Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Review: Death of an Airman

Death of an Airman
Christopher St. John Sprigg

This is another British Library Crime Classic reprint. I approve thoroughly of the project--resurrecting Golden Age mystery fiction--but my prior foray into the product was not a complete success. 

I liked Death of an Airman much better. It's not a work of staggering genius, and it owes a little debt to a certain Dorothy Sayers classic, but it's a decent fair-play mystery with an unusual setting. The writing is clear, the characters are adequately delineated, and the pacing is good. There are, perhaps, too many minor characters, as well as too many detectives, but overall I'd recommend the book to anyone who enjoys the traditional mystery novel.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: Everything Explained That Is Explainable

Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911
Books, business

This is, to my slight regret, a book that's more about the business of publishing the Encyclopaedia Britannica than about creating the content of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. As business biographies go, it's quite good; the story is a rich one, almost soap-operatic. There are several larger-than-life characters whom Boyles intelligently keeps (mostly) at the center of his stories. Nonetheless, I think he just missed writing a great book, as opposed to a pretty good one.

Mind you, I can understand how it happened. There's a novelistic quality to the story arc. As Boyles tells it, the central conflict was between the English establishment and the American Horace Everett Hooper, who used American-style advertising to (arguably) save The Times of London and to (undoubtedly) boost encyclopedia sales. Among other things, it's an interesting retrospective on an era when the gap between cultures was much wider, when Progress was all the rage, and when privileged expertise could assume a near-sanctified level of authority.

Great stuff, sure, but where's the titular Encyclopaedia? A little too often the answer is "lurking in the wings somewhere." If it's true, as is often said, that the 1911 Britannica was an achievement of singular brilliance, elegance, and scholarship, what made it so? Boyles touches on the answers--for one thing, it was conceived and executed as a single whole rather than as a collection of articles--but I think he spends too little time there, and too much time in business trivia. 

Everything Explained That Is Explainable is a still a good read. It's lucid, pleasingly snide in places, judicious, and well-structured. If it sometimes wanders away from what I think is the main point, that's a venial rather than a mortal sin; but it's still a tiny bit of a shame.

The best-known works of this sort are Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything, both of which deal with the similarly magisterial Oxford English Dictionary. My faithful readers will also note some crossover appeal with You Could Look It Up, which offers some insight into the insanely difficult and time-consuming process of creating good, timely reference books--and which makes Horace Hooper's achievement seem all the more remarkable by comparison.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Review: The Sunday Philosophy Club

The Sunday Philosophy Club
Alexander McCall Smith

A mystery novel for people who like to pat themselves on the back for not reading mystery novels.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Book Review: Jungle of Stone

Jungle of Stone: The True story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya
William Carlsen
Biography, Exploration

Jungle of Stone has mysterious lost cities, jungles, revolutions, intrepid explorers, and a touch of international rivalry. What more could you ask for?

Oh, and it's also pretty well written. It doesn't quite have the driving novel-like pace of, say, The Lost City of Z, but its more informative overall. The illustrations, from one of the titular Two Men (Frederick Catherwood), are flat-out gorgeous. My only gripe is that the information on the Maya themselves is confined to one chapter; I'd have traded a bit of the travel narrative for some more data.

The aforementioned The Lost City of Z  by David Grann is a great, quick read. Alexander von Humboldt makes a couple of appearances here, as well. On a slightly different note, Michael D. Coe's Breaking the Maya Code is a must-read for anyone interested in ancient writings and their deciphering.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind
Patrick Rothfuss

I tend to avoid genre fantasy nowadays--even though the genre is fundamental to my identity as a reader. To steal a quip attributed to Samuel Johnson, that which is good isn't original, and that which is original isn't good. There's plenty around that's neither.

Swords-and-horses fantasy, in particular, excites my liveliest suspicion. I did not (and do not) care for A Game of Thrones, to take one obvious example. I made an exception for The Name of the Wind, because several people whose judgment I respect recommended it. Even so, it took me a while to work myself up to the task.

And on balance, it was decent. I wouldn't recommend The Name of the Wind to anyone who isn't a lover of genre fantasy. (Or a 13-year-old, which is a heavy overlap anyway.) For anyone who is, it's readable. If it were a food, it wouldn't be filet mignon, but it wouldn't be deep-fried Twinkies either. It'd be, say, a hamburger. Not a Big Mac. Not an Artisanal Grass-Fed Beef Caramelized-Onion-and-Kale Burger. A hamburger.

Let's start with the obvious commendation: I finished it. At 600+ pages, that's no small thing. Then, too, the writing--particularly some of the descriptive passages--is better than average. The characterization is also better than average, if not up to mainstream-literary standards. There isn't an excess of magic (which lazy authors use in place of actual thought), and such magic as exists is nicely described. It is, in short, comfortable.

It's also familiar. Some of The Name of the Wind is reminiscent of the Earthsea trilogy,* particularly A Wizard of Earthsea. More of it recalls Harry Potter, including analogues for Snape and Draco Malfoy. There's a brief but explicit bow to Tolkien. There's what almost has to be a one-sentence wink to Terry Pratchett. I see echoes of some more modern genre books as well, such as Scott Lynch's "Locke Lamora" series--particularly the third book, The Republic of Thieves; though in this case, it must be said, the resemblance is not in the plotting nor the pacing, which in The Name of the Wind are episodic and decidedly unhurried.

Now, part of the appeal of fantasy is that it's evocative. Far more so than its sibling genres, fantasy is about the echoes. Great fantasy reminds us of fairy tales, myths, and epics: of Beowulf facing the dragon, of King Arthur and Modred, of Robin Hood, of Greek or Norse gods, of the sheer wonder that we remember from our first trips to the well of Story, when we were young and the world was wider and the colors brighter.

Less-than-great genre fantasy reminds us of other genre fantasy. That's The Name of the Wind's limitation. It was a fun read. I'll probably pick up the next volume from the library. I won't put off reading anything else to get to it, though.

*Yes, trilogy. The misguided rumor that there were further books in the series is unworthy of discussion in these pages electrons.

Monday, August 15, 2016

And Speaking of "The Laundry Files" ...

Anent this ... 
I have had to trash an entire draft of the next Laundry novel because I tried to satirize British politics, and British politics is beyond satire. --Charles Stross
More classified, sanity-destroying, mankind-was-not-meant-to-know details here. With spoilers for a novel that will never exist--except in some unspeakable, eldritch, mind-warping alternative dimension!!!!!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: Door to Door

Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation
Edward Humes
2016, Books, Engineering, Sociology

The subtitle has some truth in it. Door to Door is, in places, magnificent. It's often maddening, too. In the best cases this is in agreement with Edward Humes's arguments. Other times, unfortunately, it's Humes himself who's maddening. Door to Door isn't really one book, in fact. It's two books, which happen to reside awkwardly between the same pair of covers.

Book A is what I recently called an empiricist book about how transportation happens. That is, it's about the magic of moving stuff (and people, but mainly stuff) around. This book is genuinely fascinating and enlightening. It's what's described in the blurb. I would happily have read this book.

Book B is a book which should be entitled Why Cars Are Eeeevil (and How the Self-Driving Car Will Save Us All). It's a long, impassioned, well-written, impressively statistic-driven essay--I think I wouldn't be going too far in using the term "diatribe", with "rant" lurking in the wings--about Why Cars Are Evil.

I am not an unreceptive audience to this message. I read most of this book while riding commuter rail trains, which I take (in large part) because I think that cars really are evil. There's nothing wrong with this idea. I would happily have read Why Cars Are Eeeevil as well--and had many fewer reservations afterwards.

But Why Cars Are Eeeevil isn't a stand-alone; nor does it peacefully coexist with the original book, the one about logistics. You'll forgive me for observing that, in fact, it runs right over it, leaving its tire-riven corpse bleeding in the gutter. Humes gets so wound up in Why Cars Are Eeeevil that he neglects to finish the other book. His research never takes him outside of southern California. He dismisses the national freight railroad system in a sentence--a laudatory sentence, but still! One sentence! Pipelines and barges aren't mentioned at all.

Door to Door could be sliced up into a number of good Slate magazine articles. It could be split into two books, each of which would have something going for it. As one split-personality book, I'd have to rate it less "magnificent", more "maddening", and--I'm sorry to say it--something of a disappointment as well.

One of the best books ever written on the logistics of transportation is (naturally) by John McPhee: Uncommon Carriers. Rose George's 90% of Everything is also pretty good.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Book Review: Grunt

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
Mary Gentle

Mary Roach is a great writer--insightful, wide-ranging, off-kilter, and funny. Grunt is, as you'd expect, all of these things. The trouble, arguably, is that the subject matter isn't made for this kind of writing.

It's not that it's not interesting. I learned a little something about military clothing, and about reconstructive surgery, and how to sleep on a submarine, and dozens of other things. All the same, this is the first of Roach's books where I was intensely aware of what was left out--the entire Air Force, for example, which seems like a substantial oversight. Nor is there anything on (to take a few random bits that occur to me) body armor; burn treatment; dentistry; computers; battery technology; psychiatry; better mechanisms of actually, you know, shooting people; and so on, and on.

In short, "the curious science of humans at war" is just too big for a Mary Roach book. It's also, fundamentally, too serious. Roach is always an entertaining writer, but we're talking--at best--about people maiming and killing one another in organized ways and large numbers. Sometimes off-kilter and funny get awkward in this context. Roach is clearly aware of the problem: she doesn't mock anybody, and she's good at bringing in the occasional sobering turn. On the other hand, some of her topics are clearly chosen as being good fits for her approach. Sure, it's find to make fun of the search for the perfect military shark repellent . . . now, when the Pacific War has been over for seventy years and we know that it didn't work. That doesn't mean that it was a bad idea, or that it was done in bad faith, or even that it didn't produce useful negative scientific results.

Roach's previous books tend to be about semi-taboo subjects, such as dead people and the alimentary tract and sex. (Not all in one book, thankfully.) Her cockeyed yet insightful reportage works well there. It's a disarming way to learn something about things we're squeamish about. Grunt's subject matter is more somber than squeamish, and careful selection of which subject matter to include can't disguise the fact. I did enjoy reading it very much. I didn't think it fully did justice to its title.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Book Review: League of Dragons

League of Dragons
Naomi Novik

This is subtitled "The Last Temeraire Novel." That should give you a clue. If you like the Temeraire novels, you'll like League of Dragons. If you don't, you won't. If you've never read them, don't start here.

That's pretty much it. Novik is still good at the things she's good at, and still not good at the things she's not good at. She has no gift for creating memorable secondary characters. Her plotting is somewhat random; League of Dragons has a duel that leaves the main human character wounded, for example, which reads like an outtake and could easily have been cut. The action scenes can get a little bit repetitive, although they're well-written.

But her dragons are wonderful. They fully meet John W. Campbell's famous challenge ("Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man"). If housecats could talk, this is what they'd be like--self-centered, vain, competitive, and somehow lovable. The series isn't as good as its first book, but for a fantasy fan it's worth reading just for the dragons.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

For the Spammers

Here, spammers! Have some Internet Fuel!

Biscuit is poseable. I rolled him over on his back, and he just lay there. It's like he's an inaction figure.

"Every year, tragically, many of these mysterious yet beautiful wild creatures, driven by some mysterious impulse of an uncaring Nature--the moon? the tides?--will beach themselves."

Speaking of beaches, this was in the local Barnes & Noble.

Personally, I can't think of any pair of books more likely to both appeal to the same discerning buyer! 

Also, it's clear that Barnes & Noble frequents different beaches than I do.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Book Review: The Abyss Beyond Dreams

The Abyss Beyond Dreams
Peter F. Hamilton
Science fiction

The Abyss Beyond Dreams doesn't have a lot going for it. It has just enough, though. It's over 600 pages long, and I read it. I didn't love it, but I liked it enough to finish.

It doesn't need to be that long. The first 150 or so pages are, in effect, a prologue--in fact, they're two prologues, neither of then necessary. Their function is, apparently, to let Hamilton mention every piece of science-fiction technobabble he's ever dreamed up, as well as to haul in some characters who will never make an appearance again. He could have skipped it, since all the essential information is explained during the course of the actual plot. If you find your attention wandering, you can skip it too.

It doesn't have characterization, either. The characters are one-dimensional. It's the kind of book where every character can be fully encompassed by a pithy epithet. We get the Dedicated Revolutionary, the Brilliant Scientist-Hero, the Evil Dictator, and so forth.

Nor is it a Big Idea book. Nothing in The Abyss Beyond Dreams is terribly original. Some of it recalls Vernor Vinge's "Zones of Thought" galaxy. Other parts are reminiscent of Iain M. Banks. Yet other parts have a whiff of Greg Bear. The difference, however, is that Hamilton doesn't do anything with this stuff. Like the technology, it's just window dressing; you don't have to worry about it, as it doesn't really matter.

Really, The Abyss Beyond Dreams doesn't even make a lot of internal narrative sense. The plot holes are . . . substantial. E.g.: Nigel (the Brilliant Scientist-Hero) discovers that the [random tech jargon involving the word "quantum"] bomb could be used to [random tech jargon verb phrase] and thereby destroy the Void (the Bad Thing). OK, great. Why does he have to use the particular [random tech jargon] bombs that are already inside the Void? Why not send a message to your sponsors--which you can do, because blah blah something to do with dreams blah blah blah--saying "Hey, send in a few hundred [random tech jargon] Bombs!" There were many other examples.

So what does Peter F. Hamilton have? In a word, pacing. The Abyss Beyond Dreams is, if nothing else, a page-turner. I won't say I was deeply invested in the characters or the situation, but I did want to find out what happened next. That's something.