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.

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What I Read May 2019

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

The Clocks

Agatha Christie

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

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

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

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Hayao Miyazaki

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

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

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

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

What I Read April 2019

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

First Among Sequels

Jasper Fforde

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

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

Downtiming the Night Side

Jack L Chalker

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

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

What I Read in March 2019

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

The Woman Who Died A Lot

Jasper Fforde

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

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

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

What I Read February 2019

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

Skyward

Brandon Sanderson

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

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

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

Early Riser

Jasper Fforde

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

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

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

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Douglas Adams

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

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams

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

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Comparative Study

On a whim, I rewatched The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie on Netflix a couple of weeks ago. Afterwards, a bout of curiosity led me to look up the movie on wikipedia, which took me down a rabbit hole that left me shocked to discover that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not a particularly well regarded movie. I was foolish enough to think it would be loved simply because it is great. Instead, it seems stuck in that that weird gray zone where fans of the previous versions don’t like it because it changed some things and non-fans don’t like it for a combination of thinking they are missing too much for not being familiar with the radio/book/tv version or were just never going to like it because Douglas Adams had a particular voice and that voice was understandably not for everybody. I really only understand the last one. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie is an excellent movie in its own right, even if isn’t the definitive version of the story.

Part of my disconnect is likely that I backed into The Hitchhiker’s Guide. I saw the movie first. I loved it. Being the reader that I am, the first thing I did after watching it was track down the book. Which I also loved. I haven’t returned to the book much, mostly because nearly all of the best bits are in the movie and it can be experienced in less than two hours. I didn’t get deep into Adams; I didn’t read the rest of the series or any of his other work. I just moved on to other things, and this movie became a pleasant memory from college.

In reading up on the movie’s reputation I found numerous complaints about how the movie missed the spirit of the earlier versions, which I find preposterous. That spirit, embodied by clever wordplay, sly jokes, understated darkness, and general absurdity, is in the movie in spades. The movie translates most of the first book word for word; the first book is just really short. I reread the book after rewatching the movie; I still think the movie got most of it. Not everything translated off the page perfectly, and some portions weren’t really attempted, but the heart of the book come across perfectly.

After reading the book, I watched the 1981 TV version on Amazon, hoping it would provide the Rosetta Stone for understanding why fans of the property were not especially big fans of the movie. It did, in a way. (Here’s the line that would get me hate mail if anyone read my blog.) The TV version reminded me forcefully that nostalgia is a hell of a drug. This version looks cheap and is so shapeless and meandering as to make the book look like it was plotted with clockwork precision. The book already had a tendency to just move on to the next thing when it was done with the joke. The TV show does the same, except the pacing of each scene is bloated and sagging. Structurally, the show is barely a show at all. It feels much like a sketch show, with each episode moving to a completely different setting and concept that just so happens to carry over some of the same cast. A lot of it feels like a radio play set to film. All the acting is done in the dialogue; there is little of interest actually happening on screen. This is not meant to be read as a screed against good dialogue, only to note that TV is a visual medium and maybe the show should have had something worth watching on screen. There are some good creature designs, but it is mostly a lot of people standing and talking. Two-headed Zaphod is a straight up disaster, with his second head being almost as well realized as the one on Michael Scott’s halloween costume. The show simply looks bad.

This. This looks really bad.

A lot of disdain for the movie came from people praising the TV show and I simply don’t get it. I can understand people not liking the changes and additions (more on those later) to the movie from the book, but the TV show praise is baffling to me. A lot of that praise is for the performances, although the reasons for that, other than simple nostalgia, elude me. Again, many of these feel like performances for radio. They recede on screen, leaving the settings to do a lot of the acting. It makes it hard for me to even compare the performances. Zaphod is fine, though he seems to be struggling under the costume to give the character any energy. David Dixon makes Ford the most dynamic character on the show, but even he has a tendency to get lost in the shuffle. Simon Jones as Arthur Dent suffers the most as the show goes on. He is great early, but as the other characters show up, he all but disappears, even when the rest of the cast actually disappears. Trillian is a mess. I guess I see how people who grew up with these versions could prefer them, but they are mostly just fine mouthpieces for good dialogue that bring little else to the table. Honestly, I am glad the TV series was not the first version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I experienced, because I doubt I would have been a fan.

The movie, though, does have quite a few changes and additions from the book. Mostly, those are in the name of giving some form to the shapeless book. Part of the charm of the book—and the TV series I assume—is that scattered nature. It starts big, with the destruction of the Earth, but after that things just sort of happen. Revelations come fast and frequent, usually with little bearing on what came before it or what comes after. That was never going to fly in a movie version. So it added something of a quest to the search for Magrathea, which was something of a fait accompli in the book and show. Now, the crew has to get directions from Zaphod’s enemy Humma Kavula, which leads to a detour to Vogsphere. Those things were added for the movie. Honestly, they fit in almost seamlessly, though some of the humor is a little slapstick. Not significantly more so than stuff like a sperm whale crashing to the ground from outer space, but there is some. Outside of a knee-jerk dislike of everything new, there are two differences I’ve seen get a lot of hate. Understandably is the change in the nature of the relationship between Trillian and Arthur. Adding romance is the one change that really feels like a Hollywood change and not just an “accepted rules of storytelling” change. The romance is not needed to for cohesion or structure, it is just there. It doesn’t ruin the movie or anything, but if feels somewhat unnecessary. Inexplicably, people also hate the opening musical number. “So Long and Thanks for all the Fish” is a delight. Opening the movie with a satirical musical number ostensibly sung by dolphins tells the viewer exactly what they are in for. It is visually interesting, something the couldn’t be done in the book; it does, however, bring in something from the book in a visually interesting way.

I watched the movie again after rereading the book and watching the show. My esteem for the movie is undiminished. I love the cast; they are almost to a person better than the show performances. I guess I understand how people could prefer Dixon’s Ford to Mos Def’s chill version, but I liked Def’s take. It works with what is in the book. Otherwise, movie performances all the way. Especially Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod, who is an energetic mix of George W Bush and Elvis. Seeing people crap on the musical number to start the movie, then watching that musical number again cemented for me the idea the movie was never going to be successful. It had been too long and fans had too strong an idea of what had to be there for the movie to work. So movie gets dinged because some mildly funny dialogue got left on the cutting room floor or a stinger joke just before the credits suggest that the restaurant at the end of the universe is at a certain place and not a certain time. I mean, the movie left out all the jokes about digital watches. How can it purport to be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without jokes about digital watches?

The movie is not a perfect translation of the book, which is what it most closely mirrors. But it it certainly a more effective film translation than the TV series. I might track down the radio version some day; I am not opposed to audio only entertainment (note: I should write someday about how I first experienced Star Wars through the radio versions). Maybe that version is the best version. For now, I’ll stick with book as the ideal form and the movie for when I just need to be entertained. On its own merits, the movie is excellent.

What I Read January 2019

I guess I read quite a few books in January; three novels and three comic strip collections. I didn’t finish one book I have been working on for nearly six months. Still, it is a solid start to the year, especially if I want to hit my goal number this year of 30 books. Which is quite the come down from the more than fifty I was averaging before law school, but it is still a decent amount.

Sparkling Cyanide

Agatha Christie
An Agatha Christie mystery that doesn’t star any of her well known detectives. A year ago, a young woman, Rosemary Barton, apparently committed suicide by putting cyanide in her champagne. Her husband, George, receives a letter telling him that she was murdered. Realizing that the culprit must be one of the other seven people at the party, he invites them all to a dinner at the same place on the one year anniversary, with a plan to expose the culprit. Unfortunately, George suffers the same fate as his wife. It would have been accepted as a suicide, had George not told Colonel Race about his suspicions and his plan. So Race sets out to find the killer. He goes about it in the usual way, interviewing the witnesses and uncovering a bunch of betrayals and recriminations amongst the party. It is a pretty standard mystery. There is no big twist on the form, merely a largely excellent execution of it.

At the Water’s Edge

Sara Gruen

I am conflicted on this review, because I generally enjoyed this book as I read it over a cold weekend, but I don’t think it is that good. At the Water’s Edge touches on a lot of interesting topics without ever truly engaging with them or actually being interesting. Like the idea that the protagonist, Maddie, is going with her husband to search for the Loch Ness Monster. While the trip is clearly the not serious on the part of the husband, the book doesn’t do much to examine if the characters truly believe. It also makes the Maddie’s husband, Ellis, so irredeemable that it is impossible to believe she ever believed anything he said, though the way one of the villainous reveals is framed is just kind of gross.

The novel starts with the Maddie, Ellis and their friend embarrassing themselves at a party. This is doubly embarrassing for her husband’s parents because it is in the middle of WWII and the husband has been found 4F and is not serving in the military. With his parents cutting him off, he hatches a plan to go to Scotland and search for the Loch Ness monster, which his father had done years before, ending in some unexplained embarrassment for the family. Once they get to their hotel in Scotland, the Maddie sees how the war has affected the people there and just how callous she has been. While her husband continues being gross, she starts to grow. It isn’t an especially complex story; everything is pretty much black and white. People in this book are almost exactly what they initially seem. Still, it only took a few hours to read and while I expect to forget that I read by the middle of the year, I largely enjoyed it. I do wish it had had more Loch Ness monster content.

Calvin and Hobbes (The Days are Just Packed, Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat, Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons)
Bill Watterson

I’ve had these Calvin and Hobbes collections sitting on my kindle for ages, but never really made an attempt to read them. I believe I have read nearly the whole run of this strip. I had encountered most of these before. You already know that Calvin and Hobbes is great, right? Because Calvin and Hobbes is great and these a really good collections.

Japanese Tales

Translated and Edited by Royall Tyler

This is a collection of Japanese Folk tales. They are interesting. Many are truly foreign. Not because they are strange, western folk and fairy tales are often strange, but because they end with morals that are so different from anything I recognize. It makes sense that this book actually starts with a 50 page primer on ancient Japanese culture and myths, laying a groundwork for an American reader to gain at least some of the groundwork necessary to understand these stories. The tales in this book are relatively short, ranging from only a few sentences long to a few pages. They have been grouped in logical blocks of stories with similar themes or characters. It is a fascinating collection, alternately gruesome, gross, sweet or silly. What stood out most to me is how many of these stories I knew from playing Clover Studios masterpiece Okami, which also largely dealt in myth and folktales.

What I Read December 2018

I had the back half of the month free, and I managed to finish three books. I have the better part of next month free as well, and should be at least able to match that.

The Accursed

Joyce Carol Oates

Before reading this I was largely familiar with Oates for some short stories I read back in college. This is something significantly more substantial. It is a gothic novel of sorts, cataloging supernatural events at Princeton during the early 20th century. It combines a lot of things I like, like supernatural stories, that specific time period and meta-fictional elements. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

As much as it appeals to me, the structure of the book keeps the reader at arms length. The Accursed is written as a history, a collection of primary sources and recreations by the writer that detail the goings on of some kind of panic around Princeton. It allows for an interesting level of fake authenticity and multiple levels of unreliable narrators. It also serves to keep a lot of the characters and emotions at a remove. It is not easy to connect when characters are presented as figures of history and not characters to get to know. The illusion is helped by the addition of real historical figures that would have been in that area at that time, like future President Woodrow Wilson and Jack London. It sells that it is a true account. Then its gets to the supernatural stuff and it quickly becomes apparent that there isn’t quite as many supernatural events as the book’s fictional author tries to sell you. It makes some of the racial connotations of monsters stories exactly the point, with many unexplained events explained quite easily with racism. But there is just enough that is genuinely spooky and magical to keep you reading, trying to pick through the layers of unreliable narrators to find exactly what is “real” and what is not. The books is alternately lyrical and dry, exciting and common. The Accursed is a real treat.

The Plastic Magician

Charlie N Holmberg

I read Holmberg’s Paper Magician trilogy a year or two ago and quite enjoyed it. This follow up was roughly in line with its quality. In the world of these books, people do magic with the one material they are bonded with. In this book, as the title suggests, the protagonist is learning to do magic with plastic with the newest magic material. I hope this isn’t a one off, because this is a fun continuation of from the Paper Magician, and I’d like to see more.

Alvie is an interesting character. She moves from America to London to study. She is an inventor, eager to push the envelope of what is possible with magic and tends to get lost in her work. She has trouble dealing with the fierce, and dangerous, rivalry that her mentor is stuck in. The conflict ends up being almost completely personal. Alvie and her mentor have an invention and a rival is out to steal it. The stakes get raised, but the central conflict is closer to a mystery than an epic. This is just a fun, solid read.

Storm Glass

Jeff Wheeler

This book is a lot of interesting set up for not a lot of story. I realize that it is the first book in a series that is five or so books long, so some of that is to be expected, but this book really feels like a lot of set up. The world of this book is interesting. It is a world of extreme inequality, with rich people hoarding knowledge and wealth while living on floating islands, while the poor people are stuck on the surface. There is some sort of magic, or maybe just knowledge, called the Mysteries, used to keep people from accessing the knowledge.

Storm Glass follows two young woman protagonists. The first is Cettie, a young orphan girl from the slums who is taken in by a rich family. The other is the a member of the royal family who is struggling with her parent’s apparent disinterest in her. Cettie takes the lead in this book. She is struggling to find a place to fit in, her new family is partly excited for her addition and partly seeing her as a nuisance. Especially because the extremely image conscious society. Her sections of the book are split between her struggles with a housekeeper that doesn’t believe she is fit to be a part of the family and her growing discovery of her powers. Meanwhile the princess gets inadvertently caught in a power struggle with her father, who sees her as a rival heir to the throne.

Honestly, the book’s blunt theming didn’t work for me because that is about all there was. There aren’t really any surprises. Things play out almost exactly as you expect them to, people are pretty much exactly who they appear to be. There is enough interesting here for me to give it another book to see if it can actually make the world work in a story, but I didn’t really enjoy this.

What I Read November 2018

Two book finished in November; basically my normal pace now. As much as I’d like to get back to my old pace, that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. After finals, I will have a month free of school, maybe I can hit my book goals for December and January. Or maybe not.

The Shattered Tree

Charles Todd

A decent little mystery. This is another one starring Todd’s WWI nurse Bess Crawford. This time, she has a French patient who comes in in the wrong uniform. There a just a lot of mysteries around this patient. When Bess is injured and sent away from the front to recover, she happens to see this patient in Paris, she at first attempts to check in on him and then starts trying to unravel the mystery of who exactly he is. It was entertaining. Bess thinks she’s on to something here and realizes that people in charge are willing to go with a theory that doesn’t really match the facts, so she is determined to figure things out. I will likely check out more of these. They have largely been pretty good.

Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion

Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel

A detailed biography of Justice William J. Brennan Jr., that despite running some 700 pages doesn’t do a whole lot to illuminate who he was. It is very thorough on what he did; on his work over 30+ years as a Supreme Court Justice, but other than noting that Brennan was an intensely private person it does little to illuminate him as a person. Readers will not find out what drove Brennan. It does point out when his personal thoughts seemed at odds with his judicial philosophy, but it doesn’t really tell you anything unless you think there is a disconnect between believing in reporters right to report something but not being happy with what they choose to report. It does go into detail on some of the inner workings of the Supreme Court, following Brennan’s appointment to the court and his solidifying of the Warren Court. There are lots of good details on how the sausage of a supreme court decision is made. Even more detail on Brennan’s role, as he shifted pieces of opinions to get other justices to sign on. It paints Brennan as an effective justice and one willing to sacrifice smaller points to achieve a greater one.

What I Read October 2018

I managed to finish three books in October; I feel great. And I finished a fourth on the first day of November, so I have a head start on next month. I don’t really have time to search out new books, so I am mostly just finishing up things that are already sitting on my shelf. Hopefully I will get back to my expected pace before too long.

The Poisoned Pilgrim

Oliver Potzsch

This is the fourth Hangman’s Daughter story. This time, Magdalena and her husband Simon are part of a pilgrimage to the monastery at Adenachs. There, a sickness breaks out and Simon is tasked with containing it. At the same time, one of the monks is murdered and the suspect just so happens to be an old friend of Jakob, the hangman. The three of them try to solve the eventually plural murders and the mystery of the spreading illness, they run into mad science that call to mind Frankenstein and The Sandman.

I bought this whole series because Amazon had them for cheap. I keep reading them because they are fine. They have a format I like, being mysteries, and an interesting setting, but I have not found any of them to be particularly good. They are simply fine. I am hesitant to lay that on the author when the books are translated, but word choice problems abound. Maybe Magdalena is as shrill in the original as she comes off here, but it is a bad change for what has mostly been an enjoyable character. The mystery here is mostly fun for how many different ideas pop up, the solving it is actually not especially complex. I’ll read the next one sooner or later.

Napoleon A Life

Andrew Roberts

A thorough and enthralling look at the life of the most interesting man of the last two hundred and fifty or so years. Roberts takes a fairly positive stance on Napoleon without descending in hagiography. It is simply very detailed and attempts to give some perspective on a man of whom there are still wildly divergent opinions nearly two hundred years after he died. I will admit to being something of an admirer myself, and I found this book to be amazing.

The highlights are the battle sections. They are detailed and as honest as can be. It shows how where Napoleon was truly successful, with his pace and catching opponents unawares as well as with concentrating his forces to defeat fractured alliances, but it also is honest about his failures, especially in his later defeats, when Napoleon lost the battles though simple, and in retrospect obvious mistakes.

It also gets into the thorniest matters of Napoleon’s life. Like him giving his brothers crowns and kingdoms only to be met with incompetence and unfaithfulness, though much of that was brought on by Napoleon himself. He did pull back from some of the reforms of the French Revolution, but he also helped bring the country out of the Reign of Terror and the subsequent instability. He set codified laws. He committed massacres in the Middle East. He fought many wars, but started few. Napoleon is a complex figure and this book really lays out all of that complexity. I can’t read it without being at least partly enamored of him, and a little sad that his end was what it was. But I also can not ignore the bad. I really liked how Napoleon: A Life painstakingly showed all of him that it could.

Jhereg

Steven Brust

I read a couple of Steven Brust books over the last year or so and I like them fine, and I feel much the same about this one. I got it for Christmas and just now am getting around to reading it. Its fine. Brust has an aversion to explaining anything about his world. I thought that problem with the first book of his I read was because it was a spin off several books deep in the series. But this first book does little to ease the reader in. It is a small problem, much of what isn’t said can be learned through context, but it is a barrier to really getting into the world. Here, he just doesn’t have the space for it. Jhereg is a fairly tight little heist story. Pages of world explaining exposition would kill the pace. However, certain fundamental facts don’t get mentioned until things are pretty far along. Like the fact that the protagonist is married, for instance. Keeping up with the twists and turns, however, require some knowledge of the rules and the book is reticent to give readers that knowledge. I still mostly enjoyed it; it flowed along pretty quickly and tells a fun story in not a lot of pages. I will likely try to pick up some more books in the series when I have time to read again.