Books finished in 1998

1/1/98: City of Truth by James Morrow
Novella-length tale that exhibits Morrow's great talent for taking a philosophical question, creating a science fictional setting which embodies the question, and riffing on it to yield deeply thought provoking and yet funny stories. The city in question is in a future society where everyone always tells the truth. Even advertisers. Even politicians. But there are rebels, the dissemblers, who buck their conditioning. Our protagonist seeks them out in the hopes that they will teach him to lie to his young son who has contracted a fatal illness.

1/7/98: Snow Crystals by W.A. Bentley & W.J. Humphreys
Consists almost entirely of over two thousand photographs of individual snowflakes. The pictures were all taken by Mr. Bentley in the early part of this century. If there were no text at all, the pictures alone make fascinating viewing.

The accompanying text explains the basis for categorizing the various forms revealed as well as how the photographs were accomplished. The text is not very instructive on how the crystals may have formed and it is unclear whether this is due to a lack of general knowledge on the subject or the author's inability to communicate the salient details within the constraints provided by the publisher who seems to have demanded text comprehensible to the lay reader which has sadly resulted in a narrative which wildly vacillates between learned topics like atomic structures and appeals to folk metaphors like Jack Frost.

1/9/98: Messies 2 by Sandra Felton
Felton is the founder of Messies Anonymous, a group aimed at helping people overcome their clutter-prone natures. This is her second book on the subject of clutter reduction and home beautification. It reads like she only wrote a second book in response to demand and was scrounging for good stuff to fill it up with. I found the predominant focus on the suburban housewife's situation somewhat offputting, but there are enough good suggestions that I did finish it. I'll go read the first one now.

1/10/98: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
This edition, recently released by Tor is a reprint of the Little, Brown, and Company edition of 1888 by an unknown translator. It is a wonderful adventure story with intrigues and action galore. The writing virtually drags you along from chapter to chapter until it is done. Wonderful fun.

1/22/98: Time & Money by William Matthews
I hate the way I discovered this poet, but I'm glad I did. A friend's father died and in talking about it he mentioned that he had been a poet. A quick net search revealed that he was not just a poet, but a highly regarded award winning one.

The topics in this book range from the title subjects to Bob Marley, from reminiscences of the 50s & 60s NYC jazz scene to cancer, from opera to Folsom prison. The language is uniformly breathtaking. The ideas are complex, insightful and realistically ambiguous. This is the work of a gifted artist at the top of his game. He died last November, the day after his 55th birthday.

1/24/98: The Messies Manual by Sandra Felton
The predecessor to Messies 2 (obviously), this one is better. Gives good inspiration for changing the way you look at housekeeping and turning your habits around. Includes many practical suggestions and is written by a recovering Messie so she understands what goes on in your head.

1/28/98: Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic by Terry Jones
In a word: dreck. This is a novel based on a video game based on two lines from Adams's Life, the Universe, and Everything. Since Adams was busy working on the video game, he farmed out the writing of the novel to former Monty Python member, Terry Jones.

You'd think that if anyone could reproduce or simulate or approximate the Douglas Adams hyper-absurdist gonzo skiffy style it would be a Python alumnus, but Jones fails almost completely in eliciting more than an occasional chuckle where Adams even in the later Hitchhiker books where the series had degenerated into hack writing often had me laughing too hard to read on. So the writing isn't particularly funny. Add to that the fact that there is only the simplest and most predictable of plots and you have a book that I only finished reading so I could write a review saying how truly unpleasant it was. Perhaps the video game would be more fun.

2/1/98: Talk's Body: A Meditation Between Two Keyboards by David Sudnow
Sudnow is a sociologist who has taken to writing observations of his own learning processes as they happen. The keyboards of the title are those of the piano and the typewriter between which he perched while working to become a jazz pianist. The writing comes out equal parts Douglas Hofstadter, Gertrude Stein, and Charlie Parker. Great fun to read aloud, but expect some rolling of eyes from your audience cause this stuff is kinda hard to get your head around and it sounds like melodic and learned gobbledygook out of context.

2/6/98: Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth by Bill McKibben
Written somewhat in response to his earlier The End of Nature which was evidently all doom and gloom about our decimation of our planet's ecosystem, in this book, as the title implies, McKibben tries to give some cause for hope. He finds that cause in the partial reforestation of parts of the NE United States, but also in a couple of places which have managed to build human societies which live more lightly on the earth while providing better quality of life. Those two places are the city of Curitiba in SE Brazil, and Kerala, a region in the South of India.

Both these places do inspire hope with their impressive divergences from some of the major follies of the First World countries. Now to see if we in the First World are willing to follow their lead in order to backtrack from the damage we are causing.

McKibben's writing lends an excitement to this good news that caused me to read the book very quickly. I expect I'll read it again and try to slow down.

2/7/98: The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation by Bill McKibben
McKibben considers the plight of Job who having been brought low in spite of his righteous ways questioned God's sense of justice. In response God gave Job a stern talking to in which he points out all the marvelous and humanly inexplicable things that He has done in effect saying to Job, "who are you to question my logic?"

McKibben compares Job's new understanding of the nature of the universe to our increasing acceptance of the fact that unending economic growth is not necessarily the best thing when it comes at the expense of a damaged planet. McKibben sees God's demonstration of His greatness using parts of our world which do not serve man directly (the ostrich, the fact of rain in the wilderness where there are no humans) as a message to Christians that the planet is not ours to do with as we will, but that we are just another cog in its inexplicable and divine machinery--equally at risk if we break it as the other creatures that we cause to become extinct.

2/7/98: Over Our Heads: A Local Look at Global Climate by John C. Ryan
The latest from Northwest Environment Watch gives an overview of what will happen to the Northwest as global temperatures rise (it's not pretty). Also gives a list of things you can do to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses you produce directly and indirectly. This is a no nonsense book with excellent credentials. And it takes only about an hour and a half to read it.

2/10/98: Vanishing Point by Michaela Roessner
One day 90% of the Earth's human population disappeared. Thirty years later, those left are still trying to figure out where they went and how and what it all means. Add to the trauma the fact that weird stuff is starting to happen and you have a fascinating twist on the post-apocalyptic novel. On top of that, a good part of it is set in the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA and other locations around Silicon Valley. A great fun creepy read. Superb characters and SF ideas. Worthy second novel after her first, the award winning Walkabout Woman.

2/14/98: The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust (repeat)
This is the start of Brust's homage to Alexandre Dumas. Having recently read the original Three Musketeers in Brust's favorite translation, I must say that he has the feel down to a tee. Great fun.

2/16/98: the Saskiad by Brian Hall
Saskia is entering her teens and attempting to make sense of the adult world. The fact that it doesn't make any sense isn't much help. The choice to use a Sally Mann photo for the dust jacket was a good one since Hall captures that same feel of the unlimited possibility and fantasy of a child's world in much the same way Mann's photos do. This is a sparkling, thought-provoking coming of age novel.

2/22/98: Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon by Jim Paul
Jim gets it into his head that it would be fun to throw big rocks and that a catapult is the way to do it. Problem is, Jim is not exactly mechanically inclined. Enter Harry. Harry is skeptical, but says "If you can get the money, I'll help." Jim writes up the idea as an art project and manages to get a $500 grant to help them "observe the impulse" to build a catapult. The book is the story of the impulse and the construction interlaced with looks back at the history of large-scale weapons and the escalation of their power from the earliest catapults to the atomic bomb.

This seems to be very much a guy book. My wife kept saying "why?" the whole time I read the book, and the women friends of Jim and Harry had pretty much the same reaction. I've long made the observation that men are pretty well obsessed with action at a distance. We love things that let us make stuff happen far away. Witness the TV clicker, and before that the garage door opener and remote control airplanes and guns. Any ball sport. Even fishing. All these hard-core guy things are really based in action at a distance. Why do we dig this so much? Why don't most women?

Anyway, the book is very readable and frequently funny.

2/26/98: Frameshift by Robert J. Sawyer
Wonderful characterization and suspenseful story made this fun to read, but it's a little scattered (Nazi war criminals, Nazi Hunters, genetic science breakthroughs, health insurance scams, telepathy, human evolution, genetic disease, neo nazis, human cloning, and more) and the plot is moved along too often by very intelligent characters doing very stupid things. I enjoyed it enough that I'll seek out more of Sawyer's books, but I suspect this is not his best.

3/1/98: Derelict For Trade by Andre Norton & Sherwood Smith
I guess this is a continuation of one of Norton's old series, but I never read any of the originals (most of the Witch World books, but not the Solar Queen ones). Kind of a merchant marine Star Trek. Fun, decently written adventure. Sprinkled with a number of unusual words that had me reaching for my dictionary; an excellent trait in a novel aimed at the juvenile market IMHO.

3/1/98: How Much Is Enough? by Alan Durning
Durning's first major book. Written for the Worldwatch Institute for which he worked at the time. Subtitled "The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth", it examines the growing gap between the poorest and richest people on Earth, mostly through the lens of the three attributes: what they eat, how they get from place to place, and what and how much stuff they use. The book questions whether consumerism is really enjoyable individually or desirable societally, economically, or ecologically. (The answer to all four questions is, of course, no.)

Posits that the way to fight consumerism is to debunk the myth that eternal growth is a prerequisite for a quality life. Suggests that we should move out from under the yoke of the ubiquitous advertising we have come to take for granted which inspires in us a plethora of artificial needs. And finally points out that we need to be constantly moving towards modes of life which are sustainable in that they use resources without using them up. Pretty tall order, but no less necessary for that.

3/5/98: Through A Brazen Mirror by Delia Sherman
The writing in this first novel is just lovely throughout. Some of the characters have a great subtlety of internal conflict and motivation, but some of them are pure cardboard. The plot tries to keep from being a vanilla fairy tale, but doesn't settle on anything else very securely, so it comes off a little unfocused. Still, a worthwhile debut.

3/15/98: Bardic Voices: The Lark and The Wren by Mercedes Lackey
Except for some brief musings on the purpose of governments and religions, this is pretty much completely fluff. It's decently written engaging fluff. Good escape.

3/22/98: The Robin and the Kestrel by Mercedes Lackey
Second book in Lackey's Bardic Voices series. Much ado about not much. Our heros foil the plots of a power hungry church dignitary. Not much happens in this one, and the things which do happen are rather implausible. Only barely tolerable.

3/26/98: The Eagle and the Nightingales by Mercedes Lackey
Better than volume 2 in the Bardic Voices series. This one is solidly about prejudice and discrimination and makes its point pretty strongly. Still, it's all kinda contrived. I think I've gotten my fluff fix for a while.

4/5/98: The Stars Dispose by Michaela Roessner
Roessner's third novel is arguably her most ambitious. Set in 16th century Florence, Italy and using dozens of real people as characters, she traces the fortunes of Catherine de Medici over the course of several years through the eyes of a fictional family of master chefs (and magicians, yes there is some fantasy in there) Her characterizations are marvelous and the fantastical elements of the story gave me chills. The final conclusion is somewhat lacklustre, but as a whole the book is well within the high standards set by her earlier works. I wouldn't dare try to predict what her next novel might be about.

4/11/98: Endangered Species by Gene Wolfe
As inconceivable as it may sound, Wolfe's short stories rival his novels for quality and impact. This collection has dozens of stories, many only a couple of pages long, that inspire the same sense of wonder as his longer works. The man is a treasure. Styles from hard SF to Dickens pastiche. Wonderful.

4/19/98: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
This is the sequel to her marvelous The Sparrow. By the time I had finished the first book I'd heard she was writing a sequel and I couldn't imagine why. She has written a fine sequel, but I still think it was literarily unnecessary. I was perfectly capable of finding settlement of Emilio Sandoz's story without having Ms. Russell write it out for me. The future of Rakhat was less sure, but I pretty well had that one worked out in my head as well.

Those objections aside, as I said, it's a fine book. Similarly to the first, there are a few glaring cases of authorial license taken (though more often and more jarringly in this book), but the writing is fresh and engaging and the progression of the plot is well executed. For the first book I had nothing but raves, and for this one I have nothing but nit picks. Ah well. The Sparrow was a tough act to follow.

The about the author says Ms. Russell is at work on her third novel. I eagerly await its release and hope (again) that she leaves Emilio and Rakhat to go about their business in peace and brings her formidable talents to bear in a new milieu.

4/30/98: Steichen: The Master Prints 1895-1914 by Dennis Longwell (Museum of Modern Art, NY)
Edward Steichen was a painter and photographer from the American midwest. This book reproduces 73 of his early photographs. The painterly eye is very much in evidence in the composition, but also the execution of the pictures. Some of the photos are almost completely dark with just a few bright areas that still manage to convey a vibrant total image. His series of images of Rodin's sculpture of Balzac commissioned by the sculptor himself and taken by moonlight are especially powerful. Well worth seeking out.

5/2/98: User Friendly by Spider Robinson
Collection of short stories and essays. A fair portion of the material is semi-rant about the degradation of modern society. Spider has a great way with metaphor and analogy, but he goes a bit over the top when he gets his dander up so if you don't enjoy observing eloquent people fly off the handle you may have some slogging to do in order to ferret out the gems buried in the muck. The stories here are enjoyable in the way Spider's stories always are. Especially fun is a modern fable illustrating why one should not disturb a writer at work. Also includes tributes to his three mentors: Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and Ben Bova. I've barely read any Sturgeon, so I'll have to go work on filling that gap in my SF-nal knowledge.

5/7/98: Earth Made of Glass by John Barnes
Nominally a sequel to his A Million Open Doors it stands alone quite well. (Only crossover is two characters and the universe).

Barnes is exploring the age old questions of "why can't we all just get along?" and "why are we here in the first place?" in interesting ways. The answers suggested aren't necessarily anything incredibly new, but the reevaluation is skillfully handled. There are some fascinating characters and settings and a slam-bang exciting story. Good stuff.

5/9/98: Eisenstaedt Remembrances by Alfred Eisenstaedt
How do you do a career retrospective book of a photographer who had 86 Life magazine covers to his credit? Many of the pictures in this book will be familiar since Eisie's images have had such broad distribution, but many are from his private collection and hadn't been seen before this book. Just the range of well known personages in this book is impressive.

5/12/98: Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb
Set in the same world as her Farseer Trilogy, here's another open-ended series of big fat books from Ms. Hobb. She has a distinct skill for writing bad guys (male and female, but mostly male) who are truly repugnant yet still human and three dimensional. There is some degree of resolution, but we're clearly in for at least one more book in this Liveship Traders series.

Once again I hope that Ms. Hobb is raking in enough bucks from these popular series to maybe be able to take the time necessary to write as Megan Lindholm again. As Lindholm she wrote nice tight short novels and while the Hobb books still show her skill, they're more expansive and flashy than her best work. IMHO

5/30/98: E Pluribus Unicorn by Theodore Sturgeon
Another of the classic masters of SF/fantasy I somehow managed never to read until now. Yipes! This collection of short stories doesn't miss once. Interesting speculative fiction elements wedded with artful prose nicely drawn settings and some really cool narrators. Thanks to Spider Robinson for giving me the nudge I needed to look up Mr. Sturgeon. This collection was originally published in 1953.

6/1/98: Golden Fleece by Robert J. Sawyer
This is a murder mystery, but the mystery is not who did it. The computer did and since he narrates the action, it's no secret to the reader. The mystery is why. The answer ends up being pretty interesting, but getting there isn't very. Only my second Sawyer book, but both share the property of having lots of ideas playing a part, any one of which could have been its own novel. Okay read since it's short, but it could have used more plot.

6/5/98: Steel Rose by Kara Dalkey
I finally got around to reading Ms. Dalkey when I read that she is married to John Barnes. She'd been on my list anyway, the association just bumped her up a few notches. Steel Rose is an urban fantasy set in Pittsburgh. It's distinctive for not treating the faerie folk as a single group and for not wimping out and giving an answer to the unanswerable question of what is more desirable between wilderness and civilization. Bears striking resemblance to Emma Bull's The War for the Oaks, but mostly just in the broad strokes. Good read.

6/6/98: The Latin Deli by Judith Ortiz Cofer
Stories, essays, and poetry. I snagged it from the library after hearing Ms. Cofer read one of the pieces on the radio. Clearly the work of a writer who takes writing very seriously. I enjoyed the essays most for their very personal voice relating her experiences growing up Puerto Rican in the US.

6/7/98: Misplaced Blame: The Real Roots of Population Growth by Alan Thein Durning and Christopher D. Crowther
Published by Northwest Environment Watch, this book looks at the reasons behind the population explosion in the Northwest US. As usual with NEW publications it is meticulously researched and reasoned and provides much food for thought. The authors' conclusions are that growth here is due to "poverty, sexual abuse, underfunded family planning services, subsidies to domestic migration and ill-guided immigration policy" in that order of importance. Well worth the hour or two it takes to read.

6/8/98: Watertrail: the Hidden Path Through Puget Sound by Joel W. Rogers
This is a gorgeous book, due to Rogers' stunning photographs and excellent design and production from Sasquatch Books. The Cascadia Marine Trail is a recently formed web of campsites throughout Puget Sound open only to human powered water craft travellers. The book details Rogers' 400-mile kayak paddle covering a good portion of the sites on the Trail. His account combines personal observation with local history and perspectives on efforts to preserve Puget Sound's diverse ecosystems.

6/11/98: War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (repeat)
After reading Kara Dalkey's Steel Rose I wanted to go back and reread Bull's War. Lo and behold, Ms. Dalkey is one of the people Bull thanks at the beginning of the book. While the basic plot of the two books is quite similar, the similarity ends there. Dalkey's book is spare almost to the point of being stark. Bull's prose is lush and stylish and sparkly. In War, Eddi McCandry--guitar player, singer, poet--is recruited (shanghaied) to be the pawn of a faction of the folk of Faerie in a war for domination of the part of the world known as Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. Bull has a gift for writing characters who crawl right into your heart. I remembered most of the book from my last reading, but still found myself staying up way too late to read just one more chapter. Great book.

6/13/98: End of an Era by Robert J. Sawyer
Okay, he's king of the twelve idea SF novel. Wild ideas that would be whole novels from other authors are offhand asides in Sawyer's books. End of an Era is fun with time travel and dinosaurs. Yeah, that's been done, but has anyone else written one that explains how they died, how they got so big in the first place, how Mars got that way, how the fifth planet became an asteroid belt, what caused the big bang, and how the cure for aids was developed? Didn't think so. And in with all of that is a decent human-level story or two. Big fun.

6/14/98: Godbody by Theodore Sturgeon
Sturgeon's last book, published posthumously has a foreword by Robert Heinlein and an afterword by Stephen Donaldson. The basic plot involves the appearance of a messiah-type figure and loosely follows the standard form of that story. Sturgeon tells the story in first person from the points of view of a series of different characters as the story unfolds. The writing is quietly stunning and the message of what's wrong with Christianity has real bite. Even if you think you've got your views of religion all nailed down, give Sturgeon a chance to show you a different angle and see if he doesn't make you wonder.

6/20/98: Dragonfield and Other Stories by Jane Yolen
Yolen is the modern master of the fairy tale form. There are 27 stories and poems in this volume and some of the stories actually contain multiple other stories. They're fun to read and they stay with you. I was especially suprised to read "The Thirteenth Fey" as I can't recall any other faerie story told from the faerie's point of view!

6/27/98: The Age of Missing Information by Bill McKibben
McKibben got volunteers to tape all 24 hours of all 100 stations of the Fairfax, VA cable system on May 3rd, 1990. Then he watched all the tapes. And yet the book is less about TV than it is about where we are. It's about the place in which North American culture takes place. He contrasts his 2400-hour day with a day spent camping in the woods near his home in the Adirondacks.

The title refers to TV's relative lack of interest in anything that happened before the hey day of TV, and to the fact that in the last couple of generations we've gone from a large share of people being able to make their own way (grow their own food, build their own homes, etc.) to the point where few of us can.

Funny in places, disgusting in others, but thought-provoking throughout.

6/28/98: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
We were planning to watch the movie (John Huston's directorial debut starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Peter Lorre nominated for Best Picture in 1944) so I figured I'd give the book a try. The epitome of the hard-boiled mystery. Hammett's style is simultaneously spare as a police report and rich with artful description and sizzling dialogue. I read it in two sittings and had lots of fun.

7/2/98: Goa by Kara Dalkey
The first book of Dalkey's Blood of the Goddess series, Goa follows the trail of Thomas Chinnery, an apprentice apothecary on his way to Cathay to secure trade contacts for his London master. The time is the sixteenth century, and through a series of misadventures the ship Thomas is travelling on is stranded on the shore of India, and Thomas encounters a strange powder that has the power to bring the dead back to life. Thomas is captured and ends up in the care of the Santa Casa, the arm of the Portugese Catholic church which is carrying the Inquisition to the subcontinent. And that's really just the beginning. The setting is brilliantly drawn and the characters are complex. The look at the inside workings of the Inquisition are chilling. In an ending author's note Dalkey details what portions of her historical fantasy are truly historical which was good because in the book fact and fantasy are sewn together quite seamlessly.

7/5/98: Bijapur by Kara Dalkey
Blood of the Goddess volume two picks up right where the last book left off. Thomas Chinnery is released from his trials in the Inquisition by promising to guide a group in search of the source of the rasa mahadevi, the substance that brings life to the dead. Only problem is that he doesn't really know where it is except that the city of Bijapur is on the way. This is the middle book of a trilogy with all that implies. Most of the action simply sets the scene for the final volume. Some of the characters learn some new things about themselves and life, but while there are a few more hints about the true nature of our hero's quest, nothing is revealed clearly.

7/10/98: Bhagavati by Kara Dalkey
Final volume of the Blood of the Goddess series. Thomas Chinnery's quest for the source of the life-restoring rasa mahadevi has been joined together with that of a small army of Muslims in search of the same prize. As the story progresses we begin to see these two strong faiths, the Catholic and the Muslim, played against eachother and against the older "pagan" faiths of the Greeks and the Hindus. Dalkey takes an impressively even hand in these comparisons which are presented in the characters of men wholly dedicated to their respective faiths and yet at least somewhat tolerant of the beliefs of others. Half-way through this volume it seems as if the story is coming to a close, but the action escalates progressively and plausibly to a series of final confrontations that provide a satisfying conclusion to this ambitious series.

7/11/98: Ten Fun Things To Do Before You Die by Karol A. Jackowski
The "fun" in the title is added as if an afterthought (with editors marks on the cover of the book), but Ms. Jackowski's style makes it obvious that the fun in the book was no afterthought. She's a nun, and her ten things are:
  1. Have more fun than anyone else
  2. Get some insight
  3. Get some depth
  4. Find a place to escape reality
  5. Write something at the end of every day
  6. Think about being a nun
  7. Make yourself interesting
  8. Live alone for a while
  9. Treat yourself
  10. Live like you have nothing to lose
As self help books go, this one is a kick to read, and her advice is good food for thought. And it's just over 100 pages so it doesn't take long to read. Worth a look.

7/14/98: Presentation Piece by Marilyn Hacker
Here I am trying to figure out what to say about poetry again. Some of these poems are truly inscrutable, but most are lyrical accounts of life's mundane details. Well, that could be said of most poetry. I guess I'll just say that I enjoyed this book of poems. Some were especially interesting for telling about events I first read about in Samuel Delany's The Motion of Light in Water.

7/25/98: Antiquities by John Crowley
Crowley is known mostly for his novels (which he takes an inordinate amount of time to write. He's currently in the midst of his Aegypt four-novel series the first of which was published in 1987, the second in 1994, and the third still nowhere in sight), but these seven gem-like short stories prove that he is capable of writing entrancing shorter works as well. Another lovely edition published by the Seattle-based Incunabula, it was a joy to hold as well as a joy to read.

7/30/98: Godric by Frederick Buechner
Godric is a fictionalized biography of a 12th century English holy man, Godric of Finchale. Buechner's Godric is a man of contrasts, tortured by his sinful tendencies and yet ever mindful of his perceived duty to God. The narrative voice is Godric's and I've seldom read such a forthright, no nonsense character. There's no preaching here, just the account of a man's struggle with the day-to-day necessities of his faith. Nominated for the Pulitzer in 1981, the book stands out in my mind partially because I needed my dictionary more reading Godric than any other book in recent memory. And yet once found, the words I didn't know always turned out to be simply archaic English usages perfectly appropriate to Godric's 12th century milieu.

7/31/98: Memoirs of a Beatnik by Diane Di Prima
Half reminiscence about the early days of the Beats, half Penthouse "Forum". Di Prima's account of langorous days living in various garrets in mid 50's New York City give a rose-colored nostalgic view of the new Boehmian movement. And yet in this book, the whole scene comes off sounding self-concious and contrived. But maybe that's just because I read it shortly after watching Easy Rider ;-)

8/1/98: Dragons in the Stars by Jeffrey A. Carver
This one starts out looking like the old SF/Fantasy cliche of disadvantaged girl makes good despite vast powers arrayed against her, but as the story unfolds, Carver does a nice job of distinguishing his treatment. The protagonist is a "rigger", one with the special set of skills, training, and (seemingly) neuroses required to successfully navigate a starship through "the Flux", a sort of hyperspace realm that is traversed via mental control of imagery representing the ship's relationship with the structures of the Flux. The dragons of the title are semi-mythical creatures that some riggers claim to have encountered in a particular region of the Flux. Naturally our hero encounters these dragons and rather than simply fighting them as others claim to have done she has a completely different sort of encounter. The first half of the novel is a novellette originally published in Science Fiction Times, and while the seams show a bit between the first and second halves, Carver has done a good job here of extending that work plausibly (as much as the basic premise allows ;-) and to a satisfying conclusion.

8/11/98: Star Rigger's Way by Jeffrey A. Carver
Another one extended from a story, this time from Galaxy. I had a really hard time getting through this novel set in the same universe as Dragons in the Stars though written earlier. The main character is a man (though it is quite unclear from the book just how old he is supposed to be) who in an attempt to refine and prove his rigging abilities has taken a position on a four-rigger freighter. Unfortunately they encounter a "Flux abcess" which fries the other four riggers leaving him to navigate the ship back to civilization alone. Fortunately he encounters a stranded alien rigger (age also complete undeterminate) and together they endeavour to build enough rapport to successfully get home. The main character seems to be emotionally about 12 years old and doesn't grow up in any appreciable way until the last pages of the book. The alien rigger evolves more significantly through the novel, but since he starts at the evident level of a five-year-old, he doesn't really have anywhere to grow but up. Add to this the fact that the alien's speech is delivered in a clumsy attempt at representing difficulty of pronunciation which is frequently unreadable, and you have a book that, unless you're a big Carver fan, you'd probably be better off skipping.

8/21/98: Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof
Everything you ever wanted to know about using worms to turn kitchen waste into dirt. Plans for bins, reviews of commercial products, and lots and lots of info about worms. Very readable, very interesting. I see a worm bin in my future.

8/21/98: Nearer, My God by William F. Buckley Jr.
The icon of conservatism talks about his Catholic faith. Subtitled "An Autobiography of Faith", there are quite a lot of personal life details that won't suprise any reader of his Blackford Oakes spy novels. Buckley is a very sharp guy, and even if you disagree with his politics (or his religion), there is still plenty of food for thought here. He discusses Vatican II, alongside his own childhood in the church and even constructs a panel of adult converts to Catholicism to whom to pose a number of questions about the Catholic church in particular and Christianity in general. And, as usual with Buckley, keep the dictionary handy.

8/26/98: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
Bujold had been on my list for a long time, and a protracted discussion in rasfw about whether her works should be considered Literature (a discussion I did not read except for seeing the subjects go by every day) finally induced me to pick up one of her books. Naturally I got the second book of a series. But she gives just enough background to make things make sense while making me look forward to reading the prior volume. The book is well written socio-political SF. The characters are likable and hyper-competent. The plot, while hingeing on a rather unlikely far distant future culture is at least internally consistent. Capital-L Literature, probably not. Thoroughly enjoyable escape reading, certainly.

8/28/98: Caesar's Bicycle by John Barnes
Barnes has become my favorite SF author. This is the third volume of his "Timeline Wars" series. The series is fun, but it's clearly written mostly just to pay the bills. The premise is that a war is raging in all the alternate timelines between the freedom-first good guys and the totalitarian fascist bad guys. The bad guys can't be reasoned with because they know they're right and must take over the universe (all of the universes, actually) so our hero gets to use cool gadgets to get them any way he can. To Barnes' credit, his hero has begun to question the ethics of his methods. Really, the depth of depravity that we humans can sink to while in other respects being "good" is the predominant theme of much of Barnes' work. It often makes for unpleasant characters and situations, but is no less praiseworthy for all that, IMHO.

9/4/98: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
The predecessor to Barrayar tells the story of how Cordelia Naismith came to be Lady Vorkosigan. An interesting love story with lots to say about conflicts of class and politics. Bujold's characters have a nice way of acting decisively and consistently, but still mindfully. They have to make choices in morally ambiguous situations and Bujold lets you inside their heads to see how they weigh their options.

9/5/98: The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
I'm kind of bingeing on Bujold's Vorkosigan books, aren't I? They're fun. I'm not sure anyone actually thinks as fast as Miles does, but I suppose it's possible. And I don't think there are many 17-year-old people with physical disabilities that could build up a huge fanatically loyal mercenary force in a matter of weeks. But, hey, that's why they call it fiction ;-)

9/14/98: Little Sister by Kara Dalkey
A hero's journey story. 13-year-old Mitsuko is the little sister of the title. Her sister's new husband is brutally murdered and the sister goes into a stupor. Mitsuko takes on herself the task of seeking out the lost spirit of her sister who she presumes is following her husband into the world of the dead. Mitsuko is an interesting hero in that her powers are limited to her innocence and her perseverance. Her journey takes her on a tour of Japanese folklore and mythology, and her success ends up depending more on her ability to inspire her supernatural friends than on any power of her own. A fascinating and charming story.

9/17/98: The Deadline by Tom DeMarco
Subtitled "A Novel About Project Management", this book kept me up late reading which is not something you'd expect from a book about project management ;-) DeMarco's hero, Mr. Tompkins, is kidnapped by the secret service of a former communist bloc country and given control of 1500 well-trained software engineers and the task of re-implementing six popular software products. With so many engineers at his disposal he is able to embark on that most desired project, a controlled experiment in software management. He staffs three groups for each project and gives them different constraints.

The book ends up being less about this ivory-tower sort of experiment and more about a more realistic situation of dealing with a tyrranical and clueless upper manager. Along the way, Mr. Tompkins records the lessons that he learns about successful management and these are the pearls of the book. But the story is a lot of fun too. Like his Peopleware, the book is full of wisdom about how to get the most out of your people and should be required reading for every manager and engineer. Great stuff.

9/25/98: Longitude by Dava Sobel
The great scientific challenge of the 18th century was how to reliably determine your current longitude. This book became an unlikely bestseller telling the story of the race to solve the longitude problem. The hero of the book is John Harrison, a self-trained clock maker who, through various innovations built clocks capable of keeping near-perfect time even when subjected to the vagaries of long ocean voyages. (By knowing the time difference between where you are (say at high noon), and where you left from, it's fairly straightforward to determine how many degrees East or West you are from your starting point) Sobel writes with an excitement and care for detail that makes this book a lot of fun to read in spite of what could be quite dry subject matter. Penguin did a fine job on the production for the trade paperback copy I read, it's as nice looking a book as you'll find in that format. I only wish they had included some larger color plates of Harrison's clocks instead of the postage stamp-size pictures on the frontispiece.

9/30/98: The Horns of Elfland by ed Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Donald G. Keller
This collection of fantasy stories having something to do with music is just mind-bogglingly wonderful. None of these stories miss. I don't even want to tell you about them because I want you to go right out and if the topic sounds even vaguely interesting, buy the book and read it and have as much fun as I did. Each story is introduced by a brief preface written by Ellen Kushner, and if you have heard her public radio program, Sound & Spirit, you'll recognize her voice right away.

10/8/98: The Essential Bordertown by ed Terri Windling and Delia Sherman
The latest collection of stories set in the borderlands between a re-emerged Fairy and our world. This one is interlaced with text purporting to be kind of an underground lonely planet-style guide to travel in Bordertown. There are some good stories in here, but this is really the weakest of the Bordertown collections so far. They don't have the spark and shimmer that the first few volumes had. But maybe it's just because it pales in comparison to The Horns of Elfland. Steven Brust's sailing ship short story is fun. Ellen Kushner's talking teapot romantic comedy has its charms. Wait for paperback unless you're a Bordertown freak like me.

10/18/98: The Organ Grinders by Bill Fitzhugh
Fitzhugh's first book Pest Control combined issues surrounding the use of insects for pest control mixed into the world of hired assassins. His latest is a little more focused. Paul Symon is an eco-activist, but he's no Earth First!er, he does all his protesting within the system. Of course his results are less than impressive using those means. Paul's nemesis is an evil corporate mogul whose latest project is perfecting a method of performing successful baboon to human organ transplants.

Supported by a cast of dozens of bizarre minor characters, the book is simultaneously very funny, unnervingly gruesome, and yet filled with interesting musings on issues of vital importance to our survival as a species. Cover your eyes through the gruesome passages and you'll find it an exciting, thought provoking read. If nothing else, it's great fun trying to spot all the Paul Simon lyrics scattered through the book in the guise of dialog and narration.

10/27/98: Dragon by Steven Brust
The first Vlad Taltos book to be printed by Tor in hardcover. Dragon falls chronologically toward the beginning of the extant Vlad timeline and tells the oft-referenced story of the Battle of Barritt's Tomb. While there are elements here of the smartass Vlad of the other early books, the Vlad here is more introspective than those seemed.

There are actually three timelines in the book. The first relates Vlad's experiences during the actual Battle. The second relates the events that got him there. The third relates events occurring while he tells the story (years later than the other lines, years before the latest Vlad books) The first two timelines form the bulk of the book with a few interludes for the third. Each chapter starts in the first timeline and ends in the second, but it was four or five chapters before I noticed that I'd never noticed the transition, and even after I noticed that I wasn't noticing and started trying to notice, I still missed a few and had to go back and see when he switched. Very nicely done.

There is also some dialogue in the book (one sequence in particular) that is very funny knowing what we know from the later Vlad books that Vlad doesn't know in this one. If my count is correct this is the eighth Taltos book of the projected 17, and Brust shows no sign of sinking into mediocrity as so often happens in series of this length. Great fun.

10/29/98: Critical Chain by Eliyahu M. Goldratt
Goldratt seems to be the originator of the business book as novel. I picked this one up from the library after attending a session on its topic at the Pacific Northwest Software Quality Conference. It's about applying the Theory of Constraints to project management. While the subject matter is nearly as dry as it sounds, having the skeleton of a story propped up around it does make it easier to get through the book, and the ideas are actually pretty interesting. Goldratt has his own website for the curious. The only thing that really bugged me about the book was the main protagonist and his wife's desire for conspicuous material wealth. Not that it's necessarily out of character, this is aimed at buisiness people after all, I just found it distasteful to read lines like "It was my dream car, a fully loaded sport utility vehicle" (quoted from memory). Gag.

11/1/98: The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
The narrator has the ability to halt time and move about among the frozen rest of humanity and the world. He mostly uses this power in order to undress women without their knowledge so that he can admire them at his leisure before restoring their garments prior to letting time run its course. Later in the book he takes to writing erotica ("rot") and leaving it for chosen women to find so that he can observe their reactions. These stories within the story are the only X-rated part of the book. His actual actions are almost exclusively merely R-rated (well, except for all the masturbation)

There are some interesting ethical musings in the book, and the narrator's actions are sure to inspire more of the same in the mind of the reader. The thing I really enjoyed about the book was the narrator's slightly skewed perceptions of the world. He sometimes goes on for paragraphs about some visual oddity you or I would never have noticed. The erotica he writes is fairly straightforward, though there are some amusing absurdities. I guess as a simple character study the book is okay, but as a novel it leaves quite a bit to be desired (like a plot? more than one major character?) There is, actually, a degree of uncertainty as to the reliability of the narrator, and the ending comes off as being much more likely to be yet another fantastic rationalization rather than an actual occurrence. Interesting if not wholly satisfying.

11/7/98: Heaven's Reach by David Brin
The conclusion of Brin's latest trilogy in his Uplift universe, Heaven's Reach is better and better written than either of its predecessors in the trilogy. But not better enough. Way back in Startide Rising, Brin hinted at some mysteries that spanned five galaxies and hundreds of starfaring species and he left us hanging about what exactly the big deal was. This trilogy seemed to want to tie up some of those loose ends, and it does. But the resolution isn't very satisfying. The galactics come off seeming even more petty than in past books, and our heroes make it through one miraculous escape after another, but even with all the action not much really happens. Disappointing. With this trilogy, Brin fell off my buy-on-sight list. (Read this one from the library)

11/14/98: The Golden Globe by John Varley
Varley has always been better in short stories than novels, and this fat tome doesn't sway the trend. The plot is a chase scene across the solar system. There's only really one character. And while it's clear from the beginning that The Golden Globe is set in the same universe and same basic time as Varley's last novel, Steel Beach, it's not until the last few pages of this one that you realize that The Golden Globe is the middle book of a trilogy begun in Steel Beach and presumably to be continued (concluded?) in some unspecified forthcoming third big blue novel. After all that, it's kind of surprising to me that after finishing the book I kind of like it. Everything else aside, Varley can still turn a phrase and follow the implications of an idea better than most.

11/20/98: Headcrash by Bruce Bethke
There's blurbs all over this thing painting it as the funniest SF novel ever. I guess it was fairly amusing. There are parts where Bethke does some nice subtle satire of cyberpunk and of corporate culture and of big fatcat bestseller writers. But it's mostly mired in atmospherics and techno hipster babble that tries to emulate Gibson and Stephenson while lampooning them and frankly just doesn't do it well enough to seem more than a pale imitation of the first few pages of Snowcrash which, if you go back and read it, did a pretty good job of lampooning itself.

11/24/98: Second Nature by Alice Hoffman
Second Nature is a fairy tale set in modern times, and that attribute of the plot is wonderfully enhanced by Hoffman's lyrical prose. To describe it sounds painfully cliche: young boy is only survivor of plane crash in upper Michigan and is adopted by wolves. Hoffman's novel picks up the story after the boy has been captured and is about to be placed in a mental institution when the sister of the psychiatrist who'd been treating him rescues him almost accidentally. Hoffman uses an omniscient point of view which peeks into every character's head at some point, and sometimes several people in a single sentence and yet she pulls it off without distracting. There are some rough spots toward the end of the book, but those aside, it's a good read with some interesting things to say about our supposedly civilized culture.

11/25/98: Hundred Dollar Holiday by Bill McKibben
Subtitled "My Case for a More Joyful Christmas", McKibben's slim volume (less than 100 narrow pages) describes the evolution of the Christmas holiday as we know it and proposes a way to make Christmas both more meaningful and more fun. A third of the book is dedicated to the history of the Christmas holiday, and its evolution into the form we know in North America. The remainder of the book explores what we might want to change about the holiday.

McKibben argues that our lives are so busy all the time that busy is not what we need for a holiday. Instead we need a break from our fixation on stuff. We need time away from the noise of our world. We need to recognize that for most of us time is far more valuable than money and do our gift giving accordingly. We need contact with the natural world. We need contact with our neighbors. And we need contact with what McKibben calls "sense of the divine".

The book closes with examples of ways in which McKibben and his family have turned their holiday away from stuff and noise and busyness and toward nature, neighbors, and the divine.

11/28/98: After the King by ed Martin H. Greenberg
A collection of fantasy stories written in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien. These aren't set in Middle Earth, there are only a couple that even have the ususal selection of faerie folk. The stories are more in acknowledgement of the fact that Tolkein's books virtually created the commercial market for fantasy writing as a genre. The authors represented are all well known in the field, and the stories run the gamut of what fantasy has become over the years. I was going to list some highlights, but I can't choose. Very good collection.

12/5/98: Aliens 4 by Theodore Sturgeon
Four novellas, Killdozer!, Cactus Dance, The Comedian's Children, and The (Widget), the (Wadget), and Boff. Killdozer!, while the only one I'd heard of, is the most lightweight of the bunch. tWtWaB is the best with a very explicit instantiation of the SF work as thought experiment, and the first thing I've read in ages that's actually honestly optimistic about homo sap's chances of transcending our current sorry state.

12/12/98: Nightside City by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Mr. Watt-Evans is a frequent poster to rec.arts.sf.written where I am a dedicated lurker. This novel is noir set in far far distant future. And a grim future it is despite lots of whizz bang spiffy techno gadgetry (as if such are ever likely to engender a moral society in and of themselves). The protagonist has a keen sense of ethics though she seems to bend her rules a bit. It's got a cool SF setting: a city built in a crater near the terminator of a planet which is not quite tide-locked (The sun is very very slowly coming up and once it's up it won't go down for a long long time) and has no ozone layer to protect it from the UV the dawn will bring. It was a good story with interesting characters and enough to encourage me to read more of his work.

12/14/98: The Call by David Spangler
Spangler writes about how to recognize when you're being called to do something with your life, and what to do about it. It's a thought provoking book, and suitable for seekers of any religious background despite Spangler's (I want to say "grounding", but that doesn't quite fit...) background in the New Age movement.

12/18/98: Angry Candy by Harlan Ellison
Collection of short stories, most dealing with death. Not exactly a chipper cheerful book, but this is Ellison after all. The stories are scary and touching and moving.

12/19/98: Mockingbird by Sean Stewart
This one kept me up reading until 6am. It's mostly about the women of a family in Houston, Texas. It's unusual in that the magic in the book is based in voodoo rather than the much more common european magical traditions. But the real joy of the book is that every character is distinct and interesting and deep. Good stuff.

12/21/98: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
I've been going through a stack of books recommended on r.a.sf.w, and this one is a winner. It's loosely a retelling of Cinderella, but if the passivity of the traditional Cinderella ever bugged you, this book will make you very happy. Ella is given a gift at birth that is really a curse. Her curse is to always be obedient. To everyone. No matter what they tell her to do. Yikes! The story that ensues is a fine swiss watch of a tale with elves and giants and ogres and stepsisters and fairy godmothers and a charming and funny heroine. Wonderful, wonderful book.

12/22/98: The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter
I like this book, but I think I read it too fast, cause I never quite got it to gel. The book is set in a far distant future Earth where the brain to machine interface has been perfected. Among other things. It's a convoluted tale with at least four or five different morals. The main character is a telepresence reporter who is caught up in a story bigger than she thinks it is and learns some startling stuff about herself and her world in the process. I'll be reading it again.

12/25/98: Potatoes not Prozac by Kathleen DesMaisons
DesMaisons approaches depression from the point of view of determining physiological causes rather than dispensing treatment. Her research has been with alcoholics, and with that mindset of addiction, she's extended the potential causes of depression from just serotonin to include deficiencies in beta-endorphin, and in problems with maintaining consistent blood sugar levels. All of these led her to a theory of "sugar sensitivity" which tends to lead to a sugar addiction. This looks like the same syndrome that has been addressed in the past by the Hellers' Carbohydrate Addict's Diet, and Sears' The Zone, but unlike those books which create a fairly structured dietary program, DesMaisons puts the program in your hands by having you simply keep a food journal, recording what you eat and how you felt physically and mentally throughout your day. With this information and some guidance from her theories you can then start determining what the factors are that send your mood plunging or soaring. She's also refreshing over Sears in that she seems to have a clue about what science is, and admits up front that her theories are just theories waiting for sufficient clinical evidence. (While Sears claims to have everything nailed down despite the fact that the studies he quotes were conducted on samples of on the order of ten people. Gah.) Worth a look if "sugar sensitivity" or "depression" sound like things that are problems for you.

For more info, check out DesMaisons'

12/31/98: The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter (repeat)
Okay, I read it again, and slower this time. I like the book. I like a lot of what Carter seems to be trying to say. But. The last third of the book gets really dense with ideas that need more elucidation. I found myself having to reread paragraphs over and over just to get clear in my head what Carter was trying to say. It's possible that I'm just dense, but I think things could have been a lot more clear and still been faithful to the spirit of the setting and characters.

jeffy's books 1998
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