Dean Sas

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Reading 2013

During 2013 I have read 47 novels, as compared to 57 last year. A big part of the reduction was that in 2012 I spent a lot of time reading while feeding Hugo.

Here’s what I’ve read in 2013, in a rough chronological order:

  1. Foundation by Asimov - for the umpteenth time
  2. Foundation and Empire by Asimov - again, a re-read
  3. Second Foundation by Asimov - again, a re-read
  4. War & Peace by Tolstoy - It’s a large time commitment and took a while to settle into, but it slowly pulled me in, and I ended it thinking how fantastic it was.
  5. Night Watch by Pratchett - after finishing War & Peace I needed something lighter to read, as usual for discworld, this was funny and brilliant.
  6. The Ghost Brigades by Scalzi - a continuation of Old Man’s War which I read last year, not quite as good but still really good.
  7. The Sagan Diary - Scalzi - set in the Old Man’s War universe, but not a novel as such. I didn’t enjoy this.
  8. The Last Colony by Scalzi - another novel in the Old Man’s War universe. Probably the second best in the series. I read it again after reading Zoe’s Tale.
  9. South: The story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 expedition - I thought this was brilliant, a stoic story of a great escape.
  10. Tom Crean - An Unsung Hero: Antarctic Survivor - A biography of a man who was involved in Scott’s fatal journey to the South pole as well as Shackleton’s 1914 expedition. Again, really interesting to see the understated way in which great feats were accomplished. They make Bear Grylls seem like an amateur.
  11. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow - Reread. Typical Doctorow novel, technology, civil rights, a bit heavy handed but very enjoyable.
  12. For The Win by Cory Doctorow - Reread. Probably Doctorow’s best.
  13. Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow - Reread. Mediocre.
  14. Nightfall (the novel) by Asimov & Silverberg - Didn’t seem like a typical Asimov novel, probably because it’s cowritten. It has a really interesting premise.
  15. A Storm of Swords - Another re-read.
  16. A Feast for Crows by GRR Martin - Another re-read
  17. A Dance With Dragons by GRR Martin - Another re-read
  18. Adrift: Seventy-six days Lost at Sea - Continuing on the survival theme from the Antarctic related reads. Surprisingly interesting non-fictional account of 76 days drifting in the Atlantic
  19. Walking the Amazon - A non-fictional account of a walk from Peru to the Brazilian coast following the Amazon. Surprisingly not repetitive.
  20. Lost in the Jungle - The documentation of a reckless expedition in the Amazon gone wrong. The sudden changes in the river level are quite scary, it underscored the challenges faced in Walking the Amazon.
  21. Cloud Road: A Journey through the Inca Heartland - This was slightly repetitive in places but really made me want to go and visit Peru.
  22. Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson - An amusing look at islamic fundementalists, klu klux klan leaders, and the Bilderberg Group. Apparently there’s an accompanying TV series that I haven’t yet watched.
  23. The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson - More amusing non-fiction, this time at paranormal ‘x-files’ American army units
  24. The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson - More funny non-fiction, this time about how people are classified as psychopaths.
  25. Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton - I’m not a trekkie, but this was quite enjoyable.
  26. Homeland by Cory Doctorow - the sequel to Little Brother, less novel but probably a better novel.
  27. Spin by Robert Wilson - Excellent sci-fi about time dilation and the end of the world
  28. Axis by Robert Wilson - Sequel to spin, not as good
  29. Vortex by Robert Wilson - Sequel to Axis, not as good.
  30. Playbourhood by Mike Lanza - A documentation of one families efforts to make their neighbourhood better for children. An inspiring example.
  31. The Last Unicorn (plus sequal) by Peter Beagle - I vaguely remember watching the movie as a child, I never realised it was a fantasy classic. After reading it, I don’t think that it is. 1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - An interesting novel with a fast paced storyline set in the near future when mmorpg is better than real life and attracts nearly everyone. Full of 80s references, so I suspect that people older than I would enjoy it even more. 1. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest - Steampunk Zombies. This was a nice surprise in a Humble Bundle. I’ve just realised that there are many more to read in the same universe.
  32. Machine of Death - A collection of short stories about a machine that can predict your method of death but is often vague or ironic. Some of the stories are brilliant, some are just good.
  33. Shards of Honour (Vorkosigan saga) - This is the first book of the Vorkosigan saga - a space opera. I mean to read more.
  34. I Can Make You Hate by Charlie Brooker - essentially a collection of his grauniad columns, ok coffee table book.
  35. The Illiad by Homer - Brilliant. Epic.
  36. Thud by Pratchett - Another light hearted ‘breather’ novel. Sad to say it’s the last of the Guards! discworld series :(
  37. The Circle - fast paced satire of social networking and google
  38. Zoe’s Tale by Scalzi - A retelling of The Last Colony from a different perspective. Equally as enjoyable.
  39. The Human Division - Another Old Man’s War universe novel, this time with different characters. Uses several short stories all following a similar format.
  40. Final Empire: Mistborn by Sanderson - Reread.
  41. The Well of Ascension by Sanderson - Reread.
  42. The Hero of Ages by Sanderson - Reread.
  43. Jurassic Park - Reread.
  44. The Lost World - Reread.
  45. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela - Mandela’s life was always interesting. I enjoyed studying apartheid politics at school. The downside is that it got vaguer as it went on.
  46. The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black - A collection of mainly paranormal or urban fantasy short stories. Some were great, some were poor. OK as a whole.
  47. Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link - Another collection of ghost/fantasy stories. Some (The Specialist’s Hat) are great, some are a bit half baked.

The Circle

David Egger’s The Circle is a fast paced and addictive read, it’s a blunt satire of the pervasiveness of social networking and people’s need to share.

The Circle is an internet company that has replaced Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Justin.tv and more. As such it knows a lot about a lot of people. The novel is about Mae Holland, as she starts work at The Circle’s google-esque campus in the customer experience department. Mae quickly realises what is expected of her as a Circler - sharing everything and feels obligated to comply, culminating in lifestreaming her waking life. During the interview where she announces this, she says, and the company is quick to echo

SECRETS ARE LIES SHARING IS CARING PRIVACY IS THEFT

The Circle’s ultimate goal is total transparency to improve the world - if everyone knows that they may be being watched and their behaviour publicly discussed. This is very relevant to one of the current hot internet issues - the requirement for YouTube commentators (notoriously rude and useless) to be linked to their google+ profile - which requires a real name.

Mae’s journey from an everyday person, to one of the elite “T2K” circlers is accompanied with her love interests - her puppy-dog colleague, who like every good Circler believes in sharing everything, her ex-boyfriend who is a sceptic (and given his monologues, I think he is Egger’s voice) and her shadowy, mysterious colleague Kalden and with her parents changing attitudes towards Mae and her job.

The novel is black and white with it’s arguments against social networking, the only grey statement I can remember, is one that I agree with in general

my problem with paper is that all communication dies with it

I use facebook (due to network effects), twitter and Google+, I let Google track where I am so they can tell me about travel times etc, I scrobble my music to last.fm so I can get suggestions from my friends and strangers, I post on various forums, not always using a pseudonym. I’m aware each time that I’m giving away some privacy, each time the trade off always seems worthwhile. Heavy-handed and satirical the novel may be, but I think it’s totally correct about how things are changing. There is no cabal, it is happening incrementally. Someone comes up with an idea that will improve your life if you share this little thing with the company, someone else comes up with something else, a company decide to make some of the data you share with them slightly more visible.

The book is not all about bludgeoning the reader about the internet, there is some levity, mainly poking fun at the earnestness of the inhabitants of the Circle campus.

There’s something ironic about me having rated this book on amazon, tweeted and facebooked about having read it and now blogging about it.

Cooking With Wine

I have just found out that some people refuse to cook with wine if they have children. It has never occurred to me that a glass of wine in a risotto or stew might be a problem, and I’ve been happily serving it up to my son (there’s a stew in the oven now). Being a fan of reason and logic I decided to run the maths.

After 2.5 hours of cooking, 5% of the alcohol will remain (source).

To take a real world example, cooking ”Jools’s favourite beef stew” uses half a bottle of wine in a stew for four people. Assuming you cook it for 2.5 hours (quick for stew) the alcohol percentage of the wine will be reduced to 0.675%. A full serving will contain 8.75cl of wine (half of a 70cl bottle shared between four servings), 0.675% of 8.75 is 0.0590625cl of alcohol.

For comparison, and ignoring that the alcohol is further diluted by a massive amount of stew, a 330ml (33cl) can of shandy will contain 0.132cl of alcohol.

Cue the old timers talking about spirits for toothache.

The Illiad

I’m not sure that given all of the attention and scholarly works about the Iliad, what I can really add, but it has made me think and I’ve really enjoyed it. The below does contain “spoilers” (the story is nearly 3000 years old!). I assume not much of an introduction is needed, it’s a testament to the story that nearly everyone knows roughly what happens. The Illiad is an epic poem first written down by Homer in the 7th century BC. It is set towards the end of the Trojan war, which has been raging for nine years prior, the Greeks are laying siege to Troy and the Trojans and their allies are obviously in opposition.

There’s a lot of characters, many of whom are introduced in the midst of battle, with a brief mention of their worth and lineage, followed by them promptly being speared through the chest. The main characters are Achilles - the Greek hero, King Agamemnon, the proud leader of the Greeks, the Ajaxes - a pair of Greek warriors and Hector, the leader of the Trojan forces. These humans are backed up by a cast of gods, besides Zeus there’s Athena, Hera, Poseidon and Hermes on the side of the Greeks and Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis and Leto on the side of the Trojans, to name but a few.

Achilles is strong and powerful, he inspires his comrades and instils fear into his enemies. He also has an appalling temper and sulks like a child - he asked the gods to aid the Trojans in killing his own allies because of his quarrel with Agamemnon. Once the death of Patroclus focuses his anger to the Trojans he’s very bloodthirsty in dispatching them, the way he treats Hectors body, even after it’s been 12 days dead is inhuman. He’s more of an anti-hero than hero. In the end he is redeemed when he treats Priam (Hectors father) with understanding and thinks of his own father. Achilles sets himself on the path of war and anger but without the intervention of Zeus, I’m not sure that he would have started down that path of redemption.

Hector is altogether more sympathetic, in many ways he is the opposite of Achilles. Achilles has spurned a chance for a peaceful life to go and win glory in the war he knows will be his death, Hector is at war to defend his home and family. Hector is not without his flaws at times he’s too much confidence and at times too little. His flaws only seem to humanise him in my eyes, though it may just be my love of the underdog.

The gods had their own drama and rivalries and worked these out by manipulating the humans, sometimes ridiculously so, for example picking up their favoured human and dropping him out of the battle, out of harms way. The machinations of the gods prolonged the war and probably caused much more deaths, I felt quite sorry for Zeus trying to keep both factions happy. These aren’t benevolent gods, and in that displayed a more human nature. The sections about the gods were often some of the most interesting parts, but at times they made me cry out to them to butt out and let the mortals get on with it.

Descriptions of battles make up a large part of the tale. Battles are expected to be violent but some of these deaths are quite gory, I was actually reminded of the movie 300.

The stone hit him on the forehead and drove his brows into his head for the bone was smashed, and his eyes fell to the ground at his feet. He dropped dead from his chariot as though he were diving, and there was no more life left in him.

I found it hard to imagine the overall shape of the battles, there wasn’t much discussion over tactics but rather there was a focus on personal battles, which are quite odd. It seems that two characters meet, wind each other up, throw spears at each other, someone dies in a very vividly described violent manner and then the victor strips the dead of their armour to dishonour the fallen, all while the battle rages on around them.

I did notice that there weren’t any metaphors (maybe I just missed them?) at all. Homer does make use of similies a lot though, and these are fantastic, producing powerful imagery. They aren’t just a few words like “Menalaus was like a lion” but rather more like this from Book XVII paragraph 4:

Or as some fierce lion upon the mountains in the pride of his strength fastens on the finest heifer in a herd as it is feeding—first he breaks her neck with his strong jaws, and then gorges on her blood and entrails; dogs and shepherds raise a hue and cry against him, but they stand aloof and will not come close to him, for they are pale with fear—even so no one had the courage to face valiant Menelaus.

I was surprised at the end of the book - I had expected it to end with the Trojan horse and sack of Troy, but the redemption of Achilles, the grief of Priam and the funeral of Hector was a lovely, sad ending.

I am tempted to re-read and will undoubtedly do so in the future, this time I read the Butler translation which is in prose, so perhaps with a different, poetical translation just for the variance.

Book Review - Shards of Honour

Shards of Honour is a space opera about the relationship between Vorkosigan, a military general and Naismith, a biologist. The relationship develops in the context of a clash between their two different human civilisations. Vorkosigan comes from a Machiavellian absolute monarchy with a utilitarian outlook. Naismith comes from a democratic society that can verge on the anarchic at times.

Naismith is the protagonist of the novel but doesn’t seem as well developed as Vorkosigan. Vorkosigan starts off as a mysterious soldier and develops through the novel.

The plot starts with a journey through a vividly described planet and accelerates quickly afterwards. The plot isn’t stellar and as a whole is predictable from an early point. world but it is reasonable. There were not too many action parts but what was there was well done.

The world that Bujold has built is really interesting, there are multiple civilisations at war with their own philosophies. The description of the planet and fauna in the first half of the book is particularly imaginatively done.

Despite my criticism, the novel is engaging and the world building has me looking forward to reading the other novels in the series.