Worth Reading (Fiction)

  • Mike Resnick: A Club in Montmartre: An Encounter with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
    Something different from this SF great's facile pen: An historical novel about Toulouse-Lautrec and the creation of his famous Moulin Rouge poster, seen from the point of view of a waif sheltered by the troubled artist. One in a series called Art Encounters, aimed at YA's but instructive and entertaining for anyone. (*****)
  • Terry Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky
    Ostensible children's book that will also appeal to adults. The education of a young witch — far more "realistic" than Harry Potter. (*****)
  • Harry Turtledove: After the Downfall
    Magically plucked from Berlin in 1945, a Nazi soldier finds himself in a parallel world that challenges his cultural assumptions. A well delineated picture of conflict between widely disparate civilizations, with a reminder that backwardness is not the same as stupidity. (****)
  • Connie Willis: All Seated on the Ground
    Connie Willis's annual Christmas story; a comedy about alien visitors who act much like annoyed maiden aunts. Making contact is a twin triumph of civility and true love. The story is also a good test of your knowledge of Christmas carols. 2008 Best Novella Hugo Award nominee. (*****)
  • Iain Pears: An Instance of the Fingerpost
    Mystery set in Restoration England. The murder of an Oxford don is recounted from four widely different viewpoints. Heavy on period detail. Metamorphoses into theological fantasy at the end, which may displease some readers. (****)
  • Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys
    Calling this comic novel a "sequel" to American Gods conveys the wrong impression. Anansi Boys is smaller in scope, funnier and more humane, though it likewise tells a story of dwindling gods adrift in the contemporary world. Anti-hero "Spider" steals the show and begs to be played by Will Smith in the movie version. (*****)
  • Neal Stephenson: Anathem
    If you have not a smidgen of interest in how Platonic philosophy relates to the "many worlds" version of quantum mechanics, you still may like this novel, though you'll probably wish that the characters talked less. Persevere. After a slow start, the story grows compelling, and the intellectual dialogues turn out not to be digressions. (*****)
  • E. Viollet-Le-Duc: Annals of a Fortress: Twenty-Two Centuries of Siege Warfare
    The history of a fictional French fortress from the 4th Century B.C. through the Napoleonic Wars, featuring detailed accounts of seven sieges. (****)
  • Richard Calder: Babylon
    A teenage girl in an alternative Victorian England, where the cult of Ishtar remains a living force, escapes her unhappy home for the fantastic world of "Babylon". She is to be trained as a sacred whore but is soon caught up in a secret war between the Illuminati, who dominate Earth, and their vicious enemies, the "Black Order". Her ultimate fate is bizarre indeed. (****)
  • Peter Watts: Blindsight
    The exploration of a giant alien artifact twists that familiar subgenre with a plausible, though ultimately unconvincing, argument that human self-awareness is a deleterious evolutionary accident. Characters include a vampire, a linguist with multiple personalities, a couple of cyborgs and a narrator whose special skill is absence of empathy. 2007 Hugo Award nominee (****)
  • James Patrick Kelly: Burn
    In a galaxy-spanning future, the planet Walden is a self-proclaimed "paradise" founded on simplicity and rejection of high technology. It also faces the problems of terrorism and disillusion, recounted through the story of a firefighter with a soul-corroding secret. A well-wrought picture of a distinctly odd society, with a plot whose moral dilemmas evade pat answers. Nominated for the Best Novella Hugo Award for 2006. (*****)
  • Tobias S. Buckell: Crystal Rain
    An inventive tale of a human colony isolated from galactic civilization, split between warring cultures and caught up in a vast conflict between alien races. Characters include an amnesiac ex-hero who wants to spend a peaceful retirement with his family, a quasi-human killing machine, a spy desperate to betray his masters, and a harried female dictator. Deserving of Hugo consideration. (****)
  • Charles L. Harness: Cybele, With Bluebonnets
    A touching, understated fantasy featuring Depression era Texas, youthful romance, chemistry, a ghost and love beyond death. (****)
  • Connie Willis: D.A.
    Connie Willis sends up overfamiliar "space academy" stories with this one about the only girl on Earth who has no desire to enroll. Then she is informed that her "application" has been accepted. Is it a weird mistake? A devious plot? Can she get out? Funny, though the moral is rather pat. (*****)
  • Tim Powers: Declare: A Novel
    An intricate Cold War fantasy that seems so plausible that one wonders whether it is the true story of why the Soviet Union rose and collapsed. (*****)
  • Dan Simmons: Drood: A Novel
    Mysterious events in the life of Charles Dickens, as told by his friend and rival Wilkie Collins. The plot involves involves mesmerism, violent deaths, an ancient Egyptian cult, specters, brain-eating scarabs, a Wilkie doppelgänger, and a gigantic conflagration beneath the streets of London. Or does it? The opium-addled Collins is the exemplar of the doubtfully reliable narrator. (*****)
  • Michael Flynn: Eifelheim
    A double narrative: the appearance of shipwrecked aliens in a 14th Century German village and the 21st Century discovery of the event. The interaction between a brilliant human theologian and rather ordinary denizens of an advanced civilization challenges chronologically based prejudices. 2007 Hugo Award nominee (*****)
  • John Derbyshire: Fire from the Sun
    Three-decker novel about the contrasting, intersecting lives of a Chinese boy and girl, born in the same mainland village and brought to America by force of circumstances. Romantic and compelling. (****)
  • Terry Pratchett: Going Postal
    A small-time con man must choose between death and the Ankh-Morpork post office - and takes the more dangerous option. Big business, fraud, low-tech hacking, young love and general hilarity. Pratchett's best novel since Pyramids. (*****)
  • Harry Turtledove: Gunpowder Empire
    Debut of a juvenile series set in parallel worlds. 22nd century teen siblings, trapped without adult aid in a besieged city, must cope with the bizarre (to them) customs and prejudices of a never-fallen Roman Empire. [Rating is for 11-17 year olds; adults may find the book too didactic and unsubtle for their tastes.] (*****)
  • Rodney Bolt: History Play : The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe
    A pseudo-history springing from the premise that Shakespeare's flashy predecessor survived the famous Deptford brawl and fled to the continent, where he secretly wrote almost all of the Bard's works. A clever, tongue-in-cheek reworking of literary history, with the bonus of vividly recreating the milieu shared by many real Elizabethan exiles. (****)
  • Kathleen Ann Goonan: In War Times
    The author builds this multiple universes story around her father's World War II diary, which is at least as interesting as the energetic, but not wholly coherent, main plot. The ending is a JFK assassination theory with a Ron Paulian(!) twist. Also included is more than I wanted to read about the WWII jazz scene. Overall, a book I would have liked to like better and that others may enjoy vastly. (****)
  • Connie Willis: Inside Job
    The editor of a paranormal-skeptic magazine and his beautiful assistant encounter a most unlikely ghost: ueber-skeptic H. L. Mencken. Connie Willis in her lightest, funniest vein. Nominated for the Best Novella Hugo Award for 2006. (*****)
  • Shauna Roberts: Like Mayflies in a Stream
    The epic of Gilgamesh, retold with the mythical elements kept to a minimum and an emphasis on how unpleasant it can be to live in the vicinity of a legendary hero. The heroine is well done: a woman who shapes her own life without being an anachronistic proto-feminist. The author's attention to historical and archaeological data is commendable. (****)
  • Alfred Duggan: Lord Geoffrey's Fancy
    Perhaps the finest book of one of England's finest historical novelists. The setting is 13th Century Greece, where Crusaders fought each other and the shattered Byzantine Empire. The history is accurate, the writing graceful and the characters not merely modern people in fancy dress. (*****)
  • Joe Haldeman: Marsbound
    Martian colonies are an old subject for SF, and this novel is in some ways an old-fashioned treatment, with the traditional elements of young settler, contact with Martians, and an alien menace. The plot and characters are so well done, however, that the story is fresh. The flavor is Heinleinesque, but the heroine is no Podkayne of Mars. (*****)
  • Terry Pratchett: Nation
    The first non-Discworld Pratchett in decades has the familiar mix of serious plotting and underlying farce, as an iconoclastic Polynesian lad and a properly raised Victorian lass carry on through tsunami, plague, shipwreck, pigs, pantaloon birds, gods, grandparents and cannibals. A tribute to courage in the face of physical and metaphysical ordeals - and funny, too! (*****)
  • Tim Powers: On Stranger Tides
    The classic tale of piracy and the supernatural. What the Pirates of the Caribbean movies should have been. (*****)
  • H. N. Turteltaub [Harry Turtledove]: Over the Wine-Dark Sea
    First in a series of O'Brian-like nautical adventures set in the tumultuous times following the death of Alexander the Great. The Aubrey and Maturin are merchant cousins, devil-may-care Menedemos and intellectual Sostratos, who roam the Mediterranean looking for profit and girls, while avoiding storms, pirates and jealous husbands. Meandering plot but great fun. (*****)
  • Robert Ferrigno: Prayers for the Assassin
    A combination of suspense novel and a plausible vision of America after a Moslem takeover. It loses a star only because defeating the super-villain is just a trifle too easy. Review. (****)
  • Vernor Vinge: Rainbows End: A Novel With One Foot In The Future
    In a near future in which every crank can deploy WMD's that make contemporary Islamofascists look like schoolboys, a poet who has lost his talent and his spunky granddaughter find themselves up against a conspiracy to solve the world's problems by eliminating free will. The careful extrapolation is mixed with some silly ideas and burdened with a sentimental Alzheimer's recovery story. 2007 Hugo Award nominee (****)
  • Simon Montefiore: Sashenka: A Novel
    Both grim and funny, this historical novel peers into the inner world of an upper class Russian girl turned loyal Bolshevik, highlighting her youthful fling at revolution-making in Petrograd, her fall from grace under Stalin, and an historian's effort, after the end of communism, to ascertain her fate. (*****)
  • Robert Ferrigno: Sins of the Assassin
    The middle volume of a trilogy about a near-future, Moslem-dominated U.S. Most of the action takes place in the independent "Bible Belt", where resistance to Islamic domination is sometimes heroic and sometimes pathological. More of a pure thriller than its predecessor but good on its own terms (****)
  • Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays (Library of America, 131)
    Fiction and essays by a black American writer who deserves a wider audience. (****)
  • Joe Haldeman: The Accidental Time Machine
    Maybe all the variations on time travel are played out, but Joe Haldeman makes the old tropes enjoyable in this story of a down-on-his-luck grad student who invents a time machine without really trying. The resolution of the ensuing paradoxes comes very near to being credible. (****)
  • David Selbourne: The City of Light
    Supposedly the journal of Jewish merchant who visited China c. 1270, this historical novel uses an encounter between Judaism and medieval China as a springboard for a lightly disguised examination of contemporary political and moral issues. Since Selbourne is a fascinating thinker, his characters' thoughts are fascinating, too. (****)
  • Matthew Pearl: The Dante Club
    Literary mystery involving Boston's post-Civil War intellectual elite in a series of atrocious murders inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. Weak as a whodunit, strong on atmosphere. (****)
  • H.F.M. Prescott: The Man on a Donkey
    Set during the Pilgrimage of Grace, this is the rare historical novel that captures the mindset of the actors. The hero, Robert Aske, was martyred in a way that makes burning at the stake look merciful. (*****)
  • Harry Turtledove: The Man with the Iron Heart
    Can the U.S. maintain its resolve against a defeated enemy's terrorist campaign? Imagining a post-World War II Nazi insurgency, Harry Turtledove puts this question into a new context. As Reinhard von Heydrich's "werewolves" devastate Germany, war-weary Americans call for withdrawal, regardless of the consequences. (*****)
  • H. N. Turteltaub [Harry Turtledove]: The Sacred Land
    Third volume in a series of seafaring adventures set in the Hellenistic era. Ill-matched merchant cousins Menedemos and Sostratos seek profit in exotic Tyre and Jerusalem. (*****)
  • Steven E. Plaut: The Scout
    Short novel based on the true story of an Arab scout in Israeli service. (****)
  • Jasper Fforde: The Well of Lost Plots
    Thursday Next continues her hectic adventures in a universe where books come alive, literally. Newcomers should start with The Eyre Affair (****)
  • Clark Ashton Smith: The White Sybil and Other Stories
    A slim, representative sampling of Ashton Smith's weird, richly worded fiction. The best pieces are highly readable today; the less good are at least entertaining and will enhance the reader's vocabulary. (****)
  • Tim Powers: Three Days to Never: A Novel
    Time travel, ghosts, Albert Einstein's daughter, ancient conspiracies, a blind assassin, a Mossad agent who will die if he hears the telephone ring: With his customary bravura and skill, Tim Powers fashions a coherent and exciting story out of a strange assortment of materials. (*****)
  • Terry Pratchett: Thud!
    After 30 books, one might fear that Discworld is in danger of fatigue. Au contraire, this witty, vigorous tale of the culmination of an ages-old conflict between dwarfs and trolls, with Sam Vimes and Ankh-Morpork in the middle, is one of the strongest volumes yet. (*****)
  • Jack McDevitt: Time Travelers Never Die
    A pleasant, though insubstantial, addition to an overcrowded subgenre. After inheriting a time machine, an aimless young man and his friend play temporal tourists. Not a whole lot ensues, and there are some silly mistakes (such as Greeks wearing togas). Still, it goes down smoothly, and the inevitable paradoxes are handled quite well. (****)
  • Theodore Odrach: Wave of Terror
    Based on the author's experiences when the Soviet Union occupied his homeland after the Stalin-Hitler Pact, this book melds Chekov and Solzhenitsyn. By stages, the isolated folk of the Pripyet Marshes learn that there are worse masters than their former Polish overlords. (*****)
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Friday, July 16, 2004


I changed my mind - I do have more to say. (See my previous post below.)

WRT Annie stating that the flight attendant asked her husband to write down a description of the man in the yellow shirt - It is quite possible that she did do this. Not because she couldn't do it herself, but because assigning responsibility to someone is a good way to get them to focus about something specific and not focus on the terror they are experiencing. If he concentrates on describing someone, he is more likely to calm down and do the task at hand. If the Airmarshal's statement was correct and Annie and her husband were getting hysterical, then I know the flight attendant would do these things to calm them down (tell them there were airmarshals on board, ask them to describe the men, confide in them). She was trying to avoid a panic. She did what she thought would help. Sounds like it did.

My second thing is in regards to the Airmarshal stating that Annie was the real threat on the plane. The Airmarshal/s were afraid that Annie would cause them to reveal themselves. Why would they care if there was no perceived threat with the Syrian men? Why did they call the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to meet the plane, instead of airport security (as you would do in the case of un unruly passenger)? Why, when the plane landed, did they not target Annie, instead of the 14 men?

I think a lot of people on that plane were a bit scared and a bit concerened. Now that it is after the fact, everyone can point blame at little ole Annie - to protect the airline industry and protect the fact that the goverenment agencies are still unprepared.

Now I do sound like a conspiracy theorist... haha

I don't know, I just think there is waaayy more at play here then we know. (See my previous post).

I think it is unfair for people to attack Annie Jacobsen. I believe her fear was real and that she did not intentionally try to create a story.

Did you all forget what happened on 9/11?? Would any of you, previous to 9/11 have believed that it was possible for terrorists to level the twin towers??

I think Annie and others on that flight were scared, and they have a right to be. Middle eastern men killed 3000 Americans by hijacking a plane. Did she read more into their behavior and become hysterical with fear? Maybe, but can you say you would have acted differently in the same situation? Something scared her, and others on the plane. Why?

I also think we should remember that the airline industry was almost crippled after 9/11 because everyone was afraid to fly. If the airline industry goes under, so do a lot of other businesses - travel agents, advertising agencies, food/beverage distributers, training schools, hotels, cruise ships... and all of those companies buy advertising space in newspapers, on radio stations, on the internet and TV. Is it possible that a lot of those larger companies fund political campaigns or sit on boards with other industry/business/political leaders??

I am not one for huge conspiracy theories or anything but I think there is more to this story. If our country panics and people stop flying again... well, there is a lot to lose - a lot of money. There are people out there who I am sure do not want the airlines to crumble.

We do know this much:

1. The men were detained and interrogated. SOMEONE believed these men to be a threat, besides just Annie.

2. The FBI had issued a warning that morning about possible terrorist activity - so the FBI believed that activities such as trial runs were happening or possible that day out of those two airports. So, the FBI believed it, and Annie thought she was living it...

3. These men all entered with expired visas. Nobody noticed. We have a FAR way to go still wrt training...obviously.

That's all I have to say.

Read George Carlin's "Brain Droppings" and learn how to seriously -- and not so seriously -- unravel crap like Ann Jacobsen's. What a jerk, and I don't mean just here! She does it on a regular basis.

Me: Except for a rather commonplace article on home equity loans for the WomensWallStreet site, I haven't been able to locate anything by the Annie Jacobsen who wrote "Terror in the Skies, Again". (The "Creative Writing, Dreamwork, Individual Psychotherapy" Annie Jacobsen doesn't appear to be the same woman.) Can you provide references to her other writing? This is, of course, obvious "due diligence" that is too much trouble for our vigilant professional news media.

July 21, 2004, 7:21 p.m.
The Syrian Wayne Newton
The man inadvertently behind a scare in the skies.
By Clinton W. Taylor


The attitude of the so-called "skeptics" is what got 3,000 innocent americans killed! I feel that it is our duty as citizens of this country to be vigilant. I also think that we cannot stop this war against terror by sitting back and waiting for them to attack us. I believe that sometimes a good defense requires a good offense.

Me: For the record I was advocating "a good offense" as long ago as December 1, 2001.

I think it is the "skeptics" who are being too creative in their writing.

Re: flight attendant's actions, maybe she wanted him to write the description because she didn't want to write it, fearing she might catch flak for "profiling" those passengers, whereas another passenger would not.

In terms of her whispering, maybe she just got nervous and made some mistakes. Or maybe she was trying to stop passengers from getting involved and making things worse. Yes, it doesn't seem like the proper procedure, but that doesn't mean a flight attendant didn't do it. People under stress make mistakes and/or scr-w up.

Re: number of suspects being too high for one flight (a criticism I find very flimsy) - maybe there were TWO TEAMS doing a dry run on the same flight. They were using separate lavatories yet following the same behavior patterns. Maybe they think multiple dry runs on ONE FLIGHT is less conspicuous overall than doing separate runs on a separate flight. Maybe it's easier to compare notes with more eyes on one flight. Maybe one man (the man in yellow?) was overseeing a training run, to see who is ready, etc. Who's to say?

The real moral of all this is that our airline security today is still not what it should be, and that the Bush admin could have better spent our Iraq war money on internal defenses. THAT'S how to fight terrorism.

Quote: "The last man came out of the bathroom, and as he passed the man in the yellow shirt he ran his forefinger across his neck and mouthed the word No." End quote

So, while passing his comrade the hijacker doesn't lean over and just whisper, but rather makes an obviously incriminating gesture that the whole plane can see? Yeah, right.

Isn't the fact that she quotes Ann Coulter enough to discredit the whole story? Or at least her interpretation of events?

I too share some skepticism, particularly here account of the what the flight attendant said and did. But…

"But did the Syrians engage in the bizarre rituals that she attributes to them?"

If several law enforcement agencies did question them, as confirmed, it would seem logical that there was some level of 'bizarre' behavior. I would be more skeptical that in our politically correct time law enforcement would question 14 middle eastern men without suspicious behavior to boot.

Maybe it was these guys...

My take on it here .

Michelle Malkin is able to confirm the essential details of Mrs. Jacobsen's encounter.

Hardly. What she confirmed was that a group of Syrian musicians were indeed on the flight and were questioned. The essence of Jacobsen's story is that they were behaving in a fashion so suspicious that any reasonable person would have thought them terrorists.

Given that the musicians were apparently released after questioning by multiple agencies, it seems reasonable to assume that it was a false alarm. In which case, Jacobsen's article seems to mainly serve as an example of how quickly even a professional journalist can ramp up from a reasonable fear to raving paranoia.

Certainly she fails to mention that the Detroit area, where she departed from, is known as the Arab capital of North America; in my experience it's not unusual to see people of Arab descent at DTW. And after writing, "the man in the yellow shirt he ran his forefinger across his neck and mouthed the word No," she doesn't even stop to ask herself why native Arabic speakers rehearsing a terror attack would be communicating in English and with gestures familiar to her.

I have elsewhere lamented the absence of great Americans like Todd Beamer on this flight. Having read the foregoing doubts, many of which I share, I add mine to the list. Can it really be believed that in post 9-11 America, not a single passenger on this flight would have the moxy to, say, ask for a french fry? See the flute? I think not. At least, I hope not.

The thing that I noticed early on in the story was that the author remembered WAY too many details about these Syrian passangers, even before they were suspicious. It just does not seem believable that she would remember this amount of detail:
Standing near us, also waiting to pre-board, was a group of six Middle Eastern men. They were carrying blue passports with Arabic writing. Two men wore tracksuits with Arabic writing across the back. Two carried musical instrument cases - thin, flat, 18 long. One wore a yellow T-shirt and held a McDonald's bag. And the sixth man had a bad leg -- he wore an orthopedic shoe and limped.

Frankly, this reads more like a novel than a witness statement.

As aware Americans, my husband and I exchanged glances, and then continued to get comfortable.

This is just too corny to be believed.

One by one, they went into the two lavatories, each spending about four minutes inside.

Seriously, did she have a stop watch and was she keeping notes? Again, this reads like fiction.

My conclusion? This is work of fiction that was inspired by a true story and a good deal of paranoia.

Regarding the levels of air marshals, this flight had 14 Syrians with one way tickets. For all we know, major airports could have a group of air marshalls that sit around in shifts waiting for such 'red flag' flights. Upon finding such a flight they dump a team of marshals on the flight just in case. This may explain the notion that there were plenty of air marshals on the flight (althought I doubt it, last I heard they were all busy protecting the flight in and out of Washington and damn the rest of us).

What I do find hard to believe is the idea that the stewardess would be so open talking about it. Did she go around everyone telling them this? It seems quite a few were able to spot the activities going on.
Why would the stewardess ask them to write the description? Surely it would be better for her to do it since she is 'in the business' and probably has had some sort of training on being observant. If a bank is robbed, you don't ask the blind old lady what she saw, you get the scoop from the police officer that was parked across the road.

Remember that they load certain flights with Air Marshals disproportionately. I believe this one was going to LAX, so I'm not a bit surprised that they would have a few on board.

who cares if its true?
probably just a neurotic wannabe journalist but if it makes all of us more watchful while flying the better

This story is flying around the internet at near-record speed (getting linked by Instapundit has a way of doing that). At some point, someone else who flew on flight 327 is going to read it. Seeing as how the basic facts of 14 Middle Eastern men on the flight checks out, I doubt anyone on that plane forgot it.

I tend to believe Ms. Jacobsen, especially in light of Michelle Malkin's background work. If I was on that plane in any capacity -- pilot, attendant, passenger -- I don't know how I would have reacted other than I would have been scared out of my wits.

The terrorists may be taking 14 on board to better be able to fend of passenger interference. They assume passengers will no longer sit idly by, so a small cadre of guys hold off the passengers -- those aisles are pretty skinny -- the rest do the deed.

Michelle Malkin is able to confirm the essential details of Mrs. Jacobsen's encounter.



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Books by Tom Veal

Worth Reading (Non-Fiction)