Friday, March 31, 2017

Book Review: Isaac's Storm

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Erik Larson
History, meteorology

I expected to really like this book. Erik Larson is a master of non-fiction with the pacing and drive of fiction. The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake in particular are great reads--histories that read like thrillers.

Isaac's Storm reads like fiction, too. In fact, it reads a little bit too much like fiction. Larson's reach exceeds his grasp. He's trying to achieve a kind of profundity; he wants to say something about hubris, about technology, about society, about the turn of the century, about nature. But in his eagerness to present these greater themes, Larson--at best--distorts and embellishes his facts.

A certain amount of license is permissible in a book like this. If you know that the eponymous Isaac Cline took a carriage ride, and you know that the roads were surfaced with oyster shells, it's OK to say that "The wheels of Isacc's sulky broadcast a reassuring crunch as they moved over the pavement of crushed oyster shells." It's a little less forgivable in my book to describe--poetically, and without attribution or citation--how things looked and felt and seemed to the people involved, but it's a venial sin. There's too much of it in Isaac's Storm, and it gets rather purple on occasion, but I could forgive it.

However, when part of your attempted theme involves blackening people's reputations, it's not acceptable to make up stuff about those people. For example:
There were dreams. Isaac fell asleep easily each night and dreamed of happy times, only to wake to gloom and grief. He dreamed that he had saved [his wife]. He dreamed of the lost baby.
Only if you happen to look in the end notes will you find this:
248. There were dreams: I base this observation on human nature. What survivor of a tragedy has never dreamed that the outcome had been different.
And, similarly, this:
232. Isaac checked: what Isaac Cline did in the days immediately after the storm is a mystery. I have based this paragraph and others that follow on my sense of Isaac's character . . .
And this:
258. Isaac kept the ring: Isaac nowhere states this. It is conjecture, purely, but I base it on a number of things, particularly: Isaac's essentially romantic character . . .
These all come near the end of a book in which Larson uses Isaac Cline (who was the resident Weather Bureau meteorologist) as a symbol and exemplar of Man's Hubris in the Face of Nature; casts doubt on his personal accounts of the event; downplays his role in warning the city of Galveston; plays up his rivalry with his brother Joseph; and dramatizes his mistaken decision to trust in the solidity of his house. He may well be in the right, but his technique is not kosher. It's one thing to ornament the documentation if you're not trying to make value judgments--if, let us say, you're presenting an allegedly-straight recitation of events. When you do make value judgments, and then support those value judgments with truthy factoids that you made up, the term for what you're doing is no longer "nonfiction"; it's "propaganda".

I really did want to like Isaac's Storm. Instead, it substantially lessened my confidence in Erik Larson as an author.

Isaac's Storm has a strong crossover with The Weather Experiment, which details 19th-century scientists' first attempts to understand and predict weather. Another hurricane history--and in my opinion a better book--is R. A. Scotti's Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire

The Collapsing Empire
John Scalzi
Science fiction

This reads exactly like a political space opera written by John Scalzi. Which it is.

What, you wanted more in the way of a review? Fine. The Collapsing Empire combines John Scalzi's strengths and weaknesses as a writer with the strengths and weaknesses of the political-intrigue space opera as a genre. If you like these two things, you'll like the combination.

That's still not enough for you? Okay, here's the checklist. The Collapsing Empire has:
  • Funny, snarky dialogue.
  • A great opening scene, which is unfortunately a little bit disconnected from what follows.
  • Intrigue, politics, a scheming villain, several reasonably-appealing protagonists.
  • Adequate but shallow characterization.
  • Less idea content than in a typical Scalzi book. The best idea--build an interstellar empire that stays peaceful because no planet in it has the resources to survive without the others, due to legal monopolies--isn't really built out.
  • A bit of action.
  • A strong whiff of Dune--not in the setting or in the writing, but in the machinations. (Look what I found after having drafted that sentence.)
  • A 34th-century setting in which the characters are nonetheless recognizably people like us.
  • A lot of profanity.
  • Some non-explicit sex.
  • Infodumps.
  • Not much in the way of description. I have no clear idea of what the characters look like, for example.
  • Quick pacing.
  • A story with a beginning, middle, and end, but one which is nonetheless unmistakably setup for the main story.
I read half the book riding a train to work, and the other half riding a train home. I'll read the next one. The Collapsing Empire isn't the strongest of Scalzi's novels. On the other hand, it scratches the itch for Classic Style Science Fiction, and that's good enough for me.

For a somewhat different reaction, look here.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Book Review: The Keeper of Lost Causes

The Keeper of Lost Causes
Jussi Adler-Olsen

It's frequently reported that the Scandinavian countries are the happiest in the world. You couldn't prove it by their burgeoning crime-fiction scene, though. The standard Scandinavian mystery has a morose lead character with some kind of dark past and/or present, a crime with bleak psychological overtones, a steady drumbeat of depressive prose, and a downbeat conclusion.

The Keeper of Lost Causes delivers on all these fronts. It's a police procedural rather than a whodunit or a thriller, so there's not much of a puzzle. As an experienced mystery reader, I spotted what was going on at page 123; I was confirmed in my analysis--which was not a very startling one--on page 300. 

In between, the book relies on pacing. This isn't a bad strategy. There are some good scenes. Plot developments happen with some regularity. It's interesting to watch the main character following the thread from plot point to plot point. I could have done with less of his pointless and feckless personal life, personally; his assistant is a more interesting and appealing character than he is.

In summary: The Keeper of Lost Causes was OK. It would be a good book for an airplane ride, or for anyone who likes the standard Nordic mystery, or for genre readers who aren't looking for anything new or challenging. I liked it enough to finish it in a few sittings. I didn't like it enough to look for any other books in the series.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Book Review: The Voices Within

The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
Charles Fernyhough
Cognitive science

The Voices Within is an outstanding book--for the right sort of reader. That reader is someone who's interested in science, who's not put off by a modest dusting of scientific terminology, who's interested in the nitty-gritty details of experiments.

That's me, needless to say. If it's you, read The Voices Within. Your reward will be a wealth of fascinating and thought-provoking detail. Some of these are simple eye-openers: I would never have guessed, for example, that a non-trivial fraction of people report that they never think in words. Some of them are more food for thought: Fernyhough devotes quite a lot of space to exploring the connection between ordinary train-of-thought inner speech and the experience of people who hear voices. If the conclusions he draws are sometimes tentative, well, that's science for you.

In fact, Charles Fernyhough is a novelist as well as a scientist. The Voices Within doesn't always feature novelistic prose, although it does so in spots. There is, however, a short but interesting segment on how writers "hear" their characters' voices. The humanist connection comes through most clearly is in the deeply sensitive treatment of voice-hearers (Fernyhough avoids terms such as "auditory hallucinations"). The case histories that he cites are touching and memorable, as well as being illuminating. 

This is a science that's still in its infancy. Only recently have scientists had the tools (fMRI, mainly) to investigate inner speech in any but the most rudimentary fashion. Even the questions themselves are still being refined. I hope that future books will be as enlightening as this one.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The West: Arches and Canyonlands

Double Arch, Arches National Park
Landscape Arch
Delicate Arch
La Sal Mountains
Grand View Point, Canyonlands
Canyons and badlands

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The West: Bryce Canyon

The amphitheater
Rainbow Point (elevation 9115')
Queen Victoria (left)
Hoodoos from the hiking trails
Late afternoon

Monday, March 20, 2017

The West: Zion National Park

The Narrows
Virgin River
Upper Emerald Pool
Canyon floor from the West Rim
Canyon wall
Looking back from the park's east entrance
This is what happens to trees out there

Book Review: The Devil in Music

The Devil in Music
Kate Ross

Historical mysteries are tricky. Some authors seem to believe that their primary goal is to impress the reader with how much they know about the period. Others use characters who are obviously modern people with modern attitudes in period drag. A non-trivial number simply don't know how to write a mystery plot.

Kate Ross did it better than most. Her period is the 1820s, and her characters are of their time (her detective. Julian Kestrel, is an English dandy in the mode of Beau Brummel). She's got a deft hand with period detail; instead of inserting a factoid every few paragraphs, or smothering the reader under periodic infodumps, she works it seamlessly into the narrative. The Devil in Music is a historical mystery that actually feels historical.

It does not, perhaps, feel quite so mysterious. The central twist in the murder plot is taken from a classic Dorothy Sayers novel. There's also a more intrigue-oriented side to the plot, and that's more satisfying. Without spoiling anything, there's one very clever and completely appropriate piece of misdirection that deserves some kudos. Finally, the resolution involves some pretty good character development.

So: The Devil in Music didn't make my jaw drop, but I quite enjoyed reading it. We already own the first book in the series, Cut to the Quick; now I want to read the others.

If you could somehow combine Kate Ross with Susan Spann, you'd get something spectacular. Spann doesn't have Ross's writing chops, but she's a better technician.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Book Review: The Rise of Athens

The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World's Greatest Civilization
Anthony Everitt

The Rise of Athens is a pretty good general history, concentrating sixth through the fourth centuries B.C. It isn't particularly ground-breaking; Everitt himself stipulates that he's relied heavily on such familiar sources as Herodotus and (especially) Thucydides, and anyone who's familiar with these sources won't find much that's novel in the large-scale picture. (Practically speaking, what else is there?)

On the other hand, if you're not versed on the subject, The Rise of Athens would be a good place to start. Everitt strikes a good middle ground between being hyper-skeptical and completely credulous when it comes to using those sources. The book is written in a pleasing conversational tone. The organization is basically chronological, so it's easy to follow. The main actors are scrupulously identified (and we're reminded periodically of who was who), so it's unusually easy to follow--kudos for this. There are a number of insightful asides into such topics as hoplite warfare, the cost of maintaining a galley, ancient Greek homosexuality, red-figure and black-figure pottery, and so forth. 

On the third hand, The Rise of Athens follows its sources in being largely a politico-military history. It doesn't give a lot of space to Athenian drama, for example, and it gives rather less to Athenian philosophy--both areas of some significance. I also suspect that Everitt over-emphasizes the traditional Clash of Civilizations/Greeks vs. Persians/Freedom vs. Subjugation aspects of his story.

As regards the subtitle: it's hyperbole--but it's pardonable hyperbole. If you read The Rise of Athens you will occasionally be reminded that the past is an alien country. Far more often, though, you'll be struck by the similarities. The questions that the ancient Athenians grappled with--the proper relationship between the state and religion, for example, or the demands of maintaining an alliance against a common foe--are still with us. The extraordinary credit due to the Hellenes is that they were the first people whose answers to those questions are, however greatly mutated, still with us as well.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Back Again

Blogging has been light because I have been conducting certain highly-sensitive investigations in a Secret Undisclosed Location code-named "The West." To my loyal readers (a group whose size--and I do not mean to brag here--reaches the exalted plane of "several"), I say: fear not. I have returned.

As a result of my investigations, I can divulge that "The West" is large and contains many brightly-colored rocks.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: Empire Games

Empire Games
Charles Stross
Science fiction

In theory, Charles Stross ought to be one of my favorite authors. He writes idea-oriented science fiction. He's not postmodernist or relentlessly pessimistic or anything-punk. He's a friend of John Scalzi. His "Laundry Files" series is funny and imaginative.

And yet . . . I find that most of Stross's novels have something off-putting about them. Sometimes I just don't like the main character(s). Other times Stross is so busy stuffing ideas into the story that the characters have nothing much to do. And once or twice I've hit something that just makes me say "Ew. Do not want to read."

Empire Games is my favorite non-Laundry-Files Stross so far. It's a sequel to his earlier "Merchant Princes" books, but it's not necessary to have read those first. (However, Empire Games is full of spoilers for the earlier books; you'll lose something by reading them in reverse order.) I liked the protagonist, at least when she wasn't being wimpy. The central idea is a familiar one--Harry Turtledove used it in his "Crosstime Traffic" YA series, to take one contemporary example--so Stross doesn't have to spend all his time riffing on it. The pacing is outstanding; I'd even go so far as to dub Empire Games a page turner.

My chief quarrel with Empire Games is that it takes the main characters all the way up to page 262 to do something they should have done on page 30 or so. Yes, there's plenty of in-story justification for it, but that doesn't make it not irritating. It happens (I think) because of the political metaphysics Stross is using. I won't attempt to characterize his personal politics--he can do that for himself--but in Empire Games there's an unstated assertion which I find both tedious and contrafactual. Namely: There are no good governments. There are only bad governments, some of which oppose one another.

I'll hold off on critiquing this idea in detail. Suffice it to say that it (a) is deployed to prevent the characters from acting rationally, and (b) makes it very hard to care which side comes out on top, or even whether either side survives at all.

Happily, there is a caveat to my caveat. This is the first book of a series. I do plan to read the next one; see prior remarks re: pacing. Hence, I reserve my final judgment. Watch this space.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Book Review: Death Ship

Death Ship
Jim Kelley

Death Ship is an unremarkable British police procedural. The setting is fairly well rendered; the main characters are pleasant but forgettable; the plot is quotidian, and regrettably partakes of the great ur-plot of modern British mystery fiction. Death Ship could serve as an episode of Midsomer Murders, except that it lacks the farcical trimmings that ultimately ruined the TV show.