Monday, May 21, 2012

A Matter of Time, by Glen Cook

A Matter of Time, by Glen Cook

This is a strange book, but enjoyable. Part Manchurian Candidate, part The 6th Day, and part Quantum Leap, Cook starts his novel in the 1970s but flips the point-of-view between chapters as far back as 1866 and as far forward as 2058. The pace is fairly slow, but as the pages turn and the seeming disparate events start to gel the plot becomes more and more compelling. I found the cops of 1975 a bit too willing to accept time travel as a viable solution to their murder, but otherwise the characters seemed to fit their time periods fairly well. Overall a solid if not memorable novel.

First Sentence:
Total darkness.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Interstate 69, by Matt Dellinger

Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, by Matt Dellinger

Interstate 69 is supposed to run from the Michigan/Canadian border to the Texas/Mexican border. "It could be the last great interstate built in America. Or it might never be finished at all." I-69 through Texas is supposed to run where US-59 does today, including through my wife's hometown of El Campo. When we started dating in 1991 (man, we are old!) I noticed several signs reading "Future Interstate Corridor" along the highway; as this was well before the days of Wikipedia I couldn't find much information on the new road. So, when I came across Dellinger's book, I snapped it up!

Unlike the majority of the Interstate system, I-69 was to be created with long segments of brand-new roads rather than upgrading existing ones. For the land-owners and towns affected, this meant serious opportunity and/or serious jeopardy depending on how much money stood to be gained or how much of the family farm would be lost to eminent domain. The detractors largely fall into the NIMBY camp: "We like things the way they are, they say, so take your progress someplace else." Dellinger goes out of his way to be fair to both sides of the argument, but at the end of the day I sided strongly with the people that want the new Interstate. The arguments for the roads admittedly often revolved around the money to be made rather than service to the public, but the arguments against were all emotion and whining—very little rational thought there.

The status of the road today is inconsistent. Large stretches of it are open and active today, but it is far from contiguous. Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas all have highways labeled I-69, but outside of the roughly 350 miles between Indianapolis and Port Huron there isn't a single length of road over 100 miles long out of the 1700 miles of the intended route. The long parts that aren't built are largely due to the opposition that arose through the various states.

The conclusion was interesting, as Dellinger doesn't really take sides, but instead ends on questions and possibilities. "What if I-69 is never built? What if it remains an awkward, half-finished monument to the people who've tried to build it and the people who've tried to stop it? Some will say the lack of wherewithal and resolve is a sign of a once-great nation faltering. And others will say it's progress, a welcome signal that our highway binge is done and we're ready to rebuild the rails and sidewalks we've ignored for too long." This open-minded approach will probably annoy hard-core believers on both sides of the transportation debate, but I thought not judging in favor of either was fitting for a road that is only partially constructed.

First Sentence:
You have to hand it to Haynesville: The town keeps its chin up.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Devices and Desires, by K. J. Parker

Devices and Desires: An Irresistible Tale of Corruption, Betrayal, and Revenge, by K. J. Parker

Wow. This first installment of The Engineer Trilogy is a strong start to the series. The lead character is an mechanical engineer; considering the bulk of the story involves a war between neighboring states a politician or warrior would be more usual, but the setting of this fantasy novel is a place with no magic and no gods, so having a logical, methodical lead is quite sensible. In this world engineering is a closely guarded secret possessed by only one country, meaning only one country possesses effective war machines. When a talented engineer is found guilty of a seemingly minor transgression and sentenced to death, events are set into motion that will change the balance of power on an unfathomable scale.

One of the underlying tenets of the novel is that while love is something everyone wants to have, it is also the cause of virtually all sorrow as well because people will do anything to obtain it. "Love ... is the most destructive force in the world, doing more harm than war and famine put together." "All the evil in the world, all the harm and suffering it's possible to come to, are concentrated in one place; in love." Indeed, our hero starts a war that will kill people on an heretofore unprecedented rate simply to overthrow his former country, vacate his conviction and exile, and return to his wife. An engineer seems an odd character to have such a Machiavellian grasp of human nature to orchestrate such a world wide upheaval, but in his own words, "People are easy enough to figure out, if you make an effort."

Even though this is 600+ pages, I largely read this in a single sitting during a recent trip to England. I found this so compelling I didn't sleep for the entire flight, making for my first day on the ground a long one! Though set in a world very different than ours, Parker has a few innocent winks at pop culture scattered throughout; my favorite was a paraphrase of my favorite moment in The Replacements: "You know the old saying: pain's temporary, glory is forever, and the girls dig the scars." Awesome.

Intricate and engrossing, I loved this novel and can't wait to read the next in the series!

First Sentence:
"The quickest way to a man's heart," said the instructor, "is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye socket."

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