50 Books in 2012 – Goal Achieved

Posted by ted @ 9:09 am, December 17th, 2012

Serendipity Books III

Yesterday I accomplished my goal of reading 50 books in 2012. Several years ago I started keeping a list of books as I read them, mainly just as a way to remember what I had read and be able to assign titles to the random bits of fiction floating around in my head. Two years ago I set a kind of random goal of 30 books and read 37, then having made that, last year I set it at 40 and ended up with 43. So this year I went for 50. The only real effect on my reading was pushing me to move right on to the next book every time I finished one instead of savoring it for a few days, which I am not sure I always like. For 2013 I have decided to drop the number goal and have instead set my sites on getting all the way through Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I got about half way through it in 1997 and have always wanted to try again. After that I think I will try something else new to me and re-read some of my favorites, like the The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke.

Below is my list of books I read in 2012 (in reverse order), an eclectic mix ranging from science fiction to mystery to humor to classics.

-Books I read in 2012-

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (50! Goal met!) – I enjoy Doctorow’s writing. This one is a good story with a strong message, but at some points the story was a bit too thin and the message was a bit too heavy, coming across as a little preachy. While I agree with it overall, this is a very one sided take on a complicated issue.

The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold – A somewhat odd tale of the personal hazards of unlimited time travel

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan – A fun modern mystery. Someone called it a cross between Da vinci Code and Jpod, and I like that description

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente – A fun, if frivolous, fantasy adventure

The Hollow Earth: The Narrative of Mason Algiers Reynolds of Virginia by Rudy Rucker

Flush by Carl Hiaasen (45)

Djinn Rummy by Tom Holt

The Man Who Sold The Moon by Robert A. Heinlein

Captiva (Doc Ford) by Randy Wayne White

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold (40)

The Well at the World’s End by William Morris

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cat-A-Lyst by Alan Dean Foster

Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen

Doctor Who: Shada: The Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams by Gareth Roberts (35)

Off the Grid (A Monkeewrench Novel) by P. J. Tracy

Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt

The Stingray Shuffle by Tim Dorsey

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (30) – A fascinating pretense that failed to resolve into a satisfying storyline, but enjoyable overall.

Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams – Revisiting an old favorite

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi – Hilarious and clever meta meta meta story that not only breaks the fourth wall, but denies its existence all together.

Falling Sideways by Tom Holt – Clever, funny and utterly bizarre as Tom Holt is so skilled at being.

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Crucible of Gold (Temeraire) by Naomi Novik

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift – Been a long time since I read this the first time. Bit slower than I remember but still a classic.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – An intriguing modern fantasy. I felt it was longer than necessary in places, but overall an enjoyable read that gave me a lot to think about.

Agatha H. and the Airship City (Girl Genius) by Phil Foglio

Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen (20)

Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Friday by Robert A. Heinlein

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

The Heart of the Serpent: Soviet Science Fiction by Ivan Yefremov and Strugatsky Arkady

The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizz

A Princess of Mars by Edgar R. Burroughs

Swiftly: A Novel by Adam Roberts

Quick Red Fox (Travis McGee, No. 4) by John D. MacDonald

Nothing But Blue Skies by Tom Holt

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (10)

The Electrical Field: A Novel by  Kerri Sakamoto

Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen

Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore

The Children of the Sky (Zones of Thought) by Vernor Vinge

Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes

American Gods: A Novel by Neil Gaiman

Deadly Stillwater by Roger Stelljes

On (GollanczF.) by Adam Roberts

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Larklight by Philip Reeve

Posted by ted @ 8:29 am, September 4th, 2009

“A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space”

I have just finished reading Larklight by Philip Reeve,  a fun space adventure intended for Young Adult readers. I shared this book with my 11 year old son B and we both enjoyed it. It is the middle of the 19th century and Sir Isaac Newton has not only figured out the properties of gravity, but has also used alchemy to discover the secret of the “chemical wedding” in an alembic chamber that can be used to power ships to other planets. Now the British Empire rules not only the Earth, but the other planets in the solar system as well. Art and his sister Myrtle are forced to flee their home, “Larklight”, in orbit of the moon when they are invaded by giant space spiders. They embark on a grand adventure, teaming up with a young space pirate Jack Havock and his band of alien misfits, to not only fight the spiders, but also save the planet earth and in the process learn great secrets about the origins of our solar system.
I though this was going to be an “alternative history” type of story with the main pretense being that space travel was invented during the Victorian era, but it turned out to have a twist in that line as it is written from a sensibility of that time period as well. The ships, which resemble wooden sailing ships more than rockets (and use canvas wings along with their engines),  do not travel in “space” but in the “aether” where the “air is thin” and numerous forms of wildlife, including space fish (or Ichthyomorphs), whales and giant squid roam. There are mushroom people and giant moths on the moon and, of course, canals on Mars. The combination of advanced technology in a victorian setting can not help but have a bit of “steampunk” feel to it, but I would not really apply that overused term to this book.
A fun romp for 11-15 year-olds, or adults with a sense of whimsy looking for a light read.

The Art Of Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein

Posted by ted @ 9:55 am, May 23rd, 2009

art of racing in the rain

I have just finished reading a kind of unusual book called “The Art Of Racing In The Rain” by Garth Stein. I suppose you could say it is a book about life, love, family and overcoming hardships and surviving to see better times. Frankly I do not usually enjoy books about heartbreaking family struggles, but this one had two very interesting features that made it quite enjoyable to read. First, the entire story-line is framed around professional race car driving. Using the challenge of completing a difficult race both as a metaphor for making it through life’s troubles, and as a real and practical connection between how the skills and strategies one uses to be a successful race car driver can be applied to the rest of their life. Also included are some wonderful emotive descriptions of the thrill of high speed track driving that should connect with anyone with even a mild love of driving. The second interesting feature of this book is that it is told entirely from the point of view of a dog named Enzo (as in Ferrari). A smart and aware dog that observes and understands what is going on around him (sometimes better than his human counterparts) but is hindered by his frustrating lack of the power to speak (and lack of thumbs), which prevents him from sharing his insights and guidance with his people. Even though Enzo’s intelligence may (or may not) be unrealistically high for a dog, the character is still very much a real dog, and not anthropomorphized into being too human, as some children’s books might do. Like all of us, even the dog in this story has life lessons to learn, as he prepares himself for what he is sure will be his eventual reincarnation into a man. The author does an excellent job of using Enzo as an outside observer to present commentary on the events of the story, while offering some wonderful philosophy of life from a dog’s eye view.

First paragraph:

“Gestures are all I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.”

Getting to go a drive on the track:

“One bark means slower, two means faster, got it?”
I barked twice, and that surprised him and Pat an Jim, who were both leaning in the passenger window. “He wants to go faster already,” Jim said. “You’ve got yourself a good dog there.”
“You okay?” he asked, looking at me as we sped nearly one hundred twenty miles per hour down the back straight’
I barked twice.
“I’m gonna use up my tires if you keep me out here,” he said. “One more lap.”
Yes, one more lap. One more lap. Forever, one more lap. I live my life for one more lap. I give my life for one more lap! Please, God, please give me one more lap!
And that lap was spectacular…

A little philosophy on attitude:

“That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.”

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

Posted by ted @ 12:19 pm, February 24th, 2009

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow
A strange and wonderful book about two men trying to create a network of free wireless internet access across the city using found electronics. Only one of the men has a father who is a mountain and a mother who is a washing machine. “My father kept a roof over our head, and my mother kept our clothes clean”. One of his brothers is an island, while three others are Russian nesting dolls, and yet another can see the future. Perhaps all an elaborate strange metaphor about family history and family dynamics, it is also about trying to fit in the world when you leave home, while dealing with the family baggage you carry with you. Manages to nail that strange conflict of forces in an outsider who looks down with disdain on society, while at the same time wishing they just knew how to fit in.
One odd bit of business in this book is that the sons in this family each go by a variety of names, differentiated only by beginning letter. The text will switch names for the same person multiple times in a paragraph, or even mid sentence.  As in something like, “Adam walked into the room and said hi to Daniel. Hi Able, says David, How are you Devon, said Adric.” Presumably a statement on self identity which I never exactly nailed down.
An excellent, compelling, and sometimes a bit disturbing read which left me with a lot to think about. Also available as Creative Commons free download. Read it!

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Posted by ted @ 10:48 am, January 20th, 2009

The sea has taken everything.

But when much is taken, something is returned . . .

Mau left his home island to undergo a rite of passage to manhood. His child soul would remain behind on the other island, and his manhood soul was waiting for him at home. But on his return, the world is changed. A giant tsunami wave washes away his people and he is left, the soul survivor of his nation, somewhere between boyhood and manhood, without a soul, to try and rebuild. To succeed he will have to rely on ancient customs and beliefs, while at the same time learning to challenge the past, and question the superstitions that have guided his people. He rises to the amazing challenge. With the help of Daphne, a girl from across the world who is the soul survivor of a ship wreck left on his island, he overcomes the challenges and discovers a truth about his people which turns the world upside down.

I greatly enjoyed this book and found it left  me with a positive uplifting mood when I read it. The character in the book faces a great and terrible challenge when his world is washed away, and even though he loses sight of his path to the future, he never stops moving forward, becoming the person he needs to be to face whatever comes. In addition to the challenges of surviving in his new surroundings, he also faces a personal inner struggle to reconcile the beliefs and superstitions of his people with the tragedy that befell them. How could the Gods they honor and offer food sacrifices to, make this wave? He refuses to feel “grateful” for being spared when everyone was not and holds his ancestors and Gods accountable for the tragedy. This story offers a wonderful challenge to religion. It recognizes the importance of belief and ritual in helping someone deal with troubled times, and notes the practical benefits also. Properly disposing of your dead, and certain food prep rituals can prevent disease as well as provide emotional comfort. At the same time, it sharply points out the importance of continuing to learn and grow and challenge the world around you. A society deeply mired in the past and beholden to ancient ritual and superstition can stagnate and fail to advance in learning and technology, or even regress.

Terry Pratchett diverges from his Discworld series on this one, but manages to weave a compelling tale of adventure, survival and mystery. Add some philosophy, ghosts, cannibals, buried treasure, mutineers, sharks and beer you have a truly enjoyable read for Young Adults and Adults alike.


The Time Patrol by Poul Anderson

Posted by ted @ 2:31 pm, December 15th, 2008

I have just finished reading The Time Patrol by Poul Anderson. I first heard of Poul Anderson from this review of There Will Be Time that sounded like something I would enjoy. I was unable to find a copy that book, so I checked out “The Time Patrol” instead. I am feeling a bit lazy this morning so instead of writing my own synopsis I am borrowing this from the book jacket:

“The capacity for time travel has made human history a fragile thing. To protect the continuity of that history and guard humanity’s mysterious destiny, the men and woman of our own future have established the Time patrol, a far-flung organization dedicated to preserving the time lines and foiling the attempts of those who change history to suit their own purposes.”

This book is actually of collection of several shorter Time Patrol Stories combined with  “Star of the Sea”, the first full-length novel of Manse Edward and the Time Patrol. These stories are all very rich with a lot of historical details and color, and copious amounts of historical “what-if” speculation. What if that civilization had not rose to power, or if that leader can been killed before that great battle, or if that religion had taken hold and spread instead of the other one? I can not personally evaluate the accuracy of the historical details so generously offered in this book, but they seemed to be reasonable and were presented in a believable way. I would think that someone who was better versed in the historical details of ancient civilizations may be able to enjoy this book on another level. The premise is that the time line is somewhat elastic and will tend to recover or “snap back” from small changes (like one man’s death) but there are key individuals and moments in history that can shape many generations to come. Criminals from the future must be kept from influencing these key moments. The Time Patrol recruits suitable individuals from throughout time to study and maintain the time line.
Unfortunately the first few shorter stories seemed to be a bit repetitive and follow a clear pattern. First the agents travel back to a distant place and time, described with generous historical color and details, then a crisis unfolds which will mean the death of an agent or their loved ones. The only solutions to the crisis would involve breaking the Time Patrols strict rules, the biggest one being: an individual can not go back to change their own past. No jumping back a week to warn yourself not to open that door. Then the long buildup is quickly and neatly wrapped up by finding a way to bend (or break – just this once – wink) the rules. Luckily further in to the book the story lines grow longer and more complicated and involved.
Although a bit laborious at times wading through all the historical “what-ifs” while the characters try to identify the key moments of the time line that led to their own future which they must protect, this book is a good read and may be particularly interesting to students of history, ancient cultures or sociology.

Futuretrack 5 by Robert Westall

Posted by ted @ 10:18 am, November 20th, 2008

I have just finished reading the book Futuretrack 5 by Robert Westall
I picked up this book on a whim from a library sale table for my 10 year old son to read. He enjoyed it and recommended to me, so I read it also. I was overall quite impressed. Reading reviews on Amazon it appears to be somewhat of an overlooked young adult classic. Not so many people have heard of it, but those who have read it, loved it.
Part Mad Max, part THX1138, and many parts all its own, this book takes place in a future England (it ends in 2012) where society is strictly divided into different classes. There are the Ests, these are the rich, elite educated class who enjoy comfortable homes in fancy estates, leisure time recreation and travel. Then there are the Unems who live in poverty and squalor in a violent urban society. Birth rates among the Unems are low, and death rates are high. The Ests suffer from birth rates higher than their system can maintain, so at the age of 21 all Ests are required to take E-level exams. Those scoring too low are cast out (through the “wire”) to become Unems. Those scoring high enough remain Ests, and those scoring perfect are destined to become Techs, a secret class of engineers and technicians that create and maintain all the advanced technologies that keep the society running. Although violence and death is a regular part of everyday life for the Unems, there are still laws and rules and those found breaking them are immediately whisked away by Paramils to a “lobo farm” where they are reduced to passive house servants for the Ests. The title refers to “Futuretracks” or job paths that some of the Unems take, including entertainment, competitive pinball, prostitution or deadly motorcycle racing (Futuretrack 5). The main character, Henry Kitson,  is born an Est, but scores 100% on his E levels and becomes a Tech and begins to learn the secrets of how things are run, but there is one big secret he can not find out concerning a mysterious Scott-Astbury and his “big mistake”. Bright, clever, strong and resourceful, Henry is not satisfied to babysit the main computer, “Laura” and her senile creator and decides to leave the system and find out what is really going on. He adventures outside of “the wire” with his Unem companion Keri and, showing his abilities to adapt and succeed at whatever challenges face him, discovers an entire world outside his previous life and teachings. His discoveries, and his subsequent decision to try to change the world for the better left me with a lot to think about, and sparked some interesting discussions in our household on the role of government and the merits of free will in society. The ending is far from black and white and could be considered happy, sad or somewhere in between based on your personal interpretation, which I guess is a testament to the depth of this book.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Posted by ted @ 1:04 pm, November 17th, 2008

I have just finished reading Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.
In this book we follow the exploits of an angel (with a little mischief in him) and a demon (with a little good in him) as they disobey orders from their respective superiors and work together to try to delay the apocalypse (which would bring to an end the lifestyles they have come to enjoy on earth). We also meet a professional Witchhunter, a young witch who possesses the one truly accurate book of prophecies, and the “Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called the Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness” who otherwise appears to a be normal, mischievous English boy who happens to able to instantly master any computer game he tries and doesn’t particularly want to bring about the end of the world.

Published 1655, Agnes Nutter’s book of prophecies, although accurate and correct, was not always as useful as one might hope:

It was obvious that Agnes had a line to the Future, but it was an unusually narrow and specific line. In other words. almost totally useless.
“She managed to come up with the kind of predictions that you can only understand after the thing has happened, like ‘Do Notte Buye Betamacks.’ That was a prediction for 1972.
“Most of the time she comes up with such an oblique reference that you can’t work it out until it’s gone past, and then it all slots into place. And she didn’t know what was going to be important or not, so it’s all a bit hit and miss. Her prediction for November 22, 1963 was about a house falling down in King’s Lynn.”
“Oh?” Newt looked politely blank.
“President Kennedy was assassinated, ” said Anathema helpfully. “but Dallas didn’t exist then, you see. Whereas King’s Lynn was quite important.”

There is also an important lesson on the hazards of burning someone with future sight at the stake for being a witch:

“Thirty seconds later an explosion took out the village green, scythed the valley clean of every living thing, and was seen as far away as Halifax.
There was much subsequent debate as to whether this had been sent by God or by Satan, but a note later found in Agnes Nutter’s cottage indicated that any divine or devilish intervention had been materially helped by the contents of Agnes’s petticoats, wherein she had with some foresight concealed eighty pounds of gunpowder and forty pounds of roofing nails.”

I got a good chuckle at the demon Crowley’s vintage Bentley in which any cassette tape left for more than a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums:

“Ah, this is more like it. Tchaikovsky,” said Aziraphale, opening a case and slotting it into the Blaupunkt.
“You won’t enjoy it,” sighed Crowley. “It’s been in the car for more than a fortnight.” A heavy bass beat began to thump through the Bentley as they sped past Heathrow. Asiraphale’s brow furrowed.
“I Don’t recognize this, “he said. “What is it?”
“It’s Tchaikovsky’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’,” said Crowley […]
They also listened to William Byrd’s “We Are the Champions” and Beethoven’s “I Want to Break Free.” Neither were as good as Vaughan Williams’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls.”

I have read quite a bit of Terry Pratchett, including many of his Discworld books, but I had not yet had a chance to read Neil Gaiman so I am not able to judge his influence on this book. I did see a lot of Pratchett in this book and, although this is certainly not a Discworld book, the presence of the DEATH character (and the other horsemen of the apocalypse) and the descriptions of witches make it feel closely related. To me it felt like a cross between Discworld and Only Human by Tom Holt. An enjoyable irreverent romp, well worth the read.

Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone by Larry Millett

Posted by ted @ 11:43 am, November 16th, 2008

I have just finished reading another “Sherlock Holmes comes to Minnesota” book for our local library book group. In this story Holmes is called to Minnesota in 1899 to help investigate the mystery of the Kensington Runestone. For those who have not heard of it, this a real unsolved mystery from Western Minnesota. In 1898 a Swedish American farmer claimed to have discovered a stone tablet tangled in the roots of a tree. On the tablet were rune carvings which tell of a Viking exploration party exploring the area in 1362. If true, this would mean that Viking explorers ventured far further into North America than ever previously thought. Experts on both sides still debate whether the tablet is a hoax or real.
In this book the author takes some liberties with the story of the discovery of the Runestone, turning it into a murder mystery. Larry Millett does a fairly good job of creating a somewhat traditional Sherlock Holmes mystery story in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, although in our book group discussion we noted how in this case Holmes was surrounded by several other extremely bright and competent individuals who were able to match wits with the great Holmes, perhaps more than usually occurred in traditional Holmes novels. The author also seems to delight in describing the flavors of rural Western Minnesota including the landscape, the cold and the taciturn Swedish demeanor of its residents. I enjoyed the descriptions on other-worldy flat landscape of the Red River valley, and the factoids about the heavy wall construction of grain bins designed to support the outward pressure of the grain which flows like a liquid. This was a fun book which should appeal to Sherlock Holmes fans and Western Minnesota natives alike.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Posted by ted @ 12:30 pm, November 5th, 2008

A guest book post from my son B

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a series of books with a mix of genres that is based on the Greek mythos. The book has many surprises in the beginning, so I won’t give you too many details and ruin the surprise. I will, however, tell you a little bit:

Percy Jackson has it tough. His father left across the sea before he was born, and his mother married Smelly Gabe, who plays poker, is mean to Percy’s mother, sniffs out money like a bloodhound (and asks Percy for it), and blames Percy if so much as a bird would poop on his car (never mind that Percy can’t drive). His mother always goes out of her way to get blue food because Gabe once said there was no such thing. At least he has his best friend Grover to help him through hard times.  But Percy Jackson’s life is thrown apart by a series of odd events involving mythical creatures, and the few answers he gets only brings more questions…

Read the book to find the questions (and answers)!

And if you like book 1, The Lightning Thief, you will probably like book 2 (The Sea of Monsters), book 3 (The Titan’s Curse) and book 4 (The Battle of the Labyrinth).

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

Posted by ted @ 9:49 am, November 3rd, 2008

Baked out of red earthen clay, a Golem is brought to life with ancient magic text written on a piece of paper and placed inside their head. They are large and very strong and dutifully follow the instructions of their owner. A Golem will tirelessly perform the nasty, dirty jobs that no one else wants to do. Day in and day out for years on end without a rest they can handle molten iron, shovel animal guts in slaughter house, or stand in the cold, wet, dark bottom of a mine shaft turning a pump for decades.
But what might come of a Golem created by other Golems? In this installment of Terry Pratchett’s ever lovable Discworld series, Commander Samuel Vimes of the Watch struggles to solve a series of strange murders, while at the same time trying to figure out how the Patrician, Lord Vetinari is being slowly poisoned. Having read a number of the books out of order (which is not a problem with Discworld) this book gave me a lot of interesting background on a number of the Watch’s more interesting personalities including a werewolf struggling to control her instincts and female Dwarf (Cheery Littlebottom) who, despite her usual long beard, experiments with exposing her true gender with lipstick and skirts. We also see the start of a new age for the Golems when someone gives one ownership of itself by placing its paper of ownership inside its head. If you have somehow resisted entering the wonderful otherworld of Discworld, I encourage you to dive in, it is an amazing place that mirrors our own world, but with just enough differences to draw attention to our own crazy social institutions which we take for granted.
…and please someone tell me, is Wee Mad Arthur a Mac Nac Feegle?

Steel Beach by John Varley

Posted by ted @ 8:45 am, October 23rd, 2008

When a vastly superior alien force comes to earth they walk over mankind with the same lack of interest as a human walks over an ant hill. Millions are killed, but many are able to escape to space to establish colonies on the earths moon, mars and other moons and planets. In John Varley’s Eight Worlds books hundreds of years have passed since mankind has set foot on earth. The population of Luna enjoys a comfortable life with advanced medical procedures ensuring healthy life spans of hundreds of years and allows people to alter their physical appearance, age and even gender with little to no difficulty. Although there are still careers available to those who wish to work, everyone is provided a basic, comfortable standard of living. Everything in this futuristic society is controlled and maintained by a massive Central Computer which has the ability to deal with law enforcement, medicine, economics and running huge environmentally controlled domes while at the same time being a personal companion to every individual, appearing as a voice in their head. In this story we follow a star journalist for the Daily Nipple electronic news pad named Hildy.  He / She finds herself at the focal point of a series of massive career making news events, and wrestles with her own reporter instinct verse the personal knowledge of the predatory nature of the lightning fast daily electronic news cycle. As she struggles to cope with her own personal demons she also struggles to understand the nature of personal happiness in a society that provides for all your needs, and  to unravel the mystery of some strange behavior by the Central Computer.
This book was a long and twisted journey. About half way through it seemed as though it had reached a logical ending point, but of course there was much more to come. Varley (like Heinlein) paints an enjoyable and believable version of mankinds future and the characters are complex and interesting. At some points I did struggle a little bit to decide if the slow progressive change in the storyline, main character and even writing style throughout this book was a brilliant masterwork, or more of a confusing ramble. I have read the Varley likes to write his books in a somewhat linear fashion from beginning to end, and then will only do minor editing and think that might be the cause of my feelings that the end of this story felt like a completely different book than the beginning. Overall that change did not lessen my enjoyment of this excellent book and its underlying high quality story.

Sherlock Holmes and the County Courthouse Caper

Posted by ted @ 2:07 pm, September 29th, 2008

I admit I only read this book because it was the featured book of our local library’s newly formed book club. The author describes it as a “history book disguised as a murder mystery” and that is really what it is. The pretense is that Sherlock Holmes arrives in western Minnesota in the 1880’s seeking the true source of the Mississippi river and is caught up in a local murder mystery and political battle over the location of the county seat. While I have to admit that as a murder mystery it is a little but light (admittedly it is aimed at 5th – 6th grade readers) but it does manage to work in a lot of local historical information about the Brown’s Valley area of West central Minnesota and the mystery keeps it all fun enough to keep reading. It is certainly worth a read to anyone interested in the history of the upper midwest, and makes an excellent educational resource for teachers in Minnesota. The author has generously dedicated the limited second edition printing to the victims of a 2007 flood in Brown’s Valley Minnesota. He has arranged for all proceeds (both his, his publishers and even book sellers) to go directly to the flood recovery fund.

Learn more and order your copy at his web site.

The Worlds of Clifford Simak

Posted by ted @ 1:09 pm, September 29th, 2008

I was introduced to Clifford Simak by the folks over at Dusty Loft, and after reading The Goblin Reservation I was looking for something else by him to read, and this is what I found first. It is collection of shorter stories gathered together in one book. I think that that often short story collections by science fiction writers are a way for them to do something with interesting pretenses that they have not quite developed into a full book. This book fits that pattern as a lot of the stories are not fully realized to their full potential, but are quite fun and thought provoking none the less. He seems to have a penchant for characters that are of the “simple country folk” variety. The inside front cover teases:

In the Worlds of Clifford Simak you will meet: Stinky, the beguiling, purring, tail-waving skunk who was a mechanical genius.

Lulu the lovelorn robot.

The Fivers, who turned war into a fun game in which no one gets hurt.

Captain, who thought he had no scruples but surprised himself with his own code of ethics.

Hiram Taine, whose back door suddenly opens to another planet.

And a host of attractive extra-terrestrials, aliens and just ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.

A nice collection of good, fun “what if?” science fiction short stories.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Posted by ted @ 1:00 pm, September 12th, 2008

I just finished reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.
As a regular reader of BoingBoing, I can not help but be a bit of a Cory Doctorow fan, but until now I had not read any of his works of fiction. This excellent book was a nice diversion from all the space science fiction I have been reading lately. W1n5t0n (Winston) is a cocky 17 year old who empowers himself with technology to overcome his schools surveillance systems. He thinks he has the system beat until he and his friends are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time immediately after a terrorist bomb attack in San Francisco. He quickly learns that the Department of Homeland Security is not like the police and don’t trouble themselves with the rules of the American justice system. Even though he knows it is crazy to fight such a large and corrupt system, he can’t seem to help himself and must take a stand for what he knows is right. With a lot a tech savvy and some creativity he decides fight back.

“My technology was working for me, serving me, protecting me. It wasn’t spying on me. This is why I loved technology: if you used it right, it could give you power and privacy.”

A wonderful tech geek adventure that hooked me from the first page with good characters, compelling story line and lots of techy goodness. You will learn a bit about internet protocols, cryptography and electronic security as well as a bit about what freedom and privacy is really about (wanting privacy doesn’t mean you are a criminal and treating everyone as a suspect doesn’t keep you safer). It is a well written, enjoyable read that I think is also, at the risk of sounding cliche, an “important read”.

Demon by John Varley

Posted by ted @ 1:40 pm, September 11th, 2008

Demon by John Varley
After her fallout with Gaia, Cirroco has gone from being the Wizard to the Demon. With a whole race dependant on her survival, she spends her life alone, running, hiding, surviving. When Robin returns with her daughter Nova, and new son Adam, the time has come for Cirroco to step up and take action against Gaia, who now seems to be losing her grip on her sanity. While Gaia wallows in her self indulgant love of old earth movies and begins grooming her new Wizard, Cirroco Jones begins her transformation of human society on Gaia, and starts raising an army to try to put an end to Gaia’s rule once and for all.
Another great epic that, although slow at a few points, kept me eagerly turning pages to see where the story would lead.

Wizard by John varley

Posted by ted @ 9:32 am, September 9th, 2008

Wizard by John Varley
In this second book in the Gaia trilogy it is now many years after the Ringmaster first visited and Gaia has established a relationship with earth, joined the UN and allowed tourists to come and visit. She has also realized to protect her future she must make herself needed by earth and so she has begun offering miracles. Only 40 people per year are granted an audience with her, and those select few quickly learn that her miraculous cures to whatever ails them do not come without a price. Cirroco has found her long standing role as Wizard of Gaia to have its own heavy price that she did not fully understand when she accepted the job. We follow the adventures of two young pilgrims who come to Gaia seeking a cure for their diseases and soon find themselves trying to prove themselves on a grand adventure with Cirroco and Gaby trying to circumnavigate the ring of Gaia. The trip has a higher purpose than two pilgrims proving themselves. Not everyone will survive the experience, (though on Gaia that does not mean the end of their story) but those who do must face their own demons and learn to grow and change.
This is another gripping epic from Varley. Though in some ways very different than the first Gaia book, Titan, it nevertheless certainly has no trouble standing on its own as a great read.

Titan by John Varley

Posted by ted @ 11:20 am, August 21st, 2008

I have just finished reading Titan, the first book in John Varley’s Gaia trilogy. This book was a real epic tale of adventure. The space ship Ringmaster has been sent to investigate the rings of Saturn, but upon their arrival they discover something new and unexpected in orbit. It is some kind of giant hexagon shaped wheel structure, but is it a space station, or space ship? And who could have built such a massive (1300km across) thing? When they move closer to investigate and look for a place to dock, the ship is grabbed and they are thrown into an adventure and struggle for survival that will drastically change each member of the crew in their own personal and different way. They learn to survive in a massive, strange alien environment inside the space station, complete with rivers, mountains, trees and a variety of alien creatures, some of which are friendly, some of which are not. I do not want to give away to much here because I think it is always better to discover the details of a story as it unfolds, but the cover does give one big  hint – the whole station itself is an alien. I was concerned when the jacket proclaimed it “the greatest adventure since Dune” as I fell on the “hate” side of the love/hate dichotomy of Dune readers. Titan was much more enjoyable and even included a nice map and a number of diagrams and illustrations to help visualize the world they were in. I found these very helpful as some of long detailed descriptions of the physical layout lost me a bit. Like a great Tolkien adventure, by the end I felt as if I had been along on the epic journey with the main characters, learning and growing with them as they discovered their surroundings. I am already beginning the next book in the series, Wizard.

The Goblin Reservation by Clifford Simak

Posted by ted @ 7:51 am, August 11th, 2008

I have just finished reading The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak
Peter Maxwell, Professor of Supernatural Studies at Time University, takes a transport beam to another planet to try to investigate reports of a dragon, but he never arrives where he was going. Instead he is diverted to a strange crystal planet by some alien intelligence. When he finally returns home he is rather surprised to learn that a copy of himself did make it to his original destination and returned home to earth a month earlier, and was then killed in an accident under suspicious circumstances. His finds his belongings have been disposed of, his apartment rented to a new tenant and his position at the university filled by a new employee. He has little time to deal with these personal problems though as a mystery involving his trip and a strange prehistoric artifact being kept by the department of Time quickly develops. Accompanied by the woman now living in his apartment, her pet biomech saber tooth tiger, his Neanderthal friend Oop and their friend Ghost he sets out to unravel the mystery. Throw in William Shakespeare, aliens with wheels, a few goblins and trolls, and a time traveling painter, and the adventure takes off.
This a was a fast easy read, but still had an interesting story line worthy of some thought, and some fun characters and pretenses. Since this book lacks the ever present steamy sex scenes in all the John Varley books I have been reading lately, I was able to let my 10 year old son read and enjoy this book also, instead of just sharing the highlights as I have been with Varley. I decided to read this after after reading a good review on Dustyloft and I will keep my eyes open for more Simak books, although every time I say his name I think of some tall silver robed Star Trek alien. “I am am Simak! You have entered our space and we will now take your ship!”

The Varley Reader by John Varley

Posted by ted @ 7:45 am, August 5th, 2008

I have just finish reading The John Varley Reader by John Varley. This one took me a while to get through, through not fault of the book though. I have just been busy, and it contains so much. Having only recently discovered author John Varley, (through his excellent Red Thunder trilogy) this collection of short stories exposed me to a much greater cross section of his works. It also introduced me to his Eight Worlds theme which is carried in many of his books. In some unspecified time in the future, aliens invade the earth and the human race is forced to leave the planet and move to colonies on other worlds in the solar system. The stories in this book vary greatly in their theme, tone and length. I of course enjoyed some more than others, but overall it was journey (and that’s what it felt like) worth taking. It also offers an interesting insight into John Varley the man, as each story is preceded by a personal introduction where he shares some background about how the story came to be, or about what was happening in his life when he wrote it. It is interesting to connect his young adulthood in the 60’s alternative lifestyle scene in California as an influence on his vision of the future. Like Heinlein he envisions (or perhaps hopes for) a future where people have overcome many of the social taboos about nudity, love and sex. If you want to learn more about John Varley and be exposed to a nice cross section of his work, this book is worth a read.

The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov

Posted by ted @ 9:20 am, June 28th, 2008

I have just finished reading The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov. This is the third book in his robot trilogy and is again a great combination of the science fiction and mystery genres. The main character, Elijah Baley, whom we got to know in the first two books is off into space again to solve another murder mystery, this time to the planet Aurora. Aurora lies somewhere between Earth and Solaris on the sociological spectrum. It combines the lower population density and ample use of robots of Solaris, with the social interactions and personal relationships of earth. The victim is a robot, which makes the crime not technically a murder, but the circumstances are entwined with global and galactic politics. Baley is summoned to duty and given no choice but to accept, and the future of not only his career but of earth itself rests on his success. Baley gets to team up with his old partner R. Daneel Olivaw, and must use every bit of his cleverness to unwrap the mystery. Similar to the last book, The Naked Sun, he is presented with only one suspect who could have committed the crime, and the assertion that that suspect could not have committed the crime. He has been conditioning himself to face the Outside and is not as crippled by his agoraphobia, but faces a new personal challenge when faced with his first experience with being outside during a thunderstorm.
When I started this series I commented on the apparent differences between Asimov and Heinlein’s writing style, but I found this book to actually be much more similar to Heinlein’s style than either of the other two books in the series had been. The Robots of Dawn was actually written 30 some years after The Naked Sun and it is apparent that Asimov’s style changed over that time. The text is full of long intricate conversations between sharp individuals engaging in a kind verbal fencing to outmaneuver each other, which is a style I had previously associated more with Heinlein. While the intriguing mystery held my attention, the long-winded dialog did get a little tiresome at points. Overall, I am very glad I finally got around to reading this classic trilogy and get to know Elijah Baley and the esteemed R. Daneel Olivaw.

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov

Posted by ted @ 11:21 am, June 18th, 2008

I have just finished reading The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov.
Elijah Baley is off on another murder investigation involving robots. This time he has to leave earth and head to the planet Solaris, where through generations of isolation and social conditioning human nature has been turned on its head (compared to earth). Where, on earth modern people live in dense population centers in close quarters to other people and never ever venture outside, most having never seen the sun or open sky, on Solaris, the population size is strictly regulated and people live on huge individual estates in isolation from others. Through use of 3D tele-viewing systems people never have to actually be in the physical presence of another and have grown to be terrified of actually seeing each other in person. Also, unlike the earth population which has shunned the use of robots in jobs involving humans, the Solarians each employ dozens of personal servant robots to meet their every need. Elijah is forced to reconcile these great differences as he struggles with his own debilitating discomfort of being outdoors, and the Solarians’ great anxiety of seeing him in person. This book is a both a murder mystery and sociological study of human nature (and nurture). I noticed that the Elijah Baley character seems to have matured some from the first book, Caves of Steel, and frequently seems to be more in charge of his behavior. After finishing this, I am jumping right in to the third book of the trilogy, Robots of Dawn.

Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Posted by ted @ 12:45 pm, June 13th, 2008

I have just finished reading Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. I decided to read this book after a friendly commenter suggested the addition of R. Daneel Olivaw to my list of favorite robots. As with most of Asimov’s works  this is a well written fiction that takes place in earth’s future. It is a murder mystery as well as science fiction. The main character, Elijah Baley, is a plain-clothed detective in New York city assigned to solve the politically charged murder of a top robotics expert in “Space City”, where the only inhabitants are humans from other worlds, and robots. After earth colonized other planets, the inhabitants of those colonies decided to become separate and independent of earth and over time evolved into a very different society where populations are low, the use of robots is embraced and a lack of natural immunity to disease makes them fear earth people and their germs. While robots are used on earth for mining and farming, their use in the city around people is slow to be accepted with many people distrustful and angry about people losing their jobs to robots. With the earth’s population topping 8 billion, cities have become massive enclosed population centers with strict rationing and social ranking. Most people have never been outdoors and seen the natural sky, sunlight or non-airconditioned air and are naturally somewhat agoraphobic, a lifestyle eluded to in the title. The countryside between cities is occupied only by robots who work the farms and mines. Not an attractive future in my opinion. Like Asimov’s I Robot stories which came before, this book deals a lot with human robot interaction issues and Asimov’s three laws of robotoics.

I think I may have the tendency to mix up Asimov’s writing with that of Robert Heinlein in my head sometimes due to the similar time periods they wrote, and the similar reality based, future earth, science fiction style they used. Having read of a lot of Heinlein recently some of the differences stood out while reading this book. Even though Asimov is also known for writing science non-fiction works, I find his fiction contains less of the science lesson factoids so common with Heinlein. I also notice that Asimov’s characters are often more fallible and human, as opposed to Heinlein’s tendency to depict highly effective, rational and clever characters. Elijah Baley is frequently very emotional and makes some irrational decisions based on those emotions, but in the end puts the pieces together cleverly to solve the mystery. I would guess his emotional behavior serves to accentuate the contrast of his emotionless and logical partner, Robot Daneel Olivaw. One similarity to Heinlein is his believable descriptions of future advancements in engineering and technology. I particularly liked his transport system which involved rows of moving conveyor belts, each row moving slightly faster than the next. In the center is a continuously moving transport vehicle. People can easily step onto the outer slowest belt, then work their way inward accelerating more at each level until they are moving at 60mph, the same as the transport vehicles, and can step into the vehicle easily. For shorter distances they can just choose a middle speed belt and ride it to their destination. Reminds me of the moving belts used at Disneyland to allow people to step onto ride cars without the ride having to stop.

Overall I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and by the time I have gotten around to writing this, I am already half way through The Naked Sun, the next book in the robot trilogy.

Rainbow Mars by Larry Niven

Posted by ted @ 11:54 am, June 7th, 2008

I have finished reading Rainbow Mars by Larry Niven.

It is the year 1108 AE (Atomic Era, starting in 1945 with the first atomic explosion). In this post industrial age almost all plant and animal life has been driven to extinction by the poisons of industry in the air and water, leaving only the humans who were able to adapt to the pollution, and the farmed yeast they live on.  Waldemar the Eleventh  is the new Secretary-General, the latest in the line of monarchy of leaders of the United Nations. Waldemar the Tenth liked extinct animals, Waldemar the Eleventh likes planets and the stars, and they say he is not a mental deficient (unlike Waldemar the Tenth who was 26, but whose inbred family had left him with the intelligence of a 6 year old). Hanille Svetz, an agent for the Institute of Temporal Research, no longer being sent into the past to find extinct animals, is now assigned to travel to Mars’ past, when canals were observed on the planets surface, and find Martian life. They find much more life than they expected, including a giant tree extending from the planet’s surface into space. As usual, the mission does not end up going the way it was planned. They end up in earth’s own past struggling to make it back to the present, and then to restore the time line they knew.

This book was a little hard for me to get in to at first, as the writing style is so drastically different than the Heinlein and Varley I have been reading recently. It seemed somewhat less smooth, and the temporal jumps and paradoxes left me struggling to follow it at times, but the overall premise was interesting enough to keep me going. They use ‘extension cages’ to travel in time. The cage itself is just the vehicle attached to the time machine which stays in the present time. The arm between the two “fades off in a direction the human eye can’t follow”.  Time travel is still somewhat difficult and very expensive and is reserved for satisfying the whims of the current leader. Post industrial humans have evolved to breath the polluted atmosphere, and now cannot breathe pre-industrial air as it does not have enough carbon dioxide in it to trigger their body’s autonomic breathing mechanism and they just forget to breathe. They use a filter hood over their head which passes the needed gases in the needed ratios for them to breath in the past, or in a martian atmosphere.

After the main story ends, this books includes several stand alone chapters covering the earlier exploits of Svetz, which were eluded to in the main story line. With tidbits of incomplete information from ancient children’s books, he goes to recover extinct animals from the past, often ending up with something which was not exactly what he went looking for. These actually helped fill in a lot details for me and in some ways I enjoyed them as much if not more than the rest of the book, or at least they increased my enjoyment of the main story. I am not sure, but I almost think these should have come first.
Even though I was not so sure in the beginning, by the end I ended up enjoying this book quite a bit, although I am not going to run out and find more books by Larry Niven to read. I think he might be best known for his Ringworld series.

John Varley Trilogy

Posted by ted @ 1:32 pm, May 24th, 2008

I have just finished reading John Varley’s excellent trilogy and I would recommend it highly to science fictions readers looking for something new and intelligent to read, especially fans of Robert Heinlein whose style Varley seems to emulate well. Here is my take on Rolling Thunder, and you can read my comments on the others on my books page.

As I finished the third Varley book in the Red Thunder, Red Lightening, Rolling Thunder Trilogy I was wishing there was a fourth. His writing is intelligent and his characters are complex and interesting. This one picks up with the daughter, Podkayne, of Ray from Red Lightening, and the granddaughter of Manny from Red Thunder. It follows her adventures in the Martian Navy Music Corps as she get caught up in new dangers unfolding on Europa. The comparison to Robert Heinlein is just as valid in this book as the previous. Like some of Heinlein’s works this book has large sections with very little story developments and instead just shares the thoughts and feelings of the main character while educating the reader about planets, gravity and space travel trivia. At times all the factoids can come across as the author showing off his knowledge (or research more likely) but overall it works well and when the story does pick up it goes in a major way. Also like Heinlein, Varley can’t resist a few good jabs at organized religion, making fun of the rapurists who pop up every time there is a major disaster.  I also got a good chuckle out of Podkayne’s take on intelligent design while explaining why she doesn’t want to have kids with an imaginary conversation with her vagina:

ME: Babies are so cute!
MS V: Honey, you need to get a tape measure. Measure me, then measure a baby’s head. Then … you do the math
ME: Oh.
Not a pretty picture. In Homeland America there is an accepted church dogma called “intelligent design”. […] And if you need another example, tell me why a human baby should be expected to emerge from an opening that can’t accommodate a lemon without discomfort. Design maybe, but not intelligent. If that was God’s intent, then God is a dunce.

This book didn’t wrap up nice and neat at the end, as the main character even admits many stories do, but is still satisfying in it’s conclusion. There is definitely lots and lots of open doors for a next book.