A. S. Byatt
Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

"Baglady", a wonderful short-short, begins:

'And then', says Lady Scrope brightly, 'the Company will send cars to take us all to the Good Fortune Shopping Mall. I understand that it is a real Alladin's Cave of treasures, where we can all find prezzies for everyone and all sorts of little indulgences for ourselves, and in perfect safety'

It's all here: the mysterious East, wives abroad, British class, vulgarity, the narrator's ironic condescension. The small, intense women of the small, intense stories are wonderfully, strangely real. The bigger, heroic "A Lamia of the Cevennes" and "Cold" can't quite match the dexterous irony of the stories that enfold them.

Scott Simon
Home and Away

The host of NPR's Weekend Edition crafts a wonderful memoir of Chicago sports and Chicago politics. Ernie Banks and Richard J. Daley, Leo Durocher and Jesse Jackson. Simon's chapter on the '69 Cubs (who lost to the Miracle Mets) is the only account I've seen that captures the spirit of a time that, for Chicagoans, outshines the Boys of Summer or Murderer's Row.

Hwee Hwee Tan
Foreign Bodies

Mei is a young, Chinese lawyer in Singapore and her boyfriend, a bored British expat, has been jailed on suspicion of running a gambling ring. Tan makes it the occasion for an evocative portrait of a generation that lives on the edge of many cultures and belongs to none. At times, Tan's first novel sounds like _Gish Jen meets Jane Smiley_. Parts feel forced: could any lawyer really be as ineffectual as Mei, or is this just a plot device to keep the novel from being tagged a mystery?

Janet Evanovich
High Five

NJ bail bondswoman Stephanie Plum copes with family crisis, a stalker, romantic indecision, miscreants, and bad housekeeping.

David Hartwell, ed.
Year's Best SF 5


Hartwell is a master of the introductory paragraph, a staple of science fiction anthologies. Unlike many predecessors, though, Hartwell usually has something to say. Of Greg Egan, he observes that "he remains socially isolated from the SF field -- nobody has met him in person." Some lovely stories (Hiroe Suga's "Freckled Figure", Robert Sawyer's "Blue Planet"), but either it was a dull year or I'm becoming a fussbudget about craft.

Catherine Lim
Meet Me on the QE2!

Catherine Lim may be Singapore's most acclaimed novelist, but this is not her most acclaimed book. Some years ago, Lim went on a cruise, armed with notebooks and satirical intent, only to find her weapons strangely blunt. She attributes this to the ship's enchantment, though more skeptical readers may wonder whether Lim abroad is up to the standard of Lim at home. A fluffy book.

David Foster Wallace
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

If you want to read about a cruise, read this. Even if you don't, read this anyway. Capping an uneven collection, the title pieces (which is almost 96 pages long) is one of the great essays of the decade. David goes on a cruise ship, revels in the experience, hates himself for revelling, takes revenge on himself, the ship, the crew, and the spume -- everything with brilliant prose.

Patrick O'Brian
The Ionian Mission

Eighth in the series of wonderful naval adventures. The Times once suggested that these were the best historical novels ever written, and it might be time to take the claim seriously. The Aubrey/Maturin novels need to be regarded as a single, very large work -- one best experienced gradually over many years; it's another interesting sign that this is the age of ultranarrative.

Scott McCloud
Reinventing Comics

The sequel to McLoud's indispensible Understanding Comics. A vital examination of the future of electronic publishing, focusing on the comic industry but by no means limited to comics. McCloud's espousal of micropayments gets the most space and has attracted the most attention, but other topics are more intriguing -- especially the tension between hypertext and spatial narrative.

David Liss
A Conspiracy of Paper

A historical mystery in which a Jewish ex-boxer tries to unravel intrigue at the edges of the incipient South Sea Bubble scandal. Liss's historical detailing ranges from superb to feeble; he does a wonderful job in the coffeehouse and exchange, but all his characters, Jews and gentiles, sound pretty much alike.

William Gibson

Middle novels in trilogies are almost always weak. Idoru breaks the jinx with the most interesting vision of a cyber-future since Neuromancer. The new vision makes an interesting contrast, too; where once we jacked in, now we tell the stewardess on the shuttle that we've "got gogs" (meaning goggles) . Best Gibson since Count Zero.

Martin Fowler
Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code
An important book, likely to be among the most influential computer science monographs of the late 90's. Fowler takes a intuitive programming practices -- things you just _know_ -- and explains them, giving us a way to think systematically about things that, only a year ago, were just part of the mystery of the craft.
Kent Beck
Extreme Programming Explained

This is going to be one of the most widely-discussed software books of recent years. Beck turns orthodox methodology on its ear and offers some intriguing economic arguments for why scruffy development practices can work when so many thoroughly-specified, orthodox projects blow up. Inevitably, Extreme Programming will become a new orthodoxy, businesses will adopt it half-heartedly but with great fanfare, people will be disenchanted. Life will go on. Adopt the new methodologies (like new medicines) quickly, while they still work.

Anthony Dunne
Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experiences and Critical Design

A challenging, fascinating, difficult look at ideas for the design of electronic objects -- radios, computers, art. Dunne does an unparalleled job of showing the holes in usability theory and in postmodern theories of industrial design. The edgy book design is often arresting, but the plentiful illustrations are often impossible to decode if the reader is not already familiar with the object depicted.

Stefan Kanfer
Groucho: the life and times of Julius Henry Marx

A fine biography of an actor who would much rather have done something else. Ken Auletta's review in the New Yorker, however, hits all the high points and, in the end, proves more sympathetic to Groucho than the biography.

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