Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A while back I finished an audio book of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

The Hunger Games is a dystopian YA, set in a province that is held down, and at constant near starvation levels, by a central government after a long ago rebellion. As part of their punishment, the provinces have to send one male and one female teenager to the capitol to battle to the death, with the survivor being rich afterwards.

It's an enjoyable book, with some strong characterizations and descriptions, though a bit predictable in its outcomes. The book it most reminded me of is the much darker The Running Man.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Continuing my trend of delayed postings, I finished Deadline by Mira Grant a little while ago.

I reviewed the first book in the series about reporters/bloggers after a zombie apocalypse here, and gave it a very positive review. Sadly, I didn't enjoy Deadline as much.

Deadline had the benefit of not having to set up the world established in Feed, but I think that also hurt it. The book feels like it is treading water in places, just filling in time between events. And there aren't a lot of events in the first place. After finishing the book, it felt like not much happened except for a little setup for the next book.

I'll still read the third book, to see how it all turns out, but hopefully it is stronger than this one.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

I've been slow to post lately. Below are some of the books I finished:

- Quantum Man by Lawrence M. Krauss.

This is a nice biography, focusing on Feynman's scientific work rather than personal life. The descriptions of his work do help to make it more understandable, although I think I will have to go back and re-read it to really absorb it.

- Contagious and Ancestor by Scott Sigler.

Contagious continues the story from Infected, but is more enjoyable. Infected spent a lot of time covering struggles of one of the infected, battling the parasites that were taking over his body, and the details were unpleasant. Contagious is more about the struggle against the successfully infected people, and is more interesting.

Ancestor is in the same timeline, according to the author, but is an entirely separate plot line about researchers trying to create an artificial life form that can be used to harvest transplant-able organs. The efforts are borderline illegal, and go underground and eventually craziness ensues. It's a real page turner (although I listened to the audio version) and quite good as a thriller.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A while ago, I finished Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter.

Jeter is credited with creating the term "steampunk" and this is one of his earlier works that could fit under that umbrella, though Infernal Devices strikes me more akin to urban fantasy, with a world that much resembles ours but with some hidden parts.

The book's protagonist is the son of a brilliant inventor who is drawn into his father's bizarre world. The weirdness develops slowly, with some "Shadow over Innsmouth" touchs, some automatons and different groups trying to either recruit or kill the protagonist. It ends with a world shattering bang.

The book stays more true to its Victorian roots than most modern steampunk does, with a main character that is fully enmeshed in the repressed, but dominating, upper class.

A fun read.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

I finished Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik, the 2nd in her Temeraire series. I wrote about the first book in the series here.

I liked this better than the first book. The setting, England during the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons, is still weird, but the characters are well written and the plot moves along OK.

An OK light read if you don't have anything stronger.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I recently finished three books on memory, inspired by a class Chris Stuart taught at the CBA Music Camp this summer. He was inspired by one of the books, but there was line to get a copy of that book from the library, so I started with some of the other ones Chris listed in the bibliography he handed out.

The first book was The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas. This seems like an odd combination since Lorayne is a memory expert/magician and Lucas is a former NBA player (and Basketball Hall of Fame member), but Lucas actually developed his own memory techniques and is a fan of Lorayne's, and the book is built around a conversation between them about memory techniques. It was published in the 60s, and it shows. It comes off as a slightly cheesy, self-help book, and the original cover pictures is typical 60s. But in some ways, it's the most useful of the three books. It presents the basics of how the memory techniques work, with some exercises, in a quick to read, straight forward and practical fashion.

The second book was Your Memory by Kenneth L. Higbee. Higbee is an academic, and his book takes a more thorough approach. It covers some of the science behind how memory works and what science shows about the various memory techniques. It's a much drier read, but much more complete and covers more techniques and possible applications than The Memory Book.

The third book, and the one that inspired Chris Stuart originally, is Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. This book tells the story of how the author went from researching memory competitions, to competing in, and winning, the US Memory Championship. It's an interesting story, and well written, but the memory techniques are only explained as they aid the story. In particular, Foer only really focuses on two techniques, the loci (or memory palace) method and the PAO (person-action-object) method. And the main focus is on the second method, PAO, which is a high overhead, very inflexible method that is only really suited for memory competitions where you need to learn a fixed type of thing very quickly.

Overall, I'm glad I read all three. I think if I'd only read the last one, I would have been put off by the techniques described. Instead, I think I'll try to incorporate some of the other techniques into my life.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A few days ago I finished The Wood Wife by Terri Windling.

This is the first book I've read by Terri Windling, who spends more time as an editor than a writer. I quite enjoyed it - it is urban fantasy in the Charles De Lint vein, dealing with spirituality and wonder in the modern world, through the lens of fantastic events.

The fantastic events are slow to develop in this book. It starts out with a poet moving to the outskirts of Tuscon, to take over the house of an older poet who had just died mysteriously. The first sections of the book introduce us to the protagonist and follow her as she meets her new neighbours and then gets drawn into the charms of her new surroundings. The later sections start to delve into the mysteries, and the fantastic elements tied to them.

The slow development pays off, as it strongly ties the reader more into the characters before moving into the action. 

Well worth reading.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I just finished two books in podcast form, Earthcore and Infected by Scott Sigler.

Both books are good, but I enjoyed Earthcore more. Earthcore is about a mining expedition, and the trouble it runs into when it goes very deep. The characters are strongly drawn and appealing, and the underlying mystery is interesting up until the end of book. The build up is relatively slow, but is interesting along the way, and once the action gets going, it was hard to stop listening.

Infected also kept me engaged, but has fewer characters and the situations are more difficult to read about. At the beginning of the book, it's about the investigation of a mysterious disease that is driving people mad, leading to mass killings. But the bulk of the book follows one of those people, as the disease progresses through him and he struggles against it. That progress and struggle are hard, and at times very gross reading. And for me, the payoff at the end was not very surprising.

I'll definitely follow up with some of Sigler's other books.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

I just finished Medicine Road by Charles De Lint.

Charles De Lint is one of my favourite authors and, by far, my favourite urban fantasy author. I consider him one of the creators of that genre but sadly most urban fantasy is more in the style of Laurell K. Hamilton (i.e. mythical creatures and humans get together to have sex and fight).

Medicine Road is a typical, low key book from De Lint. Complex, good hearted characters interact with the spirit world and the conflicts stem more from misunderstandings than from malice.

This particular book is good, but not one of my favourites of his books. It's short (almost novella length), and very YA feeling, and maybe a little too short on real conflict to make a strong impression.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I just finished Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds.

Absolution Gap is the fourth book in the series started with Revelation Space, wrapping up the stories of most of the characters and the battle versus the Inhibitors.

Overall, it is excellent space opera, though the book might have been better divided into two, since it is so long. The book starts off with three alternating timeframes, then reduces to two for the rest of the book. It also introduces characters and settings in the beginning to have them wrap up very early in the book, in an abrupt way.

Friday, June 24, 2011

I just finished More than Good Intentions by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel.

This book mainly covers the application of randomized controlled tests (RCTs) to foreign aid programs. It illustrates a number of common practices, and how they fared under the tests, and how they were improved in order to maximize benefit to the recipients.

It also goes a little into behavioural economics, but that is more of a minor theme that is mentioned but not strongly developed.

Overall a very interesting book, and an encouraging one. Foreign aid has not been particularly successful over the last fifty years, but using techniques like these gives me hope that it will be more successful over the next fifty.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

I just finished The Getaway by Jim Thompson.

The Getaway is one of Thompson's most famous noir pieces, following some crooks as they try to escape to Mexico after robbing a bank.

It is justifiably well known for its gritty portrayal of underworld life, violence and betrayal. The story is pretty straightforward, with some compelling, if unappealing, characters and it ends with a surprising twist, one that wasn't included in either movie version, since it is so downbeat and unexpected.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

I just finished Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Under Heaven continues Kay's habit of taking a historical place or period and using it as the basis for a fantasy work. He says this is so that he can use events and people as inspiration without having to shoehorn a story into actual historical events, and it works very well. Most of his books are quite good, and fairly different from each other.

The inspiration for this book was China's Tang period, what some would consider the height of Chinese pre-modern civilization. This gives the book, and it's characters a notable different feel from his mainly European based work to date.

The book starts with the protagonist mourning his father's death, and spending the mandatory mourning period burying the bones left from a great past battle. From there, he is pulled reluctantly into imperial politics while trying to find a way to extricate himself without shaming or killing himself or his family.

Even though it is a very large book, some parts of it do feel rushed or unfinished. Some characters and plot lines are raised and then drift away or are wrapped up very quickly without tying into the rest of the book. In another author, I would have assumed he was setting things up for a sequel but Kay mostly does solo novels, so I don't think that is the case here.

Overall, well worth reading.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

I just finished Betrayer of Worlds by Edward Lerner and Larry Niven.

This continues the Puppeteer focused, pre-Ringworld collaboration. I wrote about the last book here. This book resolves a lot of the conflicts from earlier books, so it will be interesting to see if there is another in the series.

The overall story is just OK. It didn't grab me like the previous book, though there were some good moments. My biggest problem with this book, similar to some of the earlier ones, is how it undermines other, better books. As mentioned before, the authors are taking characters and situations from other Niven books, and revising what happened. In this book, it has finally reached Louis Wu, the main protagonist of Ringworld, and this book totally undermines everything that happens to the character in that book. This is a shame, since Ringworld is a much superior book to any from this series.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A few days ago, I finished The Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich.

The Bride Wore Black is a classic pulp work from 1940. It's a mix of revenge story and police procedural, as a woman works her way through killing a number of men that seem un-connected. The antagonist is a classic noir femme fatale, cool, calculating, competent and deadly.

It's a short, fun read, if you are a noir or pulp fan.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I just finished Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

Who Fears Death is the name, in some African dialect, of the protagonist of this story. She is the product of what we initially think is a standard wartime rape, a mix of two African peoples, condemned because of her mixed race. The novel is a mythic style tale of upbringing, revenge and redemption.

The setting is deliberately vague.  Only in later parts of the story is it implied it is some set in some post-apocalyptic part of Africa.  But given that, there is no effort to explain the magical parts of the story, as the protagonist is born with special powers that become central to the plot.

Overall, it's an OK book.  The setting is very different from standard SF, but settings that explore different parts of the globe are becoming one of the hot tropes in SF these days.  See The Windup Girl, Brasyl, Dervish House, For the Win, etc. But the story meanders and never really grabbed this reader.

Monday, May 16, 2011

I just finished The New Cool by Neal Bascomb.

The New Cool details one team's competition in the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition. Along the way, it also gives lots of good info about Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST, and his quest to re-invigorate the esteem science and technology has in the US.

I've been a volunteer with FIRST for many years, first for the FIRST Lego League, then for the FIRST Tech Challenge and last year for the FIRST Robotics Competition.  Every year it has been inspiring to see the passionate and talented kids create, compete and present their work to the judges. As such, I'm probably a little biased but I thought this was a very good book.

Bascomb does a good job of presenting the personalities involved, from the inspirational, hard driving teacher/mentors to the kids, who are involved for all kinds of reasons. The one thing I would be concerned about with this book is if it is just preaching to the choir. Will people who are not already involved with FIRST or teams find this book, and find it as compelling as those who are involved? 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I just finished Harpy's Flight by Megan Lindholm.

Megan Lindholm is the original pen name of one of my favourite authors, Robin Hobb. Over the years, I've kept my eyes open for Megan Lindholm books, but with little success.

So when I saw this book in a used book store, I snapped it up. While it's a good book, it does show a little that it was her first novel - he writing is not as strong as her later works. The plot is told in a flashback format, with a few confusing transitions.  But overall, the same strengths are there - strongly drawn characters, interesting story lines, moral choices.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

I just finished Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card.

Pathfinder is fantasy masquerading as science fiction.  Or maybe it's the other way around.  The main story takes place in medieval-ish, low tech world where a few rare people have strange abilities.  But there is a second story, told in the start of each chapter, that covers how these people got to this world, why they are separated from each other, and most likely where these abilities came from.

The writing is up to Card's usual high standards, so the characters are well drawn and the story moves along well, but there isn't anything particularly special about the story or the characters.  And to much time is spent debating the qualities of the characters abilities.

I might read the sequel when it comes out, but I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I just finished Endgame by Frank Brady.

Endgame is targeted to be the definitive Bobby Fischer biography, written by an expert in his life and completed after Bobby's death.

It's a well written and researched book, with more detail on his post 1972 life than I have read elsewhere.  Well worth reading for anyone interested in chess, cold war politics or the dangers of some kinds of genius.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Over the weekend, I finished At Any Price by Brian Freemantle.

At Any Price is a business thriller, about the head of a well run US based hotel chain trying to buy a poorly run UK based one. Along the way, lots of things are learned about the family that runs the UK hotel chain and about the struggle between the protagonist and his father in law, each of which blame the other for the death of the protagonist's wife and baby.

It's an OK read, but the world of business has changed so much since 1982 that what might have been a tense strategic battle just seems old and quaint, undermining the rest of the book.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Two non-fiction books I finished in the last week or so:

The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics by David Harriman is an attemp to apply Ayn Rand's theory of concepts to the area of induction.  It's an interesting book, and one that could be a starting point for many interesting philosophical discussions.  There have been some criticisms online of some of the historical points he makes, and some of those arguments could undermine the foundation he builds for his view of induction.  But in general, the arguments seemed solid and mostly convincing to me, though they could use further development and fleshing out.

A bonus is that his discussions of the history of physics and chemistry are compelling in and of themselves.  In particular, his history of how the atomic theory developed is the best I have read.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson is a an odd mix of a book.  It's built around the rooms of his home but at times the connection between the room and the topics discussed is tenuous at best.  But the topics covered are always interesting, from a history of lighting to a discussion of sewage and disease theory, and there are tons of interesting little facts and anecdotes.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I just finished The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.

This is another excellent fantasy work by Sanderson.  Not as good as the Mistborn books or Elantris, but as good as Warbreaker.   It uses what are becoming very standard themes and elements from Sanderson - complex new magical system, oppressive hierarchical system, noble commoners, but pushed further than other books.  A lot of fantasy books , including some of Sandersons, are slight variations on standard medieval type fantasy worlds.  This book is a very different world, with different plants, races, weather, etc.

There are two negatives about this book.  First, it is huge - over 1000 pages in hardcover.  Not sure how they will even manufacture a paperback version.  Second, it is the first book in a planned ten novel series.  Given the history of other epic fantasy series (Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time was planned for six books but ended up being thirteen.  George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice was planned as a trilogy, is now planned as a seven book series).  Since the frustrations of seeing Martin's series bog down in slow moving book after book with no end in sight, I've tried to avoid starting large series that aren't finished.  I only made an exception in this case because Sanderson's books are so enjoyable.

Friday, April 08, 2011

I just finished Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham.

I didn't notice this until I was almost done this book, but Durham is also the author of Pride of Carthage, which I wrote about here

This book starts off slow, setting up a world run by a single empire that has been basically static for hundreds of years.  But one group that considers themselves oppressed has been plotting for most of that time and now strikes against the empire.

It's a complex story, because both sides are far from perfect.  The rebels are vicious and brutal, while the empire has been guilty of many terrible crimes, including slavery and drug dealing.  The main story really starts after the rebels have been successful and the heirs to the empire have been scattered to the countryside to rebuild and seek revenge.

Overall, well written and enjoyable.  It has the added advantage to telling a complete story even though it is obviously intended to be the first in a series.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

I just finished For the Win by Cory Doctorow.

 For the Win is about various people who work inside games, based on the "gold farmers" and "mechanical turks" that exist today.  Usually, these tasks are done in poorer countries, under bad work conditions, for low pay, etc.  Doctorow takes that world and then suggests they use the power of modern networks to unionize and turn the tables on the bosses who control them and the game companies that try to prevent them from working.

Doctorow's strength is that he writes easy to read, moving text.  His weakness is the one note nature of his thoughts, and the huge chunks of exposition he likes to stuff into his stories.  In this book, anyone on the union side is good, anyone who owns anything or is a boss of any kind is bad, and there are no complexities to be dealt with, no depth to any characters or situations beyond this.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's been a while since I posted.  With volunteering at a music camp, traveling to Singapore and being sick for a few weeks, my motivation has been low.  Here's a list of books I finished, with a note or two.

Up Jim River by Michael Flynn
- decent sequel to The January Dancer.  Good to have read that book just before reading this one.

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett
- standard good book in the Discworld series

Innocent by Scott Turow
- surprisingly good sequel to Turow's most famous novel Presumed Innocent.

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
- OK generation ship story.  Oddly similar in feeling to the movie Pandorum.

The Science of Liberty by Timothy Ferris
- interesting take on the way the development of science and politics happened during the Enlightenment.  Makes the case that without the scientific advances, the political ones wouldn't have happened.

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
- good finale for the Mistborn trilogy


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A few days ago I finished The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton.

The Art Instinct lays out the case for art as an evolutionary adaptation and is a very interesting and well written book.  It is a little bit of a difficult philosophical read, but not to the point of most un-readable philosophy books, more of a mid-point between a pop sci book and a philosophical treatise.

Dutton does a good job of laying out the evidence for art as a result of human evolution, and the effects that this has on art and how it helps resolve some of the standard problems in esthetics, the study of art.  He starts off in a smart way, bypassing most of the pointless "what is art" discussions, through discussing the common middle ground that everyone would agree on as art and seeing where that leads.

Well worth a read, and it's too bad that since Dutton recently passed away we will not see more works of this quality from him.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Over the weekend I finished Searching for El Dorado by Marc Herman.

Set mostly in Guyana, Herman traces the evolution of the search for gold in South America from the Spanish raiding the Inca's to the modern giant gold mines in Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana.  He does a nice job of illustrating the "resources curse", where countries that depend overly on resource riches actually end up poorer, and of illustrating the day to day life of amateur gold miners.

Full of fascinating stories, well worth a read.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Yesterday I finished Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham.

This book is basically the story of the second Punic war, where Hannibal picked a fight with Rome, crossed the Alps, terrorized the countryside for a decade and a half and then had to run home to defend Carthage when Rome got smart.  He only lost one battle, but it was the final one.

The book does a good job of creating believable characters out of Hannibal's family and entourage, the Romans who are trying to beat him and a few miscellaneous common people thrown in for colour.  It doesn't do as good a job of making the characters feel like historical people, rather than modern people in a historical drama.

Monday, January 17, 2011

I finished two books over the weekend. 

The first is Vampire$ by John Steakley.  I'm a big fan of his other book, ArmorVampires$ isn't as good as Armor, but is enjoyable.  It was written before the latest deluge of vampire related material and in contrast to most of it, it doesn't humanize the vampires.  They are judged from a very Catholic point of view and are shown as inhuman monsters.  Lots of action sequences, lots of existentialism as the hunter team knows most of them will die sooner rather than later.

The second is The White Rose by Glen Cook, the third book in the Black Company series, and concluding book in the first series.  Since I like this series a lot, I don't know why it took me so long to track down the final book of the first series.  The book itself is quite good, wrapping up all the earlier plot threads and introducing some interesting twists and turns along the way.  Definitely some of the best of military fiction.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The last book I finished is The Nine Wrong Answers by John Dickson Carr.

Carr is a master of a form that no longer really exists, the pure puzzle mystery.  These books are usually set amongst the upper class, and involve locked rooms or other factors that make a crime seem impossible.  The game is for the author to present the facts that led to the crime being possible, but to not have the reader guess the solution before it is revealed. 

Modern mysteries have moved on to a more character or situation based approach, where the reader enjoys the ride but is not expecting a "fair game" at the same time.

This book is fairly typical of the type, involving switched identities, mad uncles, poison and a duel to the death.  It even goes so far as to add asides from the author at various points to explain that certain solutions are not correct, the "nine wrong answers" of the title.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A few days ago I finished Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton.

Villjamur is a city on a freezing world.  It's never clear if this is actually a far future version of our world, where the sun is slowly dying, or a pure fantasy world.  In any case, the city is facing an upcoming ice age and is trying to prepare.  At the same time, parts of the political structure are trying to generate a coup, while others are trying to find a way of escape.  By the end, a lot of action has taken place but not many questions are answered, something probably left to the sequels.

It's a well written new world, with decent characterizations and an interesting plot.  Hopefully it won't develop into an overblown, endless series, but keep focus and resolve the story in a few books.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

I just finished Saturn's Children by Charles Stross.

 Saturn's Children is a convoluted book, with sections in dreams combined with sections in memory combined with sections where it's not clear who the protagonist is or what is going on.  This is as a result of the setup - a universe where humanity is extinct, and the artificial intelligences they created still roam the solar system.  These robots can exchange memories through "soul chips", leading to the above conclusion.

Stross does add one major new, interesting twist.  Some of the robots are trying to re-create a human being, but because all of the robots have been programmed with the equivalent of Asimov's Laws, making them slaves to any human, they fear humans and fight to prevent this resurrection. 

The only other novel part of the book is Stross's didactic attempts to convey exactly how difficult/terrible he things even intra-solar system travel would be.

Overall, it's an OK read but not one of his most enjoyable books.