2003 December 28

Idoru, William Gibson

I hate not finishing books. But I got about two-thirds of the way through this one and then went and read Monstrous Regiment, because it was calling me. Then Wee Free Men. Then Royal Flash. Now I'm starting Quicksilver. Okay, I officially give up on Idoru. Simply don't care about any of it. Sadly, "New Rose Hotel", this ain't.

2003 December 17

Royal Flash: The Flashman Papers Vol. II, 1842-43 and 1847-48, George MacDonald Fraser

Goddamn disreputably fun stuff -- historical adventure/comedy featuring Otto von Bismarck and the Schleswig-Holstein Question. Probably would have been even funnier if I'd read The Prisoner of Zenda, of which this is an oblique parody, but that just gives me an excuse to reread this once I do.

2003 December 9

Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett

It's a Pratchett witches novel, which is good, but it's new witches, which is even better. Nothing against Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, but their schtick was pretty much worked over by the end of Carpe Jugulum, and Pratchett has gone to the well with them a couple of times since then. Tiffany Aching and Perspicatia Tick are a more-than-welcome change-up.

Also, psychotic pictsies and the Ice Queen of the Fae. 'Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master! We willnae be fooled again!' Word.

2003 November 5

Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett

Pratchett pulls the best parts of Equal Rites, Men at Arms, and Small Gods, packs it around the rib cage of Guns of Navarone, and tosses in a vampire with 'Nam flashbacks. Ask me in a few years whether this or Night Watch or Small Gods is his best work -- right now I'm too close to tell.

"And who knows? Perhaps I shall win the highest accolade that a gallant officer may obtain!"

"What's that, sir?" said Polly dutifully.

"Having either a foodstuff or an item of clothing named after one," said Blouse, his face radiant. "General Froc got both, of course. The frock coat and Beef Froc. Of course, I could never aspire that high." He looked down bashfully. "But I have to say, Perks, that I have devised several recipes, just in case!"

2003 October 27

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

The 'Pi' in the title has nothing to do with math; instead it is the main character, Piscine Molitor 'Pi' Patel, a young man cast away in the Pacific with only the company of a 450-lb Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The back cover calls it a 'fantastic voyage' -- that sounds about right. Tom Hanks and your happy little volleyball, eat your heart out.

(Cast Away is, incidentally, an underrated movie. But this book is better.)

2003 October 20

Gear for your Kitchen, Alton Brown

An opinionated tour of what you need in your kitchen -- including a number of things from the hardware store -- and what you don't. I'm not sure I can begin to explain why I got so sucked into this book. Part of it is that Brown is an entertaining writer and I still have some urges to hide from reality this month, but I think moreso it's that I've always felt like I was completely faking it in the kitchen, and here I can finally figure out what a lot of this stuff is meant for.

I was pleased to discover that Brown approves of the design of the one semi-expensive tool I own -- my chef's knife.

2003 October 17

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown

An interesting contemporary quest for the Holy Grail. The author, though, is a little too caught up for my taste in the literary Where's Waldo game of hunt-the-symbolism. There are not one but two characters who will wander off into smug page-long digressions about the lineage of symbols for 'the sacred feminine'. This sort of thing is interesting in small doses, but you have to keep it in perspective. A symbol is nothing more than a label, and throwing them around makes for clever puzzles, but not anything Deep or Meaningful. This book contains a lot of really quite clever puzzles, but I'm afraid that by the end I didn't much care about the Holy Grail any more.

I don't want to sound too critical -- this book was a birthday gift from Michael and Nomi, and I want to be clear that I did enjoy it. Thanks!

2003 October 1

Barometer Rising, Hugh MacLennan

This is a book that's sort of been around all my life, but I'd never actually read it. I'm glad I did.

Barometer Rising is famous as the story of the Halifax Explosion -- which, for all of you who probably haven't heard of it, was the largest man-made explosion in history prior to the atomic bomb. The obscenely overloaded French munitions ship Mont Blanc collided with a Belgian relief ship in the Narrows of Halifax Harbour, on December 6, 1917, detonating 2.5 kilotons of TNT and picric acid in the middle of the city. The novel isn't actually the story of the explosion, though -- it's the story of a number of Haligonians caught up in the war and Halifax's role in it, and the Mont Blanc isn't even mentioned until two-thirds of the way through.

Originally published in 1941, this was the first and probably still the greatest novel ever set in Halifax -- which is not to say perfect, as I'm not sure that the catastrophe of the Explosion doesn't derail the character-driven story of Macrae and the Wains. But there will never be a better snapshot of that place and that time, and 1917 is more distant in history than I had appreciated. Highly recommended for any fan of historical novels.

2003 September 15

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein

One of Heinlein's two true classics, about freedom, personal responsibility, nontraditional marriage, anarchist philosophy, and Lunar revolution. The word 'tanstaafl' comes from here -- There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Again, hadn't reread it in years.

2003 September 7

Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein

Does this count as a Heinlein juvenile? Anyway, it's short and entertaining. A bunch of kids get stranded on a wild planet when a survival test goes wrong. Hadn't read it in years, and I was still in the mood for comfort food.

2003 September 3

The Crosstime Engineer, Leo Frankowski

I don't think I'd reread these books since high school. Or early university, anyway. A Polish engineer stumbles through a time portal and finds himself in the thirteenth century, ten years before the Mongols are due to arrive. So he sets himself to singlehandedly introducing enough modern technology to defeat them. I've always had a soft spot for this sort of rebuild-society-in-a-primitive-or-devastated-world story, but when I was younger I hadn't appreciated how much of a troglodyte engineer-wish-fulfillment fantasy this series is -- all the problems in the world could be solved pretty quickly if only people would listen to engineers, plus the engineers could get laid a lot more often. Frankowski makes Pournelle look subtle and refined.

2003 August 11

Uncharted Territory, Connie Willis

It's a light but moving screwball romance like only Connie Willis seems to write anymore. It won't take you very long to read, but you'll enjoy it. I read it in two or three nights while crashing on Becca's couch.

2003 August 8

Interesting Times, Terry Pratchett

Pratchett vs servitude. Despite the presence of Rincewind, I think this is one of Pratchett's better books, having something righteous to say on the subject of human dignity.

Cohen scowled. "Now, I've got nothing against slaves, you know, as slaves. Owned a few in my time. Been a slave once or twice. But where there's slaves, what do you expect to find?" Rincewind thought about this. "Whips?" he said at last.

"Yeah. Got it in one. Whips. There's something honest about slaves and whips. Well . . . they ain't got whips here. They've got something worse than whips."

2003 August 4

Soul Music, Terry Pratchett

Pratchett vs rock & roll. It's a fine parody of everything from Buddy Holly to the Blues Brothers, but it's not one of his more memorable.

2003 July 29

Moving Pictures, Terry Pratchett

Pratchett vs Hollywood. This in fact is a great book to read for someone who's taking a big fat leap into the unknown -- it's all about following dreams and not accepting situations just because that's how you happen to find them. That, and a giant woman climbing a tower carrying an unconscious ape.

2003 July 24

Maskerade, Terry Pratchett

Pratchett vs the theatre, in which Agnes discovers that what you wish for does not always turn out to be what you want, and makes her choice between life as a performer and life helping to run the show.

There was fear here. It stalked the place like a great dark animal. It lurked in every corner. It was in the stones. Old terror crouched in the shadows. It was one of the most ancient terrors, the one that meant that no sooner had mankind learned to walk on two legs than it dropped to its knees. It was the terror of impermanence, the knowledge that all this would pass away, that a beautiful voice or a wonderful figure was something whose arrival you couldn't control and whose departure you couldn't delay.

2003 July 20

The Truth, Terry Pratchett

Pratchett vs. Journalism.

Aha, that's a wallpaper word, thought William. When people say clearly something, that means there's a huge crack in their argument, and they know things aren't clear at all.

2003 July 16

The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett

Vimes is sent as ambassador to Uberwald, and someone tries to frame him for the sacred dwarven Scone of Stone. This pisses him off.

Well, he thought, so this is diplomacy. It's like lying, only to a better class of people.

2003 July 12

Jingo, Terry Pratchett

Pratchett vs war fever. Prince Khufurah and 71-hour Ahmed have the air of being Guy Gavriel Kay characters, oddly confused to have found themselves in the wrong novel.

"Anyway, I'm a wolf living with people, and there's a name for wolves that live with people. If he whistled, I'd come running."
Vimes tried not to show his embarrassment.
Angua smiled. "Don't worry, Mr. Vimes. You've said it yourself. Sooner or later, we're all someone's dog."

2003 July 7

Feet of Clay, Terry Pratchett

The third volume of the Watch series -- it's interesting to reread them all in order. The image that marks Feet of Clay for me is a simply brilliant literalized metaphor: the golem Dorfl's owner is induced to sell Dorfl, and writes out this receipt:

I Gerhardt Sock give the barer full and totarl ownorship of the golem Dorfl in xchange for One Dolar and anythinge it doz now is his responisability and nuthing to doe with me.

Carrot then slips this receipt into Dorfl's head -- it's genius. This is the background for a later exchange between Vimes and Dorfl that I've used in my sig:

"You Say To People `Throw Off Your Chains' And They Make New Chains For Themselves?"
"Seems to be a major human activity, yes."
Dorfl rumbled as he thought about this. "Yes," he said eventually. "I Can See Why. Freedom Is Like Having The Top Of Your Head Opened Up."

2003 July 4

Men at Arms, Terry Pratchett

A re-read of the second Watch book. I know a number of people who say this is their favourite Pratchett; it is at least very funny.

'You listen up good right now! You in the Watch, boy! It a job with opportunity!' said Detritus. 'I only been doin' it ten minute and already I get promoted! Also got education and training for a good job in Civilian Street!

'This your club with a nail in it. You will eat it. You will sleep on it! When Detritus say Jump, you say . . . what colour! We goin' to do this by the numbers! And I got lotsa numbers!'

2003 June 29

Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett

Was motivated to go back and re-read, to see how it meshed with Night Watch, twelve years later. One is forced to presume that the Psychoneurotic Lord Snapcase mentioned by Carrot when he tries to arrest the dragon is not the same Snapcase from Night Watch, since he mentions the year 1401, while on the next page we find an Industrial Processes Act of 1508, and there's much less than a hundred years between the books. (Actually, according to lspace.org's timeline, 1401 would be almost 600 years in the past.)

By far the strongest thread in this book is Vimes' anger at people's sudden gormless enthusiasm for monarchy.

Say what you liked about the people of Ankh-Morpork, they had always been staunchly independent, yielding to no man their right to rob, defraud, embezzle and murder on an equal basis. This seemed absolutely right, to Vimes' way of thinking. There was no difference at all between the richest man and the poorest beggar, apart from the fact that the former had lots of money, food, power, fine clothes, and good health. But at least he wasn't any better. Just richer, fatter, more powerful, better dressed, and healthier. It had been like that for hundreds of years.

2003 June 27

Night Watch, Terry Pratchett

So, you all know better than to come to me for dispassionate reviews of Pratchett books, right? They just make me happy. That said, I'm tempted to say this is his best work since Small Gods, which stands as my favourite of his crazy prolific output. Night Watch shares with that book a -- I was tempted to say simplicity, but that's wrong -- concentration of focus that gives it a real intensity. (Actually, it occurs to me now that this focus wanders a bit in the last quarter of the book, and the intensity and momentum fray just a bit with it.) But never mind, this is great territory for Pratchett, and the last time he visited it, in Guards! Guards! before the Night Watch became just the Watch in Men at Arms, he was still writing parodies. It's good to see him come back to it in more mature form.

What would run through the streets soon enough wouldn't be a revolution or a riot. It'd be people who were frightened and panicking. It was what happened when all the machinery of a city faltered, the wheels stopped turning, and all the little rules broke down. And when that happened, humans were worse than sheep. Sheep just ran; they didn't try to bite the sheep next to them.

2003 June 25

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

The best urban fantasy evokes a story of how the world works that is somehow more compelling, more believable to the human mind, than the way the world really works. It trades in the kinds of explanations children invent for each other. Gaiman's Sandman works brilliantly at this level, but Neverwhere never seems to come together for me. The metaphor of lost people falling through the cracks to become trapped in a parallel fairy world sounds like it should work, but somehow it ends up being too high-concept for my gut to really buy it. (For one thing, Richard Mayhew isn't a lost person, but falls anyway.) It's still an entertaining story, but it doesn't reach the level of Sandman, or Sean Stewart's Nightwatch.

2003 June 10

Conquests and Cultures, Thomas Sowell

It's 379 pages, but it felt like much, much more. Sowell has some interesting things to say, in amongst the slog, but really, do yourself a favour and go read David Landes' Wealth and Poverty of Nations instead, and then if you're up for more, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. You'll have a much better time.

2003 June 5

The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Edward R. Tufte

Okay, it's short, but it's on paper and I read it. Edward Tufte correctly enumerates all the reasons why PowerPoint is evil and must be stopped. Most of his points are obvious and/or condescending, but I did like his demonstration of they way PP destroys any serious attempt to present real data.

To deal with a product that messes up data with such systematic thoroughness must require an enormous insulation from statistical integrity and statistical reasoning by Microsoft PP executives and programmers, PP textbook writers, and presenters of such chartjunk.

2003 May 20

The Last Hero, Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby

Woot! New Pratchett. I'm a happy boy.

They landed. It's a short sentence, but contains a lot of incident.

Okay, it has rather more Rincewind than seems desireable (it is to be regretted that this is most painfully true on the cover) -- but aside from that, Pratchett's graphic novel is another marvel to rank with his best work, a story of life, death, immortality, genius, and swamp dragons; distinguishing religion and spirituality, cheating Fate, returning what had been stolen (with interest), and above all, going where no man has come back from before.

Curiously, there end up being only one or two footnotes in the whole thing, and they seem out of place. One gets the impression that Pratchett's parentheticals all got knit into Paul Kidby's wonderful illustrations and marginalia. The grandeur of the Rimfall alone is nearly worth the price of admission, to say nothing of the portrait of Caleb the Ripper as a peculiarly disgruntled cherub, or the one of the Librarian doing what the Librarian does best.

Now I just have to lay my hands on The Night Watch, and Wee Free Men.

2003 May 9

A Moral AlphaBet of Vice and Folly, Stan Washburn

A Slender Volume, bearing within it sparing scenes of Sly and Refined Genius. I've used the entry for H as a sig for years; finally got myself a copy of the original work with all its illustrations.

A Hero was ceaselessly adored by beautiful women. "You must find all these attentions rather wearisome," observed a bystander. "You must be balmy," replied the hero.
    Moral: Bystanders get the strangest impressions.

(And all these years I've had it wrong! "Adored", not "admired".)

2003 May 1

Flashman, George MacDonald Fraser

As the blurb says, "deliciously corrupt" and pleasingly wicked. Harry Flashman, a young officer in the British Army in Afghanistan, 1840, is charming, unconscionably lucky, and a thoroughgoing cad, bounder, scoundrel, and coward. (Why do "bounder, scoundrel and coward" all almost rhyme? Does that say something about our perception of phonemes?) No more or less plausible than most adventure fiction, and as far as I can tell, true to history. Enjoy.

2003 April 16

The Measure of All Things, Ken Alder

A tour de force history of layers within layers. There is the adventure story of Delambre and Mechain, who remarkably succeeded in measuring the meridian of France in the middle of the chaos of the French Revolution; there is the history of science of new instruments and techniques and the creation of the metric system; and most impressively of all, an unfolding analysis of consequences of the enterprise, and how its demands forced savants to become scientists -- thus in no small part helping to create the modern world. It turns out it was no coincidence at all that the purpose of the world's first international scientific conference, held in Paris in 1798, was to midwife the metric system.

A Christmas present from Mark. Thanks!