Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks - Ken Jennings Not nearly weird enough. Jennings talks to various map enthusiasts, from geocachers to Geography Bee contestants to antique map collectors, and they all turn out to be pretty normal people who like maps a lot. Ok. There are some interesting tidbits of map and geography trivia scattered around, but most of it is fairly, er, trivial. Not the good kind of trivia. The part about maps in fantasy (thanks to Jenning's college roomate, Brandon Sanderson,) was particularly weak and pedestrian, and probably Everything That Is Wrong With Fantasy today. Also, get off my lawn.

The most intriguing current in the book, however, was drawing attention to a curious everpresent tension in geography, or possibly just in geography-nerds. There's a bi-polar quality to the interest: on the one hand, geography is vastly holistic, trying to put together layers and layers of different information to aspire to intricately complex wholes. On the other hand, there's also a certain preoccupation with the incredibly minute and finicky - lists of countries, cities, rivers. Jennings' nerds' map-love often manifests as a variety of obsessive lists of spots to visit, facts to know, things to rank and other generally, er, spectrumy behaviours. All countries. All McDonalds. All meridian intersections.

Travel and exploration are - supposedly - about unpredictable adventure and discovery, but the book stresses that odd feeling of standing at 3 or 4-way border or at the smallest roundabout or any meaningless but utterly pleasing location like that. Is that contradictory, or do those two facets compliment one another? It is all about having some control of the landscape, if only in your own head? A sense of having ferreted out its secrets? It it about connection to what's around you in the face of social isolation? I don't know, but I know I've had the conversation Jenning's recounts as a typical geography student anecdote.

"Geography? So, like, you can name every capital city?" Someone asks me.
"Don't be absurd, that's not it."
"So what do you study?"
Sheepish silence.
"Er, everything," I am forced to eventually admit. "And the way it fits together. Um, spatially."
But I usually don't admit that I can totally name a lot of capital cities, and that is makes me really happy .

Have a map:


The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, from the Revolution to the First World War - Graham Robb This is a delightfully eclectic book, with piles and piles of surprising information about just-pre-modern daily life. The way distance shifted between eras and technologies, the way food and work and money functioned or didn't in this vast landscape before the state came along to make sense of them, the oddness and diversity of the way people moved and lived before, well, more practical universal solutions became available. It's a bit meandering and tended to lose my attention for weeks at a time, but overall perfectly fascinating.
Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie Enjoyable and original. Great mindfuck of a villain and interesting questions raised re. identity, history, loyalty, language, gender. Good characterization. The ending felt a bit clunky, like pieces being moved into place for a sequel, but I want to see where it goes anyway.
The Necropolis Railway - Andrew Martin Not going to finish this - a shame, because trains! Meticulously detailed trains and train labour in the late Victorian period, which is delightful. Unfortunately, that's it. It's just totally incoherent otherwise. I haven't the foggiest clue what is going on, how our totally boring hero suddenly decided he needs to find a killer, who's been killed, what the factions are, who he's working for, etc, etc. I mean, seriously, I just don't know what is happening, even as I am reading it, and not in a good way. So, life's too short. I will find other books about trains.
The Abominable - Dan Simmons Er, Nazis bad, is the moral of this story? What an overripe mess of a novel, unfortunately.

All the components would seem to be there for a great read, like The Terror - disparate group trapped on Mt. Everest, chasing something and being chased by something, clashing personalities, period detail, great setting. None of it works. There's way, way too much detail about climbing and way too much setup (and I normally enjoy a good infodump.) By the time we get to actual tense, interesting, life-and-death scenes involving climbing there's already been so much of it Simmons can't find another thing to say and those end end up being rushed. The characterization is pretty weak - some stuff is raised in an ad-hoc way to give these people personalities, but it never really impacts the story. There's not a lot of tension with the main mystery and solution is so silly (and yet very brain-bleachy. Thanks, Dan Simmons) that it lets out whatever air the book had so far. Oh well. It's fairly readable, I guess, if only there was anything interesting in it. What happened, eh?
One Summer: America, 1927 - Bill Bryson Happily prurient. So it's not the most rigorous historical account, but is a seemingly very effective and extremely entertaining portrait of that moment nevertheless. Also, man, I know *nothing* about baseball. That's who Babe Ruth was. huh.
The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Novel - Karen Lord What? For the most part a slice-of-life type story about the remnants of a destroyed planet settling on another one and trying to find local brides to pass on their genes with, with obvious romancey overtones. It's quick, straightforward and yet unhurried, and some reasonably deft, quiet characterization makes it seem like it's all going to add up to something interesting. Instead, it adds up to a truly groanworthy, wincing collection of cliches, drawn seemingly not so much even from bad romance novels as bad romance fanfics, complete with everyone married to alpha males with telepathic mindlinks and horsies and god knows what.

Oh, there's also that thing, which appears to be de rigueur these days in SF novels - like this is still some kind of audience-challenging, subversive mindfuck - where a character will oh-so-casually have no gender, but, quite boringly and typically, without actually going to any description of this character or dealing at all with who or how they are, as this genderless person. So what's the point, except to feel good about yourself for being so terribly progressive? I probably wouldn't complain that much, except this is seemingly really common now and it feels trite and reductive to me, as both politics and literature. And all the more so in a novel that ends up happily embracing gender roles in a rather cheesy way.

Anyway, what the hell, otherwise curious and promising book? Theres something interesting about the quiet, conflict-free, people-centric story, but all that gets thrown away with that ending.
Travel Connections: Tourism, Technology and Togetherness in a Mobile World - Jennie Germann Molz Ok. Not overly academic. Some of my other reading suggests that Molz is seen as kind of a cynical hardnose in the microscopic field of Hospitality Exchange ethnography, but I think she's too cuddly and uncritical here, if anything, though I appreciated the bit where she summarized Sara Ahmed, because I found that utterly impenetrable.
War Master's Gate: The Shadows Of The Apt, Book 9 - Adrian Tchaikovsky Thoroughly enjoyed this one, after the slightly mechanical, no pun intended, eighths book. The cast of characters is enormous, but they each get enough careful attention to create distinct personalities and motivations, and Tchaikovsky has a knack of taking those characterizations and crafting arresting, dramatic, brutal moments out of them. The series probably most interesting aspect, the questions of magic and technology, also comes full circle and i'm dying to know how it's going to play out in the next book now. It's also astonishing how far all the characters have come, in a way that even series with much higher pretensions of scope usually fail to achieve. In short, read this, fantasy fans.
The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick I was surprised by how sophisticated this was, in some ways. It feels much later than 1962. The way Dick constructs the different characters inner narratives, as products of their history and society, is the best bit. The struggles of culture, identity and self-esteem read as perfectly contemporary - or maybe our politics just haven't moved as much from 1962, actually.


Macroeconomics - Paul Krugman, Robin Wells Well, it's more readable than Mankiw, but how damningly faint is that praise? Less technical too, which is not terribly useful, actually.
Saturn's Children - Charles Stross The concept for this - the adventures of an angsty sexbot in a post-human solar system - sounds almost like one of those risible kindle freebie erotic romances, (cover doing all it can to help out.) The execution is somewhat better, and I was ultimately impressed by the willingness to follow a thread through from humor and titillation through to questions about free will and slavery. It didn't quite get me there, intellectually or emotionally, but it is an interesting attempt. Just too much of a tonal shift demanded at the end, but A for effort.

There's also a decent bang-for-buck in terms of space structure and society stuff, if that happens to be what rocks your boat (a moving railway city on Mercury is the thing now, I take it?) but the plot gets tangled and incomprehensible pretty fast, with a variety of totally indistinguishable factions and unpleasant but nevertheless very thinly portrayed minor characters. On the other hand, it is pretty funny at times. Especially if you happen to like bad puns. Which I do, way too much. Well, we've all got our kinks.
Blood of Tyrants - Naomi Novik I guess i'm the only person who didn't mind the amnesia plot? Given that the Temeraire books are not exactly a font of deep and introspective characterization, even a fairly cheap device like amnesia was fairly effective at wringing some out.

I don't know if this is a particularly unusual way to read the books - my impression is that i'm in a minority, anyway - but I've always cared a great deal more about Lawrence than I have about Temeraire. Temeraire is just kind of twee and cute and modern politically correct all the time. Lawrence actually has a fairly complex and difficult character arc buried under all the reticence and good manners (well, and a degree of authorial disinterest), from having his whole life upheaved, reassesing his sense of duty and doing it all while, at least in the early books, still being a product of his time. I'm beginning to lose track of all the war stuff and who is against who and the dragon emancipation business which feels like pandering to reader sensibilities. I could, however, spend a whole book reading Lawrence having awkward conversations with his mother and trying to decide who to promote to lieutenant.

Anyway, back to this book - that's why I liked the slower, lost-Lawrence stuff of the beginning. Afterwards when we're back to adventuring around and such, well, it isn't bad, but it all gets to be rather the same after a while.
Flashman in the Great Game - George MacDonald Fraser This continues to suffer from what bothered me in the last installment in the series - less interesting characterization which also leads to less interesting poltics - thus leaving a somewhat disjointed pulpy historical (albeit meticulously so) adventure book. That said, there are some moments of extremely good, distubring writing and atmosphere with the various minor characters and situations Flashman comes across in his passage through the Indian Mutiny. (The main female character is a little too much like every other feisty exotic sexy chick in a Flashman book.)
Crocodile on the Sandbank - Elizabeth Peters This has a fairly generic setting, a rather boring mystery, some entirely unconvincing romances (I had to assume everyone in the book was gay and in denial about it. I maintain it makes much more sense that way) and more than a touch of racism. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose) it starts rather strong and moves along at a nice pace with a good bit of what looks like the aforementioned Sapphic undercurrents and a seemingly nicely unreliable narration, and it take until rather past the halfway point to realize that this is all an illusion and the book will continue on it's ruler straight path right to the boring, predictable end. A shame.
Flashman at the Charge - George MacDonald Fraser This was pretty fun, but i'm disappointed that dear old Flashman seems to be softening up somewhat. The particular charm of the first book was that he truly is a true scumbag, but ends up a hero because he's a member of an enterprise so corrupt, incompetent and immoral that lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, raping and betraying his way through it is a natural course of action. You end up feeling sympathy neither for Flashman nor for the British Empire, but do gain a certain satisfaction from seeing them end up together, in a those-two-deserve-eachother sort of way.

Here, however, Flashman isn't nearly as despicable, and he mostly just comes off as the only sane man in the asylum. He sensibly tries to wriggle out of doing insanely dangerous life threatening things, fails, and then does them fairly commendably anyway, and spends the rest of his time feeling bad for downtrodden peasants and common soldiers. It's not nearly as interesting.

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