Short book reviews by Jacob Williams from 2021. Send feedback to

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

This completes my project of (re)reading all of this series over the past year. Previously, I thought this was the best one, but it's so heavily dependent on a couple plot twists that it doesn't stand out as much on a reread.

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

I decided to relisten to this one because I was pretty zoned out when I first listened to it a few years ago. This time, paying more attention, I quite liked it, though the first three of the series are still my favorites of the ones I've read so far.

Every Cradle is a Grave by Sarah Perry (2021-12-15)

I hope to write a longer review of this at some point. In short, I object to both of her main conclusions, but there is one theme in here that I really like, discussed primarily in chapter 10 and the appendix:

Why are drugs, prostitution, gambling and suicide illegal, when they clearly give so much relief to suffering people? I think it is because, at a societal level, we are deluded into thinking that happiness is possible, maybe even easy or likely, without these things. I have called this “cheery social policy.”

The fundamental problem with this sort of cheeriness is the assumption that a good life—a pleasant life—is relatively easy to achieve. Cheery people are able to hold such a belief because they are able to ignore—and perhaps can’t even conceive of—the suffering of a significant minority of the population. A good life is not easily achieved for many of us.

Of course, there are other arguments against legalizing those things. But I do think it's true that our expectations of ourselves and each other are often shaped by an unstated assumption that a normal person in normal circumstances should find their life at least moderately satisfying. Those who don't may then think there's something deeply wrong with themselves. But the assumption might be wrong; how to enable even a decent life for the average person may be an unsolved problem.

At a personal level, I think what this suggests is: if you find yourself deeply dissatisfied with life, you should be open to making radical lifestyle changes that seem very abnormal. "Normal" might just not actually work very well. At a societal level, the implication is that we should not be complacent: our culture, our government, our economy, our technology may all fall short of what's necessary to ensure that most people live adequate, let alone excellent, lives, and we should be actively seeking ways to fix that.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2021-12-14)

For the first several chapters I hated this. One of the recurring messages is: life is a power struggle, you are entitled to be on top, and the will to do whatever it takes to get ahead is a noble character trait. It's like a somehow less-fully-baked version of an Ayn Rand approach to the meaning of life. Examples: the repeated claim that nobody will give you anything in life, you must take things. A character finding it particularly attractive that another character "uses" everyone. Monique's professional journey, which is basically a celebration of toxic masculinity in the workplace (lack of men notwithstanding): make hard eye contact with the boss, believe in your heart that you're a badass, and when they see what a hard bargain you drive they'll suddenly treat you with respect and welcome you into the elite community of alphas, where you belonged all along because of your essential, inborn specialness and talent.

...but those grating themes subside once the main plot is revealed, and then the book really shines. The story of Evelyn's relationships is by turns nerve-wracking and heartwarming, and more than compensates for the annoying bits.

Engineering a Compiler by Keith D. Cooper, Linda Torczon (2021-12-12)

I read most of this for the OMSCS compilers course and generally found it interesting and useful.

The Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem (2021-12-05)

"Not far from here, by a white sun, behind a green star, lived the Steelypips, illustrious, industrious, and they hadn’t a care: no spats in their vats, no rules, no schools, no gloom, no evil influence of the moon, no trouble from matter or antimatter—for they had a machine, a dream of a machine, with springs and gears and perfect in every respect."

I didn't realize that whimsical fables in a cheesy sci-fi setting is something I wanted, but apparently it was. This is delightful. It's also an impressive work of translation, given how much the book relies on wordplay.

Nudge by Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein (2021-12-02)

There's a lot of good stuff here, but much of it will be familiar if you've been at least a little tuned in to social psychology and personal finance for the past few years. Some memorable bits for me:

- George Loewenstein's term "hot-cold empathy gap": we know many kinds of temptation will make it difficult to do what we think is really best, but when we're not in the midst of the temptation we fail to recognize just how compelling the temptation will be.

- Studies showing that just asking people to make a quick concrete plan for how to do something - e.g., draw out the route they need to take on a map - makes them substantially more likely to actually do the thing. This is presented as an example of a "channel factor", a term from Kurt Lewin.

- A study showed that when people in a repeated game had the option to pay to punish noncooperating players, they used it, and cooperation increased in future rounds. The book suggests this could be exploitable for addressing climate change, via the system of nations joining "climate clubs".

Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky (2021-11-22)

Robert Forster's perfectly fitting audio narration contributed a lot to my enjoyment of this; the main character comes across very vividly. The story doesn't have a satisfying resolution, but that's probably for the best.

The afterword by Boris Strugatsky, looking back on the long struggle to get the novel published in the Soviet era, includes this interesting comment:

At first, I was looking forward to using this afterword to tell the story of publishing the Picnic: naming once-hated names; jeering to my heart’s content at the cowards, idiots, informers, and scoundrels; astounding the reader with the absurdity, idiocy, and meanness of the world we’re all from; being ironic and instructive, deliberately objective and ruthless, benevolent and caustic all at once. And now I’m sitting here, looking at these folders, and realizing that I’m hopelessly late and that no one needs me—not my irony, not my generosity, and not my burntout hatred. They have ceased to exist, those once-powerful organizations with almost unlimited right to allow and to hinder; they have ceased to exist and are forgotten to such an extent that it would be tedious and dull to explain to the present-day reader...

...but I think it is important to be reminded of the tragedy of such apparatuses of censorship.

The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky (2021-11-20)

Very long, mostly boring. There are enjoyable scenes; the best part is probably the trial in Book 12 with its contrast of two persuasive speeches for opposing interpretations of events. I think if this had been edited aggressively so that that section made up, say, half the book, it would have been a better novel.

The book is famous for the statement that if there's no God, "everything is permitted." So I shouldn't be surprised at how aggressively it pushes the perspective that society would crumble catastrophically without Christianity. But it doesn't have much interesting to say on the subject; just the same sort of taken-for-granted assumptions and longwinded self-assured rants you can find in any fundamentalist apologetics today.

Part of what makes this so difficult to get through is that nobody except Alyosha seems to behave in a remotely reasonable or believable way. The level of melodrama is pathological and most of the characters' problems could be solved by just, like, chilling out for a bit.

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (2021-11-19)

The modern-day segments of this were incredibly grating. Fortunately, much more of the book is devoted to the medieval storyline, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds (2021-11-12)

I got a sinking feeling as I reached the last 20 minutes of this book and realized it couldn't possibly wrap up the overarching story. Was I confused, was it tetralogy instead of a trilogy? I wanted to know how it ended but wasn't up for putting another ~15 hours into it right now.

I needn't have worried, though. You do find out how the great crisis is resolved... via a brief high-level summary in the epilogue. What!? The previous book had a tendency for major events to happen 'off-screen', but this one takes it to a whole new level.

There are some interesting ideas here, like the faith-inducing viruses, but overall I don't think the series lives up to the promise of its first installment.

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds (2021-10-30)

Reynolds' characters are maybe a bit too prone to giving dramatic monologues. It's also a little odd (but not necessarily bad) how often key events happen 'off-screen' despite this being such a long book.

But my main complaint is that the big antagonists, the Inhibitors, don't seem as scary as they should. We've been told of more than one species that has managed to hide from them; we've been given no reason to think that just running away from them wouldn't work; we've been told they're slowly becoming less effective; they only rarely try to interfere with anything the humans are doing; and we're already getting hints that there's some more powerful, more ancient force willing to interfere with the Inhibitors. It's just too many caveats attached to the bogeyman too soon.

Notwithstanding that, I enjoyed it, and I'm really interested to see how the series resolves.

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold (2021-10-23)

"...he had recovered enough of his native tone of mind to begin serious worrying about his predicament, although not yet enough physical energy to try doing anything about it." (Relatable.)

A fun adventure story. Bujold has an interesting take on the single-gender-planet concept. I like how she depicts prejudice both within and against Athosian society, and allows you to sympathize with a character whose dreams are bound up in that society despite its problematic censorship policies and propaganda. I also enjoyed the bit where Ethan speculates on all the ways telepathy could be used in healthcare, contrary to typical expectations of using it for spycraft.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (2021-10-19)

I read this several years ago and it was one of a handful of books that got me really enthused about reading sci-fi. But for some reason, I got distracted after finishing the sequel and never read the finale. I want to rectify that now, and figured I should re-read the first two to refresh my memory.

This time around, some weaknesses were more apparent. The characters are mostly portrayed as amoral jerks; on the occasions when any of them does evince a conscience, it tends not to develop them so much as to befuddle any attempt to coherently understand them. There are a few eye-roll-inducing moments (like the passages when someone living hundreds of years in the future spontaneously muses about how some scientific phenomenon they just encountered was theorized about even in the 20th century, wow! - I understand the desire to draw attention to things that are based in real size, but it's kind of a suspension-of-disbelief killer). The ending, unless I missed something, fails to explain how Sun Stealer could have been living in Dan's head the whole time he was on Resurgam and yet not know about the hot-dust in his brain.

Those are minor complaints; I really like the core conceit of this series and enjoyed the book quite a bit.

The Alignment Problem by Brian Christian (2021-10-12)

"We are in danger of losing control of the world not to AI or to machines as such but to models."

This is full of interesting historical anecdotes (like that time William James kept a bunch of chickens in his basement to help out a student) and good high-level explanations of various approaches to machine learning.

Perhaps the most shocking issue discussed is how some US state justice systems used a model (called COMPAS) from a third-party provider for years to guide bail and sentencing decisions without doing any sort of validation of the efficacy or fairness of the model. Christian also gives compelling examples of how dangerous it can be to naively trust a model you don't understand, like the case where a pneumonia-diagnosis model was accurately predicting that some patients were less likely to die of pneumonia: it turned out the reason they were less likely to die is that they had extra health conditions which caused hospital staff to view them as higher-risk and give them additional care. So if the staff had started trusting the model's predictions instead, those patients would have likely been at even higher risk of dying than they were to begin with. Trying to act on the model's advice would have undermined the model's accuracy!

Still, although the description of this book on goodreads calls it a "jaw-dropping exploration of everything that goes wrong when we build AI systems", I found it to take a pretty measured attitude towards the problem, especially in parts 2 and 3. The general impression it left me with is that there are very smart people working hard on making AI safe, and that they've got some good ideas. The question, I guess, is whether society will listen when they urge caution, or if overeager deployment of stuff like COMPAS will be the norm.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (2021-09-13)

The grim and cynical outlook of this annoyed me sometimes, but I suppose that’s a reflection of my own fortunate life experiences: like Maria in the book is frustrated by people who don’t see the ruthless harsh reality of her world, I am frustrated by people who see only that, who see any selflessness or altruism as a mirage. Regardless, it’s a pretty gripping story.

Something Deeply Hidden by Sean Carroll (2021-08-26)

It's probably too much to hope that a popular science book will ever let me feel like I really understand anything about quantum mechanics, but Carroll leaves me feeling at least a little bit less in the dark.

One interesting point from a philosophical perspective: In pop culture the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is usually taken to mean that every time you make a decision, there's another world in which you made the decision differently. According to Carroll, IIUC, because of the macroscopic level at which our brain (probably) operates, most of the ways that the wave function of the universe can branch would not change our decisions. It's still true that there are worlds where a version of you makes radically different choices, but those worlds usually have extremely low "amplitude" compared to other worlds.

I'm still unsure how to tie the notion of amplitude to concrete reality. If for example two different outcomes of an experiment occur in different branches of the wave function, then in some sense there are at least two worlds; but the book emphasizes the importance of considering the amplitude - one world may have much more than the other. How does that affect conscious beings? What I mean is: in the context of a single world, there's clearly a difference between one me existing, and fifteen identical copies of me existing side-by-side; my conscious subjective experiences are separate from each of the copies', and claiming that the a particular copy either does exist (and is having experiences) or does not is a substantive claim about reality. How does this relate to amplitude? Are there more copies of the higher-amplitude world (if so, how many)? Does the higher-amplitude world somehow (this seems implausible) "feel" more real or vivid to the people in it? (This question doesn't arise, of course, if you have a reductionist physicalist view of consciousness.)

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells (2021-08-23)

As usual, sheer fun from start to finish.

Invincible Compendium 1 (2021-08-20)

I read this after watching the first season of the show, and it's fun to realize where the latter was taking some of the weak points in the comic and flipping them around. Making William gay, for example, instead of a straight guy whose recurring joke is to call things "gay". The comic's characters generally are less satisfying than the show's: here, William is completely annoying and unlikable, Amber doesn't get much of a personality, and the relationships among Amber, Eve, and Mark are a bit more stereotypical. Still, it was pretty enjoyable and I'll probably continue reading.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (2021-07-22)

"And, having set it down once and for all, he realized what a heavy load he had been carrying."

It’s hard for me to objectively evaluate really long novels. Familiarity breeds either contempt or affection, and my natural disposition is the latter. I’ve spent weeks with Aomame and Tengo and Ushikawa now; they’ve been part of my world and my daily rituals, and I’ve grown fond of them, and of the quiet subtle-strange mood Murakami maintains. Still, there are hundreds of pages here that make meaningful contributions to neither plot nor character arcs. The experience of reading this book involves quite a lot of wishing that something, anything, would hurry up and happen already.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (2021-07-21)

The rapid-fire problem/solution, mystery/discovery sequences that make up Weir’s novels are just so much fun. It’s also refreshing to read something that’s so unabashedly optimistic.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson (2021-07-16)

…our dead are only weights on our backs when we won’t let them walk beside us.

Some aspects of this don’t work for me, like the treatment of religion and science as simply alternative perspectives on the same phenomena, but ultimately it’s a fun story that roped me in.

Wherever Seeds May Fall by Peter Cawdron (2021-07-08)

I was hoping for more time spent on the aliens, but most of this is devoted to the logistics of humanity responding to a complete unknown. It’s also a bit heavy on stereotypes, and the recurring theme of science denialism comes across as preaching rather than as a natural part of the story. It’s still a fun story, and I do like the direction it ultimately took regarding the aliens.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine (2021-07-02)

This has somewhat larger suspension-of-disbelief problems than the first book. Why was a task force that was put together specifically to deal with a new alien species surprised to find themselves in a first contact situation and in need of a linguist? Why would Three Seagrass think that her crush who's pretty good with languages is all she needs in order to handle a delicate first contact situation? (What has Three Seagrass ever done that would convince anyone to entrust her with even a tiny modicum of responsibility?) Why is it so easy to eavesdrop in the Ministry of War? Why wouldn't soldiers in humanity's most powerful military force have a better way to verify the identity of a child claiming to be second-in-command of the empire than just googling a picture of him and eyeballing it? Etc. Nonetheless, it's very enjoyable.

Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip (2021-06-26)

"Anything that beautiful is terrible. Because it's outside of you. It's not you. You'll do anything to make it part of you. You'd eat it, drown in it, kill it, let it kill you. Anything to stop it from not being you."

For me the highlight of this collection is "The Gorgon in the Cupboard", about a painter learning to see who his models are instead of only who he wishes to project on them. About half of the book is the novella "Something Rich and Strange" (from which the above quote is taken); that one did not resonate with me, and made the book difficult to get through. McKillip's prose is excellent, though.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (2021-06-19)

Interesting plot in an interesting setting. There's one grating aspect: the characters - particularly Mahit and Three Seagrass - constantly seem much more impressed with each other than their behavior would justify; given how much of the novel the latter spends distraught and/or surprised, it's unclear why the former would see her as particularly badass. Aside from that, this book is a lot of fun and it really nails the ending. And the "imago" machines are a fascinating take on the use of mind-upload technology.

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (2021-06-13)

It was a strange feeling, holding the rifle. It somehow removed him from everything around him. Without the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it--the woods, all of it. With the rifle, suddenly, he didn't have to know, did not have to be afraid or understand.

If I had read this as a kid, I assume I would either have been bored (I didn't voluntarily read many books without aliens or wizards in them) or been inspired to daydream about being a badass survivalist. The messages of love and respect for nature, and of appreciation for how precious even some of the most everyday products of civilization are, would probably have been lost on me, unfortunately.

As an adult, I'm mostly just thinking that this kid totally would've died in the real world.

Moral Uncertainty by William MacAskill, Krister Bykvist, Toby Ord (2021-06-11)

"Every generation in the past has committed tremendous moral wrongs on the basis of false moral views. ... Given this dismal track record, it would be extremely surprising if we were the first generation in human history to have even broadly the correct moral worldview."

Usually, being 100% confident of something is a sign of either ignorance or stupidity. Especially on issues that people have failed to develop a consensus on despite millennia of debate - which unfortunately includes everything about the foundations of morality. Sometimes, I try to hedge my positions on moral questions to account for the risk of being wrong about fundamental principles, but not consistently or in a principled way. This book left me feeling that I should, but that even deciding on a good way to do so is complicated and will require a lot of followup thought and reading.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2021-06-02)

"Good, I pulled off being a 'person.'"

( ^ it truly is an accomplishment for some of us.)

This novel has many of the same themes as Earthlings, just in a less extreme package.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2021-06-02)

I don't know much about South Africa, so this was a fascinating window into its recent history. It's a depressing and cruel backdrop for a childhood, but Noah and his mother's personalities make these stories inspiring - not to mention, at times, hilarious.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (2021-05-30)

Normality was contagious, and exposure to the infection was necessary to keep up with it.

The appropriate content warnings would also constitute spoilers, so, I'll just point out that the cover and the blurbs are wildly misleading. This is a book about trauma and it's also going for shock value.

I like some of the metaphors that drive the book: society as a Baby Factory. The "alien eyes" through which misfits view human culture. Natsuki casting her defense mechanisms as "magic powers".

The dialogue is jarring; I don't know if it's bad writing, a translation issue, or intentional to reflect the strangeness of the characters.

The plot is, at least, full of surprises. It leaves some ambiguity as to the intended message. In the end, Natsuki seems to have lost all sense of empathy, but I think we should see this primarily as another effect of society's mistreatment of her. Her family will likely think her monstrous behavior provides further vindication for all their harsh treatment of her, when in fact that treatment played a key role in making her into this person. Such cycles can cause endless pointless suffering.

Also I learned what a kotatsu is. Why don't we have those here???

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (2021-05-28)

"The Ninth didn't think anyone was in anything together, or if they were, they all had to disperse as soon as humanly possible to avoid splash damage."

All the elements that made the first book fun are here again: an entertaining flippant tone; characters that procure your emotional investment despite that tone; bewildering events that come together in a satisfying way by the end. I do wish it had been shorter, but I feel that way about most books.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (2021-05-24)

Todd McLaren's narration does a lot to establish just the right atmosphere for this. Engaging noir in a dismal but interesting world.

The Art of Doing Science and Engineering by Richard Hamming (2021-05-20)

Sort of a weird mix of general thoughts and highly technical information. I have no idea what the chapters on digital filters were even about, and was starting to wonder if the rest of the book would be a waste of time due to lacking the right background knowledge, but fortunately it goes back to higher-level discussions after that.

Some of the most interesting points to me:

- Consciously try to predict the future of your field; Hamming set aside a specific time each week to think about the future of computing

- Ruminate on new knowledge from many angles as soon as you encounter it

- Bad data is everywhere; don't trust without taking a careful look

- What worked well in your past often hinders you in the future; don't become overconfident in one way of thinking simply because your own experience has validated it

- The relevance of n-dimensional geometry for approaching any kind of design decision that involves n parameters*

* An example he gives is that, for a large n, most of the volume of an n-dimensional sphere actually resides very near the surface. From this he draws the conclusion, if I understand correctly, that when you're trying to find the optimal design when you have a large number of parameters to make decisions about, you should expect that at least one of the parameters will have an extreme value, rather than all of them being sort of in the middle. I don't know if I buy this - it seems to assume the optimal design lies somewhere at random within the volume, but what if having balanced values of all parameters is part of what makes a design optimal for a particular problem? - but it's an interesting perspective.

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect by Roger Williams (2021-05-19)

He had created in passion, and passion isn't sane. If it were, nobody would ever have children. After all, while the outcome of that passion might be the doctor who cures a dreaded disease, it might also be the tyrant who despoils a continent or the criminal who murders for pleasure. In the grip of that passion no one could know and few bothered to care. They cared only about the passion, were driven by it and it alone, and if it drove them to ruin it would not matter; they would follow it again, into death for themselves and everybody around them if that was where it led.

A cynical take on the Singularity; not convincing (I would say the protagonist is much more a villain than a hero), but very fascinating.

The graphic violence, and the characters' disturbing attitudes toward violence, are important in exploring some of the possible implications of a world where nobody can die. The father-daughter sex scene, however, is detailed to a degree that serves no clear purpose (unless we take the alarming interpretation that it is meant as a straightforwardly desirable fantasy), and its inclusion in the novel seems like a highly questionable decision.

The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi (2021-05-18)

A pretty satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed the deeper look at the zoku, and loved the confrontation between Jean and the All-Defector. I keep finding myself wanting to talk about the ideas in this series with others, and having to restrain myself to avoid spoilers...

The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi (2021-05-18)

'But why are you doing this?’

‘For love,’ he says.

‘Love for whom?’

‘No one,’ he says. ‘I just want to know what it feels like.’

This is decent, and worth reading to get to the third book, but I don't like it as much as the other two.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (2021-05-18)

The criminal is a creative artist; detectives are just critics.

Often this series communicates only an impressionistic sense of what's going on, at best, and at times that's frustrating. I'd also prefer if the author stopped treating the word "quantum" like it's a linguistic seasoning to be applied liberally. But it's packed with interesting ideas: the Dilemma Prison at the outset, the "gevulot" privacy technology, the terrifying little phrase "cognitive rights management software"...

The Boys Omnibuses (2021-05-08)

"...a funny thing happened on the way to the moral high ground."

(A review for the whole series.)

This series is full of over-the-top gore and explicit sex and vulgarity; you could reasonably complain that it panders to a juvenile idea of mature content. It doesn't help that it starts with a fridging. The one thing that really bothered me, though, is that the protagonist Hughie is neither interesting nor likable: for most of the series it just doesn't make much sense that he's involved in anything, given his ineptness; his failure to develop much self-awareness is frustrating; and his struggle to forgive his girlfriend for the crime of, um, being raped is difficult to empathize with.

Nonetheless... it's an engrossing story and I was hooked from beginning to end.

Troublemaker by Leah Remini (2021-05-07)

Scientology sounds like it takes a lot of the factors that can trap people in traditional religions and turns them up to 11. A few examples:

1. In the semi-fundamentalist Christianity that I grew up in, the most morally significant thing about you is not what you do, but what you believe. You go to heaven or hell for eternity based on whether you believe the right stuff. To entertain doubts about the Bible is to flirt with believing the wrong stuff; it's like contemplating committing an unspeakably heinous crime. Therefore, any sources which are critical of the Bible are seen as hostile, dangerous, and deceptive; to spend a lot of time interacting with them would seem embarrassing or suspicious.

In Remini's account, Scientology explicitly demands such insulation from outside ideas. Not only are church members not permitted to talk to or read any of the writings of people deemed to be "suppressive persons" by the church, but if the church finds out you have, you'll be grilled about it in your auditing sessions. And the church may well find out, because all your friends and family are encouraged to file "knowledge reports" ratting you out.

2. A big part of what made leaving Christianity difficult for me was that my family and everyone I knew were very wrapped up in it. While I never feared that they would disown me (some Christians are not so lucky), I knew it would be a constant source of friction and in some ways make me an outsider. Community pressure is a powerful force for ensuring religious conformity.

Scientology appears to use this pressure in a severe, organized, deliberate fashion. Remini recounts how almost all of her friends from Scientology - including people she'd been close to for decades - completely cut ties with her when she left the church. They had to, or else risk having the same thing happen to them. This creates immense psychological pressure, not only because of the people you might lose, but because of the position you know you're putting your loved ones in: Remini mentions multiple times that she was reluctant to leave because the decision would affect her entire family (because they would either have to abandon her, or become pariahs themselves).

3. We're all vulnerable to the sunk cost fallacy; the more time and resources we invest in something, the harder it is to look back and say, "oh, that was all a mistake". In Christianity, the sunk costs can include time spent studying/memorizing the Bible, tithes, attempts to convert others, and simply the public identification of yourself with the views and agenda of the church.

The costs of Scientology sound much more intense. Remini describes a continuous stream of high course fees and demands for donations, and the church aggressively pushing people to go into debt to pay the church. The time requirements are shocking as well - 2.5 hours per day spent at the church! These things strike me as a clever exploitation of human psychology: extract a modestly painful investment from someone, and they'll be more willing to let you extract even more from them in the future than to face the possibility that they've been scammed.


Leah's tale is sordid but I'm glad she shared it. There are other nice aspects of this memoir unrelated to Scientology, as well; her love for sitcoms is infectious and had me reminiscing fondly of the shows I watched as a child.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler (2021-04-30)

When my book club read Parable of the Sower, many members said they had to take a break from it - or abandon it entirely - because it was just too bleak. I was relatively unaffected. This sequel, though, got to me. It was emotionally taxing to listen to.

In Sower, chaos and desperation create a hell on earth. In Talents, the hell is much more deliberately constructed: ruthless greed, reckless faith, and self-serving self-deception underpin a protracted parade of well-organized cruelties. For a middle-class American, I think the latter hits closer to home, feels more like the kind of apocalypse we could easily sink into. The "control collars" are an especially chilling feature, a quite plausible-sounding technology that would make so many monstrously abusive practices from human history both easier to implement and even more excruciating for the victims.

Butler's storytelling continues to be mostly excellent, but like the last book, there's one key flaw: this is a story about the birth of a religion, so the religion needs to be compelling enough that you can empathize with the characters when they find hope and meaning in it. Earthseed isn't. Every time the novel presents another vapid Earthseed verse, it makes the central conceit of Earthseed as a burgeoning hope for humanity (and Lauren as a visionary leader) seem silly and undercuts the suspension of disbelief.

The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef (2021-04-22)

All of us have to interact with people who seem clearly, wildly wrong on important things. Sometimes, we blame poor education or lack of critical thinking skills. But as Galef points out, motivated reasoning does not arise from a lack of knowledge. Sometimes education merely intensifies the effects of our own bias (for example, she cites a study which found that the more science-literate a person was, the more their view on anthropogenic global warming correlated with their political affiliation, rather than converging on a single consensus). We have natural defense mechanisms against noticing when we're wrong; overcoming them requires an attitude shift and careful effort. This book left me with a renewed desire to make that effort, and some promising ideas on how to go about it.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (2021-04-21)

Highly engrossing, but without much that stands out as memorable. Also, the religion that the protagonist is inventing seems insipid, and it's hard to take seriously the other characters taking it seriously at all.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (2021-04-18)

"As Dad was fond of pointing out, in America, apart from those who won the lottery, generally all Winners were in possession of a strident voice, which was successfully used to overpower the thrum of all the competing voices, thereby producing a country that was insanely loud, so loud, most of the time no actual meaning could be discerned — only 'nationwide white noise.'"

Even knowing the genre of this book is potentially a spoiler; for at least the first 300 or so pages you could easily believe this is the sort of book that has very little plot and is essentially a vehicle for flowery prose, miscellaneous observations, and melancholy portraits of life. And if you don't have some degree of affinity for such books, you probably aren't going to like this.

Matter by Iain M. Banks (2021-04-18)

"Stick to the plan. Not just obey orders. If you were being asked to do something according to a plan, then the way the Culture saw it, you should have had at least some say in what that plan actually was."

This book grew on me a little the further I got into it, but I think overall it's my least favorite in the series. It's very slow, which I suppose is true of many of the Culture novels, but in this case the journey often felt more tedious than delectable.

The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2021-03-31)

My favorite parts of this are the interludes describing the histories of alternate Earths. Tchaikovsky does what he did so well in Children of Time (and I'm guessing in other works too) - imagine a different course of evolution and what unique implications it might have - but many times over.

The story itself took some time for me to get invested in. It kills my suspension of disbelief when stories imply that things which are nonsense at a conceptual level (eg this book's "Cryptic Informational Transformation Space") are taken as serious science in-universe. And there's just a lot of handwavey science to get past in general here. But ultimately it's fun and very imaginative.

Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (2021-03-31)

"The animal in him craved something that his higher brain knew was not going to happen. That was the point he was impaled upon, the front on which he suffered; that struggle of the lower brain’s almost chemical simplicities of yearning pitched against the withering realities revealed and comprehended by consciousness."

This is a novel about paternalism, terrorism, the responsibilities of citizens regarding the crimes of their states, and what constitutes sane and meaningful activity in life, and Iain M. Banks does all that stuff well while still managing to find places to fit delightfully over-the-top sentences like this:

"Uagen Zlepe, scholar, hung from the left-side sub-ventral foliage of the dirigible behemothaur Yoleus by his prehensile tail and his left hand."

I remain a big fan.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (2021-03-23)

"I suppose I prefer my freedom to my reputation."

Years ago I read A Darker Shade of Magic with a book club and hated it. I intended to avoid reading anything by this author ever again.

...but the same book club chose this book, and it came well-recommended, and I guess I'm fickle, so I gave it a shot, and was surprised: it's really good. I successfully avoided crying but there were a couple close calls.

My only complaint is that this could have been much shorter without losing anything.

I listened to the audiobook; Julia Whelan's narration is excellent.

Trouble on Triton by Samuel R. Delany (2021-03-18)

"...I will warmly welcome a game with you should the music of the spheres once again suspend us in the same chord."

This book is only 312 pages long but I can't tell you how many times I checked the kindle progress display after what felt like an eternity of reading only to find I'd progressed just a few more percentage points from where I'd been before. It is, for the most part, just not enjoyable to read.

I do enjoy Delany's wordplay and phrasing from time to time: "infinite regress of pleasure", "spiral the bright pillar into the holy dark", "tried to bring himself back into himself: it seemed that fragments were scattered all around the square"; "[s]uffering the wound of having wounded"... I'll also give the book some points for going in very unexpected directions. But I didn't take much away from it and the journey was a slog.

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman (2021-03-18)

Friends? Your friends?...If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week....then you could see what it is, friends!

This was difficult to read, but I appreciate the author's candid presentation of his father's recollections.

Suffering-Focused Ethics by Magnus Vinding (2021-03-18)

"And while it is true that this principle has the implication that it would have been better if the world had never existed, I think the fault here is to be found in the world, not the principle."

I agree with the main message of this book - that minimizing suffering in the world should be our highest priority - and I like Vinding's approach of trying to muster support from as many different perspectives as possible, rather than hanging the whole argument on a single line of logic. The most effective chapter is probably the fourth, which is simply a list of horrific events contemplated in detail. The fifth chapter may be my favorite, though, as it's the clearest statement I've seen in print of my favorite argument for moral realism.

Vinding spends a fair amount of space on arguments that pleasure has no intrinsic value, or at least that any amount of extreme suffering outweighs even an infinite amount of pleasure. I don't find these arguments convincing, but they do provoke some interesting discussions.

I was expecting more from the second part of the book, which focuses on practical application. The most concrete action Vinding discusses in detail is to promote animal welfare; a focus on that issue should be unsurprising for anyone familiar with the depth and scale of the atrocities perpetrated by our food production industries, though he also emphasizes the suffering of wild animals. Beyond that, though, his primary advice is simply to try to convince more people (and governments) to prioritize reduction of suffering, and to devote resources to studying the best ways to reduce suffering. That feels frustratingly abstract, but he does make some persuasive points.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (2021-03-06)

I call it relief, though it was only the relief that a snap brings to a strain or the burst of a thunderstorm to a day of suffocation.

Nobody in this book is relatable and nothing interesting happens. If you interpret the ghosts as real, the problem is that they aren't very interesting ghosts and not much reason is given to view them as a threat. If instead you focus on the protagonist as paranoid and hallucination-prone, the problem is that the story doesn't do much to establish tension or make you emotionally invested in the characters. It doesn't help much to label it intentionally ambiguous, because being ambiguous between two boring possibilities is still boring.

Admittedly, there is some fascination in considering how the religious, sexual, and classist mores of the time could combine to make a slightly disturbed mind overlay a dramatic battle for children's souls onto a mundane situation. But it's just so tedious to read.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (2021-03-06)

On second listening, I saw more flaws in this than I did the first time; in particular, some key plot points depend on people trusting their enemies in ways that strain credulity beyond the breaking point. I'm still quite fond of it.

Inversions by Iain M. Banks (2021-03-03)

Ah ... the luxury of being able to say No.

Even though not much happens, I found this relatively difficult to put down. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I doubt it will prove as memorable for me as most of the other books in the series.

Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel (2021-03-03)

Unconditional love does not drive unconditional want.

This was thought-provoking. One of the observations I like the most is that the sense of security - which is a key thing most of us want in relationships, but perhaps is in tension with sexual desire - is always an illusion anyway. Nothing in life can be had permanently nor with certainty.

Excession by Iain M. Banks (2021-03-03)

...he wanted to be who he was, not the person he would become if he lost the one trait that distinguished him from everybody else, no matter how perverse that decision seemed to others.

Usually, I listen to the Culture novels as audiobooks, but infuriatingly the audio version of this one isn't for sale in the US. So, I acquired a paper copy and took the opportunity to find out whether I'd still love Banks's writing when it's not mediated through the charming voice of Peter Kenny. (Yes.) It was probably for the best; a fair amount of this book is presented in the form of group chat transcripts involving characters that are not always easy to tell apart, and I imagine the audiobook is incredibly confusing.

It does move slower than I'd like at points, and "the Affront" are so over-the-top that I'm not sure they quite fit with the general tone of the novels, but overall this was a pleasure to read. It's probably my favorite in the series so far except for Use of Weapons.

White Noise by Don DeLillo (2021-02-21)

Your whole life is a plot, a scheme, a diagram. It is a failed scheme but that’s not the point. To plot is to affirm life, to seek shape and control.

Sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it makes interesting observations about American life, but it starts to become a bit boring somewhere along the way.

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente (2021-02-08)

I worry that I am simply a very complex solution to a very specific problem—how to seem human to a human observer. Not just a human observer—this human observer.

An interesting take on the development - or rather, a development - of AI. I really enjoy Valente's prose, though the early parts of the novella are disorienting and I suspect fully appreciating it would require a closer reading than I was in the mood for.

When the Air Hits Your Brain by Frank T. Vertosick Jr. (2021-02-08)

Horrifying, entertaining, entertainingly horrifying, occasionally uplifting.

The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks (2021-02-08)

...what really hit me was that these people could create something that spoke so eloquently of their own ghastly actions; that they could fashion a work so humanly redolent of their own inhumanity.

Not as good as the Culture novels, but still good.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (2021-02-08)

When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity... When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.

The religious agenda of this book detracts from it somewhat, but I think the protagonist is a really interesting character and there are some highly memorable, moving scenes.

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire (2021-01-27)

Spending time with her was like trying to form a close personal relationship with a cloud of butterflies. Pretty—dazzling, even—but not exactly companionable. And some of the butterflies had knives, and that was where the metaphor collapsed.

The Jack and Jill stories - this one and book 2 - have been my favorite part of this series. But I think, overall, it's just not for me; I'm not sure I'll read further.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig (2021-01-27)

We’re all walking on these unseen tightropes when really we could slip at any second and come face to face with all the existential horrors that only lie dormant in our minds.

Haig's conclusions and advice don't resonate with me all that much, at least partly due to the differences in my own experience (when I've been depressed, it has been - seemingly - for identifiable reasons, and also has not been accompanied by anxiety). I'm also not a fan of how he downplays the role of medication. Still, I appreciate the very personal look into his experiences. And he makes an interesting point about how the intense suffering that goes with depression can also enable us, later, to feel all the good things in life more intensely as well. I see at least some truth in that, though it doesn't really make me much more sanguine about all the suffering.

Network Effect by Martha Wells (2021-01-25)

Overse added, “Just remember you’re not alone here.” I never know what to say to that. I am actually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

I'm pretty hooked on this series at this point. I feel a bit guilty that between the publisher's giveaways and Kindle sales, I only spent a total of $3 on all five books. That's cheaper than the frozen pizza I had for lunch today, and I can assure you the books brought me considerably more joy.

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire (2021-01-17)

She paid attention as if it were the dearest coin in all the land...

It has a few good quotes and a couple interesting themes, but overall, I didn't enjoy this one. The "Goblin Market" never really feels like an appealing place, and the adventures there that we're told have such emotional salience for the protagonist all happen off-screen and seem incongruous with the scenes we do get to see. And the calamity that was foreordained by the first book is reached by a bit of a diabolus ex machina.

The C Programming Language by Brian W. Kernighan, Dennis M. Ritchie (2021-01-14)

A great example of how to write a solid programming language tutorial: not too shallow, numerous complete programs, lots of good exercises. It's also a neat window into an earlier, very different time in the programming world.

This sometimes still makes lists of "best books for learning C", and I'm giving it a mediocre rating simply to push back against that. This book is older than I am; new versions of the language have been standardized three times since it was published, and the landscape of computing in general has changed drastically too. I was drawn to it out of historical interest, but if you just want to get a practical knowledge of C as efficiently as possible you should be looking for much more recent sources.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells (2021-01-14)

More of the same, which is, in this case, a good thing.

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire (2021-01-09)

I liked the previous installment better, but this was enjoyable too.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (2021-01-09)

I almost never reread books, but I love the Culture series so much that I decided to make an exception when this was selected by one of the book clubs I attend. I think my first impression of it stands: not as good as Consider Phlebas or Use of Weapons, but still excellent.

The first time, I listened to the audiobook, so it would have made sense for me to read the written version this time to compare. I didn't. I just couldn't bring myself to pass up the opportunity to hear Peter Kenny's whimsical drone voices and exquisite narration.

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells (2021-01-09)

This continues to be a consistently solid series.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire (2021-01-05)

It was almost like she was afraid her mind was like a dress that couldn't be washed, and she didn't want to dirty it with facts she might not approve of later.

Much better worldbuilding than the first installment in the series. I didn't think I wanted to know more about Jack and Jill, but it turns out I did.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (2021-01-05)

...his voice ached around that single syllable like flesh aches around a knife.

The first quarter or so of this didn't seem very promising, but it sucked me in eventually.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

This has a definite meant-to-be-a-movie feel to it. There’s a fun twist that almost pushes it to four stars for me, but I also think there’s an inherent problem with fiction set in a multiverse where all possible outcomes occur: it undermines the dramatic tension. If the hero succeeds, they must also fail in another equally real universe, and vice versa, so why does it even matter? The ending of this book makes that somewhat visceral by having the victorious Jason walk past a crowd of other very similar Jasons who are condemned to misery, but presumably the situation is even worse: the universe must have been branching throughout the entire final act, with countless copies of this Jason ending up the loser.

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

I listened to this several years ago, but I don't think I was paying close attention. On second listen, I'm tempted to say it's one of my favorites in the series, but I've already said that about most of the others...

"All you ever were was a little bit of the universe thinking to itself."