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Angelica
Angelica
by Sharon Shinn
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 8.54
41 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars books I didn't finish reading..., May 25 2004
This review is from: Angelica (Mass Market Paperback)
In Victorian-era romances, the Tragic Misunderstanding is a common plot device: the handsome He and the lovely, sensitive She are clearly meant for each other, but there is a Misunderstanding that keeps them apart until all is cleared up in the final chapter. In this slow-moving romance, He and She are kept apart by a device even more stale: mutual reluctance to express how they feel. So they stand and talk about anything but themselves, and go off to their lonely beds.
This is particularly weak because He is an experienced and wise manager, good at seeing other people's motivations and solving their problems; and She is from a culture that emphasizes warmth and communication. I don't find it ironic that these two, facing each other, can't break through to express their feelings; to me it feels like artificial manipulation of the reader. The fourth or fifth time they stood and looked at each other, and neither could find the nerve to reach out and touch the other (end of chapter 15), I just lost patience with the both of 'em and tossed the book away.
Based on reading that much, Shinn is excellent at creating female characters: her women are warm, real, and varied -- nice people to know. But I find her men quite unbelievable. Most of the males in the story are cartoon stereotypes (the Boor, the Sharp Trader, the Farmer, etc.), and the hero, Gaaron has all the life of a cigar-store indian. Only Dathan, the perpetual Other Man, has the feel of actuality; and he's gone from the scene quite early.

Stealing the Elf-King's Roses
Stealing the Elf-King's Roses
by Diane Duane
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 21.59
34 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars reads like a sequel, May 4 2004
This book reads like a sequel -- as if you had accidentally started reading with the second book of a trilogy, perhaps. The setting is a very complex sheaf of alternate universes. The universe in which we exist enters the story only as a brief way-stop near the end of the story. The other universes seem to be structured so that they are the realities whose psychic echoes inspire our mythologies. There's a Midgarth, which might be the source of the Norse myths, for example; and there's Alfen, home of some arrogant, immortal, and impossibly beautiful people. On the other hand, there's a Xiahon, which if it's meant to match a mythos, went right over my head. Indeed I suspect there are a lot of Duane-readers who don't have the background to recognize even as broad a clue as "Midgarth".
All of what must be a very rich back-story is introduced in true SF style: never by direct exposition, only by passing references in the narrative. In reading SF, the pleasant riddle of figuring out what kind of world you're in, on your own without lectures from the author, is part of the fun. But here, I really wanted some exposition. Or, preferably, that hypothetical first volume of the series, a prequel with a simpler plot and a more leisurely exploration of the worlds of the "Five-Geneva Pact.".

MARCH TO THE STARS
MARCH TO THE STARS
by David Weber
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 8.58
54 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars perfunctory job of work, April 21 2004
Like many of the other reviewers, I was eager to read the concluding (I supposed) book of a trilogy (I thought). The first disappointment was the quality of the writing: it reads like hasty first-draft stuff. Early on the authors twice use the illogical phrase "could care less" -- which shows they were putting down words without much involvement of an actual thought process. The whole book has to my ear a labored tone, as if they were grinding away on an unloved term paper. I was delighted to see that author Ringo has added a review here, saying in part, "By the end of March to the Stars I was, frankly, running out of new ways to kill barbarians..." I appreciate his frankness -- and I guess I appreciate his stamina in carrying on to finish Roger's story.
Except that they didn't. Finish it, that is. Gee whiz, guys, Xenophon did his trek, went home and retired to write his memoirs. But not our Roger -- he isn't anywhere near home, and he's lost most of the people he started out with. I feel cheated of the payoff you get at the end of Xenophon's March: they reach the sea, get a ship, and go home to live a long time polishing their well-earned medals. There's no vicarious payoff here; only the onset of more stress and trouble with ever-dwindling resources. Four more books, they say? I do not think I want to sign on for that hike.

New Voices In Science Fiction
New Voices In Science Fiction
by Mike Resnick
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
23 used & new from CDN$ 2.76

2.0 out of 5 stars Lightweight, clever, trivial stories, March 8 2004
I found these stories mostly disappointing. I would have tossed the book away halfway through, but it was the only available reading matter during a boring wait, so I persevered. My perseverance was not rewarded.
Most of these stories are just achingly clever in conception - what I gather the film world calls "high concept" - but they are emotionally empty, or intellectually empty, or sometimes both. They are mostly the kind of clockwork stories that a bright student in a creative writing class will produce when under deadline pressure - as I know from personal experience having written several of the kind myself. Gotta get something on paper, anything... and finally an opening sentence or an image comes to mind, and you push it as far as you can, using verbal and narrative tricks to hide the fact that you haven't a clue in heck as to how this situation could ever arise, nor what to do with it now it has arisen.
For an example I will cite what is undoubtedly the best of the stories in the book, David Levine's "Nucleon," which also won a prize and appears in Hartwell's Best of the Year. A conceptual artist discovers a wonderful scrap yard run by an amazingly cute & insightful old-timer. The yard always seems to produce exactly the object the artist needs; it even turns out to contain a highly rare and reminiscent object from the narrator's childhood - helping him, possibly, reconcile to his childhood. Or not, it's all quite fuzzy. Then the lovable old-timer dies and wills the scrap yard to the artist, who suddenly finds he has acquired the amazing talent to lead others to exactly what they need to find the yard.
See what I mean about "high-concept"? There are lots of clever turns; the artist's creations have evocative titles that make us laugh and there are fun bits of trivia about old artifacts. When it's over, though, and you sit back and think about it, the story is about nothing at all. It's cotton-candy fiction, hermetically closed off from any real emotion or character development; no resonance with any human's real concerns; forgettable.
And that's the best of the lot. Second best would be "Flowers from Alice" by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. It has some of the bite of good SF; at several points you find yourself nodding in surprise, thinking, oh! yes!, that's possible, that's how it could be! But the final twist, one, caused me to lose sympathy with the character (his troubles are all of his own making), and two, made me realize how John Varley had rung all the same bells much more melodically.
The rest might look good in the creative writing prof's in-basket, but wouldn't (I hope and trust) make it past the slush pile of a decent magazine. In sum, don't spend money here unless you have a LOT of time between flights at DFW.

Vitals
Vitals
by Greg Bear
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.99
28 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars confusing, incredible, unsatisfying, Feb. 24 2004
This review is from: Vitals (Mass Market Paperback)
This book fails in surprising ways for a writer of Bear's talent and record. It starts well, in the manner a classic thriller: the protagonist is rolling along when the bottom falls out of his world, and he's left disoriented, trying to survive among shadows and hints of awful danger.
But the loose ends are just too numerous; the bad guys' weapon is just not credible; and there's no ending.
Loose ends: there are characters introduced who just vanish, as if Bear lost interest in them. I've never before read a book where a character (Mrs. Callas) is carefully introduced, has a lot of dialog, and then says "I don't like your chances and I want out" -- and walks out of the story!
But the biggest problem for me was the simply incredible details of the mcguffin, the bacterial stealth weapon. Altered gut bacteria that make people sick, or that poison their brain chemistry to make them unstable or credulous, that I could credit. But I cannot credit that such a blunt tool could do the precision work of forcing a person to commit explicit behavior -- like, make a person go and shoot, or sic dogs on, a specific person.
There are horrifying details of a supposed Soviet experimental camp, but the details don't hang together -- how could such effects result from the suggested mechanism, and what possible political ends could be served by continuing such experiments until everyone was dead?
And there's a lot of business about people getting calls that seem to be from dead loved ones. What's the point? How is that supposed to result from, or interact with, their bacterial poisoning? There are several references to bacterially "tagged" victims being given lists of numbers to memorize, and these numbers cause specific reactions. Bacteria that do arithmetic?
There are apparently minor characters who turn up in totally unlikely places with no explanation (What the heck is Betty Shum doing on Lemuria?). There are mysteries that are carefully and explicitly planted (the 1949 picture of Rudy) and never resolved or explained. Indeed, there is an Epilog that consists mostly of the protagonist reviewing all the questions that were never answered, and they are numerous -- and remain unanswered.
In short, the furniture of this book just doesn't hang together; and that is death to a science-fiction story. It's just weirdness piled on weirdness, with no coherence or sense. Maybe since "The X Files" this is an accepted mode of SF storytelling, but I can't buy it.

AppleScript: The Definitive Guide
AppleScript: The Definitive Guide
by Matt Neuburg
Edition: Paperback
29 used & new from CDN$ 0.78

5.0 out of 5 stars At last, the truth about AppleScript, Dec 11 2003
Apple has long pushed AppleScript as an easy-to-learn, English-like way of automating repetitive tasks on a Mac. Alas, I and many, many others have discovered from painful experience that AppleScript is hugely difficult to approach -- its learning curve never seems to flatten out. Even after writing thousands of lines of code in several programs that (eventually) worked, I still feel I'm groping in the dark every time I try something new. I've read other books on AppleScript, looking for one that would open the magic door and reveal the simple, friendly AppleScript that's supposed to exist.
Matt Neuburg has given us the first AppleScript book that tells the deep truth: AppleScript is a quirky, inconsistent programming language that is not only hard to learn, but hard to learn for fundamental, structural reasons. Neuburg exposes the unavoidable difficulties that are built into AppleScript's design, and then shows us practical techniques for accomodating to them and using them.
Anyone who reads this book carefully will be able to apply AppleScript with greater understanding and less wasted time, and be able to use it with far less of the disappointment, frustration, and even rage felt by all too many people who collide unprepared with AppleScript's tricks and traps.
Since there's no "look inside the book" feature, let me summarize the main sections. Part I explores AppleScript in a system context: what it is meant to do; how it is used (with an intro to the Script Editor); and what its basic concepts are. (Contra another reviewer, this 90pp part contains nothing about history; it's all current and relevant stuff, needed later in the book.)
Central to Part I is Chapter 3, "The AppleScript Experience," which describes the actual process of building a program. This chapter so perfectly reflected the confusions, frustrations, and dead-ends that I've experienced with AppleScript that I was sold: this guy really understands the problems! He doesn't minimize them or blame them on me. Maybe he can show me ways to work around them, but whether he does or not, at least he'd validated them.
Part II, 200pp, is a detailed and insightful exposition of the AppleScript language. Early in this part is a discussion of "The 'English-Likeness' Monster," showing how the attempt to be friendly distorts the language and confuses users.
Then Neuburg examines every detail of AppleScript's syntax and semantics. He doesn't do this like a typical "tech writer," rephrasing the official documentation. He has taken the time to write code to test out every corner case and exception of the language, and he lays them all bare. He looks into AppleScript's baroque scoping rules and its inconsistent rules for implicit coercion of types.
All of Part II is meat and drink to a fan of programming languages, and I read it through like a good novel. More to the point, it's a deep and thorough job of documenting the actuality of AppleScript: what syntax works, what the tricks and traps are, and what to avoid.
Part III tries to extend the same thorough methods to the process of creating applications in AppleScript, beginning with application dictionaries. Here Neuburg, like every other AppleScript user, bangs hard into the basic structural flaw of AppleScript: that all the interesting semantics and no small part of the syntax are implemented in other applications, not in AppleScript. Everything you want to actually accomplish with AppleScript, you do by sending messages to other programs -- the Finder, TextEdit, BBEdit, Mail, and so forth. The only documentation you have is each app's dictionary, and it can never be adequate. Chapter 19, "Dictionaries," contains a long editorial on "Inadequacies of the Dictionary" that details all the reasons that an app's dictionary can never tell you enough to use the app. Some of the reasons are structural (there's just no way to express the needed information) and some are due to human failure (the people who write dictionaries do a clumsy, inconsistent, and sometimes erroneous job). Neuburg can't fix these issues, but he does his best to prepare you to work around them. Nevertheless, as he says in another context, "AppleScript programming is often indistinguishable from guessing."
To sum up: this book is a deep, thorough exploration of all the quirks, dusty corners, and skeleton-filled closets of AppleScript. Reading it will make you far better prepared to use AppleScript productively.

Buddhism: A Concise Introduction
Buddhism: A Concise Introduction
by Huston Smith
Edition: Hardcover
18 used & new from CDN$ 0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars It's too short!, Dec 1 2003
I have read a number of books about Buddhism, and this is the best of its kind. However, to avoid disappointment, it is very important to understand what its "kind" is!
This is NOT -- as the subtitle and the cover art could misleadingly suggest -- a user-friendly introduction to Buddhist practice. It is not a hand-holding tour of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold way, with beginning training in meditation. If you buy it expecting such things, you may well write another negative review.
The authors are academics specializing in the history of religion (see Smith's other books, which are widely respected), and they are both Buddhist practitioners. In this book they combine these traits to write a deep, sympathetic account of Buddhism as a religion: what its main tenets are -- how it is practiced -- how it fractured historically into different strands. They write analytically and comparitively, but they also write with understanding and sympathy. They treat Buddhism as a living religion to be practiced by modern people - not as an anthropological artifact, the way some non-Buddhist authors do.
Smith and Novak are particularly good at describing, sympathetically and in depth, the philosophical roots of the different practices in each strand. The chapters that compare the differing values of the Mahayana and Theravada strains, and then show their fundamental unity, is worth the book's price. They also tease out the key differences between the four types of Tibetan Buddhism, and explain the sources and values of other schools as different as Goenka and Pure Land.
They are also good at showing and how Western practices were formed by the sheer happenstance of which individuals happened to first import Buddhist thought, and which Eastern school they happened to stumble upon for their initial training.
Finally, they do a good job of showing how Western, and especially American, Buddhism is in many ways a different beast from any Eastern form, and still evolving.
The main problem with the book, aside from its slightly-misleading title, is that it is too short. For some reason, the authors felt they had to restrict the length. At several points they apologize for giving only a "summary" of some important point (like: Buddhism in Europe). And several key concepts are only sketched in the end-notes, when they deserve to be written out in full and integrated into the book. I'm only giving 4 of 5 stars because of this compression.

God's Debris: A Thought Experiment
God's Debris: A Thought Experiment
by Scott Adams
Edition: Hardcover
37 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

1.0 out of 5 stars a cheat and a cop-out, July 19 2003
In the Introduction, Adams admits that lots of what his Avatar says is wrong, and he challenges you to figure out which parts are wrong.
I call this a cop-out. It is true that Avatar advances, with great authority and confidence, a number of ideas that are just flat wrong. However, there is no internal evidence that Adams himself recognizes these as errors. Does Adams think that gravity propogates instantly, or that a magnetic field cannot be shielded? There is no hint of irony to indicate that. The book's nameless protagonist is completely clueless. In the dialogs of Socrates (to which other reviewers have compared this book), the people arguing with Socrates make good points, have cogent arguments. In this book, the Avatar has the debate all his own erroneous way.
The result is that people who are not well grounded in science find a lot of claims that strike them as "challenging" and "thought-provoking" when in fact the claims are simply wrong, and well-known to be wrong.
For the record here are some of Avatar's errors of fact: (p19) magnetic fields can't be blocked; (p19) gravity propogates instantly; (p22) we don't understand how electricity travels; (p61) there is no friction between the Earth and the Moon (the statements about gravity and the Moon are wrong in multiple ways); (p66) the theory of evolution is a "concept with no practical application".
The Avatar advances a dangerous, nihilistic kind of epistemology. In plain language, he seems to dismiss all possible sources of knowledge as equally pointless. He dismisses mathematics as useless (p. 20-21, p56). He dismisses all of science ("all we can do is observe and record patterns," p.22) as being unable to provide "why" answers. Finally he says that all ideas are equally valid (p38ff) because they are all identically "memory traces" in our brains. This may be what others have called "New-Agey" but in fact it is nihilism and defeatism.
As to the philosophy, it is basically self-contradictory. If you take the time to read the book, read it carefully and then actually think about the Avatar's basic claims: (a) God blew itself up in order to learn the one thing omniscience could not know, namely, what happens if God isn't there; but (b) God imbued his debris with a "probability" so strong that even if the universe were rewound and played back, exactly the same events would happen over again (p.51-2). These ideas are fundamentally contradictory, hence the whole exercise is pointless.
The Avatar does pose a number of philosophical riddles that have been standard fodder for student bull-sessions for generations. Example: if God is omniscient (Adams incorrectly writes "omnipotent"), the future must be determined, hence how can we, or God, have free will? But the questions are only posed, never explored in any satisfying way. Go looking for better books in elementary philosophy.

Five Equations That Changed the World: The Power and Poetry of Mathematics
Five Equations That Changed the World: The Power and Poetry of Mathematics
by Michael Guillen
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.14
47 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars entertaining but inaccurate and sensationalized, March 27 2002
There is a clear division of opinion on this book. I side with those who find its numerous errors and its sensationalism unpleasant.
Of the errors, the one on page 162 (another reviewer mistyped it as 62) is the most egregious and bears quoting:
"Figuring out how to spin a magnet had been the key in designing the dynamo. At first...engineers had used an _electric motor_ to spin the dynamo's magnet; the motor itself was kept spinning by siphoning off some of the electricity produced by the dynamo."
This clearly describes a perpetual motion machine. (Think: if we could build generators that power themselves, why would we ever use dams or nuclear reactors to power them?) In the chapter on thermodynamics, Guillen shows that he is aware that perpetual motion is impossible. But here he fails to recognize that, in groping to explain who-knows-what ill-digested concept, he has invented one. If he can't handle basic mechanics, how can we trust him to explain relativity?
The much-lauded human-interest side of the book is even more suspect. Guillen describes the emotional and mental state of Newton, Bernoulli, et al, with the intimate confidence of a confessor. He could not possibly have known how Rudolf Clausius felt as he listened to his wife scream in her terminal agony, or whether he related her pain to the concept of entropy. He couldn't possibly know how Newton felt about the grammar school bully, and so on. The phrase "how could he know that?" occurred to me over and over as I read these episodes. In fact, he can't know it. All these gripping insights are inventions, and have no more claim on our interest than the inventions of any novelist.
If Guillen had any authoritative sources he hasn't shared them. This is not just academic nit-picking; a bibliography would be a service to the reader who gets interested in, for example, the life of Faraday, and wants to read further. None is given.
Finally, Guillen treats philosophy with the same kind of sensationalism that he uses on imaginary emotional lives. Here's one of several passages on the relation of science to religion (p. 55):
"Earth's gravity, Newton had demonstrated, extended to the moon and beyond; indeed, there was no place in the universe that did not feel its influence... Consequently, there was no place left uncorrupted in the universe for God to dwell. He had been crowded out of our picture of the universe by gravity's infinite reach. For the first time in Western history, the heavens had been completely despoiled; God's perfect existence had been purged ignominiously from our scientific theories."
Whether you are a secularist like me or a theist, this sweeping claim should make your jaw drop. The extension of gravity to infinity might blow away Plato's and Aristotle's notions of the purity of the celestial spheres, but did it perturb any more recent thinker? This kind of claim, breath-takingly broad and grossly oversimplified, lacking all nuance and without any sort of support or documentation, is common in the book.
Pieces of this book are entertaining and occasionally insightful. But it has far too many flaws of the sorts described here to be worth anyone's purchase.

Penguin Lives Buddha
Penguin Lives Buddha
by Karen Armstrong
Edition: Hardcover
26 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars not a book for buddhists, April 2 2001
This review is from: Penguin Lives Buddha (Hardcover)
In summary, Armstrong's "Buddha" is a brief, sympathetic account of the life of the Buddha in the context of his time. It is marred by brevity and by a distanced, clinical treatment of the Buddha's dhamma that makes it seem little more than an antique, cultural artifact, not a relevant way of life.
I am guessing that the format for the Penguin "Lives" series accounts for some of the shortcomings of this book including: its brief length (less than 200 rather small pages); its lack of illustrations; its rather abrupt end with the Buddha's death (not a word of how one teacher's words grew into a worldwide religion); the absence of a guide to the pronunciation of the many Pali terms; and the omission of an index.
These lacks show the book is not intended as a definitive biography; nor it is it intended to have theological depth that would challenge a well-read Buddhist. This is a popular "life" intended to give a broad picture of the Buddha's life and dhamma to a curious non-Buddhist reader or to a student.
Within the scope of this limited goal Armstrong has done a reasonably good job. Certainly it could not have been easy to shape a conventional, biographical tale from the Pali canon and other Buddhist scriptures. Armstrong stresses that an integral part of the Buddha's teaching was the unimportance of the ego, and for that reason the Buddha's personal attributes virtually disappeared, both from his teachings and from his disciple's accounts. Little is left but the suttas themselves, and some highly-colored legends surrounding the key moments of the Buddha's life.
Armstrong is particularly good at taking the legends and drawing out their inner meaning. She recounts a legend sympathetically; then shows how it make clear sense, not as history but as a statement of belief in the context of the time, or as an archetypal portrait of the human condition. For example, she notes how Mara, Lord of Illusion, "represents ... all the unconscious elements within the psyche which fight against our liberation."
In large measure Armstrong explains the Buddha's dhamma clearly and sympathetically. Yet she always seems to handle it with metaphorical tongs, like an interesting specimen -- not as if it were a living tradition the reader might enter. Part of this impression comes from her consistent use of the perfect tense when describing the dhamma. For example, she writes "The purpose of both mindfulness and the immeasurables was to neutralize the power of that egotism that limits human potential." In this and many similar sentences, she uses the perfect ("was") or the conditional ("would"), as if the dhamma was a teaching that existed only long ago and among distant people. There is no hint that mindfulness IS used for the same purpose by people today.
This is a subtle matter of diction and tone; but its effect is to transmit an unspoken message that Armstrong herself has not entered into the Dhamma, and probably wouldn't care to recommend it to her reader, either. If you think of yourself as being in some degree "buddhist" you may find this air of faint praise makes you uncomfortable.
A less subtle problem is Armstrong's repeated insistence that the Dhamma "could not be understood by rational thinking alone. It only revealed its true significance when it was apprehended 'directly,' according to yogic methods, and in the right ethical context." By "yogic methods" she means the disciplines of mindfulness and meditation. By "ethical context" she means principly the practice of metta, empathy.
Armstrong seems sure that the dhamma is not capable of being defended or supported by discursive argument. Or at any rate, she does not even attempt to sketch its philosophical underpinnings. This is strange. Armstrong is certainly capable of dealing with abstracts and logical argument. And Buddhism is quite respectable as a philosophy, as coherent and complete in its account of the universe and the human condition as anything produced by Plato or Aquinas. Armstrong completely neglects this aspect of the dhamma, leaving the impression that it can only be entered through "yogic methods." In short, she writes as if the dhamma is unapproachable unless you are ready to enter into dubious Eastern practices.

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