What I Read October 2019

I got through four books this month, and a couple of them were pretty sizable ones. That includes my birthday present to myself, Warrior of the Altaii by Robert Jordan. It was good to read something like that, completely inessential but very interesting. Otherwise, I finally cleared something off my reading list that has been there for years and a book I got as a Christmas a couple of years ago.

Labyrinth

Kate Mosse

I have been reading this book for what seems like forever. I read its two sequels before starting this one what I think was almost four years ago. Once it gets going it is pretty engrossing. I don’t really know why it took so long for me to finish this; it just sat there partially read forever.

This works along two timelines. The first is in the thirteenth century with the Cathars as the Catholics attempt to exterminate them from Southern France. Alais is the daughter of the steward of Carcassonne, who helps her father keep certain secrets while they fight a war. In the present, Alice works at an archaeological dig near the same place and uncovers some things that have been hidden for eight centuries.

Maybe it is just the prolonged time it took me to read this, but I didn’t realize until way too far into it that it was about the holy grail. Really, how long it took me to read this makes it hard for me to judge a lot of the plot developments. I remember generally what was happening, but I don’t really remember the details. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Citadel or Sepulchre, but then again, I don’t really remember them that well either.

The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul

Douglas Adams

The second Dirk Gently mystery. This one starts with Dirk being hired by a man a giant monster with a scythe. Though not believing the man’s ravings, Dirk takes the case for the money. Things turn serious when the man is found with his head cut off. Dirk’s investigation involves all sorts of weirdness, including Norse Gods and sinister nursing homes and record deals. If you’ve read Adams, you know what to expect. I don’t have a lot to say. I liked it; it is odd and witty and a little cynical. I really enjoyed it.

Warrior of the Altaii

Robert Jordan

This is a delight if you know what you are in for. The classy, sports team logo cover doesn’t really do the pulpy, almost lurid book found inside justice. Warrior of the Altaii is a book Robert Jordan wrote in the late 70’s and this reads like a late 70’s fantasy novel. This reads like the work of a man who wrote both the Wheel of Time and a bunch of Conan the Barbarian stories.

It is, primarily, that old sort of swords and sorcery adventure fantasy. But underneath there are shades of something more complex. There is some good military strategy stuff. The book builds the Altaii as a precursor to the Aiel from the Wheel of Time. There is also a lot of gratuitous nudity, some weird slavery stuff, and some just good, old-fashioned sexism. There are also some well drawn characters and really good action. Warrior of the Altaii would have felt a little old fashioned in the 1980’s, it feels completely ancient now. There is still a lot to enjoy here, but it requires the right mindset going in.

Natchez Burning

Greg Iles

I am conflicted with this book. There is a lot to like; some truly compelling characters, a great understanding of the setting, some really interesting thematic stuff. All of it is good stuff. The problem I have with this book is that it is a 900 page mystery/thriller that does not resolve its central mystery.

Penn Cage is the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi. His life is turned upside down when his father, a respected, half-retired doctor, is accused of murdering one of his patients. That patient once worked for his father as a nurse in the 1960s. Her son believes that Dr. Cage is his father. Looking into all of this brings back a lot of stuff from the civil rights movement, including the murder of the nurse’s activist brother. Soon, Penn is working with a journalist who has been investigating the KKK and the Double Eagles, an even more KKK splinter group.

The book is bloated, but never boring. The problem is that it doesn’t really resolve anything. One of the many villains meets his end here, but it solves none of the mysteries or resolves none of the cases the book has brought up. It also goes on some wild tangents, bringing in conspiracy theories about the assassination of JFK and MLK. It wants to do a lot of wild dumb stuff and important serious stuff, and honestly balances the two well. It just sort of ends before finishing the story. I know there are sequels; I accidentally spoiled one development for myself in the next book that really put me off reading it.

What I Read September 2019

Three books in September, and I guarantee at least three in October. I feel like I am in a better rhythm that I have been in the past few years. Also, I am focusing on short books, which helps make it look like I read more.

Smoke and Summons

Charlie N. Holmberg

I’ve enjoyed Holmberg’s previous work, though I admit I bought it mostly due to its low price point and how aggressive amazon was at putting it in my face. But again, I really liked the Paper Magician books and the few other books of hers that I’ve read. Smoke and Summons starts a new world for her.

This book follows a pair of protagonists. Sandis is a slave to a man who uses her as a vessel to summon powerful spirits. When she sees another vessel killed by her master, she escapes. She eventually meets Rone, a thief who has the special power to be invincible for one minute a day. Forced together by chance, they work together to try to evade both Sandis’ master and save Rone’s mother from some people he robbed. It feels like it maybe takes too long to get an understanding of how this world works, but the book moves so fast it is hard to hold that against it. I’ve already got the second book on my kindle and I’ll get to it soon-ish.

Diamonds Are Forever

Ian Fleming

I don’t know that I actually like Ian Fleming’s writing. This is the fourth James Bond book and it really didn’t do anything for me. In this one, Bond gets a mission to hunt down an international diamond smuggling syndicate. There does not appear to be any direct connection to the cold war here; it is a pure mob problem.

In this book, Bond goes undercover as a diamond smuggler, with the help of Tiffany Case, who works for the Spangled Mob, a gang run by the Sprang brothers. They fly to Las Vegas, where Bond goes undercover to figure out the diamond smuggling pipeline. He does, and kills the Spangs in the process. He mostly does this by working Tiffany. Tiffany hates men because she was gang-raped as a teenager. Luckily (gag), Bond’s manliness is able to overcome that and she falls in love with him. It is a quick read, and suitably entertaining and action packed throughout.

Jade Darcy and the Affair of Honor

Stephen Goldin and Mary Mason

I feel kind of bad about this. I got this book for Christmas and kind of scoffed at it. It has a cheesy cover and what I thought was a goofy title. (I left out the “Book One in ‘The Rehumanization of Jade Darcy’” bit from the title above.) I was prepared for some cheesy late 80s science fiction.

Affair of Honor isn’t the most complex science fiction story ever written; it is honestly pretty simple. Jade Darcy is a former commando with enhanced reflexes. She has fled humanity, living on a planet as far from Earth as possible and working as a bouncer and a mercenary. The book spends a lot of time setting up the character of Jade Darcy. Too bad it didn’t have a little more interesting of a plot to put her in. It works, but it feels a little flat. Another human comes to the planet where Jade has isolated herself from humanity. Instead of facing this person who is looking for her, she takes on a dangerous mission from an alien who has a grudge against the alien race that killed Jade’s family. They assassinate an enemy general, but instead of escaping without a trace, Jade’s employer leaves something so they know who did it, as a matter of honor.

That turns to Jade, after meeting the other human and making some peace with her own people that she finds out what honor means to her. This book was largely a lot of fun.

What I Read August 2019

Two books a month. That is the most I can apparently manage now. I really wanted to make better use of my summer, but I didn’t read nearly as much as I intended to. I have hopes that, even with school starting and a lot of things on my plate, I can finish 3 or 4 books in September. None of them will be all that long, but they will be finished.

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

John Steinbeck

This is Steinbeck’s unfinished translation/adaptation of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. The stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are always fun. It hurts that this is unfinished, so there was no opportunity for Steinbeck to really establish a through line. As it stands, it is a loosely connected collection of short adventures featuring a handful of Arthurian characters, with some attempts to turn it into a cohesive story. I really enjoyed reading it. The only thing I was really able to draw out of it, or at least only new thing, was a harsh look at how these stories treat women. Spoiler alert: it’s not great. The most baffling tale in this regard is the story of Sir Pelleas. That story was one of the fully new to me stories in this book. Sir Pelleas is a great knight, but the woman he loves, Ettarde, spurns his advances. He then starts to essentially stalk her. There really isn’t any other way to interpret his actions. Then Gawain shows up and tries to help Pelleas by faking Pelleas’s death. This doesn’t work, and Gawain sleeps with Ettarde. Pelleas finds out and Gawain flees. Then Nimue/Nyneve shows up, falls in love with Pelleas and curses Ettarde. The story seems to think Ettarde was the villain, but I do not understand how.

Still, for the most part these are very entertaining stories. Reading this makes me want to track down other version of the King Arthur stories, or maybe just read The Once and Future King again.

The Briar King

Greg Keyes

I bought this on a whim at a used book store, and it sat on my shelf for more than two years. I had not heard anything about this series or its author going in. The Briar King was a pleasant surprise. The book follows some scattered viewpoints in a world that appears to be the landing place of the colonists who disappeared from Roanoke. That note doesn’t seem to play into anything but the set up, so far. One thread follows Aspar, a holter who is hunting the greffyn, a kind of poisonous mystical beast. On the way, he saves another protagonist, Steven the aspiring monk. While Aspar spends the whole book either chasing or being chased, Steven uncovers some plots in the monastery where he begins his study. Then there is the central kingdom. King William, is not an especially good king, though he appears to try hard. One difficulty he has had to deal with is his lack of an heir. He has several daughters and one son who is mentally challenged. To start the book he amends the succession laws to place his daughters in the line of succession. His siblings, especially his brother the chancellor, help him with ruling the county, even as there are threats on the lives of his wife and children.

All these stories, and a couple more, all blend together into an opening book in a series that is much like the usual opening book in a fantasy series. It teaches the reader the rules and the situation, just as it clearly is ready to knock it all down. The whole book makes it clear that this is a world on the cusp of great change, the only question is whether that will be a positive or negative change. The book doesn’t quite give the reader enough for some moments to land, though the lack of context also makes some of its mysteries work a little better. The Briar King is just kind of a quintessential fantasy starter book. It won’t convert many new fans, but for fantasy readers it is a fine genre exercise. I guess I’ll track down the rest of the series before too long.

What I Read July 2019

I burned through a couple of books to start the month, then got stuck in the cycle I’ve been in all summer: starting books only to lose interest about a quarter of the way through. At some point I am going to finish a deluge of books, but it isn’t going to be in August.

The Elf Queen of Shannara

Terry Brooks

The Heritage of Shannara series has not held up anywhere near as well as I’d hoped it would. I recalled really liking this one, but it feels incredibly rushed on a reread. You can’t complain about Brooks being slow paced. This starts with Wren Ohmsford taking up her quest to find the missing Elves. After some misadventures, she finally finds a lead in Tiger Ty, a member of the tribe of elves that rides around on giant birds. He leads her to the deadly island where the elves have moved and she has to get them to safety before the volcano on this island erupts. With the elves she learns both their history and her own and what is required to bring them back to the Four Lands.

This book feels like it was almost completely made up of storytelling shortcuts. The adventure just keeps going even as it adds characters and concepts, so there is no nuance to any of it. Everyone is exactly what they appear to be. Characters are introduced to play roles and there is nothing more to them. There is some excellent action scenes here, and the plot sounds a lot more interesting than it seems when reading it. My disappointment is mostly from wanting something different from this movie than I wanted.

The Talismans of Shannara

Terry Brooks

I have maybe been too hard on this series. This fourth book wraps things up nicely; The Heritage of Shannara is a largely okay series of adventures. I admire the structure of the series. Instead of following the usual linear narrative, this book cordons off its stories. The first book introduces its three sets of heroes, and mostly tells the story of brothers Par and Coll Ohmsford. Instead of continuing their story in the second book, it switches to Walker Boh for his mostly unrelated adventure. The third book then followed Wren on her adventure. Then here is the final book to wrap it all up, and finish the story of Par and Coll. There is a chapter or two in each book to check in on some of the other characters, and a few characters make appearances in the others’ stories, but it mostly tells three unrelated stories that all tie together in a climactic fourth book.

I like that structure. I like at least parts of the plots of each book. I just don’t think Terry Brooks’ writing is for me anymore. Instead of going back and revisit and finish the entire Shannara series, I think I might just box up what I have and put them away. It feels better to leave my memories where they are.

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spied Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Sam Kean

This book was really interesting. It deals with nuclear espionage during WWII. Because near the start of WWII the Allies were convinced that not only was Germany working on an atom bomb, but that they were close to discovering one. So while the Manhattan Project geared up, a small group of spies went to great lengths to stop the Nazis.

There is a lot of understandable desperation on display; stuff like filling planes with explosives and flying them into enemy encampments where nuclear experiments were thought to be occurring. They ran several missions into Norway to stop the production of heavy water used in Nazi experiments, only for those efforts to turn into a series of distastrous misadventures. There are a lot of interesting characters, like the Joliot-Curie’s, who seemed to keep missing out on big scientific discoveries and who worked in France to help delay the Nazis and Moe Berg, a MLB catcher turned would be assassin. What is most striking is just how haphazard and desperate all of these efforts were. It is hard to judge how effective anything was. It is clear that the Nazis never really got all that close to producing a bomb, but whether that was due to espionage and sabotage or just due to their own failures. Still, this book makes gives an enthralling look at a part of WWII that is rarely discussed.

What I Read in June 2019

Even though I had the whole month with no school to take up my time, I still only managed to read two books in June. A large part of that was that I got the idea to do a chapter by chapter read through of a book, kind of to try that format of reread out, and discovered it slowed my reading speed to a crawl. I might still go through with the project, though it will be different than I intended since instead of reading a chapter or two of a book I barely remembered, I blew through the first two books of the series. I will finish that series, see below, and probably another book or two next month, including a book I’ve been reading for more than a year.

The Scions of Shannara

Terry Brooks

I was a big Brooks fan for a couple of years about a decade and a half ago. Since then I’ve grown solidly disinterested in his stuff. However, the “Heritage of Shannara” series, in my mind, was the part of his overarching Shannara saga that was the good part. This quartet of books have long been on my reread stack. They were going to be (and maybe still will be) the subject of an ongoing feature on my blog as I reread them. Spoilers: I am not coming out of this reread with as strong affection for these books as I went in with.

Scions meanders. It is primarily an adventure tale, with a lot of hooks that should excite me, but it feels so much like just generic, bargain basement fantasy. Everything is so obvious. If a character appears evil, they are evil. Characters might be deceptive, but the book never is. It kind of kills the suspense and intrigue that feels like it should be a part of the book. Everything is just so on the surface. The Four Lands are in trouble, and the shade of the Druid Allanon has called the children of the Shannara bloodline to try to save it. They are Par Ohmsford, who has the ability to sing illusions with the wishsong, and his brother Coll, Wren Ohmsford, about whom nothing is learned in this book, and Walker Boh, the Dark Uncle is as yet vague magical powers. They are each given a task, and the book follows the brothers as they attempt to recover the Sword of Shannara. Its fine, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of meat on these bones.

The biggest disappointment is a story hook that almost always lands for me but mostly didn’t here; the conflict between brothers Par and Coll. Usually, that sort of conflict is really my thing, here I don’t get a strong enough feel for the characters to make it work.

The Druid of Shannara

Terry Brooks

The second book does not fix the problems I had with the first book in this series. Honestly, it sort of abandons everything set up in the first volume. Yes, it deals with some of the same characters, but this feels like a side story. Walker Boh was given one task; this book that focuses on him has him dealing with a very different task. It also continues with very obvious characters. There is no development or change for anybody.

The book starts with the mystical King of the Silver River creating an elemental ‘daughter’ Quickening and sending her out on a quest. That quest will help Walker Boh accomplish his own, separate quest. Walker is one of the three people that Quickening needs to accomplish her goal. The others are the somewhat despondent Morgan Leah, who lost his magic sword in the last book, and Pe Ell. Pe Ell is introduced as an evil assassin. And that is what he is. The end, no moral. The book mostly seems an excuse for Brooks to play up the post-apocalyptic nature of the world, and to sow the seeds to connect Shannara to another of his book series. His best stuff is coming up with disgusting and unfathomable monsters that the heroes can’t fight. He does just enough of that here to keep the quest interesting, even if it feels inconsequential.

What I Read May 2019

Again, only two books in May, though one of them was a two volume manga collection that took some time to read. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to the pace I expect of myself. Usually when I get bogged down like this I find some short pulps to kick my finished book rate up a couple of notches. Instead of doing that, I am currently bogged down in several longer tomes.

The Clocks

Agatha Christie

This is ostensibly another entry in Christie’s Poirot series, but it reads more like one of her generally lackluster spy novels rather than her excellent mysteries. It is a mystery, but the spy stuff creeps in by the end and that doesn’t work at all.

The mystery is that an unidentified man turns up dead in the home of a blind woman, along with a dozen clocks. This was discovered by a typist who was hired to do work for the blind woman, except that the blind woman had not hired her. The police, and a bystander who happened to get involved, are stumped. One of them has the bright idea to go to an old detective friend of his, who it turns out is Poirot. Poirot is determined to solve the case without leaving his home, so he suggests some inquiries that should be made by the investigators.

Those inquiries involve the temp agency the typist came from and all the neighbors who live around the blind woman. In the usual mystery fashion, an array of lies and unknown connections are discovered, before Poirot is able to deduce who is responsible for the killing, or by that point killings, and why. There is another mystery to be solved as well, as a lot of the apparent red herrings point to a communist connection, that the bystander, who is also a spy, eventually works out. The mystery of the clocks is pretty enjoyable, the spy stuff is underbaked and kind of pointless.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Hayao Miyazaki

Thanks to a recent episode of Retronauts, I decided to treat myself to the manga version of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I know the movie version well and knew there was a manga, but I never really touched it. Though I did own the first volume, which I picked up at a used book store for a couple of bucks and then just left sitting on the shelf for a decade. While I initially looked into completing the set from the volume I already had, it turned out to be cheaper to get the collector’s edition from Viz Media.

The two versions of the story share a lot of similarities, they also end up being quite different. And the manga version is a much darker, more pessimistic story than the already somewhat somber movie. Nausicaa takes place in a world that has already been destroyed in an even referred to as the “Seven Days of Fire,” which appears to be a sort of nuclear holocaust. What has sprung up in the aftermath is a toxic jungle of fungi and giant insects that, as is revealed early on, is purifying out the toxins from the earth.

That is pretty much where the movie ends. Young Nausicaa learns the secret of the jungle and averts a war between two larger countries in her tiny country. During the conflict, one of the deadly living weapons is brought back to life, and Nausicaa only barely manages to stop the giant pill bug looking Ohmu from killing everybody. That particular conflict doesn’t happen in the manga, but the general outline of events does.

This is where the manga’s bone deep pessimism creeps in. Nausicaa is drawn from her home to fight a war, and has to witness as cycles of violence repeat themselves. The jungle may be trying to heal the world, but humanity is not done killing it yet. She consistently wins the admiration and respect of the people she meets, but it is never enough to avert more killing. This builds until the end of the manga, when Nausicaa finds the secret behind the world. She learns that the jungle is a man-made creation and that once it runs its course humanity will be reborn. Except doing so will kill whatever humanity is still alive at that point. This entity responsible for overseeing this plan has consistently pushed for the escalation of wars, to push the spread of the jungle at the rate it desires. The manga leaves off on a somewhat positive note that is undercut by the unlikeliness of that positivity holding. I think it is worth noting that the movie happened while the manga was still in its early volumes, with years between the first and last in the manga. It appears that whatever hope Miyazaki had when he started the project and made the movie had evaporated by the time he finished. I can’t say this change was unjustified.

What I Read April 2019

Only two books in April, which means I am back on my law school pace. I don’t expect things to get better from here. Maybe three books a month seems like the best I can hope for these days.

First Among Sequels

Jasper Fforde

I still really like Thursday Next. This is the first book of the sequel series, with Thursday now the mother of three children. After the last book, Something Rotten, brought many of the plotlines to a close, this one reshuffles things and deals out a new string of plotlines.

My favorite of the new plotlines is Thursday’s adventures in BookWorld with her two new apprentices. Those apprentices are fictional and they just so happen to be the two fictional versions of Thursday. The first is Thursday 1-4, books that occurred before Thursday had a say over how her adventures were written and, supposedly, the four books that represent the series so far. She is essentially an 80’s bad cop action movie star. The other is Thursday 5, the star of the fifth book in the series. But not this book, the lost fifth book, The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco. This version of Thursday is vegan hippy push-over. That reception of her book caused the end of the series. In real Thursday’s mind, neither are cut out for the job, though for opposite reasons. All three grow and learn over the course of the adventure. That is just one thread of many that are going on over the course of the book. This is such a great series.

Downtiming the Night Side

Jack L Chalker

I feel like I should either have a lot to say about this book, or very little to say.  Jack Chalker is a science fiction writer whose work gets WEIRD.  This book is not exception. It is a time travel story.  Terrorists take over a time travel facility and travel back in time.  The protagonist is sent after them.  This books take on time travel works something like Quantum Leap, but if you stay in the past too long you get stuck in the past body.  The initial mission goes sideways, but the protagonist, Ron Moosic, is saved by a mysterious time traveler.  He is then wrapped up in a time war from the future.  Things continue to go badly for him, as his mind is being affected by all the other people he’s been.

The is some weird post-human stuff that goes on, with the future people having evolved to live in space with various differing adaptations.  Except they never actually appear in the book, people just tell other people about them.  Then there are people on the night side, which are people who can’t return to their time because history has changed and they no longer exist.  At the risk of spoiling everything [so stop now if you don’t want to know], Ron meets and falls in love with Dawn.  They have kids together.  But Ron grows old, so he and his friends plan to strand him in a new body long enough for it to become permanent, without him losing his mind to the new body.  They do so, and his new body turns out to be Dawn.  His friends pull him back to before Ron and Dawn met, and now Ron is on the other side of the relationship.  What I am saying is that this book is freaking weird.

What I Read in March 2019

I only read one book in March. March was a rough month, even with a week off from law school for spring break in the middle of it. Still, even with finishing only one book this month I am still on pace to read more this year than I have the last two.

The Woman Who Died A Lot

Jasper Fforde

The one book I managed to finish in March was a reread of one of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books.  The last Thursday Next book.  I didn’t forget how incredibly inventive Fforde is, especially in this series but also always, but I did manage to forget nearly the entire plot.  That is unusual for me.  Generally, once I start a reread the detail start to come pretty fast.  I might forget details or even whole characters, but as soon as I start with the book it is all there.  Here, it was like reading it all again for the first time.  I remembered that Thursday was old in this book, and I remembered a few other details, but I didn’t even remember the conceit that got the book its title.

This book is called “The Woman Who Died A Lot” to reference the fact that Thursday keeps getting replaced with synthetic duplicates for reasons that are not clear at first.  Her mind is somehow transferred into this fake version of her.  Unfortunately, these fakes are only designed to live for about a day.  When they die, she returns to her body.  The contrast here is that current Thursday is both getting old and injured.  So she can only really fight back against the evil Goliath Corporation when she is a duplicate.  Over the course of the book, she dies a lot.

I have long since accepted that Jasper Fforde is my favorite author.  I think I accepted that as he went a half decade without publishing a book.  Rereading this book, a perfectly fine but apparently forgettable entry in his signature series reminded me why he is my favorite and reinforced his position.  I am ready for whatever he has next, and until then I guess I’ll reread what I’ve already got.

What I Read February 2019

I managed an incredible feat in February, doing what used to be my routine. I read four books last month. One was a only anticipated release by my favorite author. Another was a book I had hoped to get for Christmas but didn’t so I bought it myself. I also read a couple of Douglas Adams books, because it was about time I did.

Skyward

Brandon Sanderson

I sometimes feel bad when writing about Brandon Sanderson’s books, because I feel like I come off as very negative. I do have some problems with his prose, which are highlighted by this book, which is a young adult book. I think Sanderson’s prose is already kind of simple, and when it is further simplified for a younger audience it gets a little flat. I had that problem with this book; it just read sort of plainly.

That said, Sanderson has significant strengths, which is why I keep reading his books. I really like Sanderson’s writing, I just don’t think it is perfect. He does great work with world building and establishing characters. That is true here. Skyward has humanity exiled to a far off planet, stuck living underground to escape bombardment from the aliens who control the skies. Spensa wants nothing more than to be a pilot, one of those who fight the aliens to try to build a better future for humanity. At first her family’s reputation appears to keep her from that goal, she is allowed to join as a trainee. While she trains, she also finds a strange spacecraft in the caves that she works to get into working condition. The book is mostly team building and training, with Spensa learning a lot of hard truths. It builds to Spensa finally making a decision with the strange ship she found.

Skyward is solid. It lays a lot of groundwork and tells an interesting, if clearly incomplete story. I liked it well enough, but I am hopeful future books in the series are better. This one doesn’t feel like it really comes into its premise until near the end. The story it told is fine, but it feels a little like it was hiding all the good parts. I look forward to more.

Early Riser

Jasper Fforde

If my math is correct, Early Riser is Jasper Fforde’s first book in nearly five years. That is kind of crushing for me, because I discovered him at about the same point he stopped producing new work.  Just as I caught up the well ran dry. But like with the people who complain about George RR Martin not producing A Song of Ice and Fire books fast enough, Jasper Fforde is not my bitch. I don’t get to dictate his writing schedule. I am just happy to have more from him to read. Early Riser did not disappoint.

Early Riser is set in a world where humans hibernate. The whole society is centered around this. There are a select group of people, the Winter Consuls, who stay awake all winter to make sure those who hibernate can do so in peace. The book follows Charlie Worthing, a newly accepted trainee Winter Consul, through much of his first winter awake. As tends to happen, he stumbles into important events that he doesn’t understand. His attempts to navigate through this dangerous events are what makes this book work. Charlie is not a particularly adept protagonist, he gets by mostly on gumption. He is smart enough to know his limitations and lucky enough to get through some tricky situation.

The book really doesn’t disappoint. It is a whole new world for Fforde to play around in. (I think it might actually be the same one from Shades of Grey, but it is different enough to actually be its own thing) He still plays wonderfully with skewed pop culture references, where he references something you know, but changes it just enough to make it clear it is something different. Fforde also never says no to adding a new weird idea into an already weird book. There is always something keeping the reader on their toes. The plot is a not especially intricate thriller, but that works with how intricate the setting is.  I have deliberately not written much about what actually happens in the book, both because explaining it is rather hard and because people should read it for themselves and I don’t want to spoil it. I loved this book; I am so happy Fforde is back.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Douglas Adams

This book is fun. It is a murder mystery where the murder itself is essentially a red herring. It plays with a lot of interesting science fiction concepts and weaves them together into the format of a detective novel, but the mystery was never really what you thought it was. I am given to understand that parts of this started as a Dr. Who script, and that makes sense. Adams’s wit is on full display here, making for a book that is a lot of fun to read, but it is much more tightly plotted than anything else I’ve read by him. That is not to say you could actually call it tightly plotted, it is only so in respect to Adams’s larger body of work. Still, it is quite an enjoyable read and I’ll finish up with its sequel sooner rather than later.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams

I’ve got a full post about how much I like this story. Read that, I don’t have anything to add here.

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.