Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Notes/First impressions: Katherine Addison – The Goblin Emperor

April 22nd, 2015 by Reinder

Review and synopsis of The Goblin Emperor by Martin Wisse.

I liked this, but not as much as Martin did. For me, something was missing. I found the relentless focus on the protagonist, for a novel written in the third person featuring court intrigue, did not work for me. Because I also had a hard time remembering the names of characters and places*), I did not get a sense of conspiracies developing and the two that feature prominently in the story rather erupted out of nowhere for me. As they must have if I had been in the protagonist's place.

That's not a fault of the book. It's the result of perfectly good artistic decisions by the writer. But I prefer a more caleidoscopic approach most of the time, and I found The Goblin Emperor a perfectly enjoyable, well-written, well-structured novel that simply isn't the thing I go for. That happens, but it does mean it's not going to be my # 1 choice for the Hugos.

*)There is an appendix that would have helped if it had been easier and less disruptive to flick back and forth in the eBook within iBooks. This is one area where paper books still have a strong advantage, although solutions do exist.

Reading for the Hugos

April 18th, 2015 by Reinder

Following this year's bullshit surrounding the Hugo Award nominations, I've decided to get involved. I got a supporting membership for Worldcon 2015, which should give me the right to vote and possibly an electronic kit that contains parts of, some, or all of the nominated works, depending on how this year's rights negotiations go.

In the wake of the effective takeover of the nominations by not one, but two politically-driven slates of varying rabidity, with the slate of the most noxious, fascist organisation being the most effective, three different basic strategies for responding have emerged:

1. Nuke It From Orbit: the Hugos have lost their legitimacy and even non-slate winners would be tainted by having had to compete with works that were not selected on merit but as part of a right-wing campaign. Therefore, vote No Award on everything and try again next year. This is the position of Phil Sandifer, among others.

2. Cauterize And Amputate: Vote all slate nominees below No Award or leave them off the ballot altogether. Ensure that only works nominated on merit get awards, even if that means there will not be a Hugo Award in some categories. Several reasonable people have suggested this, though I can't remember who right now. There are guides for how to vote if you want to do this.

3. Business as Usual: Read what you want, until you don't want to anymore and vote whichever of the nominees you think deserve the award the best. The system is robust enough to deal with this intrusion. This is the position taken by George R.R. Martin and John Scalzi, among others.

As is my wont, I can see merit in all these positions and actually go back and forth between them. I don't know which approach I will take, though I expect No Award will sweep up a lot of my votes. I have, however, decided to base my reading approach on Strategy 2: Cauterize and Amputate. What this means:

I will read in the following order:
1. Non-slate books get read first, and I won't wait for the Hugo packet. I'll pay for those.
2. If I still have time after that (my fiction-reading time has been so limited, I only read two novels last year), I will, at my sole discretion, pick some of the nominees that were on the Sad Puppy slate but not the Rabid Puppy slate that I think might have made it to the list on merit, if I squint a bit. I will look at sales figures and the authors' general reputation, and I may or may not decide to pay for the works.
3. After that, other Sad Puppy Nominees, but only if they are in the Hugo packet.
4. After that, Rabid Puppy nominees not called Vox Day/Theodore Beale. If I wanted to read the self-published works of a fascist and literary fraud hanging with scumbags in Italy, I have some Ezra Pound poems stashed away somewhere. I will not pay for any of these.
5. Vox Day/Theodore Beale has already got all the consideration that he deserves from me, which is less than none at all.

I have a vacation starting today, so I'm starting tonight with Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor.

Books that are going, part 4

March 29th, 2010 by Reinder

The more books I remove from my collection, the more I enjoy it. It's almost as much fun as buying new books! For the first time in years, instead of having my bookshelves overflow and groan under the weight of the reading material accumulated on them, I have more shelf space than I need and one of my bookshelves is now home to some of my DVD's. That said, a lot of the books I've taken out are still in a large box, waiting for new owners, so do feel free to have another look at the previous installments of Books that are going.

Because I want to downsize further, much further, before moving out of my apartment, I have pulled some more books from my shelves. They are:

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, Making Comics. McCloud's three scholarly works on comics, in comics form, that many people adore and as many people vehemently disagree with or tut-tut at. At this point in my life, someone else needs them more than I do. Update: These are taken.

Stanley Wiater and Stephen R. Bisette, Comic Book Rebels: Conversations with the Creators of the New Comics. Published in 1993, this is a collection of interviews with some of the people who shaped American comics in te 1990s: McCloud, Larry Marder, Jack Jackson, Dave Sim, Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird, Harvey Pekar & Joyce Brabner, Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Colleen Doran, Todd McFarlane and others.

Mat Schifferstein, ed. and others, Stripjaar 1997, Stripjaar 1998, Stripjaar 1999-2000 (Dutch). These were yearbooks containing an overview of comics-related events during the past year, State-of-the-industry essays, some good interviews and a service guide containing contact info for cartoonists, comics stores, publishers and comics-related organisations. The service guide part of each of this book is now very outdated (though as late as 2005, organisations and individuals were still using the information from the last one to send press releases to me), but the interviews and other editorial content are still well worth reading.

Terry Jones, Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic. Novelization of the HHGTTG-based video game Update: this book is now taken.

Paul Krugman: The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way In The New Century (Hardcover) Krugman is still one of the few economists worth paying any attention to at all, but I don't think I will ever re-read this collection of essays from the New York Times dating back to the late 1990s and the first few years of the 21st Century.

As before, all books are free of charge if you have an address in Groningen, the Netherlands, and/or can arrange a pick-up in that fine city; outside Groningen, they can be yours for the price of shipping them to you; count on costs up to € 25 for shipping multiple books to far-flung locations such as Australia, but usually much less than that.

Books that are Going, Part 3

March 9th, 2010 by Reinder

Some more books that I am giving away. All of these can be yours for the price of postage if you live outside Groningen, the Netherlands, and for free if you live somewhere where I can deliver them or are willing to pick them up directly from me. No strings attached; just contact me (comments will do) if you want any of those:

Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow (hardback), Climbing Mount Improbable (hardback), The God Delusion (hardback) and A Devil's Chaplain. I'm keeping exactly one Dawkins book, The Selfish Gene.

Dave Sim, Cerebus, High Society, Church & State I;
Dave Sim and Gerhard, Church & State II, Jaka's Story, Melmoth, Flight, Women, Reads, Minds, Guys, Latter Days, The Last Day. These comprise all but two of all the Cerebus the Aardvark storylines ever made. Latter Days has some water damage from a leak in my old studio. I have one of the other storylines, Rick's Story as separate issues and will throw those in to someone who wants to take over the entire collection. If no one wants to take the whole collection, I will start giving away individual volumes, but in that case I will be keeping High Society Also, normally it's first come first served, but for these I will prioritize takers in Groningen over takers from elsewhere, because of the sheer size of the collection and the likely cost of shipping and possibly taxes. Still, do let me know if you're living elsewhere and are interested.

Anonymous (Michael Scheuer): Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama Bin LAden, Radical Islam and the Future of America (hardback). See what I wrote about Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terrorin Books that are Going, Part 2. I still have that book as well.

Michael Moorcock: A Cure for Cancer. One of his Jerry Cornelius books I like me some Moorcock but I could never get into this one. Nevertheless, the paperback is well worn because I bought it used.

Mark O'Hare: D is for Dog. A Citizen Dog collection. I probably bought this on the strength of the Thanksgiving turkey gags.

Various Artists: Groningen bij Nacht: Beeldverhalen Uit Een Stad (Dutch). Two copies. This is an anthology of comics that I'm in with the story "Kobolden" which is the Dutch version of Roadworks Goblins. Other contributors include Barbara Stok, Eric Snelleman, Erik Wielaert and Fearless Cartooneer.

Books that are going, part 2

January 20th, 2010 by Reinder

Here's the next batch of books readers of the blog can pick through before I sell them! The previous giveaway found new homes for the Stainless Steel Rat omnibus and the three Vlad Taltos collections, but the others are still available if you either live in Groningen or are willing to pay shipping.

The next batch is a bit more diverse and contains some non-fiction and some comics, but we'll start off with some more science fiction & fantasy:

Douglas A. Anderson, editor: Tales Before Narnia, an anthology of fantasy stories that inspired, or in some cases may have inspired, C.S. Lewis and includes stories and poems by Robert Louis Stephenson, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and others.

David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, editors: The Hard SF Renaissance. A range of hard SF stories by a wide range of older and younger writers. Few of the stories left any impression on me but I recall that "Bicycle Repairman" by David Brin delivered the goods. In any case, it's almost 1,000 pages so there should be something for everyone in there.

Diana Wynne Jones: The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land. A classic guide to fantasy clichés that's well worth a read and won't suck up your time as much as TV Tropes will.

Aloys Winterling: Caligula: Een Biografie, Dutch, translated from German. What it says on the tin: a somewhat contrarian biography of the Roman emperor, attempting to sort the truth from the accumulated legends and giving an overview of the kind of political landscape in which someone might want to appoint a horse as a senator.

Anonymous (Michael Scheuer): Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. I bought this before I realized that Scheuer was nuts. At the time I thought the analysis, especially of Osama Bin Laden's motivations and of political and intelligence-related errors in the War on Terror was strong, but re-reading the preface now for a recap of what's in the rest of the book, it looks absolutely hysterical. Nevertheless, it was an important book in its day and still has some worthwhile analysis in it from a former CIA insider.

Christopher Hitchens: The Trial of Henry Kissinger. An overview of the case that might be made against Henry Kissinger if he was ever charged before the International Criminal Court.

Thomas von der Dunk: De Vader, de Zoon en de Geest van Pim: Nederland in het Rampjaar 2002 (Dutch, obviously). A collection of newspaper columns by von der Dunk, written in what was really quite a turbulent year for the Netherlands.

Eric S. Raymond: The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary. It must have seemed interesting at the time... I expect in another ten years, it will be again as a piece of social history of the geek movement.

Kamagurka: Bezige Bert, De Zanger is Ziek Vandaag: two latter-day collections from the Belgian absurdist cartoonist, in Dutch.

Jakob Nielsen: Functioneel Webdesign (Dutch, translated from the English). I used this in a previous iteration of the site. Unfortunately, web design and development bore me to tears and designing for usability is no exception, so it hasn't helped me all that much; the big takeaway I got from this was that for someone like me, following the herd works, especially when combined with simplicity. I still try to keep the number of design elements low and use labels that people recognise from other webcomics, but beyond that, I simply don't spend enough time on design to benefit from this book. Still, Nielsen's insights usually hold up well over a long period and if you are interested in usability design, this is still good despite its age.

Steve Krug: Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. See above, mostly.

Ian McEwan: The Child In Time. Egads, I read this for school before I went to University. Honestly, I don't remember if this is any good or not.

Bernard Malamud: The Assistant. Egads, I read this for University. Bored me to tears, it did!

Momir Stosic Moki, editor: Signed By War. International benefit anthology for independent comics artists in the then-war-torn republics of the Former Yugoslavia. Black and White. Contributions by Enki Bilal, Marcel Ruijters, Lian Ong, Zoran Janjetov, Sasa Rakezic, Edmond Baudoin, Peter Kuper, Lorenzo Mattotti and others.

Scott Adams: Dogbert's Clues for the Clueless. A collection of Dilbert strips featuring Dogbert.

Breathed, Berkeley: Tales too Ticklish To Tell. A Bloom County collection.

Breathed, Berkeley: Politically, Fashionably and Aerodynamically Incorrect, His Kisses Are Dreamy... But Those Hairballs Down My Cleavage...!. Two Outland collections. I liked those at the time but they now leave me cold.

If you want any of those books, drop me a line in the next few weeks. If you live outside of Groningen, the Netherlands, I'll need you to pay shipping; if you live in Groningen, I can hand them over in person or just drop them in your mailbox.

Books that are going, part 1

January 13th, 2010 by Reinder

In the next few months before I go back to Tennessee to get married, I expect to be using my media collection as my ATM a couple of times - it's a way to declutter and get back some of the money I spent on DVD's, CD's, vinyl records and books over a quarter-century. None of it is going to make me rich but there is a lot of volume to get rid of.

Today I've been sorting out some of the books that I no longer want to keep. Into the "to sell" box went:

Four Glenn Cook "Adjective Metal Noun" PI Garrett novels, the latest of which I got only last Christmas. When I first read Petty Pewter Gods in the late 1990s, I loved it, but the concept and style have lost their appeal to me, so out it goes, along with Angry Lead Skies, Cold Copper Teads and Cruel Zinc Melodies.

Four Christopher Moore novels: Fluke, A Dirty Job, Lamb and The Stupidest Angel. Another writer I used to love in the 1990s, I now find time and time that his novels are fun to read once, but then I don't want to read them again (unlike with, say, Terry Pratchett, whose novels I re-read regularly).

Harry Harrison, The Stainless Steel Rat omnibus. I still like the Stainless Steel Rat, but this recent, newly typeset reprint duplicates two novels that I already had and was riddled with punctuation errors, making me wonder if perhaps I had misremembered the style of the originals.

Steven Brust, The Book of Jherek, The Book of Taltos, The Book of Athyra. A lot of people whose opinions I respect love themselves some Steven Brust, but after three omnibus collections I can safely say that I'm just not that into him.

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon, a book that I've read several times. Stephenson was at one time one of my favorite writers, but this was the last one that I really liked (I gave copies to several people including my brother) and he is another writer who has lost his sheen for me - the ever increasing bloat of his work put me off it if I remember correctly, he said somewhere that his novels are supposed to end like they do, which just doesn't make sense to me. In any case, I don't want to take this big heavy trade paperback edition with me to the States; if I change my mind again, I can always re-buy it in an edition that is less of a doorstop.

That's the first batch of books I want to get rid of, but: if you are a reader of this blog and you're willing to pay shipping (or if you live in Groningen and I can just meet you to hand over one or more books), I'll happily send any one or more of them to you for free. Just let me know sometime in the next week or so, because once they're gone, they're gone.

Eoin Colfer – …And Another Thing

December 26th, 2009 by Reinder

I tried. Honestly, I tried. I tried to approach Eoin Colfer's Hitchhiker sequel ...And Another Thing with an open mind and a willingness to enjoy it on its own terms. I even believe I was successful at it. The problem is that there just isn't that much to enjoy on its own terms. The book is somewhat better plotted than Douglas Adams' original works, but it isn't all that funny, it lacks the edge the originals had and it relies too much on namechecking characters from the original works and on punning. One to avoid, on the whole.

Expansion: What Douglas Adams did was much harder than it looked. Adam was primarily a writer of screen and radio plays, and he brought to the original works (radio plays and books alike) a great ear for dialogue and sound, and a good eye for observations. He was not super strong at plot or characterisation, especially for female characters, but he created memorable characters in Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, and good enough plots in the later, underrated Hitchhikers' books.
Eoin Colfer does not, unfortunately, have Adams's ear, and where Adams managed to come up with odd-sounding names for his alien characters that worked as humour and stayed funny on re-reading, Colfer's funny names all fall flat. There is hardly any memorable dialogue in ...And Another Thing.

The worst problem, however, is one that affects many postmortem recreations of popular media. A good example of this is the recent Muppets clips posted on YouTube, though they are not as badly affected by it as Colfer's sequel is. Instead of creating new gags, the new Muppets clips too often piggyback the old ones, so you get the Swedish Chef and other non-verbal characters singing a song, and the humour depends on it being those old, familiar characters being trotted out one more time. What they actually do isn't funny all by itself, but it gets the laugh because it's the Swedish Chef, Beaker, even the Mah Nah Mah Nah creatures are taken out for another outing. The Muppets, at least, still add enough variation on those old riffs to be worth watching; Colfer's habit of mentioning Eccentrica Gallumbits at every opportunity gets tiresome pretty quickly.

Capsule Review: Steven Brust, The Book of Taltos

March 24th, 2009 by Reinder

I read The Book of Taltos during my fourth air trip to the US, some 9 months after buying the book with the intention of reading it during my first. It collects two short fantasy novels by Steven Brust, set on the planet Dragaera and featuring the human mobster Vlad Táltos. I have one other collection of Brust novels, The Book of Athyra, on my to-read list, having got both books on the strength of the first collection, The Book of Jhereg. Maybe it's the headache I had throughout the trip or maybe the very circumstance of reading a book on an airplane makes me less receptive, but I didn't really like Taltos very much. (I've also soured on the comical novels of Christopher Moore after reading them on airplanes).

Brust is rare among fantasy writers in prominently featuring an openly Marxist/Trotskist political dimension to his writing. Unfortunately, in these two novels, the political bits (the sections describing how the theoretically absolute monarchy in which the stories are set is in fact constrained by economical and material factors, the sections describing a proletarian uprising) are about the only memorable bits. While the construction of the plot and setting is outstanding and one or two characters are interesting, there's little that an experienced fantasy reader won't have seen before and rather too much that they will have seen far too often already. On the other hand, the stories get better with recollection, and may benefit from re-reading, especially in more favorable circumstances. So I'm kind of on the fence as far as this book goes.

[Co-blogger Einar] The Screwtape Letters, or, The Art of Seemingly-Plausible arguement

November 24th, 2008 by Adam Cuerden

I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian (I got better). For those fundamentalists who don't think the Bible is the only book you ever need, C. S. Lewis is perhaps the most popular apologist. Having particularly heard The Screwtape Letters constantly praised all my youth, when I saw it in a charity shop,  I thought I'd see what all the fuss was about.

The Screwtape Letters are a series of letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood (a diabolical version of a guardian angel) about the man that Wormwood has been assigned to lure to the clutches of Hell. Screwtape's letters - we never see Wormwood's responses - lecture the young demon on ways to corrupt the man.

A disaster happens early on: The man becomes a Christian, and the two demons must race against time to lure their victim back into the fold. It's actually rather a lot like this Chick tract but better written - though, of course, that's not saying much: researchers have discovered that, in comparison to Chick, it only takes the output of one monkey typing on a typewriter to at least seem like the works of Shakespeare. This has proven a problem with experiments in infinite monkeys, where the poor metaphysical researchers trumpet their monkey's reconstruction of The Tragedy of Ejsbwv, Ffhvs of HSafas, only to discover that that is not, in fact, by Shakespeare.

Well, let's look at the actual book.

It's done as a series of 31 letters. The first sets out the theme of what is to come: Thanks to the work of demons influencing the culture:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false", but as "academic" or "practical", "outworn" or "contemporary", "conventional" or "ruthless". Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't wate time making him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous - that t is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about.

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the enemy's own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?

Evidently, in C.S. Lewis's world, materialism - read atheism - is illogical, and only seems rational if you are being actively tricked by demons. However, the Bible, with its virgin births, miracles, self-contradictions, emphasis on faith, not proof - and all the rest, is perfectly logical, and awaking someone's reason is a sure way to send someone to Christianity and Heaven.

However, Lewis is in control of reality for the purposes of this book: In the next paragraph he details how an atheist was nearly saved from Hell when rational thoughts began to arise in his mind, but luckily, the demon was ale to get him to put off thinking about it until after lunch.

How did the demon then save him from being saved?

Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paoer, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with books, a healthy dose of "real life" (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy( was enough to show him that all "that sort of thing" just couldn't be true. He knew he'd had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about "that inarticulate sense of actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic...

That's right. Newspaper sellers and buses: A surefire way to prevent someone from using logic. Lewis appears to be arguing that even the slightest connection with reality leads to the abandonment of all logic - and that logic inevitably leads to Christianity. Lewis himself, of course, is completely out of touch with reality, and so is an excellent Christian apologist.

But this isn't the stupidest argument to be found in this book. Oh, goodness me, no! He argues that:

* People should marry people they aren't in love with, simply to avoid having sex outside of marriage.
* If you think you don't need to kneel when you pray, you are being tricked by demons: The position of the body is crucial to getting the soul ready for communion with God.
* God allows millions of infants to die in childbirth in order to protect them from the temptations of the world, and snap them up to heaven, safe from demons.
* Evolution is evil, because it looks to the future, which is unlike God's eternity, being unproven and uncertain. Don't look at me to explain that one:. It's part of a Fauxlosophic narration about how the present and eternity is where mankind's attention should be, only looking to the future enough to prepare for it today what is needed for later. Because the future is uncertain, but eternity is.
* Historians, English departments and the historical method were created by demons in order to prevent people reading ancient texts uncritically, which might let them find the ancient wisdom that would point them towards God. Instead, people are encouraged to look at the sources, the reasons for the text being written, and the author's reasons for writing it, which protect them from any truths contained in the manuscript.

In short, propped up in Lewis' dry writing, we have the most patent of patent nonsense disguised as an academic discussion. Lewis' writing style does a decent job of concealing how stupid many of his arguments are: For instance, rhetorical tricks used in cold reading such as making a lot of either-or statements that seem very specific, but actually cover most of the spectrum of possibility. If the reader identifies with one of the possibilities, Lewis' descriptions of human nature seems a lot more accurate, and since they don't know any of the materialists or atheists Lewis bashes constantly, they're more likely to accept Lewis' views of them as true.

This book really is a disappointment. I used to enjoy Lewis' Narnia books. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is actually a rather nice modern-day Odyssey, and you no more need to believe Christianity to enjoy it than you need to believe the Greek myths to appreciate the Odyssey. Of course, any discussion of Narnia needs to mention The Last Battle - which noone likes: Sure, the ending's pretty well-written, but it appears that Lewis spent all his time writing a good description of Heaven, and so was unable to fill the rest of the book with anything more than bashing evolution, atheism, rationalism, and Muslims, while derailing the character arcs of all the characters from the previous books and making everyone idiots, so that they'll submit to slavery and persecution simply because they're told God says so.

...Of course, given Bush's regime and the last few years in America, maybe that last isn't so far off. Pity Lewis evidently thinks that's the correct reaction to being told God says so.

I was going to spend the evening drawing…

October 29th, 2008 by Reinder

... but Terry Pratchett's Nation happened to me. Damn you, Terry Pratchett! Damn you to hell!

Seriously, after the disappointment that was Making Money and the news of his being diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it's a big relief to see that he still has a book this good in him. The book does go off the rails a bit towards the end, with the "Island-of-Science" dénouement never quite gelling. Naturally, all the old Pratchett themes are there in spades: the Plato's Cave references, the never-resolved ponderings on religion and atheism, the naive protagonists in a culture clash, and so on. It's a good execution of the formula, benefitting from not being Yet Another Discworld Novel, but it's formulaic nonetheless.