This just a thought or two about each of the books I managed to finish this month. I certainly loaded up on the quick reads to close out the summer.
Call of the Wild, by Jack London (1908) – I finally read this “naturalistic” classic on a short plane ride. It’s the story of a large dog that gets stolen, subjugated by handlers and sold into duty on an Alaskan dog sled team. This takes place during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, where both man and dog were rushed into an environment where only some could adapt. London tells the story, which is surprisingly intense and violent, almost exclusively from the dog’s point of view. Not to be missed. 9/10.
Bettyann, by Kris Neville (1970) – This is a lost SF classic from a largely forgotten author. I reviewed this one here. 8/10.
Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight (2016) – I listened to the audiobook version of this celebrated business memoir, and was pleasantly surprised at its frankness and honesty. He tells the story of the company Nike, from its beginnings as an idea for a graduate college paper in the mid-1960’s to the 1981 IPO. Knight makes for an unusual CEO, and his company survived several existential threats along the way. This is required reading for anyone interested in the path to international markets. 8/10.
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (2008) – One of the “pop” concepts to come out of the New Yorker (or was it the Atlantic?) around 2008 was Gladwell’s threshold number for turning a natural talent into a life-defining ability: 10,000 hours. The audiobook made for a decent listen (Gladwell is an outstanding narrator) during a long solo road trip, and it covers a variety of angles in describing the differences between great successes and lesser outcomes. One can always attack Gladwell for his cherry-picking supporting data, and it seems particularly obvious when he covers educational outcomes, but I’ve grown to appreciate how well he sets up his arguments and makes his stories compelling. 8/10.
The Very Good
The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, by Lawrence Block (1983) – This is the fifth “Bernie Rhodenbarr” mystery, where the burglar (Bernie) finds himself in the middle of an unsolved murder, where he is the prime suspect. This series is the closest thing to a “cozy mystery” that I read, and the regular cast of characters have become very familiar. However, Block’s efficient style and humor have kept me coming back. 7/10.
Midworld, by Alan Dean Foster (1975) – This one was another pleasant surprise, about primitive humans who have adapted to a planet completely overrun by rainforest. These inhabitants are reconnected to technology by the survivors of a crashed vessel, culminating in a clash of cultures. Very competently done. 7/10.
The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell (2002) – Since Outliers was so well-produced I gave the audio version of Gladwell’s first book a try. The ideas may have aged a bit, but I think much of the criticism of this book came from a wide audience mistaking it as a how0to manual. As a light book of ideas, it succeeds. 7/10.
The Man Who Ate the World, by Frederik Pohl (1960) – A pretty strong collection of 1950’s SF stories by Pohl, mostly with an anti-corporate bent. My favorites of the collection were “The Day the Icicle Works Closed,” about the manipulation of a captive population by powerful corporate interests, and “The Snowmen,” which would have fit into the macabre/uncanny genre if it weren’t for the aliens and spaceship. 7/10.
The Outfit, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark, 1963) – This is the third of the superbly-paced Parker series (although I haven’t found the first one yet). It’s highly readable entertainment with some clever plotting, but I found some of the things Parker was able to do a little implausible. Nonetheless, to keep going in this series is an automatic choice. 7/10.
Empire of Two Worlds, by Barrington J. Bayley (1972) – I’ve found Bayley to be a very inventive author with a distinctly hit-or-miss quality. This early-career novel describes the adventures of gangsters from an urban world who escape to a less-harsh planet, populated by less sophisticated but warring natives. Bayley packs a lot into this book, but the characters are rather pulp-quality. 5/10.
Survivor, by Octavia Butler (1978) – This story of a refugee on a planet where human mercenaries are subject to rule of law by tribes of discriminating aliens has some interesting ideas and characters. Chemical dependence as a means of mind control, and the withdrawal experience as a form of psychological combat, are effectively explored here. This book has been made scarce after falling under Butler’s disfavor: she called it her “Star Trek” novel because she felt she made the aliens too human-like. I think it’s largest weakness is the flashback sequencing of plot events, which seems to paint the story into a corner at one point. Nonetheless, worth reading if you can find a copy. 5/10.
Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell (1919) – I finally finished this one after having it for several months on Kindle, and as a result I never really caught onto the charm. Nonetheless, it was interesting to go through what has been a novel influential both in fantasy and SF. 4/10.
The Zap Gun, by Philip K. Dick (1967) – Incomprehensible mess or Cold War classic? I found it to be somewhere in between. I have a review forthcoming. 5/10.
Tongues of the Moon, by Philip Jose Farmer (1964) – This is an early space opera novel that tries to cram a pile of plot elements in to a very tight space. Because it’s Farmer, the book is still clear and readable. I don’t think it rises above average 1950s-era SF, but other Farmer fans may differ: 5/10.
The Purple Book, by Philip Jose Farmer (1982) – This is a collection of 1960s-era Farmer short fiction, which is to say it’s quite a ride. His Hugo-winning “Riders of the Purple Wage” is featured; it’s a wild, often dirty novella that includes strong satirical elements (mainly, the naked fear of ongoing cultural changes dressed in SF tropes). 6/10.
Witch World, by Andre Norton (1963) – The first novel of a long fantasy series, it didn’t really capture my imagination. I must have found a copy at the wrong time. 5/10.
The Florians, by Brian Stableford (1976) – This is another first novel of a series, and frankly it’s rather rough around the edges when compared to Witch World. The Florians features SF content in the form of lecture-length dialogue, but the science (1970s genetic biology and sociology) is actually interesting. Also, there are too many featured characters for the length of the story, but a couple of them are intriguing (crowbar-swinging Karen, and the principal antagonist Jason). There’s enough potential here to give The Deadalus Mission series another shot. 6/10.
Twice in Time, by Manly Wade Wellman (1940) – Quality Golden Age-era SF (and all that implies), featuring time travel to Florence of the Renaissance. The ending is telegraphed throughout the story, but the enthusiasm for the history is clear. 5/10.