Saturday, February 23, 2008

Gridlinked by Neal Asher

What better way to end my run of non-fiction than with a good sci-fi action story? Gridlinked is certainly that, starting with a massive explosion in a supposedly failsafe travel system.

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. The central character begins the novel ‘gridlinked’ that is, connected permanently and wirelessly to the Internet of the future. However for reasons of his own health he is advised to disconnect and does so. A fair amount of the book details his slow reintegration after spending such a long time hooked up.

Gridlinked is a science fiction adventure story, so there’s murder, mystery, aliens, and spaceships. Not usually the kind of science fiction I choose to read, but this is an enjoyable book. I assume this is a first novel since there is a lot of people staring at people “for a long moment” which was a bit off putting after the first 12 times.

Too much hard science fiction can be bad for you I think. I kept wondering why the bad guys were waiting for the good guys at their destination, when the good guys travelled instantaneously via runcible (a quantum transporter) while the bad guys took a spaceship so they could smuggle weapons. I just had this dry voice in my head wondering why the bad guys didn’t arrive like eighty years too late instead of two days early. But this is my issue. I must do something about that voice.

The central character is distant from those around him, and I can almost believe the whole idea of him being gridlinked for so long is just a device to explain his introversion. It was the similarly introverted character of Mika who caught my attention. There are other characters to choose from, the android, the space pilot, the mercenary, the psycho terrorist. You may remember them from just about every other sci-fi action story you’ve read.

Gridlinked is an enjoyable read, not to be taken too seriously, but worth the time spent reading. It's no think piece like Revelation Space, but it's no mindless bore like Descent of Angels either. Books like this should have a place on everyone’s shelf. Plus, you know, Taryn liked it.

The Interesting Bits by Justin Pollard

I’m a trivia buff. I’m a history buff. And here is a book of historical trivia. For someone like me it’s practically pornographic.

History is something I find endlessly interesting. There are some who contrive to make history boring, or didactic, but you really have to work pathologically hard to achieve this. History is just so … full of things. It has narrative, though it takes a good storyteller, I mean, historical scholar, to draw that out.

The Interesting Bits is broadly organised, by which I mean there are sections with titles, but they really didn’t mean anything to me. There’s no narrative here, or even an attempt at one. The bits that are chosen are generally short, digestible items, conversation pieces if you like that sort of thing, and know people prepared to hear you out.

If your friends roll their eyes and change the subject when you try to tell them who Downing Street is named for, or how a French lawyer successfully defended a horde of rats in court, or even where the term ‘Nosy Parker’ came from, well, you might need to get some new friends.

The layout is such that if you are someone who reads only in short bursts, you’ll love it, since it gives you a tale you can read in a couple of minutes, then put the book down. If, like me, you are someone who reads quickly and in long sessions wherever possible, you can suffer from excessive knowledge download.

There is no narrative here, or even any attempt to create one. That is my biggest criticism of the book, and also the least fair. It didn’t set out to be a narrative, but that’s how I like my history.

There is a tendency for the bits to be either about Britain or America, and the European pieces are written mostly with a “look at those silly continentals!” tone that grates. These annoyances are quibbles rather than show-stoppers though. Overall, The Interesting Bits gives exactly what it says on the cover; little bits of history that are oh so interesting.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape

I’d read a few of Scott Pape’s Barefoot Investor columns and always found them enjoyable. I didn’t know he wrote books, and when I saw this one I snapped it up without a second thought.

I worried that the ‘book’ might turn out to be a collector of small articles (I have my second thoughts only after buying things), but this is not the case. There is a strong organised narrative that runs throughout. Whether Scott is talking about shares, property, or giving childhood anecdotes, everything is heading in the same directions.

This book lays out a clear path to financial independence that (get this) does not involve radical changes to your lifestyle. Just remember to spend what you have, and not what someone is prepared to lend you, and you’ll be fine, is the message. Luckily accompanying this message are some very practical steps on exactly how to achieve this.

If there’s on thing I would recommend about this book, it’s that it shows just how easy it all is. Set up a few systems for yourself with minimal effort, and you’ll soon have assets are growing themselves faster than you can top them up.

In this day and age of out of control consumerism, this book is a rare voice of good sense. You don’t have to live like a monk, just make sure you spend money that’s yours to spend.

If you’re aged 25-60 you’ll find a lot of helpful stuff in this book. If you’re aged 15-25 this book is indispensable. I wish I’d had advice like this 10 years ago.

On The Wealth of Nations by PJ O'Rourke

PJ O’Rourke is an American humourist who is no longer funny. He’s been tasked with writing a commentary on The Wealth of Nations. Let’s see how he does.

To start with, not badly. I actually laughed at some things, and found others, such as PJ’s explanation of how we came to have a trading class in the first place, insightful without being dull. All good. Plus we have some context setting in terms of the era in which Adam Smith was writing.

Then it all goes wrong.

The first half of the book is marred only by O’Rourke’s insistence on comparing certain parts of The Wealth of Nations with certain parts of The Bible, as though that were the only book around, or worse, the only yardstick. It gets far worse in the second half of the book, the pile of biblical reference teeters ever higher and gets really pungent. The chapter ‘Adam Smith in Heaven’ is truly execrable. I don’t think even the greeting card industry would pay for that crap.

The descent into a fourth-rate Bible class leaves only a poor impression of this book. In fairness I will point out that I liked this book to begin with. However as I read on I liked it less and less, before finally reaching dismissive derision. No doubt there is a definitive commentary to be written on The Wealth of Nations, but this is not it.