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 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 in July 2016

Another kind of lacking month from me. I just haven’t been reading as much as I usually do lately. I think I can still get back on track over the last half of this year, but I am way off my pace right now. Still, I got three books in July, which isn’t too bad, and I have a handful of one that I half finished. Hopefully I can get those done by the end of August and boost my numbers a little bit. I also meant to read more nonfiction this year, and I haven’t really done that, so I am going to make a concerted effort to fix that as well.

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Hard Revolution

George Pelecanos

I read The Sweet Forever from Pelecanos a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. Since then the rest of his books have been on my long list of things to read and I happened upon a paperback copy of Hard Revolution. If anything I liked it more than The Sweet Forever, though I don’t recall the book perfectly.

Set in 1968, Hard Revolution takes place in DC around the time of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination and the reaction to that. The fractured and tense nature of race relations in the city and the country provide the backdrop and backbone for this story. It follows a pair of police officers, the young black officer Derek Strange and veteran officer Frank Vaughn, as they investigate the murder of a couple of young black men, one of them Strange’s brother. At the same time, two separate groups are planning robberies. One group wants to knock off a convenience store; the other a bank. The book takes a long time to set its pieces in place, but that is largely where it is most effective. Pelecanons is terrific at setting and tone. Tons of period detail, largely stuff about local sports and music, helps ground the work in its time and place. What car a character drives and what music the listen to tell the reader important things about those characters. It doesn’t sugar coat things, but presents the times with their warts all apparent.

I know that Strange is the protagonist of other such novels, so I am not surprised that his story is not complete here, but while he is certainly an interesting protagonist, he doesn’t actually get that much to do. All the time on the set up, set up for a half dozen characters that have major roles in this story, leaves very little for the police work side of the story. The balance between committing the crime and solving the crime are unequal. It left me wanting to know more about Strange, but not feeling like I knew enough about him for a story where his personal relationships should very important. It is also a very dark tale. It all comes together with the death of MLK with things looking bleak for just about everyone involved. Other than some minor quibbles, I liked this book a lot. The set up stuff that dominates the book is its best stuff. It creates, or maybe recreates, a world where each character’s history almost makes their actions inevitable.

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Followed By Frost

Charlie N Holmberg

I enjoyed Charlie N Holmberg’s delightful if slight Paper Magician trilogy, so I went ahead and picked up this book by her. It is largely more of the same which is largely a good thing. It is a little rough getting its premise set up, but once protagonist Smitha is cursed and sets out on her odyssey it really hits its stride.

Smitha is a selfish brat in the way that many teenagers are, perhaps a little worse. She is in desperate need of some growing up. Unfortunately, Followed by Frost hits something of a sour note in forcing that growth. When a local young man proposes marriage to her despite her making it clear she wasn’t interested, she sets up down hard. Too bad it turns out that he is wizard and curses her to have her whole body be as cold as her heart. It is going for a fairy tale sort of opening, but placing this blame on Smitha is a backwards way of looking at what is more the wizards awkwardness and inability to handle rejection. She was undoubtedly mean, but the punishment completely outsized compared to the crime.

Fortunately, it really picks up once Smitha is cursed. She first flees to the north, but the unnatural cold that follows her makes it impossible for her to live with other people. The cold is so bad that she is hunted. Eventually, she finds a way to make her curse useful and finds romance in the doing. From there on it becomes a full on romance. That fairy tale feeling from the beginning holds throughout the book. It is an effective way to frame this story, which sees Smitha grow from a spoiled young girl to a thoughtful woman. While the wizard who placed the curse on her disappears completely after the curse, Smitha’s interactions with Death, brought to her by the curse, are much better. Aside from the mixed message about gender relations, Followed by Frost is a pretty great fantasy romance.

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Nemesis

Agatha Christie

This one felt like a big change from the other Miss Marple stories that I read, mostly because Marple is a major player throughout the book. In the previous handful of Marple books, she has been more of a goad to get the investigators on the right track or even just a deus ex machina to come in at the end with a solved mystery. This time she is actively investigating. The whole thing is a little contrived, though. I realize that is the point of a lot of the book, that Miss Marple is acting on a strange deathbed request from an acquaintance, but there are other parts that don’t make sense either. Like how she ends up staying where she does, put up by people who don’t know her and have secrets to hide. While I did like having a more active Miss Marple, her actually being the focal character of the book, but mystery wasn’t Christie’s best. The only way it keeps up for the length of the book is by having no one know what mystery is being investigated for nearly the first half. I guess that has its own sort of appeal as a mystery, but to me Nemesis didn’t quite work.

What I Read January 2016

I read a handful of books in January. It was a good start to the year. I should also have another handful for next month, mostly fantasy and mostly Christmas presents. I still have a backlog of fantasy books from years ago that I hope to get too before too long. This month was odd because I really didn’t like most of the books that I read. All of them fit into genres and styles that I usually enjoy, but a relatively high percentage of them did more to annoy that entertain me. So in the sense of reading books I like it was not that great a start to the year, though it was in terms of the amount of books I read.

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The Bootlegger

Clive Cussler & Justin Scott

Another solid adventure in the Isaac Bell series. I really like this series of mystery/thrillers set in the early twentieth century. The main character tends toward the too adept, the too perfect, but the adventures are a lot of fun. This one moves things forward a little, taking place in the early twenties and the Van Dorns, the fictional detective agency for which Isaac Bell works, having to deal with trying to enforce Prohibition, even if many of them don’t really agree with it. It weaves in with Prohibition with the Bolshevik Revolution and a Russian instigator operating in the United States. It all works together reasonably well, though I am left with my eternal complaint about this series that it doesn’t go quite far enough. The combination of the two threads in this one gets as close as the series has before to actually having something to say, but the agent doesn’t end up being as true to his cause as would be interesting. Still, it is a decently enjoyable romp.

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Atari: Business is Fun

Curt Vendel & Marty Goldberg

I have some very big problems with this book, mostly to do with the editing and formatting. I would call a lot of Atari: Business is Fun’s construction haphazard. Grammatical and spelling errors abound. It actively hampers getting at the genuinely interesting information in this book. Despite the many flaws in the writing of this book, I was genuinely surprised at how well researched it was. It doesn’t attempt to paint any one as a villain or a saint, only people that frequently have differences of opinion. Nolan Bushnell, the main player for most of this book, comes off as half genius and half huckster. He is painted as a man with talent and ambition and a somewhat inflated sense of himself. It paints a picture of a company that simply grew too fast for itself. It played a big part in creating two separate markets, the arcade video game market and the home console market, but was unable to manage at least one side of that. Still there is a lot of insight into the origins not just of Atari the company of also of the many of the games that they made. Despite its somewhat lacking editing, I would heartily recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about the early days of video games.

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The Magicians

Lev Grossman

This book came highly recommended to me, but I abandoned it early last year about forty pages in. Hearing about the upcoming TV adaptation gave me the push I needed to get back to it and finish it up. I maybe shouldn’t have, because I kind of hated The Magicians.

The Magicians stars Quentin Coldwater, a surly youth given to fits of depression. He is moody and unlikeable. It starts with something of a Harry Potter pastiche with Quentin being accepting into Brakebills magic school. Even there he is moody and unhappy, which I understand is the point, but it compresses everything about the school down so much that it is hard to get the sense of exactly what Quentin is learning or how people other than him are taking things. The only other students to get any real sort of character are his eventual lover Alice and his friend Eliot. The rest are at best rough sketches of characters. After graduating magic school, the books moves on to something of a Narnia pastiche, with the characters discovering and then traveling to the magical land of Filory. That at least builds to a memorable climax before a new character comes in to explain to Quentin, and the reader, what has been going on just before the book ends.

My biggest problem is that the book is locked into the point of view of a thoroughly unlikeable character. His depression can make even the most magical of encounters seem terrible. I understand the point of things being the way they are, but it doesn’t actually make the book any more pleasant to read. In the end, it is a book that takes two young adult series and saps all the life out of them in the name of making them adult. The Magicians is abrasively not for me.

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Hallowe’en Party

Agatha Christie

A later Hercule Poirot mystery that is among the meanest Christie I’ve encountered. It doesn’t stray far from the form of her detective novels, but it is the victim, and very nearly victims, that is troubling. The victim in this story is a young girl. A young girl that everyone goes out of their way to speak poorly of after she turns up dead. Ariadne Oliver, Poirot’s mystery writer friend just happened to be in attendance and she tells him about what happened, so he agrees to investigate. The book just kind of meanders after that, never really picking up any momentum. It simply goes through the motions, doing exactly as it should and nothing more. The only really interesting part is that it deals with the death of a child and has someone threaten the death of another. There is a certain baseline of quality that Christie doesn’t drop below, but she has so many legitimately good books that only the completist need to bother with this one.

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A Dangerous Place

Jacqueline Winspear

I was a pretty big fan of the first nine novels in this series (I never ended up reading the one previous to this) and this book comes as something of a punch to the gut. Beware; I will be spoiling the opening chapters of this book. At more than ten books in, I am more the ready for this series to be drawn to a close. Maisie’s struggle in the last few books, between maintaining her freedom and her business and agreeing to marry was compelling. She had good reasons to want both things and if she had chosen to remain single it would have been an interesting choice. But she chose the other way, which was all well and good. At least until the start of the book details just how her husband died within a few years of marrying her and she descends into grief. Maisie was always a character prone to wallowing in misery, and this book heaps it on her. The mystery contained within is nowhere near strong enough to overwhelm the complete pointlessness of coming back to this series. That mystery did hold some promise, with Maisie staying on Gibraltar as WWII draws near and having to deal with the various rising powers of facism and communism and Britain’s desperate attempts to stay neutral, but other than the setting there isn’t a lot to hold onto. After reading this, I really wish I, at least, would have stopped at ten. The mystery is limp and reading about Maisie being miserable is no longer interesting.

What I Read in April ‘14

The thing with bloated fantasy epics is that they take a long time to read, even if the reader finds them engaging. When the reader is not such a big fan they take forever. I would have more read for this month if I had been able to force myself to keep reading Acacia. I don’t hate that book or anything, but the more I read it the less I like it. I am completely unable to abandon a book unfinished though. I have only ever found one book bad enough that I will never finish it: Battlefield Earth. Nothing else has been both as truly horrendous and as horrendously long. So it is another four book month, which is what I need to average to hit fifty for the year. I hope the damn breaks and I have a big reading month next month, but we’ll see.

 

from bossfightbooks.com

from bossfightbooks.com

Earthbound

Ken Baumann

I went in with the wrong expectations for this. I wanted a book about the game, a book that looked closely at what made the game work so well, from plot construction to battle mechanics. Something like a critical, close reading of the game. That is not what this book is. It does have some of that, but it is more the personal recollections of the author. It is as much autobiography as it is an examination of Earthbound.

Judging it for what it is, it is a good read. It is his Baumann’s memory of playing the game mixed with anecdotes of his life growing up. He does of good job of paralleling his life with the different parts of the game. The journey through Earthbound is not unlike the journey through childhood. This is supposed to be the first entry in a series of books like this, books about games from boss fight books. I hope the rest are at least this good, though I tend to prefer my books about game to be a little more about the game themselves.

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Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

Dorothy Sayers

Back with to the Wimsey mysteries. This one starts with a dead body found in Lord Peter’s gentlemen’s club. For all appearances it is a natural death, the man was very old, but there are some problems with his will. And the will of his sister, who died the same night. If she died first, her money goes to him and then to his sons. If not, it goes to her niece. So the lawyers hire Wimsey to look into it and try to find out exactly when the man died. It is soon uncovered, though, that he had died earlier and been moved to his place in the Bellona Club. It also appears that it wasn’t a natural death.

This is enjoyable as always. This one starts out innocuous, but soon turns deadly and ugly. There are plenty of suspects and nearly all of them are lying about or hiding something. Peter keeps at things with his usual attitude and persistence. Like usual with Sayers, there is more than just a mystery here, there is also some social commentary. The mystery is what keeps things moving, but it casts a quick eye on class and gender struggles. Not enough to distract from the mystery, but enough to make the reader aware of the struggles of the time. It gives the book something extra to entertain, which it certainly does.

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The Moon’s Fire Eating Daughter

John Myers Myers

Another Amazon sale title, this one picked up from a glowing recommendation from an internet acquaintance. It seems like just the sort of thing I would like. It is a romp through mythological history, with appearance from famous writers and fictional characters. In theory, it is not unlike the Jasper Fforde books I love so much. However, I didn’t like this much at all. It occasionally amused me, but mostly it frustrated me.

The Moon’s Fire Eating Daughter uses language that is often poetic and highly referential. Most of it is some historical allusion or reference. I would say that the frequent obscurity of said allusions cloud the story, but they are the story. This book only exists for those references. When they work, the book is amusing; when they don’t, it is a dreary slog. The problem is how much the reader has to bring into the book to get anything from it. I am not unknowledgeable about literature or mythology, in fact I would say that I know more than the average person, but I was lucky suss out more than half of the allusions in this story. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to reading easy material, but the reward didn’t feel worth the effort in this case.

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Cards on the Table

Agatha Christieas four other guests. During the dinner, while the guests are playing cards, someone manages to murder the host. Poirot and the police immediately start investigating, soon discovering that that the four suspects all have been suspected of murder before.

Poirot is less involved in this than he was in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. He asks question about the card game to try to learn what he can about the suspects tendencies, but the bulk of the investigation is left to the police detective. There is also a mystery novelist involved. I can’t help but feel that any time a writer puts a writer in their story that it represents them The mystery writer here tries to be helpful, but I’m not sure how much she help she is. This book lacks the complexity of the Sayers one above, but it might be the better mystery.

What I Read in November

I’m limping to the finale this year, but since I’ve already hit my goal for number of books read this year so I am fine with this. Since I was participating in NaNoWriMo last month, even though I petered out with about 20,000 words shy of the goal, I didn’t have time for much reading. I did manage read parts of several books, but I only managed to finish one.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Agatha Christie

This is my first encounter with both Hercule Poirot and with Christie. I have to say that I enjoyed it. I don’t have much to say about it, especially since I don’t have a firm footing on either the author or the genre.

Arthur Hastings stays with a friend of his at Styles, his friends step-mother’s home. While staying there he encounters his friend Poirot and just so happens to witness the mysterious death of the step-mother, despite her being in a locked room. With the help of Poirot, though, the case is solved.

My only problem with it is that it is not the facts of the case that are misleading so much as it is Poirot actively lying to his supposed friend the narrator, as well as hiding facts from everyone for spurious reasons. I know that there is a certain amount of deception inherent to the genre, but Poirot hampers his own case by lying to everyone. Mostly it seems because the book would have been only half the length if he just solved the case, he also had to throw in some meddling. Maybe that is Poirot’s thing, but in this one example it was a touch annoying. Still, I did like the book quite a bit.

And that is it for the month. Hopefully next month is a little more productive on this front, but we’ll see.