Tag Archives: fiction

Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon / Neil Stephenson

Going to break things up now for a book that is (arguably) not sff at all.

Cryptonomicon is really two books in one. The first book is a story about cryptographers during World War II, while the second book is set during the 1990s and features the descendants of the characters from the first book as they attempt to set up a data haven.

The two stories are connected in many ways but Stephenson leaves it to the reader to figure out what those connections are.

Plot summary

See the previous paragraph.

So how is it?

It’s pretty good if you can get through it. I’ve read it several times and each time I’ve enjoyed it for different reasons.

Both stories are largely about highly intelligent but socially awkward people. The book does a good job of being about technical issues without reading like a tech manual (I’m looking at you, Kim Stanley Robinson). There’s one section that features a couple of pages of code, but it’s not necessary to have any understanding of what that means. 

Most of the technical stuff is techbro in jokes and in no way integral to understanding or appreciating the book.

The World War II segments are funny and present a side of the conflict that frequently goes unnoticed. Alan Turing appears, as does Reagan and MacArthur. It’s kind of a Forrest Gump situation. It’s a fun story featuring viewpoint characters on both sides of the conflict.

The 1990s segments are a little trickier. They are considerably less focused and at times it seems like a serie of unconnected events. There is a coherent narrative here but it’s mostly buried under an exploration of 90s techbro culture.

I initially felt like the 90s half of the book was an extended paean to techbro types. There are plenty of swipes at academics and others who “don’t get” technology and/or engineering. It’s somewhat off putting and the stereotype of the effete bleeding heart professor who tries to save the world but is incapable of understanding people who do “real” work is so tired it needs a bottle of. Klonazepam and a couple decades of sleep.

So on my second read through I really didn’t enjoy the 90s segments. The third time around I saw them in a different light, as the dotcom heroes aren’t exactly portrayed entirey positively either. What’s interesting is that the forerunners of a lot of modern techbro culture are here: weird love of guns, technocratic ideals, naïveté about the groups most likely to invest in a data haven, even nofap shows up.

So I enjoyed those segments more when I viewed them from that angle, that they were foreshadowing a lot of the coming problems with the tech industry. The caricaturization of academia is still somewhat grating but bothers me less now than it did then.

The ending comes out of nowhere and draws on a minor plot point mentioned early on and then never referenced again. It’s a mess but the rest of the book is pretty good.

Recommendation

This is a good crossover novel. Historical fiction aficionados will like the WWII narrative and sff fans will appreciate Stephenson’s obvious geek cred and affection for the community.

I still hesitate to recommend it sometimes because of the number of stories I’ve heard about people struggling to finish it. It’s also a book that gets better with a second reading. 

So I recommend it to patrons who like all those war stories since it’s the closest thing I’ve read, an occasionally recommend it to parents of teenagers frustrated that their kids won’t read “real” novels.

It’s length is intimidating, which is the book’a biggest stumbling block. It’s a great vacation read and a go to for fans of Dan Brown and Clive Cussler. It’s less intellectually dishonest than the former and less racist than the latter.

The casual vacancy

The casual vacancy / J.K. Rowling

I have to be honest: I’ve been putting this review off for quite a while. I’m not really sure why. I’ve known pretty much all along what I wanted to say about this one, so hereit is.

The casual vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s big post-Harry Potter novel. It’s almost completely unolike Harry Potter – it’s firmly grounded in the Muggle world, and it’s definitely written with an adult audience in mind. Still, it retains the strong social conscience of the Harry Potter books.

Brief plot summary

Pagford, a stereotypically lovely English town. A member of the local parish council suddenly drops dead. The attempt to elect a replacement for Barry Fairbrother will reveal the many deep-seated divisions hidden behind the seemingly idyllic surface of Pagford.

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Spider kiss

Spider kiss / Harlan Ellison

Here’s something that’s interesting:

a novel by an author usually considered a short story writer.

a “realistic” novel by an author usually considered an sf/horror writer.

a novel about rock music from a self-professed non-fan of rock music.

Spider kiss  (original title: Rockabilly) is all of these, which makes it relatively poorly-known outside of rockabilly aficionados. It’s not in Ellison’s “normal” genre, it’s about a long-gone era of rock music, and as is par for Ellison, it firmly rejects any kind of nostalgia.

It’s also a book that can be effectively summed up in one sentence.

Supremely brief plot summary

Told from the perspective of his manager, Spider kiss describes the rise and fall of 1950s rockabilly star Stag Preston (real name Luther Sellers).

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The girl with the dragon tattoo

The girl with the dragon tattoo / Stieg Larsson

So, I’m a bit behind the times when it comes to trendy books. Several years ago, when everyone was reading Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, I was puttering and reading more comics than anything else. After it was recommended to me by my parents in 2012 or 2013(Hi, parents!) I watched the first part of the Canal+ TV version of the Swedish films* and figured that I’d check out the book.

So here it is, my thoughts on The girl with the dragon tattoo (Swedish title: lit. Men who hate women). I’m undecided as of yet whether or not I’ll do posts for the rest of the series.

*And people think keeping track of superhero franchises is complicated …

Brief plot summary

Mikael Blomkvist is an editor at the magazine Millennium. Having just lost a libel case against the wealthy Hans-Erik Wennerström, he receives a deferred prison sentence and must pay damages. Hired by another wealthy Swede, Blomkvist is tasked with solving the disappearance of a young girl nearly 40 years previously. Promised concrete evidence against Wennerström if he succeeds, Blomkvist finds himself teaming up with the socially awkward hacker Lisbeth Salander.

Continue reading The girl with the dragon tattoo

Bookhunter

Since I did a fairly mainstream superhero series for my last “sequential-art-narrative” review, I’m gonna do something way more fun this time.

Bookhunter / Jason Shiga

Jason Shiga is an offbeat comics genius. He frequently attempts to push the structural boundaries of the format and generally succeeds at writing silly, exciting stories. Bookhunter is a true “graphic novel” rather than an ongoing series. It’s a combination police procedural/70s action movie/extended series of librarian in-jokes that works remarkably well.

Brief plot summary

It’s Oakland in the early 1970s. Technology is causing a rapid shift in the way libraries operate. Patron records are now stored on magnetic tape. Electronic library catalogs (initially created around 1967) are starting to pop up in public libraries. Enter the Library Police, a group of specialists dedicated to eradicating library-related crime. Summoned to the Oakland Public Library to solve the mystery of a forged Caxton Bible, the Library Police have only three days to solve “three concentric locked-room mysteries”, catch the thief, and recover the original book.

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The unbearable lightness of being

The unbearable lightness of being / Milan Kundera. Originally published 1984.

“Behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison”

The unbearable lightness of being is Kundera’s classic philosophical novel about the intertwined lives of several people during the period surrounding the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. It falls somewhere between Vonnegut and Camus, being more concerned with  philosophy and the characters and their relationships than with telling a story.

In fact, if it actually told a defined story with beginning, middle, and end it would kind of defeat the book’s philosophical premise.

Originally written in Czech and first published in French, I read it in English. For various reasons, it was published in English before it was published in Czech and I’ve never seen any significant criticisms of the translation.

“Plot” summary

As I mentioned above, there’s no plot as such. Tomáš is a doctor and habitual womanizer. Tereza is Tomáš’s wife, struggling with accepting her body and with her husband’s infidelity. Sabina is an artist and one of Tomáš’s regular lovers. Franz is a professor in an unhappy marriage who is in love with Sabina.

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The club Dumas

The club Dumas / Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad”
-Scaramouche

The club Dumas is a bibliophile’s adventure novel, and was the basis for the film The ninth gate starring Johnny Depp. It’s also one of my favorite books of all time.

Originally published in Spanish, I read the English translation. Pérez-Reverte is very picky when it comes to his translations (he originally did not allow his books to be translated into any language but French) and the English edition of The club Dumas is very well done.

Brief plot summary

Lucas Corso is a rare book dealer hired to authenticate a previously unknown manuscript of a chapter from Dumas’s The three musketeers. At the same time, he is commissioned to discover which of the remaining three copies of the book De umbrarum regni novem portis is the only genuine, non-counterfeit copy.

Lucas’s journey takes him all around Europe where he is joined by a mysterious American tourist in a series of incidents bearing a more than passing resemblence to the plot of The three musketeers.

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The right mistake

The right mistake / Walter Mosley. Originally published 2008.

The right mistake is a book unlike any other that I’ll be reviewing here. It’s a brutal, raw, and ultimately uplifting tale set in South Central LA. Mosley is best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, set in Watts during the 1950s, and he doesn’t shy away from difficult themes. The right mistake is no exception in its depiction of a group of people living in a neighborhood wracked with violent crime, police brutality, and general hopelessness coming together and trying to make a difference.

Brief plot description

(Spoiler-free)

The right mistake follows Socrates Fortlow, ex-con and “street philosopher” as he organizes a group that comes to be known as “the Thinkers”, individuals from disparate ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds who meet to discuss the problems in their community and how to deal with them.

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