2006 _______________________________________________________________

52 Down 0 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

The Emperor Xerxes of Persia intends to add Greece to his empire, and he’s brought along an army of millions. Spartan King Leonidas has only his 300 bodyguards with which to defend his tiny nation of free men, and does so with both tragic and triumphant consequences.

It’s easy to fall into superlatives when discussing Frank Miller’s work – now especially with his increasing visibility in Hollywood – and 300 is no different, the art is cinematic and moody, the dialogue suitably loaded with gravitas and Miller’s usual retinue of tortured heroic characters are in attendance.

But I’ve come to detect an unpleasant subtext to all of his work since he announced his plan to write Batman going after Osama Bin Laden. Now, Miller has arguably greater ownership of Batman than any other living comics writer, but the notion is faintly ridiculous, even by comic book standards. 9/11 seems to have polarised his worldview into something as black & white as Sin City. Here’s an extract from an article he wrote, published September 11 this year.

Now the real thing had shown up. The real thing murdered my neighbors. In my city. In my country. Breathing in that awful, chalky crap that filled up the lungs of every New Yorker, then coughing it right out, not knowing what I was coughing up. For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die.

Yeah, very Bush administration, I know. 300 seems to fit rather neatly within this ‘us versus them‘ dichotomy, with the added bonus of the Persians being a rather swarthy race and the Greeks being the historical source of freedom and democracy. I know I’m talking about popular fiction here, and comics are – despite recent developments – still not the first place to find measured political discourse. But I expected more from Frank Miller.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic book, but I just feel like I’m not reading the same writer anymore, y’know what I mean? I guess this is what it feels like when you grow out of your heroes. Good thing I’m pretty sure I’ll probably still enjoy the movie.

(ISBN No: 978-1569714027) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 51 Down 1 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

First Contact occurs in a planetwide spectacle but the actual aliens are nowhere to be seen. The source of the signal is traced light-years away and a crew is dispatched to figure out the purpose of the message. Siri Keeton is the lobotomized protagonist – able to decode and encode any message without needing to understand its content – sent to record the real Contact.

The crew consists of a surgically-induced schizophrenic – 4 geniuses sharing one body, a biologically-modified synthaesist – able to taste radio frequencies but unable to feel his fingertips, a pacifist soldier whose greatest triumph was an act of treason, a resurrected vampire of an ancient intelligence beyond the ken of any homo sapiens, and our almost-autistic narrator.

Cory Doctorow describes Peter Watts as a writer of angry sci-fi, which is quite apt considering the way technology seems to have evolved in his fiction. Science has reached an apex, but the world of Blindsight is bleaker than your typical future dystopia. Ostensibly an amalgam of Alien and Solaris, Watts also evokes some incredibly mind-reeling ideas about sentience and the definition of life – Blindsight is at once horrific and illuminating, quite a depressing read, but perfect for the rainy weather.

(ISBN No: 0765312182) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 50 Down 2 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

Bruno Stachel is is the newest pilot in a German combat squadron during World War I, but not for long, if he has anything to do with it. Before long, his blind ambition to become a war hero leads him to a downward spiral of betrayal and alcoholism.

The Blue Max is a straightforward cautionary tale, set in a relatively accurate (I think) historical context. A pretty good read, though I rather enjoyed the dogfights quite a bit more than the character breakdown.

The Blue Max
(ISBN No: 0304366803) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 49 Down 3 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

The main problem I have with short story collections about disaffected American suburbanites is that I don’t live in an American suburb and am largely existentially indifferent. So… if you’re the type who likes reading about affluent North Americans dealing with the banality of their existence by urinating on their boss’s plant, by ogling their teenage babysitter at the mall, and so on – you’re looking in the right place.

To be fair, The Safety of Objects has some stories that possess a fair amount of genuine emotion – Esther in the Night deals with euthanasia and Slumber Party with pre-pubescent sexual exploration – all well-stocked with pathos and confusion. But really, the only story worth reading in this book is Real Doll, where a young boy conducts a sordid affair with his sister’s Barbie doll. The premise alone is golden, and the execution deliciously perverse.

So borrow this book if only to read Real Doll, but the rest of the stories really didn’t appeal to me at all.

The Safety of Objects
(ISBN No: 0679736298) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

48 Down 4 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

F.W. Murnau is one of cinema’s founding fathers, and is responsible for Nosferatu, horror film classic and one of the best vampire films of all time. Nosferatu in Love imagines the key periods of Murnau’s life, from his early years discovering avant-garde theatre, to his stint as a fighter pilot in WWII, as well his film career, spending a lot of time of course, on the making of Nosferatu.

But the real current of the book is Murnau’s doomed love for his teenhood friend and lover Hans Ehrenbaum-Dengle. Author Jim Shepard imagines how Murnau’s inability to escape his feelings of guilt and betrayal inform his entire creative output after Hans’ supposed suicide. Haunted by his inner demons, Murnau spends the rest of his life much like his titular hero, tragic and alone. Apart from being a passionate account of Murnau’s tortured genius, Nosferatu in Love is also an interesting document of early silent-era filmmaking.

Nosferatu is in the public domain, so you download and watch it for yourself. Torrent is available here.

Nosferatu in Love
(ISBN No: 0571192653) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 47 Down 5 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

Set vaguely in the near future (but written in 1979), Tales of Pirx the Pilot concerns the spacefaring Pirx, who is probably as far from the astronaut archetype as is humanly possible. Constantly second-guessing himself but possessed of an alarmingly accurate intuition, a bit of a prankster, though more like a bumbler, Pirx is put through a series of weird adventures where things seem to go mysteriously wrong – from insect-infested space capsules to ancient possessed robots – but he always manages to solve the problem even if he hasn’t really got “the right stuff”.

Much of the narration takes place in Pirx’s head as he stumbles around trying to work things out, giving the book a heavy psychological bent, as is typical with Stanislaw Lem. Given an intimate view into his metacognitive musings, Pirx’s development is genuinely believable even as he is put through the most fantastic of situations, gradually revealing his evolution from an awkward, ill-prepared cadet to a relatively salty ship’s captain who could almost be considered wise.

Lem has managed a weird trick with this novel – setting a detective novel in space, led by a disarmingly human protaganist, somehow creating something that is simultaneously fantastic and mundane. I’m still unsure what Lem’s trying to say with Tales of Pirx the Pilot but I have to say it’s been a strange but oddly satisfying read.

Tales of Pirx the Pilot
(ISBN No: 0380556650) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 45 Down 7 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

Douglas Coupland is among my favourite authors, chiefly because he manages to tread the fine line between being sardonic and evangelical. Consumerism is a central theme in Coupland’s work and Shampoo Planet‘s protaganist, Tyler is quite the corporate America poster-boy.

Tyler is on the cusp of adulthood, ready to leave Lancaster – a sad town made sadder and unfortunately no less radioactive by the closing down of the nearby nuclear munitions plant – along with his hippie mother Jasmine and rasta-wannabe sister Daisy. Tyler’s life revolves around speaking telethon-ese with girlfriend Anna-Louise, hanging out with his friends ironic 50’s diners and the local mall. However, a visit from Stephanie, whom he met on a recent summer Europe trip, threatens to screw up his best-laid plans, in his career, in his love, and pretty much his entire life.

Now when I put it like that, it sounds like a boring typical teenage coming-of-age story with attendant hijinks. Well, it kinda is. Amidst the ubiquitous trademarks and pyramid schemes are simple, largely unrealised characters who go through self-discovery and personal growth and whatnot. Sure, Coupland is as witty as ever, and the banter is amusing as hell, but Shampoo Planet‘s life lessons seem more pithy t-shirt wisdoms than anything. In any case, I still love Douglas Coupland’s work, and this book works well enough as a snapshot of 1990s zeitgeist, if not as great literature.

Shampoo Planet
(ISBN No: 0671755064) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

44 Down 8 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

I last read Scott Westerfeld in March, and pretty much had my mind blown with a near-perfect piece of young adult writing. While Fine Prey didn’t fare as well, its weird combination of xenolinguistics and bio-engineered equestrianary did make for an intriguing read.

The world is post-Contact with the Ayan, now our benign serpentine masters, freely sharing their technology and contributing substantial economic growth to the world. Our best and brightest are enrolled in the Aya School, learning their tongue and remapping their minds, to eventually become Ayan themselves. For Ayans are not a genetic race, but a collective by language, much like the Arab states as Westerfeld points out.

Spider is one such student, maybe the best, and destined for great things. She also rides the Fine Hunt, a future amalgam of equestrian exhibition and fox-hunt, but a chance encounter leads her to find out that the Aya and the Hunt are about much more than her darkest, deepest imaginings.

For a book about extraterrestrials, the Ayan are never really physically described by Westerfeld, except as a shadowy presence seemingly manipulating the world by droid proxy. That’s because what makes the Ayan are their language, and language here is first a means of mapping the mind, then a means of communication. Among the Third World politics and high-society maneuverings of the novel lies a central thread of linguistics and philosophy being – not to put too fine a point on it – the answer to life and everything. A little abstract at times, but Fine Prey is absolutely worth the effort reading.

Fine Prey
(ISBN No: 0451456971) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

43 Down 9 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

George Orr dreams. Much like the rest of us, except he dreams things into being. Despite what you’re thinking, The Lathe of Heaven is not a wish fulfillment fantasy. Nothing as vulgar as that.

What George dreams, becomes reality when he wakes – whether or not he wants it to be. And nobody has any clue that the world has irrevocably changed, whether in as insignificant a way as creating previously non-existent painting or a nightmaring a devastating plague that wiped out most of the human race years earlier. To everyone else, the world is as it should be, as it always has been.

When he runs afoul of the law when using drugs to suppress his dreams, George is sent to a dream researcher, Dr. Haber – who discovers his talent and attempts to use George’s talent to shape reality to the betterment of all mankind, sometimes with horrific results.

The Lathe of Heaven first seemed to me like a interesting enough combination of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, with a hapless protagonist enmeshed in a ludicrous alter-reality. A bit of research yielded Le Guin’s embedded political allegory – how world-changing power concentrated in one man (or an elite) might yield results less than ideal. Set within a dystopian context, The Lathe of Heaven is a fascinating philosophy piece with political undertones.

The Lathe of Heaven
(ISBN No: 0060512741) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 42 Down 10 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

I’ve always been more into Terry Pratchett more than Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a little over-rated if you ask me. Discworld, on the other hand, is as rich and fully-formed a universe as Middle Earth or Star Wars.

This time around, the Patrician has Ankh-Morpork’s rundown postal service revitalised to combat the clacks – Discworld’s analogue of email – an amalgam of the internet and morse code, complete with geeky, socially-challenged coder-types. Going Postal has most of the usual Discworld trademarks – an underdog anti-hero, the geriatric sidekick, the evil mastermind, and wizards generally making fools of themselves.

Not breaking alot of new ground here, but Pratchett is entertaining to a fault as always.

Going Postal
(ISBN No: 0552149438) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

41 Down 11 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

Arthur C. Clarke is one of my personal heroes, and the Rama series is one of the more intelligent alien encounter stories you’ll find out there. Gentry Lee is the (true blue) rocket scientist who co-wrote the last 3 Rama books with Clarke. Seeing as to how he was directly involved in the Mars Viking project among others, you’d think he’d be a hard science kind of guy in this solo outing.

Unfortunately, Bright Messengers has about as much hard science as Spongebob Squarepants. Oh, the book’s fine for the first 200 or so pages, as Lee sets up the story with principal characters, Sister Bernice from the Order of St. Michael and Johann Eberhardt, a German systems engineer. To save you the suspense, they get posted to Mars, board an alien spacecraft along with a cast of extraneous but Benetton-approved crew members and get to some big, white globe where the 2 principals are prodded on some trip while the rest conveniently get written out of the picture.

Somehow, through some wondrous alien (or divine) design, the 2 of them experience Hiroshima, the Holocaust and other Great Human Tragedies. They’re eventually stranded on some island where all their needs are provided for and their main problem is trying not to fuck on account of Sister Bernice’s vow of chastity.

Subtlety is not Lee’s greatest strengh. It’s pretty obvious Sister Bernice represents all that is spiritual and divine about Mankind while Johann is the logical, systemic side. He’s German, remember. The whole setup is just cock, having the two debate divinity while trying to save German Jews from concentration camps or radiation-burnt Japanese. It gets worse when he throws a villain into the mix. Conveniently, the bad guy’s a brilliant Muslim engineer who’s a walking caricature of misogyny, calling every woman he sees cunt or bitch – basically rape on legs. So eventually, the evil Muslim dies and Johann sees the light, and Bernice gets all saint-like. The worst thing is there’s a sequel.

I don’t know what kind of Jesus juice Gentry Lee was on when he wrote this steaming pile of turd, but I bet Arthur C. Clarke was high out of his head on some good shit when he approved it. Don’t touch this book with a ten-foot pole.

Bright Messengers
(ISBN No: 0553573292) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 40 Down 12 Left (52 Books, 52 Weeks)

I usually stay away from crime novels, but Martin Amis’ Night Train might well have made me a convert. Crime novel back cover blurbs are almost always badly written as a rule, involving some grizzly detective from the school of hard knocks, with enough baggage for a freight car to transport, usually in the form of dead partners or wives. They’re usually in for the most dangerous and challenging case of their lives, which they might solve as long as they don’t die first from their drug of choice, usually cigarettes and alcohol.

Night Train has the prerequisite alcoholic, square-jawed stereotype of this hero in the form of Detective Mike Hoolihan. Except Mike is a woman, and a police. Not policewoman, mind. According to Mike, she’s a member of a race called police, ‘which is obliged to hate every other race’. Like a train on rails, there’s a suicide that isn’t all it appears to be, and Mike is put on the case as the only person who can sort it all out.

We follow as Mike dutifully gets leads and works through a list of suspects, but things get strangely introspective as Mike gets drawn deeper and deeper into Jennifer Rockwell’s death. Jennifer was her boss’s daughter, and the bright, sunny antithesis to Mike’s damaged goods. As the case progresses, we get sunk deeper and deeper into Mike’s psyche as she struggles to understand why someone with so much to live for would eat a bullet.

While nothing much really happens by way of plot and Night Train contains all the classic (cliched?) elements of crime stories, the writing is the absolutely most gripping noir I’ve read since anything, and all my reservations about the book melted away after reading the following passage –

Some say you can’t top the adrenalin (and the dirty cash) of Narcotics, and all agree that Kidnapping is a million laughs (if murder in America is largely black on black, then kidnapping is largely gang on gang), and Sex Offenses has its followers, and Vice has its votaries, and Intelligence means what it says (Intelligence runs deep, and brings in the deep-sea malefactors), but everyone is quietly aware that Homicide is the daddy. Homicide is the Show.

Martin Amis may be making the news all over now for his unpopular views on Islam and terrorism, but damn if he doesn’t write a tight turn of phrase. Night Train is a whole lot better than I thought it would be, and I guess it certainly was the Show indeed.

Night Train
(ISBN No: 0099748711) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 39 Down, 13 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Diaspora takes place close to the next millennium when the Singularity is already in the distant past, though ‘fleshers’ still exist in various transhumanic forms back on Earth. Our posthuman brethren either take the form of the aforementioned ‘fleshers’ or as disembodied consciousnesses inhabiting ultrasecure servers known as ‘polises’ or as ‘gleisner’ robots out exploring the rest of the system.

The novel follows the experiences of a rare spontaneously generated ‘citizen’, Yatima, as ve (coined by Egan as a new pronoun) explores a world literally without boundaries or limits. An unavoidable extinction event leads ver and much of post-humanity to seek an alternative to the inevitable end of civilization in all its forms.Yatima serves a lens with which to understand the psychology and philosophies of post-human society and life.

This is actually the second time I’ve read this book, but it’s still as powerful as the first time round. Devoid of the usual anthropomorphic aliens of mainstream sci-fi, Egan imagines an arguably more realistic future, albeit one that might likely be beyond the ken of anyone of us living now. Swirling with wormhole theory, theoretical astrophysics and plain hardcore science, much of the time reading this book is spent attempting to understand the nigh-impenetrable discourse, more than following the standard adventure plots of most sci-fi.

I fucking loved every line of it. Egan never holds back and dumbs down to his reader, like most sci-fi often do. Character and plot development does suffer a little from the constant theorizing, but I really didn’t mind at all. Not that I understood much of what was being discussed beyond the slightest gist, but it’s this resolute refusal to water down the myriad possibilities of post-humanity and alien life that is so absolutely gripping. It also warrants mentioning that Diaspora contains the least likely instance of reference to Pinball Wizard ever imagined.

If you love sci-fi, you must read this book.

(ISBN No: 0752809253) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

38 Down, 14 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

The Human Fly and Other Stories is a collection of mostly teenage Americana by author T.C. Boyle. While mostly dealing with teenage perspectives, Boyle manages to inhabit an incredible range of voices and moods in the book. I particularly relished the story Beat, which is an affectionate and pretty much note-perfect send-up of Kerouac’s frenzied Beat stylings in which a wide-eyed 17 year-old meets the Beat Saint himself.

The rest range from realistically depressing depictions of real love, 50s teen night at the make-out point gone horribly wrong and a hilarious look at if Lassie ever got in heat. What really gets me about Boyle is how effortless he switches register and atmosphere between tales, while retaining a sort of signature absurdity that seems to me to be his distinctive voice. This book is practically brimming with wit and humanity at every turn, I think T.C Boyle is quite the interesting discovery.

The Human Fly and Other Stories
(ISBN No: 0670060542) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 37 Down, 15 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

While I pretty much devoured Stephen King in my formative reading years, its pretty strange that this is the first time I’ve read anything by Clive Barker, a contemporary if not equal of King. All the more surprising as The Hellbound Heart features the acupunctured Pinhead, better known as the face of the Hellraiser movie franchise. Horror icon or not, there’s really no indication in the book as to which character is Pinhead, so he’s just really a guy with a hardcore body-piercing on the cover.

In any case, the book is pretty light reading as transdimensional torture tales go, with a meaty amount of flagellation and a sizeable splattering of bloodletting. Frank finds arcane puzzle box, solves it whilst in family mansion, gets sucked into afore-mentioned dimension, numbskull brother and slutty sister-in-law move in, slutty sister-in-law gets contacted by Frank, blood sacrifices start happening, throw in mousy but spunky heroine with crush on numbskull and the circle is complete.

I think Heart could’ve done with a pinch of more humour and characterisation, in lieu of the fact that I was a little let down by the gore factor. Maybe I’m a little desensitized but the descriptions of torture and terror left me wanting. I quite enjoyed the whole (minor spoiler) skinning bit but it was just a tiny peak in this mostly flatline of a novella. Not Clive Barker’s best work, apparently, so I’ll seek out the rest of his stuff before I pass final sentence.

The Hellbound Heart
(ISBN No: 0006470653) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 36 Down, 16 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

I’m sure everyone knows about the weird dichotomy that divides scifi fandom into either Star Wars fans or Star Trek fans. You’re either divebombing Death Star trenches around a forested moon with the Rebel Alliance (or in my case, the Empire) or traipsing on M-Class planets with only a phaser and your Vulcan nerve pinch. To generalise, Star Wars is all about fantasy and space opera, while Star Trek is about a utopian spacefaring society.

I was a Star Wars geek for many moons, having not seen the original Star Trek. It was only in the 90s when the Next Generation began, that I began to appreciate how cerebral Star Trek really was. I mean, Star Wars is fun and all (until recently, of course), but Star Trek was literally like looking into the future. Creator Gene Roddenberry insisted on extrapolating technology (as far as he could) rather than just making cool shit up, like lightsabers. Star Trek wasn’t just about space and lasers, it was about society, anthropology and philosophy.

Admittedly, I own a fair share of Star Wars memorabilia while I have nothing of Star Trek, but that’s really the thing isn’t it? I own a 12-inch TIE fighter pilot figure because I know I’ll never fly a TIE fighter, but I don’t have a Star Trek costume because I know if I live long enough, I might actually see it happen.
The Unauthorised History of Trek is really nothing more than a rough episode guide to all the episodes of the original series and of The Next Generation. Bit of trivia here and there, as well as synopses of the movies. Not exhaustive by far, but all you really need to know are the basic premises of the various episodes. The sheer range of ideas that have been explored in Star Trek is breathtakingly immense, and this book should help whet your taste if you’ve never watched a single episode before.

The Unauthorised History of Trek
(ISBN No: 0788196588) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 35 Down, 17 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Ben Bova’s Venus concerns Van Humphries and his voyage to Venus to recover the remains of his brother Alex at the behest of his father, bazillionaire eccentric Martin Humphries. Well, not exactly.

Van’s merely joined his father’s contest to be the first to recover Alex’s remains from the surface of Venus to win the prize of 10 billion dollars. Either that or get cut off financially. Unfortunately, his only competition is also his father’s sworn enemy, Lars Fuchs, the mysterious grizzled asteroid miner with a bone to grind with Martin Humphries. Something about ruining his life and destroying everything he’d ever loved.

Notice how I’ve just been talking about the fiction and not alot of the science? That’s cause there’s really very little of it. Venus is really like a soap opera set in space with a sprinkle or two of nanotechnology or planetary science thrown in. Really more Star Wars than Star Trek. It’s even got a multi-tentacled spaceship eating monster for goodness’ sake.

Read only if you’re after a no-brainer, mildly amusing space thriller. Kind of like scifi for girly men, or Jeffrey Archer after he’s watched Independence Day. Ben Bova’s supposed to be somekind of scifi master? Seriously? Anyone want to buy this off me?

(ISBN No: 0812579402) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 34 Down, 18 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Alistair Meadowlark – a mousy gaijin lawyer who gets posted to Tokyo, experiences extreme culture shock, meets schoolgirl for-sale, stiff upper lip disintegrates, eases into typical asshole angmoh expat mode, schoolgirl leaves him for old rich dude, lawyer goes bloody berserk and wears a chicken costume. It’s mildly amusing, I’ll give it that. The nameless narrator -fellow lawyer who’s gone native – offers a near-emotionless but occasionally wry lens to the goings-on.

Yeah, Gavin Kramer’s Shopping won a couple of awards and so on, but I’m a bit bored by the whole vending-machine-panties-tentacle-porn-fetish angle these angmohs like so much to dredge up the whole time. The whole cautionary, cultureshock angle is really more than a little tired. I love Lost in Translation as much as the next guy, but still.

To Kramer’s credit though, despite the whole Tokyo as sex-den and consumerist heaven, he decides to end with a beautiful closer – the narrator’s Anglophile best friend, once all about tweed jackets and Romantic poetry, now in the countryside building old-style Japanese wooden houses, coming full circle from worshipping the West to preserving his own Nippon heritage. Like a zen koan to round out the Roppongi chaos of the rest of the book. It certainly works, but just came a little too late for me.

(ISBN No: 1569472297) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

33 Down, 19 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Contrary to what I originally thought, Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories is not a collection of ghost stories by my favouritest ever children’s book author, but really just a collection of stories that he once thought might have made a pretty good TV series.

Which it would have, really. Although I would’ve have preferred a little more bite to the stories – keeping in mind, this is Roald Dahl, no stranger to the more disgusting side of human nature – the ghosts haunting these stories are for the most part, rather polite gentlemen and ladies.

We’ve got nice but dead Christian schoolgirls who encourage studying, the deceased and betrayed who almost miss out on revenge because they forgot to make an appointment with the guilty, nice, old gents who haunt antique shops trying to do just one last good deed. All very quaint and proper-like, but on the horror front, zzzzz….

There are the odd few tales though, that are genuinely frightening. I particularly enjoyed 2 stories, the first of which lends a literal meaning to ‘waking the dead’, and the second which will probably result in my next cruise trip (if I ever take one) to be neither restful nor overly pleasant.

Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories
(ISBN No: 0374518688) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

32 Down, 20 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Amidst all the Tolkien worship in the mainstream fantasy camp, Michael Moorcock is often overlooked even though he’s probably responsible for creating the archetype for the fantasy anti-hero – clad in black, given to murderous rage, possessed of a sentient weapon with an eternal thirst for blood – as opposed to Frodo and his sickly, saccharine sweetness along with the multi-racial harmony public service announcement that is the Fellowship of the Ring. No, sometimes, you want just a little darker. I mean, Vader vs Luke, no contest, right?

In the The Skrayling Tree, Moorcock’s concept of the multiverse is under threat from the forces of Limbo, and Elric, Emperor Sorceror of Melnibone, his daughter Oona, and her husband, Count Ulric von Bek, must traverse 3 separate universes to meet at the Skrayling Tree, symbolic centre of the Multiverse.

Weaving together threads of myth and history – Native American and Norse legends, World War II, alternate universes and time-space paradoxes – Moorcock’s lyricality keeps the tale from descending into the fantasy-lite we’ve come to expect from the likes of Robert Jordan and the D&D catalogue. The thing with Moorcock is that he’s really a literary force who just happens to write a lot of fantasy, so really what you get is something a little more contemplative and intelligent than the usual swords and magic fare.

The only fantasy I’ve been able to swallow since growing out of puberty (arguable, I know) has really only been Terry Prachett. Discovering Moorcock in recent years has been quite something of a revelation. Moreover, I think people like China Miéville owe him a greater debt than Tolkien.

The Skrayling Tree
(ISBN No: 0446613401) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

31 Down, 21 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Asperger’s Syndrome is characterized by deficiencies in social and communication skills, normal to above normal intelligence, and standard language development. Which pretty much describes our hero, Christopher, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. He has perfect recall, above average mathematics ability, cannot relate to other people in a normal, emotional way, and will curl up screaming in the foetal position if touched unwillingly. Your average Rain Man, really. Or Data.

In any case, the book is written from the perspective of Christopher, as he obsessively documents the events leading from his discovery of his neighbour’s murdered dog. As we’re looking at things through Christopher’s eyes, your regular gumshoe murder mystery takes on a novel bent. Despite having never ventured beyond the end of his street on his own, events compel Christopher to make his way to London, his personal difficulties making the relatively simple train trip into quite the ordeal.

Quite a lovely book, and genuinely heartbreaking at some parts. A plus is that its loaded with puzzle illustrations as Christopher resorts to maths when he’s feeling stressed or nervous. Most were beyond me though.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
(ISBN No: 0099450259) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 30 Down, 22 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

I basically grew up on substantial diet of war novels and documentaries, so it does come as a bit of a surprise to realise that Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That is the first time I’m reading about the First World War, or the sadly misnamed ‘War to end all Wars‘.

The book deals mostly with Grave’s experiences in the trenches during WWI, bookended with candid accounts of his time growing up in an exclusive boy’s school and his time in Egypt after the war. While the before and after experiences are interesting enough, it’s really Graves’ horrific time in the trenches that are truly gripping and fascinating.

It’s especially interesting reading about the conduct of war during WWI as opposed to the current conflict in Lebanon right now. Graves fought against the Germans in France, where the civilians (whose land and liberation were being fought over) were for the most part, out of the fighting, and targeted only if suspected of billeting British soldiers. Almost all of the time, fighting happens only on the front.

In contrast, Israel says they’re really pinpointing Hezbollah safehouses when they’re decimating residential districts in Lebanon, but if they’re so careful about avoiding civilian casualties and all, why would they bomb a U.N. post and hit ambulances with obvious intent to kill, all the while claiming regret and unintentionality?

Not discounting the obvious terror and horrors of WWI and WWII, but it does seem that at least rules of engagement were more or less honoured in those days. Of course, war crimes might have been just as rampant then, but we’re only more aware of current conflicts due to the immediacy of news coverage and citizen journalism now. In any case, now that we do know, there needs to be greater international pressure on war crime perpetrators, not the ambiguous behaviour being exhibited now by the U.S. and the U.K.

Goodbye To All That
(ISBN No: 0140274200) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

29 Down, 23 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Where to begin, really? Naked Lunch is a seminal work about drugs and homosexuality, a series of stories about gore and mutilation tied together with gratuituous blood and spunk, written in the cut-up technique, and pretty much nigh-incomprehensible.

Seminal or not, the book is not for the faint of heart, and it’s easy to see why I can’t find it in the NLB catalogue. Much of the activity described here is well and truly nauseating, though always absurd and surreal enough for the reader to know that this is the product of a sick, drug-addled, if brilliant mind. Burroughs was a well-known narcotics experimenter, and quite the authority on addiction and withdrawal.

In fact, the tail end of the book is a lengthy letter on the various effects and cures for the many chemical delights of the day, written as lucidly and academically as the preceding novel was Dada-esque and stream-of-consciousness.

Meant to be an indictment of sorts on the seedy underbelly of the American experience as well as a cathartic release for Burroughs, Naked Lunch works pretty well as a warning against substance abuse. Seriously, no way do I want to end up with the likes of those who people these pages. Some of the satirical passages are hilarious though, you haven’t lived til you’ve heard about the Talking Asshole, I kid you not.

So did I like the book? No, I guess not. I’m sure it’s a masterpiece of the beat generation and whatnot, but there’s no way I could get into all 180 pages of outrageous (in a bad way) hedonism and gore, all written in a narcotics-fueled stupor with no regard for the niceties of the English language. Apart from the occasional quite hilarious interlude, Naked Lunch left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. (Hey, I made a pun!)

My next book will be Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That.

28 Down, 24 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Halfway into the surreal dreamscape that is Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance, I realise that Murakami is really Franz Kafka reincarnated in Japan with a love for pop culture and wickedly bizarre sense of humour. Amid terrifying plunges into an unknowable abyss, high-class callgirl murders and visions of skeletons in still-life, Murakami meticulously tells us exactly what is playing as soundtrack, from classic American jazz to Boy George.

Apparently a sequel to the earlier A Wild Sheep Chase, the nameless narrator lives a mundane existence as a freelance writer (shoveling cultural snow, as he puts it). Alone, divorced and generally lackadaisical, he’s slowly drawn to the dilapidated Dolphin Hotel, where he once lived with the mysterious, now-disappeared Kiki. He arrives to find an entirely new hotel in its place, re-christened the l’Hotel Dauphin. He finds the Sheep Man in a vision – a Yoda-esque character with accompanying speech impediment – and is sent on his way with the sage words, ‘you gotta dance’.

Along the way, our hapless narrator stumbles out of his ennui with the help of a shifting cast of unlikely players – his high school classmate now turned whitebread movie star, his female teenage psychic soulmate obsessed with 80s new wave, her glamourous but clueless parents and the bespectacled hotel receptionist with an unfortunate tendency to skip through dimensions.

Unhurriedly paced but headlong irresistible, Dance Dance Dance is a genre-defying trip about looking into the unknown and giving into the flow of an absurd reality. Yes, it’s one of those finding-yourself journeys, but I’ve not read one as deliciously off-the-wall as this. As another reviewer put it best, ‘this is a novel that is not plotted, but choreographed’. Dance Dance Dance is simultaneously strange and familiar, and compelling like nobody’s business. Haruki Murakami is definitely on my ‘Read Everything by Him/Her’ list now.

Dance Dance Dance
(ISBN No: 0679753796) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 27 Down, 25 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

The Restraint of Beasts is a sharp little novel brimming with equal amounts gallows humour and stiff upper lip. Set in smalltown Scotland and England, our nameless English narrator remains unerring unflappable amidst accidental deaths and karaoke nights at the local pub.

Tam and Richie are Scottish fencers (as in they put up fences) with a less-than-stellar work ethic and our narrator the hapless foreman who must take charge of them as they travel to England for a job. Plagued by wet weather, a rising casualty rate and an irate sausage mogul with a suspect supply of mystery meat, our heroes’ greatest concern is getting their pints in the evening, right up to the end when they are about to discover exactly what beasts the seven-foot electric fences they’re setting up are meant to contain.

A bit of light humour set in working class Britain ala The Full Monty (substituting the feel-good factor for the odd manslaughter), Magnus Mills’ The Restraint of Beasts is an enjoyable enough read, not sure why it warrants a Booker Prize nomination, but still an entertaining trod nonetheless.

The Restraint of Beasts
(ISBN No: 0006551149 ) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 26 Down, 26 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Under The Frog involves the unlikely exploits of 2 best friends in post-war Hungary, travelling the country as part of an amateur basketball team. In the years between the end of World War II and the revolution of 1956, Gyuri and Pataki travel the country taking part in competitive eat-outs, dealing in imaginary smuggled arms and attempting to bed the odd countrywoman.

Author Tibor Fischer has taken what was the most difficult period in modern Hungarian history and pretty much told it from the perspective of lothario teenagers. Beneath the landscape of near-starvation, propaganda barrages and the constant fear of abduction by the secret police, is quite a special coming-of-age story, all told in a resolute deadpan, which initially adds measures to the hilarity.

Later on however, when the tanks start to roll and loved ones begin to die, that same deadpan tone begins to make sense. Much like in Catch-22, laughter is observed as the best defense against tragedy and hardship, and what was once funny and absurd becomes stoic and filled with pathos.

The first demand that Gyuri read out was for a change in the leadership of the Hungarian Working People’s Party. THat was the sort of thing that, say in 1950, just thinking about it would have got you in a ten-year stretch in an unlit cellar with swollen kidneys and icy water up to your knees. Now, what with Stalin smelling the violets by their roots, and Uncle Nikita rubbishing all his predecessors, that sort of thing was negotiable if you were accompanied by a very, very large crowd.

Under The Frog
(ISBN No: 0312278713) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 25 Down, 27 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Gregor Samsa is the dutiful son, working hard as a travelling salesman to financially support his ailing parents and young sister. One morning, he inexplicably wakes up as a giant cockroach. Gregor is mostly unperturbed, and half-heartedly worries about mundanities like keeping his job and getting to work on time.

Obviously, he can’t even leave his bedroom. Soon, he starts crawling around and eating garbage, getting gradually more insect-like. His parents, horrified, want nothing more to do with him, while his sister tries to continue taking care of him.

One day, Gregor escapes into the living room, unintentionally terrorising his family. His father throws apples at him, one of which becomes embedded in his back. Eventually, Gregor dies when the apple rots in his back, infecting him as well.

And in case you missed it – he wakes up as a giant cockroach. OK, its never said that he’s a cockroach, but I dare you to imagine a better type of vermin.
Metamorphosis is a much studied text by a well-known author, so I won’t really waste your time with an academic perspective on the book. Just google it yourself if you want.

What’s interesting to me is how my reading of the book has changed since I last read it, which was close to a decade ago. I was in Jurong Junior College, in my first year, and was determined to stop reading G.I.Joe novels and start on some really academic classic type books. As most angsty Smiths-loving teenagers are wont to do, I chose a Kafka novel as the first step to my future as a very serious adult.

I remember being suitably impressed by the affected darkness and gloom of the novel, reading the study notes religiously, and sagely agreeing with all the psychoanalytic and political interpretations of the plot. I must have been thinking, “I’m totally like Gregor, I’m a giant cockroach and nobody loves me!” Or something else to that effect…

This time around, Metamorphosis reads like a slapstick comedy ala The Three Stooges. Check out this passage where Gregor tries to escape his enraged father:

Nothing would stop Gregor’s father as he drove him back, making hissing noises at him like a wild man. Gregor had never had any practice in moving backwards and was only able to go very slowly. If Gregor had only been allowed to turn round he would have been back in his room straight away, but he was afraid that if he took the time to do that his father would become impatient, and there was the threat of a lethal blow to his back or head from the stick in his father’s hand any moment.

Eventually, though, Gregor realised that he had no choice as he saw, to his disgust, that he was quite incapable of going backwards in a straight line; so he began, as quickly as possible and with frequent anxious glances at his father, to turn himself round. It went very slowly, but perhaps his father was able to see his good intentions as he did nothing to hinder him, in fact now and then he used the tip of his stick to give directions from a distance as to which way to turn.

If only his father would stop that unbearable hissing! It was making Gregor quite confused. When he had nearly finished turning round, still listening to that hissing, he made a mistake and turned himself back a little the way he had just come.

That’s like comedy gold, man. I can totally envision a Stephen Chow adaptation of the novel, with Chow in a giant cockroach suit. I suppose my added years and consequent freedom from angst are helping me better perceive Kafka’s black humour.

Guess my current capacity for levity is linked to maturity, or the obvious flipside, that my angst and adolescence were pretty much inseparable. Ah, me and my irretrievable teenage wasteland. What a cock.

(ISBN No: 0553213695) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 24 Down, 28 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

a fall of moondust

To be succinct, this book is Apollo 13 on a high-tech tour bus, trapped in quicksand, on the moon.

I’d say Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall Of Moondust is just as enjoyable as the Ron Howard movie, except Sir Clarke tends to be a little quaint with regards to what one might consider interesting.

Among the first things the passengers decide to do when stranded are book discussions and funny little skits to combat boredom. I mean, its made clear there’s nothing they can do but wait for rescue, but the idea of getting riled up about pulp romances when trapped under 20 tons of lunar dust seems faintly ridiculous to me.

Also, keeping in mind this was written in 1960 – a couple years before the women’s rights movement – Sir Clarke is a tad chauvinistic when it comes to his women characters, who are either stewardess, ex-strippers, or old prudes. Sure, the stewardess is spunky and all can-do spirit, but it doesn’t make his tone any less condescending.

But once you get past all that, the book is really quite gripping. For me, the best part of Apollo 13 is the cool troubleshooting by the engineers back in Houston, and Moondust has its fair share of dorky inventor moments as well. As pop sci-fi goes, this book is great for some quick brain candy.

A Fall Of Moondust
(ISBN No: 0575073179) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

23 Down, 29 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Foe is J.M. Coetzee’s postmodern retelling of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe through the eyes of Susan Barton (who was never in the original story), she travels to Brazil in search of her missing daughter, eventually gives up to return to England, but ends up a woman castaway when there’s a mutiny on her ship. She arrives on the island to find Cruso, a once proud man reduced to a stoic husk, content to reign over his empty island with a mutilated Friday as servant, neither interested in escape nor improving their way of life.

However, the island only serves as setting for a while, as the 3 castaways are quickly rescued and shipped to England, only to have Cruso die just before reaching port. Destitute, Susan searches for a writer to whom she can tell the story of Cruso, Friday and the island, in the hopes that she will be paid for her tale. She finds Daniel Foe, who hears part of her story, gives her some money and promptly disappears.

With Friday in tow, Susan searches for Foe to finish her story, on the way encountering a young girl claiming to be her long-lost daughter. When Susan does eventually track Daniel Foe down, he is more interested in her own personal story as opposed to the account of Cruso, Friday and the island. Much of the book is spent with Susan’s urgent need to tell Cruso’s story but she’s confounded with her inability. Friday is the only one in possession of the full story – and himself a great source of fascination to Susan – but he cannot reveal anything having had his tongue severed and his personality reduced by years of servitude and muteness to a state of near-catatonia.

At odds entirely with the archetypal adventure novel, Foe is devoid of romanticism and told entirely from a woman’s point of view. All the men in the novel are either emotionless, victimised, mute or totally absent. Almost all the endeavours that are begun are futile from the start. Cruso’s barren terraces, Susan’s doomed search, and Foe’s ultimately embellished novel. The concluding chapter takes a surreal turn into a dreamscape of Cruso and Friday’s shipwreck, arguably the start of all events and the source of the real truth, but still nothing is revealed.

Admittedly, this book pretty much went over my head. Written in a time of apartheid, I believe the portrayal of Friday must represent black Africa in some way, while Susan Barton is an answer to the lack of female identity in Defoe’s original story. Daniel Foe appears to exist as a template for writers and their need for embellishing the truth. I’m sure the relationships between the characters somehow hang together as allegory for a great manner of things but it’ll probably help to read Robinson Crusoe again before I can get my mind around it all.

Densely fraught with themes of race, gender, language and narrative, Foe strikes me as a difficult piece of metafiction which works on multiple levels. It will take some research, a second reading and a fair bit of effort to try to pick it apart properly. I can’t say I really enjoyed the book this time around but I’ll try to revisit it again after reading the source text.

(ISBN No: 014029953X) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 22 Down, 30 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

4 words: Poor man’s Umberto Eco.

The Da Vinci Code
(ISBN No: 1400079179) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

21 Down, 31 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

>Regardless of how horrible the events described here might seem, there’s one thing you must remember as you hold this book in your hands: all of it really happened, every word is true.

Lunar Park is a gothic meta-masterpiece starring the author as his own protagonist, once vilified as the poster child for 80s consumerist-inspired misanthropy, now a relapsed middle-aged dad attempting to be respectably suburban and suitably fatherly. Ellis (the fictional one) struggles to stay on the wagon whilst trying to start an affair with a graduate student, the whole time trying his damndest to break through to his son, Robby, who barely manages to ignore his father through his meds-induced haze.

The self-referentially comic tone of the book gives way soon enough as our hero starts getting mysterious emails from the bank storing his father’s ashes, his step-daughter’s toy bird starts coming alive, his son gets connected to an epidemic of disappearing teenage boys and a rash of murders is connected to a Patrick Bateman imposter recreating crimes from American Psycho.

Much of the novel references Ellis’s (the writer) earlier work as well as his controversial reputation. While it certainly would have helped to have read Ellis’s earlier work, especially American Psycho, his latest work didn’t alienate as much as I anticipated – having read Rules of Attraction probably helped – but I do recommend reading Psycho at least to fully appreciate the little in-jokes littered throughout the novel.

While in part an homage to Stephen King and his brand of Americana horror, Ellis also infuses the book with a desperate sense of the lives we imagine for ourselves, a self-loathing desire for redemption and a guts and gore look at immutable relationships – a writer’s with his creations and fathers with their sons. This is not just a scary book with a clever gimmick thrown in.

Eschewing a single genre and conventional structure, Ellis has written a piece of metafiction flowing with undercurrents and thick veins of meaning if you care to dig deeper than the awkward narrative shifts and near-parodic horror elements. While much of the plot is discernibly fiction, Ellis’s descriptions of familial dysfunction and substance-fueled paranoia are obviously from experience.

It was Lunar Park‘s closing elegy that hit me like a punch in the gut. A stingingly moving passage of nostalgia and longing that actually had my heart in my throat, not really what I expected from the bad boy of contemporary American literature. After the comedy and horror narrative of the rest of the novel, the lyrical tour de force of the final chapter was both profoundly and unbelievably rewarding.

In scope, ambition and sheer strength of writing, Lunar Park is a masterwork, and Bret Easton Ellis has a new fan.

Lunar Park
(ISBN No: 0375727272) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 20 Down, 32 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Mario Puzo’s most well-known for producing the Godfather novels, which I’ve not read. I vaguely remember watching Godfather 2 the film, but I’ll have to go back and watch those movies properly to appreciate the genre, I guess. I do love Brian De Palma’s Scarface – who has my 20th anniversary DVD?!!? – but that’s the extent of my involvement with the Mafia Dons.

I’m not exactly a fan of crime or Mafia novels, so despite the author’s winning track record, I’m still not a convert. Omerta is the story of the Don Raymonde Aprile and his adoptive nephew (and our hero) Astorre Viola. Needless to say, as per the genre convention, somebody gets whacked – no prizes for guessing who – and our hero gets to exact terrible revenge on all who are responsible. That’s really all you have to know.

Now I’m as much a fan of pulp ficiton as the next guy, but Astorre is written as an alpha male of a character who’s seemingly perfect in every way, so much so that its just really boring to read. Good-looking, check, popular with the ladies, check, respected and feared by his peers, check, super smart and unkillable, check. Boring, sia.

Come on lah, so bloody perfect, where got scared he die? Like some one-dimensional Jeffrey Archer protagonist, and I can’t stand Jeffrey Archer novels. Maybe it’s just me and my indifference to crime novels, but Omerta is just an OK read, good enough pulp fiction for reading in crowded hospital corridors, but not if you’re thinking to give your brain much of a workout.

(ISBN No: 0099296802) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 19 Down, 33 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Its been awhile since I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself in a fantasy environment – not since my last reading of LOTR and the mind-numbingly tedious Wheel Of Time series – so it was with some anticipation that I picked up China Miéville’s The Scar at the recent book fair at the Expo. I figured at worst, I’d be down 6 bucks. Luckily for me, this was a damn good buy. High Browse has a write-up on the man himself here and here.

Fantasy’s probably too vague a genre here, I’d think in the popular vernacular of today, The Scar will fit nicely in Steampunk, which is a sort of mesh between the medieval and science. Kind of like if the future turned out the way Jules Verne thought it would, but fucked up further by many orders of magnitude. Miéville likes to term his stuff as Weird Fiction, which works just as well, I guess. Cause he’s one fucked up dude, man.

The novel takes place after the events of Perdido Street Station (which I now must read), in a world where science is more alchemy and magic than anything else, where sap-blooded cactus-men and mosquito men with sphincter mouths (you must read lah) live alongside human beings. Then there are the Remade, people who’ve undergone a thaumaturgical surgery of sorts, exchanging human parts for machine or animal parts. Some as punishment, while others for enhancement.

Bellis Coldwine, a stoic linguist, is on the run, undertaking an ocean voyage to the other side of the world, but hopes to return home once her troubles blow over. Tanner Sack – recently Remade for reasons not made explicit – travels on the same ship, but in the prison cells below decks, bound for the same place, but for a future as a slave. As in any good story, events transpire that they never get where they thought they were going, but instead go on to events beyond their (or our) wildest imaginings.

There will be undersea empires, interdimensional marine leviathans, the bloody EDGE OF THE WORLD (I’m not kidding), political intrigue and epic sea battles to satisfy the most rabid of fantasy geeks. All The Scar‘s really missing is one of those meticulously detailed world maps behind the front cover, but really, nothing beats a world that exists only in your head, and China Miéville’s a good a man as any to give you that world.

The Scar
(ISBN No: 0345444388) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

18 Down, 34 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

It seems particularly apt that I’m posting my review of Blink on Polling Day, seeing as to how the book is all about decision-making. The book is all about snap decisions, how your unconscious mind might help you ake better decisions rather than a considered, lengthy effort. Not really how I’d advise you decide on your vote, really.

You know how you jump straight to a conclusion that you like something, like when you’ve only maybe heard a few bars of a song, read a few sentences of a book or looked at a tv channel for a few seconds. 2 seconds, in fact. Those 2 seconds – the blink of an eye – are enough for your brain to unconsciously reach a surprisingly accurate conclusion. How we think, Gladwell shows, is a lot less deliberate and lucid than we believe.

One of the studies described in the book had subjects play a simple card game consisting of picking from 4 decks of either blue or red cards. Anyway, by the time they’d turned around about 50 cards, the subjects started to get the hunch that the blue decks were safer and maximised the chances of winning, by 80 cards, pretty much everyone would have figured out how the game’s mechanics worked.

Thing is, researchers also hooked each subject up to a machine that measured the activity of the sweat glands in their palms. Sweat activity is a pretty good measure of a person’s stress levels. What they found was that by the tenth card, peoples’ palms started sweating, and their gaming behaviour changed to correspond as well, with them beginning to choose more cards from the blue decks than the red ones.

In other words, the gamblers figured the game out before they realised they had figured the game out: they began making the necessary adjustments long before they were consciously aware of what adjustments they were supposed to be making.

I mean, if you think about how it, how many times have you made snap decisions on simple everyday things, like what movie to watch, which hawker stall to patronise, what channel to keep watching? Most of the time, you’re making pretty accurate decisions based on your preferences, but without having to systematically review and consider your options.

No, you pretty much made up your mind in 2 seconds and you were probably right. Of course, there are times you were wrong as well, and Gladwell goes into that in detail as well. In fact, he shows how people have trained themselves to make accurate judgements in split seconds, and that we can as well.

Much like Freakanomics, Blink is heavy on anecdotal evidence, but still fascinatingly compelling. The concept might smack of self-help new age crap, but it’s anything but. If anything, it’s all perfectly sensible and rational. It was a damn good idea for me to buy this book, and I recommend it to everyone.

P.S. While reading the book, I remembered an episode of Seinfeld where George realised that the key to his success would be to do the exact opposite of whatever his first instinct is. The first fruit of that experiment netted him the scrumptious Deedee Pfeiffer (yeah, Michelle’s sister), and he went on the get a great job and assorted yummy treats. Ah, not really what Mr Gladwell is talking about, but I’ve always wanted to try George’s method as well.

(ISBN No: 0316010669) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 17 Down, 35 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

There really isn’t much about Freakonomics that hasn’t been said by anyone else. Pretty much a book about everything; finding the relationships between things as disparate as sumo wrestlers and schoolteachers, the KKK and real estate agents. Suffice to say, it was an excellent read, littered with ‘wow’ moments and great anecdotes. Not a bar or line graph in sight, thankfully. High Browse already featured it here.

I’m not going into a review proper since reviews of this book are probably all over the internet anyway, but I just wanted to point out something that really amused me. Near the end of the book is a chapter dealing with the importance of names, how a person with an obviously black name, say, DeShawn, might not do as well a white one, say, Jake, holding everything else equal. Not that the name is responsible for a person’s life outcome, but rather that its an indicator of the person’s background. Income and education are strongly correlated, and the choice of a name, quite accurately reflects someone’s level of education. And I think this is a phenomenon quite rampant here in Singapore as well.

Anyway, what interested tickled me most was the names chosen by lowly educated white parents, sound like our ah-lian names in Singapore. Here’s a quick sample:

Angel, Heaven, Misty, Destiny, Brenda, Tabatha, Bobbie, Brandy, Destinee, Cindy, Jazmine, Shyanne, Britany, Mercedes, TIffanie, Ashly, Tonya, Crystal, Brandie, Brandi.

Check out the many permutations of Jasmine in terms of the mother’s ascending years of education.

  1. Jazmine (11.94)
  2. Jazmyne (12.08)
  3. Jazzmin (12.14)
  4. Jazzmine (12.16)
  5. Jasmyne (12.18)
  6. Jasmina (12.50)
  7. Jasmyn (12.77)
  8. Jasmine (12.88)
  9. Jasmin (13.12)
  10. Jasmyn (13.23)

As you can see, the low education names are usually mis-spellings – intentional or not – of more standard names. This seems typical of (mostly Chinese) Singaporean names as well. Tell me you don’t know any kids with names like Elvyn, Febii (pronounced Phoebe) and Lawrenz or shit like that. And all the crazy made-up names from god knows where, Brayden (Zoe Tay’s kid), Adoncia (a friend professed this would be her child’s name), and so on.

One favourite Singaporean trick is the adding of a ‘son’ at the end of everything. For example, Johnson, Billson, Davidson and the like. It’s embarrassing, man. I’m just waiting for the day someone decides to one-up everyone else and name his kid Johnsonson. Mind you, I think it’ll happen. So anyway, my point, is don’t give your kid a crazy name. Not only does it make your kid look stupid, it kind of infers that you’re not that sharp yourself.

So please read Freakonomics, you might find some ideas offensive, but what a read!

(ISBN No: 006089637X) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

16 Down, 36 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Bruce Sterling’s Zeitgeist is one of those pre-Y2K creatures, rife with imagined paranoia and snide indictments of post-modern pop culture. Our protagonist Leggy Starlitz manages the G7 girl band, an obvious analogue for the Spice Girls, where the stars are known only as the French One, the American One, and so on. Certainly more dignified than Scary Spice or Posh Spice, methinks. The fact that they’re (mostly) talentless doesn’t stop them from selling millions of G7 merchandise to the world’s prepubescent population.

The band however, are only a tiny bit of what Leggy is all about. Abound with Turkish aristocrats, Russian junkie philosophers and lesbian eco-hippies, Bruce Sterling jampacks our brains with information, obviously using the extremely verbose Leggy as his mouthpiece, troubleshooting with the best and worst of the criminal underworld and military black ops before veering off into the surreal when Leggy comes across his long-lost daughter, Zeta.

On hindsight, the whole Y2K paranoia seems laughable now, but Sterling manages a twist on it, marking the era not so much with a technological but a metaphysical bent. Sterling (as Leggy) maintains that the 20th century is run on rails by a master narrative, signified especially by an unprecedented creation of a sun, or rather, the atomic bomb. While Leggy is the epitome of 20th century human ambition and invention, it’s Zeta who will be his successor in the 21st, but in an entirely new narrative untethered by the now obsolete atomic age.

While Bruce Sterling is full of superlative ideas as usual, he does tend towards verbal diarrhoea. Zeitgeist really has no plot to speak of, just a series of theories strung along by Leggy on his traipsing around the hidden places of the world. However, a sense of datedness notwithstanding, Bruce Sterling is still a prophet of the highest order today, it’s interesting to see how he navigates meaning of Y2K in the novel, and relate that to his idea of the new world order today. Check out his non-fiction books, I generally find them to be better reading than his sometimes overblown attempts at fiction.

(ISBN No: 0553576410) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

15 Down, 37 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated is not your average Holocaust novel. In fact, you don’t really realise it is one until halfway through the novel. Our (Jewish) writer hero – coincidentally named Jonathan Safran Foer – is in Ukraine to search for the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather during WWII. Aided by his translator Alex (with his peculiarly archaic brand of English), Alex’s grandfather (also Alex) is their driver, even though he thinks he’s blind, and finally Sammy Davis Jr Jr, their seeing eye bitch.

It starts out funnily enough as a comic farce, with all the attendant travails of a fish-out-of-water tale. Especially hilarious is the conversation they have Jonathan tries to explain that he doesn’t eat meat. But as we get closer to finding the mysterious Augustine, Foer deftly weaves in a different register and tone, gradually injecting pathos and poignancy we end with an almost entirely different novel from what we started with.

A clever piece of metafiction, Foer tells the story in flashback, structured as a series of correspondences between Alex and Jonathan, after they’ve gone their separate ways. Jonathan sends Alex chapters from his novel-in-progress, inspired directly by his own Ukrainian ancestry and family history, while Alex sends his opinions as well as his own hilarious attempt at writing – in his case, about their road trip in search of Augustine. Even though Alex’s English never really improves, Foer manages to perfectly communicate his mounting grief and growing courage.

Shot through with black humour and a genuine sense of loss, Everything Is Illuminated won the Guardian First Book Award in 2002, and deservedly so. A movie adaptation directed by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood is on the way. Hope it stays true to the novel, cause this really was a fantastic read.

Everything Is Illuminated
(ISBN No: 0141008253) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

14 Down, 38 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Kim Stanley Robinson is most lauded for his landmark work, the Mars Trilogy, in which he documents the centuries-long terraforming and colonisation of Mars. Based on hard science and rich understanding of anthropology and social behaviour, Robinson created a true sci-fi epic, albeit grounded firmly in reality. It absolutely blew my mind when I read Robinson’s highly detailed descriptions of everything from thin atmospheric rocket science to evolutionary biotech to er, polygamy.

Before this, the closest thing I’d read in sci-fi that vaguely approached hard science was Isaac Asimov’s positronic robots, which with apologies to Sir Asimov, were complete and utter bullshit (although his geosynchronous orbit theories turned out to be prophetic update: Oops, geosynchronous orbits’d be Arthur C. Clarke, innit? My bad.) Of course, there’re the usual Willam Gibson and Philip K Dick, but Gibson never bothered explaining the science, and Dick… well, let’s not even go there.

In any case, Kim Stanley Robinson gave me the first rush of optimisim about science and it’s role in our future. Which ironically brings me back to Forty Signs of Rain, basically a novel-length negative warning on our impending apocalypse as a result of now-inescapable climate change. But this is no Day After Tomorrow, mind. Rather, it’s about capitalism and politics, and how the current paradigm we live in needs to shift in order to survive. Global warming is a reality, but there’re still people in power who still think the Earth is flat. The US is throwing away billions every day in Iraq, while mere pittances (relatively) are spent on minimising climate change. Scientific breakthroughs are hidden as trade secrets to secure patent rights instead of released for research and discourse. Our entire way of life is structured around economic wealth, but then as Robinson mentions in the book, ‘economics has no mechanism for dealing with catastrophe‘.

One of Robinson’s greatest talents is the ensemble cast, approaching a massive problem from different perspectives. So here, we have environmental lobbyists, scientific grant officials and lab scientists all chipping away at the big, ugly machine that is politics (and its big brother, Big Business). I’m glad he doesn’t resort to Hollywood histrionics and huge CGI disasters but instead focuses on things like pushing conservation bills, drowning sea-level island nations and the allocation of scientific grants. Instead of scaring people into merely reusing a plastic bag or two, he’s outlining realistic macro solutions to a macro problem. I mean, you really can’t get more macro than the end of the world, can you?

Again, I find it incredibly ironic that he made his name writing fiction about terraforming Mars and now he has to write not-so-fictitious fiction about terraforming Earth instead. Personally, I’m already biased, so he’s preaching to the converted, maybe you should pickup the book and decide for yourself. Don’t take too long, we don’t have a lot of time left.

Forty Signs of Rain
(ISBN No: 0553585800) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 13 Down, 39 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

I notice when I read Japanese fiction that it tends to read like conventional Japanese films – a lot of lingering shots at grassy fields and static wide shots of rooms in rural areas, along with the ubiquitous hum of crickets – a surefire sign that you’re watching a Japanese production. There’s a certain deliberation to the writing, as if everything is chosen and thoroughly masticated before being set down for print, it’s not an old school Japanese novel until it’s a meditation. No stream of consciousness here.

Perhaps that’s the best tack to take in the case of Shusaku Endo’s The Sea and Poison, a meditation on moral convictions in wartime Japan. The novel revolves around the inner turmoil of Suguro, a surgical intern tasked to assist in the horrific vivisection of an American POW – carried out without anesthesia and for the express purpose of seeing how much lung can be excised before a man dies. (Sidenote here: Not to downplay the obvious terror of such an experiment, but most of us have probably heard worse stories from the occupation. Just curious if the Japanese are aware of everything their grandfathers did in the war, if vivisection is the worst Endo can think of.)

We see the building guilt and gradual breakdown of Suguro, whose lack of courage to refuse brings him all the way to the operating room. Also involved is fellow intern Toda, who’s trying to provoke a hitherto non-existent conscience into action, and Ueda, a nurse on a mission of misplaced revenge. As expected, the event is horrific but the emotional consequences are not as absolute as one would think they might be.

Endo is known for his essays on the difference between Japanese and Western morals. Raised as a Catholic, he contends that the pantheism of Eastern religions don’t lend themselves as easily to the black and white, good and evil dichotomy of Catholicism or Christianity. I disagree though, moral ambiguity is not at all exclusive to us Asians.

Disregarding contemporary cases like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, the US served up its fair share of horror in WWII – the US’s firebombing of Tokyo, the Enola Gay – these were to the Americans as morally gray as vivisection seems to be to the Japanese. Whatever Endo’s case is, it is clear to me that our capacity for evil is more common and mundane than we might think, and not at all confined to cultural or racial boundaries.

The Sea and Poison
(ISBN No: 0800870220) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

12 Down, 40 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

The Paper Eater takes place mostly in Atlantica, a future island utopia ruled by Libertycare, where the citizens are referred to as customers, the political campaigns doled out as bargain basement sales, and the commander in chief a refrigerator-sized mainframe known as the Boss.

Our titular hero is Harvey Kidd, your basic family guy who’s amassed a small fortune by using his family’s various online accounts to conduct computer fraud. Harvey loves his family, the Hoggs. From crazy Uncle Sid to his usually topless sister, Lola, Harvey thinks the world of them. The funny thing though, is that the Hoggs only exist online, created by Harvey so he has access to their offshore accounts. Not that he loves them any less.

Equally emotionally stunted is exemplary Libertycare employee Hannah Park, mother-smothered and bubblewrap-addicted, Hannah Park’s put on Harvey’s case and discovers that there’s a lot more to the Hoggs than the Boss will let on.

Author Liz Jensen tries for an updated version of Huxley’s Brave New World, switching out mandated hedonism for rampant materialism, which could’ve made for an interesting premise… But she goes on instead to pick at the characters’ very uninteresting and frankly mundane neuroses and relegates the politics to a subplot. There’s a lot of hemming and hawing between the leads and a few predictable emotional growth episodes told with flashbacks. Amidst all this, Harvey chews alot of paper, and shoots the bull with his sequins-loving murderer cellmate John.

Of course, the evil empire is overthrown, the dead miraculously reappear (Screw the spoilers. Frankly, I don’t care) and couples have the requisite make out at the happy ending. Yay.

Really, this book is as boring as the guy on the cover is gray. Don’t bother.

The Paper Eater
(ISBN No: 0747553068) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

11 Down, 41 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Jemaah Islamiyah: Radical Islamism in Indonesia works well enough as a standard text on South Asian radical organisation JI, covering all the important bases, including the history of radical Islam in Indonesia, the so-called Afghanistan alumni effect, a considerably specific look at the 2002 Bali bombing and so on.

Author Greg Barton lays out the cultural, religious and political context for radical Islamism in Indonesia and points out the unmistakable if not all-important links from Jemaah Islamiyah to Al Qaeda. Interestingly, JI might not have arisen if not from an elaborate sting operation mounted by the ABRI (Indonesian Armed Forces) in 1977 to flush out radical Islamists. Elections were coming up, and it’s believed then-President Suharto might have ordered the sting in order to demonstrate his hard-line stance against extremism (and likewise to garner votes), but the exercise ended up renewing and forging new bonds between radical groups that previously were not linked. Where once there were many separate groups, now coalesced a cohesive Jemaah Islamiyah.
This is very interesting for me as it parallels the whole George W ‘Mission Accomplished‘ Bush approach to re-election. Nothing seems to rally a nation better than a war, and noone commands more respect than the Commander-in-Chief. But the forced occupation ends up radicalising previously moderate Muslims and creates a increase in terrorist numbers. This is a cycle that’s been repeated ad nauseum, but governments just don’t seem to care beyond the next election.

To Barton’s credit, there is an entire chapter dedicated to radical Islam and how it’s very separate from mainstream Islam, and a constant emphasis that radical Islamists are really a minority and do not reflect the views of the populace. However, the current global climate is starting to create a ‘blowback’ effect on the US and its anti-Islam stance. Radicals are gaining ground with the moderate mainstream in Indonesia, not least due to the US’s bullying ways. If Iran is next on their hitlist (despite no nuclear weapons capability anytime soon), it won’t take a leap of faith to presume that Indonesia’s substantial though declining oil reserves are next on George Bush’s shopping list.

Jemaah Islamiyah: Radical Islamism in Indonesia
(ISBN No: 9971693232) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

10 Down, 42 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Peeps takes place in a world much like ours, except not only are vampires real and not supernatural, they’re really just afflicted with a parasite that causes the whole “biting people, sun hating” shebang. Note: They can’t really be killed by sunlight, they just really really hate it. Classified as parasite-positives, or peeps, they’re are hunted and incarcerated by the Night Watch, which operates out of the oldest boroughs of Manhattan.

The Night Watch’s newest hunter is Cal, a 19 year-old geek, transplanted from Texas, and one of the rare few carriers immune to the vampire parasite. He’s got all the super-strength and night-sight without the nasty cannibal tendencies. Unfortunately, he can also never kiss or have sex with another girl, or he’ll pass the parasite on. After a year of hunting down old girlfriends, Cal’s finally found the woman who gave it to him in the first place, and quite possibly something so ancient and sinister, it might threaten mankind as well.
Author Scott Westerfeld may write young adult fiction, but the wit and concepts in this book just blew me away, teen-oriented or not. This is sci-fi by way of Cory Doctorow (also a fan of Westerfeld), where the future is just round the corner, and the science entirely plausible. Every alternate chapter is a short write-up of a different parasite, and never have I been more interested in the worms and bacteria living in my body, feeding in my brain and festering in my food. It’s truly gross, but bloody fascinating.

What really first came to my mind when I was reading this book was how perfect it was. Perfect in the sense of a perfect pop song, the kind where there’s just a basic hook, something so simple and catchy that you know you’ll pick up a guitar and come up with something just as good. Well, this book made me want pick up a pen and write a sci-fi story. And I just might…
It does read like teen drama, with all the requisite crushes and music references, but still makes place for evolutionary discourse and Lovecraftian horror without skipping a beat. Peeps is a fantastic book, and I recommend everyone and their mother to read it.

(ISBN No: 159514031X) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

________________________________________________________________ 9 Down, 43 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Montgomery Brogan is going to jail for 7 years, and he knows he’s not going to make it out alive. Charming, good-looking, not to mention a highly successful drug dealer, Monty’s always dreamt of being a heroic fireman, but he no longer has much of a future ahead of him.

On his last day of freedom, he goes around his beloved New York with his beloved pitbull, Doyle, to connect one last time with everyone important to him, especially, girlfriend Naturelle, and best friends, Wall Street bond trader Frank Slattery and high school teacher Jakob Elinsky. And then there’s his boss, Mr Blue and his crazy Ukrainian bodyguard Kostya. Noone wants Monty to go, but at the same time, they’re conflicted that know their own lives will carry on nonetheless, and try to make amends. With the exception of Monty’s father, whose reticence belies a desperate need to save his son.

As befitting a man on his way to the gallows, The 25th Hour is imbued with a deep sense of loss and quiet pathos, but still shot through with a healthy dose of humour. David Benioff manages to keep a palpable air of restrained grief, while drawing us into the characters and their all too real thoughts and needs.
Inevitably, every book or film set in New York will end up being a paean to New York. This is might be me resorting to cliché, but the city is truly another character in the novel. All of Monty’s most cherished memories are from the city and he relishes every step as he treads around his neighbourhood on his last day. As opposed to the bustle and flow of New York, Benioff’s writing is bleak, economical and almost spartan, but ultimately both are wrought in beauty.

Nothing much really happens until the end, but the book works beautifully as a character study, as we go through the minds of Monty and his friends, through the classic themes of love, friendship, family and loyalty. There’s not much plot to speak of, but I was drawn into the book irregardless. What would you do if you only had a day left?

The 25th Hour
(ISBN No: 0452284198) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

8 Down, 44 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore is pretty much as fair and balanced as I imagined it might be, never really overtly critical nor given to nation-building sentiment. Professor Chua Beng Huat more or less tells it like it is, along the way giving a history lesson on the PAP’s political methods and finesse over the decades.

An important concept that is laid out early on is that of hegemony/consensus, where the electorate (that’s us) are subject to somewhat repressive, intrusive but still legal restrictions – freedom of speech, home-ownership, family-planning – but with the intrinsic understanding that these are to be endured or even welcomed in the interest of pragmatism (economic survival).

One interesting event brought up in the book is the General Elections of 1984, the turning point when the PAP suffers its first setback since independence – a mere 63% majority, its lowest ever.
“However, noone was under any illusion that the shift in voting behaviour represented an endorsement of the opposition. A post-election survey confirmed the frustration with certain policies, and a desire to keep a check on the PAP government, were the overwhelming reasons for casting protest votes.”

I see a bit of a parallel with the upcoming GE, case in point – the Worker’s Party going for Ang Mo Kio GRC, coming up against PM Lee Hsien Loong himself. But then again, noone is under any illusion here as well as to the likely outcome of the contest, least of all WP chief Low Thia Khiang,
“We’re not saying that we’ll win Ang Mo Kio, what,” he quipped, “We’re going there to participate so people have a choice. I think the people in Ang Mo Kio would like that.”

So 20 years on, the extent of our political vigour is still limited to symbolic gestures instead of actual change in the status quo. Of course, our political apathy can easily be explained away by ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it‘. Is full-blown democracy really that essential to our society’s well-being? Or to paraphrase my Uncle Harry, “Democracy for what? Can eat one ah?”

In any case, read the book to better understand Singapore’s political history, not just the old chestnuts of Raffles, the Temenggong and Bill Farquhar. This is not stuff we learn in school. Good to read as a primer for the upcoming GE.

Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore
(ISBN No: 0415164656) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

7 Down, 45 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Batman: No Man’s Land is supposed to be Batman’s darkest hour. Gotham City’s suffered a debilitating plague and a devastating earthquake in quick succession. Its citizens have left, the criminals released from Arkham, and basic law and order broken down. The US government blows all the bridges leading to Gotham and declares the city to be No Man’s Land and no longer US territory. The key villains such as Penguin, Two-Face and the Joker stake territorial claims all over Gotham and Commissioner Gordon is left alone with a skeleton GCPD to try to take back the city.

This trade paperback chronicles a year from the declaration and Batman’s struggle to win back control of his city. Pretty interesting, especially now when the Bat family has expanded to include Knightwing, Robin, Oracle, Huntress, Azrael and Batgirl. Much as we like Batman as a dark loner, it’s a testament to the character’s rich history that his various disciples are as well-formed and fascinating as his various long-time foes.
I like that the focus is not all on Batman, and also zeroes in on “real” Gothamites like GCPD’s Renee Montoya or Sarge, a WWII veteran who refuses to leave the house he built. Really, Batman: No Man’s Land is as much about them as it is about Bruce Wayne and his extended Bat family.

My only real problem lies in the inconsistent writing, which is overall pretty good except when Larry Hama takes the reins. I cannot emphasise how wrong this guy is for Batman. For some reason, someone thought hammy, 50s comic book dialogue would be a good idea.

Here’s a cringe-inducing exchange between Batman and Bane as they beat the shit out of each other in the sewers:

Bane: I knew you would still be here, Batman! Your precious city has fallen into the long night… and the DARK is your element!

Batman: I prowl the night because that’s where the evil lurks, Bane.


But still a pretty good storyline lah, just skim over the Larry Hama stories. I really do recommend it. It’s spread over 5 volumes though, quite a heavy load to bring home.

Batman: No Man’s Land
(ISBN No: 1563895641) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

6 Down, 46 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Eastern Standard Tribe posits the fracturing of communities into global tribes by time zone, rather than national boundaries, where loyalty is determined more by your own circadian rhythms than by your political bent. In short, it’s a world gone mad in a way only Cory Doctorow can dream up.

Much like in his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Doctorow’s main character contains a fair bit of himself. Neurotic, effortlessly inventive and fiercely loyal to his pet cause, Art is irritatingly likeable, and the quintessential geek underdog (my favourite kind). He’s also a Tribalist – in deep-cover in London, working tirelessly to sabotage the Greenwich Mean Tribe. Things go awry when Art comes up with a social networking idea so good, tribal loyalties get on the line.

Cory Doctorow’s schtick is this: He comes up with a cool idea – in this case, societies chosen by time zones – as a jumping off point and drops smaller cooler ideas all over the place, from tune-swapping on the highway to children’s toys made of synthetic turtle penis (don’t ask).

But beneath the better-living-through-tech catalogue beats the heart of a classic morality tale, of choosing between smarts and happiness, and choosing Gran over the hot girlfriend. Boingboing and EFF credentials notwithstanding, Cory the geek never trumps Cory the storyteller. Get his books from the library now or go to his site and download his books for free. NOW.

Eastern Standard Tribe
(ISBN No: 0765310457) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

5 Down, 47 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Farcical situations may abound in Bibliophilia – A Novella and Stories – from poop-dodging English professors to balding trichologists – but author Michael Griffith’s intimate, fluid prose manages to inject both poignance and hilarity. The title novella, in particular, is a flashback-ridden romp through the sleaziest library in New Orleans seen through the eyes of a once wanton, now prudish ‘sex cop’ librarian and her misquoting, lovelorn Egyptian colleague.

The book’s a little uneven – some stories left me kind of cold – but second story Zugzwang damn near had my heart in my throat at the end. Absolutely the best chess prodigy meets former wrestler story I’ve ever read. Well worth the ticket for this one alone.

Bibliophilia – A Novella and Stories
(ISBN No: 1559707216) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

4 Down, 48 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

The Binewskis are unique. A carnival family running the “Carnival Fabulon”, they breed their freaks instead of merely hiring them. Owner Al Binewski has his wife Lil ingest all manner of drugs and chemicals in order to produce their “special” babies – Arturo the charismatic Aqua Boy, Iphigenia and Electra, beautiful twins conjoined from the waist down, Olympia the not-freaky-enough albino dwarf and the extremely gifted but doomed Chick.

From cult worship to incest to charity by mutilation, Geek Love is a world where being a “norm” is to be a failure and to be a fabulous freak, is to be worshipped. Intercutting between the heydays of the “Fabulon” and Olympia as an adult, author Katherine Dunn takes her time showing us the Binewski children growing up, living fantastic, warped lives – remaining steadfastly human to the core – while gradually revealing the Binewskis’ inexorable dissolution into tragedy.

The book abounds with freaks, not just the Binewskis, but a whole range of characters who’ve been self-mutilated or surgically ‘corrected’. I guess the point Dunn is trying to make is how her heartbreakingly human characters (and the rest of us) have always been freaks inside, with or without looking “special”, that theirs’ is the human condition – twisted and tragic but always looking for love wherever they can find it.

Geek Love
(ISBN No: 0446391301) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

3 Down, 49 Left (52 Weeks 52 Books)

I read a truckload of comic tradepaperbacks and graphic novels — mostly borrowed from the nearby Central Lending Library — but I’ve just somehow missed out on reading Road to Perdition despite all the movie hype a few years ago. However, I was looking for something light last week, and just happened across this on the shelf.
I took quick enough to finish it, but to call this light reading would be a grave mistake.

Richly laced with themes of tragedy, betrayal and innocence lost, the book is heavily influenced by the classic manga Lone Wolf and Cub; a father and son on a long, bloody road of revenge, albeit with a strong bent of prohibition-era Americana and 40s crime noir. Author Max Allan Collins is the pioneer of historical crime fiction, deftly writing in encounters with Eliot Ness and Al Capone and weaving entirely plausible explanations for actual unsolved crimes.

Historical accuracy aside, I especially enjoyed the emotional ride, as father and son get to know each other better, ironically while leading a life of crime and violence – hardly a family-friendly environment. It’s an archetypal coming of age story, with inevitably tragic consequences.

I’m glad I read the book first before watching the movie, I’d hate to have Tom Hank’s face superimposed on Michael O’Sullivan’s stoic, craggy face. Maybe Gabriel Byrne. Rendered realistically in black and white, artist Richard Piers Rayner manages to convey an almost stark aspect to the art while penciling in an enormous amount of detail. Keep your eye peeled for the John Woo balletic violence in this, comes off really well when executed by Irish gangsters in 1940s Chicago.

Now I’m definitely going to get my hands on the movie.

Road to Perdition
(ISBN No: 0743442245) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

2 Down, 50 Left (52 Weeks 52 Books)

I’ve been having a really looong week, so I’ve been putting off writing this review. The good thing is it’s been an extremely illuminating read. Although it’s published in 1998, 2 whole years (14 years in Internet-time) before the dot-com bubble finally burst, Unleashing the Killer App is full of ideas that interestingly enough seem to be reaching fruition today.

The authors outline some key principles of designing the killer app, of which I won’t go into that much detail. Some stood out in particular though, I could immediately identify online commerce sites today that’ve put them into good use, for example – Threadless.com which allows users to design their own tee-shirts, lets other users vote for the best designs every week, print in limited runs, while awarding credit to the winning designers.
Basically, Threadless is outsourcing to the customer, treating each customer as a marker segment of one, and creating communities of value. The cool idea here is the idea of people paying you to let them work for you, yet everybody gets what they want. Only because of the advent of digital commodity is this possible.

Another principle that I liked with me is give away as much information as you can. If that doesn’t scream open source, I don’t what does. And we’re now really seeing the effects of this, with Firefox breathing down IE’s throat, and the now de-rigueur practice of making API documentation available. Coolest thing is the author’s have put their money where their mouths are and put the entire book online.

The dot-com bubble might be over, but right now is also an exciting time for web technology, long-time goliaths (read: Microsoft) are faltering, open source is making a massive comeback, and AJAX is the newest breakthrough in creating rich, powerful interfaces. The book might be ancient by Internet standards, but the ideas are still very applicable by today’s standards. All in all, a great text to read if you’ve ever had a flash of inspiration for an online idea.

Unleashing the Killer App
(ISBN No: 1578512611) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

1 Down, 51 Left (52 Weeks 52 Books)

Nice to see JK Rowling not writing down to kids and keeping Harry all noble and perfect as per the usual Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew teen-hero template. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has lots of teary teenage outbursts, and the story is still pretty much as compelling as ever. Of course, I have to say its gone all dark, what with important characters dying and insights into the boy’s psychic link with Voldemort. I doubt Rowling will do a George Lucas and go all super dark and evil to keep some bizarre fantasy/scifi cred at the end of the series, so things are just probably getting worse before they get better (as they often do). I know the next book is out already, but I’ll just wait for the paperback to be available, thanks very much.

Ok, my next book is Unleashing the Killer App by Larry Downes and Chunka Mui, kindly donated by Doctor Don himself. Reading a tech book published in 1998 seems kind of counter-intuitive, but wat the hell, he’s my sifu lor.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
(ISBN No: 074756941X) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.




%d bloggers like this: