The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Comparative Study

On a whim, I rewatched The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie on Netflix a couple of weeks ago. Afterwards, a bout of curiosity led me to look up the movie on wikipedia, which took me down a rabbit hole that left me shocked to discover that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not a particularly well regarded movie. I was foolish enough to think it would be loved simply because it is great. Instead, it seems stuck in that that weird gray zone where fans of the previous versions don’t like it because it changed some things and non-fans don’t like it for a combination of thinking they are missing too much for not being familiar with the radio/book/tv version or were just never going to like it because Douglas Adams had a particular voice and that voice was understandably not for everybody. I really only understand the last one. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie is an excellent movie in its own right, even if isn’t the definitive version of the story.

Part of my disconnect is likely that I backed into The Hitchhiker’s Guide. I saw the movie first. I loved it. Being the reader that I am, the first thing I did after watching it was track down the book. Which I also loved. I haven’t returned to the book much, mostly because nearly all of the best bits are in the movie and it can be experienced in less than two hours. I didn’t get deep into Adams; I didn’t read the rest of the series or any of his other work. I just moved on to other things, and this movie became a pleasant memory from college.

In reading up on the movie’s reputation I found numerous complaints about how the movie missed the spirit of the earlier versions, which I find preposterous. That spirit, embodied by clever wordplay, sly jokes, understated darkness, and general absurdity, is in the movie in spades. The movie translates most of the first book word for word; the first book is just really short. I reread the book after rewatching the movie; I still think the movie got most of it. Not everything translated off the page perfectly, and some portions weren’t really attempted, but the heart of the book come across perfectly.

After reading the book, I watched the 1981 TV version on Amazon, hoping it would provide the Rosetta Stone for understanding why fans of the property were not especially big fans of the movie. It did, in a way. (Here’s the line that would get me hate mail if anyone read my blog.) The TV version reminded me forcefully that nostalgia is a hell of a drug. This version looks cheap and is so shapeless and meandering as to make the book look like it was plotted with clockwork precision. The book already had a tendency to just move on to the next thing when it was done with the joke. The TV show does the same, except the pacing of each scene is bloated and sagging. Structurally, the show is barely a show at all. It feels much like a sketch show, with each episode moving to a completely different setting and concept that just so happens to carry over some of the same cast. A lot of it feels like a radio play set to film. All the acting is done in the dialogue; there is little of interest actually happening on screen. This is not meant to be read as a screed against good dialogue, only to note that TV is a visual medium and maybe the show should have had something worth watching on screen. There are some good creature designs, but it is mostly a lot of people standing and talking. Two-headed Zaphod is a straight up disaster, with his second head being almost as well realized as the one on Michael Scott’s halloween costume. The show simply looks bad.

This. This looks really bad.

A lot of disdain for the movie came from people praising the TV show and I simply don’t get it. I can understand people not liking the changes and additions (more on those later) to the movie from the book, but the TV show praise is baffling to me. A lot of that praise is for the performances, although the reasons for that, other than simple nostalgia, elude me. Again, many of these feel like performances for radio. They recede on screen, leaving the settings to do a lot of the acting. It makes it hard for me to even compare the performances. Zaphod is fine, though he seems to be struggling under the costume to give the character any energy. David Dixon makes Ford the most dynamic character on the show, but even he has a tendency to get lost in the shuffle. Simon Jones as Arthur Dent suffers the most as the show goes on. He is great early, but as the other characters show up, he all but disappears, even when the rest of the cast actually disappears. Trillian is a mess. I guess I see how people who grew up with these versions could prefer them, but they are mostly just fine mouthpieces for good dialogue that bring little else to the table. Honestly, I am glad the TV series was not the first version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I experienced, because I doubt I would have been a fan.

The movie, though, does have quite a few changes and additions from the book. Mostly, those are in the name of giving some form to the shapeless book. Part of the charm of the book—and the TV series I assume—is that scattered nature. It starts big, with the destruction of the Earth, but after that things just sort of happen. Revelations come fast and frequent, usually with little bearing on what came before it or what comes after. That was never going to fly in a movie version. So it added something of a quest to the search for Magrathea, which was something of a fait accompli in the book and show. Now, the crew has to get directions from Zaphod’s enemy Humma Kavula, which leads to a detour to Vogsphere. Those things were added for the movie. Honestly, they fit in almost seamlessly, though some of the humor is a little slapstick. Not significantly more so than stuff like a sperm whale crashing to the ground from outer space, but there is some. Outside of a knee-jerk dislike of everything new, there are two differences I’ve seen get a lot of hate. Understandably is the change in the nature of the relationship between Trillian and Arthur. Adding romance is the one change that really feels like a Hollywood change and not just an “accepted rules of storytelling” change. The romance is not needed to for cohesion or structure, it is just there. It doesn’t ruin the movie or anything, but if feels somewhat unnecessary. Inexplicably, people also hate the opening musical number. “So Long and Thanks for all the Fish” is a delight. Opening the movie with a satirical musical number ostensibly sung by dolphins tells the viewer exactly what they are in for. It is visually interesting, something the couldn’t be done in the book; it does, however, bring in something from the book in a visually interesting way.

I watched the movie again after rereading the book and watching the show. My esteem for the movie is undiminished. I love the cast; they are almost to a person better than the show performances. I guess I understand how people could prefer Dixon’s Ford to Mos Def’s chill version, but I liked Def’s take. It works with what is in the book. Otherwise, movie performances all the way. Especially Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod, who is an energetic mix of George W Bush and Elvis. Seeing people crap on the musical number to start the movie, then watching that musical number again cemented for me the idea the movie was never going to be successful. It had been too long and fans had too strong an idea of what had to be there for the movie to work. So movie gets dinged because some mildly funny dialogue got left on the cutting room floor or a stinger joke just before the credits suggest that the restaurant at the end of the universe is at a certain place and not a certain time. I mean, the movie left out all the jokes about digital watches. How can it purport to be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without jokes about digital watches?

The movie is not a perfect translation of the book, which is what it most closely mirrors. But it it certainly a more effective film translation than the TV series. I might track down the radio version some day; I am not opposed to audio only entertainment (note: I should write someday about how I first experienced Star Wars through the radio versions). Maybe that version is the best version. For now, I’ll stick with book as the ideal form and the movie for when I just need to be entertained. On its own merits, the movie is excellent.

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What I Read January 2019

I guess I read quite a few books in January; three novels and three comic strip collections. I didn’t finish one book I have been working on for nearly six months. Still, it is a solid start to the year, especially if I want to hit my goal number this year of 30 books. Which is quite the come down from the more than fifty I was averaging before law school, but it is still a decent amount.

Sparkling Cyanide

Agatha Christie
An Agatha Christie mystery that doesn’t star any of her well known detectives. A year ago, a young woman, Rosemary Barton, apparently committed suicide by putting cyanide in her champagne. Her husband, George, receives a letter telling him that she was murdered. Realizing that the culprit must be one of the other seven people at the party, he invites them all to a dinner at the same place on the one year anniversary, with a plan to expose the culprit. Unfortunately, George suffers the same fate as his wife. It would have been accepted as a suicide, had George not told Colonel Race about his suspicions and his plan. So Race sets out to find the killer. He goes about it in the usual way, interviewing the witnesses and uncovering a bunch of betrayals and recriminations amongst the party. It is a pretty standard mystery. There is no big twist on the form, merely a largely excellent execution of it.

At the Water’s Edge

Sara Gruen

I am conflicted on this review, because I generally enjoyed this book as I read it over a cold weekend, but I don’t think it is that good. At the Water’s Edge touches on a lot of interesting topics without ever truly engaging with them or actually being interesting. Like the idea that the protagonist, Maddie, is going with her husband to search for the Loch Ness Monster. While the trip is clearly the not serious on the part of the husband, the book doesn’t do much to examine if the characters truly believe. It also makes the Maddie’s husband, Ellis, so irredeemable that it is impossible to believe she ever believed anything he said, though the way one of the villainous reveals is framed is just kind of gross.

The novel starts with the Maddie, Ellis and their friend embarrassing themselves at a party. This is doubly embarrassing for her husband’s parents because it is in the middle of WWII and the husband has been found 4F and is not serving in the military. With his parents cutting him off, he hatches a plan to go to Scotland and search for the Loch Ness monster, which his father had done years before, ending in some unexplained embarrassment for the family. Once they get to their hotel in Scotland, the Maddie sees how the war has affected the people there and just how callous she has been. While her husband continues being gross, she starts to grow. It isn’t an especially complex story; everything is pretty much black and white. People in this book are almost exactly what they initially seem. Still, it only took a few hours to read and while I expect to forget that I read by the middle of the year, I largely enjoyed it. I do wish it had had more Loch Ness monster content.

Calvin and Hobbes (The Days are Just Packed, Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat, Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons)
Bill Watterson

I’ve had these Calvin and Hobbes collections sitting on my kindle for ages, but never really made an attempt to read them. I believe I have read nearly the whole run of this strip. I had encountered most of these before. You already know that Calvin and Hobbes is great, right? Because Calvin and Hobbes is great and these a really good collections.

Japanese Tales

Translated and Edited by Royall Tyler

This is a collection of Japanese Folk tales. They are interesting. Many are truly foreign. Not because they are strange, western folk and fairy tales are often strange, but because they end with morals that are so different from anything I recognize. It makes sense that this book actually starts with a 50 page primer on ancient Japanese culture and myths, laying a groundwork for an American reader to gain at least some of the groundwork necessary to understand these stories. The tales in this book are relatively short, ranging from only a few sentences long to a few pages. They have been grouped in logical blocks of stories with similar themes or characters. It is a fascinating collection, alternately gruesome, gross, sweet or silly. What stood out most to me is how many of these stories I knew from playing Clover Studios masterpiece Okami, which also largely dealt in myth and folktales.

What I Read December 2018

I had the back half of the month free, and I managed to finish three books. I have the better part of next month free as well, and should be at least able to match that.

The Accursed

Joyce Carol Oates

Before reading this I was largely familiar with Oates for some short stories I read back in college. This is something significantly more substantial. It is a gothic novel of sorts, cataloging supernatural events at Princeton during the early 20th century. It combines a lot of things I like, like supernatural stories, that specific time period and meta-fictional elements. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

As much as it appeals to me, the structure of the book keeps the reader at arms length. The Accursed is written as a history, a collection of primary sources and recreations by the writer that detail the goings on of some kind of panic around Princeton. It allows for an interesting level of fake authenticity and multiple levels of unreliable narrators. It also serves to keep a lot of the characters and emotions at a remove. It is not easy to connect when characters are presented as figures of history and not characters to get to know. The illusion is helped by the addition of real historical figures that would have been in that area at that time, like future President Woodrow Wilson and Jack London. It sells that it is a true account. Then its gets to the supernatural stuff and it quickly becomes apparent that there isn’t quite as many supernatural events as the book’s fictional author tries to sell you. It makes some of the racial connotations of monsters stories exactly the point, with many unexplained events explained quite easily with racism. But there is just enough that is genuinely spooky and magical to keep you reading, trying to pick through the layers of unreliable narrators to find exactly what is “real” and what is not. The books is alternately lyrical and dry, exciting and common. The Accursed is a real treat.

The Plastic Magician

Charlie N Holmberg

I read Holmberg’s Paper Magician trilogy a year or two ago and quite enjoyed it. This follow up was roughly in line with its quality. In the world of these books, people do magic with the one material they are bonded with. In this book, as the title suggests, the protagonist is learning to do magic with plastic with the newest magic material. I hope this isn’t a one off, because this is a fun continuation of from the Paper Magician, and I’d like to see more.

Alvie is an interesting character. She moves from America to London to study. She is an inventor, eager to push the envelope of what is possible with magic and tends to get lost in her work. She has trouble dealing with the fierce, and dangerous, rivalry that her mentor is stuck in. The conflict ends up being almost completely personal. Alvie and her mentor have an invention and a rival is out to steal it. The stakes get raised, but the central conflict is closer to a mystery than an epic. This is just a fun, solid read.

Storm Glass

Jeff Wheeler

This book is a lot of interesting set up for not a lot of story. I realize that it is the first book in a series that is five or so books long, so some of that is to be expected, but this book really feels like a lot of set up. The world of this book is interesting. It is a world of extreme inequality, with rich people hoarding knowledge and wealth while living on floating islands, while the poor people are stuck on the surface. There is some sort of magic, or maybe just knowledge, called the Mysteries, used to keep people from accessing the knowledge.

Storm Glass follows two young woman protagonists. The first is Cettie, a young orphan girl from the slums who is taken in by a rich family. The other is the a member of the royal family who is struggling with her parent’s apparent disinterest in her. Cettie takes the lead in this book. She is struggling to find a place to fit in, her new family is partly excited for her addition and partly seeing her as a nuisance. Especially because the extremely image conscious society. Her sections of the book are split between her struggles with a housekeeper that doesn’t believe she is fit to be a part of the family and her growing discovery of her powers. Meanwhile the princess gets inadvertently caught in a power struggle with her father, who sees her as a rival heir to the throne.

Honestly, the book’s blunt theming didn’t work for me because that is about all there was. There aren’t really any surprises. Things play out almost exactly as you expect them to, people are pretty much exactly who they appear to be. There is enough interesting here for me to give it another book to see if it can actually make the world work in a story, but I didn’t really enjoy this.

What I Read November 2018

Two book finished in November; basically my normal pace now. As much as I’d like to get back to my old pace, that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. After finals, I will have a month free of school, maybe I can hit my book goals for December and January. Or maybe not.

The Shattered Tree

Charles Todd

A decent little mystery. This is another one starring Todd’s WWI nurse Bess Crawford. This time, she has a French patient who comes in in the wrong uniform. There a just a lot of mysteries around this patient. When Bess is injured and sent away from the front to recover, she happens to see this patient in Paris, she at first attempts to check in on him and then starts trying to unravel the mystery of who exactly he is. It was entertaining. Bess thinks she’s on to something here and realizes that people in charge are willing to go with a theory that doesn’t really match the facts, so she is determined to figure things out. I will likely check out more of these. They have largely been pretty good.

Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion

Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel

A detailed biography of Justice William J. Brennan Jr., that despite running some 700 pages doesn’t do a whole lot to illuminate who he was. It is very thorough on what he did; on his work over 30+ years as a Supreme Court Justice, but other than noting that Brennan was an intensely private person it does little to illuminate him as a person. Readers will not find out what drove Brennan. It does point out when his personal thoughts seemed at odds with his judicial philosophy, but it doesn’t really tell you anything unless you think there is a disconnect between believing in reporters right to report something but not being happy with what they choose to report. It does go into detail on some of the inner workings of the Supreme Court, following Brennan’s appointment to the court and his solidifying of the Warren Court. There are lots of good details on how the sausage of a supreme court decision is made. Even more detail on Brennan’s role, as he shifted pieces of opinions to get other justices to sign on. It paints Brennan as an effective justice and one willing to sacrifice smaller points to achieve a greater one.

What I Read October 2018

I managed to finish three books in October; I feel great. And I finished a fourth on the first day of November, so I have a head start on next month. I don’t really have time to search out new books, so I am mostly just finishing up things that are already sitting on my shelf. Hopefully I will get back to my expected pace before too long.

The Poisoned Pilgrim

Oliver Potzsch

This is the fourth Hangman’s Daughter story. This time, Magdalena and her husband Simon are part of a pilgrimage to the monastery at Adenachs. There, a sickness breaks out and Simon is tasked with containing it. At the same time, one of the monks is murdered and the suspect just so happens to be an old friend of Jakob, the hangman. The three of them try to solve the eventually plural murders and the mystery of the spreading illness, they run into mad science that call to mind Frankenstein and The Sandman.

I bought this whole series because Amazon had them for cheap. I keep reading them because they are fine. They have a format I like, being mysteries, and an interesting setting, but I have not found any of them to be particularly good. They are simply fine. I am hesitant to lay that on the author when the books are translated, but word choice problems abound. Maybe Magdalena is as shrill in the original as she comes off here, but it is a bad change for what has mostly been an enjoyable character. The mystery here is mostly fun for how many different ideas pop up, the solving it is actually not especially complex. I’ll read the next one sooner or later.

Napoleon A Life

Andrew Roberts

A thorough and enthralling look at the life of the most interesting man of the last two hundred and fifty or so years. Roberts takes a fairly positive stance on Napoleon without descending in hagiography. It is simply very detailed and attempts to give some perspective on a man of whom there are still wildly divergent opinions nearly two hundred years after he died. I will admit to being something of an admirer myself, and I found this book to be amazing.

The highlights are the battle sections. They are detailed and as honest as can be. It shows how where Napoleon was truly successful, with his pace and catching opponents unawares as well as with concentrating his forces to defeat fractured alliances, but it also is honest about his failures, especially in his later defeats, when Napoleon lost the battles though simple, and in retrospect obvious mistakes.

It also gets into the thorniest matters of Napoleon’s life. Like him giving his brothers crowns and kingdoms only to be met with incompetence and unfaithfulness, though much of that was brought on by Napoleon himself. He did pull back from some of the reforms of the French Revolution, but he also helped bring the country out of the Reign of Terror and the subsequent instability. He set codified laws. He committed massacres in the Middle East. He fought many wars, but started few. Napoleon is a complex figure and this book really lays out all of that complexity. I can’t read it without being at least partly enamored of him, and a little sad that his end was what it was. But I also can not ignore the bad. I really liked how Napoleon: A Life painstakingly showed all of him that it could.

Jhereg

Steven Brust

I read a couple of Steven Brust books over the last year or so and I like them fine, and I feel much the same about this one. I got it for Christmas and just now am getting around to reading it. Its fine. Brust has an aversion to explaining anything about his world. I thought that problem with the first book of his I read was because it was a spin off several books deep in the series. But this first book does little to ease the reader in. It is a small problem, much of what isn’t said can be learned through context, but it is a barrier to really getting into the world. Here, he just doesn’t have the space for it. Jhereg is a fairly tight little heist story. Pages of world explaining exposition would kill the pace. However, certain fundamental facts don’t get mentioned until things are pretty far along. Like the fact that the protagonist is married, for instance. Keeping up with the twists and turns, however, require some knowledge of the rules and the book is reticent to give readers that knowledge. I still mostly enjoyed it; it flowed along pretty quickly and tells a fun story in not a lot of pages. I will likely try to pick up some more books in the series when I have time to read again.

What I Read September 2018

I’m back in school and back to only completing one book a month. I can almost guarantee to at least double this output in October; I’ve already finished one book and I am very close to finishing one that has been on my slate for more than three months now.

A Deadly Shade of Gold

John MacDonald

This is the end of my MacDonald foray, probably forever. I didn’t like this much at all. It is a too long thriller that just cements my opinion about MacDonald and his inability to write women as people.

A Deadly Shade of Gold starts the same way that the other McGee book I read did, an old friend of McGee shows up and asks for help. Shortly thereafter, that friend ends up dead and McGee ends up an a quest solve the mystery of his friend’s death and possibly avenge him. The trappings of this one are so much more interesting than what it eventually becomes. His friend had a collection of golden Aztec statues that he either found or stole. McGee has one of them, but someone took the rest. Together with his friend’s ex he goes on a search that takes him to Mexico and California and deals with the Cuban Revolution. Too bad none of it is interesting.

Again, the portrayal of women is a big problem. McGee first seduces (I guess, I really don’t understand the dynamics of that scene) an art dealer to get a lead on the where the statues came from. Later, he does the same to get the use of a house in Los Angeles. There are plenty of other examples as well. It isn’t the fact of his seduction, but they play out like the most egregious scenes from Bond stories. McGee bullies and condescends, which women apparently find irresistible, even as McGee judges them for succumbing to his … charms. Each instance is off putting, the cumulative effective is pretty gross. I don’t know that I would be complaining if there was something else to focus on, but there really isn’t anything else here. It is kind of a bog standard thriller. The only remarkable part of the book is the remarkable sexism. I am out on John MacDonald.

What I Read in August 2018

I read three rather small books in August, then got sucked into a rather long biography about Napoleon that I still have not finished. Most of these books were bad. I picked up a handful of John MacDonald paperbacks at a library sale, mostly due to the mildly salacious covers some of them had, and finally got around to reading them. Turns out, that wasn’t a great decision; I mostly disliked them.

The Man in the Brown Suit

Agatha Christie

This is another of Christie’s works that doesn’t fit neatly into the mystery genre, like Destination Unknown or Passenger to Frankfurt. The Man in the Brown Suit is a thriller. There is a mystery at the heart of it, but it is mostly about the protagonist’s big adventure. That protagonist, Anne Beddingfield, is the strange mix of dippy and entirely competent. She witnesses a murder on the subway and tries to investigate it. That leads her to South Africa and mystery involving stolen diamonds. On the boat to South Africa, Anne meets a lot of interesting characters and has to try to discover who is the killer. While that sounds like a mystery set up, and that is there, it mostly is just an adventure story, with Anne getting into various scrapes and intrigues as she gets closer to finding everything out. Which she does through accident and persistence, not any understanding of the mystery. While the protagonist is an interesting point of view character for this kind of story, the rest of the book isn’t anything particularly memorable.

The Dreadful Lemon Sky

John MacDonald

Travis McGee meets with an old friend on his boat, who offers him $10,000 to watch a suitcase full of money for her for two weeks. Before that time is up, she winds up dead and Travis sets out trying to find out what happened. Other than some problems on the periphery, this is a pretty solid mystery. Set in coastal Florida, it plays out like kind of sun bleached noir story. Honestly, it was pretty entertaining, easily the best of the three MacDonald books I read.

The problems, which were apparent in this book and cemented as more than an accident in the next two books, mostly have to do with how MacDonald deals with women. I shouldn’t have been surprised, again I bought the books after being intrigued by their slightly lurid covers (though not this one), but MacDonald does not write women well. Or at all, really. At least twice in this book the protagonist, who is otherwise portrayed as a good guy, witnesses first hand men beating women. His reaction both times is that he wished he wasn’t there, because he doesn’t want to get involved or start a fight. As if seeing a drunk man punch his wife shouldn’t already have him intervening. That is the most prominent example, but it is far from the only one. Every woman he meets during his investigation gets the same treatment. McGee also frequently sleeps with them; he is apparently irresistible to women. At least the mystery, having to do with smuggling drugs along the coast, is solid.

On the Run

John MacDonald

This reads essentially like the first half of a Bond story. An old man is dying and wants to see his two estranged grandchildren before he dies. One is a low level scumbag with ties to the mob. The other is on the run and in hiding from mobsters after some unpleasantness with his wife. Eventually, the younger grandson, the one in hiding, is found and convinced to return to see his grandfather. Along the way he falls in love with the nurse sent to track him down. Then tragedy strikes, setting up the main character to seek revenge on the people responsible. Except that is where the book ends, and there were no sequels. It is the first part of a Bond story, where he meets a girl and she dies. Spoilers, I guess. It is just a short novel about how the protagonist is motivated to get revenge on the men who have been trying to kill him for a decade because they killed the woman he loved. Everything else is misdirection and this book sucks.

What I Read July 2018

I read two books again in July. I’d hoped the summer would free my time up some, but it really hasn’t. I might manage more in August than July, but I wouldn’t bet on such a proposition.

Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated

Whit Stillman

This is the adaptation of Stillman’s movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan, which is included in this volume. The books sets itself up as a rebuttal, written by a relative of Lady Susan’s, to the Jane Austen story. It takes spins things to show that Lady Susan was good and thoughtful person subjected to gossip and innuendos from the stuck up De Courcy family. It is hilarious. The fictional author does his best to make Lady Susan look good, but it is clear who and what she is. The more interesting revelations about are about that fictional author, whose pathetic state are eventually revealed. It is mostly just an amusing supplement to the excellent movie. Speaking of which, if you haven’t seen Love and Friendship, you should really do so. The book sparkles with the same wit as the movie, as well as echoing its re-framing of Lady Susan from the villain she is in the original book.

Master and Fool

JV Jones

The final book in Jones’ trilogy with the most generic of all possible titles: ‘The Book of Words.’ This kind of feels like Jones didn’t really leave the character’s where she needed them at the end of the last book, so a lot has to happen at the start of this one to get things in place for the main thrust of the story. I feels a little forced, but it is mostly enjoyable, even if things don’t really link up as well as they might have. Mostly, I liked this book. While it is an ending, it doesn’t really feel like a final book. It leaves most of the characters in place for what could have been (maybe have been, I haven’t read any of Jones’ other work) more adventures.

I do have problems with the book. For one, it takes the female lead out of the picture pretty early on and gives her nothing to do for the bulk of the book. She isn’t exactly sidelined, but she doesn’t have anything to do other than to wait for the other characters to come back and save her. Another problem is how much time the book spends with the corrupt, plotting priest whose name I forget. He is a menacing yet comical character, but his machinations never really amount to anything. Other than providing updates on the rest of the world, he only really matters to about two chapters. Why is he there so much? He constantly feels like he is laying the groundwork for something that never materializes. All the pages wasted on that priest kind of highlight how rushed the rest of the story is. The book is enjoyable and fine, but it could have been better. I would read more by JV Jones, though.

What I Read June

I managed another couple of books in June as it dawned on me that with my summer schedule, I am going to have no more free time than I did during the semester.

ABC Murders

Agatha Christie

I am not going to pretend that I have a lot to say about this Hercule Poirot mystery. Christie plays around with POV a lot in this one, but otherwise it is another of her mysteries. This time someone is apparently killing people based on the alphabet, Alice Ascher of Andover is killed, followed by Betty Barnard of Bexhill. Each time the killer sends a letter to Poirot, taunting him. Poirot, with the help of Hastings and some of the family members of the deceased, sets out to solve the murders. The identity of the killer isn’t readily apparent, though the general status of the culprit is pretty obvious. It is really good.

Guns of the Dawn

Adrian Tchaikovsky

This is really interesting, though I don’t think it quite follows through on its premise. It starts as kind of Austen-esque, or maybe more like Thomas Hardy, story about an impoverished noble family trying to deal with the changing times, including the fact that the eldest daughter has married below her station and war has broken out. Soon, her husband buys a commission and not long after the lone son is drafted. Eventually, women are added to the draft and the protagonist Emily is off to war.

There is a lot going on, with the home drama and the WWI style war that the protagonist is sent off to, and most of it works on its own terms. The problem I had with it is that it doesn’t really manage to meld the two halves together. The war is the war and home is home, while Emily as a character is definitely affected by what she has experienced, I don’t feel like the home portions of the book get adequate resolution. Maybe it is just that I actually found that portion more interesting than the fighting. I wanted to see how the characters personal lives played out, the grand designs of countries are far less interesting to me. It almost feels like the back quarter or so the book need to be the back half for to deliver a satisfactory conclusion.

I still highly recommend Guns of the Dawn, it is doing something different from most books of its ilk and both of its separate threads are worth reading in their own right.

What I Read May 2018

With class getting out for the summer, I finally got a chance to do some reading. I read through a couple of books about the Supreme Court I picked up because my Con Law class but hadn’t had time to read and one mediocre fantasy book I picked up out of a discount bin.

A Man Betrayed

JV Jones

I don’t know what possessed me to start reading a book series with the second book. That’s what I had with this trilogy, the second and third books I picked up for buck each at a used book store. It is fun, but largely generic fantasy. Jack is a castle baker who has mysterious parentage and mysterious powers (no points for guessing that he is probably a prince). He has escaped a castle with Melliandra, a noble’s daughter who doesn’t want to marry a mad prince. There is also Tawl, a knight who apparently failed in his quest to find some young boy (no points for guessing that boy is Jack) and Nabber, a young thief who idolizes the knight. After Jack and Melli are seperated, all of the characters save Jack end up in the powerful city-state of Bren.

There isn’t a lot new or special here; it is mostly going through familiar beats in the typical fantasy story. That is actually kind of comforting, though, when I haven’t managed to read much new in what has long been my favorite genre. It is very much from the same school that birthed Game of Thrones, the kind of fantasy that focuses on the ugly aspects of made up semi-medieval life. That probably explains some of my indifference to this book. That and not having read the first book. This is fine.

The Brethren

Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong

A look at the inner workings of the Supreme Court in the 70’s, written while many of the Justices in it were still sitting, compiled with the secret help of Justice Potter Stewart. It follows the Court starting with Warren Burger taking over as Chief Justice. It is a rather unflinching look. None of the Justices are spared an at best humanizing look. William O Douglas comes off as selfish and condescending, but also frequently brilliant. Thurgood Marshall looks disinterested and lazy, but also personable and caring. Byron White is inscrutable. Harry Blackmun is conscientious, but indecisive. The one who comes off looking the best is William Brennan, though he is not shown to be without fault. Burger, though, comes off looking completely terrible. I don’t know that I’ve read a more unflattering portrait of a man. He is intellectually dishonest and just dishonest in general. As the book goes along even his ideological allies seem to turn on him personally.

That humanizing look is what makes The Brethren work. It shows the Supreme Court Justices as people as they try to decide the cases they see. They are sometimes petty, sometimes sometimes honorable, but always people. It makes for an enlightening and entertaining read.

Becoming Justice Blackmun

Linda Greenhouse

This biography looked almost exclusively at Justice Blackmun’s papers to tell a short version of his story. It briefly details his youth and his life before he was appointed to the Supreme Court, but it is mostly about his time on the Court. A large portion of it is about Roe v. Wade, one of Blackmun’s early opinions that he came to represent. He also drifted to the left as he sat on the bench, joining Justices Brennan and Justice Marshall to form the liberal block of the court in the 80’s. It also details how his relationship with Chief Justice Burger disintegrated, going from them being childhood friends in Minnesota to being called the Minnesota Twins when Blackmun joined the court to them barely speaking by the time Burger stepped down. It is a rather slight biography, it works mostly as a supplement rather than a thorough examination. It is well written and a very readable biography, but it too short to have much depth. Still, it is very worth the read.