2006/2007 Book Reviews

Well, my 2007 resolution is to keep track of all the books I read. And what better way to do that than review them?

December 2007

At Knit's End by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee

This is a humorous look at knitters and knitting.   As my mother pointed out, change out refereneces to yarn and knitting for any other craft and hobbyists of all types will recognize themselves easily.  Comprised of a quote, a short story and a moral for each item, this will be fun for any knitter, and quite a number of others besides.  

*

Patrimony by Alan Dean Foster

I was braced for the worst when I read this latest entry in Foster's long running Flinx series.  (As I've said previously, I started this at age 16 and have a morbid curiousity as to how it all turns out.)   The good thing about low expectations is that it doesn't takBe much to give you a pleasant surprise.  While still rehashing old well-trodden material, Foster did return to his formula of taking you to an intriguing new planet and introducing new aliens.  Actions actually had causes, even vaguely plausible ones in the context of the story.   While the ultimate climax was still fairly predictable, it was considerably better than the last one. 

*

More Sex is Safer Sex by Steven E. Landsburg

Landsburg's provocative title introduces an essay illustrating concepts of risk and probababilty.  (Yes, it's a book about economics, not actually sex.)   Some were more provocative than plausible, but all provided interesting thought exercises, however I found Levitt's  Freakonomics (a prior book on economic analysis of social trends)  more persuasive.  

*

The Sharing Knife: Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold

Better paced than its predecessor, this still had too much romance and not enough plot for my taste.   The ending was very weak, possibly leaving it open-ended for further books in the world.  

*

Redshift Rendezvous by John Stith

This was a reread, one of my three favorites of Stith's books.   In it, he makes one assumption, and then 
builds a science fiction thriller around it.  It's not his most polished characterization, nor is he the most gifted writer around.  But it has a classic flavor to it, and I've always been very fond of it.  (I've read all his books and liked them all, but my other two favorites are Memory Blank and Return to Neverend.)

*

Knitting Lessons by Lela Nargi

This was a collection of interviews with knitters talking about knitting.   An interesting collection- from beginners to experienced knitters, from designers to people who wouldn't dream of knitting without a pattern.   I thought it skewed toward the people who approach knitting as art (while I tend to think of it more as craft), but was still an interesting overview.   

And yet it didn't really answer the question that intrigued me enough to pick it up - why do we knit?  On the face of it, knitting ought to be boring- just pulling loop through loop thousands upon thousands of times.  And yet it exercises an enduring fascination and satisfaction to millions of people.  

A curious knitter might find this book interesting, probably others will not.  


*

Agincourt by Juliet Barker

This was a fabulous book- a history of the Battle of Agincourt.  The author does an exceptionally good job of making the personalities distinct, and capturing the issues of the times.  Henry V comes out of it looking quite admirable, as do many others.   But you also get a real sense of the tragedy of the battle, which  killed most of the fighting men of France of an entire generation and dispossessed thousands of their homes and property.  

Highly recommended.   

*

Bejewelled Death by Marion Babson


This was another reread,  a light fastmoving and rather dated little mystery.  I've always liked it for its over-the-top humor.  It isn't a very good mystery per se, but the humor carries it.  

*

October/November 2007

Dead Heat by Dick and Felix Francis.

Day of Infamy by Walter Lord

Incredible Victory by Walter Lord

September 2007

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

The hero of  'Going Postal', the redoubtable Moist von Lipwig makes a return appearance here, this time taking on the Royal Mint and inventing paper money.    This was enjoyable as Pratchett always is, but it's not as strong a book as Going Postal-  the various elements of the plot were often disconnected, and the ultimate resolution of the conflict depended more on circumstance than on the actions of the main character.   Not bad, but also not his best work.  

*

Super-Crunchers by Ian Ayres

This one is subtitled, 'why thinking-by-the-numbers is the new way to be smart'. Funny, I'd have said thinking by the numbers was always the way to be smart. However Ayres is specifically talking about a new way to think by the numbers- analyzing massively large databases in real-time to guide decision-making.

It wasn't surprising to me that the analyses tended to do better than human experts- what was surprising was that often quite simple analytical models did better than human experts. And some of the uses of these analyses are quite scary in their implications for privacy. But Ayres makes a good case for the benefits, and provides some fascinating anecdotes about the successes of these systems.


*

August 2007

Vertical Run by Joseph R. Garber

I plucked this from the unread pile and was very pleasantly surprised. It's a classic thriller with several clever twists. Our protagonist goes to the office like any other day- only to find that dozens of people- starting with his boss- are out to kill him. The writing was occasionally clumsy, but it turned out to be well paced and entertaining. It would have made a good action movie.

*

The Other Side of Time by Keith Laumer

Another story from the classic age (not to mention the deep piles of unread books). One of the alternate-worlds themed stories, the main character discovers that there are not one but two other universe-traversing races. Only problem- one of them is bent on eradicating his timeline from history.

This was clever and well plotted, though it suffered slightly from the common tendency of books of that era to be thin on detail.

*

Action Philosophers 1&2 by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlevy

Okay, philosophy comics- what's not to like? This is an informative and frequently very silly look at major philosophers. I suspect it would be even funnier if I knew more, but it was quite amusing even to one with my superficial knowledge. The first book is somewhat better, as they used most of their best material there. Plato smash!

*

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

This was an interesting juxtaposition of the stories of two men- Daniel Burnham, architect and director of works for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the Dr. Henry Holmes, a serial killer who used the fair as a cover for hideous crimes.

Larson does a marvelous job of evoking the era and representing the magnetic attraction of the fair, along with some fascinating historical trivia. And in Holmes' story he shows the darker side of the new freedom and modernity that the Fair brought to Chicago. 

Generally,  I thought this was a much stronger work than his Marconi/Crippen book. 

*

Jumper: Griffin's Story by Steven Gould

Okay, this is the book based on the movie based on a book by the same author. Confused yet?

I loved Gould's original book Jumper, and was pleased to hear they were making a movie. It's not in the least surprising that there were changes-the original book has a lot of character introspection that would be difficult to convey visually. I can only suppose that the changes became so extensive that they chose to rename the character and tell a completely different story- a decision I applaud, since 'inspired by the book' is a good warning that what you see on the screen won't be what was originally written.

So what about the new book? In this version, young Griffin O'Connor has been a 'jumper' since he was five. His parents teach him to keep it a secret, but when he breaks the rules, men come in the night to kill him and his parents. This sets up a more-or-less standard thriller plot, with the added interest of Griffin's fantastic abilities.

What was not totally made clear (and I found out from other sources after reading it), was that apparently this is book is a prequel to the movie- setting up the different background. I think by comparison with movie tie-in novels it will be a winner- Gould's lucid writing style, and strong characterization make this a fast and enjoyable read. However, the simplifications that were presumably made in support of the movie plot do weaken the story considerably compared to the original. In particular, the incomplete resolution of the ending (leading into the movie, one presumes), is much less satisfying.

This was an enjoyable couple of hours' read on a hot summer afternoon, and I'm still looking forward to the film, but for a darker, more complex and compelling tale, go back to the original Jumper and it's excellent sequel, Reflex.

*

Rose by Martin Cruz Smith

I loved the setting and the puzzle of this. Often books set in the late nineteenth century focus on the aristocracy, and the working class, if it appears at all, are only two-dimensional supporting characters. This book is set in a coal-mining town in Lancastershire, and bridges the class divides between the mine owners and the men and women who work them.

I did think the main character was a bit too liberal in his attitudes- his point of view- while designed to appeal to a modern reader- struck me as anachronistic- a little too modern for the time and place, although it was well-supported by the character background.

The resolution of the story did not live up to the setup. The problems posed to the main characters were not easily resolved, the explanation of the puzzle portion of the story was obvious from the middle of the book and some of the secondary character's motivations are not explained at all. It also suffered from the addition of Obligatory Sex Scenes, which did have a function in the plot but were not nearly as interesting as the mystery portion of the book. Worth reading, but somewhat flawed.

*

July 2007

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage

Before I started this, I wondered if focusing on the drinks might be too limiting, to really get a flavor of history. It worked better than I thought it would, though I have to wonder if someone who wasn't already familiar with a lot of historical detail wouldn't find it sketchy. (Of course, this hypothetical reader probably wouldn't pick this book if they weren't already interested in history!)

But in fact the six drinks; beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola did appear at the focus of a lot of history, and Standage navigates the seas of beverages with interesting factoids, and a good grasp of the issues of the times. A fast and fascinating read. Warning- this may make you rather thirsty!

And I'll also put in a plug for Standage's prior book, The Victorian Internet, which draws some interesting parallels between the community of telegraphers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the community of internet users that bridge the twentieth and twenty-first.

*

Death Sentence by Roger MacBride Allen

This is the second in Allen's BSI Starside series. As in his first he has an excellent setup. While overall pacing of the book is an improvement over the first one, I still thought that some of his plot decisions were odd- the sole scene from the POV of the aliens was unnecessary, and the clues to the eventual resolution of the puzzle were obvious enough that I figured out the gimmick instantly. The characters continue appealing, the aliens were interesting. I want very much to like these, because classical mysteries in an SF setting is an idea that strongly appeals to me, but this could have used another couple of rewrites before publication.

*

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

This is the story of the London cholera epidemic of 1854 and of Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead, the two men most instrumental in identifying the cause- and proving for the first time that cholera was caused by contaminated water, and not by noxious smells or any one of a dozen other causes. It's also the story of Snow's map- a brilliant piece of information design- the map that correlated cholera deaths to foot traffic wasn't the first use of graphical information representation in epidemiology, but it was certainly one of the most prominent.

I first saw a reproduction of this map in London at an exhibit on the history of information design, and was quite fascinated. Johnson does an excellent job of presenting not only the history of the outbreak, but of presenting the various historical figures in context and of taking the whole episode and exploring its significance- not just for the Victorian residents of Soho, but for urban environments of all times and places. An excellent and thoughtful book.

*

Stargate Atlantis: Exogenesis by Sonny Whitelaw and Elizabeth Christiansen

As usual, I don't recommend tie-ins to people who are not fans of the show. This was the first of the Atlantis books I've read, and it seemed to me rather awkwardly written. I wanted to like it- it employed some Sfnal concepts that I quite like. But. The characterizations were adequate if perfunctory, the problem posed seemed more sketched in than really explored and the eventual solution seemed to be pulled out of a hat. The point of view flitted from character to character without seeming to have any particular purpose. There were many elements that would have been good if further developed, but none of them really were. Not one of the better novels in this line.

*

Burndive by Karen Lowachee

This book only escaped being hurled into Lake Champlain because it would have been littering. There is some mildly interesting worldbuilding and I suspect many references to a prior book in the same universe, but this completely lacked any kind of actual story attached to the main character. Unfortunately the main character's response to practically everything that happens is to passively accept it. On the only occasion he actually takes action, it doesn't work. And the main character was not particularly interesting. He's not involved in any of the actual conflict-that's left to secondary characters-and he doesn't overcome anything. He sits around feeling sorry for himself until finally the book ends.

Also bewildering was the author's decision to abruptly change point of view three-quarters of the way through the book from a third person limited view to a first person pov of the same character for no apparent reason. Not recommended.

*

Thursday Next, First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

If you haven't read the previous Thursday Next novels, this is not the one to start with. Go find The Eyre Affair, and prop yourself securely on the couch so you won't fall off while laughing as you work your way through the series. Fforde does for literature what Pratchett does for the tropes of fantasy, with a large helping of whimsical humor.

In this one, Thursday has a lot on her plate, among them; she's training an apprentice who is a fictional version of herself, the ghost of Uncle Mycroft has an important message he's forgotten, fresh machinations from the possibly perfidious and ever-inventive Goliath Corporation, a piano shortage, and a polite, well-groomed version of her slothful and unwashed teenage son- who is violently resisting his preordained career in the ChronoGuards. And that doesn't even begin to address the latest idiotic ideas being promoted by the Council of Genres, who is trying to broker a peace deal between the genres of Racy Novel, and it's antagonistic neighbors, Ecclesiastical and Feminist.

This book wraps only some of its numerous plots- Thursday's adventures will continue in a book to be entitled; The War of the Words, Paragraph Lost, Apocalypse Next or possibly something Fforde hasn't dreamed up yet. If you dislike cliffhangers, you may want to wait for the next Next book.

*

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
by J.K.Rowling

On looking at the first page of the latest book, I realized how little I remembered from the early series, so I put it down and reread the earlier books first. Given their popularity, it's unlikely I can say anything new about them.

However, overall, I thought that the later books in the series suffered from the phenomenon where popular authors become too important to edit. The last three books all would have benefited from some tightening up. But Rowling manages a quite reasonable and enjoyable close to the series.

*

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 by Simon Winchester

This was a fascinating look at the 1906 earthquake, as well as the mechanisms and history of earthquakes in the US. I hadn't known there was a major earthquake in Charleston, SC in 1886 or that Missouri was the site of another seismically active area- and epicenter of an earthquake that shook the entire midwest, also in the 1800s. An engrossing tale- and one that makes me profoundly grateful not to live on the west coast. As another reader pointed out, the contrast between the disaster response effort in 1906 with the more recent efforts after Hurricane Katrina do not show the 21st century in a good light.

A mixture of earthquake facts, eyewitness accounts and California history, Winchester takes us from the eastern edge of the North American continental plate at Thingvellir, Iceland, to the San Andres fault; from the earthquakes of New Madrid and Charleston to the Prince William Sound (Alaskan) earthquake of 1964, and winds their stories around the story of San Francisco- victim of a disaster of a century ago, and sure to be site of another in the very near future.

*

The Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

This is another excellent Pratchett romp through the tropes of fiction and cinema. For example, if you see a bunch of thugs encounter a monk—an elderly unarmed monk— quite alone in a remote location, wouldn't you know exactly what was about to happen? (The monks like to promote these tales- it makes traveling around the Discworld a lot less exciting for them.) While it will never displace the Vimes books in my affections, this was a thoroughly delightful diversion—the perfect way to spend a little free time.

*

Eric by Terry Pratchett

I can't actually remember if I'd read this before. Regardless- it's typical early Pratchett, a humorous journey through the classic fantasy elements. Enjoyable, but not yet displaying underlying serious themes that make some of his later books so brilliant.

*

Stargate SG-1: Survival of the Fittest by Sabine C. Bauer

As usual- recommended only for fans of the show. This was definitely above average for the Fandemonium series of SG-1 novels. A follow-on for Desperate Measures, it draws heavily on canon, featuring a return appearance by a recurring Goa'uld villain and various other elements drawn from the series- and then implemented in an original action-filled plot. The NID appearance here is integral to the plot, not a throwaway, and quite plausible in context. Very nicely done.

*

California Demon by Julie Kenner

This is the sequel to the earlier-reviewed Carpe Demon. It has many of the same charms as the first but little new material to keep the joke going. It was enjoyable enough as light fluffy fantasy, but I'll probably think twice (and check the library) before sampling the forthcoming third in the series.

*

Stargate SG-1: Alliances by Karen Miller

As usual- recommended only for fans of the show. Another fun read for those looking for tie-ins. I have to critique the editors a bit, however, because having read several of these in succession, many of them use either Kinsey, the NID or both as part of the motivation of the plot. This one would have worked fine without it- in fact it's barely mentioned. I'd have liked to see the editors noting a commonality of theme across several books and trying for a little more variety. Nonetheless, an enjoyable read, with some especially nice appearances by some familiar faces among the Tok'ra.

*

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

This is so well known it hardly needs reviewing. But I read most of my Christie in the late seventies and early eighties, and wound up missing most of the Hercule Poirot stories, because at that age, I found the them too talky, and some of the more adult bits went over my head.

So, reading it now as an adult, I find it an interesting puzzle, and a tour-de-force in terms of conveying the entirety of the characterization and plot though dialogue. Deservedly a classic.

*

June 2007

Child of the Grove by Tanya Huff

This was on my bookshelf so I must have read it at some point, but when I pulled a duplicate off the shelf I found that I couldn't remember a thing about it. Rereading, I found good reason. It wasn't terrible, but it was structurally rather weak. The title character doesn't show up until halfway through the book. The character who anchors the first half of the book completely disappears. The villain- one of the few characters who actually exists in both halves- has little face time. In general, this has only embryonic hints of the storytelling craft that makes her later works so engaging.

*

Stargate SG-1: A Matter of Honor by Sally Malcolm
Stargate SG-1: The Cost of Honor by Sally Malcolm

As usual- recommended only for fans of the show. I read A Matter of Honor when I first picked it up, but reread it before going on to the second book. I thought the first book was a bit grim, but it lightened somewhat in the second part. An enjoyable read- It could have used some more foreshadowing some of the developments in the second part, and I'd have liked to see more of one of the key secondary characters, but it was still fun.

*

Stargate SG-1: Siren Song by Holly Scott and Jaimie Duncan

Again- not recommended for people who aren't fans of the series. In this book, the authors take on the perennial fan question- "whatever happened to Aris Boch?" This time, Boch is after SG-1 on purpose. We get to see Boch's homeworld, we get Goa'uld (and Goa'uld-baiting), we get good team interaction. There were a couple of weaknesses in the resolution of the story however, which detracted from the satisfactory ending.

*

The Heart of Valor by Tanya Huff

This is the third book in the Valor series. Like it's predecessors, it's a fast-paced military SF adventure. While it doesn't take war lightly, it still manages to be both entertaining and funny.

*

Carpe Demon by Julie Kenner

I debated picking this one up for a while- not because I thought the demon-hunting wouldn't be fun, but because I thought even demons wouldn't be enough to leaven a story about a suburban mom.

This would probably be a lot more amusing for women who have experienced suburban motherhood, but the writing was funny and fast-paced, and the premise- 'what if Buffy a demon-hunter retired, got married and never told her family what she used to do'- was enough to carry the book.

*

Stargate SG-1: Sacrifice Moon by Julie Fortune

I don't generally recommend tie-ins for people who are not fans of the source material, and this is no exception. However, for SG-1 fans, this read very much like a long episode, well-plotted, well-characterized, and with far better attention to the source canon than most. I thought it somewhat weaker as SF- there was some seriously questionable worldbuilding, and there was no good explanation- either scientific or canon- for some of the physical effects experienced by the characters. It was an enjoyable read, however.

*

The Vandermark Mummy by Cynthia Voigt

This was pitched a bit younger than I would ordinarily read, but who doesn't love a mummy? There was some nice historical detail, but I could have stood more mystery and less youth angst. This was an undistinguished mystery with a strong resolution and an appealing and well characterized hero. I did think she did a particularly nice job of writing a vivid climax that I think a young person would find suspenseful without being inappropriately scary or violent.

*

Desert Traveller: The Life of Jean Louis Burckhardt by Katharine Sim

This was a fascinating and thoroughly researched biography of Louis Burckhardt, the discoverer of Petra. The conditions he endured in pursuit of his explorations were appalling, but the accounts of traveling in the Middle East in Arab guise gave a marvelous glimpse into a world that no longer exists. I did find the author's adulation of her subject wearing at times, but overall the book was so interesting, I could overlook it.

*

Little Tiny Teeth by Aaron Elkins

A new Elkins is a not-to-be missed pleasure, and this is no exception. Little Tiny Teeth takes Elkins anthropologist-detective down the Amazon. Familiar secondary characters make a return appearance, along with a cast of plausible suspects. Elkin's vividly described settings always add interest to his stories, but he has really outdone himself with the jungle setting. Readers should not miss the photos and article written on the trip he took down the Amazon researching this book.

*

A Trace of Memory by Keith Laumer

After the selection of weaker stories that were contemporary with this that I read last month, this was a very pleasant surprise.

While there were some logical holes in the worldbuilding, the story had good internal consistency, a star-spanning plot, and a strong element of wish-fulfillment, all of which took second seat to the strong plotting and pacing.

This story is more or less contemporary to the early sixties, so it is quite dated, but it's still a very enjoyable read.

*

Wizards at War by Diane Duane

This is the eighth (check) entry in her Wizards series (starting with So You Want to Be A Wizard). Like most long-running series, it has to cope with the problems of repeating themes. And like series involving magic, it has the common problem of needing to deal with power inflation (the next climax needing to be bigger than the last one).

Duane has done a remarkably good job of keeping the concept fresh through the series and the latest book is no exception. We have an appealing cast of secondary characters, including some repeating from prior books. The theme of good vs. evil is handled deftly as usual. There are many light humorous touches, continuing themes of responsibility, choice and sacrifice.

The ending was a trifle predictable and I'm not sure I'd have made the choices Duane did about who survived, but it was an enjoyable read, much in the same vein as the prior books in the series. I *don't* recommend it as the first book in the series to be read. These are much better read in order, as there are too many spoilers in later books for the plots of the earlier ones.

*

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin

Daniel Levitin, a cognitive neuroscientist, sound engineer and musician takes a look at the body of research into how the brain processes music. What makes music good, why do we like what we like, what influences form musical taste, what is hardwired and what is acquired- Levitin tackles all of these. He uses examples from an impressive range of musical styles (though oddly enough, not folk), but is broad enough that most people should be able to find ones to relate to.

His style is lucid and not overly technical, this is definitely geared to a popular audience. This was a fascinating book for anyone who likes to listen to, play or write music.

*

May 2007

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories by Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke's bestselling novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, should have been a book I hated. It's stylish, the plot meanders at a pace that makes 'leisurely' look fast, and I didn't even really identify with the characters. And yet I (and a lot of other folks) really loved it. Clarke crafts her language so beautifully, so strongly conveys a sense of time and place, that nothing else matters. If I had to pick an example of someone breaking the rules successfully, this would be it.

Most of the stories in Clarke's new anthology return to the world of Strange and Norrell. They have the feel of very old stories being retold, but with the same lyrical care that made her novel such a pleasure. I particularly liked Mr. Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower and John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner, for the touches of sly humor and the discomfiture of powerful adversaries.

*

Voyage from Yesteryear by James P. Hogan

Okay, I should have asked. If I'd known that the reason this book was sitting beside the recliner was that JT had quit in the middle, I might have read a nice article in Model Railroader, or gotten up and found something else instead. But no, I had to read it.

The sad thing is that there were aspects of a good book here. Hogan has a very nice grasp of his technology. However. This book represents the worst of the worst when it comes to an author trying to justify his favorite political theories in print. In this case, he's created a colony world that is allegedly a meritocracy, but operates more like a commune. The people who inhabit this libertarian utopia are clearly not human since they do not suffer from jealousy, greed or laziness.

Naturally, this is contrasted with new arrivals from Earth, who inhabit an exaggerated version of our society, who are determined to conquer them. The main characters are guided through a series of encounters designed to showcase the Perfection of Libertarianism, and Evils of Heirarchical Society. As if being force-fed political propaganda isn't bad enough, Hogan also manages to portray the sorriest lot of female characters I've seen in some time. He doesn't miss a stereotype.

I've never been a fan of Hogan's in general, and this book is enough to make me avoid him like the plague in the future.

*

The Man Without a Planet by Lester Del Rey

This was a 60s entry, with space stations, atomic missiles, alien invaders and appropriately strong-jawed heroes. Definitely dated, but it had a good through-plot, some hilarious twists and even a vaguely plausible romance interest. Not deep and quite dated, but still fun.

*

Sir Stalwart: Book One of the King's Daggers by Dave Duncan

This was a light, fast, and enjoyable read. The magic is original, the characters appealing. It was quite short and first in a trilogy- though not quite a cliffhanger. The denoument was perhaps not quite as stunning a climax as one could have wished, but clearly Duncan didn't want to steal the thunder from the eventual series resolution.

*

The Brain Stealers by Murray Leinster

Ordinarily, I would have avoided a pulp SF book published in the fifties with this title. But I have really enjoyed some of Leinster's other work, most notably The Med Series.

This book, however, I should definitely have judged by its cover. It has all the hyperbole, the unrealistic oppressive future society and the strong-jawed action heroics that would expect from pulp. And not in a good way. A deservedly forgotten novel from an author capable of better things.

*

The Infinity Link by Jeffrey Carver

I've read books by this author before but didn't remember anything about them. I'm not so fortunate with this one.

The main character is an exceptionally drippy girl who doesn't know what she wants or how to get it if she did. The story could only be improved by her becoming brain damaged and so it proved.

The book has not one but two characters who do completely stupid things for love (and not especially convincing love at that). One case of gratuitous insanity (nothing else could explain the character's actions). One character has an affair- apparently because the book needs more sex. And one of the adversarial characters makes a complete about-face at the climax, probably because he couldn't face another three-hundred pages of this drivel any more than I could.

The potentially sense-of-wonder inducing first contact plot and interesting aliens were completely lost in this morass. I now understand why it is so persistently seen- unmoving- on the shelves of second-hand bookstores.

*

The Astral Mirror by Ben Bova

This is a collection of essays and short stories by Bova. Unfortunately several of the essays are so dated as to be risible, and most of the stories are quite undistinguished. My favorite was the last, but it was fun rather than thoughtful or insightful.

This would have been more interesting to me had I read it when it was published (about 20 years ago), but it contains little to attract me now.

*

Mask of Chaos by John Jakes

This was another interesting - and somewhat dated- failure. I don't think it could be published now. It has an interesting setup. The main character is a cyborg, an experimental subject who has been released to make his way in the world. He becomes a spacer, but despite doing his job well is the subject of jealousy and spite by other crew members.

Despite this promising beginning, we do not discover anything further about the character's background, why he doesn't recall anything of his past before the experimental center or why he is so unusually calm and good-humored despite the treatment he receives. Instead he is discharged onto a mysterious and improbable world, meets characters whose motivations remain obscure, a bunch of more or less meaningless things happen and he is left much as he was at the start, only morose and discontented.

This almost reads as if it were the start of a series-it would have made more sense that there were so many questions left unanswered. A pity that the story was no more finished- the worldbuilding gave us a creepy if incomplete society and a difficult dilemma.

I remember fondly Jakes Time Gate from having read it as a teen, but this was not up to the same standard.

*

The Star Virus by Barrington J. Bayley

This was the book on the flipside of the Ace Double with Jakes' Mask of Chaos, and I wasn't expecting much of it. And while it did give me a sense of nostalgia for the universe-spanning mind-bending fifties style, it wasn't in fact very good. A mildly interesting idea, some good aliens, but it suffered the usual failures of characterization, plausibility, and story construction that a modern reader finds essential.

*

In the Dead of Summer by Gillian Roberts

This is the sixth of the Amanda Pepper mysteries, set in Philadelphia. This was book had ambitions, but the pieces didn't quite come together. Some of the quirks that were appealing in major and minor characters in earlier books haven't developed over time. The topic was ambitious, but the plot flailed around – through much of the book there were non-villain characters who knew what had happened, but kept silent for fairly thin reasons while littering the landscape with cryptic clues.

The author appears to realize that her series needs shaking up, but there were a few too many instances of the authorial hand reaching in to adjust the scenery to make it a satisfying read.

*

Iterations by Robert Sawyer

Sawyer is one of very few writers today producing serious speculative fiction in the classic sense. He's written a number of solidly readable and thoughtful novels. In this collection of his short stories, he delivers many similarly appealingly classic-flavored short stories. Not every story is a winner, in particular I thought the short-shorts were rather weak, but definitely worth reading.

*

Stark Decency: German Prisoners of War in a New England Village by Allen V. Koop

This book described the establishment of Camp Stark in Stark, NH (north of the White Mountains in northern NH) during World War II. It was a forced-labor camp where the prisoners were used as labor to harvest pulpwood under the direction of American foremen.

Koop is clearly a better researcher than he is a writer. This was interesting to me for both the local setting, and the unusual viewpoint. It brought out some relatively little discussed history- I had not realized how many German prisoners were brought to the US, or many of the social issues surrounding it. While there were many interesting snippets of information, the book is not well written. It suffers from the author's determination to portray the (often surprisingly cordial) relations between the prisoners, guards and townspeople of Stark in a positive light, rather than trying to tell the story for its own sake. A shame, because I think had the author done more to include the anecdotal personal accounts of the people involved, interspersing them with his factual research, it would have both been more cohesive a story- and proven his point better as well.

*

Floodgate by Alistair MacLean

This is a late work by a popular author, and sadly left me with the not uncommon impression that the author published his first draft. The most interesting part was the Holland setting, but the good guys win too easily, the bad guys are so amateurish that you wonder how they could have stolen Girl Scout cookies, let alone weapons, and the swift uncomplicated resolution made this not especially worth a reader's time. If I'd had this book on an airplane, as my only reading material? I'd have done the Sudoku in the in-flight magazine first.

*

April 2007

The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune,and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander

Okay, so gardening books are not generally my thing. This was bought as a gift, however, and what kind of a person would I be if I didn't at least check it out before wrapping it? Alexander describes the trials and travails of being a yuppie gardener with self deprecating humor. I was often bemused by the lengths he went to, the more particularly since the vegetable gardens of my childhood were far more practically oriented to the aim of providing affordable food. I was amused to the very end- and I may well have to borrow the book back to copy down some of the recipes included at the end, which looked quite intriguing.

*

The Complete Sherlock Holmes- Vol 1&2 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I read most of the Holmes oeuvre when I was a preteen, but they stand up very well to rereading, as generations of fans can attest. For those who've never attempted the original works, Doyle has a very lucid 'modern' style, and the charm of the stories is undiminished by the years. And considering that I just read all four novels and fifty-six short stories nearly back to back? They still hold the reader's interest very well!

*

Magic or Madness * Magic Lessons * Magic's Child by Justine Larbalestier
(Omnibus edition of three YA novels published as The Magic of Reason)

So I picked this up in part because I was intrigued by the Australian setting, which turned out to be one of the most interesting bits. It also had some appealing characters and an interesting magical system. I thought that the plot was a bit weak, as the characters don't really have an objective except survival. And overall, there was no real unifying theme to this, making a potentially quite good trilogy into something rather lightweight. I think I'd have found this an unexceptionable story with an interesting setting, except that there were some aspects of the last story in the trilogy that really bothered me.

Call me conservative, but I think fifteen is too young for sex. I'd have been bothered less if this had been treated as a serious matter, but the book handles the consequences rather cavalierly.

*

Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King

This was a fascinating look at the building of the cathedral dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Renaissance Florence. The author brings Brunelleschi and his contemporaries alive in vivid color. The time is a study in contrasts- The politics and rivalries could be drawn from the pages of any modern newspaper, while the time scale of municipal projects seems absurdly elongated. The men who started the cathedral could never expect to see it finished. Brunelleschi gave forty years to the project- that he lived to see the dome built was in itself remarkable.

You need to have at least some interest in architecture and Roman engineering to find this as interesting as I did, but it is well written and readable by any standards.

*

On the Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith

n this, the second of the cowboy detective series, we get yet another staple of the old West, the train robbery. This is a worthy sequel, with the same charm and sidesplitting humor of the first. I can only look forward eagerly to the next entry in the series.

*

Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith

What people tend to forget about Sherlock Holmes is that the Victorian London of Holmes and Watson was contemporaneous with the American old West. In this, the first of two charming mysteries, a pair of cowboys, having read of "Mr. Holmes' " exploits decide to try and apply his methods to some 'deducifying' of their own. Holmes fans will love them for their unabashed worship of the master and the loving homage to not only Holmes, but to Watson, as cowboy 'Big Red' Amlingmeyer narrates the tales in his own distinctive voice but with echoes of Watson's charm.

In addition to their Holmesian appeal, they are cleverly written mysteries, and they incorporate a lot of fact about the old West, as well as capturing the conciousness that the cowboy way of life was already passing into myth and legend.

And as if that wasn't ambitious enough for one book, it's also hilarious. A marvelous book- Go. Read. And I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

*

Moonstruck by Edward Lerner

Unfortunately, the author did the research for an excellent novel, but failed to finish even a novella. The narrative was very disjointed, with the plot structured in three sections of differing lengths and action. The POV shifts were awkward. The book starts as a mystery- "the aliens have contacted us, whatever can they be up to?" Then it switches to the point of view of several of the aliens, who thoroughly explain everything. That storyline ends two-thirds of the way through the book, and the rest of the book deals with "what else were the aliens up to?" Profoundly unsuccessful, belying a deceptively promising beginning.

*

March 2007

Dragon's Eye by James A. Hetley

I bought this for the Maine seacoast setting, and was pleasantly surprised. Despite being a short book with too many characters and too many plotlines, the story was relatively coherent and well told. It has something of the feel of an RPG adventure or a comic more than a serious fantasy in that it was fast-paced without being deeply engaging. Fans of Mercedes Lackey's urban fantasies would probably enjoy it. Unlike the Duncan (which aimed high and failed), this was not terribly ambitious, but succeeded in what it set out to do.

*

Past Imperative * Present Tense *Future Indefinite by Dave Duncan

This trilogy was frustrating in that it wasn't bad- in fact it was quite entertaining. But it could have been so much better. There were several times when Duncan worked up to a climactic scene, and then cut away to have an observer recount the story to someone else after the fact, including the climax of the trilogy. There were numerous interesting ethical and philosophical questions raised. Any of these would have made a strong, compelling thematic arc. All were abandoned unexplored. Numerous interesting secondary characters were introduced, appeared as viewpoint characters for awhile, and then disappeared. Some appeared in the first and third books but not the second. Perhaps with fewer characters it would have worked better. I can't even tell what it was that Duncan was attempting here, but I don't think he succeeded.

*

Primary Storm by Brenden DuBois

This is the sixth entry in DuBois' series of Lewis Cole mysteries. I must confess that the reason I started with these is that they are set in the area where I grew up. This latest adventure showcases the every-four-years insanity that is the NH primary season. While this shows DuBois' increasing skill at the craft of writing, I still feel these have room for improvement. The love interest was fairly flat, the book could have made better use of the primary background, and the villains were both unconvincing and not terribly clever.

A perennial complaint about the series as a whole- DuBois has a tin ear for place names. He's chosen to rename the cities and towns closest to his fictional detective's home, but the names are poorly chosen. Most of the real cities in the area are named after British cities and towns, but DuBois' made-up names do not ring true.

*

The Secret Life of Dust by Hannah Holmes

JT summed this one up as, "I may never breathe again." He has a point. This started with cosmic dust and the birth of stars, progressed through the study of dust (we have a national curator of dust?!) and continued through sandstorms and volcanic eruptions before finishing with pollution, allergies and our personal relationships with the stuff. I found this well organized, well-written and interesting.

*

Final Diagnosis by James White

For fans of the long-running Sector General series, this is worthy entry to the series. Full of weird aliens, intriguing alien medicine, and funny bits, the plot moves briskly along. I found the eventual resolution of the medical mystery was a bit obvious and the wrap up of the ending a bit deus ex machina-like, but it has the same enduring appeal as the others in this series - the idea of beings of many species meeting- with problems, misunderstandings and a fair measure of humor- to advance the common goal of saving lives.

*

February 2007

Legacies by Alison Sinclair

I read this because JT threw it against the wall about a quarter of the way in, but suggested he'd like to hear my opinion. And it was...interesting.

This story had an ambitious premise, but after laying out sweeping tragedy on a planetary scale, the author populates her worlds with characters who are in turns confused, petty and unstable. The style is indirect and obscure, the smallest details of the plot are approached with circumlocutions more worthy of a major reveal. It took most of the book to actually lay out the conflict, and the last quarter to resolve it- but it hardly seemed worth the effort once we got there. Further, the story was structured with alternating chapters of present and past events. However the back-story turned out to be completely irrelevant to the resolution of the present plot. It appears to have been included principally to double the length of the book and secondarily to let the author use all the background material she created.

This reminded me somewhat of the Cynthia Felice story I read last month, Eclipses, in that it read more like a novel with an SF setting than a piece of genre fiction. The differences were that the characters were less believable and less entertaining, and the style substantially more prolix.

*

Regeneration by Julie Czerneda

Wrapping up a major trilogy in a satisfactory way is frequently a challenging task. I'm happy to say that Julie Czerneda largely succeeded. The final entry in her Species Imperative trilogy delivered more amusing aliens with weird and yet plausible biology, more plot twists and developments and the eventual resolution to the story.

The actual climax didn't deliver quite the punch I had hoped for, but overall, this was an entertaining and readable series. I don't recommend either book two or three as a standalone, but if you enjoyed the first two, the third will not disappoint.

*

Ark Angel by Anthony Horowitz

Horowitz doesn't get points for elegant turns of phrase or brilliant characterization or even originality (since he's explicitly rewriting Fleming for the YA market, complete with gadgets). But what he does have is plot, pacing, loads of action and the coolness factor. The pacing is exactly what you'd see in an adult thriller. Dan Brown would recognize all the tricks- that's because they work. The plots are fantastic, but the escapes and tricks are never superhuman.

Ark Angel is the sixth in his Alex Rider spy series. This is a typical entry- a fast-moving thriller with a well-paced plot, evil super-villains, hairsbreadth escapes, and a bang-up finish. The adult reader will spot some holes and perhaps find the writing blunt and unpolished, but it's easy to understand the appeal of this popular series.

*

Appleby's Other Story by Michael Innes

I've read many many mysteries over the years, including many of the classics, but somehow I managed to miss Michael Innes. I now understand this was a grave oversight.

On the face of it, this story has a classic setup. A retired policeman hero, an English country house murder, a house party full of suspects. What made this special was the understated humor of the characters, the charming turns of phrase and the extremely clever solution (which included a really abysmal pun!). This was delightful, and bound to charm and satisfy any lover of English-flavored classic mysteries. Skip the inside jacket blurb, however, as it may give a bit too much away.

*

Migration by Julie Czerneda

This is book 2 in the Species Imperative trilogy. I hadn't rushed out to get it when it first came out because a) the first one was good but not brilliant, b) a friend had warned me it was -if not a cliffhanger- definitely not strongly resolved so I should wait for the third to be out before I started the second and c) I've found Czerneda to be a bit uneven in general.

Example of c)- I picked up her standalone novel In the Company of Others at the library along with Migration, and was partway into the first chapter before I realized I'd already read it. But I quite liked her Web Shifters trilogy, and she can be counted on for interesting biology (her Real Life occupation) so I am generally still willing to give her work a try.

This was a bit tougher to get into as it's been some time since I read the first book, but after a slowish start, it picked up fairly well. Another satisfying chunk of the mysterious alien motives are revealed, more interesting aliens are introduced, minor characters and events from the first story are unexpectedly and satisfyingly proven relevant to good effect. In general this was much better-put-together than the first story. I was happy to see somewhat less of the male romantic interest, whom I have found far less plausible than any of the aliens (and when I did, to see him playing a more important role in the plot).

Altogether, this was an entertaining read, and stronger than I expected as the middle book of a trilogy. I'm already planning a swift return to the library to grab the third one.

*

Childe Morgan by Katherine Kurtz

I went into this one with some trepidation after the Foster experience earlier in the week, so on one level I was pleasantly surprised. This book did nothing to wildly offend me. Of course it didn't do anything to wildly enthrall me either. Similarly to the Foster, I read this because I started the series over 20 years ago, and still want to know the missing pieces. (If you're getting the impression that I read a lot of bad fiction this way, you're probably right.)

This is the latest entry in the thirty-year-old Deryni series and the middle book of the current trilogy, for whatever that's worth. The Deryni are magically talented folks living in a faux-medieval world and are persecuted and oppressed by humans, chiefly the Church. For other readers of the series, this isn't so much a story as a "Modern Political History of Gwynedd" interspersed with the minutes of the Camberian Council meetings. Pretty much all the action takes place off-screen and is related in an endless series of meetings.

But never fear, the unrelenting meetings are broken up by a number of wedding and court ceremonies. These are described in loving detail along with the diverse personal details of the lives of the characters as they inexorably live, marry, have children and die so the series can approach the beginning state of the first trilogy (Deryni Rising, Deryni Checkmate, and High Deryni).

In contrast to the first books, which portrayed Deryni as very scarce among the population, this book is fairly littered with them. In fact a reader might be forgiven for picturing an entire castle full of Deryni with only an occasional normal person present. And there are so many characters who are secretly Deryni but hiding their true identities, it's quite hard to keep straight who is 'out' and who's still in the closet. And if they aren't Deryni they're humans with magic powers. Or sometimes both.

Plot, you ask? Oh plot. Well there certainly are plots, and stories and high drama. Unfortunately almost none of them actually appear in this book, though some get a mention in passing.

This is an inoffensive way to waste a couple of hours if you're a fan of the series and willing to sit through a (short) novel's-worth of backstory. If you're just getting started in this series- read the first two trilogies (in order of publication) and stop. You'll have seen all the good stuff.

*

January 2007

Trouble Magnet by Alan Dean Foster

This is the eleventh book in Foster's Flinx series, and I'll say up front I got it from the library because I did not expect it to be *good*. But I started this series when I was sixteen, and dang it, I do want to know how it ends. But this is not the book where I found out. It is a complete waste of time for anyone not thoroughly familiar with the series, as it follows the protagonist through a series of encounters designed to showcase references to previous books, culminating in a completely unforeshadowed deus ex machina.

I'd have thought an old pro like Foster would be embarrassed to have this published under his name, but of course several of his previous books have disillusioned me on this account.

I remain glad I didn't actually pay money for this. But I still want to know how it ends, drat it.

*

Line to Tomorrow by Lewis Padgett

Padgett is the pen name of C.L.Moore and Henry Kuttner. This was an anthology of short stories from a pair of extremely prolific authors. As a collection I'd have to say they are unremarkable. None of them were particularly outstanding, though the first and last were probably the most memorable. The big problem I had was that most of the characters were not expecially sympathetic, and it was hard to care much about their problems. If I had to summarize the collection I would say, "Bad things happen to unpleasant people".

Line to Tomorrow- A man eavesdrops on phone calls from the future.
A Gnome There Was- A labor organizer is turned into a gnome.
What You Need- A store supplies What you Need..
Private Eye- How do you commit the perfect crime when you're under surveillance at all times?
The Twonky- A radio that can do the dishes...every house should have one.
Compliments of the Author-Meddle not in the affairs of wizards. Really.
When the Bough Breaks- Many stories have posited the emergence of a race of supermen. What would it be like to be the parents of the first one.

*

An Acceptable Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

I should possibly preface this next one by saying- I was kind of dubious even before I read it. I haven't especially cared for most of L'Engle's recent work, though I was quite fond of many of her earlier novels, including A Wrinkle in Time and the sequels, the Vicky Austin series and The Young Unicorns. But this is probably the last book I will read by her.

This was a combination of a sermon and a few teaspoons of plot, mixed with an absurdly idealized vision of a primitive culture and served over a pile of loose plot threads from earlier books. The book uses the same initial setting as A Wrinkle in Time, this time with Meg's daughter Polly as the protagonist, and I couldn't help but feel some initial nostalgia for it on that basis.

But Polly was too perfect to be true; sweet, affectionate, smart and well-behaved. I had great trouble seeing her as a real teenager. Her friend Zachary is two-dimensional, and his actions make little sense (except to get Polly in trouble without putting the author to the trouble of coming up with a more believable plot device). This was a tired rehash of ideas she's used previously, and comes with a heavy load of preachy Christian propaganda.

I'm not qualified to comment on its theological soundness, but as a work of fiction designed to entertain, it was a singular failure.

*

Transfinite Man by Colin Kapp

After the last couple of older books I read, this one started very promisingly. By page 4, I'd met the hero, the bad guy and knew the conflict. By page 10, we'd had a murder, and the hero was hotly pursuing a Clue. Kapp did get a little tangled up in the various layers of bad guys, and the characterization did not develop as time went on. It was not ultimately entirely successful- when dealing with guys who have superhuman powers, it's hard to ensure that they aren't so powerful any threat to them is not credible. Kapp actually does this very well in a couple of his later books (I'm thinking of Patterns of Chaos and The Chaos Weapon), but it didn't work as well here. But the story was consistently fast paced, and readable.

*

A Confederation of Valor by Tanya Huff

This is an omnibus edition of two of her earlier books, Valor's Choice and The Better Part of Valor. The third book in the trilogy is due out later this year. Unlike her previous books, these are military SF. The main character, Torin Kerr, is a sergeant, and we get to see this particular flavor of space Marines through her eyes. The aliens, both friends and foes are both humorous and plausible, the plot moves along briskly, the action is well drawn. This isn't particularly deep, but if you're looking for lighthearted SFnal flavored action adventure, this is well worth the time.

*

Destination Infinity by Henry Kuttner (original title: Fury, 1956)

This is from the classic period of SF, and is a not atypical tale. It's the 27th century, and Earth is long dead. Humanity inhabits domed cities underneath the oceans of Venus (I seem to have a Venus theme going this month!) Humans are divided between the normals and the mutant Immortals, who live about a thousand years. The story centers around a decadent society that has ceded nearly all power to the Immortals, and a young Immortal - who believes he is human- who tries to shake up the system.

This was a decent read, though not outstanding. The author does have a neat ending twist, but the deception that leads the main character to believe himself human is not actually related to the main plot of the story, and the author is forced to change point of view rather awkwardly to make the story work. I give it a C+. The modern reader will find the style dated, but the writing holds the attention and the setting and dilemmas are vivid and well drawn. The tale would be stronger if the main character were more sympathetic and the numerous villainous plots were somewhat more coherent.

*

Eclipses by Cynthia Felice

I quite liked Cynthia Felice's Water Witch, and so was hoping for a similarly enjoyable read from this book. Her tale is set on a Earth colony where water is very scarce,and the nominal ruler of half the planet is the man who manages the water rights. The world-building was interesting and well drawn, the characters developed.

However as the story book progressed, I started to wonder with some dismay, where the heck was the plot?!

By the time I finished, I was forced to conclude that this is in fact a novel about a woman's disfunctional emotional life, that just happens to be set on another planet. If you want to read a novel with an unusual setting, you might enjoy it. There is a plot- but it's a romance/character development plot, not really a science fictional one. The SF elements are all about the setting. While the climax depends on the SFnal setting, the story could have been written in a mundane setting just as well.

Felice also fails to deal with- or even acknowledge!- two issues that are personal hot-button topics for me- gross power imbalances in relationships, and the problems of dictatorship as a form of government. I didn't like it. I think it is probably an adequate novel, but it is a) not the kind of story I enjoy and b)not a character who I liked and c)casually tosses aside several subplots which interested me more than the story the author actually finished.

*

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

This is the history of the Pilgrims who first landed at Plymouth through the end of King Philip's War, the first of the Indian wars that preceded the American revolution.

I found it compelling, particularly in the earlier part of the narrative, where it talks about who the Pilgrims were, how they decided to come to America and what made them different from the Puritans who followed them and settled in Boston and up and down the northeastern coast. The author does a good job of separating myth from fact in the quintessentially American story of the First Thanksgiving. What was striking about it was not so much what was myth but what was true. The Pilgrims did come, did survive only with the assistance of their new friends, and did celebrate a feast together. They also lived in relative peace with the native population for almost 50 years.

The narrative jumps from them to their children and grandchildren as it relates the events that led to war. The second half of the book was less interesting- and more depressing- in that it was more of a description of the misunderstandings, mismanagements and the fighting than of the people and their lives. Not surprisingly, the English settlers brought much of it on themselves.

A thoughtful book, if not necessarily an easy read. The author couldn't resist adding occasional colorful but unsupported speculations , but was good about identifying them as such. For me it satisfyingly filled a gap in my historical knowledge, since most of my history classes skipped more or less from Plymouth to the American revolution, with a brief overview of the French and Indian Wars of the eighteenth century. It presents (I thought) a fair summation of the European ascendence to power on the North American continent and the tragic -and initially not deliberate- near-extermination of the native peoples.

*

The Sky People by S.M.Stirling

This harkens back to the days of John Carter of Mars, and Three for the Legion, when men were men, women were voluptuous and when danger threatened, there was nothing like the thews of a strong hero to get you out of it. Okay, it's not quite that over the top! But suppose that instead of finding the overheated pressure-cooker of Venus or the dry emptiness of Mars, we had found instead that the SF authors of the early-mid twentieth century were right. Not only is there a breathable atmosphere, but intelligent life much like us. Instead of the space program slowing down to a mere trickle, it is beefed up. The Cold War continues with both Russia and the US planting colonies on Venus.

Stirling strings us along with smidgeons of real science, speculations of parallel evolution and alien terraformers while writing a story of adventure and intrigue in the unexplored jungles of Venus. He populates the ecology with a fearsome array of predators and natives of various stripes. And he works in a lot of great and evocative detail without ever bogging down his story.

Was it perfect? No. There were some (what else do I ever complain about?!) structural issues. There wasn't a single consistent antagonist, there were a few awkward gaps in timing which made sense from a plot point of view but did not help the pacing. But he avoids the cliches he doesn't embrace, and the whole thing was so enormously fun, I couldn't help enjoying it. I'm already looking forward to the sequel (which I suspect will be set on Mars).

Caveat- I did in fact read John Carter and Tarzan as a kid, so I'm known to have a proclivity for this kind of thing.

*

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold

This was very disappointing. I'm glad I didn't spend any money on it. I'm fairly lukewarm on most of Bujold's fantasy (though I love much of her SF), but this was unfortunately a new low. I really wanted to like this book. The worldbuilding was very good, the magic fascinating, the hero appropriately heroic, the writing fluid. Even the heroine was fun if a bit underdeveloped. However, 99% of the action in the book takes place in the first two chapters. And after that, all that happens is that the relationship between the characters is developed. The big McGuffin of the story is left hanging for the next book. And I'd have liked the romance better if the man hadn't been so much older than the woman. It's a convention that makes my teeth itch. Why would someone my age want a relationship with a teenager? Gah. Romance readers may quite like this, but I thought it had too much book for the amount of story.

*



December 2006

A Man On The Moon by Andrew Chaikin

I really wasn't sure when I started this if it was a re-read or not. That's because it's the basis for the (excellent) television documentary "From the Earth to the Moon". After finishing it, I'm still not sure, but it was a fascinating read. It's the story of the Apollo program, from its inception through the last mission. It follows half a dozen of the astronauts, including Jack Schmitt, a geologist who is the only professional scientist to have made it onto a moon landing mission. The complexity of the problems they faced was daunting. The commitment and work ethic of just about everyone on the program is admirable. And the things they accomplished were amazing. Chaikin's account is readable and entertaining, not overly technical, and despite the complexity of the topic and the number of people involved, clear and concise. Highly recommended.

*

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

This is nonfiction- a sort of dual account of Dr. Hawley Crippen, the famous murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, whose wireless transmitter was used to catch him. The Marconi information was well presented and entertaining, though it heavily duplicated the recent Marconi biography, Signor Marconi's Magic Box by Gavin Weightman. The Crippen story was one I had not read before, and was fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way (the wife richly deserved it!). The contrast between the two men was quite striking- Crippen, universally described as kind and considerate, but ineffectual and browbeaten vs. Marconi- young, visionary, egotistical, and not above climbing over the bodies of friends and enemies alike to achieve his goals. An interesting read, though the author did have some pacing difficulty in making the parts of his narrative match chronologically, and he introduced one theme (the influence of spiritualism) which kind of petered out about halfway through. An interesting snapshot of a time of technological change.

*

Just for Fun by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond

This is a biography of Linus Torvalds, and his creation, the operating system Linux. It's fairly lightweight and its occasional ventures into philosophy border on the pretentious. However, for the most part it's a very engaging and tech-lite account of how a Finnish college student came to write an operating system that would become the poster child for the open source software movement. The portrait of young Linus growing up in Finland is quite fun (c'mon, how often do you get to read about people living in Finland?!), the interviews with his family are very amusing (his mom wanted to know how he was going to meet girls, when he never left his computer!), and Linus himself comes out looking very much like a regular person- the kind you might find living next door. A fast read.

*

Under Orders by Dick Francis

This is a fairly typical Dick Francis- better than his last couple (Second Wind and Shattered were IMO some of his weaker works). It's the fourth (and just published) book featuring Sid Halley. (If there's anyone out there who hasn't heard of Dick Francis, he's a mystery writer whose stories tend to revolve around British horse-racing.) While the mystery part of the story was more polished than his last couple, this still isn't Francis at the top of his form. His forays into genetics were weakly presented and not especially central to the plot, except as they gave the main character access to information he wouldn't have otherwise had. The ending in particular was formulaic and the jeopardy less compelling. In the second Sid Halley book, the bad guys produce a bloodcurdlingly credible threat to the hero- this one just couldn't match it for suspense. If you've read all Francis' other work, this is a fine way to while away a tedious plane flight. If you haven't read Francis before, try Reflex or Straight, and see what he could do at his best.

*

Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen

For the uninitiated, Carl Hiaasen is a Florida journalist who has written a number of over the top comedic novels set in Florida. He mercilessly skewers nearly everyone, but has a special hate on for developers and large corporations. Ordinarily he structures the book as a mystery. He may need to return to that format, because Nature Girl is deeply, structurally flawed. As in the 'bad guy' doesn't actually show up until halfway through the book. For Hiaasen fans, there's still plenty of the usual weird screwed up characters, and bizarre over-the-top scenes. But the plot kind of wanders around looking for itself through the first half of the book until all the characters meet halfway through. The only people with actual motivations are the antagonists - one disgusting, one pathetic. The most sympathetic character in the book is the title character's son, a teenage boy who spends relatively little time onstage.

I'm frequently ambivalent about Hiaasen, as I tend to want to give even his sympathetic characters a boot in the rear. This book didn't have enough plot to make me overlook the characters and the characters didn't make me care enough about them to forgive the weakness in plotting. Not one of his better efforts. (Note- Hiaasen is also not for the squeamish. If you're not up for seeing bodies graphically decompose- sometimes while the inhabitant is still alive- you may prefer to avoid all but his YA books.)