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Truly I am.

The Little Sister (Philip Marlowe, #5)The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is possibly the only Chandler book I haven’t yet read (not including anthologies), and one that leverages his writing experience with Hollywood to great effect. PI Philip Marlowe is hired by prim, mousy small-town girl Orfamay Quest to find her older brother, who moved to LA a couple of years ago and has recently vanished without a trace. Naturally, what seems like a straightforward job turns out to be vastly more complicated as bodies start piling up with ice picks stuck in their necks and Marlowe crosses paths with gangsters and rising movie star Mavis Weld. It’s all classic Chandler – booze, broads, Hollywood, mobsters, double crosses, blackmail, murder, Marlowe giving the cops a hard time – it’s all here, and even if it gets a little convoluted by the end, Chandler delivers the goods. Of course, he also delivers the sexism and casual bigotry of the era, although there’s relatively little of the latter in this one and is arguably deployed just so Marlowe can needle a character. Still, Chandler’s writing is pure poetry – there’s lots of great lines here, as well as a brilliant opening chapter.


The Grand Banks Caf (Maigret, #9)The Grand Banks Café by Georges Simenon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another early Maigret novel, and one that – like many of Simenon’s Maigret novels, it seems – takes place in a small town instead of Paris. This time, it’s the fishing village of Fécamp, where the captain of a fishing trawler has been killed upon returning from a disastrous three-month voyage. The accused killer, Le Clinche, is a former student of a professor who knows Maigret and who asks him to prove Le Clinche’s innocence. Maigret agrees, but the crew is uncooperative, and Le Clinche himself has something to hide, though it may not be what he’s accused of. I enjoyed this one – it’s full of vivid characters, and as always it’s fascinating to watch Maigret employ his method of getting to know the people involved to understand their motivations, which is often the missing piece of the puzzle. Simenon is generally brilliant at dissecting the human-nature element of crime, putting it at the center of the story in an economic style that doesn’t sacrifice pace for character insight.


The Tin AngelThe Tin Angel by Ron Goulart

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another Goulart book I haven’t read before – and one that’s a bit oddball even by his standards. The story involves a talkative cyborg dog named Bowser who is a big Hollywood star (and acts like one) and his agent Bert. The two are sent on a road show in Mexico to entertain troops fighting a civil war, but Bert uses the opportunity to look for a friend, TV journalist Pierre Hock, who has gone missing in the area whilst working secretively on a big story involving a planned assassination attempt on the President of the Western United States. So basically it’s the usual Goulart template of Protagonist bouncing from location to location meeting oddball characters who provide the info he needs, only with a wisecracking egotistical talking dog (albeit one who is more than he appears to be). Which should work, but I felt Goulart didn’t really pull this one off – there are some good scenes, but the set-up doesn’t quite work for me and I found Bowser more annoying than funny.


Round the Moon (Extraordinary Voyages, #7)Round the Moon by Jules Verne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

SLIGHT SPOILERS AHOY: This is the sequel to Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, which told the story of the Baltimore Gun Club’s attempt to literally shoot the moon with a bloody big cannon – initially with an artillery projectile, until French adventurer and poet Michel Ardan insists on riding inside it so he can explore the moon, after which it becomes a manned mission helmed by BGC president Barbican(e) and his rival Captain Nicholl. That novel left the fate of the three astronauts uncertain This novel basically ties up that loose end as we find out what happened to Barbican(e), Nicholl and Ardan, and – of course – their trip around the moon. Like most Verne novels, the storyline is basically an excuse for the main characters to discuss and do science, which Barbican(e), Nicholl and Ardan do plenty of, in order to figure out how the trip is going, why certain things go wrong, document what they see on the moon, and figure out a way back home. Like the first book, this one has the advantage of having a sense of humor thanks to Ardan, who serves as the romantic non-scientific counterpoint to Barbican(e) and Nicholl’s hardcore science chops (which is another way of saying he's there to ask the dumb questions so the scientists can talk science). And it’s also interesting to see just how ahead of his time Verne was in terms working out what a trip to the moon would involve (even if his 19th-century science turned out to understandably wrong on a few points). That said, it lacks some of the satirical aspects of its predecessor, and – I have to say – by its very existence ruins what was otherwise a brilliant ending to the first book. Still, I found it worth reading.

NOTE: I spelled it Barbican(e) because it’s spelled with an “e” in my edition of From The Earth To The Moon, and without the “e” in this one. I assume it’s a translation issue?


The Shockwave RiderThe Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve never read John Brunner before, and I confess the main motivation for starting here is the fact that this 1975 novel – in which Nickie Haflinger, an escapee from the mysterious Tarnover facility, uses a stolen code to hack computers and forge new IDs for himself to evade capture – is generally cited as an ancestor of the cyberpunk genre because it was one of the first SF novels to feature computer networks and hacking as a central concept. Obviously it’s hard to read this without comparing Brunner’s future vision with the internet as we know it today, but much of it is strikingly prophetic in terms of computer networks that provide an overload of mindless (and sometimes cruel) entertainment, gather information on people (personal details, bank info, medical records, work history, etc) and become so central to daily life as to make you vulnerable to attack (such as someone deciding to get petty revenge on you by going online and deleting your utility accounts, for example). That said, the book is more concerned with the kind of society such a system can (and should) enable, and whether the people who live the “plug-in” lifestyle have any real autonomy or are simply being manipulated. All of which is interesting – but Brunner’s future backdrop is somewhat jumbled and hard to follow at times, Haflinger is a bit too arrogant to be a likeable hero, and the bad guys (the govt) are of the typical one-dimensional type. Also, the story gets bogged down by Haflinger’s frequent intellectual arguments with his Tarnover interrogator, Paul Freeman, although admittedly they’re the most interesting part of the book. So all up, it’s okay but uneven. Credit where it’s due in terms of its place in SF genre history, but on its own merit, it didn’t make me want to read anything else by Brunner.

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Future shock,

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Reading teh books, writin’ teh reports yo.

I Sing The Body ElectricI Sing The Body Electric by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another classic Bradbury anthology I haven't read before. It's one of his more famous books, perhaps in part because the title track – about a widower whose family decides to purchase an electric grandmother – was originally written as an episode of The Twilight Zone. Actually, almost all of the stories here would have been at home with that TV series in some form or other, as Bradbury covers his usual territory – a time traveler looking for Ernest Hemingway, a couple whose child is a blue tentacled pyramid, a man who claims to be Charles Dickens, the last man on Mars who gets a phone call from himself, a clairvoyant chicken, a robot Abraham Lincoln, a house that doesn’t want to be inhabited, etc. A few of them are duds (by Bradbury standards, anyway), but even ones that tread old ground (like “The Lost City Of Mars”, where a group of people find said city, which traps them by appearing to be their own personal idea of paradise) are told so well that it’s hard to be too critical – although Bradbury’s tendency to wax lyrical occasionally overwhelms the narrative. And when he nails it, boy does he.


The Tombs of Atuan (The Earthsea Cycle, #2)The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second book in the Earthsea series, and while the protagonist of the first book (Sparrowhawk, a.k.a. Ged) plays a key part of the story, the focus is on Arha, who is taken while still a child (age 5) to be the high priestess to the "Nameless Ones" at the Tombs of Atuan. The first half of the story follows Arha as she grows up, learns her role and duties, learns about the vast underground labyrinth that is her domain and hers alone, and slowly starts to realize how isolated she is by her power (both in terms of getting along with other girls and dealing with the priestess Kossil who is jealous of her power) and how little she knows about the outside world, particularly wizards and magic. After she comes of age and assumes her full responsibilities, her world is shaken when she discovers a strange man (Ged) in the labyrinth attempting to steal one of its treasures. I confess the first half seemed to drag a bit, and it only gets interesting when Ged turns up, but only because the story really comes alive for me when Arha is forced to question what she’s been taught and what she believes, which wouldn't work if her early life had been glossed over quickly. It helps that Le Guin, as always, is a great writer who keeps things moving, and knows when to take a worn fantasy-genre trope and turn it on its ear – especially the ending. I would still rate Le Guin’s SF books higher, but I’m liking this series, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.


Modesty Blaise: The Lady Killers (Modesty Blaise (Graphic Novels))Modesty Blaise: The Lady Killers (Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another collection of Modesty Blaise strips (Volume 15 of the Titan reprints), this batch containing three story arcs from 1980-81, which also happen to be the first stories drawn by artist Neville Colvin. I admit jumping from Volume 1 (the previous collection I read) to Volume 15 invites some interesting contrasts – two of these stories are bit more whimsical than I’ve come to expect from Modesty Blaise (one involves dolphins, another features mad Commie scientists trying to convince Willie Garvin and British agent Maude Tiller that they’ve been shrunk to Lilliputian size). Still, it’s all good fun. Another interesting contrast: the strips got a lot racier by 1980, with the kind of gratuitous nudity and swearing you couldn’t get away with in an American daily strip. My only real complaint is Colvin’s art, which feels a bit loose at times, as if he was rushing to beat the deadline. Also included in this volume are all of the MB strips that appeared only in the Glasgow Evening Citizen newspaper in the UK and not the London Evening Standard (the strip was supposed to run in both papers simultaneously but it didn't always work out that way). Which is interesting, but the strips themselves are kind of pointless to read since they’re basically out-of-context excerpts from various story arcs across the strip’s 38-year run.


The Fire EaterThe Fire Eater by Ron Goulart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I’ve been revisiting Ron Goulart, here’s one of his novels I actually haven’t read before – what I believe is the first Barnum System novel, in which John Raker of Soldiers Of Fortune Inc is hired to investigate a series of strange assassinations taking place on Esmerelda, a backward planet where sorcery and magic are real. Someone is killing officials of the ruling League Of Statesmen by remotely setting them on fire. Raker’s mission: find the assassin(s), stop them, and if possible find out how they’re doing it. This one is a little different as Goulart plays around with the fantasy-world gimmick. That said, as with all of his novels, Goulart sticks to his basic narrative template: laconic hero carries out his mission and plays straight man to the eccentric and talkative secondary characters he encounters. And like most Goulart novels I’ve read, it’s fun, light entertainment – which is what I come to Goulart for, so it met my expectations.


What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of MarketsWhat Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In which Harvard professor Michael Sandel posits that the US (and much of the world, really) has evolved from a market economy to a market society under which, increasingly, many aspects of our lives are for sale: paying to jump a queue, paying children to read books or get good grades, prisoners paying for a cell upgrade, patients paying for a doctor’s cell phone number, buying a terminal patient’s life insurance policy, paying for the right to shoot an endangered black rhino, selling ad space on your forehead – the list goes on. And all of this is happening without any serious discussion about the moral implications of putting a price tag on everything, whether it’s a question of inequality and fairness (i.e. ability to pay) or corruption (i.e. diminished value). Sandel raises more questions than answers here, but they’re good questions, and that’s really the point – his argument is that despite what modern economists may claim, there are moral tradeoffs to becoming a market society, and we should stop and ask ourselves: are the tradeoffs worth it? Should we draw a line as to what is or isn't for sale, and if so, where should the line be? If nothing else, this book is a handy compendium of examples of what people are already buying and selling. I’d also recommend it for being a calm and well-reasoned (if slightly repetitive) argument rather than a typical and predictable anti-capitalist polemic.

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I'll buy that for a dollar,

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As you can see, I only finished two books this month, and as it happens I have a great excuse this time – I moved to a new flat this month on rather short notice, which ate into most of my available reading time. It’s hard to get much reading done when you have to pack an entire house in a week, move it and then unpack to the point that you don’t have 80 boxes of stuff in the middle of yr living room.

Still, I hope to get back to a more or less normal pace from this point on. Then again, I’ve been hoping for that for most of the year. Also, it’s been that kind of year when I literally didn’t know I’d be moving until around ten days before the actual moving date. So who knows?

Anyway, here’s what I got.

The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair by Graham Greene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At face value this isn’t the sort of story I usually read – man has affair with married woman, woman breaks it off suddenly with no explanation, man stews and obsesses, etc. But I like Grahame Greene a lot, and it was on sale at a book fair, so it seemed worth the risk. I needn’t have worried. Greene populates the story with vivid characters, and manages to build up suspense as the bitter narrator Bendrix becomes involved with ex-lover Sarah again, hires a detective to follow her, and inadvertently discovers the reason she dumped him. Greene makes it more interesting by exploring the duality of love and hate, not only between people but between humanity and God – a central theme here, as both Bendrix and Sarah try to convince themselves there’s no God, yet constantly petition Him and complain to Him, and receive indications that He is listening. It’s not nearly as mystical as all that, but it amounts to an interesting exploration of the difficulties of faith and why people resist it, or at least find it hard to reconcile faith with the broken world around us and our own desires. So there’s a lot more meat to it than yr typical love story, is what I’m saying.


Midnight RobberMidnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hopkinson’s Report from Planet Midnight convinced me to read some more of her work. This is her second novel, a blend of SF and Caribbean folklore, and one that turned out to be more challenging than I imagined, as it’s written entirely in a hybrid Creole vernacular, which isn’t impenetrable but does take some effort. That said, it serves the story well. The narrative follows Tan-Tan, a young girl on the planet Toussaint whose father Antonio escapes a murder trial by exiling himself to New Halfway Tree, a less civilized alternate-world version of Toussaint, and takes Tan-Tan with him, after which things get even worse when we find out just how monstrous Antonio really is. Tan-Tan copes with her ordeals by developing an alter-ego of sorts, the mythical Robber Queen, although that turns out not to be quite the set-up for a superhero-origin story that it sounds like on the book jacket. So the story didn't quite go the way I thought, but that’s not a bad thing. And Hopkinson’s vivid and complex characterization kept me locked in to the end.

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Midnight Special,

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And etc and so on and things of that nature generally.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the classic book by Neil Postman about the negative impact of television replacing print as the primary medium of public discourse, framed on the hook that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was a more accurate prophecy of future Western dystopia than George Orwell’s 1984 – that is, the biggest threat to autonomy and free thought isn't totalitarian strongarm govt suppression, but enabling endless amusement that encourages us not to think at all. It’s not the usual anti-TV tirade some people might expect – Postman’s target isn’t “junk” TV shows but “serious” shows that claim to be informative, intellectual and educational but aren’t – nor can they be, because the medium of television simply isn't designed for it. TV transforms news, education, religion and elections into dumbed down entertainment that converts knowledge into non-contextual useless trivia.

Naturally it’s tricky to read this with 30+ years of hindsight since its publication in 1985, not least since on-demand TV, the internet, smartphones and social media have changed how people watch and interact with TV. Even discounting that, Postman sometimes overstates his case a little, and some of his examples don’t quite work for me – particularly his criticism of Sesame Street. And yet, overall, when you look at the multimedia landscape today, he wasn’t wrong in terms of entertainment value rather than substance becoming the chief prerequisite of TV news, religion and election campaigns. One wonders what he would make of blogs, Twitter, and “tl;dr”. Anyway, I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to understand what we sacrificed when we embraced television as a cultural centerpiece. Even if it doesn’t answer all yr questions, it’s a great conversation-starter. (Also recommended: How to Watch TV News)


After Things Fell ApartAfter Things Fell Apart by Ron Goulart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another Ron Goulart novel that I read maybe 30 years ago and decided to re-read, and it’s one of his more acclaimed novels. The setting is a fragmented future America which, following a failed invasion by China, has devolved into packs of subcultures fighting for dominance – at least in California where the story takes place. This being Goulart, though, all of that is just a comic backdrop for a detective story in which Private Inquiry Office agent Jack Haley searches for Lady Day, a militant feminist outfit killing prominent officials in broad daylight. This book may be difficult for many people to like. It’s not serious, realistic speculative fiction, but rather the kind of oddball bare-bones 2D comic-book adventure that Goulart typically writes. Also, the story’s inclusion of casual racism, sexism and homophobia is going to put some people off, though it may help to know the book was published in 1970 when all three were prominent at a time when minorities, women and LGBTs were fighting for their civil liberties – Goulart’s America is a reflection of the social tensions at the time. Anyway, it’s a little different from Goulart’s usual stories in terms of setting, but otherwise for me it’s a typical Goulart romp – lightweight, but entertainingly madcap.


The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the WorldThe Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World by Harry Harrison

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve been aware of the Stainless Steel Rat series for a long time, but I was never really motivated to try it. My motivation for trying this one was driven partly by it being a cheap used copy, and partly by recently reading and liking Make Room! Make Room!. This is the third installment of the life and times of Slippery Jim diGriz, a master thief in the far-flung future who is recruited by Special Corps, an intergalactic law enforcement agency that recruits criminals like him. In this episode, someone has gone back in time to erase the Special Corps from existence, and diGriz must go back 32,000 years to the planet Dirt (or Earth, or something) circa 1975 to stop them. The story is textbook romp as diGriz adapts to mid-70s Earth society, hunts down the culprits, and encounters one obstacle after another as his plans don’t exactly pan out. It sounds like fun, and it’s meant to be, but I confess I didn't get much out of it. The time travel bits are clunky, the villain speaks comic-book dialogue, and diGriz himself is a bit too flip about the whole thing – or maybe not flip enough. I realize none of this is meant to be taken seriously, but I just felt Harrison wasn’t having as much fun with this as he could be – or at least not as much fun as I’d hoped. Which is my problem, of course, not his. And I don’t know how it compares to other books in the series – maybe this wasn’t a good one to start out with. I’d like to try more Harrison, but I’ll skip the other SSR books for now.


Invisible ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I remember wanting to read this in high school – until I realized it wasn’t about the Invisible Man from the horror movies, after which I lost interest. It might be as well, since – like a lot of classic lit – I probably wouldn’t have appreciated this at the time. But I can appreciate it now. The narrator of the story is invisible in the social sense, in that people refuse to see not only his reality as an African-American, but the reality of all African-Americans. From his early youth in the racist South to his college years and his migration to New York City where he becomes the Harlem spokesperson of “The Brotherhood” – a left-wing activist group promoting sociopolitical change (basically Marxists all in but name) – the nameless narrator deals with the issue of identity (personal, racial and political) as his illusions and expectations are shattered one by one. It’s a very intense book with a sympathetic if flawed main character – you want him to succeed and it hurts when he doesn’t. It's also absurdly funny at times. What’s really striking about reading this for the first time in a post-Ferguson world is that the Ferguson story is nothing new. It’s very old, and there are still people who refuse to even acknowledge this reality – as if the Mike Browns of the world are still invisible to them. Which makes this novel as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1952. Essential reading.

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You can’t see me,

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ITEM: Ron Charles, editor of WaPo’s Book World, has written an interesting column that argues that if you’re going to go with a literary analogy to describe the Trump era, forget 1984 – it’s really a lot more like King Lear.

It’s a good argument, and one we perhaps need, if only because it’s kind of lazy – not to mention inaccurate – to compare the Trump Dynasty to 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Man In The High Castle, which are the usual analogies I see.

(And I suspect the latter two are more because of the recent TV adaptations than the books on which they’re based – I can’t prove this but I’d bet five bucks that at least half the people who watch those shows and apply them to current events haven’t read the books.)

I realize many of these people are not saying that America has been literally transformed into the worlds described in those books – it’s a metaphor, a literary term which here means “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them”. When people point to books like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Man In The High Castle, they’re usually referring more to the mentality they perceive within the Trump admin and the GOP in general than any literal establishment of actual functioning totalitarianism (although some will argue that too, and they’re wrong, of course).

And sure, the books themselves are metaphors for the same mentalities that the authors were encountering at the time. But that doesn’t mean the metaphors translate seamlessly from one era to another. The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man In The High Castle take those metaphors to extremes as a way of saying, “Beware – this is how far these attitudes will take us if we let them.” And frankly, as bad as the Trump admin is, and as awful as some of his biggest fans are, we’re just not anywhere close to those worlds.

As for 1984, that’s been the go-to comparison for fascism probably since the book was first published. Yes, sure, as Ron Charles writes, we have Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts and Sean Spicer’s Ministry of Truth, perpetual war with an invisible overseas enemy that we are required to hate, etc. The key difference is that Oceania made it work through strict and absolute order. Look at the shambling chaos of Trump’s first few months in office – and the fact that at least half the country is perfectly aware of this – and the analogy falls apart.

King Lear, on the other hand, seems a much better fit:

The most prominent characteristic of our era is not the monolithic power of one party, but the erratic personality of one man. Every morning, all sides of the political establishment — his family and friends, along with “the haters and losers” — must contend with Trump’s zigzagging proclamations, his grandiose promises, his spasmodic attachments.

It's a good argument – so good you wonder why more people didn’t think of it.

The most likely answer, I would guess, is that far more people in the US have read 1984 than King Lear, or indeed anything by Shakespeare.

(DISCLAIMER: I’m not pointing fingers here – I’m guilty of that too. I have read Shakespeare and liked him, but I'm not a huge fan, and I generally preferred his comedies to his tragedies. And Lear is a tragedy. Much like the Trump admin. Forsooth!)

While we're at it, if you want a better non-Shakespearian literary metaphor for the Trump era, I would recommend It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, which also gets mentioned from time to time, though not nearly as much as the others, possibly because there’s no TV series or Hollywood film version of it. There, you’ve got Buzz Windrip, an authoritarian candidate and con man who wins the presidency on a campaign of fearmongering, xenophobia and a return to traditional American values and prosperity, and proceeds to turn the country into a fascist dictatorship – not in the name of ideological purity but simply to secure the power he desires to run the country the way he wants.

Obviously Trump hasn’t done that, and two reasons It Can’t Happen Here couldn’t happen today – not the way Lewis wrote it, anyway – is that (1) Trump has no paramilitary force to suppress dissent (sorry, white supremacist groups don’t count – they’re not paramilitary, they’re a bunch of yokels with guns, which is not the same thing by a long shot, no matter how much they may fantasize otherwise), and (2) the prevalence of mass media (to include social media) makes it impossible for Trump to fool the majority of people the majority of the time. Both of these were key ingredients to Windrip’s initial success – Trump has neither. All he has is the people who share his particular reality bubble, and reportedly that number is shrinking.

But anyway, I think It Can’t Happen Here is a better literary metaphor for current events than 1984 and the others listed above.

That said, an even better alt-metaphor to 1984 would be Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World, which – as Neil Postman argued in Amusing Ourselves To Death – argues that the dystopian future won’t be Big Brother cracking down on dissent but pervasive mass media entertainment and trivia dumbing us down into passive egotists who care a lot more about celebrity gossip than, say, how the healthcare system works.

I’d say we’re a lot closer to Huxley than Orwell right about now. But that’s not Trump-specific, of course – we’ve been on that road for decades.

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,

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Plodding along, but still reading.

Thieves' Carnival/the Jewel of Bas (Science Fiction Double, #22)Thieves' Carnival/the Jewel of Bas by Karen Haber

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a variant on Tor’s old Doubles idea (two short novels by different authors in one volume), in which they publish one classic SF story along with a new story featuring the same characters or world. In this case, Karen Haber wrote a prequel to a famed Leigh Brackett novella about Ciaran and Mouse, a minstrel and a thief who find out the legends of the sleeping god Bas aren’t just legends. I picked this up mainly because of Leigh Brackett, who I’ve wanted to read more of since I read The Long Tomorrow, which I liked a lot (and yes, she wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back). Rather than read them in chronological order, I read Brackett’s novella first because I wanted to see how it held up on its own without Haber setting it up for me. And … well, it’s not really for me. It’s basically that particular genre of SF that’s actually more like a fantasy story with a few tech-like elements, with a married couple that snipe wittily at each other a lot – neither of which is really my thing. (Neither are stories featuring minstrels, for that matter.) The Haber story – which is about how Ciaran and Mouse met after being paired up in a contest to steal a mysterious MacGuffin – is a bit more modern in style and fleshes out the characters a bit more than Brackett was able to do writing for the pulp magazines, but still. It’s not dreadful, but I wouldn’t recommend it, either.


The Gabriel Set-Up (Modesty Blaise Graphic Novel Titan #1)The Gabriel Set-Up by Peter O'Donnell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read many of the Modesty Blaise novels, but never the original comic strips, so coming across this was a treat. This is the first of a series of collections reprinting the original strips. This volume includes the first three Blaise adventures from 1963, as well as an origin story that appeared in 1966. The stories are pretty much what I’d expected – international espionage/adventure tales with former international crime lord Modesty and her lieutenant Willie Garvin coaxed out of retirement by British intelligence to fight bad guys. It’s good pulp fun that defies more clichés than it employs, and the art from Jim Holdaway really brings Modesty and her world to life quite well given the limited format of a daily strip. There’s also some nice bonus material on the origin of the strip, and a fascinating, rather moving essay from Peter O’Donnell about a 12-year-old Balkan refugee he encountered in Persia while serving in World War 2 that became the inspiration for the Modesty Blaise character.


The Gardener's Son: a screenplayThe Gardener's Son: a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Cormac McCarthy rarely writes screenplays, but this was his first, commissioned in 1976 for a PBS TV movie that aired in 1977. It’s a Southern Gothic take about a rich family that owns a mill (the Greggs) and a poor family employed at the mill (the McAvoys). At the center of the story is young Robert McAvoy, who lost a leg at the mill after an accident rumored to be caused by James Gregg, the ruthless son of the kindly mill owner. The story ultimately builds up to a confrontation between the two. I don’t normally read screenplays – as Warren Ellis has remarked here
(quoting someone else), screenplays are usually considered to be half a piece of art, so yr not reading a finished product, and yet screenplays can take on a literary form that stand on their own. I’m not sure this is the case here. Even taking into account McCarthy’s talent as a writer and the fact that this was his first attempt at a screenplay, this didn’t quite work for me – I haven't seen the film, but I suspect it works better as a completed work of art than the half a piece published here.

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Better homes and gardeners,

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Well, I sure didn’t get a lot of reading done this month, did I? Blame it on the fact that I was on the road for the first half of the month, and the fact that I was often too tired at night to do much reading, and I didn’t get much reading done on the flights there and back either.

Oh well, here’s what I have for you.

Mortal EnginesMortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an anthology of selected robot stories by Lem that had not yet been translated into English at the time the volume was compiled. Most of them are from Lem’s Fables for Robots, and indeed they’re written as fables – foolish kings, noble knights, duplicitous court advisors, damsels, monsters, quests, etc, but all of them set in robot worlds. There’s also two robot-themed stories featuring two recurring Lem characters (Ijon Tichy, who visits a sanatorium for insane robots, and Pirx the Pilot, who gets roped into a mission to hunt a rogue robot on the loose somewhere on Luna), and a surrealistic story about a shapeshifting insectoid robot assassin that falls in love with its target. It’s all good, really –highly imaginative, satirical and often funny. I like Lem a lot, and I really enjoyed reading this.


Wind/ Pinball: Two NovelsWind/ Pinball: Two Novels by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Technically this should count as two books towards my Reading Challenge, but then Haruki Murakami’s first two novels kind of go together as a single unit – partly because they predate what he considers the start of his pro career with A Wild Sheep Chase, and partly because they both follow the same trio of characters – the nameless narrator, the Rat and bar owner J. What readers make of them may depend on whether they prefer Murakami’s magic realism novels (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for example) or his relatively normal novels (like Norwegian Wood). These two are mainly the latter type, and for my money, Pinball, 1973 is the more satisfying of the two, mainly because of the pinball angle (though disappointingly there’s far less pinball than the title suggests). Hear The Wind Sing is alright but it's mostly the narrator and the Rat feeling alienated, drinking beer and talking about pop culture, with a doomed love affair mixed in. It’s hard to be too critical, since he was just starting out, and even then Murakami had style. But I tend to prefer his weirder books, and while Pinball, 1973 offers some surrealism by the third act, it’s such a shift in tone that it seems to come out of nowhere. Overall both books are okay, but I think they work better as bonus tracks than as an introduction to Murakami’s work.

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Sure plays mean pinball,

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Late again, but you would be too if you flew 17 hours to pull off a five-city road trip in America. Which I am doing. The jet lag just wore off, so:

Very Good, Jeeves (Jeeves, #4)Very Good, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my second time reading Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, and the experience this time was pretty similar to the last one – it’s lightweight but fun. The stories are pretty formulaic – upper-class twit Bertie Wooster and his friends or relatives are presented with some sort of social dilemma (“social” as in high society), sometimes of their own making, to which Bertie’s valet Jeeves usually provides a clever solution that no one else thought of. But as the saying goes, what a formula! And really, it’s not about the formula so much as the presentation – in this case, vivid dialogue-driven characterization and fast-paced wit generously spiked with not-so-subtle social satire. I really should read more Wodehouse than I do, and this may inspire me to do so, although I’d like to try some of his other books besides the Jeeves stories next time out.


Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? (All the Wrong Questions, #4)Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? by Lemony Snicket

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the fourth and final installment of Lemony Snicket’s All The Wrong Questions series, in which 13-year-old Snicket wraps up his mission in Stain’d-by-the-Sea to stop the mysterious villain Hangfire and his equally mysterious plot – although as usual, things don’t go as planned. In fact, they take a pretty dark turn here – partly because it’s a locked-room murder mystery (on a train!) and partly because Snicket typically laces his stories with darkness. In this case, he’s been hinting throughout the series that he’s been asking the wrong questions – and here we find out just how wrong he was, and how much a wrong decision can cost, no matter how good yr intentions. Despite leaving a couple of loose ends, overall it’s a consistent conclusion to a consistent series – a dark yet entertaining adventure.


For Your Eyes Only: James Bond 007For Your Eyes Only: James Bond 007 by Ian Fleming

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the eighth Bond book and the first to be an anthology of short stories rather than a full-length novel. I tried revisiting the Bond books with Casino Royale and I found it didn’t quite work for me, but I came across a clearance-sale copy of this and thought I’d try Bond in a short-story format to see if it worked better. Result: yeah, kind of. Fleming still manages to spend too much time on detailed descriptions of people, places and stuff, and the frankly imperialist/misogynist mindset of Bondworld doesn’t play well in 2017 (not with me, anyway – others may find it refreshingly non-PC). On the other hand, Bond is more thoughtful in these stories as he ponders the nature of his job. Still, it says a lot that the two stories that work best are the ones that actually mess with the formula, particularly “Quantum Of Solace”, a Somerset Maugham tribute in which Bond listens to his host tell the story of a doomed marriage. Fleming knew how to tell a tale, but I can’t say I was inspired enough to revisit Bondworld again.


The SundialThe Sundial by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my third time reading Ms Jackson, and at this rate I’d be forgiven for assuming that all of her books take place in elaborately large houses. However, there the similarity ends. This one is owned by the eccentric Halloran family, whose even more eccentric Aunt Fanny gets lost on the grounds one day and receives a prophetic vision from her late father: the world is going to end soon, and only those who stay inside the Halloran mansion will be spared. Once her sister, the matriarch Orianna Halloran, decides to take Fanny seriously (albeit for self-serving reasons), the novel essentially builds up the suspense around the central question (is the prophecy real, or is Aunt Fanny crazy?), but the real focus is on how the Hallorans, their two main servants – Essex and Miss Ogilvie – and a small number of houseguests make plans for the end, and how they relate to each other, as well as to the people in the nearby village. This being a Jackson novel, they don’t relate well. At all. It’s slightly confounding yet very compelling. It’s also unexpectedly funny, which helps to lighten what might otherwise be a grim family drama. Good characterization, good set-up, good suspense hook to keep you reading – I enjoyed it, yes.


The DoubleThe Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s been a long time since I last read Dostoyevsky, and I’ve seen some quotes of his floating around enough that I decided it was time to read some more of him. The Double may not have been the best place to revisit him – it’s a short but surreal tale about a government clerk named Goldyakin who is going mad (which here also seems to mean he’s a complete social maladroit whose tendency to commit faux pas is getting worse). As the title suggests, he encounters his doppelganger (also named Goldyakin) who is everything he’s not – confident, extroverted, etc – and ends up working in his department, and steadily taking over his life. That’s a simple synopsis of a scattered, jumbled narrative from the scattered, jumbled point of view of Goldyakin, which makes it a real challenge to read and understand – indeed, plenty of essays have been written about the book discussing what actually happens, what it all means, and whether the double is even real. Yet at the center of it all is a very strong character in Goldyakin – he may be crazy, but I ended up feeling sympathetic to him by the end. So while this was hard work, I didn’t come away empty-handed.

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Double down,

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I’m late, I know. I have an original excuse, though: I was sequestered in Barcelona all week committing acts of tech journalism pretty much from dawn to midnight for four straight days.

A Crime in Holland (Maigret #8)A Crime in Holland by Georges Simenon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the earlier Maigret novels, in which Maigret travels to the tiny Dutch town of Delfzijl to unofficially investigate the murder of a local professor, as one of the suspects is a French national. Maigret is handicapped not only by the fact that he speaks no Dutch, but also the town’s tight-knit community that looks after their own. In a way the story is somewhat pedestrian in terms of the small-town trope and the eventual solution to the crime (and a rather sexist one at that, although this was written in the early 1930s). And yet the way Simenon tells it that makes it captivating, with Maigret – always a fascinating character for me to watch – keeping it interesting as he tries to figure out what’s going on. It’s a bit slow at first, but once it kicks into gear it’s a page-turner.


The Case of the Counterfeit Eye (Perry Mason Mysteries)The Case of the Counterfeit Eye by Erle Stanley Gardner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read Erle Stanley Gardner once before but I’ve never read his Perry Mason books – which is remarkable since (1) I liked the TV show, and (2) my mom had a bunch of them on her bookshelf when I was a kid. Now that (somewhat hilariously) the American Bar Association is reprinting the Mason series, I decided it was time to try one. This is one of the earlier ones, which starts with a one-eyed client who claims someone stole his glass eye and he wants Mason to provide him with insurance in case the eye should be used to frame him – which is exactly what happens when wealthy businessman Harley Bassett is found dead with a glass eye in his palm and three guns near the body. The style is somewhat pulpish and occasionally cornball (such as when Mason introduces himself to people as “I'm Perry Mason, the lawyer”), and sometimes it’s unintentionally funny (honestly, almost everyone who comes to seek Mason’s services in this book seems to expect him to help them without confiding anything to him). And yet it’s pretty entertaining if you like dialogue-driven mysteries and courtroom drama (which I do) – it’s a fast-paced page-turner with solid characters, and while Mason’s strategy to win the case is pretty over-the-top, it’s an entertaining enough tale that it seems churlish to complain.


In the WetIn the Wet by Nevil Shute

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

My experience with Nevil Shute is limited to his post-apocalytic On the Beach, which I read ages ago and remember liking. So when I found this second-hand, I thought I’d try it. The jacket synopsis sounded promising: mysterious old man on his deathbed tells another man his life story which impossibly takes place 30 years in the future (circa 1983). But after about 100 pages I’d had enough. The “future” turns out to be concerned mainly with the political development of England and Australia and their subsequent relationship – and that’s it. It’s so mundane that if not for the jacket synopsis, at first you’d never know he was talking about future events unless you’re fairly well versed in Commonwealth political relations and democratic structures. And even then, you might think he was merely making things up, not talking about the future – it’s not until he mentions specific years that you realize something is up. And Shute’s fascination with political evolution comes at the expense of everything else – apart from democratic processes, societal norms and technologies seem to be the same in 1983 as they were in 1953. It doesn’t help that the old man – who is of mixed-race heritage – deliberately goes by a nickname that’s also a racial epithet (ostensibly to throw it in the face of anyone who might have a problem with his racial background, which is interesting, but still, it doesn’t translate well in 2017). Other people might get something out of this, but as speculative fiction goes, I found it both tedious and unconvincing.


The Moon Is DownThe Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short novel from John Steinbeck was actually written as WW2 propaganda for the victims of Occupied Europe. Which might normally be a turnoff for me, as I don’t have much patience for propaganda. But this is Steinbeck, who characteristically eschewed blatant patriotic stereotypes and guts-and-glory action in favor of a subtle humanist story about a small unnamed town taken over by an unnamed occupying force, and the psychological impact on both sides. There’s little action (most of it is “offstage”) and the basic message is two-fold: (1) when you take over a free country by force, the locals won’t thank you for it (apart from opportunists and traitors), and will inevitably fight back however they can, and (2) conversely, it’s no fun for the soldiers subjected to the paranoia of living in a town full of civilians that hate them and want to kill them. Steinbeck was pilloried by some American critics for the latter – what kind of propaganda portrays the enemy as humans with feelings? – but it's precisely what makes the story work, both as propaganda (it was a major underground success in occupied Europe, and even occupied China) and as a story that transcends its propagandist intentions with some uncomfortable truths about war, fascism, occupation and human nature. Which is also why the book (at least to me) resonates today. Most war propaganda is mired in the time and circumstances that produced it – at its core, The Moon Is Down is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1942. I’d recommend this edition of the book, which includes an afterword about the backstory, the controversy and how it inspired underground movements throughout occupied Europe.

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Do the propaganda,

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See? One month into 2017 and I only managed to get through three books.

I cut down my Goodreads Reading Challenge down to 42 books, and I’m already wondering if maybe that was too ambitious a target. Oh well.

Nigerians in SpaceNigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Debut novel from Deji Bryce Olukotun that isn’t quite what it seems at first glance. I found this in the science-fiction section of the bookstore, and the blurb suggests that it’s a fictional story about Nigeria attempting to kick off a space-flight program. In reality, it’s more of an international thriller with a few scientific elements. The narrative hops back and forth between 1993 and present day, following lunar geologist Wale Olufunmi, who steals a moon sample from NASA as a sign of commitment to the planned program, only to find himself stranded when his recruiter fails to show up, after which he discovers that other recruits are being killed. There are also subplots involving a not-so-smart South African abalone smuggler and a Zimbabwe woman with an unusual skin condition who searches for the man who betrayed her father and left her stuck in a Paris orphanage. So it’s not really about space at all –it’s more about the collision between dreams, good-intentioned idealism, and the hard reality of African political power struggles and corruption. The narrative framework that serves as the vehicle for this gets a bit clunky by the end and doesn't provide much resolution, leaving several unanswered questions. But there was still enough going on to keep me interested throughout.


The Annihilation Score (Laundry Files, #6)The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the sixth installment of the excellent Laundry Files (i.e. British agents vs Lovecraftian horrors), and the first to shift the narrative focus from Bob Howard to his wife, Dr Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, another Laundry operative tasked with carrying an evil, possessed violin that serves as a weapon against occult enemies, but at the cost of her sanity and increasingly her marriage to Bob. This book explores another consequence of rising paranormal activity around the world – last time it was vampires, this time it's people discovering they have superpowers and doing ill-advised things with them. And Mo ends up in charge of creating a government superhero team for the Home Office. But it’s not a superhero tale so much as it is about how British govt bureaucracy would go about dealing with an outbreak of superpowers, as well as a story about Mo coping with a crumbling marriage, overwork and a mid-life crisis in general – and all that on top of having to carry a demonic violin that’s trying to take control of her life. Some fans have complained about this one – either because they don’t like superheroes, or the feelings stuff is boring, or because Mo complains a lot and why can’t she be nicer – but overall I liked it, and I like that Stross tried something different here. That said, working a superhero trope into the Laundry universe is a bit of a stretch, though he does pull it off.


The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is Philip K Dick’s classic alternative history that imagines what life in America would be like if the Axis had won WW2. I read this sometime in the early 90s, but while I remember liking it, I didn't remember much about the story, and with many people taking a sudden interest in it these days – partly because of the TV adaptation, and partly because some people are citing it as a preview of the Trump admin (which I already discussed here, if yr interested) – I thought this was a good time to re-read it. I’m glad I did – this is one of PKD’s most coherent works that also provides a reasonably believable vision of America occupied by both Nazi Germany and Japan, as seen from the viewpoint of various characters. This being a PKD book, there’s also a lot of duplicity (agents, disguised Jews, political backstabbing, etc) and realities within realities, including a popular book that imagines what would have happened if the Allies won (albeit not in the way they did in real life), while there are hints here and there that none of what these people are experiencing is real at all. It's a challenging book at times, especially the ending, but I found it quite rewarding – not just in terms of the alternate history bits, but also how the story stays focused on the characters and their specific situations, and doesn't spend lots of time on the various atrocities and evils of the Nazi regime. He doesn't ignore them, but he doesn't exploit them in the name of melodrama, either.

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Even the losers,

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Way back in the early 90s, I read Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, his classic alternative history that imagines what life in America would be like if the Axis had won WW2.

Nowadays, it seems a lot of people are taking a sudden interest in the book – or at least the TV adaptation of it – in part because they think it's a preview of the Trump admin.

While I remember liking the book, I didn't remember much about the story. So I decided to re-read it to see if it really is a vision of what Trump’s America will be like.

In a word, no. Here’s why.

1. For a start, of course, the America in TMitHC has been split up between Germany (east coast) and Japan (west coast) as a result of winning WW2. So it’s not the same scenario as a POTUS rising to power and implementing a nationwide fascist regime identical to Nazi Germany.

2. Also, the story takes place in either the Japan-run West Coast or the neutral buffer zone in the Rocky Mountain states. So it’s more of a depiction of life in those areas rather than the Nazi-controlled East Coast and the South.

3. The book does mention what life in the Nazi section is like, and it is what you’d expect – no Jews, no blacks (apart from slaves, as slavery is back in style, much to the delight of the South), secret police, banned books, totalitarian fascism in general, etc. It also mentions some of the atrocities the Nazis have committed with their insane ideology (such as literally wiping out every black person in Africa).

4. However, I seriously doubt that any of these things will come to pass under a Trump admin. The fact that actual Nazis (who would love to see these things implemented) voted for Trump doesn’t count. Whatever you think about Trump’s proposed policies regarding Muslims and immigrants, and whatever fascist tendencies he may have regarding the media, law enforcement, violence at rallies, people who criticize him, etc, I really don’t think that life in America under his command is going to become the fascist totalitarian state that Nazi Germany was and that the east coast of TMitHC’s America is said to be. It won’t even be close.

5. Sure, a Trump admin is not likely to be pleasant, especially for Muslims, LGBTs, racial minorities, etc. In fact, one slightly accurate comparison is that in TMitHC, some American characters express sympathy with the Nazis in terms of anti-Semitism, racism, establishment of public order, etc. Those attitudes aren’t as prevalent today as they were in 1962 when the book was published, but they do still exist, even though the targets of bigotry may have shifted.

But as I’ve said elsewhere, (1) Trump is no Hitler, (2) an authoritarian leader does not equal an authoritarian state and (3) the majority of the country did not vote for him, and doesn’t support his most extreme policy ideas. Granted, many people may be indifferent to them, but I think that’s in part because they didn’t take his rhetoric seriously in the first place.

6. So overall, no, TMitHC isn't what Trump’s America will be like. It’s a lazy comparison by people who think Trump is literally a Nazi (or at least actual Nazis voted for him, which apparently is the exact same thing).

7. I should add that I have not seen the TV version of TMitHC, so I don’t know to what extent they run with the “life under Nazis” aspect. I mention this because I suspect some people referencing TMitHC as a Trump preview may be thinking of the show, not the book.

Stranger than fiction,

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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


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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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


CountdownCountdown by Deborah Wiles

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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


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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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


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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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


BullittBullitt by Robert L. Pike

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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


The Star DiariesThe Star Diaries by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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That’s a wrap,

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Recently we lost another bookstore chain in Hong Kong: Page One, whose home base is in Singapore. The last one in Singapore shut down last year. The last one here in Hong Kong shut down last month.

Last week, word circulated on the Facebooks that Page One was having a receivership sale in one of the old industrial warehouses in Kwai Hing, with 40% discounts on everything. Of course I had to go check it out.

Here's what I thought it would look like.



Here’s what it actually looked like.



It’s literally books and magazines piled randomly onto pallets, with barely enough aisle space to walk around even before you fill it with people.

Which explains the crowd-control queue out front when I arrived.



It was not a good experience. I enjoy scavenging for books, but it’s a drag when there’s no logic or order, most of the books are buried and the venue is really crowded, so you basically end up skimming the tops of the piles and go for pot luck.

My expectations weren’t just set by the flyer photo. Years ago, when Borders closed shop in Singapore, I was lucky enough to be in town when they had a similar clearance sale in a rented warehouse space. All the books were arranged in boxes with the spines facing up so you could at least see what they were. They weren’t organized by category, but you could at least see what was available.

That wasn’t the case here.

Anyway, I was damned if I was going to go all the way to Kwai Hing, brave the crowd and come away empty-handed.

So here’s my booty.



The one about Kim Jong Il is actually one I’ve wanted to read for awhile. I’ve read Priest and McCarthy before, but I’ve never read Umberto Eco, and while I do plan to read The Name Of the Rose next year, I thought this book of essays might be worthwhile.

Living in chaos,

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My daily routine has changed thanks to a new job, so I’m still working out where the all the previous reading time fits into the new schedule. Still, I did get some reading done. Which is good news for the book report fans out there.

MatildaMatilda by Roald Dahl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roald Dahl’s classic kids’ novel about five-year-old genius Matilda Wormwood, who lives with her rotten parents and deals with their rottenness by playing pranks on them. Once she starts school, she is pitted against the vicious and abusive headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who is clearly insane and hates kids. Like many Dahl classics, this book is top-loaded with dark but cartoonish humor and heavy satire that takes a very dim view of both bullying headmasters and parents who don't appreciate how exceptional their kids are (to say nothing of used car salesmen). Even the over-the-top punishments meted out by Miss Trunchbull serve to make a point about how some people manage to get away with outrageous behavior. It’s a bit much at times, but otherwise it’s a well-told tale that deserves its reputation as a classic.


Quicker Than the EyeQuicker Than the Eye by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a mid-90s anthology of 21 short stories, some of which appeared previously in magazines, with the remainder exclusive to this collection. Bradbury covers a lot of his usual territory – sci-fi, the supernatural, sentimental American nostalgia, dystopian futures, murder, literary tributes and surrealist fantasy. Inevitably, even the best stuff here will get compared to Bradbury’s classic stories and perhaps come up short for many readers. But there are a number of gems here – an apartment complex haunted by the ghosts of Laurel and Hardy, an octogenarian couple gleefully trying to kill each other, an explanation of why people build cities in disaster-prone areas, and a closet connecting parallel worlds, among others. Not everything works perfectly, but for my money, this collection demonstrates that even this late in his career, Bradbury still had the ability to tell a good page-turning tale, and tell it well.


Zero HistoryZero History by William Gibson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the final installment in Gibson’s “Blue Ant” trilogy, which – as is tradition for Gibson trilogies – brings together characters from the first two novels, although the balance here skews more heavily to the second book, Spook Country. That book’s protagonist, ex-indie rock singer Hollis Henry, returns as she is once again hired by mysterious Blue Ant chief Hubertus Bigend – this time, to track down a mysterious designer who makes secret-branded denim clothing. Bigend also hires Milgrim – another Spook Country character, fresh out of an experimental rehab program – to perform industrial espionage. The objective in both cases is the same – giving Blue Ant an edge in winning a govt contract to design military uniforms (which are in turn a leading indicator of fashion design trends, it seems). Things get complicated when a couple of Blue Ant employees defect to another bidder who doesn’t appreciate the competition. At first I had trouble grasping the idea that the marketing and fashion industries are full of this much danger and intrigue. But Gibson makes it work – possibly because, when I think about it, he has always written about the intersection of art, corporate culture, government power, fashion, and technology, but the art/fashion/culture aspects are more obvious when he uses a contemporary setting rather than a futuristic cyberpunk dystopia. Anyway, although Gibson pushes his luck a little by the third act, Zero History is for me the most satisfying episode of the series – perhaps because I’ve learned to recognize the underground territory he’s mapping out here. And it's strangely interesting territory.


The Elephant in the RoomThe Elephant in the Room by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short Kindle-Single follow-up of sorts to Jon Ronson’s Them: Adventures with Extremists, which was published in 2000 and featured, among other extremists, Infowars’ Alex Jones, who at the time wasn’t really well-known outside of fringe conspiracy theory circles. These days, Jones is a national figure as one of the voices of the “alt-right” movement driving Donald Trump’s presidential run – Trump is on record as a fan of Jones, who arguably started the whole “Hillary For Prison” meme. Ronson reconnected with Jones at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in hopes of accessing Trump. He didn’t, but Ronson did spend time with Jones, Trump advisor Roger Stone and alt-right Trump fans – and this is the result. Like everything else related to the election, your opinion of this will largely depend on how hardcore and partisan your political views are and how much what Ronson wrote differs from what you wanted him to write. Personally, I liked it – as with Them!, Ronson has an uncanny and important ability to get to the humanity of his subjects without painting them as conveniently 2D caricatures of pure evil. (In fact, Ronson argues that the Left has inadvertently empowered and galvanized the alt-right in part by doing just that.) At under 50 pages it’s not comprehensive by any means, but it’s a good snapshot of the influence of the alt-right on Trump’s campaign and the chaos and madness that has manifested on both sides of the aisle.

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Not alt-right in the head,

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Book report time, y’all.

In the Heat of the NightIn the Heat of the Night by John Dudley Ball

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first of seven detective novels to feature Virgil Tibbs, whom most people probably know mainly from the film version of this book (or maybe the TV series based on it). Odds are you know the basics: Tibbs is passing through a small segregated Southern town when as a man is found murdered. Initially a suspect, Tibbs is roped into solving the case against the wishes of recently hired racist police chief Bill Gillespie on the grounds that Tibbs is a cop with more homicide experience than Gillespie. Unsurprisingly, the story focuses as much on the drama between Tibbs and Gillespie and the racist context as it does on the murder mystery itself. It’s interesting to me that Tibbs is a lot more calm and soft-spoken in print than he was portrayed in the film by Sidney Poitier – so much so that he almost seems like a secondary character to Gillespie, who spends much of the book struggling with the idea that a black man is more educated and experienced than he is. In fact, Gillespie is the more interesting character here, with Tibbs mainly serving as a catalyst for him to rethink his prejudices. John Ball’s writing style is occasionally clunky, but overall he tells a good story. Here’s hoping other Tibbs novels are in print, because I’d like to check them out.


Labyrinths:  Selected Stories and Other WritingsLabyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges is one of those authors that gets namedropped by enough authors I respect that I figured I was going to have to try him one of these days. And I did with The Book of Imaginary Beings, which was interesting enough to convince me to try Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, his most famous collection of short fiction and essays. And I’m sorry, but after almost a month of trying to get into it, I’m giving up. I’ll admit up front that the problem is me, not him. The first few stories are packed with interesting concepts, but his tendency to express them as almost whimsical philosophical ruminations makes it difficult for me to grasp the concept he’s trying to get across, the result being that by the time I get to the end of each piece, I’m not really sure what I just read. Again, this is likely more to do with my aging brain and recent lack of sleep – it could be I need to be in the right mindset to read Borges. So in fairness I’ll skip the rating and put it on the “Gave Up” shelf. Maybe I’ll return to it when I’m better rested.


Thieves Fall Out (Hard Case Crime)Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Gore Vidal is known mostly for his literary and historical novels. But he also wrote some pseudonymous crime fiction in the 50s, most of which has since been reprinted under his own name – except for this novel (the only one he wrote using the pen name Cameron Kay), which was recently republished by Hard Case Crime. The story involves Peter Wells, a down-on-his-luck American in Cairo who is recruited by a sexy ex-Nazi to smuggle a valuable MacGuffin out of the country – which won’t be easy as revolution brews around them and it seems other parties want the MacGuffin for themselves, to include a corrupt cop. It’s well written enough to be a quick read, but overall it’s not all that original or interesting, and Wells isn’t especially likeable. The main attraction for many may be just seeing Vidal write pulp fiction instead of intellectual American history novels. But even Vidal didn’t like it much, and didn’t want it republished when he was alive. Reading it now, I can see why.


Resume SpeedResume Speed by Lawrence Block

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading Lawrence Block’s books for over 30 years now, and this novella is a compact masterclass illustrating why. The basic concept is a well-worn one in crime fiction – drifter with a dark, mysterious past tries a fresh start on life in a new town, but his past catches up with him. But it's how you tell it, and Block tells it so well, with the crisp economical narrative style and dialogue typical of his work, and brilliant pacing. As Bill Thompson settles in Cross Creek, Montana, the tension builds not from what he does so much as the slow reveal of what he’s done and what he’s trying to avoid doing again. It’s gripping, page-turning stuff, and deeper than it appears at first glance. Resume Speed is a miniature character study of how humans sometimes seek redemption and a second chance, but just can’t seem to attain it – even when it’s placed right in front of them – because they’re running away from their own guilt over transgressions real and imagined. All that and a cracking good story in 21,000 words.


Changing PlanesChanging Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short story collection with a unified theme woven around the concept that airports are generally terrible, and that if you are sufficiently exhausted, bored and full of bad airport food – and if you know the right technique – you can literally leave this plane of existence and visit thousands of other planes as a tourist, spending weeks traveling to different planes while perhaps just minutes pass by in the airport. Each chapter covers a different world with a different civilization populated by humans, humanoids and/or assorted creatures, with the stories covering key historical or social aspects of that culture that also reflect Earth culture, so in that sense it serves a satirical travelogue of cultures that share dreams, or never speak, or engage in extreme genetic engineering, or for whom anger is the default emotion, etc. There’s also a common theme of how difficult it is for travelers to understand cultures foreign to their own and the misunderstandings that can result. If you can get your head around the basic concept of plane travel (which does require some suspension of disbelief), it’s an enjoyable and thoughtful collection of stories, rich in variety and told with Le Guin’s typical storytelling flair seasoned with more dry humor than I’ve encountered in her other works so far.

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On a plane,

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Cranking out the book reports, Jim.

The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (Maigret, #4)The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien by Georges Simenon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was excited when Penguin started reprinting all of George Simenon’s Maigret novels, but the first in the series, Pietr the Latvian, indicated that the early Maigret novels were somewhat unpolished compared to the later novels where Maigret had matured as a character. I needn’t have worried – this fourth novel is classic Maigret, where the focus is more on the psychology of the characters than pulp detective action. The story begins when Maigret follows a man acting suspiciously and inadvertently causes him to commit suicide in a hotel room in Brussels. Determined to find out why, Maigret investigates and soon finds himself hounded by Joseph Van Damme, a successful businessman with no obvious connection to the case yet a little too interested in what Maigret does or doesn’t know. It’s an interesting and concise story, but the main appeal for me is in watching Maigret work – his doggedness, and his Columbo-like ability to both annoy his suspects and play dumb to the point that they underestimate him.


ISIS: The State of TerrorISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are plenty of books out now about Islamic State (or ISIS), most of them naturally out of date (this being an ongoing story) and many of them politically motivated. This one has a more academic approach, and covers a lot of bases: how and why ISIS came into being, how it operates, the context in which it operates, its innovative use of social media, and what it ultimately wants to achieve. Understanding all of this, the authors argue, is key in developing the most effective strategy to dealing with ISIS, with the caveat that even under the best of conditions, it’s going to take generations. (Put another way, it’s not the kind of problem that can be solved in a single presidential term.) Obviously, what other readers make of this book may depend on their specific political views about terrorism and radical Islam. For me, I found it very educational – I feel I have a better handle on the ISIS problem, and I agree with the authors’ view that history and context matter; complex problems require complex, nuanced solutions; and that we can’t beat terrorism by allowing ourselves to be terrorized to the point of stooping to their level of ruthless violence and simplistic worldviews. The text gets a little repetitive at times (due to different chapters covering parallel aspects of ISIS’ development), but overall I’d recommend this to anyone who wants a better understanding of ISIS and the scope of the problem – because they're sure not going to get it from American cable TV news.


The WitchesThe Witches by Roald Dahl

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t read Dahl as much as I probably should, because I’ve generally liked what I’ve read by him so far. I’m trying to correct that, starting with this classic and controversial story of a young boy whose Norwegian grandmother teaches him everything there is to know about witches, which comes in handy after he finds himself trapped in a hotel ballroom full of them. Two things struck me upon reading this: (1) just how brilliant Dahl is at telling stories, and (2) the fact that in the 1980s (when this was published) you could still get away (barely) with the stuff Dahl gets away with here in what is ostensibly a children’s book – especially the ending, which is a bit unsettling, given the relatively lighthearted tone of the rest of the book. Still, I guess that’s to be expected from a writer who traded in … well, the unexpected.



The Puppet MastersThe Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After reading The Body Snatchers, it made sense to follow up with Robert Heinlein’s version of the “aliens-possessing-humans-as-Cold-War-metaphor” story, not least since Heinlein wrote this several years earlier. A secret govt agency investigates a UFO sighting in Des Moines and discovers that slug-like alien parasites are attaching themselves to humans to take control of them. In some ways this is better than Jack Finney’s take – for one thing, for all his old-fashioned sexism, Heinlein writes better female characters than Finney did. And Heinlein is generally good at keeping you turning the pages and introducing neat story twists, as well as framing the action within a kind of institutional reality (i.e. the agents spend as much time fighting govt bureaucracy and Congressional politics as the actual aliens). On the other hand, narrator Sam Cavanaugh is a tiresome mix of red-blooded American machismo, overbaked melodrama and indignant outrage – the kind of character that Heinlein is a little too good at writing. Also, while the storyline intentionally pits the reality of back-riding aliens against American puritanical morality, the results are often so over the top that it’s unintentionally funny at times (at least I assume it’s unintentional). In that sense, it’s easier to appreciate if you enjoy low-budget B-movies and don’t take it seriously. It's not terrible by any means, but as RAH books go, this was a little too OTT for my taste.


The Book of Phoenix (Who Fears Death, #0.1)The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book – a prequel to Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death (which I haven’t read yet, though I’m assured reading order is irrelevant) – tells the tale of Phoenix, a genetically altered woman living in one of seven towers run by an R&D corporation known as the “Big Eye”. She’s happy there until she’s told her boyfriend Saeed committed suicide after seeing something he wasn’t supposed to see. Then all hell breaks loose – literally – as Phoenix escapes, sprouts wings and learns to use her power to generate sun-like heat to the point of being able to rise from her own ashes. As she learns the true horrors of the Big Eye’s experiments, she becomes an angel of vengeance on an increasingly epic scale. It’s a mind-bending mashup of dystopian SF, superhero comics, mythology and mystic folklore. It’s also a stunningly angry book – Phoenix’s rage against the racist greed and corruption of Big Eye (and the society that turns a blind eye to it all) radiates off the page – and yet Okorafor masterfully expresses Phoenix’s anger without devolving into clichéd polemics and slogans. A couple of scenes take dramatic license a little too far for my taste, and the bits about time travel don’t quite work for me (more in terms of how it’s used rather than how it works). But overall it’s a gripping, imaginative and well-written story.

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Burn baby burn,

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Whittling down that “to read” pile one book at a time (or two books at a time, really, but it’s getting smaller, is the point …):

The Rhesus Chart (Laundry Files, #5)The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fifth novel in the Laundry Files series (in which a secret British intelligence agency is all that stands between humanity and death by Cthulhu) sees protagonist agent Bob Howard accidentally discovering a nest of vampires in the high-frequency trading division of a merchant bank – despite the apparent official Laundry position that vampires do not exist. Stross has a lot of fun with this one – not just in determining how vampirism would work within the context of the Laundry’s applied computational demonology, but also in terms of how the Laundry (which is at heart a civil-service bureaucracy) would deal with them. Of course, there is more to this sudden outbreak of vampirism than meets the eye, and Bob’s investigation results in a shocking climax I can’t really comment on more without giving away the ballgame. The one downside is that the prose seems a little repetitive – which seems to be more for the benefit of new readers just starting the series, rather than long-time fans who understand how the Laundry universe works. But that’s a minor complaint – this is another satisfying entry in a series that has yet to get stale. And the next instalment is already in my to-read pile.


The Body SnatchersThe Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve seen the films (the first two, that is) but never read the novel until now. Of course you probably know the basics – Dr Miles Bennell in Santa Mira, CA starts hearing from patients that their relatives are not who they appear to be, and discovers that alien pods are duplicating people with the aim of taking over the planet. As a concept, The Body Snatchers is a classic staple of paranoid alien-invasion SF. As a novel, it’s seriously flawed in places – namely the tendency of Dr Bennell to have revelations from out of nowhere or react to a situation in ways that make no real sense (to include being preoccupied with his budding romance with Becky Driscoll, which serves no real purpose apart from giving him a damsel to rescue). Also, the climax (which is different from the films) isn’t very convincing. Yet the set-up is quite good and some of the scenes focusing on the paranoia of the situation are really gripping and believable. Overall it's a rather uneven novel: sometimes effective, sometimes ridiculous. Great idea, though.


Rumor, Fear and the Madness of CrowdsRumor, Fear and the Madness of Crowds by J.P. Chaplin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

William Gibson namechecked this book on Twitter awhile back, so I decided to check it out. Published in 1959, it’s meant to be an academic study of examples of mass hysteria in the US, including the Red Scare of 1919, McCarthyism, the War Of The Worlds broadcast, apocalypse preachers, UFO sightings and distraught Rudolph Valentino fans, among others. But there’s not much in-depth analysis of each event, and some of them really qualify more as examples of mass gullibility and pranks than hysteria. Also, J.P. Chaplin’s writing style isn’t exactly accessible. That said, it’s an interesting collection of anecdotes that manages by the end to make a larger point: (1) most of these events took place in the context of general fear and uncertainty over local, national and global events (i.e. both World Wars, the Cold War, anarchist bombings, sensationalist media, etc), (2) that fear and uncertainty is what makes us vulnerable to exploitation by demagogues and charlatans, and (3) the key is to understand those fears, what drives them and how to address them – because if we don’t, our enemies will. Given current events, I’d say he had a point.


The Bridge Over the River KwaiThe Bridge Over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first thing to mention is that I haven’t seen the film. The second thing to mention is that it’s a challenging book to read in 2016 because of the inherent racism in the narrative. The anti-Japanese sentiment is to be expected from an early 50s WW2 novel written by an author who was a POW in Asia (albeit under the Vichy French, not the Japanese), but the premise of the British POWs – led by Col. Nicholson – that Anglo-Saxon civilization is superior to Oriental civilization comes across as self-satisfyingly smug. On the other hand, Nicholson was meant to be satirical of British snobbery, so perhaps Boulle was also satirizing that mentality (the opening chapter suggests as much). Anyway, when you get past the racist stuff, what you have is a very tight, suspense-filled page-turner that spends as much time on the inner thoughts of the characters as it does on the action (as well as the technical details on how to blow up a bridge). It also highlights the horrible conditions POWs were forced to work under to build the railway (which did happen, though the story and characters are fictional), without dwelling on it or resorting to melodrama. The narrative gets somewhat unfocused by the end, but not to the point of derailing itself (so to speak).

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Take it to the bridge,

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Books and books and books and books and books!

ScrewjackScrewjack by Hunter S. Thompson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One of the few HST books I haven’t read yet, mainly due to economics – I couldn’t see paying the full trade-paperback price for a 60-page book with three short pieces. Finally I got a cheap copy, and I have to say it was worthwhile only in that it was a fast way to put me another book ahead in my 2016 Reading Challenge. The first story, “Mescalito” – about his first experience with mescaline – is actually classic HST, but it also appears in Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream, so if you have that you don’t need this. The other two stories are slivers of flash fiction that are visceral but not necessarily in a good way, although even here HST’s writing style remains a joy for me. But I can get it elsewhere and in better quality. By no means essential.


Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (Secret File, #7)Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy by Len Deighton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(NOTE: My copy is entitled Catch A Falling Spy, which is the US title for the same book.) Like Spy Story, this is another of Deighton’s “nameless hero” novels that isn’t about Harry Palmer. It may not even be the same guy in in Spy Story, but it arguably doesn't matter since the main focus of the book is CIA agent Major Mickey Mann, who is working with the unnamed British agent to aid in the defection of Andrei Bekuv, a Russian scientist searching the skies for alien life who may know who is leaking classified US science documents to the Kremlin. Naturally, what appears to be a simple defection operation turns out to be something far more complicated and devious as Bekuv’s wife is also brought over and Mann and the narrating British agent chase clues on the leak that take them across the globe. Like Spy Story, it pales in comparison to the Palmer novels and the Bernard Samson series, but it’s an entertaining espionage tale nonetheless.


Walden and Other WritingsWalden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thoreau gets name-dropped so often in my circle of friends and in other books I’ve read that I finally decided to read him. This collection has the important stuff – “Walden”, “Civil Disobedience” and “Life Without Principle”, as well as some other writings. And sorry, but most of it didn’t really register with me. The reason has less to do with whether I agree or disagree with his overall philosophy, and more to do with the fact that much of it seems even less relevant in 2016 than it reputedly did in the 1800s when his writings were first published – at least to me. There’s good advice here and there – and his argument that the daily newspapers are a waste of man’s intellect seems particularly prescient today – but as a life template there’s not much here for me. Even if I just take it as a straight document of Thoreau’s philosophical outlook and his Walden experiment, it’s a tough read, as his writing does have a tendency to wander off on grand, sweeping and arguably self-absorbed tangents, although he also has an uncanny ability to rope you back in with a brilliant sentence or observation. So I’m not saying it’s undeserving in its reputation as a classic work of literature, but I found it to be more rambling, pretentious and impractical than inspiring.


The Gospel According to PeanutsThe Gospel According to Peanuts by Robert L. Short

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I remember checking this out of the library when I was a kid, but I mainly just read the comics. Which is just as well, as the actual text – in which Robert Short explores how the Peanuts strips reflect key themes in the Gospels – would have been over my head. The Peanuts/Christianity link isn’t that big a stretch – Charles Schulz was a devout Christian whose faith played a key part in the strip’s overall theme, although never really to the point of hitting people over the head with it – so it’s not a case of Short trying to read too much into it. However, Short’s prose is a little difficult to keep up with at times, and overall I think he’s more convincing when he’s arguing that art (even comics) is a great way to convey truth indirectly to a given audience rather than arguing that Christianity and comedy have a lot in common. But that’s just me. As a thought experiment it’s very interesting. And even if you don’t buy the book’s premise, you get a lot of classic Peanuts strips for yr money. One point: this particular edition has some really bad formatting issues where the text sometimes doesn’t quite match the cartoons, and in one case cuts off the last few lines of the chapter completely. So I’d recommend getting a different edition from this one.


The Twilight Zone: The Midnight SunThe Twilight Zone: The Midnight Sun by Mark Kneece

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came across this on sale in a children’s book store in my village – it’s one of a series of nine graphic novels from Walker Books adapted from select episodes of The Twilight Zone, authorized by Carol Serling and using the original scripts written by Rod Serling. In this episode, in which the Earth is getting hotter as it slowly orbits into the sun, artist Norma and her landlady Mrs Bronson struggle to survive as society collapses around them. Mark Kneece takes a couple of liberties with the story – mainly by adding a scene deleted from the original script and also imagining the visuals (illustrated by Anthony Spay) as though Serling had had the necessary budget at the time. I wouldn't say it adds anything to the original TV version (apart from the deleted scene), but in any case it’s a good story and a decent adaptation that Serling fans should appreciate.


The Man With The Golden ArmThe Man With The Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First of all, forget about the Sinatra film, because that version bears little resemblance to the source. Algren’s story of heroin addict Frankie Machine, who makes a living dealing cards at illegal poker games, is a grim portrait of drunks, shoplifters and lowlifes in a Chicago slum. Similar to Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side, Frankie serves more as a centerpiece for Algren to showcase the variety of characters that populate his world, and wax lyrical about their dehumanized existence. Crucially, Algren pulls off a remarkable balancing act, sympathizing with his characters without glamorizing or making excuses for them, railing against the rigged system that beats people down yet holding them accountable for their own failings. Also like A Walk On The Wild Side, Algren’s lyrical writing style is both a marvel and a bit of a slog at times, so it takes some patience. But it’s worth the effort.

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Solid gold,

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Elie Wiesel did it all the way up to July 2, 2016, when he passed away at age 87.

I felt like I should say something, even though I only read one of his books: Night, which I read way back in my college days (on purpose, not for credit). It’s a brilliant and harrowing book that somehow manages to compress all of the horror of the Holocaust into a compact 120 pages.

And I had already been exposed to that via a field trip to the Dachau concentration camp memorial site in the 1980s, which was a very intense experience. Wiesel made that look like Spring Break.

In fact, Wiesel wrote about his experience so well that I never had the nerve to pick up another of his books. It was like, “I get it, I get it.” But of course he was the one who had to live with the actual experience. And it’s remarkable that he took that experience and turned it into an inspirational crusade for justice and change, rather than bitterness and hate.

Respect.

So yeah, I may have to steel myself and check out some more of his books.

I will survive,

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Three books + two short stories = five reviews = one blog post.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most biology majors know that HeLa cells not only revolutionized cell culture research, but led to the development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. What most people didn’t know for decades was the identity of the person the cells came from: Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951. This book tells not only Henrietta’s story – and how her cells became vital to science, as well as a multi-billion dollar industry – but the story of her family, who never saw a dime from HeLa and still can’t afford health insurance. Rebecca Skloot covers all the bases here, putting a human face on HeLa, exploring the ethics and racial politics of tissue research, as well as what it was like to be poor and black in 1950s segregated America, and how it felt for the Lacks family to find out 20+ years later that Henrietta’s cells were making millions without their knowledge. This is a fantastic book, exhaustively researched and powerfully written. Even if biology doesn’t interest you, I highly recommend reading it for the historical and sociological aspects alone. Special thanks to the woman in Tennessee who tried to have this book banned from schools last year (for “pornographic” descriptions of cervixes) – otherwise I might never have known it existed, much less been inspired to read it.


ELEKTROGRAD: RUSTED BLOODELEKTROGRAD: RUSTED BLOOD by Warren Ellis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Short fiction from Warren Ellis set in the imaginary city of Elektrograd, whose seven districts experiment in new forms of futuristic architecture. That’s the backdrop for a murder mystery in the decaying district of Mekanoplatz, where buildings can walk around and homeless people live in abandoned construction robot shells. Like the best of Ellis’ work, there’s a good balance here between futuristic ideas, storyline and vivid characters you get to know mainly through dialogue – although arguably the most interesting “character” here is the one that doesn’t speak: Mekanoplatz itself. Ellis says in the afterword that Elektrograd was conceived as a possible series, with one episode set in each district. I hope he follows through on that someday. I enjoyed the story and was fascinated by the concepts embodied by Mekanoplatz – I’d like to see what the rest of Elektrograd looks like.


Star Wars: The Force AwakensStar Wars: The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven't really read movie novelizations since high school, but when I did, Alan Dean Foster was the master of the genre, and I liked some of his other SF/fantasy writing as well, though I stopped reading him around the time I stopped reading movie novelizations. Anyway, I picked this up mainly because (1) it contained extra scenes and background details that didn’t appear in the film and (2) Foster wrote it. I confess, I remember liking Foster’s writing style better than I like it here, but then it's been over 30 years since I read him last, so I can’t say for sure. And it doesn’t matter because I was really here for the extras. In any case, the result is a version of SW:TFA with somewhat richer characterization and fewer plot holes. It’s not a masterpiece, but I wasn’t expecting it to be – I got what I came for, and I was entertained in the bargain.


A Bad Night for BurglarsA Bad Night for Burglars by Lawrence Block

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a book, but rather a short story from 1975 that Lawrence Block wrote before he started his Bernie Rhodenbarr burglar series. Apart from the fact that one of the characters is a talkative burglar, there’s no connection to that series, but Block considers it a precursor of sorts. Anyway, it starts with a simple enough premise – gentleman burglar gets caught by armed house owner and has to think of a way out of the situation. But this being Block, it’s not your conventional resolution. This for me is classic Block: a clever, crisply written and entertaining crime story. Just the thing when you’re stuck in a traffic jam in Kuala Lumpur (which I was when I read it, though I’m sure it would be just as clever, crisply written and entertaining regardless of location).


Shouldn't You Be in School? (All the Wrong Questions, #3)Shouldn't You Be in School? by Lemony Snicket

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third installment of Snicket’s “All The Wrong Questions” quartet, in which V.F.D. apprentice Snicket is still in Stain’d-By-The-Sea trying to bring the mysterious villain Hangfire to justice in spite of his inept chaperone. This one involves a series of arson attacks, a framed librarian and a suspicious-looking Department Of Education that arranges for the town’s children to be transferred to a special school outside of town for a top-drawer education. Like the other books, there’s a lot of wordplay and running gags, but despite the generally light tone this one is a little darker as the stakes are raised and people start getting hurt. For all that, it’s been a pretty consistent experience reading this series, and the cast of characters Snicket has built around him are likeable, so I’m in for the final episode.


To be concluded,

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