Katherine's Book Babble

Most recently read stuff is listed first. Books that I'm rereading are in this color. You can generally tell from the blurb whether I liked the book or not, but an asterisk (*) means that I would definitely recommend the book in question. And books with two asterisks (**) are even better than that.

December, 2006:
*Hogfather Terry Pratchett Fantasy, one of the Discworld series. The Hogfather, as everyone knows, roams about Discworld on Hogswatch night, giving presents to deserving children. But when lack of belief begins to harm the Hogfather, others step in to lend a hand. (Link)
**Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany Bill Buford Nonfiction, culinary, biographical. After encountering Mario Batali, writer Buford throws himself into learning all there is to know about cooking Italian. He volunteers as slave labor at the kitchen of Batali's restaurant, and then apprentices himself to Italian pasta-makers and butchers. The narrative is joyous and wonderful, full of appreciation and constant curiosity. (Link)
Carrie Stephen King Fiction, horror, teen drama. Carrie is a mentally unbalanced telekinetic teenager, whom fellow high-schoolers love to bully. She, of course, eventually snaps. Chaos and doom ensues. (Link)
*Pawn in Frankincense Dorothy Dunnett Historical fiction, fourth in the Lymond Chronicles. On a mission to save the son that he has never seen, Lymond strikes into the heart of the Sultan's territory. Dogged by his nemesis, he must do his best to protect his friends and identify his enemies. Tense and brilliant, the emotion building with each step. (Link)
Falling Free Lois McMaster Bujold SF. An engineer finds himself in the middle of an experiment in genetic engineering, whose subjects (innocent humans modified for life in free-fall) become victims of an uncaring corporation. When their lives are threatened, he devotes himself to freeing them. Pretty simple story, done in Bujold's smooth and enjoyable writing. (Link)
November, 2006:
Crown of Stars Kate Elliott Fantasy, last in the Crown of Stars series. The sweeping conclusion: though the world is riven and ravaged, the royal rivals continue fighting over the throne. The wave that has been building through the series crests and breaks in one last, great, bloody battle, after which we are given just enough hints to be sure that most of the protagonists lived happy lives. Conclusive, but rather hastily so considering the sheer bulk of the books that preceded it. (Link)
October, 2006:
**The Disorderly Knights Dorothy Dunnett Historical fiction, third in the Lymond Chronicles. Despite feuding clans at home in Scotland, Lymond is sent to Malta to assist the Knights Hospitaller against the invading Turks. There, he finds an adversary who is his match in more ways than one; Dunnett does a fantastic job in creating a creepy, compelling villain. The quiet, subversive conflict grows throughout the book and culminates finally in a breathless confrontation. Fantastic. (Link)
*The Prestige Christopher Priest Fiction, Victorian multiple-POV madness. Two young magicians, rivals in their profession, try to sabotage one another's tricks and uncover one another's secrets. In most stage acts, the illusion seems much more glamourous than the secret behind it; the same is true for the secrets of the magicians in this novel. A fun, dark, exhilirating read. (Link)
September, 2006:
In the Ruins Kate Elliott Fantasy, sixth in the Crown of Stars series. A bridge between the cataclysmic events of the fifth and the conclusions to be drawn in the seventh. The book is a doorstopper but Elliott has created so many characters that she ends up spending hundreds of pages catching up on where all of them are now. Good writing as usual but it seems that readers must wait for the seventh book for anything to actually happen. (Link)
*Love, Again Doris Lessing Fiction, romance (of a sort). A practical sixty-five-year-old woman surprises herself by falling head-over-heels in love with a younger man. What follows is a long, tortuous, sometimes beautiful examination of the emotion, illustrated by a large cast of supporting actors. The novel is a bit wordy, but the images of longing and desolation are gorgeous. (Link)
Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro Sci-fi, follows three people as they grow up and into their destiny. The SF element is peripheral at best but it's hard to categorize. I'd call it a coming-of-age story, except that the characters never really grow or change; they're even more repressed and passive than most Ishiguro characters. As social commentary, it would have been done better as a short story; any punch was lost in the painfully slow unfolding of plot. (Link)
Queen's Play Dorothy Dunnett Historical fiction, second in the Lymond Chronicles. Dunnett's hero Lymond, the wittiest and most diversely talented man in sixteenth-century Europe, returns as a spy in the French Court. In his undercover identity, he investigates attempts on the life of the six-year-old Mary Queen of Scots. Although Lymond's seemingly boundless skills become rather annoying, the constantly unfolding plot will keep you hooked. (more...) (Link)
The Jaguar Knights Dave Duncan Fantasy, adventure. Another in the "King's Blades" universe, with a gloomy atmosphere and high body count that has more in common with the original trilogy than the later swashbuckling volumes. Sir Wolf, a scarred and embittered Blade, teams up with an Inquisitor to discover the facts behind an improbable attack; their quest leads them to exotic lands and unwelcome discoveries. (Link)
Impossible Odds Dave Duncan Fantasy, adventure, swashbuckling. Another in the "King's Blades" universe. Exciting and fast-paced, but less polished than others in the series, with a plot that's just a little too convenient. Young swordsmen overcome obstacles ranging from undead fighters to treachery on all sides, in their attempt to restore a Duchess to her rightful place. (Link)
The Volcano Lover: A Romance Susan Sontag Historical fiction: the story of a romance between vulcanologist Sir William Hamilton and his wives Catherine and Emma (Emma also strikes up a romance with Lord Nelson). Since Sontag does not often refer to her characters by name, though, the names eventually cease to matter. The prose is absorbing, though thick. Nice pieces of meditation on one's role in life, especially as the characters encounter the French Revolution, and their world begins to fall apart. (more...) (Link)
*Diplomatic Immunity Lois McMaster Bujold Sci fi, latest in the Miles Vorkosigan saga. Miles, having won his lady, finds his honeymoon interrupted by a crisis of interplanetary proportions. Space-opera action takes over as Miles investigates strange incidents and dodges bioterror weapons with his customary flair... except now he also has a wife and possible children to worry about. As usual, an excellent mix of adventure and social commentary. (Link)
**A Civil Campaign Lois McMaster Bujold Sci fi, mixed with Shakespearean comedy and a dash of feminist commentary. Brilliant piece of work, one of the best books in the Miles Vorkosigan saga. Miles tries, rather ineptly, to court his lady-love; in the background, Vor lords (and ladies) vie for power. Great reading, hilarious and touching by turns. (Link)
August, 2006:
The Gathering Storm Kate Elliott Fantasy, fifth in the Crown of Stars series. Elliott manages the multiple threads of her complex fantasy epic with admirable skill, her characters weaving through different countries and relative timelines, each doing their best to reach their own goals as the cataclysm looms. Feels a bit rushed at times (especially considering the slow and careful build-up of the previous four books), but very exciting overall. (Link)
The Lady and the Panda Vicki Constantine Croke History, subtitled "The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal." The book is about the life and times of Ruth Harkness, an intrepid society lady who ventured into China to carry out the quest of her late husband. Fascinating subject but the writing style is unsure and scattered; I would much prefer to read the original 1938 writings of Harkness herself, whose prose seems about twice as vibrant and entertaining as that of Ms. Croke. Still, a very well-researched and informative read. (Link)
July, 2006:
Paragon Lost Dave Duncan Fantasy, adventure, swashbuckling. Duncan returns to his "King's Blades" universe with an exciting tale about a young swordsman who must navigate political intrigue and danger to do his duty to his ward and his liege. Rollicking and serious by turns; very smooth read. (Link)
*Anansi Boys Neil Gaiman Fiction, mythology. Spider-god Anansi has two sons; one gets all the powers and the other is easily embarrassed by his dad. The tale is told from the viewpoint of the latter, who is perfectly happy with his fiancee, his accounting job, and life in general... until his brother shows up. A sweet tale of growth, family love, and bad people getting their comeuppance. (Link)
Geek Love Katherine Dunn Fiction, horror/weirdness, vivid and heartbreaking. Told from the viewpoint of Olympia, a hunchbacked albino dwarf whose parents attempt to breed freak children for their carnival. The twisted creations that result nevertheless love one another like family, save for the flipper-limbed control-freak Arturo, whose actions eventually destroy everything. An odd and disturbing book, full of emotions people would rather keep buried. (Link)

June, 2006:
Mr. Mani A. B. Yehoshua Fiction, experimental. The history of a family told backwards, in one-sided conversations about generations of self-destructive Mani boys who grow up bereft of fathers. Yehoshua is undoubtedly a master of technique; his prose is riveting and it's fun to piece the story together through the words of his unreliable narrators. (Link)
**Surprised By Joy C. S. Lewis Biography with a slant. Lewis traces his journey from unbelieving child to practicing Christian, focusing on his pursuit of "Joy," the name he gives to moments of soaring inspiration and happiness. The glimpses into his childhood and upbringing are sympathetic and fascinating. Wonderful read. (Link)
Bloodsworth Tim Junkin Nonfiction, the story of the first man on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence. The writing is more than a bit biased towards Kirk Bloodsworth who, although no angel, did not deserve to be jailed and sentenced to death for a crime that he did not commit. Fascinating and enlightening, especially regarding the investigative techniques and technologies of the time. (Link)
*Baudolino Umberto Eco Fiction, quasi-historical. A peasant child named Baudolino, too good with languages and too clever by half, is taken under the wing of Emperor Frederick. Baudolino recounts adventures in which he unravels conspiracies, travels to mythical lands, and even carries the Holy Grail... but since Baudolino is a self-professed liar, what (if anything) can be believed? A fun and convoluted romp through the Middle Ages. (Link)
May, 2006:
*The Letter of Marque Patrick O'Brian Historical fiction, Aubrey-Maturin series; entertaining and dramatic. Jack Aubrey, though dishonored, manages to find action at sea as a privateer in his old ship the Surprise. Meanwhile, Maturin struggles to deal with newfound wealth, his troubled marriage, and his addiction to laudanum. (Link)
*Starship Troopers Robert A. Heinlein Scifi, a young soldier's coming-of-age in a future space infantry. Johnny Rico joins the military to impress a girl, and instead learns to be a man; his journey is set against a background of Heinlein's political philosophies and thought experiments. Fun read. (Link)
King Kelson's Bride Katherine Kurtz Fantasy, a novel of the Deryni. The other Deryni books as I remember them were tense and angst-filled, but this volume is light, almost gossipy. King Kelson finds and marries his bride, against a backdrop of politicking, king-crowning, and matchmaking. (Link)
*The Mauritius Command Patrick O'Brian Historical fiction, Aubrey-Maturin (aka Master and Commander) series. Aubrey, stuck ashore without a berth and with his mother-in-law at home, is more than happy when Maturin shows up with a difficult mission. What follows is a typical rollicking O'Brian naval adventure, in which Aubrey is given command over some questionable captains, and Maturin pursues science and intelligence ashore. (Link)

April, 2006:
The Biographer's Tale A. S. Byatt Literary playfulness. A graduate student, bored of postmodernism, decides to immerse himself in solid facts by writing the biography of a biographer. He quickly drowns himself in bits of tantalizing facts, remnants of another man's life; he must again turn to the real world - and the people (especially the women) in it - to pull himself back out. Beautiful and very learned writing. (Link)
*Leviathan: The unauthorised biography of Sydney John Birmingham Nonfiction, history. A blackly humorous look at Sydney's past and the events that shaped it. Birmingham does exhaustive research into the Australian city which began as a British jail, and follows a trail of violence, racism, and corruption from then to the present. Entertaining and emotional by turns. More history books should be written this way. (Link)
*Skipping Towards Gomorrah Dan Savage Journalistic essays, a poke at the conservative mainstay Slouching Towards Gomorrah by Robert Bork. Savage investigates the seven deadly sins in America. He sometimes lectures a bit overlong on Bork's hypocrisy, though I suppose it's warranted if the book is a response and not standalone. The tone is sympathetic towards the happily sinning Americans, and full of his trademark scathing humor. (Link)
*Komarr Lois McMaster Bujold Sci-fi, next Miles Vorkosigan. Miles kicks off his newest task (uncovering a conspiracy) by going to the planet where his father is seen as a criminal, and falling in love with the wife of his host. Bujold's writing, wit, and skillful plot spinning is really addictive. (Link)
**Memory Lois McMaster Bujold Sci-fi, next Miles Vorkosigan. Miles makes a mistake, tries to cover it up, and instead finds himself suddenly and forcibly retired. Fortunately, another strange mystery surfaces for him to investigate. Not as action-packed as the usual Miles fare, but deeply satisfying nonetheless. (Link)
*Mirror Dance Lois McMaster Bujold Sci-fi, next Miles Vorkosigan adventure (though Miles is notably absent through most of this, having been misplaced within the first 100 pages). This one deals mainly with Miles' clone-brother Mark. Tense and fast-moving story, great character development and beautiful writing as always. (Link)
*Child of Flame Kate Elliott Fantasy, fourth in the Crown of Stars series. A vast improvement over the first three. Elliott, though blessed with superlative world-building skills, tended to bore by doling out history disguised as monologues. This book tells instead of showing, by thrusting one of the characters into the distant past to experience the cataclysmic events that cause the conflicts of the present. Meanwhile, the ongoing war for succession continues amidst magic, treachery, and multilayered politicking. Brilliant, gripping; worth slogging through the first three volumes to get here. (Link)
March, 2006:
The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown Fiction, conspiracy theory thriller. Quite gripping despite the mediocre prose and Brown's tendency to lecture on the occult. A Harvard symbologist and a French cryptologist are embroiled in a murder mystery that requires all of their knowledge to solve. (Link)
Making History Stephen Fry Fiction, alternate universe. An ineffectual graduate student at Cambridge thinks that he can save the world from Hitler. Amusing throughout (as one would expect from Fry) but really a bit grim as the author brings in the inevitable SF warning: be careful what you wish for. (Link)
**Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman James Gleick Biography of a man and of the science that he helped revolutionize. A beautiful treatment of Richard Feynman, sympathetic to his more amusing quirks but aware of his faults and the more negative aspects to his personality. Also a good review of the birth of quantum physics, with side inquiries into the lives and personalities of Feynman's friends and rivals: Gell-Mann, Schwinger, Dyson, Oppenheimer. The level of detail and the multiple points of view create the best of biographies: it is left up to the reader to form an opinion of the man. (Link)

February, 2006:
Moonraker Ian Fleming Spy thriller, the third of the James Bond novels. A simple investigation into a slightly sketchy missile program uncovers a far-ranging plot against Britain, and deception on multiple levels. The chick in this one is actually quite independent for a Bond girl, an undercover policewoman who seems more immune than most to Bond's charms. (Link)
The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories E.M. Forster Short stories, allegorical fable type. Forster, in his trademark beautiful prose, provides several short stories of practical British people who find themselves either able or completely unable to deal with a slight amount of otherworldliness. In the title story, a young boy finds an omnibus that goes to Heaven; however, try though he might to share this vision with the adults around him, he finds himself surrounded by disbelievers. The end result is just, almost frighteningly so. (Link)

January, 2006:
Live and Let Die Ian Fleming Thriller, the second of the James Bond novels. Cute as anything; in search of smuggled gold coins, Bond runs afoul of a huge black torturer/killer/mob boss/voodoo practitioner. Add in the obligatory helpless beautiful female, plenty of goons and elaborate traps... you get the idea. (Link)

Booklist archives:  2005 list,  2004 list,  2003 list,  2002 and earlier.

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