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The Library of Babel: A Book Log
"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges
Saturday, January 29, 2005
Locus magazine has released its 2004 recommended reading list. I find their reviews a little hit-or miss (sometimes I can't really make out what in hell they're talking about), but it's usually worth taking a look at what they think is good.
The really striking thing about this is what a small fraction of the list I've read: out of 79 books in the Science Fiction, Fantasy, YA, and First Novel categories, I've read 12 (almost 13). This is partly due to the fact that I just haven't seen some of these books (they list a number of UK releases that aren't out yet in the US), but it's remarkable how many of them I'm just not interested in reading.
The Fantasy category is the one with the highest read fraction (6/21), as I've read the Irvine, Kay, Pratchett, Stewart, and Wolfe entries (Gene Wolfe's The Kinght is listed along with The Wizard, for some reason-- I thought it came out in '03). Of the rest, well, I have Charlie Stross's The Family Trade sitting on the dining room table, and I'll take a look at the Lucius Shepard if I see it, and that's about it. The Steven King books are the tail end of a huge series, and I'm waiting for Kate to finish them and tell me if it's worth starting. I gave up on Perdido Street Station, so I'm not interested in the Mieville, I'm not enthusiastic about another horse-choking Tad Williams book, and nothing else really leaps out as something I want to read.
The Science Fiction list is even worse: I've read two of the 28 books on the list (Newton's Wake and The Confusion, though I'm nearing the end of The System of the World). Now, granted, this is the list that seems most affected by the UK-only problem, with books by Iain M. Banks and Ian McDonald that sound interesting if they ever come out in a place where I can get them. I may check out the Jon Courtenay Grimwood book, as well, if I ever see it. It's also got a fair number of books that I just haven't gotten to-- I have Cloud Atlas and Forty Signs of Rain sitting on a shelf next to me, and I'll definitely read Iron Sunrise. But my interest pretty much ends there. Baxter, DiFillippo, Haldeman, Heinlein, McAuley and Rucker don't interest me (based on previous experience), Sterling doesn't really write novels, and a bunch of the others are really series books, and I'm not interested in the amount of catch-up required.
All in all, my reaction to the lists is pretty much "Enh." I'm not sure if it was really an "Enh" sort of year-- I don't recall it that way, but then a lot of my SF reading in 2004 was from 2003-- or if there's just a major taste mismatch between me and the Locus review staff. Either way, I'm just not wildly enthusiastic about this slate of books.
Posted at 8:55 AM | link |
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Saturday, January 22, 2005
A Whack of Westlake
Lost in the shuffle of the big hiatus last year was a big stack of Westlake books. I've been meaning to comment on them for quite a while, and just not getting around to it, but I need to get these off the stack before a full year elapses.
Taking them in the order in which they were written, The Hunter comes first. This is a Parker book, published under the name "Richard Stark," and has been made into at least two movies. It's a much nastier book than The Man With the Getaway Face, though there's still some black humor to the way things play out.
Next in publication order would be The Outfit, which I read over Thanksgiving. It's the book in which Parker finally settles his beef with the eponymous crime syndicate. The centerpiece of the book is a series of lovingly described capers in which friends and associates of Parker's take down a series of Outfit operations. There's also a great speech near the end where an Outfit accountant explains to his doomed boss that they've become too civilized. It's still not Kate's sort of book, but it's nowhere near as dark as The Hunter, and the various capers are fun to read about.
The stories in Thieves' Dozen are scattered over a long period, covering a big chunk of John Dortmunder's career. They're pretty good, but don't have quite the kick of the novels. I think it's because the short-story format doesn't really allow enough room for the increasing levels of wackiness that are the trademark of the best Dortmunder books-- you get one quick caper, and that's it. Without the context of the novels, I'm not sure how well these would work.
Finally, there's The Road to Ruin a new Dortmunder novel in which John and the usual gang set out to steal a bunch of classic cars from a bankrupt tycoon. I was happy when I heard there was a new Dortmunder novel out-- it's been a while-- but this was ultimately a disappointment. There are some good scenes, and the image of John Dortmunder is a great idea, but it never really comes together. The gang is weirdly passive, and only barely involved in the plot. This is really for completists only-- if you haven't read any Dortmunder books before, go read The Hot Rock instead.
I almost think I'm forgetting a book here, but that's as many as I can recall, and Kate's glaring at me in a "get your ass in gear" sort of way, so it'l have to do.
(Chad very foolishly let me read this before he hit publish, so I would like to say that I was not actually glaring at him, just waiting for him to stop typing so I could ask a question.)
Posted at 10:12 AM | link |
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Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Steven Gould's Reflex is a sequel to Jumper, and was reportedly supposed to be called Jumper(s). If that's true, somebody at Tor is owed free drinks for heading off that abomination of a title.
The parenthetical plural isn't a terribly inaccurate indication of what the book is about, though. Davy Rice, the teleporting hero of the first book, has settled into life as a sometime operative for the NSA, doing covert jobs that meet his ethical standards, and otherwise remaining hidden. Early in the book, though, he is snatched by mysterious people, who hold him captive, and attempt to brainwash him. In a development that will shock approximately nobody (certainly not anyone who has read the jacket copy), his wife, Millie, discovers that she, too can teleport, and sets about trying to find Davy.
Jumper was very much a book in the juvenile-SF tradition: a young protagonist discovers special abilities, and sets out to use them to better his lot in life. Reflex, on the other hand, is more or less a thriller plot, with two parallel threads: Davy has been kidnapped by mysterious forces, who are torturing him in an attempt to break his will, and needs to find a way to resist; meanwhile, Millie needs to learn to use her new abilities quickly, and find a way to rescue Davy. Both of them are trying to figure out who is responsible for Davy's kidnapping, and what's going on.
It's not a criticism to say that Davy's plot line makes for some pretty uncomfortable reading. The torture/conditioning scheme that his captors are using is fairly disturbing, and it's effectively described in a fair bit of detail. It's not really a feel-good story, and it's disturbingly well thought-out.
Millie's plot is more fun to read, as she jumps all around the country, and throws herself into the amateur spy game in an effort to find Davy. It's the closest thing here to the feel of the original, too, as she works out the details of how to teleport, and tracks down the people who stole her husband.
The final act isn't entirely successful, as the nature of the sinister conspiracy begins to unfold. It's not disastrously bad, or anything, but it seems designed more to provide creepy atmosphere than to make any real sense.
As a sequel to Jumper, it's mostly a success. The characters remain true to themselves, and the story takes them in some new directions. Some of this stuff is pretty clever, as when Davy finds a way to use his teleporting ability as a weapon.
In tone, though, it's a much different sort of book. It's still a good read, and if he writes another one, I'll buy it, but don't pick this up expecting the exact same sort of thing you find in Jumper.
Posted at 6:16 PM | link |
Tuesday, January 04, 2005
How to Cook Everything
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman is subtitled "Simple Recipes for Great Food," and cover-blurbed as "a more hip Joy of Cooking," which pretty much tells you where it's coming from. It's also extravagantly praised by Mike Kozlowski, which is what originally brought it to our attention.
It's close to 1000 pages long, and, well, it's a cookbook, so I can't say that I've read the whole thing. We have been using it for a little while, though, so it's probably worth saying a few words about it.
The recipes in this book are mostly geared toward simplicity: he talks about basic techniques for cooking various kinds of foods, including a fair number of vegetables I've never heard of (I would've guessed that "Chayote" was a hallucinogen, and "Salsify" a verb, but they're apparently a kind of squash and a root vegetable, respectively), and provides simple recipes that can easily be embellished. Most of the dishes described have only a handful of important ingredients, and many come with numerous suggested variations after the basic directions. It tends to be fairly basic stuff, with a slight inclination toward Asian and Indian flavors (at least in the handful of things I've made).
For the most part, they're pretty good, and the only real disasters I've had in working from the book were my own fault (I screwed up a batter on one dish, and detonated a Pyrex baking dish on another occasion). They do fall into a few of the classic cookbook traps, though: the ingredient lists often include garnishes and side dishes, making them look more complicated than they really are; the instructions are often weirdly grouped, with things like "pre-heat the oven" getting their own numbered steps, while "mix the spices," "rub the mix onto the meat," and "grill the meat for 15-20 minutes" are lumped together in a single step; and the instructions are frequently a little vague in the classic "cook until done" manner-- one recipe says "the internal temperature should be no higher than 145 F when you remove it from the heat," which is wonderfully specific while still being useless.
The one consistent problem I've had with the book is that the coating instructions are all wacky. If a recipe calls for coating a piece of something with batter, flour, or a mix of spices, the given proportions always produce a huge surplus of coating material. I don't know if he's designing these with nuclear mutant chicken breasts, or if he's using some sort of weird local variant measuring cups, but I usually end up with half again as much coating as I need, if not more. It's really strange.
Anyway, it's a pretty good cookbook, and certainly comprehensive, in that you can find a recipe for pretty much any oddball food item that you find on sale in the local mega-mart. I didn't find it the sort of revelatory experience that Mike did, but then, I had been cooking for myself for quite a while before I got it. I'm using it more or less like a reference work: saying "Well, pork tenderloin was on sale at Hannaford, so let's see if Bittman has any recipes for that..."
In general, I tend to prefer Alton Brown, as I'm Just Here for the Food is a lot more fun than this. If you're only going to buy one cookbook, though, this is probably a good choice, as it provides a huge variety of recipes to use damn near anything you can find in a kitchen.
(Aside: On the subject of Alton Brown, I have to say that I'm surprised that Mike doesn't like him. If you think about it, Mike Kozlowski basically is Alton Brown, only without a cooking show: he's a totally obsessive geek about all sorts of gadgets, and he has ridiculously specific and absolute opinions about things that nobody in their right mind has strong opinions on. I dunno. Maybe they're just too similar.)
Posted at 9:14 PM | link |
Sunday, January 02, 2005
The Atrocity Archives
Bob Howard, the lead character in Charlie Stross's The Atrocity Archives is more than your typical nerd. He's got all the usual character quirks-- poor dress sense, a bad attitude toward authority, and somewhat dodgy social skills-- but his workload goes above and beyond the everyday sysadmin routine:
"Now I've got a sick Beowulf cluster to resurrect before Friday's batch PGP cluster-fuck kicks off. And then a tarot permutator to calibrate, and a security audit for another of those bloody collecting card games in case a bunch of stoned artists in Austin, Texas, have somehow accidentally produced a great node. Anything else?"
Bob works for "The Laundry," the super-secret branch of the British intelligence services that keeps track of problems that go beyond everyday reality. In his world, Alan Turing went on to prove a little-known theorm that allows one to convert NP-complete problems into P-complete ones, and incidentally open gateways into other universes, through which eldritch horrors (squamous, rugose, and various combinations thereof) can enter our reality.
It's sort of Dilbert crossed with James Bond crossed with H. P. Lovecraft, and it's great fun to read. Bob's an ace hacker, and walks and talks like a true Bastard Operator From Hell, but he's also a dead shot with a Hand of Glory, and his narration is a wonderfully deadpan romp through all manner of geekery, both natural and supernatural. It's the kind of story where on one page, he can deliver a rant on the security holes in Windows XP, and ten pages later, he's battling a plan to use traffic cameras as basilisk weapons.
This is a small-press volume containing two Bob Howard adventures: the short novel The Atrocity Archive in which Bob first becomes an active service agent and finds himself facing the last lingering horrors of WWII, and the novella "The Concrete Jungle" which features the traffic camera weapon. There's also an Afterward where Charlie explains the origin of the stories, which I could've done without, but the stories are the main attraction.
Attempting to summarize the plots would just make them sound sillier than I've already done, and attempting to make sense of them is probably a short route to a massive headache. The narrative voice is enough fun that it really doesn't matter. If pressed for further description, I might say that it's kind of like Bad Magic, only geekier.
Really, the only thing to do is just shut off the part of your brain that deals with Euclidean logic (in both a spatial and a plot sense), and enjoy the ride.
Posted at 7:36 PM | link |