Monday, December 27, 2010

I just finished Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds.

Not set in the same world as his Revelation Space series, Pushing Ice is a strong stand alone novel.  His other novels that I have read have been extreme space opera, set in a far future with humanity already on the verge of becoming, or already having become, strange transhumans.  This novel starts in the near future, and only moves into more familiar space opera territory with the second half.

Highly recommended, and it made me interested in checking out more of his stand alone novels.

Earlier in the week, I finished All the Devils Are Here by Bethany Mclean and Joe Nocera.

This book is one of many current ones on the financial crisis that started sometime around 2007 and is still not completely finished.  It does a good job of laying out the roots and major players of the financial system that led to the crisis, from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to Ameriquest and AIG.  They give lots of details on the rise of subprime mortgages, derivatives (particularly credit default swaps) and the financiers who used/abused them.

Very interesting reading, but it doesn't lend itself well to final conclusions.  The whole situation is too complex to be wrapped up with a simple summation, but this book should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand what happened.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A few days ago, I finished Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter.

Manifold: Time is as odd as it's title.   It starts off like a modern version of Destination Moon, but then quickly goes off the rails with messages from the future, philosophical predictions of the end of humanity and Midwich Cuckoo like children being abused across the globe.

It started to lose me with the predictions of humanities doom based on the Carter Catastrophe.  The Carter Catastrophe is a real idea, but the way it is presented in the novel is transparently wrong, and that bothered me for the rest of the novel.  The rest of the ludicrous plot didn't help.

Not recommended.

Monday, December 20, 2010

I just finished The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.

Set in a near future Istanbul, were nano-tech is a cottage industry, The Dervish House follows a number of plots centered around one home.  These include the launch of a new tech product, the search for a man turned into honey and the fallout of a tram bombing.  They all tie neatly together in the end.

A dense, slow read, but worth the effort.  Expected to be on a lot of end of the year best of lists.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Some time last week I finished Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks.

I've been a huge fan of Banks non-science fiction writing for a long time, but the last time I tried to read one of his Culture novels, I lost interest quickly.  This time, I decided to start at the first one and see if it was any better.

And it was.  Consider Phlebas is actually a pretty straight forward, and old fashioned, space opera, right down to characters using "laser rifles".  It follows a soldier from a human offshoot species that can modify it's shape under some circumstances, as he works to track down a lost AI in order to help undermine the Culture, a vast anarcho-socialist empire.

It's an enjoyable read, if not anything spectacular, and I'll probably try some of the other Culture novels as I find time.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Over the weekend, I finished Pirate Latitudes, the posthumous novel by Michael Crichton.

Pirate Latitudes, and another novel, were found as completed manuscripts on Crichton's computer after his death.   I don't think it is known why it wasn't published - if it was held back for a reason or just hadn't reached publishing.

It's a good novel, more similar to his earlier works like The Great Train Robbery, than his later techno thrillers.  The first few chapters are a little annoying as they constantly and blatantly throw in facts about the time when the novel is set to correct assumed misconceptions in the readers.  After that, it settles down into a nice nautical tale of English versus Spanish in the New World.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A few days ago I finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

At the start, I was a little disappointed with this novel, but through no fault of the author.  I had heard about this great new historical novel about Cromwell, and assumed it was Oliver Cromwell, England's so-called Lord Protector.  Turns out, I was mistaken.  This book is about Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII.

I had hoped for a book about Oliver Cromwell because he is part of a period of English history that hasn't been as well covered in fiction.  In contrast, Thomas Cromwell is part of the whole Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn, divorce, etc. story told in many different forms over the years.

Once I got past that, it is a well written book, although very dry and slow.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I just finished The Hammer and the Cross by Harry Harrison.

I guess it's an alternate history, rather than a straight historical novel, since the premise is based around the Vikings resisting the spread of Christianity through Europe.  The main character, Shef, is English but falls in with Vikings and helps them against the English, and the church's forces that work with them.  The medieval Christian church is portrayed, probably fairly accurately, very harshly - mostly money grubbing, cruel and aloof.

It's an interesting book, though the inventiveness of the main character seems a little ahistorical at times.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A few days ago, I finished The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, winner of the 2010 Hugo for best novel.

The Windup Girl is a dystopia set in Thailand, after a collapse due to the end of the petroleum age and then a second collapse caused by plagues of mutated genetically engineered crops.  The narrative is split between four characters, a North American businessman in Thailand to undermine the government and get access to the Thai market for his companie's crops, a Malaysian refugee trying to survive in a country hostile to foreigners, a soldier of the enforcement arm of the Thai government's environmental ministry, and the titular windup girl - a genetically modified human abandoned by Japanese businessmen.

It's hard to find anyone to sympathize with.  The windup girl herself is an innocent, abused horribly throughout the novel and constrained by her breeding and training, but is so helpless through most of the novel that it is hard to identify with her.  The businessman is amoral and thoughtless.  The refugee is scheming and dishonest.  The soldier is a bully and a proto-fascist.

I suspect the author wants us to sympathize with the latter character, and his lieutenant who takes over the narrative part way through, due to his efforts to protect the local environment and loyalty to the Thai government, but this is hard to go along with given the obvious comparisons between his "white shirts" and the historic "black shirts" or "brown shirts".

Even with the lack of a sympathetic protagonist, the book is still well written and compelling. 

Sunday, November 07, 2010

I just finished The Prestige by Christopher Priest.

This is the basis for the movie of the same name.  There's no way I'll be able to avoid SPOILERS in this post, so reader beware...

I saw the movie version of this story years ago, and enjoyed it as one of the most intelligent movies of the time.  The book is equally good, though different in many ways.  Both are built around a feud between two magicians, Borden and Angier, ultimately ending in tragedy, but the differences are striking, and are mostly improvements in the film version.

The novel is book-ended by modern scenes involving the magician's grandchildren that don't feel necessary to the story, and the film wisely gets rid of them.  In the novel, the fact that Borden is actually a twin is strongly hinted at from early on, and is even investigated by Angier before being dismissed.  The movie avoids any hints of twins, and depends on the impression created by only showing one Borden, to keep the audience from suspecting it as well.  This strengthens the contrasts between the two magicians and the irony of Angier making the Tesla device work.  In the book, the device leaves behind a copy that is not fully alive (referred to by Angier as the "prestige materials", which explains the title, something the movie never really does), while the movie Angier is actually actively killing the duplicates left behind, a much more intense, almost melodramatic, emotional choice.  The movie also makes the feud between the two stronger, tying it to their actions while working together and making their acts of sabotage more concrete, while the novel keeps the two very seperate, and their feud is almost abstract.

Overall, the novel is still a very good read and recommended.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Every year I come up with some overly ambitious ideas for Halloween costumes, and end up not having enough time to actually do anything about it or, like last year, can only do a half assed job.

This year, I came up with the idea, and found time to work on it, early enough to test it out and refine it before Halloween.  The idea was Odin, the Norse god.

Some parts of the costume were easy - I bought a wizard's rob and wig/beard - since Odin was the original inspiration for the look of Tolkien's Gandalf - and a pirate's eye patch.  The beard that came with the Merlin beard/wig set was way too much, but I came up with a last minute substitution.  I've got a pretty good Van Dyke beard going, and it's a little overgrown right now.  I combined that with the hair whitening makeup I'd bought for my eyebrows, and it worked pretty well.

For a prop,  I wanted to carry Gungnir, Odin's spear, but none of the commercially available spears were appealing.  I ended up making it myself, out of cardboard tubes, paper mache and acrylic paint, with some glow in the dark runes added for affect.

One part of the costume never came to fruition, and I might try to add it in the future.  I'd like to have Hugin and Munin (Odin's two ravens) props on my shoulders, but I couldn't find anything the right size to carry around.

I think it turned out pretty well.  No one at the party I went to had any idea who I was, but I didn't expect any different.  If I'd run into any experts on the Norse pantheon, I think they would have figured it out.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

I just finished Djibouti by Elmore Leonard.

Going further afield than Leonard normally does, Djibouti is set in the Horn of Africa area, and involves filmmakers, vigilantes and terrorists with his usual tough guy bravado throughout.

It also has him doing something else unusual, playing with the narrative structure.  Part of the novel is told in pseudo-flashback form, as the filmmakers review some of their footage and Leonard weaves in the events that were going on around the time the footage was taken.  This gimmick doesn't work very well, just creating confusion about where/when the narrative is, and Leonard abandons it after a few chapters.

Leonard's usual distinctive dialogue also doesn't work as well here.  Usually Leonard's dialogue, like that of David Mamet, feels real even though it isn't realistic at all.  In the beginning of this book, it doesn't feel real at all.

By the end, Leonard is more in his comfort zone, as various tough guys confront each other, and the novel is much stronger and more interesting, but the trip to get there isn't very interesting.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I just finished The Tin Princess by Philip Pullman.

This is the fourth book in the Sally Lockhart series, even though Sally only appears in a few cameos.

It features the return of a character from The Ruby in the Smoke, Adelaide, who was presumed dead.  She's reunited with Jim, and then becomes the princess, then queen of a small European country caught between Germany and Austria.

It's a worthy sequel, full of the same great characters and conflict as the other books.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Yesterday I finished The Knights of the Cornerstone by James Blaylock.

Blaylock is one of my favourite authors, based on his books like The Last Coin and The Paper Grail.  He dropped out of site for many years, not publishing any novels for ten years before this one.

It's a good book, probably not as good as the two above, but more enjoyable than his last few.  He has a nice way of mixing the real world with odd human behaviour, and the mysterious spiritual world, different from any other author I've read.  His protagonists are not easily distinguished from each other, but they still work in context.

Friday, October 08, 2010

I just finished Tapping the Dream Tree by Charles de Lint.

Normally I don't like short story collections, but I was craving some de Lint that I hadn't read, and this was the only one in my local library.

I've always liked de Lint's writing, and his take on the urban fantasy field. I think of Charles de Lint as an early practitioner of urban fantasy, but one very different from what has come to dominate that field.  Most of the current urban fantasy is more derived from the works of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake novels and involves a lot more sex, violence and action than de Lint's stories.  His are more contemplative, personal, spiritual and filled with a sense of wonder.

This set of stories is pretty typical - a mix of minor and major interactions between the characters and the fantastical, featuring some of his standard Newford characters.  Not as good as a full length novel, but still very enjoyable.

Monday, October 04, 2010

I just finished Sourcery by Terry Pratchett.

Sourcery is the fifth Discworld novel, before Pratchett really worked his way into the current plot skeleton of adding some modern item to Discworld, with a magical spin.

It's a Rincewind novel, and features him saving the world from magic after a new kind of wizard, an eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth is born and greatly increases the effectiveness of magic.

Like all the Discworld books, it's a fun read. 

Saturday, October 02, 2010

I just finished Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

LtGWS takes place mostly in New York, though it opens in Ireland.  In New York, it follows an interconnected group of people before, during and after Phillipe Petit did his famous tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

It's an enjoyable read, which felt to me a lot like Maeve Binchey's writings about intertwined lives, but I'm not sure if it left me with much afterwards.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I just finished Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan.

Altered Carbon is a science fiction noir novel, where an investigator with little power tries to find the truth while battling against entrenched, corrupt and usually perverse, powerful people.

In this case, the investigator is a an ex-super soldier, ex-crook brought to Earth to investigate the death of a wealthy man which might be murder and might be suicide.  This is complicated because people have their personalities stored in chips or backed up and can be housed in any body, so the man has been brought back to life, and the protagonist has been "sleeved" in an ex-cop's body.

It develops in pretty predictable ways, but is a decent read.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I just finished Hrolf Kraki's Saga by Poul Anderson.

Based on the historical saga of the same name, Anderson's version sticks pretty close to the events but adds a little bit of additional colour and character development.  The characters are still thin, in terms of emotional depth, like the original sagas, but are a little more readable for modern audiences.

The result works quite well, keeping the quick moving nature of the sagas but drawing in this modern reader.  Quite enjoyable.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I just finished Wilderness of Mirrors by David C. Martin.

Wilderness of Mirrors loosely follows the careers of James Angleton and William Harvey, and the respective effects they had on the fortunes of the CIA during the Cold War.

It's a very loose book - very anecdote based, but the anecdotes are quite interesting, so it works out.  It's interesting that a lot of the Cold War mysteries about which defectors were double agents and which ones were genuine still haven't been settled.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Over the weekend I finished Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.

Basically an excuse to combine two popular memes - zombies and steampunk - Boneshaker is set in an alternate Seattle where the core of the city was undermined by a giant digging machince called the Boneshaker.  This digging also released some poison gas that continues to seep out and turn people into zombies.

The book follows the son and wife of the man who built the Boneshaker as they venture into the sealed city and encounter various of the denizens, and get involved in the political struggles inside.

It's an OK read, but I'm not sure why it is getting the rave reviews and awards nominations (including a Hugo nomination).

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Here are the books I finished while on vacation -

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins.

This is a really enjoyable book, and a great resource.  It lays out a very strong case for the theory of evolution, starting with why the complaint that it is "just a theory" is silly, and moving through a variety of the strongest evidence, from historical to genetic.

Crown of Stars by Kate Elliot.

For a number of years, this series has been one of my "airplane" series.  Usually epic fantasy books that are large enough to last me through a flight or two, but also disposable in case I want to toss them while travelling.

This one wraps up this series, but in an almost half hearted way.  All the various plot lines and characters are dealt with, but none of the revelations or twists at the end seemed to add up to much and it felt more like an exercise in wrapping things up rather than an exciting conclusion.

Peru Trip Diary

Aug 27th.

Flight from SFO to Miami was delayed. First delay made it difficult to make connection. Second delay (to manually start an engine) made me miss connection for sure. AA put me up in a Doubletree hotel overnight. Miami was shockingly hot and humid - my glasses fogged up when I walked outside.

Aug 28th.

Flight to Lima was also delayed by a couple of hours. Got into Lima about 16 hours later than schedule. Met up with Stacey at Hotel Antigua Miraflores. Lima looks very poor, particularly the slums that are near the airport. The next day, we walked around the Miraflores neighbourhood. Saw ruins at Huaca Pucllana, then had a nice lunch of ceviche at La Mar.

Then walked over to see a neat shopping center built into a cliff over looking the sea, then back to the hotel to get our bags and a taxi to the bus station. Caught an overnight bus to Arequipa. The bus station and bus itself were a lot safer seeming than what you read about. But the trip itself was rough. Sleeping on a moving bus, with turns, rough roads and stops is difficult.

Aug 30th.

Arrived in Arequipa and checked into Casa Andina Classic hotel. Very nice hotel with a huge room. Went out and had lunch at a local restaurant then walked down to the plaza and checked out two nice churches. Hung out in the plaza a little and then had nice diner at ChiCha. Back to hotel to write postcards.

Aug 31st.

Checked out the huge Monasterio de Santa Catalina.  Built to house numerous nuns, it's like a little town of its own. Had crepes for lunch , did some alpaca shopping, then saw "Juanita of the ice" at Museo Santuarios Andinos and an art exhibition of all bullfighting pictures. Also saw Casa Moral, a restored colonial house, then a little more shopping before picking up our bags and catching the overnight bus to Cusco.

Sept 1st.

Arrived in Cusco after another hard bus ride. Another nice hotel - Rumi Punku, with an original Inca doorway.  Outside the classic core and tourist neighborhoods, Cusco looks very poor. The tourist neighborhoods are like old parts of Italian cities, with narrow cobblestone streets and old construction. Lots of churches. We saw five - La Catedral, Capilla de Sagrada Familia , Capilla de Triunfo, La Compania  and Templo de San Blas. Had a nice guide for four of them and a good audio guide for San Blas. Did some alpca and silver shopping and looked at all the remaining Inca walls. Out for supper to Limo, a very nice fusion style restaurant on the plaza.

Sept. 2nd.

Up very early to catch train to Aguas Calientes. Train ride very nice and scenic, with a fashion show and folk dance routine, but ran a little late due to a blocked track. In Aguas Calientes, we got into our nice hotel Rupi Wasi. Amazing accommodations with great views. We walked around the small town a little, getting Machu Picchu tickets, etc. Had an OK lunch at Indio Feliz but terrible service  We were going to go on some smaller local hikes but it started to rain pretty hard.   We tried to wait it out for while but when it looked like it wasn't going to stop, we went out to get rain ponchos. By that time, the hike we were going to do was going to get us back too late for the cooking lessons we had booked at the gourmet restaurant attached to out hotel. The cooking lessons were given by the head cook at the restaurant and were excellent. The first dish we made was chupa , a soup made with red onions, yellow peppers and quinoa. Very nice but mostly demonstration. The next dish was quinotto, quinoa based risotto with a grilled chicken breast. We got to make the risotto ourselves , mixing red onions , chopped yellow peppers, quinoa and a large amount of cream. Both were delicious.  Afterwards the rain had stopped and we walked around the two main streets in Aguas Calientes.

View from our hotel

Sept 3rd.

Decided not to get up early because we expected it to be cloudy. Turned out to be wrong and it was a bright sunny day. Caught a bus up to Machu Picchu around 8am. Got a guide to show is around. The whole thing was amazing.

Got back around 2pm and got ready for train back to Cusco. Train ride back was more boring. It was dark for part of it, so no scenery to see and the scits/shows were the similar. Got checked into hotel (Casa Andina Classic Cusco) and went out for dinner at Patchapapa, a San Blas restaurant focusing on local cuisine. Afterwards, there was a dance class or something going on in the San Blas square. Looked like all locals doing some kind of line dance with a few live musicians.

Sept. 4th.

Slept in a little. Had breakfast in hotel then off to check out Sacsayhuamán, the ruins of the Inca fortress on the hill over the town. The walk up was long and steep with some good views along the way.  The remaining walls of the fortress were very impressive, huge pieces of stone fitted together without gaps. Then back down to San Blas area to have lunch at Patchapapa, but it wasn't open yet and we didn't have time to wait so we ate at the Meeting Place, a cafe ran by American ex missionaries who have moved here. Nice food, but lacking any local character. Checked out some of the street fair going on the San Blas square before catching a taxi to the airport for the flight to Lima.  After flight and hotel check in, we went out to a local organic, vegan restaurant Stacey had discovered on her first day here alone - Alma Zen.  Great food, and extremely nice people.

Sept. 5th.

Decided to check out a few of Lima's museums.  First we went to Museo Larco, which has a lot of great pottery and other pieces from pre-Inca Peru, including an amazing erotica pottery collection.  Then over to the Museo de la Nación, which was much less interesting and under renovation.  Getting there also involved the only time in Peru that I felt less than safe.  The cab we got into was on its last legs and I was just happy to get out of it without crashing or getting carbon monoxide poisoning.  After that museum, we walked around Miraflores a bit more, had dinner and then headed for the airport to fly home.

Overall impressions:
- Machu Picchu is a must see.  Simply amazing.
- Peru is great value for the money.  We stayed at reasonably priced, very nice hotels in every city.  Food was also very affordable.
- Contrary to all the warnings, we never felt unsafe in Peru.  And the people, with the exception of the occasional cab driver, were very, very nice.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I'm running a little behind.  I blame it on over work, and doing a little less reading.  You can also see some of my other activities at my new blog, Adventures In Blacksmithing.

Here are two books I didn't talk about:

I finished The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

I like almost everything Gaiman has done, and this is not an exception.  It's a well written variant of Kipling's The Jungle Book, if you substitute "graveyard" for "jungle".  It's probably intended partly for a YA audience, but I enjoyed the story as well.

I also finished Blood's A Rover by James Ellroy.

I'm also a fan of Ellroy, but this book didn't work for me.  Ellroy's sparse, intense style has gotten so concentrated in this, and his last book, American Tabloid, that they are almost un-readable.  The characters come off as minor variants of misogynist, racist thugs and the usually thrilling plot twists are obvious and over set up.  I saw him do a reading last year, and it was amazing, but I hope he follows his promise to move on from his current style and do something different with his next book. 

Monday, August 09, 2010

On Sunday, we saw Agora, the 2009 Spanish film starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, the philosopher and mathematician.

Overall, quite enjoyable.  It's set in an interesting time, when the Roman Empire is transitioning from being pagan dominated to being Christian dominated and the film highlights the clashes between those groups, and the Jews who also lived in Alexandria.

The movie isn't really historically accurate, since it pushes the Library of Alexandria forward in time so that it can be sacked during Hypatia's lifetime, and has everyone dressing in stereotypical classical Greek/Roman outfits rather than after 3rd century garb, but it nonetheless gives a strong feeling for the difficulties of the time.

Some have criticized it for the portrayal of Hypatia, saying that it bought into the myth of her as a martyr to science, but they seem to have been watching a different movie, or just going off press clippings.  In this movie, Hypatia's death is clearly the result of political struggles between Cyril, bishop of Alexandria and Orestes, the prefect. 

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Last week, I finished The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey.

I picked up this book after it was recommended by Andy Falco, guitar player for The Infamous Stringdusters, during the 2010 CBA Music Camp.  I was his assistant at camp and found his approach to music very interesting.

The Inner Game of Music is an adaptation by Barry Green of Timothy Gallwey's Inner Game concept, targeted towards music.  The core idea of the inner game postulates two parts of consciousness, "self 1" and "self 2".  "Self 1" is more of the conscious questioning mind, while "self 2" is the un-conscious mind that does the actual work of executing a given task.  Once a task is learned, "self 1" doesn't add anything to the execution of that task and, in fact, only undermines the execution. 

Based on that theory, the rest of the book is about how to get "self 1" out of the way so that "self 2" can do its best. 

The basic theory is interesting, and does match some of my own experiences in practice.  Based on that, I've started to use some of the exercises from the book in my own playing and I'm considering buying a copy of the book for my own reference.

The book isn't perfect, though - first, the examples in the book are all based around a classical style of music.  More examples based on more improvisational and pop styles (jazz, bluegrass, country, rock) would be helpful.  Second, there is a lot of fluff in the book - lots of anecdotal info, repeated text and 70's style self-help blather than is a pain to read through to extract the meat.  But the bottom line is that the meat of the book is very interesting, and possibly useful for anyone with musical ambitions.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

I just finished The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer.

I didn't like this book very much.  It reads like an exercise in "literary" writing, with dream sequences, suicides and bizarre families abounding.  This turns out not to be surprising, since the author has a Ph.d in Literature.

The story itself, a flashback that covers the details of the protagonists life until he boards a specially designed "perpetual motion" zeppelin, has little to keep the readers interest, lurching from odd situation to odd situation.  At no point does the protagonist engender any sympathy from the reader, or even basic understanding of his motivations.  And at the end, the reader is left with no insight into any character, human nature or anything at all. 

A boring, and pointless, novel.  Not recommended.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Last night, we went and saw Wicked at the Orpheum Theater in SF.

A lot of our friends had seen it, and it was highly recommended.  We thought it was an excellent show.  The singing was well done, with good turns by all the main actors, and the show itself is funny and charming.  I thought the first half worked a little better, since they had more freedom to create their own story instead of having to line up with the Wizard of Oz plot.

The staging is a particular standout - a good example of what modern theater can do when it pulls out all the stops. 

Well worth seeing before it closes on Sept. 5th.

Monday, July 26, 2010

I just finished Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett, the latest in his Discworld novels.

Unseen Academicals covers the worlds of sports, in particular the Ankh-Morpork sport of "football", as it changes from an ultra-violent mob game to a slightly less violent approved game.  It also introduces a new race to the Discworld, the orc.  The usual Pratchett twist is that the orc in question is a fine, upstanding person rather than a vicious killer.

Another nice, enjoyable book from Pratchett.  This one focuses on mainly new characters, rather than being part of an existing series of regulars. 

Friday, July 23, 2010

I just finished Finity's End By C.J. Cherryh.

Finity's End is part of a series of books by Cherryh set in the same universe.  I've posted about a few of them (Rim Runners, Heavy Time and Hellburner).  This one is less claustrophobic than those books, almost a YA book, since it deals with the classic disaffected youth gaining maturity and a place in the world as he overcomes problems.  In this case, it is the child of a spacer who was left behind on a station during an emergency.  Since then, he has been the subject of legal struggles between the station and the spacers, and grew up to resent everyone.  When he is sent back to the spacers, he has to grow up and make a place for himself.

As cliched as the basic story is, it still works and makes an effective story.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I just finished Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

Another strong page-turner from Preston/Child.  This one involves an archaeological expedition to find Quivira, Coronado's fabled city of gold, located in Utah's southern canyons.  Along the way are flash floods, mysterious deaths and some new relationships.

Very good at keeping you reading, moves very quickly, if a little empty at heart.

Friday, July 09, 2010

I just finished Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Galileo's Dream covers Galileo's life from when he first started building telescopes up to his death.  The twist is that his first telescope is a gift from a mysterious stranger, who turns out to be a time traveler interested in using Galileo in a few schemes of his own.  Galileo gets entangled in these schemes, effecting his life and possibly all of the future.

An enjoyable book.  The point of view is a little strange.  At times, it is made clear that the story is being told by someone who is observing Galileo, at other times the narrative enters Galileo's head in a way that makes him seem to be the narrating character.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Yesterday I finished Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

A fairly standard post-apocalyptic novel, told partly in flashback as the protagonist, one of the only surviving normal humans, remembers his youth and interactions with the person responsible for the fall of humanity and partly in the present, as the protagonist struggles to survive, and look after  a group of altered, genetic engineered humans.

The only non-standard thing about this novel is the fact that Margaret Atwood doesn't consider it science fiction.  That just reveals that she isn't exposed to much in the field, since her novel fits neatly within the genre in every way.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Last night I finished The Pillars of Creation by Terry Goodkind.

This, the 7th book in Goodkind's Sword of Truth series, takes an unexpected turn.  Instead of focusing on Richard and Kahlan and their ongoing struggles against the Imperial Order, it focuses on two entirely new characters.  For reasons too complex to go into, one of these new characters is allied with the Imperial Order, against what we have thought of as the force of good in the other books.  In the end, the two sets of characters do interact to tie everything together.

This is an effective twist.  One of the complaints I've had about the previous books is that the protagonist, Richard Cypher/Rahl, has become a "superman", undefeatable in physical combat and immensely powerful in magical terms.  This has led to more and more ridiculous plot twists, like the Superman comics of old, as the author searches for new ways to challenge or limit his protagonist.  This twist removes all of those machinations and puts us back in a simple story, and it works very well.

Monday, June 21, 2010

I missed one book that I finished just before leaving for Grass Valley - The January Dancer by Michael Flynn.

I'm a big fan of Flynn's, going all the way back to reading his stories in Analog.   The January Dancer is a different book for him, moving more into the area of space opera.  It also adds a different spin to that genre, by making the default culture an Irish one.  I don't think that has been done before.  Combine that with a clever new version of FTL travel, and an interesting plot about an alien artifact that has strange effects on those around it, and you've got another darn good book.

Like all of his books, recommended.

Yesterday I finished Feed by Mira Grant.

Feed is a post-zombie apocalypse type book, but one where civilization didn't fall.  It's set a number of years after a rogue genetically engineered virus starting converting people to zombie, where people have adjusted and go on with life.  Civilization works fine but has added many new constraints to deal with the possibility of continued outbreaks.

The protagonists are journalists (i.e. bloggers), a brother/sister pair and one of their friends, who get invited to cover a presidential contended and then get into trouble.

A strong read - more thought out than most similar books, with some surprising twists and turns along the way. 

Mira Grant is a pen-name for Seanan McGuire, who also writes urban fantasy under her own name.  I enjoyed Feed more than Rosemary and Rue,  since it did more to extend and surpass its genre.  I'll still probably check out the sequels to both books.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I just got back from spending a week up in Grass Valley, first as a volunteer teaching assistant at the CBA Music Camp, and then attending the CBA Father's Day Festival

I had a great time this year.  At the camp, I was assisting Andy Falco, the guitar player for the Infamous Stringdusters in the advanced guitar class.  Turns out that in addition to being a great musician, he's also a good teacher and a super nice guy.  I haven't always been a fan of the Stringdusters (see my comments here, about the band with the previous guitar player), but after meeting Andy I decided to check them out again.  Their Thursday set was really good, and their Friday and Saturday sets were even better so now I'm a convert.  Their sound is a lot stronger rhythmically than I remembered, and they have some great songs and jamming pieces.

Other than that, the highlight of the weekend was Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper.  He really tore it up on a number of pieces, but my favourite was a slow one he did - Maiden's Prayer.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

I just finished This Is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams.

This book is built around alternate reality games, where the term "This Is Not a Game" is used to keep players and game runners from doing things that would undermine the real feeling of the game.  It involves four people who met through gaming.  The protagonist creates and runs alternate reality games for a company owner.  A third character is an investor and a fourth is an ex-lover.

It starts off with the producer protagonist getting stranded in Jakarta during a crisis and then using her game world connections to help her get out.  That introduces the themes of games vs. reality and using the game players to effect real world events.  In the second part, this gets developed more as another character is murdered and the line between reality and the game blurs.  This kind of game/reality blurring isn't uncommon (see David Fincher's The Game for a film version of this), but the twist here is that the protagonist always knows what is game and what isn't - it's only the players who don't.

Overall, a good read.  Kept me interested enough to finish it in a day or so.

Monday, June 07, 2010

I just finished Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds.

Chasm City is the second book in his Revelation Space series, but is actually a better place to start than the first book.  I've commented on his other novels (here and here), and the lack of exposition in them, but this books goes the other way - it almost has too much exposition, including a prologue that is just a snippet from a guide for newly arriving visitors to a star system.  The books aren't directly related so far, so there is no problem with starting with the second one.

Of the other two books I've read, Chasm City is more similar to The Prefect, in that it tells one storyline from start to finish (minus flashbacks or dreams) and follows one character instead of a cast of characters.  It also has a similar noir/mystery feel, as the protagonist pursues revenge against the man who killed his boss and bosses wife.  This is intertwined with dreams of the founding of the colony he comes from.

An effective and enjoyable novel.

Friday, June 04, 2010

A few days ago I finished Hellburner by C.J. Cherryh.

Hellburner is a sequel to Heavy Time, which I wrote about here.  Heavy Time was not an easy read, since a good part of the book involves a man who has been so badly traumatized that he can't function normally.  Hellburner is actually a harder read - it spends even more time in the same traumatized man's head, after another accident has caused him to flip out again.

On top of that, it is often difficult to follow the action in the book.  Too much exposition can be a problem for a novel, but too little exposition is also a problem.  Following the action in this book felt nearly impossible.

I don't know if I would have picked it up if I knew it was a direct sequel to Heavy Time, and I don't think I will pick up any other books that are directly connected.

Monday, May 31, 2010

I just finished Bios by Robert Charles Wilson.

Bios is an oddly short book, shorter than most novels released these days.  It tells the story of a world where all lifeforms have evolved to be hyper-aggressive, leading to death for any human exposed to even the smallest amount of material.

It's never drawn out why human's need to explore this world, but the follows a girl who was genetically altered to be able to resist the bacteria, etc. as a pilot program for others.

The short length, and lack of an important driver behind human needs to survive on this world, undermine the plot and make it less involving.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Yesterday I finished The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glen Cook.

Cook is best known for his dark fantasy novels, particularly those featuring the Black Company.  This is the first science fiction novel I've read by him.

The Dragon Never Sleeps involves an international police/peacekeeping force (the metaphorical "dragon" of the title) called the guardships.  They have come to be seen as oppressive by the people they are policing, and they battle not only their own rebellious people but also aliens who want to expand into their space.

Cook's style can be very terse at times, with a lot of ground covered and much implied with a few words.  This works well in his fantasy books, as the things he is talking about tend to be easy to understand.  In a complex space opera setting like The Dragon Never Sleeps, it is a little harder to follow and I had to backtrack a number of times in this book to figure out what had just happened, or how particular characters had gotten to a particular place.

Overall, an interesting book but not as highly recommended as his fantasy novels.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I just finished Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter.

Point of Impact is the first of the Bob Swagger novels, son of Earl Swagger who was used in novels I wrote about here and here.  It was also made into a movie starring Mark Wahlberg.  The name was changed to Shooter and the war Swagger fought in was changed from Vietnam to Iraq, but otherwise it follows the story fairly faithfully.

Not much to say about the book - tough guy gets betrayed, gets revenge and outwits (and out-shoots) his opponents.  Decently written, well plotted and the gun discussions don't take over the story.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I finished The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds a few days ago.

Set in the same universe as Revelation Space, The Prefect starts off as a police procedural and ends as a space opera.  The prefect of the title is a kind of police officer, charged with making sure there are no violations of voting rights in a large set of orbital habitats with diverse cultures.  They get drawn into an investigation of an entire habitat being wiped out, presumably by a sub-culture that travels between the stars at slower than light speeds, but ends up being tied into some scheming AIs.

The book moves along well, and is less difficult to get into than Revelation Space.   The characters aren't anything unexpected, or much beyond a set of generic protagonists, but the back story was interesting.  It made me interested to read some of the books that come between these two in this series.

Monday, May 10, 2010

I just finished How We Decide by Johan Lehrer.

How We Decide is one in a raft of pop sci books that use behavioural research to discuss how human behaviour departs from the theoretical rational "economic man" model.

A lot of the research discussed is actually old and I've been exposed to it in various other books, but the new twist is the Malcolm Gladwell-esque narrative pop sci spin put on it.  Not much new to see, but presented in a palatable format.

There are a number of places where Lehrer over-extends the meaning of these results.  For a start, he uses a naive view of reason, mentioning Plato's views of reason opposing emotions, and then takes that as the standard in all of western civilization.  But, as he points out himself, Plato's pupil Aristotle had a more nuanced view that held that the true reasonable man knows that both reason and emotion have their places and the struggle is to find where they should be applied.

An example of this naive view of reason can be seen in his discussion of the ultimatum game, where one party is allowed divides a reward and the other party can choose to accept the division or both parties get nothing.  Naive theories of reason like those used in basic game theory lead to the conclusion that the offerer should make a very minimal offer and that the receiver should accept it, because it is still better than nothing.  In contrast, in the real world most offerers make a much closer to even distribution and most receivers will reject the offer if it is not closer to even.  This is taken as evidence of irrationality, but it is only irrational in that it shows most people can not isolate their thinking into such an artificial context on demand.  In real world behaviour, demanding a more even split will result in better payoffs for the receiver over time, and making more even splits will result in better payoffs for the offerer over time, since they know that receivers will demand higher payoffs.  At this higher, more realistic level, the outcome is completely rational.

On the other hand, he also discusses framing effects, where the identical problem elicits a different response depending on how it is presented, clearly a sign of inconsistent and irrational behaviour.

Another weak part of the book is the section on morality.  He connects morality and emotions in a strong way, postulating that morality is based on emotional reactions to and sympathy with other people.  He lists  psychopaths as examples, since they lack emotional affect and behave in an immoral fashion.  But he doesn't give any explanation for the observed variation in morality across cultures and across time, or for the lack of serious immoral behaviour among autistics, another group that lacks emotional affect and sympathy.

There are better books on the same subject.  This one is OK if it is your first introduction to the subject.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

I finished Cauldron by Jack McDevitt last week, but forgot to post about it due to work being nutz.

Cauldron continues the story of Priscilla Hutchins that started in The Engines of God.   Hutchins has gone full circle from starting out as a exploring starship pilot, to managing an academy of pilots, to retiring and fundraising and then back to pilot. 

Cauldron does a lot to resolve mysteries that have been raised in earlier McDevitt books, including that of the Omega Clouds that are the scourge of civilizations throughout the galaxy.  As such, it doesn't feel like most of his other books, which thrive on unexplained mysteries and the emptiness of space.

I finished Faith and Fire by James Swallow a few days ago.

Set in the same Warhammer 40K universe as this book,  Faith and Fire is better written.  The action scenes are clearer, the characters are better written and the plot fits together more easily. 

These novels all have to walk a fine line, since the side of evil is over the top evil while the side of good is a fascist, oppressive and grotesque theocracy.  The obvious way to maneuver around this is to have one of the powerful good characters turn out to be the real villain.  I guess that could be considered a spoiler, but only if you weren't paying attention, since the suspicious nature of this character is obvious from the start.

Overall, a decent novel, but one that only caters to a very specialized taste.  

Sunday, May 02, 2010

I just finished The Wheel of Darkness by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. 

I've read a few of the Preston/Child's books - Relic, Reliquary and The Cabinet of Curiosities.  They are all techno-thrillers to one degree or another, usually overlapping with serial killers and some kind of mysticism.

This one is no exception, as a dangerous object is stolen from a Tibetan monastery and the killer escapes on a new ocean liner, followed by FBI agent Pendergast.  Pendergast has moved from being an odd minor character, to being the focus of their novels, of which The Wheel of Darkness is on the tail end. 

Nothing unexpected here, but an OK read given that.

Monday, April 26, 2010

I just finished Sideshow by Sherri S. Tepper.

Sideshow follows Raising the Stones and Grass, ultimately tying up the fates of all the characters and species from those novels and leading to the ultimate destiny for humanity.

The plot follows on from Raising the Stones, where the fungal network known as the Hobb's Land God is spreading throughout human systems.  One group decides that it must isolate itself from the network on a distant world, in order to preserve their diversity and work on the question of human destiny.  They go so far as to have enforcers whose job is to maintain diversity and the status quo. 

The novels starts when things have started to go wrong, the world is taking a dark turn and strange creatures are showing up and interfering with the populace.

It's a good book, but not as involving as the previous two.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Last night I finished The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest by Po Bronson.

More accurately, I finished re-reading it, since this is one of my favourite books.

I read the book first in 1997, while working on my MBA, before I moved down to Silicon Valley and before the dot-com boom and bust.  Moving to Silicon Valley added a new layer to the book for me, since I the locations changed from generic mental images to real memories of actual places.

This book, along with Bronson's other novel, Bombadiers, is a rare beast - a work of fiction that is about business.  It follows some engineers who split off from a foundation to start their own company, and their rivalry with the top designer from the foundation.  It has a very light, comedic touch but still has some emotional resonance and interesting characters, similar to some of the works of Douglas Coupland.

Sadly, Bronson has moved away from fiction writing.  His non-fiction works have all been excellent, but I would trade them all for some more novels any day.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I finished Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow a few days ago.

I've read a number of Morrow's books, mentioned here, here, here, and here.  This one is different from all of those.  His other books are heavy on the philosophical discussions and implications, while this one feels like a much lighter weight, and shorter, satire.

It's set just before the end of WW2, and postulates that the US had developed Godzilla like creatures that it might need to unleash on Japan since the atomic program isn't going well.  An schlock horror film actor used to portraying monsters is recruited to give a mock demonstration to the Japanese big wigs. 

The book follows his adventures leading up to the demonstration, and afterwards. 

It's a fun romp, particularly if you're a fan of early monster movies.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I just finished Raising the Stones by Sherri S. Tepper.'

Raising the Stones tells the story of the rise of the Hobbs Land Gods, some kind of fungus based group organism that creates a harmonious, productive society around it.  This comes about on Hobbs Land, an agricultural settlement planet in a under-defined solar system with many planets, connected by teleporting "Doors".  This harmonious society comes into conflict with the Voordsteders, a repressive patriarchal society meant to be derived from the remnants of the Judeo-Christian/Islamic beliefs.

Set in the future of the same universe as Grass,  this isn't really a sequel since it neither involves any of the same characters or follows directly from the events of Grass.  It's a very well told story, though the overly strong patriarchal versus matriarchal themes were a distraction.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

I just finished Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin.

Knots and Crosses is set in Edinburgh, like the 44 Scotland Street series I like so much but provides a very contrasting view of the city.  It is a mystery, of the serial killer/police procedural variety, starring the very depressed and disturbed Inspector Rebus.  Rebus is an SAS veteran who left it under mysterious circumstances and forced his way onto the police force.  He gets more closely involved in a serial killer investigation that ends up being tied to his personal life.

In general, it provides a much seedier view of Edinburgh, focusing on the poor, the perverted and the drug addled.

I expected more from this book, given that it spawned one of the most successful series of mysteries in the UK.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Yesterday I finished Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Helperin.

Game Change aims to be the definitive narrative of the 2008 US presidential election, cover the Democrat and Republican primaries and the general election, but in reality it is mainly focused on the Obama/Clinton race to be the Democrat nominee.  That contest takes up close to 10x amount of the book as the Republican side of the primaries, and around 5x the amount of the book dedicated to the McCain/Obama contest for the general election.

It's also clear that the losing sides had a lot more disgruntled sources that were willing to dish up dirt on their respective campaigns.  On the other hand, the Obama camp moved from running a disciplined campaign to running a disciplined administration, giving them much more of an opportunity and better leverage to keep people from sharing too much.

The result is that the Clinton and McCain camps are portrayed warts and all while the Obama campaign is still "on message" - there is more detail than was available at the time, but none of it contradicts the standard Obama image.

It's still an interesting book for anyone who followed the 2008 presidential race, but the one sided nature undermines it thoroughly.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

I just finished The World According to Bertie by Alexander McCall Smith, the 4th book in the 44 Scotland Street series.

No major changes to the series - some of the characters come, and others go.  It's as enjoyable as the rest, although the fates of Mathew and Pat seem to undermine what happened in the previous book in an odd way.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

I just finished Crime Stories and Other Writings by Dashiell Hammett.

I've read Hammett's novels before, and enjoyed most of them (The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man being the exceptions), but never his short stories.  Hammett was known for being the best of the hard boiled/private eye school of writing that overthrew the "drawing room" style mysteries featuring the rich (in America) or upper class (in the UK) characters in mostly intellectual exercises and brought the "mysteries" back to being about crime and criminals.  But for all that, these stories have a remarkably similar feel to the Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories written in the previous century.  As they went on, the violence became more prominent and graphic, and they substitute the nameless Continental Op's (Hammett's detective of choice) knowledge of human motives and criminal habits for Holmes' minutiae based deductions, but the basic form and feel are there.

Quite enjoyable, though difficult to read one after the other.  They start to feel repetitive and overly familiar.  Best read in multiple sittings.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Last night, we went to see Mahealani Uchiyama with the Ka Ua Tuahine Polynesian Dance Company at Ashkenaz.

It was a really interesting show.  The music was a mix of Hawaiian/Polynesian/Jazz/Blues/World music and about 50% of the songs were accompanied by the dancers, who did these amazing, complicated dances.
Yesterday I finished Destroyer of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner.

This is the third book in a series started with Fleet of Worlds and continuing with Juggler of Worlds, novels set in Niven's Known Space universe. 

I enjoyed the first two books in the series, but had problems with both.  The first one wasn't as engaging as it could have been, and messed with previous Known Space events in a bad way, and the second book continued that trend much too much.

Luckily, it feels like Lerner and Niven are finally hitting their stride with this series.  First, it has only minimal references to previous stories/characters.  Second, when it does mention them, it doesn't undermine them, or change them.  Instead it just uses them as a base for new ideas.  Third, the story itself is much more compelling than the previous two. 

I really enjoyed this book, and want to see where the story goes from here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

I just finished True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass: Jimmy Martin by Tom Piazza.

This is a very short book, essentially a reprint of a magazine article from Oxford American with an introduction and some essays added at the end.

But for all it's brevity, it is a must have for Jimmy Martin fans.  Martin has a reputation as being a trouble maker, and this book has some great examples from a trip the author and Jimmy made to the Grand Ole Opry.  Jimmy starts out drunk, berates Ricky Skaggs, and nearly fights another musician.  At the same time, he exchanges warm greetings with many others.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I just finished Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb.

Dragon Keeper is set in the same world as her previous FarSeer, Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies.  It follows the events at the end of the last two trilogies but none of the main characters of those series are main characters here.  Instead, it follows a few new characters - a disgruntled wife of a trader who is also a dragon scholar, the captain of a barge, and a young girl who is an outcast.  All three get involved in helping some dragons move from where they were born to a more suitable location.

Hobb is still an excellent writer and in fact this book is better than her previous Soldier's Son trilogy.  A lot of it feels like setup for the journey up river that starts in the second half, and will continue in the second book in the series.  While her characters seem generic from a high level description, her writing makes them feel well rounded and unique, even while being familiar.

The only flaw I found in this book was that unlike her others, this one is not a self contained story.  It ends abruptly without resolving anything or making a complete story.  In contrast, the books in her other trilogies all stand alone as novels while working as parts of a larger story.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Last night I finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

This is probably the grimmest book I have ever read.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world, and featuring two nameless characters referred to as simple "the man" and "the boy", it's never made clear what happened to the world, just that almost everything, including plants and animals, was killed.

This adds a little bit of a fresh spin, if a gruesome one, to the post-apocalyptic genre since, if there are no animals, the only food is leftover stored food or other people, and the book takes place in a time when most old stores of food have already been looted.

The protagonists are trying to make it to the coast, and head south on the road, to avoid the effects of a coming winter.  What they did in the previous winters is never made clear.  Also never made clear is how they got enough stored food to survive the last few years, or how old the boy is, since he was born after the apocalypse. 

The book is a compelling read, but left me with little afterwords.  

Friday, March 19, 2010

Yesterday I finished Jhegaala by Steven Brust.

Jhegaala is the eleventh book in the Vlad Taltos series.  Sadly, this seems to be a series that I appreciate less as I grow older.

The book are heavily on internal dialogue and ruminations, and therefore tend to cover very little ground in terms of plot.  Jhegaala is basically a noir mystery, like Hammett's Red Harvest.  Vlad comes to a town in the East, accidentally starting a series of deaths as the locals take him to be more than he is.  By the end, he unravels what happened and defeats the locals who run things.

The book depend heavily on the flavour given in the dialogues and ruminations, and it is those that are not aging well for me.  Where I found the first books very amusing and enjoyable, the later ones mainly feel repetitive and whiny. 

I'll keep reading, as the books do vary in quality and I can hope for the best, and to see where the series as a whole ends up.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I just finished Grass by Sheri S. Tepper.

I read Tepper's True Game series when I was very young - 13 or 14 - and really liked it.  After that series, her books drifted from what I was looking for and I haven't really gone back until now.  I had picked up another book, Sideshow,  but stopped reading it right away when I realized it was actually the third book in a series.  I went back to start with the first book, Grass.

Grass tells the story of the humans who live on a planet covered by plains, and where there is a symbiotic, and not entirely healthy, relationship going on between the humans and the aliens who live there, mainly expressed through a regular "Hunt".  At the same time, humans elsewhere are starting to be effected by a form of plague for which no cure can be found.  The people on Grass seem to be immune, which draws the attention of a the theocratic government that dominates most of humanity.

It's an interesting book, and I look forward to the sequels.

Monday, March 15, 2010

I just finished a blacksmithing class at the Crucible.  Previously, I'd taken a welding overview course there, but this was a more focused, and detailed course.

It was project based - over the five week course, we made a hook, knife, spoon and fork.  I didn't quite get done the fork, so only the other three are shown below.

Overall, the class was really good.  The art of "heating up metal and then hitting it with a hammer" is interesting to learn, and to try on actual projects. The project based nature of the class has good and bad points.  The good part is that it gives you a completed piece to look at at the end of each class. The bad part was that it makes a lot of the learning implicit, i.e. you have to think about what you are doing and try to draw the lessons, rather than having them pointed out to you.  This was made a little worse by the fact that the teachers weren't very focused on giving feedback.  They demonstrated the project, and then were available if you had specific questions.  I think it would have been better if they spent more time checking up on each student in a more rigorous fashion.

I'm going to do the next level class, which is a supposed to be a little less project oriented and have more theoretical information.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Yesterday I finished Evil for Evil by K.J. Parker.

This is the second book in a trilogy.  I wrote about the first one here back in 2008.

This book continues directly after the first one ended, when one kingdom had fallen after defending a refugee from their more industrialized neighbour.  Some of the people, and the refugee, fled to a second neighbouring kingdom and this book continues the refugee's plan, whose details are not revealed until the end of the book, and develops some new characters around him, including the leader of the second kingdom.

It works pretty well, mostly focusing on the political and logistical efforts to find a way to defeat or avoid battle with the industrialized nation.  Like the first book in the series, it has some interesting descriptions of early technology, delving into mining, manufacturing and pottery making.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

I just finished Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.

Spin starts out with the earth being encapsulated, and ends with a race to emigrate to another planet.  In between, it follows three people tied together by their history.  Two are rich - a brother and sister  - and the third is the poorer son of a family friend, who hangs around.  They witness the encapsulation as kids, when the stars disappear one night, and the genius brother gets heavily involved in figuring out what happened.  There is a mostly non-consumated, very slow and contradictory relationship between the other two.

The book works on a number of levels - the characters are believable and interesting, and what has happened to the Earth is intriguing and makes for an interesting background.

Some of Wilson's other books suffer from being too cerebral and reading very cold, making them hard to feel really involved with.  You can feel the same thing around the edges of this book, but it manages to overcome it in the end, making it one of his most effective.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

I just finished The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.

 I wrote about his previous two books here and here.  This book is more focused, and shorter, than both of his other ones.  Instead of being built out of essays written for magazines, this one feels like one piece of work.

It focuses on how checklists can be used to manage important tasks, whether they are simple, complicated or complex.  As a devout believer in checklists, it was a little preaching to the choir for me, but there were still some good sections.  The parts on what makes a good checklist versus a bad one, and the thoughts on the different types and uses of checklists were interesting and might show up in my work life.

One possible issue - he uses three main areas for checklist discussion - medicine, aviation and construction.  One thing he doesn't spend any time on is the fact that in two of those fields, time is often of the essence.  The book would have been well served in having a discussion of how checklists differ in those circumstances from other activities, like construction, where time is not an issue but consistency over repeated action is.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Last night I finished Love Over Scotland, the third 44 Scotland Street book by Alexander McCall Smith.

I loved the first book in the series but didn't enjoy the second one anywhere near as much. 

I'm not sure if the reason I didn't like the second one had to do with the book, and it's focus on a bunch of characters I didn't find very interesting, or my mood at the time.  In either case, I like the third book nearly as much as the second.  It focuses more on interesting characters - Pat, the girl with the thing for bad boys, Mathew, the rich gallery owner, Bertie, the 6 year old prodigy, and Angus Lorie and his dog, Cyril.

The events in this third book felt more consequential to the characters, while the second book felt more like a space filler between plot ideas.  Another facet of these books that I'm coming to appreciate more and more is the use of poetry.  A number of the characters refer regularly to poetry, usually Scottish, in a very reverential way.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I finished The Master Executioner by Loren D. Estleman a few days ago.

Technically considered a "western", Estleman's books are more like historical fiction that happen to be set the Old West.  They aren't stories of cowboys, gun fights and range wars but stories about characters who feel real.  In this case, it's a carpenter who ends up an executioner, losing his family along the way.

Good book about a man who finds the perfect career for himself, whether or not it is good for him.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Last night I finished Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns.

This biography of Ayn Rand focuses on her relationship to the American right wing movements that started around the Great Depression, from her involvement with the presidential campaigns of Wendell Wilkie and Barry Goldwater to the inspiration she gave to libertarian/anarchists like Murray Rothbard.

In every other way, Heller's similarly timed book is better or the same.  Heller's writing is better, her parts on the novels are stronger and she depends too heavily on the testimony of suspect witnesses.  Burns may have a slight edge on the last item.  A lot of her book has to do with Rand's relationships with other right wing figures, and therefore she can use not only Rand's correspondence but those of the other figures.  This gives her a stronger base to work from.  She also had extensive access to the Ayn Rand Archives. 

The real weakness of Burn's book comes from the fact that she has a superficial, at best, understanding of Rand's ideas.  This makes her descriptions of Rand's development of those ideas suspect, and leads to some odd comparisons or discussions that don't make sense to a more experienced reader.