Friday, December 11, 2009

Stories of your life and others - Ted Chiang

Jo Walton reviewed this on Tor recently. I'm not usually wild about short stories, I often feel like I'm missing the point or that I don't quite have enough time to empathize with the characters. But her comments about Chiang being good at getting the story arc exactly right so that you know the things you need to know at exactly the point you need to know them made me hopeful that I wouldn't wind up feeling frustrated by these stories. And it was a good choice - they were all awesome.
What he does a lot of is looking at weird worldviews as if they were real. He asks a lot of "what if" questions. What if the world really worked like this? What if they really had built the Tower of Babylon? What would the engineering challenges have been? What would they have found? What would happen if someone found a simple and elegant proof that mathematics is inconsistent? What would happen to someone who didn't see time as linear?
The stories are fabulous. The ideas behind them were all interesting. I never had that horrible feeling that I had entirely missed the point of the story. The characters were engaging (I didn't really like the super-smart guy, but I think that was kind of the point) and the stories all made sense in a very satisfying way.
The one about the mathematician who discovered a basic inconsistency was awesome. It was as if she had woken up in the Matrix, except the Matrix wasn't being run by evil beings out to get us, it was just the way things are, always have been, and always will be. When she explains this to other people, the ones who understand it at the level she does get horribly upset and depressed, but only a very few are really capable of that. Everyone else mostly just ignores it. Either they have a theoretical understanding of the situation but can mostly just get on with their lives, or they simply cannot grasp that this in any way affects them. I found her reactions, her colleagues, and her husband to be fascinating.
This is exactly what a book of short stories should be. Totally engaging, satisfying the first time you read it, with enough depth to make you want to re-read.

The visual display of quantitative information - Edward R. Tufte

I was pointed towards this book by Information is Beautiful, a wonderful blog devoted to making beautiful, useful, and truthful info-graphics. Since this is something I also need to do professionally, I'm pretty fascinated.

The book was excellent. For one thing, Tufte practices as he preaches. The graphics and the text flow together beautifully. His points are all very well illustrated. There is lots of white space which makes it much easier to read everything. The examples are all clear, and pretty, and often entertaining (my favorite was the graph that was so cluttered, that when it was reproduced in another publication they managed to leave out the data without noticing).

I'd highly recommend this for anyone who ever has to put together a presentation. Even just as a book to read, it is quite entertaining. The horrible things people have to do and with graphs are just hilarious.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

I heard about this book in several places, but it was this "Big Idea" write-up that really made me want to read it. Most of the reviews I had read focused on the plot - which seemed entirely ok but not something I was running out to go read. The Big Idea write-up was Cherie herself explaining how she had tweaked all the historical elements to ramp up the level of technology available, and the number of people living in Seattle around the time she wanted. Also not something that particularly intrigued me. I'm quite able to suspend disbelief, and I'm not a history geek, so this didn't grab me. What made me decide I really needed to read the book was the introductory quote she decided to use:
In this age of invention the science of arms has made great progress. In fact, the most remarkable inventions have been made since the prolonged wars of Europe in the early part of the century, and the short Italian campaign of France in 1859 served to illustrate how great a power the engines of destruction can exert.
From (and I am not making this up, this is the book’s full title): History of the Great Rebellion. From its commencement to its close, giving an account of its origin, The Secession of the Southern States, and the Formation of the Confederate Government, the concentration of the Military and Financial resources of the federal government, the development of its vast power, the raising, organizing, and equipping of the contending armies and navies; lucid, vivid, and accurate descriptions of battles and bombardments, sieges and surrender of forts, captured batteries, etc., etc.; the immense financial resources and comprehensive measures of the government, the enthusiasm and patriotic contributions of the people, together with sketches of the lives of all the eminent statesmen and military and naval commanders, with a full and complete index. From Official Sources. By Thomas P. Kettell.

Yup, it is the fact that she decided to use a quote where the title of the book was longer than the actual quote as the introductory quote for her novel. This was the point at which I realized I loved her sense of humour, which meant it was very likely I would love the book. And I did. I inhaled it practically in a single sitting. The two main characters (Briar and her son Zeke) are great. The folks they interact with are also great. She really got things right about how young teenagers make their decisions compared with how adults make decisions - and who they decide to trust, and why. The setting was a lot of fun. The zombies were awesome (which I wasn't expecting, I'm not really crazy about zombies). The supporting characters were pretty great. And the underlying mystery (why is Briar so absolutely convinced that her husband died during the disaster?) was very well handled. It was a great story and very well told.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Agyar - Steven Brust

I picked up Agyar after reading this review by Jo Walton.

What I love about this book is the way it is written. Jack has found an old typewriter and is simply writing to help pass the time while he waits for something to happen. He used to write a long time ago, but is very out of practice. And he is writing with a typewriter, so you are getting a totally unedited first draft. I'm really impressed that Brust managed to write something that feels very unpolished and fresh off the typewriter, and yet make it a story that moves along so nicely and with interesting character development. I think it must be really hard to do this style of thing, when too much action is happening, obviously the main character is not spending as much time in front of the typewriter. When he's sitting around bored, he has lots of time to write, but not nearly as much to say. Very much like a blog.

Spoilers ahead.

The thing which originally intrigued me about this book was the observation by Jo Walton and many of her commenters that this is the sort of book where you don't figure out quite what is going on until near the end, which means that the first time reading it is very special, and re-reading leads to a very different experience. I love this sort of thing, although unless it is done extremely well it is quite frustrating. Now possibly just knowing that there was something more going on made me pay extra attention. Or maybe, like one person commented, the cover of the book gives you a significant hint, but I figured out who & what Jack Agyar was after only a few pages.

He forgets the name of his date, his initial interaction with Jill isn't just slick, it is downright predatory. His awareness of the animals on the street as they walk to Jill's house, and his pause on the doorstep to be formally invited into the house. To me this explains things very nicely, and in a way that I find particularly appealing. I like being led to a conclusion, being given all the clues I need and having things made fairly obvious, without having my nose rubbed in it. If the book were to start with the line "Jack was a vampire" then all the extra details would just be annoying, sure he's world-weary, has supernatural senses, needs to be invited in. Instead you get to have a gradual realization that he isn't entirely normal, then not entirely human, and then you start to see some stereotypical vampiry things. Maybe Brust intends for people not to figure things out until later in the book, but to me he made things blatantly obvious in the first chapter. Which is totally fine by me. I don't think it would be especially fun to read this through without knowing that Jack is a vampire...but maybe that's because I haven't tried and won't get to.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Silence of the Grave - Arnaldur Indriadason

This showed up at my house one day. I think the library somehow mixed up my request for some Chekhov with this book. Or perhaps the person with the same last 4 digits of their library card wound up with my book instead. But this book is small and light, which meant it was a good size for reading-on-the-bus and it came with me one day...and I was hooked. It is a murder mystery set in Iceland, but deep down it is really a story of all the different ways a person can be broken - with a touch of hope that sometimes it is possible to get past the brokenness and live a life with love in it.

A skeleton has been discovered on a construction site, and 3 detectives work to figure out who it might belong to and how it wound up there. This story is interlaced with the story, set in the past, of a family who is obviously connected to the skeleton in some way. Also interlaced are the personal stories of two of the detectives with varying degrees of problems in their personal lives. It is very black without being depressing, and very lovingly put together.

Unlike most murder mysteries, it isn't a whodunnit. You don't know anything at all about the person who is dead, except that they died about 50 years ago and were not buried in a graveyard. You don't even know the gender of the dead person. There is no forensic evidence, no murder scene, no list of suspects in the traditional way - since anyone directly involved is likely to be dead by now. It is obvious that the skeleton either belongs to someone from the family story, or was killed by someone in that story, and I found myself contemplating all the possibilities as I read - obviously it would be best if the skeleton belongs to the abusive father, but discovering that might have horrible repercussions for someone still alive - but it if belongs to the abused mother, then that would have had horrible repercussions in the past, and is probably worse - what if it is the disabled daughter? - or what if the father murdered someone else, what would that have done to the family? I love stories that give me this extra little tidbit of information from the future, and you keep trying to figure out how it is going to fit in. I find that very different from a strict narrative, and far more enchanting.

Not at all the sort of thing I would usually choose to read, but mysteries really pull you along and that can be really relaxing sometimes. Especially cool are the Icelandic names. They are so totally unfamiliar to me: Sindri Snaer, Erlendur, Mikkelina, Grimur...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Green - Jay Lake

I read Mainspring by Jay Lake, after reading some enthusiastic reviews, and while I liked his writing well enough, I wasn't terribly drawn by the story and had to force myself to finish. Green had me from page 1.

It is written as a retrospective account by the main character after all the action is finished. She tries to go back and explain the world as seen through her own eyes, beginning at age 3 when she is sold as a slave. It is so beautifully written, the book doesn't spend any extra time clubbing you over the head with explanations of how the world is, and why people do the things they do. The story unfolds very simply and lets you see the world through the eyes of a very intelligent, very well-educated girl, who is looking back over her whole life and trying to make some sort of sense of it all. She is "rescued" from her life of abject poverty by being sold to people who train her to be the consort of a king - but while this new life gives her access to much better food, clothing, and education than she would otherwise have had, all her freedom has been taken away from her, and along with that, any form of love or even affection. She sees this as horribly evil, while most of the other characters in the book seem to think they have made a dramatic improvement to her life. Mixed in with the varying viewpoints on the treatment of children, is a fascinating examination of religion.
This is not a simple book. There is no black or white. There are no right answers. The writing is beautiful, and the story is fascinating.

Beauty - Sheri S. Tepper

I'm a big fan of fairy-tales re-told. I was drawn to this by the description "A time-travelling Sleeping Beauty!" which just seems totally awesome. In fact, this book was even better than I was expecting. Sleeping Beauty is not the only tale that gets wrapped into this story, she's just the heroine. Tam Lin puts in an appearance, Cinderella, Snow White and the Frog Prince all show up, and it doesn't even feel contrived. Beauty is a wonderful character, there is a science-fictional element to the story (she accidentally winds up very far into a dystopian future) which sets the scene for her quest to save the world. She winds up spending a few years of her late teens living in our modern day world and studying literature at university, which allows her to have a very feminist perspective back in the 14th century, as well as allowing her to recognize all the fairy tales ("I watched Disney after all") and be as shocked as the reader is when she starts recognizing bits of them. The story is written as her journal, and contains lovely little interjections from the fairy who originally cast the sleep curse (who is actually on Beauty's side, sort of, and definitely trying to save the world) who is reading Beauty's journal as she writes it and is often quite miffed at Beauty's misunderstandings. It is a coming-of-age novel, as well as a coming-of-old age novel. It is a love story with no happily ever after, just some deeply happy and satisfying moments. It is about the love (or lack thereof) between a mother and child, but mostly it is about trying to make the world a better place, and failing that, trying to save the bits that can be saved, and living with yourself and the choices you have made. It gets very black and scary at points, but the story has some very beautiful moments. I loved it and plan to read it again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I don't remember why this got on my order list at the library (yet more motivation for continuing to record things here!), but I'm glad it did. Brandon Sanderson is currently working on finishing off the Wheel of Time series, and now that I've read one of his novels, I had to admit that I'm tempted to re-read the whole series once he finishes.

Warbreaker blew me away. It is the story of two princesses, sisters, who both had their entire worlds taken away from them by their father deciding to send the youngest, rather than the eldest, to marry the God-King of the neighbouring kingdom. The system of magic based on breath and colour is fascinating. Exploring the idea of gods who live in the real world and don't necessarily think that they are gods, even though they are obviously super-human, is really entertaining. But on top of the wonderful ideas, it is the characters that make this story. I fell in love with Siri, the youngest princess, from the very beginning. She's the young, impulsive, naive girl who manages to find her own unique strengths in a frightening situation and really comes into herself as she realizes that she is better suited to her role than her older sister would have been. Vivenna, the older sister, I didn't like as much to begin with, which is probably deliberate on the part of the author. She has been trained her entire life to be the bride of the God-King, and then is suddenly left completely without purpose. She's a very rigid person, with a very structured belief system, vast amounts of training for a role that she no longer needs to play. Her entire character development seemed to be an answer to the question of what does it take to force someone to admit that their view of the world is overly biased, unhelpful, and just plain wrong. That the world isn't neatly divided into black and white, right and wrong.

On top of all that, there is a great story with lots of drama and suspense. Wonderful scenery, amazing ideas, really cool characters. An awful lot of assumptions that turn out to be wrong. I was completely fooled on two separate occasions as to what was actually going on (in my defense, so where the main characters), and was totally delighted when I found out the truth.

The entire book is available online but I'm planning to buy a copy of it, so that I can have a copy to curl up with. I'm also planning to read through all the rest of Sanderson's novels. I really like that this was a stand-alone story. There were no irritating loose ends left dangling. It seemed like most of the main characters had a reasonable shot at living happily ever after, at least as good a chance as any of us ever have. I suspect this is a book I will re-read many times.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Zoe's Tale

I started reading the Whatever before John Scalzi even had a book contract, so once he started writing books, I started buying them. It just seems like the right thing to do, I know I like his writing and I've been enjoying it free for years, now I get to read his stories and hand them off to friends.

Zoe's Tale is a sequel to Old Man's War and The Last Colony. It is also supposed to be a stand-alone young adult novel, and it probably works ok, but I have to admit that my first reaction to reading it is an overwhelming desire to re-read the first two books.

I find reading this whole series to be fast & easy. There's nothing absurdly complicated going on with the language. Scalzi isn't playing games with sentence structure. It is really reminiscent of Heinlein (glorious adventures in space with really intelligent main characters and interesting interpersonal relationships), which may be why I find it so easy to skim through - I grew up reading Heinlein. It isn't just fluff either, there are really interesting scenarios, huge problems to solve - it is a great story.

This particular novel I really enjoyed. Zoe is a great character, and feels very much like a typical teenage girl - who just happens to be coping with the weight of an entire sentient race on her shoulders (she is goddess/mascot to the Obin - they're observing her in order to learn how to use their newly acquired consciousness). How she actually copes with it is great, and the way her relationship with the Obin evolves over the course of the book is quite fascinating and feels very natural. The thing I liked best about this book was that I finally feel like I understand the Consu. They're this super-powerful race of aliens - far and away more powerful than anyone else in the galaxy - but their motivations are completely incomprehensible and sometimes felt like a deus ex machina. Towards the end of the book Zoe actually has a conversation with one of them, and as a result of what is said the rationale behind the Consu's actions became clear (if incomprehensible - but they are an alien race and I think that incomprehensible is ok) and all of a sudden their actions over the course of the three books suddenly felt consistent.

This was a great book, and one that is going to stay on a shelf somewhere for Elli to discover - sort of the same way I discovered my grandfather's stash of Heinlein novels.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Un Lun Dun

This was a totally spontaneous purchase at my local used-book shop. I'm familiar with the author because many of my favorite blogs tend to rave about his work, but my only previous experience was with Perdido Street Station which was brilliant, and made me think, but was rather bleak and depressing. It didn't make me want to run out and read everything else China Mieville had ever written. Yet somehow this book just called out to me as I walked past it, and then wound up coming home with me. It took me about two weeks to realize that the title is actually "UnLondon" (I have a horrible time with verbal puns), but once I started reading it I couldn't put it down.

He takes the familiar theme of "hero, marked out by signs and portents, who will complete a series of and finish by freeing the world of all evil", and totally turns it on its head. I've read enough to be thoroughly tired of that particular theme (re-read the Belgariad at least 16 times in grade school) and this was incredibly refreshing. It is going on my list of books that I plan to read with Elli as soon as she's got the attention span to cope with it. The characters are fun, the setting is amazing (based on the two books I've read, China Mieville does fantastical cities better than anyone else I've read), and the story itself is amazing. Oh, and the whole book is full of fanciful little sketches - by the author.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I'm a huge fan of Terry Pratchett. I think I've read Good Omens at least 10 times, and I've re-read every Discworld novel. So I was eagerly anticipating Nation, and yet once it arrived it just sat around for a while before I finally picked it up. Which is odd, I will often start reading a book on the way home from the library. I think that maybe I had read this review from BoingBoing,
This isn't a Discworld novel or a Truckers novel -- it's not Good Omens. It's a complete departure for Pratchett and yet is recognizably him, on every page, writing with the same grace and wit we know from his other work.
and I think that maybe I was scared, knowing that Terry Pratchett has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's...and projecting visions of my grandmother (who has Alzheimer's), and being really worried that I was going to read his latest novel and it would somehow be less...

Turns out I had absolutely no reason to worry. The story on its own is awesome, and he manages to do that thing he does in all the later Discworld novels (which is the reason I love them so much) and that is to inject social commentary in this amazingly elegant way that allows you to leave behind your preconceived notions and come at an issue from a really different angle. What I see in Nation is a commentary on religion - and how different people handle their idea of god, especially when their entire world is turned upside down (how can you thank god for saving your life, when presumably that same god just killed every single person you cared about?) and every character copes in different ways. I didn't feel that it was at all judgemental - but perhaps that is because my ideas are far more in line with the main characters, and not at all in line with the crazy priest, but I suspect that most people reading this book would not feel judged. I really enjoyed the take on the question of "why didn't god make the world perfect?" (Answer: This world was just a dry run, he's gone off to make a more perfect world, but everyone who has been deemed worthy of being offered the opportunity to go there has declined) and "does god exist?" (Answer: Ito made people smart enough to figure out that he doesn't exist)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I love John Scalzi's "Big Idea" series. It is really interesting reading about what was going through someone's head when they wrote something. It is really really different than reading a blurb on the back of a novel, and I find it gives me a better idea of whether or not I'll actually like a book. Generally they're getting posted on the blog long before they show up in my local library, so I just put them on my Amazon wish list, and ever so often I'll go through that list and see what the library has acquired. Or I'll start feeling rich and just buy them. But that generally requires someone in the house being gainfully employed.

What caught my attention about this one (aside from the cover which is awesome) was this:

... has prompted no less than George R.R. Martin (who knows from fantasy) to declare that it “is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to weak tea.”
followed by

Yeah, on the face of it this doesn’t sound like an especially big idea. It more sounds like the idea I had every day for about 10 years, between the ages of 7 and 17, before I gave up on my prospects of ever getting to Narnia.
It doesn't sound like the world's most uplifting book, and it probably won't be a fun romp through fantasy land...but it does sound like something I'll enjoy and that will make me think. And so it is going on my list.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sarah Monette

I love reading Jo Walton's blog, and I've been enjoying the re-reading topics going on over at That's how I stumbled across Sarah Monette. I was intrigued by this review of Sarah Monette's Melusine. Specifically:
Monette does some interestingly odd things here, subversions of genre expectations. To start with, we hardly get any sane Felix before we’re plunged into his madness...writing half a book from a madman’s perspective is daring, and it’s impressive that she makes it work so well."
Then there’s the subversion of “getting the adventuring party together.” Felix finds Gideon and Mildmay finds Mavortian von Heber and Bernard, and they all come together and decide to go off together—and then they get separated again almost at once. If you’re used to the way fellowships are formed in fantasy, this is outrageous. I wanted to cheer."
The rest of the review is awesome and right on target as far as I'm concerned, but it was these two points that had me desperately wanting to read the book.