Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Review: All the Dirty Parts

Saturday, October 7th, 2017

Hey, it’s a Daniel Handler book.  This time Handler has metaphorically thumbed through one of his young adult romances and printed all the pages that my horny 17-year-old-self would have memorized the page numbers of.  The trick is that he’s printed only those parts.

His protagonist is a young man (Cole) in the waning years of his high school career who – to be purple about it – is often consumed by passion.  He sleeps around a lot and finds many people willing to do so with him.  Handler inflicts the usual punishment on him: he falls in love. Arguably twice, but not in a Sweet Valley High kind of way.

Handler evokes the witches brew of feelings that love and sex inflame in people in ways that hammer your chest and mist your eyes with a few words.  Cole is real because he’s foolish, wise, callous, and slowly changed.  Watching Handler put him through his paces is intellectually a writing master class and emotionally a fantastic trip.

The trick of doing this by only “turning on the camera” for the dirty parts kept me engaged throughout.  There’s no question about Cole’s unreliability, but trying to piece together missing facts, his deliberate self-deception and his youthful mistakes is a huge chunk of the fun.  That the reader only sees Cole when he’s foaming at the mouth only improves it.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Enemies

Saturday, October 7th, 2017

Tim Weiner’s Enemies scratched my itch for a well-researched and clear history of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  An unbiased history of such an inflammatory institution is unrealistic, but Weiner does a solid job maintaining a scholarly demeanor as he chronicles the evolution of the institution.

Depending on the context and the audience, the FBI may be a political spy agency, an elite law-enforcement and anti-terrorism unit, a bumbling group of copy trying to learn intelligence work, key federal support in important criminal cases, and a few more things.  Weiner wisely does not lock himself to a perspective or summation of the agency but has clearly dug into the time line of an institution that protects its secrets.  His scholarship includes interviews, documents and the usual broad bases that journalists use in prying these institutions open.

His even handed reportage does not mean he hides embarrassing information or that he makes excuses for the Bureau.  The illegal wiretaps and black bag jobs are all clearly on display and so are the remarkable successes at infiltration and enforcement. While one can guess at Weiner’s sympathies, this reader always had the impression that he was sticking to the facts as much as possible.  The effect is a bit like Jack Webb without the camp factor.

Overall, a remarkably well-executed and comprehensive history.  Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Mark of Zorro

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Given my love of serial fiction – especially comics – it may be surprising that I’ve never sat down and read the original Zorro story.  This is the 1924 The Mark of Zorro, a version of the serialized Curse of Capistrano story from Johnston McCulley, and it is a ripsnorter.  McCulley is a pseudonym who created many such mystery men.  It is easy to see why Zorro is the most famous.

Like the Sharpe‘s Rifles books, there is not too much to say about Zorro, except that it is a brilliantly written page turner.  Check it out sometime.


Review: Rootabaga Stories

Friday, September 15th, 2017

I heard of Rootabaga Stories from Robert Charles Wilson’s strong story “Fireborn” in Mashup, which is based on a line from one. Carl Sandburg wrote the collection for his children and subsequently published them.  The stories are Sandburg’s conception of what American fairy tales should be.  One of the first salient points Sandburg addresses is to underline the class mobility and fairness that are part of the American mythos by removing references to royalty.  It is pretty telling that these are hardly recognizable as fairy tales without kings and princesses.

Sandburg builds a world of echoes from his beloved American midwest that holds wide open expanses, robust cities, and mighty trains that connect them.  Typing that, it strikes me how well that reflects the structure of Grimm’s milieu with respect to Europe’s idealized past.  America’s idealized past is one of great plains compared to Europe’s dark forests.  Democratic cities form instead of serf-built castles.  Names are foggy echoes of what Americans imagine First Nations names to sound like, cross bred with Midwestern slang rather than Olde-Time-y European sounds.  Again, this shows the structure of Sandburg’s project.

Story to story Sandburg keeps enough consistency to solidify the world without being a slave to it. The result is a grounded Oz, if that makes any sense.  It is a remarkable and quirky example of world-building.  It’s easy to see why Wilson was inspired by it.

As befits an icon of American poetry, the language of these stories is unique and powerful.  The phrasing of his descriptions are singular without being self-consciously poetic. They stand alone without being obviously from Sandburg while on reflection they clearly bear his stamp.  Even if one finds the contents of the stories contrived or twee – which I don’t, but understand – Sandburg’s language rings.


Review: Tales of a Traveler

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Tales of a Traveler is a collection of classic suspense (ghost) stories from one of America’s first literary writers. Washington Irving shows his skill at producing these tales set in the framing sequence of a collection of men marooned by weather. As historically interesting as that is, the stories have been repeated many places and are really not that gripping any more.  Irving is a great writer, but very much of his moment here.  The very details and craft that made the stories gripping in the moment distances them from a modern reader.  It’s interesting to see these tales in their native form, but I cannot really recommend them.


Review: Mashup

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

Gardner Dozios collects and edits a lot of SF and SF collections.  There is a story that Larry Marder is the Nexus of all Comics Realities in the sense that everyone working in comics knows him and that he gleefully links people up.  That’s how I think of Dozios.

In any case he gathered a set of interesting voices for Mash Up and set them loose with the simple mission to write him a short story that starts with the first line of a literary classic. Everyone’s game, of course and most of the results are fun and interesting.  In fact, overall the range of voices is broad.  No two stories seem cut from the same cloth, which makes it an interesting way to hear writers you’d like to hear more from.  All of this is leading to the correct conclusion that this is a diverting collection of stories from good writers.

Then there’s Mary Robinette Kowal’s Tour de Force “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.”  It’s one of those short stories that the only real advice a reader can give is “read it.”  I’ll risk a few more words.  It’s about adventure, and the price of getting what you want, and love, and growing old together, and how small events change societies, and how gender bends peoples impressions.  And Hollerith cards. (And she even nailed the premise, weaving one of those themes through the chosen opening line, which few authors managed.) Go read it.

Recommended.  The Lady Astronaut is a must.

Review: Rapture of the Nerds

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

As I’m searching for a word to sum up Rapture of the Nerds, I keep coming back to “romp.” I get the feeling that while writing this Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow had great fun sideswiping virtually every nerdy enclave they scream past as they tell an enjoyable story.  One can almost hear one or the other saying “look sharp or you’ll miss that one” or even “hold my beer – I’ve got this.” There is a fair amount of snark in here, obviously, but a lot of it is unobtrusive.  The kind of smart-assery that one only notices if one was already in on the joke.  I’m sure there are jokes I’m not in on that went right by.

As much fun as all the in-jokes are, Rapture delivers both a story worth following and ideas worth thinking about.  I don’t think our authors think that the Singularity is more than an interesting though experiment, but they’re delighted to jump into that experiment with both feet and a calculator.  Stross and Doctorow treat us to ideas about how much power will go into maintaining the computational power needed to play this game, what kinds of social structure that might enforce, and what invading alien armadas look like in that SF landscape.  All very well done with the aforementioned spoonful of snark to help the medicine go down.

One of the best parts of Rapture is how human the Doctorow/Stross Singularity is. Family relations, interpersonal relationships, internal human psychology, and gender perceptions all flare up at various points.  These are not just ideas that are played in passing, but many form key plot points.  A singularity (and the noun phrase “a singularity” brings me joy) created by another life form might be markedly different.  In fact, if our civilization ever migrated to, say a Heinlein Moon Is A Harsh Mistress society the singularity there would differ.  Some English Literature Ph.D candidate can have the idea of comparing SF society singularities for nothing.

Of course the point of great SF is to reflect on humanity.  To me Rapture is ultimately a celebration of some of the bits that make humanity human, for good and ill.


Review: The Utopia of Rules

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

I forget how The Utopia of Rules came to my attention – probably from Warren Ellis’s excellent newsletter – but I found it interesting in a very niche kind of way.  David Graeber is a scholar, specifically an anthropologist, and an activist.  He’s got a crust of old school Marxist academia that comes through in his thinking.  If that puts you off, you’ll hate Utopia. In fact there are lots of reasons that one might hate the book, but I seem to have threaded the needle and come out the other side having gobbled up some ideas.

The possible offputting factors include the dry topic, the academic writing style, the navel gazing nature of the whole enterprise, and the quaintly academic worldview from which it’s all undertaken.  The enterprise in question is an erudite assessment of what modern bureaucracy says about the anthropology of Western European & American civilization.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Graeber’s execution.  He’s an academic and writing for a group of academics I probably wouldn’t be a part of if I were an academic, but he writes clearly and engagingly within those confines. I found plenty to disagree with, though overall I enjoyed having my ideas challenged.  He convinced me of some points as well.  Overall, I now see bureaucracy as an important phenomenon in Western Civilization practically and philosophically.  In and of itself that’s an interesting idea for me and was well worth reading the book.

Review: Street Smart

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

If you have any interest at all in the ideas driving the redesign of urban centers for walkability, bikeability, and other support for non-automotive transport, Street Smart is required reading. Samuel Schwartz, the author, is a major driver in the field and Street Smart is exactly the sort of book one would expect a passionate engineer to write on such a topic.  Me motivates his points from personal experience and then delves deeply into the theory and existing practice of each of the topics in great detail.  The topics are also well footnoted, but not exhaustively so.

Schwartz’s credentials are impeccable – in addition to working as a traffic engineer for decades, he coined the word “gridlock” – and he’s clearly a supporter of reform and restructuring.  He’s not a zealot, though.  At many points in here he tactfully points out that some advocates of different transport technologies – say, cyclists – are too vociferous or rigid in their thinking.  He seems like a very intelligent and fair advocate to me.  He writes persuasively and well.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Norse Mythology

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

This is another one of my capsules that says more about me than about the work.

In his introduction, Neil Gaiman describes being led to Norse mythology as a kid in elementary school by Lee and Kirby’s brilliant 70’s Thor comics.  We both found the Viking halls of legend to be surprisingly flawed and human places.  I don’t know if Greek mythology as told by and to laypeople became more whitewashed as the ancients became the basis (or the heroes) of the Enlightenment or if some other process sanded the edges off Zeus and his cohorts.  Greek myth always feels more symbolic and consistent.  Norse stories feel more like a campfire story than a fable, and the characters correspondingly more complex.  Because of how I was led to them and that humanity, these stories have a special place in my heart.

Norse Mythology is master storyteller Neil Gaiman retelling many of the same tales that enthralled me as a kid.  Gaiman breathes life into any fantasy, holds the stories with the same affection, and has great human stories to start from.  For me, it couldn’t be better.

A must.