Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Rating: Good

Somehow I feel this review will get me into trouble, but the truth is that while I think The Left Hand of Darkness is a good book, I don't think it's a great book. I've read it at least twice before - once in high school, I think, when I was still naive enough not to pick up on some of it - but it's been so long now that I remembered almost nothing at all.

So it's not a great book, but I do think the concepts are interesting, and that personal interactions are a good basis for a story. It's not like I wanted a space opera instead. My issues are different.

The first is problem of pacing. This is most apparent in Genly and Estraven's trek across the ice. That could have been whittled down a lot - perhaps to just a few pages. I know that Le Guin is trying to put them in a position where Estraven comes into kemmer with Genly as his only companion, and where they have to work together closely - and come to know each other better - to survive, but I simply didn't find that section all that engaging.

I also didn't find the end all that impressive. Estraven's death isn't well thought out or explained, and the rest of the plot issues are resolved too quickly and easily.

More importantly, I didn't buy into the idea that the sexual differences between Gethens and "normal" humans would make that much difference in their behavior. There were places where I thought she really reached too far to drive her point home in this area, and that only exacerbated the fact that I didn't buy into the argument in the first place.

But I'm writing this in 2007 and the book was originally published in 1969. We've seen some cultural changes in those 38 years, I admit. Maybe, as a female author working at that time, there were problems that she had to face that are now (hopefully) less common. Maybe I'm an odd case, since I think women are the equals of men in just about everything, and where we differ, it's a matter of interest, but not something that would (or should) hold anyone back. Maybe I am totally blind to my own prejudices, though I am certain I don't "converse with the third button on a woman's blouse," as I've heard it described.

And certainly there are people, even now, who are backwards in that way; who think women should be subservient to men, and prevented from doing some things. There are those who think of women only as sexual objects or even as chattel. But I hope that those problems - like those of racism - are on the decline, and that at least in the western world women feel empowered to do whatever they want. I certainly support that in every way I can.

Maybe I'm too "enlightened" (to pick a word I hate in this context) to really understand the point Le Guin is driving at, but I rather doubt it. If the culture has shifted so that her point is less relevant now, that's great, but that I doubt as well. My own thought is that the issue was exaggerated for the purposes of the story, and I didn't suspend my disbelief to the depth needed.

In the end I think this is a good book and it explores some interesting literary territory, but to my mind it's not quite right. I simply don't think that sex - and more specifically the sexual differences between men and women - are as central to every aspect of our relationships as Le Guin suggests they are. And it's hard to imagine anything that serious has changed since the late 60's either, though I wasn't paying attention to relationship dynamics at that level at the time. (Being significantly less than ten years old at the time this was published, I have no idea what I was worried about.)

On the other hand, I found the concept of shifgrethor fascinating. That's a place where differences (cultural in this case) could be very real and problematic.

I can recommend this book as an example of a good kind of science fiction - though the nearly pointless presence of telepathy and accurate fortune telling makes it border on fantasy in my definition. At its root, though, this is a book about politics and relationships, albeit one set in a background where sexual differences are pointed out with flashing, neon arrows.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

James Herriot's Yorkshire, James Herriot

James Herriot's Yorkshire
James Herriot

I know some on Doug's board don't particularly like the work of James Herriot, but I do. His relentlessly positive attitude can be grating to some, I guess. Oh well. For me, his stories are a breath of fresh air, and now that I've been to England and Scotland I have a bit more appreciation for the place he lived and worked, as well as the character of the people there.

James Herriot's Yorkshire is a lightweight tour guide to parts of Yorkshire. It was published in 1979, so it may be somewhat dated now, but I rather doubt it's too far off.

Mostly that's because he's not trying to direct you, street by street, to some destination that may have met the wrecking ball twenty years ago. Instead he is trying to impart his love of Yorkshire and its history to those who would go there and look around. And it worked, at least for me. But I've had the advantage of visiting Northumbria and the Lake District, and I've met some of the people there. I found them warm and welcoming, and I found the countryside amazing. The Yorkshire presented here feels like an extension of the trip we took earlier this year.

As a guidebook, it won't do the job. You'll need maps and reservations and all kinds of things that aren't here. But as an introduction to the area and what it looks like - it's full of excellent photographs by Berry Brabbs - it's a success.

Recommended, particularly if you're going to visit this part of England and want an idea of what to expect.

Serenity, Joss Whedon

Title: Serenity
Author: Joss Whedon
Rating: Good

Some time back I reviewed a book containing the shooting scripts for about half of the Firefly TV episodes. I enjoyed it, and I like the show. For those who don't know, Firefly is an oddball combination of science fiction, western, and far eastern motifs. It had a great cast of characters and a complex world full of stories to be told. Alas it was canceled far too soon by FOX television for no good reason. The only place you can see it now (as far as I know, anyway) is on DVD, and it is worth seeing.

A movie was made more than a year after the cancellation to bring the story arc to a close. That movie, and this book, are both titled Serenity.

I won't tell you Serenity is the best science fiction movie I've seen. It's not, but it's pretty good. And when combined with the back story from the Firefly TV series, it got under my skin.

This book consists mostly of the original shooting script. To that add the transcript of an interview with Joss Whedon and a few production memos on major aspects of the movie - music, light, etc. Oh, and a bunch of photos from the production of the movie as well.

It's a fun read. Nothing spectacular, but fun. If you're a fan of the show and/or movie, you might like it, but I'd probably buy it used or get it from a library (if you can find it there).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

Title: Solaris
Author: Stanislaw Lem
Rating: Good

In 1961, Stanislaw Lem published Solaris, a relatively short novel telling the story of an expedition to the planet Solaris, which finds some very unusual things going on. There are two movie adaptations of this novel as well, and (for me, at least) they are all wrapped up together. As a result, this review will discuss them all in one way or another.

In 1972, the first adaptation of Solaris was released as a movie, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. This film is something of a cult classic, and you can get it from Netflix any time. At the time I saw it - well over a year ago - I liked it, despite the interminable driving sequences. I rated it four out of five stars, and sent it back. But as I think back on it now - even after reading the wikipedia entry - I find I remember almost none of it except the above mentioned, monotonous, driving sequences. For me, with the benefit of hindsight, that film was a flop. Interestingly, IMDb spells it Solyaris.

In 2002 another movie adaptation of Solaris was released. This time it was directed by Steven Soderbergh and starred George Clooney. I actually saw this film first - before either reading the book or seeing the 1972 film - and it was this that peaked my interest in the other versions. Alas this release was a box office flop, but I really liked it. I found it both spooky and thought provoking. It's not a huge, action oriented, SF film, and that certainly helped spell its doom in theaters. Like the 1972 movie, I rated it four of five stars when I saw it. Now, however, I'd be tempted to raise that rating. This film has stuck with me, both visually and in the content of it's ideas. The wikipedia entry for this film is very short, and the IMDb entry is also lacking in content as of this writing.

It appears to me that the 2002 movie is related to the book in a manner somewhat similar to Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In reality, the movie and the book are more closely related here than in the case of Blade Runner, but there are still some significant differences. I honestly don't remember enough of the 1972 film at this point to make any statements about it.

Lem's original novel is an examination of whether or not humans will ever be able to understand aliens. Without giving away too much, I can tell you the answer presented here is "no". Solaris itself is a single organism that looks to us like an ocean covering nearly all of an earth sized planet. It has modes of behavior that Lem describes in great detail, but they mean nothing to the humans observing it. Those humans inhabit a station perched over Solaris, and while deep in their researches they find that they are being examined in return by the creature below.

The main character, Kris Kelvin, arrives at Solaris station to discover that strange visitors - beings from their past - appear and interact with the crew. One of the crew is already dead and the others are unstable at best. Then Kelvin's long dead wife appears and he starts to wonder about his own sanity, among other things.

The book spends a lot of time on the nature of Solaris itself and the inability of anyone to understand what it is doing at any level. The end is both tragic and a bit vague, as what will happen to the crew - and indeed all of Solaris research - is left unclear, at least to me.

The 2002 movie skips all the details about the activities of the Solaris organism and instead concentrates on the crew, their visitors, and their interrelationships. The idea that humans cannot understand Solaris at all is barely present. But for all that it changes so much of Lem's book - even adding entirely new back story about Kelvin and his wife, Rheya - it's still a very good film. The visuals are stunning and it has stayed with me for a long time, unlike the 1972 version.

Solaris - the book - is a classic of SF, and recommended. Those interested in the pitfalls of our possible interactions with the truly alien will appreciate it. For my money, though, the better story about people is in the 2002 movie adaptation. See it if you can.

Fatal Revenant, Stephen R. Donaldson

Fatal Revenant
Stephen R. Donaldson

It was on March 15, 2005 that I reviewed The Runes of the Earth by Stephen R. Donaldson. That was the first book in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I've now read Fatal Revenant, the second in the series, and I loved it.

I will start with the one and only complaint I have: Donaldson writes like he swallowed a thesaurus. (My wife actually said that. I'm using her words without permission. She can hit me with a lawsuit if she chooses.) In Fatal Revenant, his tendency to use unusual words comes to the fore, and he may be overdoing it in the eyes of some. In my case, it irritated me only slightly - I found most of the words interesting in and of themselves - and it was easy to ignore in light of all the good things going on here.

There is one other issue, but it's not related to the book itself. It's the fact that it's been over two years between the release of the previous book and this one. And the same size gap will exist before the release of the third book, as well as between the third and the last book in the series. Gaps that long don't work for me. I tend to lose the details of what happened in the previous book. In this case, I started Fatal Revenant and put it down within a few pages because it was obvious I needed to remember more from the first book. But life intervened and I found I'd picked it back up before rereading The Runes of the Earth. This time I kept on reading. I'm glad I did, but I'll need to go back and reread the entire series again, probably several times.

My review of The Runes of the Earth wasn't exactly full of details. It was the first review I wrote for Doug's 25 in 05 forum, and I hadn't yet figured out how I wanted to write reviews. As a result, there is a lot to tell here.

NOTE: if you've never read any of the Thomas Covenant novels, you should probably stop reading now unless you're sure you won't. I'm going to summarize the first six volumes - which amounts to spoiling them at a very high level - and then review the seventh and eight volumes while attempting to spoil nothing. Donaldson summarizes this history as well at the start of each book - and he's far better at such things than I am - but I'll do my best.

The first series - The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant - introduce us to our anti-hero: a writer living in the US in our times, with his wife and young son. He is diagnosed with leprosy, however, and everything changes. Two fingers on one hand are amputated to stop an infection, his wife leaves him to protect her son from exposure to the disease, and he is shunned by the town in which he lives. The actual disease can be controlled but not cured, and the nerve damage requires Covenant to develop certain harsh survival skills, like regularly examining his body for injuries he cannot feel. In addition, he grows embittered and frustrated. He gives up writing thinking that all his work is superficial garbage.

In this mental condition he experiences what may be hallucinations of time spent in a place called The Land. It's a fantasy world where magic is real, where nearly everyone has an ability to see health directly, where there exist numerous unusual races of people and creatures, and where an evil power - Lord Foul, the Despiser - is trying to release himself from the prison of time. In The Land, Covenant's white gold wedding ring - which he still wears, despite his divorce - is a token of great power, and there are similarities between him and one of great heroes of The Land's past.

We spend three volumes with Covenant in The Land. Despite his unbelief, hot temper, and vile actions (early on, nearly mad with disbelief in events, he rapes a young girl; that act has terrible repercussions throughout the rest of the books) the people of The Land trust him and his white gold ring to protect them from Lord Foul. But Covenant doesn't accept that role willingly, and struggles mightily before he finally achieves the desired end and returns home, seemingly permanently.

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant take place ten years later in our time. Covenant's wife has returned to him, but she's insane. A local doctor - Linden Avery - attempts to assist Covenant but winds up summoned to The Land with him. Linden has her own difficult background that makes her particularly vulnerable to what has happened there.

It's been about 3,500 years in The Land since Covenant left and things have changed radically. Lord Foul is back but he's working in less direct ways this time. The Land is now dominated by something called the Sunbane, and only Linden has health sense, so she can see exactly what the Sunbane does to everything it touches. In a long quest - encompassing three more volumes - Covenant and Linden attempt to replace the staff of law, which was destroyed 3,500 years before, and which is needed in the fight against the Despiser. In the end, Covenant again confronts Lord Foul, but he's been transformed in a particular way, and that transformation is key. Once again he triumphs over despite, and Linden uses the new staff to repair much of the damage done to The Land.

But Covenant died in the real world and cannot go back. He remains in The Land - as part of the Arch of Time - while Linden returns and rightly claims his white gold ring as her own.

The Runes of the Earth takes place another ten years later in our world. Linden has adopted an autistic son and she's now in charge of a medical facility that is treating - among others - Covenant's ex-wife. Roger, Covenant's son, appears, wanting to remove his mother from the hospital. A confrontation ensues, and Linden once again finds herself in The Land. She learns that her son and Roger are also in there, and specifically that Lord Foul holds her son captive.

Once again things have changed radically in The Land. Something called Kevin's Dirt - a reference to a past high lord who failed to defeat Lord Foul - prevents The Land's native inhabitants from having health sense. A new danger has appeared in The Land: caesures, time storms destroying everything they encounter. And of course Lord Foul is still present and working for his release. Gathering a small group of friends around her, Linden sets out on a quest for the staff of law, which was lost sometime after she and Covenant saw it remade all those years before. The Runes of the Earth tells the story of that quest.

At last we come to Fatal Revenant. In it, Linden encounters Thomas Covenant and her son - Jeremiah - unexpectedly, but they are changed from those she knew. Covenant is brusque where before he'd been tender, her son can talk and understands his surroundings, and neither will let her touch them. Covenant says he has a plan for defeating Lord Foul, but he cannot make it happen alone. He needs Linden's help. She accompanies him on...

And I have to stop there. To say more would be to give it away. Except I will add that the ending of Fatal Revenant was (to me) astounding. Without a doubt I'll read the next book in the series, even if it's three more years before it's in my hands.

In my opinion - and I know I differ from Ed in this regard - there are two truly important fantasy settings: Middle Earth and The Land. Nothing else I've read compares. Tolkien set the standard, practically defining the genre. I don't think he was always successful - particularly with anything published after LOTR - but he basically created the modern fantasy epic, basing it on many classical and ancient ideas, of course.

Donaldson takes fantasy to the next level. Tolkien tells a physical story - about actions and trials. Donaldson tells both that and a mental story. His characters suffer and undergo emotional change in a way that Tolkien's don't. Covenant never stops paying for the rape that he commits - it echoes down through history after him - but he also grows and becomes something much greater than the the man who first enters The Land. Nearly all of Donaldson's work is about that sort of mental transformation, and many of his characters are both despicable and heroic. That sort of conflict - internal struggles between good and bad, right and wrong, belief and unbelief - is Donaldson's forte.

I strongly recommend Donaldson's works, and particularly all eight volumes of the Thomas Covenant series. In them I think you'll find a kind of hope, that maybe we can transcend our self imposed limits in some way. For me this isn't a mystical or religious thought. It's the idea that we can all become something better if we try. We may face strong adversaries, but the struggle is worthwhile, and we can triumph in the end.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

The Sirens of Titan
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I've finally found another Vonnegut novel that tells a single story in a more-or-less linear fashion. The Sirens of Titan is an interesting tale about a man spread out in both time and space, and what he does to specific individuals and mankind itself as a result. It was fun to read, though I could pretty easily put it down whenever needed. There's an element of black humor to it that I enjoyed. The moral - if there is one - is a lot less clear, however. The last few pages kind of confused that for me, but that seems to be a Vonnegut thing. He'd bash you over the head with an obvious point for a long time and then - wham! - change points of view abruptly and leave you wondering what he really thought.

I liked this one a lot more than Breakfast of Champions, and I'd put it fairly close to Cat's Cradle though that one has held up better over time and was a tiny bit more realistic, which works for me in the case of Vonnegut.

Check out The Sirens of Titan if you can. It's not a masterpiece, but it's alright.

The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester

Title: The Professor and the Madman
Author: Simon Winchester
Rating: Good

The Professor and the Madman documents the relationship between Sir James Murray - one of the major editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary - and Dr. William Chester Minor - a retired US Army surgeon, and - without doubt - a madman.

Dr. Minor made significant contributions to the OED, and did it all from his abode in... well... I'll leave that for you to read.

This is an interesting story, both for the history behind the OED and that behind Minor. But that said, the treatment feels a bit long. Winchester goes to great lengths to draw out certain points when they could be stated more concisely. it's still a good read, though.

If you've ever stared at the OED in its printed form and wondered how it was originally created, this book will answer that question. And it throws in a sad story of madness besides.

The End Of Faith, Sam Harris

Title: The End Of Faith
Author: Sam Harris
Rating: Great!

This is a powerful book. It is closely argued, well researched, deeply thought out, troubling, and necessary. Sam Harris has done the world a huge service.

To be honest, though, I don't know if I agree with everything he writes. In fact, I rather doubt it in certain cases, but he's a thorough and persuasive writer, so even where I may not agree with him entirely, I have a lot of thinking to do.

The central premise of The End of Faith is that we must see the end of irrational beliefs - those without supporting evidence - of all kinds. Religious faith is far and away the most significant such belief in the world today, but there are other examples.

The first 170 pages cover this argument in depth, showing numerous issues with religious faith, both internally - as inconsistencies in beliefs that must remain unrecognized or be actively ignored - and externally - where faith leads to behaviors destructive to oneself and others. He calls out Islam, in particular, for deep examination and criticism.

That faith itself is a serious problem (and even a threat) was picked up by Dawkins as one argument among many in The God Delusion, but Harris goes beyond that point as well. The last 50 pages of The End of Faith discuss ethics that don't rely on religion, the war on drugs, pacifism, torture, and even spirituality in the absence of religion. Harris walks a mine field here, coming to places I would never have expected, and to conclusions that are quite probably correct and yet unsettling.

Some have accused Harris of being too strident in his presentation, but I don't see that problem. In the very real light of 9/11, suicide bombers, and those who would legislate against the private lives of so many in the name of their faith, a few sentences that drive home religion's awful effects on the world are trivia. I admit that some of his ethical conclusions are challenging, but if you can find the error in his logic I want to know it.

For me, this book will require at least two readings. The first was quick. I gulped it down in three sittings or so, and didn't read many of the end notes so I'd get the gist of his argument without being too distracted. The next pass will be slower, and I will read every one of the 60 pages of end notes in the process.

If I have a problem with The End of Faith it's not with the book itself, but rather that the world is unchanged from when it was originally published in 2004. As I write this, an English school teacher is going to jail for 15 days in Sudan for letting her students name a teddy bear "Mohammed". But that isn't the worst of it: her sentence is actually light. She could have received 40 lashes. It's disgusting but true that in 2007 people are still punished in the hideous ways set out by the Koran. But it doesn't even end there. Shortly after her sentence was announced a mob of over 1,000 protested in Khartoum. Whipped into a frenzy by their religious leaders, and following the dictates of Islam, they demanded execution - execution! - for the "offense" of naming a teddy bear after a supposed prophet. That's what faith leads to, and it sickens me.

I know there was a counter demonstration in the UK in which Muslims protested the sentence handed down in Sudan, but read Harris's work. The Koran is very, very explicit in its stipulated punishments for every transgression, and anyone saying "Islam is a religion of peace" is plainly incorrect.

And don't think that it's only Islam that wants the world returned to the fourteenth century. Christianity and Judaism come in for similar criticism, and their holy books are equally harsh on those of other faiths. It's just that more Christians and Jews ignore the ugly parts of their religion than is the case with Muslims. But for true believers of nearly any religion, the holy book is simply right, and those with differing points of view must die.

Having read The End of Faith I am happy to have Sam Harris out there, writing things that others - myself included - have been afraid to say. But I'm also deeply saddened that it's necessary, and I am terrified that we will see only continuing violence and hatred - inspired or required by religion in many cases - for the rest of our time on this planet. And I note with Harris that when madmen control weapons of mass destruction any hopes for a brighter future fade substantially. And as if to confirm what I read, just two days ago there was news about Russian uranium being seized by Slovak police. It was destined to go into a so called "dirty bomb", and had the sellers found the proper buyer, some city would have suffered an awful fate.

After all, why would anyone who has faith in the afterlife - and his or her eternal happiness therein - avoid using WMD when the cause of his or her religion will be advanced? There are people of every religion that would happily kill millions in the name of their faith, even (and sometimes especially) if they die in the process. None of us is safe from such insanity.

Read The End of Faith. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Then the work begins. We have to find ways to act on what it says. We must stop granting religious faith exemption from criticism, and we must find ways to keep those whose faith runs deep and who cannot be swayed from violence, from imposing their choices on the rest of us.

Sadly, I am not optimistic.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt

Title: On Bullshit
Author: Harry G. Frankfurt
Rating: Poor

For a while this book was all the rage. I, personally, thought it was... well... bullshit.

Sorry. Couldn't resist. But that is really what I think.

There's no interesting content here, and not much content at all, really. The back of many cereal boxes is more satisfying.

Read something else - I don't care what it is. You'll probably be better off and have learned more than you will by reading this thing.

Whiskey Appreciation and Tasting Guide, Derek Cooper

Title: Whisky Appreciation and Tasting Guide
Author: Derek Cooper
Rating: OK

A while back - maybe three years ago now - some friends who live near us did an evil thing: they introduced us to whisky. And this wasn't an introduction to just any whisky. Oh no. We were hit with single malts, and in particular, the single malts of Islay, Scotland.

This hasn't become an obsession or anything, but it has lead to some interesting purchases, and when we took a trip to the UK a while back we spent some time in Scotland - on Islay - and learned a bit more about the thing that is whisky. Islay - by the way - is the southernmost of the inner Hebrides islands.

While there I picked up this tiny little book on the theory that it might provide some useful information. And there are 20 pages or so of very general overview about whisky and related things, but it's all pretty simplistic. Of course, getting to know it better probably requires a master's degree in something like organic chemistry, a second degree in something related to the hospitality field, and then 20 years of practical experience working in and around a distillery (or three) to really know what the heck is going on.

This book won't give you even the tiniest portion of that background, but if you have no idea what a single malt is or why it's different from a blended whisky, it can answer some of those questions.

Instead of reading this (or any other) book, though, you're probably better off finding a friend who already has some background and asking for help. An introduction to whisky can be a very interesting evening, and once you start down that path, well, it's a bit like the dark side of the force.

For the record, my favorite single malt to date is Lagavulin's 16 year old standard issue, which I can sometimes find at my local Costco. It's wonderful, but you have to like the smell and odor (and taste!) of a peat bog to truly appreciate it. You can learn a bit more about it from the Lagavulin wikipedia page. From there, the sky's the limit.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Hot And Sweaty Rex, Eric Garcia

Hot And Sweaty Rex
Eric Garcia

The third in a series dinosaur detective books. As with the others, there are dinosaurs living among us. They're in disguise, and they're all over society.

In Hot And Sweaty Rex our hero - private investigator Vincent Rubio - gets involved with two different mob organizations and lives to tell about it.

As with the previous novels in the series, the writing pretty much lets you get past the obviously ridiculous premise and concentrate on the story. But this time it all seemed just a bit too contrived to me. The willing suspension of disbelief didn't come quite so easily.

Perhaps the dino formula is wearing thin by this point - and it may be - but I actually suspect a different issue: the plot. I guess I held back in believing some of the major plot points in some way, and that held up the full enjoyment of the book. it's still good, but wasn't quite as satisfying somehow.

There might be other reasons for that as well. This book takes a bit more serious tone - particularly the last few chapters - than the previous two. There's less outright humor and more discussion of just how mammals have messed things up - or are messed up themselves. There's also more use of the dino world as a looking glass for our own - causing introspection on several topics if you let it.

Garcia's first two Rex books were a bit more fun than this one, in all. Hot And Sweaty Rex is still worth reading, but not quite up to the standard set by the others.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Rating: Great!
Alt Review Link: forum review

I've read several reviews of books by Neil Gaiman, but I had no idea who he is or what he wrote. Not a clue. Someone - I'm not sure who, but I suspect it was Terry from the stone carving class I teach - said I might like American Gods though. When I asked, I got a vague description that sounded interesting enough to cause me to request a copy via I thought I might like it, but I wasn't ready to buy the book just yet.

The book arrived some time later and for various reasons - mostly having to do with which books were on top of the pile - I started in on it pretty quickly. I quote the dedication that I read first:

For absent friends - Kathy Acker and Roger Zelazny, and all points between

Interesting, I said to myself. I like Zelazny. Maybe this will be a good read. So I turned the page.

Several hours later I came up for air. I was about a third of the way into it and clearly was going to finish it quickly. So much for worrying about whether or not the book was any good.

I'm not going to write a spoiler review here, but I can tell you that the hero is named Shadow, and that he's employed by Mr. Wednesday - also known as Wotan or Odin. We're dealing with gods here, but we're dealing with the American versions thereof. The writing is good, the story is intriguing, and the characters are well developed. All in all, this is a winner.

Interestingly, American Gods is basically an updated Roger Zelazny novel, or it might be viewed as an homage to Zelazny. Either way, it's got his finger prints all over it. And that explains at least some of why I enjoyed it so much. Gaiman gets a lot of points from me for writing this tale, and for crediting Zelazny with getting to similar ground first (along with a couple of other authors) in his acknowledgments. Talent and honesty. Nice.

I'd call this a great modern fantasy, but you don't have to take my word for it. It won a bunch of awards, including the 2002 Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel, among others. It also places very highly on the Internet Speculative fiction Data Base top 100 lists, which you can learn about here:

More importantly (to me, at least) is that if you miss Roger Zelazny, this is definitely a book that will make you smile. Gaiman's other work may be different - I don't know yet - but I do know that American Gods was a fun, fast, and wonderful read. Give it a try!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Casual Rex, Eric Garcia

Title: Casual Rex
Author: Eric Garcia
Rating: Good
Alt Review Link: forum review

This is the second in a series (of three, so far) dinosaur detective books. Dinosaurs live among us - disguised as humans - and our hero is one of them. In fact he - Vincent Rubio - is an herb addicted raptor. (Herbs are intoxicants to dinos - even mundane stuff like basil and cumin.)

In this case, Rubio and his partner Ernie set off to find the brother of Ernie's ex-wife who's been drawn into a dino cult. It gets more complex from there, of course.

Garcia writes well, and most of the time it just works. I occasionally had to choke back an "Oh yeah? The humans never note that, eh?" thought, but not all that often.

For me the most amusing thing about the entire book is the idea that dinosaurs have their own equivalent of the Human Empowerment movement - call it Dino Empowerment - but in the book it's called Progress. It's a great mirror for our society in a way.

The final confrontation is funny for who some of the combatants are (or appear to be) and was clearly written from a visual perspective. I wonder if the movie rights are already purchased? Someone in Hollywood is probably trying to figure out if these books can be filmed or not.

A light hearted and fun book, though if you're squeamish about drug use and/or sex (between dinosaurs) then it might not be for you.

A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney, Andrew A. Rooney

Title: A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney
Author: Andrew A. Rooney
Rating: Good

Back when I was younger - and the earth was still cooling - 60 Minutes was a highly rated TV news show. (It may still be for all I know. I gave up TV about 15 years ago now, and I have no plans to go back to it, but I digress.) On that show there was usually a segment titled "A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney".

These segments were usually humorous, and they often discussed something so mundane that it's hard to imagine writing anything about it at all. Chairs, for example. In retrospect I wonder if Seinfeld didn't learn something from Rooney. Regardless, Rooney has a way with words and and his pieces both charm and disarm the viewer/listener/reader.

This book is a collection of some of his essays. Many were written for 60 Minutes but others were written for other venues. Some don't work as well on the page as they did with his voice telling the tale, but even those are still quite good. Some are very moving, and some are just funny.

I enjoyed this book. It's not going to change anyone's life, but it will cause amusement and thought, and those are things the world needs more of.

Sluggy Freelance: Little Evils, Pete Abrams

Sluggy Freelance: Little Evils
Pete Abrams

I've reviewed a Sluggy Freelance book before. From that and the fact that I'm reviewing another one here you can probably guess that I love the strip, and that I'm going to review this one positively as well. You'd be right if you guessed that sort of thing.

For those living under an Internet rock, Sluggy Freelance is the name of an ongoing comic strip. It's one of the biggest and most popular comic strips on the web, and its author - Pete Abrams - has the unique distinction of being one of a very few people who can earn a living producing a web comic.

There are - I believe - 10 years of Sluggy available online. You can read them all for free at, and you should do so. Just be prepared to be sucked into reading for a long, long time. There are something like a ten major characters, with a half dozen or so figuring most prominently. The subjects range from single strips with a gag at the end to story arcs that go on for months. There are even movie parodies - my favorite being the parody of The Matrix. The stories range from the positively silly to the semi-serious and include The Dimension of Pain, alternate dimensions, demons of various sorts, aliens, talking animals, vampires, and... well... you get the idea.

Little Evils is a compilation of (roughly) years four, five, and six of the online strip, and as such it reprints the contents of three earlier books. But that's OK with me - you can't buy at least some of those earlier books anymore anyway, and the new format is much nicer. Besides, whatever money Pete gets from these books helps keep him working on the strip, and that's worth it.

This volume includes The Storm Breaker Saga, more about Oasis (a mentally unstable gymnastic assassin in love with Torg - one of the main characters), Kitten (a great horror tale), more of Bun-bun's ongoing war with Santa, The Quatrix, and (my personal favorite here) The Bug, The Witch, and The Robot. That last is an amazingly well developed story about possession, evil, courage and friendship, with a healthy dose of silliness on the side.

If you've never read Sluggy Freelance - and if the above sounds at all interesting - now is definitely the time to start. And once you're hooked you can buy the books - and become a Defender Of The Nifty - to help support Pete's amazing creation.

As Pete would say, this one's Pretty Darn Nifty!

Shopgirl, Steve Martin

Title: Shopgirl
Author: Steve Martin
Rating: Poor

I picked up Shopgirl some time back - on a whim - via I was ordering several books from someone else and found this on their list. Martin's films are hit or miss for me, but when they work they're very funny. I figured it couldn't hurt to try his prose.

I was right - it didn't hurt - but it wasn't all that enjoyable either. In fact, I think Shopgirl qualifies as "chick-lit" written by a male. It wasn't all that interesting, the major plot points were predictable, and I didn't buy the development of at least one of the three main characters. The other two main characters really don't undergo much development at all, leaving me wondering what the point of the story is.

The cover claims the book is "Now A Major Motion Picture" like that's some sort of recommendation. It wasn't for me. I had no clue that was the case when I requested the book, and I have no desire to see it now.

All in all this was mostly a waste of time and paper.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Children Of Hurin, J. R. R. Tolkien

Title: The Children Of Hurin
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Rating: OK

This one has been done for some time, but I haven't managed to get around to reviewing it thanks to a tiny little job in my life of late. When that is done I'll be very happy. But leaving that a mystery for now, I need to review The Children Of Hurin by Tolkien.

Unlike some, I really like The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, but the rest of Tolkien's work is problematic for me. I know enough to understand he created a vast and complex history and mythology along with languages for the various races in notes and reference works. I know that the story of the one ring and Frodo Baggins is very late in that history, and that Sauron is a later evil, descended from the earlier and much more powerful Morgoth. It took several tries, but eventually I did slog my way through The Silmarillion though I remember basically nothing from it except the above tidbits, and the fact that the gods of Tolkien's mythology are called Valar.

As you can see my knowledge is very limited and incomplete. Oh well.

Then I learn that Christopher Tolkien has published yet another book in his father's name. For some reason it peaked my interest, so I looked it up and read a bit about it. I found myself heartened. I read that The Children Of Hurin has a different narrative style than The Silmarillion - more like Tolkien's big successes - and it tells a single story about a few characters, rather than summarizing hundreds or thousands of years of history.

It sounded good, so I got it.

But now that I've read it, I wish it were better than it actually is.

First off, though it is a single story about the wife and children of Hurin - one of Tolkien's favorite characters apparently - it isn't quite written in a typical story telling style. As you read it you learn, though much is told well, that it was clearly assembled from notes. There's something about the point of view and the narrator's perspective that kept me at a distance from the characters. I'm not familiar enough with English grammar terminology to put a name on it, but there's something slightly off in the presentation. Or at least there was for me.

Then there's the story itself, and it's hard to imagine a more bleak tale than this one. It mostly concerns Turin - the son of Hurin - and the horrible things that happen to him. He has two sisters and a mother that appear a bit as well. Most of the other actors are elves and men, though there is a brief interlude with some dwarves too, but don't look for hobbits here. This is thousands of years before The Hobbit takes place, and I'm not even sure they exist yet in Tolkien's world. But then I can't even correlate the map of the world with the one in The Lord Of The Rings, so I am clearly not the best source of information.

In any event, we're following a tiny part of the struggle against Morgoth in the first age of the earth, and both Hurin and Turin play significant roles in a way. To say more would be to give away important plot points and some of my readers may want to discover them on their own, so I won't even summarize the plot beyond saying that it is dark and sad. It's also a bit predictable, alas, and that reduced my pleasure while reading it.

And then there's the small matter of the appendices and introduction. My copy is 313 pages long in total, but the actual story itself starts on page 33 and ends on page 259. Thus it consumes only about two thirds of the book. The rest is introductory or supplementary materials of one sort or another, and in my case I found myself skimming over the appendixes. Yes, I know Tolkien spent much of his life working out all these little details, but they just don't hold my interest.

In summary, this book is much more approachable than The Silmarillion, but it's not on a par with The Lord Of The Rings. It's probably best appreciated by hard core Tolkien fans, and I clearly don't qualify as one of those.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

America: The Book: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction, Writers of The Daily Show

Title: America: The Book: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction
Author: Writers of The Daily Show
Rating: Poor

I've been slogging through this one for a long time now. Others have given it glowing reviews. Alas, I must be hugely out of touch with modern culture. I didn't laugh aloud even once while reading this. I rarely even cracked a smile.

To say the humor is heavy handed would be putting it mildly.

To say it made me sad - on a number of fronts - would be accurate.

I guess my biggest problems were (a) just how often the book descended into bathroom humor and (b) how often the non-bathroom humor was too close to the truth for me to be comfortable. An example of the latter issue: chapter 3 is titled "The President: King of Democracy". Has anyone actually watched the Bush administration accumulate power?

I found the book's layout - parodying high school civics class textbooks - to be mildly amusing, but only in that it showed me just how bad the layout of my old textbooks was. How I read those books - with all those asides and distractions - I'll never know,

Anyway, I found America: The Book to be somewhat repetitive, not particularly funny, and sometimes too close to reality to even be considered humor. I'm glad I got it through so it didn't really cost me anything. I'll send it on to someone else.

Managing Humans, Michael Lopp

Title: Managing Humans
Author: Michael Lopp
Rating: Good

This isn't one that most people are going to read, but for a select few it would be a good idea.

I've read a few books about software engineering management, but just a few. Of the ones I've read to date, far and away the best is titled Peopleware by DeMarco and Lister. For those wanting to learn some interesting and useful things about software development and management, Peopleware is hard to beat.

What Peopleware lacks - and it isn't much - is actual advice for software development managers on how to deal with real world situations. It takes a different route and looks at slightly different issues, and that's all well and good, but it's not enough. People who create software are a particularly odd form of humanity, with some issues and concerns that seem to be different from those found in others. In short, they're nerds. (Yes, I'm one too. I'm even proud of it, though I have been out of the business for a while now.) As a result, software developers need slightly different handling than others, so some pointed advice is called for.

Managing Humans is a book by a nerd manager about managing nerds. It's got stories that I (as a former software engineering manager) can relate to, and it's up to date about how companies are acting and treating people now - in late 2007. And it's got actual advice on relevant things, like what to do when an employee freaks out about something, how to handle reorgs and RIFs, detecting agendas in others, and so on. This is good useful stuff, and while some of it will apply regardless of what field you're in, some is pretty specific to software developers.

I cannot say I agree with Lopp 100% of the time, however. The single largest issue I have is with NADD - Nerd Attention Deficiency Disorder. He makes a big deal here - and on his website - about NADD. He suggests that people who don't feel right unless they have a bunch of tasks going on at once are happy and productive when in their element, multitasking away. He calls them NADD sufferers, and he numbers himself among them. As it happens, I clearly do not suffer from NADD as he describes it, so my perspective may be a bit jaded, but when I read elsewhere in Managing Humans that bringing laptop computers to meetings is a bad idea I started to wonder.

Lopp doesn't like laptops in meetings because anyone with one is only giving both the meeting and his computer half (or less) of his attention. But wait... NADD suffers - including Lopp - live for (and like) this. According to him they're supposed to be good at multitasking and the context switch, and yet - also according to Lopp - they can't be good at those very things in meetings with a laptop in front of them? Hmmm. Somehow I don't think he can have it both ways. Either NADD sufferers can be good in meetings with their laptops present, or they cannot be good in any context with too many inputs going at once.

For me, a laptop in a meeting is a disaster unless I am using it only to take notes, and even then it can be a problem. But I'm definitely not a NADD sufferer, and thus my case isn't a good example. A former boss of mine is clearly a NADD sufferer, however, and I hated it when he brought his laptop into meetings. He was clearly less effective when it was there, and it was rude besides. But once I reached that conclusion, I started thinking about how he worked in general. Watching him was an exercise in watching a super-ball bounce around a room. He was always doing six things at once, and yet his to-do list was always huge, and often projects were backed up waiting on his deliverables. I don't think he was all that effective at getting things done if he let his NADD tendencies get out of hand. But, when he knuckled down and focused on just one thing for a few hours, he was amazingly productive - far and away the sharpest developer I have ever worked with or for.

The moral? Perhaps NADD isn't something to be thought of as an advantage. Perhaps it should even be stomped out in the workplace in order to gain productivity in the longer term. Anyway, my personal experiences make NADD look like a drawback and I'd like to see Lopp ponder that issue in more depth.

I also disagree with Lopp about annual reviews. He thinks they are important. Period. I hated them. Period. They were a waste of time and effort, and I never got anything useful out of them. As a manager I spent huge amounts of time researching and writing them, but if I was doing my job properly there were no surprises for my people in them anyway. And that's the key: if you're a good manager, you're keeping your people up to date on career things all year round. If you're a lousy manager, though, the review probably doesn't make up for the lack of communication that should have been going on before, and (even if it has good information in it), the employee getting it will hate it because it comes from you - the lousy manager. In a nutshell, reviews were a waste of time, both for the receiver and the presenter, and that's my considered opinion after 18+ years in the industry.

So Lopp and I don't always see the world in the same way. That's fine. You might agree with his perspective and ideas more than I do. If so, good. I like that because anyone who's doing the amount of thinking he is about these things is probably good at his or her job, and that's the important point.

In the end, most of Managing Humans is pretty good, and at least half of it is actually useful in day-to-day situations where you need advice on how to handle some particular event.

Recommended for current and future software development managers.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Firefly, The Official Companion, Vol 1, Joss Whedon

Title: Firefly, The Official Companion, Vol 1
Author: Joss Whedon
Rating: Good

This review could make me look like a total fan-boy, but I hope to avoid that.

When I acquired the DVDs of Firefly, it was because I'd seen them once and wanted to be able to watch them on occasion again without waiting for Netflix to get then to me.

When I ordered the DVDs from Amazon I did the search in all products instead of just in the DVD section. I was surprised to discover several books related to the series. They all wound up on my wish list - just for a place to put them - and a recent birthday wound up with two of them appearing as gifts. I really didn't know what to expect from this book as a result, but I enjoyed reading it.

It mostly contains the original shooting scripts for half the episodes of Firefly. I've enjoyed that kind of material in the past as it helps illuminate dialog I couldn't make out the final release, and it shows how things changed between the original writing and the final cut of the program or movie. In that regard, at least, this is a good read.

There are a few other things tossed in here just for kicks. Blurbs about each of the major characters, half an interview with Joss Whedon, and some odds and ends about specific props and what not. Most of that isn't as interesting to me as the actual scripts, but it's certainly not terrible or anything like that.

So if you liked the series, you might find this book interesting. I'm going to have to order volume two just to complete the set, and there are a couple of other things floating around out there that may have to come my way as well over time. So perhaps it is a fan-boy thing after all. Oh well.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Rating: Neutral

I wish I knew how to review this book. Frankly, I wish I had a consistent point of view about it.

On one hand, it was immensely irritating. There's no character development and no plot - to the extent that there is almost no action of any kind except walking. The characters have no names, and in fact there are no names anywhere in the book. Even worse, nothing here is ever explained. It's a post apocalyptic novel, but what caused the devastation is entirely unknown to the reader. From the perspective of the story, characters and setting, The Road is a complete bust.

And there are other things that irritated me. For some odd reason contractions that should end in "n't" (e.g. didn't) lack the apostrophe (e.g. didnt). Other uses of the apostrophe were normal. And dialog isn't quoted anywhere. Ever. Why does McCarthy change the rules of English usage in this book?

Beyond that there is the writing. It's simple and repetitive. Simple and repetitive. Really. Simple and repetitive. And irritating.

So there you have it. A lot of things about this book bugged me in various ways. I'd be tempted to give it a totally negative review and end it there, but...

On the other hand, there was something that kept me reading despite all of the above. At times it seemed The Road was more like poetry than prose, and that may have brought me back at points. (It was very easy to put this book down - even mid-sentence. But oddly I did come back to it.) The story is broken into bite sized bits - sometimes just a single sentence or two, sometimes a few paragraphs long. They're kind of like potato chips - reading just one is hard to do for some reason, even if you know it's not good for you.

In addition, that simple, repetitive style is related to the subject matter - walking a very long way in an inhospitable world. That may also have played on my subconscious and kept me interested when I should have gone off and done other things.

But just like someone who eats an entire bag of potato chips, I came away feeling unfulfilled. I learned nothing here - not about the characters or the people they meet, not about the world they inhabit, and not about anything else for that matter. I've read glowing reviews claiming the book shows off the wonderful bond of father and son. Nope. Some say the book discusses the human condition. I don't think so. As an exercise in story telling The Road is a failure. Maybe, as an exercise in prose poetry, it is a bit more interesting, but even then it's about 280 pages too long.

I'm not sure what McCarthy was trying to accomplish when he wrote this, and that is the clearest indication of the problem. I'm in the minority here, I know. Many others loved this book. I simply can't bring myself to that point. I've read a lot of post apocalyptic fiction over the years and this simply isn't that good.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Dangerous Book For Boys, Gonn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden

Title: The Dangerous Book For Boys
Authors: Gonn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden
Rating: Lousy

For the second time in 2007 I am hugely unimpressed by a book that collected great gobs of praise in the press. This time around, it's The Dangerous Book For Boys that I can't stand.

If you've never heard of this book before I have to ask what rock you've been living under. I get very little media myself and I couldn't miss all the gushing press about this thing. But given what I heard - and despite all the praise - it didn't seem like my cup of tea, so I didn't buy one. But then I was given a copy by a friend and I correspondingly felt obliged to read it.

If you're really not familiar with it, the general idea is that boys today don't grow up with the same sort of experiences that the authors (at least) had, and that's bad. So they've written short bits of text - almost essays - on all kinds of subjects they think modern boys ought to know something about, bundled them up in a book, and set loose a PR machine somewhere.

Now my childhood wasn't all that limited. My dad did teach me a few things - particularly the way around a workshop - so I figured that even if I knew a lot what was in here I'd still enjoy the journey. And it started off promisingly enough with directions for folding the "best paper airplane in the world" and moving on to a description of the seven wonders of the ancient world. That ate up all of eight pages, and I thought it was going well.

Alas, there it starts to go off track, and it gets worse as it goes.

The next section is on how to tie five different knots. Sounds simple, right? And it should be, but the pictures are terrible, and trying to understand the knots from them is awful. I've seen much better descriptions elsewhere.

A few pages later we get the answer to the question "How do you tell the age of a tree?" The answer, and I quote the first sentence verbatim: "You cut it down and count the rings." Excuse me? Yes, technically this is accurate, but is that the right way to phrase it? Do we want boys randomly cutting down trees? Do we even want them thinking that doing so is acceptable in any case, just to determine the age of the tree? A small point, I admit, but it bugged me.

And it goes on and on. There are horrible errors here that an editor should have found and fixed. A simple example from a section about the Wright brothers: "In order to be able to fly with added weight from the engine, propellers, and reinforcements to the structure they had to increase the wingspan to more than 500 square feet, up from 165 square feet in the glider." Ahem. Wingspan is a linear measurement (of distance - specifically the distance from one wingtip to the other), not a measure of wing area. There are many misstatements like this scattered throughout the book.

But it gets worse. There is a section here on first aid, and in there it discusses CPR. The description is slipshod at best, so following it is problematic in any case, but the real problem is that it is just plain wrong. I know this. I am re-certified in CPR every quarter as part of my volunteer fire department training, and I assist at a Red Cross first aid class as well. No one teaches the initial thump on the chest with a fist anymore - that went out a long time ago - but it's still here in this book. That's just plain stupid. They should have done some (OK... a lot of) fact checking before publishing this. If the only first aid book you have is the one brief chapter in The Dangerous Book for Boys I sure don't want to be your patient. Just let me die in peace.

Other sections are basically pointless. The piece on pirates seems like it would be great for boys of a certain age, but it's entirely lacking any interesting content. An opportunity was missed there to tell both the good and the bad; instead nothing much was said at all. Another example: the book includes brief rules sets for both rugby and soccer, but don't try to use them. There's no overall description of the game, and the rules as written are almost unintelligible.

Finally there is the question of why they included some things in here. How many descriptions and diagrams of famous battles do boys really need? Why build a go cart without any kind of brake? And on and on and on.

In all, I question just about every aspect of this book. I don't think the authors included some things they should have, and they definitely included things they shouldn't have. I know they didn't fact check some entries, and that makes others suspect in my eyes. By the time I was two thirds of the way through it, I seriously considered setting is aside and never finishing it. It's that bad.

If you're the parent of a boy, you may find some things described in here are interesting and should be taught, but overall I can't imagine using this book as a resource for that process.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Busker, Brian McNeill

Title: The Busker
Author: Brian McNeill
Rating: OK

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, and that frustrates me. You see, I've met the author. He's a widely acclaimed musician, and (I think I have this right) he's Head of the Scottish Music Department at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. I've seen him play three times in very small venues and he is a wonderful performer. Amazing.

Some time back I learned he was an author, and since I liked his music so much I thought I'd try his printed works. He's written two: The Busker and To Answer The Peacock.

The Busker is a mystery novel set in Europe before German reunification. Alex Fraser - the hero, and a busker with an unfortunate criminal record - winds up in the middle of a complex set of relationships and crimes, the genesis of which dates back to a nasty event taking place before WWII. In trying to unravel these things for an old friend, he winds up going out on a limb to save the life of a child.

For those who don't know, a busker is someone who plays music for coins and donations on the streets. Brian McNeill has spent a lot of time busking, and he knows the trade well.

As I say, I really wanted to enjoy this book, but it was hard to do. I found it jumpy - cutting away from some scenes before I was sure what was going on, and coming into others too late to let me figure things out. It's also full of historical references and locations that meant little or nothing to me as a rather poorly educated (about international history, at least) American. In sum, it was difficult to follow. So difficult, in fact, that at times when I got lost I'd just set it down and do something else for a while. Not good.

As I ponder this, I wonder if there isn't an unusual reason for my reaction. McNeill writes wonderful song lyrics for his own works, and it is possible that the skill set needed to write lyrics is different from that needed to write prose. Song lyrics are - by nature - shorter and tend towards the more evocative, even mysterious. Perhaps the tendency to write in that style made The Busker hard for me to follow. I'm not sure, but it is a thought.

Beyond that, however, I thought there were too many coincidences in Alex's work on this mystery. He winds up with a wealthy backer, for example. That would be fine on its own, but he often gets help from total strangers who should - by all rights - turn him over to the police and forget him. I found him leading a bit too charmed an existence, despite the fact that he doesn't have an easy time of it in this story.

As I have said before, however, mystery novels aren't something I read a lot, so my expectations may not be quite right for the genre. Others may find it better, though the only reference to a book review of it I could find via google was a broken link to a review that panned the book. Oh well.

If despite the above you'd like to get a copy of The Busker or To Answer The Peacock do NOT order directly from These books weren't released in the US as far as I can tell, so the only copies available here are rare used editions at astronomically high prices. I ordered my copies from, and that worked out to much lower prices, and one of the books - when it arrives - will be new. I suspect there is a general lesson there as well: check a lot of sources before agreeing to pay $70 for a used book.

More information about Brian McNeill himself can be found here:, and if you get the chance to see him live in concert do NOT pass it up. He's warm and funny and charming. He tells great stories about the songs he's playing, and he can play Scottish music astoundingly well.

I hope To Answer The Peacock is more to my taste.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling

Title: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows
Author: J. K. Rowling
Rating: Good

Like about 11 million other people in the US, I got my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on its release date - July 21, 2007. Mine came in the mail, so I didn't get it until the afternoon, and as my weekend was pretty booked up with other events I didn't get to spend a lot of time reading it until Monday.

So what can I say about this book without spoiling it?

I can tell you that I enjoyed it. It's 750 pages long and I read all but the first 150 pages or so in two sittings on a single day. Looked at that way, it clearly held my attention. I set aside another book I was in the middle of to read this one, and I'm not sorry I did so.

It's also a complex book. A lot is happening, and yet Harry spends a lot of time waiting for news and information. And a lot of the plot depends heavily on events in the previous book or two. I read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince back in July of 2005, which is long enough ago that a good many of the details have slipped my mind by now, so I had to go with the flow when there were obvious references to something in an earlier book that I couldn't recall. But despite that I think Rowling does a pretty good job of winding up all the loose ends. She actually provides resolution on most of the outstanding issues I can remember from the previous books. (Contrast that with the way The End didn't clear up many questions in the Lemony Snicket series.)

On the downside, I found two things in this book that I didn't quite believe. Call them questions about the story or plot that I didn't get answered. These were both new with this volume, and I'm not sure how to take them. I won't go into details as I don't want to ruin the book for those who haven't yet read it. You can send me an email if you want to know what they were.

The last major comment I have is that the book presents a lot of new background information on a major character in the series, and much of it comes (to me, at least) as a surprise. Again, I don't want to spoil anything for others, but suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time reevaluating someone while reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and that isn't something I anticipated.

Overall I think Rowling did a pretty good job of winding things up. I need to spend some time with a serious Harry Potter fanatic I know and discuss my questions with her. I'm curious about how she feels now that the series is over. It's been a lot of years waiting for the books to arrive, and I hope she feels the end is up to the level of the rest of it. I thought so.

Mind you, none of this is "Great Literature" (tm) in my mind. It's escapist fantasy, and IMHO there are some weak spots in the way Rowling writes - her choice of certain words in particular - but escapism is fine with me, and she holds the story together regardless of my reservations.

I'll have to reread the entire series at some point - back to back to back - to get a better overview of it all, and to have each book fresh in my mind when I read the next one. More of the details will stick with me then, and it may be a somewhat different experience as a result.

I wonder what Rowling will do next?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Feast For Crows, George R. R. Martin

Title: A Feast For Crows
Author: George R. R. Martin
Rating: OK

I've now digested A Feast For Crows, book four in George R. R. Martin's twelve step program to cause readers to despise fantasy literature.

Well, wait a minute. That statement may be a bit too strong. After all, there are things to like about this book. Let's see...

There are some good (as in well written) characters here. And there are some interesting plot lines as well. In fact, I think the writing here may be better than the writing in the first three books. But right about there I start to run out of complementary material.

The first problem with A Feast For Crows is Martin's desperate need for an editor, preferably a samurai with a very, very sharp sword. Martin only discusses (or even mentions) about half of the major characters from the first three books here. The rest go mute and vanish for a thousand pages. If you were interested in what happened to Tyrion, for example, you're out of luck in this volume. But that means you've got a thousand pages of what? Well, read them and find out. Don't look for spoilers here. But a strong editor that could stand up to Martin and get him to whittle things down a tad (say, 50% or more) would be welcome.

And then there is the matter of the plot. Many of the the plot lines in here - and there are a lot of them - serve no obvious purpose. I liken it to that part of a chess game where the players are positioning their pieces so they can do great things, but for some number of moves not much appears to happen from an outside perspective. Don't get me wrong, some of these plot lines might have made good stories (or even novels) on their own, but causing us all to wade through them to learn very little about the overall war and world is irritating.

And finally we hit my chief complaint: the vast number of characters. We may only be following half the main characters from the first three books, but we have a ton of new ones to full up these pages. And, of course, they all know each other. By the time Martin has finished this saga any main character he might have left alive will have to die of a brain seizure as a result of trying to remember all the names of all the knights and lords he or she has met or known during their sorry life. And that doesn't include the courtesans and bards and maesters and magi and brothers and all their various titles and relationships to him or her and each other and on and on and on. One can imagine Martin pondering on some obscure plot point as follows:

"Hmmm... Jaime needs to meet someone that he knows in this instance, and the relationship must be slightly strained. Let's see, starting from the dawn of history and tracing through two hundred and twelve generations, it can be his mother's brother's wife's sister's great-grand-mother's half-niece who married into the wrong family first and started a blood feud when she killed her first husband. He can have met her at court once, when he was three and she was nine. He will remember it because of the color of her eyes and the way she always says the words 'my lord' in a high squeaky voice. Yeah. That works."

As you can imagine, this is another place where afore mentioned samurai editor would be useful.

A vision: John Belushi in full samurai regalia, swinging his sword at a three thousand page manuscript. Pages or parts of pages fly everywhere so it looks like it is snowing, and he is screaming: "Too long! Must remove fifty main characters and twenty sub-plots by morning!"


So, in the end, what do I think?

I think these books are overrated. They aren't terrible, but they aren't on a par with the greats of fantasy literature. I'll probably muddle through the fifth volume when it appears, but I'm in no hurry, so I'll wait to get a copy from, and I'll pass it on when I am done, as I am doing now with A Feast For Crows.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

Title: The Kite Runner
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Rating: Lousy

The Kite Runner was a much hyped book in the recent past. It seemed for a while that I couldn't go anywhere without reading or hearing something about how wonderful and important it was. But despite that, it didn't seem all that interesting to me from the descriptions I heard.

Then my wife wanted to read it, so I got a copy via and eventually she cracked it open.

And she put it down again almost immediately, saying she hated the main character.

Oh my. Now what to think? Well, perhaps I won't be as bothered by him as she is, and it really has a ton of gushing reviews behind it. It can't be all that bad.

Oh yes it can. It absolutely can be that bad.

I read 104 of 371 pages. That was all I could stand, so I don't get credit for reading the whole thing. But I'd rather have needles stuck in my eyes than have to read the rest of it.

The prose is serviceable at best, and certainly not "poetic" as so many reviews claim. The main character is simply awful. There is no hint in anything I read of any kind of redemption coming, though the reviews all say it happens. If so, the author gave me no hint that this creep is worth knowing. He's repulsive in the extreme.

I'm a busy person, and I want to read things I enjoy when I read fiction. Non-fiction is different; I generally read it to learn something specific, and that implies that the characters are real, so I am reading about someone's actual deeds. That's fine with me. Reality means something, and I can deal with it.

On the fiction front (where this book resides) I often read works featuring anti-heroes and/or people that do awful things, but somehow there's something different about The Kite Runner that makes it simply bad, instead of interesting or relevant. I can't envision it as a study in character development, for example, because I didn't find the history or motivations of the main character consistent and believable. They appeared entirely fabricated by the author to unsettle the reader. If so, he achieved his intent, but I doubt that's what he really meant to do. I suspect he wanted us to feel for this character somehow, and that only made things worse for me. The clunking story line and unbelievable actions wouldn't let me do that, so I just wound up hating every page.

My advice on this one is to skip it, but I know I am way out of step with the rest of the planet on this issue.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Disgrace To The Profession, Charles Newton and Gretchen Kauffman

Title: A Disgrace To The Profession
Authors: Charles Newton and Gretchen Kauffman
Rating: OK

Summer starts today, so I finally get around to writing the review for a book about school teachers. Go figure.

Doug reviewed A Disgrace To The Profession some time back, and as a result of his review I added it to my list. Eventually came up with a copy, and I've now read it. Doug's review is pretty much spot on. The story and characters are interesting, but the writing is amateurish. I found it a bit distracting, as I suspect Doug did.

The one thing I might say that Doug didn't is that the book suffers a bit from being a propaganda piece instead of just a story. The authors cram in all kinds of diatribe about various teaching issues that don't directly affect the plot. Yes, I know these issues are real, and yes I understand that the purpose of the book is to make the reader aware of just how bad teachers have it, but it did muck up the story a bit.

I am unlikely ever to teach children. Teaching adults (where "adult" is defined as junior college and older) is a possibility in various ways, but not teaching kids. But even so, this book was interesting, and it makes me wonder if there are any good fixes out there for the problems our kids, schools and teachers face. A Disgrace To The Profession isn't exactly full of suggested solutions for the myriad problems it points out.

Perhaps those solutions were deliberately left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Title: Jailbird
Author: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Rating: Good

Vonnegut's books are hit or miss for me. I know some people love every word he writes while others can't stand him, but I seem to waffle about, each book I've read being different in significant ways from the others. Prior to Jailbird I've read the following by "Uncle Kurt", and I rate them as listed:
  • Cat's Cradle, Great
  • Timequake, Good
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, OK
  • Breakfast of Champions, Poor
With that as background, you can see that I'm never quite sure what I am going to wander into when I start another if his offerings. As a result, I can say that Jailbird was a mildly pleasant surprise.

There is some plot to Jailbird, though not much, really, and we learn about it in strange ways - flashbacks, references to future events, and other oddities. We're following, in a very roundabout fashion, the life of Walter F. Starbuck. He's a very, very minor figure from the Watergate mess, and he's just getting out of jail when we meet him.

For my taste, there are a few too many coincidences in Walter's life, particularly right as he gets out of prison, but that's a minor quibble here. The characters are interesting, and there is at least something of a story to follow.

The best part of the book, though, has to be the introduction. Vonnegut spent 40 pages writing introductory remarks about things, mostly related to the contents of the novel in some way. Those pages were interesting reading for me, and may help explain why I found the rest of the novel better than something like Breakfast of Champions.

If you're a hard-core Vonnegut fan, you'll already have read this one. If you're a hard-core wanna-be, you'll need to read it, and you should. For the rest of us, it's reasonable, but Cat's Cradle is a much better story by the same author. I'd put it above Jailbird by a fairly wide margin.

Oh, by the way, Kilgore Trout's name makes an appearance in here, for those tracking him. Oddly, I cannot reconcile it with other KT appearances that I've read. I guess it isn't necessary that Vonnegut be consistent in how he treats those characters that cross novels, but it was a bit distracting to me.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

A Treasury Of Great Science Fiction, Vol 2, Anthony Boucher

Title: A Treasury Of Great Science Fiction, Vol 2
Editor: Anthony Boucher
Rating: Neutral

Well, I didn't actually expect to get to this right away, but they way things fell out, it happened. As with volume one, this is a collection of SF from the 1940s and 1950s. It was only slightly better than the first volume, sadly. Read on for the details about the specific contents:
  • Brain Wave by Poul Anderson. A short novel about an odd change in the way people think - actually in the physics of the world causing people to think more clearly and rapidly. I found this rather painful reading. Predictable as well.

  • Bullard Reflects by Malcom Jameson. A short story that left me entirely cold. I suspect it was supposed to be humorous but it was just pathetic.

  • The Lost Years by Oscar Lewis. This isn't SF, it's alternate history, though I suspect that category didn't exist when this collection was assembled. It's a short story describing what might have happened had Abraham Lincoln survived the assassination. I found it interesting reading.

  • Dead Center by Judith Merril. A hard SF short story about early rocket flight and moon exploration. Sadly it just doesn't hold up to reality in hindsight.

  • Lost Art by George O. Smith. A hard SF story full of improbable jargon about human engineers attempting to understand and reverse-engineer a Martian electrical device. Implausible in the extreme, sadly.

  • The Other Side Of The Sky by Arthur C. Clark. A short story presenting the memories and tales of someone working on an early space station. Clark writes hard SF here, and much of what he writes is close enough to reality to give it a pass even now, but he can't tell a story about people well at all. A shame, really.

  • The Man Who Sold The Moon by Robert A. Heinlein. A bad novella by a supposed master - one I can rarely read. This one describes early moon exploration assuming that it was driven by companies rather than governments. Among the vast number of irritating things about this story was the implicit claim that one person could design an entire moon transport vehicle. I don't know why I finished this one... I certainly kept hoping it would end.

  • Magic City by Nelson S. Bond. A post apocalyptic tale in which the survivors start down the path to regaining some of the lost knowledge of their forbears. Predictable and pedantic.

  • The Morning Of The Day They Did It by E. B. White. An end-of-civilization short story of no merit at all. It was supposed to be hard SF at the time, but in reality it got things so wrong - even then - that I can't imagine why it was reprinted here.

  • Piggy Bank by Henry Kuttner. Another short story that would have been better left un-reprinted. This one documents the downfall of a wealthy man as a result of his own greed. The entire thing can only be described as silly.

  • Letters From Laura by Mildred Clingerman. A bad short story about time travel. Pointless.

  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. A novel, bridging the SF/fantasy gap in my mind. I'm of mixed opinions about this one. Early on I hated it, and hoped it would end, but it grew on me for some reason. It's frankly not believable, and the main character goes through too much change to be realistic, but somehow the story kept it together. I haven't read anything else by Bester, so I don't know what else he's written, but this one at least wound up interesting in the end.
As with the first volume, many of the giants of SF are represented here, and nearly all fail to produce what I would call good work.

I have no other comments except this: in both of these volumes I kept running into characters who smoke. The action of smoking appears in probably 80% of the items included in both volumes. Why? I know smoking was cool in the 50's, but was it really that entwined with our culture? I shudder to think about it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Treasury Of Great Science Fiction, Vol 1, Anthony Boucher

Title: A Treasury Of Great Science Fiction, Vol 1
Editor: Anthony Boucher
Rating: Poor

This was a waste of time. I kept reading only out of the hope that the next item in this anthology would be better. They really weren't. And there is a second volume to this tome and I am not at all sure I am going to bother trying to sled through it the way I did this one.

This anthology was compiled in the 1959 and mostly appears to contain material published in the early 1950s. These pieces are almost all very, very dated. Most are just plain poor in my opinion. They include:
  • Re-Birth by John Wyndham. A short novel about a post atomic apocalypse society. 125 pages of trudging predictability.

  • The Shape Of Things That Came by Richard Deming. A short story that might have been fascinating in 1950 but is horribly out of place in 2007.

  • Pillar Of Fire by Ray Bradbury. I know he's supposed to be this god-like author, but this wasn't a winner for me. And in fact, viewed with our sensibilities in 2007, he'd probably be locked up for writing this now, particularly if he wrote it as a kid or in college. It's basically a horror story, though, set somewhere in the future, with a couple mentions of rockets that probably caused people to think of it as SF. Not in my definition, but...

  • Waldo by Robert Heinlein. Now I know why mechanical devices that manipulate items in place of people's hands are called "waldoes", but beyond that there isn't anything to recommend this novella. I've always had trouble with Heinlein, but this is problematic in an entirely different way from his later works. Waldo is boring. His later works are patently offensive.

  • The Father Thing by Philip K. Dick. Another horror story; definitely not SF. I am starting to think that much early SF was actually horror in disguise, and that renders it much less interesting to me.

  • The Children's Hour by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. This one borders on fantasy, rather than SF, and it's a pretty dull tale of a relationship doomed to failure.

  • Gomez by C. M. Kornbluth. A childish tale - though perhaps not from the POV of 1953 or so - about someone working out important atomic secrets on his own. Other than enhancing my impression of the paranoia of the 1950s about our atomic secrets, there's nothing of interest here.

  • The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff by Theodore Sturgeon. This novella is probably the strongest entry in the book. Again it bordered more on fantasy than SF, but it was actually centered on a whole series of complex relationships, and kept me interested as a result. Not enough to re-read it, but it was OK.

  • Sandra by George P. Elliott. I have no idea why this was included in a volume of SF. I'd call it an alternate history piece, I guess. The central idea is that slavery still exists (the time of the story is not specified, nor is it easy to determine from context) and the main character presents in writing the development of the relationship with his female slave. I found the entire thing pointless and offensive.

  • Beyond Space And Time by Joel Townsley Rogers. A travesty of a hard SF story. I'd never heard of Joel Townsley Rogers before reading this, and I hope I never hear of him again. A quick google search tells me that he was prolific. I'll continue to avoid him, and if you're ever offered the chance to read this short story, don't bother. It's the worst of the lot in this book.

  • The Martian Crown Jewels by Poul Anderson. A rather predictable pseudo-locked room mystery set in the future and involving space travel. Yawn.

  • The Weapon Shops Of Isher by A. E. van Vogt. An oddball novella with some appeal, but I found it slow going for reasons I am not entirely sure I understand. There are a few interrelated plot lines and a reasonably well fleshed out universe, but something seemed lacking.
And there you have it. Many of the giants of SF have pieces in this collection, and my impression is mostly not good. To be honest, the editor states that he was trying to "get together a great deal of good reading in modern (1938-1950) s.f. which had been overlooked by earlier anthologists". I suggest there is a reason these works were overlooked.

As a sociological study, however, there is a tiny bit of interest here. Female characters are scarce and female leads are even less common, everyone smokes, and the predictions for the future are mostly lame. None of those is a good reason to read this volume - or these works in other locations - but if you were making a study of just how far wrong SF can go, this might be an interesting place to start.