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.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Year's Best Fantasy 9

Year's Best Fantasy 9 was published in 2009, with David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer as the editors. This edition contains some nice fantasy stories.

Marc Laidlaw's "Childrun" is a fantastic tale of a bard finding his way to a strange town. The town gates are closed but the schoolmarm lets him in. All the children have mysteriously disappeared from the town, except for one large infant that the schoolmarm takes care of. The story gets stranger as the townspeople sneak up on the schoolhouse and the bard tries to figure out an escape. The baby changes from weird to sinister.

One of the most striking stories is "The First Editions" by James Stoddard. In this story, the narrator visits a wizard who turns him into a book. The wizard places him on a bookshelf with other books where he gets to know the others who share his fate. The story develops in unexpected ways, surprising the reader. Another gem is Richard Parks' "Skin Deep", about a young woman who inherits from her grandmother the knowledge of the healing arts, as well as a set of skins that she wears to do specific tasks. The skins are not just tools: they affect the wearer and can take strength to control.

Richard Bowes' "If Angels Fight" is a supernatural story about a strong spirit who inhabits the scion of a New England political family. The spirit leaves and the young man dies, but the matriarch asks the narrator to find him again. The story is a little creepy but still somehow moving. Another supernatural story is "The Salting and Canning of Benevolence D.", by Al Michaud. In a lighter vein, it details the haunting of a man after getting a replacement tooth.

The stories range from witches to ghosts, from supernatural to science fantasy. Some are structured differently, like "Reader's Guide" by Lisa Goldstein and "A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica" by Catherynne M. Valente. Kim Wilkins' "The Forest" is a modern take on Hansel and Gretel. They are a wide variety of stories, all inventive. The best stories give a new take on life and the experience of being human, like "Skin Deep" and "The First Editions". There is enough action and fantastic places here for a lot of enjoyment. A-

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tales From the Perilous Realm

Tales From the Perilous Realm is a collection of stories by J. R. R. Tolkien. I recently listened to an audiobook production by the BBC which included four stories: "Farmer Giles of Ham", "Leaf by Niggle", "Smith of Wootten Major", and "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil". The stories are well written and fanciful. The performances are very entertaining.

"Farmer Giles of Ham" tells the story of a lowly farmer who is called on to defeat a dragon. The farmer finds luck and a reasonable dragon, but runs into trouble with the king. In "Smith", the local smith tells a tale about faerie and a magic. "Tom Bombadil" is part of the Lord of the Rings. The friendly and rhyming man (or fairy or elf) helps out Frodo and his companions. This story was entertaining but was lacking the depth of the piece from from the novel since it didn't have the characterization and dark plot surrounding it.

These stories are inventive. Tolkien had a good sense of the faerie and the wonderful. The stories were entertaining if a bit simple. B

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Skinner

The Skinner is one of those books that is so different from anything else that it blows you away. Neal Asher is also the author of Cowl, which I read back in 2008. The style and action are similar in The Skinner, though the story and characters are totally different.

The novel's setting is the distant future on the ocean planet Spatterjay. Arriving on the planet is Sable Keech, a dead monitor (marshal or police officer) who is determined to bring justice to the last surviving member of gang of slavers. Keech is kept "alive" by cyber technology and preservative fluid flowing through his body. He is joined by Janer, a man in the employ of a was hive mind, bringing two wasps with him. They join up with Erlin, a woman returning to the planet after a long absence to seek her lover Ambel.

The life on Spatterjay has special longevity due to the virus that keeps creatures alive. Once infected, humans--known as Hoopers--become immune to most forms of death and live long lives. Wounds that would kill a normal human heal quickly on Hoopers. This is especially true of the Old Captains, who have been around for seven hundred years since the war that ended the slave trade. Long life gives the Old Captains skin that immediately closes over wounds, and also a wise perspective on life. The Hoopers live on the edge of Polity civilization, enjoying protection but largely living free.

The harsh life in the ocean is echoed in the vicious actions by some of the characters. The creatures continually feed on each other; anyone falling in the water soon finds himself covered in leeches. Some of the Hoopers can pull plugs of skin out of the leeches' mouths and push them back into the holes in their skin, though the skin of the Old Captains closes up too fast for that. As the reader learns over the course of the novel, the slave traders also used their human cattle cruelly. When one of the other slavers returns to the planet to kill Keech, she treats everyone as mere tools to her satisfaction.

Pain is an element in Hooper life. With the ability to survive great wounds, they still stuffer great pain. Part of what bring Erlin back to Spatterjay is to find a reason to keep going after three hundred years. The pain is a reminder for some that they are still alive.

In addition to the exciting setting of the planet, the characters are fun and well-drawn. Of course there is Keech, somewhat of an enigma but familiar as a determined lawman. The Old Captains and other Hoopers are all lively and full of spunk. They do not always have the same agenda, but they stick together. Aside from the living and undead characters, the AI characters are central to the story. The Warden is the
benevolent ruler of Spatterjay and its moon, controlling everything that enters and leaves the system. Sniper, one of its primary subminds, is an upgraded war drone with its own sense of humor and goals.

The virus brings to the story the theme of death and rebirth. In addition to Keech, Hoopers can be eaten by leeches but still return to life as long as enough of their nervous system survives. The title character is the old Hooper leader in the slave trade whose existence is somewhere between life and death, humanity and pure hunger. Asher does a great job of tying these elements together. Another slave trader is kept in stasis between sleep and wakening.

The entire book is filled with action from start to finish. It also has a good bit of humor with it. The back story gets filled in gradually, and we learn about all the characters' history as the plot progresses. Even with all the Hoopers, AI and aliens, there are no extra characters, no loose ends. Everything comes together in a satisfying finish--not an easy task with this many plot threads. The action is exciting without being overdone, and the characters all feel real. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. A

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Grand Design

The Grand Design is the latest book by Stephen Hawking, with the help of Lawrence Mlodinow. It is an explanation of the fundamental laws of the universe and how they have been determined. They start with the basics of gravity and electromagnetism, moving quickly to relativity and quantum mechanics. They describe the experiments behind quantum theory.

One of the most interesting parts is the brief description of the early moments of the universe, how the universe expanded at an extreme rate in the first few seconds. They describe the mathematics of string theory that says there are eleven dimensions in space-time, with most of them curled up so that we can't notice them. An illuminating ramification is that space-time has no boundary--just as there is nothing outside the three dimensions of the universe, there is nothing "before" or "after" the beginning or the end of the universe.

I enjoyed learning about the structure of the universe. While not simple, Hawking and Mlodinow make the physics easy to understand, at least at a high level. It is amazing to learn about the weak and strong anthropic principles--that not only are the facts of our existing well suited to our existence, but also the laws of the universe itself. A-

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Devotion of Suspect X

The Devotion of Suspect X is a Japanese crime novel by Keigo Higashino. The crime in question is the murder of a man named Togashi by his ex-wife Yasuko. Yasuko's neighbor Ishigami hears the struggle and knocks on the door to her apartment, announcing that he can protect Yasuko and her daughter Misato if they will do exactly as he says. Ishigami proceeds to cover up the true nature of the crime and police.

With this setup, the story builds as an intellectual struggle between Ishigami and the police detectives searching for Togashi's killer. The detectives involve their friend Yakawa, a physics professor who knew Ishigami in college. Yukawa takes the opportunity to visit Ishigami and renew their friendship. Ishigami is as puzzled by the murder case as the detectives, and he begins to explore different possibilities. Every conjecture he makes is confounded by Ishigami's and Yasuko's alibis. Since the detectives have no other suspects, they work on breaking apart Yasuko's alibi. Some of the lengths they go to are quite demanding, which shows how much attention they have focused on the case.

Ishigami turns the investigation into his own mystery puzzle. He is a bit unsettled when Yukawa takes an interest in the case but he still deflects any suspicion away from himself and Yasuko. Ishigami's character is drawn well by his actions, illustrating both his intellect and his devotion to Yasuko. He is a math genius who is dissatisfied with his job as a high school teacher and tired of lazy students. Yukawa is a smart professor who encourages his students and enjoys solving mysteries. Yasuko is a stereotypical Japanese woman who is meek and has little power compared to the men in her life.

The twists in the investigation keep the detectives and Yukawa guessing, and they are surprising to the reader also. Every time they think they've found something, Ishigami has already anticipated it. Even right down to the last play, he comes up with options.

This book was better than I was expecting. While the language and characterization are a bit flat, the the developments in the plot are intriguing. Ishigami proves to be an intelligent and creative adversary. Yukawa, using his intuition, is determined to figure out what is wrong with the evidence at hand. I ended up being as surprised at some of the developments as the detectives in the story. B+

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

2010 Review

2010 was a good year for books and for my reading. I managed to read 46 books, including one graphic novel and several audiobooks. That doesn't include the many chidlren's books I've read with my kids. December was a banner month with 8 books finished.

The most memorable books I read this year were The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Hellhound on his Trail, The Drunkard's Walk, The Blank Slate, and Son of a Witch. I also really enjoyed reading the Lankhmar series.

I read mostly fiction but a good bit of nonfiction. I focused mainly on fantasy novels that I've been wanting to read. I did not read many classics--the oldest book I read was Babbitt. Maybe I'll read more this year.

I am looking forward to getting to some unfinished series this year. I need to read the last book of the Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series; the last book of the His Dark Materials trilogy; the rest of George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series; more Dune books; the last of the Liveship Traders trilogy. I've got Gene Wolfe's Book of the Short Sun to read. There are seven books on my bookshelf lined up for me to read. I've got two audiobooks and three lecture series lined up. And lastly, there are about 50 books on my library list waiting for me to request them. I don't think I'll be running out of things to read in 2011.

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