1. Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (Douglas E. Hofstadter)
This was a surprisingly entertaining read, even if it was full of math. I don't have enough grounding the subject matter to agree or disagree, but the argument was moderately convincing to a lay audience. Also, I am terribly proud of myself for being able to follow (most of) the math. The use of the dialogues to illustrate ideas made it more of a good reading book than a theoretical text. ****
2. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
Depressing as all get out. Don't get me wrong -- it was a great book. But there's only so much misery and horrible things that one person can stand. There was a section in the middle where things seemed to be going well for the main characters, and I almost wish it had stopped there. But instead more and more horrible things kept happening. This is, doubtless, entirely realistic. But I'd like to think that there's some hope, instead of unrelenting despair -- and there just wasn't in the world of this book. ****
3. Od Magic (Patricia A. McKillip)
Now here's a book with a happy ending. Light without being stupid, it creates all kinds of entirely credible problems and then resolves them with, admittedly, a bit of a Deux ex machina effect. Likeable characters and an enjoyable writing style make it a good, absorbing read. And a good counterweight to some of the more depressing books in my reading repertoire of late. ****
4. The Walking Boy (Lydia Kwa)
This is a strange book. And one, I'm sorry to say, that should have been a much better, more absorbing read than it actually was. I cared about the characters, and yet found myself wanting to skip the actual reading and just find out what happened to the characters. This is not a common reaction for me. The story is about a young boy adopted by a Buddhist hermit and raised in relative seclusion who is sent to the Big City to find his Master's former lover. It also weaves in the stories of that lover, a skilled sculptor, and of the Empress' secretary. After having read most of the book, I learned that it's the second book in a trilogy, which might have something to do with the oddities of the structure; but I am sorry to say I have no desire to track down the first and third books. *
5. The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't Be Jammed (Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter)
A good read, whether you agree or disagree with them. Potter and Heath write accessible, entertaining prose. But my goodness, they have it in for Naomi Klein! Their point -- that "the counterculture" is not really all that radical an idea, and that a truly progressive politics would require working for change within less glamorous channels -- is well-taken, although they sometimes go too far in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some of their specific examples were problematic -- the one that particularly twinged me was the mention of "the Rules". Potter and Heath argued that the popularity of "the Rules" was a result of the fact that feminism had made dating too confusing. I have a hard time buying that. And if they think that's a good example (admittedly, a throw-away one), I have to start taking a few grains of salt with the rest of their argument. Still, it's generally a good book and a good argument, I just think they're being a little too extreme on the other side sometimes. ****
6. The Girl Who Was Plugged In/Screwtop (James Tiptree, Jr./Vonda N. McIntyre)
I'm counting these two novellas together because they're the two halves of a Tor double that I picked up at a used book store. Together, they're almost long enough to count as one (short) book.
The Girl Who Was Plugged In is a wonderful story. Tiptree really was justly famous. It's both one girl's tragedy and a speculation on what a world without (overt) advertising might really be like. It is not a work one could ever describe as optimistic. It's famous for a reason, though. All of the elements fit together so nicely, so inevitably, that you can't think of a way it could be different.
Screwtop is a slightly more optimistic work, although it's set in a high-security prison, where prisoners work as expendable slaves. It's about friendship and love, and how the relationships between people can make even the most horrible situation bearable. It's much less fluffy than that description makes it sound, though. A good read.
7. Tori Amos: Piece By Piece (Tori Amos and Ann Powers)
Tori has something of a reputation for being a little flaky. This book does not really contradict that, for all it tries to portray her as a serious artist and something of a philosopher. Instead of talking about fairies or goddesses, she talks a lot about "archetypes" and how they influence her songwriting and performance. "Archetypes" seems to be another word, in this context, for goddesses and fairies acting as representatives of particular kinds of femininity. It's an interesting window on her approach to music and songwriting. This book is also something of a biography, although it covers many biographical details while leaving other bits out entirely. It is presented largely as the product of a series of conversations, and it does have the feel of an extended, wide-ranging conversation rather than of a planned and structured book. Sometimes this is a strength, and sometimes it doesn't quite work. As a look into Tori's head, it's an interesting read, but I can't say it would stand on its own for a non-fan. ***
8. Coldheart Canyon (Clive Barker)
In the acknowledgements, Clive Barker says that this book originated as a short satirical piece, and you can kind of tell. There are character names that really belong in a short satirical piece. Also, the inclusion of both real famous people and imaginary famous people felt occasionally jarring -- I think it would have worked better in an entirely fictitious Hollywood, not least because the relationships of real famous people get dated so quickly. All in all, this is a book that should have been very good, and sometimes was. But it was marred by a number of things that on their own would have been forgivable, but combined to make the book much less good than it should have been. The ending doesn't quite end, and has to bump on with a coda or two (kind of like a Spielberg movie...). Barker's love of the gory and the grotesque gets in the way of what could have been a creepy, atmospheric piece. Too much is explained too quickly, leaving only gore to replace the mysterious. It's a shame, because I really wanted to like this book, and I often did. I just found myself jolted out of my reading a few too many times. ***
9. The Infinite Plan (Isabel Allende)
I was a little disappointed with this book, to be honest. I usually love Isabel Allende, but I don't think this is her best work. I didn't find myself drawn into the story the way I expected to be. Part of it was that the story was jerky, and didn't seem to flow properly -- it didn't seem to be fully connected, one part to the next. Part of it was that the characters didn't really come alive. Part of it was that the curious stylistic choice of having some sections in first person and some in third was distracting and jolted me out of the story. All together, it just wasn't what I expected from an Allende book. Alas. **
10. Ysabel (Guy Gavriel Kay)
I do love Kay's books. They are comfort food for my soul. Ysabel is no different. It's set in the "real," contemporary world for a change (a place Kay hasn't visited since the Fionavar tapestry -- and is it giving too much away to say that this is the same real world as that one?) Some of the references to ipods and cell phones feel a little forced, as if Kay is trying to emphasize that hey! This is the modern world! The music references, in particular, are perilously in danger of becoming dated. But once the story really gets going, none of that matters. It's just a good old-fashioned Kay story. A bit shorter and slighter than most, perhaps, but enjoyable nonetheless. ****