What I Read in January ’14

I got 2014 started with a solid month of reading.  A decent number of books, in a wide variety of subjects.  February is shaping up to be just as good, even is the books themselves aren’t as good.  Still, I hope I can keep this momentum up.

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Salamandastron

Brian Jacques

Salamandastron is yet another entry in Brian Jacques Redwall series.  This one focuses on the mountain fortress that the formidable Badger Lords make their home.  It is one of the better entries in the series, shifting focus enough off the abbey to feel fresh, but still keeping somewhat close to the well-loved setting.  While many of the series constant tropes are present, it rearranges them so they don’t feel stagnant.

Salamandastron has two storylines that begin as separate but eventually intertwine.  There is the titular mountain Salamandastron, where its Lord, the badger Urthstripe, tries to balance ruling with raising his adopted daughter, Mara.   Soon, the fortress is assaulted by a horde of vermin and young Mara and her friend Pikkle the hare end up separated from their home.  Meanwhile, at Redwall Abbey, they are throwing a feast, as they often seem to be doing.  Added to the usual assortment of mice, hedgehogs, mole and squirrels are two rats who have escaped from the same vermin horde assaulting Salamandastron.  While at first trying to appear good, the rats soon commit murder, if only accidently, and leave with Martin’s Sword in tow.  A young squirrel and mole chase after them, while the inhabitants of the abbey start to fall ill.  So an otter must travel to a faraway mountain to retrieve the cure.

The two pairs of youngsters eventually meet up and have the usual sort of growing up adventures that happen in this series.  The events at Salamandastron are more epic, but not surprising.  Those sets of stories dovetail nicely, with the young warriors bringing aid to the beleaguered defenders of the mountain.  It’s the otter’s quest for a cure that seems oddly out of place.  It is a fine story on its own, but it is almost wholly disconnected to the rest of the book.

Still, Salamandastron is a fine adventure.  The characters rarely rise above the generic, but they are a suitably diverse and interesting group and the plot is fast moving and exciting.  Salamandastron is one the better Redwall books.

outlander

Outlander

Diana Gabaldon

I listened to part of this book years ago riding with my aunt to a family reunion.  The part I heard was pretty great, a woman being interrogated and threatened by a man before being rescued by her husband.  My aunt tried to explain what was going on to that point, but her version was muddled and disorganized, but she got across that is was a time-travel adventure romance.  While usually just shrug off suggestions of what to read from family members, I made note of this one.

I read it recently, though not for the first time, and it is still highly entertaining.  The romance aspect does take up a large portion (i.e. there is a lot of boning) but the whole thing is more entertaining than it has any right to be.  Outlander follows the adventures of Claire Beauchamp, a woman who, while on vacation with her husband on Scotland, is transported back in time by a Stonehenge-like circle of standing stones to the mid-18th century.  Believed by everyone to be a spy for everyone else, she is taken by the clan Mackenzie to their castle.  Her attempts to get back home lead her all over the highlands and eventually she is forced to choose between her husband in her own time and the love she has found in the past.

It is melodramatic and romancey most of the time, but there is plenty of adventure in there as well.  Claire and Jamie, the two protagonists, really make everything work.  She is a sarcastic “modern” woman whose reaction to many of the past’s sensibilities is hilarious.  It is the intellectual knowledge of that’s how things were meeting her new reality that that is how things are.  He seems to have been designed to be almost the perfect romantic hero, something of a thoughtful barbarian.  Even his flaws seem carefully chosen to appear attractive.  Despite that, he eventually becomes as real as a character as one is likely to find in any sort of genre fiction.

Outlander is ha hefty tome, being more than 800 pages long, but it reads fast.  There are slow parts, but things move relatively quickly.  It meanders a bit and simply explodes with subplots and side characters, but the end result is a full tale that creates its own believable world.

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Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter

Frank Deford

I wasn’t really familiar with Deford before I read this.  I had seen his name in plenty of articles in Sports Illustrated, but I rarely paid attention to the real articles, wanting more to get to the more current rumors, speculation and stats.  This book kind of makes me wish I had paid more attention, so at least I’d know how much I should care about what is written here.

Over Time is a memoir, as the title suggests a collection of anecdotes about Deford’s sports writing career.  This is split between recollections of athletes and events and his ruminations about other sportswriters.  Much is a glimpse into the work of a handful of writers and editors I’ve never heard of.  His genuine admiration of some people shine through, Arthur Ashe, while so does his disdain for others, Rodney Dangerfield.  Since I am not familiar with Deford or many of the people he was writing about, this book did not have the effect on me it could have.  Still, as a look back and a look into how the sausage of sportswriting is made, it is a good enough read.

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The Lies of Locke Lamora

Scott Lynch

I have been largely away from the fantast genre for most of the last year.  I did spend a lot of time reading the Wheel of Time series, and many of the books I’ve read would fall into the periphery of the genre, but I’ve been largely avoiding what was once my favorite genre.  So far this year I have been back with a vengeance, and I started with one of the best I’ve read.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fantasy done as a heist.  Sanderson’s Mistborn had a similar starting place, but in the end it felt more like a traditional fantasy story.  This manages to keep that heist the feeling all the way through.  The book follows Locke Lamora in both the present as he and his team of thieves plan and execute daring robberies and in the past when he meets his current friends and learns his trade.  The alternating present and past is sometimes a bit clumsy, with Lynch giving back information about characters just before it becomes relevant.

Locke’s past, while important, is not as good as his present.  While his group, the Gentlemen Bastards, perform intricate grifts, they pose as more humble thieves before the thieves’ guild.  The aging leader of the thieves, Capa Barsavi, is facing a challenge to his authority and while Locke has no problem deceiving him, he sides with him in the conflict.  Unfortunately, the Grey King who is threatening Barsavi’s dominance forces Locke to help him.  As often happens with heists, things don’t go quite as planned.

While they are nominally bad guys, being thieves and all, they are remarkable likeable.  Locke has a different set of skills than the usual fantasy hero, which makes him all the more likeable.  His closest ally, Jean, is also an unusual character for the genre.  While a lot of the world building is standard fantasy’s stuff, well done but the same kind of stuff one would expect from a fantasy novel,  the unique characters make is seem all the more different.

Really, this is just and excellent, fresh fantasy adventure.  I am eager to jump on the sequel. It is just really great.

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Capcom’s 30th Anniversary Character Encyclopedia

Casey Lee

It’s not a lot of book, but it counts.  This is just a collection of character biographies from Capcom’s voluminous catalogue of games.  There really isn’t a lot of new information for me here; as far as video game companies go Capcom is second in my heart only to Nintendo.  That’s even with their almost adversarial dealings with their fans over the last couple of years.

This is an excellent primer on the various heroes and villains that populate Capcom’s games.  They do memorable characters better than just about anybody.  The whole cast of Street Fighter 2 are solidly recognizable and Mega Man has two incarnations that are all-time great characters.  This book is not really much of a read, but it is an excellent spotlight on these characters.

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A Mind to Murder

P.D. James

More classic mysteries, though this one did not leave much an impression on me.  It was fine, but I never really took a liking to the main character, which makes the while book from his perspective hard to get really into.

There is nothing overtly wrong with this, it just didn’t grab me.  A woman is murdered in a psychiatrist’s office, and Det. Da;gliesh must work his way through her colleagues to find the one who killed her.

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