Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


Archive for the 'Book Rave' Category

1491

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

On Twitter someone recently asked, What book has changed the way you see the world?

I’ve just finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus — and it’s been that kind of book for me.

Written by Charles C. Mann and originally published in 2005, 1491 presents a view of the Americas before Columbus that is in sharp contrast to what most Americans my age learned in school.

This is a fascinating, well-researched, and well-written book. I’d read articles and extracts based on it, but the details included in the full text really drive home the author’s main points:
• that the indigenous population of the Americas before Columbus was much higher, diverse, and sophisticated than has traditionally been believed;
• that between the arrival of Columbus and the settlement of what would become the American colonies, disease swept through both North and South America, decimating these once-large populations and wiping out civilizations;
• that because of this, North America only appeared to be a “virgin continent” and relatively unpopulated;
• that Indians** acted as a “keystone species” essentially engineering much of the landscape to suit their needs — for example, burning off the undergrowth in New England forests, modifying land for agriculture, encouraging the growth of nut-bearing and other useful trees, and discouraging the proliferation of species that competed for these resources.

What we think of today as North American wilderness and the “primeval” Amazon are both, in large part, recent phenomena, existing only since disease eliminated indigenous cultures.

This is compelling stuff on so many levels. First and most obviously, that many millions of people died of disease — up to 95% of the population by some estimates – and hundreds (thousands?) of cultures simply vanished.

Apocalypse is a popular topic in science fiction. What happens to a culture when 95% of its people suddenly die off? Nothing works after that. Technology, history, the complex network of human interaction that allows food to be grown and goods to be produced and traded simply vanishes. Those few who are left will be left with very little and no real means to replace what was lost. Mann uses the phrase “Holmberg’s Mistake” to describe the conclusion of an anthropologist who studied a “primitive” Amazon tribe and came to believe that these people had lived thus for thousands of years, not considering the possibility that they were the descendants of a handful who survived a real apocalypse. (more…)

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

Set in the 1990s, Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders is the story of a family of psychics who live in the Chicago area. I’d heard it was really good and, wanting to try something different, I listened to a sample of the audiobook — and decided at once to pick it up. I’m so glad I did.

This is a terrific novel. It’s amazingly well plotted, the characterization is fantastic, it’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s utterly engaging. The narrator, Ari Fliakos, does a fantastic job. As is usual for me, I won’t try to describe the plot, but you can check it out at Audible.

I hope Spoonbenders proves to be a huge success for Daryl. He deserves it.

Highly recommended!

This is the first novel by Daryl Gregory I’ve read. I’m looking forward to reading more!

October by China Mieville

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

I decided I needed to read some China Mieville–or more accurately, listen to some China Mieville–so I looked over the offerings at Audible and ended up with a new NON-fiction book: OCTOBER: The Story of the Russian Revolution.

The narration was excellent and I found the history fascinating, although it did include a lot of names I couldn’t always keep track of. Despite this, OCTOBER feels like it captures a good sense of the times, and serves as a great introduction for those of us unfamiliar with the history. Find it at Audible.

Since I’m too lazy to acquire a cover image, I’ll just post this tweet: 😉

American Gods

Sunday, June 18th, 2017

I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods not too long after it was first published. With all the publicity surrounding the television series — which I haven’t seen yet — it seemed like a good time to revisit it. This time, instead of reading, I listened to the audiobook edition. In summary: Highly Recommended!

The audiobook is full cast. Different narrators read different voices, and Neil himself contributes some of the interludes. I advise you not to be in a hurry as you listen to it. It’s a long and complex story populated by many characters. The epilogue — also long — is structured to remind us of those many characters and also serves as a lesson in how to effectively tie off plot threads one by one.

Not a complaint, just a wry observation:
Our protagonist, Shadow, is described as a young man, big and tall, with long dark hair. For me, one of the peculiarities of the audiobook was that Daniel Oreskes, who voices Shadow, sounds a lot like Vin Diesel. Now, Vin Diesel has a fine voice and so does this narrator, so this wasn’t a problem. Still, my identification of that voice with Vin Diesel meant I was visualizing a young Vin Diesel instead of a young man with long dark hair. Oh well.

If you’re looking for a terrific audiobook, you won’t go wrong with this one.

Recommended: Summit by Harry Farthing

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

I loved this novel.

Summit is what I like to call a literary thriller — adventure, conflict, brave deeds, beautifully written, filled with philosophy and politics, and not formulaic. It’s the debut effort of Harry Farthing who, from his website, is a British businessman, world traveler, and adventurer. I listened to the audio edition, which was read by the author. He has an excellent voice and I greatly enjoyed his performance.

The summit referred to in the title is Mount Everest, highest peak on Earth. The mountain is central to the dual stories of two European mountaineers — one modern, one pre-World War II. In both settings, Farthing pays respectful attention to the Sherpa, who are well-rounded characters with stories of their own. The author is in no hurry to bring the two principle story threads together, but that’s all right, because both plot lines are fascinating and well told.

There is also a timeliness to Summit as it explores the politics and atrocities of Nazi Germany alongside the dangerous modern-day resurgence of European fascism.

If you love tales of adventure and mountaineering, backed with historic detail, and featuring believable, sympathetic characters, then give Summit a try — and let me know what you think!

Recommended Audiobook:
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Friday, January 13th, 2017

The full title of Trevor Noah’s childhood memoir is Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I picked this audiobook because it had been named a best book of the year by several publications, and because the sample I listened to hooked me immediately.

I can’t say I was a fan of Trevor Noah before this. Really, I knew almost nothing about him except that he was the new host of The Daily Show. But I’m a fan now.

Trevor Noah reads the audiobook himself. He has a wonderful voice and is multilingual, speaking not just the various accents of the characters in the story, but also speaking brief sentences in native languages as he narrates incidents.

The title, Born a Crime, refers to Trevor himself. He was born under apartheid, the son of a black woman and a white man — his very existence evidence of an illegal act — and for the first several years of his life his parents hid him from officials and nosy neighbors.

The quality of the storytelling in this book is amazing. Trevor relates many experiences, beginning in his childhood and progressing through the start of his career as a comedian. Throughout, he reflects with great insight, intelligence, and empathy on what he’s seen and what he’s done. He speaks truths without outrage, but rather in a “let’s talk, let’s get real” style that is easy to listen to, but still powerfully communicates the hardships and the challenges faced by those who endure bigotry, poverty, and destructive cultures. He delves into issues of misogyny and the rights of women, and the incredible strength, independence and stubbornness of his own mother. He discusses racism, skin color, apartheid, poverty, education, the police, life in an abusive home, and making a living when your options are few.

Despite all that, this book is in no sense a downer. Quite the opposite: The strength of spirit and determination that exists in every story that Trevor tells is both inspiring and uplifting.

Highly recommended.

Recommended Reading: Ninefox Gambit

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

I started, and failed to finish, three or four novels before picking up Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. If you’re looking for something different, something challenging and endlessly interesting — a puzzle to be figured out — try this one.

I’m still not sure what it’s about.

Usually I say very little about the plot or even the background of the books that I recommend here, because I think a book is best appreciated without preconceptions. But I’m making an exception this time. So if you’re already intrigued, go off and read Ninefox Gambit. Otherwise, read on for just a bit of discussion about the book.

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Recommended Reading: Darktown

Friday, November 4th, 2016

darktown_by_thomas_mullenThomas Mullen is the author of Darktown, a novel set in Atlanta shortly after World War II, in a time when black police officers were first allowed to work in the Atlanta Police Department.

Darktown succeeds on multiple levels. First, it’s very well written, with gorgeous detail in both setting and characters, without ever going overboard.

It also works as a straight-up crime novel as police officers attempt to unravel the mystery behind the murder of a young woman.

But the most powerful aspect of the novel for me was the immersion into the violently segregated culture of the deep south during this period of history. The oppression and brutalization of black communities is rendered in detail, but what’s also made clear is how difficult it is to change the status quo when ordinary citizens, including law enforcement, fully support the authoritarian culture and are thoroughly trained to crush any dissent. Yes, this novel is a well-timed reminder of what authoritarianism and bigotry mean for a society.

Despite this, Darktown is not a “downer.” It’s a fascinating, well-told tale of courage.

I listened to the audio edition. I really enjoyed the narrator’s voice, finding it both pleasant to listen to and easy to understand, with the drawback that the voices of the different characters tended to sound the same, and at several points I wasn’t sure who was speaking.

In my own writing, I’ve begun using more speech tags – he said / she said – since I started listening to audiobooks. Speech tags aren’t always necessary if you’re reading text. If two characters are in conversation, a paragraph break indicates when a different character is speaking. But a listener can’t see this, so additional speech tags can be necessary for clarity. Something to keep in mind, for those of you who write.

Recommended Reading: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

rosa_brooks_tales_from_the_pentagonHow Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon, by Rosa Brooks, is a wide-ranging overview of the present state of the American military, how we got to this point, the effect of recent changes on both our system of government and on the world at large, the implications for the future, and thoughts on how we can do better.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor, who worked at the Pentagon for two years, and is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy.

She writes that post-9/11 the role of the American military has expanded beyond traditionally “military” functions, taking over territory that once belonged to civilian departments, in particular the Department of State. This happened gradually, as cost-cutting measures reduced the size and effectiveness of civilian departments, leaving the military as the only branch with a budget that allowed it to rise to the task — and as the military took on more tasks, civilian departments were further trimmed. It’s this process that Brooks captures with the book’s title, but she pursues many other subjects.

There are interesting discussions of the way we’ve chosen to see war and peace as polar opposites, as two easily distinguished states — our view being heavily biased by the world wars. “What is war?” is an important question because our laws change depending on whether or not we are “at war.” A state of war allows many actions (killing, indeterminate imprisonment) that are not allowed during peacetime. But a closer look at history offers the idea that there is a continuum between war and peace — the “space between” — that is not all-out war, but is also not peace. And if we accept that we are now — and likely will be for the foreseeable future — caught in this “space between” then we need to develop a legal framework to deal with it.

Brooks also looks at the precedents America has set by asserting “a unilateral right to use force in secret and with little accountability outside the executive branch…”

Her description of the international community is especially disturbing:

“…the international community” struggles to respond effectively to the challenges posed by “failed” states. From the perspective of an alien observer from another planet, the “international community” of the planet earth would surely appear like a failed state writ large; it has proven consistently unable to control the violence of powerful actors (whether states or nonstate entities such as terrorist organizations), control environmental catastrophes such as climate change; remedy astronomically large economic inequities between individuals and societies, constrain the devastating scramble to exploit the earth’s dwindling natural resources, or address crises such as global epidemics.”

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything offers a lot to learn and ponder. It’s well researched and well argued. Recommended.

Links, News, and Recommendations

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

Links
It’s easy to tell when I’m trying to catch up on my nonfiction reading — that’s when I start posting links here.

At USNI News, Megan Eckstein has an article titled “CMC Neller: Marines Now Training to Battle Drones, Fight Without Comms”, which is a pretty interesting look at exactly what the title says, and has some intersections with events in The Red trilogy — particularly the last action sequence in Going Dark.

And on a completely different subject, “The Cost of Holding On” is a short post at The New York Times by Carl Richards, offering some excellent advice on letting go of grudges:

“There is an actual cost to holding onto things we should let go of. It can come in the form of anger, frustration, resentment or something even worse. The question is, can you really afford to keep paying the bill?”

I’ve seen people hold on tight to the memory of slights, and to grudges that are twenty, thirty, forty years old, or more. It’s not worth it, folks. All that energy spent on resentment could be so much better spent in positive ways.

Recommended Audiobook
My latest audiobook rave is Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World. This is a nonfiction read, exploring the remarkable extent of government and corporate surveillance and data collection in the modern world. The book was originally published in 2014. In the realm of technology a two-year-old book might be suspected of being dated, but this one felt utterly relevant. I found it fascinating.

Rebis edition - Polish language - The RedNews
The Nanotech Succession Omnibus is an ebook that includes my first four novels, all taking place in a shared story world. The omnibus has been available at my webstore, but it can now be purchased from Kobo if that’s your preferred vendor. Find it here.

The Red now has its second translated edition. The first was Italian. This one is a Polish-language edition by the publisher Rebis. I like that red font on the cover!