Thursday, December 31, 2009

Books Read 2009

1. When Will There Be Good News? Kate Atkinson. Really well-written novel, somewhere between a genre mystery and a contemporary work of fiction.
2. The Phoenix Exultant, John C. Wright. Libertarian-oriented, far-future novel. Quite interesting.
3. The Edge of Reason, Melinda Snodgrass. Fantasy novel set in New Mexico. Didn't really work for me.
4. The Ruin of the Roman Empire, James J. O'Donnell. Argues the empire was "ruined" by Justinian's expansion. Not bad, but not great.
5. Little Brother, Cory Doctorow. Excellent novel, written for young adults but a good read for all ages. Won the Prometheus Award. Everyone in the Libertarian Futurist Society was enthusiastic about it, myself included.
6. Saturn's Children, Charles Stross. Science fiction novel about horny robots. A good read.
7. Dilbert 2.0, Scott Adams. Massive collection of Dilbert comic strips.
8. Opening Atlantis, Harry Turtledove (audiobook). Entertaining, average Turtledove novel.
9. Roswell, Texas, L. Neil Smith, Scott Bieser, et al. (graphic novel). Rather interesting look at an alternative Texas.
10. Liberation, Brian Francis Slattery. Unusual novel mixing literary and pop styles. I want to read more by this author.
11. The January Dancer, Michael Flynn. Good far-future SF novel.
12. By Schism Rent Asunder, David Weber (audiobook). Political-military soap opera. Held my attention.
13. The Dead Man's Brother, Roger Zelazny. Lost mystery novel finally published years after author's death. I thought it was quite good.
14. Cosmic Trigger 3: My Life After Death, Robert Anton Wilson. Essays by my favorite writer.
15. Down in the Black Gang, Philip Jose Farmer. Re-read this after hearing about Farmer's death. I think the book proves he was a skilled short story writer.
16. The Cutie, Donald Westlake (audiobook). Fun and fast-moving.
17. The International Spy Museum Handbook of Practical Spying, Jack Barth. Amusing book I picked up at the Washington, D.C., museum.
18. The Spartans, Paul Cartledge (audiobook). Good study by respected scholar.
19. Freakanomics, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (audiobook). Fun. I don't know enough about economics to really judge this book.
20. The Dream of Scipio, Iain Pears. One of the best historical novels ever. Individuals in three societies in crisis (fall of Rome, Black Death, World War II) in what is now southern France face difficult choices.
21. Hit and Run, Lawrence Bloch (audiobook). Typically entertaining outing by my favorite mystery author.
22. The Book of Lost Books, Stuart Kelly. I would have preferred more scholarship and less commentary.
23. Give Me Back My Legions! Harry Turtledove. Historical novel about the defeat of Varus by Arminius that essentially ended Roman attempts to conquer Germany.
24. The Family Man, Elinor Lipman. One of her best, which means it's really good.
25. As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber. Behind the scenes look at the role umpires play in baseball.
26. The Good Humor Man, Andrew Fox. Enjoyable novel about food Prohibition.
27. Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny (audiobook). I love Zelazny, but I can't figure out why people love the Amber books so much.
28. Prophets, S. Andrew Swann. Enjoyable, fast-moving space opera. First book of a trilogy.
29. Threshhold, Collected Stories Volume 1, Roger Zelazny. Wonderful beginning to NESFA's six-part chronicle.
30. Pallas, L. Neil Smith. Not as good as The Forge of the Elders.
31. Conspiracies of Rome, Richard Blake. Historical novel about Italy in late antiquity. I'm eager to read the sequel.
32. Power and Light, Collected Stories Volume 2, Roger Zelazny. NESFA is performing an excellent service by publishing these.
33. Rocket Men, Craig Nelson (audiobook). Excellent chronicle of the moon flights.
34. Saratoga, John F. Luzader. I read this because I knew I'd be visiting the battlefield. Somewhat revisionist treatment argues that Horatio Gates deserves much of the credit for the key victory.
35. Isle of the Dead, Roger Zelazny. One of Zelazny's best.
36. Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov. Another excellent Nabokov, more political than his usual work.
37. Songs for the Missing, Stewart O'Nan (audiobook). Chilling book about murder of young woman.
38. The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome, Stuart Kelly. Shows role Huns played in Rome's fall. See comments in my 'Best of 2009' posting.
39. Healthy Competition, Michael F. Cannon and Michael D. Tanner. Cato Institute's take on health care reform.
40. The Unincorporated Man, Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin. Very political science fiction novel. Interesting and intermittently good
41. By Heresies Distressed, David Weber (audiobook). Not as good as the previous book in the series.
42. This is Me, Jack Vance! Jack Vance. Memoir of one of my favorite authors.
43. Death of a Gentle Lady, M.C. Beaton (audiobook). Funny, very enjoyable mystery. Decided to try Beaton after reading Jack Vance's statement that Beaton is his favorite living author.
44. The Quiet War, Paul McAuley. Science fiction novel about global warming and its consequences. Pretty good.
45. Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, M.R. James. My Halloween book. He's quite good at ghost stories.
46. The Healing of America, T.R. Reid. Useful look at health care systems in other countries.
47. Transition, Iain R. Banks. Really excellent alternate-worlds SF novel.
48. Makers, Cory Doctorow. Doctorow's tribute to entrepreneurs shows a gift for characterization.
49. Create Your Own Economy, Tyler Cowen. Insightful study of how technology allows each of us to create our own little worlds of education and entertainment.
50. The United States of Atlantis, Harry Turtledove. Dull plot that essentially recapitulates American Revolution, but interesting political insights.
51. A Highland Christmas, M.C. Beaton. Brief holiday novel by the Scottish mystery writer.
52. The Secret Life of Eva Hathaway, Janice Weber. Passionate, energetic and often funny novel by author who is also an acclaimed classical pianist.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Download a great, free Christmas audiobook

Librivox is a site that offers free audiobooks of public domain books, read by volunteer readers. (A public domain book is a work, usually old, that has gone out of copyright. Think Jane Austen.)

As you might expect, the quality of the volunteers varies quite a bit, and many of these works feature a succession of readers, some of them good, some not. That's a good description one of the site's versions of "A Christmas Carol." But I've made a discovery. A guy who goes by the name "Smokestack Jones," from my old stomping ground back in Oklahoma, made an excellent recording which you can download here.

More on Christmas audiobooks here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Best Books of 2009

Everybody else does a best books list; why not me? Mine is shorter and easier to get through.

1. The Family Man, Elinor Lipman. Another warm, funny novel about human relationships by an author often characterized, not unfairly, as a latter-day Jane Austen. Uncharacteristically, the most important romance in the book is between two gay characters. Characteristically, the two gay men offer Lipman a chance to say something wise and humane about what being a "family man" is really all about.

2. As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber. A book by a New York Times reporter that examines the roles of umpires in baseball, and explain what it's like to be an umpire. If this wasn't the best book about baseball in 2009, the better ones must be pretty great.

3. The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome, Stuart Kelly. I love to read about the later Roman Empire/late antiquity/the "Dark Ages." I read more than one such book this year; this was the best. Kelly shows how the Huns damaged the Roman Empire not just by helping to cause a series of invasions by various tribes, such as the Goths, but also illuminates how Attila's attacks critically hindered the Eastern Roman Empire's efforts to bring north Africa back into the Roman fold.

4. The Healing of America, T.R. Reid. If you want to understand how health care systems work in other countries, this is where to go. Reid's book suffers from flaws and bias, as any book on such a politically-charged topic is likely to do, but I learned a lot from it and and admired the way he could clearly illuminate difficult topics.

5. Transition, Iain M. Banks. Banks is the best science fiction writer in the world who has never won a major SF award (such as the Hugo). I'll defend such statements by pointing to books such as this one, a politically-charged, masterfully-plotted alternate worlds novel. What an indictment of our literary culture that outfits like NPR and the New York Times ignored this book.

6. Create Your Own Economy, Tyler Cowen. Cowen shows how technology has allowed each of us to create our own private university (or "economy," as the George Mason University economist puts it. The book could have benefitted from a little editing to force Cowen to define his terms more and tease out his arguments, but the book is full of sharp insights.

Notes and Honorable Mentions: I thought Roger Zelazny's "The Dead Man's Brother" was quite good; others seemed to disagree. I read quite a few excellent books that just weren't published in 2009, among them 2008's "Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow. (His 2009 book, "Makers," also is quite good). I finally got around to reading "The Dream of Scipio" by Iain Pears, which is maybe the best historical novel I've ever come across.