2004 December 23

Bridge of Birds, Barry Hughart

This was a re-read of a book I must have last read when I was in college, or possibly even high school. I'd retained a vague fondness for it all this this time while having utterly forgotten the plot. My younger self had clumsy taste. This book deserves not vague fondness but passionate devotion. I must yell from the rooftops: Bridge of Birds is among the most marvelous stories I have ever read. Go! Read!

I suppose that there is only a slight chance that a person will be called upon to rescue a goddess, but the odds will increase dramatically if the person is as illustrious as are my readers, so I will offer two pieces of advice.
Master Li Kao, the irrepressible sage with a slight flaw in his character, and his esteemed companion Number Ten Ox must live forever in the pantheon of the gods.

2004 December 17

Manhunting, Jennifer Crusie

This is in fact a Genuine Authentic Romance Novel, with a pastel pink cover and everything. (No picture of Fabio, though -- my straight male dignity will not countenance going there.) What the hell was I doing reading it? Curiosity. Had heard many lurid tales of the debauchery contained between the frilly covers of romance novels; had to check it out for myself; plus I ran into a specific review of Crusie as an entertaining comic writer. So, the book was fascinating from an anthropological point of view, plus indeed entertainingly cheezy and once or twice even genuinely funny. A true guilty pleasure, if by "guilty" one means "embarrassing".

2004 December 12

Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The first half or two thirds is as bleak, unsympathetic, misanthropic a ramble as I have ever read -- when the burning angels from Arcturus come to judge humanity, this could serve as a draft of the case for the prosecution. I nearly abandoned. But then comes a complicated, self-referential, crazy postmodern shift in tone; Vonnegut declares himself transformed by one of his characters' speeches, and the story swirls to a head-scratching conclusion. I'm not sure I can exactly call it an inspiring book, but it is unsettling and thought-provoking in ways that are going to take me a while to work through.

2004 November 29

Bahama Crisis, Desmond Bagley

More easy adventure fiction, good for bus rides. Again, not Bagley's best, but rattles along well enough to keep me up til 2 am to finish it.

2004 November 28

The Vivero Letter, Desmond Bagley

Easy-reading adventure fiction. I love Bagley, but this one was well below the standard of his best work. It was cool to read an archaeological treasure hunt story in quiet eddy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on a rainy Sunday in New York.

2004 November 20

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Robert E. Howard

This collection includes the first dozen Conan stories in the order Howard wrote them, including "The Tower of the Elephant", "The Scarlet Citadel", and "Xuthal of the Dusk". But when any person of taste and discretion hears the name "Conan", they should immediately think "Queen of the Black Coast". Few better fantasy stories have ever been written.

2004 November 5

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, Michela Wrong

Wrong was a foreign correspondent in the Congo (then Zaire) when Mobutu Sese Seko's government collapsed, and she became fascinated by the country, its people, its potential wealth, and its agonizing spiral downward into destitution.

2004 October 20

The System of the World, Neal Stephenson

The third volume of the Baroque Cycle, and what do you know, after something like 2700 pages, Stephenson actually manages to finish a story in a satisfying way. I want more.

2004 September 30

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett

Lives up to Pratchett's usual wonderful standard -- con man Moist von Lipwig is possibly his most striking character yet. (Though I'd argue that "most striking" is probably not the same thing as "best", which would have to be Samuel Vimes. The best character story for the best character would then probably have to be his best novel, and that would be Night Watch. I think. I used to say Small Gods was his best, on the basis of tautness and power of theme, but I guess I'm coming around to Jon H's way of thinking.)

I got to hear Pterry read from this at Worldcon, which left a rather undelible impression of what Jr Postman Groat in fact sounds like.

2004 September 9

Finder: Mystery Date, Carla Speed McNeil

Sexy, sensitive, daring, and entirely splendid.

More loot from the Worldcon huckster's room.

2004 September 7

Finder: Sin-Eater Volume One, Carla Speed McNeil

McNeil is one of those writers ("creator", I suppose, since this is a graphic novel, and she is both author and illustrator) with cool new ideas on every other page, or sometimes three to a page. Finder is the first comic I've gotten entirely hooked by since Sandman ended.

This was loot from the Worldcon huckster's room.

2004 August 20

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, Mil Millington

Millington earned his break through his hilarous Things My Girlfriend etc website, which is supposedly autobiographical stories of him and his German common-law wife Margret. The book is a novel starring the same characters, now called "Pel" and "Ursula", and a fantastically absurd plot involving University bureaucracy, gangsters, and nuclear waste; it's really nothing more than an arbitrary framework to hang the advertised arguments on.

This is a book I almost abandoned as "just not going anywhere", but I gave it a last chance by skipping ahead to the last page to see where it ended up. What I found turned out to make the book worthwhile again, and worth sticking with. In a demented way, it's even inspiring.

2004 August 2

Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind, Peter Padfield

It's a book with an imposing title, but Padfield is a historian with the knack for telling an interesting story in an interesting way. Really, this is a book about sea battle, and what could be cooler than that?

2004 July 20

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David S. Landes

2004 June 17

Salt, Mark Kurlansky

I like the idea of delving into the history of things we take for granted, and Kurlansky comes up with some interesting material on a genuinely important subject -- for thousands of years salt was almost the only way to preserve food. But the book is more of a series of anecdotes than a coherent narrative; I found it slow going despite its breezy style.

2004 May 30

Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett

More of Tiffany Aching and the Wee Free Men. Billed as a juvenile, but that just means it's a little shorter than his other novels. Pratchett never patronizes.

2004 May 15

High Society, Dave Sim

I'm told Sim got weird in his later work; for that matter, Church and State got weird enough that it left me unmotivated to read any further. But High Society is a complex and funny masterpiece.

2004 May 5

The Confusion, Neal Stephenson

Stephenson writes about the 17th century with real fascination, and with good reason. This is when science and economics were invented, and I can only wish we had more authors able to do justice to this kind of subject.

2004 April 10

A Falcon Flies, Wilbur Smith

Since I've started getting into historical fiction, I finally have some common ground in reading material with my father and my brother. This is one they recommended and lent to me at Christmas -- a rambling historical adventure in South Africa, 1860, with a grand tour of the evil of the Atlantic slave trade and the romance of early encounters with the black kingdoms of the African interior. It was a bit hard to really sympathize with any of the characters, but what the hell. I enjoyed it.

2004 February 25

Declare, Tim Powers

It's an injustice to describe such and elegantly-written book in terms like "le Carré meets Lovecraft", but that does get the general idea across very concisely. Now, I'm not generally much of a fan of spy fiction -- the more realistically paranoid everyone is portrayed, the harder it is for me to avoid the conviction the characters are all sociopaths. Here, though, for me the majesty of the supernatural element carried the book. Well worth reading.

Recommended, and loaned, by Jon Herzog. Thanks!

2004 February 3

The Sorcerer's Soul, Ron Edwards

One of three supplements to Sorcerer. Full of great stuff -- in particular, the relationship map technique I think is particularly subtle and important. Well worth reading if you run any RPGs, whether or not you ever actually use Sorcerer.

2004 January 20

InSpectres, Jared Sorenson

The spiral-bound ("ashcan") self-published edition of Sorenson's Ghostbusters-meets-Startup.com-meets-The Real World narrativist role-playing game ("Because it's not just any vampiric infestation -- it's your vampiric infestation!"). An entertaining read, though I haven't tried running a game yet. Game homepage is at memento-mori.com.

I'm on a support-the-indie-games kick.

2004 January 10

Sorcerer, Ron Edwards

The poster child of the "narrativist" movement in role-playing games. Despite its central place in the new generation of games that appeared in the late 90s and early oughts, there's surprisingly little in the printed rules that is obviously different from all what came before, but a lot that's very subtly different. The real eye-opening stuff is at the game's home page, and particularly the discussions of actual play.

2004 January 2

Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson

Stephenson continues the geek epic begun in Cryptonomicon. Or rather, this is Episode 1 to Cryptonomicon's Episode 4, since we've retreated to the 17th century. (No suggestion of Jar-Jar-ism intended.) Anyway, ahhhh. Philosophy of science and historical fiction are two great tastes that taste great together. Stephenson is the man.