You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Best of Gene Wolfe

The Best of Gene Wolfe is a retrospective of Wolfe's short stories going back to 1970. Wolfe is a great writer of science fiction and fantasy, and can create fascinating short stories as well as novels.

The collection starts with "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," a whimsical story about a boy and his mother and his fantasies coming to life. A follow up is "The Death of Dr. Island", a bittersweet story about a boy on an island of land in a sea inside a space sphere. Nicholas is a mental patient taken to the island as a last ditch effort to make him better. However he must interact with two other patients there. The island speaks to him in the whispers of the plants and the ocean. He learns a painful lesson when one of his companions gets better at the expense of the other. The story is enchanting and moving.

"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is a somewhat dark story about a boy and his brother raised in a mysterious mansion on a colonized world. The boy has a sinister relationship with his father, who calls him forth each night to speak a stream of consciousness until he passes out. Slowly he comes to a realization of his true identity. The tale evokes questions of personhood and determining one's fate.

Most of Wolfe's characters find an inner strength. They are typically young men or boys thrown into an awkward position and forced to change. An example is the protagonist of "The Eyeflash Miracles", a blind boy in an future world who has vivid dreams where he can see. The dreams become more real as the story progresses. He must fight both in real life and his dreams to survive.

One different protagonist is the title character of "Forlesen", who wakes up one morning with a wife and children and a job he knows nothing about. He stumbles through the day trying to fake everything and ends up in a coffin when he comes home from work. To me it is an allegory about stumbling through life.

There are other small gems in the book, such as "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton", a story of deception and intrigue. Or "Straw", about medieval warriors in a hot air balloon. All of the stories are fanciful and intriguing. Wolfe is a great writer, and this volume is a great collection of stories. I find the fantasy in his stories very alluring. A-

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Monday, December 28, 2009


Drood is an historical novel by Dan Simmons that builds on the last few years of the life of Charles Dickens and a terrible accident he survived in 1865 in a train wreck. Dickens part of The Mystery of Edwin Drood before he died, and Simmons draws from the same elements of opium, dark underworlds and mesmerism.

The narrator is Wilkie Collins, a writer and sometimes collaborator with Dickens who is a little younger than the esteemed author. Collins is clearly in awe of Dickens and yet full of jealousy. He also suffers from gout and is a liberal user of laudanum (liquid opium) to help his pain. After the train accident, Dickens tells Collins about his encounter at the scene with a mysterious man named Drood. The two of them enlist the help of private detectives to lead them to the underworld beneath London's catacombs. There they find a hidden Chinese opium den that Collins begins to frequent. And Dickens is taken away by two mysterious men to visit Drood alone.

Collins plays cat and mouse with Dickens for a long time on the subject of Drood. He is hesitant to bring it up directly for fear that Dickens will dismiss the subject as mere fantasy, the ramblings of writers inventing creative plots. Collins has his own demons to deal with, including a mysterious green woman who terrorizes him. He also has a double, "the other Wilkie", who appears to him at times. In a central scene in the middle of the book, Drood kidnaps Collins, plants a scarab in his brain, and orders him to write Drood's biography. The other Wilkie begins to write down Collins's text, and Collins discovers that what he's writing is not his own invention but fabulous tales of the Egyptian occult. The interaction of Collins with his double is one of the more fascinating parts of the narrative, giving it a good Gothic ghost story feel. It also strengthens the theory that Collins's narrative is all a part of his delusion.

Collins is a terrible misanthrope, not only visiting a mistress but also kicking out his kept woman after he comes to believe she's interested in another man. He ignores her letters of the abuse she suffers until the final passages of the book. He comes to believe that Dickens has murdered a young man named Dickinson in order to free himself of Drood's scarab, but then he sees Dickinson as part of Drood's cabal. As his mind starts to deteriorate, he takes more and more laudanum, and the value of his take on events becomes more and more questionable.

Simmons does a good job weaving a tale of the occult and mesmerism and making it ambiguous. The story could be an eerie ghost story or a tale of a man's descent into addition and insanity. Collins's jealousy becomes the background for mysterious happenings, all centered around Dickens.

I thought that much of the novel was a little slow and felt like a travelogue. The description of Collins watching one of Dickens's public readings and discovering Drood standing in his place is fascinating, but we don't really need more extensive descriptions of the readings. Simmons goes into much detail about Collins's daily life and how he tracks Dickens, but eventually it gets to be a bit tedious. The best parts are Collins's interactions with Drood or the private detectives. I think the passage where Collins and Dickens discuss the plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and argue over the best ending is one of the best parts of the novel. Despite the slow parts, the story is both exciting and at times unnerving. B+

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Purple and Black

K. J. Parker's Purple and Black is an epistolary novella detailing letters between Emperor Nicephorus V and his friend Phormio, the new governor of a distant province. The title comes from the color of the text of the letters, purple being the privileged ink for imperial correspondence.

As the two men write, we learn of the new emperor's troubles with the bureaucracy and the governor's troubles with an insurgency. Phormio is a young scholar who does not know anything about governing a province but he tries his best. As the attacks from the insurgency increase Phormio requests and receives a large contingent of troops. Before long the new general gets killed in a raid, and events start to change for everybody.

This is an amusing and inventive novella. The characters shine through in their letters, and we learn about their history as well as the current situation. The events transpire in a natural way. The conflict comes through slowly but with a good bit of suspense. It is an enjoyable read. B+

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Iain M. Banks' Matter is a novel set in an advanced civilization called the Culture, part of a tradition of science fiction about people with technology so advanced that human labor is not required. The Culture has a peer society called the Morthanveld who has equiv-tech (equivalent technology) but not as advanced to have AI minds with great power.

Djan Serijy is a woman who was recruited from her home world to be an agent of the Culture's Special Circumstances, a sort of combination CIA and Navy SEALs. When she learns that her father, a king, and her brother have been killed in a battle, she decide to travel home. Sursamen is a vast shell world created by an ancient extinct civilization. Her people the Sarl live on the Eighth level and King Hausk was making war against the people on the Ninth level. The Sarl are a more primitive culture and live as clients of the Oct, who are clients of the Nariscene, who are clients of the Morthanvald.

Unknown to Djan, her brother Ferbin is still alive. Ferbin and his servant Holse escaped and left the shell world to find her. Meanwhile, tyl Loesp, the king's counselor who secrectly killed him, is pursuing the war and plotting to kill the last prince, Oramen. Tyl Loesp pushes for the excavation of a huge ancient city being uncovered by a receding waterfall, and he has the enthusiastic help of the Oct, who control the towers that allow travel between levels.

When Ferbin finds Djan and tells her about their father's murder, she also discovers there are other forces that may be threatening Sursamen. They travel as fast as they can back to Sursamen on a ship that offers its help. Once there they encounter something unexpected that provides and exciting conclusion.

The powerful technology gives the author a lot of material to work with, even if it can provide some plot problems. Banks manages this well. The Culture is a fascinating place to read about. He describes the civilization itself and its relationship with other less advanced cultures. The characters are interesting, especially the duo of Ferbin and Holse. Both of them change and grow over the course of the story, especially the prince who leaves behind his profligate ways. Djan also is an interesting character, faced with the dilemma of her loyalty to her family and her new duties.

The plot occasionally drags at a few points, but it quickly picks back up. The contrast between the primitive and advanced cultures works well. The shell world seems fantastic at first, but Banks illustrates the details and makes it believable. The whole story was fun and often funny. I look forward to reading more of his novels. B+