Thursday, December 1, 2011

Blood Meridian: Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy

I cannot read this book.  I read one and a half chapters and gave up.

A while back I read - and thoroughly disliked - The Road, another work by McCarthy.  It was, however, the only thing by him I had read, and I thought I would give him another try.

Mistake.  Big mistake.

This book is just about as unreadable as The Road.  The prose is deliberately stilted, and convention - like quotes around dialog and apostrophes in contractions - is ignored.

In a nutshell, it's junk.  I couldn't comfortably follow it, and was disinterested in it - and the characters involved - nearly immediately.

The only reason I am not giving it the worst possible rating is because I didn't finish it, and I cannot in good conscious do that to something I didn't fully read.  That said, I did flip around after giving up, and no, it clearly gets no better.   The complaints above apply from page one right through the end.

I won't be reading any more McCarthy.  Not my thing.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: Carl Sagan

The Varieties of Scientific Experience
Carl Sagan

The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a printed version of Carl Sagan's Gifford Lectures, originally presented in 1985.  In them he discusses his views on religion, science, the search for extra-terrestrial life, and philosophy.

These are engaging, and quite possibly very useful to someone without a deep training in atheism.  Sagan's sense of wonder at the natural world comes through, as does his openness to many things, even as he indirectly points out the problems and contradictions with much of modern religion.

A good read, particularly for those wondering about their religious faith.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Entire Harry Potter Series: J. K. Rowling

The Entire Harry Potter Series
J. K. Rowling

The final Harry Potter movie has shipped on DVD and will be here soon, which means it was time to reread the entire series as part of my ongoing interest in how books are changed as they become movies.

As you might expect, the earlier books in this series suffer less change than the later ones, where Rowling had the ability to ship 800 page books without fear.  Getting such monsters into a single movie - or even two - is tough.

Overall I think the screen writer did a pretty good job.  In many cases entire sub plots are dropped out, and other things are re-ordered and/or simplified to make them work better on the screen.  I found the number of times that lines or actions given to one character in the books are given to someone else in the movies amusing, but it makes sense since hard core fans will recognize those kinds of things.

There are a few places in the movies where things are simply not explained.  They're pretty subtle, but there.  A simple example: the kids take the Hogwarts Express train from London to the school.  Clearly that trip takes a few hours, based on how it is described.  But when they fly to London on thestrals, the movie glosses over the time required, whereas the books tell you that thestrals fly really fast, apparently much faster than the train.  Other small stuff is like that.  The movie doesn't explicitly say Draco repaired the vanishing cabinet, nor why it needed repair in the first place, but the books tell you that, and so on.

If I have a beef with these books, it's the King's Cross bit towards the end of Deathly Hallows.  Harry desperately wanted to see is godfather again, but that didn't happen.  There's some indication that he will meet him again - when he (Harry) dies - but clearly no way to talk to him now.  Then, however, we have a long discussion with Dumbledore in Harry's imagined King's Cross station.  Why?  How?  Rowling doesn't explain that well enough for me, nor why Harry didn't meet Sirius, Lupin, and Tonks there too.   Others might not have minded, but it bugged me as I read it.

Still, these are fun books.  They keep readers of any age interested and wondering what is going to happen.  Rowling's world is deep enough and complex enough that it feels real, which is the sign of a good author in my mind.

I'll read these again at some point.  Good stuff.

Sleeping With The Devil: Robert Baer

Sleeping With The Devil
Robert Baer

Sleeping With The Devil is Robert Baer's book about the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.  While it is profoundly disturbing at times, there are places where I don't think he fully supports his arguments.  In addition, events have surpassed his vision of reality.

Published in 2003, Baer worries about the affect of very high oil prices on the US economy that might result from instabilities and problems within Saudi Arabia.  He worries about oil getting up to or over $100 per barrel, but that has already happened.  See, for example:

I am sure that the price of oil has deepened our economic problems, but it, singly, has not brought down the world's economy as Baer seemed to fear.

In any case, the issues Baer highlights about the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia - mostly in the form of our relationship with the Saudi royal family - are troubling.  Any number of great arguments for energy independence can be made starting from concerns about oil, and I think there is a lot of truth there.

In short, an interesting book, but how much it reflects reality now I am not sure.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Illium and Olympos: Dan Simmons

Illium and Olympos
Dan Simmons

Argh... lots of time spent on these before giving up.

I read all of Illium, the first in a 2 volume set by Dan Simmons set in the far future.  In it, for reasons that I still don't know, a group of gods and humans is acting out something like the story told in The Illiad but on a terraformed Mars, or something like that.  A set of humans on Earth is struggling to figure out what they really are, and a set of moravecs - effectively cyborgs that are mostly machine, with wetware brains interfaced to their computers - based around the outer planets is worried about unusual physics in the Mars area, and so sends a small team to investigate.

Olympos is the continuation of the story, but I stopped reading just under halfway through that book because it is all just too disjoint and silly for me to keep going.  Lots of things didn't make sense to me once Olympos got started, as if Simmons had a bunch of new things and ideas to add to the series at that point and just did so without worrying about how things interacted with the contents of Illium.

As a result, Simmons - famous for the Hyperion series - just couldn't make these work for me.

I was kind of OK with Illium, but none of the characters except the moravecs were all that interesting.  The humans on earth are too dumb to live, the humans (or whatever they are) bringing The Illiad to life have no business being where they are and are thus unexplained in an irritating way, the Greek gods they interact with are too arbitrary and stupid for words, and the "scholic" Hockenberry is so far beyond unexplained that his presence and actions drove me crazy.

These books are long and definitely needed a serious editing.  Illium clocks in at 725 pages in my paperback edition, while Olympos is 891 pages.  I know there is an argument saying that sometimes authors need that sort of room for their story, and I fully understand that, just not in this case.  Simmons needed to put these books on a serious diet.

If you really want to know, it was Setebos that drove me away.  Simmons is playing with a bunch of different literary references, well above and beyond The Illiad.  I was OK with that despite not having read most of them, but by the time we get descriptions of Setebos and what he/she/it is doing on at least one copy of Earth, I could no longer sustain the willing suspension of disbelief.  I plowed on for a while longer, but then stopped.  Whenever I had the time and desire to read but faced picking Olympos back up, I did something else instead.  After a week of not reading I decided the problem was serious enough to give up.

For me, Illium and Olympos are failures.  I suggest reading other things.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Talent For War, Jack McDevitt

A Talent For War
Jack McDevitt

A Talent For War is pretty good science fiction.  It's set in the far future, after humanity has had first contact with aliens, and fought a war with them.  The story revolves around someone trying to find out what really happened to a war hero who turned the tide of that battle.

I found the characters reasonably well developed, though not perfect, the descriptions of future technology were interesting and well done, and the story moved along at a good clip, mostly without bogging down.  From me, given my recent reactions to science fiction, that's high praise.

If I have a complaint it is that some of the story winds up being a bit opaque, and I am still not entirely clear on what really happened in the history being described.  Then again it is, after all, history, and that may well be deliberate.

There are two more books in the series, or so I am informed: Polaris and Seeker.  I will probably look them up.

The Art Of Demotivation, E. L. Kersten, PH.D

Title: The Art of Demotivation
Author: E. L. Kersten, PH.D
Rating: Neutral

What to say about this book?  It's a tough one to review.

I've seen bunches of business fads come and go in my time in the high tech industry.  I have seen offshoots of the human empowerment movement, various ways of categorizing people by communication style, and a zillion pep rallies of various forms.  They were all, in a word, crap.

I am a cynic, though, and I admit it.

When I learned of this book from the chief of Despair, Inc. - the makers of Demotivators (tm) and other amusements - it seemed like it might be a funny read.  I wish that had been the case.

Kersten's tome comes across as all too serious.  I think it's supposed to be humor, but if so it didn't work that well for me.  His thesis - that management is better off creating a demotivating work environment in which employees will resign themselves to their fate, thus costing the company less in benefits (and related expenses), taking fewer chances, and even being so paranoid about keeping their jobs that they won't leave as often - sounds all too real to me in this day and age.

Personally I've been lucky in much of my work.  I've had a few enlightened employers and some good managers, so I have seen how a good work environment can function.  In my own time in management I've done my best to make things work like that for my employees too.  But I have also seen some of the darker side of things, and I know many who have seen far worse.  Kersten's suggestions could be marching orders in far too many cases.

While I suspect his tongue really is firmly in his cheek, that only came through effectively (for me) when he briefly discussed how senior management should be treated, and how they need to be kept apart from employees.  A couple of those sections caused me to smirk, at least.

But nothing caused a belly laugh, and I can imagine someone who isn't in on the joke thinking this is a real blueprint for how to manage a company.  It's that dry and straight in its presentation.

As a result I am not sure this book is successful.  Maybe if you've read a bunch of books on management theory the jokes are more obvious, but I found myself cringing too many times at how close to reality his "recommendations" are in far too many cases.  Ever since the MBAs starting running the zoo companies are less human and less caring.  Squeezing every last dime out of an operation doesn't leave room for anything as simple as having fun in the office.  The Art Of Demotivation could easily make that worse as far as I can tell.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Atheist Universe: David Mills

Title: Atheist Universe
Author: David Mills
Rating: OK

Atheist Universe is an excellent introduction to the atheist point of view. It covers a wide ranging set of topics from a straight forward, "this is why we think that" perspective. If you're an atheist but not used to defending your turf, this book will help you see how do so. If you're wondering how someone can get along without believing in God, this book will explain it.

It isn't a perfect volume, though. Really deep explanations - the actual underlying science - isn't here. That's not a problem, really, and it would make the book vastly larger to include even a small portion of it. Mills summarizes it when needed, and he mostly gets it right. The years since the last update and the fact that I am better read them him in a few areas give me a couple of minor quibbles with his statements, but they don't invalidate his arguments.

More problematic is his style, which is somewhat "in your face". Some would call it aggressive or pushy. Others might call it calling a spade a spade. Regardless, he isn't afraid to tell you what he thinks is right, and in this era of political correctness I enjoyed much of it.

There is one chapter - on Christian fundamentalists and internet porn - which seems out of place to me, but the rest is pretty solid stuff. If you want deeper arguments - covering the philosophy or science in depth - you need to look elsewhere, but if you want a summary of why an atheist might think the things s/he does, this is a fine place to start. Just be prepared to be challenged if you come from that perspective. Mills is confident that all religion is silly and says so. I happen to agree with him.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Willful Creatures, Aimee Bender

Title: Willful Creatures
Author: Aimee Bender
Rating: OK

Willful Creatures is a collection of short stories by Aimee Bender. These came highly recommended and I was looking forward to reading this volume. Sadly, though, they didn't stick with me.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy reading them. I did, in a way, but life has been busy and now, just a few weeks later, I cannot remember any of them without flipping the book open to renew my memory.

What I do recall from reading the book is that the behavior and motivations of the characters seemed rather arbitrary. I know these are short stories so I don't expect the kind of character development I'd get in a novel, but then again I do expect to see something, some explanation for what they do or why they do it. That was lacking.

The situations were interesting - they must have been or I would have abandoned the book - but there was something lacking in the motivations that kept me from being sucked in as deeply as I might have otherwise.

I suspect that Bender has a consistent style. If you've read other works by her and liked them it is likely you will like this. Alternately if you didn't like her other works, then you probably won't appreciate this one much. If you're not sure, reading it won't cost you much time - it is a quick read, and most stories are very short - and you can make up your own mind. For me, I think I am done with Bender's short fiction. It's not bad, but there is lot that I would rather read.

Three Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser books, Fritz Leiber

Three Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books
Fritz Leiber

These are the first three in the Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser series by Fritz Leiber:
  1. Swords And Devilty
  2. Swords Against Death
  3. Swords In the Mist
These are fluff, pure and simple, though they are somewhat fun fluff. After reading all three of these books none of the characters except Fafhrd and the Mouser themselves are at all memorable, but that's OK. Each has a magical advisor/nemesis as well - one with seven eyes, I recall - but I can't tell you their names nor which goes with which main character.

I found the plots somewhat thin and the resolutions somewhat weak, but that really didn't bother me. I think reading these books is about the atmospherics. Many of the tropes of fantasy are present in them - a thieves guild, mysterious mages of unspeakable power, strange events, etc.

The most disappointing thing about these books is how much action takes place off stage. It seems that Leiber is always telling us that there were other adventures that the heroes have been on that set the stage for what they're seeing and doing now, but we never hear about those adventures except for the sentence telling us they happened.

These are not great literature, but they are kind of fun. I might read more - there are seven or eight, at least, in the series - or I might not. Time will tell.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale, Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon, Chris Samnee

Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale
Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon, Chris Samnee

The Shepherd's Tale is a short graphic novel given much of the back story behind Shepherd Book, one of the characters from Firefly and Serenity. I enjoyed it greatly, but I am a fan. In truth it's a quick read, but it seems important back story for the series. I wish it could have been fleshed out in the original medium, though, rather than in book form.

An interesting device is the telling of the shepherd's story in reverse, starting at the Haven Mining Colony and working back through his life, linking formative incidents and events in a chain.

Recommended for fans. Those who don't know Firefly and Serenity need not bother until they do know them.

Wired: The short life and fast times of John Belushi, Bob Woodward

Wired: The short life and fast times of John Belushi
Bob Woodward

I decided to read this book because I have made the comment on a few occasions that certain authors need a visit from the samurai editor. And of course, when you get there you have to think about John Belushi. He was an amazing performer and capable of so much.

Sadly Wired can only be described as a downer.

The writing is utilitarian, not pretty, but it's a journalist's account of Belushi's life, not a fan's, so that is to be expected. The problem is actually the subject matter.

Belushi's slide into drug addition and death makes for painful reading. He had a cocaine habit of vast proportions, and his fame meant he had more than enough money to sustain it. To make matters worse, though, almost the entire culture he was surrounded with treated it as perfectly normal. A couple of people seemed to have tried to provide some restraint, but nothing was effective and the train wreck that was his life continued without a hiccup. Woodward drops names all over the place, and almost none come away looking good. It makes for unpleasant reading.

If you want to know more about Belushi's short life you'll find it in Wired, but it isn't fun reading.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lady Oracle, Margaret Atwood

Lady Oracle
Margaret Atwood

I've been holding off on this review for a while, which is something I tend to do. A bit of distance from the book I am reviewing lets me see how well it holds up, and if it sticks with me or not.

Lady Oracle is an earlier work by Atwood, and one I have struggled to come to an opinion about.

On the plus side, Atwood's writing is generally quite good, and her characters are very alive. Her heroine has history in a way most people can't remember about themselves, and Atwood writes it lovingly.

On the minus side, though, all that history is just about all there is. She spends most of the book on back story, and then suddenly the pace picks up to tell about what is happening in the present. It comes across feeling disjoint as a result of those pacing issues. To me it was like the heroine now and the heroine in the past were two entirely different people.

Finally, the biggest issue for me is that almost nothing happens. Yes, the heroine does fake her own death – don't worry, that's on the back cover, and not a spoiler – but that's about the only actual event that takes place. The rest is all interior monologue and a few conversations.

To be clear, it's not that I only like books in which things are blown up, but I sadly conclude that Lady Oracle goes too far into the realm where nothing ever happens for my taste. Lovers of Atwood or less action based stories might appreciate this one.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Wave In The Mind, Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Wave In The Mind
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Rating: OK

The Wave In The Mind is a book of essays by Le Guin covering a variety of topics. In reviewing it I know I am going to get into trouble, but so be it.

On the plus side, Le Guin ends with a series of essays about writing. These I found interesting and informative. And some of the other works were interesting in various ways, but not all of them. The problem is that her outlook and my own just don't agree on a couple of things.

I consider myself a feminist of sorts. I hate discrimination in any form, and treating women badly - in any way - stinks. But I draw the line when feminism starts creeping into science, and I'm afraid Le Guin has consumed some of that cool-aid. I find it distressing.

Deep science - like physics - can be objective, and the gender of the people doing the research shouldn't matter in the least to the results of the work. (Who can get funded and published is a different kettle of fish, I know, but physics experiments don't care if it's Adam or Amanda trying to figure things out.) I understand it gets fuzzier in the softer sciences, but it isn't clear that Le Guin makes the distinction. That crawled up my nose a bit while reading some of these pieces.

Nothing in here was life changing, and much of it won't impact anyone's career as a writer, but there are some interesting items. It might be worth checking out from the local library if you're curious.

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut

Mother Night
Kurt Vonnegut

Meh. Once again Vonnegut fails to appeal.

Mother Night is the supposed tale of an American who worked for Germany during WWII, but had a double life of sorts as a spy. He was an English language broadcaster who was passing information out to the allies as part of his show. But what he did and said on his show was really awful. Supposedly this is supposed to make the reader think.

I found the presentation boring, and the lack of humor - supposedly one of Vonnegut's strengths - a real problem. That said, it wasn't bad, really, but it barely held my attention and didn't stick with me.

A blurb on the back cover says Mother Night is "in the Catch-22 vein." Had I known that in advance I wouldn't have wasted my time. I really didn't like Catch-22. Oh well.

Other than Cat's Cradle, though, it appears I am just not cut out for reading Vonnegut. I have one more on my TBR shelf. Maybe I'll get to it one of these days.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

Title: The Sparrow
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Rating: Good

If I have my facts right, The Sparrow is Mary Doria Russell's first work of fiction. She was an academic before turning to writing for a living. It won several awards, and I can see why.

It's a story of mankind's first contact with intelligent life from another world. In this case we encounter radio broadcasts from a planet in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri, and an entirely private expedition is mounted and sent there by the Jesuit order before any other body can get things rolling.

Only one of the crew - Father Emilio Sandoz - survives and returns to earth, and the controversy around his return is challenging, to say the least. The book tells the story of the expedition to Rakhat, alternating between the present - after Sandoz's return - and the past - following the expedition directly.

On the plus side, Russell's writing is quite good, and her characters are, by and large, extremely vivid. Though this is a science fiction story, what it features is people and how they deal with events well beyond their control or understanding. We feel for Sandoz in his struggle to come to terms with what happened to him on Rakhat, and for those in his order trying to find out what those events really were.

The alien planet and culture are well described and believable, at least for me. Rakhat is different enough that understanding it isn't trivial, and yet similar enough that there is the basis for some understanding at all. This isn't Star Trek; everyone doesn't speak English.

In general the story is well told, well plotted, and well written, but I have two issues that hold me back from giving this book a really great review.

First, Russell disposes of some of her characters to abruptly, even some we have followed for a long time. Yes, real people do just die, sometimes unexpectedly, but I found that a bit frustration here. I had come to care about these characters over many pages, and found the parting more than abrupt in some cases.

Secondly there are some issues of logic and practicality that Russell ignores. The expedition makes no effort (that we are told about, in any case) to avoid contaminating Rakhat with organisms (of any size) originating on earth, nor do they adequately protect themselves from anything potentially hazardous to humans upon arrival. As a pragmatic manner, even a completely privately funded expedition of this nature would need to take a lot more precautions than are documented here. In truth, such precautions would probably have made the story impossible to tell, though. Contact and linguistic understanding would have taken years, not weeks, and much of the story would not even be possible. In that light I understand the lack of caution, but I lost the willing suspension of disbelief in a few places as a result.

I wish I could bring complex characters like Emilio Sandoz to life on the page the way Russell does. It gives me something to aspire to, I suppose.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

See No Evil, Robert Baer

See No Evil
Robert Baer

See No Evil is the true story of author Robert Baer's time in the CIA, with a particular emphasis on the middle east. It was published after 9/11 but it appears to have been written before then, which makes much of what it has to say even more relevant. I found it a very good read and profoundly disturbing on two different levels.

First, and mostly to Baer's point, is the disintegration of the CIA that he describes. Though the CIA started out as an entity responsible for obtaining information about foreign governments, it should have been our best defense against the attacks of 9/11. Instead, by the time those attacks happened it had little ability to get hard information from actual people. The typically American love of technology, bureaucracy, and general ass covering had taken over. We had lovely satellite pictures, but no one on the ground who could actually tell us what was going on.

Baer's complaints aren't unique. After 9/11 we heard about the CIA's lack of agents and information over and over again, from many sources. Baer manages to give that disintegration a personal spin, though. He loved his job but hated what his employer had become, which is something many of us can probably relate to, even if we do it in much less serious circumstances.

On the other hand, Baer's description of the actual job - running agents and the risks entailed - makes me wonder why anyone would do it at all. The things Baer can actually describe in detail - the book was censored by the CIA, as required by Baer's employment agreement, and the black bars of redacted passages are left intact - are enough to make me rethink the entire business. How much risk is too much? Where do we draw the line on what is and isn't allowed? Who can make those decisions when time is extremely limited and the people involved are under enormous pressure?

There are no easy answers here, as in much of life. Baer doesn't sugar coat his disdain for the CIA's unwillingness to take risks as his career progresses, but at times I really wondered where the right answers were.

I recommend this book, and suggest we all think about these things. Since 9/11 we all know the US's intelligence infrastructure has grown and changed, but what has it really become? There's no good way to know, short of becoming part of it in some way. I wish we didn't need it at all, but that isn't the real world.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Meaning Of It All, Richard P. Feynman

The Meaning Of It All
Richard P. Feynman

The Meaning Of It All is a transcription of three lectures the famous physicist gave back in 1963, as part of the John Danz Lecture Series at the University of Washington. This book was published in 1998, ten years after Feynman died of cancer.

I am of mixed minds about this book. I have to cut it some slack because it appears to be a transcription of the lectures, lacking only the "uhms" and pauses of speech, but including the digressions and spontaneous things that happen when speaking only from notes or off the top of one's head. As a result, some of what is here is hard to follow or mixed up. I cannot fault anyone for that, and I am sure the lectures themselves were just fine because they included his gestures, pauses, and so on that added the nuances lost in the transcription. Setting aside the limitations of the format, though, there are pluses and minuses to what is here.

Feynman was brilliant, of that there is no doubt. He was also something of a polymath, with a wide array of interests and the willingness to explore many topics that other scientists of his day ignored. I admire him for those qualities.

Further, he's eminently rational in most instances discussed here. For example, in the third lecture he dismisses a slew of pseudo-sciences (astrology, quack medicine, and so on) and just plain dishonest behavior that still plague us today. All to the good. But there are times where he gets things wrong, or defines things in unusual ways.

Getting something wrong - as he does when he equates mind reading with telekinesis - I can mostly ignore. Maybe it was just something that came up spontaneously in the lecture. (Note that he effectively dismisses both items, apparently only confusing the names.) More problematic for me is when he says that religion and science don't conflict. To come to that conclusion, though, he defines religion in a particular way, and effectively excludes a lot of Christianity in the process, such that his effective claim is more like science has no conflict with some smaller subset of Christianity. In our highly polarized age, where the non-religious feel like their world is shrinking every day, and where the religious feel the same way for entirely different reasons, his statements didn't ring true.

In summary, I'm sure these lectures show something about Feynman himself and his approach to the world, but I found them a bit disorganized and not as profound as I'd hoped. Maybe I am not giving him enough credit, though. I'm quite certain that he was a lot smarter than me, and the times are very different now.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Superfreakonomics is the follow-on to the original Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. Oddly, this one feels at once both less and more significant, but retains the style of the original.

Why less significant? Hard to say, actually. Some of the subject matter - much of which concerns prostitution - just felt less important and interesting to me. Yes, of course, it is a business and economics applies, but I didn't get any new insights as a result of this information.

On the other hand, some of the material - particularly that discussing global warming - felt more important than anything I recall in the first volume. The discussions about how one might approach fixing global warming were interesting and enlightening.

I consider myself something of a realist on the global warming front. It seems pretty clear to me that the planet is warming up, and that humanity is at least somewhat responsible, but the important thing is what we do about it, not the placing of blame or even the fingering of specific causes. And as usual with the media there is a lot of hype and cruft on both sides of the argument, making it difficult to separate truth and falsehood.

It seems likely that we'll have to do something about it in the end and it is interesting to read the proposed mitigations here. The authors appear to think getting to carbon free energy sources is a good idea as soon as we can make it happen - for any number of reasons - but that getting there will probably take longer than we want to wait for those energy sources, or for the carbon we've already emitted to be reduced back to normal levels. I tend to agree on all counts.

In one way this book is much better than the first. I didn't come away feeling that the authors were out to promote themselves, which they did a bit of the first time around.

In a nutshell this is a good but lightweight book. If it, like its predecessor, causes people to think about new things in economic terms, that's a good thing.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum

The Bourne Identity
Robert Ludlum

Published in 1980, The Bourne Identity tells part of the story of Jason Bourne, a man who, well... this gets a bit complicated.

First of all, the book and the movie of the same name, while related, tell very different stories. I have a fascination with the conversions of novels into movies, and it was only after I watched the movie (9 years after it was released) that I bothered to track down and read the book, mostly to see how it had been converted into a movie.

Both the movie and the book center around an individual suffering severe amnesia who gradually discovers his past. Some of the other characters share names between the book and the movie, but the story arcs are very different.

In the book we learn that Jason Bourne is part of a plot to remove a master assassin named Carlos. He has to figure that out of course, thanks to the amnesia. As in the movie there is a woman, Marie, who helps him, though in the book she's an expert in international finance instead of a student.

Oddly - and rarely, in my experience - the movie may actually be better than the book, though it's a close thing. In the book I didn't buy the relationship between Bourne and Marie. She fell for him too easily given their "introduction" and nothing in his character made me think he loved her, even though those words were used. Early chapters bogs down in needless detail about certain financial transactions. Later chapters moved along better, but the details of some of Bourne's history got hazy, so things weren't perfect there either. And, frankly, Carlos seemed too good - and too powerful - to be true.

That being said, Bourne himself has a less nasty past in the book than he does in the movie. He feels a bit cleaner here, and possibly a bit more likable. The movie, while being more up to date in many ways, gives Bourne an uglier background, one where his motivations and origin are a lot more gray than white. It then promptly sugar coats it, though, leaving the audience happy and probably not thinking about it too much.

I guess the book is worth reading. Ludlum did get some things right, but it's not perfect.

Hiding The Elephant, Jim Steinmeyer

Title: Hiding The Elephant
Author: Jim Steinmeyer
Rating: Good

Hiding the Elephant discusses the golden age of magic, an era starting in the mid 1800's and ending somewhere around 1920. Magic shows were a major form of entertainment, the egos of the performers were huge, and they fought with or spied on each other with ferocity. And yet there was something gentlemanly about the occupation that clings to it even today.

Steinmeyer gives us a cast of about twelve characters plus supporting parts that collectively show what was going on during the times. He focuses loosely on optical illusions, particularly their history and development, but he tells the story of these magicians as well.

You will learn some of the secrets here - how a particular levitation was performed, for example - but giving away those secrets isn't the author's intent. The people are what matter. And yes, in the end we do learn how Houdini made an elephant disappear, but much more interesting is Houdini himself, and all the others.

If you like stage magic there is a lot to recommend this book. Steinmeyer knows the history in depth and shares it well. If there is a problem it's that at times he tries to share too much, and sometimes the path of the story gets a little lost.

Still, this is an excellent introduction to the time, the magicians, and the techniques they used. Recommended.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Every Living Thing, James Herriot

Every Living Thing
James Herriot

The final book in the series whose titles are based on the famous poem, this is more vintage Herriot. Nearly all positive, warm stories that have animals at the center.

Some consider these books way too sweet, but I enjoy them. It's good to know that someone else out there cared like this.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Against All Things Ending, Stephen R. Donaldson

Against All Things Ending
Stephen R. Donaldson

This may be among Donaldson's best, though I see on Amazon that the reviews are mixed. This is book three of four in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and does what it needs to quite well.

The Last Chronicles tell a very large tale, wrapping together the entire history of the Land - and the universe it exists in - to, it appears, bring the story of Covenant, Linden, and Lord Foul to a conclusion. The first two volumes in the series set the stage, introduced the characters, and - Donaldson being who he is - put those characters under tremendous stress.

Finally we start to see some things being resolved in Against All Things Ending, though not nearly everything. And the final resolution of the story is still unclear given what has been written so far.

Donaldson's writing is meticulous, as always, and he is prone to using words most of us haven't encountered. As a result, this book - and, indeed, the entire series - is not for fans of typical, lightweight, modern fantasy. His descriptions are painstakingly vivid, he's hard on his characters, and on the reader. Some people just won't like it.

But I do, and I can heartily recommend this book, though an argument could be made for waiting until the last volume is published so you can read them all in one fell swoop, without year long gaps in the story.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Rise Of Endymion, Dan Simmons

The Rise Of Endymion
Dan Simmons

Well, I'm done with the Hyperion series now, and I'm glad.

The Rise Of Endymion wraps up the Hyperion books for good, or so I hope. It's not that it's a bad book, but it could have been so much better.

Slow to the point of plodding at times, we're told about character development rather than seeing it, and quite a few things are very predictable.

I've called this book "OK" purely because if you've gotten through the first three in the series you'll probably want to read this one to learn the bits of the ending that you don't already know. That said, it's not all that well written.

A major problem that inhabits all four volumes is that Simmons lets his imagination run way ahead of what he's already written. He created a particular universe in Hyperion, changed a couple of the fundamentals in The Fall Of Hyperion, changed a lot of the fundamentals in Endymion, and a few more in The Rise Of Endymion. Effectively he's rewriting the rules of the game - his laws of physics and rules of behavior - on the fly. Changing even one rule like that in the middle of a series is difficult to do well. Your readers tend to lose their willing suspension of disbelief when you pull that stunt. Simmons does it so many times you just start to give up. There are no touchstones you can return to here.

In summary, I think the original Hyperion is a pretty good book, but it has no ending, and the three that follow it get progressively less well written. It's a shame, really. Hyperion has such promise.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Endymion, Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons

Endymion is the first book in the second part of the Hyperion series. In it Dan Simmons takes up the story of Hyperion, some of the characters from the first series, and (of course) the Shrike some 200+ years after the first series.

Religion takes an even thicker role here than it did in Hyperion and The Fall Of Hyperion, and much of the story is a travelogue, with little in the way of explanation for why the characters are traveling where they are. In fact, they all just kind of accept apparently random travel for no good reason, which got on my nerves.

In truth, though, several things seem off here. First of all, Simmons takes some major departures from things he setup in the first Hyperion novels. Flinging aside major characters - like the new pope - with reckless abandon, and recasting events in new and entirely unexpected ways. Going so far, in fact, as to basically tell us that much of what we learned in the first two books was wrong, misleading, or outright lies told by characters there.

When combined with the oppressive presence of Catholicism and the seemingly pointless travels of the characters, it got a bit old, and I even considered putting it aside. In the end, though, a couple of minor characters - the Shrike and Nemes - kept me from doing so. Well, that and the fact that I was traveling and needed something to read where I was at the time.

Sadly, Simmons's main hero - Raul Endymion - is both boring and a bit dimwitted. I'd rather he'd focused more on Aenea or A. Bettik.

And yet again we have a cover featuring a two armed Shrike. Where was the editor during the process of getting these books out? Nonexistent, apparently.

I have some reservations - some of which may or may not be resolved by the final book in the series, The Rise Of Endymion, which I am reading now - but fans of Hyperion will probably want to read it.

The Fall Of Hyperion, Dan Simmons

The Fall Of Hyperion
Dan Simmons

The Fall Of Hyperion completes the story started in Hyperion. In the first book the main characters - well, most of them anyway - got to the time tombs on Hyperion and big events are just starting to happen. You might expect the next volume in the series to pick up right there, but no. Simmons instead introduces us to an entirely new character and starts giving us his back story, gradually weaving it into with the original tale.

We eventually get the story of the last Shrike pilgrimage worked out, sort of. There are a lot of unanswered questions, though, and some less than entirely satisfactory story telling. It's not that I require everything to be wrapped up with a pretty, pink bow, but something seems to be missing.

I noted more instances where an editor would have helped, as in Hyperion itself, and the damn cover image still features a two armed Shrike, not the four armed one actually described in the novel. *sigh*

In all I am not quite sure what to make of this. It's good, but not great, interesting, but less than fulfilling. I wish Simmons had done more with it, but I can still recommend it.

Hyperion, Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons

I first read Hyperion quite a few years ago. So long ago, in fact, that with my rust memory it was almost like reading it for the first time again. As I recall, I really enjoyed it the first time around. I remember thinking it was a great book. Really great. Sometimes it stinks getting older. This time I can call Hyperion a good book, but not a great one.

Simmons clearly has a lot to tell, and even having read it before I was still surprised that it's only half the story, completed in The Fall Of Hyperion. I found the characters interesting and the Shrike compelling, but I seem to be growing tired of the "journey as story" phenomenon. Why is it so hard to find interesting stories that don't include the main characters traveling vast distances? Here we watch the main characters travel by space ship, tramway, wind wagon, and on foot. I didn't object that much as I was reading it, but it did sometimes seem that moving the characters around was more important than the rest of the story. That got a bit old, particularly in hind sight.

If I have any real gripes, though, they are actually less serious. There were a couple of places where Simmons desperately needed an editor. A few sections of repetitive text and a mention of a checking account (yes, really), for example, bugged me. There were also some possible printing errors in my copy, but they might instead have been writing errors an editor would have found and removed. Editing seems to be a lost art these days.

Finally though, the biggest irritant for me is the cover art. The Shrike has four (4!) arms dammit! Why on earth (or Hyperion) do we have four volumes in this series and only the fourth finally gets that little detail right on the cover? What sort of nitwit artists did these covers without reading enough about what they were painting to get it right. Gah! (Yes, this is trivial, I know, but it's amazing how it bugs me now as I sit here with the books writing reviews.)

Anyway, if you can get past these few oddities and irritants, Hyperion is a good tale. Be prepared to read Fall Of Hyperion too, though, or you'll never know how things end.

Paul Of Dune, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Paul Of Dune
Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

I love the original Dune books by Frank Herbert. Well, I love some of them and appreciate the others for what they are, even if they aren't up the quality of Dune or God Emperor Of Dune, which are the best two in the series. Sadly, however, Herbert died with the series incomplete, and left a lot of questions unanswered.

His son, Brian Herbert, picked up the tale with co-writer Kevin J. Anderson, but rather than continue where Herbert left off, they have so far set their stories before or between the original novels in the series.

I'd read another one of their works some time back - Dune, House Atreides, I think - and found it flat. Recently, though, I was given a copy of Paul Of Dune and decided to try it, to see if the earlier work was just a poor example or actually reflected the reality of what Herbert and Anderson are writing. Sadly, it turns out to be the latter.

The Dune universe provides a rich tapestry to work with: compelling characters, fascinating settings, unique technology, incredibly complicated politics, and (of course) the spice. Herbert and Anderson, though, simply cannot find anything interesting to write about here. In fact, they barely find anything to write about at all.

The story has no focus, and we go from chapter to chapter wondering why any of it matters. It appears the time Paul Atreides spends consolidating power after assuming the role of emperor is pretty dull. If this wasn't fiction it might even be true that nothing of interest happened during this period, but Herbert and Anderson could and should have done better. Alternately, if they are following notes left by Frank himself, they should have skipped this part of Dune's history and written about something else. Something that matters.

Vacuum Diagrams, Stephen Baxter

Vacuum Diagrams
Steven Baxter

Thanks to a lot of conflicts and two crazy jobs in the past year I am behind on my book reviews. That makes writing them a bit tougher as I have to root around in my entirely inadequate memory for what I thought of these things months ago when I finished them. I'll do my best...

Vacuum Diagrams is a collection of science fiction short stories that collect and intertwine the author's larger works in a (relatively) cohesive whole. Baxter actually pulls this off better than many - Asimov and Heinlein come to mind as examples of those who should never have tried such a thing - probably because he actually did have a relatively cohesive world view as he wrote his various works.

Nevertheless, while I found these stories acceptable, they really didn't stick with me. There's something about huge, sweeping tales - these cover the entire history of our universe, and introduce a second, if that makes any sense out of context - that makes me want more than just short stories to get them to stick.

If you've read other things by Baxter and enjoyed them then this may be your thing. You can see the overall view of the universe(s) he imagines here. For me, though, these were simply OK stories without enough glue to make them work overall.