Being the thoughts and writings of one Gustaf Erikson; father, homeowner, technologist.

This category contains capsule reviews of books I've read

Saturday, 2006-05-06

Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks

Subtitled “A Codemaker’s War, 1941—1945”, a memoir of work in the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War II. Well worth the read.

The title refers to the author’s offer to his superiors: either code pages printed on hard-to-obtain silk were issued to agents, or they would have to use their cyanide tablets.

Tuesday, 2006-05-02

Restoration by Tim Harris

A book about the political background of the Restoration. Mostly interesting for the origin of the Whig and Tory parties in British politics.

Monday, 2006-03-20

All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson

This is a re-read. Not as good as the earlier novels but Gibson is still a master of his own kind of tech-distilled noir style.

Saturday, 2006-02-18

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

A Discworld novel dealing with the evils of organised religion. Readable, but I’ve read funnier stuff.

Tuesday, 2006-01-31

Pashazade: The First Arabesk by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

A nice reinvention of the cyberpunk genre, set in alternate-future Ottoman Alexandria.

The author’s site is here.

[…] Things only started to unravel in the sixth [year] when I decided there was nothing wrong with my school that couldn’t be cured with a sub-machine gun and unlimited ammunition […]

Sunday, 2006-01-22

The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams

A fantasy novel about a ne’er-do-well musician in San Fransisco who’s life is turned upside down when he’s attacked by a being from the parallell universe of Faerie. Naturally his destiny is much grander than he thought…

Well written like all William’s books. The beginning is near social-realism — our hero loses his unborn child in a miscarriage, his girlfriend, and his mother to cancer in the first few chapters. This sets the tone for the rest of the book and removes any inconvenient characters that may mess up the path of destiny.

A classic public library book: something you’re delighted to find in the shelves but won’t pay for in the store.

Saturday, 2006-01-07

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to, and was a really good one. Stephen Fry’s narration is brilliant, lending colour and excitement to a very long, episodic book. What the scriptwriters of the film adaptation will do to ensure that the film isn’t over four hours long, I don’t know.

Wednesday, 2005-12-28

Chasm City by Alistair Reynolds

A re-read.

The first Reynolds novel I read, but not the best. The parts on the generation starship are well-written though, but the steampunk ambience in Chasm City isn’t as interesting.

Saturday, 2005-12-24

House of Chains by Steven Erikson

The fourth book in the Malazan series.

Sunday, 2005-12-11

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

The second part of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

Thursday, 2005-12-08

Century Rain by Alistair Reynolds

This book rests on a central premise, that an alternate 1959 Earth has been preserved like a fly in amber by some all-powerful aliens. In the far future, two warring factions of humanity stumble upon it and use the artifacts there to complement the forgotten history of the Nanocaust.

Reynolds skilfully weaves together “hard” S-F with a Simenon-like detective story. But if you ignore the technical mastery and the skillful plotting, the story is basically absurd. But it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless. I stayed up until one in the morning yesterday to finish it.

Monday, 2005-12-05

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

This is a re-read.

It’s hard to describe what’s so good with Erikson’s writing and universe. Perhaps it’s the gnarly texture of the world,the pervasiveness of magic accessible to most people, the sweat, the blood, the many-layered mythologies…

I was lucky to get Deadhouse Gates and House of Chains at the library, I’ll be re-reading them as soon as I finish with Century Rain.

Monday, 2005-11-28

Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson

A new installment in the Malazan series, this moves the action to a wholly different part of the world? universe? — it’s not clear. It’s been a while since I read the preceding book, and my grasp of all the different races, gods, and demons is a bit shaky, but I’m pretty sure we haven’t encountered the Tiste Edur in detail before.

They are an agricultural people about to be conquered by the rapacious Letherii, whose society is like a caricature of our own Western society. But all is not as it seems, as the closest this series has to a figure of pure evil, the Fallen God, has other plans…

A good read as usual with Erikson.

Sunday, 2005-11-06

Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton

Feh. There should be a warning printed on this 1,144 page book:

This is the first book in a series

Dunno if I’ll buy the sequel. Hamilton is a capable wordsmith, and the plot moves along at a respectable clip. But the surface is a bit too polished, the characters a bit too much like cardboard. says:

This is the type of book that publicists call “epic” that others might less charitably describe as “bloated.” […] An editorial pruning might have put this prospective doorstop on more people’s “to read” lists.

Thursday, 2005-10-27

The Other Log of Phileas Fogg by Philip José Farmer

Today, this kind of book would be called a mashup.

A little bagatell, as we say in Sweden.

Tuesday, 2005-10-25

The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

An S-F novel not set in Bank’s Culture universe. Has good sense-of-wonder factors, but the characters seem a bit cardboard-like for Banks.

Thursday, 2005-10-20

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson

Well, the trilogy is done. It was never boring, but it takes a good writer to keep the reader hooked for three thousand pages. Stephenson does a good but not stellar job.

Update: the books are frequently funny, but not often laugh-out-loud funny. The following passage made me lol though. The hero, Daniel Waterhouse, and sir Isaac Newton are meeting with an informer in the pub of the Newgate prison, called the Black Dogg:

The Black Dogg was not the sort of tavern that contained a great deal of furniture — patrons either stood, or lay on the floor. There was a bar, of course, in the literal sense of a bulwark erected between the prisoners and the gin. This was now a palisade of burning tapers. […]

Sunday, 2005-08-28

The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

Well, that was a hard slog. I’ll be reading The System of the World next, because The Confusion picked up considerably two-thirds of the way through, and also I’ve already payed for it. But I can’t say the trilogy is Stephenson’s best effort.

Wednesday, 2005-07-20

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Yawn, yet another HP adventure. This was better plotted than the last, but still not really a good book.

Tuesday, 2005-07-19

The Family Trade by Charles Stross

A “hard fantasy” novel, containing some nice ideas (really only one idea, but the ramifications are well thought out). Well written, if a bit confusing at times. As it’s fantasy, of course this is just the first novel in a series… sigh. I’ll perhaps pick up the next book when it arrives in paperback.

Sunday, 2005-07-17

More summer reading

  • Patrick O’Brian, The Hundred Days
  • Bruce Sterling, The Zenith Angle
  • Charles Stross, Iron Sunrise

Sunday, 2005-07-10

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

A mix between The Secret History and (I guess, I haven’t read it) The Da Vinci Code. Not bad at all.

Saturday, 2005-07-09

Summer books

These are the books I read during my two weeks vacation on the west coast of Sweden.

Four novels by Patrick O’Brian:

  • The Nutmeg of Consolation
  • Clarissa Oakes
  • The Wine-Dark Sea
  • The Commodore

In my opinion, The Thirteen-Gun Salute is the last really good Aubrey-Maturin novel.

  • Mike Bryan, Dogleg Madness
  • Carl Hiassen, Skinny Dip
  • Charles Stross, Accelerando

Wednesday, 2005-06-01

The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh

  • Men at Arms
  • Officers and Gentlemen
  • Unconditional Surrender

Based on Waugh’s own experiences in World War 2, this is a funny — and grim — trilogy about the death of Honour and the birth of the base modern age.

Wednesday, 2005-05-18

Swallows and Amazons, a series by Arthur Ransome

Whew! I just completed an extended trip down memory lane. I last read them in my early teens, but still remember nearly all the plots.

  • Swallows and Amazons: the first book.

  • Swallowdale: the arch-nemesis of the Amazons, the Great Aunt, makes her first appearance.

  • Peter Duck: my battered Puffin paperback was liberated from the school library in Kuala Lumpur. It’s marked


The last date is 16.10.75. As we didn’t move to KL until 1977, I’m guessing this book was sold out or given away.

  • Winter Holiday: the D’s, Dick and Dorothea, make their appearance.

  • Coot Club: a favourite.

  • Pigeon Post: a bit different from what I remember. I focused a lot more on Dick back then, guess it was identification with him.

  • We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea: a great book.

  • Secret Water. Not one of my favourites.

  • The Big Six: classic juvenile detective story

  • Missee Lee: a swashbuckling tale involving a female pirate chief with a passion for Latin. Our heroes are forced to endure that fate worse than death: lessons in the holidays. The shiftless youngest, Roger, unexpectedly shines as a Latin scholar. Mildly racist in a 30s kind of way.

  • The Picts and the Martyrs: an interesting book. The premise is that in order to be nice to Mrs. Blackett, the D’s have to be “naughty” and live in the woods, cooking their own food and generally having a typical S&A-type adventure. This is because the dreaded Great Aunt would blow up if she found them living with the Amazons. Interesting juxtaposition of morals here.

  • Great Nothern?: early eco-friendly children’s literature. The setting is in the Scottish Highlands, which lends it another flavour than the Lake District or the Broads. I thought I likes this book better than I actually did.

Tuesday, 2005-04-19

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian

I’m taking a break from O’Brian for a while. This book marks the end of my collection of WW Norton paperbacks, which are larger than the editions from Harper Collins that follow. Someday I can afford to replace them all with hardcovers.

Saturday, 2005-04-16

Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail, by Bernard Ireland

A coffee-table book with lavish illustrations. Capsule histories of the period from 1756 to 1815 and beyond are interspersed with more general pieces about sailship tech and handling. Nice reading for an O’Brian nut. Recommended if you don’t have to pay for it — borrow it from your local library, like I did.

Thursday, 2005-04-14

Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian

Another one of my favourites within the series.

Here we first make our acquaintance with Andrew Wray, who will succeed Admiral Harte as Jack and Stephen’s bête noir in the coming novels.

Sunday, 2005-04-10

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian

Fourth book in the series. In my memory, rather drab (maybe because it’s based on fact, not pure fiction). But very well written, like all O’Brian’s books.

Looking for a replacement for my missing HMS Surprise, I see that the ghouls at WW Norton have published the first three chapters of the last book O’Brian was writing before his death. I’m torn whether I should get it too. I really need to rejoin the Gunroom and ask the opinion of the denizens there, but I really don’t have time to keep up with the flood of mail right now.

Saturday, 2005-04-09

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian

The most Austinesque of the series. Perhaps the best.

Unfortunately, I can’t locate the next book, HMS Surprise, which is a pity, as it’s my favourite.

Thursday, 2005-04-07

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

I’m re-reading the Aubrey-Maturin series, also known as the Canon.

Saturday, 2005-04-02

Down and out in the early Nineties

Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland.

This is Coupland’s second novel, and the first by him that I read, back in the day, when the Nineties were young (it’s written in 1992). I don’t think I’ve read Generation X in the original.

Like all Coupland’s early novels, this is an amusing read.

Monday, 2005-03-28

Holiday reading

Quick work was done of the following works this long weekend.

Newton’s Wake, by Ken Macleod.

Classic space opera. Less well-plotted than the author’s other novels. This feels more of a collection of cool ideas and scenarios (how do you get an artifact off a planet that’s smack-dab in the output of a pulsar?) than a real novel. MacLeod’s trademark politics is not really to be seen.

Ares Express, by Ian MacDonald.

Set in the same universe as the Hundred Years of Solitude pastiche Desolation Road, this is more of the same Martian future — anarchist, caste-ridden, and filled with BIG trains. A nice read if you don’t have to pay for it.

Zeitgeist, by Bruce Sterling.

A re-read. An extended riff on pop music and the seamy underbelly of the last days of the twentieth century. Rather light-weight, but filled with Sterling’s trademark zany descriptions. No characters actually exist, as they all talk in exactly the same way. That is, like Sterling himself.

Wednesday, 2005-03-23

Men and angels

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.

The first part of Lewis’ “Space Trilogy”. Interesting read. I may be older, but the religious themes are stronger here than in the Narnia books. Nice demolishment of a pro-coloniast straw man in the final chapters.

Sunday, 2005-03-20

Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett

A Discworld novel.

Saturday, 2005-03-19

Not aging well

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: a Trilogy in Five Parts, by Douglas Adams.

Some books simply don’t age along with you. When I first read the first two books in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide series in high school, they were the funniest books I’ve ever read (even in Swedish translation, which is excellent). Now, however, the lustre is gone.

Also, the last novel (Mostly Harmless) ends very strangely. Lots of loose ends…

I re-read this to freshen my memory of the books in anticipation of the upcoming movie. I think that it the movie is “Terry-Gilliamised” — I could totally see a movie in the same vein as Time Bandits — it should be a huge success. There’s a lot of action in the books, and you can get a pretty good movie by boiling them down to an hour-and-a-half of script.

Oh, and I finally grokked the meaning of SubEthaEdit…

Friday, 2005-03-11

Spy stories

The Haunted Wood, by Allen Weinstein.

A rather dry, factual account of Soviet espionage in the US around the Second World War.

Many interesting stories, presented in a workmanlike style. Spying as a not very exciting vocation. Non-judgemental, though. The Soviet operatives were just doing their jobs, so to speak. But the price paid by the agents was sometimes very heavy.

Thursday, 2005-03-10

Minor classics

The Minority Report and other stories, by Philip K. Dick.

Dick is perhaps the only pulp-era SF writer who’s been absorbed by the US academe. These stories are short and rather political, with plenty of Cold War paranoia and nuclear holocaust angst to fuel them.

Sunday, 2005-02-13

Being gone

Miss Wyoming by Douglas Coupland.

I read this book in about 24 hours, a very enjoyable read. Like William Gibson’s, Coupland’s prose is fluid and nearly frictionless, and he relies on this property to slip the reader effortlessly through plots that are thin and rather silly.

Like Microserfs, Miss Wyoming offers glimpses into the incubators of popular culture — in this case: Hollywood. But unlike his depiction of hackers in love, his LA cast seems cardboard-like. The central protagonist’s history of drug and sex abuse are alluded to, but seem tacked on, not part of his character at all. And the eponymous Miss Wyoming is a blank slate, an impossibly naif ex-beauty queen who’s words of wisdom are not hers at all, but transparently the author’s.

Enjoyable read, none the less.

Thursday, 2005-02-10

End of an era

The Last Grain Race, by Eric Newby.

18-year old Eric Newby signs on as an apprentice on the barque Moshulu in 1938, bound for Australia for grain. His middle-class background contrasts with the Finns and Ålanders serving alongside him in the fo’csle of this last example of a sailing merchant ship. With humour and warmth he tells the tale of sailing round Africa to Australia and back via Cape Horn.

A great read, like all books by Newby.

Saturday, 2005-02-05

“The only methodology is common sense”

The Pragmatic Programmer by A. Hunt and D. Thomas.

There’s a lot to like about this book. The authors advocate a pragmatic approach to developing software: use what works. Don’t get bogged down in methodologies, communicate effectively, test ruthlessly.

The edition I read was pretty Unix-centric, which is fine by me. But if you’re working in a MS environment you might be forgiven for being mystified by Makefiles and Emacs.

I myself enjoy using Emacs for day-to-day editing, but I think a well-designed IDE can leverage a language in way that a text editor cannot. MS Visual Studio.NET was very nice, and the authors talk a lot about the browsers available in the Smalltalk world. There are advantages in both approaches. I’d rather write documentation in Emacs than in Word, for example.

I’ve been inspired to use a few of the principles expounded in the book in this very weblog. For example:

  • The DRY principle (“Don’t repeat yourself). Earlier I had a list of links in the sidebar that was duplicated in my Bloglines setup. So I wrote a script that fetches my blogroll from Bloglines and puts it in its own post. Now I only have to maintain my blog links in one place. The same principle applies to my reading list and the data of what I’ve listened to on Audioscrobbler.

  • Decoupling. I’m trying to keep the internal links of this weblog consistent and decoupled from the current implementation (i.e., that it’s situated on That way I can set it up somewhere else with little or no effort. (This is in no way a vote of non-confidence in the team who very generously let me have some space on their server. It’s just that I’m planning on getting my own server sometime and I want to be prepared for that eventuality.)

Sunday, 2005-01-30

A year of reviews

The New York Review of Books, vol. LI.

The NYRB is always interesting. I usually find two or three articles that are worth reading, but I try to slog through all of them. As it’s my father’s subscription, I usually read two or three when I visit my parent’s. After Christmas I grabbed all the issues for 2024, and I’ve been reading them since then.

Reading a whole volume does get a little tedious, however. The paper is pretty topical, so there was a lot of election coverage. Some things, like Abu Graib or Michael Massig’s indictment of the American press on their toadying coverage of Bush’s casus belli retain their topicality still. Others feel more dated.

I’ve added some books to the reading list based on the reviews.

Sunday, 2005-01-16

Whisky and fusion rockets

The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod (re-read).

The final installment of McLeod’s series of books about the fall and rise of a socialist-anarchist society.

Possibly the weakest of the four, but enjoyable none the less.

Update: Ken MacLeod has a blog. The things you find when you putz around the ‘Net…

Crumbling dominion

Imperium, by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

A travel writer mostly known for his writings on the Third World, Kapuscinski tells us about his encounters with the Imperium — Russia, first in its Czarist incarnation, then as the Soviet Union, and lastly stumbling towards a new system, which seems unlikely to be democracy in the Western sense.

From the harrowing account of his childhood in Soviet-occupied Poland, to the recollections of camp inmates in Magadan and the tragedy of Armenia, Kapuscinski paints a bleak picture of a great country plundered and murdered by generations of ruthless rulers.

This passage sums up the Soviet period. A batch of deportees has arrived in Magadan after a freezing sea voyage. They are counted, slowly, by illiterate guards:

The half-naked deportees stood motionless in a blizzard, lashed by the gales. Finally, the escorts delivered their routine admonition: A step to the left or a step to the right is considered an escape attempt — we shoot without warning! This identical formula was uniformly applied throughout the entire territory of the USSR. The whole nation, two hundred million strong, had to march in tight formation in a dictated direction. Any deviation to the left or the right meant death.

A democratic future in Russia seems unlikely:

The Russian land, its characteristics and resources, favor the power of the state. The soil of native Russia is poor, the climate cold, the day, for the greater part of the year, short. Under such natural conditions, the earth yields meager harvests, there is recurrent famine, the peasant is poor, too poor to become independent. The master or the state has always had enormous power over him. The peasant, drowning in debt, has nothing to eat, is a slave.

On the future:

And yet this country’s future can be seen optimistically. Large societies have great internal strength. They have sufficient vital energy and inexhaustible supplies of all kinds of power so as to be able to raise themselves up from the most grievous setbacks and emerge from the most serious crises.

Update: Just saw a TV programme about Kapuscinski, A Poet of the Frontline. So now I’m adding The Emperor to my reading list.

Thursday, 2024-12-30

Victory’s handmaiden

Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda by John Keegan.

A series of case studies on the use of intelligence in warfare. Mostly centered around WW2. The Al-Qaeda reference seems a later add-on to boost sales.

Wednesday, 2024-12-22

Brain candy

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett.

A Discworld novel. ‘Nuff said.

Sunday, 2024-12-19

Learning to hate the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age by Margot A. Henriksen.

A sort of cultural history of the Cold War. Through dissections of popular films and books, especially Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Henriksen exposes the corrosive effects of nuclear weapons on American morals and society.

Sunday, 2024-11-28

At the end of that handbasket ride

Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling.

Re-read this for the nth time. The prose and ideas are top-notch, but the story isn’t really up to scratch.

Update: could Katrina mark the start of this particular future?

Sunday, 2024-11-21

The dead can dance

Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett.

An enjoyable non-Discworld novel.

Also short, I finished it in a day.

Thursday, 2024-11-18

Gods and monsters

Ilium by Dan Simmons

An absolute corker of a book, weaving together Homer, Shakespeare, and the far future in a heady mix.

I haven’t read Simmons’ earlier Hyperion novels, but now that I’ve found he’s a great writer, I most definitely will.

Wednesday, 2024-11-17

There’s something out there…

Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo.

A “novel of ideas” that still stays pretty suspenseful. Granted, some of the ideas went over my head. I think a practising Christian would have more enjoyment of those parts of the book. But still an effective SF thriller.

Soundtrack: Anna Ternhiem, Somebody Outside.

A caul of tortured space-time

Revelation Space by Alistair Reynolds.

Space Opera in the hard SF mould. Full of cool neologisms (lighthugger, reefersleep) and well-written, despite a predilection for the word caul.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve read it before, but the scenes of carnage and mayhem seem a little bloodless, and the characters aren’t as fleshed-out as they could be. Entertaining none the less.

Soundtrack: Lisa Loeb, Cake and Pie and The Way It Really Is.

Friday, 2024-11-12

Men and Spiders

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge.

An absolutely brilliant SF novel, with the right mix of hard science and sense of wonder. If it has a fault, it’s that the central love story is a bit weak. But the aliens are well realised, and the apparent anthropomorphism in the beginning of the novel is really part of the plot.

What am I reading now? The reading list has been updated.

Sunday, 2024-10-24

Shiver me timbers

The Pirate Wars by Peter Earle.

A well-written, comprehensive history of piracy.

Saturday, 2024-10-16

Raymond Chandler goes cyberpunk

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan.

A classic noir story updated with cyberpunkish themes. Full of sex and gore. Very entertaining.

Sunday, 2024-10-10

RAF vs USAAF: two views of aerial combat in WWII

Damn Good Show by Derek Robinson
Goodbye Mickey Mouse by Len Deighton

Two very different books about the same period of time: the bomber war against Germany in World War 2.

In Damn Good Show, Derek Robinson writes about bombers, having written about fighters in Goshawk Squadron and A Good Clean Fight.. He brings to the story his trademark humour and nihilism. This time though, he doesn’t kill off all his characters by the end, instead leaving a little ray of hope that some might come through the horrors of war and make a life on the other side.

Along the way, he debunks many myths about the wartime RAF, but doesn’t subtract anything from the extraordinary courage that it took to bomb an enemy country in pitch-black, freezing planes.

Deighton’s book is much more traditional view — the cold, squalor, and fear experienced by the American pilots protecting the bombers in P-51:s is present, but somehow he doesn’t convey as much realism as Robinson. The love story, although detailed, is banal. The characters are from central casting — the brainy, handsome Eastener, the brash uncultured guy from New Mexico, the beautiful English girl who loves them both. Deighton fleshes them out, but they still look and feel like cardboard.

the italian job

Love and War in the Appenines by Erik Newby.

Inspired by the Colditz book I re-read this classic of escape literature.

Of course, this being Newby, it is also very funny.

Wednesday, 2024-10-06

Hard boiling eggs in vacuum

Redemption Ark by Alistair Reynolds.

The second part of the Inhibitor trilogy. Nice enough read. Reynolds can’t do love scenes, or feelings at all for that matter, but makes up for it in plot and sense-of-wonder.

Tuesday, 2024-09-28

“Comrades! Embrace the dialectics of the post-scarcity economy, or be uploaded!”

Singularity Sky by Charles Stross.

An entertaining if uneven romp through a universe where nanotech disrupts post-Tsarist colony worlds and where an uploaded civilisation does all it can do to prevent entities from changing the past, thus editing them out of history.

A big part of the book (a bit too long) is a hilarious sendup of the kind of neo-Napolonic space navies as described by David Weber in the Honor Harrington series.

Sunday, 2024-09-26

More war

Blood, Tears and Folly: an objective look at World War II by Len Deighton.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Deighton’s Goodbye Mickey Mouse didn’t impress me, but this is a nice “amateur” history of WWII. Contains nice backgrounds to the different conflicts, with and emphasis on the tech aspects of the war.

I’ve really read too much about the Second World War. The problem is that the war’s status (in the US at least) as “the last good war”, together with the “Band of Brothers” aesthetics and the multitude of video games set there almost make the whole thing like a comic book. Despite the blood and guts falling out, the war is still like those 50’s and 60’s comics where heroic Brits and Yanks fight against Krauts and Yaps.

Monday, 2024-09-13

Making it to the ships

The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod (re-read).

Fscking brilliant. ‘Nuff said.

Saturday, 2024-09-11

Video games

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.

Compulsively readable, like everything Gibson has written. But the beginning is much better than the end, which feels contrived and flat.

Like Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, this book shows that good SF is really about our own time.

Thursday, 2024-09-09

The stars are full of Reds

The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod (re-read).

Continuing my MacLeod jag. This is also not as good The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal, but as a plausible utopia, it kinda works.

Sunday, 2024-09-05

Coast to coast in ‘66

Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck.

A well-written, poignant memoir about two boys and their flight from New Jersey to California, both honouring and removing themselves from their difficult father.

Thursday, 2024-08-26

The dark century

Brev från nollpunkten by Peter Englund.

A collection of essays about the defining moments of the last century: the First World War, the Great Terror, the Holocaust, the Allied bombings of Germany and Japan, and the atomic bomb over Nagasaki.

Also contains an essay about the eery similarities of Nazi and Stalinist architecture.

Tuesday, 2024-08-17

“The fate of this universe — and others! — is at stake!”

(Title shamelessly stolen from P.M. Agapow’s review of a different novel.)

Space opera in the Iain M. Banks mould, with bold sweeping vistas and more or less dysfunctional characters. Unlike Banks, this is hard SF, which means that the speed of light is still an absolute limit. Other than this, anything goes.

Reading this prompted me to re-read Revelation Space, the first novel set in this universe, and after just a few pages I can say that this novel is not up to the standards set by that one. Despite this, it is an entertaining read and more well written than most.

Sunday, 2024-08-08

The Anti-Rhodes

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux.

This is the best book I’ve read in a long time. Partly because of the great writing, partly because my own background growing up in Kenya, and partly for the fact that Theroux has mellowed quite a bit. I remember his alter-ego in My Secret History as a prick, which is perhaps ungenerous as that book is a novel. His previous travel books have also left a sour taste in my mouth, but here he’s much more generous to the people he meets.

The chapter on Kenya is depressing, as my memories of childhood there are happy, and I could see a bit of what he describes when we went back some years ago.

Two books have been added to my reading list after this chapter:

  • Graham Hancock, The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige and Corruption of the International Aid Business
  • Michael Maren, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity

A point Theroux makes when visiting Malawi, where he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Sixties, is that only Africans can help Africa. The vast influx of foreign aid and charity hasn’t helped much. I’m sure that Africa’s problems are not due to aid and charity — the effects of colonialism and unfair trade practices by the rich world are much bigger factors — but aid hasn’t helped.

Theroux paints a bleak picture of a continent that just can’t be able to get its act together. He offers no solutions, only observations. But those are made with such clarity that the reader is left with the feeling that things will get better, one day.

PS Cecil Rhodes dreamt of an railway from the Cape to Cairo. Theroux has no such dreams, and he travels in the other direction.

Saturday, 2024-07-31


A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour by John Feinstein.

I now know more than I thought I ever wanted to know about professional golf in the US. Synopsis: it’s damn hard, but if you’re good and lucky, you too can fly to tournaments in a private jet.

The first sports book I’ve read, interesting experience. All aspects of society are filled with jargon. If you know nada about golf, read something else. If you know the difference between a birdie and a bogey, it’s recommended.

Wednesday, 2024-07-28

Beware of brainwashed alien visitors

Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks.

Although Banks’ Culture novels are always enjoyable, this one feels like he’s coasting.

Thursday, 2024-07-22

Strange attractors

Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick.

A well written popular history of nonlinear dynamics.

Wednesday, 2024-07-21

Short tales

Boys and Girls Forever by Alison Lurie.

A collection of essays about childrens literature.

Sunday, 2024-07-18

Dark Swedish plans

Svenska förintelsevapen by Wilhelm Agrell.

A history of the Swedish plans to build WMDs, specifically a plutonium bomb and VX and mustard gas.

Never got past the planning stage due to politics and a new sense of the term “international security”.

The last chapter has interesting info concerning Iraq’s gas and nuclear programmes after Gulf War 1.

Saturday, 2024-07-03

The all-seeing eye

Body of Secrets by James Bamford.

An “exposé” of the NSA. This book has a hacked-together feel, as if it was composed of several magzine articles. The author veers from describing the NSA as an all-knowing threat to democracy and liberty, to telling us about glitches, catastrophes, and bureaucracy hampering the Agency’s ability to protect the US from it’s enemies.

There’s some interesting information in here though (assuming that the information is accurate):

  • The description of how Israel attacked a Sigint ship during the Six Days War.

  • The capture of another Sigint ship by the North Koreans in 1969.

  • How the Viet Minh could monitor US radio traffic during the Vietnam war, as the Americans didn’t bother to use communication security.

The sum of the book seems to be that, yes, the NSA can listen to every phone call and read every mail, but that they don’t have enough qualified people to make sense of what they’re picking up.

Must … install … GPG …

Monday, 2024-06-07

Ancient secrets

Venona: spåren från ett underrättelsekrig by Wilhelm Agrell.

A history of the Venona telegrams intercepted in Sweden during the Second World War, and the implications of their decoding on the revelations of Soviet espionage in Sweden during the period.

Man, that was a long sentence.

Agrell describes the Venona decrypts as the “Dead Sea Rolls of the Cold War”. The limited decryption of the traffic meant that the recovered plaintext nearly raised more questions than it answered.

Sunday, 2024-05-02

behind the wire

Colditz: the Definitive History by Henry Chancellor.

An entertaining history of the famous WW2 POW camp.

The most interesting thing about this book is the fact that Colditz, despite being the “prison of last resort” for repeat escapers and Deutschfeindlich, was actually more humane than many other places in Nazi Germany. Compared to concentration, extermination, and slave labour camps, it was a “bad hotel”.

Wednesday, 2024-04-28

secret war

Action This Day, Michael Smith and Ralph Erskine, editors. Bantam Press 2001. ISBN 0593 049101.

A collection of essays about Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

The most entertaining one is by the late John Chadwick.

This is how he describes his arrival in Heliopolis following the evacuation of Alexandria in 1942:

My arrival created administrative chaos, since I was a lone naval rating attached to an Army Intelligence Unit, itself attached to an RAF station.

He was later promoted “Temporary Sub-Lieutenant (Special Branch) RNVSR” because the material he handled was classed ‘Officers Only’.

Later, after the Italian Armistice, he wanted to promote code discipline in the Aegean:

[…] I volunteered to go on the next mission to act as liaison with the Italian Navy in Leros, in the hope of preventing any further breaches of security. My suggestion was rejected, and I was told brutally that my superiors did not mind if I were killed, but they were unwilling to take the risk of my being taken prisoner.

Chadwick later deciphered Linear B along with Michael Ventris.

Tuesday, 2024-04-20

going down in a spiral

Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald.

An excellent history/reportage about Vietnam during the American War.

Thursday, 2024-04-01

war is hell, and boring too

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War by Paul Fussell.

A blend of personal memoir, history, and literary criticism centering around WW2.

”(…) what time seems to have shown out later selves is that perhaps there was less coherent meaning in the events of wartime than we had hoped. Deprived of a satisfying final focus by both the enormousness of the war and the unmanageable copiousness of its verbal and visual residue, all the revisitor of this imagery can do, turning now this way, now that, is to indicate a few components of the scene. And despite the preponderance of vileness, not all are vile.”

Tuesday, 2024-03-30

“precision bombing”

The Bomber War: Arthur Harris and the Allied Bomber Offensive 1939-1945 by Robin Niellands

A “fair and balanced” history of the Allied bombing campaigns during World War 2. A book similar to The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain by Stephen Bungay.

Niellands doesn’t make any excuses for the Allied bombing. As he writes, there was a war on. And it is worth remembering that area bombing of civilians was initiated by the Germans, in Guernica, Warzaw, Coventry, and London. But the futility and horror of the bombing still remains. The point is not that area bombing was immoral. The war was immoral. But it still had to be fought.

Arthur Harris and his Command fought and died for the right of others to vilify their memory.

Thursday, 2024-03-11

the great war

The First World War by John Keegan

A history of WWI.

The opening and closing chapters are eloquent in their condemnation of this horrible conflict, the defining event of the twentieth century. But the intervening ones are dry history, failing to convey the horror of the fighting.

For a novelist’s view of the war, read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.

wizard prang

Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson.

A brilliant book about fighter pilots in France and England in the beginning of World War 2.

Wednesday, 2024-02-11

McKinsey meets the CIA

Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow.

20 years in the future, IRC pals from the same timezones help each other out to try to further their Tribes way of life — easygoing PST, hard-hitting EST, and stodgy, state-loving GMT. Each Tribe has agents in the other’s territory, working in management consultancies, trying to undermine the enemy’s competitiveness with hare-brained theories.

When our hero comes up with a great P2P scheme his friend and lover conspire to put him away in a mental hospital so that they don’t have to share the profits.

Not as far “out there” as Down and out in the Magic Kingdom by the same author, but still a great read. Especially since it’s free.

Saturday, 2024-01-24

the anti-Biggles

Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson.

This is Robinson’s first book about war in the air. The dogfighting over France in 1918 is presented as just as bad as the fighting in the trenches. Powerful stuff.

Thursday, 2024-01-22

a modern classic

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien.

Re-reading this for the n-th time. The final episode of the film trilogy inspired me. I was pleased to find out that my internal movie was still the same. I was also impressed that Jackson was so faithful to the book.

Too bad the Swedish translation is so flawed. I would really like Leo to read this. He’s old enough but his English’s not good enough for the original. Viking will be old enough when the new translation is ready.