Random Friday: What We Have Read 9

More catching-up from the reading journal…

The Man Who Invented Christmas
Les Standiford

Rather than attempt a general biography of Dickens, the book wisely focuses on one particular turning point in the famous author’s life, when his writing career appears to be faltering and he decides to publish, at his own risk, a small volume just before the holidays to ease his debts. Threads are traced back to key events in his earlier life, with a father in debtor’s prison and young Dickens forced to work filling boot black to help get him released. After the publication, we take joy in the writer’s success and acclaim.

Coincidence, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz
Edward B Burger and Michael Starbird

A random walk through mathematical topics, including public key codes, spirals in nature, fractal origami, Mobius strips, and the fourth dimension. Particularly good treatment of the golden ratio.


Anita Blake– Vampire Hunter: Guilty Pleasures, Volume one
Laurell K Hamilton, Stacie Ritchie, and Jess Ruffner-Booth
(graphic novel)

Pete & Pickles
Berkeley Breathed

Pete the pig lives a very settled life– until the elephant Pickles crashes in and leads him into many hilarious adventures. Over-the-top comic body language, lovingly rendered, great fun.

Good As Lily
Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm
(small-format graphic novel)

Grace, a senior in high school with a good circle of friends, is surprised on her birthday by three more Graces at different ages, each with unresolved issues. Grace must not only deal with her own teen angst, but keep the extra Graces hidden and help with their problems.

Wishful Drinking
Carrie Fisher

An autobiographical version of her one-woman show, describing with much humor and exuberance the life as daughter of “Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston” of their day, her struggles with bipolar disorder and substance abuse, and geek heart-throb. Recommended.

The Plain Janes
Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg
(small-format graphic novel)

Jane’s parents flee with her to the suburbs after her brush with senseless violence in the big city. Rather than join the popular kids, she makes friends with an outsider crowd of individuals, also coincidentally named Jane. They embark on a highly secret program of guerilla art to make people think, which threatens the establishment. Intriguing plot.

Golden Fool

Robin Hobb

Fitz poses as Tom Badgerlock, bodyguard to Lord Golden, the Fool. Secretly he must assemble a coterie of Skilled for Prince Dutiful, while keeping hidden from his daughter Nettle. He must also be concerned with conflicts between the Witted and Piebalds, some who know his true identity. Dutiful is betrothed to Narcheska Elliana of the Out Islands, but some hidden motives must be uncovered. Ultimately many secrets are revealed about the Changer and the Catalyst, when a second White Prophet is revealed.

Goodnight Bush
Erich Origen and Gan Golan

Parody mixing the Bush administration with beloved children’s book Goodnight Moon.

Sly Mongoose
Tobias S. Buckell.

Backyard Ballistics
William Gurstelle

Terry Pratchett

While young Mau returns from a long journey by canoe a gigantic wave destroys his tiny island village. Daphne is a very British young lady who is sole survivor of Sweet Judy, wrecked on the same island. Together they are forced to grow and lead, as refugees straggle in from even smaller islands, to form a nation to defend against pirates and cannibals.

Mau struggles with loss of faith, while still hearing the voices of the “Grandfathers”. Daphne struggles against a very specific voice in her head: Grandmother. “Octopus arbori” means we are in a Pratchett world. And what a world! A sweet blend of profound and comic, utterly inspiring.

Half a Crown
Jo Walton

In this final installment of a trilogy, Peter Carmichael is commander of the Watch, with a dreaded secret putting him under control of the prime minister, who indeed he knows was part of the Farthing set that did overthrow the government by a key assassination. Peter’s ward is Elvira, staying with the Maynards to be “finished”, soon to debut and, with other young ladies of the season, be presented to the Queen.

It is 1960 and a world peace conference in London will decide the boundaries of the new powers, now that Russia has collapsed, the US has lost its way, and Japan and Germany are left standing. Carmichael is in charge of security, and Hitler will be on British soil. Elvira is observing a fascist rally that turns violent, is picked up by police, and finds herself a pawn in a struggle between the Watch and Scotland Yard.

Each chapter alternates between POV of Peter and Elvira.

The Hungry Scientist Handbook
Patrick Buckley and Lily Binns

Make root beer with dry ice, sourdough bread, liquid nitrogen ice cream. Build a coaster that changes color with drink temperature (challenging). Each chapter presents cool kitchen-related projects for the growing movement of Makers.

Very Bad Deaths
Spider Robinson

1st person POV with 60s flashbacks Russell Walker, still mourning the loss of his wife, is approached by an old friend from college. “Smelly” has become aware of a serial killer somewhere near Vancouver, and needs Russell to convince the police to investigate with no evidence.

Starts as soft-SF, slides into police procedural, with a truly frightening villain.

The Wordy Shipmates
Sarah Vowell

History nerds rejoice. Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop, Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, rebel Anne Hutchinson, the Pequod War, and 1630s are probed with dry wit and wisdom, reflecting light on modern America.

The Annotated Wizard of Oz
L Frank Baum, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn
illustrated by W W Denslow

Silver shoes, not ruby slippers. Glinda is good witch of South, not North. More plot after Oz disappears in balloon. Baum wrote with an economy of words, bounty of unusual creatures, good helping of action with limited violence.

A Lion Among Men
Gregory Maguire

Orphaned, growing up alone, perpetually on the outside, Brrr the Lion had a knack for living in the wrong place at the wrong time. With no good moral example, he sought inclusion by compromise with authority, becoming a collaborator, despised by all sides. Now, working for the Emperor of Oz, he interviews the oracle Yackle for news of Elphaba and Liir, and may find answers and a new direction.

Maguire paints a richly dismal Oz of deception, tyranny, and genocide, with anti-heroes struggling against destiny and past mistakes.

Snake Agent
Liz Williams

Detective Inspector Chen teams with the demonicĀ  Zhu Irzh to stop illegal soul trade into Hell.

How refreshing to read contemporary fantasy without vampires and werewolves! Williams draws a richly detailed mythos of the Orient, where hell is nothing if not bureaucratic, and inter-departmental infighting turns deadly.

Zoe’s Tale
John Scalzi

“The Last Colony” is retold from the point of view of seventeen year old Zoe, biological daughter of Charles Boutin, adopted by former Colonial Union soldiers John Perry. While living on the new colony of Roanoke, Zoe is joined by aliens Hickory and Dickory to record every detail of her life for the Obin. Zoe’s father gave the Obin consciousness, and the entire planet watches her life to learn how to exist with self-awareness.

The Last Theorem
Arthur C Clarke, Frederik Pohl

Shooting War
Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman (graphic novel)

In the near future a video blogger stumbles onto a major story, is recruited by giant mainstream media, subverted to fit the company’s storyline for a failing war, is a pawn in conflict between freedom fighters and counterinsurgents, and finally forced to return to roots. Gritty, flashy, with atmosphere of the authentic from a real freelance journalist.

Bonk : the curious coupling of science and sex
Mary Roach

Math Curse
Jon Scieszka + Lane Smith (youth picture book)

Mrs Fibonacci says that almost everything can be thought of as a math problem. The next day the young narrator wakes up and everything IS math to be solved.

Saturn’s Children
Charles Stross

Humans created androids and then disappeared. An aristo class of androids control most of the populace with slave chips. Inexperienced Freya Nakamichi-47 flees the wrath of an aristo by becoming a courier within the solar system, and becomes entangled with schemes and plots.

Pity about the cover.

An Irish Country Village
Patrick Taylor

Barry Laverty wants to join Doctor Fingal O’Reilly’s GP practice in the tiny Ulster village of Ballybucklebo, circa 1960s, but the death of a patient threatens his reputation with the possibility of a lawsuit. While waiting for autopsy tests, he provides moral support for true-love Patricia Spence as she competes for an engineering scholarship that would take her to far-away Cambridge for three years. Councillor Bertie Bishop is scheming to take over the Mucky Duck pub, and it will take the cleverness of Fingal and Barry to thwart his plans. And will Bishop ever finish building a certain slate roof so ancient lovebirds Maggie and Sonny can finally have a wedding.

Immerse yourself in the lives of this country village, and after a few pages you will smile.

Web Marketing for Dummies
Jan Zimmerman

This New Mexico web designer provides several web site examples from local companies to illustrate her points. A reference book with many lists of links, useful to read with a browser nearby.

The Cartoon Guide to Statistics
Larry Gonick and Woollcott Smith

Illustrated in the same style of “Cartoon History of the Universe”, mixes equations and humorous illustrations to illuminate the main concepts of statistics, including distributions, confidence intervals, hypothesis testing, and experimental design. Suprisingly effective way to make abstract mathematical concepts clear with drawings and humor. Recommended for mathephiles to expand and renew statistical concepts.

Daemons Are Forever
Simon R Green

Shaman Bond, once a field agent, is now stuck as leader of the Drood clan. Without their golden armor the family is struggling to keep check on the many dark magic entities and organizations threatening the world, while conspiracies within the Droods threaten Shaman and his companion Molly.

Implied Spaces
Walter Jon Williams

Aristide was present at the Singularity 1400 years ago, helping create the nine orbital AIs that make possible the pocket universes connected to our reality by wormholes, and where anyone can download to a new body in a “pool of life”. Aristide has spent the past few hundred years in a pre-tech pocket universe Midgarth as swordsman scholar, accompanied by AI avatar Bitsy in cat form, and discovers an utterly fiendish plot that threatens every universe.

The writer deftly executes Really Big Ideas. It would be a spoiler to say more, but believe me, Really Big. Battles both low-tech and far-far-future tech, clever plot twists, talented villain, are all well executed.

Victory of Eagles
Naomi Novik

In the last book Captain Will Laurence did a right and noble act for the benefit of his dragon Temeraire and all dragon-kind, but at terrible price: he is branded as traitor by the British government, imprisoned, while Temeraire is exiled to breeding grounds, and the French recover strength to make a daring invasion of British soil. Captain and dragon are too vital to remain unused, and bargain with General Wellesley to fight, while gaining some concessions for dragon rights.

David Louis Edelman

Although many police, detective, and medicine procedural stories are present in books and TV, rarely does one find business procedural. Add to that a science fiction business procedural, with a fully imagined economy and software product sector, which considers the effect of disruptive technology break-through, and you have Infoquake.

Natch, with help of talented programmer Horvil and product manager Jara, has built his fiefcorp from nothing to a leading developer of bio/logics: nano-software that enhances human ability, from the mundane change of eye color, to control of facial expression, adjustment of sleep and mood. Natch is driven, ruthless, not entirely ethical, not above spreading false messages to delay a competitor’s product release. Just the sort of young upstart to be approached by the head of a venerable memecorp to bring to market a technology that could change human ability to unimaginable heights. Now Natch must fight industrial espionage and government military action to release 1.0 on time or lose everything.

Philip Reeve

While Larklight is undergoing renovation the Mumbys journey newly opened Grand Hotel Starcross in the asteroid belt advertised as a bathing resort, served by a rail line I rather think might be hard to engineer. Among the guests they meet Delphine Beauregard, a rival for the attentions of Jack Havock. Soon the youths are battling deadly starfish, giant clams, and sinister top hats.

As with Larklight, some of the best bits are in excerpts from Myrtle’s diary, with a difficult reconciling of teenage adventurer with the ideals of innocent female genteel beauty.

The Willoughbys
Lois Lowry

In many youth fiction series the heroes deal with thoroughly despicable villains, but the young adventurer’s parents are good and pure. Think Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter, and so on. Enter the Willoughbys. Timothy, age 12, the twins Barnaby and Barnaby, and young Jane. Their parents decide they really do not like their children, and concoct a diabolical plan to rid themselves of the kids. With the help of a nanny, a foundling, and an eccentric neighbor, the Willoughby children build the family they deserve.

The Amber Spyglass
Philip Pullman

Scientist Mary Malone travels to a world of friendly wheeled sentients in a close symbiosis with giant trees that are dying, and fashions a spyglass that sees Dust to find out the reason. Will and Lyra, with aid of the Subtle Knife, travel to the world of the dead to visit Roger and end up changing the system of afterlife. In a suitable conclusion to a vast story line, Lord Asriel battles the Consistoral Court and Heaven itself in a vast war involving many worlds. Mrs. Coulter continues her career of deception and seduction. We are introduced to the Gallivespians, tiny short-lived humanoids that ride on large dragonflies, with leg spurs that can stun or kill.

Christian concerns about the challenge to church doctrine might be ignored in previous books of the series, but Pullman uses allegory to challenge the idea of afterlife and an active deity in this final volume.

Passionate Minds
David Bodanis

If you appreciated Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore/libary for this true story of affair between two brilliant minds at the dawn of the Enlightenment– Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet. Sword fights, narrow escapes, political intrigue, and financial schemes, oh joy! At Chateau de Cirey they would alternately compete and collaborate in scientific inquiries. Emilie, talented in mathematics, could understand and explain Newton, and made further progress in the nature of energy. Voltaire took the path of the experimentalist, weighing matter at different temperatures, not so fortunate in his scientific exploration, finally falling back to his true calling of literature and challenging the authority of King and Church.

The Edge of Reason

Melinda Snodgrass

Albuquerque police officer Richard Oort rescues Rhiana from magical creatures, and becomes involved in a vast struggle between magic and reason. Recruited for the Lumina by Kenntnis, an Old One, Richard struggles to prevent a new Dark Age.

Authentic settings of Albuquerque area.

An Irish Country Doctor
Patrick Taylor

Barry Laverty is a brand new MD, undecided about a career path. He joins Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly in the small fictional community of Ballybucklebo, gradually learning from this irascible eccentric character the real art of medicine. Delightful tales, full of wisdom and memorable characters, well deserving a standing ovation.

The Anubis Gates
Tim Powers

Coleridge as a character in genre fiction. Brilliant!

Iain M. Banks

Mixes mega-high tech and low tech cultures seamlessly in a vast story.

The Subtle Knife
Philip Pullman

Lyra travels to another world and meets Will, eventual wielder owner of the titular object, so sharp it can slice holes into the barriers between worlds. They bide in a world ravaged by Specters that eat souls of adults, leaving children alone. The stunningly grandiose plan of Lord Asriel is revealed.

Eight Lives Down
Chris Hunter

Chris Hunter leads a unit that disarms IEDs in Shia-dominated Basra in a deadly cat-and-mouse game where the enemy is constantly changing tactics and targeting Captain Hunter personally. Transcends the war memoir genre with uncanny you-are-there realism, inspiration, and humor.

Storm Front
Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden, wizard, is special consultant to the Chicago PD, called in by Lt Murphy when evidence points to the wyrd. Harry must track down a powerful but inexperienced black mage, while on probation with the White Council, dealing with racketeer Marcone, and keeping too many secrets from Lt Murphy.

Victory Conditions
Elizabeth Moon

In the final book of the Vatta series, Ky Vatta must lead a fleet against Turek’s pirate forces.

Fool Moon
Jim Butcher

Brutal killings point to werewolves, but which kind? We have classic werewolves, like wizards that only know one spell. Hexenwolves use a magic belt. Loup-garous are wolf-like monsters cursed to transform at the full moon. All varieties are involved in a grand bloody melee. As usual, the wizard Harry (hmmm) keeps Murph in the dark, destroying her trust.

Related Posts: What We Have Read 8, 7, 6, 5, 4

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