Coal: A Human History – Barbara Freese

Some saw in the mines scientific proof of biblical flood. Some credited coal with protecting people from the bubonic plague; others accused it of promoting baldness, tooth decay, sordid murders, caustic speech and fuzzy thinking.More recently many of us believed we could burn vast amounts of coal without disrupting the natural balance of the planet. No doubt we have still much to learn about coal, but at least we’ve been able to dispel many of the old myths.

The book talks about the history of coal, since Roman times to modern day. Barbara Freese talks about both the good and the bad sides of the mineral. As the author is an environmental lawyer, the book slightly tips on the bad side of coal, however the research is deep, insightful and entertaining.

Coal is appreciated by Ms Freese as the basis of the Industrial revolution and the rock that made the British Empire and the United States. It significantly improved living standards by increasing on a massive scale the efficiency of industrial processes.

On the other side, the bad environmental effects were constant, from the fumes and hard working conditions to current greenhouse gas problems.

The message of the book is that coal was never popular, but always useful. The author finishes the book on a positive note, such as using coal for in plastics and other alternative uses.

Marines (Crimson Worlds 1) – Jay Allan

The new officer AIs were the state of the art in quasi-sentient computers, and the designers had decided that giving them a soothing, human-sounding voice and an active personality would reduce stress on officers in the field. I can’t speak to the psychology of the officer corps in general, but the damned thing creeped me out. And it talked too much.

Marines is the first book of the Crimson World series, a military sci-fi saga with assaults on planets, marines, decrepit governments and futuristic technologies. The book follows the astonishing rise through the ranks of Erik Cain, from a gang member and low strata to major in the space marines.

Jay Allen creates a dystopia, 250 years in the future, where Earth superpowers fight in space among themselves for colonies, resources and warp gates access. Society returns generally to feudal politics level, with a tightly controlled population and only token elections. In this environment, the army provides a refuge for those willing to be in a meritocratic system, a brotherhood of arms.

Space marines and planetary colonies. Intro to the Crimson Worlds saga.

The author promotion of military values is visible throughout the book, rarely any officers or troops being unfit for job. The highest sought-out skill is military experience. Politicians are disdained. Colonists are brave people, willing to preserve democracies and the main reason of the protagonist’s motivation to fight.

The book is well-written, engaging, with good depth of characters. The universe is well described and the author tries to explain why things are as they are are, which adds to the depth of the book.

A drawback is the nearly perfect career of Erik Cain, who skyrockets through ranks without enough explanation why. He tops the academy (how? why was he special?). He displayed brilliance on the field (how? what others would do normally and he did differently and exceptional?). In this respect, I recommend the Man of War series or Star Carrier, also on the blog, who really kept the reader guessing.

The book reads generally as an intro to the series, with a rushed plot and some, but could have been more, description. Maybe next books in the series will have a more twisted plot.

Adrian’s Undead Diary: Dark Recollections – Chris Philbrook

I hit play on the CD player to fully set my trap, and Lady Gaga burst forth. A little bit of me died right then. I’m not saying she sucks or anything, I just think she’s a tad bit overplayed. Flavor of the month if you will. That’s not a pun regarding her likely fate as zombie food somewhere out there either.

Dark Recollections is the first book in a zombie series, following the adventures of the protagonist, Adrian, after a zombie apocalypse. The first book is a survivalist story, where Adrian, a former soldier, manages to escape the zombie rage and fortify a school campus as a strongpoint and safe house against zombies. He is alone, but has plans to contact other survivors, story that follows in the next book.

The volume reads as a journal, where Adrian presents the events or recalls how he got into and cleared the campus of zombies. The action sequences are beautifully paced, with several chapters presenting the view of other characters as well.

Journal of a survivor during a zombie apocalypse

The survival of Adrian is based on planning, luck, pragmatism and optimism. In the immediate aftermath, many people commit suicide in the face of a crumbling world and civilization. Adrian’s first kill was his mother, so the need to quickly adapt to the new reality was a prerequisite for survival from the beginning. Adrian also conscientiously decides to go alone for a while, with no other people in his compound; he would have accepted friends or acquaintances, but no newly-met people.

The drawbacks of the book is that the plot is quite straight-forward: in essence, a positive story during a catastrophe, where the protagonist survives almost unscathed to everything and has virtually perfect conditions, including physicality, to survive. He even has the prescience to buy guns in the same day as the zombie outbreak. No one invades his campus while he is away. The book is quite immersive, with detailed presentations of the world after the zombie apocalypse, but it could go even further, for example, what happened to the governmental structure, such as the army. Also, the protagonist has no hard moral decisions, except one: not looking for his girlfriend, but even there, there are arguments for his decision. Finally, there is no hard science. While, indeed, a zombie-based story is a quite a stretch of imagination, more detailed data on the aftermath, like One second after, could have brought greater depth to the book.

Overall, an entertaining book for those evenings when the reader wants a relaxing time. For the fans of the genre, one of the best zombie books after World World Z.

Most Secret War – R.V. Jones

The arguments in Whitehall concerning the weight of the rocket lasted throughout July and well into August. Herbert Morrison was near panic: on 27th July he was wanting the War Cabinet to plan immediately for the evacuation of a million people from London…

The book is a World World II memoir of Reginald V. Jones, responsible to anticipate and counter the German science applications in warfare, mainly air, and create new technical aids. Those weapons included radio navigation, radar, navigation for the Allied Bomber Offensive, and the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

R.V. Jones’ position in the British war effort, both in the Intelligence Section of Britain’s Air Ministry and in the MI-6, allowed him to be at the forefront of the technical war between NAZI Germany and the United Kingdom. He is now considered the father of technical and science intelligence and CIA has an award with his name.

The author’s account reveals much of the battles’ details fought with the technical minds in Germany, but also the experience of the war, the bureaucratic fights inside the various British ministries and his interactions with the British Prime Minister, of whom he was a great admirer.

British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945

The memoir is read as a wartime scientific detective story, with a strong espionage background. For example, he reveals how the V-1 (flying bomb) and V-2 rockets were assessed in terms of warhead capability and production. He fought with his own expert councils and with some ministers panicked of a possible mass attack over London. By looking at aerial photographs, the messages from the ultra secret decipher service at Bletchley Park; the spy reports; prisoners’ interrogations and others, he was able to correctly put together the puzzle of the V-1 and V-2 rockets and find counter-measures for them.

His battle was different than the ones with tanks and land offensives, but not less important. Without him and his counter-measures, the bombing of Britain in 1940 would have been a lot more accurate and the German air force would not have sustain the crippling losses.

This book is widely acclaimed as one of the best memoirs of the World World II, from one of the highest ranked positions in the British intelligence. I sincerely recommend it to all readers interested in history and science.

Pandore abusée – Peter F. Hamilton

Réveillez-vous, les gars. Ces étoiles sont à mille deux cents années-lumières de Tanyata. Tout ceci s’est produit quand l’Empire romain était à son apogée. L’astronomie, c’est de l’histoire mec.

Pandore abusée est le première tome de L’Étoile de Pandore saga (quatre volumes), part aussi-même de l’univers Commonwealth (huit volumes). Ce volume décrit une l’humanité prospère et expansive, qui a colonisé plus de 600 planètes jusqu’à en 2380, reliées entre elles par des trous de ver. L’humanité a découvert aussi la vie éternelle avec la réjuvénation.

Mais, dans une journée ordinaire, une astronome constate la disparition d’une étoile très distante, à un millier d’années-lumière. La seule explication est que l’étoile était emprisonnée dans un champ de force colossal 1 millier d’année avant. Pourquoi et qui a emprisonné une étoile entière ? Pour savoir qu’il se passe, l’humanité décide de construire le premier vaisseau interstellaire plus rapide que la vitesse de lumière. Qu’est ce que le vaisseau va découvrir ?

Peter F. Hamilton crée un univers complexe ou plusieurs histoires progressent, a cote de la trame principale : l’enquête de Paula Myo, une super détective, concernant les Gardiens de l’individualité ; la quête d’Ozzie Isaacs, le co-inventateur des trous de ver, sur les mystérieux, mais inoffensives extra-terrestres, les Silfens, sur leur planète ; l’histoire d’amour entre Justine Burnelli et Kazimir McFoster ; la tentative de sabotage des Gardiens contre le vaisseau interstellaire et autre.

Pourquoi et qui a emprisonné une étoile entière ?

L’entier saga est énorme, avec dizaine des petites histoires, qui parfois se mélangent entre eux.

L’imagination d’auteur est admirable et l’intrigue principale est fascinante, mais parfois c’est fatiguant de rappeler tous les personnages.

Un créatif and profond volume de science-fiction, mais qui a besoin de beaucoup d’attention.

Dance Dance Dance – Haruki Murakami

My peak? Would I even have one? I hardly had had anything you could call a life. A few ripples. some rises and falls. But that’s it. Almost nothing. Nothing born of nothing. I’d loved and been loved, but I had nothing to show. It was a singularly plain, featureless landscape. I felt like I was in a video game. A surrogate Pacman, crunching blindly through a labyrinth of dotted lines. The only certainty was my death.

This is one of the early books of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, written in 1988. It is the fourth in a series, but can be read as a stand-alone story as well. The book follows the phantasmagorical adventures of the protagonist, a freelance journalist, trying to decipher the mysterious disappearance of a loved woman.

The entire story is surreal, with a magic hotel and parallel worlds, different realities, foretelling dreams, the Sheep Man, murder of a call-girl, a clairvoyant teenager girl and many other bizarre things. That Murakami can introduce all those in a single plot, making a captivating story, is absolute genius.

The story is so far from the present reality,  so mind-boggling, with so many concepts that are changed or reinterpreted, that the writing and the stories of Murakami are truly unique.

With this writer, the reader either likes it or drops it. However, Murakami enjoyed a global success with his novels, so I would recommend a try.

[Featured picture: Infinity Rooms by Yayoi Kusama]

The Game – Neil Strauss

In life, people tend to wait for good things to come to them. And by waiting, they miss out. Usually, what you wish for doesn’t fall in your lap; it falls somewhere nearby, and you have to recognize it, stand up, and put in the time and work it takes to get to it. This isn’t because the universe is cruel. It’s because the universe is smart. It has its own cat-string theory and knows we don’t appreciate things that fall into our laps.

This is not an average book. You either love it or leave it.

There are professionals for every service, and the one described in this book is professional seduction for average-looking guys. Neil Strauss writes his story of how he got involved into this world, gradually evolving from newbie to master, meeting celebrities and giving seminars, basically exposing it through his own experiences. The nice part is how he found at the end a lovely lady to stay with, leaving back all the one-night stands.

A rich man doesn’t need to tell you he’s rich.

Professional seducers are guys/girls who use psychological tricks to attract and allure women. While it sounds unethical and childish, there is a proven rate of success which is good food for thought. Those tricks are not lies or cheats, but studied methods tried and tested over many evenings, which sometimes work.

Of course, the method has several important limitations. First, it helps getting to talk with a lady and get her attention, but actually staying in a couple is a totally different matter. Secondly, those methods were developed for US women and because of cultural changes, they could backfire spectacularly in other countries. Thirdly, their vocabulary is kind of teenage-ish, with AFC (average frustrated chump), PUA (pick-up artist) and PUG (pick-up guru).

While all mysterious and Don Juan-esque, the advice given is quite common sense: attraction is not physical, but mainly psychological; look clean; social pressure matters (attract friends of the lady first, make her advice group like you); etc.

The book is, obviously, misogynist and offensive, but also a cautionary tale. Not all bling-bling is what it looks like. As always, do not confuse the presented ideas with the author’s system of beliefs. You can entertain an idea without agreeing with it. Also, this is not a book of how to sleep with women.

It is divided in three parts: first part, where he presents the nice part of this seduction world; second one, where biographies and stories of various seduction artists are presented; and third, where he shows that many professionals self-destruct, because chasing women without settling becomes a soulless, lonely existence.

There are many ways to interpret this book: a study of human mating rituals, a world of self-destructing late teenagers, a misogynist eulogy (but there are woman seducers as well), a way to better understand the traps of seduction world or just a help to get talking with a crush you have. It is for the reader to decide.