Thursday, August 30, 2012

Looking for Jake by China Miéville

This collection of stories covers a wide range of fantasy; there's one set in Bas-Lag (home of Perdido Street Station, Iron Council, and The Scar), there are a number set in various post-apocalyptic Londons (including The Tain, a novella about vampires and people captured in mirrors), and even an illustrated story. I really enjoyed "'Tis the Season" about a world in which Christmas is so trademarked that you have to buy permission to celebrate. The stories were all good. Once again Miéville shows off his endlessly inventive and entertaining imagination.

Survival of the Sickest: The Surprising Connections Between Disease and Longevity by Sharon Moalem

This book explores the relationships between human disease and evolutionary advantage. For example, some people (including many of Western European descent) have a genetic disorder which causes them to retain too much iron, which then accumulates in organs such as the liver and the brain. While this disorder can lead to death if not treated (the most effective treatment is bloodletting), it probably offered a better chance of survival against the plague (because the form in which the iron is present in the bloodstream is inaccessible to bacteria). The book also looks at the relative virulence of disease in relation to forms of transmission (a cold, for example, will probably not be deadly because you spread it best if you can be walking around and interacting with others, while cholera, which often spreads through contaminated water, doesn't require its human host to be mobile). I found this book thoughtful and fascinating, and I agreed with its conclusions: rather than just trying to eliminate bacteria and viruses, we should be trying to make them evolve in ways that are helpful rather than harmful to human survival.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods

This book is part memoir of Vanessa Woods's time at Lola Ya Bonobo, a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, part account of bonobos (a species of ape closely related to humans and chimpanzees), and part recent history of the region. Woods passionately makes the case for why we should protect and study bonobos: their inherent, peaceful response to stressful situations and their tolerance for one another can help us understand human altruism and cooperation, and may help us deal with our inherent impulses towards violence (impulses that chimpanzees share). In her story Woods conveys the dangers and the triumphs of life at the sanctuary and makes a strong case for the right kind of academic research.

Princeps' Fury by Jim Butcher

When Tavi and his companions arrive in Canea in this book, they discover that the Vord have all but conquered the whole land, except for one range. Meanwhile, the Vord are pressing Alera too, and it's all Gaius Sextus can do to stop them temporarily. I think that one of the advantages of this series as a whole has been its episodic nature: Tavi (and the other main characters) deal with a given problem or issue in a book, and then they often skip a few years (so we don't get a lot of filler material). But as the series draws to a close, we're not skipping so much time any more. I'm looking forward to seeing (I suspect) Tavi defeat the Vord and bring new hope to Alera.

Sup with the Devil by Barbara Hamilton

In this mystery Abigail Adams gets drawn into mysterious circumstances at Harvard which center around a document whose contents are hidden by the Arabic script used to write it, a collection of books owned by a pirate that may have fallen into the wrong hands, and that pirate's hidden treasure. It seemed to take a while for this mystery to really get going, but it all came together nicely in the end. Hamilton continues to write excellent historical fiction.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I really enjoyed reading this book, which fills out the myth of Achilles and Patroclus--starting long before Homer does, and ending just short of the Underworld. The broad strokes of the story will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the Trojan War. Miller's well versed in those stories (for example, she chooses not to include the part of the story where Achilles's only vulnerability is his heel, an addition to the myth that probably developed after Homer's time), and she's fairly meticulous about the details she includes. But the heart of what makes the story work is the characters. I found her portrayal of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus moving--each helped the other become his best (and the brief portrait of Neoptolemus, who was raised by his grandmother Thetis, shows the inhuman cruelty Achilles could have obtained). If anything, what Miller gives us is a reading of Homer. It fills in some of the (what we would perceive today as) gaps in the Homeric version and provides motivations for many of the characters. Even though the story holds Odysseus at arm's length throughout the text, I couldn't help loving him even more in this portrayal (he's one of my favorites from those stories). Perhaps best of all, this book made me want to improve my Greek, so I could go back to Homer (and some of the others) and read them in the original (and fill in the gaps my own way).

Friday, August 24, 2012

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

In this book King Verence of Lancre makes the mistake of inviting a family of vampires (or rather vampyres--they're trying very hard to be modern and to train themselves out of weaknesses like their aversions to holy symbols, sunlight, and garlic) to his daughter's christening. To compound the problem, a group of magpies steal Granny Weatherwax's invitation. I really enjoyed this book. It wasn't as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the other entries in the series, but I thought it had a strong plot, I loved reading the witches (especially Granny Weatherwax), and I really liked what Pratchett did with his parody of vampires. All in all a great read.

The Theban Mysteries by Amanda Cross

Although Kate Fansler is on sabbatical in this book, she finds herself teaching at her old high school, one of New York's most exclusive schools for girls, when the leader of the senior seminar on Antigone finds herself on bedrest (unrelated to the mystery!). Kate is mystified by youth culture and finds a number of young people struggling with the Vietnam War and the draft. The mystery develops slowly (the body doesn't even appear till the second half of the book), and Fansler's much more adept at spotting the questions of group dynamics (and an elementary form of consciousness-raising) than I was.  Like the other books I've read in this series, the mystery has a certain old-fashioned feel to it, but I enjoyed it.

The Demigod Diaries by Rick Riordan

Although there's a quiz and a word search, this book mostly contains short stories: there's one starring Percy and Annabeth between the Greek and Roman series, one featuring Luke before he came to Camp Half-Blood, one starring Leo making Festus the dragon into the Argo II, and ends with one written by Rick's son Haley about what happens to a demi-god who fought for Kronos after their defeat. I enjoyed all of the stories--they are good light reading, and they helped put me in the mood for The Mark of Athena, which comes out in October. Haley's story is just as good as his dad's.

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

This book, published in the UK as Rivers of London, features police constable Peter Grant, who sees a ghost on a murder investigation, just as he's about to get his first permanent assignment in the police force. Instead of being sent to a division of paper-pushers, he is apprenticed to Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who is apparently a wizard and responsible both for solving crimes with a supernatural element and serving as liaison between the police (and their interest in the Queen's Peace) and the various deities and supernatural entities (such as Father Thames and Mama Thames) who live in and around London. I thought the supernatural content was very well handled and balanced the murder mystery in a reasonable and entertaining fashion. I liked seeing the development of Grant and I loved the book's connections to London. I'm looking forward to the next entry in this series.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Play of Heresy by Margaret Frazer

In this book Joliffe begins investigating the death of a man who was supposed to meet another of the Bishop's spies to inform about the actions of Coventry Lollards. Joliffe, who has been reunited with his troop in time for the annual Coventry cycle (although he's in a different play), investigates the murder as he helps organize the play. There's a side plot about Joliffe working for a man who deserted the acting troop several years ago during some hard times, but I didn't find that part quite as compelling. The family relationships and the religious question were a little more difficult than usual for me to untangle, but I loved the historical setting--especially seeing the play cycle put on.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This book is organized as a series of letters from Balram Halwai--a self-described entrepreneur--to the Premier of China. Although Balram started out life in a poor village, he eventually becomes a driver--and most of the book focuses on his relationship with Mr. Ashok, his employer. A lot of the book's value comes from Balram's astute observations and quick, if dry, wit. I really enjoyed the complexities of Balram's relationship with Mr. Ashok, especially since such a master-servant relationship feels so outdated compared to what I have experienced. This relationship really drove a lot of questions about what our humanity is worth and what can be bought and sold. Booker award winner, 2008.

Communion Town by Sam Thompson

This book tells the story of an unnamed, but intricately described, city through the eyes of several of its residents. Even the person of the narration changes from chapter to chapter. The place is all that connects each story to the next--but the city changes in the eyes of each of its beholders. I really enjoyed these stories--they are entertaining in their own rights, and cross many different genres. What links them thematically is the question of what is our humanity, what links us together as people. There's a sense of the city-dwellers' fear of what lurks at night and what lurks below the surface, and I thought that part in particular was very well handled.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Blake, or the Huts of America by Martin Delany

This book tells the story of Henry Blake, who was illegally enslaved, but eventually ran away to freedom and to begin agitating slave revolt both in the United States and Cuba. The book was published serially in 1861 and 1862 in two magazines, and the last several issues have been lost, so the ending is in flux. The story moves very quickly from place to place, and highlights as much of Blake's work in fomenting revolt as it does the sentimental story of his wife being sold away from him (and his eventual, successful efforts to win her back). There's a lot of poetry that emphasizes the emotions the enslaved people feel throughout the text.

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

In this book Hannah Arendt looks at the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th Century as embodied by the two most prominent instances of it: Nazi Germany and the USSR under Stalin. Arendt traces this rise first through anti-Semitism, which began in the 19th Century, and then through imperialism to totalitarianism itself. This book is dense, comprehensive, and well argued. In addition to a lot of historical evidence, Arendt demonstrates why totalitarianism is so dangerous, and how the Nazis and Stalinist Russia used prison camps, secret police, propaganda, and conspiracy theories to dehumanize their populations.

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell

This book is about a Swedish judge who solves a mass murder that the police cannot because they are unwilling to look beyond the obvious solution. There's a lot of backstory to tie things together here, which I enjoyed, although I found the ultimate motivation of the murderer not entirely convincing. I thought the dynamics of betrayal were the most interesting part of the story.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

This book centers around three editors for a vanity press in Milan. When the press decides to start publishing a series on the occult, the editors, up to their ears in conspiracy theories, decide to create their own version of the Plan, by which the Templars secretly went into hiding in the fourteenth century, and which they were supposed to use to return to power in 1944. But as the conspirators cook up the Plan, they realize that others are taking their game very seriously. Part of this book is a fun conspiracy story--it puts together an almost-plausible narrative that links the Templars with other mysterious groups through the ages (and has a ton of literary and cultural in-jokes, to book). What separates this book from something like The Da Vinci Code, though, is that the other part of the book is so moving. Belpo and Causabon, in particular, are well-developed characters, and the reader comes to understand that their manic devotion to finding the truth behind these conspiracy theories (which in the book are lined up like a house of cards) is about a lack of meaning in their day-to-day lives (which they only realize too late) rather than from any value inherent in the theories. I really enjoyed this story.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Endymion by Dan Simmons

This entry in the Hyperion Cantos jumps forward 247 years. While you don't need to be familiar with the previous books to enjoy this one, there's a lot that carries over. The plotting is excellent. We are quickly brought up to speed with changes in a universe where farcasting's no longer a possibility, and instant communications and access to data are things of the past. Raul Endymion, the local boy who seems to be learning to make good is a great new hero, and the Keats cybrid and Brawne Lamia's daughter Aenea is an enigmatic and assertive child. I loved seeing all the different worlds, the tactics of Aenea, and the consequences of the way the Catholic Church has adopted the cruciform technology. The twists near the end kept the plot interesting; I'm eager to read the final book in the series.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

King Rat by China Miéville

I really enjoyed this book--although it's noticeably an early work, you can see some of Miéville's best traits in this story. Saul Garamond returns home to a camping trip to discover that his father's been killed and that he is half rat--and heir to King Rat himself. Now he must help King Rat, Anansi (ruler of the spiders), and Loblob (leader of the birds) defeat the Piper, who's begun to take an unhealthy interest in his friends. There's a lot of creativity here, and some great politicking. A wonderful coming-of-age story.

Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell

This book is about people turning out to have mysterious pasts and to be almost unknown despite being a colleague or a family member. It's also about the long hand of history reaching out beyond expectation to address wrongs. I thought the mystery was pretty well handled--although the murderer is identified pretty quickly, there are a lot of layers of motivation and facts to untangle.

Kept by D.J. Taylor

This book models the novels of Dickens and Collins that it reads like; there are a lot of intertwining plots and characters. We also get to see early police in action (towards the end of the book). None of the main characters are entirely sympathetic, but Taylor has a good sense of the Victorian worlds. I loved the literary allusions. It covers a number of themes that play out in the period: criminality, interest in science, insanity, the role of women. It wasn't quite as good as a genuine Victorian novel, but it was a decent imitation of that kind of plot, and very well written.

Captain's Fury by Jim Butcher

In this book Tavi is masquerading as Captain Rufus Scipio, and his successes against the Canim have made him more political enemies than allies. But when he discovers that some of his suspicions about his parentage (that he's the First Lord's grandson) are confirmed and that his mother has been pretending to be his Aunt Isana his entire life, he's faced with a crisis of trust. The fate of the realm depends on his ability to take up a new mantel as Princeps. I really enjoyed this book. While I liked the idea of Gaius Sextus having to do without his furies, those scenes weren't as interesting as Tavi's. These books are not the most epic high fantasy I've ever read, but the series is well-plotted and very enjoyable.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Hex Appeal edited by P. N. Elrod

I really enjoyed this anthology. I picked it up for the Jim Butcher story, which was excellent, but I really liked most of the other entries as well. Lots of morally ambiguous characters, lots of witches. The magic systems were all straightforward enough that I didn't have a lot of trouble getting into the worlds (sometimes a problem with anthologies) and even the parts of larger series were clear without familiarity with those series. I'll be on the lookout for other anthologies by this editor.

Armored edited by John Joseph Adams

This anthology centers its stories around characters in body armor. Most of this armor is highly intelligent and can help the user make decisions, or even make decisions for the user (if for example, its occupant is harmed during battle or in the military). A few were alternative histories (for example, one was set in Australia during the nineteenth century, another was during the Spanish Civil War). I'm not as fond of the straight battle stories, but many had interesting twists (for example, a general who kept turning up when he wasn't expected, a planet of man-eating plants). I read this anthology for the new Brandon Sanderson story, which was okay, but not as good as his other work.

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

This book has another great story about Temeraire. He and Captain Laurence have been recalled to service in order to help with British difficulties in Brazil. But when the Allegiance sinks, and the remaining crew is rescued (and subsequently taken prisoner by) the French, it takes all of Temeraire's and Laurence's wits to escape and help the British. I loved seeing the South American dragons, and the cultural differences in the ways dragons were treated. I think the dragons--as Novik has imagined them--are really great characters, because they are powerful and smart but deeply different from humans. These differences make for a lot of really fruitful conflict. I can't wait for more of this lovely series.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Skios by Michael Frayn

I loved this book. It's a really funny story about mistaken identities and mysterious events at a philanthropic house party on a private Greek island. When a mischievous young Brit takes the identity of the older professor scheduled to give the keynote lecture, lots of amusing hijinks ensue. While the whole story is improbable in parts, and definitely interested in being funny, it also gives the two main characters a great chance to reevaluate their lives and why they're pursing the paths they're on. I'm so glad I came upon this book through the Booker longlist.

Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally

Even though this book relies on witness testimony and matches historical accounts I've read about the Holocaust, it bills itself as a novel. It has lots of facts, and carefully recreates some conversations, while indicating where it moves into the realm of speculation. But this book is far more powerful than a dry history. By picking the story of industrialist Oskar Schindler--a man who drank excessively and cheated on his wife, but who was also moved to risk his life and fortune to help the Jews of Cracow--and ultimately to save 1,300 of them in his factory. This story was really well told, and despite the unrelenting cruelty and terrible conditions that it depicts, also offers hope that people can rise above their surroundings to look out for each other. Booker Prize winner 1982.

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson

This book shows Alcatraz's brief tenure as the temporary monarch of Mokia, where he went to try to gain military support against an attack of Librarians. But when he meets up with his mother, he realizes that good and evil aren't quite as clear as they had already seemed. The humor still rings a little flat for me, but there's a lot of wit and a ton of literary allusions. Even though the book is advertised by Scholastic as the last in the series, Sanderson plans to write a fifth and final book at some point.

Riptide by Paul S. Kemp

In this book Jedi Knight Jaden Korr must track a ship full of rogue clones when they escape the destruction (in Crosscurrent) of a Thrawn-era cloning facility. The story was pretty exciting, although I found myself getting confused about what the Jedi knew about which Sith when. It felt really quick, but that might be partly a result of the way that stories tend to play out more slowly in the longer, 9-book series that Lucasfilm has been releasing lately.

The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

This book focuses on the early years of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even as the school prepares to give young men (and at least one young woman) a technical instead of a classical education, doubters throughout the city of Boston worry that the new technologies being developed will replace jobs. Things get worse when a series of mysterious disasters that obviously required scientific expertise to pull off throw even more suspicion on the Institute. A group of seniors, lead by a charity student, and the lone female student, a freshman, work together (and under the nose of the Institute) to try to solve the mystery of the disasters before it's too late for Boston and for MIT. I enjoyed the plot--the mystery worked really well (with some nicely planted red herrings). The style was a little annoying--I don't doubt the nineteenth century slang is accurate, but it rings in an irritating way, and none of the characters sound like they're real people. Still, it's an enjoying light read.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Poetic Justice by Amanda Cross

In this mystery as Kate Fansler is trying to cope with the disruptions of student protests at the University last spring, she finds herself dragged into a struggle between the undergraduate college and the college for adult students--a struggle that quickly turns deadly. The book seemed a little dated in some aspects--especially in its language and the way people treat each other--but the concerns about how to govern a university still are very relevant. The book also seemed much more interested in academia and its politics than in the murder mystery itself, which was wrapped up very quickly, and more by Fansler's fiancé than by her own work.