What I Read August 2017

Two more Agatha Christie’s for August and I expect that this will be the pace for most of the next couple of years.  All I do for class is read; it makes it hard to find the drive to read for fun.  Still, I can’t imagine I stop reading entirely.

Cat Among the Pigeons

Agatha Christie

A solid Poirot story that reads more like a Marple story.  By that I mean that Poirot doesn’t show up until near the end of the story and mostly just solves the mystery instead of doing any investigating.  This involves intrigue and murder at a girl’s school, as well as Middle Eastern royalty.  A Middle East King, facing revolution, entrusts some gems to a British friend, who hides them among his visiting sister and her daughter’s possessions. When she gets back to school, things take a murderous turn

It works. The two halves don’t quite fit together, and part of the eventual solution seemed come out of nowhere.  I really prefer when the detective is a more active part of the story. The mystery here is fine, but the solving doesn’t quite live up to it.  It is kind of great how the Christie tells you exactly what is going on, yet it is still hard to pinpoint the villain. This one is not a favorite, but it is solid enough.

Passenger to Frankfurt

Agatha Christie

I’ve read some Christie that I thought was not great or was actually rather weak, but until this book I don’t think I’d encountered any of her books that I would call downright bad.  Passenger to Frankfurt, though, is downright bad.  It is strangely formless and scattered, with a lot of grand, if maybe poorly considered, ideas strewn about a plot that makes even the most convoluted and stupid Bond movies look downright intelligible.

Ostensibly, Passenger to Frankfurt is about Stafford Nye, a British foreign official who gets caught up in some international intrigue and espionage.  For the first half that is exactly what happens.  He meets a mysterious woman, he tracks her down again and learns of an important mission, and they head off to exotic locals to prevent disaster.  I guess, anyway.  A little past the midpoint, Nye all but disappears from the book as it becomes a much more general look at a plot to cause anarchy and overthrow Western governments.  There are threads about fake sons of Hitler and lobotomizing super drugs. It is weird as hell and not especially coherent. It is a big miss.

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What I Read in July 2017

July was another three book month, and all three were relatively short Agatha Christie books I picked up in a recent binge.  This time I have some excuse for my paltry reading efforts, though.  In the middle of July I made the decision to attend law school.  Well, I had been planning to go to law school for some time, I took the LSAT last March, but in July I decided which law school and that I would be going this fall.  So most of July was spent planning the move and getting ready for school.  That did not leave a lot of time for reading. I am going to guess that the next three years are not going to afford me a lot of time for recreational reading, though there is no chance I stop entirely.  For now, I’ve still got some Agatha Christie that I haven’t finished, and for July I have three of hers that I read.

So Many Steps to Death

Agatha Christie

This is a strange one.  It is kind of a spy thriller, like a Bond book. Only instead of a hyper competent spy at the middle of it, this stars a woman who just so happens to look quite a bit like the wife of a suspected Communist defector who died in an accident.  So she is recruited to take that woman’s place as she goes to meet up with her husband.

It gets into some fully crazy territory, with a secret villain lair hidden as a leper colony and faked plane crashes to cover people’s tracks.  I don’t know that I would call it particularly good.  It is like one of the more ridiculous Bond movies in its plotting, but it moves at a fast enough clip that I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

Five Little Pigs

Agatha Christie

This is a fun one.  16 years after her mother was convicted of murdering her father, Carla goes to Poirot to ask him to investigate what really happened, since her mother sent her a letter from prison saying that she didn’t do it.  Intrigued, Poirot sets out to investigate the other guests at the house at the time of the murder, uncovering the sordid affairs of all involved.

This is among my favorite of Poirot’s outings.  It sets up a perfectly limited group of suspects and does something of a Rashomon with them, (this book predates Rashomon) letting everyone tell their versions of the story and uncovering lies and reasons for lies with the conflicting takes. When it gets to the end and all is clear, it is just about as satisfying a mystery as I have read. This is a good one.

Sad Cypress

Agatha Christie

Another very good one.  This one does not hide its culprit especially well, but it does hide the motive.  There were only three people there when one of them was murdered; one of the other two is almost certainly the murderer.  And the book gives ample reason to believe that the accused is responsible, though since Poirot is investigating on her behalf it is almost certain that she is not.  So you turn to the other possible suspect, and there is no reason at all to suspect her.  This in a mystery is suspicious in and of itself.

This is one that seems more about the characters than the plot; at least as far Poirot mysteries are concerned.  It gives more intimate details of the lives of it primary characters.  Lots of details that are not primarily related to the case. With the ticking clock of the impending trial as a backdrop, you really feel for some of these characters.  It is really enjoyable.

Final Crisis

Grant Morrison, JG Jones, Doug Mahnke and Others

I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but my excitement for the Justice League movie got me to pull the best Justice League vs Darkseid story.  Yeah, I said it, though I expect the movie to take more of its cues from the New 52 origin.  Final Crisis is a beautiful, wonderful mess.  I will write a full review of this book at some point, so I am saving deeper thoughts for that.

What I Read in June 2017

It was a tough month and I didn’t get nearly as much reading done as I would have liked. That is becoming a familiar refrain this year from me. I don’t know what it is, but I am just not getting my reading done. Part of that is how much time I’ve been spending on a few books, like my ill-fated attempt to read all of Dickens. I am going to admit here that I likely won’t get past Nicolas Nickleby this year. As much as I enjoy his novels, they don’t really make for marathon reading. They are too long to get more than one read. I should be catching up on my total for the year with the injection of Agatha Christie I’ve got coming. There was a big Kindle sale and I found a 5 book collection at a used book store, so I’ve got a lot of mystery goodness to get to this summer.

The Dark Monk

Oliver Potzsch

There is an enjoyable mystery/adventure story in here, but the way I read this book really hurt getting to it. First of all, I didn’t read it; I listened to it. It was my next audio book after finishing with the Bosch books I had. As I’ve said before, when you listen to an audio book you are hearing another person’s interpretation of the work. This is generally not a big a deal, but reading lines with the right inflection can turn a line sarcastic or joking when it isn’t necessarily written that way. On top of that, with The Dark Monk the book was also translated from German to English. That is another layer of interpretation, meaning that listening to this book in audio book form means that I was getting something two steps removed from what was originally written.

This book isn’t some great work of art that needs to be exactly the author’s vision to be enjoyed, it is a fun historical adventure, but it does give me a way to excuse some odd things in this book. For a book that seems to take a lot of care for historical accuracy, some of the word choices seem out of place. It is jarring when the dialogue doesn’t seem to match the setting. But that might not be the fault of the author, it might be the translator. Or it might have to do with how it was read. Problems like that crop up just often enough to hamper the experience, but they don’t get in the way of the story.

The story is breezy and enjoyable. This time Simon, Magdalena and Jakob look into a group of bandits terrorizing the countryside and following the trail of a hidden Templar treasure. They have to both avoid the bandits and members of a secret church organization who wants the treasure for themselves. They are joined by the aristocratic sister of a murdered priest, which starts to drive a wedge between Simon and Magdalena. Meanwhile, Jakob is purposefully distracted with torture and executions. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is pretty enjoyable.

A Caribbean Mystery

Agatha Christie

A Miss Marple mystery as she takes a vacation to the Caribbean and gets mixed up in a murder, as she is wont to do. I’ve read the sequel to this book already, though I didn’t realize it until about halfway through. Miss Marple is on vacation at a resort hotel that has several semi-permanent guests. One of them mentions a murder, but quickly shuts his mouth. The next morning he turns up dead of an apparent heart attack. Miss Marple suspects foul play, and that the foul play isn’t finished, but she needs help to uncover the plot before it claims too many lives.

It might just be the order I’ve read her books in, which is to say whatever order I happen across them, but lately I’ve noticed the Marple stories I’ve read have featured a much more active Marple than the first few. She is still one to let others do the footwork and bring her the information. Still, this isn’t one that has her swooping in at the end to solve a mystery that she barely seemed to be aware of before. It creates a compelling group of characters to explore as Marple and her allies sniff out the culprit. I liked it.

They Came to Baghdad

Agatha Christie

This is an odd one. It is kind of a spy novel featuring a protagonist who barely knows they are involved in any sort of intrigue. Victoria Jones flies to Baghdad on a whim after losing her job to follow a man she met one time. She is flighty, but also pretty quick on her feet lying her way through society. There a betrayed secret agent stumbles into her hotel room and dies. His handler employs her to help find who betrayed their man. She meets the man again and starts a relationship as she looks for murderer.

Victoria is a fun character. She is just silly enough to make things fun even as they turn deadly. She stumbles into and out of dangerous situations armed only with her quick wit. No real knowledge or intelligence, just an ability to read people and construct plausible lies. It really works even though the book isn’t exactly filled with surprises. I enjoyed it quite a bit in the end.

What I Read May 2017

Another four book month. I feel like I am falling off of my 60 book goal for the year. Hopefully I can get back on track over the next couple of months. I will be hard if I try to get back into some fantasy, since those books take so long to read. On the other hand, Amazon had a big Kindle sale on Agatha Christie and I picked up quite a few. This month is mostly mysteries, but I hope to have some variety next time around.

The Black Ice

Michael Connolly

The second Harry Bosch novel, The Black Ice follows Harry as he looks into the death of another cop.  His investigation takes him inside the drug trade and down to Mexico.  I read the first book in this series a couple of years ago and picked up the next couple during a Kindle sale, probably when a new season of Bosch was launching on Amazon Prime.  I’m glad I finally got around to reading them.  Or in this case listening to them.

The book is good.  I can’t think of anything truly outstanding about it, but I liked it well enough. It is a finely constructed mystery/thriller.  It starts with an apparent suicide and while Harry is put off investigating that, the John Doe murder case he is working keeps tying itself back into the first case.  And new bodies keep showing up.  Despite being put off by higher ups, Bosch keeps doggedly working the case, even when it takes him down to cartel territory in Mexico.  It is a pretty fun read.

The Concrete Blond

Michael Connolly

This third book proved just a little harder than the second for me to get into, even though once it gets going I think it is the superior book.  This time, Harry is on trial for a shooting he was involved with before the series started.

That trial is what put me off a little bit at the start.  It is hard to sympathize with the protagonist when he is acting indignant about being called to trial over shooting an unarmed man.  He contends that the man, who the police believe was a serial killer, made an aggressive move in the dark when Bosch attempted to apprehend him. As the book has set it up, Bosch made the right choice, but his anger at this even being questioned is really off putting.  Once it becomes clear that they either got the wrong man or there is a copycat, the anger kind of fades, but it still comes off as self-righteous.

Once the book gets into the meat of the investigation, though, it really picks up.  With Bosch concluding quickly that the killer must be someone who was close to the first investigation, it has some fun with him looking into other cops and associated people.  It really flies right along.

Murder at the Vicarage

Agatha Christie

I believe this is the first Miss Marple novel. It isn’t one of Christie’s best. I don’t mean to say it is bad or anything; it is a perfectly adequate mystery. An unlikeable Magistrate is killed and the local vicar teams up with the police, and eventually Miss Marple, to find the person responsible. This is one of those ones where the victim is so singularly unlikeable that it is easy to imagine almost any of the characters being responsible for offing him. His cheating wife, his flippant daughter, the wife’s lover or even the vicar himself. It also starts with a bang, since two characters immediately confess to the crime, though both of their confessions are pretty quickly proven false. An all, I stand by perfectly adequate. This is a finely executed mystery that lacks some spark that would make it truly great.

Triple Threat

Gwenda Bond

On one hand, I am sure I am not the target audience for this book.  It is a sci-fi tinged YA book about a teenage girl going on adventures in the near future, as well as her troubles with friends and boyfriend.  But, I am also kind of directly the target audience because that teenage girl happens to be Lois Lane, so I am already invested in her relationship with her boyfriend Clark and their shady rich friends Alex.  It is also jam packed with references to 90’s Superman characters.  Many a reader who has watched the excellent cartoon from that era would get, some that require a little deeper knowledge of the Man of Steel.

I loved the first two books in the series, but I think this might be the best one yet.  I hope it is not the last. It feels kind of like an ending.  Lois and Clark finally meet when his parents take him on a vacation to Metropolis.  They go to a baseball game, their families have dinner and they stop mad scientists from experimenting on teenage runaways.  It is kind of adorable.  Bond absolutely nails Lois Lane. She is smart and determined, but also reckless.  Even removed from Superman lore, it makes her an entertaining protagonist.  I enjoyed this book for its Superman trivia, but even without any knowledge of the character it is a fun book. It is a perfectly light, enjoyable read.  I can’t wait for more.

What I Read April 2017

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

Mean Streak

Sandra Brown

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

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

A Curious Beginning

Deanna Raybourn

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

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

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

Prudence

Gail Carriger

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

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

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

Aristotle’s Children

Richard E Rubenstein

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

What I Read in March 2017

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

The Gangster

Clive Cussler & Justin Scott

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

N is for Noose

Sue Grafton

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

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

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

The Winds of Khalakovo

Bradley Beaulieu

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

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

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

What I Read in February 2017

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

Black Coffee

Charles Osborne & Agatha Christie

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

The Body in the Library

Agatha Christie

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

The Vanished Man

Jeffrey Deaver

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

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

The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens

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

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

Frustrated Hype

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

Today!

Today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Read in January 2017

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

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Girl in the Shadows

Gwenda Bond

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

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The Demon’s Brood

Desmond Seward

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

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

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A Man of Some Repute

Elizabeth Edmondson

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

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

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A Question of Inheritance

Elizabeth Edmondson

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

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

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Republic of Thieves

Scott Lynch

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

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

What I Read in December 2016

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

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Lost in a Good Book

Jasper Fforde

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

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

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Hangman’s Holiday

Dorothy Sayers

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

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A Presumption of Death

Jill Patton Walsh/Dorothy Sayers

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

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

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

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Mornings on Horseback

David McCollough

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

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