December 2004 "The Difference Engine"- William Gibson and Bruce Stirling ISBN 0-553-29461-X // USD 8 // 429pp. // 1991
Another re-read from over a decade ago, but this one is an underrated gem. It mixes steampunk with a who-dunnit in a world only Gibson and Stirling could produce. Some excellent characters in an alternative history of the 19th century - a fractured America, Japan dominant in Asia, and the British empire ruling through the power of it's steam driven computers or "Engines"; a Britain run by meritocratic 'Radical' Lords like Babbage and Brunel. It really is a richly described world, and the tale they pull through it - of popular dissent, murder, an evil London summer, and ultimately, some engine punch cards which may or may not produce artificial life is excellent. The only downside is that it does jump about a bit, and the plot can get quite confusing, so you need focus on events. That said, it's a great and generally easy read, well up there with both of it's author's best. If you ever wondered where Neuromancer could have it's origins, it's in this alternate history, and Stirling's knowledge of the history of information technology shown in "The Hacker Crackdown", undoubtedly helped here. It's an often overlooked work, as many 'co-authored' books tend to be watered down versions of their contributors talents, but this one certainly plays to the best of both.
October 2004 "Marshal Law - Day of the Dead"- Mills and O'Neill ISBN 1-84023-765-1 // GBP10.99 // 93pp. If you haven't picked up a Marshal Law graphic novel, you really should - the tour de force is the incredible 'Fear and Loathing' work which is probably the best example of the 'anti-super hero' genre. This outing isn't a graphic novel, but an illustrated novella by the usual team of Pat Mills and Kevin o'Neill. Despite it's small size, it packs in a lot of information, explaining more about the Marshal Law universe - the psychological side effects of being a super hero, the reality of having no purpose in life. In this universe 'heroes' were created in labs and sent to fight a war in South America which ended in stalemate, and following that they returned to a San Francisco, renamed San Futuro following a huge earthquake which has shattered the city. These heroes, crazed by war and their powers, turned to crime, gangs and generally aided the descent of the city into terror. One of these heroes came to hate his own kind and became Marshal Law, bringing justice to these so-called heroes. More so in this novella you see the cracks between Marshal Law and his human side Joe Gilmore as one is desperate for revenge on the heroes to repay his own guilt, and the other just wants to get on with his life. Lots of themes, some disturbing imagery, but thankfully you'll never settle for some crap Marvel comic again.
"Guards! Guards!"- Terry Pratchett ISBN 0-552-13462-7 // GBP6.99 Paperback // 412pp. The eighth novel in the Discworld franchise is definitely one of the better ones. Don't get me wrong, I don't think there's a 'bad' one in the series, and in general they rank from 'pretty good' to 'excellent'. This one though, is definitely at the top end of the scale, and the only strange thing is how I missed it in the correct sequence, having read most of the twenty odd books in the series. That said, this fleshes out many vital characters in the series from Vimes, Vetinari and the vital role of Carrot, the rightful but unknowing king of the city state of Ankh Morpork. This novel sees someone summon a huge noble dragon to the city which it duly takes over, and the comedy of errors the Night Watch endure trying to get rid of it in the face of the humdrum acceptance of the population. If you've never read a discworld novel it is possible to jump in at this book, but I do recommend having a read of some of the earlier ones first, if only so you'll appreciate some of the running jokes.
August 2004 "Join Me"- Danny Wallace Every now and then you get hold of a great book without even knowing it. What really makes this one impressive is that it's a recent true story. It tells how Danny Wallace accidentally started a 1000 strong (and still growing) 'collective' whose motive was to do something to help someone else every week. I know it sounds weird, but the book is excellently and comically describes the process of building this 'Karma Army' - from a family funeral in the Swiss Alps, to his first member, to being on national TV in Belgium, to his long suffering girlfriend finally leaving him. It really is an interesting read, with his central message, as the title implies "Join Me". I know I did! Check out more details on the Joinee website.
April 2004 "Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel"- Scott Adams This is the fourth 'book' I've read from Scott Adams in the Dilbert series, and I suspect it'll be the last. Don't get me wrong - the book is as witty, sarcastic and ironic as it should be, but even more than in the preceding book ('The Joy of Work'), you can't help feeling you've read it all before. I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen all this sort of stuff in the first book ('The Dilbert Principle'), except Adams has replaced the word 'induhvidual' with 'weasel'. Sure, it's funny, but the odd analogies are stretched, the chapters are more chaotic and there's less of a 'whole' feel to it. It's more like reading a blog than a book. Also, there aren't that many cartoons in there, and most I'd seen before on the website. All this probably explains why this particular book took me the most sittings to get though - it just couldn't hold my interest like the previous ones. I was disappointed by 'The Joy of Work', but reviews said Adams was back on form with this effort, but I have to disagree. If you have no Dilbert book, buy 'The Dilbert Principle'. If you already have a couple of the books, don't bother buying this one. I feel weaselled.
March 2004 “The Man in the High Castle” - Philip K. Dick Famous for stories such as 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?', Dick likes to create a world of slight unease - in this case an alternative world. It's set in a world where Nazi Germany and Japan won the Second World War, and the events and culture which unfold from that. It's mainly set in an America which has been divided between the two victors, with Japan running the western coast, the Nazis the east. Into this is a story of espionage, Jews hiding from Nazis and a book within a book which tell of an outcome where the Allies do win, although that too is an alternative reality. It also makes use of the 'I Ching' which many of the characters use to help guide them in there life. As is to be expected, Dick manages to put a twist at the end, but even without that, it's a pretty well written character study and 'what if...' scenario. A world where the Japanese areas have developed little, yet the Nazis are landing on Mars in the 60's but have yet to really push out TV to the world. It also hypothesises what the Nazis may have done in Africa and other areas. It's definitely a worthwhile read, so if you're looking for a book to fill a long journey, this is a good start.
“Dude, Where's my Country” - Michael Moore As he continues his role, and as the US Presidential race gets underway, this is another book from Moore which kind of knocks you back on your heels. Once again, even if you don't adhere to his beliefs and ideas, you have to respect the passion, the thought, and the solutions he proposes. Whereas 'Stupid White Men' was a look at how the last presidential race was run, this book looks at Gulf War 2, and the people around that. It also looks at jobs and the social side of America with real feeling. You also have to respect that even though he's now a wealthy man, and will benefit from Dubya's new tax breaks, he's going to give that money up to fight Bush at the next election. Moore seems to want to become a modern day Thomas Paine, a thinking man who, as you can tell in his writing, is getting more frustrated with how things are. As long as his keeps this under check, that's great. Personally I found his suggestion that Oprah Winfrey run for president to be counter-productive, but maybe that's his point - even a marketing machine like Oprah would be better. Will this book affect America? Well, it has to be said that the previous book, and the amazing 'Bowling for Columbine' film have really put Mike up there, and maybe more people are listening. Roll on November 2004. Check out his website at MichaelMoore.com.
“Catcher in the Rye” - J.D.Salinger I've been meaning to read this for about 15 years, and I finally got around to it. It's basically the story of a young man, who essentially is having something of a nervous breakdown as he flunks out of yet another school, unable to find virtually any connection with anyone, with the exception of his small sister. Some of this may be due to the tragic death of his brother, and the isolation of coming of age, but whatever conclusion you come to, it's a very interesting character study of youth. The title itself comes from a memory the main character has of a mis-remembered passage from a book, imagining a person saving children, playing in the rye, from falling over a cliff. That's all he wants then we suppose to just help people, but is just unable to get through the cynicism. It's a worthwhile and entertaining read, so if like me you see a copy going quite cheap, pick it up and have a read.
“The Cathedral and the Bazaar” - Eric S. Raymond I've read this essay quite a few times over the last 4 years or so. It's a free download, so have a look here. Basically Eric uses his own project to illustrate how Linux and Open Source ideas generate good software, but also how the communities work. He also comes out with some fascinating rules or guidelines for how to run a project, and how and why huge projects like Linux actually work. It's an easy to read work, and it's understandable how Netscape people read this in the late nineties and realised that opening their source code could benefit a lot of people. (Indeed it has, as anyone who uses a Mozilla.org browser will testify). It also shows pitfalls, but to be fair, it's a very enthusiastic work, and it's easy to see how Eric himself has managed to build a very successful project of his own. Even if you're not a techie, have a read of this as it's more about people than anything else.
February 2004 “Eastern Standard Tribe” - Cory Doctorow This is the second major novel by Cory Doctorow, following his first, very impressive work, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom". It's obvious from this second work that Cory has been working on his writing style - it's much sharper, richer and paints a situation very well. The story is set a little in the future, but could easily be a very early prequel to the 'Bitchun' society of DAOITMK. The ideas in the book are very cool - nice extrapolations of current trends and ideas. The problem is that the core plot is all too similar to the first book - man meets woman and they start a relationship, man's best male friend and woman betray him and he is left out, and finally a semi-redeeming, albeit 'happy' ending. I got the feeling that there's a message from the author on this, and it kind of spoiled what was shaping up to be a pretty good read. Basically it tells a story of a time when we owe more affiliation to a certain time-zone and it's culture, than to where we physically are - a pretty good concept. Also, it's a free download, so give it a try and see what you think. Cory is also a major contributor to the Boing Boing blog. Download it here in various formats :: ISBN: 0765307596 :: Tor Books 2004
“The Art of Deception” - Kevin D. Mitnick
USD 27 (hardback) :: 350pp :: ISBN 7-23812 23712 :: Wiley Publishing 2002 The first full book by 'hacker' turned computer security expert Kevin Mitnick is a great read. Don't panic, it's not a tome about the peculiarities of certain OSs, or port scanning or anything like that. Actually, it's got virtually nothing to do with the technical aspect of hacking at all. It's all about social engineering - bluffing your way into companies, getting information, and spinning a web of lies to get what you want. The book is basically in two halves - a collection of very interesting stories - all based on true events - of how companies got ripped off, or hacked, cracked, penetrated or whatever, and all in different ways, and for different things. Mitnick also dissects these stories and explains not just how it works, but why it works, and also what corporate security officers can do about it. Needless to say, that section of the book (about 85% of it) is a fascinating and educational section. The second section is a list of things companies can look at to strengthen their defences and procedures, and that, though interesting, is not as readable as the first section. However, I really do suggest people pick a copy of this up - it really is interesting. Mitnick is a pretty good writer, and this isn't someone who read a bunch of books, and is writing up the best bits, this is a man who went to jail for his crimes - and probably for a few other people's too. (Mitnick's jail terms were scandalous and his treatment obscene - I await that book with baited breath after his parole period.)
October 2003 “A History of Japan” - Mason and Caiger USD 15 :: 400pp :: ISBN 0-8048-2097-X :: (1997 Charles E. Tuttle) This is actually a re-read. I read it first about 4 years ago and decided I'd give it another go. It traces the history of Japan from 5000BC to 1939. Japan certainly has a fascinating history, if only because it is so different from most European histories in that it is mainly internal - limited contact with China, Korea and south East Asia. The book briefly covers the pre-History periods and early Yamato and Jomon periods, then spends more time on the structure of Japan on 600AD to 1800. This book doesn't go into too much detail, but provides a great launchpad for any reader wanting an overview of Japanese history. The strength of the book is definitely in it's coverage of arts and culture, which are obviously favourites of the writers. Their assessment of some issues could be questioned but as this is an overview book, it's unfair to criticise some of their generalisations. Away from the book itself, the subject of Japanese history is a very interesting one as mentioned before - it's so different, even from those countries around it, that it warrants a quick look. My next step from this is to buy a book specific to a given time era.
April 2003 “Stupid White Men” - Michael Moore GBP8 :: 281pp :: ISBN 0-141-01190-4 :: (2001 Penguin Books) Another great work from the writer of 'Roger and Me', and the recent documentary 'Bowling for Columbine'. Moore takes a look at how things are arranged in America and how the media is able to make things appear the way they do. From the farce of the Florida election in 2000 to the agenda or big corporation America. Whether you agree with Moore's agenda or analysis, you can't deny his passion. I read this whole book flying between London and Tokyo - it' a real page turner. OK, you can rubbish some of his stats and his sources, but you can't deny the core of many of his accusations - President Bush probably lost that 2000 election. Also, that many of his top people are his Dad's top people and have vested interests all over. A common theme in many of Moore's works is that the media portrays the danger in life as being the homeless and ethnic minorities when as Moore points out, all the bad things that have happened to him and him town - from a drunk driver hitting him when he was young, to GM effectively closing his town down - were done by white people. Stupid white people.
March 2003 “Dogs and Demons” - Alex Kerr GBP 9 (paperback) :: 432pp ::ISBN 0-141-010-002 This is another book by Mr. Kerr, a long term resident in Japan, and considered one of the best foreign writers who have actually lived in Japan for any length of time. This book is a deconstruction of the activities of the Japanese bureaucracy and the people of Japan over the last 30 years or so. It's an incredible read - especially for those who have lived here for any length of time. He analyses why the Ministry of Construction pours trillions of yen at projects such as building bridges to uninhabited islands and slapping concrete on everything. This isn't a political or economics book though - this is a look at the culture behind these events, and their effect (and roots in) modern Japanese culture. For many who like Japan, this book may be a sad affirmation of what they see going on - people with pointless jobs, the destruction of nature, tiny apartments, expensive food. It really is a very worthwhile read, even if it is a little depressing - especially for all those that bought into the Japanese 'Fuji ni geisha' myth. This seems much closer to the truth - certainly closer to my own day to day experiences. There are rays of hope though - those people who have stood up to system and succeeded. Hopefully the future belongs to them.
“All Tomorrow's Parties” - William Gibson USD 25 (hardback) :: 275pp :: Penguin Putnam :: ISBN 0-399-14579 -6 The King of Cyberpunk still reigns, and is back on form here - the characters are a bit deeper, but the texture is as rich as ever - some old characters, some new ones, and a lot of imagery. This is something of a follow up to Idoru, but pulls in characters from several novels - hence the title I suppose. No one would probably claim that Gibson is the most plot-driven writer, but the richness of his vision just keeps you turning pages. It's been too long since my last Gibson-fest - the rather slow Virtual Light - but this was a very satisfying read. There's also more politics and action in this one, as we find out what happened to Rei Toei. Gibson's texture of modern Tokyo is interesting for me as a person who lives here. Certainly the life of people in the boxes of Shinjuku station is a familiar site, and I have to say that his observations are spot on.
”Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom” - Cory Doctorow A great debut piece of cyber punkishness - based in Disneyland. Based in a future where we all live forever, where money doesn't exist and we all strive for higher 'whuffie' - the respect of our peers, Cory Doctorow weaves a good whodunit story through a utopian state. It's a great read and is a free download, though you can help cory and his publisher by buying a copy of the book. ascii txt file 284K no date - read sometime in 2002!
“Fast Food Nation” - Eric Schlosser USD 11 // Penguin Books // ISBN 0-141-00687-0 289pp + 65pp notes An amazing book by Eric Schlosser about the fast food industry and culture. It's no bleeding-heart liberal 'the animals are suffering' book though. It looks at hard facts, and how fast food and all that goes with it has affected America's corporate culture, it's eating habits, it's employment rules and many other aspects. A truly fascinating book, and to be honest, far more likely to put you off burgers than pictures of dead cows. Well researched and not preachy, just an excellent analysis of something we can see in every high street in the world. It tells the stories of cattle suppliers reduced to tenant farmers under the price bargaining of huge meat packing operations, it discusses how the industry uses often illegal immigrant and shoddy sanitation to keep prices low, and how in America, fast food workers are more likely to be killed on the job than a police officer. Sometimes scary, sometimes fascinating, it's not designed to offend, just to educate, like it's explanation of the difference between natural and artificial flavourings - essentially how they're made, rather than what's in them. I have to say though that my favourite section is where the author asks a scientist what the relevance of a list of chemical names is and the maximum limits allowed of these chemicals in beef patties to which he replies that they're all part of bovine excretion: - there's sh** in the burgers. Worth the price.
“Tokyo Underground” - Robert Whiting USD14 // Vintage Books // ISBN 0-375-72489-3 300pp + 70pp of notes. A fairly famous book by Robert Whiting. If you have an interest in recent Japanese history, like conspiracies, or just enjoy a good true story then you should definitely invest in this book. Looking at Japan following WW2 it analyses the crime world which has always existed in Japanese society, and how it gained it's power - and kept it - through American 'Occupation' and into modern post-Bubble society. It also follows the long, often charmed, sometimes hilarious life of an American Nick Zappetti as he builds his own niche in this crime world as a foreigner. It truly is a very interesting book, especially if you live in Tokyo and have been to many of the places the book talks about. Even if you've never been to Japan, this book will give you an interesting antidote to the whole geisha and Fuji image peddled by the government. Oh yes, that would be the same government, some of whose members feature embarrassingly often in this book. Definitely worth buying.
“The Hacker Crackdown” - Bruce Sterling "The Hacker Crackdown" is a truly marvellous work by Bruce Sterling, perhaps most famous for his journalistic contributions to Wired, but also a great SF author, demonstrated in his collaborative work with William Gibson, "The Difference Engine". This tells in great details the history of crackers and hackers, culminating in the US Government's crackdown in the late 1980's and early 1990's. It's a fascinating read, both for those interested in computer culture, crime and how new technology is forcing society to decide what is acceptable in 'cyberspace'. Written before the web explosion, it's also a great source of information both on the hackers and crackers of the time, but the police, the communications companies and how 'normal' people seemed to relate to it all. The Hacker Crackdown -- free e text