2008 Book Reviews

December 2008

Nation by Terry Pratchett

The latest Pratchett is a YA but not a Discworld book- an enjoyable read, though I thought that the SFnal and fantasy plot elements did not play well together.

*

Love Masque by Caroline Cambell

Don't ask how this one wandered in- probably part of a box of other books. Regency romance, not particularly distinguished. It was refused admittance to our library and will be seeking a new home elsewhere.

*

Seven Deadly Wonders by Matthew Reilly

Indiana Jones meets a military thriller- with mixed results. The fast pace and large explosions had their usual appeal, along with the strongly visual imagery. However the mashup of archeology was improbable enough to occasionally throw me out of the story.

*

Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

A book about a kitten posted through the library drop box slot on a freezing night. About as sweet as you're probably imagining- but also an interesting portrait of a small midwestern town and its library in the depths of the farm crisis.

*

The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitin

Like it's predecessory (This is Your Brain on Music), this was an interesting read, however it featured less of the intriguing results of current neurobiological research and more evolutionary speculation, along with a fair amount of outright rambling.

*

Demons are Forever by Julie Kenner

Latest entry in the urban fantasy series- much like Kenner's prior books.

*

Temple by Matthew Reilly

The usual mix of fast-paced action and improbable archeology.

*

On Being Certain by Robert Burton

Some intriguing discussion of the neurology of certainty, however its discussion of other books does not necessarily represent their theories fairly. The science is interesting, the analysis and author's personal experiences less so.

*

November 2008

Contest by Matthew Reilly

An earlier book by Reilly, it has much of his trademark pacing, and improbable technology (which is at least explained as 'aliens' this time). Entertaining, and has a really rather nice plot twist at the end.

*

Scarecrow by Matthew Reilly

The third book featuring Reilly's military hero Shane Scofield, following Ice Station and Area 7- more fast-paced and improbable action. Enjoyable in the same way as a shoot-'em-up action movie is.

*

You're Wearing That? Mothers and Daughters in Conversation by Deborah Tannen

Like Tannen's prior books, this follows her format of anecdotal analysis. I felt that it did more to document common types of mother-daughter conflicts than it did to explain them or offer solutions.

*

Anahem by Neal Stephenson

As JT says- a hard SF book where the science is philosophy. And it works astoundingly well. It helps that it's a more linear narrative than many of Stephenson's works- all in first person and fairly direct. It does fall down somewhat on the ending, but with Stephenson it's never the destination but the journey that is so enjoyable. Highly recommended.

*

Rereads:
Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett
Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett
First Channel by Jean Lorrah and Jacqueline Lictenberg
Channel's Destiny by Jean Lorrah and Jacqueline Lictenberg
Ambrov Keon by Jean Lorrah
Unto Zeor, Forever by Jacqueline Lictenberg

*

October 2008

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

Where there are airships, there are also sky pirates! This was marketed though not marked as YA, and proved well written and fun. In particular, the unsympathetic characters are not presented as two-dimensional ciphers, but rather more complex, and the main character is appealing and believably youthful.

*

Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel

The sequel to Airborn, this was less compelling, but still fun and worth reading. More airship action, villainous bad guys, and mysterious technology on an airship ghost vessel. I look forward to the third book (due out in the US in December) with keen anticipation.

*

Cobweb by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George

Another oddly Hiaasenesque tale- the quirky characters and odd plotting are strongly reminiscent of Stephenson's The Big U. This isn't as satisfying as Stephenson's best solo work, but a fairly good read.

*

The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett

One of the Rincewind series of books by Terry Pratchett. It's Pratchett- need one say more?

*

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt

I want to never drive again. Really. This was an interesting read, but it's conclusion- that many of our worst driving habits are the result of inherent biases we can't do much about- is seriously worrying.

*

Silks by Dick and Felix Francis

A more enthralling effort than the first father and son mystery, this is still not the equal of Francis' best work. It suffers from some pacing difficulties in the middle section while the authors fill in time waiting for important plot elements to turn up. It does give a fascinating look at the inside of the British law profession, however, and Francis' always likable characters are seldom poor companions for a few idle hours.

*

September 2008

Rereads
Skeleton Dance by Aaron Elkins
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

*

Space Tug by Murray Leinster

It's no Brain Stealers, but it's also not good. Some good orbital action, but clunky characterizations and badly dated technology.

*

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

An amusing period tale of three bumbling young men on a river trip in Victorian England. Genre readers will remember that it is heavily referenced in Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog.

*

People of the Wind by Poul Anderson

Interesting worldbuilding in search of a plot. I was initially quite interested in the society, but by the end of the book, I really didn't care about any of the characters.

*

The Android's Dream by John Scalzi

If Carl Hiaasen wrote SF, this might very well be the sort of thing that would come out. From the opening pages, where a character causes a diplomatic incident by farting, to the villainous alien thug who digests people for money, this is a very Hiaasenesque comedy. However the various over the top characters and wild coincidences work in the comic medium and the whole is very tightly plotted. Fun, funny, and unexpectedly engrossing.

*

August 2008

The Courts of the Crimson Kings by S.M. Stirling

This is the sequel- of sorts- to Stirling's prior book set on Venus- and where Venus had dinosaurs, jungles and scantily clad barbarian priestesses, Mars naturally is the home to the decaying remnants of a vast and advanced alien civilization. The worldbuilding is fantastic, and I adore the way the Martians talk- best line ever: "Maintain an attitude of terrified submission and harmony will be sustained."

The plotting is a bit weak and frankly suffers from the occasional intrusions of arc that purports to link the series together. But the stellar world-building still made this enormous fun and well worth reading.

*

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson

This is a book that shines a light on the workings of our international transportation system and explains just how and why it came to be that a shirt can be made in China for less than the fabric can be purchased for in the US. It also shows how a fairly simple technology- standardized shipping containers- could remodel the faces of port cities, and change the lives of thousands of workers.

This is comprehensive history of the development of shipping containers- and the consequences both intended and unintended. To me the most interesting parts were in the first half of the book, as it describes how and why containers were invented (much of the cost of shipping pre-container was the time and labor to load and unload the ships). In the second part of the book, the interminable labor disputes regarding the use of containers were described- this part of the story was less linear, and also less interesting, at least to anyone without a keen interest in labor disputes. The earlier part of the book makes it worth reading, however.

*

Stargate SG-1: Do No Harm by Karen Miller

As always, I don't recommend TV novelizations to people unless you're already a fan of the show. This one was not great, not awful. The characterization of Jack seemed a bit off to me. Also, this includes a backstory for Dave Dixon's introduction to the SGC, but I found little here of the dark humor that made the character so memorable on the series.

*

Temping Fate by Esther Friesner

A slight humorous fantasy. Amusing airplane read, but not exceptional.

*

Area 7 by Matt

A fast paced military thriller in the over-the-top mode. Set in the US by an Australian author- Disbelief will need to be hung by the neck until dead, but if you enjoy lots of creative explosions and unambiguous action, this is a fast, fun read.

*

Ice Station by Matt Reilly

The prequel to Area 7, this is more fast-paced action in the Antarctic.

*

Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones

Urban fantasy meets a British SF convention...do I have to say more?

*

Hidden Magic by Vivian Vande Velde

A fairy-tale fantasy, where quick wits are often a match for magic. Amusing but slight.

*

July 2008

Rereads:
Guards, Guards! by Terry Pratchett
Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett
Fellowship of Fear by Aaron Elkins
The Dark Place by Aaron Elkins
Murder at the Queen's Arms by Aaron Elkins
Old Bones by Aaron Elkins
Icy Clutches by Aaron Elkins

*

June 2008

Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn

Okay, this one I have to put down to having grabbed the book without looking at the blurb on my way out on a trip. The blurb tells it fairly- this is a retelling of Jane Eyre in a futuristic setting. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, you'll probably like the book. If like me, your reaction is more 'why on Earth would anyone want to do this?', give it a miss.

*

The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes by Mark Urban

While this was an interesting idea, the author doesn't quite manage to make it gell as a reading experience. It is partially a history of the Napoleonic war, partially a biography of the title character, and partially an account of a period in the history of crypography. It's not wholly successful at any of these, but it does present an unusual view of the functioning of the British army in a time when it was far more important to be well-connected than it was to know what you were doing.

*

The Last Colony by John Scalzi

Another enjoyable read, this is the last book in his trilogy that started with Old Man's War. I've had trouble regarding these as a trilogy, because the first two didn't seem to have a lot of relation to one another, but Scalzi did an unexpectedly good job of picking up threads from the prior books and bringing it to a satisfactory ending.

At the same time, this book is far from flawless- it suffers from being spread out over time, and from a couple of subplots that simply serve to fill up page count before being dropped completely unresolved.

*

The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow

This book provides a clear and readable excursion through ideas in probability, with yet more examples of how people are frequently very bad at assessing it in real life, and some nice historical anecdotes about how various ideas were discovered. If this is the sort of thing you think you'd like, you're probably right.

*

Snakehead by Anthony Horowitz

The latest entry in the Alex Rider series, this book tours a bunch of exotic locations and delivers a generous quota of chills and thrills as Alex foils yet another set of villainous evildoers. Really, what's not to like? But do start at the beginning of the series.

*

Small Favor by Jim Butcher

Another solid piece of entertainment in the Harry Dresden series. Twisty and enjoyable urban fantasy. Again, you want to read this series in order.

*

Rereads:
Night Watch by Terry Pratchet (My all time favorite of his.)
The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett
First four books in PM Griffin's Star Commandos
Comeback by Dick Francis
The Danger by Dick Francis

*

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

This book reads like the bastard child of a mainstream novel and a sweeping SF epic. Wilson's use of language is excellent, and the SFnal ideas of the book are fascinating. However, the main characters have very little to do with the eventual resolution (which would arguably have been just about the same had they done nothing whatsoever), and the viewpoint character in particular is extremely passive, taking little action through the course of the book. Worth reading for the cool idea-content, but not quite there as a book.

*

Uneasy Relations by Aaron Elkins

Another entry in the Gideon Oliver series of mysteries. Gibralter, monkeys, and remains both Neanderthal and rather fresher make this another enjoyable read.

*

May 2008

The Widow's War by Sally Gunning

A local author and a historical setting. The protagonist, Lydia Berry, is a widow on Cape Cod, a decade before the American revolution, struggling to eke out a life in a world where all her possessions are legally the property of her closest male relative. The author does a good job of evoking the non-existent legal status of women, the Indian past of the area and the day-to-day life of a Colonial woman. I wasn't entirely convinced of the authenticity of the character, but then writing a realistic period character that a modern audience can relate to is a difficult task. Recommended more as a painless introduction to colonial life than as a story.

*

The Sharing Knife: Passage by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the third book, and definitely not a good place to start the series. Which I feel is unfortunate, because I was largely uninterested in the drippy romance that was the focal point of the first two volumes. However, Bujold did an excellent job of worldbuilding, and the underlying mystery of the world's history and magic kept me reading in the hope of finding out more.

And in this book, we start to explore the capabilities of Dag's magic, the complex social problems that helped enliven the prior books are attacked (and prove to be *complex*, and not trivial), and we get to see more of Dag and Fawn's world. The 'main' plot's resolution is more or less obvious at the point it is introduced, but the problems of the lively set of secondary characters were more than sufficient to keep me entertained for the journey.

If you were underwhelmed by the first two books, don't stop now. It just got better.

*

April 2008

Rising from the Plains by John McPhee

This is a hard book to describe. It's an exploration of the geology and history of Wyoming, along with the family history of geologist David Love, who grew up in the area. The two stories- eighty years or so of human time and millenia written in landscape- twine around each other, finishing with an exploration of recent human effects on the environment. This makes it sound rather drier than it deserves- McPhee is an evocative writer with a gift for bringing out the magic in the most down-to-earth of sciences.

*

When the Tide Rises by David Drake

The latest in Drake's Lieutenant Leary series. If you liked the last, this is much of a muchness. If you haven't read it but enjoy lighthearted military SF, start with the first one, With the Lightnings. I'm fond of this series, not for it's fairly standard plotting, but mostly because I like the character of the hero...after encountering numerous angst-ridden characters in genre fiction, it' s delightful to find a young man- talented no doubt- but a lighthearted, basically happy person with an enduring interest in wine, women and song. And yet he's a bit deeper than that, and he's allowed to become more mature as the series goes on (something I particularly noticed in this latest book). The plots move along, the worldbuilding is a lightly drawn sketch of a system based on the historical British navy. Fun light entertainment.

*

The River at the Center of the World by Simon Winchester

Winchester takes us along for a trip up the Yangtze river before the completion of the Three Gorges Dam project. His initial conceit is to go further back in history as the journey progresses, but this is abandoned about two-thirds of the way through the book, as he passes up into the mountains.

Interesting for its portrayal of the geography and various cultures of China, it ends with more of a whimper than a bang.

*

One Jump Ahead by Mark L. Van Name

Another entry in the crowded field of military (more or less) SF. An interesting character, a decent plot. As first SF novels go, I've seen worse. I would have liked to have seen some relevance of the character's quite complex back story to the plot at hand, and the pacing was a little uneven in places, but it was readable and had some good twists. I'll be interested to see what he does for an encore.

*

Agent of Change by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee
Carpe Diem by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee
Plan B by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee
I Dare by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee

These are the four 'core' books of Miller and Lee's Liaden universe, which has been recommended to me by several friends. I can see why they like them- they are a great deal of fun. Lively, set in an intriguing universe with a wealth of detail that leaves you feeling you're only glimpsing a fraction of a fully realized world. I suspect if I'd started the series as a teen, I'd have loved them passionately. As a much more mature reader, I thought that they combined a number of popular fannish themes, which, to be fair were probably not so widely utilized when the first books were written. If you like lighthearted epic space adventure, these will be an entertaining and satisfying read.

*

Planet Run by Keith Laumer and Gordon Dickson
-Once There Was a Giant
-Call Him Lord

On advice from JT, I did not read the first story in this collection (he said, 'mediocre, don't bother'). The second two were well-written and readable (but not outstanding) tales on themes of responsibility. Either would have worked as well in a fantasy setting.

*

March 2008

Brother to Shadows Andre Norton

This oddly suffered less from the late-Norton tendency to outline rather than write a completed novel, but was longer and rather disjointed. I have to wonder if the publisher at the time might not have wanted a higher word-count and she therefore put the material for two stories together...I liked the background for the main character, but the story gets spread out across the map and the utimate resolution is unforeshadowed and rather unsatisfying.  

*

The Shiva Option by David Weber and Steve White

Structurally, this book reminded me of Clancy's Red Storm Rising, in that it had multiple plot lines and characters. It was also similar in that it was focused on military strategy and tactics. Like Red Storm Rising, I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters, and rather indifferent to most of them. The book features vast numbers of exploding spaceships. If that's the kind of thing you enjoy, you'll probably like this one.

What I found grating and even disturbing was the oft-stated (and never questioned) assertion that the alien enemies of the story were so 'inhuman' , so incapable of feeling anything resembling human feelings, that they must be exterminated. We're repeatedly told that the galaxy isn't big enough for both the humans/humanlike aliens and the enemy Bugs. They're designed to be unsympathetic- non anthropomorphic, not only are out to conquer anyone they meet, but also eat them for dinner (they can build vast space fleets, but haven't figured out that eating cows is less trouble?). Granted that what the authors were after was a straight-up shoot'em up with no moral ambiguity, but the very lack of any dissent made me uncomfortable. The book also featured Weber's trademark 'all the people represented to be heroic are good, and perfect and brave' while anyone who disagrees with them is not only Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, but stupid, ignorant and cowardly to boot.

Not recommended.

*

The Infinite Cage by Keith Laumer

An interesting take on the idea of a superintelligent telepath trying to function among humans. The character's troubles are logically introduced and explored. However the book lacks a strong through-plot and the eventual ending is weak.

*

Welcome to Your Brain by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang

This was a fascinating book on neurobiology- what we currently know about how the brain works. Lively enough to entertain, yet not so dumbed down as to be silly. Highly recommended.

*

They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie

If I'd read this before, I don't recall it. It's another stellar example of Christie's gift for introducing and making a large cast of characters memorable. However I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't figured out the gimmick the moment it appeared. Who knows? Maybe I did read it before and that's why I figured it out so fast. But still not one of her best efforts.  

*

The Black Dove by Steve Hockensmith

The Maltese Falcon meets Sherlock Holmes meets cowboy humor. Steve Hockensmith has not only written another excellent story, but one completely different than his two prior books. Run, do not walk to the nearest bookstore!  

*

February 2008

Knitting Rules by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee

Unlike her other books, this one intersperses practical advice in between the humorous anecdotes. Very funny and enjoyable, but also useful as the techniques described fall into the category of 'general ways to do things' rather than actual patterns. A good guide to how to invent things on your own.  

*

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

A loose sequel to Old Man's War, this is entertaining and readable military SF. It would be easily readable as a standalone. Enjoyable but not brilliant. I'll definitely read the next one, though.  

*

Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer

Another classically Sawyeresque near-future tale, full of ideas. The story was interesting enough to keep me reading despite weak plotting, and some rather despicable behavior on the part of the viewpoint character. Thoughtful and readable, but not his best work.  

*

Moon Called by Andre Norton

Typical late Norton, this reads like an outline for a novel, with interesting characters and cool visuals, but with much of the world, background and plot left undeveloped.  

*

Beast Master's Circus by Andre Norton and Lyn McConchie

Working in the universe of a well-known author has to be a particularly thankless task. On the one hand, you struggle with incorporating the canon while writing a new and original story. On the other you inevitably choose to emphasize or explore things other than those the readers would have chosen.  

This is one of the more successful returns to an earlier Norton setting, in part I think because the main character is original and the other characters are seen in supporting roles. The language is nearly right. In the places it is least Norton-like it explains the world more thoroughly than is strictly needed. It also makes some random point of view changes within scenes- a practice I generally deplore. However it captures some of the flavor of Arzor, and has a story to tell. There are things I would have done differently- mainly that the main character could have been more active in advancing the plot and resolving the conflict. However it was a pleasant enough tale, and draws gracefully on its source material.  

*

The Outskirter's Secret by Rosemary Kirstein

An interesting if leisurely paced SF novel, with some good anthropological and ecological worldbuilding. This is apparently the middle book of three, and while the prior material is adequately covered, the characters' motivations might have seemed stronger had I read that one first. I'll be looking for it, and the likely sequel however.  

*

The Buchanan Campaign by Rick Shelley

This was adequate military SF, but rather formulaic. It was weakened by having three viewpoints, one of which seemed to serve little purpose in the story. The pacing was fair and several of the characters engaging, but I wouldn't go out my way to seek it out again.  

*

Yarn Harlot by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee

A collection of stories about yarn and knitting- mostly hilarious but a couple very touching. A must read for any crafter who has ever fondled fiber. My mother enjoyed it as much as I did.  

*

New World by Gillian Cross

Another YA, this time by a mystery writer. This was okay, though not especially compelling. It had elements of horror or suspense, but the 'virtual game world' as a key plot element (which I'm sure seemed newer and more innovative in 1994 than it does today) is simplistic and not especially compelling. The character's issues are well-drawn, but the pacing was a bit slow and I would have preferred to see more of the consequences of the character's decisions.  

*

January 2008

Children of Time by Barbara Moulton
Warning- this contains spoilers- I couldn't help it.

If I were going to nominate a children's book for 'most likely to scar fragile young psyches for life' this would be the one. Warning, spoilers ahead.  

This book takes many children's fears, and makes them all real. And there is no happy ending. The children are kidnapped from their parents. They are held prisoner by psychotic kidnappers, beaten and tortured. Many of them are killed. The parents search relentlessly for their lost kids. Now this would be the time for the ingenious kids to escape, or the brave parents to rescue them, right? Nope. All escape attempts fail, the kids are brutally punished. Then they are put into cold sleep- the world they know is destroyed, their parents die of old age, civilization per se ceases to exist.  They can never go back to the homes they remember.  

About the only good thing that happens is the psychotic kidnappers are defeated. As a book, this is a downer. As a children's book? Therapists will have guaranteed employment for life.  

*

Battle on Mercury by Erik von Lhin

A rare example of the 'man against nature' theme in a classic SF setting. Solidly written and enjoyable.  

*

Legend of the Duelist by Rutledge Etheridge

This had bits of three different stories mashed together, but none of them were developed. Events happen but with little sense of cause and effect. Incoherent and pointless.  

*

Dreaming in Code Scott Rosenberg (nonfiction)

This is a story of a software project. Conceived as a modern-day version of Kidder's Soul of a New Machine, Rosenberg falls short of Kidder's beautiful writing. But he does a fair job of answering the question, 'why is software development hard' and of explaining the process to the uninitiated. In the process are a number of laugh-out-loud descriptions of the quirks of developers and development. Possibly most interesting to people with some acquaintance with the development process. For them, however, highly recommended.  

*

White Night by Jim Butcher

Another solid and entertaining entry to Butcher's Harry Dresden series. If you liked the previous ones, you'll enjoy this. If you haven't read the series, start at the beginning.  

*