Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2017-04-29: Review: Periodic Tales

Review: Periodic Tales, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Publisher HarperCollins
Copyright February 2011
ISBN 0-06-207881-X
Format Kindle
Pages 451

Perhaps my favorite chapter in Randall Munroe's What If? is his examination of what would happen if you assembled a periodic table from square blocks of each element. As with most What If? questions, the answer is "everyone in the vicinity dies," but it's all about the journey. The periodic table is full of so many elements that we rarely hear about but which have fascinating properties. It was partly in the memory of that chapter that I bought Periodic Tales on impulse after seeing a mention of it somewhere on the Internet (I now forget where).

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a journalist and author, but with a background in natural sciences. He also has a life-long hobby of collecting samples of the elements and attempting to complete his own private copy of the periodic table, albeit with considerably more precautions and sample containment than Munroe's thought experiment. Periodic Tales is inspired by that collection. It's a tour and cultural history of many of the elements, discussing their discovery, their role in commerce and industry, their appearance, and often some personal anecdotes. This is not exactly a chemistry book, although there's certainly some chemistry here, nor is it a history, although Aldersey-Williams usually includes some historical notes about each element he discusses. The best term might be an anthropology of the elements: a discussion of how they've influenced culture and an examination of the cultural assumptions and connections we've constructed around them. But primarily it's an idiosyncratic and personal tour of the things Aldersey-Williams found interesting about each one.

Periodic Tales is not comprehensive. The completionist in me found that a bit disappointing, and there are a few elements that I think would have fit the overall thrust of the book but are missing. (Lithium and its connection to mental health and now computer batteries comes to mind.) It's also not organized in the obvious way, either horizontally or vertically along the periodic table. Instead, Aldersey-Williams has divided the elements he talks about into five major but fairly artificial divisions: power (primarily in the economic sense), fire (focused on burning and light), craft (the materials from which we make things), beauty, and earth. Obviously, these are fuzzy; silver appears in craft, but could easily be in power with gold. I'm not sure how defensible this division was. But it does, for good or for ill, break the reader's mind away from a purely chemical and analytical treatment and towards broader cultural associations.

This cultural focus, along with Aldersey-Williams's clear and conversational style, are what pull this book firmly away from being a beautified recitation of facts that could be gleamed from Wikipedia. It also leads to some unexpected choices of focus. For example, the cultural touchstone he chooses for sodium is not salt (which is a broad enough topic for an entire book) but sodium street lights, the ubiquitous and color-distorting light of modern city nights, thus placing salt in the "fire" category of the book. Discussion of cobalt is focused on pigments: the brilliant colors of paint made possible by its many brightly-colored compounds. Arsenic is, of course, a poison, but it's also a source of green, widely used in wallpaper (and Aldersey-Williams discusses the connection with the controversial death of Napoleon). And the discussion of aluminum starts with a sculpture, and includes a fascinating discussion of "banalization" as we become used to use of a new metal, which the author continues when looking a titanium and its currently-occurring cultural transition between the simply new and modern and a well-established metal with its own unique cultural associations.

One drawback of the somewhat scattered organization is that, while Periodic Tales provides fascinating glimmers of the history of chemistry and the search to isolate elements, those glimmers are disjointed and presented in no particular order. Recently-discovered metals are discussed alongside ancient ones, and the huge surge in elemental isolation in the 1800s is all jumbled together. Wikipedia has a very useful timeline that helps sort out one's sense of history, but there was a part of me left wanting a more structured presentation.

I read books like this primarily for the fascinating trivia. Mercury: known in ancient times, but nearly useless, so used primarily for ritual and decoration (making the modern reader cringe). Relative abundancies of different elements, which often aren't at all what one might think. Rare earths (not actually that rare): isolated through careful, tedious work by Swedish mining chemists whom most people have never heard of, unlike the discoverers of many other elements. And the discovery of the noble gases, which is a fascinating bit of disruptive science made possible by new technology (the spectroscope), forcing a rethinking of the periodic table (which had no column for noble gases). I read a lot of this while on vacation and told interesting tidbits to my parents over breakfast or dinner. It's that sort of book.

This is definitely in the popular science and popular writing category, for all the pluses and minuses that brings. It's not a detailed look at either chemistry or history. But it's very fun to read, it provides a lot of conversational material, and it takes a cultural approach that would not have previously occurred to me. Recommended if you like this sort of thing.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-04-28: Review: Neverness

Review: Neverness, by David Zindell

Publisher Bantam Spectra
Copyright May 1988
Printing July 1989
ISBN 0-553-27903-3
Format Mass market
Pages 552

Mallory Ringess is a Pilot, one of the people who can guide a lightship through interstellar space from inside the dark cocoon and biotech interface that allows visualization of the mathematics of interstellar travel. At the start of the book, he's young, arrogant, impulsive, and has a deeply unhealthy relationship with Leopold Soli, the Lord Pilot and supposedly his uncle by marriage (although they share a remarkable physical resemblance). An encounter with his uncle in a bar provokes a rash promise, and Ringess finds himself promising to attempt to map the Solid State Entity in search of the Elder Eddas, a secret of life from the mythical Ieldra that might lead to mankind's immortality.

The opening of Neverness is Ringess's initial voyage and brash search, in which he proves to be a capable mathematician who can navigate a region of space twisted and deformed by becoming part of a transcendent machine intelligence. The knowledge he comes away with, though, is scarcely more coherent than the hints Soli relates at the start of the story: the secret of mankind is somehow hidden in its deepest past. That, in turn, provokes a deeply bizarre trip into the ice surrounding his home city of Neverness to attempt to steal biological material from people who have recreated themselves as Neanderthals.

Beyond that point, I would say that things get even weirder, but weird still implies some emotional connection with the story. I think a more accurate description is that the book gets more incoherently mystical, more hopelessly pretentious, and more depressingly enthralled by childish drama. It's the sort of thing that one writes if one is convinced that the Oedipal complex is the height of subtle characterization.

I loathed this book. I started loathing this book partway through Ringess's trip through the Solid State Entity, when Zindell's prose reached for transcendent complexity, tripped over its own shoelaces, and fell headlong into overwrought babbling. I continued reading every page because there's a perverse pleasure in hate-reading a book one dislikes this intensely, and because I wanted to write a review on the firm foundation of having endured the entire experience.

The paperback edition I have has a pull quote from Orson Scott Card on the cover, which includes the phrase "excellent hard science fiction." I'm not sure what book Card read, because if this is hard science fiction, Lord of the Rings is paranormal romance. Even putting aside the idea that one travels through interstellar space by proving mathematical theorems in artificially dilated time (I don't think Zindell really understands what a proof is or why you write one), there's the whole business with stopping time with one's mind, reading other people's minds, and remembering one's own DNA. The technology, such as it is, makes considerably less sense than Star Wars. The hard SF requirement to keep technology consistent with extrapolated science is nowhere to be found here.

The back-cover quote from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a bit more on-target: "Reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's New Sun novels... really comes to life among the intrigues of Neverness." This is indeed reminiscent of Gene Wolfe, in that it wouldn't surprise me at all if Zindell fell in love with the sense of antiquity, strangeness, and hints of understood technology that Wolfe successfully creates and attempted to emulate Wolfe in his first novel. Sadly, Zindell isn't Wolfe. Almost no one is, which is why attempting to emulate the extremely difficult feat Wolfe pulls off in the Book of the New Sun in your first novel is not a good idea. The results aren't pretty.

There is something to be said for resplendent descriptions, rich with detail and ornamental prose. That something is "please use sparingly and with an eye to the emotional swings of the novel." Wolfe does not try to write most of a novel that way, which is what makes those moments of description so effective. Wolfe is also much better at making his mysteries and allusions subtle and unobtrusive, rather than having the first-person protagonist beat the reader over the head with them for pages at a time.

This is a case where showing is probably better than telling. Let me quote a bit of description from the start of the book:

She shimmers, my city, she shimmers. She is said to be the most beautiful of all the cities of the Civilized Worlds, more beautiful even than Parpallaix or the cathedral cities of Vesper. To the west, pushing into the green sea like a huge, jewel-studded sleeve of city, the fragile obsidian cloisters and hospices of the Farsider's Quarter gleamed like black glass mirrors. Straight ahead as we skated, I saw the frothy churn of the Sound and their whitecaps of breakers crashing against the cliffs of North Beach and above the entire city, veined with purple and glazed with snow and ice, Waaskel and Attakel rose up like vast pyramids against the sky. Beneath the half-ring of extinct volcanoes (Urkel, I should mention, is the southernmost peak, and though less magnificent than the others, it has a conical symmetry that some find pleasing) the towers and spires of the Academy scattered the dazzling false winter light so that the whole of the Old City sparkled.

That's less than half of that paragraph, and the entire book is written like that, even in the middle of conversations. Endless, constant words piled on words about absolutely everything, whether important or not, whether emotionally significant or not. And much of it isn't even description, but philosophical ponderings that are desperately trying to seem profound. Here's another bit:

Although I knew I had never seen her before, I felt as if I had known her all my life. I was instantly in love with her, not, of course, as one loves another human being, but as a wanderer might love a new ocean or a gorgeous snowy peak he has glimpsed for the first time. I was practically struck dumb by her calmness and her beauty, so I said the first stupid thing which came to mind. "Welcome to Neverness," I told her.

Now, I should be fair: some people like this kind of description, or at least have more tolerance for it than I do. But that brings me to the second problem: there isn't a single truly likable character in this entire novel.

Ringess, the person telling us this whole story, is a spoiled man-child, the sort of deeply immature and insecure person who attempts to compensate through bluster, impetuousness, and refusing to ever admit that he made a mistake or needed to learn something. He spends a good portion of the book, particularly the deeply bizarre and off-putting sections with the fake Neanderthals, attempting to act out some sort of stereotyped toxic masculinity and wallowing in negative emotions. Soli is an arrogant, abusive asshole from start to finish. Katherine, Ringess's love interest, is a seer who has had her eyes removed to see the future (I cannot express how disturbing I found Zindell's descriptions of this), has bizarre and weirdly sexualized reactions to the future she never explains, and leaves off the ends of all of her sentences, which might be be the most pointlessly irritating dialogue quirk I've seen in a novel. And Ringess's mother is a man-hating feminist from a separatist culture who turns into a master manipulator (I'm starting to see why Card liked this book).

I at least really wanted to like Bardo, Ringess's closest friend, who has a sort of crude loyalty and unwillingness to get pulled too deep into the philosophical quicksand lurking underneath everything in this novel. Alas, Zindell insists on constantly describing Bardo's odious eating, belching, and sexual habits every time he's on the page, thus reducing him to the disgusting buffoon who gets drunk a lot and has irritating verbal ticks. About the only person I could stand by the end of the book was Justine, who at least seems vaguely sensible (and who leaves the person who abuses her), but she's too much of a non-entity to carry sustained interest.

(There is potential here for a deeply scathing and vicious retelling of this story from Justine's point of view, focusing on the ways she was belittled, abused, and ignored, but I think Zindell was entirely unaware of why that would be so effective.)

Oh, and there's lots of gore and horrific injury and lovingly-described torture, because of course there is.

And that brings me back to the second half of that St. Louis Post-Dispatch review quote: "... really comes to life among the intrigues of Neverness." I would love to know what was hiding behind the ellipses in this pull quote, because this half-sentence is not wrong. Insofar as Neverness has any real appeal, it's in the intrigues of the city of Neverness and in the political structure that rules it. What this quote omits is that these intrigues start around page 317, more than halfway through the novel. That's about the point where faux-Wolfe starts mixing with late-career Frank Herbert and we get poet-assassins, some revelations about the leader of the Pilot culture, and some more concrete explanations of what this mess of a book is about. Unfortunately, you have to read through the huge and essentially meaningless Neanderthal scenes to get there, scenes that have essentially nothing to do with the interesting content of this book. (Everything that motivates them turns out to be completely irrelevant to the plot and useless for the characters.)

The last 40% of the book is almost passable, and characters I cared about might have even made it enjoyable. Still, a couple of remaining problems detract heavily, chief among them the lack of connection of the great revelation of the story to, well, anything in the story. We learn at the very start of the novel that the stars of the Vild are mysteriously exploding, and much of the novel is driven by uncovering an explanation and solution. The characters do find an explanation, but not through any investigation. Ringess is simply told what is happening, in a wad of exposition, as a reward for something else entirely. It's weirdly disconnected from and irrelevant to everything else in the story. (There are some faint connections to the odd technological rules that the Pilot society lives under, but Zindell doesn't even draw attention to those.) The political intrigue in Neverness is similar: it appears out of nowhere more than halfway through the book, with no dramatic foundation for the motives of the person who has been keeping most of the secrets. And the final climax of the political machinations involves a bunch of mystical nonsense masquerading as science, and more of the Neanderthal bullshit that ruins the first half of the book.

This is a thoroughly bad book: poorly plotted, poorly written, clotted and pretentious in style, and full of sociopaths and emotionally stunted children. I read the whole thing because I'm immensely stubborn and make poor life choices, but I was saying the eight deadly words ("I don't care what happens to these people") by a hundred pages in. Don't emulate my bad decisions.

(Somehow, this novel was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1990. What on earth could they possibly have been thinking?)

Neverness is a stand-alone novel, but the ending sets up a subsequent trilogy that I have no intention of reading. Followed by The Broken God.

Rating: 2 out of 10

2017-04-27: Review: Small Gods

Review: Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #13
Publisher Harper
Copyright February 1994
Printing March 2008
ISBN 0-06-109217-7
Format Mass market
Pages 357

Small Gods is the thirteenth Discworld novel, but it features new characters and is unrelated to any of the previous books. Some reading order guides show it as following Pyramids in an "ancient civilizations" track, but its only relationship with that book is some minor thematic similarities. You could start here with Discworld if you wanted to.

Brutha is a novice in the hierarchy of the church of the Great God Om, and his elders are convinced he'll probably die a novice. He's just not particularly bright, you see. But he is very obedient, and he doesn't mind doing hard work, and there's nothing exactly wrong with him, except that he looks at people with startling intensity when they're talking to him. Almost as if he's listening.

All that seems about to change, however, when the Great God Om himself approaches Brutha and starts talking to him. Not that Brutha is at all convinced at first that this is happening, particularly given that Om appears in the form of a small, battered, one-eyed tortoise who was dropped into the church garden by an eagle attempting to break his shell.

Small Gods is, as you might have guessed, a parody of religion, at least large, organized religion with fixed hierarchies, organizations called the Quisition that like to torture people, and terrifyingly devout deacons who are certain of themselves in ways that no human ever should be. It's also an interesting bit of Discworld metaphysics: gods gain power from worship (a very old idea in fantasy), and when they don't get enough worship, they end up much diminished and even adrift in the desert. Or trapped in the form of a small tortoise. One might wonder how Om ended up in his present condition given the vast and extremely authoritarian church devoted to his worship, but that's the heart of Pratchett's rather pointed parody: large religious organizations end up being about themselves, rather than about the god they supposedly worship, to such an extent that they don't provide any worship at all.

Brutha is not thinking of things like this. Once he's finally convinced that Om is who he claims to be, he provides worship and belief of a very practical but wholehearted and unshakable sort, just as he does everything else in life. That makes him the eighth prophet of Om as prophecy foretold, but it's far from clear how that will be of any practical use. Or how Om will come back into power. And meanwhile, Brutha has come to the attention of Vorbis, the head of the Exquisitors, who does not know about the tortoise (and wouldn't believe if he did), but who has a use for Brutha's other talent: his eidetic memory.

In typical Pratchett fashion, the story expands to include a variety of other memorable characters from the neighboring city of Ephebe, a country full of gods and philosophers. Vorbis's aims here are unclear at the start of the book, but Vorbis being who he is, they can't be good. Brutha is drawn along in his wake. Meanwhile, Om is constantly watching for an opportunity to regain his lost power and worshipful following, and also to avoid being eaten.

Despite the humorous components, Small Gods is rather serious about religion and about its villain. It's also a touch repetitive; Om's lack of power and constant fretting about it, Brutha's earnest but naive loyalty, and Vorbis's malevolent determination are repeatedly stressed and get a little old. Some bits in Ephebe are quite fun, but the action is a bit disjointed, partly because the protagonist is rarely the motive force in the plot. There are also some extended scenes of trudging through the desert that I thought dragged a bit. But Pratchett hits some powerful notes in his critique of religion, and there are a few bits with Death at the end of the book that I thought were among the better pieces of Discworld philosophy. And when Brutha gets a chance to use his one talent of memory, I greatly enjoyed the resulting scenes. He hits just the right combination of modesty, capability, and earnestness.

I know a lot of Pratchett readers really like Small Gods. I'm not one of those; I thought it was about average for the Discworld series (at least among the books I've read so far). But average for Discworld is still pretty good, and its new setting makes it a plausible place to start (or to take a break from the other Discworld plot threads).

Followed, in publication order, by Lords and Ladies. I don't believe it has a direct plot sequel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-04-26: Review: Necessity

Review: Necessity, by Jo Walton

Series Thessaly #3
Publisher Tor
Copyright July 2016
ISBN 0-7653-7902-3
Format Hardcover
Pages 331

Athena's experiment with a city (now civilization) modeled after Plato's Republic continues, but in a form that she would not have anticipated, and in a place rather far removed from its origins. But despite new awareness of the place and role of gods, a rather dramatic relocation, and unanticipated science-fiction complications, it continues in much the same style as in The Just City: thoughtful, questioning debate, a legal and social system that works surprisingly well, and a surprising lack of drama. At least, that is, until the displaced cities are contacted by the mainstream of humanity, and Athena goes unexpectedly missing.

The latter event turns out to have much more to do with the story than the former, and I regret that. Analyzing mainline human civilization and negotiating the parameters of a very odd first contact would have, at least in my opinion, lined up a bit better with the strengths of this series. Instead, the focus is primarily on metaphysics, and the key climactic moment in those metaphysics is rather mushy and incoherent compared to the sharp-edged analysis Walton's civilization is normally capable of. Not particularly unexpected, as metaphysics of this sort are notoriously tricky to approach via dialectical logic, but it was a bit of a letdown. Much of this book deals with Athena's disappearance and its consequences (including the title), and it wasn't bad, but it wanders a bit into philosophical musings on the nature of gods.

Necessity is a rather odd book, and I think anyone who started here would be baffled, but it does make a surprising amount of sense in the context of the series. Skipping ahead to here seems like a truly bad idea, but reading the entire series (relatively closely together) does show a coherent philosophical, moral, and social arc. The Just City opens with Apollo confronted by the idea of individual significance: what does it mean to treat other people as one's equals in an ethical sense, even if they aren't on measures of raw power? The Thessaly series holds to that theme throughout and follows its implications. Many of the bizarre things that happen in this series seem like matter-of-fact outcomes once you're engrossed in the premises and circumstances at the time. Necessity adds a surprising amount of more typical science fiction trappings, but they turn out to be ancillary to the story. What matters is considered action, trying to be your best self, and the earnest efforts of a society to put those principles first.

And that's the strength of the whole series, including Necessity: I like these people, I like how they think, and I enjoy spending time with them, almost no matter what they're doing. As with the previous books, we get interwoven chapters from different viewpoints, this time from three primary characters plus some important "guest" chapters. As with the previous books, the viewpoint characters are different again, mostly a generation younger, and I had to overcome my initial disappointment at not hearing the same voices. But Walton is excellent at characterization. I really like this earnest, thoughtful, oddly-structured society that always teeters on the edge of being hopelessly naive and trusting but is self-aware enough to never fall in. By the end of the book, I liked this round of characters nearly as much as I liked the previous rounds (although I've still never liked a character in these books as well as I liked Simmea).

I think one incomplete but important way to sum up the entire Thessaly series is that it's a trilogy of philosophical society-building on top of the premise of a universal love for and earnest, probing, thoughtful analysis of philosophy. Walton's initial cheat is to use an deus ex machina to jumpstart such a society from a complex human world that would be unlikely to provide enough time or space for it to build its own separate culture and tradition. I think the science-fiction trick is required to make this work — real-world societies that try this end up having to spend so much of their energy fighting intrusion from the outside and diffusion into the surrounding culture that they don't have the same room to avoid conformity and test and argue against their own visions.

Necessity is not at all the conclusion of that experiment I would expect, but it won me over, and I think it worked, even if a few bits of it felt indulgent. Most importantly for that overall project, this series is generational, and Necessity shows how it would feel to grow up deep inside it, seeing evolution on top of a base structure that is ubiquitous and ignored. Even the generation in The Philosopher Kings wasn't far enough removed to support that; Necessity is, and in a way this book shows how distinctly different and even alien human culture can become when it has space to evolve on top of different premises. I enjoyed the moments of small surprise, where characters didn't react the way that I'd expect for reasons now buried generations-deep in their philosophical foundations.

This book will not win you over if you didn't already like the series, and I suspect it will lose a few people who read the previous two books. The plot structure is a little strange, the metaphysics are a touch strained, and the ending is, well, not quite the payoff that I was hoping for, although it's thematically appropriate and grew on me after a few days of thinking it over. But I got more Socrates, finally, who is as delightful as always and sorely needed to add some irreverence and contrariness to the the mix. And I got to read more about practical, thoughtful people who are trying hard to do their best, to be their best selves, and to analyze and understand the world. There's something calming, delightful, and beautifully optimistic about their approach, and I'm rather sad to not have more of it to read.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-04-25: Review: Zero Bugs and Program Faster

Review: Zero Bugs and Program Faster, by Kate Thompson

Publisher Kate Thompson
Copyright 2015
Printing December 2016
ISBN 0-9961933-0-8
Format Trade paperback
Pages 169

Zero Bugs and Program Faster is another book I read for the engineering book club at work. Unlike a lot of the previous entries, I'd never heard about it before getting it for the book club and had no idea what to expect. What I got was a lavishly-illustrated book full of quirky stories and unusual turns of presentation on the general subject of avoiding bugs in code. Unfortunately, it's not a very deep examination of the topic. All that an experienced programmer is likely to get out of this book is the creative storytelling and the occasionally memorable illustration.

I knew that this may not be a book aimed at me when I read the first paragraph:

If two books in a bookstore teach the same thing, I take the shorter one. Why waste time reading a 500-page book if I can learn the same in 100 pages? In this book, I kept things clear and brief, so you can ingest the information quickly.

It's a nice thought, but there are usually reasons why the 500-page book has 400 more pages, and those are the things I was missing here. Thompson skims over the top of every topic. There's a bit here on compiler warnings, a bit on testing, a bit on pair programming, and a bit on code review, but they're all in extremely short chapters, usually with some space taken up with an unusual twist of framing. This doesn't leave time to dive deep into any topic. You won't be bored by this book, but most of what you'll earn is "this concept exists." And if you've been programming for a while, you probably know that already.

I learned during the work discussion that this was originally a blog and the chapters are repurposed from blog posts. I probably should have guessed at that, since that's exactly what the book feels like. It's a rare chapter that's longer than a couple of pages, including the room for the illustrations.

The illustrations, I must say, are the best part of the book. There are a ton of them, sometimes just serving the purpose of stock photography to illustrate a point (usually with a slightly witty caption), sometimes a line drawing to illustrate some point about code, sometimes an illustrated mnemonic for the point of that chapter. The book isn't available in a Kindle edition precisely because including the illustrations properly is difficult to do (per its Amazon page).

As short as this book is, only about two-thirds of it is chapters about programming. The rest is code examples (not that the chapters themselves were light on code examples). Thompson introduces these with:

One of the best ways to improve your programming is to look at examples of code written by others. On the next pages you will find some code I like. You don't need to read all of it: take the parts you like, and skip the parts you don't. I like it all.

I agree with this sentiment: reading other people's code is quite valuable. But it's also very easy to do, given a world full of free software and GitHub repositories. When reading a book, I'm looking for additional insight from the author. If the code examples are beautiful enough to warrant printing here, there presumably is some reason why. But Thompson rarely does more than hint at the reason for inclusion. There is some commentary on the code examples, but it's mostly just a discussion of their origin. I wanted to know why Thompson found each piece of code beautiful, as difficult as that may be to describe. Without that commentary, it's just an eclectic collection of code fragments, some from real systems and some from various bits of stunt programming (obfuscation contests, joke languages, and the like).

The work book club discussion showed that I wasn't the only person disappointed by this book, but some people did like it for its unique voice. I don't recommend it, but if it sounds at all interesting, you may want to look over the corresponding web site to get a feel for the style and see if this is something you might enjoy more than I did.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2017-03-31: Review: Two Serpents Rise

Review: Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone

Series Craft #2
Publisher Tor
Copyright October 2013
ISBN 1-4668-0204-9
Format Mobi
Pages 350

This is the second book in the Craft Sequence, coming after Three Parts Dead, but it's not a sequel. The only thing shared between the books is the same universe and magical system. Events in Two Serpents Rise were sufficiently distant from the events of the first book that it wasn't obvious (nor did it matter) where it fit chronologically.

Caleb is a gambler and an investigator for Red King Consolidated, the vast firm that controls the water supply, and everything else, in the desert city of Dresediel Lex. He has a fairly steady and comfortable job in a city that's not comfortable for many, one of sharp divisions between rich and poor and which is constantly one water disturbance away from riot. His corporate work life frustrates his notorious father, a legendary priest of the old gods who were defeated by the Red King and who continues to fight an ongoing terrorist resistance to the new corporate order. But Caleb has as little as possible to do with that.

Two Serpents Rise opens with an infiltration of the Bright Mirror Reservoir, one of the key components of Dresediel Lex's water supply. It's been infested with Tzimet: demon-like creatures that, were they to get into the city's water supply, would flow from faucets and feed on humans. Red King Incorporated discovered this one and sealed the reservoir before the worst could happen, but it's an unsettling attack. And while Caleb is attempting to determine what happened, he has an unexpected encounter with a cliff runner: a daredevil parkour enthusiast with an unexpected amulet of old Craft that would keep her invisible from most without the magical legacy Caleb is blessed (or cursed) with. He doesn't think her presence is related to the attack, but he can't be sure, particularly with the muddling fact that he finds her personally fascinating.

Like Three Parts Dead, you could call Two Serpents Rise an urban fantasy in that it's a fantasy that largely takes place in cities and is concerned with such things as infrastructure, politics, and the machinery of civilization. However, unlike Three Parts Dead, it takes itself much more seriously and has less of the banter and delightful absurdity of the previous book. The identification of magic with contracts and legalities is less amusingly creative here and more darkly sinister. Partly this is because the past of Dresediel Lex is full of bloodthirsty gods and human sacrifice, and while Red King Consolidated has put an end to that practice, it lurks beneath the surface and is constantly brought to mind by some grisly artifacts.

I seem to always struggle with fantasy novels based loosely on central American mythology. An emphasis on sacrifice and terror always seems to emerge from that background, and it verges too close to horror for me. It also seems prone to clashes of divine power and whim instead of thoughtful human analysis. That's certainly the case here: instead of Tara's creative sleuthing and analysis, Caleb's story is more about uncertainty, obsession, gambling, and shattering revelations. Magical rituals are described more in terms of their emotional impact than their world-building magical theory. I think this is mostly a matter of taste, and it's possible others would like Two Serpents Rise better than the previous book, but it wasn't as much my thing.

The characters are a mixed bag. Caleb was a bit too passive to me, blown about by his father and his employer and slow to make concrete decisions. Mal was the highlight of the book for me, but I felt at odds with the author over that, which made the end of the book somewhat frustrating. Caleb has some interesting friends, but this is one of those books where I would have preferred one of the supporting cast to be the protagonist.

That said, it's not a bad book. There are some very impressive set pieces, the supporting cast is quite good, and I am wholeheartedly in favor of fantasy novels that are built around the difficulties of water supply to a large, arid city. This sort of thing has far more to do with human life than the never-ending magical wars over world domination that most fantasy novels focus on, and it's not at all boring when told properly. Gladstone is a good writer, and despite the focus of this book not being as much my cup of tea, I'll keep reading this series.

Followed by Full Fathom Five.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-03-25: Spring haul

Work has been hellishly busy lately, so that's pretty much all I've been doing. The major project I'm working on should be basically done in the next couple of weeks, though (fingers crossed), so maybe I'll be able to surface a bit more after that.

In the meantime, I'm still acquiring books I don't have time to read, since that's my life. In this case, two great Humble Book Bundles were too good of a bargain to pass up. There are a bunch of books in here that I already own in paperback (and hence showed up in previous haul posts), but I'm running low on shelf room, so some of those paper copies may go to the used bookstore to make more space.

Kelley Armstrong — Lost Souls (sff)
Clive Barker — Tortured Souls (horror)
Jim Butcher — Working for Bigfoot (sff collection)
Octavia E. Butler — Parable of the Sower (sff)
Octavia E. Butler — Parable of the Talents (sff)
Octavia E. Butler — Unexpected Stories (sff collection)
Octavia E. Butler — Wild Seed (sff)
Jacqueline Carey — One Hundred Ablutions (sff)
Richard Chizmar — A Long December (sff collection)
Jo Clayton — Skeen's Leap (sff)
Kate Elliot — Jaran (sff)
Harlan Ellison — Can & Can'tankerous (sff collection)
Diana Pharoh Francis — Path of Fate (sff)
Mira Grant — Final Girls (sff)
Elizabeth Hand — Black Light (sff)
Elizabeth Hand — Saffron & Brimstone (sff collection)
Elizabeth Hand — Wylding Hall (sff)
Kevin Hearne — The Purloined Poodle (sff)
Nalo Hopkinson — Skin Folk (sff)
Katherine Kurtz — Camber of Culdi (sff)
Katherine Kurtz — Lammas Night (sff)
Joe R. Lansdale — Fender Lizards (mainstream)
Robert McCammon — The Border (sff)
Robin McKinley — Beauty (sff)
Robin McKinley — The Hero and the Crown (sff)
Robin McKinley — Sunshine (sff)
Tim Powers — Down and Out in Purgatory (sff)
Cherie Priest — Jacaranda (sff)
Alastair Reynolds — Deep Navigation (sff collection)
Pamela Sargent — The Shore of Women (sff)
John Scalzi — Miniatures (sff collection)
Lewis Shiner — Glimpses (sff)
Angie Thomas — The Hate U Give (mainstream)
Catherynne M. Valente — The Bread We Eat in Dreams (sff collection)
Connie Willis — The Winds of Marble Arch (sff collection)
M.K. Wren — Sword of the Lamb (sff)
M.K. Wren — Shadow of the Swan (sff)
M.K. Wren — House of the Wolf (sff)
Jane Yolen — Sister Light, Sister Dark (sff)

2017-02-19: Haul via parents

My parents were cleaning out a bunch of books they didn't want, so I grabbed some of the ones that looked interesting. A rather wide variety of random stuff. Also, a few more snap purchases on the Kindle even though I've not been actually finishing books recently. (I do have two finished and waiting for me to write reviews, at least.) Who knows when, if ever, I'll read these.

Mark Ames — Going Postal (nonfiction)
Catherine Asaro — The Misted Cliffs (sff)
Ambrose Bierce — The Complete Short Stores of Ambrose Bierce (collection)
E. William Brown — Perilous Waif (sff)
Joseph Campbell — A Hero with a Thousand Faces (nonfiction)
Jacqueline Carey — Miranda and Caliban (sff)
Noam Chomsky — 9-11 (nonfiction)
Noam Chomsky — The Common Good (nonfiction)
Robert X. Cringely — Accidental Empires (nonfiction)
Neil Gaiman — American Gods (sff)
Neil Gaiman — Norse Mythology (sff)
Stephen Gillet — World Building (nonfiction)
Donald Harstad — Eleven Days (mystery)
Donald Harstad — Known Dead (mystery)
Donald Harstad — The Big Thaw (mystery)
James Hilton — Lost Horizon (mainstream)
Spencer Johnson — The Precious Present (nonfiction)
Michael Lerner — The Politics of Meaning (nonfiction)
C.S. Lewis — The Joyful Christian (nonfiction)
Grigori Medredev — The Truth about Chernobyl (nonfiction)
Tom Nadeu — Seven Lean Years (nonfiction)
Barak Obama — The Audacity of Hope (nonfiction)
Ed Regis — Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition (nonfiction)
Fred Saberhagen — Berserker: Blue Death (sff)
Al Sarrantonio (ed.) — Redshift (sff anthology)
John Scalzi — Fuzzy Nation (sff)
John Scalzi — The End of All Things (sff)
Kristine Smith — Rules of Conflict (sff)
Henry David Thoreau — Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (nonfiction)
Alan W. Watts — The Book (nonfiction)
Peter Whybrow — A Mood Apart (nonfiction)

I've already read (and reviewed) American Gods, but didn't own a copy of it, and that seemed like a good book to have a copy of.

The Carey and Brown were snap purchases, and I picked up a couple more Scalzi books in a recent sale.

2017-01-31: Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Series Wayfarers #2
Publisher Harper Voyager
Copyright October 2016
ISBN 0-06-256942-2
Format Kindle
Pages 384

A Closed and Common Orbit has two threads, one that takes place twenty years in the past and one that happens simultaneously with the very end of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. That second part is the motivating plot thread, but it's unfortunately impossible to talk about in any depth without seriously spoiling the previous book. You could otherwise read them out of order, but I think the previous book is too good to spoil, so you want to carefully avoid reading any descriptions of this book until after you've read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

Per my normal review policy, I'm going to try to avoid spoilers, but just about everything about half of this book would give away spoilers if you're paying attention. So you may want to just go read the other book before reading this review. (It's excellent!)

The part that I can safely say is that half this book is about Pepper, her partner Blue, Pepper's store and Blue's art, and her attempt to help a friend find a place and a sense of identity that she'd never asked for or expected, while keeping a very dangerous secret. That friend starts somewhat passive, but one of the things I liked the most about this story is that Pepper is neither always right in her advice nor always wrong. Sidra is wrong about some of the limitations that she thinks she has and some of the things she thinks she wants, but she's also right about other things where Pepper is wrong. She has a complicated, careful, and courageous journey.

The best part of this book for me, though, was the other half, told in alternating chapters with Sidra's story. This is Pepper's own backstory, which is rather awful (although Chambers does avoid being too graphic about the most horrible parts), but is also an amazing story of someone finding her own power, her own skills, and her own identity. And building a relationship that's something quite special. At first, this seems only vaguely related to Sidra's story and the other half of the book, but they both come together in a way that's both heartbreaking and wonderful.

I found this story particularly wonderful because one of my favorite SF tropes is sentient computers or sentient ships, which play a significant role in Pepper's backstory. And one of my favorite characters to read about is the technician who can cobble together fixes to things and who is always finding something to repair. Pepper is a delight, her story explains so much about how she became the person she is (and adds so much emotional heft to it), and she has a relentless, practical determination that I loved reading about.

A Closed and Common Orbit doesn't have the sprawling cast of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The story is tightly focused on five characters. I think I liked that even better than the previous book, even when I was finding Sidra a bit too passive and not as interesting. Chambers's characters have so much depth, thoughtfulness, and basic decency, while still being uniquely themselves, that I feel like I could read about them for months and keep uncovering new, interesting facets. I particularly loved the occasional excerpts from the chat system where Pepper hangs out (and would have loved about three times more of them). Speaking as someone who spends a lot of time in chat, Chambers got the tone just about perfect.

Just about the only complaint I have about this book is that I thought the ending was too abrupt. It's so important, the climax of Pepper's story and a hugely significant piece of character development, and I wanted more than the short scene and aftermath we got. I really wanted to spend some time feeling with the characters, savoring the emotional release. Another three or four pages would have been greatly appreciated.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a happy surprise in 2015. A Closed and Common Orbit is fully as good, if not better. If you liked the previous book, you will definitely want to read this. I pre-ordered it and then read it within months after it was released, something that I almost never do. I can hardly wait to read whatever Chambers writes next.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2017-01-26: Review: Summer in Orcus

Review: Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher

Publisher Red Wombat Studio
Copyright 2016
ASIN B01N26G2I0
Format Web serial
Pages 268

In September, Ursula Vernon started posting Summer in Orcus as a web serial, funded by her Patreon supporters. The entire story is now complete and available on-line for free, which is how I read it, but it's also available as an ebook from the expected places if you prefer to read it that way. The ebook publication lists T. Kingfisher as the author, Vernon's pen name for her books for adults. While I would have been happy to read this book as a kid, it does have one fairly gruesome chapter, which is probably the reason for that choice.

Summer is eleven, and her mother loves her very much. So much so that she's never allowed to do anything even slightly risky, and she spends quite a lot of her time and emotional energy reassuring her mother, dealing with the burden of that suffocating love, and helping her through her bad days. Then, one day, a house with giant chicken feet walks into the alley behind her house.

Summer in Orcus is a portal fantasy. It's the story of how Summer meets Baba Yaga and asks for her heart's desire, finds herself in the magical country of Orcus, and is desperately moved by the plight of a frog tree. It has a talking weasel and a werehouse and antelope women who are not to be trusted, and it's about Summer making friends her mother would never have approved of and learning what she's capable of, and about doing what one can to put things right.

Even though it may appear that way at times, Summer in Orcus is not really a book about large things. It's not a saving the world sort of portal fantasy. And it's not really a wish fulfillment portal fantasy, because heart's desires are complicated and subtle. It's a story about being scared and tired and lost, and about making friends, and doing the things one can do rather than learning how to be a completely different person. The plot itself is not particularly complex, but the joy of this story is in all the small things.

Vernon's writing is an absolute delight. Summer in Orcus is packed with sentences and paragraphs that I just want to read again and again and quote at people.

Summer had never had a father, and wasn’t entirely sure what you did with one, and certainly her mother never had anything good to say about the one Summer didn’t have.

Or:

The house lifted its back end up and inched forward a little, like a dog wanting to play. This must have made the floors tilt inside, because Summer heard a banging and sliding of furniture and Baba Yaga yelled, "Fool house! I’ll trade you in for one with turtle feet and a three-car garage!" The house sank back down, but wiggled forward a little more, until the front door was only a few feet away.

Vernon mentions in her author notes at the end that Summer in Orcus started as a place to put a whole bunch of fragmentary ideas that she'd come up with but that didn't seem to fit into other stories, and it does have a bit of a grand tour feel to it. But unlike a lot of grand tour figures, the protagonist is not at all bland. Summer is entirely believable and very sympathetic, torn between wanting a grand adventure and being afraid of circumstance and danger entirely outside of her limited experience. She channels the reader's awe and delight, but is still very much her own person, trying to figure out who she wants to be and believe in without the stifling presence of her mother.

The tour nature of the story does mean that some things weren't explored as deeply as I would have liked. I would dearly love to read more about the dogs, for instance. I also have to admit that Zultan's motives never made sense to me, even after they were explained, and I found him an odd and weirdly random character to the end. But Glorious is, well, glorious, and I utterly adored the bits with the Forester. The ending is highly unusual for a story of this sort, and I thought it was wonderful, with a great symbolic tie back to the start of the story. The aftermath is even better, including Summer standing firm against one of the tropes of portal fantasies that I dislike the most.

This is a great story, with some excellent writing. If you're anything like me, once you read the first chapter you won't want to stop (and since it's all available on the web for free, there's no reason to stop). Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2017-01-14: Review: Enchanters' End Game

Review: Enchanters' End Game, by David Eddings

Series The Belgariad #5
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright December 1984
Printing February 1990
ISBN 0-345-33871-5
Format Mass market
Pages 372

And, finally, the conclusion towards which everything has been heading, and the events for which Castle of Wizardry was the preparation. (This is therefore obviously not the place to start with this series.) Does it live up to all the foreshadowing and provide a satisfactory conclusion? I'd say mostly. The theology is a bit thin, but Eddings does a solid job of bringing all the plot threads together and giving each of the large cast a moment to shine.

Enchanters' End Game (I have always been weirdly annoyed by that clunky apostrophe) starts with more of Garion and Belgarath, and, similar to the end of Castle of Wizardry, this feels like them rolling on the random encounter table. There is a fairly important bit with Nadraks at the start, but the remaining detour to the north is a mostly unrelated bit of world-building. Before this re-read, I didn't remember how extensive the Nadrak parts of this story were; in retrospect, I realize a lot of what I was remembering is in the Mallorean instead. I'll therefore save my commentary on Nadrak gender roles for an eventual Mallorean re-read, since there's quite a lot to dig through and much of it is based on information not available here.

After this section, though, the story leaves Garion, Belgarath, and Silk for nearly the entire book, returning to them only for the climax. Most of this book is about Ce'Nedra, the queens and kings of the west, and what they're doing while Garion and his small party are carrying the Ring into Mordor— er, you know what I mean.

And this long section is surprisingly good. We first get to see the various queens of the west doing extremely well managing the kingdoms while the kings are away (see my previous note about how Eddings does examine his stereotypes), albeit partly by mercilessly exploiting the sexism of their societies. The story then picks up with Ce'Nedra and company, including all of the rest of Garion's band, being their snarky and varied selves. There are some fairly satisfying set pieces, some battle tactics, some magical tactics, and a good bit of snarking and interplay between characters who feel like old friends by this point (mostly because of Eddings's simple, broad-strokes characterization).

And Ce'Nedra is surprisingly good here. I would say that she's grown up after the events of the last book, but sadly she reverts to being awful in the aftermath. But for the main section of the book, partly because she's busy with other things, she's a reasonable character who experiences some actual consequences and some real remorse from one bad decision she makes. She's even admirable in how she handles events leading up to the climax of the book.

Eddings does a good job showing every character in their best light, putting quite a lot of suspense (and some dramatic rescues) into this final volume, and providing a final battle that's moderately interesting. I'm not sure I entirely bought the theological ramifications of the conclusion (the bits with Polgara do not support thinking about too deeply), but the voice in Garion's head continues to be one of the better characters of the series. And Errand is a delight.

After the climax, the aftermath sadly returns to Eddings's weird war between the sexes presentation of all gender relationships in this series, and it left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. (There is absolutely no way that some of these relationships would survive in reality.) Eddings portrays nearly every woman as a manipulative schemer, sometimes for good and sometimes for evil, and there is just so much gender stereotyping throughout this book for both women and men. You can tell he's trying with the queens, but women are still only allowed to be successful at politics and war within a very specific frame. Even Polgara gets a bit of the gender stereotyping, although she remains mostly an exception (and one aspect of the ending is much better than it could have been).

Ah well. One does not (or at least probably should not) read this series without being aware that it has some flaws. But it has a strange charm as well, mostly from its irreverence. The dry wise-cracking of these characters rings more true to me than the epic seriousness of a lot of fantasy. This is how people behave under stress, and this is how quirky people who know each other extremely well interact. It also keeps one turning the pages quite effectively. I stayed up for several late nights finishing it, and was never tempted to put it down and stop reading.

This is not great literature, but it's still fun. It wouldn't sustain regular re-reading for me, but a re-read after twenty years or so was pretty much exactly the experience I was hoping for: an unchallenging, optimistic story with amusing characters and a guaranteed happy ending. There's a place for that.

Followed, in a series sense, by the Mallorean, the first book of which is The Guardians of the West. But this is a strictly optional continuation; the Belgariad comes to a definite end here.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-01-02: Review: Castle of Wizardry

Review: Castle of Wizardry, by David Eddings

Series The Belgariad #4
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright May 1984
Printing September 1991
ISBN 0-345-33570-8
Format Mass market
Pages 373

Castle of Wizardry is the fourth book of the Belgariad and very much the middle of the story. Despite coming after an intermediate climax, this isn't the sort of series you can start in the middle.

The problem with intermediate climaxes in a long series is that the next book can be a bit of a let-down as the characters do the necessary regrouping and reorienting and determine next steps. I think that hurts Castle of Wizardry quite a lot. The best bits are at the beginning, as the party escapes the consequences of Magician's Gambit, collects one more party member, shows us a lot more of Errand (who is always delightful), and confounds Relg's life and world view considerably. (Although there's a good bit of authorial fiat in the last.) This builds into a major story event, which would normally help avoid the let-down after the climax, but it's the major story event that is so frequently and obviously foreshadowed that you'd have to be as dumb as, well, Garion to not know what's coming. That gives a certain "yes, yes, we know already" tone to proceedings that robs it of its ability to rebuild tension.

That said, the appeal of this series continues to be in the small details. While the first major event of this book goes pretty much as expected (including Ce'Nedra's reaction, which is just as irritating as you might be expecting), my favorite part was the endless, bubbly enthusiasm of the incredibly powerful artifact that features heavily. Usually epic fantasy will treat such world-breaking objects with seriousness and awe, as treasures to be admired and sacred (or terrifying) great works. See, for instance, the ur-example of Tolkien's rings, both the One Ring and the elven rings of power. Eddings manages a mix of awe and bemusement that doesn't undermine their power but that adds a delightful human element. This series pulls off treating a powerful magical artifact like an over-enthusiastic puppy without making it feel any less dangerous. It's a very neat, and I think underappreciated, trick to pull off.

Another part of this book I liked, if a more stock one, is Garion's reactions after the big story event. This isn't the first book to portray basic decency and thoughtfulness as a major feature in people from humble backgrounds elevated to great power, but I always enjoy seeing that. Garion stops whining (mostly) and starts acting like a decent, level-headed person who doesn't assume he has the right to arrange other people's lives, and is rewarded for it. Real life is often not that fair or ethical, but that's why one reads wish-fulfillment fantasy like this: for a world in which being a good person is rewarded.

However, Eddings does have some structural issues here. The narrative arc of this book, as a stand-alone entity, is odd. Its most dramatic event is in the middle, and then has a long traveling section that's, by comparison, much less exciting. The events of that section feel more like random encounters than a coherent part of the story, and are preceded by the most utterly ridiculous temper tantrums. I think the tantrums were meant to be pure humor, but my reaction was primarily eye-rolling. I have a hard time reconciling a screaming fit and breaking furniture with the long life experience and thoughtful planning of the character in question.

And then there is the Ce'Nedra section that closes this book, and Ce'Nedra in this book more generally.

To be fair, Castle of Wizardry is clearly intended to be Ce'Nedra's moment to grow as a person and stop being a childish brat. This does happen somewhat, and there are moments in the last section of the book where she does admirable things. But I couldn't quite believe in the mechanism, and it doesn't help that it's one of the most ham-handed bits of pre-ordained success in a book that has a tendency towards them. That undermines the real attempts Eddings makes to ground that success in Ce'Nedra's actual skills. Also undermining this is that those skills are manipulating people shamelessly, which Eddings seems to think is charming and attractive and I... don't.

But the real problem is that I flatly disbelieve in Ce'Nedra as a character, or, given the apparent existence of such a creature, the level of tolerance that other characters show her. If I'd been Polgara, within fifteen minutes of meeting her I would have been seriously debating whether the destruction of the world might be a small price to pay for the satisfaction of dumping her down the nearest well. And not only is she awful by herself but Garion also descends to the same level whenever he's around her, until both of them are behaving like blithering idiots.

I suspect part of my issue is that, to the extent that she is realistic at all, Ce'Nedra is the sort of intensely high-drama person who I have some amount of life experience with, and that life experience says "do not let this person anywhere near your life." Red flags all over everything. Garion needs to nope the hell out, because this will not end well. (Except, of course, it will, because it's that sort of series and the power of the author is strong.)

I want female characters with real agency in my fantasy, and I want a female protagonist who is doing things of equal importance as the male protagonist (not that Eddings attempts to go that far). But Ce'Nedra reads like a fictional character written by someone who had never met a woman, but has extensively studied female supporting characters in books about junior-high social cliques and then tried to reconcile that research with the stereotype of women as manipulative seductresses. Yes, this series is full of stereotypes and characters painted in broad strokes, but Ce'Nedra is several tiers below every other supporting character in the book in both believability and in my desire to read about her.

It's not that Eddings doesn't know how to write women at all. Polgara still falls into a few stereotyped categories, but she's sensible, opinionated, and has clear agency throughout the story. Taiba is delightful, if minor here. Poledra is absolutely wonderful whenever she appears. Some of the queens are obviously practical and sensible. And this book features a surprisingly good resolution to the subplot around Barak's wife, although the mechanism is a bit eye-rollingly cliched. Ce'Nedra's character is unusual for the series and almost certainly a deliberate authorial choice, and this book is supposed to be her coming of age. But I am baffled by that choice, and there's very little about it that I enjoyed reading.

One more minor complaint: Silk gets a "tragic secret" in this book, and I really wish he hadn't. More time with Silk is always a feature, and I still love the character, but his oddities were already adequately explained by both his innate character and his way of dealing with a particularly awkward court situation. (One that ties into Eddings's habit of using some bad relationship stereotypes, but that's a rant for another day.) I think this additional tragic secret was gratuitous and really unnecessary, not to mention weirdly implausible and oddly cruel towards the other character involved.

I was hoping that Magician's Gambit had turned a corner for the series, but Castle of Wizardry, despite having some neat moments, has some serious flaws. One more book to go, in which we learn that some of the eastern races have redeeming qualities!

Followed by Enchanter's End Game.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2017-01-02: End of 2016 haul

May as well start 2017 with a burst of recorded optimism: the last books I bought in 2016 that I'm queuing up to read. The hopoe is that this year I'll actually read more of them!

Becky Chambers — A Closed and Common Orbit (sff)
T. Kingfisher — The Raven and the Reindeer (sff)
Joseph R. Lallo — The Book of Deacon Anthology (sff)
M. Louisa Locke — Maids of Misfortune (historical)
Rebecca Solnit — Hope in the Dark (nonfiction)
K.B. Spangler — Maker Space (sff)
K.B. Spangler — State Machine (sff)
Steven W. White — New World (sff)

Most of these are various StoryBundle add-ons that I'd somehow missed downloading the first time (and hence are fairly low priority on the reading list). The rest is a mixed bag of Kindle purchases.

I started A Closed and Common Orbit today and could barely put it down. An auspicious start to the new year.

2017-01-01: 2016 Book Reading in Review

So, I did not accomplish my reading goal for 2016 (reading and reviewing more books in 2016 than I did in 2015). Many things contributed to that, but the root cause was that I didn't make enough time for reading. Much of the time that could have gone to reading went to playing Hearthstone (a good thing) and obsessing over the 2016 US election (mostly a waste of time and particularly energy, although I'm not sure I could have stopped). That said, I did get quite a lot of reading done at the end of the year, and I'm hoping to keep up that momentum for next year.

In 2016, I did a lot of re-reading and comfort reading. I'm probably going to continue with some of the re-reading in 2017, since I'm enjoying it, but my reading goal for the year is to get back to reading award nominees and previous award winners. There's so much great new stuff being published that I want to discover. I'm not going to set an explicit goal around number of books, but I am going to make an effort to carve out more time in my schedule for reading books (and less for reading on-line news).

This was another year with two 10 out of 10 books. One of them was a re-read: Lord of Emperors, the second book of Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic. (I also re-read the first book this year, Sailing to Sarantium, and gave it a 9.) I like nearly all of Kay's historical fantasies, but this duology is one of my personal favorites.

The second 10 out of 10 book was a complete surprise: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (translated by Henning Koch). My mother found this book and suggested it to me, and I loved every moment of it. I will definitely be reading more of Backman's work.

There were two more fiction standouts this year: Digger by Ursula Vernon, and The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton. The first is a graphic novel about a wombat who is trying to make her way home from an unexpected detour into a mess of magic and gods. The second is the middle book in a trilogy about an attempt to construct Plato's Just City and all of the philosophical and social problems that ensue (with some bonus science fiction and fantasy elements). Both of them are excellent. Walton is consistently one of my favorite authors, and Ursula Vernon was my great discovery of a new author to read this year. (Not that I've followed through on that much, the year in reading being what it was, but I will be doing so.)

My favorite non-fiction book of the year continues my interest in time management in general and Mark Forster's approaches in particular. Secrets of Productive People was the last book I reviewed this year (just a coincidence, not any intentional attempt to set things up for next year) and the best version of his overall approach to date. If you've not read any of Forster based on my previous recommendations, this is a good place to start.

Also worth mentions were Jeffrey Toobin's The Run of His Life, on the O.J. Simpson case, and Andrew Groen's The Empires of EVE, on the history of player empires in the EVE Online MMORPG. I Kickstarted the latter and didn't regret it.

The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

2016-12-31: Review: Secrets of Productive People

Review: Secrets of Productive People, by Mark Forster

Publisher Teach Yourself
Copyright 2015
ISBN 1-4736-0885-6
Format Kindle
Pages 289

Regular readers of my reviews will know that Mark Forster is my favorite writer on time management and productivity. That's mostly because of his flexible toolkit approach that talks about theory and overall goals and then describes multiple ways to get there, rather than presenting a single system that will solve all your problems. There are a lot of writers who explain productivity tips and tricks or describe systems that work for them. There are fewer who can explain why those tricks work (and why they sometimes don't work), and even fewer who can put them into a meaningful analytical framework for thinking about productivity.

Forster has several books, but they're a mixed bag. His clearest and most coherent book prior to this one was Do It Tomorrow. Secrets of Productive People is organized differently, chopped up in to small bite-sized chunks with synopses to an extent that it felt a bit choppy to me, but apart from that it's the closest I've seen to an updating of Do It Tomorrow. His other books can be slight (The Pathway to Awesomeness) or downright weird (How to Make Your Dreams Come True). I still have a soft spot for Do It Tomorrow, and I like how it was organized a bit better than this one, but I think Secrets of Productive People has become my new recommendation for where to start with Forster.

Secrets of Productive People is divided into five sections: The basics of productivity, the productive attitude, productive projects, aids to productivity, and productivity in action. Each part is divided into several small chapters, which open with a generous helping of quotes about some productivity topic (and I'm going to go back and save some of those), present some easily-digestible related set of thoughts (usually with an exercise), and conclude with a summary. Each chapter is about the length of a long blog post. I think this structure interferes with developing an idea at greater length, but it does make for good reading material in an environment where you're regularly interrupted or only have five or ten minutes.

I think I've mentioned in every review that Forster won me over by being willing to talk about the problems with attempting to do too much, not just presenting a system to allow one to accomplish more. Some other books, such as David Allen's famous Getting Things Done, seem to assume you already know what you need to get done, or will easily be able to figure that out when you think for a while, and just need a system to manage all the things you've decided to do. Forster takes the opposite approach, and this book is the clearest yet on this point: most productivity problems are not from being insufficiently efficient, but from doing the wrong things and too many things. You don't need more time; everyone gets the same amount of time. You need to do the right things with the time you have, and that usually means doing fewer things.

Readers of Forster's previous books will recognize many of the themes here. Some of the techniques from Do It Tomorrow and some of the exercises from Get Everything Done show up again here. But Forster has streamlined and focused the advice, discarded some things, made his task management recommendations less elaborate and more focused, and spends much more time hammering home the point that the only prioritization that really matters is whether you commit to doing something or don't.

The specific task management system he recommends here is one of the variations he's been talking about in his blog and is much simpler than the Do It Tomorrow system: pick five tasks, work on them until you've finished three of them, and then refill to five tasks. I've been using it since reading this book, replacing one of Forster's more elaborate systems from his blog, and it's surprisingly effective. He breaks down in some detail why this works and how to extract additional useful feedback information from it, and now I want to do some of the additional exercises he describes. (That said, I'm still dubious about his advice to not keep any larger to-do list and only rely on your analysis at the time of refilling the list to decide what to do. I use this system with a supplemental, longer list of ideas for future tasks, and that works better for me, although I do have to fight forming a sense of obligation about the things on the longer list. David Allen still has a point that if you don't write down a complete inventory of the things you're worrying about, your brain will try to obsess over them to keep from forgetting them.)

The productive projects section told me some things I needed to hear about time commitments. Projects take regular, focused attention, and starting numerous things without giving them that attention is much worse than doing far fewer things but doing them regularly and reliably. I think Forster's coaching on focus and persistence is very valuable; the trick, of course, is building up your willpower for it and learning to say no. This is in-line with recent psychological analysis of multi-tasking and its various negative effects. The working to-do list capped at five things provides enough variety to mentally shift gears if one runs out of steam on some specific project while maintaining enough focus to not leave things behind half-done.

The productivity aids section provides a more random collection of tips and tricks, many of which I've seen before in his previous books. I've mostly not tried these, so can't say much about how effective they are, but Forster's ideas almost always sound interesting and plausible.

I thought the weakest part of the book was the last section, on applied productivity. Here, Forster takes various life areas (exercise, parenting, finances, writing, etc.) and talks about how the principles of this book can be applied to them. Each area could be a book in itself, and the short essay format of these chapters doesn't do justice to large topics. The result is a rather repetitive section that just stresses analysis, metrics, and repeated, focused attention — all valid points, but ones you can pick up from the previous chapters. I don't think these case studies added much value.

Do It Tomorrow is still my favorite Forster book to read, but I think Secrets of Productive People is now the best and most polished overview of his time management and productivity approach. If you're interested in this topic and not already sick of Forster from my previous recommendations, this would be a great place to start. I got a lot out of it even with all the time management reading I've previously done, and will probably re-read sections of it and try more of the exercises.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Last modified and spun 2017-04-30