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Old 2-bit book reviews

From (roughly) 1998 through 2000 I wrote a bunch of short book reviews. Most are rather terse, some ranting. Other than correcting typos and markup, I’ve kept them as is for history. Which may be useful as newer editions come out, and as opinions and technologies change and evolve.

A long list below…

Old two-bit book reviews, alphabetical by author

Tales from Watership Down, Richard Adams. Very disappointing. Adams introduces new assumptions and additional facts about the rabbits and their culture that seem utterly incongruent (and annoying) compared with original novel, rather than complementing it. Even the writing seems a bit more childish/immature. Was over halfway through the book (checked out from the library) and decided, why bother finishing?

Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home, by Joan Aiken. About a sister and brother whose parents wished that their children had never be born. Heh. Everything from getting a pet unicorn to a tree-stealing witch stuck in the form of a cat. Each chapter reads like a standalone story, too. Not as excellent stories as in Not What You Expected, but still fun to read.

The Kingdom Under the Sea and other stories and Past Eight O’Clock: Goodnight Stories, written by Joan Aiken with illustrations by Jan Pienkowski. Two marvelous anthologies. The former has stories based on Eastern European tales. The latter contains “bedtime” stories with wonderful twists. Great to read while curled up with a hot a drink and blanket.

Not What You Expected, by Joan Aiken. An excellent anthology of stories with interesting twists of fantasy. Highly recommended are: “A Harp of Fishbones,” “The Boy with a Wolf’s Foot,” “The Lost Five Minutes,” “The Dark Streets of Kimball’s Green,” “More Than You Bargained For,” “Nutshells, Seashells,” “A Room Full of Leaves,” “Mrs Nutti’s Fireplace,” and “Humblepuppy.”

The Underground Guide to Computer Security: Slightly askew advice on protecting your PC and what’s on it, by Michael Alexander. Admittedly, this but an overview of computer security issues, and some of the stuff might even be outdated (published back in 1996). But methinks it’s still a good, clear (such a rare thing in tech books) overview for newbies. Particularly liked Chapter 5, “Secret Messages and John Hancocks,” about encryption and digital signatures.

Aphrodite: a Memoir of the Senses, by Isabel Allende. A collection of essays about food and eroticism, or erotic food, or gastronomic erotica. Anyhow, very nicely written —although I’m reading it in bits and pieces. Cool information, although a rather derogatory side comes out whenever she mentions S&M, extremely strange food items, and so forth. Ah, different expectations.

Maximum Security: A Hacker’s guide to protecting your Internet site and network, by Anonymous. At nearly 900 pages (1st edition, 1997), I barely made a crack in this. Has a kind of foreboding/pedantic tone at times. I should really check out the 2nd edition published in 1998. Seemed to be dissed by readers on the site as being too much of an overview, for newbies —but, hell, the point is that most folks are newbies about this issue. Nevertheless, I need to keep this on my list for future reference. (Side note: some reviewers recommended Klaner & Renehan’s Hacker Proof: the Ultimate Guide to Network Security. Older, published in 1997, 600 pages. Perhaps another thing to check out…)

Heaven’s Reach, by David Brin. The final book in the “new” (latest) Uplift Trilogy; the first two books were Brightness Reef and Infinity’s Shore. Intra- and intergalactic space opera, no surprise. What grabs my attention the most are the various orders of life (not just oxygen-breathers, but also hydrogen-breathers, machine intelligences, and so forth). Of course, the oxygen-breathers get the vast majority of air-play (as it were). Not a great novel, although I was charmed by the adventuring gang of multi-species kids.

100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Terry Carr and Martin H. Greenberg. One of the worst anthologies I’ve read. Only one title stood out as worthwhile, “The Anatomy Lesson,” by Scott Sanders. With other excellent short story collections (like the one edited by Borges et al.) and short short story anthologies (e.g., as edited by Shapard) in existence, I’m amazed that such a large amount of drivel made it under one cover. The supposedly witty subtitles under each story are hackneyed and sometimes offer annoying spoilers.

The Book of Fantasy, edited by Jorge Luis Borges. Finally finished this! I had been plowing my way through this one for nearly six years, but it does contain some priceless stories. Highly, highly recommended as a wonderful anthology of fantastic fiction (as opposed to the awful Asimov collection). Stories are from all over the world, and range from short shorts to novelettes.

Numbers in the Dark, by Italo Calvino. Am slowly making my way through this anthology… Some of the stories remind me of the odd magical realism of Borges. But a few are kind of dull.

Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman. Excellent book! It’s the dairy of a teenaged girl from the 13th century. Very amusing and funny in many places. Catherine reminds me very much of Amy and her friends Susa and Molly in Rachel Hartman’s Amy Unbounded comic series.

Boy, by Roald Dahl. Very amusing autobiographical snippets from the person who brought us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl certainly knew how to add hilarious and irreverent tones while describing scenes from his childhood: everything from mischief in the local candy store to substituting goat droppings for tobacco.

Diaspora, by Greg Egan. An ambitious work concerning the future of humanity. What I liked: how (many but not all) humans evolved into sentient software (“citizen of a polis”), sentient robots (“gleisners”) or genetically modified hominids (“exuberant fleshers,” as opposed to “static fleshers” who were remained vanilla homo sapiens); and how the story line progresses in a non-linear, but rather exponential fashion. What I didn’t like: spent way too much time on technobabble, too little time on character and societal development. Argh, this must be the most common failing of hard sci-fi. Don’t mind working a bit to understand (and hopefully appreciate) a piece, but geez, I have no interest in straining myself to understand topics I’m not a guru of, like astrophysics and particle physics.

Wage Slave No More: An Independent Contractor’s Legal Guide, by attorney Stephen Fishman. A superb reference for the freelance, self-employed and independently contracted type of folk. It’s another fine publication by Nolo Press. Highly recommended.

Burning Chrome, William Gibson. Really enjoyed “Johnny Mnemonic.” The other ones all seemed the same, though.

Virtual Light, William Gibson. Compared with Neuromancer, this was pretty light reading. Was okay; Gibson didn’t seem to do much at all with the object of the title, a pair of glasses which emit “virtual light,” a fascinating way of information retrieval in 3D. One or two of the characters appear again in Idoru.

Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, edited by Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel. An anthology of queer fantasy. Unfortunately, I’m unimpressed with the vast majority of stories here. Many of them have fascinating scenes/environments, but many of the plots and characters didn’t do much for me. The better ones include “Water Snakes,” by Holly Wade Matter, “The King’s Folly,” by James A Moore, and “There Are Things Which Are Hidden from the Eyes of the Everyday,” by Simon Sheppard.

The Blue Place, by Nicola Griffith. It’s certainly no Slow River, but Griffith’s writing is clear and mature. Rather than science fiction, this book falls under the realm of mystery, where a tough ex-cop investigates the supposed drug-related murder of an art appraiser. Was never a big fan of reading mysteries (though I sure enjoy watching Jeremy Brett’s version of Sherlock Holmes and the Inspector Morse TV series), and this one fell in that pigeon hole. After all, I don’t have much fun when I’ve already figured out the solution before the main character does.

“Yaguara,” by Nicola Griffith (from Nebula Awards 32). About a young photographer who travels to Belize to document an obscure Mayan site. Insert legend of mysterious jaguars wondering around. Add some eroticism. Not too bad.

Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones. A books set in the universe (multiverse!) of Charmed Life. Very wacky, funny story about schoolchildren trying to escape a witch-hunt in a world where witchcraft is punishable by death.

A Tale of Time City, by Diana Wynne Jones. A girl from 1939 England is kidnapped and taken to a city outside of time and normal space, under the mistaken belief that she can save the destruction of the city. Though I’m not a great fan of time-travel stories, this one was easy understand and fun to read.

Aunt Maria, by Diana Wynne Jones. About how a couple of kids deal with their creepy, sweet relative. Twas okay.

Hexwood, by Diana Wynne Jones. This is one of Jones’ most popular books. Unfortunately it kinda missed the spot for me. I’m not too keen on time-travel/time-weirdness plots…and the Arthurian references didn’t do too much for me.

Eight Days of Luke, by Diana Wynne Jones. Rather amusing reformation of the Norse mythologies, involving a boy who has to deal with awful relatives as well as odd Nordic goings-on…

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. This is the first book I’ve read by this writer of fantasy for youths. It was fun reading it now, and methinks I would’ve had a great time reading it when I was a kid, too! Basically about the elder sister of three who, thinking she’s doomed to a dreary life, somehow manages to seek out and discover her fortune.

Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones. About a boy and his overbearing sister attending a rather exclusive school for witchcraft. This book and Howl’s Moving Castle shared a character trait I appreciate: a protagonist with low self-esteem who develops at a realistic manner and rate. (Rather rare in fiction, be it from a book, comics, film or television.)

North Wind, by Gwyneth Jones. A most fascinating view of aliens…who are truly alien. Something far different from the biped “aliens” seen in Star Trek! All wrapped around an intriguing tale of humans battling each other over gender —not simply male vs. female, but mostly over historical gender identities and cultural traits.

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.H. Konigsberg. Okay book about a girl who runs away from home (with her younger brother as the treasurer of their traveling funds), to stay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. An anthology of short fiction. I haven’t managed to read all the stories yet, but there are two that are hilarious: “The First Contact with Gorgonois” and “The Ascent of the North Face.”

Cult TV: The Essential Critical Guide, edited by Jon E. Lewis and Penny Stempel. A compendium of television shows from the 1950s through the 1990s. This guide has definite British slant: American cult shows not mentioned include Isis; Remington Steele; Forever Knight (Canadian, actually); cartoons by the group who brought you Rocky & Bullwinkle and Underdog, even Warner Bros. cartoons; multi-writer/director sci-fi/horror series like the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Tales from the Dark Side, Alfred Hitchcock Presents; weirdo “real life” series like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and In Search of….

Fairyland, by Paul J. McAuley. This book had potential, with its tale of bioengineering to the point of raising intelligence and bringing creatures to sentience. All mixed in with some fairy-tale aspects (fey and Central European mythos) tossed in. The technobabble got annoying, reminding me much of tedious molecular biology textbooks.

The Moon and the Sun, by Vonda McIntyre. Unlike her sci-fi works, this novel is more a period piece set during the 17th century, in the time and place of Louis XIV’s court at Versailles. Focuses on a young woman, who grew up in the French colony of Martinique, and who must come to terms with the strict yet intriguing etiquette and culture of the Royal Court and the Catholic Church. She’s assisting her older brother in the research of a sea monster, which comes in direct conflict with the world around her. Not nearly as excellent as Dreamsnake, but a good luscious read nonetheless.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Gregory Maguire. Really cool characters, especially Elphaba, the Witch of the West. She’s a delightfully cranky scientist; her sister (the Witch of the East) is a religious fanatic; and Glinda as a young social climber is fun to read. Annoyances include Maguire’s attempts to use magical realism (it is Oz, fer cryin’ out loud!) and the nearly Hollywood ending.

Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin. Originally read all six of the Tales novels about four years ago. After re-watching the PBS production with a bunch of friends recently, I felt the sudden urge to re-read these delightful stories of a group of friends, lovers and associates who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. A strong and amusing reminder, albeit fictional, of (1) how people do change (for better and worse), and (2) how strong the small-world syndrome exists around here.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. Many people recommended this to me. It was a long, tedious read. Yes, there was a strong religious thread, but what really grated was how the author obsessively over-intellectualized and analyzed Catholicism. Somewhat desolate world, with unmoving characters and theme.

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami. A fascinating story of two worlds: one of a data-launderer in near-future Japan, and another of a small, strange town filled with odd characters and…unicorns —and how the worlds become related. Although the pacing seems slow, it somehow works well. The film noir-like language of the Japanese world contrasts nicely with the near fantasy of the town. Quite cool.

Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell. Really enjoyed the description of Karana, an Native American girl who adapted to living alone and became self-sufficient on the island. Folks who think survival and physical skills are easily obtained (especially in a role playing context) ought to read this!

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, Spider Robinson. They weren’t kidding when they said that Robinson is the empath of sci-fi writing. Although the voice of the narrator gets trite in the later stories, the overall writing shows that the author seems to care about his characters, as well as have caring characters.

Factoring Humanity, by Robert J. Sawyer. Amazing story about the lives and research of a university couple, and the study of extraterrestrial contact and futuristic computing. Heather is a Jungian psychologist who’s trying to make heads or tails out of alien transmissions from Alpha Centauri; Kyle is a computer scientist who works on quantum computing and artificial intelligence. Their lives are falling apart and coming together in fascinating ways, and Sawyer does a wonderful job of tying the different issues to each other. Although I do recommend this book, he does drop the ball on how some issues are related (or not)…maybe a sequel? I doubt it.

The Anarchists’ Convention, by John Sayles. An anthology in which the title story seems to be the best. The rest are unremarkable.

Dreamships, by Melissa Scott. Another sci-fi book about AI that had potential. About a ship crew who has a not-so-routine job of running a ship with an interestingly designed computer. Damn, it took nearly a third of the book to get going —not that the content of that portion was boring (it wasn’t), it’s just the pacing was way out of whack compared to the rest of the book. And it was annoying when the main character, Jian, just keeps repeating “shut up” to her coworker Vaughn; just sounded silly, redundant and thrown away. As with the last Scott book I read, Shadow Man, Scott seems to have problems in the area story pacing. Sigh. But wait! There’s a sequel, Dreaming Metal (published 5 years later) that I ought to check out…

Shadow Man, by Melissa Scott. Reading this was like reading a more intricate and enjoyable version of The Left Hand of Darkness (sorry, Le Guin!), and better than Trouble and Her Friends, too. Fascinating universe where there five human genders; yep, 5: female, male, mem (XX and ovaries, but female-type external sexual traits), fem (XY and testes, but male-type external traits), and herm (true XX/XY hermaphrodites, with female and male gonads and external traits). However, on one far-flung planet the society only culturally/legally recognizes the two (formerly) conventional genders of male and female —even though all five genders exist on the planet! And the natives and non-native humans are economically dependent on one another. The main failing is that the end was paced too quickly, as if to hint that there ought to be a sequel: there isn’t one, and this book could stand on its own for the most part. Another problem is that the author kind of dropped a big inter-planetary disease issue too quickly. Oh well.

Trouble and Her Friends, by Melissa Scott. Intriguing, near future world where cyberlaws make life oppressive for netizens. Well-written, cool characters. One of the few pitfalls is that I couldn’t understand why the author decided that being queer was such a big deal. (That might sound strange, but that aspect seemed like it was used in a rather cheap way, imho.) Still, a very worthwhile cyberpunk book.

Sudden Fiction: American Short-short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. A good collection of 1 to 5 page stories. I enjoyed quite a few (big list time ;-): “Turning,” by Lynda Sexson, “Tickits,” by Paul Milenski, “Speed of Light,” by Pat Rushin, “Reunion,” by John Cheever, “Thank You, M’am,” by Langston Hughes, “Sitting,” by H.E. Francis, “The Hatchet Man in the Lighthouse,” by William Peden, “The Strong Man,” by George Garrett, “Reading the Paper,” by Ron Carlson, and “The Signing,” by Stephen Dixon.

Sudden Fiction (Continued): 60 New Short-short stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. Like its predecessor, an excellent collection of short shorts. Unlike its predecessor, all of the stories I enjoyed seemed to fall into the first half of the book. Oh well! Faves: “My Life as a Bat,” by Margaret Atwood, “Underwater,” by Luis Arturo Ramos, “Grandma’s Tales,” by Andrew Lam, “The Writers’ Model,” by Molly Giles, “On the Rope,” by Mark Richard, “Flying,” by Stephen Dixon, “War and Peace,” by Thomas McGuane, “Tergvinder’s Stone,” by W.S. Merwin, “Jacob’s Chicken,” by Milos Macourek, “Sister Francetta and the Pig Baby,” by Kenneth Bernard, “The Flood,” by Joy Harjo, “The Tablecloth of Turin,” by Ron Carlson, “Where You Live Now,” by Mary Swan, “Dead Weight,” by Mario Roberto Morales, “Graceful Exits,” by Traci L. Gourdine, “Arnie’s Test Day,” by Barry Peters, “The Fish,” by Steve Adams, “A Simple Death,” by Yahya Gharagozlou, “How One Becomes the Other,” by Lee K. Abbott, and “Symphony,” by Pam Houston.

Sudden Fiction: International, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. Not as many good stories as in the previous two volumes, but there are some notables: “The Elephant,” by Slawomir Mrozek, “Welcoming the Board of Directors,” by Peter Handke, “The Boy,” by Joyce Carol Oates, “Blue,” by David Brooks, “Iguana Hunting,” by Hernán Lara Zavala, “Disappearing,” by Monica Wood, “Arrest Me,” by Denis Hirson, “Orion,” by Jeanette Winterson, “The Verb To Kill,” by Luisa Valenzuela, “The Last Days of a Famous Mime,” by Peter Carey, “The School,” by Donald Barthelme, “The Fifth Story,” by Clarice Lispector, “Las Papas,” by Julio Ortega, and “Acknowledgments,” by Paul Theroux.

Proteus Combined, by Charles Sheffield. Actually a modified two-novel book. The plot and characters, especially in the first part, are predictable and the dialog annoyingly flat. Like Hemingway describing a trip to the moon (but as boring and simpleminded as possible). The only redeeming feature is the author’s idea of humans altering their anatomy and physiology using biofeedback. Different forms were used for extreme environments (outerspace travel, low gravity engineering, underwater, etc.), as well as physical and sexual enhancement.

Résumé with Monsters, by William Browning Spencer. Ever thought your life was influenced or manipulated directly by mythological/legendary forces…such as those of Cthulhu? For Philip Kenan, that might be the case. Not bad, amusing idea, but not as great fun as I had hoped.

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. Whee! A well-written, enjoyable fictional history covering World War II and the evolution of cryptography —namely about the lives of some men during WWII, and their descendants in the present day. Yes, there are moments of Long Technological Discussions. But unlike the rambling technobabble from Egan’s Diaspora which alienated me, Stephenson makes an effort to keep my attention with his amusing prose. And he knows how to pace and resolve the myriad plot threads, unlike the disappointing moments in Melissa Scott’s novels and Sawyer’s Factoring Humanity. Although the bathroom humor got on my nerves, there are excellent moments of self-reflection. Don’t miss this book: Stephenson continues to mature well as a writer.

Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling. Fascinating early cyberpunk novel about a woman’s career in an alternative (by modern corporate standards) Internet-like company. The “punk” aspect isn’t really, but the “cyber” and the intriguing/extreme connotations do apply. One small misgiving is that all the relationships were portrayed in a very heterosexist manner.

Vacuum Flowers, by Michael Swanwick. This is an amazing cyberpunk story, filled with an intriguing plot and cool biotechnology. About a woman who must come to terms with who she was, is and will be —in a world where psychological reprogramming (voluntary and otherwise!) is commonplace. Much, much more enjoyable than his other novel I had read, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, which I keenly loathe.

RE/Search #15: Incredibly Strange Music, volume II, edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno. Lots of interesting opinions by Jello Biafra.

Stuart Little, by E.B. White. Rather disappointing, compared with his other works, Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan. The main character, Stuart (a mouse born in a family of humans), has a stilted personality, and the ending of the book seems abrupt/unclear (in an unsatisfying way). Guess I don’t understand what the fuss was all about.

Free Fall, by David Wiesner. The first(?) picture book (no text) by noted children’s author/artist, based on his undergraduate work at RISD. About an interesting boy’s dream that goes through intriguing realms.

Hurricane, by David Wiesner. Memories of a tree and hurricane from Wiesner’s childhood (pictures with text). Amusing bits with family cat in practically every scene.

The Wild Hunt, by Jane Yolen. An illustrated story on the Celtic Eternal Battle. Nice resolution, but not terribly surprising. I’m afraid I haven’t read that many Yolen books to be impressed by her writing, but that can change ;-).