Well, I still don't have photos etc organized, but I did manage to transfer the book reviews off the PDA. There was a lot of time spent sitting around in airports, as well as on trains during my vacation, so I pulled a stack of books out of the to-be-read pile to take with. These were not chosen indiscriminately- I picked them for being light in weight (paperback), and generally because they were written by authors who had written other books that I liked. So- there
was a were a couple of some duds. Okay, I should have known better than to read a book titled The Brain Stealers, no matter who it was by!
So, you ask- how did I come to have a book with such a lurid title in the to-be-read pile to begin with? I want to be perfectly clear on this- it's not my fault. Really. My dad goes to yard sales all summer, and picks up books to read. And come Christmas, he parcels them up and unloads a pile on each of the younger generation. There's generally a frantic bit of trading around the Christmas tree, while we separate the actual good fiction from the schlock and try to convince gullible relations that sure, they have to take this pile of Robert Jordan, really. It's, um, interesting!
So, of course the first book is not one of these- it's one of the ones my husband took- his were all hardbacks, and he liked them all, but he whined about the weight. I offered him the Brain Stealers instead, but for some reason, he wouldn't take it...
Daniel Levitin, a cognitive neuroscientist, sound engineer and musician takes a look at the body of research into how the brain processes music. What makes music good, why do we like what we like, what influences form musical taste, what is hardwired and what is acquired- Levitin tackles all of these. He uses examples from an impressive range of musical styles (though oddly enough, not folk), but is broad enough that most people should be able to find ones to relate to.
His style is lucid and not overly technical, this is definitely geared to a popular audience. This was a fascinating book for anyone who likes to listen to, play or write music.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories by Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke's bestselling novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, should have been a book I hated. It's stylish, the plot meanders at a pace that makes 'leisurely' look fast, and I didn't even really identify with the characters. And yet I (and a lot of other folks) really loved it. Clarke crafts her language so beautifully, so strongly conveys a sense of time and place, that nothing else matters. If I had to pick an example of someone breaking the rules successfully, this would be it.
Most of the stories in Clarke's new anthology return to the world of Strange and Norrell. They have the feel of very old stories being retold, but with the same lyrical care that made her novel such a pleasure. I particularly liked Mr. Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower and John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner, for the touches of sly humor and the discomfiture of powerful adversaries.
Voyage from Yesteryear by James P. Hogan
Okay, I should have asked. If I'd known that the reason this book was sitting beside the recliner was that my husband had quit in the middle, I might have read a nice article in Model Railroader, or gotten up and found something else instead. But no, I had to read it.
The sad thing is that there were aspects of a good book here. Hogan has a very nice grasp of his technology. However. This book represents the worst of the worst when it comes to an author trying to justify his favorite political theories in print. In this case, he's created a colony world that is allegedly a meritocracy, but operates more like a commune. The people who inhabit this libertarian utopia are clearly not human since they do not suffer from jealousy, greed or laziness.
Naturally, this is contrasted with new arrivals from Earth, who inhabit an exaggerated version of our society, who are determined to conquer them. The main characters are guided through a series of encounters designed to showcase the Perfection of Libertarianism, and Evils of Heirarchical Society. As if being force-fed political propaganda isn't bad enough, Hogan also manages to portray the sorriest lot of female characters I've seen in some time. He doesn't miss a stereotype.
I've never been a fan of Hogan's in general, and this book is enough to make me avoid him like the plague in the future.
The Man Without a Planet by Lester Del Rey
This was a 60s entry, with space stations, atomic missiles, alien invaders and appropriately strong-jawed heroes. Definitely dated, but it had a good through-plot, some hilarious twists and even a vaguely plausible romantic interest. Not deep and quite dated, but still fun.
Sir Stalwart: Book One of the King's Daggers by Dave Duncan
This was a light, fast, and enjoyable read. The magic is original, the characters appealing. It was quite short and first in a trilogy- though not quite a cliffhanger. The denoument was perhaps not quite as stunning a climax as one could have wished, but clearly Duncan didn't want to steal the thunder from the eventual series resolution.
The Brain Stealers by Murray Leinster
Ordinarily, I would have avoided a pulp SF book published in the fifties with this title. But I have really enjoyed some of Leinster's other work, most notably The Med Series.
This book, however, I should definitely have judged by its cover. It has all the hyperbole, the unrealistic oppressive future society and the strong-jawed action heroics that would expect from pulp. And not in a good way. A deservedly forgotten novel from an author capable of better things.
I've read books by this author before but didn't remember anything about them. I'm not so fortunate with this one.
The main character is an exceptionally drippy girl who doesn't know what she wants or how to get it if she did. The story could only be improved by her becoming brain damaged and so it proved.
The book has not one but two characters who do completely stupid things for love (and not especially convincing love at that). One case of gratuitous insanity (nothing else could explain the character's actions). One character has an affair- apparently because the book needs more sex. And one of the adversarial characters makes a complete about-face at the climax, probably because he couldn't face another three-hundred pages of this drivel any more than I could.
The potentially sense-of-wonder inducing first contact plot and interesting aliens were completely lost in this morass. I now understand why it is so persistently seen- unmoving- on the shelves of second-hand bookstores.
The Astral Mirror by Ben Bova
This is a collection of essays and short stories by Bova. Unfortunately several of the essays are so dated as to be risible, and most of the stories are quite undistinguished. My favorite was the last, but it was fun rather than thoughtful or insightful.
This would have been more interesting to me had I read it when it was published (about 20 years ago), but it contains little to attract me now.
Mask of Chaos by John Jakes
This was another interesting - and somewhat dated- failure. I don't think it could be published now. It has an interesting setup. The main character is a cyborg, an experimental subject who has been released to make his way in the world. He becomes a spacer, but despite doing his job well is the subject of jealousy and spite by other crew members.
Despite this promising beginning, we do not discover anything further about the character's background, why he doesn't recall anything of his past before the experimental center or why he is so unusually calm and good-humored despite the treatment he receives. Instead he is discharged onto a mysterious and improbable world, meets characters whose motivations remain obscure, a bunch of more or less meaningless things happen and he is left much as he was at the start, only morose and discontented.
This almost reads as if it were the start of a series-it would have made more sense that there were so many questions left unanswered. A pity that the story was no more finished- the worldbuilding gave us a creepy if incomplete society and a difficult dilemma.
I remember fondly Jakes Time Gate from having read it as a teen, but this was not up to the same standard.
The Star Virus by Barrington J. Bayley
This was the book on the flipside of the Ace Double with Jakes' Mask of Chaos, and I wasn't expecting much of it. And while it did give me a sense of nostalgia for the universe-spanning mind-bending fifties style, it wasn't in fact very good. A mildly interesting idea, some good aliens, but it suffered the usual failures of characterization, plausibility, and story construction that a modern reader finds essential.
So- not a hugely successful lot, but there were a few good ones, it kept me amused, and I am down a stack from the to-be-read pile! And we stopped by Forbidden Planet in London, where I picked up the latest in Diane Duane's Wizards series, not to mention a bunch of the Fandemonium Stargate books. Hmm. I think this actually means that the depth of the to-be-read pile is undiminished...but the average quality has probably gone up, so I'll call it a win!