|<<>>|131 of 263 Show listMobile Mode

Books read in 2015

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Don Quixote (1605)

by Miguel de Cervantes

I liked part two even better than part one. Part II of the book starts with a discussion of the first part of the book, which in this second part has appeared as a publication already famous throughout Spain. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza discuss this book with a bachelor who is very familiar with it, questioning and probing to determine that it reflects the truth…but not too much of the truth. This part is really very nicely written and the self-referential part as well as the oblique chastisement of Cervantes’s own detractors and critics is quite a master stroke.

Cervantes packs this long book full of wonderful prose, never missing an opportunity for a small joke or pithy phrase (much as Sancho never misses an opportunity to utter a proverb). So many paragraphs are like exquisite sculptures, standing nearly on their own, and the careful reader is constantly rewarded.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

A Feast for Crows (2005)

by George R.R. Martin

This is book four of the Song of Ice and Fire. Cersei descends into paranoid madness, reinstating a religious army, an act she would come to rue as it backfires spectacularly. Jaime and Brienne meet up again in the Riverlands, after Jaime had solved a few issues there. The Iron Islands feature much more prominently, with all of the Greyjoys—Euron, Victarion, Aeron and Asha—getting in on the action. In Dorne, intrigue abounds, with plot built on plot and the Red Viper’s brother machinating to maintain the power balance with King’s Landing and the upper South. Quentyn Martell has traveled East with his friends to try to join Dorne to the Targaryens through Daenerys. Arya arrives in Braavos and apprentices at the House of Black and White. Jon maintains a balance between Stannis’s demands—and those of Melisandre—as well as arming to fight the Others from the North. Samwell travels with Gilly and Aemon around the periphery of the Seven Kingdoms by boat, to get to Old Town and train at the Citadel.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

A Dance with Dragons (2011)

by George R.R. Martin

This is book five of the Song of Ice and Fire. Bran ends up in the lair of the Children of the Forest, far North of the Wall, with the three-eyed raven. Jon’s fate is unknown, but things don’t look too good. Arya’s training continues. Tyrion is captured by Mormont and both of them near Meerreen. Quentyn’s mission fails horribly, Victarion approaches Meereen, possessed of powers. Daenerys accepts her destiny and mounts Drogon. Stannis marches on the marshes first, rousts the Ironborn, captures Asha and then sinks into the snows before he can arrive at Winterfell, where he wants to roust the Boltons. Young Aegon Targaryen and John Connington land in Dorne and make their way north to attempt recapture of the Iron Throne. Cersei takes the walk of shame.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)

by Ken Kesey

This is the story of a the Big Chief and McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. The Big Chief is a long-time resident of the mental institution run by Head Nurse Ratched; McMurphy arrives as a transferee from a work camp who thinks he’s going to have an easier ride in the home. This is true, at least at first. He is a breath of fresh air for the other inmates there, a force of nature, as it were. he chafes and takes liberties and cracks wise and runs card games and generally doesn’t follow the rules. He tries to help free the others from their artificial, psychological fetters. He takes them on a fishing trip. He sneaks ladies and booze into the building late at night. He tries to help poor Billy. Ratched thwarts him every step of the way. The Big Chief narrates, grows and learns. McMurphy sacrifices the last of what he has in a futile act of revenge, though he is aware of what is happening. The Big Chief makes an actual escape. Really surprisingly well-written and deep. Recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2013)

by Mark Blyth

This excellent book provides an approachable analysis of the recent history of the financial crisis that started in 2006, exploded in 2008 and is still being sorely felt by many in 2015. Blyth skewers the main idea for solving the crisis: austerity for the majority of the public. Why is austerity not the solution? He lists many reasons, but the main one is that it doesn’t work. It has never worked. Accurate histories show that it doesn’t work. Inaccurate studies claim that it might work.

Worse, the crisis was caused by private machinations and profit-taking and the price is paid by the public—who’ve already paid the price in the form of a severely impacted economy. The public pays twice for the mistakescrimes of the few, while the few take their profit, take no punishment and line themselves up for the next reaping.

How do they get away with it? By selling the idea of austerity of all: if our economy tanked, then it must be our collective fault and we must all shoulder the blame and tighten our belts. The private losses are bailed out by the state and instantly transformed into a story of state profligacy. It’s like a child who crashes his car, gets his father to buy him a new one, then mocks said father for not being able to pay the rent.

Never mind that it is exactly these jackasses who aren’t tightening their belts—we can’t police everyone, can we? Never mind that exactly those who aren’t tightening their belts are actually the ones who caused the problems in the first place. With their crimes. Some will argue that what happened was perfectly legal—but that is only because those who commit crimes at high levels are careful to ensure that the crimes they wish to commit are first made legal.

This is an important book. Blyth cover the minutiae of recent history, covers the history of austerity over the last century, examines the writings and recommendations of oft-cited and great economists of the past—Locke, Hume, Smith, Keynes, among others—and looks at recent academic studies that are clearly if not deliberately fraudulent. He is a bit cagey about coming right out and accusing world leaders of collusion and corruption to serve their rich buddies and financial partners, but we can excuse an academic a bit of hedging. See below for my less-generous analysis and Blyth’s possible solutions.

“When world leaders keen to legitimize the damage that they have already done to the lives of millions of their fellow citizens reach for examples such as these to vindicate their actions, applauding these countries for creating misery, it shows us one this above all. Austerity remains an ideology immune to facts and basic empirical refutation.”
Page 226

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a possible future America in which society has taken a rather hard, right turn into a dystopian, quasi-religious patriarchy—more even that what exists today. In this world, women have no rights whatsoever. Some are used as drudges—Marthas—while others—Aunts—inculcate the new regime to the breeders—Handmaids—and, finally, there are the Wives. Among the men, the Commanders are at the top of the food chain—they are married to Wives—but also have a series of Handmaids. There are other men, high-ranking soldiers—Angels—as well as spies—Eyes.

The prose is poetic, evocative, metaphorical, at-times almost hallucinatory—as if the mists of recollection have twisted certain parts of the remembered past. The ideas and chilling visions are just as likely to happen as they were in the 80s, when the book was written. There are good portions of the American population who would happily view the book as a guide to revolution, to creating a better version of America. At times reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. Highly recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Lucky Jim (1953)

by Kingsley Amis

So far, it combines the stultifying mundanity of day-to-day drudgery of Confederacy of Dunces with the whining tone of Holden Caulfield from the Catcher in the Rye. The prose is a bit stiff for my tastes and Amis seems, to me, a bit overrated.

The middle bits, which involve Dixon’s quasi-dalliance with Christine, are more evocative. The book has that feeling of lifting slowly but seemingly inexorably from a quagmire of boredom, stretching, stretching, with what one feels might perhaps be interpreted as acceleration, a feeling that one would soon snap free of gummy strands that yet cling and tie one to the tedium. But alas this feeling is fleeting, as you knew in your heart of cynical hearts that it probably would be, as the gummy strands win more battles and eventually the war and you sink back into that tepid morass with nary a change for all that you saw when you briefly, if not soared, perhaps one could describe it generously as … flew.

It’s as if Dixon is trapped in the miasma of Welch, as a prehistoric fly when first it steps in amber and the honeyed fluid hasn’t quite seeped into every last receptor of its compound eye. This book documents the struggles of that fly. In fairness, the fly in this case doesn’t struggle so much as complain that the vitrification process isn’t going quickly enough and that the other flies should just go about their business and stop bothering it.

The style and subject matter is, at times, quite strongly reminiscent of The Idiot or The Brothers Karamazov, but perhaps that is only because those books also dealt with idiotic families in quasi-boring situations that never come to any strong conclusions. The ending is a bit of a surprise, tying things up in a far neater bow than I’d have expected. Was this done to because the author wanted his hero to semi-triumph? Or was it an ironic stab at books with happy endings? Is it a happy ending to see Dixon stumble further along the road to success? Was he the hero? Or was he just relatively less-insufferable, rising above the others by dint of their utter awfulness rather than an positive qualities of his own? All in all, it was an interesting read, but as for it being the finest comic novel of the 20th century: no. Not even among British authors. Just, no.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Joyland (2013)

by Stephen King

You can tell this is a Stephen King book from a mile away. It’s about a young man—Devin, a writer—who’s been jilted by the love of his life. She’s decided that it’s time to see other people and he’s not quite on board with that yet. So he takes a job several states away and spends a good deal of time mooning around over her. He makes a couple of good friends at this odd little amusement park called Joyland. They have a dog mascot that he’s especially good at playing. After learning of a ghost in the haunted-house ride, Devin becomes nearly obsessed with the case and is convinced that he can release the ghost if he just finds the real killer. Along the way, he befriends a standoffish woman, Annie, through her son Mike, who’s physically disabled but gifted in other ways. He is crucial to releasing the ghost because of his psychic powers. They finally discover the real killer hiding right under their noses. They all learn a lot about life, go their separate ways and nobody really lives happily ever after, but that’s OK too.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

And Another Thing… (2013)

by Eoin Colfer

This is the sixth in the increasingly inaccurately named trilogy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This installment picks up where Adams left off in Mostly Harmless and reads a bit like Pratchett’s Raising Steam in that absolutely everyone from the respective pantheon appears. The good news is that it’s a pretty good story and the characters are handled well and feel natural. The dialogue is clever and the writing is funny. Good old Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged features prominently as well as the always interesting Trillian and Tricia McMillan. A planet built by the Magrathean Slartibartfast has been populated by people far too rich for their own good and they’re petitioning for a God to rule their planet for them. Wowbagger and Thor both show up and lock horns. Even the Vogons, led by the implacable Prostetnic Jeltz and his son, who’s not as enthusiastic as his father about eliminating humanity forever (finally closing the chapter on every possible extrusion in every possible multiverse). A fun romp and an installment that can stand proudly next to the others.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (1971)

by Stanislaw Lem

This is a surrealist romp by the master of speculative non-hard science fiction, Stanislaw Lem. In this one, we meet the narrator Ijon Tichy, who is so wonderfully written and who is so convincing, that one quickly wonders whether the eponymous congress actually exists. It doesn’t. The Congress takes place in Costa Rica, a convocation of the best and brightest minds that looks to tackle the problem of the future for the whole of planet Earth. In particular, they are to tackle the problem of population. Everything that follows may or may not have taken place, because of the copious amounts of mind-altering substances ingested both deliberately and accidentally by the author.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism (2012)

by Ha-Joon Chang

This is the second book I’ve read by Chang. The first was Kicking Away the Ladder, which discussed how the much-ballyhooed free-market practices forced on developing countries were not used by the first-world countries when they themselves were developing. This book kind of picks up where the other left off. Instead of viewing the obvious disparity between what the developed world says and what it does in a clinical manner, Chang uses a more class-based lens to examine how the rich manipulate the story to benefit themselves. A primary part of that story is the myth of capital-C Capitalism.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Factotum (1975)

by Charles Bukowski

Henry Chinaski is a variously employed, alcoholic drifter living in America in the 1940s. He’s been rejected from the draft, so he’s left in a country that doesn’t really want him for anything else, that was already suspicious of people who didn’t yearn for the two-kids/white-picket-fence/steady-job dream. He’s willing to work, but doesn’t like to do the same thing for long, doesn’t like authority, and likes to booze and whore and write. He continues to try to publish, but is continually rejected by the only publishing house he considers worthy. He gets involved with Laura and Jan at different times, who have varyingly detrimental effects on his life.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Cloud Atlas (2004)

by David Mitchell

This is a well-written and far-reaching book. All the more so considering the many narrators, voices and dialects used for the several distinct sections, each of which also took place at a different time in our past or future. It’s written in several parts: the first five parts are from different narrators and each subsequent one picks up the story by somehow mentioning the writings of the previous narrator, however obliquely. Each piece builds on the previous one, laddering up through the years into a future where humanity is reduced to tribes on islands visited by leftover vestiges of more advanced but increasingly desperate humanity. With the middle part of 11, we retreat back through the narrators, in reverse order, until we arrive where we started, having perhaps learned something of humanity’s reach and maybe something about souls.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Rant: The Oral Biography of Buster Casey (2008)

by Chuck Palahniuk

The story is told through one-line to one-page–long biographical snippets. The story goes from Buster’s upbringing in a grindingly poor town, where his young mother teaches him to how to make Easter eggs with wax and boiled vegetable stock. He is an odd child, inuring himself to poison through repeated animal, insect and arachnid bits, collecting old paint cans from old folks, who don’t realize they might be full of extremely valuable coins dating back to the mid-1800s, and following the foretellings of an old man who he met once and claimed to be his real father.

He warps the local economy in a way that makes all the townspeople complicit in his scheme, he catches and beats rabies multiple times, all the while spreading it throughout the town, especially the girls who, oddly, can’t get enough of him. He takes his ill-gotten gains to the city, where more of the world he inhabits is revealed, in the form of a stark subdivision between night and day shifts for humanity as a way of solving traffic woes, as well as a whole subculture of people organizing crash parties, in which they crash their cars into each other to feel what it’s like to really live—something that almost no-one knows now that one can “boost peaks” from others.

That is, full-bore digital sensory capture is freely available and lulls the populace. And this is very much what it is intended to do, according to some of the later biographical participants—to keep people from discovering that, if you crash your car just right, and you’re in just the right theta-wave, meditative state, you will be transported to another place in time, where you can become your own progenitor and increase the power of your current self, until you reach a point where you can kill your own parents, terminate the loop by eliminating the beginning and live forever, suspended in a liminal state. Very much an Infinite-Jest vibe (even a bit of Pynchon at times).

Some wicked cool concepts and intriguing thoughts in this one. Recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Mind of My Mind (1977)

by Octavia Butler

This is book two of the Patternist series. The main character of the first part of the book is Doro, a 5000-year–old superbeing with enhanced mental powers. His primary power is the ability to force his way in to another being’s mind, eradicating that mind and replacing it with his own. Doro is beyond human, and views most of humanity as herd animals, for use as he pleases. He started a breeding program many millennia ago with another powerful woman, a shapeshifter and their progeny tend toward superpowers of the psychic kind.
The star of this book is Mary, a distant descendant, who transitions successfully, but in so doing becomes almost more powerful than Doro himself, capable of contacting and leading a whole society of powerful minds. In effect, Doro has succeeded in his program, but his progeny is ready to leave him and his rapacious dog-eat-dog society behind.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Perdido Street Station (2001)

by China Miéville

This is the story of Isaac, a thaumaturge/scientist in New Crobuzon, a city described in incredible and sprawling detail by Miéville. He lives with girlfriend Lin, who’s an artist. She creates sculptures using special materials that she chews with her mandibles behind her head. You guessed it, she’s not human. She’s kind of a combination fly/super-sexy woman. You’re not allowed to talk about her like that, but that’s the most succinct description.

There’s also Yagharek, an outcast member of a strict flying species, who commissions Issac to help him fly again—his wings having been ripped from him by the expulsion ceremony. In his investigations, Issac discovers an iridescent caterpillar that turns into one of the most evil, multi-dimensional beings known to Crobuzon. He feeds it dreamshit, a drug made from the shit of the caterpillar’s captive full-grown compatriots. This is a bad move. The creature escapes and frees its comrades.

They all begin to prey on the populace of Crobuzon, sucking souls and psyches and just basically bringing the whole mood down. The creatures were deliberately kept by the military of New Crobuzon as a military weapon that is now out of control. Isaac discovers so-called “crisis energy”, which is kind of analogous to harnessing the power of quantum foam, I guess.

There’s also an extra-dimensional spider called Weaver as well as a secretive Council that machinates throughout the city. The book was more intricate than that, but it was also about 800 pages long. Well-written but a bit over-detailed in places.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe (2011)

by Charles Yu

Charles Yu digs through baggage from his past in the guise of a real-life time-machine mechanic. The universe in which he lives is kind of a mix of our own plus all sorts of fictive universes. So, for example, Luke Skywalker is a character because, well, he’s part of a popular science-fiction world. The novel addresses all sorts of interesting paradoxes, including loops and writing paradoxical warnings to oneself. He harks back to how his father invented the time machine, but failed to profit from it, instead trapping himself in a diorama/time-loop. It was a meandering, interesting and unique book that seemed to have a lot to do with Charles Yu personally, though that was perhaps just the auto-biographical feel.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Requiem for a Dream (1978)

by Hubert Selby Jr.

I’d already seen the movie and it was relatively faithful to the source material. The book is written in a rambling, near–stream-of-consciousness street patois with little punctuation and structure. The grammar is mostly OK, so you can get used to it, but it’s a bit of a challenge at first. Not as much so as the middle chapter in Cloud Atlas but it might still be off-putting for some.

tl;dr: Drugs are bad.

More precisely, addiction is bad. This film is the story of a mother, her son, his girlfriend and their best friend. Nice, huh?

Spoiler alert: the book ends with the mother strapped to a bed in a mental hospital, withdrawing from a severe amphetamine addiction, the son lies in a hospital, his left arm amputated because of a festering needle wound, the best friend is on a work gang in prison, suffering beatings and malnutrition and the girlfriend is curled up on her couch at home, cuddling her scag, earned by performing in a private sex show for her new pimp.

The mother never quite recovered from the death of her husband and the son isn’t around enough to take care of her. She spends her days watching a self-help guru’s infomercial. She gets an invitation to the show but can’t fit into her dress. She resolves to lose weight by the time she gets her actual invitation. After a day spent trying it the old-fashioned way, she makes an appointment with a diet doctor and starts her downward spiral.

The son and his friends are already well on their way, shucking and jiving for enough money to buy a stash for the night. They resolve to follow the junkie dream: they pool their cash and start selling instead of just using everything they have. This actually works OK for a while, but the friend is busted by the cops on a deal and the money they’ve saved is used for bail and nearly gone in one fell swoop. The son and his girlfriend predictably fight over the lack of drugs and he heads out with his friend to Florida to make a big score. She can’t wait that long and calls a dealer who wants women rather than money in exchange for drugs.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

First As Tragedy, Then As Farce (2009)

by Slavoj Žižek

This is a philosophical/economic discussion of the 2008 financial crash from a wider angle, one that acknowledges the possibility that some of our most seemingly axiomatic notions must be reëxamined. In particular, the notion that capitalism has won—Fukuyama’s end of history—and that humanity has found the final expression of itself. That the drive to consume is immanent, that the drive to amass long after one has more than enough is genetic.

This book is not afraid to discuss various expressions of capital and capitalism and to shine a harsh light on the really-existing version that has slipped in in sheep’s clothing.

Step one: convince everyone that capitalism is good; remain vague about the definition. Step two: convince everyone that the system that benefits you the most is capitalism. Step three: profit.

Criminalize that which you do not want to do; legalize that which you do, but only with tight strictures so that it applies to yourself. Privatize profit; socialize cost. This system is ridiculously short-lived. As the author says on page 90, “[…] even in the US, the bastion of economic liberalism, capitalism is having to re-invent socialism in order to save itself.”

Capitalism as practiced today is the greatest con game of all. It’s an absolute cruel joke that so many fervently believe in it, while all the time getting screwed by it. It’s feudalism dressed up with better marketing.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965)

by Philip K. Dick

This is one of Dick’s trippiest works. He envisions a planet Earth in the future that is too hot to visit during daytime without special cooling gear. Humanity organizes itself to get off-planet. To combat the boring conditions in the colonies, there is a drug called CAN-D that, when taken by groups, allows a shared hallucination. The hallucination approaches reality when it can be anchored on real-life objects, so there is a thriving market for “layouts”, which are basically intricate dollhouses. The colonists take the drug and subsume themselves into a shared hallucinatory life in the layout.

The story centers on Palmer Eldritch, a heroic but exceedingly odd space traveler who’d been lost to a far-off solar system, but who has supposedly returned, Barney Mayerson, a precog who’s been drafted as a colonist, Leo Bolero, his boss and owner of the major layout company. Palmer starts peddling CHEW-Z, an even-more powerful alternative to CAN-D that is capable of making people travel inter-dimensionally or hyper-spatially or just condensing time to a dot, so that an entire live can be lived in a so-called real-world instant. Things get really, really trippy with nested layers of reality, non-real layers of reality due to hallucination—shared and individual, as well as complete overtaking of other people’s bodies and personae. The precog makes things lively with predictions of assassination, but the intended target is unsure how to prevent an event for which the time-stream isn’t even clear.

More details in the Wikipedia entry. If that sounds good to you, then this book is highly recommended. I loved it.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Ark (2009)

by Stephen Baxter

At the end of Flood, the planet Earth had been covered in water, right up to the very top of Mt. Everest. The only life left on Earth was floating around on top of the seas, in various states of civilization. This story overlaps the events of Flood, showing preparations for saving humanity in other ways. The primary focus is on an ambitious space program—Ark One—that will launch a spaceship that is destined for another solar system, a decade of traveling distance away. Arks Two and Three are only hinted at, but also exist.

The first part of the book follows the travails of the candidates for the Ark, until its final launch, which doesn’t go according to plan, but the technology holds up. Several candidates who were pre-selected don’t make it because they are replaced by children of rich and power people. Others are pushed off by members of the military who forced their way onboard at the last moment before launch.

The Earth drowns. The Ark heads for nine years toward Earth II, but it proves to be far less attractive than originally hoped. Factions onboard have gotten more stratified and there are three main paths proposed: settle the planet below, continue onward for 30 more years, to another system, or go back to Earth. They end up doing all three, splitting into three parties, splitting the bolo of two ship bodies that provided gravity.

The group that returns to Earth finds it completely flooded, but they make contact with survivors on the surface as well as in Ark Two, which is on the ocean floor. The group that went onward goes through many tribulations, finally arriving at the destination planet. It’s better than Earth II, but troubles along the way lost them a shuttle, so they have to colonize with children to maximize genetic diversity. The colonists settle in, while the survivors on the orbit further.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Despair (1934; en/1965)

by Vladimir Nabakov

This is the story of an unreasonably vain Russian man Hermann who meets a homeless man Felix, whom Hermann is convinced is his doppelgänger. Hermann lives with his wife Lydia. He thinks her lovely, pudgy, stupid, but loves her very much. Her cousin Ardalion is also quite close to the family—quite close to her, in ways luridly hinted at. Hermann is in despair with his life and wants to move on, so comes up with the plan to pay Felix to pretend to be him, but then he would kill Felix and allow the world to think Hermann dead. Hermann and Lydia would then abscond with the insurance money. Hermann, it turns out to no-one’s surprise is a good deal less clever than he thought. Felix is absolutely not a doppelgänger for him, his plan for the perfect murder is an absolute shambles and Hermann, who escapes to France, is captured soon after. In Hermann’s absence, Ardalion swoops in on Lydia.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Netherland: A Novel (2008)

by Joseph O’Neill

As with Despair by Nabakov, this is kind of a story of a sad man with delusions of grandeur. Because this is a modern novel, though, in Hans van den Broek’s case, he is an immensely successful financial analyst living in London with his wife and son. They haven’t a worry in the world as far as prosaic concerns, so we are free to focus on their ennui. Most of the novel is experienced as a series of flashbacks from narrator Hans, as he thinks about his life in New York City and about his relationship with the dynamic and mysterious Chuck Ramkissoon, an avid businessman with 1000 irons in the fire as well as the founder of the Staten Island cricket club.

Chuck and the Cricket Club were the only thing that kept Hans going after 9/11 triggered a separation from his wife, who moved back to England with their son. We follow Hans through his memories as he tries to figure out who Chuck was and why his body was discovered handcuffed in the Gowanus river. As to this, we receive no satisfaction, but Hans does end up getting back together with his wife. There is little joy in this because they are both vaguely dissatisfied upper–middle-class people with a seemingly stunted penchant for joy.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Gone Girl: A Novel (2012)

by Gillian Flynn

This is the story of Amy, a woman financially privileged from birth, whose parents established their fortune with children’s books about “Amazing Amy”. Amy lives off of a trust fund established by her parents from this fortune. This all has left a mark on Amy. They all live in New York City, where she meets Nick. The book alternates between Amy and Nick’s viewpoints, with Amy’s entries describing an earnest young lady trying her best to deal with a moody man. Nick, on the other hand, describes himself in the same exact way. Various details that become relevant later are mentioned.

They both lose their jobs in New York. Amy’s parents, it turns out, are terrible financial managers and come to Amy, asking for the remainder of her trust fund so that they can pay their bills. With no income and no trust fund, the couple retreats to Nick’s hometown, Missouri, where his sister and father still live. Nick opens a bar with his sister using the last of their money and they settle in, more or less, to life in the Midwest. On their tenth wedding anniversary, though, Amy is gone. There are signs of a struggle.

The first half of the book turns out to have been an exceedingly unreliable telling of their lives and in the second half, we learn what really happened. It’s quite a neat plot, so I’m not going to ruin it for anyone.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Mr. Mercedes (2008)

by Stephen King

This isn’t one of King’s best outings, but it was a fun read. It’s obviously a Stephen King book from a mile away. You can see his craft in the characters, the pacing and the conclusion. It’s the story of a retired police detective Hodges living a sad and lonely life in a small town. He receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes, taunting Hodges that he will never be able to catch him. Who is this Mr. Mercedes? He is the man who ran over several dozen people at a job fair. Hodges was in charge of the case, but wasn’t able to solve it before retirement.

Very soon in the novel, Mr. Mercedes is revealed to be a demented young man with delusions, who’s now following Hodges as well as planning another strike. He’s a typically psychotic mess of a King character. He lives with his alcoholic mother. Bits of his past are revealed throughout, forming a picture of a damaged person damaged further by life.

Olivia Trelawney is the older woman from whom Mercedes borrowed a … Mercedes. She kills herself soon after the attack, feeling guilty that she’d contributed, even unwittingly. In his investigation, Hodges meets her lovely sister Janey—another typically powerful female character, well-written—and they hit it off, investigating Mercedes together. Jerome, a young man who helps Hodges around the house, also forces his charming way into the investigation. Most of Janey and Olivia’s relatives are exceedingly unpleasant, but Holly, though odd, is also of immense help. Together, they manage to thwart Mr. Mercedes’s next attack.
 

The Martian (2014)

by Andy Weir

This is the story of a mission to Mars, the Ares 3. They are only days into their several-week–long mission before a freak windstorm forces them to abandon and escape by the skin of their teeth back to the Hermes, in orbit around Mars. Unfortunately, the wind tore a satellite antenna from its mooring and propelled it directly through Mark Watney, tearing him away into the howling, sandy darkness of the Martian night.

The crew is bereft, feeling survivor’s guilt. Watney, however, is not dead. He is left alone on the surface of Mars with a lot of technology at his disposal and food for a crew of six. Short-term survival is not a problem. It’s surviving long enough for a resupply mission that’s an issue. With the satellite antenna gone, he can’t even tell NASA that he survived. NASA notices that something is up when they see changes in the camp, so they know he’s alive. They keep this from the Hermes crew, at least at the beginning.

Mark does all sort of neat stuff to survive, described in at-times excruciating detail but very well-written and entertaining nonetheless. The writing started off quite stilted, with very short sentences and about a sixth-grade reading level—if that. About 1/3 of the way through, though, it picked up steam and became quite funny as more characters were introduced. Even Mark’s somewhat flat witticisms become sharper and funnier. I saw the movie before reading the book, but that didn’t ruin anything for me—as psychologists say, anticipation is just as enjoyable as surprise.

He locates and re-enables the Pathfinder in order to use it for communications. He farms potatoes. He re-enables the RTG as a heat source for long missions—like the one to the Area IV landing site on the other side of the planet. He makes it over there, the Hermes mission is extended to come pick him up, he takes the MAV from Ares IV to LMO (Low Mars Orbit) and they miraculously pick him up.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Blindness (1995)

by Jose Saramago (translated to English by Giovanni Pontiero)

The story is of a man who is suddenly struck blind, seeing only a wash of milky whiteness. Others soon follow, as it becomes clear that the blindness is caused by a communicable disease.

Soon enough, everyone has it and the city is filled only with the blind, All, save one lady—the doctor’s wife, played by Julianne Moore—who is unaffected by the blindness, but not by its horrific effects (she lives in a world of blind people). The effects are as you can imagine, if you were to think about it: a city filled only with the newly blind, fumbling about, looking for food, looking for shelter, for a place to urinate or defecate. Before everyone has succumbed, the government ruthlessly quarantines the initial afflicted in a mental asylum. Food is delivered sporadically but relatively regularly. The place becomes nearly unbearably filthy.

As more and more people arrive, an element finally arrives that understands that societal rules no longer apply. They take all the food for themselves, rationing it out to the others in exchange for the last of their worldly possessions. When those run out, they naturally demand that the other wards send their women. After several days, the women volunteer for this horrific duty, even the doctor’s wife. Afterwards, though, she’s had enough and takes a pair of scissors she found to kill the ringleader, threatening the remaining pirates that she will kill more if they don’t give up. Another woman, traumatized by the rapes, finds a lighter and sets the pirates’ den on fire, taking them all out.

At the same time, the doctor’s wife takes her small group outside to ask the soldiers for help. They are gone. There is no authority remaining. All is chaos and anarchy, with only the blind to fill the power vacuum. The small group escapes back to the city, the doctor’s wife the only witness to the utter horror of the place, overrun by people who can no longer take care of themselves. They survive better than most, with the doctor’s wife’s sight helping them find food that others have missed. They return to the doctor’s home and settle in for a somewhat better existence than they had in quarantine, but one still bereft of true hope. And then, just as quickly as it left, their sight returns. The end.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Wyrd Sisters (Discworld Book 6) (1988)

by Terry Pratchett

This story is the Discworld take on Hamlet, more or less. It features Nanny Ogg, Grannie Weatherwax and Magret as the witches three. Duke Felmet of Lancre kills his cousin the King in order to take over the throne. The kingdom is not happy about this. By the kingdom, I mean not necessarily the people—though they feel it too—but the actual kingdom, the ground, the trees, the sky. The kingdom as a being is dissatisfied. The King’s son Tomjon survives, to Felmet’s chagrin and he bends his considerable powers to finding him.

All to no avail, as the child is whisked off to Ankh Morpork with a troupe of traveling actors. He grows up to be a highly influential actor with an unparalleled power to mesmerize. His adoptive father owns the troupe, his best friend is the dwarf Hwel, an at-time very gifted playwright. Also in the mix is the suspiciously eloquent court Fool, who helps the witches wrest the kingdom from Felmet, which involves flying around the kingdom very quickly on a broom.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Wool Omnibus (2011)

by Hugh Howey

Howey originally self-published this work on Amazon but at least the first part suffers much less from a strong editorial hand than other self-published works I’ve seen. He spins a good yarn[1], plucking ideas and moods from other genres to weave[2] his own interesting and thrilling murder mystery in a silo that houses an entire society in its 144 floors.

The stratification becomes clear over the course of the stories, which were published serially over the course of more than year. The various power factions and policies are shown to create a working machine, but one that works for a very distinct and not-very-well-publicized purpose.

The story starts with the death of the Silo’s sheriff, as he is sent out for “cleaning”—as his wife before him—as punishment for heresy/thoughtcrime. Next we meet the Silo’s Mayor, Jahns, an older woman nearing the end of her career, and her deputy Marnes, also in his sunset years. They seek out and find a new sheriff in Juliette, a very clever Mechanic from the lowest levels of the silo. This brings them into direct contact with Bernard, the power-mad head of IT (level 31). Bernard’s “shadow” (apprentice) is Lukas, a young man with fewer scales on his eyes, who is smitten with Juliette and willing to help her find out more about what the Silo is really for, about how it was created. This, despite the trouble this causes him at work, where Bernard is grooming him for succession. Juliette is eventually banished to cleaning as well, but she uses her connections in Mechanical and Supply to ensure that the journey is not as fatal as usual.

There are some editorial oddities[3] but overall the book is well-written.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.


[1] If you’ll pardon the pun.
[2] Again.
[3] For example, he doesn’t seem to know about the verb form “had been”, instead using “were” everywhere and making the reader stumble and have to figure out from context that he’d intended the non-continuous past participle. At another point, he used “leeching” to indicate something leaking out insidiously but that’s a brand-new meaning of that word and, again, caused a stumble. Even in his bits of code, he used single apostrophes for a unit of dimension (feet) but then all of the characters acted as if he’d written double apostrophes (inches). I wasted minutes trying to figure out if that were some hidden meaning I’d overlooked, but had to come to the conclusion that it was just a pretty grievous editorial oversight.