Some brief book reviews to close 2017

wild-swanA Wild Swan, Michael Cunningham

I would think we've saturated the "modern re-tellings of fairytales, but for adults" genre, but this was supremely good. They reminded me of Garrison Keillor in the way that some sadness or loss was mixed in to the stories without them being outright tragic.

(I've had this post sitting in my drafts for a very long time. How long? Since well before we all found out Keillor was a creep. So... I guess I'll amend the above to "it reminds me pre-2017 Garrison Keillor"? It's been about 15 years since I read any of his stories, so maybe I should just scrap this reference all together? Screw it.)

The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman

A collection of non-fiction pieces: essays, transcripts of awards speeches, introductions, forwards, etc. Some felt dated, but most I can safely call "timeless." Many of them did make me want to go read the various books or authors that he was commenting on (e.g. Jeff Smith, Samuel R Delaney, Fritz Leiber, Dunsany) which seems like as good a thing as can be said about an introduction to a book. The final piece is a memorial to his friend and collaborator, Terry Pratchett, titled "A Slip of the Keyboard." It is definitely worth reading especially for Pratchett fans.

The Liberation, Ian Tregillis

This is the conclusion to Tregillis' "Mechanicals" trilogy. I found the whole series good, but not nearly as good as his "Bitter Seeds" series. "Bitter Seeds" had plot points and story lines that were woven complexly, foreshadowed with subtlety, and epic emotional highs and lows. The Mechanicals was good, but had little of that finesse.

"Mechanicals" is focused on free will and robots. It's an interesting concept, and a good way of using sci-fi to explore ideas. (Which, I suppose, is why it's been done plenty of times.) If I was a writer, I would like to do a similar story about robots, but instead of free will it would be about depression. Inside Out had one of the better depictions of depressions I've seen on screen. Depression — in my experience — isn't just regular sadness turned up to eleven. It's feeling nothing at all. Mechanical androids seem like a perfect vehicle to explore that. Instead of robots fighting to be able to act on their own preferences or desires or motivation, they would be fighting to be able to have preferences or desires or motivations in the first place.


The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Also not as good as his previous work, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, but still very, very good. As in Emperor of All Maladies, Mukherjee does a great job of blending history, science, and his own personal experiences.

I did not appreciate before reading this exactly how quickly the concept of genetics has grown. The hundred years following Darwin's work in the 1850s and Mendel in the 1850s and 1860s was head-spinningly prolific. I had also not considered that eugenics was at the very forefront of applied genetics. I had thought of eugenics as a weird sideline (indeed, I wish it had been) but according to Mukherjee's telling it was at the very center of genetics from its infancy.1

Mukherjee's discussion of penetrance (the way specific genes only affect people in probabilistic ways) was very good. I wish this concept was more widely appreciated, as compared to the binary "you have a mutation or you don't" level of understanding that is common.

Mukherjee also hammers home the idea that a mutation can not be judged to be good or bad by itself, but must be evaluated in the context of a given organism in a given environment. This is important for genetics, but important much more broadly. In my own work I've had to explain many times that certain behaviors of a neural network can not be judged in isolation. They can only be evaluated in the context of the data sets they're operating on and the tasks they're being asked to do.

I found Mukherjee to be on weakest footing when discussing the ethical implications. He seems to be engaging in too much mood affiliation.

Medieval Europe, Chris Wickham

I was looking for a good overview of medieval history. I've learned isolated pieces here and there, but my secondary education covered exactly zero European history, so I'm lacking a broad outline. This wasn't that really that book. It did a good job of describing major political themes but didn't mention any specific events. It's a valuable approach, but not the one I expected. The focus was mainly on state capacity of the different regions. (Which I actually think is a very valuable approach, just not what I was looking for.)

One take-away: France is very fortunate to have inherited Roman roads. That gave them a big leg-up in state capacity compared to their central and eastern rivals.

The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher

This is the first in a new series in a victorian, pseudo-steampunk setting. Butcher is generally a fun read, and this is no exception. It's nice to see some fantasy novels that aren't in either a modern time period or a Tolkinesque medieval era.

I don't have a ton to say except that there were Aeronauts but there was no windlass. Is the title a metaphor that is going over my head, or is it just a catchy phrase without relation to the story?

Oh, also one thing in the world building got under my skin. Everyone in the story lives in these towers constructed by "the ancients" or some such, because the surface of the planet is poisonous and/or infested with ravenous hellbeasts. Each tower is a city-state, and people fly between them on airships. As a result, Butcher mentions over and over how much of a luxury resource wood is, because it's risky to go to the surface for timber. But what about all the other raw materials?? Where are they getting metal? Cotton? Wool? A huge library plays a role in the story; what are they making paper out of? Ships are described with complicated rigging; what is rope made from?He mentions that meat is vat-grown and therefor rare, but what about all the other food? Why is wood singled out as the one luxury?


Waking Gods, Sylvain Neuvel

This is the sequel to Neuvel's Sleeping Giants. Very good. Told in the same style, i.e. each chapter is a diary entry, interview transcript, communication intercept, news report, etc. which reveals the story to you little by little. Points for a good story, and double points for non-standard narrative form.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

This had much of Stephenson's cleverness without his extremely lengthy didactic digressions. I'm not sure how much of the book was Stephenson and how much was Galland, but the combination worked very well. Recommended. I'm very much hoping there will be a sequel, but it's not clear. Parts of it relating to academia and the defense/IC sectors did not quite square with what I've observed, but it's a novel about magic and supercomputers and time travel and parallel universes, so I think I can let that slide.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, William Goldman

I love the movie, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading the book. As everyone knows, the book is almost always better than the book. This may be an exception. Either way, they are very close in quality, perhaps because Goldman also wrote the screenplay. (He also wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and I never would have guessed that both of those were written by the same person.) The only obvious parts left out of the movie were some longer character back stories, which were helpful but not necessary.

The conceit of the book is that Goldman is merely the translator/editor of a story written by the fictitious S. Morgenstern. Goldman never lets this illusion slip. The forward, introduction, introduction to the anniversary edition, epilogue, footnotes and asides: the whole time he sticks to the notion that he's merely editing an existing book. He even weaves in true stories from his life as a screenwriter to further blur the lines. I love unreliable narrators, but this is my first experience with an unreliable author.

The Blade Itself,
Before They Are Hanged, and
Last Right of Kings, Joe Abercrombie

I plowed through all of the "First Law" trilogy almost back-to-back-to-back. Definitely recommended.

Usually when an author has multiple point-of-view characters and rotates chapters between them there are some story lines that are exciting and I want to get back to, and some I have to wade through to get back to the good bits. Not so here, especially in Before They Are Hanged. I also appreciated that there was not an obvious quest or goal that everyone was seeking. It was somewhat difficult to tell what the challenge for the various characters actually was. It all comes together in the end in a very satisfying way, but it was nice not having the constant score-keeping in the back of my head about "are we closer or farther from the Ultimate Goal of destroying the mcguffin/overthrowing the tyrant/winning the throne/whatever?"

Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word, Matthew Battles

Low on factual density. Highly stylized writing. I do give it points because the final and longest chapter, titled "Logos ex Machina," considers computer programs as a type of writing. Anything that is willing to give 10 Print a place in the history of writing is okay with me. Overall, there are better books on the history of book and language.

Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson, et al.

I read this as part of a quasi-book club at work. Some of the people at dinner said that it was difficult practice having these crucial conversations (i.e. high stakes, emotionally laden). I suggested that there is one easy way to get lots of experience with these conversations under your belt: get married.

I'd put this in to the better class of management book, in that it's worth reading but still spins twenty pages of valuable advice up to several hundred pages of content. The world would be a more efficient place if business people were willing to spend money at Hudson Books on management pamphlets instead of books.

Olympos and Illium, Dan Simmons

Just as grand in scope and ambition as Simmons' Hyperion series, but utlimately not as good. It took well into the second book for the pieces to start to fit together, and as a result of remaining in the dark I had a hard time carrying about what was going to happen next.

Seven Days in the Art World

Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton

This was written in 2007, and revolves a lot &emdash; by necessity &emdash; around the intersection of art and money. I would love to see what would have changed if there was a post-crash follow up from 2009.

One chapter was a studio visit to Haruki Murakami's studio. This was an odd choice, since as the book makes clear he's a singularly weird artist since he spends so much of his time running a sort of branding agency. That made for interesting but unrepresentative material. I'd read a whole book composed of Thornton visiting different studios.

The Sea Peoples, S. M. Stirling

This was a let down compared to the dozen or so volumes in the series prior. The series started out with a classic speculative fiction approach: change one thing about the world and see what happens. (Modern technology stops working; neo-feudalism rises from the ashes.) Then in later volumes more mysticism was introduced to explain why the change happened, and to give some narrative structure and reason why the Baddies were so Bad. (Chaotic gods are using them as puppets to take over the world in a proxy fight against their Good God rivals.) But this latest installment is four fifths weird mystical fever dreams (literally) mixed up with homages to the King in Yellow (again, literally). It's off the rails. I'll still read the next volume, because I like my junkfood books and I enthusiastically commit the sunk costs fallacy when it comes to finishing book series. But still: off the rails.

To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, Arthur Herman

This was a very fun history. There's plenty of fact, but Herman does a good job of writing the "action scenes" of various engagements, for lack of a better word. His style is a little too Great Man-ish for me, but nonetheless this was a good read. There's also a non-zero chance he's overselling how important his subject matter is, but I could day that about 90% of non-fiction writers, and 99% of non-fiction writers who write about rather more obscure topics.

I would read an entire book about common English idioms with nautical origins. For example, lowering the sails on a ship is "striking sail." Sailors, who were paid chronically late by the Royal Navy, would refuse to let their ships leave harbor until they were paid back wages. To disable the ships, they would strike sail. Now a mass refusal to work is a strike.

The British Navy: Guard the Freedom of us All
I used to have this on my bedroom wall when I was a kid. That is a fact I bet you are happy that you now know.

It's a credit to Herman that I was a little emotional by the time I got to the end of the book. The Royal Navy keeps winning and winning, often against the odds, survives WWII and comes out victorious, and then is just... dismantled. It's probably the correct strategic/economic move, but that sort of unforced abdication is somewhat sad.

Of course I did grow up with a reproduction WWII-era Royal Navy morale poster on my bedroom wall, because my friend Eli brought it back from London for me, so I might be subconsciously nostalgic for the Royal Navy in a way most Americans are not.

Artemis, Andy Weir

Good, but not as good as The Martian.2 I give Weir a huge amount of credit for writing a book that grapples with why people would want to live in space in the first place. A space colony is not an economically reasonable thing to do, and I don't like it when people hand-wave that problem away.

From here down, I'm just going to list some of the books I read in the last quarter or so of 2017 that I thought were vaguely interesting. They aren't any worse than the ones above, I just don't have time to write them up and I'm sick of this post sitting in my drafts folder.

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, Tim Whitmarsh

Afterlife, Marcus Sakey

How to be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci


Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent, John Reader

Golden Age and Other Stories, Naomi Novik

Within the Sanctuary of Wings, Marie Brennan

Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, Michael Rosen

Besieged, Kevin Hearne

Assassin's Apprentice, Robin Hobb

Stoicism Today (Volume One), Patrick Ussher et al.

Paradox Bound, Peter Clines

Dead Men Can't Complain, Peter Clines

  1. Mukherjee also does good work in not letting us get away with thinking eugenics was something unique to the Nazis; Brits and Americans were leading members of the eugenics travesty. We should confront the ugly parts of our history, where "we" is both national groups as well as ideological ones like, in this case, progressives and High Rationalists. []
  2. I feel like a lot of my reviews are "good, but not as good as their last book" (e.g. my reviews of Tregillis & Mukherjee, supra). This is probably not a terribly fair way to assess authors, but... eh. That's one way I judge books, and I think I'm not alone. []
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