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(This review cross posted from our media review site)

In this non-fiction research piece, Mary Roach puts together 10ish chapters about all of the different ways that people have brought science to studying the soul, ghosts, reincarnation, near-death experiences, and the afterlife.

Although not quite as giggle-a-minute as Stiff was, overall I found Spook to be fascinating and funny. I had no idea how much honest science has been applied to the subject over the last hundred years, including research by institutions like Cambridge University, Oxford, University of Virginia, and many others. As well as countless amateur enthusiasts.

As usual, Mary's writing is funny, critical, and insightful. If I had a complaint, it is that in the first couple of chapters she seems reluctant to highlight (and mock) the obvious lack of rigor in the work of the reincarnation researchers, and the early attempts to compute the weight of the soul.

But later in the book she warms up to the comedy of the charlatans and enthusiasts who are found around seances, claims of "ectoplasm", and audio-tape ghost hunting.


Use of Weapons

(This entry cross-posted from our media review blog.)

"Use of Weapons" is the third book in Iain Banks Culture Series (I've been skipping around) and I liked it pretty well. Much better to me than "Consider Phlebas", the first book.

Use of Weapons is a now-plus-flashbacks story of the life of Zakalwe, a career soldier with a painful past who has fought wars all over the galaxy. The story is told mostly from his perspective, and spans many centuries of imaginative worlds, peoples, tactics, and battles. (The "now" part of the timeline involves mercenary work for the Culture, so that's why it is a Culture story.)

This book doesn't introduce much imaginative tech compared to some of the other Culture books, so it's not the best choice if you're chiefly after technology porn. But in exchange, Use of Weapons delivers a much better main character that I didn't mind reading about for a few hundred pages: mysterious, sympathetic, and flawed in intriguing ways.

The writing is mostly very good; Zakalwe is believable, the descriptive prose is engaging but not tedious, and (as always) sociopathic Culture AIs furnish a backdrop of MacGuffins and comic relief. The action writing is remarkably improved over "Consider Phlebas": it's basically clear what's going on, the tactics are actually interesting to read about, and most importantly, no one scene goes on for 100 pages.

I found myself bored by some of the flashback chapters, which interrupted the now-timeline action at sometimes unwelcome points. But on the bright side, each of them is from a different time and place in Zakalwe's past, so even if you hate a chapter, you won't be bothered by it again.

My biggest complaint is probably that some of the flashback chapters seem disjointed and irrelevant. They're in almost-but-not reverse chronological order and, especially at the beginning of the book before a clear plot and main character has emerged, it's tough to tell what to care about. By the end of the book it has all mostly woven together, and they do accomplish their goal of letting you get to know the main character. But it would have been much improved by some basic cues to chronology and causality.

The book brings both the now-story and the flashback events to a satisfying climax, but the post-climax final scene seemed clumsy and inconsistently bolted on to the rest of the story. Fortunately it's only a few pages, and you can basically forget that it happened if you like. (I plan to!)

Overall I thought this book was a top-shelf member of the Culture series, and I recommend it.

(By the way: If you have already read "Surface Detail", it makes the book a little more fun if you go back and re-read Surface Detail's Epilogue at some point during your read of "Use of Weapons".)

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