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Comments on Recently Read Books

New Reviews

  • Nothing new, I'm afraid, other than fixing numerous typos and updating the layout.

Fiction

  • Margaret Atwood's "Cat's Eye" is a well built story reflecting on the life of a girl growing up in 1950's Toronto through to her later 50's. As is to be expected from Atwood, it's well rounded, well plotted and has quite believable personae. It's not my usual area of reading but I really enjoyed it. Recommended.
  • Michael Crichton's "Airframe" is a neatly researched big type book on the airplane industry. Transparent characters abound but the plot is well constructed and quite readable. The whole affair unfortunately simply feels rather short. It's just not as satisfying as his earlier work (with the exception of the derisible "Lost World".) Find a library copy, read it overnight and return it.
  • Frederick Forsyth's "The Fist of God" is about the Gulf War and the events running up to it. It's a gripping yarn, although how much of it is actually grounded in reality I've no idea. As Forsyth weaves reality in and out of the story, it makes for a fascinating "What If" scenario. He's obviously taken a leaf from the Tom Clancy stylists as the book jumps around in an almost documentary fashion, but fortunately seems to be only the better for it.
  • Robert Ludlum's "Apocalypse Watch" is better than the mini-series made from it. That's about as kind as I can be. For decent Ludlum take a look at his pre-1980's novels. They're definitely worth reading; this isn't.
  • "The Britannia Contract" by Paul Mann is a fairly standard thriller. The plot is about Irish terrorists taking over the Royal Yacht with the Queen and King on board. Mildly entertaining.
  • "MoonHoney" by Suzette Mayr is a first novel and shows it. A somewhat strange story written in the really annoying magic realism format, the tale follows the change of a close minded white girl into a liberated black woman. As I said, magic realism. It's written by a local Calgary author so I have to recommend it, but I didn't like it much. Update: While finishing off my second degree, I met the author. She's charming, so buy the book because more encouragement is always a good thing.
  • Nan McCarthy's "chat" comes in the form of a small black book and mac-o-phile typesetting techniques with a rather pretentious description of being a "cybernovel". Packaging apart this is an excellent novella written in an episodic form. It chronicles a growing relationship between two people on an online service, and is written entirely in an email and chat forum format. While stylistically it has been done before (who can forget Gordon R. Dickson's classic "Computers Don't Argue") that doesn't detract from the story. Highly recommended.
  • "Connect" and "Crash" by Nan McCarthy. These books follow the same email/Internet chat styling from the earlier "Chat" and continue the online relationship between Bev and Max. Part of "Chat"'s appeal was its innovation so these two are merely more like a cyber Mills and Boon, er, make that a Harlequin Romance on this side of the Atlantic. It's still cleverly done and there are some interesting plot twists but they don't stand on their own. On the upside, McCarthy now has a contract with Pocket Books so one can actually find them unlike the small press issued "Chat." If you've read "Chat" and enjoyed it, try these two. If you haven't, try "Chat" anyway!

Non Fiction (Humour)

  • "2000 Reasons to hate the Millennium" by Josh Freed and Terry Mosher. Compiled by two of the best humourists in Quebec (perhaps even Canada), this is a somewhat sarcastic commentary on millennial fever. It's also unfortunately rather dull. Reading much like a compendium of Letterman Top 10 lists, there's just not a lot in here. Save your money for (hopefully) a better millennial piss-take whenever one appears.
  • "Why I Hate Canadians" by Will Ferguson. Being a fine connoisseur of smart alec books about Canada, I'm glad to say this one meets the mark. Ferguson has been a Canadian nationalist, a very former Canadian nationalist and all the shades inbetween. The book is an extremely amusing and perceptive view on Canada and especially Canadians. I don't agree with many of his conclusions but they're definitely worth reading. Recommended.

Non Fiction (Technology)

  • "Road Warriors" by Daniel Burstein and David Kline. While the blurb quotes a reviewer describing this book as "A real-life techno-thriller", I'm afraid it's not quite that fast paced. What it is however is a decent look into the endless claims of digital convergence and the political infighting that surrounds it. If you wonder why things are always promised but never quite deliver (assuming they deliver at all) this is the book that has a lot of the reasons. Covering HDTV, cable, telephonics, VR, monopolies versus competitions and so on, this is a quite complete work. Recommended.
  • "Accidental Empires" by Robert X. Cringley. I was introduced to this book through the superb (albeit Microsoft fixated) PBS series, "Triumph of the Nerds" which was derived from it. The book however is far more pointed and informative. For those unfamiliar with the PBS series, this chronicles the rise of the computer industry through it's assorted visionaries and businessmen. It covers a wider area than Stephen Levy's "Hackers" but does it rather well. Recommended.
  • "The Complete Geek" by Johnny Deep. Never trust a book typeset in uppercase Architect with so-so cartoons. This is both. Imagine a remarkably lame examination of the geek persona through an irritating AI that has escaped from Bill Gate's house. This is it. Highly not recommended.
  • "Insanely Great" by Steven Levy chronicles the rise of the Apple Macintosh from its nascent form at Xerox's Palo Alto research centre and the battles surrounding its development. The last Steven Levy book I read ages ago covered the birth of the computer industry in a fashion similar to "Accidental Empires" (aka "Triumph of the Nerds" when it reached PBS airing) and this makes for an excellent follow up. One snippet worth noting is that Levy alleges that most of the building blocks for Xerox's Alto and Star systems were in place before that unit was formed. Instead he places the credit ever earlier. Interesting and a must buy if you're interested in the development of the fastest growing industry of the 20th century.
  • "I Sing the Body Electronic" by Fred Moody. This describes the design and implementation of Microsoft's Encarta and Explorapedia from within Microsoft. The main message I got out of it was that if Microsoft's internal departments are this screwed up, then god knows how they stay on top. It is however an interesting exploration of how not to manage a department composed of people of radically different backgrounds and outlooks.
  • "Fatal Defect" by Ivars Peterson. This book, as the title suggests, is about where computers fail. From poorly designed user interfaces to the now infamous Y2K problem down to even different methodologies used for calculating numbers that conflict, this is a veritable cornucopia of computer related "EEEEEEEEEK!"s. The book is sobering in its coverage of computer driven issues without drifting into kneejerk luddism. An excellent bibliography for the citations rounds off a book for any computer development manager. As you might have guessed, this is highly recommended.
  • "Tales From The Tech Line" by David Pogue. You've all heard those apocryphal stories about stupid user tricks such as the CD-ROM coffee mug holder. You all know how no one could be that dumb; that these are just stories spread because they're funny, not because they have any truth to them. Think again. This is a compilation of unfortunately true stories that technical support staff have encountered. While there's an online archive at here this book is worth having just because. Recommended for anyone who has to deal with computer users; probably not recommended for any one who has to use technical support...
  • "Deeper" by John Seabrook. One of the "neophyte learns computers and their culture" type of books that seem to be appearing ever more often, this one actually is worth reading. Seabrook chronicles not just has highs and lows of exploring the uses of personal computers but also the online culture that has grown up around it. His section on flaming on the WELL is of particular interest. Take a look.
  • "Silicon Snake Oil" by Clifford Stoll. Well known for his "Cuckoo's Egg" novel, Stoll here is creating a polemic on why the great computer revolution --and in particular the Internet -- will never deliver what it has promised. Stoll has some very cogent arguments delivered in an appealing style, but at the end of it the conclusions seem to be wrong. This is most definitely worth reading, simply to see an alternative informed viewpoint on the whole computer explosion. And then there are the footnotes...!
  • "Time Bomb 2000" by Edward and Jennifer Yourdon. As the title implies, this is a chicken little book on the effect of the year 2000 problem. What really stands out is the domino theory Yourdon is advancing -- he looks at a fair number of the interconnections between society and business and expands on what could conceivably go wrong if Y2K compliance is not met. His findings essentially come down to: move to Montana and prepare for the worst. It's an interesting read although his conclusions are not mine. Still, it is definitely worth looking at and considering what is said.

Non Fiction (Travelogues)

  • "Notes From A Small Island" by Bill Bryson. Bryson wrote two of the best researched and certainly entertaining books on the history of the English language. This is one of his travelogues, dealing with his trips around the United Kingdom. Alternately hilarious and cynical, "Notes" rips into much that the British seem to hold sacrosanct. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
  • "Neither Here Nor There" by Bill Bryson. An inveterate hitchhiker, this book chronicles Bryson's trip around Europe using only public transport and his thumb. He (more or less) retraces his steps from a visit twenty years earlier. The book is written in a rather humourous, if biting manner, and is as erudite as it is nasty. Highly recommended.
  • "The Lost Continent" by Bill Bryson. Comparing old trips to new is a definite fount of inspiration for Bill Bryson. Here he uses an old holiday trip as the launching point for driving throughout most of the United States. As the blurb on the back states, it's "an unsparing and hilarious account of one man's rediscovery of America's heartland and search for the perfect small town." As usual with a Bryson book, it's all over too quickly, but a lot of fun while it lasts. Recommended.
  • "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson. This is another in the travelogues of Bill Bryson. As usual, it's filled with assorted arcana, snippy commentary but with a surprisingly fond view of things overall. Here Bryson decides to walk the Appalachian Trail in the US and brings along an old friend from his European walking visit. Some people don't like Bryson's caustic approach to writing but it does make for an engrossing book. Recommended.
  • "The Canada Trip" by Charles Gordon. This is a book very much in the vein of the Bill Bryson travelogues. The primary difference is that it's not Bill Bryson writing and it's set in Canada so the results are going to be different. Gordon is a magazine writer who decided that he wanted to drive across Canada and back seeing all the sights that aren't on the Trans-Canada. The result is one is which I was frequently comparing notes to what he experiences and often came up like minded. Recommended.
  • Mordechai Richler's "Home Sweet Home" is a set of vignettes written about various observations that Richler has made of the years about Canada. While it's a little dated now (it was written before Mulroney's election), many of the scenes are rather older so that's not a problem. It is funny, it often accurate, but it's also very focused on central Canada. Western Canada gets mentioned, and pastiched, briefly, but one does get the feeling it was written off without even a second glance. In a way, Richler creates a perfect example of his own point -- Canada is suffering because of the insularity of the inhabitants of each of the provinces.

Non Fiction (Business)

  • "The Dilbert Future" by Scott Adams. Not terribly funny nor particularly inventive. What works extremely well as a cynical cartoon strip on business doesn't translate well into a polemic. Borrow someone else's copy.
  • "Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook" by Scott Adams. This will probably be heralded as another masterpiece by the critics (other than me.) Certainly it's far better than the "Dilbert Principal" both in presentation and content, but the book still seems to be a little light on solutions for the more important problems of management. It is, if you like, an anti-management book, pointing out flaws rather than suggestions as where to go right. Still, I am a Dilbert fan and wasn't disappointed by it.
  • "The Joy of Work" by Scott Adams. Somewhat wittier than its predecessors, "The Joy of Work" still depends a little too heavily on reprints from the strip. In essence this is the smartasses guide to making your day better at the expense of everybody else. Well, what else is the workplace for? Recommended for Dilbert fans and those very same smartasses (that "or" may not be exclusionary in this case.)
  • "Prophets in the Dark" by David Kearns and David Nadler is a conversationally written management book about Xerox's rise and battle with the Japanese in the eighties. While the style is frequently intrusive and inept (and could most definitely have done with some serious editing), the management theory and historical data is excellent. This shouldn't be your only business reference, but it should definitely be in there.

Non Fiction (Misc)

  • "Triumph of the Straight Dope" by Cecil Adams. While the debate over whether Cecil Adams actually exists rages on, the true master of the bizarrest trivia out there continues to gain steam. Approaching truly bizarre (and unproven) factoids such as that a duck's quack doesn't echo and that no one knows how a bumblebee flies, Adams deflates myths with aplomb and witty humour (and entertaining research.) As some of the questions are less than decorous in nature, the content and discussions are frequently on the gross-out scale but then you always did want to know the answer to whether baking yeast and the yeast of a yeast infection were the same thing. The answer is no, so don't try baking with it. Highly recommended, if only to annoy people who keep on circulating endless "Did You Know" factoids.
  • "English as a Global Language" by David Crystal. I don't normally pick up this kind of book but I saw the author on CBC Newsworld promoting it, and he was quite fascinating. I then had the fun of trying to locate it in my local Chapters. Happily enough they had a copy. It's a very thin volume at 150 pages with a high price tag ($27.95 CDN). What it covers is why English has in many ways become the de facto international language. Fortunately it's not a "Ra Ra, English is best" tome but tries to explain the mechanisms as to how English reached its current state and what is likely to happen next. There's an extremely good overview and discussion of the nationalistic aspects of the penetration of the English language as well as how various countries has reacted in order to stem its growth or promote the use of their own languages. Highly recommended despite the price tag.
  • "The Search for Ancient Rome" by Claude Moatti is a book on Roman architecture and art, and the archeologists who have dug them up over the years. The translation from the Italian is not overly well done, but it seems that there was little there to start with. The graphical presentation however is excellent.
Reviews:
Fiction
Fantasy
Science Fiction
Humour

Business
Technology
Travelogues
Miscellaneous

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