling most of the Q&As for this series (or at least the ones I’ve read so far). This collection features a parody of the Left Behind series – which doubles as a left-wing dream scenario where every conservative on the planet just vanishes forever – and a one-act play in which Einstein, Paul Robeson and J. Edgar Hoover return from the dead at a house full of protesters preparing for an anti-Bush demonstration. All of which is great if you share Bisson’s unapologetically hard-left views. For everyone else to the right of that (to include moderates) it may come across as heavy-handed, or at least too polemical and reliant on political stereotypes. Bisson isn’t necessarily unfair, but he’s not subtle either, and if yr not in the choir he’s preaching to, it can be a bit eye-rolling at times. That said, at least he has a sense of humor about it.

Spy Story (Secret File, #6)Spy Story by Len Deighton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s debate as to whether the main character is the same protagonist from Deighton’s “Harry Palmer” spy novels (even though Deighton himself has said he's not), but it’s clearly set in the same spy universe, with recurring minor characters from that series. Anyway, the story follows “Pat Armstrong”, a former agent who works at the Studies Centre (which uses actual military intelligence and computers to conduct war-game scenarios, historical and otherwise). Armstrong accidentally discovers that an imposter has taken over his old flat, and that British intelligence may be behind it. To say nothing of the Russians. His subsequent investigation ends up getting him recruited into the plot behind it all. I like Deighton, but this one is a bit of a mixed bag, mainly due to Deighton playing his cards much closer to the chest than usual, which works against his fairly complicated plot. Also, whether Armstrong is Palmer or not, he’s not quite as compelling as the unnamed hero of the earlier books. On the other hand, I like Deighton’s take on the espionage world as messy, paranoid and highly politicized, and the behind-the-scenes war-games stuff is interesting.

Distrust that Particular FlavorDistrust that Particular Flavor by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a collection of William Gibson’s non-fiction writing from 1989 to 2010 (including a few public talks), which covers many of the bases you’d expect (computers, technology, SF, the future, Tokyo, etc) and a few bases you might not (9/11, Jorge Luis Borges, a Steely Dan album review, Skip Spence’s jeans, etc). It also includes his 1993 infamous article about Singapore, “Disneyland With The Death Penalty”, which is now somewhat out of date and yet not entirely. It’s something of an oddball anthology in that Gibson uses the intro and post-article commentary to disavow his reputation as a futurist tech guru – that his strength is writing fiction, not non-fiction, and that he really sort of bluffed his way through a lot of the futuretech stuff, at least in the earlier days. Which is fair, since Gibson also reminds us that most SF is really about the present, not the future, and is usually only prophetic by dumb luck and circumstance. For all his disclaimers as a non-fiction writer, though, this is a diverse and thoughtful collection – even the dated stuff is a handy illustration of the gap between where we thought information technology might take us and where we ended up here in 2016.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer EldritchThe Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of Dick’s first books to dive into religious themes, but otherwise it’s a classic PKD scenario – interstellar colonists cope with the drudgery of colonial life on other planets by taking Can-D, an illegal drug that creates shared hallucinations that transport the user's perception into miniaturized layouts (imagine building an elaborate Barbie townhouse and taking a drug that takes you into that world as either Barbie or Ken). Businessman Palmer Eldritch returns from the Prox system with Chew-Z, a new alien drug that promises eternal life and reincarnation in your own private world – or so he claims. And is it really Eldritch – or something else? The story follows Barney Mayerson (a precog who works for P.P. Layouts) and Leo Bulero (his boss, who also controls the Can-D trade that drives the layout business), who end up opposing Eldritch and discovering his real plan for Chew-Z. Apart from PKD’s characteristically clunky prose, this is typical of his best work in terms of satire, drug addiction, layered realities, depression, failed marriages and sheer imagination. And the religion angle is handled better than I expected. It gets a little shaky by the end, but overall this is one of his better novels.

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I want Can-D,

This is dF

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The to-read pile is shrinking noticeable. I’m down to 13 books in the queue. Gonna have to stock up soon. Or start hitting the library. I’m good either way.

Questionable Practices: StoriesQuestionable Practices: Stories by Eileen Gunn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve never read Eileen Gunn before, but she has a great reputation in the SF/F community as a writer and editor and has won some awards, so I thought I’d try this collection of short stories, which also includes some collaborations (three with Michael Swanwick, one with Rudy Rucker). It’s an eclectic mix, and there’s a lot of imaginative ideas flying around here – Sasquatch love triangles, golems, social-media cyberpunk, time travel, steampunk spoofs, alternate pulp realities, savage elves and a wonderful poem in which Alice Kramden gets Norton to build her a rocket ship. Gunn’s writing is very accessible, and while the subject matter doesn’t always work for me personally, when it works it works well.

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and DisturbancesTrigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the latest collection of short stories from Neil Gaiman. Subject-wise it covers many of Gaiman’s usual bases – British folk horror, remixed fairy tales, ghosts, witches, etc – plus a Doctor Who story, a new tale featuring Shadow Moon, the protagonist in American Gods, and a few random poems. But it also features some tribute stories to the likes of David Bowie, Sherlock Holmes, Ray Bradbury and Jack Vance, and the occasional writing experiment such as flash fiction based on the months of the year (and suggested by tweets from fans), and a one-sided interview with a teenage girl whose sister has a dangerous encounter with artificial tanning cream. Overall it’s a solid collection that affirms Gaiman’s reputation as a master storyteller – even when he's covering familiar territory, it's how he tells it that really pulls me in. NOTE: a couple of stories here have been previously published as standalone illustrated books (The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains and The Sleeper and the Spindle).

The Science of HerselfThe Science of Herself by Karen Joy Fowler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another installment of the PM Press Outspoken Authors series. I tried this one because I liked Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Included here are short stories about real-life 19th-century fossil hunter Mary Anning, a teen girl trapped in a brutal behavioral correction school, and a young boy’s experience playing Little League and dealing with bullies, as well as a Q&A and an essay on the concept (and recent absence) of motherhood in SF. Fowler’s a good writer, but compared to the rest of the series I’ve read so far, this one is the least “out there” in terms of provocative or radical ideas, or at least perhaps the most subtle. Still, the stories are pretty good and sometimes educational. For me, “The Pelican Bar” is the best and most harrowing story here – it resonates with me since I did some research on WWASP schools years ago for a project. And I learned a lot about Mary Anning. So there you go.

The Sirens of TitanThe Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another re-read for me, thanks to coming across a cheap copy at a discount bookstore. I read it a few decades ago and I remember liking it then, but I couldn't remember much of the story, which – I now know – is a dystopian SF tale that explores the question of free will, or the lack thereof. Wealthy New Englander Winston Niles Rumfoord – trapped in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum that, among other things, gives him full knowledge of the past and the future – uses his powers to start a war between Mars and Earth (as well as a new religion), and also to meddle with the fate of Malachi Constant, a morally bankrupt rich man, and Rumfoord’s spiteful, unadventurous and humorless wife Beatrice. Vonnegut uses SF as a vehicle to satirize his usual targets – war, the military, religion, the stock market, etc – and while the storyline is a little convoluted, for the most part he really pulls it off. I will say it’s much more bleak than I remember – there are few admirable characters (one of which isn’t even human), and Vonnegut really puts them through the wringer, but he also injects enough humor into it to take the edge off.

Broken MonstersBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The latest novel from Lauren Beukes sees her revisiting the serial-killer genre, this time in Detroit where someone is leaving behind bodies that are half-human, half-animal. Which is a great hook, although given Beukes’ previous successes with genre-bending, it doesn't go quite as I imagined it would. In fact, it took until almost halfway through for me to really get into it, because the supernatural twist that Beukes specializes in stays under the radar for so long that the story comes across as a fairly standard serial-killer tale, albeit a well-written one populated with well-realized characters that also explores how this kind of tale plays in a world dominated by social media (with detours into online pedophiles, viral sexual assault videos and irresponsible bloggers). Also, the teenage drama angle via Detective Gabi Versado’s daughter Layla feels pretty standard and not that integral to the narrative, at least at first. But by around the halfway point everything kicks into gear and it becomes a thrilling page-turner. All up, it didn’t quite work as well for me as The Shining Girls, and I still consider Zoo City to be her most impressive novel so far. But while I think Beukes could have done more with this idea, she does more with it than most other writers in the serial killer genre would have done. And she does it so well. Extra points for writing about Detroit so in-depth as to make it a part of the story and not just a backdrop.

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Motor City madman,

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As some of you may know, I fly a lot. And one of things I do to kill time waiting for my flight is check out the airport bookstores. It’s rare I actually buy a book, since I usually carry one with me wherever I go. But I have been in situations where I needed one. So I like to visit the bookstores just so I can see what book I’d end up buying if I truly needed one.

I was in Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport last week for a flight to Jakarta, and I couldn't help noticing a lot of the bookshops seemed to be gone. There used to be two big ones and a bunch of smaller ones. From the check-in counter to the gate, I only saw one small kiosk, and I started to wonder, am I imagining things or did they really close down most of the bookshops?

They really did.

There are – or were – two main bookstore chains in Chek Lap Kok: Page One and Relay. According to the South China Morning Post, Page One is out, and Relay has been cut down to five small kiosks.

The official reason from the Airport Authority is “change in reading habit and advancement in technology” – in other words, most flyers read Kindles or watch videos or play games on their smartphones. (I don't, but then I'm not "most people".)

The unofficial reason (i.e. the unsubstantiated rumor) is that Page One was carrying some of the books that were connected to those disappearing booksellers – i.e. the books saying not so nice things about Xi Jinpeng. So Beijing wants HK to police its airport bookstores. Maybe.

There’s no proof, of course, and personally I doubt that was the reason. The leases did expire this month, and all bookstore chains are going through similar pain points when it comes to book sales. Page One said they bailed for business reasons, and given that they’ve closed other shops (even in their home base of Singapore, they closed their last bookstore a few years ago), it’s not hard to believe they’ve decided to give up on their airport stores.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that a new bookstore chain has been granted a contract to take over some of the vacated bookshop space – Chung Hwa, which is based in mainland China.

See what they did there?

Read all about it,

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Busy busy busy.

The Kraken WakesThe Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More apocalyptic fiction from John Wyndham that starts with strange fireballs coming from the sky and landing in the deepest parts of the Earth’s oceans. Then ships start disappearing, followed by on-shore abductions. It’s a great set-up, and Wyndham pulls it off in his usual laconic manner, eschewing blockbuster action for a more realistic slow-burn tale in which governments and (most) scientists fail to realize the scope of the problem – or that there’s even a problem – until it’s too late. Suspension of disbelief is required only in the sense that the same story may have played out far differently in the hyper-aware 24/7 media news cycle of 2016. In the early 1950s, countries and villages were relatively more isolated, and news didn’t always travel quickly or comprehensively. And the relationship between govts and media was far more cooperative than it is today. With those caveats in place, it’s a pretty convincing take on how myopic and self-delusional humans can be in the face of global catastrophe – especially when it comes to dealing with an enemy you can't see or even reach, let alone comprehend. And the ending is strikingly topical 60 years later.

The Strange LibraryThe Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is something slightly different from Haruki Murakami: a novella kitted out with some elaborate art design and illustration to accompany the storyline – a boy goes to the library to borrow some books, and ends up imprisoned in the library’s labyrinthine basement by an apologetic sheep man. On the surface it’s page-turning entertainment, but it’s also multi-layered and unexpectedly dark in ways that will stick with me for awhile. It also harks back to the weirdness of Murakami’s earlier novels. In fact, it’s the weirdest story he’s published in ages, so if you always liked him more for Dance Dance Dance than Norwegian Wood, this should work for you. As for the illustrations, I’m not sure but there seems to be two versions – mine is the one with the library card pocket on the front. There’s also a version designed by Chip Kidd that looks even more elaborate than my version, with fold-out pages and hidden artwork. I can only speak for the former, but I liked the visual element of it – it adds to the atmosphere of the story without overwhelming it.

Them: Adventures with ExtremistsThem: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before he hung out with the men who stare at goats, Jon Ronson spent a year in the company of various extremists who had one thing in common: the belief that the world is secretly controlled by a Zionist conspiracy helmed by the Bilderberg Group. Incredibly – and bravely – Ronson (who is Jewish) decided to suspend disbelief and take them at their word in order to find out if this was actually true. He covers a lot of bases, from Islamic fundamentalists, Aryan Nations and the KKK to Randy Weaver (of Ruby Ridge fame), radio host Alex Jones and the actual Bilderberg Group itself. Context helps here – the book was written just before 9/11, when extremism of all stripes was still relegated to the fringe and hardly anyone outside of that fringe took the Bilderberg conspiracy seriously enough to bother writing about it. Consequently, Ronson takes a lighter approach than he may have done post-9/11. The result is a surprisingly funny book that portrays extremists as actual people (albeit absurd, delusional, buffoonish and not always very nice people) rather than caricatures, yet without endorsing any of their toxic views. What’s really striking is the sheer nerve it must have taken to hang out with extremists in the first place. It’s hard to imagine anyone being brave enough to write a book like this in today’s political environment. It may be dated, but it’s still a fascinating ethnographic addition to the conspiracy-theory-history section.

Nemo (Total Security Agency)Nemo by Ron Goulart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a re-read for me. I read and enjoyed a lot of Ron Goulart’s SF books when I was in high school and the military, but his many of his books are out of print and hard to find, so I haven't read him for years. Goulart is insanely prolific as a ghostwriter and pulp/comics historian, but he also wrote a lot of humorous SF novels that generally involve technological and societal decay, as well as comic-book plots. This standalone novel tells the tale of Ted Briar, who discovers he’s been leading a secret life as a govt agent with telekinetic powers, and is recruited by political activists to stop an evil plot by the President of the USA. Which sounds more serious than it is – as usual, Goulart tells it in a breezy comic style, though Goulart’s comedy is more about wry satire than belly laughs. Goulart tells his stories with fast-paced bare-bones economy, to include characterization. That probably won’t work for everyone, but he’s not writing the Great American Novel here – he’s essentially writing comic-book stories in a prose format. The story is entertaining enough, though I wouldn't say this is one of his classics. But then I’m really here for his writing style and the cadence of his dialogue, which has been a major influence on me. Reading this again, I remember why I liked reading him.

The Wild GirlsThe Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been enjoying the PM Press Outspoken Authors series, and I’m a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, so eventually I was going to get to this. The title novella (newly revised) is a grim and harrowing fantasy tale of two girls who are kidnapped and sold into slavery as children, and haunted by the ghost of a baby that died in the same raid. Also included are two essays (on the alleged decline of book reading and the evolution of the word “modesty” as a gender-specific term) and an interview. The novella and the essay on books are the main high points for me. The Q&A is something of a letdown in that Le Guin doesn’t seem to take the questions all that seriously. Then again, her answers do display an unwillingness to play by the rules of convention, or perhaps it indicates that she’s worked hard enough at her art (and done enough interviews) that she doesn’t have to explain herself or reveal any more than she has to. Or maybe she just likes to liven things up. Anyway, there’s plenty here for Le Guin fans to sink their teeth into.

Lock In: A Novel of the Near FutureLock In: A Novel of the Near Future by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Scalzi’s not-that-near-future police procedural set 25 years after a devastating worldwide plague kills 400 million people and leaves hundreds of millions more with “lock in” syndrome – fully conscious but completely paralyzed. Thanks to a US govt initiative (and the President’s wife being a lock-in victim), the so-called Hadens are re-integrated into society via virtual reality, android bodies they can control with their brains and – if they can afford it – Integrators (people who are able to let Hadens possess their bodies temporarily). That’s the backdrop for rookie FBI agent (and Haden) Chris Shane’s first case – a murder where the suspect is an Integrator who may or may not have been possessed when it happened. It’s a great premise, and Scalzi handles it well, although his commercial style has two of the usual tradeoffs: (1) he doesn’t dive as deep as he could into some of the sociopolitical issues raised by this scenario, although he doesn't ignore them, and there is a sequel planned, so he’s got room to expand here, and (2) just about every character speaks with the same level of eloquent, snappy snark, which dilutes them somewhat, but it’s very well written snark, which makes for a fast and entertaining read – which is generally Scalzi’s goal, so my expectations were well met.

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I was smothered in business travel in Barcelona all last week, so this is old news I know, but I did want say something about Harper Lee’s passing.

NPR has as good a write-up about her and To Kill A Mockingbird as yr probably going to see elsewhere, apart maybe from this Bloom County tribute.

For myself, To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the great American novels, and also one of the very few “classics” that I had to read in high school that I actually enjoyed.

The novel is inspirational on at least two levels for me: (1) the content, of course, and its views on racism (which wasn’t all that distant a memory for the South when I read it in the early 80s – the KKK was still having annual marches in Franklin, TN at the time), and (2) the fact that it was Lee’s only published novel. Lee was proof positive that you only need to write one novel to be a novelist. In a way, it’s as well she didn't publish another one for most of the rest of her life – TKAM is a hard act to follow.

Go Set A Watchman probably proves that, not least because it was actually written before TKAM. I haven’t read it, but I’m aware of the controversy over it, both in terms of Atticus Finch’s character development and questions over whether Lee was in full control over the decision to publish it in the first place. Either way, I’m not aware of anyone saying it’s better than (or even on the same level as) TKAM – but then how could it be? TKAM has gestated for 50+ years as one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century. How do you top that?

Anyway, I don’t plan to read Go Set A Watchman anytime soon. I don’t feel the need to do so. TKAM’s legacy aside, prequels are almost always disappointing experiences, and frankly TKAM is such a great book in its own right it doesn’t need any fleshing out.

Which is why I do plan to re-read TKAM soon. It’ll be great to see if it’s as good and/or powerful as I remember. As I recall, it was a quite an intense experience.

Meanwhile, you may also know that Umberto Eco also passed away – which I mention mainly because I’ve never actually read any of his books. But he does get namedropped by some people I know, so if any of you have any recommendations of Eco books worth checking out (besides The Name Of The Rose – that’s a pretty obvious starting place), feel free to send them along.

Recommended reading,

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As usual, February is a bit of a slow month, due to Chinese New Year and my annual Barcelona trip buggering up my reading routine. Still, it’s not like I have a quota or anything.

And so …

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked Max Barry’s Lexicon, so I picked up this earlier novel, which takes an old speculative-fiction trope – in future, corporations will rule the world – and dials it up to 11. Barry’s “what-if” scenario is a globalized free-market libertarian wet dream where pretty much everything is privatized (including the police), countries are owned by corporations, no one pays tax, the NRA is a private paramilitary outfit for hire and the government is essentially an underfunded NGO whose job is to deal strictly with things like murder. Also, employees show their loyalty by changing their surname to the company they work for. It starts off with sensitive pushover Hack Nike being contracted by psychotic marketing VP John Nike to boost the value of Nike’s latest shoe product by killing some customers, and it just gets progressively insane from there. It’s unsubtle, completely and willfully bonkers satire, and yet it mostly works within the parameters Barry sets for the story, although it’s not clear to me just how the Government is able to maintain any authority at all in such a world. It gets a bit messy by the end, and the title character is rather over the top as the obsessed agent bent on justice. But it’s a funny, rapid-paced page-turner that gets by on pure chutzpah, and works well if you don’t take it too seriously (or if you really believe that corporations are actively trying to establish a world like this, I suppose). If nothing else, it’s amazing that Barry was able to get away with using the real names of existing corporations – it probably wouldn’t work nearly as well otherwise.

Rod Serling's Night GalleryRod Serling's Night Gallery by Rod Serling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Everyone knows Rod Serling for The Twilight Zone, of course. But he also did a show in the early 70s called Night Gallery, which was more focused on horror and the supernatural than science-fiction. This book features six short-story versions of Night Gallery scripts – one of which, “Does The Name Grimsby Mean Anything To You?”, was never filmed. I’ve been a fan of Serling’s for years, as much for his prose as his TV work, and this collection clearly demonstrates both his passion and understanding of the dark side of the human condition, and his keen storytelling ability. The latter is key, because the six stories here follow some very familiar tropes, and sometimes the “twist” is predictable – but Serling’s strength was always in how he tells it, putting real feelings into his characters, even the ones that in lesser hands would come across as more cardboard clichés. I confess I prefer Serling’s SF work to his horror stories, but there’s some good stuff here. This book confirms that Serling is probably one of the most underrated American short-story writers of the 20th Century.

Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking AmericaWingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America by John P. Avlon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is John Avlon’s chronicle of the rise of fearmongering extremist political rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle in recent times (that is, up to 2010, when the book was published) – which means that anyone who’s not a centrist is going to find something here to offend them. It also means that what you make of it is probably going to depend where yr own political views lie. The book is generally intended as a wake-up call to centrists to stand up to extremist politicians and pundits on both sides before they become the mainstream. It’s more anecdotal than comprehensive or analytical, but it does cover a lot of bases – cable TV news, talk radio, hyperpartisan online echo-chambers, birthers, 9/11 truthers, right-wing militias, Tea Party rallies, Godwin’s Law, etc. Some readers might feel the comparisons of certain groups to others are a little unfair. And Avlon may be guilty at times of somewhat overstating his case, or at least overstating the danger. Then again, when you look at the state of media and politics today, it’s pretty clear the situation is worse now than it was when this book came out six years ago. Wingnuts may be somewhat superficial, but it’s a good primer for a larger and deeper conversation.

Honor Among Thieves: Star Wars (Empire and Rebellion)Honor Among Thieves: Star Wars by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my second shot at the Star Wars Expanded Universe books. The first one, Heir to the Empire, was okay but not great. This one – a Han Solo adventure which takes place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back – was a somewhat better experience in the sense that it’s more readable, has snappier dialogue and doesn’t go overboard on the fan service. On the other hand, the plot – in which Han Solo has to go to the center of the Empire to extract a Rebel spy who has a lead on a powerful weapon the Empire is also chasing – is basically a chain of mishap after mishap as things consistently fail to go according to plan. Which is part of the fun, especially with Solo, who is fairly well layered here (and points to Corey for slipping in the point that Han is the kind of guy who will shoot first), but it does get a bit ludicrous by the third act. I enjoyed it more than Heir To The Empire, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the Star Wars Expanded Universe books aren’t that essential for me. I may read more later, but I probably won’t go out of my way.

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Going solo,

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The first book reports of 2016 are in. How do you like them apples?

Report from Planet MidnightReport from Planet Midnight by Nalo Hopkinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another selection from the PM Press Outspoken Authors series that also serves as my introduction to Nalo Hopkinson, whom I’d never head of before. That fact alone may lend credence to her criticism that the SF/F industry is dominated by straight white guys and thus is in need of a lot more diversity than it currently demonstrates. The title comes from a 2010 presentation at International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in which she tackles issues of race, racism and sexism in SF/F (and deploys some performance art to make her point) at least partly in reaction to RaceFail’09. That and the interview in which she expands on those issues – and discusses the role of Caribbean folklore in her work – are worth the price of admission. Hopkinson makes some really strong points on the nature of systemic racism in SF/F and elsewhere, why and how it needs to change, and why it’s not as scary or inconvenient as some fans and editors (i.e. mostly white guys) seem to think. Also included are two short stories – one is an updated Caribbean twist on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the other is an interesting take on the time-travel trope. This volume also hipped me to her bibliography up to 2013 – you can bet I’ll be keeping an eye out for her books.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Murakami for a long time, but his work can generally be broken into two categories: (1) stories where magic realism dominates the plot (see: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Dance Dance Dance) and (2) stories where magic realism plays a minor role or at best hovers offstage (see: Norwegian Wood, Sputnik Sweetheart). I tend to prefer the former, but even the latter ones have something going for them. This one falls somewhere in between – railway station designer Tsukuru Tazaki is haunted by his past (and in his dreams) after being suddenly ostracized by a group of very close high-school friends with no explanation. Sixteen years later, his girlfriend encourages him to visit his friends one by one and resolve the situation. Some of the strangeness you expect from a Murakami novel is there, but it feels almost incidental to the main plot, which idles until Tanaki starts tracking down his former friends, after which it really kicks into gear. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a little disappointing in that some of the more interesting narrative episodes seem to dead-end, but it’s still pretty interesting overall.

Men Without WomenMen Without Women by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ernest Hemingway is one of those authors that gets namedropped a lot by authors I like, but I’ve only ever read one short story, “Hills Like White Elephants” (included in this collection), which was for a literature class that overanalyzed it to the point of sucking all the joy out of the story. I came across this for half-price and decided it was time to give Hemingway a proper try. And I’ve concluded that maybe Hemingway isn’t for me. There’s no doubt he was a brilliant writer whose economic prose cuts to the chase. The main problem is the subject matter – war, boxing and bullfighting are prominent themes here, but they don’t really interest me. A few stories here are admittedly great – “The Killers” was the big standout for me – but most of them didn’t really connect. I might still try one of his novels, if I see one that’s more up my street in terms of topic, but to be honest I’m not in any hurry.

CUNNING PLANS: Talks By Warren EllisCUNNING PLANS: Talks By Warren Ellis by Warren Ellis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This e-book collects transcripts of some of the talks that Ellis has given at various SF and futurist conferences over the past few years. Each one is an exploration of how science-fiction creators and fans should (or shouldn’t) be looking at The Future. Like a lot of his fictional work, it’s jam-packed with historical factoids, but in this case with the purpose of illustrating that you can’t understand the future without understanding both the past and the present. Ellis also makes the connection between the old world of superstition (ghosts, demons, magick, etc) and the new world of technology (i.e. iPads make us all wizards, at least by 18th-century standards). Despite the common thread, there’s little overlap between each piece, and what overlap there is doesn’t feel redundant. Like Ellis’ best work, it’s fascinating, thought-provoking and highly entertaining. If nothing else, Ellis makes a more solid case about the futility of predicting the future in 52 pages than Nassim Nicholas Taleb did in 500+ pages of The Black Swan.

Cause for AlarmCause for Alarm by Eric Ambler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my second time reading Ambler, who is generally credited with bringing realism to spy novels in the 1930s. The premise: in 1937, British engineer Nicky Marlow accepts a job in fascist Italy at a Brit-owned manufacturing firm specializing in machines for shell production. Marlow soon finds himself being courted by mysterious men with secret (and opposing) agendas – and at least one of whom may be responsible for the death of Marlow’s predecessor. Similar to the hero in Ambler’s Epitaph For A Spy (the first Ambler book I read), Marlow is so infuriatingly naïve about his situation – and so easily offended at the slightest impropriety – that he’s a hard protagonist to like. At the same time, his character is partly drawn as a critique of arms manufacturers who treat war as just a business or a newspaper headline – Marlow is thrown into a situation intended to burst that bubble. In any case, Ambler tells a good tale, albeit at a slightly uneven pace. The only significant complaint I have is that the opening pages of Marlow’s narrative create a set-up that never meaningfully pays off – so much so that it seems superfluous. Luckily, there’s more than enough here to make up for it.

Make Room! Make Room!Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve known about Harry Harrison for years, but I’ve never read him until now. As you may know, this novel was the basis for Soylent Green, but don’t let that be a spoiler – the famous twist was written for the film and doesn’t appear in the book. The general premise is the same: in the future (in this case, 1999), overpopulation has resulted in massive shortages of food, water and just about everything else. In New York City (pop. 35 million), detective Andy Rusch is pressured to solve the murder of a politically connected racketeer, but the investigation is really just a vehicle for the grim-meathook backdrop of an overcrowded NYC where people riot for food and water and live in abandoned ships and parking lots (except for the Rich And Powerful, as usual). In fact, the crime story often gets sidetracked to the point that it adds to the overall sense of futility of the situation, which Harrison conveys convincingly, even though certain details require a little suspension of disbelief. (Also, people from Taiwan generally speak Mandarin, not Cantonese.) Anyway, I liked this, and I can see why this is a dystopian classic (Soylent Green’s role in pop culture notwithstanding). I’ll be looking for some more of Harrison’s work.

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The world is not enough,

This is dF
defrog: (sars)
ITEM: Hong Kong bookstore employees are disappearing.

Or at least five of them have. Four went missing in October last year. The fifth disappeared last week.

All five worked with the same bookstore – Causeway Bay Bookstore, which just happens to specialize in books that are banned in mainland China (but not HK) because they’re critical of the central govt, especially President Xi Jinping. In fact, the bookstore – which publishes its own books as well as carrying others – was about to publish a new book about Xi’s private life.

As you can imagine, the case has raised all kinds of eyebrows in HK. The idea that Beijing is enforcing mainland Chinese censorship laws (where criticizing the govt is no different from actively plotting to overthrow it) in Hong Kong, where they technically don’t apply, is not exactly a comforting one.

Of course, we don’t know for sure where the five have gone. The fifth one, Lee Bo, supposedly phoned his wife to say he’s in Shenzhen across the border “helping with an investigation”. But the permit card he needs to get into China is still at home, so it’s doubtful he went there voluntarily. And in any case, I doubt it’s a coincidence that all five are associated with the same company that just happens to be publishing books critical of Beijing – that also just happened to be popular with mainland tourists visiting HK. It’s unlikely that Chinese authorities are unaware of this.

That said, books like this have been around for ages. So the other question is: if this is some kind of quiet crackdown, why now? Possibly the Umbrella events and resulting political fallout – in which everyone found out that HK democracy will always be rigged in Beijing’s favor because that’s how it's supposed to be, kid – is a factor.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that local bookstore chain Page One – which also carried some of the same books – apparently pulled them from the shelves after the first four people disappeared.

Which I’m sure is just fine with Beijing authorities. In fact, it’s probably the reaction they were banking on.

Developing …

Book ‘em Danno,

This is dF


EDITED TO ADD [8 Jan]: Pro-Beijing HK legislator Ng Leung-sing has a theory: the five missing guys all went to China to hire some prostitutes for fun and got busted. 

Ng has no actual proof of this, but says he read it online, so he thought he'd share it. You know, to be helpful. 

He's since apologized. Lee Bo's wife has not accepted it. Meanwhile, local broadcaster TVB is in hot water for broadcasting Ng's remarks without bothering to verify them. 

Also, while Page One removed the books in question, other shops are still carrying them
defrog: (Default)
And that about wraps it up for 2015.

If you’d like to see a summary of my year in reading – and why WOULDN'T you, I mean it’s why yr here, right? – Goodreads has kindly provided a handy infographic here.

You may also like to know that I completed my goal of reading 60 books this year, although not by as big a margin as last year (insert Thomas Pynchon joke here). I think I’ll set the same target for 2016 – my reading pace seems more or less suited to that number, and I didn’t feel rushed this year, so why not?

So, here’s the last batch of book reports for the year.

Firebreak (Parker, #20)Firebreak by Richard Stark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 20th Parker novel, and the first one to acknowledge the internet age, as the target for this heist is a dot-com billionaire with a stash of stolen paintings, and one of the crewmembers is Larry Lloyd, a computer whiz fresh out of jail after doing time for trying to kill the business partner that screwed him. However, most of that is beside the point, as the main complication for this heist is someone else who is hiring Russian hitmen to kill Parker, and much of the novel involves Parker sorting out that problem before focusing on the heist. There are two notable weaknesses in this one, (1) the technology bits, some of which may only make sense if you don't know how computers work, and (2) the part where we find out who is trying to kill Parker, which makes even less sense given the situation in which the characters were last seen. However, it’s fun watching Stark pile on the complications, especially at the end. Firebreak is somewhat uneven, but otherwise it’s a decent addition to the series.

The Melancholy of MechagirlThe Melancholy of Mechagirl by Catherynne M. Valente

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a collection of short stories and poems, most if not all of which were written while Valente was living in Japan (which is an interesting story in and of itself). I found it in the science-fiction section, but the stories are more a blend of Japanese folklore, ghost stories and post-human surrealist cyberpunk. In literary terms, these stories echo the mythological storytelling of Neil Gaiman and the whimsically surreal lyricism of Ray Bradbury, but without copying either. The result – for me – is that many of the stories are difficult to follow, but written in such captivating language that you find yrself pushing forward with it even if you don’t fully get what’s going on. If nothing else, it’s a refreshingly different Western take on Japanese culture in SF. This is my first time reading Valente, and overall it was a good introduction and an interesting experience.

The Girl with All the GiftsThe Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The cover blurb alone is a great hook (“Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh …”). Finding out that M.R. Carey is a pen name for Mike Carey sealed the deal for me, as I’m a fan of his work on Hellblazer and his Felix Castor novels, so I was looking forward to this. And it doesn’t disappoint. I can’t say much about the story without giving away the explanation for the opening – it’s better if you don’t know in advance (and as I found out the hard way, many existing Goodreads reviews are full of spoilers, so watch out, although this is also the basis for a film coming out next year, so maybe you’ll find out soon enough). Suffice to say Carey really puts a fresh spin on this particular genre, and delivers a compelling and fairly gruesome page-turner in the bargain. If there’s a weakness, it’s that some of the main characters are a little too obvious as genre archetypes required to drive the story along (possibly as the result of Carey’s use of mythological metaphors). But Carey still manages to flesh them out as real and believable characters. And extra points for coming up with an ending I really didn’t expect.

Fatale (Serpent's Tail Classics)Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve never read Jean-Patrick Manchette before, and odds are I might not have heard of him if Hollywood hadn’t recently filmed one of his novels starring Sean Penn, which prompted the re-release of that novel (The Prone Gunman) and this slim novel that reportedly ran so hard against convention that his publisher in France decided not to include it in their regular crime-fiction series. It’s also reportedly his most blatantly political book, albeit not to the point of dominating the narrative. Anyway, it’s Manchette’s take on the femme fatale genre, in which Aimée Joubert – who is moving from town to town, assuming different identities fleecing the local rich folks and leaving a trail of bodies behind her – arrives in the small port town of Bléville for what could be her biggest score … or her last. Manchette keeps it perhaps a little too tight at 90+ pages, but he works in a lot of compressed information about Aimée’s background and the corruption and small-town scandals of Bléville she seeks to exploit, to say nothing of the symbolic metaphors strewn throughout. It’s also interesting that Aimée isn’t just a plotting, sexy golddigger – she’s also a tough martial artist, which is pretty standard today but was quite pioneering in 1977 when the novel was published. A nice, short twist on the femme fatale theme.

Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #1)Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As much as I love the Star Wars films, I’ve never read the Expanded Universe books or comics (apart from Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye). The sheer volume just seemed too much to keep up with. But with the new film coming out, I was inspired to dabble, so I decided to start with this one, partly because it features Luke, Leia and Han, and partly because Timothy Zahn has been doing these for years, so I figured he might be a reliable place to start. Well … maybe not. The basic story is okay – as the New Republic struggles to establish itself in the wake of defeating Emperor Palpatine five years previously, Grand Admiral Thrawn of the Imperial Army is determined to re-establish the Empire, and gets himself a Dark Jedi to help him. But Zahn’s writing style is a little too average for my taste. And that might be okay, except he also spends too much time making references to plot points in the original trilogy – sometimes to the point of rehashing famous lines and scenes in new contexts, which comes across as too blatant an attempt at fan-service continuity. I already have another Star Wars book in the queue (not from this trilogy), so I’ll try again later, but I’m thinking maybe the Star Wars Expanded Universe isn’t for me. I don’t see myself getting the next book in the Thrawn trilogy at this stage.

Empire down,

This is dF

defrog: (devo mouse)

[Via The United States Of Babylonia]

Dude’s got a point.

They live,

This is dF

defrog: (puzzler)
Greystoke Trading Company:Star Wars by George Lucas, 1977. Cover art by John Berkey.

I have loved this book cover since I was 12.

And it gets me to thinking about how I was impressed at the time that George Lucas wrote the novel version himself. One reason I remember this is because around the same time, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind came out, and I had the novel version of that, too.

And of course I’m thinking, “Wow, so they both made films out of their own novels.”

Did I mention I was 12?

Eventually I learned of the concept of ghostwriters. But I didn't put much thought into the Lucas/Spielberg novels until, thanks to the internet, I found out that the Star Wars novel was ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster.

Which is wild because Star Wars is what got me into reading SF novels, and I read a lot of Foster’s SF books in the 80s. And the book that actually got me started with Foster was Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye, which was written as a sequel to Star Wars EP 4 before The Empire Strikes Back came out. (Apparently Foster’s contract for the first book included a sequel regardless of how well the film did.)

Anyway, that explains why the Star Wars novel is actually pretty good as SF novels go, let alone novelizations of screenplays, which Foster has done a lot of in his career – I read pretty much all the ones he did in the 80s, as well as the ones he did for Star Trek: The Animated Series in the 70s.

As it turns out, the one big novelization project he didn't do at the time was Close Encounters – that was done by Leslie Elson Waller.

It’s interesting that someone made the decision in both cases to credit the books solely to the writer/directors of those films. I’m not aware that this was done previously (giving a film director sole credit for the ghostwritten novelization), and I don’t think it’s been done since. And I’ve no idea why it was done for those two specific films – maybe because they were massively successful films that also happened to be auteur-driven? 

Whatever the reason was, it’s probably slightly dishonest, but Foster has said in interviews he didn’t mind Lucas getting the credit for the novel since the basic story and characters were his anyway. And ghostwriting is basically designed for the purpose of letting someone take credit for someone else’s work (or to keep a franchise going). And it’s not all that bad when the person taking credit did at least come up with the ideas and characters and the storyline.

I’ll take that over strange projects like, say, those tie-in novels for the TV show Castle (the one where the murder-mystery novelist helps a sexy lady cop solve cases). If you don’t know, part of the promotion for that show includes actual mystery novels ghostwritten under the name Richard Castle. He has his own Amazon page and everything.

It may be the first time a mystery series has been credited to a fictional TV character. Anyway, it annoys me. Of course I’m not a fan of the show, so I would say that. But who would want to read a book by someone who only exists in a TV show?

Then again, Franklin W Dixon and Caroline Keene – the authors of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, respectively – didn’t exist either. So who am I to be critical?


This is dF

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ADMIN NOTE: This is actually two months worth of books (October and November). I usually post this at the start of the month, but I was traveling in the US on November 1 (without my laptop), and the same trip limited my reading time anyway. Also, I’ve been thinking about posting each month’s report at the end of the month in which I read them rather than the beginning of the next month, so this is as good an excuse to change up as I’m going to get.

The Centauri DeviceThe Centauri Device by M. John Harrison

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is my first time reading M. John Harrison. It may be my last. I get that it’s heralded as a pioneering and influential “anti-space-opera”, and there’s little doubt Harrison has a kind of lyricism to his writing. But for me, the latter really gets in the way of the story – which is not a good thing when yr describing a universe 600 years in the future. It’s a shame too because the story – in which space captain John Truck, the only man alive who can operate the title device, is being pursued and harangued by different political and religious factions who want the Centauri Device for their own purposes – sounds like a winner. But honestly I really had trouble following it and figuring out what was going on (or at least why). That might be my problem instead of Harrison’s, but the author himself has long since disowned the novel. I wish I’d known that before I started this.

Dinosaur TalesDinosaur Tales by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is billed as a complete collection of Ray Bradbury’s short stories involving dinosaurs, but you should know that amounts to just four short stories and two poems, a couple of which were written just for this volume when it came out in 1983. That said, they do come illustrated by notable artists like Steranko, Moebius and Gahan Wilson, so the overall package is nice. Also, you get the classic story “The Fog Horn”, which was the basis for the film The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and is also the best story here for my money, along with “Tyrannosaurus Rex” (a nice tribute to Ray Harryhausen, who also wrote the introduction for this volume).

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I finally decided to try out Ursula K Le Guin a few years ago, I started with this book, and I just couldn’t get into it. Later I tried again with The Left Hand Of Darkness, which I loved, after which I read A Wizard Of Earthsea and The Word For World Is Forest, which I also liked. So I tried this one again and for the life of me I can’t imagine why it didn’t spark with me the first time. It’s like that sometimes – you just have to be in the right frame of mind to get into a particular book. That’s what happened this time, because I really enjoyed this story of Shevek, a physicist on the anarcho-syndicalist world of Anarres, who defies convention and travels to the sister world of Urras not only to complete his work, but to break down the sociopolitical barriers between the two worlds. The parallels between the philosophical ideologies of capitalism, communism and libertarianism here on Earth are pretty obvious, but Le Guin does a really good job of exploring the nature of each and the societies (and individuals) that evolve within those ideologies, showing the pros and cons of both worlds. Extra points for splitting the narrative into parallels covering Shevek’s trip to Urras and the events of his life leading up to his decision to go there, which I think works better than if Le Guin had tried to tell the story in chronological order. Highly recommended unless yr politics are very narrow-minded or you hate books with lots of philosophical discussions (neither of which apply to me).

The Seeds of TimeThe Seeds of Time by John Wyndham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve known for awhile that there’s more to John Wyndham than triffids and Village Of The Damned, but this is the first time I’ve read him in short-story form. And in some ways, Wyndham’s particular brand of slow-burn keep-calm-and-carry-on science fiction works better when it’s compressed into short form. There’s a lot of good ideas here, from annoying time-travel tourism and body-swapping duels to an alien visitation with scale issues. Wyndham has fun with them, but still keeps the human element front and center. There are a couple of misfires, but for the most part it works, especially when exploring issues like survival and racism. One thing to add: while it's great Penguin is reprinting most of his books, the cover art for the current batch is just awful. It's like they're trying to make them look like "proper" literature instead of sci-fi. That doesn't impact my rating – I'm just saying.

Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two TrialsPatty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials by Paul Krassner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another one from the PM Press Outspoken Authors series that also serves as my introduction to Paul Krassner, whose name I’ve seen dropped in various 60s counterculture contexts, but who I knew very little about. His main line is paranoid sociopolitical satire, which is worth keeping in mind as you read this book about his experience covering the trials of Patty Hearst and Dan White (the guy who killed Harvey Milk and George Moscone and whose lawyer invented the “Twinkie Defense”, though Krassner actually coined the term). His tales from the trials are not so much meant to be objective journalism, but rather a satirical take on what both trials represented to the counterculture at the time, to include the various conspiracy theories that abounded regarding the CIA, FBI, and even Jim Jones. It’s an interesting, short chronicle of two of the stranger tales of the 1970s. There’s also an interview, and a short piece about Michelle Shocked being ostracized from the LGBT activist community. You may not get much objective truth from this, but then it’s been said that satire gets closer to the truth than any official version.

Unseen Academicals (Discworld, #37)Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m off and on with the Discworld books – some are great, some are average, and I’m in no hurry to read the whole series, but they’re generally okay. I bought this mainly to honor Pratchett’s death – I was prepared to skip it, as it’s the one about bringing football (or soccer, for the Americans out there) to Ankh-Morpork, and while I’ve found the best Discworld books are the ones where Pratchett introduces a modern institution to Ankh-Morpork (newspapers, postal services, banking system, etc), I’m not that big a football fan. But as the jacket says, football is not just about football, so I gave it a try. And I think I’ll file this one under “average”. Like other Discworld books, its main strength is compelling characterization and humor. But at 540 pages, it seems to meander at times, and while you don't necessarily have to be a football fan – or someone raised in (or nearby) Britain’s class-obsessed football culture – to get the satirical elements, it arguably helps. Overall it’s a decent addition to the series, but I felt it took a lot more work to get through than previous Discworld novels I’ve tried.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly ImprobableThe Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book by essayist/scholar/statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb is essentially a 500+ page philosophical argument that the future cannot be predicted – from stock market forecasts and civil war outbreaks to box office successes – and any “expert” who claims otherwise is a charlatan. He also criticizes the way we react to statistically rare events, often employing hindsight to see how we should have seen it coming, which is pointless since it won't tell you how to spot the next “black swan”. Also, Bell curves are bullshit. These are fairly valid points, but I confess I ended up skimming most of the book. Taleb’s writing style is comparatively light compared to other philosophical books, but not light enough for me personally – possibly because I’m not that well versed in economics or philosophy, which is Taleb’s main background, so it could well be my problem, not his. Also, a lot of his examples (especially from the financial sector) come across more as personal gripes. It also bugs me that the case study of Yevgenia Krasnova that opens and closes the book to illustrate the black-swan concept, is actually fictional – surely a real-life example would be more convincing? And surely he could have found at least one? There’s some good points to be made here, but the overall package is too dense and maybe a little smug, like someone trying to convince you he’s the smartest guy in the room.

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The unknown knows,

This is dF

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I have returned from the US, and I’ve more or less recovered from the jet lag and the 15-hour flight.

It was mostly the same deal as last year: a road trip from Chicago to Maryville-Alcoa and back, by way of Carbondale, Nashville and Cincinnati (rather than Indianapolis). Overall it went smoothly, apart from the occasional debilitating illness. Also, this time out we were unable to meet a few people we wanted to meet due to schedule conflicts and lost wallets. Anyone we were unable to meet, sorry about that, we'll make it up to you next time. 

Other than that, it was a pretty fun time. Here are the highlights:

1. Cheap books

We joined Books A Million and scoured McKay’s (both the Nashville and Knoxville locations), as well as Hastings and a couple other places. Here’s my take:

Note that I’ve read The Sirens Of Titan before, but for $5.97, I’m keen to re-read it.

Also, I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and try some of the Star Wars expanded universe books. I’ve avoided them in the past mainly because I thought it was just too much to keep up with. I was also worried about the quality of the writing. But with all the excitement about the new movie and all, I just felt inspired to try a couple, though I’m sticking to Original Trilogy period for now. We’ll see how these two go and take it from there.

2. Conservative books for conservatives who read

In Maryville-Alcoa, I also visited a place called Ollie’s, which is sort of like Big Lots. It has a book section. It looks like this.

So I didn’t find much there. But I did notice a pattern in Tennessee bookstores, where (1) you see a lot of books on prominent display from authors like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Brian Kilmeade and various GOP candidates – particularly Donald Trump and Ben Carson. As opposed to, say, books by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Just saying.

I also noticed that a lot of these authors take up prominent space in the American History section. You kind of expect that with Bill O’Reilly, who seems to have a second career writing books about famous political assassinations of famous Americans (Lincoln, Kennedy, Patton, Jesus, etc). Glenn Beck and Brian Kilmeade, not so much.

Res ipsa loqitur.

3. Touch me I’m sick

I came down with stomach flu in Maryville-Alcoa. Laid me out for two straight days. Then my mom got strep throat. Then KT got both. Then the cat started vomiting. It was kind of funny after awhile. Anyway, everyone recovered fairly quickly, so our travel plans didn’t get seriously disrupted as a result. I did end up sleeping through Halloween, though.

I just hope my travel insurance will cover my doctor’s visit. I don’t have a lot of experience with American HMOs, except that even something relatively simple can cost you a fortune in consultation fees. The actual medicine was only $20.00.

4. Burger time

We ate a lot of burgers. This is probably unavoidable, though we did try to avoid the obvious stuff on the road.

The highlight: Five Guys, which is still our Gold Standard for fast food burgers.

The lowlight: Steak’n’Shake, which used to be the Gold Standard back in college, but these days seems to go down in quality every time we visit. The shakes are still good, and the food isn’t terrible, but it’s not something to look forward to anymore.

Best décor: S&B Burger Joint, which has a serious rock theme going on. It’s also the only burger place I’ve been to that requires an orientation session from the server. Good food though. Try the deep fried pickles.

5. Toll roads

Chicago is bristling with them. I discovered this last year, but this year we got caught up a little more than usual in the system, thanks to a few toll plazas where either cash isn’t an option, or we ended up in a situation where it was an unmanned toll booth and we had no change. You do have the option to pay online and you have seven days to do so (though you have to remember which toll booth it was, and what time you went through it). The fine for not paying is substantial, but I do find myself wondering how many people actually bother, or how rigorously it’s enforced.

6. There ain't much to country living

We stopped in Paducah, KY for coffee and gas. Inside was two guys in overalls buying wintergreen chewing tobacco. Outside was a pick-up truck with some bullet holes in the side. Meanwhile, in a rest area by the state line, I got into a conversation with the tour booth woman who told me about her 120-pound mini-pig.

Later, in TN, I found myself behind a pick-up truck with a bumper sticker that said: “Uncle Sam wants you to speak English.”

7. I’m bored of American radio

This year’s rental car didn’t come with a Sirius XM subscription, so I had to make do with standard radio, which is hard to do on a road trip where you can only stick with a station for so long until you drive out of range.

Making matters worse is that American radio is just terrible – it seems to get worse every year I come over. It says a lot when you find yrself settling for whatever classic rock station you can find, knowing that’s probably as good as it gets for decent music.

I did notice one trend I hadn’t picked up on before: talk radio on the FM dial. This may be old news to you, but I wasn’t aware that talk radio was in so much demand that the AM dial no longer had sufficient room for it. Unfortunately, this meant that in Tennessee, around 75% of my programming choices on FM were limited to news/talk, sports/talk and country music. The rest was either Top 40 or a classic rock station that was always just five miles away from bad reception.

8. Cheap gas

I paid $1.77/gal for gas in Maryville.

Thanks, Obama.

Well, that’s enough, isn’t it?

Back to the grind,

This is dF

defrog: (Default)
Cranking them out, Jim.

Trees, Vol. 1: In ShadowTrees, Vol. 1: In Shadow by Warren Ellis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leave it to Warren Ellis to come up with an idea like this: giant alien objects land on Earth … and just stand there like trees, completely oblivious to any indigenous life, including us. Or are they? This first collected volume follows several storylines set ten years after the arrival of the Trees in different locations: an art student in China, a small-time gangster moll in Italy, a ruthless president in Mogadishu, and a research team in Spitzbergen. Each story reveals the effect the Trees are having on the local society/ecosystem, and that there may be more to them than it appears. All in all, this is one of Ellis’ more original ideas, and he makes good use of it as a springboard for stories. It's also good (and brave) that he takes a global approach, although sometimes Jason Howard’s art lets him down (maybe it’s me, but it seems like at least three main female characters look more or less alike, despite being different ethnicities). Anyway, there’s a lot to like here, and it does end on a cliffhanger, so count me in for Volume 2.

The Word for World is ForestThe Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this expanded novella from Le Guin’s Hain Cycle, humans start a logging operation on the planet of Athshe (dubbed “New Tahiti”), where all available land is forest. The indigenous Athsheans – whose culture is non-violent and centered on lucid dreaming – are enslaved to work as servants and laborers. After vicious camp boss Captain Davidson rapes and kills one of the female Athsheans, her husband Selver starts a revolution to fight back. Le Guin wrote this during the height of the Vietnam War, and while it’s not the same situation duplicated on an alien planet, the allegory isn’t subtle, which is both a positive and a negative. What gives it extra weight and depth is Le Guin’s acknowledgment that the decision to renounce peace in favor of violence has lasting and perhaps irreversible consequences, making this far more than a simple revenge story. The parts that describe the Athsheans’ dream culture are somewhat challenging to grasp (at least for me), but on the whole this is powerful stuff. Le Guin is fast becoming one of my favorite authors.

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn’t especially in a hurry to read this before the film version came out, but I saw it at half-price in a clearance sale recently, and I did plan to read it eventually, so why not? Thanks to the film trailers you probably already know the deal: Presumed to have been killed in a dust storm during an emergency evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, and must figure out how to survive long enough for the next scheduled Mars mission to arrive. The result is not so much a rumination on the psychological impact of such a situation so much as a Mars Survival Guide For Science Nerds. Which is not a bad thing – Watney displays remarkable ingenuity throughout, even when things go wrong, and Weir keeps the narrative light and breezy to help you through the heavy science. On the other hand, it’s a little too fun – Watney basically MacGuyver’s his way through the story with wisecracks and cool-headed cheerfulness the majority of the time, so there’s not a lot of emotional depth to him. Also, it’s sometimes a little too convenient that he just happens to have the right knowledge skills and materials on hand to tackle each problem. Luckily, that’s somewhat balanced out by the drama and gravitas back at NASA once they realize Watney’s still alive and work out how to rescue him. And it all pays off with a page-turning ending. It’s light entertainment (with science), but it’s well done.

The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books,  #1)The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my second time reading Ruiz Zafón, following his YA novel Marina. I liked that enough to try him again, and this book, his first adult novel and the first of the Cemetery Of Forgotten Books series, has a great hook: young Daniel is initiated to the Cemetery Of Forgotten Books in Barcelona after he selects a book by Julian Carax, which according to tradition he must protect for life. Once he discovers that someone has been destroying Carax’s other books, he decides to find out why, and soon finds himself in big trouble. In many ways, it’s an expansion of Marina (which was written and published before this one) in terms of M.O.: both are a coming-of-age Gothic mystery that is solved by people telling stories about people telling stories about other people until the horrible truth is finally revealed with a not-all-that-surprising plot twist and a somewhat cheesy climax. The Shadow Of The Wind takes that template to a grander scale, with the plot, subplots and sub-subplots adding up to one big dense convoluted soap opera. On the plus side, it comes with an interesting historical backdrop (the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s subsequent reign) and some very engaging characters. And because I travel to Barcelona once a year (it’s where I bought my copy of this book, in fact), I had a good frame of reference for the setting (which isn’t necessary, just cool). Overall I liked it, but I think I’ll need a breather before I try the next book in this series.

Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your WorldData and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World by Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier’s latest book tackles the problem of privacy in the Digital Age when just about everyone from Google and Facebook to mobile operators and the NSA are hoovering up every byte of data you generate on the internet, storing it and using it for various reasons, some beneficial to you, but many of them otherwise (just ask the client base of Ashley Madison). It all amounts to massive surveillance on a level that would make Big Brother blush, and it can't be stopped. Or can it? That could be the set-up for a paranoid anti-corporate/anti-govt rant, but Schneier, as always, takes this on with a level head, explains the good and bad sides of this new reality, and what should be done about it while there’s still time. If you read his blog regularly (as well as his other books), much of this will sound familiar. But Schneier really does a good job of summing up this particular problem, explaining why it’s a problem, why you should care, and what actions you can consider taking, and – thankfully – he does it without going off on angry political tangents or proposing quick fixes. Even where his solutions aren't that realistic (which he freely admits is the case), they can at least get a discussion going to generate better ideas (hopefully). I generally recommend Schneier’s books to anyone who wants to understand the post-9/11 world we live in. As pervasive as social media, mobile apps and the NSA have become, this book should be required reading for … well, everyone.

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I like to watch,

This is dF
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It’s Banned Books Week again.

Or, as I like to call it, “Reading Suggestions Week”.

I’ve written before about why this still matters. You can read that here. My opinion hasn’t really changed since then.

I also invite you to read the post that inspired my post, which goes into more detail and provides a more global perspective.

As always, you can visit the American Library Association for a list of the books that are most upsetting the Cultural Guardians these days.

Next year may see a new addition: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which tells the story of Lacks, a tobacco farmer who was dying in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, when her cancer cells were harvested without her consent, which led to one of the most important medical breakthroughs in modern medicine.

A woman in Tennessee wants it banned from schools because it’s pornography. Really:

Jackie Sims, mother to a 15-year-old sophomore at L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, told the local news station WBIR she was “shocked that there was so much graphic information in the book.” She cited one passage describing Lacks’ husband’s infidelity and another concerning Lacks’ discovery of a tumor on her cervix.

“I consider the book pornographic,” Sims said, adding, “There’s so many ways to say things without being that graphic in nature, and that’s the problem I have with this book.”

I don’t think that word means what she thinks it means. But then a lot of people make that mistake.

True story: I remember browsing in a video store once and overhearing a woman returning a tape (this was in 1990s, children) complaining that it was “pure pornography”.

The offending video: Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.


The kicker of the Henrietta Lacks story is that the school actually provided Sims’ son with an alternate text according to district policy so he wouldn’t be exposed to cervix porn. As always, that’s not good enough: Sims wants to keep all kids from reading it.

Same as it ever was.

Guess what book I’m going to try and find a copy of now?

Reading what I ain’t supposed to,

This is dF

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And the book reports just keep on coming.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve had more than one five-star review in a single month, but it doesn’t happen often. It happened this month. So you might want to put this in yr Memories list, is what I’m saying.

Just KidsJust Kids by Patti Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t usually read memoirs or autobios, but I’m a fan of Smith’s music and I felt confident that she was capable of not only writing it herself (as opposed to hiring a ghostwriter), but writing it well. I wasn’t wrong. This is her account of her lifelong relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their subsequent development as artists in New York City during the late 60s and early 70s. Smith’s descriptions of the NYC art scene and the Chelsea Hotel are vivid and vibrant, and her times with Mapplethorpe funny, tender and ultimately sad. If there’s anything negative to say about it, it’s that sometimes I found myself wishing she would talk more about her music career and share more anecdotes about the people she befriended along the way (William Burroughs comes to mind). But that’s not the story she’s telling here – it’s about her and Mapplethorpe, and she tells it brilliantly. And as they say in show biz, the secret is to leave them wanting more. Obviously this is recommended for fans of Smith, Mapplethorpe and the NYC art/punk scene, but by any standard this is an engrossing and moving book.

Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the ChristJesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ by Stephen J. Nichols

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As someone who has weathered the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition WWJD and the general politicization of Christianity in America – to include endless arguments over the religious beliefs and intentions of the Founding Fathers – I thought this sounded interesting: a cultural history of American Christianity with a focus on how Jesus has been interpreted (and re-interpreted) by Christians in different historical contexts through the years, though not always necessarily for the better. The book gives a good overview of how the Founding Fathers viewed Christianity, and how Jesus has evolved since then, from Frontier Jesus and Meek Mild Baby Jesus to Capitalism Jesus, Boyfriend Jesus, Music Industry Jesus, Hollywood Jesus, Political Jesus and Buddy Christ. It’s not an anti-Christian book – far from it, as Nichols is an evangelical theologian – so much as a historical reality check and the potential consequences of reducing Jesus to a bumper sticker slogan or a national mascot. On the downside, Nichols’ observations are rooted in his own theological POV – as such, he occasionally gets distracted either by (1) arguing with other theologians who have covered similar ground in the past or (2) spending time explaining why various trends are theologically flawed, and what evangelical Christian leaders should be doing to reverse them. The former may be of interest to other academics or theologians, but maybe not so much for the rest of us. The latter may be useful to Christians (or at least the ones who agree with Nichols), but is arguably out of place in what is supposed be a cultural history (albeit one written by an evangelical and aimed at a Christian audience, so maybe that comes with the territory). Overall, though, there’s enough interesting information here to warrant three stars.

RoomanitarianRoomanitarian by Henry Rollins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I should preface this by noting that I’ve been a fan of Rollins since I heard my first Black Flag album in the 1980s. I especially liked his spoken-word material, and I started reading his books in the early 90s when Tower Records started carrying them. It’s safe to say he was instrumental in getting me through my college years. I haven't read him for awhile now, and reading this book from 2005, it’s striking how much my outlook has changed, while Rollins is essentially still Rollins – unfiltered and unedited free-form negative prose that taps into the deepest darkest feelings of hate, loathing and loneliness we all harbor inside, with a healthy dose of ironic juvenile macho sex banter. Which is my way of saying I had a hard time getting into this – much of it doesn’t really resonate with me at 49 as it did when I was 24. Even the more focused politically-oriented material – including his fake love affair with Ann Coulter and his general hatred of the Bush II admin and everything it represented – is too over-the-top for me at times. Still, there’s some good stuff here that reminds me why his writing meant so much to me 25 years ago. Also, it’s fair to say that even back then, some of his stuff (Solipsist comes to mind) was too heavy for me. So while I’m only giving it two stars, that says more about me than it does about Rollins.

Market ForcesMarket Forces by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read Morgan’s Altered Carbon and liked it, so I was keen to try this tale of future corporate dystopia, in which financial corporations run the West and control the wealth. They make their money financing small wars in Third World countries, and executives compete for contracts (and promotions) via sanctioned and deadly car duels. The story follows Chris Faulkner, who makes the big time after being recruited to the Conflict Investments division of Shorn Associates, and the impact of Shorn’s corporate culture on his professional and personal life. In many ways this is a hard novel to like. There are few good guys, and Faulkner is not really one of them, unless you think ruthless ambition is more acceptable if it’s motivated by rage rather than greed. The constant rows with his wife Carla get tedious after awhile. Moreover, the basic premise requires a hell of a lot of suspension of disbelief, though it helps if you take it more as an allegory that follows the corporate ethics of select companies like (say) Halliburton and Enron to their extreme conclusions than a literal future prediction. That said, once you buy into the premise, Morgan does a good job making the daily details of a Conflict Investments business pretty convincing as well as compelling, with a well-paced storyline propelled by crackling dialogue. It may be too grim for some and too hard to swallow for others, but Market Forces is pretty good if yr prepared to meet the novel on its own terms.

New TaboosNew Taboos by John Shirley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another installment from PM Press’ Outspoken Authors series, this from one of the godfathers of cyberpunk, John Shirley, who I like. This volume includes a new novella, “A State Of Imprisonment”, which imagines a future where unregulated private prisons are the norm and just being in debt can get you locked up – or, in this case, being a nosy reporter. Shirley – never one to be shy about his political views – really sinks his teeth into the premise, which is mostly believable (though I’m not sure how or why a private prison would take up most of Arizona), and tells a pretty good tale. His essay “New Taboos” continues with the theme of corporate greed and general malfeasance, and suggests social ostracism as a solution. Also included is a nice Q&A, and a condensed version of a 2011 TED talk on his vision of the “Real Singularity” over the next 40 to 50 years. You may not agree with his political views, but Shirley is very good at connecting the socioeconomic/political dots, and throws some thought-provoking ideas out there on the grim future that awaits us, and what we might do about it.

Why We Can't WaitWhy We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read a section of this before (“Letter From A Birmingham Jail”) in a different collection of MLK’s writings, and of course I’ve heard a few of his speeches, so I was keen to read this book, which doubles as both an account of the direct-action campaign in Birmingham and a manifesto explaining why the civil rights movement was suddenly gaining steam in the early 1960s and why African Americans could no longer wait around for white people to put a stop to institutional racism. It’s a short read but one that demands your attention – King is a brilliant and compelling writer whose every word seems to matter. What’s also striking is how relevant this book still is, 50+ years after its publication, especially given current events. Which is not to say that the situation is the same, but that we’re hearing arguments on both sides these days that sound similar to what was being argued in 1963. This book shows how far America has come, and how far it has to go. Obviously, yr own opinion of this book may depend on yr political views, but for me, I think it should be required reading if you really want to try and understand why America’s race problem is so complicated.

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Don’t dream it’s over,

This is dF
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Well, that was a productive month, wasn’t it? Admittedly, a few of these were pretty short reads. Still, I think the lack of Thomas Pynchon helped considerably.

Skywriting by Word of Mouth and Other WritingsSkywriting by Word of Mouth and Other Writings by John Lennon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lennon’s “lost” novel (published six years after his death), combined with a few other short works, notably “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”, an autobiographical account of his relationship with Yoko Ono, how badly the British press treated them, and the break-up of the Beatles. As for Skywriting … itself, I haven’t read either of Lennon’s other two books (both published in the mid-60s), so I don’t know how this one compares. On its own merits, I can safely say that it is essentially 150+ pages of puns, one-liners, non-sequiturs and general non-sense wordplay. Plus cartoons. But in a good way! It’s basically Lennon’s imagination having fun with a typewriter, with a few recurring characters but otherwise no narrative thread at all. If you’ve heard The Goons (of whom Lennon was a big fan) or read Steve Martin’s Cruel Shoes, that should give you an idea. A lot of people may not have the patience for it, and it’s probably fair to say only someone like Lennon could get away with this kind of writing for that many pages (and it does start to wear thin near the end). But as someone who likes Lennon, the Goons and Cruel Shoes, I have to say I enjoyed this. For best results, I recommend taking it in the spirit in which it was written – good slightly-dirty fun not intended to be taken seriously by anyone, especially the author.

Freezer BurnFreezer Burn by Joe R. Lansdale

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was chuffed to have picked this up at a library book sale in the US, as I hadn’t come across any Joe R. Lansdale books for awhile. The story follows Bill Roberts, a luckless idiot on the run from the cops after a botched robbery who finds refuge in a traveling freak show carnival run by John Frost, the main attraction of which is the mysterious Ice Man. Enter Frost’s wife Gidget, an oversexed femme fatale who sees Bill as the answer to her problems. This is one grim affair on several levels, partly because of Lansdale’s over-the-top crude, puerile imagery (“… the day immediately became as hot and sticky as the crack of a fat man’s ass” pretty much sets the tone for the whole novel, while the sex scenes seem like they were written by a 15-year-old virgin), and the casual racism that comes from setting the story in East Texas. Also, the carny freaks – especially Conrad the dog-man – are actually fairly likeable compared to the non-freaks, particularly Bill and Gidget. It’s pretty depressing, and the ending isn’t very satisfying, especially regarding the mystery of the Ice Man. And yet … Lansdale still manages to weave a tale with believable characters that keeps you reading. It’s okay for what it is, but some of you may want to scrub yr brain with bleach after reading this.

Raising HellRaising Hell by Norman Spinrad

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

PM Press seems to have hit on what sounds like a winning formula: a series of short books from “outspoken authors” (many from the SF/F genre) with mostly all-new stories, essays and interviews. I generally like Spinrad, so this was a logical starting place. Included is the novella “Raising Hell” – in which union leaders in Hell convince demons to go on strike – and a supplemental essay on the state of America after the 2008 crash, its unsustainability and what could (maybe) be done about it. First things first: if yr political views veer anywhere to the right of center and you have zero tolerance for any viewpoint to your left – or if you simply don’t like it when authors wear their politics on their sleeves – don’t even bother picking this up. You’ll just want to throw it against a wall. For everyone else … Well, I won’t say the novella is Spinrad’s best work – the idea has been done before, the satire is a little too obvious, and Spinrad’s theological underpinnings are a little muddled. But as a thought exercise on free will it’s pretty entertaining. The essay is a little simplistic but well argued, even if you don’t happen to agree with his views. The closing interview is also worth a read. Overall, the book may be flawed and polemical, but dull it ain’t.

The Five Fists Of ScienceThe Five Fists Of Science by Matt Fraction

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Matt Fraction’s alt.history steampunk tale in which Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla hatch a plan to promote world peace by starting an arms technology race with giant automatons, while J.P. Morgan and Thomas Edison and hatch their own plan to release ancient horrors via dark magic and Guglielmo Marconi’s radio technology. It’s been unfairly compared to The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen – apart from the general time period and the technology, there’s not much resemblance (for one thing, LXG assembles fictional heroes, not real-life people). However, that’s also true in terms of quality. The Five Fists Of Science has some great ideas and some great scenes, especially between Twain and Tesla, but the overall idea is somewhat underdeveloped. That would be okay, except that the narrative is clunky at times, and not just because of Fraction’s script – Steven Sanders’ art looks great aesthetically, but doesn’t always make the action clear. This was conceived as a one-shot, but it may have worked better as a limited series with enough room to develop the story and characters. Great idea, shame about the execution.

Welcome to the Monkey House: The Special Edition: StoriesWelcome to the Monkey House: The Special Edition: Stories by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a classic collection of Vonnegut’s short stories, which cover a lot of the usual topical bases – dystopian sci-fi, war stories and general satire of contemporary life, to say nothing of the dictionary review. This edition also comes with an essay demonstrating how the title story evolved, draft by draft, to illustrate Vonnegut’s writing process (sort of the literary equivalent of a CD reissue of Led Zeppelin II that features 17 different takes of “Whole Lotta Love” – interesting if you like that sort of thing, maybe not so much if you care more about the finished product). Overall it’s a good anthology that illustrates Vonnegut’s ability to appeal across demographics – he could fit into Ladies Home Journal and Cosmopolitan as well as Galaxy Science Fiction. The only other thing I’ll add (and I mean this in a good way) is this: if Vonnegut was still alive and had written the title story today, no reputable magazine would publish it. They wouldn't dare.

Three Men In a BoatThree Men In a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Possible alternate title: The Big Book Of Tangents. I’d thought about trying this ages ago, but it took some namedropping by two authors I respect (Robert Heinlein and Connie Willis) to convince me to pick this up. As the title suggests, it’s about three buffoons (and a dog) who decide to spend a fortnight traveling up the Thames by skiff. Things go wrong. But the trip itself only takes up a small percentage of the book, and serves as a vehicle for the narrator to go off on all kinds of tangents on anecdotes of related satirical buffoonery. It also serves as a whimsical travelogue of the Thames, with lots of local legends and anecdotes. It says a lot that although this was published in 1889, a lot of the humor still holds up, provided you find British humor funny – or at least the vein of British humor usually associated with PG Wodehouse.

The Book of Imaginary BeingsThe Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve considered trying Borges in the past, and when I came across this book, I thought this was as good a place as any to start. As the title suggests, it’s a compendium of imaginary creatures that have appeared in works of literature and folk tales from all over the world. Most have some kind of mythological background, but Borges also includes a few from 20th century writers like Franz Kafka and CS Lewis. It’s not unlike reading the D&D Monster Manual, though actual D&D fans may be scandalized by its incompleteness, Borges’ cataloging system and a complete lack of information on how many hit points you need to kill them. It’s interesting if you like mythological creatures and folk legends about them, as well as getting an idea about their literary origins. I don’t know how representative it is of Borges’ other work, but I will try another of his books.

BrainquakeBrainquake by Samuel Fuller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Film fans may know Samuel Fuller via classic films like Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor and 40 Guns, but he also wrote crime novels, and this one – his last – was published only in French and Japanese. Leave it to Hard Case Crime to find it and publish it in English for the first time. The plot involves Mafia bagman Paul Page, who suffers from mysterious brain seizures but still gets the job done – until he falls for Michelle Troy, who ends up in trouble after her Mafia husband is killed and the people he owed money to expect her to cover his debts. The pace stutters at first, as Fuller tends to jam in each character’s backstory up front, which slows things down. But by the second half of the book the narrative kicks into high gear and more or less stays there. There are a few unnecessary distractions, and Fuller relies a little too much on coincidence in the third act, but otherwise it’s a decent character-driven story.

Papa’s got a brand new bagman,

This is dF
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Question of the day [via LJ’s Writer’s Block]:

I should preface my answer with the disclaimer that until recently, quitting a book was not an option for me. I had this concept embedded in my brain that if I pick up a book, I’m committed to finishing it. One big reason for that was that I usually buy books. So I always felt it would be a waste of money not to finish something I paid for.

This concept induced a lot of unnecessary suffering on my part. But at some point I got over it, and realized I was under no obligation to finish any book that just isn't working for me. That said, I try not to let that become an excuse to give up on any book that doesn’t click immediately. Some books do take a little effort to get into, and sometimes those turn out to be well worth the effort.

As for when I decide to quit a book, the criteria vary. According to my Goodreads profile, I’ve read 186 books since I joined at the start of 2013. I’ve quit five of them. Two of them were for pretentious wordiness – writers who seem to construct unnecessarily complex sentences with the apparent goal of showing how great they are at constructing complex sentences. Which is fine if it flows at a respectable pace, but not if it obscures what you’re actually trying to tell the reader and bogs everything down – all under the assumption that the reader has nothing better to do than admire your intellectual gymnastic wordplay. Which is why I won’t be reading Norman Mailer or David Foster Wallace ever again.

A related issue is wordiness in general – writers who aren't obviously trying to show off but still tend to write very dense prose that is like wading through molasses. I’m one of those people who believes that reading a book should be for enjoyment, not work (unless I’m reading a book for work purposes, like research, for example). If I have to spend half an hour on one page to figure out what the author is describing, I’m not enjoying the book, I’m working at it.

On the flip side, readable doesn't mean good. I have read a lot of bad books simply because they were very readable, which at least meant I wouldn’t have to spend much time getting through them. The Da Vinci Code comes to mind. Terrible book, but Dan Brown at least knows how to keep the pages turning.

Then there are books where I simply cannot identify with the characters or their actions. Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon is said to be an influential SF classic, but the characters seemed to be talking in non-sequiturs or lengthy philosophical expositions, and doing things that made no sense to me.

And once in awhile, I get a book that turns out to be something I didn’t expect to the point that it throws me off completely. I tried one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery anthologies, but instead of sleuth stories, they were more like vignettes where something happens that leads people to wrong conclusions, and Father Brown is the only one who knows what’s going on the whole time because he has a piece of information the other characters don’t. I can see getting away with that once, but with four or five stories in a row following the same formula, it seemed like cheating.

Obviously, in most cases the fault lies more with me than the author. I should also add that there are cases where I couldn’t finish a book the first time, but tried again later and enjoyed it.

One example is Berlin Game, Len Deighton’s first Bernard Samson spy novel. It was my first time trying Deighton, and I just couldn’t get into it. Later, I tried another Deighton book (Horse Underwater, from the Harry Palmer series) and loved it. After that, I tried Berlin Game again and ended up reading the entire series. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly – I suppose it’s a case of being in the right frame of mind to read a given story by a given author at a certain period of time. It’s kind of like how I didn’t enjoy reading many classic novels in high school because I wasn’t old enough to appreciate them. (And because my teacher often took the fun out of reading them.)

So some of the books that I put down, I may pick back up again someday. Which also makes it easier to put them down when they’re not working.

Put it down,

This is dF

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It was a slow month for reading. You can blame Thomas Pynchon for that. Details below.

The Human Division (Old Man's War, #5)The Human Division by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[POTENTIAL SERIES SPOILERS HERE] This is the fifth book in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. For those who don’t know, it started off as a digital publishing experiment between Scalzi and Tor to essentially create the print equivalent of a TV series – 13 standalone stories that also form a wider narrative arc, bookended by a two-hour “pilot” and a “series finale”. The premise: unable to keep using Earth as a farm for colonists and soldiers, the Colonial Union (CU) can no longer use brute military force to defend its colonies or fight the Conclave, an alien federation opposed to new colonies. That means diplomacy. The story follows a “B-Team” of diplomats who get the low-level diplomatic missions but always somehow manage to find trouble – not least since someone keeps sabotaging their missions. Like any episodic series, some episodes are stronger than others, but the weaker ones are few and far between. As both an experiment and a story idea, it works really well, with the side benefit of refreshing the OMW series. Scalzi also succeeds in populating it with a cast of likeable characters, even if they’re all a little too good at snappy American banter. There’s a second “season” already being released, with the book version due later this year. I’m looking forward to it.

Flashfire (Parker, #19)Flashfire by Richard Stark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the 19th book in the Parker series, and – if you didn’t know – the one that was made into the recent Jason Statham film. Parker pulls a job with a team who only afterwards inform him that the take is intended to finance an even bigger job – a jewelry heist in Palm Springs. When Parker refuses that job, they take his share anyway and promise to repay him later. Bad move. This is probably the most elaborate Parker caper of the series so far, as Parker’s plan to get his money back involves building up a cover identity as a Texas oil millionaire and displaying a level of role-playing and social engineering that has only really been hinted at in previous books. He also gets unexpected help from a real-estate agent who figures out his game and wants a share of the take. It’s a bit jarring to see Parker in role-playing mode, but Stark makes it convincing. The only weak part is Stark’s vignettes of Palm Springs’ hoi polloi, which is a little too stereotypical. But he weaves a great tale, giving Parker plenty to do and making him work for it. The film version isn’t bad, but the book is better.

VinelandVineland by Thomas Pynchon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve only tried Pynchon once before (The Crying Of Lot 49), and it didn’t make a big impression on me. But people have been namedropping him recently because of the film version of Inherent Vice, so I thought I’d try him again. I went with this, which is billed as a sort of political novel exploring the culture clash between 1960s hippies and the Reagan administration – with added ninjas, TV addicts, Star Trek jokes and crazed DEA agents. Which sounds great on the back of a book jacket, but in practice it’s a jumbled, meandering mess. Pynchon constantly wanders back and forth in time with no warning and goes off on the kinds of fantastic tangents where by the time he’s back on track you’ve completely forgotten what he was originally trying to tell you. It’s sort of like having someone on LSD write down the plot of a film he saw ten years ago in the order he remembers it and then not bothering to edit it later. It’s actually okay in places, and there was just enough here to convince me to finish it (or maybe at some point I decided to finish it out of spite). But I don’t think I’ll be trying Pynchon again.

A Blink of the Screen: Collected Short FictionA Blink of the Screen: Collected Short Fiction by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m off and on with Pratchett – I generally like him, but his books are ubiquitous enough that I’m not in a big hurry to read all of them. After his death earlier this year, I felt compelled to revisit his work, starting with this collection of short fiction and essays, dating back as far as his first published story when he was 13 years old. On the one hand, his early writing inevitably suffers in comparison to his more polished work later in his career. On the other hand, his talent was obvious even when he first started, and it’s interesting (for fans, anyway) to see his writing style evolve. It’s also interesting to see him do non-Discworld stories (there are some Discworld stories here, but they only take up the last third of the book). Overall it’s a decent and surprisingly diverse collection.

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