What I Read in November 2020

I only managed two Le Carre books in November. I don’t know that I will ever get back to my pre-law school pace.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

John Le Carre

I think this, or maybe Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is Le Carre’s most famous work. I see why this one is so well regarded. Alec Leamas is in charge of a spy ring in divided Germany. When his last active agent is killed, Leamas is called back to London. However, he is approached by higher ups at the Circus to take on one last mission, posing as a disaffected former agent and infiltrating the other side to take down a long-standing nemesis.

Leamas is an old operator who thinks he knows how amoral his business is, but he really doesn’t. He is contrasted with other characters who are either more idealistic than he is, or more pragmatic and amoral. Leamas’s actions are amoral, but he still believes in his cause. But as the mission goes on, he starts to doubt that. If his actions, and the actions of Control and the Circus, are the actions of the good guys, how good can they be. The whole thing comes in under 300 pages and packs a lot into it. It is really good and gives the reader a lot to chew on.

The Looking Glass War

John Le Carre

This one is brutal. It is a comedy of sorts, with a decrepit, failing spy organization bumbling into an apparent mission and having to activate the machinery of running a spy operation for the first time since WWII. The head of the organization is still caught up in an interagency rivalry with another British spy organization, the Circus of many Le Carre books, but seemingly unaware of how little his group can accomplish. The closest thing to a real protagonist is John Avery, a newcomer to the agency with no real skills or experience. They’ve had reports of Soviets amassing weapons in Germany, and the man they sent to retrieve pictures of the site has turned up dead. After a mission to retrieve his body doesn’t go well, they decide to activate a German speaking field agent from the war to go and take a look himself.

The whole thing is a comedy of errors. Everyone just wants one last, or first, chance at glory. There is no real evidence that the lead they are chasing is anything at all; it is all a waste. The first thing Leiser, the agent, does is kill someone, essentially ruining the mission as it starts. The whole thing is a mass of failure and incompetence from the jump. Yet still, Le Carre makes the reader feel something. You do start to care for Avery; he doesn’t really accomplish anything, but he is trying very hard. But he’s too green and too unskilled to recognize how futile everything is. When it gets to the end, your sympathies are with him as it all goes awry.

What I Read October 2020

I bought myself a John Le Carre collection for my birthday; expect to see a lot of him in the coming months. Plus, a Brandon Sanderson book is coming out. And there are some half finished things on my kindle. I hope to meet my reading goal this year.

Call for the Dead

John Le Carre

Le Carre’s first book is mostly a murder mystery, and his eventual spymaster George Smiley is introduced as a low key detective. This gives him all the hallmarks of the literary detective, right down to the sidekick in Mendel, who helps him with this case. Then about halfway through it gets into the spy stuff a little more. It is still a murder mystery, but the mystery starts to tie in more closely with Smiley’s spying history.

Smiley had cleared a suspected spy after someone sent a letter accusing him of covert activities. The man the apparently committed suicide. Smiley is stunned, because of him clearing him. The more he looks into it, the more it seems like there was something to the accusations that Smiley cleared him of. So Smiley keeps digging, and doesn’t particularly like what he finds. It is a solid mystery, with some hints of Le Carre’s future work writing spy fiction.

The Constant Rabbit

Jasper Fforde

Sometimes subtlety is overrated. The Constant Rabbit is a satire of current immigration and refugee debates. About fifty years before the start of the story, a mysterious event in the world of the novel caused 18 rabbits, as well as a handful of other creatures, to anthropomorphize. While at first a lot of effort was put into integrating the rabbits with human society, a new political orthodoxy is in power, an expressly anti-rabbit one.

This climate is the one that protagonist Peter Knox finds himself in. Peter seems to think of himself as a good and not prejudiced person. However, he works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce as a “rabbit spotter,” one of the few humans who can tell rabbits apart. His boss is one of the foxes anthropomorphized with the rabbits; the foxes have generally integrated better by being incredibly sleazy. When a rabbit family moves in next door to Peter and his daughter Pippa, Peter has to take stock of what he really believes in. He might not be overtly prejudiced like some of his neighbors or coworkers, but he is complicit with the system; he does nothing to fight against injustice.

Still, he wants to do better and he tries to do his best to help. He gets more and more involved as the book proceeds and has to choose where he stands. It is a heightened look at issues, but it is one that is very relevant to the current day. The more the book shows of the system, the more it is apparent that everything is stacked against the rabbits. It reminded me a lot of reading The Color of Law earlier this year.

The Constant Rabbit is not subtle; it is a bludgeon of a story. But subtlety can be misinterpreted, and there is no room to misinterpret this. It is one of the best books I’ve read in some time.

A Murder of Quality

John Le Carre

This feels like the path not taken. The second Smiley book is a full-on mystery. His history as a spy plays a big part in Smiley getting involved in the murder of the wife of a teacher at a public school, since his wartime connections is what brings him in, but the mystery is all about the community around this school and the history of the victim and the other teachers. There is plenty of social satire here, like with a lot of good mysteries. It is a slight story, but I like it a whole lot.

What I Read September 2020

I don’t have a preamble. I read some books. Here they are.


Susanna Clarke

This is a treat. I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, so finally getting another book from Clarke all these years later was great by itself. Piranesi is really nothing like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; the first book was a haft tome, Piranesi is some more ephemeral and insubstantial. It still has the same attention to detail.

Piranesi begins with the titular character explaining his labyrinthine world. He is cataloguing the rooms and corridors of his dream-like world, as well as his fellow inhabitants who mostly seem to be dead. He is occasionally visited by another man, The Other, who seeks his help with experiments. It soon becomes apparent that things are not quite what they appear to be. The more Piranesi keeps explaining things, the more the terrible picture becomes clear. Piranesi is a very hard book to forget; it does tone and mood better than just about anything I’ve read. I loved it.


Brandon Sanderson

This is the second book in Sanderson’s young adult science fiction series. The first book had humanity confined to a wrecked planet, barely able to fend off attacks from a faceless alien menace. Now that humanity, thanks to protagonist Spensa, have started to win their fight, the aliens change tactics. Soon, a crash landing ship unlike any they have ever seen arrives and gives Spensa an incredible opportunity: to go undercover with the aliens as a new recruit.

This allows the series to flesh out the enemies and for the reader to find out a lot about Sanderson science fiction universe. It makes for a tense read. Spensa meets a whole lot of strange and interesting aliens, and there are cracks showing in the foundations of humanities enemies. Spensa, undercover, has to navigate those cracks, while also keeping her identity secret. Spensa continues to refine her understanding of the universe and the conflict that humanity is stuck in. It is definitely a young adult series; there is nothing incredibly complex going on here. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t tense or action packed or interesting.

The Duke Who Didn’t

Courtney Milan

I occasionally read romance novels, but I don’t usually list them among my reading lists. But that is supid; why should I be ashamed of reading anything? So starting now I am going to list romances when I read them. This one is interesting, but it wasn’t one of my favorites.

The Duke Who Didn’t follows Chloe Fong, who spends her time trying to help her dad perfect his new sauce. Her plan to unveil it at the local celebration, the Wedgeford Trials, is somewhat disrupted by the return of Duke Jeremy Wentworth, who she loves but who disappeared three years ago.

My problem with this book is that there really isn’t anything standing between the protagonists. They meet back up and get along. They slowly work at reestablishing their relationship, but there isn’t a lot of drama to it; it is all basically waiting for things to work out, which they do. Still, they are fun characters and the community of Wedgeford is an interesting one. The book is fine.

Super Sons Vol. 1: The Polarshield Project

Ridley Pearson and Ile Gonzales

A story about the kids of Superman and Batman, set in the near future when global warming has really started wreaking havoc on the world. It is solidly fun. There is an illness affecting people and Batman and Superman are either missing or busy. So it is up to their mismatched kids to get to the bottom of things. Jon and Damian don’t really get along at first, but they work well together.

It is a strange, slightly off version of the DC Universe, but it all works pretty well. These are the characters you know, but they are not quite the same as you know them. I think I prefer the in continuity version of this pairing, but I would. The art is crisp; clean and light and not all superhero art. It looks really good. And the writing is very good at establishing its tone. I’ll have to check out the following volumes.

What I Read August 2020

I finished three books in August, though Lonesome Dove is a sprawling tome that I spent a lot of time with.

Cold Fire

Kate Elliott

The second of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy gave me more of what I wanted, though it is also a book that feels kind of jagged at times. It starts right as the last book left off, with Cat and her cousin Bee wanted by powerful Cold Mages and needing somewhere to turn. Each apparent place of safety quickly turns dangerous for them. About a third of the way into the book, the setting and circumstances change, turning focus in a new direction and opening up more of the world.

A mishap in the spirit realm separates Cat and Bee, with Cat ending up across the world in the Caribbean. She escapes from an island of lepers/zombies and meets up with Vai, her erstwhile husband. While their relationship grows, she also tries to work out how to save her cousin from an imminent threat and soon starts to conflict with the war hungry General Camjiata.

The jaggedness I mentioned is in how it transitions from the early book to the middle book to the late book. How the situation and problems that Cat faces constantly changes without resolving. This is not a book with a plot that flows seamlessly. It is a book that gets where it needs to go by seeming brute force. That’s too harsh; this isn’t the smoothest ride, but it gets where it needs to go.

What worked much better for me in this book is that it slowed down enough to let me feel like I was gaining an understanding of the world and of characters other than Cat. It shuffles out the old setting for a new one, with a population with a frustrating to read dialect, but it also presents a clearer picture of the world and how magic affects that world and works within it. It also presents a host of new characters who have time to develop since this book stays in one place for long enough for that to happen. It also deepens the relationship between Cat and Vai, actually giving that some time to develop. This book felt like it gave me more of what I wanted than the first book did, while keeping the things I liked about that book.

Lonesome Dove

Larry McMurtry

This is a bleak, beautiful western epic. It is not a complex story. Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call are two retired Rangers who run a cattle company near the Mexican border. Call does all the work and McCrae spends most of his time sitting on the porch drinking whiskey. When an old Ranger friend of theirs blows into town with a plan to start a cattle drive up to unspoiled land in Montana, the two decide it is time for one last adventure. So they do.

The real draw of the book are the numerous interesting and well rounded characters the book introduces. Setting aside Call and McCrae for now, there are the other members of their Hat Creek company. There is Deets, the black man who is the best scout and tracker any of them have ever known. Pea Eye, the dim but reliable hand. Young Newt, an orphan raised by the company who doesn’t know who his father is and who faces the adventures with fresh eyes. McMurtry keeps introducing characters as he goes, from the enigmatic and philosophical cook Po Campo to the unfortunate and in over his head Sheriff’s deputy Roscoe. There is Lorena, the prostitute who forces her way out of Lonesome Dove to try to find a better life in San Francisco, only to be met with the cold unfeeling world of the west. Really, that is what all the characters are facing. I could go on with characters that are worthy of being remembered; this novel is just full of them and is not afraid to treat them ruthlessly.

It is also about the cold, unfeelingness of nature. The west, as described here, is beautiful and dangerous. Even old hands like Deets and Call are not completely safe; the inexperienced are always in peril. The world is a harsh place, and the people in it are not making it any less harsh.

In the end, Lonesome Dove centers on Call and McCrae. Call is all work and McCrae is all play. It is easy to like McCrae. He does some amazing things over the course of the book, but he never stops being an irresponsible layabout. Call is harder to like, harsh and unforgiving. You keep wanting him to finally come out from behind his walls, but by the end it becomes clear that there is nothing there. He will never be able to express any actual emotion. The truth is that Clara, McCrae’s lost love, has the best read on Call with her utter disdain for him.

Lonesome Dove is an amazing book. Definitely worth reading for any and everyone.

Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon

I am a big fan of Chabon, but somehow this one slipped by me. I didn’t know it existed. So I bought a copy for some post-bar exam relaxation and I am glad I did. It is a short book, sticking true to its pulp inspirations.

Gentlemen of the Road follows two jewish bandits in the Dark Ages Middle East. Amram is a giant of a man from Africa, Zelikman is a spindly man from Europe. They travel around, running small cons and robbing. One evening they get a proposition to take Filaq, a fugitive prince who has had his kingdom usurped, to a nearby friendly kingdom. While they don’t agree to that plan, they are left with the prince and plan to turn him over for ransom to whoever will pay.

From there, they go on several adventures to try to get Filaq to safety or put him on his throne. Chabon uses very pulpy, very sparse prose. It can be poetic, but it mostly just tells the tale in as straightforward a manner as possible. It works to get the reader very close to its trio of heroes. Originally published as a serial, it feels episodic. Each section of the adventure has a beginning, middle and end. Things move fast and the excitement never lets up. It’s a lot of fun. It feels special to have this much skill and care to this kind of material.

What I Read July 2020

I spent the whole month studying for the bar exam, so not a lot of reading happened. I finished up a couple of books I mostly read in June and that’s about it. Next month hopefully I can read more.

The Color of Law

Richard Rothstein

This book is infuriating. Not because it was poorly written, but because the truth of the law and history it explicates is so frustrating. I don’t know what I have to say about it. I think it is an important book, one that people should read if they want to understand why certain things in the US are the way they are. The Color of Law lays out the stark reality of how racism has embedded itself in the history of American housing policy. The fact is that policies like segregation were deliberate government policy, and remained such long after most people think that stopped.

Cold Magic

Kate Elliott

I was a little disappointed with this. Mostly because it was sold to me as a mix of a Gothic romance and a fantasy, but I don’t think it really delivered on the romance part. It starts with a very romance-y set up, with protagonist Cat forced into marriage with a mage by her aunt and uncle. Her parents died when she was young, so she was raised with her uncle’s family. While it starts with that romance but, the whole novel doesn’t really slow down enough at any point to let the reader get comfortable with its characters. It kind of follows the outline. At first her new husband is short and peremptory, quickly rushing her from place to place and seeming completely unrelatable. That facade starts to crumble the further on they get, and protagonist Cat starts to show her mettle.

Still, I enjoyed this book well enough. Elliott sets up a very interesting world and some interesting characters. It is just that this book seemed to end just as the revelations were starting. I am already on to the sequel; hopefully it follows through well after this fine but introductory feeling first volume.

What I Read June 2020

Four books in June, and a good mix of genres and tones. It feels good to be back on pace.

A Memory Called Empire

Arkady Martine

Set in a vast, aging space Empire, A Memory Called Empire follows a new ambassador, Mahit, from an independent space station coming to the Teixcalaanli Empire to assume the place of her recently deceased predecessor. She has trouble adapting to her new post. Part of it is the suddenness of her having to assume that role. The bigger part of the problem is that her home station has technology to implant the memories and expertise of people’s predecessors in their minds, and Mahit is going in blind. It is especially hard because she has to keep the existence of that technology secret, unless her predecessor has already spilled everything.

Mahit is thrust into a swirling mix of colonial condescension, succession politics, and general intrigue. She has few, if any, allies and no real idea what is going on. She spent her life on her home station training for this job and learning all she could about the Teixcalaanli, but still when she gets there she is clearly an outsider. The book has her navigating these fraught waters just as the entire political makeup of the empire is starting to come apart, as the Emperor is getting old and someone will have to replace him. It is heady, heavy stuff, but wrapped in a propulsive thriller plot. I am eagerly awaiting the follow up.

Shades of Grey

Jasper Fforde

I wrote a whole thing about this book already. It is definitely one of my favorites.

In Farleigh Field

Rhys Bowen

This is kind of a spy/mystery set during WWII. At Farleigh Place, the home of Lord Westerfield and his family, an airman’s parachute fails to open and he falls to his death. This is tragic, of course, but it also opens up a mystery because no one seems to know what regiment the man is from. The family’s daughters are spread around, one still living in Paris, trapped there while studying when the war began. The youngest is the one who stumbled upon the body in the field. Another, Pamela, is aiding the war effort in London. Family friend Ben Cresswell, injured himself as a young man, works for MI5 and is tasked with finding a German spy in Britain. That search ends up bringing him close to home.

There is the mystery of the spy and the dead man. There is also a romance between Ben and Pamela and Jeremy, an RAF hero pilot. There is some more political and family stuff in the background. It is a book with a lot going on, but none of it hits quite as hard as it could. It all feels just a little vague or insubstantial. Still, the central characters are likable enough. I’m trying not to spoil anything, but the answers are a little too obvious from the start, taking any kind of surprise out of the mystery. Still, for a bit of light reading I enjoyed it enough.

Flinx in Flux

Alan Dean Foster

Flinx in Flux is one of a series of space adventures following a young man named Flinx. He has a telepathic collection with some kind of venom spitting, flying space snake. In this book, he encounters a young woman almost dead in the wild and tries to help her get back to safety. She is being hunted by some ecological terrorists who want her for her ‘gengineering’ expertise. That expertise makes Flinx wary, since he was genetically engineered, which is why he has telepathic powers and that is why he is not of the practice. Still, a bond forms between him and the woman, Clarity, as he tries to get her back home.

The book didn’t really do anything for me. The ideas it explores are not ones that greatly interest me. The adventure parts are fine, I guess. I assume that if someone read the whole series perhaps they would have greater affection for the characters and perhaps a greater interest in the setting. As it is, it is a perfectly fine piece of science fiction.

Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron

“I’m not a big fact person; unproved speculation is more my thing.”

I fell in love with Jasper Fforde’s writing pretty much as soon as I encountered it. That first encounter was by way of a review of one of the later Thursday Next books, I am pretty sure it was One of Our Thursdays is Missing, in the paper. I cannot remember the specifics of what it said, all I knew was that it sounded like it was just for me. So I tracked down a copy of The Eyre Affair and that was pretty much it. While I have not encountered a Fforde novel that I did not like, one clearly stood above the others in my esteem. That is Shades of Grey, a post-apocalyptic science fiction coming of age story that is unlike anything else I have ever read.

It is hard to explain exactly what Shades of Grey is. The genres I listed above are accurate, but they do not really get what the book is across. While it is set in the future after some great disaster, the book largely is not about that. Every other story I can think of with a similar set up would be all about how the world went wrong. It would be dropping hints about how things came to be the way they are, and the protagonist would pretty quickly get wrapped up in a quest to unravel this unfamiliar world’s mysteries. Shades of Grey kind of does that stuff, but it mostly puts it to the side for the first two thirds of the book. Instead, it is a comedy of manners, more akin to something by Jane Austen than another post-apocalyptic science fiction story. That comedy of manners framing works, because explaining the minutia of the color-based society that Eddie Russet lives in creates an effective way to do a lot of world building. The framing also works to establish who and what the characters are. By digging into the doublespeak-esque Munsell’s Rules that govern this world and character obey or appear to obey while flouting the rules does a lot to inform the reader about who they are. The prefects, like the vile Gamboges and the grasping de Mauves, use the rules as clubs to hold over the heads of those they believe lesser than themselves. Meanwhile, Eddie’s dad uses the Rules as a shield to protect the vulnerable.

The start of Shade of Grey gives Eddie a problem. He was set to marry a woman higher up on the chromatic scale than he is. (More on that in a paragraph or so) But thanks to an ill-timed prank, he is sent with his father to the outer fringes, a backwater far from the society he’s known. His father has an important job, taking over as essentially this world’s version of a doctor for a friend who died suddenly. Eddie is given busy work, doing a chair census. After a few chapters, Eddie arrives in East Carmine and has to navigate a whole new social climate. His goal is to finish his work and get back to his would be paramour; to do that he has to navigate the social dynamics of this new town.

This allows Fforde to really dig into how the Chromatacia works. People in Shades of Grey fit into society based on which colors they can see and how well they can see those colors. Those who do not see any color well enough are Greys, who do the back-breaking menial labor. Following the chromatic scale, ROY G BIV and all that, people are ranked. Eddie Russet is a red, lowest on the scale other than Greys. It goes all the way up to Purples, who are the highest rank. Different colors get different jobs. Yellows, for example, are generally in charge of managing the Greys. There are all kinds of social rules that are carefully explained, like how complementary colors do not mix.

Eddie is essentially a very attractive man coming on to the marriage market. While he hasn’t had the test that will tell him how much color he can see, he knows he will rank very high. That makes him a viable commodity for families with compatible colors, like rich old red families whose colors are fading or purple families who are leaning too far too blue. Eddie, as a true believer in this color-based society, is trying his best to move up within the scale of red, marrying into an old money red family. But once his abilities are known in East Carmine, he becomes the target of the much too blue purple family, the de Mauves.

All of this is beside the point of the mystery going on behind the scenes. That mystery is threaded in early on; with a Grey masquerading as a different color, a pretty young grey woman that Eddie runs into in places she shouldn’t be, and the mysterious death of the previous doctor-like swatchman that prompted Eddie’s father’s move. In some ways it resembles the current trend of the hyper-competent woman teamed up with the bumbling hero. Except Eddie isn’t really bumbling. He starts ignorant, true, and he can be a little passive when he comes up against authority, but Eddie is largely smart, inquisitive, and capable.

At about the two thirds mark of the book, the balance shifts, with the post-apocalyptic stuff beginning to outweigh the comedy of manners stuff. Eddie starts to learn exactly how much of what he knows about the world is a lie. I do not think it is a spoiler to say that this color-based society is largely built on lies. Neither Eddie nor the reader is quite ready for how horrible the truth is once Eddie ends up in the abandoned city of High Saffron.

The whole thing works perfectly for me. The first part of the book is a constant delight, exploring an absurd world with some definite darkness hidden behind it. Still, it largely feels more playful than dangerous. Then it starts to become dangerous, while remaining pretty playful. The big turning point is a field hockey match that gets out of hand. By that point, Eddie knows strange things are afoot, but he is still set on getting out of town as fast as possible. Soon, that becomes impossible. So Eddie takes another path.


The big revelation is that the people who are sent to the Emerald City for reeducation are actually sent to High Saffron and essentially euthanized. After that revelation, the book ends with a series of successive gut punches. By the time secrets are revealed, Eddie and his grey counterpart Jane have developed a solid romance. Then that is derailed. At least Eddie has managed to create a happy ending for his friend Dorian and Dorian’s love Imogen. Theirs is a forbidden romance; she is a purple, he is a grey. But they fell in love and Eddie helps facilitate their elopement.  However, the representative of National Color, the organization that keeps society in order, redirects their train, sending them on the night train to the Emerald City. It is a ploy to see if Eddie knows the secret of the Emerald City. The naive Eddie of the start of the book would have immediately stepped in to help his friends, would have trusted that National Color was doing the best they could. Instead, he has to stand there and smile as his friends are sent to their deaths, because if he spoke up he would be joining them. That heart rending ending really whets the appetite for how Eddie and Jane will work to undermine the Chromatacia. Too bad there is not yet a sequel.

What I Read May 2020

Only two books in May (I had finals), one of which was quite long. I am actually pretty happy with the reading I did in May. I have a couple of unfinished books that should get done in June and nothing quite like the doorstop that was the first book here.

A World Undone

GJ Meyer

I hesitate to call this book comprehensive, because the first world war is a huge subject that really cannot be contained in one book. But A World Undone is about as comprehensive as a single book could be on this subject. It is a comprehensive look at the war in Europe. Asia gets mentioned, but not in the detail that events in France and the Balkans do. It starts by laying the groundwork, detailing the political state of the Balkans and the Austo-Hungarian Empire just before the war. It does a good job of showing how the war became inevitable, and how it became the giant mess it was.

What it does best illustrating is just how incompetent and entrenched in their thinking the leaders of nearly every country involved were. The French continued to be sure that one more offensive push was going to break the Germans, even as casualties mounted and each offensive gained them nothing. The British weren’t any better, but at least they had the freedom to try to take the fight away from the stalemate in France. That, for a variety of reasons, they bungled things in Gallipoli and Greece is just part of what makes the war so frustrating. The worst part of everything is how the soldiers were treated as expendable by their superiors. Numbers were necessary, and deaths were inevitable, but I can’t think of a time in history when so many people died for so little reason. It is no surprise that the governments of many of the chief participants toppled, like Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, but that any government made it through after the complete disdain they showed for their populace.

Something that comes through that has always interested me is how WW1 featured such a rapid growth in technology. Tanks and airplanes were first used in war in WW1. But there were also still cavalry and tactics from the wars of the previous century. It is a horrifying and fascinating look at the meeting of two different worlds. A World Undone does a great job illustrating this aspect of the war.

I do have some complaints. One is how this book refers to women. It does not come up often, but Meyer still found a space to reduce one woman to “a juicy Hapsburg Princess” and seems to have no space for nuance in dealing with Empress Alexandra of Russia. This is not to suggest Meyer’s judgment of her is necessarily incorrect, but nearly every other figure in the book received a more considered approach.

The Man Who Knew Too Much

G.K. Chesterton

This is a collection of short mysteries about a sort of detective, Horne Fisher. Fisher is highly connected in the upper levels of the British government and high society. So he has personal knowledge of their foibles. He ends up solving a lot of mysteries where his personal knowledge is needed to unravel tangled webs of lies. Unfortunately, time and time again he gets to the bottom of things, only to have to watch as the perpetrator, thanks to their station, is allowed to get away with the crime.

It is a very strong mix of social commentary and great detective stories. By the end, you are kind of fed up with Fisher. What good is his ability to get the truth if he is going to let that truth go untold. It is for the good of the nation, but is it really? Horne Fisher knows too much, but he does too little. His pain is knowing that he cannot do anything to fix the problems he knows. But he doesn’t really try.

What I Read April 2020

I read a lot in April. The situation kind of allowed me to indulge in sitting with my kindle for long periods of time. I expect similar results in May.

The Bully Pulpit

Doris Kearns Goodwin

I loved this book. It looks into a fascinating time and one of the most interesting stories in American history. The book follows three separate, but related threads. The first follows the life and career of Teddy Roosevelt. The second does the same for William Howard Taft. And the third follows the muckraking journalists, from the magazine McClure’s that were influential at the time, both influencing and being influenced by Roosevelt and other progressive politicians.

It does a good job of condensing the history into a readable story. I have read several Theodore Roosevelt biographies, and this does an excellent job of giving a quick, yet fairly thorough look at his life and his time as president. I know less about Taft, but it makes for a readable look at his life and the forces that shaped him. I knew next to nothing about McClure’s and this book does an excellent job of showing how the magazine came to be and why it was so important for a time.

The real meat of the book is the friendship between Roosevelt and Taft, and the completeness of its rupture during Taft’s presidency. It plays out almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. How they worked together so well while Roosevelt was President to the inevitability of everything coming apart once Taft ascended to that office. Roosevelt had this absolute need to be the center of attention, and he was never going to be comfortable stepping aside. Especially since he honestly could have won a second/third term had he run for it. While Roosevelt was brash and commanding, Taft was slower and more contemplative. He lacked the force of will to get things done that Roosevelt had, and Roosevelt treated his compromises as turning his back on the things they did together. So things fell apart.

The Bully Pulpit really changed my opinion of Taft. He comes across as the true tragic figure here. From his continually put aside desire to be a Supreme Court justice to his wife suffering a stroke early in his presidency to his demoralizing defeat in the 1912 Election. He comes across as a flawed but reasonable and conscientious man. The most crushing part is the anecdote from an interview, which never ran, from just before the 1912 election, where he was asked about what happened between him and Roosevelt and all he could say was that Roosevelt was his best friend.

This is a great look at a very interesting time in American history.

Dragon Weather

Lawrence Watt-Evans

This book is a take on the Count of Monte Cristo, but with dragons. The protagonist, Arlian, loses his family to a dragon attack when he is young. In fact, he is the only survivor from his town. Unfortunately, when he is found by the scavengers searching through the destruction, instead of saving him, they sell him into slavery. After growing to adulthood in some mines, Arlian manages to escape and sets out to get revenge on the men who sold him as a slave and the dragons who destroyed his town.

I really struggled staying interested in the first part of the book. After Arlian gets out of the mines and starts to plot his revenge I liked it a lot more. There are still things that give me pause. This book has a lot of mutilated women. It is a harsh book all around, but it is all seen through the eyes of the protagonist, and he seems to focus on women missing body parts. That said, it is mostly an enjoyable read. I don’t really have a lot to say about it.


Gail Carson Levine

This is related to Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted; this time a retelling, of sorts, of Snow White. Aza feels ugly compared to the rest of her adopted family. She does have the power of magic ventriloquism. A useful skill in a land that greatly values one’s singing voice. This eventually leads to her getting entangled with the beautiful, but weak singing, new queen of her homeland. It deals a lot with how much Aza lets her perception of how people see her control how she acts. The queen, who isn’t really evil here, has similar problems, focusing mostly on her looks and being afraid to let people know her weaknesses. It was an enjoyable enough take on a fairy tale retelling.

The Mystery of Three Quarters

Sophie Hannah

Another of Hannah’s Poirot continuations. I enjoyed this quite a bit. I don’t think it really reads like Christie in the prose, but the mystery is suitably inventive and it does a good job of fleshing out a wide variety of characters to be potential suspects. The book starts with four separate people coming to Poirot, angry about a letter he had written to them, accusing them of murdering a man. Poirot is confused, both because he did not write any such letters and because the letters accused the four of them of murdering the same person. That person was an old man who died without any suspicion of foul play. Still, Poirot begins to investigate, as the letter writer likely intended.

The four people initially seem to be unconnected to each other, but as Poirot digs in, some connections start to turn up. Also, all four appear to be keeping some secrets from him. Somewhere in those secrets is the truth about who wrote the letter and who, if anyone, committed a murder. It seems to play fair, and the mystery keeps you guessing. I don’t know that I completely buy the big revelation near the end, but it did not lessen my enjoyment.

The Crime at Black Dudley

Margery Allingham

I’ve now read two of her books, and I do not think Allingham is for me. I have found both this, and its sequel Mystery Mile, which I accidentally read first, to be kind of muddled. Nothing about them comes across particularly clearly; not the characters, not the plots. This one clearly sets the eventual starring detective Albert Campion as a clear side character. It is about a group of guests invited to a house party at a remote manor, the titular Black Dudley. It is a mysterious old manor, with hidden rooms and secret passages. Things start to get strange when they play a party game based around a family heirloom jeweled dagger. The owner of the manor falls ill, with some of the guests convinced he is actually dead. It is soon pronounced, by a doctor present, that he is indeed dead. Things get weirder from there, with the victims’ associates, who are not part of the house party being thrown by the victims nephew, confining everyone to the manor and sabotaging their cars. One fly in the ointment is Albert Campion, a party crasher who seems to know more than he lets on.

The central figure to the mystery is one Dr. Abbershaw, who is trying to get to the bottom of everything and win the heart of Meggie, another guest at the party. It plays out as much like a spy adventure novel as it does a mystery. Really, there isn’t much mystery to it. Maybe knowing who Campion is going changes how I viewed things, but it seemed pretty clear who were the bad guys and who were the good guys. It was also pretty clear generally what people were up to, though not all the detail. I just can’t tell you much about Abbershaw or Meggie, let alone the bad guys. It’s just not for me.

Manners & Mutiny

Gail Carriger

This is the fourth of Carriger’s Finishing School series. They are kind of hard to define; steampunk historical supernatural adventure romances, I guess? It has been some time since I read the first three. I remember enjoying them, but I don’t really remember the details of what happened. I did retain a solid memory of who the characters are. Sophronia is now close to graduating from her finishing school. That school is set on an airship that flies around an alternate reality Great Britain. And this finishing school trains its students to be expert spies and assassins. Sophronia is just as much of a go getter as she ever was. She has taken her lessons to heart, and she is a very talented operative, if not an especially stealthy spy.

In this book, the school gets taken over by the nefarious Picklemen, and Sophronia, who knows more about what is going on than even her teachers, stays on the ship to try to stop them. That is the big climax, the first half is exactly how Sophronia came to have that knowledge. It also has her dealing with her love life. While she seems to have pretty definitely chosen between the two handsome young men who are interested, social issues seem destined to keep her and her love apart.

It doesn’t have the impact it likely would have had I read it closer to the rest of the series, but once I got into it, it was really enjoyable.

What I Read March 2020

Given the way things are now, I expected to finish more books in March than I did. However, I am certain I will have read a greater number of books in April, I will have read more if I just finish the ones I started in March. Though I am not making the progress I thought I would be being stuck at home. Still, three books in March is not bad, given everything else that is going on.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

Sarah Smarsh

This is a non-fiction look at poverty in America, and how growing up poor can affect your entire life and outlook. It reflects Smarsh’s personal and family history, but it also highlights larger problems. There are no systems or structures in place to actually help people get out of poverty. The time period covered by the book details the erosion of much of what could help, especially in the farmland where she grew up.

Smarsh’s story does a great job of showing the cycle of poverty that catches people in ways they can’t escape. Her grandmother keeps moving, but cannot make enough money anywhere to give her protection when any sort of financial or personal tragedy hits. No amount of hard work or skill can counteract the weight of the system against the poor; meritocracy is a lie.

If there is a weakness to the book it is the sentence to sentence writing. Smarsh uses a conceit where she is writing to her unborn daughter, a conceit I do not think really works. Other parts are just kind of awkward. None of that really gets in the way of the power of the story she is telling. I grew up in a similar area, if just a little more well off than her family. Smarsh really captures the feeling in rural communities.

Justice Brennan: The Great Conciliator

Hunter R. Clark

My second biography of one of the greatest Supreme Court Justices to ever sit the bench. This one is less in depth than the previous one, but it is still good and gives an excellent look at the life and jurisprudence of William Brennan. As the title indicates, this book highlights Brennan’s ability to build consensus. While other Justices were often brilliant, they could also be rigid. Getting Hugo Black or William O. Douglas to agree to a compromise in an effort to reach a decision that the requisite number of judges could agree on was no easy task, even if one agreed with them. The same could be true of conservative justices like Rehnquist or Burger. Brennan had the ability to determine where the disagreements were and to build a consensus. When the court took a rightward turn in the 1980’s, he used that ability to limit the damage they did to the court’s jurisprudence. Brennan is not one of the most exciting figures of the court; he has nothing on the life of Douglas or Thurgood Marshall, but he was definitely one of the most effective justices.

Myths & Mortals

Charlie N. Holmberg

The second of Holmberg’s Numina trilogy. I do not have a lot to say about this book. I liked Holmberg’s Paper Magician books, but this one feels a little like the story is chasing its own tail. It is the same characters doing the same things, never really feeling like they are making progress. I am intrigued by the world and the characters, but until near the end here, I do not think this book did much. I will likely read the third book at some point, but I have not been crazy about these.