Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


Bandwidth by Eliot Peper(Bandwidth, by Eliot Peper. 47 North, 2018, 252 pp., $24.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

(Warning: This review contains mild spoilers concerning the first two dozen or so pages of the book.)

In recent years, the beer mega corporations have been buying up independent small breweries. They’re continuing to use the small breweries’ names as a marketing tool while avoiding disclosure of the relationship of formerly independent breweries’ with the conglomerates. The list of fake craft brands include Ballast Point, Breckenridge, Kona, Pyramid, Redhook. . . . . The list goes on.

Now this trend has reached the publishing industry in perhaps even worse form. Meet 47 North.

When I picked up Bandwidth and saw the 47 North logo and name, I said “Ah! another small press publishing science fiction! Haven’t seen this before!” Then, after I finished the book and was preparing to write this review, I looked at the fine print on the copyright page. It read in part, “Amazon, the Amazon logo, and 47 North are trademarks of Amazon.com Inc. or its affiliates.”

So, we’ve now reached the point where we not only have fake craft breweries, but also fake small presses. (Yes, I know, traditional large publishing houses — almost all bought up in recent years by media conglomerates — have imprints, but Amazon is not a traditional publisher: it’s now vertically integrated in its bookselling/publishing arm, and seems to be attempting to achieve a monopoly in the bookselling trade. It’s already close, selling approximately 50% of all print books in the U.S. and 70% of e-books.)

As well, Amazon (following in the steps of the chain bookstores) has been largely responsible for the decimation of American independent bookstores, and has also been an absolute disaster for small presses. (The reasons for this are too complicated to go into in this review, however you can read more about the damage Amazon does to small publishers here and here.)

So, what to do about a book published by one of the tentacles of this octopus? To review or not to review? (Not coincidentally, U.S. independent bookstores almost across the board refuse to carry books published by Amazon.)

Unfortunately, I liked Bandwidth and don’t want to hold his publisher against the author, so . . . . .

Bandwidth is a near-future techno-thriller whose primary character, Dag Calhoun, is a highly placed lobbyist for sale to anyone with the cash to buy. Those with the cash include fossil-fuels corporations engaged in climate-change denial, and The Feed, the world-spanning company that has subsumed Facebook, Google, and to a large extent the Internet itself, and to which almost all people are connected 24 hours a day.

While on a lobbying assignment in Mexico City, Dag meets a mysterious woman, and shortly after is shocked to find that someone has total access to his Feed and its archives, including information that could send him and his clients to prison.

From there, he goes on a quest to find the woman who he suspects is the one responsible for the data breach.

The remainder of the book revolves around Dag’s quest, how Facebook-like entities can be used to shape perceptions and even personalities, the character transformation Dag undergoes — he’s initially very unlikable — while on his quest, climate change, climate-change denial, and especially whether the ends, no matter how high minded, ever justify the means.

Peper comes down on the right side of this question in Bandwidth, which makes his choice of a publisher highly ironic. It would have been hard for him to find a more evil means of conveying his message that the ends never justify the means. If he was conscious of the damage Amazon has done, and is continuing to do, to independent bookstores and small presses, his choice of Amazon as a publisher was quite hypocritical.

Authors, however, are often amazingly oblivious to the workings of the bookselling and publishing industries, so it’s certainly possible that Peper wasn’t aware of how toxic Amazon is to the book trade, small publishers, and ultimately the authors those small presses publish.

Despite the clear contradiction between Bandwidth‘s noble message and its odious means of delivery, I do recommend the book.

 

 

 

 


Corrupted Science front coverBloggers who review books and those readers who post book reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, etc., should be aware of NetGalley. It’s a service that provides free e-books to those who actually review at least some of the free e-books they download. This differs greatly from the unrestricted book-giveaway sites. While anyone can create a NetGalley reader account, prior to okaying a book download publishers can check to see how many of the books a particular reviewer downloaded he or she reviewed. So, publishers are free to turn down “reviewers” who have downloaded say 20 or 30 books and haven’t reviewed any or almost any of them.

But if you like to read e-books and actually review at least some of them, it’s great. It couldn’t be easier to sign up for this free service at NetGalley’s web site.

We just signed up with them as a publisher and currently have five e-books available for download by reviewers:

  • Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science (revised & expanded), by two-time Hugo Award winner John Grant. This brand new book (pub date June 15) covers the historical period from the days of Galileo to the present, and covers a very wide range of topics including fraud by scientists themselves, the vast array of corporate misuse and misrepresentation of science, and the misuse and misrepresentation of science by authoritarian regimes, notably Nazi Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the USA under Trump, with a special focus on climate change denial under Trump.
  • Sleep State Interrupt, by T.C. Weber. This cyberpunk thriller deals with an even more overtly repressive near-future America and the struggle against that repression by a multicultural crew of hackers and political activists attempting to wake the USA from its “sleep state.” Sleep State Interrupt received a Compton Crook Award nomination in 2017 for Best First Science Fiction Novel and has received dozens of favorable reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads.
  • Disbelief 101 front coverDisbelief 101: A Young Person’s Guide to Atheism, by S.C. Hitchcock. Not confined to atheism, this crash course in logical thinking covers the evils of childhood indoctrination, the incompatibility of rational thinking and religion, and the harm done by Christianity and Islam. The reviews were positive, with Booklist calling Disbelief 101 “Totally irreverent . . . cheeky and thought provoking” and The Moral Atheist saying, “We’ve read a library full of atheist books and this one ranks with the best. . . . Ignore the subtitle that says this book is for young people. It’s for everyone!”
  • The Watcher, by Nicholas P. Oakley. This far-future tale is a fine coming-of-age story brimming with social and political questions on technology, primitivism, ecology, and the uses and misuses of consensus process. Publishers Weekly noted: “Oakley provides a degree of complexity in what could very easily have been a one-sided didactic novel. This ambivalent examination of an idealist society and its less than ideal behavior offers the hope that Oakley will grow into a significant SF novelist.”
  • The American Heretic’s Dictionary (revised & expanded), by Chaz Bufe, illustrated by J.R. Swanson. This is the 21st-century successor to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and contains over 650 definitions and 60 illustrations, more than twice the number of each in the original edition. The book’s targets include the religious right, the “right to life” movement, capitalism, government, men, women, male-female relationships, and hypocrisy in all its multi-hued and multitudinous forms. As an appendix, The American Heretic’s Dictionary includes the best 200+ definitions from Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. The reviews have been overall quite positive, with the Mensa Bulletin commenting, “Such bitterness, such negativity, such unbridled humor, wit and sarcasm,” and Free Inquiry noting, “The quirky cartoons by J.R. Swanson nicely complement Bufe’s cruel wit. Recommended.” In contrast, we were pleased to see that Small Press deemed the book “sick and offensive” in that at least one reviewer seemed to recognize that there’s something to offend everyone in The Heretic’s Dictionary.

So, if you review books and any of these titles appeal to you, we’d suggest signing up with NetGalley now, as over the coming months we’ll be taking down these titles from NetGalley and replacing them with others.

Finally, just a reminder that book reviews are fun to write and that your reviews do matter and can be a tremendous help to small publishers.


(For the last few months we’ve been running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to many of our subscribers. This is a slightly revised post from 2016. Unfortunately, it’s even more pertinent today than when it first appeared.)

Why Your Reviews Matter

by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

Your Amazon and Goodreads reviews matter to small publishers, probably more than you realize.

There has been a drastic decline in the numbers of magazines and newspapers over the past two decades, and an even more drastic decline in the number that carry book reviews. The number of daily papers in the U.S. dropped roughly 15% over the past quarter century, and a great many of those remaining have reduced or entirely eliminated their book review sections. (This is in line with their overall reductions in news and feature coverage during the same period due to huge, presumably Internet-caused, revenue drops.)

The status of weekly papers is perhaps even more dire. Forty years ago there were independent weeklies in almost every major and mid-size city in the country, and a great many carried reviews. Since then, those that survived have been, and are still being, gobbled up by media conglomerates, the New Times chain being emblematic. That chain bought weeklies in half of the country’s largest markets, and the New Times papers I’m familiar with (and probably all of the rest) do not review books.

The situation here in Tucson is a case in point. In 2010, Arizona’s oldest daily newspaper, The Tucson Citizen, went under. The remaining Tucson daily, The Arizona Daily Star, now devotes only a half-page to reviews in its Sunday edition (no space at all in the others), and the formerly independent Tucson Weekly has been bought twice over the last 15 years by small media conglomerates. It used to carry weekly in-depth reviews of books by local authors. No more. Following its most recent sale, it stopped carrying book reviews and almost everything else that made it worth reading. It’s now little more than an advertising sheet of use only as bird cage liner (which is, literally, what I use it for).

Magazines are also in bad shape. Circulation (especially news stand circulation) has been declining simultaneously with the ascent of the Internet, and revenue has been plummeting: from $48.3 billion in 2007 to $27 billion in 2015. Two specialty magazines, Guitar Player and Bass Player, owned by the same company, are a case in point. From their glory days in the 1990s, their circulation has dropped by roughly half, and a few years ago they combined their staffs in a cost-cutting move. The end result of all this is that magazines have cut back their coverage, and it’s harder than ever to get reviews. (Bass Player and Guitar Player are exceptions to the rule, and are still very good about reviewing books.)

Compounding all this is the explosion in the annual number of new books over the past 25 years or so. The number of new titles reported by Books in Print, the best source for information on physical books, more than doubled over the last 15 years; the current total of new print books exceeds 300,000 per year. Add in e-books, and the number is likely over 1,000,000. (No one really knows how many e-books are published annually.)

Add this all up, and you have far more books competing for far fewer reviews in the remaining magazines and newspapers (the situation is similar with online review sites, which are overwhelmed), and for what little shelf space remains in bookstores.

The number of independent bookstores, where readers in decades past could discover books that received few or no reviews, has declined drastically over the past half-century. At present, they account for only 10% of the book market. So, that channel for readers to discover books has all but disappeared.

To make matters even worse, the large-circulation magazines tend to ignore books from small presses and to review primarily, often only, books from the half-dozen conglomerates that dominate the book publishing industry, and both television (and syndication-dominated) radio talk shows tend to book only the authors published by those same conglomerates.

What’s left for small publishers? Reader reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, Kobo, B&N, and other online retailer sites.

If you read a book that you like issued by an independent publisher, please consider writing even a one- or two-sentence review for Goodreads or any of the online book retailers. It’ll help both the author and the small publisher. And it’ll help other readers discover books they would enjoy.

Your reviews are more important than you think.

 


Corrupted ScienceReviews of Corrupted Science (pub date June 15) are starting to appear. Here’s a nice mini-review from The Revelator (“An initiative of the Center for Biological Diversity“)

“Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science (Revised & Expanded) by John Grant — I was a huge fan of this book when it was first released as a small hardcover 10 years ago. Now it’s back in a much larger and massively updated format. Grant (an award-winning science-fiction writer and editor) looks at centuries of history to expose how science has been misused and misrepresented since the age of Galileo — and into the modern climate-change denial movement and the Trump administration.”


The Water Will Come front cover(The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, by Jeff Goodell. Little Brown, 2018, 340 pp., $28.00)

 

It’s easy, even if you accept the science, to think of global warming as an abstraction, because, as regards the human perception of time, it’s a long term trend. That’s true even in many places which are already being affected, such as Southern Arizona, which is projected to suffer the highest temperature increases of anywhere in the lower 48.

We’re already experiencing drastic warming. Last year was the warmest ever here, we had our hottest June ever, with three days at 115F or above (46C), and we had almost no winter (well, what passes for winter down here: It’s below 70? Break out the parkas!).

The change in the weather is already affecting vegetable and fruit tree planting seasons here: What I and other gardeners used to plant in October, we now tend to put off until November (hottest ever last year). Or December. (It was so warm this winter that I’ve put off buying and planting a peach tree until this fall, hoping for cooler weather then.)

So, I’m already affected by long-term temperature increases, if only as a minor annoyance. But most people here don’t garden, are caught up in daily life, and find it easy enough to ignore gradually warming temperatures — at least until the next 116 or 117F day, which they’ll promptly forget once it cools down even slightly.

But it’s not so easy to ignore global warming in other places, specifically low-lying coastal areas and islands.

Hence the value of Jeff Goodell’s latest book, The Water Will Come. It serves as a timely reminder to those of us who live inland, those who are climate-change deniers, and those with head-in-the-sand attitudes living in low-lying coastal areas, that climate change (with a focus on ocean warming and sea level rise) is all too real, is already having drastic, destructive effects in some areas, and that the destructive effects will get worse, especially if we don’t do anything to mitigate them, while we still can.

Goodell, in plain, “just the facts, ma’am” prose, explores what’s already happening in places as diverse as Alaska (Inuit villages falling into the rising sea), Miami (ever-worse flooding), and the very low-lying Marshall Islands (which will disappear). Goodell does this through not only presenting the scientific facts, and through descriptive passages, but also through interviews with many local people who provide graphic illustrations of the effects of sea level rise on daily life.

While that’s valuable, I wish Goodell would have spent more time on mitigation efforts and ways of reducing CO2 emissions in the short term. But that’s not the point of The Water Will Come — those are topics for other books. Goodell’s point is that we have a real problem, and we need to start addressing it now.

If there’s one real fault with The Water Will Come, it’s that Goodell gives the Obama Administration, and Barack Obama himself, a complete pass in regard to dealing with climate change (and everything else). There are several passages in the book dealing with Goodell’s interviews with Obama Administration officials, and one with Obama himself, and the tone in those passages borders on worshipful.

Given how awful Donald Trump is, there’s a tendency on the part of liberals to venerate Obama while ignoring the fact that he was a lousy president who betrayed those who voted for him.

When he had real power, with big majorities in both houses of Congress during his first two years, what did Obama do? He produced a grossly inadequate stimulus package that was just large enough to save the big banks, but not the millions upon millions who’d lost their jobs and homes — for them, he did next to nothing; he pushed through a grossly inadequate healthcare measure (Michael Moore called it a “quarter of a loaf” measure) that was designed to preserve the parasitic healthcare insurance industry and big pharma; and beyond that, he didn’t even try to accomplish anything significant regarding climate change or much of anything else. (For more on Obama’s betrayal of the people who voted for him, see “Obama and His Base: An Abusive Relationship, part 3.“)

(I mention all this for two reasons: 1) one always suspects, generally correctly, that when writers treat politicians reverentially, it’s because they’re not fully doing their jobs — as Frank Kent famously said, “The only way a reporter should look on a politician is down”; and more importantly 2) because, if we elect another business-as-usual, corporate Democrat in 2020, it’s a good bet that his or her response to the climate crisis will be, as usual, very inadequate.)

But aside from the Obama worship, there’s little to dislike in The Water Will Come. The book is a useful reminder and illustration of the seriousness of the global warming problem, how bad its effects already are in some places, and how much worse those effects are likely to get — especially if we don’t start making real changes now.

Recommended.


How Democracies Die front cover(How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: Crown, 2018, 312 pp., $26.00)

 

It’s often worthwhile to point out the obvious, as Levitsky and Ziblatt have done here: the U.S. is undergoing a stress test of its democratic institutions, the increasingly authoritarian Republican Party is primarily responsible for the stress, and the means used by authoritarian parties to destroy democracy tend to be quite similar across the world.

The authors do a good job of outlining the commonalities of would-be dictators:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game;
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents;
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence;
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

The authors cite several examples to illustrate these points, including the Erdogan regime in Turkey, the Chávez regime in Venezuela, and the Trump regime (more politely, the Trump Administration) in the U.S.

They also cite three common tactics employed by authoritarians undermining democracy:

  1. Capturing the “referees” (especially the courts);
  2. Sidelining opponents (e.g., via slanderous charges and trumped-up criminal charges);
  3. Changing the rules (e.g., restricting the right to vote).

Again, they provide numerous examples, and again Trump and his Republican enablers are prominent among them.

These examples, these case studies of the attitudes and tactics of authoritarians, are the most valuable part of the book.

As for the analysis of why things have gotten so bad in the U.S., not so much. The authors are conventional liberals who see nothing fundamentally flawed in what, from its start, has always been a weak democracy with, almost from the start, a two-party duopoly under the control of the rich. (The authors don’t mention it, but George Washington, for all his virtues, was the richest man in the 13 colonies.)

While they’re not entirely uncritical of America’s past — for example, they include a good but quite brief history of the political aspects of Jim Crow in the wake of Reconstruction — they paint a remarkably rosy picture of America’s “democratic” past, with “backroom candidate selection . . . keeping demonstrably unfit figures off the ballot and out of office.” And this in reference to Warren G. Harding(!), arguably the most corrupt and incompetent U.S. president until Trump.

The authors are also rather obtuse regarding the underlying economic reasons for the current crisis in what passes for American democracy. They blame post-1975 “economic growth slowing” plus increased ethnic diversity as being the reasons for the current breakdown of political norms.

This is simply wrong. Since real wages peaked in 1972-1973, productivity growth has averaged roughly 1.75% per year, while wages have grown not at all. This means that the amount of goods and services produced per hour worked have approximately doubled over the last 45 years, with almost all of the gains going not to those who do the work, but to those who own the corporations. As well, there has been a distinct redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top over the same period, with the top 1% now owning nearly 50% of the nation’s wealth — a trend which Obama didn’t even try to address, and which is worsening under Trump.

Is it any wonder that people are fed up? That so many voters are so fed up with their stressful economic state and the corporate-controlled two-party duopoly — essentially a choice between evil and greater evil — that 41% of those eligible to vote in the last election didn’t even show up at the polls? Is it any wonder that so many feel so much economic pain that they’ll listen to demagogues who scapegoat minorities?

The authors’ prescription to put U.S. democracy back on the rails? To oversimplify, a return to civility between Democrats and Republicans. That might involve (they say this is a remote possibility) a reformed Republican party casting out the white nationalists and other authoritarians (good luck on that), plus the Democrats fighting Trump et al. in court and on the ballot, and the Democrats advocating a few minimalist common-sense reformist measures, such as universal healthcare coverage and a significantly higher minimum wage.

In the end, the authors see nothing fundamentally flawed in the present system. If you’re looking for bold strategies to address the fundamental inequities, injustices, and outright horrors in present-day America, you won’t find it in How Democracies Die.

The book’s value, though, lies in its clear presentation of the attitudes and tactics of dictators and would-be dictators, and its many case studies of authoritarian figures and regimes.

Recommended.


We published about 250 posts in 2017, and consider the following the 50 best. We’ve divided them into categories to make navigating easier; as with our past “best of” lists, the Humor, Politics, Religion, Music, and Science Fiction categories account for most of the posts. (Because several of the posts fit into more than one category, they appear in more than one place.) We hope you enjoy them.

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Civil Liberties

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Anarchism

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