April 19, 2018

45 great sci-fi novels reviewed (plus a list of 41 all-time classics)

great sci-fi novels reviewed: American War by Omar El AkkadAs a teenager, I devoured sci-fi novels, and my addiction resumed for extended periods later in life. I was attracted above all by the sheer creativity the writers demonstrated in speculating about life and reality from new perspectives. And I must admit I was a bit of a nut about space travel, too. I’ve always frustrated my progressive friends for supporting the space program.

In times past, including the years of my youth, science fiction was widely regarded as pulp literature suitable only for 14-year-old boys. Those days are long past. Now the field is often referred to as speculative fiction. Which makes sense. The term allows such mainstream authors as Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood to deny vehemently that they write science fiction. Even if they really do.

Here, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names, are 45 great sci-fi novels reviewed in recent years on this site. Some of these titles will be familiar to you if you’re a science fiction fan. You’re less likely to know others. Each title is followed by a link to my review.

Note: in the case of a trilogy or other series, I’ve linked to only the first book in the sequence. If I counted the subsequent entries in those series, the total number of books suggested here would be at least 58 (since some of these series are ongoing).

45 great sci-fi novels reviewed here

M. T. Anderson, FeedA terrifying vision of the future in an award-winning young adult novel

M. T. Anderson, Landscape with Invisible HandA clever new take on an alien invasion in a humorous young adult novel

Margaret Atwood, The Maddaddam Trilogy Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian fiction

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl –  One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Drowned Cities SeriesAnother exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water KnifeDystopian fiction that breaks the mold

Octavia E. Butler, The Parable NovelsA superb dystopian novel

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet — A delightful modern space opera that’s all about character development

Blake Crouch, The Wayward Pines TrilogyA truly original work of speculative fiction

Blake Crouch, Dark Matter A journey into the multiverse

Cory Doctorow, Little BrotherTerrorism. Homeland Security. Teenage rebellion.

Omar El Akkad, American WarA chilling tale, lucidly told, of a Second American Civil War

Meg Elison, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife – A powerful feminist story in a dystopian landscape

Robert Harris, The Fear Index – A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds

Hugh Howey, Wool Omnibus Edition (Silo 1-5) – Hugh Howey’s outstanding science fiction

Stephen King, 11/22/63 – A new take on the JFK assassination

Maggie Shen King, An Excess Male – A great science fiction novel set in a future totalitarian China

Ira Levin, This Perfect DayA superb tale of a future where artificial intelligence rules

Emily St. John Mandel, Station ElevenLife on Earth after the apocalypse

Ramez Naam, The Nexus Trilogy – The post-human future explored in an outstanding SF novel

Sylvain Neuvel, The Themis FilesAn entertaining if puzzling sci-fi novel

Annalee Newitz, AutonomousIn 2144, Arctic resorts, autonomous robots, and killer drugs

Emma Newman, After Atlas (Planetfall, A) – A 22nd century police procedural in a fascinating future Earth

Matt Richtel, Dead on Arrival – Neurology meets high-tech in this gripping science fiction novel

H. C. H. Ritz, Absence of MindIn an unusually original sci-fi technothriller, technology meets neuroscience

John Sandford and Ctein, Saturn Run – First Contact: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind

John Scalzi, Redshirts: A Novel with Three CodasDiabolically clever, and very, very funny

John Scalzi, The Collapsing Empire (Interdependency #1) – A promising start to a new John Scalzi series

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart’s dark vision of the future

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time Accelerated evolution is the theme in a superior science fiction novel

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Player PianoKurt Vonnegut’s warning about automation

Jo Walton, The Farthing Trilogy – Chilling alternate history: If Nazi Germany had won the war

Andy Weir, The Martian – Hard science fiction at its best

To these 45 titles I’m tempted to add Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, which is perhaps the best-known and most loved of recent ventures into the realm of space opera. However, the series includes at least 17 novels by my count, and I’ve only read and reviewed eight of them so far. (You’ll find my review of the first book, Falling Free, at An outstanding sci-fi series.)

Now, I don’t pretend for a minute that this is a list of the best science fiction novels of all time. It just happens to be those I’ve read and loved over the past decade.

You may notice that the list above includes a disproportionate number of dystopian novels. That’s no accident. It’s the result of my research. Recently I wrote a book in which I discuss 62 such novels, including several of those listed above. The book is entitled Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction. You can find the book here.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t list at least some of the classic science fiction novels that I read in years past—in most cases, many years past—that should be included on any list of top science fiction novels. (So should many of the 45 books listed above. In fact, some of them already appear on one or more such lists that can be found online today.) Here are the 41 older titles that come to mind now.

The classics: 41 great sci-fi novels

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy

Isaac Asimov, I, Robot

Greg Bear, Darwin’s Radio

Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Arthur C. Clarke, Rendevous with Rama

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

Philip Jose Farmer, To Your Scattered Bodies Go

William Gibson, Neuromancer

Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Frank Herbert, Dune

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris

Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

Larry Niven, Ringworld

George Orwell, Animal Farm

George Orwell, 1984

Frederik Pohl, Gateway

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Mars Trilogy

Robert J. Sawyer, The Hominids Trilogy

Olaf Stapledon, Starmaker

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human

Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s-Cradle

H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

Connie Willis, The Doomsday Book

April 12, 2018

35 great popular novels reviewed

great popular novels reviewed here: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam JohnsonThis list of 35 great popular novels excludes several major categories I’ve written about elsewhere. If you’re interested in those, go to 82 readable and revealing historical novels, 53 excellent mystery and thriller series, or My 27 favorite science fiction novels. However, I have included a number of titles that can be described as humor or satire, even though I’ve also written separately about that genre. The other titles listed below include some that might be squeezed into one or another of these categories, but I find it more appropriate to regard them separately. I’ve listed these books in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names in two groups: first, the top seven; and then the other 28. In every case, to read the review, simply click on its headline to the right of the author’s name.

Included below are novels by some of my favorite writers: Christopher Buckley, Michael Chabon, Louise Erdrich, Timothy Hallinan, Robert Harris, Carl Hiaasen, Alexander McCall Smith, and Ross Thomas. In most cases, I’ve reviewed one or more additional novels by the same authors, often in different categories. To find those reviews, simply search this site for the writers’ names.

The top 7 great popular novels reviewed here

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? by Christopher Buckley – Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel

The Round House by Louise Erdrich – Louise Erdrich’s haunting new novel of a brutal crime on the reservation

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben FountainA war hero and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders in a funny anti-war novel

The Fear Index by Robert Harris – A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam JohnsonAn unsparing tale of life in the living hell of North Korea

The Good Lord Bird by James McBrideAmerican history, laughing all the way

Missionary Stew by Ross Thomas – Cocaine, the CIA, and a Central American revolution

Another 28 great popular novels reviewed here

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Race, without blinders on

The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault – “The Broken Teaglass” by Emily Arsenault is a refreshingly offbeat novel

Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah – In Ishmael Beah’s novel, hope lives on in the depths of hell

The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley – An irreligious take on Catholic history

Little Green Men by Christopher Buckley – Wondered where UFOs come from? Christopher Buckley has the answer

God Is My Broker: A Monk-Tycoon Reveals the 7-1/2 Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth by Christopher Buckley and John Tierney – Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon – A glorious new Michael Chabon novel, set in my neighborhood

Incendiary by Chris Cleave – A wrenching portrait of the human cost of terrorism

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich – Tragedy, on and off the reservation

The Death of Rex Nhongo by C. B. George – A satisfying thriller set in Zimbabwe

A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin – Betrayal is in the eye of the beholder

Little Elvises (Junior Bender #2) by Timothy Hallinan – A crimebuster encounters the ghosts of Elvis Presley

The Fame Thief (Junior Bender #3) by Timothy Hallinan – A cockamamie story about Hollywood and the mob

King Maybe (Junior Bender #5) by Timothy Hallinan – A very funny crime novel set in Hollywood

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley – Why did this plane crash?

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen – Carl Hiaasen skewers celebrities

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen – Carl Hiaasen skewers newspaper publishers and rock musicians

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby – From Nick Hornby, a very funny story that’s not all laughs

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu – Zimbabwe through the eyes of a single mother

Serious Men by Manu Joseph – A comic novel about India today, and Big Science, too

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver – Barbara Kingsolver writes eloquently about climate change

A Theory of Small Earthquakes by Meredith Maran – A first novel from a brilliant nonfiction writer

Head of State by Andrew Marr – Political satire where it hurts the most: 10 Downing Street

Yellow-Dog Contract by Ross Thomas – Dirty politics, union style

The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas – A terrific novel for political junkies about Africa

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday – Satire that cuts close to home in British politics

What’s the Worst That Could Happen? (Dortmunder #9) by Donald E. Westlake – Another uncommonly funny caper novel featuring John Dortmunder

The Mouse That Roared by Leonard Wibberley – A comic novel from the 1950s about nuclear madness

April 5, 2018

19 outstanding detective series from around the world

outstanding detective series: The Marco Effect by Jussi Adler-OlsenAs I followed private investigator Vish Puri and his team through the streets of Jaipur in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant (reviewed at Vish Puri is either India’s #1 private investigator or #2), it suddenly occurred to me that a fair amount of what I’ve learned about life and culture in other countries has come from my reading of detective fiction. And, given the depth of research conducted by so many of my favorite crime writers, I suspect this isn’t such a bad way to learn about the world around me. The Vish Puri series, for example, opens a window on contemporary Indian society in all its glorious diversity and confusion. Below I’ve listed another 18 outstanding detective series set outside the United States. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

From Denmark comes Jussi Adler-Olsen’s off-beat series featuring the misfits of Department Q, the cold case unit that somehow always seems to solve Copenhagen’s most pressing current cases. In the seven novels published to date, Detective Carl Mørck and his motley crew of sidekicks take on some of the most convoluted cases in the genre. For a taste of the series, check out my review of The Marco Effect. Find it at Child soldiers, bank fraud, and eccentric police in a Danish thriller.

Private eye Aimée Leduc and her partner, René Friant, a dwarf who is a wizard with computers, always seem to find themselves mixed up in murder investigations that take them away from their company’s work in online corporate security. Author Cara Black has set each succeeding entry in the series in a different arrondissement of Paris. There are 18 novels to date. For an example, check out my review of Murder in Montmartre: Enduring mysteries in Aimee Leduc’s Paris.

Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the creation of John Burdett, guides us through the rotten underbelly of Bangkok, with its ever-present sex for sale and police officers moonlighting as drug kingpins. I’ve read most of the six novels published to date in the series, which began with Bangkok 8 long before I began reviewing books here. You’ll find my review of #4, The Godfather of Kathmandu, here: A Buddhist homicide detective in an over-the-top murder mystery.

Deborah Crombie has written 17 novels so far in an intriguing series featuring Scotland Yard’s Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. I’m in awe of a woman who lives in a small North Texas town who manages to write—apparently with ease—English police procedurals, some of which even win literary prizes in England! My review of one of the books, In a Dark House, can be found at Why read mystery stories? Author Deborah Crombie offers good reasons.

Tana French writes tightly plotted murder mysteries heavy on the atmospherics featuring the Dublin Murder Squad. (French is American but lives in Dublin.) This device allows her to place new detectives at the center of her stories while relegating the stars of previous novels to the background. I found Faithful Place, the third of her seven novels to date, especially satisfying. It’s reviewed at From Tana French, a brilliant and satisfying novel of suspense.

Elizabeth George’s long-running series of novels about Inspector Thomas Lynley provides a window on English society, both in London, where Lynley is based at New Scotland Yard, and in the countryside, where he and his investigative team are called so often to tackle the country’s toughest murder cases. (Like Deborah Crombie, George is American.) The 20th entry in the series is was published in 2018. I’ve read all the others so far. I reviewed #19, A Banquet of Consequences, at Elizabeth George’s latest is much more than a whodunit.

The Danish writing duo of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis have produced a series of four outstanding mystery novels featuring Red Cross nurse Nina Borg and her partner, an inspector in the Danish Security and Intelligence Service with the unfortunate name of Søren Kierkegard. Every one of the four novels involves events that unfold in other countries (including Ukraine, The Philippines, and Hungary). The first of the four novels is The Boy in the Suitcase. My review is at Something’s rotten in Denmark.

Camilla Läckberg sets her tales in her home town, Fjällbacka, a small community on Sweden’s west coast, due west of Stockholm. She writes deeply engaging novels—a total of ten, as of 2018—about Detective Patrik Hedström and true-crime author Ericka Falck, whose collaboration brings them together in marriage. The first of the series is The Ice Princess, which I reviewed at Murder on ice in a small Swedish town.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti delves into the corruption and mulish bureaucracy of Venetian society, giving a sense from the inside looking out on the impact of unending waves of tourists who invade his beautiful city. (She has never allowed the books to be translated into Italian—for reasons that will be obvious to any reader.) I loved a few of the early novels, especially the second one, Death in a Strange Country (Donna Leon’s best detective novel in the Commissario Brunetti series). The most recent of her 27 novels didn’t work well for me.

Peter Lovesey’s 17-book series about Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is set in the storied Roman town of Bath, in England’s far southwest. His novels typically feature multiple plot lines that converge only later in the story. Down Among the Dead Men, #15 in the series, is reviewed at Another contender among English mystery novels.

Henning Mankell’s alter ego, small-town police detective Kurt Wallender, probed the dark recesses of Swedish society, exploring the widespread racism, alcoholism, and depression, in a series of 13 superb novels. (Mankell died in 2015). I reviewed the 13th and final Wallender novel, The Troubled Man, here: Farewell Kurt Wallender, we’re sad to see you go.

Among the two dozen novels written by Scottish author Peter May is a fascinating trilogy set in the Outer Hebrides Islands, off the far north coast of Scotland. The books center around the life and investigations of Detective Inspector Finlay (Fin) Macleod, a native who has returned to the islands from Edinburgh to investigate a murder. The trilogy’s opener is The Blackhouse, reviewed at A moody Scottish detective novel set in the Outer Hebrides.

Alexander McCall Smith immerses the reader in the laid-back civility of Botswana through the continuing exploits of Mma Precious Ramotswe in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, providing a fascinating vantage-point on the only former colony in sub-Saharan Africa to have avoided military coups or civil war. I’ve reviewed a great many of these fine little novels. The most recent was #18, The House of Unexpected Sisters. My review is at The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is on the case.

Jo Nesbø has achieved worldwide acclaim for his gripping series of detective novels featuring Oslo Police Detective Harry Hole. This series belongs on anyone’s list of outstanding detective series. Harry is a troubled man, an alcoholic and sometime drug addict and a loose cannon who is despised by most of his colleagues despite his great investigative skill. As of 2018, there were 11 novels in the series. Number 3 was The Redbreast, which I reviewed at Nazis in Norway, a mysterious assassin, and an insubordinate detective.

In the Inspector Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, set in Edinburgh, we view the workings of politics in Scotland’s capital and the interplay of the criminal underworld with the city’s establishment. What emerges in the process is the realization of just how different is Scottish society from English, not to mention American. I loved a couple of the later novels in the series, so I began reading from its debut: Knots and Crosses (The first in a series of great detective novels).

J. K. Rowling is, of course, the world-famous author of the Harry Potter series. More recently, she ventured into detective fiction, writing under the name Robert Galbraith. Cormoran Strike is a down-and-out private detective with one leg and a colorful past. The first of the three novels published in the series to date was The Cuckoo’s Calling. Its review is at J. K. Rowling scores with her debut in detective fiction.

Martin Beck and his teammates on the Swedish National Police pursue their investigations with dogged persistence and skill in the 10 novels of the series by husband-and-wife writing duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. These engrossing police procedurals launched the field of Nordic Noir in 1965 with the publication of Roseanna (Martin Beck #1). My review is at Today’s Scandinavian detective fiction started here.

Racing through the streets of Moscow, Senior Investigator Arkady Renko explores crime-ridden post-Soviet Russia in Martin Cruz Smith’s excellent novels that faithfully conjure up Russia today. I reviewed the seventh novel in the series, Three Stations, at In an Arkady Renko novel, a look inside Russia under Putin.

Most of Olen Steinhauer’s novels are about espionage (and they’re very good). However, he has also written five remarkable novels in the so-called Yalta Boulevard Cycle. The books follow a small group of police officers in the capital city of an unnamed Eastern European country through more than 40 years under Communism. Each is set largely in a single decade, from the 1940s through the 80s. I reviewed all five novels at Olen Steinhauer’s brilliant Yalta Boulevard cycle set in Eastern Europe.

Every one of these outstanding detective series is well worth reading for sheer enjoyment, even though one or several of them in each series may not measure up to the quality of the others. Yet they all help illuminate the world we live in.

Please note that I have arbitrarily included here only detective novels set in the present day. There are numerous outstanding detective series set in historical times, which I’ll address separately.

There are many other series of detective novels set in sometimes distant countries that I am less eager to recommend. Among those are the works of Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland), Colin Cotterill (Laos), Anne Holt (Norway), James Church (North Korea), Elly Griffiths (England), Barry Lancet (Japan), Louise Penny (Canada), Andrea Camilleri (Italy), and Pierre Lemaitre (France).

For a more comprehensive list of other outstanding detective series, go to 53 excellent mystery and thriller series. You might also enjoy the standalone novels listed at 18 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 26 others).

March 30, 2018

18 books about artificial intelligence reviewed here

 artificial intelligence books reviewed: Nexus by Ramez NaamArtificial intelligence (AI) may well be the most important technology emerging in the 21st century. It’s certainly on a par with genetics in its potential to reshape the way we live our lives. The eighteen AI books reviewed here, including six works of nonfiction and twelve novels, examine the impact of the field from a wide range of different perspectives. Each of the titles is followed by the linked headline of its review.

Feed by M. T. Anderson – A terrifying vision of the future in an award-winning young adult novel

Feed tells the tale of Titus and his friends, six teenagers who hang out and party together. Like a majority of their fellow citizens—those who can afford the cost—they access all their news, advertising, education, games, “m-chat,” and money through implants in their brains—not just embedded chips but multipurpose devices that are fully integrated into their nervous systems.

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler – Does technology promise humanity a bright future? 

Though Diamandis’ focus is squarely on the exponential growth in speed, capability, and spread of information processing technologies, he is not a gadget freak. He recognizes the social and political context in which technology is brought to light, although he may downplay the ferocity of humanity’s innate resistance to change.

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl – Will robots run amok?

British science journalist Luke Dormehl delves deeply into the past, present, and future of humankind’s attempts to create machines capable of learning and decision-making on their own. His book serves up the background readers need to understand why such luminaries as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned us that AI poses a grave threat to our future as a species—while others including Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in the field, predict a new Golden Age.

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford – Will robots create a jobless future?

The emerging application of robotics poses a real threat to the future wellbeing of our country and the world. In Rise of the Robots, Silicon Valley software developer Martin Ford lays out the case for that claim in a balanced and temperate way that’s all the scarier as a result. If you’re tempted to think that this threat will emerge only in the distant future, think again.

Future CrimesEverything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It by Marc Goodman – Future Crimes: the harsh truth about cyber security

Already, the car you drive may have as many as fifty microprocessors embedded within it. If your home becomes a smarthome, with all lights, locks, heating, cooling, and appliances controllable through a handheld device, your life will truly become vulnerable to malware (viruses, Trojans, and worms) as well as the predations of an identity thief or some other variety of Internet crook.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris – A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds

An extraordinarily brilliant and eccentric American physicist enters into a partnership with an English financier to form a hedge fund based on the scientist’s evolving AI research. The fund quickly grows to multibillion-dollar proportions because of the accuracy of the securities-trading algorithms developed by the physicist and his band of eccentric young mathematical researchers. What happens next isn’t pretty.

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin – A superb tale of a future where artificial intelligence rules

Centuries in the future, the people of Earth live under the control of an artificial intelligence called UniComp. The result is a worldwide society free of war, hunger, crime, and violence of any sort. “Hate” and “fight” are swear words. This is the totalitarian society Ira Levin describes in his superb science fiction novel.

Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots by John Markoff – Will robots seize the day?

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times technology and science reporter John Markoff asserts: “just as personal computing and the Internet have transformed the world during the past four decades, artificial intelligence and robotics will have an even larger impact during the next several.” However, Markoff is unclear what that impact will be.

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schoeneberger and Kenneth Cukier – From two experts: The coming Big Data revolution

“At its core big data is about predictions. Though it is described as part of the branch of computer science called artificial intelligence, and more specifically, an area called machine learning, this characterization is misleading. Big data is not about trying to ‘teach’ a computer to ‘think’ like humans. Instead, it’s about applying math to huge quantities of data in order to infer probabilities: the likelihood that an email message is spam; that the typed letters ‘teh’ are supposed to be ‘the’; that the trajectory and velocity of a person jaywalking mean he’ll make it across the street in time [so that] the self-driving car need only slow slightly.” And what other than an intelligent machine could possibly accomplish this?

Nexus (Nexus Trilogy #1) by Ramez Naam – The post-human future explored in an outstanding SF novel

Will the transformation of humanity by artificial intelligence stop when computers begin to exceed the cognitive abilities of human beings? Is there a step far beyond into post-human abilities so far superior to those of humans today that a new species will result? This is the premise of computer scientist Ramez Naam’s brilliant SF trilogy. Nexus, the first of the three books, portrays the impact of the development and spread of a drug called Nexus 5 that endows its users with transhuman abilities, including telepathic communication with other users. The novel revolves around the fierce and violent resistance of both the American and Chinese governments. The two countries have led the rest of the world to ban the drug’s use and imprison anyone found to be using it (including babies born with it in their systems. Crux, the second book, focuses on the life-and-death struggle of Nexus’ creators to evade capture and inevitable torture and death at the hands of governments desperate to stamp out its use. In Apex, the final volume, war between human and posthuman breaks out and comes within a hair’s breadth of forever destroying human civilization.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz – In 2144, Arctic resorts, autonomous robots, and killer drugs

In Annalee Newitz’s brilliant science fiction novel, robots may take on an unlimited variety of shapes, sizes, and forms. Biobots closely resemble humans and include both biological and manufactured materials. Other robots, only vaguely humanoid, possess human brains to supplement their cybernetic capabilities. Yet others may be configured as insects, birds, or machines. A cybernetic soldier named Paladin is much more than a military machine: it communicates both wirelessly and by vocalizing, it is curious and continuously absorbs new information—and it hopes to gain its freedom from indenture and join the ranks of autonomous robots.

After Atlas (Planetfall, A) by Emma Newman – A 22nd century police procedural in a fascinating future Earth

British science fiction author Emma Newman paints a picture of a world you or I wouldn’t want to live in. Virtually everyone is “chipped” with implants in their brains that connect them to the world around them—and make them vulnerable to their bosses or public authorities. Many of the most talented people are enslaved in decades-long contracts resembling what was once called indentured servitude.

Absence of Mind by H.C.H. Ritz – In an unusually original sci-fi technothriller, technology meets neuroscience

In the near future, most people have implanted communication devices that allow them to communicate telepathically as well as by using their voices. A psychiatric nurse at Atlanta’s largest hospital encounters a baffling neurological pandemic that is flooding the city’s hospitals with “aggressive and paranoid people.” The nurse investigates this curious epidemic, fearing a connection to the device she has in her head.

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut – Kurt Vonnegut’s warning about automation

A sprawling automated factory in the town of Ilium, New York, produces a multitude of products, as determined by EPICAC XIV, the computer that manages the country’s economy with nominal human supervision. It’s one of a number of such facilities, all integrated into the economic machine that supplies everything anyone in the U.S. might need to live comfortably. The problem is that machines have displaced people from virtually all the jobs.”

Amped by Daniel H. Wilson – Want to buy a brain implant? Think twice

Amped ventures into the near future to depict American society in upheaval over the brain implants installed in half a million of its least fortunate citizens. The implants “amplify” the brains of the elderly and infirm, accident victims, and those with severe mental illness and mental retardation, allowing them to focus clearly and to make the most efficient use possible of their bodies. These “amps” are smarter, quicker, and stronger than the average bear—and the vast majority of Americans don’t like it one bit.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson – Outstanding speculative novel about one possible future

If you’re imagining ranks of humanoid robots marching in lockstep as they trample on humanity and all else that we’ve created, you’re on the wrong track. This is a science fiction novel, to be sure, and as the title suggests it depicts an apocalyptic future, but it’s a future with a difference. This is a treatment of robots and automation from an entirely different perspective—and it’s written by a robotics scientist. It’s engaging. And it’s very, very scary.

If these books about artificial intelligence intrigue you, you might also be interested in 18 excellent recent sci-fi novelsA brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios, or Science history and science explained in 37 excellent popular books.

March 21, 2018

Karin Slaughter’s well-crafted series of Grant County thrillers

Grant County series: Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter

The first thriller in the series.

Karin Slaughter‘s first novel in the Grant County series, Blindsighted, was published in almost 30 languages and made the Crime Writers’ Association’s Dagger Award shortlist for “Best Thriller Debut” of 2001. In addition to the six-book Grant County series of thrillers, Slaughter is writing a series featuring Georgia Bureau of Investigation officer Will Trent. That series consists of ten novels to date. She has also written five standalone crime thrillers, the most recently published of which is The Good Daughter.

Blindsighted (2001) —Homophobia, rape, murder in the New South

This heart-stopping novel was an international best-seller, and understandably so. It introduced the first of two overlapping casts of fascinating characters that people all the succeeding books. Blindsighted, set in rural Grant County in Southern Georgia, focuses on Dr. Sara Linton, the 30-something town pediatrician and part-time coroner; her ex-husband, Jeffrey Tolliver, who is Chief of Police; and Lena Adams, a young detective . . . Read the full review.

Kisscut (2002) — Criminals abound in Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series

In Kisscut, the second of six novels in Slaughter’s Grant County series, Dr. Sara Linton and her once-and-future husband, Jeffrey Tolliver, come face-to-face with the ugliness of pedophilia and child sexual abuse. Linton is the local pediatrician who moonlights as the county coroner for extra money. Tolliver is chief of police. The two are a good match, both attractive, intelligent, and well-respected by nearly all those around them. Together, Linton and Tolliver top the list of recurring characters in the Grant County series . . . Read the full review.

A Faint Cold Fear (2003) — Violence on the loose in Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series

A student at the technical college in town has been found at the base of a bridge on the edge of the campus, dead from an apparent suicide. When Sara arrives to examine the body with her very pregnant younger sister Tessa along for the ride, the story quickly grows more complicated when Tessa is brutally attacked in the adjoining woods, where she has gone to pee. Is there some connection between the attack and what may or may not be a suicide? . . . Read the full review.

Karin Slaughter, 2012

Karin Slaughter, 2012

Indelible (2004) — Finally, the Grant County backstory

Indelible takes Dr. Sara Linton and Chief Jeffrey Tolliver back more than a decade to the time before they married. Though the contemporary action is set in Grant County after their divorce, flashbacks to that earlier time are the key to understanding their difficult and complicated relationship, their distinctive personalities, and the action that takes place in the present . . . Read the full review.

Faithless (2005) — In rural Georgia, a gruesome murder and a religious cult

A young woman has been discovered dead in a grave in the woods. She was buried alive, left in a coffin with water, food, and a vertical pipe that allows air to enter. As Jeffrey, Sara, and Lena investigate the peculiar crime, suspicion quickly centers on a religious cult that operates a nearby factory farm . . . Read the full review.

Beyond Reach (2007) — Karin Slaughter’s tale of neo-Nazis and meth in rural Georgia

Detective Lena Adams of the Grant County Police is in trouble again. On a visit to her home town, she witnesses the gruesome murder of a friend on the back seat of a car she has been forced to drive. While sitting in shock near the scene of the murder, she is arrested for the crime. The man who was responsible is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, back in Grant County, Dr. Sara Linton is facing her own brand of trouble. She is facing a malpractice suit by the grief-ridden parents of a young boy whose leukemia had killed him despite all Sara’s efforts . . . Read the full review.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included. Take a look, too, at 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).

March 14, 2018

61 nonfiction books about history reviewed here

Nonfiction books about history reviewed: 1491 by Charles C. MannListed below are the 61 nonfiction books about history reviewed on this blog. I’m omitting books about American history, which are listed instead in a separate post, Understanding American history: a reading list. (However, you will find duplication, since some books deal with America’s involvement in other countries.)

These titles are presented in two groups. The top 10 are listed immediately below, followed by the other 51. Within each group, the books below are listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

Top 10 nonfiction books about history reviewed here

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass – Nixon, Kissinger, and the genocide history has ignored

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley – Teddy Roosevelt and the dark side of American foreign policy

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond – Why is economic development so uneven around the world?

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt – An historian explains how we came to think the way we do

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings – A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan – A thought-provoking view of world politics

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann – Astonishing new evidence about the Americas before 1492

Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris – Is history too important to leave to historians?

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret – A revealing history of U.S.-China relations

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse – A wrenching view of how the U.S. military fought the Vietnam War

51 other engaging nonfiction books about history reviewed here

A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves by Walter Alvarez – The unlikely story of life on Earth

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary – The Islamic perspective on history

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan – Jesus of Nazareth and the origins of anti-Semitism

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44 by Rick Atkinson – Friendly fire and bumbling generals in WWII

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson – “The greatest catastrophe in human history”

The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel by Uri Bar-Joseph – An extraordinary episode in Israeli history

Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert – Capitalism reexamined from an historical perspective

The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda by Peter L. Bergen – The conflict between the U.S. and Al Qaeda

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia by James Bradley – “Who lost China?” Nobody.

Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present by Cynthia Stokes Brown – Big History: a new approach to the past

Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit – Why do so many people hate Western values?

Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma – 1945: the fateful year when the world stepped back from war

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark – Does history repeat itself? A Cambridge University historian wonders

The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy by Ed Conway – Bretton Woods: clashing personalities determined our economic history

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist – The ugly US-Iran war, past, present, and future

The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else by Hernando de Soto – Hernando de Soto on property rights, capitalism, and inequality

A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power by Paul Fischer – Kim Jong Il’s North Korea from the inside out

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl – From the ashes of the Holocaust, a gift of lessons for living

Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio by Misha Glenny – An intimate look at drug trafficking in Brazil

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann – Pre-Columbian civilization in the Amazon

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari – Exploring the arc of history over 70,000 years

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom by Blaine Harden – How North Korea came to be what it is today

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden – A survivor’s eye-opening tale of life in the North Korean gulag

The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding – An intimate take on 20th-century German history

The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather – Roman generals, barbarians, and a compulsive historian to tell the tale

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild – World War I: Learning history the hard way

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild – The American role in the Spanish Civil War

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman – A gripping true-life tale of Cold War spycraft

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson – A human-centered history of the Digital Revolution

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski – How Africa came to be what it is today

Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy – The problem-solvers who won World War II

Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Europe by Alex Kershaw – A revealing account of life under the Nazis in occupied Europe

Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives by Sunil Khilnani – Indian history portrayed through biography

Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky – More than you ever wanted to know about the history of paper

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson – When a U-boat sank the Lusitania and changed history

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson – Why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitlers Germany

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory by Ben MacIntyre – How the Allies fooled the Nazis with a corpse and assured victory

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben MacIntyre – Operation Double Cross: a new spin on why the Normandy invasion succeeded

Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War by Ben MacIntyre – The story of the original special forces

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann – After the Columbian Exchange, nothing was ever the same

Money: The Unauthorized Biography—From Coinage to Cryptocurrencies by Felix Martin – Misunderstanding money helped cause the Great Recession

A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949 by Kevin Peraino – Mao, Truman, and the birth of Modern China

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by John Preston – The political scandal that roiled the British Establishment

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, by Richard Rhodes – An outsider’s take on the Spanish Civil War

China in World History by Paul S. Ropp – Chinese history in less than 200 pages

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC – 1492 AD by Simon Schama – Simon Schama on Jewish history from 1000-1492

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott – This book will challenge everything you know about ancient history

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit – A prominent Israeli columnist’s sober assessment: Will Israel survive?

Operation Shakespeare: The True Story of an Elite International Sting by John Shiffman – How Homeland Security went abroad to capture an Iranian arms dealer

The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by Jake Tapper – How the U.S. military wages war in Afghanistan 

Nabeel’s Song: A Family Story of Survival in Iraq by Jo Tatchell – The Iraqi view of life under Saddam Hussein

You might also want to check out my post, 82 readable and enlightening historical novels.

March 8, 2018

My 15 favorite funny novels

funny novels - They Eat Puppies, Don't They? by Christopher BuckleyFifteen authors are represented on this post, three of whom have made a career of writing funny novels (Christopher Buckley, Carl Hiaasen, and Donald E. Westlake). That forced me to make arbitrary choices in several instances. Not to mention all the other humorous novels I’ve read that I was forced to omit. It’s a tough job, but I’m up to the task.

Each of the fifteen first-choice titles highlighted below is boldfaced, and each is paired with a link to my review. Since I can’t possibly choose one of these fifteen books as the funniest, I’ve arranged them in the alphabetical order of the authors’ last names.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? by Christopher Buckley—Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel

Christopher Buckley writes satirical novels about politics that are often hysterically funny. They Eat Puppies is my favorite. But I’ve reviewed many others. Here are some of them (linked to my reviews): The Relic Master, The White House Mess, Florence of Arabia, and No Way To Treat a First Lady.

The Sister Brothers by Patrick DeWitt—Hired killers, the California Gold Rush, and lots of surprises

The Sisters brothers are no run-of-the-mill gunslingers. Nor do the other characters in this extremely funny novel about the Gold Rush era fit recognizable stereotypes. Here, for example, is the response to the brothers from one of their targets: “‘Yes, you demand that we should share our profits with you, and if we choose against this, well, you will be obligated to kill us. Do you see how your proposal might be lacking, from our point of view?’”

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain—A war hero and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders in a funny anti-war novel

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk fits very neatly into the category of anti-war novels that employ humor instead of unrelenting violence to drive home their message. It’s a funny book, beautifully written, and I suspect it conveys about as well as any humorless treatment a sense of the war in Iraq from the perspective of the Americans who fought it face-to-face with insurgents. It was no surprise to me when I learned after finishing the book that it had won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction. It’s that good.

Little Elvises (Junior Bender #2) by Timothy Hallinan—A crimebuster encounters the ghosts of Elvis Presley

Most of Timothy Hallinan’s novels are detective stories. One series is set in Bangkok, the other in Los Angeles. However, he is also writing a delightful series of comic novels featuring a career thief named Junior Bender, who serves as a private investigator of sorts—for other criminals, and usually against his will. I reviewed Crashed, the first novel in the Junior Bender series, here: A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery. You’ll find my review of the third book, The Fame Thief, here: A cockamamie story about Hollywood and the mob. The fourth, Herbie’s Game, is at A hitman, burglars, and hackers in the San Fernando Valley. And here is my review of the fifth, King Maybe: From Timothy Hallinan, a very funny crime novel set in Hollywood.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Remember how Joseph Heller describes the paradox he calls Catch-22? “’Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.’ The result, put simply, is that no one can get off the ride. It’s hard to describe briefly just how gloriously, envelopingly hilarious this logic becomes as the novel unfolds.” Thus writes Chris Cox in a review that appeared in The Guardian on the fiftieth anniversary of the novel’s publication. Catch-22 is widely regarded as one of the best anti-war novels of all time. Certainly, I think of it that way. It may just be the most effective illustration ever written about the insanity of war. (It’s been more than fifty years since I read the book, so I haven’t reviewed it myself.)

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen—Reality TV, African rodents, and the roach patrol

Carl Hiaasen, a columnist for The Miami Herald since 1985, has written dozens of books. Fifteen of those are novels about crime in Florida, usually with environmental implications. They’re almost all laugh-out-loud funny, as are his similar novels for younger readers. I’ve reviewed several of his books: Bad Monkey, Chomp, Star Island, and Skink: No Surrender.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby—From Nick Hornby, a very funny story that’s not all laughs

Here’s the bestselling British novelist Nick Hornby, writing about a gorgeous, buxom blonde who flees a beauty pageant in Blackpool without accepting the crown she’s won. She is also very, very clever. All she wants is to be the second coming on TV of her idol, Lucille Ball, and make people laugh. (Note to young readers: Ball starred in I Love Lucy, a long-running sitcom that was first broadcast somewhere in the dim recesses of history. Long before your time.) Her name is Barbara Parker, but, rechristened by a theatrical agent, she quickly becomes known to one and all in England as Sophie Straw. Her remarkable beauty attracts men’s attention, but her quick wit and abundant talent win the day as she stumbles into the starring role in a BBC sitcom named “Barbara (and Jim).” 

Serious Men by Manu Joseph—A comic novel about India today, and Big Science, too

In his debut novel, Indian magazine editor Manu Joseph takes on the caste system, Big Science, love, marriage, and sex, corruption in government, the news media, office politics, loyalty and betrayal, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and the fate of the Universe—yet it all hangs together somehow. This is Black Comedy, Indian-style. And it’s very, very funny.

Blindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore—A hilarious tale of Colonial America by two history professors

The “blindspot” of this delightful satirical novel of Colonial America was slavery—the ever-present reality underlying the colonists’ increasing distaste for domination by the British King. That blindspot figures in a prominent way in the unfolding of this humorous story. Couched in the language and style of the 18th Century, Blindspot is subtitled “By a Lady in Disguise & a Gentleman in Exile.” The book tells the unlikely tale of Stewart Jameson and Fanny Easton, who find themselves caught up in the chaotic politics of pre-Revolutionary America at its epicenter in Boston as they seek to solve a murder of one of the city’s most prominent men.

Head of State by Andrew MarrPolitical satire where it hurts the most: 10 Downing Street

If I were pitching this book in Hollywood, I might describe it as a mashup of Wag the Dog and the British version of House of Cards. This expertly crafted novel by Scottish political commentator and TV presenter Andrew Marr is a blend of absurd political satire and self-centered politics at its nastiest. The result is glorious.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride—American history, laughing all the way

As I wrote in my review of the novel, The Good Lord Bird is “a rollicking, tummy-tickling, topsy-turvy account of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry—the stupidly quixotic act that helped light the fuse of the Civil War. James McBride won a well-deserved National Book Award for this hilarious little novel.”

Deadline, by John Sandford—Funny crime fiction, and from John Sandford!

John Sandford typically writes deadly serious and violence-ridden detective novels, most of which feature Lucas Davenport of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Virgil Flowers, who appears in many of the “Prey” novels centered on Davenport. But Flowers has his own series as well. Some of these are amusing. Deadline is downright funny.

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi—Diabolically clever, and very, very funny

Redshirts is the most diabolically clever science fiction novel I’ve read in a very long time. It’s also uproariously funny all the way up until . . . it’s not funny anymore, just brilliant. No wonder this book won the Hugo Award, the genre’s top prize. In his Acknowledgments, author John Scalzi goes out of his way to insist that Redshirtsis not based on Stargate: Universe, the short-lived TV sci-fi series for which he served as creative consultant. Funny: I didn’t detect any resemblance to any TV sci-fi series except the original Star Trek. That resemblance is unmistakable. Even if it was unintentional on the author’s part (which I seriously doubt). Scalzi himself is diabolically clever.

Missionary Stew by Ross Thomas—Cocaine, the CIA, and a Central American revolution

Start with a hapless French-American journalist imprisoned by the Emperor-President of a small African country. The Emperor is a cannibal, which is admittedly worrisome, but the journalist is rescued by Amnesty International and returned to the United States. He’s penniless but makes his way to Los Angeles. There, he stumbles into a convoluted series of events involving the 1984 Presidential election, cocaine, the CIA, and a revolution in Central America. This is Ross Thomas at his funniest.

Get Real by Donald E. Westlake—Dortmunder’s last caper, funny to the end

Dortmunder’s gang is approached by a reality-television producer—the company is called Get Real—and asked to carry out a robbery on film, with their faces obscured. This loopy proposition isn’t even the most over-the-top twist in the story—but I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that the gang’s all here—all the familiar characters in Donald E. Westlake’s long-running, bestselling Dortmunder series. When this motley crew accepts the TV producer’s generous offer to make them the subjects of a new show, additional characters come onto the scene and confusion breaks out. In the end, of course, nothing turns out as planned.

If I’ve omitted some of your favorite funny novels, please let me know. I’m always looking for new books to read, and I’m sure there are a lot more than fifteen funny stories.

If you’re taste runs more toward serious fiction, you might enjoy my reviews of 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

March 1, 2018

11 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy

books about Donald Trump: Trumpocracy by David FrumFew topics have so dominated conversation in America since November 8, 2016, as the behavior of the country’s 45th president. Some commentators have likened the attention received by Donald Trump to that afforded Ronald Reagan three decades earlier. But I think there’s no comparison: Trump wins that contest hands down. He has been the subject of innumerable articles and commentaries in the media and a fast-growing shelf of books, with no end in sight. Here I’ve listed eleven of those books about Donald Trump. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes – Why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election

“Clintonworld sources started telling us in 2015 that Hillary was still struggling to articulate her motivation for seeking the presidency.” Clinton never managed to solve this problem. Allen and Parnes make clear that the candidate’s failure to explain why she wanted to be president is one of the root causes for her defeat. Read the review.

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum – A conservative explains how Donald Trump corrupts democracy

David Frum is a card-carrying conservative, or neoconservative, if you prefer the current jargon. He wrote speeches for George W. Bush and served as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Trumpocracy is a wide-ranging look at the damage Donald Trump and his appointees are inflicting on the country. Read the review.

Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green – How Steve Bannon sold the alt-right to Donald Trump and made history

A veteran journalist attempts to explain both why the notoriously self-promoting developer and reality-TV star came to be in the White House—and why his presidency is failing. The case Green makes, singling out alt-right provocateur Steve Bannon for a large measure of the responsibility, is not entirely convincing. Read the review.

Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win by Luke Harding and The Steele Dossier: Trump Intelligence Allegations by Christopher Steele – Collusion exposed, but is there more? Is Donald Trump a Russian agent?

The case against Trump, members of his family, business partners, friends, and staff members is far more wide-ranging than initial reports suggested. The Watergate scandal pales by comparison. Collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government is only a small piece of the picture. Read the review.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild – What Trump voters believe: a Berkeley sociologist goes to the source

Influenced by Fox News, industry, state government, church, and the regular media, “[p]eople on the right seemed to be strongly moved by three concerns—taxes, faith, and honor.” The “deep story” the Berkeley sociologist crafts provides a window onto this mindset. The gist of it is this: “you are a stranger in your own land.” Read the review.

Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump by Michael Isikoff and David Corn  – 200 Russian hackers, Vladimir Putin and the 2016 election

Isikoff and Corn’s book excels in its detailed description of the massive effort mounted by Russian intelligence to deepen the divisions and distrust within American society, destroy Hillary Clinton’s reputation, and help Donald Trump win the presidency. In Russian Roulette, you’ll meet the players central to the massive Russian campaign, including the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency and the two large hacker groups dubbed Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear by US intelligence. Read the review.

It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America by David Cay Johnston – With “political termites,” Donald Trump is undermining our government

It’s Even Worse Than You Think spotlights the policies Trump has promoted and the people he’s named to senior positions in government. The picture is devastating. As Johnston notes at the outset, “the Trump presidency is unlike anything that came before, a presidency built on open public contempt for Constitutional principles.” Read the review.

The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, by John Judis – Donald Trump: populism, or fascism?

Judis’ subject is not the 2016 election but the much broader topic of the politics of protest. His argument spans more than a century, beginning with the emergence of the People’s Party in the United States late in the 19th century. Read the review.

Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War Over the Truth by Howard Kurtz – A Fox News host explains Donald Trump’s “Media Madness”

Fox News commentator Howard Kurtz begins his new book, Media Madness, conceding that “Donald Trump is staking his presidency, as he did his election, on nothing less than destroying the credibility of the news media . . .” And then he proceeds to devote nearly all of the book’s 256 pages attempting to prove that the media is doing Trump’s job for him, undermining its own credibility. In other words, this book is just about what you might expect to come from any but the most rabidly reactionary Fox News host. Read the review.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – Two government professors ask, is American democracy dying?

Harvard government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt draw on decades of research in comparative politics in Europe and Latin America to review the conditions of today’s fractured American polity with Donald Trump in the White House. Their conclusion is equivocal but sobering. Read the review.

The Common Good by Robert B. Reich – Robert Reich diagnoses what ails American society

Although Reich is a professed liberal, and far from shy about it, his analysis is by no means one-sided. In the litany of wrong turns US society has taken over the past half-century, he includes a number of those that must be laid at the feet of the Democratic Party.  Read the review.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff – Fire and Fury review: Exposing the chaos in the Trump White House

It’s difficult to imagine any account of the goings-on in Donald Trump’s White House that would paint a darker picture of this worst of all Presidents and the servile minions around him. Fire and Fury is scathing. However, far better writers than I have reviewed this book and found it wanting. Read the review.

February 27, 2018

42 dystopian novels reviewed on this site

dystopian novels reviewed: American War by Omar El AkkadDystopian novels figure prominently in the work of some of the world’s best science fiction writers. With Donald Trump in the White House, and an increasingly fearful public contemplating the possibility of disastrous consequences from his erratic behavior, dystopian novels such as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have surged back onto the bestseller lists.

In preparation for writing a book about dystopian novels, I read and reviewed dozens of them. Since the publication of Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction, I’ve read more such books. The 42 dystopian novels reviewed on this site are all listed here in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each is linked to its review on this site.

American War by Omar El Akkad

Feed by M. T. Anderson

The Handmaid’s Tale\ by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam #1) by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam #2) by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam (MaddAddam #3) by Margaret Atwood

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker (Drowned Cities #1) by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Drowned Cities (Drowned Cities #2) by Paolo Bacigalupi

Tool of War (Drowned Cities #3) by Paolo Bacigalupi 

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Lexicon by Max Barry

The Parable of the Sower (Parable #1) by Octavia E. Butler

The Parable of the Talents (Parable #2) by Octavia E. Butler

Pines (Wayward Pines #1) by Blake Crouch

Wayward (Wayward Pines #2) by Blake Crouch

The Last Town (Wayward Pines #3) by Blake Crouch

SS-GB by Len Deighton

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

Sand Omnibus Edition by Hugh Howey

Shift (#1-3) by Hugh Howey

Wool Omnibus Edition by Hugh Howey

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King

11/22/63 by Stephen King

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Goodhouse by Peyton Marshall

The City Not Long After by Pat Murphy

Nexus (Nexus Trilogy #1) by Ramez Naam

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

After Atlas (Planetfall A) by Emma Newman

1984 by George Orwell

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Bannerless (Bannerless Saga #1) by Carrie Vaughn

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Farthing (Farthing Trilogy #1) by Jo Walton

Ha’penny (Farthing Trilogy #2) by Jo Walton

Half a Crown (Farthing Trilogy #3) by Jo Walton

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Amped by Daniel H. Wilson

If you prefer to access capsule descriptions rather than my full reviews, you might turn to My 6 favorite dystopian novels and 24 compelling dystopian novels in series.

You might also enjoy My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

February 22, 2018

Understanding American history through 72 nonfiction books

understanding american history: The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderSince I began writing Mal Warwick on Books in 2010, I’ve read and reviewed more than 200 books in the categories of history, current affairs, and biography. Most of them cast light on the history of the United States. Here, I’ve listed my 19 top picks for understanding American history. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each title and author is followed by the name and link for its review. Below this list you’ll find 53 others you may also find illuminating.

Included among the 72 titles are books by such prominent authors as Robert A. Caro, T. J. Stiles, Erik Larson, Adam Hochschild, Paul Kennedy, and Stephen Kinzer.

As you’ll see, two of the 19 books in this list are novels. All the rest are nonfiction, except where otherwise noted in the lists of runners-up that follow.

The top 19

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander — The New Jim Crow: reexamining mass incarceration in America

Prof. Alexander explains how the country’s criminal justice system has been warped to the point of non-recognition by a series of Presidential actions, Congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions. Read the full review.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen — Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other delusions in American history

If you think only Donald Trump, Fox News, anonymous online pundits, and Russian hackers have a monopoly on “fake news,” guess again. Mainstream media have indulged as well. Read the full review.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass — Nixon, Kissinger, and the genocide history has ignored

­In 1971, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger colluded in the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in what today is Bangladesh. Read the full review.

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley — Teddy Roosevelt and the dark side of American foreign policy

Racist attitudes were prevalent and unchallenged in the US at the turn of the 20th Century and achieved full expression in Teddy Roosevelt’s aggressive foreign policy. Read the full review.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone — The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies

Elizebeth [sic] Friedman played a seminal role in developing America’s codebreaking capacity over the course of two world wars, inventing new techniques that transformed the science of cryptology. Read the full review.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann — The case that helped put the FBI on the map

Collusion between government officials and local white gentry led to dozens of murders among the Osage Nation, “the wealthiest people per capita in the world” in the early 1920s, as their neighbors vied to gain control of their oil wealth. Read the full review.

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings — A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II

This is revisionist history at its best. Anyone who seeks to understand how World War II was really waged should read this book without delay. Read the full review.

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War by Stephen Kinzer — They shaped US foreign policy for decades to come

Eisenhower’s Secretary of State and the long-time CIA director set the US on a path of undermining foreign governments in the name of anti-Communism. Read the full review.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson — Why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitlers Germany

Anti-Semitism in the State Department and indifference in the White House made it impossible for the US Ambassador in Berlin to speak out against Adolf Hitler. Read the full review.

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon — Ronald Reagan deconstructed in a new Thomas Mallon novel

Ronald Reagan emerges as an enigmatic figure, alternately muddle-headed and brilliantly articulate. Nancy Reagan “didn’t know who he was, and she never had.” Read the full review.

Watergate by Thomas Mallon — Watergate through a novelist’s eyes

Thomas Mallon weaves together the familiar characters of the Watergate crisis into a credible story and conjures up all the suspense, the tension, and the excitement of those events. Read the full review.

One Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau — America’s surprising religious history in a highly readable book

In a book that’s full of surprises, Manseau surveys the country’s diverse religious history from the arrival of the Conquistadores and the Puritans to Scientology, the Right-Wing evangelicals, and New Age cults of recent years. Read the full review.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer — How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics

As Warren Buffet has said, “There’s class warfare all right. But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” The Koch brothers are at the very center of the war machine. Read the full review.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret — A revealing history of U.S.-China relations

The destinies of the U.S. and China have been closely linked for more than a century—and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776. Read the full review.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin — The shocking reality behind the secret US war on “terror”

1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies are involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States. Read the full review.

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld — J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, and the violence in 1960s Berkeley

J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan were personally and directly engaged in managing the secret government campaigns that helped provoke the violence in 196os Berkeley. Read the full review.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman — Roger Ailes: the man who built Fox News and divided America

Roger Ailes helped swing the 2000 election to George W. Bush, championed the rise of the Tea Party, and promoted partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill. Read the full review.

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles — The first robber baron and the emergence of the corporation

Vanderbilt pieced together the massive New York Central Railroad, one of the first of the huge corporations that soon came to dominate American life. Read the full review.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot — When America’s secret government ran amok

It’s difficult not to conclude that Allen Dulles’ virtually unchallenged reign at the CIA in the 1950s was an unparalleled disaster, moving the agency into the business of assassination. Read the full review.

Other insightful books that help in understanding American history

The 53 titles that follow might be considered runners-up. All are nonfiction. They’re not arranged in any particular order.

The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda by Peter L. Bergen — “The Longest War”: The conflict between the U.S. and Al Qaeda

Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker — Understanding the secret American campaign against Al Qaeda

Republican Gomorra: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party by Max Blumenthal — When religion dominated the views of American conservatives

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace by Peter Janney — The CIA murder conspiracy that ended JFK’s plan for peace (Part 1)

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist — The ugly US-Iran war, past, present, and future

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse — A wrenching view of how the U.S. military fought the Vietnam War

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III — Berkeley in 1969: Black Panthers, the FBI, and the Vietnam War

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot — From the Summer of Love to the Jonestown massacre

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44 by Rick Atkinson — Friendly fire and bumbling generals in WWII

Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy —The problem-solvers who won World War II

The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan — The “Muslim immigrants” of the nineteenth century

The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley — Living the African-American experience

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild — The American role in the Spanish Civil War

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace by Eric Rauchway — FDR, the gold standard, and the Great Depression

Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism by Kathryn S. Olmsted — How today’s conservatism grew in the cotton fields of California

The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen — The mind-boggling story of America’s top-secret military research

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History by Jay Winik — The sad story of FDR’s complicity in the Holocaust

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman — A gripping true-life tale of Cold War spycraft

The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy by Ed Conway — The clash of personalities that determined our economic history

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves — The shameful story of Japanese-American Internment in WWII

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson — When a U-boat sank the Lusitania and changed history —

Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism by Karen M. Paget — How the CIA infiltrated the National Student Association

Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United by Zephyr Teachout — Citizens United, bribery, and corruption in America

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein — Teacher training, normal schools, and “bad teachers”

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer — The origins of the American empire

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia by James Bradley — “Who lost China?” Nobody.

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller — The remarkable spymaster who launched the US into espionage

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro — A masterful portrait of Lyndon Johnson as President

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen — The amazing story of America’s Banana King

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird — The PLO, Miss Universe, and the CIA—and it’s all true

American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church by Alex Beam — Joseph Smith: the remarkable man who founded the Mormon Church

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned by John A. Farrell — Clarence Darrow, superstar of the Gilded Age

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw — An outstanding biography of Joseph P. Kennedy

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough — The true (and surprising) story of the Wright Brothers

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner — An eye-opening book about the Nixon White House 

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles by Les Standiford — How the desert town of Los Angeles became the city it is today

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik — The man who fathered Big Science

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable — Malcolm X, reconsidered in the context of his time

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles — A superb biography of George Armstrong Custer

David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement by Tom Turner — The remarkable life of David Brower

Jonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs — Jonas Salk: the doctor who cured polio and saved millions

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century by Gabriel Thompson — The man who trained Cesar Chavez in community organizing

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye: A balanced new biography of Bobby Kennedy

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order by Richard A. Haass — American foreign policy in a “nonpolar” world

Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden by Mark Hertsgaard — National security or insecurity?

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War by Fred Kaplan — The secret history of cyber war

Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert D. Kaplan — Competition between the U.S. and China through the lens of geopolitics

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson — A searing look at America’s broken criminal justice system

National Security and Double Government by Michael J. Glennon — Who makes national security decisions? Not the President!

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War by Joe Bageant — On the front lines of America’s class war

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti — Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new CIA strategy

Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It by Jeffrey D. Clements — Citizens United, corporate personhood, and the way forward

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick — Historical perspective on the surprising rise of Barack Obama

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