Mini-reviews of books I read last month... 1. "Zodiac" by Neal Stephenson <http://www.amazon.com/Zodiac-Stephenson/dp/0802143156> This novel is described as an eco-triller: think Rainbow Warrior meets Bourne Identity. Written by renowned cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson, perhaps it should be classed as enviropunk? Our hero, Sangamon Taylor (S.T.), is a rogue chemist who works for environmental activists who expose pollution and other dirty deeds of big corporations. He think he's found evidence of organochlorines dumped into the Boston harbour. Although they've been at the bottom of the harbour for years, the drums have only recently started leaking. The company knew this would happen, and was secretly taking steps to clean up the mess before being found out. An experimental program was started to genetically engineer super- bugs to consume the dioxins and convert them to safer compounds. Unfortunately, things don't go quite to plan, and it all starts getting messy. A pacy and enjoyable page-turner. Like later, more well-known books by the author, there's exposition of some technical topics, in this case organic chemistry. However, as a novel I don't think it stands up as well as against "Cryptonomicon", which is probably my favourite Stephenson novel. Later stuff hasn't been as consistent, and tend to be overlong, like his most recent novel, "Anathem". In that novel, I was intrigued by the set-up of another world and different way of life, but once the story moved to the real "action", I found it became tedious and lacked believability. I might re-read the two classic cyberpunk novels which initially got me hooked on the author: "Snow Crash" and "The Diamond Age". It will be interesting to see if they still stand up, or if they simply captured the spirit of the age. 2. "Scale" by Will Self <http://www.amazon.co.uk/Scale-Self/dp/0146000315> This is a little collection of loosely-connected short stories. The common theme, or perhaps more precisely, the common word, is "scale". In the title story the narrator is a man who confesses to having lost his sense of "scale". Other stories mention the word in different senses, such as the scales of a frill-necked lizard, bathroom scales, and the ever-present issue of crusty scales on the inside a kettle. I found the stories slightly off-beat. I might check out a more complete set of the author's short stories. 3. "Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami <http://www.amazon.com/Kafka-Shore-Murakami/dp/1400079276> Another solid, imaginative novel by one of my current favourite authors, Haruki Murakami. There are two parallel story lines, which are resolved by the end of the novel. One plot line follows the coming of age of a young Japanese boy, while the other follows an old man's final adventure. The boy, adopts the name "Kafka" and runs away from home. His mission is to become "the world's toughest fifteen-year-old." Nakata, the old man, was involved in a mysterious incident during World War II, when he suddenly lost consciousness along with his classmates while out on an excursion. Unlike the others though, he lapsed into a coma and awoke to having lost the ability to read and write. However, he seems to have picked up the ability to talk to cats, which allowed him to earn some extra money as a finder of lost cats. Like Murakami's other novels, music plays a part in the lives of the protagonists. For example, a character is introduced to Beethoven early in the story and becomes obsessed with the man and his music. The guy is fascinated by one piece in particular, the 40+ minute epic "Archduke" trio. Other typical Murakami touches are present, such as supernatural abilities and otherwise ordinary-looking people inwardly living unconventional lives. 4. "The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol" by Nikolai Gogol <http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Tales-Gogol/dp/0375706151> This is a collection of short stories by early-19th Century Russian author, Nikolai Gogol. His writing is considered a pre-cursor to the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Franz Kafka. The early stories are set in rural Ukraine, and many of the characters were superstitious people who fear witches and devils. While these stories paint an interesting picture of life on the Russian frontier, they didn't really grab me. The later stories were set in the then Russian capital of St Petersburg, and I enjoyed these more. A famous example is "The Nose", about a man whose nose decides to take off one morning and live a life of its own. Along with "The Overcoat", in which a character has a mean existence while dealing futilely with bureaucrats, is a fore-runner of some of Kafka's famous work almost a century later. Soon I hope to read Gogol's classic novel, "Dead Souls". 5. "Il tempo invecchia in fretta: Nove storie" by Antonio Tabucchi <http://www.amazon.com/Tempo-Invecchia-Fretta-Tabucchi/dp/B0033J788C> This is an intriguing collection of nine stories by Antonio Tabucchi, (who wrote "Pereira Sustains"). This collection's title roughly translates as "Time Ages Hastily", and the stories share the theme of the passing of time and how people struggle to deal with it. The central characters in each of the stories has gone though difficult times, such as living in a police state, surviving a concentration camp, or restoring peace after war in the Balkans. One of my favourites was about a man recovering from his war-time injuries on a beach by the Adriatic Sea. He has regular conversations with a young girl who is also holidaying there with her parents. She's a bit of a naive idealist, while he cautions against ideals and what they can lead to. Things lighten up when the man reveals he's studying cloud formations, and he teaches her how to predict the future from the formations.