What I Read April 2017

I hit four in April and I’m already close to hitting it again in May. I’ve finally cleared my stack of Christmas books, which means I have to do a little more thinking about what I read next. My big Charles Dickens project is looking like a bust so far, I’ve only made it about a quarter of the way through Nicolas Nickleby so far. Maybe it is more of a two year project.

Mean Streak

Sandra Brown

This is the last of the books from my Christmas stack.  It is another thriller/mystery.  This one is about a doctor who goes missing while training to run a marathon running in the Appalachian Mountains. She wakes up with a bump on her head in the cabin of a mysterious stranger. He may or may not be responsible for her predicament, but he certainly won’t let her leave.  She is likely concussed and there is inclement weather outside.  Back in civilization, police are checking into her disappearance and their prime suspect is her suspicious, cheating husband.

I enjoyed it quite a bit, though it takes quite a lot of suspension of disbelief to keep engaged.  The leads are too extreme in their competency.  It also deliberately tricks the reader; not with clever misdirects but with having characters act in ways that don’t make sense for any reason other than to confuse the reader. SPOILERS The book sets up the husband to seem guilty and about halfway through he starts acting, and thinking when the book is from his perspective, as though he is guilty.  At first it is laid on so thick that it seems an obvious misdirect, then the character himself seems to confirm it, only for it to turn out to not be true.  Those annoyances didn’t really bother me; the book ends up operating at a sort of a heightened reality that makes that sort of exaggerated weirdness acceptable.  It’s a fun, fast read.

A Curious Beginning

Deanna Raybourn

There is a lot to like about this Victorian mystery about a young woman lepidopterist who gets caught up in a big conspiracy.  The thing that kept me from really liking it was that there really isn’t a mystery.  Or more accurately, that neither of the two protagonists do a lot to solve the mystery.

Veronica Speedwell is a young orphan girl who after the death of her aunt first has a home invasion, then meets up with a man who claims to have known her parents.  He leaves her with a friend of his, Stoker, but before he can tell her anything, he winds up dead.  This sends Veronica and Stoker on the run and try to figure out who is responsible.

The problem is that most of the book is not spent solving that murder, or even the mystery of Veronica’s parentage.  The book just kind of floats along on unrelated subplots before it decides to get down the problem at hand.  And then most of the solving is done by the characters, with no evidence or verifiable information, reasoning out who is responsible and why.  It is frustrating. Still, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy it overall.  I did not find it to be an especially good mystery, but it was a genuinely fun read so that didn’t really bother me.

Prudence

Gail Carriger

I read the previous set of Gail Carriger’s books, the Soulless series, a couple of years ago and if I recall correctly I greatly enjoyed them.  This one, which begins a series starring the protagonist of that first series’ daughter, I found somewhat lacking and I am a little unsure as to why that is.

There are some obvious reasons. From this first book, I don’t think Prudence is as interesting a protagonist as her mother was.  She seems to be all quirk with nothing really behind it, not a sturdy enough presence to build a whole series of books on. Hopefully she’ll grow as a character.  It also blunders into questions of colonialism; I am willing to admit I may be getting it wrong, but parts of this book didn’t sit well with me. Prudence has its characters take a trip India and deals directly with the problems of colonization.  It suggests that this alternate Britain made mistakes while colonizing India, it doesn’t actually note that being colonized itself was a pretty bad deal for the colonized.  It is hard to write a story in this setting without running into this problem, but I don’t think Prudence handles the issue well.  Mostly because dealing seriously with the issue would not go well with the light and fluffy tone of the book.

While I didn’t like Prudence as much as a character as her mother, that doesn’t mean I think she is a bad character. This book did a good job of setting up a new set of characters and a new set of problems in this already established world, while also giving fans of the previous series just enough cameos by old characters to make them happy.  Despite my problems with it, I liked this book enough to check out the next when I have time/see it on sale.

Aristotle’s Children

Richard E Rubenstein

This book is about the rediscovery of Aristotle’s works in the 12th century, and how that rediscovery helped lead Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.  It is an engrossing, if dry, read that gets into parts of history that aren’t much known in the popular culture. While Aristotle was never really lost, at least not to people outside of the Western Roman Empire, its rediscovery in Spain by a combination of Christians, Jews and Muslims, is an interesting part of history.  How his teachings were dealt with by the dominant Catholic Church, which also controlled most institutions of learning at the time, is only slightly less engrossing.  Aristotle’ Children is a slower, more ponderous read than many of the historical books that grab my attention, but it is no less enlightening.  It can be difficult to get through at times but it is definitely worth it.

What I Read in March 2017

I only managed to finish three books in March, but I’m pretty happy with where I am reading wise this year so far. I am fairly certain I will meet my yearly goal.

The Gangster

Clive Cussler & Justin Scott

This Isaac Bell series has long been something of a guilty pleasure of mine.  This one, though, sort of missed for me.  As always, I love the setting and like this series fake Pinkerton Van Dorn organization, but the plot here was thin even by the standards of this series.  It ostensibly gets Bell involved with the new forming American Mafia, but also ties in some robber baron stuff and a potential Presidential assassination.  Usually these books tie their seemingly disparate plot elements together, this one doesn’t really make sense to me. It end up feeling like a big missed opportunity.  The stuff with the mafia and how that group, and similar Irish gangster groups, are appealing to immigrants is on the table.  The book kind of sets that up, but it quickly steps away because it isn’t interested in exploring that. Instead, of following through and developing a theme, it brings in a fictional robber baron to be the actual villain. He lends the already on the run gangster some protection while he enacts a plan to assassinate President Roosevelt.  All of the elements that usually make this series a lot of fun, but in this one they just didn’t come together.

N is for Noose

Sue Grafton

Another Christmas gift book, a stack which is rapidly shrinking. When I am gifted a book, I usually feel compelled to put it on top of my reading list.  This Christmas I asked for “mysteries” with no other guidance given, and that is what I got.  Reading the random smattering of books I received has helped me get a clearer picture of what I like and what I want.  After reading N is for Noose, I’m not sure more of Sue Grafton’s books are what I’m looking for.

I don’t mean to be harsh, it isn’t that I outright disliked the book, but I never shook the feeling that this isn’t really what I was looking for. Despite the fact that on a surface level this is exactly what I am looking for.  Maybe it is because I started with what appears to be the 14th books in a series.  One thing I did really like about N is for Noose is that it is a mystery where the mystery is what exactly the detective is investigating.  That is very unclear, let me try again.  It is a mystery about the lack of a mystery.  [] is called in to investigate even though there is no evidence or appearance of a crime.  The man she is looking into died of what everyone, even his wife who hired her, agrees is natural causes.  But something doesn’t feel right.  So she just has to poke around until she finds something, which she does because otherwise there is no book.  But that lack of central focus also makes the book kind of aimless for a long stretch.  When it all breaks, it breaks really fast and just sort of explodes through the end.  Our protagonist doesn’t find anything out, she just spooks people with something to hide until they uncover it for her.

I mostly enjoyed N is for Noose, but it didn’t quite scratch my mystery itch like I wanted.  The only things I’ve found so far that do are from Golden Age of Mystery writers, like Christie or Sayers.

The Winds of Khalakovo

Bradley Beaulieu

This is the first book in a fantasy series that I listened to as an audiobook. That makes it hard for me to judge it fairly I think. I liked parts of the book, but I had some problems with it. How can I be sure those problems didn’t arise from listening to it rather than reading it myself? Not knowing for sure makes me a little unsure of my feelings toward this book.

The Winds of Khalakovo is set in a very Russian feeling fantasy world, with many Russian or Russian sounding words used to create it sense of place. There are lots of nyets and das. It follows tow nobles who are readying for an arranged marriage, Nikandr and Atiana, as well as Nikandr’s low born mistress Rehada. The three of them move through the book as the tense political situation on the island where Nikandr’s father rules explodes. That political situation is quite complex, with multiple Duchies at each other’s throats and a conquered/colonized people split into a few factions who disagree with how to deal with the ruling class. Then there is the equally complex magical system. Each of the three protagonists is sympathetic, though the supporting characters are much harder to get a read on.

My big problem with the book is one of timelines. Frequently there seem to jumps in time in the middle of ongoing scenes, with a character doing something and people reacting as if it had been done hours or even days ago. Someone will be preparing an escape only for the next sentence to refer to escape as having happened in the past. This problem might be due to me listening to the book instead of having it in my hands, reading it. If I was reading it myself I could thumb back and make sure I had everything straight, with the audiobook it just keeps going. Even with my flipping back and forth I still read faster than the audiobook goes, but I can’t read it at work that way. Seemingly every few chapters the book jumped forward, with what had been brewing actions having happened I guess when I let my concentration lapse. I can’t know for sure if this is a problem with the writing or if I wasn’t listening attentively enough. I didn’t kill my enjoyment of the book, but it made things feel unsatisfactorily scattered.

What I Read in February 2017

I read lots of mysteries last month, but nothing that really stood out. I also started on my reading project for this year. Next month is likely to be pretty slow, since I will be playing so much Zelda. This is me working my way through the stack of books I got for Christmas.

Black Coffee

Charles Osborne & Agatha Christie

The cover to this book is misleading. It has Agatha Christie’s name in big letters, but she didn’t write this. It is a novelization of a play she wrote starring Hercule Poirot. Charles Osborne actually wrote the book, using her play as the outline. That is clear as soon as you start reading; this doesn’t read like Christie. Her hand is evident in the plotting. This is not her best Poirot mystery, but it is clearly hers. In this Poirot is called to the home of a celebrated physicist who has created a new type of explosive. He thinks someone wants to steal it and wants Poirot to prevent that. Unfortunately, soon after Poirot gets there the physicist turns up dead. It is a good enough read, even if it feels like counterfeit Christie.

The Body in the Library

Agatha Christie

From Poirot to Marple, this time in a book actually written by Agatha Christie. Though this one isn’t much better. I liked Body in the Library, there is a certain level of entertaining competence that no Christie mystery I’ve read doesn’t meet, but this is no And Then There Were None. A family finds a dead body of a girl they don’t know in their library. Several investigators look into, including Marple, and they have trouble even identifying the body, let alone discovering who killed the girl or put her in the library. Figuring out her identity leads to an old man with an unusual inheritance situation and a handful of suspects for the murder. It all plays out pretty conventionally, with twists and turns and is perfectly engaging, but it isn’t especially memorable.

The Vanished Man

Jeffrey Deaver

This is a case of me getting exactly what I asked for, but not what I wanted.  For Christmas, I asked for mystery books, with no author or series listed.  The ones I would have asked for, like Dorothy Sayers, I have pretty well read everything.  I had hoped to get something new that I could then start reading a lot of.  Jeffrey Deaver’s The Vanished Man is a mystery, but it is not at all the sort of mystery I wanted.  I wanted Columbo, and this feels more like CSI.  

I don’t mean to say that this book is bad, only that it isn’t quite what I wanted to read.  It does set up an interesting case for our protagonists to solve; I just don’t like how it deals with the solving.  It features a culprit that uses stage magic and escape artist tricks to evade capture, but Deaver seems to relish spoiling the how for the reader before his characters can figure it out. That can work to build tension, with the reader wondering if the hero will see through the ruse in time, but here is just kills the discovery, leaving a not especially enthralling procedural.

The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens

One of my reading goals this year is to read the Charles Dickens novels that I have not yet managed to read.  So I started chronologically with The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which was not a maybe the best choice.  It is the first book that Dickens published and it feels like it. It is essentially plotless and it really doesn’t figure out what it is until more than a dozen chapters in.  It eventually settles into something of a Don Quixote vibe, following the adventures of the naive Mr. Pickwick and his much more knowledgeable servant Sam Weller.

Dickens creates some great characters here in Pickwick, Sam and the rapscallion Alfred Jingle, but it lacks that central plot to pull everything through.  There is no real goal or driving factor other than Pickwick getting out and seeing England outside of his tiny corner of London.  Pickwick Papers definitely takes a while to find its footing.  It starts as a series of vignettes where Pickwick and his club are the butt of every joke, but soon Dickens switches things up to where the various foibles of the people they meet are as much the source of humor as Pickwick and his friends.  Which is good, because there is only so much enjoyment to be gleaned from reading about a hapless old man make a fool out of himself.  After he meets with Sam Weller, Pickwick learns and grows from each encounter, gaining greater understanding of the world and human nature.  The book has its moments, but it is largely a bit of amusing nothing.

Frustrated Hype

There is no game coming out this year that I am more excited for than The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I should have in my hands already and I’ll see you in a couple of years when I come up for breath. Hell, I don’t think I’ve been this excited for a game since the similarly delayed Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess a decade ago. Still, there is something in the early reactions that I find incredibly annoying. The game is getting the same kind of hype that helped contribute to me losing interest in Game of Thrones. Like with that TV/book series, much of Zelda’s early lauding is built on tearing down what came before it. As someone who has had a lot of fun with those games, it finds that turns me away more than it gets me interested. I doubt I will result in a clean break for me with Zelda like it did with A Song of Ice and Fire, at least partly because I still really like what Nintendo is putting out and partly because I like Zelda a lot more than I ever enjoyed George R R Martin’s work.

Today!

Today!

While its fans’ crapping on the rest of the genre wasn’t what turned me off to A Song of Ice and Fire, it did make it easier for to just decide to give up on the series. I dug into the series a year to two before A Feast for Crows came out and enjoyed it. Then A Feast for Crows hit and I found it rather underwhelming. When the promised second half didn’t show up the next year, or the year after, I kind of started to lose interest. At least, I did until it was announced that HBO was working on a TV adaptation. That sparked a reread and the realization that once the shock of the discovery was gone, I didn’t really like the books that much. That is the biggest reason I am not into the series anymore; it kept my interest through the rush of its twists and turns, but I didn’t like anything else about it.

What really didn’t help the situation were my online interactions with GoT fans. The primary method I’ve seen fans of the series use to build up it up is by tearing down other fantasy series. ASoIaF/GoT is better than Wheel of Time because it is so real. It is so dark and gritty, unlike all that other silly fantasy crap. Not only did I find these arguments unconvincing, it was also frustrating to see stuff I liked consistently put down by people hoping to push something that I really didn’t like. Being more realistic is not necessarily a positive thing in a fantasy series. Being dark and gritty is often just code for being cynical and pre-teen edgy. I am glad for fans of the series to have as faithful and successful an adaptation as Game of Thrones appears to be, but it success doesn’t render other similar series inferior.

That is the same feeling I am getting from some of Breath of the Wild’s hype. Nintendo is purposefully comparing their new Zelda to the original Legend of Zelda. That is fine, and it appears to have resulted in a truly excellent game. But that has morphed in many places to the full on tearing down of every Zelda game between the original and this new one. It is some baffling revisionist history, like there haven’t been at least three masterpieces in between. This is not true of everybody, many are careful to point out that while A Link to the Past didn’t have the original’s freedom it was still an excellent game, but most of the games are getting written off as misguided crap.

I never thought I would put myself into arguing against the original Legend of Zelda, but people vastly overstate the sense of ‘freedom’ in that game. It may have been one of my original gaming loves, but that game is a lot of opaque crap that has been wisely discarded. Getting past the Lost Hills or the Lost Woods is a cool trick once you know it, but it is understandably frustrating to anyone who doesn’t know how it works. Finding most of the secrets on the over world involves either already knowing where things are or painstakingly burning each bush or bombing likely walls. It isn’t fun; it is tedious. There is a lot to love about the game, but its relative openness is not the game’s biggest selling point.

Then there are the supposedly hyping comparisons to Skyrim, as though being a wide open janky piece of crap would be an improvement for the series. I know that I am the extreme outlier for my take on that game and Bethesda’s output in general, but what I’ve always liked more about Nintendo’s output over a lot of the open world crap that is dominating the current gaming landscape is that their games actually have well considered gameplay. I would rather Skyward Sword’s tightly designed, dense overworld to the wide open nothing that I see all over the place. From what I’ve seen of Breath of the Wild it appears to avoid the traps that nearly every other open world games fall into. Like Metal Gear Solid V, Breath of the Wild appears to still be a tightly designed game that is also an open world. As long as it still plays like Zelda, everything else is just gravy.

What annoys me is the hype that depends on putting something else down to make whatever is being hyped look good. You don’t have to tell me that the Wheel of Time is crap to try to convince me that A Song of Ice and Fire is good. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword don’t have to be misbegotten junk to make Breath of the Wild a fresh experience. It can sell on its own merits; the other games in the series don’t need to be buried to build it up. Again, I am excited for Breath of the Wild as have been for a game in a long time, but that excitement has nothing to do with Skyward Sword, other than the fact that this game seems to be using a similar art design.

What I Read in January 2017

I made my goal of five books this month, including one that I have been working on for more than four months. I complemented that with a half dozen or so comic collections, but I don’t really have anything to say about them. I am currently reading about four different books, including finally getting starting on my reading project for this year: reading all of Charles Dickens’ novels. I’ve already read quite a few of them, but it has been a long time for most and I might go back to them as a refresher. I am about a quarter of the way through Pickwick Papers. I didn’t read anything nearly so impressive in January, though.

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Girl in the Shadows

Gwenda Bond

I read the first book in Bond’s series about the circus, Girl on a Wire, and enjoyed it. Not as much as I enjoyed her Lois Lane books, but it seemed unlikely that I would with no prior affection for it. This sequel changes the focus from high wire acts to a stage magic and also increases the amount of real magic in the series. The first book had a magic coin that gave the person holding it luck; this creates a whole society of real magicians. The central story is along the same lines as the last book, with a young performer out to prove herself on the stage. Moira, the protagonist, runs away from her restrictive father to join a traveling circus as a stage magician. She soon learns that she can do more than just stage magic, as well as a host of family secrets. She is aided by a boy she meets at the circus and a romance is soon kindled. It works, though I found it less engaging than the first volume.

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The Demon’s Brood

Desmond Seward

I am very conflicted on this book. It is an enthralling read, but it is very selective about the history it portrays. While reading this overview of the Plantaganet Dynasty of England, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Seward was deliberately including the most shocking and graphic stories of the era, even those that as far as I know have largely been discredited by historians. It all becomes clear near the end, when the writer makes a plea that these older Kings to replace the Tudors for dramatic portrayals, possibly to get some of that sweet Game of Thrones money. He’s not wrong, but it does color what does and does make this already stretched thin book. Less appealing are the writer’s reflections on the quality of each king, weighted heavily in favor of their martial prowess over anything else.

While it can be sensational, The Demon’s Brood does give a good overview of a dozen or so Kings. Even those with a passing knowledge of English history, or Shakespeare in my case, will learn a lot from this book and it is a very easy read. It is certainly nowhere near a comprehensive look at any of these figures, and it all but leaves out some rather important people like Eleanor of Aquitaine, but it definitely worth a look.

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A Man of Some Repute

Elizabeth Edmondson

This is supposedly a mystery, but while Edmondson does a lot of work to set up her fairly enjoyable cast of characters, the mystery part frequently gets lost in the shuffle. The personal problems and post-WWII period details are all fine, the book absolutely doesn’t work as a mystery. I do like the characters, but the book slow plays just about everything about them. It sets up a lot of directions things could go for Hugo, Georgina and Freya, but doesn’t give them a lot to do.

Recently injured and forcibly retired from his intelligence work, Hugo moves to Selchester with his younger sister Georgina. There they meet Freya, the niece of the old Earl who went missing seven years before. Soon after they arrive, the Earl’s body is found on the premises of Selchester castle, kicking off a very relaxed investigation. I didn’t hate the book, I liked it enough to pretty much immediately read its sequel, but I wasn’t overly enthralled.

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A Question of Inheritance

Elizabeth Edmondson

This is the sequel to A Man of Some Repute. Again, this feels like a slow playing of everything. It does have a stronger mystery, but otherwise is pretty much the same as the previous book. Or what I assume is the previous book, because this one doesn’t exactly pick up where the last left off. This one starts with a new Earl of Selchester moving into the castle with his two daughters. Unfortunately, this unknown American taking the seat is not welcome news to everyone and someone appears to want him dead. When a guest turns up dead at the castle, Hugo and Freya set to work again sorting things out.

This one does feel more like a classic mystery, though that mystery plot still gets sidelined for way too long at certain points. It also delves more deeply into Hugo’s spy past, a turn that could be interesting, but this only barely starts to make it good. It is like a couple of chapters of a spy novel fit into this rather domestic book. I don’t think this series has been very good, but they are still largely pleasant reads.

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Republic of Thieves

Scott Lynch

I really enjoyed the first two of Lynch’s Locke Lamora books, but it took me a long time to warm up to this one. It doesn’t help that things don’t really get going until more than halfway through the book. It isn’t that the first half is unenjoyable, but it is very low stakes. A lot of it is focused on cleaning up loose ends from the previous book, which left this series’ anti-heroes in somewhat dire straits. After that, Locke and Jean are engaged in a political game between rival wizard factions to throw the results of a coming election. That is the real problem: the stakes feel very small compared to the two previous books. This one is largely a dive into the relationship between Locke and Sabetha, as she is leading the other party in this contest. That stuff works, but it doesn’t really feel like the protagonists have any direction or goals for most of the book. They take the job because that is literally the only choice and they have no skin in the game, as long as they play by the rules.

Lynch has created a great cast of characters. Characters like the Sanza twins, who only appear in the flashbacks but continue to get more and more fleshed out, making their lack in the present chapters strongly felt. Locke and Jean, and Sabetha for that matter, are all great. I am happy to just read more of their adventures, but I hope that going forward they have a little more at stake.

What I Read in December 2016

Four books in December, with a couple left half read. If you include the comic collections I read I got to my goal of 55 books in 2016. It was a near thing, though. In 2017 I am upping my goal to 60 books, a little over one book a week. I think I can manage it. I’m off to a good start so far. It was an odd smattering of books I read in December. I didn’t intend it to be so, but the month turned into a Wimsey heavy month. I had one book on my Kindle forever and another I found for a buck while doing some Christmas shopping and couldn’t resist picking it up.

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Lost in a Good Book

Jasper Fforde

I decided to reread the second book in Fforde’s excellent Thursday Next series. I have read the first one, The Eyre Affair, three or four times, but I haven’t really reread any of the later volumes. I had forgotten how slowly Fforde rolls out his book world. The idea of jumping into books is central to The Eyre Affair, but the rules aren’t really explained in that one. Fforde set himself a difficult task by creating two different alternate realities in this series, with the strange world inside of books being set against the strange world outside of the books. Which is itself the world inside of a book, since these are books. So not only does the reader have to contend with a world where fictional characters live lives outside the confines of the stories we read about them in, but also a world where cloning is advanced and the Crimean War continued for a century. So it makes sense that he was slow to roll out the book stuff, never giving the reader more than was necessary for any given story.

Lost in a Good Book has Fforde painfully destroying the happy ending he built for Thursday in the last book. It doesn’t come off as backtracking, though, but in the story just continuing. She beat Jack Schitt in the first book, but Goliath Corporation is still around and wouldn’t be finished with her. The events of this book build out of those of the last without simply repeating them, like all good sequels do. While this book does tear apart Thursday’s “real” life, it gives her an outlet in BookWorld, where literature lovers get to see famous characters in a different light, though they are still informed by their original stories. I love the Thursday Next books, and will likely reread the rest of the series in the coming year, but I find them hard to recommend. I don’t know many people who have read enough classic literature to get a lot out of these. It is not that works Fforde plays with are obscure – it is mostly Dickens, various Brontes and Shakespeare – but nearly all of them are the stuff people I know were forced to read in high school and never thought of again.

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Hangman’s Holiday

Dorothy Sayers

This collection of short stories is billed as a Lord Peter Wimsey book, but most of the book’s takes do not feature him. The bulk of the stories are Montague Egg stories. That doesn’t make them bad; most of these are quite good. Sayers indulges in some macabre plots that maybe wouldn’t work over a full novel. Some are almost just absurdly dark jokes. Still, these are some well executed mysteries. The most memorable are one where a joke goes too far and a terrified man murders the innocent joking tormentor and one where a doctor husband perpetrates unspeakable crimes on his ill wife. Also one that has to do with mass feline murder. Still, if you are reading this volume expecting Peter Wimsey I think you will be somewhat disappointed, since even in his stories he isn’t all that present.

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A Presumption of Death

Jill Patton Walsh/Dorothy Sayers

It will seem odd in light of my slight grumbles about the previous book, but I quite liked this Wimsey continuation from Patton Walsh even though Lord Peter himself barely appears in the book. I think this book flows more naturally than Thrones, Dominations, likely because it is all Patton Walsh’s work and not her finishing an unfinished Sayers manuscript. That book, while mostly very good, had an uneven quality to it. This one is more cohesive. It does use Sayers’ Wimsey Papers, a fictional series of wartime letters between the characters of the Wimsey series, at the front and back, but those operate as separate pieces from the rest of the story.

A Presumption of Death has Lord Peter’s wife, Harriet Vane, step into his role as amateur sleuth while he is out of the country doing intelligence work in the early days of WWII. She has relocated from London to their home in the country, taking both her children and those of Lord Peter’s sister. With everyone doing what they can for the war effort, the local police are shorthanded when a woman turns up murdered during an air raid drill. Since it will be easier for another woman to look into some aspects of the victim’s life, Harriet is recruited to aid in the investigation. This leads to her question land girls, city girl moved to the country to help farm, as well as the pilots at a nearby military base.

The only real problem with this mystery is that the mystery itself frequently takes a backseat to the daily struggles of the war effort. The characters spend more time dealing with wartime considerations, including an uncomfortable look at the succession to the Wimsey title, than they do investigating the mystery. That is a problem with expectations, though. That this book is as much about that war effort and its effects on several families as it is about a murder mystery is not a problem with the books, but a problem with the readers’ expectations. I found it engrossing and a fast read, though I wish it could have got to the point with the mystery a little faster. It seems all but solved fairly early, but is disregarded for quite some time as other stories play out first. Still, I enjoyed it.

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Mornings on Horseback

David McCollough

This is partly a look at the early life of Theodore Roosevelt and partly an examination of his family. The eventual president is the central character of the book, but Mornings on Horseback exists to illuminate the home life that young Theodore would have had. How his parents met and came to marry, his father New York royalty and his mother the daughter of southern plantation owners. McCollough does a great job of making the Roosevelt family come alive, so Teedie doesn’t overshadow his other family members. Like the stolid, elder Theodore cuts an imposing, though generous picture as a man who is committed to his family and charity or the eldest child Bamie, whose health problems mad he seem to always strive to be useful to the family.

While their financial fortunes never really wavered, at least not through the portion of their lives this book covers, is does show the ups and downs they faced. All four of the Roosevelt children had some health problems growing up and their parents spared no expense in their care. That also meant that they never attended traditional schools. Or the household tensions during the Civil War, with the children’s Uncles on their Mother’s side being Confederate heroes but their staunchly abolitionist father not serving. Last it gets into Theodore’s days in the West, with him leaving New York after his wife and mother died on the same day. There is a lot to chew on in the relatively slim tome that goes a long way to helping the reader understand the make-up of Theodore Roosevelt and the family he came from.

What I Read November 2016

Four books again in November, though I did read a lot of a couple books I didn’t manage to finish (Republic of Thieves and Mornings on Horseback) so next month I might be able to get 5 read. Or not, what with the holidays taking up a lot of time.

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The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Jill Lepore

This is an amazing book for anyone who is a fan of Wonder Woman or Golden Age comics or simply a fan of fantastic weirdos. The Secret History of Wonder Woman tells the story of the character’s creators. Not only William Moulton Marston, the credited creator and writer of the comic from its inception until his death, but also Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, his wife and their lover.

As is made clear over the course of this excellent book, William Moulton Marston was a fantastic weirdo. I don’t mean that in any malicious way; it is just that he lived a live that was odd by any measure. What is most amazing his how many aspects of his life found their way into his work on Wonder Woman, which came comparatively late in his life. He was a psychologist and lawyer, but his wife was the breadwinner. Mostly because Marston himself was not especially successful at his endeavors. He invented an early version of the lie detector test, but was unable to market it well. They were all tied to the feminist movement of the early 20th century, with some of the leaders of the that organization being closely related to this extended family and some their ideas being referenced in Wonder Woman stories, as well as some of Marston’s own idiosyncrasies – like the emphasis on bondage. Lepore does an excellent job of illuminating these people, keeping their weirdness but making them seem very human.

It shows how Wonder Woman started as a strong feminist character, created by a strong, if unusual, feminist and how that legacy was erased once Marston died and control of the character was wrested from his family. This is an amazing book about some amazing people.

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The Monogram Murders

Sophie Hannah, Agatha Christie

This is a continuation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories and it reads like one. For better or worse, Hannah has done an excellent job of aping Christie’s Poirot. The plot doesn’t quite hold up to that standard, but this does feel remarkably like a lesser Christie. The mystery centers around three people found dead at the same hotel, with all of their rooms set up the same way. While the three had not come to the hotel at the same time, they were all connected to events in a small town years before. Its twists get a little ludicrous, but that is not unheard of for Christie. The biggest problem Poirot’s sidekick Catchpool, who is preposterously bad at his job. I know having a somewhat dull counterpart to the detective is a staple of detective novels, but Catchpool, who ends up carrying large parts of this somewhat overlong book, is among the least competent police men I’ve ever encountered in a novel. That is probably the biggest thing that keeps this from being more than a lesser Poirot story. Still, I enjoyed it enough to seek out more.

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A Duty to the Dead

Charles Todd

I’ve read the first three books of this series of WW1 mysteries completely out of order, which largely doesn’t matter does confuse things a little. Bess Crawford is a WW1 nurse who tries to honor the last request of a soldier in her care who died. She goes to his home and ends up embroiled in a mystery that goes back to that soldier’s childhood, when his step-brother was accused of killing one of their servants. Since then he has been locked in an insane asylum. Events in this small town, as well as the soldier’s dying request, lead to doubt that brother’s culpability, but the four brothers are the only real suspects. It isn’t the best mystery I’ve ever encountered, feeling a little bloated and overstuffed for what turns out to be a not all the complex case. I would read further books in the series, but so far all three that I’ve read have been passable but not particularly exciting.

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Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones

I was not familiar with this book before the amazing Studio Ghibli movie, but I liked that enough to jump on a cheap copy of this a few years ago that I only now got around to reading. I know at the time of the movie’s release there were some grumblings about how the movie differed from the book. After reading the book, those complaints were well founded. While I love the movie for what it is, it is definitely Miyazaki’s story that just happens to use her world and characters.

The book is great. Sophie is the eldest of the Hatter girls, who believes she is doomed to failure. When her father dies, her step-mother arranges promising apprenticeships for the two younger daughters while she and Sophie run the family hat shop. That largely amounts to Sophie running the hat shop while her step-mother does whatever. The Witch of the Waste, confusing Sophie for one of her sisters, curses her to be an old lady. Sophie then leaves the hat shop and wanders the countryside, eventually finding the Moving Castle, the home of the Wizard Howl, who has as bad a reputation as the Witch of the Waste. There, Sophie agrees to help Calcifer, the fire demon, to break his contract with Howl. This leads to her living in the castle and getting to the bottom of several mysteries around the Kingdom of Ingary.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is that there is only one villain, the Witch of the Waste, and even her story ends up being more pathetic than anything else. There are a lot of characters with conflicts with each other, but none of them are evil. Sophie’s step-mother can be kind of selfish, but she is a young widow who loves her children even if she might do what is best for her if not necessarily best for them. Howl is kind of a scoundrel, but he is a good guy deep down. Calcifer the fire demon only wants to be free, even if that might cause trouble for other people. Howl’s Moving Castle is kind of meandering at times, a little picaresque, but many of its episodes are a lot of fun and the world and characters are mostly a lot of fun. I think I’ll have to track down its sequels.

What I Read October 2016

I finished four books in October, my goal number. One of them was a book that I had been working on for months, but never really seemed to make much progress. I am not having my best year reading, but I think I am still going to finish up above 50 books read, which is my usual goal.

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The Good, The Bad and Me in my Anecdotage

Eli Wallach

Eli Wallach is a great actor and a good storyteller, but in this autobiography he seems to be too nice a guy to have any truly eye catching stories. That is not to say that there isn’t a lot of worth here, because this book is a lot of fun. But every time it brushes up against someone or something controversial, Wallach only has nice things to say. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, with a lot of passion for his profession, but his anecdotes would have been a more interesting if they were a little more salacious. He has stories about Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen and many others, but the worst anyone comes off is mischievous or troubled.

That is a really unfair way to put things. I know that. Wallack packs this relatively short volume with a lot of detail and a lot of stories, from his earliest memories to his experiences in the war to his struggles starting a family while also starting an acting career. It really made me wish I could have seen him on the stage, because that seems to be where his heart lied. He shows a lot of passion for the art of acting and while he has plenty of good stories about many of his classic films, he seems to remember working on the theater more fondly.

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Citadel

Kate Mosse

I read the previous book in this loose trilogy, Sepulcre, though I can’t remember a single detail about it. Other than the setting, I guess. This book is set in the same region of France, that is what binds the books together, but it takes place mostly during WW2. The protagonist is Sandrine, a young girl who is trying to eke out a living in occupied France, and the book follows her experiences throughout the war. It starts with her as a naïve girl who is inadvertently connected to something bigger. As it goes along, she takes a more active role in the French Resistance and in the seach for the Codex, a manuscript hidden in the area by a monk from the dark ages that is said to be very powerful.

While quite enjoyable once it gets up to speed, its pacing can generously be described as leisurely. It is a long book, nearly 700 pages, and it takes forever to get moving. Usually, I am not one to complain about that, but there isn’t enough book once things are moving to make up for the long set up. It does set up something that should be a lot of fun, an all-female group of resistance fighters. Only the last third of so of the book actually deals with them, the first parts of the book showing how they got involved. Really, it is a long time before what the Codex is, and why they are after it even becomes clear. But those last 200 pages or so, when to book all but becomes Indiana Jones are a lot of fun, though beware the sucker punch of an ending.

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Deryni Rising

Katherine Kurtz

I read another book in this series, a later book that was the first of a trilogy – I had somehow ended up with three separate trilogy starting Deryni books – and I feel much the same way about this book as I did that earlier one. This isn’t bad, though the prose can be dry, but there isn’t much here to draw the reader back. This one tells the story of how young Kelson became King. That is entirely it. His father is killed, and he must navigate the court along with his father’s closest advisor and Deryni, which is basically a person with magically inclined blood, Morgan. His mother, who hates the Deryni, opposes Morgan’s being there and trumps up treason charges against him. He and Kelson must avoid that while getting Kelson ready for everything that might happen at his coronation. It is moderately entertaining, truly medieval fantasy. Not a lot happens, there are a lot of plots already in motion when the book starts and it doesn’t go out of its way to fill the reader in on any details of how things were set up, only the effects. Still, I liked it enough that I would read the rest of the series if I stumble upon in.

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Power Up

Chris Kohler

I like Kohler. I liked his appearances on Retronauts over the years. I’ve liked reading his stuff at Wired. I didn’t, however, greatly enjoy this book. It is uneven; some chapters are excellent, others don’t really seem to have a reason to be in the book. Some of it is out of date, which is the unfortunate effect of a decade going by since this was originally published, but there are chapters that only vaguely connect with the rest of the book. Still, the goods parts outweigh the bad and even the bad chapters aren’t especially bad. The strongest parts are the earliest chapters, where Kohler outlines the growth of video games as a storytelling medium, growing from narrative free games like Pong, to relatively more sophisticated things like Donkey Kong to full stories like in Legend of Zelda. He presents a clear thread of growth. Also detailed are the rise of JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy and the beginnings of the music game genre. It is all good informative stuff. The chapter on Akihabara is much less compelling, even ignoring the fact, as noted in the book, that it is no longer exactly true. Still, the book is certainly worth a read for fans of video game history.

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Godland Celestial Edition Volume 2

Joe Casey & Tom Scioli

I really bounced off this series hard. I love Scioli’s art, and I like premise quite a bit, but the writing, especially the dialogue, is really off putting. These characters defy any sort of connection or even amusement. They are unpleasant and uninteresting. This volume covers a lot of ground, with a lot of villains and one of the protagonists sisters disappearing in space and I guess it is all building to something, but the further in I got the less I cared. A lot of ideas are thrown onto the page, but the ratio of good to bad is truly unfortunate. I get that it is trying to ape the constant energy of Jack Kirby, but it doesn’t have the cohesion of his work. It ends up being a pale imitation; it feels cynical in a way that Kirby’s stuff never does. I doubt I will be getting Volume 3. Instead I’ll just ready Scioli’s excellent American Barbarian again.

What I Read September 2016

Another month that was slightly disappointing. I just can’t get on track this summer. Still, I read three books. One of which I had been working on for at least a month or two before the start of September. This month I don’t have any proclamations about getting back on track. I don’t know that I will. I have at least one book I know I’ll finish, but I don’t really know what I’m reading after that.

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Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Sean Howe

This is a great read for a comics fan. It details Marvel Comics growth from a small Golden Age outfit to the dominant comic book line in the USA to what caused the company to crater in the middle 90’s. It tells the stories, or at least parts thereof, of comics luminaries like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Steve Gerber. Howe does a great job of capturing the personalities that made Marvel what it was while keeping the bigger picture clear. It paints Stan Lee as a self-mythologizing opportunist. It strips him of some of his geek myth, but it doesn’t villainize him; it merely makes him more human. There is no discounting the big hand he played in making Marvel comics, but it also shows how early he checked out of the day to day comics business for generally unsuccessful attempts to get the properties on TV and into film. It shows how great artists, like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, were given almost nothing for their great contributions to the comics medium. These are not thing unknown outside of the book, but Marvel Comics The Untold Story gives the story a very human face.

If there is a flaw, it is that the book deals much more thoroughly with the early days of Marvel than the later days. It is filled with tons of details from the 60’s and 70’s, but by the time it gets to the 90’s it becomes more scattershot. Some of that is likely due to recency, some of it due to greater interest in Stan and Jack. There is still good stuff as the book nears its end, but it doesn’t quite match the early stuff. If you like superhero comics, this is nearly a must read. It is the best behind the scenes look at comics that I have ever encountered.

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Before the Fall

Noah Hawley

Another Kindle book I picked up, this one because I knew Noah Hawley from writing on the really great Fargo TV show. A lot of that sensibility travels over to this book, though it really doesn’t have much in common with that show. Before the Fall is about a plane crash just off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean, leaving only two survivors. One is an aging painter who was a friend of one of the families on the plane and the young boy he managed to swim back to shore with. It then explores the lives of the people who perished on the plane and attempts to determine what caused the plane to crash.

A large thread in the story is a Fox News like TV station that was run by one of the victims. One of their talking heads tries to place suspicion on the survivor, for no reason other than spite. The book does create some compelling characters, both before and after the fateful flight, but it keeps them at such a remove that it can be hard to feel like you know anything about them. That is necessary, though, to keep up the mystery until the books somewhat disappointing conclusion.

I liked Before the Fall a lot, except for a couple of things. The first is that ending. It spends most of its pages setting up such a compelling mystery that it would have been a tall task to live up to it, but what is there is really disappointing. The other thing is that the book was largely written in the present tense, which I almost always find off putting. This book was no exception.

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Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet

Charlie N Holmberg

Speaking of books written in the present tense, Charlie N Holmberg’s Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet does it as well. I don’t like it anymore here. This is a short book that I liked less the further I got into it. It starts with an amnesiac woman who can add magic to her baked goods. It is a novel and interesting premise for a story, but it is rather quickly abandoned and everything it is replaced with is less interesting. Her town is attacked and she is sold into slavery to a strange, otherworldly man. He has her bake goods for faerie tale analogs, with the protagonist, Maire, growing more desperate. At the same time she is meeting with a different otherworldly man who is trying to get her to remember who she is. It is fine, but my interest waned with each new development or revelation.

What I Read August 2016

Only three books this month, though it was a rather busy month. I also finished up some comics reading, getting through some old newspaper strips and one of the collections I picked up a Planet Comic-con Kansas City earlier this summer. Even though I fell short of my monthly goal, I am more than satisfied with what I read this month. Also, I have enough half-finished books that I should more than make up for it in September.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Agatha Christie

This is a book that gets two reactions: one knowing the twist and one not knowing. I didn’t get to experience that first one. I’m not too upset, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is famous and famous for its twist, that I have been spoiled on it in the 90 years since the book was published is no surprise. However, that kept me from reading it with truly fresh eyes. I read it knowing the outcome, so I spent my time looking for the real clues and seeing if Christie played fair. As far as I can tell, she did. Still, the revelation lacks some of the impact it might have had if I came into it blind. The retired Hercule Poirot comes out of retirement to investigate a murder is a small village. He meets with the townsfolk and aided by the town doctor looks into the murder of one Roger Ackroyd. He does the usual things, checking the alibis and opinions of the possible suspects before the surprising revelation the murderer. Even being spoiled about the culprit I enjoyed this quite a bit. Christie earned her reputation.

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The Bishop’s Heir

Katherine Kurtz

I picked up a handful of Kurtz’s Deryni books a long time ago at a college library sale, but the first one I tried didn’t immediately grab me, so I sold them to a used book store when I was clearing out some space. Since then I have read more about the series, so when another opportunity to pick some of them up for cheap presented itself I took it. The first one I read, The Bishop’s Heir is the first part of her third trilogy of Deryni books. It has young king Kelson Haldane dealing with a rift in the church and a political uprising.

Kurtz’s prose can be workmanlike and the world of this book is very close to the real world with just a splash of magic. It feels very much like the precursor to stuff like A Song of Ice and Fire. It also does little to ease new readers in; which is only a problem because the cover says book one. Still, once you get in the groove, the book works. Kelson is young and still unsure at times, wanting to be a good king but not blind to the harsh realities that he faces. The plot seems surprisingly light considering how complete this one book is. It is not structured like the usual fantasy book, being much more political than action oriented. The big piece of the plot happens early, and the last two thirds or so are merely dealing with the fallout from that encounter. By the end, was fully drawn in. It isn’t really great work, but it is very readable historical fantasy.

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The Garden of Stones

Mark T Barnes

I listened to this book as an audiobook rather than read it, so I can’t guarantee my thoughts on it are the same that they would be had I read it normally. The Garden of Stones makes itself hard to like early on, has a solid middle portion before falling apart again at the end. It spends almost the whole first half introducing so many characters and concepts it is hard to keep them straight. Especially since they are all made up words. That is the part that I think the audiobook suffers in comparison to the real thing. Still, having all of these fake words showing up frequently, and then characters with unusual names that then have nicknames, sometimes multiple, makes it hard for a reader to find their footing. By the time the players and their relationships are clear, the book starts to be fun.

The Garden of Stones has three primary characters: the power mad Corajidin who wants to seize power in the Shrian Federation, the warrior-mage Indris opposed to him, and Mari, Corajidin’s daughter who is caught between family and what she believes is right. The three of them and their compatriots plot and scheme in a tense political situation the Corajidin has engineered to his own benefit. That’s all well and good for a while, but things go a bit off at the end. Mostly from a pacing point of view. The book alternates between those three POV characters, but they seem to get to the climactic moments out of order. Important events happen off page because none of those three characters are there, and the order that the chapters fall removes a lot of the possible tension. By the time it’s over you start to wonder about the timing of things, as events don’t quite fit together smoothly.

I’ve read a lot of people compare this book to Erikson’s Malazan books, which isn’t far off. But that comparison fits into me not really enjoying this book; I don’t much care for the Malazan series either. They are both dense with world building, but I find them both lacking in most other respects.

Comics

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The Complete Peanuts 1957-58

This is the forth volume of Fantagraphics complete Peanuts, and it is good. Peanuts is great. I don’t really know what else to say. It is almost always funny and is just often enough poignant. In this early volume Schulz is still fleshing out his cast, with Linus getting the bulk of the focus. Good, good stuff.

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Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Vol 2

As a showcase for Alex Raymond’s art this is wonderful. I really wish I could track down volume 1, but the story is so episodic that it hardly matters. Flash and Dale and Zarkov move from one adventure to next at breakneck speed. They visit the various realms of Mongo, fight with the royalty and Ming the Merciless and eventually conquer. It is worth reading if only for Raymond’s art, which is exquisite.

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Godland Celestial Edition Volume 1

Joe Casey & Tom Scioli

I was gifted Scioli’s American Barbarian and fell in love with it, so when I happened upon a couple of volumes of Godland, a series with his art, on sale at the KC Comic-con, I snatched them up. The first volume, unfortunately, was a huge disappointment. Like Scioli’s art, the story of Godland is very Kirby inspired, taking from his Fantastic Four collaborations with Stan Lee and his later 4th World stuff from DC. Not that Godland isn’t entirely original, it is, but is desperately tries to ape the tone of those works. In many ways it succeeds, but there is something about it that just end up feeling off.

Godland tells the story of Adam Archer, an astronaut that gained cosmic powers on an ill-fated expedition to Mars. He uses those powers to be a superhero back on Earth, fighting enemies like Friedrich Nickelhead, who looks like Destro from GI Joe, and Basil Cronus, a junkie who carries his own head around in a jar. The design of all the characters found in this first volume is nearly perfect and the plots themselves are exactly the sort of thing I was expecting, but the dialogue kills it for me. The whole thing feels slathered in a sort of glib irony – maybe an attempt to ape Stan Lee of the 60’s – that undercuts any true feelings the story could invoke. It constantly pushes the reader away, seemingly wanting them to laugh at the book and find the whole thing ridiculous. It is ridiculous, but if the book is so desperate to undercut itself why does it exist in the first place. American Barbarian was similar in many ways, but it presented itself more earnestly even when being ridiculous. Joe Casey seems desperate to make sure that readers know that he knows how ridiculous this whole thing is, and that knowing tinge is off putting.