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.

What I Read February 2020

I finished one big book in February, and then a handful of much shorter ones. It feels good to be reading at my preferred pace. I hope I can keep this up for the next couple of months, before I have to start studying for the bar.

Dune

Frank Herbert

This book is one that has been on my to read list for a long time. People frequently recommended this. It was also compared to a series I like a whole lot, though after reading it I find that comparision to be overblown.

Dune is kind of oddly structured. The outline of the story is a familiar one, but the way it plays out is odd. The book spends a lot of time setting up the situation it is getting ready to blow up. It either starts way too soon or way too late. It is nearly the midway point of the book before the villains make their movie and kicks the plot into high gear. Then the book spends an inordinate amount of time on Paul’s escape. But the time it gets to Paul turning the tables on Baron Harkonnen, there isn’t a whole lot of book left for it to happen in. I don’t know that I mean these observations as criticisms. I really liked the start of the book and the meticulous world building. However, it did seem that many important things, especially in the back third of the book, happened off the page and were merely related to the reader in a line of dialogue.

Herbert did an amazing job of establishing a world and a ton of interesting characters. I wanted to know about most of the players in the book. Really, I was a little disappointed with how little a lot of interesting characters get to do.

In the end, I see why this book is considered a classic of the genre, and I can see its influence on many other series I’ve read. I don’t know that I actually liked it all that much, though.

Dune Messiah

Frank Herbert

I know the first book got into this a little bit, but this sequel is incredibly fascinating in how it just completely undermines the conclusion of its predecessor. Dune is a hero’s journey for Paul, Dune: Messiah examines what it means to be a hero and whether or not that is good. And it comes down solidly on the side of it not being a good thing. Paul has assumed the role of emperor and gotten revenge for his father, but in doing so, he has also unleashed a wave of destruction across the galaxy. Destruction that he is powerless to stop.

The whole book, which is less than half as long as the first, deals with a labyrinthine plot to bring Paul down. A plot that Paul is not especially eager to stop. One part of it has his wife, Irulan, dosing his lover Chani with contraceptives so they cannot produce an heir. Paul is aware of this, but doesn’t stop it because he has foreseen that birthing his heir will cause Chani’s death. So he lets various plots develop, so long as they are advantageous to him. The book puts you on the side of Paul, but the more you see of the situation, the less clear it is that Paul is actually good. It takes the hero of the previous book and shows him to be ineffective and powerless and destructive. It makes for an interesting read.

Sourcery

Terry Pratchett

This is the Discworld book that Pratchett apparently said is where readers should start. It is pretty fun. A wizard goes against wizard custom and has children, which leads to the creation of a sourcery, a person incredibly gifted with magic. As this sourcerer starts to take over the magical world, controlled by the spirit of his father, Rincewind sets out to stop him. Kind of, Rincewind mostly seems to just want to get away.

Like the previous Discworld books I’ve read, the plot appears to be largely there for Pratchett to engage in witty word play. This one also has a lot to say about fate or destiny. Each of the characters feels fated to be one thing or another. Conina is the daughter of a barbarian, but wants to be a hairdresser. Nijel the Destroyer is an accountant who wants to be a barbarian. Rincewind is a wizard who is all but incapable of doing magic. Each of these characters, and more, have to deal with the conflict between what they were “born” to be and what they want to be. I feel like I’ll be saying this a lot in this post, but this book was a lot of fun.

Peril At End House

Agatha Christie

This one is unique among Christie’s Poirot books in that I immediately twigged to the killer. I tend to like the game and am content to let Christie lay out the clues before I start trying to solve the case, here it just seemed pretty obvious. I can’t say I knew all the why, which is the really important part, but I pretty quickly got to who and how.

In Peril at End House, Poirot meets Nick Buckley after seeing an attempt on her life. So he sticks around to try to figure out who amongst her somewhat suspicious friends and relatives are trying to end her life. Unfortunately, despite his efforts, someone ends up dead. Only it is not Nick but her cousin who was wearing her jacket. So Poirot sets out to find out who was responsible. It is a pretty solid mystery.

Lord Edgware Dies/Thirteen At Dinner

Agatha Christie

An actress approaches Poirot for his help in securing a divorce from her estranged husband. He is wary to do it, but he eventually agrees to plead her case. Poirot is surprised when that husband, Lord Edgware, not only agrees but claims he agreed to the divorce long since. The next day, Lord Edgware turns up dead. One person who has an airtight alibi is his estranged wife, the actress Jane Wilkinson. Poirot suspects her, but looks elsewhere. Soon, more people start to turn up dead.

Another largely solid Poirot book. They are all good, but this one kind of fades into the comfortable middle. It is not especially memorable, but thoroughly enjoyable while being read. I think you can kind of feel Christie getting tired of Hastings as the Watson to Poirot’s Holmes here, and he would disappear a few books later.

What I Read January 2020

Good start to the year, with four books finished in January. I hope to keep up the pace for the next few months, before I have to really buckle down and study for the bar. I am going to try to finish up some books I have laying around that I haven’t managed to get read.

Mort

Terry Pratchett

I bought some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books years ago on my kindle, but never got around to reading them. Pratchett is an author that many have told me I should read, and every brush I’ve had with his work has been enjoyable, including the book Dodger a few years ago. So I started with Mort. It’s good.

Mort is about a young man named Mort, who is hired by Death to be his apprentice. It works out for a while. Mort is kind of useless, but he tries hard. As the book goes along, Death takes on some of Mort’s human characteristics and Mort starts acting more like Death. The big problem Mort faces is that when he is sent out to collect a soul, he prevents the death of the woman instead. This creates a split in reality, because the woman was supposed to die. So while Death goes out to experience human life, Mort has to try to fix things before disaster strikes.

What really works is the wit of this book. It manages to be funny and smart, with lots of fun wordplay and gags, but to never let that undercut the drama of the narrative. The book is charming. Death is an especially enjoyable creation; he is the grim reaper, but he is mostly just a guy with a job to do. It isn’t a nice job, but it is a necessary one. He is kind of an outsider, not human, but very intrigued by humanity. It is a really interesting dynamic.

Equal Rites

Terry Pratchett

I found this discworld book to be less successful than Mort. Mort had characters I liked; Equal Rites had characters I wanted to like. For this book to work, you have to buy into Discworld’s magic system, and I just don’t. It seems a little too silly, and the gendered aspects to it are very 1980s. Esk isn’t much of a character; the book sketches her out, but moves too fast to really make much of her. The same goes for Simon. Granny Weatherwax is the most dynamic character here, trying to guide the young woman who can do wizard magic instead of witch magic.

The gendered magic is just not interesting in and of itself to me. The wit from Pratchett’s other books is still present, but it is in service to a story that just didn’t do anything for me. That said, it isn’t like it really disliked this book. It was a step down from Mort, but it was a fast and fun read that once it was over left me just a little underwhelmed. On to the next Discworld book, which is the one that apparently Pratchett suggests starting with: Sourcery.

From Russia, With Love

Ian Fleming

I am coming to the conclusion that I am just not a big fan of Ian Fleming’s writing. This is the fifth or so Bond book I’ve read, and it is my least favorite. I love the movies. I see how they got from the books to the films and not all of the changes are bad. But one thing that tends to stick out in the early (and later, for that matter) movies is the blatant sexism. The thing is, that element is, if anything, toned down from the books. I thought Diamonds Are Forever was bad in that regard, but this book is especially bad.

That would be forgivable, to an extent, if the rest of the book was good, but From Russia, With Love doesn’t have a lot else going on. Much of the book is spent setting up the villains and the Russian plot to discredit MI6 and destroy James Bond. Bond doesn’t really enter the book until about a third of the way in and proceeds to do almost nothing. The few pulpy action scenes are great, but they really take a back seat to a stupendously uninteresting plot. How this became my favorite movie in this series I’ll never know.

Mystery Mile

Margery Allingham

I don’t know that I am really on Allingham’s page here. This book just didn’t click with me. It is likely mostly on me, but this mystery lacked the clarity of character and situation that I appreciate from writers like Sayers and Christie. This book is a lot more vague and formless. I am willing to believe that it is my failure of comprehension; I was reading it a chapter at a time, usually pretty late at night, with long delays between each chapter. It reads more like a thriller forced into a mystery mold. You get the usual collection of characters, and then a death, but the death is immediately suspected to be caused by outside agents, and there is a lot more action and adventure than the usual mystery. I have a couple more Allingham books on my kindle and hopefully those work better for me.

What I Read December 2019

I have a lot of books that are part way read, but I just couldn’t muster the time or interest to finish most of them. I really think there is a book I have forgotten as well, but seeing as how I’ve forgotten it, I can’t remember what that book is. So just two books finished this month, and one of them is a reread. Ehh, its fine.

The Harrowing of Gwynedd

Katherine Kurtz

I’ve now read three or four of Kurtz’s Deryni novels. No complete series, just random books from around this 15 book series. There is a lot in here that feels like it influenced Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, though that might just be that they were drawing on similar influences, namely medieval English history. I like these books; if I didn’t I wouldn’t keep buying them when the opportunity arises. But I tend to find them a little dry. They read a bit like histories. This one is one of the more depressing books I’ve read. It is the follow up to a trilogy that I have not read at all. A group of garbage nobles control the young king as his Regents. His twin brother and a group of rebels work to counter their evil.

It is the first book of a trilogy, and it doesn’t resolve a whole lot with that plot. But it does set up a lot to come. It is mostly the good guys scrambling to save who they can and try to survive until the young king comes of age and can rule on his own, if there is anything left at that time. It is relentless and depressing. There is a spiritual side of this story that does not resonate with me, but I think there is something there that I should be paying more attention to. I just can’t muster the interest to get into these books past the surface level. And that surface level is decently entertaining. Maybe if I had a full trilogy to get a whole story I would like them better.

A Crown of Swords

Robert Jordan

I read this along with a podcast. It is never going to be my favorite book in the series, but it one of my favorites in . . . I was going to write “the back half of the series,” but I just did the math and realized that this book is actually in the first half of the series. It is better than the three that follow it. It also doesn’t feel like a complete story like the first six books of the series did. I really like the Mat story in this book, as much as I think Jordan messed up with part of it. I have seen a lot of people have a very strong negative reaction to Mat’s relationship with Tylin. While I didn’t read it exactly the way they did, I think I might have the weaker read on it. This is me putting words in the writer’s mouth, but I think it was supposed to read a turning of the tables with Mat going from pursuer to the pursued, and that he is more shocked at the situation than genuinely upset by it. Reading now, though, it definitely comes off as more sexual assault-y than I found it reading it as a teenager. It is something that is really easy to fix in an adaptation without losing what I think is the intended commentary, which is flipping expected gender roles. But as it reads I don’t think it works.

What I Read November 2019

I only finished one book in November. Too much school, I guess. I will at least double that total in December. Maybe quadruple. Next year, I will likely be able to manage even less than I did this year. Yes, I will finish law school in April, but after that I will have to study for the bar and then, knock on wood, I will be starting a new job somewhere. One or two books is my new reality, I guess.

Murder on the Links

Agatha Christie

The only book I finished in November was a Poirot mystery. It was a good one, but I am no better at writing about mysteries without spoiling them. I guess I shouldn’t be worried about spoiling a nearly 100 year old book, but with a mystery, the plot is its biggest draw. The Murder on the Links isn’t quite Christie’s most memorable story, still there is a lot interesting going on.

A big part of the investigation has Poirot in competition with a haughty French rival. The French investigator needles Poirot, who does not seem as on ball as his counterpart. Even Poirot’s sometime sidekick, Captain Hastings, seems to respect the other detective. This is the second full length Poirot novel, and Christie already seems to be tiring of the Holmes and Watson dynamic. It is not surprising that Hasting disappears a few years later. Here, Hasting has fallen in love with a woman who appears to be a suspect.

The crime is actually very simple, but all the stuff around it is very complex. There are multiple crimes, and suspects that seem to alternate between intentionally drawing suspicion and proclaiming their innocence. There is a twin reveal, but it manages not to feel cheap, and in fact by the time it happens I was sure it was coming, because there really was no other explanation. Like most Christies, it was a fun read. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of her absolute best, but it is still really good.

What I Read October 2019

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

Labyrinth

Kate Mosse

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

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

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

The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul

Douglas Adams

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

Warrior of the Altaii

Robert Jordan

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

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

Natchez Burning

Greg Iles

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

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

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

What I Read September 2019

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

Smoke and Summons

Charlie N. Holmberg

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

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

Diamonds Are Forever

Ian Fleming

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

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

Jade Darcy and the Affair of Honor

Stephen Goldin and Mary Mason

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

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

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

What I Read August 2019

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

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

John Steinbeck

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

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

The Briar King

Greg Keyes

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

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

What I Read July 2019

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

The Elf Queen of Shannara

Terry Brooks

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

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

The Talismans of Shannara

Terry Brooks

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

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

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

Sam Kean

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

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

What I Read in June 2019

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

The Scions of Shannara

Terry Brooks

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

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

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

The Druid of Shannara

Terry Brooks

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

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