Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book review: Longitude, by Dava Sobel

Webmaster’s note 1/17/2016: This is an old review from the previous version of the site, which we’re bringing in as a post so that it’ll be searchable in the reviews categories with newer content.


book by Dava Sobel

Reviewed by Rodford Edmiston

The image of the lone genius, prevailing against the odds to make a better world, is an attractive one. It has also been criticized as a romantic fantasy. The story of John (Longitude) Harrison disproves this. It also disproves the conventional wisdom that creativity is an activity solely of the young. For John Harrison’s greatest invention – something quite unlike anything he had built to that point – was made when he was in his seventies, and required him to take two long steps to one side… and move a century forward. In the process he had to abandon much of what he had already accomplished in order to succeed. But he did so, and he did succeed, where all others had failed.

Being a student of the history of technological development I was already vaguely familiar with the problems of developing accurate timepieces, as well as the difficulty of producing a clock which was accurate and rugged enough to be used at sea to find longitude. This book – and the A & E miniseries it inspired bearing the same name – made me realize just how important the problem of finding longitude was, and the difficulty of its solution.

You can find latitude pretty simply; it’s based on the height of the sun (or another celestial reference) above the horizon, which changes in regular fashion with the time of year and the distance from the equator. A fairly accurate estimate can even be made based on the length of the day (that is, the daylight period) versus the time of year. Finding longitude, however, requires comparing local time to the time at a standard meridian. Accuracy and precision are both important. Being a minute off produces an error of one-fourth of a degree in longitude, which at the equator equals 17 miles.

Yet early in the Eighteenth Century no clock existed which was accurate enough for this purpose, let alone capable of being rolled, tossed and exposed to extreme changes in temperature and humidity while remaining accurate. Even the master clock at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich had to be adjusted almost every day, using solar and stellar observations.

Actually, the first sentence in the previous paragraph isn’t quite accurate. Such clocks did exist, but were unknown to the world outside the small Yorkshire village where John Harrison lived.

Harrison is one of those geniuses who inexplicably appear from time to time among mere humans. Though from humble circumstances, he was a voluminous reader, and taught himself about navigation, celestial observation and clockmaking by reading books on the subjects. Even if he hadn’t made his clocks he would rate a footnote in history for his work on music and its mathematical relationships. Aside from that, he was a master carpenter, whose craftsmanship with wood had earned him prime business from important local people. But he did build his clocks, and in comparison to those his other accomplishments pale.

Harrison found simple, elegant, workable solutions to problems others declared impossible. His largest clock is in a manner tower in his home town. Since that is near the seacoast, and since salt air corrodes metal, Harrison made this clock almost entirely of wood. He used an inherently frictionless design, so it doesn’t wear out and never needs lubricating. Except for a brief period in 1884, when it was stopped for refurbishing, this clock has run continuously since completion in 1722. On gears and pintles and pivots and cogs of wood. And when it was finished – and for several years after – it kept better time than any observatory or laboratory clock in the world. By the time anyone else had caught up to it, Harrison was already well into building his seafaring longitude clocks. (Note: Large mechanical clocks are easier to make accurate than small ones. Which is one reason Harrison’s seagoing chronometers are so remarkable. Even the largest was far smaller than (though about as heavy as) the typical observatory floor clock of the time, while being more accurate in conditions where the floor clock wouldn’t function at all. And his fourth timepiece was a revolution in miniaturized accuracy.)

Small wonder learned men of the day disbelieved his claims, stating flatly that such accuracy was impossible in *any* timepiece. Small wonder that when he proved them wrong, passing tests they devised, they defended their positions in any way they could. Even if that meant changing the rules. As often happens, the cheaters accused their victim of cheating. Vindication took several decades of hard, soul-withering effort, most of it not associated with building clocks, but fighting the ill will of people with a vested interest in seeing him fail. In the end, Harrison triumphed as much through sheer stubbornness as genius.

Longitude, the book, is less a biography or a history than it is an examination of one of the greatest technological innovations in human history, and its effect on people and events. Longitude, the miniseries, goes into far more biographical and historical detail, of both Harrison and the man who repaired his clocks some two centuries later, Rupert T. Gould. (Who has much less mention in the book.) The volume is a slim one, and still in print. It is well worth reading, even if you have to buy it. The miniseries runs 4 hours, and if you missed it buying the tapes or DVDs are expensive. However, that, too, is worth the price for someone interested in navigation, invention, history, or simply seeing the little guy triumph over the big guys.

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This document is Copyright 2000 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reprint or repost this material must have permission from the author, who can be reached at

Book review: Tarot Fantastic, edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Lawrence Schimel

Webmaster’s note 1/17/2016: This is an old review from the previous version of the site, which we’re bringing in as a post so that it’ll be searchable in the reviews categories with newer content.

Tarot Fantastic

Tarot Fantastic
ISBN 0886777291

review by Tracy Hite

I just finished reading a short story called “Solo in the Spotlight”, by George Alec Effinger. The main character, the President of the United States, has some crisis come up a few weeks into his first term. He’s not sure what to do, so a general tells him his office comes with an official Psychic Advisor, in this case a Tarot reader. Problem is, they’re on Air Force One and the Advisor left his cards back in Washington, so they end up using the First Daughter’s Barbie Tarot deck instead. The suits are handbags, shoes, earrings, and hairbrushes, and the Majors are specific dolls and accessories: a pink Corvette for the Chariot, Barbie Dream House for the Tower, the original blonde ponytail Barbie for the Fool, etc. As a Tarot reader and long-time Barbie fan, Mr. Effinger’s reasoning for the cards makes a lot of sense. (For those non-Barbie types, Solo in the Spotlight was a lounge singer Barbie in the 50’s.)

“Solo in the Spotlight” is just one of 15 great short stories (and one poem) in an anthology called Tarot Fantastic (DAW Books, 1997) edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Lawrence Schimel. Some are funny, some serious, but the Tarot use throughout is VERY well thought out. If you are even remotely interested in Tarot, this book is highly recommended.

Book review: Orchid, by Jayne Castle

Webmaster’s note 1/17/2016: This is an old review from the previous version of the site, which we’re bringing in as a post so that it’ll be searchable in the reviews categories with newer content.


by Jayne Castle
ISBN 0671569023

reviewed by Susan Baugh

ORCHID [author’s real name is Jayne Ann Krentz] is a Sapphire Award finalist for best Science Fiction Romance.

Of all the nominations, only this one grabbed me. I just finished reserving the other two in the series, AMARYLLIS and ZINNIA.

ORCHID is a strong mystery set on a colony planet in the future. It features a typical romance novel’s alpha male. Besides being handsome, rich, talented, and looking for a wife, this alpha male is likeable and sexy. The heroine is strong, likeable, talented and always seems to look slightly rumpled. Her day job is writing psychic vampire romances. I thought the idea that she was still a virgin in her society and at her age to be a little stretch of the imagination, but the society of New Seattle is believable. The characters are appealing, entertaining, and believable. Overall, this book is a good read for people who like soft science fiction or space opera [I recommend this title especially for people who don’t like the traditional romance novel, but like their science fiction with character development.]

Book review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein

Webmaster’s note 1/16/2016: This is an old review from the previous version of the site, which we’re bringing in as a post so that it’ll be searchable in the reviews categories with newer content.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert A. Heinlein
ISBN 0312863551

reviewed by Ted Begley

There are certain books out there, that when we read them change us forever. In my case “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” was the first to change my worldview forever.

The story is of a one-armed computer tech, a lovely provocateur, an absent-minded professor and a sentient computer that is starved for attention. Mix these elements together, add an unjust way of life, a dictatorial ruler and place all of the above in a man-made cave in the Moon and you have one of the best novels ever written.

All in all, I found the characters to be rich and well rounded. The character of Mike (also known as the H.O.L.M.E.S. IV computer, Adam Selene, Simon Jester, etc.) is one of the best non-human characters that I have seen in a work of science fiction. Manuel Garcia O’Kelley Davis is perhaps the embodiment of a person caught up in events but not overwhelmed by them. Wyoming Knott adds the right blend of determination, stubbornness, and youthful innocence to this human drama. And last but hardly least is Professor Bernardo de la Paz, a grandfatherly old man who has the only real experience in dealing with the events of the story.

The base plot has all of these widely different characters forming an alliance to overthrow the tyrannical government of the Moon. The details of planning a revolution are so convincing that I would not only recommend this novel for entertainment but also as a guide for overthrowing a small country.

If you have an afternoon or two free I recommend checking this book out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Book review: A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Webmaster’s note 1/15/2016: This is an old review from the previous version of the site, which we’re bringing in as a post so that it’ll be searchable in the reviews categories with newer content.

A Civil Campaign

A Civil Campaign
by Lois McMaster Bujold
ISBN 0671578278

reviewed by Sylvia Wendell

Miles is in love, and desperate to maneuver his beloved into marriage. Trouble is, he plans it as if it were a military campaign.

This latest chapter in Miles’ history is billed as “A Comedy of Biology and Manners” (Lois even dedicates it to “Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy”). It’s also a slapstick food fight and the laugh-out-loud funniest book she’s ever written.

It is set in the time period immediately after Komarr, and leading up to Emperor Gregor’s wedding. We meet some new characters I sincerely hope to see in future installments. We see Armsman Pym, up till now a walk-on, in fascinating new depth. And Ivan – Ivan! – finally begins to metamorphose into something beyond Miles’ Sancho Panza.

This book contains some of Lois’ finest writing ever. Her skill is of an order that never calls attention to itself. But more than ever, she includes passages of deep truth, dead-on descriptions, and perfect phrasing. Her characters grow and change during the course of the novel, and Lois always shows us rather than telling us.

So, all you Vorkosigonians, rush out and get this one immediately. For you who want an introduction to the series, start here. This one gets four stars out of four.

Book review: The John W. Campbell Letters, by Perry Chapdelaine Sr., Tony Chapdelaine and George Hay

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The John W. Campbell Lettrs

The John W. Campbell Letters
edited by Perry Chapdelaine Sr., Tony Chapdelaine and George Hay
Paperback, ISBN 0931150167

reviewed by Sylvia Wendell

RiverCon XXIII got hold of a big stack of books, copies of The John W. Campbell Letters, and handed them out as freebies to anyone who wanted them last year (1998). I hope you got one. It documents the ideas and wit of a remarkable man. Sorry – make that an “Astounding” man.

John Campbell was for many years the editor of “Astounding Science Fiction” (he later renamed it “Analog”), and he corresponded with every science fiction writer in the country, starting in the 1930’s and continuing until his death in 1971. Also every would-be writer, reader who wrote a letter of comment, scientists from whom he wanted an article for his magazine, scientists and friends and total strangers whom he wanted to consider seriously his latest outrageous theory …. As much time as he spent writing long, enthusiastic screeds, he somehow found time to put together every month the most popular sf magazine in the world, and the one that set the standard of quality.

Campbell was famous for suggesting story ideas to writers that ended up as classics in the field – Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics being perhaps the best known. And there are a lot of his ideas in this volume. Best of all though, for me, was the simple pleasure of meeting again, through Campbell’s letters, all my favorite authors. Over and over, I felt a shock of delights at reading Campbell’s comments on some favorite novel or story or character. Dune. Slow Glass. Telzey Amberdon. Everything is in here. A whole era came to life again for me.

Campbell loved a good, stimulating difference of opinion, and he loved to shake up people’s assumptions, make ’em think. A lot of his letters had two paragraphs of business, followed by several pages of witty, logical, forcefully argued lectures on almost any subject. Campbell’s discussions in the hard sciences were very knowledgeable, and often very technical. His excursions in the soft sciences, though, were sometimes spectacularly off-base, since he (and the sociologists and psychologists) knew less about the push and pull of human behavior. He was enthusiastic about Dianetics for years. (And Campbell says in one letter that it was he who suggested to Ron Hubbard that Dianetics “should be dropped as a psychotherapy, and reconstituted as a religion.”)

But in every letter, it’s evident that he wanted to understand everything under the sun. He eagerly challenged all his correspondents to either agree with him or persuade him he was wrong. His letters will alternately delight you and outrage you, but they will always stretch your mind. Reading his letters, collected in this volume, you can’t possibly go wrong.

Book review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling

Webmaster’s note 1/15/2016: This is an old review from the previous version of the site, which we’re bringing in as a post so that it’ll be searchable in the reviews categories with newer content.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
by J.K. Rowling
ISBN 0439139597

reviewed by Scott Lammers

I’m not one to absolutely obsess with a book and finish it with one setting – haven’t been for years. So on the initial release date I acquired this book at half-past noon, and fourteen hours and 732 pages later, I had made a true exception!

Rowling had stated a few crux items about this book and the series in general. She’d mentioned how this was a keystone event in the series – I have to agree absolutely!

I have also rarely read a series of books that was intended as a series, where I could simply pick up and read each book and be satisfied with the story-line in each and every one on its own. The Harry Potter series has proved no exception for me; the first book left me craving more, the second had me screaming me for, and the third left a very clear emptiness in my gut as I knew the groundwork had been laid for much more later on. Well, this fourth book surprised me – after reading it, after knowing three books are yet to come, I found myself finishing it and realising it was completed with such excellence that I would have been happy if it were the end of the series on its own.

Two thumbs up? Only because I don’t have more hands….

Now, on to some thoughts and analogies which keep popping into my head all unbidden….

Book review: The Dragons Are Singing Tonight, by Jack Prelutsky and Peter Sis

Webmaster’s note 1/15/2016: This is an old review from the previous version of the site, which we’re bringing in as a post so that it’ll be searchable in the reviews categories with newer content.

The Dragons Are Singing  Tonight

The Dragons Are Singing Tonight
Poems by Jack Prelutsky
Pictures by Peter Sis
ISBN 068809645X

reviewed by Maria Bellamy

I am wild about a book that I discovered by chance today. I bought it as a present for a little boy, but the more I look at it, the less I want to give it away!

The oversized book is a collection of 17 poems about dragons, each one set in a double-page full-color painting of wonderful artistry.

Several of the poems are written from dragons’ points of view, including one who brags, one who’s tired of his image, one who’s loudly ferocious, and one who’s little and self-proclaimed nasty (my current favorite).

Other poems feature narrators who have dragons in their lives, with various reactions: fear, delight, concern for a sick one, anticipation of the egg that’s about to hatch.

The poems are in a well-planned order, anticipating readers’ reactions and dropping such poems as “If You Don’t Believe in Dragons” into just the right place in the book. Some selections are very funny, but others elicit much more mixed emotions. The final poem in the collection finds a beautiful balance of mood between a sadness that dragons don’t exist anymore and the secret conviction that wonders are around, if you know how to spot them.

The poems are well-crafted, with an absolute attention to such techniques as rhyme, alliteration, figurative language, and a rhythm that makes them very fun to read aloud and even try to put to a tune. Although imaginative children will delight in the poems, they are definitely adult read-alouds, since the vocabulary is not for young readers to attempt alone: for example, preposterous, stratagems, disconsolate, derision, happenstance, cacophonous. One reason I love the book is my belief that after a few readings, young listeners’ vocabularies will expand to permanently include these splendid words.

I cannot say enough about the illustrations in this collection. Each poem has its own huge painting of dragons of all hues and expressions, varying from a kid-friendly cartoonishness to some quite grand art. Each is unique, right down to its individual page border. Some clarify the poem, and all capture the right mood in rich, deep, distinctive colors. If I were publishing the book, I would not allow these wonderful pictures to be broken into two pages; I would at least offer a version the same size as this book when it is opened, but put a wire binding across the top. In fact, I would make it hangable, so as to be a rotating poster display.

I have spent hours today perusing the pictures, discovering more details in them, and reading the poems out loud to myself. I just placed a call to the bookstore; I have another copy on hold now, so I’m going to take this one to a young dragon-lover tomorrow. The kid’s just lucky I could find one for myself.

Book review: The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Webmaster’s note 1/15/2016: This is an old review from the previous version of the site, which we’re bringing in as a post so that it’ll be searchable in the reviews categories with newer content.

The Curse of Chalion

The Curse of Chalion
by Lois McMaster Bujold
ISBN 0380979012

reviewed by Sylvia Wendell

Ms. Bujold has set out on a new journey with this book. This is a fantasy novel, with at least one sequel expected.

Lupe dy Cazaril, once a courtier and soldier, now an ex-galley slave, limps in the tag end of winter toward the only place he can think of that might take him in: the castle where he served as page in his youth. He is welcomed there by the formidable old lady who is grandmother to the heir and heiress of the throne of Chalion. He is alarmed when the Provincara appoints him to be secretary-tutor to her granddaughter, the Royesse Iselle. He is even more alarmed when the Roya summons Iselle and her brother to the capitol … for the man who betrayed him to the galleys now rules Chalion in the name of the Roya.

Cazaril and Iselle are soon pulled into the maelstrom of deadly court politics. When Iselle is faced with a nightmare marriage, Cazaril must make a desperate choice and perform a great task … to remove the curse that clings like a shadow to the royal family of Chalion.

Ms. Bujold has always included luminous spiritual and human insights in her books, along with the wisecracks. They give her Vorish creations moral weight and her protagonists conviction. This time she has gone further and placed Cazaril’s struggle to understand and accept what the gods expect of him at the center of the story. It is, in fact, a taut political thriller wrapped around a meditation on the nature of sainthood, miracles, and prayer.

This is a wonderful book and a terrific read, up to the author’s usual high standards. Bujold is incapable of writing a lame sentence. Her fantasy world, a standard swords and horseback setting, is acutely and convincingly observed. There is plenty of wry wit. And it will touch your heart.

Go forth and read.