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Alex Frantz (San Leandro, ca USA)

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Cat's Cradle: A Novel
Cat's Cradle: A Novel
by Kurt Vonnegut
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.57
118 used & new from CDN$ 1.10

5.0 out of 5 stars Doomsday was never more fun, July 19 2004
This review is from: Cat's Cradle: A Novel (Paperback)
This early classic was one of the books that made Vonnegut famous, and probably the first book where he really found successfully his particular style of black comedy. (He aimed for something similar in Sirens of Titan, but that book, with some fine moments, is uneven and significantly less successful.)
The first persom narrator is known only as Jonah, although his first sentence is the allusive, "Call me Ishmael." He is writing a book about the atomic bomb that leads him to research on the late Dr Felix Hoenneker, a brilliant scientist who viewed science with pure curiosity. Never caring about the practical implications of his work, Hoenneker made no distinction between working on the atom bomb and investigating how turtles retract their heads.
Seeking to learn more about Hoenneker from his surviving children, Jonah follows them to the impoverished island nation of San Lorenzo, loosely based on Haiti. There he is introduced to Bokononism, the dominant religion of the island which, among its many unusual features, openly proclaims that it is a fraud. A good part of this rather short novel is a detailed discussion of Bokononism, which is one of Vonnegut's most memorable creations.
While on the island, Jonah also learns more about ice 9, the final project that Hoenneker worked on. Ice 9 is ice with an entirely different crystalline structure from regular ice, which has the trait of freezing at normal temperatures. Thus, if you mixed ice 9 with any body of water, it would promptly freeze. Jonah soon finds reasons to doubt his assumption that ice 9 could not really exist.
Jonah's adventures come to a grim if strangely appropriate finale - I don't think Vonnegut has ever written a novel with a happy ending. The moral of the story is, it seems, that life is entirely without meaning or purpose. And yet, the humor and vitality of the novel give it an energy and even joy strangely at contrast with its depressing message.

To Say Nothing of the Dog
To Say Nothing of the Dog
by Connie Willis
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.28
87 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stitch in time, July 16 2004
This story takes off from the same setting that Willis used in her earlier novel, "Doomsday Book", about Oxford historians who travel back in time to investigate past events and occasionally recover artifacts. But the main characters from that book aren't re-used, and the style and themes are entirely different.
This is a light novel, with elements of a romance and a comedy of manners. Ned Henry is suffering from time lag, having been run ragged by Lady Schrapnell, a wealthy heiress who is providing most of the funds to keep the research going. Lady Schrapnell is a stickler for detail in her elaborate reconstruction of the Coventry Cathedral, and insists that the historians provide the Bishop's bird stump, a strikingly ugly work of art that was lost when the Cathedral was bombed in 1940.
The only way Ned can escape from Schrapnell is to go back to before she was born, so he is given a simple courier assignment to make a delivery in the Victorian era, where he can rest up for a few weeks after his task is completed. Unfortunately, Ned is too time-lagged to be able to understand his instructions, so he is left wandering about the 1880s uncertain what he is delivering to whom, and never quite aware of whether he is preserving the proper time line or undermining it. He does know that Tossie, the distant ancestress of Lady Schrapnell whose family home he is a guest in, is supposed to fall in love with her future husband in a few days, but he doesn't know who that is - only that it definitely isn't Cyril, the young gentleman he accidentally introduced to her, who is now wooing her with marked success.
The plot is complex and worked out in great detail - many apparently random details are ultimately brought together in an ending that is almost too clever. The characters, major and minor, are nicely drawn. All in all, thoroughly enjoyable.

The Years of Rice and Salt
The Years of Rice and Salt
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.33
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating alternate history, July 15 2004
This is a complex and challenging novel, covering a group of related characters through multiple lifetimes, over centuries from about 1400 to the present, in an elaborate alternate history in which the black plague almost completely wiped out the population of Europe, preventing the rise of European culture and religion to world dominance. Definitely not a lite read; it takes effort to follow Robinson's alternate history, accompanied by alternate geography and chronology. But readers who have a taste for serious and thoughtful SF will be rewarded for their efforts.
Some highlights from the alternate history: (Contains some spoilers for early sections) about 1400, a mutated and incredibly potent version of the black plague wipes out most of Europe, eliminating it as a political or military force. Christianity is eliminated as a civilization, and the later events are dominated by Chense and Islamic culture. Muslims, some of them refugees from mainstream Islam, gradually repopulate Europe. Meanwhile, a Ming expedition, outfitted to invade Japan, gets caught in a strong Eastern current, misses Japan entirely, and winds up in San Francisco Bay. The expedition is still very much a success, especially when it travels South and discovers the rich mines of Peru. A later Chinese fleet succeeds in conquering Japan.
A group of reformist Muslims, chased by more traditional sects, sails west from Normandy and discovers Manhattan. The Iriquois federation, becoming aware of the presence of alien cultures on both the West and East coasts, forms the North American tribes into a great union, capable of keeping the outsiders largely restricted to the coasts and holding the interior of the continent.
There is more, covering alternate histories of the Industrial Revolution, WWI, and the dicovery of fission, up to an age that look like roughly the present, with increasing global cooperation and, presumably, an alternate Francis Fukuyama to announce the End of Alternate History.
At key events in this timeline, we meet repeatedly the same group of people, recognized by keeping the same initials. The key figures are:
B - A spiritual seeker, frequently a Buddhist clergyman.
I - A scientist or intellectual, fascinated with acquiring knowledge.
K - The activist of the group, at first seeking revenge, at other times power, and ultimately social transformation.
All of these are followed through various lives and deaths, meeting up repeatedly in the Bardo, the between life area of judgment from Tibetan Buddhism. There are some minor accompanying characters, such as S, which is generally a feckless or irresponsible person, often of considerable authority, but these are the main ones.
Robinson has created numerous striking characters from these broad templates: a soldier in Tamerlane's army who ultimately becomes a slave in China, a protective tiger, a servant boy caught in the floods of a Chinese California, a young woman growing up in post-war Islamic France, and many more. It's really a virtuoso trick to fit 600 years of alternate history into one book while still having real characters to live the history, something Robinson has accomplished superbly.

Destiny: Child of the Sky
Destiny: Child of the Sky
by Elizabeth Haydon
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.40
57 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A solid finale, July 12 2004
This is the 3rd book in a trilogy, so a review is somewhat redundant. If you've read the earlier volumes, you know whether Haydon is to your taste. There won't be any abrupt surprises - this is very close in themes and style to the earlier volumes. The Three from the first novel have become One, though - this book is almost entirely about Rhapsody.
If you haven't read the earlier volumes of this trilogy, starting here is definitely a shaky idea - better to read from the first volume, Rhapsody.
This concluding volume does have a strong story line built around Rhapsody's quest to find the children of the Rakshas and use their blood to discover the host of the F'dor (like I said, you'll be at sea if you haven't read the other two volumes). It then moves to the conclusion, as Rhapsody summons the Cymrians into council. Too much of the plot is built on Ashe keeping secrets from Rhapsody for no very good reason, since the F'dor already knows about Rhapsody and Ashe.
While this book generally works well, it occasionally strains under the burden of wrapping up the plot lines developed earlier. (The device used to explain the mysterious Meridion from the earlier volumes is, however, exceptionally clever - a nice final bow on the package.) Although Haydon has written a sequel based on the popularity of this trilogy, this book brings all the major stories developed so far to a conclusion.

Against All Enemies: Inside America's War On Terror.
Against All Enemies: Inside America's War On Terror.
by Richard A. Clarke
Edition: Hardcover
102 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating inside account, July 12 2004
This book describes efforts to stop terror from the perspective of a key player from the Reagan administration up to the invasion of Iraq. A lot obviously had to be kept secret, and there are quite a few places where tantalizing bits of information are withheld, but Clarke was able to say quite a bit; occasionally I was surprised by how much he did say for public consumption.
One criticism that should be dispensed with immediately is that the book is partisan. That's an attack made by partisan supporters of George W. Bush to discredit a damning account of him by a key player in Bush's signature issue. It also comes partially from one section in the preface (page x) where Clarke praises Clinton and criticizes the other presidents, all Republicans, whom he worked for. Those who take the time to read past the preface will find that it's atypical. Clarke is mostly positive, while not uncritical, about all three presidents he served prior to Dubya.
But since we already know about the big guys, the most interesting parts of the story are Clarke's adventures with the bureaucracy, working to get key agencies focussed on the terrorist threat. Clarke is brutal on former FBI Director Freeh, while praising others in the FBI. He also discusses why the CIA was unable to be really effective against Al Qaeda in spite of DCI Tenet's support for agressive action.
The Pentagon and JCS come in for plenty of criticism. In one memorable anecdote (p 144 - 145) Clarke talks about Clinton's frustration when the CIA admits it is unable to take out a key Al Qaeda figure in a known Khartoum location and the DoD submits plans that amount to a near-invasion of Sudan to go after one man. Later, he learns that Delta Force commandoes had prepared a workable plan to pick up the target with a small team, a fast, simple operation - exactly what Clinton had wanted. The Pentagon refused to submit the plan - while telling the Special Forces that Clinton had seen the plan and turned it down.
Stories like this help to explain the definite pro-Clinton slant in the book. Clarke was probably the single most powerful career bureaucrat in the Clinton administration, routinely chairing meetings with key cabinet officers, which certainly didn't make him less positive about Clinton. (Clinton seems to be the only president Clarke met with outside of crisis situations.) But that isn't the whole story. Clarke clearly was impressed by how seriously Clinton took the terrorism problem, offended, and angry, when Clinton's enemies showed more interest in attacking Clinton than in defending the nation. He was outraged after the famous incident in 1998 when an unsuccessful attempt to kill Bin Laden was falsely and widely portrayed as a 'Wag the Dog' distraction from the Lewinsky case. Thus also the harsh treatment of Freeh.
Dubya failed to take terrorism seriously before 9/11, in spite of warnings that an attack was coming. The method of attack wasn't known, but Clarke's detailed discussion of the preparations that were made, in 1996, to protect against a plane being flown into the Atlanta Olympics is an unsubtle rebuke to Rice's assertions that nobody could have conceived of the possibility. His deepest objection is that Iraq is the wrong war, a disastrous misstep that weakens the real war against Islamic extremists, as Clarke describes in detail in the final chapter. Clarke's essential objection against Bush is that, even after 9/11, he still wasn't truly serious about terrorism, and that is what Clarke sees as unforgivable.

Legacy of the Drow: Collector's Edition
Legacy of the Drow: Collector's Edition
by R.A. Salvatore
Edition: Hardcover
24 used & new from CDN$ 25.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Plenty of adventure - very little else, July 12 2004
This is a collection of previously published adventures of Drizzt Do' Urden assembled into a single volume. Urden is probably Salvatore's most popular character. A 'Dark Elf', born and raised in an underground city dedicated to the worship of an evil spider queen, Urden has rejected the ways of his people to become a sort of knight errant, usually seen in company with human and other friends he has gathered in his journeys.
As shown by other reviews here, some readers really go for this style of fantasy, but I was largely unimpressed. My main problem was that with the elaborately balanced cast of characters - Elf, Dwarf, Barbarian, Thief, Cleric, Assassin, Priestess, and various magical weapons and items - it often felt more like an RPG scenario than a novel. That was especially true in the first book; the sequels were better but still not terrific.
The characters and dialogue are thin. The surprises are few, the prose not particularly striking, character development entirely unknown, battles innumerable. In general, the book seemed aimed at the teen market that is the heart of the RPG industry.
The first three volumes of the tetralogy tell the story of an attack from Menzabarranzan, Drizzt Do' Urden's place of origin, against the dwarves of Mithril Hall. The final volume is a bit tacked on, not really the same story as the earlier books, although it it further adventures of the same characters.
Any of these four novels can be read as a stand-alone, although they do contain numerous spoilers for prior Urden novels. The 2nd through 4th also contain spoilers for the earlier novels in this set.

The Short Victorious War: The Russo-Japanese Conflict, 1904-5.
The Short Victorious War: The Russo-Japanese Conflict, 1904-5.
by David. Walder
Edition: Hardcover
18 used & new from CDN$ 33.79

4.0 out of 5 stars A fast paced history, July 10 2004
This is a quick-moving history of the Russo-Japanese war which. almost exactly a century ago, gave a sort of preview to some of the themes of the first half of the 20th Century. With many similarities in tactics to WWI, this war also can be seen as the first successful example of the colonized nations fighting back to regain their pride and autonomy after the centuries in which European conquest spread around the world.
The author is interested mainly in the military dimension, and the major combats by land and sea are covered. Critical events flowing from the war - the Portsmouth peace conference, the effect of Russia's defeat on the revolution of 1905, and the effect of Japan's victory in China and elsewhere in Asia, all are mentioned but inadequately discussed.
The writing is good and, with the inherently dramatic story being told, makes for a highly readable book. As history it suffers from the fact that the author apparently knows neither Russian nor Japanese, and has used sources in neither language. Direct accounts of the major battles by the men who fought, which surely exist in both languages, would have greatly improved the book. Considering the emphasis in this book on military tactics, the maps included are inadequate both in number and detail.
In spite of these faults, the author has succeeded in his goal of writing an interesting and useful history of these important events for the general reader.

The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832
The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832
by Robert V Remini
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 38.27
28 used & new from CDN$ 8.60

5.0 out of 5 stars Middle volume of a magisterial trilogy, July 9 2004
The second volume of Remini's celebrated biography is inevitably rather less intriguing than the first. While it's predecessor was largely about military campaigns and duels, this volume is more focussed on such dynamic topics as debt repayment and, especially, the controversy over renewing the charter of the US Bank.
The controversial election of 1824 is covered in detail and well explained. Remini also shows how the aftermath of that election reshaped American politics - the parties became far more organized. Although the Democratic Party is spoken of as having been created by Jefferson, Jefferson was the leader of a group or faction more than a true party. In a real sense it was created as a party when Calhoun and Van Buren agreed to unite their factions behind Jackson for the election of 1828. The new era of national parties was illustrated in 1831-32, when, for the first time, national conventions were held to nominate presidential candidates. (The Democrats were so firmly Jackson's party that they didn't bother to formally nominate him, meeting mainly to ratify his desire that Van Buren replace Calhoun as the Vice Presidential candidate.)
Also covered at length is the bizarre 'War of the Petticoats', when Jackson's cabinet was torn apart over the fact that some officials and their wives, spreading lascivious rumors about Peggy Eaton, wife of the Secretary of War, refused to appear at social events to which the Eatons were invited. However absurd the incident sounds, the consequences were significant.
Along the way, I learned quite a few things ranging from remarkable to trivial. For instance, I had never suspected that Jackson was the first President to veto a bill with a veto message that centered on what he believed to be the faults of the bill. All prior vetos (there were only a few over 40 years) had been based on arguments that the bills vetoed were unconstitutional. Vetoing partially on the merits (Jacvkson also thought the bill unconstitutional) was considered at the time a shocking extension of executive power. I also learned that Jackson had the first 'kitchen cabinet', a term that dates from the tensions in the cabinet over the Petticoat War. The kitchen cabinet, those friends who Jackson trusted more than many of the men in his official cabinet (also called the 'parlor cabinet' at the time) was so called because they supposedly used a back staircase from the White House kitchen to meet Jackson in his study.
Overall, a strong history with clear writing, a remarkable central character, and intriguing glimpses at the period covered.

The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy
The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy
by David Brock
Edition: Hardcover
41 used & new from CDN$ 4.48

4.0 out of 5 stars Solid, but sometimes dull, July 9 2004
Brock explores the history and structure of the right wing propaganda machine, and its impressive success in influencing mainstream media.
The book has two principal virtues: it goes into history, tracing the right from the Goldwater era, thereby including much valuable material not found in some similar volumes which focus more exclusively on events of the Clinton/Bush years. This gives the book a distinct and more thoughtful perspective. And it shows the endless interconnections of the various people and organizations discussed in substantial, occasionally numbing detail. By the time you finish this book, you will realize that Hillary's famous 'vast right wing conspiracy' is very real.
The main fault is that it is often overly partisan and indulges in some gratuitous attacks. For instance, Kevin Phillips is spoken of as being influenced by two obscure Italian writers I've never heard of, who Brock says were also major influences in Fascism. Offered without further elaboration, this amounts to nothing more than a cheap exercise in guilt by association.
Compared to the similar books by Franken and Conason, this one has, as I noted, more detail and more historical perspective. It isn't written as well, and certainly lacks the humor of Franken. It also focusses more on media and propaganda and has little exploration of issues and policies, except those, such as the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, that relate specifically to the media. (Perhaps the most comparable to this book would be the recent book by Alterman, which I haven't read.) Conason is far more interested in broad policy questions, while Franken's book, the most entertaining but a disorganized grab-bag, bounces unpredictably between media criticism, satire, and serious policy argument.

Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire, 1767-1821
Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire, 1767-1821
by Robert V Remini
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 34.37
32 used & new from CDN$ 4.43

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent biography of a remarkable man, June 9 2004
In the first of three volumes, Remini carries Jackson from birth to the tragic loss of much of his family in the Revolution, through his early years in politics, his duels, and the Battle of New Orleans, up to his term as first American Governor of the territory of Florida, acquired by his own military victories.
Remini admires Jackson, and argues persuasively for his huge historic importance - not just President Jackson, but the younger Jackson of this book, responsible for acquiring a large chunk of what ultimately became the Southeast USA in several Indian wars and treaty negotiations, the campaigns of the War of 1812, and his subsequent attacks on the Spanish colony of Florida. Many historians have condemned Jackson for siezing Florida without the explicit approval of the Monroe administration; Remini is convincing in his argument that Monroe must have known and encouraged Jackson's actions, although he was careful not to say so directly, since Spain and the US were not at war.
Remini doesn't by any means try to whitewash Jackson. The man shown in these pages is impressive but often distinctly unpleasant. Remini quite directly calls him a 'bully', and the story of his feud and duels shows a man who is ruthless and foolishly ill-tempered. The ugliest part of the Jackson story is his treatment of the native tribes; Remini offers some half-hearted apologias for Jackson's ruthless treatment even of those natives who fought with him in his campaigns, but tells the facts frankly enough that most readers will come to a harsher conclusion.
Remini shows that Jackson's famous victory in the Battle of New Orleans was a closer thing than is generally supposed. Jackson carelessly left a crucial avenue open to the British, and a more determined general would have marched on the city and probably taken it before Jackson had his defenses properly prepared. As it was, the British foolishly gave Jackson sufficient time to settle in and fortify his line, only then attacking it with disastrous results. Although this battle is often viewed as an afterthought (the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, was actually signed a few days bfore the battle was fought), Remini also shows that a British victory would have had real, and catastrophic, consequences for the US.
Along with the colorful and often complex story of Jackson's life and activities, Remini fills in the story with good explanations of the conditions of the period. In particular, he gives a good explanation of the values and traits of westerners, and East-West conflicts, at an early time in the country's history when the Pacific was barely dreamed of and the 'Far West' meant the Mississippi.
Remini's writing is excellent, and the biography is detailed and exhaustively researched without being pedantic or boring.

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