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Latest Book Reviews, In Which The Earth Shakes and We Drink Tea (and Other Beverages)

It's not as hot as yesterday, but still too hot to do anything strenuous. It's even too hot to spend long with the computer on my lap, but I decided it was time to catch up the reviews.

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 by Simon Winchester

This was a fascinating look at the 1906 earthquake, as well as the mechanisms and history of earthquakes in the US. I hadn't known there was a major earthquake in Charleston, SC in 1886 or that Missouri was the site of another seismically active area- and epicenter of an earthquake that shook the entire midwest, also in the 1800s. An engrossing tale- and one that makes me profoundly grateful not to live on the west coast. As another reader pointed out, the contrast between the disaster response effort in 1906 with the more recent efforts after Hurricane Katrina do not show the 21st century in a good light.

A mixture of earthquake facts, eyewitness accounts and California history, Winchester takes us from the eastern edge of the North American continental plate at Thingvellir, Iceland, to the San Andres fault; from the earthquakes of New Madrid and Charleston to the Prince William Sound (Alaskan) earthquake of 1964, and winds their stories around the story of San Francisco- victim of a disaster of a century ago, and sure to be site of another in the very near future.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
by J.K.Rowling

On looking at the first page of the latest book, I realized how little I remembered from the early series, so I put it down and reread the earlier books first. Given their popularity, it's unlikely I can say anything new about them.

However, overall, I thought that the later books in the series suffered from the phenomenon where popular authors become too important to edit. The last three books all would have benefited from some tightening up. But Rowling manages a quite reasonable and enjoyable close to the series.

Thursday Next, First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde
If you haven't read the previous Thursday Next novels, this is not the one to start with. Go find The Eyre Affair, and prop yourself securely on the couch so you won't fall off while laughing as you work your way through the series. Fforde does for literature what Pratchett does for the tropes of fantasy, with a large helping of whimsical humor.

In this one, Thursday has a lot on her plate, among them; she's training an apprentice who is a fictional version of herself, the ghost of Uncle Mycroft has an important message he's forgotten, fresh machinations from the possibly perfidious and ever-inventive Goliath Corporation, a piano shortage, and a polite, well-groomed version of her slothful and unwashed teenage son- who is violently resisting his preordained career in the ChronoGuards. And that doesn't even begin to address the latest idiotic ideas being promoted by the Council of Genres, who is trying to broker a peace deal between the genres of Racy Novel, and it's antagonistic neighbors, Ecclesiastical and Feminist.

This book wraps only some of its numerous plots- Thursday's adventures will continue in a book to be entitled; The War of the Words, Paragraph Lost, Apocalypse Next or possibly something Fforde hasn't dreamed up yet. If you dislike cliffhangers, you may want to wait for the next Next book.

Burndive by Karen Lowachee

This book only escaped being hurled into Lake Champlain because it would have been littering. There is some mildly interesting worldbuilding and I suspect many references to a prior book in the same universe, but this completely lacked any kind of actual story attached to the main character.

Unfortunately the main character's response to practically everything that happens is to passively accept it. On the only occasion he actually takes action, it doesn't work. And the main character was not particularly interesting. He's not involved in any of the actual conflict-that's left to secondary characters-and he doesn't overcome anything. He sits around feeling sorry for himself until finally the book ends.

Also bewildering was the author's decision to abruptly change point of view three-quarters of the way through the book from a third person limited view to a first person pov of the same character for no apparent reason. Not recommended.

Stargate Atlantis: Exogenesis by Sonny Whitelaw and Elizabeth Christiansen

As usual, I don't recommend tie-ins to people who are not fans of the show. This was the first of the Atlantis books I've read, and it seemed to me rather awkwardly written. I wanted to like it- it employed some Sfnal concepts that I quite like. But. The characterizations were adequate if perfunctory, the problem posed seemed more sketched in than really explored and the eventual solution seemed to be pulled out of a hat. The point of view flitted from character to character without seeming to have any particular purpose. There were many elements that would have been good if further developed, but none of them really were. Not one of the better novels in this line.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
This is the story of the London cholera epidemic of 1854 and of Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead, the two men most instrumental in identifying the cause- and proving for the first time that cholera was caused by contaminated water, and not by noxious smells or any one of a dozen other causes. It's also the story of Snow's map- a brilliant piece of information design- the map that correlated cholera deaths to foot traffic wasn't the first use of graphical information representation in epidemiology, but it was certainly one of the most prominent.

I first saw a reproduction of this map in London at an exhibit on the history of information design, and was quite fascinated. Johnson does an excellent job of presenting not only the history of the outbreak, but of presenting the various historical figures in context and of taking the whole episode and exploring its significance- not just for the Victorian residents of Soho, but for urban environments of all times and places. An excellent and thoughtful book.

Death Sentence by Roger MacBride Allen
This is the second in Allen's BSI Starside series. As in his first he has an excellent setup. While overall pacing of the book is an improvement over the first one, I still thought that some of his plot decisions were odd- the sole scene from the POV of the aliens was unnecessary, and the clues to the eventual resolution of the puzzle were obvious enough that I figured out the gimmick instantly. The characters continue appealing, the aliens were interesting. I want very much to like these, because classical mysteries in an SF setting is an idea that strongly appeals to me, but this could have used another couple of rewrites before publication.

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
Before I started this, I wondered if focusing on the drinks might be too limiting, to really get a flavor of history. It worked better than I thought it would, though I have to wonder if someone who wasn't already familiar with a lot of historical detail wouldn't find it sketchy. (Of course, this hypothetical reader probably wouldn't pick this book if they weren't already interested in history!)

But in fact the six drinks; beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola did appear at the focus of a lot of history, and Standage navigates the seas of beverages with interesting factoids, and a good grasp of the issues of the times. A fast and fascinating read. Warning- this may make you rather thirsty!

And I'll also put in a plug for Standage's prior book, The Victorian Internet, which draws some interesting parallels between the community of telegraphers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the community of internet users that bridge the twentieth and twenty-first.

Rose by Martin Cruz Smith
I loved the setting and the puzzle of this. Often books set in the late nineteenth century focus on the aristocracy, and the working class, if it appears at all, are only two-dimensional supporting characters. This book is set in a coal-mining town in Lancastershire, and bridges the class divides between the mine owners and the men and women who work them.

I did think the main character was a bit too liberal in his attitudes- his point of view- while designed to appeal to a modern reader- struck me as anachronistic- a little too modern for the time and place, although it was well-supported by the character background.

The resolution of the story did not live up to the setup. The problems posed to the main characters were not easily resolved, the explanation of the puzzle portion of the story was obvious from the middle of the book and some of the secondary character's motivations are not explained at all. It also suffered from the addition of Obligatory Sex Scenes, which did have a function in the plot but were not nearly as interesting as the mystery portion of the book. Worth reading, but somewhat flawed.

Jumper: Griffin's Story by Steven Gould
Okay, this is the book based on the movie based on a book by the same author. Confused yet? Edit: It seems based on later info that this book is actually the *backstory* for the movie, which may explain some of my confusion. Still want to see it though. R- 11/22.

I loved Gould's original book Jumper, and was pleased to hear they were making a movie. It's not in the least surprising that there were changes-the original book has a lot of character introspection that would be difficult to convey visually. I can only suppose that the changes became so extensive that they chose to rename the character and tell a completely different story- a decision I applaud, since 'inspired by the book' is a good warning that what you see on the screen won't be what was originally written.

So what about the new book? In this version, young Griffin O'Connor has been a 'jumper' since he was five. His parents teach him to keep it a secret, but when he breaks the rules, men come in the night to kill him and his parents. This sets up a more-or-less standard thriller plot, with the added interest of Griffin's fantastic abilities.

I think that in the realms of movie tie-in novels it will be a winner- Gould's lucid writing style, and strong characterization make this a fast and enjoyable read. However, the simplifications that were made to bring this to the screen do weaken the story considerably compared to the original. In particular, the incomplete resolution of the ending (leaving room for a sequel, I assume), is much less satisfying.

This was an enjoyable couple of hours' read on a hot summer afternoon, and I'm still looking forward to the film, but for a darker, more complex and compelling tale, go back to the original Jumper and it's excellent sequel, Reflex.
Tags: books, reviews
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