Level up!

Three main types of books I'm into: -Fantasy (pure indulgence) -Childrens (also fun- none of this pretentious "YA" crap) -Classics (this is where I'm "leveling up" my intelligence stats. +1!)
A Tale of Seven Elements - Eric R. Scerri

piqued my interest, but ultimately was a pretty dry read.



Mendeleev finished his periodic table in the late 1800s, and in the early 1900s, Henry Moseley discovered Atomic Numbers, not Atomic Weights were the main driver of the periodicity of the elements. At that point, there were seven holes-- seven spots where there should have been an element smaller than Uranium. The race was on.


The discovery stories were pretty pedestrian. Researchers from different countries argued very politely that their discoveries were real. I would have liked to know more about the discoverers. Some of them sounded pretty interesting. Moseley was killed in WWI. One died of radiation poisoning. One was a pilot in the french resistance, but these were just mentioned, while the author spent pages talking about X-Ray chromatography and priority.


Notably, 3 of the 7 elements were discovered by women. These women seemed really interesting.


Also, I'd sure love to understand why some nuclei are stable and some aren't. Why can't Technetium create a stable nucleus while everything around it is boring?


Anyway, it's a fascinating subject but a boring read. A better read is in the XKCD What If book -- not online, but somebody's excerpted it here:

The Rainbow Trail - Zane Grey

A sequel to Riders of the Purple Sage.


Did Riders need a sequel? Not really, but like the best sequels, this one leaves the original in peace while ekeing out a new story that coexists and is strikingly different from the first.


First of all, we've got mostly new characters. The characters of Venters and Bess are only mentioned (no-- they show up in the epilogue), and Lassiter and Jane Withersteen are only in the last few chapters.


Instead, we are introduced to Shefford, a new character, possibly author proxy, but complex and interesting enough. At turns naive, idealistic, and rugged and adaptible, we get to see the west through his eyes.


The west in this book has changed-- 15 years from the first story. The action in this book takes place southeast of the colorado / grand canyon, while the first book was implied as (although I guess it doesn't have to be) northwest of the canyon. Those areas are similar, but separated by hundreds of miles of arduous travel, and might as well be in different countries.


"Riders" takes place in the 1870s, with cowboys and rustlers to spare, but no natives to be found (this is historcally accurate, as in the 1870s the Navajo were depopulated and just returning from their "Long Walk")


In The Rainbow Trail, Shefford experiences Navajo country through his friend Nas Ta Bega (apparently patterned after a real-life friend of Zane Greys, Nasja Begay). Nas Ta Bega appears throughout the story as a mystical, mysterious, almost magical figure who understands the world a lot better than our protagonist. While it may be kind of hackneyed today to imbue the native american character with magical properties, remember that this was in the time where natives were still considered savages and sub-human. (call back to the book "Oysterville" by Espy where a white man shows up and shoots the local indian chief at dinner "just because I always wanted to shoot an indian") So, I think Zane Grey had a real respect for his friend Nasja Begay and wanted to convey in his books his love for the Navajo people, their culture, and their way of life.


We also have encounters with Mormon culture in the Utah Borderlands. by the 1890s, the mainstream LDS church had officially renounced polygamy (a point Grey doesn't bring up at all), but there were still plenty of folks who in secret or semi-secret still married multiple wives.


Having lived among and met some of these folks in my life, the most unrealistic thing Zane Grey describes about the mormon wives is that they were beautiful. Maybe they were 100 years ago, but 100 years of inbreeding has made that seem ..ahem... less than likely. There was also a common misconception (that Zane Grey doensn't necessarily address or refute) that Mormon men had some hypnotic power over young women and would steal them away to be their proselytes and wives. Truth was a little more prosaic, and the gender balance was maintained less by recruiting young women and more by expelling young men-- a practice still in place today in FLDS communities like Colorado City AZ.


The character Joe Lake, as one of those expelled young men, would have less of a positive outlook towards his own upbringing and church, but hey-- whatever.


One thing I think Zane Grey got right (and this is important, because I do believe he [in 1915] met, talked with, and lived with many mormons), is that the mormons of the younger, post-polygamy generation were fundamentally different from their parents generation. I would hope (as a mormon myself) that each generation might learn from the mistakes of their progenitors.


These books are behind the XKCD Line, so it's difficult to detect the anacrhonism in the story, etc. because it's ALL so long ago.


Anyway, I enjoyed the plot of The Rainbow Trail. It was quite different from Riders. Riders was cowboys-and-rustlers, horses and gunslinging. The Rainbow Trail was more man vs. nature, navajo vs settler, and perhaps a bit more true to the character and characters of the west.


As a final word, if you read Riders of the Purple Sage, read this one as well. I recommend it.

Riders of the Purple Sage - William R. Handley, Zane Grey

Kanab, Utah.


Kanab is transparently the town of Cottonwoods, for anyone who's been there. (incidentally, Kanab is a rough transliteration of a native american word meaning "willows", so yeah...)


Me, I only lived there 5 months, but that red dirt is in my soul and I ache to go back always.


Kanab is a special place, not only because it is so beautiful, but because of its isolation. It's the largest town for almost 100 miles in any direction, with no interstate highways, so it is a world in its own. Lonely and isolated, but stunning.



Being already in love with the scenery, and you can tell Zane Grey was, too. He describes the landscape in a way that brings it to life... well, except for the frequent odd use of the word "purple."


Now, to me, these cliffs look red. The official description is "vermillion", but if you substituted the word "purple" for them, you wouldn't be far off. Hence, all the references to purple in the story.


Legend is that Zane Grey stayed in the Kanab Grand Hotel (now called Purple Sage Inn, naturally) while he was writing this. So I've been wanting to read this for years. Now I have.


So, was the story any good? It's hard to tell. The story was interesting and compelling. The characters now seem like stock characters spouting hackneyed phrases that are all really tropey, but I get the impression that this is just 100+ years of this novel reverberating through the culture, and that this is the original. It's like reading Sherlock Holmes (or Dashiell Hammett, but I haven't read his stuff yet), and trying to untangle the action from its cultural ubiquity.


The other hard part for me to read was that Grey casts the Mormons as bad guys in the novel. Being a Mormon myself, I take some offense to that, but I know enough of our history to know that Grey is pretty close to the truth. After being heavily persecuted and fleeing several places in the midwest in the 1830s and 40s, the Mormons created their own civilization in the badlands of Utah, and were just as unkind, devious, and terrible to any non-Mormon interlopers in their settlements as they were east of the Rockies.


It's a good point of reflection that echoes Ghost Hawk by Cooper and Satanic Verses by Rushdie, both of which I've read in the last few months-- how an oppressed minority can turn around and be even worse once oppressors once they gain a majority. I'm sure this has applicability in our current politics, but I'm so sick of how the world is right now, I don't want to think about this too much.


Anyways, I'm glad I read this. Now I want to go back to Kanab again. Maybe permanently.

Micro - Michael Crichton, Richard Preston

Honey, I shrunk the grad students!


I was hesitant going into this, as I think that State of Fear completely destroyed my admiration for Crichton.


This one got off to a rocky start.


So, apparently this book was mostly finished before Crichton died (from cancer, or from a secret government micro assassin-bot? you decide!). I don't know anything about Richard Preston, but this book seemed more like a slasher film than many of Crichton's, so maybe I'll point to that as Preston's influence. For the most part, I'm just going to assume the ideas were Crichton's and go from there.


First, the book started with an introduction that took a leaf from State of Fear and was Old-Man-Yells-at-Cloud-level of anti-environmental.

old man yells at cloud

(pictured: Michael Crichton, apparently)



The story took a bit for me to get into. First, it was basically Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Plus, having a lab full of grad students with just the right specialties for what they needed later in the story stretched the limits of plausibility.


Then, the mad scientist putting the students in peril instead of just killing them seemed rather implausible, too.


Then, the characters started dropping one by one, like in a slasher film. I especially felt bad for the ones wearing red shirts...


Okay, but halfway through the book,

Crichton kills off the main character. What a shocker!

(show spoiler)

At that point, the book opens up and starts feeling less constrained. Anything can happen. I enjoyed the peril, adventure, and stuff from that point on. I'd imagine if Crichton hadn't died (erm. been assassinated by an insect-size killbot), he would have rewritten this into something pretty good.




The Golden House: A Novel - Salman Rushdie

A great, masterfully told, timely book.


Supposedly this book was Rushdie's commentary on the Obama years. While it didn't have a lot to do with presidential politics, it certainly brought the feelings of being alive and online 2009-2015.


Mostly, though, this was a complexly plotted, intricate story of some fascinating characters in early 21st century America.


Reading the back flap, I thought this was going to be some sort of fictionalized Donald Trump, but although there are some really surface similarities between Nero Golden and Donald Trump, I think they aren't important to the story.


The part that I think will resonate with me the most is the sad story of D Golden -- not because of his (very 21st century) gender dysphoria, but because of the theme of "Identity" -- D was being asked, forced, etc. to choose an identity-- was he Male or Female, Trans, Pre-op Trans, or some different shade of whatever.


In the end, I think Rushdie's message is that we need to love and respect each other, and that labels don't matter. Rushdie saw that in India in the last century -- Once the country was partitioned into Hindu vs Muslim, those divisions became a matter of life and death in places where it didn't matter before (in Shalimar the Clown's Kashmir or Midnight's Children/Golden House's Bombay). Allowing labels to divide us causes further and further division until no-one can see eye to eye with anyone unless they think exactly the same.


So maybe, we shouldn't worry so much about whether someone is a republican or a democrat, whether someone is gay or straight, cis or trans, woke or TERF, and stop trying to stick labels onto people who can't/won't/shouldn't be labeled.


I dunno. It was a good book 5 stars.

State of Fear - Michael Crichton

This is a hard one to review, I'm going to spew a lot of words. I'm going to hide them behind spoiler tags so that my review will read better.


This is a fictional book about climate change. Specifically, it's a fictional book that purports climate change to be fictional as well.





If you are reading this with the intent to debate the subject of the book (rather than its literary merit), I will ignore and possibly delete your comment.


(woo, I've never had to do that before. will it be necessary? who knows?)

(show spoiler)


My qualifications to have this opinion:


Okay, so let me clarify this post by giving a bit of a backgrounder on myself: I have a BS in Chemical Engineering, including relevant coursework in environmental and air pollution engineering.


So, I am not a climate scientist, but I come from a climate science-adjacent field.


In my studies, we did a lot of discussing about Climate Change in my undergrad. My school was about as right-wing as they come, so many of my professors were climate change skeptics. We went through several of the arguments presented in this book, debated and weighed  the pros and cons, etc. That was in 2001, just before this book was published.


In the subsequent 15 or so years, the state of science has become more settled. Bill Nye tells us 97% of climate scientists think that anthromorphic climate change is a real problem. While it's impossible to deductively prove, I am convinced that:


a) Earth's climate is changing-- global temperatures in aggregate are increasing at a rate heretofore unrecorded in history. This is a reversal of medium and longer-term trends in temperature and unrelated to the current interglacial period we appear to be in.


b) CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere have increased dramatically since the industrial revolution. While CO2 is harmless and has been in our atmosphere since the beginning, this trend in concentration is new, abrupt, and opposite to the trend for the last several million years. The general source of most of the CO2 currently in the atmosphere is combustion, particularly of fossil fuels.


c) The current climate trends appear to be linked to the release of CO2 into our atmosphere. Because Earth's climate is so complex, long-term effects are difficult to predict with accuracy. Nevertheless, we can expect that increased global temperatures will precede a rise in sea level, and other catastrophic climate-related changes, including local desertification, erosion, etc.


ON TOP OF THIS, I have an MBA with a Statistics emphasis, and I work as a quasi-statistician, (OK Business Intelligence Consultant) using stats, charts, and graphs.



So, I'm not a climate scientist, but I have enough background to understand the science. I have enough of a statistics background that I know how to lie with statistics. I can tell when someone is cherry-picking data. My BS detector went off a lot in this book.



(show spoiler)



So, I hated this book. I hated it, despite the fact that I really enjoy reading Crichton, and I thought the plot was somewhat interesting.


The reason I hated it was the characters. I haven't suffered through an author-proxy this insufferable since I read Atlas Shrugged (not reviewed here, but I wouldn't recommend.)


Crichton goes out of his way to smugly contradict environmentalism, climate science, etc. He has lots of footnotes. He points out studies where data has been fudged, where charts are skewed, and data points are cherry-picked. Then, he goes out of his way to present fudged, skewed, cherry-picked points of his own.


It would take me a long time to do a point-by-point takedown of Crichton's stuff, and it's not worth it for a work of fiction.


After getting through the text, I came away with the impression that Crichton was a crazy, flaming climate change denier. Then I read the endnotes. The opinion presented in the endnotes was well-reasoned, intelligent, skeptical, but not throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater anti-environmental. So I want to believe Michael Crichton. I think he's a smart guy, but I think this book was irresponsible. Anyone reading the book but not the endnotes would come away with a sense that environmentalism is a con and a conspiracy. I've met folks who believe that. They're wrong.


In the book, the environmental groups are being backed by a shadowy cabal who wants to destroy civilization because ??. It treats the ELF like some sort of shadow ninja conspiracy. (for a real good read on the real ELF, this series of articles is fascinating.)


As a read, though, it seemed to alternate between chapters of fun crichton action and didactic preachiness about how wrong climate change is. It got a little nauseating.


Now Crichton's skepticism isn't unfounded. I think we should take a hard look at our beliefs and make sure we're doing the right thing for the right reasons. This was unrelenting tin-foil hat stuff, though. Basically trying to say that nothing the environmental movement has ever done has helped. Even if you're skeptical of climate change, please don't believe that nonsense. Controlling pollution helps our world. Science is on our side and trying to make our world better. We can help the environment and the economy at the same time.


Anyway, you could say that nobody bases their opinions about climate change on a pulp novel, but -- come on, what are your opinions on velociraptors?


So, all this hand-waving goes to say-- don't read this book. Do yourself a favor.

Ghost Hawk - Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper can do no wrong, and Miles Standish was a jerk.


This book wasn't much like my much-beloved Dark Is Rising sequence (seriously, go read that!), but that's a good thing.


Instead, she gives us a gripping historical fiction about a native american boy named Little Hawk who grew up just as the Plymouth Colony was being founded.


Not a spoiler: this book doesn't turn out like your typical Kindergarten Thanksgiving pageant.


Anyway, I loved this book. It was much more "Hawk" than "Ghost", in that I was expecting some sort of spooky story, and it wasn't spooky, just touching.


Hawk and his counterpart John Wakeley lead interesting lives. It's a mark of good fiction that I could totally imagine myself born into either characters' circumstance and making their choices.


It was interesting reading this book after Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Obvs there is nothing in common, but Rushdie's main thesis was about watching groups or ideologies and how they behave when they are oppressed, and how they behave when they are majorities.


I remember being in Kindergarten or First Grade and having the teacher trying really hard to define the word "irony" and talk about how the Pilgrims, who were so persecuted in England (and Holland!) for their religion were so intolerant of others' beliefs. I don't think I understood it then. I sure do now. In fact this book kinda depressed me. Also, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, and I think having read this book is going to put a damper on my enthusiasm for celebrating future Thanksgivings.


Highly recommended.

Next - Michael Crichton

Aside from the obvious puns about how this was the Next book I was going to read, and that my wife was going to read it Next....



So this was one of the least enjoyable Michael Crichton books out there.


All about genetics, genetically modifying organisms, gene editing, gene therapy, etcetera.


Crichton comes off kinda heavy handed and preachy in this one. Although I enjoyed learning a lot about genetics (see, that's what you get from reading Crichton-- you learn about stuff without realizing it), the story was really fragmented. It's like the author had lots of okay ideas about stories involving genetics, but no real good ideas, so he just mixed them all together.


One thing this book suffered from is lack of any real good guys. Nearly every character was slimy, underhanded, despicable, or weak in some way. Part of me wonders if this is a deliberate way for Crichton to get his readers to involuntarily dislike genetic engineering, but based on his diatribes (spelled out awfully clearly in-text, and even more deliberately in the afterword), he's not opposed to genetic engineering, and in fact, thinks it's the wave of the future.


Anyway, some of the sci-fi stuff was a little out there (a human-chimpanzee hybrid that we're supposed to sympathize with?), but I guess I shouldn't  rag on this book too much. After all, it was a fun, quick read, and I learned stuff.


...but if you're looking for a good Crichton book to start with, this is not it. Instead I'd recommend Sphere, Congo, Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, Prey.


The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie

I've been hesitant to read this one, because I heard that it doesn't quite live up to the legend surrounding it.


In case you don't remember the hoopla about this book, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Satanic_Verses_controversy should get you up to speed.


I also read Joseph Anton before I read this, which was really interesting and shows that truth is almost as strange and compelling as fiction.



Anyways, in short? No, this doesn't live up to the hype. How could it? That being said, this is definitely a Major Work and one of Salman Rushdie's better novels.



Was it blasphemous? Well, I might be a bit offended if I were a muslim, as it does fictionalize an account of the prophet Muhammad, and gently question him. I could see how it could offend people, but honestly? a death sentence for a non-believer? That's beyond the pale. I am firmly in the camp that nobody can tell the other team what to do or not to do. I drew a stick figure on Draw Muhammed day, too. Je Suis Charlie.


Anyway, any ideology that can't take this gentle of a ribbing obviously won't stand up to serious intellectual scrutiny anyways. I've heard Jesus jokes before. I don't repeat them, but I also don't kill those who make them.



...but was the book good? Yeah, it was. A little tough to follow in parts, but great. It had about 6 intertwining sets of characters/storylines, some of which shared names, etc. They didn't come together the way I expected (which was a good thing) and kept me guessing until the end what was going to happen.


I love how the book starts out-- with a conversation between two guys falling from an exploding plane at 24,000 feet... It only gets weirder from there.


In the end, I think Rushdie's message was about ideas and power. How do the powerless act towards the powerful, and how do they act when the roles are reversed? That's also interesting in light of the book's controversy, as a certain powerful world religion with millions of followers with AK-47s, and their reaction to one (mostly) powerless author is telling.



One thing that surprised me about the book, is I expected the Devil to become a major character. There were a few small hints throughout that our characters were being manipulated by some nefarious force, but in the end, it just ended up being their own human faults that drove them onward.


Oh-- and a very, very Rushdiesque moment-- there's a character, Alleluia Cone, always described as imposing, cold, maybe icy. ...and then 3/4 of the way through the book, Rushdie calls her "The Icequeen Cone" and I almost fell over laughing... all that setup for a pun. Oh man, I love Rushdie's writing. It works on so many levels, including stupid puns.

(show spoiler)


Also, the novel does a good job of describing the cultural circumstances of contemporary (80s) London. Boy, there was a lot of racism and badness happening. Apparently 80s London was way more "Guns of Brixton" than "Our House". I have a hard time imagining that much racist badness happening in my lifetime, in the era of Princess Di. Guess that's my privilege showing again.


Anyway, a great book. Not Rushdie's best, because he's a fantastic author, but a great book nonetheless.



Airframe - Michael Crichton

I read this in about 24 hours, so that speaks of how compelling of a read this one is.


Somehow I missed this Crichton thriller when it came out. It's a gripping thriller, plus I learned a lot more about aircraft manufacture in 1 day than having a brother work at Boeing for a few years.


What makes Crichton books interesting is that he takes you into the minds of experts, and you inadvertently learn a lot about the subject material (dinosaurs, archeology, medicine, what-have-you). This didn't have any really sci-fi technology (we're not bringing dinosaurs to life), but was still super interesting.


That being said, I don't think this book is one that will stay with me like Sphere, Jurassic Park, or Andromeda Strain. A fun read, though.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library (Mr. Lemoncello's Library #1) - Chris Grabenstein

A very fun kids' book. This book knowingly (and even textually) admits a big debt to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but if there's room for more than one Willy Wonka in the world, Mr. Lemoncello is a fantastic second.


This is the kind of book I've dreamed about writing-- a book-lover's ode to books. There are many of those out there, but it was still nice to read all the references to great kid lit, and know that I've read about 90% of the books referenced. (now to track down the other 10%).


Anyway, my only complaint is that the book is very pro-Dewey Decimal system, while I'm a convert to Library of Congress. (they do mention LoC organization at one point late in the book)


This book was fun and silly. The kid characters were a little one-dimensional and not all the way fleshed out, but what can you expect from a kid's book?


I'm going to stop overanalyzing it and read some more. You should too.

Shalimar the Clown - Salman Rushdie

One of Rushdie's best.


Somehow managing to span continents and worlds in the way that only Rushdie can do, our character Shalimar the Clown manages to learn dying kashmiri folk art, mujahdeen terrorism, how to join a prison gang, and how to drive a deLorean.


Complex and interwoven, it manages to break down the boundaries between east and west, between good and evil, between political and personal.


Aw heck, read it already.

The Figure in the Shadows - John Bellairs

Definitely not as classic as The House with the Clock in its Walls.


Most jarring was the change of illustrators. Mercer Mayer (!) .... doesn't really come from  the same planet that Edward Gorey does. Now don't get me wrong, I love me some Little Monster, and he actually captures the new character Rose Rita pretty darn well. It's just hard for him to be creepy and have me take it seriously.


There were some definitely chilling parts to this book, but the general level of peril seemed lower. Also in this book (just like the first), everything could have been solved if Lewis ever actually talked to his Uncle Jonathan... He apparently didn't learn his lesson the first time.


Ah well, kid fiction. It was fun and quick, why am I complaining?

The House With a Clock in Its Walls - Edward Gorey, John Bellairs

I swear it wasn't until halfway through reading this that I learned that they're making a movie of this.


...although SOMETHING inspired me to seek out this book. I remember classmates reading it when I was a kid, and I remember the creepy Gorey illustrations.


I wasn't much for horror as a kid. Didn't have an appetite for it. Now that I'm grown-up, scary kids books are just about right. Definitely no scary grown-up books for me (=


So I thought this book was charming. Magic, derring-do, characters both charming and creepy. Great illustrations by Edward Gorey (recommended: The Shrinking of Treehorn)


There wasn't a lot of substance to it, but I loved the creepy imagery, the real childhood fitting-in drama juxtaposed with the magic stuff.


Definitely not in my top 10 adventure/magic books for kids, but fun nonetheless.


So, I guess I'll be seeing the movie.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights - Salman Rushdie

Salman rushdie-- dense, funny, lyrical. There were many places I laughed out loud. "This is just like Gozer the Gozarian..."


...so why wasn't this book better? It seems like Rushdie spent the first two-thirds of the book setting up this fun world, with these bizarre coincidences, wordplay, allusions to history, himself, pop culture, comic books, and everything...


...and then he lost interest in the last third and just kinda halfheartedly completed it.


It didn't help that the book is written in Rushdie's usual flashbacky past-tense, so that by the time the action happens, it's already been alluded to five or six times.


Anyway, not the best Rushdie, but Rushdie is one of the best authors.

The Face In The Frost - John Bellairs



This is my introduction to John Bellairs. I'm going to read his more well-known gothic horror stuff next.


,,,but first, wizards!



There is something ineffably '60s about this book, but in a light and fun way. Some passages are downright funny and remind me of Hitchhiker's guide.


Bellairs does a good job of writing emotion. He doesn't explain the mechanics of the world, or how spells work, or even really describe a scene, so much as the associated emotions.


This book was full of fear and dread, and I can see why he is known as a horror writer. Every time night fell, I was dreading what would happen next to our plucky heroes. They tended to stumble through their adventures and come out alright, although they never seemed to know what they were doing until it was over.


Anyway, it's an enjoyable read. I can see readers getting frustrated over the lack of detail or consistency in the magical world, but I think it's super fun and would highly recommend it.