What I Read October 2019

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

Labyrinth

Kate Mosse

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

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

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

The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul

Douglas Adams

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

Warrior of the Altaii

Robert Jordan

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

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

Natchez Burning

Greg Iles

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

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

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

What I Read 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.