Short Reviews of Inexpensive Books

I read a lot of books commuting to and from work on the bus. This brings up the problem: what to read? Some books I read are, not surprisingly, from authors I have liked in the past, while others are books that have been recommended to me by others. These are all great (although I do try to avoid reading pretentious books in public).

Nevertheless, since variety is the spice of life, I wanted a way to read books I'd never heard of, picked out at random. My solution was to go to my local bookstore and buy books off the bargain shelf based basically off what they look like (ie judging books by their covers). I really only have one explicit filter: no series (not that they're bad; I'm just not interested in becoming embroiled in a 15-book saga). Given that all I have to go on are covers, this filter mostly boils down to discarding anything that has "Book x of the y series" or "A somebody novel" on the cover. It works pretty well. There are implicit filters, too. My predilection leans towards what I'd call "speculative fiction" (a hoity-toity way of saying "sci-fi"), but I'm willing to read anything well written.

I suspect there are a number of reasons for a book being on the bargain shelf, but they all boil down to something like: the bookseller thought she would sell more copies of the book than she actually did. It's not specifically a filter for quality, but I have noticed that a certain fraction of the books seem to be there because they're just a little odd—not bad or crazy or off-the-wall, just far enough out of the mainstream to make them look reasonable on paper, but somehow make buyers skip them for something closer to what they were looking for.

But enough of the italics; on to the reviews!

Aczel, Amir D.: Pendulum

Aczel, Amir D.: Pendulum [Find]

An exploration of Léon Foucault and his famous experiment. Well researched and including good explanations of the science involved, Aczel keeps the story interesting.

Arnaldur Indriðason: Hypothermia

Arnaldur Indriðason: Hypothermia [Find]

A detective investigates a suicide. The dust jacket on my copy tries to link this author with Stieg Larsson, which does neither author any favours. This is not Larsson-esque high-octane action; what it is, is primarily a meditation on coping with death, and an excellent one at that. Translation by Victoria Cribb.

Ballantyne, Tony: Recursion

Ballantyne, Tony: Recursion [Find]

Three stories separated by 150 years speculating on the problems of self-replicating machine plagues, surveillance states, and AI singularities. Not without its problems, but engaging.

Banks, Iain M.: Matter

Banks, Iain, M.: Matter [Find]

Another Culture novel. Both internal and external power struggles abound in various species up and down the technological ladder. In the end Special Circumstances shows up to knock some heads. A door-stopper of enjoyable action sci-fi.

Barclay, Linwood: Never Look Away

Barclay, Linwood: Never Look Away [Find]

Read along as a man's life gets destroyed through no fault of his own. (It's like watching a slow-motion train wreck.) A portion of the story is seen through the eyes of the primary antagonist (who's somewhat sympathetic) which has the result of lessening the thrill a bit, but not at the expense of the story. Well paced.

Barnes, Jonathan: The Somnambulist

Barnes, Jonathan: The Somnambulist [Find]

Let's call it a steampunk crime novel. Full of fantastic elements, including a man who experiences time backwards. It's a very creative world, and shows promise, but there's too much of it, and the story suffers from a lack of focus.

Bova, Ben: The Hittite

Bova, Ben: The Hittite [Find]

A retelling of the fall of Troy from the point of view of a Hittite mercenary. Not a bad version of the story as far as it goes, but the Iliad is still better. I would have been more interested with a book about Hittites, but I guess it would have had to have been called A Hittite or One of Several Hittites, which aren't as snappy.

Brust and Bull: Freedom and Necessity

Brust, Steven and Bull, Emma: Freedom & Necessity [Find]

A historical novel set in 1849 revolving around the aftermath of the Chartists in Britain (and more broadly, the European revolutions of 1848). A very engaging adventure. Almost certainly ended up on the bargain shelf due to being an epistolary novel, though I thought that form worked well.

Buehlman, Christopehr: Those Across the River

Buehlman, Christopher: Those Across the River [Find]

A WWI vet and his wife come into conflict with an unnatural threat to their new town. (It's on the other side of the river). I don't read much horror, but found this to be well characterised and well paced.

Cameron, Kenneth: The Frightened Man

Cameron, Kenneth: The Frightened Man [Find]

A mystery set in old-timey London. But this is Edwardian London (a bona fide motor car makes an appearance). And where Sherlock Holmes solves crimes with deduction, our American protagonist's primary advantage seems to be an unflinchingly tenacious inability to just give up. A concise, well written story.

Christie, Agatha: 4:50 from Paddington

Christie, Agatha: 4:50 from Paddington [Find]

Such a classic from Christie that even if you haven't read it, you probably already have heard the basics of the story (but may not realise it). A delightful enough read, although Miss Marple can come off as suspiciously omniscient in places.

Dick, Philip K.: Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

Dick, Philip K.: Humpty Dumpty in Oakland [Find]

An elderly garage owner looks to sell his business, coming into conflict with a car salesman who sublets part of his property. Originally written in 1960, rejected by his publisher, and only finally published posthumously in 1986, while not bad per se, sub-par for Dick. The publisher made the right decision in declining the manuscript. There's better PKD.

Dorst, Doug: Alive in Necropolis

Dorst, Doug: Alive in Necropolis [Find]

A new cop in town struggles to get his life in order. The town is full of cemeteries, the cemeteries are full of ghosts, and there are ghost crimes that need a-solvin'. The strength of this book is the relationships between the (non-ghost) characters, and the ghost malarkey simply serves as distraction. Would have been better without them.

Gray, John MacLachlan: Not Quite Dead

Gray, John MacLachlan: Not Quite Dead [Find]

Charles Dickens comes to America and has a bad time of it. Meanwhile, Edgar Allen Poe fakes his own death. Thrills ensue. Includes a delightfully egregious misinterpretation of David Copperfield by Poe but on the whole would have benefited from some tightening of the narrative.

Haldeman, Joe: The Accidental Time Machine

Haldeman, Joe: The Accidental Time Machine [Find]

As the title says, a student assistant in a physics lab accidentally creates a time machine. A time machine to adventure! Has a fairly realistic feel to the beginning physics lab part, and the adventure is well paced. Gets a little surreal near the end, but a very enjoyable read.

Hammond, Warren: KOP

Hammond, Warren: KOP [Find]

Hard-boiled detective fiction in space (or, at least, on a dystopic human colony planet in the far future). Futuristic elements don't seem to add a whole lot to the plot, so the whole thing might have been better dropping the "in space" part, and put it in boring-old now, at which point we'd be left with perfectly serviceable noir.

Houellebecq, Michel: The Map and the Territory

Houellebecq, Michel: The Map and the Territory [Find]

The life and times of an artist. Funny and extremely well done. Houellebecq inserts himself into the novel. At first it seems like it's to poke fun at himself, but the character's involvement in the plot takes a frankly bizarre turn at the start of Part Three. Worth the read. Translation by Gavin Bowd.

Le Carré, John: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Le Carré, John: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [Find]

A classic spy thriller. So multilayered it defies casual reading. Worth the effort if you can find the time.

Levy, Steven: Crypto

Levy, Steven: Crypto [Find]

A history of the development of civilian strong cryptography and the US government's (ongoing) bungling attempts to suppress the research. All your favourite players are there. A good introduction for those who know little of the subject; well researched. Levy provides a cohesive picture of the conflict.

Mosley, Walter: The Wave

Mosley, Walter: The Wave [Find]

A man starts getting phone calls from his dead father. Weirdness ensues. Unfortunately, this is one of those slightly-too-odd books on the bargain shelf. Mosley is an excellent writer, and this isn't bad, but the story stays a bit too long in the uncomfortable grey region between realistic and fantastic.

Mullen, Thomas: The Revisionists

Mullen, Thomas: The Revisionists [Find]

An agent from the future comes to modern-day D.C. to thwart the bad guys ("historical agitators", or "hags") and make sure history stays on track. At least that's what he thinks he's doing. More espionage thriller than time travel sci-fi, and, as that, it makes for a reasonably good read.

Pinker, Steven: The Stuff of Thought

Pinker, Steven: The Stuff of Thought [Find]

A look at the relationship between language, thought, human nature and society. Thorough but accessible. Well worth the read if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Pringle, Peter: Day of the Dandelion

Pringle, Peter: Day of the Dandelion [Find]

A botanical spy thriller, of all things. I never realised botany was so exciting. About GMOs, not surprisingly. It's a good start from the journalist turned novelist.

Richler, Mordecai: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Richler, Mordecai: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz [Find]

Probably Richler's masterpiece, it tells the coming-of-age story of the titular anti-hero. People have written whole theses on this book. There's little point in me reviewing it. Read it.

Sagan, Carl: The Dragons of Eden

Sagan, Carl: The Dragons of Eden [Find]

Proof that even Pulitzer Prize winners end up on the bargain shelf. An exploration on the origins of human intelligence. Written in 1977, it's not surprising that parts are now dated. Despite that, still a good introduction to the field.

Saunders, George; Tenth of December

Saunders, George: Tenth of December [Find]

A collection of short stories exploring human foibles and the human condition. I very much enjoyed the first story, "Victory Lap", and the last "Tenth of December". The remainder vary, but they're short, and none of them are bad. Very well written, there's probably something in here for everyone.

Sawyer, Robert J.: Frameshift

Sawyer, Robert J.: Frameshift [Find]

An unexpected mixture of telepathy, Huntington's disease and Nazi hunters. For much of the book the telepathy part seemed like an unnecessarily glaring plot convenience, but Sawyer wraps things up well in the end, so no problem there.

Simmons, Dan: The Terror

Simmons, Dan: The Terror [Find]

A lurking horror stalks the crews of the Erebus and Terror in a fictionalised account of Franklin's lost expedition. Simmons, never one to go easy on his readers, provides a reletlessly oppressive yet engaging story. The setting itself provides much of the terror, and we all know how the expedition went, but Simmons manages to keep things from being unrelentingly bleak. Excellent.

Stirlink, S. M.: The Sky People

Stirling, S. M.: The Sky People [Find]

During the Cold War, the US struggles to colonise another planet and deal with its primitive aborigines. Oddly enough, the aborigines are human. And the planet is Venus. Also, there are dinosaurs. Another from the just-too-odd shelf. Presumably Stirling wanted to publish this story sixty years ago, when it would have fit in better, but didn't start soon enough. Bizarre.

Stuart, Julia: The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

Stuart, Julia: The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise [Find]

The Tower of London and the London Undergound Lost Property Office provide the backdrop for a story of love, loss, and loneliness among a troop of eccentrics. Alternately bizarre, hilarious, heartwarming, charming, and sentimental, to resonably good effect. Unclear how the tortoise, who provides little more than a cameo, finagled third billing.

Swift, Jonathan; Gulliver's Travels

Swift, Jonathan: Gulliver's Travels [Find]

That classic, proto-sci-fi, 18th-century satire. It's worth a read, but the problem with satire is it doesn't work very well if you're unfamiliar with the thing being satired. The text was fine, but in place of the rather arbitrary miniature dictionary at the end of the Collins Classics edition I read, I would have preferred some explanatory notes on the text.

Walter, Jess: The Financial Lives of the Poets

Walter, Jess: The Financial Lives of the Poets [Find]

An out-of-work journalist has a week to find some money to avoid losing his house. Starts off well, and funny in places, but I found the protagonist's chronic poor decision making and self-pity left me apathetic to his story.

Walton, Jo: Ha'penny

Walton, Jo: Ha'penny [Find]

Somehow this one made it past my book series filter. Nevertheless, set in an alternate 1949 where Britain didn't join World War II. Result: fascist Britain. The protagonist spends a fair bit of his time trying to save Hitler from an assassin. Walton avoids descending into polemics and delivers a good (if depressing) read.

Weber, David: Out of the Dark

Weber, David: Out of the Dark [Find]

Space aliens invade earth next Thursday. They have the high ground but have neglected their pre-invasion homework. Weber does one thing well: tactical military fiction. He does that very well, and there's plenty of it here. Marred by an utterly ridiculous deus ex machina at the end.