Book Reviews

Like Being a Dog

Back in 1974 Thomas Nagel published the now-famous paper What is it like to be a bat? It was an examination of the mind-body problem. Part of Nagel’s argument includes the notion that we can never really know what it’s like to be a bat. As W.G. Sebald said, “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

But in What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience (2017) neuroscientist Gregory Berns disagrees. In his opinion Nagel got it wrong. The Sebald Gap closes from both ends. Firstly because animal minds aren’t really that different from ours. Secondly because we can extrapolate our experiences to those of dogs, dolphins, or bats.

I think he has a point, but I also think he’s misreading Nagel a little.


All the Christie

Okay, not all the Agatha Christie — not yet — but I’m getting close. I’ve read all the Hercule Poirot short stories and novels (save one; the last). I’ve read all the Miss Marple novels and all the Tommy and Tuppence novels (but none of the short stories in either case). I’ve read a few of the stand alone novels, but there are a number of those to go. (I’ve even read a collection of her plays.)

The very last novels are disappointing, but the vast bulk of Christie’s work is a genuine treasure. To be honest, I never realized how engaging and wonderful her writing actually is. I’ve been a Poirot fan since childhood but never explored her other work because I saw it as ‘too old-fashioned and ordinary.’ My mistake!

Speaking of better late than never, recently I’ve finally explored a few other mystery authors, one of which was long overdue…


The Long Baxter

After eight books I think it’s safe to say that I am not, and probably never will be, a fan of science fiction author Stephen Baxter. Just over a year ago I read his Manifold trilogy and was notably underwhelmed (see this post about book one and this post about the whole trilogy).

Recently I finished The Long Earth, a five-book series Baxter co-authored with my all-time, no-exceptions, favorite fiction author, Terry Pratchett. The series is based on an interesting parallel worlds idea from a short story, The High Meggas, Pratchett wrote back in the mid-1980s.

Much to my disappointment, I was also notably underwhelmed by this series.


Scalzi: The Interdependency

I thoroughly enjoyed the first John Scalzi book I read, Redshirts. I thought it was delightful and definitely my kind of book. I also very much enjoyed the second Scalzi book I read, The Android’s Dream. Because of that, I’ve been looking forward to reading his trilogy, The Interdependency.

This past week, courtesy of online library books, I finally did, and I do regret to report that I found the series rather underwhelming. I ended up skimming through the last half of the last book just to find out how it all turned out.

I think the biggest issue for me was lack of action. There was a ton of narration, explanation, internal monologue, and talking, but there wasn’t much action.


2020 Mystery Wrap-up

In light of yesterday’s post, I was initially a bit confused. Is this, because it’s a wrap-up, the last Mystery Monday post of 2020 or, per yesterday, the first one of 2021? I say we wait until after the popping of the champagne corks, so this is the last one of the past year.

No question that this is a wrap-up of an active reading year when it comes to (murder) mysteries. I’ve enjoyed the genre from a very early age (the enjoyment was handed down by my dad). In this atrocious year, they’ve provided a welcome escape and respite.

The year also marks my return to library lending, albeit electronically.


Ball: Beyond Weird

I just finished reading Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics Is Different (2018) by science writer Philip Ball. I like Ball a lot. He seems well grounded in physical reality, and I find his writing style generally transparent, clear, and precise.

As is often the case with physics books like these, the last chapter or three can get a bit speculative, even a bit vague, as the author looks forward to imagined future discoveries or, groundwork completed, now presents their own view. Which is fine with me so long as it’s well bracketed as speculation. I give Ball high marks all around.

The theme of the book is what Ball means by “beyond weird.”


Brave New World

In every literary genre (in every type of art, really), there are classics that stand out and often participate in forming the language, or at least some of the territory, of the genre. That is part of what makes these works classics. (Lord of the Rings is an ultimate classic — all Medieval fantasy since is in reference to it.)

I suspect all serious readers have a classic or two they’ve never gotten around to. Last week I finally got around to reading the classic science fiction novel, Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley.

For a novel written 88 years ago, it’s surprisingly prescient and relevant.


Gleick: The Information

I just finished The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (2011), by historian author James Gleick. This past summer I read his book, Time Travel (2016), which was about time travel in fiction and in our hearts. [see Passing Time (My bad; it should have been titled Gleick: Time Travel, but I can never resist a pun.)]

If you read my post about the time travel book, you know I didn’t care for it, although I place the blame on my expectations, not the book. I do find Gleick, as I said then, “ambling, rambling, and meandering,” but I’m sure many greatly enjoy his excursions. I ended that review mentioning I’d like to read another book of his (a trend takes two data points).

The Information is that book, and I did like it more than Time Travel.


Math Books

There are many science-minded authors and working physicists who write popular science books. While there aren’t as many math-minded authors or working mathematicians writing popular math books, it’s not a null set. I’ve explored two such authors recently: mathematician Steven Strogatz and author David Berlinski.

Strogatz wrote The Joy of X (2012), which was based on his New York Times columns popularizing mathematics. I would call that a must-read for anyone with a general interest in mathematics. I just finished his most recent, Infinite Powers (2019), and liked it even more.

Berlinski, on the other hand, I wouldn’t grant space on my bookshelf.


Tess Gerritsen

One of the ways I’ve coped during this insanest of years is by escaping into fiction, and it’s hard to beat the sheer escapism of a good murder mystery. Science fiction, my other favorite escapist drug, particularly the good stuff, is often parable, prophecy, or pointed social examination, but a murder mystery is typically just a rippin’ good yarn.

The older classics especially, for instance Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (two favorites of mine), when you come down to it, are utterly preposterous. Fairy tales staring a fussy Belgian with his mustaches or a corpulent epicurean who never leaves his house, both brilliant and eccentric, both prone to that final scene, everyone gathered, for the denouement, “J’accuse!”

Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli & Isles series is a very different kind of yarn.


Chambers: Small Angry Planet

Last week I read a science fiction novel I’d seen in a number of “must read” lists: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), by Becky Chambers. The title certainly appealed to me, and, along with the book’s cover, it seemed like it might be fun, funny, or even zany.

I like to let things unfold, so I usually avoid trailers and reviews until after I’ve seen or read for myself. A few months ago I wrote about Axiom’s End, which I really liked. I was anticipating a similar ‘great new author’ experience. (I’ve also mentioned the S.L. Huang Cas Russell books. I kinda liked those, too, so I’m definitely feeling favorable towards new authors.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book at all.


Old School Viral

Remember when “going viral” didn’t mean hospitalization and possible death? (Obviously if we go back even further to the original meaning, it did.) I had an old post go briefly and mildly viral last week. Big traffic spike with a very rapid tail-off. Most bemusing.

I’ll tell you about that, and about a spike on another post, this one weirdly seasonal — huge spike ever September for three years now. I have no idea what’s going on there. Most puzzling.

There is also a book about the friendship and conflict between Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger that I thoroughly enjoyed despite it not being my typical sort of reading (I’ve never gone in much for either history or biography).


Agatha Christie

Shakespeare talked about the ages of man, and it’s well known that age seems to revert us to our youth. The last handful of years that’s been true for me with regard to mystery authors. For the first time in many decades I’m reading (or rather re-reading) Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey), Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe), and others from my past.

This month I’ve been enjoying Agatha Christie and her Hercule Poirot novels. I got into them after finishing a collection of 51 short stories starring her famous Belgian detective (with his “egg-shaped head” and giant mustaches). Reading those put me in the mood to revisit the novels.

And I must say I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them!


Sci-Fi September

The post’s title is something of a misnomer (as there has been little, if any, science fiction for me this month), but I have an absolute and abiding affection for alliteration. (Which explains Sci-Fi Saturday, Mystery Monday, TV Tuesday, and Wednesday Wow.) I couldn’t resist the title once it popped into my mind.

Seriously, about the only SF in September was opening and shelving a box of books. But since October will be so political, I want to clear some notes. Call it a Fall Clearance — Low, Low Prices!Everything Must Go!

Some rake their lawn of fallen leaves. For me, it’s that pile of notes that I seem unable to ever fully vanquish.


The Last Book Box

In a post six years ago I mentioned that I’d finally gotten around to unpacking a box of books that had been sitting in a closet since I moved into the place. The problem I always have when I move (aside from all the book packing) is shelf space. I prefer the kind of shelves mounted on the wall, so I have to recreate shelf space every time.

Not that my memory for what I mentioned in a post six years ago is sharp. Or even exists. I noticed the post had some views recently, so I re-read it. The line caught my eye because last week I opened the last unopened box of books.

And I found some old science fiction friends!


Ellis: Axiom’s End

I actively try to avoid “the buzz” — for most definitions of the word (“beer buzz” is a whole other thing than I’m talking about here). I mean the buzz of current memes and all the popular things I’m supposed to think, feel, and be. As I’ve said before, I’m deliberately allergic to trendy — I refuse to swim in the main stream.

That applies especially to the books, TV shows, or movies, that I’m supposed to see. I’m even more resistant to things I’m supposed to either hate or love. (I still have never seen ET — never will.) I generally don’t read or watch reviews until after I’ve read or watched what they review.

Which brings me to Axiom’s End (2020) a debut novel by Lindsay Ellis.


Morell: Animal Wise

I recently read Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel (2013) by Virginia Morell, correspondent for Science and contributor to National Geographic, Smithsonian, and other publications. She’s author of several books including Wildlife Wars (2001), which she co-authored with Richard Leakey.

Morell takes us on a tour of current research into the minds of animals, starting with ants and working up through various species to our primate relatives. Dear to my heart, she reserves the last chapter for our best friends, dogs.

I found it a wonderful exploration with some real eye-openers.


Old Friends

There are many kinds of “comfort food” we resort to, from actual food — pizza always seemed a good choice in my view — to all the other distractions we use to give ourselves a bit of relief from the stresses of life. (Of course, that sort of thing can become addictive, but that’s another topic.)

Books have been a life-long escape to joy for me. Some are educational, and I love learning new things, but I think the best escape comes from fiction, and especially those fictions with long-running characters — people one comes to know. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is someone I’ve known for over 50 years.

And so are Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason.


The Expanse: Disappointment

I feel like a jilted lover. Or a very disappointed one. I found what seemed a delightful bit of science fiction color in an otherwise increasingly grey and dismal world. I let myself get attached (despite a few alarm bells going off in my head). I thought I’d found something truly worthwhile — something to invest myself in.

And it seemed really good at first. There was all the excitement of exploring something new and interesting. But after that great start, there came a most unwelcome left turn into a stinking swamp I want no part of.

This isn’t a Sci-Fi Saturday post or a TV Tuesday post… this is a spleen vent.


Passing Time

I just finished Time Travel: A History (2016) by science historian and author James Gleick. The New York Times Book Review, Anthony Doerr described it as, “A fascinating mash-up of philosophy, literary criticism, physics and cultural observation.” I agree with that description minus the word fascinating. I would have said tedious.

This is not the book’s fault. I’m not saying it’s bad. There was nothing I disagreed with. There were even a few parts I got into. The problem is I found it ambling, rambling, and meandering. It wasn’t incoherent, but it seemed disconnected to me.

Overall I found it easy to put down and hard to pick back up.


The Subtle Art

A few weeks ago a friend loaned me The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (2016), by Mark Manson. I just finished it, and — while I’m not a big fan of self-help books — I give this one an Ah! rating. Manson’s approach, contrary to our modern norm, is not about finding happiness, but about choosing the pain worth seeking (and letting the happiness come through our fulfillment).

The subtle part is that not giving a f*ck doesn’t mean one stops caring. The subtle part is learning to be selective about what matters to us.

The counterintuitive part is that chasing happiness leads to misery.


Cool Elmore Leonard

For this Mystery Monday I want to tell you about a great American writer whose name you might not know: Elmore Leonard (1925–2013). As with Philip K. Dick, another great American writer, it’s quite possible you’ve seen a movie based on his work without realizing it. In fact, Elmore Leonard gives Stephen King a run for the money when it comes to works adapted to film.

Two of my very favorite films, Get Shorty (1995) and Jackie Brown (1997), are adaptations of Leonard’s novels. The former is the second film that restarted John Travolta’s career, and many believe the success of the film greatly depends on the source material (I quite agree).

If you like crime fiction, you definitely want to get into Elmore Leonard.


Parker: Humble Pi

I just finished Humble Pi (2019), by Matt Parker, and I absolutely loved it. Parker, a former high school maths teacher, now a maths popularizer, has an easy breezy style dotted with wry jokes and good humor. I read three-quarters of the book in one sitting because I couldn’t stop (just one more chapter, then I’ll go to bed).

It’s a book about mathematical mistakes, some funny, some literally deadly. It’s also about how we need to be better at numbers and careful how we use them. Most importantly, it’s about how mathematics is so deeply embedded in modern life.

It’s my third maths book in a month and the only one I thoroughly enjoyed.


Tegmark: MUH? Meh!

I finally finished Our Mathematical Universe (2014) by Max Tegmark. It took me a while — only two days left on the 21-day library loan. I often had to put it down to clear my mind and give my neck a rest. (The book invoked a lot of head-shaking. It gave me a very bad case of the Yeah, buts.)

I debated whether to post this for Sci-Fi Saturday or for more metaphysical Sabbath Sunday. I tend to think either would be appropriate to the subject matter. Given how many science fiction references Tegmark makes in the book, I’m going with Saturday.

The hard part is going to be keeping this post a reasonable length.


Secret Code II

I’ve written about secret codes before. The Pigpen cipher was pretty simplistic, almost more a child’s game, but the Playfair cipher was a bit more interesting. That one came from a murder mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers. Today I thought I’d show you another simple code from another mystery novel.

1829 2125 0038 2226 1600 2125 0027 1722 4200 1829 1600 4219 2518 1617 1900 4122 3916 3200 3700 4019 0025 2016 0028 1724 2718 2241 4400 2118 0020 2516 2500 1829 1600 1819 2316 1517 2118 1617 0038 2226 1643 0015 2921 3829 0030 2025 1800 2425 2521 2841 2500 4120 4240 1617 2500 1822 0018 2916 0031 1619

Stop! See if you can decode the above before continuing.


Stephenson: D.O.D.O.

Neal Stephenson, like Greg Egan, is a hard science fiction author who never fails to delight me with something new and tasty. Both Stephenson and Egan seem able to leave footprints in otherwise well-trodden ground. Stephenson, in particular, often makes me LOL.

That’s not an acronym I use very often, but it seems especially appropriate here given this post is about The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. The book has so many tongue-in-cheek military acronyms (DODO, DTAP, DEDE, MUON, etc) that it has a glossary at the back.

The story concerns parallel worlds, wave-function collapse, and witches.


Wynne: Dog is Love

Recently I read Dog is Love, Why and How Your Dog Loves You (2019), by Clive D.L. Wynne, an animal behavior scientist who specializes in dogs. Despite the loaded word “love” in the title, this is a science book about a search for hard evidence.

Dr. Wynne is a psychology professor at Arizona State University and director of their Canine Science Collaboratory. He’s written several other books about animal cognition: The Mental Lives of Animals (2001), Do Animals Think (2004), Evolution, Behavior and Cognition (2013).

The book is the story of Wynne’s search for exactly what it is that makes dogs special and how they got that way.


Manifold: Trilogy

Recently I posted about Manifold: Time, the first book in a trilogy by Stephen Baxter, a writer new to me. As I wrote, I wasn’t very whelmed, but a bad meal at a new restaurant can be a fluke — it’s only fair to give the chef at least one more chance. (A single data point doesn’t mean much.) And I did find the overall themes a little intriguing.

As it turned out, I rather enjoyed the second one, Manifold: Space. The story stayed grounded and engaged me throughout, plus there were several cool science fiction ideas I’d never encountered before (which is kinda the point of reading hard SF). So a definite thumbs up on book number two.

Unfortunately the third book, Manifold: Origin, didn’t do much for me.


Fairy Tale Physics

My voracious reading habit has deep roots in libraries. The love of reading comes from my parents, but libraries provided a vast smörgåsbord to browse and consume. Each week I’d check out as many books as I could carry. I discovered science fiction in a library (the Lucky Starr series, with Isaac Asimov writing as Paul French, is the first I remember).

Modern adult life, I got out of the habit of libraries (and into book stores and now online books). But now the Cloud Library has reinvigorated my love of all those free books, especially the ones I missed along the way.

For instance, Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth (2014), by Jim Baggott.


Joe, Jim and Bernie

Yá’át’ééh! Fans of the Hillerman books will immediately recognize the three names in the title as Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito (a relatively new addition who doesn’t yet have her own Wiki page). All three are (fictional) police officers working for the (real) Navajo Tribal Police in the American southwest.

I have to call them just “the Hillerman books” now, because after father Tony Hillerman died, daughter Anne Hillerman took up the series and has so far contributed five very worthy stories of her own. (Her vision of the series puts Bernie Manuelito front and center and thus adds fresh air to the 18 books her father wrote.)

I’m a fan of detective novels, especially murder mystery detective novels, and these are without question my second favorite mystery books of all time.


Stephen Baxter: Manifold

Yesterday, courtesy of Cloud Library, I finished Manifold: Time (1999), by Stephen Baxter. It’s my first exposure to Baxter, who has written 60 science fiction novels — none of which I’ve read. Per his Wiki bibliography, he’s written only a half-dozen short stories, also none of which I’ve read. (There are SF authors I’ve only met in short story collections. He isn’t one of them.)

Time is the first of the Manifold trilogy (which has a fourth book, Phase Space); the second and third books are Space (2000) and Origin (2001). Each of the books tells a separate story in a separate universe.

I enjoyed the first book, but I can’t say I was hugely whelmed.


Fall: or, Dodge in Hell

I finished Fall: or, Dodge in Hell, the latest novel from Neal Stephenson, and I’m conflicted between parts I found fascinating and thoughtful and parts I found tedious and unsatisfying. This division almost exactly follows the division of the story itself into real and virtual worlds. I liked the former, but the latter not so much.

Unfortunately, at least the last third of the book involves a Medieval fantasy quest that takes place in the virtual reality. The early parts of the story in the VR are fairly interesting, but the quest really left me cold, and I found myself skimming pages.

I give it a positive rating, but it’s my least-liked Stephenson novel.


Neal Stephenson

I’ve been a fan of Neal Stephenson since Snow Crash (1992), his third novel. I’ve read much of his work — the big exception being The Baroque Cycle, descriptions of which haven’t captured my interest yet. I like his writing enough that I’ll probably enjoy them if I ever take the plunge.

Stephenson writes pretty hard SF, which I love, and he explores such interesting ideas that I’m generally quite enthralled by what some see as fictionalized physics books. The thing is, I’d enjoy reading those physics books, so having it come coated in any kind of frosting is a win in my (pardon the pun) book.

I’ve just gotten started on his most recent novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.


A Bit of Huang and Laurie

For a Sci-Fi Saturday post, this started as a stretch and then some. While Zero Sum Game (2018), by S.L. Huang, has at least a science fiction flavor, The Gun Seller (1996), by Hugh Laurie (yes, that Hugh Laurie), is more fantastical than science fictional. They do have in common a protagonist beyond capable as well as action hero thriller plots.

I can redeem the post now that I’ve read The Android’s Dream (2006), by John Scalzi (whom I’ve praised here before for Redshirts). Here, too, is an extremely competent protagonist in an action hero thriller. (As an aside, the two written by men feature a love interest. (While I’m at it, guess which of the three does not have a Wiki page.))

The bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed all three!


Scalzi: Redshirts

I just finished reading Redshirts, by John Scalzi, and it’s just about the best, most entertaining, brilliant story I’ve read in a good long time. It’s so good that I have to place it with other best-of-kind laugh out loud science fiction delights such as Galaxy Quest and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It has a lot in common with Galaxy Quest in being a multi-level utterly ingenious send up and hysterical deconstruction of Star Trek (The Original Series). Scalzi has captured and lampshaded so many of the things fans have discussed over the years. And, as with Galaxy Quest, it’s a pretty good story all on its own.

But it is an absolute must-read for any fan of the original Star Trek.


Dark Run & Ball Lightning

Recently I’ve dedicated myself to catching up on my reading list. Various life distractions have caused me to not read nearly as much as I used to. Actually, it’s more that I haven’t been reading fiction that much lately; I’ve been more focused on news feeds and science (articles and books). I find I miss curling up for hours with a good story, so I’ve determined to return to it.

Here for Sci-Fi Saturday I thought I’d mention a couple I finished this past week: Ball Lightning, by Liu Cixin, and Dark Run, by Mike Brooks. The former is a standalone novel; the latter is the first (of so far three) in a series.

The Brooks books are sheer adventure yarns, but telling you about Ball Lightning requires a pretty hefty spoiler.


Greg Egan: Quarantine

Last week I read Quarantine (Greg Egan, 1992), a science fiction novel that explores one of the more vexing conundrums in basic physics: the measurement problem. Egan’s stories (novels and shorts) often explore some specific aspect of physics (sometimes by positing a counterfactual reality, as in the Orthogonal series).

In Quarantine, Egan posits that the human mind, due to a specific set of neural pathways, is the only thing in reality that collapses the wave-function, the only thing that truly measures anything. All matter, until observed by a mind, exists in quantum superposition.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to explore how this ties into the plot without spoiling it, so I’ll have to tread lightly.



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