the booklist    

It amuses me to keep a record of the books I've read. And particularly to recommend the ones that have left marks upon my soul.


David S. Landes, Revolution in Time
Fascinating history of the invention and development of the mechanical clock, the highest of Renaissance high tech, and of its impact on society (the coordination of urban society would be impossible without it; not less significant, it is the key to finding longitude, and thus gave Europe possession of the oceans). In hindsight, I wonder that I didn't hear more mention last year of the clock as a key invention of the second millenium; and yet, I didn't think of it either. It's one of those items so indispensible to modern life it becomes invisible.
Leslie Charteris, The Saint and Mr Peel
A collection of some of the original ``Saint'' stories, basis of the '60s TV show (starring pre-Bond Roger Moore, and which my father loved but I have never seen), and the execrable mid-90s Val Kilmer movie. The Saint is as charmingly rogueish as the standard descriptions always say, as well as Bond-like in his super-competence, but has also a cold-blooded streak in the role of Angel of Justice. I hadn't really expected that.
Bill Bryson, Lost Continent
A travelogue of a tour of small-town America. Funny and observant. Bryson was recommended to me by Michael Burstein, thanks!
Connie Willis, ed., Nebula Awards 33
The 1997 Nebula award-winners for short fiction. Wonderful, brilliant stuff, including Jerry Oltion's Apollo wish-fulfillment ghost story, ``Abandon in Place'', and Grandmaster Poul Anderson's ``The Martyr''.
Fritz Leiber, Swords in the Mist
Fritz Leiber, Swords Against Death
Fritz Leiber, Swords and Deviltry
The classic low fantasy Fafhrd/Grey Mouser stories. It's my understanding that until Leiber came along, fantasy subgenres were more or less confined to Tolkienesque high fantasy (noble heroes save the world) and Conanesque swords-and-sorcery (empty-headed barbarian pillages the world); Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser originated low fantasy, where swordsmen, thieves and rebels survive by their wits. In a surprising number of the stories (these books are collections), their only prize is to escape with their lives.

``Ill Met in Lankhmar'' in Swords and Deviltry won the Hugo and the Nebula; and ``Lean Times in Lankhmar'' in Swords in the Mist should have. They're two of my favourite stories of any description.

Sean Stewart, The Night Watch
Possibly the best fantasy story set in Edmonton ever written. Heh.

Okay, that's unfair, I freely admit. This is a truly wonderfully nifty book, a darkly charming story of a future world suffused with magic -- and Stewart gets that magic is not just an alternate physics, but works by different rules altogether. He also understands that getting what you deserve is a fate to be feared. Fans of Guy Gavriel Kay must read. (Another Canadian. Charles de Lint is Canadian too, I believe -- what is it with Canadians and lyrical fantasy? If I was an English major I'd speculate about experience of hostile winters leading to intimate knowledge that wild nature is not your friend. Fortunately, I'm not.)

Recommended to me by Jessica Hekman. Thanks!

Patrick O'Brian, Post Captain
A dense, dense book -- more than a few scenes are virtually incomprehensible between period jargon and O'Brian's telegraphic style. I started it a couple months ago, and put it down several times to read other books in the meantime. I finished it in the end, though, and am quite pleased to have done so. This was the second Aubrey--Maturin book; I will no doubt continue on to read the third.
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
I was vaguely disappointed. On the page, Sam Spade is a much less interesting character than Philip Marlowe. I don't know if I've ever said this before, but I think I liked the movie better.
David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations
A wonderfully incisive survey of 600 or so years of world history. Landes is refreshingly scornful of moral relativism -- perhaps he would seem arrogantly so, if I did not find myself agreeing with him so consistently -- and dryly renders judgement as he sees fit, from the ``blood and evil'' of the Spanish rampage in the Caribbean to the embarrassing failure of Chinese science. An example, summarizing the Second World War: ``The Soviets did most of the dying: of a population of almost 200 million, more than one out of four was killed or wounded. (The Germans also lost heavily, but that's the price of trying to take over the world.)''

Landes is fundamentally interested in getting beyond what happened and into why -- why it was European ships that first circled the world, why China and India and Islam lost their earlier wealth and power, why North America became so much richer than South, why it was the British that made the Industrial Revolution, why Japan alone managed to fend off European imperialism and industrialise without being colonized. Concrete geographical factors do not seem to be adequate -- Landes keeps circling back to more intangible cultural explanations, various combinations of discipline, education, curiosity, and freedom.

A very thought-provoking book.

Roger Zelazny, Knight of Shadows
Roger Zelazny, Sign of Chaos
Roger Zelazny, Blood of Amber
Roger Zelazny, Trumps of Doom
Roger Zelazny, The Courts of Chaos
Roger Zelazny, The Hand of Oberon
Roger Zelazny, Sign of the Unicorn
Roger Zelazny, The Guns of Avalon
Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber
I was home on vacation; H.B. and Jesse and I had just been talking about the Amber RPG and that reminded me I hadn't reread the books in ages. So I did. (Somehow, I don't own the last one. I'll have to fix that.) I have to say, I'm not sure I recommend this much Amber in one go -- after some point it begins to feel like just one damn thing after another. Still, they have very nifty moments. Fun reading.
Stephen Bury, Cobweb
``Stephen Bury'' is apparently a pseudonym for the collaboration of Neal Stephenson and his uncle (whose name I don't know). Cobweb is a charming but I'm afraid not particularly memorable techno-thriller.
George McDonald, Fletch
An entertainingly improbable little murder mystery. I picked it up used after reading Kevin Smith call it ``one of my all-time favorite things ever written.''
Neil Gaiman, The Wake
The final volume of the Sandman saga. Sigh. All done, no more. Last month, Steve O. asked me, ``You read The Kindly Ones, but you didn't follow it up immediately with The Wake? I urge you to correct that oversight ASAP!'' Well, who rushes to a wake? Anyway, Sandman must be recommended in the strongest possible terms. I will be rereading these ten volumes many many times.
Desmond Bagley, The Golden Keel
Another classic adventure story, picked up in the same used-bookstore run. Bagley kicks ass.
Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake
A Philip Marlowe murder mystery. I'd just been watching a bunch of old Bogart movies, and they inspired me to try finding the books. This is the one they had in the used-bookstore -- I'd never heard of it, but was cool.
Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster
Another long, rambling travel book, this time about a year Theroux spent crisscrossing China on the train. Fascinating stuff.
Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games
Well, after the major reading tear I was on in March and April, I seem to have slowed down a lot. A reread, because I was in the mood. Banks is delightfully clever and cruel.
William Goldman, The Princess Bride
The movie is brilliant and as faithful as it could possibly be, but movies can never include it all. Read the book.
Neil Gaiman, The Kindly Ones
Aye Chihuahua. And I thought the other Sandman books were impressive. Gaiman suddenly brings all the orbiting balls he'd launched in the ether over the previous five years worth of stories together in one earth-shattering kaboom. Don't read this until you've read all the previous Sandman, right back to the beginning.
Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike, The Practice of Programming
Professional improvement. A good book if you're into this kind of thing; they're the kind of authors who will casually use homoiousis vs homoousis in an example on doing text substitution. I wonder how many of even my Christian friends will recognize why that's so cool. Heh.
Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium
After reading Lord of Emperors, had to reread this one.
Guy Gavriel Kay, Lord of Emperors
The second half of the story begun in Sailing to Sarantium. A graceful, meditative adventure on the theme of change, mortality, and legacy, with chariot racing.
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
Highly recommended. It's rather repetitive in places, but the stuff being repeated is an incredibly important explanation of the sweep of human history, from 40,000 BC to the present. Spends much time discussing peoples that someone with a classical education may never have heard of, such as the Austronesians and the Bantu.
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I read this after having seen the movie, and was surprised at how little the movie had altered or left out. ``No point in mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.'' A bit of a jarring contrast to O'Brian though, I must admit.
Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander
The first book of O'Brian's Aubrey--Maturin epic. Wonderfully rendered sea stories of the Napoleonic era, the golden age of sail, full of stu'ns'ls and royals, chain shot and broadsides, pinks, snows and xebecs. " ]%>
Bernard Cornwell, Excalibur
The third volume of Cornwell's Arthur trilogy, about which see my entry for The Winter King below. The use of magic becomes much less ambiguous in this third volume, which is probably the best of the three. Very satisfying.
Neil Gaiman, World's End
Stranded travellers tell tales within tales within tales at the Inn at World's End. At first it seems like just a collection of short stories, but the final chapter pulls it all together. More than most of the Sandman volumes, I get the impression that this one is a middle volume -- that is, serving more to set up the next one than to stand on its own.
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
I need to rant at length about what a remarkable book this is. See my journal entry.
Neal Stephenson, In the Beginning There Was the Command Line
A nifty essay deconstructing the social significance of operating systems. Terribly entertaining (if you have any interest in such things).
Larry Niven, The Smoke Ring
An interesting old-school-SF exercise in world-building -- Niven's thought-experiment in a way to have a world without ground or walls. Christmas present from Jenn, thanks!
S. M. Stirling, Island in the Sea of Time
One of the niftiest time-travel adventures I've read in a long time. Not what you'd call deep, but nicely thought out -- the villain seemed annoyingly over-competent, though. Ah well.
Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign
Ah, well, so I spent a Sunday reading this when I had no shortage of other things to do. It was fun.
Terry Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant
Apparently, Pratchett is now Britain's best-selling living author.
  `This is not a weapon. This is for killing people,' he said.
  `Uh, most weapons are,' said Inigo.
  `No, they're not. They're so you don't have have to kill people. They're for ... for having. For being seen. For warning. This isn't one of those. It's for hiding away until you bring it out and kill people in the dark.'
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
It's weird. It doesn't seem like the first time I read this book was that long ago. But it was long enough ago that: I'd barely heard of Pentecost; I hadn't met Becca yet; Dave and Andrew were still atheists; and I'd never talked to anyone who took speaking in tongues seriously. Even without that background, this is still a great book, but with it, it's stunning.
  `It's definitely related to religion,' she says. `But this is so complex, and your background in that area is so deficient, I don't even know where to begin.'
  `Hey, I went to church every week in high school. I sang in the choir.'
  `I know. That's exactly the problem. Ninety-nine percent of everything that goes on in most Christian churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual religion. Intelligent people all notice this sooner or later, and they conclude that the entire one hundred percent is bullshit, which is why atheism is connected with being intelligent in people's minds.'
Neal Stephenson, Zodiac
The subtitle, `an Eco-thriller' put me off for a long time -- I shouldn't have worried. It's Stephenson. It kicks ass. (I also might note it's also set quite emphatically in Boston. Some of you out there will find that an additional reason to track it down.)
Connie Willis, Fire Watch
A collection of Willis' earlier short stories. She's pretty much got homo sapiens dead to rights, but seems willing to put up with us anyway.
Alistair Maclean, HMS Ulysses
A grim and relentless novel of the Russian convoy effort of the Second World War, and of a ship of men pushed to find the limits of their endurance.
Neil Gaiman, Fables and Reflections
Wherein Emperor Norton's madness keeps him sane; Robespierre hears the death of tyrants; a hard bargain is struck for a book that does not exist; Caesar Augustus takes revenge on the dead; Fiddler's Green recalls when the soft places were a sight more common than they are now; we learn of Death's floppy hat collection; the child born in dreams attends a family reunion; and the Other Egg of the Phoenix is placed into the City in the Bottle.
Neil Gaiman, Dream Country
I'm on a Sandman kick, so I figure I'm going to reread them all. Still, none of the stories in Dream Country grab me like, say, ``Men of Good Fortune'' in The Doll's House (possibly my all-time favourite short story), or ``Three Septembers and a January'' in Fables and Reflections.
Bernard Cornwell, Enemy of God
Volume 2 of Cornwell's Arthur trilogy, and also a present from my brother. Love, betrayal, intrigue, honour and revenge -- good stuff. In his epilogue, Cornwell claims to have tried to go back to the earliest sources of Arthur, which makes for rather a different tale than the one I am familiar with.
Neil Gaiman, Season of Mists
Damn, it's got all the good stuff, doesn't it? Love and death, Hell, justice and revenge, fear, farewells, intrigue, sleep-walking servers at a banquet of the gods, and a supernatural emissary incarnated as an empty cardboard box.
  And the mortals! ... Why do they blame me for all their little failings? They use my name as if I spend my entire day sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commit acts they would otherwise find repulsive.
  ``The Devil made me do it.''
  I have never made one of them do anything. Never. They live their own tiny lives. I do not live their lives for them.
  And then they die, and they come here (having transgressed against what they believed to be right), and expect us to fulfill their desire for pain and retribution. I don't make them come here.
  They talk of me going around buying souls, like a fishwife come to market day, never stopping to ask themselves why.
  I need no souls. And how can anyone own a soul?
  No. They belong to themselves.
  They just hate to have to face up to it.
Neil Gaiman, The Doll's House
What is The Doll's House about? Coming of age, I suppose -- amidst a typical Gaimanish welter of stories and parts of stories and truths and horror and slapstick. Good stuff.
Neil Gaiman, A Game of You
Where the theme of Brief Lives is life and death, change, loss and renewal, the theme of A Game of You is names and identity. I suppose I simply don't respond as strongly to that one. But this is still a sweetly nasty tragedy, well worth reading and re-reading.
Neil Gaiman, Brief Lives
This one grows on me as I reread it, poignant and satisfying. The seventh of the Endless, Destruction, abandoned his domain 300 years ago, and Delirium persuades Dream to come with her on her search for him. But as Desire archly notes later on, those who would seek destruction do not return unscathed.
Bernard Cornwell, The Winter King

I think this is now the fourth version of the Arthurian legend I've read, and I am somewhat bemused by how differently authors have chosen to render the story. I didn't care much for T.H. White's fantasyland The Once and Future King, nor for Marian Zimmer Bradley's angry and idiosyncratic Mists of Avalon, but I plain love Guy Kay's tragic high fantasy of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot in the Fionavar books.

Cornwell's Arthur is The King that Never Was, and his Camelot is grimly historical time of the descending Dark Ages in a land that was never very civilised to begin with. He freely edits the legends to fit them into a realistic vision of 400 AD, so for example, gone is King Lot of Orkney.

The myth differs, too. Kay's tragedy of Arthur (and the one that first marked me) is a perfect balanced triangle of three exceptional people, any two of whom could have been happy together, but who with the third tear each other apart; on the other hand, Cornwell's is very much the singular tragedy of Arthur, of a great soul undone by unwisdom in love and an excess of ambition. His Guinevere is unsympathetic and Lancelot is plain contemptible.

This was a Christmas present from my brother. Thanks!

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