Category Archives: Book Review

Reading #62: California Bones

California Bones (Daniel Blackland, #1)California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout

I’ve lived in California for almost 18 years now, but last year was my first visit to the La Brea Tar Pits. The pits themselves are bubbly, smelly, and a little anticlimactic. The life-sized models are 70s-esque and cartoonish. Watching paleontologists work on giant crated hunks of tar extracted from LACMA’s new garage is surreal and wonderful, but it’s a little hard to see what they’re doing. The museum is fantastic, though. Skeletons of giant sloths, mastodons, saber-tooth cats (“Not tigers,” I’m corrected by my daughter). It’s a small museum but well done and the view into the fossil lab gives an impressively clear view of what paleontologists actually do.

But my favorite exhibits was the backlit gallery of dire wolf skulls, on the grounds that it looked totally cool.

iPhone Photos Early 2014

See? Totally cool. I don’t actually know this for sure — I haven’t read any interviews by him— but I have a hunch that was why Greg Van Eekhout write California Bones. Because the idea of an alternate dystopian LA  run by terrifying ageless magicians powered by magic extracted from prehistoric bones is also totally cool. (This advanced literary concept is based largely onSteven Brust’s  Cool Stuff Theory of Literature.) And it is! There’s even a scene (which I won’t give away) with the dire wolf skulls, promise.

The peril of a book based on a premise that cool is, frankly, that it won’t quite live up to it. California Bones is a lot of fun, and manages the dual trick of taking the premise seriously (meaning it scrupulously abides by the rules of the world it has set up) while not taking itself too seriously (it’s funny even while being all dark and serious in parts). It does not quite live up to the coolness of the premise, but I’m happy to forgive that, if only for the but with the dire wolf skulls.

Reading #61: The Inquisition, Vikings, and Cossacks

I’m skipping twenty or so books I’ve failed to write about in a timely manner in favor of some more recent ones.

London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets London Under by Peter Ackroyd

I love London, history, underground things, and spooky things–therefore this was a pleasure to read. It’s not a linear history or narrative, more a series of vignettes focusing on different underground aspects of London (sewers, wells, lost rivers, Roman ruins, the Underground itself). I could fault it for its glancing and non-specific references to things I then had to look up elsewhere (like the Roman bath-house in the basement of a Thames-side office building) but I enjoyed the looking up as well. The next time I visit London I’ll try to find some of the hidden sights–the Clerk’s well at Clerkenwell, the spots where you can hear the underground rivers flowing, and the section of Roman wall in the middle of a car park.

The CossacksThe Cossacks – Leo Tolstoy

The preschool my kids attend has a fundraising auction every year. This year one of the things up for auction was a large set of Russian books (in translation) along with a bottle of vodka. I’d only read two of the set before and was unable to resist bidding. So … now I’m committed to reading all of them. Easing my way in, I started with an early and short Tolstoy novel, The Cossacks.

It’s a little odd to be reading it when Cossacks are actually in the news, but it’s a fine romance–more romantic toward the place and the people Tolstoy and his wealthy Moscow hero encounter than a woman, though there is a woman. Read it when you’re in the woods.

 The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at The End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Short, sweet, creepy, and a little brutal. All very history / memory / loss / childhood (and creepy things) and so very like The Graveyard Book or Coraline, except for adults.


God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern WorldGod’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World – Cullen Murphy

Quick summary: The Inquisition–Cullen Murphy’s not a fan. It’s a very opinionated history. On the other hand, the various Inquisitions were pretty nasty, and don’t have a lot of defenders. Murphy does a nice job of laying out the different Inquisitions that have existed and their interrelationships (something I was totally unclear on before reading this).

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths – Nancy Marie Brown

Two books in one. One is a history of Snorri Struluson, author of the Prose Edda and ultimate source for a large majority of everything we know about Norse legend. Sadly, I found this (the majority of the book) pretty dry, even as I understood it shouldn’t be–Snorri is a central figure in Icelandic history even apart from the Edda. It shouldn’t have been dull, but it was. The other part of the books talks about the process through which the sagas (Snorri’s and others) found their way into other histories, art, literature, right on up to Wagner, Tolkien, and the Marvel Comics version of Thor. That part was well done and fascinating.

I do love that 700+ years after he dies you can go visit his hot tub, though.

Also read:
A Crown of Renewal by Elizabeth Moon
Satisfying final chapter of a fantasy series that dragged on a bit long.

Reading #60 2013 Bankruptcy Edition

I’m declaring reading note bankruptcy for anything read in 2013. Or early 2014. It was a busy summer and fall and winter. I did keep a list, though.


Of the nonfiction, I particularly recommend How Music Works by David Byrne and A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. Both expanded my understanding of what humans can do, individually and in groups. Much more is hard to ask from any book.

  • How Music Works by David Byrne
  • The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes
  • The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900 by Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway
  • Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City by Paul Morley
  • A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit
  • News from Nowhere and Other Writings by William Morris
  • Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher I. Beckwith
  • Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt
  • How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel

New (to me) Fiction

Of the fiction, I particularly recommend Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyland by Stephen King.

Blackbirds is a fantasy thriller with a noir feel and a unique voice. Joyland is my favorite kind of Stephen King novel — quiet, thoughtful, and creepy. How I Live Now is a young adult novel which kept going in directions I didn’t expect.  Middlesex is hard to describe but you can think of it as a history of Detroit through the eyes of one odd individual. The Newsflesh trilogy is far, far better than a trilogy about zombie-hunting bloggers has any right to be.

Looking at this list, all but Middlesex follow a similar pattern: they’re short, take a classic genre trope (or three) in a new direction, and feature a distinct voice.

  • The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks
  • Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey
  • Abaddon’s Gate  by James S.A. Corey
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  • Gateway by Frederik Pohl
  • Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
  • Deadline by Mira Grant
  • Blackout  by Mira Grant
  • How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
  • A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
  • Gate of Ivrel by C. J. Cherryh
  • Middlesex: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
  • Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon
  • Joyland  by Stephen King
  • The entire Change series by S. M. Stirling

Graphic novels

  • Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
  • Prophet, Vol. 1: Remission by Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milogiannis and Brandon Graham
  • Captain Marvel, Vol. 1: In Pursuit of Flight by Kelly Sue Deconnick, Dexter Soy and Emma Rios
  • Fatale, Book 2: The Devil’s Business by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
  • Invisibles (whole series) by Grant Morrison
  • Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction
  • Hawkeye: Little Hits, Vol. 2 by Matt Fraction
  • Young Avengers, Vol. 1 by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Re-Read Fiction

  • Against the Odds by Elizabeth Moon
  • Cetaganda by Elizabeth McMaster Bujold
  • Phoenix by Steven Brust
  • Dragon by Stephen Brust
  • Zodiac by Neal Stephenson
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • The core Dorsai novels by Gordon Dickson
  • Most of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” by
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull

Reading #59: Statistical Wizards, Revelations, and Vampires


Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of RevelationRevelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation
by Elaine Pagels

This is a general introduction to the Book of Revalation, the historical contexts in which it was written and later understood, and what current scholarship has to say about it. I’m not particularly literate in the Bible (nevermind biblical scholarship), so quite a lot of it was over my head. I was left largely with an urge to correct those shortcomings, rather than specific thoughts about Revelations.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don'tThe Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t
by Nate Silver

The 538 guy talks about predictions. This is basically a book-length polemic in favor of Bayesian statistics and against frequentist statistics, which should make it pretty dry. Silver is an excellent storyteller, however, and builds his argument with a nice series of stories without getting too cutesy.

Anyone who deals with predictions in their work–and that means basically all of us who build digital products–should read this. Those with a statistics background might find some of it basic (and those who like frequentist inference might get a little cranky), but there’s something useful in here for everyone.

Monoculture: How One Story is Changing EverythingMonoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything
by F. S. Michaels

Oh man, I really wanted to like this book. I’m amenable to its core argument–that public culture at any given point in civilization tends to have a dominant narrative, that that narrative can drive out alternative ways of looking at the world, and that the current dominant narrative is an economic one. So far so good. In my perfect world, that would have been chapter one, and then we would have gotten on to something interesting. (E.g. what are some emerging alternatives? How might we change a dominant narrative?) But no, that’s pretty much the whole book. It is a short book, but in this case I found brevity unhelpful.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New PlanetEaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
by Bill McKibben

Another disappointing book! Once again, I’m amenable to an argument like that which McKibben makes, but I’m not persuaded by his specifics. In this case, as one of the early people to warn us about climate change, he comes with a great deal of credibility. And when laying out the bad-to-worse case for the impact of climate change, he makes a lot of sense.  His preferred solutions, though, all seem to fall very short of the mark. He advocates a move to a very local-based  economy, and is suspicious of large-scale interventions (whether through policy or technology). I’m all in favor of more localized economic activity (though for other reasons) but there’s just no way we can get out of the climate fix we’re in without national, and international, policy changes.


'Salem's Lot‘Salem’s Lot
by Stephen King

I’d somehow gotten to 2013 without reading some of the classic King works, and I’m aiming to rectify that. (I’m not a big horror fan, but I do like King’s small-town life narratives, and I’m happy to have a monster or three in the middle of them.) As expected, this was a completely satisfying vampire novel set in small-town Maine.

Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, #1)Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms #1)
by Saladin Ahmed

Nominated for a Hugo! It’s lovely to see a fantasy series inspired by Arabian mythology and 1001 Nights rather than the more common European mishmash. And as first-in-a-series novels go, it’s a good one. Solid plot, interesting choice of primary characters, and plenty of ghuls to slay.

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes (Expanse #1)
by James S.A. Corey

Space opera which is in space, and suitably operatic. Things explode, things happen to planets, and then more things explode. Satisfying.

Reading #58: Cooperatives, Stone Axes, and Soviets


The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and PlaceThe Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place
by John Abrams

John Abrams is the founder of South Mountain Company, a design & build worker-owned cooperative in Martha’s Vineyard. His books describes the history of the company, their choice to move to a worker-owned cooperative model, and their overall philosophy of work.

Those principles are:

  • Sharing ownership
  • Cultivating workplace democracy
  • Challenging the gospel of growth
  • Balancing multiple bottom lines
  • Celebrating the spirit of craft
  • Practicing community entrepreneurism
  • Thinking like cathedral builders
  • Committing to the business of place

All of these principles resonate strongly with me, and I have a lot of thinking to do about how they might be relevant in my less tangible design practice. Some of the principles (craft, challenging growth) are similar to the philosophy of the folks at 37 Signals. The workplace democracy angle can be found, at least to a limited extent, at Valve. Thinking like cathedral builders is, of course, a cornerstone of the open source movement. But I can’t think of a technology organization that embodies all of the principles in any meaningful way. I’d like to see one.

Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1
by Mark Twain, Harriet E. Smith (Ed.)

Mark Twain did not write a conventional autobiography, and it has not been published conventionally. He tried at various times and in various ways to get his life story down on paper, and what resulted was a mishmash of unordered (or at least unconventionally ordered) stories, notes, copies of old talks, and miscellany that kind-of sort-of adds up to life story. He also asked that it not be published until 100 years after his death–while portions of it have been published previously, the 2010 edition is the first definitive one. (And it’s only the 1st in a projected 3 volume set.) If you really, really like Twain (I do) this is worth reading, but you should know a few things before buying a paper copy:

I enjoyed it immensely, if slowly. And it has given me an idea for a project or two I’d like to work on.

A History of the World in 100 ObjectsA History of the World in 100 Objects
by Neil MacGregor

This is a companion book to the Radio 4 BBC / British Museum series of the same name. One hundred human-created objects that span our history on this planet, all from the British Museum, are shown, described, and put into context. It’s a lovely way to cruise around areas of history you know nothing about, and has the (intended) effect of driving home the sheer scale of human history. Plus you’ll never think all stone axes look alike again.


Red PlentyRed Plenty
by Francis Spufford

Red Plenty is an odd and powerful book. It is famously genre-confusing–if you look at the main text, it’s historical fiction, set in the recent past in the Soviet Union. But it has lots of footnotes and good portions of the text are nonfiction. And, due to a combination of its subject (science in the Soviet Union), it’s style, and some of its earliest and most vocal fans, it reads very much like science fiction. I thought it was, when I picked it up–and I’m not alone in this.

So it acts like a one-book vindication of Samuel Delany’s theories of genre. It’s also brilliant. Multiple viewpoint characters–some with multiple sections, some without–experience the brief post-Stalin period where (some) Soviet scientists attempted to create a materially wealthy society through central planning. And they experience the failure of that vision. It’s hard to summarize, but incredibly compelling (and tragic) in practice.

If you do read it, follow it with this intense online seminar on the novel at Crooked Timber, including posts by Spufford.

Report from Planet Midnight Report from Planet Midnight
by Nalo Hopkinson

From PM Press’s series of radical genre works. This includes two short stories, an interview with Hopkinson, and the core piece, a lecture she gave on race, ethnicity, and science fiction. Of the two short stories, I liked “Message in a Bottle” – it was usefully creepy, if that phrase makes any sense at all. The lecture is very direct, which is probably a good thing. Science fiction fandom can miss more subtle critiques sometimes.

Invisible ArmiesInvisible Armies
by Jon Evans

Sometimes I pull things off my wishlist without knowing why I put it on there in the first place. (I have a long wishlist.) In this case the acknowledgements include a bunch of my friends, so probably that’s why.

It’s a thriller, with a eco-terrorism theme. The first half is superb. The second half dissatisfied me–it felt (to me) that the later plot twists were there to be twisty, rather than emerging from the characters and situation.

Reading #56: Elites, Apocalypses, and Tentacle Noir

There are some damn good books in this one.


Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

Twilight Of the Elites: America after Meritocracy – Christopher Hayes
Hayes  (aka “the host of that show on cable news where people don’t yell”) has one clear and central argument: the culture of meritocracy in this country is both ineffective and actively harmful. He argues this convincingly, both from theory (this is why meritocracies fail us) and recent political history (here are a bunch of meritocratic systems which failed us). The crux:

The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes will make equal opportunity impossible…. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to to scramble up. In other words: “Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy. (p. 57)

I find it pretty convincing. I’d recommend this book to anyone frustrated with the current state of politics in this country–but also to academics, teachers, and folks who work in that most meritocratic of cultures (in theory at least), Silicon Valley. It might change your mind about some things.

Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations – Norman Davies
Vanished Kingdoms tells the story of nation-states that are no longer with us. They range from the recent and well-known (the Soviet Union) to the ancient and fairly obscure (Alt Clud). As history, it’s a mixed bag–Davies makes a strong narrative out of the history of some kingdoms, even when there’s little documentary evidence (like the aforementioned Alt Clud, or Kingdom of Strathclyde) but others, like the various Burgundies, seem more like lists of genealogies. Davies pokes some fun at himself for the last, but less defensible is his decision to promote Byzantium as the most important vanished kingdom of all–only to state that it’s too important to give us only a chapter about and move abruptly on to the next kingdom. Maybe his next book will be on Byzantium? Also, he really hates the British Royal Family. Not sure why, but man, he hates them.

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home – Lucy Worsely
Worsley hosted the BBC television series of the same name, and my main problem with this book is the same problem I have with a lot of TV history: they tend to vaguely thematic historical trivia rather than strong narratives or coherent arguments. Worsley is trying to give us a sense of how different uses of our homes, and rooms dedicated to those uses, have changed over time. She succeeds in bits and pieces–there are some lovely descriptions–but the overall effect is factoids, and those most relating to the British aristocracy. If you want to know a bunch of details about Royal beds this is your book–only not, because you get only a tease. On the other hand, I will always be grateful to this book for introducing me to that sadly-extinct breed of dog, the turnspit dog.


Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
There’s a movie coming out, and I’m worried about it. Tom Hanks? Close to 3 hours in length? Dressing white actors up as Asian? Could be horrific. But give the movie credit: it was a trailer for the movie that reminded me to read the book, which I’d vaguely heard about without knowing much.

Man, this is a good book. Very few novels manage to be ambitious in ways literary audiences and genre audiences will both recognize. Even fewer novels succeed. So, take 6 stories, each set in a different time period and each in a different genre. You have a 19th century story (adventures on ships!) told through letters, another epistolary novel set in the 1930s about a composer, a 1970s crime thriller, a modern day satire, a near-future dystopia, and a far-future post-apocalyptic tale. Just making each of these good would be tricky, but Mitchell breaks five of them in half and orders them so forst you travel forward in time, then back again. And then there are the recurring characters, themes, stories commenting on other stories … it all sounds horrifically complicated but the beauty of this is that it isn’t. I had a little trouble with the first half of the 19th century story (my least favorite character, though the second half is better) but after that the whole thing just flows.

Part of what makes it works–and this is in comparison to many novels where (for example) a literary author tries his or her hand at genre fiction–is that Mitchell clearly knows and respects his inspirations. The best example is the postapocalyptic novel, which is an easy one to do badly. He nods to my favorite pos-apocalyptic novel, Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, avoids (or toys with) the common cliches, and by setting it on Hawaii’s Big Island, gives it a novel setting.


Graphic novels

Fatale Volume 1: Death Chases Me

Fatale – Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
San Francisco Noir, with additional tentacle monsters. If that’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this–and the cover art gives you a good idea of what to expect. It is the sort of thing I like. Brubaker’s dialogue is noir-ish without being too self-parodic, the plotting decent enough, the setting glorious. I am a sucker for old spooky San Francisco (and modern spooky San Francisco, and future spooky San Francisco …) and this gives me multiple eras happily. Or unhappily for the characters, who mostly come to tragic ends, as is only appropriate. San Phillips’s art evokes classic noir films without being cheesy, and his use of color is breathtaking.

Reading #55

I've been keeping loose track of the books I read for a while now, on various platforms. I'm going to try doing it here for a while.


Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe
Taras Grescoe really doesn't like cars: or rather, he really doesn't like what happens to cities when car-centric development is the dominant mode for decades or longer. I'm more or less in agreement with him on this, so I am a receptive audience for this book. In fact the arguments against car-centric development were for me the least enjoyable part of this book, as I've heard most of them before and agree with them. More interesting to me were the many different alternatives, from the supertrains of Tokyo to the success of Bus Rapid Transit in Bogota to the bike culture of Copenhagen, where a mindboggling 36% of citizens commute by bike. (For a U.S. comparison, even in enlightened Portland only about 6% commute by bike.) This is a polemical book, but its strength is in portraying the culture of each city through its transit. 

Graphic novels

Pyongyang: A Journey in North KoreaThe Invisibles, Vol. 1: Say You Want a RevolutionLocal

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle
Nonfiction: Guy Deslisle went to North Korea to work with an animation team there. He doesn't get much direct access to North Korean life and culture of course, so rather, the books is largely about the isolation of being in a tiny Western enclave walled off from the rest of the country for months on end, with occasional glimpses of the world beyond. Funny, and sinister.

The Invisibles Vol. 1: Say You Want a Revolution by Grant Morrison
I have the full run of the Invisibles in single issues, I'm starting to pick them up in graphic novel form so I can actually read them. Morrison is bonkers, but the pleasure of reading this first volume is the knowledge that he hasn't even really gotten going yet.

Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly
Beautiful hardback collection of Wood and Kelly's Local. The conceit is that each story takes place in a different city (and, less obviously at first, over a span of many years) and stands alone, though the thread through all of them is one young woman, Megan. Not every story works well, and one (with the violent brothers) doesn't work at all with the rest, but many do, and the sum total is magnificent. It's a coming of age story done as elegantly as I've seen in comic form. Wood's prose and Kelly's art work perfectly together.


Wolf Hall2312For The WinThe Last Colony (Old Man's War, #3)

Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel

If you've seen A Man for all Seasons, you can think of this novel as a response of sorts. It's a historical novel, with the general setting being the English Reformation, King Henry VIII and his wives, and all that. (Henry VIII wife mnemonic: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived — which is only sorta accurate but is memorable.) It's seen through Thomas Cromwell, commonly seen as a sinister manipulator — and he still is, in this novel, except you have a bit more sympathy for his sinister manipulations. Mantel has a very odd style for the narration which threw me off the first go at reading it, but it grew on me.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Set in a future history that's sort of but not really the same as his Mars trilogy, Robinson is writing a love story with a little spy action and a lot of world-building and future history telling. The love story is between a mercurial woman from Mercury (-ish, Robinson's future people have some creative gender options and do take advantage of them) and a saturnine man from Saturn. They fall in love in a crisis, fall apart, and fall back together again, while getting to tour some of the bits of the future Solar System that Robinson hasn't had a chance to do yet, and pulls back to Earth again and again. (KSR is trying to make the point to his space-happy fans that Earth is, should be, and always will be the main event, even if humanity does every spread beyond it.) It's good, read it.

For the Win by Cory Doctorow
At some point I'm going to figure out why so many science fiction authors felt they had to write a MMO book. Possibly they all lost a year to World of Warcraft and had to justify it to themselves. This is Doctorow's, and it's pretty good. Young people across the globe, involved in MMOs in one way or another, are oppressed, become radicalized, and organize to protect themselves.

The Last Colony by John Scalzi
I read this thinking I hadn't before; I had. This happens. It's a fine follow-up to The Old Man's War, but not nearly as strong. I am looking forward to the serial novel he has in mind next, I think it's high time more writers experimented with writing for digital devices.


RedshirtsNeuromancer (Sprawl, #1)Count Zero (Sprawl, #2)Mona Lisa Overdrive (Sprawl, #3)


Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi
Clever Star Trek parody wrapped around a mild philosophical puzzle with some sentiment tagged on. Fine, but I hoped for a bit more.

The Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer / Count Zero / Mona Lisa Overdrive) by William Gibson
Rereading these for the nth time. My preferences have slowly changed: I would have said a few years ago that Count Zero was the best of the three, now I prefer Mona Lisa Overdrive.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2011

This is a list of the best books I read in 2011. The list is not a Top 10. For one thing, it's not in order. Also, not all of the books were published in 2011, though more of them were recent than is typical for me. All of these are books I read for the first time this year: I do a lot of rereading, but none of the reread books struck me as strongly as these did.

  1. Ship Breaker (Paolo Bacigulpi)
    Absolutely the best novel I read this year. I enjoyed the one previous book of his I've read (The Windup Girl) but it did seem a little bit as if he were trying too hard to be dark. Ship Breaker has no such problems. It's ostensibly Young Adult, set in a post-apocalyptic (weather apocalypse version) Lousiana and starts among gangs of ragged youth breaking down old oil tankers for scrap piece by piece. The world-building is perfect, the structure is a concise, perfectly executed update of a classic adventure novel (Kidnapped or Treasure Island) and I would recommend it to anyone. 
  2. Zero History (William Gibson)
    Finishes up the Blue Ant / Hubertus Bigend trilogy. When the trilogy started it felt lighter than the previous trilogies; having recently reread them all, I think it stand up very well. Plus, this one is largely about pants, and I appreciate a writer that can take pants seriously
  3. What Technology Wants (Kevin Kelly)
    Still mulling this one over. Kelly has a manic mix of total full-on messianic tecnology changes everything woo, but is more grounded (and more literate) than 99% of people with equivalent tecnophile woo. If you want a taste, go read this post on how few technologies truly die out. If you think that's neat, you'll like this book. 
  4. A Night in the Lonesome October (Roger Zelazny & Gahan WIlson)
    Weird & wonderful. I have a soft spot for books narrated by dogs. Gahan Wilson does the illustrations, he's a gem. This is an older book I would never have heard about without Jo Walton's series of book reviews on Tor, she has a knack for highlighting semi-forgotten books that deserve to be read. 
  5. I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett)
    Another adult novel. I think the Tiffany Aching books are Pratchett's best works. They have a different tone than the other Discworld novels, and stand alone while working within that world. I think somehow they feel more serious (even though the Discworld novels have tackled some quite serious topics), possibly because Tiffany herself is never played for laughs, though funny things do happen around her. Especially when the Feegles are involved. 
  6. Nobilis: The Game of Sovereign Powers (R. Sean Borgstrom)
    This isn't a novel, it's a very strange role-playing game in an extraordinarily beautiful physical book. It's disastrously out of print, tend to go for more than $100 on eBay, and I was lucky enough to find out about it by actually getting to play it at a friend's house, though briefly. I was hooked. I am one of those people who buys gaming books just to read them sometimes (sorry) and this book is a perfect example of why that is a terrible, and yet irresistible habit. On the one hand, it's an interesting game, and should be played. On the other, it's a grand and lunatic work of plotless fiction. Ask nicely, and I may let you look through it. 
  7. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, Oxford History of the United States (Gordon S. Wood)
    I am in love with the Oxford US history series. This one and the next are long, cover basically everything, and are pretty well paced considering how complete they are attempting to be. If, like me, your understanding of US history between the Constitutional Convention and the War of 1812 is "something something XYZ affair something" then this will get you caught right up. My personal takeaways are mostly about how tenuous the early republic was: all worried about a return to monarchy, re-absorption by England (or some other power), or just falling apart into pieces altogether. From our point in history it all seems so inevitable, but really, none of it was. 
  8. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford History of the United States (Daniel Walker Howe)
    Still in love with the Oxford US history series. Lots of juicy stuff here about the increasing role of religion in public life, our emergence as an imperial power, and the truly terrifying white supremacist edge to it all. It's a pretty dark era, with few real heroes: William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, the early abolitionists and activists against Indian genocide. But the presidents are a pretty nasty lot: Jackson (evil), Van Buren (inept), Harrison (dead), Tyler (useless), Polk (imperialist). John Quincy Adams comes across well. Reading about the "acquisition" of California was fun, though, as I now know the genesis of about 50% of the street names in my neighborhood. 
  9. Reamde (Neal Stephenson)
    Probably not one of his important books. Totally one of his fun books. And sometimes, it's OK to have a really long, highly improbably adventure story written by a weapons-obsessed nerd. I'm also becoming convinced that, much as many novelists needed to get a 9/11 themed novel out of their system in the last decade, some novelists need to get a World of Warcraft novel out of their system. This is Neal's, and that's just fine. 
  10. Finder: Voice (Carla Speed McNeil)
    Finder is one of those graphic novel series that fans get obsessive and evangelical about, and yet somehow most people have never heard of. It's science-fiction with heavy fantasy overtones, is written in this incredibly layered and dense way while having art that is clean and simple and spare and somehow pulls off tricks like having whole clans of characters that are near-clones of each other, and yet you can tell them apart on the page. If you haven't read any Finder, start with the new Dark Horse collected editions, but when you've read those, read this one next. 

There are 3 nonfiction books and 7 fiction books on this list. One of the fiction books is a graphic novel, one is an illustrated novel, two are marketed as Young Adult, and one is a game. Almost nothing takes place in the present-day real world, I do tend to science-fiction, fantasy, and history. The YA fiction is fully the equal of the "adult" fiction, and these days I appreciate a well-done "slight" novel as much (or more) as a more ambitious work.

Bits and pieces from Reality is Broken

Another book finished: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. I've seen Jane speak at SXSW — she's phenomenal. The core ideas are not new to me (because I've seen her speak), but she fleshes them out in more detail & adds some nuance and research. Which is nice, and increasingly rare for a Current Thinky Book — I'm getting frustrated by books that don't have anything more to say than what the author's 20 minute TED talk said.

Anyway, these are the bits that caught my eye. More definitional & pragmatic, so more from the front of the book–the back of the book is more the world-changing ARG stuff, which is fine but not what I'm looking for right now.

First, an examination of two related concepts: hard fun and fun failure. (Funnily enough a Berenstein Bears book I was reading with my daughter also covered hard fun.)

Hard fun is what happens when we experience positive stress, or eustress (a combination of the Greek eu, for "well-being," and stress.) From a physiological and neurological standpoint, eustress is virtually identical to negative stress: we produce adrenaline, our reward circuitry is activated, and blood flow increases to the attention control centers of the brain.  (p 32)

But without positive failure feedback, this belief is easily undermined. If failure feels random or passive, we lose our sense of agency—and optimism goes down the drain. As technology journalist Clive Thompson reminds us, “It’s only fun to fail if the game is fair—and you had every chance of success.”
That’s why Nicole Lazzaro spends so much time consulting with game developers about how, exactly, to design failure sequences that are spectacular and engaging. The trick is simple, but the effect is powerful: you have to show players their own power in the game world, and if possible elicit a smile or a laugh. As long as our failure is interesting, we will keep trying—and remain hopeful that we will succeed eventually. (p. 67)

Next, some detail around Your MP's Expenses, a crowdsourced investigation by the Guardian after the UK expenses scandal (you may remember the floating duck island incident):

The game interface made it easy to take action and see your impact right away. When you examined a document, you had a panel of bright, shiny buttons to press depending on what you’d found. First, you’d decide what kind of document you were looking at: a claim form, proof (a receipt, invoice, or purchase order), a blank page, or “something we haven’t thought of.” Then you’d determine the level of interest of the document: “Interesting,” “Not interesting,” or “Investigate this! I want to know more.” When you’d made your selection, the button lit up, giving you a satisfying feeling of productivity, even if all you’d found was a blank page that wasn’t very interesting. And there was always a real hope of success: the promise of finding the next “duck pond” to keep you working quickly through the flow of documents.
A real-time activity feed showed the names of players logged in recently and the actions they’d taken in the game. This feed made the site feel social. Even though you were not directly interacting with other players, you were copresent with them on the site and sharing the same experience. There was also a series of top contributor lists, for the previous forty-eight hours as well as for all time, to motivate both short-term and long-term participation. And to celebrate successful participation, as well as sheer volume of participation, there was also a “best individual discoveries” page that identified key findings from individual players. Some of these discoveries were over-the-top luxuries offensive to one’s sense of propriety: a £240 giraffe print or a £225 fountain pen, for example. Others were mathematical errors or inconsistencies suggesting individuals were reimbursed more than they were owed. As one player noted, “Bad math on page 29 of an invoice from MP Denis MacShane, who claimed £1,730 worth of reimbursement, when the sum of those items listed was only £1,480.”
But perhaps most importantly, the website also featured a section labeled “Data: What we’ve learned from your work so far.” This page put the individual players’ efforts into a much bigger context—and guaranteed that contributors would see the real results of their efforts. (p. 222-223)
What I like about that is how easily you can imagine applying some of these things to non-investigative crowd-sourcing situations.
Also on crowdsourcing, a warning against building in compensation schemes:

The logic behind these practices is that if people are willing to contribute for free, they'll be even happier to contribute when they're compensated. But compensating people for their contributions is not a good way to increase global participation bandwidth, for two key reasons.

First, as numerous scientific studies have shown, compensation typically decreases motivation to engage in activities we would otherwise freely enjoy. If we are paid to do something we would otherwise have done out of interest–such as reading, drawing, participating in a survey, or solving puzzles–we are less likely to do so in the future without getting paid. Compensation increases participation only among groups who would never engage otherwise–and as soon as you stop paying them, they stop participating.

Second, there are natural limits on the monetary resources we can provide in a community of participants. Any given project will have only so much financial capital to give away; even a successful business will eventually hit an upper limit of what it can afford to pay for contributions. Scarce rewards like money and prizes artificially limit the amount of participation a network can inspire and support. (p. 242-3)

Finally, an explicit crowd-sourcing=MMORPG analogy with Wikipedia:

Second, Wikipedia has good game mechanics. Player action has a direct and clear result: edits appear instantly on the site, giving users a powerful sense of control over the environment. This instant impact creates optimism and a strong sense of self-efficacy. It features unlimited work opportunities, of escalating difficulty. As the Wikipedians describe it, "Players can take on quests (WikiProjects, efforts to organize many articles into a single larger article), fight boss-level battles (featured articles that are held to higher standards than ordinary articles), and enter battle arenas (interventions against article vandalism)." It also has a personal feedback system that helps Wikipedians feel like they are improving and making personal progress as they contribute. "Players can accumulate experience points (edit count), allowing them to advance to higher levels (lists of Wikipedians by number of edits)." (p. 230 -1)

Bits and pieces from Empire of Liberty

I just finished Charles S. Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. It's an awesome book, and since I don't think any American history from this period stuck in my head from school more than "blah blah XYZ affair blah blah Hamilton Burr duel blah War of 1812" I really needed to read it.

Three unrelated quotes struck me enough to preserve. The first is Madison's description of Jefferson, which I think could apply to half the genius geeks I know. (Or me, excepting the genius part.)

Madison knew his friend and knew that Jefferson's fanciful and exaggerated opinions were usually offset by his own very practical and cautious behavior. As Madison later remarked, Jefferson had a habit like "others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment." Indeed, it was often the difference between Jefferson's impulsive opinions and his calculated behavior that led many critics to charge him with hypocrisy and inconsistency. (p. 150)

Expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment. Awesome. I love that.

The next bit starts by relating the fad of calling things "mammoth" and ties it in to a subject that will be slightly familiar to West Wing fans, the Big Block of Cheese. (I say slightly familiar because this story relates to the Jefferson cheese, and the West Wing episode to the follow-up Andrew Jackson cheese.)

The most exciting scientific find of the period was Charles Wilson Peale's exhumation in 1801 near Newburgh, New York, of the bones of a mastadon, or mammoth. Peale displayed his mammoth inhis celebrated museum and in 1806 painted a marvelous picture of what was perhaps the first organized scientific exhumation in American history. Peale's discovery electrified the country and put the word "mammoth" on everybody's lips. A Philadelphia baker advertised the sale of "mammoth bread." In Washington a "mammoth eater" ate forty-two eggs in ten minutes.  And under the leadership of the Baptist preacher John Leland, the ladies of Cheshire, Massachusetts, late in 1801 sent to President Jefferson a "mammoth cheese," six foot in diameter and nearly two feet thick and weighing 1,230 pounds. The cheese was produced from the milk of nine hundred cows at a single milking, with no Federalist cows being allowed to participate. The president welcomed this gift from the heart of Federalism as "an ebullition of the passion of republicanism in a state where it has been under heavy persecution" (p. 393)

I do not know how the cows were checked for Federalism. Perhaps their stalls were checked for copies of the New York Post. (Did you know the New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton?)

I can also recommend A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar to folks with kids who'd like to learn more about this important cheese incident in our nation's history. It's a great book with awesome illustrations, and totally answers any practical questions you might have re: how you make a cheese that size and transport it.

Finally, a bit that tells us American politicians weren't always enemies of science:

When am American captain seized a British ship with some thirty volumes of medical lecture notes, Washington sent them back to England, saying the United States did not make war on science. (p. 544)