What I Read February 2020

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

Dune

Frank Herbert

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

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

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

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

Dune Messiah

Frank Herbert

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

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

Sourcery

Terry Pratchett

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

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

Peril At End House

Agatha Christie

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

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

Lord Edgware Dies/Thirteen At Dinner

Agatha Christie

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

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

What I Read January 2020

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

Mort

Terry Pratchett

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

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

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

Equal Rites

Terry Pratchett

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

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

From Russia, With Love

Ian Fleming

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

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

Mystery Mile

Margery Allingham

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