Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Club - Books I Read in 2012

My 5th annual yearly book list. It's my usual mix of science fiction, mystery, biography, science, history and politics. I hope you enjoy the mix.

Before I start I'm going to put a little plug in for a MacApp called Bookpedia. Previous to this year I was using a FileMaker database of my own design to track my reading material, both the books I own and books I borrow from the library. The nice thing about Bookpedia is that all you generally have to enter is the IBSN number and the program goes out and searches a number of on-line databases to find all the info (author, pages, publisher, etc.) that I like to record about each book. It has an iTunes like interface that I like as well. I supposed this is rather self-indulgent but like I said last year, why else have a blog if not for self-endulgency (is that a word).

So here we go, my 2012 book list in the order I read them. All 54 of them.

Kahneman, as the cover says, is a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, but this book isn't about economics. It's a pretty good review of the current state of knowledge of how the brain works.

 I had read the 4th novel in Atkinsin's series aboutJackson Brodie "Started Early, Took My Dog" late in 2011 and started looking for other books by Atkinson. This is the 2nd. My library doesn't have the 1st. Jackson, while in Edinburgh, stops a mugging. And gets involved. The finish of the title isn't "deserves another" it's "doesn't go unpunished".

In the not-so-distant future everybody's got a robot. But they all get taken over by some evil artificial intelligence and it's a battle till the end. Apparently they are making a movie of this. I hope it's better than the book.

When I started reading this, I didn't know it was the start of a new series about Admiral "Black Jack" Geary. Geary had been lost in a survival capsule since the beginning of an interstellar war 100 years before his rescue. I went back and started the original series. If you like 'hard' science fiction you may like this but the writing is a bit dense and the characters (even after the 10 books of the original series) are a bit too much like cardboard cutouts.

 The third Jackson Brodie novel finds him trying to find the killer in a crime than happened 30 years before. All of these Atkinson books are great.

I'm big on Apple products. I've owned a series of Macintosh computers since 1985 and live my iPod and iPhone. Steve Jobs was a genius at product development but, based on this book, seems to have been not a very nice guy. Jobs allowed Isaacson a lot of access to him before he died and, according to Isaacson asked for no editorial control of the book, except for the cover.

Ok, here's the first book of the "Black Jack" Geary saga. The Alliance Fleet is deep in enemy space when it find's Geary's survival capsule. Geary had barely woken up when the enemy (the Syndic) springs their trap and kills most of the leadership of the Fleet at a supposedly peace conference. Geary, who is 100 years older than everybody else, finds himself in charge of the fleet and must lead it home with the secret to defeating the Syndic.

Edgar Freemantle loses his right arm and gets his brains scrambled in a terrible accident at a construction site. After he recovers, he sells the construction business and moves to Duma Key in Florida. There he finds an unknown talent for painting and an evil force on the island. It's Stephen King, of course there's an evil force. If you like King, you'll like this.

Every book in this series is named for one of the ships of the fleet. The connection between the story and the ship is usually nebulous. They also generally show a guy, who I suppose is Geary, with a big gun, which never happens. Anyway, the Fleet continues to run, Geary has to overcome extreme hero-worship and mutinous captains. It's never exactly clear but there must be hundreds of ships in the Fleet.

My first Kindle book. I "borrowed" the book through my library. I try to read at least one baseball book a year and this was a good one. Aaron is defined through two things: baseball and the terrible racism he lived through to play baseball. 

Bob Greene, a journalist from Chicago, spent several summers in the early 2000's traveling with the surf-group Jan and Dean. He'd been a fan in the 1960's. This is an interesting look at the world of musical acts who are well past their famous days but still perform. At the height of their popularity, Jan, driving too fast, crashed his car. He had lifelong physical and mental problems after that and the band's raising star was stopped. In the book they perform a county fairs, farm shows, insurance conventions and pretty much anywhere their agent can find them work. Jan still was performing with them but had to listen to a tape of the songs they were going to play before each show to remind him how the songs went. 

Apparently we buy the stuff we buy due to "innate evolutionary forces". I'm not sure I buy the entire premise, but it was an interesting  book.

Another installment in the story about the denizens of 44 Scotland Street in Edenburgh. A book that I suspect I like mainly due to the reading of Alexander McCall Smith and his incredible Scottish accent.

I read some other books by Meluch last year (the U.S.S. Merrimack series). This is hard science fiction at it's best. The overarching plot concerns an interstellar war between the Earth (mainly American) controlled planets and planets controlled by humans who have built a society based on the ancient Roman Empire.

The first book of a trilogy by Robinson about impending environmental catastrophe brought about by global warming. Mainly about a cast of government characters in Washington DC who see disaster coming. Very wordy and very full of science. My second Kindle book borrowed from the library. I read all three books in this trilogy on my Kindle.

Like Larry Niven before him, Alastair Reynolds has constructed a "future history' of human exploration of space. This is a great series but I would recommend that you try to read the Revelation Space stories in order.

The latest installment in George's Inspector Linley series. Linley, finally getting over the brutal murder of his wife several books ago, is starting to fall in love with his commanding officer (a woman of course). He gets sent out into the countryside, undercover, to learn who murdered nephew of a wealthy and influential businessman.

It's been over a year since Lisey Landon's husband, Scott, died. Scott was a successful author of supernatural thrillers and Lisey is still trying to sort through his papers. A very personal story of love and loss and weird supernatural stuff. I really like this. Another book on CD.

The third in the series. The books are getting hard to distinguish from one another. More giant space battles, more of Geary wrestling with his conscience.

Another book about how the brain works. I like reading this sort of stuff. Written for the layman and pretty interesting.

 Written by Microsoft computer guru Mark Russinovich, the book concerns some shadowy group behind hackers trying to bring down the US. Fortunately we got our own hackers to fight back. The writing was about what you might expect from a computer whiz, not very good.

In the first installment of this series, Washington is flooded by a superstorm much like Hurricane Sandy. In this book, to illustrate that global warming is more properly called global climate change, the amount of water melting from the Artic ice causes a shift in the Gulf Stream. It gets real cold in Washington.

A post-apocalyptic novel featuring, you guessed it, zombies. I don't think they are actually called zombies in the book but they fit the profile. The government is trying to roll back the tide of undead in New York City and seems to be winning. But maybe the government doesn't really understand the depth of the problem. This was pretty good.

I'd never read anything by Oates before. This book is about Rebecca, daughter in a family which managed to just escape from Nazi Germany. Her educated father settles for the only job he can find in America, the gravedigger in a small up-state New York town. It's a brutal life they lead and her family comes to a brutal end but Rebecca escapes to make a new life for herself. I liked this quite a lot.

I'd read stuff by Ballard many years ago. This book from 2006 was his last novel before he died in 2009. Most people probably know Ballard from Empire of the Sun but he also wrote a lot of science fiction. This is more like speculative fiction than science fiction. An advertising man loses his job and moves to a small town where his father had recently been killed. He wants to know what happened. He finds an English town completely taken over by a giant shopping mall. It's pretty much a dystopian future where people live to consume the products that the mall sells. Pretty good.

"A Nameless Detective Novel". OK, I never heard of this series when this showed up on CD at my library. An entertaining hard-boiled detective novel but I never did get the part about being nameless.

The Fleet continues to try to get home, fighting many battles along the way. Geary continues to deal with hero worship, mutinous captains and his lover who may or may not have his best interests at heart. There are 6 more of these but I'm afraid I've had enough.

You think reality TV is bad now? Well I do. In this slightly in the future novel, the quest for more and more exciting reality TV has led one former TV master to propose a game show where teams of contestants are dropped on Mars for a race. Pretty good satire on the genre I think.

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel makes the case that culture is wired into our genes as a survival mechanism. The concept tries to answer the question of why to we help other people.

 This was a 2007 Virgil Flowers novel that I missed. Virgil visits a small town to investigate a long ago murder and gets involved in a current murder when old and hated Bill Judd's house burns down with him in it. Pretty good.

This is about a murder which takes place on the famous Cliff Walk in Rhode Island. Old-School investigative reporter Liam Mulligan is on the case. It says "A Mulligan" novel at the bottom. This is the second book of, I'm sure, a planned long series. I can't say I really cared for it. Mulligan was a little too hard-boiled for my taste. I will freely admit that only reason I read this is because, in real life where I'm not Capewood, my name is actually Cliff Walk.

My daughter, knowing me to be a giant Star Trek nerd, got me this for Father's Day. Any Star Trek fan worth his or her salt will get the Red Shirt reference right away. It's basically a parody of Star Trek but with an interesting twist which I can't really tell you about because it would ruin reading it for you. It was pretty good.

I read Krugman's NY Times columns and blog on line. As far as I can tell, he's been pretty much on target about our current economic troubles since 2007.

Last June, a new TV series debuted on A&E called Longmire. It's a crime drama which takes place in a small town in Wyoming. We decided to watch it mainly because Katee Sackhoff (lately of Battlestar Galatica) was in it. It turned out to be a pretty good show. About mid-way into it I realized it was based on a series of novels. This is the first of the series. It's also pretty good and is basically the plot of the first of the TV shows.

This is the latest installment about Mitch Rapp, the CIA’s top counterterrorism operative. Mideastern terrorists have taken control of the White House, holding about 100 people hostage. The President with most of his Secret Service protection managed to get into the White House bunker. I managed to finish the book, mainly because it was so unbelievable I had to see how it was going to end.

This is a new translation of a 1972 work of Soviet science fiction. The world has been visited by aliens at several locations around the world. They left behind some fabulous technology but the areas they visited (Zones) have become strange and difficult to visit. Red Schuhart is a stalker, a person who risks the unknown dangers of a Zone to recover alien technology. This is supposed to be a classic work but I found it a difficult read and often had trouble understanding what was going on.

The final book of Robinson's Science and the Capitol series. The floods and freezings of the first two books are only the start of global catastrophe. A new president forges a strong relationship with the scientific community to work out solutions. Some incredible engineering feats are put in motion (like pumping seawater back onto the center of Antarctica) and the world seems to have been saved. I really liked the series. Robinson gets pretty long winded at times about the science of it all, but the book is really about a group of really smart people trying to work things out while having to cope in their personal lives with catastrophe.

A pretty incredible story about the CIA's secret LSD experiments and one rouge agent's exploration of those experiments to mastermind the assassination of Kennedy. It was hard to follow at times, especially since I was listening to the audio book but a pretty good read.

This was largely disappointing. It really should have been titled 50 popular beliefs that people shouldn't think are true. Harrison claims he's going to use scientific reason to show that UFOs, psychics and homeopathy aren't real but he mostly actually relies on anecdotal evidence. I ended up just skipping through the book.

An early (1963) novel featuring James' famous poet-detective Adam Dalglesh. It's a classic locked-room mystery where all of the potential suspects are in the building where the murder takes place but everyone seems to have an alibi.

This was a depressing book. Years after some horrific apocalypse, Josef Horkai is awaken from some kind of long sleep and told his community needs him. Although he is paralyzed from the waist down, he must travel through the dreadful wasteland surrounding his small community and get back something another community stole from the, something vital to their survival. It's a lot more complicated than that of course. Depressing but I couldn't put it down.

The latest Lucas Davenport novel. I thought that Sandford had gone a bit stale in the past few Davenport novels but this one was pretty good. A family is brutally murdered in a small Minnesota town. A small group of computer hackers figure out how to steal money digitally. Unfortunately, one of the accounts they targeted was a money drop for a Mexican drug cartel. Eventually the two threads of this story come together an Davenport, as usual, saves the day.

This was a crazy hard science fiction novel where humanity in 2313 has spread all over the solar system. The main character, Swan Er Hong, lives on Mercury, in a city that crawls across the landscape just ahead of the sun. She is one of the few survivors when the city is destroyed and she gets involved with a small group of people and AIs trying to figure out who is behind the destruction. I liked this quite a lot.

This was a crazy hard science fiction novel where humanity has spread all over the solar system. Yes, that's right I read two books in a row that had virtually the same starting premise. This novel however was a more conventional story of conflict between the inner plants, dominated by Mars, and the outer system, where great wealth lies in the Belt.

The end of a long running series about Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. I'd only read one previous Wallander novel which I remembered liking. Madkell seemed determined to end this series in about as unpleasant way as possible as Wallander, old and mostly alone tries to solve one last case while starting the long descent into Alzheimer's disease.

 Alex Benedict is a dealer in interstellar artifacts, the rarer the better. This time, he and his assistant and pilot Chase Kolpath, are tracking the whereabouts of an author who apparently disappeared into a space-time rift. This is a series, obviously, and a pretty good one.

Rather leads off with the breaking of the Abu Ghraib story and ends with his lawsuit against CBS over the George W. Bush National Guard story. In between he tells stories illustrating his long career. Some interesting, if perhaps self-serving, insights on some 60 years of television reporting.

The second far-fetched novel about the Kennedy assassination that I read this year. If you were just some ordinary guy (say a high-school English teacher in small-town Maine) would you, if given the opportunity, go back in time to stop Lee Harvey Oswald. What if you had to go back to 1958 and live in the past for 5 years before you could do anything? What if, while making your plans in the Land of Ago, you fall in love? There are some plot holes in this that King pretty much just dances around but I found it to be a good (if really long) read.

The second book of the second series about Captain Jack Geary. And frankly, I can't stand it any more.

The second in a series about intrepid reporter Irene Kelly and her lover police detective Frank Harriman. I didn't read the first novel, but, apparently some pretty terrible things happened to Irene then. And some pretty terrible things happen to her in this book. The series is a bit like the Stephanie Plum books but a lot grimmer.

Nancy Kress is one of my favorite authors and one of a few good woman writers of science fiction. A small group of survivors of a world-wide catastrophe were apparently saved by the same aliens who may have caused the Fall in the first place. Their captors (or saviors) give them a time machine which they can use for short periods to jump into Before the Fall and grab supplies and the occasional small child to add to their ranks. An FBI math whiz is tracking kidnappings and thinks she sees a pattern. Gradually the Before the Fall and the After the Fall stories converge at During the Fall. A slim novel but well written.

Robert B. Parker is known best, I guess, for his Spenser novels. I'd read his Western series about Virgil Cole (made into a movie called "Appaloosa") which I liked so I thought I'd give a Spenser book a shot. I never watched the 1980s TV series "Spenser For Hire" which was based on this series. There are 40 Spenser novels, the latest published in 2011, after Parker's death in 2010. This novel is #32 in the series, published in 2005. The book was OK. It was read by actor Joe Mantegna who does a great job. The story is about revenge. Spenser's long time enigmatic partner Hawk gets shot and seriously hurt on a body guard job, his client gets killed. After he recovers, Hawk gets his revenge, pulling down an entire criminal enterprise and cold-bloodily killing a few bad guys along the way.

And now for something completely different, a short history of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Morison, a noted historian, and Navy man, actually served during the war and knows firsthand about some of which he writes. The book was originally published in 1963 and is quite unabashedly gunge-ho about the Navy. The book is a bit difficult to read. There is a lot of tactical detail involved. Apparently, for at least some of these battles, the positions of many of the ships and their maneuvers, weapons fire and damage given and taken is known to the minute. Interesting but for a land lubber like me it was a bit too much. A decent part of the book concerns the strategic and political issues which I found more interesting. I suspect that if this book were written today the emphasis would be different. As was famously revealed during the Presidential debates, the current Nave is much smaller that it was. I believe that the Nave was much larger in 1963, during the height of the Cold War.  You will need some good maps or an encyclopedic knowledge of tiny Pacific Island to follow many of the battles. The maps given are inadequate. Read this in front of Google Maps on your computer.

And one more abrupt change brings me to the last book I finished in 2012. This 4-CD novel was very enjoyable. Dan, the main character is chock full of neurosis which barely allow him to survive. Some short samples: he can't step off curbs, so when he has to cross the street he has to find two driveways exactly across from one another; he counts when he get nervous: the holes in acoustic ceiling tile, the cracks in plaster ceilings, everything; He constructs Magic Squires in his head; He must always have light bulbs on his apartment which add up to 1175 watts. If a light is turned out he has to turn something back on, even pulling 15 watt bulbs out, if necessary. But he is a friendly enough guy, seemingly not dangerous and has some friends. There are three girls in his life, or at least he's convinced himself that there are. There is the realtor in the apartment block where lives, There is his intern therapist Clarrisa whom he grows attached to along with 2-year-old Teddy, her fatherless child. Not much happened with the realtor, t got a new apartment from her. Things look more promising with Clarrisa when she moves into his new, larger apartment because of her financial difficulties, but he finally see that she loves Teddy more that she'll ever love him. Then there is Zandy, the California girl pharmacist. The author, Steve Martin, reads the part with much sympathy. He doesn't want you to pity Dan. And in the end, he finds the love of his life and uses that strength to twist the fear of immediate objects or actions into far off objects and actions and thus have a life.