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Subject: What did you read in September 2015? rss

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Let's talk about the books we read last month. And we'd love to hear not just what you read, but what you thought about what you read.

Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free, by John Ferling




This is an excellent account of the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence. There were quite a few surprises--things I'd never learned or had forgotten in the years since I learned it in school.

Perhaps the most surprising was just how close we came to not declaring independence. I didn't realize how many people were willing to remain a colony and keep the peace--including Benjamin Franklin for many years. A few wiser decisions on the part of England, and things would have gone quite differently. But hubris and arrogance sealed their fates.

It's very readable, and I'll definitely be checking out Ferling's other books on the American Revolution.


Our Souls At Night, by Kent Haruf




Kent Haruf's posthumous little novel begins with a simple and beautiful line: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.”

Addie and Louis are both widowers, and she asks him if he'd like to sleep with her. Not sex. Just sleep. She's lonely, and she rightly suspects he is, too. And she thinks she'd sleep better if she has someone next to her, to hold her hand, and talk with. He agrees.

This unique arrangement gives them a chance to look back on their lives and honestly reflect as they talk about their lives--their successes and failings as spouses. As parents. As humans. But they also revel in the now--a now spent with someone to grow old with and to learn to love.

Nothing "exciting" happens. These are ordinary people in a small town doing ordinary things. But now that I'm on this side of 40, and almost certainly more than halfway through with my life, books that reach deep inside and examine the human experience are more and more appealing. I still love my science fiction adventures, but it's okay to occasionally slow down, too. And Haruf's characters are so well drawn that you can't help but care about them, in the midst of their ordinariness, because it recalls our own ordinary lives. It rings true.

Haruf was an excellent writer, one who spent many years honing his craft, and it shows.

Haruf knew he was dying as he wrote Our Souls at Night, and that he finished it before cancer finally took him is a gift in the midst of tragedy. I'm sad there will be no more novels from this talented writer, but since this book was my first exposure to his writing, I'll take comfort in knowing I've more to read.


Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey




In this 4th book in the Expanse series some of the cracks are starting to show through, but that might be because the story's getting stretched so far...

Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are sent to mediate an explosive situation on a brand-new planet. Squatters have been on Ilus for a while now, but a corporation legally owns the rights to the whole thing, and when the corp's ship arrives, they want those squatters gone--and both sides are willing to kill to make sure they get what they want.

Unfortunately, the action never feels important. I understand it's important to the people on the planet, but after the BIG events of the previous books, this feels subdued. And the ancillary characters aren't as well-drawn as some from other books in the series. Elvi, in particular, seems silly as she swoons over Holden. To have that subplot get wrapped up with a
Spoiler (click to reveal)
"You just need to get laid,"
resolution was hilariously terrible.

Not to mention there's at least one character coincidence that felt positively Dickensian...

Overall, it just felt as though they needed a bridge/filler book, so they had this quick stopover on Ilus. But it didn't contribute much to the overall direction I assume the series is heading. Maybe it'll become clearer in the future, but as it stands, I feel this is a book that didn't need to be written. (The epilogue gives hints as to the importance of the action on Ilus, but I had to read 600 pages to get there.)

It's possible the problems are due to more books getting added to the series. The authors are now contracted to do nine books (at least) in the series, and it's possible they only had 5 books worth of outline, so they had to start padding, and this book feels like padding to me.

I'm giving it two-and-a-half stars, but rounding up because it's part of a larger series that I like quite a bit. The writing is still terrific, and the Rocinante's crew is full of interesting characters, so I'll definitely continue reading the series. I just hope they can focus a little more with future books.
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The fourth Expanse book is the slowest. Rest assured that it picks up again in the fifth.
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I continued through the Man Booker nominations this month. The longlist of 13 was narrowed down to a shortlist of 6 this month. After my September reading, I only have 1 more to go of the shortlist.

The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma



This is my 2nd favorite of the 2015 Man Booker nominees. It is a tight, interesting, and well appointed literary novel of a Nigerian family destroyed (Greek tragedy style) by hubris and self-fulfilling prophecy. Very well done, and very enjoyable read.


The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami




I'm pretty shocked this did not make the 2015 Man Booker shortlist. I thought this was going had a shot at winning. This is based on the true story of a failed Castilian expedition to La Florida in the early 1500s. The historical account tells the adventures of the 3 surviving explorers... and a slave, who is left out almost entirely of the historical documents. This novel tells the story from his perspective. Lots of conquistadors and native Americans die in lots of horrible ways and in the end is a exploration of the idea of freedom and the social constructs we choose or are thrust upon us. Great historical fiction here.


A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James




This piece of crap did make the 2015 Man Booker shortlist. It is about the rise of guns and gang violence in Jamaica through the '70s and '80s hinging off the assassination attempt of Bob Marley (referred to only as The Singer in the book) and its fallout. Like Reggae music, this book is a hot mess of boring, aimless crap. I hated it.
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I FINALLY finished H is for Hawk, I had been busy throughout my Renaissance Faire season and reading becomes hard, but then I had a flight to and from New York where I capped it off.

This autobiography near-seamlessly weaves in the author's story of loss and redemption with a parallel (true) story of TH White's experience of raising hawks and fighting his own internal struggle.

It's interesting to see the two internal struggles raging on side by side, both of which are expressing themselves in the subject's experience with raising a hawk. I was especially pleased that TH White got a chance to redeem himself in the end, and that the author showed both compassion and scorn for the (poor) way he raised his hawk, while similarly acknowledging her own failures. The emotional struggles are intense for both of them and despite their situations being quite different, she does a great job of tying them together with various parallels.

This is an utterly amazing book that I think should be read by everyone.
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Regarding the Man Booker prize which will be awarded this month, I have read 5 of the 6 shortlisted so far and have just begun reading the last. I find the Man Booker shortlist a pretty good sample of what is happening in the world of literary fiction and try to keep up with it every year.

I am in a book club that goes nuts for the Man Booker every year. We divided the 13 longlisted titles (a Booker's Dozen, as they call it) between us. We all read our selections and presented the book to the group with our thoughts on the merits (or lack thereof) and how we thought it would do. Some of us tried to read as many of the longlist as we could (with 2 reading them all), and most of us are going to read all of the shortlist (depending on how many we'd read already--I'd read 4/6 by the time it was announced.

Anyway, I rank them as such:

1. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (my hands down favorite)
2. The Fisherman by Chigozi Obioma
3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
4. Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
5. A Brief Historyof Seven Killings by Marlon James

Still reading: Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

I would love A Spool of Blue Thread to win, but I would be surprised if A Little Life did not (which is very good, but I think very flawed).
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Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

So the aliens landed, ignored us, and left behind their garbage and parasites and God knows what else in an area of weirdly inflected physics where the dead rise, gravity pulls in all the wrong directions and DNA is altered at fundamental levels. In other words, an irresistible wonderland as far as stupid humans are concerned.

This Soviet-era (1971) novel is breezy, strange, insanely inventive and stained with that deep sadness the Russians do so well. But it's not a downer—just haunting. I'll be returning to this one again.


Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

I think this was Reynolds' personal apology to me after suffering through his last 700+ page tedium brick. As a science fiction novella built for mild entertainment Bullets was quick and to the point and just the thing to offset some the heavier stuff I'm reading. It worked great for those drowsy same-paragraph-three-times sessions just before sleep.


The Martian by Andy Weir

If you chanced upon a drunken, leukemia-wasted astronaut in a cheesy Pensacola bar—the kind with plastic parrots—this is the tale he'd slur at you between winks and leers at the eye-rolling barmaid. Written in the style of No Style with an utter lack of poetry, I have a feeling this would make a much better audiobook than a "read-y" one, as the storytelling is just that: a purely expositive yarn that would sound perfect coming out of a tipsy, half-chubbed Josh Brolin.

It suffers from a terrible case of ODTAA* that gets wearying toward the end, but I'm not sorry I read it—though chances are good the movie will be the best version of this.


*One Damn Thing After Another
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American Gods
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Brave New World
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Shadow Divers - A book about manly men doing dangerous things. Pretty good for the genre but at times the author's intent to make everything super-manly made it seem a bit ridiculous to me instead.
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HiveGod wrote:
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

So the aliens landed, ignored us, and left behind their garbage and parasites and God knows what else in an area of weirdly inflected physics where the dead rise, gravity pulls in all the wrong directions and DNA is altered at fundamental levels. In other words, an irresistible wonderland as far as stupid humans are concerned.

This Soviet-era (1971) novel is breezy, strange, insanely inventive and stained with that deep sadness the Russians do so well. But it's not a downer—just haunting. I'll be returning to this one again.


Check out the RPG: Stalker
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Jackasses? You let a whole column get stalled and strafed on account of a couple of jackasses? What the hell's the matter with you?
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I worked my way through 2 (!) books in September:

First up was As You Wish, Cary Elwes's memoir of the making of The Princess Bride. It's a light, fun, engaging read.

Elwes makes clear that the cast of the movie had a grand time making this one. There's not a bad word to be said about anyone, anywhere, and lots of good inside stories about the personalities involved. Elwes got other participants to comment in sidebars, and so the whole thing is akin to a reunion of the cast members sitting around shooting the breeze and laughing uproariously at their antics.

Particularly, Elwes had a deep and abiding love for Andre the Giant. The stories he tells about Andre are the most memorable in the book, and touching. Andre had a great, huge personality and a deep love of the present moment.

Recommended for anyone who loved the movie. So, basically, everyone.

Then, the wargaming forum pointed me toward a cheap version of The Miracle of Dunkirk. Solid historical account of a pretty terrible week. This one captures a few things about war. First, that no one knows anything. Information is confused, instructions are garbled, intentions are opaque, and everything is improvised on a shoestring. Second, that war is waste. Great amounts of effort and talent are poured into destruction, and this sucks.

For all that, it's one of the great moments of British military history. They pulled a lesser defeat out of a greater defeat, and that's something. And that lesser defeat probably saved the Free World, in the long run. There's heroism all around, and common men just volunteering on the spot for necessary chores.

Not a great retelling, but certainly interesting detail work for anyone who knows the broad strokes of the campaign. It's a medium-weight work that presupposes that you understand the general history in the first place. Right in the sweet spot for amateur WWII historians.
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Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Character study of an unsympathetic guy with a pretty boring life. Hard for me to get worked up over the existential problems of a sad sack middle class New Yorker in the 50s. Still there were funny moments, a few Deep Thoughts and the writing was good.

The Alchemist Paolo Coelho
Read this because my twins were assigned it for their literature class. It's somewhat related to the other books they've read so far (Siddhartha and Snow Child), but this one I didn't like. Ham-handed pop-philosophy with nothing much to offer in narrative.

Both of these books are very highly regarded and I swear I usually agree with literary critics. Don't know what happened this month...maybe I was in a bad mood.
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Jackasses? You let a whole column get stalled and strafed on account of a couple of jackasses? What the hell's the matter with you?
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HiveGod wrote:
The Martian by Andy Weir

If you chanced upon a drunken, leukemia-wasted astronaut in a cheesy Pensacola bar—the kind with plastic parrots—this is the tale he'd slur at you between winks and leers at the eye-rolling barmaid. Written in the style of No Style with an utter lack of poetry, I have a feeling this would make a much better audiobook than a "read-y" one, as the storytelling is just that: a purely expositive yarn that would sound perfect coming out of a tipsy, half-chubbed Josh Brolin.


This is one of the things I loved about it. (Caveat: I loved this book.) Mark Watney is a man of action, not words, and the prose style reinforces it. He's not preoccupied with inner turmoil, or loneliness, or anything like that. He is resourceful, knowledgeable, and determined.

The other thing about this one that I loved is that the science was eminently plausible. There's no point in the book where the science shook me out of the narrative with an, "It doesn't work that way." I appreciate that in good, hard SF.

I've got tickets for tomorrow night, and I'm looking forward to the movie, and seeing how well it translates to the big screen. I think Matt Damon's the perfect guy for this role. He's got the likable, everyman quality to him, and he does good smartass, and Mark Watney is a smartass.
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I listened to the audiobook of The Martian. It's not Josh Brolib, but it was good.
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So, Anyway... by John Cleese




Lots of famlily soccer and softball activities that started up this fall have cut into my reading time, but I did manage to get through an enjoyable autobiography on my favorite Python. It was a nice behind the scenes look at the pre-Python British comedy landscape in the UK and John's relationship to Graham Chapman, but it abruptly stops short at the time of Monty Python's beginnings as if there might be a sequel forthcoming. Insights from reading included acknowledgement that the Pythons were comedy writers first and foremost before they considered themselves actors, John's reputation for being difficult is probably justified, John has David Frost to thank for his career and the Pythons made very little per episode when it originally aired.
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robbbbbb wrote:
Mark Watney is a man of action, not words, and the prose style reinforces it. He's not preoccupied with inner turmoil, or loneliness, or anything like that. He is resourceful, knowledgeable, and determined.

Which is another way of saying he's two-dimensional. The lack of doubt, despair and terror make him inhuman. Or insane. Don't get me wrong, that cardboard cut-out quality is perfectly in service to the story being told. It just makes it ultimately forgettable for me... The story provides no insight into the human condition, but then it never claims to anyway.

Quote:
The other thing about this one that I loved is that the science was eminently plausible. There's no point in the book where the science shook me out of the narrative with an, "It doesn't work that way." I appreciate that in good, hard SF.

There were a couple places where I had to squint, and I worry about his utter lack of concern for biofilms, but, you know, now we're just quibbling, right? As per Heinlein, it gave me as much entertainment value as if I'd spent the money on beer, so it's a winner.

Quote:
I've got tickets for tomorrow night, and I'm looking forward to the movie, and seeing how well it translates to the big screen. I think Matt Damon's the perfect guy for this role. He's got the likable, everyman quality to him, and he does good smartass, and Mark Watney is a smartass.

Agreed—though I'm still apoplectic that they'd go to such lengths to rescue the mission-wrecking asshole from Interstellar.

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I think technically I missed on reporting some, but "Unoffendable" by Brant Hansen is a virtual must-read for fellow Christians. I remember years ago reading his blog and seeing how he got "it" in terms of being a Christian, and he was a humorous read. I have followed his work whenever I find it. He's a dork, and he knows it.

If I hadn't mentioned it, I have been going through more Locke and Key and Hawkeye graphic novels.
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HiveGod wrote:

The Martian by Andy Weir

If you chanced upon a drunken, leukemia-wasted astronaut in a cheesy Pensacola bar—the kind with plastic parrots—this is the tale he'd slur at you between winks and leers at the eye-rolling barmaid. Written in the style of No Style with an utter lack of poetry, I have a feeling this would make a much better audiobook than a "read-y" one, as the storytelling is just that: a purely expositive yarn that would sound perfect coming out of a tipsy, half-chubbed Josh Brolin.

It suffers from a terrible case of ODTAA* that gets wearying toward the end, but I'm not sorry I read it—though chances are good the movie will be the best version of this.


*One Damn Thing After Another


You said it better than me!! https://boardgamegeek.com/article/19683609#19683609

(I was honestly afraid to slam this much-loved book on here and sugar-coated my critique)

Truth: I had to force myself to get through some of it and I agree with "ODTAA" and the image you paint of the drunk at a Florida bar. I loved parts of it, but in the end it didn't deliver what I expected. I am glad to see someone--OK, you--state that it isn't all that great!
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Clockwork Angels novel, based on the Rush album of the same name. If you like the album, I imagine you'll like the book. The album made the book interesting, and the book makes the album more interesting.


if you're not a Rush fan, will you like the book? I think so. It's an easy read coming of age adventure set in a steampunk world. If any of that sounds good, check it out.
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Slow month for me. I read one book aloud to my daughter: Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones.


It was pretty great.

I'm going to read more of her stuff.

Currently starting on Howl's Moving Castle.
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Narrow Gate Games wrote:


Clockwork Angels novel, based on the Rush album of the same name. If you like the album, I imagine you'll like the book. The album made the book interesting, and the book makes the album more interesting.


if you're not a Rush fan, will you like the book? I think so. It's an easy read coming of age adventure set in a steampunk world. If any of that sounds good, check it out.


I refuse to believe Kevin j Anderson can do anything worthwhile after what he did to dune with Herbert's son. Hence I've avoided that novels e like the plague. The album was good though.
 
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A couple non-fiction reads for me. After a lively discussion about evolution with a co-worker, I felt the need to brush up on my knowledge of the subject, so I checked out Why Evolution is True. It's an engaging, accessible, and evidence-packed defense of the theory.




Also, one of my son's classes in college is a study of Buddhism, so I found the textbook in my local library - Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. It's a straightforward, readable introduction to the Buddha's teachings, and the various strains of the religion.



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I started reading comic books for the first time ever in September. The decision came off the back of watching Avengers Age of Ultron, and Guardians of the Galaxy recently. I had no idea what those little scenes after the credits were on about, so thought I better do some more investigating. I do have a seven year old daughter who is massively into superheroes, so that was another reason.

Favourites so far have been Batman (New 52), Suicide Squad, and the new Marvel Star Wars stuff. I've still got loads more characters to look at, so this could take a while...

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All You Need Is Kill, by Nick Mamatas. The graphic novel version of the book that spawned the Groundhog Day-like actioner Edge of Tomorrow. Great movie. Awful graphic novel. Woefully disjointed.

C.O.W.L. by Kyle Higgins. Another graphic novel, a serious story about a union of superheroes working in 60s Chicago. It's a labor-vs-management crime story, really. The superhero angle is a gimmick. Not amazing but not bad at all.

Men of Wrath, by Jason Aaron. A short, predictable story about a grizzled assassin who's targeted by his employers when he refuses to kill his own son. Okay. I think I've seen or read that plot a couple dozen times at least.

King Rat, by China Miéville. There's a lot of Neverwhere and American Gods in this one. A regular young London chap discovers that he's a sort of rat demigod. The deranged, homicidal, immortal Pied Piper of Hamelin wants to kill him. I swung between fascinated and bored. Also, Miéville doesn't know a lot about rats.

Rat Queens v2, by Kurtis J Wiebe. I LOVE this series. D&D nerd-tastic.

The Boy Detective Fails, by Joe Meno. Huge disappointment. I quit after about 60% and was relieved to be done. The plan was solid: take a Cyclopedia Brown boy detective (Billy Argo), let him grow up (he goes to criminology school), hit him with a personal tragedy (his little sister/assistant commits suicide), expose him to messy adult problems (ten years in a mental health hospital, OCD, depression...), and see what happens. It was undone by awful storytelling. The beginning was fun, a solid satire of boy detective stories. After that it's just a series of confused non-sequiturs.
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darthain wrote:
Narrow Gate Games wrote:


Clockwork Angels novel, based on the Rush album of the same name. If you like the album, I imagine you'll like the book. The album made the book interesting, and the book makes the album more interesting.


if you're not a Rush fan, will you like the book? I think so. It's an easy read coming of age adventure set in a steampunk world. If any of that sounds good, check it out.


I refuse to believe Kevin j Anderson can do anything worthwhile after what he did to dune with Herbert's son. Hence I've avoided that novels e like the plague. The album was good though.


I've never read anything else by him, and am not a fan of Dune, so I'll plead ignorance. The afterword in this book talks about the collaboration between the author and Neil Peart, and Neil seems pleased with the result, for what that's worth.

Reviews of the book were slightly positive, but mixed. It's probably not one of the great literary accomplishments of our time, but as a way for a Rush fan to dive deeper into Rush's latest concept album, it's a success in my eyes.
 
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King Kirby – Fred Van Lente and Crystal Skillman
Rock On – Dan Kennedy
Empty World – John Christopher
Eric – Terry Pratchett
Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon
First Landing – Robert Zubrin
The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

Truly wonderful month of reading.

King Kirby is a play - written by a couple (who are a couple) of friends whose names may be familiar to comic book fans and theater geeks respectively - exploring the life, work and legacy of Jack Kirby, one of the most well known and well loved comic book artists in history. I can't wait to see this one performed. I missed it when it premiered the summer before last in New York, and it is about to have a run in the Pacific North-West. I often have a hard time with reading plays but my familiarity and interest in the subject, combined with the excellent pacing and narrative, made this one hugely enjoyable.

Rock On was a book I picked up at a book fair in February and finally took a look at as I continued forsaking my nook for the piles of dead tree still in my house. This was a decent if unspectacular read about the author landing his dream job in the record industry after twenty-something years of mediocrity, only for the industry to collapse around him. Absurd in the extreme, there a are number of fun fly-on-the-wall moments and near-fantasy asides. I liked, didn't love, this one.

Empty World was my favorite book when I was a pre-teen. This probably explains lots of things about me. It is a dark and extraordinarily grim tale of life after the death of seemingly everyone on the planet save one High School boy. Did I mention he is

Spoiler (click to reveal)
orphaned on the first page

even before the plague hits? Reading it as an adult, I am struck by how powerful it still is, how much I still enjoyed it, and how it appears to be almost the antithesis of Lord of the Flies. A quick read I highly recommend.

Eric was a return to my in-order Pratchett reread and I was once again reminded how uneven this one is. It's like he ran up against a deadline and just said, "Sod it - good enough." Which is the opposite of the next book, Moving Pictures, which was a favorite when I first read it and is still by far my favorite to date of the rereads.

It all comes together here - the satire, the characterizations, the consistently laugh-out-loud comedy. And the payoff? Perhaps my favorite visual in literature:

Spoiler (click to reveal)
A giant woman carrying a monkey up the side of a tall building . . .

Another reread, this time of the spectacular The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It remains unlike anything I have ever read. If discrimination stems from fear of the unknown, here is a small step in reaching beyond fear towards understanding.

First Landing was another book fair acquisition, a fictional account of a first manned mission to Mars by an author whose previous two books were non-fictional accounts of how this can actually be achieved inside a decade. It's pro-Mars propaganda, but fast paced and exciting for all that, with political intrigue as well as technical, Apollo 13 style problem solving along the way. Worth a look right now in light of the discovery of running water on Mars as I was finishing the book!

And while I'm still in dead tree mode, I took the opportunity to revisit a favorite series, the Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde (whose publishers don't appear to have figured out eBook pricing - the bundles are more expensive than buying the individual books, which are priced higher than hardcover . . .)

The Eyre Affair is simply genius. I recall stopping 20 pages in the first time through to start over once I had figured out quite how far from the here and now we were being taken. Remembering quite how much further into the weird the later books lead us made the gentle decent almost literally into the rabbit hole of this first entry is a remakable feat. What can I say? I'm a sucker for meta and this is nothing but meta, playing with time and space ad words and place. I've already started Lost In A Good Book in October . . .
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