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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Monday, June 29, 2009


"Protean stuff, this demographics!"

You mock, but demographics is the focus not only of both parties in their districting legislation, but also of our entire consumer culture. It is the science of crowd control, it is the discipline of advertising and it is how things work. You disdain it at your peril.

When a Community can present credible evidence that it is being disadvantaged by barriers to entry in the form of tests it has the obligation to object. The law has recognized this interest and the Appellate Court held in the Community's favor.

Only a radical, activist Court would find against the Community's lawful interest and hold the intent of the Congress unlawful.


Protean stuff, this demographics! Not only can it tell you what people believe, it can tell you what their test scores ought to be.

"Can the community's concerns be inferred quite so automatically from the community's demographics?"

In fact, the Community expressed itself directly to the point. When 90% of the possible promotions are available to members of only 40% of the demographic, the Community has the right to ask whether or not its interests are fairly represented.

"New Haven might be full of the sort of evolutionary throwbacks who are concerned mainly with whether their firemen can put out fires."

I submit that everyone who took the test was capable, else they would not have been eligible. The question was how to afford promotions without evidence of bias. In this regard, the test failed.

Only a Radical Activist Court could have found that the City of New Haven's reasonable concern that a Section VII violation be avoided could in itself be evidence of a Section VII violation.


Can the community's concerns be inferred quite so automatically from the community's demographics? For all we know, New Haven might be full of the sort of evolutionary throwbacks who are concerned mainly with whether their firemen can put out fires.

"I don't know how anyone could devise a test whereby individual minority candidates could be assured of doing as well as or better than the White test takers unless the qualifying exam is graded Pass/Fail and the available positions then filled by random draw from among the applicants who passed."

When over 60% of a Community is classified in national demographics as being in the "minority" and over 60% of the individuals taking the promotion exam in that Community are similarly classified as being in the national "majority", there can be questions of whether or not a promotion exam reflects the Community's overall interest when it delivers 90% of the available promotions to members of the national "majority" who are, in fact, less than 40% of the Community.

This is what most fair minded observers would call "disparate impact".

The fact that you do not know how to devise a test that more accurately reflects the community's concerns is not at issue.

The law required that any test producing the above result either be discarded or suffer challenge. A Radial Activist Court has read the law inside-out in order to negate its clear intent and the clear intent of the Congress that passed it.


I think the reporting on this whole thing has been inaccurate because it leaves the impression that the only people who passed the exam were white. According to the opinion, 43 Whites, 19 Blacks and 15 Hispanics took the test for lieutenant. 25 Whites, 6 Blacks and 3 Hispanics passed. There were 8 openings and the top 10 qualifiers would be considered for those position. Those top 10 were all white. The next three vacancies would have been filled from a pool that included at least 3 Black candidates.

41 people took the captain's exam, 25 Whites, 8 Blacks and 8 Hispanics. 16 Whites, 3 Blacks and 3 Hispanics passed. There were 7 open positions and they would be filled from the top 9 qualifiers, 7 Whites and 2 Hispanics.

It wasn't enough just to pass the test. Several minority candidates did just that. But not only did the applicants have to pass the test, they also had to score at or near the top because there were only so many positions available. (In the real world, we call that competition.) I don't know how anyone could devise a test whereby individual minority candidates could be assured of doing as well as or better than the White test takers unless the qualifying exam is graded Pass/Fail and the available positions then filled by random draw from among the applicants who passed. Of course the problem with that is that even a random draw might result in only white candidates being selected. Would that be more fair? Would anyone have objected to the "luck of the draw"?

“It may remind some of us old enough to remember of the machinations and contrivances of Southern white officials and agitators employed to prevent blacks from registering and voting.”

Yes, it does, but not the way you imagine.

When the members of a community, which is a significant part of a larger community, ask that they be served, in part, by members of their own community, and when they object to paying taxes to support civil servants that are not of their community, to the exclusion of their own, which, even though less prosperous than the larger community, is nevertheless a significant part of the tax base for the community at large, is this not quintessentially American? And democratic?

Are those that demand that they benefit from hiring practices that are open to questions of bias demanding a fair field of play? Are they recognizing the justifiable concerns of the community at large? Are they not attempting to impose unfair results on the community that has requested representation from its own ranks?

What is the basis for labelling the normal, ordinary, and honorable political activity of supporting a community racist?


“New Haven, faced with threats from a gang of racist bullies, caved in.”

This is a gross, and disingenuous, oversimplification.

When the test results met with objections, indeed pressure, from groups that had been so discriminated against in the past that the tests were themselves an attempt to eliminate the potential for bias, the Certifying Board held hearings into the possibility that the tests had not met their essential function of being bias free. The conclusion as a result of the hearings was that the tests could not withstand scrutiny under the intent of Section VII.

The law required that the results of any test that exhibited bias should either be discarded or suffer contest. The City of New Haven did the only thing it could do and its decision was ratified by two courts of appeal.

Only a RADICAL ACTIVIST "Supreme" Court could have negated the clear intent of Congress and denied the clear letter of the law by rewriting it to mandate that concern for the removal of bias in hiring practices is by itself proof of bias.


New Haven, faced with threats from a gang of racist bullies, caved in. That’s the ugly tale that Justice Alito recounted in his concurring opinion. Michael Barone has conveniently summarized the facts.

Mr. Hodges thinks that the city did the right thing. As Michael Barone says, that view is “typical of liberal elites who are ready to ratify squalid political deals – and blatant racial discrimination – in return for the political support” of hatemongers.

Such is governance these days in a liberal university town. It may remind some of us old enough to remember of the machinations and contrivances of Southern white officials and agitators employed to prevent blacks from registering and voting.

Courts that didn’t play along with those “machinations and contrivances” were accused of being “radicals”, too.

“If either is the case, the blame can be placed squarely on the contemporary practice of “affirmative action”.”

Actually, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to avoid “disparate impact” in the means used to evaluate employees. There is nothing in the Act that promotes advancing one group of individuals over another.

The proof of the Act’s lack of bias is the simple fact that if it did not require an even playing field, it would not have been possible for the majority to bend it back on itself.

As for the City of New Haven, it was certainly not inappropriate for it to invalidate the results of the test on the basis that it might face a Title VII challenge. As Alito makes plain, many members of the community had already threatened it and a review of the test by the certifying board led it to believe that it could not withstand such a challenge under precedent.

It required a radical, activist Court to overturn the intent of Congress and to undermine the reasonable desire of the City of New Haven to avoid allegations of bias.

And in doing so, this radical Court has attempted to dispose of "disparate impact" in an effort to create a foundation for bias.

Fortunately, the lessons learned prior to the filing of Ricci, in particular with the means of testing and evaluating employees, and more generally with regard to employment practices, have already rendered this decision an anachronism.


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Books by Tom Veal

Worth Reading (Non-Fiction)