Collateral Bloggage What passes for thought around here…


Book Review: Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell

Lots of the time, books (or movies) about time travel are all about the excitement and danger of traveling through time, and the dangers of creating paradoxes, or about parallel universes and causality loops.  Or about the creation of the device.

And then there’s Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell.  Suppose you invented time travel and used it to basically observe every key even in the history of the world.  What if it just ended up boring you?

What if you routinely saw the future and past versions of yourself?  What if some in the near future looked all put together, and others even farther down the line looked like complete wrecks?  How would that affect how you approached your life?  And what might you do to prevent the seemingly inevitable decline after the peak?  Would you try to quit drinking even though you saw that a future version of yourself was obviously a drunk?

In a way, I almost don’t want to classify Man in the Empty Suit as science fiction.  There’s no discussion on how the Inventor created his time travel machine.  Or how New York City fell into ruin.  Technical detail of any kind is almost entirely lacking.  Instead, it’s more science philosophy, meditating on selfishness and detachment and inevitability, on love and loss.

It’s certainly a book with atmosphere, and I have to admit it’s a bit of a head-scratcher.  But in a good way.  It’s not all the way to Primer head-scratching, but there are a few places I had to retrace my steps to make sure I was getting it.

I encountered the book first through Two Book Minimum, a podcast hosted by Dan Wilbur of Better Book Titles.  (Be advised that BBT and TBM tend to be explicit.)  I actually picked it up from the Library and read a chapter of two before getting caught up in other reading.  It was only when we were working on the Take Me To Your Reader episode on Predestination that I decided to go back and finish the book given the similar themes to those in the movie.

It’s probably not for everyone, but if you like a bit of philosophy thrown into your sci-fi, and you’re interested in a different take on the typical time travel story, I’d recommend this one.  (Content advisory: strong language and some sexuality.)

Somehow I wrote this a month ago and forgot to post it.  Also, I just haven’t been doing much writing, between work being busy and doing the whole podcast thing.  But I’ll try to be better, honestly.  In fact, I literally just sat down to write up a quick review of R.U.R., the play that introduced the word robot into popular culture.  So maybe I’ll just crank that out while I’m here.  Or I could just go do some reading.


Book Review: Contact, by Carl Sagan

It’s probably ironic that the work we chose for review on Take Me To Your Reader this time wasn’t just a book that was adapted into a well-known film, it’s actually a screenplay adapted into a book adapted into a film.  Double adaptation!

(BTW, thanks to Rem from The Sci-Fi Movie Podcast for recommending the topic this time.)

One problem with adapting a novel from a screenplay is that by its very nature, a screenplay is a leaner and more streamlined story.  So in adapting it to a novel, you’re going to have to expand the story somewhat.  There’s an appropriate level of stuff to add, and unfortunately Contact goes a bit beyond that.

I was fine with the extra detail about the decoding of The Message, and with some of the other major differences between the book and movie.  The Five chosen to go into The Machine was an appropriate change from what we ended up with in the film (it’s possible the original screenplay had five, for all I know).  The deeper background on Ellie and her motivations for being involved with SETI, again excellent stuff.  But then there’s the bad side.

Why, for the love of God, did we need to learn the secret history of Ellie’s parents?  Why did we need full dossiers on everyone who attended the World Message Conference?  Why did we get a detailed narration of what was going on on a computer screen?

This latter one really irked me.  Describing, in prose, what’s going on on a computer screen is one thing, and I’m actually okay with that.  But putting those words into a character’s mouth is a bridge too far.  Yes, it’d work on the Big Screen.  But in a novel, it just simply doesn’t go over the same way.  Rather than having a character say, “What you’re seeing on the screen is X,” it should have been more like this:

Ellie explained that X on the screen represented yada-yada

Without the visual cues you’d get on film, having a character narrate a computer readout is just plain clunky.

You might be imagining that I prefer the movie.  You’d be correct.  It’s a leaner story, though it’s of course far from perfect.  There are a few scenes we could’ve done without, and some things the book did better.  I actually think the book could’ve been adapted into a killer limited series, going into greater detail and doing a lot less Art Major Physics.

And even though it’s a bit of a slog in places, the book is still highly worth reading; I’m just not sure it’s worth re-reading.  I think I’d run into the same issues I had re-reading Jurassic Park.  Heavy detail is fine for one read-through.  On a second reading it just seems excessive.  But if you had to choose to either read the book or watch the movie, I'd go movie.

If you’re interested in hearing our podcast discussion on the book and movie, go check that out, too.

Or just subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.

Or follow us on Twitter!

Or like us on Facebook!

Actually, do all those things, please and thank you.


Book Review: What If?, by Randall Munroe

The simple fact of the matter is that I’m too effusive about books.  I use waaay to may superlatives.  So when I say What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is freaking awesome, you probably think it’s a Boy Who Cried Wolf kind of thing.  Unless you’re my mom, in which case you’re texting me that I really shouldn’t be using the word “freaking.”  Noted.

If you style yourself a nerd and you’re not consistently reading xkcd, then you’re basically a nerd poser.  Seriously, it’s required nerd reading.  Get with the program here, nerd!9780544272996_p0_v4_s260x420[1]

The reason xkcd is so nerd-friendly is that it’s written by a nerd for nerds.  Randall Munroe is a smarty-pants who used to work at NASA, and his webcomic is full of all kinds of geekish topics.  Just take a sampling of some of his comics (with links, of course):

How can you love someone who prefers Xenocide to Speaker for the Dead? (one of my favorites)

Moving the hyphen (I must confess I do this)

The depths of lakes and ocean, compared

Money: the scale of wealth

But xkcd isn’t Munroe’s only pursuit.  He also runs a sub-site called “What if?”, where he takes ridiculous science questions and gives them his best noodling.  This book is a compilation of some of the best ones.

What would happen if a pitcher threw a baseball at 90% of the speed of light?  Answer: very bad things.  But then there are mind-blowers like how much radiation would you get if you swam spent nuclear fuel tank?  (Answer: I’m not spoiling that one, but you can listen to him explain it on Science Friday.)

Most of the chapters are absolutely hilarious, some downright terrifying, and others just really surprising.  For me, my favorite chapter was also the most bittersweet one: the question of what would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks of all the various elements.  It’s a great chapter, extremely informative and also hilarious.  And it made me wish I could share it with my dad. 

We’re coming up on Dad’s birthday, and I miss him.  Actually, the way I miss him most often is when I’ve read something I’d normally talk with him about.  But that also means that simply by reading, I’m constantly reminded of him.  So that’s a good thing.

Sorry if I diverted into moroseness.  It wasn’t my intent.  I just miss my dad.  I’m sure you understand.

Pick up this book.  Talk it over with your mom or dad, or one of your siblings, or just someone you like discussing science with.  It’s tremendous, and one of those books you’re a little disappointed at finishing.  But the site continues the awesomeness.

It’s been pretty slow-going here, but I’ll try to pound out a few more reviews in the near future.  In the meantime, we’ve still been plugging away on Take Me To Your Reader, and we put out two episodes in January: one on the new film Predestination, the other on the 2002 film Minority Report.  This month we’ll be doing Contact.  I also guested on an episode of The Sci-Fi Movie Podcast, talking about Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Feel free to give any of those podcasts a listen.  And like our Facebook page while you’re at it.


Book Review: A Climate for Change, by Katharine Hayhoe

In the last decade or so, I’ve had something of a conversion in the way I view science.  Perhaps it’s the fact of regularly listening to a number of science and skepticism-based podcasts (seven of them, actually).  In any case, I’ve gained a tremendous respect for the scientific process and am now much less likely to believe in scientific conspiracies.  Namely, I don’t think there’s a conspiracy to cover up the evidence for vaccines causing autism, or for a young earth and creationism, and I don’t believe there’s a conspiracy to drum up evidence for climate change.cfc_logo

I’m actually not sure if accepting evolution or climate change is more controversial among my more conservative friends, but I know they’re both probably topics I should keep to myself if I don’t want an argument.  And yet, here I am blogging about it.  On the interwebs.

In much the same way that the Haarsmas’ excellent Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design solidified my understanding and acceptance of evolution (though I was pretty much already onboard), Katharine Hayhoe’s A Climate For Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions has me fairly convinced about climate change, though again I was already most of the way there.

I know, I’m a dangerous liberal who’s probably headed for Hell.  Good thing I don’t really believe in it anymore.  Strike three!  (Okay, now I’m being deliberately provocative.  Really it’s just that I think the traditional eternal fire thing is dead wrong.  More on that here.)

What burns me a little is that this book even exists.  Don’t get me wrong, because it’s pretty terrific, but why did we need it?  I understand many Christians find it hard to accept evolution, so the Origins book is probably necessary, because there’s a faith component to the resistance to what science tells us.  But why should we need a book telling Christians that climate change is real and mostly our fault?

And yet here we are.  White evangelical Christians, when polled along with other faith communities about the threat of climate change, are the least concerned.  We just don’t believe in it.  So the book is needed.  (Check out her interview with Bill Moyers.)

Not that I know what I’m talking about.  I read (and was convinced by) Unstoppable Global Warming and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming.  Like I said, I’ve had a bit of a conversion.  (I also gave glowing recommendations for some vegetarian manifestos before reading The Vegetarian Myth.)  I’m of about five minds about everything.

I guess I should clarify at the end here that my newfound respect for science hasn’t dampened my faith.  I still believe in God, and I even think that the idea that he created the world using natural processes is quite beautiful.  I don’t see any trajectory leading me away from my belief in God or Christ.  Science doesn’t intersect faith in that way.  But I’m no longer convinced that my faith requires me to reject science.   

I’m happy to engage a bit in comments if you’re interested.  Or you could send me a note with the Suggest a Topic form.  Please keep in mind that I’m not an expert.  I’m not a scientist.  Just like the Republicans in the Senate aren’t scientists (some salty language, but funny as heck):


I’m way behind on reviews.  But we put up a new podcast this week!  I honestly believe it’s our best one yet.  Only took fifteen episodes to get it right!

I’ll eventually get around to reviewing Peter Enns’s The Bible Tells Me So, probably further alienating people.  Oh well.  And I ought to scrawl something about the two Flash graphic novels I read late last year.

But for now it’s all about what I’m currently reading.  Randall (XKCD) Munroe’s What If?  It’s seriously awesome.


Favorite Reads of 2014

I’ve decided not to do a big “Everything I Read This Year” list, because frankly it’s just a bit of work to put together and I’m unwilling to do it.  But it’s definitely worth the effort to push forward some of my favorite reads this year.

Assuming I finish the book I’m reading (The Blood of Olympus), I’ll total 48 books this year, which exceeds my hoped-for 42 (I like to read my age), so that’s cool.  I’m pretty sure reading for Take Me To Your Reader contributed somewhat to my increased production over last year (43).

Another cool thing is that when I finish The Blood of Olympus, I will have finished everything I officially started this year, and by officially started I mean anything I added to my online book database or Goodreads.  Normally I have a few danglers, books I decided to read and then didn’t finish.  I think maybe my thumb-through process is getting better.  I suppose it may be that I’m getting older and don’t want to expend energy reading anything I’m not thrilled to be reading.  This is also borne out in the fact that I didn’t read anything bad this year.

However, I read a lot of pretty good stuff, so how about I kick things off with a few picks?

Favorite Fiction

Wow.  I read mostly science fiction this year.  I guess it’s hardly surprising, since I now host a sci-fi podcast, but I seriously only read three fiction titles not in the SFF category?  (For the record, The Cay, which is a classic YA title, The Fault in Our Stars, due to my slight man crush on John Green, and Suspicion, which was good but didn’t make my favorites).

The Martian, by Andy Weir

I’m sure this one made a lot of Favorites list this year, and what’s not to like?  It’s basically MacGuyver on Mars, and it’s just tremendous fun.  And since it’s getting a film adaptation in the near future, this’ll be a podcast re-read.  (Strong language warning for the book.)


The Girl With All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey

This one came out of nowhere and might be my favorite read of the year.  Just when I thought nothing new could emerge from the post-apocalyptic genre, there’s this.  (Again with the language warning, because despite the title, this isn’t a YA book.)



The End is Nigh: The Apocalypse Triptych #1, ed. by John Joseph Adams

I’m seriously enjoying short fiction these days.  And when I said I didn’t think anything new could be written, it’s because this anthology says most of it.  All the stories are worth reading, and some are simply breathtaking.  Highly recommended.  (I don’t have solid memories of the language or other questionable content, but if a story is objectionable, turn to the next one.  Okay, there’s some alternative lifestyles featured, but since those actually exist, I’m not sure why they’d be offensive in fiction.)The_End_is_Nigh[1]





The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

Easily my favorite podcast read of the year, this one has some marvelous meditations on the effects of isolation in a post-apocalyptic world, and the prose is simply beautiful.  The “dude wakes up in a hospital as civilization falls” thing has been done to death since this one pioneered it, so it’ll seem pretty familiar, but it’s awesome.  And there’s this podcast about it…(get comfy if you’re going to listen, because it’s about two hours long)





Favorite Non-Fiction

Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century, by Kevin Fong, M.D.

This one is a fascinating tour through the incredible advances in medicine during the twentieth century.  It’s extremely accessible and interesting, and inspires an admiration for those who push the boundaries of exploration, whether in the traditional sense or the scientific/medical sense.




All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views on God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin, by Steve Gregg

The excellence of this book is only matched by how lame (and long) a title/subtitle it has.  If you’ve only heard of the “burn in flames forever” view of hell, this book is a must-read.  It’s far from the only view out there, and just may not be that well supported by the Bible.  Once again Steve Gregg steps into some controversial territory but manages to give fair treatment to all views.  Unless you’re in the majority view and you didn’t know about the other views.  In which case you’ll feel like you’re being ambushed by a heretic.  It’s not the book’s fault you don’t know what you’re talking about.




Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik

Winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, this one had to make the list. Another extremely readable, extremely interesting read that makes for great dinner party conversation.





Bigger Than the Game: Restitching a Major League Life, by Dirk Hayhurst

I’ve now read three of Dirk Hayhurst’s baseball memoirs, and I’m told I skipped the best one, but that doesn’t keep the rest of them from being amazing.  This one is perhaps less funny than the others, though it has its moments of hilarity, too, but it’s a very profound book.  We tend to look at the lives of professional athletes as charmed and easy.  Hayhurst shows us that on the fringes of the big-time, it’s no picnic, and even for those who make it big, there’s a whole lot of crazy that’s just covered up by success.





A quick runner-up here is The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible, by Joel E. Hoffman.  Just tremendously well-written and engaging, providing lots of interesting info on the history of the Bible and some of the well-regarded but excluded books that even sometimes show influence on the text of the Bible itself.

--- - --- - ---

If I had to name a book that disappointed me this year, I’d probably go with A Game of Thrones.  It’s probably unfair, because a.) epic fantasy just isn’t my bag, b.) I read it out of a sense of cultural necessity, and c.) it’s probably the most over-hyped book in the history of history.  Apart from that, I just didn’t find it very, well, special.  Martin’s prose isn’t anything to write home about, though it has an uncluttered and easy way of world-building that’s to be admired.  His over-reliance on dream sequences drove me crazy, as it always does in any book (looking at you, Rick Riordan).  But again, it’s not my kind of book, so it’s hardly surprising I didn’t love it.

And that wraps things up for another year.  I’m several books behind on book reviews, but with podcasting and stuff, I just haven’t had much time to get them written.  I’ll catch up eventually, probably.  Maybe I’ll do a combined catch-up review.  Hmmm.


A Christmas Case Study: Favorite vs. Best Adaptations

It's been an interesting year in podcasting.  In our dozen or so episodes of debating the merits of film adaptations of written sci-fi works, two things have become clear:

1. Colin and Seth don't agree on what makes a good adaptation.

Fine, I lied about two things becoming clear. I was just happy we had the one.

In general, Colin wants to see a 1:1 correlation as much as possible between a written work and its film adaptation, allowing for such change as is necessary to the change in medium.  Whereas I place the highest value on first making a good movie, getting the story right even if it means straying from the source material.  I'm fine with a faithful adaptation, but I also believe an adaptation can be a better version of a story it springs from.  So if the movie is good, I'm okay with the changes.

(Colin is, too, but then he'd just say it's not really an adaptation.  And then I'd say that adaptation means change, and we'd go back and forth for another hour or so.  Rinse and repeat.)

I've actually really enjoyed the conversation, but I think I may have come to the heart of the issue:

Colin is looking at adaptation as an objective thing, and I'm looking more subjectively.

"Achristmascarol" by Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

This became especially clear when Colin suggested that the 1999 TNT version of A Christmas Carol was the best version.  (BTW, we're covering that story and a number of its adaptations on our next episode.  Tune in further down for how you can help.)

In order to better support his assertion, Colin scoped out an outline of the story, marking down mileposts to check any adaptation against.  Of course I disagree fundamentally that this is really the way to determine the "best" adaptation of any work.  So I countered with my own film-focused checklist, laying out a map of how each adaptation executed the characters, plot, atmosphere, and any number of other things.

But while my method is totally subjective, I'm not at all convinced that my favorite version, the 1984 George C. Scott one, will take the cake.  I know it has faults, and yet it's my favorite.  So I'm completely comfortable with the idea that either by Colin's reckoning or mine, another version could emerge as a version I'd accept to be the "best."  But I can't imagine any other version displacing the 1984 version as my favorite.

Am I off my rocker here?  I'd really love to hear your feedback on this.

  • Is your favorite version of A Christmas Carol also the one you consider to be objectively the best?  Or even subjectively the best?
  • Are you weird enough that you've thought about what an objective measure of "bestness" might be?
  • Could you be convinced to admit that a different version was better than your favorite?

I think it's possible that if you really pinned me down, I might cave.  Because wouldn't I want to recommend the best version to someone who'd never seen it?  Would I recommend my favorite or the version I might consider better by some objective standard?

Maybe I would.  I can freely admit that the 1984's favoriteness has a lot to do with its technical and artistic qualities, but at least equally as much the fact that I've seen it probably twenty times with my family.  There's a lot of history and memory attached to my affinity for that version.  And it's true I might be swayed by sentiment to recommend my version over all others.

I guess we'll see after I've watched a few more adaptations.  Who's with me?

For those not in the know, we'll be covering the book and at least four adaptations:

  • Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim
  • The Muppet Christmas Carol
  • A Christmas Carol (1999), starring Patrick Stewart
  • Scrooged, starring Bill Murray

Even if you don't want to interact with my questions about objective vs. subjective measures for determining the best adaptation, maybe you'd like to weigh in about your favorites:

  • What's your favorite bit from the book?
  • What's your favorite adaptation?  (Maybe a Top Three?)
    • What makes it/them your favorite(s)?

Should be a fun podcast, and we'll try and get it posted by Christmas Day.


Book Review: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller

For a long time I was a scoffer about all things comics and graphic novels.  Comics were something I read as a kid when my older sister would buy them, but then I outgrew childish things and start reading real, actual books.  Besides, as an adult I just found them too chaotic, and I had a hard time figuring out where my eyes should go.

Well, obviously I overcame that problem in order to read Crisis on Infinite Earths, but I also got an unexpected assist from Barnes & Noble.  Back on Batman Day, the NOOK Store had a number of awesome Batman comics on sale for a couple of bucks each.  I quickly grabbed Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, figuring that even if I had a hard time reading them, it’d be worth it.

Well, NOOK Comics with Zoom View (probably trademarked in some way, but I’m Batman), is super awesome.  Instead of having to figure out where to look, I just swipe as if I’m turning to a new page, and it moves and refocuses on what I’m supposed to read next.  So cool!

The Dark Knight Returns is one of the more famous graphic novels of all time, made up of four individual but connected stories showing an aging Bruce Wayne resuming his cowled duties as Batman to face a new threat to Gotham.  AND BATMAN TOTALLY FIGHTS SUPERMAN!!!  (I won’t tell you who won.)

The stories are certainly compelling, and while I didn’t find all the art particularly inspiring (probably blasphemy), there was some pretty awesome stuff anyway.  But really it’s the story that’s the big ticket item, influencing the film franchises, whether in tone, as with Tim Burton’s darker take on Batman, or in content, as Christopher Nolan definitely drew inspiration for his Dark Knight films from the book.  In fact, reading this graphic novel made me wonder how The Dark Knight Rises might have been different had Heath Ledger lived.  (The Joker is a major player in the final two installments of The Dark Knight Returns.)

There’s even ample evidence that the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice takes some inspiration from this book, with the obvious reference to a fight between the two heroes and the SDCC trailer showing what amounts to a famous scene from the graphic novel.

IGN ranked The Dark Knight Returns #1 on their 25 Greatest Batman Comics list earlier this year:

The Dark Knight Returns is a masterpiece of comic-book storytelling. The pages are packed, sometimes with dozens of panels. Overcrowded, even. And yet, Miller creates a distinct pacing through each page and builds to perhaps the most optimistic ending in any Batman story. Yeah, Frank Miller ends with a touch of optimism.

I’ll definitely read Batman: Year One at some point, and not just because I’m now counting graphic novels as books toward my yearly reading quota.  Honestly.  Because the stories can be awesome.  Also, it totally counts toward my yearly reading quota.  (I’m just one book away from my yearly goal, which is to read my age.)

That’s another title off my 2014 ledger, leaving only two left: The Bible (I’ll finish in a couple of weeks) and The Blood of Olympus.  Doh, I just noticed there’s another one in there that I added to Goodreads but not my book database thingy: A Climate For Change.  So I’ll be reading that one, too. 

On the Take Me To Your Reader podcast, I’ll be posting an episode about A Boy and His Dog in the next week or so (BTW, not a kids’ book; we watched it so you don’t have to), and we’ll be doing A Christmas Carol for our December show.  If you’ve read it, feel free to weigh in here and let me know what your favorite adaptation is.  I’m looking for films, mostly, but I’ll really take anything.


Book Review: Visitors, by Orson Scott Card

In many ways, I look at the Pathfinder series of books (Pathfinder, Ruins, and Visitors) as sort of a sandbox that Orson Scott Card used to riff on ideas of time travel, culture, genetics, and evolution, and that’s a pretty serious grab-bag of things to riff on.

I can say that the series is enjoyable so long as you’re not looking for anything terribly profound, so it’s kind of the popcorn-movie type of book.  In fact, if the books didn’t average 600 pages each, I’d call them light-reading.

The first book started quickly, with some interesting notions of faster-than-light travel, bending space, and time travel, setting up a world colonized by one ship that just happened to have the misfortune of being copied nineteen times.  As the artificial intelligence components of the ship (the computers and androids termed “expendables”) set up the world, they elected to divide it into nineteen colonies separated by impassible walls (technology!).

The first book stays largely inside one Wallfold, introducing us to a few characters with advanced abilities, leading them to discover that they are timeshapers, able to revisit and reshape time in limited ways (though increasingly less limited as the series moves on).  There’s interesting politics and history, and the playing around with time travel is all good fun.

And then they leave the Wallfold.  The second book picks up there, introducing yet more interesting ideas about symbiosis and genetics, but ultimately isn’t quite as fun as the first book.  Still enjoyable in its way, but as the third book approached, I considered re-reading the series and ultimately decided not to.  Maybe that was a warning sign.

Visitors is the final book in the trilogy, and though it gets a slight bump from completing the series, I’m still not shouting from the hills about it.  About halfway through, I wondered if it was indeed the final book or if OSC was once again stretching a trilogy into four books.  By the time I finished it, I was sort of wishing he had.  By the end, the pace accelerates to the point that interesting stuff is kind of skipped over, and there’s a bizarre excursion in a direction I’m actually shocked was left in.  When you’re asking yourself why this chapter is happening, it’s not a good sign.

I’m not completely down on the book; it’s far from the worst thing I’ve read, and OSC has a way of writing unvarnished prose that at least makes the actual reading pleasurable.  So if you read the first or second books, I’d recommend picking this one up.  But I would much rather have been reading the third book in the Gate Thief series.

As we approach the end of the year, I’ve noticed that the list of books I’ve started but not finished is actually quite small, so I’m going to go back and finish all of them.  I’m not sure I’ve ever balanced the ledger before.  First up, it’s my second graphic novel read of the year, the famous The Dark Knight Returns.


Book Review: Stuff Matters, by Mark Miodownik

A while back I was regaling a coworker with the sordid tale of the creation of synthetic billiard balls, and how an early candidate tended to explode occasionally, and I had the thought that Mark Miodownik’s excellent Stuff Matters had turned me into a fount of useless knowledge.

But then it occurred to me that if such a thing as worthless knowledge is possible, knowledge about the awesomeness of many of the materials of modern life surely isn’t an example of it.  It’s marvelous, which totally agrees with the book’s subtitle, Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World. (The U.K. cover has a different subtitle, which of course sounds classier.)

From foundational stuff like metallurgy and what makes steel able to hold an edge to the living-in-the-future stuff like self-healing concrete, this book is absolutely tremendous and entertaining, taking in the range of materials in view in a photo of the author enjoying tea on the roof of his building.  Each seems at first mundane and and even boring, which is of course the point, because we rarely give “stuff” a second thought, but in the hands of Mark Miodownik, you see them from a different angle in a way that makes them all seem, well, marvelous.  I challenge anyone to read the chapter on chocolate and not salivate profusely.  Yes, chocolate is one of the materials in view, in the aptly named chapter, “Delicious.”

BTW, the book was just awarded the prestigious 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.  Congratulations, Mark, and well deserved.  I initially learned of the book when Mark was featured on Science Weekly from the Guardian and went looking for a copy.  Imagine how disappointed I was to only find it available in the U.K.  Social media being what it is, I asked the author on Twitter when the U.S. version would be released.  Alas, I had to wait the better part of a year to get it. 

And then I forgot about it.  Boo!  But then it was featured on Science Friday for the U.S. release!  Woo!  I ended up picking it up from the library, but it’s one of those books I wish I had bought (and may still do so) in order to go back and review it again, or even just to have it around for my son to read when he finally realizes non-fiction is awesome.

You’ll see me referring back to this one when I do my Favorites of 2014 post later this year.  This one’s a treasure, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey

I’m pretty sure I picked up The Girl With All the Gifts (from the library) after seeing it recommended by io9.  And I’ve now made a mental note to do more reading based on their recommendations, because this one was just amazing.

It could be that I’m overreacting somewhat to a book for which I had no expectations being really good, but this one had one of the best two chapter hooks I’ve ever seen.  The central mystery of the book gets off the ground running very quickly, and since I’m totally not gonna spoil it for anybody, I’ll need to keep this short.

I should clarify something: I don’t finish every book I start.  It was probably The Historian that taught me one shouldn’t finish bad books, but I’ve since given myself permission to give every book a thumb-through test.  For a nonfiction title, this means reading the introduction and perusing the contents a bit, assessing the readability and general level of interest I have in the topic.  (Casual interest will get me to pick it up, but it has to be more than casual interest to keep me reading.)  With a fiction book, I’ll generally go about 25-50 pages or a couple of chapters, whichever comes first.  If I’m not hooked, I return the book.  If I am, I’ll either tear through it right away or file it away as a read-later title.

This one was a right-away kind of book.  How to sum it up without giving away the good stuff?  Hmm.

First, I should point out that the cover and title led me to believe this was a YA title.  It’s not.  Certainly teens and up due to language (heavy), violence (heavy), and adult situations (light but present).

The book revolves around Melanie, a special little girl in a special school.  Stop me if you’ve heard this before.  But this is different, because Melanie is tied down to a wheelchair for classes and then taken back to a secure cell after classes.  She adores one of her teachers, who runs afoul of one of the security guards for getting too close to the kids.  Why should it be an issue to get attached to the kids?  Why do some kids get taken away and never come back?

And that’s pretty much all I can tell you, because otherwise I’ll be giving too much away.  It’s definitely in the post-apocalyptic genre, but it’s a very different take on some rather familiar material, told beautifully and with wonderful character development.  I really can’t recommend it highly enough.  If you read it, you can prove it to me by acknowledging the part that’s redolent of I Am Legend.  (Probably means you’ll have to have read that one, too.)

io9 actually does a better job of setting it up than I do, and the article I just linked is pretty light on spoilers.  But if you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll definitely enjoy this one.  Trust me.  And now I’ve probably oversold it.  Sorry about that.

Next up is Mark Miodownik’s thumb-through-passing-with-flying-colors Stuff Matters.