Summer Book Reviews

I’ve been doing some summer reading recently. Here are a few books I’ve read:

Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell. Bazell introduces us to Peter Brown, an overworked doctor at a Manhattan hospital. A patient at the hospital sees Peter and believes him to be a hit man who disappeared into the witness protection program. This is a taut thriller soaked in adrenaline, especially during the second half of the book. You’ll learn more about medicine than the mob, but you won’t mind soaking up the knowledge. Plenty of action (even some gore). Beat the Reaper isn’t as shallow as some summer thrillers, but it isn’t remarkably deep either.

Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child. If you like Jack Reacher books, this is one of the better examples. Jack Reacher is a loner, a former military policeman with a knack for stumbling across trouble. Reacher watches a woman kill herself on the subway and digs at the truth until he uncovers much more than he expected. Lee Child’s Reacher series pretty much defines the summer suspense book. In Gone Tomorrow, Child’s pacing is excellent–you may stay up until 4 a.m. to finish the book. If you’re looking for a fun way to spend time by the pool or in the airport, this book delivers.

Dog On It, by Spencer Quinn. This is a detective story told from the perspective of the detective’s dog, Chet. I think most people would like this book. I’ve enjoyed the recent spate of detective stories from unusual perspectives (The Little Sleep describes a narcoleptic detective, while The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has an autistic narrator). And books told from the perspective of an animal can be fun (I enjoyed Cats in Cyberspace, by Beth Hilgartner).

Dog On It follows Chet and his owner Bernie as they try to solve a kidnapping. Overall the book is entertaining and even pulls strongly at your heart in a couple places. The relationship between the detective and his dog is a touchstone that carries the book well. A couple minor points did mar the story for me. First, the book had coincidences that strained my suspension of disbelief three or four times. The other sticking point is that in conveying Chet’s emotional state, the author tells us any time that Chet is happy–which happens a lot. The fifth or sixth time that Chet is overjoyed by sticking his head out the window or getting a treat, it gets a little stale. Then again, dogs are happy most of the time. These issues are minor though; if you like a little bit of hardboiled detective work told with a twist, you should enjoy Dog On it.

The Unincorporated Man, by Dani and Eytan Kollin. This book started extremely strongly. The premise is that Justin Cord, a multibillionaire in his own time, is woken up from cryonic suspension after 300 years. In the future, when a person is born they are incorporated. Parents own 20% of the corporation and the government gets 5%. Many people end up owning only a minority stake in themselves and spend decades pursuing majority control of their personal corporations so that they can decide what to do with their own lives.

The Unincorporated Man is really a bit of philosophy and economics pretending to be science fiction. I love books that postulate a slightly changed world and then examine the consequences of that change in detail. For example, the book The Truth Machine asks how society would be affected by an infallible lie detector. The Truth Machine is one of my favorite books, and for a while I thought that The Unincorporated Man would be even better. But the book goes on a bit long and veers away from its beginning into standard science fiction by the end. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the ending felt like the authors were setting up a sequel instead of wrapping up all the loose ends. Would I still recommend this book? Yes. The “idea density” of this book is high, and most of the book is entertaining. But The Unincorporated Man may drag for a few people.

Emergency, by Neil Strauss. If you’ve read Strauss’ most famous book The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists then you might be under the mistaken impression that Strauss is, well, a jerk. The Game was very entertaining, but it helped spawn a whole generation of wannabe pickup artists who believe that “negging” (insulting someone in the guise of a compliment to exert emotional power over them) is a good idea. Strauss’ new book makes it clear that his previous book was documenting a scene, not his identity.

Strauss’ new book is titled Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life, but that’s really not an accurate title. After Y2K, 9/11, and Katrina, Strauss describes the feeling that the United States was in a downward spiral and confesses “if the system ever did break down, the only useful skill I really had was the ability to write about it.” The book doesn’t teach *you* survival skills; instead it follows Strauss as *he* learns survival skills. At times the book is scattershot: the first place Strauss talks about is a cryonic suspension facility, and some of the adventures sound like “Crazy Things I Did So I Could Write About Them.”

But the book has two especially interesting threads. One explores Strauss’ attempts to obtain dual-citizenship in case the United States goes belly-up (Strauss decides to pursue citizenship from Saint Kitts). Along the way, Strauss bumps into the Sovereign Society, which offers “experts in the world of offshore finance.” He also discovers the idea of the PT, short for permanent traveler or perpetual tourist:

The idea of PT is that, just as we shop at different stores in a mall to find various items we want, we can also shop in different countries to find the lifestyles, governments, careers, people, tax rates, and cultures that best suit us.

Strauss’ exploration into this shadowy world is fascinating. If you enjoy that sort of thing, you might also enjoy How to Be Invisible, which is another book dedicated to similar ideas.

The other thread in the book starts with Strauss deciding to game the system by joining it:

Not only would I get the experience I was looking for, not only would I get a uniform and badge that would get me past roadblocks when escaping the city, not only would I get keys to the back fire roads, not only would I be exposed to life-and-death situations, but I’d have the best, strongest network available: the system itself.

But as Strauss burrows deeper into the system for his personal gain, he finds that it burrows deeper into him as well. When before he thought of fleeing danger, he ends the book more likely to run toward it to help people. Along the way I think you’ll have a good time.

The Little Sleep, by Paul Tremblay. Tremblay writes about a Mark, a Boston private investigator. Mark suffers from narcolepsy and hallucinations, which make cracking a case much harder. I liked the book aight, but the main character isn’t especially sympathetic. If you like hard-boiled detective fiction with a twist, you’ll like this book. Otherwise, it’s probably not your best bet.

Bad Cop, by Paul Bacon. I’m a sucker for books that teach you something along the way. This non-fiction book provides solid glimpse of what it might be like to be a Manhattan cop. After reading the book, I might not want to want to hang out with Paul Bacon, but I do appreciate him describing what life is like as a police officer. Bacon discovers that moving violations provide easy “collars,” so he quickly becomes an expert on vehicle traffic law. Eventually Bacon lands in precinct 28 in South Harlem, where he suffers through several misadventures before he realizes he’s not a great cop and resigns. If you’re interested in the police, I think you will enjoy this book.

Breathers, by S.G. Browne. It’s a zombie romance. Really, what more do you need to hear after that? The book isn’t scary or a thriller, but just a quick “slice of life” tale from a zombie perspective. Andy Warner falls asleep at the wheel and wakes up dead. His wife has for-real died and zombies have no legal rights, so Andy ends up moving in with his parents and eventually meets and falls in love with Rita, a fellow zombie. I read this book all in one sitting. It has a good plot and a biting sense of humor. If you’re a Chuck Palahniuk fan, you’ll love this book. Breathers has a very Palahniuk style, right down to repeating a few key phrases (“you probably wouldn’t understand”).

Monster, by A. Lee Martinez. The idea of Monster is that strange creatures roam our world. Monster is a man who does (for lack of a better word) pest control. Then things go sideways. This book had a nice dash of whimsy (the first creature we encounter is a Yeti eating ice cream at a convenience mart) and a fair amount of humor. If you squint your eyes just right, this could almost be a Terry Pratchett book. But where Pratchett dangled the end of the world in front of readers with a smile, as if to say “don’t worry, every thing will be fine,” Martinez’s book loses its footing toward the end when it tackles such weighty matters. Despite not liking the ending quite as much as the beginning, I still enjoyed the book overall.

Book Review: Anathem

I have a sneaking suspicion that hanging out on Twitter is causing my attention span to grow shorter and shorter and … wait, what was I talking about? Oh, short attention span, right.

So as penance for all that microblogging, I decided to set myself a thick book to read. I chose Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. I’ve read all of Stephenson’s early work, but the Baroque Cycle didn’t grab me. Then I saw that fellow Googler Riona MacNamara had downloaded it to her Kindle, so I decided to take a whack at it.

I ended up liking Anathem a lot, but it’s not for everyone. Here’s a simple test to help:

If you like to read: add 1 point.

If you like to read science-fiction or have read Einstein’s Dreams or you’ve heard of Penrose tiles: add 2 points.

If you like other Neal Stephenson books or Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series: add 3 points.

If you liked A Canticle for Leibowitz: add 4 points.

If you were a math, computer science, or philosophy major: add 5 points.

If you have ever considered becoming a monk: add 6 points

If you have read any Socratic dialogues or any Thucydides or you made it through Light: add 7 points.

Add up all the point values and if you tally over 10 points or so, you’d probably enjoy this book.

At 937 pages, Anathem is a hefty read. For the first six pages, I was kind of annoyed because Stephenson seemed to be making up new words like “Saunt” for “Saint” or “upsight” for “insight.” But after a few hundred pages you realize the reason for that and it’s a good one. Plus anyone that can slip words like “sere” and “tarn” into the story smoothly clearly knows what they’re doing with language.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. There were heart-pounding action scenes interspersed with some very approachable philosophical discussions, a sprinkling of actual physics, and some extrapolation of technology into the future. I also love that Stephenson has invented a whole world, even a whole cosmology. The scope of the book is pretty breathtaking, and Stephenson takes the hero of the story on a much bigger journey than you would expect.

I do hope Stephenson keeps building in this world. It will take you several days of serious reading, but assuming you meet the criteria above, I think you’ll enjoy the book. Especially if you were able to make it to the end of this review without checking back on Twitter or Facebook.

Good books to read?

Here’s my current “to-read” books:

Books to read

Are there any other great/recommended books to read that you would suggest adding to the list?

My favorite books of 2008 (so far)

Okay, so we’re more than halfway through 2008. I’m a voracious reader, and I wanted to share my favorite books that I read in the first half of 2008.

1. American Shaolin. Matthew Polly grew up in Kansas and decided to go study martial arts in China with Shaolin monks. I dare you to read the first chapter and then try to stop reading. Polly sets up a hook — the beginning of a fight in which he is over-matched — that is irresistible. Whether you want to learn more about Chinese culture or kickboxing, I think anyone would enjoy this book. Polly’s book is rewarding and genuine.

2. Little Brother. Cory Doctorow has written a book that is both thrilling and (gasp) educational. The story revolves around a inchoate hacker named Marcus who is wrongfully imprisoned and humiliated in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Marcus’ experience crystallizes his opposition to the overreaching security measures in the post-attack hysteria, and Marcus dedicates himself to exposing the flaws of the brave new world in which he finds himself.

Let me add a detour about books that educate: I’ve always wished that more fiction authors would slip in just a few tidbits to teach readers. Usually such attempts miss their mark, either because the education feels just a little too heavy-handed (e.g. Hackerteen), or the material is too easy. For example, Kaplan started a line of comic books with SAT vocabulary, but the words are stuff like roster and barricade. Sorry, not hard enough. Give me meretricious and quotidian and calumny and inchoate, but not roster.

I love that Little Brother is able to throw some education into the mix of entertainment and adrenalin. A friend of mine is reading it and remarked that it made her want to learn more about cryptography. I have to think that those little epiphanies are exactly what Doctorow is trying to achieve with his book. The book ends with an afterword by Bruce Schneier, a well-known security researcher. In his afterword, Schneier discusses what a “security mindset” is and why it’s important. Schneier has written a very good article online about the “security mindset,” and I encourage everyone to read it.

In the past, I’ve been on the fence about Cory Doctorow’s writing. I enjoyed Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom for its description of “whuffie” (think of whuffie as a reputation measure like PageRank, but it exists along a richer number of dimensions instead of as a single number). But Eastern Standard Time didn’t grab me enough for me to finish it.

In Little Brother, Doctorow’s writing is crisp and sure. I read William Gibson’s Spook Country at the same time, and it really felt like Gibson has passed the torch to Doctorow. Spook Country built to a satisfying conclusion, but deliberately embraced the technology of the past few years. In Little Brother, Doctorow skips forward into a paranoid future just a little bit, and the result feels ripped from next year’s headlines.

So: I think you’ll like Little Brother and I think you’ll learn at least a couple neat ideas from it as well. Little Brother is not just an enjoyable book; it’s an important book.

3. How to Rig an Election. This is a book by Allen Raymond tells a political operative’s experience with trying various tricks to affect elections. At one point, he veers into the blackhat arena by effectively mounting a denial-of-service attack against the competing campaign’s phone bank on Election Day. The blackhat experiment ends very badly (along with the competing campaign, the phone lines also belonged to some firefighters) and the author spent time in jail.

How to Rig an Election is compelling to me for a couple reasons. First, it will appeal to anyone who is interested in security or how to make a process (whether it be search or elections) robust against cheating. Second, this book has an amazingly raw and honest voice. From the tone of this book, you can tell the author has burned all his bridges and contacts to the ground and never expects to work in politics again. How to Rig an Election is a breath of fresh air, even as it makes you think about what things might be going on during other elections.

What books have you enjoyed so far in 2008?

I’d be curious to hear what you liked or disliked.

Technology moves fast

Sometimes I feel like the technology space moves slowly. Cool new devices appear every few months, but I want neat new things every day! When I feel like this, it’s tough to remember that technology moves quite quickly compared to most industries. I was recently at a book sale and picked up a techno-thriller from 1996 called Back Slash. As pulpy books go, it wasn’t half bad. Until I arrived at this passage about twenty pages into the book:

To the right of the desk, in an oak cabinet custom-built by Crane, were three midtower computer cases. Each housed a Pentium-based computer system capable of 166 MHz processor speed. Each had 128 megabytes of Random Access Memory (RAM) and a 1.6-gigabyte hard drive. The video card of each held two megabytes of memory, and he could channel the output from the three machines to either of his two monitors. He could also link them in parallel for greater computer power. Twenty thousand bucks, right there. ….

Directly above the desk, the shelves held a variety of easily accessible accessories: a 5-1/4-inch floppy-disk drive–in case he ever needed it, two 3-1/2-inch disk drives, two one-gigabyte tape-backup drives, three multidisc CD-ROM players, two 28.8-kilobytes-per-second fax modems, and on one shelf, ten 4.3-gigabyte hard-disk drives.

Crane figured he could store much of the Pentagon’s data here if he wanted to have their crap on hand.

I had to put the book down and leave it. The description of a “cutting edge system” was so jarring that I could no longer suspend my disbelief. A videocard with two megabytes of memory? Geez. It makes 1996 feel like this:


[Image CC-licensed by Steve Jurvetson.]

It makes me want to rev up my grumpy-old-man voice:

“Back in my day, we had 300 baud modems and we were grateful! Sometimes you’d type too fast and you’d have to wait for the modem to catch up.”

“You know, in our high school typing class we had to use mechanical typewriters. No joke.”

“We had to type programs into our Commodore 64 from magazines. And in those days, the magazines didn’t even have checksums!”

What old timey technology story would you tell?