Thursday, December 31, 2009

I'm running a little behind in reviews, even though it has been the Christmas vacation and I've been off work.

The second last book I finished was Anne Perry's No Graves As Yet. It is built around two brothers, one a pastor and teacher at Cambridge, the other a government agent for the Secret Intelligence Service (later to be called MI6). The book starts with the death of their parents, who were coming to tell the spy brother about a conspiracy, and is complicated by the death of a Cambridge student.

In some ways, it is an old fashioned British mystery, set amongst the upper class before the Great War. But it spends a lot more time developing the characters of the two brothers as they go about figuring out if their parents were killed, who killed the student, and if the deaths are related. It's quite well written, and works as a stand alone book, although it is actually the start of a multi-book series.

It does feel a bit lopsided by the end, as one brother is dropped from the narrative for most of the second half and only re-appears at the end.

The last book I finished is Clarke County, Space by Allen Steele. I had read it before, many years ago but had misplaced my copy.

This book is part of his series of loosely related near future books (called the Near Space or Rude Astronauts series). These were Steele's attempt to bring near future SF "back to Earth", in a sense. They are grittier and more realistic than much SF, and use a lot of background Steele learned as a journalist covering the US space program. It is set on an orbiting station just as it decides to break away from its position as a US colony, and as a hitman pursues a fugitive aboard.

I wish Steele would go back to writing in this world, as it was quite interesting and is still different from most SF books. He has since moved on to other series, mainly the Coyote books, which I don't enjoy as much.


Yesterday we saw Avatar in IMAX 3D.

It's quite a spectacle. The whole $280M is up on the screen. The 3D is the best I've seen, although it still makes things look disjointed at times to me. The CGI for the Na'vi has successfully crossed the "uncanny valley".

On the more artistic front, the performances are good and James Cameron still has an amazing touch with action sequences. On the other hand, his writing skills haven't shown much improvement. Science fiction involves a willing suspension of disbelief, but Cameron shows off an ignorance of physics, ecology, economics, history and military tactics that makes that suspension pretty difficult. The story adds up to Dances With Wolves but where the Indians win at the end.

Overall, worth seeing. It makes me wish that this level of technical skill would be used for some science fiction classics with better stories, like Larry Niven's Ringworld.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

We just got back from seeing the new Sherlock Holmes movie, aptly titled Sherlock Holmes.

Overall it was an enjoyable movie, with some weak parts. Given the weakness of the other modern film versions of Sherlock Holmes (the Chris Columbus penned Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985 and the middling funny Without A Clue in 1988)

The look of the film is a highlight. The backgrounds and street scenes are reportedly all digital effects, but don't feel like it at all - it feels like an immersive Victorian world.

Some of the reviews have disparaged the more action oriented Holmes interpretation, but I think it is a valid one. The stories do talk about Holmes skills in Baritsu (an English martial art) and boxing and he actually gets in a few fights and scuffles in the canonical stories. Other reviews have faulted this version as not being "fastidious" enough, but that is also straight out of the stories. Holmes, as written, is extremely sloppy and disorganized outside of his professional areas, experiments with chemicals in his apartments and the scene where he shoots V.R. (for Victoria Regina) into one wall of the apartment is straight from Conan Doyle.

Where the Holmes portrayal does show real weakness is its fundamentally modern nature. Holmes, Watson and the other characters are sarcastic, ironic, egalitarian and overly expressive in contrast to how a true Victorian would have acted. This is especially telling because Holmes' lack of decorum is meant to be more meaningful in contrast to people who behave in a much more reserved fashion.

Which may have contributed to another problem, Robert Downey Jr's performance. Downey is over the top in Holmes lack of social skills, and his main approach to act out eccentricity seems to be twitching in various ways. This may also be due to him trying to distinguish his performance from his other current major role, the much cooler and sartorial Tony Stark.

The story adds up as well or better than most mainstream Hollywood stories, but does feature one really odd choice - the black magic ritual that Holmes interrupts at the start of the movie. Given how prominently a similar ritual was featured in the earlier Young Sherlock Holmes, this feels very derivative. After that, the following mysteries are better and the interplay between Holmes and Watson as Watson plans to move out pre-marriage works fairly well.

The introduction of Irene Adler as Holmes romantic weakness/arch rival works OK, once you've adapted to the modern perfomances. The treatment of the female characters (Irene Adler and Mary Morstan) is also very modern - they are independent, opinionated women and treated with respect from those around them, definitely not what would have happened if played with a period flavour. And once again, the general treatment undermines a specific character. Irene Adler is meant to be shockingly independent and aggressive, but how shocking is it when all the women are similar? It takes away from the uniqueness of the character.

But it is easier to point out in length the weaknesses, the strengths are on the screen, and it is an enjoyable film if you can get past the modernized Holmes and friends.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Just before Christmas, I finished Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller.

It's a very interesting biography in many ways. Rand lived an interesting life, living through the communist revolution in China and then turning herself into what she wanted to be, first a success in Hollywood and then one of the most successful writers of the 20th century. Heller has done a good job of exploring that part of Rand's life, filling in many details I had not known about and using independent research into her life in Russia and the fate of her family after Rand lost touch with them.

The only complaints I have about this part of the book are Heller's playing amateur psychologist in many places and ascribing Rand's later views to various events in her early life. Those are pure speculation and don't give much credit to Rand for formulating actual ideas about the world, rather than having her views determined by it in some kind of pseudo-Skinnerian fashion.

The sections on her books are particularly good. Heller shows a strong understanding of the themes, both philosophical and artistic, in play. This is particularly important because without an understanding of Rand's aims to create "Romantic" fiction, the novels can appear very melodramatic and over-written compared to the more current favoured "Naturalistic" style. When more properly compared with writers like Hugo or Dostoevsky, one can see more clearly what Rand was aiming at and judge how well she did, or didn't achieve it.

The later part of the book is less interesting, and less well researched. It focuses on her relationship with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, and the so-called cult that grew up around Rand after Atlas Shrugged was published. Heller makes it clear up front that she got a lot of input from the Brandens and I don't believe she took that input with enough of a grain of salt, given the Brandens history of misleading and borderline deceptive remarks about this period and their obvious incentives to make themselves look better and Rand look worse. This focus on the Branden's inputs may be partially due to the fact that she did not have access to Rand's surviving papers in the Ayn Rand Archive run by the Ayn Rand Institute. She does not give a reason for that denial, so it is not possible to fully judge, but given the quality of the majority of this book, I think that decision was a mistake on the part of ARI. This book, and the other Rand biography that came out at around the same time, Jennifer Burn's Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, will probably serve as the standard Rand biographies for some time to come and would have been better for everyone if they had full access to all sides. I will probably read Burn's book as soon as I can get a library copy and compare and contrast it with Heller's.

One other criticism is that there is a large hole in the book named Frank O'Connor, her husband of 50+ years. All evidence seems to indicate O'Connor was a taciturn individual and hasn't left a lot of evidence of his point of view on Rand, her writings, the Branden affair or their marriage. This book gives some small evidence that there may have been problems in the marriage, and with O'Connor, but most of it comes across as speculation with little foundation. It may not be possible, even with extensive research, to discover more about O'Connor and his point of view but it doesn't look like that was done here.


Monday, December 21, 2009

I just finished Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire.

Rosemary and Rue is an urban fantasy detective novel set in the SF Bay area. The protagonist, October "Toby" Day, is a half-faerie, half-human changeling struggling to find her place when neither side really accepts her.

McGuire, a local author who is also a must see feature on the local SF convention scene due to her off the cuff witty remarks, does a good job with the first book of this planned series. At some points it is a little too obvious she is setting up things to use in other books of a long series (from the numerous possible future/past lovers, to the mentioned but not detailed heroic back story of the protagonist), but she also does a good jobs of the basics of this story.

It starts out with a murder that needs to be solved (with a curse attached to make sure the protagonist doesn't lose focus) and the protagonist is a good example of the kind of detective that solves cases by acting like a bull in a china shop - wandering around bugging people until the solution presents itself.

The down side might be just the setting - urban fantasy started to be written in the late 80's, with Charles De Lint and Emma Bull pioneering the field, but it has grown to such an extent that it almost feels cliched now.

Overall, a good start and worth checking out.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Yesterday I finished Hot Springs by Stephen Hunter.

I wrote about another of his books here. This book actually comes before the other one, and is similar. It is also a "tough guy" story. In this case, it's about the same tough guy, Earl Swagger, working to shut down a gambling town, based somewhat on the real town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, with some real people like Bugsy Siegel, Virginia Hill, Owney Madden and a guest appearance by Mickey Rooney.

This novel is a little more sophisticated than Pale Horse Coming, in that the main character has a lot of emotional problems stemming from an abusive father. These are addressed by the end of the novel, which explains why they are not as central to the sequel.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

A few days ago I finished A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester.

The subtitle says it is about the medieval mind and the Renaissance, but those two subjects are, respectively, only briefly discussed or barely mentioned. The book is really three essays.

The first is a very brief and cursory overview of the medieval period. This is so cursory that it seems to over-simplify in many ways and is heavily criticized in online reviews.

The second is a detailed overview of the Protestant Reformation, and is much better than the first. It covers a lot of the major events, including the lead up to Martin's protests and the reasons why they were more successful than previous heresies. Very interesting and well written.

The third is a profile of Ferdinand Magellan, whose expedition was the first to circumnavigate the globe, though he himself died in an ill considered battle in the Philippines.




Monday, December 14, 2009

I just finished Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson.

This one is as good as his first book, Elantris, and better than his latest, Warbreaker. It tells a self contained story, but is also the first book in a trilogy.

The things it has in common with the other books are an new type of magic that the world is built around, a deep feeling back story and believable characters. This is definitely a strong suit of this book compared to Warbreaker, where the characters felt much less fully realized.

I can see why this series was his break out work, leading him to be thought of as one of the new authors to watch in fantasy writing. Too bad that it lead him to get the contract to finish the mediocre Wheel of Time series rather than writing more new novels of his own.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A few days ago, I finished Behold a Pale Horse by William Cooper.

I've always wanted to read a book by a conspiracy nut, and now I have. Cooper rolls in so many of the standard conspiracy subjects - the Illuminati, UFOs, AIDs, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission - that you might think he is writing a parody like the Illuminatus! Trilogy. That is, until you find out that he was actually killed after shooting a police officer that had come to serve a warrant on him. The guy is actually so nuts that he questions easily verifiable physical facts, like the moon always keeping the same side facing the earth.

The book is really a few short essays, tied together with copies of public documents and a few other pieces of conspiracy lunacy from others, including one that he claims was found on a salvaged copy machine. Of course, Cooper takes this as evidence that it is a genuine government document instead of the product of another mind as warped as his.

Given that he served without incident in the Air Force and the Navy, he must have been sane enough at one point. He describes things he saw from those days, relating to UFOs and other conspiracies, that seem to indicate he might have had problems even back then.

Overall, it was good to have read it, but I wouldn't recommend it. A very difficult read.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

I just finished Get Real by Donald E. Westlake, the 14th, and probably last, of his Dortmunder novels.

Get Real is one of the better of the later novels. The setup is simple - Dortmunder and the gang get asked to be involved in a reality TV show about them doing a heist - and their is no nemesis figure like there has been in many of the more recent entries. It's just about them figuring out what to steal from whom, and how to do it.

Very enjoyable.

In reading this, I also looked up the movies that have been made of the various Dortmunder novels. I think Dortmunder must be one of the most filmed modern characters, although the characters name is almost always changed for the film. How many others have been played by a range of actors like Robert Redford, George C. Scott, Paul Le Mat, Christopher Lambert and Martin Lawrence? Sadly, the movies are almost all terrible.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

This morning I finished Busted Flush, the latest in the Wild Cards series.

I was a fan of the original series, reading up to the tenth book in the series before losing track of it. This is the 2nd in a intended new trilogy, following up on the first book Inside Straight.

This book has the same flaws as Inside Straight, and makes some of those flaws clearer. For example, their use of more "ripper from the headlines" style settings doesn't work well. In Inside Straight, this was a reality TV show. In Busted Flush, it is a Katrina style flooding of New Orleans. Other flaws include too many characters, with too many switches of perspective, making it difficult to keep track of who's who.

A few days ago, I finished A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin.

I'm a huge, huge fan of another Helprin book, A Winter's Tale. While A Soldier of the Great War doesn't live up to that standard, it is still a good, and enjoyable book.

It starts off in the present day, as a worker misses his bus and an old man gets off in sympathy and they decide to walk to their destinations, even though they are few days walk away. Along the way, the old man reluctantly starts talking about his life and his service during WW1. The story ranges from his early romances/crushes in Rome, to service in the trenches, to desertion and almost execution and then service in the Alps.

The scenes set in pre-war Italy feel like typical fin de siècle portraits of the time, the war is stereotypically horrible and stupid, so there aren't any real surprises here - just a well told story.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Over the weekend, we went and saw Fantastic Mr. Fox, the new Wes Anderson movie based on the Roald Dahl book.

It's a fun movie, but not one I would recommend for most kids. I doubt most kids will be able to follow the story, and might get very lost during the Anderson-esque relationship scenes between Mr. Fox, his son and his wife's nephew. It is definitely the weirdest semi-kids movie I've ever seen, from the first moment we see Mr. Fox listening to The Ballad of Davey Crockett to the final dance scene in the grocery store.

My favourite moment - anytime Fox or his family are eating, when they transform from urbane anthropomorphized animals to a much wilder state. I laughed every time.

The one sour note for me was the use of well known actors for the voices. George Clooney's voice is to recognizable as Mr. Fox and it is a distraction from the movie.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

I finished two books over the Thanksgiving break.

The first is Dzur by Steven Brust. I'm a big Brust fan and have read all of his books. Dzur is a good read, but not one of the best of the series. Like most of the later books in the series, it uses an unconventional structure. This one is structured around a meal the main characters has. Each chapter starts with a re-telling of part of the meal and then continues into the main story. It was also the latest book in both chronological and publication order, rare in a series that jumps back and forth in time.

Of course the book will be almost unreadable by anyone who hasn't read the series, even though they tell self-contained stories.

The second book was Pale Horse Coming by Stephen Hunter.

Pale Horse Coming falls into the category of what I call tough guy noir. Pioneered by Mickey Spillane, the books feature characters that are constantly upping the stakes in toughness, until the toughest bastard is the one left alive. Hunter does add some emotional depth and variety to his tough guys, which does make the book more compelling.

The story features an isolated prison farm in rural Mississippi during the 50s, featuring brutal treatment of the inmates and a mysterious secret that ends up explaining some its isolation and brutality. It's a page turner, with some off putting parts. It's set in the 50s and the racial language used is period accurate, which reads as fairly shocking to modern ears. Also, towards the end there is one chapter that is basically gun porn and isn't really necessary to the rest of the story at all.



Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Yesterday I finished Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy.

I was going to write something about this book, but then I re-read what I wrote about Whitethorn Woods and realized that I felt exactly the same about this book. This one is centered around a heart clinic, and involve return appearances of many characters from some of her other books. The short vignette feel of the interlocking stories isn't my favourite, but it's still an enjoyable read overall.

Monday, November 23, 2009

I just finished Plastic Fantastic by Eugenie Samuel Reich, a well done non-fiction book about the scientific frauds of Jan Hendrik Schön.

Schön had appeared to be a prodigy, one of the most prolific publishers of breakthrough scientific papers in physics in the late 90's/early 2000's. His papers on organic crystals were viewed with suspicion by some, but when he moved on to publish papers on single molecule transistors, his lack of expertise in creating phony data in this field finally got him caught.

It's an interesting story, told from somewhat of a distance since Schön has never totally come clean about what he did.

Yesterday I finished They Fought For the Sky by Quentin Reynolds, continuing my readings about the first world war.

This is one of the definitive books telling the story about the use of airplanes in WW1, including the development of offensive capabilities. It goes beyond the usual stories of the top few aces, like Richthofen, and covers somewhat the men behind some of the planes as well, thought the focus is on Tony Fokker.

Nicely written, and a nice addition to the First World War, which didn't discuss the air war at all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Last night I finished The First World War by John Keegan, an excellent detailed overview of the war by one of preeminent military historians.

I've always been roughly familiar with the events of World War I - the horrors of trench warfare, the early use of airplanes, tanks and poison gas, etc. - but this Remembrance Day, I realized that I'd never read a detailed version of what happened. Given how seminal WW1 is to the shape of the 20th century since it broke the economies of Europe, helped enable the communist revolution in Russia, set the stage for, and almost made inevitable, WW2 and changed European culture forever, I thought I should remedy that gap in my education.

This book is an excellent place to start, going from the buildup to the war in early 1914 to the armistice in 1918. Keegan has his own theories about what lead to war, mainly the necessity of triggering pre-planned war strategies in case of crisis to avoid giving a crippling advantage to the other side if they mobilize first. He also makes clear why the war bogged down into static trench warfare instead of the more open style found in WW2, primarily found in lack of reliable communication and flexible (i.e. non-rail) mechanized transport.

It was also very illuminating to read about WW1 in light of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the public's attitude towards them. The current allied death totals in Iraq and Afghanistan are less than the toll of one day of some of the larger WW1 battles, like the Somme, Ypres or Verdun, yet attitudes in those countries that have troops there have turned against those efforts. During WW1, the populaces didn't turn against the war even given year after year of casualties in the hundreds of thousands.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

We just got back from seeing Michael Jackson This is It.

I like seeing behind the scenes footage, so I was OK with going to see it, but I ended up liking it a lot more than I expected. I grew up surrounded by Michael Jackson songs, but it wasn't kind of music I liked then. Time has been kind to a lot of his best songs, and now I can appreciate how good they really are, particularly when played live by a good band.

On top of that, you have Michael's dancing, which is still phenomenal. He showed few signs of his age or his condition in this footage and the movie is very enjoyable, just as a performance. I left the theater actually considering buying a greatest hits package of some kind, and feeling it was a shame he didn't live to do at least a few of these live shows.



Saturday, November 14, 2009

This morning I finished Warbreaker by Branden Sanderson.

This is the second book I've read by Sanderson, and while this book is not as good as his first, Elantris, it still feels very fresh in the somewhat stale fantasy field.

Not set in the same world, at least as far as I can tell, Warbreaker has to do with a brewing war between two countries, one weak and one strong. The strong one is so mainly due to magic derived from Breathe, something all individuals possess and that can be exchanged and hoarded and used to animate the inanimate, under certain conditions. The weaker power rejects the use of this magic, on religious grounds.

At the start of the novel, one of the royal daughters from the weaker countries is being married off to the stronger one. Once she gets there, along with a sister that follows her surreptitiously, the intrigues that might lead to war are explored.

It's a good book. The ideas are fresher than most fantasy, but the characters are not as strong as his first book. They sound, and act, like very modern Americans rather than people from a different world and this breaks down the suspension of disbelief somewhat.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I finished two books in the last few days - The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King.

The Green Glass Sea is a YA book about two girls growing up in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Both are social misfits and end up being friends. It's an enjoyable book, with some very sad moments as one of the girl experiences terrible losses. The characters are less generic than a lot of YA characters, although the kid without parents present is almost a cliche.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is about a baseball loving nine year old who wanders away from her family and gets lost in the woods. It shows that King hasn't lost his ability to write compelling narratives, even if his ability to accurately portray a nine year old girl is very weak. His characters that are teens or adults feel much more real than this girl - I had to constantly remind myself that she was supposed to be nine.




Sunday, November 08, 2009

Last night I got to see Devo at the Regency Ballroom in SF.

On this tour, they are doing two nights in each city. Night one, they play the entire album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo! Night two, they play Freedom of Choice.

We decided to just go see the second night. It was a fun show, after a weird opening act. Though it was short, since they only did one album plus two encore songs, it was very satisfying. The high points for me were Gates of Steel and the closing Beautiful Life (with Booji Boy!).

I hadn't been to this venue before and it was quite nice. From their website, they tend to get rock/metal acts, so the security presence was a little heavy for the older/calmer Devo crowd.

Also, the only tickets available were "Meet and greet" tickets, so I got to hang around afterwords and speak to the band briefly and got pictures with the Casale brothers, as well as signatures on an old band picture and a poster. They are supposed to be working on a new album, and hopefully they will tour for that as well.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

The latest book I have finished is Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin.

The title Digital Barbarism could cover a lot of ground, but the subtitle is "A Writer's Manifesto" and the book mainly deals with the issue of copyright, in particular the efforts of some to reduce or eliminate it in our era of digital storage.

The title gives away the fact that Helprin is against this. The book was germinated out of an op-ed piece he did promoting copyright extension, and the resulting criticism by bloggers, etc.

The book is alternately infuriating and convincing. His overall argument wins out - that copyright is a valid and valuable piece of individual rights and needs to be defended, not extinguished - but along the way there are too many ad hominem attacks, pointless pieces of memoir and misplaced anti-modernist diatribes. He also complains about being mis-represented, while mis-representing his opponents. All of this gives the book a scatter shot, disorganized and poorly thought out feeling that undermines the cogent arguments he does make.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

This morning I finished The Road to Vengeance by Judson Roberts, the third book in his Strongbow series of YA historical fiction.

Everything I said about the first two books still holds - here and here. Strong story, well drawn battle scenes, well researched history and weirdly inappropriate cover pictures.

The third book picks up from the abrupt ending of the second book, and continues the story as the protagonist is campaigning with a Viking army in France. This book wraps up that campaign, and also puts the focus back on his quest for revenge towards the end. The end is much more satisfying - open ended and obviously continuing the saga, but wrapping up enough of the story to feel like a complete book instead of part of a larger piece.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Yesterday, I finished The Laws of Our Fathers by Scott Turow.

Another excellent book by Turow. While others are writing generic legal thrillers, Turow is using the legal thriller medium to write literature. While there is a killing, and a trial, at the core of this book, it is used as a way to explore many other topics including aging, the holdovers from the 60s, the relationships between children and parents and the races.

The book is told primarily from two perspectives, one is the judge on the case of a killing where some people she knew in the 60s are involved, and is set in the present. The other is one of those people, her ex-boyfriend, who also knows the people in the case although not involved himself, and is set in the 60s. The people they know are hard core revolutionaries and may have been involved in a campus bombing in "Damon", a fictional town obviously based on Berkeley.

As I said above, another excellent book showing why Turow is head and shoulders above other writers in the genre.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Last night I finished Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell.

I've been interested in the battle of Agincourt since I was a kid, an interest that was heightened when I found out that an ancestor of mine, John De Byllam, was one of the English archers who fought there, and was knighted afterwords.

Agincourt is a piece of historical fiction, following an English archer who survived the slaughter at Soissons, and ended up on the fields of Agincourt. The battle itself only takes up a small part at the end of the book, the main part is build up, developing characters who's fate would be decided at Agincourt.

Overall, an enjoyable book. Cornwell's characters don't feel like true period people, like you would get in the Patrick O'Brien books, but they don't feel so modern as to totally undermine the historical part of the fiction. The history is reasonably accurate, adding only a few non-historical characters.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I just finished Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind, the sixth book in his Sword of Truth series.

I've commented in other reviews how Goodkind creates these ridiculous situations for his characters, but I finally realized why--it's the Superman dilemma. His main character, Richard Cypher/Rahl, along with his companions is so powerful and hyper-competent that he will defeat any opponent that comes against him openly, and has done so over and over in these books. The result is that it is very difficult for the author to put him in real jeopardy, and therefore the ridiculous situations, similar to what used to happen in Superman comics. This book actually makes that situation worse as it is revealed by the end that in addition to being a superb warrior, the most powerful wizard in many years (and a new type of wizard), he is also a great businessman, an insightful philosopher and a great artist.

This book also has two other problems. First, it's way too long. The second is that Goodkind has obviously become enamored with the ideas of Ayn Rand and is using them in the most transparent and cliched ways possible. For those readers out there who think Ayn Rand is a hack writer, pick up this book and see how badly those ideas could be portrayed.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Today I finished Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane.

Lehane has a reputation for being more than just a standard genre writer, so I was a little surprised by Gone, Baby, Gone because it is just that - a standard genre novel. All the cliches of the modern private eye novel are there - the hard PI (in this case a man/woman team), their even harder but loyal to them criminal friend, the world weary cops they deal with, etc, etc.

The characterizations are a little deeper than your standard run of the mill PI book, but nothing too special when compared to other top of the line practitioners like Estleman or Parker and definitely not notable compared to genre innovators like Hammett or Ellroy.

I also had problems with the portrayal of child kidnapping. It does point out in the intro that the vast majority of child disappearances usually involve family members and are resolved quickly with no problems for the child, the child disappearances in the novel are portrayed so vividly and have horrible outcomes, at least in one case, that that is the impression it will make and increase our societies silly paranoia about it's children.

Still a good novel but, as always, expectations can lead to disappointment.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I just finished Cryptic by Jack McDevitt, a collection of his short fiction.

I'm a fan of McDevitt's novels, but a lot of the short stories in this collection didn't wow me. Most of them were just OK. Of the 30+ stories, there were probably five that I really liked.

Reading a bunch of different pieces by one author in a row does give you a good sense of their writing. Reading through this collection gives a strong picture of the sense of melancholy that runs through a lot of McDevitt's work.



Sunday, October 04, 2009

Just saw The Invention of Lying, the new Ricky Gervais movie. It has some funny moments but it wasn't as good as I hoped.

They handle the premise in a weird way. Instead of just not being able to lie, the people in the movie must tell the whole and literal truth all the time, i.e. they can't stay silent and they can't be mistaken. It also postulates that everyone in the real world is very negative and mean, but just keeps quiet about it. This changes the whole tenor of the movie, and makes all the characters come off as more mean than truthful. And after Ricky starts to lie, it makes them all appear stupid.

The beginning of the movie, mainly scene after scene of people criticizing Ricky, are a real downer. It picks up somewhat as Ricky learns to lie, but never fully recovers. And the main plot centers around his pursuit of Jennifer Garner while never making it clear why he is interested in her, other than her looks. He's portrayed as deeper then that, but she never offers anything and comes off as shallow throughout.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I just finished The City & The City by China Mieville.

(Spoiler alert)

Mieville's latest novel is, at heart, a hardboiled detective/police procedural style mystery. The setting is what sets it apart, at puts it with one foot in the SF field. The protagonist works in a strange city in the Balkans that has become mentally bifurcated. Some people live in Beszel and some live in Ul Qoma, though they are physically co-located. Both sets of citizens are trained from birth to ignore the other city and its populace unless they cross between them through a border crossing. Inadvertent, and intentional, illegal crossings are investigated by a feared and mysterious group known as Breach. When a foreign student is killed in one city and dumped in the other, the resulting investigation threatens to undermine the whole setup.

The weird setup gives it the feel of a SF novel, without actually involving any fantasy or SF elements. And overall, the mystery elements work. There are the standard sinister businessmen, threatening thugs and people who want to shut down the investigation, but they all feel fresh enough in the telling to work. The climax of the novel is a little of a let down, but this kind of mystery is more about the process then it is about the solution. The most similar mysteries are probably Martin Cruz Smith's Renko novels.

Overall it's nice to read a Mieville novel that is not set in the same world as most of his fantasy novels. This one is not as disturbing to read as some of his others, more like a middle ground between the feel of Perdido Street Station and his YA novel Un Lun Dun.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I just finished The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

The Age of Wonder covers what Holmes calls the second scientific revolution in Britain. Specifically he covers the careers of Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Humphrey Davies as well as the craze for ballooning and the early careers of Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage and John Herschel.

One of the main points of the book seems to be to put this new crop of scientists (a term that was only created towards the end of this period) in context and show how art and science were more closely aligned. Most of the scientists above wrote poetry of one form or another and were friends with some of the great Romantic poets like Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge, who also wrote poetry that used scientific themes and inspiration.

The topic is an interesting one, but the books main strength is the writing. The author has a strong, clear style that brings out the various personalities and keeps the narrative interesting and informative without getting bogged down in details.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I just finished The Temporal Void by Peter F. Hamilton, the second book in his Void Trilogy.

Not surprising here - it's not really a separate story as much as a direct continuation of the first book, which I wrote about here. So much so, that it was hard to start this book since it's been a while since I read the first one. Keeping track of the list of characters and their complex interactions wasn't easy even while reading that book - trying to do it jumping into this one was worse.

Also, like the first book, the story within a story, told as series of shared dreams, is more compelling than the main story. It takes some unexpected twists here, turning it's protagonist into even more of an uber-mensch, but still makes for a good fantasy story, although it is now tied into the main story in such a way that it wouldn't make sense on it's own.

I spent most of the weekend at Bluegrassin' In The Foothills, (commonly called the Plymouth festival).

The highlights of the show were Town Mountain, Audie Blaylock & Redline, and Bluegrass, Etc. Three very different acts, but all put on excellent stage shows.

I also got to see the Steep Canyon Rangers, a band I didn't expect to like from their radio songs and the work they do with Steve Martin, but they also put on an excellent live show.

One theme of this years show seemed to be speed. All the bands were playing very fast - faster than I've seen some of them play in the past. I don't know if this is a new trend, but a lot of them are starting to push the point where things still sound musical instead of like some kind of contest.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Good research, but sloppy thinking.

I just finished Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell.

The thesis of the book is that the fixation on low price has significant long term costs, mostly hidden. Overall, that thesis is mentioned many times but not fully developed or explored. Most of the book is historical discussions about the rise of discounters and other purveyors of low prices.

The research is mostly very well done. The sections on cheaper food, discount stores and behavioral economics are very interesting. But each chapter stretches at the end to include some meandering thoughts, seemingly attempting to tie into the overall thesis but usually with little success.

In general, the logic and arguments presented in the book are it's weakest points. The author does not seem capable of connecting the data to the thesis and continually makes weak, off-topic or totally invalid argument after argument. One egregious example is the following excerpt from the chapter on cheap food.

Left to their own devices, global food markets pretty much follow the same "race to the bottom" model followed by other unfettered markets. Subsidies and economies of scale make grain and everything it is made of -- including animals that eat it -- increasingly cheap.
The author doesn't seem to notice that the 2nd sentence actually undermines the first, since "subsidies" are not a part of an "unfettered" market. This kind of sloppy thinking dominates the argumentative sections of the book.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Yesterday I finished The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard.

Subtitled How Law is Suffocating America, it would be more accurate to say How Changes in Philosophy of Law is Suffocating America. Howard does a good job providing lots of examples how the law has become less useful, more restrictive and counter-productive. How goes through three areas where he sees this.

The first is the growth of statutory law over common law. Statutory law specifies not only the general principles or rules, but also lays out the specifics of exactly how the law is to be interpreted and implemented, sometimes in grotesque detail. This over-specification is intended to ensure the exact results intended by the lawmakers without any judgment or flexibility and produces laws that become ends in themselves.

Similarly, his second main topic details how process has overtaken progress. In particular, processes that are intended to ensure fairness and lack of bias instead create forums for endless discussion, since there is no alternative once someone asks to be heard.

His third main topic details the growth of what I will call active rights. Starting with the important civil rights laws of the 1960s, some of the same ideas were extended to cover the disabled, etc. moving from the removal of barriers for some to the active support of others. Howard does a nice job in this section of pointing out that real rights are actually defensive in nature - a shield against the law/government, while these new "rights" necessitate action by others in order to support others. As such, they are not actually rights but are instead demands.

An interesting book. I don't know if his proscriptions at the end of the book are the correct fixes, since they don't focus on the philosophical problems that led to the problems, but the problems themselves are nicely delineated. One quibble - the book could have used in line footnotes to better source it's data, rather than just using end notes.

Monday, September 07, 2009

A few minutes ago, I finished The Adventures of Johnny Vermillion by Loren D. Estleman.

I've previously read a lot of Estleman's Amos Walker mysteries, mainly when I was over-dosing on mystery novels in university. This is his first western that I have read, and I wasn't blown away. It's an OK read, a semi-comic take on the Old West, with lots of asides to the reader thrown in about it's semi-comic take.

The story is basic at heart. There is a son of wealth who decides to be a black sheep and gets into robbery, using a travelling band of actors as a cover. Along the way, they interact with a detective from Pinkerton's and a much more serious, and nastier, gang of outlaws. Mix in a few twists and turns, and you have an OK novel but not much more.


Yesterday we saw Julie and Julia, the latest Nora Ephron chick flick.

It was better than I expected. Ephron's work has consistently headed downhill since her biggest success, When Harry Met Sally, but J&J misses some of the flaws that have come to characterize her movies - overly cute dialogue, characters with no real edge to them and extreme sappiness. This is probably due to the fact that she was constrained by this being based on two real stories.

The first is Julia Child's discovery of cooking as her passion while living in France, the second is Julie Powell's story of how she got her life back on track by starting a blog and dedicating herself to cooking all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking within one year.

For me, the most interesting take away from the movie was the contrast between the self-confident, outwardly focused Julia Child's and the whiny, self absorbed, very modern Julie Powell.

The ending is probably the weakest, as it meanders to an end after Julie completes her cooking on time and Julia gets her book published. But overall, it's an enjoyable movie, particularly if you are vulnerable to food porn binges.



Thursday, September 03, 2009

The latest book I've finished is Drood by Dan Simmons.

Drood fits nicely in a fairly new sub-genre, the "secret history. Pioneered by writers like Tim Powers, secret histories take actual people and actual historical events and put their own plot into the space created by odd coincidences or unexplained events. In Drood, this secret history is built around Charles Dickens and his one time protege Wilkie Collins.

It also uses another neat trick -- the unreliable narrator. The book is told in the form of a memoir written by Collins, who does not hide that he is taking huge amounts of opiates, usually in the form of laudanum, resulting in holes in his memory and the possibility of hallucinations. Even by the end of the book, it is never 100% clear what is real and what is fantasy.

While the book is well written overall, I do have a few quibbles. First, there is too much exposition. I did learn a lot that I didn't know about Dickens, Collins and the time they lived, but at times the exposition is too blatant and pulls away from the story. Second, the use of actual historical characters feels uncomfortable. In particular, the Collins character becomes less and less attractive as the story goes on. By the end of the story, he takes actions that would seem libelous if Colins was still alive. I don't know if there is any historical evidence for that kind of character assassination. This is true to some extent with all "secret history" type books, but it seems very egregious in this case.



Friday, August 28, 2009

Last night I attended the first public meeting of Make Oakland Better Now, a new organization focused on trying to improve Oakland, particularly in the three areas of public safety, infrastructure and city government accountability/transparency.

This is the first time I've attended a meeting for a political/grassroots organization like this, so it was pretty interesting. There was a decent sized crowd, probably around 100 people. Sadly, for such a diverse city, the meeting was not very diverse - almost exclusively older white people with a smattering of younger people.

The meeting organizers did a good job of laying out why they thought a new organization was needed and what they hoped to accomplish. I thought it was very good that they had realized that in order to be effective they need to focus on a small number of topics, and target things that can be measured and have impact.

I think they key will be in what comes next. The meeting broke up into three groups, each focusing on one of the improvement areas. I joined the group on transparency/accountability. There were some interesting points raised, but I think the person moderating this group needed to be more assertive in keeping the discussion on topic and coming up with concrete next steps. The "report out" from the other groups seemed more complete because of this. Our group ended up saying that we wanted to research the budget more and produce a version more people could understand, and do more with PR for the city. The first one isn't surprising since the moderator was a budget person and brought that up as the first thing, which influenced the direction of the whole discussion. The second is a nice, and important, idea, but is completely off topic for transparency/accountability of city government. Keeping it in totally undermines the focused approach of the organizers.

If I stay involved, I will try to influence this sub-group to re-focus on transparency and accountability, part of which includes understanding the budget.
This morning I finished Likely to Die by Linda Fairstein.

I don't know if this is a typical book in this series about a NY assistant district attorney, but it is a very weak book.

It seems the author, a NY assistant district attorny, is too focused on capturing the realities of her life in the novel. For example, there are too many characters thrown at the reader, with little purpose for many of them. Presumably these all map to real people the author deals with, but putting them in the novel without giving them significance in the story is pointless. There are also significant digressions where one character tells another about various sex crimes they are prosecuting or need help investigating. The author points out in a post-script that these details are all taken from real cases, but who cares? She seems to ignore whether or not it helps the story she is trying to tell.

In addition, the protagonist is almost inert for most of the novel. Since the plot never gets to the point of an actual trial, something surprising in and of itself for a book with a trial lawyer as the main character, the protagonist spends most of the book alternating following the police around as they investigate and relaxing while the police are off investigating things.

The book also fails on basic writing tasks. For example, there is an issue raised about a possible relationship the protagonists date and the murder, the protagonist is shown being very concerned about it and then it is never cleared up by the end of book.

Overall, one of the weakest books I've read in a long time. Too bad - I was hoping for something interesting because there are few legal thrillers told from the prosecution point of view.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Latest book finished - Elantris by Brandon Sanderson.

Elantris is Sanderson's first book, and it is an impressive debut with compelling characters and a setting that feels new.

The world he creates feels like it has a lot of back story, although this the rarest of fantasy beasts - a stand alone novel. There is enough to build on that I suspect there will be a sequel at some point, but the novel feels complete as it is.

It tells the story set ten years after the fall of the titular city, populated by members of the population that have been changed by a mysterious process to be powerful magical beings with the ability to manipulate the world around them. After the fall, these same creatures are turned into half dead creatures that have no abilities and can't heal and therefore deteriorate into madness over time. On top of that is the conflict between one expansive empire based on an aggressive religion and the surrounding kingdoms.

A lot of the plot elements feel new, rather than a standard re-tread of fantasy ideas. Sanderson weds that to a nice handling of characters, particularly his villains, who have more depth than is typical for the genre.

He has some other series novels now, and based on this book I will probably check them out at some point.



Saturday, August 22, 2009

Last night I went to see The Honky Tonk Dreamers at McGrath's Pub in Alameda.

I mainly went to see Tony Marcus's guitar playing. He did play guitar on a few songs, but mainly played fiddle. I was also impressed by the rest of the band. Charlie Wallace was great on lap steel, pedal steel and guitar. Jerry Logan played excellent bass and sang a few songs, including one of my favourites, Across the Alley from the Alamo.

The surprise of the evening was Julay Brooks. I had seen her with some bluegrass bands, so I assumed she would just be the singer but she played a very nice swing rhythm guitar and took some good solos as well.

The band bills themselves as "Western Swing and Country Music". The set I saw was mostly Bob Wills songs, which isn't a bad thing, with a few country tunes thrown in. Overall, a very fun band to see live.

Friday, August 21, 2009

I just finished Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner.

This is by far the best non-fiction book I've read in a long time. It covers the history of recording music, from Edison's first cylinders to the modern Pro Tools/MP3 era.

It's not an exhaustive history, but gives snapshots of important events and people along the way. Not only does it cover these, but it also goes into detail on how the different and conflicting viewpoints of the time were reflected in the recording technology, from Edison wanting to stick to analog, mechanical recording to capture the "true" sound to the use of electronic recording and then digital and the quest to capture the sound of a space plus the sound and then to create new sounds out of nothing.

The one thing that could have improved this excellent book would be an accompanying CD or web site with sound samples based on what is mentioned in the text.

Well written, well researched, overall excellent.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Last night I finished In War Times by Kathleen Anne Goonan.

In War Times is almost an alternate history book, but in this case the protagonist thinks about alternate histories, wants to create alternate histories and, in the end, interacts with alternate histories. It follows a soldier who loses his brother at Pearl Harbor, gets involved in the design of directors for anti-aircraft guns, and travels through UK and Europe during the WW2 and lives through the birth of bebop. Early on, he is given the plans to a device that is never clearly described, but could change the world through some foggily described relationship between DNA and consciousness.

The creation of that device, and it's nebulous effects, run through the rest of the book. It is a very literary and intellectual science fiction book, filled mostly with discussion and ruminations on the nature of things. The unspecified nature of the device, and it's effects, does undercut a lot of that discussion though.

The movements, but not the specific character, of the protagonist are based on Goonan's father, who kept a memoir of his life in the war and just after.

There is one other annoying point in the book - a major plot point hinges on the Kennedy assassination and Goonan does seem to subscribe to the liberal trope that if Kennedy had survived, the result would have been Utopia. In truth, history has made it clear that Kennedy was just another scheming, deceptive, over-medicated, philandering politician.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

This morning we went to see the King Tut exhibit at the de Young Museum.

When we got there, I wondered about how successful the exhibit was - there was no line outside and none I could see inside. But they do a good job of controlling the lines, and there was one down stairs, and once we got inside it was quite crowded.

The exhibit is very good. The signage is excellent, making the audio tour almost, but not quite, superfluous. And the quality of the exhibits and the amount of important artifacts was very good.

One warning - even though it is a "Tut" exhibit, don't expect room after room of Tut artifacts. There are basically two Tut specific rooms, the rest of the exhibit covers the period leading up to Tut and give a nice background. Of the two Tut rooms, the first is more interesting, with many objects from the tomb. The second is supposed to represent the burial chamber and is anti-climactic. There are only a few artifacts there, and none of the sarcophagi or masks. Those no longer leave Egypt.

Overall, an excellent exhibit and definitely worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I just finished Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher.

This was a disappointment. It's a great topic for a book, and there is some interesting material here, but it is put together in a sloppy, un-focused format and the good stuff is mixed in with a lot of drivel, sometimes leading to conflicting ideas.

For example, parts of the book espouse the idea that being able to direct your focus towards the future, particularly the anticipation of events, can be beneficial, while other parts of the book take a strong stance in favour of the new age "be in the now" kind of thinking.

The sourcing is also all over the map. At times the author seems to have spoken to direct sources for scientific data, other times she repeats stories taken from a newspaper or TV show, with seemingly no effort made to distinguish between the different reliability levels of these sources.

Hopefully there will be another book on the same subject. There appears to be enough interesting research to support that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More Heaven Than Hell

Last night we got to see Heaven and Hell, i.e the Dio version of Black Sabbath, at the Warfield in SF.

I pretty much lucked into finding out about this show. Guitar Center had a sale over the weekend and I had one guitar cable I've been whining about for years. So I decided to take advantage of the sale to replace it. On the way out, I always look at the flyers near the door and the one for Heaven and Hell caught my eye. Given that I haven't played my electric in over a year before this weekend, and I hadn't been to a Guitar Center in longer than that, it was very fortuitous.

The show was the next day, so I rushed home, expecting it to be sold out. Luckily for me, Heaven and Hell doesn't sell as well as Black Sabbath. This meant that not only were they playing a smaller venue, but that they still had good seats available.

The show itself was amazing, from the opening strains of E5150/Mob Rules to the ending of Neon Knights. For me the high points were Falling of the Edge of the World and Die Young, near the end of the set, but even the songs off their new album, The Devil You Know, and the slightly older songs from the under appreciated Dehumanizer were really good. They also had the obligatory solo sections for drum and guitar and some jamming and a sing along on Heaven and Hell.

It was the Mob Rules era lineup - Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Vinny Appice - and none of them have lost any of their chops. This is particularly amazing since Dio is 67, just 2 years younger than my mum. He was looking a little old running around, but he still has the pipes. Geezer was also looking, well, like a geezer but Tony Iommi is amazing - he doesn't look like he has changed in 20+ years.

Overall, I'm still amazed and thrilled that I got to see this band in a smaller venue. I don't do arena shows any more, so this might be the only chance I get to see them, and this is probably the closest I will every get to any of Black Sabbath. I will have to keep my eye on the Warfield to see who else comes through there.

The opening act was Coheed and Cambria. I'd heard their name somewhere before, but never heard any of their music. They did a good set, without a lot of stage banter. I assume this was because they were trying to fit as much as possible in their shorter set. Live rock shows aren't the best place to judge new music, due to the usually terrible sound mix and loudness, but they seemed to have some possibly interesting songs. The high point of their show for me was a nice cover of Iron Maiden's The Trooper. The only down side of their set was their lighting - they had a set of floor spotlights that were nicely set to point directly at the balcony, making it impossible to actually look at the band for a good portion of their set.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

I just finished Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow.

Pleading Guilty isn't a legal thriller like you might expect from Turow. It's actually a modern noirish mystery with a partner in a law firm substituting for the typical private investigator protagonist.

The protagonist is an ex-drunk, former cop who is been underperforming at his firm and is on his way down, if not out. He's asked to look for a missing partner who might have also stolen a lot of money.

This is a departure for Turow, and feels very different from his other novels. It still has the complex and flawed characters he is known for. It starts out slow but picks up momentum in the second half. Once you twig that it is noir, everything -- twists, turns and betrayals -- falls into place and the end is about what you would expect.


Thursday, August 06, 2009

Yesterday I finished All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear.

All the Windwracked Stars is set at the end of the world, in a fantasy world derived from Norse myth. The beginning is set at the end of the world in it's equivalent of Valhalla, the rest of the book is set much later in Midgard, when that world is ending as well.

The main character is an ex-Valkyrie who ran away when her comrades were slain and has lived alone ever since. She gets drawn back into things when an old enemy pops up, and she tries to save the world one last time. In addition to these struggles, the novel also features some intense and somewhat violent sexual scenes, somethat that seems de rigueur in many modern fantasy novels written by women.

An interesting, and very dense novel. The use of a mythology that hews closer, in some ways, to it's origins is well done.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Yesterday, I finished WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer.

Wake is the first of a planned trilogy, obviously dealing with the rise of an emergent AI on the world wide web. The book follows four separate plots. The first is of an awakening AI. The second is of a blind girl who gets an experimental implant to try and give her sight. The third is of the Chinese government trying to contain an outbreak of virulent flu, and repressing internet connections to contain publicity. The fourth is of a hybrid chimp/bonobo that not only can talk using sign language but starts to show actual artistic ability.

By the end of the book, the first and second plots have intertwined, as the nascent WWW AI starts to communicate with the blind girl through her implant. The third plot does not cross with the others, except for the isolating of China's web causing the AI to bifurcate and then re-unite early on in the book, possibly spurring it's development. The fourth plot does not cross with the others in this novel, presumably it will in the rest of the series.

Overall, it's not one of my favourites of Sawyer's works so far. There is a lot of obvious exposition in this novel, with characters delivering huge speeches on neuropsychology, Zipf plots, etc. Sawyer does a good job of making the exposition compelling and timely, in terms of the plot, but it eventually drags everything down. I didn't like his last book, Rollback, very much either but I'm still interested enough to continue reading his books in general.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

After getting back from our trip, I finished Blameless in Abaddon by James Morrow.

This is the sequel to Towing Jehovah, which I wrote about here. The corpse of God has been recovered from his Arctic resting place and put on display in an amusement park, and visited by the sick like Lourdes.

The protagonist is a very sick man, with very bad luck, who decides to sue God in the World Court at the Hague. From this point on, the book basically becomes a detailed examination of the "Problem of Evil" as the protagonist wrestles with his opponent in the lawsuit. All of the theodicies (defenses of God against the "Problem of Evil") are examined. As such, it is quite interesting, but the rest of the story and the characters feel a little tacked on, like in most one issue books.

Not one of my favourites by Morrow.


Friday, July 17, 2009

I just finished The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.

In some ways this is a gimmick novel - the gimmick being that the protagonist is autistic and the book is told in first person from his perspective. But it's a very well done gimmick, so readers won't mind. Moon does a very good job of creating a compelling character and plot, even though she is telling it through the viewpoint of someone who things very differently from most people.

I don't think anyone really knows if her descriptions about what it is like to think like an autistic person are true, but it feels true, and that is all that matters in a novel. Once we get used to the protagonist, we can follow him, and care about him, as he goes through various trials and adventures.

The plot deals with how outsiders deal with autistic people, and how autistic people themselves feel when an opportunity to cure them of autism comes up.

If I had one quibble with this excellent book, it is that the protagonist, Lou, is set up as a little too perfect - nice guy, genius, excellent fencer, capable of fighting off attackers, leader of his group of autistic people, etc. He does grow through the course of the novel, but a more rounder protagonist would have been nice.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Last night we went and saw the new Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Another good job on the movie adaptation's for Harry Potter. Other than the first two films, of which the less said, the better, the movies have all been quite good. I still think the third one, which fixed the problems with the earlier ones and set the template for the rest of the series, is the best.

This movie had two advantages over the previous one (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). First, the book is shorter. That allows for fitting in all the important elements without feeling too rushed. As it is the movie does have a very quick pace, and will probably be difficult to follow for non-fans, and the titular character gets much shorter shrift than in the book. Second, the book is better. Phoenix is the weakest of the seven books, with too much angst from Harry and other story problems. Half-Blood Prince is a stronger story and gets to start tying up and paying off some of the story arcs that have been building from the previous five books.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Last night we saw The Seldom Scene at Yoshi's SF, with opening act The Tuttles.

The Seldom Scene are a more progressive bluegrass band then I typically listen to, and the version we saw last night only has one original member, but they put on a great show. It was particularly good to get to see Dudley Connell on guitar.

The Tuttles also did a great job as the opening act. The band is made up of Bay Area bluegrass teacher extraordinaire Jack Tuttle, his daughter Molly, sons Michael and Sullivan, and guest A.J. Lee. Molly and A.J. sound great singing together and all the Tuttle kids picked up a storm.

Although the bands were great, like my previous visit to Yoshi's SF, it left me cold as a venue. It looks nice, but the sound in the room comes across as sterile. Combine that with the obvious fact that the sound people are more used to dealing with jazz than bluegrass and didn't have a great sound mix, and it takes some away from even the best performers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Last night I finished The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick, his follow up to the The Iron Dragon's Daughter, which I wrote about here.

The new book is set in the same post-Industrial Revolution fantasy world as the old one, but are otherwise unrelated. The new book is also a better book - both better written and more enjoyable. The action and events are a lot easier to follow in this book, which makes it easier to appreciate the story and the characters instead of puzzling about what just happened. And although the story involves war, death, etc., it is a lot lighter in tone than the previous book.

Like the previous book, this one involves a lone child that gets involved with a damaged cybernetic dragon war machines. In this case, it is one that has crashed and takes over his village. This eventually leads him on the road to Babel, a variant of the fabled biblical city that did not fall and has instead continued to grow. On the way there he gets involved with various shady characters, gets in scrapes and barely survives. As expected in a fairy tale, eventually he comes out on top, whether he wants to or not.

Recommended much more than the previous books by Swanwick.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Last night, I finished Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan.

Market Forces seems as if it was written as bid for a movie - picture Death Race 2000 meets Wall Street. The world seems to be divided into three parts - the UK/US, which are ruled by an economic elite that settles their differences in formal duels involving their cars while the poor live in squalid "zoned areas"; socialist Europe, not described much except in Utopian terms; the rest of the world, where the evil financiers manipulate and exploit continual small wars. The action scenes, either duels on the road, fights in the "zoned areas" or brutal acts of revenge are described in loving detail, even though it is nearly impossible to picture the car scenes in any kind of real world.

The protagonist is almost a caricature of something Mickey Spillane would create - he starts out hard, and gets harder as the novel goes along, ending with (SPOILER ALERT) killing his super-hard mentor in a car duel.

At the same time, the author seems to intend the book as some kind of condemnation of capitalism, taking it to what he obviously considers is a reasonable extrapolation of where the current system might lead. It would be flattering to call his extrapolation childish, and in any other book it might be clear that this is parody or deliberate exaggeration, but this book does not seem to have any kind of humour attached to it, and he gives a bibliography at the end of "books consulted", including Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Joseph Stiglitz, that makes it clear that he isn't kidding.

But at the same time, I do have to admit that the book does work as an extreme hard-boiled thriller. The over-the-top action and ever-wrought relationships do pull the reader along.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Yesterday, I finished The Clan Corporate by Charles Stross, the third book in his Merchant Princes series.

First, a quick re-cap: in this series, there are people who can switch themselves between alternate worlds. There are a few known worlds: our world; a world where things have not progressed beyond the medieval era; a world where technology has progressed, but in a different manner, and gov't is more totalitarian than ours. The group of "world walkers" featured are part of one family in the medieval world and they exploit their talents like mafia, in order to smuggle drugs and other high value goods. The story involves one journalist who stumbles into these people, finds out she is one of them, and gets involved in all three worlds.

At the end of the second book, the protagonist had discovered the third world and started a base there, but was still having difficulties with her mafia like family from the second world. This book is mainly a long continuation of those difficulties. It is mainly occupied with tiresome political discussions of how she can survive within her family.

I started off by not liking the first book very much, then liking the second one more. With this third book, I'm back in the "not liking it" camp again. The story is bogged down with not very interesting political discussions, and the protagonist is mostly reduced to a bystander, as things happen around, and to, her.