Red Mandarin Dress (Qui Xiaolong)

A detective with a literary bent leads a squad which gets called in for "sensitive" cases.  If the setting is London, his name is Adam Dalgliesh.  If Shanghai, rather Chen Cao.  In either case, the reader can expect writing which is a satisfying novel whether or not any crime is solved.

 

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Did I mention there's a mystery in there as well?  With daring escapades and brutal murders and outwitted police and indirect clues!  Really, these books are a banquet, and my only question is how long I can hold off reading the next one.  If I've tempted you, Death of a Red Heroine is the place to start.

  • Current Music
    Shostakovich, 5th Symphony

Transition (Iain M. Banks)

Banks keeps getting better.  I've heard that a lot of readers who read him principally for his space operatic sweep were upset with the ending of Matter.  Whose side can I take here? 

 

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    Mahler, Resurrection Symphony (Zinman)

Zoe's War (John Scalzi)

I want to like John Scalzi's writing more than I do.  He seems like a nice enough guy.  Some of his themes appeal to me.  His book about the purple sheep was one of my favorite comic reads of the last several years, and I've been willing to believe that the shallowness of Agent to the Stars was an intentional representational strategy.  But I just can't take him seriously. 

 

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This sat on my shelf for a long time because of my doubts about the previous books in the series.  At this point I think I'm done with Scalzi until someone I trust convinces me something has changed.  Or he goes back to just writing silly stuff.

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    Liszt -- Symphonic Poem No. 3 (Les Preludes)

An open letter

to the young gentleman
riding a black bike
on a one-lane road
with plenty of traffic
at night
with no lights
and no reflectors
and no helmet
in black pants
and a black shirt

Fellow cyclist (loathe though I am to admit any fraternity with your sort), in the future I would suggest that you wear at least one of the following:

1) A helmet
2) A rear light
3) A headlight
4) Something, anything reflective
5) Heck, something bright
6) Maybe just something tan
7) light brown?

Failing that, as a public service I would suggest

8) An up to date organ donor card

Various...

The last few weeks I've been reading a bunch of fairly light stuff that didn't inspire anything I really needed to write.  Since I seem to be in the mood to pick up some more substantial stuff,  I'm going to briefly discuss several books in one post to clear out the cellar.

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The Accidental Guerilla (David Kilcullen)

If you want to understand the thinking that turned the Iraq war from an unmitigated disaster into managed disorder, read this book.  If you want to understand _precisely_ how classic cold war derived strategic attitudes don't just misguide us in dealing with terrorists, our following them is part of extremist strategy, read this book.  If you want to understand how what we're dealing with differs not only from state-on-state kinetic warfare but also from Maoist counterinsurgency, read this book.  If you want to understand what kind of strategic approaches might actually be appropriate, read this book.

David Kilcullen was an Australian major specializing in counterinsurgency, who ended up as a significant US advisor, and was eventually the Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor who helped Petraeus devise the surge strategy.  Many things that were described by some very smart commentators as luck or opportunism are revealed here as crystal clear strategy.  Given that the serving US officers involved aren't writing books, this is the closest to an insider tell-all of the strategy as you can get.

Kilcullen precisely understands that this is a war for legitimacy within the populace, and the key thesis of this book is that most of the people we're fighting aren't committed opponents of Western interests per se, but rather people with local interests who have been co-opted by a well designed and consistent strategy on the part of extremists into alliance with a globalized religious movement to which they have no indelible ideological commitment.  He presents a large amount of evidence for this thesis, particularly including eyewitness accounts of this strategy playing out from Indonesia to Pakistan to Iraq.

There are many strategic principles that have seemed obvious to me in this conflict stemming from Boyd's grand strategy developed in his classic Patterns of Conflict.  The Accidental Guerilla gracefully and clearly combines this kind of strategic view with a detailed understanding of how these conflicts are playing out on the ground.  If you want to speak intelligently to upcoming strategic decisions, this is required reading.

The Game of Kings (Dorothy Dunnett)

I found this when clearing off shelves in the office.  rebecca_m  had picked it up years ago and never finished it.  Not exactly a compelling recommendation to move something to the front of the reading list, but I was inspired by the glowing reviews of it as a classic on the order of O'Brien.

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The Magicians (Lev Grossman)

I saw a preview ad for this book at ReaderCon, and knew I'd have to buy a book that had enthusiastic dust jacket quotes from both Kelly Link and George R. R. Martin.  What book would a publisher even send to both of them? 

The answer appears to be Harry Potter for grown-up geeks.  A teenager gains entrance to an exclusive private school teaching magic, but this time magic is actually uncontrolled and disturbing, and the protagonists have the kinds of personal limitations common to brilliant young adults, as well as culpable character weaknesses that cause the kind of harm that can only be forgiven, not fixed.

Grossman clearly knows geeks.  He writes convincingly of our obsessions, and the way difficult conceptual work is not just its own reward but a self-feeding compulsion.  But he also knows that the real meat in a bildungsroman is the more difficult transitions out of early adulthood.  He gets the deep connections between possibility and ennui, between self-avoidance and self-involvement, between responsibility, failure, and adulthood.

That might sound pretty depressing, but this book kept me up until 2:30 this morning.  It felt magical without ever really falling into kitsch.
  • Current Music
    Henri Dutilleux -- Sur le meme accord

From Dead to Worse (Charlaine Harris)

I adored the first Sookie Stackhouse novel, and rushed out to pick up the second.  As the  series progressed, the novels have tended to have one large plot arc, ending in some cataclysmic conflict.  "Plot" here should be taken literally:  the action is usually driven by some person or group's political machinations.  I've found this less and less engaging, and From Dead to Worse sat on my "to read" shelf long enough I don't remember when I bought it.  I needn't have worried, as it broke from this tendency in a way I found extremely satisfying.

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    Sonny Rollins -- Road Shows, vol. 1
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A Shadow in Summer (Daniel Abraham)

I picked this up after reading a review in Strange Horizons.  For me, reading reviews is about finding things to read that I otherwise wouldn't have picked up, and this was a fine example.  I usually have no patience for contemporary epic fantasy, with it's laboriously Byzantine politics and frequent thinly-veiled fetishism of regressive social relations.  It takes an interesting review to get me past this prejudice.

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A simple test of a first novel in a series is "will I read the next one?".  I think the answer here is yes.  But I don't feel compelled to recommend it to anyone who isn't more of a fantasy fan than I am.
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    Art Farmer -- When Farmer Met Gryce
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