March 2008 Archives

Winter Rose is more of a fairy tale than an ordinary fantasy novel. It's about two sisters, one wild and free, other steady and stable, whose lives are changed by a new neighbour, Corbet Lynn. He returns to the family mansion where his father slayed his grandfather. The grandfather, a rather nasty person really, cursed his son on his last breath. But what was the curse about, exactly, and is Corbet threatened by that curse? Nobody seems to remember the exact words.

Rois, the wild sister, is enthralled by the curse and the mystery Corbet represents. Laurel, steady and to be married soon, falls for Corbet in different way. It's a busy autumn that eventually turns into a long, dark winter, with ill consequences. Patricia McKillip has weaved a beautiful story, perhaps a tad slow for my tastes, but very atmospheric nonetheless. Like I said, Winter Rose owes a lot to fairy tales and legends (Tam Lin is an important reference). Beautiful words, but I wouldn't have minded a slightly swifter plot. [ Winter Rose at Amazon.co.uk ]Winter Rose at LibraryThing ]

Martin Rees: Just Six Numbers

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The way our universe is depends on six numbers, pretty much. Two of those numbers are related to basic forces, two fix the size and texture of the universe and the final two fix the properties of space. The numbers have certain values and even the smallest changes in those numbers would lead to universes very much unlike our own.

That is all rather curious and interesting. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, uses these six numbers as a springboard to explain the current state of knowledge about our universe. This is a fairly short book, but it's packed full of knowledge. While Rees writes for the general public (and he writes well), understanding this book requires certain level of intellectual curiosity. The concepts he covers are so complicated, I think it would be rather hard to explain them with more clarity.

In any case, this is recommended reading for everyone interested in finding out how our universe came to be. [ Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (Science Masters) at Amazon.co.uk ]Just Six Numbers at LibraryThing ]

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author with a head full of ideas. I think his novels can't always keep up with his ideas, but these short stories work well. It's a creative collection of stories based on wild ideas. Some fall a bit short, but there are no misses in the collection and the stories range from quite good to very good.

The web site of this collection has six of the nine stories available. I think Craphound is the best of the bunch. 0wnz0red, which is my favourite of this collection, is available on Salon's web site. [ Place So Foreign and Eight More Stories, A at Amazon.co.uk ]A Place So Foreign and Eight More at LibraryThing ]

BTT: Cover-up

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From Booking Through Thursday:

While acknowledging that we can't judge books by their covers, how much does the design of a book affect your reading enjoyment? Hardcover vs. softcover? Trade paperback vs. mass market paperback? Font? Illustrations? Etc.?

It used to matter a lot. For a while I did most of my reading while carrying our son in a sling. He used to love sleeping that way and often slept for two hours. The sling left my hands free and I used that time for reading. As you can imagine, I really preferred small, light paperbacks at that point.

Now my favourite format is trade paperback. Trade paperbacks and hardcovers are usually most pleasant to read, as they often have slightly larger type. I have pretty good eyes, but still - larger type is more pleasing to read. Trade paperbacks beat hardcovers in weight, so they offer the best mix of features.

Airy, clear fonts are the best. Illustrations are usually a good thing, but I can live without. Maps I like a lot (thanks, BooksPlease, for reminding me of that).

As I mooch most of the books I read, I don't choose, I just grab whatever I can get. Given a choice, I would choose a trade paperback.

The Black Swan is an event that is impossible to predict, very unlikely to happen and causes a major impact. They can be disastrous or very beneficial, depending on their nature. In his book, Taleb discusses these swans and how to either avoid trouble or reap the benefits, for example in investing.

Most of the time, though, it seems he's on a mission against economists (and the people who hand out the Nobel prize in economics). While Taleb's ideas are interesting and enlightening - he certainly challenges people to think in a new way, which is always good - the writing is rambling and uneven.

I believe the Finnish translation I read was not quite as good as it should be and I wish I had read the book in English, but still - it's not as good a read as the best popular science books are. Still, The Black Swan is interesting enough to be worth reading, just skim the boring bits. (Review based on Finnish translation.) [ The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable at Amazon.co.uk ]The Black Swan at LibraryThing ]

Generation ship Argonos has travelled deep space for centuries looking for signs of life. By the time of this story, it's been years since their last visit on a planet. A strange signal lures Argonos to a distant planet, where the remains of a colony are found. There are no survivors, but instead something else, something rather creepy...

However, finding the planet is only a beginning. There's unrest among the passengers of the ship and then there's the question of another signal... Things get quite spooky, in a rather quiet and subtle way. This is not an action-packed story, but contains lots of quiet suspense. Some reviews claim the book leaves too many things unresolved and while that's true to some extent, it didn't bother me.

This book was originally published in US as Ship of Fools. Unto Leviathan is the British edition published by Orbit. [ Ship of Fools at Amazon.com ]Unto Leviathan at LibraryThing ]

This is a wonderful book. It's top class popular science: well written, fairly easy to understand and full of information about an engrossing topic. After you read this book, you view the world in a different light. It's easy to not think about parasites, but the cold fact is that parasites form the majority of life on earth.

Parasite Rex is somewhat gross, but text is merciful. Still, you can't avoid it: parasites are really interesting. They showcase amazing variety, controlling and using their hosts in myriad ways to fulfill their twisted life cycles. Parasites are a major element in evolution, too. If you don't know much about parasites, you don't know much about life. This book helps there and is highly recommended. [ Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures at Amazon.co.uk ]Parasite Rex at LibraryThing ]

BTT: The End

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From Booking Through Thursday:

You've just reached the end of a book . . . what do you do now? Savor and muse over the book? Dive right into the next one? Go take the dog for a walk, the kids to the park, before even thinking about the next book you're going to read? What?

I have a big enough pile of books to read, so I tend to jump on to next one. If I have time, I'll go get the new book right away, but often when I finish a book it's time to quit reading anyway. But I usually don't have a need to savor the books, it's either new book straight away or off to do something else.

Choosing the next book is often a hard task. I feel like I should pick one of the books I've had for a quite a while now, but then again something new might be tempting me even more. Also, my moods swing, sometimes I want to read in Finnish, sometimes I don't mind reading in English. At times I feel like I want to read something small and don't want to jump in some big book (or a trilogy; I've got Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion books waiting).

One factor is BookMooch: if I'm low on points there, I might choose something that's likely to go quickly there (and preferably something small that's cheap to send).

Lauren used to be able to call cats to her. Now she's married to Jason, a professional cyclist who cheats on her. Michel wakes up, having lost his memory. He has just few clues to help him to find himself. The three main characters meet and collide in a world that's slowly driven to ruins: Los Angels is being covered in sand, Paris gets dark and Venice is drying.

This book is also about the Paris of the 1920s and the most glorious movie project of the era. Everything fits together in the end, believe it or not. Steve Erickson knows how to write beautiful prose. Even if you don't quite get the story, you can enjoy the language. [ Days Between Stations at Amazon.co.uk ]Days Between Stations at LibraryThing ]

BTT: Playing Editor

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From Booking Through Thursday:

How about a chance to play editor-in-chief? Fill in the blanks:

__________ would have been a much better book if ______________________.

I had to think about this a bit, but then I came up with a perfect case. Frank Sch├Ątzing's The Swarm could've been an excellent book, but wasn't.

I'm fairly sure my wife wasn't the only one to give up with the book. She made it through 200-300 pages, then got tired of nothing happening - just before the first major eco catastrophe in the book. I made it through the whole 900-page book, but in the end it felt like a total waste of time.

So, had I been the editor of the book, I would've pushed Sch├Ątzing to make it at least 200-300 pages shorter. I'm fairly sure that would've been feasible, and I believe the result would've been a better book.

If there's ever a movie made of this book (and I think it's likely), they'll have to use scissors a lot, and that'll hopefully make a good movie out of a boring book.

Jeff Long: The Reckoning

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Photojournalist Molly Drake arrives in Cambodia to make an article of the hunt for the remains of American soldiers lost in the jungles during the Vietnam war. Drake makes a mistake and is expelled from the excavation, along with two non-army researchers. The three are planning on leaving, when they get a hot lead and decide to follow it deep in the jungles of Cambodia.

What happens turns swiftly to supernatural. The events take Drake and her group to beautiful ruins in the middle of jungle and things soon become lethal. The story is fascinating, I just had to read it all. Jeff Long has a tendency to wander, I think, but this book was tighter than his other books. I liked that, and to me, The Reckoning is Jeff Long's best novel I've read so far. If you're looking for a highly atmospheric modern ghost story, this one fits the bill. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ The Reckoning at Amazon.co.uk ]The Reckoning at LibraryThing ]

Changing Planes is a collection of stories. They are united by a silly backstory: while waiting in an airport while changing planes, a woman named Sita Dulip has invented a method of changing planes - that is, traveling between realities. Thus we get fifteen travel stories that describe strange, new worlds.

The idea is funny, but once you dig in to the stories, you'll find more proof of Le Guin's skills as an author. The worlds are fantastic. Some are relatively simple satires, others more subtle explorations of various themes, real social anthropology of the invented. The book is at the same time light and entertaining, yet deep and thoughtful.

There are many really excellent stories in the collection, but I think the one I enjoyed most was Seasons of Ansarac, which tells a story of a curious society of remarkably bird-like people. It's very Le Guin, indeed. Oh, and I must mention The Building, which is another real highlight, a wonderful and fascinating little story of a rather cryptic world. Le Guin's literary talent is something to envy. [ Changing Planes at Amazon.co.uk ]Changing Planes at LibraryThing ]

BTT: Hero

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From Booking Through Thursday:

You should have seen this one coming ... Who is your favorite Male lead character? And why?

This is bit like last week, indeed... But perhaps a tad easier. At least few candidates come to mind immediately. Ged from the Earthsea series and Crispin from The Sarantine Mosaic are both interesting, well-rounded characters.

I also kind of liked Milgrim from Spook Country, though I wouldn't necessarily call him a hero. That book had some pretty rich characters, in general. Hollis Henry could've made it to my list of favourite heroines. Cayce Pollard from Pattern Recognition should've been on that list as well, come to think of it.

Everyday life is full of mathematics, if you just scratch the surface a bit. This small book digs up plenty of interesting examples of mathematics and demonstrates them with very concrete examples. This book covers lot of mathematical ground in an easy way.

This book offers little to math nerds, but those who have avoided mathematics might find the approach in this book easier to accept and the mathematics enlightening. [ Why Do Buses Come in Threes?: The Hidden Mathematics of Everyday Life at Amazon.co.uk ]Why Do Buses Come in Threes? at LibraryThing ]

Charles Stross: Accelerando

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Accelerando mixes the cosmic scale of Stephen Baxter's Manifold series with the transhuman glee of Cory Doctorow. The book begins with Manfred Macx, living in 2010, somewhat transhuman, yet quite understandable. Flip flop goes time and we're looking at Amber Macx, Manfred's daughter, whose augmented and implanted mind is a lot harder to understand and her life in simulation spaces something far beyond ours. Then there's the third generation, living in post-singular world completely unlike our own.

It's an amazing novel, full of brilliant ideas and incomprehensible transhuman ways of life. There's an arc, but as the novel is made of nine linked novellas previously published separately, the plot isn't the strongest point (if you want transhumans and singularity with a strong plot, Glasshouse is an excellent choice). It doesn't matter, because the barrage of ideas is so strong and tempting.

There's an obscene amount of praise for this book, and I can see why. I enjoyed it, though I admit it wasn't able to keep my attention all the time - parts of it were a tad long-winded. Still, the sheer audacity of the book is something worth experiencing. Accelerando could be new Neuromancer, a visionary novel that keeps on being referenced. If you want a glimpse of one possible transhuman post-singularity reality, read this book.

Accelerando is available as a free download at Accelerando web site. Accelerando Technical Companion helps with the wacky technical concepts - only a real nerd can read Accelerando without needing to google stuff. [ Accelerando at Amazon.co.uk ]Accelerando at LibraryThing ]

Alison Bechdel, familiar from her Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip, has kept a journal since she was ten. She came out in college to her parents as a lesbian, only to learn that her father was gay, had always been. Few weeks later, he was dead. It's quite a mess, to be honest, but learning the truth certainly shed some light on the emotional coldness of the Bechdel home.

Fun Home is an interesting story of two interesting lead characters, Alison and her father, and the way Alison tries to sort out her feelings after learning the truth about her father. It's a rich journey through the family history, looking back at what happened with new perspective, new light. It's touching, funny, intellectual and honest - indeed, it has most characteristics one would expect from an excellent autobiography. [ Fun Home at Amazon.co.uk ]Fun Home at LibraryThing ]