Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Club - Books I read in 2011

What I've read this year.

Blind forensics expert Lincoln Rhymes takes on an old nemesis, the Watchmaker.

I guess this book could be classed as speculative history. Sort of like alternative history fiction but written by famous historians. The various essays explore how history might be different today if some fact of history had been changed. Pretty interesting.

A fairly ordinary British couple meet a notorious Russian gangster while on holiday. The gangster wants out of Russia with his family and fortune intact and a secretive British agency wants to help. The British couple, asked to help, get further and further enmeshed in a world they know nothing about. John le Carre has be writing spy novels for a long time now and this one was excellent.

This book was named by the science fiction web site as one of the best science fiction books of 2010. It is a good book but it is not science fiction. It's the story of a physicist, who made a name for himself early in his career but has not had an original thought since. He manages to parley that original success into a long career but he is a fraud and he knows it.

Fairmount Park is a large urban park in Philadelphia. This crime novel is set in the seedy parts of town that border parts of the park. A policeman's son is badly wounded and the son's friend killed in a drive-by shooting at a know crack house. At first it looks like a random shooting but was actually the opening shots of a gang war. This is Tadoya's first novel. He is a Philadelphia native and I hope to see more of his work.

This is one of my favorite books of the year. I was quoting lines from it on Facebook for weeks. In a world where time travel is not only possible but common, a young man is handed a manuscript titled "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe" by his future self. The best advice in the book was "If you see yourself climbing out of a time machine, run away. Nothing good can come from it."

 The third book of the trilogy started by "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo". I actually listened to all three of the books on CD, read by the incomparable Simon Vance. We saw the remake of the movie of the first book yesterday. See my write up here.

A 'hard' science fiction novel as hard as they come. I've read other stuff by Modesitt and I'm not sure I like him. This was a good read but the ethical question at the heart of the story "is it ethical to kill a planet full of people to prevent the killing a many more people in the future" was kind of hard to relate to.

A pretty good popular science book about space travel. I've not read anything by Roach before but I think she writes a regular newspaper column. She writes with a lot of humor as she tackles such subjects as how to identify astronauts through psychology tests who might be candidates for a years long trip and just how to weightless toilets work. I had seen her on "The Daily Show" and went out to find the book.

This is the 14th and next to last volume in the massive "Wheel of Time" epic. Robert Jordan died before he could complete the work. Brandon Sanderson, working for Jordan's notes, wrote this and the 13th volume and promises it will end with the 15th. God, I hope so.

Philip Wylie was a novelist and social critic. I originally read this book in 1971 (at the tender age of 19) and it had a big impact on me. I had loaned the book to someone years ago and have been looking for a copy of it for awhile. I got a copy through an inter-library loan and was happy to find that I still found the book interesting.

The last few Lucas Davenport novels by Sandford have not been very good but this one was good. This is the 20th in the series. I think you can pick op anyone of them a read it without knowing the back story. If you like this one, you'll probably like them all.

An interesting premise. The US develops a technology that lets it send agents to alternate history lines where history can be manipulated to US advantage. But the America with this technology is not our America. It's some America where Nixon never fell. Interesting but not a great story. Toward the end, similar characters from different time lines started to interact and at that point the book stopped making any sense.

This is a hard book to explain. After a series of wars and international diseases, most of earth is governed by interlocking 'administrations' who work together to keep the peace. People willingly subject themselves to daily medical tests and injections to stay healthy. There are rebels and soldiers who fight them. The world is not really a utopia. One rebel group has a different idea, to rid humanity of consciousness.

The so-called NAFTA highway. Dellinger has traveled from Southeast Texas to Indiana exploring the history of the attempts to get this highway built. Some people are actively supporting the highway thinking it will bring good economic times to their impoverished communities and small towns. Others oppose it seeing the destruction of both natural habitats and historical areas.

Elmore Leonard has written a lot of crime stories and westerns. This is the former, written in 1989. A complicated story about a stone cold killer of American Indian descent and a case of mistaken identity.

The 19th Lucas Davenport novel. I'd totally missed this when it was published. I realized that when I was reading the 20th book (listed above). This is set during the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in 2008. A good story of murder and political greed.

I've got a lot of Elmore Leonard to catch up on. Mr. Paradise (Anthony Paradisio) is a aging gangster in Detroit. He loves having young girls perform for him in University of Michigan cheerleader outfits. Things go bad one night when he and one of the girls with him get shot and killed. A lot of people would have liked to see Mr. Paradise killed.

Like Harmony, this is another difficult book to describe by a Japanese author. Balot is a young prostitute who is abused and eventually killed by a successful gambler. A private investigator, using outlawed tools, successfully brings her back to life as a cyborg. He's been trying to put away the gambler for years and has constructed the arisen Balot as a tool for the gambler's downfall.

I read this book in May, before the Occupy Wall Street Movement got started. For all I know this book influenced the movement. Hacker and Pierson carefully track how the 1% became the powerful mega-rich they are today. You should read this book and get angry.

Sandford has a spinoff from the Lucas Davenport novels about one of Davenport's detectives named Virgil Flowers. Flowers mainly works outside of the Minneapolis metropolitan area. This story as about some bad business involving a religious cult in the farm towns of Minnesota. This is a good story that starts out low key with what looks like an accidental death and gradually builds to a Waco like shoot-out.

I wasn't really seeking out Japanese authors this year. This, Mardock Scramble and Harmony had been bought by my daughter. Somehow she ended up with two copies of each and donated one copy to the library where she works. She thought I'd like them and pointed them out to me.

This one concerns the conflicts between a colony of humans on the moons of Jupiter and Uranus and the inner human worlds of Earth and Mars. A small black hole has wandered near the solar system and both sides want to control it for the unlimited energy it can provide. A pretty good read.

Joseph Wambaugh is a former Los Angles cop who has had a career as a novelist and adviser for cop films. This is a tongue-in-cheek story of the weird events on the streets of Hollywood during a full moon.

There is an annual contest in England between developers of artificial intelligence systems and human beings. Questions are asked simultaneously to computers and humans and a team of judges try to determine which answers came from a computer and which came from a human. There are two prizes, one for the most human computer and one for the most human human. Brian Christian set out to win the most human human award. He spent a year studying past competitions and what it means to be human. It's a good story. He's another I saw on "The Daily Show" prior to reading the book.

I'm a fan of British police procedural novels. Also called murder mysteries or crime fiction. I hadn't read Hill before. This is part of a series about Chief Superintendent Simon Serrialler. Fortunately the back story was pretty easy to pick up. Two young prostitutes are killed. There are no clues. But of course, Simon solves the case.  A good read. I plan to look for the earlier novels in the series.

I had some John Sandford to catch up on this year. This is another Virgil Flowers story. A business woman is shot and killed when she takes a canoe out on her own from the woman-only lakeside lodge she was staying at. The killer managed to get away clean, leaving no traces in the woods near the lodge. Was the woman killed because of trouble with her business back in Minneapolis or due to her local contacts?

I thought this book was pretty good when I first read it. If you think we've got political and social troubles today, 1877 sounds worse. After I finished the book I learned that Bellesiles wrote a book in 2001 about the growth of the gun culture in the US. He won a prestigious award for that book. Later a group of historians found that Bellesiles was "guilty of unprofessional and misleading work". He had to give back the prize and resign his professorship. "1877" is a come-back book for him which has been well received.

A long forgotten blues guitar player is attempting a comeback when he is brutally murdered outside the club he is playing at. After a police detective see some superficial relationships between this killing and murders of other artists he calls in Alex Delaware, LA psychologist and part-time police consultant. This is the 17th Delaware book but I've only read a few. The stories are pretty good but Delaware comes across to me as a bit whiny in his personal life.

Smith uses computer models to predict what the world might be like in 2050, taking into account long term trends in weather, technology advancement and social changes. He predicts a largely optimistic view of the future, at least in aggregate. Getting from here to there looks like a pretty rocky road. I'd suggest, based on the book, that you move north.

In Edinburgh Scotland, "The Complaints" is the police department which investigates other policeman for misdeeds. Not a very popular department in the force. Malcolm Fox is investigating a young detective who may be trading in child pornography. This turns out to be a red herring set up by another police department trying to get the goods on a corrupt builder. The plot got very complicated very fast and was very hard to follow. I kept with it because I've liked other stuff by Rankin but the ending of this novel in no way justified all the work I had to do to keep the story straight.

When something like "A Monkeewrench Novel" is written on the cover, you know right away that you're dealing with a series. Monkeewrench Software are former computer hackers who now specializes in writing security software. Their headquarters are in Minneapolis but they don't seem to know Lucas Davenport. In this story, they get involved in helping the FBI track down what might be a series of murders which are filmed and put on the Internet. This was a pretty good read. I don't think I'm going to track down the back catalog but I'll read the next book in the series, if there is one.

A society of people living in the asteroid belt has managed to mostly free themselves from control by earth. Earth is a dying planet which needs the materials the Belt can provide. The story concerns a growing artificial intelligence in the Belt's computer systems. The AI is aware but doesn't know that it is controlling the environment of a society of humans. In fact, it doesn't know anything outside of itself at first. The humans, threatened by the AI, seek to destroy it. Based on the ending, I strongly suspect a sequel.

Goldacre writes a regular science column in England. This is a good book which attacks the medical establishment (all the way from homeopathic practitioners to the big drug companies). His main attack is on how studies on new medicines or medical procedures are often done badly, or biased toward a particular result and what you should look for when you read about medical studies.

25 years after most of the US was destroyed in a nuclear terror attack, small colonies of people have established themselves in what used to be upstate New York State. It's a rough world. One of the original founders of the town of Carthage, who was a scientist and is largely responsible for all the technology in the town, is murdered. That's the mystery part of the subtitle. There's a lot of corrupt and evil people here in post-apocalyptic America. Probably the start of a series. It was good enough that I'll give the second installment a read.

I'm mainly familiar with Deighton as the author of British espionage novels. This story is about LA attorney Micky Murphy as he tries to balance work for his somewhat dicey clients, his murderous ex-wife, and estranged son. Into this mix comes the old girlfriend who he never really got over. She's got trouble and needs Micky's help. The book is written in a semi-comedic style, very unlike his spy novels.

In 2079, the world is still reeling from the eruption of the Yellowstone volcano in the US some 20 years before. Brad Sheridan manages to escape from the depressing conditions in the American refuge camps by signing up for indentured labor overseas. He ends up in Pompey during the celebration of the 2,000 anniversary of the great eruption there. This book was OK. The plot didn't always make sense however. Pohl is in his eighties and he's been responsible for some great science fiction in the past but this wasn't one of his best.

Charles Stross is one of my favorite science fiction authors. This is a police procedural set in Edinburgh Scotland, of all places, some 50 years from now. DI Liz Kavanaugh is a member of the Rule 34 squad which monitors the internet looking for crime. She is investigating the rather gruesome murders of three ex-spammers which turn out to have international implications.

As near as I can tell, the excellent cover illustration has nothing to do with anything that happens in the book.

Written in 1945, Brideshead Revisited is a story of upper class England between the wars. It was made into an excellent television series in the 1980s which I never saw. The CD was narrated by Jeffery Irons, who, at the beginning of his career, played the main character in the TV series. I liked this enough that I got the TV series on DVD from the library and watched it. Both are excellent.

The title and subtitle pretty much tell you what you need to know about the book. Except they mean what was life like in the year 1000 in Britain. Still, it was pretty interesting.

The history of information science over perhaps the last 1000 years but mainly the past 100 or so. It's pretty dense in parts but I found it interesting and helps to understand our modern world where information is everywhere and available to us 24/7.

The Culture is a galaxy-wide civilization of mostly recognizable humans. There are a few books in the series and while I think they can be read in any order, I've found that the universe that Banks has created has become more detailed and complicated over the series. This is the latest and we learn a lot more about the Culture and the other vast alien civilizations it interacts with. At 654 pages, this is a pretty big novel, as are all of the Culture novels. One problem I have with Banks is that his books get off to really slow starts. I nearly gave up on this one at around 100 pages because I couldn't see where the story was going. But it was worth finishing.

The United States some 20 years from now is a wreck. The economy never recovered from the 2008 recession and much of the country is controlled by the Japanese or Mexicans. Many people are addicted to the drug Flashback, which allows them to relive some treasured memory from their past. This got off to a pretty good start but then I realized that almost everything in this book is from right wing conspiracy nightmares. I finished it but I wouldn't recommend it.

After reading the 14 books of the Wheel of Time series, you'd think I wouldn't be interested in reading a prequel to the series. And I wasn't. But I saw it as an audio book and decided to give it a try. It was written in 2004, when Jordan was having real problems moving the Wheel of Time series forward. It's not his best work, but if you've read the rest, you might as well read this. The end suggests to me that Jordan planned to write a sequel to it.

I'm almost caught up. There is a new Virgil Flowers I haven't read yet. This is probably the best Lucas Davenport novel in years. At the beginning of his career as a detective, Davenport had a small role in the investigation of the disappearance of a child. That case was solved but not to Lucas' satisfaction since the missing child was never found. Now, at a demolition site, the body of the missing child has been found, buried under the floor of the building. Davenport, never satisfied with the original case, begins probing. The story flashes back and forth between the young, brash, ready to punch-you-in-the-nose Davenport and the older, more sedate, but still ready to punch-you-in-the-nose Davenport.

 It's a brand new CD and I thought it was something new by Block. But it was written in 1969. It's interesting to read a story like this where the participates have no email, cell phones or internet. A group of ex-soldiers band together to bring down criminals that the justice system doesn't want to handle.  This looks like a book the television show "The A-Team" could have been based on. I'm afraid that ultimately, the book is terrible on it's own terms. The team is supposed to be looking for justice but the body count of innocent people was just too high to justify the ends.

 Set in 2006, as the 5th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, this is the story of twin brothers who had a dream of creating a on-line gaming world. Their fledgling company got undermined by government contractors who wanted to use their unique technology to train soldiers. As the book begins, one of the brothers is in a coma due to cancer. The other brother is frantically trying to hold his company and his life together. It's kind of hard to describe the plot beyond that but I really enjoyed this book.

I picked up the audio book of this because 1) it looked interesting and 2) it is narrated by Graeme Malcolm, whom I love listening too. I'm glad I did. It's the latest in a series about Jackson Brodie, former Scottish policeman and now sort of private eye. Time Magazine named this as one of the top 10 books of the year. I'll be looking for earlier books in the series.

An earlier Culture novel. The weapon in the title is a man who is very good at war. He is used by The Culture to fight it's battles in isolated parts of the galaxy. A lot of the reviewers on Amazon did not like this book because of it's structure. There are two tracks in the book. One takes us forward as Cheradenine Zakalwe is again recruited by The Culture. The other takes us backward to his past missions. It was confusing at first but ultimately it added up to a powerful story. There is a twist ending (which many also didn't like). Although it sort of came out of nowhere, it made total sense in the context of the book.

The latest book in the Hamish Macbeth series. Hamish is a police constable in a backwater town in north Scotland. He's smart and capable and always solves the case but he doesn't want promotion so he always sabotages himself or manages to give credit to someone else. Although enjoyable, this story was pretty hard to believe. It was narrated by Graeme Malcolm (mentioned above). And it was only 4 CDs long.

A pretty good review of the latest science of the brain. Questions like how do we think, why do we think, and why we do the things we do are explored. Eagleman's conclusion from the research he reviews is that we (the part of us which seems to be conscience) is pretty much powerless. Our brain goes about it's business, letting us know what's going on after the fact. Taking this to it's conclusion he speculates on a court system which somehow apportions guilt based on taking our seeming powerlessness into account. At that point, I lost interest.

Much better than the other Lawrence Block I read this year (The Specialist). Matthew Scudder is a long running series. The classic book in the series is the 5th, Six Million Ways To Die where Scudder comes to grips with his growing alcoholism. Six Million Ways To Die was made into a horrible movie starring Jeff Bridges. Don't watch it. A Stab in the Dark is the 4th book. Scudder is investigating the 9-year old murder of a young woman. This murder was one of a string perpetrated by the so-called ice-pick prowler who had never been captured. Now the murderer has been caught and has admitted to all the killings except for this one. Scudder takes on the investigation at the bequest of the girl's father. An undercurrent to the story is Scudder's near constant drinking and his weaker and weaker defense to himself that he can handle it.

I just made a post about this book last week.

This is the 19th Inspector Banks novel. They are one of my favorite British mystery series. The last book in the series was pretty heavy handed, with lots of international spy stuff. Banks went through quite the emotional ringer in that one. This book starts with him on vacation in the American southwest trying to recover. Back home, his 24-year-old daughter had gotten her self mixed up with a charming young man who turns out to be the "bad boy" of the story. Banks himself doesn't join the action until nearly halfway through the story and never really catches up to the action. A nice change of pace for the series.