Mar 142014

Muumilaakson MarraskuuThe last of the Moomin books, Muumilaakson Marraskuu was even more of a disappointment than the previous novel in the series.

This time the whole Moomin family is absent, and the house is occupied by a motley crew of variously damaged misfits.

The soul-searching motif is even stronger in the last volume, but the roles of unknown characters who couldn’t even live together was hard to comprehend as a child.

On a re-read some three decades afterwards the book is far more interesting.

The melancholy of the fall pervades everything, and the missing Moomins are the Godot-class plot device that everybody expects to fix their particular maladies: loneliness, obsession, delusion are just some of the struggles the characters face.

As the november is the darkest and bleakest month in Finland, it is an excellent frame for the characters lost in themselves and/or the world.

This is not an easy book (apart from its length), but it does form a nice capstone for the Moomin-saga.

Mar 142014

How Would You Move Mount Fuji?How Would You Move Mount Fuji? covers the surprisingly interesting topic of recruitment puzzles.

Puzzles that are mostly used to check whether a candidate is able and willing to logically present the chain of thought towards an answer. While a lot of the tasks covered are indeed Fermi problems, there’s plenty of other logical and illogical questions to answer.

The puzzles are the meat and bones of the book, the history and psychology of the question as weeding factor form an introduction to the choicest parts.

When Google headhunted me for a job in Zürich back in 2008 I had a few questions lobbed at me during the interviews. None of them were familiar from the book, though. Nokia’s approach, on the other hand, was the traditional “what’s the next symbol in the series”.

Recommended if you’re interested in puzzles, but unlikely to give much of a hand in getting recruited.

Mar 122014

Aurinkokunta UusiksiSince the previous book on solar system, there’s been plenty of changes, and Aurinkokunta Uusiksi provides a very readable overview.

This time it’s not only planets (and the loss of Pluto as one), but comets, asteroids and dwarf planets get plenty of action too.

But the planets get the best photographs by far.

Aurinkokunta Uusiksi is the best of the three Ursa-published books, but that’s mainly on the subject material. Though the text itself flows very pleasantly, too.

I learned a lot (like that several planets now have 60+ moons) and picked up interesting links to even more information.

Mar 112014

Void MoonI took Michael Connelly’s Void Moon from the bookshelf expecting to be lightly entertained with a decent pace and some twists. And I sure got that.

Void Moon is not part of his series (Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller), it’s a fully independent novel that partially strays from Connelly’s beloved L.A.

But he doesn’t stray too far. Only to Las Vegas. Some crimes do not stay there, but cause splash waves felt in the neighboring states, too.

The plot begins simply, but gathers both speed and complexity during the four hundred-ish pages it takes to run to a conclusion.

Flashbacks reveal the backstory slowly, and the descriptions of the tools of the trade provide a nice Ocean’s 11-vibe to the proceedings. The capstone is the heist itself, narrated at length and with a more than visible undertow of menace below the surface.

Mar 112014

Art of InnovationTom Kelley’s Art of Innovation was pretty much as expected.

War stories from the history of one of the most celebrated design studios: IDEO.

While the descriptions of past projects are mostly interesting, the book (as expected) doesn’t deliver the golden goose egg. The art of innovation is indeed art, and cannot be industrialized. Experimentation and prototyping, a freely operating wide-ranging project team and deep customer involvement are all important, but the mix and application of the combination varies wildly between successful projects.

Insightful, that’s for sure, quickly read as a bonus – Kelley writes effortlessly and entertainingly.

Mar 102014

I’ve been happy with my reading speed.

Or used to be.

The Spritz demo proves that speeds well in excess of 300 wpm are realistic.

Too bad it’s only available on Android, would love to try it out live.

And obviously this needs massive amounts of source material, so a high-octane acquisition by a book vendor wouldn’t really surprise me.

Mar 092014

Muumipappa ja MeriI distinctly recall being sorely disappointed in Muumipappa ja Meri as a kid.

What I thought would be another rollicking Moomin adventure – lighthouse, storms, shipwrecks – turned out almost anything but.

This book marks the wateshed of the series, from here on there would be lots of philosophy and introspection, and the summery action scenes would be faded out.

Muumipappa ja Meri fronts the usual suspects, but in strangely damaged roles. The four protagonists all degrade into their own worlds, on account of sense of duty, disappointment or loneliness, and as such the book covers the bleak reality of the family rapidly growing apart on the secluded island.

Even if the book itself is far from the delights of the preceding volumes, it’s an important book – it proves that everybody has to ultimately discover and face oneself, even if the process and results of doing so are uncertain, and possibly even unpleasant.

Upon re-reading, some thirty years later, I’m no longer disappointed in the novel, but impressed. The theme of self-discovery is subtly introduced, and then hammered home.

Mar 082014

Engineering InfinityI bought Engineering Infinity, an anthology of hardish science fiction short stories based on the authors contained within: Charles Stross, Hannu Rajaniemi and Stephen Baxter.

The subjects of the stories and the overall quality varies a lot.

As does the amount of hardness. Some revel in technology whereas some are far squishier (zen beer is a decent concept, but doesn’t really fly).

And the setting. Some are set just off the present, whereas others are in far enough future that it’s almost impossible to distinguish from fantasy.

Sadly, the quality is far from even, too. Some stories are diamonds, but there’s plenty of rough, too. Stross’ tale is off the Neptune’s Children-continuum which is not a favorite of mine by any means, Rajaniemi’s tale is self-contained and interesting. Of the others Peter Watts’ and Karl Schroeder’s come out on top.

Mar 082014

Case HistoriesSaw a rather glowing recommendation for Kate Atkinson’s mystery novels, and purchased the first of the Jackson Brodie books from a sale.

And Case Histories doesn’t disappoint. While it’s not good enough to cause insta-purchasing the rest of the series, it’s reason enough to keep an eye out for the later books.

Case Histories contains multiple quite loose plotlines that mostly connect at and by the protagonist. But a lot of the connections happen in the readers’ heads, as the book is told using multiple viewpoints and timeframes.

Case Histories is not a procedural novel – it’s more concerned with the characters than the evidence. And it does cover a wide swath of characters, most of whom feel a lot more alive than one trick pony cardboard cutouts so common in the genre.

The debut novel starts out well, builds the interconnections even better and then ends on an unconvicing note.

But that’s a minor demerit on a mystery this strong overall.

Mar 082014

TaikatalviTaikatalvi does not feature a natural disaster, for a change. Though Moomintroll does experience a massive change: winter, the namesake of the novel.

Taikatalvi begins as a traditional adventure story, but soon evolves into something much more.

Themes such as otherness, loneliness, questioning assumed authority and the need to belong underlie the snowy misadventures. And quite a few things are kept as mysteries, unexplainable to the reader.

Unlike the previous Moomin novels, Taikatalvi is not that warm a book (to crack a terrible pun). The protagonist is a stranger, even an outsider in the world he hasn’t seen before. And while he’s not ostracized, he’s by no means welcomed heartily either.

Mar 072014

Cat's CradleIt had been ages since I last read Kurt Vonnegut when I picked up his Cat’s Cradle.

I’d heard good things about the novel ever since the long-gone high school days, but for one reason or another had never got around to reading it.

And what a great book it is, indeed.

Using a journalistic endeavour as its plot-driving device, the author drills through the topics of domestic dysfunctionality, the military-industrial complex and non-enlightened dictatorship. With a totally fabricated religion and an almost plausible doomsday device hanging in the balance for good measure.

Cat’s Cradle is not a thick book, but it packs a multi-layered satirical message in its 200-ish pages.

And while my journey through Vonnegut’s bibliography is far from complete, this novel definitely ranks amongst the best so far. I don’t expect anything to surpass Slaughterhouse #5, though.

Mar 062014

Universumin Pimeä PuoliUniversumin Pimeä Puoli was the penultimate book written by Leena Tähtinen, the prolific science correspondent in Tiede-magazine.

The book tackles a subject that is hard to grasp: the twin unknowns of dark matter and dark energy. As there’s only theoretical knowledge of either, the book cannot rely on empirical evidence much.

Both subjects are controversial, and dark energy is such a recent concept that its alleged nature remains in flux.

The book is written in a very personal style. The author describes her encounters with the relevant scientists and relays their views, filtered through a layman-friendly editing process. The chatty style is an acquired taste.

The book is of the same standard as the rest of recent volumes published by Ursa: entertaining, not too demanding scientifically and equipped with decent visualization. Though in a book about such amorphous things, the text is far from authoritative.

Worth a read as a good introduction to a complex subject.

Mar 022014

Näkymätön LapsiNäkymätön Lapsi is the sole collection of short stories set in Moomin Valley.

The stories are more pointedly of a teaching kind than the novels. The characters range from the moomins themselves to complete unknowns, and they all have a mostly warm-hearted lesson to provide, mainly on the topic that people should do what they want, not what they are expected to.

The collection contains yet another glimpse into the wander-years of Moominpappa – this time he goes on a sailabout with hattifatteners.

The stories are lightweight, but do contain barbed messages of self-respect and independence. And there’s never too many of those.

Mar 022014

Vaarallinen JuhannusVaarallinen Juhannus, the fifth of the Moomin books, continues the “calamity strikes the Valley” series.

Though the author’s take on flooding is far less dramatic than in the first novel.

On a warm summer night the Moomins’ house gets uprooted and the inhabitants end up in an abandoned theatre on the bay.

The plot is far less adventuresome than in the previous novels, and the added outsider characters provide lots of opportunities for melancholic introspection and observation.

But the adventure is nonetheless present, so this is by no means a purely philosophical book (those arrive later in the continuity, though). The long and warm summer days combined with the protagonists’ profound ignorance of the concept of theatre do present a nice hundred-pager escape from reality.

Mar 022014

Some RemarksI’ve been fond of Neal Stephenson’s non-fiction work ever since the awe-inspiringly lengthy Mother Earth, Motherboard published in Wired magazine’s December issue in 1995. It takes a hundred pages to explain the history, methods and aims of hugely expensive underwater cables, and provides both entertainment and information throughout its length.

And that essay is the cornerstone of Some Remarks, the first collection of Stephenson’s shorter work. The collection includes both non-fiction and fiction and is nicely balanced inbetween.

As with William Gibson’s recent collection Distrust That Particular Flavor not all content has survived the intervenin years in an intact form. But those pieces provide a historical perspective to the whole, and never reach the embarrassingly mistaken-stage.

Interesting and (apart from the lead-story) brief stories in a convenient package, heartily recommended.

Mar 022014

Rapture of the Nerds
Sometimes the sum is lesser than the individual parts.

That’s definitely the case with Rapture of the Nerds.

The authors, Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow have both produced multiple books in the four-stars-plus -category, and the topic, a romp through the post-singularity Earth is interesting.

Buy while the overture raises expectations and sets up an appropriate level of weirdness, the rest of the novel mostly fails to click. A lot of the chapters feel oddly disjointed and until the grande finale it seems to be just a series of encounters. The clone-powered showdown proves that there’s power in the authors’ collective thinking, and occasional ideas (such as the sentient ant colonies occupying vast stretches of America) would have deserved more attention.

Expected more, was nonetheless mostly entertained, but on the disappointed side of things in general.

Mar 022014

PanssarisydänMy relationship with Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole-thrillers is symmetrical with the protagonist’s relationship to alcohol. At some point I know he’s going to indulge, and the same happens to me.

I finished Panssarisydän in two days (and a long night inbetween).

And despite the maximal pace, I got a lot out of the experience. The book ranks amongst the very top of the series (in addition to the preceding Lumiukko).

The novel starts with action, and while the plot clicks on and on at a steady speed, it never feels too fast, nor does it slow down too much.

There’s far more travel involved than in the previous installments, and that’s pretty much the only sore spot. Sudden trips to the darkest Africa on the budget of the Oslo police department do stretch credibility a little.

But that’s hardly a factor in yet another well-crafted multi-layered puzzle. A serial killer is once again loose in Norway, and he has laid out a puzzle with gory special effects and struggles against mother nature, too.

Looking forward to the next part, but that does require a weekend with a cleared-out schedule. Just like proper binges do. I worry for Harry Hole, though – he gets increasingly damaged and correspondingly self-destructive by each book.

Mar 012014

Muumipapan UrotyötThe fourth Moomin book departs from the common norm radically. Muumipapan Urotyöt (also known as Muumipapan Villi Nuoruus) is told in two tenses: of Moominpappa writing his memoirs and the actual adventures he experienced as a much younger moomin.

The tales are tall, the pace rapid, the characters memorable, and the entire book is very upbeat in nature (despite an occasional melancholic moment spent on mourning youth gone by). Despite impending (or even occurring) disasters there’s always a silver lining to a cloud.

There’s plenty going on, and a lot of the friends made end up being parents to the current Moomin Valley crew. This struck me as odd back in the seventies when I originally read the book, and it feels even weaker now.

But that’s about the only weakness in a book that forms a bridge across many different rivers.

This book was also dramatized for radio. Read by Lasse Pöysti, listening to a weekly episode was very much a Lavonius clan tradition back in the day.

Mar 012014

GourmetTuomas Vimma (née Kusti Miettinen) launched himself with Helsinki 12, a drive-by-writing on the local advertising industry.

His Gourmet takes on another sector: fine dining. And especially the fine dining scene in Helsinki.

It starts off with an encounter with the sole domestic two star Michelin chef, and continues its name-dropping and jargon-ridden ways throughout its length.

Expected nothing less.

And as the subject is more interesting than that of his previous books, Gourmet was actually a more pleasant read. And as a definite bonus I’m now even more unbearable as a food and wine conversationalist, having learned new names and factoids to dropkick into discussions.

Mar 012014

Koirien KalevalaIt’s been quite a while (like two decades) since I last read the domestic national epic.

And while Koirien Kalevala, Mauri Kunnas’ cartoon animals-version is a nice introduction to the subject, it obviously pales in comparison to the original. The deaths, battles and seductions have either been excised or edited to a more child-free form.

Mauri Kunnas doesn’t restrict himself to the stories, but niftily recycles classic Gallen-Kallela paintings as illustrations. With more cats and dogs than old Akseli used to paint.

All in all it’s a pleasant quickly read book, and head and shoulders above the author’s more tired works.

Jan 212014

Taivas + Helvetti cover

Taivas + Helvetti is a book of finnish entrepreneurship, by finnish entrepreneurs.

The twenty-one stories in the book cover the spectrum of self-driven business – from small fry to big fish, from flashy success stories to tragic failures.

The book starts off with Mikael Hed from Rovio, and never reaches the same level of all the pieces just falling right in the later pages.

The individual stories are brief, most clock in at less than ten pages.

As stated, the subjects vary wildly, some tell a single essential case of business history, others ramble on through the author’s personal experiences.

And personal’s indeed a good word to describe the book, the authors do not hesitate to reveal ugliness inherent in business nor do they shy away from their previous failures.

A quick read, with a worthy plan behind the book – for every volume sold, another is given to a graduating student. They may not all be sparked by the spirit of business, but every interested party counts.

Jan 212014

Inferno coverDan Brown returns with yet another civilized treasure hunt in Inferno.

This time the scenery is different – the main part of the novel happens in Florence.

And also the plotting is vastly different – the protagonist starts off with amnesia and there’s plenty of uncertainty shoved down readers’ throats.

But some things never change:

Exposition occurs frequently, and oftentimes is barely masked.

There’s a vast conspiracy behind the scenes.

And Robert Langdon stumbles across a damaged yet brilliant woman.

The pacing is obviously rapid, and the in-media-res start to the book kickstarts the proceedings even faster than expected.

The tourist board of Florence must be rubbing their hands with glee, the author devotes pages upon pages on describing the unique properties of the city and its history. And quite right, too – after all, the city is absolutely packed with Medici-originating art and well-preserved buildings. And while some of the construction seems to be on the fantastic side, at least the secret passage between the Uffizi Galleria and Palazzo Pitti exists, I’ve walked its dusty length on a scorching day.

The plot concerns ancient secrets used to unravel a modern mystery. A mystery which requires the trademark treasure hunt approach – moving from a piece of artwork to a poem to a building.

The author travels on familiar ground for most of the journey, but at the resolution he manages to pull a duo of rabbits out of the top hat. I expected a far more conventional conclusion to Langdon’s fourth adventure.

Better than expected. Algorithmic, energetic and occasionally enlightening – that’s pretty much par for the course. But the subtext in Inferno was surprisingly well handled (and probably cause for quite a bit of concern on the publisher’s side).

Jan 082014

Earth coverUpon purchasing David Brin‘s Existence, I decided to re-read his earlier homeworld in peril book, Earth.

Earth is a book from 1990. At that point one of the main themes of the book, ubiquitous network access and unavoidable surveillance felt outlandish. Now, reality has surpassed the fiction. Our web is infinitely more malleable than Brin’s, though his take on preference-based news aggregation is still unmet (and he predicts spam and many other forms of SMTP-carried virii). And obviously the combination of CCTVs, video-recording capable phones and Youtube have rendered the world already to quite a different place.

In contrast to the neatly imagined world, the actual plot of the book pales. Not that it’s in any way bad, just unexpectedly calm – a world-shattering calamity fails to raise any significant panic. The use of multiple viewpoints is done well, characters come and go, some are forgotten for great lengths and some are lost to the events.

There’s plenty of sense of wonder.
There’s nostalgia for a better, simpler time.
And there’s plenty of ideas (such as Helvetian War, new quasi-religious groups, enforced settlement of wilderness) in the well-developed milieu that entire books could be based on.

But it’s far from perfect. The characters are hollow for the most part. The final conflict culminates in a terrible virtual reality battle where the already rather strained suspenders of disbelief painfully snap.

Nonetheless a worthy read, both as a picture of the future and of the past.

Jan 082014

Kaiken Käsikirja coverEsko Valtaoja peaked with his debut book, the awesome Kotona Maailmankaikkaudessa. The followups have been increasingly lacking, and the newest, boldly named Kaiken Käsikirja is no different.

Inbetween occasional bits of insight and science, the author rambles on and on on various topics.

In a book attempting to be a manual for everything that’s not a bad thing per se, but the plot teeters on being lost on multiple occasions, and several chapters are just plain boring.

When the book’s good, such as when attempting to explain relativity and quantum theories for laymen, it’s very good; but when the author embarks on morality and religion, the going turns choppier – opinions instead of facts are not so interesting. And often the deepest messages, such as the importance of questioning authority, are almost hidden in the verbose chaff.

I’m sure Valtaoja is a good scientist and probably a jolly good beer-drinking buddy, too – somehow the combination just gets on my nerves. Though he does not condescend, the prospect of a bearded scientist dude smirking is occasionally too hard to ignore. Since the book is short, clocking in just north of 200 pages, it is by necessity shallow. And that necessitates glossing over occasionally humongous pieces of information. Spotting those regions is not that hard (especially when quite a lot of space is lost on footnotes in parentheses), and they give the impression of a lazy author, barely willing to exercise himself with just morsels of his knowledge.

I expected more. And came off disappointed. Once again.

Jan 062014

The Best Software Writing I cover

I’ve liked Joel Spolsky’s writings a lot. While I’ve never used Fogbugz, his role in setting up StackOverflow/StackExchange and Trello is enough to guarantee access to paradise – especially the former is a true lifesaver.

Sadly, the first and only volume of collected writings edited by him is nowhere near the standard established in the blog.

Of the twenty-eight pieces quite a few are completely irrelevant, outdated or just plain uninteresting.

And the few quality ones are not enough for the price of admission.

The anthology severely lacks focus, and oddly enough the least technical pieces (how to work with geeks) are among the best in show.

A moral bonus point for inclusion of explanatory footnotes.

I should have picked up a volume of his greatest hits instead. Or better yet, not have spent any money at all.