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.

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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.

What I Read April 2018

Another one book month. I hope to pick up the pace in May since I’ll be out of school. But we’ll see.

The Fallon Blood

Reagan O’Neal

The author of this book is actually by Robert Jordan, who wrote my favorite fantasy series the Wheel of Time. I stumbled on this in a used book store and thought I would give it a try. There is a lot to recommend about this historical adventure/romance. It moves quickly and has some vibrant characters. It also has an odd mix of historical accuracy and the pulpiest possible romance. I mean, women can’t help but fall into bed with the protagonist, though it takes a good 100 pages for the book to make him even seem charming. All of its characters are supposed to seem flawed, but it is more like there are good men and men who are absolute unrepentant monsters and every woman is kind of awful. They are not awful for the same reason, but they are all awful in some way.

It also tries to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to slavery. Telling a story set in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War it is a subject that must come up. At first it tries to set up the protagonist as being some kind of anti-slavery anomaly, but then his wife makes some unforgivable decisions for him, so it’s not his fault. The worst part of this particular thread is I can’t tell if the book his highlighting how awful the decision the protagonists made or supposed to be making us empathize with them over how hard it is to choose to enslave people. I fear it is the latter. Still, that issue aside, the book is mostly a fun romp. That being said, I don’t think I am going to do much work to track down its sequels.

What I Read March 2018

I only got one book read in March, but it was a long one. I don’t have much to add. Law school involves a lot of reading for class, which leaves little time for reading for pleasure.

The Jackal of Nar

John Marco

Another epic fantasy, this one I believe was the first published work of the author, and that shows. It isn’t bad, but it feels a little small despite the scope of its plot. The Jackal of Nar is inconsistent. Sometimes the protagonist Richius is a seasoned veteran, sometimes he is a lovesick teenager. Maybe there is room for both in character, but for him it seems like a switch that goes on and off. Maybe that is because I don’t really buy the romance between him and Dyana. There is a nice set up of the very religious and mystical Trin versus the scientific Empire, but I don’t feel like that idea was fully explored. There are two more books in the series; I assume that thread continues to run. Despite the impression I think I am giving, I liked the book, it just always left me wishing it was doing something different. It seems to rush past the parts that work and linger on the parts that don’t. It feels like a first book.

What I Read in February 2018

I finished Oathbringer after reading it for a couple months. I also fell behind at in my reading for class, so I don’t expect to keep being able to get stuff read in the next few months. We’ll see. I hope for at least one book a month.

Oathbringer

Brandon Sanderson

I have been a fan of Sanderson for sometime now, but I am coming to the conclusion that this series isn’t really my thing. Not that there is anything specifically wrong with this book, but am finding it hard to maintain an interest in this setting. I really don’t remember much from one book to the next, which is something I am usually really good at.

This book has the conflict of this series coming into focus. It focuses on Dalinar, the oldest of the protagonists and goes over his long history as essentially his brother, the former king’s attack dog. He was good at fighting and that was what he did. It makes for a hard transition as he tries to build a peaceful coalition as they try to fight the voidbreakers. The other characters get some development as well, with Shallan struggling with coming into her power and Kaladin building a small army that follow in his footsteps. I want to have more to say about this book, but the only parts that really spoke to me were Dalinar’s flashbacks. I really like that conceit, with seeing a character in the present before jumping to the past to see how they became that person. I liked it in the first two books with Shallan and Kaladin, and I liked it here with Dalinar. There are other interesting or cool things that happen in this book, but I bounce off of them like I don’t with Sanderson’s Mistborn books or some others. I wasn’t reading it thinking it was terrible, I was reading it thinking that this kind of book might not be for me anymore.

The Dragon Reborn

Robert Jordan

Oathbringer had me wondering if I still liked epic fantasy. I had also stumbled on a Wheel of Time reread that I really liked. So I pulled out my favorite book in that series. I still love this series and I am pretty sure I still like fantasy, I just don’t know that the Stormlight Archive is going to be a favorite of mine.

What stood out to me the most on this read of The Dragon Reborn is how Jordan does perspective. He uses a very close third person that really gets the reader into the head of the character. To use that perspective effectively, the writer really has to know his characters. It also leads to people who do rereads and podcasts to import the opinions of Jordan’s characters onto the writer himself. It is one of the things I like best about the series. Not the mistakes, those are frustrating, but how well Jordan gets the reader into the characters’ heads.

What I Read in January 2018

I managed to read three books while on break from school. It was a good start to the year. Maybe I’ll keep some of that momentum going into February. I hope to at least finish Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer.

The Incrementalists

Steven Brust and Skyler White

The first of the books I got for Christmas that I managed to read. I read a Brust book a few months ago and liked it, but this is something completely difference. The Incrementalists is about a secret society that can save their consciousness in a mental garden and after they die combine it with an new person to live on. They try to make the world better by making small, incremental changes. First, the protagonist Phil finds a someone to take his lover Celeste’s consciousness. Then there is a mystery about how exactly Celeste died and why her memories didn’t come through. I liked the idea and the characters, but really wished the book had done more to show what this secret society does. Other than argue with each other, I guess. It is a lot of drama within the group and everything else is kind of vague.

As You Wish

Cary Elwes

This is not a book that I want to give a harsh review to. There is nothing bad about it, there just really isn’t anything there. It is Cary Elwes recounting his time making The Princess Bride. While that is a great movie, and there were a lot of interesting people involved, his recollections are pretty low impact. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy reading it; I love the movie and liked learning every little bit about the production that I did. But this book lacks something to make it into anything other than a curio for super-fans. I guess it is good to learn that making the movie seems to be as positive an experience for the cast as viewing it was for everyone else. It is genuinely heartwarming to read these recollections, but that doesn’t mean the book doesn’t lack the drama that would make it something really memorable to read.

The Beggar King

Oliver Potzsch

This is the third book in Potzsch’s Hangman’s Daughter series. It has some of the same rough spots as the previous two books, the dialogue has a lot of modern turns of phrase for a book set in the 17th century and characters frequently come off as unreasonable. Whether that is on the writer or the translator I can’t say, but those are pretty consistent flaws in what is otherwise an enjoyable adventure/mystery.

The Beggar King starts with Jakob Kuisl, the hangman, going to the city to help his sick sister. When he gets there, he finds her and her husband murdered and he is framed for killing them. While he sits in jail, his daughter Magdalena and her lover Simon fun afoul of people in their hometown and run away to her aunts and to start in a new life in the city. There, they find out the fate of her father and get embroiled in the machinations that led to his arrest as they try to free him. It is a fast moving, fun adventure that goes some strange directions. I don’t know that I’ll remember the details by the end of the year, but I enjoyed reading it.

Ekho

Christophe Arleston and Alessandro Barbucci

This comic has a fun gimmick, even if it did turn out to be a little more risque than I expected. It stars a woman who finds out she is her aunt’s heir in a fantasy mirror world. She is joined by the man who just so happened to be sitting next to her on the plane that she was transported out of. In the world of Ekho, Fourmille, the main character, is possessed by the spirit of those who were murdered until she figures out who killed them. In the first volume that is her aunt. After that, she and her friends move around to new places. They are pulled to new areas in her job as a talent agent. She also moonlights as part of her secretaries burlesque show. It mostly seems to be an excuse for the artist to draw fantasy versions of what he wants, from Marilyn Monroe to Paris, France. Also, boobs. There are lots of boobs. It is a light, fun affair. If new volumes go on sale on comixology again, I’ll likely pick them up. It was fun enough.