Short book reviews by Jacob Williams from 2017. Send feedback to

The Old Country by Mordicai Gerstein (2017-12-26)

This does a good job of maintaining the mystique necessary for a fairy-tale novella to work, with lovely writing and just the right amount of whimsy. The audiobook narrator’s creative voicing adds to the charm.

Two Hundred Years of American Communes by Iaacov Oved (2017-12-23)

This discusses a significant number of communities at a fairly detailed level, spanning the late 17th to early 20th centuries (plus some history of the Hutterites in the 16th century). It’s very useful resource if you are interested in knowing what experiments in alternative social arrangements have been tried within our country and how they have fared.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2017-12-23)

This is an exceptionally eloquent book. Coates communicates his experiences in a way that I find very powerful.

Children of the Night by Dan Simmons (2017-12-16)

One of the interesting aspects of this is the reliance on historical tales of Vlad the Impaler for the memoir chapters. Some of them are truly chilling. Overall, though, this just didn’t hold my attention as well as some of Simmons’s other novels. Too much mystery is resolved early on, I think; there are some twists later, but I just didn’t feel too invested at that point.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (2017-12-10)

I suspect this must be read as a child to feel its full appeal. Encountering it for the first time now, it suffers from heavy-handedness, uneven dialog, and a tendency for its settings to feel uncannily sparse.

Still, Meg is an unusual and occasionally delightful protagonist. The planet the children travel to provides a neat approach to themes of conformity and adequacy.

A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons (2017-11-03)

I was skeptical that Summer of Night needed a sequel, but this novel uses the earlier one as a backdrop against which to tell a fairly different and more personal story. It’s not as memorable as the first, and the sections flashing back to the protagonist’s love affair get tedious, but overall it’s very enjoyable.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2017-10-29)

Darnielle is one of my favorite musicians; I’m excited to find that his writing talents extend not just to great lyrics but also to entrancing prose.

From a Buick 8 by Stephen King (2017-10-16)

In the author’s note, King says, "first drafts are only about story; if there is meaning, it should come later, and arise naturally from the tale itself.” Yet the bulk of this book seems less like a tale than like a mere series of anecdotes for illustrating a single message. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when the message is ”you can’t expect things to make sense”, one wonders if a shorter book might have sufficed.

I also wish the novel would have done more to help you empathize with the feelings of horror and revulsion that it asserts the characters are experiencing - they seem to constantly be in the thrall of existential dread merely for having encountered something weird and smelly. However, there is one very effective scene in which the characters murder an alien in their unthinking frenzy, directing our horror at them and the awful possibilities latent in human nature.

King’s writing style makes this enjoyable to read, despite some significant weaknesses.

Irrational Exuberance by Robert J. Shiller (2017-10-05)

A prominent strain of investing advice asserts that market timing is hopeless, and encourages investing heavily in index funds without attempting to judge how reasonable their current price level is. I’m not sure to what extent Shiller’s own concrete investment advice - this book offers little of it - would differ, but his discussions of stock market history, real estate market history, and the efficient market hypothesis do provide a very intriguing note of caution to that sort of thinking.

Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield (2017-10-04)

I lugged a copy of this home from the library after reading a review in Current Affairs magazine. I planned to just glance through the book briefly, but ended up totally hooked. It’s alternately depressing and infuriating, but thoroughly fascinating.

Snotgirl, Vol. 1 by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Leslie Hung, Mickey Quinn, Maré Odomo (2017-10-01)

As an O’Malley fan, I went into this with pretty high expectations. While it’s visually satisfying, I’m not that into the story so far. But I’m interested enough to see where the next volume goes.

Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore (2017-09-26)

I thought this novel was going to aim for a sort of charming, storybookish tone, à la Neil Gaiman. I was surprised by how emotionally gripping it turned out to be. There’s some quirkiness and light humor sprinkled throughout (with one very funny scene near the beginning), but it’s mostly a serious look at life and suffering. Several independently-strong stories are stitched together into one good larger narrative, and supernatural and science-fictional elements are blended effectively. Of the books I’ve read this year, this is one of my favorites.

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin (2017-09-18)

"This place was fear, was fear itself; and he was in it, and there were no paths. He must find the way, but there were no paths, and he was tiny, like a child, like an ant, and the place was huge, endless. He tried to walk, stumbled, woke.”

There are moments of very elegant prose in this novel; but at other times it feels stilted and awkward, and I found the plot much less gripping than that of The Tombs of Atuan. It’s good, but not one of my favorite Le Guin works.

Some reviewers seem to interpret the central theme as something along the lines of “don’t let an obsession with immortality prevent you from appreciating life and the beauty of this world.” That’s a message I really like. I was distracted from it, though, by the focus on defending the necessity and importance of death, a theme that doesn’t connect with me at all.

The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen (2017-09-15)

This was really fascinating to listen to, at least for someone with my level of ignorance on the subject. Brannen’s writing style makes it an easy read.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (2017-09-04)

"This was the very home of darkness, the inmost center of the night.” I found this enthralling, moreso than the first in the series. My only complaint is that Tenar's behavior toward Ged seems like a slightly-too-abrupt change from her character up to that point.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (2017-09-01)

“Freedom,” says Shevek, “is never very safe.” It’s a warning with two interpretations: freedom is inherently dangerous, and freedom is always in danger of being lost. With wonderfully nuanced explorations of these and other themes, this is the most thought-provoking novel I’ve read in a long time.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff (2017-08-27)

As someone who doesn’t read a lot of YA novels, the teenage love dialog here struck me as pretty cringeworthy, but I suppose I’m just out of touch. The story was fast and fun, and the presentation as an epistolary novel worked very well.

Invisible Planets (2017-08-10)

Several very good stories in a range of styles. Some of these are primarily social commentary. One of my favorites in the collection, Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence,” explores the frustration of being unable to express oneself freely. Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” concerns itself with the question of the economic consequences of automation that renders human labor increasingly superfluous.

Some are more interesting for their thought experiments. Liu Cixin’s “The Circle” imagines a computer formed by millions of humans (parts of this story will be a rehash if you’ve read The Three-Body Problem, but it is different enough to be worth reading anyway), and his “Taking Care of God” is an unusual take on first contact with a much older civilization. Hao Jingfang’s “Invisible Planets” delivers short pastiches of a number of intriguing imaginary worlds.

Other stories are focused more on poetic writing and imagery: Cheng Jingbo’s “Grave of the Fireflies” or Xia Jia’s “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” and “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse.” Each of these had something lovely in it.

Chen Qiufan contributed three nearish-future sci-fi stories which are all solid; my favorite of these is “The Fish of Lijiang,” in which a burnt-out worker is sent to a town designed to facilitate recuperation.

The essays are also illuminating for those of us with little knowledge of China.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson, Nicole Galland (2017-07-23)

This is the fourth Neal Stephenson book I’ve read (no previous familiarity with Nicole Galland) and the first one that I didn’t like. I was hoping for a carefully elucidated system of time travel from Stephenson, but instead the rules seem arbitrary and nonsensical. That would be fine if the book excelled in other areas, but it mostly doesn't.

The characters’ obliviousness strains credulity at times. If the military is explicitly creating a program to use witches to control people’s minds, would it really never occur to the leadership that putting themselves in the proximity of those witches is risky? Worst of all is Melisande being taken by surprise that she encounters Erszebet in 1851, when she knew from the beginning that that encounter is why Erszebet joined their group in the first place.

The plot meanders slowly without really gaining direction until very late in the book - just in time for an unsatisfying non-ending. Some of the early subplots are interesting, but as it gets towards the Constantinople section, the lack of a strong answer to “what is the point of any of this?” becomes increasingly exasperating.

The writing style is charming and amusing at times; there’s some stuff I really liked, and I might have rated this higher if it were shorter. But for me there wasn’t enough reward to justify the length.

Spoils by Brian Van Reet (2017-06-30)

The book moves slowly, but in this case that’s a good quality. The focus is on giving a feel for the characters’ mindsets and environments, which it does in an eloquent and engaging manner (although Sleed’s sections feel a bit bolted-on).

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (2017-06-13)

This probably would have gotten boring if it were any longer, but as it is, it’s a nice gloomy tale about loss, loneliness, and confronting one’s own darker side (or not), with a decent twist.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2017-06-08)

Gets bonus points for containing the phrase “locally made organic Pop-Tarts.”

This starts out like a stereotypical bullied-but-talented-nerds-find-their-place-in-the-world story, but the protagonists find that their gifts and enthusiasm lead to regrets and moral ambiguity. That rings true, and is the best aspect of the novel. Anders’ writing is also generally entertaining and occasionally beautiful, and the story moves quickly. It's unsatisfying in other ways: the secondary characters lack depth, and the deaths and calamities that occur lack weight.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky (2017-05-31)

"...I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person."

This interview is rambling and repetitive and unpolished, and also very hard to put down (or rather, for me, hard to stop listening to - the audiobook narration helps the very raw transcript come to life). Wallace has interesting musings on intelligence, fame, meaning, addiction, and entertainment, and a great deal of his personality seems to shine through vividly in this book.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (2017-05-24)

There’s one really grating thing about this book - the narration and most of the characters are relentlessly flippant. It sort of kills suspension of disbelief when characters seem more amused than stressed by life-threatening situations. The novel seems obsessed with the idea of “cutting the shit” (indeed the exact words “cut the shit” appear verbatim six times): again and again and again we’re treated to scenes in which some sort of disingenuous conversation is cut short by one character gleefully declaring their desire to just get on with it. One wonders how the empire manages to maintain so many formal protocols when a disdain for formality seems to be the defining character quality of most of its inhabitants.

Underwhelming dialogue notwithstanding, it’s a fun and quick read, with at least one interesting idea - the “memory room” in which the emperox has full, unfiltered access to all the thoughts of all previous emperoxs.

Yummy by G. Neri, Randy DuBurke (2017-05-22)

A sad story, told in an engaging manner and with sensitivity to everyone involved.

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons (2017-05-18)

My father once complained that we no longer have the degree of freedom he enjoyed in his childhood - kinds of freedom, he said, that he could not even describe to me. Many readers of this novel apparently harbor similar feelings, based on the author’s note in the introduction:

Since Summer of Night was published in 1991, I’ve received more mail, e-mail, and comments on it than on any of my other novels (except perhaps for Hyperion). What fascinates me is that the preponderance of letters are from people around the world who are about my age, who remember a childhood from the era around the summer of 1960 when the novel is set, and who have been moved to say that their childhood memories of freedom are so similar to that of the kid-characters in my novel. And then they lament that their own children and grandchildren lack that freedom.

The setting really is the highlight of this book. Just like Stranger Things made me nostalgic for an 80s that I was barely alive for, Summer of Night was quite effective in summoning nostalgia for a 60s that I never knew - though the world it portrays has harshness as well as charm. Anyway, it's a fun story.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2017-05-16)

When Paul and his wife were trying to decide, in light of his terminal cancer diagnosis, whether to try to have a child, she asked him, “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” His response: “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” “Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

Paul's writing about the end of life is elegant and thought-provoking. At the same time, I feel that he presents a seriously incomplete picture; his seeming determination to view it all optimistically, to see meaning suffusing everything, casts a rosy tint on the events he describes. The sense of the devastation that accompanies a person’s deterioration and death is dampened.

Saga, Volume 7 by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples (2017-05-14)

“If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then a family is more like a ROPE. We’re lots of fragile little strands, and we survive by becoming hopelessly intertwined with each other.”

The writing is gripping and occasionally eloquent, but what I really love about this series is the gorgeous artwork full of bizarre creatures. This volume is just as good as the rest.

A.D. by Josh Neufeld (2017-05-12)

I picked this up after noticing a review of it on SMBC. It's a pretty neat way to learn a little bit about the hurricane and how it touched a few lives, although the format does not make a great deal of depth possible.

The Sandman (2017-05-12)

I read the ten main Sandman volumes three or four years ago and utterly adored them; I’m not sure why it took me until now to get around to Endless Nights and Overture. Endless Nights is my favorite of the two; the short, almost mythical stories are enchanting and some of the art is striking.

The Devourers by Indra Das (2017-05-07)

This was an unusual and intriguing book, with some elegant prose, but I did not connect with it very much. That is probably due at least in part to my ignorance of some important cultural context, as outlined in the review at Strange Horizons.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman (2017-04-12)

Gaiman’s versions of the stories are simple but engaging. This is a perfectly enchanting way to immerse yourself in an ancient culture’s mythology for a little while.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (2017-03-20)

"Tell me something that only I will ever know, was perhaps what she wanted to ask him, or, What will you give me to remember you by?—or, even, Nothing of the least importance has ever belonged to me; can you help?"

Jackson’s prose and characters make this an enjoyable and engaging story, although it fails to be especially scary or creepy.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (2017-03-13)

The protagonist Mary Katherine is an exceptionally disturbing and fascinating character. One might complain that not enough happens in this novel, but I think the lack of a climactic resolution is an important part of the picture Jackson is painting; by refusing to tie things up neatly and put an end to Merricat and Constance’s bizarre lifestyle, the story forces us to think more about the perspectives represented by that choice of lifestyle.

Law Professors by Stephen Presser (2017-03-13)

I grabbed a copy of this after seeing the review in the Economist, and mentally prepared myself for a couple weeks of getting weird looks whenever I had to answer the question “what are you reading currently?” I was hoping for an introduction to various theories about how to interpret the law, placed in their historical context, and I’m reasonably satisfied.

The author makes clear that he admires conservative legal theories more than those that are currently in vogue. Part of his purpose is to criticize trends that he believes pose a danger to limited government and the rule of law. This perspective does not prevent him from providing informative and intriguing introductions to the works of several progressive figures. For the most part it’s an engaging book, filled with tantalizing references to other works that should serve as interesting jumping-off points for deeper exploration.

Trump by Nathan J. Robinson (2017-02-18)

Part of this is what you would expect - a review of Trump’s past offenses - and that’s certainly useful; but the more interesting part of the book is its analysis & criticism of the Democratic party’s behavior leading up to the election, and how its poor strategy (along with staggering and ongoing failures by the major news media) helped pave the way for Trump’s victory. It’s an insightful call for some serious self-reflection on the left.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (2017-01-21)

The blurb on the cover describes this as “hilarious.” I can’t quite agree with that, although it is sometimes very funny. But it doesn’t need to be hilarious; it’s charming and fun throughout.

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (2017-01-08)

"Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon."

I picked this up a couple years ago, read two or three stories, then relegated it to my bookshelf. On this second encounter I'm much more impressed. I came with the wrong mindset before; you can’t expect a great deal of plot or characterization from Borges, but you will find fascinating ideas and elegant, sometimes haunting prose.

My favorite entry is “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which explores a society that has internalized idealist philosophy (the belief that the external world does not exist independently of minds). I’m fascinated by Berkeyelan idealism, so it was fun to find it as a recurring theme in this collection.

The implications of possible and actual infinities are another recurring theme. The famous story “The Library of Babel” considers what you might find in a library whose books contained all possible permutations of letters; hidden amongst the gibberish there could be, for example, "Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future.”