Monday, December 30, 2013

Last Book Report of 2013

  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle - While some stories and their denouments, like the Empty House or the Norwood Builder, are indelible (at least to me), many others can surprise me over again upon each re-reading, as long as I have allowed sufficient time to pass. For my brain, softened by decades of bad living, ten years is ideal--The Blue Carbuncle and The Beryl Coronet don't ring a bell and so are as fresh as when last I read them. And besides, even if you do remember what happens halfway through, the storytelling is so strong, the language so lovely and the characters so comfortable that you don't even mind. Since the tales are now in public domain, the price is right, too--iBooks, the Apple version of Kindle, has them all downloadable for free, along with hundreds of literary classics that have stood the test of time. Oh, joy!
  • The Pioneer Detectives by Konstantin Kakaes - Launched in the 1970s, Pioneer 10 and 11 were space probes set on a course that would take them past the planets then off into interstellar space. But by the late 1980s, trackers began to notice the spacecraft were inexplicably slowing down--the Pioneer Anomaly. What was causing the deceleration? The answer could be the long hoped for gravity wave, or even more tantalizing, so-called "dark matter" upon which a whole new type of physics depended. Or a software glitch. Or even more mundane, the failure to account for a small quantity of heat loss from, say, an oddly-shaped bulwark. I'm not going to give away the answer, but I will note that scientists are still looking for definitive proof of dark matter.
  • The Frozen Sky by Jeff Carlson - Humans make their first contact with aliens, blobby denizens of Jupiter's moon Europa which live in the icy shell, the "frozen sky" that covers it. This book is a fast-paced action adventure, a political intrigue and a good quality hard sci-fi read. This is good stuff, and the ending hints at a sequel. I hope so, and that is an indication of high esteem.
  • People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry - Disturbing true story of the disapperance and murder of a 21-year-old ex-British Airways flight attendant named Lucie Blackman who moved to Tokyo to make some money as a club hostess in the ex-pat friendly Roppongi district. She was not a stripper or prostitute, not a drug maniac, she was just looking for some adventure and quick yen to clear up her debts back home. A hostess sits and talks (or mainly listens) to frustrated milquetoast Japanese salarymen while encouraging them to buy more liquor. But they were also obliged to escort certain men to dinner outside the safe confines of the club--and Lucie disappeared while on an unscheduled jaunt to the seaside. The book details the grotesque inertia and incompetence of the Japanese police forces (while they cound not have saved her in this case, they could have locked up the perpetrator years before), the mind-numbing slowness of the judicial system, and the harrowing price paid by Lucie's family and friends because of the above. Lucie's killer was a Japanese of korean descent going under the name of Joji Obara, who had probably committed his first sexual crimes at age seventeen. He is incredibly wealthy and still uses his minions to harrass the book's author, a longtime journalist in Japan, from his jail cell.
  • Brilliance by Marcus Sakey - Starting in 1980, there was a substantial uptick in the number of children born with abnormal (abnormally high) intellectual or sensory abilities. Because of their great skills, the "brilliants" as they were initially called began to take over many aspects of public life--for example, playing Wall Street so well they shut it out down--and the tide of public opinion turned against them. Abnorms, or "twists" are identified at an early age and packed off into "academies" at age eight; the government has a powerful agency to hunt down activist or terrorist twists. Meet Nick Cooper, a twist himself and key agent of the Department of Analysis and Response, who goes under deep cover to assassinate the most dangerous and devisive abnorm of them all, John Smith, only to discover that all is not as it appears. The plotting is good, the characterizations are fair, but the dialogue is always leaden. Still, an exiting and occasionally thought-provoking read.
  • Operation Mincement by Ben Macintyre - Yes, the British spy agency did indeed dress up a dead guy as a Marine Captain, attach some brilliantly faked documents to him, and dump him from a submarine so that he would wash up on the Spanish coast. They knew that there was a good chance that Axis-leaning Spanish general staff would help the documents make their way to Berlin, where they may convince the Nazis that the Allies had no real plans to attack Sicily, that Sicily was just a cover for the real attack being developed for Greece and Sardinia. The story has been told in the book and the movie, The Man Who Never Was authored by Ewen Montagu, the MI6 officer who was one of the deception plan's key instigators. That book was intentionally and necessarily incomplete and mendacious in certain ways. Ben Macintyre's new work names names, fills in the blanks and shows us how successful the plot really was.
This is the first time I read every book on the list via an electronic medium. I still love paper books, and have a stack of them ready to go. Meanwhile, here is an interesting documentary of the printing press from Stephen Fry, in which he actually builds one:

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