Category Archives: Reviews

Books: Sensation by Nick Mamatas


Oh, the last book I read by Nick Mamatas was so good that I ended my review with a threat and a warning. Time to break out the woodchipper, because his new book, Sensation, is very different and very good.

This time, picture Carl Zimmer (he of Parasite Rex
fame) and Jared Diamond getting drunk and writing a comic adventure about hyperintelligent spiders shaping humanity’s history in a long war against the parasitic wasps that lay eggs in them ( the spiders ). Oh yes, please, more. Told from the perspective of the spiders, centered around a marriage that collapses as part of the fray, it’s funny and wildly predictive. See, Julia leaves Ray when a species of wasp lays eggs in her that free her of all her inhibitions and compassion. She joyfully murders and causes havoc while Ray obsesses about her, wondering why his loving wife suddenly left.  Then he sees her in a supermarket, follows her, and begins to piece things together.  He shouldn’t have.

Internet shutdowns? Global anonymous protest movements? People who live in Brooklyn not being entirely clear on their ethos or objectives, but being very very cool? All there. I leave you with a video about a parasitic wasp that zombifies cockroaches because you probably think this premise is more unlikely than it is.

Books: SUPERGOD

supergod coverSupergod is a Warren Ellis blaspheme with a great concept. As the world ends and falls into chaos and darkness, a researcher narrates how we reached this sad state by weaponizing gods that we built ourselves. It’s explicitly about the superhero myths: why would these hyper-intelligent, superpowerful beings love us and care about our happiness?

The art is sweeping, raging battles between the weaponized gods of India, Russia, America, etc., or the blighted scavenged ruins of the apocalyptic end. In the foreground, the researcher – a Warren Ellis mouthpiece – raves about why people want gods, why gods would want us, how our flaws would lead us to misuse them in the first place. He’s got good points – we claimed the power to destroy the world with nuclear weapons and haven’t done so yet, but it often seems more an accident than our inherent goodness. I’ve got a soft spot for Ellis, ever since Transmetropolitan and Scars, and this is a good romp in his best style.

Back from Africa!

We got back Sunday at 6 in the morning and have been frantic since.  This weekend we can hopefully get some brewing done and sort through the huge pile of pictures.

We got to see many many things during our two 15 hour flights, 4 days in Kruger National Reserve, 4 hour bus ride, and all the rest of the excitement. We’ve met an amazing amount really good folks and had some fantastic experiences but on the flight back I was shocked at how many books and movies I’d consumed during just the travel and downtime.

Animals

  • Spotted Ginnet
  • White Rhinocerous – Last chance to see, I find it hard to imagine they will be around for my grandchildren.
  • African Elephant – Nothing prepares you for how huge and awesome these are.  Also, I was disappointed to find out they are jerks.
  • African Buffalo
  • Kudu
  • Impala
  • Batalieur (Short Tailed) Hawk
  • Lion – These murder machines are intensely powerful up close.  I had one eyeball me for 30 seconds and it was all terror.
  • Giraffe – Surreal in person.
  • Monkey
  • Hippopotamus
  • Warthog
  • Steenbok

Movies

  • Thor
  • Jozi – A really great South African comedy about drugs, recovery, and one man’s relationship with Johannesburg
  • The Beaver – Sam and I loved this movie, which does not mean we want to hang out with Mel Gibson.
  • Midnight in Paris – This was brilliant. Particularly Hemingway.
  • Bride Wars – Trapped on a bus. This occupied time and kept us from hearing the incessant beeping of the bus falling apart.
  • Tyler Perry’s The Family that Preys – Ditto.
  • Green Lantern – less than 15 minutes. Amazing that it was released.
  • Hangover 2 – I can’t believe this is happening again.
  • The Departed
  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – This finally helped me get some sleep. Thank you soundtrack made of drones!

Books

  • Tucker Max Assholes Finish First – A male heavy drinking narcissist tells funny stories about his horrible behavior. Very funny. A bunch of great stories that belong in a bar at 2 am. His only redeeming quality is his honesty.
  • Dan Ariely The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home
  • Lauren Beukes Zoo City – Great! Loved this Noir detective story set in a Johannesburg full of people who get familiars when they commit a crime. Feels like Robert Parker meets Philip Pullman in South Africa.
  • David Cross  I Drink for a Reason – Without his delivery, his routines are less compelling.
  • Lev Grossman The Magicians – Best thing I read. A Harry Potter style story that has real people, with actual characters. What would a magic academy full of actual teenagers be like? What happens once you actually graduate? Also, great villains and call outs to Narnia.
  • Chelsea Handler  My Horizontal Life – A female heavy drinking narcissist tells funny stories about her horrible behavior. Very funny, but I wonder if gender roles limit the pride that shines through in Tucker’s stories.
  • Christopher Hitchens  The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever – Worth it for the bits of Lucretius.
  • Richard Kadrey Butcher Bird – I had read a previous version for free online. It’s still good and very weird.
  • Sir Terry Pratchet  The Wee Free Men – I don’t even know that it’s very funny, but I think I will read these books till he dies.
  • Sir Terry Pratchet  Wintersmith
  • Cherie Priest  Boneshaker – It’s got all the elements of steampunk, but it didn’t feel like it had a heart.
  • Philip Pullman  The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – I like Pullman and I like inversions of religious stories. Why couldn’t I get into this book?
  • Kathryn Stockett  The Help – Second best thing I read. I read this out loud to Sam while I was sick in bed for a few days. Full of great mysteries and little gold coins all along the way.

Book Review: Rule 34 by Charles Stross

Rule 34 and Halting State are breakneck police procedurals set 20 minutes into the future. Charlie Stross has made his authorial mark the imagining of plausible, realistic worlds that push the back of your skull into the wall. They are better written and more speculative than Daniel Suarez’s books set in the future now – but they also deal with harder material.

The plot is so ridiculous and yet perfectly put together that I can’t tell you because you’ll think it’s a crappy stupid idea. I keep typing oblique plot summaries and they all sound like the absolute worst book ideas. You’ll miss out on some really mind-blowing fun writing.

In the most abstract sense Rule 34  (named after the infamous pornography postulate) is a serial killer hunt and Halting State is a heist novel (named after a term in a mathematical problem that breaks the premise that the world is a solvable problem). The biggest criticism is that these are idea novels – you aren’t getting into serious emotional relationships with these characters. If you read a lot of Sci-Fi, you won’t notice, but if you read more literature you’ll probably be annoyed that the emphasis is always on the breathless action.

A fun punchy read and a good sign in someone who’s become a professional prognosticator. You should also check out Charlie Stross’s frequently updated blog, where he regularly bitches about how the future keeps happening and stealing plot points out from under him as he writes.

Book Review: Move Underground by Nick Mamatas


In the darkness, Kerouac dreamed of cultists and the dread ovipositor of Lovecraft pushed into his ear, punching eggs softly into the fat membrane in his skull.

Years later, these dream children wormed forth through time into the deep voids of Nick Mamatas’s heart, wrapping their slimy tentacles around his ribs and working his arms. He made this.

It’s a book that tells of an america turning sick after the events of “On the Road” and the grim dreams of Lovecraft rotting it hollow. But it isn’t really much about Lovecraft, is it? The adventure is about the changes of the later years after adventure has dried up and withered.

It ends less than 200 pages later, in the only way it could and it is a warm, shining, genius masterwork. If he continues to produce work like this we will have to kill him so the other writers have something to do.

Book Review: “Star Island” by Carl Hiaasen

You have a friend who you see rarely, but always in a time loop. You tell the same stories, the same jokes, you laugh and drink the same beers. It sounds lame, but really these are some of the best friends to have.

Every Carl Hiaasen book is the same book and they are all great. They have righteous rage at evildoers and they have a strange hero that stands strong where others cower. They have a few good people and many many scum. They are funny as hell and they are full of violence and tragedy.

In Star Island you see Skink, the ex governor who lives in the everglades again, but he isn’t at the center of the book. He’s barely in it. There is a good woman, named Ann, and she’s in danger, sort of. There are a bunch of scum, and they behave poorly to each other and the world. A real estate developer has a sea urchin strapped to his scrotum. It’s a Carl Hiaasen book, how could that not happen?

 

Let’s call it a night after this beer, I’ve got to get going. But I hope to see you again next year, buddy.

Book Review: “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson writes about great subjects. “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” is a very good subject as it is about the patterns that underlie greatness.
Steven identifies a few key patterns that come up again and again with good ideas.

The adjacent possible – Good ideas are of their time, not ahead of their time. They are an extension of what is already around us. You see this in how great ideas seem to spring up from multiple people all at the same time in simultaneous invention. The example of a great idea failing because it is too far ahead of its time is Lord Babbage’s Analytical Engine – the idea was sound, but the technology of the world couldn’t put it into place.

The Liquid network. Ideas get better when they rub against each other – the reason so many good ideas come out of places like NYC and SF and the coffee houses of the renaissance isn’t that these places are magical or that the people there are smarter. People are talking to each other more in those places. There are more informal networks and ideas being passed back and forth among multiple disciplines.

The Slow Hunch: Sometimes ideas have to bake. We all applaud the dream that James Watson of the double helix structure of DNA. It fits our Romantic notion of great discovery happening as a flash of genius. The reality is that you need to study for ten years, immersing yourself in a subject, nursing along a hunch, before the flash of insight can come. You don’t know what is important until later, so it is important to keep track of those little hunches for later – revisiting them with new information can help them bear sudden fruit.

Now, the book contains more patterns, but the meat is all there in the first three. The idea of exaption is contained within the adjacent possible, serendipity and error are contained in the liquid network. What this book is good for – it contains some good description of the real history of ideas and idea making, dispels some of the romantic and disruptive myths of ideation, and prescribes a few practices that make good ideas more likely.

“If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them”

It is, as are most books these days, overlong. Brevity is still a good idea, but I think the market demands that books be a certain size.

Books: The City and the City by China Mieville

The City & The City is a noir mystery set in an Eastern European impossible city. Two cities, Bezel and Ul Qoma, exist intertwined in a strange custom where they pretend to be separate. The custom is enforced by a mysterious entity known only as “Breach”.

I think of this as a novel set in one of Italo Calvino’sInvisible Cities“. For those beautiful little shorts, a setting is enough, but here in the novel you need a full plot and characters to keep moving.

In the run-down city of Bezel a body is found. It quickly becomes clear that the murder actually happened in the ascendant “wolf” Ul Qoma. Our hero begins to investigate from one city to another, contrasting the cities and the people who make them separate.

The concept is fantastic and it gets explored well, sometimes more than the story does. The atmosphere is beautiful and you begin to feel the psychology of “Breach” and crowds that must be unseen because they exist in another city. Well worth the time, more for the city and the city, less for the story.

Review: Makers by Cory Doctorow

I loved this book.
Forget my review and go get it now, it’s wonderfulIf you don’t have the scratch right now, that’s ok:  Cory Doctorow walks the talk and has published his book under a creative commons license.  You can get “Makers” for free at his site as a pdf, as html, ePub, or as an audiobook.  Just go get it and read it. Why?
The characters felt right and true and good and wonderful, like people you’ve always wanted to be friends with.  It’s the story of people playing around and doing the creative work that felt right to them, pushing to stay free and work on beautiful things.  Their hard work takes a damn beating from the world around them and they rise up after that beating.

I was sad closing it, because I wanted more from them, more for them, and another thing…

I always wanted to be Perry, but I looked in that book and I’m Sammy.

Review: Where Men Win Glory

I’ve finished Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory: The Oddysey of Pat Tillman” in the air above the middle of America and I’m furious.  This story begins with the hero dying and it ends with his betrayal by the people who promised us all they would put our interests above theirs.
Krakauer builds a sculpture out of words, and it is an angry art.  In a flat, journalistic style he begins with the creation of Pat Tillman, the birth of the Taliban, and the disturbing story of their meeting in the Graveyard of Empires called Afghanistan.   Instead of the hero meeting his enemy and vanquishing or being vanquished, he is destroyed by the common fuckups of scores of lesser men. He is part of a string of other common tragedies and Krakauer pulls together the infuriating betrayal of Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman and scores of other men and women of the US Armed Forces by their leadership, carving a bleak relief of giants mired up to their knees in a vast, broken septic system.
The horrible coverup of his death is a crime that’s gone unpunished, and it’s only come to light because Tillman was a famous football player.  Joe and Jane Smith get no such scrutiny, and fall into the trash heap of history.
If you care about honor, this is a good book. If you care about truth or valor, this is a good book.  It’s well written, with a slow, burning build up that leads to an ashfield.  Because this is a story about real life, the villains are not caught, the hero isn’t crowned and the story doesn’t end at the climax.  If you’ve got friends in the US Armed Forces, please make sure that they read this.  When we send our heroes to war we know that they might die, but we don’t expect that they will be used so cheaply and with so little respect.